Water In The Garden


I suppose there are those moments when rain in the garden means trouble. A windy and strong downpour can knock the peonies and the delphiniums to the ground. Heavy rains can weigh down the flower panicles of hydrangeas in full bloom. A tree hydrangea whose flowers are stooped over from heavy rain – I avert my eyes. Why is it that the only time we have silly crazy and pounding rain is when I am trying to get Milo out of the car and in to the house at the end of the day?  I do not love being drenched. But in general, I am very grateful for that rain that nurtures my landscape and garden.

The garden after a heavy rain has a juicy and saturated look. Even the air seems freshly washed. The lichens on the backs of my chairs are a sure sign that those chairs have been watered. Our rains are more regular come the fall season. Given cooler temperatures, these pots will not require any water from a hose for a few days. What the picture above does not express is the action and sound of that rain, but this does:  pouring rain The sound and the action of water in the landscape is a benefit of another sort.

I may have told this story before, but in my mind, it bears repeating. My last birthday gift from my Mom before she passed was a stack of beach towels. Beach towels? I asked her why. I am embarrassed to say I was irritated by her gift. Mom’s have a different vision – don’t they? She replied that of course I did not have a use for beach towels. I was always working. She thought it might be a good idea for me to go to the beach once in a while. She left me some money when she died. I spent every penny of it on this fountain in my back yard. Every day after work, I go to this particular beach, and think of her. The sound of that water adds the element of music to the garden. The action of the water is both mesmerizing and relaxing. It is no surprise that many people feel that living on a body of water of some sort is a quality of life issue. My garden life is all the better for this body of water.

Years ago I had no interest in water in the garden. That was tone deaf. Sounds in the garden are so much a part of the landscape. The birds and bees-and the water. I routinely suggest to clients that a water feature in the garden is a good idea. Big or small – that makes no difference. A representation of water in a garden within earshot endows that garden with a special gift. Call that whatever you like-communing with nature, or enjoying blissfully relaxing white noise.

This recirculating fountain jar features a basin that can be installed above or below ground. The pump is in the basin, and is disguised by a layer of rock over a screen. The action of this fountain is very subtle, but unmistakable. Of course there is maintenance involved. The basin needs refilling occasionally, as water is inevitably lost to evaporation. At the end of the season, a trap door in the basin provides access by which the pump can be removed and stored for the winter. This pot is glazed stoneware, so it can be left out for the winter. I might be inclined to put a simple plywood cover over the top to keep snow out of the pot. The fountain jet passes through the drain hole, and is sealed in place, the pot no longer drains.

This 3 tiered fountain was forged in cast iron by an English artist Michael Hill. The fountain has been installed in a large pool, which captures the water coming over the edges. This fountain both streams and splashes water. It provides a very lively focal point for this part of the landscape.

This is the first Hudson fountain cistern the Branch Studio made many years ago. Subsequent to that time, we have fabricated and shipped them all over the country for clients and designers in search of a simple, rugged, and substantial fountain to place in the landscape. They have also made this fountain in custom sizes and versions. One very large fountain that went to California has a 1/2′ thick and 10″ wide steel return-suitable for sitting.

Some 12 years later, we have this Hudson fountain cistern running at the shop. Like the look?  See this for the action and sound: Hudson fountain cistern

This oval fountain with its angled handles was inspired by a vintage tub Rob brought back from France years ago.

Branch hemispherical fountain purchased and placed in the landscape by the design firm Reed Dillon and Associates.

small glazed fountain ensemble

This oval stick fountain was fabricated at Branch. The client who purchases it was sufficiently enchanted to have it craned over his house to it final location in the garden. Water sustains life for all living things. You and me, and the landscape. A fountain – a vessel for that water – can take no end of interesting and visually satisfying forms. Suffice it to say that if it lives and prospers, it has gotten sufficient water.

Flowers For A Wedding

When I was young, I did a fair number of weddings. The cut flower part, that is. It is a job for a young person. It is a do it right and do it now  situation.  Bridal floral work come in all sizes and shapes, but all of it comes with a substantial dose of angst and anxiety. There is a deadline. Despite the best care, cut flowers can wilt and go down at the most inopportune moment. Every florist has opened a box of roses of a color other than what they ordered. Floral work is not especially conducive to learning on the job. It is physically demanding work. Moving and carrying buckets and vases full of water and cut flowers takes strength. Arranging flowers has its creative and romantic aspect, but there is a lot of just plain hard work. That backache has to be from standing and holding flowers aloft for hours at a time. Most of that work has to be done last minute. This is all by way of saying I am reluctant to take on a wedding now. But this was a client I have known for years. She lost her beloved to a lengthy, terrible, and cruel illness. Many years later and just a few months ago, she came in to say she had met someone she planned to marry, and would I do the flowers? I met with her at the venue of both the wedding and reception, and tried to dissuade her. I made several suggestions about where she might find a good florist. She wasn’t having that. She wanted me to do the flowers, would I?  Her only request was for hydrangeas. And that she would leave the rest of it up to me. How could I not say yes?

I ordered in a selection of flowers that I thought would be beautiful weeks ahead of time. I wanted to show her my selections, and I wanted to make a test run.  Hydrangeas are notorious for wilting soon after they are cut. I ordered the hydrangea “Florists White”. This cultivar is grown for the cut flower trade, as it holds better than most in a vase. 100 stems of white hydrangeas does not seem like that many, but each one had a water bag on the stem and an acetate hat that needed removal. Each stem got a fresh cut, and an immediate immersion in a bucket of clean lukewarm water. The flowers and leaves were sprayed with AquaFinish Clear – which hydrates and seals moisture in to both flowers and foliage. One of the miracle products of modern floristry. I could have skipped that step, but I would have needed to order more flowers. The flowers then have to sit, untouched, until they dry. Only then can they be placed in a floral cooler. This prep work is known as conditioning. I like to condition them overnight before I arrange them.  Lots of work is required to get cut flowers ready to arrange. Amni majus “Green Mist” was a wild card, but the airy texture of the leaves and flowers would be a great addition to the flower selections. As much as I love the reference to the late summer garden, it was a worry if they would hold. So I ordered extra bunches. The mini calla lilies would provide great curves and mass, and were a favorite of my client.

Of course I ordered in white lisianthus. This long stemmed multiflowered cut stem is the best antidote to wedding florist worry that I know of. The large flowers stay fresh for days. They are happy out of water for better than the duration of a wedding. The petals survive anxious handling. The buds are a gorgeous greenish color. They are a beautiful foil for the open flowers. The long stems make them suitably versatile for both tall and compact arrangements.

My client thought a wedding bouquet for her was not necessary. I thought differently. Once she told me her dress was olive green, I ordered in a clutch of green and white slipper orchids. I would capture these 25 stems with some olive green silk ribbon. As delicate as they are, they all held up perfectly in water. The bouquet would be kept in water until the last second. She had but to pat the stems dry, and go. I hoped that when it came time, this simple arrangement would appeal to her enough to carry them. At least she would have the option.

Weddings ask for flower arrangements here and there, but garlands can do a great job of knitting all of the individual pieces together. There were a number of places the garland would look great. Though baby’s breath is a traditional flower, en mass it can have a fresh and contemporary look. I bought in 4 kinds of baby’s breath garland, and tested their width, density and holding power. I ordered in the best quality of these garlands, and kept my fingers crossed. They arrived 2 days before the wedding, at Sunne’s insistence. If FedEx failed to show on Thursday, a Friday delivery would be in time for the Saturday wedding. We opened the plastic, and let the garlands air out. A local florist agreed to let me park these garlands in their cooler until I needed them on Saturday.

On Friday I did all of the 14 arrangements save two. As much as I like everything done before an installation, it would be so much easier to arrange the hydrangeas on site, and put them in place.

The packing up, transport, and installation is the second part of the job.  They boxed all of the arrangements, with an eye to protecting all of the petals. They laid the baby’s breath garlands flat on the truck shelves, as they had been stored rolled up. This is a very low tech delivery system perfect for a once in a great while florist. Three of my staff did the packing, driving, placing, tying, fluffing and cleanup. Most of my work had been done the previous two days.

Three tables got moved outdoors at the last minute. Cut flowers arranged in water can handle this sunny exterior location.  I like to arrange flowers in water as much as possible.

The garland needed a good shaking, and a little fluffing, once it was in place. The lisianthus on the mantle were kept in water until it was time for them to be added to the garland.

This was a small wedding – a perfect size for having the time to attend to all the details.

The wedding took place outdoors, between this pair of pillars.


The pillars needed to look dressed up from both sides.

a simple arrangement for the dessert table

I did hear from my client about the flowers this morning. She thanked me for all, and for insisting she have a bouquet. She thought it was beautiful and it was perfect with her dress. Happiest of all about this.

Gravel In The Garden

I have no idea what type of stone this antique English millstone was carved from, but I can attest to the fact that our skid steer could barely lift it. I averted my eyes when I saw the front tires of our loader leave the ground. Stone is incredibly dense, and heavy. If this millstone is granite, you can be sure that the carving process for this solid mass of stone was lengthy and exhausting. Stone is a treasured material in the landscape, as it is a natural material that takes just about forever to degrade. Its surfaces age beautifully. Crushed stone, including crushed granite, is a material much easier to handle and place, and is commonly known as gravel. These small shards of stone have endless applications in the garden, not the least of which involve the base and the top layer for a driveway. A giant granite millstone takes a machine and many people to move. Crushed granite can be dumped and  shoveled around wherever you need a hard surface. We have been shoveling.

Our decomposed granite display space and driveway is 24 years old. It has been subject to all manner of insults over the years, not the least of which is a near daily dose of heavy trucks going in and out. Add to that dirt spills from countless container plantings. Our graveled spaces were due for replacement.  How so? Decomposed granite comes with fines. As in granite dust. Those fines help to interlock the very small shards of granite, and harden up the surface.  But over the years, the foot and vehicular traffic drive the small granite pieces down, and bring up the soil and fines from underneath. Our gravel had become a dust fest on dry days, and a mud fest on wet ones.  It was time to replace it. As in dig out the old soil and sand contaminated gravel, and replace it with new stone.

The linden trees adjacent to the building are 24 years old. There would be roots to respect. Buried under our degraded gravel were the electrical lines for the lighting in the trees. This meant that all of the old gravel had to be loosened and dug out by hand, one pick axe and flat shovel full at a time. This was a big job, requiring both of my crews. The photograph above clearly illustrates the new gravel, some 4 inches deep, on the right, and the degraded gravel driveway on the left due for excavation and some new stone.

Our original driveway, circa 1995, was concrete. We removed all of that, save a two track of concrete to the rear. We eventually removed all of the rest of that concrete, and replaced it with a large scale crushed granite. Those large stones proved difficult to navigate, even in sneakers. They made leveling a pot on a pedestal time consuming. Big rocks are not so easy to navigate or manipulate. Little rock is much more forgiving. Our next go around, we switched to decomposed granite, 3/8ths of an inch and down with fines.  This gravel looked like sand when it went down. This miniature gravel with fines put up with our traffic for a good many years. As usual, the more moderate decision – an in between sized crushed stone –  would have been better choice.  Not too large, and not too small. The 3/8 inch and down granite gravel eventually succumbed to our traffic. I am happy to say, we are getting our chance at installing a granite gravel of moderate size this week.

I have known for a long time that our gravel needed to be taken up, and replaced. Late last week a decision was made to go ahead. We are in between jobs. The weather has cooled off. It was time to jump on this project. I am so pleased with the first signs of the results. Though it has taken lots of work to remove every object from the surface to be redone, putting it all back together has been a pleasure. Luckily, we have a home for that dirt laden gravel at our landscape yard. So we excavate and stockpile the old gravel out front, unload and install the new gravel, pick up the old and dump it at our yard-on our way for the next load of fresh gravel. How do we know when it is level? It is our best guess. Based on many years of experience engineering flat spaces. We’ll know we are close to dead on when the driveway drains properly. The mini gravel had become so compacted that water sat on top.  It took hours to trickle water the trees. It is worth it to breach that compacted layer, so water readily gets to the tree roots.

Everything in the landscape needs refreshing. Perennials need dividing. Shrubs need pruning. Soil needs a routine shot of compost. The work of the landscape is never really done. A landscape or garden is either going backward, or going forward. There is no neutral in a garden.  Fortunately a job of this magnitude only comes around once in a blue moon, but the transformation is satisfying.

I would guess we have a week left for the finish.  We excavate down to the original base layer. On this side of the drive, the lion’s share of the gravel exchange is done by machine.  But all of the spreading and grading is done by hand.

The center portion of the driveway will be done last. It is hard to spot in this picture, but the crown of the drive is too high. That crown never gets driven over. Water now drains towards the front door. In a very heavy and fast paced rain, water goes under the door and inside. A new permeable gravel driveway will correct that problem.

The new gravel at the shop has a fresh and pleasing texture. It is too big to be tracked inside. It will take a while to interlock and compact, but the crushed granite will eventually provide a stable walking and placement surface. Thinking some gravel will do for a drive, terrace or walkway?  My advice is to evaluate the size of the stone that would be appropriate for your project.

This gravel driveway has a base layer of 21AA crushed limestone, and a 3″ top layer of the same medium crushed granite we are using at the shop. The drive is a firm surface that shows no evidence of vehicular traffic, yet is is permeable to rain.

gravel driveway

exposed aggregate concrete drive with graveled edges

For those who would rather not deal with the maintenance of gravel, an exposed aggregate concrete surface provides the look of without the maintenance required of a paving material that moves. Aggregate concrete is a several part process that requires a highly skilled installation.

This driveway was beautifully done, and should provide many years of maintenance free service.

gravel terrace with exposed aggregate detail

decomposed granite terrace contained by aluminum edger strip

flagstone walkway with decomposed granite joints

concrete paver squares set in decomposed granite

limestone pavers with medium crushed granite

dramatic, the difference. Interested further in rock sizes?  The link below has pictures and descriptions.

stone and gravel sizes

 

August

Did I spend weeks designing and specifying plant material for the shop garden this past February? No, absolutely not. I rarely think about the shop plantings until our work for clients is coming to a close. That means that I scout what seasonal plant material is still available in late June or early July. I actually don’t think it matters that much what we plant. What matters is that we plant. I am a fan of any person who plants. And doubly so for those who plant and plant again. I have no need to weigh in about what is good to plant. Anyone who plants trees, vegetables, perennials, shrubs or season plants in any configuration or design – I thank you and respect you for planting.  Planting is work, but it is entertaining and satisfying work. Making something grow is a good use of time in every sense of the phrase.

You might be aghast that the shop seasonal garden design and installation hinges on the left overs at those greenhouses where we shop, but I am used to this arrangement. I do not mind in the least bit being last in line. I relish the challenge. Any skilled designer should be able to make sense of an impromptu collection of plants they never expected to put together. Surprise is a vastly underrated design element. Surprise without angst, that is. I can always tell if a seasonal planting has been thrown together in a panic at the last minute. Last minute panic usually has that aura.  But last minute does not necessarily imply a lack of design. Designing from a very limited palette of plants available in equally limited numbers is my idea of a good time. Of course some outcomes are better or more interesting than others.

What is the most important factor in a beautiful planting? Well grown and maintained plants have to be at the top of that list. Some plants are not so much to my taste, but any well grown plant has a beauty that is undeniable. It takes effort not to admire a well grown and mature stand of shasta daisies. It is easy to pass over a planting that has had haphazard care, no matter how interesting and extraordinary the plants. The care and maintenance, as in on time watering, grooming, feeding, deadheading, dividing and weeding, is key to a beautiful planting. The window boxes pictured above get a good deal of attention over the summer. As we are in love and in business over the garden, I insist that we take great care of our plantings. The star of our show in the window boxes is a new Proven Winners angelonia known as “Steel Blue”. My grower got a number of cuttings in late, and when we were ready to plant they were looking extraordinarily good.

I am very impressed by its performance. They grow tall on sturdy stems, and they seem to handle hot and humid weather without skipping a beat. That pale carmine color is beautiful. That color so echoes the striking color of bordeaux petunias. Summer snapdragon-what a charming common name for this seasonal plant. They relish the heat, and they bloom profusely. They look especially good paired with nicotiana “Purple Perfume”, which is an all-America selection. An All America selection? Look to this designation for plants that are likely to perform beautifully throughout our summer season. The All America designation is not awarded to many. It is conferred upon plants that thrive. Lime nicotiana and creeping jenny is companionable with almost any color scheme. Green is a neutral color in the garden.

This yellow and carmine purple scheme looks great on a sunny day.

This cream yellow and lavender bicolor verbena named Limoncello tells the story of our pale yellow and purple color scheme. It is a new plant for us.

The petunias further represent the surprise combination of colors thematic to the summer planting at the shop. The color contrast is soft, and engaging. Our grower’s good supply of petunias played a substantial role in the design.

Four pots outside the front door of my office are planted with Limelight hydrangeas on standard. Those creamy and greenish white hydrangea flowers coming in to bloom are the star of the show. One pair is under planted with yellow petunias and lime licorice. The pots are large enough to permit more frequent watering the hydrangeas.

The planting on the roof is just starting to come in to is own. All of those pale yellow supporting plants? Pale yellow marigolds. Splashes of yellow cannas. The coleus “Wasabi” is planted in the back row, as it gets quite tall. It is amenable to being grown in full sun, as long as it gets sufficient water. The color is a sunny yellow – quite different than its lime green color in shady spots. Lime licorice, bordeaux and misty lilac wave petunias round out the planting. The roof boxes have automatic irrigation, as getting up there in person requires a very large and heavy extension ladder. That said, either Chelsea or Karen go up there twice a week to check on everything.  Yes, we plant. Every chance we get.

The shop garden in August.