Posts Tagged ‘engage with landscape’

The other day I was on Beacon Hill and spotted this mostly dead hemlock tree, completely swathed in Boston ivy:

Though this hemlock tree on Beacon Hill is dead, its stripped-down structure maintains usefulness, as Boston ivy covers it entirely with foliage.

Perhaps the owners were simply neglecting their courtyard garden, but I like to think that they saw the mature tree’s size as an asset to the place, and decided to use the deadwood as an armature for another plant, and to use the resulting ‘hybrid’ as a garden element.

I have seen this strategy used with other trees; an ancient, mostly dead apple through which a vigorous rose climbs and blooms, tiny dead crabapple that hosts a clematis vine, and a couple of thriving Norway maples through whose canopies wind equally thriving wisteria vines.

We see bittersweet and poison ivy taking advantage of the height and sun exposure offered by trees; why not use that principle and foster the growth of ornamental vines over dead trees, or, as in the case of the Norway maples and wisteria, let one aggressive species provide a platform for another aggressive species?

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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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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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I just wrote a post on Herbie, the champion American elm in Yarmouth, Maine, that was taken down last week after a life that spanned more than two centuries. The post, at Taking Place In The Trees, included several photos I took the day before Herbie came down. In his prime, Herbie was the largest American elm in New England — 110′ high, 120′ wide at the crown’s widest point, and 20′ in girth. When I saw him, more than half of his largest limbs had been removed, but the tree’s presence and majesty were unmistakable.

Herbie the American Elm, in his prime.

A field count of the rings on Herbie’s trunk indicated that the tree was at least 212 years old. This was a tree that largely defined the genius loci of its neighborhood. It filled the corner of a private yard and marked the intersection of two streets; it cast high shade over a wide and fortunate area.

It’s not difficult to extrapolate lessons from Herbie’s presence and longevity, lessons that might inform how landscape architects design and advocate for planting spaces. I can think of these lessons:

1. Plant trees! They provide cover, coolness, oxygen, and identifiability to a place.

2. Plan for the long term — aim to foster a tree’s growth for decades, not just for years.

3. Design for root space — bare-root transplanting of large trees shows us how trees benefit from space in which to grow, and how far from the trunk their roots need to grow to add crown growth. Push those developers, homeowners, and city agency officials to allocate more space for subgrade growth; it’ll pay off in happier, healthier trees, and broader shade canopies.

4. Remember how big trees want to get. Putting a large-scaled canopy tree in a slot of soil better used for skinny grasses won’t give you the tree you’re looking for; it’ll give you a tree that whimpers for a few years, declines, and then dies. Scale your trees to your site (aiming for as big a planting site as possible — see 2. and 3.)

5. Shoot for size. People love the giant, and are more apt to preserve and take what they love. A large tree builds its own constituency, which helps when you’re trying to keep nature from being overtaken by pavement. If you want people to engage with nature, give them something with which it’s easy to engage. (Keeping in mind 4.)

That’s for starters. What other lessons do you see in Herbie’s story?

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The Massachusetts Arborists Association has a new volunteer initiative starting in 2010. They aim to build on the traditional Arbor Day celebration by instituting a statewide volunteer service day on that day, which falls on April 30, 2010.

To get the ball rolling, the MAA is inviting anyone to identify potential tree care projects in their own communities, and then to post those project ideas on the Arbor Day link at www.MassArbor.org. They hope to get ideas from all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns by January 15. From that list, MAA members and member companies will choose projects for their own Arbor Day of Service volunteer effort.

This is a great way for landscape architects to elect projects and for professional arborists to make a contribution, both for the civic good, and for cities and towns to reap the benefits of a concerted professional effort. Safety pruning, tree planting, hazard tree removal, ornamental pruning — a community you drive through daily may have the project that’s perfect for your company to tackle on Arbor Day. To submit a project for Arbor Day of Service consideration by the MAA arborists, visit www.MassArbor.org by January 15, and click on Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is a great way to get all generations involved in plant care.

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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.

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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One consideration in how we define slope — the audience to whom we’re communicating. When I’m discussing the pitch of a walk with another landscape architect, I’ll talk about it as a percentage (“From the wall to the driveway the walk slopes at 3 percent, with a consistent 2 percent wash”) When a contractor looks at a slope, he tends to see it as a ratio (“So I’ll set the stones to slope a quarter of an inch per foot, then”). This switching back and forth was confusing to me at first, but then I realized that the language (slope) is the same; it’s simply a matter of mastering the various dialects (ratios, percentages, decimals).

(Several years ago I had a meeting with one of the chief engineers on Boston’s Big Dig, about some grades one of the downtown tunnels. We chatted for a while, and he batted around elevation numbers with amazing facility. For me, physical slope is easier to visualize than numbers, and I still work at making the conversion from physical form to numeric form. I asked the engineer how he understood slope — as form, or as numbers — and he told me that the numbers were an easier way for him to conceive of it. He could read the slope simply from seeing the sequence of station numbers. It was remarkable to me that he could envision the nature of the grade this way, and showed yet another way of conceiving of slope.)

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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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The Hamamelis planting in the last post raises the issue of mass plantings, which have long been a favorite of many landscape architects.

I remember a mass rose planting, no longer extant, in a very public location in downtown Boston. One time I went out to do a little guerilla pruning in it with an administrator from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. (Hmm. Perhaps it doesn’t really count as guerrilla pruning if the person you’re working with has the influence to make sure the cuttings are taken away by staff, much as she wanted it to seem as if she was doing the pruning sub rosa, so to speak.)

Rose thorns.  Ow ow ow.

Rose thorns. Ow ow ow.

While were able to clean up the specimen roses in the planting, the mass-planted rugosa roses were another question — it was impossible for us to navigate through the thorns to remove the several years’ worth of dead wood that had accumulated. It was quite clear why they so drastically needed maintenance, and equally clear why they’d had so little. I believe that this planting has been torn out.

At Naumkeag in Stockbridge, MA, a similar deal. Fletcher Steele designed a beautiful mass Pyracantha planting on a bank below the drive, but neither I, an intern at the time, nor anyone on The Trustees of Reservations permanent staff had the asbestos legs, hands, or arms that would have made a good pruning job possible. (The common name for Pyracantha is Firethorn.)

Pyracantha has a stunning berry display, as well as some of the wickedest thorns you'll ever come across, mostly hidden under the berries and leaves (one is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photo).

Pyracantha has a stunning berry display, as well as some of the wickedest thorns you'll ever come across, mostly hidden under the berries and leaves (one is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photo).

The best we could do was to snip down the most obvious vertical and horizontal shoots to keep the whole thing in bounds, and just let the plants fend for themselves. I’m not sure that planting is still there, either, though in the name of historic authenticity, it may be.

However and wherever a mass planting is used, it makes sense to understand not just the look of the plant species used, but also its habit, its limitations (thorns, for instance, or a tendency toward brittleness or over-enthusiastic suckering), and the opportunities you may be closing off in using it — not least of which might be the willingness of maintenance staff to take care of it, if it’s a difficult species.

Masses can help shape space, which is what we aim to do. At the same time (perhaps I’ve said this before), it’s not a bad idea for landscape architects to get out there themselves and work with as many plants as possible in person — to do some planting, do some pruning, do some moving — to understand how these vital design elements really work in the landscape, and what it takes to keep a design looking the way you want it to look.

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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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