Designing Gardens


The chance to design large and multiple gardens for a resort hotel firmly committed to a landscape of distinction for many years-this was a dream come true.  Did I dream about gardens?  Absolutely.  Did the owners of the hotel dream about gardens?  Oh yes, and by the way, long before me.  My tenure with Grand Hotel was a good one; I was hired into a very friendly garden oriented environment.  They encouraged and supported me.  I grew lots of different kinds of plants in challenging conditions.  I sweated every detail.  When I design a garden now, I assess those conditions first, before I ever put a pencil to paper.  Mackinac Island has almost no native soil.  It is comprised of big rocks, and little rocks, with a thin layer of compost over top. An island means any materials have to be freighted over on a boat.  Yes, we brought soil over on a boat, until the composting program was mature enough to supply all of the garden’s needs.  Mackinac Island is in northern Michigan; the cold comes early, in the fall, and stays late in the spring.  Plants that tolerate cold did well.  The thousands of the geraniums that are a signature on the porch-they hated the May cold.         

There are no motorized vehicles on the island but for the fire truck and ambulance.  Plants were hauled from the dock to the garden holding area on horse drawn wagons.  Plants arrived loaded on tall racks; flats frequently came in their own custom made box.  In between the design and the planting, there were lots of steps needing lots of energy.  The gardens were beautiful-none told the tale of how difficult it was to make them.   

A resort hotel has to be ready for guests every day of the week, every month of the season. A big stand of shasta daisies yet to bloom, or past their bloom-this scenario would not work.  I met so many guests for whom their visit marked a special event or anniversary.  The gardens needed to be a special event for them, and new guests came every day. I took to designing with annuals that had the look of perennials.  Generously sized and lushly growing borders, in the English style. Pink hollyhocks and Park Princess dahlias, red geraniums and white alyssum-you do not have to be a gardener to relate to this.  A garden that invites guests to react emotionally to their moment, their visit-this is a garden that is designed to serve a specific viewer.     

The cold temperatures made certain plant choices obvious.  Red cannas so beautifully represented the red color integral to the identity of the hotel.  This robustly growing dill served to hide to slow growth of those cannas that only longed for some heat. Herbs grew beautifully here, and were an integral part of the garden.     

The tea gardens, on either side of the fountain-a wild mix of tall and gracefully growing annuals.  Not one bit pretentious or formal, these giant and generously designed gardens were friendly to the eye.  Lily bulbs would go in these gardens by the hundreds.  Various nicotianas,  green eyed daisies, marguerites, goldenrod, calendulas, and verbena bonariensis all spoke to profusion.    

On the border, dianthus and sweet william provided solid blocks of color.  Park Princess was the only dahlia I dared use.  It performs well under duress. The air on Mackinac Island is so cool and clean-no vehicles.  The color there, like no other color I have ever seen.  Brilliant and crisp.      

The hotel itself is white.  I designed with intense and saturated color up next to it, knowing it would read strongly against all that white.  The gloriosa daisies and nasturtiums spilling over the curb-I was especially fond of any plant that would soften the borders.     

A horse drawn carriage is a trademark, and part of the logo of the hotel. That we interpreted in the landscape via a lifesize topiary saculpture.  An iron frame was home to many thousands of ivy plants.  The manes and tails-Stella D’Oro daylilies.  The Triangle garden was any visitors first view of Grand Hotel, coming up the hill.  I would have named this the enchantment garden, had it been up to me.  That garden set the stage for the experience to come.  

The Victorian era celebrated the planting of bedding annuals.  I designed true to the period in certain gardens.  An election year featured stripes ands stars in the ribbon garden.  Big gardens need big and clear gestures.  This garden was primarily viewed from a distance.  A simple pattern with big blocks of color would read well from far away.

Small gardens bordering a walk-what do they ask for?  If you are a big resort hotel, that garden may ask for company at eye level.  We did grow lost of Carefree Beauty roses here; they perform reliably. The best part of my time at Grand Hotel?  Learning about what it takes to enable people to relate to nature.

Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor Sleet…..

Annual planting season is an event like no other. The next six weeks are the most intense design/plant days of my entire year.  I review the plants, first.  I have a large group of plants that I custom grow, and then there is the shopping for whatever looks great and sparks an idea.  My annual design is plant generated.  They may inspire a color palette, an shape, an exciting exercise in texture, or suggest a gorgeous mass.  Groups of pots-I think a lot about the rhythm that gets established.  I could explain my process in a hundred essays-but in the end, my eye is my own. All I have to offer anyone is my point of view.  That point of view-I have no formula.  All I have is my off the cuff, late to be delivered, idea.  The big  idea here-trust your own vision, or find someone who can beautifully represent you.   Should you plant for yourself, I am happy to contribute to your effort.  But be advised-what I do in the blink of an eye, is all my own.

My client with the firebowl-she has an event on Thursday.  Flowers-especially in a zone 5 where the summers are relatively short-are a very emotional issue for Michigan gardeners.  Once the weather shows signs of breaking, I get calls.  Everyone is so relieved the endless winter is over-everyone wants to move outside, and enjoy every day of the summer.  No one has any interest in the night temperatures, the soil temperatures-why should they?  That is my job.   

But all of them have special birthdays, trunk shows, parties, graduations, anniversaries-important milestones.  Milestones that need be celebrated with flowers.  A late May early June annual garden is no looker-everyone knows that.  But when the seasonal flowers are planted, any event is all the better and happier for that expression.  My notes are as much about events that influence scheduling, as design.     

Inclement weather-whatever. There are no rain days when we plant annuals.  The annual planting season is short, so we all have gear.  The actual planting is a footnote.  The bulk of the work is the contracting for custom grown material, the contracting for a custom soil mix, the maintenance and gas for the truck, the design, the shopping, the arranging for transport, the hauling of soil, the cleanup, the disposal of debris-big, and largely unseen, work. Whew!

My client Susie wanted orange this year-she loved how my pots looked last year.  What do I so love about her? She has one big idea to express-having done so, she is confident enough to step back, and watch what happens.  We have been working together more than 15 years.  Relationships get forged, over time. Those relationships show, believe me.  Good design relationships result in work any eye would appreciate.  

We moved one pot this year to a new location-I was caught flat footed today.  I had to regroup, and come back. I spent no small amount of time deciding what should go in that Francesca del Re pot at the corner of the pool-as well I should.  Taking the time to do a thoughtful job in the middle of a frenetic season-I can be depended upon for this.  No client knows I am awake half the night worrying about their design,  their life and their installation-this is as it should be.    It is my worry about how to bring orange,white, and lime to life for Susie.   

I planned and planted surely around the pool deck.  That newly placed planter took the better part of the afternoon to resolve.  I promise to post pictures of the mature annual plantings-you can decide if you like them.

My client Susie-she bought giant white dahlias for her wood boxes.  Fine.  I tuned up.  The planting of the annual gardens and pots-lots of emotion, lots of changes, lots of conversation-lots of tuning up.  I would not have it any other way.  

Outside her annual plantings-I am so pleased to see the butterburrs have taken hold at the pond.  The long view-so beautiful.  Any relationship forged over a conversation about the landscape-energetic, and very beautiful.  Thanks, Susie.