A No Plan Landscape

Several years ago I had a request from a new client to plant her pots. We obliged. I could not help over the course of a few seasons to take note of the landscape. Her front door had a very tall, substantial, and fairly elaborate porch roof. That porch roof and upstairs balcony was a very prominent architectural feature in shape as well as color. A mature clipped hedge of boxwood planted close the walk from the drive was not so friendly to that feature. It obscured the view of a beautiful blue stone porch floor, the bottoms of the offset columns, and her pots. A pair of young Palabin lilacs on standard added to the congestion. Full grown, the heads of those lilacs would spread and completely obscure the pots on the  porch from the driveway, and would eventually encroach on the walkway to the front door. It seemed like the entry landscape obscured the entry, as opposed to embracing it. The house is always the the dominant feature of an urban landscape, by virtue of its size. Successful landscape design needs to address and compliment that architecture.

Late last summer, this client did ask me to look over her landscape. She was not happy with the feel or the look. A landscape she showed me that she liked was very formal, and symmetrical. Though she was willing to change it all up, she wanted me to reuse all of the existing plant material that she had, a good bit of which she had just put in a year ago. Though that would prove to be a significant challenge, I could understand the request. No one wants to feel their investment was not a pleasing investment. The view from the street revealed a scalloped landscape bed planted with myrtle and begonias that did not include or speak to a trio of sizeable maples. Behind the begonias, a hedge of spreading yews, planted in a shallow arc with straight wings.

The landscape on the street side of the drive was layered. The shape of the large bed of myrtle was not consistent side to side, and the scalloped edges did not work so well with the straight line presented by the street and curb.   Nothing about this view seemed clearly defined.The grass and myrtle were so similar in color and texture that it was difficult to see the shapes.

The far south side of the landscape featured a pair of maples. The landscape dropped off, and quit speaking on the south side. Most likely the shade cast by the pair of trees had much to do with that. Myrtle in deeper shade looses its texture and punch, and is ineffective visually unless it is planted in substantial and clearly defined beds.

This side view of the street side landscape makes it easy to see the scalloped edge of the myrtle, and the planting layers. The densiformis yews had been formally pruned, and was topped off by a mass of roses. Densiformis yews are the most beautiful in their naturally spiky and wide state. The trimming here was an effort to keep them lower than the roses. I like a layered landscape just as much as the next gardener, but I like layers that take into account the eventual height and spread, and the natural habit of each plant. Many years of gardening has taught me that most plants resent schooling. They are at their most beautiful when they can grow and have room to breathe.

Across the drive, blocks of Incrediball hydrangeas were backed up by Hicks yews planted on the foundation of the house. A couple of Kousa dogwoods were sprinkled in to the mix.

In front of the hydrangeas were long parallel ribbons of Japanese forest grass, and black leaved heuchera. Black and lime in a container can be quite dramatic and effective. This was too much of a good thing, in my opinion. Nor would these plants look good in the winter.

It is so important in creating landscape layers to allow room for each plant to develop to its eventual size, and to choose plants that will eventually represent the height and width sought. The Hicks yews in the background could certainly be grown to a taller height, but they were already covering the bottoms of the windows.To my mind, the Hicks yews set the height that all other landscape elements needed to respect. It would only take another year for the Incrediballs to exceed the foundation yews in height. They would also drape over at least the first row of grasses.

The far south side featured a ball shaped hedge of spirea. This seemed fine to me. The problem was the maintenance. I would hard prune those spireas regularly rather than snipping the ends.  They looked bulky, chubby, and too tall against the yews.

Opposite the front door, the beds were scalloped in a similar way as the street side myrtle bed. The landscape bed lines did not seem to take much of a cue from the shapes, curves, and lines created by the driveway. The bed line scallops on the street side have the same problem.. Streets and driveways are hard structures that cannot be changed. Good landscape design acknowledges and works with those structures that are a given.

My client was tired of the roses. She was happy for me to pitch them. They were robust to the point of weediness. I doubt they gave her much color but for a few weeks in June. Did I relay all of my observations to my client?  No. Though I would be able to point out my design concerns, I had no idea what to propose in its stead. I told her I wanted to transplant the boxwood hedge -intact- away from the porch, and move all of the Incrediball hydrangeas to the opposite side of the driveway. After that was done, I told her that I would have to come every day to decide what would go where, next. She seemed hesitant, but not for long. I told her the project would take a number of days, and that she would have time to react to what she was seeing. Knowing she had time helped her to have confident in the process.

Dan does a terrific job of moving plant material. Each boxwood that got dug up was flagged with a number and a face, so the replanting seems exactly as it was-just in a different spot.

Moving the boxwood (and the Palabin lilac standards) completely transformed the look of the entrance to the house. The entrance landscape is simple, formal and symmetrical, and embraces the architecture. The yews in the back could be seen, as well as the porch pillars and pots. It was a good start. My client was happy with the starting gesture and felt more relaxed about trusting what was to come.

One newly planted kousa dogwood was moved a bit forward.  It is now the same distance from the driveway as the dogwood on the opposite side of the porch. The Incrediball hydrangeas would be replaced with fewer numbers of hydrangea Bobo. This dwarf hydrangea is easy to maintain at 3′ tall. The front border of heuchera was reduced by one row in depth, so there were enough plants to traverse the entire length of the main house.

The lime green Japanese forest grasses were transplanted into the new square shaped ground created when the boxwood were moved. The planting mimics the width and height of the porch. The color and texture will be a welcome surprise to anyone who steps up on to the porch.

A matching block of hydrangea Bobo were planted to the south of the front door. The remainder of the south side landscape would be kept intact.

Though the twigs of the Bobos are almost invisible here, the house side landscape was complete in late October. The areas on either side of the walk will be planted in the spring. I told my client I would prefer to see something short here, unless she decided to opt for taller pots on the porch.

Opposite the front door, we dug and replanted all of the existing densiformis yews in a simple and shallow curve. A group of Hydrangea Bobo were planted in the midsection in place of those roses. There would be room for seasonal flowers here, come spring.

A new hedge of upright yews -taxus Mooni- was installed on the street side. That curve is more shallow than the replanted densiformis yews. The space that opened up between the two curving hedges provided room for the existing Incrediball hydrangeas. The eventual height and width of this cultivar will be perfect in this location.

All three maple trees were included in what is now one large bed. Once the new bed lines were established, we reset the original steel edger strip.

The new look is organized, simple and formal.  It is not symmetrical, but it suggests the concept of symmetry.

As it turns out, my client was interested in new pots.  She chose these Frank Lloyd Wright reproduction urns and pedestals. The color of the stone is perfect with the color of the porch roof and pillars. It adds some horizontal weight to a porch that formerly looked so tall and narrow.

With the pots at this height, the porch has some appropriate and dressy company.

Renovating this landscape was not so easy.  We will see how well we did with that, come summer.

 

 

 

 

Noxious Cold

Like a good bit of the rest of the US, we were invaded by a particularly noxious and extreme cold usually confined to the northern polar regions. Fierce winds usually keep that cold where it belongs, but on occasion, that cold travels our way. In early December it became apparent that we had bitterly cold weather coming up. The first order of business was to clean out all of the fall plantings in those pots that were due to have winter arrangements, and take the soil level down four inches from the top. The floral foam form would sit on top of that lowered frozen soil. The form would be anchored into the soil with bamboo stakes, or steel rebar. Pounding a stake down through frozen soil is a good bit easier than chiselling out frozen soil. Three weeks worth of installations were accompanied by this relentless cold. Never have I been happier that we do most of our fabrication for the winter pots in the shop stockroom.

The evergreens in my garden have no where to go, and no other option but to endure. A gardener can provide their evergreens with regular water in the fall. An evergreen with juicy stems and needles is an evergreen dressed properly for the weather. Once the ground freezes, the plants will no longer be able to transmit moisture from the roots to the needles. An evergreen that goes into the dormant season dry is poorly positioned to deal with desiccating winter winds and sun, and the inevitable loss of moisture from transpiration. The water that evaporates from the needled foliage of this yew cannot be replaced until the ground thaws.

That many evergreens have needled foliage as opposed to leaves is a survival mechanism, courtesy of nature. Each needle has a relatively small surface area from which moisture can evaporate. Leaves are poor conservators of water, as they present so much surface area to sun and wind. It is no wonder that deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves in the fall.  Carrying a full set of green leaves through the winter would most likely be deadly. At the extreme other end of the spectrum, cactus have evolved to have spines in place of those leaves that are so ill equipped to conserve moisture. Those spines do collect water from rare rains, which then drips down to the roots. Water in some degree is essential to the life of plants. I may let plenty of things go in the garden, but I do water. Plants that do not get the moisture they need are stressed and vulnerable plants.

Of course our long run of cold has me worrying about the boxwood. They are broad leaved evergreens. Those leaves readily desiccate in extreme wind and cold. They are prime candidates for winter burn.  A drench of anti desiccant such as Vapor Gard on both the tops and the bottoms of the leaves coats the surface with a waxy natural compound of pine resin that reduces the evaporation rate. It is amazing what a difference an anti desiccant can make. Any evergreen planting I do after the middle of August gets Vapor Gard ahead of the first winter. It is very inexpensive insurance against disaster. The above picture was taken in April of 2014. These 20 year old shrubs were killed outright from the extreme cold we experienced in the winter of 2013-2014. Double digit below zero temperatures for days on end proved too much for them. The 100 inches of snow we had went beyond insulating them to overloading them with branch cracking weight.

A boxwood disaster is rarely apparent before April. That makes it easy to fret over them all winter.

This day was a heartbreaking day. That day in April made it obvious that the west end section of this old hedge had perished. It succumbed to a once in a lifetime extended cold well below its hardiness limit. The entire summer of 2014 I drove by so many hedges of dead boxwood still in the ground.  I could not have looked at dead plants day after day, and month after month, but disbelief, grief and denial can be very powerful.

Do I think the extreme cold spell we have just had will kill my boxwood? Our coldest temperature was 6 below zero. This is not cold enough to kill a zone 5 shrub. It was cold enough to make me dress from top to bottom for bone chilling cold. I limited the time the corgis spent outdoors. One morning at 4 degrees below zero they came in limping after 3 minutes outdoors. Cold feet. But I do not believe it has been cold enough to seriously damage the boxwood.

Once we finished removing the section of dead plants, we placed big Branch pots in front of the bare ends of the boxwood. It would be every bit of several years before the dead spots and sections would recover from this winter. Note that the tulips coming on sustained no damage from the extreme cold. They were completely dormant, and below ground. Sub shrubs such as lavender, that have live branches above ground in the winter, can be very difficult to winter over.

We did finally get the window boxes and 2 pots in front of the shop done up for winter. They feature cut boxwood twigs stuffed into dry floral foam.  After just a few days outdoors, they began to show the signs of leaf shrinkage from evaporation.

Even the backs of the leaves show signs of stress. As long as these cut stems were packed in wax coated boxes, and not exposed to sun or wind, the leaves were glossy and plump. Once exposed to the weather, they reacted as expected. Fortunately boxwood leaves stay green even as they dry.

I am sure we will have burned and dead tips on these plants come spring, but I expect them to recover.  32 degrees this morning-what a relief.

Okra Pods

We were able to finish all of our 2017 projects last week, save one, by last Thursday afternoon. That final project needs a decent sized block of time, so we will do it this coming week. This meant there would be time for me to get some pots done at home. Finding materials would be a challenge. Given that the supply of fresh cut greens is all but depleted, my only hope was 8  9 foot Frazier fir Christmas trees purchased to chop up for our last project to come. There would be enough branches from those trees available to do my two pots on the driveway. The Frazier fir would shake off all the cold and snow a winter season would have to dish out, and still look great next March. The skirt of green was available.

Our supply of fresh cut twigs was equally skimpy, but for two bundles of red bud pussy willow we put on reserve for our last project. I toured the shop at least three times before I focused on a pair of steel topiary cones that we had Missy cover with grapevine and brown corded incandescent lights. These topiary forms are 5.5 feet tall. The scale of them would be perfect for my 30″ tall and 30″ diameter Branch Hudson tapers, given that we had no branches available for the center. I had no use for those incandescent lights. There had to be another idea. While David was removing those lights, I toured the store for the 4th time. We had a case of 10′ long LED rice light strands on silver wire still available.  These lights would need their transformer and plug protected from the elements.  We could do that. As the lights seemed so minuscule (each light is truly the size of a grain of rice), I doubled up the strands. David and I took a few minutes to wind them around each topiary form in an informal spiral.

What next? The intersection of that vertical topiary form with that horizontally oriented bed of greens was bare, stark and dry. Awkward.  An intermediary element that would soften spot and provide visual interest would be a good idea. This part of the container would be at eye level, as my tapers are set on tall steel socles. I knew I would want to load up that interior level with Lumineo cluster lights, but those lights needed something at eye level to illuminate besides the bare legs of the topiary cones. Successful containers, no matter the season, need to be designed and planted as a complete and literate visual world unto themselves. The spring, summer and fall plants, and winter materials, play a considerable role in this. But it is the overall sculptural quality that makes a container garden complete.

We had plenty of bunches of dried okra seed pods on slim wood stems in the shop greenhouse. I love these pods-we always have them. We usually use them in fall and winter interior arrangements. The numbers of bunches available were sufficient for my pots. OK, bring on the okra. David and I faced all of those curving pods inward. Like a chrysanthemum flower, or an artichoke. We left the pods tall, so they would represent entirely above the level of the greens. The slight wood stems on the pods would not in any way obstruct the light at the center. Setting the levels for all of the materials for these pots was all about creating sculpture. Those stick bottoms are not visible unless you walk right up to the pots, and look over the greens.  Okra? Few on my crew had ever heard of okra. Over the course of building these winter pots, there was a discussion of okra the vegetable, as well as placing dry pods in a pot.

Though I spent much time melding a design to the available materials, I was not prepared for this outcome. The rice lights were anything but shy. The four strands on two pots illuminates my entire driveway. The okra pods set tall on wood skewers both absorbed and reflected the bright light.

These winter pots are by far and away the best I have every had. That best had everything to do with an unusual choice of materials. The design and fabrication of these pots is all about creating relationships with unfamiliar materials.

The pots are at their best at night. I had no idea that the okra pods would so dramatically provide the much needed weight to the bottom of these pots. These pots glow from top to bottom, and are fiery in the midsection. Having the fabrication of these winter pots scheduled next to dead last has its advantages. There was time to tinker. Time to dream up something different.

The light is delightful and startling.

From the deck above.

The later darkness strips away all of the detail, and celebrates the big gestures.

The full moon looking over my driveway pots? Terrific. So swell. I will admit I was over the moon about every bit of this.

 

More Of The Winter Work

Every Saturday from the first week in November until just before Christmas, I pose a question to my landscape crews. The closest answer to the right answer wins a cash prize. The prize money goes up as the weeks go on-as well it should. The work of doing holiday and winter containers, lighting, and holiday decorating is hard work that requires considerable attention to detail. The design comes first. Then all of those elements that contribute to the construction. And then the installation. Then we start that process all over again-fresh. The staying fresh part is the hardest part. I am very lucky to have a group of people who go after the gold, day after day, for weeks.  That gold?  Excellent and thoughtful work.

My last question before the Christmas holiday was “How many winter and holiday containers have we done this season?” I never want to start the season with a run down of all the work we have ahead of us. We all know we have lots of work, but handling that work one day at a time is how we like to do things. So I wait until we are close to the finish to broach the topic of volume.

199 pots got filled this season, by my count. Salvador won the prize with a guess of 178. Would I subject you to 199 photographs- heavens no. But to follow is a good number of pictures of some of our work this season.



Almost done.