Archives for April 2009

The Language of Design

boldforms1Everyone makes decisions about a life’s work.  Whether they think it through, or not,  decisions get made.  As a landscape designer,  I realized part of my life’s work was to plant magnolias-all manner of magnolias, every where it made good design sense to plant them. I am a  designer who in part came to design via a love for plants.  Plants are part of the vocabulary that helps give voice to a point of view. Every designer needs heart, soul, and nerve-but they also need language.

But back to magnolias. There is a history to my love for them. My design mentor Al Goldner had a big love for plants, but also a penchant for dragging along, and provoking his young staff, with beautiful  plants.  He took me to the garden of Phil Savage 35 years ago, give or take. I have not one shred of memory of the visit. But thanks to a thoughtful niece, I visited there last spring, after his death.mag

mag2Phil Savage,  lived on almost 8 acres-most of which reflects a lifetime growing and hybridizing magnolias.  He also grafted magnolia cuttings onto ash tree root stock-these trees are 70 feet tall on his property, as we speak.  He hybridized “Yellow Butterflies”;  when the spring weather is perfect, it is a dream come true in bloom.  Later, it is sturdily and robustly green.  His property had magnolias of a size, with flowers in colors, I have never seen-yellow, peach, orangy pink.   It was like a visit to another planet.  But no, just a visit to a man who knew and lived his life’s work.


I have a magnolia in my yard, which I inherited.  It looks like no magnolia I know. It is the first thing to make a move,  in the spring.  I have a  supposedly “hardy” hybrid of Magnolia Grandiflora tucked into a corner, hoping nature won’t notice.  In pure envy of the British, I am growing an arbor of Magnolia “Galaxy” over my driveway.  My neighborhood dating from the 1930’s is peopled with Magnolia Soulangiana trees of immense size-mostly poorly placed.  Plants have a will to live, thank God.   The day they drop their petals, one could weep.

The point of this-you don’t need to know the words magnolia soulangiana.  But you may need that tree somewhere in your landscape that is asking for bold form, flowers and leaves-so put its image in your  design dictionary.  If I have my way, my life’s work will make for a whole  blizzard of giant petals, dropping softly, every year, on one particular spring day.


Whatever the Weather

As a child, every year meant a new elementary school in some other established neighborhood, which meant long bus rides, and no friendships of any duration. My house, after all, was the only house for blocks.   I think I spent the third grade in the gymnasium of another school district with children from other school-less neighborhoods. I think we were dazed by our circumstance of not belonging anywhere-we were all oddly isolated, needing twice daily transportation to a finished neighborhood.  I would be a person uneasy indoors, happiest outdoors.


When very young, my exposure to weather was supervised, of course.  But as I got older, I ventured afield slowly, then boldly.  While the sunny, warm, cloudless and windless days had their charms, I was equally enamored of other weather.  Storms were my first introduction to music. The air visible with wet July heat, clouds moving quickly from one side of the sky to the other, the music of thunder and the smell of lightning- this my own personal television show, with a new episode to come tomorrow.  There seemed no disputing that I was the center of the world.

Once on a boat on a sunny midday in very heavy white fog, I was afraid in a way I have never felt again. Once it rained so hard the water seemed to be rising off the ground, not falling. On occasion my house shakes and my windows rattle from thunder. I wake up buried in snow.  Routinely I would see weather not quite like any I had ever seen before; this is still the case 50 years later. Whatever the weather, I like it.



Sunday Opinion: Slide Wire Potentiometers


 My partner Buck collects all manner of old gauges; he tells me they are known as potentiometers.  They measure with incredible accuracy, electric current.  These devices are beautiful wood boxes studded with all manner of knobs and dials. Many of them hang on the walls of his office; they are beautiful objects. I do not share his passion for instruments of all kinds, but I do like the idea of potentiometers.  It is my opinion that most every person comes with imagination, creativity, and a whole host of other things that make it possible to design- as standard equipment. If you think you do not have this, then maybe you need to switch on your potentiometer.

 A college professor of literature once told me he thought the transmission of knowledge was one of life’s most important responsibilities. The closest I come to teaching is speaking to groups. Some groups are focused on gardening. The herb society wants my discussion of classical English herb gardens. The women’s farm and garden wants a demonstration on proper planting techniques. Other groups are tougher to plan for, and engage.  A spring charity luncheon needs a guest speaker; what will I talk to them about? Who are they? 

 But no matter the group, or my topic, most questions people ask me imply that my ability to design, and garden is a special gift. A gift given to some, and mostly not to others.  Some people have God-given creativity and astonishing imaginations;  others do not. Most questions thus relate to rules, formulas, and tips. People love lists-and especially lists that might get them beauty through the back door, as they clearly think they have no business at the front. They ask, how can one create a garden in spite of a lack of creativity? Are there secrets I might share? Where do my ideas come from? I want to have what you do in my life-how can I engineer that for myself, hiring you, or a step short of hiring you?  I cannot keep anything alive, I cannot organize this garden, this event, or this porch-can you help me to get where I would like to be? I know you have clients; do you coach?  I recognize these straight line feelings; I often fear I have dreamed up my last idea. I worry regularly that I am going lame or repeating myself, maybe faster than I think. At some point, it shocked me to realize there was no program I could sign myself up for, and be awarded not just a degree, but aesthetic vision, at the end.  So I am sympathetic to these questions. However, I find beautiful work, talented people,inspiring ideas, gorgeous gardens, interesting landscapes, everywhere I go.  Everywhere. 

Lauren Hanson takes my writing and my photographs, and does the work of posting for me-but Sundays, I do this myself.  So why is this post in my favorite font, at my favorite size, and oo la la, in green-unlike any other post ever published here, when I know next to nothing about computers?  I have no doubt it is my potentiometer-working.

At a Glance- Spring Yellow