A House On A Hill

It’s a rather quick and showy matter – to discuss container planting design, planting, and the eventual, and hopefully lush outcome. The satisfaction planting and growing them on is a pleasure of a single summer season. But landscape projects can consume months of work, and the progress can be slow. Any large landscape project that involves a number of contractors requires loads of patience. I am in year two of this particular project. I will admit that the first time I drove up to the house, and looked back down the driveway, I was rattled. A large piece of land featured a house built on top of a hill in the far rear corner of the property. That hill dropped away dramatically in every direction.  Substantial portions of the land were below the grade of the adjacent roads. Knowing as I do that human interaction with the landscape depends on some flat ground on which to stand, I was discouraged. I would go so far as to say it is an alarmingly difficult site. My clients were not the least bit concerned. They were in it for the long haul. They loved the house, and they were interested in making a home for themselves-inside and out. My first visit to the property was not their first. They were already well on their way to making their presence known, cutting down dead trees and shrubs, and hauling away debris. They had planted some white pines.

The driveway was in rather poor condition, and would have to be redone.  But to my mind, the location of the drive was a bigger problem than the condition of the surface. It was not particularly functional, as it came up to the house at a very steep and awkward angle. Keeping it ice free in the winter would be necessary for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. But even in good weather, it was a nerve wracking haul going up, and a nerve wracking brake fest on the way down. The distance from the road was considerable, so adequate parking near the house was a must. The existing drive court was too shallow to permit parked vehicles and access to the garage at the same time. The drive was too narrow to permit 2 cars to pass on the drive. Lastly but not least, it did not provide a beautiful and unfolding presentation of the house on the trip up. I proposed moving the driveway altogether, to a location that was less steep. The sweeping curve would provide views of the property. And it would be wide enough for 2 cars to use the long drive at the same time.

See what I mean? A good bit of the property is covered in trees.  That wooded look was entirely appropriate, and with some pruning and care would thrive. There was very little in the way of designed landscape near the house, as the opportunities to plant were few. My clients decided they wanted to proceed with the driveway renovation, and the creation of a larger drive court at the top. The driveway contractor saw to having the plan engineered and permitted. That was not the most simple or speedy process.  The grades were extreme such that several retaining walls would need to be built to hold up that drive.

An enlarged drive court and a place to plant on the street side of it would require a third retaining wall. The amount of natural flat space all around the house was minimal.  The drive court was up there in the tree canopy.  A landscape buffer would keep a vehicle away from the drop off point. Fortunately, the soil was on the sandy side, making the earthwork fairly easy to do. Another advantage was that work was not held up by rain, and water drained off quickly. Working a site with heavy clay soil can be set back a week or better after a drenching rain. There would be a terrific amount of work to be done before there would be any talk of a landscape installation.

The actual construction was quite interesting. The new drive was completely staked out, top to bottom. Once laid out, my clients could walk it, and see how they liked it. The layout was extremely close to the drawn plan, as the permit was issued for a specific location and configuration. All the while that this work was going on, my clients were still able to use the old driveway for their comings and goings. It is easy to tell from the picture above that the slope of the new drive would be considerably less steep than the original.

Once laid out, the retaining walls that would shore up the driveway were constructed from giant blocks of ledge rock, set with the help of an excavator. It’s obvious in the above picture that that the driveway grade is considerably higher than the grade of the land where the trees in the background are planted.


This picture reveals how the house will come in to view half way up the drive. This is the welcome home, and the welcome to our home moment. It is tough to spot the old driveway off to the left, but it is still there.

Once the grade was satisfactory, truckload after truckload of gravel was delivered and dumped on the site of the new drive.

The heavy equipment up at the top of the drive signals that the last of the gravel has been laid. That gravel would be thoroughly compacted. Very shortly thereafter, the first 2 inch thick layer of asphalt was put down. The final two inches will not be installed until the landscape front and back is completed. The weight of heavy equipment can damage a drive. Once the new drive was drive able, the old drive could be removed.

A gravel base had been installed, and tamped for the drive court retaining wall. This is a great view of the level of the new drive court, set at the grade of the base of the house. The slope away from that drive court is not sustainable without some retention.

Slabs of ledge rock would be set in place one at a time to shore up the soil adjacent to the drive court, and create an 11 foot deep planting bed.

Once the wall was in place, the bed was back filled with soil. There would be room for a landscape to soften the size of the drive court.

Once the old driveway was removed, all of the open ground needed regrading. In the first picture in this post, it is easy to see that the old drive was installed on on a hill of its own.  Much of that soil under the drive was graded towards the new drive, and smoothed out. This is a very large area – thus the bulldozer doing the rough grade.

There are situations when starting over, and balancing the land forms will make all the difference in the world to the landscape outcome. I was actually thrilled to see the progress at this point. This was an enormous change, but all for the much better. The driveway contractor, Ralph Plummer, who owns and operates GP Enterprises, sent me the following statistics on the driveway installation.

– Removed 6,100 sq. ft. of asphalt.  Stripped 200 yards of top soil and re-installed it in low area along drive. Installed 400 yards of sand.-Added 500 tons of 21AA crushed stone and compacted in place. Installed 10,000 Sq. Ft. of asphalt on the first base layer. The new walls along drive took 184 tons of stone, in addition to 84 tons of existing stone that were relocated.  Whew.

Late last summer, we were ready to begin the landscape.

A Color Scheme

I like to cart watch. During annual planting season, I am interested to see what plants people choose. I try to imagine what it is they are going for, as evidenced by the plants in their carts. Light and airy? Tropically intense? Textured? Moody? Exuberant? I could spot Rob’s cart in a greenhouse chock full of of them from four aisles away. There will be herbs, perennials, annuals that look like perennials, ferns, subtle colors, a touch of peach and pale limey white or pale yellow, grassy elements, self effacing shapes and unusual micro-textures. His cart will look much like a cross between a more measured version of road side weeds, and ingredients common to Mediterranean style cooking. If this sounds complicated, consider that I have been exposed to his work, and the evolution of his work, for decades. I know it when I see it. Some people shop plants with no rhyme or reason that I can determine. I am not a fan of no rhyme or reason, so I will skip over that.  Other gardeners shop plants with color as a primary organizing element-I would be one of those. Determining a color scheme for a collection of pots is one of the season’s great pleasures. I am embarrassed to say how much time I spend going over a color scheme for my pots at home, and the plants that can represent that.   We do on occasion get a request for a very specific color palette. In this case, a special event slated for August came with a request for pink and white flowers. Making that work is more difficult than you might imagine. There are many shades of pink, ranging from peachy pinks to blush and on to rose pink and carmine. Some pinks are dirty, and others ring clear as a bell. I am thinking of that classic medium pink petunias, “Cotton Candy”. The upshot is that there are many shades of pink to choose from. Take your pick. Shades of white are common in the house paint industry, but not so common in annual flowers. Porcelana roses, common in the cut flower trade, are quite creamy. Some white zinnias are creamy. White marigolds are decidedly on the yellow side. But most white seasonal annuals, from mandevillea, snapdragons, trailing verbena, supertunia white, New Guinea impatiens, and Boston daisies, are a fairly bright white. The variety will be driven by the shapes of the leaves and the growth habit of the plants, and various shades of pink. It certainly is easy enough to vary the volume of pink and white in a given container, but to plant a series of containers that stand out individually while guided by a restricted color scheme is an intriguing challenge.

No matter whether the planting project is big or small, I furnish my crew with a photo of the pot or area in question, and a planting scheme. Those sheets go in a waterproof envelope. That is their invention. A job site is known for equal parts of dirt, water, hands and boots. Those sheets provide some order and direction. A road map, as it were. There is no discussion of the shades of pink or the volume of white.  All of the design comes ahead of the planting. Years ago I used to accompany my crew to the job, and go over all of my design decisions in real time. To the last, my crew hated that. They made it known that I needed to make a call, and sign off –  so they can do their part, unimpeded by any hand wringing on my part. They want to go and fill pots with soil, grab the sheets, assemble the plants, plant, clean up and water. Do I have any empirical evidence that suggests that my second guessing myself resulted in better design? No.

I never go to a container installation anymore. I am unwanted, and my angst about the design is a huge bore.  Just ask my crews. So now I play my cards, mark up the sheets, hand them over, and stand pat. Of course I will not know whether my pink and white scheme will be beautiful, dynamic and enchanting for quite some time. The plants need to grow. But the pictures that come back to me via multiple cell phones during the installation and at the end of the day are a clue to the future. In my favor-it is hard to go wrong with plants. Those unloved plants can shine, given some inspired companionship. Rob is able to make marigolds look fresh and beautiful, despite their stiff plant habit and ball shaped flowers.

shrubby pink mandevillea and twister pink trailing verbena

planted container

shade container

kingwood coleus, pink and rose pink polka dot plant

planting

variegated Algerian ivy topiary under planted with pink solenia begonias

This planting was beautifully executed. The ivy at the base of the topiary has been integrated in to the planting of begonias.

placing the plants

close to the finish

terrace planting

planting

At day’s end, Birdie is watering. I have a theory that plants resent and are set back by the transplanting process. I think a good shower helps to wash some of that insult away.

 

Sheared: Part Two

Anyone who chooses to look up topiary plants of distinction on their computer will find no end of articles with pictures of grand gardens featuring breathtaking topiary plants.  Many of them have been cultivated long enough to have acquired shrine status. The size and scale of many of these topiary plants is staggering, never mind the work that is involved in keeping them up. I enjoy seeing them as much as the next person. But I also have great admiration for gardeners who on a more personal scale grow on plants that require a substantial and steady commitment to the maintenance. The single ball boxwood topiaries that are pictured above began as fairly modest plants grown at a farm specializing in boxwood in the Pacific Northwest. My memory is of a head diameter of perhaps 10 or 12 inches. The trunk would have been in the neighborhood of a quarter to a one half inch caliper. When these topiaries arrived, their trunks were secured to bamboo stakes virtually identical in size to the trunk, and as tall as the the stem and head. This is smart staking. The head of a topiary is the most vulnerable to catching the wind, and snapping off. Young topiaries are fragile. If you expect to grow them on, protect every part of them, bottom to the very top. I can’t say exactly how long we wintered these trees for my client, but it may have been 8 years or so.  They summered in pots, and wintered in our unheated garage space. We were taking no chances with winter weather. Did we do the yearly pruning?  No. We farmed that job out to an expert.

These topiary starts of lemon cypress- cupressus macrocarpa Goldcrest “Wilma” will top out at 3 feet or so. Outdoors, in a zone 7 or warmer, Goldcrest can grow to 16′ tall or so. The dwarf version Wilma makes a good house plants, provided they have a really sunny south facing location for at least 4 hours a day over the winter. They like cool temperatures, so wintering them over in a house kept at 72 degrees can be a tough go. Like most cypress, they appreciate evenly moist soil. If you let the rootball dry out, you have lost the plant. It is the juvenile foliage that has the best lime green color, so regular trimming will preserve that color. They appreciate a summer outdoors, but I try for a full sun morning with a little protection from the worst of the afternoon sun. Be advised that each stem you trim will probably turn brown at the cut. But once that branch starts growing again, that cut mark will fade from view. This is a quick look at the care issues with lemon cypress. Should you have the idea to grow them, look up their culture on line, and read.

No topiary in our zone is more challenging to grow than a myrtle. Myrtis communis compacta is an evergreen shrub that is especially genial and tolerant of frequent pruning. What they are not tolerant of is dry soil. During the winter, they need bright light, and even moisture. Myrtle topiaries of the scale and size pictured above requires a passionate and faithful grower. I have not seen myrtle topiaries of this size and scale very often, but I can attest that these clients lavished no end of attention on them.

Certain trees are quite tolerant of close pruning. The carpinus pictured above has been expertly trimmed by a virtuoso with shears. I am quite sure there was a lift involved. They respond enthusiastically to pruning. This sheared shape is close to the natural shape of the tree, meaning the health of the tree is not endangered. A tree is a vast subject for a topiary, but the time between prunings can be fairly long. Linden trees are equally amicable about this kind of pruning. The boxed lindens on the driveway at Detroit Garden Works are pruned every other year at most.

Limelight hydrangeas make gorgeous single ball topiary plants. The loosely spherical head in full flower is quite spectacular.  As hydrangeas are naturally very coarse growing plants, their shape is a study in contradictions. They are informally formal. Our grower trims the hydrangea standards twice a season. Once in late March or early April, and again later in May. This schedule helps to produce a strong network of branches that helps keep the flower heads aloft. Even so, we often tie up the branches with stretch tie, to make sure the framework is strong. The stake is as tall as the very top of the plant.

Italian cypress is not hardy in our zone-how I regret that. But if a client is willing to winter them over in an unheated greenhouse they can provide a dramatic focal point to a container for a number of years. This evergreen is naturally very narrow and conical, so the pruning required to keep them tight is a matter of emphasizing and more clearly defining what is already there.

This young boxwood topiary is delightfully under scaled for its under planting. The boxwood head has not been sheared, but left to its natural devices.  It gives a very traditional landscape form a much more contemporary look.

Yews make good topiary subjects, although they do not respond as well to close shearing. This double ball taxus lived for 4 years in this pot, all year round, before succumbing to a particularly cold winter. A little looser treatment produces a better looking plant. As in green through and through. Drastically sheared yews are common in the landscape, but the development of a topiary form is not a goal. It is a once a year effort to exert control over a plant that may be poorly sited. Improperly sheared yews sporting a thin skin of green, and bare branches and trunks underneath is not a good look. It also contributes to the decline and ill-health of the plant.    Junipers are rough coated evergreens, but they respond surprisingly well to pruning.  They are also happy with a long term home in a large container. They are low maintenance shrubs and trees in general, so they shrug off the shearing.

Westringia fructicosa, commonly known as Victorian rosemary, is a dwarf shrub that responds well to development as a topiary. I rarely see it offered for sale, which is unfortunate. This particular single ball topiary made a beautiful container specimen.

Culinary rosemary, or salvia rosemarinus, is a well known subject for topiary. The clippings smell delicious, and its use as an herb is legendary. This particular unsheared topiary is underplanted with fiber optic grass and strawberries.

specimen single ball rosemary on standard

coleus topiary

double ball eugenia under planted with begonias

double ball boxwood topiary under planted with curly parsley

variegated Algerian ivy topiary

unsheared double ball rosemary under planted with lettuce and pansies-perfect for a spring container planting.

From Nothing To Something

March is invariably the most desolate month of all in my garden. Everything sits in stony silence. The passing of the snow reveals a landscape sullen from months of cold. The straw colored grass is thin. Muddy dirt pools in those places where the grass succumbed. The stoic evergreens that have been unable to absorb water all winter long via their roots sport foliage that is still that wintry shade of black green. They will hide the damage wrought by desiccating winter winds until the air temperatures warm up. The trees are budded, but tightly budded. It is not time yet for the signs of spring to emerge. It is the time of the revelation of the effects of the winter season.  There are those who think the landscape and garden sleeps beneath a thick blanket of snow. Not so. The winter is actually a pitched battle for survival with winners, losers, and the compromised.

It is dry enough to walk the garden now. Everywhere, the remains of what is dead, shed and scuffed up is on display. The reveal of the landscape post the worst of the winter, come March, is a rude one. Wince-worthy. The rabbits chewed every rose right down to the ground. Of course they did. A fledgling paeonia Ostii was similarly chewed, despite being surrounded with bamboo stakes. Every wispy dried up bit of organic trash has been blown around and deposited somewhere in the yard – both high and low. . The pachysandra is laid over and down, as if it had been trampled by a lawn roller. There is a winter’s worth of street trash to pick up.

Desolation is the landscape word of this March day. It is hard to imagine that anything will ever be different. It is more difficult to imagine the garden thriving. I am a working gardener, in the most literal sense of the word. I respond to what nature provides. I am not in charge, nor am I the least bit unhappy about that roll. But March in my zone is dreary indeed.

I would not be capable of planning, orchestrating or even entirely comprehending that complex mechanism by which the winter season comes to an end. My knowledge of the process is certainly better than it was 50 years ago, but I am routinely taken by surprise. What we call the force of nature is just that. Formidable, inexplicable – magical. I know that in a month’s time, this view will have taken on an entirely different appearance than what I see now. What is skeletal now will have a more juicy and lively look.

I feel confident in saying that every gardener endures the winter as best they can. The read, and order seeds, and plan for the gardening season to come. They clean tools, look out the windows, and wait. I suspect they are as frazzled as I, forced to be an unwilling witness to the last gasp of winter. But as unpleasant as March can be, there is the sure knowledge the winter season will run out of steam, and fizzle. And then there will be signs of spring. Though we have had very moderate temperatures the past few weeks, there is a forecast for night temperatures in the twenties the next few nights. March and April are known for their tantrums. But the bigger picture calls for an end to winter. As it has been my experience that spring always arrives, sooner or later.

The first call in my yard is always adonis amurensis. It is astonishing how early this perennial emerges, grows and blooms-in one fell swoop.

It is painfully slow to multiply for me, but I would not do without it. They demand nothing in the way of care.  Shortly after blooming, they go dormant until the following late winter. I have time to watch and marvel how it emerges weeks ahead of other plants. That yellow flower beats back the late winter blues.

The snowdrops are a late winter favorite. Beloved in all of its forms and hybrids by galanthophiles and informal fans all over the globe, they breach the soil still crusty with frost, and bloom profusely. True to their name, they shrug off a late snow as if that were nothing. They transplant most readily in their green form. Once happy, they multiply and seed with abandon.  Any gardener who reads here knows I am a fan of hellebores. They are, in my opinion, the perfect perennial.  Thick glossy foliage persists in its green state until late in the winter. The flowers emerge on leafless stalks in April, and bloom for a very long time. The green remains of the flowers can persist in the garden well in to June. The current years leaves will emerge after the flowers.  With proper moisture, these 18″ tall plants grow into very large clumps. They live for decades, and do not require dividing to bloom profusely.  I leave the flower heads be, in order to encourage seedlings.

The flowering stalks emerge early from the clusters of last years leaves. They are a welcome sign that spring is on the way.

It will not be that long before the hellebores reach this height and breadth. The time will come when every gardener will be fully engaged in spring, and the memory of the March landscape will fade.

There will be plenty to enjoy indoors-pots of bulbs, and the cut stems of spring flowering perennials and flowering shrub branches while the weather outdoors is still uncomfortably cold.

As delicate as the flowers of Barnhaven primrose are, they are quite robust and hardy in Michigan gardens.

Grape hyacinths blooming in the early patchy grass make the inevitable dandelions look great.

This spring window box from years ago-full of daffodils, parsley, annual phlox, alyssum and violas-is a reminder that as always, spring will have its turn

It’s coming.