Archives for September 2009

Sunday Opinion: Sowing the Seed

The dense fog this morning has me thinking. To my mind, what characterizes gardeners first and foremost is not that they garden, but how they keep on gardening. Fog, storms, wind, poor soil, drought, floods, bugs, disease, failure-no matter; they keep on gardening.  I am thinking about this, as I live in a community, like most other communities in this country, under economic siege.  The heavy wet white fog I drove through at 6 am this morning is as good a description as any of what I see and live with right now; eyes wide open, I couldn’t see a thing.    Without much exception, the people I come in contact with are afraid, or uneasy- unsure about how to navigate.  A fogged-in atmosphere like this touches everything, and everyone. 

I have lived in the greater Detroit area my whole life.  I grew up thinking the most fabulous sculpture imaginable was a well designed automobile. That idea is alive and well; more thousands of people than ever attended the yearly Dream Cruise down Woodward Avenue in August.  A festival honoring the beauty and diversity of the automobile was an idea that took root, and grew.  The serious economic and environmental problems currently affecting Detroit defy description, much less solutions.  I so strongly support the Greening of Detroit, as it seems to me it will take people who have that tenacity that describes gardeners to make Detroit thrive again-even if that involves reinventing its landscape. There needs to be some seeds sown that root, and take hold.

I am in the thick of two substantial projects right now.  One is ready to begin construction;  the other is is midway through the design phase.  Both projects involve interesting and committed clients.  Multiple design issues making lots of noise; this is my idea of a good time.  Designing makes me wake up and see; I cannot decribe that process any better than this. Once I am in the “wake up and see” mode, I see everything differently.  How a vignette could be arranged in a more striking way.  How I might use a material creatively. This is about the imagination, in gear. My imagination in gear over these projects that energize me made me step back and see what it is to be fogged in and not know it.

Some weeks ago I had a front door, and a rear door replaced at the store.  I ordered a door with a window for the front, and a solid door for the back.  When my contractor arrived to install the doors, we explained that the salesperson had ordered both doors with windows, by mistake.  Though the door with a window costs more, he would charge me the same as for the door with no window.  It crossed my mind that for security reasons, a rear door with a window into the garage not visible from the street might not be a good idea.  However, as the door that no longer closed properly was a bigger security issue; I said ok.  At 6:10 this morning I went into the garage-a space some 4000 square feet with no windows.  I am accustomed to going everywhere in the store without turning on the lights; I know the space well enough to confidently navigate in the dark.  Though the light switch next to the back door is a long way from the entrance to the garage, I always got there.  The one exception-a low, heavy and close to immoveable  black iron planter inadvertently got left in the path to the light switch.  I was in a heap on that concrete floor before my brain got the message. I have been very cautious, and tentative ever since, negotiating my way to the light. I remembered this today, seeing the light from the window at the far end of the room.  From the inside, that window provided security to me. Providing security from the inside suddenly seemed like a very important seed that deserved to be planted in, and kept watered.  There’s a chance that something might grow. There’s nothing that breaks up a white fog better than some sunshine.

This all may seem painfully obvious, and hardly worth mentioning.  But routinely I have to tell clients who want their new landscapes to look old and established  that the time this takes cannot be circumvented.   I tell them the crummy spring weather applies equally to everyone-one’s love and devotion to gardening doesn’t get you a pass on the frost sure to come. How fiercely you want cosmos in that dark corner of your garden does not make your chances of success better.  Likewise, the fog of tough times falls on me too-not just other people. 

The clients and projects that engage me help to burn off the fog.  Those relationships are like seeds.  Not every seed germinates, but enough do to keep things going and growing.  Another favorite thing about gardeners is their hope.  The winter will end, the weather will warm, and the garden will grow again.  If it grows slowly or poorly, they tend it with special care until the weather gets better.  Should that special care not help, they do differently, or even start over.  They stake up the delphiniums that have gone over, and they replant when things die.  This seems like a good way to live, does it not?

At A Glance: Agave










A Do It Herself-er

bunting-barbara-2007-15Though my client lives in this lovely old Dutch colonial house, she loves all things modern and minimal.  She was interested in a landscape design which would reflect her point of view, yet work with the house.  In a book entitled “Minimum” -a gift from her-author John Pawson states that “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction.” 

bunting-barbara-2007-19As a landscape is a living thing, and most definitely not an artefact, I told her the best way to achieve the sort of simplicity she was looking for would require a very simple palette of materials.  I concentrated on volumes, and values.  If you wish to see shapes simply, squint; all the detail will disappear.  The house has very definite light and dark shapes.  The relative lightness or darkness of a color is known in design lingo as its “value”.  I could see a white and dark landscape looking just fine with her home.

bunting-barbara-2007-2Though the house was built in the 1920’s, its architecture has a very modern feeling.  The windows are plain; the shapes of the house and gable are simple and massive. A traditional mix of plant species planted along the foundation, though well grown,  had nothing to add. As she planned to do her own work, I did a quick conceptual sketch.

sept4b-006I suggested that she remove all the plants in the front of the house, build four sheet metal boxes, paint them a dark color, and plant them with boxwood.  The only in-ground plant along the foundation would be pachysandra.  Lawn and gravel panels in simple geometric shapes would be connected by a large square frame of gravel.  The frame shape running through the terrace, and under the benches would be planted with some dark foliaged plant material. 

sept3-003Some of my clients like to do their own work-she is one of them. She would come up on occasion for a quick consult on this or that.  She made changes to the plan for both practical and aesthetic reasons.  She added a row of columnar carpinus on the lot line; the screening was important. Rather than the big picture frame, she installed two limestone gravel squares in the lawn.  The installation was very well done.

sept3-009The dark green boxwood in the dark boxes repeat the dark horizontal line of the roof.  They seem even darker, as they are always in shade.  Squint as you look-they almost disappear. The boxes sit quietly behind the modern Italian beehive pots by Francesca del Re.  These pots are the only highly textural element in the landscape.  I am sure my client would say that one textural element was enough. She is a very good editor.

sept3-006The dark run of ajuga is much more about sculpture, and sculptural relationships  than it is about the plant.  She did however reseach carefully for a small growing, fine textured plant that would tolerate both dry shade, and some sun.  Her care in selection has paid off.  Though the light conditions change from one place to another, the run is growing and thriving uniformly.

As I happened to be in the neighborhood, I thought I would stop and take a look.  This was my first visit, since she finished the garden.  She took my piece of paper, and made something of it. Not being part of the installation process has its rewards. I feel like our exchange, over a piece of paper, came to something good.

Lost Landscape

jacobson0001I started to work on this lovely  property in 1998. Set in a forest of old trees, the house and landscape had that quiet woodland up-north feeling.  Everything I designed for this client I kept in keeping with that feeling; few properties come with an aura as strong as this one did.  A case in point; this driveway was laid out with the house in the 1920’s-and was no longer wide enough for modern vehicles.  My solution?  Edge the drive in small round native to Michigan granite rocks, and let the moss go to work on them.  Anyone over the edge with their SUV-no harm. Do no harm-this was my organizing metaphor.

jacobson-1I like formal spaces in front yards, as I like a public presentation that looks good every day.  All of us are very busy people-I like a landscape that can wait.  But boxwood or taxus hedging seemed alien to the feel of this space.  The golden vacary privet-an old plant not much in fashion since its hey day in the 50’s, seemed perfect.  The chartreuse color would light up the shade.  This very informal material used in a formal way, was a nod to the period and feeling of the vintage house, and its landscape.

aug-28d-569This picture is taken from the road. Old weeping Norway spruce were planted very close and gracefully to the foundation of the house.  I repeated this woodland feeling at the road-with a break, a view.  A brief view.

jacobson-7The gold vicary described the shape of a circular sunken garden.  What I love the most about the native Michigan woods are how quiet they are; no noise which is technological in origin. No radio, no cars, no jet skis, no boats-just quiet.  The sound of birds, wind, footsteps-these sounds are native, natural, and good.   Sinking a garden even a little intensifies the quiet.  Two simple steps of grass with round rock risers-a casual, northern Michigan detail. 

jacobsonAnd the ferns?  Everywhere.  Ostrich ferns as a groundcover-this is a beautiful look.  The texture, scale and informality is easy on the eyes, and pleasing.  Drifts of ferns really interest me as a designer.  They are bold and sculptural in big masses.  But they speak directly to the primeval forest; the look of a stand of ferns wrings all the tension out of me.

aug-28c-1024No doubt this was a shady, mossy, quiet, not perfect, natural, woodland landscape.  A grouping of funky containers and sculptures, set in groundcover on the far east perimeter, was a nod to the point of view of the client.  I love a collection of objects that band together to make a sculpture.  sept2-003I wrote last Sunday in my weekly opinion post that a ride by this treasured project of mine revealed that the client has ripped most everything out, and installed a new landscape.  I felt the shock that anyone feels when they come face to face with something so totally unexpected that blacking out seems an appropriate response.  It took me two days to recover, but recover I did. 

sept2-002My clients have their own lives, and their own idea of beauty.  They hire me-I am not a favorite aunt, or a Mom, or a daughter.  Their lives change-I am not privy to most of that.  I may be close beyond close for the duration of the project, but I am usually their fifth business.  At my age, I know who I am. I appreciate that the lives of my clients are not subject to my review.  I furthermore understand that my ownership of a project is while I am making it.  What happens after-I am not responsible, nor am I honored.  This is as it should be.

sept2-006It is not my idea to critique the new landscape-that is not the point of this post.  I am not interested in being a critic.  I am interested in writing about my life as a designer.  It is very tough to see years of work erased-no one cozies up to this.  Least of all me.  I am interested in history, and continuity.  But I do not always get my way.

sept2-008No matter how this landscape looks now, I am not unhappy about how I approached it. I have no second thoughts. I will sleep sound tonight.