Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

Experiencing Landscape: Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Italy

Posted by Author 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



Meaning in Landscape: Villa d'Este, Tivoli

Posted by Author on August 5, 2015 at 7:10 PM Comments comments (0)



Image: Étienne Dupérac


In my last post I alluded to what I called "bold iconographic expressions of power" at Villa d'Este in Tivoli. As promised, I have come back to turn this stone over.


Perhaps the best way to discuss the symbolism found at Villa d'Este is to take a look at some of the landscape's general qualities and its more significant garden features:


Image: Sam Valentine


Scale and magnificence: As described in my last post, the gardens at Villa d'Este have conquered a small valley, spanning it with extensive terracing, paths, stairs, and rushing fountains. The scale and detail of the garden vanquish more than just the natural topography, however -- they also conquer the senses of each visitor that steps out the back door of the mansion. Forceful bursts of water, lush plantings, and intricate masonry exude a sense of power and seem to be dripping with wealth.


Images: Sam Valentine and Pirro Ligorio


La Rometta: Stepping out on to the palace's Gran Loggia is breathtaking and looking out over the landscape below lets a visitor quickly grasp its immense scale. The western end of the loggia allows more distant views toward Rome, and if one lingers at this manmade precipice for a bit longer he or she may spy this curious garden feature below, which is described in translation as "The Little Rome." To a native eye, La Rometta's various sculptures, miniaturized river, and boat-shaped island appear almost as a dollhouse version of the Italian capital city.

Images: Museo della Civiltà Romana, Étienne Dupérac, and Sam Valentine


Though the parallels have become a bit cloudier with time, the boat-shaped island in this section of the garden are a reference to one of Rome's more recognizable geographic features, Isola Tiburina (Tiber Island). From the vantage of the Gran Loggia and La Rometta, views to Rome are celebrated with a series of picture-window archways and railings.

Images: Sam Valentine


Location and context: The same picture windows that face Rome have another layer of significance - in the 1550's, when Villa d'Este was being located and first constructed, the town of Tivoli was best known as the home of a different, thousand-year-old garden: Hadrian's Villa. There is an unmistakable message in locating one's estate farther up the hill from one of the Roman Empire's most celebrated emperors.

Images: Sam Valentine and Robby Virus


Vatican influences: In all fairness, it was the distinctly recognizable features of the Dianna Efesina fountain and another ancient statue that triggered my larger recognition of "inspired" sculptures at Villa d'Este. I had the advantage of visiting the garden within a day of the Musei Vaticani, and though the homages, interpolations, and straight-up copies pose no real threat to the well protected original pieces, it sometimes seems that Villa d'Este has actually pillaged the Vatican.


The backstory: Being selected as pope in the 16th century was defined by much of the same religious veneration that the position holds today, but the position also carried immense political powers that have since faded. The man who built Villa d'Este (or, more accurately, had it built) was Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, son of a Cardinal and grandson of a pope. The garden was begun the same year that Ippolito was coming off a failed bid at the papacy, and it takes neither a historian or a psychologist to deduce that there was a bit of compensation at work in the creation of the gardens.


Landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes Villa d'Este as the product of "passionate obsession on the part of an owner willing to spend extraordinary sums of money and with the taste to hire the best design talent available," and the obsessive focus and ample resources are evident in every aspect of the garden. Like an example of "conspicuous construction" a bit closer to home, the fact that the motives may have been less than pure does not detract from the work's grandeur.


Image: Sam Valentine


Experiencing Landscape: Villa Giulia, Rome

Posted by Author on March 31, 2015 at 10:00 PM


Resisting the temptation to dedicate a third post to Sacro Bosco, this blog shifts focus to another villa garden of the same era. Unlike the rural Sacro Bosco, Villa Giulia sits just yards from the ancient Roman walls that mark the empire's center. The two villa gardens, which both came together in the mid-1500s, are vastly different in both conception and detailing, but their distinction goes far beyond a simple country mouse / city mouse dichotomy.


Located less than a three-mile walk from the Vatican, Villa Giulia was built as something of a papal way station. The garden is surrounded by and integrated with what naturally appears to be a residential structure, but as Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes, the house serves "simply an accessory to the garden" and was built "not as a residence but as a place for papal entertainment."

Rogers' statement ranking landscape over structure is significant and also reassuring. To be honest, the garden is what brought me to Villa Giulia, and during my tour of it I was concerned I was missing something -- the "residence" consistently seemed like it was playing second fiddle. Villa Giulia is not a simple landscape, but to me it unfolded in five legible chapters.

Entering through a conventional, ornamental architectural facade, a visitor passes through a vestibule that gives way to a semicircular portico. Painted with intricate ceiling frescoes and faux-ancient murals reminiscent of those seen at Pompeii, these vaulted and column-lined walks sweep around an open courtyard.

The second chapter follows along the central axis established from the front door of the entry vestibule. Forward momentum carries a visitor from the dark, shady portico into a garden court with a clear sense of perimeter enclosure. The court tempts the eye of the visitor with five doorways and is otherwise encased above eye level. To the right and left, four openings offer invitations to side gardens, but these do not rival the allure of the formal, elevated loggia located on the central axis ahead.

Climbing a few steps to the columned loggia, one achieves a sense of arrival with a twist. Across an expanse, a Palladian porch comes into view, but the groundplane between the viewer and this feature falls suddenly away. Without a word of warning, the designer brings one to the edge of an unexpected two-story depression. Looking down from a stone balustrade, an highly ornamental grotto beckons.

Descending one of two flanking stairs, the fourth chapter is reached only by leaving the central axis. Stepping down over stone and herringbone-brick stairs, the increase in coolness and moisture is noteworthy. Even with a relatively recent algae-scrubbing that Rogers describes in her book, this grotto, or "nymphaeum," has a vibrant but constrained wildness to it. The grotto is the most iconic moment of the garden, and it is interesting that the designer chose the lowest point, topographically, to serve as the summit of the villa's dramatic sequence.


The fifth and final chapter is a courtyard beyond the Palladian porch. Not directly accessible from the main axis and partially concealed from view, my impression was that this space was envisioned as a secondary, semi-private courtyard. (If entrance to this space was supposed to be part of the sequenced narrative, I would assess that this goal was poorly executed.) The porch and the court beyond it overlooks the grotto from an opposing angle, and maintains a strong relationship to the loggia. Perhaps from this perch, experienced visitors could be entertained by the dropping jaws of new arrivals.

A quick comparison of the photos in this blog to those from my previous two posts demonstrates that there are pronounced ornamental differences between Villa Giulia and Sacro Bosco. Having visited the two only days apart, I was surprised to learn that it is not the presence or lack of carved-stone "monsters" that drives this distinction. Next to the carefully scripted sequence of movement through Villa Giulia, Sacro Bosco, and perhaps most other gardens, feel like an improvisational -- and perhaps less masterful -- performance.

Experiencing Landscape: The House of the Faun, Pompeii

Posted by Author on November 12, 2014 at 8:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Images: Richard Mortel, Sam Valentine, and Uppy Chatterjee


While my last post focused on the streets of ancient Pompeii, there is certainly more to the ancient city than what can be seen from the curb. As a visitor walks the rutted streets, steps into the partially reconstructed storefronts, and explores the public open spaces, there is an underlying urge to venture into what is off limits. Through fenced-off doorways and cracks in walls, I kept catching tempting glimpses of residential gardens and courtyard spaces.


Images: Roger Ulrich, Amphipolis, and Sean Munson


The most impressive of these courtyards, and one of the few that is fully open to visitors today, is found in the "House of Faun." This second century B.C. residential complex takes up a full city block and was one of the largest, most elaborate homes in the city. The house is the site of numerous renowned mosaics including Alexander the Great engaged in an epic battle, scenes of Nile River and marine wildlife, and bold non-representational tessellations. (Interestingly, one of my early blogs prominently featured one of the ancient wildlife mosaics.)



The residence is notable not only in its scale and elaborate decor, but in the formality of its outdoor spaces. Visitors entered through richly embellished "fauces" or vestibules, which led in turn to a series of atriums and generous peristyle gardens. Even though the street grid was not orthogonal, the builders of this home imposed order through straightened corners and legible axes.



Visiting the verdant House of the Faun gardens today, it easy to forget the true intensity of Vesuvius' eruption. A visitor to Pompeii can find mature allées of umbrella pine (Pinus pinea), shrub plantings, and even working wine vineyards, but the damage from Mount Vesuvius' eruption should not be understated. Just as ancient villagers were frozen in poses of anguish, the closest thing to surviving plant life archaeologists have been able to turn up in Pompeii are plaster casts of the ash-voids left behind by scorched tree root masses.

Images: Hannah Weinberg, Steven Zucker, and Sam Valentine


Like many of the houses uncovered in the ash of Pompeii, the "House of the Faun" takes its modern name from a surviving piece of artwork discovered within its walls, not the family name of its residents, which is harder to determine. In the center of an atrium reflecting pool, a joyous, dancing statue of a mythical half-man, half-goat forest faun (or satyr) stands in the center of a reflecting pool in the atrium. Quite fittingly, the artwork may have actually been commissioned as a play on the "Satrii" family name, who may have been the occupants.


Image: Riccardo Cuppini



An Arboretum in Australia

Posted by Author on September 25, 2014 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)


Image: Sam Valentine


The last post featured a unique, multivalent sort of landscape: the arboretum. Perhaps best thought of as a "tree zoo," arboretums are tree-rich landscapes that offer visitors comfort, enjoyment, and opportunities for education. As discussed, the basic concept of an arboretum often meshes perfectly with other landscape uses. Programs that cultivate and label tree species can often be found in landscapes created with other primary uses in mind, such as academic campuses and recreational parks.


Earlier this year I was able to visit some landscapes in Australia, including the country's National Arboretum Canberra. Unlike the well established arboretums I had to compare it to, Canberra's arboretum is quite fresh. A decade ago it was a blank slate.


Image: Ben Wriggly


In 2003, destructive, life-threatening wildfires tore through the countryside outside of Canberra, Australia's capital. Damaging an astonishing seventy percent of the city's pastures, woodlands, and parks, the fires reduced the future site of the National Arboretum to a ruin. On this square-mile previously covered by Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) and deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), there was little left but a blackened hillside.



The territorial government saw this deforested landscape as an opportunity. After a design competition, a creative team was hired to transform the site into a unique regional asset. The overall layout, described as a flexible "tartan" grid, is a truly dynamic pattern when viewed from above, but it also allows for legible plantings of different species at ground level.


Image: Taylor Cullity Lethlean


Few would argue that the Australian landscape is known for towering, majestic canopy trees -- even in my tour of its more fertile southeastern coast, my impression was that the forests there appeared younger, shorter, or otherwise scrubbier than the woodlands I am used to in North America. With this in mind, it is hard to know what to expect as this young arboretum grows up over the next few decades, but some things are already apparent:


The National Arboretum offers unparalleled vistas. The bold terracing provides monumental, amphitheater-style tiers of lawn for visitors both local and foreign to take in dramatic views over Canberra, Lake Burley Griffin, and the valley that contains them. Facilities like Village Centre and the Pavilion host civic and social functions for the surrounding neighborhoods, sculptures and play structures are arranged throughout the site, and a network of trails for walking, biking, and horseback riding make the arboretum easy to navigate.


Images: John Gollings


It is plain to see how well an arboretum can gracefully incorporate and complement multiple land uses, but what I was pleased to learn in Canberra is how an arboretum can serve to heal and renew the land.


Image: John Gollings

Fields of Color

Posted by Author on August 17, 2014 at 9:00 PM Comments comments (0)


Image:" target="_blank">Ajari


The photographs of the park have an undeniable allure. Painterly swaths of fuchsia, violet, baby blue, and warm greens spill over gentle seaside slopes. In some shots, the monolithic plantings seem endless, rolling onward towards the horizon.


Image: Shingo Yoshida


Outside of Tokyo, Japan, the Hitachi Seaside Park, is an expansive garden and amusement venue that dramatically marks the seasons with flower petals. Spring is highlighted with yellow daffodils and tulips. Summer months feature first baby blue eyes and later zinnias. Kochias and cosmos mark autumn. Each season's display is put on by literally millions of blooms over meadows spanning over 400 acres.

Image: Shin K.


It is important to notice that -- though the blanket plantings are monocultured and monolithic -- they somehow avoid appearing monotonous. Within almost every photograph, there are darks and lights, warms and cools, and fine variations in color.


Image: Hirocame


To be clear, this garden and its plantings are a spectacle above all else. Single-species meadows are neither natural nor easy to maintain, and the lack of biodiversity offers little to ecosystem health.


Image: Graham Rawle


Hitachi Seaside Park does not list poppies among its annual plantings, but in all likelihood, the first few images of this post brought a certain scene to mind. In one of the most memorable moments of Frank L Baum's The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 film or the original 1900 children's novel it was based on), Dorothy and her gang encounter a field of poppies. The scene is notable for its vivid beauty, even if the flowers pose a menace to the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, Dorothy, and her little dog Toto along their journey.


Hitachi Seaside Park must be a spectacular and inspiring landscape to visit, and monolithic planting gestures might be a nice addition to your garden. Just remember, like Dorothy and her band of travelers discovered, you can find too much of a good thing.


Image: W.W. Denslow


More Than a Box of Rocks

Posted by Author on May 29, 2014 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Prospect Contractors


From the road, there's usually not much to love about them. Gabions, wire baskets filled with rocks, are most typically used to stabilize transportation and engineering projects or to fortify military installations. If you have noticed this method of construction before, you likely could tell that loose pieces of stone had been packed into a wire-mesh box; understandably, the word "gabion" originates from the Italian word for "cage."


In most applications, gabions seem drab and utilitarian, and they may seem no more fit for your garden than a highway Jersey barrier. However, in some places, designers have resuscitated this construction technique, imagining new forms, materials, and details that are sometimes quite inspiring.


Images: Only Lines, Cherie Xiao, & David Harvey


Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to see some truly enterprising gabion applications in the two Australian cities of Sydney and Canberra. Rather than being relegated to the roadside, gabion installations are nearly as commonplace in Australia's gardens, parks, and plazas as they are along its highways. This is largely justified, though, as these garden gabions tend to be designed, detailed, and dressed for the occasion.


Images: Sam Valentine


Considering they are assembled from some of the hardest, coldest materials available, gabion walls, steps, and slopes can take on a surprising amount of softness and life. The malleability of wire allows for curves and smooth shapes just as easily as it creates crisp, orthogonal cubes. Because of their unique abilities to brake water velocity, allow free draining, but still hold together structurally, gabions are regularly used to restore river banks and stabilize eroding hillsides. Choosing gabions for streams and slopes often leads to a beautiful side effect: over a period of years, the crevices and voids fill with soil and sediment and -- ultimately -- bountiful vegetation.


Images: Denver Aquino & Lauren Jolly Roberts


Image: Ken McCown



Garden Gateways

Posted by Author on March 18, 2014 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (1)


Images: UGArdener and Terence Faircloth


Separating public from private, safe from unsecured, and "mine" from "yours," fences cover the planet. For millennia, humans have erected barriers for privacy, security, and the demarcation of space. Some of these barriers are rigid and impenetrable, others are less imposing and represent barely the suggestion of a boundary. By necessity, nearly all of these boundaries have a gateway: a break in the fence or wall that allows human passage. From a design perspective, that's where things can get interesting.


Image: Jonny Fez


Where we provide passage from one side of a barrier to the other, our culture tends to default to constructing a closable, latchable, and often lockable gate, but that need not always be the case. Additionally, while it may be most straightforward to create a gateway that passes through a break in the barrier, passing over or underneath are both options that should be considered.


When simply demarcating one space from another, such as rooms in a garden or property lines, it is often unnecessary to equip a gateway with an actual gate. A narrow break in a barrier offers a passable bottleneck without necessarily eroding the perception that land on one side or the other has restrictions placed on it.


Images: Pigalle, Eirlys Howard, and Dev Sherman


If an operable gate is what is desired, take a moment to consider the boundless options in form and materials. Metallic gates have the potential of preserving the greatest visual permeability, but their cold feel and clanging sound runs the risk of feeling cold, formal, and sometimes unwelcoming. Wooden gates have the opposite effects: their material, often rougher-hewn than iron or steel, is friendlier and usually less formal, but most often a more solid and visually "heavier" structure is required. Sometimes wooden gates end up as opaque as the solid doors that one might find inside a home, whether or not that was the aesthetic hoped for.


Images: Ian Harris, Federico Gori, Bryan Davidson, and S. Cholewiak


Some craftsmen offer gates that are truly expressive and can take on a life of their own. (Some more examples can be found here and here.) A gate's aesthetic should speak to the garden that lies behind it, so not every gate works with every garden. However, never let what's available on the shelf at your local hardware store stifle your creativity. Some gates can be true works of art.

Images: Ian B.C. North, Angela Marie Henriette, Rob Innes, and Ron Lute


Grasping the Landscape

Posted by Author on February 22, 2014 at 7:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Earlier this month, I found myself walking along an Appalachian ridgeline in West Virginia. Exploring a quiet stretch of trail with a small band of friends, I let my pace relax and turned my senses to the mountain environment around me.

The day was sunny and temperate, but beneath the winter trees' gray trunks and branches, a pearly carpet of snow still spanned the forest floor. Pulling in with my lungs, I could smell, if not taste, the mountain air's distinct freshness. Over the course of the hike, my eyes were drawn to cliff-top vistas, dynamic shadows, and a crisscross of wildlife tracks pressed into the snowy carpet. My ears tuned in to the gently whispering winds and the rubbing of tree branches overhead, but I was more poignantly reminded of the most powerful thing heard in the winter forest: silence.

Like a walk in a park or a stroll in the garden, a mountain hike is strong sensory experience. About an hour in, my eyes, ears, and nose had taken in quite a bit about my surroundings, and they were reminding me quite clearly that I have been spending perhaps a bit too much time in the city. But until I looked down and saw a stone projecting from the snow, my sense of touch - my hands - had played very little role in this experience. I had the subtle and inexplicable urge to bend down and pick it up.

Image: Bruce Perry


With the rock still in my hand, I continued down the trail, studying this new object like one thinks through a puzzle in their mind. I ran my fingers over its rougher and smoother surfaces and studied its hard, angled edges. Rotating it in my palm, I felt for its center of gravity, all the while its inherent coolness pulling warmth out of my hand. After another half-mile, I set this one-pound stone down on the trailside and continued on my way.


As should be obvious to the reader of these words, even after I put the stone down, in some ways it stuck with me. The impulse to pick the rock up, to connect tactually with the landscape, was powerful and allowed me to bond on a deeper level, even if only for a moment, with the natural world.


My impulse to grasp a part of the landscape led me to reflect on the cross-cultural human behavior of touching, carrying, and placing stones for seemingly impractical reasons. Prehistoric peoples across the continents stacked stones into cairns to mark boundaries, communicate, and memorialize. In Jewish communities, well-visited graves tend to show a large amount of small stones, placed in tribute. Buddhist stupas, though often fancifully adorned today, got their start as simple" target="_blank">mounds of rock and earth.

Images: Raul Isado, Ólafur Már Sigurðsson, and PSQ

When it comes to connecting to the landscape through touch, you of course do not have to be on a mountain ridgeline holding a rock. From touching the crisply engraved" target="_blank">names on the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to brushing against the soft, delicate petals of a late-fall camellia blossom, touch has an undeniable power to connect a person to the landscape. In your garden, consider ways to increase the variety of textures, encourage touch, and strengthen the bonds between your visitors and the landscape surrounding them.


Image: Nikhil Kaushal

Gardening with Glass

Posted by Author on February 8, 2014 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (2)

Image: Len Matthews


Glass is a material that can be formed and finished for a near-endless variety of purposes. Intricate sculptural pieces, conventional, crystal-clear window panes, and crude, murky slag masses are all variations on the theme of melting sand and cooling the molten substance into a desirable or useful form. From a gardener's perspective, what is interesting here is how each one of these glass types has found a way to intersect with and enrich the landscape.

Images: Alex King, Lynn Harris, Carlo Natale, and Trevor Lowe


Except for volcanic substances, glass is a decidedly manmade material, and over the last two centuries, man has made [italics] glass the basis for inspiring garden works. Landscape-based structures -- from Sir Joseph Paxton's "Crystal Palace" to Philip Johnson's "Glass House" have influenced generations of architects. On a significantly smaller scale, skilled glassmakers, such as Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, have created painstaking replicas of landscape plants whose form, color, and even life-like appearance have been captured in glass. Chihuly Studio, likely today's most recognized group of glass artists, has realized that the landscape offers the ideal gallery for their wild, vibrant abstract forms. Chihuly's glass works have appeared in several gardens around the world.


Even when it is not composed with elegance or intricacy, it is important, to appreciate glass's value as a material in the garden. Glass can be thought of as a permanent kind of ice, and even commonplace forms of it have a special way of catching sunlight or artificial illumination.

Images: Nathan Kolb and Ahuva Burcat


Glass, as a garden material, often appears in the form of glass mulch or slag "boulder" objects. There is a growing selection of suppliers for these types of landscape glass, and some have realized that there is extra value in offering a "green," recycled product.


Images: Brew Brooks, John M. P. Knox, and Arby Reed


If you are considering bringing a touch of glass into your garden, keep in mind that you are in no way stuck with the vibrant, colorful tones that seem to be the most popular. Mulch and boulders come in many different colors, and at least one of these colors is likely to complement your garden, whatever your aesthetic.


Image: Gardening in a Minute