Sunday Opinion: Imagination And Precision

I owe the idea for this post to Nanne; she commented a few days ago about a sculpture of mine she thought exhibited imagination and precision.  What about it? Imagination may be defined as the ability to form a mental image of something which does not yet exist in any other form other that a thought.   No one will ever hire me to write a dictionary, or teach a course in philosophy, but the word imagination does suggest an activity that floats like a cloud above that stormy sea I call the Sea of Execution.

I am in the process of a series of sculptures about the landscape I believe no one will ever hire me to build.  Why would I do this?  I like making things, whether they be terraces, pinetums, bouquets, or paintings.  But more importantly, the idea of designing an object that could represent the landscape free of responsibility to make it work, live and go on growing seemed like so much fun.  At the top of my top ten list of mistakes gardeners make-and this includes me-is the expectation that a plant will obligingly represent an idea.  An idea about space, beauty, gardens, or  landscapes.  My Honorine Jobert anemone flowers are making me pretty happy right now, but my happiness is the last thing on their blooming minds. They have their own agenda; I just get to tag along.  They do not look the same as they did last year.  They are older; the summer weather is different this year. Nothing stays the same with them; what stubbornly stays the same is my effort to get them to represent  my design.  The lilac planted right next to the kitchen window in hopes that the fragrance will fill that room does not account for the 20′ rangy shrub that comes with that fragrance.  A perfectly good plant in the wrong spot is a product of the idea that design will prevail over biological destiny.  Junipers pruned into spirals, cloud pruned boxwood, stick like burning bushes with a thin frosting of leaves on top, my pollarded Palabin lilacs on standard-they tell a story much like a fairy tale.  Giant shrubs pruned down to half their mature size to fit a space-not so sweet a tale. Making these sculptureswould circumvent all of the frustration of imagining a design, and making it work; it would never have to work.

Every landscape designer has design work that never escapes escapes the page, and breathes. Pieces of that work may go on to become part of another project-like my sculptures.  Or it gets the saucing up it needs to really taste good. Every design relationship is precisely that-a relationship.  Maybe the design work has not met its intended yet. Perhaps it wasn’t worth a hoot anyway, and I should feel relieved I was never asked to transform a pig’s ear of a design into a functional landscape.  

 But I do know that the sum total of my imaginative worth needs a different measure than the the sum total of my bank account.  If I spent every day of the next 100 days giving my imagination free rein, I would still have just as much of it available to me on the hundredth day as I do today.  You need and should have this confidence in what you imagine, as you will need that energy to transform an idea into a living space.  Some ideas won’t stand for being transplanted into a landscape. It is good to know this beforehand.  The day comes when what I have imagined has to settle up precisely with what and how it will work.  The best design work in the world cannot circumvent this.  Once I buy plants in fulfillment of a design, my bank account does get involved.   Putting money to something only to find that it will not or does not work is no fun at all. 

Some issues are a matter of inches.  A bench 4 inches inches higher may be more comforatble; 8 inches is the difference between a garden and a sunken garden.  A tree planted 8 inches above grade may thrive or die, based on soil and water conditions.  A  garden gate off center by 7 inches will always look wrongly placed. A step riser taller than 8 inches is a pain to negotiate.  Paying attention to inches implies a certain precision.   

The sculpture of plastic grass that Nanne referred to in her comment was very precisely constructed.  The materials made it possible for that to work.  Had they been covered in sod-oh my.  I guess I try with my design work to make big simple gestures, as the plants that I will ask to be a party to what I imagine need the room to be what they do best-grow.  The big surprise of the construction of my sculptures-they do need to work.  I am stopped dead, trying to imagine precisely where to take them next.

So Green, So Serene

It is an unusual client that opts for a green garden.  I doubt I have the discipline this requires-though the front of the shop is grey, green and white this year.  Truth be told, I love flowers.  All manner of flowers, all shapes, all sizes.  Little flowers-fine. Subtle flowers-I see.  Daisies-no matter that I see them everywhere, I love them.  The flowers that grace my summer-I love them one and all.   Giant flowers-what fun. Blooms-I am besotted by them.  But a green garden does have that aura of  serenity about it.

Serene does not necessarily mean sleepy. The infinite variation in color, shape, texture and mass of green plants is astonishing.  Green plants of singular form populate this planet such that one could plant any number of green schemes and never repeat oneself. These containers with ferns and pepperomia are lush growing, content on this porch.   

An old bay tree in a varnished Belgian box provides solid company to a long narrow window box. 

Plectranthus Silver Shield makes a swell, densely growing summer ground cover in a small space.  The thick felted grey green leaves are quite handsome.  That frosty green color persists in the sunniest and hottest spots you have, and is easy on the eyes. Its billowing habit of growth is very attractive.

The plants in the window box look like bunting casually draping over the window box rail.  Those needled succulents are quite blue-green, and look great with the dichondra.  There is no brass band blaring here, just a plant string quartet quietly playing a simple melody. 

This white pergola with its wisteria roof is beautiful; there is no need to introduce a competitve element.  The mandevillea in the the boxes repeats the vining of the wisteria; the white flowers echo the white wood of the pergola.  Getting a planting to sit down and blend in seamlessly with all and any other garden elements makes for a serene space.  When plants talk too much, bicker, or compete with one another, the space will take a much more lively turn.  Deciding how high you like the volume outdoors can help you decide what and how to plant.   

Green spaces have an added attraction;  most shades and textures of green look great together.  When you use materials that are all the same color, it encourages you to see the differences.  What textures compliment or enhance each other? Big leaves look great with little leaves.  Shiny leaves look great with hairy leaves.  I am surprised I do not see more groundcover plantings that mix vinca and baltic ivy.  The contrast of leaf size and texture is subtle, and interesting.  

Topiary plants are a natural in a  green garden.  Many plants can be trained to grow in formally or informally clipped shapes.  The common denominator to all-the hand of the gardener, clipping and training towards an overall shape.  The effect of these groupings of pots is restful.  The formally pruned yews make a beautifully dark green backdrop for this collection of topiary. 


Trimmed Up

Last March, when I was thinking about taking on writing a daily blog for the first time, I had some ideas about it-not the least of which had to do with the seasons.  I wanted to write what I thought day to day-not especially about the past, and maybe a bit about the future.  The news of the day-in this I was most interested.  The winter is excruciatingly long in Michigan; making writing for day to day interest in the depths of my winter, for other gardeners stuck in a similar spot, a challenge.  In defense of the winter months, lots of design issues can be broached and discussed. I have done that, maybe in more detail than you like. The 2010 store collection and how it came to be looks great-but all of this is lacking a certain kind of life. No collection comes to life until the plants get here. All I have a mind to do right now is think and talk about plants.  Steve has been on a road trip, checking out nurseries from whom we have plants ordered and soon to be on the way.  Relevant to my Sunday post about pollarding, his photograph above is of a willow stock plant, being pollarded.  The branches will not be used for firewood, as they are frequently used in Europe-these rootless cuttings will be sent out to growers all over who wish to grow on this cultivar.  These trimmings will become trees someday.         

Some older boxwood specimens spend the winter in tunnel houses.  Winter snow loads can devastate what has taken many years to grow. A tiny boxwood you may purchase at a nursery most likely takes seven years to get to that 12″ size.  Bigger plants take many more years to grow.  Nursery people do what they can, to protect what has taken so much of their time and effort, to grow on. 

I so love this photograph of Steve’s.  The dirt road, impressed with dusty tractor tracks, is in stark contrast to these painstakingly grown and trimmed plants.  Wow-do you not think you are looking at an alternative planet?  Or at the very least an alternative idea about plants?  Like trimmed topiary plants or not, the energy, will and work cannot be denied.  Growers and gardeners-a relationship.

I spoke for a big group of these plants.  They are beautifully grown, and healthy.  But I mostly admire the hand in evidence that sculpted these plants.  Make no mistake-so many years, so much effort, so much passion-one has to pause and admire what made this field come to be.  Growers by and large have no prize in mind-they grow, and live to grow.  Their hands-I plan to celebrate them.  I am sure you do too.

I see junipers grown and trimmed in this fashion regularly.  Yews grown like this-news to me. When I think old, gorgeous, and thoughtfully grown yews, I think England.  I am now seeing old and trained yews on my side of the pond-I will have some. Sensational topiary plants grown on this side of the ocean-I am clapping my hands. 

Buxus Sempervirens is not hardy in my zone.  I have avoided the plant like the plague-who wants to deal with a serious gardener’s grief when they loose a major plant?   I cannot plant this species of boxwood in the ground-all of us need to be committed to taking them into the garage for the winter. These topiary grown and trimmed boxwood would make my heart pound, planted in pots-a handtruck taking them to shelter for the winter is well worth the effort.    

 My pots are standing, waiting for plant material of this caliber.  How they have been grown and trimmed up before they ever get to me-many thanks to those growers whose committment and investment stands largely behind the scenes.  The hands put to a living plant by any gardener-no matter personal or professional, no matter a home or a growing field-I so greatly value this.


BirmPots (16)Topiary is the art of pruning, and training a plant to grow in whatever shape you might fancy. Plenty of plant species lend themselves to this kind of treatment.  The above pictured lantana is seven years old.  It began as a small plant, whose side branches were removed until the primary trunk was about four feet tall.  A devoted grower then pinched back the main leader-the first step in the formation of the top.  As I like slightly flattened spherical shapes in topiary, we keep the top pruned, and grow the side shoots wide. Lantana flowers profusely in hot weather, it makes a strikingly statuesque topiary plant. In the fall, I cut the head of the plant back by two-thirds,, strip all the remaining leaves off, and stash it in the greenhouse.  I strip the leaves off, as lantana is a magnet for whitefly-and they multiply like lightening in a green house environment.  What they require is plenty of trouble, but it is glorious in form and flower.  

DGW  22Well grown large topiary plants are expensive. It takes a lot of time to grow them on-sometimes years go by before a plant can be sold.  This dwarf variegated euonymus with a batch of leaves atop a stem tells the story.  In ten years, this plant will not be much taller-just much stockier, with a full head of leafy branches.  As euonymus is a hardy shrub, they like to be wintered in a cool light place. 

2008 Ford SUMMER 6-11-08 (5)Bay Laurel is not hardy here, unfortunately-so a greenhouse is a necessity in the winter.  This plant is 14 years old.  This single ball topiary suckered at the base so persistently, I finally just let it grow.  The formal shape is easy to keep up; you can see it needs a little haircut right now.  There are many kinds of topiary shears available-I like short bladed snips, so I can cut branches without slicing into the leaves.  Any leaf that is cut will show that telltale browing on that cut edge within days. �

Coleus makes a great topiary, but the growing process is different.  As it is a short lived annual plant, they need to be grown fast.  Coleus, irisine, geraniums and the like are given a push with a growth hormone.  The specific hormone causes the cells of the plant to elongate; the stem develops fast.  One crop of 50 tree geraniums I grew 20 years ago got treated five times before they reached their four foot finished height. Topiaries grown from non-woody plants need careful staking of the stem-that stem will never be as strong as a branch. I usually stake with a pair of bamboo stakes, for extra insurance. A beautiful topiary-its head snapped off in a wind- this is enough to make you fall to the ground and weep.

Some woody plants have such a tight habit of growth that you might suspect they were topiaries from the beginning.  Dwarf Alberta Spruce is one such tree that lends itself to the pruning process with ease.  An Alberta Spruce of this gorgeous shape and size is expensive; many many years has gone into the growing and shaping process.  As they are hardy, they can make a big statement as a centerpiece in a formal garden. 

Sept 30a 008
Gardenmeister fuchsias are vigorous growers and bloomers; they make an ideal subject for an informally shaped topiary.  They are easy to winter over, and bloom continuously from spring to fall.  This topiary is supported on the interior by a column of heavy grade wire fencing.  Once the multiple stems and flowering shoots grow in, that support fades from view.  Big fuchsias make good subjects for topiary in general-but I like the vigor of this particular variety. 

Aug 28d 361Ivy can be readily be trained over a wire form.  This makes it an ideal subject for fast growing.  The vines are tied to the form to provide completely coverage, and the vines are clipped as needed. Hedera algeriensis ” Gloire de Marengo”, or variegated Algerian ivy, has large glossy leaves, and a prominent white variegation; old topiaries grown from this plant are striking.  A bonus-it is possible to winter ivy topiaries over in the house. 

DSC_0054The coleus topiary I let go after two seasons-they seem to loose vigor.  The minute you decide to grow a plant in any form which is not its natural form, there will be maintenance problems down the road.   Plants tolerate being fooled with by people-they rarely love it.  Plants that naturally lend themselves to this treatment are easier to look after.

For all their trouble, a well grown topiary plant can instantly provide large scale to a new planting. Handsome, this.  Should you be the patient sort, try growing one of your own.  Lacking patience, the nursery industry offers many different species of  trained to shape plants.  I admire any pair of hands that can make them grow.