The Front Door

I never use my front door-unless I am outside after work, watering my pots. If I am out there watering, the chances are very good that I will exchange hellos with people walking the neighborhood.  When company comes, I am on the inside looking out.  Why I would care how the landscape at my front door looks-simple.  My friends are walking up that walk.  We have a visit or a dinner planned.  I have every interest in making that walk welcome them.  It takes a little time to get to my front door from the street; any visitor has time to see what I have going on.   The front door pictured above-my clients were interested in making a change. 

Making friends feel welcome is but one of the ways that my landscape gives me pleasure. My clients had the same idea.  They changed the door and sidelights for the first time in twenty-some years.  Their choice of a new door and sidelights-a beautiful update.  Part of that update was a new pair of containers for the front porch.  A porch generous enough in size to accomodate both pots and guests; I like the size of the porch.  These chocolate stained concrete vase shaped pots, much larger, and much more emphatic-they make a statement.  Purchased just in time for the winter season, we filled them with twigs, dyed eucalyptus, and a wide densely constructed nest of cut greens. The scale of the planters and plantings frames the front door in such a way to make the invitation read from the street.  This also makes friends knocking on the front door feel welcome. 

Just today, we planted these pots for spring.  The winter centerpieces we kept.  The height of the twigs, and the mass of the eucalyptus, are scaled properly with the size of the door, and the size of the porch.    Guests approaching have a sense of the landscape at eye level-this is a friendly gesture.  How I landscape places in my yard where friends come to visit-I like that landscape to put its arms around my friends, and say hello. 

Some city gardens are built on very small properties.  A conscious choice was made here-to block the view of the front door with a luxurious square of boxwood, dominated by an antique urn.  I planted that urn very tall. How that planting obscures the front door makes the walk to the door an adventure.  Front yard landscapes have much to do with the relationship between the public presentation from the street, and the welcome issued to family and friends. 

This front walkway behind that urn planted very tall is actually an extension of a drivecourt.  A shallow porch benefits greatly from its overscaled width.  I so like the decision to do four pots on a narrow porch.  Everything about the numbers of pots, the placement and the planting influences to what extent you say hello, and welcome.

Some front doors are not symmetrically placed.  A tall portion of wall existed to the right of this front door.  A tall pot, barely visible here, is home to a planting of zebra grass and variegated plectranthus.  The planting is at eye level from the street.  The landscape successfully frames the front door. 

This client loves the big statement that her limelight hydrangeas make-they are glorious.  The view from the street to the front door-a long view.  Her contemporary faux bois selettes from France-they still read from a long ways away.  Up close, a mass planting of white New Guinea impatiens is complimented by lime green creeping jenny-the creeping is almost  4 feet long, come mid July.  There is no walk from  here to there-but there is a view that engages the eye in a lively way.

Not all porches permit pots placed symmetrically.  One planter at the door can be every bit as strong as a pair.  In this case, one giant planter is balanced by a substantial planter box.  The landscape obscures the walk.  This makes for a public presentation of the landscape separate from the private experience.  I live in an urban neighborhood.  This means I have concern about what I want to contribute to the beauty of the neighborhood, and how I might want to more personally welcome my guests. 


The back door of my property sees lots of action.  I load and unload the dogs every day-I park just 15 feet from the back door.  We take the trash out.  We come and go, and park here-all the time.  Treasured friends come in the back door regularly.  But my front door-the landscape and the pots-I have a thing about this special place.  It is my obligation and pleasure to present as beautiful a presentation as I can.  To the neighbors walking by.  To casual visitors driving by.  To special guests.  On my mind is what people driving by, and guests coming up the walk-what do they see?  What have I been so well mannered to put at their eye level.

Good manners?  Any guest of mine, I do try to consider their experience first- before I consider my own. Beautiful pots, overflowing with plants, at the front door-this is no doubt a gesture of respect, and affection.

Where Would You Like To Sit?

I took a picture of my tripod outside the shop today.  I shortened the telescoping legs as much as I could.  This height put my camera just 24 inches above grade.  What is my idea here?  The perspective from which you view a garden, or a landscape, much influences how it should be designed.  My driveway is set at the same grade as my basement.  This means that even though I have a 1 story ranch, I see my driveway from a deck which is one story above that basement.  I don’t really spend time in my drive.  I load the dogs, and drive to work.  I unload the dogs when I come home from work, and walk up the basement steps to get into the house.  But  Buck and I frequently sit on the part of the deck that overlooks the drive.  This means we are looking down on that landscape.  This garden is an overlook garden. 

My tripod set at 24 inches tall records a different view.  The view I see when I am seated in my garden.  This post is not only a discussion of those factors that influence landscape design; it is my prelude essay to talking about choosing and planting containers.  The questions I ask first up, whether it be a consult for a landscape, garden, or containers-how will you view it?  Will you be looking from a second story window?  Will you be sitting next to it on a lounge chair on the terrace?  Will you be looking as you drive or walk by?  Is this a space you view from a window, or a place where you sit and spend time?  

Small containers are perfect on an outdoor table.  When you are seated, the presentation of a container and a planting is close to eye level.  The view of an 8 inch diameter pot when I am standing-a bird’s eye view.  Small pots, containers and urns need to be elevated for good viewing-and placed where you are likely to sit. 

Seated on a bench, I have a great view of these handmade Italian Terra cotta pots from the side.  I also have a great view of a pair of machine made Italian terra cotta pots.  What do I make of this?  Those places where I sit in my garden, those containers need to be every bit as beautiful as what is planted in them-I have a view that asks for that.  I sit in my rose garden.  I have faced down my arborvitae with boxwood; I need a landscape element at eye level that is beautiful.  Arborvitae tend to get thin and straggly at the bottom.  Were I viewing the arborvitae from the second floor, I would be less concerned with their habit at ground level. What is all around me in that part of the landscape where I spend time needs to stand up to close observation.  Places where I am looking from afar, or looking down-I need serviceable containers that feature the plants.  Any fabulous pot or garden ornament needs to be places where it can be seen-regularly.

Though I might be seated in a garden, I would not want every element at the same level.  A change of level provides great interest.  This two-tiered planter welcomes other elements at its feet.  It also permits a view through to an element further away.  The Cotswold stone pedestal is a visual stopper; it is solid and weighty.  The mix of the delicate steel legs and solid stone,  the objects set at different levels is visually interesting.  Every element here is providing company to what I see when I am seated. 

When I stand in my garden, the sky, and the trees of my neighbors comprise a large part of my view.  When I am seated, the sky is eliminated from my view.  The view as pictured above represents a much more intimate garden experience.  Landscapes that involve mountains and sky make for a much different, less personal experience.  

I have been made much more aware of the importance of what goes on at eye level, thanks to my corgis.  Their legs are barely 8 inches long.  They experience the world at a level that I never do-unless I am lying down on the lawn in my yard.  The world is entirely  different from this perspective.   

I love how I am seeing every container in this picture from the side. Low to the ground makes for clear observation of the details.  In the landscape industry, some trees are designated “park grade”.  This means they will suffice visually at a great distance.  A poorly grown tree will not survive visual scrutiny up close.

Many changes of level are represented here.  Were I to photograph the same spot while I was standing, the changes of level would not read nearly so well.  The idea here?  Any place you view your landscape standing up should be tall and taller-and then very tall.  Create an interesting great view at eye level.  The pots you choose for your front porch need to read from the street, and read when friends come to call.  This means large pots, planted rather tall.     


All of the dogs are greatly entertained by each other, and by what goes on near the ground.  It is a landscape they recognize-a world friendly to them.  There is a lot going on here-at their eye level.    What goes on in your landscape needs to engage your eye-wherever that eye of yours might be.  Well done landscapes engage on many different levels.

Sunday Opinion: The Season

Our remarkably cold spring has helped make more than a few things clearer to me.  Every year I encourage gardeners to plant for spring.  In the fall, and again come spring.  It can be one of the lovliest times of year in Michigan.  There are the spring bulbs-literally thousand to choose from.  Some are small and subtle-others are big and showy.  They are easy to plant- little brown orbs that only need to be popped underground.  They are completely programmed for a spring display- the day they go in the ground.  There is no better representative of promise and hope than this;  an early spring blooming bulb you can hold in your hand, and dream of the future.  Part of the party-plant as much as you can, as fast as you can.  That fall dirt will indeed be chilly.  

 The spring flowering bulbs are not the only party going on in the spring.  There are the wildflowers-an equally large group.  The spring flowering bulbs are exotic looking-meaning they are native to countries other than ours.  They look other-worldly.  The wildflowers are native.  Their wild and subtle beauty speaks to the celebration of the natural landscape-wherever you may live.  A nod to the native landscape-this is a pleasure for any gardener.  Phlox divaricata is one of my favorite wildflowers-that blue is unforgettable.  Michigan has more species of native orchids than any other state, save Florida.  Many of them bloom in the spring.  Should you be a gardener who also watched the Royal wedding, I am sure you spotted the long fronds of blooming Solomon’s Seal in the flower arrangements at Westminster.  Were they not beautiful?  There is a spring season.  I would encourage you to celebrate the spring wherever you may garden.

Perennials that represent beautifully during the spring-there are plenty.  I could list my favorites, but that is not my point.  If you do not have some part of your garden which is devoted to a celebration of spring, you will spend a few months longing for another time, and a different circumstance.  My garden has Magnolias, hellebores, European ginger, crocus, daffodils, crocus, tulips, trout lilies, PJM rhododendrons and sweet peas-I have a whole lot going on in my garden in the spring.  By mid March I can sense change in the air.  But dinner on the deck featuring homegrown tomatoes and basil is a long way off.         

There are those cold tolerant spring container plants-why would anyone do without them?  The pansies, violas, primula denticulata, ranunculus, lobelia, annual phlox, alyssum, and ornamental cabbage-all so beautiful.  My favorite combination this year-Creme Brulee heuchera, dark violet pansies, lavender and peach violas, and cream yellow alyssum.  I have some ideas about what fuels the urge to skip spring gardening.  We have four seasons in Michigan.  Spring, summer, fall, and  winter-each last about 3 months.  Our spring has been terrible really-very cold and very rainy.  But this is what we have now-for better or for worse.  Given the prospect of a really cold spring, there is that idea to skip it, as it might be short and fleeting.  I still plant for it.  The beauty of spring plants is such that the risk is well worth taking.  Some years my Magnolia Stellata blooms but 2 days-I have already had over a week of it this year.    

I have clients who wish to plant their summer annuals May 1.  They wish to follow up with planting vegetables May 10.  As much as I understand the idea to try to lengthen the summer beyond 3 months, nature is remarkably uncooperative in that regard.  Annuals and vegetables planted too early, in really cold soil, with cold night temperatures-they struggle to survive.  Should they survive, they are set back.  They may never recover the entire season.  Tropical plants set out too early in cold soil-it will take a lot of time for them to recover from the insult.  The insult?  Pushing the season.  No matter what any of us long for-the seasons turn when they will.  The turning of the seasons apply to all of us equally.  You gardeners for whom a garden is a sacred way of life-nature  could care less about your passion and committment-you will be on nature’s schedule no matter what you do. Plan ahead for a spring garden.  That garden reigns the better part of three months. Stave off the need to plant for summer too early-plan for a gorgeous spring.

 If you have a mind to skip the spring season, and challenge the opening date of summer-be prepared to plant twice.  Of course I have planted summer flowers too early.  Clients have events that are important.  June is such a tough month to plan for.  An unusually warm spring can mean the spring flowers are looking tired in June.  A cold spring can delay the summer plantings-which in the best of circumstances will not look at all grown up in June.  Summer annuals just get looking good in July.  Some years, the summer annuals never get really good.  Investing in gardening is a risky business-there are no guarantees.  No promises can be made.  Plants can die.  A planting scheme can turn out not at all how I imagined.  When I get too concerned about the prospect of failure, or too worried about the risk, I try to remind myself that act of making the garden is as important as the outcome.  Does any summer flower look anything like a forget me not?  Is there a reasonable substitute for dogtooth violets or violas in June that you know of? Pots of pansies and voilas just get looking good in June.  I have had them go on into July.  A beautiful spring is out there, in one form or another.  I would chance it, given that I cannot substitute one seasonal experience for another.      

The truth of the natural order of things will be told.  Ity is not tough to spot plants that are suffering from cold-they have that look about them.  Those gardeners that do not plan for a spring season can be tempted to plant summer annuals way too early.  They forego the beauty of the pansies, violas, and annual phlox for geraniums or begonias that are not prepared to survive outside a greenhouse at this time of year.  They plant out tomatoes the first of May; they buy their tomato plants a second time, once the summer weather sets in.  The end of May usually brings the beginning of our summer season.  It can be a week early, but it is just as likely to be a week later.  I plant my own summer flowers in June.  Given warm soil, they take off and grow fast-faster than plants that have been planted in cold soil.   Rushing the spring, hanging on to the summer too long,  editing the fall, ignoring the winter-this never works.  A life seriously imagined, and experienced in the present-a life well lived.  The changing of the seasons informs, and guides.   

No doubt it has seemed like our winter went on forever, pushing spring out of the picture.  Last spring-the best I ever remember. By best, I mean cool and surprisingly mild.  This year, miserably cold and wet.  Yet both seasons are well within the parameters of what we can call spring.

At A Glance: 11 Good Reasons To Plant For Spring