Welcome Home, Boxwood

My last two posts about this project might make you suspect that my primary interest in this landscape has to do with hard structures. Not so. The hard structures just need to be installed first, as they set the grade and determine the location of all of the plantings to come. I can move a tree or shrub-but not a swimming pool. Every landscape project is governed by those immutable issues. A driveway, a fire hydrant, a house, a city sidewalk, an electrical pole, a stone terrace – these landscape elements are fixed, for better or for worse. Every landscape contractor on a new house or extensive renovation project would prefer to have the immutable elements established up front. A landscape installation of this size requires an order of events. Hard structures, first. Once the new dock, retaining walls, pool and pool terrace were done, it was our turn. GP Enterprises plants all of my big trees for me. They have an installation of trees going on in the front yard of this project which I will get to later. Once it was time to transport 420 36″ diameter Green Gem boxwood from my yard to a project over an hour away from our yard, GP stepped up and sent two trucks, 2 trailers, and 4 of his people to give me a hand. It took 8 people, 4 trucks, and two days to bring the boxwood due to be installed in the back yard to the site.  My client texted me late that day, “Welcome home, boxwood”.  Loved that from her.

She knew the back story. Though we had procured the plants, and were ready to plant last fall, a fall planting proved to be out of the question. A new dock installation was beset with problems and significant delays. The stonework on the retaining walls took weeks and more weeks. It looked as though the entire back yard was filled with big trucks, and pallets of stone. Bad weather helped to seal the deal. Late last fall, all 420 of these boxwood were moved inside my landscape building, and set on top of 6″ of mulch spread over the concrete floor, for the winter.  Why the mulch layer over the concrete floor?  Concrete can absorb and draw the moisture out of a root ball. A dry plant coming out of winter storage would most surely be a dead plant. The effort was worth it. These 420 strong survived the winter indoors without any problem, but a very cold and relentlessly rainy spring pushed our installation date back much further than I ever imagined. Once the middle of May arrived, I knew this installation would need to be pushed into July. The day I finally had those boxwood on site was a day many months in the making. Dan and his crew measured and set the dig lines. We only needed to make one small change. 10 inches to the south. The walls and stairs had been built very close to the measurements called out on the plan. We went over and over the lines. It took less than 2 hours for me to sign off on the layout.

Once every line was set and checked, the planting would be underway. This is a very formal and geometric landscape. The precision of the layout took a good bit of time, as it should. Insuring that they would be planted in the right place involved a lot of stakes and lines, and twice as many measurements. Once a boxwood went in to the ground, I would be very unhappy at the prospect of having to move it. My crew would be even more unhappy.  Each root ball weighs 235 pounds. Sliding a 235 pound root ball into place is vastly less work than lifting 235 pounds out of the ground.

It was not my idea to dig individual holes for each boxwood. Oh no. We dug overscales trenches with an excavator that would allow us to place and level each double row of boxwood.  Our 420 boxwood were graded at 36″ tall, by 36″ wide. But that grading is a loose business. Some were taller, and shorter. Others were flatter, or more ball shaped. Some were decidedly lopsided. Of course we would sort through and select the plants that would be neighborly in shape and height. The oversized trenches would permit moving the boxwood this way and that, up and down, in service of the precision asked for by the design. A planting of this scale and scope asks for some mechanical help. We use our front end loader frequently, but I rarely have a need for an excavator. Dan decided to rent that machine for a month. That proved to be an excellent decision. We were able to spend more time on the plant selection, placement, and planting, and less time hand digging.

The contrast between the boxwood and bare dirt was extraordinary. I was so pleased to see these gorgeous plants going in to the ground. Welcome home boxwood, indeed.

Once Dan had a day under his belt, he was able to establish an approach to the work that would make the best use of everyone’s time, and move the project forward in the most efficient way possible. He would plant the entire south side, before moving to the north.

The plan calls for three gardens. I find that woody plant material is much more easy going regarding conditions than perennials. I have planted countless shrubs and trees and seen them readily adapt to their home.  Perennials are much more sensitive to poor living conditions.  Dan saw fit to provide 18″ of good soil, and install drainage for good measure.

I suppose it is time to discuss the design for this part of the property. This lower terrace is the mid ground space from the house looking out to the river. Dan took this picture from the upper pool terrace level. It is clear that the landscape not only needed to be proportional to the size of the property, and the walls and stairs, it needed to read from a distance. The second floor of the house is slated for a large terrace situated on the roof of the rear porch. The view from that upper level balcony is an important view. An every day view. It will be a beautiful view, no matter the season or the weather. These boxwood are massive, and the shapes designed are simple and on an appropriately large scale. Their formal arrangement is in beautiful contrast to the amorphous quality of the water, and the wild landscape in the distance.  As a mid ground feature, it introduces and enhances the views out. The views from the river towards the house would be equally dramatic. A 14 foot long gas firepit whose flames will be enclosed by glass will provide a place for my clients and their friends to gather and relax. The bluestone coping is set at seat height.  Glass enclosing the flames?  This is a very windy location.  My clients expressed an interest in the classical and formal landscape. They were interested in gardens, and the seating to go with. They went so far as to tell me that the landscape part of their renovation to their home and property would be their favorite. They were interested in places they could view from afar, and places they could be. They wanted to live outdoors exuberantly, and entertain privately.

These pictures taken from the upper level do not express the enclosure and intimacy created on the ground floor by the boxwood.  Once my clients and their company are seated in this lakeside garden, they will have a quiet and private place to be. Given the many conversations I have had with them, I understand that they want strong and beautiful views from afar, and intimacy and enclosure up close. The design is my response to that request.

This view from the south towards the north does not describe the gardens to come. But it does do a good job of describing the structure of the landscape.

I do believe that the first step with any landscape design is to establish some structure. I have the idea that my relationship with these clients is a long term relationship. What we have done here is a giant first step. But a first step, nonetheless. I am certain I will hear more from them, as the landscape progresses. Who knows where we will be in 5 years. I do favor an initial landscape design that is all about creating some structure.  Any client that wants to go beyond establishing that initial structure will let me know. To follow are drone pictures taken by my clients from last week.

As Mary Keen says, “Nostalgia in gardening often surfaces as a longing for that older, deeper relationship between person and place that we rarely achieve in modern life.”

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The Saucer Magnolia

The saucer magnolias are in outrageously heavy bloom everywhere I go, and everywhere I look. They are over the top beautiful this year, much to my delight. They ornament the spring blooming landscape in a way no other flowering tree could hope to rival. Every saucer magnolia in bloom now I can spot from better than a block away, the blooms are so profuse. They blanket every branch with 6″ long petals and sepals that look like a saucer, and flutter in the slightest breeze. When the saucer magnolias are good, they are the visual equivalent of a torrid romance. So much drama! The entire canopy of the tree is dressed in the most glorious shades of pale and rose pink. The texture is incredible.The saucer magnolia in bloom, formally known as magnolia soulangiana, is a spring moment like no other.

Perhaps it is a good thing that a heavy bloom on this magnolia is not always a given. All that saucy sweetness might be cloying in too big or too long a dose. Trees that profusely flower-I can never decide if I like that or not. With perfectly moderate and cool days and nights, magnolias may bloom for a week to 10 days. Any weather too hot, too cold, or too this or that will cut surely cut short the display. The saucer magnolia flowers are notoriously susceptible to an early demise from a spring freeze. As freezing night temperatures in March are not unusual, years with no flowers, and more frequent years with sparse flowers are the norm. So when nature is cooperative, I truly enjoy the spectacle of it all. Planting a magnolia out of a south facing full sun location can help delay the bloom long enough for the threat of frost to pass.

Saucer magnolias in my area have quite hefty trunks, indicating a planting from many years ago. That speaks volumes about the hardiness and the suitability of the tree for this area. Though the flowers may frost off before they open, the trees are completely hardy to zone 4. They are a mid sized tree that matures to about 25 feet tall and equally as wide, meaning it is easier to place them on a small property than a shade tree. The tree itself is every bit as ornamental as the flowers.  The bark is a smooth and pleasing shade of gray.  Old trees have colonies of lichens ornamenting that bark. Mature trees have very sculptural overall branch structure. The glossy leaves are large.  This is a tree that has great texture in bloom, and in leaf. The yellow fall color is spectacular.

I have seen magnolias devastated by scale, or marred by fungus, but by and large they are fairly carefree. They like the middle of the road. Soil that is not too dry or too wet. They like a good amount of sun, but they don’t fuss if there is a little less. They will endure in less than perfect conditions. They mean to oblige. This makes them a perfect choice for a gardener looking for an ornamental tree of substance. Though some might fuss about the petal drop, I find that pink litter on the grass to be an excellent reason to have some grass underneath them.  The effect is magical.

There are many other varieties and hybrids of magnolias, many of which are garden worthy. I plant them whenever I get a chance. They are as sculptural in their structure as they are ethereal in flower. If this is not enough to persuade you to plant a saucer magnolia, consider this.  A 2 gallon size saucer magnolia is available to you at your local garden center right now at a very reasonable cost.  Plant a small magnolia, and stand back. Sooner than you think, this one magical magnolia week of the year will be a week you will treasure .

This beautiful old saucer magnolia in flower is already shedding petals. Lovely, this.

This picture I took on the fly from my car, which I stopped in the middle of a very busy road. The person behind me was irritated, but when the saucer magnolias are good, I take time to enjoy them. Never mind his honking. The spring is a time to take the time to enjoy.

I do not have any saucer magnolias at home. Their mature width is tough in a landscape as small as mine.  I planted the magnolia “Galaxy”.  They have a more upright habit of growth, and tend to be single trunked. That shape suits my landscape better than a saucer magnolia. That moment when their intensely rose pink flowers are backed up by my Norway maple in full bloom is an experience of spring that makes my heart pound. This said, I am sure the spring season energizes every gardener. I am so glad that other gardeners close to me have the saucer magnolias of considerable age and in full bloom for me to enjoy. My landscape is happily a relative of what goes on in my neighborhood and comunity.

Galaxy magnolia in bloom overhead

Hello spring.

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Part 2: The Landscape

October 31 2015 022The previous owners of this property had done some work on the landscape. Notable were the evergreens planted one after another, in zig zag rows, on the long sides of the lot. I understand the need to create privacy, but that can be accomplished in a number of ways, not all of which involve a wall. The problem with rows of screening trees on a narrow lot is that they can make the property feel boxed in. There is no opportunity to borrow beautiful views from the landscapes beyond that evergreen wall. This landscape would have to generate a sense of depth from these arbitrary edges in. A design beginning with the perimeter trees that would move in varying degrees towards the center of the property seemed appropriate. That center was the driveway, which curves multiple times before it reaches the house. The distance from the road to the house was considerable. I wanted to offer any guest a chance to slow down and enjoy the view. My client was interested in a park like landscape that would feature a group of unusual or specimen trees. We were in agreement about a landscape concept. We began by transplanting a group of maples that had been dotted along the drive to the street side of the property.

October 9, 2015 047From the driveway, this massed group of red maples will define the eastern front edge of the property in a non linear way.  The maple in the left  foreground of this picture was eventually moved into that grouping.  It will be replaced by one of a pair of large caliper London Plane trees to be planted this spring that will flank the driveway.  The stakes in the pachysandra indicate homes for three new Norway spruce.

November 21 2015 025The long driveway culminates in a drive court immediately adjacent to the house. I did opt for a more formal and contemporary landscape here. This is a very contemporary house that I felt would benefit from masses and architectural shapes created by just a few species of plants. I did detail in a post last fall the planting of 15 pinus flexilis “Vanderwolf’s” and 18 pinus flexilis “Joe Burke”. The flexible pines we planted to screen a large generator, and provide screening to a lot line that came within 6′ of the drive court. All of the large evergreens in this picture are on a neighboring property. Our plantings are all under 12 feet tall.  Generous numbers of boxwood “Green Gem, the columnar taxus “Nova”, and taxus cuspidata spreaders would fill out the landscape.

November 21 2015 019 The round center island was planted in spreading taxus capitata, 24″, 30″ and 36″ tall.  The tall yews were planted on the perimeter, and the shortest group in the center. The whirling rhythm of all of those descending taxus branches was all about sculpture. Standing on the porch, there is a view to the distant landscape.

December 5 2015 062 - CopyVery late this past December, I drove over to take a look. Standing at the gate, a sizable tricolor beech is central to the view.  The old and thinning Norway spruce to the right-I could not bring myself to take this old tree down. Big and old, and of considerable scale is beautiful. Plants with age so greatly endow any landscape. A landscape with old trees is weighted, and can anchor new plantings. I planted a row of tall and massive American arborvitae in a large curve behind that old spruce. This adds a lot of green weight to the old spruce at the ground level. While the driveway angles sharply to the right, this simple collection of plants holds the eye. The leading edge of another old Norway spruce in the right foreground of this picture directs the eye into the composition.

December 5 2015 063The view from inside the gate pleases me. The new drive swoops right, and then left.  From the gate, the presentation of the house is all about a suggestion posited by the roof lines. The house sits down in the landscape.To the right of the drive, a single large columnar sweet gum answers the more substantial planting on the opposite side. Visually successful driveways appear as though the garden came first, and the driveway second.

December 5 2015 060The American arborvitae were planted rather high, and the ground in front was graded down to a drain. This view to the house is circumspect. This grouping of trees provides interest in the mid ground space, and partially screens the upper portion of the property from the road.

mud and guts (25)Three of the big beech we planted are seen in this view. 2 on the right of the drive, and one on the left. The spruce in the center back of this picture were existing, as were the evergreens planted near the lot lines on both sides of the drive. Bringing the landscape closer to the drive in select spots creates visual interest.  The rolling of the ground down to the drive is equally as interesting.

mud and guts (24)Halfway up the drive, the house is still only partially within view.  The roof lines are low and wide. I greatly admire how the house was sited. This was an architect who gave as much thought to how the house would sit, as its architectural quality.

 

mud and guts (6)Near the house, the driveway forks.  Right, for service.  Left, for company. The large evergreens to the left in this picture belong to the neighbor.  Here, we are borrowing views from an adjacent property. The low dome of grass in the middle of this picture, and grass sloping gently to the center on either side, sets the stage for the drive court garden. A large European green beech was planted in from of a group of three spruce.

December 5 2015 059 - CopyOn the right side of the driveway, we added a fastigiate hornbeam, a large multi-trunked kousa dogwood, several columnar Norway spruce, and a columnar Colorado blue spruce. Barely visible behind the beech is a gingko. I rarely plant blue needled evergreens in the landscape, unless there is an opportunity for them to be viewed at a distance. Blue needles up close can be a little jarring. But there was plenty of blue, suggested by the drive, and the flexible pines.

December 5 2015 050 - CopyAt the top of the drive, we added 3 large Serbian spruce. In the middle, a blue needled columnar Colorado spruce.  At the far right in this picture, the bluest of the blue needled evergreens, a Canadian white concolor fir – abies concolor “candicans”. There is a second white fir, on the opposite side of the drive.

mud and guts (21)The view from the front door is all evergreen. This is Michigan.  We have as many winter months as we have growing months. The idea was to install a landscape that would look good every month of the year, and be relatively low maintenance.

mud and guts (22)the taxus capitata spreader vortex, in a frosty winter state

December 2015 278The walk from the garage to the drive court.

mud and guts (2)The masses of boxwood on either side of this walk from the drive court to the garage sink the walk down. It is not visible at all, coming up the drive. As this is a service walk, I preferred that it not be prominent in the landscape.

December 5 2015 043 - Copyview from the service walk towards the road

 

December 5 2015 028The hedge of Hicks yews were moved here from the front of the house. At the left end, a columnar mugho pine. The deciduous trees are katsura, and gingko.

December 5 2015 031the drive court

December 5 2015 025looking across the service drive

mud and guts (4)view from the service drive

mud and guts (7)The landscape views going down the drive are so much different than what is seen on the way up. Only one columnar sweet gum is part of the view going up.  Going down, it is possible to spot the other one on the right side of the drive. There was plenty to see, despite the winter.

 

 

A New Driveway

drivewayEvery landscape project presents its own particular set of challenges. In the ordinary course of events, the planting of a landscape comes after the installation of the hard structures. A new house has to be designed, built, and close to a finish, before the landscape installation can begin. Hard structures in a landscape renovation refers to pergolas, gates, terraces,  arbors, sidewalks, underground electrical conduit for landscape lighting, air conditioners and generators, and the driveway.  Our current project is a perfect storm of related but separate renovation work on the outside, all going on at the same time. The concurrent installation of a new driveway, and our landscape installation, has been an experience like no other – just ask my landscape superintendent, Dan. I have designed plenty of driveways, both simple and complex, but I have never had to work on a landscape without one. This driveway is being installed in sections. A section gets removed, a new base is put down, and the new driveway is installed. All of the asphalt debris, and countless machines were on site. We have been scrambling for several weeks to get the big trees installed in those short and intermittent slots between the old driveway removal and the new driveway install.  As you can see, there is no clear path from the road to the landscape we are installing at the top of the hill.

pinus flexilis 00133 pinus flexilis hybrid pine trees, 9 feet tall and better, with 36″ diameter rootballs, got delivered curbside this morning. We could not truck them to the spot where they will be planted.  The new sections of driveway are not ready for traffic, and the rest of the old drive is gone. We had already cleared the old failing plants from the area for these new trees, one wheelbarrow load at a time. My client came to the rescue. She arranged for the driveway contractor to bring an electric power jack to the site, and provide 3 people in addition to our 6 to get those big trees uphill. Soulliere Stone Design, owned by Tim Soulliere, is in  charge of installing the new driveway. Removing the old drive, widening the new drive by 40″, installing a drive of concrete pavers and curbing piece by piece, is a big job which is turning out to be a beautiful job. But today he suspended his work, and gave us a huge hand.

pinus flexilis 002The bad news?  We could only move one tree at a time. The good news?  We were not pushing each tree up a fairly steep slope by hand. The newest portions of the drive had not yet been sanded. Polymeric sand is swept into the spaces between each paver, locking them together. In its current unfinished state, the drive could tolerate the pallet jack used by the paving crew move pallets of pavers to the spot where they are needed. Given the steady, sure, and thoughtful hand of a client, the driveway crew and the landscape crew came together to get a job done. The front and newest section of the new driveway was protected by sheets of plywood.

pinus flexilis 005The parts of the driveway that had already been stiffened by the addition of polymeric sand took the trips up with one tree at a time effortlessly. However the effort expended by both crews was considerable. Despite the pulling power of the jack, there was concern that the battery would need recharging before the last of the trees were moved. They pushed. Every landscape project, whether large or small, asks for creating an order of events all aimed at the finish. In the event that the order of events is interrupted, cooperation makes a job move forward.

pinus flexilis 003These 33 trees are taking up a lot more space on the ground plane than they will when they are planted. My grower has had these pinus flexilis “Vanderwolf’s” in the ground for a good many years.  They are incredibly beautiful plants. A group of 14 we will plant as a hedge.  Pinus flexilis refers to their very flexible branches. We will be able to co-mingle branches from one tree to the next to make a solid and dense hedge where there is a need for screening.   pinus flexilis 01019 pinus flexilis “Joe Burke”, an irregular growing hybrid, will enable us to go around a number of old tree sized junipers. The junipers lowest branches are 7′ to 10′ off the ground. The ground level branches have been lost. Up high, the branches are beautiful, and swooping. The planting of the Joe Burkes will involve positioning one tree at a time, fitted to the previous tree, and in anticipation of the tree to come, in that irregular open space at ground level. They will have a loose and graceful habit.  The wind off the lake will animate the branches. The blue color of the needles is a good companion with the juniper branches, and the color of the new driveway.

pinus flexilis 007Pinus flexilis is on my short list of pines worth growing.  Absent any pruning, they become open with age like other pines. But with judicious heading back in the spring, the Vanderwolf’s can be quite dense. They are slow growing, and adaptable. I will probably protect them from the wind coming off the lake for this first winter, to avoid burn to the needles.  They are tolerant of partial shade, which is unusual for a pine.  These will be sited with a western exposure, so it is important that they will thrive in less than a full day of sun. Each blue needle has a white stripe, which makes this tree stand out in the landscape.

pinus flexilis 009I have a new landscape superintendent as of the past February. I am happy to report he is by far and away the best I have ever worked with.  He is as knowledgeable about sound landscape practices as he is unflappable. This project is challenging, but he is easy going about working shoulder to shoulder with a whole raft of other tradespeople who are working on this project. He is confident in the outcome. It pleases me that despite his 30 years in the landscape business, he has never seen or planted a pinus flexilis. How easy it is to have an enduring and long standing interest in the natural world. There is always something new. This planting project will be a pleasure.