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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Finished Landscape

landscape 2015 (4)This post is the last in a series of three about the renovation of a landscape. The fences and gates were finished just in time for our garden tour last Sunday. It is remarkable how much they contribute to the landscape. Though I say the landscape is finished, of course there are spots that could be improved.  But for now, the landscape has presence, and is healthy. The back yard feels like a secret garden-which is what my clients sought the most from their landscape renovation.

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lead containers

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landscape 2015 (3)The view from the driveway culminates in a peegee hydrangea on standard.

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landscape 2015 (5)A 12″ tall retaining wall on the far side of the pergola made it possible to level the ground in this area.  The pergola is planted with the climbing rose “John Davis”.

landscape 2015 (6)The view of the yard looking north benefits from the landscapes further up the street.  The long view here is quite lovely, even though the setting is an urban neighborhood.

DSC_1861The south side yard

landscape 2015 (7)The tricolor beech has some companion plantings.

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DSC_1865a small perennial garden

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Q landscape (4)

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landscape 2015 (9)The pergola from the front yard has gates and a fence to go with. Planted between the Venus dogwoods-hydrangea “Bobo”, and pachysandra.

landscape 2015 (10)Planted on the fence, sweet autumn clematis. The emerald green arborvitae are planted on the fence line, while the hedge of Venus dogwoods curves forward.  The two hedges overlap in a visually interesting way.

landscape 2015 (12)Emerald green arborvitae provide screening on the driveway side.

landscape 2015 (1)The gates

DSC_1873The generator is not screened from this view, yet.

DSC_1317at the end of the driveway, an old bench flanked by a pair of pots.

DSC_1226The end result – a simple formal landscape in front that makes much of the classic architecture of the house, and three beautiful and mature concolor firs. In the back, a very private landscape and garden that will only get better with time.

 

 

The Renovation Of A Small Landscape

landscape renovation (5)Last September I consulted with a client who had just purchased a jewel of an old home on a small property.  Extensive renovations to the interior were just about done.  The existing garage had been enlarged, and a living space above it has been added.  The neighborhood is lovely.  All of the homes are in close proximity.  They had gone so far as to install a new blue stone walk to the front door. A new landscape plan had been proposed, but she was hesitant about it.  My advice to anyone seeking the services of a designer is as follows.  If you have any reservations, sort them out before there is any arrangement to start the work.  Right off the bat, I loved the lollipop crab apples in front, but I disliked how they covered the beautiful bow windows, and the view to the outside. Plants do grow.  A good designer will site plants such that they do not grow into the elephants in the front yard.

landscape renovation (9)A beautiful sun room was faced down by yews and boxwood that were not doing well, a kousa dogwood which was obviously unhappy, and a random collection of knockout roses. The bed line seemed out of touch with the arrangement of plants. Idea 2: if you have bed lines in mind, cut them before you plant, and arrange the plants to repeat that line.  If you plant before you have a bed scheme in mind, your job is tougher.  You may need to plant a series of plants that reinforce the shape you have established.  Bed lines are a very powerful visual force in a landscape. I always set them first, before I go on to a planting scheme.

DSC_3107The back yard had a privacy fence, and a row of bradford pears. The trees had not been tended to much in recent years, and were in poor condition.  A new blue stone terrace had been set at the correct height out the rear doors.  The ground dropped dramatically to the fence line. I spent a lot of time looking over those trees. Could they stay? My clients previous landscape proposal called for keeping these trees.   My clients were happy with the neighborhood, but wanted some privacy in the rear yard. But these trees?

DSC_3116Landscapes can get away from a property owner so fast.  Plants die from this or that. Trees deteriorate. Other trees grow out with abandon-the result not so desirable. There are gaps, and spaces that contribute to a weary and untended look. My client brought lots of treasured garden ornament with her to this new home.  They needed a home.

DSC_3130A new lawn went a long way to banish the blues.  But the space was asking for a landscape that was beautiful, and functional.  Small properties are great for lots of reasons.  I love that my city lot and a half is manageable.  But a small space means there is no room to fudge.  Every square foot needs to be part of a plan that works.  A good designer listens to a client-first and foremost.  They need to design to the client they represent. Occasionally they need to step out, and suggest a different approach. Next a designer, or a gardener designing for themselves, needs to draw the landscape from edge to edge. That drawing is a benchmark.  The reality is where the spade meets the dirt. What works out on paper needs a sure hand to interpret the intent of the benchmark, once the landscape is being laid out, or underway.

DSC_4772The  over anxious landscape company before me sheared the backs off of these trees, with the idea that arborvitae would be planted under the power lines. I will say I have never seen this done before. I believe this is why my client contacted me. I could not imagine how trees in poor health to begin with would take to this kind of pruning. Nor did I believe arborvitae would prosper in the one wedge of sun they would get at noon every day.landscape renovation (6)Once the Bradfords were gone, it became obvious that the wood fence needed repair.  We shored up the leaning panels, and covered the deteriorated pickets at the bottom with a new cedar reinforcing board.

landscape renovations (4)Of course we painted the fence. That was easy and fast, given we had no obstructions to work around.

landscape renovation (4)The garage wall was big, and bare.  A trellis panel from the previous owner was set in the corner, to hide the electric service. My client placed her charming lead fountain in front of the wall.  Charming as it is, the wall overwhelmed it.  This wall needed a new idea. And the fountain needed a smaller more intimate location.

DSC_3109A generator is a big appliance which is not so great looking. In a small yard, they seem gigantic. The idea to celebrate it with a giant graveled area edged in granite block did not seem like such a great idea. Both the wall and the generator area needed some green relief.

DSC_5256Once my client approved the new plan, we set the bones of the front yard. We added a small gravel path from the walk to the drive.  And we designed a large steel pergola some 20 feet long which would be a better scale for the house. The new pergola would balance the sun room on the opposite side. The older wood arbor would be completely refurbished, and relocated to the entrance of the smaller and more intimate rear yard.  That structure will be beautiful in a space where it can be better appreciated.

landscape renovation OctoberWe did replace winter damaged yews, and boxwood.  We added more boxwood, in a formal square.  Between the boxwood and the yews at the sidewalk-a row of Little Lime hydrangeas. The new front landscape is respectful of the beautiful concolor firs, arborvitae, and the low wall at the walk.  We were underway with the renovation.