Archives for September 2009

Sinking A Garden

Aug 28d 289
Sinking a garden can be a good idea for lots of reasons. In this case, the most compelling reason had to do with proximity.  My clients live in an urban neighborhood in which the properties are small, and the homes are big. Large homes loom over their back yard on three sides, making privacy a big issue.  My first thought was to enclose their yard with little leaf lindens.  The lindens would provide wide screening up high; the trunks would take up very little space on the ground plane. We would take the additional step of sinking this garden by elevating its edges. 

Aug 28d 288A retaining wall of pressure treated lumber was installed near the lot line; the lindens were planted some sixteen inches above grade.  A six foot high wood fence, painted “disappearing green”, would provide complete screening at the tree level.  My clients are very fond of the buildings in New Harmony, Indiana.  All of the later additions and modifications to the original architecture have been painted “disappearing green”-a color which recedes from view such that it is easy to see the original architectural intent of the buildings. I would describe the color as a dark muddy green brown.  With  the trees and fence in place, the screening would be a dominant element of the garden, but occupy a very small space.   I lowered the ground plane as much as I could without endangering the drainage of the loqwer level.  The trees instantly gained 18 inches in height; this placement put the lower branches of the lindens just above the top of the fence.  This is what I would call engineering one’s screening.  

Aug 28d 662Of course that sixteen inches of soil was not going to stay put without some retaining on the front edge as well.  My clients chose a rustic stone for the tree planter box walls, and the retaining for the garden beds.  You see stone laid out everywhere on the site; the stone mason needs to pick and choose which stones fit together so the mortar joints are small and unobtrusive.  It would be three steps up into the house; I made them deep and wide-easy to navigate. It was most important to them to have a private garden; they were willing to deal with the up and down.  

Aug 28c 466The sixteen inches of plant mix filling these beds would vastly improve the quality and drainage of the soil.  The garden would be easy to plant, and weed.  The worst thing about weeds-how far they are away from your fingers, and what your back has to do in order to get your fingers where they need to be.   An entire tool industry is built around that distance.  These gardens would be closer to the hands maintaining them.

Aug 28d 665
A new addition to the house would limit access to the back yard.  The big idea-the French doors you see on the left of this photo were installed in the rear wall of the garage.  Designing this space would be part two of this project.

Aug 28d 663This landscape would eventually have three distinct levels.  The change of grade would provide a lot of visual interest for a very small space.  Not incidentally, a sunken garden dramatically reduces ambient noise.  Earth is the only thing which really blocks sound; no amount of plant material will screen out unwelcome noise.  Homes built in close proximity face both audial and visual screening issues.  I like living in a neighborhood, but am I enchanted with my neighbor’s kids shrieking or the sound of their lawn mower-no, not so much.

Aug 28c 462
Every gardener appreciates that the sound of water in a garden is  delightful and relaxing.  The sound of water also masks other sounds not so soothing.  Though I live but a block from a very busy six lane urban thoroughfare, my  concrete house and sunken rose garden keep the intrusion to a minimum.  This waterfall /fountain makes the change of level a modest musical event. No matter how small, every garden has the potential to be eventful. 

Aug 28c 463

With the fence, trees, stone and water in place, we are ready for phase two.

Too Much Fun

July18 056I have never done one lick of design work for this client-she and her husband do their own.  They design, they plant, they mow and maintain-on their own.  They shop my store, and I may advise about this object or that pot, but they have a point of view, and they act on that. Parts of their gardens are designed for the pure unadulterated pleasure of their three childen.  They cleared this shady area behind the house, and set to making that spot condusive to play.  The blue rectangle in the above picture-an in-ground trampoline- what a blast.

July18 059They like rustic and whimsical objects in their garden-this spot is no exception.  The Adirondacks style bench with integral planter gives them a place to sit and watch the kids. The ground is thickly mulched with pine needles.  This makes for soft landings. 

July18 062This playhouse began as an actual stump, to which a second floor was added.  What small child would not be delighted to have this as a clubhouse in the woods?  I could not help but laugh when I first laid eyes on this.  Though the architecture was aimed at their children, it is incredibly beautifully built.  The child-size doors keeps adults out.  My favorite part?  That brand spanking new roof, sagging dramatically.

July18 069The staircase with its woven rope railings looks like a gangplank-I can imagine lots of childplay set on this stage.  Nestled in close to an existing tree, and furnished with its own birdhouse and barrel of flowers, its a home away from home. 

July18 064
A stump sculpture depicts a bear, slumped over a tree stump, asleep.  The wood is starting to acquire some moss with age.  This kind of exposure to a woodland playground has to be good-don’t you think?  This is as friendly, unassuming and undemanding an exposure to nature and natural forms aimed at kids as I have ever seen.

July18 077My clients situated their seating area close enough to the woodland to keep an eye on the kids, but this space was designed for grown ups.  Oversized furniture and pillows upholstered in bright colored fabrics looks sumptuous and inviting.  The pergola overhead makes outdoor entertaining in the rain a distinct possibility.  There are gorgeous views to gardens on three sides. 

July18 054The pool deck is loaded with big handmade Italian terra cotta  pots, stuffed to overflowing with annual flowers in mixed colors. The old farm pump spilling into a vintage wood farm bucket is not only whimsical, but fun. My clients tell me their kids love splling the bucket on each other’s heads. This does sound like great fun.
July18 093

The front yard is home to a wood house built from pallets, originally part of a Halloween haunted house vignette.  In the summer, the house gets dressed up like a garden shed, complete with a tin rooster on the roof.�
llJuly18 094
It is obvious that beyond the time and daily effort they spend making their gardens beautiful, this is a very happy place for a family.  This garden is jam-packed with joy.

The Faces of Italy

I have a big love for Italian gardens, and Italian garden ornament-no wonder. Rob has taken countless pictures on his trips there over the years to buy.  I own an embarassing number of books on Italian culture, gardens, villas, terra cotta, art, interiors, flora and fauna-and the history thereof. Italian gardens-those two words evoke for me all things good about  great gardens.  I go so far as to have picture books of this region or that; I am quite sure heaven looks very much like Tuscany.  My own collection of pots is almost entirely handmade Italian terra cotta-and three large English-made concrete pots in the manner of Italian terra cotta. 


I am particularly interested in the faces.  Italian pots, perhaps more so than pots from other countries, feature faces.  The faces of women, satyrs, dogs, lions, putti, gargoyles, goats, birds.  The faces of Italian life, I call them.   It is astonishing how emotionally evocative those faces are, though made of fired earth.

aug-29b-020In much the same way as I imagine the face of a person I have only talked to on the phone, I imagine plenty about Italy, based on these faces.  This face, part cat, part lion, part sun, part satyr-what is the meaning behind those wrinkled brows, and intense gaze?   I have my own mythology which I have enjoyed imagining. 

aug-29b-022 Some faces of the women can recall the Italian paintings of the Renaissance.   The modelling of the features of this face is quite extraordinarily soft and fluid. The contrast of this face, with the heft and solidity of the clay is beautiful.

Even the faces without so much detail make an impression.  This imposing face, with a shell helmet, is surely the face of the guardian of the pot.  I have never felt the need to actually research the history of the design of these pots-I like my own impressions.  But after years of looking at garden ornament, I have no problem knowing what country they come from, based on how the figure is represented.

aug-29b-023I see some of the history of Italian garden making and culture. This I get, before I ever fill them with dirt, and plant something in them.  It also makes me careful about how I plant-so that a mature planting does not obscure what is represented on the pot.


 This sculpture Rob brought back from Milan probably 14 years ago.  The lion seems horrified by what he has had to do to eat, to live.  This is a long way of saying-what a strong expression of angst.  There are those who would make a distinction between art and craft-but that argument breaks down quickly for me.  There is a story here, being eloquently and simply told.  My Italian pots are beautiful sculptures in which I make things grow.

aug-29b-026I like so much that the women have strong faces. She seems able and willing, her eyes wide open.  Those who love the surfaces of their contemporary pots take just as much pleasure as I do from mine; everyone to their point of view.

This Bacchus with the goat horns and ropy beard is smiling; those smile wrinkles at the corners of his mischievious eyes make me smile. Italian garden figures, beautifully rendered faces, a story, a tale from a moment in the history of a culture, a myth-imagine getting so much from a terra cotta pot. I will confess I put them inside for the winter-I would not want to do without them.

House on a Hill

The idea of a house on a hill has a grand and romantic ring to it-especially considering I have spent my entire life standing on ground no higher than sea level. The terraced gardens of the villas of the Italian Lakes-heavenly.  Meaning, heavenly to look at, and the devil to visit and maintain.  The crest of this fairly steep slope was home to a narrow driveway.  Driving uncomfortably close to  a steep slope can be nervewracking;  I would not have wanted to drive it at night, after a few cocktails.  A beautiful drivecourt would provide room to drive and park. The requirement for flat space would be provided by a retaining wall of pressure treated lumber.  As I planned to grow climbing hydrangea on the face, I chose the most reasonable and serviceable material.

aug-28a-742The driveway was equally close to the front door, and ran past the house to the garage.  This made for little opportunity for a presentation of the house, and its fourteen foot width did not permit much parking.  It seemed appropriate to splurge here.  Two inch thick bluestone laid in a classic aschlar pattern, and bordered in granite setts  announced the entrance in an elegant and spacious way.   

aug-28a-480When not in use as a driveway, or for parking, this  areafunctioned as a terrace. I have known my clients to host a pre-dinner hour here on a nice night.  The asphalt would remain in place on either side.  A stone driveway demands expert installation, a service which is well worth the expense.

aug-28d-760The landscape is simple.  Rectangles planted solidly with yews abut four rectangles of pachysandra and  matching English Oaks.  The triple wide hedge of yews  adjacent to the retaining wall provide security for people and vehicles. These masses of yews did have that polka-dot pattern for a few years until they grew in; proper spacing at planting helps to avoid cultural problems later.

egren0905-11A driveway that runs parallel to the front door  needs a landscape statement that signals an imminent entrance. This drivecourt landscape creates the impression that the garden came first, and the drive through second.  The English oaks enclose the space, without obstructing the view of the house.

egren-7-07It has been a number of years since this garden was installed.  This photograph clearly illustrates what a graceful space has been created from the simple idea of flat ground. Sloped spaces are not particularly sociable or functional spaces.  Deciding how you need a space to function, should organize the design to come.   

egren-7-07-3A pair of French orangery boxes from Les Jardin du Roi Soleil define the transition from driveway to walkway. These boxes have been manufactured in this shape, design, and color since ythe 17th century.  The legs, corners and hinges are cast iron.  Originally, the slatted oak boards and hinged iron permitted the boxes to be opened from the side.  A lemon tree that had summered outdoors could be slid out of its box, and stored in the orangery for the winter. How’s that for a little romance? 

Simple rectangles of painted wood contain boxwood hedges that sit between the columns of the porch, and on the roof.  The modification of the roof to hold those boxes-the work of a very thoughtful interior designer. 


There is a fine view from the inside looking out as well.  Flat spaces are great places  to meet and to be.