A Different Direction

dsc_9650A few years ago I made my first visit to a large rural property outside Ann Arbor. It was very early in the spring. My clients had built a house very much of their own design. My first impression? An American farmhouse with a decidedly contemporary twist. Plain, but plain in a visually strong way. Their property is especially large, given that they had also purchased the house and property next door when it became available. They do the lion’s share of the work it takes to keep up that landscape, spread out over a number of acres. The landscape of their outlying areas is graceful, generous, and unstudied. There is nothing self conscious about the placement of all of the trees, both evergreen and deciduous, that they have planted.  They are good stewards of their land.  They called to ask if I could sketch out a master plan for them. A design that would help make better sense of their love of their property, and their love of plants. They were particularly uncertain about how to handle the landscape near the house. My impression, driving up on this early April day? The front of the house featured the winter remains of ornamental grasses, and mulch-a still dormant garden. A landscape friendly to the architecture would provide this view of their house with some year round interest.

a-different-direction-8R. sent me this picture of the house in the summer. The front yard grade rose from the street, and rolled until it reached the grade of the house. Though the house was set crisply square and level, perfectly matching the horizon, the ground rolled right, dropped off. Rolling ground can be beautiful, but in this case, the ground falling away from left to right made the landscape fall off. A house needs to sit squarely and securely on level ground. One of my favorite places in my landscape is that spot where I might lie down, and feel the earth supporting me. The word foundation has numerous meanings, but that base upon which all else is imagined and constructed comes to mind. As a designer, I am very interested that a house have a flat and spacious ground plane that supports its mass. Right away I knew I would advise my clients to regrade, and add a retaining wall. Their collection of ornamental grasses is lovely, but they do not constitute a landscape. The texture and mass was beautiful in spots, and sparse in others. The tall and the short of it was that neither the grade nor the planting celebrated the geometry of the house.

a-different-direction-11There were other places where those grasses shone. Further down and on the other side of the driveway, they softened the architecture. The interplay between the grasses and the rocks was quite lovely. But this view of the house is not part of the presentation of the house from the road. Ornamental grasses do not sprout until fairly late in the spring-sometimes as late as June in my zone. The house was without a landscape for too many months of the year.

a-different-direction-10The garden attending the walk to the front door was chaotic, and overwhelming to the porch. This picture tells that story. My clients have a big love for ornamental grasses, but I feel they are best in masses of the same kind, and in open areas where they can get big, and wave in the breeze. A pond on another part of the property would be the perfect spot to transplant them.

a-different-direction-9The walk from the front door back to the driveway was equally grassy. They obstructed the view out, and did not relate to the landscape on the far side of the drive.

a-different-direction-15I did a sketch for them for a landscape that would keep the landscape at the front of the house green – all year round. It should be clear from this drawing that their driveway was centered on the house at the road, but angled sharply to the left on its way to the garage. This placement of the drive was of necessity.  A raised septic field on left side of the drive made that area off limits for a drive. That angle made me think a landscape design featuring the horizontal dimension would be good. Sketched in pencil on the left side of the drive near the garage was an unspecified landscape feature, cut into the steep slope and boulder retaining wall constructed for the septic field. My clients like blue green foliage. The block of pinus flexilis “Joe Burke” to the far right would help to visually counter the steep slope away from the house.  A hedge of dwarf Serbian spruce would traverse the entire front of the house, and continue to the drive. A rock retaining wall to level the ground in front would have a hedge of yucca filamentosa in front. Hydrangea Little Lime would provide a little relief to all of the evergreen elements. Given that my clients are hands on, and very involved in the design process, a rough sketch was all they needed.

a-different-direction-21It proved very difficult to locate any dwarf Serbian spruce, so my clients substituted  several rows of Hicks yews, faced down by a spreading yew  “Everlow”. Their rock wall was constructed as a border until the ground dropped off sharply at the end. Planted above that rock wall, as a transition to the grass, is a hedge of Winter Gem boxwood. Just last weekend they came in and purchased a low and very wide steel bowl from Branch, set on top of a volcanic rock pillar.

a-different-direction-20It will take some time for the plants to grow, but it is clear where this layered landscape is going.  I especially like how the lawn panels have such a sculptural quality.

a-different-direction-13This view furthest from the driveway explains how dramatically the ground dropped away. A set of concrete stairs makes the side yard accessible from the front of the house.

a-different-direction-14The flexible pines are planted as a block off the corner of the house.  Eventually they will present as a single organism. They are doing a great job of visually holding up this corner of the house. The exposed foundation of the house is another clue as to how steep the drop in the grade truly is.

a-different-direction-4The Little Lime hydrangeas will greatly soften the architecture of the house.

a-different-direction-1My clients did a great job of creating a landscape feature on the far side of the drive.  It made such great sense to put a staircase in that permits access to that upper level. The steel retaining wall is an interesting contrast to the massive boulder wall. I see they have some sculpture set on that upper level. Someday they might break through the evergreen hedge that separates their property from the property they just purchased. That view has a lot of possibilities. It is particularly satisfying when a client takes a sketch and turns it into a landscape all their own.













A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

pool and landscapeI don’t recall the topic under discussion, but at one point Buck said to me, “Well you know, a rising tide lifts all boats”.  That got my attention, as I had never head this expression before. From Wikipedia, ” The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy.”  Though this saying is usually associated with economic theory, I do not see why it could not be applied to a variety of other topics – like the landscape design process. It seems almost too obvious to say, but I will say it anyway. To my mind, the most striking change in perception and knowledge about the landscape over the past 20 or more years has been fueled by the availability of information – both of the written and visual sort. Thirty years ago, even the most well travelled clients were not necessarily aware of the history or current practice of landscape design. Or what materials and plants were available. Their focus was on their lives. They had me, as my focus was on their landscape. Of course there is no substitute for personal experience, but it requires almost no effort to see pictures and read about landscapes both historic and contemporary, in other parts of our own country, and in other countries. Information and pictures are readily available. It is just as easy to research materials and ornament for the landscape. We completed the landscape pictured above early in 2013. We still work there, doing the seasonal plantings. A few months ago she gave me a photograph she had seen in a magazine of a landscape feature predicated on a pair of parallel hedges of arborvitae, and asked how I felt about a similar feature at the far end of her pool. I thought it was a great idea. We left the space behind the chaises open, in case there were ever a reason to tent the space for a party. After living with the landscape for 3 years, my client was interested in a more finished gesture, and she had a way to explain to me how she would like to see it finished.

arborvitae Emerald Green (7)Is it unusual for a client to suggest a change or addition to a landscape? It may have been so years ago, but not now. A client who is interested in a shade tree, an arbor, a bird feeder, a swimming pool, terrace furniture, a vegetable garden, a fountain, a hedge, a certain architectural style or a perennial garden has most likely done some research on the topic. A picture or article that explains or illustrates what appeals to them gets their idea across clearly. No one installs a landscape hoping it will satisfy. Everyone wants to feel some measure of confidence that they will like the results of a landscape project. I might do research of my own for images that illustrate a landscape concept I am trying to explain to a client.

arborvitae Emerald Green (3)The 2 parallel hedges are set 7 feet apart.  The opening in the front hedge is 10 feet wide. After seeing this, my client decided she wanted the opening a little smaller.  We will add two more Emerald Green arborvitae in the front row.

arborvitae Emerald Green (4)The planting of these 23 arborvitae will provide structure to a space. It will take several years for the plants to grow together, and act like walls.  I am quite sure we will trim the tops parallel to the horizon. What comes next will be determined when this part is finished. Whether there is a large planter, or benches or a fountain-I have no idea, nor do I need to know right now. For sure there are no end of options for consideration. The rising tide of available information means that any project can be lifted up. More personal.  better.

arborvitae Emerald Green (6)A recent landscape consultation involved a discussion of a fountain which would be a focal point in the landscape.  My client wanted me to tell her what options were available. I could easily provide scores of fountain options that would be properly proportioned to the space, and amiable to the architecture. But having only met her once, I might not be able to find that one fountain that would greatly appeal to her. I told her she needed to put her boat in the water. I gave her a list of possible search phrases, to which she could add her own. Once she could show me pictures of fountains, or fountain shapes or styles that appealed to her, I would be better able to help her select one.

arborvitae Emerald GreenFor those clients who have looked at too many pictures, or read too many articles, a designer can be useful as an editor. Too many choices can be paralyzing, and just as bad a situation as having no choice.  I like to advise, to a point. Any client who is instrumental in making decisions about their landscape takes ownership of it more readily. This is why I think designers (myself included) have such a hard time making decisions about their own landscapes. Too much exposure to too many options can bring a decision making process to a standstill. If you only have room for one tree, and there are 20 that could be beautiful, how do you make a choice? What do you need most from the tree? shade? flowers and fruit? screening?  That should narrow your list of 20. Most places have state parks, arboretums, botanic gardens and public gardens of one sort or another where anyone can see trees in person. Or you could look at each tree on google images, and compare.  On the Missouri Botanic Garden website, go to   the Plant finder

arborvitae Emerald Green (2)We’ll see what comes next.










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.


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.