The Landscape At Lee Hill Farm

Lee Hill FarmI have a very good friend, Susan Cohan, who also happens to be an extraordinarily talented landscape designer. Her firm, Susan Cohan Gardens, is based in Chatham, New Jersey. She is well educated in the arts and design. Her history is varied, and rich. Mind you, this previous bit does not in any way address the length and the breath of her experience and expertise. She has a keen eye, a well developed point of view, and a huge passion for the landscape. In my opinion, her passion for every aspect of the landscape is awesome. We met during her 2014 tenure as President of the APLD. The APLD is a national association of landscape designers that has members in almost every state. They work tirelessly to improve the quality of landscape design among their members, and they work to inform the public about landscape designers with experience and talent who would be worth consulting on a landscape project. From the beginning we were professionals and associates, with a relationship that grew to regularly debate the issues regarding landscape design.  Now we are friends. The result of that friendship – she got on a plane, and came out to visit me for 4 days this past February. Those days flew by.  She is delightfully interesting, serious, and genuine, not to mention fresh, direct, and personal.  How I love all these things about her!  I was so pleased to hear that she had won a Gold Medal award in the 2015 APLD competition for planting design. I want to share that award winning design and installation. I  greatly respect how she approached the work, and brought a project to bear fruit, from the ground up.

Susan Cohan DesignHer clients had purchased a beautiful old house and property.  Many of the structural elements of the garden – walls, and walkways – were in a considerable state of disrepair. In Susan’s estimation, a renovation of the property would have to begin with repairs. A good designer lays out the issues, and details the journey. Her client committed to this aspect of the restoration. Any successful project is a result of a rapport between a designer and a client. It was agreed that the old walkways, steps, and some walls would have to come out, and be redone. Another wall was slated to be built.

Lee Hill Farm
Repairs are not that much fun. Fixing what is broken does not necessarily result in something new and exciting. Just what was, before it was broken. But an old property with beautiful walls and walks may not need something new.  A repair and renovation that goes on to become a landscape better than her client thought she could have it-that’s very new and exciting! Repairs can be lengthy and tedious. These before pictures of Lee Farm which Susan sent me do not tell the tale of the days and weeks of work that would be involved to make the hard structures of this garden whole again.

vintage stairsEvery place has its own aura. A feeling. An atmosphere.  Recreating and restoring a sense of place relies on a sure hand. How Susan approached this project tells me she has a gift for the concept of the genius of the place. This property had a long history that deserved respect.  I am sure she steeped herself in the ruination, before she put a drawing, a hand, or a shovel, to the ground.

old gardenThe heaved and crumbling brickwork and the grass challenged stonework did not faze her.

Susan Cohan GardensThis view of a landscape long neglected makes clear that a lot of work needed to be done. Landscape projects that are really good address the land, the history, the client, the structures, the furnishings, and the plants. Like a play having six acts, this project would build on itself.

redoing the stoneworkThe restoration of the hard structures took lots of time.  Lots of hard work. Lots of supervision, and even more discussion. The pace of this work took so much more time than these pictures would indicate. This picture of a degraded walk, some hand tools, and a person tells a story. A beautiful project takes a vision, and work to follow that is skilled.

Lee HillOnce the hard structures were restored, the replanting of the landscape would involve an arrangement and plant list that would convince.  A beautifully planted garden is a joy.  But this garden had to be true to the history, the aura, and the meaning of this property of great age.  I think Susan did a great job of thinking through a plant list that was not limited to what perennials were available at the time the garden was built.  It was a plant list that served and recalled the original spirit of the garden.

the stoneworkThe fountain needed repair. The stone terrace was relaid, on level ground. The brick walks were redone. The millstone was level in the center of two brick walks, intersecting at right angles. The planting had begun.

Lee Hill Farm small fileYears later, this landscape evokes the spirit of the past, courtesy of lots of skilled design help from the present.  These pictures, which Susan submitted to the APLD competition, tell a certain story.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #4Her hand is a subtle one. It takes great experience, confidence and skill to plant a landscape that gives the land, the history and the plants center stage. I can see she is interested here in a landscape that seems natural and appropriate. Genuinely believable. Flowing.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2On one level, the planting design for this project was meant to evoke the spirit of the original garden. But that design goes on to other levels. More interesting and thoughtful placement. More variety, or better performing cultivars. Designed spaces. The plant choices and the colors echo the original garden, but have relevance in the present.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #5The original iris still have a place.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #8the sweep

Lee Hill Farm Photo #9a long line

Lee Hill Farm Photo #10the layered view

Lee Hill Farm Photo #7The matching hedges of the same cultivar of peony is a way of illustrating how the design is as important as the plant choices.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #6The peonies, arbor and fountain are the strong and simple organizing feature for a constellation of perennial borders.  In May, the peonies hold forth much more strongly than they would have, had they been planted singly in a number of different places. At this moment, this view is drenched in the history of the original landscape in a visually compelling way.  It is also a very strongly designed space.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2This is an award winning project-as well it should be. This picture tells the tale-everything seems right and rings true to the setting.  As for Susan Cohan, should you have a great passion for the landscape, and live within 100 miles of her, contact her.  She is a landscape designer I greatly admire. Interested in reading further about her?

Susan Cohan Gardens



The APLD International Design Conference

Marti-Neely.jpgNot familiar with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers?  This is taken verbatim from their website: The Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) is an international organization founded in 1989. Our mission is to advance the profession of landscape design and to promote the recognition of landscape designers as qualified and dedicated professionals.   APLD members adhere to a code of professional standards, encourage continuing education, and stay up to date about new developments and latest trends throughout the field.  We offer members a certification program – the only one of its kind – that provides professional recognition to those designers who can pass a rigorous peer review program. Who are we looking at here?  Marti Neely, the current president of the APLD, and owner of DMS Landscape in Omaha Nebraska.

Susan-Cohan.jpgWho’s this? Susan Cohan,  President elect of the APLD for 2014.  Susan has a landscape design practice in the metro New York City area.  Via her website, I can see she has a special gift for landscape design.  She writes a blog-Miss Rumphius Rules.  She has an art background, a passion for the landscape, a love of great architecture-I have admired her work for some time, from afar.  She wrote a few months ago to say that she and Marti would be in Detroit a few days ahead of the yearly APLD conference-did I want to meet?  Oh yes.  Meet, we did. A late dinner this past Wednesday, a day spent touring on Thursday, and dinner together Thursday night- the pleasure was all mine.

landscape-plan.jpgRob and I spent the day with them-touring Woodward from Pontiac to downtown,  Palmer Park, the Boston Edison district, Campus Martius, the Rouge plant, the old Packard plant, Pewabic Pottery , the conservatory on Belle Isle-an overview tour of the good and exciting, and the astonishing decay.  Both Marti and Susan were keenly interested in everything they saw.  Both of them have an astonishing ability to absorb, and inquire.  They commented, and they listened.

landscape-drawing.jpgLandscape design has been the focus of my career for going on 28 years.  I find that the design process is endowed by every effort I make to be educated.  I collect books on landscape design, and I read them.  On occasion, the photographs are more compelling than the read.  No matter the vehicle, anything a designer has absorbed informs their work.  The drawing is about the hope represented by the future.  And the knowledge accumulated from the past.  These two women educated me about how important it is to be connected with one’s peers.  One day with the two of them was a big education.

landscape-design.jpgWhat I write about via Dirt Simple is an effort to discuss my design process.  My design process?  It may be good, it may be average-it may be of no use to anyone else.  But that process has enabled me to communicate with my clients-those people known to me who have a love of the natural world.  There are always two of us.  A client with a house and property-and an idea about how to live.  Me-I have an idea about what is graceful, and beautiful.  The interaction produces a design. A good design is never about one, or another.  It is the product of a relationship.

landscape-design.jpgThe APLD is a group about which I knew nothing, until I became interested in the work of Susan Cohan.  This organization of landscape designers has been active since 1989.  Where was I?  I have never been so much interested in participating in group efforts.  No doubt I black out when I am asked to serve on a board.  Part of what enchants me so much about the garden is that solitary experience.  The birds singing.  The rain falling.  The change of the seasons.  That very engaged and solitary time known as weeding.  The peace, and the quiet.  But both Marti and Susan have made me rethink that.

landscape-plan.jpgThe time I spent with Marti and Susan made a dent in me.  They had lots to say.  They spoke up.  Susan remarked that she valued the APLD, as it made a place for her to talk to and engage other landscape designers.  She was passionate about sharing.  Marti-as patient and willing as she is sharp.  It was a very good thing for me, to meet the both of them-face to face.

landscape-plan.jpgIf you are a professional landscape designer, I would recommend that you consider joining the APLD.  If you are a homeowner who is thinking about hiring a landscape designer, review those designers who are affiliated with the APLD.  Marti and Susan-I was delighted to meet the both of them.

M-Cat.jpgExposure to a very powerful and compelling force-who knows what will eventually come of that.  I have the feeling that the time I spent with the two of them will be influential.  Marti and Susan-I am so lucky to have had the time to meet them.