Author: Caleb Melchior

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Paving the Way for Naturalistic Planting Design

Confronted by the jewel-like intensity of Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden or Tom Stuart-Smith Studio’s 2019 Chelsea Show Garden (pictured above), you might assume that these plantings are individual works of genius. Around you, masses of plants ebb, water-like, tumbling into each other and between. Seedpods thrust skywards. Fuzzy stems glitter with morning dew. 

These gardens seem such a stark contrast to the ordinary landscapes—static and banal—that most of us accept as part of our daily routines. They’re like wild landscapes—but richer, more colorful, more condensed. What features distinguish these contemporary plantings from more traditional approaches to planting design? My piece “Learning the Language of Contemporary Planting Design” offers an introductory vocabulary. In brief, these plantings are designed and managed as communities, rather than individual groups or specimens. Aesthetically, they have a wild look—they’re physically distributed in a way that looks organic, rather than geometrically in blocks, rows, or distinct groups. 

Dr. Noel Kingsbury, in his writings with Piet Oudolf, has extensively documented the evolution of naturalistic planting design post-World War II. In particular, his books Planting: A New Perspective (2013) and Hummelo (2015) offer a detailed history of its development. However, I felt it was important to look a little farther back to better understand the forces shaping planting design today. Contemporary planting strategies didn’t suddenly emerge over the past 70 years. Instead, they reflect management practices and aesthetic concerns that have engaged practitioners for generations. 

Designing and managing plants as communities, rather than distinct individuals, feels like the most striking divergence from traditional agriculture. However it’s actually a management style utilized extensively by indigenous peoples throughout the world, often described as agroecology. In agroecology systems, desirable species are planted or sown, encouraged to grow, and harvested as part of multispecies plant communities—rather than as single-species monocultures.

In Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe reports extensively on Aboriginal Australians’ management of landscape-scale plant communities which were cultivated to encourage the growth of desirable plants—while also fostering growth of complementary species. Describing the kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) meadows discovered by colonizers, Pascoe writes “Orchids, lilies, and mosses flourished among the grain crop.” The first European colonizers noted that these complex meadows supported such rich soils that they had difficulty riding horses across the landscape. Grain crops weren’t the only plant communities managed by Aboriginal Australians. Pascoe writes that fire was used to encourage the growth of fire-dependent crops such as yam daisy (Microseris lanceolata) and vanilla lily (Arthropodium milleflorum), both important edible crops in Aboriginal diets.   

Throughout the Americas, First Peoples also cultivated food and medicinal crops as components of managed landscapes. Every elementary school kid knows the “three sisters”—beans, squash, and maize—which were cultivated together, especially by the Hopi, Oneida, and Iriquois. But companion planting wasn’t the only strategy First Peoples used for managing desirable croops. Paiute and Kumeyaay utilized irrigation and biannual harvesting as techniques for managing intermingled communities of their two important food crops – yellow nut grass (Cyperus esculentus) and wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma pulchella). Up in what is now Wisconsin, the Ojibwe maintained wild rice (Zizania palustris) populations by allowing the earliest ripening grains to fall back into the swamps and protecting the plants from disturbance during early stages of growth. 

These managed plant communities didn’t look like what European colonizers recognized as agriculture. To them, agricultural production meant monocultures with plants arranged geometrically or in blocks. There’s also a political reason colonizers ignored First Peoples’ management of these landscapes. It sounds better to say that you’re claiming “wilderness” than to acknowledge you’re stealing land that is managed and cared for. 

In Europe, productive and ornamental gardens reflected Abrahamic and GrecoRoman religious traditions’ emphasis on physical order. They showed extensive signs of what Joan Nassauer refers to as “cues to care”—plants in monoculture blocks, geometric arrangement, physical evidence of cultivation such as trimming and mowing. 

Botticelli, Primavera (1482)

The only time you see wild-looking plant communities with intermingled plants are as grassland components of agricultural fields. Grazed meadows allowed for the growth of many spring ephemerals—small perennials and bulbs—which would grow and flower before being outcompeted by summer grasses. Such low grassland complexes extended beneath orchards. A famous example of an intermingled plant community would be Botticelli’s Primavera (1482). While most people looking at this painting would consider the symbolism and beauty of the human figures—for a contemporary planting designer, the diversity of flora shown thriving in the grass is the more exciting bit. Some sources claim that over 130 flowering species are depicted in this meadow. Standing in front of the painting, I certainly recognized narcissus, fritillaries, bellis, hawkweed and iris. Such diverse flora isn’t only present in imaginary landscapes. You can still find such flower-rich meadows growing throughout Europe—particularly in the Mediterranean and at higher altitudes. 

Meadow outside Orvieto, Italy

Meadow outside Orvieto, Italy

After centuries emphasizing human dominance over nature, the Romantic era brought a new enthusiasm for nature. With populations throughout Europe and the United States beginning to urbanize, nature began to be seen as a source of excitement rather than fear.  Celebrity designers such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton created vast landscapes that created an experience of “enhanced nature”. They worked primarily in broad brushstrokes, shaping naturalistic earthforms and drifts of trees. The Romantic approach to landscape design was later adopted by Frederick Law Olmsted in America, creating such works as Central Park in New York City and the Back Bay Fens in Boston—public spaces designed to appear natural, not designed. 

At smaller scales, a literature of ornamental gardening for working- and middle-class people began to emerge. Scottish horticulturist John Claudius Loudon developed experience as a landscape planner and agricultural consultant, before establishing the Gardener’s Magazine, the first horticulture-focused magazine in England, in 1823. Loudon’s wife, Jane Wells Webb Loudon, collaborated closely on the Gardener’s Magazine and produced a large body of literature framing gardening as a suitable occupation for women – including titles such as Instructions in Gardening for Ladies, The Ladies’ Flower Garden, Botany for Ladies, and others. The Loudons’ work focused on domestic gardens rather than grand estates. In America, Andrew Jackson Downing was developing his own interpretation of Romantic ideals around landscape and dwelling. His first book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America (1842), was strikingly influential on American domestic gardens – with a particular emphasis on front porches and lawns.  

Irish garden designer William Robinson, in particular, was realizing a vision of Romantic values at the planting scale. In his books The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883), he proposed a new look for plantings. Rather than emphasizing the grand scale of tree plantings and vast lawns, he focused on vast swathes of herbaceous plants and smaller shrubs. These plantings were designed to look as natural and unplanned as a vast Brown or Olmsted landscape. He introduced the concept of “naturalized” planting – planning for plantings to be dynamic, with individual plants spreading and moving around, rather than being treated as static objects. Robinson worked closely with famed British planting designer and artist Gertrude Jekyll, who is still regarded as the prototypical garden designer and master of the herbaceous border.  

A century and more later, it’s easy to see how trends in garden design were being influenced by trends in landscape representation. With photography becoming increasingly accessible, artists explored ever-greater degrees of abstraction. The French impressionists, in particular, represented light and color as diffuse and flickering. The landscapes they portrayed appear to dissolve. Even the bold textures of palms and yuccas shown in Monet’s The Moreno Garden at Bordighera (1884) appear as splinters of light and shadow. Such treatment emphasized the depth and movement of plantings, framing a new way to view the transient effects of light, shadow and color. 

Monet’s The Moreno Garden at Bordighera (1884)

Widespread industrialization led to a renewed artistic interest in authenticity and making—evidenced in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Architects such as William Morris in England, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, Gustav Stickley in New York, and the Greene brothers in California emphasized respect for materials and craft, particularly evidenced in domestic architecture. Gardens began to be seen as extensions of the home, with a similar close attention to detail.

 With middle-class women achieving greater access to representation, free time, and money, there was an explosion of interest in and writing about domestic gardens. The cottage garden—a romantic fantasy of traditional working class plantings—became popular with early 20th-century influencers. Louise Beebe Wilder in New York and Elizabeth Lawrence in North Carolina were extensively published about cottage gardening for homeowners. In England, Vita Sackville-West wrote extensively about her experience creating the ultimate cottage garden at Sissinghurst.  

Childe Hassam, Celia Thaxter’s Garden, Isle of Shoals, Maine (1890)

On the Isle of Shoals, in Maine, Celia Thaxter ran a hotel that served as a summer base for writers and artists, including the Impressionist artist Childe Hassam. Every spring, Thaxter would tote hundreds of annual seedlings across from the mainland to plant in the grounds of her hotel. Hassam chronicled the jewel-like intermingled plantings in a series of paintings, including Celia Thaxter’s Garden, Isle of Shoals, Maine”. 

While early 20th-century women were encouraged to make domestic gardens, men were out making noise about the loss of wild landscapes. In the American West, the impacts of uncontrolled exploitation became visible. Game quantities and sizes decreased. Ancient woodlands had been destroyed. The American spiritualist movement espoused by Emerson, Thoureau, and Whitman took a material turn. Theodore Roosevelt’s establishment of the United States Forest Service marked a new phase in American understanding of landscape as more than a resource to be thoughtlessly exploited. The emerging science of ecology established a basis for understanding how natural systems function.   

By the mid-20th century, the Arts-and-Crafts gardening tradition and ecological science were being merged in design schools and offices to form the basis of contemporary landscape architecture practice. In England, Dame Sylvia Crowe experimented with different management practices and collaborative teams to understand how planting design could function in the context of projects at different scales. At University of Pennsylvania, Ian McHarg formulated a practice of ecological mapping as a design tool. Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962 cracked open an international awareness of landscape’s vulnerability.  

Today, landscape architects can no longer claim ignorance of the importance of good planting design. Practitioners who care about their work’s success have unparalleled access to knowledge about historical planting and management practices. Rooted in this knowledge, we will be able to create innovative plantings that will confront the challenges of the 21st century, provoking wonder and delight.


Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Naomi Brooks, Dr. Jared Barnes & Sloan Patton for reading progress versions of this piece. Your suggestions and edits were vital, and continue to hone my development as a practitioner and writer. Due to my education and experience, this piece emphasizes European and North American influences and practitioners in contemporary naturalistic planting design. I’m eager for readers to contribute to dialogue about naturalistic planting design and its development in other parts of the world. 

Lead Image: Intermingled Planting, Tom Stuart-Smith Studio, Chelsea Flower Show 2019

Learning the Language of Contemporary Planting Design

Many landscape architects resist planting design. It’s complex, time-consuming, and site-specific. Results are highly intertwined with implementation and maintenance. Planting is also exactly what your dad’s friends think you do – “Come over, tell me what to do with my yard. And why don’t you mow the lawn while you’re at it.”

However, over the past 20 years, it’s become increasingly apparent that landscape architects can’t continue to rely on landscape contractors to “shrub up” their beautifully-rendered designs. Functioning and maintainable plantings are essential for projects to deliver the ecosystem benefits that landscape architects claim to value. High-profile projects like the High Line in New York demonstrate the power of good planting to capture the public imagination and convince consumers that landscape architects can deliver value for fees.

Lurie Garden, Summer 2014 – Planting by Piet Oudolf

Planting in the first 20 years of the twenty-first century has been defined by Piet Oudolf, a Dutch planting designer who rose to prominence in the United States when engaged to design several high profile projects – especially the aforementioned High Line and the Lurie Garden in Chicago. More recently, in America, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West have been widely publicized for their book Planting in a Post-Wild World and work at Phyto Studio.

These designers are most widely known for work with a highly specific look: flower-heavy herbaceous plantings that are basically a fantasy version of North American prairie plant communities. It’s an approach that Sheffield scholars James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett refer to as “enhanced nature”. UK scholar and landscape writer Noel Kingsbury explores in depth in his 2013 book with Piet Oudolf, Planting: A New Perspective. This style of planting has even spawned an enthusiastic Facebook Group, Dutch Dreams, with over 5000 members.

This style of planting is intimidating for designers (and clients) trained in more traditional approaches to planting design. Most landscape architects are working without the knowledge base of an experienced planting designer or a highly skilled and trained maintenance staff. Since efficiency equals profit, it can be challenging to experiment and learn about these new approaches to planting in the context of a professional practice.  

As a starting point, I’ve compiled a set of widely used terms that you – as a designer – can use to describe the qualities you’re seeking to achieve in a planting design. Having this vocabulary in your toolbox should enable you and your clients to make impactful decisions and achieve the types of results you want. 

London 2012 Olympic Park. Planting by Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, & Sarah Price

Naturalistic: The term “naturalistic” describes the appearance or aesthetic of a planting. Naturalistic plantings look irregular, organic, and naturally-occurring – rather than having some clear geometric order. While they may look “wild” or “natural”, they are designed

Potters Field Park, June 2017. Planting by Piet Oudolf.

Block Planting: “Block planting” is a planting placement strategy typical of traditional planting design, where multiples of the same type of plant form distinct groups. 

Chelsea Flower Show Garden, May 2019. Planting by Tom Stuart-Smith Studio.

Intermingling: “Intermingling” is about placement of individual plants in relationship to each other. In an intermingled planting, you’ll see a mixture of different types of plants together, rather than distinct blocks of one species. 

Grass Matrix with Aloes at Huntington Library & Botanical Garden, February 2018

Matrix: Primary dense mass planting of a single species (often a grass) with other species planted more sparsely throughout.

Wave Hill, June 2015

Dynamic: In a “dynamic” planting, physical distribution of individual plants changes over time, based on self-sowing and spreading. Placement of individual plants is not significant to the design intent. 

North American Plate, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, June 2017. Planting by Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, & Sarah Price

Plant Community: The term “plant community” refers to a group of different species planted together that fill different spatial and temporal niches. In design terms, this means thinking about plants as groupings – rather than focusing on individual blocks or plants. 

Chicago Art Museum Planting, September 2018. Planting by Roy Diblick.

Ecological: The term “ecological” describes a planting that is designed to have specific environmental functions and benefits. Most often it’s a term of hope, maybe even over-optimism. In the US, we have very little research demonstrating substantial ecological benefits from contemporary designed plant communities. Some research has been done in Europe, such as the BUGS study in Sheffield, which demonstrated that, at the metro scale, urban and suburban plantings did offer significant ecological benefits for biodiversity. 

Acknowledgements & Further Reading
Noel Kingsbury – particularly Planting: A New Perspective (2013)
James Hitchmough & Nigel Dunnett – particularly The Dynamic Landscape (2004)
Thomas Rainer & Claudia West – Planting in a Post-Wild World (2015)
Julian Raxworthy – Overgrown (2018)
Jared Barnes – thanks for reading/reviewing – Plant-Ed Blog


Lead Image: Barbican – Planting by Nigel Dunnett

10 Questions with @ShitGardens

Are you tired of oversaturated beach scenes, breathy clouds of flowers, and manicured contemporary plazas filling your Instagram feed? Head over to @shitgardens, the popular Instagram feed where Bede Brennan and James Hull present images of landscapes that won’t be winning any beautification awards. We had the opportunity to ask @shitgardens a series of questions about their work. These guys focus on landscapes that don’t make it into glossy design magazines or landscape architecture textbooks. Pay attention, you might learn something – and get some good laughs along the way. Make sure to give them a follow @shitgardens on Instagram – and buy their book, Shitgardens.

What makes a @ShitGarden? How do you define it?

There is a spectrum. For us, shit is often a term of endearment, equivalent to quirky, eccentric or bizarre. We like gardens which take a concept further than anyone else or gardens where you can see the bold vision of the gardener, especially if the reality is not a realisation of this vision.

But there are also those more condemned varieties of shit gardens: neglected expanses of concrete, weed harbouring swamps, or lifeless and loveless coloured gravel. These are not our main focus, though they are sometimes worth a laugh.

While our Instagram feed has diversified into whatever we find funny on the day, we become much more purist and true to the original vision when it comes to exhibitions and publications.

All Aboard for Good Old Fashioned Fun by by @RegressionaryMovements

How do you classify types of shit gardens? What are your favourite trends in the landscapes that you feature?

We’re both fascinated with topiaries at the moment. They symbolise such a bizarre relationship between person and plant – growth by the plant constantly checked by the neurosis of the gardener – constantly in pursuit of the unattainable: a plant in the shape of something other than a plant.

Topiaries are infectious too. They seem to spread from one garden to another from over the fence. We devoted a whole chapter from our book to this phenomenon.

What’s the materials palette of a shit garden? What are its essential features?  

The types of shit gardens we prefer tend to have grand statues, mid-century breeze blocks, and unprofessionally restored historic items. The types we don’t like are usually dominated by expanses of astroturf, with glowing red mulch, feature gravel and the odd Yucca. Once again there is a broad spectrum.

Fantasy Castle by Richard Unsworth

In creating @ShitGardens, and presenting on Detail Debacles at the  2019 International Festival of Landscape Architecture, what did you discover about how designers’ intentions can be interpreted in unexpected ways?

Designers’ intentions are not always an easy thing to read, or measure – but there is lots of fun to be had in subverting them. Often these subversions are a valid reclaiming of public space by groups or individuals who have been ‘designed out’, people with skateboards or spray-paint or whatever. I don’t think designers should be upset when people use the spaces they have designed in unexpected ways. 

In what ways would you like landscape architects to make space for humor in practice? How do we stay (or become) playful?

Well, there is a long history of playfulness in practice, from automatons in renaissance gardens to Martha Shwartz Bagel Garden. Perhaps it feels harder, or less appropriate, to be humourous in the Anthropocene though. Maybe a darker sense of humour will emerge over the next few years…

Birds of Paradise by Tessa Shwartz

What are your favorite representations of shit gardens in popular culture – movies, tv, literature, advertisements?

There are so many good shit gardens in films. The scene from Broken Flowers where Bill Murray visits his uptight ex Dora in suburbia has some excellent shit gardens. Another good one is the “You just got three feet of air” scene in Napoleon Dynamite, where Napoleon is flanked by two glorious Roman Catholic statues –  a Jesus and a Mary. Once you start looking for shit gardens in films, they turn out to be an often used motif, deserving of more recognition for their mood creation. It’s something we’d love to explore more. 

What are you bored with on @ShitGardens? What gets submitted too much? What are you always happy to see?

So glad to get this question! Please dear readers, stop sending the one with lots of pairs of jeans stuffed with soil. We get this daily and it brings us no joy, any longer.

The Carpenter’s Son by @jorgosphotos

What did you learn from intentionally trying to make installations evocative of shit gardens at the 2019 AILA conference?

Making things is hard, even shit things. We have so much respect for everyone who creates real physical things. The tyre swan we made turned out to be the most arduous task either of us have ever undertaken. Even with the help of friends we spent a good 5 hours wrestling the thing until eventually the tyre invented and swanny could spread her wings. 

Have you heard of other designers doing things differently as a result of your work?

Haha, well not in terms of changing their practice as designers. But we have had a number of submissions we suspect of being ‘staged’. I dare say that the most significant influence our work has had on design would be the potential discontinuation of certain trends, i.e. a decline in yuccas and radioactive gravel, due to us having made fun of these themes countless times. 

Heaven is a Garden by Christa Cowell

If you could organize a tour of the world’s shittest gardens, what places would you want to include?

Shit gardens seem to be universal. Or at least present in all suburbs we’ve visited, with definite hotspots in certain areas. I guess shit is in the eye of the beholder. The northern suburbs of Melbourne will always be a Mecca for this aesthetic but internationally speaking, the US has a lot to offer. We get a lot of submissions from “middle America” which we are always astounded by.

Bede & James present at Festival of Landscape Architecture

Meet @shitgardens:

Bede Brennan is a landscape architect most interested in investigating our connections to the non-human world. He divides his time working between Melbourne firm Pollen Studio, teaching at the University of Melbourne, and on collaborative projects as BBLA. Bede has written for a number of publications, including The Planthunter and Kerb Journal. But his secret passion is, of course, shit gardens.

James Hull is a school teacher and plant enthusiast. He works with children who have special needs in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. James likes to keep himself sane by surveying and documenting the vast array of gardens and yard-spaces throughout Melbourne and surrounding environs. He has a passion for all things ‘internet’ and has a keen eye for the burgeoning aesthetics of suburban ‘shitgardens’.

Bede & James presented ‘Detailing Debacles’ at the 2019 International Festival of Landscape Architecture. They have also published a coffee table book “Shitgardens”, available online or in the odd bookshop if you care to hear their deeper thoughts on plastic flamingos.


Lead Image: Welcome to the Garden Home by Christa Cowell

10 Questions with @thelandscapeofmemes

Inspired by the article “Iced Out” by Brian Barth in the February 2019 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine

Those clever landscape architect memes your friends are sharing? They’re probably from the new instagram phenomenon @thelandscapeofmemes.

Land8 had the opportunity to ask @thelandscapeofmemes a series of questions about their work. Here’s your chance to learn from a meme master who thinks seriously about the possibilities of our profession. Make sure to give them a follow @thelandscapeofmemes on Instagram or Twitter.

What instigated @thelandscapeofmemes?

I’m an avid viewer of memes and one day I randomly decided to search “landscape/landscape architecture memes” and what I saw was… interesting. I’d seen so many funny meme accounts for architecture, graphic design, medicine etc and I would always think, “It would be cool if there was a decent, relevant meme page dedicated to landscape architecture/design.” After a while of pondering the idea, I just decided to start an account – it was really a “why not?” moment. I also liked the idea of adding an amusing way for people within the profession to engage with one another.

Whose work (could be anyone – designers, cartoonists, musicians, puppeteers) inspires you?
I like the work of Joan Cornellà and how he delivers social commentary through his unsettling and weirdly amusing comic strips and artwork. His work has little to no text and uses only a few frames but still manages to convey a power message relating to our society. That’s basically the meme format – short, relevant and direct. Floccinaucinihilipilification is also another cartoonist whose comic strips I enjoy and get inspiration from because they’re so relatable. I also admire the blunt and defiant nature of Banksy’s work. Then there’s Theo Jansen and his surreal kinetic sculptures. The way he infused art and engineering in such a harmonious way is truly amazing.

In terms of landscape architects – it has to be Catherine Mosbach for me. Her work is unique, refreshing and reveals intriguing ways to design landscapes which may not fit into “mainstream” notions of landscape design.

I saved the best trees for you…

What places have influenced you recently? Why?

New Zealand is a stunning country with such a variety of magnificent landscapes. I’ve been fortunate enough to see and experience them for myself and it strengthened my love for the natural environment. It also hit-home how a lot will need to change from a global, environmental perspective if these landscapes and their associated ecosystem will persist. The Neolithic sites of Carnacs stones located in Brittany, France – which I have to visit one day! They appear to be such fascinating and mysterious sites with a wealth of history. I recently rediscovered these sites while searching stone installations and I was reminded of the striking presence of the stone arrangements set against the rather flat landscape. The sites have me contemplating how simple interventions in the landscape can be profound.

How do you use memes as part of your creative practice?
Initially, my creative practice was mainly drawing, and I thought adding meme-making would be simple, but it really wasn’t. So, I work on memes a couple times a week – but I never force the process. Sometimes a meme idea sprouts spontaneously from something I saw or read, and I know exactly what meme template to use and it just works. Other times, an idea doesn’t come so easily, so I just work on something else. Unlike drawing (which I attempt to do every day), I prefer to let meme ideas come more naturally.

What have you learned from creating @thelandscapeofmemes? What’s surprised you?
How much the global landscape architectural/design community has in common. How we have similar/common experiences, frustrations and thoughts about the profession. It’s pleasant to read comments where people relate completely with a post or feel validated by it. I’m also starting to discover that there’s so much going on in the landscape architectural/design field beyond the news that’s on popular design websites. I try and create some memes which relate to something very specific related the field and hopefully encourage people to do further research if they’re interested.

Tried and tested, ladies and gentlemen

Have you heard of people doing things differently as a result of your work?
Not so far. It would be nice to hear some stories in the future.

What kinds of representation would you like to see landscape architects explore – both as part of design practice and in how we represent our work to clients and the public? 
We could explore virtual reality more to allow anyone to freely immerse themselves in a landscape design. There is also an opportunity here to represent landscape over time – I think landscape architects/designers can be too focused on representing the final, mature landscape design and don’t think so much about the in-between. Virtual reality could play a valuable role in depicting how a landscape design evolves over a period of time. It’d also be nice to see more hand-drawings – although it is more time-consuming to do plans, sections and perspectives by hand. Digital representation goes a long way, but I do feel there’s a lovely quality in a hand-drawing which can also impress. I’ve seen other creative ways of representation such as collage and even custom-made stamps (of trees and textures etc) which were used to create a plan. So there’s so many (artistic) options to representation depending on the project.

Decisions have already been made, ecosystems have already been lost

In what ways would you like landscape architects to make space for humor in practice? How do we stay (or become) playful?
Chill out sometimes – some practices may be too stiff/formal and have no “office culture.” A simple office lunch once a week (where everyone actually has to leave their desk to eat together) can go a long way in building that friendly, light-hearted environment. Of course, work must still get done, but I think deliberately designating some time to do something relaxing or fun and get to know your colleagues (especially in larger practices) is helpful. Browsing social media occasionally and seeing all the funny accounts and channels also helps maintain some playfulness.

Is there something that you haven’t explored yet with memes or landscape representation that you’d like to try?
I want to explore editing video footage – taking classic video memes and adding a landscape architecture/design spin to it. There is a lot of footage out there that relate to the profession from lectures to references in movies and documentaries – it’s just a matter of how they are put together.

What are your dream projects?
It’s odd because my dream projects (that have been implemented) are pathways. The first is the pathway to the Acropolis designed by Dimitris Pikionis. It’s incredible how the pathway looks like it was constructed at the same time as the Acropolis even though it was actually implemented in the mid-1950s. I appreciate how the project is very mindful of the context as exemplified through the design and the use of local material and craftsmen. I can only speculate, but it seems like the project was implemented carefully and thoughtfully – it wasn’t rushed. The other pathway is at Punta Pite in Chile, designed by Teresa Moller Landscape Studio. Like the Acropolis pathway, the project was implemented very carefully and sensitively using experienced craftsmen. The pathway is brilliantly integrated into the rocky coastline – anyone can see how incredibly intricate and skilful the implementation was.The construction industry is so fast-paced, and it really forces architectural designers to produce results quickly; for me, it’s nice to see projects like the pathways mentioned, which demonstrate an acute sense of thoughtfulness and patience in the landscape design and implementation.

On the flipside, another dream project for me would be anything which is designed specifically for (sea or land) animals. I suppose zoos are one but perhaps that typology could be rethought. I don’t know of many projects where the design is intended for a specific animal or species for example. I can only imagine that this type of project would be exciting because it would involve a diverse team which would include professionals who work with or study animals.

R.I.P.

Top Video Resources for Landscape Architects

As practicing landscape architects, it can be easy to feel distanced from innovation in the field. Designers outside of major metro areas – or remote from landscape architecture schools – can find it difficult to feel knowledgeable or inspired. In small firms, particularly, the resources necessary for continuing education are often difficult to justify. Fortunately, there’s been a recent movement for universities and other organizations to release online video of lectures and presentations. These lectures may not provide the social benefit of attending a conference – and you may not get an education credit, but they can be a cheap and flexible way of learning. If you’re needing some inspiration, flick over to YouTube or Vimeo. Listen to these experts. You’ll learn something. To start, here’s a quick list of 8 free online video resources for landscape architects:

Landscape Architecture Lectures, College of Environmental Design, University of California Berkeley: 

An opportunity to learn from top professionals in the field without paying for the privilege? Thank the landscape gods that you were born in the internet age. Olmsted, Ferrand, and le Notre would be tumbling over themselves to have the opportunity to learn from the professionals we get an opportunity to hear via the internet. I found out about this stream when I failed to attend the 2018 Symposium on The Art of Planting Design, which featured practitioners from Mexico, Portugal, Sweden, and Australia – as well as a range of regions in the US. Even if you’re not a planting person, there are plenty of other memorable lectures here – make sure to listen to Diane Jones Allen on cultural landscapes and Nadia Amoroso on landscape representation

Beth Chatto Symposium 2018 Recorded Lectures

Planting designer Beth Chatto is particularly well-known in the United Kingdom, but her ecologically-driven approach has influenced planting around the world. In 2018, planting experts who work at a range of climates and scales congregated to speak about their work. Whether you design with plants on a daily basis or an occasional shrub-it-up kind of landscape architect, you’ll learn something from the fantastic panel assembled at this event. 

Landscape Architecture Foundation:

If you’re at all interested in becoming a better designer, you pay attention to the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s work. Their earlier work focused on environmental sustainability, including the Case Study Investigation and the Landscape Performance Series which pioneered research on actual measurable results of design interventions. Today, LAF is beginning to broaden their scope to include equity and social justice – aspects of landscape architecture that our profession has often ignored. Give their videos a watch to learn from researchers and practitioners creating influential work. If you watch nothing else, watch the 20-minute documentary for the New Landscape Declaration.

Landscape Architecture Department Lectures, University of Washington College of Built Environments:

Did you attend lectures when you were in design school? No? You stayed in studio working on your projects? Well, make up for lost time by listening to this series of expert practitioners. UW has a really useful practice of including lectures from the entire college of the built environment in one stream. Learn from architects and planners as well as those in your own discipline. I learned about this channel through the GGN talk “Drawing What You Can’t See”, which included talks by Shannon Nichol, Keith McPeters, and David Malda. Give it a listen.

American Society of Landscape Architects:

You’re interested in landscape architecture, you know about ASLA. That’s not even up for debate. It’s the professional advocacy organization in the United States. ASLA’s YouTube channel is more scattered and clip-oriented than some of the other resources on this list, but pay particular attention to the channels on Designing for Diversity and Ask Me Anything.

Landscape Institute:

American landscape architects have an unfortunate tendency to be a bit provincial about our understanding of our profession. Yes, the term “landscape architect” is an American invention. The earliest professionals (Olmsted and Vaux) to use that term and the first professional program (at Harvard) were American. But, today, there’s a vast body of landscape architectural expertise being created across the world. Take a look at the UK-based Landscape Institute YouTube channels for some great stormwater graphics and content on landscape architecture as a profession

New York Botanical Garden:

Public gardens are a great resource for landscape architects and planting designers. Dedicated to creating and preserving knowledge about the environment, botanical institutions are doing important work in this time of epic extinction rates and climate change. New York Botanical Garden has done fantastic work in recording the knowledge of regional experts. Explore their online content to learn more about biodiversity, plant communities, and climate resilience strategies. Don’t hesitate – while drawing out your next CAD details, listen to Charles Jenks on the Universe as Artist or Robin Wall Kimmerer and Elizabeth Gilbert on What Plants Can Teach Us.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation:

The Cultural Landscape Foundation focuses on connecting people to place. Their work protects and interprets four types of landscapes – designed, ethnographic, historic, and vernacular. As part of their interpretive work, TCLF’s YouTube channel includes oral histories of famous landscape architects, as well as conference presentations. Start with the oral history of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a Canadian landscape architect who has created significant landscapes throughout the US and Canada. 

Land8x8 Lightning Talks:

Land8: Landscape Architects Network has organized a series of of “lightning talks” with landscape architects presenting on the theme “Next Practices in Landscape Architecture”. The format of Land8x8 (“land-eight-by-eight”) Lightning Talks is 8 speakers for 8 minutes each. This exciting new format breaks away from traditional lectures and packs in 8 different talks in about an hour that will have you thinking and inspired about the future of landscape architecture from a variety of established and emerging leaders. Be on the lookout for 16 new talks to be published on a continuing basis starting next week.

Your firm may not be able to sponsor a trip to Hong Kong or Sydney or San Diego, where you’ll clink glasses and open your sketchbook to today’s hottest design experts. But you’re in luck. You don’t have to devote a full semester or pay tuition in order to learn from top practitioners and researchers in our field. Turn your web browser to Vimeo or YouTube, crank up your headphones, and give these online resources a listen. You’ll learn something.


Lead Image: Caleb Melchior

Show Secrets: Design Details from the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show

You’ve probably seen photos from Chelsea Flower Show. For a week in late May each year, the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in south London are filled with show gardens and horticultural exhibits. The Chelsea Flower Show is one of the most famous garden festivals in the world. It’s organized by the Royal Horticultural Society, the United Kingdom’s primary horticulture non-profit. The Royals usually open the show. The BBC broadcasts hours of coverage. Celebrities stand and talk to the cameras about their garden love. This year, Dame Judi Dench did a talk about dutch elm disease. Other shows might be more innovative or cosmopolitan, but Chelsea has prestige.

I’d been meaning to go for years. This spring, I finally got myself together, took a plane and a subway and a couple of cross-town buses, and went to Chelsea on press day.

Main Avenue | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Main Avenue | Photo: Caleb Melchior

You enter into the Main Avenue. London Planes (Platanus x acerifolia) planted both sides of a wide walk create a vast canopy, flickering rows of booths. The uniform shape and color of the booths offsets the diversity of products and display styles on offer. In one booth, you could purchase some of Rachel Dein’s delicate casts – snowdrops, crocus, species tulips in bas relief. Others, garden tools or furnishings. You can sign up for Gardens Illustrated or The English Gardener magazine. But I was here for gardens, not to shop.

The show features three types of gardens: show gardens, urban gardens, and artisan gardens. Show gardens are the largest (1300-2100 sq ft / 120-200 sq meters), usually designed by high-profile UK garden designers and landscape architects, sponsored by large companies and organizations. They’re located around the Grand Marquis – the central venue where specialty nurseries and horticulture companies set up floral displays. Urban gardens, at 800-1100 sq ft/72-100 sq meters, usually explore contemporary forms and materials. They’re located against the backdrop of the Royal Hospital’s renaissance courtyard. Artisan gardens (220-430 sq ft/20-40 sq meters) are located back in the Ranelagh Gardens, to the east of the primary show grounds. They’re surrounded by woodland and typically explore looser, more rustic design styles.

Gardens in all three categories are incredible accomplishments. Anyone who’s been involved with making a landscape – particularly on a deadline – would be impressed at the craft and skill evident in these gardens. As a designer who works primarily in the United States, I’m highly impressed with the quality and range of plants available for these show gardens. The materiality is stunning.

But, looking at these gardens, I realized that there’s an integral element of the landscape experience that I missed. You can’t walk through most of the gardens. They’re set up like dioramas, beautiful jewel boxes that you can observe from the outside. As a press day attendee, I was fortunate to be able to have clear views of most of the gardens and walk around them without having to shove through a crowd. But I still felt like someone looking into a shop window. The gardens felt more like objects than spatial experiences.

Andy Sturgeon | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Andy Sturgeon | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Different designers addressed this spatial challenge in different ways. Andy Sturgeon’s Woodland Garden for M&G, the 2019 Best in Show winner, used a highly graphic approach. Strong lines (like swift charcoal strokes in a drawing) of burnt wood ledge sculptures by Johnny Woodford set up an underlying layered structure to the garden’s space. Quirky corky trees rose between the ledges, creating green veils. Then, between the ledges burst forth an intricate groundcover layer of highly varied woodland plants.

Intermingling Tom Stuart Smith | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Intermingling Tom Stuart Smith | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Diffusion – incorporating small-flowered and small-leaved plants with wiry stems – seemed a common technique for bringing lightness and movement to counteract the flatness of these gardens. Tom Stuart-Smith’s Show Garden for RHS Bridgewater (one of the few that you could actually walk through) featured highly intricate intermingled planting in jewel tones: purple cow parsley, orange euphorbia, tangerine geum, blue siberian iris.

Chanteuse | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Chanteuse | Photo: Caleb Melchior

In the Savills and David Harber Show Garden, designer Andrew Duff used white-flowered cow parsley and golden buttercups at the front of the garden to create a diffuse edge – enhancing the more solid shrub blocks and water bodies behind.

Montessorri Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Montessorri Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Diffusion was used in smaller gardens as well. Jody Lidgard’s Montessori Centenary Children’s Garden, one of the urban gardens, intermingled brightly colored flowers to create a display that a pointillist painter would love.

Laser Cut Aluminum Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Laser Cut Aluminum Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

In addition to diffuse planting, designers used intricate and complex surfaces within the gardens to achieve depth. The Manchester Garden by Exterior Architecture incorporated a hand cut carbon fibre sculpture, Morpheus by Lazerian Studio. Morpheus’ organic form contrasted beautifully with the historical architecture of the Royal Hospital (visible in the background).

Moss Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Moss Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Kazuyuki Ishihare’s Green Switch Artisan Garden featured two glass cubes overlooking a moss-and-rock pool. The intricate surface of the moss, each soft hummock individually placed, created a sense of intense fascination. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

Reflecting on the show, the thing that I keep coming back to is the difference between my expectations and the actual experience of being there. Seeing photography of previous shows, my brain had interpolated an immersive spatial experience – an experience that the show didn’t deliver. This gap between expectations and experience reminded me of past visits to other high-profile landscape architecture projects that didn’t live up to the images.

Representation is always a challenge for landscape architecture and landscape architects. Visiting Chelsea – such a glorious temporary spectacle – made me wonder if sometimes the most meaningful landscapes are those we build only in our minds.


Lead Image: Driftwood Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Portfolio Secrets for New Landscape Architects and Designers

A design portfolio, especially for the young and less experienced designer, is an intimidating document to create. We’ve all heard rumors of older students with silver bullet portfolios that secure them endless job offers from prestigious firms. Who doesn’t want to be fought over for employment?

Schwemmer Portfolio

Schwemmer Portfolio

Schwemmer Portfolio

These three spreads from Ashley Schwemmer’s student portfolio demonstrate how to use multiple types of graphics to build a compelling story about a project. Schwemmer is a currently a landscape architect with West8 based in New York City.

The ideal portfolio represents the breadth of your skills and abilities. It demonstrates that you can communicate verbally and visually. It proves that you can think critically. That’s a lot of pressure on one document, which you preferably want to keep to no more than 10-12 spreads (5MB).

Design portfolios are useful tools. They demonstrate prospective employees’ aesthetic sensibilities, problem solving skills, communication styles, and technical abilities. But no 12-spread document can fully represent a person. There is no silver bullet portfolio.

After working with hiring teams at several different types of firms, I’ve been on both the creating and reviewing sides of the portfolio. Here are some considerations that can help you feel confident that the document appropriately represents you to potential employers.

  • Make sure the document is easy to view. Many offices receive hundreds of portfolios for each job posting. The portfolios that will be remembered are those that are graphically clear and compelling. Make sure each spread reads at a quick glance. Format for easy viewing on small phone screens. Your knowledge of graphic and typographic design, layout, page structure, and hierarchy is reflected in your portfolio. Plan for good contrast so everything reads on a small phone screen or printed out in grayscale. You want to draw attention to the work itself, not to a complicated graphics scheme. Avoid complicated keys and labels.
  • Minimize text. You’re a designer. Keep descriptions short. Demonstrate problem solving and critical thinking through graphics. No one is going to spend thirty minutes reading your description of a bioswale planting.
  • Show design thinking. Pretty graphics are only part of the story. Tell the story of your processes through sketches leading to more refined graphics. Captions that include information about what tools/programs you used to create specific graphics and a rough estimate of the time it took you to create the graphic can be useful to a potential employer.
  • Demonstrate multi-scalar thinking. Use different types of drawings (exports from 3D models, concept sketches, photomontages, plans, sections, etc) together to show that you’re accustomed to thinking through design problems at multiple scales and in varying degrees of precision.
This spread from Ryan Albracht’s professional portfolio demonstrates design thinking at multiple scales, with a plan relating to construction details and exports from a 3D model. Albracht is a 3D visualization specialist with McAdams in Durham, North Carolina.

This spread from Ryan Albracht’s professional portfolio demonstrates design thinking at multiple scales, with a plan relating to construction details and exports from a 3D model. Albracht is a 3D visualization specialist with McAdams in Durham, North Carolina.

  • Use space wisely. You have 10-12 spreads to capture a potential employer’s attention. Don’t waste it. One of the most useless sections I’ve seen in a lot of design portfolios is a photography section. If you’ve made it through design school, you can probably compose a successful image. Use this space to demonstrate a unique skill.
  • Tie everything visually together as much as possible. Your portfolio, resume, website, and social media should read as a coherent experience that supports your expertise and areas of interest as a designer.
  • Demonstrate unique knowledge & skill. Design is all about application of specialized knowledge and skill. It’s hard to spend much time developing new skills when you’re in the middle of a busy design practice. As a younger designer, you probably have skills (particularly in technology and social media) that may add capabilities to a firm – enabling them to offer new services and take on new types of projects. Demonstrate the design research techniques that you’ve learned in school and show how to apply them in design projects. If you have statistics knowledge that informed a project, demonstrate that. If you know some neat tricks and tips, show them in your portfolio. If you have experience in fine art, list competitions and exhibitions. Show off your fluency with different media.
This spread from Elizabeth Levkulich’s student portfolio demonstrates explorations of mixed-media drawing in a Jon Hunt’s Poetic Image studio at Kansas State University. Levkulich is a landscape designer with TBG Partners in Dallas, Texas. 

This spread from Elizabeth Levkulich’s student portfolio demonstrates explorations of mixed-media drawing in a Jon Hunt’s Poetic Image studio at Kansas State University. Levkulich is a landscape designer with TBG Partners in Dallas, Texas.

  • Demonstrate hands on experience. Hands-on experience with landscape maintenance, retail horticulture, construction, graphic design, research methods, and business administration can be highly useful to landscape architecture firms. Demonstrate how real-world experience supports your creative practice.
  • Customize some of your portfolio. Keep a major block of your portfolio ready to go, but customize a few pages for firms that you’re particularly interested in. Do research and you’ll get a feel for the firm’s aesthetic – both in graphics and built work. Read staff bios – you’ll often get a sense for the type of language that firm appreciates. Google around to find out about new projects they’ve obtained and what they’re working on – you may have skills that enable a firm to take on new types of projects and offer new products.
  • Have a personal professional website. This doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be a wordpress site that just includes the material from your portfolio. Keep adding to it over time, even in practice. You’ll find that it’s highly useful to have an online place where you can demonstrate expertise.
  • Make it easy to contact and find you.

5 Top Planting Design Resources for New Landscape Architects

Clients and employers often complain that landscape architects, particularly young designers, are failing at planting design. Previous articles on Land8 have identified planting design as a challenging area for the profession in several other articles, including “Why Do Some Graduate Landscape Architects Have a Poor Understanding of Planting?” and “Garden Designers & Landscape Architects: Resolving the Identity Crisis”.

Planting design is a complex and time consuming aspect of practice. In the horticulture community, individuals devote their entire careers to understanding how to grow specific plants. Landscape architects don’t have that luxury. We are expected to have a thorough understanding of regionally appropriate plants, as well as the ability to specify them appropriately and provide direction for planting and maintenance. We need to quickly and efficiently create high quality planting plans and specifications. This requires a substantial body of knowledge and experience.

To fulfill this challenge, we need to draw on all of our resources to be able to fulfill our employers’ and clients’ expectations. As a start, here are five resources that will help you get better at planting design today:

1. Public Gardens

Public gardens are your top local resource for seeing what plants grow well in what situations in your area. Go, take a look at what’s growing – whether as a studio tour or a leisurely weekend trip. Introduce yourself to the horticulture staff. Find out their areas of expertise and current research interests. They probably have a designated help desk where you can ask specific plant-related questions.

Explore their online resources as well. Many public gardens have extensive resources that you can access from the comfort of your desk. Try Missouri Botanical Garden’s PlantFinder Database and Chicago Botanical Garden’s Plant Trials Evaluation Notes.

Regional botanical gardens, such as these Plant Family beds at Kew, Richmond, UK, are a fantastic resource for designers to see plants growing in specific physical situations.

Regional botanical gardens, such as these Plant Family beds at Kew, Richmond, UK, are a fantastic resource for designers to see plants growing in specific physical situations | Photo: Caleb Melchior

2. University Extension Resources

Looking for evidence-based information? University extension publications have it. They aren’t just for your country cousins. University Extension fact sheets are especially useful when you need information on specific plants or horticultural and agricultural practices. Best of all? They’re free. University of Florida and Cornell both have exceptional landscape-related online resources.

3. Trade Organizations

Throughout the United States, plant propagators, growers and nursery-people unite through regional trade organizations. Attending their conferences and nursery tours will enable you to understand what plants are available in your area, along with typical sizes and seasonal differences. Go talk to these nursery-people – a good relationship with potential sources will help smooth over project challenges. For a start, try the Washington State Nursery & Landscape Association or the Louisiana Nursery & Landscape Association.

Contemporary naturalistic plantings, such as these mixes at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Statford, UK, often have wide plant palettes that can be difficult to manage both in design and construction processes. Softwares for planting design management and plant sourcing can make these complex processes more efficient and profitable.

Contemporary naturalistic plantings, such as these mixes at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Statford, UK, often have wide plant palettes that can be difficult to manage both in design and construction processes. Softwares for planting design management and plant sourcing can make these complex processes more efficient and profitable. | Photo: Caleb Melchoir

4. Planting Design Management Software

The most comprehensive and widely available planting design management software in the United States is LandFX, an AutoCAD add-on. Using LandFX, designers can place plants as objects connected to a database. Once the design is complete, plant counts and schedules are generated automatically. This enables designers to quickly create plant lists with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency. Vectorworks, used more widely internationally, has these capabilities built-in.

5. Plant Sourcing Databases

You can specify the most wonderful plants imaginable, but if they are not available, you will be receiving endless calls from contractors and complaints from clients. Using plant sourcing databases, landscape architects can understand what plants are readily available – and at appropriate sizes – in their region. PlantAnt is one of the largest sourcing assistance sites, showing the inventories of hundreds of nurseries across the continental United States. It’s free, but many of the nurseries do not update their databases very often. The Plantium is a newer, more visually-oriented resource. To date, it only covers the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. In Europe, the RHS Plant Finder can help with some nursery sourcing, but it focuses on retail rather than wholesale sources. Any of these databases are only as good as the data that is fed into them, so it is often useful to use them as a general guide rather the gospel truth.

While planting design is one of the most challenging aspects of landscape architecture practice, it can be one of the most transformative elements of a project. Utilize these resources and we can start to erase the common complaint that landscape architects don’t understand plants.


Lead Image: At Beth Chatto’s Dry Garden in Colchester, UK, a sophisticated knowledge of plants supported transformation of a parking lot into a multi-sensory experience | Photo: Caleb Melchoir

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