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I grew up in rural Connecticut. When school was out, my mother went on permanent vacation from the kitchen and my father took over the cooking. Back then, of course, my father wouldn’t be caught dead in front of the kitchen stove, or bent over the oven. That was “female” cookery, and he would have none of it. No, any other time of the year there was not a chance he would stoop to the ordeal of cooking. But as soon and as surely as the grey achy days of April gave way to the pellucid greens of a junebug in spring, and certainly, by the time the lazy haze of summer followed behind the cottonwood and dandelion billows, my father, like the cantankerous but skillful cook in the wagon train going forth to finer pastures, was well equipped and prepared to barbecue. 


When stationed there at the helm of the charred steel, he transformed from the somewhat recalcitrant machinist he was, into a facsimile of John Wayne — his legs gone all bowed and his word studded over with a peculiar kind of Texas drawl. Back then, of course, we barbecued only meat, and “meat” meant only dogs and burgers. Our friends would visit us, and we them. The same story played out in different back yards. There must have been hundreds of thousands of us.                                                

The trade organization Hearth, Patio and Barbecue has statistics going back just to 1995 — a year when over 11 million BBQ Grills of various kinds were shipped to American homes. By 2007, that number had grown to be 17 million units in a single year. In the collective imagination of Americans, dads might be associated with BBQ the way moms are associated with apple pie.

Today, outdoor grilling has become more sophisticated, and one of the fastest growing sectors of home-improvement contractors is designing and installing complete outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, firepits, and all types of grilling stations.

I asked a few designers (men who have their own grilling stations) why they so much like to recommend outdoor kitchens. Sure enough, their enthusiasm spilled over themselves like ketchup over a bun:  

I just love to barbecue! I just love my grill, love the smell of the smoke, the roasted flavor everything has, hanging with friends while it all cooks, how it all adds up to summer in the evening, with the peepers singing and the fireflies sparkling over the meadow.

A quick search on the internet leads to all kinds of articles linking this phenomena to “man’s search to fulfill his primal urge to go back to prehistoric roots as the hunter and food provider.” If this is true, then the “New American Outdoor Patio-cum-Kitchen-Dining Area,” like the understated backyard barbecue that came before it, is clearly a trend — call it the American Primal Revival.  This revival has been nicely accommodated to modern lifestyles through the integration of sophisticated outdoor appliances with innovative patio designs that create complete outdoor kitchen-dining areas that satisfy primal concerns, but most certainly are not primitive.

With the large range of features available, outdoor grilling can be as much as a primal experience as nature can provide, as uptown as your audio-visual surround system can provide, or as downtown as my fathers’. The good news is that you get to fashion your own style.


Custom Copper Cooker


Side View Copper Cooker


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Meditation Gardens

Imagine a meditation garden for your home. If you live in rural New England or New York, and you are only thinking of an austere Japanese Zen garden of meticulously groomed sand sweeping through a rock garden, you might reject the suggestion entirely.  I want to expand your ideas about what qualifies as a meditation garden. Throughout the world, there is a very large variety of garden styles that accommodate the notion of a meditation garden.  Outdoor spaces to facilitate meditation or contemplation have been created throughout the world, incorporating design aesthetics that fit local climate and culture. These fall into three basic categories – the Zen garden, the Dao garden, and the monastic garden. Japanese Zen gardens emphasize meditative quiescence and stillness. In a Zen garden, the mind that notices is the focus of meditation.  Chinese Daoist meditation gardens are based on principles of feng-shui that emphasize natural harmonies of the five elements and the four directions. The Daoist garden is a meditative representation of the ways of Nature.

The western Christian monastic tradition produced two completely different approaches to meditation gardens – the secret or cloistered garden, and the walking or contemplation garden.  The secret garden is traditionally surrounded by stone walls, fences or is enclosed by living-fences such as espalier or clipped hedges. The arrangements of these gardens were incorporated into an overall architecture that mirrored the design of cathedrals – with isles, naves, and focal features. Small ponds and water features were an important part of the monastic garden, as were healing and edible herbs. The walking or contemplation garden provided an entirely different way of meditation. The central narrative of a walking garden is that of pilgrimage – of seeing life as a journey on a path toward a kind of promised land. The story of Exodus for example, came to be re-presented in Kabbalism as labyrinths designed with intricate paths based on numerological and symbolic patterns. The Romans incorporated these designs into their architecture and gardens, and the early Christians carried them through their monastic traditions where they were easily accommodated by the northern Celtic whose traditions included similar intricately woven symbolic designs.

Despite these differences, there are key aesthetic elements that recur in all types of meditation & contemplation gardens throughout the world. Meditation gardens are composed of simple materials arranged in harmonious patterns or designs. The patterns are symbolic and suggestive of something about our humble place in the greater scheme of nature, the size of the universe, and long reach of time.

Paradoxically, meditation or contemplation on the relatively small role we play with respect to the grand scheme of everything, can also evoke a profound relationship to the immensity and grandeur of the whole of space and time. Along with plantings, meditation gardens incorporate each of the elemental materials – water, earth, air, fire and stone – either in actuality, or through symbolism and narrative metaphor. A rock garden that cascades down a hillside, or a woodland garden that hugs a ledge can both be designed to evoke river courses. Iron and bronze symbolize fire and air, while fieldstone, brick and shale are earth elements.  Water themes such as “the river of life” or “fountain of youth” create symbolic stories about life. 

Here is a design for a modern, Romanesque garden that combines a walking path laid out inside a walled garden in rough stone that leads to a focal  feature of a pagan god, itself tucked inside a secret courtyard. The garden is planted with aromatherapeutic healing herbs, while the fountain head is planted with grape vines.  A good place perhaps to contemplate both the joys and sorrows of life lived fully.









Single plants, flowers or ornaments can support the design of a meditation garden. A single lotus flower can evoke feelings of enlightenment, while a crane symbolizes a long life lived gracefully. Even foliage plants, when framed correctly, can draw the eye to some small magic like the entire sky reflected in drops of dew.

Our native woodlands offer a special opportunity to re-envision design elements for a meditation garden. Woodlands evoke another Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi – which is somewhat difficult to define. Wabi-sabi points to that which is beautiful and at the same time ephemeral. Wabisabizen.com, defines wabi-sabi as “ a Japanese aesthetics that is associated with the earthen & elemental materials, whose form has grown organically, and whose shape, textures, shades and hues are a result of being weathered by natural processes over time.” These are natural aesthetics for woodland gardening. When combined with the idea of a walking path along the woodland edge, the woodland meditation garden becomes one of the most beautiful landscapes in early spring, when the woodland wildflowers bloom for just a a short period of time – reminding us of the fragile and ephemeral aspects of beauty. Woodland shade plantings also make a wonderful meditation garden when planted inside a courtyard or framed by ironwork or espalier. A closeup of the photos below shows how the stones recreate the feeling of a Zen garden, especially in the pattern of the millstone post base.

On a very small scale, homemade “hypertufa” troughs  are wonderful ways to combine the stone and moss elements of a meditation garden with small alpine flowers and herbs of the cloister garden. The trough itself symbolizes both the rock and water elements. The way the trough matures, aging over time, adds a great deal of wabi-sabi character.  Adding a small wooden stool would emphasize its offerings as a meditation piece.

On the other end of the scale, carving out wide walking paths in the larger landscape, that lead to hidden vistas, can entice the solitary sojourner into a state of reverie. Islands of perennials and grasses serve as temporary stopping points to ponder nature’s processes.

This past winter, the display gardens here at the Kent Greenhouse were shrouded in deep snow. With the sun low in the long horizon down the Housatonic valley, the effect was silent and eerie, but also somehow strangely serene. It occurred to me that under these conditions, this was a meditation garden, too.

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Kent Greenhouse

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