At A Glance: Spring

Bare Bones


This landscape under renovation is at an even more bare bones stage than it was when I posted about it early in the week.  Over the past few days, all of the boxwood surrounding the walk got transplanted to the east and west property lines.  All you see left are large and irregularly growing patches of sedum.  Sedum does a decent job as a groundcover in full sun, but a plant in this prominent a spot needs to be better than decent.  It needs to be stellar.  Few very short groundcovers for sun are better than lawn.  No living material better describes the sculpture that is a large piece of ground or land.  How little could I live with in a landscape?  Grass-whether it be mowed or left rough, and some trees.     

In addition, a very large bed to the east had been mounded quite high with soil.  A pink horsechestnut had been planted very high; the bed surrounding it had been built up to the grade established by the crown of the tree.  Most of the tree was dead-the living part derelict.  The grade would need to be lowered.  Cleaning out and regrading takes a lot of time and hard work, but it is the foundation upon which everything to come is built. The shape and grade of the beds and lawn play as important a part in the design process as the plant material.  

I posted this picture of the house from last October several days ago; there were 15 trees in the front yard.  9 Japanese maples, 1 amelanchier, 2 red horsechestnuts, 1 sugar maple, and 2 red maples.  Of the 15, 7 were in an advanced state of decline; I doubt they would have survived but another year or two.  Lots of landscape asks for lots of maintenance; the two go hand in hand.   

I took this picture yesterday; all of the boxwood has been moved to other spots in the yard.  12 that were heavily damaged by leaf miner and who knows what else were pitched.  The ground was regraded to match the grade of the sidewalk and the paver landing at the street. 

I do have a thing about how a driveway is landscaped.  Everyone drives up and down their drive every day. This arrangement is particularly jarring.  On the left, lawn, boxwood, a very handsome hemlock, and some hollies.  On the right side, a field of ornamental grass intersected with one lone serviceberry, and a blob of hydrangeas.   

kkTransplanting boxwood to line the drive reveals a particularly handsome and well kept yew hedge which happens to belong to the neighbor.  This arrangement which respects that hedge makes it seem as though the yews belong to this property.  Borrowing this view helps to visually set the drive within the landscape more gracefully. 

This picture says much about the relationship of the lawn to the landscape beds.  The small piece of lawn that runs from the sidewalk to the street is in stark contrast to the giant lawn bed on the far side.  Conversely, the landscape bed in the foreground dwarfs the bed on the other side of the walk.  This speaks to visual balance.  I like asymmetrical compositions, as long as they are balanced.  Sometimes it is a good idea not to press a hard boundary too hard. This little snippet of grass next to the curb is all but overpowered by all of the pavers. 

So here we are, on the verge of something new-always a daunting proposition.  A landscape renovation of this depth is also a luxury; my client decided to just about start from scratch.  Landscapes ordinarily need renovation.  Plants fail to thrive or die.  A storm can take a giant tree down.  A small area may need to be reworked.  But this is a large scale renovation.  The best of what it has going for it at this moment-a very beautiul house 

This is a very important and exciting moment-there is a spirited conversation going on.

The English Horse Troughs

In my possession at this moment, a pair of English cast iron horse troughs dating back to the late 19th century in England. When Rob sent  me this picture-I fell head over heels-instantly.  They are beautiful objects in their own right.  Even more important, they have presence.  A big and considerable presence.  Rob’s photograph of the morning sun shining obliquely on a freshly plowed English field, and this 12 foot long trough set in rough grass makes one thing clear. Some objects come with an aura that just won’t quit. This picture with no horse trough-adrift. 
See what I mean?  Could you not have everything that this place, and these troughs imply?  You may also be wondering about how Rob came to shop next to a field.  This particular person buys and sells garden ornament as a side line to his primary business; he is a farmer by trade.  The objects he he has available are not so many, but always of a certain caliber.  Located close to the Cotswolds, I would guess these troughs were locally made. They were built with a specific function in mind-making fresh water available to horses.  I would further guess draft horses.  Horses who did the heavy lifting, the big work, on farms pre the industrial revolution.  The cast iron is very thick and substantial, as are the legs.  There is an inlet for water, and an outlet.  The feet have holes which would have permitted bolting the troughs to a hard surface.  A draft horse is a very heavy and powerful creature; no doubt they could upend these troughs, should they have a mind to.  Our farmer/antiques dealer thought circa 1880-1890.   I have no idea how much they weigh, but we were only able to move them with a loader. I can still smell the farm on them.  

They are massive, simple, and handsome. I can easily imagine a lineup of draft horses getting a drink.  The cast iron is of very fine workmanship; lichens and mosses have colonized the rusted steel on the outside.  At the water line and below on the inside-lime deposits from the water.     Should you not have a crew of draft horses, I could see an entire collection of meadowlike flowers growing in them, as in dwarf cleome, hyssop, angelonia, verbena bonariensis and annual queen anne’s lace. Oh yes, this list could be expanded; the troughs are big. What about nasturtiums, sweet william, basil, juncus-and what else?   I could as easily see a giant rosemary hedge underplanted with curly liriope.  Heartstopping.  I could see it stuffed with lavender, or Tuscan kale.  I could see something different planted in them every year, for years and years to come.   I could see schemes for more years than I have left.  This, I like.  

It would be a fairly simple matter to outfit them with 3 or four fountain jets that would recirculate water.  They would be great set on gravel, or in a garden bed.  Do not be afraid of ornament of great scale, age, and presence.  This kind of beautiful is a good think for a garden-it gets the old blood moving. 

Would one not look great in a formal vegetable garden with raised planter boxes-planted with herbs?  I think I could draw a scheme a number of different ways.  The trough perpendicular to an arrangement of four boxes. Four parallel boxes, interrupted by a trough.  These troughs are tall and solid enough to provide a wall, broad enough to house an entire community, beautiful enough to enchant.  Can you tell they are my most favorite thing to come off this last container? 

Each trough has a small section at the end-called a baffle.  The hose in the early days, and the pump for the water much later was housed here.  The baffle slowed the flow of water to the trough-so not one drop would be wasted from splashing.  A means to slow the flow.  I see a lot here.  History, utility, agriculture, gardening, landscape-everything that means something to me.  My advice?  There are those things you can manage without.  There are those things you cannot live without.  Shop for your garden accordingly.

Placing Trees

Some time ago I voiced the opinion that I was not a big fan of Japanese maples.  I heard back about that in spades. So yes, I will concede that they are beautiful trees with enchanting habit and great bark and leaf color.  But they can be very tough to place beautifully in a landscape.  The red leaved varieties are striking in appearance.  The flip side of striking?  Visually demanding.  A specimen tree is just this-a stand alone special element around which an entire space may be organized.   

A beautiful specimen tree asks for a placement that reinforces this idea.  If the idea is to feature a particular plant, other elements in the landscape need to take a supporting role.  Of course landscapes can be organized around a series of spaces or rooms, each with their own diva.  In my own landscape, my trees are either hedged, or planted in drifts, as the divas of my landscape are ornaments.  A fountain pool and groups of pots are focal points.  This is by no means the best way to design a landscape.  This is merely what I like.     

This front yard landscape was home to 9 Japanese maples, representing 5 different cultivars.  When I first saw it last October, some of the maples had black-red leaves.  Some had brown-red leaves.  Others were more clearly red.  In addition, there was a lovely sugar maple, showing yellow fall color in this picture, and 5 additional shade trees.  This made for 15 trees total in the front yard.  Some trees were in poor condition.     

Landscapes in urban neighborhoods are tough to design. They require a judicious hand, and a willingness to edit.  Every landscape gesture needs to be informed by that scarcity of space.  A landscape also needs to work in close concert with that dominant element-the home.  A landscape that respects the architecture will read coherently. There are many voices here struggling to be heard.

Of course it is easier to see years later how a placement of trees might be wanting.  Hindsight is 20-20.  Imagining the space a tree will occupy at maturity is an art; the best practioner I knew is this regard was Al Goldner.  He fearlessly placed trees in anticipation of what they might become 20 years later-even if the landscape looked too sparse and almost undone to begin with.     

Trees planted very close to the foundation of the house may be lovely the day they go in.  Years later, they can obstruct any view of the architecture they meant originally to celebrate.  It is equally as important to consider the views out from within as it is those views from the street.  Several rooms inside are dark, as the windows are covered by branches of the trees.  These branches are equally obstructing the views out into the landscape.  

Every landscape has a foreground, a mid ground, and a background space.  Those spaces need to work, no matter the angle of the view.  The Japanese maples might have presented a completely different appearance, had they been pruned differently.  Each had foliage to the ground.  They read visually as giant red shrubs, not small trees with interesting branching, and an airy appearance.  Maintenance is a very important part of a landscape.

Once the trees were gone, other elements emerged.  A pair of hollies on either side of the front door grew at different rates, and generally suffered from trees planted over them. The boxwood had declined as well.  They have damage from leaf miners; perhaps they were pruned too late in the fall.  There is some work ahead restoring them to good health.   

The beautiful sugar maple, and the hemlocks flanking each end of the house are appropriate and friendly to the architecture.  We moved a lot of plants yesterday.  Viburnums, azaleas, hollies, oak leaf hydrangeas, limelight hydrangeas, boxwood and fothergilla.  The renovation of this landscape is underway.