Bringing the Garden Upstairs

I have a few clients that challenge me to be the best I can possibly be-this client is right at the top of that list.  Her design ability-whether it be interiors, or parties and events,  or gardening-is superb. She could have easily founded a  School of Design-had she had any inclination to do so. She and her husband live in a beautifully overscaled modern house with a beautifully high pitched roof, and overscaled high-pitched  dormers. (This is a landscape designers description of architecture; bear with me.)


To drive into the impossibly small front drivecourt, you would think the house was sited on a postage stamp of land.  But in fact, the house is sited on a steep ravine, and hangs out over a rear yard that widens, and goes on to embrace the river. It is a big property, with incredible aerial views.


She loves gardens and flowers.  Flowers and more flowers.  She is a master chef-so any plan for her has to include acres of basil, and the like.  OK-the challenge here-to plant a perennial garden stuffed with roses and other perennials, in a flood plane-courtesy of that river.  The first order of business was a lot of drainage, and rear yard grading. When her son got married, we had to install floors in the tents and stepping stones between them at the last second-which we did.   The perennial garden ramps up to a curvy modern swimming pool.  So far so good.3

I met her when I was young-so I had no problem moving every tree and every shrub within two days of my first work there.   There were trees, shrubs and perennials placed poorly, and too many boulders. But that house was a jewel-perched out over a beautiful piece of property.  The house-a beautifully designed tree house.4

A house sited in the crowns of trees-how beautiful.  But what if you love to cook, and grow flowers, and want to sit with your garden and family  around you?5

The house already had a giant deck all across the back.  Stairs to the lower level had a small landing-perfect for pots. The lower level under this deck-dark, and intimate. My only suggestion-windowboxes.  And lots of pots. 6

We built and hung two giant windowboxes-off the deck, at the railing height.  There is a whole symphony of flowers in those boxes every year-every year a new arrangement. The pots we outfitted with automatic irrigation-there are too many pots for one family and one hose.7

I heard my client tell someone recently  I had brought her garden upstairs for her. I had neither the words, nor the clear conscious intent to do this-but I realized when I heard her that she was exactly right.

8As I said, she is a client that encourages me to be the best I can be.  I am a very lucky designer.

What I Mean by Beautiful Pots


Beautiful pots are not only about beautiful plant material, designed and planted in an interesting, or lovely, or architectural way, and well grown. There is the matter of the pots themselves.


Pots could be loosely defined as anything that holds soil, and drains water away.  Once in my twenties I planted four plastic garbage cans (I drilled holes in the sides and bottom) and planted all my vegetables and herbs in them.  My first and only concern was my tomatoes, and what I was growing with them for my salads. It was easy to weed, groom, and pick, standing up.


I have a much different view of pots now.  They are an important sculptural element of the planting as a whole.  They make suggestions about what would look good planted in them, if you ask. They make themselves at home in your landscape.  Many are as beautiful empty as they are planted; some containers need planting.

bigbeautiful9Once you plant an old galvanized bucket with geraniums and strawberries, the eye sees that object in a different way.

Some pots I am not fond of. Most fiberglass and plastic pots have a visually unpleasant surface-no romance there.  These I avoid.  I like genuine materials.  I don’t think this makes me a pot-snob. I have seen vintage baskets and buckets, wood boxes, stainless steel milk pails, and livestock troughs completely transformed visually by someone’s idea to plant them.

If I had to name a favorite, my Compton Pottery snake pot, made during the arts and crafts period in England would rank high on my list.

bigbeautiful8 It was a 50th birthday present, from me, to me. Every time I look at it, I feel the history of the object, and my own garden making.  It is the emotional equivalent of a trip to Europe, touring other gardens, whose pots tell me something about the gardeners who planted them.


More Places

debhouse4No matter that I have been planting annuals for the better part of 25 years; I have yet to get to that  point where I have had enough.  It’s a yearly conversation I have with myself, usually in late February.  Do I still want to do this?  Would I like some other career?  Am I done with my career-would I just like a job? Another words, I am wringing my hands and fretting such, it would make you laugh.2008_silver_deborah_house_7-8-08_16

Incidentally, my idea of a good job would be to gang mow 1-75 between Detroit, and Flint, and back. Repeatedly, through 3 seasons.  No phones to answer, no problems to solve-just headphones blasting whatever music seems good that day. A responsibility for short grass, and short grass, only.  Some days, the Mozart Requiem (fall music for sure) and other days, Aretha Franklin, or the Propeller Heads. Or Bob Dylan-that would be good.   I would sculpt that grass for miles, and look forward to that sculpture’s next incarnation. I would park my mower and that job at the end of the day, and head for home. debhouse2

But I am not ready for that, yet.  I still love that I have my home and my garden-but also that I have lots of other gardens that belong to me in a certain way, as I’ve designed and planted them.

There are the people that own those gardens with whom I have a relationship.  I think God steered me to this career-as I have more gardens and landscapes than years left, that I want to plant.
That an annual garden, or any garden for that matter, is ephemeral is key to my love for them. So intensely present all season, one good frost and poof, gone. Why do without memories like these?



Other Places

otherplaces4Annual flowers on a terrace do a lot to warm up all the hard surfaces. I pay particular attention to the overall plant height and composition of those pots, as they are usually viewed up close, and while sitting.


I may want a particularly beautiful pot elevated on a stand or pedestal, so as to feature it.  I may plant tall pots in strategic areas to give intimacy to a dining area, or perhaps screen a poor view.  At this moment, I am able to see my neighbor’s discarded Christmas tree quite clearly from my deck. Urban living-it has its challenges.


Small terraces benefit from a cohesive plan. Pots may be organized around a dominant color, or texture, or style.otherplaces88

They may be organized around a collection of containers.


Pots of flowers with every conceivable color, every texture, and in every size are the hallmark of a person whose first and last love is plants, and more plants. Though I appreciate excitement like this, I try to edit.  After all, with annuals there are second chances, so I try not to throw myself at every annual like I have 10 minutes to live.

This terrace is planted in a color palette my clients like.  We keep the color constant, but plant different plants every year.  They do a beautiful job of taking care of it all, no kidding.   My second favorite day of the gardening year, after Mindy prunes my boxwood, is going back to those places I planted in May, in July, and know I handed off the baton to someone who values this as much as I do.  Thanks a million,  Hilary and Stewart.