A New Landscape

A client who built a new house was not so enamored with the landscape that resulted. I understand that what it means to be in that spot, as I have watched it happen plenty of times.  Building a new house calls for lots of decisions, and incredible focus. The decision making on the landscape for a new house comes at a time when the client is exhausted from the effort of getting the interior spaces built and liveable. It is hard to maintain that concentration and energy to the very end of any project, much less a project of this scale. It can make sense to stand pat with a landscape until you have lived there long enough to figure out what you want from it.  Once her house was built, she was interested in revisiting the landscape. I think she was surprised by how keen an interest she had in the out of doors.  She walked out to meet me with a set of plans a year ago March.

The landscape in place was simply not to her taste. She wanted a much more formal design, with plantings in multiple layers. She wanted some punctuation with less formal elements, like roses and hydrangeas. I was fortunate in that she had spent a good deal of time collecting pictures of landscapes she liked. I client who can articulate what they like in one way or another is a good client. To my mind, there were two issues that stood out. It is a very large house positioned very close to the driveway. And the grade dropped dramatically from the front door to the drive, and from the south end to the north. The house was uncomfortably perched on top of a hill. The driveway location was a given. I thought the landscape needed to provide an ample space for the house to sit, and create a sense of depth.

My plan called for a pair of long rectangular parterres on either side of the front walk. The right hand parterre would dead end into the angled garage wall. To my mind, this creates the illusion that the landscape came first, and the garage second. An additional landscape planting on the far side of the drive court would repeat that linear run of evergreens from the house side, and would include a large sweeping bed of Little Lime Hydrangea.  But the most dramatic change would be in the installation of low brick retaining walls with limestone caps. These walls would enable a flat space in front of the house, upon which a formal landscape could be built.

It is tough to spot those walls in the drawing, but this construction picture explains it. I very rarely design projects that we do not build, but my schedule was already booked out for quite some time. Her landscape and maintenance contractor is a very well respected company that I was confident would build the project with the same care and precision that I would. I was also interested in her interest and commitment to a beautiful landscape. So I took on the design portion, and turned the plans over to her contractor.  I actually was surprised to find how much I liked having a project that I could watch come to life, without having to participate except in an advisory way.  Schecter Landscaping did a terrific job of the layout, construction and planting.

I did go by on occasion, and I did draw some of the smaller areas with greater detail that I would have were I doing the installation. But all in all, I was delighted having a design only role.  I took my crews several times to see the progress on the installation. The retaining wall on the lower left in the above picture is almost 3 feet tall. The house no longer feels like it is sliding down a hill.

Once the block wall was up, the planting was able to proceed. I like the preponderance of evergreens in the front, as the landscape will read every month of the year. The house has a number of complex shapes and angles, so the locations of the vertical arborvitae were determined by the shape and size of the parterres.  Those trees are far enough away from the house that they do not obstruct views from the inside out.

The steps were replaced with rock faced limestone slabs, and the existing paver bricks were taken up and reset.

The evergreens read just as well from the house side as they do from the driveway. The empty space on the right in this picture eventually got 48″ by 48″ brick landings for a pair of large pots. The rest of the space has a single row of roses.To the bottom left is the walkway and steps which bisect the right hand parterre, and lead to the side door entrance.

The walk to the side door culminates in a small radiused terrace, large enough for a bench and a pot. The trio of wood boxes sit in a bed, which now has been planted with a collection of small stature summer blooming perennials.

All of the planted elements of the landscape were in place last summer. She was very pleased with the outcome, and so was I. We did install a collection of pots, which we planted both for fall and winter. But it would take a year before she would see anything of the hydrangeas.

They came in to bloom just a short time ago. The parterres are planted with hydrangea “Incrediball” – one of her favorite varieties. The opposite side of the drive is planted with Little Lime hydrangeas. It is already possible to see that the landscape has multiple layers.

The car park is flanked by 2 rectangles of ground reserved for seasonal plants. Elements of the landscape from the house side are repeated here, so the overall volume of landscape exceeds the volume of paving.

It is great fun to be at a this point with a big landscape project. And even more satisfying to have a client who is happy with the outcome.

view from the car park

front walk

the view out

The view from the road is what I hoped it would be.

Up On The Roof

Those of you who make a practice of visiting Detroit Garden Works are aware that we have planter boxes on the roof. Eight rectangular heavy gauge sheet metal boxes span the entire width of the front of the shop. Designing and maintaining the planting for those boxes is a challenge. The weather conditions up there are extreme. It is always hot, windy, and completely exposed to whatever nature has a mind to dish out. Furthermore, whatever gets planted in them has to make some sort of impression from the ground. How are impressions made from afar? Light or pastel colors always read better at a distance. Large leaves are helpful. But the biggest impression to be made in this instance comes from the mass. This is 40 linear feet of boxes. The mass possible in these boxes is always in my favor, if I take advantage of it.

The design is not the only issue. Growing and maintaining plants on the roof has its own set of issues. It isn’t very practical to drag a hose upstairs, so we do have automatic irrigation in the boxes. You would think that would eliminate all of the water worries, but it doesn’t. The need for water changes all the time. Its very difficult to determine the moisture in the soil from the ground, although I personally can spot wilted plants from a long ways away. We have to get up on the roof to groom the pots, and feed them, so it is easy to check the water in person. Chelsea was up there to dead head the green and white plectranthus, and she noticed that the soil was bone dry in a number of places.  It was easy to figure out that some of the micro mist heads had become clogged. Once they were cleaned, the water was flowing again.

The box is planted with two rows. The back row is planted with bouteloua gracilis “Blonde Ambition”.  Commonly known as blue grama grass, or mosquito grass, this hybrid of the species has chartreuse flower heads which gives way to blond seed heads. Those seed heads that resemble mosquito larvae hang from only one side of the flowering stalk. This makes for a horizontal seed head that is as beautiful as it is unexpected. Hardy in zone 3, it is happy in dry to moderate moisture conditions. The seed heads hold through the fall, and in to early winter. For the full rundown, see the entry from the Missouri Botanic Garden website:   grama grass “Blonde Ambition”  Between each grass is the annual blue salvia cultivar, Cathedral Sky Blue.  Salvias are not especially showy, but the color of this cultivar is captivating. Mealy cup sage, or salvia farinacea, is notorious for sporting lots of foliage, and less in the way of flowers.  The grama grass is a perfect companion. It all but obscures the foliage of the salvia. The airy seed heads hover over the the more dense and static salvia flower spikes. I was not expecting the combination to be so appealing.

 The row closest to the street has green and white plectranthus, and white petunias, alternating.  The plectranthus has thick juicy leaves, so this plant is fairly well suited for drier conditions. Petunias, once established like the heat, and moderate water. The plectranthus is already cascading over the edge of the boxes, and hopefully the petunias will grow and ride the wave of plectranthus. We usually have our first hard frost late in October, which means we have almost 3 months more time to go with this planting.

It is easy to see in this picture that white flowers have the best visibility of any color in the landscape. That white will help to draw attention to the cloud of seed heads behind them. The salvia is tough to see from the ground, but it does read as a pale heliotrope blue haze.

The plectranthus is beginning to wind its way into the grass. We will edit that, if it seems to be smothering its neighbors. I do not anticipate much of that, as the front of the boxes faces south. But there will come a point where we let it all go, and watch what results from nature’s free for all. The 4th quarter of a container planting can be its most interesting phase. Once a planting reaches its mature size, its overall shape will have a sculptural element, in addition to the color and texture.

This may not be the most showy of my roof box plantings, but it is most certainly my favorite ever.  I like how loose and informal it is. I love the color. I have David to thank for these pictures up on the roof-I do not go up there. Climbing up to the roof of the Works on an extension ladder is not for me.  How it looks in these photographs makes me think I may want to bring this scheme downstairs somewhere.

There is something about this that makes me glad to be a gardener. And appreciative of the opportunity to plants these boxes differently every year. I suspect Rob really likes them too.    the roof boxes

 

The Summer Containers

By no means have I had a chance to go back and look at all of the container projects we planted in late May and June, but I have had a chance to see a few.  The season so far has been very friendly to the tropical plants. I am referring to the heat, of course.  Any gardener that has been able to keep up with the daunting task of watering their containers properly has been rewarded with an astonishing display of lush growth and lavish flowering. Proper watering is not constant watering. It means watering ahead of that moment when the plants stress from lack of water. A consistent and measured watering hand makes for great looking summer containers.People ask me what my protocol and procedure is for watering all the time. My best advice is to never assume a plant needs water. Assess whether it needs water first. The roots of plants that get too much water will rot, and will not be able to absorb water no matter how much is available. Keeping plants on the slightly moist side encourages root growth. That said, every plant has preferences about what level of moisture they require.  Planting containers with plants of a similar inclination makes a watering routine easier. The box pictured above is watered by hand. The boxwood and hosta had substantial root balls before they were planted into the container. Add a bright shade location to the mix, and you have a container that does not require a daily drenching to prosper.

The mandevillea this year are blooming profusely. They love the heat. In Michigan, they thrive in full sun.They also like just the right combination of regular water and good drainage. A mandevillea sporting yellow leaves is either getting too much, or too little water. You will not be able to figure out which until you try more or less water, and see if the trouble stops. This container is mechanically watered via a dedicated container zone on the irrigation system. Figuring out how often to water, and for how many minutes each time is a trial and error process. It is simple to tell by looking at these plants that the amount of water they are getting is just right.

The window boxes pictured above and below also have a mechanical watering system, but I happen to know my client does not rely on it.  His irrigation buys him some time, if he is busy and can’t get to the watering immediately. He checks them routinely.The exposure here is easterly, so the boxes are shaded from the sun in the afternoon. All these plants like the heat, and a reliable source of water.

The ability to look after plants does not come standard issue. It takes patience, observation, and experience to figure out what way works for both the gardener and their garden. Fortunately, a lot of ways work. Plants can be incredibly forgiving of mistakes, but over the course of a summer season, their water needs are not negotiable. It doesn’t hurt to site pots and pick plants with some thought to how they will be maintained. I am pleased with how our summer plantings are getting along.

My pots at home are doing fine. Karen, David and Marzela give me a hand with the watering on occasion. I have 43 containers. 20 boxes and pots in the front now have their own automatic watering zone. The two pots by the front door are hand watered – that much I can do. The remaining pots are all watered by hand. They were all soaked on Friday. Today’s a day I will need to check to see if they need water, or restraint.

Home For The Garden Cruise

Our 11th annual Garden Cruise this past Sunday July 15 was a success in a number of ways.  We sold a record 405 tickets, and hosted 150 people at Detroit Garden Works for our after tour bites and beverage reception. The fine dining part of that reception was engineered and presented by Toni Sova, the chef in chief of Nostimo Kitchen. Her idea to serve Froses- frozen rose cocktails –  was a big hit, considering the temperature was hovering around 90 degrees. A client who owns Argent Tape and Label sponsored that reception-thank you Lynn and Fred.  The Erb Foundation had pledged to match funds raised from ticket sales up to 10,000.00 I am happy to say we were eligible for the entire amount.  A generous donor wrote a check for 5000.00, meaning we raised 32,600.00 for the Greening of Detroit this year. A record. I am very pleased indeed to have sponsored an 11th tour. I am a member of the Board of the Greening, but I never go to their meetings. My contribution to them is to raise money for their projects, as they plant trees in our city. They teach people how to make things grow. Their garden at Lafayette Park is a vegetable garden that produces many hundreds of pounds of produce that is sold at the Eastern Market, or donated to those in need. It feels good, being a fund raising arm of an agency that benefits our city.  Will there be a tour in 2019-yes.

I have put my own house and garden on tour for all 11 cruises. That has become fairly stress free over the years. I the early years I fretted about every detail. But it became obvious that visitor gardeners were simply appreciative that I took the time and trouble to garden, and invite people to see it.  Visitors to my garden have seen all kinds of things that are not perfectly lovely, and some things that are downright bad looking. I have never had a tour visitor point those things out to me, or ask me what I had in mind to fix them. The 2014 tour, coming on the heels of a bitterly cold winter in 2013-14 that damaged boxwood and killed back roses, was taken by gardeners who had similar troubles of their own at home. What was to talk about? Every gardener had wreckage at home. Inevitably, some plants or spots are not at their best on tour.No stress, being on tour? I have a small and unruly perennial garden that looks its best later in the summer. The hardy hibiscus, phlox, platycodon and bear’s britches begin to bloom at the end of July. The roses will have a smaller flush then. On the tour, that garden is a tall tangle of green with not much going on to recommend it, but no one seems to mind. I also have a company that maintains my landscape. They do the worry and the work of making it presentable. My yard is what it is. Better some years than others.  I like to enjoy the tour too.  It is the one summer day I spend at home, and I want to relax and enjoy that day.

However, I do fret about my pots. People who have taken the tour multiple times like to see how I have done my container plantings. I do like to do them differently every year, with some sort of point of view in mind.  I might be interested in exploring a certain color scheme, or maybe texture is the organizing metaphor. Sometimes I will take a fancy to a certain plant, or a leaf size, and a scheme gets a life from there. In April, I start to think about what direction I might like to take. Well, April was bitter cold this year.  Unbelievably, we had snow on the ground for most of the month. My hellebores were buried in the remains of the snow until well in to May. I was not thinking about planting summer pots.

In mid May, the temperatures zoomed into the 80’s and 90’s. We were scrambling to plant our customers pots as quickly and efficiently as we could. The reality that it was spring was overcome by an emotional certainty that the summer had arrived to empty pots. Add a little anxiety to the process of planting pots in very hot weather makes for a planting season that takes even more focus and concentration than usual.  I wasn’t thinking about my pots at home then either.

My landscape super finally told me in June that maybe I need to at least get the pots out of the garage. Perhaps that would help push the process along a little. I went along with his suggestion. So for weeks I was looking at empty pots, and still having no thoughts about what to put in them. Fortunately, inspiration finally decided to make an appearance.  A client who would be on tour had asked me several years ago to plant birch trees in a pair of very large planters.  Amazingly they survived the winter. After under planting them with a mostly green and white annual scheme, I decided I really liked the look. Trees in pots?  Why not?

So I decided to forego annual and tropical plants in my pots in favor of trees, shrubs and perennials. At last, a decision. But the real work of it was to come. I still had plenty of landscape work to do, so David did all of the shopping. He is a great choice for that, primarily because he is as good a hort head as anyone I know, and he loves shopping for plants.  He also has the patience to text pictures and talk to me on the phone. But neither one of us really anticipated how difficult and time consuming this would prove to be. Planting the Japanese maple in a large terracotta pot on the driveway was easy. It had spent the last 2 summers in that pot. However, it did take 3 people to dig it out of the nursery and lift it up into the pot. The two large Branch pots on the driveway would also get trees.

Suffice it to say we looked at a lot of trees. David found a pair of black gums -nyssa sylvatica – that featured a full head of leaves, and root balls small enough to fit in a 30″ diameter pot. That shopping trip involved 3 nurseries, and plenty of conversation.

David and I were talking non stop for better than 3 days about the plants for the pots. Of course none of the plants I used were available at the shop. It was vastly more work to pick the plant material, as the size of the root balls was as big a concern as the plant itself.

birch and carex

Do I like my pots planted with trees, shrubs and perennials? Oh yes, I do. I am actually surprised how much I like them.

 

Planting shrubs and perennials in my containers brought the landscape onto my deck. Though I was certain none of the plants would grow, they have. Maybe they have just settled down into their environment. The planting seems appropriate and natural to a Michigan garden environment.  Almost everyone was curious about what I would do with the plants come the end of the season. I will plant the trees and shrubs at my landscape yard-we have 7 acres of land there. The perennials in ground in the driveway I will leave, and see if they winter over. Perhaps that hort head who was so instrumental in getting these pots planted before the tour will take some of the plants home to his own garden. A good bit of the fun of planting containers is the opportunity to do it differently every year-so all of these plants will need to find good homes. And for those of you who are too far away to have taken our tour, I hope you enjoy all of the pictures.

tour morning