Archives for September 2009

A Moonlit Serious Moonlight

Globe Pool
My post yesterday dealt with the process of design and installation of the decor for a fundraiser to benefit the Art Academy at Cranbrook.  With the donation of my time and effort came an invitation to attend the event.  As I do not always get the chance to see how what I have planned works or doesn’t work,  I looked forward to being a guest.  Much of the success of any party in a garden relies upon its thoughtful lighting.  An event with the word moonlight in its title made the notion of lighting the night the centerpiece of our design.  Our first bit of timely cooperation from nature-as dusk approached, the rainy skies cleared to reveal the full moon. Be advised the date of the full moon this July had been researched by the committee, and the date for the event was set accordingly.

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (74)The benefactor tables surrounding the upper level Orpheus fountain glowed with the soft light from hundreds of votive candles set on their surfaces. The white tablecloths, umbrellas, garden flowers,the costumes of the dance troup and water reflected light in every direction.  This kind of romance makes people feel good. 

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (96)The votive-lit lanterns skimming the surface of the Triton pools were repeated ingound, lighting the path from the entrance to the event, to its center.  Designing and creating a walk to the event gave every guest the chance to shift their visual gears from their every day landscape to this specially made and momentary landscape.  This transition helps to build anticipation for the event; when I have the idea I am going to enjoy something, I usually do.

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (79)
The relationship of still water, spouting water,and glowing spheres took on an entirely different and dramatic aspect after dusk. I did not expect to see so many guests photographing what they saw on cell phones, but I was very pleased none the less. The majority of these photographs, taken by Jason Ruff, are a considerable addition to my memory of the garden that night.   

night pool tooI had not thought about the fact that the level of glow the one votive candle tucked into each sphere would vary greatly given the size of that sphere. That variation in light level proved especially beautiful – courtesy of a little physics via the umbrella we call nature.

Moonlight (17)As the evening wore on, the intensity of light emitted from the spheres, and the diminishing ability to gauge the water level  gave the impression that all the spheres were floating on, or hovering over the water.

Moonlight (21)The reflection of the spheres in the still water made it seem like the spheres were multiplying.  The water, the weather, and the light acting on those spheres made this event.  How weather acts on a landscape is a critical factor in its success.  I do my best work when I am paying attention to that.

night poolOf course there would be music, dining and dancing. The bidding on the art at auction was brisk; people were enjoying themselves. It was such a pleasure seeing the Triton pools, and their sculptures at night.

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (92)The perfect moment that night?  The coming of the frogs.  Late in the evening, the spheres were host to many hundreds, maybe thousands, of frogs. They gravitated to the spheres, and took up residence. Everyone could hear them singing, before anyone spotted where they were perched.    Some said the rhythm of that singing matched the rhythm of the music; I choose to believe that was so. 

Branch Cranbrook & Serious Moonlight CD (77)
I learned plenty about my place in the big scheme of things that night. No one could have invited the frogs, but that they came is what made that night unforgettable.

Serious Moonlight

Cranbrook 2005  3 (1)
I have been a supporter of the Cranbrook Academy of Art for some years.  They produce several events a year to raise money to support their programs.  It is a unique institution among graduate art schools in the US, and a considerable asset to our community. I like being involved.  We planted the annual garden surrounding the Orpheus fountain in May, in anticipation of their event to come in July. I took my cue for design and decor from the title of the event.

Cranbrook 05  1 (23)A large tent would be a temporary home to a collection of art destined for auction that evening.   Each work was donated by a previous graduate of the academy; this part of the event generated considerable interest and participation.  Tables reserved for groups representing the major benefactors for this event were placed in the fountain garden.

Cranbrook 05  1 (22)The remnants of puddles you see on the ground in the above picture bring back memories for me; it rained fiercely the afternoon of the event. What I had thought I would have the entire day to accomplish would have to be done in less time.   The threat of bad weather makes any garden party all the more exciting to plan and produce-in this case, it was more excitement than I really wanted. 

Branch Cranbrook & Serious Moonlight CD (38)A cocktail reception would be held in a grassy area immediately adjacent to the showpiece of the Cranbrook landscape-the Triton pools.  We fashioned simple tents for the hordoerves tables from double layers of white fabric attached to bamboo poles.  Steel shoes for the poles were sunk in the ground at an outward angle, stretching the fabric tight and smooth.  Nature had another idea in store; the intense downpour changed that flat profile to a graceful swoop.  This unexpected contribution from the sky was a good one; I liked the swooping fabric against the curving path. We had painted a rambling path for guests arriving at the Lone Pine entrance to the garden to the reception area, with athletic paint. 

Cranbrook 05  1  (1)The big gesture?  I had the idea to affix paper lanterns to slender steel rods anchored with bricks which would sit on the on the pool bottom. Advance measurements of the water depth  enabled us to create the impression that the lanterns were floating on the surface of the water.  What fun it was to get in these fountains; I never expected this opportunity to come along.  A crew of four of us spent the better part of the afternoon wading in the water.

Cranbrook 7 (20)We set up hundred of lanterns of different diameters.  Each steel rod had a platform at the top holding a votive candle.  As we set the lanterns, we lit the votives rated to burn for ten hours, and hoped no more rain or wind would come our way. I was equally concerned that no water from the pools wick its way onto the paper.  I was interested in creating a little moonlight magic, not a wet paper mess.

Cranbrook 05  1 (11)It seemed the rain had cleared off, and we did finish with an hour to spare before guests were due to arrive. The reception would begin at the very far end of the pools, and guests would wind their way uphill.   

Cranbrook 05  1 (12)I was happy to have finished my part as the catering staff was setting up. I was on my way home to get dressed; I did not want to miss how all of this would look at night. 

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (20)Attending an event gives you the chance to experience it as other people do.  There is plenty to be learned from this-what proves awkward, what is not visually strong enough when a space is full of people, what proves to be good that you never gave a moment’s  thought to.  Any party in a garden will surprise you.

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (41)
I made it back just in time to see the garden begin to fill with people.  Little did I realize what the night would add to this party-more on that tomorrow.

Sunday Opinion: Looking After One’s Own

A recent article in my local newspaper warned readers about how garden centers can offer bad advice to their customers.  He referred in particular to a reader who had written in regarding 30 boxwood that she and her husband had purchased from a garden center, and planted themselves.  On the advice of the nursery person, they did not remove the burlap from the rootball, and they planted the shrubs such that part of the rootball was above grade. They furthermore had installed drip irrigation.  Some time later, she realized her plants were not thriving; the leaves had started to turn yellow, and/or red.  What was the problem, and what should she do?  Though the writer did answer with the obvious –  that it is very difficult to diagnose plant problems without observing them and the environment in which they were planted – a diagnosis he did make. His conclusion?  Watch out for what garden center people tell you. From the fact they were watering with drip irrigation, he deduced she might be overwatering as our area had had more than enough rainfall this year. She should water less.  He went on to state that given the rules regarding proper planting practices, which have not changed over the past 25 years, she had planted the shrubs improperly.  She had been given very bad  advice from the nursery staff person.  For starters, the burlap should have been completely removed from each shrub.  For finishers, each shrub should have been planted with the top of the rootball just below the surface of the existing soil.  The soil should then be tamped down, and a “a ridge of soil a foot or so” should ring each plant so as to capture rain.  Lastly, he states that as there are no exceptions to these rules, they should give consideration to digging up and replanting all thirty boxwood.

My first reaction to this article was to look at the science.  I checked out the rainfall history for past 90 days in our area via the National Weather Service.  Unless I am reading the table wrong, our area is four to six inches below the average rainfall normal for this time period.  We certainly have not had the relentless rain that other parts of the country have experienced this year.  We have had an unusually cool summer, which could perhaps account for a slower water evaporation rate from the reader’s soil.   Yellow leaves on boxwood can be a result of other things besides too much water-as in too little water, root rot, winter damage, fungal infections etc.  I am of the opinion that the proper diagnosis of a plant problem cannot be made without a visual inspection and assessment of the environment.  I also think diagnosing the problems of plants is as much an art, as a science.  The diagnostician will give weight to this factor more than that one, based on his experience and judgment.

In the nursery industry, a “B and B” shrub refers to the fact that it is balled and burlapped.  Successful tranplanting of a shrub from one place to another has much to do with maintaining an intact rootball.   The burlap on a small shrub, and a wire cage over burlap on a large tree is a means by which to protect the integrity of the rootball.  Evergreen shrubs in particular need fairly large rootballs to weather the insult of transplanting. Broken rootballs can kill plants. The plastic burlap common years ago has given way to fibrous burlap which does rot, given enough time.  I myself have planted many thousands of boxwood over the past 25 years; I have never removed the burlap entirely from the ball. I only cut the burlap away from the trunk and shoulders of the ball for two reasons.  I do not want burlap exposed to the air to wick water away from the rootball. More importantly,  I need to visually inspect the top of the ball.  Sometimes in the process of burlapping, a rootball goes soft, and soil from below gets accidentally mounded up around the trunk of the plant. The point at which a trunk becomes roots tells you what goes above ground, and what goes below, and seeing is believing.  One cannot assume that the soil you see on top accurately represents the true top of the rootball. Likewise, the top of the burlap tells you nothing about the juncture of trunk and rootball. Planting any plant too deep is a sure recipe for failure; roots drown if water cannot drain away from them.  I would never plant a shrub slightly below grade for this reason. I routinely plant shrubs slightly above grade; there is plenty of support for this practice in the literature.  I furthermore have a hedge of arborvitae whose mulched rootballs have been sitting on top of my gravel driveway for the past 3 years; they are thriving on this mini-mountain berm. It is my opinion that there is no one set of rules for planting- any deviance from which will result in failure.  I have seen many successful plantings over many years that do not play by the aforementioned rules. 

My point with all of this?  Horticultural practice has changed plenty in degree, if not substance, over the past 25 years.  The body of scientific information changes and grows regularly.  Anything you read and absorb from university cooperative extension agencies, garden centers, the internet, the RHS dictionary, and other gardeners can help you be a better gardener – provided you realize there will be no substitute for your own trial and error, your own experience and good judgment.  I am a landscape professional whose planting practices have worked successfully a great majority of the time over the past 25 years.  This does not lead me to suggest that how I do things is the right or the only way to do things. What works for me could be of interest to you, or not. Any gardener is free to subscribe or not to an idea; it is their decision.  This is precisely why people consult with others, and get second opinions.

When I make decisions, the responsibility for that decision becomes mine.  In many years of garden making I have had plenty that has not worked.  By and large, my failures belong to me, and not someone else. Anyone who purchases plants at a garden center and plants them, assumes the responsibility for what happens as a result of their selection, placement, planting, watering, winter care, pruning, feeding-and so on.  Though many garden centers have free replacement policies, that does not apply to plants that are alive, but in poor health.  Protect your investment of time and money by becoming educated. If you have the idea to plant, learn about how to do so before you invest your money time and effort.   If you don’t educate yourself, the plants will educate you; they do not always give out second chances.   If you still are uncertain as to how to proceed,  get a consultation from someone whose knowledge and experience makes their opinion a good bet. Though garden centers do plenty to educate their staff people, not everyone’s knowledge and aptitude for  planting or diagnosing problems is equal.  It is a simple matter to ask a salesperson if they have a shade garden at home, and for how long, before taking their recommendation on the merits of various shade perennials. The surgeon who will replace my failing knee this winter has replaced thousands of knees successfully.  This is an excellent reason to have consulted him, and trust his judgment.  Were I having problems with shrubs I had spent a lot of money time and effort to plant, I would consult someone who diagnoses these problems professionally.  As I would want to claim ownership of my successes, I need be willing to own my own failures.     

 Though I design and plant for my clients, I explain that the responsibility for the health and well-being of that landscape is theirs, once I have finished and gone home. Though I check in once in a while at the beginning, I need them to keep up with what I have begun-water, watch, and call me at the first hint of trouble.  Though I have made a career of planting plants, I have asked for help plenty of times.  I know all I have at my disposal to help people is my experience, integrity, and reasonably good judgment.  I am not the keeper of the keys. Though I try very hard to ensure success for my clients, this does preclude things from going awry. The best reason for taking on responsibility?  No one will ever care as much about your landscape as you do.   Taking responsibility is as rewarding as it is scary;  seeing one’s committment to keeping a landscape alive and thriving come to an ongoing and evolving fruition?  So very satisfying.

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