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In my work doing residential landscape architecture, I have encountered a number of instances where someone has bought a house on a sloping piece of land, getting what seems to be a steal. Usually, the buyer/client first tackles work on the house, revising its interior, and sometimes its exterior, to make it just as he/she wants it to be. House modifications can take years. When the house update is done, the homeowner turns his/her attention to the landscape. Most people want as much usable outdoor space as possible: a patio is a pleasant place to sit, a big, level lawn lets kids play comfortably and within sight, and walking, driving, swimming, or playing sports are all easier on flat surfaces. And it’s when the owner of a sloping site wants to enlarge their usable domain that it becomes clear why the dream house was such a bargain.

Why? Because slopes are expensive to unslope.

For people to use the land immediately around their house with any degree of comfort, it’s necessary to make level areas. A patio typically has a cross-pitch or slope of not more than 2% (just enough to drain water), and a lawn that slopes no more than 5 or 6 percent is best for active kids to organize and play games on. When a house is built on really noticeably sloping ground, the grade can measure anywhere from 8 to 15 percent, or more.

Sometimes earthen banks can hold up a level area; sometimes strategically placed boulders can do the job; often large retaining walls are necessary. Where surface area is scant, retaining walls may be the most efficient way to hold land level. Walls tend to be costly.

To start from a different point: A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to visit a friend in Konstanz, Germany. While there, we took a number of side trips into Switzerland. We punctuated our train trip to Appenzell, Switzerland (home of many cows and of Appenzeller cheese, a famously stinky but delicious local specialty) with a visit to St. Gallen, home of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall.

St. Gallen, Switzerland, from the air. The medieval walled city core is clearly visible among the more regular fabric of later-built streets and buildings. The Abbey and its World Heritage Site Bibliothek can be seen at about four o'clock in the walled part of the city.

The Bibliotek (Library) was closed when we arrived. We were ready to take a rest anyway, so found a spot on the spacious and sunny courtyard lawn and got out a picnic lunch. The day was bright and only slightly cool; though cars puttered by outside the court and a bell nearby clanged the hour and several other people sat on the grass and on nearby benches, the courtyard felt extraordinarily tranquil and pleasant. We munched and chatted, and I tried to put my finger on what made the courtyard feel so different from the surrounding area.

Look closer at the Abbey and its grounds. It takes up a large area within the walled city, and though the surrounding land slopes to the northwest, (that is, toward the photo's top left corner), the huge Abbey courtyard is almost perfectly level.

I had been thinking about the slope/cost issue for a quite some time, and it sprang to mind again in that peaceful abbey close. From the railroad station in the valley bottom, we had climbed winding medieval city streets to get to the Abbey; the walled city around the Abbey sat considerably higher than the station itself. Outside the three-sided Abbey complex, streets bent and sloped against the thick walls of the Roman Catholic enclave. Inside, green grass carpeted an utterly level quadrangle, muffling sound and lying like a tablecloth on a tabletop

Outside the Abbey walls is an orderly but dense fabric of masonry buildings and narrow streets that wind up and down the hilly terrain. Inside the Abbey walls, the utterly level and open ground of this tranquil courtyard puts on display the power and wealth of the Church that built it. Photo by kind courtesy of Galen Frysinger, at http://www.galenfrysinger.com/

In this Swiss city, slope is a fact of life. Buildings themselves do double duty as retaining walls; the back door of a house here can easily be situated a full floor above the front door. The city fabric is tightly woven, to conserve energy and again, because amending long sloping frontages can be expensive. Most homes are built cheek by jowl, with little or no space between houses.

The Church was and is a wealthy and powerful homeowner/landowner, as evidenced by its leveling of a sizable piece of the town’s steep foothill to make a vast piece usable ground. The fact that the courtyard lies in the middle of this densely woven city, and that it is given over to luxurious lawn sends a quiet but clear message of power and wealth. While the elegant and extremely solid buildings convey that message, the carving out of level outdoor space speaks just as definitively about the ability of this particular institution to make unlevelled places plain.

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Don’t you love this photo? Toby Wolf took it at the Crane Reservation in Ipswich, a property of The Trustees of Reservations. He said that for him it has the quality of an oil painting; I agree completely. It has that same dark/light/dark sequence, that same frame/focal point/background flavor as a painting by an Italian Renaissance painter.

At the Crane Reservation, Toby writes, “It looks like The Trustees have deliberately maintained the opening to the view, and that the late-afternoon light, raking across the marshes and the bark of the trees, is what makes it work. I like the light on the ground-layer plants.”

The whole ravishing photo.

Here’s an example of landscape management supporting a design intention. Sometimes we design places with stone, wood, earth, metal, and plants; sometimes we design views, and tweak a visitor’s perception of a place by what we leave in, what we remove, and how we frame and focus what they see. Obviously, a photograph can be manipulated to do these things, but sometimes a photograph simply records a perception that has been shaped by others, as The Trustees have apparently shaped the Crane Reservation view.

A view framed by dark elements, a view into a light space, a view toward water, a view toward curves — what a pleasing combination. I want to take a bite out of this photo.

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The massive four-stem Norway maple that blew down in high winds last week.

Following up on the list post item from June 9, about what to use to replace a lost Norway maple: it will be a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis ‘Shademaster’), placed slightly upslope from the Norway stump.

Last week I visited the North Shore seaside site (where last year we revamped the drive court planting and added bamboo and holly for property line screening; to read about those projects, see Refinement and Air Spade In Action) and saw the spatial effect of losing this tree.

Surprisingly, the loss wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. The tree’s canopy had taken up a huge amount of space and cast deep shade over quite an area. It had screened my clients from an unappealing view of the corner of their neighbor’s house — but also from a wider view of the Boston skyline in the distance. Now the horizon is wider; they’re going to have a spectacular view of the city’s July 4 fireworks. While the neighbor’s house is unfortunately visible for the moment, the honey locust will mitigate that view. A younger specimen maple just over the property line, which had been hidden by the larger tree, looks healthy, and helps provide a perspective-focusing foreground to the far horizon.

Fortunately too, while the tree provided shade over a wide area of the site, much of its underplanting consisted of junipers and taxus, which should benefit from having more sunlight. The redtwig dogwood, azaleas, and hydrangea will think a bit about how much they like being exposed, but I think they’ll adapt. Even the little spring shade garden should fare all right, protected as much of it by a dense shrub planting from full sun exposure. Many of the herbaceous plants in it are ephemeral anyway, showing up in early spring before any trees leaf out, and fading back as foliage emerges above them.

Shade cast by the now-gone Norway maple protected the little spring garden and its ligularia circle at the path's end.

Our biggest concern for this newly sunny area is the ligularia bed. This bed, banded with a circle of bluestone, makes the southern terminus of a sightline through the tiny spring garden. The ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ ligularia, with its chocolate-brown foliage and golden spikes of flowers, makes a ravishing dot at the bottom of the exclamation point. And it’s a shade lover.

Ligularia 'Britt Marie Crawford' in its circle bed.

It may not be at all happy to be getting sun all day every day. My hope is that it can handle it well enough for long enough to feel relief from the kinder, more dappled shade that the new honey locust will eventually cast.

This site has seen several mature trees come down since last year; neighbors next to the drive court removed a large maple and a lovely S-shaped pine, an ailing ash tree got taken out, and a graceful Russian olive specimen, some 20 feet tall, blew down in the same storm that took the big Norway maple.

Each subtraction has shifted the sun/shade proportions, and each will affect the growth and health of the surrounding area. This kind of change requires adaptation both by the plants and by the owners, and provides opportunities for new ways of seeing a familiar place.

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Downtown Boston teemed with people this past holiday weekend. Stroller brigades patrolled the streets, the scent of sunscreen wafted through the breeze, and a general air of well-being rested like a pleasantly warm blanket over the city.

Friday, I had walked through Boston Common and seen the simple and remarkable memorial to Massachusetts’ fallen military just installed by the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund. Yesterday I returned with my camera.

In the distance, something appears to cover the Common's usual green carpet.

Closer, the rug becomes a sea of American flags below the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. Visitors drawn to the sight stop, gaze at the flags, take photos, and chat quietly with others standing nearby. Parents keep their little kids from running into the flag field.

People and cameras are everywhere.

Flags are set between 12 and 18 inches apart, on no discernible grid.

One flag for each fallen military service person from Massachusetts.

A few signs printed on FomeCor and staked into the ground explained the memorial installation.



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Brian Rose’s website, the subject of yesterday’s post, also features his photos of the Berlin Wall and its environs before, during, and after its fall. He writes about the experience of place in Berlin, and for anyone whose knowledge of the Wall is limited (mine was derived mainly from watching Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close — wonderful movies, in which the Wall is a character, but not the main character in them), Mr. Rose’s chronicle, called The Lost Border; Photographs of The Iron Curtain is well worth exploring. Don’t miss it, in fact — it’s an affecting series that depicts and describes how the Wall and the zone around it informed, and in ways continues to inform — the national consciousness of the once-divided and now unified Germany.

Photo by Svenwerk on Flickr

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A friend recently sent me a link to the website of Brian Rose, a New York photographer. Mr. Rose’s work is worth a look (or two or three); his photo series called New York Primeval chronicles his exploration of ‘wild’ parts of NYC. Knowing that Manhattan, at least, has been invaded with all sorts of extremely competitive plant genera (to see examples, take a look at Leslie Sauer’s The Once and Future Forest, which among other things describes the restoration of some of Central Park’s woodlands), it’s absorbing to study the Rose photos and try to figure out what plants make up today’s wildness in them.

This series, with its horizontally scrolling format, also affords a gratifying graphic experience: by grabbing and dragging the scroll bar beneath the photos in each of the three sections (‘One’, ‘Two’, and ‘Three’) it’s possible to scan through all the photos in that section, and to recognize the horizon line as a datum for the whole collection. I can think immediately of two other artists — Saul Steinberg (see this link) and Andy Goldsworthy — who have used a single line to organize a series of disparate items. Steinberg drew his lines, Goldsworthy builds his with stone, stems, shadows, flowers, ice, wood, or leaves. It’s a pleasure to see the line used here to link all photos.

Pebble spiral done in tribute to Andy Goldsworthy; shadow makes the line. Photo by Escher on Flickr.


Andy Goldsworthy's The Wall That Went For A Walk at Storm King in upstate New York. Wall as datum, organizing, defining, and questioning the edge between woodland and meadow and land and pond. Photo by Dr. Curry on Flickr.

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We’ve all seen photos of grand mixed and perennials borders on old country estates (Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, Beatrix Farrand),

Sissinghurst White Gdn

Vita Sackville-West, Sissinghurst White Garden. Photo by bestfor/Richard on Flickr.


and of sweeps of perennials, grasses and shrubs by the contemporary designer Piet Oudolf and landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.
Generous expanses of grasses and perennials at Chicago's Lurie Garden. Plantings by Piet Oudolf; photo by queenjill on Flickr.
They’re dramatic and luxurious-looking, and it’s easy to envision being right there, surrounded on all sides by space and uninterrupted swathes of glorious texture and color.
Sometimes the only space available is quite a bit smaller and more constrained. This past weekend I was walking down a suburban Boston street and found this planting, in which a narrow bed — bounded by fence on one side, driveway on the other — hosts a garden that shows off in every season.
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This plant bed can't be any more than three feet wide, but there is a lot going on in it.


In this climate, plantings that flank a driveway have to be tough. Snow gets shoveled and plowed on top of them, and sometimes it’s best to stick to herbaceous perennials that will die back to the ground and be unharmed by wayward plows.
This garden has a fairly simple palette — Hydrangea, ‘The Fairy’ Roses, Korean Chrysanthemums, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and a carefully pruned collection of crabapples — that works well here. Even if the hydrangeas and roses get clobbered by the plow they’re likely to recover; the sedums and chrysanthemums can be cut back to the ground, and the crabapples are trained to hug the fence, out of the way, making what could have been a winter drawback into a fine asset.
It’s refreshing to see this kind of resourcefulness in what often seem only to be incidental places on a property. This strip isn’t a place in which you’d want to (or could) lounge away the hours, but it shows how varied and texturally exciting even a small space can be.

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