Inspired by Materials

2007 pre-installation Balames (6)
Any and all materials from the earth, or made by some gifted person with in genuity can inspire a garden.  Some landscape materials are regionally available, or from a specific time period, or architectural style; this only makes sense. Transporting enough stone to build a wall or a house from Louisiana to Michigan even sounds like the big deal that it is.  Some days,  after delivering and placing a stone trough, I wonder why I didn’t choose to collect stamps.  That our currency-so many pieces of paper- is backed up by who knows how many thousands of tons of gold bars makes perfect sense to me.   Good landscapes are designed by people with a wide range of obsessions.  The food growing people, the ornamental plant people, the dwarf conifer people, and the hosta aficionados share the pursuit with the stone lovers, the terra cotta collectors, the brick people, the pond people, and so on.  This 1920’s English tudor style house is notable for its limestone chimney, and copper trim gone dark with age.  The sundial mounted dead center in the peak of the main roof of the house- a sure sign of a builder/gardener with a love for materials.


Montreal is such an interesting city-I am especially fond of the old part.  This building is a marvel -stone, brick, rock, copper, terra cotta, all put together in someone’s strong idea of beautiful patterns-the sole purpose of which was to keep out the fiercely unfriendly weather.  No doubt the original windows gave out, and needed replacing. The new windows-the handiwork of someone inspired by something else other than beautiful materials. 

RougheRiver2 (18)This ironwork is actually the floor of a bridge that traverses the Rouge River to Zug Island in Detroit.  Old industrial sites are landscapes of a different sort, but they are remarkable in how the the most utilitarian structures-factories, bridges, water stations and the like- were designed and built with no small attention to an aesthetic sense.  This goes back to a time when there were no designers per se, just craftspeople whose work expressed a belief in the beauty of the materials. 

Aug 28d 359I have admired this stone house designed by Michael Willoughby for a long time.  The stone surface you see on the facade is the same stone he used on the ground, and on the interior walls.  This irregular flagstone is native to Michigan, and adapts quite well to the modern design of this house. The green glazed French pots bring that landscape green up and onto the entrance porch.  The early twentieth century French concrete faux bois boxes refer to the craftsmanship of the stone work.    

DSC_0085This branch fence functions as screening for a space that had no room for screening plants. Massive rocks set in a koi pond, and a bluestone terrace asked for a lighter more textured companion material.  It is entirely possible that this screen is handmade; I have never seen anything quite like it. 

DSC_0004Galvanized and acid washed steel is a favorite material of mine.  It has the graceful and dignified look I associate with lead. The white bloom of the finish suggests age.  

Seattle (38)

The fascia boards of this home in Washington are decorated with a border of scalloped cedar twigs and pine cone dots.  The owner uses these same materials to make baskets, fencing, trellis work, and tassel ornaments for gardens. Her own house and garden has a distinctive appeal, based on the materials fallen from the cedar trees on her property. 

materials 003
As natural in a garden as stone is wood; this oval French wine barrel will find a new life as a fountain or lotus pond for some gardener who is attracted to beautiful materials. This object could inspire and organize an entire garden space.  I could just as easily see it stuffed with grasses, or grapes wound round a trellis. It is perfectly beautiful empty, and waiting.

Aug 8 036
The stone on this home-I had never seen it before, nor since.  Though my clients insisted they needed help with design, facing this stone down with hydrangea quercifolia, the oakleaf hydrangea, seemed an inspired choice.  The form and subtle coloration of the hydrangea is a beautiful foil to the mass and strong color of the stone. Though there are details to come, they had an instinct about where to go that they trusted-this may better than half the battle.


  1. Deborah Silver says

    Your sundial is so unusual in its placement and beautiful-it’s a treasure!

  2. Lauren Balames says

    Hey I recognize that sundial!

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