As Susan Cohan, a very talented and skilled American landscape designer would say, a great landscape design is about making a space work. It works for the client. It works for the plants selected. And it solves problems. No where is that more evident than designing for a very small space. A very small property means every square inch needs to work. This very small front yard needed a decently sized driveway, and a graceful way to get to the front door from both the sidewalk, and the drive. It needed to ground a house that was very tall. It needed to provide a place to watch young children playing on the drive. It needed to provide ongoing visual interest – every bit of which was exposed to the street. It needed to accommodate a client’s interest in a fountain in the front yard. I thought there needed to be a single strong shape which would organize every other element in the landscape. An ellipse seemed a natural choice. The shape of the front yard was a very shallow rectangle. An ellipse would make the most of that natural shape in a more interesting way. An elliptical shape that touched the north side of the driveway, and reached across to the south side would provide a means to reach the front door. It would also permit a way to walk the garden that had no beginning and no end. From the driveway, one ring of the ellipse would be a gravel path that would lead to the front door. That path would also encourage walking through the space. The gravel ellipse was wide enough to accommodate a bench, wherever the client might want one. An interior ellipse of grass would make it possible to view the garden, and the fountains from a number of different vantage points. The fountain Buck built was actually a pair of fountains. Each was fabricated as a half-ellipse. Anyone approaching the front door would walk through the fountains. Anyone coming to the front door from the driveway could follow the gravel path, or take the fountain view route. Rows of boxwood and yews matching the curve of the ellipse would give the garden some winter interest. As for the perennial garden, there are but a few plants. The inner ring is a collection of peonies, faced down with alchemilla mollis. Once the peonies mature, they will form a lustrous large leaved interior hedge taller than the boxwood. The fountains are the center of interest to the design, and they are front and center. We did eventually move them back off of the sidewalk a bit, just so the space would breathe better. The interior garden would mature at the same height as the fountains. This height was a direct response to the height of the house. I planted yews in the ellipse closest to the house-who would want to block the views from inside out with anything taller? Eventually we would plant a DeGroot Spire arborvitae on either side of the from facade of the house. The lower step to the front door needed to describe that ellipse that governed the shape every other landscape element. Scott Albaugh from Albaugh Masonry did a great job of this. In a very small space, the details matter so much. Our shapes were by no means perfect. But they were accurate enough to be convincing. At this stage in the installation, the ellipses read in a graphically strong way. Once the landscape was planted, that shape became much more subtle. The day a landscape is installed is just that-the first day. Given some time for the plants to mature, that ellipse describing the horizontal ground plane will be softened by the height and the sprawl of the plants. This design looks different from different vantage points. Changing the visual channel is easy; there is a path. Any guest getting out of the car in the driveway could find their way to the front door. They might take the long way-or the short way, in bad weather. This design is intended to make the garden accessible and friendly to people. Though just about every idea can be seen from the drive or the street, the elliptical path invites a stroll through. What can readily be seen now will not always be the case. The outer ring of this garden will mature at a height of 4 to 5 feet. Roses, shasta daisies, Russian sage, Little Lime hydrangeas-the height of these plants will provide a little mystery and privacy to the inner ellipse. The border on the sidewalk-moss phlox and lamb’s ear. I will be very interested to see this garden when it has a few more years on it. Hopefully it will be a small space that has something interesting going on.
It was 9 degrees below zero when I drove to work this morning. I could tell. The crunch of the snow underfoot was deafening. I had to keep blinking to keep my eyelashes from freezing to my face. Though I had all manner of winter gear piled on, my face stung from the cold. The corgis always dawdle in the driveway before they pony up to be loaded into the Suburban. I am ordinarily very patient about this. I like that they have a happy life-and their happy life means a minimum of interference from me. I am ok with hanging out until they are ready to be loaded up for work. Loaded up? Corgis have really short legs. I give the both of them a big leg up. I tell myself that loading and unloading two fifty pound dogs twice every day helps keep me in good shape. I treasure this illusion! This morning, their dawdling annoyed me. It was too cold to be outside.
Over the course of the day I downloaded scads of pictures on my Iphone to my computer. A day when it is really too cold to be outdoors is a really rare day. A day confined to the inside is not my most favorite day, but confining circumstances can make for some unexpected pleasure. Pictures that I took in June of this past year-I was looking at them for the first time. The roses-how beautiful they were.
There are those gardeners who would choose to pass by a planting of roses. Too much trouble to grow. Too much a symbol of the history of gardens. No doubt rose bushes are just about the most ungainly and unattractive shrubs ever to grace the earth. But I would not want my garden to do without them.
I only grow a few roses. Carefree Beauty, and Earthsong, bred by Griffith Buck. Jeannie Le Joie-a miniature climbing rose. Eden-a large flowered climbing rose. And the English bred shrub rose Sally Holmes.
The most of the month of June is a delight to this gardener. The roses play no small part in this. I love the flowers and the fragrance. On a freezing January day that keeps me inside, the memory of the roses comfort me.
Every gardener’s circumstances are different, but our December is notable for the coming of the cold. No matter what year it is, my plan for the holiday and winter garden at the shop has to include an element that is warm. The lighting is warm. Sparkly or reflective materials can be warm. The sentiment of the season can be warm. Rob says the shop garden this year is cozy. As in yard after yard of thick fir garland. Concolor fir, noble, silver, Douglas, balsam-fir is a very sturdy and long lasting green outdoors. The garland was loosely wrapped with grapevine garland. The contrast of the bare vines and the lush garland The window boxes have fir blankets. The windows have fir hats. It was 14 degrees this morning when I took this picture, but the garden looks warm.
The window boxes are stuffed with mixed greens. As the mixed greens are long and lax, we do a few rows of noble fir at the bottom of the greens to support the entire arrangement. Noble fir is very stiff and strong. Winter weather can be fierce. Snow, wind, ice and various mayhem from the sky can take a toll on a container garden one would want to last until March. Making an arrangement sturdy and strong is more than half of the work of it.
The centerpieces are composed of red bud pussy willow, ochre eucalyptus, a few springs of metallic gold eucalyptus, and a ruff of gold sinamay. For good measure, a dollop of sugar pine cones completes the look. Given that the building is large, and the garden is mostly viewed from the street, or from a car, the materials are over scaled. A smaller pine cone would not have much impact given the scale of the building.
Over the summer, these Belgian blue stone plinths supported Italian terra cotta pots with boxwood spheres. Winter arrangements in my zone ask for pots that are frost proof. Though boxwood is generally hardy in pots, I would be uneasy about an extended period of low temperatures. We have had an uncharacteristically cold late fall-12 degrees overnight is much more like late January than early December. This garden would have a very bleak look, but for its winter dress.
Winter gardens are for viewing from a distance. It is unlikely anyone will be lingering here for long. Big, warm, and simple gestures go a long way towards banishing the winter blues. A design which gives the illusion of warmth is appreciated when the weather is so dreary. Decorating the garden has its benefits. It feels good to have something to do that at least approximates gardening. And it is nice to have something good to look at while the garden is dormant. This garden is just about ready for the snow.
The fir hats over the windows are composed of garlands that are attached to bamboo poles. Garden has a natural tendency to fall, swoop and swag. If you want a straight and orderly appearance, a bamboo pole will keep all of the clippings in line. The poles are then wired to the pediment. I like this construction technique for mantels too.
My favorite part of this winter garden are the garlands and grapevines on the tree trunks. Deciduous trees have a very spare and sculptural look during the winter. These over sized scarves that puddle on the ground make the trees look protected and warm.
There are those places yet to finish. These urns need something. The pots need some lighting. A favorite part of this winter project is the ability to work on it as time and inspiration permits. Last January I had the basic idea for the garden. I ordered boxes of grapevine garland, for the building, and the trees, and for Rob’s steel hanging spheres. Taking the time to let a garden space speak back is my idea of luxury, and part of the great pleasure of the doing. I may still be tinkering with this 2 weeks from now. There’s no rush. Winter will be with us for a long time.
Everything in the garden has a lifespan. This is a polite way of saying that every living thing lives their life, and eventually dies. The redwood trees in California, and the old yews in England, among other ancient plants, are prized by many not only for their size and shape, but their astonishing longevity. The Wollemi pine trees-of which there are 40 trees in some unknown location in Australia-date back thousands of years. The National Geographic has made a big issue of protecting first, and secondarily propagating these trees. Their sales of new starts of Wollemi Pines helps to cover the cost of their protection. They grow no where else on this planet, but for a remote valley in Australia. Yes, I did buy small starts some 8 years ago-why wouldn’t I? Both of my Wollemi pines belong to my landscape superintendent-Steve Bernard. They were a gift. They are at this moment, thriving. As is our relationship. We work together. But not every plant thrives. Plants which have lustily grown for years eventually die. Some plants die just days after they are planted. Do I have an explanation for this-not really. The life and death in a landscape is an issue both Steve and I deal with every day.
Landscape clients want me to guarantee that the plant material I put in the ground will live-for at least the warranty period. For one year, I am asked to stave off death. I oblige, in spite of the fact that the life of a landscape and garden depends more on nature than me. I do what I can, but I am rarely in charge. Some plants thrive in spite of my skepticism. Other robust plants inexplicably die, leaving me with lots of questions and not so much comfort. Anyone who gardens knows that every plant has a lifespan. Every gorgeous moment in a garden is just that-a moment. And that which is treasured is ephemeral.
I have a few plants that are original to my garden from the day I moved in. A magnolia, some dogwoods, a pair of picea mucrunulatum, some rhododendron, a norway spruce some 40 feet tall, some azaleas, and some challenged maples in the tree lawn. But these plants are not centuries old. They are at best 90 years old. Ninety years old is a blip that one blink will miss, in the history of our planet. Every gardener needs to realize that their influence is short. And not necessarily what nature values. Peonies and asparagus are very long lived. Trees that have a good siting and thoughtful planting live a long time. As in my lifetime. Perennials live but a very short time. Foxgloves are beautiful, and short lived.
The lifetime of the planet-vastly more years than mine. I understand that eventually, and sooner rather than later, I will wear out and die. The numbers of perennials and annuals in my garden that will wear out and die before me-considerable. Lots. The trees that will mature and finally die-they will be much older than me on the day of their demise. My gardening is but a brief moment in a scheme that is long, substantial, and just about impossible to predict.
Does the prospect of a limited lifespan to my landscape worry me? Not really. A beginning and an end to anything significant in the landscape is beyond my grasp to orchestrate. I spend an extraordinary amount of time in an effort to keep every plant in my landscape happy and healthy. Every gardener, just like me, learns, and leans into the natural demands of a life span. Leaning in-what every gardener knows how to do.