Level

The winter is a perfect time to discuss what goes into a coherent landscape plan.  If you have a mind to make some changes, plan now.  Draw now.  Search for the right clematis now.  Read the seed catalogues now. Be ready, when the season turns. A hard and thoughtful look at a landscape now is perfect-most of all that is visible now are the bones.  A good landscape begins with great bones.  No matter what style of gardening appeals to you, the bones tell the entire story in a simple and spare way.  In a way, your landscape is a narrative you imagine, write, and bring to life.  My first look at a landscape design revolves around the shape of the land into and onto which that landscape will be built. Why this picture?  The path across a steep slope is set on a wee bit of level ground.  Getting from here to over there is easy.  That path leads the eye to believe there is something ahead worth visiting.

This house is set high off the existing ground.  Old brick walks contained by pressure treated lumber make the transition from the house to the yard in a very awkward and fussy way.  There are small bits of level-nothing of a size that would permit company.  The lounge is set in a barked bed, and slants down from head to toe.   

A new landscape sets the brick wings, and a gravel inner terrace at one step out of the back door. All three areas set at the same grade creates a flat surface large enough for people to congregate. This makes carrying a tray of burgers outside to the grill easy and manageable.  We prolonged the big step down into the yard until the last moment-post terrace. A riser of 1/4 inch thick steel retains the gravel, while a pair of stucco walls are set at a height convenient for sitting.    

Level ground is friendly to people.  1 person, or a group of people makes no difference.  People are comfortable on the level ground in a landscape.  Would you choose to sit on this left bench, given the choice?  Looks dicey, doesn’t it?  It looks for all the world ready to pitch forward and fall over.  The right bench-solid, sturdy, and inviting.  It is set level with the horizon.  Worrying about one’s footing is not my choice for a garden activity.  

This new house and landscape has been in progress for about 6 months. The fall rain was relentless.  But this picture makes clear that the lawn panel framed with gravel is a level space.  Many of yards of soil were involved in creating this level place.   The land drops to the water’s edge past that panel. The level lawn panel-easy on the eyes and the legs.    The slope to the water-a journey.     

The level lawn panel  made for a drop off to the property line.  My idea here-every place that I would expect traffic, gathering, use and community needs to be level.  The lower slopes got drains, for the columnar maples.  My idea here-one step out of the house, and one step off of the house terrace to the yard makes for a simple experience of the landscape.

This level idea carried across the width of the back of the house meant a significant drop to the street.  Not all spaces need to be level, least of all this one.  The yew hedges set considerably above the street grade provide my client with lots of privacy.  The big idea here? The ground can be sculpted and shaped.  Up or down. Flat or hilly.  This property had been a field for 20 years, so the property could be graded all of a piece with relative ease.  

The decomposed granite drivecourt is level with the entrance to the garages.  Level to the eye, that is.  A drivecourt needs to drain, to the center of that court.    It furthermore needs to drain to the street.  Not everything is apparent to the eye-most landscape companies use transits to determine the rate and the extent of fall to make sure water does not collect.  Water sitting on a driveway or terrace is a nuisance in a rain storm, and can be treacherous if it freezes. 

This drivecourt looks flat.  The drop to a center drain is very subtle indeed. A slight drop to drain away water is about the science, not the view.   

 My property came with a giant drop in the side yard. One year I sprung for a single retaining wall to make that slope easier to negotiate.  

The next year, a reworking of the ground for a second level terrace. A generous landing and stairs with deep treads makes it easy for me to get from one place to the other.


Now I have a well defined lower level flat space, an upper level flat space, and a staircase that gets me from one place to the other.  Level I like.

Buck At Work

Buck has been plenty busy at Branch.  What exactly are you looking at here?  This is a fountain urn commissioned by a client in California for a project in Texas.  This fountain has a bowl assembly and a base, designed and specified by the landscape architect on the project.  Buck stacked the two pieces upside down, to check the level.  A level vessel is imperative with a fountain.  Water needs to fall over every edge equally.  Should your fountain bowl be out of level, the water falling unevenly will broadcast that your ornament is askew.  It pains me to see any garden ornament-whether it be a bench, an urn on a pedestal, sculpture, obelisk, pot centerpiece or terrace, out of level.     

Newly back in town, I wanted to see the fountain assembly right side up-Buck was glad to oblige.  The fountain bowl is 5 feet in diameter-largish.  He welded loops inside the bowl so he could pick it up with his bridge crane.  The base is all of a piece.  The bowl will need a rim welded to it.  At this moment, the fountain urn is in three pieces. 

The center of the hemispherical steel bowl is marked in white paint on the underside.  This helps to  rough center the bowl on the base.  This will be plenty good enough to look at.  When the time comes to weld the bowl to the base, many more specific measurements will be taken.   

Once the bowl was set on the base, we were ready for the fountain bowl rim. The rim is comprised of two rings of 1 inch thick steel, welded together.  This ring is much heavier than it looks.  The rim contains water in four symmetrical spots.  The corresponding four rim spots are scuppers that facilitate falling water. 

This picture of the rim detail tells the story better than words do. 

This large urn will take its place in the center of a much larger fountain pool. 

The fountain is not the only special order project under construction.  This pair of gates are part of an iron fence for a local client.  Informing the design-a discussion about coyotes, and how to keep them out of a dog run. 

The fence panels are composed of a series of four foot tall vertical iron members that will be hidden by a yew hedge on both sides of the fence.  The top 24 inches of fence is constructed of steel vineyard bar in the horizontal dimension.  Why steel bar that looks like tree bark?  The perimeter fencing is our Belgian branch fencing.  This visible top two feet of dog run fence will repeat that horizontal branch motif.

My favorite part of this fence? A 16 inch wide steel shelf welded to the top of the fence.  I can see pots placed on that shelf 6 feet off of the ground, planted with trailing plants.  I can see all manner of tall garden findings and short bits having a home on this shelf.  No coyote will like the idea of scaling this.  A dog run that reads visually as a prison does not interest me.  A coyote proof fence with visual possibilities is much more to my liking.  


The Branch Studio is a big place. Just a shade over 13,000 square feet.  Buck occupies, fabricates, and directs in every square foot with what I would call thoughtful.  Amazingly precise.  Beautifully finished.  Though I was just away the better part of a week, Buck at work really describes a certain kind of kind of energy, motion and energy  that I truly admire.  Buck makes it easy to come home.

A Tree Farm

Many farms lie fallow over the winter.  If I am shopping for trees, winter is prime time.  Evergreen trees are especially attractive in northern landscapes, as we have as much winter as we do any other season. Rows of them, lined out like crops, are beautiful to see.  It is easy to see the strength of the shape of a deciduous tree while it is leafless.  My first exposure to espaliered trees was courtesy of Al Goldner while I was working for him.  He was a landscape designer with a big love for plants-any kind of plant.  But he loved espaliers enough to grow them himself on his farm in Howell.       

I have written before on the history of espaliered fruit trees.  Trained by regular and judicious pruning to grow against a wall or fence meant lots of fruit could be grown in a very small space.  It is rare to find places where espaliers are grown-we know of just a few.  The trees on this farm are beautifully grown in the classic French style.  Row after row of trees are grown here on galvanized cattle fencing attached to oversized wood posts set in concrete.  The grid of the wire fencing makes it easy to see the precision and care with which these trees are grown.   

No tree is sold before its time.  This means the intended shape is completely realized, and the trunks and branches have grown to a size such that the tree is easy to maintain.  This takes years of growing and training.  There is the pruning of both the branches and the roots, and the training of the arms.  Trees must be shifted into larger pots as they grow.  Each pot is set into a pot sleeve set below grade, which helps to conserve moisture and keep the tree securely upright.  Billy is outdoors most every day, looking after them.  

This pair of espaliers is grown in a classic candelabra style, with one signature feature.  Each horizontal branch is turned and tied into an upright position, creating a U-shaped transition from horizontal to vertical.  I prefer this growing method over a horizontal branch that is topped, and a vertical branch created from a resulting break.  This makes for a graceful winter shape, as each candelabra arm is an entire and unbroken branch. Each L-shaped branch will always be a larger diameter where it meets the main trunk, and smaller at the vertical tip. Both of these candelabra espaliers are Kieffer pears; they will tolerate a less than sunny placement. The vertical branches can be topped, if the tree is placed on a wall.  These trees have been grafted onto dwarf rootstock. Alternately, the vertical branches can be allowed to grow as tall as 20 or 25 feet, providing the arms are anchored to the wall or chimney behind it.  

The encircled heart is likewise a signature form.  This shape is much more about romance, than architecture, or the efficient production of fruit.  Notice that the tree is planted in the rear third of the pot.  This makes getting the trunk close to a wall easy.  Years ago we bought bareroot espaliers, and potted them ourselves.  Fruit tree roots do not grow symmetrically around the trunk.  These espaliers are grown in a container the entire time they spend at the farm.  Yearly root pruning means they are shifted from 15 gallon pots to 25 gallon pots only once.   

This is one of my favorite purchases-a tunnel/arbor of Golden Galaxy crabapples grown in a two-tier candelabra style.  They take even longer to grow to a finished size, as they need to be 9 feet tall before they are trained overhead.  Though these trees have been grown to form a 6 foot wide tunnel, they can be placed as far apart as needed, and grown to size.   Having white flowers in the spring, and gold fruit in the fall, these trees would be a spectacular addition to any landscape.   

The fan shape is another classic espalier shape.  We spoke for a pair of them-one Gala apple, and one Seckel pear. They are very adaptable about growing to fit a very wide wall, that is not so tall. Or a tall wall that is not so wide.  Part of the fun of growing an espalier is custom training the growth in a pattern specific to its location.    

A series of trees grown such that their arms overlap to form diamond shapes is known as a Belgian fence.  This group of trees will stretch between 50 and 60 feet; the diamonds are 6′ by 6′.  I love the large scale of this fence; the diamonds will be easy to read even when the trees are in full leaf.  This fence, like the arbor, is grown from Golden Galaxy crabapples. 

This heart which we bought a few years ago had problems from the start which we were unable to correct.  We exchanged it for another heart.  I am not one bit surprised that Billy is growing it out of its trouble, into a new shape yet to come.  I would not be at all surprised to fall for it a second time around.   

We had two dry hours between storms- we took advantage of that.  26 strikingly beautiful trees will be on their way here, come early spring.

Travel

Travel is a well known noun that people recognize.  Travel take us to new places, new experiences.  Travel enables us to reconnect, visit friends and colleagues.  Travelling is a verb that suggests what it means to go away from home, and rethink.  When I want to move away from all that is familiar to me, I travel.  I never travel during the gardening season-only in the winter.  Winter travel can be dicey-witness this view from my hotel parking lot last week.  I never travel in search of leisure.  For that, I stay home.  I travel to meet new people, see new things, be exposed to new things. I travel to be challenged; the rain and fog we had all week was certainly happy to oblige in that department.  Like it or not, successful shopping demands travel.  An image of a bench is not the same as seeing that bench, and trying it out- in person.    

That I travel in winter is a big part of why I drive a Chevy Suburban.  It is a very heavy vehicle.  The seats are incredibly comfortable.  The tires are glued to the road.  I have first class windshield wipers.  Some of what I have a mind to buy fits in the back.   When I am driving in challenging and gloomy winter weather, my Suburban shines.       

My digs on the road are not so fancy.  But invariably they are sincere.  This Hampton Inn was set into an impossibly steep hillside-the fences were many.  Where do I travel? That is not the important part. I am sure that I could travel anywhere and find beautiful and interesting things.  Rob is a veteran traveller.  His trips abroad are very carefully researched and planned.  As a result, his collection of French garden ornament for our spring season will be as visually coherent as it is beautiful.  This winter shopping with him is a rigorous experience, tempered by his unfailing enthusiasm and energy.  Drive for hours, walk for hours, look for hours-and talk about it.  Did we shop?  For sure.

The Appalachian mountains run northeast to southwest-I zig zagged around their peaks, drinking in a big dose of Americana.  We are just as interested in American made as any other made.  But shopping the USA takes lots of time and committment.  Ours is a very large country. Sooner or later something good comes of the travel.      

This landscape of many different species of deciduous shrubs and evergreens was punctuated with vintage farm implements set in detailed pressure treated lumber frames. What do I make of it?  I am interested in all sorts of expression-one never knows what will strike a cord, or a train of thought.     

 Nothing to see here?  On the contrary, there is everything to see everywhere.  I spend lots of time designing.  Given that, I find something fabulous about real places.