Monday Opinion: Expertise

Someone once said that the definition of an expert is someone from out of town.  I prefer local, if that works.  I have several clients with conservatories that were made in England, and shipped over.  Crews came with those structures, to install them.  They were truly beautifully made; the installations superb.  But as with a furnace, a dishwasher, a car or a table saw, every beautifully made expensive thing sooner or later needs adjustment, service, or maintenance.  Having a serviceman come from England is impractical for lots of reasons.  I have dealt with Tanglewood Conservatories in Maryland.  They build beautiful glass houses; a consult on a problem is entirely within reach.  But given the choice, a conservatory built by a company within 50 miles of me would be ideal.  Should there be no one, I will consult an expert from out of town.  

I have been the expert from out of town.  I have done cut flowers and decor for parties, weddings, and events.  I have landscaped in parts of the country other than my own.  Working out of town is a challenge.  For cut flowers, my supplier will fly material to me.  This usually works fine.  Except for the Casa Blanca lilies.  They take days to open.  I drove them to West Virginia with me, 5 days ahead of the event. 20 buckets of lilies in my Suburban was more perfume than I ever want to experience again. The day I realized that 2500 roses had been flown to Charleston, South Carolina instead of Charleston, West Virginia, was one of the most hair raising days of my entire career.  I owe it all to a trucker that I promised the freight charge plus 500.00 that I got my flowers trucked to me in time for the party.  Why so many roses?  We were recreating the Stork Club from the 1940’s.  Once I have my flowers, I may need supplies.  When I am out of town, I do not know where the closest hardware store might be, or a place to get sandwiches for lunch.  Nowadays, computers have made that sort of trouble easy to solve. Invariably party and event venues are staffed with people who would vastly prefer a local person who knows the ropes.  They have a point.  I am a time consuming nuisance, not knowing where the loading dock is, or the restroom, or the kitchen. 

I have designed and trucked landscape materials to a number of cities and states other than my own for installation.  I have designed projects in other states that I did not install-but only those states in which my horticulture would stand. That said, I do no landscape work out of my zone, or a zone similar to mine. I have turned down work in California, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Florida.  I may be an expert, but I have no expertise whatsoever about plants in those areas. The first thing anyone has a right to expect from an expert is expertise.   In California, I would be a design expert- sans expertise.   

This past week I got an SOS from a client in Toronto.  He had engaged an expert pool company to design and install a pool in his backyard. So far, so good.  I am not sure how it happened that the pool company came to design the landscape to go with.  I understand the big idea.  Dealing with one person over a pool, a terrace, the landscape, the irrigation and lighting sounds great.  The fact of the matter is that a person expert in designing and building pools may not be a good choice for a landscape designer.  As Rob put it, if you need to have heart surgery, you need a team.  An internist, a nursing staff, a heart surgeon, an anesthesiologist-and who knows who else.  For sure you do not want your anesthesiologist performing your heart surgery.

Landscape in no way mirrors the life and death situation of a serious surgery.  But my client’s pool contractor did what he knew best; he paved the entire back yard save for 4  2′ wide strips around the perimeter.  All that paving will be blazing hot and glaringly uncomfortable, come next summer.  The paved yard has all the charm of a parking lot.  He specified at least 15 different species for the few square feet left for plants.  I spent the weekend redesigning the landscape, much of which involves sawcutting concrete.  The landscape design as it was drawn would have been impossible to like, and impossible to maintain. 

This expert in pool design and installation has no expertise in landscape design that I can see.  He did not have the good sense to say no to my client.  It will not be easy for him to remove some of what he just paid to have installed-but better to deal with it right now, than deal with the consequences next year.   Almost every field is so complicated and requires so much knowledge-very few people are expert in multiple fields.  I do not design sprinkler systems, or lighting.  I defer to Gillette pools when I design how a hot tub will look.  I am not an expert in drain fields.  I cannot cook, sew, play the clarinet, or hang wallpaper.   If you should ask for any of this from me, chances are excellent that I will recommend someone local with expertise.

At A Glance: Dutch Blue Hydrangeas

I did some cut flower arrangements for a client last week; she likes blue.  I thought blue hydrangeas might be just the thing- but  I was not prepared for these.  This is a Dutch blue florist’s hydrangea-wow.  I cannot imagine a hydrangea this color in the garden.  It seems like this shocking blue would be very difficult to make work with other plants.  But if an ultra-blue flowered hardy hydrangea should ever become available in my zone, I would most definitely give it a try.

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Fall Color

The phrase fall color usually refers to leaves that color up.  The gingkos go gold, and the sugar maple leaves turn the most amazing shades of yellow, peach, orange and red.  But there are those late blooming plants whose flowers are richly saturated with color.  Jewel like-as in the wine red and lime green of amaranthus caudatus Fat Spike, and the the golden topaz of amaranthus Hot Biscuits.  These big rangy growing cultivars of grain amaranth bloom with colors I associate with the season.      

.The amaranths dry incredibly well, but the color is at its most dense and brilliantly jewel-like the moment they are cut.  I buy them by the bunch loads when they come into season.  There is something about their velvety color and texture I find irresistable. I do use them in fall containers, especially clients who will replace their fall planting with a winter one the end of November.  

Hot biscuits is just as beautiful in a vase.  I remove all of the leaves and cut the thick stems on a steep slant. 

 Mixed with the orange rose of my dreams- “Star 2000″, the yellow and orange bicolor rose “Confetti”, and the florist’s button chrysanthemum “Yoko Ono”, the result is a spectacular discussion of color particular to fall. 

The orange summer planting at the shop looks perfectly appropriate this October 1.  The copper leaved banana, the orange dahlias and red violet coleus have taken on a different, more saturated look.  The forecast for temperatures in the 30’s tonight does not augur well for a good look tomorrow-I thought I had better take a picture.   

Clear sky orange and yellow pansies look particularly appropriate for fall.  Some dark twigs, with a substantial collar of eucalyptus dyed orange completes the look.  These pots will look all the more beautiful once the leaves on the trees change color.   

Some fall color is as much about the quality of the light as the color.  This antique white fountain with its paint rusting looks cream, gold and orange in the low in the sky, late day sun. 


Have you seen the new issue of Garden’s Illustrated?  It is superb.  My most favorite article is about the Dutch garden Boschoeve, owned, designed and tended by Dineke Logtenberg.  Her ornamental kitchen garden is full of varieties of edible plants that are beautiful in their own right.  This photograph of the cabbage “Kalibos” by Elke Borowski says everything there is to say about the color of fall maturing plants.

The pumpkins and gourds are ripening.  They will be cream, butter yellow, orange, peach, and black green.  This color is unlike any other season.    Their colors are all that much more intense, given a little late summer sun. 

 My trees are just beginning to turn color.  The kousa dogwoods are always the first.  The brilliant red berries pepper the green leaves in the process of turning red.  This look is some consolation that spring is several seasons away. 

Dahlais are especially beautiful in the fall.  Provided they have survived the spider mites and mildew, they will bloom like crazy towards the end of the season.  There colors will intrensify with the beginning of the cold.  This carmine pink University series cactus dahlia has bloomed faithfully all season; it is especially good right now.  

Not all fall color is bright.  These plantings of red bor kale, cirrus dusty miller and blue pansies are moody, just like the rainy blustery weather we have been having the past few days.  No summer planting looks like this.  Color in the fall is an experience like no other.

The Lattice Box

Lattice refers to overlapping strips of wood or metal joined on the diagonal.  That placement produces diamond shaped air, or empty spaces; the steel or wood forms a continuous series of X’s.  How hard it is to describe in words a shape any gardener would instantly recognize in the garden.  Lattice patterned fence panels, screens, and trellises have graced many a garden.  That diagonal construction is strong.  The large open spaces make it an ideal home for vines that benefit from having places from which to grow in and out.  A lattice screen lets air get to the air conditioner while shielding its bulky steel from view.  A lattice fence provides a kind of privacy that is casually airy.  Why box yourself in, if you don’t need to?  Of course I had a mind to design a lattice box.  My first try featured a button medallion set in a solid diamond.  Should you look carefully at this diamonds, they are perfectly scaled for the size of the panel, and perfectly constructed-all of that is Buck’s doing.  The liner is made of extira board-that water repellant rot proof composite material from which signs are made.              

I know, that first box has something of the look of a Brownie camera-a steel framework around that Brownie camera brown board.  The next boxes featured painted extira board.  We always use Porter paint for any ornament outdoors-their 100% acrylic paint is tough as nails.  The plain rectangular shape at the top did a good job of featuring the lattice pattern, without it becoming visually overwhelming.

This client changes the color of his liners every few years.  The ability to easily and entirely change the look of a container is appealing.  I have one client who had us paint the reverse surface of her liners cranberry red-for the holidays.  The liners are actually 4 separate pieces that drop in behind the lattice.  A finished frame at the top covers the raw edges of the board, and makes for a completely finished appearance.     

Years later, I have moved the plain rectangular planter to the bottom.  I cannot explain why I like this so much better, but I do. These tall boxes look grounded, not top heavy.  They have an elegant air, to my eye.  We make square lattice boxes, but some gardens ask for a little height.  This picture records the first four all steel lattice boxes Buck has made for the Branch Studio.  He just finished them 2 weeks ago.  There is a way in which these four boxes have been 7 years in the making.  I can only say thoughful design takes time; the design and construction of this container has evolved over time.    

Buck welds what are called squashed ball feet to the bottoms of these boxes.  The squashed balls give the visual impression that the box is very solid and very heavy. Those ball feet gone flat are one of my most favorite features of this box.  They are what they appear to be-in the business of beautifully and strongly supporting the life of citrus trees, topiaries, or flowers.     

Once the box gets its final finish, I am pleased to be thinking about how they will outlast me.  They will last my lifetime, and others beyond me.  The fabrication of this box gives me the same pleasure that I get from planting a tree.       

Buck did fabricate a number of steel lattice boxes with copper liners.  All I can think about looking at this picture is a copper lattice box with a steel liner.  How would that look?  The very best part of gardening is how a garden evolves.  The best part of the creative process is that the process is never finished.   

Buck made this steel pergola for the Branch Studio years ago.  I am sure it looks much the same today as it did then.  Sturdy and enduring objects for the landscape enchant me.  I like any garden ornament draped in some kind of story, or history.  My respect for the history of gardens and their ornaments fuels my design.  I am always wondering where I might go from there.   

Buck went there,  all on his own.  He had a mind to construct a series of lattice spheres.  They are amazing and beautiful structures.  How he imagined and fabricated a lattice structure in the round-way beyond my ability.       

Since the fifteenth century, fruit trees have been grown in a two-dimensional lattice known as a Belgian fence.  I sold and planted this group of five latticed pear trees two years ago.  One cannot see the lattice structure at this moment-every tree is studded with pears.  My gardening life-equally studded with pears.