One Thing At A Time

landscape renovation

Anyone who owns a home knows that house take lots of time effort and money just to maintain the status quo.  Upgrading to a new air conditioning system, springing for a new refrigerator, or replacing a hot water heater that has leaked all over the basement is all the more unsatisfying-can you imagine hosting a dinner party so your friends can gather around to admire your new furnace?  Any time now, I will need a new roof-an expense I have been dreading, and putting off, for almost 3 years.  Even more, I dread the thought of the damage to my garden from the installation.  The thought of old asphalt shingle bits, roofing nails and broken branches littering the ground-I try not to think about it.  The cost of a roofing job complete with the proper scaffolding that would prevent damage to the garden-beyond belief. 

landscape renovation

Renovating a landscape is not any different than updating the interior of a house.  It can be just as expensive, and just as inconvenient.  The before and after detailing the change in this contemporary landscape took but moments to record.  The actual job took plenty of time. The work involved repairs to the retaining walls, the regrading of the ground, the elimination of a row of weeping birch that had been planted at no small expense, and a major trimmimg and cleanup.  Time and money-not to mention the dirt and disruption. It’s easy to understand why most gardeners are more comfortable with the one thing at a time approach. Gardeners that rip out an entire landscape and start over are few, for obvious reasons.    

 The nuisance and expense aside, there are good reasons to tackle a tired landscape one project at a time.  A plan is just that-some marks on a piece of paper.  It is a map that is not so clearly marked.  A landscape lives and breathes, in every dimension.  Trying to make a living community fit a preconcieved notion on a piece of paper-the translation can be very difficult.  A smaller project with a smaller scope gives the designer or gardener a chance to look over the initial moves, and decide if a change of plans might be in order. I call this letting the project speak back.      

My projects tend to order themselves  such that the earthwork and drainage comes first, the structures and hardscape comes second, and the planting last.  Each of these phases can happen out of order, if an existing area is being renovated.  Each phase is a layer that compliments and enriches the initial concept.  This idea- from my friend and colleague, Patrick Zaremba.  He sees his work as a layering of materials, objects and plants that work in concert-creating over time a landscape experience that is beautiful.   

landscape design

It takes a great deal of time and skill to layer a perennial garden to successfully represents different seasons, textures, heights, and bloom times.  A good landscape takes the same sort of time and effort. This pool terrace was years in the making.  The pool and pool deck is raised above the existing grade.  The existing ground dropped dramatically from the back of the house.   (I take no credit for this ingenious treatment-the pool came long before me.)  The trees were planted after the pool was installed.  The size and diameter of the trunks of these trees indicates how long ago that was.  For several years we planted fiber pots of varying sizes and shapes, trying to find a scheme that wouldwarm up, but not clutter what was already beautiful.

The furniture and pots are new this year.  They add another layer to a landscape which is old, and sound.     

landscape design

The steel pots sport large birds of paradise, and are underplanted with caladiums.  The stone bowls are planted with dwarf alocasia, and a mix of caliente geraniums.  This lush look is a strong contrast to the geometry of the furniture and pool.  The furniture is properly overscaled, as the space is large.  

solenia begonias

The plantings add a lot of color to a scheme which is primarily black white and grey. 

There is not all that much to this layer.  Just enough of a gesture to make a difference. 

When I first saw this pool and terrace, I thought it looked a little too spare.  The architecture of the house, the pool deck and walls were beautifully designed in the 1970’s.  This landscape had great bones.  As solid and effortless as it looks, what it took to level the ground to accomodate a pool and terrace of this size was considerable.    

This walled terrace affords my client great privacy, even though the pool deck is far above street grade.  A pair of pots on the dining terrace invites the landscape inside, without sacrificing that privacy.  A small gesture has made a big difference.     

container gardening

Considering one thing at a time in renovating a landscape can be all to the good.


  1. Beautiful idea, caladiums under Bird of Paradise. I underplanted mine with ferns when I brought them inside last fall. Not much color in my combo.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Ferns would be a great foil for a bird. My clients however needed some color. Luscious color looks good on that streamlined and simple terrace. I plan to winter these over-they are so great looking.

Leave a Comment