Monday Opinion: Cool

The word cool suggests plenty.  Cool may imply chilly temperatures in the fall, or early spring.  Cool might just as easily be an apt adjective for an unexpected design solution, a truly original landcape design, that product or place which is hip, current, timeless, or easy to fall for, no matter the time or circumstance.   Cool might be an entirely involuntary expression given exposure to an extraordinary and surprising individual expression.  The word cool may be a low key response that just pops out there, given an expression that is shockingly hot beyond all belief.

The cool expletive has been in my vocabulary for decades-it was especially popular in the 60’s and 70’s.  I hang on to my history for all I am worth-this seems fairly normal.   A sisterly and equally energetic expression-far out.  I get curious stares when I use either expression today-the winds of popular culture shift faster than I can take a breath. It is hard for me to believe there are people who were not alive in the 60’s and 70’s. Those post mid century post 80’s people have their own culture, and a language to go with all their own. Monica, the mainstay of our office, shot a 46 for 9 holes of golf yesterday.  Her husband trailed behind-whoa.  Her son of 29 years says to her: “You played lights out, Mom.”  ??  What does lights out mean, pray tell?   But back to cool-What exactly do I think is cool? 

Any person for whom a garden is a way of life.

Any gardener who takes the stewardship of a property seriously. 

Any garden or landscape that is home grown. 

 Any garden or landscape which is clearly stamped “individually owned and operated”. 

 Any gardener who will tear out and redo, given a new idea. 

Any gardener who will not walk away from trouble. 

Any heartfelt expression. 

Any gardener whose vision has been expressed clearly enough to move me. 

Any garden with a story to tell.

Any gardener who keeps coming back for more.

Any great book. My favorite book about gardens:  The Gardens of France by Anita Periere and Gabrielle van Zuylen, published in 1983.  This book includes stunning black and white photographs of my most favorite garden, La Mormaire.  Very cool.

Beautiful garden ornament-new, vintage and antique.  No matter the country of origin, the age, or the material, beautiful is beautiful.

On a lighter note, I find the following things equally as cool:

Dog-friendly gardens and landscapes.

A patch of grass big enough for said dogs to roll around on.

Vintage concrete garden ornaments, including but not limited to birds, angels, dogs, frogs, squirrels, rabbits and hares, trolls, gnomes and snails.

bins, wood crates and string of any description.

As for far out, I have lots of things on my list.  Here are but a few:

The northern lights, the blue moon, a good soaking rain, friable soil, spider webs, buds, flowers and seeds, the change of seasons, shells, twigs, clouds, the ocean, bulbs of any description, ancient breeds of cattle and sheep-as in Jacob’s four-horned sheep, mosses, lichens and fungi, you get the picture.  Most everything in the natural world-very far out.  There are a few exceptions.  I have a tough time with slime mold, woodchucks, Japanese beetles, slugs, shrews, and death. 

There are lots of cool things in the world of landscape and garden-who could begin to name them all?  There are even more far out things-most of those come courtesy of the natural world.  The distinction between cool and far out?  Who needs to make a distinction?  The relationship between talented designers and gardeners in conjunction with the natural world-the subject of a long essay about cool, and very very far out.  Most gardening discussions involve lots of issues. Any good gardener-they handle lots of issues.

At A Glance: Eccentric

Trees For Very Shallow Spaces

I have written about espaliered trees before.  Proper pruning is an important element of good garden maintenance.  But espalier-making is the intersection of the science of how things grow with the art of gardening. Interested in a little something about that history?  Search the post Palmette Legendre for my short take on the practice of growing trees in two dimensions.  The posts “Green Walls”, and “the 2010 espaliers” further that discussion.  Given this week devoted to some thoughts about trees and the spaces they require, espaliered trees come to mind.  These four old Katsura trees have been patiently trained for many years to grow wide and flat.  As you can see, some of the arms have outgrown the stakes that keep them horizontal.  They will continue to grow vertically, until I retie them to their training stakes.   They are ready to make a flat green wall  in a very narrow space.    

Viewed from the side, the trunks and foliage of these katsuras occupy barely 2 feet of space. The rootballs are more than twice the size of the tops.  A grower in Oregon grew these incredible trees, given enormous patience, and a great love of plants.  A great deal of work was needed to train these trees into this shape.  Cercidiphyllum, or katsure, had a broadly oval natural shape. Changing that shape involves training from a very early age.     

I bought old espaliered lindens from the same grower.  I had to have them.  I paid to dig, ball and burlap, and ship 14 espaliered trees across the country in a refrigerated truck.  Nuts, yes. Think of me what you will, but these old espaliers are extraordinarily beautiful plants, and almost all of them are spoken for now. Most of the espaliers I buy are young, and of small caliper.  They need  a support system in order to maintain their shape.  Many espaliers are grown against a wall, for this reason.  These trees are old enough to be a wall.  It is hard to see in this picture, but the horizontal arms are  being held in place by vertical stakes.  These stakes maintain a uniform distance between each arm.Three of the old linden espaliers got placed in a small side garden.  The grade behind them rises steeply; the property line is barely 3 feet beyond the espaliers.  Once the arborvitae grown, this garden will feel like a room with the sky for a ceiling. This is a garden in the process of becoming a place to be.  A decision will need to be made fairly soon.  If the horizontal branches are not kept pruned, the green stripes will become a green plane.Almost any tree can be trained in two dimensions.  These crabapples have been pruned in a classic candelabra form.  The vertical stakes holding the arms in place are attached to wires, which are held a few inches away from the wall with bolts.  This permits good air circulation on the backside of the branches.

This is the third year in the ground for these crabapples.  They dress up this massive stone wall without obscuring it.  The total width of the bed from the wall to the bluestone terrace is 4 feet.  In the absence of any green, this space would feel a little too desolate.  Alternating with the espaliers-blocks of Green Mountain boxwood.  They naturally grow taller than wide. 

This crabapple has been trained in a fan shape.  Each arm radiates out from the trunk in a symmetrical fashion.  Growing an espalier in a symmetrical shape requires the selection and training of that branch which appears in exactly the right spot.  I would be much better at keeping up an espalier that had been trained for a few years, than starting one from scratch.    

This fan espalier has been trained one step further.  In addition to fanning out, it has been trained to grow over the sides of the chimney.  Young tree branches are flexible, and will adapt to this training.  Once the twigs attain some size, the shape often becomes self-supporting.  It wil be very interesting to see the shape of this tree in 10 years. 

This espalier has an entirely free form shape.  Taking up little more than 2 feet on the face of this wall, it is a striking addition to this garden.  The combination of the narrow wood clapboard, the espalier, and the Annabelles in bloom makes quite the picture.

Driving up the street to this property for the first time, I was struck by how this giant bare wall seemed to be asking for something.  As maintaining access to the lake was a very important issue, an espalier of some kind seemd like a good idea.

These 5 trees are trained in an espalier pattern known as a Belgian fence.  When these apple trees were a single whip, 4 feet tall, they were pruned down to within a foot of the ground.  When a pair of branches emerged at that cut, they were potted, and staked to create the beginning of a lattice fence.  Given another 10 years, they will cover this section of wall, and provide plenty of apples.  Were I a young gardener, I would make it my business to espalier something-for the fun of it now, and the beauty of it later.

Trees For Big Spaces


There are those trees that grow to an astonishing height, width, and girth.  The dawn redwoods in California-they are legendary, given their enormous size and age.   In Michigan, we have giant beech and maples in our climax forests.  The biggest trees I have ever seen in person are in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Even the birch and the cedars grow to enormous size.  None of these trees were in yards-they were all part of virgin forests protected by the state.  Large trees need large spaces to flourish.  It has been some years since I re-landscaped this property around a very large copper beech.  I regret to say that it was recently cut down, and a smaller beech planted in much the same area.  As I could not bear to take down a magnificent tree of this age, I am very careful about placing them in the landscape.   

 If you are like me, you have a small property stuffed with no end of plants.  The one large Norway maple on my property influences the health and happiness of every plant within the reach of its shade and surface roots.  I dislike dealing with the consequences on the ground from this tree, but it is worth the trouble. At least it was planted 30 feet away from the house-for that I am grateful.  Small city lots are not so well suited for big trees-they need  wide open spaces.  This beautiful grove of sassafras trees is stately and elegant-and too large to capture with a camera unless I were in the yard next door.  Large properties like this are ideal for big trees.    

In another spot, a graceful trio of weeping Norway spruce that are so large they have become a single tree.  Removing any one of the three would reveal a not so green interior. But one thing is for sure.  All three have all the room in the world to grow as large as they might.  Any large growing planted forced to fit into a space that is too small invariably has that tortured look.  I rarely see a burning bush planted in a sufficiently large space.  Every euonymus alata compacta grows to 8 by 8 feet-and faster than you think it will.


I have 8 Norway maples in my tree lawn.  The tree lawn?  That space between the sidewalk and the street is the tree lawn.  I would guess those maples have been there 60 years or better.  All of these very big and old maples are  failing; every year another giant branch fails to leaf out.  How so?  The concrete space between the sidewalk and the street makes for roots that go round and round.  Girdling roots can eventually strangle a tree.  My big street trees were beyond surgical help when I moved there, I am sorry to say.  I am too embarassed to publish a picture of my trees.  I would rather you see this old maple, growing vigorously. 

This beautiful oak tree is in a confined space; a driveway sunken below grade makes it impossible to see the drive from the street.  That circle is probably 45 feet across.  Whatever the space, it is enough to keep the tree happy and healthy.   

Weeping willow trees endure all sorts of bad press.  They are weak wooded and are always dropping branches.  But they have a great beauty about them, grown to stand alone in a large space. 

Trees and lawn spaces can make for very powerful and evocative landscapes.  People in this neighborhood have resisted paving the roads, even though the issue comes up for review every few years.  My client has beautifully peaceful views from her large property to the one adjacent.  The country style gravel road makes the landscape appear all the more bucolic.


This landscape is entirely dominated by a double trunked green beech of astonishing size. Part of the landscape renovation will involve some changes to the irrigation system, as well as a plant palette that will cope with the shade cast by the beech.  I am sure when the tree was planted it was quite small by comparison to day.  Though it is badly placed, it is much too beautiful to take down.  So we will build on it.

Twin trunks-beautiful, aren’t they?