Archives for August 2009

Moving A Mountain

2000-2001-593I am so sorry I did not take a picture of this house before I put an excavator in the ground.  Perched high above the street,  a narrow concrete staircase sans rails  made the journey to the front door a challenge.  While this arrangement did keep away all but the most persistent visitors, the landscape was neither beautiful nor useful.  This is a leave- me- alone lansdscape, is it not? My clients were interested in something very different.

2000-2001-5481Some problems cannot be solved with a shovel.  An excavator made relatively fast work of cutting into the steep slope, in preparation for a wall which would divide the steep slope into two terraces, with a staircase and landing transition.

2000-2001-659We built what I call a rubble wall.  Stones of varying shapes and thicknesses are fit together to make a graceful and tightly fitted wall. This takes a person with great skill, and a great feeling for stone.  My stone mason has been at this sort of thing a long time, and not incidentally, he has a gift.  I would not have entrusted the job to anyone else.

2000-2001-678Boxes of stone were delivered via a semi truck.  Each lot was uncrated, sorted, and looked over, before any actual work begun. This material would not do for stairs.  The staircase needed to be made of a flat stone, for easy climbing. The finished grade of the staircase would set the grades for the adjacent walls. 

aug-28c-024The bluestone landing matched the grade of the existing sidewalk; it is very important to be sure that walkways and stairs be set exactly as people expect they are set.  Not everyone watches their feet when they walk.  These stairs are set exactly level with the horizon; how they appear in this picture to be crooked explains how land actually sloped away in every direction.

aug-28a-038I was not about to ditch a lovely old magnolia in the front yard, so the finished grade had to respect the grade of that tree.  No tree likes soil piled up against its trunk; changing the grade of an existing tree more than 4 or 6 inches is likely to kill it. One course of stone set at and into the grade of the upper terrace gives the illusion that the wall has great thickness and heft.

aug-28a-042The wall slopes gracefully from the center staircase to the edges of the property.  The return, or short arms of the wall, permitted me to maintain the grade to the neighboring property without interruption. A pair of antique iron railings I had acquired were retrofitted to work with the staircase.  They are as lovely as they are functional. 

It took several weeks to make this yard accessible. The ground level terrace landing and stairs makes an invitation to visit.  The upper level landscape will have to deal with how the ground slopes away to the south.  A lot of design involves visual solutions that direct and engage the eye such that the problem becomes secondary.  What people see is not necessarily what is actually there.  As I look at this wall, I am thinking a landscape solution will involve plant material set perpendicular to the house, in order to minimize attention to the slope I could not change.

aug-28c-027Not surprisingly the existing driveway was set to a grade which no longer existed.  A new concrete aggregate driveway culminated in a parking area at the back of the house.  There is no hiding a space like this, so I designed a stone medallion for the center.  What one can’t get rid of needs a little special attention. 

It took some weeks for all of this work to be done, and the mess cleaned up.  I have patience for few things, but I am very patient about good groundwork.  Tomorrow, the landscape.

Sunday Opinion: Letting Go

I am having dinner tonight with the Baumgartners; I have designed and landscaped for them for 25 years.  They have sold their house, and are moving out east to be near their children.  Their new home will on the fourth floor-so no landscape responsibilities.  A small balcony terrace will certainly not provide them with much of a garden.  But what people need in their lives changes with circumstance.  Though they will miss the house and garden they lived in, and enjoyed for so many years, it is time for something else. The extent to which they loved their place is exactly the extent to which it is proving difficult for them to let go. I have them nearby another 2 months-the time it will take to get their new place ready for them. 

I have talked on the phone with the new owner; though she seemed to have a genuine appreciation for all that came with that house, I could tell in one instant there was a changing of the guard in progress.  I doubt I will ever hear from her again.  I regret having to let go of what took so long to accomplish,  and so much effort to maintain-and what provided so much interaction between the B’s and I.  I also understand that I am pouting about something that has even odds of never happening.  The landscape under new stewardship may prosper, and enjoy a good future-who knows? 

A month ago or so I was shocked beyond all belief to discover, driving by,  that a client had ripped out a landscape of which I was very fond, and replaced it entirely.  The shock stayed with me for a few days.  The lesson: once the work is done, it no longer belongs to me.  The only time that any project belongs to me is while I am designing and making it.  I collect books with old plates and prints of gardens.  Many of those gardens do not exist any more, except on the page. Sometimes I look at those prints with a magnifying glass, in the hopes they will seem more real.  What is very real is my relationship of 25 years with the Baumgartners.  That relationship is what really matters here-not the lead pots on the porch, or the katsura tree, or the magnolia now on a par with the upstairs bedroom windows.  I hate to give them up worse than giving up the garden-of course.  Its just easier to think about the loss of a landscape, than a loss of two good friends.

Another client this week finally lost a gigantic American elm to Dutch elm disease.  She had battled the disease tooth and nail for many years.  The generous bed of baltic ivy underneath its canopy had taken umpteen flats and more, and many years to establish.  She asked me to come and look at the spot; the enormous dirt space looks like a stain.   Every vestige of that tree and its ivy is gone.  Though we will sod this area for the moment, it is clear something is missing.  The old perimeter landscape most definitely looks shaped, and has grown in tandem with something which is no longer there.  It will not be easy to design what should be now. 

Beginnings and endings are an ordinary part of every landscape. Everything has a lifespan.  My neighborhood is in excess of eighty years old now.  The big maples in the right of way have been in serious decline since I moved there.  Whenever there is a storm with high winds I am afraid to drive the last five blocks home.  Sometimes I kill things in a matter of days; I forget to water, or some such thing.   Sometimes I let go too easily, or  conversely, I wait too long to let go.  Though an ordinary thing in a life or landscape, it can be very tough to let go.

At A Glance: Leafy












The Fencing Becomes a Fence

aug-28b-003I wrote a few days ago regarding my excitement about the delivery of a container load of hazel wood hurdles from Belgium; the order we placed in May finally arrived.  Wattles and hurdles are panels, woven from the coppice wood of willow and hazel wood. I personally favor the heft and longevity of the hazel wood; it is vastly more durable and substantial than willow.  Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees or shrubs to the quick, with the intent of harvesting the branches for fuel, or fencing. The shrub or tree regrows, only to have its branches harvested again. Woven hurdles keep the livestock out of the vegetable garden. They border herb and vegetable gardens.  They provide privacy without being utterly opaque.  They work  wherever they are needed. Woven hurdles are a fence material friendly to a garden or landscape of any point of view.

aug-28b-005I have a client who has become a friend; he supports Michigan industry in a big way and was so pleased these stripped cedar fence poles we bought are Michigan grown.  Though I ordered 5″ diameter poles, 10 feet long, they looked like telephone poles when they got delivered from a supplier in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  As I relentlessly speak to issues of proportion, I was worried I had gone over the edge by an inch. I was wringing my hands, until the fence went up.  I should not have worried.  The size of the pole was perfect for the heft and texture of the fence.  The bare cedar poles are a good contrast to the woven hazel wood, which has all of its bark intact.

aug-28b-006There is no substitute for the time when the talk ends, and the making begins.  We set a pole down 24″ or so below grade, and set a panel up next to it.  These panels are made by hand, and vary in width somewhat. One pole, one panel, and so on.  This one step at a time construction ensures that the space between two poles is fitted to a specific panel.    Steve toe-nail screwed the panels to the center of each post; this is a sturdy construction.  What I like even better?  This fence has no back or front; the panels are the same back and front. How friendly is this to neighboring properties?  This fence looks good to both sides.

aug-28b-007I have a client who plans to screen his hot tub with this fencing.  It was the subject of intense debate today-will these hurdles screen a man who is happily skinny dipping?  I vote yes-unless the neighbor plans to be close enough to see through the hurdle branches.   The neighbor with his nose pressed to the fence-that is the subject of another essay, is it not? The fence is also friendly to vines that need to grip to climb.  Clematis grown on this fence is especially lovely.  We are careful to install the fence slightly above the existing grade of the ground.  Wood in constant contact with soil will deteriorate much more quickly than wood that is able to shed water.

aug-28b-001The fence is good looking with contemporary steel ornament, traditional terra cotta pots, a funky birdbath made from recycled materials, or a formal lead cistern fountain.  This is by way of saying this fence looks good with almost anything.  As to its longevity, imagine how long it takes a dead tree to fall and deteriorate.  Branches and twigs are not good materials for the compost pile, as they break down so slowly.  We have stocked this fencing for 8 years now.  I have yet to have someone tell me it had disintegrated.  Wood fences do age though-that is part of their charm.

Robert Frost once said that good fences make good neighbors.  I would go beyond that to say that good fences can be beautiful.  They slip into tight places. They screen views not suitable for public consumption. They divide this from that. They are happy to support climbing plants.  They enclose great views.  This hazel wood fence goes beyond to please the eye, and warm the garden.