A New Driveway

drivewayEvery landscape project presents its own particular set of challenges. In the ordinary course of events, the planting of a landscape comes after the installation of the hard structures. A new house has to be designed, built, and close to a finish, before the landscape installation can begin. Hard structures in a landscape renovation refers to pergolas, gates, terraces,  arbors, sidewalks, underground electrical conduit for landscape lighting, air conditioners and generators, and the driveway.  Our current project is a perfect storm of related but separate renovation work on the outside, all going on at the same time. The concurrent installation of a new driveway, and our landscape installation, has been an experience like no other – just ask my landscape superintendent, Dan. I have designed plenty of driveways, both simple and complex, but I have never had to work on a landscape without one. This driveway is being installed in sections. A section gets removed, a new base is put down, and the new driveway is installed. All of the asphalt debris, and countless machines were on site. We have been scrambling for several weeks to get the big trees installed in those short and intermittent slots between the old driveway removal and the new driveway install.  As you can see, there is no clear path from the road to the landscape we are installing at the top of the hill.

pinus flexilis 00133 pinus flexilis hybrid pine trees, 9 feet tall and better, with 36″ diameter rootballs, got delivered curbside this morning. We could not truck them to the spot where they will be planted.  The new sections of driveway are not ready for traffic, and the rest of the old drive is gone. We had already cleared the old failing plants from the area for these new trees, one wheelbarrow load at a time. My client came to the rescue. She arranged for the driveway contractor to bring an electric power jack to the site, and provide 3 people in addition to our 6 to get those big trees uphill. Soulliere Stone Design, owned by Tim Soulliere, is in  charge of installing the new driveway. Removing the old drive, widening the new drive by 40″, installing a drive of concrete pavers and curbing piece by piece, is a big job which is turning out to be a beautiful job. But today he suspended his work, and gave us a huge hand.

pinus flexilis 002The bad news?  We could only move one tree at a time. The good news?  We were not pushing each tree up a fairly steep slope by hand. The newest portions of the drive had not yet been sanded. Polymeric sand is swept into the spaces between each paver, locking them together. In its current unfinished state, the drive could tolerate the pallet jack used by the paving crew move pallets of pavers to the spot where they are needed. Given the steady, sure, and thoughtful hand of a client, the driveway crew and the landscape crew came together to get a job done. The front and newest section of the new driveway was protected by sheets of plywood.

pinus flexilis 005The parts of the driveway that had already been stiffened by the addition of polymeric sand took the trips up with one tree at a time effortlessly. However the effort expended by both crews was considerable. Despite the pulling power of the jack, there was concern that the battery would need recharging before the last of the trees were moved. They pushed. Every landscape project, whether large or small, asks for creating an order of events all aimed at the finish. In the event that the order of events is interrupted, cooperation makes a job move forward.

pinus flexilis 003These 33 trees are taking up a lot more space on the ground plane than they will when they are planted. My grower has had these pinus flexilis “Vanderwolf’s” in the ground for a good many years.  They are incredibly beautiful plants. A group of 14 we will plant as a hedge.  Pinus flexilis refers to their very flexible branches. We will be able to co-mingle branches from one tree to the next to make a solid and dense hedge where there is a need for screening.   pinus flexilis 01019 pinus flexilis “Joe Burke”, an irregular growing hybrid, will enable us to go around a number of old tree sized junipers. The junipers lowest branches are 7′ to 10′ off the ground. The ground level branches have been lost. Up high, the branches are beautiful, and swooping. The planting of the Joe Burkes will involve positioning one tree at a time, fitted to the previous tree, and in anticipation of the tree to come, in that irregular open space at ground level. They will have a loose and graceful habit.  The wind off the lake will animate the branches. The blue color of the needles is a good companion with the juniper branches, and the color of the new driveway.

pinus flexilis 007Pinus flexilis is on my short list of pines worth growing.  Absent any pruning, they become open with age like other pines. But with judicious heading back in the spring, the Vanderwolf’s can be quite dense. They are slow growing, and adaptable. I will probably protect them from the wind coming off the lake for this first winter, to avoid burn to the needles.  They are tolerant of partial shade, which is unusual for a pine.  These will be sited with a western exposure, so it is important that they will thrive in less than a full day of sun. Each blue needle has a white stripe, which makes this tree stand out in the landscape.

pinus flexilis 009I have a new landscape superintendent as of the past February. I am happy to report he is by far and away the best I have ever worked with.  He is as knowledgeable about sound landscape practices as he is unflappable. This project is challenging, but he is easy going about working shoulder to shoulder with a whole raft of other tradespeople who are working on this project. He is confident in the outcome. It pleases me that despite his 30 years in the landscape business, he has never seen or planted a pinus flexilis. How easy it is to have an enduring and long standing interest in the natural world. There is always something new. This planting project will be a pleasure.


stone-walkway.jpgThis past fall I had a call from a great client from years ago. They bought a new house- recently built, and close to finished on the inside. The outside revealed a large piece of property  with dirt as far as the eye could see. The contractor on the house recommended a landscape architect-a landscape professional I happen to greatly admire.  My first visit to the site was during the installation of his complex and beautifully imagined walk from the driveway to the front door. A curved set of steps lead to a generously scaled landing, centered on the dining room window, and not the front door.  Had the walk been centered on the front door, the landscape would forever have looked off balance and lopsided. A bump out halfway to the front door would prove to be a perfect spot for a bench. The curved walkway falls within the center space, defined by the front porch and dining room window taken as a whole.  That walkway would be the dominant element of the front landscape.


stone-walk.jpgMy clients were a little uncertain about the complicated landscape that was additionally proposed.  I understand that uncertainty. Any landscape involves lots of time and commitment. They were concerned that the landscape proposed was too involved, meaning it would be in need of frequent and ongoing maintenance. I  understand this point of view. I reserve complicated gardens for clients who latch onto the idea of a complicated garden as if it were all they ever wanted from their life. Other clients, who love the landscape, may have kids and demanding jobs that drain time away from maintaining an intricate landscape.

096Consideration of the maintenance was a key part of the design for my own landscape at home.  I would make regular time to take care of my containers, and dead head a few roses. But I also wanted to relax in and enjoy my garden when I got home from work. These clients were of similar mind.  They both are busy working people, and they are raising a family. A very simple landscape that would look put together and elegant every season of the year would respect  the lives of my clients.  By way of contrast, a simple landscape would visually reinforce that stone walkway as the dominant element of the landscape.

Of great importance was the fact that the house was built on rather steeply sloping ground from side to side.  A stone retaining wall encloses that space, and isolates the remainder of the property from the front yard. The landscape would have a clearly defined space in which to be. As evident in the drawing in the first picture, the landscape beds are rectilinear and opposite in direction from the walk. The visual read is as though the landscape came first, and was overlaid by the walk.
Laying out all of the spaces in advance is the last step of a design. What is drawn on paper only rarely translates to the actual space perfectly. My drawings are not perfect, as I draw by hand.  I have also had more than a few surveys with inaccurate dimensions.  Trying the landscape on for size before you plant is a good idea. Once the plants are purchased, they may not be so easy to return.
099No decision was made immediately as to what would go on either side of the walk leading up to the porch.  There was no need.  Those spots could be handled in a number of different ways, each of which could be good.  I had a plan to suggest different pots for the porch, and move these urns to the side.  I would bring the new pots out, so they could try them on.

DSC_6022We did cover the new limestone walk with plywood and tarps. There was no reason to put put any more dirt on that walk than necessary. As we did this job fairly late in the fall, the temperatures were chilly, and we had had a lot of rain. We had a need for a considerable amount of soil to bring the grade up to the grade set by the walk. The pipes for the irrigation had already been set.  The irrigation contractor would finish the job just before we were ready to mulch the planting. We use ground hardwood bark fines, which deteriorates fairly quickly, and adds much needed compost to the soil.  The mulching will need to be done every year.

DSC_6023We did plant three Venus dogwoods-small trees.  The geometry of the ever green planting was strong enough from the start that larger trees really weren’t necessary.  I like planting smaller trees.  They take hold quickly and put on weight fast. The center rectangle would be grass.  As the grass would go right up to the trunk of the tree, it would have to be clipped by hand around the trunk.

DSC_6256A tree set in the lawn without a ring of mulch is a maintenance headache, but given that the rest of the landscape would take very little work to maintain, I splurged on the look.

DSC_6250My clients did decide on four Jackie boxes from Branch-2 rectangles, and two squares. The area between the box and the front wall was planted with white tulips, and will have annuals in the summer. The area underneath the window was planted with white variegated hosta.

DSC_6028The look coming up the walk-simple, but lush. The house has particularly beautiful architectural details.  The landscape will never obscure any of those.

beautiful-stonework.jpgThe area in front of the wall will be planted in the spring.  Either a low sun tolerant ground cover, or perennial-or mix of perennials.  A low wall is a challenge to work with.  While the base of it needs softening, a beautiful wall should be visible.  I have a few months to think that through.

LH winter 2014 (24)We did have time to squeeze in some winter pots. It is a little tough to see in the photograph, but the rectangular bvoxes sit on decomposed granite, for ease of maintenance.  I would not object however, to alyssum growing in the gravel.

DSC_6262Part 2 is set to come next year. But for now, the front of the house is entirely presentable.



A Landscape For A Gardener : Part 2: The Dirt

DSC_5410By the final months of 2013, the sidewalk was nearing completion, the driveway base got poured, the curving front courtyard wall and pillars for the cast iron fence were complete. The iron work-yet to come. At least we were past the point of contractors parking in the front yard.  It is next to impossible to convey to an electrician that the weight of his vehicle damages the structure and drainage capacity of  soil.  We just breathe a sigh of relief when they are finished and gone.  The ground that has been driven over for years had become much like a parking lot, only paved with dirt.  To make matters worse, our area is noted for its heavy clay soil.  This project involved lots of hand digging to reintroduce oxygen to the soil, and the addition of compost to leaven the clay.

June 24 2014 (36)The soil would need grading to the levels established by the house, drive, walk and terraces. This part of the landscape installation takes the most time.  Once the soil is graded, a good rain will tell if there are any non-draining areas.  Once plants are in the ground, they cover over any water that may be sitting on top of the soil. It is vastly easier to spot drainage problems in this stage.  Eventually the iron fencing got installed, all but one panel.  We needed access to the yard with a machine, and tools.  The new blue stone sidewalk was for foot traffic only-and certainly not our feet.

June 24 2014 (37)It is such a relief to get to the dirt stage. I like moving soil around, marking bed lines, and preparing beds to be planted. It is a sure sign of progress.  On the subject of soil for woody plants, I am a member of the do not disturb camp.  Years ago I would dig holes for every tree and shrub at least 3 times bigger than the size of the root ball.  Once the shrub was planted, I would back fill the hole with soil concocted in the wheelbarrow.  Topsoil, sand peat moss, compost, and worm castings were blended to make the soil of my dreams.

June 24 2014 (35)Years later, a study from Michigan State disputed the wisdom of planting a tree in soil which was anything other than existing soil.  Once the roots reached the end of the heavenly soil, the shock of the native soil could set the tree back for years.  This only makes sense.  A root ball needs to be set on firm ground-not new soil.  This makes sense too.  New soil is full of air.  A tree that sinks below grade is a tree that will have problems.  I choose plants that thrive not only in my hardiness zone, but in my soil.  I caution clients who insist on having rhododendrons.  They look great in full bloom at nurseries here in the spring, but I am quite sure none of those plants are Michigan grown.  Though there are neighborhoods nearby with giant and thriving rhododendrons, that is not the norm.

The Plants (25)Last fall, we did purchase 8 large katsura espaliers for this project. When it became clear that there would be no movement on the landscape until this spring, we heeled those trees in at our nursery yard.  We did plant them while we were grading and preparing beds.  The root balls measured almost 40 inches across, meaning the trees were very heavy, and difficult to handle. I was interested to make the move before they began to leaf out, in the interest of less stress for both the trees and my crew over the transplant.  This particular spot on the lot line was well above the grade of the neighboring property.  A very low retaining wall, not visible in this picture, was built to keep the soil in place.  The large solid balls of the katsuras proved to be a help maintaining the grade we needed.

June 24 2014 (34)Once the grade was established, all of the beds to be landscaped were edged in aluminum edger strip. This insures the integrity of the bed lines, and more importantly, it keeps the lawn grass out of the borders.  A landscape within reasonable maintenance limits is a landscape every client appreciates.  Edging beds is not only a skill, it is a whomping lot of work.  A landscape bed with sloppy edges has a sloppy look.  Crisp edges and mowed grass can make the most weed stricken garden look better.  An existing Japanese maple that had survived the construction was protected from the grade change with a stone well.

June 24 2014 (33)Areas which would be planted with perennial material are treated differently than those for trees and shrubs. A tree which is properly sited for zone, existing soil and light will, given a little care, take hold and thrive. There will be no deadheading, or dividing.  With any luck, that thriving will go on for many years.    If you count out horseradish, and some of the big growing grasses, most perennials do not put down roots that deep.  But I do like 16 inches of decent well drained soil, if I can get it. A garden grown on sand is easily to establish, and the devil to keep year after year.  The gardens to be planted on this heavy clay soil may take some doing.  More than likely, we will loose some plants.  But once established, and top dressed every year with compost or ground hardwood bark, a garden in heavy soil will have a long and happy life.

June 24 2014 (24)Establishing the proper grade in the back yard took some finesse. Of course, matching the new grade to the old would be ideal.  But the new house and walks have created drainage issues which never existed before.  The most likely spot for water to pool is dead ahead.  The contractor had run several large storm drains to exactly this spot.  The last part of the grading would be to lower the grade from the stone walk yet to come to the pond.  The big idea here was to plan for surface water to have an unobstructed path to the pond.  What could be better than keeping the level of the pond up with rain water?

DSC_2107We were ready for plants.

The 2014 Espaliers

fan-pear-espalier-in-bloom.jpgAs long as I am on the topic of pruning woody plants, I would like to devote a little time to a discussion of espaliered trees.  An espalier is any tree which has been trained to grow in two dimensions. Espaliers can have great height, and great width, but with next to no depth.  They are pruned flat.  This training can take a long time.  They are great trees for very shallow places.

4-cordon-crabapple-espalier.jpgThe history of growing espaliers dates back centuries, to a certain French monk, Fr. Lergendre, who was entrusted with the important job of providing food for his monastery. In those days, providing food meant growing it. Some of his discoveries were made out of sheer need.  He wanted to grow lots of fruit trees, as he had lots of people to feed.  The trees planted closest to the monastery walls fruited more heavily and more reliably, as the flowers were protected from late frosts by the heat generated from the walls.  As his space was small, and his need great, he moved them closer and closer to the walls. And closer and closer together.  There were many varieties he wished to grow.  Eventually he cut the back branches off of the trees all together.  Amazingly, the trees he eventually trained to grow flat against the walls produced more fruit than trees cultivated in the open. His work over a lifetime was detailed in a book he wrote, “Palmette Legendre”, published in 1684.    The art of training fruit trees to grow against a wall in formally pruned shapes has persisted to this day.

candelabra-Golden-Delicious-apple-espalier.jpgHaving worked for Al Goldner in the 80’s, I inherited his love of espaliers.  He actually grew them on his farm in Howell.  Many a time I have gone to look at an old existing landscape with a mature espalier, and known it was his design.  We buy them from a number of different growers, in different shapes and sizes.

candelabra-style-redbud-espalier.jpgThis redbud was an experimental espalier subject for one grower.  It will have flowers on the main trunk this year. Almost any tree can be grown into an espalier, provided that the training and tying begins at an early age.  A framework of bamboo or wire must be in place, so each branch grows the desired length and in the desired location.  The process of making a branch turn from the horizontal to the vertical takes a lot of time, and must be started when the branch is young and flexible.

pear-espalier.jpgBranches on a fruiting pear tree harden off at a fairly early age.  The decisions as to which shape and direction to take has to be done early on.

pear-espaliered-arbors.jpgWe have a collection of 7 old fruiting pear arbors.  The eighth pair has already found a home.  They are outrageously beautiful.  We do construct a steel hoop armature for every arbor, so the vertical branches can be tied in place.  These espaliers have sufficient age and strength that they will not need that armature for long.  This is plant material that can make an entire garden.  Like every other plant, any gardener can grow a tree arbor, provided they have some time and patience.

espaliered-apple-trees.jpgWe also have a collection of 40 espalier apple trees of more modest size and dimension, and a small collection of espaliered grapes.  If you have an interest in growing, training and pruning, an espalier might be a perfect addition to your garden.  Interested further?  I have written several essays about espaliers.  If you type the word espalier into the search line of this blog, you’ll find them.