Archives for August 2009

At A Glance: Dog Days of Summer











Saving the Stone

Eight years ago a client came in with a plan to renovate the side lot adjoining his 1920’s vintage house.  This part of his landscape had been a series of free flowing beds of flowering shrubs and perennials, edged in a volcanic rock I call Castelia stone.  Named for the town in Ohio where it occurs naturally, I see this stone in fountains, etc, at homes of this period.

The land dropped dramatically from the grade of the existing driveway.The plan called for hauling away all of the Castelia stone, and installing a terrace of concrete pavers.  Alarmed by this, he thought a second opinion might be in order.  The stone was no doubt spectacular, and there was a lot of it.
The  design issue of the day?  How could that stone be featured in a landscape that would be beautiful and appropriate to the house.? After hauling away ten yards of debris from overgrown shrubs and scrub trees, it became apparent that stone could be the key to solving the grade issues.dunlap00071
The land was a giant dish, bordered by my client’s drive, and his neighbors drive.  This stark view to the neighboring home was the dominant visual element.  I told my client I thought a formal sunken garden would be in order-an idea in which the existing stone would play a prominent role.  Sinking the garden down 20″ would also make the job of screening the neighboring house easier.

An old flight of steps, now blocked by a yew of great age, had been the only access to this area of the garden.  The decision was made to orient the new sunken garden around a side terrace adjoining the house, and plans were made to allow for good access to the space.

It is one thing to use materials that existed in an old landscape;  it is another thing to use it in such a way that it appears to have always been there.  The client was interested that the new landscape seem like it had been built on top of the old one.  We transplanted a row of old yews that had been a foundation planting across the front of the house to the lot line adjoining the neighboring house. We then sloped the soil down to a 20″ tall retaining wall of the old stone.

Each stone was fitted into the wall by hand and by eye.  The use of any power tools to force a fit would have interfered with the illusion of age.  The evidence of modern tools would have immediately dated the wall as a contemporary construction.

The ground was graded and regraded; soil was brought in to fill areas that were low; the ground plane was topdressed with topsoil in anticipation of the lawn.

Densiformis yews were planted solidly on the slope down from the neighboring drive.  This gave the background landscape a bit of a contemporary feeling. The French word bosquet refers to a densely planted block of trees, which when grown in, provides an architectural element similar to a pergola.  These 25 gallon potted columnar carpinus planted as such would make an allee across the back of the garden, and would eventually screen the house next door.

It was decided that a fountain, whose basin would be faced the in the same volcanic rock, would anchor the space.

Edger strip was installed, and decomposed granite provided a hard surface under the bosquet.  This treatment also formalized the edges of the lawn panel to come, and celebrated the irregular surfaces of the stone.

The radius of the fountain dictated the radius of the center of the bosquet. The center would have room for garden furniture.

A contemporary European lead obelisk is a striking contrast to the stone.  A lawn panel is all that is missing now.

The resulting landscape is a great place to view whatever the weather, and a great place to entertain.  Its composition makes much of the relationship of old materials, and my client’s more contemporary design sensibility.

A Few Good Decisions

My clients have lived in their home 30 years, and were keen to update the landscape in their rear yard. The property was very wide, and open to a neighbor perched high above them,  and very shallow, with excellent views of a neighbor’s wall, and chimney. An overgrown crab had plunged the entire space into the dark, even on a sunny day.  The center of the space drained poorly.  They wanted to have reason to get outdoors again.


They told me that they thought the old and small concrete terrace needed replacement, and the locusts with dead branches probably needed to come down.  I told them I thought the vintage concrete terrace was good looking, and in good shape-the only thing not to like about it was the small size.  I also felt the locusts with pruning and feeding would provide them with light filtered shade-just what one would want overhead for sitting or dining out.  I felt the real culprits were the crab, and a poorly placed blue spruce.

The trunk of the offending crab is in the left foregound of this picture-it had little to recommend it.  The locusts and Japanese maples would prosper with more light and care.  The blue spruce had long since outgrown its space, and was difficult to get by; the two terrace areas with a narrow walkway between were now cut off from each other. The dining table sat on a section of terrace barely larger than the table itself, right next to the kitchen door.   This was not a comfortable space.

Removing the crab made a giant difference.  The space seemed to more than double in size, especially when we moved all the existing variegated hostas into beds around the maple and locust.

We planned for large curved swath of decomposed granite , more than doubling the size of the existing terrace space.  The pale color of the granite lightened up the space considerably.  A shade bed with hosta that repeats the shape of the new terrace will make the grass seem like a path through the garden.  Their side yard was asking for some screening from the neighbor’s house.
The color of the decomposed granite is very close to the color of the concrete; the visual change is about a subtle change of texture.  A group of hedge maples are placed to provide screening from the neighbor. A green, white, and lime-green color palette keeps the space light and airy looking.


The grass path is a beautiful shape in and of itself. My clients were so pleased with the space they spent the weekend shopping for new furniture.  The dining area is now in the center of their yard; the privacy plantings will enable them to comfortably entertain themselves and their guests.  The curving bed lines are rhythmic and lively.


Once in a while, a few good decisions can set the stage for dramatic change.  I do think the best reason to consult a designer is precisely because they have not not become used to the space.  They see your space unencumbered by your history or memories.  My client tells me she now thinks of the concrete portion of her terrace as “a vintage material and style suited to the period of the house”-rather than old concrete that should be replaced.


I find most people do not live in their outdoor spaces because the space is uninviting or not useable.  Most people enjoy being outdoors, given the chance. I am so pleased about how much they are enjoying themselves outdoors now.

A Roof Over One’s Head

Pergola, arbor, gazebo,pavilion, grotto, umbrella, gloriette-there are plenty of  words that allude to a roof over one’s head in the garden. This steel pergola, at 9′ by 24′, is large enough to comfortably host a dinner party, or provide a spot to sit and view the gardens yet to come.   This pergola also provides a structure on which to grow vining plants. In this case I plan for 3 species of clematis.  The vigorous growing sweet autumn clematis will provide a living roof; the species clematis vitacella violacea, and clematis Jackmani Superba will bloom profusely with small flowers, up over the roofline.
gloriette3This pavilion is very much about enclosure.  It would be fine with vines, and fine without.  The client who purchased this steel “building” had us construct cedar and steel benches for the sides; it became a place to meet in her garden.


 An arbor celebrates the transition from one garden room to another.  An architect friend once explained to me that transition spaces in buildings are important.  Thery provide a space to exit, and a space to anticipate what is to come.  Wood arbors have a very attractive look, but there is maintenance involved.  If I plant a wood arbor, I try to plant something amenable to being cut back, or taken down, when repainting becomes necessary.  Some clients choose to let a paint finish wear; this can be a charming look.


 This large and sturdy arbor is situated at the juncture of an L-shape in the landscape.  It provides a center of interest for two entirely different gardens.  The brick piers match the brick of the house.  As the client intended for the arbor to have wisteria, or grapes, we made it overly tall.  A planted roof  lowers the ceiling; plan to be able to walk through easily even after the roof vines grow in.


 An arbor can also be a sculpture in its own right.  This faux bois arbor is concrete and mortar over steel, hand carved to look like birch.  Contructed in four pieces for ease of transport,  it bolted together with stainless steel bolts once it was delivered.  This arbor took  over three months of one person’s work time  to fabricate.  It is a spectacular structure.  I designed the structure specifically for  the center of an oval lawn fringed in a  planting of Himalayan white-barked birch and Sum and Substance hosta. 


 This contemporary version of a French house had oak details that are repeated in this steel structure.  A berceau, or trellis- covered walkway, was a common feature in mid-eighteenth century French gardens. 


 This garden shelter with integral bench I designed specifically to provide screening from a neighboring garage.  As the space was too narrow for plants, this arbor distracts the eye from a less than desirable view. 


This classically inspired arbor and bench is home to several wisteria vines.  The vines are pruned regularly to keep them in bounds; all the growth is kept on the roof, providing a cool shady roof under which to sit between gardens.  A roof over one’s head in the garden can take many forms and be made of varying materials.  They can serve different purposes, in an ornamental way.