January was named in honor of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of endings and beginnings. On this, the first day of 2014, I mourn an ending and welcome a beginning.

In mourning

Our modern age says chaos reigns: entropy, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Max Planck, quantum mechanics. But our hearts are not mere quanta, empty and full; we yearn for the ancient premise of a perfect universe in perfect harmony.

My friend, Vladimir Barsukov, died suddenly on Tuesday, December 10, 2013. We knew him as a student and teacher of kinetic art, perpetual mobiles. Vladimir said: “I’ve always been fascinated with beautiful and functional objects that rely on basic principles of mechanics and geometry. The movements remind the viewer of the fragility and interconnectedness of life.”

Born in Russia, January 21, 1945, and educated as a mathematician and physicist (Ph.D. Saint Petersburg University, 1967), he was a researcher and teacher at MIT from 1990 – 2005, and maintained a passion for mobile making throughout his life.

Vladimir was an artist, a dreamer, and a restless seeker. His childlike vision delighted in everyday things –

forks, spoons, as well as textures, shapes, colors and materials of all kinds. Infinitely curious and unabashed, he touched every object he encountered at the Marshfield Festival of the Arts with us in May 2011, querying vendors about their designs, finishes and techniques – an alchemist exploring another clue.

He thought, he taught, he labored and questioned. He balanced shapes and wires in marvelous symmetry; his mobiles were like living creatures to him, continually moving and changing in space, light and color.

I was among his many students, who marveled at the simple joy he taught of balancing and bringing to life the elements of kinetic sculpture. He shared his talent and taught with wit and a contagious love of knowledge. Vladimir was the universal man. Scientist and spiritualist, cynic and romantic, outsider and world citizen. He worshiped at the alter of insight, harmony and balance – literally juxtaposing opposing forces to create a world in balance.

He trafficked in the music of the spheres and conjured up a universe in harmony — both science and art fully realized. Vladimir once said “Through my work I have discovered what many others have noticed: that precise science and art both reflect nature in a beautiful and elegant way.” Amen, brother.


sarabande-winter-2010In my winter garden, Vladimir’s “Sarabande” still celebrates his presence. In motion.

Here he and his wife, Ann Dix, install Sarabande in my garden, October, 2010.


Ryan Flynn visits our house frequently with our granddaughter, Maisy, whom Vladimir adored. Ryan offered this:

May he make heaven a little cooler with his sculptures.

Besides our sadness, our thoughts are with Ann, who has lost an irreplaceable partner. I am grateful to her for sharing her saddest of news. It was an honor to be Vladimir’s friend.

Kensington Stone Braithwaite

Forward-facing Janus celebrates our new grandson, Kensington Stone Braithwaite, born October 3, 2013 to Kristin Stone Braithwaite and Kenyatta Braithwaite. He arrived at 1:19am weighing 8 pounds, 2 ounces, at 20.5 inches tall with a very full head of hair, kind of Valentino style.

He was dressed for the new year in typical Braithwaite style. We are thrilled with our newest family member.


Just add water

I’ve often toyed with the idea of a water feature in my garden. Done right, it adds a sense of essential life — a focus on origins, mystery and beauty. Harry Poulter, my colleague in another realm, features water in his garden design and shares his insights in the following article.

Knowing of my interest in water gardening, Michael asked me to contribute something on building a water feature and water gardening in general. – Harry Poulter, Buckingham, VA

It’s mid-March in Virginia and my ponds are just waking up.  I love the look and sound of water in the garden, and I love to be able to extend my gardening palette by adding aquatic and semi-aquatic plants.

A few of my pond pals (koi) to the right.  I got them very young – FedEx overnight – from a Florida fish farm about 3 years ago. There have already been several generations of babies.

Water, water everywhere

Over the years, I have water gardened in:

  • half whisky barrels with liners,
  • non-draining planters,
  • livestock watering troughs from the Tractor Supply Store (makes a great deck or patio pond),
  • preformed liners sunk into the garden bed, and
  • a fully excavated koi pond with a custom flexible liner (pictured above).

I’ve grown aquatic and bog and wetland plants, as well as koi and other pond fishes, and hosted local frogs and newts. I’ll cover water gardening options, and show how I created an overflowing pot garden fountain.

Floral Variety

There is a huge array of plants available to the water gardener, and you can add unusual interest to a perennial bed by sinking a water planter in it or adjacent to it.

Popular hardy aquatic plants include water lilies and lotus, pickerel rush and various iris species, including native yellow and blue flags, and some cultivated varieties such as Japanese Ensata. There are tropicals like dwarf papyrus, water hyacinth and water lettuce that can be grown as annuals.

Many plants which do fine on dry land do even better with their feet in water, such as cardinal flower, canna, and some hibiscus. A visit to a garden center which specializes in aquatic plants can be a real eye-opener.

Starting Simply – barrel liner fits the bill

The simplest water gardening can be done in a waterproof planter on the ground. You can grow a single lotus or a stand of Flags in a large pot.

Like all containerized plants, they will be more winter-hardy if the container is sunk into the ground. If you are going to bury a container, a good choice is the standard “barrel liner” available at many home centers.

Sized to fit in a standard half whiskey barrel, they hold about 20 gallons. In a whiskey barrel, they make an attractive deck pond, large enough for a couple of small plants and even a fish or two (depending on your raccoon situation). Or, excavate a hole in the ground, line it with some sand and sink the liner to use as a pre-formed minipond. Leave it as-is for an aquatic planter.

If you want to create a mini-bog garden, drill drain holes a couple of inches from the top, and fill with saturated peat and sand. You can also buy larger, irregularly shaped pre-formed liners to sink in the garden as I did here – this one is about 55 gallons:

Mini-pond in late spring with yellow flags and Ensata iris. Later, pickerel rush and a small water lily will take over. Wild phlox creeps over the edge.

In retrospect, I would not use one of these large pre-formed liners again. Digging is hard enough – trying to fit your dug hole to a pre-formed shape while leaving enough room for a sand liner and not leaving any air voids to weaken the structure is too difficult. Use a flexible liner instead (Pond Making Resources, below).

Another good choice for a deck pond or other preformed water planter use is a livestock watering trough from a farm supply store. These are indestructible, a nice depth, acceptable looking, and reasonably priced, if you can find them. I live in farm country, so these are everywhere.

Pond Making Resources

Flexible liners, cut to shape, are the ultimate in-ground solution. If you decide to go that route, do your homework and buy a good liner, along with a protective underlayment. is an excellent resource for pond liners and general pond supplies.

For any in-ground feature, be sure it is as level as you can get it. It seems obvious but it is easy to misjudge. Don’t rely on your eyes – use a level. You can’t fool water.

For plants and fish, find your local pond supply or pond garden center. There is no substitute for seeing the plants and picking your own. My own favorite is an hour’s drive from me in very rural Virginia:

For equipment – shop around. Garden centers tend to have a high markup on durable goods, and you will pay a lot more for standard plumbing fixtures, for instance, than you could get elsewhere. Also, you may find that the same item marketed as a “pond” pump will have a higher price than when it is sold as an “aquarium” pump.

In addition to Best Nest, above, I shop at and as well as my local Lowe’s.

Making a fountain

You have probably seen the “overflowing pot” type fountain, and you can buy an entire kit ready-made. They are usually filled with pebbles around the base of the pot, and have no open water except in the pot. I preferred to have open water at the base, to be able to add some small plants – and have actually picked up some resident frogs. Here’s how I made my own.

What you need:

  • a decorative pot
  • a basin larger around than the pot, with a sump,
  • a pump and some plumbing

You need power for the pump, and like all outside power, it needs to be from a GFCI-protected outlet.

For a basin, I buried a 20 gallon barrel liner and surrounded it with concrete pavers. We bought a 4-foot tall pot at our favorite rural pond center and had them drill it and add the bulkhead fittings and internal standpipe.

You may be lucky enough to find a pot with a usable bottom hole, or be able to drill it yourself, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to drill a hole in a $300 ceramic pot without cracking it.

The picture shows the sunken barrel liner and broken cinder block used to make a sump under the pot. It is important to get this firmly placed and as level as possible before proceeding.

I added my own pump (an aquarium pump with a small sponge filter) and made a sump by placing the pot on a half cinder block with a side partially knocked out to allow the hose to pass through.

Ready for assembly: There is a threaded bulkhead fitting on the bottom of the pot, and a nylon barbed hose fitting (partly obscured by the hose on the pump) screws into that. You can secure the hoses with screw-down hose clamps – use stainless steel clamps (no rust) from a boating supply store.

Once assembled, follow these remaining steps to fill, level, and enjoy your fountain!

I like the bell-type fountain fitting on the top of the standpipe, but there is a disadvantage – the wind will blow some of your water away, and you will have to refill more often. The alternative is to omit the fountain fitting, and just let it overflow. Then, you won’t even need a standpipe on the inside.

Water gardening provides yet another way to synchronize your soul with natural and constructed beauty. Thanks, Harry, for nurturing our garden ideas! – Michael Waddell, Rake & Palette

18 Steps to a mirror in the garden

I discovered an outdoor art installation in a Paris park that inspired my garden mirror. The art was well-integrated into the context of the outdoor setting, not separate from it. I liked that. My idea was to hang a full-sized mirror in the garden that would reflect back on the garden. Read the story, see how to do it! Read the rest of this entry »

Sarabande: Kinetic Garden Art

Sarabande is a mobile – kinetic art made from copper, bronze and aluminum, standing six feet tall with a six foot radius. She was conceived to replace a withered dwarf maple that once stood in the center of the garden. Whimsical wind mobiles, like garden sculptures, provide vertical and horizontal contrast — plus movement — to the surrounding perennials.

A Garden Dancer Comes to Life

Named for the courtly dance and musical movement from the Baroque era, Sarabande is the work of kinetic artist, Vladimir Barsukov (Perpetual Mobiles) from whom I took a mobile-making class in November, 2009. You might think of Alexander Calder, an American mobile artist whose work is in the Guggenheim Museum (NYC).

Sarabande was almost a year in the making because Barsukov had to experiment with ideas and materials that would scale to larger proportions and perform well outdoors – wind mobiles can have a rougher life. Barsukov invented a sturdy pivot to give the mobile the needed “degrees of freedom.”

Besides freedom of movement, a mobile requires precisely balanced elements that communicate with each other, and sensitivity to slight, animating air movements.
Outdoors, a mobile must maintain its responsiveness while coping with extremes of wind, weather and elements; it must float on gentle breezes and ride out coastal gales. And do it all gracefully.

Installing the Mobile

I saw the first prototype at Barsukov’s Cambridge studio in July, 2010. While the artist completed the final design, I had to figure out how to keep a mobile garden sculpture permanently straight and plumb.  Googling

Install flag pole” gave me a suitable plan — I used: a post hole digger, gravel, concrete mix, wooden brace, with a carpenter’s level to set the holding tube in a solid base, and… voila! I had a stable home for my mobile (a mobile home?).

The dwarf maple stood leafless in its last years. Stark and twiggy, it became a favorite perch for small birds. Chickadees and humming birds would alight on the end of a tiny dead branch to rest; it was our snag tree. It toppled of its own accord just before Sarabande’s installation on October 30, 2010. Sarabande was too broad for that spot so we installed her farther back, overhanging the dwarf mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia v. ‘Elf’), Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) and daphne. Originally a backyard patio idea, Sarabande moves gently and more subtly far away, where her long arm and large sweep complement her surroundings.

Reflections on Sarabande

As a foray in garden art, Sarabande makes quite a statement. A captive prima ballerina, both  sturdy and lithe. Across the garden stands Tin Man looking on. In the spring, when the woods behind fill in with green, I may install a reflective background to highlight Sarabande’s dance-like movement.  Here’s one idea I’m thinking of, using mirrored window panes:

With Sarabande, Tin Man now has a garden partner.Tin Man - by Peter Beals, Kingston MA
What moves your garden? Share the vision.