Designing Summer Containers

Detroit Garden Works 2015Eric Hofley, owner and publisher of Michigan Gardener Magazine along with his brother, Jonathon, published a rather lengthy article of mine about designing summer containers. The article just came out a week ago in their May issue. If you are local to Detroit Garden Works, you are welcome to come in and pick up a copy-it is, and has always been free.  The magazine covers everything of interest of gardeners in our state. You can check out the website for their their publication here:   The Michigan Gardener    Detroit Garden Works has advertised with them since they first began publishing, 19 years ago. We value that relationship.  Jonathon and Eric handle all of our print advertising their media company, Motor City Publishing. For those of you who are too far away to pick up a copy of their magazine, I have reprinted the article below. Our weather has taken a sharp turn towards the warm.  If the suddenly warm weather is getting you to think about your summer containers, there might be something here of value to you.

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I have been a landscape and garden designer for over thirty years. The prospect of a new project still has the power to interest and enchant – for this I am grateful. Landscape installations which have grown in and been well maintained are a great source of satisfaction. Of special interest to me in any landscape design is the unique role played by the seasonal planting of containers. No news here, should you be familiar with Detroit Garden Works. Nineteen years ago, Rob Yedinak and I opened a retail store dedicated to fine quality ornament for the garden. The lion’s share of our focus is on containers of every conceivable period and style. Why so? Any one who loves the garden loves the beauty of nature. A summer container is the best of both worlds. A container of a certain style, and a planting of the moment, to go with.   An empty container represents the opportunity to create an arrangement of plants all one’s own choosing. Designing and creating a seasonal living vignette in a container is not only fun, it is satisfying. A container is a vehicle by which a gardener can make a very personal statement about nature and beauty. The results can be seen and enjoyed in the space of one season. Given the almost limitless number of plants that can thrive in a container planted for the summer season, it would take several gardening lifetimes to even make a dent in the possibilities. That summer annuals grow and mature in but a few short months is a relief. One can abandon a scheme that disappointed, or try something new for the sheer joy of trying something new. A well maintained container planting of interesting design has the potential to create a landscape all of it’s own- in miniature. It is a visual look book of what is on a gardener’s mind at that particular moment. My container choices over the years represent the evolution of my taste in plants, and arranging plants. A thoughtfully designed container is an experience of the landscape on a small and intense scale. Planting summer containers is way of exploring plant relationships that can inform the bigger garden and landscape in a small time and space frame. A landscape is a long term commitment, requiring decisions that are not so easily changed. A well designed and mature landscape is a treasure. A collection of containers set within that landscape keeps the garden dialogue fresh and interesting. Planting containers is not just an exercise, it is an education that is ongoing, and can span many years. The ability to plant and care for containers can persist long after the ability to cut beds, turn soil and plant trees has waned. To follow are my thoughts and opinions about the ingredients necessary for a great summer container.

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THE POTS
Strictly speaking, any object that can hold soil and permit water to drain away constitutes a pot. But a beautiful container planting is as much about the container as it is about the plants. A container planting that considers the size, shape and decoration of the container as part of the overall effect is especially beautiful to my eye. A container represents the gardener’s point of view as much as the plants they choose. If a cottage garden, and the notion of farm to table enchants you, then perhaps a collection of vintage galvanized metal containers will help to make that idea visually stronger. If the architecture of your home is crisp, clean and contemporary, pots of that ilk will satisfy you. If a whiff of history is your idea of a great fragrance, then an antique or antique reproduction urn will serve your point of view well. If a planting that flows over the edges of the pot all the way to the ground represents your style, then go for containers on pedestals. I would advise purchasing containers that you truly like, as your love for the container will inspire what you fill it with. Choose containers that are properly proportioned to their placement. Pots on the front porch need to be large, so the planting can be seen and enjoyed from the sidewalk. Pots on a terrace should be scaled to put both the pot and the planting at eye level, when you are seated. Terraces are for sitting, relaxing, and having dinner. Some terrace pots should be tall, and their contents taller – with the idea of screening an untoward view, or providing privacy. A container on the dining table needs to be low and wide to permit conversation across the table. I recommend containers with big planting spaces. Big containers give me the opportunity to explore the relationships of color, texture, mass, line and shape-in a detailed way. I like lots of room, so I can put together an entire collection of summer annuals that might grow up together, interact, and shine. Big containers mean a big soil mass, which will hold moisture in the heat of the summer. A big pot will forgive you if you are late to water is a pot worth having. Knowing the time you will put to the maintenance of your containers should inform your choice of plants-and pots. Great pots with a design or material that pleases you sets the stage for all that is yet to come. If you are in the decision making stage about containers and where to put them, an initial purchase of fiber pots or burlap pots is a great way to test your ideas without great expense. However, my experience is that a great container will encourage a great planting.

summer container 11THE SOIL
I have no use for peat based artificial soil mix for container plantings. Soil mixes were designed and manufactured for growers. These mixes are lightweight, and sterile. They need a growers hand to provide regular fertilization. I like soil -as in garden dirt. Soil, sand and compost- dirt that weighs a lot. A topsoil mix in your containers will retain water more evenly, and provide micronutrients whose composition is essential to the health of your plants. This is just my opinion, based on may years planting containers. If the thought of hauling around 40 pound bags of topsoil leaves you cold, be encouraged by the fact that 2/3’s of your container should be drainage material. If you have ever pulled a cleome from a pot at the end of the season, the roots of that 6 foot tall plant are barely 8 inches long. Too much soil in a pot can leave that soil waterlogged.  Seasonal plants need no more than 10 inches of dirt.  Annual plants like regular water, but they like good drainage even better. At the bottom of your container? Hardwood bark is great, for a single season. We use bagged cedar bark mulch. Gravel is a long term drainage material. I have planted many a container with the plastic left over from cell packs of plants. However you arrange for drainage-the fact of the drainage is key. 3/4 drainage, and 1/4 soil.  No kidding. Into the soil, we turn under a handful of osmocote. This time release fertilizer which breaks down in reaction to the soil temperature will feed your pots until the heat of late summer releases the last of it. Container plants that need fertilizer will tell you. The leaves may have gone pale, or yellow, or the growth spindly. We feed with liquid feed every 10 days in late summer and fall-every gardener has their favorite. Some plants favor poorish and infertile soil. Having an idea of what plants you plan to use can inform your choice of a soil mix.

Oct 2 2012 078CONTAINER DESIGN
Designing summer containers is a big topic. There are so many factors which influence success. Containers are planted with a collection of small plants all about the same size, whether they be transplanted from a cell pack, a six pack, or a 4” pot. But that uniformity of size is just the beginning. Some annual plants will always be short, or cascading. Other may grow to a medium, or very tall height. Some are wide, and boss all the plants next to them around. Others are shrinking violets, and need their own air and light space. Think about how each of your plant selections will behave, once they take root and start growing. A successful relationship is key.  The test of the design comes when a container planting matures. The overall shape of the planting, and the mature relationships established by the plants are very important design factors. One can never know to a certainty how plants will react in a given situation. This means the best way to create great containers is to plant lots of them, and keep planting. Another method is to benefit from the experience of others. Look at lots of pictures of container plantings, and figure out what about them appeals to you. The experience can only make you better.

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STYLE
Containers can be planted in a variety of styles. Contemporary container plantings may feature a single plant, color, or texture. Pots with a very restricted or austere plant palette have a contemporary or modern feel. That said, a small pot planted solidly with Dahlberg daisies can be quite cottagy, in a very cheery way. Yellow daisies have a certain look that will persist no matter how they are planted. Very formal plantings can be equally austere. I think there is little visual difference between a contemporary and a formal planting. The feeling established by the environment around that container will influence how the style is interpreted. Big containers gone wild and exuberantly overflowing have that English garden look. An urn with a single agave has a very Mediterranean look. A galvanized pail planted with weedy growing annuals is what I call the roadside weed look. Rob is particularly fond of this style. Containers planted symmetrically, and layered by height have a semi-formal and traditional look-as in the spike and geranium pots so beloved by my grandmother. A pot with geraniums in the center, and spikes all around the outside has an entirely different look. Asymmetrically planted pots have a very dynamic and informal look.

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COLOR
How people see and react to color is a highly personal thing. There are many more colors in nature than what we have words to describe. I am very interested in the relationship of one color to another, and many of my containers reflect this. Every flower comes with leaves that also have a color. Some greens are cool and bluish. Others are warm and yellowish. Other foliage can be red, black, gray or white. Pale colors read great at a distance, and at night. Dark colors read well up close, and glow in the sun. White is sparkly and refreshing in the shade, but can provoke squinting in full sun. Put your plants all together in your shopping cart before you plant them in your pots.

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TEXTURE, MASS, SHAPE, AND LINE
Flowers and leaves have a particular quality to their surface. Petunias and nicotiana leaves are fuzzy, whereas ornamental black cotton leaves are shiny and hard surfaced. Contrasting the textures of plants creates interesting relationships. Sometimes the relationship of one to another is more interesting that either one, on its own. Phormiums are thin and spiky. Dahlias are buily and stiff. Licorice is lax growing, hairy, and small leaved. Weaving in and out of a plectranthus planted near by is a relationship of great visual interest. By the same token, white mandevillea planted as a trailer rather than a climber features the line it would take naturally, without the benefit of a trellis. Plants have personalities particular to them and no other plant. Assessing what about a plant pleases you the most will help you make good design decisions.

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THE PLANTS
One need not restrict their plant choices to summer annuals that are native to tropical zones. Boxwood are handsome in pots, and some gardeners will have nothing else. Perennials, grasses, herbs, vegetables, small trees, shrubs and groundcovers can be very effective in pots. Hostas in pots can be successfully wintered over in their pots in an unheated garage. I have one client with a Japanese maple that has been in a weatherproof pot next to her garage for 20 years. We cut holes in a large second story deck for another client-her Princeton Gold maples were quite happy, the last I looked.

summer window boxMAINTENANCE
No discussion of summer annual plantings is complete without a discussion of the maintenance involved. Planting containers before the soil has warmed up is asking for trouble. Most of them originate in tropical places. Many of them can be permanently stunted by too early a planting. Try filling your containers with spring bulbs and plants, if you hate looking at empty pots. A container withered and dead from lack of water, or rotted from soil that did not drain is a dreary sight indeed. Worst of all, it may discourage a person from ever gardening in containers again. Plants coated in aphids are unappetizing, to say the least. So gardener, know yourself. If time is at a premium, select plants that thrive on drought and neglect. Consider adding irrigation lines to your containers, if you cannot look them over every day. If you are a heavy waterer, plant plants that like being drenched, or grow in a bog. Lotus and water lilies in pots are beautiful in containers. Auto irrigation is not perfect, but it can buy you a little time. Try a few containers before you try 100. See if having them will prove to be a pleasure, or a nuisance. Try plants that are vigorous-success with plants will help make you more adventuresome the next time around. If you lose a plant in a pot, replace it. There is no rule that says you need to look at a dead plant, or a gaping hole, the rest of the season. But most of all, enjoy them. From the design to the planting to the care to the finish, planting containers for the summer is such a pleasure.

The Landscape At Lee Hill Farm

Lee Hill FarmI have a very good friend, Susan Cohan, who also happens to be an extraordinarily talented landscape designer. Her firm, Susan Cohan Gardens, is based in Chatham, New Jersey. She is well educated in the arts and design. Her history is varied, and rich. Mind you, this previous bit does not in any way address the length and the breath of her experience and expertise. She has a keen eye, a well developed point of view, and a huge passion for the landscape. In my opinion, her passion for every aspect of the landscape is awesome. We met during her 2014 tenure as President of the APLD. The APLD is a national association of landscape designers that has members in almost every state. They work tirelessly to improve the quality of landscape design among their members, and they work to inform the public about landscape designers with experience and talent who would be worth consulting on a landscape project. From the beginning we were professionals and associates, with a relationship that grew to regularly debate the issues regarding landscape design.  Now we are friends. The result of that friendship – she got on a plane, and came out to visit me for 4 days this past February. Those days flew by.  She is delightfully interesting, serious, and genuine, not to mention fresh, direct, and personal.  How I love all these things about her!  I was so pleased to hear that she had won a Gold Medal award in the 2015 APLD competition for planting design. I want to share that award winning design and installation. I  greatly respect how she approached the work, and brought a project to bear fruit, from the ground up.

Susan Cohan DesignHer clients had purchased a beautiful old house and property.  Many of the structural elements of the garden – walls, and walkways – were in a considerable state of disrepair. In Susan’s estimation, a renovation of the property would have to begin with repairs. A good designer lays out the issues, and details the journey. Her client committed to this aspect of the restoration. Any successful project is a result of a rapport between a designer and a client. It was agreed that the old walkways, steps, and some walls would have to come out, and be redone. Another wall was slated to be built.

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Repairs are not that much fun. Fixing what is broken does not necessarily result in something new and exciting. Just what was, before it was broken. But an old property with beautiful walls and walks may not need something new.  A repair and renovation that goes on to become a landscape better than her client thought she could have it-that’s very new and exciting! Repairs can be lengthy and tedious. These before pictures of Lee Farm which Susan sent me do not tell the tale of the days and weeks of work that would be involved to make the hard structures of this garden whole again.

vintage stairsEvery place has its own aura. A feeling. An atmosphere.  Recreating and restoring a sense of place relies on a sure hand. How Susan approached this project tells me she has a gift for the concept of the genius of the place. This property had a long history that deserved respect.  I am sure she steeped herself in the ruination, before she put a drawing, a hand, or a shovel, to the ground.

old gardenThe heaved and crumbling brickwork and the grass challenged stonework did not faze her.

Susan Cohan GardensThis view of a landscape long neglected makes clear that a lot of work needed to be done. Landscape projects that are really good address the land, the history, the client, the structures, the furnishings, and the plants. Like a play having six acts, this project would build on itself.

redoing the stoneworkThe restoration of the hard structures took lots of time.  Lots of hard work. Lots of supervision, and even more discussion. The pace of this work took so much more time than these pictures would indicate. This picture of a degraded walk, some hand tools, and a person tells a story. A beautiful project takes a vision, and work to follow that is skilled.

Lee HillOnce the hard structures were restored, the replanting of the landscape would involve an arrangement and plant list that would convince.  A beautifully planted garden is a joy.  But this garden had to be true to the history, the aura, and the meaning of this property of great age.  I think Susan did a great job of thinking through a plant list that was not limited to what perennials were available at the time the garden was built.  It was a plant list that served and recalled the original spirit of the garden.

the stoneworkThe fountain needed repair. The stone terrace was relaid, on level ground. The brick walks were redone. The millstone was level in the center of two brick walks, intersecting at right angles. The planting had begun.

Lee Hill Farm small fileYears later, this landscape evokes the spirit of the past, courtesy of lots of skilled design help from the present.  These pictures, which Susan submitted to the APLD competition, tell a certain story.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #4Her hand is a subtle one. It takes great experience, confidence and skill to plant a landscape that gives the land, the history and the plants center stage. I can see she is interested here in a landscape that seems natural and appropriate. Genuinely believable. Flowing.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2On one level, the planting design for this project was meant to evoke the spirit of the original garden. But that design goes on to other levels. More interesting and thoughtful placement. More variety, or better performing cultivars. Designed spaces. The plant choices and the colors echo the original garden, but have relevance in the present.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #5The original iris still have a place.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #8the sweep

Lee Hill Farm Photo #9a long line

Lee Hill Farm Photo #10the layered view

Lee Hill Farm Photo #7The matching hedges of the same cultivar of peony is a way of illustrating how the design is as important as the plant choices.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #6The peonies, arbor and fountain are the strong and simple organizing feature for a constellation of perennial borders.  In May, the peonies hold forth much more strongly than they would have, had they been planted singly in a number of different places. At this moment, this view is drenched in the history of the original landscape in a visually compelling way.  It is also a very strongly designed space.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2This is an award winning project-as well it should be. This picture tells the tale-everything seems right and rings true to the setting.  As for Susan Cohan, should you have a great passion for the landscape, and live within 100 miles of her, contact her.  She is a landscape designer I greatly admire. Interested in reading further about her?

Susan Cohan Gardens

 

 

The Envelope, Please

landscape-plan.jpgOver the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time shoveling out my office. I needed a shovel!  Suffice it to say that I went over every square inch of my office in person, with the idea that I needed to sort through and clean up.  Some plans from 20 years ago did not look all that good to me, several decades later. Why should they?  Client files so old I did not recognize the name-did I need those?  Files of inspirational pictures that no longer seemed very inspirational-did I need these? Piles of notes secured with rubber bands that broke when I touched them-I could no longer remember what I was thinking when I wrote them. A point of view changes over the years-hopefully for the better. Some things from the past don’t warrant saving. I reorganized all of my books to include this past year’s purchases. I swept and dusted. What I did not pitch I updated, rethought, and reorganized. Every plan has a file now. How I love the look. Clean, and organized. Why did I the pitch the records and drawings of certain older work? Any plan that seemed immature or unfinished, not interesting or not built-I pitched them. I am happy to be free of them. Vintage does not necessarily imply valuable. But this plan dating back to 2005 still looked good to me. I remember that the architecture of the house was elaborate – winged.  The center portion of the structure was parallel to the lot, and the street. A pair of east and west wings angled sharply away from formal structure of the center section.

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A residential landscape design needs to consider the siting of a home.  That house will always be the most important feature of a landscape, as it occupies the vast majority of the space. The landscape needs to respond to that. The architect clearly felt that a central entry space would be enhanced by wings at an angle. I was not consulted about the architecture-nor should I have been. My job was to come in after the house was built, and design a landscape that would scoop up that architecture, and detail an interesting and thoughtful relationship between the structure and the property.

landscape-plan.jpgThe front door was immediately adjacent to a tower that housed the stairs to the second floor. The wing of the house off the front door to the east veered sharply to the north.  The wing off the formal dining room to the west veered to the north at a different angle. The footprint of the house was complicated, and intricate. My instinct was to generate a landscape plan that would function like an envelope. An envelope, strictly speaking, is a paper structure designed to hold a letter. That letter may address a number of topics, many of which might veer off east and west as well as north and south.  An envelope – bear with me – is a an enclosure that houses a complex of written ideas.  The plain white envelope that encloses my gas bill is a case in point.  The driveway and landscape of the front entry encompasses with a singular gesture the complexity of the architecture. A white envelope. The paving design of the drive court still interests me.  The surface of the area immediately surrounding the front door area calls out the entrance-this area was to be blue stone.  The areas denoted by diagonal lines was to be concrete aggregate. The dotted areas indicate decomposed granite.

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The grade of this property was very high at the street. That grade fell from the street to the back.  My idea was to place the grade of the driveway at the same grade as the street. And the same grade as the front door. This would involve cutting into the existing land form, building retaining walls to hold back that soil so high, and ending with a route to the front door at grade -as noted in my drawing.  The day I drew this plan, I could imagine how it would be to drive into a steep property, with those hills looming over both left and right, retained by stone.  The driveway would be the next best thing to a trip through a tunnel.  Leaving the grade high at the street meant that a large house would sit down, and have some privacy from the road. A drawing of a landscape plan never rises to the level of a dream. That takes a plan, and a commitment to a thoughtful installation that has room for revision. Any landscape needs the time and opportunity to speak back. Landscape plans provide a place from which to approach a project. This  plan I saved, as it approaches some issues in a way I still think has merit.

landscape-plan.jpgOf course, the back yard sees those site lines from various wings of the house beginning to converge. There was no way to avoid this. The driveway garden with an allee of trees pushes way into the back yard.  The drive court adjacent to the garage entry is formal.  The landscape beyond is equally as formal, and parallel to that drive court.   The rear yard design was parceled into three rooms, each one accessed by a gravel path that began at the driveway, and would eventually turn and traverse the entire rear yard.  The is gravel path is parallel to the wings of the house.  The left wing features a large blue stone terrace that captures a series of intricate twists and turns taken by the architecture. A large portion of the yard off this terrace is a lawn panel. The transition space between the terrace landscape and the pool landscape-a triangular perennial garden.  The central room features a large fountain. The property behind this house is a large golf course, so the rear property line would never be a visual issue. The transition from the pool landscape to the formal garden is another triangular shaped perennial garden.  The right wing, which houses the master bedroom, features a formal garden on axis, and a pavilion with climbing roses and clematis.

landscape-plan.jpgAs jarring as all of these angles seem, from a bird’s eye view, the reality on the ground would be much different.  The perennial gardens would soften the transition from one space to another. The design makes the most of all of the property available.

landscape-plan.jpgThe far east side of the property climbs steeply.  A four foot stone retaining wall would make that slope less steep. I still like the looks of this master plan.  If you are further interested in a closer look at the plans, you can click on each picture for a magnified view. I regret to say that this landscape never got built. Not every landscape plan comes to life. That’s life as any landscape designer knows it. But I still like how it addresses the architecture. I am especially pleased that I had the sense to specify a triangular block of taxus in the front yard, on axis with the front door.  This is my favorite part of this plan. This plan, I kept. The idea that a landscape is an envelope still intrigues me.

 

 

 

The Holiday Dinner, 2014

M and M holiday 2014 (1)For the past several years, I have posted pictures from a holiday dinner hosted every year by 2 very good friends. They both have careers in the arts and are keenly interested in design.  They have a collection of ornaments amassed over a period of many years.  They have strong ties to French art and design.  All of this shows, whether the subject at hand is their collection of boxwood in pots, their perennial gardens, or their French style potager. Their holiday is ordinarily a very subtle and understated affair.  This year’s table is a significant departure.

M and M holiday 2014 (2)This holiday featured an unexpected turn of events. The French blue flocked tree around which they had planned their holiday was not available.  By the time they ordered their tree, the color was sold out. With equal parts pique and nerve, they ordered a flocked tree in turquoise.  M sent me a picture of the tree-I could not imagine what they would do with it.  The color was very strong. Intensely turquoise. As they felt it was either a turquoise flocked tree, or a tree with no flock, they jumped in.

M and M holiday 2014 (3)Once the initial shock of the color had worn off, I could see them both accepting, and later enjoying the challenge. They kept me updated, as the decorating process unfolded. My part in all of this?  Being available to tell them I was sure what they did would be great. The design process always has those moments.  A tree that dies, and leaves an attending shade garden exposed to full sun is a design challenge, as it is based on a circumstance that cannot be altered.  The one boxwood or lavender that dies out mid-hedge, or an exceptionally cold winter that kills the roses back to the ground can present significant design challenges.  Every gardener experiences moments like this.

M and M holiday 2014 (4)But the glory of their holiday is in what companion colors and materials they chose to make that turquoise look beautiful and deliberate.  They harvested lots of weed seed heads, and hydrangeas from their garden.  Those cream colored stems are intertwined, and float over that startling blue.

M and M holiday 2014 (5)They used lots of red, as in pomegranate, and red amaryllis. I am not sure why red and turquoise is such a striking color combination, but here it is-with gold and cream as an intermediary. Big splashes of gold, and some silver added to the festivities. It was clear this design process was not drawn on paper, or completely imagined in advance.  It was a process for which they both had patience. Do enjoy their pictures.

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M and M holiday 2014 (12)red for the holiday

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M and M holiday 2014 (14)the holiday table

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M and M holiday 2014 (16)Sophia

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M and M holiday 2014 (23)I thought their holiday was incredibly beautiful. Their willingness to take on an unexpected circumstance with energy and verve is equally as stunning. Taking chances with design-how I admire this.