Archives for September 2012

A Small Space

Everyone is plagued by it.  An awkward or small space.  The space that is what is left over after the invention of a more important space.  A closet, or a kitchen cabinet that is deeper than your arms are long, or way over your head.  The airspace underneath the stairs that asks for a piece of furniture that has yet to be imagined, much less made. The above picture details the problem.  A portion of the driveway on the way to the detached garage maroons a small space.  The overscaled bluestone walk to the side door chops the small space in even smaller bits.  On view, the dryer vent, the automatic gate mechanism, a hose bib, exhaust pipes, and a roof drain.  The windows are both high and low.  The two story house looms over this little space, as there is nothing going on at grade that would ground the eye.    

The view in the opposite direction tells the rest of the the story.  An L-shaped covered walkway to the garage that wraps around into a covered rear yard porch has produced this small but highly visible space.  No doubt this is a daily drop off or drive by.  The bottom of the garage window barely pictured on the left, is within 12 inches of the ground.  Given the numbers of different materials and angles and shapes, no wonder my client grassed over the ground. 

A driveway is a utilitarian gesture meant to easily accomodate motor vehicles coming and going.  It is rarely the most beautiful part of a landscape.  It is a necessity that frequently follows the fastest and most direct route from the street to the garage.  That does not mean that short trip cannot be a visually interesting one.  Given that the driveway comes so close to the house, it seemed like a good idea to pave it with a more architectural and beautiful material.  The proximity of the driveway to the fence line behind it presented another problem.  What landscape gesture could possibly be made in a space this shallow? 

Sandwiching plant material between the driveway and the fence seemed like a short term solution at best.  Anything large enough to screen the property and garage in the neighboring yard would not like growing in such a restricted space.  The space directly opposite the porch steps was the narrowest spot.  We would try some multitrunked yellow magnolias.  But for the narrowest space, we built a car stop.  A smaller and more handsome version of a bus stop.  The steel lattice would screen the neighboring yard from view.  A bench would be built that oriented the view towards the house. 


This existing asphalt drive was removed in favor of a brick drive in a herringbone pattern. A herringbone pattern interlocks securely, and can handle vehicular traffic.  But the big move was to remove the grass and bluestone walk, and build a brick terrace that exactly matched the new material and pattern of the driveway.  This stubbornly unlovely spot has become a rather spacious terrace, thanks to the square footage added from the driveway.

An oak bench was installed inside the car stop. 

A brick landing for the car stop was built at the driveway grade.  A low dry stack stone wall would  permit the maximum width and depth of soil space for a pair of shrubby magnolias.  Amazingly, the house and driveway had been originally set below the grade of the perimeter of the property.  There were water problems.  Quite a bit of drainage work had to be done here.     

An English lead fountain with all of the supply lines running under the terrace was centered in the space.  The view of the neighbor’s car is not quite so prominent.  Once vines grow over the car stop, it will fade even further from view. 

The perimeter was planted with a row of large taxus densiformis, and nothing else.  They seemed to work well with all of the varying heights of the windows.  The bluestone from the walkway was repurposed to provide an edge for the brick terrace. Immediately, there was a good spot for another bench.  Who knows what other ornament or pots might be added later.  What once was an awkward space has become a market square of sorts for this family’s comings and goings.    



Lawn grasses and short growing green plants that spread and blanket that ground-love them.  I like how restful their uniform surface is to the eye.  I like how they hug and describe the sculpture of the ground beneath them.  They make a fine surface on which to play croquet or throw the ball to the dogs.  Grass makes a cool cushiony spot for a brief respite on a summer afternoon.  Lawn grasses are willing, and grow vigorously.  They genially put up with any interloper. I do nothing to mine beyond a weekly cut.   If your cut grass is weedy, fine.  Just take the trouble to water it.  Low and green is presentable.  The uncut, the freely flowing and growing version of grass-we know them as ornamental grasses.  They look so great, come the beginning of September. 


I like grass-in all of its forms.  I like it cut short, a beautifully textured skin over the ground.  Beautifully or intricately sculpted ground benefits from a covered of cut grass. I like small growing grasses in containers.  Their insouciant habit is a breath of fresh air.  Big growing grasses speak strongly to free.    

Ornamental grasses are slow to emerge from the ground in my spring.  Eventually they begin to grow.  Eventually they may attain great height and mass.  Their individually thin blades are a celebration of that natural phenomena we call wind.  Grasses move.  A big wind in any field of uncut grass makes for a concert.  A spring with adequate water endows every blade of grass with that delicious green color.  You know-grass green. This picture-panicum virgatum-or panic grass.  The common name I am sure refers to the fact that it moves in the slightest breeze.  Free to move-how good this feels.  

panicum virgatum

The panic grass in the previous picture matures like this- given the beginning of September.  Individual plants go to seed.  Each plant throws multiple seed heads, which mature over the course of the fall.  Each seed-a dot.  The view of so many dots moving-rhythmic-mesmerizing.  Some seeding grasses provide grain-food.  What the grains from grasses do to feed people-extraordinary.    The individual stalks sort out their needs for light and space-they successfully coexist.      

Miscanthus sinensis is a big growing crown growing grass that needs lots of room to represent.  I see them most frequently in commercial plantings where they have every bit of the space they need to mature.   The windswept summer foliage gains momentum in late summer.  This large patch of miscanthus, no doubt from a single plant put in the ground years ago, is in its beautiful plumes stage. 

Grass blades are slender-wispy.  Lots of grass blades in concert are sparkly-each blade catches the light in a different way.  Thousands of blades catch the light and the wind differently.  Ornamental grasses behind a planting of boxwood-everyone benefits.  Should you have a mind to include grass in your landscape, site them where the late day sun will illuminate them.  Give them lots and lots-and even more space.  Face them down with an plant that makes their airy statement look all the more ethereal.   

ornamental grasses

I do think that ornamental grasses recall and represent nature in its wild state.  I do think that the term ornamental grasses is a misnomer.  The grass primeval would be a more accurate description..  Grasss in all of its forms has a handsome heartiness that leavens the landscape.   

fiber optic grass

Fiber optic grass is a very small and dense growing thatch of a grass.  The name “fiber optic” is easy to understand-the 21st century is littered will all manner of various technologies.  An enthusiastically growing small scale grass-how easy is this to like?  Everything paired with it looks better.  

We live in a very large country.  The USA covers a vast amount of ground.  We grow grain-grasses- in equally vast quantities.  What does this mean to me, a gardener in charge of a very small urban lot?  Plenty.  My emotional attachment to ornamental grasses is considerable.  I like the flow of them- the big gestures.  I like anything graceful and natural.  I like the music that is the wind.  I especially like them planted in mass.          

I took this picture outside a doctor’s office on a very busy 4 lane street just a few miles from my home.  The grasses seeding were spectacular.       

A patch of grass-most gardeners go for this.  Every gardener interprets this patch differently.  Some gardeners revere their lawn while all else in the landscape suffers.  Odd this.  I am just as likely to see a clump of ornamental grass in a perennial garden.  I often see an interpretation of the waves of grain in commercial landscapes.  This clump of miscanthus grass in the lawn-I cannot speak to the intent of this gardener.  Do I need to?  This freely representing patch of grass-simply beautiful. 

The lemon grass in my rose garden container is coming on strong.  I have not touched this community in weeks.  The voice so strong that is the grass-getting louder.

At A Glance: Great Veins


Nervure-so you know this word?  I didn’t either, until I started reading about plant veins.  A nervure is a vein, or a rib.  The  veins, or ribs of a leaf, support the tissues that comprise a leaf.  The ribs can be vascular bundles-meaning that they transport vital materials from one place to another.  The science of travel and feeding aside, great veins endow leaves and flowers with a graphic beauty worthy of note.  Nervure-I like  the idea of a new word better educating me.

Coleus is noted for its leaf color.  The dark veins in this coleus make a pattern, a fretwork-a map.  Could not the layout and streets of a beautiful city be designed from such a map?   

These yellow petunias have creased flowers-I doubt the lines I see are veins.  Veins usually support leaf life.  They move life giving nutrients from one place to another. They provide a structure that keeps a leaf parallel to the sun.  They give that thin wisp of a leaf, or that incredibly thick leaf, some neccesary structure. 

 The veins of this alocasia leaf are prominent, as they need to be.  An alocasia leaf covers a lot of square footage.  The leaves are thick and heavy.  Lacking the structure from veins, these leaves would collapse in a sorry heap.  Lots of square footage requires strong ribs.  Nature made provisions for this.  Water and nutrients need to move along the supply lines provided by the veins to keep this big leaf healthy.  Should I ever retire, this picture might inspire me to write a book about supply lines, food, water, healthy structures, flow-and the miracle that is nature-great veins.  The alocasia leaf depends on its great veins to thrive.   

Who knows why I had the idea today to take a closer look at the veins in leaves.  That question aside, I am quite sure a love for the garden runs through my veins. 

The veins in leaves are functional, and remarkably beautiful.  Veins are a structure which is first and foremost a life line.  Make of this what you will. 


 The structure of leaves varies enough to defy and confound the imagination.  Those veins that empower those leaves-extraordinary.  Make no mistake, I can barely keep up with what nature has in store.   I so like this playing field.  The miracle that is nature helps keep me awake.

 If you have the chance, take a closer look.   

Those Who Grow

boxwood spheres
I fancy myself a gardener.  That is, my life revolves around making things grow.  A landscape design evolves from an idea, to a schematic plan, to a garden that gets planted.  Once it is planted, there is a gardener who will see that it grows.  A small tree grows up, and creates an atmosphere all its own. A perennial garden takes hold,  gains weight, and blooms.  Pedestrian ideas die on the vine, and are replaced by those that have lively quality to them. Those who grow-I instantly think about all of the gardeners it has been my pleasure to meet.  But those who grow professionally are gardeners of a different sort.  What and how they grow is not only an inspiration to gardeners.  From start to finish, the life of a landscape is the story of its plants.  Outstanding plants are not only irresistible, they are unforgettable.  

The entrance to this nursery speaks volumes to the point of view of the grower in charge.  The paving stones set horizontally in the drive are an invitation, a request to slow down.  The cloud-pruned yews spilling over the edges of the drive-stunning.       

This nursery is devoted growing a select group of plants.  Woody plant material painstakingly pruned into shapes.  Not every plant responds to shearing.  This gardener has a special interest in those plants that handle this kind of pruning with aplomb.   

These plants are beautifully grown.  They are spaced such that every one gets its fair share of sun and air.  Each boxed tree matches its neighbor-the branching is the same distance from the ground from the first to the last.  Each box is pruned to the same size, tree after tree.  The boxwood cubes are no different.  The size and shape is utterly uniform.  Alternately the trees and the shrubs is not only exquisite to see, it makes the most efficient use of the space. 

Growing yews like this takes many years, enormous skill, and incredible patience.  Unlike a nursery where the stock turns over quickly, this grower has invested lots of time and a lot of land to the cultivation of a few great plants. 

Even in climates with long growing seasons, plants of this stature take years to grow.  The pruning is an ongoing process, a little at a time.  The yew clippings on the ground-no longer than 6 inches.  Even the clippings are uniform in shape and length. 

Some of the hedging plants are grown in sections.  I am sure when the section is dug, each individual plant is labelled as to its position in the row.  The overall shape made by the group-striking.    

A collection of individual specimen evergreens grown in boxes makes the transportation to a new home somewhat easier.  Just to speculate about what one might do with one, or two, or 4 plants of this caliber-a pleasure.  

These carpinus are being trained into arched shapes.  The fact that they have foliage all the way to the ground suggests that the training began when they were very small plants.  Trees in ground like this are regularly root pruned, which makes the task of transplanting easier.  Pruning the roots means a dense fibrous mass of roots will help keep the root ball intact when a plant is dug.  Though it may seen counter intuitive, moving a tree the first time is the most harrowing move of all. The roots that get cut eventually sprout multiple roots at the cut.   Every successive move is easier, as the development of a dense root system aids in the transplant process.

The ability of a plant to make densely fibrous and compact rootballs plays a large part in whether it is commercially grown.  Certain types of junipers are difficult to transplant, as their rootballs have a tendency to collapse.  Even container grown roses need to be transplanted with great care, for the same reason. These topiaries and espaliers are grown from just a few species-yew, boxwood, carpinus, and beech.

I think all of these plants are beautifully sculptural-I would have any of them.  But whether or not formally pruned trees appeal to you or not, the care, committment and vision with which they are grown is obvious.  Yes, these trees are expensive-just any other gorgeous one of a kind sculpture.  Where do you find trees like this?  Anywhere you find a grower with a big love for growing.  No small part of their beauty is how they suggest that any gardener with a small plant and an equally big love for growing could create one of their own.