Precisely Pruned

My favorite day of the gardening season is pruning day.  I would not dream of taking on the job of pruning my evergreens-M and M Flowers has charge of this job. This very moment I am looking out my window past my computer to my hedge of Hicks yews-pruned perfectly level with the horizon.  In front of those yews, my grasses waving in the breeze, and my coneflowers, and the branches of my kousa dogwood.  This is a very good looking picture, believe me.  They do the best pruning it has ever been my pleasure to witness. They come three or four times a season, and doll things up. I work seven days a week, and in return, all I want is a garden that enchants me when I get home. Their formal pruning is remarkably precise and thoughtful-I look forward to it every year.  

Every block of boxwood, every hedge, every shape is detailed with lines set with a level, on pruning day.  They leave nothing to the eye.  My ground swoops and drops and rises again-not so their pruning. Their trimming is exactly level with the horizon.  Formal, and very precise. The look of it lowers my blood pressure.  Pruning a hedgerow of viburnums, lilacs and miscellaneous flowering shrubs takes an eye with a gift for providing air and sun for each individual branch- and a gift for working in concert with the natural growth habit of the shrub in question.  Formal hedges, on the other hand,  demand the idea of level, level lines to go with, and a patient and persistent hand.  They prune nothing with gasoline powered hedge clippers.  This group clips by hand. 

Mindy and her crew pruned these arborvitae, and their skirt of boxwood. What a gorgeous job.  She assesses each plant-she never prunes too hard, if a hedge is not ready. She understands about the long haul.   Properly and expertly pruned hedges can make a formal landscape shine.  Invest in stakes, level lines, and hand shears-should it be your idea to maintain a formal landscape on your own.  Trim carefully-some pruning ideas take years to finish.  Trim slowly, regularly, and patiently.      

The boxwood in this photograph tells all.  Short on the house side-taller on the path side.  The horizon line exists independent of the grade of any given property. Formal landscapes do not repeat the up and down of the ground.   They are all about level. Though pruning to level is a skill, it is easy to spot when a hedge is out of level. It takes great patience to let plants grow up to the height they need to be.  I planted 100 Hicks yews on my property 10 years ago.  The shortest plant on the south side is probably 4 feet tall.  My tallest yew is close to 8 feet tall.  There were more than a few years when none of them were tall enough to prune.         

Whatever landscape element repeats the horizon line rests the eye.  I like the idea of a landscape that is restful. I like quiet, order, santuary, organization, clean and simple, not necessarily in this order, when I come home. My work life is always a big, fluid, and sometimes messy situation.  I like orderly when I get home. For clients, I favor a formal presentation on the street side, so the landscape looks beautiful in every season. The perennial garden, and the vegetables I invariably place in the back.  I do not see the need to place any plant material that has the potential for poor performance in the front.  Designing within the limits of one’s ability to maintain is important.  It is of much interest to me-if the client is a gardener. I try to tailor design to a specific set of circumstances-human circumstances.  Horticulture is not everything; people’s lives are everything. A formal landscape I find easier to maintain than an informal planting. Whenever I see an exuberant and lush perennial garden, I know a lot of committment and work is going on behind the scenes.

 Vertical growing yews handle this type of trimming quite well; there are a number of good cultivars available beyond the trasitional Hicks yew.  Boxwood tolerates shearing the best of all the evergreen plants.  No plant loves to be sheared.  Some evergreens tolerate this treatment better than others.   

This landscape is but a few years old, though the boxwood have been here quite some time.  We moved a lot of what was here into its current configuration. The square footage of this landscape is not so large, but its impact is considerable.   This year, a pruning on the boxwood some two years in the planning, transforms the space. These boxwood spheres-beautiful. I was so delighted to see this space.    


A gorgeous landscape is very much about an idea of the natural world that gets strongly expressed. No small amount of this expression has to do with how that landscape is cared for.  It is one thing to choose plants that compliment one another, in forms that please the eye.  But once that is done, the landscape is only beginning to grow.  I tell clients to not let what they have worked so hard to achieve get away from the them.  It is so important to stay ahead of what a garden needs.

I like having this to come home to.

A Landscape In Focus

Every landscape presents something upon which the eye will focus.  Designing with the intent of guiding the eye can be the toughest part of the design process, as you may need to envision something which is not yet there. Or the visiting eye may focus on something to which your eyes have become so accustomed, you literally do not see it any more.  Garbage cans, pool equipment, air conditioning units-these are prime examples of what may be more prominent in your landscape than what you imagine.  I often see transformers and air conditioning equipment surrounded by giant hedges.  I wonder if this hedge style treatment does not in fact draw more attention to an unsightly object than the unsightly object itself. The very beautiful object pictured above, an English trough of considerable age; was placed where the lawn becomes a mixed shrub border. The border itself is quiet and unassuming; the planted trough organized the space visually in a strong and lively way.  The white flowers can be seen from a great distance in several directions.   

Garden furniture can likewise punctuate a landscaped space to good effect. This landscape has a natural and park-like feeling. Though this dining suite may not be a dinner destination, it encourages vistors to linger in the garden by providing seating.  Though the furniture is wirework, it becomes a visually organizing metaphor for the intent of landscape.  Parks usually provide places for people to be, and observe the outdoors.   

This very fine antique English sundial holds court in this landscape.  Aided and abetted by its massive size, striking shape, and pale limestone material, it grabs the eye the moment it comes into view. 

This 19th century French cast iron hound is one of a pair, flanking the entrance to my drive.  I see my driveway twice a day-this makes it an important garden to me.  My picea mucrunulatum is a gorgeous old plant; they were in my front yard when I bought my house 15 years ago.  I moved them to the drive, so I would be sure to see them every day.   The dogs draw one’s eye first, they invite a viewer to look more closely at this beautiful evergreen. 

Not every local point is an object.  These old spikes-who could pass them by? One year I had in my mind to do an annual garden with a little Mediterranean feeling. Those massive spiky heads atop those gnarly trunks-noticeable.  Most of the visual vistors to my shop are the people who drive by every day.  A focal point of this scale is sufficiently significant enough for a quick look.  It might even encourage someone of gardening ilk to turn around and come back for a more thorough look-see. 

This weathered English teak bench is handsome and solid. One hardly notices the browning tips on the boxwood, or the hose.  Some objects have the power to distract one’s eye away from something that is not so lovely.  If I had to have a hose available in the garden, I would want to stash it under just such a bench as this one. 

This landscape has a stunning distant view of a lake, and mature trees.  But this 19th century American made fountain does a great job of holding the entire view together.  In the lawn, a suite of white wood garden furniture.  The furniture helps to visually describe how far away the space is from the spot where I am standing.  It further more organizes the lawn space.   I do love the composition of this landscape from this particular view.  There is a strongly represented foreground, a defined mid-ground, and a dreamy far ground.  The large trees between the lawn and the lake proide a quiet backdrop for the fountain.  They also further define “at a distance” in a visual way.    


This concrete furniture I no longer have, but I did like what it did for the front of the shop.  Concrete chairs are completely impractical for a dining space that gets used every day in the summer, but they are a great choice for providing a focal point in a garden.  I have the luxury of changing what sits between these trees every year.  What pleases you in an ornament, beautifully placed,  can influence the look and mood of your entire landscape.

Appealing Leaves

Leaves are a very highly specialized mechanism for converting the energy of the sun into compounds that provide food for a plant.  The word for this-photosynthesis.  Though I have a middling ok understanding of the science involved, I am better on the appreciation end.  The infinite diversity of leaves is like having a box of pastels with a 1000 diferent colors available-only better.  Leaves are not just diverse in color, but also in mass, volume, substance, shape, form and texture.  Appealing leaves can add as much to your garden-maybe more so, than the flowers that come with.


Is it my age, or are polka dot plants cool? I like variegated leaves-this plant does a stellar job of delivering  very interesting color contrast and texture-and is adaptable to either full shade or full sun.  What more could you ask for?  They are equally as good in the shape department-I trim mine into all kinds of shapes-balls, ovals-they are as decent as any living plant I have ever seen at approximating a square. I think of them as supporting cast leaves-would that I could grow this plant into a topiary on standard.      

This handsome leaf strongly reminiscent of Luciano Pavorotti is related to ligularia.    The large thick leaves of Farfugium terminate in graphically frilly edges.  Look again-this is a leaf a gardener would never forget.  The contrast in texture between the main leaf and the edges-as dramatic as it gets. An aria is in the air.  A simple and decidedly modern container is all the better for the strong texture and rhythm that a planting of this plant could provide. 

Pepperomia-this family has many species, and lots of cultivars.  Long the darling of the indoor house plant set, I like planting them outdoors.  The leaves are routinely round or oval-the variation in surface, sheen, and color- striking. This class of plants-I am a fan of pepperomias. The small growers, my favorite.  The big paddle shaped leaves of a viariety whose name I do not know-I plant them with the frothy leaf fronds of ferns-a dramatic study in contrast.  Try tropicals outside-they might surprise and please you.    

Grass-I admire grass in any form.  My clipped turf-a groundcover like a skin over dirt. The ornamental grasses such as this Panicum Virgatum-graceful.  Tranquil.  Meadowlike.  Good for the gardening soul.  The long narrow leaves are textural, and rhythmic.  Any long grass is all the better for the wind flowing through.  Ornamental grass moves with the slightest breeze.  I would put grass at the top of my list for leaves that manage to make beautiful music.

Caladiums have giant heart shaped leaves.  They come to a point dramatically-like an arrow.  They are thin.  Substance refers to thickness; a xx leaf is thick and rigid-a caladium leaf is very thin, and wispy. A leaf of considerable size, which is white to boot-this plant will like shade.  The new varieties of caladiums-such as this all white variety known as White Christmas-greatly enhance the palette of any gardener focused on great design.  

Cuban oregano-I plant this plant as a skirt,  routinely.  The thick hairy leaves have a great texture.  They grow like weeds, and take well to pruning.  A mass of this oregano well grown-green and beautiful. 

Figs have large and beautiful leaves.  The leaves are spare, on the trunk.  Should you have a modern or contemporary garden, consider figs.  Each leaf is a sculpture. The ripening fruit will please you.  Should you have a farm and garden landscape, a few fig trees will make themselves at home.  The design issue here-make much of whatever design component important to you that takes your landscape where you would like it to be.   The figs of the Italian working gardens-is this you?  The sparsely growing figs that so fit in a contemporary garden may be more to your liking.    

Strawberries-who does not love this fruit?  I would only ask that you look at their medium large toothed leaves; are they not beautiful?  This pot at the shop features a topiary rosemary-which I have left out of this photograph.  The rosemary- underplanted with strawberries and  fiber optic grass.  The contrast of leaf textures-pleasing. 

Lotus-this leaf is like no other leaf. Thin, delicate, and emerald green-astonishing.    Our native lotus, nelumbo luteus-I have many memories of visiting those large stands near Monroe, protected by the Ford Motor Company.  The Ford family-they support my museum, my opera, my symphony, my city-and my native lotus. Many thanks to you, Ford, for honoring the beauty of the leaf.  Gardens may have flowers, but most of what is there is about leaves.

At A Glance: White Cosmos