The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Planting Design

Ken Kern shares his knowledge of creating a homestead with a functional yet beautiful planting design that serves the home owners and the planting site alike.


Modern landscape designers miss the boat entirely as far as designing for spiritual "uplift" is concerned. Where can one find a garden (this side of the Orient) which gives man essential revitalizing contact with the plan growth and fecundity of the earth?


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Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern's articles in The Interpreter, Way Out and Green Revolution. Ken has also issued a three year series of pieces (called Technic) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in Organic Gardening. 

This installment of Ken's work is taken from The Owner-Built Home. I'll be featuring never before published material from The Owner-Built Homestead in my No. 7 issue. Again, I have to apologize for jumping back and forth as I reprint Ken's excellent material, but that's the way I have to do it and Ken's writing makes it all worthwhile. 


The Homestead Building Site: Planting Design

A new approach to planting design is now in its formative stages. Advocates of this new design-concept maintain that the interior space should be harmoniously extended and connected with the space outside. It is demonstrated that the very same principles of building-design apply to the outside planting-design. Every plant, no matter what form it may take is a construction in space and an enclosure in space.  

As enclosures of space, plant forms expand from the walls, floors and ceilings of rooms to the hedge-wall, lawn-floor and tree-ceiling outdoors. Again, outdoor shelter-forms, such as arbors, pergolas and pavilions, find shelter-counterparts within the house. And as constructions of space, the sculptural effects of rocks, flowers, garden pools, and specimen plants can be likened to furnishings and utensils of the building interior.

This integral concept of building and planting was actually practiced by the 18th century Chinese. Called Feng shui , the basic principle was derived from the teachings of Lao Tze, the 6th century Chinese philosopher who taught a return to nature. Nature and man were harmonized in the Chinese garden. The garden was symbolic of nature, while the house was reserved for man. That is, where the house served man's practical and serious needs, the garden was a place for the playful, romantic and carefree side of man. In the house man is in the society of his fellow beings, but in a garden he is in the society of natural forms.

It has been said that inside the house the Chinese gentleman is a Confucian—adhering strictly to the conventions and moral codes set down by Confucius. But in the garden he is a Taoist—following the primitivistic, libertarian precepts of Lao Tze. It is interesting to note that while the Chinese house is orderly and formal in style, thus limiting the spirit, the garden forms are irregular and sinuous, and so give the spirit release. According to Wing-Tait Chan, the Chinese garden is a "place where man laughs, sings, picks flowers, chases butterflies and pets birds, makes love with maidens, and plays with children. Here he spontaneously reveals his nature, the base as well as the noble. Here also he buries his sorrows and difficulties and cherishes his ideals and hopes. It is in the garden that men discover themselves. Indeed one discovers not only his real self but also his ideal self—he returns to his youth. Inevitably the garden is made the scene of man's merriment, escapades, romantic abandonment, spiritual awakening or the perfection of his finer self."

In Western gardens we seek more of the comforts or conveniences which people have come to consider essential to their well being. Another factor is garden beauty; we arouse interest through variety of planting, excitement through planting sequence, stimulation through planting color. In any case, it is the activity of people which determines the form and character of garden planting.

Modern landscape designers employ hundreds of devices in a so-called "bag of tricks" to satisfy modern-day beauty-and-comfort requirements. For instance, a shrub can be planted to create a dozen different effects, depending upon its placement and relation to human scale; if the plant is above eye level it can function as protective enclosure. if it is kept to chest-height, the effect is more of spatial division; if the planting is waist-high, it functions as a traffic control element; knee-height gives a directional aspect to the planting. It is the human scale—in the event, the person's height—which relates and measures the garden elements, fences and trees as well as shrubs. And the human line vision determines whether these landscape elements will provide privacy, separation or direction.

Eckbo is surely the most noted representative of the modern landscape movement. His book, Landscape and Living, is a clear statement and concise presentation of modern landscape objectives and practice: Eckbo-gardens are beautiful designs of plant-structure relationships, and contain all the amenities so eagerly sought by up-to-date home owners. In all of his gardens you will find the plant and structural elements well selected. Also, the groupings—forms and masses of plant elements—are well arranged. Furthermore, the whole scheme is very practical from maintenance point of view.

But minimum maintenance with maximum charm and "out-door living" is not, in my book of planting-design, quite enough. Modern landscape designers miss the boat entirely as far as designing for spiritual "uplift" is concerned. Where can one find a garden (this side of the Orient) which gives man essential revitalizing contact with the plan growth and fecundity of the earth? The Chinese captured this essence in their garden plans, and themselves gained strength and inspiration in the garden space. And I find very few modern garden-designers with any concept of Spieltrieb— the playful instincts expressed in plant forms and garden structure. The idea that a garden can be a home of gaiety, of imagination, of fantasy—as well as a place for meditation and repose—seems alien to modern thought on the subject.

I have great respect for one architect, however, who has successfully expressed the Spieltrieb concept in a garden plan for a modern Italian muralist. Bernard Rodofsky speaks of his design in these terms:

A free-standing wall, plain and simple, with no special task assigned, today is unheard of. In a garden, such a wall assumes the character of sculpture. Moreover, if it is of the utmost precision and of a brilliant whiteness, it clashes—as it should—with the natural forms of the vegetation, and engenders a gratuitous and continuously changing spectacle of shadows and reflections. And aside from serving as the protection screen for the surrounding plants, the wall creates a sense of order. Three abstract murals compete with the umbrageous phantasmagories.  

An old apple tree pierces one of the walls, lending it (methinks) a peculiar monumental quality. The pergola is reduced to almost linear design, and does not intend to more than assist and coordinate. A wisteria has taken possession of it in the space of a few months; bamboo shades are hung from it in summer. The wiry appearance of the poles is accentuated by bright colors. The solarium is an ample room with immaculately white walls, a floor of red brick set in sand and a diminutive lawn. Wall openings were omitted to avoid drafts; the solarium is accessible by stairs only.  

Another exceptional landscape architect, Roberto Butte Marx, expresses the Spieltrieb element in bold and positive terms. His designs are curving free–form reactions against symmetry and rectangularity. One of the more interesting things about Burle Marx's gardens is his attractive use of native plants—plants considered to be mere weeds among other gardeners. He searches his native (Brazil) jungles for indigenous plants and combines their placement with a skillful use of stone mosaic and waterpools.

The central purpose of this chapter is to offer the home-builder a working outline for landscaping his new home. For many years I have been collecting data which can be used as a basis for good planting-design procedure. My approach has not been along "modernistic" landscaping lines—nor have I tried to analyze the even more subjective and symbolic forms of traditional Chinese and Japanese gardens. Rather, I have attempted to organize a planting-design procedure which is based entirely on the ecology of natural vegetation; the relationship, that is, between plants, climate and soil as well as between one type of plant and another. My theory is that, once this harmony is created, the garden-beauty and comfort-producing factors for man's garden enjoyment will be automatically forthcoming. Then whatever else happens in the garden landscape—in terms of the Spieltrieb element, for instance—will be entirely up to the home-owner, his personality and likes and dislikes. I would hope that this latter aspect, too, will be automatically forthcoming—once the landscape retains natural balance.

Rudolf Geiger is one of the earliest climatologists to indicate what direction this "new" planting-design might take. His excellent study on the microclimate also indicates procedure and method for achieving this new garden form. He found, for instance, that a mixed forest growth of spruce, poplar and oak effectively cuts off from the ground 70% of the sun's heat. Forests are cooler than cleared land in summer, and warmer than cleared land in winter. Nature keeps the ground covered with vegetation. With this heat-absorbing surface, heat previously held by the soil is transferred to the top layer of plant foliage. This layer-to-layer transfer and exchange from a dead to a living thermal-absorbing surface provides definite summer-cooling and winter-warming effects. An evergreen windbreak is also effective in reducing heat loss from buildings—by keeping the cold winds out of contact with building surfaces. Drifting snow is discouraged by well-planned evergreen hedges.

The more significant function of natural vegetation is demonstrated in summer time. No doubt everyone is aware of the important summer-shading effect of trees (although the barren tract-developments sometimes leave one to wonder how this most basic of all climate-control features could be missed by so many builders). But even a good understanding of how the deciduous tree provides generous shade at exactly the appropriate summer season—and then loses its leaves toward autumn so the sun can easily penetrate through the leafless branches during winter—is really not enough information to assist the amateur home-builder in his selection and placement of trees. Climate-control experts employ a Heliodon—an accurate, simulated sun machine—to determine the exact, most desirable position of vegetation around buildings. The Olgyay brothers, professors of architecture at Princeton University, have published more vital information on this subject than the rest of the climate-control research agencies combined.

The shape and character of the shade tree will determine the extent and shape of its shadow. The variety chosen should therefore depend upon the shape of the area to be shaded. For instance, the maple and ash produce circular shadows, with an ascending branch pattern in winter. Honey locust and tulip trees have oblong shapes. The white oak is wide and horizontally oblong, with an open-branched structure. The Lombardy poplar is columnar and the American elm is vase-shaped in appearance. Other trees especially recommended for shade purposes are; weeping willow, Russian olive, flowering dogwood, sweet gum, American beech, maple, white birch, and Siberian crab apple.

The effect that plants have on the heat and moisture content of the soil and air is little recognized among modern landscape gardeners. The usual mistake made is in planting shrubs too close to the house. This may make an attractive "design"; but the density of the shrubs has a tendency to prevent breezes from penetrating, which in turn reduces evaporative cooling and causes high humidity and high temperatures to persist within the foliage of this type of vegetation. Trees and grass near the house, on the other hand, allow the heavier, cool air to flow inside (providing the window openings are adequately designed, a subject reserved for the following chapter). Leaves and grass naturally absorb solar radiation and the resulting evaporation cools the surrounding air. Mowed turf is an especially good climate-control planting, as in shading the soil it prevents heat absorption by it, thereby eliminating intensive re-radiation.

Dr. Robert Deering, University of California professor of agriculture, reports that when trees are planted near the south glass wall of a building several desirable effects occur. The north side of the tree, facing the south wall of the building, is the "chilling" side of the tree, which results in a cooling effect in the house. Annoying glare can also be substantially reduced by so orienting the tree placement. Air-borne sounds can be effectively reduced by densely planted trees and shrubs. The viscous surfaces of leaves catch dust, thereby functioning as excellent air-filters.

In Europe, vines are used for controlling evaporation and providing shade much more than in this country. Vines are especially desirable when grown against or near the west wall of a house. Recommended are; clematis, bittersweet, frost grape, parthenocissus, hydrangea petiolaris, wisteria, silver lace vine, Chinese fleece vine, Dutchman's pipe, forsythia, and ipomoea.

Perhaps the latest, least understood concept of landscape design has to do with the selection and arrangement of plant material on the basis of color-fragrance relationships. Florence Robinson's book on this subject proved to be of some assistance. Eckbo made many significant comments on this aspect of planting design. In areas of high humidity, the darker, heavier and glossier greens are prominent. However, this tends to accentuate the oppressive, discomforting climate of high-humidity regions. Therefore it is better, from a climate-control point of view, to encourage the lighter, clearer greens. Thinner plant forms should be grown in cool areas, and where the atmosphere is dull and dark there is advantage in going to silver and gold variegations.

In hot-dry zones of low humidity, the natural vegetation is dull and fuzzy. The landscape quality is thinner; and grays, gay-greens and brown-greens predominate. But, in this type of climatic region, it is best to promote the growth of darker, brighter, glossier or clearer greens. The larger and richer foilage feels cool and moist—a most desirable feature for use in arid regions.

An enlightened approach toward planting-design demands, first of all, a thorough understanding of one's region and site. This basic understanding, which includes information about weather, soil and native plant life, must necessarily precede an intelligent treatment of climate-control procedures. For, after all, the primary objective in planting-design relates to the creation of a satisfying environment—climate-wise as well as in esthetic content.

A whole chapter on this subject of climate-control can therefore be profitably included in this book. We must dig deep through the mire of information and misinformation and arrive at some basic principles. Those principles will ultimately lead us to rational planning of our home in its natural environment.

Bibliography (books listed in order of importance)
Landscape for Living:
Garnett Eckbo
Solar Control and Shading Devices:
A. & V. Olgyay
Cooling Effect of Trees and Shrubs: U. of California at Davis, Dr. Robert Deering
Plant Communities: H. J. Costing
L'Elenento Verde and L'abitazion: Quaderni d' Domus, Figini Luig
Climate Near the Ground: Rudolf Geiger
Planting Design: Palette of Plants: Florence Robinson
Gardens in the Modern Landscape: Christopher Tunnard
Modern Gardens:
Peter Shepheard
Plant Ecology: Clements
Landscape Magazine: Box 2149, Santa Fe, N.M.
The Recovery of Culture:
Henry Stevens
The New Exploration: Benton Mackaye