In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
July, 2008
Regional Report

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Building a living sculpture engages the imagination, works the muscles, and builds community.

Living Sculpture For the Young and Young at Heart

At first glance, the spray-painted grass and heaps of wet soil looked more messy than artsy. Three-and-a-half hours later, about 30 smiling people sat relaxed in the mounds and curves of a grassy, soft-looking living sculpture. They'd built Alexandre Lovallo's design of three intersecting tree rings -- nine, sod-covered concentric circles covering about 3,000 square feet topped with 2,500 square feet of sod. In the middle of each tree ring stood a weeping redbud.

Creating a living sculpture at Longwood Gardens was part of the American Horticultural Society's 16th Annual National Children & Youth Garden Symposium held recently in Philadelphia. Project coordinator Marcia Eames-Sheavly of Cornell University's Garden-Based Learning Institute, explained that working with landscape this way moves beyond typical gardening. She, Lovallo, and horticulture educators aim to actively, viscerally, and emotionally connect young people with horticulture and nature. The workshop participants intend to bring that message home to their schools, community gardens, Master Gardener programs, and community groups.

Engaging Youth
Children and youth today aren't interested in planting, watering, and weeding vegetables, observed Eames-Sheavly and Lovallo, who's 24. Designing and building forms -- sofas, couches, animals, a birdbath -- with soil and sod can fire their imaginations and turn them on to nature.

"You love what you know and if you don't know it, it's not valuable to you," Lovallo added. "Growing up I spent a lot of time in gardens and in forests. That got me interested in the environment." Today's children live in a world of computers and television. They won't be interested in saving the environment unless they can appreciate it, he added.

"When you work with teenagers, you want to excite and challenge them," Eames-Sheavley said. "Living sculptures are easy, challenging activities for teens and middle-schoolers." The concept sprang from Cornell's Art of Horticulture class, in which plants are the object of art as in painting, and plants are used in or as art, as in living sculpture.

Taking Form
Around us, symposium attendees and several Longwood staff shoveled soil into five wheelbarrows, then dumped it to stay within Alex's 2-foot-wide circles. They measured to ensure mounds were 10 inches high, then firmly patted the soil. Rolling out the sod and cutting and pinning it to the mounds were the final steps.

"How are you going to mow this ... weed wacker, hand trim?" asked Marty Roelandt, Penn State Master Gardener in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

"Hand trim," Lovallo explained. "If this were permanent, we'd put landscape fabric between the mounds." This installation is temporary though, only up for a month or two near Longwood's Idea Garden.

"The cool thing is starting it somewhere," Roelandt said. "I'm going back to the Master Gardeners. We'll talk about how to incorporate this. It would be a great community project."

Master gardener Joyce Medenhall and University of Arkansas colleagues compared this project to building a mounded caterpillar in their Washington County Botanical Garden in Fayetteville. "We planted it with Japanese sedge -- spiny, variegated grass -- and put black mulch in between the grass to make stripes."


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