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Atlanta Garden Design

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Moss in the Landscape

Posted by Sam Valentine on September 3, 2016 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Dave Ginsberg


By their very nature, landscapes abound with living things. Landscape designers and installers generally think of "life" in the garden in terms of "plant material" and fill their toolbox with lawn, herbaceous-perennial, shrub, vine, and tree species. We use this greenery to contrast and complement architecture, hardscape, and water features, and to compose a cogent environment.


With rare exception, "moss" is left out of our planting palette.


Horticultural disclaimer: In this post, the word "moss" is used loosely and completely unscientifically. "Moss" is often a catch-all word, used to describe not just bryophytes, but a wide range of lichens and vascular plants, such as Spanish moss.


Image: Helgi Skulason


Moss is generally thought of as green, but with variations in weather and species, it can range from lime-green to maroon-brown in color. Moss has a delicate but robust way of covering surfaces -- it could be thought of as a living spandex. It creeps slower and more tenderly than a vine. It covers tighter and more versatilely than turf grass.


Images: Cartsen Tolkmit, Ben Stanfield, Peter Mulligan, and Vanlal Tochhawng


It is not too far off to think of moss as more "material" than "plant." Finding moss scrawled across an old garden wall, covering stone, concrete, brick, and mortar, can call to mind wallpaper.


Images: Drew Brayshaw, Kelly Kendall, Toshi Kawabata, and UGA Gardener


Left alone in the right microclimatic conditions, the density with which moss conquers a forest or garden floor forms, quite literally, a carpet.


Image: Ethics Gradient


The internet offers an array of videos and articles encouraging greater use of moss in the garden, including seemingly hare-brained propagation schemes involving yogurt and buttermilk. Other sources show a more predictable approach, such as transplanting patches of moss directly to open soil. For the most part, the installation tips found online read as common sense; a gardener should think back to environments where he or she has seen moss thriving naturally and try to replicate those conditions.


Maintenance is, likewise, mostly common sense. Do not mow or fertilize a moss planting. Most (but not all) mosses perform better in shade and moisture. A moss carpet can handle some foot traffic and is better cleaned with a leaf-blower than a rake.


Mosses, especially bryophytes, are believed to be one of the earliest evolutionary descendants of sea algae, and one of the first plants to have thrived on land. To some, moss is associated with primordial landscapes and ancient ruins, but do not leave moss out of your planting palette. Rather than decay, moss brings character and an aura of sophistication to the landscape.



Image: Alex Brown




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


Pulling Strings

Posted by Sam Valentine on June 28, 2016 at 9:15 PM Comments comments (3)


Image: Andrew Magill


A taut line of string is something of a rare find in the designed landscape. Neither stone nor steel, plant nor paver, and wood nor water, string has material implications of fragility, impermanence, and tension.


In gardening and landscape construction, string and wire often serve a supporting role, but they are often kept backstage, intentionally concealed from view. Gardener's twine makes espaliers possible and trains everything from tomato plants to young trees. Mason's string guides the building of straight walls and is critical in laying out paths, concrete forms, and other hardscape elements.


Images: Monaghan Inc., Alan Buckingham, and Sparkle Motion


When strings get really interesting, though, is when they are put brightly on display. Perhaps the most commonplace instance of ornate string in a garden is the woven hammock. Popularized, if not invented, by ancient South and Central American cultures, hammocks become works of art when a web of colorful cords come together to suspend a resting body above the garden floor.


Images: Anna Ban, Lee Tishman, and Li Tsin Soon


Around the world, artists and designers have followed this thread on a larger scale, stringing their work significantly higher in a way that defines and redefines outdoor spaces.


Images: Elizabeth Graf and M. G. Stanton


Last year in Boston, the city's newest park system was treated to a months-long string installation by artist Janet Echelman. Tethered between skyscrapers, "As If It Were Already Here," became a colorful landmark, changing color with time of day and weather.



Images: John Hill/World Architects


This year, a young team of architects pulled fluorescent cords across a largely bare courtyard at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa PS1) in New York City. Following the project's name, "Weaving the Courtyard," a young architecture studio brings the courtyard walls together with colorful lines that also serve to establish a ceiling for the space.

Images: Sam Valentine


During a visit to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico a few years ago, I approached the Galeria Nacional, an art museum housed in a stately but staid old monastery. Entering the central courtyard, I was surprised to walk right into an art installation. Using just string and cloth, artists Doel Fresse and Vladimir García powerfully and vividly redefined a 16th century building, and created this strong new character without any permanent alteration of the building.


Image: Sam Valentine




A Composition of Curves

Posted by Sam Valentine on April 28, 2016 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (1)


Image: Nicolas Mirguet

For those reading this who walk the woods, you know the surprise of coming across a curved tree in the landscape.


Often a lone bent tree standing in a forest of straight trunks, it is something of a freakshow quality that draws the eye to the crooked, swooping form, but the composition is anything but unpleasant. The forces causing these dramatic bends can vary. Decades back, soils may have shifted or eroded, requiring the trunk to reorient from a tilted root base. Or perhaps another nearby tree, keeling over from natural decline or a sudden storm may have pinned down this tree in its younger years, requiring it to grow around and up. Or, as is often the case, the tree's natural growth pattern may have been disturbed by a meddlesome human visitor early in its life. In all cases though, as the tree recovers, readjusts its aim, and reaches straight for the sunlight above, the trunk traces an elegant curve.


Image: Kilian Schönberger


Not too unlike finding a tree in the forest, I recently stumbled upon a unique series of photographs. In a small stretch of forest in western Poland, one photographer, Kilian Schönberger, has captured an entire regiment of bent trees.


Image: Kilian Schönberger


The pines all bend in the same northern orientation and are roughly the same age. Theories abound as to how exactly this stand of curved trees came to be, but there is no consensus. A reasonable explanation suggests the cause for the arcs was lumber production for ship building, but other hypotheses include freak snowstorms, the scars of World War II, and of course, aliens.


Image: Kilian Schönberger


There is something poetic about the forms captured in each of Schönberger's photos. The compelling perspectives he used and the layered shroud of fog certainly helps, but what is more revealing to me is seeing a whole forest of curves, rather than one isolated specimen.


Like all crooked trees, these pictured appear as living question marks. While the curved trunk lingers as mysterious evidence, the storm has long blown over; the fallen tree has rotted back into the earth; the hiker or logger has long trudged away. We are left with a compelling, sinuous expression of overcoming an obstacle, reminiscent of meandering rivers or the path of one's life.


Image: Kilian Schönberger

Dry-Stacked Walls in the Landscape

Posted by Sam Valentine on March 29, 2016 at 8:15 PM Comments comments (1)

Images: Mark Wheadon & Diamond Geyser


If you imagine a wall, there is a good chance that your mind goes to mortar. Mortar, considered all but compulsory on brick and stone buildings in the modern world, certainly has its advantages. Mortared walls are firm and fixed; crisp and refined; and can readily support such attachments as swinging gates and light fixtures.


Images: Jon Hill & Diamond Brooke


It is worth noting that -- when you are building a landscape wall of brick, block, stone, or even wooden masonry units -- you have a choice. Selecting a "dry stacked" or "dry laid" wall has some distinct advantages.


Images: Karl Norling & Anthony Tong Lee


First off, with nothing to "glue" the wall units together, there is flexibility for some amount of movement. In essence, the open joints can absorb soil settlement without noticeably cracking but also without requiring the construction of an expansion joint.


Images: Duncan Cumming & Bart Lumber


The reason that cracks do not emerge in a dry-stacked wall is that deep, shadowed joints are simply part of the design. With lower expectations for formality and precision, dry-stacked walls require shallower, simpler foundations, and often all that is needed for a solid base is to bury a few inches of the first course below grade. Weep holes, required for through-drainage in concrete and mortared retaining walls, can also be omitted due to the loose structure of a dry-laid wall.


Images: Sonja Lovas & Robert J. E. Simpson


While there is a lower baseline for craftsmanship with a dry-stacked wall, the level of care, experience, and creativity that goes into one of these walls is easy for anyone to detect. The most impressive and durable dry-stacked walls are built by old-school craftsmen, often with a great degree of laborious tooling, chinking, and brainpower. A builder who is both creative and skilled can tailor a dry-stacked wall to harmonize with the landscape and nearby architecture; walls can take on an ordered ashlar pattern or incorporate large boulders and small pebbles into an organic composition.

Images: John Seb Barber & Rick Payette


At the bottom of the heap - in terms of stability, craftsmanship, and cost - is simply a linear pile of rubble. With a range of options, it is critical to reflect on the purpose of any new walls in your landscape. Do you need a perimeter wall for safety or security? Are you trying to hold back the sea or just keep your pets on your property? Do you need a wall or just a visual border? Ask yourself these questions before laying the first stone.


Image: Al Crompton



Planting in Brick

Posted by Sam Valentine on February 29, 2016 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (0)

To early philosophers, the world was comprised of just four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Today, a chemist will more likely give you the number "118" (the discovery of four new elements was announced in December 2015). Landscape designers, however, can often perform the miracle of boiling the world down to merely three elements: hardscape, softscape, and structure.

Images: Dean Hochman, Tanaka Juuyoh, and Susanne Nilsson


Though lacking in scientific heft, this tripartite view of landscape is relatively convenient. "Structures" are the architectural inventions, generally vertical and walled, that can be located in the garden or form its outside boundaries. "Hardscape" elements are the seatwalls, flagstones pavers, plaza bricks, poured concrete walks, and the like that remain fixed under foot. "Softscape" components are a mixed bag of almost everything else; I have seen this category to include lawns and trees, water features, and everything in between.


In landscape design, things can get exciting where these three elements overlap and hybridize. Examples that come readily to mind include a flagstone path with soft moss conquering its cold stone joints; water cascading down a vertical rock face; and -- as is the focus of this post - walls made of modular bricks that can host planting.


Images: Micaela Nardella and Oana Tudose


It was an online video that tipped me off to this somewhat trending topic. The two architecture students invented "Brick Biotope," a handmade "bird-friendly brick," to integrate with the standard dimensions of a conventional brick wall. The bricks are patterned to provide room for small plants and growing media, as well as small crevices that birds can call home.

Images: Patio Town, Jensen Architects, FabArtDIY, and Rael San Fratello


Brick Biotope is prototypical and hand-crafted. Consequently, unless you are quite crafty yourself, it will not be seen in your garden any time soon. The experiment does, however, remind me that there are plenty of readymade products that allow you to bring vegetation to the walls of your home and garden. Aesthetic detailing of these "plantable" bricks and blocks varies greatly, as does price. On the low end of both spectrums, planting pockets can be achieved in a retaining wall by selecting certain concrete blocks. (It is arguable, though, whether these are much easier to love than roadside gabions, which also allow for some vegetation to take root.)


Images: Rael San Fratello


Use 3D-printing technology, one architecture firm has pioneered much more elegant bricks that also serve the purposes of nesting birds and holding vegetation. Each brick is a piece of sculpture in its own right, and like the Brick Biotope, these units are coordinated to interweave into a conventional brick wall.


One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was built, to transform architecture into "a lush, green mountain rising up out of the desert". While we may now be in an age of jaw-dropping modern technology, the same fascination remains strong: where softscape meets architecture, inspiration abounds.



Image: Emerging Objects



Remembering a Tree

Posted by Sam Valentine on January 30, 2016 at 11:45 AM Comments comments (0)


Image: Rosemary Bannon Tyksinski


Undoubtedly, you have a favorite tree. Not just a favorite tree species, but somewhere in a nearby park, on your office or college campus, or closer to home, you likely have a favorite single specimen. Like human fingerprints, each tree's structure is distinct, and where a tree's unique visual presence is coupled with personal memories or a shared cultural significance, a truly memorable tree exists.

Images: Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site


By some these special trees are called "legacy trees" or "witness trees," and like all good things, favored trees have an expiration date. Years ago, while working at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, I was fortunate enough to have a witness tree just outside my office window. Standing on the site for roughly 200 years, the tree was intentionally spared when Olmsted carved an expansive lawn out of the woods on the south side of his property.


After reaching a beautiful state of maturity, the "Olmsted Elm's" decline was accelerated by its infection with Dutch elm disease. By the time I was finishing my internship at the Site, the tree had been deemed a public hazard, and to the sorrow of neighbors, regular visitors, and park staff, the tree had to be removed.



Images: Chris Devers, Matt Griffing, and Todd Roeth

When a legacy tree fails, replanting may seem to be the obvious choice, and it almost always is the right move, with a few important caveats: First, if the tree suffered from environmental threats, these should be resolved before the new specimen is planted. Secondly, if disease is suspected in the decline of the tree, an arborist should help to determine an alternative tree species or a disease-resistant cultivar to prevent replant infection. Finally, it's worth pointing out that the best time to plant a replacement tree is years before the legacy tree actually fails. By monitoring the older tree's decline and picking a nearby planting location for the new tree, an overlapping timeline allows the character of the landscape to recover more quickly.


Images: Witness Tree Project, Rhode Island School of Design


Besides the renewal that replanting provides, another way to carry on the memory of a beloved tree is through artistic "reincarnation." A collaborative endeavor between Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the National Park Service, the "Witness Tree Project" brings fallen legacy trees to RISD's furniture studio. Students artists, inspired by the historic and cultural past of each tree, crafted a whimsical range of sculptures to commemorate the Olmsted Elm. Perhaps even more fitting, the presence of the tree can be reimagined in the landscape; the branches and trunk of a beloved tree can be reborn as a bench, arbor, or garden structure.


Image: John Taylor


Posted by Sam Valentine on January 14, 2016 at 8:55 AM Comments comments (0)

As it's a new year, I will use this post to clear the table for fresh, new topics. Looking back on my travels through the city and country landscapes of Italy (and the dozen posts through which I discussed them here), there is something that clearly unites these places; it's called "character." It comes as a surprise to no one reading this that the gardens and towns of Italy have character, but after seeing these five-century-old landscapes with my own eyes and walking them with my own feet, I feel I have an improved grasp of what elements, precisely, form this quality.

A quick caveat: defining landscape "character" quickly crosses into subjectivity. My goal is simply to collect a few traits that are perhaps intrinsic.

Images: Rick Lawson, Michaela Good, and Edoardo Frola


Whether by weather or by repeated contact with human hands and feet, a landscape object that shows a bit of wear signals that it is in for the long run. A shallow shoe-rut in a brick step, battered edges of a salvaged cobblestone, or a hand-worn wooden gate implies a landscape that, perhaps like a familiar baseball glove, is worn in but not worn out.


Images: Wayne S. Grazio, Johnathan Nightingale, Adam Winsor, and Jamie & Marina Berger


In the landscape, nearly all metals oxidize. Steel's form of oxidization -- more commonly known simply as rust -- is usually not something to aspire to. In the wrong places, rust leads to structural failure and safety concerns. Some iron-based metals, though, handle rust differently than raw steel: stainless steel resists oxidization while Corten steel and wrought iron can develop a rust layer without compromising structure or function.

The green and blue oxides, usually the patina of choice for garden aficionados, come with the presence of copper. When exposed to the elements, bronze, brass, or other copper alloys produce the painterly hues found on the Statue of Liberty and old pennies.

While a scientist may be less likely to apply the word "patina" to non-metals, the visible staining that develops on many garden stones and ceramics is another contributor to strong landscape character.

Images: Diana L. Lyons, Jon Seekford, and Al Disley


Tourists to Rome find mystique and magic walking down its ancient streets. Surely this distinct urban character is the product of many qualities coalescing, but it is no coincidence that every one of these streets is lined with walls of mismatched brick and stone, incongruous pavements, and fences and doors of crooked boards.

Images: Michael J. Babcock, Jr., Ed Brownson, and Samuel Rolo


Interplaying with each of the above characteristics, the distinct verdancy of life lends character to a landscape like nothing else. Traces of vines, mosses, lichens, and even algae paint hard surfaces with a family of greens and make clear that the landscape is well established. In the world's richest landscapes, the lines between hardscape and nature are allowed to harmonize and to blur.


By amping up wear, patina, variation, and life in a landscape, one can encourage the visible cues of age, and induce and reinforce the development of character. It is, however, worth noting that authenticity is the sister (if not mother) of character. The use of honest building materials is critical for graceful, natural aging, and engaging a skilled designer will help to make balanced decisions when it comes to the use of such materials as stone veneer and vinyl "wood" members.


To be clear, Italian gardens have a lot more going for them than merely grime and fine aging, and as discussed in my last few posts, these landscapes were masterpieces of art and experience even on the days they opened. However, a bit of grit united everything that my eyes were drawn to in Italy and there is no reason to think that new American landscapes cannot reach towards an established "Old World" character.

Image: Joseph Yvon Cote


A Compelling Narrative: Water Features at Villa Lante

Posted by Sam Valentine on December 1, 2015 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (0)


Where we left off in our last post, we had climbed to the upper end of the walled garden at Villa Lante, were admiring a grotto fountain, and were about to begin a choreographed descent along the garden's axis..


During my visit, I experienced the journey of water from top to bottom, from south to north, and from wild to urban. Villa Lante offers a clear storyline in its water features, and the following are the six "chapters" as I perceived them:



Chapter 1: Fontana del Diluvio


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Briefly described in the last post, the "Fountain of the Deluge" is a mossy, fern-covered grotto. In its shadows and murky water, it holds an air of mystery, and it is teeming with life: the pool and walls are a verdant green, stone forms of dolphins swim its waters, and it was originally designed to attract songbirds.



Chapter 2: Fontana dei Delfini

Images: Rosalba Cantone



A few yards north, water emerges for a second time along the garden axis. At the "Fountain of the Dolphins" one finds perhaps the garden's most conventional water feature (at least to our contemporary eyes). A freestanding, tiered, and octagonal pyramid features a symmetrical array of dolphins. The dolphins here and on the Diluvio fountain are both allusions to a Roman allegory of water and nature overpowering mankind.



Chapter 3: Catena d'Acqua


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Similar to Villa d'Este's "Alley of the Hundred Fountains," Villa Lante is best known by a single water feature. The Catena d'Acqua, or "Chain of Water," runs like a billowing ribbon down Villa Lante's central axis. The organic form of these manmade rapids, actually an incredibly elongated depiction of a crawfish, is unlike much that has been designed before or after. It is a true work of art, and landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers observes that the Catena d'Acqua's "linked curves both create and echo the movement of swirling water." At its northern end, the water chain feeds the next fountain, with water spilling over the crawfish's abdomen and tail fins.


Chapter 4: Fontana dei Giganti


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


As a visitor follows the water along its axial path, the water chain delivers us next to the edge of a terrace. Fed by the tail fin above, the semicircular "Fountain of the Giants" is rife with symbolism. The wild water has been physically and metaphorically tamed as it arrives to this fountain. River gods lounge prosperously, their cornucopias signaling a change in the water, from wildness to fertility and generosity.


Chapter 5: Fontana dei Lumini

Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Another significant change in elevation is smartly addressed at the "Fountain of the Lights." Two tiered semicircles, one concave and one convex, reference an ancient building form but also seem to invent something new altogether. In these tiered semicircles I found Villa Lante's most interesting geometries, but none of this even touches on the water itself; one hundred and sixty jets shoot from sculpted stone "lamps" arrayed on the edge of the fountain tiers. When these airborne streams of water catch the right light, the whole space looks truly illuminated.


Chapter 6: Fontana del Quadrato o dei Mori

Images: Rosalba Cantone


Best viewed from the terrace above, the final water feature, "The Fountain of the Four Moors," is also Villa Lante's largest. Reminiscent of the "Maritime Theater" at Hadrian's Villa, the Fountain of the Four Moors either directly or indirectly evokes an ancient naumachia. Eight symmetrical boxwood fields flank the fountain on all sides, and this large formal water feature expresses and amply celebrates the end of water's journey at Villa Lante.


As you may recall, I found that the grandeur of Villa d'Este wore off as I began to realize that there was no overarching narrative or master plan to unite its amazing moments. Villa Lante does not have that problem.


As Rogers observes, water at Villa Lante is used "with the inventiveness of a choreographer directing the movements of the dance or the sculptor." The garden and its narrative is organized clearly along a central axis, but the "axis is aquatic and can only be traveled visually for the most part; one walks alongside it, perceiving it perhaps more powerfully for this very reason."


Villa d'Este and Villa Lante have a lot in common - they are only eight miles apart and were built in the same decades - but there is much that sets them apart. Compared to Villa d'Este, Villa Lante is half the size and seemingly less than half the budget, but I found it to leave a stronger imprint. Perhaps there is a lesson here for your own landscapes: there is immeasurable value in designing with a strong master plan.

Image: Sam Valentine




Experiencing Landscape: Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Italy

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 29, 2015 at 8:45 AM Comments comments (0)


Images: Sam Valentine


Villa Lante is entered from the tight, archaic streets of Bagnaia near Viterbo, Italy. The grounds of the villa are split into a large, informal public park and a smaller, walled formal garden, but visitors to either destination cross through the same formal wrought iron gate.


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Arriving guests are presented with a conspicuous fountain (Fontana del Pegaso) and a choice - the fountain serves as a fork in the path to the public park or the walled garden. The fountain, elliptical and backed with a twenty-foot stone retaining wall, is centered around a pegasus and a small collection of other winged statues. Choosing the stairs to the left carries the visitor up alongside the foliated walls of the formal garden and, soon enough, to its entry.


Images: Sam Valentine


Passing through the walls of the garden between another pair of iron gates, visitors find themselves on a paved walk that quickly reveals itself as just one terrace of many; the garden at Villa Lante is an axial, stepped scheme laid over sloping topography. As it happens, this presents a visitor with a choice. To the left, downhill from the arrival terrace, the garden opens up into a flat, expansive landscape with forthright geometrical plantings overlooking the town. To the right, uphill, rises a series of stone stairs, crisscrossing hedge-lined paths, and more mysterious terraces shrouded in a dark forest canopy. I went right.


Image: Sam Valentine


There is an indescribable draw to climb the hill, and at the high end of the garden, I found what I was looking for. In a small courtyard surrounded by rusticated loggia walls, water crashes from elevated, mossy caves into murky waters. This, the Fountain of the Deluge (Fontana del Diluvio), is the upper terminus of the villa garden, but it is perhaps better understood as the "wellspring" of the entire landscape below.

Image: Sam Valentine


My next blog will trace the dynamic, downhill journey of water from this upper end of the Villa Lante to its conclusion at the garden's bottom. Looking back on my visit last year, I think of the path I chose through the garden -- first to the top, then to the bottom -- and am reminded of how one uses a waterslide. There is a scramble to the top of the ladder, a peaceful pause, and then a descent that carries one down alongside the flowing water.

Image: Sam Valentine