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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Gardeners have a complicated relationship with their gardens. The balance of power goes back and forth, much like any other serious relationship. A treasured plant/child that fails to thrive-whose fault is that? Exasperation is as prevalent as passion over a garden. A death in the garden, as in a major tree, is tumultuous, and instantly redefines that relationship – for better or for worse. Failure can hang over a garden, and thus a gardener, like a black cloud. A love for the garden can smooth over no end of resentment regarding the day to day difficult details – to a point. Gardeners and nature come face to face just about every day. The outcome is rarely a compromise. The status of most gardens is, to this gardener’s eye, more about win and loose, than a meeting of the minds.  Nature bats last.  I have gardened long enough to know this to be true. Poor soil conditions, light, water, and unfavorable weather can drive the most devoted gardener to the brink.

The intensely stubborn gardener who comes face to face with an overpowering, spectacularly uncaring, and uncompromising nature eventually come around and understands that nature is not a partner. It is an independent force to be reckoned with. There is no reasoning with nature. Those gardeners who believe they can negotiate a relationship with the natural forces that affect their garden have my sympathy.

Truth be told, every gardener is on their own. Some give in. Some give up. Others ignore trouble. Still others take hold of trouble, and address it, one shovel full at a time. I know so many hands on gardeners-the work they do to keep a garden and landscape healthy and viable is amazing. I admire all of them. Some who love their landscape ask for help from me, once trouble bubbles up beyond a quick fix. Some troubles need a helping hand.

Why this essay? A client came to me in despair that his landscape on the front side of his house was beyond repair.  Could I please remake it? Could I start all over again? He was happy for me to strip out everything in this steeply sloping landscape, and begin anew. My visit confirmed that a large area of ground cover had been overrun by weeds. That said, he had a king’s ransom in groundcover, well rooted in, that would not need replacing. I told him that I thought this marriage could be saved.  We just needed to root out the weeds, establish crisp boundaries, restore and create a consistent grade, and add some plant material that would establish a simple and strong design. As much as I love beautiful and thriving plant material, I am in favor of good design organizing the planting. This slope is very steep.  It would be difficult for me to maintain. My idea was to restore a relationship. I did not see the need for a new one.

This simple sketch illustrated how I planned to make some sense of a weed infested steep slope.  My client was dubious that he could restore order to his landscape. I think he was right in that regard. This restoration needed a group effort. I was sure that my group could bring this landscape around. He did like the drawing, and gave me the go ahead. The weeding part would not be overwhelming, as we had four people on that tedious problem. Our weeding process involved tools- all of my staff have their own hori-hori knife. For especially difficult weeds, we had garden forks, and spades. Our process is neither tentative nor dainty. There are times when a tough intervention is a good idea.

This was a marriage eminently worth saving. We removed and rebuilt all of the rock edges of this bed. A strong curve on the house side would be contrasted with a straight side rock edge on the road side. We added soil behind the new rock wall to unify the and simplify the slope from the road to the garage. A landscape bed with a deliberate shape and volume is visually satisfying.  We removed a next to dead dogwood, and replaced it with a columnar beech.

I had no problem having a crew go over every square inch of this bed, and remove weeds. We filled the low spots with new soil. We grubbed out and lowered the high spots. We added more ground cover, densely planted, in the bare areas. We added boxwood to bolster the existing boxwood. We rebuilt the rock edges. We dusted the entire bed with a few inches of ground hardwood bark mulch. And we put him in touch with our irrigation contractor, with the idea of installing a low tech watering system that could deliver the water needed. The restoration was vastly more cost effective than a start from scratch approach. And vastly better looking.

There were a number of Japanese forest grasses existing in this bed that were thriving. We replanted them in a dense circle around a treasured sculpture, and added more. The idea was to make the sculpture a more strikingly prominent feature of the landscape.

In my opinion, the outcome of this renovation is good. The revised landscape features a beautiful steel sculpture.  The ground plane is simply curving, weed free, and plant covered.

My client is pleased by the outcome of this project.  I am especially pleased that we were able to save so much of what existed here. What we added was little. What we rearranged was a lot. The few additions and the considerable subtractions transformed this landscape.

The difference between a landscape gone awry, and in sore need of some restoration, and a strikingly beautiful landscape can be not much more than a few degrees this way or that. Every garden marriage can be saved. I believe this.

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The Last On The Limelight Hydrangeas

Given that close to 7000 gardeners have read my last post on hydrangeas in the past few days, I am encouraged to write again.  I went back out last night to rephotograph my hydrangeas with a specific purpose in mind. How do I site them in the landscape, and how do I take care of them? I have a significant disclaimer up front. How I grow hydrangeas is not the be all and end all. How I grow them works for me.  What will work for you involves a lot of independent thought, trial, and error. I would be the first to suggest that you trust your own experience over mine. That said, first up is a discussion about how to grow and manage these big shrubs. No matter where you plant them, hydrangeas reward a gardener who is willing to prune. I only prune in the spring, when the buds are beginning to swell. Limelight hydrangeas that have gotten leggy and ungainly will respond to a pruning to within 18″-24″ above grade. Just be advised that a hard pruning is a restorative pruning that may take 2 years to bring them back up to heavy blooming stage. A yearly pruning down to 18″-24″ results in fewer, and larger flowers.

Want more flowers rather than large flowers? Prune the topmost branches shorter than the bottom branches-so every branch is exposed to the light. Prune several times early in the season to promote branching. Come mid May, I stop pruning.This hydrangea on standard has a beautiful branchy structure as a result of multiple pruning sessions. Notice how the flowers are much smaller than my hydrangeas at home? Post an early spring pruning, a lighter pruning over the course of a few spring weeks results in an embarrassment of riches in smaller flowers.

In love with the giant flowers? Prune vigorously. Pruning deciduous shrubs is not just a matter of style, and it certainly is not a matter of control. Pruning promotes growth that maximizes the opportunity for good blooming. A Limelight left to its own devices will have lots of growth on the top that eventually results in leggy and leafless lower branches.

Big shrubs do and will grow big. Harder pruning may result in a finished size and height at the low end of their growth range. Severe pruning-as in pruning right down to the ground, forces growth from below ground, from what are called basal shoots. I never prune hydrangeas that hard. I like having some old wood to support all those new branches to come. Pruning is all about what the future. The Limelights bloom on new wood – the current year’s growth. If you grow hydrangeas that bloom on the previous year’s growth, prune right after they bloom. This enables them to grow and set flowers for the season to come before winter. Leave them be until after they bloom the following year. But no matter what cultivar you grow, adequate light and water will reward your effort to grow them.

Hydrangeas are big growing shrubs with course leaves and giant flowers. This means they are eminently able to hold down a spot in the garden all on their own. But how does a gardener beautifully integrate them into a garden and landscape?  I make sure they have lots of company-both taller and shorter. My landscape can accommodate them at their full height. I have a much larger and taller hedge of arborvitae planted behind them. That dark green foliage highlights the flowers in a dramatic way.

There are several more layers of plantings in front of them. A hedge of Hicks yews whose health had been declining for years was removed. A series of planter boxes were put in their place. This years planting of nicotiana and angelonia is as loose and airy as the hydrangeas are solid and stiff. Companions to hydrangeas that have a looser habit of growth compliment them. A middle layer of loosely pruned taxus densiformis is faced down with clipped boxwood shapes. 4 layers of companionship is none too few for a shrub that grows 6-8 feet tall.

Limelight hydrangeas integrated into a garden

Limelight hydrangea hedge faced down with boxwood

Limelight hydrangeas faced down with anemone “Honorine Jobert”

hedge of Limelights as a border to a large group of mixed evergreens

These hydrangeas are pruned to keep them at a 5.5-6 foot height.

Between the large evergreens and the hydrangeas is a mass of boltonia asteroides.

Limelights and boxwood

Limelights in a garden

new planting of annabelles and limelights together

Limelights blooming top to bottom

Limelights massed in containers

My client’s containers featuring Limelights on standard are robust and showy this early part of September. We will heel them in the ground at our landscape yard late in the fall, and plant them back in these pots come spring. I do have clients who have and do winter them over in their containers.  I am not that nervy with plants that do not belong to me, but I am not surprised to hear this. Hydrangeas ask for little, and are so satisfying to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

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