Sunday Opinion: Good Design

Good design is about a whole host of things-but money isn’t one of them.  Martha Stewart has built an empire teaching how to take an idea, strip away all the Chanel materials that the cool given idea is all dressed up in, and explain the idea for what it is.   Once there is understanding of a concept,  it can be rebuilt with a different kind of dress-a recycled dress, a dress from JCPenny, or a dress from a thrift shop. Or from materials in the back of your garage;  wonder of wonders, a homemade dress.  I greatly admire her for this-it is no mean accomplishment. She teaches-this is my idea of an extremely important job.  She has made a life making good design accessible to lots of people in all kinds of neighborhoods, states, regions,  and countries.  She is able to take an idea, and break it down such that it makes sense to a very broad range of people.  This is a rare gift. 

Any gardener can understand the fancy dress idea.   We have all seen landscapes installed in our neighborhoods in airless, gooey, and certainly not improved clay soil- topdressed with some good looking black earth that makes everything look like it is planted in the most fabulously plant friendly soil on the planet.  We’ve all seen new plants dropped into pots for a special event the day before.  We’ve also seen the urban property with an allee of trees as if it were a 80 acre estate expecting a visit from Louis the Fourteenth.  Topdressing is a concept every gardener understands-for good, or for ill.

A case in point;  for years Rob would build his bamboo stake/galvanized wire tomato cages for clients.  He would position the 4 bamboo stakes outward from the rootball of the tomato, and wrap from stake to adjoining stake hoops of galvanized wire from the Depot.  His hoops had no kinks.  The hoop-swoops were wide at the top, and tight at the bottom-perfect for that indeterminate tomato growing taller, and wider at the top,  by the day.  At some point, he was despairing of the long lineup of his hand-fashioned hoops for which he had requests.  So we designed an acid washed steel tomato cage-in a perfectly widening sequence 0f hoops, and had them built.  They cost two hundred and umpteen dollars-but anyone can come in, buy one, and load it in their trunk.  For the person who does not have the idea to spend the umpteen dollars for our formal version of his hand worked tomato cage, I apologize that we are not a teacher the caliber of Martha Stewart. But we can try to teach how to create the bamboo stake-wire cage-just ask.

Understand that I had my own Martha Stewart moment-like countless other people.  I built a croquembouche exactly to her specifications-but my attempt to create the ultra thin sugar hair that was due to go over that tower of  profiteroles like a cloud, only coated my entire kitchen-top to bottom- with a congealed sugar mess.  I thought for two days afterwards I would just have to move-then I cleaned for another two days.  The lesson here-don’t be deterred by an unsuccessful first attempt.  Make another.

A garden I truly admire has a formal, and short grass  path to a very handsome and overscaled gate.  This path is edged on each side with a very long, very thin rectangle of steel edger strip, infilled with fine gravel.  It is a detail which is incredibly beautiful.  It marks the path so elegantly. This detail says, this way to the rose garden-welcome.   But that steel rectangle some 9 feet long by 6 inches wide-who knows what that dress cost- could be reproduced with a single length of 4″ by 6″ pressure treated lumber, set on its wide edge.  This would be a dress of a different sort, but you would still catch your breath, seeing it.   Another gardener would interpret these long spare path edges with hens and chicks contained with aluminum edger.  Yet another gardener would dig a dirt ditch 6 inches wide, and call it a day. 

If you need design help, figure out who can teach you.


  1. What is a croquenbouche?

    How do you make the bamboo tomatoe cages? Can you post a picture?

    The Venus Dogwoods are beautiful. Do you know where I could find a smaller, less expensive one?

    I love your blog – it is very inspirational.

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