A Schematic Plan

Some landscapes not only require drawings, they require multiple drawings. My initial meeting with these clients was in March of this past year. They had had a mind to renovate or remake every inch of their home and landscape. My initial visit revealed little in the way of landscape, beyond a random collection of neglected and weedy looking trees, and an equally patchy lawn. They assured me that the landscape portion of the project would be their favorite. There are those clients for whom the first choice of a place to be is a place outdoors. This is a very large property. The distance from the river to the road is 680 feet; the footage on the river is 150 feet –  2 and 1/3 acres in all. Based on our discussions, I would draw what I call a schematic plan.

A schematic plan details and addresses the location and shapes of  various spaces and places with a fair minimum of detail. It does address specific needs. In this section of the plan which includes the the road, a request for privacy at the road is addressed with a gate and gate piers, inset 40 feet from the road to meet local code. A hedge of double wide arborvitae stands in lieu of a fence. Groupings of large evergreens finish and cap the ends of the arborvitae fence. Low but broad plantings will soften the arborvitae wall. Just inside the gate are graveled areas for parking both to the north and south to accommodate guest parking. A picture of a mariner’s compass is a placeholder for a medallion to be determined in the drive.These parking areas will be screened with parallel hedges of limelight hydrangeas. Due east of the parking areas is a landscape feature which is bisected by the driveway. Successively smaller radiused beds will be planted with columnar Norway spruce to the outside, flowering trees or Himalayan white barked birch to the inside, and a pair of curving pergolas planted with roses and vines. As the plan does not call for any gardens in the front yard, large pots are planned in regular intervals along side the drive. What these pots will look like, and what will be planted in them is a decision to come.

My clients have added a second garage with apartments upstairs for their extended families and guests. A large drive court will permit parking and a space for events. The center fountain was a specific request. grass areas bordering the west side of the drive court will provide a place to put snow. To the north, that lawn area will permit the passage of a golf cart from the garage to the dock.

The rear yard drops sharply from the grade of the house to the river. The upper level landscape was designed with an infinity edge swimming pool on 3 sides.  Water would drop over a 5.5′ tall stone retaining wall to a lower pool. The pool landscape would be built on flat ground, courtesy of several adjacent stone walls.  Dual stone staircases would provide access to the rear yard. A formal landscape of boxes planted in geometric shapes would be punctuated with 3 garden areas, and low shrub beds along the stone wall.

This drawing is a schematic plan for the pool. The pool is on axis with the rear porch, and features a spa facing the river, and an in pool seating ledge at the infinity edge. The pool fence would be screened on the north and south side with landscape. Subsequent to this drawing, it was decided that the fence between the pool deck and river will be glass, with a mechanically operated sliding glass gate which will cover both the staircases to the lower level. Once the client had approved this scheme, it would be the job of the pool and stone contractor to produce more detailed drawings in order to actually fabricate what this schematic plan suggests. It would be my job to present options for materials for the walls and pool deck. A drawing is a series of lines and shapes on a piece of paper.  Dealing with the reality of the land would be another issue altogether. I favor initial schematic master plans.  It gives the client the opportunity to commit to or change the big picture first, without being visually burdened by countless details. I have seen landscape plans that are so detailed in the initial phase that it is impossible for a client to see the underlying structure upon which all the details will be built.

To follow are a series of photographs detailing the first phase of the landscape installation –  the construction and installation of the pool, retaining walls and stairs. This picture, taken last March, makes clear how little flat ground existed near the house, and the steepness of the drop to the river.

the original swimming pool under demolition.

forms being built for the new pool

pool construction

pool and spa walls poured

spa insulation layer

the shell of the pool and lower pool

working with the general contractor on the step location, based on the pool, as built.

stone for the spa exterior

The construction of a negative edge such as this is very complex, and requires an expert installation. The pool coping is constructed in 2 parallel rows. The row adjacent to the interior pool set at a slight downward angle, and will always have a slight amount of water over it.  When the pool is full, a series of pumps pushes the water over the slot between the 2 rows of coping.That water is then recirculated back into the pool. This keeps the top layer of water at the same grade as the outer, dry pool coping. This fine detail came after the determination of the size and location of the pool.

Adding the finish stone to the water wall. Gillette Brothers Pool and Spa fabricated and installed the swimming pool, water wall, and lower pool.

the water wall

pouring the concrete base for the pool deck

spa stone and coping

Valders stone pool deck

3″ blue stone dots were installed in the inside corners of every other group of four tiles. Each square tile had to have a corner cut off to accommodate the blue stone dot. This pool deck, as well as the retaining walls and stone staircases were installed by Mike Newman, who owns Mountain Paver Construction. The installation is incredibly beautiful and precise. What you see in the above picture are the finished cut outs, prior to installing the dots.

Once the blue stone squares were installed, the entire stone surface was sanded and sandblasted to insure that water would drain away from the pool.

finished pool and pool deck

rainy day

Next up in my discussion of plans, the retaining walls and staircases to the lower yard.

This aerial photograph was taken by my client, after the basic installation of the pool, and during the construction of the stone retaining walls last winter. The retaining wall to the north you see in the top left of this picture was tented, and heated so the stone work could progress over the winter. I am so very pleased to be a part of this project.















The Landscape Plan

Sept 6, 2012.jpgIn September of last year, a plan for a pool, pool house, and landscape was approved and awarded a permit to build.  Those drawings, and the concept for the pool house-time consuming to produce. There are ideas, drafts, and more drawings.  There are lots of meetings.  A client, with a Capital C.  An architect.  A pool contractor.  A building contractor.  And planning with a big P.  A big organizing idea is essential. These clients wanted a pool, and place to entertain family and friends.  This meant siting the pool near the house and existing terrace.  A home, terrace and a pool when sited properly make the flow of traffic in the space easy and comfortable.  The pool, pool house, and surrounding landscape needed a flat place to be, despite the existing slope from the yard towards the house.  Sloped sites are good for mountain climbers, hikers, and short visits.  A landscape that invites people to linger asks for a flat, or near to flat grade, to navigate.  To sit.  To congregate. The idea to create a level landscape with a close proximity to the house was the organizing metaphor for the design. A primary or seminal idea will provide a foundation that connects every other gesture to the whole.

Sept-13-2012.jpgOnce the space was graded flat, the construction of the pool began.  The soil that was available as a result of the excavation of the pool was repurposed on site in a spot that would afford the client more flat space.  These clients planned to spend a lot of time in the landscape.  They did not have the idea to view it from afar.  They wanted plenty of room for any activity that involved people.

November-2012.jpgOnce the pool walls were installed, the retaining walls that would hold back the sloping ground were installed. These concrete walls had footings installed down 42″ below grade.  This is standard in my zone.  A footing 42″ below ground means frost will not heave or damage the wall.  The wall has a purpose-holding back all of that soil on the upper level.

November-9-2012.jpgThe foundation for a pool house included the apparatus required for heated floors.  That came first.  The pool house itself would be constructed with solar panels on the back side of the roof that would heat the space in the fall.  Details like this makes a landscape in a climate like ours enjoyable early in the summer season, and late into the fall.

November-14-2012.jpgThe concrete retaining walls needed a skilled stone mason to transform them from the necessary to the beautiful.  Steve Templeton, owner of Templeton Construction, managed all of the construction with  grace, speed, and aplomb.  The dirt and disarray notwithstanding, these walls were beautifully conceived, and solidly constructed.

December-2012.jpgThe construction of the pool and pool house was an affair handled start to finish by my clients, and Templeton Construction.  My part?  I watched. My design work was long finished.  The landscape installation-to come.



By the time that March of 2013 arrived, the big ideas were beginning to take shape.  Some parts of the landscape took place into the late fall months, notably the finish grading and seeding of the displaced soil.  The first order of business in the landscape was the installation of the large trees.  They had to be planted first, as once the rest of the landscape was finished, there would be no access for the equipment necessary to handle large trees.

April-2012.jpgBy April, the pool house was up; the interior was under construction. The pool was finished, and waiting for warmer weather.  The landscape comes last, as the heavy construction occupies just about every inch of the space around it.  Once the exterior was finished and the debris cleaned up, we were ready to begin.

May-2013.jpgIn May, the addition of soil, grading, and prepping of the oil to plant was underway.  All of the beds were graded to meet the grade established by the pool and pool house. The existing landscape needed to be welcomed into the new design.

June-2013.jpgOnce all of the woody plant material was planted, and an irrigation system in place, the project was ready for grass, perennials and annuals.

June-2013.jpgBy this time, my clients were more than ready to give up the construction phase, and move in.  Who could blame them?  A project like this takes a lot of time to plan and execute.  There are problems that require attention.  In this case, quite a bit of drainage work was done before the finish.  Heavy spring rains created delays.

August-2013.jpgThe day when all of the commotion dies down, and a project comes to a finish, is a good day for a client. From start to finish, 11 months.  It is a satisfying day for all of the contractors who contributed to the final outcome.

August-2013.jpgOf course with a landscape, there is no final outcome.  This was the beginning.  I find that big projects created from a few bold and simple ideas are easier to stage and execute.  A plan for the logical order of events helps make a project come to fruition with a minimum amount of lost, down, or wasted time.  But even more importantly, a simple plan that focuses on establishing spaces, and creating structure leaves the door open for the future.  Should a client have success with a new landscape, and become more interested, gardens can be added.  A grove of fruit trees might be just the thing.

August-2013.jpgNew landscapes, whether big or small, benefit from a plan that prioritizes what needs to happen first.  A plan that asks for a lifetime’s worth of landscape development to be installed all at once puts a big burden on the client.  Once the installation is finished, my work is done.  But the work is just beginning for the client.  I like them to have the opportunity to decide whether they would like to take things further.  After they catch their breath with this phase, that is.

August-2013.jpgOnce the structure of a landscape is installed, it may speak back in a way that a designer and the client did not anticipate.  There may be surprises, second thoughts, or new ideas.  There may be something that does not work out.  Better one problem to solve, than a long list of problems to solve.

August-2013.jpgI think it is important for clients to experience success in maintaining a project.  A landscape design and installation is no better than the maintenance it takes for it to prosper.  They might decide they like the landscape that is doing well enough to do more.  A big perennial garden might be just the thing, providing the timing is right.  Not everyone would want as much to care for as I have.  Not everyone would want as little to care for as I have.  That degree has to emerge.  Better that the first part of the project creates a structure which can stand on its own.

late-August-2013.jpgThe degree to which a client is willing and excited to take ownership at the end of a project is no small measure of the success of the design.



Breaking Ground

Theodore Roethke is one of America’s most respected poets.  He was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1908, to German immigrant parents-Otto Roethke and Helen Heubner.  His parents were market gardeners, and owned and operated 25 acres of greenhouses with Theodore’s uncle.  Much of his childhood was spent in those greenhouses.  His second book, “The Lost Son”, contains several of what are known as his greenhouse poems. 

Images and metaphors derived from the natural world are much a part of his writing.  Long before I ever had the conscious idea to design gardens, I treasured his work. I studied early twentieth century poetry in some detail in college.  For whatever reason, many of the lines from his poems have stayed with me.

One phrase I have always liked- “The time comes when the vague life of the mouth no longer suffices…”  I am taking this phrase completely out of the contextural meaning of the poem, but it perfectly expresses that moment when the time for the designing, the discussion, the redesigning, and the additional discussion, comes to an end.  Enough decisions have been made in order for a project to proceed.   

A landscape plan is just so many marks on a page-a drawing.  That drawing has only two dimensions.  It does not really describe the sculpture that will be.  But drawings are critical in a project such as this.  Preceeding the landscape, a pool and poolhouse will be built.  Though my drawing described the physical location, shape and size of the pool, and the location of the poolhouse, that drawing needed lots of details-what materials would be used?  What would the poolhouse look like?  What features would be incorporated?  How many months of the year did the client foresee using it?  Building a pool and poolhouse is a complicated and considerable undertaking, but even the smallest landscape project needs to be thought through.

The integral spa on axis with the rear terrace was agreed upon, but the client wanted a slightly longer and slightly narrower pool.  The architect took my idea for a pair of poolhouses linked by a conservatory structure, and designed the poolhouse.  The general contractor decided with the client how the interior space would be handled.  He needed the poolhouse to be longer, so as to have inside space for the pool equipment.  He favored solar panels to warm the poolhouse early and late in the season.  I integrated these and every other good idea into what became the final landscape plan.  Ideas are one thing.  Building a project requires ideas that work. 

The pool contractor sorted out all of the many details needed to build the pool.  The depths of the water, the steps, the filtration system.  The general contractor oversees the entire project, so construction goes smoothly, and things happen in the right order.  This GC is very low key, and equally good at problem solving-just the person to handle a project like this. 

Once a coherent design emerged from the client and all of the design and build people, finish plans were drawn, and submitted for review to the planning board. Once the permit was issued, the pool was dug, and lined with a steel mesh that would reinforce the concrete.  The giant and deep hole you see here, encompassing the steep change of depth of the pool, will be filled with concrete.  This will stabilize the entire underwater structure. A pool needs to stay put.  Any action from the frost that might heave the pool upwards, and crack it-every effort is taken to avoid that. 

Of primary concern in the initial design-a gorgeous oak of considerable stature.  My clients love this tree.  The pool was sited to avoid any damage to it.  I was relieved to see no roots exposed in the excavation necessary to provide level ground for the pool.  This oak sits on a hill that slopes dramatically down to the house.  Eventually, a stone retaining wall between 3 and 4 feet tall will be built to hold the soil on the oak side.  The pool and surround will be built at the grade of an existing rear terrace.  A drainage plan for both the ground and the wall-a subject of much discussion and planning.  

A decision was made to integrate the soil unearthed from the excavation of the pool into the existing property.  Hauling away soil is a time consuming and expensive process.    This is a large property, and I have ideas about where this soil can go.  The drainage work, and grading of this soil is part of the landscape project. 

No one could like a gigantic pile of dirt awaiting a sculptural disposition better than I.  I have walked the property at least 5 times, imagining what might be come of it.  I am inclined to leave most of it on this north end of the pool.  The natural grade of the land at the north end of what will be a pool slopes down precipitously.   A large area of level ground there would be ground they can use, enjoy, and garden.  More than likely I will be able to stablilize the soil with a gradual slope down.  Perhaps we will need some retaining on the east side.

As for Thoedore Roethke,  I was thinking about him the past Friday.  He died in 1963 at the age of 55, at the home of a friend on Baimbridge Island in Washington- a heart attack while he was in the pool.   That pool was subsequently filled in, and today is the rock and sand Zen garden at the Bloedel Reserve.  No where is there any mention of Mr. Roethke, but I would imagine he would approve of a garden in this spot.  There does indeed come a time when the vague life of the mouth no longer suffices.  We broke ground.


Sun And Games

Our weather has taken a decidedly balmy turn the past few days; we have temps in the fifties.  I expect it will take a turn for the worse sooner or later, but today I am enjoying the sun.  The cold, snow and ice of a Michigan winter is usually bearable, but the grey could make you black out. I am always ready for some sun. I was outside today with no coat, enjoying that sun.  Even indoors, the light is brighter and stronger.  The days are longer. I welcome the reappearance of the sun.  The season is changing-delightful.

Sunlight is essential to living things.  Books are written and lists made of those plants that tolerate shade. The unspoken implication here-nothing living loves the dark. When I was young, I killed many a shade tolerant perennial thinking it was shade loving. I am in discussion with a client now about a design for a pool, so there has been much talk about sun and games.  Sunny and shady.  Imagine your life long enough to see what, where, and how you want to live outdoors. 

Water one observes can be sited in a number of places.  Shadier locations will provide perfect conditions for mosses and other water loving plants to take hold.  Shading 75% of the surface of a pond will not only provide refuge for fish, but it will make the job of balancing the pond ecologically much easier. For those that have an aversion to cleaning a pond mechanically, an understanding of the role of the sun is essential. Read up. A fountain burbling in the shade can be peacefully overrun with everything that blows in and takes up residence-beautiful.  Sunny water-don’t you want to get in?  

Pools for swimming are another topic altogether.  The right siting for any activity outdoors-look to the sun.  I want to swim in the sun-water is cold, even in midsummer. Enjoying a sunny July day at pool side-fine, for a while.  Watching kids play in a pool, or having lunch outdoors-a shady spot is a good idea.      

White or light surfaces poolside will reflect sunlight, and be cooler for bare feet. Reflected heat and light will dry you off in short order.  Drying off in the sun-like being on vacation.  If you are old enough to remember putting sheets on a bed that have been sun dried on a clothesline-this a simple and exquisite pleasure.  Dark surfaces absorb the heat of the sun, and radiate that heat.  A shady location sporting dark surfaces may be a late summer refuge. Hard surfaces take a long time to heat up, and a long time to give up their heat.  Plan for some, if it is your idea to be outside, late fall.

Pools with dark interior surfaces reflect light.  A swimming pool that doubles as a reflecting pool has a long season of use.  Dark surfaced pools absorb the energy from the sun-the water will be warm, but the bottom of the pool is usually obscured.  Cathy’s pool is very unusual, as it can be seen from far above; she has a view of warm water in a dark surfaced pool, to the bottom.  The interior color of her pool contrasts sharply with the surrounding garden. She gets as much from looking at her pool as being in it.  The big idea here?  Make moves that deliver at different times, in different seasons.   

This handmade Italian pot is indoors until the weather reliably warms.  Nevertheless, its detail is brought to life by the light of the spring sun streaming in the window.  The surfaces closest to the light are white; the shadows are black.  What goes on in between is a matter between you and your designer.  Or between you and your gardening self. 

My fountain is 26 feet long-of course the conditions are different end to end, and they change, given the course of the day. Mostly sunny is the outlook for my home water-I am ready for it when I get home at the end of the day. On moody days, it is enough to just watch it.  This post may seem to be a rambling late winter stream based on a lot of thoughts; you are right about that.  I am  waking up to lots of design work needing spring readiness.  But this warm March day, I am also dreaming about a warm summer’s day, and some water.