Archives for February 2012

Up and Down



The installation of a landscape for a new house is a lengthy process, as it needs to be.  Though some disciplines cross over, there will be the excavators, the rough carpenters, the plumbers, the inspectors, the finish carpenters, the gutter people and the air conditioning techs, the kitchen designer, the pool and spa people, the painters, the stone masons-the list is long.  Coordinating a project of this size is a challenge.  There are bound to be things that don’t happen on time, or things that happen out of order.  The landscape is last of the outdoor work.  I have been on this project since last August, with a long hiatus born of relentless rain from mid-September through October.  Delays are the order of the day on a large project.


 But in December, after the walls and planter box were built, the stone installed on the front porch, the outside of the house finished, we were able to install the crushed granite drivecourt.  At least the front of the house would be somewhat presentable for the winter. Everone involved did a great job-it just took more time, more space, and was more messy than anyone anticipated.  

 The stone on the lower portion of the walls of the house were inspiration for the wing walls on either side of the drive, and a stone planter box on the lot line.  On the ground level, the drivecourt is surrounded by stone.  A drivecourt was necessity; no parking is permitted in the cul de sac, and the street parking is chopped up by a substantial number of driveways.  The idea was to make this utilitarian space as visually pleasing as possible.


A large stone planter box is home to 5 katsuras, which will be underplanted with boxwood in the spring.  This will provide evergreen screening on the ground plane from the downstairs windows of the neighboring house.  Some Himalayan white-barked birch will be planted in the spring to the left of the stone box.  A short hedge of arborvitae will be planted on the lot line to the right of the box.

The view from upstairs is equally as important.  The living areas upstairs will be as private as that narrow space between the lot line, and the corner of the garage allows.  As the espaliers grow, they will create a green wall that takes up relatively little width. This is an old neighborhood, where the homes are quite close together.  Addressing visual issues downstairs and upstairs is important. 

We were there on Friday, trying out some pots and furniture for the garden.  A pair of these concrete boxes with diamond panels and iron rings will flank the front step.  A small vintage English teak bench looks great on the porch.  Settling these details before early spring gives me hope we will finish the project well before the onset of summer.

We had installed the iron fencing and gates, and the pergolas a few weeks ago.  The winter weather has been so mild, we were unexpectedly able to get this part of the project finished. The property perimeter fencing was chosen especially for the privacy it provides.  The iron fence running from the property line to the house will insure good views into this part of the garden, and provide a safe outdoor space for a beloved dog. 

Upstairs, the second floor balcony terraces are done.  I can see that the  12  6″ caliper columnar red maples planted last September will provide great screening  from the house next door during the summer, at a time when privacy matters most. Evergreens provide great screening on the ground level.  They tend to be too narrow at the top to screen an upstairs view.  If they are large enough to screen a view 20 feet off the ground, the width of those trees on the ground floor is considerable.  Lacking the luxury of ground level space, these columnar trees will do a great job where they need to.  The Belgian wattle fencing will handle the job on the ground floor.  

The lakeside was a muddy mess for a long time, but we were finally able to get in there and grade, and set the major lawn panel and its crushed granite frame.  A pair of steel pergolas almost 40 feet long each were slated to be installed off each end of the house, and frame the lawn panel on the ground floor. 

 This picture was also taken in early December.  The major grading, the majority of the evergreen planting, and this lawn panel got done-I was pleased to have this much finished.  But this lakeside rear yard is still quite exposed to the neighboring homes on the cul de sac side.  The screening issues were complicated by the fact that nothing over 4′ tall could be planted in the space between the cul de sac curb and the house.  This restriction would enable everyone who lives on the street to still have a view of the lake.

Restrictions are an invitation for good solutions.  The pergola, outside the setback line, is 10 feet tall, and will never be any taller than 10 feet.  This means no view of the lake will ever be obstructed.  Both of the pergolas have a great look from upstairs.  Who wouldn’t  like to wake up to this view?   Once it is planted with climbing roses and clematis, there will be that much more to see from here, and some shade to sit in downstairs.

The pergola on the opposite side will be planted in a like matter.  Venus dogwoods will be plated to the outside of each of the pergola, in an effort to screen both neighboring houses from view.  

The views from the third floor cupola clearly reveal a foreground space dominated by the pergolas, the midground gardens yet to come, and the far view which is the lake. A widow’s walk, or deck enclosed with railings on the roof, is an Italianate architectural feature popular in American houses built near the sea in the 19th century.  This widow’s walk is a completely enclosed all weather room.

 The room is ringed with windows to take advantage of all of the views.  The opportunity for a bird’s eye view of the landscape and the lake in every sort of weather, and all of the seasons-very special indeed.

Both the house and the gardens show a lot of progress. It won’t be long now, to the finish.

The Little Things

The more time I have to spend with these new French glazed pots, the better I like them. These were made at one of the few potteries in Anduze still hand throwing, or rope throwing, their pots.  These pots rank among the best quality available in handcrafted French pots.  Originally produced to provide homes for citrus trees, these pots have been in production for centuries.  The custom glaze created for us is more olive than blue green, and less shiny than the traditonal French glazed pots.  This particular design by renowned French potter Jean Gautier in the late 18th century features the faces of cherubs, garlands, and fleur de lis-a stylized depiction of a lily so strongly symbolic of all things French. The double roll of clay just beneath the garland is a detail from the original that takes much time and skill to model.   

This ornate French cast iron pot and its base, hand hewn from a solid block of stone, dates back to the 19th century.  It is an antique ornament that exudes French garden history.  Colonies of lichens have made homes here.  I am sure once they are exposed again to rain, they will regain their volume and color. If you like classical garden ornament, this is a breathtakingly beautiful and one of a kind example.   

This coupe, or cup shaped, planter is my favorite of the glazed group.  The bacchus medallion and garlands are modelled in sharp relief; the shape is exquisite. The glaze sunk into the deeply incised cuts, and appears almost black.  This pot, I would have.  There are a lot of new things here, given a pair of containers from France, each object in each one chosen to give pause.  There are lots of stories, and history that comes with them.  But that is no means all there is to see.  Rob has a particular gift for the little things.  He does not overlook those small things that satisfy.  What constitutes a small thing that satisfies?  An old trowel that is a favorite trowel.  Warm winter boots that have spent the previous night warming up on the radiator.  A zinnia poking its head through the soil just days after sowing the seed.  Cruising the garden after work.  A favorite perennial freshly in bloom.

We will have a house full of fabulous for the spring-new, vintage and antique.  One of a kind and handmade.  Ornament, sculpture, tools, structures-and of course, the pots.  Great French platters for the summer dinner table.  But we do none of this at the expense of the little things.

In 1668, a law was passed in France stipulating that only olive oil based soaps made in strict accordance with ancient methods could be labelled “Savon de Marseilles”.  Olive oil, alkaline ash from sea plants, and salty water from the Mediterranean are heated in cauldrons for ten days, after which they are poured into open pits to harden.  This Savon de Marseilles happened to be poured around a series of stout branches.  Soap on a stick.  A little thing this-but what gardener would not be pleased to see it, and use it, over and over again?  Company coming?  Soap on a stick in the powder room-friendly.  Engaging.

This chicken wire cloche has a wood top, and a stout rope attached.  The intent here is to keep the rabbits away from your spring lettuce.  Its a small thing, keeping the rabbits from getting to your lettuce first, but an important thing.  A very simple structure made from the most ordinary of materials that works-excellent.

A ball of twine is a little thing that gives great pleasure.  The balls are wound in a beautiful way.  This is French linen twine.  The texture, color and scent is irresistable.  It might be used to tie up a plant to a stake, or wrap a package for a good friend having a birthday.  On the right,  a hank of raw flax fibers-the material from whence linen is made.  The fibers have been carded into parallel strands known as roving.  Lustrous and beautiful, this.  What would I do with it?  All the possibilities for this are part of what I would call a gardener’s simple pleasure.

These white French glazed terra cotta pots and lanterns are striking.  The simple and unpretentious woven baskets on the left will hold flowering bulbs, annuals and early spring vegetables, come spring.  A little basket of spring for my front porch-a small and simple pleasure.

This small candle comes with a chalkboard stick inset in the wax,  and its own piece of chalk. What could be written on that stick?  You decide.  

Rob found this collection of miniature pots at a flea market.  They are maybe 2 inches across.  Who made these, and why?  I spent time looking and thinking about them-many more than 2 inches of my time.    

These little concrete sculptures frogs have a great surface.  They would occupy next to no space.  The place a gardener reserves for the little things is an important place.  Packets of seeds rubber banded together.  A great dibble.  A thermometer.  A hard cultivator, or a decent pair of muck boots.  A favorite pair of gloves.  The little things can be about those very personal things.

If you wonder what these are, I did too.  This is a French terra cotta watering bell-for seedlings. The bottom of this bell is terra cotta, perforated with lots of holes.  You immerse the entire bell jar in water-there is an unseen hole in the top.  Once the jar is full of water, you put your thumb over the hole in the top.  When you move your thumb off the hole in the top, a gentle shower of water exits the bottom. Watering a seedling tray with this-a little pleasure.  

These small vintage French terra cotta pots came with rusty wire handles embedded in the clay.  Rob bought substantial spherical candles with long wicks that fit perfectly into these little pots. A few hung in a tree near the terrace and lighted-a little thing attending a quiet dinner in the garden. It is not a simple thing to remember the little things that give gardeners great pleasure, with great style.  I greatly admire Rob for how and that he does this.   


Tuesday Opinion: Longing For Snow?

I would never had imagined that I would be longing for snow, much less writing about it-but here I am.  Frankly, I feel cheated that the season which I dread the most vaporized.  Picture me sputtering!  The bitter cold and snow is inconvenient and irritating, but it can be beautiful.  I have not one picture of a snowy landscape this winter-much less a picture I liked well enough to save.  As it turns out, Better Homes and Gardens is coming back to photograph winter containers of mine-not today, but the very next time it snows.  They want snow.   We have a dusting of snow now, but that should be gone in just a few days.  No snow is forecast in my immediate future.  Might they not be able to come at all?  The past 6 weeks of near 40 degree temperatures has been unnerving.  It is not at all what I am accustomed to.  What I am accustomed to in my conscious gardening life-this would be 26 years worth of weather at best.  Understand that I have not lived nearly long enough to experience all of the possible variations in weather for my zone.  Perhaps we had a winter like this when I was 19-had I any investment or interest in the weather then?  No.  Or maybe the winter was warm when I was 7.  Just because I have no memory of it, it does not mean it didn’t happen.  Weather cycles outlast most lifetimes.  Weather cycles can unexpectedly vary strikingly more than the norm.    This is ordinary, not particularly newsworthy. 

Not so many years ago- maybe 8- we had a dramatic and long lived late cold snap which killed the emerging leaves on lots of trees.  Old established trees were affected.  A client for whom I had planted 21 alders the previous year was very unhappy that his trees were not leafing out.  Attributing the death of the newly emerging shoots on his trees on the weather read for all the world like I was handing off trouble to a source that did not take complaints.  My client was right-nature does not have a complaint box.  There is no number to call, no customer service department in the sky.  Some trees recovered-it took 2 years.  Others, we replaced.  Eventually, we sorted everything out.  At the neighborhood gas station, I still see the effect of that late spring hard freeze some 8 years later.  No one took an active role in dealing with the damage.  Dead branches are still overhead, and lots of branches shooting at the bottom of the main trunk is how those trees represent today.  Needless to say, those trees look besieged-not beautiful.  They have terrible scars no amount of time will erase.  My quick aside?  If you don’t mind a few scars, your gardening life will be richly experienced.  Should you terribly mind the trouble, your experience will be bumpy, disconcerting-anxious.  How silly would this be? Gardening should be fun, challenging, relaxing, and enriching.  Nature is not always so friendly or accomodating, but nature is invariably interesting, compelling, and satisfying..  Sign up.  Get on the bus.  In my opinion, your life will take a turn for the better-even if your magnolia blooms freeze before they open.

I was on the phone with my very good friend Michael today, listening as he chose his words carefully.  Will it feel like spring, if we have had no winter?, he asks.    He was tentative-quite unlike him.  I did want to laugh-no one hates the close of the gardening season more than he does.  No one could possibly lament the endless cold, grey and snow more eloquently, and more emphatically than he does.  But like me, he was fretting that an utterly bland winter would somehow compromise his joy when spring finally announced itself.  Or that what he expects to see in the spring might not happen.  Could we have 40 degree weather every day until the 4th of July??  OK, I am exxagerating, so let’s address the issue directly.  Should nature dish out a warm winter, does this mean there will be no spring game?  If there isn’t, will we unhappy enough to quit gardening? I think not.

  Whatever nature dishes out in the form of a winter, every true gardener has the ability to shift and adapt.  Michael, I have no idea what this winter will mean for the plants in our zone this spring.  This I am sure of.  What we both worry about does not necessarily affect the trees.  How most gardeners worry about may not affect much of anything. Nature deals the cards, and determines the outcomes.  This said,  I can safely say that really great gardening is about serious relationships between people, who are not afraid to come face to face with nature. The face to face with nature- Ordinary, for gardeners like you.  Just like this winter that is not really a winter.  It is more ordinary than we think.  I also think we both will welcome and enjoy whatever spring comes our way- whether we have 20 degrees and snow, or 40 degrees and no snow the month before.

At A Glance: No Snow


It has snowed twice this winter.  One furiously windy and brief snow the end of January.  And four inches, a couple of days ago.  Do I miss this?  The lack of snow, and the warm weather has been great-but unnerving.  If I ever experienced a winter like this, it was too long ago to remember. 

The snow does a great job of insulating garden plants.  A thick blanket of white keeps the ground evenly frozen, and all the plants in place.  Last week the buds on the espaliers we are wintering in the garage were showing green.  This alarms me.  It is not time yet to wake up.


We have been able to work outdoors this winter-that is unprecedented. The ability to install 2 pergolas, 2 fences, and 3 gates last week means we have a jump on finishing a project that did not get done last fall.  In a way, I felt deserving of the mild January.  Much of September and almost all of October was so wet we could hardly work.   

The new USDA hardiness zone map makes my garden out to be a zone 6a. I can remember staying away from perennials and roses that were not at least a zone 4, and I have subsequently felt like I was cheating planting zone 5 plants. And that sooner or later ,y cheating would be discovered, and the plants would die.  I guess all of that worry was misplaced.  But I am still uneasy about the lack of snow cover.  At least the very cold temperatures we have had lately were accompanied by 4 inches of snow. 

Snow on a garden can be beautiful.  If the design is sound, any weather in a landscape makes it look all the better. Gardens in northern climates ask for some structure, though a perennial bed awash in snow can be visually haunting.  

Snow means I have an idea about who comes to visit in the night on little cat feet. 

Containers can be quite beautiful with snow on them, especially if some provision for lighting them is in place.

But do I miss this?  Hauling my tripod and camera out to the bottom of these steps was a nuisance.  Most of the garden was buried in snow throughout January and February of last year. 

Winter does have its beautiful moments.  I hate to miss even one of them.