Art and Pine Rocklands in Miami

One of the more endearing events during Art Basel Miami is a casual garden breakfast at Casa Lin. Young local artists are invited to install pieces in the garden of a small bungalow located on a modest street in a transitional neighborhood of North Miami.  The draw is that it is two blocks from the fabled Rubell Collection, whose open house on the morning of the breakfast attracts the major players at the fair. The atmosphere at Casa Lin is low-key and lighthearted, the young artists get a chance to show their work to a wider and better connected audience than usual, and fairgoers sip coconut and pineapple juice, nibble on Cuban pastries and experience the often quirky or humorous installations without the hype or glitz of the main fair.

This year, Lin Lougheed, the owner of Casa Lin and sponsor of the breakfast, had his own installation, one which for this fairgoer was the highlight of the week. He has installed a Pine Rockland in a formerly derelict yard adjacent to the conventional garden at Casa Lin. The Pine Rockland is a marvel. Light, feathery and naturally sparse, it is the antidote to the tropical oppression of most manmade landscapes in South Florida.

A critically endangered eco-system native to this particular area of South Florida, Pine Rocklands used to cover most of the Miami Rock Outcropping, a ridge of limestone now buried beneath the city of Miami and its burgeoning suburbs. In a Pine Rockland, the limestone is covered by a very thin layer of soil, and pockmarked with solution sink-holes, circular depressions formed by pools of water that have dissolved the rock.  The Florida slash pine (Pinus ellioti var densa) and the Palmetto Palm (Sabal palmetto, the state tree of Florida) are the major verticals, and the understory is a combination of grasses, vines and small shrubs, relatively sparsely distributed.  Some species are unique to this particular ecosystem, and there are a surprising number of plants that flower--West Indian lilac, the pineland lantana and liars, to name a few.

A number of environmentally involved organizations in South Florida, including the Fairchild Botanical Garden (of which Lin Lougheed is a trustee), Florida International University, the USGS, the Nature Conservancy and Miami/Dade County have formed a Pine Rockland Working Group with the goal of preserving and expanding this fast-disappearing ecosystem. One strategy is to encourage homeowners to install Pine Rocklands instead of conventional gardens, which is what happened at Casa Lin.

The topsoil, which had been added years ago to the site, was scraped off, leaving the very thin layer of natural organic cover and exposing the solution sinkholes, and incidentally creating a fascinating topography to the garden.  Lougheed designed a simple beach road, flanked by “natural” vegetation.  The working group provided the plants (over 45 different species) in exchange for a commitment to maintain the planting for a number of years.  The secret of the lightness of the landscape is the natural burn cycle of 3 to 5 years.  This clears out the vegetation, leaving nutritious charcoal in its wake.  Over time, if the area isn’t burned it can turn into Rockland Hammocks, areas of thick hardwood overstory, growing on leaf litter accumulation. The hammocks would be as dense and dark as the Pine Rocklands are light and airy.

The garden at Casa Lin (55 NW 30th St.) is a permanent installation and it will be interesting to see how the landscape evolves over time. The question that hangs over the future is whether and how to effect the burn cycle—it’s too small a plot for a controlled fire department burn (not to mention that it is in the middle of the city) but possibly too big for a “firebox burn” to be practical over the entire 160‘x 50’ plot. Alternatively, will pruning be effective in keeping the open and airy nature of the ecosystem?  Will plants germinate the same way? It’s an experiment--an “art” installation that has the added fascination of changing and challenging over time.