Tag Archives: dioramas

The Richardson Pylon

Pylon 5

Just north of Dallas, on the mutual border between the suburbs of Richardson and Plano, lies an anomaly. It lies on the north side of a city park, along a recently refinished and refurbished bike and walking trail, surrounded by trees, shrubs, and a tremendous amount of poison ivy. It’s easily accessible, and can even be seen from the air. Take the DART Red Line train north toward Plano, and look west in between the Galatyn Park and George Bush Tollway train stations. Even in the height of summer, it’s hard to miss, but it’s particularly visible after Halloween, once the leaves start dropping from the trees.

Pylon 5

Contrary to its appearance, this isn’t some lost tomb from an otherwise unknown Mayan city. It isn’t an Olmec temple or sacrificial site. It wasn’t left behind by some unknown extraterrestrial race, just waiting for us to learn its secrets and activate it. A few astute individuals may recognize it as a train trestle: the current DART line runs along the land previously used for a freight line heading north to McKinney, and this was almost all that remained after the bridge over a rather wide local creek was demolished.

All on its own, this trestle is just crawling with what my friend Dave Hutchinson likes to call “a sensawunda”. Anybody with even a slight bit of imagination can come up with all sorts of stories to explain its presence, and it inspires enough to brave ticks, chiggers, and poison ivy to stomp through the vegetation and leave a trail. That’s not the main focus of this discussion. Believe it or not, this little artifact can pass on a lot of information to anyone working either on miniature gardens or dioramas.

If you go back to the photo at the beginning of this post, don’t look at the pylon. Look at the trees around it. Note in particular how the trees are rotten with vines of all sorts, including one huge vine that’s actually bending down the top of the oak tree on which it resides. You don’t see any vines on the pylon, do you? In fact, the whole thing is surprisingly vegetation-free, save for a small sapling at the top. No lichen, no moss, no ferns…it’s botanically bereft, all things considered.

Pylon top

When it comes to our understandable human fascination with ruins and monoliths, half of the appeal seems to come from these ruins covered with various flora. (As to why ancient ruins and dinosaurs seem to go together for ten-year-olds like French fries and catsup, well, that’s something best discussed by psychologists, not botanists.) The ruins of Angkor or Tikal not only awe today, but they inspire repeated fictional variations. It’s to the point where imagery of stone ruins seemingly require them to be covered with vines and creepers, obscuring all but the basic building shape.

The problem here, and an issue that needs to be considered with any miniature recreation of, say, Temple II, is that you need to consider the general conditions of the miniature area you’re trying to create. By way of example, the White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire, USA is full of gigantic granite boulders, many the size of small houses, broken free from the surrounding rock and rounded by rolling down the mountainside. Some are so large, the tops have collected enough humus from fallen leaves that small maples and oaks grow atop them. Some of those trees have managed, over the years, to reach their roots down to the ground, producing beautiful natural nebari.

What makes this work, though, is a relative impermeability of the rock, and that’s something that’s very hard to duplicate in miniature. With a house-sized boulder, the granite has enough pits to hold more water than it would if the surface were polished, and the decayed leaves on top act as a sponge. In miniature, there’s no way to create that effectively, short of setting a water drip atop a comparable rock to replace what is lost from evaporation.

Pylon top detail

With concrete, the situation is aggravated because concrete is very good at wicking away moisture. I’ve warned people for years, after my own horrible experiences, that the standard concrete planters used by cities to grow trees and shrubs don’t work well in Dallas, because any excess water in the container gets drawn into the concrete before it evaporates away. In the short term, this works well for keeping tree roots cool in Dallas temperatures, but without a regular and steady water source? It’s great for cactus, but death for most other plants in a typical Dallas summer.

In the photo above, that’s precisely what’s happening with that little tree. The pylon apparently has a space up top that collects dead leaves and the occasional rain, but it’s also baked in the summer sun. In a few years, it might make a decent yamadori, but it’s never going to grow into a full-sized tree. When the loam up top dries out, it gets blown around by the prevailing winds. When the rains return, any trace minerals wash out. Were we to get a lot more rainfall than we do, that top might make a decent location for small carnivorous plants such as sundews or butterworts. As it is, if I wanted to plant something, prickly pear cactus would be one of the few sane options.

Pylon wasp nest

Not that I plan to do this with the Richardson Pylon. Although the surface temperatures deter vine growth just due to new growth wilting or even cooking off in summer, the east side makes good shelter for other inhabitants. For instance, the surrounding woods are full of caterpillars, which make good food for the young of this nest of paper wasps.

Paper wasp nest on pylon

Now back to the wonders of concrete. As mentioned before, abandoned concrete around here tends to remain vine-free, except occasionally on the east side of installations. This is because of both concrete’s exceptional ability to retain heat and its ability to draw off moisture. Vines with aerial roots or suckers, such as poison ivy or English ivy, can’t get enough of a grip during summer to make much of a difference. North Texas is rotten with raspberry brambles, but the singular ability of raspberry runners to climb by hooking obstacles doesn’t work when the surface is relatively smooth. About the only place where vines can get established is when the slab itself cracks enough to allow a serious purchase.

Opposite trestle

For example, this is the trestle on the other side of the creek valley. The whole cliff is covered with vines and trees, but the only place where the vines are making inroads in the concrete? It’s only in the spaces where the slab has buckled to the point where the roots can sink in. In another twenty years or so, those vines may crack things enough to allow hanging trees, but nothing is getting through the main slab for a while.

And with that, here’s hoping that this wayward pylon gives some gardening design inspiration. Elvis help me if I ever had the opportunity to design a garden that had a feature like this, because I have Ideas.

Unorthodox but essential miniature garden reading

Over the past few months, several good friends announced impending gardening books or book deals, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that my friend Janit Calvo is working on one for Timber Press on miniature garden design. Not only do I wish her the best on this, but I’m buying a copy the moment it becomes available. In the meantime, what laughingly passes for spare time at the Triffid Ranch goes mostly to research, and I realized a little while back that I had one of the best guides to miniature garden design in my library, and that I’d bought it a quarter-century ago this summer.

You’re going to laugh.

Without realizing it, this book taught me everything I know about composition of miniature garden scenes. It taught me the difference between symmetry and balance, where balance is necessary for a proper composition but symmetry merely makes it look artificial and forced. It taught me to take advantage of what I already had, and to scratchbuild the items I needed to make a scene work. It taught me the basics on natural versus artificial lighting, proper scale, and making sure that the scene was neither too large or too small.

Oh, you’re definitely going to laugh.

Best of all, until a few years ago, there’s almost no chance that gardeners would have come across this book. It’s not that it’s rare or obscure, but that its enthusiasts usually don’t share notes with gardeners. A shame, really, because Janit’s push on miniature garden arrangement means that they’re going to start running into each other more often, and we’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun when that happens.

How to Build Dioramas by Shepard Paine

To wit, the book in question is How To Build Dioramas by Sheperd Paine, subtitled “Your Complete How-To-Do-It Guide To Diorama Planning, Construction, and Detailing For All Types of Models”. Originally published in 1980, it was in its fourth printing by the time I discovered it in an MJDesigns north of Dallas in the summer of 1987. I already had a fascination with diorama design, but this one made me think about their design.

The reason why I recommend every last miniature gardener needs a copy of this book? Well, when you think about it, the only difference between a well-composed miniature garden and a well-composed diorama is that the latter can be put in a closet or on a shelf somewhere without worry about anything dying. Otherwise, the idea of both is to tell some type of story, or at least hint at one, with the materials at hand. With a diorama involving plastic model kits, the kit can be the centerpiece of the scene, or it can be a supporting character or situation, but it has to stay within context of the whole arrangement. With a miniature garden, the plants are absolutely essential, but they can also be centerpieces or supporting characters. In both case, put in too much, put in features that detract from each other, or otherwise remind viewers that they’re looking at a construct instead of a vignette, and they’re ruined.

How to Build Dioramas, 2nd Edition

In my case, I’m very fond of both the original edition and the 1999 second edition for different reasons. Not only is the second edition full of new material, but it goes into detail on utilizing resin-cast figures (as well as making them), and new materials for customization that simply weren’t available in the early Eighties. You might not think this is such a big deal, until you come across the nearly-perfect item for a miniature garden, but realize that it needs a new backing or just the right ornamentation to complete the effect. I’m not even going to start on how valuable knowing how to wire supplemental lighting can be, especially considering the options with LEDs and solar-charged batteries these days.

The biggest reason why I hang onto my copies of this book (heck, I won’t even let the Czarina borrow them, because the first edition has that much sentimental attachment for me) is because this was the book that really made me consider stories in miniature garden arrangement. Since we’re very visual creatures at heart, we instinctively block out the plants in arrangements unless they have especially intriguing foliage or flowers. When the subject is a particularly impressive plant or plant arrangement, and viewers are too busy focusing on the little animal or human figures placed therein, then You’re Doing It Wrong. Sheperd Paine understood that these have their place, but that they should always be helping the viewer recognize the real center of the display. Just as bonsai is much more than hacking a sapling or shrub into something approximating a miniature tree, miniature gardening is much more than plopping a few toys and miniatures among randomly selected plants in a terra-cotta bowl. Read through either edition, and just feel the garden ideas percolating through your head while doing so.

Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs by Ray Rimell

And while we’re on the subject, quite a few casual readers were taken by a recent discussion on incorporating dinosaur and other prehistoric animal figures into miniature gardens, and that’s why I also highly recommend Ray Rimell’s 1998 book Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs to anyone wanting to incorporate a few archosaurs or therapsids into their arrangements. Of particular note, Rimell starts off by noting the ease in modifying and customizing the often luridly-colored dinosaur figures currently available, and that should keep all of you busy for a while.

I’m planning to come back to this subject quite a bit more in the next few months, but let’s just say I suspect that we’re going to be seeing a lot more crossover between traditional gardening and traditional model-building as miniature gardening continues to increase in popularity. This, by the way, is why I’m now checking on what UV inhibitors work best with traditional resin and polystyrene composition, and why I’m planning to have a very long and hearty talk with a few resin kit designer friends. The field won’t know what hit it.

Review: Saikei and Art – Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Saikei and Art: Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller. Lew Buller, 2005. 178 pp., $39.95 US. ISBN 0-9772443-0-X

The obvious appeal of bonsai lies with its ability to simulate, in a reasonable scale, the incredible variations in trees when stressed by the elements. Most bonsai practitioners work to include the area around the roots, but actual landscapes? For short-term arrangements, the traditional Japanese form of bonkei works well, but the concept of saikei, the art of arranging miniature landscapes for longterm enjoyment, was first displayed and taught by Toshio Kawamoto in 1963. Today, saikei may not be as universally known as bonsai, but in a time when miniature gardens are starting to gain popularity, this is probably going to change.

If the name of Lew Buller rings any bells, it’s probably for his involvement with co-writing Mountains in the Sea: The Vietnamese Miniature Landscape Art of Hon Non Bo, the only English book so far published on Hon Non Bo design and management. His followup book, Saikei and Art, is a compilation of various essays and articles written on the subject for magazines such as Bonsai Today and International Bonsai, combined with new material and followup photographs.

Because of its origins in magazine articles, Saikei and Art has a small problem with jumping around and repeating itself from time to time. This is sometimes aggravated by the unorthodox layout of some sections, where it’s difficult to ascertain where, on a new page, the text starts from the previous page. Some readers may also have issue with the fact that Buller’s landscapes are predominately influenced by his life in the San Diego area, and recreations of Southern California might not jibe with other saikei practitioners’ ideas of arrangements.

Ignore those worries. Any serious miniature gardener, whether formally trained in saikei or not, needs this book in his or her library. Instead following the lead of far too many general horticulture books, where the book goes step-by-tedious-step into allowing readers to make an exact replica of an artist’s project, Buller uses his projects to illustrate the tenets and requirements of saikei, and then encourages readers to go their own way. He dedicates an entire chapter to texture, both in the importance of variety and in continuing a particular theme. In addition, while he understands that each artist’s particular styles may encourage the use of artificial additions such as “mud men” figures, he emphasizes that the focus of a proper saikei depends upon the balance of the complete arrangement, not just on one or two elements. Add one slightly incongruous element, whether a particularly stunning rock or an intriguing figure, and all focus goes to that element instead of to the rest of the landscape. In a diorama, this is a success. In saikei, this is a sign of bad design.

Right now, I’m preparing several large miniature garden arrangements for an upcoming plant show. Before each big show, I gather a series of reference guides to get me into the right frame of mind before starting. I already have such titles as Sheperd Paine’s classic guide How To Build Dioramas and Buller and Lit Phan’s Mountains in the Sea in the pile, and Saikei and Art is going right on top.