The Sylvan Lake Effect

 Rob called me at home early this morning with a weather alert.  A spectacular hoarfrost had built up at his house overnight; in minutes I was on my way.  As a result, I have a much better understanding of why people so prize lake living.  I have had lots of clients with lake properties.  They are an amazingly homogeneous group.  Nothing in the landscape must obstruct even a fraction of the view.  Every element in the landscape must be subordinate to, and in celebration of that view.  Some lake communities have specific ordinances that restrict any obstruction of the view.  Rob has no lake front, but he does have a beautiful lake view.  Lake properties are highly prized and expensive.  Today reminds me why that is.  This morning, the fog hovering over the water and the frost on the lake front trees-spectacular.  I am also seeing why a lake environment demands a very specialized design discussion.   

The temperature at 7 am-1 degree. The pin oak in his front yard was clothed in spicules of ice.  I know this sounds creepy, but it was incredibly beautiful.  The bark of the tree was even colder than the air, as it was loosing heat like crazy.  The warmer wet air around those branches condensed on every surface.  A large and lacy coating of ice was a first time in person hoarfrost weather event for me.  

Even the chain link fence was coated in frost. Chain link fence ordinarily reads dark in a landscape, much like a window screen.  Even though most screens are bright galvanized metal, they appear dark, and permit a view through. The pattern of this fence is graphically rendered in white-visually graphic, and new.  How rare to see the dark and delicate branches of trees thickly rendered in white. 

The lake effect-I have a picture.  This hedge of carpinus tells the story.  Those trees open to the lake are covered with frost.  Those trees sheltered by the house have none.  Anyone who designs formally in long runs has lots of issues to consider.  Do the soil, light, or exposure conditions exist equally start to finish?  Maybe not.  The patience to grow hedges level with the horizon, the skill to cultivate them for a uniform effect-a job for a committed gardener.  The variation I see here-I have seen it in countless other forms.  This hedge-challenged by nature.  I would expect to see a different pattern of growth based on the level of exposure to the lake. 

These lilacs in Rob’s yard screen him from his lake front neighbor.  I would be hard pressed to decide if these lilacs in bloom are better looking than this winter rendition.  As much as I dislike the winter, these branches coated with frost were incredibly beautiful.  Beyond the beauty, the wind and weather that comes off a lake can be very tough on plants.    

This horizontal and wild thatch of stems on an ornamental tree-enchanting.  Identifying the tree would add nothing to the discussion.  What would add?  In my zone 4-5, the winter appearance of the landscape is equally as important as the summer.  Bare branches and ice have their day-as they did today.  If this tree belonged to me, on this day, I would be delighted.


The old willows on Sylvan Lake were much more astonishing than this photograph suggests.  I am sure the stub ends of these giant branches were created in a strong storm. The thin branches were so coated in frost, they just about described the meaning of vertical.  The larger Sylvan Lake view this morning-I understand what it means to have a long and wide view of a natural phenomenon.  The lake effect-substantial.  From my kitchen window, I have an excellent winter urban view of M-59. I have a pair of dogwoods planted just outside these windows for good reason.   

Everywhere and anywhere the sun struck the willows, the frost melted.  These upper branches are yellow, and yellowing up more and more as spring approaches.  The lower branches, frost laden. As much weather as I have been exposed to, a view like this was a first.  


Almost every day of all of the years that I have been a gardener, and a landscape designer, I see something new.  I regularly experience something I neither planned for or anticipated.  How great is this?

Something In The Air

Given our warm weather last week, I foolishly expected to sense some sign of spring in the air. This foolishness on my part will happen at least 6 more times before nature finally decides to change the channel.  The weather report duly noted that we had already had our average quota of snow for a winter-I was feeling home free.      

What began as a few big flakes escalated into a driving rain of flakes in a matter of minutes.  I am looking out the window of my office this past Sunday afternoon-incredulous would accurately describe my reaction.  Who told me this was on the way?  I moved on to avoiding paying any mind to what was in the air-I had a bigger mission.  My beloved camera had disappeared.  How so?  Every winter, I close the shop except by chance or appointment, between January 15 and March 1.  How else could I clean, repaint, rework, and refresh?  That camera-no doubt I had laid it down somewhere in all the confusion-but where, exactly?     

On my fifth tour of the building, I find my camera.  I rush outside; it is snowing heavily, crazily-fast and furious.  I take lots pictures.  I have friends and colleagues who are professional photographers.  They would not dream of taking their camera out in the rain, or the snow.  I have a different take.  My camera is a tool whose images help me see, design, record.  More importantly, I am not a skier, bobsledder or figure skater.  Taking these pictures-winter recreation.  So far, so good.       

Strong winds blew over the outermost concrete pots in front of the shop-this is a first.  These pots weigh 600 pounds when they are filled with dirt.  Not long after that gust, heavy snow began to bury them.  No matter how patiently and efficiently I design, nature holds and is not shy about playing her trump cards.  Any exposure to nature-a sobering experience.  Anything that blowqs over in a storm stays put, until the wind moves on to some other city.   

Frozen water in the air-a natural experience should you garden in the snow belt.  Any landscape needs to have room for that big natural gesture that defines their zone.  Gardeners in northern climates know what I mean.  Early freezing.  January thaws. Chilly Mays-snow flurries early in June.  Unexpected winds.  You gardeners in Oregon, California and Georgia-you have your issues-different than mine.    

The entire landscape at the shop has gone to white, taupe, and black.  The red glass holiday balls are way past that holiday season, but they comfort me in February.  That color is a relief.  It was also interesting to find out that ornament meant for a tree indoors is perfectly happy outdoors in extremely cold and wintry weather.  Not that I needed to see any more snow, but heavy snow in the air is not only beautiful, it is entertaining.    

Red tulips dominate my spring neighborhood landscapes.  I am not there yet-spring is a long ways off.  But this dash of red keeps a certain fire burning.  I was relieved that above freezing temperatures had removed the snow load from the boxwood. Just in time for more snow.    

That relief was short lived.  After close to an hour outside, I realized I had locked myself out of the shop.   I walked many blocks to a friend with a phone; Buck picked me up, and took me back to the shop.  The corgis were glad to be rescued-but not nearly as glad as I.  Sorry to say-my winter persists.       


It does not really seem like news at all, but this is what we have going on-10 inches of unexpected snow.

At A Glance: The Rose

Watering Cans

The word icon has broad and diverse meanings. I will not be discussing most of them, as I would be instantly over my head.  But Rob’s collection of vintage watering cans which came off our container first up has me thinking about garden icons.  The transport of water, via a vessel, from a source to a plant in need, defines the first watering cans. Known as watering pots, documentation exists from the 17th century.     

All manner of designs shapes and sizes of watering cans came to be manufactured.  I imagine very early vessels were made of sewn and waterproofed skins-I have no knowledge of the history-this is just my imagination talking. But later versions involved a holding tank, a spout, a handle, and a rose-forged in metal.   

I have no love for watering with a watering cans.  Any metal can that holds and transports enough water to do some good weighs a goodly amount empty.  Should you not know, 2 gallons of water weighs 16.5 pounds.  So add to the weight of the can to the weight of the water.  Five gallons of water weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 41.5 pounds.  41.5 pounds-this is how much Howard weighs.  Would I want to carry him from the spigot across the deck and down the stairs to my planter box-no.  No. What watering with a can  involves in sheer weight-daunting.   I vastly prefer a great and long hose.  But the cans are a gardening icon-I would not think of doing without some.   

This vintage can sports a handle at the top.  If you have to carry a heavy load, the hnadle in this spot makes good sense.  The handle at the back-a necessity once the work evolved from the carrying phase, to the pouring phase.  This can needs a hand to carry, and a hand to defy gravity, and tip the spout down. Two hands on a tool brings a much greater level of precision to bear. When I try to handle a watering can with one hand, I either miss the mark entirely, or blast the plants out of the soil.  But as much as I hate to carry water, I would have this can.  It is a gardening icon.  What better symbol for a gardener exists, as an invention designed to fit  human hands that permits watering in a time of need.   

There are plenty and varied definitions of gardeners.  Some fancy, some laborious, some silly-some miss the mark entirely.  I cannot pass by a plant in need of water.  This makes me a gardener.  Do I water with a gardening can-not usually.  But I do indeed have one-it is a symbol of my committment.  I like my can, more for its iconography, more than its use.


In the nineteenth century, the Haws watering cans moved the handles from the top, to the back.  Thbis makes one-handed watering a distinct possibility, should you be really strong and able.  That swooping handle may be eminently functional-but take a look -it looks beautifully graceful.  A Haws can-this shape and volume implies moving a lot of water efficiently.

These English vintage cans-each one has the dings and dents and out of round detail that documents their history.  But they still hold water perfectly.  The handle is an invitation to take hold.  Put your hand confidently anywhere on this handle, and water away.     


Some cans-who knows what fluids they meant to disperse.  This very beautiful can holds plenty; the short spout without a rose implies a delivery which is a torrent.  Watering cans are usually outfitted with a rose.  That rose converts a torrent to a sprinkle.  No doubt, I would sprinkle my plants-not blast them out of the soil, given a choice.  I will admit I have a collection of watering cans, none of which I use to carry water.  If I fill one with water, the chances are good I will put cut flowers in it, and think about the garden.