Archives for November 2012

The Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Plants and Memory



A memory can be triggered by many things.  The smell of lilacs in the spring.  The fragrance of a rose.  A mass of daisies, blooming.  Plants that bring memories flooding back to me mostly have to do with my mother’s garden.  Roses-oh yes, so many roses.  A gingko tree, grown from seed to a spectacular size.  Tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs in pots.  Orchids, hanging from the trees. And the zinnias she grew from seed.  I never see a zinnia without thinking of her. 

But my memories of her aside, the big old evergreen trees that it has been my pleasure to meet make me feel zero at the bone.  Zero at the bone?  A feeling which is primeval.  Elemental.  For me, giant old trees evoke memories that are not tied to specific events.  They may provoke memories of which I am only dimly aware. 

I am sure this sense of belonging to the primeval forest is why it is so difficult to take down a big tree.  Even a damaged or sick old tree.  This client was very attached to a pair of old and weary Norway spruce planted just a few feet from the foundation of the house.  Taking them down was not an option.  Planting more of them at the road, a fitting tribute.  I always admired her reluctance to interfere with with a chain saw.  The landscape had an aura that would not have been possible without those old trees.     


These trees may be many years away from  evoking a memory of the primeval forest, but the impulse was there to plant them. 

Giant old trees whose life spans many gererations of people are as rare in urban areas as they are revered.  Old large properties that have never been clear cut to make way for neighborhoods provide homes for old trees.  The steward-gardener who takes great pains to look after them is a person for whom those trees evoke a memory.  In my area, there are old cemeteries whose old trees are spectacular.  Many cities have parks, and for good reason.  Exposure to an old, natural or archetypal landscape is comforting, and thought provoking.

The Estivant Pines nature sanctuary on the Kewenaw Peninsula in the upper peninsula is a protected home to many old pines.  Pictured in the Michigan Nature Association blog, this is the trunk of one of the largest and oldest of those pines. The preservation of these old trees is the result of the work, patience and determination of many-all of whom have a memory that is important to nurture. 

This post is but one of many featured at the Garden Designer’s Roundtable today on the subject of memory and plants.  My special congratulations to Andrew Keys, whose book   Why Grow That When You Can Grow This   has just been published on this very topic.  If the book is as exuberant and sassy as he is, it should be a great read!    

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

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

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

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

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA


Sunday Opinion: The Outer Limits

There are lots of things a competent garden or landscape designer can accomplish for a client.  Another pair of eyes, and a fresh point of view is usually a good idea.  What else does a good designer bring to a project?  The willingness to listen, and hear.  A working knowledge of design.  An ability to conceptualize.  Familiarity and experience growing a wide range of plants.  An understanding of good drainage, and grading.  The ability to place and plant properly.  A passable acquaintance with architctural forms.  I think a knowledge of the history of landscape and garden design is a plus. The designer should have the skills necessary to draw a plan, and make a presentation that clearly explains that plan.  A knowledge of available materials is essential.  A willingness to source materials difficult to find is a show of willingness that will help a project along.  A good sense of humor is always appreciated.

What else should you expect from a landscape designer?  Some designers have their own installation crews, as I do.  Some dsigners either subcontract, or recommend an installation contractor.  An extensive landscape project can require expertise from a lot of different fields.  You may need a topological survey, or a grading plan.  You may need an architect for an addition or a pool house.  An electrician, a site engineer, an irrigation contractor, an interior designer-I have seen projects needing all of the aforementioned.  You may simply need a stone mason to install walks or terraces.  A recommendation from a designer who has worked with lots of contractors can be of help.  You may need a different kind of mason for the installation of load or soil bearing walls.  A carpenter might be required for a pergola, a site engineer for a radical change of grade.  All of these trades on a project means there are permits to be pulled, and codes to be observed.  Small projects?  A small project does not imply that a designer with limited skills would be ok.  Small projects can require more imagination and problem solving ability than you might think.  But there are things a designer/contractor cannot do for you.

There is never any substitute for the touch that an individual gardener has to put to their project.  The best way I have to explain this is as follows.  I have had dinner at any number of restaurants-some of them extraordinarily good.  But was the best dinner I have ever had out, prepared by a professional chef, comparable to any number of dinners I have had at Julie’s, or Gerhardts,  or Julia’s, or Lauren’s or Jane’s, or Janet’s house?  Or at my own house-with Buck cooking?  No.  Not even close.  The best dinners I have ever had was by invitation, created and served by an individual that put every ounce of their time and energy to creating it. 

What is the idea here?  In the next three weeks, I have a daunting list of projects for landscape, winter and holiday containers, holiday lighting and decorating that have to be done.  I think the work will be good, and thoughtful-I take great pains to see to that.  But if I had only one project to finish over the next three weeks, I could do a truly extraordinary job of it-given that amount of time to think and plan, and construct.

I have seen private gardens-designed, engineered, planted and nurtured by individuals who have never consulted a professional designer- that take my breath away.  My best hope as a designer is to give a client a beautiful, solidly conceived and built framework.  We can rework or add to an older landscape, or install a new one.  The big gestures.  Gardens-yes.  Once a client takes ownership of that new landscape, the hope is that they will go on to make that landscape their own.  Those clients that have less time than I, I stand in for them in the best way I can. If you are an individual gardener who has created your own gorgeous garden-bravo.  If you are a client rushed by circumstance, every hint, magazine clipping or random idea you send my way- thanks.  Better gardens for all-I like this.

At A Glance: Other Holidays













The Shop Winter Garden


The shop landscape is very simple.  A rectangle of boxwood set in a generous plane of decomposed granite, a pair of Techny arborvitae bookends, and a pair of lindens is about all there is.  These plants, almost 20 years old, occupy a modest percentage of the overall space.  This means there is room for a temporary, ephemeral, and seasonal garden expression.  Gardening in a zone which features four distinct seasons is a challenge and an opportunity I would never want to do without.  The chance to start fresh given the change of the season-love that.  The holiday/winter garden is no different.

The inspiration is almost always driven by a natural material that catches my eye.  This year, the curly copper willow branches are incredibly beautiful.  The color is rich and saturated.  The stems are fat and juicy-there is no hint of stress from the drought they endured all summer.  They have a distinctly fresh fragrance.  Each stout stem was topped with a cloud of delicate branches-breathtaking.  I ordered extra, so I would have enough to do the garden in front of the shop.

What would I do with them?  Fresh willow is incredibly flexible.  One could make baskets, fencing, wreaths-just about anything the eye could imagine, and the hand construct.  But I wanted a structure that would permit those thousands of tiny branches to make their own statement.  I use these steel forms at home to give my asparagus some support-I knew they would be perfect.  Attaching the thick stems, one stem at a time to this form, would provide stability without interfering with the natural form and inclination of the branchlets.   

Zip tying each branch was time consuming, and not so easy.  Each stem needed a friendly neighbor.  My landscape crew does a superb job of all of my landscape installations-their seasonal winter work is no exception. They are not only incredibly talented and willing, they have an understanding of natural forms that comes only with many years of exposure to plants.  They never force anything to be.  They let the material dictate the construction, and the overall shape.  They use whatever they need to make the overall shape complete-even if that means I need to order more.  

The douglas fir boughs have been stuffed into dry floral foam, some 6 inches thick.  The bottom 3 inches are wedged into the rim of the pot.  The six inches above the rim are a home to all of the boughs that are set horizontally.  A form this high off the rim of the pot needs reinforcing.  4 pieces of steel rebar are driven through the corners of the foam, and into the soil in the pots.  Once the soil freezes around that steel, it will take gale force winds to dislodge the curly willow. 

A cloud of copper willow and a low wide base of douglas fir- this year’s holiday/winter expression.  The time it takes to construct what will go on in these pots all winter is time I don’t spend moping about the closing of the garden.  Should everything come together, these pots will make a statement about what is good about the winter season.  A customer in the shop yesterday lives in San Francisco.  He tells me the climate and weather is the most consistent and unchanging of any city in the US.  Though he misses the change of the seasons, he does not miss the gray skies.  He is right.  Michigan is one of the grayest and gloomiest  of all of the states in the winter.

So a good part of our winter garden is about turning the lights on.  The light garland draped over the empty window boxes is comprised of three different strands of three different types of lights.  The weight of multiple light strings twisted around each other makes them drape gracefully-they are heavy.  Inside each willow cloud is a spot light, wedged into the floral foam.  A collar of dry limelight hydrangeas flowers conceals it from view.  The spot light illuminates the willow from within.  How I like this idea, and and how it looks.  A light garland would around the base of the willow illuminates them from the outside.  A pair of ball and cone topiary froms are wound solid with ordinary garden variety mini lights.  Ordinary materials do not have to be used in an ordinary way.  

Having turned the lights on, I have no idea what I will do with this next.  Part of the joy of a winter garden is having the time to tinker with it.  The spring and summer garden-I am always running to try to keep up.  This and that always needs something.  Though I have a lot of work yet to come helping clients with holiday and winter containers and decorating, there will be time to figure out what else this garden might need.       

Early this morning, a first dusting of snow.  As my winter is most assuredly on the way, I would rather like it than not.