A Big Loss

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASmall yards-don’t most people have them?  I would not ever describe my property in terms of its acreage.  I have a city lot, 105 feet on the short side, and 125.76 feet on the long side.  I am a steward  of 13,230 square feet.  One city lot and a half.  Just to put this in another perspective, the building that houses Detroit Garden Works is 9870 square feet.  The building that houses my manufacturing company Branch is big enough to easily house Detroit Garden Works, and plenty big enough to house my entire house and property – comfortably.  Though my landscape and garden has its overwhelming moments, it is not big.  as in sea to shining sea big.  The loss of a maple upwards of 80 years old in the front yard of the small urban property pictured above was a big loss.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe loss of a big tree that had organized, for better or for worse,  the entire front yard landscape of this small urban property, was a very big loss indeed.  The landscape had lost some of its reason for being.  Exposed for all to see from the street?  A pair of kousa dogwoods near the front door that were struggling from the shade of the maple.  A lack of any substantial landscape statement whatsoever on the right side of the front door.  A pair of yews flanking either side of the front door that tolerated the shade were all of a sudden overpowering and gloomy.  An architecturally noteworthy house looked lost at sea.  Unbalanced.  Utterly symmetrical architecture asks for an equally strong landscape.  The big bump in the front yard was asking for an answer.  The landscape-listing to one side.

pair-of-carpinus.jpgSmall properties advertise their problems in a big and graphic way.  It was not my idea to replace the tree in the front yard.  Why would I propose to repeat an idea that did little to enhance this small property in the first place?  I thought that a pair of carpinus that would flank and frame the front door, and a boxwood hedge on the right side that would answer the existing boxwood hedge on the left would bring some order to the landscape.  My clients were great gardeners, and keen about the landscape.  They liked informal, but orderly schemes.  They had long been retired, and were not so interested in a landscape that would require a lot of lifting and hauling.

front-door.jpgWe removed the struggling dogwoods.  They were so poor, I doubt anyone noticed.  The yews got transplanted.  In their stead, a pair of climbing hydrangeas.  The big leaves are a welcome leafy texture; they were not in any way bothered by the northern exposure.  Deep shade has few takers.  Hydrangea petiolaris is slow to get going, but it is amazingly shade tolerant.   The pachysandra may be the most ordinary ground cover on the planet, but it tolerates, and thrives, in tough conditions.  Lush and green on the ground plane is a good thing.

front-door.jpgWe kept the climbing hydrangea away from the front porch light fixtures-regular pruning keeps this climbing plant in bounds.  Few other vining plants can clothe a wall so elegantly.  We added a few pots to the front porch area-why not?  Though my clients were not able to handle big digging, they were able and willing to look after those pots.

winter.jpgThe columnar carpinus grew. They framed the view to the front door from the street.  They divided the the public part of the landscape from the private and personal part of their home-the front door.  Most happily, every other plant within their range was able to thrive.  The porch had a little light.  I do think that the nurturing of visually thoughtful relationships between shaded and sunny spaces in a landscape is crucial to good design. I believe it is even more crucial to small properties.  The sun and shade can provide lots of atmosphere in the smallest space.

view.jpgDirectly underneath the carpinus -dappled shade.  The pachysandra did not mind this irregular light.  It grew lush and thick. On the house side-a small sun zone.  Sun is inviting in a garden.  The light attracts the eye.  The interplay of sun and shade can provide so much interest in a very small space.  From the sun to the shade and back to the sun-this creates a visual rhythm in a landscape composition that lacks physical space.  Good design in small spaces asks for every base to be covered.  How long does it take to cover every base on a small city lot?  I am not there yet, so I can’t answer.

front-door.jpgThe loss of a very big and old tree presented an opportunity to celebrate a small front yard landscape in an entirely different way.  A change up in a small environment is a pitch no gardener sees coming.  I would encourage you to quit wringing your hands, and swing away.  As it turns out, my clients loved being freed from a maple that entirely dominated their landscape.  They were happy to have the opportunity to make the front porch details more important.

coleus-topiary.jpgI did plant their pots differently every year.  But no matter the scheme, I always planted non stop begonias.  Mr. B had a way with them that was extraordinary.  They grew for him.  I have never seen better.  Though he was always self effacing about his success growing them, I knew he brought his head, heart and experience to bear with them. The new landscape configuration was not maintenance free.  No landscape thrives without attention. But a thriving landscape gave him the go ahead to devote his efforts to growing on the plants in his pots.

yellow-begonias.jpgI want to say that his pots gave him immense pleasure and satisfaction. No matter what day I would drive by, the pots always looked perfectly tended and beautiful.  We took care of maintaining the rest.  I will say they had a rich and involved gardening life long before I met them.  I worked for them for many years, before they sold this property, and moved to the east coast to be close to their children.

walk-to-the-door.jpgThe changes we made in this landscape were over a period of twelve years.  I was happy for my part in this.  Their thoughtful thirty years gardening before me, and my twelve years of revisions made for an updated design that worked for them.

hornbeams.jpgThey sold this property several years ago.  Ill health and age triggered a change.  I understood this.  Landscapes and lives evolve.  They day they lost that old maple-a big loss.  The day they gave up this house and landscape, and moved away-a big loss for me.  Small properties, such as they are, have a big story to tell.  A big hearted landscape design on a small property- all about a story.

 

The Shape of Things to Come

landscape-plan.jpgAs 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. ellipse.jpgI 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. aluminum-edger-strip.jpgFrom 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. landscape-design.jpgThe 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.   landscape.jpgThe 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. limestone-steps.jpgThe 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. landscape-plan.jpgThe 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. landscape-plan.jpgThis design looks different from different vantage points.  Changing the visual channel is easy; there is a path. gravel-path.jpgAny 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. new-garden.jpgWhat 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. landscape-design.jpgI 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.

Mighty White

birch.jpgMy landscape is mighty white right now.  We have already had better than twice the snow we had all season last year, and this is just mid January. I was so surprised that we got another 3 inches of snow yesterday.  Have we not had enough?  Who thought we needed more than the 16 inches we have already had? OK, I wasn’t so much surprised as weary.  The snow has piled up everywhere.  The landscape is blurred.  The glare from the snow makes everything else some variation of black..  Lots of white, with some black bits.  What gardener in my zone isn’t bleary eyed?

sun-and-snow.jpgThese reproduction cast stone pots made from a well known design by Frank Lloyd Wright are all but buried in snow.  The snow silhouette features the rim of the pot.  The shape of a mature plant, a garden bed, a tree canopy, a garden path, a terrace, a container – shape is one of many elements of design.  A shape is a 2-dimensional visual description of an object.  An outline, if you will.  Heavy snow makes it easy to see and decide if you like the shapes.

snow-covered-garden-table.jpgWe have mountains of snow and uniformly gray skies.  There are only so many ways to tell this story.  The better story is about what is missing visually, and how a landscape can be better. As I have watched the snow pile up higher and higher, I realize how much I appreciate the skillful use of color, line, texture, mass, edges, and proportion in a landscape design.  This garden table and bench has been reduced to its simplest shape, in black and white.

snow-covered.jpgDeep snow has all but obliterated any complex relationships in the landscape. What the snow has not buried are the basic and simple shapes.  The very strong and simple relationships.  A good design should be evident in every season.  In all kinds of weather. There are those gardeners who aim for one season at the expense of all the others, and I respect their choice.  It just wouldn’t be my choice.  I do believe that good design is all about what is there when there is nothing there to see.  The stone pot filled with cut evergreens pictured above has a distinct form and proportion that is described and enhanced by snow.

shop-garden-in-January.jpgThe heavy snow had reduced this landscape to its most elemental gestures.  What I still see, given the lack of color and texture, is the form. I would venture to say that a design that does not work in its most austere winter state will work no better flushed out with plants, and clothed in green.

snow.jpgGood form is a quintessentially important element of good design.  A weeping Japanese maple has an overall shape, both a leafy shape, and a twiggy shape.  That maple also has a three dimensional structure-that is its form.  The successful placement of that maple in the landscape is dependent upon an understanding of its form.  Planting small or young trees require an understanding of a form that is yet to be.  Forms come with baggage, too.  A weeping Japanese maple is so common in suburban front yard landscapes that it asks for an unusual treatment or placement for its form to be truly appreciated.  Asparagus means vegetable, which means it gets planted in the vegetable garden.  But its form may be perfect for a rose garden, or a container.

garden-bench.jpg The relationship of one form to another can be incredibly exciting, or sleepy beyond all belief.  Some forms are so striking they stay with me for a long time.  Years even.  The fluid and informally curving form of this magnolia garland is all the more striking visually against the formal and rigid form of this steel bench.  The snow is that relationship graphic and clear.  Personally unforgettable moments in a landscape usually involve a form which is under some sort of visual discussion via the weather, or the season. Landscape elements that are not up to a year round discussion should be placed accordingly.

boxwood.jpg  Some forms I do not give a moments notice.  Why wouldn’t my clients feel the same way? Whenever I am designing for a client, I always ask what was an unforgettable experience of the landscape. This will tell me a lot about what forms will have meaning for them.

snowy-day.jpgThis embarrassment of riches in snow is an experience of the landscape that is making me testy, but it has its virtues.

michigan-winter.jpgMilo thinks this winter’s garden is grand.

 

Making A Lot Of Little

landscape-design.jpgAn old client bought a new house.  The landscape out front was not so swell-I am sure you can see an overgrown and poorly tended collection of plants that have no relationship to each other.  A great landscape needs to respect, enhance, and challenge the space and the architecture.  Not to mention the need for an expression that is interesting, and polished.  This home was built in the 1920′s.  Who knows what landscape might have been planted after the house was finished.  I felt really certain that the current landscape was cursory, if not left over, and not so much oriented around the architecture.  This is not an unusual.  Not everyone is so interested in the landscape, much less good landscape design.

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My client, however, was very interested in landscape design.  She wanted her new home to have a new landscape.  A fresh design.  A design that she would delightedly call her own.  Delight is a state most everyone can relate to.  Landscape delight revolves around a few issues.  A home is the largest feature on any plot of ground.  The shape, the size, the height, and the style of that architecture should inform the attending landscape.  A delightful landscape looks like it belongs to the house and property upon which it is planted.  A good landscape resonates with a house and property.   That house informing the design does not mean reproducing the landscape design of that period.  It only means that any large structure that sits on a property needs to be grounded in a thoughtful and beautiful landscape design, properly proportioned.  A good landscape has an idea about house and ground that is delightfully framed and executed.  On my first visit, I so loved the house, and all of its features.

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My first installation visit to this property was about eliminating her feeble collection of plants in front, and creating some basic green structure.  The cost of implementing this part of the plan would depend in large part on the size of the plants.  Great design is not one bit related to the cost of an installation.  We can buy and install plants of many different sizes.  The design called for green structure that came away from the house, and enclosed the sidewalk to the driveway in a configuration that made visual sense.  In other words, a bed of some size.  She wanted to make the biggest impact she could within the confines of her budget.

landscape-project.jpgGreat landscape design may be about a moment imagined for the future.  Small plants cost less.  Big plants cost a lot.  Most of the boxwood on this project are 12″ to 15″ tall.  We paired lots of those little boxwood with four boxwood of considerable size.  Contrast is a very powerful design element.  In this case, the contrast in size made the entire installation look more important visually.

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The 15″ Green Gem boxwood are really small.  Small enough that they are grown in pots.  Small works great, when they are contrasted with companion plants of greater size.  36 inch round Green Gem boxwood spheres are rare, indeed.  Splashy.  These four big bits would make lots of the smaller bits.

landscape-renovation.jpgThis is the first part of the plan to be installed. Designing with staging in mind involves 2 things.  The part has to look finished on its own-not piecemeal. The “part one” also has to be ready and friendly to the next phase, whenever that phase comes along.

making-a-change.jpgThe installation of this boxwood parterre would look fairly routine, but for the larger balls on the four corners.  The four boxwood of scale attract attention.  Behind the boxwood, several rows of Little Lime hydrangeas.

landscape-design.jpgWhat goes between the hydrangeas and the boxwood is under discussion. We probably will not do anything here until the spring, which means there is time to think it through.

landscape-renovation.jpgThis picture explains the visual logic of the location of the parterre.  That space could be handled in lots of interesting ways. It could be lawn, or ground cover, or more boxwood, or a combination of all the aforesaid,  or gravel, or?  For now, part I is holding its own.