Archives for February 2013

The Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Romance



What makes for a romance?  An attraction that cannot be denied.  An attraction that evolves from the excitement generated by the hope that a relationship might lead to a steadfast commitment.  The romance suggested and generated by the possibility of love-who hasn’t experienced it?  Gardeners romance their gardens-meaning they seek to establish a  relationship with their environment, their love of plants,  and their property to a mutually satisfying end.  I never met a gardener that was not committed to the long term.  However, mutually satisfying outcomes are rare.  Things go wrong.  Plants die.  Taste’s change.  More than rare, garden outcomes that stir the heart are short lived.  Ephemeral.  This makes the possibility of true romance all the more desirable.


Nature-the object of every gardener’s sincere affection.  On occasion, that love is returned.  Sometimes I am face to face with it in such a way that takes my breath away.  But more often than not, nature has another idea in mind.  I have had my hopes dashed more often than I care to recall.  The weather here last spring was anything but.  All of the efforts made to protect the spring flower buds-spurned.  There are less dramatic challenges to one’s love for the garden.  A lack of rain-or too much.  The neighbor’s kid or the neighborhood rabbit who snaps all the lily buds off.  The specimen evergreen that is not so happy where you have planted it.  The effort it takes to improve the organic content of the soil.  I suppose the spring will eventually come when I think I’ve had enough-but it hasn’t happened yet. 


Anyone who gardens long enough realizes that a romance has its ups and downs.  There are on occasion those perfect moments. An hour or a day or a season that enchants and utterly satisfies.  They could be very simple, and not so readily apparent to a casual observer.  The sun emerging after a spring rain.  A quiet hour spent weeding.  Watching a hummingbird feed.  How the roses look just before they bloom.   


That June day several years when the roses were blooming like I had never seen them before-heart stoppingly romantic.  That summer day when all is good enough in the garden such there is time to take time to enjoy it.  There are those perfect moments that come when you least expect them, and are over before you know it.  That fairly accurately describes my relationship with nature.  Never easy, and often times irritating and disappointing.  Despite all that does not work,  a life without a serious relationship with nature has no appeal to me. 


This cold windy and snowy February moment that Milo and I shared in the garden-satisfying indeed.  I am sure the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable have an equally personal romance with nature-be sure to read on.


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

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

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



Paint is one of the most versatile and accessible of any decorative material.  Though cave paintings were done centuries ago, the first patent in the US for paint available in a can was granted in 1867.  Early paint was composed of many different materials and colorants, suspended in a medium which would make the color brushable.  Vintage painted steel and wood garden furniture is readily available-in various states of disrepair.  Old, chipped, and weather worn paint on a garden bench can be charming.  A fresh coat of paint can dramatically alter the appearance of a house, or shed.  Old style adirondacks chairs with original paint are always in demand.  Old chairs repainted in vivid colors are visually invigorating.  Paint types and formulas are available for every surface and situation imaginable.  Some day I would like to try Annie’s chalk paint ( ) both inside and out.  The surface sounds beautiful, and it can be used inside and out.  No matter the circumstance, I use Porter Paint.  It is a favorite brand of sign painters.  In my opinion, it resists cracking, fading, and peeling better than any other paint I have used.  The exterior Acrishield is 100% acrylic paint-not latex paint.  We use this on any exterior surface we want to paint.  Porter Paint is made in Pennsylvania, and is not always easy to find, but amazingly, it is available in my neighborhood (  Paint is a relatively inexpensive decorating material with one caveat.  What was once painted will eventually need to be repainted.  Is that so bad?


Rob and I bought a small collection of fiberglas garden ornament which was delivered late last week.  Though we had a lengthy discussion about the finish with the rep, I was not happy with what got delivered.  Fiberglas is a friendly material, in that it is impervious to weather, and light weight.  But it is by no means a natural material.  If I have to have fiberglas, I like it to look like fiberglas.  Fiberglas finished to look like something it is not-just saying.  The plaque pictured above had been spray painted the most horrifying shade of dead white imaginable.  I knew I had to paint it.  A dear friend had just introduced me to hand screened en grisaille wallpaper-meaning wallpaper that is all shades of gray from black to white.   Those gray landscapes have been on my mind.  I bought 4 quarts of Porter exterior paint, and went to work.  What is pictured above-the finish.  It is by no means a great work of decorative art, but this painted surface is much easier on the eye than what was. 


This set of wall hangings depicting a classical interpretation of the four seasons-not so great looking.  The white is harsh.  The pits in the surface of the fiberglas, even more harsh.  Beautiful white painted surfaces outdoors can be difficult to achieve.  A very stark architectural white that is fresh and airy on an indoor surface can be strident and off putting outdoors.  Toxic white I call it, as no one seems to warm up to it.  White outdoors is always warmed by the quality of natural light.  This flat and unnatural white made me squint.


Buck tells me that cast concrete which is not vibrated sufficiently develops what is known as bug holes.  The air which produces this pitting has not been vibrated out of the mix.  I am sure these fiberglas bug holes were deliberate.  This was an effort to make brand new molded fiberglas look like aged stone.  I am sure it is as unconvincing a surface to you as it is to me. The pits were sprayed with a very dark stain.


This pitting is not so attractive. After all, cherubs are supposed to look sweet, or devilish-not scary.  The runny nose look-not my favorite. 


The pitted areas would have been much more effective, has they been confined to the shadow areas.  A base coat of Porter exterior satin paint filled in the worst of them.


The figure of the summer season on the far left in its original state shows how some ornament for the garden can be vastly improved in appearance with a little paint.


The annotated collection is much more to my liking.  After the base coat, I used a slightly darker color in the shadows, and a slightly lighter color on those surfaces closest to my eye.  A little paint can go a long way towards improving the looks of anything it touches.  The best part?  If a first effort or color doesn’t work, there’s always the option to try again.


Though I would touch the surface of an antique or lovely vintage ornament for the garden,  a little paint can go a long way.



Austere would not describe me or my taste.  I am very attached to my pink Ugg slippers, left on the radiator all day, and again overnight.  Barefoot in the house- morning or evening- in February? Not likely.  The radiator in the kitchen hall is host to either my slippers, sneakers or boots-round the clock, all winter long.  I have a craving for baked potatoes, beef stew, potato chips, and bratwurst.  I load my coffee with half and half.  Did I mention that Beurre & Sel in NYC makes and ships cookies that makes winter vastly easier to bear?  I hate taking a shower this time of year; who wants to be both wet and cold?  I like lots.  Lots of plants.  Lots of styles.  Lots of gardens.  Lots of weather suitable for gardening.  Lots of color. Second helpings.

whitewashed-tree-trunk.jpgThe environment outdoors late in February-very austere.  Austere as in cold, and uniformly gray.  To this gardener, the winter is a 6 month sentence that is undeserved.    Austere?  From the dictionary, austere is an adjective that describes anything with is somber, grave, rigorously self disciplined, spartan in style, simple, and plain.  Without ornamentation.  Restrained. This is my best shot at a description of austere ; utterly simple design refers to a pared down and minimal expression. Winter is a good visual description of austere.  All the voices in the garden are hushed.  Everything is sleeping, struggling, or enduring.   Silently. It will be spring before any winter damage is apparent.  The colors outdoors are restricted to gray, taupe, brownie scout brown, and white-with a dash of black every so often.  Snow falling makes next to no sound.  Snow tastes and feels cold, and not much else.  Snow quickly turns to water, if you touch it.  In a whiteout, who can see?


The tree whose outline in full leave is extravagant, robust and juicy is reduced to sticks in the winter.  Sculptural sticks, OK yes, but sticks none the less.  The greens represented in the summer garden-silvery.  Blue greens.  Lime.  Forest. Grass green. Green, uncontained.  There’s nothing austere about a summer garden.  Sun and shade on green-a complex and visually enchanting tapestry.  Once the leaves fall, gardeners are left with the skeletal remains.  Frankly, winter leaves an ashy taste in my mouth.  Branches in winter are those shades of gray that take lots of visual work to sort out.  Can you tell I am really tired of the winter?


Why this discussion of austere?  The first two of Rob’s six containers due in this spring arrived this past Thursday.  Both containers were chock full of contemporary stoneware garden pots from Belgium.  The pottery insisted that they would pack the containers.  They insisted that nothing could be double stacked.  OK, we agreed.  When the first container was opened, the airspace in the upper portion-a strongly austere, and minimal gesture.  We paid to have air from Belgium, transported to the US.  Once I get past this, I find I am enchanted.  The pots are hand made from clay that is loaded with grog-hard particles.  Very definitely textured.  Each shape is available in a cool cream, a taupe, and black.  Very austere, this palette.  Not one bit like the open armed friendliness of a terra cotta clay pot.


I planned ahead for their arrival. We dressed the floor and shelves with the trunks of a few small caliper trees. I thought the natural forms and textures of these trees would provide some warm company to these austere pots.  I never pitch a dead tree.  I keep it, in the hopes it might have another life.  The whitewash?  Traditional agricultural practice-kaolin clay on tree trunks is said to repel insects.  How the French whitewash the trunks of their trees-shockingly beautiful.  My whitewash is the same color as the pots.  The walls and trim were repainted the same color as those cooly cream colored pots.  We created an environment which is as close to the color of those cream pots as we could manage.


I wanted to display them in a way that reveals why Rob admires them.  I have had a few days to look them over.  It took a day with both of my crews to unpack and take the packing material to be recycled. It took another day to put those pots in place.  Today I had the shop to myself.  This is the last Saturday we will be closed until January 15 of 2014.  Nonetheless, there was a steady stream of people stopping by.  They are tired of the winter too.  But they did like these pots.



I will say that an austere expression, if you give it enough time and attention, is just cause to slow down and reflect.  I am looking at shapes and shadows.  Texture.  Mass.  I am appreciating the quiet.  My fears about how chilly contemporary pots melted away.  The shapes are not only beautifully sculptural, the surfaces tell a story.


There is in fact something very warm and personal about these pots.  The hands that love and shape this clay are much in evidence.  I have never been so struck by the fact that the clay from which pots are made is an organic material.  From the earth.  A group of hands fashioning a fabulous collection of pots from clay dirt-this is a story of few words.  Minimal shapes and colors.  A subtle and highly edited point of view.  The quality of the available light greatly influences the appearance of the color.


Their stamp-I can only imagine how it came to be.  A stamp is a signature.  This is who we are, and what we make.  Plain and simple. These contemporary pots-I have decided that I quite like them.



An ornament is anything which enhances the appearance of a person, a place, or an object.  A gorgeous piece of vintage Miriam Haskell costume jewelry can dress up a simple black dress.  Christmas decorations collected over a lifetime ornament a tree, and the family traditions that come with the celebration of a holiday.  Hand screened en grisailles wallpaper from Zuber in Paris can supply a room with all the ornament it could ever possibly need.  A good friend just opened the door for me on this particular kind of ornamental-thanks, M.  The decorative arts spans as many cultures as it does centuries.  Early 20th century handmade American quilts ornamented many a bed and bedroom.  Hand made furniture, hand embroidered linens, a vase of cut flowers, hand made candles, hats suitable for church on Sunday, letterpress wedding invitations, chandeliers, great shoes-ornament celebrates every aspect of daily life.


Ornamental is a word frequently applied to those trees whose sole function is about beauty.  We grow lime, lemon, pecan and avacado trees for the fruit they provide.  We grow shade trees in hopes for a cool spot in the garden in the heat of the summer.  Some trees are farmed for their wood, their apples, or their rubber.  Ornamental trees are cherished for their extraordinarily beautiful leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, shape, or fall color.  This group of trees ornament the landscape.  The crabapples blooming are the ballerinas of the spring.  Those clouds of white, pink and carmine flowers can be breathtaking.  There is that spring moment when all the talk is about the crabapples blooming.  The magnolias provide strikingly large and architectural flowers and large leaves.  Yellow magnolias are unusual, and are ornamental for that reason additional to their lustrous bark, large leaves, and architectural shape.


The dwarf Japanese maples delight the eye with their forms and leaf colors. The standard acer palmatum features beautiful bark, lacy leaves, and a mature size around 25 feet.  Princeton Gold maples shower the garden below with lime green in the spring.  The white flowers of chionanthus fluttering in a spring breeze-delightful.  The kousa dogwood features flowers that bloom late enough to escape our early spring frosts.  Old kousas are prized for their exfoliating bark.  Witch hazels bloom early enough in my zone that their subtly wispy flowers attract attention.  Tree lilacs bloom later in the summer.  Flowers overhead-ornamental.  The substantive and shiny foliage of hellebores is enough for any gardener to plant them.  The early spring flowers thrown in spite of cold weather-they ornament the garden.


Ornament for the garden-I have a big interest.  I am not particularly partisan.  I like figurative sculpture in the garden.  I like French cast iron urns from the 19th century.  I like Belgian wood planter boxes.  I like English hand carved stone troughs.  I like classically shaped and hand made Italian terra cotta pots.  I like braided steel cable fencing.  Galvanized horse troughs available at the local feed store make great containers for vegetables, or lotuses.  I like to see a mix of all of the above, selected  by that particular gardener with confidence.


I all but covered this 20′ long table for spring in the shop some years ago.  This would not be a table about to host a dinner-where could you possibly put your plate?  It is strictly ornamental.  Just for the sheer visual joy of it.  Memories are made from how every gardener chooses to ornament their gardening life.  I remember each and every detail of those gardens that strike a chord with me.  I ornament my landscape as if I had a very important garden party looming.  Though chances are good I will never host a garden party of any consequence, I like strikingly beautiful landscapes and gardens.  When I do my best, I sleep well.



Pots planted with spring flowers are not especially utilitarian.  I have never eaten a pansy.  But my eyes have feasted on the shapes and colors of spring flowers planted in pots.  To say pots such as these enhance the appearance of my garden is an understatement.  Buck tells me that organic matters.  He is so right.  But the manner in which that organic gets delivered matters too.  This means the fencing and the gates to the vegetable garden matter, in the visual scheme of things.  This means that a gardener with a very small property needs to choose those few ornamental trees which delight them the most.  Ornament is so much about the result of the process of choosing.


This is my driveway.  I pull up here at the end of every day.  What I see first when I get home-ornamental.  My idea of ornamental-mine and Buck’s, that is.  Our idea of ornamental-that what makes our house and garden truly ours.