A Change Of Grade

GROUND LEVEL (1)Up and down is a concept that seems simple. Understanding what it takes to go uphill or downhill in a landscape is not so obvious, or simple. Rest assured that your instinct that level ground is stable,  usable, and easy to negotiate is correct. Some hilly or steep properties ask for several flat levels, with a transition moment, or steps, that remake and divide a steep slope into several flat levels.  Are you with me? Some steep slopes at the angle of repose can be fine, as long as you have no plan to walk them. Steep slopes that are landscapes are meant to be viewed, not meant as a venue for a party. What is the angle of repose?  That angle at which the soil, and the landscape is stable. Terraces, and other places where people gather are usually designed and set flat with the horizon. My deck is a flat space one step down from the grade set by the floor of my house. When I am standing on my deck, I am looking down on my pots, as my eye level is 5′ 6″ above the floor of the deck.

GROUND LEVEL (11)The experience of the deck is different for Milo. He could not be taller 24 or 30″. Buck made stands for my terra cotta rectangles, so that when we are sitting on the deck, those pots are at eye level. Milo and Howard can walk under these pots-if you look close, you can see that Howard is in his summer house.

GROUND LEVEL (8)All of these pictures of him were taken standing in the back yard, with my IPhone resting on the floor of the deck. He was up. I was down-at eye level with his feet.

stairs
The fountain garden level is 7 steps down from my deck. As an average step is 7″ high, that means the deck floor is 49 inches higher that ground level.
a change of gradeSeveral stone walls enclose that deck. The deck is supported by wood posts that are sunk into the ground, and back filled with concrete. The underside of a deck is not all that attractive, nor is it easy to grow anything in a spot that has not natural light whatsoever. My stone walls conceal the under side of the deck, and are not load bearing. A single wall that high would need a 42″ deep footing or foundation underneath it to keep it upright despite upheaval from frost.  Splitting the wall into two, one narrower than the other, means a full foundation is not necessary.

GROUND LEVEL (12)No one could possibly enjoy the high places in my yard better than Milo. He is able to keep track of who is passing by on the street.  He is better able to spot the squirrels in the trees. He can watch me, if I am in the driveway watering. Running up and down the steps is an activity he enjoys. He goes down the stairs to the fountain garden, and up a similar flight of stairs to the side garden. All those changes of grade keep him very busy.

GROUND LEVEL (9)Changes of grade in a landscape can provide a lot of visual interest, in addition to the physical interest. Driving through Iowa, or looking out over the ocean, is a very different experience than driving through the Rockies. Flat properties are easier to navigate; hilly properties involve lots of  transitional steps or slopes. A great landscape design can do a great job of creating different visual levels with plants. Annabelle hydrangeas are great planted on top of a wall.  How they fall over and weep is beautiful against a wall. How they flop in a garden-not so pretty.

GROUND LEVEL (10)This corgi eye view of the landscape does a great job of explaining how the level at which any landscape element is viewed is critical to the design. It is clear my garden was not designed for him.  This also shows how important it is to determine what will be at eye level before planting. Will my view be obstructed, or will my view be private?  Or can a view be the combination of open and closed?

GROUND LEVEL (2)Milo frequently sits on this wall.  He likes being able to see further. A low stone retaining wall like this one can organize a garden by means of its structure, but can also provide a place to sit. This is a way for me to appreciate the lower level of this garden, as well as the standing level.

GROUND LEVEL (4)I have a second level deck that is 4 steps above the main deck. I call it the Romeo and Juliet balcony.  It is the highest place to sit in the yard. It is 10.5 feet above the driveway level, and 7.5 feet above the fountain level. I have to come up 3 sets of steps to get here from the driveway. Multiple levels like this makes my very small garden seem larger.  The view is different from every level, and additionally different if I am standing or sitting on a given level.

GROUND LEVEL (5)There are times when the long view is a good one. Just ask Milo.

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Making An Entrance

the front porch (5)There have been times when I was concerned about making an entrance. The opening party for Detroit Garden Works in March of 1996 – I fretted for weeks about my outfit and shoes. Would my choices be good enough for that entry? Momentary or event driven entrances are just that-momentary. I am sure the only person who remembers what I wore to that event is me. Shortly thereafter, Rob and I sped downtown after work to make the opening curtain of La Boheme. I had 40 minutes to trade my jeans and dirty boots for a silk top, skirt, and high heels. Rob drove his heart out-we were downtown in 22 minutes. He made his entrance in his own inimitable style. We fit in with all the other opera goers in floor length gowns and tuxedos. We were just as fine with young people dressed in their innovative and alternative versions of making an entrance. A regular client did not recognize me; I had to introduce my dressed up self. That was great fun-a theater full of people making an entrance.

Creating a proper entrance to a home is both an architectural and landscape event.  This gorgeous Georgian colonial house that belonged to a client of mine has the most amazing brick entrance. All of that generously styled brick work, on multiple levels, makes for a grand entrance. It is a walkway, a set of steps, lighting, and a retaining wall –  all rolled into one. Is this the entrance of everyone’s dreams? No. This entrance is appropriate to the architecture, period, and scale of this particular house, and the representation of the taste of a particular person. What works for your house will be particular to you.

the front porch (3) No matter the architecture, an entrance that celebrates a front door should be wide and generous. Some of the reasons why are utilitarian.  No guest or UPS delivery person should have to guess the location of the front door. A front walk and porch should be able to accommodate two people approaching, side by side. Single file implies the need to be be in line. No guest should ever have to get in line to get to your front door. A porch and walk should be scaled to embrace a front door with room to spare. Other issues are aesthetic.  An ample walkway and wide porch visually celebrates an entrance. A well done entrance feels gracious and welcoming.

the front porch (8)This gorgeous home built in the 1920’s has a beautiful front door, and limestone surround.  The landing repeats the shape of the door, laid down on the ground. The size of the landing helps to make a front door placed in a corner feel more spacious. A pair of cap yews-one planted in the gravel drive court, and the other in a shrub border, frame the view to the door.

the front porch (2)This client has a brick porch too narrow for the entrance.  If you look closely, you can see that we added brick wings on either side.  Those wings are now home to a pair of generously sized pots that celebrate this entrance.

the front porch (12)This entrance was properly wide of the front door, but left a pair of awkward alcoves on either side. The porch and step railings further isolated those alcoves from the presentation of the door.  I specified very tall Belgian wood planter boxes in an effort to make those alcoves feel more a part of the entrance. The boxes filled those awkward spaces with something substantive. The boxes were always difficult to plant, as the only way to get to the back of the box was to jump over the railing.    the front porch (9)When the driveway needed replacing, I advised my clients to extend the porch and steps to the full width available. And I also suggested that they make the steps deeper, which would make it easier to navigate the steps without a railing. They did as I suggested. This new entrance is less complicated and more spacious. Their Halloween party for their young daughter and her classmates was a big hit. We had lots of space at the entrance to express the season.

the front porchAnother client had an entrance with a porch of proper dimension, but the landscape obstructed the view.

the front porch (6)We moved all of the tall shrubs away from the porch. This made it possible to see the pots, and the plinths they sit on, from a distance.

the front porch (7)This porch is perfectly wide of this front door. The large rocks were moved to either side. It took a change in the landscape to make the entrance more appealing.

the front porch (11)This client has steps up, and a porch that is very narrow. Imagine a porch that goes wide of the pediment and pillars.  The pots planted with boxwood would be effective placed to the outside of the pillars, and in front of the large area of white siding. Adding a third element to the pairs of windows on either side of the door would draw more visual attention to the entrance. A larger porch and steps would permit the second set of pots to be offset from the boxwood pots, so all 4 pots could be viewed separately. I did discuss this with the client some years ago. Redoing a porch and steps is a major undertaking, and we had just finished a sizeable landscape project for her.  The time was not right. A simpler alternative would be to place the boxwood boxes off the porch, on a pair of pedestals the same height as the boxwood.

the front porch (10)The clients who own this home have completely redone the landscape. Lacking the architectural interest of a porch and steps, the plan included a very large entrance landing.  The size of it permitted the placement of 4 Branch Jackie boxes with red mandevilleas to the outside of the door and light fixtures. Lovely, this.

 

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Early June

June (10)As much as I treasure the spring season, early June is a garden moment like no other.  Every tree and shrub is in full leaf, and growing apace. Just about every perennial is not only growing, they are making plans to bloom. Even my hardy hibiscus show signs of stirring. The garden is action packed. The Princeton Gold maples against a a stormy sky last night-spectacular. Those trees dominate my landscape in June, as you can see. One would never know there are houses just past those trees.  Just this year, the last of the electrical pole in the corner that services 3 other houses besides mine and its overhead wires have disappeared from view.

June (5)My landscape is not one bit fancy, although it is grown up. It is an urban American garden to my liking on a very small parcel of land. It is simple in design, so if it gets neglected when I am busy, order can be restored in a day or two. I like the orderly part of my landscape, as I find that order relaxing. The best part of coming home at the end of a busy day is having nothing to do in the garden.

June (8)What I will plant around the fountain this year is the subject of much internal debate. I can only ask Buck to talk to me about it so many times, and I have already gone over the limit. What is that plant that will like the sun at one end, and tolerate the shade at the other?  It has to suffer the indignity of the dogs wading through it. And the over spray from the fountain jets on a windy day. I solved one chronic problem this spring. I had the irrigation system enlarged to include this area. No more dragging the hose down there from the deck on a 90 degree August day. I tried isotoma fluvialitis, but it was not hardy for me.  I did get 3 years from both herniaria, and scotch moss.

the beginning of June (8)I have yet to do one thing in this garden, and it doesn’t show – but for the dirt around the fountain. The month of June is the busiest of my year. This year is exceptionally busy. Several landscape projects are in process, in addition to the summer plantings. The fact that all I have to do when I get home is look around is a relief.

the beginning of June (10)I have not planted my pots yet, but I have plenty enough going on to keep my eyes occupied. I will try to have them planted by June 15.  Annual and tropical plants going into soil that is thoroughly warmed up will take hold and grow with little in the way of transplant shock. To follow are more pictures of my early June garden, without much commentary. I need to go attend to someone else’s garden right now.

the beginning of June (1)

the beginning of June (2)The Palibin lilacs are beautiful this year.  I have a pair on standard that have to be close to 30 years old.

the spring garden (13)Picea abies

the beginning of June (3)maple leaves and boxwood

June (6)landscape in early June

June (4)The driveway pots are ready to plant. Do I know what I will plant?  No. But deciding what to plant is more than half the fun of it.

June (3)the stairs to the kitchen door

June (2)Sum and Substance hosta under a parrotia.June (7)The pots in front are ready to plant. I will get to the weeds in the gravel sometime soon.

the beginning of June (5)I have a June landscape, not so much a garden garden. I like a vase of cut flowers in my garden in June as often as possible. I don’t want to miss out on anything.

 

 

 

A New Gravel Driveway

landscape under construction (8)I admire people who buy old homes, and sign up for all that it will take to renovate them. That is a huge commitment in every regard. An undertaking such as this demands lots of time and even more patience. I cannot imagine the expense. This gorgeous English Tudor style home is 95 years old. Very old homes like this one are remarkably sturdy and well built. I own a house built in 1930, and I can attest to how rock solid it is. I can barely drill a hole in my steel mesh reinforced plaster to hang a picture. That plaster and brick set over concrete block walls means that my house is incredibly quiet and structurally sound. This home features a virtually indestructible brick fired from a clay body featuring a big mineral content – manufactured with the idea of longevity and service in mind.  A good bit of the trim is hand carved limestone, all of which is excellent condition. The new roof is slate; slate roofs last just about forever. But great age exacts a toll on the working parts of an old house. Every house is a small city. It needs electricity, heat, air conditioning, weather tight windows, plumbing – this is a short and not comprehensive list. What got updated here is just about everything, and took a year and a half to accomplish. A kitchen and bathrooms that worked well in 1920 were reworked from the ground up. The interior renovation of this house is finished, and is finished beautifully.

a new driveway (1)My client’s interior designers introduced me to them and their property.  Eventually they would turn their efforts towards the landscape. Last year’s landscape efforts were concentrated on a pool, terracing, a spa, and an astonishing pergola built and installed by the Branch Studio. Screening trees, and a large collection of small spring flowering bulbs got planted late in the fall. This year, we hope to plant the front, side, and rear yard landscape. The property had been neglected for decades. The gravel driveway, all but invisible under a thatch of compost and weeds, was lined in concrete curbing that went 24 inches below grade.  A number of trees grew up, and spent decades thriving. Many of those trees were now were in serious decline.  Disease and fierce weather had taken their toll. The roots had grown over the curb, reducing the width of the drive to just over 8 feet.  A new driveway design and installation would need be the first part of the installation of the landscape.

a new driveway (13)Once the front yard landscape was agreed upon, there was a lot of work to do. Once the dying and diseased trees came down, the stumps were loaded into a 30 yard dumpster – almost 12 tons worth. That is a staggering number, and it explains why so many large machines are parked in the front yard. Taking apart an old landscape and driveway is a shocking experience, but bare dirt that is asking to be regraded is a big breath of fresh air. It is never an easy thing to abandon what was, and go on.

a new driveway (12)Once the drive curbs and the trees were removed, the ground had to be graded.  In this case, there was quite a bit of what I call balancing to do.  The land which was high on one side was lowered, and the low side needed to come up.  From the street, the land would look balanced, left to right.

a new driveway (4)The grade of the driveway would determine the final grade of all of the land surrounding it. A large motor court some 56′ feet wide by 32′ deep would be a dominant feature of the landscape. This would permit off street parking for clients who entertain regularly. But most importantly, a gravel drive and motor court seems appropriate for a house of this age and architecture. It interests me that many very old homes with motor courts were built before the advent of motor traffic. It can be a beautiful feature in and of itself. The accompanying landscape would in a simple way feature the house and gravel court.

a new driveway (2)In many respects a gravel drive is simpler and somewhat less expensive to install than concrete, asphalt, or stone.  One of the biggest expenses is the cost of the edging. The gravel must be contained.  A hard boundary is what keeps the gravel in place.  Gravel that has crept away from its intended location can look great in a very informal setting. It would look messy and untended in a house of this architectural formality.

a new driveway (3)
Both the drive and motor court are edged in 1/4″ thick steel.  That steel edges is secured by steel stakes that are driven into the ground through steel loops welded to the back of the edging. The steel has to be this thick to withstand repeated vehicular traffic, and stay in place.

a new driveway (6)The gravel motor court will be bordered in concrete paver brick, three bricks deep.  The border will help to visually reduce the size of the gravel area. It will also recall the brick on the house. This brick will be dry laid between parallel bands of steel edging.  Concrete brick can better withstand compression weight of a vehicle. Pictured above is a base layer of compacted road gravel.  The finished crushed stone will be added at the very last, at the height you see indicated by the top of the steel edging.
a new driveway (5)A large new blue stone front walk will make beautifully clear the location of the front door. The house is not symmetrical in its footprint.  The walk which is large enough to feel like a terrace is a centering gesture. There is plenty of room for containers out away from the front door. This exterior entry way echoes the scale of the spacious foyer just inside.

a new driveway (9)An important element of designing any driveway is to check if it is driveable.  My clients drove it a number of times when the scheme was painted on the ground. One little but significant change was made to help anyone backing down the drive stay in the lane. A driveway that doesn’t work well always shows where that pinch point is. Curves and changes of direction need to be gradual and sweeping.

gravel drivewayThe drive at the back will be installed as concrete aggregate, rather than compacted gravel. This will make it easy to shovel a path from the detached garage to the back door. The forms are being set for this portion of the drive. An iron fence and gate appropriate to the architecture is to come soon.

a new gravel driveway (3)The bed lines near the gate to the back yard were specifically set to allow my clients to back out of the garage, and turn around.

a new gravel driveway (2)As of late yesterday, the finish gravel has been put down in the motor court. The concrete brick is due to come in today.

a new gravel driveway (1)At the last of the day, a pair of 25 foot multitrunked katsura trees were added to frame the view of the house from the road. The landscape will be underway shortly.