Monday, February 20, 2012

The Bow and Hairpin

The Vista in Warren has a distinctive quality that the local population holds in reverence. In contrast to Old Bisbee’s steep narrow winding roads lined by Victorian homes and miner’s shacks, The Vista is a sweeping wide avenue showcasing California style bungalows. The Lavender Jeep’s “Greater Bisbee Tour” passes our home on their way to the grander historical registered homes in the neighborhood.

My first visit to The Vista was on a self-guided tour. The Craftsman homes in various states of preservation, the tree lined avenue and the central park gave me the impression that something grand was once attempted in what was then nearly a ghost town. I have since lovingly coined a nickname for The Vista as the “faded diva”. Nonetheless, The Vista is a highly regarded location for real estate. In recent years, it has been experiencing a revival of sorts and is returning back to its original function as a popular destination for community activities such as the farmer’s market and the ballpark.

Before I knew anything about the Arts and Crafts movement, I sensed that there was something magical about the Craftsman home. I had always dreamed of calling one my home. I came upon this list of Arts & Crafts values by Ken Lonsinger that explains concisely the philosophy of the movement and the influence behind the designs of the Craftsman bungalow.

A&C (Arts & Crafts) philosophy focused on "revolution through art," its principles were formed by a set a great overarching values:
  • Find joy in work
  • Create objects that are not only well-designed, but affordable to everyone
  • Live simply
  • Stay connected to nature
  • Maintain integrity of "place"

1913 Spokane, Washington

The Craftsman bungalow was specifically designed to realize the American dream. The architects provided a design to be affordable for the working class. The story of my great-grandfather, the son of German/Alsace immigrants is a good example. This 1913 photograph shows the Craftsman home where my grandmother was born. Her father, George Washington Seyforth, suffered the loss of his father at the age of 4 and then his mother by the age of 8. Although the oldest brothers and sisters took care of the youngest children, all of the children were expected to work on the family farm. This responsibility limited George’s education. Although farmers were seriously struggling in the 1890s, the oldest brother in the family was able to purchase the family farm from his 9 younger siblings. Later, the 5 youngest members of the family, including George, used their small inheritance to go west to take advantage of the job opportunities resulting from the Klondike gold rush. No doubt, George’s experience on the family farm helped him secure employment as a teamster for one of the many hardware stores in Spokane. George eventually moved into a clerk position at one of the largest hardware businesses. At the age of 36, after saving his earnings and making incremental investments in real estate, George Seyforth, along with a new family was able to be the proud homeowner of this beautiful Craftsman bungalow located in a newly created suburb.

It is now 2012 and I’m in the process of redesigning the landscape for a 1920 Craftsman duplex turned single family home. Given that I was unable to nail down any particular style of landscaping connected with the Arts & Crafts movement, my attention turned to the landscape philosophy and the trends set by homeowners during the period. I discovered that the early 20th century landscape designers introduced the idea of incorporating native species within natural arrangements in reaction to the Victorian formal designs that symbolized their wealth. These progressive landscape designers felt it was important to restore nature back into the city and to provide the residents a relief from the stress of the industrial culture. It is humbling to realize that the idea of getting back to nature is not as recent as I thought. Referring to my memory of Craftsman homes in California, it was common practice to have an ample lawn, sculpted hedges and at least one signature tree. Does this mean that the average homeowner dismissed the progressive native landscape idea and preferred a simplified version of the Victorian design instead? Although I don’t know why homeowners tended to not follow the wisdom of using native species in landscaping, I have noticed that in more recent times, landscapes for California bungalows are moving toward the earlier progressive idea. One example is the practice of xeriscaping. During my visits to San Diego I have observed the popularity of lovely xeriscape designs. In fact, I discovered another person who is working on a similar landscaping project in San Diego. Amy Burkhart's blog post Jan. 2011 "Xeriscape Idea Gathering" illustrates examples where xeriscaping is used for Craftsman homes in North Park, San Diego.

With the basic Arts & Crafts principles in mind, I set out to analyze the character of our home and the land on which it resides. The straight lines that dominate the property divide our yard into sections. Those lines continue by following up the large posts supporting the roof, and then run across the roofline. In contrast, sweeping curved arches connecting each post (hidden behind the slope of the roof) and curved lines in the wrought iron fence soften the linear design.

The property is located at the basin at the end of the Mule Mountains. The Mule Tails skyline cuts diagonally transitioning into gentle rolling hills. Closer to the ground, lines and shapes can be found in the Asparagaceae, Cactaceae and Fouquieriaceae.

Returning to my yard, I want to point out our beautiful wrought iron fence. Yes, it shows the passing of time but I love it all the more that aged appearance. Below is my granddaughter standing in front of one of the gates. Originally, the picture’s purpose was to capture her in the pre-storm light but I think you can get an idea of the design of the fence anyway. Wrought iron fences in various styles are found at several homes in town and around several of the plots in the Evergreen cemetery.

Amazingly, the Stewart Iron Works Co. has been in business since 1862 and is still operating in Covington, KY. From their catalog I identified our fence design as the bow and hairpin.

Bow and Hairpin
Although I love the idea of mirroring the natural arrangements found in our landscape, it seemed to me that the grid created by the straight walkways and the fence’s border of our property divided the space too many times to achieve a natural setting. Therefore, I made the decision to strike a balance between the Victorian and Progressive landscaping designs. Ultimately, I choose the shape of the gate and the bow and hairpin fence for my inspiration. The illustration below shows the design from an aerial perspective.

For another view, below is a close-up of the center plot taken in September. The raised bed supported by the large stones and the gravel filled edges are engineered to protect the soil from washing away during the monsoon season. Hopefully the edges will act like a shallow moat and will allow greater water absorption. During the dry season we can walk on the gravel to cut the corners to reach the cement path guilt free. The ring of rocks around the plants will encourage water to pool because the plants are recessed in the raised bed.

In October, my partner and I were taking a walk. The Bisbee Public Works supervisor drove by and turned around to inform us that there was a huge pile of mulch available at the recycling center. It just so happened that I needed mulch to finish filling in the raised bed. I told the supervisor that I appreciated the information. Thanks to the city of Bisbee, the dirt in the beds are protected during the winter months.

I intended to be historically correct but finally chose to integrate many approaches instead. The fact that I’m enjoying the process, using available materials and honoring the character of the place, all of which are defined as Arts and Crafts values, makes me feel good about the project all the same.

If you ever are in Florence, Italy I highly recommend visiting the Boboli Gardens. This is what showing off your wealth looks like.

Cypress Lane in Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy 2001

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Go With The Flow

When I decided to remove the Bermuda lawn from our front yard, I was also considering how I would redesign the space. With the exception of a few legacy plants, I essentially, for the first time, had a blank canvas to work with. A way for me to get started on the design was to begin observing some key elements of the space: sun, wind, water and traffic.

Since the house faces east, the front yard catches the first rays of the sun once it crests the hill beyond. This is an asset during the temperate months but it can cause some problems in the cooler season. For example, last winter, the area experienced below freezing temperatures. The potted cactus that I had placed on the front porch didn’t survive. The sun blasting over the hill first thing in the morning caused their demise instead of the freezing temperature. Their systems were not able to adjust to the sudden switch between extreme temperatures. This year, I moved every potted plant indoors.

In the winter months, the sun hangs low to the south. The north side of the house receives very little sun and is sheltered between the two houses so it offers the most stable temperature. This year, I started an experiment with this area. I have encouraged succulents and cactus to root in the ground and so far the pioneers appear to be thriving in the area. Fortunately, they haven’t experienced the same level of extreme temperatures as last year. Last year’s cold snap was notably unusual. We still have a few months ahead that could bring freezing temperatures. Time will tell.
Western Tanager

The Pyracantha shrub on our south side provides filtered shade and our two-story house creates shade that begins to creep eastward after the peak of the day. Pyracantha is an attractive evergreen shrub. The delicate white flowers lure the pollinators and the local birds enjoy the red berries. Depending on the season, sparrows, thrashers, doves, cardinals and tanagers congregate to sing and play in the protective shrub. While these little birds might appreciate the lethal thorns, I can’t seem to avoid drawing blood when I get in contact with them. The shrub has been allowed to become quite large throughout the years, even to the point where the trunks have swallowed the iron fencing in some places. My partner and I have been removing the dead branches and pruning it back in stages. Our goal is to encourage the Pyracantha to provide shade and, more importantly, wind shelter without damaging the fence or passing pedestrians. I planted a few passionflower vines in open spaces underneath the Pyracantha hoping that they can use it’s branches for a trellis and provide more wind protection during the windiest months. I can think of reasons why this may not be wise but I have passionflower starters from a previous garden and I’m willing to experiment with the idea.

The yard outside of our fenced in area is exposed to the sun for the most hours and it doesn’t have protection from the wind or the animals. Rocks and wood chips are freely available in the area and will be an easy solution to protect the soil. Selecting Plants suited for the arid climate will be necessary and I plan to incorporate the local species as well. I do not plan on designing a drip system in the areas east of the sidewalk so those plants will need to be satisfied with what nature brings them especially during the time I travel away from home.


I have been observing the wild animal population in the surrounding area that might endanger the health of the garden. Unfortunately a herd of javalinas makes daily forays in the neighborhood. These herbivores can be massively destructive to gardens. We are practicing being diligent in locking our gates to the fenced in area. The challenge is in the plant selection for the unprotected areas. I have seen deer in the nearby hills but not in the neighborhood. They might pose as a problem under the right circumstances. The Bendire’s Thrasher, which lives in the area year round, can also be quite a nuisance although on a smaller scale. Their habit is to fling the dirt around to scare up insects, often leaving uprooted seedlings or groundcover lying in its wake. It can drive me crazy. We have a young cat (with bell attached) that might be helpful in discouraging the Thrashers but I’m not counting on that as a solution. With the amount of birds that live in the area, protecting freshly sown seeds and the subsequent seedlings will have to be cleverly thought out.

In regards to the human activity in the yard, it only took a few months to notice that our foot traffic wore a pattern in the lawn. It became apparent that frequently we were not observing the historical sidewalk’s 90-degree angles. Since our natural impulse was to cut the corners to reach the gates and the entrance doors, I decided that adding alternative pathways would be an important element in the landscape design.

Southern Arizona receives most of its rainfall during the monsoon season, which typically begins near the 4th of July and usually ends in mid September. The daily storms can dump up to 2 inches of water in a few hours. The risk of flooding is added to the fact that the clay and caliche soil in the area slows the absorption of the rainwater.

In 1906, the town of Warren was deliberately designed to address the risk of flooding, which had historically plagued Old Bisbee. The canals were engineered to channel the potential floodwater away from the streets and homes during the monsoon season. Canals constructed in various proportions lines several streets throughout town for this purpose.

West Canal facing northSouth Canal facing east

Our property just so happens to be positioned where several channels converge before the water is sent under the road along a natural wash heading south. Canals line three sides of our home, so we probably see half of Warren’s floodwater pass by. The west canal is located behind our home. The right picture above shows our bridge/driveway to the garage and is a view of the canal on the south side of our house.

Last year, during an exceptionally heavy downpour, organic debris blocked the flow of the street canal at the house up from us. The dam diverted the mini river up my neighbor’s driveway where it followed the sidewalk downhill, continuing into our yard and completely flooded it. Later, I was discussing this phenomenon to a neighbor’s house sitter who was chatty and knew the area well. She was convinced that the water could be intentionally diverted into a private watering system. We couldn’t come up with a solution at that point but I took note of idea for future reference.
South Canal facing west

Notice the south canal is filled with dirt. The town’s topsoil that has settled into the canal is now being manually diverted into our yard. The canal topsoil holds a fair amount of small stones that I can utilize in the yard as well. It takes a good deal of sweat and sore muscles to shovel, screen, and then wheel the dirt up into the yard. The dirt is probably better than what I can buy at the local garden center (I’m never happy with store bought soil) plus the canals will work more efficiently without the soil buildup. The best part is the dirt is readily available for the price of the labor. I would prefer working out in the vitamin D rich sun to workouts in the gym any day. In that vein, moving rocks has been my weight lifting program. I want to point out that my partner deserves credit in his assistance in both of these activities. I recognize that the dirt may have the harmful metals found in mining towns so it will be placed in areas that are not going to be used for edible vegetation and I will practice the use of phytoremediation.


The photo on the right is a rock bed that I created to lead water through a run-off opening into the canal. Previously, wild grasses had established themselves in front of the hole. They would catch debris, causing a dam, which would effectively slow the water’s progress and cause flooding onto the pedestrian bridge seen in the above photo center. The dirt is mainly clay because the topsoil has been washed away. It requires a good soak and a crow bar to dig a deep hole.

Below is an illustrated map of an aerial view of our yard. The arrows and paths in black illustrate the pedestrian movement. The access to water is located toward the back end of the house on the left and the hose is dragged along the left side following the black pathway to have access to the front of the yard. The blues areas show the flow of water run-off. 


In the past, I practiced T’ai Chi and Qigong. My teacher often reminded me of the lesson of the pine tree and willow. 

...wu-wei, meaning not to force, refers to what we understand of one's acting accordingly to the nature, of one's moving in order to avoid a stroke, of one's swimming downstream, sailing before the wind, rolling like the waves or one's bending in order to win. (From Alan Watts - "Tao: the Watercourse Way").

The well-known parable about the pine and the willow tree perfectly illustrates the concept of nondoing in Taoism. Being covered with snow, the pine falls down as it is rigid and resisting, whereas the willow, being pliant, bends to the ground and this way, the snow falls down from it.

But nondoing is not pure absence or refrain from interfering with things, it is also a way of acting in accord with the very course of the things. In other words, we have here what was called the line of minimal resistance.

The exercise of studying the property’s flow systems before digging in helped me understand what is naturally occurring in the space and it inspired me to invent ways to work with the systems. The line of minimal resistance is a difficult practice for me but I’m truly grateful for my teacher’s voice replaying in my head. For me, both idioms “bend like a willow” and “go with the flow” serve as reminders during the process of designing a sustainable garden.
Just for fun, here is a video I made that captures the lightning during the monsoon season in southeast Arizona.