A No Plan Landscape

Several years ago I had a request from a new client to plant her pots. We obliged. I could not help over the course of a few seasons to take note of the landscape. Her front door had a very tall, substantial, and fairly elaborate porch roof. That porch roof and upstairs balcony was a very prominent architectural feature in shape as well as color. A mature clipped hedge of boxwood planted close the walk from the drive was not so friendly to that feature. It obscured the view of a beautiful blue stone porch floor, the bottoms of the offset columns, and her pots. A pair of young Palabin lilacs on standard added to the congestion. Full grown, the heads of those lilacs would spread and completely obscure the pots on the  porch from the driveway, and would eventually encroach on the walkway to the front door. It seemed like the entry landscape obscured the entry, as opposed to embracing it. The house is always the the dominant feature of an urban landscape, by virtue of its size. Successful landscape design needs to address and compliment that architecture.

Late last summer, this client did ask me to look over her landscape. She was not happy with the feel or the look. A landscape she showed me that she liked was very formal, and symmetrical. Though she was willing to change it all up, she wanted me to reuse all of the existing plant material that she had, a good bit of which she had just put in a year ago. Though that would prove to be a significant challenge, I could understand the request. No one wants to feel their investment was not a pleasing investment. The view from the street revealed a scalloped landscape bed planted with myrtle and begonias that did not include or speak to a trio of sizeable maples. Behind the begonias, a hedge of spreading yews, planted in a shallow arc with straight wings.

The landscape on the street side of the drive was layered. The shape of the large bed of myrtle was not consistent side to side, and the scalloped edges did not work so well with the straight line presented by the street and curb.   Nothing about this view seemed clearly defined.The grass and myrtle were so similar in color and texture that it was difficult to see the shapes.

The far south side of the landscape featured a pair of maples. The landscape dropped off, and quit speaking on the south side. Most likely the shade cast by the pair of trees had much to do with that. Myrtle in deeper shade looses its texture and punch, and is ineffective visually unless it is planted in substantial and clearly defined beds.

This side view of the street side landscape makes it easy to see the scalloped edge of the myrtle, and the planting layers. The densiformis yews had been formally pruned, and was topped off by a mass of roses. Densiformis yews are the most beautiful in their naturally spiky and wide state. The trimming here was an effort to keep them lower than the roses. I like a layered landscape just as much as the next gardener, but I like layers that take into account the eventual height and spread, and the natural habit of each plant. Many years of gardening has taught me that most plants resent schooling. They are at their most beautiful when they can grow and have room to breathe.

Across the drive, blocks of Incrediball hydrangeas were backed up by Hicks yews planted on the foundation of the house. A couple of Kousa dogwoods were sprinkled in to the mix.

In front of the hydrangeas were long parallel ribbons of Japanese forest grass, and black leaved heuchera. Black and lime in a container can be quite dramatic and effective. This was too much of a good thing, in my opinion. Nor would these plants look good in the winter.

It is so important in creating landscape layers to allow room for each plant to develop to its eventual size, and to choose plants that will eventually represent the height and width sought. The Hicks yews in the background could certainly be grown to a taller height, but they were already covering the bottoms of the windows.To my mind, the Hicks yews set the height that all other landscape elements needed to respect. It would only take another year for the Incrediballs to exceed the foundation yews in height. They would also drape over at least the first row of grasses.

The far south side featured a ball shaped hedge of spirea. This seemed fine to me. The problem was the maintenance. I would hard prune those spireas regularly rather than snipping the ends.  They looked bulky, chubby, and too tall against the yews.

Opposite the front door, the beds were scalloped in a similar way as the street side myrtle bed. The landscape bed lines did not seem to take much of a cue from the shapes, curves, and lines created by the driveway. The bed line scallops on the street side have the same problem.. Streets and driveways are hard structures that cannot be changed. Good landscape design acknowledges and works with those structures that are a given.

My client was tired of the roses. She was happy for me to pitch them. They were robust to the point of weediness. I doubt they gave her much color but for a few weeks in June. Did I relay all of my observations to my client?  No. Though I would be able to point out my design concerns, I had no idea what to propose in its stead. I told her I wanted to transplant the boxwood hedge -intact- away from the porch, and move all of the Incrediball hydrangeas to the opposite side of the driveway. After that was done, I told her that I would have to come every day to decide what would go where, next. She seemed hesitant, but not for long. I told her the project would take a number of days, and that she would have time to react to what she was seeing. Knowing she had time helped her to have confident in the process.

Dan does a terrific job of moving plant material. Each boxwood that got dug up was flagged with a number and a face, so the replanting seems exactly as it was-just in a different spot.

Moving the boxwood (and the Palabin lilac standards) completely transformed the look of the entrance to the house. The entrance landscape is simple, formal and symmetrical, and embraces the architecture. The yews in the back could be seen, as well as the porch pillars and pots. It was a good start. My client was happy with the starting gesture and felt more relaxed about trusting what was to come.

One newly planted kousa dogwood was moved a bit forward.  It is now the same distance from the driveway as the dogwood on the opposite side of the porch. The Incrediball hydrangeas would be replaced with fewer numbers of hydrangea Bobo. This dwarf hydrangea is easy to maintain at 3′ tall. The front border of heuchera was reduced by one row in depth, so there were enough plants to traverse the entire length of the main house.

The lime green Japanese forest grasses were transplanted into the new square shaped ground created when the boxwood were moved. The planting mimics the width and height of the porch. The color and texture will be a welcome surprise to anyone who steps up on to the porch.

A matching block of hydrangea Bobo were planted to the south of the front door. The remainder of the south side landscape would be kept intact.

Though the twigs of the Bobos are almost invisible here, the house side landscape was complete in late October. The areas on either side of the walk will be planted in the spring. I told my client I would prefer to see something short here, unless she decided to opt for taller pots on the porch.

Opposite the front door, we dug and replanted all of the existing densiformis yews in a simple and shallow curve. A group of Hydrangea Bobo were planted in the midsection in place of those roses. There would be room for seasonal flowers here, come spring.

A new hedge of upright yews -taxus Mooni- was installed on the street side. That curve is more shallow than the replanted densiformis yews. The space that opened up between the two curving hedges provided room for the existing Incrediball hydrangeas. The eventual height and width of this cultivar will be perfect in this location.

All three maple trees were included in what is now one large bed. Once the new bed lines were established, we reset the original steel edger strip.

The new look is organized, simple and formal.  It is not symmetrical, but it suggests the concept of symmetry.

As it turns out, my client was interested in new pots.  She chose these Frank Lloyd Wright reproduction urns and pedestals. The color of the stone is perfect with the color of the porch roof and pillars. It adds some horizontal weight to a porch that formerly looked so tall and narrow.

With the pots at this height, the porch has some appropriate and dressy company.

Renovating this landscape was not so easy.  We will see how well we did with that, come summer.

 

 

 

 

The Last On The Limelight Hydrangeas

Given that close to 7000 gardeners have read my last post on hydrangeas in the past few days, I am encouraged to write again.  I went back out last night to rephotograph my hydrangeas with a specific purpose in mind. How do I site them in the landscape, and how do I take care of them? I have a significant disclaimer up front. How I grow hydrangeas is not the be all and end all. How I grow them works for me.  What will work for you involves a lot of independent thought, trial, and error. I would be the first to suggest that you trust your own experience over mine. That said, first up is a discussion about how to grow and manage these big shrubs. No matter where you plant them, hydrangeas reward a gardener who is willing to prune. I only prune in the spring, when the buds are beginning to swell. Limelight hydrangeas that have gotten leggy and ungainly will respond to a pruning to within 18″-24″ above grade. Just be advised that a hard pruning is a restorative pruning that may take 2 years to bring them back up to heavy blooming stage. A yearly pruning down to 18″-24″ results in fewer, and larger flowers.

Want more flowers rather than large flowers? Prune the topmost branches shorter than the bottom branches-so every branch is exposed to the light. Prune several times early in the season to promote branching. Come mid May, I stop pruning.This hydrangea on standard has a beautiful branchy structure as a result of multiple pruning sessions. Notice how the flowers are much smaller than my hydrangeas at home? Post an early spring pruning, a lighter pruning over the course of a few spring weeks results in an embarrassment of riches in smaller flowers.

In love with the giant flowers? Prune vigorously. Pruning deciduous shrubs is not just a matter of style, and it certainly is not a matter of control. Pruning promotes growth that maximizes the opportunity for good blooming. A Limelight left to its own devices will have lots of growth on the top that eventually results in leggy and leafless lower branches.

Big shrubs do and will grow big. Harder pruning may result in a finished size and height at the low end of their growth range. Severe pruning-as in pruning right down to the ground, forces growth from below ground, from what are called basal shoots. I never prune hydrangeas that hard. I like having some old wood to support all those new branches to come. Pruning is all about what the future. The Limelights bloom on new wood – the current year’s growth. If you grow hydrangeas that bloom on the previous year’s growth, prune right after they bloom. This enables them to grow and set flowers for the season to come before winter. Leave them be until after they bloom the following year. But no matter what cultivar you grow, adequate light and water will reward your effort to grow them.

Hydrangeas are big growing shrubs with course leaves and giant flowers. This means they are eminently able to hold down a spot in the garden all on their own. But how does a gardener beautifully integrate them into a garden and landscape?  I make sure they have lots of company-both taller and shorter. My landscape can accommodate them at their full height. I have a much larger and taller hedge of arborvitae planted behind them. That dark green foliage highlights the flowers in a dramatic way.

There are several more layers of plantings in front of them. A hedge of Hicks yews whose health had been declining for years was removed. A series of planter boxes were put in their place. This years planting of nicotiana and angelonia is as loose and airy as the hydrangeas are solid and stiff. Companions to hydrangeas that have a looser habit of growth compliment them. A middle layer of loosely pruned taxus densiformis is faced down with clipped boxwood shapes. 4 layers of companionship is none too few for a shrub that grows 6-8 feet tall.

Limelight hydrangeas integrated into a garden

Limelight hydrangea hedge faced down with boxwood

Limelight hydrangeas faced down with anemone “Honorine Jobert”

hedge of Limelights as a border to a large group of mixed evergreens

These hydrangeas are pruned to keep them at a 5.5-6 foot height.

Between the large evergreens and the hydrangeas is a mass of boltonia asteroides.

Limelights and boxwood

Limelights in a garden

new planting of annabelles and limelights together

Limelights blooming top to bottom

Limelights massed in containers

My client’s containers featuring Limelights on standard are robust and showy this early part of September. We will heel them in the ground at our landscape yard late in the fall, and plant them back in these pots come spring. I do have clients who have and do winter them over in their containers.  I am not that nervy with plants that do not belong to me, but I am not surprised to hear this. Hydrangeas ask for little, and are so satisfying to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Stonework

Once the pool construction detailed in my last post was in a reasonably finished state, a substantial amount of stonework would be required to finish terracing this steeply sloping yard. The drop from the pool terrace to the lower terrace is about 5.5 feet, meaning stairs would be necessary to access the lower level. A pair of 10′ wide stone staircases flanking the pool would permit easy access and flow from the upper to the lower terrace. Mike Newman, stone contractor extraordinnaire, and owner of Mountain Paver Construction Co, sent numerous drawings of these stairs to me over a period of a few weeks, until every detail was worked out.

Though the plan I had drawn was to scale, it was necessary to produce specialized drawings of these stairs. The pool was a given whose dimensions could not be changed. Everything to come would have to be adjusted to meet those “as built” dimensions. Producing a precise drawing can help mitigate problems later. He would have to order stone cut to specific dimensions. Surprises can be great, but not so much for a stone structure that would take months to build. My drawings of the stairs were place holders, and nothing more. The stairs would be built from his drawings.

Mike and I did research and send for a number of stone samples. Pictured above is what was eventually presented to my clients for the wall stone veneer, the pool deck and stairs stone, and the bluestone dots. Veneer stone is available in many different color mixes.  It was eventually decided to use 25% of one mix, and 75% of another. Once stone is chosen, it takes time to get an order processed and shipped.  The stone for the pool deck was special ordered in 2′ square pieces that are 2 1/4″ thick The pool deck stone was mortared to a concrete substrate.  The stone for the stairs was custom cut for this particular project.To follow are pictures that detail the work on the walls and stairs that took the better part of 7 months to complete.  Every piece of stone that went on the wall had to be cut so they would fit together smoothly without any mortar joints. This was an aesthetic decision, not a construction decision. My clients liked the look without.

The concrete for the north and south staircases were poured adjacent to the lower pool. All foundations and stonework that was part of the pool and the lower pool were done by the pool contractor.

I had hopes of beginning the rear yard landscape last fall, but that was not to be. The trucks and equipment necessary to complete the stone work occupied a a lot of the back yard space.  An earth ramp had to be built so equipment and vehicles could be driven to the rear yard.  Building anything is a big messy business. All of those vehicles and pallets of stone made me wince-the compaction of the soil would be an issue we would have to deal with later.

The dark stones you see in the wall above are from the second mix. That darker color would add some interest to these big walls. A table full of stone enabled Mike to pick and choose the shapes and colors as he saw fit.

fall 2016

late November, 2016

Eventually it became necessary to tent and heat the area around the construction of the final staircase and retaining wall, so the work could continue. Continue it did, all winter long.


veneer stone being applied to wall

valders stone treads and risers in place

The return on the final and bottom step of the staircase was a complex shape, so Mike built a template so I could see what it would look like. Sometimes a drawing is not enough information. That piece of stone would be radiused and bull nosed at the stone yard.

By spring, the south retaining wall was done.

staircase done but for the curved lower step returns

finished staircase

Just a few weeks ago, we were finally able to begin laying out the landscape for the lower level. The concrete block structure in the middle foreground is a firepit under construction. Once that foundation and block work was done, it was time for some green. My superintendent Dan thinks a good bit of this lower level landscape will be finished in a few days. Needless to say, I have pictures.

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A Schematic Plan

Some landscapes not only require drawings, they require multiple drawings. My initial meeting with these clients was in March of this past year. They had had a mind to renovate or remake every inch of their home and landscape. My initial visit revealed little in the way of landscape, beyond a random collection of neglected and weedy looking trees, and an equally patchy lawn. They assured me that the landscape portion of the project would be their favorite. There are those clients for whom the first choice of a place to be is a place outdoors. This is a very large property. The distance from the river to the road is 680 feet; the footage on the river is 150 feet –  2 and 1/3 acres in all. Based on our discussions, I would draw what I call a schematic plan.

A schematic plan details and addresses the location and shapes of  various spaces and places with a fair minimum of detail. It does address specific needs. In this section of the plan which includes the the road, a request for privacy at the road is addressed with a gate and gate piers, inset 40 feet from the road to meet local code. A hedge of double wide arborvitae stands in lieu of a fence. Groupings of large evergreens finish and cap the ends of the arborvitae fence. Low but broad plantings will soften the arborvitae wall. Just inside the gate are graveled areas for parking both to the north and south to accommodate guest parking. A picture of a mariner’s compass is a placeholder for a medallion to be determined in the drive.These parking areas will be screened with parallel hedges of limelight hydrangeas. Due east of the parking areas is a landscape feature which is bisected by the driveway. Successively smaller radiused beds will be planted with columnar Norway spruce to the outside, flowering trees or Himalayan white barked birch to the inside, and a pair of curving pergolas planted with roses and vines. As the plan does not call for any gardens in the front yard, large pots are planned in regular intervals along side the drive. What these pots will look like, and what will be planted in them is a decision to come.

My clients have added a second garage with apartments upstairs for their extended families and guests. A large drive court will permit parking and a space for events. The center fountain was a specific request. grass areas bordering the west side of the drive court will provide a place to put snow. To the north, that lawn area will permit the passage of a golf cart from the garage to the dock.

The rear yard drops sharply from the grade of the house to the river. The upper level landscape was designed with an infinity edge swimming pool on 3 sides.  Water would drop over a 5.5′ tall stone retaining wall to a lower pool. The pool landscape would be built on flat ground, courtesy of several adjacent stone walls.  Dual stone staircases would provide access to the rear yard. A formal landscape of boxes planted in geometric shapes would be punctuated with 3 garden areas, and low shrub beds along the stone wall.

This drawing is a schematic plan for the pool. The pool is on axis with the rear porch, and features a spa facing the river, and an in pool seating ledge at the infinity edge. The pool fence would be screened on the north and south side with landscape. Subsequent to this drawing, it was decided that the fence between the pool deck and river will be glass, with a mechanically operated sliding glass gate which will cover both the staircases to the lower level. Once the client had approved this scheme, it would be the job of the pool and stone contractor to produce more detailed drawings in order to actually fabricate what this schematic plan suggests. It would be my job to present options for materials for the walls and pool deck. A drawing is a series of lines and shapes on a piece of paper.  Dealing with the reality of the land would be another issue altogether. I favor initial schematic master plans.  It gives the client the opportunity to commit to or change the big picture first, without being visually burdened by countless details. I have seen landscape plans that are so detailed in the initial phase that it is impossible for a client to see the underlying structure upon which all the details will be built.

To follow are a series of photographs detailing the first phase of the landscape installation –  the construction and installation of the pool, retaining walls and stairs. This picture, taken last March, makes clear how little flat ground existed near the house, and the steepness of the drop to the river.

the original swimming pool under demolition.

forms being built for the new pool

pool construction

pool and spa walls poured

spa insulation layer

the shell of the pool and lower pool

working with the general contractor on the step location, based on the pool, as built.

stone for the spa exterior

The construction of a negative edge such as this is very complex, and requires an expert installation. The pool coping is constructed in 2 parallel rows. The row adjacent to the interior pool set at a slight downward angle, and will always have a slight amount of water over it.  When the pool is full, a series of pumps pushes the water over the slot between the 2 rows of coping.That water is then recirculated back into the pool. This keeps the top layer of water at the same grade as the outer, dry pool coping. This fine detail came after the determination of the size and location of the pool.

Adding the finish stone to the water wall. Gillette Brothers Pool and Spa fabricated and installed the swimming pool, water wall, and lower pool.

the water wall

pouring the concrete base for the pool deck

spa stone and coping

Valders stone pool deck

3″ blue stone dots were installed in the inside corners of every other group of four tiles. Each square tile had to have a corner cut off to accommodate the blue stone dot. This pool deck, as well as the retaining walls and stone staircases were installed by Mike Newman, who owns Mountain Paver Construction. The installation is incredibly beautiful and precise. What you see in the above picture are the finished cut outs, prior to installing the dots.

Once the blue stone squares were installed, the entire stone surface was sanded and sandblasted to insure that water would drain away from the pool.

finished pool and pool deck

rainy day

Next up in my discussion of plans, the retaining walls and staircases to the lower yard.

This aerial photograph was taken by my client, after the basic installation of the pool, and during the construction of the stone retaining walls last winter. The retaining wall to the north you see in the top left of this picture was tented, and heated so the stone work could progress over the winter. I am so very pleased to be a part of this project.

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