Lost Landscape

jacobson0001I started to work on this lovely  property in 1998. Set in a forest of old trees, the house and landscape had that quiet woodland up-north feeling.  Everything I designed for this client I kept in keeping with that feeling; few properties come with an aura as strong as this one did.  A case in point; this driveway was laid out with the house in the 1920’s-and was no longer wide enough for modern vehicles.  My solution?  Edge the drive in small round native to Michigan granite rocks, and let the moss go to work on them.  Anyone over the edge with their SUV-no harm. Do no harm-this was my organizing metaphor.

jacobson-1I like formal spaces in front yards, as I like a public presentation that looks good every day.  All of us are very busy people-I like a landscape that can wait.  But boxwood or taxus hedging seemed alien to the feel of this space.  The golden vacary privet-an old plant not much in fashion since its hey day in the 50’s, seemed perfect.  The chartreuse color would light up the shade.  This very informal material used in a formal way, was a nod to the period and feeling of the vintage house, and its landscape.

aug-28d-569This picture is taken from the road. Old weeping Norway spruce were planted very close and gracefully to the foundation of the house.  I repeated this woodland feeling at the road-with a break, a view.  A brief view.

jacobson-7The gold vicary described the shape of a circular sunken garden.  What I love the most about the native Michigan woods are how quiet they are; no noise which is technological in origin. No radio, no cars, no jet skis, no boats-just quiet.  The sound of birds, wind, footsteps-these sounds are native, natural, and good.   Sinking a garden even a little intensifies the quiet.  Two simple steps of grass with round rock risers-a casual, northern Michigan detail. 

jacobsonAnd the ferns?  Everywhere.  Ostrich ferns as a groundcover-this is a beautiful look.  The texture, scale and informality is easy on the eyes, and pleasing.  Drifts of ferns really interest me as a designer.  They are bold and sculptural in big masses.  But they speak directly to the primeval forest; the look of a stand of ferns wrings all the tension out of me.

aug-28c-1024No doubt this was a shady, mossy, quiet, not perfect, natural, woodland landscape.  A grouping of funky containers and sculptures, set in groundcover on the far east perimeter, was a nod to the point of view of the client.  I love a collection of objects that band together to make a sculpture.  sept2-003I wrote last Sunday in my weekly opinion post that a ride by this treasured project of mine revealed that the client has ripped most everything out, and installed a new landscape.  I felt the shock that anyone feels when they come face to face with something so totally unexpected that blacking out seems an appropriate response.  It took me two days to recover, but recover I did. 

sept2-002My clients have their own lives, and their own idea of beauty.  They hire me-I am not a favorite aunt, or a Mom, or a daughter.  Their lives change-I am not privy to most of that.  I may be close beyond close for the duration of the project, but I am usually their fifth business.  At my age, I know who I am. I appreciate that the lives of my clients are not subject to my review.  I furthermore understand that my ownership of a project is while I am making it.  What happens after-I am not responsible, nor am I honored.  This is as it should be.

sept2-006It is not my idea to critique the new landscape-that is not the point of this post.  I am not interested in being a critic.  I am interested in writing about my life as a designer.  It is very tough to see years of work erased-no one cozies up to this.  Least of all me.  I am interested in history, and continuity.  But I do not always get my way.

sept2-008No matter how this landscape looks now, I am not unhappy about how I approached it. I have no second thoughts. I will sleep sound tonight.

OK, Here’s the Story


I spent the day of the Greening garden tour at home, talking to people about my landscape, but I also fielded a lot of questions about Rob’s.  From “which garden is Rob’s?” ,  to “what was his idea here?”-and so on.  Apparently the store was so busy he was unable to get to his own garden, and talk about it with people.  What a shame.  As he is such an integral part of Detroit Garden Works as manager, buyer, and dreamer, people are naturally curious about what his personal landscape is all about. I’ll try to tell the story as best I can, as I think it warrants telling.


He is a formidably talented designer.  More and more he consults with clients about the placement of ornament, pots and the like. He has a gift-you just need to ask him to put that to your project. Until you lay eyes on what he has done with this very small piece of property, you don’t really understand the extent of that talent.  I have over the years installed this terrace when he would be in Europe, or snapped up that collection of nyssa sylvatica (his favorite tree) when I ran across it.  He spent no small amount of time designing this landscape for himself, consulting with me, and reinventing the design; he finally, reluctantly, signed off. I knew I had to wait until he was out of town;  one fall while he was shopping in Europe, my crew installed it. 


It’s important for clients to see a designer put themselves in the same boat a designer might ask a client to row.  Making things grow, and pulling a landscape together, can be much like rowing upstream.  If you are to entrust your garden and your money to a designer, you want to feel confident they know what they are doing, and that they have been in a boat much like yours.  This spring, the bones of his place looked great.  Simple strong gestures from a sure hand. No matter how he fretted, the result was confident.  If it appears a design is in place on this the bleakest day of the spring, they you can be assured it will only look better as the season goes on.


It’s a very tough thing to go home and garden, when you eat, breathe and sleep it for other people, most days of the week.  He told me two things were paramount.  He wanted to make much of his view of the lake, and he wanted something along the lines of cohesive lake cottage style. This may sound vague, but he had no problem putting it together.  And he wanted it manageable; its pure torture to have something in a garden that needs attention, when you have no energy to answer.  He likes having no back yard.


This very old French faux bois tree trunk planter is home to  a thriving colony of laurentia; that pale heliotrope blue is a rare color in an annual. So light, so delicate-everything that the planter is not. The side terrace garden is a mirror image of the shape of the driveway. The terrace itself is screened from the road just enough, by a wing wall, backed up by giant boxwood in a stocky Belgian wood planter.  


Two chairs in the front yard are front and center to the lake view.  A quietly beautiful vintage American birdbath from Ohio is kept company in the sunken oval of grass by a gracefully swooping pin oak. This tree, his specific choice.  The simple Italian pots stuffed with ferns, heucheras, selaginella and the like have that strong woodland mossy feel.


The wing walls are a distinctive feature of the architecture of the house; the placement of these two pots make note of that. The placement of the collection of pots direct the eye around the entire space, and suggest what is yet to come.


I discovered while installing this landscape that the exterior walls has been buried in soil berms.  The house is actually quite tall coming out of the ground.  The collection of pots counterbalances the height of the steps, and sets them down visually. The architecture of the house and steps can be seen all the way to the ground.  This gives the landscape a European flavor. Years of travelling Europe to buy for the store has much influenced him.

Rob knows how to place an object in a garden such that it will give you pause-quietly.  Thus this planter, half on the gravel path, half off. Though the volume is turned down to a murmur, this landscape has a very distinctive voice.

The story of these steps says everything about the fire he has burning. These giant bolted panels of railroad ties have been lying in the abandoned railway two track next door for the past 14 years.  He finally wheeled a ball cart, rated to carry 1800 pounds, over there, loaded these 8 foot wide fragments onto the cart-horizontally-  and ran them up hill all the way to the store-in the incoming traffic lane, no less.  He told me he had no plan for what he would do, had a car appeared.   He tells me he had to lie down for 15 minutes once he got them here; he was rode hard and put away wet, getting the steps of his dreams home.  What kind of heart for gardening do you have to have to do this?  A very big one.

Berms, Bark and Boulders


Suburban landscapes can be bleak.  I sometimes think they are more about what has been replaced on impulse, or places that are just left blank when something dies, than a design.   This landscape was suffering considerably from what I call  “berm, bark and boulder”  blight.  Mini- mountains of soil are studded with rocks, and a collection of plants are installed. If there was a big design idea here, I cannot spot it.  After planting, the entire area is covered in bark, usually deep bark.  But what baffled me the most here was how every plant was pruned into ball shapes, without regard for their species,  habit or culture. My client spent a lot of years raising her kids, and then more years redoing the interior of her house-which by the way is beautiful.  When she got to the outside, she called me.  Looking at a landscape on a cold March day can be sobering.  There are no leaves,  flowers or sunshine dressing up problems so they aren’t so obvious.  The first order of business was to engage a new maintenance company that knew how to prune properly. 

berms2The house sits on a piece of property that is very high and steeply sloped.  The berms only exacerbated this precarious look; the second order of business was to grade.  We dug up as much plant material as we could, and heeled it in.  We cut the berms down, and filled in the slope to soften it. We added many more yards of soil.  The existing plants we were able to save we grouped together, so every plant had like company, and replanted in another area of the yard.  

berms3The bermed soil right up to the drive edge meant dirt and debris on the drive, non-stop.  Any design needs a component that addresses ease of maintenance.  I am happy to attend to the maintenance of my pots every day.  Needing to sweep debris off a drive every day is annoying.  This kind of thing can make people dislike gardening for no good reason.  

berms4Once the grade issues were addressed in a way that worked, we laid out the design.  My client likes white, simple and dramatic.  She wanted to drive up to that, love it,  and then go to her back yard garden to spend time.  This first element of drama came from the grading. 

berms5The irregularly sloping and steep ground was graded to slope gently on a consistent angle to the street.  Particular care was taken to insure that the view from the house to the street would feature ground with sculptural appeal.

berms6For anyone who likes white, dramatic and simple, Limelight hydrangeas are a logical choice.  The dark green yews, and the sleekly trimmed arborvitae make great companions to all the profusion to come.

berms7The walk was redone in chocolate, or lilac bluestone.  This is an unusual color, but great looking with the color of the house.  The walk is bordered in annuals in the summer, and white tulips in the spring. 

berms8This new look helps to focus some attention on the architecture of the house, and features the front porch.  We enlarged the front porch, and repainted all the trim and wood on the house.  Sometimes a landscape project can spill over into another area of design.  In this case, a new landscape helped generate changes to the house, lighting, and porch.

berms10A pair of large contemporary French faux bois pots flank the front door; what a handsome view this is now.  Very friendly formal, I call this. She calls it a blast.