Details And Their Importance

As I progressed in landscaping as a career – and especially in my own projects – I came to realize how vital “finishing” can be. As the business owner who had a “speak freely” attitude I promoted among my crews, I learned many things I would otherwise not have attempted or known without their input. Nor is this some false modesty – it is simply truth. The only thing I did right was listen.

Finishing A Project

Well, it came to pass that my crews could get pretty upset with my behavior during finishing – the last day or two on a project where the time seems to slow down and a business begins chewing into profit lines. As well as I may have insisted we perform installing things, my frustration always seemed to emerge just about now.

We’ve used fire hoses tied directly into fire hydrants, using 2-3″ hoses to blast large projects into cleanliness. Needless to say, the need for an excellent pressure washer is must-have for projects where brick dust, soil amendments, bark mulches, street dust and – Heaven forbid – oil stains from standing, dripping vehicles (including the machines used for the work, like Bobcats) -can produce stains of potentially disastrous impact. Brooms, fine rakes for bark mulch, snippers for the tags which always accompany plants and which – if left – reduce the entirety to a more amateur status, blowers, you name it, all of which seemed diabolical to someone with my level of ADD, ha ha.

But the real fact was, they were prescient. They were totally capable of leaving a project looking as perfect as it could look. Plus, I would get the call when we were done and drive over to assess it all. I could still set standards, even if I was awful at the work. So they basically kicked me off the jobs. And I’m serious. I was hard to live with. The reason I say it was a factor is because crews from 2 different eras and 2 different countries did the same thing. I am a mess at the end. Luckily for the crew, it was so obviously unsatisfying to me, they both recommended that I go to the next project and begin. The truth is, I am, having said all the above, a monster at starting things. This was pretty much always where I saved and made money. I could destroy stuff at a dizzying pace!!  ;-)

Add that I was a sole proprietor in effect, we then saw how the wisdom of moving along rapidly and seamlessly became a truism in how to handle the work. An early or prompt arrival gave me time for the ‘soul-to-souls’ I could have with clients, as well as ascertaining potential changes they may have conceived and wanted to talk over. It also allowed me to arrange deliveries for the future, from machinery to sub trade scheduling.

The picture below is somewhat typical of the crude beginnings of a project. This is about the third day of work on a large residential project in Reno. I have spirited away one guy to run the larger machine, separating out boulders by size as I played around with actually setting the rocks into soil. Meanwhile, the other guys were finishing a project elsewhere.

(click any image to enlarge)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   Eventually of course, the entire crew showed up and we were wholly underway, a glorious sensation to me as our attentions bent to newer projects. Soon, we would be doing the “mid project” Phase 2-3 work of final rock placement, irrigation and planting. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I would always collect the final check on a walk-through with owners, listening to any corrections they may have had from punch lists we both created and/or listening to them rave. The latter was always my favorite. ;-)

Detail In The Work Itself

“The devil is in the details……..” .but so are some excellent angels.

Eventually, what I found was a profound sense of feeling well-served on the parts of clients who almost daily checked out our progress and who expressed the severest appreciation for how we handled details. I learned, for example, to actually work to produce details someone would admire. Rather than shy away from difficult aspects of projects, I learned to embrace them instead. For example, this rock grouping clustered around a gas-fed fire pit we designed and installed was never even spoken of during the original design consultation. I just went and thought it was too cool not to try.001 The “trick” here is the absolute snugness of the bricks which were custom cut to nestle in next to these boulders with zero tolerance for clearance. It made them look far more natural. (double click to get a better idea of how perfect I required the fit.) SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The owner later lamented he overspent on chaise lounges and bar seating in his back patio “because everyone wants to go sit on the dam rocks!” ;-) (He said it with a smile, let me add, lol).

Below is a picture 20 feet away from the fire pit, illustrating how I would use the same “snug” technique with boulders I would insert to break up boring and predictable lines on the outer edge of the patio. I always thought it gave a far more “lived-in” look and seemed incredibly more interesting if not natural. 001

Here is the same patio, looking out at a small hill we created in order to supply the owner’s requested waterfall, creek and fish pond.


A view of the same project from a different angle, looking back………..


More detail, this time merely providing an interesting edge, snugging up nicely to the concrete border.


This entryway to a home – below – was a process of gluing bricks onto the existing very bare concrete left by the builders. Note, on enlargement, the circle pattern we cut and forced into the mix right at the door way itself. I wasn’t asked for this, either, but this detail proved a winning formula and honestly didn’t take too long to manufacture.

From the very front:


A better look, when enlarged, from the side.


“Detail” also took place at the very end of jobs, during the cleanup I mentioned I was forced to avoid. ;-)  (kicking and screaming………not). Below is the day of completion at the finishing touches around a small pond in the woods we created by falling trees, digging a hole, and trying to make it look as natural as possible. In the end, this is probably the best detailed finishing I ever saw. It looks like it’s been there forever.





Inasmuch as most of our larger work looked something like the below about mid-way through, the “End” so often seemed so remote. Imagine all the work involved and then imagine not attending to the small stuff.


But rescue is at hand by some willing labor and the good vibes we always tried to support.




Great Walls

Not of China, although that is sure a great wall.

(I have adapted an older post into what follows in a bit more detail. Please note that one can click on the pictures themselves to enlarge them.)

No, these walls are of a smaller niche, involving landscaping and the pressing need at times to fit structures into our dwindling resources of available land. More and more impossible building sites are becoming completely practical as we erect structures which can hold back and cut into slopes, rendering them usable. They result in a raised area, flat and of planes with which we can live.

Some most unusual solutions have arrived which now not only perform the task of extending a building’s footprint but which also extend or reduce an area to be landscaped. They can also end up looking fascinating. This stacked concrete block wall at the University of Oregon’s Athletic Complex is rather ultra-modern in that it replicates the roughness of natural rock in purposefully random ways and yet is engineered on the back side completely perfectly. This look is a bit bizarre, I admit fully, but I enjoy the effort, if nothing else.

The changing levels of a landscape provide an interesting counterpart to the more mundane roads and walks of our lives, offering visual interest as well as often featuring the walls themselves as art. Traditional dry-stacked native rock walls are a technology as old as society itself. From prehistory until now, gorgeous examples of this technological social skill exist on every continent. Modern landscapers have resurrected this low-tech formula into some really beautiful wall series. Here’s one I took part in. It’s purpose, too, was to extend the landscape out from the home level and then drop the 3-4 feet to another flat plane of lawn and green, lush color in a warm contrast of natural textures. Other walls made of rock have similar purposes in function but often offer almost breathtaking purely artistic license………hilariously and rewarding tweaks on the theme. Michael Eckerman of Santa Cruz, California provides scintillating river and coastal rock edifices of breathtaking form and function. A true stone mason unlike myself, Michael has pioneered his own art form in stone in ways which we can only admire. Michael approaches his walls with a deepest love for the Ocean in mind, being a Santa Cruz surfer boy at heart. His sense of crashing waves and moving surf is evinced in all his work from a certain period and thence morphed into the concept of motion in general, later on. But I can hear the ocean in his retaining walls built in the hills surrounding Santz Cruz! A closer look………… From the sublime to the more normal, we visit a modern development in wall-building which has made life yet easier by substantial degrees. The preformed cement wall block has been engineered to perform incredible feats of retention and grade changing. It is somewhat “plastic” in its ability to meander along the lines of whimsy as well, providing landscapers wonderful opportunities to soften lines and to create more pleasing environments. Below are a couple of angles on a Reno project we did, from the start to a more finished look.

Other cement wall edifices performed other duties, although grade changes were always a primary goal. On the one below, we look down a wall put in more for security purposes than the art. A look at the precipice leading away from the landscape shows its functional safety feature.

I often semi-gag when I realize how incredibly raw things began on these projects………


Here is the eventual disposition of that dirt above………….

This one features 2 Falling Water fountains embedded in the forward wall. This is a Winter Time look back at the fountain as we completed the project. The owner was delighted and he has re-landscaped nearly everything from these basic beginnings. The water is running here in exactly the “sheet” we expected and designed. This was a fascinating gig.

Meanwhile, some “walls” can show an investment in the motion and kinetic energy of water, while still retaining the earth behind……..


For the longest while, in the early 80s in Vancouver, we were building walls almost exclusively of Railroad Ties – huge, 150 pound creosote-soaked uglies 8 feet long which made the most incredibly sturdy walls of the era. One had to drill holes to pound in the 1/2″ rebar to connect these edifices, complete with “dead men” sent perpendicularly back into the soil in a Tee, for anchoring. But one could also be creative, even here. Note the sets of stairs in the distance in this picture, a system of walls a quarter mile long on two-and three-levels. The use of angled off-shoots to the walls provided an architectural joy for the builders and made them as interesting as they became later as the plantings overtook them.

Wall work has always been challenging and somewhat fun, actually. As permanent structures, their solidity and form provided ample rewards for those who made them the right way.


From the front, the items below began quite a bit less tidy………..note the trees on the berm are all blooming cherries. It makes quite a show in Spring….all bloomed out.




This became this………………


The above were right next to a walled hole in the ground – to the left – which we attempted to make solemn, quiet and reflective for our very devout Catholic client……. Bo wanted his very own personal “Grotto” – a challenge I could not resist. ;-)



Sometimes, we make walls which aren’t totally walls, lol:


This is a “Hybrid”, owing to the available material left behind………….these boulders perform the trick as a “rockery” – semi-retaining a fairly serious slope and providing anchors where the roots of the eventual plantings knit a more serious retaining capacity.


This was always one of those gigs where you felt like it was so much fun, we were stealing money. ;-) I mean, the toys I got to use!!




“Planted up”, we can see the sensibility involved:


Not too shabby considering the origins………….. lol, the infamous “After-Before Series”.


Complete with a killer Hot Tub………. ;-)


Boneheads make the purtiestest landscapes.


Landscaping As Radical Art

The term “radical” stems from the original Latin radicalis - “of roots” and from Latin radix “root”. Whereas, this term ironically resembles “Conservative”, owing to Conservatism’s high valuation of something’s earned past (especially when confronted with “radical change”), I really like the application of “radical” to art as something very nearly opposite of the spirit of its definition. “Radically opposite”, in fact. The term is loosely applied here, but in the overall “sense of things”, it fully meets the spirit of my claims regarding the stunning evolution of a trade which has seen periods of high fashion – from Ancient Times and Babylon’s Hanging Gardens to Frederick Olmstead’s White City and his incredible collection of urban designing accomplishments. Currently, we see regular people create masterpieces of riveting detail and variety in their own fabulous yards, inspiring more public artists and landscaping specialists in a wider realm. I have always said that the best work I ever ran across were productions made by homeowners in the experimental privacy of their own homes.

My current usage of the term “Radical Art” indicates a departure from “the regular” cosmetics of a trade so long defined as just an adjunct to buildings and their grounds – the General Field of Landscaping. It is my conviction that landscaping has evolved into its very own species of art and architecture, outgrowing “Dad” –  into it’s own sort of identity as it evolves further into real art.

Of course, architectural renderings oversee the more vast properties of our urban environments. We’re talking huge.




What we now see all around us in growing profusion are swaths of land, of urban and suburban wonders, we can simply no longer take for granted and which rivet our minds and souls in ways by which we find ourselves utterly challenged. Some are larger than others:

This work of art in Australia, known as ‘Mundi Man’ or ‘Eldee Man’ was constructed by noted painter Ando (website here) and is located on Mundi Mundi Plains, NSW. It is the world’s largest art work, covering some 4 million square meters, or 5 million square yards. That’s a lot of “cosmetics”!

Antonio Gaudi may have set the Lunatic Fringe of Radical Art in landscaping with not only his remarkable building designs, but in the incredible complexity and bizarre designs so rife at Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain. His admixture of “primitive” and ultra-modern are well-illustrated in this photo I gathered from this website, dealing with Cruises.


From the same park………….


HDR tonemapped


Underneath this….


The stunning work of Isamu Noguchi, as offered in the first photograph above, has also offered a primary glimpse of landscaping radicalism for long years prior. Now fully enacted by a fabulously and numerically-rich coterie of building designers, the arresting visual and sensual 360 degrees of 3 dimensionality of landscaping reaches an exemplary peak in his work. Below is his spare, yet incredibly evocative construction of a park erected on the site of a former garbage landfill.

Moerenuma Park, Sapporo, Japan:



My view of these installation includes the packages relative to the advancement of technological breakthroughs in the machinery itself of construction. If Da Vinci could conceive of “lift”, “displacement” and the eventual forms which encourage Mankind to fly, then the wildly impractical new wonders of Drip Irrigation, water pumps and advancements in adhesives have opened an entire realm of gravity-defying work of its own.

Vertical Gardening will produce many Babylons, right before our every eyes:


Even residences will gain from inexpensive-yet colorful profusions of verticality, a technology now just getting underway.


The advent of the Mini-Excavator, in my world of installations, has produced amazing wonders, quickly-accomplished, only requiring an imaginative combination of materials, designers and installers to implement the next wave of the booming field of water features. Note here the incredible handsomeness of the stud at the business end of such a handy little monster of torque:


The above became this……….





Fountains, water, radicalism, sound and senses…………………..

(Noguchi again):

Lighting has caused a Mini Sensation and a completely outrageous burst of creativity in the field as well, from simple, well-placed uplights and filters of a smaller but ineffably gorgeous dimension:

To the radical fringe of massive urban production such as this Mall Fountain in Singapore – the world’s largest fountain:

More Radical yet, we have the entire realm of fountains and the myriad new applications of water, beginning, once again, with Noguchi’s completely impractical 9 Floating Fountains at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair:

My belief is that we are just entering a field which promises a burst of fabulous artwork of increasing meaning and relevance. I honestly believe we are being pushed outdoors, kicking and screaming, as our back yards become “destinations” and extended living rooms, kitchens and dens. Our cities become more vibrant when we supply other “destinations” to please the eyes and senses. The factor of radical art in landscaping may even supply microcosmic pleasure in the tools and those items which we have so long merely taken for granted………..

such as garden furniture, as Helen Nock (website included)  so brilliantly illustrates:

Walls and fences take on some structural interest when in the hands of Micahel   Eckerman of Santa Cruz, his website here. A surfer and gatherer of native materials, his formations show movement and form which closely resemble the behavior of ocean waves:


The creations we see today raise our vision and stop our wandering eyes so that we can better focus on their message. The “message”, as in all art, is that of celebration of our shared humanity. These spiritual accomplishments encourage us all to be better people, in every way.

I am glad Landscaping enters the realm of art itself. The scope of the trade has no conceivable limit, from the very tiniest of realms to those of massive scale. It is Man tickling Man and the sooner we understand that, the more we can create and enjoy more of the same.


Blending Light With Water


The mixtures of physical elements reaches a real sort of crescendo when we combine the simple concepts of Nighttime and artificial lighting humans install around their various architectural concoctions of water-based landscaping. From tiny doorway ponds, set just beside our front doors to provide the gurgling sounds of Peace and the small lights we install to enhance its nighttime appearance to the massive structures of light and water magic itself in cities like Barcelona, Dubai, Las Vegas and Singapore, our craving for beauty never stops. The fact that these altogether wholesome and wonderful urges get met by designers and inventors with our highest hopes implicit yields the fabulous work we see below.

The illusions Noguchi sought in his “9 Floating Fountains” constructed for the 1970 Osaka Worls’s Fair still glimmer in the Osaka nights, seemingly dumping tons of water from tight square clouds.

What seems most remarkable, in the end, is the role lighting played in this marvelous bit of architectural whimsy. We do also understand that lights combined with water both bend and refract the light rays in incredibly pronounced ways. We see this from far smaller scale water features in lakes, ponds and the more strictly residential and homey edifices we make ourselves.


The tendency for water to literally conduct light waves gives us possibilities which can provide wonder from the smallest, tiny pond sizes, such as this:


The larger, a bit more expensive gobs of visual pleasure which take on a visceral magic….


..and reaching a sort of Ultimate in Grand Designs of the most far-thinking architects and artists on a gigantic scale -:


We are so fortunate, in the end, to have modern specialists who now seemingly routinely embrace the lighting and water phenomenon and who have designed a great series of total wonders as our own eye candy and inner thrills. Light Shows have made not only the lexicon of modern life but also have come to represent many of the highest achievements in architecture.

Barcelona’s Magic Fountain was among the first to accomplish lighting wonders on such a massive scale when they opened in 1929 for the opening of The Barcelona International Exhibition. 

The magnificent urban setting set the standard in the world for what would come next. Other cities proceeded to become equally fountain-famous – Kansas City, New York for the World’s Fair in 1936, Osaka in 1970, leading to the extravagant masterpieces of the casinos in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore.







Singapore, for instance, new machinery creates a foggy, wet background upon which to display video and laser elements in a near 3D fashion. Their light shows are becoming totally legendary. Here’s a video from a show taken by an individual’s phone:

Making the Unusually Wonderful is getting easier and hopefully more common. We can all be glad of this.