One View At A Time

The rear south side of this yard is the last leg of the landscape renovation that has been going on here for a number of years. It is a good way to work-tackling one view at a time. The time to let the landscape speak back is time well spent. It is very hard to visualize what a two dimensional design drawing will look like, fleshed out into the third dimension with plants. After 30 years, I am able to visualize what is to come fairly well, but I have been surprised plenty of times. The surprises that dismay me are equal to the surprises that delight me. No one who keeps a landscape bats 1000. Nature can and does throw a wicked fast curve ball. But in this case, the curve ball was a new 2 story garage on the neighboring property. The building is located very close to the property line. My client realized she would have to add screening, to make her view of it less prominent.

The only plant of any size on that side is a beautiful older tricolor beech. That tree is providing a lot of shelter from the neighboring view up high. Some of the lower branches have died, or been cut back out of the way of the grass path. In an effort to provided some screening at a lower level, we added a pair of 2 1/2 inch caliper tricolors. All three trees will eventually will grow together as one. The original tree had a decided lean to it, so the new trees will help to provide some ballast on the back side. Deciduous trees are a great choice for providing screening that needs to be tall. The trunk of a tree takes up next to no room at the ground level, and the branches, twigs and leaves filter out an unwelcome view up high.

We planted four columnar katsura trees on either side of the beech conglomerate. Planted as fairly small trees, they will grow skyward at a fairly fast rate. The upright heads will grow together, and make a handsome hedge high above the ground. Why the upright yews near the fence? This variety can easily grow to six feet tall. The color and texture of the yews is quite similar to that of the neighbor’s arborvitae. Once the yews reach the height of the wood fence, the two evergreens will take over some of the screening job in the winter. Why yews instead of the matching variety of arborvitae?  The yews will be much more tolerant of the shade cast by the katsuras.

Emerald Green arborvitae do grow quite tall, but once they get to fourteen or fifteen feet, the growth slows down. They also become susceptible to damage from heavy snow loads. It is easy to compare the height and scale of the deciduous trees to the Emerald Green arborvitae in the above picture. Only a deciduous tree will completely screen that two story garage.


From the opposite side of the yard, it is easy to see how prominently the neighbor’s new garage figures in this landscape. The katsura trees will fill in the gap between the beech, and a maple in the neighbor’s yard. Small urban properties present a particular challenge to the landscape design. The ground space is limited, and the views to neighboring properties are many. Some years ago we addressed the screening on the east-west axis. The six foot tall hedge of Green Mountain boxwood pictured on the left of the photo above, was planted directly adjacent to the leading edge of the terrace.  A screen that is planted near to the space to be screened does not have to be that tall.  If my clients are on their terrace, that space is private. From inside and upstairs, a hedge of Venus dogwood screen the view into the rear neighbor’s yard.


Venus dogwoods top out at about 20 feet tall. Tall enough to blur the view of the power lines, and the next door neighbor’s yard. Note that the tree closest to the lot line in in the curve still sits proud of the power lines. There are few things more discouraging than having the power company trim a tree away from the lines. They are concerned with keeping the power corridor clear, not making artful or judicious pruning cuts.

The dogwood has a loose and graceful habit of growth. They do not provide a solid green wall. The property to the west was fairly well covered within 3 years of planting.

The boxwood provide a solid screen six feet off the ground plane. The high and low combination of the dogwood and the boxwood do a great job of providing a small yard with some privacy.

We did plant arborvitae at the end of the driveway. They extend into the rear yard the length of the garage wall opposite to them. This place is not a place to linger. It is a hallway connecting one place to another. The solid and lush evergreen wall makes for a simple and quiet transition from the driveway to the private part of the landscape.

One day, many years ago, an effort to provide for screening and privacy for another client via the landscape looked like this. The neighbors house sits quite a bit higher that this property. The row of large round yews behind the new trees were transplanted there from the front yard of the client’s house. A group of densiformis yews were planted on the slope above the stone wall.

Not so many years later, this side garden is entirely private, courtesy of a group of the columnar carpinus “Frans Fontaine”. The neighboring house has just about disappeared from view. Even in the winter, the densely twiggy structure of the trees provides good screening.  Deciduous trees, especially of the columnar form, are a great choice for creating a walled garden.


Open and Closed

the view out (2)A few weeks ago I had an email from a gardener in Connecticut. She was interested in a Hudson fountain cistern from Branch for her garden, and wondered if I could consult with her about the proposed landscape, and size of the fountain.  I am reluctant to take on a design project from far away. I hate to commit to any recommendation for a landscape I cannot see in person. Designing from pictures is next to impossible. On the spot, the eye can take in all kinds of things.  The lay of the land.  The neighboring property, the driveway, the light, the grade, the existing trees, the soil conditions-there are so many factors that influence design that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph. I told her I could not help her. She was not discouraged.  She asked for an appointment-she would come from Connecticut to meet with me.  How could I say no? Her first picture, accompanied by a schematic landscape plan, told a story.  The new landscape and fountain would be constructed at the base of this beautiful stone wall.  Never did she broach the topic of the proposed landscape and garden view from an upper level terrace with a pergola overhead. I am sure she uses this terrace off the house regularly. All I could see from this picture was a view out that had been closed off by an old boxwood hedge. Were I to stand in this lower level, I doubt she would be able to see me from up above.   These boxwoods were in fact blockswoods.

the view out (1) The fieldstone wall is 42 inches high.  The boxwood is 34 inches high.  This means that her view out from her upper level terrace is missing the bottom 7 feet of her lower level garden.  Sitting down, she had no view of anything except the boxwood. A view from a high vantage point, should you be lucky enough to have a view from above, asks for a long and thrilling view out. This boxwood hedge is a screen where no screen is needed. I understand how this happened.  What was once a low border framing a view had outgrown its original intent.  A fountain and the surrounding landscape on the lower level would never be viewed from this terrace. Is this bad?  Of course. A great landscape functions on and from a multiplicity of views. A landscape in which to be is only enhanced by a view of that landscape from afar, or from up above. Good landscapes read at many different levels. This upper level is a place she visits frequently.  Why not enjoy what is going on below?  When I saw this picture, I so wanted to see through that boxwood to the sunny spot hinted at a distance.

the view out (3)Though I had insisted that I could not draw a plan for her, I did draw a plan for her.  I suggested that she move the boxwood hedge, and install a series of steps from the upper terrace, to the lower level garden. I was concerned that her view from above the garden be as good as her experience immersed in that lower garden. Any landscape that involves a change of grade needs careful engineering.  I am not an engineer, but I can imagine what is up and down.  And what needs to be open, and what views should be closed. This drawing for my Connecticut landscape is a schematic plan.  This means that the marks on this page are suggestions with questions attached.  My design for the lower level fountain garden is a schematic plan.  Once a schematic plan looks good, then the details can be worked out. Her landscape contractor had suggested a wall to the west to match the existing wall. I do not see that she needs another wall.  I like the idea of closing the view from the driveway with layers of plant material.

the view out (4)The driveway swoops east, and comes very close to this lower level landscape. Four layers of plant material will make this garden completely private from the driveway. A gate will make a subtle suggestion of what is within. Layers of landscape can provide visual interest from both sides. What is the need? A gently closed view from the driveway.

sculpture in the landscape

This terrace  has a sculpture positioned in the middle of the opening to the pool garden. An opening with a suggestion of closure interrupts the speed at which a guest moves from one area to the other. One must walk around one side of the sculpture, or the other. The time it takes to make that decision slows down the pace. A slow pace means one has time to appreciate and experience one’s surroundings. The transition from a rear terrace to the pool is a long transition.  I favor this.  There is time to absorb the foreground space, and anticipate the next space. The figure in the sculpture faces a rear porch. The arbor frames the sculpture, and invites a walk through to the other side.  There is no need or want of closure here. The hallway from this terrace to the pool garden is interesting.

Coburn (7)This small driveway terrace functions as a drop off. The enclosure supplied by the hydrangeas provides some intimacy, in anticipation of a walk to the front door. The opening in the hydrangea hedge, marked by an arbor planted with sweet autumn clematis, gives a glimpse of the landscape beyond. This landscape celebrates arrival.

conceptual landscape plan 004This landscape which I designed some years back features a long view, that opens up over a considerable distance. I always encourage a client who has long spaces to feature and describe that space. The closure comes behind the sculpture or large pot at the end of that long view.  The screening trees eliminate the view of some large electrical transformers. What needs to be open and what needs to be closed is an important part of a good landscape design.

May 10 016This gravel terrace is one step above the lawn plane. I retained that 7 inch drop with a wide piece of custom edger strip.  The low stucco walls at seat height provide some enclosure without screening the rear yard from view. I felt this terrace needed some enclosure.  In any landscape, there are views that need to be open.  Views that need to be partially open.  Or scarcely open. Those views that need screening-assess the extent of what needs to be blocked.  Blocked in summer, not in winter?  Blocked always?  Is there one place the landscape can be open?  If so, seize that opportunity. An opening in the landscape feels great. Those places where people congregate, make them feel intimate.   I am so hoping my client in Connecticut will open her pergola terrace to the landscape below.