Archives for February 2013


snow-day.jpgI know how deep the snow is the moment the corgi legs disappear-8 inches.  The snow we had last Friday-as you can see, just about 8 inches.  A decent show. Not at all like the overwhelming snow dumped on the northeast.  If you are digging out of 18 inches or more, you have my concern and sympathy.  However, our modest 8 inches transformed the landscape.  All the little bits and pieces close to the ground disappeared from view.  The shapes of the snow were governed by the wind.  All that could be seen-the big picture.


Much of what a good designer provides resides in their ability to focus on the big picture.  The simple picture- the important and pertinent picture.  This is not an easy or God given ability.  It takes work to develope an eye that sees like this.  I find my experience as a gardener, my long standing interest in design, and my abiding love for the natural world enables me to help clients-some clients better than others.   As for my own landscape-I am floored.  I can barely help myself.  I focus on the details that either don’t matter, or are too early in the process to matter. That said, I understand why people who love the garden enough to want good design call me.  A landscape is a big investment emotionally, and financially.  If you love it, and if you plan to put any amount of money to it, you can’t afford not to hire someone to help frame the big picture.  This recent 8 inch blanket of snow has me thinking about those issues.  The above picture has no scale or reference.  No relationship to anything else.  The twigs might be photographed against the sky.  Or the ground.  Where are we here?  A little visual vertigo is at work here.  landscapes without any point of view give me the same feeling.   The designed landscape is composed.  It has an idea.  It has stars and supporting cast members that interact.  It has a back story.  There is tension, rhythm and release.  There are places to be, places to see, and a mean by which to navigate both physically and visually.


Falling snow and wind creates shapes and spaces.  Plateaus.  Mountains-and voids.  Heavy snow creates a momentary landscape.  An utterly simple landscape.  The landscapes created by nature have plenty to say to those of us who design landscapes.  Great landscape design addresses shapes, mass, line, volume, texture, color-and use. Though natural shapes made by the snow are driven by climate, weather, ecology and topography, the design elements are the same.


The back edge of my boxwood hedge had just a few sprigs showing after the storm.  It is easy to see the shape, even though most of the detail is buried in snow.  This photograph is graphic.  Black and white.  There is no visual description of the space.  No variation in color.  No shadows.  No point of reference.


The snow that covered the base of this topiary form was just enough to describe what lies beneath it. The shadows and volumes describe a shape-and a space. There is visual interest.  How might this translate to the landscape?  A slightly sunken circle of groundcover will have much more visual impact than a circle of groundcover set at grade.  If you mean to install a circular shape, do it accurately.  Lopsided execution is irritating.  A circle of groundcover on a slope-be sure you intend to feature an ellipse.   A shape such as the snow describes here would have to be planted with a very finely textured and low growing plant, for the shape to read.


The thoughtful use of mass and texture in the landscape can create and sustain great visual excitement.  The smooth texture of the horizontal layer of snow in contrast to the interplay of snow describing the shapes of the leaves in the vertical-beautiful.  The upper mass of snow is connected to the ground level mass of snow by a vertical and highly textured shape.  This snow composition features volume.


The repetition of shapes, or the discussion of a single shape, makes a stronger and clear statement.  This urn has several layers of circles.  One layer is defined by repeating spherical shapes.  The base is round.  The snow clings to the circular rim of the urn.  Your eye understands that the urn has a rim, and an interior well.  The snow in the center sank under its own weight.  The sunken shape-a half sphere.  The wind whipped the ground snow in a wider that perfect circle around the base.  There’s a visual discussion of circles and spheres going on here that is striking.


The relationships between shapes, masses, lines, textures and space is made so clear by the snow.  I know what walls, fences and tables are.  I know what objects these words describe.  But the snow makes me see them as shapes.  I know that the partial table is near to me, and the wall is further away.  And that the electric pole is very far away.  God landscape compositions make a visual description of the space being viewed.  Though it is very hard to describe in words how a composition can be spacially rich, a snow storm can help me see it.



Color is a very important element of the landscape.  How light affects color is an equally important element.  The blue sky behind the copper willow makes that willow glow.  The blue sky relates to the blue shadows on the snow.  The out of focus blue gray fence in the center left of this picture helps the composition to work spacially, edge to edge.  Edge to edge?  This picture has 4 sides that frame the view.  There are many ways of framing a landscape view.  Trees.  A pergola.  A pair of pots.  A fence with its gate open.  Framing the view is an invitation to enter, and interact.  Where would you frame the view?  Up close?  Far away?  These are decisions that need to be made deliberately.


So many elements in the landscape have interesting surfaces.  In this case, snow reflecting the sun.  Stone, leaves, sky, flowers-every element in the landscape has a particular surface.  The relationship of one surface to another tells a story.  All the same surface-as in what was created by the snow we had-enchanting for the first three days, and thereafter monotonous and stifling.


Checking out the compositions created by our snow-engaging.


It does make me really crabby if the mailman walks across the snow in my front yard to get to the mailbox.  I actually asked him to use the sidewalk.  I am sure he thought I was nuts, but I don’t care.  Experiencing that snow exactly as nature engineered it is the best part of the winter season.  I do not disturb any snow unless I have to.  Who knows how many days it will take for the visual lessons to sink in.


If you are digging out, I am sure you are thinking about the most efficient way to get from one place to another.  Milo is pretty good at designing paths.  His snow paths have to do with how fast and efficiently he can make the left turn coming out of the front door, to a destination down the driveway.  That curve is is particular to him.  In much the same way as a landscape design is particular to a certain gardener.

Beautiful Materials


Regrettably, there are no plants in my life right now.  I think the high temperature for the day was 18 degrees, and the ground is covered in snow.  Not that I mind this-it seems so normal and ordinary.  I don’t do much in the way of plants to help my situation.  I will admit to an aversion to houseplants-plants inside any building besides a conservatory or greenhouse just seems wrong.  All of the plants at the shop are huddled together in the one room with a glass roof.  This is not an especially attractive look.  The heat is set at a very chilly 45 degrees.  The garage has a rag tag collection of boxwood topiaries we are wintering for clients, a few espaliers, and some red dracaenas I could not bear to part with. I will spare you any images of this pathetic scene.


Most of my landscape design efforts revolve around the plants.  Their mature size and stature.  What they require to grow.  The color of their leaves.  Their texture and fragrance.  Their longevity, and ease of cultivation.  Woody landscape plants require stewardship, and thoughtful maintenenace.  Perennials? Successful cultivation requires a lot of time and committment.  But there are other elements that go into a great landscape that involve materials.  Materials for walkway, driveways, and terraces.  Materials with which to make shelter.  Materials for pots and containers.  Utilitarian materials.  Materials to spring on the landscape-just for the sheer joy of it.  Keeping up with the beautiful materials that are suited for outdoor use is a time consuming job.  The best time to explore landscape materials is that time when the pressure to make a decision for a specific spot is a few months away.


Stone is a landscape material with no end of possibilities.  Sandstone chopped into regular shapes is a great material for retaining walls.  This porous stone is an ideal place for colonies of moss to develop and prosper.  Shaped and thermal finished stone is utterly civilized, and easy to navigate.  Natural stone has an irregular surface which is pleasurable to the eye.  Local stone fits in.  Vintage stone has an aura that affects every other landscape element.


Concrete is a material with no end of incarnations.  Concrete aggregate is a beautiful material fo a contemporary driveway.  Cracked concrete sidewalks grayed with age have a charm I cannot really explain.  Stamped concrete-I am not a fan.  I like concrete in the landscape that makes no bones about the fact that it is concrete, not stamped to look like something it is not. 


Wood, that material that comes from trees, is available in lots of species, surfaces, and finishes-some predictable, and some unusual.  This sidewalk was installed from ordinary pressure treated lumber, scored into brick shapes, and dyed with black aniline dye. 

Reclaimed materials can be just as exciting as new ones.  These early 20th century fireclay road bricks made a great terrace for a 1920’s English tudor style home.

Exterior rated glass tiles are a smooth and comfortable surface for a spa.

This building material was unknown to me until the moment I saw it.  What a beautiful surface it is for a contemporary home.  Most certainly this material would inspire the landscape design. 


This back porch of bluestone squares and dots features an unusual pattern installed with a common material.


This gravel terrace was finished in a thin layer of multicolored beach glass. 


A steel container with painted panels in alternating colors provides a big splash of color.

Donghia exterior fabrics

 Fabrics that can withstand the weather are of incredibly good quality now.  They resist fading and mildew.  This resin garden furniture from Gloucester would have a completely different look without all of the color provided by these fabrics.  Researching and choosing materials for the garden to come is a great way to spend some February time.

Italian Terra Cotta Pots

Italian terra cotta pots

There are few objects in the gardening world with the iconic status of a clay pot.  The phrase terra cotte can be literally translated from the Italian as “fired earth”.  Clay is a type of dense mineral soil characterized by a reluctance to drain, and a sticky texture.  Never mind the science-every gardener knows what it is to plant into heavy clay soil.  Backbreaking.  Firing clay – slowly heating it for an extended period to a very high temperature – results in physical and chemical changes that are irrevocable. Fired earth makes objects of great service, from drain and roofing tiles to garden pots.  The fired earth is porous, meaning it will both absorb and give up water.  Why is it that a plant in a clay pot will dry out in the blink of an eye, when my clay based soil holds its water forever?  I do not know the answer to this, but I do know the porous quality of terra cotta pots is friendly to the development of good strong roots.  Container grown plants thrive in clay pots.


Some of the earliest clay pots in Italy were used to store olive oil.  This shape exists to this day.   Modern clay pots are manufactured in several ways.  Machine formed terra cotta-I have lots of those ubiquitous 8″ diameter pots.  I have bought myrtle topiaries, dahlias, and lavender planted in them.  They come in an astonishing range of sizes-from bulb pans to azalea pots to long toms-love them all.  They are a symbol and a tool for growing. These pots are inexpensive-they are mass produced, and fired at a fairly low temperature.  Knock one over and it will break. A machine made terra cotta pot left outdoors over our winter will absorb water from the ground and air.  When the water in the clay freezes, it expands.  Frozen water that expands can shatter a pot.  Machine made terra cotta is fine year round for mild climates that do not routinely experience below freezing temperatures like we do.  Treasured terra cotta pots in my zone need to come in for the winter.


Hand made terra cotta pots are not so common any more.  Many of the most  beautiful are made near Impruneta,  in Italy. Different potteries have different styles, but they all have that characteristic pale orange color that originates with the clay.  Some hand made pots are thrown on a wheel.  Others are formed by pushing the clay into a rope form using methods that are centuries old.  A handmade terra cotta pot is easy to spot.  The color, texture, and form is quite unlike any machine made terra cotta.   In a garden, the color of terra cotta is as ubiquitous and as neutral a  color as green. In this sense, neutral means expected, appropriate.  I cannot think of any plant whose beauty would be compromised by a planting in a terra cotta pot.  Funny, this.  My orange purse attracts attention.  A terra cotta pot in the garden seems so natural it is almost invisible.  Terra cotta pots in the garden-a given.


Prior to the invention of grocery stores, people grew their own fruit trees in pots, and wintered them indoors, or in an orangerie.  At that time, if you want to cook with lemons, or eat oranges, a citrus tree in a terra cotta pot was the only way.  The terra cotta pot provided a viable home for a plant far away from home.  A lemon tree in an Italian terra cotta pot is a beautiful addition to a garden, no matter where you live.  Though I like containers of different style and period, terra cotta is my material of choice.  I like the history.  I like the idea that they are fashioned from dirt and fire.  I like how my plants thrive in them.


I do not mean to suggest that terra cotta pots are only made in Italy.  Far from it!  Every gardening culture produces garden pots from fired earth.  The pot pictured above-French made. We make terra cotta pots in the US.  Whichford pottery in England makes incredibly strong and serviceable terra cotta pots.


Terra cotta pots, no matter their age, period or origin, speak strongly to all that is right with a gardening life.  These containers fashioned from fired earth can provide a good home for treasured plants.  I could never stack my handmade terra cotta pots with plants growing in plastic pots, as in the above picture.  Beautifully made terra cotta pots are what I would call sculpture.  I have one antique olive jar in my terra cotta collection. I hold my breath from the time I take it outside until after it is planted.  But I think I understand what is at work here.  Terra cotta pots, even qntiques ones, are a part of every day life, not a precious object which needs reverential treatment.


This terra cotta yard in Italy is incredibly beautiful-do you not agree?  Would that my shop could look just like this. Terra cotta pots in the garden.  Casual grass.  Gravel paths.  This is a landscape that is about utility.


The majority of the pots I have at home are terra cotta, of the handmade sort.  Hand made terra cotta from Impruneta in Italy are fashioned one at a time.  They are fired at very high temperature for a very long time.  I have left them outside over my Michigan winter without damage.  But I would not recommend that anyone else do this-too many things can go wrong.  A blocked drain hole, a heavy winter rain, or falling tree limb can spell disaster.


Rob has bought all sorts of terra cotta over the years, from many different places.  They all have their distinctive style and color.  They all look pretty good to me.  My collection of terra cotta pots provides me with so much pleasure-I would not want to do without them.


These pots are very much a part of the Italian landscape-both formal and not so formal. They are equally at home in my landscape.  And on my terrace.  One vintage Italian terra cotta pot I go so far as to keep in my living room.


Terra cotta pots are weighty, and they will break.  They won’t wait for you to find a more convenient time to water the plants inside.  They are a nuisance to store.  The little ones multiply over time.  The handmade ones are expensive.  Though they are tough to clean, they look great once they have aged.  They come in light orange, medium orange, and dark orange.  All of this-fine by me.

At A Glance: A Winter Party


I so welcome a chance to do cut flower arrangements for a party in the winter.  Flowers-who would elect to do without them!  At the moment,  I am a gardener without a garden.  This means I am wringing my hands over the dormant season.  I welcome any chance to step out of the gray.  This occasion-a 70th birthday.  The clients-their viewpoint is decidedly contemporary.  This rubber vase of theirs-astonishing in scale, material, and color.


My interpretation speaks to the vase, as it should.  Lots and lots of dianthus Green Trick, and 100 stems of copper willow make something of this extraordinary vase.


The honoree of this particular birthday is a man.  He stands every inch of 6′ 6″, and has a heart many times this size.  What would I do for him?


The choice of flowers had everything to do with what might delight him.  The color choices-entirely about the environment in which they live.


My part in this is but a very small part of the celebration.  Many friends and family would attend.  The occasion, the environment, the food-the community-all of these elements would provide atmosphere for a very special and important occasion.


As for me, it was a shock and a delight to have an occasion to have flowers in sight.  Flowers in hand.  Flowers to arrange.  How I miss the flowers!  The long standing relationship with my clients-memories accompanied this work.  Garden oriented work in February-I treasure this, given this desolate part of the year.  Arranging flowers for this party, these particular people, did me a world of good.


Gardeners, florists, and farmers-none of us are so far apart.  This is my read,  on this February day.