October Light

Oct 25 012The fall is the perfect time to talk about light as an element of design in the landscape. How, when and where the sun shines, dramatically influences the visual impact of any landscape or garden.  October light in Michigan is cold and low in the sky. Uneven or carved surfaces are cast in sharp relief. Any shadows cast will be dramatically elongated.  A client choosing a smooth surfaced ornament for their garden should be happy for a subtle light rendering; if not, choosing ornament with some more graphic surface variation might be in order.

Oct 25 029I could write on into the next decade about how light is the engine that gets  any outdoor space moving.  One of my favorite parts of my Michigan gardening life is how the light can make the appearance of everything change, from hour to hour, and day to day, and season to season. The contrast of light and dark in a garden is its heartbeat.  In October, the trees coloring up are all the more dramatic for  the ignition supplied by that intensely pale light.  Its worth thinking about the degree of shade a tree or shrub will cast in a landscape.  A densely shady area is all the more dramatic with a pocket pool of light behind it. Plan for dark spaces close to your view, with light spaces in the distance.   

Oct 26 010The spring leaves emerging on my Princeton gold maples cannot hold a candle to their yellow fall fire. I am a photographer whose lack of  understanding about the mechanics of photography is considerable.  So I watch the light.  When it suffuses every element in a garden such that the color in my pictures, or the feeling of my pictures,  will be saturated-that is the time I photograph. I record; I do not have the skills to generate. It is hard to believe this collection of  these maple yellow leaves produces such dense shade underneath; the grey cedar fence appears black by way of contrast, and almost disappears.

Oct 25 025Our thin rod steel spheres permit the view of your choice through to the landscape. How they interact with a garden is the best part about them.  Imagine this view in the winter, the early spring, the early summer, the high summer, the fall; you get the idea. Add light to the mix, and your possible visual combinations increase considerably.  Garden ornament interests me greatly, given how it offers me a sense of solidity, and steadfast longevity, against the ever changing landscape. 

Oct 25 037The bright flat October sun sets all it touches on fire.  The greens are all that much more electrically green; the reds glow red. If you are looking to see the rhythm established by the masses of light and dark in your landscape, look quick now before the leaves fall. There is instruction coming from the natural world every day, should you care to tune in.

Oct 25 043The color of these pansies speaks softly in the spring.  The fall light intensifies and electrifies the appearance of their color.   On my best days, I think about how the light will fall on a landscape in every season, as this should  influence how I place every plant or object.

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No annual or perennial in my garden has color quite like this.  It interests me that at the moment the color of the leaves of this Boston ivy flares brightly, the leaves are also beginning to decompose.  Life and death inextricably intertwined. Though my idea of hell places me in a history of philosophy classroom, I have no problem walking outside, and observing what is going on. Oct 27a 004

Those brightly cold moments in October forecast the dormant season on the way. The light is bluish; it throws everything silhouetted against it black. The soft grey of the bark of my lindens reads flat black in the fall.  It’s the quality of the light transforming a landscape you thought you knew,  into something you have not seen before.

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This cabbage leaf shed from its plant is plastered on the concrete in a fall rain.  The cool light records the dropping of the leaves; it takes you and I to wake up and see it.  The smooth green stem gone a grief stricken  pale grey reads graphically against the wet dark pavement.  This is a different version of October light.

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This last stage of the flowers of my hydrangeas, bathed in October light-so beautiful. Maybe more beautiful than the height of their bloom.  They look so dignified, as they gracefully dry, quietly accepting the closing of the season. The October light makes an operatic production of this process, does it not? I would encourage you-see the light.

Green Gardens

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (32)I have clients whose interest in gardens runs to green, and more green. Though my love for the green of the plant is every bit as great as my love for their flowers, I have never had the discipline it takes to restrict my own palette like this. But I find that whenever a client represents their own point of view outdoors, the result looks just right. 

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (22)These large stone and brick piers punctuate a pair of walls that partially enclose a terrace. I plant them with a mix of plants whose textures are as unlike stone and brick as possible. This is a matter of directing visual attention. The window boxes on the roof of my shop are not so gorgeous.  They are made of galvanized sheet metal ordinarily used in the production of ductwork for the heating and cooling industry.  The sole function of those boxes is to hold the soil, nutrients and water for the plants-they have no visual interest in and of themselves.  The intent here is to acknowledge the beautiful surface of the container as much as the planting.

Ford 2006 (36)A green planting has a quiet and serene look, as the greens so closely relate in color and value.  The green of these painted Belgian oak boxes harmonizes with the color of the bluestone terrace; the relationship is a subtle one. The Dallas Blues panic grass repeats that color. Monochromatic color schemes tend to read that way, although an ocean of orange is anything but serene.  Add some contrasting purple to that orange, which in turn contrasts with the green,  and you have a visual party going on. These greens speak softly.

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (3)A porch planting plays the spiky texture of a tropical fern off the round chubby leaves of a  of large scale pepperomia; the effect is pleasing, not demanding. The elegant English wirework planter reminiscent of vintage conservatory furniture is balanced with a simple and very rustic wreath that hangs on the wall year round.

Ford 2006 (39)The container collection is a beautiful one. An American stoneware grape panel container from the 1920′s, and English lead and the Belgian oak box are very different in materials and forms, but very much alike in feeling.

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (17)A pair of very old and distinctive French iron planters sit on the walls.  I usually plant them with lavender, and alyssum, showy oregano, and whatever other herb like plant seems appropriate.  The effect is graceful; the muted colors of every aspect of this space invite contemplation.

Ford, C 2006 (25)Some plants stay green all season, as our summer is too short to permit flowering-as in this large tropical salvia.  The fine perennial hyssop hangs on to the ghostly lavender of its flowers a very long time; this is repeated in a lavender trailing verbena.  Though there is some color here, it is the relationships of the greens that reads first and foremost.

Ford 2006 (26)I think the leaves of  tibouchina grandiflora are surely my favorite.  The large oval leaves are completely covered in fine white hairs; they are a marvel. Their contrast to the needles of the rosemary topiary is considerable in form, and little in color. Variegated licorice is one of the most versatile of all green plants.  The leaves sport two different shades of green; the blotches are very blue green, while the edges are more yellow-green.  It works with every plant with which it is paired.  This collection of pots benefits from the lively effect of its habit of growth, and relative lightness.  Subtle does not mean sleepy.

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No one element here dominates a supporting cast.  Each element has its own voice, but the close relationship of the voices makes for a space that whispers. Some gardens provide refuge from noise; this I like.

Allie,Snoopy,and Vladdy

Lerner 48As my clients were bound and determined that Allie, Snoopy and Vladdy would be members of their wedding party, their choices for a wedding venue were slim to none.  I was happy for them to get married at the shop, and equally happy to welcome the canine members of their family.  Since the decision was made some six months prior to the ceremony, I had the chance to plan a garden that would look great on their late, late summer date.   

Lerner 55A copper pergola would provide the chuppah necessary for the ceremony.  We infilled the poles at each corner with birch bark tubes.  This blue and white scheme dictated the selection of plants as much as the season would.  A collection of Italian cypress, giant rosemary topiaries, kales and cabbages would look swell come wedding time.  Luckily a local grower has a very late batch of sunflowers, including the ultra double “teddy bear”.  That intense yellow would warm up the arbor in a happy and sunny way.  A goldenrod garland casually draped over the chuppah provided the roof necessary for the ceremony.

Lerner 58Silver dichondra has a distinctly blue cast; its diminuitive felted leaves were a great contrast to the giant blistered kale, “Nero di Toscano”. Short blue foliaged fescues, white million bells and showy oregano made good companions for the massive cabbages.  White iron urns showed off the long tails of dichondra to good advantage.

Lerner 60As the ceremony required a table be available for the Rabbi, my clients chose a carved concrete faux bois piece whose legs were carved and acid stained to look like birch. The wedding party flowers in lime green, white, and lavender repeated the color scheme of the garden.  Is that old rosemary topiary not a dream come true?

Lerner11The plan for the reception involved nine 8′ long tables set end to end in the drive.  Small glass vases covered in short birch bark tubes held late summer garden flowers available from the growers at my local farmer’s market. These 45 small arrangements centered on the tables would run for the entire 72 foot long reception dinner table.

Lerner30Allie and Snoopy were nervous, but they did take their big lime green satin bow and flower collars in stride. They did mill around-but just a little bit.  All in all they were very well behaved.

Lerner31Vladdy was ordinarily fairly dignified and unflappable; he sat calmly through the entire ceremony. 

Lerner33It was a beautiful wedding, and I was happy to have a part in it.  There is something so satisfying about a small ceremony for everyone involved. When there are but a few details, every detail can be very personal and thoughtful.  I think they were so pleased to be able to have their dog family there that day.

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I have no pictures of the reception.  I was a guest, and I participated rather than recorded.  But the next day the flowers from the evening before were everywhere-a reminder of what a happy place the garden here had been everyone in attendance.

Parthenocissus Tricuspidata

Oct 18a 007I have never forgotten my ninth grade science teacher, Dr. Watson.  He concluded every lecture or discussion with the statement, “And that is the beauty of science”.  Though at the time I thought he was a crackpot, I now know he was absolutely right. Today I am thinking about Parthenocissus Tricuspidata; Boston Ivy is an ordinary plant with a fancy scientific name whose primary claim to fame is its ability to grip to and cover walls with dense sheets of leaves.  Why today?  The fall color of Boston Ivy is one of nature’s most spectacularly glowing moments, ranking right up there with the aurora borealis.  

Oct 19aaa 028One wall of the building next door to me sits right on my property line; that would be just about two thousand square feet of beige concrete block.  Needless to say, I was not too crazy about the look.  Five Boston Ivy plants have just about transformed that wall in four years time; today it is looking exceptionally good.  The science behind all this color-the formation of the abcission layer.  Don’t black out; I’m talking about the beauty of science here.  As soon as the nights get long enough in the fall, the cells that connect the leaves to the stems begin to rapidly divide-but they do not expand. This produces a brittle callus, which slows, and finally prevents the flow of nutrients from the stem to the leaves.  The plant is going dormant, and putting any expenditure of energy on hold.  This is a survival mechanism, the instinct to preserve life, and the beauty of science.  

Oct 18a 005At the same time, the leaves slow down and eventually quit producing chlorophyll-that chemical that makes leaves green.  If chlorophyll is not constantly manufactured in a leaf, the leaf will fade in sunlight. Chlorophyll masks the other pigments existing in leaves; the yellows, oranges and reds that were there all along are revealed when the production of chlorophyll ceases.  

Oct 19aaa 020Though day length triggers this process, the temperatures, the moisture in the soil, and sunlight influence the overall show.  A dry growing season can encourage leaves to drop early before they reveal any color.  High winds can sever the dry corky abscission layer with the same result. At any rate, the variation and intensity of color on this wall is different every year given weather conditions.  I can see that light, water, wind, sun and overnight temperatures affect the leaves on wall at different rates. 

Oct 19aaa 031It is easy to see the chlorophyll fading at different rates in different leaves-the color variation within each individual leaf is beautiful. 

Oct 18 003Anthocyanins are responsible for the red and purple pigments in leaves.  They are manufactured from sugars that are trapped in the leaf.  Oddly enough, these pigments are not present in leaves during the growing season. The role of these pigments is not so well understood.  If you are interested in reading more about it, The United States National Arboretum has an excellent article on line about the science of color in autumn leaves.

Oct 19aaa 003Metasequoia Glyptostroboides-I wish this were my name.  The Dawn Redwood is an ancient evergreen tree with a twist; it drops its needles in the fall, after turning this glorious peachy orange.  This deciduous evergreen is an anomaly amongst evergreens, which ordinarily hold their foliage all winter. 

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The brilliant colors of fall leaves holds but a very short time.  These pigments break down when exposed to light, or heavy frost.  The brown color you see in these leaves is a result of the only pigment left-the tannins. The story of parthenocissus is not only about the beauty of science. It is just as much the story of the miracle that is nature.