The Details

As I have written before, my job for a client is best described as a conceptual plan.  A schematic plan.  A few broad strokes, an idea.  All of the details, which make a landscape project, are all about a relationship.  The strength of a designer/client relationship makes all the difference in the world.  My client was discerning, committed, articulate-a joy to work with.  These rustic concrete planters with iron rings-she thought they were prefect for the front door.   

garden pergola

She wrote me once that she dreamed regularly about what this garden would look like.  That’s when I started sending her the landscape/garden installation news, regularly.  She was decisive-but she was open to suggestions.  She took a lot of time with me.  I took an equal amount of time with her.  All of the details of this project have everything to do with her taste.   

stone walls

She made me want to be the best I could possibly be.  My landscape design practice has been graced with clients like this.  She asked me to design this landscape as if it were mine.  I had never been asked that before, but I did just that.  But I have Harriet to thank for all of the details that emerged along the way.  This is her house and garden-not mine. 

white barked birch
She made time to work through the details.  These Himalayan white barked birch-especially for her.  Birches are a favorite tree. The details of my plan are all about what she likes. 

espalier trees

stone planter box with espaliered katsuras.  Frank Lloyd Wright reproduction stone urns.

steel pots

Steel fence and tapered steel Hudson pot

gate cane bolt detail

garden gates

side gate

steel fencing

steel fence with shelf

outdoor shower

outdoor shower

exterior spiral staircase

circular staircase from the first floor terrace to the second floor balcony

bluestone paving

stone terrace in bluestone squares and dots set on the 45

hot tubs

 Spa featuring blue grey glass tiles, and copper waterfall

hot tubs

spa detail

 deck/dock cantilevered over the water

 The house is beautiful.  The landscape-my best effort.  I could not be more pleased about the relationship, the process, the finish.  She influenced and brought to bear every personal detail.   All my thanks,  Harriet.  I could not have begun to do this project without her.  Our relationship is on a certain kind of common ground.  That ground will be an organizing metaphor for the future of this landscape.  I expect to hear about this landscape again from her-soon. 





Coming To A Close


landscape project

I have written about this lakefront landscape project several times before.  We have been working on it since last September.  All of last October and half of November was a wash-literally.  The relentless rain made it impossible to work there.  In late November we finally began planting the evergreens.  We managed to finished by the holidays.  After that fiasco of a working fall, I was hoping for an early spring. 

landscape design

Little did I know then that we would not have any winter at all.  That worked in our favor, given how far behind we were. The fence, gates, and a pair of pergolas were installed in February.  In early March we were back to work.  We left the burlap on the boxwood and yews-who knew what would happen with the weather next.  The finishing grading of the property was the next step. 

 We were able to plant 4 Whitespire birch, and 10 Venus dogwood on the lake side.  The dogwoods run parallel, and along the outside edge of each pergola.  They will supply some green backup and subtle screening from the street, and a neighboring property.  The birch are informally scattered in three different beds.  Some hydrangeas were added for height and privacy on the perimeter edges of the property.  The steel beams hanging out over the water would become a small deck.  Aluminum edger strip defines all of the bed edges-this is a maintenance issue.  The garden areas are large. I wanted them to be as easy as possible to maintain.

 This perennial garden is an edited version of a meadow.  Chasmanthium latifolium, or northern sea oats, will be fine with the shade from the carpinus, and the damp soil.  Added to this, aster laevis “Bluebird” , and monarda fistulosa “Claire Grace”.  In the front 1/3, Astilbe Snowdrift, notable for its lacy open blooms, a dwarf amsonia called “Blue Ice”, and Leucanthemum vulgare-oxeye daisy.  The more wild daisies, the better.  It will have a gently meadowy look.    

 The shade garden on the side is predominantly hostas and  ferns, but there are some snakeroot, some goat’s beard, bleeding hearts, and white Japanese anemone.  A single patch of acanthus, or bear’s breeches, will provide a tall vertical accent.  Along the fence-thalictrum, or meadow rue.  The garden has lots of hellebores, naturally. It is an informal mix of shade tolerant plants of varying heights.     

The perennial gardens have lots of purple lavender and white-as in catmint, campanula carpatica, baptisia, phlox, shasta daisies, platycodon-and a little red violet from stachys Hummelo.  Most all of the perennials are reliable in growth and habit, and have a relaxed, summery, and cottagy look.  This is afterall, their lake house. My clients like alliums; the garden has several varieties of small growing ornamental onions.     

perennials for shade

This view of the shade garden was taken before the rest of the pachysandra went in, but you get the idea.  The shelf on top of the fence will have rectangular planters with flowers.  The bowhall maples, once they settle down, will do a great job of screening the house next door from the second floor.  The garden on the lake side of the fence-more of the same cultivars.

a lawn panel

A rectangular lawn plane accented with decomposed granite and boxwood is flat.  Friendly to people. The rest of the back yard slopes gently to the steel seawall. The ground ramps up at the dock-this eliminated the need for a step.  The circular lawn section at the far right will soon have a decomposed granite firepit.

lake views
I planted the climbing rose John Davis on every other pair of pergola poles.  They will greatly soften the look of the structures, given enough time and good care. The clematis range in color from dark purple, to light purple to lavender and white-the white being planted the furthest away from the house, and the dark purple, close up.  The steel box has an irrigation line in it, which we will cap and finish with a watering head once the box is filled with soil and planted with flowers for the summer.  The Venus dogwoods on the right-underplanted with myrtle.  On the opposite side of the yard, I planted taller perennials with the dogwoods, as the ground slopes down on that side.  Taller plants on the low side will give an overall visual impression of level.

steel pergola

The Venus dogwoods will provide privacy to the back yard from the street.  Given the lay of the property on this dead end street, there are public views of the back yard.  The bed you see unplanted on the left now has white knockout roses.  It is my favorite of the series-it is a great grower, and a reliable bloomer.


This break in the yew and boxwood hedge from the street allows access to the back yard for guests, and a deliberately cropped view in.  This large rectangular bed of grass edged in yews and boxwood-in deference to a deed restriction which allows no plant taller than 4 feet from the house to the street. Everyone living on this short dead end street will still have a view of the water. lake property landscapes

This project has taken many months to complete, but it is just about there.  Given all the months I have spent working here, I understand what is so magical about living on the water.  The weather on the water-incredibly beautiful.    My clients moved in 10 days ago-they like how it looks.  They are very special people-I wanted them to a landscape and garden as distinctive as I could muster.  Time will tell.

Lots Of Property


This piece of paper does little justice in describing the size of this property, but perhaps if I say that every square inch represents 400 square feet, you will  get the idea.  Transforming what was a field with an occasional box elder, lots of buckthorn and plenty of quack grass into a home with a landscape has been an enormous project that is still going on, years later.  The land is very hilly and high.  While that seems so romantic at first glance, it did make for a site where the winds, summer and winter, are fierce.  Steep slopes are great for goats-and very tough for people.  Nonetheless, I have a client with lots and lots of property that he loves, not to mention lots and lots of energy.  He has a mind to live here-beautifully. 


The construction of the house came first, of course.  Then, a landscape plan.  My client knew there would be a lot of time between the beginning and the end of the landscape project-me too.  Something is always in progress.  Progress, no matter how slow or intermittent-is a good thing.  Given the intense winds, and the acres of dirt, his first move was to grass every dirt surface and install irrigation.  That done, some perimeter plantings of evergreens were installed to break the wind as much as to screen the property.  The landscape in the front was designed, and installed.  Given the sheer numbers of plants required, certain key plants were big to begin with-others planted by the hundreds were smaller in size.     

 A big home is one thing, but large tracts of land are usually known as parks, farms, ranches, or golf courses. This much property was a big thing to take on.  But my client has an incredible amount of energy, and a vision for his place.  It is just going to take some time.  A number of dry stack stone walls were built to transform an irregularly hilly site into three large level planes that would be friendly to people.  Last year, a terrace and dining area was installed off the back porch.   

Under construction now, the pool, and a wood pergola.  The construction made quick work of destroying the lawn, but this phase will be coming to a close soon. The idea is to have grass, pots and planters-and friends over for a swim in June.  Well, that may be a little bit optimistic, but not too much so.  What you see here is a lot of broken eggs-but I see plenty of cooking going on.       

The back of the pergola will be closed off with a series of horizontal cordon espaliers.  They will provide some filtered privacy, and with any luck, some fruit.  The pool was designed with a very minimal surround.  Large paved surfaces around a pool say “swimming pool”-loud and clear.  Minimal pool coping quietly says “reflecting pool”, dead ahead.  People who go the distance for a pool generally have very definite ideas about how they should look.  This pool will have a very dark pebbletec surface inside.  That dark color means every cloud in the sky will be reflected in the surface of the water.  It will be much more a water feature in feeling than a swimming pool.  The only other accompaniment-4 very large steel boxes from Branch, with their characteristic dark grey patina.  

The pool is just days from a finish.  The debris has been hauled away, and the ground regraded. This was not a job for two men and a pair of shovels.  Lots of people were involved.  I so like to build things-this stage of a project is my idea of adventure.     

There were lots of documents.  Lots of trades coordinating their efforts.  Lots of measurements.  A whole lot of work to do.  One step at a time.  No matter a big, a small, or a medium sized project, everything moves one step at a time.  

Why this picture?  You are looking at the pool terrace retaining wall surface, and the first post of the pool fence.  The plan here-a double row of hydrangeas.  The outside row, closest to the wall-Annabelle hydrangeas.  Unstaked Annabelles.  Thier natural propensity to fall over will greatly soften the stone wall.  I cannot wait to see how that looks in 3 years.  The back row-Limelight hydrangeas.  I have never planted them together before-but a tall stone wall and a pool fence asked for some big simple solution to both issues.  Annabelles and Limelights together-my idea of a really great party.  The grass in the background-a grass ramp up to the pool level-for those guests for whom stairs are too tough.


 These stone walls were the first gesture.  They are better than 5 feet tall, and beautifully done.  There was a year when all that got done was the grading, and these walls, the irrigation system, and the grass. 

Now the upper level has the pool-the pergola is not far behind.  The stairs are in.  The fence posts are in.  This is a very exciting time for me-seeing a conceptual plan with just a few lines come to life.  Any time now, we will be installing the gardens. 


 A year ago, I was looking at all of this grass, and trying to imagine a rear yard landscape.  I stood a good 10 feet above the house grade to take this picture.  All of the terrace furniture-piled up on the back porch.   

There is a terrace now-the furniture is out.  An outdoor grilling area not pictured to the left of this photo-operational.  I cannot tell you for sure if this is phase 4 or 5 or 6-but I can tell you this project is on the move. As for the pace-whatever makes sense for my client.         


Monday Opinion: Depth

From Roy H Williams:  “According to String Theory, what appears to be empty space is actually a tumultuous ocean of strings vibrating at the precise frequencies that creates the four dimensions you and I call height, width, depth, and time.”  I know, it takes time for a sentence like this to sink in.  Should you truly be interested in string theory, I can say that Steven Hawkings has more than a passing interest in it-check it out on Wikipedia, and read on. I have a much less scientific interest in this theory.  I have more of an interest in depth as a key element of good design.

 Landscape design is much about numbers and measurements.  The height of a pergola and the width of a sidewalk, the turning radiuses of UPS trucks, the angle of the sun in the fall,  grades, fall, drainage schemes, the angle of repose, ppms of fertilizer, the plants needed per square foot, the face feet of stone required, the longevity of certain species of trees, the composition of soil, proper planting practices, and scale drawings-the accumulation of knowledge of these things begins to make for a design judgment with depth.  The more “strings” I can become familiar with means I am one step closer to a “tumultuous ocean of strings”.  I am thousands of strings short of a Kathryn Gustafson or a Beatrix Farrand, but I have accumulated a few strings along the way.    I doubt I will ever understand the scientific meaning of strings, but I can understand how many different threads woven together can create something new altogether.  Given a little poetic license, imagine how a great landscape that is a tumultuous ocean of strings might go on to makes an utterly memorable and emotionally charged four dimensional sculpture.  Sensational-yes.

The depth of the ocean is not really so much different an idea than the depth of a person’s knowledge.  Though it is so easy to look up the cultural requirements of hellebores, possessing depth on the subject means growing them, over and over again, in lots of different environments.  Should you wish to grow gorgeous hellebores, put your hands in the dirt.  Or find someone whose hands will gather that knowledge for you.  Given this, my most trusted source on the subject of choosing perennials for a particular place is a grower who has grown many hundreds of thousands of plants in his career-both at work, and at home.  His depth is vastly greater than mine.  Once I have heard his string, I may accept it, or move on. 

There are those times when making a right choice about which plants to use is not the best choice.  Some out of the ordinary plantings are worth taking a chance on.  This means that the string which is about the scientific choice is reverberating with a string of another sort.  It might be a visual string, or a string about memory, or a string about geometric relationships.  This may sound like loads of gobbledegook, but the chance that it may resonate is just as great.  The depth of any gardener’s life, knowledge as aspiration, makes for quite a stew.  The same is true for garden designers.  If you are a gardener looking for a designer, see how many strings they have to put to your project. See if your strings will harmonize with theirs.  

I have posted, and have more posts to come, involving schematic plans.  I rather dislike landscape plans with too much detail in the beginning.  It is a rare project that takes me more than 8 hours to conceptualize.  How so?  Clients have every right to expect that I have depth in design and horticulture.  That I am educated, and keep up with what is new.  The depth of my understanding of their needs and requirements for the landscape-they need to assess that on their own.  But they can expect that I have experience.  That I will know what visual and horticultural relationships work.  And all of those numbers-I know them.  I provide an overall idea in a conceptual plan,  given how I hear all the strings resonating in concert.   A client, should I manage to interest them, responds by stringing up an instrument all of their own.  All of the details come from their strings.  They need a kitchen garden here, and not there.  They like this stone-not that.  A place to plant with their kids-where will that be?  A place to entertain family.  A memory of a certain tree, or a certain garden.  An idea of what beautiful looks like.  It is the relationship forged over these details that makes for that tumultuous ocean of strings.  Not everyone knows how to create or facilitate that, but everyone knows what it sounds like. 

Listen to see if that idea for your garden rings true.  Is there a depth of strings reverberating?  Any move in a landscape or garden that is more about a look than a life that has depth will sound like a spoon hitting a tin can. You’ll know when you need to invite a few more strings to the concert.