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Dr. Dirt
February - March 2016

Start Art

— in which Dr. Dirt takes an artful, aesthetic turn — (please see the February - March NHLA Newsletter to see related photos)

Thirty years ago I gave a presentation to the Professional Grounds Management Society (yes, there is such a thing, and a number of NHLA members are part of it) on the value of art in the landscape, and how to acquire same with someone else’s money. Somewhere in the archives of Grounds Maintenance magazine, there’s an article derived from the talk. You could track that down and skip the rest of this column. But I must press on, since I have to dredge up something for this issue of the Newsletter. And I don’t think Dr. Dirt has ever written about art in the landscape. It must be time.

I suppose, on a basic level, everything we do in the landscape might be considered art, or at least in search of art. Our landscapes and each element in them have line, form, color, and texture, and use these fundamental characteristics in ways that please us through arrangement, repetition, variation, balance, emphasis, scale. So we hope to find art in plant selection and arrangement, in artful materials and patterns of pavements, in well-designed fixtures such as benches, lighting hardware, fences, fountains, and so on. Ecological landscaping is inherently beautiful to us, mirroring the beauty of nature. Permaculture fulfills additional roles in being highly practical and sustainable.

But beyond these basics, which (we hope) solve functional needs in aesthetic and regenerative ways, as landscape practitioners we need to be more aware of our human appreciation of, connection to, and essential need for art. Art in the landscape includes a number of media and expressions, from earth sculpture to trompe l’oeil and murals on vertical planes, and of course to three-dimensional sculpture in stone, wood, metal, and other media.
Visit most cities of the world and you’ll find an obvious civic commitment to landscape sculpture and public art. Even the US – still lagging, in my opinion – has come a long way. With the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities/Arts some fifty years ago, inspiration and funding became more readily available. The feds even have a requirement that new federal buildings must devote 1% of the total construction budget to public art. More than half the states and many cities have similar artistic support for state construction projects.

In New Hampshire our laws specify that one-half of one percent (0.5%) of the first $15 million of a new state building must go to public art. Oddly, the University System of New Hampshire, though clearly a state institution, is specifically exempted from this provision of the legislation. This is why the Durham campus is so fundamentally lacking in outdoor art. Over the last ten years the situation has improved: a Presidential Committee for Campus Aesthetics, appointed by the University President, now pushes for public art, and a revitalized gallery management views the campus as a gallery. At the same time, Keene State and Plymouth State put the flagship university in Durham to shame in this regard.

But outdoor art need not be restricted to the public realm nor to monumental and multi-million-dollar works. A residential or commercial client can afford and benefit from more local works of art at a scale that is appropriate to the site and at a price tag that is do-able. Three excellent local exemplars of using art in the landscape are Thomas Berger of Green Art in Kittery (, Jill Nooney/Bob Munger of Bedrock Gardens and Fine Garden Art in Lee ( <>, and Jamie Calderwood in Durham ( A very few examples of their offerings accompany this article, intended to whet the landscaper’s whistle: “That would look good on my next project.”

On high-end landscapes, you might encourage a client to spend a thousand or five thousand on a specimen tree. Why not a specimen sculpture? It could be an element of lasting and transcendent beauty, crowning your design.

— Dr. Dirt has some sort of deconstructionist artistic appreciation of John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.




Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart