Archives for June 2009

Bringing the Garden Upstairs

I have a few clients that challenge me to be the best I can possibly be-this client is right at the top of that list.  Her design ability-whether it be interiors, or parties and events,  or gardening-is superb. She could have easily founded a  School of Design-had she had any inclination to do so. She and her husband live in a beautifully overscaled modern house with a beautifully high pitched roof, and overscaled high-pitched  dormers. (This is a landscape designers description of architecture; bear with me.)


To drive into the impossibly small front drivecourt, you would think the house was sited on a postage stamp of land.  But in fact, the house is sited on a steep ravine, and hangs out over a rear yard that widens, and goes on to embrace the river. It is a big property, with incredible aerial views.


She loves gardens and flowers.  Flowers and more flowers.  She is a master chef-so any plan for her has to include acres of basil, and the like.  OK-the challenge here-to plant a perennial garden stuffed with roses and other perennials, in a flood plane-courtesy of that river.  The first order of business was a lot of drainage, and rear yard grading. When her son got married, we had to install floors in the tents and stepping stones between them at the last second-which we did.   The perennial garden ramps up to a curvy modern swimming pool.  So far so good.3

I met her when I was young-so I had no problem moving every tree and every shrub within two days of my first work there.   There were trees, shrubs and perennials placed poorly, and too many boulders. But that house was a jewel-perched out over a beautiful piece of property.  The house-a beautifully designed tree house.4

A house sited in the crowns of trees-how beautiful.  But what if you love to cook, and grow flowers, and want to sit with your garden and family  around you?5

The house already had a giant deck all across the back.  Stairs to the lower level had a small landing-perfect for pots. The lower level under this deck-dark, and intimate. My only suggestion-windowboxes.  And lots of pots. 6

We built and hung two giant windowboxes-off the deck, at the railing height.  There is a whole symphony of flowers in those boxes every year-every year a new arrangement. The pots we outfitted with automatic irrigation-there are too many pots for one family and one hose.7

I heard my client tell someone recently  I had brought her garden upstairs for her. I had neither the words, nor the clear conscious intent to do this-but I realized when I heard her that she was exactly right.

8As I said, she is a client that encourages me to be the best I can be.  I am a very lucky designer.

Sunday Opinion: Good Design

Good design is about a whole host of things-but money isn’t one of them.  Martha Stewart has built an empire teaching how to take an idea, strip away all the Chanel materials that the cool given idea is all dressed up in, and explain the idea for what it is.   Once there is understanding of a concept,  it can be rebuilt with a different kind of dress-a recycled dress, a dress from JCPenny, or a dress from a thrift shop. Or from materials in the back of your garage;  wonder of wonders, a homemade dress.  I greatly admire her for this-it is no mean accomplishment. She teaches-this is my idea of an extremely important job.  She has made a life making good design accessible to lots of people in all kinds of neighborhoods, states, regions,  and countries.  She is able to take an idea, and break it down such that it makes sense to a very broad range of people.  This is a rare gift. 

Any gardener can understand the fancy dress idea.   We have all seen landscapes installed in our neighborhoods in airless, gooey, and certainly not improved clay soil- topdressed with some good looking black earth that makes everything look like it is planted in the most fabulously plant friendly soil on the planet.  We’ve all seen new plants dropped into pots for a special event the day before.  We’ve also seen the urban property with an allee of trees as if it were a 80 acre estate expecting a visit from Louis the Fourteenth.  Topdressing is a concept every gardener understands-for good, or for ill.

A case in point;  for years Rob would build his bamboo stake/galvanized wire tomato cages for clients.  He would position the 4 bamboo stakes outward from the rootball of the tomato, and wrap from stake to adjoining stake hoops of galvanized wire from the Depot.  His hoops had no kinks.  The hoop-swoops were wide at the top, and tight at the bottom-perfect for that indeterminate tomato growing taller, and wider at the top,  by the day.  At some point, he was despairing of the long lineup of his hand-fashioned hoops for which he had requests.  So we designed an acid washed steel tomato cage-in a perfectly widening sequence 0f hoops, and had them built.  They cost two hundred and umpteen dollars-but anyone can come in, buy one, and load it in their trunk.  For the person who does not have the idea to spend the umpteen dollars for our formal version of his hand worked tomato cage, I apologize that we are not a teacher the caliber of Martha Stewart. But we can try to teach how to create the bamboo stake-wire cage-just ask.

Understand that I had my own Martha Stewart moment-like countless other people.  I built a croquembouche exactly to her specifications-but my attempt to create the ultra thin sugar hair that was due to go over that tower of  profiteroles like a cloud, only coated my entire kitchen-top to bottom- with a congealed sugar mess.  I thought for two days afterwards I would just have to move-then I cleaned for another two days.  The lesson here-don’t be deterred by an unsuccessful first attempt.  Make another.

A garden I truly admire has a formal, and short grass  path to a very handsome and overscaled gate.  This path is edged on each side with a very long, very thin rectangle of steel edger strip, infilled with fine gravel.  It is a detail which is incredibly beautiful.  It marks the path so elegantly. This detail says, this way to the rose garden-welcome.   But that steel rectangle some 9 feet long by 6 inches wide-who knows what that dress cost- could be reproduced with a single length of 4″ by 6″ pressure treated lumber, set on its wide edge.  This would be a dress of a different sort, but you would still catch your breath, seeing it.   Another gardener would interpret these long spare path edges with hens and chicks contained with aluminum edger.  Yet another gardener would dig a dirt ditch 6 inches wide, and call it a day. 

If you need design help, figure out who can teach you.

At a Glance: Gritty City


Decomposed Granite

gravelThere are some landscape materials I cannot get enough of.  Decomposed granite is a material comprised of pieces of granite 3/8ths of an inch across, and smaller.  The smaller pieces are known as “fines”.  The fines sift down in between the 3/8 inch pieces, and interlock the decomposed granite.  This makes for a surface that delivers that beautiful sound with every step that says garden, dead ahead.  Decomposed granite looks like sand when it is delivered.  I have taken plenty of panic stricken phone calls from clients.  But once it is laid down, graded, compacted and washed, it is a surface that won’t give no matter how high those heels are.  I have no love for asphalt as a surface; does it not seem like a symbol of all those places we have paved over without cause?  Concrete is a great material, as long as it is used with architecture that asks for it.  Concrete aggregate is beautiful for modern or contemporary landscapes-I hate to see it used by a client who really wanted gravel, but was too afraid.  My mentor and dear friend Al Goldner, told me once his only regret as a designer was that he was not bold enough; be bold!  

gravel1Decomposed granite, properly installed, makes for a driveway impervious to tire marks.  In this landscape, the driveway flowed seamlessly into paths for  a vegetable and cutting garden.

gravel2A driveway of decomposed granite requires an expert installation.  GP Enterprises does these drives for me.  They are so careful to install with a careful eye to grade and drainage.  They compact the granite with the same machinery that compacts asphalt. 

gravel42Decomposed granite makes a great mulch for comtemporary landscapes.  This landscape did not ask for mulch-that granite completed a thought. 

gravel5Decomposed granite can finish a formal planting, as well as a contemporary one.  It is clean, fresh, and crisp.  It is easy to make shapes, and moves; it does a great job of giving the eye a place to rest.

gravel7I have done many a terrace in decomposed granite.  It is a clean surface, not so demanding of attention as stone. This garden makes much of the pots and the furniture-the granite is a quietly beautiful  surface. It is the color of nature, a texture that celebrates all that is set on it. 

gravelbThis material is useful for more than driveways and paths.  Some plantings need a special space of their own.

gravel9Wherever people may be in a landscape, I wonder if this surface will play a part. The granite did a great job of featuring the stone from the 1920’s original to this garden. 

Some materials are so versatile, which makes decomposed granite  a major player in my palette of hard surfaces.  Great for driveways, friendly to plants-amazing how it can work in contemporary landscapes as well as vintage ones.