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.

More On The Warm-Up

Forty years after the fact, some of the landscape attending this fabulous home designed by Irv Tobocman is perilously overgrown.  Every gardener knows this-no garden, no landscape pays any mind to the pause button. Everything in the landscape is either moving forward, or declining.  A lower level terrace opens up a garden below grade-the natural slope of the property is retained by yet another brick wall. The brick wall is barely visible any more.  Most of the material here-I relocated.      I restored the view of the ground plane, and a view of the brick retaining wall. The Limelight hydrangeas, and the columnar gingko trees were planted above the wall-on the street side.  This brick wall is set invisibly into a natural slope; the view out the lower level of the house-beautiful. 

The gingkos trees underplanted with Limelight hydrangeas make for a substantial statement from the street.  The brick and gravel garden outside the lower level of the house-a completely private garden.   

A mini dog run for a mini dog named Pookie, and two mature crabapples are viewed prominently from the grilling terrace.  This space needed some tending to.  Areas like this I call a can opener.  Everyone has owned a can opener that works poorly-but for some reason, it doesn’t get replaced until it is about to fall apart.  Only then you realize what an aggravation it was to wrestle with, and how much better it is to have a tool that works.  The landscape here-not working so well.  Making this space look better- a breeze.  

Boxwood would enclose and remove most of the the dog run from view.  A thicket of hosta sieboldiana elegans will completely carpet the ground below the crabapples-this update aims for lush. 

The small space between the pool deck and the tall brick wall asks for a green and year round softening.  I am looking at an embarrassment of riches in hard surfaces here.  Modern can mean austere-but I like my austere a little more elegant than this.  My clients have no need to view the pool filtration pipes.  The intersection of concrete aggregate pool deck and brick wall will benefit from something living. 

I stuffed that small space with boxwood, and planted Boston Ivy on the wall.  It will make for a vibrantly green enclosure for the pool in no time. Pools generally have giant paved spaces around them-for obvious reasons.  But this does not mean they have to be cold.    

This bare gravelly space at the base of a U-shaped arrangement of very tall brick walls-stony, barky-neglected.  Though not in immediate view from the pool terrace, the look on the other side of the wall is not a good one.  An out of sight-out of mind spot.       

I planted Limelight hydrangeas here-with the idea that they would form a tall groundcover. Come summer, the flower heads will pop up above this pool wall, and bloom. The wall was necessary; it enabled a flat space large enough to build a pool.  The hydrangeas will obscure the indented portion of the wall from view, and strengthen the view of the flat portion of the wall.  

The far end of the pool deck is home to a sternly utilitarian black iron fence.  This row of hydrangeas will mitigate that jail-like look, and provide the landscape from the street with its third planting of hydrangeas.  The large block, the small block, and the single row will visually describe this large property from one end the other from the outside.  On the inside, they punctuate and soften all the hard surfaces.     

By next summer, there will be much more of a landscape to enjoy.

Rearranging What Is Already Yours

Even the most carefully planned and planted landscapes can go awry, given enough time and circumstance. So no wonder that landscapes that were planted without regard to mature plant heights and sizes, eventually suffer and decline from that reactionary style of pruning that turns every green plant into a shadow of its glorious self.  The person who decided to plant euonymus alata compacta-burning bush-in front of a house with windows that are only inches off the ground, and in spaces scarcely 3 feet from walkway to wall, or 6 inches from the foundation of the house- this person knew only enough to be dangerous. A spectacularly grown compact burning bush is every inch of  8′ by 8′.  This would be 64 square feet of loosely structured shrub whose charm lies in its casual ability to densely screen a large space, and its brilliant red fall leaf color.  There is no sign of such in the above landscape; the burning bush have been bit back to the quick by an electric hedge trimmer with an unlicensed person at the helm.  In this case, a lawn cutting crew moved on to landscape maintenance without one shred of knowledge about proper pruning.  Landscapes thus maintained age very quickly.  

Given that this client has a sizeable property, we found a home for the burning bush where they could spread their wings, and live in peace.  Existing boxwood was dug and replanted in a more generous and informal curve.  New boxwood across the front of the home can be maintained at a height that features rather than obstructs the windows.  Unseen as well they should be-variegated hostas were collected from 5 different locations on the property, and planted in mass behind the boxwood.  Thery will mature at a height well below the bottoms of the windows.

Plants die-from disease, from physical damage, from drought or overwatering, from poor placement-or from old age.  Barked landscape beds give the impression of neatness and care, but eventually the empty spaces outnumber the planted ones.  The red leaved sand cherries in this bed have reacted to their yearly flat-top buzz cut with long leggy and unattractive stems.  The spruces which 10 years ago had plenty of space are further putting the squeeze on those badly pruned shrubs.  We moved these stick bushes to better pastures, and moved in some of the same species that had been languishing in another bed in the shade.  

The yews from the front of the house-pruned exactly like the burning bush, were moved and grouped so they could grow together as a mass.  They hide the bare legs of this new group of sand cherries-by nature a very short lived and disease prone shrub.  I would guess that by the time the spruces close in on one another, the cherries will be at the limit of their lifespan.  Shrubs and perennials can fill these awkward gaps in a landscape which inevitably occur when you place plant material with enough room to grow.  

The hydrangeas now underneath the spruce skirt were moved where they had light and room to grow.  The two oddly placed variegated euonymus were dug from a number of spots, and planted in a mass that will grow out in a pleasing way.  We filled the rest of this bed with existing plant material that needed a more friendly home.

It will take time for all of the plants to grow out of their hot air balloon shapes, and have a a natural and relaxed look.  Annuals and perennials do a great job of filling the gaps, so the bed looks fully planted.  A landscape renovation is not always about introducing new material.  It can be about moving, dividing, rearranging, relocating what no longer works.   

New pots on the porch was the first step in revising this entrance planting.  The picture above tells more than you ever wanted to know about bad placement, worse pruning, and bark.  This landscape was much about what was performingly poorly, and missing.   

Most of the plant material you see here came from someplace else on the property. Recycled plant material, some new boxwood, and some annuals make this porch a far more inviting spot. I am the first to suggest when something just needs to go, but I do try to imagine what it would look like, or how it might better perform in another location.    

Newly planted plants have that fresh out of the nursery look. But plants will settle down and grow, given proper siting, planting, and care.  As for the rest of what you have, there may be a new landscape sitting there, waiting for a new arrangement. 

A New Outfit

If I had to do without a clothes closet, I probably could. A big box would probably hold it all. I have five choices of a dressy outfit, most of which date back at least 15 years.  I wear a Land’s End super pima cotton collared golf shirt to work every day-I have 10 in an assortment of colors.  My work clothes are comfortable and serviceable-Plain Jane, to say the least.   When they get to that ratty and dilapidated stage, Buck gently suggests that I might want to consider a new look.

 My work boots are old and comfortable.  My sneakers get replaced twice a year-they curl up and get uncomfortable from being soaking wet so often.  What a nuisance to replace something I am more than comfortable with; I do so, reluctantly.  I have 3 pairs of dress shoes.  A pair of hot pink cowboy boots with light pink toes are available, should I feel like going all out. The thought of adding to this wardrobe, or changing it out althogether, fills me with dread. I am not really great with  change.

I am always convinced I have no time to add or make changes to my appearance.  Regularly I am in the ladies room at work with a dull pair of scissors chopping at my bangs-I am sure I have no time to go see Suzette.  Never mind that she and her group at Salon Suzette cuts and styles expertly, and reasonably. Never mind how great I feel when she cuts my hair-the new do makes me ridiculously happy.  No, I persist in hacking my bangs with dull scissors, producing a result that would remind you of my second grade picture. What is my idea? 

Professional styling is not such a bad thing. But should you be reluctant to give over any design to a third party, hear this. I am  incredibly persistent in preserving my status quo.  I would bend over backwards to keep everything the same.  What so exasperates me with clients, I see myself doing.  This is what has encouraged me to spend a lot of time explaining and teaching.  All of that time spent is of benefit as much to me, as to others.  I have to be prepared-should I advise, teach, explain, or design. I sort through and verbalize my design process-hopefully to good end.  Change is disruptive, irritating, and expensive-I try to make it sound like fun.  Are you able to make your landscape renovation seem like fun?  If not, ask for help.

Hanging on to what was once historically gorgeous might be admirable.  Statistically speaking, there is an equal chance that the hanging on to what once was might be as much a product of a dislike of change as an interest in historic preservation.   I chide myself over this very issue.  Am I preserving those landscape gestures that I did 2 years ago, or 14 years ago, because I should, or because I am reluctant to make a change?

Good design is not about money.  A master plan design-it is good, or bad, or mediocre. Do not associate your money with your design-this is a bad move.  How you choose to implement that design is up to you.  Plant sizes, yearly projects-you are in charge of what you devote to a project at any given time.  Nine years separated these two photographs.  The blink of an eye, actually.  But the bits added or amended over the years can add up to a lot.  The new shoes I buy are never better than the first day I own them.  A new landscape gesture, no matter how small, done properly, only gets better with time.   

I bought my house in 1996. I never saw the horrific color of the trim, or that ghastly color visited upon the only 4 urns that the GM foundry ever made.  I saw something a camera could never record.  I was sleepy about renovating the landscape until the day I was fifty.  I realized that if I did not get going, I would die, never having had a landscape and garden of my own choice and doing.  I got going.    

Fourteen years has made a big difference.  Did I have untold money to put to the new outfit-of course not.  I did one major and one minor project a year-for years on end. This is my life and passion-of course I would do 2 projects a year. I still have the original design for the property-mostly in shreds from my years referring and reconfiguring. If a beautiful landscape is swirling around in that cauldron that is your life, one gesture a year, however small, can make can make for a dramatic change, given a decade or more.    

People with vision and determination build new houses.  I could never take that on.  Too many decisions, a too fluid situation, a project in which the end is ill-defined-this is not a good place for me.  I am much too resolution oriented to build a house.  I have plenty of clients who build beautiful houses.  I understand that when it comes time to dress the house in an appropriate landscape, people are not only tired of the construction, they have had every dollar wrung out of them.   

The insult of the construction will fade. Lots of new house landscapes are more about obtaining an occupancy permit, than a landscape that works beautifully.  The interest in a new outfit comes sooner, or later.  The house I bought has a new outfit, some 14 years in the making.  You do not see the years, just the change.  The one tree you plant today, per your master plan, will delight you in 14 years.  The 3 hydrangeas you plant tomorrow, on you way to a hedge of 30, will encourage you to keep going.

My advice? Master plan your landscape and garden-whether you do it yourself, or get help.  Then buy and plant the landscape equivalent of a new pair of shoes.  Every year.  I recommend this.