Archives for February 2010

The Sprinter Months

DSC00703I might be making things up.  I am so ready for a view like this out my office window that my reporting may simply be wishful thinking.  But I do believe I heard birds singing this morning. It was thrilling just to be outside and not shudder.  The sun was shining, the temperature well above freezing.  Though the best thing about February 19th is that I will not have to deal with it for another whole year, I could sense some little signs of spring.   

DSC00699One definition of a Michigan spring is the day the snow is gone. It is gone from my roof, sidewalk and drive.  My street was wet; the big piles of snow are a fraction of a bit smaller.  The 39 degrees by 5 pm seemed like a heatwave.  Perhaps more telling, the sun was still shining at 5pm; this is a sure sign that winter is loosening its grip. I am of course thinking already about planting.  It will not be long before I have my hands back in the dirt.


There are lots of plants quite tolerant of cold.  These lime needled Italian cypress are not hardy in my zone, but they do not mind chilly weather.  I have grown them 5 feet tall and better, depending on how good a job I do of wintering them in the garage.  The pansies, violas, alyssum, and heuchera in these pots are much more cheerful about chilly days than I am.  

DSC00894I have never seen Milo give any indication that he did not like any weather. He’s game, any day. But he seems more determined than ever to get out that door now.  Once we reopen March 1, he will be outside as long as he can persuade someone to keep him company.  I buy plants as I think they can tolerate the night temperatures.  Diascia and angelina, osteospermum-even Moses in the Cradle- shake off the cold as well as the pansies.      

It will be a good while before perennials are available-more than likely the same while it will take the ground to be ready for working.  I try to leave my in ground gardens alone until they truly wake up.  As I greatly dislike anyone dogging me when I am half asleep, I keep quiet until I can see the lights are on and I can smell something brewing. Trees and shrubs are just coming in-depending on the weather.   So I plant spring pots; Milo keeps me company looking after them.  

DSC00867If the weather doesn’t break early in March, I will go to Bogie Lake and beg some greenhouse space to hold my spring pots.  As tolerant as they are of cold, spring flowers only put on weight when there is heat. My spring pots get looking pretty good about June 1; some years, the spring pots last the entire summer.   Every spring there are nights when everything has to be hauled in.  Growing plants is such work-but there comes a time when I can’t do without them one more day. 

DSC00709We will have snow on and off in March and April.  I remember a whomping snowstorm some years ago on April 16; more than a few times have we had flurries on Mother’s Day.  Late snow doesn’t bother me that much-it rarely stays.  The snow we get in December I am still looking at now-that’s a big bother. 

DSC00710I do cringe seeing my beloved spring flowers disappear beneath the snow, but they seem not to be bothered, unless the temps go below 28 degrees.  I have seen fierce frosts when the tulips were 4 inches out of the ground.  It may damage the leaves, but the flowers come on fine. The species crocus are a favorite of mine; there are years when freezing weather reduces their fragile blooms to gray mush. But when they are good, they are spectacular.  

DSC00711Our winter is all but gone. But March and April are neither winter nor spring.  They are what I call the sprinter months. Move quickly towards spring, drop precipitously down and back into winter.  We’ll have big wind soon-maybe ice.  Our transition to spring can be a rocky one.  It seems like we all are sprinting in one direction or another to keep up. 

We’ll be fooled.  We’ll be wringing our hands, and scrambling.  But first and foremost, we’ll be ready to welcome the new season.

The Bluewater Drawings

landscape plans 042As my layout table has its first new coat of paint in 14 years, all the prints I’ve had stored there are piled up in my office. OK,  I couldn’t resist taking a look before I put them back in storage.  Some of them entertain me-I can see exactly what was influencing me at the time.  The roll of drawings for the Bluewater project was just that-drawings.  These unpolished sketches of landscape elements for a commercial project were highly conceptual-and certainly predate any computer programs that are now readily available to designers. 

landscape plans 025Land forms have always been of great interest to me. A big chunk of my library deals with mazes and labyrinths, land sculpture and earthworks.  Robert Smithson’s 1970 sculpture “Spiral Jetty”, constructed in 6 days on a leased piece of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is now completely landlocked as the lake is so low.  The sculpture spent 20 years or better completely submerged. The sculpture has presented in many forms over the past 40 years. I have always admired it; no doubt this conceptual drawing of a maze half in and half out of some water was directly inspired by Smithson’s work.  

landscape plans 043Another favorite-the land form drawings of Hans Dieter Schaal in his book “Landscape as Inspiration”.  Inspired indeed.  His sprawling and energetic drawings of natural forms exposed me to an entirely different way of thinking about dirt and nature.  I had never seen landscape spaces rendered in this way before.  I was equally taken with the beauty of the drawings.  They are by no means scaled prints, they are gestural and interpretive marks on a page.  This work inspired me to take up a marker and put it to a page, and see what happens.  I refer to his book regularly.   

landscape plans 027Any reference to natural forms intrigues me. A log twig bridge over Bluewater’s man-made lake seemed like just the right combination of architecture and natural materials.  Buck shakes his finger at me when I design with no regard for construction, but I still think a little free spirited doodle drawing has its place.  A sketch that seems to be going no where is easily discarded-provided you have not spent so much time with it that you have become attached. It is difficult to be objective about one’s own work-so I try to work fast at the conceptual stage.  Anything I have invested a lot of time and work in can be hard to trash-even when trash it I should.  

landscape plans 028None of these drawings would convince a client to commit their time and money.  But they might convince a client that there was a reservoir of ideas from which something of interest might emerge.  If you don’t believe your designer is a person of interest, then a collaboration on your project is unlikely.  If you are designing for yourself, drawings can bring ideas to the surface you didn’t know you had.  Keeping a waste basket handy can be a comfort!

landscape plans 047I am happy to have these drawings, not for their design, but for their energy. Being the fan of science that I am, I wholly subscribe to the notion that everything in motion tends to stay in motion-and what’s at rest tends to stay still. This applies as much to a design sensibility as it does to the physical world.  Inertia being gravity that has gotten the upper hand, I make the effort to feed whatever energy I have regularly.   

landscape plans 037This drawing suggests at least 6 different ideas.  They have similar elements, but are disconnected from each other.  At the end of a series of drawings comes the integration phase.  How visual and sculptural elements relate to each might be more important than any given piece.  That relationship provides for good flow and rhythm. I see lots of landscapes that have good bits, but no flow.  In the print, I plan for the transition between one space and another to have its own space.    

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Once I was able to see that technically expert drawings did not necessarily imply expert concepts, I felt much more free to draw.  The marks I make with the greatest confidence?  My signature.  Much of that confidence comes from having made those particular marks countless times.  No one critiques a signature either-it is what it is.  A series of drawings about your yard might need a little time to sit, before you review.  It’s February-you have time.

A New Baltimore Zoo

landscape plans 002A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to be a member of a team charged with submitting a schematic plan for the redesign of the Baltimore Zoo.  One of the oldest zoos in the country, it featured giant iron cages for the animals, and a system of roads such that visitors could drive by the exhibits. This antiquated and self-defeating organization was kept company by an infrastructure beyond repair.  The team assembled was a large one; architects, exhibit planners, zoo exhibit architects, engineers, teachers, zoo scientists- all had to work together to form a viable schematic plan.  

landscape plans 007Why me?  The idea was to give the zoo a second, different and compatible attraction-a botanic garden.  Our group did visit the Cincinnati Zoo early on; what an incredible place this is.  Some exhibits were based on the flora and fauna of a specific ecosystem.  We were locked up; the animals had fairly free range of a habitat.  Each exhibit made much of identifying all the plant material being used. Some exhibits featured recordings of the sounds of the animals.  Other exhibits featured the most amazingly realistic concrete trees and steel lianas I have ever seen; zoo animals can destroy a natural habitat very quickly.    

landscape plans 011My part was to design landscape areas that would provoke the interest of any visitor.  A zoo is a very expensive place to maintain.  They need a substantial number of new and repeat visitors to stay afloat.  It was not enough that the landscape be beautiful-it needed to entertain, enchant-and teach.  A steel dome covered in climbing hydrangea would certainly attract attention.  The cool leafy interior would enchant any child, and teach them about climbing plants.  My cloud garden put every visitor on a catwalk winding through the garden-in the clouds, as it were.  A meadow below of plants whose flowers and seeds were cloud like-entertaining. Of course I envisioned lots of butterfly weed.  

landscape plans 006This project had many prints associated with it.  This master print reveals that the zoo would have a center named Wild Earth. This large piazza would have places to sit, to have lunch, and environments for children to play.  Each major habitat of the new zoo began, and ended in the center.  This master plan took great pains to engineer the experience to appeal to all the senses, and the intellect.  The big idea-the importance of our wild earth.    

landscape plans 014The Directors Garden is an annual garden display.  This garden would be planted new every year by the group, nursery, or design build firm chosen by the zoo director. Its placement and size would attract attention from a distance.  The spoke walks radiating from Wild Earth needed an element in the distance that would encourage people to walk, and explore. 

landscape plans 009Each of the named gardens were interspersed and integrated into the animal habitats.  This print is an overview of one of the zoo spokes.  It is most valuable in detailing the flow of the space.  The prospect of large numbers of people demands ease of travel, with plenty to look at along the way.

landscape plans 016This design work was done very differently than most things I do.  The prints were accompanied by all sorts of visual materials that helped to illustrate the concept.  The avenue of trees print came with detailed botanical information on a number of tree species that might be worth including, and why.  As I would not contract the work, the schematic plan needed as much information as possible-both visual and written-in support of the intent. In the end, I knew a collection of specimen trees would be planted.  At this point, the main idea was an avenue from which to view the collection.  This garden would be located on both sides of the car approach to the zoo, with plenty of walking paths for those wanting to go for a closer look.

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The development of a schematic plan is very exciting work.  This beginning work is just that-about beginnings.  This schematic plan ran to hundreds of pages-mostly musings about what I imagined could be. Later there would be budgets, timelines, and construction documents.  But dream time I did have.


inspiration 007A good bit of my working life revolves around prints.  A print is any mark made on or impressed into a surface-like these footprints imprinted in the snow. My boots aside, I draw prints. I explain them-I work off them.  The drawing/print of the landscape is a two dimensional means by which I am able to explain my ideas about a sculpture with a client.  Installations are done from prints that are drawn to scale. A print which is drawn exactly the same size as a property would need a piece of paper as big as that property; I doubt I need to detail the problems that would arise with this.  So one foot of length on your property would be represented by 1/10th of an inch on my print.  A properly scaled, flat, and miniature version of my idea is what you would get from me.  

ice white 036Prints are not easy to read, if you have not had practice.  Prints are lines and shapes that make patterns.  A pattern you might see if you were flying over your property.  Who does that?  Google Earth can provide you with a print that has recorded the patterns evident on your property.  Look up your property-there may be something there that inspires you.  The hobnail glass pictured above has a distinctive pattern, but also a volume, a sculptural shape.  Each circle is in fact a tuft of glass; the location of each tuft in turn describes the curve of this pitcher.  A print of the pattern of this glass would give you the plan view-the view from a bird flying over. Flat and circular, the pitcher shape in outline.  The sculpture which is this pitcher is another story- entirely.

inspiration 005This concrete pot is made from a mold.  The mold material records a three dimensional surface in every detail.  I have seen the production print for this pot; I could barely follow it. It was very much like trying to read words from a language not my own. Where am I going with this?  What a first rate landscape designer has to offer may be more than worth your while-or not. But for sure, you need to read their print.  But that big fluid and certainly sculptural situation which is your property-no print truly describes that.  Get involved with your designer. Speak your peace, and then some. 

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This winter I drew prints for gardens I doubt anyone will ever ask me to build.  My idea is that one can get the gardens of one’s dreams, one way or another.   Buck took my prints, and is building sculptures from them.  Basswood 1/32nd of an inch thick was his material of choice.  It bends obligingly.  He constructs everything he builds with incredible precision-I knew the models would be beautiful; they are indeed. He has two models finished and ready for me.  Where will I go now with them?     

winter cleaning 007Steve tore apart my entire office, to clean and paint.  Over the course of 25 years, I have amassed a goodly number of prints. He stuffed them into a number of fiber pots.  Good, bad, or indifferent, there are lots of them.  He wants me to go through them, and decide which old prints I want to keep.  I have not told him yet, but I want to keep all of them.  These marks on a lot of pages add up to a life. Many times I stuff mud stained prints into my back pocket, and work with what is in front of me. But those original prints-I save them.  The print is but a mark recording intent-nothing more. Intent-this counts for a lot, from my side of the aisle.  The skill of the drawing-don’t be fooled.  Beautiful landscapes are about a lot of things-but gorgeous drawings of poor designs most certainly exist.  My drawings are simple-but they involve some doing that might require years.     

winter cleaning 009I think, design, and draw for a living. This is how I buy groceries, and pay my mortgage-but enough about me.  Should you be designing gardens for yourself, I would encourage you to put a pencil to a page.  What is in your heart-draw this.  Take your mortgage survey and blow it up.  Look at your spaces, your edges, how your house sits on your property. Loosen up. Make marks on the page.  A print is a drawing-not a committment to build.  Make lots of drawings.  Sleep on everything you draw. Erase, and start over.  Don’t bother to diss your drawing skills. No beautiful garden was ever about skilled drawing.   


MCat loves my drawings; the paper keeps him warm-nothing more.  Those sketches you might be inclined to make this third week of February-they could be a good warmup for spring. They could be the start something.  Should you have prints from a landscape designer, squint, and see what questions you have. No print is precious-it is a tool that might help move a project along. A print is an opening gesture, nothing more.  Make your own, or find someone whose prints will encourage you to speak. I actually love  prints-they are a lifeline from me to you, and back again.