Complicated

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.

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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.
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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.

 

 

Pruning With A Purpose

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Pruning woody shrubs, when done properly, is good for the plants.  Cutting out dead or diseased branches helps to preserve the overall health of the plant. Branches that cross over one another may damage the bark of both branches.  Damage to the bark of a woody shrub is an invitation to insects and disease.  Thinning out a woody shrub can help to maintain it at a desired size for many years.  That thinning allows light and air to penetrate the interior spaces, keeping the interior of the shrub well foliated.  In the hydrangea hedge above, the upper branches were kept long, a practice which eventually shaded the lower branches.  The lower branches have leaves that are smaller, and fewer flowers. Once we started pruning these hydrangeas, we shortened the top branches considerably and unequally, and pruned the lower branches with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Ideally, a hydrangea should be wider at the bottom than the top.

limelights 2013 (7)As an experiment, I did not prune my limelights at home at all last spring, but for removing the spent flower heads. My reason?  I have a yew hedge in front of them.  I wanted my hydangeas to grow tall, and have lots of blooms in the top third of the plant. On the inside of this hedge is a boxwood hedge, planted fairly close to the hydrangeas.  For the health of the boxwood, I did not want a lot of foliage shading them.  For hydrangeas blooming from top to bottom, the boxwood would have needed to be planted much further away.  I did not have the luxury of that kind of space. This is what I mean by pruning with a purpose.  Good pruning encourages the plant to grow in a way and direction that works with the natural habit of the plant-and the intended design.
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This limelight hedge was planted with the specific intent of providing dense screening from top to bottom.  The branches at the bottom are slightly longer and wider than the branches at the top.  Hydrangeas, like most other deciduous shrub, cannot be pruned with a hedge trimmer.  Cutting every branch at exactly the same height produces a proliferation of growth all at the same level.  A single cut may produce 3 or 4 breaks, or new buds.  This denies light and air to the branches below.  Deciduous shrubs pruned for years in this in this manner have a thin green outer layer, and a dead twiggy interior.

pruned-limelight-hydrangeas.jpgThink shag hair cut.  Shorter on the top, longer on the sides, with each cut an alternate length and direction. Each branch has to be pruned individually, one at a time-each at its own level.  Every branch needs a home of its own, uncrowded by the leaves of a neighboring branch.  Clusters of leaves that pester one another and compete for light eventually leads to overall decline.  Lots of deciduous shrubs grow large.  A big shrub planted in a tight space that always needs downsizing will never look or be happy and healthy.  If you don’t have room for a limelight hydrangea, which will mature at 6-8 feet tall, plant Little Limes.  They can comfortably be kept at 4 t0 5 feet tall and wide.

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There are a few plants that are tolerant of shearing. Boxwood and yews are tolerant. Lindens have been pleached and formally grown into overhead hedges for centuries.  A hydrangea is not a member of this group.  They have a loose and shaggy natural shape.  Pruning them needs to work with this natural  habit.  Landscapes where every deciduous shrub is pruned into ball, mushroom or cube shapes is a look that is heavy handed, and not good for the plants. Proper pruning takes a lot of time, but that time is well spent.

pruned-limelights.jpgThe effect of just one year not pruning my limelight hydrangeas is obvious.  The shrubs have developed long bare legs  Pruned down to 36″ tall will encourage lateral buds to break, and some branching at the bottom.  From a distance, the boxwood disguises this legginess. In fact, I prune my hydrangeas differently every year.  I like trying out different approaches and observing the results.  Shrubs are quite tolerant of gardeners.

hydrangea-branching.jpgIf you do have a shrub that is had become overgrown, or is suffering from long standing poor pruning, it is possible to renovate.  An overgrown lilac might benefit from having a couple of old thick branches cut to the ground.  This will encourage growth from the base.  A privet that has been cut into a ball shape for too many years might be a good candidate for the swiss cheese treatment.  Cut holes in the exterior thicket of branches so light can penetrate.  The light is coming from overhead, so treating the top surface of the shrub is the most effective way.

hydrangea-budding.jpgI would say my hydrangeas have been cut hard this year.  I see I have buds breaking here well below the cut.  The trick is to cut close enough to a bud so no time and energy is wasted on a stub that will eventually die back.  Cut too close to a bud, and you may damage it.  For this reason, I may prune my hydrangeas again in a month of so.  To encourage more branching.  Very hard pruning can result in just a few stems, with overly large flowers that droop over.  A sturdily branched hydrangea properly pruned will be a joy come bloom time.