Archives for February 2010

Inspired by Materials

2007 pre-installation Balames (6)
Any and all materials from the earth, or made by some gifted person with in genuity can inspire a garden.  Some landscape materials are regionally available, or from a specific time period, or architectural style; this only makes sense. Transporting enough stone to build a wall or a house from Louisiana to Michigan even sounds like the big deal that it is.  Some days,  after delivering and placing a stone trough, I wonder why I didn’t choose to collect stamps.  That our currency-so many pieces of paper- is backed up by who knows how many thousands of tons of gold bars makes perfect sense to me.   Good landscapes are designed by people with a wide range of obsessions.  The food growing people, the ornamental plant people, the dwarf conifer people, and the hosta aficionados share the pursuit with the stone lovers, the terra cotta collectors, the brick people, the pond people, and so on.  This 1920’s English tudor style house is notable for its limestone chimney, and copper trim gone dark with age.  The sundial mounted dead center in the peak of the main roof of the house- a sure sign of a builder/gardener with a love for materials.


Montreal is such an interesting city-I am especially fond of the old part.  This building is a marvel -stone, brick, rock, copper, terra cotta, all put together in someone’s strong idea of beautiful patterns-the sole purpose of which was to keep out the fiercely unfriendly weather.  No doubt the original windows gave out, and needed replacing. The new windows-the handiwork of someone inspired by something else other than beautiful materials. 

RougheRiver2 (18)This ironwork is actually the floor of a bridge that traverses the Rouge River to Zug Island in Detroit.  Old industrial sites are landscapes of a different sort, but they are remarkable in how the the most utilitarian structures-factories, bridges, water stations and the like- were designed and built with no small attention to an aesthetic sense.  This goes back to a time when there were no designers per se, just craftspeople whose work expressed a belief in the beauty of the materials. 

Aug 28d 359I have admired this stone house designed by Michael Willoughby for a long time.  The stone surface you see on the facade is the same stone he used on the ground, and on the interior walls.  This irregular flagstone is native to Michigan, and adapts quite well to the modern design of this house. The green glazed French pots bring that landscape green up and onto the entrance porch.  The early twentieth century French concrete faux bois boxes refer to the craftsmanship of the stone work.    

DSC_0085This branch fence functions as screening for a space that had no room for screening plants. Massive rocks set in a koi pond, and a bluestone terrace asked for a lighter more textured companion material.  It is entirely possible that this screen is handmade; I have never seen anything quite like it. 

DSC_0004Galvanized and acid washed steel is a favorite material of mine.  It has the graceful and dignified look I associate with lead. The white bloom of the finish suggests age.  

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The fascia boards of this home in Washington are decorated with a border of scalloped cedar twigs and pine cone dots.  The owner uses these same materials to make baskets, fencing, trellis work, and tassel ornaments for gardens. Her own house and garden has a distinctive appeal, based on the materials fallen from the cedar trees on her property. 

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As natural in a garden as stone is wood; this oval French wine barrel will find a new life as a fountain or lotus pond for some gardener who is attracted to beautiful materials. This object could inspire and organize an entire garden space.  I could just as easily see it stuffed with grasses, or grapes wound round a trellis. It is perfectly beautiful empty, and waiting.

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The stone on this home-I had never seen it before, nor since.  Though my clients insisted they needed help with design, facing this stone down with hydrangea quercifolia, the oakleaf hydrangea, seemed an inspired choice.  The form and subtle coloration of the hydrangea is a beautiful foil to the mass and strong color of the stone. Though there are details to come, they had an instinct about where to go that they trusted-this may better than half the battle.

Planning For Other People

July19a 004A discussion of space and flow in a garden is not just about one’s eye-it is also about providing clear passage and respite for people you like.  How I move in, use, work and relax in my garden is easy for me-I live there.  I know the shortcuts.  It does not take so much to entertain me-sometimes flopping down on the grass works just fine.  As much as I love the solitary aspect of my garden, friends visit.  They need places to be, and be comfortable.   

July19 024Should you have one friend, or many-should you have older relatives, and a slew of kids, the issues are the same.  Should you be interested in company enjoying your garden, planning for them to be there comfortably is important. 

s family (15)I invite my clients to visit their own home in disguise.  Be a guest in your garden for an hour. Where do you park? Can you see the house number? Are you clearly directed to the door?  Is the porch large enough for two of you to stand side by side?  If there are stairs, are they easy to negotiate?  Are the walks and stairs lit in the evening?  Your questions will be better than mine-you live there.   

July19 017Hard flat surfaces are friendly to people. Slopes and uneven surfaces make people focus their attention on maintaining their balance, instead of enjoying your peonies in bloom.  My car park doubles as a terrace when I have company-I put my car in the street.   July19 021Though my fountain garden has a bench, it also has higher than chair height seat walls.  It’s easy to sit down in a number of places; it is equally easy for a number of people to casually congregate as they see fit. Even the little dogs like this.    

Aug 13 020My deck terrace is large enough for dining furniture, a few lounge chairs, the barbeque-and my pots.  I bring the garden upstairs; some nights I am too tired go into the garden. Wherever people might be in my garden, there are places to sit, to talk, to linger.  

Aug 13 050Thomas Church wrote a book entitled “Gardens are for People”.  This idea has inspired many a beautiful walkway, bench, pool, terrace, pergola, dining table, croquet lawn-you get the idea. How your friend, or your party of 60 will enter your property, enjoy the garden, have a cocktail and sit down to dinner-this is worth planning for.  Sharing a garden is one of the better reasons to own one.   

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All your friends will appreciate your efforts.

Inspiration From The Plants

july 29 031It is preaching to the choir to suggest that gardeners are inspired by plants-of course they are.  No one would put up with the work, the unfriendly weather, the failures that hang on forever and the joys that are fleeting, should they did not feel compelled to grow plants.  It is not preaching to the choir to suggest that some designers are not interested in plants.  You can instantly spot a project where plants are treated as an architectural side note, rather than a living thing that needs proper siting and care. The plants are the language that enables a garden to speak clearly. The plants can also be as important an inspiration for good design as any idea.       

2000-2001 398Though I favor landscapes that are structured, I love any flower that reminds me of a meadow.  Who knows why.  A meadow was never part of my experience growing up, as I have always lived in urban areas.  Perhaps a big flowering meadow is one of those gardens of my dreams. The habit of certain plants favor that meadow.  If the flowers that look like they have come straight from God’s hands – and by this I mean as simple as a species, not big and overwrought like a 5th generation hybrid dahlia-how they inspire and enchant you can gift your design. 

July15 040This first generation hybrid of Monarda fistulosa is named Claire Grace.  How appropriate.  It thrives for me in unamended soil; I do not feed, and I barely water what are now large thriving stands.  They wave in the slightest breeze.  They share this habit with my panicum virgatum-panic grass.   They both are tall and sturdy growing; I have space on my urban lot for them.  They are what I see out my kitchen window-who wants architecture glaring back at them from the kitchen window?  Wanting in the worst way to grow these plants fueled the design for this spot.

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Echinacea is one of those old fashioned long blooming perennials that cheerfully endured my gardening youth. Even the recent and robust hydrids still have that aura of a country meadow.  My meadow is a small space, so I need plants that grow reasonably upright without a lot of fuss.  I do not cook, but that does not mean I am not interested in the loose and lax look of an old fashioned kitchen garden.   

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Ornamental grasses -many a garden has been designed with these plants in mind.   Repeatedly planted en mass, in sweeping shapes, they are architecturally arresting. A single plant is everything one needs to know about horticultural punctuation. I once saw a planting of grasses intended by an architect dabbling in landscape design to stay within a rigidly designed grid.  Messy and confused-the result. His palette of plants-his language- not so strong.       

Oct5a 040Boltonia asteroides is a fancy name for a late blooming New England aster. Should a plant like this represent your idea of beautiful, then design in this direction.  This vigorous native plant is perfect if open, loosely defined spaces are for you.  A garden that is always robustly ahead of you-do you like this?  If you like it in small doses, is there one place you might be comfortable with this level of abandon?       

Aug 17a 003It amuses me how the “new” landscape roses so look like old roses. The name landscape roses refers of course to roses not so demanding.  This Carefree Delight rose delivers in spades for any gardener wanting the delight of profusion, without profuse care. These roses are sited in partial shade, in a windy location.  They always look happy.   

June 9 023I did a consultation last summer to clients building a new house on an old property.  This beauty bush was laden with its characteristic cascading blooms.  Formally known as Kolwitzia, I do not see it so often anymore.  It needs great space to grow, and weep.  Most pruning ruins it; take the old stems out all the way to the ground, if you must.  It is in bloom for the wink of an eye; out of bloom, beauty bush would never interest you.  But it is one of those old fashioned, easy going shrubs that makes a visual statement.     

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A successful design can be made around those plants that consistently inspire.  If there are plants that make you want to speak up, know their names, and keep them close by when it’s time to plan.


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I bought this poster of an 1805 pen/ink/watercolor and graphite work by William Blake at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in 1968. I was 18, and in New York to see the Broadway production of  “Hair”-if you don’t know what that was, you’re too young. The poster has been in my possession for 42 years; I look at it more often than you might think. Why?  I am inspired by it.  “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” has stormy weather, the interaction of opposing forces, a winged and horned creature hovering, the sun woman with the wings of an angel perched on a craggy outcrop no bigger than she-a landscape. The color relationships are exquisite.  Some days I think it is about good and evil; other days I think it is about the beauty of tension-like that moment just before a drop of water falls from a branch after a rain.  The similar shape and expression of the four hands dramatically encloses the space between them. The composition is astonishing; I never tire of it.  Did I know I would be a gardenmaker at 18?  Absolutely not. But I did have an instinct to collect images that spoke to me like this one does.        

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Inspiration is any image, thought, exchange or lightening bolt that has the power to move me to invent.  That said, I have no need to immediately understand why images move me-I just need to collect them.  This is not an unusual activity-I have lots of clients who rip pages from magazines, and show me pictures of family events-something in each image moves them. Brides in particular are very good at folders stuffed with images of this bouquet and that cake. The words that adequately explain being moved to invent can be complicated-the images bring the entire idea home-no translation needed.  The above pictured landscape from a magazine is natural, graceful, subtle-a path barely visible moves the eye from the foreground to the background-to that place where the almost horizontal line of sunny grass directs your eye to the break in the trees.  Through the break, a stout tree trunk which is the furthest object from my eye. The landscape is composed to encourage you to go there; do you see it? 


People see different things-many of which have roots in their own particular history or memory.  I believe this photograph of a peony was taken by my Mom-but I could be wrong.  Some images I have had for so many years I no longer remember their provenance.  The important thing is that I associate the beauty and the amazing structure of flowers with her.  We had quite the long relationship over flowers and gardens; keeping that alive is no small part of what motivates me. 

inspiration 011What inspires me in this picture is the story behind it.  Yew Dell Gardens is a botanical garden just outside of Louisville Kentucky.  Theodore Klein and his wife had a commercial nursery on these 33 acres, growing countless plants here until his death in 1998.  The property was purchased, and reinvented as a botanic garden.  The above pictured allee is in fact a pair of adjacent nursery rows of American holly, now very old.  How the nursery rows became a beautiful landscape feature inspires me. I am keenly interested in the intersection of landscape and agriculture.  I am equally interested in how people steward the land entrusted to their care. 

inspiration 020This is an image from an old garden journal which now survives as a collection of images I treasure. The landscape is simple, striking, and very spatially composed.  Elements both contemporary and traditional interact in a worthy way.  There are so many ways to put the design elements working here to good use.

inspiration 014These trees with whitewashed trunks in a garden in the south of France make another reference to agriculture.  Fruit trees would sometimes have their trunks whitewashed with a kaolin compound, to deter insects.  Kaolin, the same clay which is the basis for face powder, is a benign and useful compound.  The visual appearance-gorgeous. I encourage clients to cut and collect any image that gets their attention-even if it is not clear what attracts them.  Sooner or later some thread that connects all of them will become clear. 

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The maze at Hatfield-pictured in the background of this photo- is one of my favorite gardens.  It would be enough, the beautiful maze so beautifully maintained, but what truly inspires me about it is the grade.  The maze is built in a subtly sunken space.  To my eye, that simple grade change is what transforms this garden from beautiful, to incredibly beautiful. Every time I see this image, I am struck by how key a single simple design move can transform a space.  Any space can have this-I am inspired by that thought, too. 

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How I see this combination of poppies and grass echo repeats the feelings I have about the Hatfield maze. This unexpected pairing of plants is a design move that delights the eye.  Each plant gives life to the other-in color, texture and pattern.  The planting, for that short time while the poppies are in bloom, is a celebration of the ephemeral beauty of nature.       

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Julia never tired of seeing my projects, nor did she ever stop encouraging me to be the best I could be.  Her accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and photographer inspired me to be so bold as to try things, and not be afraid to redo what didn’t work out.  Her image I keep in my heart, not in a folder. But the idea is the same-some images are on paper, some images live in the imagination. In order to plan well, its important to collect those images and memories about you, as they will inspire your invention.