Get A Move On

by | May 1, 2014 | Native Plants

AS A LONGTIME GARDEN PHOTOGRAPHER, I’ve spent countless hours waiting for wind to stop blowing plants around so that I could get shots without streaks of blurred motion. This forced contemplation led me to appreciate the liveliness that movement brings to planted landscapes. Now through my work as a garden coach I try to design gardens just as animated as the windblown landscapes I once wished would stay still.

Several years ago, wind was thwarting my attempts to capture sculptural forms of agaves, sotols and yuccas at Peckerwood Garden’s courtyard garden in Hempstead, Texas. Everything just kept whipping around. It was hopeless but really intriguing and spoke powerfully of place. These dryland plants shared a structure of blades radiating with almost mathematical precision from a central growing point or short trunk. Each variety caught the wind differently, depending on size and shape of leaves – flat blades, round rapiers, smooth or saw-toothed, straight or twisting, long or short. When really in motion, the whole garden became an elegant kinetic sculpture, playing against the solidity of surrounding architecture.

Peckerwood Garden owner John Fairey designed this courtyard space so that this performance could be enjoyed from dining and living rooms that open onto the space. Locating the garden to expose these desert plants to full baking sun also meant purposely putting them in the path of prevailing winds. “The constant movement is psychologically cooling and relaxing,” Fairey says.

Although the courtyard contained rarities, many commonly available plants perform the same dance in gardens and natural places throughout the Southwest. I love the way treelike Big Bend (or beaked) yucca (Yucca rostrata), with its wild waving hairdo of soft flat blades, animates a garden. Common sotol or desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) is an impressive wind-activated plant best placed where people can avoid contact with its striking but vicious sawtoothed edges.

Big bold-leafed saw palmettos (Serenoa repens) in the Southeast, desert palms (Washingtonia filifera), Texas palm (Sabal mexicana) and tropical palms share the same restlessness. While these bold leaves act like sails or windmill blades, many other plants stir with just a breath of air. John Fairey likes to contrast tall, rigid cacti that don’t move at all with lace-textured (but very thorny) catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii var. wrightii), retama (Parkinsonia aculeata) or mesquite. Delicate leaves let air and light go through, creating flickering patterns of sun and shade.

For a moving experience, nothing beats lighter-than-air grasses. Fine as baby hair, Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) appears to flow like water even in barely stirring air. Airy plumes, then bobbing seedheads, rise two feet above wavy tufts of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), a clumping perennial grass thriving in welldrained soils, sports a colorful cloud of feathery panicles that turn deep-pink in fall. Panicles of the mist-like purple plains love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) often break off and blow around like tiny tumbleweeds. Planted as single specimens, in drifts or combined with each other, these grasses will guarantee that a garden is never static.

Gestural plants that look like they’re moving even when they’re not are especially intriguing. Northern maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum) don’t just sit there; they swirl. Their southern cousins (Adiantum capillus-veneris) cascade over rocks in limestone seeps. Twist-leaf yucca (Y. rupicola) wiggles its leaves skyward, while the fibers of many yuccas draw frenetic scribbles around stiff sword-like leaves.

Even a small gesture can be magnified to great effect by repetition. One dynamic example is a wide foundation planting of sweet pepperbush (Clethera alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’), its blossoms like white exclamation points with a twist, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. When massed together they have the energy of a fast incoming tide rushing up a rocky inlet.

Plants that move, whether physically or by active gesture, often evoke water. Grasses can mimic a waterfall or trace water’s course through steep terrain. A twisting strip of northern maidenhair ferns swirling around rocks suggests a woodland brook. The prairie dropseed meadow at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, evokes a tossing sea in any weather.

Darrel Morrison was the senior landscape architect for the Wildflower Center from 1992-1995 when its current site was being developed. An influential teacher of landscape architecture for 40 years, Morrison finds that designing while listening to music creates more movement in the designed landscape. The contrast between movement and stillness is key. His work at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, is a good example. “Large sweeping areas of tall grasses contrasting with shorter mown lawn,” he says, “makes the whole landscape sculptural.” He adds, “Different types of movement, from the fluttering leaves of trembling aspen to billowing waves of tall grasses, all add to the experience of a garden or landscape, and that, in the end, is our central goal as designers: creating an experience.”

Try this exercise on paper if you can be loose and have fun with it, but what I find most helpful is to walk through a garden drawing with my hands in the air – not to record what a plant looks like but what it does. Maybe it’s a repeated slow, graceful curving motion, or it could be a quick nervous scribble, zig-zags heading skyward. A plant could elicit large gestures or small, vertical or horizontal movements. If your hand doesn’t move much, maybe the garden could use some action. But if you find yourself dancing through the garden waving your arms, you know you’ve got a garden that really moves.

Karen Bussolini is a nationally known garden photographer, speaker on environmental gardening and an eco-friendly garden coach devoted to teaching homeowners how to landscape more sustainably.