I live in a densely populated fairly urban-suburban area. Houses, most built in the 1920s, are close together on 50′ x 100′ lots. New York City is 25 miles east. My street starts on our town’s Main Street. There used to be a gas station there whose ancient tanks sprung a leak and the site was shut down and ‘cleaned up’ to the tune of millions of dollars. Now there is a Dunkin’ Donuts where the gas station used to be.
Behind and adjacent that misspelled testament to obesity in America is an abandoned, contaminated lot. Collateral damage. It used to have a house on it. Now it has wildflowers (most will call them weeds) and wildlife among the 10+ testing stations for subterranean pollution. I hope they don’t mow it and allow it to start to heal itself.
When a new garden destination opens, I always like to wait a bit and let the crowds simmer down so I can explore it in peace. I need that space to process my ideas and to really see a place. The Oehme, van Sweden designed Native Plant Garden at The New York Botanical Gardens opened in May to gushing and effusive reviews.
The hand of ‘The New American’ garden style attributed to OvS is evident throughout the 3.5 acre site that comprises more than 100,000 plants native to the Eastern Seaboard. It is contemporary and has flashes of genius. It is, to my eye, a clearly designed space that wants to also be natural. Vignettes abound that never occur so frequently in the wild. Some are painterly and others are dramatic. This is a garden after all and a teaching one at that. It covers a lot of regional and geographic botanical territory and includes mature and new plantings. Some areas are so densely planted that they have little room to grow and the maintenance will have to be intensive for garden crews or they’ll look awful in very little time. My favorite places were those in and bordering the woodlands that combined structural punctuation points with soft underplanting.
The garden’s central water feature is contemporary and at first I thought it looked too jarring. After exploring the garden and giving it some thought, I understand the design philosophy that clearly places our collective responsibility for these native and wild places in a contemporary context. Sustainable materials, storm water recycling and bio filters are all unseen yet declared parts of this feature. Other areas provide shelter and food for wildlife. Signage indicates and explains natural communities in an engaging way.
As a designer, I appreciate the subtlety of another designer’s hand, but wonder how many visitors will notice the details. In some ways the garden is too natural and I suspect some won’t get it at all. They’ll think that this is just what’s out there in the real world, when in reality it’s not. If the garden is to be a success, people have to stop and read and listen and look carefully to see the details. When viewed as a whole, it could be perceived as just another messy, unmanicured space that so many find threatening because they are so far removed from the wild.
An article yesterday in the New York Times about a proposed and (yes) sustainably built and ‘green’ corporate headquarters that will rise above the Palisades along the Hudson River galvanized my thinking about view preservation as part of the whole save the planet movement.
Views and vistas need to be preserved. They are seldom considered when giant wind turbines are erected on mountain tops or along the shoreline. They’re not considered when housing developments climb up a hillside. They’re not considered when a swath of land is taken up for new corporate headquarters. Yet a property with a view is worth more than one without.
Parks and public spaces aren’t enough to protect many views that are in the way of our continued sprawl as well as so-called environmental progress. In the New York metro region, land is valuable and in increasing short supply hours and miles away from the city. Our views need to be preserved as much as the remaining open space.
Views and vistas are part of the environment and should be preserved as such. Shouldn’t the beauty of the earth’s landscape be just as important as saving its air, waterways and soil? Humans need beauty as much as air, water, and soil. For me, and many others I suspect, these views and vistas move me to my deepest core. My heart stops on a drive or hike when I get a glimpse of the beauty of a vista and world beyond. They soothe me when little else will, and inspire me when all else fails. They deserve respect and preservation.
I am not a fan of the current trend that extols us to grab a shipping pallet or some cast off boards and use them to make something else. Most of what results still looks like garbage. Who cares if the materials are free?
These chairs by Old & Board satisfy my designer instincts and are made from recycled wood.
I had the pleasure of being invited to visit P. Allen Smith in Little Rock last week. I was included in an event designed to not only promote Smith’s ideas, but also those companies who sponsor and support Smith’s lifestyle brand. As his book, Garden Home suggests, Smith’s brand isn’t about inside or out, today or yesterday, it is about the seamless transition from one to the other and back again.
The patina of a past that included legions of free (use your imagination–they weren’t interns) help isn’t lost in this new, pared down, but no less privileged lifestyle. Make no mistake about it, P. Allen Smith, who is a hell of a nice guy by the way, is a passionate and totally driven workaholic whose ideas and ideals drive a brand that supports dozens of people from marketing executives to farm hands.
Smith’s ‘Garden Home’ farm, Moss Mountain, reflects his many interests–some of which include collecting early southern furniture, American paintings, cooking and entertaining, poultry, sustainable agriculture and building, and of course, gardens. An avid reader, there are books everywhere–stacked on tables and in overflowing bookshelves.
There is authenticity to Smith and his carefully curated world, what you see is really what he is all about. I say Bravo! that he’s found a way to brand it and to support his passions and lifestyle–even if that process has him working around the clock. He works in a beautiful place surrounded by the things he loves–not a bad way to spend one’s working life.
On the home farm, heritage poultry (Smith founded the Heritage Poultry Conservancy in 2009) exists along side the construction of an environmentally friendly farmhouse. The coop pictured below is close to the house, but about a 1/4 mile down the road are working coops that house the birds in the breeding program Smith has established for his heritage chickens and turkeys.
Having trained as a landscape designer in England, Smith’s gardens juxtapose traditional European garden design principles with southern bones, climate appropriate plants and vernacular architecture. They are lush and romantic, quaint and super high maintenance. These are not gardens to have without skilled help. There are vignettes and rambles combined into a massive mixed border that has interesting foundation plants with great structure. The gardens had me wondering if these throwbacks to ‘home’ in the European sense are actually a regional American style. That’s something I’d like to explore further.
I was surprised at how small Smith’s original Little Rock garden is. Now called City Garden Home, it’s on a small urban corner lot and it’s a testament to the power of great garden design. Each one of several garden rooms flows seamlessly into the next and nothing feels cramped or overdone.
I appreciated the thought that went into the design–I know firsthand how complex it is to plan and execute a small space that actually feels bigger than it is.
Back at the farm, however, there is room to spread out and that’s exactly what Smith has done in the gardens there. In addition to an expansive organic vegetable garden and a year old rose garden dedicated to American heritage roses, he has designed classic twin borders. There is one each on two terraces down that step down the mountain from the house towards the Arkansas River. They were the first things to be built at the now four year old farm.
All of Smith’s endeavors are supported or underwritten by sponsors. He also has books, videos, speaking engagements that help fund his interests and support his people. He works with experts and if those experts happen to be able to underwrite or contribute to his endeavors then they do. I totally understand that undertaking the kind of media and lifestyle company that Smith has built and continues to grow takes money– lots of money–and that relationships with sponsors are integral to that process. It’s not easy living as a New Southern Romantic–it takes hard work, a great support team and passion.
I have been struggling with the visual impact that alternative energy sources have on the landscape. I’m conflicted. I know we need to seriously decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, but often the windmill and solar farms that are increasingly visible…mar the vistas and take up valuable open space that to me is just as valuable as the energy they create.
So there I was, driving (those fossil fuels again) by a local corporate park and Voila! a thoughtful solution that’s a win-win for solar panel installation. Solar panels are being installed in the parking lot creating energy for use, shade and shelter for the cars beneath them. They’re being built in every island in a parking lot on land that’s already been paved over…not green space. They even look good in a retro kind of car park way.
There’s a fantastic article in today’s New York Times about Arcosanti. What’s that you ask? In my mind, it is/was the first eco-concious city of the future. In other’s it’s the mad idea of architectural genius Paolo Soleri. Before there was Masdar City (a much more commercial development), there was Arcosanti and Soleri.
I’m not going to repeat what the article has to say, but instead will say that Soleri’s books and philosophy were highly influential on me as a designer–not so much the visual, but the ideas. I hope I will get to visit one day…it’s been on the list for years!
View the slide show with images of making the bells here.
Today my garden designer/blogger peers over at Garden Designers Roundtable along with the Lawn Reform Coalition will be discussing lawn alternatives. Lawns are a hot button topic with many on both sides of the garden fence, so I thought I’d offer an alternative of my own–even though I’m not officially posting this month.
British artist Kevin Hunt presented these lawn chairs as part of his degree show in 2005.
You know I’m not a huge DIY person. If everyone did that, I’d be out of business. BUT, I love Tokyo DIY Gardening. An open source site for anyone who gardens in overcrowded Tokyo. It is also chock full of inspiration for anyone who believes that plants and gardens of all kinds make our world a more livable place.
Founded by Jared Braterman and Chris Berthelsen the site consists of images of real and imagined green spaces and has interactive maps, participant uploads, photos of private and public gardens and articles about urban greening and gardening.
For the past several years in private, at dinner parties and in my classrooms I have been having a similar discussion, but mine starts with the ‘M’ word…maintenance.Landscapes and designed environments are only as good and as long lasting as their maintenance. How many people do you know with a garden/lawn care service? I know many. How many of those companies have embraced sustainable practices? I bet the number goes way, way down. Here’s the deal. Until we take a leadership role and give those who maintain what we dream up a way to make a viable and profitable living maintaining our projects sustainably, our efforts are for naught. Great landscapes last beyond their designers. They are a living entity that requires care.
We need pro-level electric or solar mowers that are rechargeable from job to job. We need clean fuel burning trucks. We need blowers that minimize noise and pollution. We need to train people how to prune so that meatball pruning isn’t the norm. We need training in organic and sustainable practices at the mow and blow level. We need to lead the way, but we have to arm those who follow in our wake or it’s all for nothing.
In December, as a guest on Garden Gossip, I extolled listeners to ‘celebrate their regions’ instead of trying to emulate a garden design style that is at odds with their specific location. That idea gave birth to this group of topic specific blog posts–Garden Designer’s Bloglink—links to the rest of the participating landscape designers/bloggers at the end of this post.
How do you define a region?
So what exactly is regional to an area? How local is the vernacular? It’s not the same 20, 40 or 50 miles away. How can we interpret what is regionally sustainable and socially appropriate in our gardens? How can our landscapes be more in tune with the land they’re on? How can we make the seemingly unsustainable–both in attitude and practice–more so?
What’s my region?
I design landscapes and gardens at the eastern most edge of what is known as the Skylands, in Morris County, New Jersey. My little town is 28.5 miles west of New York City where the land begins to rise away from the sea and towards the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The annual rainfall is about 50″ and the annual snowfall about 3′. It is sticky, hot and humid in the summer and the winters can be frigid. What is fitting and local here is evidenced by the area’s natural and man made (the European kind, not the native American kind) history. The immediate area has been transformed by transplanted gardeners since the 17th century.
Although significantly less than when I moved here 20 years ago, there are still rural farms as well as urban centers that have been there since before the American Revolution. Old growth hardwood forests were mostly cut down to use as building materials and to create farmland. Local rounded stone was loosely stacked as field boundaries—I grew up exploring one of these walls in my own backyard. These stone walls do not display the master craftsmanship of the granite walls found farther north in New England–they are more piles than walls.
5 Simple Ideas for Regional and Sustainable Style
So how to use more than 3 centuries of gardening precedent and make it appropriate to a region still mired in tradition while addressing the needs of the 21st century lifestyle? Below are 5 easy ideas with local examples, that can have a big impact both visually and sustainably–with some local tweaking these ideas could form the basis for a regional style anywhere.
Idea No. 1–Recycle It
Use remnants from the 300+ years of Dutch and English European gardening influence and plants colonists brought from ‘home’ as well as the pleasure gardens created as summer playgrounds by rich New Yorkers in the 19th century. Many of the latter reached their zenith just prior to the institution of income taxes in the 1920s when many were actually razed to avoid escalating costs. In the photo below, the house is from that era but the garden is contemporary–a 5 acre pleasure garden maintained by several full-time gardeners. This level of commitment is unattainable by almost all homeowners, so how can they emulate the region’s rich gardening and architectural history in their own much more modest suburban back yards?
Reuse local stone, reclaimed brick and architectural objects rather than buying new. Mining and trucking stone leaves a huge carbon footprint, searching for vintage anything is fun for the entire family and is the ultimate act of recycling. Materials can be used as they were or interpreted in new ways–adding a mix of the old to the new and even contemporary can give a garden instant context.
Idea No. 2–Super Size It
Plan for natural plant size instead of relying on gas powered ‘pruning’. Increase the size of foundation planting beds to allow for interesting plantings at their mature sizes. I can’t tell you how many 4′ foundation beds I’ve seen–there are very few shrubs that will thrive in a space that small without a lot of pruning to keep them in check. In the planting plan shown below, a LEED certified project I worked on, foundation beds were made wide enough to accommodate large native flowering shrubs and small trees…with plenty of room for growth. These beds will only require minimal upkeep despite the density and size of the of the plants.
Idea No 3–Go Native
Seek out native plants–even for lawns. Lawns are not the enemy for this region–too much maintenance, over watering and over fertilization is. Rethink lawns using native fescues and organic maintenance and management. There are alternatives out there that satisfy our regional love affair with turf. No Mow and Eco Lawn yield lawns that require little water and no fertilizer–better yet these lawns only need infrequent mowing.
Many of the most desirable flowering trees and shrubs in European gardens are indigenous to NJ–among them– Amelancheir canadensis (Serviceberry), Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud) and Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood)–so why so many non-native Japanese Maples and cherries? Find native plants for New Jersey and Morris County here , find native plants for other regions here.
Idea No. 4–Create Habitat
Our natural woodland was a resource for the original native inhabitants as well as the colonists–it became real estate to be developed in the New York metropolitan sprawl that is still gobbling up unprotected acreage. Celebrate the American wilderness and designate an area where nature is invited in instead of being held at a distance or watched on television. Create a ‘wild’ area with a meandering path through the woodland to a destination–a hammock, a bench, a shade house. Add safe havens for wildlife–put up a birdhouse, bat house or butterfly house. Children will spend more time exploring these areas than they will using an expensive swing set and the woodland will last and give back long after the swings are added to the landfill.
Idea No. 5–Percolate It
For both formal and informal areas choose natural permeable paving. Stepping stones or recycled brick can be augmented with pea gravel or filled with low growing plants. In the examples below gravel suppresses weeds, adds texture, a wonderful crunching sound when walked on and allows water to percolate. The third example shows a courtyard project where the stone is planted up rather than mortared up.
Implementing these ideas will make a garden that is socially acceptable to the next door neighbors and indeed the entire neighborhood and region.
A special shout out to Scott Hokunson who invited the participants and coordinated this series..Thank You, Scott! If you’d like to see ideas from other landscape and garden designers from other regions…here are links (in no particular order) to their regional posts:
As the brilliant fall foliage fades, I find myself thinking more and more about larger themes in the natural world and how they directly inform my own landscape design work. Response to concerns about the health of our planet and its inhabitants have designers in all disciplines embracing sustainable practices and hailing biomimicry as the next design paradigm. I have always looked for inspiration from the natural environment (among many other things), so this week I stopped at Craftsman Farms which is close to where I live in New Jersey
Originally more than 600 acres, the now 30 acre property is a National Historic Site. Deservedly so, it is one of the most significant examples of American Arts and Crafts architecture. Craftsman Farms also illustrates visually how the landscape can inform all types of design.
Gustav Stickley, the visionary behind it, is most famous now for his now highly collectible ‘Craftsman’ style furniture. Craftsman Farms is an outgrowth of his particular aesthetic, philosophical and social ideas. Stickley built the compound almost 100 years ago as a model for sustainability. The main house, which Stickley had planned as the center piece of a farm school for boys, has been painstakingly restored but the garden areas have not.
It is a place inspired by its sense of place, much like gardens can be.
The idea that we as designers are a part of a larger natural system and need to be nourished and inspired by that system is best summed up in Stickley’s own words–“We need to go often to the treasury of Nature that we may restore, renew the magnetic force that makes us valuable to ourselves, to others. Nature gives so generously to those who go to her….She heals and enriches, never drains or impoverishes, and is always trustworthy, reliable.”
Note: A short companion video can be viewed by clicking here.
I am not a scientist. I am a landscape designer. I thought I wasn’t an active environmentalist until I started to think about participating in this year’s Blog Action Day on Climate Change. Sure I talk about it, but if intent + action = activism then, I am an activist.
How do I as a landscape designer address climate change? I plan, plant and protect trees on a regular basis. I even write about trees here to hopefully spur readers to appreciate them, plant them, grow more of them and protect them.
How do trees affect climate change? Don’t take my word for it, according to American Forests:
Trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary gas causing global climate change. Trees retain the carbon (C) from the CO2 molecule and release oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere. The carbon makes up half the dry weight of a tree.
Forests are the world’s second largest carbon reservoirs (oceans are the largest). Unlike oceans, however, we can grow new forests. Planting new trees remains one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. One acre of forestland will sequester between 150 – 200 tons of CO2 in its first 40 years.
You don’t need a group, or a demonstration or anything other than yourself taking action. Plan to include trees in your garden. Even a small ornamental tree is great. Shade isn’t an impediment to gardening–it’s an opportunity, over 40% of garden plants prefer shade. Just plan on including some trees when you’re dreaming about what plants to add to your landscape. Trees are a good investment also, they add to your home’s value–smaller plants, no matter how rare, don’t do that.
Plant a tree in your garden–even better yet, plant a forest of them and help cool things down. Give trees the things they need–room to grow, plenty of water and lots of organic matter. When considering where to plant a tree make sure you know how tall and wide the tree will get before you decide where to plant it. Trees are plants for the long haul. How big will that little tree be in 5 years? 10? Will it grow fast or slow? Too many trees are cut down because they are too close to structures or their root systems make it difficult to plant anything else. Choose trees for the type of space you have and you will be rewarded for years to come.
Protect our old large trees from heavy construction–60% of damage to a trees root system comes from the first pass of heavy equipment over them. In my region, there is a battle going on right now. A local university wants to cut down the only unprotected swath of old growth forest in the metropolitan area that is now on its campus for ball fields, parking lots and ‘public benefit’. It seems to me that the public already benefits more from trees that have shaded and cooled them for more than 200 years, you can join the public outrage and protest here.
Look around you and see the large trees that are slated to be removed–question the cost to us when they are no longer cooling the earth. Many towns now protect heritage trees and have strict guidelines for tree removal. Fight to protect our trees because they are helping to protect us.
A few words stenciled on a shop window got me thinking about this…the very last lure after organic spa treatments were the enticing words ‘eco-luxury‘. I would think that eco-luxury would be one ‘green’ term that garden and landscape designers would have already latched on to. Its marketability as a lifestyle concept has been embraced by interior designers, spas and resorts, and architects–yet I haven’t seen it used as a concept by landscape designers.
Think about it–guiltless, sustainable, ecologically sound design, installation and management practices that appeals to clients who want to lead a pampered, opulent lifestyle without any earthburger connotations. The possibilities boggle the mind. The fact is, that many clients do not even realize that they can have a beautiful and luxurious outdoor environment that is also eco-conscious. Pictured below is Bardessono, a resort/spa in Napa Valley that markets itself as the ‘greenest’ luxury hotel in America. Seeking a LEED platinum certification, it is sleek, modern and definitely luxurious and it’s part of a larger and fast growing trend in many segments of the design industries.
What exactly is eco-luxury in landscape and garden design? It’s creating the highest level of design, aesthetics, and quality while maintaining an ecologically sustainable and balanced environment that doesn’t tax natural resources in its creation or its ongoing maintenance. What client wouldn’t want a project that met that criteria? Local sourcing and planned resource use for their garden’s creation and maintenance will save them money in the long run. Eco-luxury does not have add to the cost of a project if it’s designed that way from the onset.
For me, as a landscape designer, it means that I have to continue to use locally sourced materials and building techniques, create a balanced use of natural resources such as water, establish a recycling plan for the entire lifecycle of the project, and create opportunities for using renewable energy sources during the creation and life of the built landscape. I realize that I have been a proponent of the eco-luxury movement for a while now, I just haven’t thought of it that way. So now it also means that I can market my design services being environmentally sensitive without sacrificing the ‘bling’.
A couple of years ago a client told me she wanted to drive into her driveway to a beautiful garden and asked me to design one for her. Easy enough request. She also wanted to screen off the back yard with some trelliage but didn’t want climbers on it. Easy enough request. She wanted a deer resistant cottage style garden in her favorite color combination–blue and yellow. Again, easy enough request.
When the trellis work was installed, there was only one logical place for it so that’s where it went. What was left for this garden of easy enough requests was a 30″ wide bed between the fence and the blacktop in the blazing sun where the plow would push the snow in the winter months. Not so easy any more. These types of garden problems are what landscape designers excel at and when it really makes sense to consult with a professional.
Heat loving, deer resistant driveway garden
Now three years later, the garden is thriving without irrigation or much care and it looks great. What’s the secret? Plant choice. All of the plants chosen for this garden are drought tolerant, heat and sun loving, and tough as nails.
Here’s the list:
Agastache x ‘Black Adder’ Achillea ‘Moonshine’ Baptisia austrailis Iris germanica Stachys byzantina Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’
Big garbage day comes on the first Thursday of the month in my neighborhood. Regardless of my own history of incredible finds in other people’s cast offs, I have become more and more mystified by the paradox of some what is being thrown out. I first started thinking about this a few months ago when all three houses in the dead end across from my front garden put pink plastic playhouses out for pick-up.
Eager to give their children a safe and fun backyard experience many well meaning parents purchase plastic toys and play equipment which are inexpensive and plentiful in the marketplace. Even if these toys are made with recycled plastic, they are ultimately not recycled. Parents who normally recycle, are environmentally aware and have switched to refillable water bottles don’t even consider the impact of these toys on the environment their children will inherit once the toys are outgrown and tossed out.
The oh so common and (bleck!) cute turtle sandbox (photo via Little Tykes) below, along with easels, lawn mowers and plastic basketball hoops, racing car beds, and yes, another playhouse were on the curb this morning. Every single one was in good enough shape to be passed on to some other child instead of ending up in the landfill.
Ok. Let me start off by saying that what I’m about to say is going to really going to make some people angry. I suspect it will be those with a holier than thou sensibility. I also suspect that it will be those with really loud bullying voices. If not then…good…maybe I’m not battling windmills.
Even with my activist background as a young adult, several years ago I became more ‘enlightened’. I read Cradle to Cradle, visited and wrote about my reaction to sustainable gardens in Southern California and of course I saw An Inconvenient Truth. I have always turned out lights when I leave the room, have recycled and reused (including a long history dumpster diving) and I plant trees and other oxygenating plants as part of how I make my living. So far so good, right?
The trouble, for me, became when I started to be involved with social media. All this talk and posturing about being green, being sustainable, helping the planet. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing–at least the conversation is happening. What get’s me though is that it often all seems so selfish. I’m green, hire me! I can help you save the planet, hire me! I’m an expert in sustainability, hire me! I write a blog about sustainability, hire me! What!!! You still buy XXX’s product–shame on you, I don’t, I’m green, hire me! ME, ME, ME.
What about helping each other just because we all share the same planet? Does it always have to be about me and how I can profit by this or ‘make good by doing good’…why not just because it’s the right thing to do?