Hard Surfaces

This is my year to focus on hard surfaces in the landscape.  Having just had a knee replacement, stairs and uneven terrain are a challenge.  Even walking on grassy slopes is difficult.  I have had a very personal experience with what hard surfaces can provide in the garden-and the lack thereof.  They are a necessity for vehicles; even the underground grass support grids do not support regular or heavy vehicular traffic.  Interior hard surfaces support all manner of human activity.  Flooring for kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, bedrooms-there are so many choices.  As is apparent in the above photograph, should you wish to have some outdoor space that will support human activity, a hard surface of some sort is a good idea.  The interior flooring flowing outdoors-a beautifully utilitarian and visually satisfying gesture.  Outdoor “rooms” are very much different in feeling and execution than interior spaces, but in or out, a level hard surface can facilitate plenty in the garden.  

This bluestone has been cut in what is known as an Aschlar pattern.  Several sizes of squares and rectangles can be laid in a pattern that seems random at first glance.  The pattern allows a stone mason to lay the surface quickly-as there is a big idea governing the sequence of the stones.  The appearance of random makes it a good choice for landscapes not demanding an ultra formal or ultra contemporary hard surface treatment.  Interesting that-very formal and very contemporary landscapes have much in common . This bluestone is graded and sold as “full range”.  Full range refers to the wide color variation in the stone.  Each stone exactly the same color-selected stone such as this demands a premium price.  Expect to pay over and above for select.  Each stone is as much about what was discarded for a job, as what is acceptable.  The muted colors of the full range is easy on the eye.  Should you be thinking of a large terrace, darker is better.  No one needs their terrace glaring up at them.    

Some large hard surfaces-by this I mean a drivecourt, benefit from a change of material, or mixed materials.  Cars and UPS trucks are large, and need lots of paving.  This concrete aggregate drivecourt is punctuated by a compass built from hand cut bluestone slabs.  The pattern draws the eye away from the large expanse of hard surface. A group of materials is good, should your paved space be large. 

My own narrow driveway opens into a piazza of considerable size.  The driveway/piazza design was done in 1930-I have not changed one dimension.  Whomever designed it, I am appreciative. My driveway opens into a terrace, which is driveable.  The brick which surfaced both was still intact, but heaved up here and there.  Impossible to shovel, and dicey to walk on.  I replaced the brick with a Belgian made concrete brick made by Unilock- called Capthorne. The uniformity of the brick makes it easy to lay. It is equally easy to move over, and stand on.  It gracefully represents the unusual original drive and drive terrace.    

Stone-cut and carefully laid-there is nothing like it.  This walk, bordered in granite setts-it is my all time favorite. My client and his stone mason laid this walk long before I met him; his love of natural materials and precise planning produced a hard surface that is incredibly beautiful.       

Some hard surfaces are not so hard.  Eric and Julie liked the idea of water in their yard-but had no interest in the upkeep.  A frame of decomposed granite encloses a hard surface of recycled and tumbled blue bottle glass.  The glass-a maintenance free suggestion of water.  The terrace seems small, and intimate, given the change of materials. Switching, matching, investigating harmonious materials can make a hard surface lively.

Concrete pavers are not my favorite.  I like my concrete to be honest about being concrete.  Concrete in imitation of some other material-hmm.  Some landscapes demand natural materials-no imitations need apply.  Some modern and contemporary landscapes demand materials not one bit natural; materials conceived and generated via the human hand can be stunning.  The big idea here is about authenticity of place.  Should you own a tudor home in the English style, stay away from concrete-unless you find a believable hard surface material.  Should you own a mid century modern house, look at the brick from the same period.  A contemporary home-read and research concrete-it is a material appropriate to you. Should you be in between, lay the concrete pavers, and water copiously.  A moss fringe around each concrete paver-a visual blessing.

The architect Michael Willoughby designed and built this home.  The stone on the walls-he repeated on the ground.  I so love how his spare vision does not lecture.  The hard surfaces are extraordinarily soft.  The hard surfaces here, beautiful. 


No doubt you have places in your garden in which you intend to entertain, have dinner, meet friends, relax.  Your choices of what lies underfoot-many.

Sunday Opinion: On Being 60

I have been 60 for 5 days.  This does not make me an expert on the topic-I have a year’s time to be this age and see what it means.  But here is my take on the birthday week.

 I had the sense, in my own self defense, to take a week’s time over turning 60-it was not all that easy.  Things that are tough to take sometimes benefit from a little extra time. The instinct to defend oneself-I recommend not interfering with that.  I have no problem following a logical train of thought, nor do I have any trouble getting a train of thought to stick to the tracks. So being 60-not one whit different than being 59. Or 54, for that matter, except my knee worked better then.  But people don’t live entirely by the beauty of logic; I am no different. I am much more likely to ask myself how I feel about this tree in that place, than what I think about said tree in such place.  As much as I admire rational thought, I don’t live by it.  How I live-much more complicated and with far fewer conclusions than the aforesaid.  Not neat.  I have no theorem that neatly wraps up the process of moving from one decade to the next; I was not ready to be 60.  I was skeptical-sure I would not like the sixty number next to my name.  I was furious in advance.  My process is unpredictable even to me-and sure to be messy.  Frankly, I dreaded coming up on this birthday-I felt vulnerable, unprepared, and disgusted.  How could this have happened to me?  

Never mind that the last two weeks of May and first two weeks of June are so packed with work I don’t really sleep-I dream so much about the work at night I wake up exhausted.  I cannot rest until everyone has their summer flowers.  I am sure you have noticed the days I have missed posting. There were days that got away from me. I chose to make an effort to celebrate.  Faced with a birthday that seemed too big to handle, I planned a party. A big party.  Why not stare down that which was staring me down? On Thursday night of last week, I was completely undone. A third of my pots were not planted, there were issues with the menu, several jobs needed a change of gears and follow up, my switchboard was lit up-the light was not natural, but nuclear.  I had lots of work still waiting.  I was beginning to think I had made a terrible mistake, trying to plan a  party during such a busy time.

When I dissolve into tears, Buck gets embarrassed, but he stands pat.  He clears his throat, and throws his arm around me.  What could be better?  He encouraged me to cry everything out, and then get going.  The Friday before the birthday party-a whole lot got done.  Not just for me-but for three clients. I slept soundly Friday night.  Saturday morning at 11 I get a package, and a note from a very old, and very, very dear friend who is in Paris with her husband and children.  The particulars-they belong to me.  But what she wrote me, on the occasion of my 60th, made my eyes well up and spill over.  Taking the time to make an occasion of seeing friends-this was a good idea.

My 60th birthday party was last night.  I had 60 guests; at my age, I have made a good many friends over the past 20 years.  To the last, they have endowed my life.  Old and new, my friends are the best. This is what was good about turning 60.  I have a history, honored by friends who really care about me.  One of them orchestrated an impromptu birthday sonata from all of my friends at that party-many thanks Tom.  My oldest friend, Janet-how we have loved each other for decades, rights my life.  Fred and Lynn-these two are family.  And Jane.  All of my friends are family. I am family to them in return.  

When I am really old, when I am thinking I might die, all I want around me are the people whom I love.  This is the beauty of the 60th birthday. You recognize in a different way there are relationships that matter. They see me, the person, not the age.  All of my friends look good to me; I am lucky to have each and every one of them.  This is more than good reason to celebrate.  Needless to say, I had a great time.  A lot of people I met over work, but this was not about work.  I have managed to make and sustain friendships. 

 Janet and I have been close friends for over 25 years.  We have gardened together just about every minute of the past 25 years.  Her garden-exquisite. Our relationship-extraordinary.  Did she come to the 6oth birthday party-oh yes.  Love you,  Janet. No kidding.  Some friends are newer friends, but at my age you figure out pretty quickly what is going to work, and what won’t.  My birthday week, pretty perfect.  My 6oth birthday party-it was great.

At A Glance: Summer Planting At The Shop

A Designer’s Garden

The time I spend planting pots and containers for clients sometimes enables me to see landscapes I would not otherwise see.  This old and stately Tudor style home has a landscape of considerable age- still viable, and still beautiful.  I am sure I have quoted Henry Mitchell at least three times on this topic.  “There are no beautiful old landscapes…beautiful landscapes are a result of the intensive care of the present.”  That being said, there are times when intensive care really means sensitive care.  Though this client is an interior designer of considerable skill, she felt no need to take apart, streamline, cleanup, remake, or other wise impose on a landscape beautifully situated and thriving in its own right.  

There is an understated but fully mature beauty to this property.  It takes a very mature and sure eye to leave untouched what is an integral part of the history of the property.  Her ability to leave be is pretty impressive.  These vintage wood boxes at her front door got tree-form hydrangea “Pink Diamond” .  It is a classically beautiful white hydrangea of paniculata grandiflora heritage, whose blooms pink as they age.  They seem so appropriate to the architecture of both the house and landscape. There are times when seeing what you expect to see is completely satisfying.  Certain plant materials feel right with certain architecture.  Nantucket style houses have a love affair of long standing with Rugosa roses.  1950 style ranch homes, on the other hand, can easily handle boxed hedges of gold vicary privet.  These plant materials are authentic to their respective time and place.      

This gorgeous stone staircase which I am guessing dates back to the 1920’s, is a home to old boston ivy vines.  My client made no effort to break up this old relationship-she only and gently prunes the vines away from the stair treads.  The urn set in a bed look like it has been there many years.  I have been guilty as charged plenty of times-thinking that gardening is another word for housekeeping. Like most people, I can be a contradiction in terms.  The Italian garden on the verge of ruin that I love so much I would never permit on my own property.  So I do recognize and respect a designer who deliberately keeps her hands from cleaning up the evidence of age from her landscape.

This pool is original to the house; the horizontal arms are a lap pool; the vertical arms designed for lounging in the water.  I have never seen another pool of this shape and design in person or in books. How it works to accomodate swimmers and loungers alike is simple and effective.  The overall shape striking-and well worth preservation.  

This very large oval wirework plant stand of an age and design quite sympathetic to the house and grounds, does not hold individual clay pots, as it once would have.  My client wanted to plant it of a piece.  Her point of view contrasts with the original intent of the piece, in a very effective way.  A garden of size is growing here.  The blues and whites are friendly to the overall white and lavender color scheme in evidence in all of the garden areas.  The piece sits on a bluestone terrace adjacent to the kitchen, at the rear of the house.  This garden is a very private space.   

A contemporary French terra cotta pot from the south of France is whitewashed, and planted in concert with the wirework stand.   Like other places in the landscape, my enchantment with the space does not rely on surprise. Every element seems to belong.

New to the kitchen terrace this year, a table and chairs in an entirely contemporary vein. The terrace has a new reason for being.


As sculptural as they are utilitarian, the suite is a substantial and confident dose of individual expression.  Unexpectedly, I really like it.