A Lawn Panel

Would that the only thing on my mind were the flowers-so fabulous.  OK, I take that back.  I love nothing better than a landscape that has been designed and agreed upon, under construction. Last July I finished the design for a client who purchased an adjacent property, and required a landscape design that would take their property and and a planned addition on an adjacent property, which would meld them together gracefully.  My plan called for a lawn plane over 120 feet wide, spanning both properties, that would erase any visual reference to previous boundaries, and make whole, what was once separate.   

The rear yard on the river was a study in irregular terrain.  It would be off limits to me, given my new knee.  People friendly spaces require level ground-do not forget this.  Should you want to make your guests and your family to feel comfortable-give them level ground.  Though it is the toughest job on the planet to convince a client that the grade of the land might be the most important landscape gesture they might make, my clients had not one problem grasping the concept.  The drawing I submitted to them was simple; the work that would be necessary to get there-complicated, long,  and exasperatingly involved.

Every square foot of existing grass was scraped up, and hauled away for compost.  Not pictured here, the bulldozers, and dump trucks hauling and delivering soil. The rough bulldozer gestures.   The hand raking.  The checking of the grades.  We restructured the entire rear yard ground plane.

Every square foot of ground from the emerging addition to the water was revisited, regraded, and in the end-hand graded with giant levelling rakes empowered by the hands of my superintendent, Steve Bernard, and his crew. I had not one worry in the world.  I could drop him at a project and visit 6 months later-everything would be thoughtful, well executed-flawless. 

This past November, we sodded the grass plane.  The story of the construction delays-suffice it to say that we had plenty.  We closed down the landscape season on this project one very cold and stormy day.

Spring came-every last piece of sod survived Steve’s careful installation.  The grass plane was level, and intact.  Not so clear in this picture-the entire rear river side of the house and new addition had a sculpted piece of ground on which to sit.  In my mind, this was a considerable contribution to the unification effort, and a giant step towards a beautiful landscape. 

Per the drawing in the first photograph, this grass plane was bisected with gravel X’s.  These gravel lines are 12 inches wide, and precisely contained by aluminum edger strip. My client’s personal space-on the second floor.  This space not only will accomodate large parties and family gatherings on a level plane, they look beautiful from that second story balcony. 

Many months have been involved in transforming a construction site into a functional and beautiful landscape. A gravel walk traversing the entire walkway sits next to the lawn plane.  My client thinks it might suffice as a mini bocce lane-what fun.   

Progress-we have that.   See for yourself.  The final finish-we are closing in. This area will have grass tomorrow. The vegetable garden boxes are done and ready to plant.   Patience I have-should it involve a landscape or a garden.  I have three landscape projects out there now, under construction.  More to follow. This project-a dream come true.  Most projects involving lots of land and plants are slow to finish-as well they should be.  How slow they are to finish, given the change of the seasons, gives me the chance to look over, and edit  an idea. The natural turn of events-comforting.

Generating A Little Fire

Lat fall I had a client interested in an outdoor fireplace.  I winced.  I am not very fond of those giant chimney and mantle affairs that look like they belong inside a house, rather than in a garden. Indoor and outdoor spaces may be created equal, but I do not subscribe to the notion that they are the same.  Thus, I have an aversion to rugs outdoors, giant stainless steel heaters, refrigerators and the like.  Outdoor fireplaces need be friendly to the landscape, and not impose some object completely out of context.    

I would always favor an open campfire type affair over a massive stone fireplace and chimney floating in the garden, weirdly disassociated from a building.  But campfires have that informal air that do not particularly work well visually in every situation.  My client likes contemporary design, and furniture.  She likes every element of her garden to have that same spare but strong look.  Some years ago we built a large cypress deck which overlooks an L-shaped pool.  This steeply sloped area of her yard was the only spot that would permit a pool. The grade change allowed for an infinity edge on one end of the pool-this was interested and good. The deck terrace was spacious, the steps to the pool generous.  But how to add a formal and contemporary fire feature to the existing mix-I did lots of drawings. Once we had a design, the existing landscape material was moved out of the way of the construction.      

A placement in the lower yard was out of the question; I was dealing with a considerable slope.  I did not want to give too much of the deck terrace space to an activity that would be intermittent.  I did not want to interrupt the flow of one level to the next.  The result of all of this-a 54″ diameter brushed stainless steel firebowl set half in, and half off, the existing cypress decking.  Though I hate to take apart any just recently finished hard structure, I thought the back tracking would be justified in the end.   

We finished the work last November; I was happy to see the result this spring.  From the entrance to the pool yard, that firebowl is subtly tucked into and off of the deck surface. The bowl itself is set in a column at seat height, finished in bullnosed stone, for comfort. Three contemporary lounge chairs and tables complete a seating area that will hold a number of guests. 

Concrete block walls sit on top of a concrete foundation; the walls were simply finished in acid washed steel. We have one more yew to put back around the foundation and ground level to restore the landscape.  The firebowl is filled with pewter grey fire glass. 

The fire bowl does not obstruct any views of the pool from above.  Its placement puts the pool in better visual range with the upper terrace.  Its round shape echoes the large round divan with integral umbrella that my client fondly refers to as “the contraption”.

The shapes, places and spaces make sense to my eye.  The pool yard is ready for flowers, friends, and fun.  

My client is thinking orange white and lime for her pots this year; I can’t wait.

Sunday Opinion: In Praise of Frivolity

Twenty years ago it would have been a routine fall to plant upwards of 30,000 bulbs for clients. At that time, I conducted my business from home-five acres in Orchard Lake, on a street full of five acre parcels.  I was no bother to my neighbors; our houses were far apart, and private.  The house was a wreck, but the property was beautiful-and big.  The boxes would arrive in late September, each with its big full color picture of what the brown and cream blob inside would become the following spring. Bulb planting is not exactly satisfying work.  You dig up the ground when everything else in the garden is going to sleep. When you are finished planting, all there is to see is the same dirt surface you started with.  It seems like the planting was always accompanied by cold, windy and generally inhospitable weather. It did not seem like planting at all-we were burying all manner of small objects that bore no resemblance to the living.  Bulbs may smell like they are alive, but the smell is not delicious like good soil, compost, dead leaves and worms.  The anemone blandas bulbs were so hard and shrivelled one could hardly imagine anything good could come from them.  These I would soak overnight before planting; there is nothing like adding the element of sopping wet to a cold gardening day. In short, there is nothing fun or festive about burying bulbs.  I would look at those pictures on the boxes every so often, just to reassure myself that eventually the work would come to something beautiful. 

 The small bulbs-species and hybrid crocus, eranthis, galanthus, species tulips, anemone blanda, chionodoxa, scilla and so on-I would plant by the hundreds at a time. They would come packaged in yellow netted bags of 10 bulbs each.  It was easy to hold 10 or better in one hand.  I shouldn’t complain-they are vastly larger and easier to pick up one at a time than most seeds.  The investment of time to get all these nut like objects a few inches underground on as chilly fall day was worth it, come spring.  Pushing up through chilly soil into even chillier air, they are the only game in town in March and early April. It amazes me how these diminuitive plants with their delicate flowers are not only supremely robust, but they are incredibly persistent.  A planting of white anemone blanda I did in rough grass twenty years ago is better now than it was then.  I am embarassed to say the sum total of my small bulb planting last fall consisted of buying Rob a muscari mix from John Sheepers for Christmas.  He planted them in a pair of concrete faux bois planters after New Years-they have been in bloom here at the shop for weeks; drop dead gorgeous.

With the exception of certain varieties of daffodils, the bigger bulbs are not so persistent.  Even daffodils will arrive at that day when they need separating to maintain good flowering.  I planted 1000 daffodils in the orchard meadow on that five acres every fall for 15 years. Some I bought at Franks nursery for a nickel a piece after Thanksgiving.  Some were left over from the fall planting. I mostly planted the cream colored Ice Follies, and Old Pheasant’s Eye-my favorite. The last spring I spent there, heavenly.  The digging and dividing is someone else’s job now.  But I would bet that they will live a long time yet, even flowering poorly.  Much poorer than declining daffodil clumps is the fact that I did not plant a single one last fall.

Tulips, the big frits, the hybrid hyacinths-their first year is their best year. Top size bubs produce top size flowers.  I could dig and dry and replant and grow on-but the Dutch do a much better job of this than I ever could.  It has become tougher to persuade a client to plant big drifts of tulips, knowing it probably will need to be done again the following year. I occasionally see a group of tulips that lasts five years, but rarely.  Having just been in Chicago, where tulips and hyacinths were coming into bloom everywhere I looked, I’ve decided that the fact they need frequent replacement is not a very good reason to pass them up.  After all, no one expects their non stop begonias or coleus to live a second season. Is it fivolous to plant fall bulbs?  Maybe.  But a little garden frivolity never hurt anyone.  I am firm in my resolve to plant bulbs this fall-lots of them.  I hope you do too.  To follow-another picture of those pots with Rob’s muscari; this small planting has taken me by storm.

The Grim Reality

A northern garden in April-yikes. My rose bed actually looks better than usual for this time of year.  I have leaves on the climbing roses well in advance of their usual time.  A warm March and a south wall has tricked them into thinking it is spring. The boltonia is up next to the wall-but little sign of the Japanese anemone or asparagus yet.  I have great views of the hose, the gas meter, the window wells, and the dirt.   

The gas and electric meters do not fall into the realm of garden ornament, but my garden has them, like most gardens.  If you do a great job of covering them up, your bills get estimated; why do they always estimate on the so high side?  The wires-who knows what these are.  As T.S. Eliot penned in his poem “The Wasteland”, “April is the cruellest month”.  Though he by no means in referring to my garden, the phrase is perfectly appropriate.  My garden, in April, looks terrible.

The herniaria under the bench-a yellow brown.  Its unclear what is dead, what is alive, and what will be restored by warmer weather.  It all looks dead to me today.  OK, I might be overreacting. It is however, abundantly clear, no garden parties should be scheduled in the foreseeable future. Were I able to wave a wand, or put lottery winnings to righting this, or lottery winnings to an April retreat/ cottage anywhere else but right here, I would do so.  But this is where I live all year round, and this is what there is to report.    

My giant maple-how forgiving it is given Milo’s squirrel rants.  He leaps up on this trunk all winter long, thinking should he work hard enough, he will be able to climb up and destroy that squirrel.  Sections of bark are ripped off-horrifying. The pachysandra at ground level, ground off. A few intermittent broken and intermittent stems are all that has survived his daily winter onslaught. Not pretty.  

What is this grassy weed that comes on so strong in the spring?  Every year it spreads.  By the time I am able to get in there, and weed it out, it disappears.  This weed has the amazing ability to make my rose garden look littered before it ever wakes up. 

My Helleborus Angustifolius-every blooming stalk has been smashed to the ground by the snow.  I am sure once those green flowers appear, I will feel better-but today, I hate the entire winter burned mess.  Staking flowering hellebore stalks in April? I have given five years to this scheme; this April, I am ready to move on to plan B.

Lady Miss Bunny-I do so love this sculpture Rob gave me for my birthday some years ago.  This April-does the moss not need replacing? So many bones are showing-I am wincing. The moss needs replacing. Howard likes to hide under her when it is snowing-witness the pachysandra dead spots.  Dead spots-I am looking at them everywhere.  

My twig things-thank heavens they are sprouting. This very old Palabin lilac standard has been grey and grim for quite some time. I am inordinately pleased for the green haze I am seeing. The weather was very warm today-I could weep given that my garden has not responded immediately.  Who can believe I would even publish pictures of this mess of a garden-but day to day-any landscape is very much about the day to day.  It is a good time to assess, and plan.    

The grass will get greener, yes?  I will prune the winter away from the Limelight hydrangeas. Better days are to come, yes?