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.
Whenever Buck does a CAD drawing for a project, or an object, he includes a drawing of Man 01. For those of you who do not do design drawings on a computer, CAD stands for computer assisted design. This line drawing of a man who is 6′ tall is stored in his computer as a “block”. Buck has thousands of blocks stored in his computer. Those blocks are stored drawings of shapes and forms he uses over and over again. Pasting a block into a drawing means he does not have to draw that portion from scratch. An entirely new shape will require a drawing from start to finish. A complicated design for an object to be made can take many hours to draw.
I have watched him translate an idea into a precisely rendered drawing. Who knows how long ago it was that he learned the language of this two-dimensional design program. It must be a long time, as his fingers fly over the keyboard of his computer faster than my eyes can follow. I see lines drawn to precise lengths that connect to other lines, which finally, and exactly, describe a form. Down to the last 1/64th of an inch. Given a specific engineering inquiry, he can design to 1000th of an inch. This level of precision isn’t an issue for you and I. What purpose does the man01 block serve? This 6′ tall idea of the height and volume occupied by a man is size that is easy to recognize. 6′ tall isn’t short, but it isn’t tall, either. Man01 is a average size guy. When man01 is standing next to a planter box we are thinking of building, I have more than the dimensions of that box. I have a size and height that is familiar to me. I can compare the size of the man, to the size of the proposed box.
Anything that Buck makes at Branch, requires a drawing. He has the drawings for our stock products stored in his computer. The company that laser cuts our steel, or the company that rolls our steel in multiple dimensions, require those drawings to program their computers to cut or roll to our exact specifications. Building an object successfully that involves a number of different people and operations doesn’t happen via a breakfast meeting or a conference call. What is drawn on the page is an exact template for what will be built.
Buck makes those drawings with the help of a computer program programmed to precisely, and mathematically describe a form. He drives the bus. He tells the computer what he wants to see. The many years he spent as an architect required a working knowledge of how to translate a design into a drawing. Not just any drawing. A drawing that would spell out to a contractor exactly how to build a house, a stadium, a heating system, a plumbing plan, or a fruit cellar. A bell tower, or a topiary form, or a bench. But rest assured, a mathematically precise rendering of an idea of an object does in no way indicate that an object will be beautiful.
Man01 is a gesture in a beautiful direction. The proportion of a planter box for the garden is a key element of its design. How a person would relate to the dimension and proportion of that box, whether standing or sitting, will influence how a gardener eventually views, and reviews, that form. Every person has an idea all their own about what is beautiful and of interest. Each person likewise has an idea of what doesn’t move them. This makes garden ornament very difficult to design. One way we broaden our appeal is by offering different sizes. Comparing a set of possible sizes to the mano1 block helps us to decide what to build and what not to build. The computer is a tool that helps with the decision making process.
Man01 is a symbol on Buck’s drawings for scale and proportion. Woman01 is a scale I sometimes ask for from Buck. 5.5 feet. But no matter the gender, human scale is an element that should inform landscape design. A good feeling for the scale and proportion of a property, the plants, and the people can produce visually interesting relationships.
Christmas was two weeks ago, but just today I got the pictures from a special Christmas dinner. Very close friends serve a Christmas dinner to friends that is as much a visual as a culinary happening. I am always interested to see how they design their holiday fete. Given that almost everything in my world is one shade of white or another right now, their white Christmas seems entirely appropriate to our current state of affairs.
White in lots of different forms block out the centerpiece that runs the entire length of the table.
We are on the edge of the end of a year. The furthest edge. In just a few hours, that year will be part of the past. There will be discussion-a retrospective. Some memories will be sentimental. It is easy to remember the roses, and gloss over the beetles. We are likewise on the edge of a new year. In a few hours, we will cross over the leading edge of a new year-to an unknown but greatly anticipated future. It is an interesting place to be-on the edge. Great design, no matter the discipline, tends to hover, and thrive there. Edgy may not describe my shining hour. I suspect I am just too old. But as a designer I am very interested in composition. Composition, in my opinion, is much ado about edges. These French glazed pots have beautiful edges. The top edge is compound. The sides are sleek and precisely contoured. The edge that meets the ground is generous and hefty. What I would plant in them has everything to do with the shape, size, color and decoration of the pot.
Composing seasonal plantings in pots is all about creating a world unique, complete, and believable, in a space notable for its sharply defined edges. A pot has a distinct shape. A top, a bottom, and 2 sides. The four sides frame an expression. Much like a frame contains a painting. Much like the composition of a painting has four edges. No matter whether you choose to respect or breach the edges, the treatment of the edges will dominate a certain part of the discussion. How I design a planting begins with the space in question. I have always wondered how the person who purchased this concrete pot with its companion dog chose to plant it. The top edge is abrupt, and unadorned. This pot could have plants draping over and down the sides-or not. Were the paws of the dog still visible? Did the dog appear to be enchanted by the fragrance of the flowers, or was he staring down a bug at eye level?
Containers with ornament and detail at the top edge may suffer from a mature planting that obscures that detail. Some pots demand visual respect of the edges. Were I to plant these containers, I would concentrate on plants that lift off. The visual relationship between the planting and the pot is a relationship worth exploring. These pots would look equally fine in a garden, unplanted. I did not plant any containers when I was young. I could barely afford to buy plants-much less containers. Everything I planted went in the ground. But even then, I was concerned about my composition. My gardens had edges. My grass had edges. I would frame some views, and disguise others.
I will confess I have always edged my beds. I would strike a flat shovel deep down on an edge, and toss the soil up into the bed. I liked making a clear decision about shape and direction – for better, or for worse. Any composition that was sloppy was unsatisfying. Every gardener has their own point of view, and I have mine. No matter how exuberant and wild the planting, the container holds it all together. This late 19th century French pot from Biot is a container of breathtaking beauty. If I were to plant it, I would go up. The rim is too beautiful to obscure. As strong as the rim edge is the slight foot at the bottom. I would place this pot on a plinth, no matter how slight, so that detail would not be lost.
This vintage stone campagna shaped urn is beautifully simple. Much is made of the top edge. The compound curvy shape and foot is hefty, yet graceful. Any pot is an expression of the garden ready to be more.
This pair of glazed stoneware pots made in Chicago in the 1930’s have generous rims. The body of the pots-low and wide. The square foot is large enough to visually support that width. Would I plant them low and very wide-yes. I respect the edges established by the maker. However I might compose plantings for these pots would be as much about the architecture of the pots as the horticulture.
Over the past 18 years, I have had the pleasure of an exposure to pots, containers, boxes, buckets, troughs, and urns of every description. I feel quite certain that part what the future holds involves containers the likes of which I have never seen before. I like that promise inherent to the future. Those people who made it their business to fashion a vehicle by which a small collection of plants can grow and prosper-I appreciate them. The range of shapes, styles and colors is astonishing. The containers I have chosen for my own garden are friendly to the period and architecture of my house. I favor bigger pots over small ones-I like having a lot of room to plant. A pot whose top is 30 inches across represents an embarrassment of riches in container planting space. That size space in my garden is a trifle. Given that my property is very small, I like gardening opportunities that seem large.
This giant enameled pot of French origin circa the 19th century-astonishing in its size. Buck did a great job of repairing it. Every year it is my pleasure to plant it for the summer, and the winter. Its edges are of a scale and shape that challenge me. In my favor? A container planting rules for but one season. You have another shot-next year.
The pots hand made by Francesca del Re are of the toughest frostproof stoneware it has ever been my pleasure to meet. The design of the pots-surprisingly soft. The edges are forgiving. Plant away. This pot can take whatever dream you have the mind to dish out. A traditional container planting will be just as successful as a contemporary scheme. The edges of these pots are friendly, and forgiving. The planting will make the pot.
This antique English glazed pot manufactured by Doulton – who knows how a gardener might interpret this pot. A placement where the shape and decoration could be easily seen would be the first move worth making. It would be lovely on a plinth, or on a wall. The shape and decoration is bold. An oakleaf hydrangea might be just the plant for this pot.
This is a picture of my most favorite seasonal container, ever. Italian terracotta is a personal favorite. The relationship of the container to the plants-as edgy as I am ever likely to get. This coming year, I will have another chance to compose and plant. How good does this sound? Happy New Year!