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Fernando Martos: Experimental planting design in Spain by Giacomo Guzzon

Fernando Martos is experimenting with a new style of planting design, mixing the traditional formality of Mediterranean gardens with light and airy perennials and grasses not typical in this region.

This guest post is the second in a series on planting design by Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect working in central London for Gillespies, a large, international landscape design firm. Unlike most landscape architects, Giacomo has an extensive knowledge of plants not common in the profession. He believes landscape architects need to be much more knowledgeable in planting design so that they are able to create characterful, living landscapes that meet the needs of users and reflect existing ecological conditions and sense of place. He is a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer in planting design at Greenwich University School of Landscape Architecture in London. He travels widely to meet designers from all over the world, observe planting projects in different climates and environments and share his passion with other professionals.

While a movement toward a more naturalistic look in planting design has been widely adopted in many parts of the world over the past several decades, garden designers in the Mediterranean region have mostly kept to clipped evergreens and a limited range of plants naturally adapted to a hot, dry climate and lean soil. Seeking to broaden the palettes in which they work, some Spanish designers are breaking new ground and beginning to use grasses and herbaceous perennials with light, delicate structures, the ability to sway and move in the wind, to “perform” in all seasons, and to evoke a wider range of emotional responses throughout the year. It is surprising how resilient and sustainable such designs are proving to be, largely owing to the willingness of some designers to experiment with plants from other parts of the world as well as plants usually associated with more northerly latitudes.

Veronicastrum virginicum, Verbena bonariensis, and other herbaceous perennials performing beautifully during an extremely hot day in central Spain.

A few years ago while reading Gardens Illustrated, I by chance came across an article featuring a residential project by Fernando Martos. At the time I didn’t know much about Fernando’s work but I was immediately drawn to the beauty of his design and surprised by how well his experimental planting fit the Spanish countryside. The plantings looked different and unusual, but at the same time appropriate to their context. I think this was the first time I’d seen such a light and airy herbaceous planting in a Mediterranean climate.

Such herbaceous lightness isn’t typical in central Spain planting designs.

I was curious to find out what perennials and grasses, many of which are commonly used in Northern Europe, were thriving in Spain. I eventually contacted him and asked to visit some of his projects.

Grass and herbaceous perennials visually blend with the natural landscape.

Fernando kindly agreed and last summer I flew to Madrid and spent a weekend with him visiting gardens. My timing wasn’t good (or perhaps it was perfect); I managed to visit Madrid during one of the worst heat waves of the summer; temperatures were around 36C (97F). So armed with big water bottles, we started the tour.

At the garden at Finca las Tendas, Fernando encloses a large, rectangular open space with long rectangular beds of clipped shrubs mixed with meadow-like plantings.

Finca las Tendas

The first garden we visited after my arrival in Madrid was Finca las Tendas. This project is in a rural area with vineyards north of the capital, designed around several newly refurbished one-story buildings used as a venue for weddings and events.

From the opposite end, the banking of grasses and perennials brings a vivacity to the clipped Salix balls.

The building layout creates a central rectangular space, surrounded by the venue on three sides and open to the carpark on one side. Fernando divided this large central space and created two main garden rooms by planting tall evergreen hedges, which also separate the garden from the carpark.

The larger garden room has a central area, which lies lower than the surrounding buildings and is planted with Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Skyline’ trees. These light canopy trees are evenly spaced and planted on a grid, to filter the light and provide some shade while still maintaining an open character. This place, surfaced with self-binding gravel, is used for gatherings and buffets.

Informal, colorful seating allows attendants at events to appreciate the light shade of the Gleditsia and enjoy the pleasing contrast of formality and looseness in the plantings that define the space.

The geometrical pattern of trees is completely appropriate to its utilitarian uses, and visually links it with rows of grape vines planted in the fields outside.

A shaded central pavilion for additional functional space that divides the functional area into two separate parts is integrated with the border plantings.

Between the central area and the venue, generous planting beds wrap around the open area, creating a transparent buffer. These beds are planted with Salix purpurea pruned in cloud forms and intermingled with colourful perennials. Salix purpurea is a very robust shrub that thrives in exposed and coastal sites, and it responds very well to regular pruning. While Fernando uses some elements typical of Mediterranean gardens, like the pruned shrubs, he puts them to a new use, for example by juxtaposing topiary with perennials and grasses unexpected in a Spanish setting.

Cloud pruned Salix purpurea anchor the much looser perennial plantings.

The perennial plant species Fernando uses are unusual for the area. He selects species that can cope with the heat and the challenging growing conditions. These species, although not typical or indigenous to central Spain, give a pleasantly fresh, airy and colourful feeling to the composition and surprisingly don’t conflict visually with the surrounding landscapes. A plant like Panicum virgatum, an American native, is a very drought tolerant species (in fact, I have seen it growing in pure sand in a very hot valley within the Walking Dunes on the east end of Long Island in New York). Verbena bonariensis, Calamagrostis, Hemerocallis spp., Iris barbata, Veronicastrum, Sedum, Agapanthus, Stipa tenuissima, Calamintha nepeta and Echinacea can all cope with the hot temperatures and were thriving with the help of some irrigation during the hottest months. All these exotic perennials, combined with native plants, such as Laurus nobilis, Quercus ilex, Morus alba and Olea europea, create a new and unexpected atmosphere and help to connect this project with its rural Spanish location.

Loose plantings at the edge of this pool provide a transition to the wider landscape.

The two rectangular pools, one in each garden, mirror the sky and the adjacent planting and at the same time unconsciously convey to the visitors a feeling of freshness, a much welcomed illusion in the torrid summer. Moreover, the shapes of the pools recall the long irrigation ditches that one can see in the countryside, another subtle element that anchors this garden in the wider landscape.

Guadalajara Garden

The second garden we visited near Guadalajara had a more rural setting; it is immersed in gently sloping hills planted with olive trees located roughly 60 km north-east of Madrid. The garden is surrounded by a rolling landscape, and the approach drive from the main road to the house on a country road creates a feeling of anticipation as you near the house and garden.

At the Guadalajara garden, the weekend retreat of a couple from Madrid, Fernando used very simple plantings on the entrance side of the residence–large blocks of Miscanthus ‘Ferner Osten’ and clipped Escallonia.

The private house, a weekend retreat of a couple from Madrid, is a modern white finca, or country home. The entrance garden at the top of the driveway echoes the building’s linear, low, simple character. Fernando decided that this area needed a simple and formal approach to feel appropriate next to the modern house. The entrance landscape features a large block of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ and another one of Escallonia spp. gently pruned into a rectangular form.

The opposite side of the house presents a completely different character, with a central lawn and swimming pool at a lower level, surrounded by mixed and block perennial plantings designed to create a meadow-like appearance.

After arriving we quickly walked around the corner of the house where we encountered a completely different atmosphere. The back garden has a central lawn area for the children’s activities, surrounded by large planting beds that frame the garden and blend it with the surrounding landscapes.

The planting is colourful and lively, and gives a varied, exciting character to the place.

A large, perennial meadow stretches to the open fields and blurs the garden’s boundary.

 

The meadow – another view

To the right of the main house and in front of the guest house, a large perennial meadow stretches into the surrounding fields and blurs the garden’s boundary. Fernando here designed a plant community that is able to withstand dry soils and torrid heat. Lavandula is intermingled with Perovskia, Stachys byzantina, Iris germanica, Stipa tenuissima, Phlomis russeliana, Achillea and some evergreen shrubs pruned in cloud form. These shrubs link this meadow with the other part of the garden around the pool.

The mass and stillness of dark blocks of clipped Escallonia contrast dramatically with the lively, light-filled wands of Stipa gigantea (see next photo).

An essential element of the planting is the use of dark blocks of clipped Escallonia whose mass and stillness contrast dramatically with the lively, light-filled wands of Stipa gigantea. “For me,” Fernando said, “that effect is very important and a key of the project.”

Light-filled wands of Stipa gigantea

Fernando’s remark is certainly revealing. It clearly tells us that he is seeking subtle effects that are something new in Mediterranean planting design. He is experimenting and pushing the boundaries to find plants that can thrive in his local conditions.

The pool area lies below the grade of the surrounding garden and it is planted almost exclusively with evergreen shrubs, though, as noted above, given a lively sparkle by interplanted Stipa. These shrubs resemble the native vegetation that can be seen all around the property, helping integrate the garden with the wider landscape.

The evergreen shrubs (right) visually integrate the pool with the wild landscape (left)

Because the pool has no edge and no fence is visible, it seems to be immersed in the Mediterranean vegetation.

Fernando Martos’ work represents an important part of a new movement in Mediterranean landscape design, especially in the Madrid area. It combines the botanical richness, eclecticism and abundance of plants from other parts of the world with the evergreen forms and prominent structural plants typically present in Mediterranean gardens.

Fernando Martos

It will be interesting to see how these new design approaches develop in Spain, and how they evolve and influence planting design in other parts of the Mediterranean region.

Resilient planting design for public urban spaces by Giacomo Guzzon

Sloterdijk intermodal station, the site of one of Ton Muller’s major public planting designs in Amsterdam (described below).

Resilient and sustainable planting design has become a subject of major interest in the world of landscape architecture, particularly for urban parks and public horticulture. Significantly, Marc Treib has organized a major symposium on the importance of planting design in landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley for February 2018 (The Aesthetics of Planting Design). Such a major international conference devoted to this subject is rather epochal in the world of landscape architecture, particularly in the United States, where landscape architects are assumed to care and know little about plants, though this seems to be changing. One who clearly does is Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose work I have had the opportunity to see a lot of, living in New York City. In 2013 Van Valkenburgh said in Landscape Architecture magazine:

“When I first taught at Harvard in the early 1980s, a colleague … told me that landscape architects need to know only 10 species of trees, 10 of ground covers, and 10 of shrubs—the super-hardy ones. This is like telling writers they can use only 30 words. There is no possibility for subtlety, precision, and richness, but plenty for uniformity and boredom. When the vocabulary of landscape architecture is chosen based only on the need for easy and economical plant survival, it is impoverished.”

This guest post is the first in a series by Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect, and a close friend, working in central London for Gillespies, a large, international landscape design firm. Unlike most landscape architects, Giacomo has an extensive knowledge of plants not common in the profession. He is also a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer in planting design at Greenwich University School of Landscape Architecture in London.

Over the summer Giacomo arranged for a tour of plantings designed by Ton Muller, a Dutch landscape architect in Amsterdam who works for the city design office. Ton has developed a reputation for sustainable and visually appealing plantings in public urban spaces. On that summer day, they were accompanied by Ton’s co-worker Joost de Wit, a landscape architect who formerly worked with Giacomo at Gillespies, and Alessandro Solci, another landscape architect and co-worker in Amsterdam.

Here is Giacomo’s report on what Ton is doing across the Channel.

 

A pedestrian lingers in the generous herbaceous plantings between a bike park and the rail station.

As a landscape architect working for a large firm in London I’m fortunate to be able to meet designers from all over the world. I strongly believe in the importance of sharing ideas and knowledge and, being a part of such an international environment, I’m able to explore how other landscape architects are using planting design, and to observe best practices in other countries and other climates. To help sensitize other landscape architects to the importance of planting design, I organise garden visits and planting walks with my colleagues, and I also often travel and meet designers from other parts of the world. Sharing a common interest and passion is a great way to meet other professionals, learn from their experience, and spread the word.

Ton Muller

I’ve admired the work of Ton Muller for a long time, having first discovered it on Instagram. When I learned that my former Dutch colleague, Joost, was working in the same office in Amsterdam, I immediately told Joost of my wish to meet him. Ton kindly agreed to show me a few projects around the city, so back in June I travelled to the Netherlands to meet him. I was particularly interested in his work because, among his other interests as a landscape architect, he is designing planting projects in public spaces–an area of particular interest to me.

A few years before, while on a tour with other horticulturally inclined friends, I had the opportunity to see one of his projects, the Orlyplein square in front of Sloterdijk Station, and I was extremely impressed with his work. The planting was lively and full of colour, but at the same time robust and sustainable. And it felt appropriate in its context, using a wide, mixed herbaceous planting to separate the rail station and commercial area from a large bicycle park opposite it.

Ton was trained as a landscape architect and has many years of experience designing public spaces for the city of Amsterdam. He told me that he has been interested in plants since he was a kid. Interestingly, he prefers to design plantings for public spaces rather than gardens. Ton sees urban planting as one of the important elements of the wider cityscape; therefore resiliency, biodiversity, beauty, and toughness have the highest priority.

On our first stop, we visited a series of plantings within larger lawn areas along a busy street (Van Leijenberghlaan) not too far from the Amsterdam South Station. These beds were planted several years ago and since then have been maintained by the city.

Resilient, low-maintenance plantings along Van Leijenberghlaan, a busy Amsterdam street

Maintenance is minimal and only involves cutting the plants down in spring. It’s interesting to observe how this planting is developing considering that, after the establishment period of only a few months after planting, no additional irrigation has been provided. This is an experimental planting; some plants are growing better than others, and some species are clearly dominating such as Molinia, Salvia and Helianthus. Phlomis russeliana and Coreopsis tripteris have also self-seeded among the beds. Here plants were planted singly and in small groups within a Molinia matrix.

Phlomis russeliana has proven to be a very resilient species, surprisingly adapting to a wide range of light conditions.

This rather simple planting is more easily cared for by city staff who don’t have the time to tailor a sophisticated maintenance regime. They will simply mow the planting.

Urban plantings must be designed for a variety of conditions. Here is a drought-resistant planting for shade.

We then moved to a smaller residential street planted in the centre with a double row of trees. In the buffer area between the buildings and the pavement, Ton designed a planting to withstand drought and shade while looking good throughout the year. Here some plants were installed in much larger groups than in the previous project. Liriope muscari and Brunnera macrophylla are used to cover large areas and within this green carpet smaller groups of more characterful perennials, such as Rodgersia aesculifolia, Aruncus dioicus, Bergenia ‘Eroica’, Polystichum setiferum, Anemone and Kirengeshoma palmata, were used to add variation and interest.

Ofter overused, Liriope muscari can be an effective groundcover plant in the right context. Here the the highly decorative foliage and emergent flowering spires of Rodgersia aesculifolia make a dramatic contrast to the Liriope.

This scheme is very successful and plants are thriving happily in the dappled shade of the existing trees. Along the buildings’ boundary line Hydrangea aspera macrophylla was planted to soften the edge between the planting and the apartment blocks.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Rodgersia is usually thought of as a plant for moist conditions. Here it is thriving in dry shade.

The Rodgersia aesculifolia was looking particularly healthy and happy in this dry, shady area, even without irrigation. I was quite surprised because I’d always thought Rodgersia was a far more moisture dependant species. This planting shows how a sustainable scheme with low inputs can be achieved when the right plants are chosen. Ton selected only species that are resilient and robust and do not demand any special maintenance, especially considering that the city will take care of these beds.

Another thing this planting taught me was that plants often respond to environments in ways very different from what is taught in books. Actual experience growing the plants is absolutely essential to learning how they respond to different growing conditions.

The tour continued through the Mahlerplein on the top of a bike garage Ton designed. This planting was different from all the others; it did not use any herbaceous perennials.

Not all of Ton’s planting designs are herbaceous. Here trees and lawn complement the hardscape on the Mahlerplein.

The square features a series of lawns retained by a continuous stone bench/wall and offers the perfect spill-out area for people working in the surrounding buildings during lunchtime. Only Gleditsia and Robinia trees (six different cultivars) were planted, all very resilient and drought resistant species, with a rather light canopy allowing light to reach the ground and creating a comfortable open environment. The city of Amsterdam is paying a lot of attention to the selection of trees for new projects in order to diversify the tree stock with more resilient and stress tolerant species. This example shows how a successful planting design responds to the function and character of a place. In this case, maximizing useable space was more important than creating an ornamental environment.

A planting for a very dry site in the rain shadow of a building.

We then continued the tour in the neighbourhood close to the South Station, which is undergoing a major redevelopment. This planting was particularly interesting because it showed perennials used in groups and scattered in random matrices. One simple but effective mix was designed for a very dry and challenging site, a narrow bed in the rain shadow of a cantilevered building, using Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’, Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’ and Carex morrowii planted in random layout among groups of Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae and Phlomis russeliana.

On the other side of the street, an area below large existing canopy trees was planted with a woodland mix. Here the shrub layer is composed of large existing shrubs and some new groups of Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Sikes Dwarf’ dotted among the perennials. The groundcover layer is composed of tough, robust species such as Euphorbia amygdaloides, Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokova’, Dryopteris affinis, Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’, Brunnera macrophylla, and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’. This planting is young now, but it promises to be very effective.

Around the corner, we saw another planting in a more open location. Here the shrub layer was composed of large, approximately 1.8-m high-multi-stem Amelanchier trees placed among the perennials. The perennial mix features Luzula sylvatica, Bergenia ‘Eroica’, Geranium x cantabrigense ‘St. Ola’, Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’, Phlomis russeliana and Anemone x hybrida. All these simple plantings were composed of few but very robust species that will thrive in the city and enrich the cityscape with flowers and varied textures and leaf forms over a long period.

A sunny planting within an asymmetrical square surrounded by new buildings on the Beethovenstraat.

Before ending the tour at the Sloterdijk station we visited a planting within an asymmetrical square surrounded by new buildings on the Beethovenstraat. Because this planting is more mature and all plants are intermingling, it is more difficult to spot the different groupings. The planting is divided into a shade and sun area, unified by multi-stem Koelreuteria paniculata trees used throughout.

A planting in shade within the same square.

The shaded area on the south side of the square is planted with Carex morrowii, Liriope ‘Moneymaker’, Dryopteris setiferum ‘Dahlem’, Polystichum polyblepharum, Euphorbia amygdaloides and Hydrangea petiolaris.

The sunny area is covered with many different flowering perennials. At the time of my visit some in flower were Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’, Echinacea pallida, Phlomis russeliana, Festuca mairei, Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’ and Asphodeline lutea.

 

We ended our tour at the Sloterdjik Station, which is the only project I had visited before meeting Ton. The area I knew was the square in front of the station but we arrived at the site from the back of the station and Ton showed me an area of planting that I hadn’t seen before.

I was amazed by the large planting along the tracks—basically a matrix of Sesleria autumnalis with blocks of Salvia nemorosa ‘Blauhügel’, Euphorbia waldsteinii ‘Betten’, Limonium latifolium, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and groups of Phlomis russeliana and Amsonia hubrichtii.

The simple but bold mix works very well in juxtaposition with the cityscape and the large dots of salvia create a real wow factor. The planting is beautiful, fresh and contemporary, turning an essentially dull infrastructure area into a visually compelling place.

We then moved to the square in front of the station, which is essentially a green roof over the top of the submerged part of the station. The design features a series of planted and hardscape areas providing seating opportunities and refuge for commuters.

The structural layer here, the framework of the planting, is composed of multi-stem trees such as Crataegus coccinea, Amelanchier, and some botanical roses, and by tall perennials such as Veronicastrum and taller grasses.

A matrix of Sesleria autumnalis and Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, in a detail from the planting above.

The seasonal theme layer, the flowers of the composition, is composed of Symphyotrichum, Amsonia, Hemerocallis citrina, Anemone x hybrida ‘Richard Ahrens’, Sedum and Phlomis russeliana.

The groundcover layer, the filler in the scheme, is Sesleria autumnalis and Geraniums. Another layer of interest through the seasons is provided by bulbous plants, such as Alliums, Narcissus, Camassia and Crocosmia, which will slowly disappear within the other perennials after flowering.

I have admired this planting scheme from the moment I saw it. Not only is it robust, resilient and able to withstand the harsh urban environment, it also beautiful and diverse. It radiates joy and creates a welcoming environment in this very utilitarian setting—an important message to send to users in what otherwise could be sterile, unattractive, dull urban areas.

Hemerocallis citrina

Ton’s method is to use mixed planting schemes to bring the feeling of nature into the city. He selects plants according to their needs and habitats, creating designed plant communities in which plants intermingle and create a complex environmental system able to withstand urban stresses such as drought or extreme weather. According to the character and function of a place, and using various natural habitats such as woodlands, woodland-edge or grassland as inspirational models, he selects from a pallet of both native and exotic plants. Shrubs and trees also play an important role in his compositions; they create the framework, giving structure and stature to a planting.

When designing a plant community, Ton first chooses the matrix species to hold together the planting and look good throughout the year. These need to be well-behaved, long living, sturdy and clump forming species. In sunny conditions, these could be, for example, Molina, Sesleria or Calamagrostis and in the shade, Carex, Liriope, or Heuchera. He then chooses plants that will add character, distinctive form and colour during a particular time of the year. Borrowing a term from the book ‘Planting in a Post-Wild World’ by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, he selects the seasonal theme layer.

Some of the species Ton uses for this purpose are Hemerocallis, Salvia, Amsonia, Aster, Rudbeckia, Limonium, Stachys, Iris sibirica, or Geranium for sunny areas, or Tiarella, Rodgersia, Brunnera, Bergenia, Luzula, Blechnum spicant, Dryopteris or Euphorbia amygdaloides for shade.

Joost de Wit, Ton Muller, Giacomo Guzzon and Alessandro Solci (l to r).

Ton’s work in public spaces is exemplary of the kinds of plantings needed in urban landscapes. They are functional, resilient, beautiful and habitat-specific. His work demonstrates that alternatives to the uniformity and blandness that we often encounter in less prominent urban areas can be created by designing the plant palette to meet functional requirements and by selecting plants appropriate to environmental conditions, while giving attention to the character and genius loci of each site.

 

You can follow Giacomo on Instagram at Giacomo_Guzzon and Ton Muller at design_by_nature.