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Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

What do we see if we look at one place through a particular lens? Last week I was out at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, MA, and found myself appreciating the wide vocabulary of ways that Fletcher Steele used to get garden guests up and down the slopes. Here’s a partial list:

Brick and brownstone steps from the upper lawn terrace down onto the walkway above the peony terraces.  It's unlikely you'd see anything this idiosyncratic (narrow, curves with almost no tangents on the treads, funky riser/tread ratios) built today.

Brick and brownstone steps from the upper lawn terrace down onto the walkway above the peony terraces. It's unlikely you'd see anything this idiosyncratic (narrow, curves with almost no tangents on the treads, funky riser/tread ratios) built today.


Two steps down a grass ramp to a grass landing.  How do you navigate your wheelbarrow up and down the steps?  Use the wheelbarrow ramp, of course.

Two steps down a grass ramp to a grass landing. How do you navigate your wheelbarrow up and down the steps? Use the wheelbarrow ramp, of course.


Grass steps with stone risers welcome visitors coming in from the Lych Gate on the right  This stairway is really a series of little terraces that tame the slopes converging in that corner of the South Lawn.

Grass steps with stone risers welcome visitors coming in from the Lych Gate on the right This stairway is really a series of little terraces that tame the slopes converging in that corner of the South Lawn.


It's a stair, a ramp, a runnel, a runway. It shows you where to go, and incidentally holds level the top edge of the South Lawn and Oak Terrace.

It's a stair, a ramp, a runnel, a runway. It shows you where to go, and incidentally holds level the top edge of the South Lawn and Oak Terrace.


And, of course, can't leave out the Blue Steps, Mabel Choate's path down to her cutting garden.  Riser/tread ratios change with each step; high risers and short treads at the top of each run graduate into low risers and long treads by the bottom, so that each white stair rail above the step noses scribes a parabola in the air, rather than a straight line.

And, of course, can't leave out the Blue Steps, Mabel Choate's path down to her cutting garden. Riser/tread ratios change with each step; high risers and short treads at the top of each run graduate into low risers and long treads by the bottom, so that each white stair rail above the step noses scribes a parabola in the air, rather than a straight line.

Naumkeag, the Choate family estate now owned by The Trustees of Reservations

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Harvard University has recently been building on Memorial Drive, along the Charles River. The site that had held a garden center (most recently, Mahoney’s, and before that, the Grower’s Market, where I sold Christmas trees one year) is now becoming a park and a graduate student dormitory. The dorm is done; the park (originally slated for a Renzo Piano museum building) is still apparently in construction.

The other day I was strolling past the parcels, and had to stop to look at a planting buffering one of the dorm’s corners. It was so rich-looking, so dense and lush, and yet it stood only a couple feet high. Fantastic! What was it?

Three feet high, with thick foliage making a bumper at the building's base.

Three feet high, with thick foliage making a bumper at the building's base.

I leaned in to take a look, and discovered that it was a mass of Fothergilla, a shrub related to Hamamelis, or Witch Hazel. (I thought at first that it was Hamamelis, wrote and posted an entire blog post on it, and then realized a few days later that I’d been mistaken. So consider this post a corrective to the other one, which I’ve now taken down.)

I figure that these are Fothergilla gardenii, or Dwarf Fothergilla, given their spacing and configuration. The plants in this mass are set on 18-24″ centers. That’s quite close even for a dwarf plant that’s recorded to grow to between three and six feet in height.

Spacing between 18 and 24 inches on center.

Spacing between 18 and 24 inches on center.

We have discussed plant spacing issues earlier in this blog, and have talked about the differing (and equally viable) strategies of planting close versus planting to make each plant a specimen. The jostling that plants do with each other when planted close can make for an interesting and complex arrangement.

Fothergilla gardenii is a suckering shrub that tends to form thickets; perhaps the landscape architect was aiming for a full-thicket look right from the start. It’ll be interesting to see how the planting grows, and what forms the plants can negotiate in this circumstance (will they be able to sucker where light appears not to reach the ground inside the mass?).

Michael Van Valkenburgh, landscape architect of record for this site, is known for using close plantings in his projects, and he’s generally pretty horticulturally astute. This planting represents an interesting experiment, one worth revisiting over time to see how it progresses.

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Overlay

Craig Verzone’s comment on the Tilted Planes post didn’t make sense to me until he sent me an email asking if I’d seen this project on Cornell’s Arts Quad. And then it did. Click on the project link above and take a look at a wonderful photo.

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St. Paul's Church, Cambridge, MA

St. Paul's Church, Cambridge, MA

It’s not just Gothic architecture that makes a good foil for honey locusts. I’ve always been fond of the Romanesque St. Paul’s parking court designed by Burck Ryan Associates. When it empties of cars, it’s a pleasantly proportioned and detailed plaza space punctuated with honey locust trunks; when the cars arrive, it becomes a shady parking lot.

If only those traffic cones were set square and plumb, and made of granite…Regardless, the place operates pretty much the way it was intended to, and in the most Cambridge-compact way possible.

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To digress just a little from the line discussion: That Parc Citroen photo puts me in mind of the Cornell Arts Quad, around which are ranged some of Cornell’s most historically and academically significant buildings. The Arts Quad is huge (obviously not what it has in common with the Parc Citroen lawns shown), and there is a several-foot (eleven feet?) grade change from east to west, along its short axis.

Cornell Arts Quad looking north to south.  The tipped plane displays the lawn more prominently to those walking along the west side and looking east, as an open box of candy looks more appetizing when held at a slant to display its contents better.

Cornell Arts Quad looking north to south. The tipped plane displays the lawn more prominently to those walking along the west side and looking east, as an open box of candy looks more appetizing when held at a slant to display its contents better.

When I was a student there in the late 80s, and in the throes of learning how to analyze sites, I realized that the Arts Quad’s tilted plane created a perceptual wall for anyone walking along the west side, looking east and uphill. Standing at the bottom of the lawn and facing east, your eye perceives more lawn even than is actually there, because the plane is slanted rather than flat. In Parc Citroen, the tipped planes of lawn feel similarly more available to the eye from the walks along their low edge.

Using this kind of quiet grade manipulation can let you create a sense of greater green space than may really be available. Horizontal planes give you two axes — horizontal and vertical — to read, while tilted planes give you a more complex experience. I think that controlling the ground plane’s edge makes the experience more readable, as in this Halvorson-designed tilted plane at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank,

Tilted plane of lawn at Boston's Federal Reserve, with South Station behind.  This cylinder of stone and grass is actually part of the Fed's security system -- no one can drive a truck through it to hit the bank's glass walls, just to the left.  But you don't read it as a giant bollard; you read it as a big pad of lawn, elevated and held out to your eyes on a stone tray.

Tilted plane of lawn at Boston's Federal Reserve, with South Station behind. This cylinder of stone and grass is actually part of the Fed's security system -- no one can drive a truck through it to hit the bank's glass walls, just to the left. But you don't read it as a giant bollard; you read it as a big pad of lawn, elevated and held out to your eyes on a stone tray.

or at Park Citroen. Where the plane continues to buildings (which accommodate the grade change), as in the Arts Quad, the effect is more subtle.
Now that's a controlled edge.

Now that's a controlled edge.

Manipulating the ground plane with a wash is a fine way to tweak how a space is perceived, and to give it more quiet complexity.

Cornell Arts Quad photo taken by Anjum and supplied courtesy of Flickr.

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I tagged trees for a project last week at Millican’s Nursery and swung through Concord, NH, on the way back. A through-building alley off Pleasant Street (the main drag) led to Bicentennial Square, an eclectic in-block park built in the 70s and updated in the 90s. It has quite a mix of elements: brick waterwall, the back of which is a low stage; granite boulders carved into sculptures and seats; a stone tortoise; a tiny grove of trees, cobble, brick, and Goshen stone paving, and even a small coffee shop’s outdoor seating. Shade and the sound of rushing water made it an oasis in the hot town.

Several little lanes run into the Square, and you get a sense of the ad hoc historic accretion of buildings and byways from which it developed. I spotted these lamp posts along one of the lanes, and wondered who put them in and why so close to the building?

I understand the bollards protecting each lamp post, and wonder what the post footings look like.

I understand the bollards protecting each lamp post, and wonder what the post footings look like.


I don't think that anyone makes globes with flat heads for this purpose, so each of these globes is tipped forward just a teensy bit.  One more inch away from the building and they'd be perched level on the posts -- but doing it this way makes it look as if they're paying attention to the conversations of passersby.

I don't think that anyone makes globes with flat heads for this purpose, so each of these globes is tipped forward just a teensy bit. One more inch away from the building and they'd be perched level on the posts -- but doing it this way makes it look as if they're paying attention to the conversations of passersby.

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Shortly after posting Monuments and Trees (June 5), I had a note from Art Presson, the Superintendent of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. He wrote:

“We too have noticed how rarely grave stones get wacked by falling trees. Mysterious intervention is a possible explanation. We had a 125 year old oak come down on top of a very important bronze angel sculpture here that went on both sides of her, but the monument wasn’t even scratched.”

Taking care of the trees in a large, old garden cemetery is a particularly demanding job. The Green-Wood Cemetery covers 478 acres (for comparison,Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge has 175 acres; Swan Point covers roughly 200 acres). In a way, it is an arboretum of mature and maturing trees that shares the space with headstones and monuments.

A staff of arborists works with the woody vegetation: assessing the health of thousands of trees, tending the cemetery ‘forest’, removing hazard limbs and whole trees when necessary — these responsibilities take focus, skill, and a refined knowledge of woody plants, as well as a sensitivity to the nature of the cemetery’s function. The Green-Wood arborists take pride in their skill. According to Art, “When we take trees down my arborists are really competitive. They call their shots like they are shooting pool. They are remarkably accurate, which is a good thing with as tight as it gets with monuments here.”

How to interpret the tendency of falling trees and limbs to miss grave markers? I’m not sure. And I can’t speak for the arborists responsible for these garden cemeteries, though clearly, their professional skills and pride mesh to make tangible their respect for the nature of these places.

Have you any stories about the management of cemetery woody plants? Send them along, and let’s see what common threads may emerge.

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I once heard a talk by an arborist from Mount Auburn Cemetery, and remember most clearly his describing how, when a tree or part of a tree falls in the cemetery, for some reason there’s usually little to no damage to the headstones and monuments. Time after time he’d seen this phenomenon, and while he could describe it, he couldn’t explain it.

The other day I was in Providence’s beautiful Swan Point Cemetery with my friend Jane. Rounding a bend, we came upon the sight of a large and very recently fallen (the leaves were just barely beginning to wilt) oak limb lying on the ground. We stopped to investigate, and found that while the limb had fallen directly in line with some headstones, it had only nudged the corner of one out of skew, and the others were intact. The limb had probably a four-foot high wound at its attachment point; from there, it arched out in front of a couple of stones before its elbow (an old pruning point, perhaps) had hit the ground. Beyond and above the elbow was a huge mass of branches, twigs, and foliage. The elbow had made a deep crater, about twenty inches wide– that’s how it pushed the stone out of alignment. We were astounded that no stones or the nearby tree were broken or harmed.

The trunk, the break, the biomass

The trunk, the break, the biomass

Falling in the slot

Falling in the slot

Half the canopy, now on the ground

Half the canopy, now on the ground

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In my first Influences post, I neglected to mention some things that made the Providence house I grew up in such a great design curriculum.  I carry with me, and use in my work, several key principles.

1. The house’s front entry sequence was an exercise in welcome: wide bluestone steps, wide gravel walk, wide brick-tiled portico signalled generosity and invited you in.  Lesson:  Wide walkways lend themselves to sociability; they let people easily walk abreast, they announce that there’s plenty of room for all, and, when in scale with building mass, they signify balance and integration between building and landscape.

2. Fieldstone walls on either side of the walk and steps set the house on a wide plinth, anchoring it firmly to the landscape.  Lesson: Give a building a platform on which to stand and see how substantial and solid it feels. Make sure that the platform is proportional to the building in breadth and depth

3. The extra-wide front door, with its big, smoothly worn brass thumb latch lockset, was like a genial host, letting you know as it swung open how pleased it was to usher you in.  (The door even spoke:  some piece of hardware in its panels or in a hinge made a satisfyingly deep ‘clack’ when the door swung open or closed.) Lesson: A broad entry signals glad welcome and a cheerful openness.

4. The characteristics of hardware we touch influence how we perceive a place. The Providence house’s thumb latch embodied a long history of guests arriving; the ‘clack’ as the door swung on its hinges made its personality audible. When we enter or leave a building we make contact with our own shelter, and that is why we feel secure and well-housed if the elements we touch — lockset, door frame — have heft and solidity.   Lesson: Those elements that people come in regular contact with telegraph messages we may not consciously register, but that we certainly understand. Materials and the forms they take make a difference in the built environment.

5. A smooth transition between indoors and out expands our home’s domain; we feel at ease when we can walk on easy slopes or comfortably proportioned steps. Landscape steps have shallower risers and deeper treads than steps used on building interiors. Lesson: Architectural steps in the landscape feel uncomfortably steep; use the appropriate riser/tread proportions (2R + T = 24-26″) for the most comfortable passage up and down through a stair corridor.

6. Interior stairs use a different formula, but some of the same principles used in the landscape still apply. I once spent a few days in a house with stairs that the contractor built carelessly; one of the treads tipped slightly downhill while the others were level.  After skiing down them once on the bottoms of my feet I wasn’t quite able to trust their safety again.  While a slope, or ‘wash’ is typical on landscape steps, so that they drain water properly, you don’t want a wash on any inside steps.  For both indoor and outdoor stairs, it is important that each riser and each tread is sized and sloped exactly like every other riser and tread in the run.  Our bodies are conditioned to expect consistency on stairs.

I absorbed several other Christopher Alexanderish principles from the house my grandfather designed: set aside nooks (windowseats, step-down bathrooms) — for privacy and a sense of snugness; make comfortable transition spaces (paved porticos, porches) at the building face to give shelter in the outdoor air, build niches into walls for shelving or drawers, allow natural light in wherever possible.

Many of these principles are usable outside as well as in; I try to incorporate them when I can in my design work. Mainly, I think my grandfather tried to envision how people would use his spaces, and then designed those spaces with well-proportioned elements that allowed the greatest comfort and ease. I don’t know that he overscaled any architecture; he wanted humans to feel human in his buildings.

Similarly, I hope, my aim is to design well-proportioned places where humans can interact comfortably with the outdoors, and can feel at home in the natural world.

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This past winter I developed plans for a couple of areas on the property belonging to my longest-standing and wonderfully enthusiastic clients, L. and A. on the North Shore. They have a lovely place on a rocky cliff overlooking Nahant Bay, and they enjoy making it even more beautiful and comfortable each year. They are both artists, and both appreciate art in two and three dimensions: L. gardens and sculpts; A. is a talented photographer.

L. and A. had asked me to figure out how to screen out views of two neighbors from their house, and to develop plans in the two areas that would work with the extensive mature plantings already in place. I drew up plans that would bring a few new plants in, as well as reuse a number of plants already onsite. L. and A. liked the ideas, and we scheduled a date to move ahead.

Leahy Landscaping of Lynn carried out the work of digging and moving the plants; the crew, led by Anibal Marita, was excellent. At my request, and under the supervision of Marc Bolcome, Leahy’s arborist, they used a compressed-air tool on the project; we were working in a heavily planted area and I wanted to disturb or lose as few roots as possible.

The plan: Remove a 32′ long, 7′ high holly (Ilex ‘China Girl’) hedge from the edge of a residential drive court, reusing some of the plants for screening at the front property line, and install a collection of transplanted shrubs, a new Japanese maple, and some low Green Wave yews where the holly had been. Transplant most of the hollies to provide a 22′ long screen at the front property line, and use the rest at another location onsite.

Proposed methods: Hand-dig the holly. To avoid further stressing the three aging red pines under which some of the hollies were to be transplanted, excavate the transplant site with an air tool. Hand-dig the rest of the plants.

Actual methods: Hand-dug the holly, then blew out the root balls to loosen the nursery soil at their cores. Discovered that the wire baskets had not been removed at the original planting, removed those, and loosened the remaining soil, leaving roots intact. Removing the soil allowed the plants to fit in shallower-depth holes, which was helpful on a site with a lot of existing tree roots and drainage pipes. Removing the wire baskets will allow the hollies’ roots (and crowns) to grow unimpeded in their new locations.

Excavated under the pines with the air tool, and removed existing shrubs there also with the air tool, leaving all roots, including masses of feeder roots, intact.

Unwrapped the Japanese maple root ball, removed the wire basket and burlap, and removed/loosened the soil with the air tool.

Removing a girdling root from the Japanese maple.  Note the root-ball soil line, four inches up the tree's trunk from the base of the trunk flare.

Removing a girdling root from the Japanese maple. Note the root-ball soil line, four inches up the tree's trunk from the base of the trunk flare.

With a mini-claw mattock, pulled soil away from the trunk flare; soil had been piled 4″ up the trunk, concealing a girdling root and the flare itself. Marc Bolcome chiseled away the girdling root and made sure the flare was correctly exposed before laborers backfilled and watered in the root ball.

Removed the red clay soil encasing the nursery root ball of a rhododendron that had been planted onsite several years ago, but that had struggled for those years.

Breaking up the clay soil in the root ball of a rhododendron that had been planted under these pines a few years back.

With the concrete-like soil mostly gone, the plant should finally have a chance to spend its energy growing, rather than trying to break through that clay cast.

Cleared ground cover by hand in front of a row of mature Taxus trees,

Holes for holly transplants were dug by air tool, to minimize disturbance to the roots of the treeform yew hedge behind the plywood.

Holes for holly transplants were dug by air tool, to minimize disturbance to the roots of the treeform yew hedge behind the plywood.

then excavated transplant holes with the air tool — again, to keep from disturbing roots of the existing yews — and transplanted more of the holly here.

The original plan, which also included the planting of six large clump bamboos and the moving of several broadleaf evergreen and herbaceous plants, was scheduled to take perhaps two days.

The hollies changed everything, though. They were enormous: planted eight or nine years ago at 3′ on center, they opened out to seven to eight feet in width.

One holly, trussed for moving.  Ten of these plants had been placed on 3' centers to make a hedge; when freed from the hedge, each one opened out to cover at least seven feet in breadth.

One holly, trussed for moving. Ten of these plants had been placed on 3' centers to make a hedge; when freed from the hedge, each one opened out to cover at least seven feet in breadth.

There was no way we could fit them all where we had intended; they would have taken up more than seventy feet if we had placed them side by side!

Hand-dug holly that has been bare-rooted being prepared for transplant.  Notice the clumps of hard, heavy soil from its original root ball lying around it; the wire basket is lying off to the left.

Hand-dug holly that has been bare-rooted being prepared for transplant. Notice the clumps of hard, heavy soil from its original root ball lying around it; the wire basket is lying off to the left.

The trussed holly, now untied and moved to the planting bed, is at the back right of the photo.  Liberated from the crush of a too-tight hedge planting, it has opened out to cover almost nine feet of fence.

The trussed holly, now untied and moved to the planting bed, is at the back right of the photo. Liberated from the crush of a too-tight hedge planting, it has opened out to cover almost nine feet of fence.

It took a while to figure out where to put them, and then more time preparing those new locations to receive them. We ended up placing them — ten from the hedge, plus a shorter male plant — at various points around the property’s edge, where they do a magnificent job of screening out the neighbors.

We also used the air tool to excavate under some mature and very stressed red pines. Removing the pines wasn’t an option, so to minimize any added stress, we blew out a planting trench between the pine trunks and the fence, exposing but not disturbing the pines’ roots. We roughed up the bamboo roots, taken from their five- and seven-gallon pots, and set them in the trench before backfilling and watering the area.

All told, accomplishing the work took a full three days.

Lessons learned:

1. An compressed-air tool is a great tool for any kind of planting work. We tested its capabilities, and found it invaluable for working under trees, for bare-rooting new plants, for excavating existing shrubs, and for removing that dreadful red clay soil from the 4′ rhododendron. We used it to investigate suspicious root issues — that concrete-like slug encasing the rhody’s root mass, the hollies’ wire baskets, the Japanese maple’s buried root flare and girdling root — and when it wasn’t being used on the transplanting operation, we used it to give a little breathing room to the root flare of a river birch planted on site a few years ago.

On this particular site, which has been intensively gardened for decades, the soil is beautifully dark and rock-free. The air tool had no difficulty blowing it out of planting holes. Even with a rockier soil, an air tool has enough pressure (90 psig in this case) that bare-rooting shrubs takes a relatively short time. A laborer team can generally dig a 4-5′ broadleaf evergreen shrub in minutes. An air tool can do it as quickly or in a few more minutes, depending on soil type — but the amount of root mass saved makes the air tool by far the preferred method, horticulturally.

2. Plywood screens work beautifully to confine the overspray of soil from the spading site. For bare-rooting the already-dug hollies, the landscapers figured out that they could lift each plant into the back of their high-sided truck and spade off the root soil there, which kept the soil contained and the site clean.

3. At a minimum, workers using the air tool or helping with the bare-rooting should wear goggles and a face mask; very fine particles of soil spray everywhere at high pressure, and eyes and lungs should be protected. In rocky or sandy soil, the hazard is greater, and long sleeves and protective visored helmets are a good idea. The compressor is loud, too — ear protection should be used as well.

4. Never plant China Girl hollies that close together. They have a lush and luxuriant round form, and are determined to grow to that form (shrubs will push to grow into their particular habits — with some, you can push back by hedging them, but it makes sense to pick a variety whose natural habit lends itself to hedge form). Ten hollies had been planted at 3\’ o.c. to make a hedge; when removed from hedge configuration, the plants spread to between seven and nine feet in breadth. These plants now make a contribution to the landscape that they couldn’t in hedge form. L. couldn’t remember if the original plan, done by another LA, had called for China Girls or for some other holly, and wondered if the contractor might have substituted China Girls for something else. We’ll never know — but we’ll know what to avoid in future.

5. It made a ton of sense to excavate the bamboo’s planting trench with compressed air; with air, the pines’ roots remained intact and we could spread the bamboo roots out easily within the broader rooting area we had exposed.

Conclusion: The planting techniques were first-rate, the plants looked happy, the place looked great. L. and A. are delighted with the results (I know I’ve succeeded when I’ve pleased their artists’ eyes), and Leahy is moving on to do other air tool projects, knowing how well the technique works in a number of different situations. Now we’ll all be watching to see how everything grows; I’m betting they will all thrive.

Company: Leahy Landscaping of Lynn, MA
Leahy Project Manager: Aisha Lord
Leahy Arborist: Marc Bolcome, MCA
Leahy Foreman: Anibal Marita

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