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Just a Dash of Color

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 29, 2016 at 10:35 AM Comments comments (0)

 


Image: Sam Valentine

 

In my recent travels, I had the opportunity to tour El Jardín Japones, a Japanese-themed garden park in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was remarkable to observe one foreign country's distinct style transplanted into the center of another far off land. Coming from the United States, I certainly did not expect to find Asian gardening in South America.

 

However, as I strolled the Jardín's dozen acres, what stood out far more than the cultural juxtaposition was a special visual effect: the powerful and judicious use of the color red.

 


Images: Richard Lemmer, Nancy Waldman, and Miranda Jan

 

After my visit, just a bit of research suggests that red lacquer is actually more of a Chinese signature than a Japanese one, but that does nothing to undermine the striking visual experience I observed. The bold choice to cover the Jardín's bridges and gateways with bright-red paint results in dramatic vistas across the lawns, ponds, and rock gardens. The painted structures "pop" against a backdrop of shrubs, trees, and city skyline.

 

Across cultures, the color red has unique social and psychological associations. Red sports cars, red lipstick, red sunsets, and red stop signs undeniably demand human attention. Lurking behind these cultural meanings there is an array of scientific explanations for red's prominence.

 


Images: Turenscape Landscape Architecture

 

The photos posted above show examples of the color red used in both historic and contemporary landscapes far from the single park I visited in Argentina. In the landscape, red stands out even more dramatically than it does on a city street or a paper page. An autumnal maple leaf, a glowing holly drupe, or a lacquered "torii" each reads in strong contrast to the shadowy greens and browns of a garden. The result is even more painterly when that landscape is covered in a fresh blanket of white snow.

 

As in all types of composition, the design of landscapes calls for the artist to use his or her tools judiciously. Red is only so effectual in El Jardín Japones because it is applied sparingly, precisely, and strategically.

 


Images: El Bitio and Duncan Harris

 

While an unbroken red field of blooming poppies is certainly a sight to see, the view lacks the dynamic force of a few lone poppy blooms standing starkly against a green field.



Image: Peter Kurdulija

 

 


Arborsculpture

Posted by Sam Valentine on September 30, 2016 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

 


Image: Wes Hanson

 

My previous posts have covered trees that look like sculpture, sculptures that look like trees, and sculpture woven from twigs and branches. Somehow I seem to have danced around a the clearest overlap: sculpture made from living, breathing trees.

 

Beginning in 1925, a Swedish-American farmer by the name of Axel Erlandson began a project at his California home. His "tree shaping" all started as a hobby, but by 1947 he had trained a veritable freak show of trees. Calling his project "The Tree Circus," Erlandson attracted local visitors and national publicity by growing trees into surprising forms.

 


Images: Axel & Wilma Erlandson and Wes Hanson

 

Tree shaping, a close relative of "pleaching," was by no means invented by Erlandson, but it is he who exposed generations of Americans to the sculptural, acrobatic forms that average trees can be forced into. With archways, basketweaves, picture frames, and what seem like extraterrestrial forms, Erlandson blurred the lines of classic gardens, creating works that were both plant and architectural folly.

 


Images: Wes Hanson

 

Some of Erlandson's sculptured trees still exist today. Thirty years ago, the pieces were moved -- or, more accurately, transplanted -- to form the central attraction at Gilroy Gardens an amusement park near San Jose, California.

 


Images: Peter Cook and Becky Northey

 

If not the works of Erlandson himself, the concept of tree shaping has influenced artists to create interesting works over the last few years. Both artists and furniture builders are employing methods similar to Erlandson's. Pooktre Tree Shapers uses a "gradual shaping method" to grow trees into predetermined sculptural forms. Another operation is using tree-shaping methods to make unique, sustainable furniture; formed like concrete or plastic but made of wood. Growing young saplings over mold-like forms means no toxic glues or binders are necessary, just pruning, training, and a massive amount of patience. Photos of their operation depict an outdoor, organic, but somehow still industrial chair factory.



Images: Full Grown

 

One artist, Richard Reames, may have found the best word for what he creates: "arborsculpture." If you are considering experimenting with this art in your own landscape, Reames warns that using the "artistic medium of a living tree" has "taught me even more about patience and acceptance than grafting and pruning."

 


Image: Heinz-Peter Bader

 

 

 


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

 


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

Character

Posted by Sam Valentine on January 14, 2016 at 8:55 AM

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


Wear

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


Patina

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


Variation

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


Life

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.


Authenticity

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

 



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