Thursday, August 26, 2010

Project Featured in Maine Home+Design

The site of Winslow Homer's iconic paintings is the setting for a modern Maine summer house. Photo by Thomas Rainer
One of my favorite projects I worked on is featured in this month's Maine Home + Design magazine.  The August 2010 issue features the residential garden located on the rocky coast of southern Maine.  The house is perched atop the craggy cliffs of Prout's Neck, a sleepy penisula that juts into Casco Bay.  It was one of the most stunning sites I've ever worked on.  A ferny hemlock and birch forest opens into a perfectly flat lawn that overlooks dramatic black cliffs that plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.  Indeed, the coastline is so dramatic that Winslow Homer painted some of his most iconic watercolors on this exact site.
Deschampsia caespitosa frames the oceanside lawn.  Photo by Francois Gagne.
The project began five years ago while I was with Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.  Principal Eric Groft set the tone for the project by insisting the garden not be overly fussy.   The house is a Maine summer house, after all, and the garden is meant to capture the spirit of a midsummer retreat.  The local zoning code excluded any impervious surfaces on the ocean side of the property, so that became the place for a small lawn.  Since the lawn borders the dramatic wind-shearn cliffs, we wanted to keep it natural and relaxed, so native grasses such as Panicum and Deschampsia mix with Monarda and Rudbeckias.  The lawn became the obvious place for the client's children to play raquetball or other summer sports. 

A timber frame pergola anchors the wild garden in the front of the house. Pot by Maine based Lunaform.  Photo by Francois Gagne.

Since the ocean side was so simple, the front of the house is where we added a bit of intricacy.  Eric suggested we look at the Beatrix Farrand's palette at Reef Point.  This became the inspiration for the wild garden in the front.  A low stone wall frames the entry garden.  Outside of the wall, we planted blueberry sod purchased from a nearby Maine farmer who was converting part of his fields into pasture.  The sod blends into a riot of deciduous ferns and bunchberry that spreads from a nearby stand of woods.  Inside of the entry garden, a blue and chartreuse themed wild garden teems with delphiniums, iris, goatsbeard, and globe flowers.  A large, timber frame pergola anchors the south side of the garden.  Learning how to design and construct this pergola was a real education for me in the ancient craft of timber-frame construction.  The entire structure is held together without a single nail.   

The entry garden is framed by a low stone wall that holds a Maine style cottage garden. Photo by Thomas Rainer.

The path to the ocean side passes panicle hydrangeas and native Clethra 'Hummingbird'.  Photo by Thomas Rainer.
The other joy of this project was working with local Maine craftsman to adorn the garden.  Maine based Lunaform supplied the large hand-crafted planters that animate the entry garden.  Their collection of rugged but perfectly proportioned pots were ideal for this site.  Maine firm Weatherend supplied one of the curved settee benches, while New Mexico artist Benjamin Forgey created the other bench out of driftwood he collected. 
A gently curving lawn is bordered by native cedars, switchgrass, and black eyed susans.  Photo by Thomas Rainer
It was indeed a rare privilege to work on a site with so much character and to work with such skilled craftsmen.  Designing the details of this project and managing its installation was a great learning experience for me.  Eric Groft's intuitive and gestural approach to designing landscapes--what you feel a site should be--is something that has stayed with me until today.  It's hard for a young designer to learn to trust your gut, to hold on to those first impressions you had when you walked onto the site.  It's especially hard once you throw in all the demands of a project: the client's wishlist, the regulatory constraints, the horticultural requirements . . . all those things start to cloud that original vision.  But the best designers know how to listen to their instincts and simplify.  When I look at photos of the garden, I remember the first quick lines Eric drew on the survey.  Those first gestures were preserved through the design and installation, and it is those lines--those gut-level responses to a powerful site--that hold the garden together today. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Ecological Restoration Just Gardening?

Lagoon Park in Santa Barbara by Van Atta Associates.  Photo by Saxon Holt
I recently read a wonderful and thought-provoking article by Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Del Tredici has been on my radar since he published a subtly subversive book called Wild Urban Plants that I reviewed earlier this spring. This new article posits the question: “Is ‘landscape restoration’ really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology?’. Here is a bit more context:

“Implicit in the proposals that call for the control and/or eradication of invasive species is the assumption that the native vegetation will return to dominance once the invasive is removed, thereby restoring the “balance of nature.” That’s the theory. The reality is something else. Land managers and others who have to deal with the invasive problem on a daily basis know that often as not the old invasive comes back following eradication (reproducing from root sprouts or seeds), or else a new invader moves in to replace the old one. The only thing that seems to turn this dynamic around is cutting down the invasives, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species in the gaps where the invasives once were. After this, the sites require weeding of invasives for an indefinite number of years, at least until the natives are big enough to hold their ground without human assistance.

What’s striking about this so-called restoration process is that it looks an awful lot like gardening, with its ongoing need for planting and weeding. Call it what you will, but anyone who has ever worked in the garden knows that planting and weeding are endless. So the question becomes: Is “landscape restoration” really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology, or is it based on scientific theories with testable hypotheses? To put it another way: Can we put the invasive species genie back in the bottle, or are we looking at a future in which nature itself becomes a cultivated entity?”  Peter Del Tredici from "Neocreationism and the Illusion of Ecological Restoration," Harvard Design Magazine.

I’ll confess: I am not an ecologist or an expert at ecological restoration. I have, however, worked with ecological restoration experts like Rutger’s Steven Handel. Consider my recent experience on a two thousand-acre agricultural site that we intended to convert into a mosaic of different native habitats. After going through the process of analyzing the site and preparing a restoration concept, my impression was that restoration was really not that different from the design process I use for any ornamental landscape. Obviously, the goals were different and our application of native habitats was based in a much more thorough site analysis. But the end result was the same: we imposed a human concept of what “nature” should be on the site. The end result would be entirely artificial and constructed.
Vernal Pool created in an area that once wasa parking. Van Atta Associates. Photo by Saxon Holt
In addition, our constructed “native” landscape would require years of intensive maintenance to get it established, and decades of ongoing management to keep it native. After this experience, Del Tredici’s analogy to gardening resonated with me.

Del Tredici’s conclusion for designers and gardeners is to “not to limit themselves to a palette of native species that might once have grown on the site.” He argues for using plants that will tolerate the conditions of the site, native or not, particularly in the tough urban conditions.

I have two responses to the article. The first is to agree with Del Tredici’s claim that ecological restoration creates “entirely artificial and constructed” landscapes. It’s absolutely true. It bursts the romantic notion that we can bring back plant and animal communities as they existed before Columbus arrived. It also challenges the myth that native plants are natural, good, low maintenance, and self-sustaining. They aren’t. They require human intervention. The sooner we can lose the mythology that “nature” will come back one day, the sooner we can get to the real work of creating entirely artificial, native landscapes that perform essential ecological services.  See my posting here for more on this.

Boardwalk at Lagoon Park in Santa Barbara by Van Atta Associates. Photo by Saxon Holt
Secondly, I disagree somewhat with Del Tredici’s direction that designers abandon the native only approach. I certainly don’t mind using some non-natives. But implicit in Del Tredici’s assumption is that natives are somehow weaker or less adaptive to the tough conditions of an urban site than some non-natives. I entirely disagree with this point.

Of course, some natives—many of which are ubiquitous in the nursery trade—are not tough enough for urban sites. The natives that are widely available in the nursery trade are mostly selected for their ornamental value. We’ve hardly explored the full potential of native systems to address the environmental challenges of the day. To judge the adaptability of native plants based on the scant selection of natives that are currently available in the trade is preposterous. Mark Simmons, a researcher at The Lady Bird Johnson Center, is doing research that proves that many native plants are much tougher than non-natives and capable of solving many of our environmental problems. I will feature an article on his research later this month.

I love articles like Del Tredici’s. The debate over natives vs. exotic plants is really a debate about what is natural. I look forward to the day when we drop our romantic notions about nature existing somewhere “out there,” and can start to focus improving the ecology of the human-impacted landscapes that we encounter every day.

What do you think?  I would love to hear other reactions to Del Tredici's article, especially any who have some experience or thoughts about ecological restoration.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Landscape Architecture versus The Garden

Between Two Worlds

I am a landscape architect by profession. It is a career I chose out of passion and calling. I love the nobility of the profession’s history. Frederick Law Olmsted’s sweeping democratic vision created parks that made America’s great cities habitable after the Industrial Revolution. I love the expansive scope of the profession. Landscape architects design almost any site under the open sky, including highways and bridges, water treatment plants and power lines, urban plazas and parks, green roofs and greenways. I love the breadth and diversity of projects. In the last two months, I spent one day wading through a woodland swamp, one day in the Library of Congress researching historic letters, one day sketching a plan for a three-acre urban park, and one day designing a high speed race track. Next month will be entirely different.

Yet despite my love for landscape architecture, it is the garden that I keep returning to. The garden speaks to my intellect, my emotion, and my spirit. I am beginning to understand why Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho calls himself a ‘gardener’ rather than a landscape architect. “I say ‘gardener,’” says Caruncho, “because this mythical word belongs to mankind and contains memories of our purest origins, so full of resonance and touching aspects both elemental and fragile.”

What’s the difference between landscape architecture and gardening? Some have described the difference between the garden and landscape architect as a matter of scale. The garden is simply a more concentrated version of landscape architecture. Gardens are to landscape architecture what poetry is to prose. But I think the differences are more profound. Each discipline involves a different approach to land.

Corporate Headquarters, San Francisco.  OLIN.  Photo by Marion Brenner
Landscape architecture adopts an essentially rationalistic approach to analyzing land; after all, the profession emerges from a hybrid of architecture, engineering, horticulture, and ecology. The term landscape can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which refers not to land but to a picture of land. Landscape architecture creates a concept of land, an idea of what land should be, and then executes it. Celebrated landscape architect James Corner writes, “Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imaging.” It is this imaging or conceptualization that is the hallmark of the practice.

Image from The Ministry for Food, 1941
Gardening, on the other hand, is essentially relational. It is not about a picture or an idea for a piece of land, but about a personal relationship with a piece of land. Literary critic and garden theorist John Dixon Hunt calls gardens a third nature. Resurrecting concepts from the golden age of Italian gardens, Hunt recounts that the First Nature is wilderness, an undomesticated wild that predates man; the Second Nature is man-made agriculture and towns. The garden resides between these two zones. Gardens are a third nature, a place where art and thought are in relationship with nature.

One of the themes of this blog is to advocate for gardening. Garden more, garden now, just get out there and garden. What we need now is not so much a new concept for re-shaping land, or a new image for landscape. What we need now more than ever is to be in relationship with land. The blessings that flow from this engagement are myriad and mighty. Be absorbed in a garden: I can think of no purer expression of the human condition.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Plant Local: Provenance Matters

The dramatic shift toward native and sustainable gardening in the last decade is remarkable. As images of giant plumes of oil spilling into the Gulf gave us all reason to despair, I drew deep comfort from seeing so many fellow gardeners join the green revolution by converting their plots into islands of biodiversity, or by plowing up their lawns and planting vegetable gardens. These small acts of resistance are reasons to hope.

Plants being propagated by tissue culture in a lab.
As the use of native plants in gardens has moved from fringe activity to mainstream practice, gardeners need to pay attention to where their native plants come from. Here’s the problem: the vast majority of plants in the nursery trade, natives included, are being mass propagated from a relatively small gene pool. For example, consider the meteoric rise of the use of tissue cultures to propagate plant. Nurseries select unique or beautiful cultivars of a plant, say for example, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’—a truly vigorous and ornamental native shrub. They want to reproduce the ornamental characteristics of this exact plant and at the same time eliminate the possibility of genetic variation or aberrations. So they take samples of the plants tissues (such as a stem tip, node, or meristem), place it in a sterile nutrient medium and allow it to multiply. In this artificial environment, propagators can develop roots, multiply the number of plantlets, or create new embryos for artificial seed.

Now as weird science as all of this sounds, it’s not terribly different than taking a cutting of your favorite plant to share with a friend. The great advantage of tissue culture—and other asexual propagation techniques—is that it creates predictable plants. Gardeners can be guaranteed that the Itea virginica they purchased will have the deep crimson fall color, the prolific blooms, and the cascading stems of the ‘Henry’s Garnet’ cultivar. It also offers a much-needed alternative to native plants that were taken from the wild, a once prevalent practice.

The great problem with asexual propagation is that as we lose native habitats to development, the natives we are replacing them with represent a much narrower genetic pool than what existed. More often than not, the native plant you buy at your local retail nursery was probably populated by tissue culture from a native population somewhere far away. For example, how native is a plant that was derived from a source in Tennessee, propagated in a petri dish in Oregon, shipped as a liner plant to Michigan, and then delivered to a retail nursery in Massachusetts? By the time that plant hits your garden, its passport is full.
On the left, an unplanted Panicum in Texas (photo by Rick Darke); on the right, the Panicum cultivar 'Cloud Nine'
Why should you care if your Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ came from a tissue culture that originated from a plant in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania when you live in Alabama?  Because it could affect the performance of your plant. Plants have phenotypic variation associated with geographic sources that allow plants to adapt to the stresses of a particular locality. Local populations have adapted over thousands of years to the particular region, developing what biologists call alleles, or alternative forms of gene. An Itea from Alabama may have alleles that allow it to adapt to high humidity, while the Pennsylvania Itea might be more cold-hardy.

Provenance matters. Right now the native plant movement still relies on horticultural approach to plants—one that focuses on ornamental characteristics of plants without concern for the plant’s provenance or community. By doing this, we lose not only the allelic diversity of local plants, but also the aesthetic appeal of plants that have been perfectly evolved to a specific region.

Left: Liatris scariosa var. novae angliae only exists on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket; Right: Liatris spicata from the Midwest
Consider another example. I worked on a few projects on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard where we sold the clients on the concept of a mostly native landscape. We worked with a local meadow specialist who pointed out that several of the native species we were considering had unique varieties on the island. For example, we wanted to use Panicum virgatum, but learned that the Panicum native to the islands looked completely different than Panicum you see in the tall grass prairies of the Midwest. The island Panicum was short and had this wonderful vase-like profile, whereas the Panicum evolved in the prairies was tall and upright. We also learned that the island had its own unique species of Liatris (Liatris scariosa var. novae angliae) that had evolved to stand up in the wind and salt of the islands much better than the Liatris spicata being sold on the main land. For one project, we ended up using a local propagator who grew all his plants from seeds collected on the island. Not only did we preserve the allelic diversity of the island’s plants, but our finished garden fit into the context much better than if we had used tissue-culture natives from Midwestern sources.

The copper tones of Little Bluestem collected from local seed sources have a deeper color than Little Bluestem from off island..
So how can you truly plant locally? Gardeners should support nurseries that propagate natives from local populations. If you’re not sure, ask your local nursery owner where he or she gets her plants. This strategy has been remarkably successful in supermarkets; it can work for the nursery trade as well. Choose seed sources that you know are harvested from local populations. Or even better, learn how to sustainably collect seed from wild populations. There’s nothing quite as grounding or satisfying as going into a wild landscape, gathering seed, and then raising that plant in your garden. Go local with your garden. I promise, you will love it.

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