Archives for April 2012

Monday Opinion: Depth

From Roy H Williams:  “According to String Theory, what appears to be empty space is actually a tumultuous ocean of strings vibrating at the precise frequencies that creates the four dimensions you and I call height, width, depth, and time.”  I know, it takes time for a sentence like this to sink in.  Should you truly be interested in string theory, I can say that Steven Hawkings has more than a passing interest in it-check it out on Wikipedia, and read on. I have a much less scientific interest in this theory.  I have more of an interest in depth as a key element of good design.

 Landscape design is much about numbers and measurements.  The height of a pergola and the width of a sidewalk, the turning radiuses of UPS trucks, the angle of the sun in the fall,  grades, fall, drainage schemes, the angle of repose, ppms of fertilizer, the plants needed per square foot, the face feet of stone required, the longevity of certain species of trees, the composition of soil, proper planting practices, and scale drawings-the accumulation of knowledge of these things begins to make for a design judgment with depth.  The more “strings” I can become familiar with means I am one step closer to a “tumultuous ocean of strings”.  I am thousands of strings short of a Kathryn Gustafson or a Beatrix Farrand, but I have accumulated a few strings along the way.    I doubt I will ever understand the scientific meaning of strings, but I can understand how many different threads woven together can create something new altogether.  Given a little poetic license, imagine how a great landscape that is a tumultuous ocean of strings might go on to makes an utterly memorable and emotionally charged four dimensional sculpture.  Sensational-yes.

The depth of the ocean is not really so much different an idea than the depth of a person’s knowledge.  Though it is so easy to look up the cultural requirements of hellebores, possessing depth on the subject means growing them, over and over again, in lots of different environments.  Should you wish to grow gorgeous hellebores, put your hands in the dirt.  Or find someone whose hands will gather that knowledge for you.  Given this, my most trusted source on the subject of choosing perennials for a particular place is a grower who has grown many hundreds of thousands of plants in his career-both at work, and at home.  His depth is vastly greater than mine.  Once I have heard his string, I may accept it, or move on. 

There are those times when making a right choice about which plants to use is not the best choice.  Some out of the ordinary plantings are worth taking a chance on.  This means that the string which is about the scientific choice is reverberating with a string of another sort.  It might be a visual string, or a string about memory, or a string about geometric relationships.  This may sound like loads of gobbledegook, but the chance that it may resonate is just as great.  The depth of any gardener’s life, knowledge as aspiration, makes for quite a stew.  The same is true for garden designers.  If you are a gardener looking for a designer, see how many strings they have to put to your project. See if your strings will harmonize with theirs.  

I have posted, and have more posts to come, involving schematic plans.  I rather dislike landscape plans with too much detail in the beginning.  It is a rare project that takes me more than 8 hours to conceptualize.  How so?  Clients have every right to expect that I have depth in design and horticulture.  That I am educated, and keep up with what is new.  The depth of my understanding of their needs and requirements for the landscape-they need to assess that on their own.  But they can expect that I have experience.  That I will know what visual and horticultural relationships work.  And all of those numbers-I know them.  I provide an overall idea in a conceptual plan,  given how I hear all the strings resonating in concert.   A client, should I manage to interest them, responds by stringing up an instrument all of their own.  All of the details come from their strings.  They need a kitchen garden here, and not there.  They like this stone-not that.  A place to plant with their kids-where will that be?  A place to entertain family.  A memory of a certain tree, or a certain garden.  An idea of what beautiful looks like.  It is the relationship forged over these details that makes for that tumultuous ocean of strings.  Not everyone knows how to create or facilitate that, but everyone knows what it sounds like. 

Listen to see if that idea for your garden rings true.  Is there a depth of strings reverberating?  Any move in a landscape or garden that is more about a look than a life that has depth will sound like a spoon hitting a tin can. You’ll know when you need to invite a few more strings to the concert.   


At A Glance: The Other Version Of This Sunday Morning

We had temperatures in the upper twenties last night-my butterburrs at home, and the tulips at the shop, were not very happy.

 oh my

We ran the irrigation, in hopes that only the surface water would freeze, and not the flowers.


The first rays of the sun started melting the ice.


Frozen tulips-not such a great look.

Other flowers like these violas brushed off the bad weather.  Though I hope this is the last of the inclement weather, I am sure there will be more where that came from.  PS-the tulips are looking much better now.

At A Glance: Sunday Morning

late blooming tulips

Sunday morning before the shop opens is a favorite time of mine.  For those of you who live too far away to visit, to follow is what we are looking like the end of April.

English urns

vintage English urns on plinths

mid century garden chairs

mid century French garden chairs

Detroit Garden Works

new fountain from Branch

Do you have time to play catch?

spring container plantings

concrete dogs

English concrete garden pots

English concrete containers in the Italian style

Detroit Garden Works

white concrete boxes and boxwood topiary


Errington Reay and Co salt glazed pots


French pots

topiary myrtles

zinc table



Zinc for the garden

late April

garden candles

 blue votives

Other Pairs Of Hands

Two clients, gardening partners, purchased a vintage ranch home on a substantial piece of property a few years ago.  After spending a lot of time renovating a backyard landscape and pool, they were interested in tackling the front yard.  They called me to consult.  They had the original landscape plan-I am guessing it dates back to the 1940’s.  The plan was drawn up by Ilgenfritz Nurseries, a Monroe Michigan based nursery and landscape business which first opened around 1915.  How great they have this original document.

The landscape had declined some since the original installation.  Every landscape is either going forward or backward-there is no such thing as neutral, where nature is in charge.  Some very large trees survived, including one of the most gorgeous mature green spruce I have ever seen-in the back yard.  The house sits up high- and the neighborhood is known for its walking population.   A city owned walking path runs through their property.  They wanted privacy from the street. 

Another major issue-a greatly degraded driveway needing replacement.  The drive was due to be ripped out-but they wanted a landscape design consultation before they went ahead.  The orange circle in the above picture-would their landscape benefit from a landscape island in the center of the new drive? 

A breezeway between the garage and the house had been enclosed.  That breezeway is now the dining room.  The plants in the beds?  Those plants moved out of the rear gardens to a temporary”nursery” spot.  The original sidewalk was showing its age, but the concrete itself seemed appropriate to the architecture of the house. 

 They were in need of a schematic plan.  A concept that would include a driveway, a walk,  and some screening.  This is an instance where I would rather look at a plan on paper than the real property.  It is very hard to look at what has always been, and imagine it in a completely different way.  If you fancy doing your own design, find a document that describes how the house sits on the property, and blow it up so you can see the spaces.  The relationships of house to land.  A scale drawing comes in very handy, should you want to determine how many astilbes, or how many magnolias you should buy.  As for a new driveway, be sure you drive the route before you commit to the paving.

Since they would be doing their own planting, I marked up the front facade of the house with those lines that represented the edges of architectural features-as in the location of solid walls, and the architectural edges.  This house had walls in a number of different planes-that would play a part in the design. The sightlines-meaning those views from the windows, would play a crucial role in determining where evergreens should be planted for screening. 


 True to the original landscape, they were interested in an informal plan which would have plenty of opportunities to plant specialty evergreens.  They  also wanted a very simple landscape that would look good year round with a minimum of maintenance. They wanted to spend most of their time in the summer gardening in the back yard.  After putting a sheet of trace (tracing paper) over the original design, I drew in the givens-the house, garage and porches. The existing driveway in this picture is outlined in red.   I could see right away that the most dramatic change they could make to their landscape would be to relocate the driveway further away from the house.  The house has plenty of green company on the left side, as pictured above, but little on the garage side.  

 I am not crazy about landscaped islands marooned in a sea of paving.  They look disconnected.  Oftentimes they do not prosper.  The roots of trees and shrubs favor a free run over a space limited by hard surfaces.  I like driveways and walkways that look like the garden came first, and the hard surfaces last.  I proposed to keep the entrance to the drive at the street in the same place.  But I thought a drive that veered away from the house would allow for a generous amount of green on the garage side of the house.    Why a parking court?  The front of the house is quite a hike uphill from the street.  They have the room for off street parking. 

The existing sidewalk was very close to the house.  I moved it out by three feet.  This made a long gracefully curved walk to the parking court possible.  Should that walk be too long for an older person, a garage entry would be close at hand.  A large landscape area around the new drive would focus visual attention on the plants, and not on the expanse of paving.  A simple and linear evergreen planting describing the changes of plane would look appropriate with the architecture, and be fairly easy to maintain.  Proposed locations for evergreens take the locations of the windows in front into consideration.

 Their driveway starts where you see the road ending in the distance.  A very unusual cicumstance, this.  But I feel they will take the project in hand, and put the landscape to right in their own time and way.  The slope you see to the right?  I am sure there are some pines in its future.