Archives for April 2011

Placing Trees

Some time ago I voiced the opinion that I was not a big fan of Japanese maples.  I heard back about that in spades. So yes, I will concede that they are beautiful trees with enchanting habit and great bark and leaf color.  But they can be very tough to place beautifully in a landscape.  The red leaved varieties are striking in appearance.  The flip side of striking?  Visually demanding.  A specimen tree is just this-a stand alone special element around which an entire space may be organized.   

A beautiful specimen tree asks for a placement that reinforces this idea.  If the idea is to feature a particular plant, other elements in the landscape need to take a supporting role.  Of course landscapes can be organized around a series of spaces or rooms, each with their own diva.  In my own landscape, my trees are either hedged, or planted in drifts, as the divas of my landscape are ornaments.  A fountain pool and groups of pots are focal points.  This is by no means the best way to design a landscape.  This is merely what I like.     

This front yard landscape was home to 9 Japanese maples, representing 5 different cultivars.  When I first saw it last October, some of the maples had black-red leaves.  Some had brown-red leaves.  Others were more clearly red.  In addition, there was a lovely sugar maple, showing yellow fall color in this picture, and 5 additional shade trees.  This made for 15 trees total in the front yard.  Some trees were in poor condition.     

Landscapes in urban neighborhoods are tough to design. They require a judicious hand, and a willingness to edit.  Every landscape gesture needs to be informed by that scarcity of space.  A landscape also needs to work in close concert with that dominant element-the home.  A landscape that respects the architecture will read coherently. There are many voices here struggling to be heard.

Of course it is easier to see years later how a placement of trees might be wanting.  Hindsight is 20-20.  Imagining the space a tree will occupy at maturity is an art; the best practioner I knew is this regard was Al Goldner.  He fearlessly placed trees in anticipation of what they might become 20 years later-even if the landscape looked too sparse and almost undone to begin with.     

Trees planted very close to the foundation of the house may be lovely the day they go in.  Years later, they can obstruct any view of the architecture they meant originally to celebrate.  It is equally as important to consider the views out from within as it is those views from the street.  Several rooms inside are dark, as the windows are covered by branches of the trees.  These branches are equally obstructing the views out into the landscape.  

Every landscape has a foreground, a mid ground, and a background space.  Those spaces need to work, no matter the angle of the view.  The Japanese maples might have presented a completely different appearance, had they been pruned differently.  Each had foliage to the ground.  They read visually as giant red shrubs, not small trees with interesting branching, and an airy appearance.  Maintenance is a very important part of a landscape.

Once the trees were gone, other elements emerged.  A pair of hollies on either side of the front door grew at different rates, and generally suffered from trees planted over them. The boxwood had declined as well.  They have damage from leaf miners; perhaps they were pruned too late in the fall.  There is some work ahead restoring them to good health.   

The beautiful sugar maple, and the hemlocks flanking each end of the house are appropriate and friendly to the architecture.  We moved a lot of plants yesterday.  Viburnums, azaleas, hollies, oak leaf hydrangeas, limelight hydrangeas, boxwood and fothergilla.  The renovation of this landscape is underway.


Sunday we had high winds-giant concrete pots planted for spring out front got blown over and dashed to the ground.  We had four inches of snow today.  I would be lying if I said I took this in stride-I did not.  I was speechless.  The latest great snowfall recorded in my gardening journal was April 16, 1982.  6 inches.  April 18th this year-four inches of snow.    

This April 18th, the tulip leaves, which have been so slow to break ground, were buried in snow.   Discouraging to me-no kidding.  Every day I hope for a clear sign that nature has put the winter behind her.  A clear sign-not yet.  At this time last year, we were basking in our best spring ever.  This looks much more like the longest winter ever.    

As much as I plan for spring,  the arrival of spring is not really my call.  I have a great love for nature, and all things natural, but the weather today is exasperating.  I would have wanted spring to appear a month ago.  The greenhouse space in the shop is loaded with plants that cannot go outdoors yet. 

I do not need to worry much.  A late spring snowfall harms nothing already acclimatized and used to cold weather.  The spring flowering bulbs have been underground and cold for months.  They handle this late snow with aplomb.  Snow this late bothers my heart, not my tulips.  The crocus this year-not much to see there.  The cold temperatures and winds took the flowers out within a matter of a few days.  

These pansies with their frosting of snow will suffer no real damage.  They will pop back quickly from the insult. My hellebores are steadily making progress towards bloom week, and my European ginger is making an appearance.  This is all the news from my home garden.      

This Italian planter-the planting looks forlorn.  The temperatures were just below freezing; today’s snow will not stay on the ground for long.  I am still wearing my winter jacket and boots.    

All of the pots I planted with spring bulbs were buried in snow today.  They will be fine-they will bloom soon, as scheduled.  A spring snow-do not worry about it. Night temperatures below 25 degrees-worry.  We have on occasion had no spring.  Winter can stay forever, until one day there temps go to 80, and stay there. I am hoping for a more gentle scenario  

The four inches of snow today-hard on the eye.  Not so hard on the plants.

Sunday Opinion: A few Thoughts About Romance

I have been talking of late to my friend Michael K on the subject of romance-as a world view.  For me, that means a world garden view.  The most romantic gardener of my vintage would be Henry Mitchell.  He planted untold numbers of bearded irises on his small property.  All of the work that their successful cultivation takes he provided,  for that brief week or two of glory.  Only a romantic would devote so much time to a plant whose bloom time is so ephemeral.  Bearded irises out of bloom, or in need of division, or suffering from botrytis-not so pretty.  In bloom-who does not love them?   He spoke of the summer storms that inevitably knock over the the delphiniums in full bloom and shatter all the peony blooms, but he spoke even more about how those gardeners that grow them pick up and go on past any trouble in the sure belief that life without them would be a desert. The gardener that throws him or her self at their garden like they have 10 minutes to live-they are romantics.  The gardener who trims their boxwood with hand shears as they love the sound it makes is a head over heels gardener.  Romantic gardeners love a rainy day as much as a sunny one.  Gardeners who opt for gravel in the drive put up with the maintenance, as they cannot live without that crunching sound underfoot.  They never ask for a perennial, shrub or tree that blooms all summer, and is maintenance free.  The work of a landscape and garden is a life, not a job.  They treasure that most ephemeral element in a landscape-a perfect moment.  I have only had a few-but I live every day for the next one.  Rob could not have been more pleased to have sheep’s hurdles arrive in the container. I know of no one who takes sheep to market, and needs a temporary pen for them.   But I do know lots of gardeners who will fall for their history and sturdy construction.  Some romantic gardener will imagine a use, and make a home for them.  The hope of a supremely and sublimely beautiful garden-a very romantic idea that I cannot shake.   Rob’s romance with the sheep’s hurdles-I greatly respect that.        

Everything living and growing on God’s earth has a lifespan.  A moment, a season.  Some moments take but the blink of an eye.  That would be my crocus this year.  They came on, shone for the better part of two days, and vanished.  My Kent Beauty showy oregano-one summer season, and one summer season only-would I do without them?  No.  My maple, the biggest tree on my property, I estimate to be about 75 years old.  My yews and arborvitae are 25 years old.  My Limelight hydrangeas are 8 years old; I feel like I have had my butterburrs my whole life, though I have really only had them 10 years.  My garden in its present form I have had 16 years.  This is a very short time, in the big scheme of things.  But this is what I have.  Some lifespans are bigger than others.  Ancient yews in England, the sequoia trees in California, they are ancient and still vigorous.  Grapevines in France 200 years old still produce grapes for wine.  There are many examples of great age.  But eventually any living thing will succumb.   Not that I need remind you, but no living thing lives forever. 

What does the inevitability of a lifespan have to do with romance?  I find people with a romantic world view are intensely sensitive to the present moment.  One beautiful flower opening, a certain foggy morning defined by a flock of geese flying overhead and honking, that day the double bloodroot blooms, a harvest moon high in the sky-the romantic gardeners among us greatly value the beauty of the moment, and great hope for the future.  There is not a cynic among them.  Part of this is fueled, energized by the knowledge that our time is limited.  How do we choose to live it? 

We pour over the seed catalogues.  We grow seedlings under lights in the basement.  We search the soil surface for signs of life once the snow melts away.  We plan the next phase.  We celebrate every spring in much the same way-the best is yet to come. 

I would invite you to let your romance for a garden guide you.  Get going.  You do not have forever-you have now.

At A Glance: Violas And Pansies