Archives for March 2010

At Close Range

I have talked every which way, and in every language I am familiar with about composition and space; can you tell it is a topic close to my heart?  My space has been very limited the past six weeks-so I am more than familiar with what goes on at close range.  I can describe in every detail what I see out the one window at home where I spent the lion’s share of my time the past 6 weeks.  The rhodies right outside that window were a green version of a thermometer. If I had my way, what would be up close to my view, every day?

What is up close and important for Buck is his kitchen-and everything else that goes on at the dinner table.  People sitting down, relating over a meal-this may be his idea of life’s most important moments.  Everything gets discussed and decided-at close range.  In his work life, his eyes are focused, via a magnifier in his welding helmet, on laying down via his mig welder, a perfect and smooth bead of E-70s silicon bronze wire-that perfectly laid bead welds one piece of metal to another.  He is twelve inches from that work. The Englishman Phillip Thomason, arguably the most influential garden pot maker of the twentieth century, could not have been far from his work, when he carved this green man and affixed it to the wall of one of his garden boxes. Were it mine, I would want to be able to be at close range-a view like this is a good one.�
This photograph says a lot about near and far.  The front edge of this shell basin is in sharp focus. That front edge is parallel to the lens of the camera. Any object or plant, or combination thereof, which presents at close range, and at eye level, gets to be really important. That importance has nothing to do with the object or plant-it has to do with placement.  The background-how will you handle it?

Some pots can weigh in visually just fine, placed on the ground.  Others need a socle, or a gentle lift up, or a pedestal.  A pot at eye level is the visual equivalent of a finial. I define a finial as any beautiful finish to a pedestal, a garden, a space, or an entrance.   Plant that pot set at finial eye level or not, its beauty is at close range.  What you see, near and far, is all about good garden composition. Almost anything I see up close, I marvel at.  Should you want my attention far away, make that happen.    

These small terra cotta pots, waterproofed with masonry waterproofing paint and painted white, with their associated paint soaked bows, would not get a passing glance-but for their placement at eye level on a shelf.  Given a good chance to look at them, your idea about them being insignificant may take a back seat to what you see.

Contemporary garden ornament is much about shape and surface. Shape and surface up close has a much different feeling than shape and surface at a distance.  That placement within a space orients a viewer-no revelation here.  But placement is at your discretion- move things around.  Go far, get closer-move up to close range; see what you like best.  

Some plants, some garden objects, some gardens and landscapes, are best viewed from above eye level.  You can sort that out-just look, and see what view makes your heart pound the most.  If the light doesn’t go on, don’t worry.  I have been looking up and down, down and out, at a distance and up close, at my little property for 15 years-I do not have it sorted out.  I like this about gardening-Every year I bring something new to my approach.   

My garden tolerates me-amicably.  Should I bring something new home, chances are good that somewhere the landscape will invite the newcomer to dinner, and eventually ask them to stay on.  Where, how, and under what circumstances-this is your job.  Is this not a good job? 

Anything you cannot live without, and think to add to your garden-it may be more useful to ditch the idea of where, and think about its placement-relative to your eye, in the composition in question.  I know lots of gardeners that create based on instinct, and not idea. Those that create based on a genuine love and caring do just fine. There is really no need to give words to, or explicate the creative process. I only write about design in hopes of explaining my process. I greatly admire lots of gardeners that do things differently than I would-why wouldn’t I?     

Up close, every gardener gets engaged-yes?

Trimmed Up

Last March, when I was thinking about taking on writing a daily blog for the first time, I had some ideas about it-not the least of which had to do with the seasons.  I wanted to write what I thought day to day-not especially about the past, and maybe a bit about the future.  The news of the day-in this I was most interested.  The winter is excruciatingly long in Michigan; making writing for day to day interest in the depths of my winter, for other gardeners stuck in a similar spot, a challenge.  In defense of the winter months, lots of design issues can be broached and discussed. I have done that, maybe in more detail than you like. The 2010 store collection and how it came to be looks great-but all of this is lacking a certain kind of life. No collection comes to life until the plants get here. All I have a mind to do right now is think and talk about plants.  Steve has been on a road trip, checking out nurseries from whom we have plants ordered and soon to be on the way.  Relevant to my Sunday post about pollarding, his photograph above is of a willow stock plant, being pollarded.  The branches will not be used for firewood, as they are frequently used in Europe-these rootless cuttings will be sent out to growers all over who wish to grow on this cultivar.  These trimmings will become trees someday.         

Some older boxwood specimens spend the winter in tunnel houses.  Winter snow loads can devastate what has taken many years to grow. A tiny boxwood you may purchase at a nursery most likely takes seven years to get to that 12″ size.  Bigger plants take many more years to grow.  Nursery people do what they can, to protect what has taken so much of their time and effort, to grow on. 

I so love this photograph of Steve’s.  The dirt road, impressed with dusty tractor tracks, is in stark contrast to these painstakingly grown and trimmed plants.  Wow-do you not think you are looking at an alternative planet?  Or at the very least an alternative idea about plants?  Like trimmed topiary plants or not, the energy, will and work cannot be denied.  Growers and gardeners-a relationship.

I spoke for a big group of these plants.  They are beautifully grown, and healthy.  But I mostly admire the hand in evidence that sculpted these plants.  Make no mistake-so many years, so much effort, so much passion-one has to pause and admire what made this field come to be.  Growers by and large have no prize in mind-they grow, and live to grow.  Their hands-I plan to celebrate them.  I am sure you do too.

I see junipers grown and trimmed in this fashion regularly.  Yews grown like this-news to me. When I think old, gorgeous, and thoughtfully grown yews, I think England.  I am now seeing old and trained yews on my side of the pond-I will have some. Sensational topiary plants grown on this side of the ocean-I am clapping my hands. 

Buxus Sempervirens is not hardy in my zone.  I have avoided the plant like the plague-who wants to deal with a serious gardener’s grief when they loose a major plant?   I cannot plant this species of boxwood in the ground-all of us need to be committed to taking them into the garage for the winter. These topiary grown and trimmed boxwood would make my heart pound, planted in pots-a handtruck taking them to shelter for the winter is well worth the effort.    

 My pots are standing, waiting for plant material of this caliber.  How they have been grown and trimmed up before they ever get to me-many thanks to those growers whose committment and investment stands largely behind the scenes.  The hands put to a living plant by any gardener-no matter personal or professional, no matter a home or a growing field-I so greatly value this.

Sunday Opinion:The Romance Of Possibility

The very same Louise Beebe Wilder whose book on rock gardening (Pleasures and Problems Of A Rock Garden) I mentioned in last Sunday’s post, also penned several lines about gardening that are among my most favorite.  “In her own garden, every woman may be her own artist without apology or explanation.  Here is one spot where each may experience the romance of possibility”.  No wonder it is so often quoted by gardeners and garden writers alike.  “The romance of possibility”  so succinctly describes the source of that compulsion which makes every gardener put a shovel to soil-again and again-season after season.  I suppose there are those people who have gardened, and walked away, but I do not know them personally. I do know some for whom indulging that shot at romance is on hiatus. A new child, an imminent move, an illness-these big things can tie one’s gardening hands.  I myself am shuddering at the thought that this year I must see to a new roof.  Worse than the expense, the thought of the damage threatening my garden -I don’t know how I will cope.   I can save ahead for the roof,  but I despise the idea of regrowing or replacing my roses, or some boxwood crushed by the three layers of shingles that have to come off and down.  But as I see dealing with this come November, and today is the first day of spring, I choose to think about the possibilities.

Some possibilities involve an investment of time and imagination, and not so much money.  My blocks of limelight hydrangeas were almost seven feet tall when they bloomed last summer.  I barely trimmed them last March; I wanted the height. In August I could see the mass of flowers towering over my yew hedge. It is possible for me to cut them harder, and keep them lower-what would this do?  I prune one client’s hydrangeas to 20 inches tall out of the ground-her  four foot plus plants do not obstruct her view of the lake.  My hydrangeas span a considerable drop in grade; could I prune such that the eventual height of each block will be the same?  Would they be better, two feet shorter?  Would I like to give this a try?

For the past 5 years, I have been pruning a pair of palibin lilacs on standard rather hard after they bloom.  The heads have gotten so large, they are always on the verge of out of bounds.  It has taken every bit of five years to change their shape from a giant ball to lower and wider ovals.  This shape I like better. But those ovals are not uniform all the way around-have I the nerve to pollard them? Pollarding a tree heads back all of its branches breathtakingly close to the primary trunk.  Though I love the look of pollarded trees in European cities and gardens, I am a little faint of heart, subjecting two of my own to this treatment.  They never seem to mind how hard I prune-they flush out again without any complaint.  It is a possibility on my mind, pollarding the lilacs.  In my own garden, pollarded trees like I see in books about European gardens-it would no doubt be a romantic experience.

Though our winter has been very mild this year, my Helleborus Angustifolius survived the mild winter with very little damage-but their giant stems were flattened by the weight of the snow.  As they bloom on last year’s growth, I cannot cut them back.  Shall I trade them in for some orientalis cultivar whose tattered leaves can be pruned off in March, as the flowers push forth from the soil on their own fresh stems?  I have quite a few years invested in these giant hellebores, but they really do not like this climate. Should I decide to cut my losses, is there something else that would compliment my beech ferns even better?

All of the elements of my fountain garden seem to be working well, and growing fine.  But something seems to be missing-what is it?  Do I need a new fence?  Should I stain my old fence black?  Does my fountain need something?  If so, what?  This has to be the most exciting part of the first day of a Michigan spring-what are my possibilities?  As I am only thinking things over, I can let my imagination run wild. My imagination gets a little frayed come September, but a long winter has set me to longing to be out of doors, tinkering.    

Other years, my spring has been much more about repairing winter damage than romance.   One winter, ice and snow brought an entire hedge of 14 foot tall arborvitaes to its knees.  The only possibility at my disposal-have it tied back up, look after it, and hope for the best.  This was three years ago; perhaps this year it will look its old glorious self again. Splayed out and winter burned boxwood took its share of time and effort, as did the cleanup of wind and ice damaged trees.  My spring plans-dashed.   

This winter though, has been very grey, very long, and quite benign. A little romance seems to be right around the corner.

At A Glance: Rusting Steel