Thursday, June 05, 2014

What I Learned From Frederick Law Olmstead

I spent most of my gardening time last week doing border patrol  – culling out the invading perennial plants that have crossed from the portion of the flowerbed to which they have been assigned into the space that we have allocated for their neighbor.  It’s a never-ending activity with which I have willingly burdened myself in order to have a series of gardens that are filled to the brim with closely cramped, but never overcrowded, variously colored flora.  To borrow a phrase from Mars’ high school part-time employment as a waitress at national ice cream restaurant chain, we want our resident blossoms to be “friendly, but not familiar”.

So it was absolutely appropriate that Mars and I were walking in New Britain, CT’s Walnut Hill Park the other day – the place where I first learned the profound joy of lacerating the landscape in the pursuit of an aesthetic environment.  

This large public area was designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmstead and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.  Over the years Mars and I have been to several other public areas and cemeteries that purport to have been designed by the “Father of American Landscape Architecture – much like bedrooms in which George Washington has slept.   But Walnut Hill Park actually has a signed copy of the original plan to prove it.

 The drawing contains a wading pool with a small fountain that I remember playing in as a young boy growing up in this city.  (Though not a New Britain-ite Mars claims to have also “swum” in these waters and recalls attempting to drown a tall, thin kid that she found really annoying.  I have no such recollection.) 

That water feature is no longer there – at least partially as a result of the Polio scare of the 1950s and the public’s wholesale avoidance of public areas wherein the disease could be spread.  I am sure there were other more fiduciary reasons also.

The original diagram also contains lots of carefully laid out trees and several open fields.  Yet somehow, 90 years after its creation, at least a portion of the actual park had been lost to a wide variety of invasive plants, bushes, and tall grasses, which made useful navigation of these areas impossible and the overall appearance decidedly non-Olmsteadian.

So, who you gonna call? Shrub Busters! – or in this case a bunch of untrained teenage boys including myself, unable to differentiate between a weed and a cultivated plant – or most cultivated things in fact.  In the late 1960s the town of New Britain hired such a horde of horticultural greenhorns and turned us loose on the overgrown and out-of-control savannah with instructions to “rip everything out!”   (Unfortunately in the midst of “everything” was a hefty supply of poison ivy, which some of us discovered we were quite allergic to – but that is another story for another day.)

At the time I did not know anything about Frederick Law Olmstead.  But, after leaving our path of destruction on the terrain, I was totally convinced that now I knew everything I needed to know about garden landscaping.           

Fast-forward to today and I am still applying the knowledge that I garnered in the backwoods of Walnut Hill Park to the perennial gardens of our own open space.  So how much did I actually learn from my hands-on experience with the Father of American Landscape Architecture’s handiwork?

Phrased a little more eloquently than my original marching orders, here are Olmstead’s Design Principles as presented by the National Association of Olmstead Parks.  (Hey, there are only six of them.  How hard can this be anyway?)

“(1) A Genius of Place: The design should take advantage of unique characteristics of the site, even its disadvantages.   The design should be developed and refined with intimate knowledge of the site.”  (In other words – plant whatever you have wherever you have room.)

 “(2) Unified Composition: All elements of the landscape design should be made subordinate to an overarching design purpose.”  (Each of our perennial beds has an “overarching design purpose”  – “New Mexico bed”, “butterfly garden”, etc.   And all of these raison d'êtres were carefully retrofitted onto each section after the fact.  The gardens themselves were “designed” by randomly fitting in plants that we had been given, or bought, or rescued from abandoned gardens, into whatever space was available at the time.  See Rule number 1.)

“(3) Orchestration of Movement: The composition should subtly direct movement through the landscape.”  (Like those Goose Neck Loosetrife and Japanese Lanterns that wander aimlessly from area to area.)

“(4) Orchestration of Use: The composition should artfully insert a variety of uses into logical precincts, ensuring the best possible site for each use and preventing competition between uses.”  (There is no “competition between uses” in our gardens – whatever the hell that means.  Just competition for survival.)

 “(5) Sustainable Design and Environmental Conservation: Plant materials should thrive, be non invasive, and require little maintenance.”  (But a little invasiveness is like a stick shift on a car – it makes you feel needed.)

“(6) A Comprehensive Approach: The composition should be comprehensive and seek to have a healthful influence beyond its boundaries.”   (And that’s where I, aka The Border Patrol, play my oh, so necessary role.)

It occurs to me that the reason Frederick Law Olmstead was able to design so many parks, cemeteries, and gardens in so many different locations is that he never really hung around to pick up after himself.  It’s a luxury that we more down-to earth gardeners simply do not have.

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