A Modern Landscape

I am sure every city in every state in this nation has those larger than life, extraordinarily talented people who produced design that endures.  My city has many examples of residences conceived and built by Harold Turner. This master builder, responsible for the construction of many buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, went on to build a number of residences in my city whose beauty still shines so many decades later.  I am not an architectural historian, nor am I well versed in the life of Harold Turner, but I knew my client had purchased a home of architectural and historical significance.  My part of this-study that building, the grades, the views,  the spaces-and make a move in concert.            

The living room of the house faces the rear of the property.  Floor to ceiling windows ask for the outside to work seamlessly with the inside, and provide year round interesting views. A wide open L shape, each wing of which is some 30 feet by 14 feet,  describes on the ground plane a pair intersecting glass walls.  Terraces at either ends of the wings suggests a landscape which permits leisurely travel from one end to the other. 

The strict geometry of this rear profile of this Turner house filled my head with curves.  How so?  The glass prow is so strong, why would I interpret or dilute that gesture?  Repeating the geometry he established for the house-what need would there be?  It seemed to me that a simple but sculptural landscape that made much of the view the design of the house made possible was in order.  

This landscape plane was entirely grass when I first came to visit. A default design.  This space had no need of a mower-it had need of a landscape of interest that would look good in any given season.  The journey from the library side of this house, to the master bedroom side of this house-it seemed to me that a path would figure large in the landscape design. The stone retaining wall casually stacked and irregular in shape seemed out of keeping with the palette of materials established by the house.  An initial hedge of Green Velvet boxwood screens that stone from view, and encloses the space.   

Decomposed granite is a favorite material of mine.  I mulch plants, I build driveways, I compose entire landscapes around that material that brings the parks in Paris to mind.  A walkway all about generous curves seemed a good companion for this house. My client does like to entertain; the wide walk makes for places for guests to visit, and good circulation.  The granite is a quietly versatile material that echoes the surface of the existing concrete aggregate.  Used in conjunction with steel or aluminum edging, it can cleanly outline interesting shapes.

There is always the danger that a small space will become a corridor to somewhere else-a visual racetrack, if you will.  Planting another series of boxwood, set perpendicular to the house and boxwood hedge, will slow down the traffic.  Unlike the boxwood in the hedge, these plants are placed in the bed, and in the gravel individually.  Individually placed plants read as individual sculptural elements.   

Seven sets of three plants each are placed such that the gravel walk space opens and closes.  Pachysandra fills the empty spaces in the beds; when grown in, their mass will reinforce the pattern of the walk.     

There will be decisions to be made about the pruning.  The hedge could be boxed-the individual boxwoods pruned as spheres. Or vice versa.  The boxwoods set in gravel could alternately be pruned as squares and spheres.  The distinction that is drawn between the inidivdual plants and the hedging plants will be an important part of how the landscape reads visually.  We will see what direction my client is inclined to take.  Beyond this decision, the maintenance will be minimal. 


  1. Glancingly relevant….

    I just found your website, and over the past 2 days, I’ve read nearly the whole thing. I love your designs–even though I prefer something a bit different, there’s still tons and tons to take away from what you do!

    What’s got me puzzled, though, is lighting, particularly path lighting. If your clients live in a place that’s as dark as the belly of a cat without artificial lights, how do you handle this? I love that you can hardly SEE any landscape lights in your “day” shots…but how do you find the house and get comfortably to the front door at night? I’d love to see some way of handling footpath lighting that doesn’t involve “runway lights,” even runway lights at a good space from one another, and without trees directly over the path, I don’t see how to do this!

    If you would post on that, I’d be eternally grateful.

  2. Deborah,
    Stunning! Every bit as inventive and unique as the structure it surrounds.

    And the low maintenance? You never cease to amaze and inspire us!

  3. Thanks so much!!! I’m really looking forward to it.

    BTW, you’ve really helped solidify my plans for the 107′(!!!) front of my house that has precious little glazing on the street side. And I had a three-tiered bed that I couldn’t figure out what to do with, and you have the perfect solution here. And I even got the guts to go for the informal mixed allee (can it be called that if it’s just on one side?) planted amidst the forsythia that I’ve wanted. I love the sense of peace in so many of your designs–and how very sensible they are. I need to keep my own designs within the bounds of reality and not imagine a garden in a Perfect World (in which I have no job, no family, and no enormous amounts of other obligations) but a lush, beautiful landscape I can design, plant, and keep up with in the real world!

    I also love the idea of informal formality–that’s exactly what I was looking for in tone, though somewhat more informal than most of your work (then again, I’ve probably got a tenth the money of most of your clients, and no one would mistake my house for a Grand Estate.)

    So much is percolating through my mind right now! I will have sooo many uses for the 30 or so boxwood cuttings currently rooting in my basement. It may take a decade for them to grow up reasonably, but I’m a patient woman. 🙂

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Mimi, good design has nothing to do with money. My clients are from many walks of life. What they share is a love of landscape. Good luck with your garden! Deborah

  4. I agree–and disagree. Many hideous designs have been executed with vast amounts of money. And I have many neighbors who have beautiful gardens who probably spent very little.

    But are many, many lovely designs that I can’t do with the amount of money at my disposal. I have to be more patient, more careful, and more lucky with plants, but the big thing is hardscaping–there’s no getting around that expense.

    You can have good design when money is doing the dictating, but you can’t have *many* designs. Even your most modest of installations that I’ve seen here are quite out of our price range at the moment. The most I’ve ever paid for a boxwood is $20, and that was three 5.5-6′ tall American boxwoods that were lightly damaged by being put too close together on the lot. The most I’ve ever paid for any plant is $60 for a 6′ Picea pugnens ‘Iseli fastigate’ in superb condition.

    If I had almost no money at all, I could actually eventually get a nice design. I have neighbors whose plants need dividing, and I could swap some of my own. I could get free bricks and/or broken concrete via Craigslist for my hardscaping. (I’d still have to buy sand for sure, and gravel road base would be a good idea.) I could get other plants via Freecycle. I could grow most of my perennials and annuals from seed and propagate bushes I wanted. I could get free mulch from the county and haul it myself.

    Some of these things, I am doing. Others, I have enough money that I don’t have to. But there will be no elegant steel edging in my future, nor any major regrading anywhere. No sunken gardens, though I adore them. No custom fountains that I don’t build myself. Not for many years to come.

    I have a gorgeous lot that needs tons of work, and I also have bathrooms inside that need renovation and a kitchen with cabinet doors that are literally falling off. (One hit me on the head on my birthday last year. Happy 30th!) Fortunately, huge improvements on the yard can be made via sweat equity alone at this point, and this garden was once very, very well-tended, though little remains of that now. I started with a lot that even in its state of advanced neglect makes people exclaim over its beauty, over and over again. I have plants to divide and move and others to trade. I have a certain amount of money for improvements every month, and sometimes they go to plants and sometimes to plumbing. I’ll get there–eventually.

    This year, it’s the front of the house, which has cost me $700 so far (stepping stones, high-quality top soil, containers and a garden clock, and shrubs) and will probably top out around $3000 before I’m complete. That’s not a lot of money for over 1,100 square feet of bed, plus a walkway, irrigation (soaker hoses on an automatic sprinkler system), landscape lighting, 35+ shrubs and trees, a small patio, and two Adirondack chairs (in bright teal). But it’s a lot of money for us right now. I’ll probably spend another $500 or so on the veggie garden. Compost is expensive.

    One bite at a time is what I’m doing right now. One step at a time. Next year, it will be the driveway beds and the quietly Japanese-influenced children’s water garden. I’ll probably not be finished at such a rate for 15 years, but that’s fine. I’m at the point in my life where I have time but not money. If I have money but not time eventually, I’ll use that!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Mimi, you have time on your side-you are very young. When I was your age, I had less to spend than you, but I had some beautiful gardens. I had the better part of a half acre in wildflowers and shade perennials, hundreds of peonies grown from scraps-when I sold my five acres, I had 22,000 daffodils in my meadow-all purchased over a period of 15 years at the 5 cent sales at local nurseries in November. I learned lots from growing seeds, taking cuttings, nurturing scraps and gifts from neighbors over the years. My bet is that you will not be done in 15 years-you will just be hitting your stride. Deborah

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