Archives for August 2009

What Ages Well

As much as my age can be irritating and inconvenient to me,  the age of my landscape is suiting me  just fine.  I do think it is as good looking as it has ever been.  Even better, no one could possibly be enjoying it as much as I do.  We have had a cool summer; even my lawn looks like a lawn, and not field grass.  Buck obligingly hauled the ladder out into the middle of the road, so I could take this picture; I am sure my neighbors were amused.

aug-17-042For the better part of six years I did nothing to this yard except bark the existing perennial beds, and mow the grass.  It took all my energy to handle my work-or so it seemed.  I am embarrassed to say that somewhere along the line I got an anonymous postcard in the mail:  “It is hard to believe that a person whose career is landscape would have weeds six feet tall in her front yard”.   No matter the delivery, the person had a point.

aug-17-026But perhaps even more importantly, I was ignoring the fact that whatever I did at home would need time to come of age-and that perhaps I would want to still be around to see that.  Planning my own landscape was agonizingly slow. I had no problem designing for others; I was a wreck designing for myself.  Slow turned out to be fine; who can do everything at once anyway?  Getting started-that was the key.

aug-17-029The one hundred Hicks yews across the west and down the north side came first. Given the slope of my property from the south to the north, time would prove to be an essential element.  The hedge is 4 feet tall on the south side, and nine feet tall on the north side-but every one of them is level with the horizon.  This hedge took eight years to grow in.

aug-17-045The boxwood was even slower growing;  the 18″-24″ plants I put in the ground were already seven years old when I planted them.  The shaggy densiformis yews are the newest evergreen addition; they have only been in four years.  I like all this evergreen; I can successfully maintain it. I knew I could never devote the time needed to a big perennial garden-why come home and be frustrated about what isn’t done?  Two giant blocks of Limelight hydrangeas, and 6 pots of flowers give me perennial garden pleasure, in a manageable form.

aug-16a-023I planted this city-mini allee of Yellow Butterflies magnolias for Buck-he loves yellow.  The boxwood is a big evergreen groundcover.  The petals falling on this boxwood is one of my garden’s best spring moments. The mini-boxwood strips in the foreground-this year’s landscape project.  The slope of the ground here made it difficult to mow the grass.  The magnolias have grown considerably, and the shade they cast was not optimal for lawn.  Wall stone behind them retains the soil, and in a few years, will be invisible.

aug-17-050The magnolias were planted to frame the view to the side yard.  It is hard arrange a long view on a city lot, making visual use of the neighbor’s mature elm adds much to the illusion of distance.

aug-17-060The big Yew hedge divides my public landscape, from the house landscape.  The big pots are centered in front of big panels of windows; I have good views from inside.  The ground is carpeted with herniaria glabra-rupturewort.  This plant grows like thyme, but is much more water tolerant.


The herniaria has no need for as much water as the flowers in my pots; the granite gravel handles that problem for me. This garden is in progress.  I haven’t a clue about how to finish it, I do have the patience to wait until something suggests itself.

Fifteen years into this landscape project, I realize inertia is the most difficult problem I ever have with it.  Once I put a burst of energy to my doing nothing state, and get going, things happen.   Once  in motion, I tend to stay in motion. Though I once thought it would be forever to see what I had in my mind’s eye come alive, it  didn’t.  Best of all, it has been worth the wait.

Summer Garden

There are those days I regret not having a summer blooming perennial garden.  The big and wild kind.  Russian Sage, hyssop, shrub roses, hardy hibiscus, monarda-I am sure you know what I mean.  I am not a fan of rudbeckia, so I plant hemerocallis “Goldner’s Bouquet” in any perennial garden I design. -It is a clear yellow that blooms late and blooms heavily; I would guess a mature plant has a 300plus bud count.   It was bred by our noted landscape designer Al Goldner.  He hybridized in the field, without supplemental irrigation; he loved any perennial that had the staying power of a shrub. It is no doubt the finest daylily I have ever had the pleasure to plant.  But I am ahead of myself-let’s go inside a landscape of mine, with a fine summer garden. 

aug-17a-017The entrance to the property has a beautiful view-in large part sparked by my client.  Designers who do not listen to their clients  miss plenty.  I did design the drive especially to court the view; my client went over this plan again and again, until we both were happy with it.

aug-16-081A decomposed granite walk leads to the rear yard; the gate is still in the design phase.  A good walk intrigues a visitor.  Vis a vis the curves in this walk-what need is there to telegraph every move a landscape makes from the start?  A well designed walk anticipates interest, before the landscape delivers. 

aug-17a-002This long walk to the rear is fringed by the Griffith Buck rose, Carefree Delight.  No kidding, a  carefree wonder.  This rose blooms and grows profusely, with little or no disease, in full sun, or part shade. This hedge performs equally, in spite of differing sun conditions, and fierce winter winds off the lake.  I know a planting of them near me done by a friend-some 12 years old.  Gorgeous.  Carefree Beauty is my favorite rose; Carefree Delight delivers spectacularly; it is everblooming, adaptable to less than optimal siting, and happy to boot.

The hedges of Carefree Wonder roses give way to a perennial garden that slopes towards the lake from the house. 

2008-vlasic-paul-8-29-08-16This wild summer garden is in remarkable  contrast to the architecture of the house.  It is, to my mind, a successful relationship.  At the risk of repeating myself, I think the dynamics of a relationship far outweigh this part, or that part-taken individually.    

This aforementioned  perennial garden faces down the lake.  Spot gardens on the way to the lake repeat the idea- big gorgeous house skirted beautifully with a big wild garden.    This landscape is three years old, and growing. 




This Friday past I wrote some about a landscape renovation project I did in 2002. I planted a slew of carpinus fastigiata grown in 25 gallon pots for the bosquet pictured above.  The need for so many trees suggested trees of a reasonable price;  my clients understood that small trees would take hold fast and grow. No plant decision is ever easy; big trees that are transplanted at worst fail, and at best, take years to feel at home, root, and move in.  New landscapes are not hard to spot, even if large plant material is installed.  Most newly planted  plants have that distinctive look common to nursery grown plants.  Growers have different goals than gardeners.  But three years after the installation, these trees are starting to do what I knew they would, given time.


Growers pay plenty in taxes for the land they own.  Their idea is to plant as many plants as they can,  per square foot.  A grower needs to plant closely, and harvest often.  So trees and shrubs are grown as closely together as good horticulture will allow.  These carpinus did have that skinny, grown in a row, look. Planting them too close together would have made for problems later, so there were some years my clients had to suffer the gaps in their screening.


Perennials, including roses, are more quickly adaptable. A two gallon perennial is a big plant which will take hold in one season, given a serious gardener.  What you see here has everything to do with a gardener in charge. Though relatively easy to establish, perennials are plenty of work-deadheading, dividing and the like.  They also have a short lifespan, relative to trees and shrubs-unless we are talking peonies and asparagus.


The small hornbeams took hold, rooted in,  and grew.  This photograph taken 5 years after the installation recorded a dramatic change; the view of the house next door is fading fast.  The bosquet is now a shady place to sit.


What once was dirt-what once was a spare diagram for a space, is growing vigorously.  The day the installation was finished, these clients took ownership of the maintenance. It is a very good thing when a client picks up and carries on.   It did take some time to work out the irrigation issues, and there is a big pruning job to be done every spring.


They have pruned the interior branches such that the trees provide a vaulted green ceiling.  A suite of iron furniture is complimented by a pair of antique English capitals.  The long view to a group of  agaves in stone pots, and a birdhouse, is a good one.  A garden needs time to establish a look like this.

The landscape is beginning to look in proper proportion to the existing mature trees and yews on the property .  Proper scale and proportion is tough to plan for, as it has to be imagined.  With time, any mistakes is spacing or choice of plant material will become apparent.  I see landscapes only 5 years old that are overplanted, and consequently overgrown.   This landscape is just beginning to hit its stride.


Even the topiary myrtles that go to the greenhouse for the winter have grown.  Their trunks have become substantial. Making something grow is no small accomplishment.  However, the patience to give a garden the time it needs is sometimes the best move you can make.

Sunday Opinion: If You Can

The attribution has been written down in many slightly varying forms, but the gist of  Henry Ford’s famed quote goes something like this:  If you think you can, or if you think you can’t,  either way you’ll  be right.  My most serious reason for having this on my mind this minute is a client, of whom I am very fond, who is facing a lengthy and complicated surgery which will be followed by a trying rehab/recovery time-coming up first thing tomorrow morning.  According to his wife Jeannie, he is remarkably unfazed by the whole affair.  She says he has not devoted much time or effort to worrying, or talking about worrying,  as he basically thinks he  can do this.  By no means do I mean to suggest he is a fatalist, passively awaiting his fate.  Plain and simple, he not only thinks he can, he knows he can.  I don’t believe this confidence to be a genetically derived personality trait.  I think there is an art to living a life, and he is treating his life as such.  The science of his situation is not his life.

I have another client who has for several years grown vegetables in the lot next door, under the shade of mature oak trees.  His tomato plants are twelve feet tall, his bean vines bear beans, there are vegetables of all kinds-enough to go around the entire neighborhood.  Anything and everything I have ever learned about growing vegetables successfully would suggest his garden would fail; it is anything but a failure.

I grew up in a household in which all of science was held in considerable regard.  My Mom, the consummate scientist, virologist, microbiologist, who put her mathematics to use studying genetics, did however stop short of  worship.  When she thought I was old enough to understand (I think I was about 38), she did explain that what she actually held in such great regard was the beauty of science, not the certainty of science. She believed that whether the sum total of all scientific knowledge was one millimeter or 100 miles from a perfect knowledge and understanding of life-no matter.  In her opinion, it comes to nothing –  how little or how great the distance is between the end of science and the beginning of life;  that gap can never be closed.  Hope if you are ever gravely ill, she said,  that your scientist physician is also a skilled artist, as he or she may wish to diagnose and treat you with as much as what he imagines will work, as what science might dictate will work.  Working the science is an art, she said.

Good horticulture makes certain demands, and they cannot be ignored.  But inexplicably, some science-driven choices I was certain would work, do not work.  At 59 I observe that the sum total of all the science of horticulture I have absorbed in 25 years does not enable me to grow a decent columbine, not anywhere, not under any circumstance.  My scientific knowledge is a big pile of conflicting information always on the verge of decomposition.  The more years I study the science, and work, the further I seem to be from a definition of life beyond its miracle.

Does this mean that I can grow geraniums in deep shade, and ferns in the desert-of course not. However I do believe that there are many ways in which things can work.  There is not one way to grow roses.  There are many ways to grow roses that work.  If I so choose to believe I can,  then I will figure out a way to make roses work.

The day I met Fred and Jeannie, their landscape was wild, robustly overgrown, unuseable-I wondered how I could possibly make sense of it.  They did not wonder that at all; they knew I could.  They are as optimistic, generous, and enthusiastic as any two people could possibly be. Some two years later, how they have chosen to live, shows. The garden is light and airy, spacious, and graceful.  The waterfalls are working, there is a third pond, there are vegetables and flowers growing , there are spaces to read, nap and entertain.  The choices they have made have proven to be right for them.  They have no doubt that the best is yet to come; they are so right.