making art with dirt

i’m a stealth gardener.  i’ve always propagated plants wherever i could, whether it meant taking the smallest of succulent leaves that had fallen to the floor at the garden center, or wrenching seedheads off of neighbors’ flowers to scatter in a bed around the house.  i’ve always made gardens where i could.

i was once fortunate enough to have an abandoned lot next to the apartment building i lived in 30 years ago.  from my fourth storey windows i could see it behind a tall wall, choked with ivy, invisible from the street.  first i climbed over into it to reconnoiter.  then i noticed the bricked up door and started picking it apart brick by brick for an entrance i wouldn’t have to scramble over.  i never asked permission, never notified the caretaker of the apartment building – it was my secret place, and it had to be invisible to everyone; it just had to.  i rolled back the ivy and pulled up its roots, declaring a war on ivy that persists to this day.  i clandestinely divided primroses and daffodils along the public paths nearby, and planted the divisions in my secret garden.  and cuttings.  and seeds.  it was beautiful before i moved away, and it’s probably still doing okay 30 years later, because i make my gardens to go untended.

when i lived in an apartment in brooklyn, 30 years ago, there was a 2’x3′ chunk of broken up cement behind an ankle fence right next to the front door.  i broke that up and uncovered the dirt, and stuck a bunch of seeds into it that popped right up and happily clambered all over the place.  and then i turned my attention to an abandoned fenced-in almost park at the end of the block, and before long others were colonizing bits of it, and people were bringing kids and dogs to play, and it was getting to be a neighborhood thing.

when we lived in the suburbs and my kid was just starting school, 25 years ago, they started building a new elementary that she was slated to attend once it was built.  naturally i hung around the building site (looking for interesting rocks), and asked questions, and had a look at the plans, and saw that nothing was being done with the central courtyard.  so i contacted the head of construction, and the soon-to-be principal, and asked if i could do something with it, and they said sure and here’s a 20k budget to go along with it.

courtyard plan

so i designed an almost 300 foot x 25 foot enclosed courtyard that stretched from the library to the cafeteria, and had classrooms opening onto it all down its length.  i used sacred geometry (daring in the south, had anybody asked me about it), xeriscape plants, put in a garden plot so the kids could learn how to grow vegetables, specified fruit trees and shade trees, bat houses, a pond and fountain, teaching areas and seats.

2 courtyard - spring hill south

1 courtyard - spring hill north
school courtyard, first year

it all came to happen, and nobody knows it but me, because when i went back recently to get photographs of the project 20 years later, the trees were thick and tall, the concrete paths were still wandering down the length of the courtyard, but every other feature had changed.  the garden suffered first, because i neglected to specify fresh dirt, and the school was built next to the county dump, so it wasn’t the nicest soil (the janitor told me he grew tomatoes the first year, and they tasted awful).

Screenshot from 2016-06-09 12:28:38
how it looks now, 25 years later, still being used as an outdoor classroom

and i even got a tad of fame, if you don’t mind illegibility and an ex last name.

clipping garden

when i did a year and a half of art residencies in europe and the states 15 years ago, i took dogwood seeds with me, and oxalis corms, picked up things from where i was staying, and planted and cross planted all up and down the east coast.


i’ve had my own garden around my own home for 12 years now, and i plant whatever will grow there, and then divide that to some other part of the yard and grow more of it.  i capture seeds from flowers on our dogwalking route and prepare small beds for them in my yard.  i take a single iris from healthy patches that need thinning.  i dig up stray magnolia treelets and dogwood seedlings and native ferns.  i transplant some of my vinca to every dirt slope i find.  i still pull up ivy, and poison ivy and i are currently at a standstill, because i refuse to use roundup.

when i went to north iceland on an art residency two years ago, i began to think about gardening in the arctic.  some amazing things grow in the botanic garden in akureyri, including bamboo, which isn’t usually that hardy.  i thought up a nice project to do the next time i go back (next summer) – called the troll garden.  i even talked to the mayor about it, and he said fine to moving a bunch of trees in an abandoned nursery.  we put them down the main drag, far enough away from the snow ploughs to be safe and grow up big and tall.

in our neighborhood is a cul de sac that serves as a place for the kids to run around, and a shady place for the ambulance crews to wait for a call.  we’ve been talking about turning it into a community garden, and then learned that there’s now a city-sponsored program to develop urban agriculture, and called up for a meeting with my local city councilwoman.  and so we met the mayor’s head of urban agriculture, and i’ve got my in with the system.

Screenshot from 2016-05-09 19:06:18

now comes the organization.  i’m used to doing it all myself, but that’s not a thing at my stage of life, so it’s going to take lots of people helping.  luckily this is something the folks in the neighborhood have been talking about for years, so it’ll be easy to start off.

first we’ll put above-ground garden plots – boxes that serve to impede traffic and claim the space.  and then we’ll go thru the hoops necessary to take control of the land, get permission and someone to take all the asphalt up, get permission to thin out the scrub forest, get the city to put up a barrier fence between the area and the interstate onramp.  it’ll take fundraising, ownership, an account with the water company to run a line.  all sorts of stuff.  this will all take years, but this is a great year to start a big project.

and, still to come, next summer i’m going to be back in iceland for three months, hosting the residency program, inviting artists from around the world to come to the troll peninsula and make art about trolls, elves, the hidden folk – unseen beings among us.  my personal project will be to make a 15′ high troll statue out of local volcanic rock, set on a hillside overlooking the town.  around this i will plant a garden of things that grow, and things i hope to see growing there in the future (lupins, birch, spruce, willow – hardy bamboo!)

so stay tuned for the further adventures of a stealth gardener on her rounds of this earth we can only steward and never own.


landscaping project 18 years later

this is part of the process of getting ready to do a public art project in iceland next year.  it shows that i have done something similar in the past, so that people know i’m not going off completely at random.  in fact, almost 20 years ago i was responsible for the design of a school courtyard, and thought up something similar to what i came up with for iceland, the site or which is also at a school.

has the time gone by that fast? today i stopped by the school where i designed the inner courtyard back in 1995. way back when i lived in fayetteville, georgia, and they were growing fast, so they built a new elementary school. and i’m curious, so i poked my nose in while they were doing construction, and found out that there was no plan for the inner courtyard. so i volunteered, and was given the okay, and a $20k budget. whee hah. it was that simple. no approval process, no committees, just a sacred architecture design, and we’re good to go.

3 courtyard plan

it’s hard to see this tiny little picture, but i don’t have the original, or a larger one, so please bear with me. it shows the courtyard only, never minding the school that is built around it. it’s a very long courtyard, something like 300 feet, about the size of a football field, but only about 30 feet wide. i’m just guessing here, it’s been too long. the main feature is the pathway, which meanders, opening out into a large area for an outdoor classroom, and further along going over a bridge and pond. what you can’t see is the specifications for plants, grading, and all those technical things.

1 courtyard - spring hill north

and this is what they made of it. this is from the first year, when they opened the school. you’ll notice that the trim and roof and doors are painted green. that’s the only way i know it was the first year. it was designed to be a delightful view from all the inner classrooms, to be used as an outdoor classroom, and to have separate habitats for teaching. like a farm plot, a compost pile, swampy places and rocky places, shady places and sunny places. there’s even a fountain, tho the contractors stuck that in completely contrary to the bridge and pond idea. this is looking from the gym (or south) end of the school. all that grass is contrary to my design, it seems they went thru altering the design as it suited them, which i was upset about at the time, but at that point it was out of my hands and the contractor’s responsibility. these things happen.

2 courtyard - spring hill south

the view from the roof is instructive. you can see the garden (the superintendent put in a vegetable garden, and said everything tasted horrible because of the dirt). the faint green beyond the garden is a selection of grasses for a small meadow, and see all the nice trees going back.

and i just noticed, omg, that someone painted the green roof and gutters and doors red. how bizarre. it’s still the same school, just a year’s difference. so, the red school is the second year, when instead of grass they’ve got some trees and a meadow going, apparently. i’m afraid i can’t explain this at all. or really the chronology, except that the roof is red today. so i don’t know.

after the design and execution of the courtyard, and a year when i was still in fayetteville to do alternative projects with the school, and to shepherd the courtyard, it was left to whatever they could do with it. and poor dears, the weather hasn’t cooperated for awhile. one year it’s too hot and everything in there bakes because it’s a suntrap (which is bad in the south). i didn’t account for that. the next year it’s too rainy and growth explodes. eventually all the perennials died and there was just weeds, so they ripped the weeds out and covered the ground with plastic and mulch.

the courtyard is still being used. the installed some benches and a board to use as a teaching station, and there are benches in the shade where the teachers can eat. so it’s useful. but it’s fairly barren, and can be made better by various means. the first and most important being to amend that soil. i had a conversation with the principal after my tour, and suggested that each classroom be given a spot, and that the kids research what should go there, and they should do projects. and he nodded as if everyone had suggested that already. another thing could be to throw a bunch of money at it and get a landscaping company in there to make everything better. seriously, we had some lovely native trees and a bunch of great plants in there, but all that’s left is the crape myrtle (which admittedly looks lovely a dozen years later).


so a million years later, everything is mulched, the only trees are crape myrtles, with a few bushes, and some grass coming up between the mulch. at the library (or north) end, they’ve put in benches and a covered board, so they’re still using the outdoor classroom idea. and further on there are benches under the trees so that the teachers can hang out in the fresh air.


from the other side you can see where the bridge and pond were. the bridge and pond were actually the idea and work of another school family, and they did their addition the year after the courtyard was put in. it failed, but so did my fountain idea. and since i didn’t specify drainage, or get the construction guys to put in the pond area, it will probably always fail. which is just to say something else will grow, and it’ll continue to work fine. as long as somebody’s tending it and trying new things. that’s how it works at my own house. i grow a lot of anything i can get to grow at all.

one of the problems with my design is that i made no allowances for heavy rain runoff, and there were several places where recent rains had spread mulch over the pathway. but the worst problem was that the soil was not amended, and was the same heavy clay churned up when they build the school. this turned out to be a horrible problem. also, i should have had sprinklers put in.


one thing that was a great hit at the time was the idea of family trees. we did a fund raiser, and got seedlings of all sorts of hardwoods, and sold them to families, who then planted them in selected spots in the front of the school. and then we had the cement truck come by (i remember this, i wish i still had the pictures), and pour all these 12″ square markers, that the families then drew their marks or initials or inscriptions in. and they’re still there, and some of the trees are getting enormous now.

btw i think i’m way off as to the date of the school construction. i had thought it was 2005, but that was just yesterday. it was more likely 1996, which makes the school a million years old. no, let me count. still almost 20 years old.