Part 2: The Landscape To Go With

landscape drawingMy last post dealt in detail with the process of relocating a driveway for my clients. It was a huge investment both in resources and time-from early spring until late summer. Good for me that my clients are incredibly patient people. The property features lots of trees of considerable age. There was no interest on anyone’s part to change that. The landscape would be concentrated near the house and new drive court. The open area once occupied by the old driveway would be a sweeping arc of grass similar in shape to the arc of the driveway – but larger.  That grass arc would be punctuated by a few strategically placed specimen trees. Those new trees would have plenty of space to grow to their mature size.

The drive court is of considerable size too. The house is a long way from the road. Though the climb up is at a much easier angle than before, it is still a climb. So a drive court that could accommodate visitors coming and going was of paramount importance to my clients. On the plus side, it makes an admirable makeshift basketball court, and it is easy to park out of the way of the garage doors. The landscape embracing the drive court circumscribes it in a large radius, the size of which was dictated by a pair of retaining walls installed in tandem with the driveway. I can safely say that the only flat space on this property exists inside the walls of the house. All other flat and navigable space had to be created.

I was interested that the landscape have a strong, simple, and largely evergreen accompaniment. The formal nature of it accomplishes two things.  It is in striking contrast to the natural landscape which surrounds it. And it would be fairly simple to maintain. Blocks of buxus “Green Gem” in alternating sizes would need a routine and accurately timed source of water, and a yearly pruning.  Planting these 9′ by 9′ square blocks in an arc created plenty of suspense for those of us who installed it. There was a lot of site work determining just the right plant placement. It has unexpectedly proved to be the ideal nesting spot for a turkey. Green Gem is very hardy in my zone, and it tolerates very cold and windy winters. On the top of the hill, hale and hardy was an important criteria for plant selection.

At the same time, project manager and driveway builder Ralph Plummer, owner and operator of GP Enterprises, was hard at work doing what he loves the best.  The placement and planting of large specimen trees. If you need big trees, there is no better source. I feel sure that there are countless landscape contractors in my area who use his services. He has the resources, equipment, and experience to place large material in the landscape.  As so many of the existing trees were of considerable size, large trees were called for. Though the London Planes he planted for me on this project were 25′-30′ tall, they are still dwarfed by the older trees existing on the property. London Planes are one of the largest shade trees native to North America, and these three will have plenty of room to grow. There is a thought to the future too. Trees, like any other living thing, have a life span. They would be the beginning of the next generation.

A Norway spruce of comparable size was planted in addition to the plane trees. The large lawn area would have all the dressing up it would need. Watering new trees in a lawn area is not so simple. Irrigation meant to water a lawn does not provide the deep soaking required by large trees of recent transplant. A drip irrigation zone for the sole purpose of keeping these new trees adequately watered was installed.  The lawn irrigation zones do not overlap and water the trees. This takes careful planning and installation-just the kind of thing for which Ian Edmunds Irrigation is well known.

Of course I was imagining what the property would look like with grass. But we were a good ways away from that moment, at this moment.

The big trees did provide some privacy to the house on the hill. I took this picture from my car, driving by.

The blocks of boxwood feature Venus dogwoods. Those trees will provide better and better leafy contrast and size to the boxwood as they grow. They like a fair amount of sun, and are hardier than either of their primary parent trees – the Kousa dogwood, and the pacific coast species cornus nuttallii. When happy, they will put on a foot of growth per year.

retaining wall backfilledThe retaining wall created a substantial planting space on the house side of the driveway. We were happy for the good soil and easy planting conditions.  Per the plan, the house side of the drive court repeated the boxwood and dogwood pattern of the opposing side, but added several other elements. A columnar spruce, picea cupressina, will grow every bit of 25 feet tall, with a mature width of but 6 feet.  It will give the chimney a run for its money. This is a large house without so much available planting space. A strong vertical plant will help the landscape keep up.

That spruce is surrounded with a mass planting of the dwarf red barberry. That dark wine red color is very friendly to the color of the brick on the house.

This small area between the front porch and the person door in to the garage was a high visibility spot that lacked any appealing features.

Once it was determined that the only traffic to this door was from the driveway, the new landscape was installed accordingly. The window in this picture is one of the few that look out on to the landscape. That view out is better now.

It was always intended that the retaining walls installed in support of the landscape would be softened by a double row of Limelight hydrangeas. The white flowers on the mature shrubs would provide a stunning backdrop to the boxwood on the upper level drive court. A change of level provides great interest to any landscape, large or small. The fact that they will describe the entire upper arc of landscape means they will read strongly from the road. All of the big trees had generously sized edger strip installed around them. No need for a mower to brush up against them, or a lawn trimming tool to damage the bark. Of just as much visual importance here is the shape and sweep of the grass to come.

By the time that we were able to complete the front yard landscape with plantings at the road, it was very late in the year. A group of white pines that my clients had planted on their property had spent the summer heeled in to protect them.  They were moved to a pair of large beds at the driveway entrance off the street. A number of additional white pines were added to the original group, and all of the trees were under planted with the spreading juniper, “Calgary Carpet”. I am not a huge fan of junipers, but this one has a beautiful horizontal habit, and a lovely sheen to the branches. Culturally, they would be a perfect companion to the white pines.

It was December when we finally got to mulching all of the plantings.  It was the least we could do, given that a rainy late fall meant the grass would have to wait until the spring.

A pair of pots were selected for the front door, and arrangements for the holiday and winter season were installed.

Early this April we were able to sod all of those bare dirt areas. What a relief.

A few months later, the sod has knitted and rooted in. There is no sign of all of the work that went on most of the previous year. All of the large trees seem remarkably good, considering they were transplanted less than a year ago.

The curving beds of Limelight hydrangeas will be blooming soon.

new landscapeThe landscape near the house is thriving.

The entrance beds are taking hold. All of the white pines survived their first winter in this spot with little damage. As for the tire tracks on the grass, I stand by the design of how the drive meets the road. I am sure the damage is from the latest set of trucks and equipment.

Under construction now, the back yard. What you see here is a temporary stone access road. More on this later.

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.

Some Thoughts On Places and Spaces

What are we looking at here? Lacking any recognizable objects or context, it is tough to tell. As this is not a quiz, I will identify it. A 10 foot tall concrete block wall behind Detroit Garden Works, covered with the skeletal branches of Boston Ivy, has a hat of windswept snow. Behind and above it is a typically and uniformly gray Michigan winter sky. This is a verbal explanation. But the story told by the photo is not about what it is, or where it might be. It is about how colors, shapes, textures and volumes compare, contrast and relate to one another. The color of the sky is so uniform that it appears flat. The snow roll looks volumetric and sculptural, courtesy of a variety of colors in tones of gray and white. The fanciful story is how that substantial shape of gray space is weighty as there is so much of it, and in the process of bearing down on the wall, it is squeezing a textured and frozen bead of snow over the leading edge of that wall. Another rhythmic interpretation might be that the dark textured shape is rising to meet the light shape, and what oozes out once the two shapes meet appears to have depth and volume. Freed from a discussion of what we are looking at means there is an opportunity to see relationships in a composition on an abstract level. What role does seeing abstract shapes have to do with landscape design? Great landscape design begins with the bones.  And the bare bones can readily and most easily seen in the winter. Looking at a landscape critically in the summer season is difficult. It is easy to get distracted by the flowers, weeds, leaves, scents, sounds, the neighbor mowing his lawn, and all of what else goes on outdoors in the summer.      The winter is very quiet. I am a solitary visitor to my garden. I am not distracted by weeding, watering, dead heading, smelling the roses, serving dinner or working out issues from my client’s gardens. My mind can be as blank as the winter sky, should I tune in to the landscape around me, and let it speak. The winter season is the perfect time to be receptive to the landscape speaking back. It is a time to rest, reflect, reminisce, and reconsider. It is a time when there is enough time to think. It is also a time to take advantage of how winter weather recasts a landscape in a simple and abstract way. The above photograph is nature’s snowy rendering of my fountain garden. All of the textural details of the landscape have disappeared. The snow has recreated the flat land in this garden in an intriguing and sculptural way. What will I conclude from what I see? That large undulating space that ramps up at the fountain’s edge that occupies most of this garden place is intriguing. Actually grading the ground around my fountain in this way would be difficult and certainly contrived. But I certainly could test that theory on a small scale in the spring. Strongly sculpted soil would not necessarily be compatible with the other landscape elements already existing. There is no harm in passing by what a snowstorm suggests. However, it is striking that there is no landscape element in the foreground framing or defining that view out. The bottom edge of this two dimensional photographic rendering of my landscape has nothing to say. I see that now. What would it be like to look through the branches of some trees to the fountain? Large tree branches in the immediate foreground, and the background tree branches that look smaller as they are a distance away, would provide a visual description of the depth from near to far. A landscape design that creates visual depth from a view can be a very successful landscape indeed. The winter is making me rethink this portion of my landscape.

The winter reduces a landscape to its simplest iteration.  All that remains are the big gestures. A heavy snow amplifies those bones and makes obvious the relationships between the occupied places, and the empty spaces. This photograph after a heavy snow storm at the shop is a landscape of a different sort. How we arrange garden ornament is suggestive of the possibilities to gardeners who shop our place.

The place occupied by a pergola in this landscape is both a place to be, and a place to see. What permits a clear description of the place is the empty spaces all around it. The snow strongly describes that emptiness. There is a balance between that richly layered structure, and its minimal environment. That will change some, when the climbing roses grow. But their footprint on the ground plane will be vastly less complex than the expanse of roses up towards the roof. In the summer, that ground plane will include grass, gravel, limestone stepping stones, and a fountain surround. In the winter, all of the detail washes away, leaving only an abstract description of a strongly uniformly flat plane. That plane is a place for that pergola to be.

This drone photograph is courtesy of the Sterling Development Co. This bird’s eye view reveals the relationships forged between densely populated places, and empty spaces. I will confess that I was pleased to see this photograph. The drawing of this landscape is quite similar to this photograph. I was happy to see that the plain spaces-the roof of the house, the grass and the terrace – feature the pergola and the property border landscape. There is a balance struck between places and spaces. There is a tension created by that contrast that is interesting and satisfying. To my mind, anyway. I am a designer with a certain point of view.  You may have other ideas.

A wet, windy and heavy snow storm describes a window captured all around by a galvanized metal hat, a window box below, and a pair of shutters on each side. This stripped down winter version of the landscape scene describes the window in a way that challenges and informs my decisions about how to plant those boxes.

Years ago I planted some scotch pines on standard in giant casks Rob bought in Belgium. This winter version of that planting is a study in scale and proportion. The contrast of empty and active spaces. The heavy snow on the boxwood and scotch pine, and the windswept snow coating the north side of this cask made me realize that our winter weather distills the relationships between places and spaces in a way I never could. The winter season can be observed, and much can be learned from it.

The snow hat on this finial, and the simple heft of the column supporting it are all the more beautiful for the snow covered branches surrounding them.

The snow is not always a blanket that obliterates every detail. Some times it describes the most ethereal of gestures.

If you are a designer for yourself or others, I would take advantage of the what the winter season has to offer.Truth be told, it is not an off season.

Do Not Go Gently

No gardener in my zone goes gently into that night we know as winter. Should you live in Georgia or Tahiti, I imagine the garden goes on year round. I am sure come mid February, I will be longing for another place to be similar to the aforementioned. Those of us in northern zones dread the inevitable. The weather goes cold. Cold enough that every deciduous plant sheds its leaves. Cold enough to deeply freeze the ground and frost it with snow. With the cold comes brief gray days, and long dark nights.. The cold and the dark has that aura of endlessness about it. It is a tunnel that takes months from which to emerge. The not gardening season has arrived.

A mild December for us followed a very cold November. This means our first taste of winter is about the fog. The 40 and 50 degree daily temperatures hovering over frozen ground made for one beautifully foggy day after another. Not to mention very friendly conditions for installing winter container arrangements and lighting. The installation of pots and lighting at home come last. I was pleased that none of us were working there in 20 degree weather. The evergreens have taken on that olive/bronze winter color, as has the grass. Grass? It is a broadleaf evergreen in my winter garden.

That warmer foggy weather made it so easy to take picture after picture. It also endowed all of my pictures with a color saturation that parallels my visual experience. What you see is what I saw. If you live in my neighborhood, I am sure you see me out there touring the garden routinely. Spring, summer, and fall. The winter tours go on until the snow that is deeper than my boots are tall. The foggy early winter weather has been unexpected, and exceptionally beautiful.

The mature flower heads of the limelight hydrangeas are spectacular right now. Funny that I have never thought that hydrangeas were worthy to plant for their winter interest, but interesting they are right now. The color and texture is a standout. The flowers will persist well into March. The color of the early winter hydrangea flowers is a version of cinnamon that is repeated in the the flame willow, and the obverse of the magnolia leaves. The pot pictured above is English made concrete in the classical Italian style. This weatherproof terra cotta wil endure the winter.  All of that burnt orange color contrasts and resonates with the winter color on the boxwood. This is an unusual version of early winter that is worth savoring.

The garland over my door and porch windows will stay in place the entire winter. It will last as long as need be. It has a wintry, as opposed to holiday look.

I do have a cut evergreen tree in the pot in my side yard. My crew sinks the trunk into the soil. The tree is stabilized with concrete wire guy wires attached to four pieces of steel rebar sunk into the pot. The tree is loaded with LED lights which will light up this side garden all winter long. The arborvitae in the foreground, the boxwood and the grass provide green to this scene all winter long. The bare branches of the Princeton Gold maples are sculptural-especially in this New Year fog. The brick approach, the gate, the steel edger strip, the chair and the pot are all good examples of how objects stirred into a garden mix can create a little magic, no matter the season.

This lighted tree was a celebration indeed from before Christmas and through New Year’s. But it will keep on singing throughout the winter. Yes, I keep the lights on. I enjoy them as much during the day as I do at night. That subtle twinkle helps to stave off the gray. The daytime winter side garden view is a much muted and moody version of the summer. It seems appropriate to that season when the garden goes dormant. Once winter approaches, I am so pleased to have lots of evergreens.

I did spray all of my boxwood late this fall with VaporGard. It is an all natural product fashioned from pine resin that coats every leaf with a resinous wax. Properly applied, it stays in place all winter long.  Broad leaved evergreens can suffer in a winter that is exceptionally cold and windy. Their thin broad leaves transpire with no opportunity to take up water from the roots. They can be severely damaged over the course of a bad winter. This coating helps prevent undue evaporation from the leaves. Juicy leaves are good looking and healthy leaves over the dormant season. Of course I watered my evergreens until very late in the season. That waxy coating is much better looking and more effective than burlap.

My garden is an at home real time version of nature. I am sure there are other places where the beauty of nature is more spectacular and showy, but this suits me just fine.

The view in from the street

The view out

The view from above

The warm temperatures have meant I have been able to tour after dark. Evening in the summer garden is a great pleasure. But an after dark experience of the winter garden is a once in a while experience. The seasonal lighting makes it easier to navigate in the dark.

A new dusting of snow creates beautiful shadows.

This container lights the stairs from the deck down into to the back yard at night. Of course I would want it to look good during the day. Those tall twigs are Japanese fan willow. The short brushy twigs? alder.

I can see my way at night going up and down. Milo is on the upper and I am on the lower. Such is our evening outing. He is on the elderly side now, so some of my tours he waits out. I can hear him barking for me, no matter where I am in the yard.

The lighted tree in the side garden tells a different tale every hour of the day and night. At dusk it begins to glow.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night” in 1947. Pictured above is my garden sculpture version of that poem.

lighted pots in the front yard after dark

night light

the front door after dark

Eventually I ended up inside the front porch.

Welcome to my house, winter.