A Different Direction

dsc_9650A few years ago I made my first visit to a large rural property outside Ann Arbor. It was very early in the spring. My clients had built a house very much of their own design. My first impression? An American farmhouse with a decidedly contemporary twist. Plain, but plain in a visually strong way. Their property is especially large, given that they had also purchased the house and property next door when it became available. They do the lion’s share of the work it takes to keep up that landscape, spread out over a number of acres. The landscape of their outlying areas is graceful, generous, and unstudied. There is nothing self conscious about the placement of all of the trees, both evergreen and deciduous, that they have planted.  They are good stewards of their land.  They called to ask if I could sketch out a master plan for them. A design that would help make better sense of their love of their property, and their love of plants. They were particularly uncertain about how to handle the landscape near the house. My impression, driving up on this early April day? The front of the house featured the winter remains of ornamental grasses, and mulch-a still dormant garden. A landscape friendly to the architecture would provide this view of their house with some year round interest.

a-different-direction-8R. sent me this picture of the house in the summer. The front yard grade rose from the street, and rolled until it reached the grade of the house. Though the house was set crisply square and level, perfectly matching the horizon, the ground rolled right, dropped off. Rolling ground can be beautiful, but in this case, the ground falling away from left to right made the landscape fall off. A house needs to sit squarely and securely on level ground. One of my favorite places in my landscape is that spot where I might lie down, and feel the earth supporting me. The word foundation has numerous meanings, but that base upon which all else is imagined and constructed comes to mind. As a designer, I am very interested that a house have a flat and spacious ground plane that supports its mass. Right away I knew I would advise my clients to regrade, and add a retaining wall. Their collection of ornamental grasses is lovely, but they do not constitute a landscape. The texture and mass was beautiful in spots, and sparse in others. The tall and the short of it was that neither the grade nor the planting celebrated the geometry of the house.

a-different-direction-11There were other places where those grasses shone. Further down and on the other side of the driveway, they softened the architecture. The interplay between the grasses and the rocks was quite lovely. But this view of the house is not part of the presentation of the house from the road. Ornamental grasses do not sprout until fairly late in the spring-sometimes as late as June in my zone. The house was without a landscape for too many months of the year.

a-different-direction-10The garden attending the walk to the front door was chaotic, and overwhelming to the porch. This picture tells that story. My clients have a big love for ornamental grasses, but I feel they are best in masses of the same kind, and in open areas where they can get big, and wave in the breeze. A pond on another part of the property would be the perfect spot to transplant them.

a-different-direction-9The walk from the front door back to the driveway was equally grassy. They obstructed the view out, and did not relate to the landscape on the far side of the drive.

a-different-direction-15I did a sketch for them for a landscape that would keep the landscape at the front of the house green – all year round. It should be clear from this drawing that their driveway was centered on the house at the road, but angled sharply to the left on its way to the garage. This placement of the drive was of necessity.  A raised septic field on left side of the drive made that area off limits for a drive. That angle made me think a landscape design featuring the horizontal dimension would be good. Sketched in pencil on the left side of the drive near the garage was an unspecified landscape feature, cut into the steep slope and boulder retaining wall constructed for the septic field. My clients like blue green foliage. The block of pinus flexilis “Joe Burke” to the far right would help to visually counter the steep slope away from the house.  A hedge of dwarf Serbian spruce would traverse the entire front of the house, and continue to the drive. A rock retaining wall to level the ground in front would have a hedge of yucca filamentosa in front. Hydrangea Little Lime would provide a little relief to all of the evergreen elements. Given that my clients are hands on, and very involved in the design process, a rough sketch was all they needed.

a-different-direction-21It proved very difficult to locate any dwarf Serbian spruce, so my clients substituted  several rows of Hicks yews, faced down by a spreading yew  “Everlow”. Their rock wall was constructed as a border until the ground dropped off sharply at the end. Planted above that rock wall, as a transition to the grass, is a hedge of Winter Gem boxwood. Just last weekend they came in and purchased a low and very wide steel bowl from Branch, set on top of a volcanic rock pillar.

a-different-direction-20It will take some time for the plants to grow, but it is clear where this layered landscape is going.  I especially like how the lawn panels have such a sculptural quality.

a-different-direction-13This view furthest from the driveway explains how dramatically the ground dropped away. A set of concrete stairs makes the side yard accessible from the front of the house.

a-different-direction-14The flexible pines are planted as a block off the corner of the house.  Eventually they will present as a single organism. They are doing a great job of visually holding up this corner of the house. The exposed foundation of the house is another clue as to how steep the drop in the grade truly is.

a-different-direction-4The Little Lime hydrangeas will greatly soften the architecture of the house.

a-different-direction-1My clients did a great job of creating a landscape feature on the far side of the drive.  It made such great sense to put a staircase in that permits access to that upper level. The steel retaining wall is an interesting contrast to the massive boulder wall. I see they have some sculpture set on that upper level. Someday they might break through the evergreen hedge that separates their property from the property they just purchased. That view has a lot of possibilities. It is particularly satisfying when a client takes a sketch and turns it into a landscape all their own.














  1. This re-engineered landscape is 100% improved. Your shrub/tree placement is spectacular and the house and property is lovely. Love the way the changes in grade were addressed with hardscape (stairs, walls, walkways) and shrub/tree placement. What spectacular transformation. Thank you for sharing your expertise. The before and after photos combined with your narrative is outstanding. Susan

  2. Terri Benton says:

    Dear Deborah, I really enjoy your blog. This is a wonderful transformation and I appreciate you sharing with us. Do you know what was planted in the low bowl on pedestal that was purchased from your shop? Best regards, Terri.

  3. Paula from Boaton says:

    This is one of my favourite transformation. I have forwarded to many friends here in Boston i have always appreciated your beautiful containers and now I’m enjoying your before and after. You have brought this property to the next level. I am anxious to see next year with the hydrangeas in bloom. It will be beautiful. Thank you Deborah. I love when I see you posts in my in box. One of these days I would enjoy visiting your shop. Boston is far never too far to appreciate your designs. Gold star

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Paula, thank you for your kind letter! Most of the credit though goes to my clients. They are the best-willing and able to take a concept, and go ahead with defining it in their own way. best, Deborah

  4. Elvera Howard says:

    You are a human visionary at its very best! I am always so blown away by what you see in any property that you take on. You always impress me with your words and your most creative planting accomplishments.
    Dirt Simple? Hell no, you are a Soil Specialist!
    Much continued success! I only wish I lived closer to you to see it all in person and visit your amazing workshop as well.
    Elvera from Boston

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Elvera, there was a lot of discussion back and forth with my clients. They thought a lot about what they wanted from the landscape, but they also trusted my eye. That is a great combination. Thanks so much for your letter. all the best, Deborah

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    You set the ball rolling for these clients. I think this really makes this place speak.

  6. Great job Deborah, i am expecting to develop this project soon

  7. Angeline Rebottaro says:


    This one is close to my heart! I live near here and am in process of transforming 5 acres. It can be quite a challenge to build a foundation where there is nothing but such a large expanse! I love the use of the grasses as ribbons in between rocks. Have not seen that before.

  8. Ruth Wolery says:

    Dear Deborah,
    Your designs at this house sure made the landscape show the nice house in a much improved version. Great job. Love it.
    Ruth Wolery

  9. Laura Armstrong says:

    PS – Any photos of the area to which you transplanted the grasses?

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Laura, I do not have pictures of the area where the grasses went. I did not do the installation of this project. My clients did, with some help. All of the pictures posted are pictures that came from them. I saw them at the shop recently, as they came in to purchase that large low bowl on a pedestal. I am sure I will go to see it in person at some point. best, Deborah

  10. Laura Armstrong says:

    I’m a new follower, gardening as my husband says, “like a farmer” from Atlanta, GA. I truly appreciate your website and blog, which is why I signed up to follow your posts, a first for me, a journalist who shoulda been a garden designer! I initially found you while googling for help with my window boxes and found a treasure. The homeowners’ original design suggested a beach home, and credit to them they realized they needed more, even while they loved the grasses. Your design does their unique home justice, however. Your use (and seems throughout your website also) of classic boxwood along with the hydrangeas is just classy. To be able to work with people of such strong likes (as your clients bold home suggests) is a true calling! Thanks for blogging/sharing with us!

  11. Ken Chojnacki says:

    Dear Ms.Silver,
    ” Grounding the house with the surrounding landform” through the use of the conifers is a great start. It definitely needed this improvement to keep from sliding to the right. The architecture of the home would challenge any designer! I might try to soften the stark white siding with a fine textured small tree out front. You mentioned that the owners care for their property, will they be pruning the yews to maintain their geometric form? Seems like a maintenance nightmare.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Ken, my pictures did not show a carpinus, which is planted out front. If they wait until the spring flush on the yews and boxwood is over, they will only prune once a year. thanks for your letter, Deborah

  12. Great response Deborah, to each their own!

  13. Great job! Wonderful concept. I am also wondering about deer protection.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Noreen, they have a plan to protect the hedges from deer damage. They put a netting over the yews-this has worked for them. Interestingly enough, the deer have never damaged other yews on their property. all the best, Deborah

  14. Stunning! I look forward to seeing the landscape next spring!

  15. I learn so much from your writing.
    Perhaps a book one day?

    So many of your ideas have been incorporated both indoors as well as outdoors of my home.

    It’s especially generous of your clients to share their before and after photos. Not only great shots, but real textbook instruction on plant use, design, color, textures — the list goes on!

    Thanks, Deborah!

  16. Hi Deborah,

    I live and garden just outside Ann Arbor. I think the new landscape design is lovely and I long to grow yews – but what measures have the homeowners put in place to protect all of those yews (and hydrangeas) from deer? I thought I could see a distant wire fence in the final photograph. If their property is fenced, I would love to know details on the material, fence height and how effective it has been.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Melodie, my clients tell me they have only had damage to their yews from deer once in the past 18 years. They still cover their yews with netting for the winter. For whatever reason, deer are not much of a problem to them. best, Deborah

  17. I think these kinds of posts are my absolute favourites of the many posts of yours which I love – the ones with Before and Afters and an explanation of the concept underlying your transformations. Thank you.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Sharon, the design process is different with every client. Each has their own priorities. These clients needed some structure upon which they can build. best, Deborah

  18. I’m afraid I preferred the “before” to the “after”. It was far from ideal, but the new plan with straight hedges accentuates the stark geometry of the house and even the hydrangeas are not going to soften it. It is quite a bland looking result from the front, and the lack of trees and/or colorful foliage or blossoming shrubs seems strange. Flat green monoculture lawn. Who loves this? Not the bees. Not me either. Not the best result, Deborah. Sorry.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Jude, I do not want to give too much time to your comment, as I make a special effort to refrain from judging or criticizing the work of any gardener/designer. I would rather put my energy to discussing that which I like. No one, not me, or you, is in charge of what is good or bad in the landscape. Given that, I am not concerned that this landscape is not to your taste. It is to my mind sophisticated, and subtle. It answers the architecture. It answers my clients. This makes it, in my opinion, a successful landscape. I am not sorry it is not a great result to you. We disagree. I write this blog as I enjoy that process. If someone who reads finds something that informs their point of view about landscape-all the better. If you did not find anything in this process to admire, so be it. best, Deborah

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