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The Art of Finishing

No matter the scale or scope of the watershape or landscape environment, notes master watershaper Anthony Archer Wills, the finishing touches are generally those that matter most.  Here, in his third and final article on a huge project for a lakefront Midwestern estate, he demonstrates the intricate truth of that simple assertion by discussing his approach to completing the work – and accepting the fact that things will change as the future unfolds.
No matter the scale or scope of the watershape or landscape environment, notes master watershaper Anthony Archer Wills, the finishing touches are generally those that matter most. Here, in his third and final article on a huge project for a lakefront Midwestern estate, he demonstrates the intricate truth of that simple assertion by discussing his approach to completing the work – and accepting the fact that things will change as the future unfolds.
By Anthony Archer Wills

Despite our fondest desires, it’s quite inevitable that most of the things we humans design and build are impermanent and will change.  That’s particularly true of the greenery we place in and around our gardens and watershapes, simply because plants grow and gradually alter the settings they surround or inhabit.

There’s a measure of melancholy in this evolution:  As designers and installers of these spaces, we’re left to recognize that in most cases we will never see them at their best and most beautiful.  Yet that’s as it should be, because any living work of art will continue to develop and improve long after it is technically “completed” by our hands.

There’s also great joy in creating naturalistic watershapes and garden spaces, because I see the art of finishing as an exercise in setting the table for the future.  In fact, I see this as being remarkably empowering:  By participating in the future by way of my work today, I feel better about letting go and setting these spaces free to find their ways into the unknown tomorrows that await them.

YEARS AHEAD

That train of thought was very much on my mind as we entered into the final stage of the project under discussion here.  As has been mentioned in two previous WaterShapes articles (“Historic Perspectives,” March 2010, page 26; and “Earthbound Endeavors,” April 2010, page 22), the work was undertaken on a large property with a historic home that had recently been renovated, the general idea being that we were all collaborating to create a landmark that would exist in perpetuity.

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The property had no indigenous stone of any substance when we arrived, so we had to bring in lots of material to create outcroppings and watercourses.  Our aim was to convey the impression that the stone truly belonged and that all of it had been exposed by wind and water on a scale as vast as geological time.
In reality, the ponds, streams, waterfalls, grottoes and landscape features were, although brand new, to become part of the property’s future as much as they were of its present.  With that in mind, we conceived systems and settings that made grand gestures and brought drama to the space as it rolled from a tree-lined prominence down to the lakeshore.

As the two previous features attest, there was a considerable amount of heavy lifting in the project’s earlier phases that brought structure to the space.  But the final phase, which included installation of a stream system at the top of the space and completion of the landscape, also gave us ample opportunity to express ourselves creatively.

Until now, we’d worked to establish the site’s bones.  Now we were fleshing out the composition and giving it an immediate and compelling presence.

Not to mix metaphors, but I also consider plantings as architectural features:  Yes, plants go in last and bring color and contrast, but they also allow the designer to make adjustments – large and small – that bring balance to the entire composition with respect to form, texture, visual weight, spatial continuity and line in near views, distant views and all the myriad views in between.

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The edges of the ponds reflect the variety of strategies we envisioned from the design stage forward, with expanses of lawn stretching down to the water’s edge; cascades of colorful terrestrial plants pouring down slopes; and patches of wetland in which aquatic plants make discerning any ‘edge’ at all a real challenge.
This is why I always start my designs with plants in mind:  I want to make certain I have adequate shallow areas in the water as well as broad areas along the shore where I foresee a need for plants.  I also want to ensure that I’ve left plenty of nooks and crannies in rock formation for plants that will enliven, embroider and enhance the stone.

Curiously, until the plants arrive and I see them in context of the setting, I am never completely sure which plants will go where!  It is only in seeing everything together and weighing their differences in texture, color and structure that things begin to coalesce and I start deciding how to proceed.

In that sense, working with plants is quite similar to placing rocks:  There’s a huge improvisational quality to the process that’s always involved when you work with natural materials.  Yes, my sketches offers a framework, but I know that, once I am on site with the plants themselves, experience and intuition will take over as I make my final decisions.

VISUAL INVENTION

What I love about all of this is the sense it gives me that I have total creative freedom up to and including the very last stages of the project.  

Given the size of the space in which I was working in this case, I started by thinking not so much about individual specimens as about stands of plants in the water, along the shore and in the trees.  The idea here is that large groupings offer structures and forms that make bold (or subtle) statements and balance the dramatic presence of stone and water.  

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A profound amount of work went into placing plants once the basic construction was complete – the project’s main finishing touches, in fact.  They had been included in our thought processes from the start, but it is only when I am on site and actually begin the process that final decisions are made about placement of swaths or other groupings of various groundcovers, shrubs, grasses and even trees.
I began by intertwining the visual boundaries between water and land with huge carpets of perennial groundcovers (Vinca minor and Periwinkle) and inserting thousands of daffodils in swaths careening down the hillside along with blue Scillas – key players that meander and connect with one another along the shores and extend into spaces well removed from the water’s edge.  The visual weight of these color blocks gives substance and drama to the lines they create.  

(This brings up an important point:  I often see plantings in which things are so intermixed that, from any distance, you really don’t see one plant but instead see only a weedy mass that has no visual order because there are simply too many conflicting shapes and colors.)

In my work here, I strongly felt the influence of the late Brazilian master, Roberto Burle Marx.  He is justly famous for using large, homogeneous stands of tropical foliage to define spaces, thereby enabling observers to “read” those plantings from hundreds of feet away at the same time they are being drawn in for a closer and more differentiated view of their lines and bold contrasts.  

When it comes to planting large areas, Burle Marx does it better than anyone I’ve ever studied.  For this project, I definitely applied what I’ve learned, extending the concepts into the way I approached light and shade as well.  

In placing the trees, for example, I arranged things so that there were areas that would be sheltered beneath a lovely canopy, offering that wonderful feeling of cool repose often associated with the presence of water.  But I also wanted to avoid any sense that the shade was gloomy or forbidding, so we also left large areas of open sky where lawns bathed in sunlight during the day.

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This composition is made even more appealing by the fact that the clients have fun-loving natures and wanted to make certain that both children and adults would have a good time interacting with various details of the design.  These included the adult-scale grotto adjacent to the largest waterfall in the system as well as the unusual bridge built across one of the ponds.
If there’s any enduring lesson from a project such as this, it’s that you need to juggle a mass of ideas, factors and possibilities from the very beginning to put yourself in a position where, as your work draws to a close, you still have the capacity to think creatively in response to what’s unfolding before your eyes.

From the largest decisions about stands of trees to the smallest details of placing a colorful shrub, you always have to be acting upon the planning you’ve done as well as being open to the intuition that drives decisions minute by minute.  In many cases, you have no choice but to be patient as concepts that formed a project’s groundwork will only take shape at the very last minute.

CAREFUL DECISIONS

Let’s consider one specific case in which this interplay between forethought and improvisation occurred in this project – that is, in how we placed the Maidenhair Ferns among the waterfalls and rock formations.

Obviously, when you plan for and place rock, you need to make provisions for plantings – with balance being the key.  If there’s an area with a large vertical rock face, for instance, it’s unlikely to be graced with robust greenery, but you must be aware that you need to balance it with a significant planting nearby.

Making Way

The full discovery of large spaces requires the inclusion of pathways that helps observers on their way and takes them where you want them to go.  As has been the case with many of my projects, I had a great deal of fun here in setting up various byways – especially the boardwalk leading across the lotus pond.

As is true of other project details, pathways are planned to some extent during the initial phases.  But later on, with major features in place and much of the space defined, it’s possible to witness the journey others will be taking and take complete control over where they’ll step and what they’ll see.

b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_201009ArcherWills_201009AAWSB.jpgIn this case, the clients loved the idea of the boardwalk as a key feature in the system of pathways that were to run throughout the space.  Not only did they sense the drama inherent in a long, narrow path over the water, but they also asked me to make it deliberately shaky so there would be a slight sense of peril in crossing it.

Of course, nobody is ever at great risk, as the water is only about a foot deep!

To make it work, I came up with a rather simple, practical detail in which I used large concrete masonry units (CMUs) as sockets for upright bridge supports.  The wood uprights (made of Ipé to resist water damage) fit loosely into the sockets, with the small amount of play (a half-inch or so) making the walking surface wobble ever so slightly.  It’s completely sturdy and safe – just unstable enough to create a sense of adventure with a slightly unsettled feeling.

As a side benefit, the decking can be lifted out of the sockets for repair or any other maintenance.  And at any time, the wobble can be eliminated simply by pouring sand into the support sockets, as desired.

-- A.A.W.

So while I knew from the start I’d be using these ferns, I didn’t make any final decisions about where to fit them into the rockwork until the very last minute – that is, when I could see everything in complete context.  Having prepared for this moment by making multiple planting locations available, I had broad freedom of choice as I made my final decisions.

The same concepts come into play with aquatic plantings.  Obviously, some areas will be designated as plant-free and will have crisp, architectural edges, but other, planted areas will have to be provided for at the excavation stage with shallow shelves or planting pockets along the shore – even if you have no certain idea how things will go when it’s time to place the plants.  Will there be shallow plantings along the shore to create the impression of brimming water with no clear boundary?  Or will the plants reach out into the water to create a wetland effect?  To have options here, you need to be prepared.

On the flip side of this point, I’ve often seen projects where plants are used simply because space has been set aside for them.  I’ve always believed that just because I’ve set up an area for plants – inside the water’s boundary, for example – that does not mean I must use it!  In this project, in fact, there were several areas that ultimately were not planted because it made more sense in those spaces to reveal an expanse of open water.

Along similar lines, I try never to be bound by preparatory work:  If I see a need for plants – especially in the water – I’ll make adjustments and drop in additional stone, gravel and earthen banks to accommodate them.

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As watershapers, we might tend to think that our projects are enjoyed mostly in the warm summer months, but the plain truth is that our work may be seen (and appreciated) every day of the year.  As seen here, fall and winter can be particularly beautiful times around the water, offering surprising and refreshing splashes of color and activity to anyone who visits the property once summer fades.
Making late adjustments is, of course, easier with terrestrial plantings that spread away from the water, simply because there aren’t as many practical obstacles on dry land.  There still may be the opportunity to return to the “bold strokes” concept – perhaps by inserting a strong line to accentuate a key viewing area.  Or a subtle approach can be applied, perhaps with a stand of plants to conceal a portion of the view and conjure a sense of mystery?   

Of course, any big moves you make should be balanced by explorations of the near views.  In planting along pathways, for example, I often try to place a little gem of a plant somewhere – something unusual that rewards those making the journey.  Maybe it will be a carnivorous plant set atop a mound of moss, or perhaps it will be the fun and romance of a beautiful swamp hibiscus.  Whatever the choice, it’s never a bad idea to add surprises along the way.

A PLACE FOR EXPERIENCE

This project is associated with a historic home that is owned by people who are heavily involved in the preservation of valuable architectural works as well as in promoting the arts.  As a consequence, I’ve known from the start that this would not be an entirely private garden.  

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Reflections are a major consideration in a great many watershaping projects, but when you work on a large scale and have brilliant trees and large water surfaces at your disposal, taking advantage of their availability can be the key to the success of the entire composition.
Since its completion, in fact, the space has already been used for art classes where painters hone their skills in capturing landscapes, and it’s my understanding that the owners intend to offer the space as a venue for a variety of community and charitable events.

From my perspective, this all amounts to the best of all possible worlds:  It’s always good to know that spaces we’ve designed and installed are the source of comfort, fascination and rejuvenation not only for a property’s owners, but also a broader public that will enjoy these spaces for countless years to come.

Isn’t raising quality of life what it’s all about?  When we work with water and rock and living things, creativity takes on all sorts of added significance when you’re able to present your work to a distant future for others to enjoy.  That’s generally why I start, and it’s certainly what motivates me through any difficulties toward the finish.  

 

Anthony Archer Wills is a landscape artist, master watergardener and author based in Copake Falls, N.Y. Growing up close to a lake on his parents’ farm in southern England, he was raised with a deep appreciation for water and nature – a respect he developed further at Summerfield’s School, a campus abundant in springs, streams and ponds. He began his own aquatic nursery and pond-construction business in the early 1960s, work that resulted in the development of new approaches to the construction of ponds and streams using concrete and flexible liners. The Agricultural Training Board and British Association of Landscape Industries subsequently invited him to train landscape companies in techniques that are now included in textbooks and used throughout the world. Archer-Wills tackles projects worldwide and has taught regularly at Chelsea Physic Garden, Inchbald School of Design, Plumpton College and Kew Gardens. He has also lectured at the New York Botanical Garden and at the universities of Miami, Cambridge, York and Durham as well as for the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and the Philosophical Society. He is a 2008 recipient of The Joseph McCloskey Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Art & Craft of Watershaping.

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