Monday Opinion: Labor Day

Labor Day 2015 (9)More than once have I had reason to expect that the warm and sunny momentum established by my summer season would blast by Labor Day in a hot fit of defiance.  Given that the forecast for today is 90 degrees, might Mother Nature forget that today is Labor Day?   Every year I hope nature will be distracted by some warm September weather, and fail to note that the season is due to change.  Have my hopes of a summer that streams on for 4 months instead of 3 ever been fulfilled?  No. This bout of hot weather aside, there are signs that the summer season is slowing.

Labor Day 2015 (2)We’ve had a few cool and foggy mornings. The sun is lower in the sky. The morning light is coming on later, and the evening darkness earlier.The seeds on my dogwoods are ripe and red; the leaves have a considerable red tinge to them.  The hardy hibiscus have more seedpods developing than flowers. The Rozanne geraniums look the best they have all season – typical. The lily of the valley leaves  are singed with their usual end of summer fungus. The Limelight hydrangea flowers are showing some pink. The flowers on the hyssop have gone gray; the plants are dropping their lower leaves.

Labor Day 2015 (3)Some of the plants in my containers have moved past the thriving stage to the tired place. They have that pale foliage color that speaks to exhaustion. Some plants have gone limp from a summer’s worth of exertion growing. A week ago I cut back all of my nicotiana, and fed them. They have been lackluster all summer; I am hoping for a fall flush. The dahlias have not been happy this summer either. I am not sure if I will get a decent bloom before the mildew takes them down. My other containers are so root bound they need soaking, not just watering. The laurentia around the fountain grew too tall in the heat, turned yellow, and flopped over. I took them out.  The fountain is turning green with algae, right on time, in time, for Labor Day.

DSC_3264But there are plenty of containers which are right at what I call that “super nova” stage. Like a star that glows prior to imploding, they are at their most beautiful best – right now.  They are as glowingly good as they ever will be. All of the plants have grown out, and matured.  Each container has an overall shape-like it or not. Some plants have engulfed their containers.  Rob’s container of Russian sage, lamb’s ear and several thyme varieties-any ideas about what the container looks like? Me neither. This planting, right now, is at its most glorious best. Our window boxes stuffed with silver foliaged plants are looking just about as good.

angel-wing-begonias.jpgThese angel wing begonias are bowed over from the weight of all of their flowers. They have been beautiful all summer, but now they are at that very big and beautiful stage that foretells summer’s end.

wasabi coleusBut no summer container plant can come close to that Labor Day super nova size like coleus. The range of colors and leaf types is astonishing. Their willingness to grow is unparalleled. I enjoy growing them, partly as it is possible to shape them by pinching. I find this entertaining. If you think I am a dull girl, you are probably right.  This coleus Wasabi was grown from 3 4″ pots. Given a benevolent September, it will reach the ground. This pot I have not touched.  All the joy in it has been watching it grow.

DSC_3388These chocolate coleus feature a brown and cream cordyline that is almost invisible now. Were you standing directly over them, you would see that I had pinched out the top to reveal the cordyline.

Labor Day 2015 (18)This modestly sized Italian terra cotta rectangle is home to a hedge sized coleus.  We pinched the bottom out, to give the impatiens some breathing room, and some light. Labor Day 2015 (19)chocolate coleus, Kingwood Red coleus, and pink polka dot plant

Labor Day 2015 (17)This pot with an orange and green phormium at the center, pink polka dot plant and heuchera bears no relation to coleus, except that it has been thriving in the same vein all summer.

Labor Day 2015 (6)coleus peaking.  the petticoat below-maidenhair fern.

Labor Day 2015 (20)coleus Amora, coleus Alligator, and a subtle dash of pink polka dot

Labor Day 2015 (12)a coleus “Tilt a Whirl” standard, under planted with hens and chicks.  The accompanying lemon cypress grown on from a 6″ pot-looking good.

DSC_2215So what am I thinking about this Labor Day? That Labor Day usually signals the start of the end of my summer gardening season, of course.  But more importantly, that a working American gardener named Rob has gone the distance every day, day after day, since the middle of May to bring all of these container plantings along to this moment. If you live nearby, and haven’t seen them in person, they are well worth the trip. As for you, Rob, have a happy and well deserved Labor Day.

Landscape Under Construction

landscape under construction (8)A long time has passed since I first laid eyes on this lovely old home in Detroit. Dating back to the 1920’s, all of those beautiful details built in to homes of this era were intact.  The front door has a gorgeous hand carved limestone surround. The brickwork and slate roof are sensational. Gorgeous bones, everywhere. My clients were willing to put what it would take to restore and re imagine the interior to their taste. Every move they made paid great respect to everything original. As for the landscape, there was work to be done. They consulted me about the landscape early on. They both have a love, an appreciation, and a respect for all things green. They were interested in a landscape that would permit them to grow vegetables, a small conservatory in which to grow plants all winter, and a place to be outdoors as much as possible in the summer. Both are very busy professional people for whom a beautiful landscape and garden would be a sanctuary, a delight, and a place to grow plants, and to host friends and family.

landscape under construction (5)The interior renovation took a long time.  This gave me plenty of time to consult with them about where they wanted to take the landscape.  It is obvious from these pictures that no one had cared for the property in a very long time.  The weeds were old, tall, and woody. Some tree seedlings were over six feet tall. There were dead trees, and trees in poor condition.  What shrubs had survived were unkempt. None of them were precious or unusual, but for a group of multi trunk yews in the front yard that were old enough to have attained tree status. They are breathtakingly beautiful, and thriving. The back yard needed some thoughtful design.

landscape under construction (6)Their interior designers, Arturo Sanchez and Barry Harrison from Art Harrison Design Studio made some great decisions early on.  The kitchen windows in the center of this photograph would become French doors.  This would make a trip from the kitchen to the barbecue convenient. There was a great interest in a terrace that would be friendly to dining and entertaining. The question about how to handle the rear terrace would be mine to explore. The other kitchen windows beyond the wall in this picture would be looking out onto the driveway. Driveway?  The drive outside this wall was gravel, and covered in a thick layer of compost and weeds. Once all of the construction was finished, the driveway would be redone. How would that view be handled?

landscape under construction (7)
The wall which connected the house to the garage had been beautiful in its day.  It would need to be rebuilt.  And perhaps rebuilt in some other configuration. Designing the walls and hard surfaces would come first.  But there needed to be a concept established for how the entire space would work.  They wanted to cook and entertain outdoors.  They wanted a pool.  They wanted a spa they could use year round.  A conservatory was on the list. Perhaps the conservatory could be located behind this wall. This is an urban property with 3 neighbors.  How would we establish some privacy in the rear yard?  How could we maximize the the outdoor living spaces?

landscape planThis conceptual plan for the entire property evolved over a period of time.  The design for the rear yard is at the top of this picture.  The rear terrace would span the space from the new kitchen doors to the entry to screened porch at the opposite side.  Given a terrace of this size, there would be two sets of steps down into the back yard. The spa would be situated just below that terrace.  The pool would be round.  The rear yard is not that large.  A round pool would fit the space with ease, and be conducive to entertaining. As the grade of the rear yard rose the further one was away from the house, the pool was designed to have its front half out of the ground, with a coping set a seat height.  The rear half of the pool would be set at grade.  Beyond this round pool would be a pergola-the design to be determined. Once my clients were convinced that the round pool, and the terrace with a curved front and dual stairs was to their liking, the discussion turned to all of the details.


Branch pergola (3)A good bit of time was devoted to the design of the pergola. Eventually it was decided that the pergola would have curved wings that would follow the radius of the pool. The center section would be round, and have an open roof. The posts at the back would rest on a brick wall at seat height. The back of the pergola would be finished with lattice panels, for privacy.  The poles in front would sit at grade.  In the center, a round pavilion with a curved roof. This center section would provide ample space for a large dining table and chairs. The Branch Studio would manufacture the pergola.

Branch pergola (2)This picture of the finial to go on top of the finished pergola gives an idea of the size of the finished structure.  There will be lots of space to entertain.  A swimming pool can be a beautiful and welcome feature in a landscape.  That feature asks for a place to be, pool side.

Branch pergola (1)Each piece of the pergola will be fitted together prior to the galvanizing process, to be sure everything fits. The body of the pergola can be installed by the landscape crews, and the Branch crew put together, but the roof will have to be set by a crane. If all goes well, that pergola should be ready for installation in less than a month. landscape under construction (4)The terrace, pool, and spa were well underway by time winter arrived last year.  The pool terrace, and the new wall separating the back yard from the driveway would have to wait until this spring.

landscape under construction (14)It has taken more than 5 months to complete all of the stone and brickwork, and the pool.  The area in the foreground which will be occupied by the pergola has been barked, to keep the dirt and dust down.  This area will be graveled with decomposed granite, to provide a hard yet water permeable surface.  The back of the pool sitting at grade is accompanied by a generously sized terrace perfect for lounges and containers.  The back wall of the pergola features posts which will be set into a brick seat height wall with blue stone coping in the immediate foreground.

landscape under construction (13)The spa sits just below the house terrace, making it convenient for winter use.  The ground between the spa and the pool will be lawn.  On the left side, a wild flower and shade garden loaded with spring flowering bulbs will feature hemlocks and dogwoods.

landscape under construction (10)On the rear lot line, a hedge of recently planted American arborvitae provides loads of instant privacy to the yard. The shade garden will curve around and blend into this hedge.

landscape under construction (12)A dressing room is in the process of being built off the back of the garage.  And the conservatory?  it will be built on top of the brick wall off the side of the garage.

landscape under construction (11)The new brick wall dividing the garage and driveway from the back yard is soon to get an iron gate. On the backside of these walls, we will plant gardens.  The driveway garden is always an important garden. Everyone visits that garden at least several times a day, all year round. Now that the hard surfaces are done, I can revisit the landscape plan, and see if anything needs to be changed.  It is always a good idea to let the space speak back to you before you plant.

Sept 2, 2015 (10)Once the pergola is installed, I will better be able to judge where any additional trees and shrubs should be planted. The shade garden down the side of the yard needs to be integrated into the hard surfaces and spaces.  Will I plant on the pergola?  If course.


Open and Closed

the view out (2)A few weeks ago I had an email from a gardener in Connecticut. She was interested in a Hudson fountain cistern from Branch for her garden, and wondered if I could consult with her about the proposed landscape, and size of the fountain.  I am reluctant to take on a design project from far away. I hate to commit to any recommendation for a landscape I cannot see in person. Designing from pictures is next to impossible. On the spot, the eye can take in all kinds of things.  The lay of the land.  The neighboring property, the driveway, the light, the grade, the existing trees, the soil conditions-there are so many factors that influence design that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph. I told her I could not help her. She was not discouraged.  She asked for an appointment-she would come from Connecticut to meet with me.  How could I say no? Her first picture, accompanied by a schematic landscape plan, told a story.  The new landscape and fountain would be constructed at the base of this beautiful stone wall.  Never did she broach the topic of the proposed landscape and garden view from an upper level terrace with a pergola overhead. I am sure she uses this terrace off the house regularly. All I could see from this picture was a view out that had been closed off by an old boxwood hedge. Were I to stand in this lower level, I doubt she would be able to see me from up above.   These boxwoods were in fact blockswoods.

the view out (1) The fieldstone wall is 42 inches high.  The boxwood is 34 inches high.  This means that her view out from her upper level terrace is missing the bottom 7 feet of her lower level garden.  Sitting down, she had no view of anything except the boxwood. A view from a high vantage point, should you be lucky enough to have a view from above, asks for a long and thrilling view out. This boxwood hedge is a screen where no screen is needed. I understand how this happened.  What was once a low border framing a view had outgrown its original intent.  A fountain and the surrounding landscape on the lower level would never be viewed from this terrace. Is this bad?  Of course. A great landscape functions on and from a multiplicity of views. A landscape in which to be is only enhanced by a view of that landscape from afar, or from up above. Good landscapes read at many different levels. This upper level is a place she visits frequently.  Why not enjoy what is going on below?  When I saw this picture, I so wanted to see through that boxwood to the sunny spot hinted at a distance.

the view out (3)Though I had insisted that I could not draw a plan for her, I did draw a plan for her.  I suggested that she move the boxwood hedge, and install a series of steps from the upper terrace, to the lower level garden. I was concerned that her view from above the garden be as good as her experience immersed in that lower garden. Any landscape that involves a change of grade needs careful engineering.  I am not an engineer, but I can imagine what is up and down.  And what needs to be open, and what views should be closed. This drawing for my Connecticut landscape is a schematic plan.  This means that the marks on this page are suggestions with questions attached.  My design for the lower level fountain garden is a schematic plan.  Once a schematic plan looks good, then the details can be worked out. Her landscape contractor had suggested a wall to the west to match the existing wall. I do not see that she needs another wall.  I like the idea of closing the view from the driveway with layers of plant material.

the view out (4)The driveway swoops east, and comes very close to this lower level landscape. Four layers of plant material will make this garden completely private from the driveway. A gate will make a subtle suggestion of what is within. Layers of landscape can provide visual interest from both sides. What is the need? A gently closed view from the driveway.

sculpture in the landscape

This terrace  has a sculpture positioned in the middle of the opening to the pool garden. An opening with a suggestion of closure interrupts the speed at which a guest moves from one area to the other. One must walk around one side of the sculpture, or the other. The time it takes to make that decision slows down the pace. A slow pace means one has time to appreciate and experience one’s surroundings. The transition from a rear terrace to the pool is a long transition.  I favor this.  There is time to absorb the foreground space, and anticipate the next space. The figure in the sculpture faces a rear porch. The arbor frames the sculpture, and invites a walk through to the other side.  There is no need or want of closure here. The hallway from this terrace to the pool garden is interesting.

Coburn (7)This small driveway terrace functions as a drop off. The enclosure supplied by the hydrangeas provides some intimacy, in anticipation of a walk to the front door. The opening in the hydrangea hedge, marked by an arbor planted with sweet autumn clematis, gives a glimpse of the landscape beyond. This landscape celebrates arrival.

conceptual landscape plan 004This landscape which I designed some years back features a long view, that opens up over a considerable distance. I always encourage a client who has long spaces to feature and describe that space. The closure comes behind the sculpture or large pot at the end of that long view.  The screening trees eliminate the view of some large electrical transformers. What needs to be open and what needs to be closed is an important part of a good landscape design.

May 10 016This gravel terrace is one step above the lawn plane. I retained that 7 inch drop with a wide piece of custom edger strip.  The low stucco walls at seat height provide some enclosure without screening the rear yard from view. I felt this terrace needed some enclosure.  In any landscape, there are views that need to be open.  Views that need to be partially open.  Or scarcely open. Those views that need screening-assess the extent of what needs to be blocked.  Blocked in summer, not in winter?  Blocked always?  Is there one place the landscape can be open?  If so, seize that opportunity. An opening in the landscape feels great. Those places where people congregate, make them feel intimate.   I am so hoping my client in Connecticut will open her pergola terrace to the landscape below.

88 Degrees

DSC_2414Though our summer has been mostly moderate and regularly rainy, we are in the throes of a hot spell. It is hot enough to make working in the garden a sweat fest. Oh yes, the hot days have gone on for a while.  If I can’t be outside at 6am, I would rather wait until 6pm. Do the tropical/seasonal plants in my pots mind an 88 degree day?  Not at all. Many of them originate in very hot climates.  They have been waiting for this heat since late May. It is important to differentiate between what you would like on a hot day, and what your container plants would like. I do not water my containers when it is hot. I might like a cool shower after a hot day outdoors, but tropical plants thrive in the hot heat. I only water them when they are dry, or in imminent danger of becoming dry. I water dry plants, not hot plants.

watering pots August 2015 (3)I have no scientific evidence to support the following-just my experience and instinct.  On an 88 degree sunny day, I do not water my pots from the top.  I would rather keep the foliage dry.  Wet and heat put together is a reliably good recipe for disease. Mildew in a container – what gardener needs that? I use one hand to raise up the trailing plants on the edge, and the other to direct water to the surface of the dirt. No matter the size of the pot, I move the wand to different locations on the edge of the pot, so I am sure all the soil gets watered evenly. All around. Watering in one spot will invariably leave some other spot dry. I water the soil, all around, in hot weather.

watering pots August 2015 (17)When plants get large, it is not always so easy to see where the interior of the pot actually is.  There’s no sense to watering outside the pot.

watering pots August 2015 (8)This chocolate soldier plectranthus has gotten so large that it takes my whole arm to to flip up the trailing portion, and direct water to the soil. As this pot is located in the corner of my deck, it isn’t feasible to go all the way around it with my wand. The best part for this plant – no water goes on the foliage.  The water need to go to the roots.

watering pots August 2015 (10)Watering a seasonal container properly takes a little finesse. This container needs water at the center.  A rim watering is not enough.  My left hand has located the surface of the soil in the middle, while my right hand delivers the water. How do I know how this pot needs water?  I touch the soil.  If it is hard and crusty,  (as soil tends to get towards the end of the growing season, when the plants are heavily rooted) I water until that soil softens, and feels spongy to the touch.  This pot I may need to water twice, to get it sufficiently soaked.  I will not water again until the soil has dried out.

watering pots August 2015 (14)Flipping the leaves up in a container gives me a look at the soil below, and helps me to direct the water horizontally across the surface of the soil.  Plants are more forgiving of their leaves being handled as a group. Handling a single leaf can result in breakage. Water directed to the roots of plants in need is life giving.

watering pots August 2015 (11)The German ivy at the lower left in this picture is trailing just about to the ground now. As the vines are very juicy, heavy, and brittle, I move the leaves just above the rootball as gently as possible, and water from the top. I wouldn’t want to risk breaking an entire branch.  I would not flip up German ivy trailers in search of the soil surface.  I shine that water down on its root ball, as best I can. Every plant in a container needs to be watered differently.

watering pots August 2015 (15)Dichondra, on the other hand, is a light weight and pliable vine.  The round leaves do a decent job of repelling water, should I water from the top. The best way to get the water to the roots of a dichondra is to get the leaves out of the way. Once I have watered those roots,  I set the vines back down.  Gently.

watering pots August 2015 (6)This pot full of belamcanda lilies is thoroughly rooted.  All of the growth is upright, so watering at the bottom is easy.  On an 88 degree day, I flood the soil until the water comes up to the rim. After the water drains,  I will refill the pot until I see evidence of water draining all of the way out the bottom.

watering pots August 2015 (1)The rush in this pot is very fond of water. The Cuban oregano-it is happy to be dryer.  Some pots need selective watering.  I make the time to do this. I pour the water to the rush, and water the oregano every so often.

watering pots August 2015 (4)This pot planted with a rose scented geranium and a number of phormiums-I water it from the top. I cannot really explain why. The rose scented geranium does not bend much.  The phormium is vulnerable to breakage at the crown.  Why all this talk about watering?  Container plantings need regular and thoughtful watering.  People regularly ask me why my pots look good so late in the season, and during really hot weather. It’s the watering.