Archives for April 2013

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Transitions

stone-stairs.jpgTransitions broadly refer to change.  A change in status, as in child to teenager.  as in working person to retiree.  As in winter into spring.  The moment in the garden which is neither winter nor spring, neither summer nor fall, neither fall nor winter-these are transitory periods.  Change of any kind implies challenge and uncertainty.  As a designer, I am routinely asked to address the change from one level to another.  If you have ever climbed a steep set of stairs, you know how much effort is involved to make the transition from one level to another.

stone-stairs.jpgA beginning college course in calculus is just that-a beginning.  Advancing from one level of proficiency to the next is greatly helped by a friendly transition process.  The effort it takes to move to the next level-considerable.  Steps in the landscape were invented to make that transitory experience as easy and as interesting as possible.  When I am in New York, and zooming up an elevator, I wish for a transition from the first floor to the 28th floor with some grace and style.

bluestone-stairs.jpgSometimes long flights of steps from one level to another  are unavoidable.  I try to make that trip as visually interesting as possible.  This makes the transition from one level to another an experience-not a chore.

transition.jpgThe transition from the public landscape to the private and personal landscape can be brief and substantial-as in a wall.  A hedge.  A gate.

slope.jpgA subtle transition in grade can be dealt with in a number of ways.  Short flights of steps endow a long and gently ramped soil, with a little lively punctuation.

The walk to the front porch is traveled by good friends, family, and UPS.  The front porch-a formal transitional space that gives friends, family, and delivery people a moment to collect themselves.  A little time to compose themselves.  A little time to shed the cares of the day, and focus on the moment.  I like big wide and ample  porches.

Any transition from one level to another asks for an inventive solution.  An invitation to move from one place to another-both physically and emotionally. The time it takes to make a change from one place to another-transitions in the landscape need to be big and generous.  Transit implies a movement from one space to another.  That transit space needs as much patience as any other space in the landscape.

A steep slope  is not so friendly to people.  Some slopes can be addressed with steps.  Some slopes can be addressed with soil graded into tiers, and grassed. Any transition in the landscape needs to be addressed thoughtfully.   Imagine yourself at that transitional moment.  Design with that moment in mind.

I am keen to read what other members of the roundtable have to say about transitions-please join in!

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

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

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Jenny Peterson : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin, TX



The Crocus

budded-crocus.jpgI’ve been told that our spring season is lagging behind the norm a good 3 weeks.  Every gardener I talk to is sick and tired of the winter that will not let go.  I was dressed to the nines today-meaning my winter coat, hat, and gloves.  Last year, at this time, we were 4 weeks ahead of the norm.  Who knew April 29th the overnight temperature would be 24 degrees.  What conclusion can be drawn from the fact that April 21 this year is 7 weeks behind April 21 of last year?  In my opinion drawing a conclusion does not change the facts.  But at least my crocus made an appearance

The lengthy and late April freeze last year was dramatically destructive.  The magnolias failed to bloom. The crabapples-no one heard a peep out of them. The flowers of apples, cherries and pears froze, and dropped.   Disastrously late frosts dealt a killing blow to gardens, and fruit farmers. 2012-the spring that wasn’t.  But those frosts came after a long hot spell.  My crocus came up, and promptly passed out and melted in the heat.

crocus.jpgLast year’s spring disaster has had me on edge.  I have been watching the April weather as if I had nothing else to do.  Once my crocus appeared, I was sure the spring would be long, temperate, and rewarding.  Why so?  Crocus emerge from the ground early.  Though they look delicate, they are tough.  They emerge at that time when the transition from winter to spring is a big fluid situation.  They thrive on the conflict-or so I thought.

crocus-Pickwick.jpgThe hybrid crocus known as Pickwick is as beautiful as it is vigorous.  Crocus bulbs are small; you could hold 50 in one hand, in the fall.  Those fifty bulbs can light up an early spring garden.  A little package that contains a great gift-the small flowering spring bulbs.  Our spring has been very very cold and equally as gray.  It seems like I waited forever for a mild and sunny day to come along.

A great garden is all about an experience. That day when the crocus are open wide is a really good day.

purple-crocus.jpgThis cluster of crocus predates  my ownership of my property.  In a good year, I will have them a week.  In a bad year, not at all.

April-snow.jpgTwo nights ago-we had night temperatures right around 28 degrees.  And snow.  What could I do about it?  Nothing.

below-freezing.jpgEvery beautiful moment in the garden is just that-a moment.  My crocus this year-I had one half hour of one day to enjoy them.  Would I give up on the crocus?  Absolutely not.  That one moment of great beauty makes for a memory that will stay with me.  Was I disappointed?  terribly so.

At A Glance: Budded

black-hellebore-budding.jpgblack hellebore


linden-branches-budding.jpglinden branches


a pear tree

lilac-budding.jpgpalibin lilac


magnolia-stellata.jpgmagnolia stellata


roses-budding.jpgCarefree Beauty rose



magnolia-bud.jpgmagnolia stellata




B Is For Boxwood

boxwood-spheres.jpgRegular readers of my essays know I have a big love for boxwood.  This fairly small and very dense growing evergreen shrub is as versatile as any plant it has been my pleasure to plant.  It is tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions, and it is quite shade tolerant. Its natural growth is charmingly shaggy.  It is more than tolerant of pruning-that is, pruning into shapes.  Long hedges.  Curving and scrolling hedges.  Spheres, squares, rectangles, pyramids trapezoids and triangles-boxwood tolerates this too.  Boxwood hardy in my zone is also hardy in pots-provided they get proper water and drainage.  Boxwood is just about the most obliging plant material on the planet-for those gardeners that are as interested in design as they are in plants.

boxwood-topiary-spheres.jpgBoxwood flowers are tiny, and anything but showy.  The leaves are quite small and unprepossessing.  The texture the mass of leaves make-interesting and lively enough.  Not massive and sculptural, like the leaves of ligularia,  petasites, gunnera, rodgersia or alocasia.  Quietly textured.  Where boxwood shines has to do with volume, mass, and shape.  A hedge of boxwood is satisfyingly regular and pleasing-no matter whether the hedge is natural and shaggy, or closely cropped. A mass of multiple boxwood plants can create shapes of great visual interest.  That mass can be pruned flat-like a sheetcake.  That mass could be pruned on an angle, or in undulating waves.  That mass could narrow at one end, and wide at the other.  Boxwood will oblige-whether the landscape design is crispy contemporary, or unabashedly traditional.

boxwood-spheres.jpg Boxwood grown over a period of time can be shaped into specimen plants-the hallmark of which is the evidence of the pruning hand of a gardener. Pruned boxwood in traditional forms and shapes dates back centuries.  Pruned boxwood with a decidedly modern shape-equally as compelling.  Why am I so interested in the shapes, the mass, the volume and the texture of boxwood?  I am as interested in design as I am interested in plants.

boxwood-on-standard.jpgA completely natural and God given landscape-that would be the wild and untouched places in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The climax forests. The primeval forests.  The roadside weed colonies.  What grows out of the tarmac, or next to the railroad tracks.  An accident of nature can be the most thrillingly beautiful sight imaginable.  Part of why people travel is to experience the natural world-untouched by people- in places all over the earth.  An undisturbed stand of birch, a field full of Queen Anne’s Lace, a bog ablaze with marsh marigolds in the spring-all gardening people love these places.

hardy-boxwood.jpgThat said, I am at heart, a designer.  I favor landscapes that make a statement from the heart, the head, and the hand.  People can be heavy handed, but they can also be kind, patient, observing, caring, daring, brilliant, and nurturing.  I am interested in the choices gardeners make.  I am also very interested in the choices designers make.  Choices gardeners make provide for astonishingly different outcomes.  Designed landscape spaces are structured.  They may be structured around use, and traffic.  They may be structured with beauty in mind.  They may be structured for a particular season, a favored color, a sense of visual balance, for mystery, for fun, for meditation.  They may be structured around a very personal and particular point of view.

triple-ball-boxwood-topiary.jpgBeautifully structured landscapes transform an idea or thought into a picture.  I would explain this idea in this way.  Many people could not draw a portrait, but every person is able to recognize the face of an acquaintance or friend.  Many people recognize the faces of people they have not seen for years, or people they only know slightly.  Visual recognition is a very powerful human attribute.  We all have it.   Designers appeal to visual recognition.  The delight that comes from visual recognition-extraordinary.  Design that manages to engage all of the senses is great design.

boxwood-topiary.jpgWe had a number of boxwood topiaries delivered a few days ago, from a grower on the West Coast.  We do not order plants over the phone, sight unseen, via an availability list.  Rob flies out there every winter.  He walks the fields.  He chooses plants that he feels beautifully represents his point of view, as a designer.  He discusses the pruning, the care.  His buying-incredibly personal.

double-trunked-boxwood-topiary.jpgAny great design bears the mark and hand of a client, empowered by the hand of a skilled designer.   I will say that the design of my landscapes is primarily about a relationship, forged.  A passionate client, and a passionate designer makes for landscapes of note.  I feel very confident saying that great landscape design springs from a relationship marked by mutual passion and respect.  I have a great respect for the boxwood topiaries that Rob chose to buy.  I feel completely confident that should I recommend to client that they invest in an old plant with a history, they will not be disappointed.  There is a provenance in which to trust.

boxwood-spheres.jpgThe intense rain this afternoon-so great for these newly relocated plants.  The new growth is glowing.  My clients who asked that I draw the locations for 100 boxwood in pots in his landscape-this post is dedicated to them.

Iseli-style-boxwood-topiary.jpgThis boxwood topiary-astonishing in its age and size.   Rob tells me it reminded him of Thomas Church.  I can see why he fell for it.  There is the sure evidence of a patient, committed, and loving hand.  We make extraordinary plants like this one available to gardeners.  But more than that, we design.