Archive for the 'water' Category

Walking the Walk | Becoming Green


I went to a spectacular lecture today at the U. S. Arboretum.  I found out about it because I recently joined the Arboretum as a Friend for the mere pittance of a $35 contribution.  I encourage all my buddies out there to join and attend some programs with me.  This was the program I saw.  Below the announcement, I have written up some notes to share about some pretty exciting advancements in

Measuring Sustainability in the Garden

Dr. Steven Windhager

There is a great deal of talk about creating sustainable gardens, but how do we assess the level of sustainability in a garden? The SSI (Sustainable Sites Initiative) has been formed to provide guidelines and performance benchmarks for those who want to create and measure sustainable landscapes. The goal is to quantitatively asses the attributes of all types of sites in order to measure success in maintaining or improving the health of an ecosystem. Learn about the SSI, including what it is, why it is needed and how it affects public gardens and other landscapes.

Dr. Windhager is the director of the Landscape Restoration Program at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and serves on the Steering Committee and as Technical Advisor for the SSI. His expertise includes Sustainable Site Design, Ecological Restoration, and Urban Ecology.

Lecture Notes |

On average, 30 to 65% of a family’s daily potable water is used in landscaping (what a bummer to learn this!).  Strategic planting of 1 canopy tree can eventually conserve 25% of a home’s energy use.  We all need to think macro in order to make actual gains in living greenly.  Conservation is all well and good, but, we have the opportunity to reverse some of the detrimental impact we’ve had on our own environment in terms of climate change by designing “sustainable” landscapes, big and little.

To achieve true sustainability, we must satisfy 3 intersecting criteria: economic vitality, social acceptability, environmentally sound science.  In other words a yard needs to be affordable, look great and add up to a sum gain in energy use when you consider ALL factors in it’s creation and care.  He gave the example of a commercial property where a pond for storm water abatement is put behind a building and fenced off with ugly chain link.  While this pond may, at first, do it’s job, it’s been shown that it is soon ignored and then not maintained properly, falls into dis-repair and soon enough is no longer effective.

So it’s important to measure carefully and precisely.  That’s where the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center came in.  Maybe a decade ago, they wanted to become LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), but there they found there were no benchmarks for landscape design similar to those developed for architecture and building.  So they began working on guidelines for sustainable methods and benchmarks for performance in landscape design.  The Sustainable Sites Initiative, a system where “credits” are appointed for design that meets particular criteria (available at  They encourage design that for example, uses very little or no potable water for irrigation (only gray water like captured A/C condensation) and keeps storm water from ever running off a site and much, much more.  They even give credit for plastic pot recycling programs.  This initiative also shows how to measure sum gains realistically.  Dr. Windhager spoke a lot about assessing the starting point of any site.  Is it a ‘Green”, “Grey” or “Brown Field”?  A Green Field describes a site that has no previous building on it.  A Grey Field is a site that has had building but is not contaminated with any toxic chemicals, and you can guess what a Brown Field is.

He also said that the costs of sustainable design are front loaded in the design phase, but can often be built for less.  He recommends that every project include a Soil Plan that addresses potential compaction, how it may be mitigated or how bulk density may be restored and to bring organic matter to acceptable or improved levels.

The guy was a wealth of knowledge in this realm and explained everything clearly.  If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, please do.  One of his most potent pieces of advice:  Never Ever Use PEET.  It traps too much carbon in the soil.  Enjoy.

Entrance Garden | Landscape Design Ideas

my garden, originally uploaded by intheburg.

Entrance Garden | Landscape Design Ideas

This wonderful entrance belongs to my landscape architect friend who lives in Richmond, VA. The entrance to the house on a shady wooded lot has so many personal touches that you can check out by looking at his flickr set. He has created a beautiful woodland garden to fit.  I love the way it all works together. I know he likes native plants and see a little Lizard’s Tail, featured along with pitcher plant, big leaf magnolia and Carolina Spider Lady.

The water feature is serene and reflect the color of the pots in early spring as well as the plants later on. The colors here in total are very simple cool greens and warm brick reds, softened with moss all over. Ferns are used for groundcover instead of grass. I really like the climbing hydrangea that provides just a little bit of a screen and a lot of flow as you amble down the front walk. Most of the other plants next to the front walk are low so you don’t feel crouded as you make your approach to the front door. But why stop there? The easy going patio table is just a few steps more. You get to pass the soft organic sculpture on the way. All of this is very doable and fits right into the suburban Piedmont environment.

Informal Path | Landscape Design Ideas

IMG_8626.JPG, originally uploaded by dogwood*designer.

Informal Path | Landscape Design Ideas

Here’s another example of an informal path that is so attractive and pleasing. The curve really draws you through the space and just at the corner larger rocks as well as the pea gravel spill into a little pond on the left edge. The path banks around the right hand pond as well. Both of the ponds are more reflective while the curve of the path peacefullly moving. The dappled light on this path also contributes to the texture of the place slowing us down to appreciate the moment. The waist high plantings on the right creates a low barrier and also invite you to enjoy the view on the left of the lake about 50 feet away. The little brick edge you can see just at the bottom of the picture subtly reminds us that this isn’t an entirely natural space even though it is quite informal. Those little bricks give us a sense of structure.

Reflection and Energy Water | Landscape Design Ideas

IMG_8617.JPG, originally uploaded by dogwood*designer.

Reflection and Energy with Water | Landscape Design Ideas

If you’re lucky enough to incorporate or have already some water in your landscape, then you know the charm of a water feature. But water features can have different qualities dependign on how it incorporated, of course. Moving water is very dynamic and invigigorating, while the still water (like above) is peaceful, dreamy, literally and figuratively reflective. Whatever the feeling you’d like in your landscape, water can be made to enhance it by design.
Water can also provide spacial organizatioin. Curving lines of streams can direct passage; movement of water can urge you on. Water can provide a very formal, stately and dramatic entrace with a sense of granduer. Or on the otherhand, water can sooth you with soft ripples and keep you transfixed in one spot for long periods of time.

A beautiful walkway (at top) at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, both the walkway and the patio (below) seem to float, just like the waterlilies on the water contributing to the dreamy quality of the place. The green water and the evergreen shrubs both have a soft quality and texture which encourages people to amble along slowly.

In the photo above, you can see both extremes of energy and reflection portrayed with the water fountain in the middle of the lake.

In the photo below, it’s all action, fast water, straight (fast) lines of the allées (an avenue in a park or landscape). The movement takes you right down to the lake water’s edge and then lets you rest.  In this case, water is leading you to water and making an extended connection into the landscape, cool.


Stream or Drainage? | landscape Design Ideas

IMG_8642.JPG, originally uploaded by dogwood*designer.

Stream or Drainage? | landscape Design Ideas

You decide. Here is another great way to design with water in your landscape. Instead of trying to get rid of it in underground plastic pipes that go the wrong way, give water a place to be appreciated. Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, a drainage stream crosses a crushed stone pea gravel path. Instead of trying to stay dry, my neice preferred to walk right through. The crossroads composition is made even more splendid with the Solmon’s Seal behind (also pictured below) to give the path a woodland native appeal.



Kids Get Their Feet Wet | Landscape Design Ideas

IMG_8623.JPG, originally uploaded by dogwood*designer.

Kids Get Their Feet Wet | Landscape Design Ideas

Ok, so not everyone can set up their backyard like the Chicago Botanic Garden (pictured here with my kids in it), but I really like the idea of creating a place for kids to have fun. This pebble, boulder and rock oasis is beautiful and cooling. If you are thinking of adding a water feature, a fountain or pond to your back or front yard consider creating a place like this with ornamental grasses along the edge and a nice place to sit. My hyper kids could have sat there facinated by the combination of elements for hours and so could I. Think of the potential for helping with the practical matter of drainage, too. Isn’t this better than your average swale?

Secret Garden | Landscape Design Ideas


Secret Garden | Landscape Design Ideas

These are my daughters by the little pond in the one of the “Landscape Gardens” at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where we visited the other day. Yes, this blog is focused on the Mid-Atlantic region of the US for plants but good design is everywhere of course. So if you have the chance, please visit. It’s wonderful. The Chicago Botanic Gardens, built on nine different little islands and the mainland near Northwestern University, was inspired by an old water garden (called the “Garden of Perfect Brightness” that served as a retreat for Chinese Emperors in the 18th Century.

Let me talk about this image, though. This spot is a treasure among many. The central feature is the pond of course, but it is the high hedges that make it quiet and special there. Against that dramatic backdrop the informal and tough low maintenance flowers and shrubs can really shine. The Botanic Garden web site says that these plants are great for the Mid-western home gardener, which is wonderful. Still, putting them into a ciricular “room”, a place to stop along a journey, is what makes it “secret”.