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.

 

 

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A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

pool and landscapeI don’t recall the topic under discussion, but at one point Buck said to me, “Well you know, a rising tide lifts all boats”.  That got my attention, as I had never head this expression before. From Wikipedia, ” The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy.”  Though this saying is usually associated with economic theory, I do not see why it could not be applied to a variety of other topics – like the landscape design process. It seems almost too obvious to say, but I will say it anyway. To my mind, the most striking change in perception and knowledge about the landscape over the past 20 or more years has been fueled by the availability of information – both of the written and visual sort. Thirty years ago, even the most well travelled clients were not necessarily aware of the history or current practice of landscape design. Or what materials and plants were available. Their focus was on their lives. They had me, as my focus was on their landscape. Of course there is no substitute for personal experience, but it requires almost no effort to see pictures and read about landscapes both historic and contemporary, in other parts of our own country, and in other countries. Information and pictures are readily available. It is just as easy to research materials and ornament for the landscape. We completed the landscape pictured above early in 2013. We still work there, doing the seasonal plantings. A few months ago she gave me a photograph she had seen in a magazine of a landscape feature predicated on a pair of parallel hedges of arborvitae, and asked how I felt about a similar feature at the far end of her pool. I thought it was a great idea. We left the space behind the chaises open, in case there were ever a reason to tent the space for a party. After living with the landscape for 3 years, my client was interested in a more finished gesture, and she had a way to explain to me how she would like to see it finished.

arborvitae Emerald Green (7)Is it unusual for a client to suggest a change or addition to a landscape? It may have been so years ago, but not now. A client who is interested in a shade tree, an arbor, a bird feeder, a swimming pool, terrace furniture, a vegetable garden, a fountain, a hedge, a certain architectural style or a perennial garden has most likely done some research on the topic. A picture or article that explains or illustrates what appeals to them gets their idea across clearly. No one installs a landscape hoping it will satisfy. Everyone wants to feel some measure of confidence that they will like the results of a landscape project. I might do research of my own for images that illustrate a landscape concept I am trying to explain to a client.

arborvitae Emerald Green (3)The 2 parallel hedges are set 7 feet apart.  The opening in the front hedge is 10 feet wide. After seeing this, my client decided she wanted the opening a little smaller.  We will add two more Emerald Green arborvitae in the front row.

arborvitae Emerald Green (4)The planting of these 23 arborvitae will provide structure to a space. It will take several years for the plants to grow together, and act like walls.  I am quite sure we will trim the tops parallel to the horizon. What comes next will be determined when this part is finished. Whether there is a large planter, or benches or a fountain-I have no idea, nor do I need to know right now. For sure there are no end of options for consideration. The rising tide of available information means that any project can be lifted up. More personal.  better.

arborvitae Emerald Green (6)A recent landscape consultation involved a discussion of a fountain which would be a focal point in the landscape.  My client wanted me to tell her what options were available. I could easily provide scores of fountain options that would be properly proportioned to the space, and amiable to the architecture. But having only met her once, I might not be able to find that one fountain that would greatly appeal to her. I told her she needed to put her boat in the water. I gave her a list of possible search phrases, to which she could add her own. Once she could show me pictures of fountains, or fountain shapes or styles that appealed to her, I would be better able to help her select one.

arborvitae Emerald GreenFor those clients who have looked at too many pictures, or read too many articles, a designer can be useful as an editor. Too many choices can be paralyzing, and just as bad a situation as having no choice.  I like to advise, to a point. Any client who is instrumental in making decisions about their landscape takes ownership of it more readily. This is why I think designers (myself included) have such a hard time making decisions about their own landscapes. Too much exposure to too many options can bring a decision making process to a standstill. If you only have room for one tree, and there are 20 that could be beautiful, how do you make a choice? What do you need most from the tree? shade? flowers and fruit? screening?  That should narrow your list of 20. Most places have state parks, arboretums, botanic gardens and public gardens of one sort or another where anyone can see trees in person. Or you could look at each tree on google images, and compare.  On the Missouri Botanic Garden website, go to   the Plant finder

arborvitae Emerald Green (2)We’ll see what comes next.

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Covering The Ground

groundcover (2)Not every plant in the landscape is the star of the show. What constitutes the star of the show, and whether you need one in a landscape is a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that if a design is deliberately composed around a center of interest, or constellation of interests, that focal point organizes the visual experience.  Every visual element has a different visual weight. The sum of all of the visual weights is zero – zero at the bone. What do I mean by this?  That incredible feeling that accompanies the experience of anything landscape that is breathtakingly beautiful. I am sure every gardener understands that moment. That most important landscape element, whether it be a beautiful beech, or a gorgeous arbor, or a pool, asks for a supporting cast. That cast may involve a whole host of shrubs or perennials of more modest demeanor than the diva plant. Or a series of plants that willingly covers the ground in proximity to that focal point. Little plants can do big work. Bare soil is an invitation for weeds and permits water to evaporate too quickly. Bark mulch is useful for slowing the evaporation of soil moisture, but it is not a ground cover. Some ground cover plants, with very little intervention on the part of a gardener, enable a good green show to go on. Ground cover? Ground cover is the green equivalent of a green skin, or the green equivalent of a considerable or deliberately designed mass. What does it take for you to notice a plant that is covering the ground? Lots of them. Truth be told, any plant, or combination of plants, could be a ground cover. If you think ground cover only applies to pachysandra, vinca, baltic ivy, and low growing junipers, there is a whole world of ground cover plants, and ground cover combinations that could energize, and de-mulchify your garden.  What are the options? I cannot take any credit for this mix of campanula porscharskyana and sweet woodruff in my yard.  I planted both in proximity to each other.  Nature did the rest. How this group of plants cover the ground is a partially shady area is beautiful.

groundcover (3)Sweet woodruff is a determined grower.  4 years go I tried to dig it out of my hellebore beds.  So much work to no end. It took four years, but every bit of it is back.  Sweet woodruff is small and hard working.  How did it jump my gravel path? How did that sweet woodruff get established in the ivy?  I have no answers. It is a good idea to make some moves, and then let nature respond to your ideas. I am in favor of a ground cover that is a mix of plants. Interested in a vigorous mixer?  Creeping jenny, either the lime or the all green version, will cozy up to anything it is planted with.

groundcover (4)The hosta Gold Drop is an old cultivar, but it covers the ground as if it were a teenager. What would I mix this hosta with? It is already mixed with baltic ivy.  Were I to try to introduce another plant, I would go for something taller.  As in variegated Solomon’s seal, or in lighter shade, kalimeris “Blue Star”.

groundcover (5)Lily of the Valley is a ground cover that spreads all over the place.  The beautifully scented flowers in the spring are delightful.  They need a careful placing.  Not too much sun. A liberal dusting of shade.  Lacking a perfect setting, this groundcover will tolerate both deep shade and a fair amount of sun.  A ground cover that is this easy to place and grow is a plus.  Easy to place and vigorously growing might mean invasive.  Planting invasive plants in certain areas in a landscape might be a good idea. Think that through. Some years, the leaves of Lily of the Valley are singed with fungus. It is not perfect, but that is no reason not to consider it.  groundcover (6)I do like my Japanese beech ferns. They spread more readily with some sun, but they tolerate deep shade.  It is a ground cover with more height than the usual  ground cover plants.  I did mix them with European ginger.

groundcover (8)European ginger is a ground cover any gardener could love.  The round to heart shaped leaves are glossy gorgeous.  They can prosper in a wide range of conditions. When it is happy, it will seed vigorously.

groundcover (7)The conditions around my fountain range from full sun to considerable shade. The isotoma I planted here is happy as it can be – from the shade to the sun. It is a supporting cast to my lead cherubs sitting on limestone spheres, and my fountain. Isotoma Fluviatilis is a willing ground cover in full sun to part shade. It likes plenty of water, even going into the winter.  When it is happy, it readily creeps in every direction. I like that it stops short of covering the feet of these lead sculptures.  This groundcover bed is only 18 inches wide.  This would not be a spot for baltic ivy, vinca, or pachysandra, or any other large growing plant.

groundcover (9)Hellebores make a beautiful ground cover. They are crown growing, which means you have to plant them fairly close together. Given a few years, they will cover lots of ground with gorgeous glossy leaves that persist well in to winter, and early spring flowers.

August 7 2016 (33)I have ground cover of a different sort on my deck. My wood deck would be a bleak affair, but for all of the pots I have planted there. All of my planted pots are a ground cover for the focal point. This deck is a place for Buck and I to meet at the end of the day, and a place for our friends to come for dinner. All of these deck covers make having dinner outdoors a pleasure.

006I planted lots of 15″ Green Gem boxwood as a ground cover for this client with a very contemporary home.  The idea here is that a ground cover could be 2 inches tall, or three feet tall. Any plant that is planted in a mass constitutes a ground cover.

bobo hydrangeaBobo hydrangeas are fairly new to me. They grow 30″ tall, by 30″ wide. This is my first effort to cover ground with hydrangeas. I’ll bet within a year or two they will completely cover this large area.

groundcover (10)Happy coming home tonight-to all those plants that cover my ground.

 

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The Gift Of Shade

shady neighborhoodLarge growing trees, commonly known as shade trees, take a lot of time and space to achieve a mature size. They need to be carefully sited, as they will eventually tower over a good bit of the square footage around them.  The maples that many cities planted at one time or another in the tree lawn – that space between the sidewalk and the street – eventually suffer. Their roots dislike being confined as much as their canopies. Many of those badly placed trees are gone, or in a serious state of decline.  Parks are a better place for the biggest growing trees to grow and thrive. But shady streets in the heat of the summer are welcomed by all.

shade (7)The shade that trees provide in the landscape is a topic of great interest right now.  We have had week after week of glaringly sunny skies and searing heat. Most lawns have turned a parched shade of beige. The temperature at 6am is too hot. Added to that mix – no rain, and no breeze. Our planting taking place in sunny locations is miserable for both the planters and the plantees. Keeping a new planting watered is a next to full time job. Even work that was done weeks ago needs to be monitored closely. A new plant not yet rooted into the surrounding soil can perish quickly if not kept watered. High heat means that water is evaporating from the soil at a rapid rate. A hedge of DeGroot Spire arborvitaes we planted recently is on a drip irrigation system that runs twice a day. The soil was dead dry and dusty down 36″ when we planted. It took over 2 weeks of this irrigation program for moisture to reach down to the bottom of those root balls. I have spent a lot of time on the business end of a hose, both at work and at home. Last but not least, if I am outside for any length of time, I am looking for a shady spot to land.

shade (6) The Princeton Gold maples in my yard, pictured above, were originally planted to screen the neighboring properties. This maple is a medium sized tree, meaning that it tops out at about 35 feet. There are lots of smaller growing trees suitable for smaller properties that can endow your landscape with shade. My maples have done a great job of making this part of my yard private. But with that privacy came a lot of shade. At first, that annoyed me. This summer in particular I am enjoying the shade they cast. After work, this shady part of the garden, and the fountain spraying water into the air makes a 90 degree day tolerable. A summer day when I cannot get out into the garden after work is a miserable day indeed. Though I like the freedom of choice that a sunny site provides, there are plenty of reasons to value a shady spot. There are not so many shrubs and perennials that will thrive in shade to this degree.  I grow hellebores, sweet woodruff, Japanese Beech ferns, European ginger, pachysandra and yews in this tree dominated garden. It is subdued, and mostly green. It is a fine place to meet and relax on a hot summer day.

shade (1)Dogwoods are usually open growing, but this particular tree in my yard is dense in leaf. From the vantage point of my upper deck, the cupped and curling leaves are an expression of distaste for the heat. There is nothing I can do to mitigate the temperature, but I do keep this tree well watered. My decks face east, which means they are shaded by the house in the late afternoon and evening. A terrace you intend to use located on the south or west side of a garden will need a shade scheme.  No doubt a canopy of leaves is cooler than an umbrella. To paraphrase from Wikipedia, only 2 or 3 percent of the water plants take up from the soil is used for growth and metabolism. Transpiration or the evaporation of water from stems and leaves is associated with the process of photosynthesis.  “Transpiration also cools plants, changes osmotic pressure of cells, and enables mass flow of mineral nutrients and water from roots to shoots”. The transpiration process that governs the life of leaves in the heat of the summer will cool you, too.

shade (2)A pair of magnolia planted on either side of my driveway have grown together overhead, and shade this spot in the drive.  If I park my car here on a hot sunny day, the time it takes to cool off is vastly less that if I had parked it in the sun. Though it was 95 degrees the day I took this picture, it even looks cooler. Extreme and long standing heat is a deterrent to gardening, but it can also be a call to provide shelter.

shade (9)A staircase going to the kitchen door has a less dense canopy of shade, cast by a pair of dogwoods. There are plenty of plants that tolerate this level of light.  In addition to the usual hostas and ferns, I am also able to grow campanulas, lady’s mantle, and acanthus.

shade (4)A shade garden holds its moisture much longer than a garden in full sun. A thorough soaking once in a while is all it needs. An established garden sheltered by trees can take advantage of moisture in the soil around it. An irrigation system or sprinkler is fine for maintaining an adequate level of moisture in the soil. This is not to say that the most established of trees do not suffer during periods of no rain. The interior leaves of many shade trees will turn yellow, and drop, when the soil is too dry.  The tree will jettison interior leaves in an effort to conserve what precious little water there is for those outer leaves that actively photosynthesize. Our little leaf lindens at the shop drop interior leaves the moment they are dissatisfied with our sandy too well draining soil. We water them with a small rotating sprinkler called a poppy, made by Nelson. Our version is every bit of 20 years old. Poppy Sprinkler  It can be turned down such that all of the water your tree needs will soak in. London Plane trees are notorious for dropping their leaves in hot and dry weather. Their larger than life leaves have more opportunities to transpire.

shade in the garden (1)We have been in the process of planting a large shade garden for a client. The area is large enough for kerria japonica pleniflora, aralia cordata Sun King, thalictrums, and dwarf oak leaf hydrangeas. The dappled light means we have a wide range of plants that will thrive here. No small amount of the installation has been the watering in. We watered again today.  And celebrated a few hours of rain this afternoon.

shade in the garden (5)Not only will this garden be lovely when it has some age, it was a relief to have some shade during the planting. Though the irrigation for this garden will be installed this Tuesday next, every plant will need water directly to their root balls until they have had time to grow roots into the surrounding soil. New plants need lots of hand watering. The old spruce are a huge help.  They take the brunt of the sun and heat, and protect the new plants underneath them.

shade (5)Milo’s long black fur coat looks hot as blazes. He is not a fan of this heat.  He is much happier when we have 28 degree weather.  Though I know that fur to a point insulates him from the heat, he has a considerable appreciation for a shady place. Wherever he can get it. The gardener in me is taking a cue from him.

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