Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

Ville de Lumière / Ville de l'Ombre

Posted by Sam Valentine on January 28, 2018 at 6:45 PM

Even before leaving the airport, a visitor gets a sense that something is up in Paris. A portion of it -- surely -- is that you have just arrived in a famed city among throngs of people who have come see if "Grand Paris" lives up to its reputation.

Image: Sam Jacob

Paris is affectionately called the "City of Light" (Ville de Lumière), and the nickname relates, in part, the metropolis' public-realm lighting, beginning in the mid-19th century and becoming only more dramatic as modern, electric lighting replaced gas lamps. Without effort, people around the world can call to mind the glowing Louvre Pyramid and a sparkling Eiffel Tower that projects lighthouse beams across the night sky. During my visit in June, I even encountered luster in surprising places, like a polished stainless-steel bench in broad daylight.

Images: Cyril Couture and Sam Jacob

So sure, light is a big part of what makes it Paris, but something else comes into focus as visitors walk its streets, its gardens, its parks, and its cemeteries: shadow also gives the city its strong character.

Images: Sam Valentine, Susan Sermoneta, and Adam Saul

It is the dark shroud beneath the city allées that makes penetrating dapples of sunlight something noteworthy. The long silhouettes that stretch across cobbles and stonedust turn simple pedestrians into photogenic compositions.

Images: Sam Jacob and Becky Lai

It is no secret that shadows on a building face are what grants architectural relief and contrast; without the disagreements between light and shadow, ornamentation cannot be read. During morning and late-afternoon, though, I was struck by the dark sides of Parisian buildings, appearing strikingly against a bright sky.

Images: Praer and Sam Valentine

In the visitor's plaza beneath the Eiffel Tower, there is an entire atmosphere of shadow. At many times of the day, you can find yourself walking across a dark lattice, projected down from the iron framing above. Looking skyward heightens a visitor's awareness of the intricate ironwork, standing as an inky lace against the blue backdrop.

Image: Sam Jacob

Blended Details in Granada, Spain

Posted by Sam Valentine on November 1, 2017 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (1)

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Studying built environments outside the United States reveals differences not only in architectural styles but also in cultural expectations.

In my previous post I described the Alhambra, a hilltop fortress situated over the historic city of Granada, Spain. Given the city's past, finding buildings, streets, and plazas rich with historical character was anything but a surprise.

Images: Sam Valentine

As I walked through the gardens and open spaces of Granada, however, I did not expect to find such proud strokes of modernity. Only a mile from the Alhambra, Forum Plaza abstracts the Sierra Nevada mountains in sharp, contemporary weathering steel.

Images: Sam Jacob

A few blocks closer to the city center, tucked behind the Parque de las Ciencias, similar angular forms soften themselves into a park-like setting. Here, under a welcome canopy of shade trees, slices of plate steel form short retaining walls and the edging for lush beds of planting. The color palette of the Parque is decisively streamlined: the rich greens of the foliage play nicely against the silver-grays of the birch bark, metallic edging, and concrete.

Back at the heart of Granada, twin runnels flank the central promenade of the Jardines de Triunfo. Flowing quietly in the shadow of a dominating display of fountain jets and waterfalls, these tilted water basins are by no means the headliner, but the patterning on their floors -- crisp, geometric, and modern -- speak volumes about the culture of Granada.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

What I observed in Granada exemplifies what can be seen with relative consistency in developed nations beyond the borders of the United States. In two public parks only a thousand feet apart, stand two very different metal fences. One dates back at least a century, the other is less than a decade old, and their styles are anything but congruent.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Granada celebrates and preserves its medieval Moorish palaces as a testament to its historical lineage, but it is not afraid to plant its other foot in the future. As with many cities in Europe, the city unabashedly exerts its modern architectural might right alongside its heritage buildings and landscapes.

Holding It Together

Posted by Sam Valentine on July 31, 2016 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (0)


Images: Ken Dodds, Hoot Nonny, and Frank Vincentz


They can be found in a diversity of shapes and sizes. They are a familiar piece of American Southern vernacular, and yet there seems to be no consensus on what exactly to call them: wall washer, star anchor, stress washer, anchor plate, and Charleston bolt are a few of the many names that one might hear.


Image: The Post and Courier Archives


While most would file these iron bits under "rustic decor," there is a noteworthy functional difference between a "star anchor" and a purely ornamental "barn star". These anchors have been used for centuries as a means to reinforce buildings around the world against settlement and collapse, but they burst into popularity in the American Southeast 130 years ago when Charleston, South Carolina was struck with a devastating earthquake. Reading descriptions of the 1886 earthquake, a geologically rare but particularly damaging event, is truly shocking, but it explains why these "earthquake bolts" are so commonly seen along Charleston's historic streets today.

Images: Paige Henderson, Marie Beschen, Grover Schrayer, and Ken Dodds

Both authentic anchors and replicas are ubiquitous in Southern antique shops and in the online marketplace, and working these into your garden can inject a bit of borrowed character. If your garden calls for something more unique than the generic star pattern, architectural historians have catalogued a range of Charleston bolts from which to draw inspiration.

Image: R. G. Lubischer


Reading Between the Lines

Posted by Sam Valentine on January 23, 2014 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)


Images: Scott MacLeod Liddle, Thomas Roland, and Joanne Richardson


ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ

It was 2,400 years ago that Socrates is said to have taught the above words, and though you may not be any more up on your Greek than I am, the meaning of his words still translate into truth today. "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being," or -- to reframe it in a slightly kinder light -- "Life is more enjoyable when we carefully consider the details."


Masonry is a universal construction technique used to build everything from shelters to garden walls to horizontal pavements. Masonry "units" can vary widely to include stone, brick, concrete block, glass block, tile, and even timber, but what unites all masonry structures (literally) is mortar.


Images: Don Shall, Je Kemp, Theilr, and Rachel Towne


The most common mortars, at least since Socrates' time, consist of three basic ingredients. Sand, the main ingredient, is inert on its own, but when it is mixed with cement and water, the ingredients react to form a paste-like binding mixture that can be applied to brick, stone, and other rigid surfaces. Mortar hardens to a rock-hard state after it is applied, and by laying it between masonry units, it serves to "glue" the structure together, evenly distribute the structural load, and create weather-tight joints.

Images: Lucidio Studio, Maryland Architecture, Planning & Preservation, and Rich Bettridge


Many of the ways in which masonry garden walls can vary are obvious. Even beyond the different masonry units that can be selected and the colors that are inherent to these materials, wall surfaces can take on a variety of forms and alignments. Beyond these more noticeable design decisions, however, is the fine-grain design of the mortar joints. Jointing is one aspect of masonry that is often the last design element to be considered -- if it is considered at all.


Even with the identical structural and weatherproofing considerations satisfied, there is a surprising palette of mortar joint profiles, each with its own aesthetic and historic associations. Joint lines may seem like a trivial detail to some, but considering the design "between the lines" can bring a level of richness and refinement to your landscape that cannot be found in most built environments. From flush to concave and beaded to raked, envisioning the most appropriate jointing for a garden masonry structure is an opportunity that is best not neglected. After all, sometimes the unexamined garden is not worth visiting.


Image: Simon Bisson


The Garden the Sky

Posted by Sam Valentine on August 15, 2013 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Ádám Zoltán


It doesn't have to be this way.


The balcony, named in the 1600's by the Italians and, in one form or another, likely invented whenever mankind built their first two-story buildings, is by definition a piece of architecture. It is a truly novel idea, a structure that manages to extend an interior room, offer secure, sheltered access to the outdoors, and provide an elevated platform for viewing one's surroundings. In color, form, and style, balconies -- as architectural elements -- can create interesting rhythms and engaging compositions.


Images: Gerry Balding, Chas Eastwood, and Dorris D.


While everything I have just stated is true, it seems a little one-dimensional to characterize a balcony as only a piece of architecture. While a balcony space extends the building interior and is, quite literally, a part of the house, the structure also could not and would not exist without its strong relationship with landscape.


Whether it is overlooking a bustling urban street, a tropical ocean-front vista, or a more familiar suburban gardenscape, a balcony is as spatially and visually reliant on the surrounding landscape as it is structurally dependent on the building walls. As far as the designer is concerned, a balcony falls into a no man's land, or perhaps an everyman's land. The most successful balconies are created when architects and landscape designers recognize the space as both an architectural extension of the garden and a critical, attractive interface between indoors and out.


As a landscape designer who lived far too long in an apartment with only a couple square feet of wrought-iron fire escape to call my "outdoor realm," I want to be clear that the following comparisons intend no judgment. In a typical living situation, outdoor space is a luxury, and what appears to one person as clutter is, to another, just evidence of a utilized outdoor space. With all that said, I have grouped examples of balcony treatments into three main categories, as outlined below:

Images: Villa Afrikana, Jczii, and Daria Angeli


Some homeowners choose to keep their balconies neat, clear, and free of detritus. Advantages of keeping a "spartan" balcony include a sense of openness, the ability to move about freely, and the possibility of focusing visitors' attentions to the surrounding landscape. 

Images: John Hugh Glen, Coralie Mercier, and Louise Best


On the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, there is cluttered or "maximized" balcony. These spaces are easily identified by the presence of overflowing container plantings with sprawling, jungle-like vegetation. In addition to seating, a balcony such as this may also be crowded with other uses, including laundry and household items, pet supplies, and children's toys. In many cases, these overflowing uses are symptomatic of an urban dweller. To some residents, the balcony must fulfill the purposes of an entire backyard.


As with most things in life, there is a middle way with balconies. An approach that is "balanced," one that weighs sensory interest and spatial freedom, is most likely to appeal to the average gardener and homeowner.


Images: Jorge Luis Zapico, Kenji Izumi, and BadAlley


Intentional arrangements of plantings, tidy but still verdant and alive, can bring life to the steel, wood, and concrete of a residential balcony. Softening and screening external views to harsh urban alleys and suburban roadways can be achieved with foliage just as effectively as in a full-scale garden. Pleasant vistas and borrowed views can be frames and emphasized with plant material, furniture, and small objets d'art.


Images: Paul Heneker and StreetLevel


Regardless of how busy or how sparse of a balcony a gardener keeps, what might be easily forgotten is the inevitable impact that a balcony treatment will have on the adjacent interior spaces. While the structure's inherent colors, forms, proportions, and size may be beyond the homeowner's (or apartment renter's) control, many other qualities of a balcony are able to be freely and creatively manipulated.


The miniature outdoor realm we refer to as "the balcony" is yours to reimagine, and there are a number of off-the-shelf products available, quite a few attractive precedents to look to for inspiration, and some truly experimental concepts in the works. With all of these ideas at your disposal, you should find few excuses to settle for a balcony -- even a small one -- that is boring, lifeless, or lacking your personal touch.


Image: Erik Hovmiller


Nesting in the Garden

Posted by Sam Valentine on July 8, 2013 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Porky Hefer


To be honest, this all might seem a bit cuckoo. Actually, that might be a pretty appropriate word for it. Across the continents, there is a small but burgeoning movement to install manmade "nests" in backyards, woodlands, and at scenic vistas.


At first glance, these organic, woven-twig objets d'art seem aesthetically aligned with the earth-based sculpture of Patrick Dougherty and other artists; a reader may remember my description of an encounter with one of Dougherty's deceptively "natural" works at the Dumbarton Oaks Ellipse a few posts back. While there are undeniable structural similarities, these objects are more than just sculptures or architectural follies. What makes these "nests" unique is their specific intended function.

Images: Porky Hefer, Jayson Fann, and Drew Kelly for the New York Times


These manmade nests are designed to be inhabited. Often perched at or just beneath the forest canopy, these structures have been envisioned as naturalistic shelters for sleeping, meditation, and sanctuary. In the United States, it seems that Jayson Fann, based out of California's Big Sur Valley, is the pioneering guru of the moment, and his studio provides information about overnight lodging and sells custom-installed "Spirit Nests" for delivery to your garden. Even if a possible user sees no spiritual significance in sleeping as wildlife does, the prospect of retreating to and awakening in an environment consisting entirely of organic forms, materials, and geometries should be universally enticing.



Images: Jayson Fann and Liz G.


It was a New York Times article, "Twigitecture," and its accompanying photo slideshow that first exposed me to these human nests, and since seeing the piece a few weeks back, I have found the concept to be creative, strange, and not quickly forgotten. As far as reconnecting with nature goes, it seems that a night one of these nests would put conventional tent camping to shame. With no synthetic screening, fabric, or zippers between the inhabitant and the outdoors, a man or woman could find the ultimate (though temporary) escape from the artificial, and sometimes wearisome, environments that civilization has created.

Image: Drew Kelly for the New York Times

Progression at the North Vista Terraces

Posted by Sam Valentine on May 12, 2013 at 11:35 AM Comments comments (1)


In my last post, I promised that there were more reflections on Dumbarton Oaks to come, and here I am fulfilling that prediction. As I discussed in the last article, the estate gardens are richly programmed with outdoor spaces varying in formality, style, and ornamentation, but they are all matched in their elegance. Landscape rooms such as the Star Garden, the Rose Garden, and the much photographed Pebble Garden, with their richness of detail and beautiful colors and forms, often steal a visitor's eyes, but it is another of Dumbarton's gardens that most impresses me.

Images: Sam Valentine


To be honest, I knew what to expect even before I arrived. Shortly before my first visit half a decade ago, one of my professors, Joseph Disponzio, had lectured quite passionately about a carefully orchestrated progression across a series of lawn terraces at Dumbarton Oaks. Last month, during my second visit, I found myself just as captivated with the terrace progression as I had been on my first, and I realized that the enthusiasm with which Professor Disponzio led us through slides in a darkened lecture hall was absolutely justified.

Graphic: Sam Valentine


The North Vista is a defined outdoor room that connects the massive main house to the gardens and the "wilderness" beyond them. (Though some areas of the landscape appear to be natural woodlands, I place "wilderness" in quotation marks because even Dumbarton Oaks' wildest areas have still been designed and maintained to some degree.) The connection is established along a series of stepping lawns, and this openness allows for dramatic and unobstructed views from house to forest.


With each change in level, the language of the terraces and landscape gracefully and subtly changes. The southernmost terrace, partially enclosed by the house itself, is bound by brick walls, includes a large amount of ornamental ironwork, and is liberally adorned with intricate carved stone elements. Stepping down and away from the house and to the north, the language of wrought iron and carved stone dissipates, and the garden's architecture consists only of simple brick walls, with intermittent areas of vine coverage.


Images: Sam Valentine



The pair of images above shows the different stair treatments found at the thresholds between the highest terrace and the ones that follow it. Closer to the house, the upper terrace is delineated with a brick knee wall and carved stone balustrades, and the stairs are edged with an ornate, ascending volute. The second and third terrace thresholds are much simpler, and their stairs are edged with a less flamboyant style of brickwork and a stumpy, low-profile brick newel. There is a consistent, perceptible transitioning in both ornamentation and structure, and this progression is terminated by perforated stone walls and climbing wisteria that enframes the lowest terrace.


As with many historic landscapes, it seems that the creation of the North Vista was something of a collaborative design effort through time, and it seems a bit unjust to solely credit Beatrix Farrand for the experience a visitor may have today. A bit of research indicates that Farrand and her client, Mildred Bliss, were responsible for the major strokes, but significant planting revisions and ornamental embellishments were made after her work ended.


As you walk southward, slowly climbing the terraces and nearing the house -- which is the route that I would recommend upon your first (or next) visit -- it is easy to find yourself impressed by the carefully executed progression I am discussing, the rare craftsmanship of the walls and steps, and the cohesiveness of the entire landscape. But you should know that there is one more trick in store. As you move toward the house, your view (as shown below), will be a rhythmic series of brick and carved-stone terraces, gently carrying you over its tiered lawns and up to the brick and carved-stone house.


Image: Sam Valentine


When a visitor reaches the house's steps though, and takes a look back over the same central axis that he or she has just explored, something magical happens. As one takes in the 'North Vista' for which this landscape is named, the rhythmic brick steps disappear entirely. In their place, there is a soft, seemingly unbroken swath of lawn that gracefully draws the eye towards the distant, northern wilderness.

Image: Sam Valentine


Cordwood Masonry Construction

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on November 17, 2012 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)


Masonry, by its most universal definition, is a method of building that involves assembling individual units and binding them together with some type of mortar. A brick chimney. A tile floor. An ancient stone wall. It is not hard for anyone to call to mind several examples of masonry construction.

Images: Esparta Palma, Elliot Brown, and Kavjin


For good reason, the materials that are traditionally selected to serve as masonry “units” match the mortar in terms of durability and organic content. Whether they are chunks of rock, ceramic pieces, or sun-dried clay bricks, the most desirable building blocks are inorganic so they will not rot and mineral-based so they can stand up to the elements.


Mankind, though, is not always blessed with the ideal resources for such construction techniques. Sometimes we simply have to work with what we’ve got.

Image: Syzygy Salvage


Cordwood masonry has gone by countless names, including log-butt, stackwall, stovewood, and even “Depression building” construction, but its penurious nature leads me to believe that this mode of building was more often than not employed without a formal name. Cordwood masonry sprang from basic necessity in places where humans needed to build shelter, had a decent supply of mortar, but lacked a resource for inorganic building blocks. Rather than use brick or stone, cordwood builders use short logs – much like what you would put into a crackling fire – between the mortar joints. Some believe that the earliest instances of this building method were born in the 19th century in central Wisconsin, where ancient glacial movement had left generous deposits of limestone (the first ingredient of lime putty mortar) but little more than cedar forests for masonry units.


Images: Paul Comstock and Akkodra


In more recent decades, cordwood construction has seen something of a revival. Celebrated for its earthy aesthetic, its flexibility of form, and its moments of unparalleled, beautiful detailing, cordwood masonry has been brought into a modest renaissance by Rob and Jaki Roy, who have centered the movement from Earthwood, their Upstate New York property. As of July 2012, there were an estimated 1,500 existing cordwood homes (with more than 200 more under construction) in North America alone. The Roys and others offer regular workshops, books, and videos to promote this unique architectural style.


While not everyone might jump at the chance to live in such a rustic, unconventional structure as a cordwood house, gardeners everywhere should consider incorporating cordwood masonry techniques into their landscape projects. The materials are inexpensive and readily available, the techniques are easy to master, and in the mediums of wood, glass bottles, and mortar, a gardener’s creativity can truly thrive.

Images: Paul Comstock and Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP


Fallingwater: With Your Own Eyes

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on July 12, 2012 at 12:05 AM Comments comments (1)

This post is the third in a series of three articles that examines Fallingwater, a work of residential architecture and landscape design by Frank Lloyd Wright.


They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Image: Patrick Gage Kelley

I would argue that, if looking at a still image is indeed capable of conveying so much meaning, then visiting a built environment is worth at least a million words.


While visiting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a few summers ago, my family and I were able to take a daytrip to experience Fallingwater for ourselves. As we crept away from the city, the traffic, and the highways we found ourselves increasingly immersed in land of wild, mountainous forests. Amidst these venerable natural surroundings, I stepped out of the car at Fallingwater, and found a designed environment of richness and sanctity that no words, images, or films had ever been able to convey to me. In short, I found much more than I was expecting, and I was expecting quite a bit.

Image: Sam Valentine


After a short walk, I was standing downstream from the house, perched at the “overlook” that provides the most consummate (and probably most repeatedly photographed) vista of Fallingwater. The view is simply breathtaking, and it stirred within me a feeling reminiscent of a puzzle piece snapping into place. To grasp the design genius of the building one must see the composition of cantilevered planes jutting out over the native stone ledges and hear Bear Run rush under the house and over the falls. This single vantage allowed me to do both simultaneously.


The view from the overlook is certainly something to remember, but for me, it is Fallingwater’s smaller details that are most impressive.

Images: Via Tsuji, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and Sam Valentine


It is in its intricacies, the types of finer details that most homebuilders cannot make time to carefully address, that Fallingwater had the strongest impression on me. Thanks to Edgar Kaufmann’s seemingly bottomless pockets, Frank Lloyd Wright and his team of designers had the liberty to intently consider and custom-fabricate everything from window mechanisms to light-switch coverplates.

Images: picturethecity and Via Tsuji


Every aspect of Fallingwater is the product of inspiration, invention, and careful implementation, and with so many levels of design, it is necessary to visit the building to comprehend its genius. Several architectural features demonstrate a fulfillment of Wright’s organic vision, and while many of Wright’s earlier works employed a continuity between the natural exterior environment and the interior living spaces, at Fallingwater it is sometimes hard to determine exactly where the home ends and the rocky, woodland landscape begins.

Images: Sam Valentine


If you have never seen it with your own eyes, put “visit Fallingwater” on your bucket list. If you value design, nature, and architecture, I feel that it is imperative to experience the work before the end of your life. But honestly, I would not wait until then. Make a trip to Western Pennsylvania before you begin your next remodeling, building, or gardening project. You will leave Fallingwater with information, inspiration, and a heightened awareness of the possibilities of designing with nature.

Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP


Fallingwater: Living with the Waterfall

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on June 28, 2012 at 8:20 PM Comments comments (0)

This post is the second in a series of three articles that examines Fallingwater, a work of residential architecture and landscape design by Frank Lloyd Wright.


When discussing the life of any historical figure, the individual’s experiences, by necessity, are abridged, condensed, and often tidied up. Though Frank Lloyd Wright’s life is generally streamlined by those discussing his body of architectural work, it should be understood that at the time Edgar J. Kaufmann commissioned Wright to build his family’s home, the architect had already lived a long and quite complicated life. At the time his office started work on Fallingwater in 1934, Wright already had nearly fifty years of architecture under his belt, was married to his third wife, had abandoned one of his families, had lost loved ones to an axe murderer, and had already published the first edition of his autobiography.


Decades earlier, furthering the principles and methods of the international Arts and Crafts Movement, Wright had built his career by helping to establish the Prairie School, a horizontally dominant architectural style that borrowed influence from the flat, treeless landscapes of the Midwestern United States. At Fallingwater, Wright and his firm would implement details that can certainly be associated with the Prairie School, but Fallingwater is one of Wright’s works that signals not so much an abandonment but a graduation from the Prairie Style. At this point in his career, one of Wright’s underlying tenets was that a work of architecture should be harmonious with nature, should take hints and inspiration from the landscape, and should be thought of – along with its surroundings – as part of a unified composition.


Like any client hoping to build a home near an attractive natural feature, Kaufmann wanted his new house to capture views of the Bear Run falls. We can assume that the client was expecting the house to be situated in such a way that it would overlook the waterfall, and that perhaps his family might even be able to hear the distant sound of rushing water. After paying a visit to Wright’s studio, though, Kaufmann looked over the plans and realized that the architect had something else in mind entirely.

Image courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives

“I thought you would place the house near the waterfall, not over it,” Mr. Kaufmann said with surprise. Quietly, Wright replied, “E. J., I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it, but for it to become an integral part of your lives.”


Today, Fallingwater stands as a testament to Wright’s organic design philosophy, his pioneering construction principles, and his office’s unparalleled attention to detail. In its broad strokes, the building is a series of concrete cantilevers, anchored into the face of a stone ledge and bravely protruding over the natural stone tiers of the Bear Run falls. In the finer details, it is a treasure trove of custom-crafted ornamentation and furnishings that, among other influences, borrows inspiration from both the Arts and Crafts Movement and Japanese building traditions.


Image:( Dennis Crews

When viewed singly, the various pieces that make up Fallingwater are beautiful and admirable, but Fallingwater is much more than the sum of its parts. Studied as a unified composition, it is a true masterpiece. Only a year after it was completed, Fallingwater joined Wright on the cover of Time Magazine, and to this day it is still one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved works of American architecture.


Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP