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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Part 2: The Drive Court

rainy-day-2016-7My last post about this project centered around a winding and and most beautifully curvy driveway, and the landscape views proposed by that drive. The major portion of the landscape, including this driveway, was designed with an informal and park like atmosphere in mind. It  features a collection of specimen trees, each one placed individually. It is a property with long views. The placement of the trees involved a lot of walking, and seeing.  The result, to my eye, is a landscape that is natural, and subtly polished. The following pictures are about the landscape immediately adjacent to the house. This part of the landscape dramatically contrasts to the rest of the property. It is as much formal as it is contemporary, in design.

rainy-day-2016-8Formal landscapes are predicated on a series of geometric shapes generated by horizontal and vertical axes. Formal landscapes are usually symmetrical, as in equally representing on both sides of an axis. You may only see the axis as an imaginary line, a construction line drawn on a plan.  Contemporary landscapes can be quite formal, in a geometric sense.  They are not necessarily symmetrical. Both formal and contemporary gardens are more about spacial concepts, ideas or visual tension than they are about individual plants. Contemporary gardens are edited. The less said, the better. Some contemporary landscapes are so minimal that they make my mouth go dry. This landscape is not stark. The shapes of the plants, and the texture they create in numbers is lush.

rainy-day-2016-1 This landscape needed to quietly describe the plane of ground in question, and cleanly describe the geometry of the drive court, and the shapes described by the house.The walk from the garage to the drive court is formally outlined in brick pavers set on end.  The stepping stones are square, and set in grass. This walk is set down in a mass of 18″ Green Gem boxwood on both sides. It is not part of the presentation of the landscape entering the drive court. A secondary walk calls for a secondary and circumspect placement.

the-drive-court-11The widest portion of the east side of the drive court is but 6 feet from the property line. The neighbor graciously agreed to let us encroach on her property just enough to screen the houses from each other, and reiterate the very strong circular shape of the drive court. The boxwood facing down the Joe Burke flexible pines are set on a slight slope. That slope speaks to the rhythm established by the curve of the drive.

rainy-day-2016-4The old spruce in the background of this picture belong to the neighboring property. We did borrow this view. A small and solitary columnar ginkgo to the center left will provide a considerable and beautiful vertical element at the entry to the drive court, once it settles in, and grows.

the-drive-court-10Every green gesture is in service of the long and low architecture of this contemporary home. The horizontal plane dominates the architecture, and the landscape.

the-drive-court-8I believe the landscape respects the strong and compelling geometry of the house. Mind you, this is the first season of the landscape. I am pleased to say all of the plants seem to be making themselves at home. I am happy about that. The strength of the architecture greatly influenced my design, as it should.

the-drive-court-9A custom made planter set in the corner between the house proper and the garage is planted with an incredibly beautiful Japanese maple. Yes, we will try to over winter this maple in the pot. The location is quite protected; this north side niche is stone on three sides, and is partially protected by a generous roof overhang.

the-drive-court-4The view from the opening of the circular drive court reveals a formal and contemporary landscape that quietly celebrates a beautiful example of contemporary architecture.

the-drive-court-5I persuaded the tallest member of my landscape crew to take this picture from inside our dump truck. I wanted to look down on the landscape, and have a view of the house skirted in a simple and low profile landscape.  I knew from the moment that I saw this house, that the landscape would not be able to ignore the architecture. I am fine with the outcome.

dsc_9437The trip back down the driveway on this mid October day, a year after the initial landscape installation, was a good trip indeed.

 

 

 

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Chilly

It was 28 degrees when I drove to work this morning-chilly.  The frost was unmistakable.  Chilly and frosty can apply to other things besides the weather.  Modern architecture can be a testament to everything nature is not-spare to the point of bare, intellectual, rigorously geometric-sometimes chilly.  One client with a modern house observed that it takes a certain kind of person to be able cheerfully set up camp in a sculpture. Thw landscape attending this modern house had gotten a little out of control; the repeating weeping birch were depressingly uneventful.  The untrimmed ivy diluted the impact of the multiple walls and changes of level that intended to make the landscape a compelling extension of the house.

Trimming the ivy made a huge improvement.  This property has little flat ground; Irving Tobocman designed a house for this site that occupies most of the existing level ground.  Those of you who live in my area know the work of Irving Tobocman.  His passion and gift for architecture is a legend well deserved.  My first contact with him was almost 25 years ago-I witnessed him mopping the floor with a fellow landscape designer who dared to insert his own landscape ideas between Irv and his final realization of a project. Suffice it to say it still remember the encounter. But this day that this ivy got pruned up-a happy day for me.  Those massive retaining walls were visually representing what he intended-an interesting conversation about natural and man made spaces .

My clients own a home designed by Irv in the 70’s-it is breathtaking.  Forgive my lame description, but the structure is low, very large and imposing, spot on simple, and modern.  The exterior hard surfaces fan out from the house; they are visually influential in size and scope.  The interior spaces soar and speak-they inspire awe.  I am sure he had a hand in every material and move from the brick cladding to the kitchen layout to the light switch covers. My observation?  Those clients who take on and choose to live in a house drenched in this kind of passionate creativity-they are game, and confident people.

My clients engaged Mr. Tobocman to consult and update when they bought the house-knowing they were asking for a cyclone, a firestorm, and a substantial outpouring of opinion.  They obviously weathered all of this with him-to good end.  But almost every outdoor surface is paved over; the massive front doors are inset, and part of a porch which is really a terrace.  Nothing green intrudes on this view.

I thought this space would benefit from a warm-up; we are trying out a pair of contemporary Belgian teak boxes.  The wood is a good look with the doors, and warmly contrasts with all of the brick.  Planters low enough not to obstruct those astonishingly large windows, but large enough to permit a personal expression-a great mix. The skylight in the roof washed the front door area with light; there will be no problem getting something to grow here.

The three large brick boxes topped in baltic ivy are very stark.  What could be done here that would better enhance the impact of the architecture?

The vertical faces of the walls had aged in a not so attractive way, but the top surfaces of all of these walls are perfect. Facing two of the brick boxes down with boxwood changes the relationship of the mass of the house to the property in a good way. The house seems a little more gracefully integrated into the landscape.

The front door terrace can be accessed by staircases from both the east and west side of the brick box that abuts the driveway.  A collection of contemporary stoneware planters can be arranged in a number of different ways.  My circular arrangement strongly contrasts with the dominant rectilinear shapes.

These pots could be planted, or not.  They could be planted such that the top soil surface would be well below the rim of the pots.  The planting would only be visible at close range. They could be planted all the same, or all different.  The pots could be rearranged to suit a season or occasion.

We scraped off all of the weedy grass in this small space, in preparation for quietly sculpting the lawn plane.  The soil was low; the ground usually soggy. A carefully graded green plane would set off this beautiful view of the house.


I think once the boxwood grows enough to be pruned level,  the landscape will have a deliberately tailored, but warmer look.

A Modern Landscape


I am sure every city in every state in this nation has those larger than life, extraordinarily talented people who produced design that endures.  My city has many examples of residences conceived and built by Harold Turner. This master builder, responsible for the construction of many buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, went on to build a number of residences in my city whose beauty still shines so many decades later.  I am not an architectural historian, nor am I well versed in the life of Harold Turner, but I knew my client had purchased a home of architectural and historical significance.  My part of this-study that building, the grades, the views,  the spaces-and make a move in concert.            

The living room of the house faces the rear of the property.  Floor to ceiling windows ask for the outside to work seamlessly with the inside, and provide year round interesting views. A wide open L shape, each wing of which is some 30 feet by 14 feet,  describes on the ground plane a pair intersecting glass walls.  Terraces at either ends of the wings suggests a landscape which permits leisurely travel from one end to the other. 

The strict geometry of this rear profile of this Turner house filled my head with curves.  How so?  The glass prow is so strong, why would I interpret or dilute that gesture?  Repeating the geometry he established for the house-what need would there be?  It seemed to me that a simple but sculptural landscape that made much of the view the design of the house made possible was in order.  

This landscape plane was entirely grass when I first came to visit. A default design.  This space had no need of a mower-it had need of a landscape of interest that would look good in any given season.  The journey from the library side of this house, to the master bedroom side of this house-it seemed to me that a path would figure large in the landscape design. The stone retaining wall casually stacked and irregular in shape seemed out of keeping with the palette of materials established by the house.  An initial hedge of Green Velvet boxwood screens that stone from view, and encloses the space.   

Decomposed granite is a favorite material of mine.  I mulch plants, I build driveways, I compose entire landscapes around that material that brings the parks in Paris to mind.  A walkway all about generous curves seemed a good companion for this house. My client does like to entertain; the wide walk makes for places for guests to visit, and good circulation.  The granite is a quietly versatile material that echoes the surface of the existing concrete aggregate.  Used in conjunction with steel or aluminum edging, it can cleanly outline interesting shapes.


There is always the danger that a small space will become a corridor to somewhere else-a visual racetrack, if you will.  Planting another series of boxwood, set perpendicular to the house and boxwood hedge, will slow down the traffic.  Unlike the boxwood in the hedge, these plants are placed in the bed, and in the gravel individually.  Individually placed plants read as individual sculptural elements.   

Seven sets of three plants each are placed such that the gravel walk space opens and closes.  Pachysandra fills the empty spaces in the beds; when grown in, their mass will reinforce the pattern of the walk.     

There will be decisions to be made about the pruning.  The hedge could be boxed-the individual boxwoods pruned as spheres. Or vice versa.  The boxwoods set in gravel could alternately be pruned as squares and spheres.  The distinction that is drawn between the inidivdual plants and the hedging plants will be an important part of how the landscape reads visually.  We will see what direction my client is inclined to take.  Beyond this decision, the maintenance will be minimal.