Archives for September 2010

Small Spaces


The dowager queen French vase from yesterday’s post has a home waiting for her-but not the home I expected.  An object of this size would need an even bigger space, wouldn’t you think?  What evolved was anything but.    

My clients bought a house that had never really been finished.  The landscape was much the same; unfinished.  My client referred to the property on the side of the house as “the music room mulch garden”.  It was bleak.  This very small space functioned as a transition space between the front of the property, and the rear-a sheer 8′ foot drop in grade. A boulder retaining wall at grade barely visible in this picture was punctuated by a staircase down with 16 stone steps-maybe more.  This left the area with an edge that was in fact a precipice.  At the base of the precipice, multiple air conditioning units, and a collection of meters apparent in this picture.     

My first design, they flat out rejected; I had missed some important information. My first design did not take into account that they spent their summers at a home on the East Coast.  OK, my plan for a cutting garden and whatever went with that was way off the mark.  Plan 2-a landscape that would function and look beautiful early and late, and especially over the winter.  A small landscaped area that would have big impact. A healthy hedge of Thuja Nigra sporting one lone out of place Thuja Pyramidalis was a starting point.  

Three linden espaliers of great age would form a backdrop to this small garden.  The green wall they would provide would take up little space, and would screen the clunky boulders and grade changes from view.  Enclosing a small space makes for a feeling of intimacy.  And the room would need some furnishing.  

Three linden espaliers, each about 10 feet wide, completely covered the back.  It would be up to my client to decide whether to maintain the horizontal pattern of the branches, or let the the twiggy growth make a solid wall of leaves. Green velvet boxwood organizes the ground plane.  The precipitous drop to the rear yard is shielded from view by a hedge of Thuja Nigra that matched the hedge already in place on the street side.  Flat and safe spaces are friendly to people. As for the mulch pile we had scraped up-that would be used to mulch the new plantings.  

Decomposed granite walkways make it easy to navigate the space. The color is easy on the eye, but provides strong contrast to the green elements.  There is no reason a small space cannot be a lively and interesting space.

A simple arrangement of plant material and gravel finishes the landscaping portion of the project.  Now what? 

From inside the house, a generously proportioned bench makes the space look inviting. The placement of the bench implies there will be something of interest to see.  I thought that old French vase might be just the thing.  

The colors of each compliment one another. The placement of a large element in a small space can be dramatic.

The view from the bench side is in scale with the size of the house.   Should I plant very tall? Short and wide? With what? It will take some time and thought to get the planting just right.

A Restoration

Some garden ornament is so irresistable that you don’t mind doing some restoration. This very old French cast iron and porcelain vase is dated on the side-Paris, 1827. That it was 183 years old, of great size, and unusual in its construction and surface-this made it a very intrigueing and compelling object.  I arranged to purchase and ship it to Michigan from Florida-having only seen pictures. 

Though I expected to see considerable evidence of its age, pictures do not tell everything.  I was enchanted with its worn porcelain surface; the original pattern is so beautifully faded.  I had visions of it placed and planted in a landscape such that the benefit would be to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.  The sheer scale of it was exciting.  One of Rob’s pictures from Italy is of a massive Italian olive jar that served as a prop to an old climbing rose planted next to it. This vase brought the possibility of that level of romance to mind again. 

However, the vase had issues. The thick cast iron base plate had deteriorated considerably over its very long life.  Buck doubted that the trip from Florida had anything to do with the fact that the base was in pieces.  The bolts which fastened the base to the top had completely rusted through. It was just very old, and in need of some restoration. It took four people to get this piece over to the Branch studio.  Buck had a 1/4 inch thick piece of steel cut to make a new base; the restoration project would have to get in his queue-at the end of the line.  

He had the base drilled with holes, hoping that he could weld what was left of the bolts to the new base.  He  would work on it as he had time; the new base and feet got completed in fairly short order.  What was to come would take a lot more time, and be quite involved. It would have to wait until there was time.  Early this summer a landscape project came along that was calling for this vase. My client fell for it just as fast as I had; the restoration process picked up speed. 

The first order of business-getting the vase in a position and at a height where he could work on it. A bridge crane in his studio which can lift and move up to five tons at a time is a handy gizmo at a time like this.  He was able to thread straps through the bottomless pot, and set it on a work surface.    

The vase is comprised of six separate cast iron panels.  Each panel had two flanges which allowed each piece to be bolted to the next.  Construction of course was dependent on the technology of the time.  The inevitable spaces between adjacent flanges were stuffed with some kind of caulk which had dried, shrunk and otherwise deteriorated to an alarming degree.  Once the vase no longer had a bottom, realigning all the panels to recreate the original round shape was a challenge.    

With the pot stabilized on the table, the bridge crane would help him maneuver the base into place.  The process of fitting the new base to this piece took what seemed like days. 

Buck finally called this morning to say vase and base were one again. He was able later to weld the old rusted stubs of the fastening bolts to the new base.  He plans to finish the steel in dark grey automobile primer.  I know it will be beautiful.  The landscape installation is finished, and ready for the delivery and planting of this vase.  I cannot wait.