Archives for August 2010

Lolo’s Garden


I do not grow vegetables at home.  In my opinion, a vegetable patch looks messy and disorganized, even when it is anything but. Working gardens show evidence of that work.  I am not interested looking at work when I go home-I have already done that all day long.  Afficianados of growing food at home like Lolo are a hard working lot that have an astonishing range of knowledge.  Growing from seed, pairing plants, crop rotation-the depth of her knowledge is impressive.  Often there is a family history that includes growing food, cooking, family meals that is a way of life. I would want a working garden to be beautiful in a way it cannot be.  Sooner or later, every vegetable garden tends towards dissolution.

The vegetable garden can be designed in a very orderly way.  Raised beds permit making choices about soil composition.  There can be the designated asparagus, strawberry or raspberry patch.  Espaliered fruit trees, grapes, and a fig tree can be worked into the design.  A spot to grow cutting flowers-what a great idea.  But once I get to this point, I am not only over my head, but I have lost interest as I have lost control.  Fortunately most people who would devote part of their landscape to seriously growing food know what they need from a space.  Cultivating a vegetable garden is not for a weekend gardener-it is an every day committment. 

When the soil-making and daily tending and growing has been good, it seems like there is that moment when the the entire garden seems poised to overrun the space.  The paths get narrower; the squash has grown out of the box and heads for the road.  Is there a vegetable plant that does not not fall over in a heap? I have yet to see a vegetable garden not overrun with withies, stakes, towers, arbors and cages.

The potting bench surface is usually covered with tools, packets of seeds, a collection basket, the soil sifter, and the like. Vegetable people leave their hoses, stakes, Japanese beetle collecting cans and gloves out in plain sight-why wouldn’t they?     

Every plant is at a different stage.  The pea patch runs out and has to be replanted-as do the lettuces, spinach and radishes.  There are those bare dirt spaces hosting the seeds of the next crop.  The galvanized wire hats goes over what ever is being eaten by the birds, rabbits, deer, raccoons and woodchucks at that moment. 

All in all, a vegetable garden at harvest time is a gloriously messy affair. Never mind the work that is involved enlisting the help of others when the garden bears vastly more than what you can eat.  Is there any more ungainly looking plant on the planet than the brussel sprout plant?  I do understand that home grown food is the best food there is-I have been the lucky recipient of various harvest overruns.  I love OPVG’s-other people’s vegetable gardens. 

This tomato in articular whose name I do not know is incredibly great looking, and great tasting.  The bush on which it grows-not so pretty.  It seems as though tomatoes and tomato plants are as irresistable to bugs, fungus and disease as they are to me.  Who wants to look at hornworms, flea beetles, and cut worms?  Who wants to deal with early blight, gray wall, catfacing or blossom end rot?  Who wants to read the Texas A and M tomato disorder page?

Who really wants to look at this at the end of a season?  My theory is that vegetable plants give so much for so long, they finally succumb to every fungus and illness swirling around in the air and soil.  I am grateful to have both friends and clients who deal with all of this and more-otherwise I would never eat any home grown food. 

Anyone who grows vegetables, fruits and herbs at home has the idea in their mind that fresh and pure is delicious and good for them, and their family.  What other reason could there be that would motivate them to work so hard, day after day?  They, like Lolo, are gardeners of the most serious sort.

The Silver Maple

A client purchased an empty lot next door to them, with the idea of completely reinventing the landscape such that two properties would read as one. Though it did not have the best looking shape in the world, there was an existing silver maple they were reluctant to take down. I understand this feeling completely; I do not like to take down trees either. I work with existing plants all the time; we would work with this one. 

Every other plant on both lots was dug and moved.  The maple was out there on its own. I did not want to design a landscape around this tree; it was in less than ideal condition.  There were views across the new lot that would be important from the rear porch; I could tell right away that the landscape design would be impacted by this tree.   I designed the schematic landscape as if it were not there, knowing that when the time came, I would be working around that tree. 

The landscape eventually called for four large perennial beds that would terminate in a radius of arborvitae.    A pergola 27 feet long set midway and perpendicular to those beds visually anchors the space.  The silver maple is just barely visible on the left; the trunk is half in, and half out of the bed.  I rather like a very formal design that is punctuated by some unexpected  element.  The element of surprise can be a very effective way to focus attention on the overall geometry of the space. 

There was but a very short time that this view would be visible.  Once the plants were installed, it would look like that tree had sprouted and grown out of an existing garden. The fact that the trunk tips slightly away from the garden lends a little visual weight to that argument.  Much more difficult than than getting this tree to work with these four quadrant gardens would be getting the perennials to work with that tree. The maple casts a good deal of shade-the shade was by no means even.  I wanted a tall and substantial garden with plant material that repeated the same mix in each quadrant.  My client wanted perennials with white, lavender and purple flowers.

The view out to the gardens is a long one. What was an empty lot is not so empty anymore. I believe that even if the maple had fallen within the grass path out to the pergola, the design would still have worked. Three multi-trunked birch that had once been in the back yard were successfully transplanted to the side lot. 

I chose plants with a reputation for tolerating varying conditions.  Hellebores I knew would do fine even in the sunnier areas. Bridal Veil Astilbe, and Astilbe Tacquettii Superba do well here.  Gold drop hosta, Jack Frost brunnera, White Innocence and Concord grape tradescantia and alchemilla mollis were planted along the border with sufficient space in between to allow for some low annual planting. The dominant plant is snakeroot-cimicifuga racemosa.  Its white bottle-brush flowers on long graceful racemes give a garden the height I was after.  Monarda fistulosa Claire Grace gives a  great show of lavender flowers at about the same time.   

The pergola was planted with sweet autumn clematis, clematis Jackmani Superba, and clematis viticella violacea. It has been a challenge to keep the rabbits away from them, but they finally seem like they are taking hold. 

I plant an occasional nicotiana alata white, here and there.  White Japanese anemone and aconitums are the star of the show in very late summer. They are just budding up now.

It has been three years since this garden was planted; it seems to be doing well.  Of course there will come a time when some division or replacing will be necessary.  The clematis are a little behind schedule-the day when they are dripping from the roof of the pergola will be a good day. 

The silver maple in question has company now.

Taking A Test Drive

Finishing up a long project feels great.  This time, I was invited back for a Sunday afternoon reception along with every other contractor that had been involved in the design and construction of the addition, and the landscape that followed.  Lake houses tend to have lots that are deep and narrow, which places homes in close proximity to one another.  My clients had the opportunity to buy the property next door to them, and decided to add onto their house.  Driving up yesterday I was pleased the most about the driveway.  The old drive curved off to the right, to the neighboring property. In the course of the project, it was redone in such a way that the approach leads physically and visually to the front door.     

The white concrete aggregate pavement you see here on the left belonged to my client.  The asphalt drive swinging to the right-the original road.  This surface had to be redone not only for aesthetic reasons, but for circulation.  I did not want a drive that led vistors to choose the addition/side door in lieu of the proper front door. 

The stripes of brick set in the concrete aggregate run on either side of a 4′ by 8′ fountain cistern. This describes on the ground plane what is now the center section of the house. This landscape/driveway element divides the drivecourt space into three distinct areas, and additionally provides for a good amount of parking.  A large drivecourt was a necessity; the house is beyond walking distance from the main road. The driveway approach actually services three homes, so onsite parking was a must.

To the far right in this picture is a short run of decomposed granite that connects to the main drivecourt, so there can be parking and circulation in and out when they entertain. No one could tell from here that there were 12 cars parked on the drivecourt.  I like landscapes that are good looking as much as I like landscapes that work. 

On the water side, the main job of the landscape was to integrate the two properties and make them feel as though they had always been one. This requires taking a lot of the existing landscape apart, and relocating it.  A previous post I wrote on this project detailed a flat plane of grass bisected by granite X’s and boxwood dots.  This elements extends across the entire width of the property.  Both the repetition and size of this feature help to unify the two spaces.  I was so pleased-Buck had a hard time spotting what was original, and what was added.

What had been the end of the house is now a backdrop for another seating area on a level different than the original bluestone terrace. The firebowl set at seat height provides a dining table for larger gatherings.

The covered porch terrace is set at the same height as the original terrace.  The stainless steel firebowl has its own cozily enclosed space.  I am sure it will be comfortably out of the wind on a chilly fall day. The covered porch with an outdoor kitchen is immediately adjacent to a large fenced vegetable garden.  

The enormously and formidably talented Jeffrey King was there with his partner and kids in tow.  He was responsible for all of the interior design-which is fabulous by the way. Don’t ask for pictures-that story is for him to tell. He was involved in every facet of this project from start to finish-he has a gift for encouraging the best from others. The house and garden was full of people.  There were places to visit, and sit for a while, eat, converse-both inside and out. It was a delightful party; a house and garden full of people is a good thing. 

The vegetable garden is the hit of the landscape. The raised beds are filled with Steve’s soil recipe-which includes a generous percentage of worm castings. Everything she made for the reception except the chicken came out of this garden-much to everyone’s delight. The food was out out of this world. They have not only given away scads of vegetables, but they have played a version of bocce here, and held two dinner parties set at a pair of long wood tables that have been in the family a long time.  My favorite part-the wood gate is an exact replica of my client’s father’s vegetable garden gate in Italy.  Design development and installation that works its way around to what is personal, and matters to a client -this is the point at which a design relationship gets to be thick, substantive, lively-and good all around.

Little did I know that the basement has a room which houses wine making and sausage making equipment passed on to them from family.  Apparently father and son will be making wine.  All the way home, all I could think about was where to plant some grapes.

Sunday Opinion: Remembering Brian Killian

I met the late interior designer Brian Killian every bit of 30 years ago through a client of his-Priscilla whose last name I can no longer remember. I do graphically remember refinishing all of her hardwood floors in her house.  I went on to do more work for him-and not the kind of work you would think. I was not even dreaming of doing landscape design then.  I supported myself, via a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I sold my art work here and there.  I painted little abstract watercolors, limed cabinets, did finishes-I did odd jobs for him.   I even persuaded my Mom to have him redo her living room for her.  He was opinionated, bossy, and delightful.  I knew the moment I met him he was a designer with an extraordinary, truly extraordinary gift.  Everyone who met him knew this-not just me.

There were a good many years when I lost track of him.  I was a local landscape designer-he was an interior designer who was well on his way to becoming nationally known.  He walked into Detroit Garden Works for the first time one day, not having any idea it belonged to me.  I came around the corner, we both held our breath.  He recovered immediately; “Did we not know each other when we were young?”.  I burst out laughing-of course we had.  We went on to do some business, and become friends. We were friends of a different sort.  I did not travel in his circle, nor did he in mine.  But we would meet not often, but regularly for dinner, and talk. Somehow we had common ground.   He was one of those people one meets only rarely-wicked talented.  His work, should you have ever seen it, was breathtakingly beautiful- truly original. 

We had a running conversation on the following topic.  He believed there would be one project that would come his way that would be the defining moment, the epitome of his career. Everything he had done would build to this defining project.  I understand this thinking.  The entire summer season long I photograph projects over and over again, in the hope I will record with my camera that one defining moment. Every year I finally realize that there is not the one defining moment as much as there is that one photograph that perfectly captures the process of that season.  In any event, I do not really subscribe to that notion that any one project defines a design life.  I so much more stand on the side of a body of work, a lifetime of work, a series of moments. 

We contested this topic vigorously-no kidding, for years.  One night at the shop, before we went to dinner, he had me so steamed about this, I accidentally backed my Suburban into the rear end of his Mercedes coupe. His manners were perfect.  He waved off all of my next day plans to get his car fixed-he would not think of, nor permit, burdening me with that. He was like that.   His staff and contractors both loved and endured him.  He had a vision-God help anyone who did not get in line behind that.  But I am here to say he was a perfect gentleman in the important sense of those words.  He practiced his faith.  He was full of praise for anything he felt deserved that.  But even gentlemen can be dead wrong;  I told him so frequently.  I had seen some projects of his in their entirety, and glimpses of others.  Walking into a room that he had designed and installed was an experience that is very hard to describe. It was as if that room was not a room, but an entire world with its own visual language and laws. Anything else that might have been on your mind either vanished, or was vanquished. His work made me gasp.  I scolded him for not seeing that- in what he had already created.      

Brian’s idea of that defining project had much to do with Bobby McAlpine.  Should you not know him, he is an architect who lives and practices in Alabama.  Brian was very clear that should he ever be drafted by Bobby McAlpine to do the interiors for a home Bobby designed and built, it could be a seminal and defining project.  I looked up his website.  What I could see there of his work, or in an occasional magazine article-astonishing.   

I had not thought so much about Brian or Bobby recently until a few weeks ago.  When I read that Rizzoli had recently published a monograph on the work of Bobby McAlpine, I ordered it. It is called “The Home Within Us”.   I have been reading and looking at the pictures on and off ever since.  The architecture and interiors are extraordinary. Should you have a compelling interest in design, I highly recommend this book.  What is written is every bit as interesting as what has been photographed.   One never knows how exposure to beautiful work might change the way you see things.  I know when I see work of this caliber, I am energized.  I have been thinking even more these last few days about Brian.  How he influenced me, and my work.  I am sure he is so busy redesigning the Pearly Gates that he scarcely has time to review what he accomplished while he was here, but I can attest- the beauty of his work was considerable.  I doubt it matters if you never had the chance to see his work. One can’t possibly see all the great work that is out there to be seen. There are brilliant designers all over this planet.   Maybe there is just such a moment just down the street, waiting for you.  For certain,  there is a very long list of those people whose beautiful work greatly enriches the lives of others.  Those truly extraordinary lives, their gorgeous work-they make my life better.

Brian Killian made my life better.