Archives for September 2012

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: The Details

When I first met Buck, he was head of technical design at Rossetti Architects.  Though his usual gig involved sports stadiums and office buildings, he had designed, and was project managing a very large and involved residential project-some 5 years in the building.  I had occasion to meet him, as I was responsible for the design and installation of the landscape.   

I was also involved in the design of the conservatory, which was built by Tanglewood. There were a number of garden elements and ornament that got built over the course of three years.  What I learned from Buck is that careful attention to the details makes the difference between an acceptable project, and a project that turns heads.

Most every day I would get an email from him-do you have a drawing for this detail?  I did more drawing for him those three years than I have done before or since.  But what I really learned from him-the devil is in the details.    In designing this fall arrangement, I began with a great plant.  Kale “Glamour Red” is the first All America plant selection in 78 years- the first new kale introduction since 1932.  This is a detail that suggests this is a plant worth planting.  Sometimes construction details can tell whether an idea will work, or not.  I like my fall pots to look lush and sumptuous-after all, this is the season we associate with the harvest.  The construction of a strong and sturdy fall container involves much more than the planting.     

We may assemble a centerpiece of twigs and dried seed pods. That centerpiece gets zip tied together over a stout bamboo stake.  A fall container centerpiece listing out of vertical detracts from the overall effect.  Our bamboo stakes go way down into a container.  The soil around that centerpiece gets compacted-with a mallet.  Straight up and down-a detail that makes for a good result. We spotted a clump of green milkweed pods on the side of the road-they would make a great addition to this container arrangement. 

A centerpiece may need lots of elements-especially if you are going for that sumptuous look.  I like fall pots with loads of visual detail.   Dried or preserved materials surrounding that centerpiece need a construction detail that enables you to place them wherever they look good.  And most of all, a detail that helps them to stay put throughout the season.  

The eucalyptus and butterfly weed seed pods-we attached each stem to a bamboo stake with a pair of zip ties.  Natural materials are beautiful, but their stems do not have near the strength of a stake.  Attaching natural stems to bamboo stakes is time consuming-but this construction detail makes the end result look more natural, and last longer.  The frilly cabbage leaves cover the working part of the arrangement.

Preserved eucalyptus does have very strong stems.  Should I strip off the lower leaves, I have a stem that I can stick into the the soil, at the angle that seems best.  A detail worth noting here- preserved eucalyptus will keep its shape and color a very long time-even outdoors.  The variety of colors and textures available can add so much to a fall arrangement.

Faux fall grasses-I will confess that I buy them and have them available.  The palette of plants that thrive in cool fall temperatures is somewhat limited.  Adding roadside weeds, pumpkins and gourds, preserved materials, dried sticks and seed pods, and even plastic grass stems in a fall pot is much like adding a little jewelry to a black dress.     

I looked over this fall planting a number of times.  I kept coming back to it.  Is this the best I could do?  The best always involves attention to the details.  Finally, I decided the faux grass seemed a little to heavy.  A container planting should never drag the eye down. It did give a sense of warmth and drama to the arrangement, but would something else be better? 

Individual stems of ting with capiz shell circles-not a choice that would instantly come to mind.  But why not try it?  The stems have the grace and texture of grass.  The whole arrangement looks looser, more airy.  The green of the capiz shell discs brings out that luscious green in the kale. 

Any move made by a gardener is all about the details.  Personal details.  This gesture, or that-very personal.  The little details can transform an idea into a party.  From a distance, the overall impression is generous in scale and harmonious in color.

At this point in the making of a fall arrangement, a single detail added or subtracted can dramatically change the visual effect of the whole.  A detailed construction means the pot will look good throught the fall.  A visual detail says much about what you personally think is good looking.


I am sure that the other member of the Garden Designers Roundtable have interesting and individual ideas about the role that detail plays in good design-check them out! 


Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA






At A Glance: First Signs

last rose of summer

pumpkin “Long Island Cheese”

ornamental kale 

pumpkin in the gourd patch 

fall container planting


gourds and pumpkins

ornamental kale


fall container materials

carving pumpkins

broom corn

twig pumpkins


fall pots




The Super Nova Stage

In 1996, I had a shop devoted to fine and fabulous objects for the garden- newly opened for business.  Of course I had lots of ideas, not the least of which was a scheme for a landscape out front. Gravel paths, and a slew of buxus koreana from Canada.  Marv Wiegand gave me 6 months to pay for these boxwood-this was a huge help to a business just underway.  This 1997 view of the shop-the word gawky comes to mind.   

This past week tells a different, more recent story about the shop garden.  The years of work show.  Time is a enormously important design element in the landscape.  You may be able to cut in line other places , but any landscape needs some age to represent well.  Some new landscapes may be charming and bright at first-this is a super nova stage.  But how they look fifteen years later tells the design tale.  Great landscapes are about the long vision, and faithful maintenance.         

 Unlike a landscape, annual pots are a celebration of a single season.  They start with small plants that take hold slowly-the spring weather in Michigan can be cold and unfriendly to plants native to tropical climates.  It seems as though every plant is the same size, no matter whether it will eventually stay small, or grow 6 feet tall.  New plantings are almost always out of scale with the container. 

This same pot in late September is just about as good as it will get.  The fall equinox-tomorrow.  Cold nights will have an adverse effect on the coleus and sweet potato vine.  But just before the cold weather begins to bring the annual season to a close, the plants seem to take on a robust appearance.  Perhaps the cooler weather, or the sun lower in the sky, makes the color appear more saturated.  

In any event, the annual season is brief and sweet. It takes no time at all to find out whether an experiment in color and form is satisfying-or not.  Better yet, there is a new season ahead-for those containers that need a better idea.

This is my best effort ever in these two small pots.  It took years to figure out one simple thing.  Large growing plants do not prosper in smaller pots.  Plants that mature at a size proportional to the size of the container put on the best show. 

I am always pushing that size restriction with these two urns.  One year I grew nicotiana mutabilis in them-hilarious, the outcome. Last year’s coleus-much too big a grower for the volume of soil in this pot. 

Today the plantings are as lush as they will ever be.  That lush look compliments the urns without overpowering them. The succulent in the front never grew large enough to obscure that Italian goat face.   

This Tuscan square was vastly larger than its plantings in June.  The steel plant climber that keeps the red mandevillea aloft is a major feature.

Yesterday, the lemon grass was every bit of 7 feet wide-all this from 4 4″ pots planted the first week of June.  I have taken lots of pictures of all of my pots this summer-I like keeping a record of how they do.  But I will not photograph this one again.  This is as good as it gets. 

3 6″ pots of swallowtail coleus were planted in this pot.  It’s a bushel basket full of green and yellow highly textured leaves today.

This pot might be my favorite of the year.  The plectranthus is falling over from the weight of its branches.  The variegated miscanthus grass in the center is emerging in a way I never anticipated.  The community which resulted from my planting is courtesy of mother nature. 

I am very much enjoying this moment.

Sunday Opinion: Guaranteed

A garden comes with no real guarantee of success-just like everything else in life.  Gardeners buy plants-some work and take hold, some fail.  Some succumb to poor placement.  Some lack for water too long, and die.  Some rot and keel over from too much water.  Some cannot handle that once in ten years and especially vicious winter.  Some languish on for years, and finally give up.  Some plants die for no reason that you or I, or any other good gardener can figure out.  Some relationships just do not work. 

 A tree that is planted too deep will never grow out of that insult.  A maple in the right of way might take 35 years to die from girdling roots, but die it will.  A black walnut in a neighboring yard, 80 feet away from your spruce, is an unseen threat to your spruce.  Japanese beetles can defoliate your roses and lindens.  Anthracnose is a disease that kills dogwoods, and London Plane trees.  Impatiens downy mildew killed thousands of plants in my area this summer.  More than likely, this fungus will live over the soil where those impatiens were planted.

Late spring frosts, high winds, ice, drought-there are no end of natural conditions that conspire to kill your plants.  A kid rides a bike over your prize lilies.  A tree drops a huge rotten limb on your house-who knew it was rotted?  Disaster can happen in the blink of an eye.  The life of a garden is a big fluid situation for which there is no insurance policy available. 

 The salesperson who sold me my Chevy Suburban in 2004 wanted to go over the warranty agreement-line by line.  I was patient about that time I spent with her, but in my heart I knew it was my responsibility to maintain that truck.  I knew the vehicle would run a long time, provided that I provided the care it needed.  Parts wear out.  Fuses blow.  Electric windows quit working.  Oil leaks out onto the driveway.  All of this mayhem is to be expected.    

Nurseries, garden centers, and landscape professionals all have their individual version of a warranty on plants.  I warranty, and guarantee that I have placed plants properly.  I guarantee the health of the plants at the time of planting.  I guarantee that I have placed plants properly.   I go on to guarantee any situation in which is is impossible to determine what went wrong.  My clients are really great people.  Honoring a guarantee can be a way of saying thank you.  It is a way of saying I am in this with you-through thick and thin.  

I can guarantee that if you plant new trees or shrubs, and do not water them by hand, regularly, no doubt you will have problems.  I can guarantee that the smallest annual and perennial plants require the most attention.  A newly planted perennial lacking one moment too long for water can die.  A big tree, with an appropriately big rootball, might outlast and take hold in spite of intermittent care.    I can guarantee that any garden reads as the sum total of the care given to it.  I can guarantee that if you take on more than you are able to maintain, problems will arise.  I can guarantee that if you run your sprinkler system 2 times a day, and every day, plants will die.  A tree that sheds all of its leaves, or fails to leaf out-you need to call the doctor.   

Guarantees apply primarily to washers, garbage disposals, roofs, bed springs, phones and Chevies-mechanical devices.  Not living things.  Even so, I marvel that any manufacturer guarantees a device that they have no way of tracking.  Your doctor should be a great scientist, and an inspired diagnostitian.  Even if she is all of the above, she cannot guarantee a happy and care free outcome for your health.  No one will ever care about your health, your chevy, your washing machine or your myrtle topiary as much as you do.  Take care of all of the above.  At the first sign of trouble, ask for help.

 As for the garden, I would advise that you take charge.  From the day that landscape or garden is planted.  Clients hire me to design and plant. Beyond that,  I go the extra mile.  I coordinate with the irrigation contractor.  I swing by frequently for a few weeks.  I stay in touch.  I am happy to be a backstop.  Some clients contract for 6 months of supervision.  This says more about their sense of responsibility than their lack of attention to that landscape.  Lots of my clients are very busy people-should they ask for help, I give it.  In the end, most every gardener owns their own problems.  That includes me.  I have many times in hindsight kicked myself for the loss of a plant that I could have easily provided for.       

My advice? Be presidential.  Run your landscape as it should be run.  Self insure-it will free up your energy to do what you love best.  The time it takes to establish blame for a struggling garden is wasted time.  That negative energy-who wants to be stained by that?   Admit your failures, and move on.  Gripe all you want, and apply what you have learned to the next step.  

For sure, no one else will treasure your garden like you do.  Your garden is first and foremost your garden.  Take ownership.  Guarantee your committment.  Guarantee to learn from your failures.  This is what gardeners do.