Archives for September 2012

At A Glance: Light On A Slant

The 2012 fall equinox falls of September 22 this year.  At that time, the sun is crossing the celestial equator, and the days will start to get shorter.  As the sun igoes lower in the sky in the northern hemisphere, it illuminates everything it touches on a slant.  Beautiful light, this. 

grass amphitheatre

next to the last of the Sally Holmes

Little Ollie olive

lemon grass

Honorine Jobert beginning to bloom

tree geranium


garden terrace

stone staircase


Breaking Ground

Theodore Roethke is one of America’s most respected poets.  He was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1908, to German immigrant parents-Otto Roethke and Helen Heubner.  His parents were market gardeners, and owned and operated 25 acres of greenhouses with Theodore’s uncle.  Much of his childhood was spent in those greenhouses.  His second book, “The Lost Son”, contains several of what are known as his greenhouse poems. 

Images and metaphors derived from the natural world are much a part of his writing.  Long before I ever had the conscious idea to design gardens, I treasured his work. I studied early twentieth century poetry in some detail in college.  For whatever reason, many of the lines from his poems have stayed with me.

One phrase I have always liked- “The time comes when the vague life of the mouth no longer suffices…”  I am taking this phrase completely out of the contextural meaning of the poem, but it perfectly expresses that moment when the time for the designing, the discussion, the redesigning, and the additional discussion, comes to an end.  Enough decisions have been made in order for a project to proceed.   

A landscape plan is just so many marks on a page-a drawing.  That drawing has only two dimensions.  It does not really describe the sculpture that will be.  But drawings are critical in a project such as this.  Preceeding the landscape, a pool and poolhouse will be built.  Though my drawing described the physical location, shape and size of the pool, and the location of the poolhouse, that drawing needed lots of details-what materials would be used?  What would the poolhouse look like?  What features would be incorporated?  How many months of the year did the client foresee using it?  Building a pool and poolhouse is a complicated and considerable undertaking, but even the smallest landscape project needs to be thought through.

The integral spa on axis with the rear terrace was agreed upon, but the client wanted a slightly longer and slightly narrower pool.  The architect took my idea for a pair of poolhouses linked by a conservatory structure, and designed the poolhouse.  The general contractor decided with the client how the interior space would be handled.  He needed the poolhouse to be longer, so as to have inside space for the pool equipment.  He favored solar panels to warm the poolhouse early and late in the season.  I integrated these and every other good idea into what became the final landscape plan.  Ideas are one thing.  Building a project requires ideas that work. 

The pool contractor sorted out all of the many details needed to build the pool.  The depths of the water, the steps, the filtration system.  The general contractor oversees the entire project, so construction goes smoothly, and things happen in the right order.  This GC is very low key, and equally good at problem solving-just the person to handle a project like this. 

Once a coherent design emerged from the client and all of the design and build people, finish plans were drawn, and submitted for review to the planning board. Once the permit was issued, the pool was dug, and lined with a steel mesh that would reinforce the concrete.  The giant and deep hole you see here, encompassing the steep change of depth of the pool, will be filled with concrete.  This will stabilize the entire underwater structure. A pool needs to stay put.  Any action from the frost that might heave the pool upwards, and crack it-every effort is taken to avoid that. 

Of primary concern in the initial design-a gorgeous oak of considerable stature.  My clients love this tree.  The pool was sited to avoid any damage to it.  I was relieved to see no roots exposed in the excavation necessary to provide level ground for the pool.  This oak sits on a hill that slopes dramatically down to the house.  Eventually, a stone retaining wall between 3 and 4 feet tall will be built to hold the soil on the oak side.  The pool and surround will be built at the grade of an existing rear terrace.  A drainage plan for both the ground and the wall-a subject of much discussion and planning.  

A decision was made to integrate the soil unearthed from the excavation of the pool into the existing property.  Hauling away soil is a time consuming and expensive process.    This is a large property, and I have ideas about where this soil can go.  The drainage work, and grading of this soil is part of the landscape project. 

No one could like a gigantic pile of dirt awaiting a sculptural disposition better than I.  I have walked the property at least 5 times, imagining what might be come of it.  I am inclined to leave most of it on this north end of the pool.  The natural grade of the land at the north end of what will be a pool slopes down precipitously.   A large area of level ground there would be ground they can use, enjoy, and garden.  More than likely I will be able to stablilize the soil with a gradual slope down.  Perhaps we will need some retaining on the east side.

As for Thoedore Roethke,  I was thinking about him the past Friday.  He died in 1963 at the age of 55, at the home of a friend on Baimbridge Island in Washington- a heart attack while he was in the pool.   That pool was subsequently filled in, and today is the rock and sand Zen garden at the Bloedel Reserve.  No where is there any mention of Mr. Roethke, but I would imagine he would approve of a garden in this spot.  There does indeed come a time when the vague life of the mouth no longer suffices.  We broke ground.


Growing Topiary Plants

topiary evergreens
I had so many calls, emails and comments about the topiary nursery in my previous post- wow!  I could thank you for that attention, but it wasn’t me who grew those plants.  It is a very special person with an extraordinary and singular vision.  People with vision-there is always something worthwhile to take from their efforts.  His palette of plants is quite spare.  His patience with the process I call growing is unlimited.  And his ability to prune is superb.  These boxwoods of his in 3 gallon pots are plants that have been given a very good start.  Any gardener could take this pot home, and resolve to grow that boxwood on.       

Another grower we buy from makes a point growing this particular form.  These boxwood with tufted top knots are charming and distinctive.  Anyone willing to take one on, and commit to growing and pruning would in just a few years have a boxwood topiary worth talking about.  To get to this stage, the nursery spends 10 years.  They are happy to hand what they grow off to you.  Are you game?

Most of my boxwoods are 21 years old.  7 years old at purchase, and 14 years in the ground.  I water and feed them.  But I would not dream of touching them with a pair of shears.  I am a serviceable pruner-not an inspired one. I am fortunate to have someone in my community who makes a specialty of pruning.  Mindy and her group of 7 takes an entire day to prune my evergreens.  The day they come-the best day of my gardening year.     

boxwood topiary

Gorgeous topiary trees and shrubs are first and foremost about the years, and the good care.  The years devoted to growing them on.  Transplanting large topiary material comes with no end of peril.  Transplant shock is routine.  They are very expensive, given how long it has taken to grow them to a subtantial maturity.   Once the plant is in place, the work begins.

It was many many years ago that I planted this topiary garden.  The first year was no cause to throw a party.  But a client with vision was determined to take relatively small plants, and grow them into plants of note.  She saw to the water, the feeding, and the pruning.  In my zone, in a good year,  boxwood flushes on an average of 6 inches.  Six inches seems like not much, but 6 inches times 10 years-a big flush.  Years later, her plants are gorgeous-gorgeous enough to make any gardener blush. 

Mindy prunes with a forest of stout stakes, and a network of level lines.  Her group clips with hand shears.  I cannot imagine how many times in the course of a day those shears open and close.  The sound of that work-I cannot describe in words how beautiful this is.  They take the time it takes to do the work properly.    

pruning boxwood

To the last, her crew is entirely modest about their skills.  They focus on the plants.  Any gardener could make it their business to learn how to do this.  Though in my heart I believe she is gifted, I would try to replicate her care, if I needed to.  Great topiary plants are about the relationship between the stalwart start of a plant, and a gardener.  Buy a plant.  Resolve to train it-just how you envision it.       

pruning carpinus

I was young, when I planted this tree.  It bore no resemblance to this, the day it went in the ground.  It is as grand and gorgeous a topiary carpinus that has ever been my pleasure to see. It is as beautiful as any topiary tree anyone might see anywhere.  The form of this tree was many years in the making.  The pruning is amazingly precise.  The company who prunes this not only has skilled people, it has big equipment.  What an extraordinary job they do of the pruning.

Mindy looks after this property.  Every hedge is perfectly pruned.  The topiary evergreens not shown in this pictuire are in excess of 20 feet tall.  Did we move plants in to this landscape, full grown?  No.  Beautifully grown, hefty specimens got planted.  Every year she works on establishing the forms.  Every year, they are bigger, and better.

My yew topiaries in these pots are but 3 years old.  The boxwood surround is but 3 years old.  Given another 10 years, we will have something to talk about.  In the meantime, I see to the day to day. I can safely say that the process of growing enriches my gardening life.  I like the dailies perhaps more than the finish.  

The hedge maples on standard in the back right cewnter side of this landscape-they have been growing on for years.  Every year, that pleached hedge of trees looks better.  One day they will fill in completely from side to side, and front to back.   The land drops from the house to the lake.  The trees nearest the water are much taller than the trees on the near side.  A lvel pleached hedge on sloping ground-years in the making.  The day they fully pass muster-a day to celebrate.  Great gestures in the landscape take time.

This beech arbor is but a few years along.  It will take another 5 years for it to fill out.  My advice to you?  Buy two small beech.  Plant them opposite each other, far enough apart,  where they will be perfect, 15 years from now.  Today is the best day to start to grow a topiary.  Planting small plants does not mean your vision is small.  Planting small plants with an eye to the future-a big vision.

Level with the horizon-is this not beautiful?  It took more than a few years to get here.  I can attest to that, as this is my yard.  Visit your local nursery.  Scrutinize what trees and shrubs might grow into something extraordinary, given your care and some time.  Take the time to source a great pruning company-or make it your business to learn how to prune.  For my clients-I source the best plant material that I can find.  I have no trouble placing those extraordinary plants.  At the same time, I buy those smaller plants that I imagine, given a few years and a lot of care, will prove to be garden makers.  I hold and grow those small plants-waiting for the right and so sparkly client to come along.  Those extraordinary large and full grown plants moved to a new home, I love this process.  Placing those smaller plants- with such a great future ahead of them-even better.

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.