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David Nash’s Ash Dome

This is an aside from my posts about my Europe cycling trip. I’ve read a few books on Nash and I liked his totems at Kloster Schoenthal, but I haven’t visited Ash Dome and am unlikely to ever do so (it’s location is secret and apparently it’s dying of ash dieback). I only know about it from videos and photos on the internet, but I think it’s great and an interesting contrast to the Tree Museum. The Tree Museum is about the ability to transplant and display mature trees; Ash Dome is about the patience to train trees as they grow in situ. In any case, Ash Dome is a terrific project, and when I recently mentioned it to an arborist and a landscape architect, neither one had heard of it even though they seem like the exact target audiences for it. So… Ash Dome.

David Nash – Ash Dome from Culture Colony on Vimeo.

All three videos are worth watching for anyone interested in trees or sculpture from trees. The first two focus on Ash Dome, the third is more generally about how Nash describes his working process, compiling clips from a longer videoabout an artist residency he did at college in North Carolina. He’s an oddly compelling talker. His conception of art as stiff and constipated or loose like diarrhea is not one I’ll forget any time soon.

The Tree Museum

Happy new year. I’m still posting things from my bike trip from Amsterdam to Bologna last summer. This is another garden, but quite different from the others. It’s branded as a Tree Museum, which is a great concept, but I’d describe it as a sculpture garden, with the trees as the sculpture. Maybe those are not mutually exclusive terms; it certainly has the rarefied air of a museum. The creator is a Swiss landscape architect/nurseryman who specializes in moving large trees. Over the years he built up a collection of trees and at some point he decided to create a garden to display them. I love the way the walls are used to frame the trees.


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Piet Oudolf on TV

Piet Oudolf on the PBS Newshour and then a longer documentary from Holland (turn on the Closed Captioning if, like me, you don’t speak Dutch). The Newshour has some nice looks at his drawings. The Dutch documentary has a fun scene of him squabbling with contractors at a jobsite. My favorite quote: ‘I always enter like a kind of evil spirit at the last moment.’

Nyssa sylvatica

Along with the Hawthorn, another underappreciated tree in the Bay Area is Nyssa sylvatica, Tupelo. It’s not a flashy tree for much of the year, so it’s not well known around here. It’s slow growing, but in return it is long-lived, has strong branches that rarely need pruning, and its roots rarely cause damage. It handles drought and poor drainage. The regular species (the photo below) is a little nondescript but the cultivar ‘Wildfire’ (above) has red in its new spring growth. Both species and cultivar have beautiful fall color. Supposedly they can drop dried fruit, but I’ve never seen that happen. An added bonus is that whenever I see one I hear Tupelo in my head, one of my favorite Nick Cave songs.

The three in the photo above are in their third year. The one below is about ten years old. It’s the first one I ever planted, in a garden that was at one time known as the garden of death. Twelve years ago during a major remodeling one of the workers parked his Hummer in the front yard all winter long and compacted the soil so badly it became the type of clay you’d use to make a pot rather than grow plants, the heaviest clay I’ve ever seen. Almost everything died when they first planted. When we were hired, we found standing water would form anywhere we dug a hole. But the Nyssa never seemed to mind. It has grown slowly but steadily in the spot where a plum tree had been unable to survive. It looks after itself better than almost any tree I know.

Flowering Hawthorn

My parents’ front garden has a Hawthorn tree that makes a beautiful show of flowers every year. It almost flowers too well; I like to see the green leaves along with the white flowers but the leaves can be nearly completely covered.

I don’t know a whole lot about Hawthorns, though I grew up with this one. They seem underappreciated and under planted in the Bay Area. I guess they can be prone to fire blight. Gophers like the roots and ate the only one I’ve personally planted. But my parents’ one has grown without trouble for over thirty years. It’s my favorite element in the entire garden, ahead of the plants I chose and planted, the various ceramic sculptures, or the wall and patio I built.

A few more photos from the front garden are below. (more…)

Needlegrass versus Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass

I often pass by a spot in Lafayette where two neighboring buildings have ornamental grass plantings that almost feel like they are in dialogue with each other. One features the beautiful-but-frowned-upon Mexican Feather Grass, Nasella tenuissima, while the other sports the beloved-by-the-native-plant-community Purple Needlegrass, Nasella pulchra. It’s a distinctive side by side comparison. The plants are related but their overall effect is different and their usage shows different priorities. The Feathergrass is prettier, but the Needlegrass has deeper connections with the natural environment.

Purple Needlegrass

Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass is beautiful but it’s a nuisance plant, reseeding all over people’s gardens and spreading into wild areas where it supplants native species. Environmental groups and plant societies promote alternatives for it, and at one point there was an effort to raise money to buy out and destroy all of the nursery stock in the state so that it wouldn’t be planted any more. I’m not sure how successful that effort was. It hasn’t disappeared from nurseries and I still see it in landscapes fairly often, but its heyday seems to have passed. Clients sometimes request it but less often than in the past and only if they have never grown it; if they have grown it they usually want to get rid of it.

African Daisy and Feather Grass

California Poppies and Needlegrass

Needlegrass often features on lists of substitute plants to use. Objectively, it is not as pretty and refined, but it has advantages that go beyond the merely visual. Famously, its roots can extend as deep as twenty feet underground, and that fact also reflects its deeper connections with the larger California landscape. It’s the official state grass, it evolved here in this place, it’s one of the key plants of our native grasslands and it’s a good habitat plant, attracting small birds and butterflies to the garden. This might be slightly early for it to look its most ornamental — the plants are only just starting to send up their golden flower stalks — but the California Poppies are blooming, and one of the best reasons to grow Needlegrass is as a companion for native wildflowers. This planting doesn’t look dramatically different from the mix of Lupine and weed grasses that naturally happen around my house, and for me that’s the point. The Needlegrass makes me feel like the planting is a part of the wider landscape around it; it suggests that the building was inserted into the existing natural landscape and, rather than everything getting redone with a bulldozer, that there is a connection between what is here now and what was here in the past.

Needlegrass

The biggest difference is how Needlegrass fits into the landscape. For some people that’s a disadvantage; they want everyone to recognize that their landscape is cultivated and maintained. Mexican Feather Grass and this nice patch of Osteospermum look like plants purchased from a nursery, while the Needlegrass could have easily spread by seed from the surrounding hills. But for me t

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