The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Planting Design

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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?

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
, 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
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

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

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

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

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

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
Landscape for Living:
Garnett Eckbo
Solar Control and Shading Devices:
A. & V.
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
Gardens in the Modern Landscape: Christopher
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