Open and Closed

the view out (2)A few weeks ago I had an email from a gardener in Connecticut. She was interested in a Hudson fountain cistern from Branch for her garden, and wondered if I could consult with her about the proposed landscape, and size of the fountain.  I am reluctant to take on a design project from far away. I hate to commit to any recommendation for a landscape I cannot see in person. Designing from pictures is next to impossible. On the spot, the eye can take in all kinds of things.  The lay of the land.  The neighboring property, the driveway, the light, the grade, the existing trees, the soil conditions-there are so many factors that influence design that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph. I told her I could not help her. She was not discouraged.  She asked for an appointment-she would come from Connecticut to meet with me.  How could I say no? Her first picture, accompanied by a schematic landscape plan, told a story.  The new landscape and fountain would be constructed at the base of this beautiful stone wall.  Never did she broach the topic of the proposed landscape and garden view from an upper level terrace with a pergola overhead. I am sure she uses this terrace off the house regularly. All I could see from this picture was a view out that had been closed off by an old boxwood hedge. Were I to stand in this lower level, I doubt she would be able to see me from up above.   These boxwoods were in fact blockswoods.

the view out (1) The fieldstone wall is 42 inches high.  The boxwood is 34 inches high.  This means that her view out from her upper level terrace is missing the bottom 7 feet of her lower level garden.  Sitting down, she had no view of anything except the boxwood. A view from a high vantage point, should you be lucky enough to have a view from above, asks for a long and thrilling view out. This boxwood hedge is a screen where no screen is needed. I understand how this happened.  What was once a low border framing a view had outgrown its original intent.  A fountain and the surrounding landscape on the lower level would never be viewed from this terrace. Is this bad?  Of course. A great landscape functions on and from a multiplicity of views. A landscape in which to be is only enhanced by a view of that landscape from afar, or from up above. Good landscapes read at many different levels. This upper level is a place she visits frequently.  Why not enjoy what is going on below?  When I saw this picture, I so wanted to see through that boxwood to the sunny spot hinted at a distance.

the view out (3)Though I had insisted that I could not draw a plan for her, I did draw a plan for her.  I suggested that she move the boxwood hedge, and install a series of steps from the upper terrace, to the lower level garden. I was concerned that her view from above the garden be as good as her experience immersed in that lower garden. Any landscape that involves a change of grade needs careful engineering.  I am not an engineer, but I can imagine what is up and down.  And what needs to be open, and what views should be closed. This drawing for my Connecticut landscape is a schematic plan.  This means that the marks on this page are suggestions with questions attached.  My design for the lower level fountain garden is a schematic plan.  Once a schematic plan looks good, then the details can be worked out. Her landscape contractor had suggested a wall to the west to match the existing wall. I do not see that she needs another wall.  I like the idea of closing the view from the driveway with layers of plant material.

the view out (4)The driveway swoops east, and comes very close to this lower level landscape. Four layers of plant material will make this garden completely private from the driveway. A gate will make a subtle suggestion of what is within. Layers of landscape can provide visual interest from both sides. What is the need? A gently closed view from the driveway.

sculpture in the landscape

This terrace  has a sculpture positioned in the middle of the opening to the pool garden. An opening with a suggestion of closure interrupts the speed at which a guest moves from one area to the other. One must walk around one side of the sculpture, or the other. The time it takes to make that decision slows down the pace. A slow pace means one has time to appreciate and experience one’s surroundings. The transition from a rear terrace to the pool is a long transition.  I favor this.  There is time to absorb the foreground space, and anticipate the next space. The figure in the sculpture faces a rear porch. The arbor frames the sculpture, and invites a walk through to the other side.  There is no need or want of closure here. The hallway from this terrace to the pool garden is interesting.

Coburn (7)This small driveway terrace functions as a drop off. The enclosure supplied by the hydrangeas provides some intimacy, in anticipation of a walk to the front door. The opening in the hydrangea hedge, marked by an arbor planted with sweet autumn clematis, gives a glimpse of the landscape beyond. This landscape celebrates arrival.

conceptual landscape plan 004This landscape which I designed some years back features a long view, that opens up over a considerable distance. I always encourage a client who has long spaces to feature and describe that space. The closure comes behind the sculpture or large pot at the end of that long view.  The screening trees eliminate the view of some large electrical transformers. What needs to be open and what needs to be closed is an important part of a good landscape design.

May 10 016This gravel terrace is one step above the lawn plane. I retained that 7 inch drop with a wide piece of custom edger strip.  The low stucco walls at seat height provide some enclosure without screening the rear yard from view. I felt this terrace needed some enclosure.  In any landscape, there are views that need to be open.  Views that need to be partially open.  Or scarcely open. Those views that need screening-assess the extent of what needs to be blocked.  Blocked in summer, not in winter?  Blocked always?  Is there one place the landscape can be open?  If so, seize that opportunity. An opening in the landscape feels great. Those places where people congregate, make them feel intimate.   I am so hoping my client in Connecticut will open her pergola terrace to the landscape below.


garden in August (1) By the time August comes around, I am ready to take a vacation from the work of my garden, and just enjoy it. In May I might renovate a spot that has gotten a little tired or overgrown. I added a new strip of pachysandra this year in the fountain garden. The yews have grown a lot, and the grass is not happy in their shade. For better or for worse, I make decisions about what to plant in my pots, and get them planted.  In June, the problems generated by the previous winter become obvious.  Replacements go in the ground. 4 all but dead rhododendrons get removed. In the case of my rose garden which finally completely succumbed to the insult of two bitterly cold winters, I decided to do nothing. We not only need a new roof this fall, we need a place to shovel off the old roof.

garden in August (2)
When the weather finally warms up in July, I might start watering here and there. I do not run my sprinkler system on a regular program.  I water what I think needs to be watered.  I only rarely run all of the zones at once. Once the water goes on, broken heads, or a need for a change in coverage become obvious. Sprinkler repairs-July work.The seasonal pots begin to settle in, and put down roots.

garden in August (6)Once August comes, I want to take the time to enjoy the garden.  The watering and maintenance of the pots is not a chore.  I enjoy that.  It is a perfect way to wind down from the day. I water. I tinker with this or that leaf that needs to be removed. The maintenance of the pots is about falling in to the pleasure of a garden. I sweep up all of the maple helicopters.  I make the effort to appreciate what is there, and not worry about what should be there.  Fall is a much better time to make changes in a landscape. Mid seventies during the day, and upper fifties at night is not the norm for Michigan in August.  Why not enjoy that? A temperate August in Michigan is a gift that should be treasured. Buck and I visit each garden every day after work. The corgis come along. This August is temperate.  We are eating outdoors every night.  No matter the menu, there is always Michigan grown corn and tomatoes.

garden in August (3)Even the simplest spots that are completely familiar look good to me. Most of the plants have been there a long time, and seem happy.  Those that aren’t will be dealt with some other time.  Right now is for what is good about it. I feel like I am on vacation when I am home, and that seems like a good thing.

garden in August (4)So why is my August garden vacation on my mind?  I met with a client late last week who just days ago moved into a new house.  The house she left was a beautiful turn of the century home on a big piece of property.  She had invested an incredible amount of time in the landscape and gardens. The decision to move was a family decision.  Decisions like this are made by people all the time, including those people who have a passion for, and work the garden. Most people have important obligations and commitments, and that includes gardening people.

garden in August (5)She has only been in her new house for a few days. The property is astonishingly large. There are some old trees, and lawn as far as the eye can see. The house is almost completely obscured by overgrown shrubs. A typical suburban foundation planting had been left to its own devices. In one spot was the largest and tallest stand of Canada thistle I have ever seen. The house had not been occupied for quite some time, and that landscape had been neglected.      garden in August (12)She did tell me quite a bit about the garden she had just left. How she had planted all of the landscape and gardens herself, and how she managed to maintain it, in addition to having a job and family to look after. That discussion was about more than her loss.  It was about helping me to understand what had been important to her. I did not ask her what trees, shrubs and perennials she liked.  I did not ask her about color or style.  I wanted to know why she called me.

DSC_2446She answered without hesitating.  She told me she was a gardener, and not a designer.  What she was looking for from me was a plan.  An outline of how to go about creating a landscape and garden that would make her new house feel like a home. A way of making sense of 2.5 acres of wide open space. She knows as well as I do how much time and effort that will take. She already has a plan to remove all of the overgrown foundation plantings this fall.  Her August will be very different than mine.

garden in August (13)That said, I could sense her resolve. I could tell that she has the energy to take on a project of this size, and see it through. She is a gardener, after all. With some time and thought, I think I can provide her with a place to dig in. She is counting on me for that, and I plan to give it to her.

DSC_2431Her situation is not unknown to me. When I was her age, I had a new house and property.  For years I did nothing to it.  I was too busy getting Detroit Garden Works off the ground, and tending to my landscape practice. But there came a time when I wanted to make time for it.  That was all it took.  If this client wants to make time for it on day two of her possession of the new house, you can rest assured she is serious. She will make something beautiful and interesting of her property.

garden in August (8)
When I got home later that day, I was glad I had persisted over a period of years making a landscape and garden.  It was, and is, worth it. On top of this, a new client whose love of the garden is a call I will do my best to answer.

garden in August (14)On my deck today, many shades of green. On my mind, an avid gardener with a new house lacking a landscape.

garden in August (9)
Tonight, I have little in the way of obligations. On a Sunday in August, I do my best to enjoy the fruits of all of my work. The deck pots look good to me.

DSC_2410boxes on the north side

DSC_2413bird’s nest ferns

garden in August (15)a  big spike, growing.

DSC_2200the side garden

garden in August (11)hydrangeas coming into bloom

garden in August (16)lantana on standard

garden in August (18)This is the August news from #35.

The Garden Tour

IMG_0820Our garden tour to benefit the Greening of Detroit was a successful event.  We sold 278 tickets, for both the tour, and the tour and reception. We raised close to 13,000.00 for the Greening.  This may not seem like so much, but over the past 8 years, this amounts to 97,000.00. We have been persistent in our support of them, as well we should.  For those of you that are too far away to attend our cruise, there are pictures to follow.  That said, I am so pleased that we had gardeners from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and Washington DC attend our tour.  I could not be more pleased about the attendance, the tour-and the fabulous afterglow Rob and his group put on after the tour.  To follow are pictures from our tour day.

IMG_0818These clients have shopped at Detroit Garden Works since the first day we went into business 19 years ago.  Their landscape is all their own.  Their love of color is extraordinary. They have children, to whom they have dedicated a child friendly garden.  I so admire their landscape and garden, as they have expressed themselves with great confidence and care. They have a point of view, and they are unabashed about expressing it. Their garden was the subject of much talk-as it should be.





DSC_1996This property belongs to a new client.  We rearranged just about every plant they had. We added lots more. Just this spring. We arranged to have a long wall built in the mid ground of the back yard. My crew did an incredible job, making lots of changes.  I so treasure these clients.  Thy were ready for a change. They studied our ideas, and signed up. A change we did-in short order. The new landscape has great bones.  They will decide where they want to go next.



the landscape in July (14)

July 5 2015 (11)

the landscape in July (6)

July 5 2015 (38)

DSC_1990The relationship with this client dates back 20 years. The landscape features many specimen trees that have grown to great size. Like all of the other gardens on the cruise, the landscape is a mix of formal and informal, and beautifully maintained. Though we have redone a few places recently, it is clear that an older landscape, properly planted, ages well.





DSC_1964This landscape of our design took two seasons to install. Our client is an avid gardener. Her love of the garden drove the design. This landscape featured unusual trees, shrubs, and espaliers. Every square foot of this property is devoted to the plants.  I was interested that all the plants be part of a beautiful design.







DSC_1906This landscape belongs to clients who have shopped Detroit Garden Works for the last 20 years. The landscape is all of their design.  They have the most beautiful collection of fine garden urns we know of in one place-all of which came from our shop. We have consulted on the landscape on occasion. But what you see here is by and large of their own invention.  How they invent is extraordinary.  We are so pleased to be associated with them.






DSC_1898Our garden cruise this year was all I could ask from a garden tour. A diverse group of gardeners who have a passion for the landscape.  Every garden was strikingly different.  But every garden spoke to a love for the landscape.  Oh yes, they did.

The Finished Landscape

landscape 2015 (4)This post is the last in a series of three about the renovation of a landscape. The fences and gates were finished just in time for our garden tour last Sunday. It is remarkable how much they contribute to the landscape. Though I say the landscape is finished, of course there are spots that could be improved.  But for now, the landscape has presence, and is healthy. The back yard feels like a secret garden-which is what my clients sought the most from their landscape renovation.



lead containers


landscape 2015 (3)The view from the driveway culminates in a peegee hydrangea on standard.


landscape 2015 (5)A 12″ tall retaining wall on the far side of the pergola made it possible to level the ground in this area.  The pergola is planted with the climbing rose “John Davis”.

landscape 2015 (6)The view of the yard looking north benefits from the landscapes further up the street.  The long view here is quite lovely, even though the setting is an urban neighborhood.

DSC_1861The south side yard

landscape 2015 (7)The tricolor beech has some companion plantings.


DSC_1865a small perennial garden

landscape 2015 (8)

landscape 2015 (11)

Q landscape (4)


landscape 2015 (9)The pergola from the front yard has gates and a fence to go with. Planted between the Venus dogwoods-hydrangea “Bobo”, and pachysandra.

landscape 2015 (10)Planted on the fence, sweet autumn clematis. The emerald green arborvitae are planted on the fence line, while the hedge of Venus dogwoods curves forward.  The two hedges overlap in a visually interesting way.

landscape 2015 (12)Emerald green arborvitae provide screening on the driveway side.

landscape 2015 (1)The gates

DSC_1873The generator is not screened from this view, yet.

DSC_1317at the end of the driveway, an old bench flanked by a pair of pots.

DSC_1226The end result – a simple formal landscape in front that makes much of the classic architecture of the house, and three beautiful and mature concolor firs. In the back, a very private landscape and garden that will only get better with time.