If you’ve heard anything about my work over the past three years, designing with P. Allen Smith & Associates, you’ll know that our design practice - while spread across the southeast - is heavily focused in Arkansas and Louisiana. As I’ve read about and experienced more of the region, I’ve been struck by the central role that place (sometimes rural landscape, sometimes city, sometimes garden) holds in the stories that people tell about their histories, their families, and themselves.
Multigenerational sagas about families in relationship to place seem to be particularly popular in this region. Lalita Tademy’s Cane River explores one family’s upward struggle from slavery to property ownership, particularly the messy hierarchies of life in Creole communities. In Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, the manager of a plantation in Ascension Parish teases out her own family’s complicated relationship to the property as she investigates the mysterious death of a local farm laborer which unfolds alongside the political maneuvers of the plantation’s owner. Throughout these books, the plantations on which the stories occur stand as physical embodiments of the power dynamics between families.
As you move out of the wide flat washes of the Mississippi River Delta, up into the rockier terrain of the Ouachita and Ozark mountains, landscape often enters stories as an isolating agent - the topography and smaller scale of the mountains making large-scale agriculture or commerce unfeasible. Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, set in the fictional Ozark town of Drear’s Bluff, uses the isolation of scattered rural dwellers as a way of exploring the individual isolation of a queer woman who’s been compelled through financial difficulty to return to her rural childhood home. The 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri utilizes the landscape in a similar way to embody the isolation of a mother’s grief after her daughter’s murder. These mountain stories tend to focus more on individual relationships to place, rather than the multigenerational family sagas found in the Delta. In either case, landscape is portrayed as an active protagonist in shaping human life, experience, and identity.
Such a relationship with landscape - as an active force in the life of a family or individual - made sense to me, given the stories I heard growing up. For my father’s family, it was always the Mississippi River. The River brought them to Missouri to work. It flooded its banks and trapped my great-great-great-grandmother in her hotel, killing her in her own home. It sucked my great-great-uncle down off the showboat where he worked, drowning him in its murky embrace. It called to my great-grandfather, who answered, gambling away his wages and weekends. Even my father’s teenage summers were tribute to its call, as he worked the coal barges suspended between its muddy banks.
The way that landscape is talked about in these narratives of Arkansas and Louisiana resonates with me, but I think it’s time to take the narratives a bit further. As a gardener and landscape designer, I don’t just want to have a relationship to a place. Instead, I want a relationship with a place. I see gardening as a practice for cultivating that richer relationship. What might such a relationship look like? As usual, Mark Twain described it best, in his classic Life on the Mississippi:
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
The outskirts of Rome will destroy anybody’s romantic dreams of Italy. Frances Mayes would run shrieking back to California if forced to live in between the cell phone outlets, cheap pizza restaurants, and dubious massage parlors shoved between concrete-balconied 1970s apartment blocks. It’s not necessarily an easy context in which to integrate a new building. On the other hand, it could be said that - in such a context - it’s hard to make things worse.
Richard Meier did it.
The full title is Parrocchia Dio Padre Misericordioso, but they call it the Jubilee Church.
Unfortunately there’s not much to celebrate here.
You drive up the street, cars lining each side, with narrow sidewalks between the road and the surrounding apartment blocks. Out front, there’s a weird trapezoidal plaza with a lone low slab of bench. The church itself rises above a four-foot high white stone perimeter wall, stained with dust streaks and mold. The entry is a gap in the stone wall. Pass through, and you enter a glaring marble. No trees. No furnishings. Just the unfolding shell-like white stone planes, with a few slivers of window in between.
The interior of the building is beautifully crafted. Light shifts through the interior as the clouds drift overhead. Warm wood, exquisite joinery, whisper-delicate sails of stone. Outside, it’s a completely lost opportunity. The building stands adrift.
There are several different approaches to integrating a building - particularly a public building - into its context. One approach is to anchor a building into its context by using a common architectural language: building masses, shapes, proportions and materials. Historically, the urban fabric has often grown up around central public buildings - the buildings set the precedent. Now, they appear as though they were designed to fit into their surroundings.
An alternate approach is to design a public building that contrasts with its setting, stands out dramatically against it. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit stands in rough contrast to the verdant London skyline, the funky twisted tower of red metal stark against washes of green foliage.
In designing anything - a garden, a building, a subdivision - understanding and relating to context is always the most challenging aspect. But it’s also the aspect of design that I love most.
The extents of a landscape intervention are often bounded by survey lines. But, regardless of property boundaries, experience of any given place is part of the constant stream of human experience.. As long as you’re on a planet, you’re enveloped and immersed in landscape. So, if you’re designing something in intergalactic space, you can get away without understanding the context. Otherwise, you have no excuse.
“A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot. Rose plot, fringed pool, Fern’d grot.” What a use of language! I wholeheartedly approve of Thomas Brown going full rapper in this bit of verse. I, mean, come on - “ferned” as a verb? Dropping the “e”. Abbreviating “grotto”? Magical. Brown turns this banal sentiment into something unique and memorable - even after it’s replicated on countless items of garden statuary.
A friend asked me to write something that might actually be useful for home gardeners going about designing their own landscape. This request made me think. When my design team and I consult on a garden, we bring the full weight of our combined education and experience to the process. We spend days, hours, weeks walking a property, testing design ideas through drawing and modeling, then mocking up our ideas on site. Our intent is to create a something as memorable and unique as Brown’s verse, something that that will fulfill the owner’s desires while adding value to their community.
So, if I was a homeowner, how would I got about creating a plan for a residential design? I always start with context. The unique thing about landscape design amongst the design disciplines is that landscape is immersive, encompassing, and intact. Landscape is never clearly bounded. It’s always messy. Figuring out the edges of an intervention - and its impacts - is hard. The first defining quality of a property’s context is whether it’s rural, urban, or something in between. In a rural or suburban property, the garden will be outward focused and blend into its context. With an urban property, an inward-focused approach is essential. Lauren Springer Ogden explored this distinction in her books The Undaunted Garden and Plant-Driven Design.
Beyond context in general, approach is another determining aspect of creating a plan for any garden. The approach sequence to a property is usually the most frequently experienced aspect of a garden for both owners and guests. Curating this experience is key. Start a few streets away. What’s the feeling when you turn in to the neighborhood? Do you approach the site primarily on foot or by car? Are there plantings at the subdivision entry? How are houses set relative to the street? Are they nestled up along it, or set back deep in the forest? Is the experience groomed and geometrical - or loose and naturalistic? What plant species and hardscape materials make up the surrounding vocabulary? Approach extends to the site as well. What’s the first glimpse of the house? How is the building mass presented along the approach? When do you have a full reveal of the facade? Is it direct or asymmetrical? Where do guest and resident experience diverge?
Once you’ve thought through the context and approach, it’s time to think about the spaces directly around the residence. Start with the program. Designers use the term programming to describe activities located in specific places around a garden. Some activities take more space. It’s important for some activities to be adjacent to each other - and for others to be separate. If you haven’t already, start a list of activities you want to occur around your garden. These can be people-focused (entertaining, children’s play area, or even a spot to have a cup of coffee) or oriented towards something else (chicken run, motorcycle yard, vegetable garden, or space for a cut flower peony collection). You’ll always want spaces for more program than you have time or budget for, so think about how the spaces supporting different activities can be multipurpose - and staged over time.
If programming is a general bubble diagram, architecture can help guide your formal decisions. As part of P. Allen Smith’s design team, I’m accustomed to starting from the idea of creating a “garden home” composed of clearly defined garden spaces that relate to the site’s architecture - usually a house and its accompanying outbuildings. Your previous consideration of context will help inform your spatial decisions. The ways that a house’s massing and room are articulated will influence garden spaces dramatically. Echoing or contrasting the design language of a building in the garden spaces are both valid options. Time to bring out the stakes, string, and paint gun to figure out how your proposed spaces might actually feel.
Home gardeners like to start with specifics. “Rose plot, fringed pool, fern’d grott.” It’s easy to fixate on the new patio you want for grilling with your friends, the tree branches that are overhanging from your neighbor’s property, the playground your kids need to keep their destructive tendencies in check, or - if you’re a plant geek like me - space for woodland planting full of all your favorite ephemerals. But the benefit of hiring a designer is that we can help you take a step back.
You want to know designer secrets? Design doesn’t start with answers. Instead, we bring a barrage of question to interrogate both client and space. We’re going to take you through a process designed to tease out the possibilities - and identify a clear way forward. Pay attention and your garden, too, will become a lovesome thing, god wot - or not.
I spent most of last weekend trundling through the backroads of three states in a white pickup truck. Usual every-hour stops to hop out and look at wildflowers. Baptisia nutalliana and Rudbeckia maxima in Texas. Phlox drummondii and Rhododendron austrinum in Louisiana. Chionanthus and Narcissus in Arkansas. One of of those stops, no less whistle-stop than the others, I was lucky enough to get to hear Thomas Rainer speak to the Horticulture club at Stephen F Austin University in Nacogdoches. Most of the lecture focused on the plant community design techniques that Thomas (along with Claudia West) wrote about in Planting in a Post-Wild World. But one idea, buried at the center of the lecture, has been running through my mind all week.
Thomas showed a slide of images of statues of confederate soldiers. Cast iron figures of men who didn’t want to admit they could have been wrong, erected eighty years after their deaths to intimidate new generations.
He showed images of several iconic southern landscapes. A misty panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A leafy forest understory near Birmingham. Then he flipped over to photos of cloverleaf highways and strip mall complexes. You see these in every southern city.
Hysterical editorials and radio talk show hosts followed the confederate statue removals. Even I, the most anti-combative person on the continent, almost got in a complete shouting row with a mothballed and mustachioed Uber driver who brought up the statues. But nobody’s even moderately worked up about the destruction of irreplaceable, irreparable ecosystems.
As I’ve often said before, I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. It’s a weird spot. At various points, the area now considered the Mississippi River Hills was inhabited by the Illini Confederation, who were then displaced by Spanish explorers, French settlers, and German Lutherans. Anybody who grew up in the real Midwest considers it part of the South. Those who grew up in the Deep South consider it part of the North. It’s a messy hybrid region, with no clear and consistent cultural narrative.
Over the time I lived there - and as I hear stories of the town since, I’ve heard the cultural narrative change. When I was little, the predominant stories were of World War II vets, people who grew up without electricity, speaking German at home, people who had benefited greatly from post WWII prosperity. Today, after twenty years of constant cable network vitriol (thanks, Fox News and NRA propaganda), the stories have changed.
Hillbilly Elegy was mostly nonsense. But one thing that it got right was that rural populations, especially low-income white populations, have bought into a narrative that offers them little hope for a better life. These communities need a new story. I need a new story.
But how would we go about bringing southern landscapes to the center of the of the conversation about heritage?
In every place, landscape is deeply entangled with the human dramas that have occured within its all-enveloping embrace. The dramas that have played out across the United States make this particularly tricky. Any narrative about southern history founded in landscape must start from a position of acknowledging the privilege of the people who live there now.
Most of the people who live in these areas now have no ancestral right, no natural heritage, tying them to the place they live now. Even in New Orleans and St. Augustine, those oldest of European settlements in North America, Europeans have only a 400-year history. First Nations people were weakened by disease, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands. Throughout much of the south, there’s the additional complication of enslavement and sharecropping. So any talk of heritage must acknowledge the messy, often uncomfortable, history of these places.
I don’t have a clear idea of what a narrative that adequately represents landscape as a component of southern heritage might look like. Reading, for me, is always the start. For now, I’d start with the the written historical record. Not just the big celebrated southern gardeners. Look to Eudora Welty, who learned to garden from her mother. Read Elizabeth Lawrence. Eudora signed her up for the Market Bulletins, where people traded slips of one heritage plant for another. Read Zora Neale Hurston’s writing about landscape and agriculture in the Caribbean and the south. Read Marjorie Kinnans Rawling on rural life in early 20th century Florida. Maybe a first is just that, to build a primer on the southern landscape.
Beyond reading, I don’t know. I’ll let you know as soon as I come up with a next step...
I don’t remember the first time I heard of Lotusland. It was probably in the early naughties on the pages of Garden Design, when they were in a coastal infatuation phase. It could have been when I was a librarian in the drafty shelves of Weigel at Kansas State University - reading Winifred Dobyns’ California Gardens or David Streatfields’ California Gardens, dreaming of warmer days and balmy nights by the sea.
My love was cemented watching the beautiful footage in Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens. A surrealist garden made by an opera singer with multiple love affairs? Her last husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances? This is a garden for me.
*by the way, these songs are the songtrack as you listen to this: Robert Ellis's California and Katy Perry's Teenage Dream
I got into Los Angeles late, 4am to my jet-lagged central time adjusted body. I dragged through the rental car station, the In-and-Out full of paper caps and teenage enthusiasm, then the airport hotel. Next morning, I hauled myself up the coast to Montecito. Excavation from the mudslides had only begun. I could see buildings shifted in place, tidewater marks showing where the mud had enveloped buildings, crushed and consumed them.
Fortunately, the forces of destruction had stopped short of Lotusland. You’re not allowed to just wander around and enjoy the place on your own. I was lucky to be assigned to a quite knowledgeable guide called Madge, along with a relatively innocuous group of fellow tourists - a straight couple from Victoria, a gay couple from San Francisco, and an enlightened family group (the daughters had done time helping out with ecotourism in Argentina and Belize) from Seattle.
The thing that had always captured my imagination with Lotusland is that it seemed to explore a treatment of plants in a highly artistic way. In the photos that I’d seen, plants were utilized as aesthetic elements. Their physical qualities were utilized in keeping with an individual, brave, exploratory aesthetic. The actual experience of the place didn't betray that thought. My presuppositions were correct.
There seemed to be a complete innocence and sincerity in the choice of garden elements. Madge explained that the glass edges were the trash from bottle molding at a nearby soda plant. After pouring, the leftover chunks of clear green glass were tossed away. Madame Walska, the creator of Lotusland, saw a new use for them in edging garden walks. The chunks of glowing green glass resonate with the glowing garden greens.
An innocent approach to materials characterizes the entire garden. One of the most iconic images for me has always been the giant shells in the swimming pool garden. Madge explained that these weren’t sculptural replicas, as I expected, but actual giant shells imported from islands in southeast Asia. You could get big pearls out of those.
Such innocence isn’t limited to inanimate objects. It extends to the use of plants. Since my time in south Florida, I’ve thought that it would be amazing to create a forest of ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). Their weird strappy leaves, corky stems, and swollen root bases give them a Dr. Suess quality that I really want to explore en masse. Of course, there’s a ponytail palm forest already growing at Lotusland. You can walk adjacent to, but not through it - so there’s still scope for my design imagination.
I’m not going to go into the full history of Ganna Walska and Lotusland. Suffice it to say that this garden is a multilayered landscape that reflects multiple individual aesthetics - all layered in to the garden that exists today. The cactus garden is an incredible collection created post-Walska. In it, hundreds of towering cylindrical clusters and bulbous clumps create a singularly monumental experience.
I’ve never seen anything like this cactus garden. It’s so sculptural, with the spires and spines. Hummingbirds flying around, buzzing between jewel-toned iridescent flowers.
After the cactus garden, it was almost a relief to get back to familiarity with an allee of hundred-year old olives. The contorted trunks, silvery leaves, fallen black fruits, resonated with my classically-educated soul. Those filtered shadows felt like home. Not to mention the terminal fountain with horsey motifs.
So far, I’ve been slathering on the adjectives. The next area of the garden needs only two nouns: tree ferns.
In this woodland, coastal live oaks are interplanting with a multilayered canopy of lacey tree ferns casting the most incredible flickering shade. Baskets of staghorn fern are suspended from the live oaks. Begonias and blechnum carpet the forest floor. I’m in heaven.
My vision of Lotusland had been built up to incredible heights over the years. It’s very rare for such hopes not to be ground into the mud on actual experience. But Lotusland was as good as I’d imagined.
Possibly better. Let’s go back soon.
I drove up to see my parents a few weeks ago. Arkansas to Missouri along Highway 67, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the region. It had been raining for a solid week, turning the delta fields into an inland sea.
If you’ve never driven through the delta in flood, you can’t imagine that drive. The water gropes and gurgles at the crumbling asphalt edge of the two-lane road. Semi lights brake 50 feet in front of me, trying to avoid a deep water plunge. A full moon hangs low over the horizon, a matte white disc flecking the waves with light. The waters churn and surge, ever southward carrying silty discharge to the gulf of Mexico. One careless moment and you’re submerged.
For me, that drive is routine, regardless of high or low water. After three years, my car stops automatically at the one gas station along the way that stocks lime Perrier. (What’s up with the citizens of Corning, Arkansas, that they stock such a bougie drink?)
After those first hours driving through the Delta, I get to the edge of the Ozarks - near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where the mountains jut out into the flat wash of the Mississippi Delta. Climbing those hills, my little Rogue has to put in extra effort - and my cell phone falls to two bars or less. I’m used to this rhythm, plunging deep into downloads over the last hours driving through the mountains and river hills. I’ve listened to Lev Grossman’s Magicians series so many times on that drive, feeling through Quentin’s tribulations and messy journey of self-discovery. Nerd worries.
I follow the audiobook time with a silly - but personally important - musical ritual. I’ve done this for years, starting when I was in college. I take that left turn from J Road (the windiest road in the universe) onto Highway 51, I roll down my windows and blare John Fullbright (Very First Time). Then, as I pass the Walgreens and Sonic and turn down St. Joseph Street, I flip over to Adele (Million Years Ago, Hometown Glory). It puts me back in the headspace for home.
On this last time that I took that drive, I noticed something special. I’d been in Little Rock, where spring was in full swing - with cherries and daffodils and bradford pears in full lascivious bloom - so I was startled by the sudden chill. Besides a yellow flicker of forsythia, the landscape was still in winter drabs. But it wasn’t silent. When I rolled down the window to blare my soulful jams, a solid blast of amphibian orchestration. The forest was frozen, but the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) were making noise.
Their sound hit me right in the heart. Those noisy buggers were the soundtrack to my youth. But they weren’t the only voices. Hearing the spring peepers made me think of some of the other voices that influenced me as a youngster - and continue to shape the way I approach the world. Here are quick glimpses into five of my youthful influences:
“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same.” (Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 1953) More than any other individual writer, Rachel Carson’s work influenced the way that I think about about writing about nature. She’s the kind of writer that I want to be. If I can evoke the same deep emotion with my words that her writing evoked in me, I’ve succeeded. I read The Edge of the Sea in my early teens and I still think it’s the most beautiful piece of writing that I’ve encountered. It draws you in, word by word, line by line. I don’t know how to be this poetic without being maudlin - but it gives me an ideal to pursue.
“A garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised. A pleasant sort of death, I venture to suggest, which runs in the family. One of my grandfathers died of a clump of Iris stylosa; it enticed him from a sick bed on an angry evening in January, luring him through the snow-drifts with its blue and silver flames; he died of double pneumonia a few days later. It was probably worth it.” (Beverly Nichols, Merry Hall, 1951) Do I even have to explain how this is significant? Anybody who’s read my writing can probably identify the acerbic influence of this mid-20th century writer on my voice and aesthetic. Nichols’ writings explore queer identity through the lens of aesthetics and garden-making with an incredible sense of absurdity and humor. From what I’ve heard and read, Nichols’ gardening books reflect the most joyful bits of his experience as a human. From early exposure to Nichols’ writing, I understood gardening - not as some purely practical pursuit - but as an approach to life enmeshed in the appreciation of art, music, and story. His words helped a weird kid who liked plants envision a life full of adventure, excitement and beautiful gardens. Thanks, Beverly!
“Wherever I go, whichever place I travel to, whatever garden I may finally sit in, I’ll never be free of this one. Like some deep tenebrous scar I’ll carry the making of our garden with me forever.” (Mirabel Osler, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, 1989) Not many people know Mirabel Osler’s work, which is a shame. Anybody who uses the word “tenebrous” is ok in my lexicon (see my earlier post “Dictionary Boy Goes to the Garden” for further info on my word madness). Ms Osler’s books introduced me to French gardens, which had an aesthetic and approach that made way more sense for the central United States than the UK-oriented gardening books in which I’d immersed myself. Remember, in the early naughties, this was all pre-Lurie Garden, pre-High Line. Oudolf’s aesthetic was still confined to the Netherlands and a few UK publications. Oehme van Sweden was as naturalistic as we got in the United States. So Mirabel Osler’s approach of taking a wider “landscape” approach to gardening felt like a revelation to this weird boy growing weird plants in shallow clay beneath giant red oaks in the Missouri countryside.
“Once again, the gardening cook has every advantage: not only a crop of bright green leaves, which make a fine cooked vegetable - highly esteemed in Italy and Spain - but also young turnips which can be harvested, at their best, when they are small and sweet and perfect.” (Geraldine Holt, The Gourmet Garden, 1990). It’s completely absurd to think about the vagaries of fortune that somehow led to this book on gourmet vegetable growing in Europe being included in the permanent collection of my small-town library in rural Missouri. I can’t imagine that anyone else ever checked it out. Remember, this was a town in which people let their zucchini grow to the side of baseball bats (let’s be honest, at that stage you have to call them “marrows”and left them like vague threats on the doorsteps of unsuspecting “friends”. Nobody picked turnips when they were the size of golf balls. So, for me, this book was an epiphany. It awakened me to the possibility that there was something wonderful about growing food. I still haven’t successfully cooked a recipe from this book. But it expanded my perspective on edibles from the pedestrian to the extraordinarily.
“In this climate, the sun is a more active and less neutral partner than in a northern one, imposing constraints, demanding attention. At its best perhaps in late winter and early spring, when the mistral has produced this marvel that envelops you like a liquid, it gives as much pleasure, all by itself, as a whole garden of flowers.“ (Louisa Jones, Gardens in Provence, 2001) I actually don’t remember how or where I first encountered this book. I must have seen it referenced somewhere and gotten it by interlibrary loan. This book really drove home to me the relationship between garden aesthetics and the realities of the larger landscape. That, while horticultural techniques and practices could augment or enhance the realities of place (soil, topography, climate), the overall aesthetic of a garden was still directly tied to the qualities of the larger landscape. That successful gardens draw on the best qualities of a place rather than trying to impose something extraneous upon a site. It was actually difficult to pull an individual quote from Ms Jones’ writing, as the whole thing is built up in a wonderful matter-of-fact layering that builds a highly logical approach to landscape - a philosophy that psychogeographers and other garden writers would do well to mind.
Few people have such nerdy landscape histories as I hold precious - and continue to treasure. But these words have shaped how I approach landscape - and life - on a daily basis. They form a chorus that underpins my daily activity - much as the spring peepers bleeped a soundtrack to my youthful gardening endeavors. You may not have the same kinds of ridiculous rituals as I hold precious - but surely there are some voices you’ve cached. Bring them back to the light. Only you know what treasures you’ve buried and forgotten.