Archives for August 2009

Sodded Over

aug_7_10_am_015My last visit to the landscape at the Cranbrook Academy of Art was to deliver the flowers and decoration for a wedding and reception there in August of 2007.  I had for several years prior donated the summer planting around the Orpheus fountain; this was a job I loved doing.  This area adjacent to the stairs had been dirt and more dirt for some years; my client and I split the cost of a planting of a group of Limelight hydrangeas.  I am happy to see they seem to be doing fine. 

Six willows on standard in pots created an aisle for the bride and her wedding party.  No one could tell the white Hollywood roses were not in water; they perform so beautifully for a wedding.  Would that I could have been there the moment the bride stepped in front of that fountain.

aug_7_10_am_013The Art Museum is under extensive renovation, so this year, the garden areas are sodded over.  The fountain is closed. 

aug_7_10_am_014I try to tread lightly with the landscape where a sculpture is concerned.  How easy it is to cross over the line trying to compliment a sculpture, and end up confusing the visual issues.  Though I knew it would be closed, I was not prepared for how closed. But seeing it in its gardenless state, no water in the fountain, no sound and sparkle, had its good side.   Its always a good idea to consider whether an area is all the  better for your not touching it.   The simple word for this is “editing”; some days I am better at this than others.  Where flowers are concerned, I have a very tough time.  

cranbrook_05_2_39Planting white flowers is a good way to proceed cautiously.  Interestingly enough, I was told the traditonal summer planting here involved a short red salvia.  I had no problem ditching the red flower thing, but I thought a tall planting would compliment the sculpture and water better. I mitigated the risk with the white palette.

 The white amni majus, cleome  and impatiens are crisp; this area is incredible hot in the summer.  The blistered kale Nero di Toscano is good with the smooth sleek black sculpture, and it seems to intensify the whites.  

cranbrook_2005__3_1Another year I added an upright white datura, and white sonata cosmos to the mix.  The white petunias did a better job of softening the lawn line.

From this vantage point, the sculpture looks to have company, and good company at that.  The height of the plants in each quadrant drops gracefully where there is physical access to the rim of the fountain; in no way do the plantings obstruct the important view.  On an overcast day, the black figures appear a much softer blue-grey.  The lawn panels are effective in making a formal presentation of the sculpture and its environment.  However I mostly like how the lawn repeats the grid of the paving, and introduces the curve of the fountain rim.  The figures themselves describe a small circle with their feet, and a large, expanding circle with their heads.
cranbrook_6_8Yet another year, I added some verbena bonariensis,  some nicotiana langsdorfii, and some grey cirrus dusty miller to the predominantly white mix.  I do so like the cloud effect of the verbena flowers. 

cranbrook_6_1White gardens are however, unforgiving of a lack of maintenance.  Dead white flower heads do have a distinctively brown-dead appearance.  For this reason, I rarely plant white geraniums unless I am sure there is a maintenance fanatic waiting in the wings-and even then, a heavy rain will spoil the blooms in such a dramatic way. I knew the planting would not be the end of my involvement here.


I did go back regularly to do maintenance here, as I liked having it look good when I visited.  There was a day when every single nicotiana got its own stake.  That tedious job gets forgotten, sooner or later.  But the memory of all those dancing flower heads, those graceful figures,the water, and the white will stay with me a long time.

A Belated Sunday Opinion: The Dinner Table

Mariana Sneideraitis is one of those clients who over the years, has become a friend.   Buck and I were invited last night for the first time to a dinner party at her house. As I had spent a long Sunday designing and drawing for a presentation I will make today, I was so looking forward to it.  She has an incredible enthusiasm for her life;  her family, her friends, her garden, travel-and for cooking. 

The menu was not just about the food.  It was about the food she had grown up with, and learned to cook from her parents, and grandparents.   She explained how at a certain point she would watch her Baboo  prepare a dish, with measuring cups and spoons in hand, so she could write down the recipe he put together by eye and instinct.   She explained that the Armenian cooking she grew up with was much influenced by Greek, and Middle Eastern cooking.  Thus she shops different markets for what specialty ingredients they carry;  it took five stops before she bought just exactly the size eggplant she wanted for last night.  When I asked at what point she would have given up looking , she replied, “probably never”; I admire that kind of determination in a person.  Her family life revolved around the dinner table, in a way not so different than my own. You learned about your roots, about how to carry on a conversation, you discussed school, friends, and important decisions.  At one point she made a toast about how pleased she was for the company of her friends, sharing a dinner, friendship, and conversation, around her dining room table; clearly her expression was sincere and intense.

So why would I, who thinks about gardening and more gardening, be writing about her cooking and this dinner?  Guernica Magazine published an article recently by Mark Dowie, entitled “Food Among the Ruins”; the opening sentence – “Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit.”  What an astonishing statement.  He explains that Detroit has no grocery stores whatsoever.  No Krogers or Meijers. Not a WalMart, or a Costco.  Some 80% of all people in Detroit buy their groceries from party stores, gas stations, convenience stores, and the like.  As Detroit was originally built on farm land,  he goes on to suggest that Detroit might remake itself into an agricultural city, that could feed its own.   Urban farming-the stuff that the Greening of Detroit has devoted itself to for the past 20 years. It is an astonishing and provocative proposal; read it if you like at 

If what Mariana so genuinely believes, about the importance of the dinner table in providing an essential  forum for the development of  sound families, and lasting friendships,  then perhaps Mr. Dowie’s proposal has more than just a little merit.  Marianna has absorbed and continues to live with her version of what her parents and grandparents taught her.  She has passed that on to her children.  Her kids, now 25 and 27, were disappointed that they would not be having Sunday night dinner with her last night.  That sense of loss they felt, came from her.   I myself was an appreciative beneficiary of the truly fabulous food, the story of how and what she cooks, the lively conversation and exchange between friends.  I could no more cook a Pavlova for dessert than I could fly to the moon, but I can cook up good dirt, water in new trees, and improvise on my design recipes in search of a satisfying visual feast.  Mariana sent me home with the notion that what I do might actually make a difference in the big scheme of things.   Thanks a million for feeding me, Sneideraitis.

A Green and White Garden

Green and white gardens interest me more now, than they did twenty years ago. They have the same sophisticated visual appeal as a great black and white photograph.  Michael Kenna’s landscape photographs are breathtaking;  his view of the landscape is so much about the sculpture of green spaces.  The success of the great French landscapes has much to do with great, strictly edited design. I would call my personal point of view about landscape  hopelessly romantic Italian-I can get out of hand fast. When I hear green and white garden from a client, I think edited and sculptural.

aug4a_019These clients have lived many years in a lovely old Tudor style house built in the 1920’s.  However, they both have a love for clean,  modern and edited lines. Working with them has produced a garden that has elements both friendly to the architecture of the house, and  their point of view.  They were both clear that a green and white garden would suit them best. 

july23b_037The landscape of the front of the house was already in place when I met them.  My input involved the sizes of the flower beds, and the construction and installation of the window boxes.   The profusion of flowers is decidedly English in feeling, but the green and white has a crisply contemporary flavor. The strong, dark green horizontal line of the boxwood hedge contrasts and compliments the mass of the oval yews.  This element is balanced by the four columnar gingkos that frame the walk at the street. The simple steel windowbox is a focal point at the visual end of the walk. 


tThe flower beds were planted in stripes, perpendicular to the wall.  White dahlias are skirted with white polka-dot plant.  Striped of white New Guinea impatiens are bordered on both sides by simple rectangles of sagina subulata-Scotch moss.

aug4a_026The upper level is planted more freely, with variegated licorice, white petunias and more polka dots.  This bedding plant scheme derives more visual interest from its texture and layout than from the plant species.

july14_081The window boxes are lush with green angelina, euphorbia, and licorice.  The angular nicotiana alata white frames the more orderly growing Perfume nicotiana series  in white and lime green.

The landscape renovation of the rear yard fell to me.  They were certain that they wanted water in some form, and a more orderly, primarily green garden.  The shade had not been so friendly to their collection of perennials, and the winter interest was slight. The existing stone terrace off the porch was easy to dress up with Italian terra cotta pots devoted to green and white annual plants.�
There are plenty of white foliages plants-such as caladiums and hostas, that do well with this level of shade.  I did pay particular attention to planting green foliage plants of interest as well.

aug_7_10_am_033A custom made steel cistern positioned on axis to the porch, and the side walk organizes the space.  It was constructed with legs tall enough to hide the fountain pump, but also to provide for the eventual height of the boxwood surrounding it. Bordered in boxwood, a run of limelight hydrangeas provides another level of interest against the green arborvitae wall.


Variegated plectranthus, white New Guinea impatiens and the lime green scotch moss echo the porch plantings.

My clients do have a love for stone; the wall pictured above is but one example of the beautiful stonework on this property.  Previously obscured by perennials and boxwood, the view to the wall is now unobstructed.  A group of five columnar maples provide green screening above the wall.  We gently sloped the bed down from the wall, and planted the boxwood at the base of that bed. That wall has taken on a very clean sculptural look, its traditional granite  notwithstanding.  The mix of soft and strict is a pleasing one.

At A Glance: McCourtie Park

chicago-05-36 This bridge, constructed entirely of concrete carved to look like wood, is a good example of the sculpture form known as “faux bois”.  Translated literally from the French words,  examples of “false wood”  can be found all over the world-even here in Michigan.  There is a park in my greater neighborhood devoted to this art form; lucky for me.  McCourtie Park, in Hillsdale County, in the Irish Hills,   is a folly of the best sort-built in the 1930″s by a man who made his living in the cement business.

beautiful open bridge

chicago-05-42covered bridgechicago-05-43faux bois rails that become a bench

chicago-05-45faux bois roof detailchicago-05-46 side detailchicago-05-47faux bois plankschicago-05-48 bridgechicago-05-51 flat bridgechicago-05-41 bridge house