Archives for July 2012

Monday Opinion: Disappointment

If you garden, disappointment comes calling on a regular basis.  Plants fail to perform as advertised. Violent rains flatten the delphiniums just as they are about to come into bloom. Japanese beetles are poised to devour every rose-and I mean every rose.  An old and treasured lavender inexplicably gives up, and dies.  A stone pot cracks, and goes over.  Driven by some incomprehensible impulse, the child of neighbor picks all the buds off the lillies.  A lawn service obliterates the ground level bark all around from a treasured  paperbark maple with a weedwacker.  A painter dumps his paint soaked turpentine all over a favorite hellebore.  Slugs chew their way through an entire bed of hosta, one plant at a time.  Overnight, mildew blankets the monarda.  The tomatoes rot, or crack-or both.

The concrete aggregate terrace installed at great expense settles, and sinks.  An old grape dies before you notice the bore holes riddling the trunk.  An unexpectedly early frost kills an old lantana topiary you forget to take in.  An irrigation valve springs a leak, all but drowning an old rhododendron.  A pampered hydrangea refuses to bloom.  Does not all of this sound familiar?  Disappointment – I do not know any gardener who has managed to avoid it.

Our current gardening season has piled insult on top of the ordinary disappointment.  A warm winter was a boon to the survival of insect and fungal spore populations.  My roses rarely suffer from blackspot; I had a full blown text book case of it in April.  A late April frost ruined every flower bud on 12 magnolia trees, and damaged some of the leaves and stems.  Other gardeners lost Japanese maples, and young dogwoods altogether over that frost.  The Michigan fruit industry suffered terrible losses on trees in bud and bloom too early.  The heat and the drought in July-it is impossible to know which was worse.  This is not my garden’s best year.   

Other bad news of note.  The virulent and deadly water mold, plasopara obducens, which has plagued impatiens plantings in Europe and Florida, is showing up all over the northeast and midwest.  The downy mildew appears on the undersides of the leaves.  The leaves of affected plants curl down and under.  Eventually the stems collapse, and the plants die.  I almost never plant impatiens, but I have plenty of clients who do. Plants can be sprayed with a fungicide as a preventative measure, but I have seen the disease this week on plants that had been sprayed.  If you do have diseased plants, take them out, bag them, and put them in the trash.  The spores of the fungus can live in the soil up to five years-do not compost these infected plants.  And do not plant impatiens in that spot next year.  What a disappointment this is to the many people who grow impatiens in their summer planting beds and enjoy them so. 

No matter the disappointment, there is a flip side.  I feel certain that the bedding plant industry will work very hard to eradicate this disease.  Bedding plant breeders will study what makes New Guinea impatiens, and Sun patiens immune to it.  There will be a number of competent and intelligent people putting their skills to work.  There is an entire winter ahead for gardeners to learn about what other kinds of annual plants can provide color and interest in shady areas.  There are ingenious people out there ready to do what it takes to circumvent adversity-you could be one of them. 

Buck and I have been watching every day of the Olympic games, but for different reasons.  He is interested in any and every sport.  I am interested in any person with passion who determines a goal, and gives it their all.  So, we watch.  The effort of every athlete, and the families of those athletes, no matter their sport or their country, is extraordinary.  Jordynn Wieber, the 17 year old captain of the US gymnastics team, the world champion gymnast, wobbled in the qualifying events for the overall Olympic medal in gymnastics.  Only two US gymnasts can compete in this category.  She was eliminated from this particular competition-she came in 4th, on the American team.  She is a 17 years old, a young person who no doubt has devoted every moment of every waking hour for many years to that moment when she would compete in England.  Her disappointment?  I am sure it was utterly devastating.  I felt so terrible for her.  Under no circumstances could I have handled this level of demand and pressure when I was 17.  I am heartbroken, for her.  

That heartbreak expressed, I so admire her effort.  Her years of effort.  I equally regret how a person this young comes face to face with a disappointment most adults would struggle to deal with.  I admire how she has handled her disappointment.  First up, she cried.  A good cry over any disappointment is probably healthy.   My point here?  My disappointment with my garden this year-nothing like Jordynn’s.  Adversity?  I have the feeling that after her tears,  she will rise to the occasion.  She is so like a gardener, don’t you think?  The future for her, and for Michigan gardeners, is bright.

From Shakespeare, 

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

These lines written by Shakespeare in his play As You Like It – appropriate.  The original meaning is not in any way directed to the disappointments gardeners face this moment, but I still take comfort in them.   The good in everything part-timeless. Godspeed, Jordynn.



At A Glance: Light And Dark





concrete spheres


white caladiums


Italian terra cotta pots


tropical ferns




baby tears




garden benches

Boxed In?

landscape design

A rectangle is an easily recognizable 4-sided shape.  Like circles, ovals, triangles, and parallelograms, they define or outline a geometric shape.  This lovely home could be easily be sketched on a piece of paper by connecting a series of rectangles, triangles, squares and ovals.  Every one of these basic shapes is created by the lines that enclose, or define it. A linear representation of the front door would look like a series of squares put together in such a way as to create a rectangle.  This photograph, is its most basic incarnation, is a rectangle.  The composition of the photograph is determined in large part by its 4 edges.  Shade trees and evergreens are often described by the shape they most represent, as in “broadly pryamidal”, or “oval”. A two-dimensional shape expressed in three dimensions has its own vocabulary.  A circle in the third dimension is a sphere.  A cylinder is constructed from two circles and a rectangle.  A rectangle in 3 dimensions is a box.  A box may vary in dimension, but for design purposes, a box is a box.          

French wirework bench

Any landscape is confined by  the edges of the property.  A property may be a rectangle or a triangle, or a combination of many shapes.  But in every case, a property has limits.  What is visually available to your property is confined only by what you cannot see, but those places where you can plant have been drawn on a piece of paper known as its legal description. There is no need for a legal description of a property to dictate a landscape design.   Most urban properties have ties to a slew of rectangles.  That could be a street or city sidewalk. A driveway.  A hedge of arborvitae planted by a neighbor.  If you visualize what is within your design reach on your property, more than likely it is a box-and a fairly plain box at that.  This property has a very beautifully done, asymmetrically curving bluestone walk.  In renovating the landscape, I admired how that curving feature both countered and complimented all of the existing rectangular shapes.  A pair of trees, a curve of boxwood, a curved French wirework bench sitting on a gravel double sided crescent, all respond to that generous and fabulous sweep of stone.  

bluestone walkway

We installed a stone walk to the back yard very close to, and parallel to the garage.  This side yard is primarily an efficient means to get from the front to the back.  But the addition of the arbor to the foreground pots and bench helps to slows the eye.  The parallel bed of ivy to the right curves and crosses over the path in the far ground.  This creates a sense of anticipation for what might come next-just around the corner. 

raised stone firepit

The rear property is very shallow, and long.  It is most definitely a box.  We had the idea to outwit that box.  The circular firepit in the foreground is a strong visual stopper.  It also strongly serves as a gesture that challenges the idea of a box.   The  narrow lawn that swings around the firepit terrace, widens,  and curves back to the left behind a midground seating area directs the eye around the space.  That curve is repeated on the right side; a privacy hedge of arborvitae is planted in a shallowly curving line.  This rectangular space has been scribed with curving beds that do not reveal the landscape all at once. 

granite block firepit

A landscape that encourages the eye to focus on a particular feature slows down the pace of discovery.  There is time to see and take in the relationship between the gravel terrace, the firepit fashioned from old granite setts, the cylindrical side tables and the circular contemporary chairs. 

curved garden beds

The wide grass path veers to the left, directing attention to a perennial garden, and terrace.  A fountain set in the lawn is somewhat visible at this point.  The curving lines, and furniture provide lots of interest to the midground space.

perennial gardens

A large terrace is three steps up from the grade of the lawn.  The lawn formerly ran right up to its stone retaining wall.  The addition of the curved beds in lawn not only directs the eye to the steps, but they soften the large rectangular stone terrace.

terraced landscape beds

One area of the terrace is simply furnished with a dining table and outdoor kitchen.  The white painted pergola and trellis  give the grill plenty of garden oriented company.  This arrangement was solely the work of my client.  She has a great eye, and is a pleasure to work with.   

wood pergola

A pergola at the opposite end provides a beautiful transition from the terrace to an interior sun porch.  A climbing New Dawn rose has gracefully draped itself over the pergola roof.  Climbing plants rescue pergolas from their inherently boxy shape.  A small scalloped bistro table and pair of chairs placed in the shade provided by the rose is a beautiful touch-again from my client. This part of the landscape is not apparent until you turn the corner, and are right up to it.    

garden terrace

The fountain at one time had a home on the terrace.  Moving it to the lawn plane, and curving a hedge of arborvitae behind it makes this narrowest part of the box seem spacious.  There is actually very little space between the leading edge of the terrace and the lot line.  The round fountain, and the accompanying curved landscape minimize that boxed in feeling.

garden views

The change of level in the rear yard gifted it with lots of built in interest.  Though a space can be severely rectangular, that is not to say that the floor has to be flat.  Layers of evergreens, or sculpted soil can focus attention on what is inside a space, rather than what defines, or confines it.  Sometimes I will design from the center out to the edges of a boxy flat space, rather than from the edges out. 

gravel driveway

The very first work I did for this client years ago involved suggesting that her that a old spruce could be left intact the middle of her gravel drive.  Yes, they are able to drive around it, and into the left bay of the garage.  That spruce makes so much out of a small rectilinear drivecourt, as do the curving edges of the approach.  The quite serviceable driveway is an interesting feature of the landscape.  Out of the box, that is.     


One Thing At A Time

landscape renovation

Anyone who owns a home knows that house take lots of time effort and money just to maintain the status quo.  Upgrading to a new air conditioning system, springing for a new refrigerator, or replacing a hot water heater that has leaked all over the basement is all the more unsatisfying-can you imagine hosting a dinner party so your friends can gather around to admire your new furnace?  Any time now, I will need a new roof-an expense I have been dreading, and putting off, for almost 3 years.  Even more, I dread the thought of the damage to my garden from the installation.  The thought of old asphalt shingle bits, roofing nails and broken branches littering the ground-I try not to think about it.  The cost of a roofing job complete with the proper scaffolding that would prevent damage to the garden-beyond belief. 

landscape renovation

Renovating a landscape is not any different than updating the interior of a house.  It can be just as expensive, and just as inconvenient.  The before and after detailing the change in this contemporary landscape took but moments to record.  The actual job took plenty of time. The work involved repairs to the retaining walls, the regrading of the ground, the elimination of a row of weeping birch that had been planted at no small expense, and a major trimmimg and cleanup.  Time and money-not to mention the dirt and disruption. It’s easy to understand why most gardeners are more comfortable with the one thing at a time approach. Gardeners that rip out an entire landscape and start over are few, for obvious reasons.    

 The nuisance and expense aside, there are good reasons to tackle a tired landscape one project at a time.  A plan is just that-some marks on a piece of paper.  It is a map that is not so clearly marked.  A landscape lives and breathes, in every dimension.  Trying to make a living community fit a preconcieved notion on a piece of paper-the translation can be very difficult.  A smaller project with a smaller scope gives the designer or gardener a chance to look over the initial moves, and decide if a change of plans might be in order. I call this letting the project speak back.      

My projects tend to order themselves  such that the earthwork and drainage comes first, the structures and hardscape comes second, and the planting last.  Each of these phases can happen out of order, if an existing area is being renovated.  Each phase is a layer that compliments and enriches the initial concept.  This idea- from my friend and colleague, Patrick Zaremba.  He sees his work as a layering of materials, objects and plants that work in concert-creating over time a landscape experience that is beautiful.   

landscape design

It takes a great deal of time and skill to layer a perennial garden to successfully represents different seasons, textures, heights, and bloom times.  A good landscape takes the same sort of time and effort. This pool terrace was years in the making.  The pool and pool deck is raised above the existing grade.  The existing ground dropped dramatically from the back of the house.   (I take no credit for this ingenious treatment-the pool came long before me.)  The trees were planted after the pool was installed.  The size and diameter of the trunks of these trees indicates how long ago that was.  For several years we planted fiber pots of varying sizes and shapes, trying to find a scheme that wouldwarm up, but not clutter what was already beautiful.

The furniture and pots are new this year.  They add another layer to a landscape which is old, and sound.     

landscape design

The steel pots sport large birds of paradise, and are underplanted with caladiums.  The stone bowls are planted with dwarf alocasia, and a mix of caliente geraniums.  This lush look is a strong contrast to the geometry of the furniture and pool.  The furniture is properly overscaled, as the space is large.  

solenia begonias

The plantings add a lot of color to a scheme which is primarily black white and grey. 

There is not all that much to this layer.  Just enough of a gesture to make a difference. 

When I first saw this pool and terrace, I thought it looked a little too spare.  The architecture of the house, the pool deck and walls were beautifully designed in the 1970’s.  This landscape had great bones.  As solid and effortless as it looks, what it took to level the ground to accomodate a pool and terrace of this size was considerable.    

This walled terrace affords my client great privacy, even though the pool deck is far above street grade.  A pair of pots on the dining terrace invites the landscape inside, without sacrificing that privacy.  A small gesture has made a big difference.     

container gardening

Considering one thing at a time in renovating a landscape can be all to the good.