Decomposed Granite

gravelThere are some landscape materials I cannot get enough of.  Decomposed granite is a material comprised of pieces of granite 3/8ths of an inch across, and smaller.  The smaller pieces are known as “fines”.  The fines sift down in between the 3/8 inch pieces, and interlock the decomposed granite.  This makes for a surface that delivers that beautiful sound with every step that says garden, dead ahead.  Decomposed granite looks like sand when it is delivered.  I have taken plenty of panic stricken phone calls from clients.  But once it is laid down, graded, compacted and washed, it is a surface that won’t give no matter how high those heels are.  I have no love for asphalt as a surface; does it not seem like a symbol of all those places we have paved over without cause?  Concrete is a great material, as long as it is used with architecture that asks for it.  Concrete aggregate is beautiful for modern or contemporary landscapes-I hate to see it used by a client who really wanted gravel, but was too afraid.  My mentor and dear friend Al Goldner, told me once his only regret as a designer was that he was not bold enough; be bold!  

gravel1Decomposed granite, properly installed, makes for a driveway impervious to tire marks.  In this landscape, the driveway flowed seamlessly into paths for  a vegetable and cutting garden.

gravel2A driveway of decomposed granite requires an expert installation.  GP Enterprises does these drives for me.  They are so careful to install with a careful eye to grade and drainage.  They compact the granite with the same machinery that compacts asphalt. 

gravel42Decomposed granite makes a great mulch for comtemporary landscapes.  This landscape did not ask for mulch-that granite completed a thought. 

gravel5Decomposed granite can finish a formal planting, as well as a contemporary one.  It is clean, fresh, and crisp.  It is easy to make shapes, and moves; it does a great job of giving the eye a place to rest.

gravel7I have done many a terrace in decomposed granite.  It is a clean surface, not so demanding of attention as stone. This garden makes much of the pots and the furniture-the granite is a quietly beautiful  surface. It is the color of nature, a texture that celebrates all that is set on it. 

gravelbThis material is useful for more than driveways and paths.  Some plantings need a special space of their own.

gravel9Wherever people may be in a landscape, I wonder if this surface will play a part. The granite did a great job of featuring the stone from the 1920’s original to this garden. 

Some materials are so versatile, which makes decomposed granite  a major player in my palette of hard surfaces.  Great for driveways, friendly to plants-amazing how it can work in contemporary landscapes as well as vintage ones.

The Language of Design

boldforms1Everyone makes decisions about a life’s work.  Whether they think it through, or not,  decisions get made.  As a landscape designer,  I realized part of my life’s work was to plant magnolias-all manner of magnolias, every where it made good design sense to plant them. I am a  designer who in part came to design via a love for plants.  Plants are part of the vocabulary that helps give voice to a point of view. Every designer needs heart, soul, and nerve-but they also need language.

But back to magnolias. There is a history to my love for them. My design mentor Al Goldner had a big love for plants, but also a penchant for dragging along, and provoking his young staff, with beautiful  plants.  He took me to the garden of Phil Savage 35 years ago, give or take. I have not one shred of memory of the visit. But thanks to a thoughtful niece, I visited there last spring, after his death.mag

mag2Phil Savage,  lived on almost 8 acres-most of which reflects a lifetime growing and hybridizing magnolias.  He also grafted magnolia cuttings onto ash tree root stock-these trees are 70 feet tall on his property, as we speak.  He hybridized “Yellow Butterflies”;  when the spring weather is perfect, it is a dream come true in bloom.  Later, it is sturdily and robustly green.  His property had magnolias of a size, with flowers in colors, I have never seen-yellow, peach, orangy pink.   It was like a visit to another planet.  But no, just a visit to a man who knew and lived his life’s work.


I have a magnolia in my yard, which I inherited.  It looks like no magnolia I know. It is the first thing to make a move,  in the spring.  I have a  supposedly “hardy” hybrid of Magnolia Grandiflora tucked into a corner, hoping nature won’t notice.  In pure envy of the British, I am growing an arbor of Magnolia “Galaxy” over my driveway.  My neighborhood dating from the 1930’s is peopled with Magnolia Soulangiana trees of immense size-mostly poorly placed.  Plants have a will to live, thank God.   The day they drop their petals, one could weep.

The point of this-you don’t need to know the words magnolia soulangiana.  But you may need that tree somewhere in your landscape that is asking for bold form, flowers and leaves-so put its image in your  design dictionary.  If I have my way, my life’s work will make for a whole  blizzard of giant petals, dropping softly, every year, on one particular spring day.


Working the Earth II

scan0005I did the project pictured many years ago in central Indiana.   My client built this house in the middle of 80 acres of farmland.  He and his wife tithed the use of this land, to grow corn, to their church. The landscape became a farm, and the farm was a landscape.   All of the woody material was planted in rows, as if they were crops.  I designed a pattern of the planting of the corn perpendicular to the woody planting of the landscape, so as to connect this very large house to a large piece of ground. This many years before I ever learned about crop circles.  Crop Circles…

scan0007I was especially happy with this landscape, as I was able to persuade my client to commit to a big idea, and use smaller material, so as to keep within their  budget.  Big houses need big ideas as much as small houses do.  I have never been back to see the project, but I hope that it is all still there, sturdy and strong.


Working the Earth

scan0003OK, I have spent days detailing my childhood exposure and love of dirt-how does this pertain to you? Sculpting ground-this is a fancy definition for “grading”.  Grading dirt, simply stated, it is the process of moving dirt around, so water drains, there are flat places to be, and the sculpture of the ground which will become your landscape, looks interesting, and beautiful.   We can lower the dirt here; we can raise the dirt here. We can feather that area into this one.  How the house sits on the land is a big issue for new homes-thus many cities require grading plans. The project pictured tried to address a specific landscape issue.  A giant bumpy lawn on a considerable slope was not hospitable to either my client, or her guests.  The space needed some flat ground, and a sense of some intimacy.  The lawn was greatly over scaled for people.  Nor was the shape of the lawn beautiful.  With an earthmover, and rakes, the ground became sculptural and beautiful-but also useable.  I call this a grass amphitheater.earth1

When I design, I never assume the lay of the land is a given.  I can sculpt dirt.  I can sink it down.  Conversely, I can make a mountain, with a beautiful contour.  I can dig in; I can create a perch. I can swirl to the east, and stop abruptly in the west.  As a child, I moved dirt with a spoon-sometimes an incredibly lot of spoonfuls.  As an adult, I move dirt with a front end loader, my orange Dooney and Burke purse, with the rubber bottom, in tow.

scan0004 As I have said before, I have loved moving dirt my whole life.   How this helps you is as follows.  You have a life you are dealt, and a life you make.  Look at what you were dealt, and imagine it better; imagine it beautiful, then move some dirt around.