Other Pairs Of Hands

Two clients, gardening partners, purchased a vintage ranch home on a substantial piece of property a few years ago.  After spending a lot of time renovating a backyard landscape and pool, they were interested in tackling the front yard.  They called me to consult.  They had the original landscape plan-I am guessing it dates back to the 1940’s.  The plan was drawn up by Ilgenfritz Nurseries, a Monroe Michigan based nursery and landscape business which first opened around 1915.  How great they have this original document.

The landscape had declined some since the original installation.  Every landscape is either going forward or backward-there is no such thing as neutral, where nature is in charge.  Some very large trees survived, including one of the most gorgeous mature green spruce I have ever seen-in the back yard.  The house sits up high- and the neighborhood is known for its walking population.   A city owned walking path runs through their property.  They wanted privacy from the street. 

Another major issue-a greatly degraded driveway needing replacement.  The drive was due to be ripped out-but they wanted a landscape design consultation before they went ahead.  The orange circle in the above picture-would their landscape benefit from a landscape island in the center of the new drive? 

A breezeway between the garage and the house had been enclosed.  That breezeway is now the dining room.  The plants in the beds?  Those plants moved out of the rear gardens to a temporary”nursery” spot.  The original sidewalk was showing its age, but the concrete itself seemed appropriate to the architecture of the house. 

 They were in need of a schematic plan.  A concept that would include a driveway, a walk,  and some screening.  This is an instance where I would rather look at a plan on paper than the real property.  It is very hard to look at what has always been, and imagine it in a completely different way.  If you fancy doing your own design, find a document that describes how the house sits on the property, and blow it up so you can see the spaces.  The relationships of house to land.  A scale drawing comes in very handy, should you want to determine how many astilbes, or how many magnolias you should buy.  As for a new driveway, be sure you drive the route before you commit to the paving.

Since they would be doing their own planting, I marked up the front facade of the house with those lines that represented the edges of architectural features-as in the location of solid walls, and the architectural edges.  This house had walls in a number of different planes-that would play a part in the design. The sightlines-meaning those views from the windows, would play a crucial role in determining where evergreens should be planted for screening. 

 

 True to the original landscape, they were interested in an informal plan which would have plenty of opportunities to plant specialty evergreens.  They  also wanted a very simple landscape that would look good year round with a minimum of maintenance. They wanted to spend most of their time in the summer gardening in the back yard.  After putting a sheet of trace (tracing paper) over the original design, I drew in the givens-the house, garage and porches. The existing driveway in this picture is outlined in red.   I could see right away that the most dramatic change they could make to their landscape would be to relocate the driveway further away from the house.  The house has plenty of green company on the left side, as pictured above, but little on the garage side.  

 I am not crazy about landscaped islands marooned in a sea of paving.  They look disconnected.  Oftentimes they do not prosper.  The roots of trees and shrubs favor a free run over a space limited by hard surfaces.  I like driveways and walkways that look like the garden came first, and the hard surfaces last.  I proposed to keep the entrance to the drive at the street in the same place.  But I thought a drive that veered away from the house would allow for a generous amount of green on the garage side of the house.    Why a parking court?  The front of the house is quite a hike uphill from the street.  They have the room for off street parking. 

The existing sidewalk was very close to the house.  I moved it out by three feet.  This made a long gracefully curved walk to the parking court possible.  Should that walk be too long for an older person, a garage entry would be close at hand.  A large landscape area around the new drive would focus visual attention on the plants, and not on the expanse of paving.  A simple and linear evergreen planting describing the changes of plane would look appropriate with the architecture, and be fairly easy to maintain.  Proposed locations for evergreens take the locations of the windows in front into consideration.

 Their driveway starts where you see the road ending in the distance.  A very unusual cicumstance, this.  But I feel they will take the project in hand, and put the landscape to right in their own time and way.  The slope you see to the right?  I am sure there are some pines in its future.

The End Of An Era

People make changes in their landscapes for lots of reasons.  For some, it may be the end of the trampoline era.  Kids need space to play, and entertain friends.  This need can be the organizing metaphor of a landscape.  I have lots of clients with mini-soccer fields, trampolines, play sets, tree houses, picnic tables, basketball hoops, bike racks, mud rooms, shed sized doll houses, badminton nets, ice rinks-you get the idea.  This client had just accompanied her youngest child to her college orientation.  It was time for a change in the landscape.  She thought a firepit would be a good substitute feature for the trampoline-that part was easy to visualize.   

The rear yard was very shallow and long, and dominated by grass.  Even the bed of euonymus under this aging Japanese maple had a big flat spot in its curve out into the yard. She did not want to intrude on any flat grassy space.  This is child friendly.  Old arborvitae hedges screened most of the rear lot line.  Every landscape move was immediately apparent-from one end to the other. 

Small perennial borders were planted on top of a series of dry stack stone walls, laid at the grade of a big bluestone terrace.  This places the shasta daisies out of range of the soccer ball, and rightly so.  Lawn ran right up to those walls. A large upper level bluestone terrace set at the grade of the floor of the house provided a place to have guests, and large table, and a built in barbeque.  On this terrace,  a small fountain and fountain pool, set on top of the bluestone.  

The fountain dominated a fairly large space on the terrace, and proved difficult to integrate into a seating area.  A group seated here would be looking into the pedestal of a fountain.  After a resolution of the trampoline issue, where would the fountain look best? This space would be great for a couch, coffee table and chairs-for adult events.  An adult experience of the garden and landscape meant the fountain would need a new home. 

Directly opposite the terrace, a small hedge of boxwood faced down some large and open growing white pines belonging to a neighbor.  Though the stairs did not come off the terrace centered on this space, that was the least of the troubles.  The problem here-a view to no where.  A way too good of a view to a neighboring house.

We planted 11 12 foot thuja nigra-these are a match for the existing arborvitaes.  This screened the neighbor’s house from view.  These evergreens were planted in a shallow arc-what need would there be to continue the long straight line of cedars down the lot line?  The idea here-create a space, shelter,  for that fountain.   

The existing boxwood were dug out, and replanted in front of the arbs.  This gives a very crisp green edge to the cedars.  The fountain and its basin were relocated into the grass.  The gap between the first arb on the arc, and the first arb on the lot line-we filled that with an existing hydrangea.  This landscape is starting to look much more interesting. The fountain looks much stronger, given this placement. 

The dry stack stone wall whose function for many years was to keep the kids, dogs, and footballs out of the upper level perennial garden and terrace-we cut curving beds in front of them.  My idea was to link the upper level terrace with the lower level landscape.  This meant I needed to move the very tall, and visually blocking, perennials on the top level, to the ground plane.  This will give my client much more space for her herbs on the top level.  And an integrating view of the lower level landscape.  A clear view to the lower landscape, softened by roses, phlox, coneflower and daylilies would make the lower landscape part of the experience of entertaining on the terrace.

Moving perennials-right now is the perfect time.  The nights are cool, the rains are regular.  We did move some roses-with giant rootballs. Four of us handled the digging, lifting, and resetting of each rose. This will work, or it won’t. If it doesn’t, a new rose is easy to plant.  The other perennials will move easily.  This is the right time.    

I am sorry for the state of the grass-we have had so much rain.  Even though we put down plywood to travel across the lawn, it has taken a terrible beating.  It will be back thriving within a week or so.  This is an entirely different landscape look.  The lawn has become a generously curving path from one part of the yard to another.  There are distinctly different spaces; rooms, if you will.  The curving beds are a great contrast to the rectilinear overall space.  

This picture is not the best, but it should be clear that the bluestone terrace has become a big part of the greater landscape. 

As for the trampoline-it is gone.  In its place, a firepit surrounded by a decomposed granite terrace.  There are some very good looking curves going on here.  Any landscape can be transformed with a few fresh ideas.  These fresh ideas-straight from my client.  Her request?   A new era, please.

Bare Bones

 

This landscape under renovation is at an even more bare bones stage than it was when I posted about it early in the week.  Over the past few days, all of the boxwood surrounding the walk got transplanted to the east and west property lines.  All you see left are large and irregularly growing patches of sedum.  Sedum does a decent job as a groundcover in full sun, but a plant in this prominent a spot needs to be better than decent.  It needs to be stellar.  Few very short groundcovers for sun are better than lawn.  No living material better describes the sculpture that is a large piece of ground or land.  How little could I live with in a landscape?  Grass-whether it be mowed or left rough, and some trees.     

In addition, a very large bed to the east had been mounded quite high with soil.  A pink horsechestnut had been planted very high; the bed surrounding it had been built up to the grade established by the crown of the tree.  Most of the tree was dead-the living part derelict.  The grade would need to be lowered.  Cleaning out and regrading takes a lot of time and hard work, but it is the foundation upon which everything to come is built. The shape and grade of the beds and lawn play as important a part in the design process as the plant material.  


I posted this picture of the house from last October several days ago; there were 15 trees in the front yard.  9 Japanese maples, 1 amelanchier, 2 red horsechestnuts, 1 sugar maple, and 2 red maples.  Of the 15, 7 were in an advanced state of decline; I doubt they would have survived but another year or two.  Lots of landscape asks for lots of maintenance; the two go hand in hand.   

I took this picture yesterday; all of the boxwood has been moved to other spots in the yard.  12 that were heavily damaged by leaf miner and who knows what else were pitched.  The ground was regraded to match the grade of the sidewalk and the paver landing at the street. 

I do have a thing about how a driveway is landscaped.  Everyone drives up and down their drive every day. This arrangement is particularly jarring.  On the left, lawn, boxwood, a very handsome hemlock, and some hollies.  On the right side, a field of ornamental grass intersected with one lone serviceberry, and a blob of hydrangeas.   

kkTransplanting boxwood to line the drive reveals a particularly handsome and well kept yew hedge which happens to belong to the neighbor.  This arrangement which respects that hedge makes it seem as though the yews belong to this property.  Borrowing this view helps to visually set the drive within the landscape more gracefully. 

This picture says much about the relationship of the lawn to the landscape beds.  The small piece of lawn that runs from the sidewalk to the street is in stark contrast to the giant lawn bed on the far side.  Conversely, the landscape bed in the foreground dwarfs the bed on the other side of the walk.  This speaks to visual balance.  I like asymmetrical compositions, as long as they are balanced.  Sometimes it is a good idea not to press a hard boundary too hard. This little snippet of grass next to the curb is all but overpowered by all of the pavers. 

So here we are, on the verge of something new-always a daunting proposition.  A landscape renovation of this depth is also a luxury; my client decided to just about start from scratch.  Landscapes ordinarily need renovation.  Plants fail to thrive or die.  A storm can take a giant tree down.  A small area may need to be reworked.  But this is a large scale renovation.  The best of what it has going for it at this moment-a very beautiul house 


This is a very important and exciting moment-there is a spirited conversation going on.

Renovating A Landscape

In my last essay, I spoke to the importance of determining what you need from your landscape.  This informs a new landscape, a landscape project, or a landscape renovation.  This client has been a client a good many years.  The boxwood parterre planted in the center of a bluestone terrace began life as plants just 15 inches tall.  A central fountain pool featured a small sculpture.  The landscape has changed a lot over the past 20 years.  Some years ago, the stone walls and planters at the far end of the terrace were installed based on a visit my client made to South America.  The fountain sculpture was replaced some years later by a very fine 19th century American cast iron fountain.  There were changes afoot.  All during this time, the boxwood was growing.    

At a certain point, this boxwood parterre had grown so large that the roses began to struggle.  As I have said before, a landscape never comes to maturity and stands pat.  Equality, stasis in the garden-not likely.  The strength of every element ebbs and flows-given the moment and circumstance.  That fluid community that loosely describes a landscape involves a great number of relationships that are always changing.  This part thrives and grows, at the expense of some other part.  A giant tree can pass away, leaving an entire garden community below wringing its hands.         

This beautiful 19th century American cast iron fountain was perfect for this landscape, but much overscaled, and much too important for the existing pool.  My client has a great eye, and thinks things through thoroughly.    Her strength vis a vis the landscape is an ability to plan for the future-one great move at a time.  Last summer, she let me know that the boxwood parterres, grown way out of bounds, had greatly diminished her available terrace space. She was ready to make a change.  Elements in a landscape have a lifespan.   

I think I am a good designer, but I would be telling you a tale if I were to say I designed on my own.  My clients say things, point out this or that-they enable me to design in a meaningful way.  They look at and live with that garden every day.  A designer whose pet look is evident in every project-in my mind, a failure.  Great design is about the results of a relationship, a conversation. My client knew better than I that the boxwood parterre had peaked-what would I suggest?

It was agreed that a larger fountain pool would better do justice to her lovely fountain.  I did manage to persuade her that a properly porportioned surround for her beautiful American fountain should be steel, and finished with degraded paint.  The fountain, and pool surround-we could suggest visually that both elements came together.  Some of the details of that surround we engineered in wood, and sent out to a skilled machinist to make. The steel pool surround weighs just about one ton.     

The paint finish was another story.   I primed the steel.  I sanded the primer off irregularly. I was interested in obtaining a reasonable reproduction of old paint.   

The final paint surface in the studio looked uniformly cream colored, butI knew the winter weather would work its magic. 

The boxwood parterre so long a fixture of this landscape is gone.  The terrace has that spacious feeling back again.  The fountain pool was poured 18 inches below grade; that portion of the pool, and the concrete pedestal for the fountain will be coated with black pool paint.  This will make the water surface reflective.  There is a plan for water lilies in the pool.  One the pots are put out and planted, and the furniture in place, the renovation will be complete.

The fountain surround will get a final paint finish emphasizing the soft grey and cream color you see here on the bowl.       


The last detail-the dark frame you see in the above picture.  A large terrace, or even a driveway, can benefit visually from a change in materials that breaks up the space in an interesting way.  A detail like this also serves to separate the brand new stone surface next to the fountain pool from the original stone.  This deters the eye from making comparisons.  In this regard I need not have worried; Albaugh Masonry did a superb job of making what was new look very much like the original. After I fill this frame with dirt, I am thinking of planting a very low growing plant that would tolerate foot traffic-perhaps Isotoma Fluvialis.  Other choices could be just as good looking.  This moment in a project is such fun.