Generally Cool Files – Front Yards

Feeling a bit random, my current urge is to go through some old files and reminisce a bit about discoveries made in the world of plants, flowers, design and installation. My first design enthusiasms so often dealt with front yards. Since so many of the homes I landscaped came fully equipped with dust or mud and nothing else, most people contracted wanted a fresh face to welcome visitors with. Back yards, as fully recreational and private as they could eventually be, pretty much always finished second in the “presentation” category of landscaping concerns.

Neighborhoods bust it out in Spring – to the max! How can we augment such beauty at our own homes?

Se we labored at “Faces”, presenting the best possible ones.

Gentle greenery at my brother’s ex-house presents a lush and relaxed greeting, profuse with perennial promises yet relentlessly green in all the various shades. Theirs is a very Portland-esque sort of greenery and treatment.

Below, something a bit different – a front yard landscape in Reno, Nevada featuring just a swath of grass in an amoebic shape with very defined and maintained borders.

The range of perennials as well as more permanent shrubs including the very obvious Purple Smoke Tree and Variegated Dogwood shrubs offer a selection of sizes, colors and effects, hopefully all very pleasing to the eye and all timed to bloom at various times during a year.

Below, also in Reno, we were able to obtain some sizable and gorgeous Tanyosho Pines to place as welcoming sentinels aside the garden gate. A profusion of other goodies are clustered around them but these are the true anchors of this landscape.

This picture is taken in the first year after installation. Later growth was pretty robust, with ample color and variation setting up a very interesting walk down to the front gate.

 Other front yards of a more standard variety are easy to maintain and offer the succulent greens and colors which invariably please the eye.

Simple, in this sense, is not a bad thing at all. Spicing things up with an interesting shape of lawn or sidewalk can add interest, depth and overall beauty.

Still others enjoy a “special” category of complexity and a focused diversity of form and function.

There is also always the effort made by apartments and more public spaces to present that enhancing face of things to busy people, just to slow them down enough to “smell the roses”.

Imagine what adding something as simple as a strategically-placed watering can could do for your yard!

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.


Boulders and Rock Mulches – Animated Talks With Stones

As the systems and machinery involved in landscaping have evolved, we have become better able to do more with elements long-overlooked but readily available for use. Rocks and their large cousins – boulders – are the perfect example of this.

Below is a yard whose overall beauty just about entirely consists of a marvelously expansive view of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. The foreground is dotted with homes, also in the distance, which provide a unique perspective of various layers of depth and a somewhat mind-clearing vision of distance and natural geology.

The landscaping requirements of a home such as this insist that the view be maintained. Yet, there is still the more immediate and entirely satisfying effect of “local” – back yard – gorgeousness that always provides a landscaper with design possibilities. This couple wanted an unobtrusive but running  water feature and something other than just the standard rear yard with flat lawn and a fence.

Our solution was to provide the small water feature in a corner of the lot which would still be visible and aurally satisfying, with motion and activity and a lawn which was “different” – in this case a rolling series of small hills, studded with boulders.

(click all images to enlarge)

Rocks are some of my best friends. Let’s face it, they offer a minimum of argument over even the thorniest issues and they behave once set into place. There is a lot to be said about this sort of loyal adherence to Natural Law. And, yes, I have abused the odd rock, I admit it freely. I have thrown them, hit them with baseball bats and golf clubs, used them as weapons against my enemies – the “bike-chasing barking dog” for example – and sometimes shamefully using them against bad friends.

Some, however, you can’t do much to. They talk back.

Some of the bigger guys you can tweak with machinery the size of Texas – just make sure they roll in the right direction when you stack ’em.

This applies to all versions of rocks larger than a fist –

No doubt, you will have noticed right away that the boulders and stones shown so far have all been of the “River Rock” variety – meaning rocks who were either tumbled under glaciers for miles and miles under enormous weight and thereby rendered rounded or else they were immersed in rapids of fast-flowing creeks and rivers with the same result.


Some other rocks cracked liked broken crystals during some epoch in the less-distant past, immune from the rushing waters of creeks and rivers, and maintaining and still-ancient, yet freshly-fractured look which allows yet another approach to working with them. They can make a bizarre, yet somehow artistic mulch, and one I personally embraced, loving the mix and the radical nature of the stones themselves, especially when mixed with similarly-fractured boulders:

Surprisingly enough, they can even work well in the midst of water – the color and fractured nature revealing sharp breaks which contrast with the softness and depth of the water around it.

All in all, they also take up space and are quite handsome, taken individually – no matter their origin.

Amazing Rhododendrons – Part 2 of Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

Interestingly, this was written in 2009, revised in 2011 and left untouched. I kind of feel no need the change anything – even the cold part, lol.

I’m on a small story-telling bender. This one is recirculated yet again, for the reasons I outlined dealing with my post speaking of my experience with 100 sticks of dyanmite and landscaping, a couple of posts below this one.

Fortunately, this post here has abundant rhododendron pictures, which was the impetus behind the posting in the first place, until I wandered off into the personal. This is also important because it is freezing outdoors, lol. I mean, not a little.

(It is all of 7 degrees here in Louisville, Kentucky, as I write this. It was a balmy 27 yesterday at times,  so I am more driven to see something to mitigate this Winter pain. My stay in Louisville has been marvelous from a strictly people aspect. Taking care of my Mother is like – well – it IS actually – a walk in the park. No stress, lots of family for a change and my peripatetic daughter is in classes in San Diego. Life is good – if freaking cold. And it is cold. I do not much like it, lol. Let me rephrase this – it is dreadful. I am far too ‘West Coast-ish’, if that’s a term, which 42 years there would do to one. Plus, we get another few months of this, unless Global Warming gets it done!

This post was composed in May of 2009. It is a long one, filled with pictures of flowers, lakes, sun, ducks and some writing about someone I don’t mind reposting about – a fine person. Just to keep the Springtime vibes alive, read and I hope you enjoy:)

“Extravagance” is the term I am so often set with concerning Rhododendrons. Like the Proteus plant, the simple size, girth and literal glamor of the bloom have few peers anywhere. The profuseness of a Rhododendron when in bloom I honestly believe has no peer anywhere in Nature. I love so many plants – they have been my stock in trade – but this one hovers in another sphere of general gorgeousness.

(click any image to enlarge like mad…click twice for superdetail))

In the Northwest, there are rhododendron gardens all over the place. This week (May) in Florence, Oregon – on the Oregon Coast – there is a Rhododendron Festival, a full-fledged Rhodie fest complete with parades and displays and thousands of believers. Of course, everyone loves a party – so there is that. It’s been a long winter here – so there is that as well. But they’ve been having this particular festival for long years now. Love for the Rhododendron is not new here.

For purely selfish Photo Contest reasons, I add this earlier-blooming item here. I can’t imagine it not “belonging” anywhere, frankly.


When I lived in British Columbia, naturally a mainstay for visitors was the trip over to Butchart Gardens in Victoria – a world-famous garden and rightfully so, rich indeed with its own stash of thousands of rhododendrons and azaleas, like this Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland, just 4 times bigger and ten times more groomed and cultivated.

Naturally, there are plants other then Rhodies to slake the thirst for extravagant beauty. Take these pictures, above and below, of Double File Viburnums – how those branches seem to be wearing epaulets of blooms down their long arms, making them appear to be wearing instead of producing them.

These are somewhat groomed for the appearance, yet this plant casually shoots off these blooms in a very regular fashion no matter how determined its pruners are to show off.

Other places in British Columbia and Washington have rhododendron festivals. And many, many other places have small parks – often made by devoted Rhodites (my newest shiniest original English! 😉 ) on farmland or just a once-open bit of land where someone tinkered themselves into some stunningly magnificent park, for which they collect money to visit and for which I was always so grateful to pay, just to see those exotics and bizarre rare species of Rhododendrons which eccentrics would specialize in. These were once virtual Hobby Farms, now ranked as parks. And there are more than one thinks.

I recall landscaping an estate in BC – 10 acres set in deep woods with 2,000 year old Douglas Fir stumps whose bodies had been felled in the original flurry of construction at the turn of the 20th Century, filled with a gassy pitch and crumbling peat-like deteriorated cores. One ravine near the home was particularly suited for Rhodies – deep shade with some dappled sunlight. I resolved to fill it with my own brand of a similar park but, naturally, budget concerns worried me immensely.

I consulted my usual nursery and had a line on some great buys of very small starter rhodies – with, naturally, a very restricted base of species and color. It weighed upon me as I drove the back roads of Langley and Surrey, BC, which was where my project was located.

While driving, I happened across a home – just caught by a glance out to the right of my window – where it appeared someone had themselves what looked like their own private nursery. I was curious and always looking for deals and I knew how cash spoke to growers – always subject to the whims of their small market of buyers. I braked, reversed and drove into the drive way.

As I drove in, I noticed a dilapidated older car parked, its door open and some cigarette smoke wafting from the driver’s seat. Walking up the small rise, I also noticed that as far as I could see, the entire nursery was of Rhododendrons. It stretched at least 100 feet to my left and was a good 20 rows deep of large – some huge – rhodies. This was a gold mine of specimens – gigantic and mature plants – and a variety to literally die for. I was nearly shaking after beholding all this because I really knew what I had found. (Hey, you had to be there.) 🙂

The man in the car was very old now – 77 – a Russian immigrant whose wife was cooking inside and whose relaxation and privacy included this car to a degree I speculate was pretty intense. He coughed and looked up as I stood outside the door of his smoking chamber and gave a big smile. He was delighted to have company. It made a great start to a long and wonderful relationship. How no one had found this man is still beyond me to this day. I am positive he never would have sold Plant One had I not stopped by – or some other young and enterprising landscaper – there is that.

He had a hothouse where he was cultivating starts – some from seed – and always had. He just loved Rhododendrons. As we ambled around the stock, his 6 foot 6 inch frame would bend over at a particular plant and I would get its very history. He knew each plant like children. It put a near religious reverence to the entire operation, I swear. Some of the newer Rhodies were 3 feet tall, lined up before being separated later to accommodate for their later growth. Meanwhile, some of the others were a true 8 feet tall – worth thousands of dollars each and too large even for me to relocate. I was boggled beyond belief.

He asked if I wanted to buy some of them, getting the hint when I told him I was a landscaper. Naturally, I said yes and awaited his pricing with some trepidation. “Which ones do you want?” he asked. When I showed him a 5 foot high plant in full bloom which any nursery would charge a full $400-500 for, he looked at me, squinted in the sunlight and said:

“What would you say if I wanted $25?” 😉

I laughed and said I would take it, of course. “Well, how many do you want?” was his next question. He then ran off the list, pointing to each plant and never going above 50 bucks for any plants – even the most extravagant and large. It became almost embarrassing and there was no way I was going to rip him off after the efforts he had put in. I gave him a figure that doubled or tripled what he had asked and he started blinking, counting up the dough. I also said I would begin with 100 plants. There was no way I was leaving that field without buying as many as I could.

He was delighted, but I was not done. I wanted to know why he wanted to sell them at such discounts after all the love he had labored over to get them started. I asked him point blank. He was so easy to talk with, it was crazy. We had definitely hit it off.

“Well, I am dying. I never wanted to make some big amount of money off these plants. There was a landscaper I used to sell 3-4 to now and then and it would be some cash for us. I spent a lifetime logging and doing the garden here just became a lot more of a hobby than I thought it would. We had all this land and it’s great land – perfect for Rhodies. If I could make sure the Missus has a few things before I go, I would be real happy. Heck, the land here is worth enough to retire on if we sold it. The Rhodies are just sort of gravy.”

He had a heart condition which gave him about a year to live. He had found out earlier that very week, it turns out. It’s funny how events gravitate towards one another in life. He looked at me with some real big eyes, smiled and knocked me over:

“I was hoping you would come by,” he said.

I felt overwhelmed by events on this boring Wednesday afternoon as I made my way through another torridly-paced business day, lit up on vanity, career concerns and selfish business worries like a junky. Then this tall Russian elderly drink of water delivered that line which I have never forgotten. Among my life’s most miraculous events, I always reflect on this moment as one of those. The suddenness and raw clarity of a synchronicity of need and of something more – maybe just Love itself – made its way deeply into my heart like a bolt of lightning.

A few tears streamed down my face as I drove home that day, in a bizarre mix of gratitude, joy, and simple awe at the outrageous unthinking compliance of Fortune itself. Oh – and I made me a great friend. That should be assumed.

Well, he lived for another two years. I was young and just starting out in landscaping but I had enough dust to provide his grateful hands with about $6,000 in purchases and – Man! – did I ever make out, too. I also bought one of those 8 footers. It took all day for 3 guys to transplant it at the new spread. The timing was stunningly apt – it had just begun blooming and, once planted, was in full flower when their homeowners – a local builder – had their house-warming party. Their gratitude for my work was pretty much off the charts and I won an award for the job – my first ever.

Today, that plant might fetch the entirety of what I paid for all 300 plants I got from Vladimir.

I did not plan to write all that but it’s one of those “Rhodie stories” I have that seemed natural to share. After all, one good turn deserves another, doesn’t it?