Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Darrel Morrison's Addition to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Native Flora Garden

Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. Sources from top left: s p1te; DS.JPG; wirednewyork & ennead architects; Poulin + Morris; Prospect Park Alliance.

Conceptual Art in Borough of Trees

Article by Harry Wade

The 2013 addition to Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Native Flora Garden can be found just down a stunningly busy “parkway” from the borough’s symbolic hub, Grand Army Plaza.  

Originally designed in 1867 by Olmsted and Vaux as the pivot point where their pastoral Prospect Park would meet a densely urban neighborhood, the Plaza has undergone dozens of monumental additions, all the while also serving as the biggest and busiest traffic circle in the entire City.  

Major institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, Public Library and Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) were added to the Plaza in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anchoring its role as a crossroads of culture and everyday life. Today, the Plaza embodies Brooklyn vitality at its bluntest – high profile design for landscape, urban spaces and architecture, all thrown together with fine arts and diverse neighborhood life. It is the counterpoint to Manhattan, where the boundaries separating these disciplines are usually more strictly enforced.
The new BBG Visitor Center, literally reflecting the Garden’s commitment to reach out to the surrounding community. Structure designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, 2013.  Source: Albert Večerka/Esto

The neighborhood is an apt setting for Darrel Morrison’s new garden, the first addition to the century-old Native Flora Garden and part of the BBG’s Campaign for the Next Century, a comprehensive expansion program to bring more visitors in and to reach even further out into Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods. Set immediately alongside the original century-old Native Flora Garden, the addition reflects a pride and protectiveness of the Borough’s natural history, and a view forward into the way art, design and life will continue to merge so casually in Brooklyn.


The nicest nativist you'll ever meet

The BBG addition is also an auteur work, to borrow a phrase from Cahiers du cinéma, the 1950’s Paris-based journal in which film critic André Bazin first proposed the idea that great films, like great paintings, must be understood within the context of their creator’s style, traceable as it develops from film to film – thus qualities like Hitchcockian, Truffaut-istic and John Ford-inspired. 

Darrel Morrison is a man whose personal kindness and unassuming manner is at odds with this kind of top billing. Hardly a Devo, Darrel happily adapts to the goals of his clients, even when it means working double-time to capture the essence of multiple plant communities in a very limited space and making it all look natural.   He agreeably rationalizes the presence of a giant English Oak (Quercus robur) in an otherwise strictly native garden, crediting its longevity and the fact that it looks a lot like the native Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa). He’s even willing to look the other way when a pretty “nativar” pops up in a garden or a conversation.

Monday, March 31, 2014

April is the Cruelest Month

"Primavera" Eugenio Gignous 

"April is the cruelest month . . . "

writes the poet. That line has confused me for years. Is it cruel? April is the springiest month, when elementary school teachers paste tulips and yellow galoshes to bulletin boards, and little old ladies dress up for church looking like pastel Easter eggs.

But the gardener understands the cruelty of April. The derivation of the word April can be traced as far back as Varro, where the etymology, omnia aperit, literally "it opens everything" may be a reference to the opening of flowers and trees. I have been thinking about openings lately as I contemplate the seeds growing in every window sill. Annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs splay across every surface of my house. Today I ate my cereal with a tray of zinnias and three naranjillas. For the last few weeks I have been a witness to the openings of seeds. Birth is an act of violence. These dry brown seeds burst into life, ripping off their skins, splitting cotyledons, thrusting root into ground and stem to sky. Sometimes I lean in, expecting to hear the cries and wails of these infants. We enter this world in an act of violence, as if to test our mettle and prove our worthiness to cross the threshold.


April is the most lavish month . . .

"Frühling in Worpswede" Hans am Ende, 1900
March left us with mulch and daffodils. April starts with mostly bare ground and the few cherished heralds of spring, but ends cloaked in a gaudy quilt of greens. Chartreuse, viridian, lime, olive, jade, and celadon foam and froth across the ground. The poverty of March yields the extravagance of April.

Even the old, dying maple next to the church parsonage has engaged in a fit of fecundity. The tree blasts an armada of twirling, papery helicopters into the parsonage garden. A mini forest of maples has erupted in the garden, making it difficult for me to tell my annual seedlings from the young trees. They say plants approaching death often go to flower, a last effort at immortality. I look to the knobby old tree and then to his sea of babies. I'm not sure I have the heart to weed them.


April is the maddest month . . .

February stirred in me a restlessness to get outside and start digging in the dirt; by April, I am consumed with a howling lunacy. For weeks, the only planterly life I've seen are the seedlings in my window sill. Now April spews life in every form, across every surface. The eye has no place to rest. I move around the garden like an ant, delirious and distraught by the riotous explosion of leaf and limb.

April is the month for madness. We mark the first of April by acting like fools. In France, the "days of April" (journees d'avril) refers to a series of violent insurrections against the government in 1834. In England, they mark St. Mark's Eve (April 24) by sitting on the church porch to watch the ghosts of those who will die this year pass.

This month I am a fool, a rioter, a ghost. I enter into the garden and find not asylum, but bedlam; not harmony, but cacophony. The desperation of winter has blossomed into the desire of spring, and I pass the murderous tulips with a suspicious eye.


Originally published, April 2010

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Muscota Marsh Park: A Lucid View of Troubled Waters

From left, a current day aerial photo of the site for Muscota Marsh Park; a graphic recreation of the site in ancient times; a 2012 designer’s rendering. Sources: Photo and illustration by Markley Boyer, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric W. Sanderson, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2009; designer’s rendering by James Corner Field Operations

This harsh winter seems sure to linger in New York City past the official first day of spring on March 20, and we will likely have a few more weeks to see things in our newest naturalistic City parks and gardens that might go unnoticed in growing season.  First up is this little park by famed designer, James Corner, that sits so unassumingly on the edge of an ancient estuary, yet manages to raise complex 21st century questions.  

In coming weeks, before things get too busy outside, we will also talk with Darrel Morrison about the deep structure of his recent additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, and visit the New York Botanical Garden’s newest big attraction by the team at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates.  Thank you for your interest so far in this off-season experiment.    -- Harry Wade for Grounded Design


Time + Space = Place

Here, a thousand years or more before the first Europeans sped up what is now the Hudson River on their way to India, a small estuary thrived where an easterly tangent of the river met a tidal strait at the northern tip of today’s Manhattan.

The Munsee tribe of the Lenape people lived among these waters. At low tide, they could walk across the mudflat from the mainland to their Manhattan village, Shorakkopoch.  They shared the estuary for work and play – harvesting oysters, clams and crabs; using intricately woven reed weirs to trap striped bass and bluefish as the tide ebbed. Skilled small boaters, the Lenape would paddle almost silently and low in the water, face-to-face with the estuary’s flora and fauna. 

Estuaries like this have always been among the most fertile areas on the planet.  The daily ebb and flow of both sea and fresh water deposits a unique blend of nutrients and diverse species, without high salinity levels. For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil.  The hills also protected the cove from storms, allowing the Lenape to hunt the densely wooded hills of Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus rubra right down to the water, where they fished and farmed in gentle turn.

This setting, with its natural forces in balance with modest cultivation, may seem like an unlikely site for the British landscape architect and urban planner, James Corner, whose highly aesthetic tableaux of seminatural forces at work upon one another have become iconic of ecological urban design.  But here sits Corner’s newest park – also New York City’s newest – on the edge of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, in the shadows of the City’s last original growth trees. 

What is it about this site that has brought the team from James Corner Field Operations 11 miles uptown from The High Line, one of the City’s proudest parks today? What does his eye for urban decay and reclamation see here? 

From left: The overgrown elevated train track platform in lower Manhattan before restoration and reconstruction began on The High Line in 2006; The High Line today. Source: Friends of The High Line

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The New Perennial Movement: Exhausted or Just Getting Good?

Is the New Perennial movement losing its integrity? Or will its expansion reinvigorate it artistically?


This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.

But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun. And Michael should know: he is a veteran writer and designer. His work documenting and experimenting with naturalistic perennial design (his preferred term is “perennial meadows”) is vast and impressive. Here is the core of his critique:

Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting. Michael King

Ouch. This well-written, stinging review left me thinking: is my enthusiasm about contemporary naturalism in all its diversity naïve? Is it all a bunch of imitative knockoffs of a few original practitioners? Or is there something more to it? 

After some rumination, my impression is that Michael is right. The appellation of the term “new” to any of these ideas is not accurate. There is a long history in the 20th century alone of herbaceous planting inspired by nature. Both the New Perennial movement and the American native plant movement owe much its intellectual credibility and artistic expression to earlier generations. Michael’s article was a refreshing, well-reasoned call for a more honest, more pragmatic approach to gardening.

New Horizons

But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Off-Season Visits to New York's Newest Naturalistic Parks and Gardens by Harry Wade

The First in a Four-part Series on Seeing Garden Design In the Light of Winter



Article by Harry Wade

I'm delighted to introduce Harry Wade to Grounded Design. Harry and I started corresponding last fall about naturalistic gardening. For me, it was one of those thrilling exchanges with a keen mind who understood the naturalistic garden trends in terms of their broader artistic and cultural contexts. I invited Harry to write a few posts for this blog, and he graciously accepted. Harry Wade is a part-time student in the New York Botanical Garden’s Certificate programs for Landscape Design and Horticulture and has a small residential garden practice with his husband focusing on agrarian-inspired design in Schoharie County in upstate New York. 

He has a Master’s in Critical Theory from The University of California at Irvine, has directed a number of award-winning documentaries, and is currently a communications consultant for the healthcare industry in New York City, where he lives.  He says “I've worked with a lot of brilliant experts in all kinds of fields, and the best of them always welcome an outsider’s perspective.” Hoping you enjoy this series--Thomas

Hibernation Hermeneutics

There are many things that occupy gardeners and designers in the wintertime, though they rarely include time in gardens considering design.

Instead, as gardeners, we tend to displace this time of year by thinking about other times – reconsiderations of past seasons and plans for what we will do next.  For designers, it too easily becomes a time to dwell in the abstract, pushing through imaginary planning or theoretical agendas, but rarely spending time with gardens themselves.  And while it is a near universal experience to be awe struck by snowfall or stark winter tableaux, these are more emotional reactions to natural forces, not design.  

But there is another side to a garden in winter – a way in which it conspires against us in small ways to undo our warmer weather certainties and linear productivity to insist instead on its own slightly alien autonomy.   In the garden, winter’s effect on perception and thought is gradual, accumulating meaning in layers, like the season itself.   

As best as I can make out, winter changes our awareness of gardens in three phases.  First, like the old design chestnut about black and white photography revealing the deep structure of a garden, winter eliminates many transitory details.   But since it exists in four dimensions, winter clarifies much more than a photo, allowing us to walk among the chiaroscuro lines and curves, feel how wind amplifies negative spaces, how ice activates small textural contrasts, how cold and fog reveal the shifting optics of atmosphere.   Who would not benefit from a greater awareness of these nuanced dynamics?  

A second effect that winter works on awareness is more related to our own physicality than the landscape –

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Piet Oudolf: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall

This year, Grounded Design is celebrating the idea of contemporary naturalistic design, and its great diversity of expressions across the world. It is my contention that naturalistic planting design may be in its finest hour, with numerous new designers whose work represents a contemporary vision of planting in the Anthropocene. Last week, we looked at the work of Adam Woodruff, one the rising stars in American planting design. In the next few weeks, we will hear directly from many of the world's leading designers, hearing their own interpretations of the zeitgeist. As well as a few reviews of some of the newer naturalistic parks and gardens here in the U.S.

Of course, it is hard to pay homage to the idea of naturalistic planting design without giving credit to one of its finest practitioners. I've been accused many times of making this blog too Piet Oudolf-centric, perhaps accurately, but like many in the design and planting world, it is hard to overstate his influence and artistry. Which is why I'm thrilled that Thomas Piper, an award-winning nonfiction film maker that I've been corresponding with, is working on a feature of Piet Oudolf and his gardens. 

The great thing about capturing Oudolf's work on film is that cinematography can create the experience of being present in the gardens, a feat "impossible through any other medium," writes Piper in his proposal. 

Piet Oudolf documentary teaser from Thomas Piper on Vimeo.

What's really thrilling is that the film will capture Piet's process of designing his new work, including a major new garden for a contemporary art center in England, Hauser & Wirth Somerset as well as recent projects in New York, Chicago, Nantucket, Germany, Sweden, and Holland.

It is a moving teaser, as it speaks to the emotional aspect of Piet's work. Really looking forward to the full film.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sabbatical


What happens when America’s most promising planting designer takes time to study the world’s leading designers?

Adam Woodruff is thinking about plants. 

Woodruff, the St. Louis garden designer best known for his traffic-stopping seasonal displays at projects like the Bank of Springfield in Illinois, has spent much of the last three years quietly studying the work of the world’s leading designers.

In that time, Woodruff has crisscrossed North America and Europe to see some of the most spectacular plantings in the world. From the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc to the horizontal meadows of Hermannshof; from the flamboyant gardens of Chanticleer to the understated elegance of Hummelo, Woodruff has filled his passport seeking out groundbreaking planting designs.

Woodruff’s sabbatical was not initially something he set out to do. But Adam’s work changed when he and his partner moved to Massachusetts. “Circumstances in my personal life took us to the East coast and forced a change in my business model,” explained Woodruff in a recent conversation.  “I soon found myself living in Marblehead with less work and more time.  I eventually embraced a more balanced life and took the opportunity to travel.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Year Ahead

What to Expect this Year on Grounded Design
Tokachi Millenium Forest by Dan Pearson Studio; image by Syogo Oizumi/TMF

It is the first of January, and like many of you, I am taking a few moments to think about the year ahead. The past few months were full: a blur of deadlines, new projects, travel, late night writing, a sick child, and somehow in the midst, the holidays happened. Yet in this blur of activity, perhaps even because of it, I am looking ahead with intention and inspiration. I have never been so inspired.

I am inspired by a big idea. It is an idea about a new kind of garden, part designed and part wild, found in every corner our cities and and along every road of our countrysides. It is an idea about planting as an art, perhaps the most important art of this century, expressing both our longing for nature and our loss of it entirely. It is an idea about the potential of designed plantings to be fecund, self-creating communities.

It is not my idea, and it is not entirely a new idea. But for the first time, it is an idea being expressed artfully by some of the world's brightest designers and writers.

This year, Grounded Design will be intentionally more outward focused. We will celebrate the ideas of designers and writers on the edge of this new frontier. There will be a feature article on one of the fastest rising stars in design; there will be an interview with one of the most original thinkers in horticulture; and there will be several exclusive one on ones with internationally renowned plantsmen and plantswomen. And there will be guest posts with focused reviews of some of the most important new gardens of the last year.

So stay warm, and stay tuned!

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.     

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Garden by the Road

The Photography of Darren Higgins

The border serves as a buffer to the road in a part of the yard that was pointless as lawn. Photo by Darren Higgins

We had such a warm response to Michael Tortorello's article in The New York Times last week that I've decided to share a few photos taken by DC-based photographer Darren Higgins that did not make the article. While I did my best to avoid coverage of the less-than-flattering aspects of the house and garden (they are legion), both Michael and  Darren Higgins thought the full context of the garden's relationship to three roads was worth revealing.  It was a horrifying thought to me. Even in my wild fantasies of glowing media coverage, the subject of my garden on the bus route was not quite the angle I imagined. So here is a last peek at the garden before I hide it for another four years.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We're in The New York Times!

The duck blind in our border garden.

Wouldn’t you know it: the one garden I designed that I'm sheepish to show even to my friends is the one that gets featured in The New York Times. Ah well, I'll have to have a word with my PR department . . .

Today our garden is featured in The New York Times Home section. The story is about our garden: how we started it with little money (and even less design) while renovating a very dilapidated house (still in process); how it’s different than what we design in our landscape architecture firm; and how we live in it. My wife and I were fortunate to spend a Sunday in late September with The New York Times' feature writer Michael Tortorello.  Michael is funny, warm, and wickedly smart in a casual kind of way. His articles are one of the reasons the Times' Home section is such a compelling read. His range is vast, from the ecology of vacant lots, to what happens when trees go dormant, to great human stories such as this recent one of James Golden. His focus on the way real people live and work with real spaces is always refreshing. 

The wonderful images were taken by DC based photographer Darren Higgins. Darren spent most of a day with us, hanging off our roof, clinging to a ladder in the middle of the street—all while narrowly dodging traffic. Considering the garden is surrounded on three sides by ugly roads and one side by our ugly house, Darren did a lovely job telling a story with a not so promising site.

While I love to read the real story of other people's gardens, I tried my best to distract Michael from our garden. Lots of lofty talk on the meaning of gardens . . . but it was all to no avail.  Anyway, please check out Michael's excellent piece on our garden in today's New York Times. 

Our deepest thanks to Michael, Darren, and the editors of The New York Times. It was a pleasure to entertain and work with this amazing bunch of professionals.

One minor post-publication quibble: The print edition of the Times refers to me in two bylines as a "horticulturist." I am, in fact, a licensed landscape architect. I have many friends and colleagues who are indeed professional horticulturists. I don't do what they do, and they don't do what I do. Though both professions deal with plants to a degree, they are two entirely different professions.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Selecting Exceptional Plants

The next future plants? Or not quite garden-worthy?

How great plantsmen use superior plant selection to elevate their designs 

Let’s face it: it’s entirely possible to create an elegant garden out of everyday plants. The highly sculpted gardens of the Belgian landscape design firm Wirtz International almost flaunt the fact that a large, diverse plant list is not necessary to create great design. Their serpentine coiled hedges, dreamy cloud-shaped boxwoods, and fluffy grass-covered mounds are an artistic declaration that less can indeed be more. No cutting-edge plants here: just boxwood, yews, hornbeams, and the occasional ornamental grass.

Even at a less grand scale, simple can be beautiful. I can think of no more elegant space than a simple gravel terrace underneath a beautiful tree. Who can ask for more than dappled light, the sway of a branch, and the change of seasons?

But at the same time, some of the best plantsmen in the world achieve success in part through discriminating taste in plant selection. They seek out not only the most vigorous plants, but also the most interesting selections. This discerning eye is one of the qualities that unite a diverse group of plantsmen such as Karl Foerster, Mien Ruys, Beth Chatto, Wolfgang Oehme, Henk Gerritson, Piet Oudolf, Fergus Garrett, Dan Hinkley, and Roy Diblik. Their gardens are legendary in part because of their ruthlessness in plant selection. And as a result, they made us see their plants (and gardens) in a new light.

Renowned plantsmen known for their discriminating plant selection
Consider Piet Oudolf: he is known for his rigorous trialing of plants before ever using them in a design. In the preface to Dream Plants, an excellent reference book by Piet and Henk Gerritson of the toughest plants, Noel Kingsbury describes Piet’s process, “Over the years he has grown a vast range of plants from seed list, collected seed in the wild, trialled innumerable plants bought in nurseries as well as those given him by friends and colleagues. Only a tiny fraction of these are judged good enough to be used in the gardens that he makes.” 

So is it possible to develop a discriminating eye for plants? One that will improve your own plantings? This fall I am looking at the flaws in my own garden. Many of the changes I will make focus on plants that just didn’t perform in my small space. So in order to learn a few lessons, I’ve been pouring over the planting plans and lists of several of these designers. The takeaways I list below are definitely more suited for the horticulturally adventurous rather than the casual gardener. But whether you consider gardening a quiet escape or an extreme sport, some of these points are worth pondering:


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