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World's First Lichen Garden?

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Last spring, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art unveiled its new 14,000-square foot rooftop sculpture garden, spangled with works by Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. To a casual visitor, the space—with its wooden benches, dark stone walls, and cult Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk—looked minimalist but complete. It wasn't. Last week, CMG Landscape Architecture added their long-awaited finishing touch: a cultivated (and nearly microscopic) ‘lichen garden,’ possibly the world’s first. I joined them on a sunny Wednesday to help with the installation, and document the process.

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  The landscape architects, along with an artist and a lichenologist, gathered to 'innoculate' the 14-foot-high walls with lichen spores to create what they call "the ultimate minimal garden."
    The landscape architects, along with an artist and a lichenologist, gathered to 'innoculate' the 14-foot-high walls with lichen spores to create what they call "the ultimate minimal garden."
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  Here's Tim Milliken, the lichenologist, who developed a procedure for harvesting and transferring living lichen so that it can successfully colonize a new host surface. In this case, that means the lava stone walls of SFMOMA's open-air sculpture garden.
    Here's Tim Milliken, the lichenologist, who developed a procedure for harvesting and transferring living lichen so that it can successfully colonize a new host surface. In this case, that means the lava stone walls of SFMOMA's open-air sculpture garden.
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  Over the past few years Milliken has gathered various species of lichen, organized by color, form, and source.
    Over the past few years Milliken has gathered various species of lichen, organized by color, form, and source.
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  Some of the specimens were collected from art patron (and SFMOMA board member) Steve Oliver's sculpture ranch in Sonoma. The landscape architects thought it would be auspicious to start with some lichen that was already "art-friendly." Soon after they collected the samples, they heard that a crew had spent years cleaning lichen off Mt. Rushmore—"Oh man, we missed that opportunity!" lamented Milliken.
    Some of the specimens were collected from art patron (and SFMOMA board member) Steve Oliver's sculpture ranch in Sonoma. The landscape architects thought it would be auspicious to start with some lichen that was already "art-friendly." Soon after they collected the samples, they heard that a crew had spent years cleaning lichen off Mt. Rushmore—"Oh man, we missed that opportunity!" lamented Milliken.
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  Elise Brewster, a local artist who collaborated on the project, says that lichen is sexier than it sounds: "Lichen is THE extreme plant, and we are in extreme times." Here she demonstrates how to mix the lichen spores with a special adhesive mixture in a tiny dixie cup.
    Elise Brewster, a local artist who collaborated on the project, says that lichen is sexier than it sounds: "Lichen is THE extreme plant, and we are in extreme times." Here she demonstrates how to mix the lichen spores with a special adhesive mixture in a tiny dixie cup.
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  Then the designers and volunteers poked the gluey mixture into the holes and cracks of the textured stone wall.
    Then the designers and volunteers poked the gluey mixture into the holes and cracks of the textured stone wall.
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  Kevin Conger, project director and principal at CMG, shows how it's done.
    Kevin Conger, project director and principal at CMG, shows how it's done.
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  Lichen is a pioneer organism that thrives where nothing else can—arctic tundra, hot deserts, rocky coasts and toxic slag heaps, for example. Lichen is intolerant of pollutants; in some European cities, they put lichen stones on rooftops and monitor its health to gauge air quality, mapping what they call "lichen islands."
    Lichen is a pioneer organism that thrives where nothing else can—arctic tundra, hot deserts, rocky coasts and toxic slag heaps, for example. Lichen is intolerant of pollutants; in some European cities, they put lichen stones on rooftops and monitor its health to gauge air quality, mapping what they call "lichen islands."
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  Conger and Rayna Deniord, the project architect (shown here), conceived of the organism as a primal way of introducing nature into the otherwise spare, minimalist rooftop space.
    Conger and Rayna Deniord, the project architect (shown here), conceived of the organism as a primal way of introducing nature into the otherwise spare, minimalist rooftop space.
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  Eventually (like in years) these lichen plantlings will grow into patches of electric green and orange on the vertical lava rock walls. In the meantime, they'll remain small spots peppering the sponge-like surface of the walls.
    Eventually (like in years) these lichen plantlings will grow into patches of electric green and orange on the vertical lava rock walls. In the meantime, they'll remain small spots peppering the sponge-like surface of the walls.
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  The crew hard at work, in the shadow of a sculpture.
    The crew hard at work, in the shadow of a sculpture.
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  Here's what the garden looked like at the end of the day, after eight hours of careful dabbing. You had to peer close to see the designers' work, but that's part of the beauty. Over the next few years, the walls will literally come alive.
    Here's what the garden looked like at the end of the day, after eight hours of careful dabbing. You had to peer close to see the designers' work, but that's part of the beauty. Over the next few years, the walls will literally come alive.

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