Archives for May 2009

A Stumpery

When a client asked me to place a bronze sculpture of a bear sitting on a beaver dam, what came to mind is a stumpery.  I first read about them in “The Gardens At Highgrove”,  Prince Charles book about this garden of his. It isn’t very hard to explain;  large stumps and other dry wood are integrated into a landscape or garden as a sculptural element.  What better home for a bear, than a landscape that suggested a primeval forest.�

The first order of business was providing water for the bear, and his beaver dam.  As the property had natural fall, it wasn’t hard to visualize a stream bed, falling over a cliff of rock, to a pool below.  This was a construction project of considerable length, involving large machinery and many tons of rocks, plumbing and filtration.  That bear was unperturbed throughout the process.
The entire landscape was designed around the bear.  Outdoor sculpture of great size asks for a compelling and convincing landscape . Some sculpture is best in a big open area, but representational sculpture comes with a story.  The landscape can represent that story.
Farmers in the thumb area of Michigan pile up the stumps of their dead trees on the edges of their fields, or on their property lines.  These natural fences are wildly beautiful.  All manner of seeds blow in, and soon the fence is a living thing. I found one such farmer who was willing to part with some of his stumps.�
We trucked them on a giant flat bed, and placed them on the slope with a skid steer.  That piece of equipment seemed dwarfed by what was chained to the forks.
If this looks precarious to you-it indeed was.  Once we set a stump down, we dug it into the ground.  As if a storm had upended it. I always try to dig in hard materials, so there’s a physical connection with the ground.
At this stage, the idea is starting to become clear.  Though the bear is tucked into the slope, the scale of the surrounding landscape seems scaled to his size and presence.�
The sculpture and materials are very much larger than I. An overscaled landscape can be very dramatic.  Interesting enough, this whole area is almost completely invisible on the house side.  This landscape is a room all its own.�
The first day the waterfall ran was an anxious moment.  Once it was determined that everything was working properly, we installed the plant material.  Comprised largely of different types of dwarf evergreens, and clematis to soften the stumps, the plant choices are as hunky and massive as the bear.

The plant material greatly softened the appearance of all the stone, and this garden is aging gracefully.  That bear has a home.

New Construction


Having designed and built landscapes for many new homes, I can safely say I would never want to build a house myself.  Its a special person who can deal with all the decisions, delays, snafus and unpleasant surprises. You have to be a person who loves a process that involves a lot of people and circumstances over which you have no control.  The landscape process I have infinite patience for, as anything in the natural world gets my attention and respect. But landscape for a new house can be tough.  Would that my work could be first up in the project, rather than last.

The contractors have driven over every square inch of soil, turning it into an airless, concrete like mass.  Mortar, and other debris has been dumped everywhere.  Clients are ready for a project to be finished, as well they should.  They are ready to move in and live.  They are tired of the commotion, the demands on their time, the dirt and the dust.

There is a lot of work that goes into any new landscape construction; it can be years before a new landscape settles down, and looks entrenched. A garden feature, such as a fountain, has a definable construction  start and finish, but no landscape or garden is ever finished.  A landscape I would define as a “big fluid situation”. Try describing a big fluid situation to a client who is over the construction phase;  I do my best.

New grass has that patchwork look.  There are more spaces than plants, when plants are spaced properly.  Big pieces of ground need shaping. There are so many details in a very large space-what person’s living room is larger than their yard?  The sheer square footage is daunting.
It has always interested me that a new house is attractive in its “newness”.  But a landscape is always asking for some age, some maturity.  I own a “mature” house-it seems like it always needs something; the age of my house is not always a big plus.  Large landscape materials can add scale instantly, but big material moves slowly.  A large tree may take years to really root in after it is moved.  Smaller material takes hold faster. There really is no substitute for time in a garden.

construction3Landscapes can be phased-not everything needs to be done at once.  Doing everything in one fell swoop doesn’t give the space time to talk back to you.  I’d rather grass a lot, and subtract grass as is seems appropriate.  We seeded this steep slope with a carefree fescue mix that is drought tolerant  and fairly short growing, so its needs mowing but once or twice a season. When the time comes for some other arrangement, we’ll cut into the grass.


Perennials need space to grow, so they are not instantly on top of each other.  This newly planted perennial garden was augmented with big growing annuals its first season.�
A few seasons later, lovely.
This landscape is starting to get good, some three years after planting.  It will get better, given my client’s care of it. He has fortitude, and lots of patience.  He still calls me for help; this is the mark of a successful new construction project.


Some years ago my Mom bought me beach towels for my birthday; this gift infuriated me.  “What am I supposed to do with these”, I asked her.  “That you don’t know what to do with them is why they are a gift from me.” ; she fired right back. She was right. I work, and work more.  But after she died, I took the money she left me, and built a fountain in my yard.  It has a ledge for sitting, and is deep enough to get in and soak. On hot days, I take my glass of wine, and my beach towels out there; it takes no time to shed the pressure of a work day.  My garden is designed to provide me privacy, relaxation and serenity, as my work-life is anything but serene and relaxing.   Every living thing needs water-and in many more ways than one.�
Water is sublimely satisfying in a garden, no matter what form it takes. A rain barrel, a pond with fish, a pot, a fountain or pool-take your pick. I think about water in the landscape routinely now.
This cistern was placed on a stand, so as to put the action of the water at a level high enough to be clearly see from the terrace.  Boxwood will soon eliminate the view of the stand, and become part of the fountain.�
Almost any pot can be converted into a fountain.  The water spilling over the edge of the pot is collected, and recirculated via an underground cistern.  The pot sits on a rigid Fiberglas grid which will be covered with large flat stones.
This lovely Doulton-Lambeth coadestone vase made in England in the 19th century has a waterproof metal liner.  The liner is home to a group of aquatic plants.  This arrangement eliminates the problem of soil and fertilizer getting into the fountain, and damaging the pump.
This client liked the idea of water, but not the reality.  A mulch of  tumbled sea glass the colors of water is a simple and effective substitute.
My fountain is framed in herniaria, a short perennial that is tolerant of the overspray a fountain can produce.  It also provides a buffer between the grass clippings from the mower, and the water.  The filtration system, identical to the type used in a swimming pool, keeps the water scrupulously clean.  The ledge below water is a great place to sit on a blisteringly hot day. Getting in all the way isn’t bad either.

A private body of water suitable for family swimming can double as an elegant reflecting pool for more formal entertaining. A light color on the interior will reflect light, and make the water appear blue. A pool with a dark interior will absorb light, and reflect the sky on its surface.
This very large ,sculptural waterfall is beautiful even when the water is still. The smallest pot spouting water has the same magical effect; don’t do without water in your garden.

The Window Box: A Hybrid Vehicle

Window boxes have large areas for planting, which can give the impression of annuals in the ground-minus the turning of the dirt, the stooping and the stooping again to weed.  They also put the action at eye level.  Window boxes on a second story is a striking surprise.  Sizing a window box appropriately is the toughest part.  Plan carefully, so your boxes thrive.
I like window boxes to be sized generously in width.  Sizing the box wider than the window puts the visual weight at the bottom, where it should be.  A box narrower than the window makes the window look top heavy and oppressive-windows are large dark shapes during the day.   �
Window boxes are not just for French and English cottage style homes.  A sleek contemporary box can compliment the architecture of a modern home. They provide great mass and substance in the horizontal plane.  They have the added attraction of views from inside, as well as the outside.
A very wide box invites planting  tall annuals, even vines, which serve to frame the window.  The large planting space allows you to showcase the relationship between a number of different plants. Boxes have the heart of a whole garden, in a smaller space.
Many ready made window boxes are sized more to be convenient to load into your car, than convenient for good plant growth.  Undersized boxes are the devil to keep watered, once the plants have rooted in well.  These boxes are 11″ wide and 16″ tall-plenty of room for a soil mass that will retain moisture evenly, and allow for root growth.  A window box that is 8″ tall and 10″  long will need succulents, as they do not root deeply, and they are happy in dry soil.
Window boxes have no need to be fancy, especially if your idea of a good one is profuse and spilling over with flowers. Luxuriant-I like the word, and the look.  These boxes are made from a simple iron grillwork, and lined with galvanized sheet metal liners.  Wood boxes will last much longer, if they have sheet metal liners.  Wood that is constantly wet deteriorates quickly.�
Wet soil is incredibly heavy; be sure the boxes are securely fastened to the wall. The weight issue is somewhat mitigated by the drainage material; I routinely fill the box at least half full with drainage material; bagged bark works well.
Not all boxes need to be attached to a wall. Boxes can be integrated into a pergola roof, or placed on top of a wall to good effect. Clear irrigation tubes can be run to them.  This makes watering simple, as long as you experiment until you know how much time it will take to soak them.  A plain sheet metal box will need reinforcement on the interior to prevent the metal walls from bowing out.  I sometimes screw treated lumber to the inside to maintain a cleanly rectangular shape.
Window boxes are not just for sunny locations.  The caladiums, dieffenbachia, and yellow coleus in this box light up a very shady spot.  The trailing licorice is surprisingly tolerant of shade.�
A great window box is rhythmic. Decide if you want the height in the middle, or at the ends. A uniform height is a more contemporary look.  The colors of nicotiana-terra cotta, and 2 shades of lime, set the stage for this box.  All the supporting cast plants repeat color, or contrast in texture.  A lime green variety of hops is growing on wires outside the shutters. Wispy small growing grasses are great in boxes, as they are neither upright nor trailing.  If you are after a tall middle, plant the center first, then work to the edges.  If you are fond of symmetry, reverse the order of right half on the left.
This box, tucked neatly between dark stained shutters, makes the flowers, and shutters the center of attention. This arrangement of a formal box and equally formal shutters, and green and white planting is elegant, but lively.  �
These boxes,  specially constructed to sit astride a narrow brick wall, say welcome in a very big way.  What a happy improvement over the wall.