Lawn Reform


I am a member of the Lawn Reform Coalition, a group of garden designers and environmental advovates who are promoting new ways to think about the American fetish for lawns.  Since my own particular advocacy is for sustainability, and most recently, meadow gardening specifically, I thus welcome the opportunity to be a part of this group.


I hope you will allow me a bit of personal pontificating about the idea of lawn reform since the whole idea of meadows in residential gardens was recently questioned on the widely read Garden Rant blog..  If you must click away from our blog over to those good folks, I direct you to Amy Stewart’s response: I Can’t Believe We’re Even Having This Conversation.

Amy Stewart garden front yard
Amy Stewart’s front yard garden with no lawn.

Amy gets it. Lawn reform is not about anti lawn, it is not pro meadow, or pro any other use of lawn space, be it for a vegetable garden, a patio, or flowering groundcovers.  Anything is up for grabs, lets go wild.  I believe in garden reform, and lawn reform is an obvious place to start.

You know who else got it ?  Lorrie Otto, the amazing housewife turned environmentalist who led the charge to ban DDT so many years ago.  I say “was” because Lorrie passed away in 2010.  She must get some recognition for promoting ecological gardening and helping to start The Wild Ones.  She was an inspiration to us all – even if you don’t know it.

Lorrie Otto in her garden
Lorrie Otto in her garden in 1989

I suppose because I have spent years photographing meadows and have a book, “The American Meadow Garden”, I am to be some sort of expert on this.  Sure, I have talked to a LOT of very thoughtful people about the definition of a meadow, both in nature and in a garden.  I traveled the country looking for meadows, and ….  there IS no one definition.  In every region, local experts have different ideas.  That is as it should be.

Driggers backyard meadow garden

But what do “experts” know ?  I direct you to the marvelous commentary by legendary performance artist Laurie Anderson’s video: If you have 8 minutes to be entertained, and are suspect of experts, this may be the most fun part of your day.

So who are the real experts on garden meadows ?  Who would you look to for advice in your own garden, in your town ?  Well, aren’t we all gardeners here, and aren’t we all full of our own experiences, successes and failures ? Don’t we all know the plants themselves determine the garden ? What we call it is irrelevant to our own satisfaction.  Just do it.

There are so many variations of a meadow across the globe that almost any loose combination of plants that cover the ground and has a few grasses can be called a meadows.   Even those hyped up meadow-in-a-can schemes can be a meadow, albeit unsustainable and destined for weediness.

While I genuinely wonder what the public thinks is a meadow, I don’t care.  It is all good.  But when someone says: “even when they’re at their best, a meadow in a suburban development looks suspiciously like a weedy, unkempt yard at an abandoned property”, I do care.

At their very worst a meadow looks like a weedy excuse for a broken lawn mower but at their best a meadow nourishes the earth, the critters around it, and the gardener who planted it.  If a meadow can do this, do we care what the neighbors think ?

Meadow along sidewalk in Colorado garden

At their best a meadow can make a real difference in caring for the earth.  They represent an element of sustainability that too many folks pay lip service to without acting upon: habitat for insect pollinators, food for wildlife, low water, no imported hardscape, no need for machine grooming, even a garden of edibles –  fruit, herbs, perennial vegetables.   It is all good, and all can be found in a meadow garden.

Lauren Springer Ogden’s backyard orchard and meadow garden.

From touring the country looking for such gardens I know there are not many, but I know folks want to try.   Let’s don’t get hung up on some book definition of a meadow and get back to lawn reform.

Autumn Leaves, Vermont Pond


Maple leaves and pond reflections, fall color, autumn trees in VermontThese leaves were photographed last autumn when I visited my cousin in Vermont.  I drove all across the state looking for fall color and then found this scene by a pond behind her property in rural Proctorsville.  Something to be learned about not driving around hoping to see, but staying still and opening your eyes.

Some of the most interesting images to me in recent months have been two dimensional, flat tapestries.  Yes, there is depth to this photo if you think about the leaves and the pond beyond, but with my changed eyesight, I am exploring the flat painterly world of abstract expressionism.

I saw much potential in this pond at dawn, studied the reflections in the water, the leaves, the juxtapostions as I moved slowly with my camera.  I narrowed it down to two favorites:

The second choice seemed a bit too unbalanced, even though I was seeking some asymmetric tension.  Once I decided on my favorite I cropped a wee bit from the bottom to draw more attention to the lines coursing through the image.

Color and luminosity were adjusted in Camera Raw to suit the original feeling, then a couple of PhotoShop adjustments.  There is a darkish leaf in the center that is too smudgy and brown in the original.  A selection mask allowed some delicate changes.  Then to add drama I added an artistic filter layer, “Poster Edges”, fiddled with those settings, and dropped back the effect to about 30% opacity.

I like the final quite a bit:


Rosa ‘Apple Blossom’


It took 4 months to grow this picture; a single second in the garden to “see” it; and 8 hours of computer work to clean it up.

The one second part is easy to explain.  Last Saturday was a garden day and when I walked the garden wondering where to start, what undone chore would be tackled first, I brushed under my ‘Apple Blossom’ rose, rambling and tumbling down from tree pillars.  That truss needs to be properly photographed.  Instant inspiration after years of never getting it quite right.

When I started this garden my very first big idea was to plant rambling roses under the row of ugly Eucalyptus trees at the edge of our property so that they could grow up and engulf them.  I have been very pleased with the effect but never got a decent photo.  In recent years the floral show diminished as the trees shaded the roses.

So last February I topped the trees and girdled their trunks.

They are trees no more.  They are now magnificent pillars 30 feet tall.  And now 4 months later the roses, particularly ‘Apple Blossom’, have responded and are flowering like crazy.

I suspect next year will be spectacular after a year’s growth and full sun on those tall pillars but it was last Saturday that I realized I needed to take this rose into the studio. The peak bloom of a truss is one day and one truss brushed me.

It was  huge truss, buds still unfolding, some fully open, and some at perfection with stamens still bright and yellow.  It was so big I could not make it stand up in the vase and needed a clamp to hold it for the camera.

Once I had the photo it needed lots of work to create the PhotoBotanic effect, a silhouette on white, inspired by the masters of botanic illustration.  I can’t shoot these against a white background to achieve the effect because for one, when lit, a white background creates flare into the camera lens, muting the colors.  And even more importantly, the white of a photo background is never a true even white, and photo masking is much easier with dark colors.

So I began with the Topaz Remask3 filter.

And then went into all the small “holes” or gaps between flowers where the background color peeks through and carefully painted in the white mask.  (In the enlarged photo that opens this post you can see some of those small gaps that needed to be white).  Even with this special plugin for Photoshop, I needed to clean up some edge halos created by the filter.

Finally, I enlarged the photo canvas so that I could add type and a line to give the photo a nice definition on the paper which is now proportioned for 8×10 or 16×20 print sizes.

So, 4 months after I topped those trees, it all came together.  Just like I planned.  <g>

Interpretations – Magnolia Glow


Magnolia cylindrica, Gaede Glow

A recent assignment took me to a very special magnolia in a very special, private garden.  The resulting photo was to be a surprise gift, and I was only allowed access during one afternoon when the owner was away.

I previously wrote about this adventure on Gardening Gone Wild blog but did not go into much detail on how I decided to interpret what I found.  I will do this here, in Mental Seeds, where I allow myself to explore new avenues of photography, mostly personal, and mostly initiated by new perceptions I have had since my eye surgeries. (Eye surgeries from my detached retina November 2010.  Details in previous posts)

I still see lots of blurs; let’s call it a ‘glow’ for this exercise.  For interpreting this photo I played with new digital techniques.  I almost said ” new digital trick” but in truth, I really feel I am not tricking but interpreting.

Trying to find a photo that tells a story of the magnolia on that bright sunny day meant working with the sun, not my favorite light.  It meant working with what the garden could give, and recognizing that whites comes clean in sunlight.  Hmmm, what might work ?

An interpretaion was in order.  I would make a blurry glow.  Here is the original frame, contrasty and raw.

Then using Bridge (Photoshop CS6) in Adobe Camera Raw I cropped the photograph so that I could fill the frame with just the right composition.

Working with the tools, I adjusted all sorts of things:  added fill light, adjusted light and dark levels, tweaked the blue, but the most dramatic effect was moving the Clarity filter to minus 100, which gives the diffuse glow. Too diffuse in some areas, but then solved by adding some black.

I really felt I was on to something.  But as I studied the photo I realized the spot of yellow became too prominent and the branch across the upper right was a confusing and unnecessary element.  I needed to unleash the full power of Photoshop:

Same photo but now in the PhotoShop window.  Note I opened a new layer, really important whenever you want to make adjustments, which I named here: ‘remove branch’.

Now clone tool to the rescue.  The real trick of using the clone stamp tool is to use it like a brush, smaller than the area you want to affect; and when selecting the area to clone out, be sure to replace it with selections very near for color match. AND go back and repeat, in effect blending the blend.  Of course when you are working in an area that is soft and out of focus, there is lots of leeway since no-one will ever notice if you screw up a bit.

Removing the yellow blob, still in Photoshop, was done by going to the tool bar: Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation > Yellow and remove about 80% saturation.  Then using the erasure tool I put back some of the yellow highlights (erased the adjustment) in places like the underside of the blossom in the far right.  Voila.

Magnolia cambellii ‘Strybing White’

I debated inside myself if I really liked the obvious glow, which is most noticed around the edges of the more out of focus flowers, but it reminds me that I do see things blurry.  Interpretations in my work.

As an added bonus to this lesson, a different way to interpret: silhouettes.  I do love botanic illustrations.  I call them PhotoBotanics.  Much, much fun in using the Topaz Simplify3 tool to mask a photo and get to a flower’s essence.

Magnolia cambellii ‘Strybing White’


Details one day if anyone is interested in another lesson….

Golden Trees


Mental Seeds blog is a promise to myself.  A promise of personal work.  A promise to find new ways to express what I see.  Even in those images I imagined before my eyesight changed.

This image has been gnawing on me for years now, waiting to be revealed.  Taken from a group of photos I took near Como, Colorado while working on the American Meadow Garden,  I have always felt I had stumbled upon something special when I found this long abandoned road leading into a grove of aspens in peak of fall color.

Every time I would go back to the photo I would recall the clean white mountain light turning golden, turning me golden, as it passed through the trees and washed bright over the land.  And every time I went back to try and render the feeling I couldn’t get it.  Now, with a better understanding of my digital toolbox, I am getting closer.

Closer, but not final.  I have two states of this image and am indecisive as to which is “better”.  Having promised to get at least one image and one blog post done every month, and it now being the last day of February, I am postponing my final decision and showing both.

Here is the second state, cropped to a panorama, more golden, more glow.

aspen grove autumn with abandoned road

In both photos I have used the Clarity control of Adobe Camera Raw in different amounts to reduce hard edges without blurring; and in both I have done all sorts of other tweaks to blacks, highlights, and color levels.  I have tried to live with each for a couple days to see which settles in me, and find each make me happy to look at them.

I can’t decide, so – postpone the final decision.

I also played with an abstract expression of the  leaves, hoping I accented the blacks just enough to give these specks of gold some rhythm and structure.

And I can’t resist the calendar view of this grove of trees under the crisp blue Colorado sky.  Note the abandoned road to orient the first photos.

Now onward.  I have decided to be indecisive.  Move on…