The Garden Gate

Every landscaped space has an entrance.  That entrance may be physical, as in a path or stairs that lead the eye, and inspire the feet.  Some entrances are strictly visual.  A large open space without a visual cue about how to enter and where to go may seem muddled.    A landscaped space running the depth of a property might have screening, or fencing on the long side, but there should be clues about where to enter, and where to exit. Some gardens have a gate at the entrance.  Garden gates are beautiful, and functional. This gate spanning a driveway is one of a pair that when closed, says private.  When they are open, they say welcome.   

This decomposed granite walkway to the rear landscape is bisected by a pair of gates. The gate is a visual cue about a change of venue.  In the time it takes to open the gate, and pass through, a visitor has paused, and is ready to move on.  This gate does not particularly keep anyone or anything in or out.  It is a beautiful opportunity to rest both visually and physically, before going on.  

Some gates are part of a wall.  The brick wall enclosing this garden permits a visit to the rear of the landscape; take your pick, which gate you wish to open.  The pair of gates finishes each end of the long mirrored section of wall.  A landscape beyond is clearly visible above the wall; the gates are an invitation to visit that space.  The gates are wood, painted in a subtle color that does not detract in any way from the beauty of the walls.    

Vegetable gardens in my zone need to be fenced.  We have woodchucks, rabbits, and deer for starters.  The gate here-an exact replica of my client’s father’s vegetable garden in Italy.  A simple pine frame with a crossbar and an X covered in galvanized chicken wire seems completely appropriate to the feel and the function of the space.  The simple hand forged gate hardware-beautiful.  This garden gate is designed to make good on its promise to keep out furry trouble. 

Gating an arched space can be handled in a number of ways.  This gateway has a fixed panel of ornamental iron at the top.  The gates are tall rectangles that cleanly meet that pediment.  These gates separate the rear yard from the pool yard.  These gates are beautifully forged, yet easy to see through.  A gate left open is inviting.   

Some walls ask for a gate that is barely visible.  Why is this? This gate goes to a place not nearly so dramatic a place to be as this pool deck.  Some gates are about utility, and function.  Subtle gates make passage possible, without disturbing any of the visual experience of the space.     

This solid wood gate has the look of an interior door.  That solid surface screens the space beyond, and provides a beautiful backdrop for a small antique sundial. Once the arborvitae grow in, the tall chain link utility fence will no longer be visible.  The gravelled space in the foreground functions much like a foyer in a home. 

Some gates have a specific purpose.  This gate may not be gorgeous, but it is child proof.  Some gates are more about safety, than beauty.  Clients with small children need to restrict certain spaces-in this case, a swimming pool.  Once the children are old enough, the gate can be removed.  

My gates and fence keep kids out of my yard.  I have no objection to kids in my yard, but my fountain could be a hazard.  Both gates into the yard are kept locked. They also keep my corgis on the property, and out of the street.  The open ironwork preserves the view out, and the view in from the sidewalk; there is no need to block the view, just the passage.  These gates replicate a pair of iron panels outside the front porch.  They do a graceful  job of making a space both private and safe.

Sunday Opinion: The Sky’s The Limit

I have never been asked to undertake a landscape or garden project where the sky was the limit.  Do I regret this?  In theory, it all sounds good-a design project from my heart, head and hand, given the chance to soar without any need for fuel, wings, wind, or approval.  This thought might, for a moment, be thrilling.  Let’s test the no limits theory.  Should I put a piece of blank drawing paper on my drafting table, what would be my first move?  Picture me unable to put the pencil to the paper. 

Were I have to walked into my own house for the first time, with no interior walls, no division of space, no ceilings or floors-I would be way over my head, trying to make any visual sense of it.  One cannot imagine a building into being. Making a building has much to do with understanding all kinds of limitations.   A building has lots of restrictions as to its placement on a lot.  Properties are required to drain or perk, before a building can be built.  Water and electrical lines must be installed according to building codes.  Weight bearing walls, sanitary sewers, height restrictions-there are no end of mitigating factors that influence the design of a building.  I greatly admire and respect architects who design beautiful buildings.  When I look at them, I do not see compliance with building codes, or physics, or proper engineering.  I don’t see how the heat, light and water functions.  I am not aware of what keeps the walls standing or the roof in place.  I see a sculpture; I see shelter.  The architect has managed to create a visually sound sculpture that first and foremost is structurally sound.  Anyone who owns a home understands what it means when there is a structural problem.  My house is 81 years old.  A lack of vents in the roof soffits was allowing water vapor to build up such that plaster was falling off the ceiling in 3 rooms.  Did I see this coming?  Of course not.  I only saw a beautiful old house that would provide me a home.  That home now has 36 soffit vents, and repaired plaster, neither of which I think about any more.

 I just finished a landscape design for a property on a lake that has been a field for 25 years.  I have a client who is willing to trust my judgment about the landscape.  This does not mean it is a project without parameters.  First and foremost, I have a client with a family and a history who purchased this property with the intent of building a home.  She has likes and dislikes.  Notwithstanding that she is willing to listen, this will be her home, and her garden.  The landscape design needs to respect her parameters.  This is a given, not an option.  At this moment, there is her residence under construction which occupies a very specific space.  That house has created certain  outdoor spaces which govern how and what I will do.  Every room has a specific orientation to the light which is non-negotiable.  The rear of the house facing the lake faces south.  There are lots of windows on this side of the house.  A large porch attached to the house has a roof over the entire space.  The views will be great; the protection from the south sun will be great too.

The property has boundaries-there is a formally and legally determined set of lot lines, on three sides.  The 4th lot line, a curving border, describes a set back from a lake. Those boundaries are a given. Any landscape plan can take advantage of neighboring views, but it cannot impose on neighboring views.  A neighboring house has a view across my client’s property of the lake.  The purchase of the property included a height restriction on plant material in this space, so the neighboring lake view would not be obstructed.  The challenge of the landscape design is to create something beautiful in that space that makes no visual reference to a restriction.     

  As for other restrictive circumstances influencing landscape design-there are lots.  Plants that thrive in California will not thrive in Michigan.  Plants are very specific about what they want.  Would that I could grow the roses that thrive in California.  But no matter how badly I want them, I cannot have them.  There are hardiness issues that govern what can be successfully grown.  Soil composition and exposure narrows one’s palette of plants. Trying to grow most roses on sand is an exercise in futility;  unless you consider rugosa roses. Rhododendron do not like our heavy clay alkaline soil.  They hate even worse our winter winds.  It is easy to fall for them at the nursery.  It is incredibly difficult, maybe impossible, to get them to thrive.  I inherited a stand of them planted on the north side of my house.  15 years later, they are still here.  They are big, and have that gangly and windswept look that comes from having been planted in a hostile climate. Are they beautiful-not really. The question of beauty in the landscape has everything to do with how well it thrives. 

Your constraints, restrictions, parameters, restrictions, boundaries and mitigating circumstances are good friends to your design.  A garden of great beauty is a garden that works.

At A Glance: Dream Cruise Today

The 2011 Woodward Dream Cruise is today. It is the world’s largest 1 day automotive event, drawing over a million visitors, and upwards of 30,000 classic cars.  I went early this morning.  It’s a happening, yes.   

Peak Season


The containers on my deck have grown like crazy in the past month-we are  approaching peak season.  The weather has been perfect; most days have been sunny.  Even so,  we have had night temperatures lately in the 60’s.  There are signs of summer’s end, as much as there are signs of summer’s peak. Though I could easily do with this weather a few more months, September 1st is just 2 weeks away.  Once labor day comes, our summer is in decline.  The nights are colder; it seems like less heat and energy comes from the sun.     Annual plants grow and bloom with one end in mind; they need to set seed, before they are done in by frost.  This is an exhausting task. All the while my container plants are putting on size and blooming great, there are signs of stress.  The mildew I have struggled to avoid on my dahlias-it has claimed a few stalks.  The fancy leaved geraniums pictured above are so rootbound I have to soak them every day.  The Japanese beetles have discovered my canna flowers.  The coleus despises the cooler night temperatures.        

The mildew seems to be spreading to my petunias, for heavens sake.  And the aphids on my licorice-this is a first for me.  Do all of my containers grow to perfection-not even close.  Just close enough to provide me with a lot of pleasure, looking after and at them.  There are a few things I do to make the best of the last leg of the summer.  I do feed my pots with liquid fertilizer regularly.  Geraniums like lots of feed-ferns, not so much.  Each one of my containers has a lot of plants in them, or plants that have grown large. I soak my pots with water, and then soak them with feed.  Liquid feed is like a shot of B-12; I avoid the next watering as long as I can, so the plants benefit before a watering washes it all away.  I am sure to flush my pots through between waterings, to prevent a build up of salts that can become toxic.   

  Most of my containers have grown skirts by now.  When I water, I lift the plants up so I can see the soil.  I water the surface of the soil-not the plant leaves.  There is no sense encouraging mildew to spread. I soak them thoroughly, and then let them get quite dry. The rectangles on my north wall only get water twice a week.  Overwatering begonias in hot weather is asking for rot.  Caladiums will hang their heads when they need water.  I snap off the old leaves out that get too tall, and threaten to engulf my chartreuse Janet Craig dracaenas. 

Growing plants in containers is a live and learn proposition.  As in-this rainbow coleus is a very big grower.  This means there are big sections of stalks between sets of leaves.  This makes it tough to get a good shape from the plant in a container.  These Italian terra cotta urns look like they have top hats-funny, this.  This variety would make a great hedge in the ground.

I know Milo is pretty handsome, but the message here is about keeping things clean.  I remove dead or diseased foliage.  I sometimes thin plants to improve air circulation. And I pick up what falls on the ground.  I leave no debris.  What I would gladly let decompose in my garden I don’t think is good for my containers.  My big Norway maple is raining disease ridden leaves; I pick them up, and throw they away.  Fungus can live over the winter.  Sometimes clean gardening practices is your only defence.      

My terrace is my version of a kitchen garden.   Buck cooks here, and I look after the pots.  My small bi-level deck has 14 containers.  It is a rare evening that there is not something to putter over-I like this.  I only get into trouble when I let them go too long.  Consistent attention is much better than an occasional look.  Hauling the containers here from the basement, filling them with soil, and planting-that’s real work. The work now is not that tough, and at some time during the process I plain start to feel better.  

The jumble pot of petunias and trailing verbena has been great, and still looks great-even on the inside.  I have been very careful to pick up the plant mass hanging over the edge, and deal directly with the soil.  I have kept this on the very dry side-a strategy that seems to be working.     

I only had one shot left on my camera before the battery died the other morning.  The pink light at dawn-wow. My little garden is anything but perfect, but at moments like this, I am very glad to have it.