Archives for August 2010

A Secret Garden

Who knows how many times my Mom read The Secret Garden to me.  Once I learned to read on my own, I doubled up my exposure to this well known children’s tale.  Though I was taken in by the relationship that was forged in the privacy of a beautiful garden, I was more fascinated by the garden itself.  Walled off from the world, quiet, serene-the possibility of a completely private world all of one’s own imagination and invention enchanted me.  I have clients who live in old neighborhoods in close proximity to other families. Those neighborhoods are in transition now.   Old modestly sized homes are being torn down in favor of much larger homes.  

I have a client in just such a situation.  The lot behind her has been summarily clear cut; a large home is in the works. All the the old trees on the lot line that screened her from that neighbor are gone.  An old and deteriorated home next door has been sold, and is scheduled to be razed.  A new home, no doubt bigger and taller than homes original to the neighborhood has her feeling under siege. On the garden tour this July she commented to me that though I live in an old neighborhood with small lots and many large two-story homes, my yard is completely private.  She had an interest in staying ahead of the construction that would loom over her on two sides of her property for the at least two years.    

Lots in her community are small; the parcels reflect a time and place long past. She was willing to reduce the width of her driveway to less than 9 feet, if it meant that she could plant screening in anticipation of a new house next door. I understand this need.  I like my neighbors, but I like my private garden more.  I have no need or inclination to be privy to what my neighbors are up to.  Most importantly, I want the sanctuary that a landscape can provide.  We saw cut a strip out her asphalt driveway so we had room to plant.     

Arborvitae as a screening material in a right space has its limitations. When very tall, they fall prey to ice storm damage.  They grow wider than one would like.  Like many evergreens, they are much narrower at the top than the bottom.  If you need screening up high, a layered planting works well.  Deciduous trees provide great screening of a neighboring second floor.  A columnar tree takes up relatively little room on the ground plane.  Carpinus, gingko, tulip tree, beech, amelanchier,-there are plenty of choices.  Planting an amiable evergreen between the columnar trees gives you an evergreen screen occupying the first five feet out of the ground-excellent.  Driving up the drive, or walking down the drive for the mail, there is privacy.  

This columnar English oak hybrid, Crimson Spires, has densely growing blue green leaves, and a decidedly columnar habit.  This cultivar of English oak is stubbornly hardy-never mind its good looks.  In two years these trees will be branching out such that my client will get the gist of her secret garden.  Within 8 years whatever goes on next door will not be part of her landscape.   

On the lower level, we have another issue to address. The neighbors wood fence is old and quite deteriorated. What will be when that fence is replaced, or not replaced?  The densiformis yews will make how the new neighbors will handle their landscape their issue, and not hers. 

We planted a secondary screen which will add another layer of privacy to the back yard.  The arborvitae “Emerald Green” has a beautiful deep green color year round, and grows quite dense.  I will recommend that this hedge be maintained at the height of the gutter on the garage.  This will make the maintenance of the hedge more manageable.  It will also make the rear yard garden entirely private from this side. 

We will see if the narrower drive is easily negotiable. If it proves to be too narrow, there is an option to add a little more drive on the house side.  The views out from the windows on this side of the house will be green.

Generating Curves

I have a big love for formally conceived and planted landscapes.  Nature does wild, asymmetrical  and completely unexpected far better than I could ever hope to.  A client with whom I have been in negotiations for three years regarding her irrigation system flooding and killing her plants finally came around this spring.  “I see that the trees in the parks do just fine, though no automatic irrigation is in place.”  A client who is observing nature at work-what could be better?  I like to observe nature at work, and create spaces for people based on those observations.  Though I have a big love for the intersection of horizontal and vertical lines, I am the first to admire spaces with beautiful curves.  This design of mine for a steel pergola is organized around the elliptical shape you see in the drawing above. Should it ever be built, the bottom part of the ellipse will be implied, not represented.  Beautifully curved landscape beds imply circular shapes, though all of that circle may not be represented.       

A recent project was all about compound, curving shapes. I generate these shapes by hand; I spray dots on the ground to start.  Should you be generating curved beds, I would recommend the following.  A curved bed needs to be curved from start to finish.  Once even a small portion of  a curve goes flat, it looses impact. Some have luck dragging a hose-this method has never worked for me.  For large curves, a stake set on a proper radius, with a string attached can generate the portion of a circle you need.

Though this lawn panel appears elliptical from this angle, it is clearly circular when you are in the space.  Finding the center of the space took some trial and error, but I was finally able to wrap the string around my landscape paint, stretch it tight against the centering stake, and dot it in.  Circular shapes, and circular sculptures or spheres are visually very strong and stable.  Several cultivars of hosta fringe the lawn panel.  The relationship between this very geometric garden and the naturally planted surrounding landscape provides visual interest. 

Big swooping curves can relieve the feeling that a space is small and stuffy.  The placement of this house on its property means a very large front and public space, and a small back yard.  The addition of a curved granite terrace makes the rear yard feel bigger, more airy.  I know there are those gardeners who edge their beds by hand, but I am not good enough to hand generate a good curve with an edging spade; I invariably go off.   An investment in some edger strip pays off in the long run by keeping lawn out of a bed or terrace. 

For curves to read well, they should be simple and large.  The best way to assess if your curved beds have the impact you are after is to look at those spaces left over when you are done with your curve work. Whether they be the lawn, a pathway, or the property line, those spaces should look graceful too.  Any bed needs to work in conjunction with what is not the bed in order to be visually striking.  

Curves provide opportunities to screen views, or provide a sense of anticipation about what will come next.  This gravel path reveals little of what is to come, as it both curves and drops out of view from outside the gate.  Transitional spaces such as this one are very important in giving a landscape a sense of continuity as you move through it.  Even the smallest yard cannot be properly experienced all at once.

This old flight of stairs and lawn terrace were designed on a very large radius.  All of the attendent plant material was planted in concert with this shape.  In the distance, a circular garden whose center of interest is an antique garden bench flanked by a pair of Georgian pedestals.  This is a very formal but understated design based on the circle. 

This circular fountain is the dominant element of the landscape under construction here.  Curving the retaining wall in the background away from the fountain is a response to the importance of that fountain.  Any gesture that gets repeated emphasizes the importance of that gesture.   

Though the view in to this landscape presents a formally constructed sunken garden in a circular shape, the choice of plant material keeps that formality from seeming out of place with the style of the house.  Gold vicary privet is a plant one saw routinely in suburban landscapes 50 years ago.  It was usually planted as an accent plant, given its astonishly bright leaf color.  In this application, the vicary gives weight to a curved shape located in a space shaded by the surrounding mature spruce. Choosing the shapes of places in a landscape ahead of choosing the plants-a good idea.

Sunday Opinion: Good Sportsmanship

Though there were no computers then from which to print and pocket an outline of acceptable human behavior, I none the less grew up with a check list.  I am quite sure I had reluctantly memorized every page by the time I was five.  From God’s heart to my Mom’s lips; this vivid metaphor stopped me in my tracks from committing any number of rude, thoughtless, and unkind acts.  This is not to say I was not exactly like any other kid-that is to say, not very grown up.  That gawky 6th grade girl from St Clair Shores named Sharon Barber-who blew by me in the final round of the county spelling bee-she infuriated me.  I of course thought I should have had a generous handicap, given that I was a mere 4th grader. Lacking a leg up endorsed by the committee, I already had a baby faced chip on my shoulder that would make any adult laugh.  I think “so not fair” were the only three words I knew how to string together.    I distinctly remember her spelling her word incorrectly under her breath, before she blared forth with the correct spelling.  The second place awarded to me was the equivalent of utter failure.  I had no sooner thrown my trophy to the ground when my Mom scooped it up, and planted it firmly in my hands.  She stepped back, sure in her expectation that I would do the right thing.  In spite of my fury at such an injustice, I shook the girl’s hand, and congratulated her heartily on her win. This in spite of the fact that I really wanted to knock her to the ground, and pummel her.  My checklist went with me wherever I went.  Those occasions when I was so foolish not to consult and adhere to that list-there she would be.  She had the ability to materialize out of no where.  My Mom was beautiful.  She had thick wavy hair, gorgeous eyebrows, and wore red lipstick every day.  She was a scientist many respected.  I knew her in a way much different than this. She was the guardian of the gate. I knew she would never turn loose of me until I could be trusted to let good sportsmanship be my guide.

Good sportsmanship applies to much more than a pickup basketball game.  Games are games, but those principles by which people live a life are a serious business.  50 years later I am still pulling out that checklist.  The top ten, dating back to 1955:  Be a good sport (acknowledge those who do well).   Do no harm (be nice to your brother).  Tell the truth (even if the truth could get you in a lot of trouble).  Mind your manners (acknowledge the efforts of others-never forget to say thank you).  Respect others (every person comes entitled to respect, standard issue).   Reward excellence (even though it might not be your own); extend a hand to those in need (this includes that 6th grade girl who won the contest, but had not one friend in the world).  Don’t cheat, lie, hate, or steal (the annotated version of the ten commandments).  Be slow to blame, and quick to welcome. All of this in addition to brushing my teeth, doing my homework, and looking both ways before I crossed the street.  I was busy, but she was busier. 

My Mom’s list of do’s and don’t’s had 4 times the ones listed above, butI will spare you the rest.  She may not have been an award winning Mom,  but she was a Mom who took her job seriously.  She had a big list ready for me the second I attained consciousness. We would go over it as many times as it took until I got it.  As a consequence, I know how to win graciously, loose even more graciously.  Would I win any awards for consistently playing by her book-probably not.  But at least I give it serious thought before I stray.   

A serious point of view is not all bad.  I am not at all casual about a job that is not done right, or a wrong that needs redressing.  A job I did in 2002, which I recently visited, has problems; I feel compelled to try to sort out the trouble. Other things thrown my way really don’t belong to me-letting that go is good sportsmanship.  Few issues are solely about right and wrong, or good and bad.  Most everything depends on all the parties having similar lists from which they conduct themselves.    

This being said, I am anything but a good sport about the garden.  I have had many disappointments-just as every other gardener has.  Nature could not be further removed from any idea that I have about fair play.  Nature cooks my plants, blasts them with thunderstorms, coats them with ice, knocks them to the ground, chews them up and spits them out like so much compost.  The worst of it-it’s not even personal; you might as well compost your exasperation as well as your poorly performing or dead plants.  Growing a great garden requires the chess player’s ability to think ahead ten moves.  It requires the brute force of a tackle, the strong arms of a basketball player, the strategic skills of a golfer and the persistence of a long distance runner.  Should you possess all of the above, I still doubt there is any gold medal in your future.  Sooner or later nature will pitch the rule book out the window, and overrule all of your efforts.  The rows of white cosmos I have faithfully watered and deadheaded all summer have turned white overnight from mildew.  I am anything but a good sport about the fact that all of them are going down too early-in spite of my care.  I watered for four hours yesterday.  Just as I finished, the sky let loose of at least an inch of rain; how completely and utterly irritating. I eventually let go of all the unwarranted and unfair insults regularly sent my way via the garden, and keep gardening.  But I do reserve the right to be a not so good sport about it.

At A Glance: The Eyes Have It