Archive for July, 2010

Desk side beach

Friday, July 30th, 2010

When I bought this white ceramic tray I joked to my sweetie that I would have liked to have seen the 1950′s party that it was made for, because with no drainage it was more likely a smoking tray with about a hundred cigarette stations, than a planter for flowers. This is not the kind of object you could see some health conscious, hands in the earth ceramicists making today… But that’s exactly why flee markets are so great! Everything is usually old enough and used enough that I feel no attachment to its prior life. Time for a new karmic twist of fate!

Now I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the tray besides plant in it. And that’s where you have to exercise your patience and see what plants and ideas offer themselves up to you. In this case I had one four inch Sedum left over from a garden installation that reminded me of a mini burro’s tail plant I love. I also needed a Sedum since drainage and watering were going to be an issue and I liked how the fat little leaves hung over the dish when I tested it. So I planted, watered, and hoped the little fella would grow in to the whole container over time … But two months down the road is when my patience started to run out and I happened to have a few shells in my hand that I was arranging on a table nearby. What if I created a miniature under water scene by adding a few of these shells to cover up the bare spots of earth? Viola! The Sedum looked like coral or seaweed. The whole affect reminded me of something… The print Seth had bought me that we had just framed! Huh, I’ll have to go back and read what I wrote about them in Known Knowns since I know they were supposed to be an inspiration for my work…

Lesson being that the creative process is a mix of knowing what you like, the patience to wait until you know how to use it, and the ability to change direction when you know what you intended needs revision. So as I looked at this new favorite object wishing I had a better place to display it I also happened to notice I didn’t have any plants on my desk. Now as I type at work on my blog or on a design for a client I have a reminder of the ocean within reach. I also have a small reminder of how satisfying a bit of revision can be…

Cool moments @ The New York Botanical Garden

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

They say that parks remain 10-15 degrees cooler than the concrete clad streets of a city. On our recent trip to NYC we worked this quotient to our advantage as we walked along shaded paths and skirted the edges of sunny lawns in favor of plantings in dappled light. While at the New York Botanical Garden I found some really cool moments that I wanted to take home to remember later. Another take home – there are plenty of good places to beat the NYC heat!

Usually I think of grasses as sun loving plants but the first time I had to pull the lens into focus at the NYBG was in the shade… Definitely a celebration of the cool! These soft grasses in the diffuse light were like morning mist hanging in a hollow. A perfect thought to contemplate on a hot afternoon! But I don’t think it was just the idea of cool that was drawing me in. There is also something about a pallet of just a couple of plants that I’ve been into lately, and this planting has the liquid simplicity of such a theme.

This Thelypteris decursive-pinnata (Japanese Beech fern) is one of my favorites. Its upright habit makes it great for mass plantings and adds an energetic quality to the space when you have so many lines moving upward.

A picture that I often keep at my desk by designer Sven-Ingvar exemplifies how effective a planting of ferns like this can be.

The paths at the NYBG, are broad, often tree lined, and flanked by excursions into new themes. In the picture below we met up with one of the many children’s gardens. There were masses of Alchemilla mollis (Ladies mantle not pictured) along with Hosta ‘Secret Love’ and Hakonechloa macra ‘variegata’. Really a perfect grouping; the long liquid lines of the grass, the lily leaves of the Hosta, and the soft airy blooms of the Alchemilla, all within the same range of yellows, blues, greens, and velvet textures. The key is to get the right masses of each of the different plants. Then you get prolonged edges between groupings, which is where the magic I’m discovering is really at.

Below in the ladies border I found this fern – Cyrtomium fortunei – paired with Acanthus mollis. I would have never thought of the two together but the soft yet graphic quality of the fern paired wonderfully with the slick green of the Acanthus. Perhaps because the yellow veins of the Acanthus pulls them together?

I appreciate getting to see the evolution of a plant with different pairings… Below the hand of this designer at NYBG placed Cyrtomium fortunei with another, the evergreen shrub Viburnum davidii. Both plants have very leathery pronounced leaves, something really sculptural, that makes them look like they could be dancing to the same music.

This sharp little grouping of Eryngium bourgatii is off on its own, perhaps because it would tear into any leafy partner, but it still has great punctuation! And Whoa! with solid red! It makes me want to plant it in front of a painted wall or small shed! I remember visiting a plant collectors garden in the fall a while back and he had gone around and spray painted all the thistles a metallic blue. It was breath taking and stupefying for a few who couldn’t i.d. it right off. A great reminder that being a little irreverent can be a lot of fun!

A really brilliant use of Allium through out this bed. You see multiple star shapes reflected in the bold lines of the Yucca pendula and the Carex morrowii, a very busy feeling like a pyrotechnics’s excited sketches in preparation for the fourth of July!

Throughout the Ladies Border we were treated with the same Alliums paired with new partners. Below you see the lines are a bolder blue green behind the Allium, creating more of a contrast between the two plants rather than synchronized explosions. The Iris ‘dynamite’ really speaks for itself!

In the background below you can see the rounded reflective leaves of Bergenia cordifolia, creating a more calming sensation than each of the preceeding pairings. In fact it would seem that the bolder the leaf paired with the allium the quieter the effect on the eye.

Here an echo of the star bursting Allium in a new form, the Echium wildpretti…Check it out in the wild, pretty wild indeed!

Many Euphorbias are excellent for year round interest in milder climates. This Euphorbia characias ‘glacier blue’ boils with energy next to a hot pink and orange mint.

Ground covers have taken on a new interest for me lately, as something that hugs the ground and shows off the contours of the earth. This tiny form of Langerstromeria and the Euphorbia have wonderful names next to each other… dazzle and fade!

More NYC, please.

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

I’m just spending a part of the day reading about Horticulture opportunities in NYC…Hamming it up here, with real feeling, at the New York Botanical Garden… Sigh… Wow! I can’t believe my yearning… I’m totally head over heals for the place!

With love, Olmstead

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

A few years back Seattle hosted a Centennial celebration for the Olmstead Foundation. I volunteered at the event and was gifted a collection of postcards of Olmsteads’ major gardens. To celebrate his legacy in the day to day I framed and hung them. Although these are modern reproductions with no sentimental notes written on the back side, I still feel there is a lot of love behind them.

Musing on Fredrick Law Olmstead in my last blog I’ve decided to bring out the collection again before reading A Clearing in the Distance.

Crackpot Thought No.1

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Yesterday I recharged my batteries so to speak. I surfed the Internet, and wrote some notes to friends on facebook. I “helped” my landlord complete some unfinished business (by helped I mean, opened the door, chatted a bit, and then later saw him out)… Oh! And went for a run in the local park… and then facebooked a little more. And just when I was starting to feel heartily ashamed of myself for only exchanging one business email with a client. I looked at a line of posts between an old  friend and I on FB. The posts were about our college campus which had just been awarded second best campus housing in the nation.

Big deal right? No, really, BIG DEAL!  I love Mount Holyoke campus.

I fell in love with Mount Holyoke College the way some people fall in love with the “one”. I walked on campus, saw the lawn, trees, lakes, and buildings, and felt the place was perfectly situated. It was the perfect romantic accompaniment to the vision I had of myself as a student! I wanted it to be mine, and so I applied for early acceptance.

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I learned Fredrick Law Olmstead had designed the grounds, suggested the rise of hills, the dips into valleys, the placement of trees, of entrances and exits, and buildings. When I heard this it took me maybe three seconds to think that I’d fallen in love with MHC because the same man had designed the parks of my hometown, Seattle. I had my first glimpse at the idea of an intention much greater than my own having touched and moved my life in  a certain direction.

I really liked this story. I liked to tell it to myself obviously, and to others on occasion. But as I looked at this post again I began to wonder… maybe the story wasn’t about me and MHC really. Maybe the story is bigger than me. In fact perhaps most people fall in love with MHC. And the story instead is about how a landscape designer casts such a spell on everyone who enters. How does someone express such mastery over what other people want unconsciously?

What must have made me available to this new thought was my own musings in my last blog Slight of hand. But also a recent article in the New York Times over  Central Park vs. Prospect Park. Two writers one from Brooklyn, the other from Manhattan, meet to spar over the parks they love, poking holes in the other along the way. In the end the two have wooed each other with their wit and the dawning idea that all things Olmstead are good. And in the end they have also wooed you, by their shear passion for the parks, that you realize too are the crowning jewel of their city.

It’s a passion that possess you. But who isn’t possessed by treasure? So another article comes to mind that I have been reading that claims there is evidence that exposure to plants and parks boost immunity and health. And this is where my idea turns crackpot… What if Olmstead or any really masterful landscape designer is actually more than a slight of hand magician but a doctor of subtle energy? An urban Shaman seeking to create a wholeness of experience that enlivens and transforms the soul?

I have family that swim in such metaphysical waters even though I have chosen to stay more grounded in the garden. It does seem though that when you look at a designer like Olmstead who developed the master plans for most the the large cities and many campuses across America you do begin to imagine a man and a family that created another reality.

I’ve been meaning to read A Clearning in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski about Olmsteads accomplishments and life story. I think I feel inspired to walk over to my local bookstore, read a little more about his legacy, and see if any of my wild visions of mysticism find resonance somewhere therein! Won’t my family be pleased when they hear me talking about these ‘far out things’ in the same breath as my somewhat tidy thoughts about making a living. Some days are just perfect for a little daydreaming, writing, and reconnecting. I’m just happy you humor me.

p.s. Technically this is not my first “crackpot thought”, um, clearly.

p.p.s. Goldstar for posting that link to MHC Courtney, another treasure.

Slight of hand

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

In gardens as in life we get to constantly make choices. Making a garden look effortless and natural is a great compliment, but effortless it is not. Once you stop seeing the choices that are made in a garden and instead feel how whole and natural the experience is you know you are in the company of greatness.

I think of my young forays into ballet and remember realizing somewhere along the line that the difference between me and the prima ballerina was at least 15 to 20 years of training for several hours a day. Gardening can be the same kind of endeavor. It is an accomplishment in slight of hand usually. You want the visitor of the garden to forget you were there at all, but in truth every single moment was carefully practiced hundreds of times before.

With Peit Oudolf‘s garden at Battery Park I wanted to spend a few minutes just appreciating some of these magic moments. When I think about a master at his level, someone who searches out plants on foreign continents and works in collaboration with other plantsman to grow new varieties to expand the expressiveness of his garden pallet, I can feel a little overwhelmed. But these are humble choices. Choices that you make for a love of the materials and the experience. Choices that you get to observe if you love the materials and experience too.

I started really thinking about this by the memorial in the park. Large granite tomes with the names of the remembered sit facing the setting sun, from behind a huge dark bronze eagle is their protector. This sculpture is at the center of the park and opens the park to light as much of the park is protected by trees. This lighting effect draws your eyes in, and your feet follow. Somber colors flank the platform, and the pink halo of the Heucheras soften the scene like rose tinted glasses.

Another architectural element in the garden at a distance from the memorial is carefully hidden. Large vents in the center of the beds bring fresh air into a by building. All evidence of this is obscured, however, by mounding plants all along the sides, leaving only small views of light gray bars, reminiscent in shape, length, color, and matte texture to the wide crushed rock pathways.

The pathways, deep and wide, seem to serve another purpose besides grounding and carrying people. They also seem to tame the beds and elevate the sense of refinement. The paths feel like white value on a canvas balanced against the green. It creates a kind of necessary tension since the only other main structural elements are the large Sycamore trees holding up the forest canopy.

With these wide esplanades you can also see the drifts of grasses and flowers cascading over and brushing the edge of the walk. This is perhaps where the eye first becomes aware of the shape of the grasses in soft outline against the gravel. Flowers too jut out as you walk along the softly turning corners to experience their beauty isolated in relief for a moment. Massed inside the bed are drifts of Echinacea ‘Sunset’, Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’, and faded giant Alliums.

The edge of the walks are lined with an 18 gauge sheet metal that helps to create the flowing sinuous lines between the flowers and the gravel. Just enough of a rise, maybe 4” keeps the gravel and feet from straying. I have recently been experimenting with sheet metal as bed liners and for box steps back filled with gravel and have been so happy with the easy lines 24 gauge makes.

Sunlight filters down from above and lights up a Perovskia complementing some of the same hues as the distant background. This play of color between foreground and background makes the space feel lighter and more dynamic. It almost has a reflective quality, reflecting the colors of the background.

A quick look inside one of the beds you see wonderful bold stokes of blue-green grass. Whites glance off the grass leaves pulling it together with the Perovoskia. A playful mint with purple hued pompoms is the cherry on top for this visual treat.

Perovskia in mass takes on the wave qualities of a grass and creates a solid wall that just hints at the kiosk behind it. The rusty red of the bed liners and the kiosk show up beautifully against a restful plant pallet.

Dreamy combination of Heuchera ‘Caramel’ and the green velvet sheen of its chevron neighbor Persicaria filiformis ‘Lance Corporal’. All the photos look like they are in soft focus but Piet Oudolf has actually created a whole garden in soft focus. Below you see the same plants again but this time combined with the lovely bark of a Sycamore trunk and Euphobia myrsinities. Even the Euphorbia with its smooth leaves manages to have that soft matte quality to it.

Another plant besides the Euphorbia that did well under the Sycamores were the Hostas. This plant seem to love the humidity of the east coast, these huge blue gray leaves were stunning under the elephantine Sycamore trunks. They were the water lilies floating on the grasses in this landscape.

The Hosta’s create a visual resting point at a distance from any achitectural element like the water fountain. But the feeling of water is everywhere.

Like Hostas, Heucheras can be very compact and full. Without their blooms Heuchera ‘Caramel’ in a mass can be difficult to seg way into a soft fine grass. Here you see it combined with an elegant addition.

Notice below how the pink stems help to tie the two plants together, while the long st0cks and paw shaped green leaves pull the height and color of the neighboring grasses in. Without this mystery plant there would be no flow between the two plantings.

Large rough hewn stones line the outer edge of the park like masiv bulk heads on a river.

The rounded battery in the background. A reminder of keeping safe those things we cherish.

The lapping sound of cool water hitting the pavement. A circle of benches surround the fountain filled with contented spectators. Somehow getting to see the honey colored light grow more fiery and the long shadows grow taller, while in the company of friends, signals a day well spent. I like to imagine Piet Oudolf knew this too.

p.s. The View from Federal Twist blog site by the excellent James Golden has more photos and plant names from a visit he made to the park in August 2008. Recommended.

Piet Oudolf makes waves

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Look to Piet Oudolfs’ books to explain creating moods with light, color, and rhythm in the garden. Yet something you can’t experience in an instructional book is the genius of Oudolfs’ complete creations. There are multitudes of choices that you notice after such a garden stroll that make the scene in front of you blur with the power of feeling that fills you up inside. The beauty is soothing, the attention to detail is love itself.

Piet Oudolfs’ humble ally and stroke of genius has been the grass. He has taken something that was seen as the junk of the western frontier, and with the right eye turned it into a soft brush that transforms the space between garish flowers. His partnership with grasses has lifted our eyes upwards to experience the play of air and light!

Oudolfs’ grass waves also go on to have a formal expression throughout the garden with undulating forms of contrasting colors. Above you see a wash of Astilbes against a background of plum Heucheras. Give yourself another moment and you’ll notice that the Astilbe spires repeat themselves in the faded echo of the Heuchera blooms. This feeling of receding distance is playing off the reflected light of the Esplanade and the winding Hudson River.

From one direction a stone garden of remembrance feels contemplative, grounded in the sombre colors above.

But from below the platform your approach will feel warm and full of light. Why was that memorial so moving? Perhaps because light, color, and rhythm are in the hands of a master strumming our heart strings…

A close up of a Deschampsia grass with evening light slanting in under the canopy of one of Battery Parks many Sycamore trees.

Again, the simplicity of mixing grasses with one flower, in this case Astrantia. These stretches feel contemplative. There are benches placed here and there with couples sitting and talking together. (A marked difference between this and what appears around the corner where wildflowers, street musicians, and crowds gather.) The more grasses, the more wave forms, the more you feel the affect of the Hudson and Oudolfs’ vision.

Known Knowns…

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

They say there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns…

So on this recent trip to New York City I was excited to see friends (known knowns), check out gardens I had read about (known unknowns), but I hadn’t really thought about the unknown unknowns (let’s call them the un-unknowns)!

The un-unknowns are what can make traveling really fun.

I’m always looking for inspiration, something new to introduce into my work, but I’d kinda forgotten how traveling is an open territory of places you haven’t been, things you haven’t experienced, and most importantly sometimes a new way of seeing. Sometimes when things are so different, your surroundings are so altered you are forced to think in a new way and from this new way of thinking you get to look back on the person you were before.

It’s a vertigo of sorts… but if you like the safety of a roller coaster ride it might be for you too…

What surprised me most about New York this time around (it’s been almost 10 years) was my experience versus my preconception. I’d always known that New Yorkers were to the point, in a hurry, and more than a little brisk. So I was surprised to find out how interested and often kind they were. New Yorkers were not timid about finding out what they needed in order to take action. But this didn’t preclude their being interested in you, actually the opposite seemed to be true. New Yorkers seemed acutely interested. A bit of fresh air after the somewhat stagnate climate of home sweet home, where people are so nice that they keep their judgments to themselves.  Seattle is the kind of place where you could have the feeling of a disagreement with someone but not know for years if it was founded on anything solid or was just a simple misunderstanding.

In counter distinction New York’s curiosity is infectious and energizing.

So imagine me with this slightly heightened sense enjoying all the riches of a completely alive and complex city. It was like tasting an ingredient you liked a hundred times in different dishes… fascinating!

Early on in the trip some friends took a group of us to explore the Brooklyn flea market together. An embarrassment of riches really awaits you in such a place, and I nearly blushed at how difficult it was for me to decide on what I liked. A bit out of breath from all my ohh’s and ahh’s and having not tried on a single thing I searched out my honey. “I’ll support his purchase” I thought, and paddled my canoe over to him where he was admiring German prints (or Chromolithographs) from the 19th century. Together we picked out a few and later revisited our choices again with friends. When we went to go purchase them he insisted that they were a gift for me. And he was right. The little underwater drawings would become points of exploration for gardens in my mind.

Now at home again we get to frame the pieces…

Funny that I’ve already been thinking about the garden design that I started (before we left for the East Coast) in a new light now.  I’m happy to have something to lead me forward into unknown territory, challenges, and problems! A new pair of eyes!