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Archive for the ‘Working Landscape’ Category

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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p1010402No, that’s not a shot of a revolutionary way of planting in pavement — that’s a photo of one of the enormous China Girl hollies being taken to its new home at the property belonging to L. and A., my longtime clients. This holly is a mature plant; in my Air Spade In Action post (May 16), you can see it set on the ground, opened to its full, voluptuous 9′ width.

You’ll also notice that shrubs flanking the steps and walk here are mostly mature plants. L. and A. have spent years developing their landscape, and it has the flavor of a place owned by art appreciators. The plants have been tended with care, diligence, and skill, and their character reinforces the design intentions evident throughout the gardens.

Landscape architects often heed Frederick Law Olmsted’s dictum, “Plant thick, thin quick” (a motto we learned in Lenny Mirin’s Landscape History class at Cornell — Lenny?), and plant shrubs more densely than the mature size of the plant might dictate. Clients often want to see immediately gratifying plantings, which means a minimal view of the mulch and a maximal view of plants. Which is fine — as long as someone goes back in a few years later and actually does the thinning.

The making of a landscape is not a one-off deal. At the North Shore garden this past week, as we were in the midst of reworking two areas on the property, I had a revelation. My clients have been devoted to their gardens for years, and they enjoy and promote the evolution of their place. Their enthusiasm for their landscape has allowed me to make the refinements that continue to animate it. Thinning out the plantings is one aspect of this work: dismantling the holly hedge gave us ten wonderful plants to use around the property, while allowing us to develop a planting in place of the hedge that uses a combination of new, younger plants and older transplants that have grown into their habits.

Toby and I have discussed in earlier posts the idea of planting densely and allowing the plants themselves to elbow each other both into a coherent ensemble and into a set of individual character actors. This week, I was able to take mature, idiosyncratic plants — in this case, rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurel — and transplant them in an area where each plant’s form would be visible.

This sort of refinement is possible when a landscape has been designed, planted, and growing for years; it is the stage at which the character of plants can truly be showcased. Not every landscape reaches this stage, which requires something of the eye of an editor and a knowledge of horticulture in addition to the skills of a designer. A property may be sold, a client may find other priorities, or may simply feel overwhelmed by the “planted thick” place. Rather than thin it out or make new spaces in the landscape, that client or new owner may ask for an entirely new planting.

Refining a landscape by reimagining its plantings, though, and in some cases developing new spaces to fit a changed use of the property, can breathe new and vigorous life into a place. Mature plants, well-situated, give a well-structured place the look of inevitability that is difficult to achieve with the callow youth of new nursery-grown stock.

Some of my favorite work has involved shaping spaces with mature plants reused from the same site. I tend to see character in plants, and really like gussying them up to highlight that character. Putting together a collection of plants in this way is like developing the singing skills of a choir; individually, each singer’s voice is distinctive, and together, all the voices blend to create shifting and satisfying harmonies.

This kind of design starts with a plan, but requires an agile mind onsite, as the plants move from one situation to another, and relationships among their forms change. It’s challenging to see a plant from all sides, envision how it will work in harmony with the others to join it, be sure it works horticulturally, and assemble the collection to best effect. There is no way to plan precisely that kind of work in advance; the joy of it comes when shifts, tweaks, and adjustments bring about a result that fits just right, and that pleases.

This week, I got to spend three days of orchestrating this kind of work, and every minute was a pleasure.

Here are before and after photos of one planting area we changed:

Drive court edge, planted with a 7' tall hedge of China Girl hollies.  Bloodgood Japanese Maple on the left; neighbor's red pine at center, neighbor's Norway maple on right.  Yews on the left are Taxus 'Green Wave'.

Drive court edge, planted with a 7' tall hedge of China Girl hollies. Bloodgood Japanese Maple on the left; neighbor's red pine at center, neighbor's Norway maple on right. Yews on the left are Taxus 'Green Wave'.


Same area, newly revised. The existing trees remain, and we've added another little Bloodgood. The great wall of China Girls is gone, we moved two of them back in front of the Norway maple to grow more loosely together as a backdrop to two mature azaleas. Older rhododendrons and mountain laurel show their forms to the left of the new Bloodgood. New Green Wave yews will grow together and in a few years will make a continuous loose line with the existing Green Waves.

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If you have read the last post but are new to this blog you might take a look at this link; it’s my Lawn and Landscape article on the bare-root transplant workshop conducted last summer by arborists Mike Furgal (who developed the method of transplanting specimen trees bare-root, using an air spade) and Matt Foti (who hosted the workshop and has gone on to use the bare-root air spade technique on every transplant project he can).

The article describes the workshop’s successful transplanting of several trees on a hot August day, and lays out some of the nuts and bolts of how the work is done. Mike and Matt’s workshop charged up every one of the 100 or so attendees. As a result, many Massachusetts arborists and contractors are turning to the air spade to save and transplant specimen trees. I hope that the previous post (“Air Spade in Action”) helps to expand our understanding of some additional uses of this tool.

(And no, I am in no way affiliated with the company that manufactures either the Air Spade or the Air Knife, or any other kind of tool.)

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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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