Design Elements Matter

 

Those of you following this blog on garden design may be crossing your eyes and feeling like blacking out this past few weeks.  I have gone on about the elements of design-maybe too long. I try the best I can to illustrate, and not instruct.  My ability to peel off into a snow bank, or winter weary meadow, is a little compromised right now, so I have been photographing close to home and on solid ground.  When I am done apologizing, I am still left with the conviction that a clear understanding of the elements of design applies to any 4 square feet on your planet-your dining room, your kitchen, your garden, your driveway. No kidding.  I hope to illustrate and not instruct- via this very small property I landscaped some years ago.  Though the front door is massive, the property square footage is very small. No need to put the landscape under a microscope-the house came with an intensely small space. Every move counts.   

This landscape relies much on a configuration of evergreens that stand fast every month of the year. Whatever the weather. My original client sold this house some time ago-my new clients are grade A stewards-any beautiful old landscape is a direct result of the intensive care of the present, and not age-this idea via the essays of Henry Mitchell. The yew hedge fence, and its black stained posts and rusted finials, echo the rusted obelisk placed front and center.  A pair of pots on pedestals placed side to side, and planted for each season-who knew a pair of pots could rule a garden like these do.  


It cannot be 20 feet from the street to the front door.  I persuaded my clients to install a wood sidewalk-each length of pressure treated lumber was routed to resemble bricks-after one year of weathering, I stained them black.  There was a time when roads were made of wood-that history is not especially pertinent to this design. What is pertinent is what one sees.  A look needs to stand on its own, no matter any history or explanation.   A short walk needs a distinguising feature-a new thought.  Any gesture, no matter how short,  can illustrate a love of the out of doors without instructing. A wood sidewalk-different.  Still looking great after all these years-this I love. 

The rear yard-a patch of ground that would comfortably accomodate 12.  The simple solution-gravel the entire area.  Plant four lindens at the four corners, to provide some natural shade corner to corner.  The steps to the back door-I did not switch materials.  Simple in a small space means the repetition of one material amounts to the impact of many hands to the same end.  These corten steel risers retain the gravel surface steps.  On the floor, everywhere else, gravel.    

When winter comes, leaves are shed. Shrubs of great volume are but a shadow of their summer self.  The evergreens keep on going on- but what is remarkable here, given it is mid-January?  Those two pots on pedestals, stuffed with materials for the winter, carry the day.  The design elements in play here are many.  No need to know the words, if you can see.  

No matter the late lame snow, the design elements of this garden are strong; grown in. There is a living presence, and pattern, that pleases the eye.  Their garden ornament takes on a bigger role in the half year we know as winter.  I like my front garden and landscape to be eye-ready, no matter the season.    

Once spring comes, we change out those pots.  Their idea of spring brings the neighborhood to life -many houses on this street do much the same.  Designing thoughtfully to the betterment of all -what a great idea.  Those elements that make a difference-take some time to look, and make them work for you.    

Contrast

The contrast between Milo’s white fur, and the mud he’s been running through and spattering all over it is quite spectacular, is it not? I admit I could not take my eyes off of him. Contrast is all about those elements that are set in strong opposition to one another.  In his case, clean and pristine white versus mud-dirty black. Contrast can be expressed in many ways-big versus small, textured versus smooth, light and dark.  Relationships that emphasize differences are what creates contrast. In any case contrast is like a tuba in a brass band-oom pah pah.

Contrast creates interest and excitement.  The figures in this plaque were carved in such relief that they almost leap off the wall.  The physical depth from the back plate to the outstretched hand of the most forward cherub is great-and even more greatly exxagerated by the late day sun.  The slanting sun makes the darks very dark, and the lights almost white. There are not so many shades of grey.  Like a silhouette, black and white makes the ultimate statement about contrast.    

Color contrasts make for lively compositions.  Purple and yellow together is a loud conversation across the color wheel. The white alyssum is a contrast in texture with the smooth textures of the pansy petals and leaves; there is a second conversation going on here.  White contrasts dramatically with any intense color, and attracts attention from the eye at a distance.  Small compositions can have big impact given a dose of white.  This little eight inch pot has a lot going on for its size.

Metallic or shiny surfaces reflect light.  But in this case, the contrast is relatively low.  There are blacks, and shiny silver in this composition-but lots of grey tones in between.  The eye moves from white to black with a lot of steps in between. This picture is easy on the eye, as the contrast is low. 

These electrically fiery red tulips set aginst their cooly green foliage is anything but calm and soothing.  This has the same impact as a thunderclap right outside your bedroom window in the middle of the night.  I wouldn’t anticipate anyone not following the contrast analysis here.  The important part is choosing great contrast where it will be effective in a garden, and making a conscious decision for quiet where the garden benefits from quiet. 

 Subtle contrasts are not always so easy to spot-or plan for.  Huge swaths of impatiens have cache from their mass, but they also may have that air of a shopping center planting.  A group of shade tolerant plants providing contrasting textures, sizes and colors can be vastly more interesting. It’s important to pay attention to the stems and foliage that come with a flower-they are better than 50% of the visual output of the plant.  Liriopes in pots-upright and grassy in texture, look great with green dichondra-that silvery round leaved trailer.  They contrast in every way except their color.  The fingered leaves of hellebores are all the better for a pairing with sweet woodriff.  Their overall shape is very similar; their size differential is dramatically contrasting.

Some contrasting elements are slight-but enough to make a big difference.  These V shaped steel pots are so much more striking for the steel bands that describe their shape. The banding catches the light, and solidly finishes the form. 


I have a particular fondness for a little color sass in the spring-for all the obvious reasons.  They make a brave face when it’s still very cold here.  I won’t want yellow and purple in my summer garden, but this kind of one-two punch is perfect for April. I’ve had temperatures in the 60′s the past two days-what a lovely contrast to my winter.

Lustrous

Some weeks ago I posted some pictures of that giant full moon-under the title “Luminous”.  I am reminded of this today-our shop fountains are up and running, courtesy of one of my crews.  Water over a surface gives life to that surface such it brings to mind another lu word- luster.  The science behind this has to do with light refraction, but I am interested in something else entirely.  Water is alive; its lustrous quality has everything to do with that quality of life.  Jenny was kind enough to model this fabulous stocking cap with its monumental pompon-for this reason.  Wool is hair from a living creature.  Jenny’s hair is a living part of her-both the wool and her hair have luster-just look.  

The hair which describes these pussy willows about to bloom is lustrous.  Our sunny day today made that hair glow. The stems and bud casings (please forgive my lame botanical nomenclature here-) glow in the same way-lustrous life.  This has to be the most exciting thing about spring for anyone who loves a garden-the return of the luster.  Winter absorbs every ounce of a gardeners life and will, and gives back little.  My Estonian readers no doubt will differ with this opinion, but we do not have crystalline, and so beautifully lustrous winters as they do.  Our winter is grey and more grey.      

House paint can be ordered in no end of varying degrees of surface shine.  Matte, eggshell, semi-gloss, gloss.  When I retire, it is my plan to research and learn about how they do this.  But for now, I am focused on the coming of the spring, and what signs I see that tell me my garden is awakening. I know the sap rising in the trees brings bark back to visual life. The luster of living things is a sheen no paint can reproduce; once you’ve had an encounter with natural luster, you will be hard pressed to do without it.  

Water in a garden-I am a fan.  No matter how modest its form, water is all about life in motion.  The glaze on this terra cotta fountain jar comes to life, once the water coats its surface.  The glaze running anticipates a watery, and lustrous surface.  Given the physics of surface tension, I could hook this up in my living room-no splash.  Just a gorgeous and subtly moving surface. 

Stone is porous-life takes hold and moves in to make cities on its surface.  The stone absorbs light.  The lichens live in spite of irregular water.  Their surface is matte-absorptive of light just like the stone.  Over the course of a rainy spell, the stone and the lichens will glow. What does this mean for how you design?  Contrasting surfaces make for interest that has a long life-put those matte surfaces up close to your eye and view. Lustrous surfaces read from a long way away, and draw you out to them. 

Though paint surfaces never fool my eye, I do admire clay surfaces that have luster. In my imagination, the minerals that largely figure in that clay surface soup glaze- they melt, and vitrify, under high heat. To vitrify-this to me means heating to the point that makes for a glassy surface.  Is this why magnolia leaves always look so lustrous to me?  Those really large waxy leaves glow in the heat.     

Boxwood lives and breathes much the same for me.  Those diminuitive evergreen leaves have a lustrous surface-no matter the weather, no matter the season.  They shine, those living leaves. This rounded clay pot makes a good run at lustrous-I could see it planted in the sun or the shade, with plants equally lustrous, or those wry and dry plants that make a surprisingly big impact. This pot with a low and wide boxwood-juicy, and lustrous. By way of contrast, Rosemary and trailing strawberries would make a picture you wouldn’t tire of.

Water over a surface, water bringing the sound of life to a garden-consider it. Every gardening life is all for the better, given a little glow.  Dry and dead-every gardener out there knows what it means to loose a plant.  The surface goes dry and out.  Luster in any form attracts me-I like the living and breathing that a garden brings to my life.

Water-the juicy sound and presence of water can transform a garden.  If you have no water as of yet-consider it.  There are more ways to get luster-beyond boxwood, magnolia, rhododendron, and pepperomia. Your patch of water might light up, should you place a potted tibouchina next to it.  Oh the possibilities! -it is spring. 


For those who might have an interest in this entire lustrous and monumental hat-what she calls her Brobdingnagian hat-here it is in all its glory.  From Kokoo, on etsy.  www.etsy.com/shop/yokoo.  I believe were she not so busy designing and knitting the most fabulous and lustrous sculptures that a person might wear, she might be a gardener.  She understands everything about luster.

Sunday Opinion: Success

Though there is nothing revolutionary or even provocative about the idea, I have been thinking about it. That is, that nothing makes for enthusiasm quite like success.  A friend was asking about my very first garden-what exactly was that like?  In 1980, armed with 4000.00 in cash from the sale of my first house in Ferndale, and an 8000.00 loan from my grandmother, I was able to buy a house and 5 acres in Orchard Lake for $60,000.00.  How so?  Though Orchard Lake is a very nice community and five acres is a whomping lot of land, we were in the middle of a recession, and the house in question was a disaster in every way.  The furnace had been installed in a dirt hole under the house-a ladder was required to go take a look at it. The first spring I lived there, said hole flooded; I had no heat at all after April 1. Every other part of the house was on a par with this, or worse.  The house was so bad, I had to get homeowner’s insurance through a state pool of high risk properties. I was 30 years old-what did I know?  All I could see was the property-and the possibilities that property would afford me.  My Mom cried when she saw it-I remember being so annoyed with her.  I had enthusiasm-what else did I need?

I actually needed plenty, and couldn’t afford one thing, once the mortgage and that insurance was paid every month.  We knocked down the garage, whose roof was balanced on unmortared columns of concrete blocks, and disposed of it one truckload at a time.  The hand-excavation for the drive-in garage had left the foundation of the house exposed-an excavating guy said he would bring in 300 yards of sandy dirt, and rough grade it all for 2000.00.  Nana to the rescue, a second time.  I think she had more confidence that I could make this work than my Mom.  She decided up front that if I could not make a go of it, she would bail me out.  She never said so out loud, but I think from the start she insured me against disaster.

But back to my first garden.  I was left with a really roughly graded, unmowably steep slope of a giant size-now what? Most of the gardening I had done to that point was confined to reading and mooning over plant catalogues, and garden books from the library. I had a few beds around the house-a few great plants trying to survive the weedfest. Not having an unlimited budget, I wanted plants that would spread.  Ground covers for sun.  Many sunny groundcovers came under the heading of rock garden plants-so I decided I would have a rock garden.  A sympathetic neighbor with an ancient Ford tractor dragged huge rocks from the property up to the top of the slope, and  turned them loose. Gravity made half the placement decisions, the puffy new soil the other half.  My rocks sank like the stones they were- at least half way into the ground. My first success-each rock looked like it had been there long enough for the earth to come up around it like an opulent stole.

My second success-what dumb luck that the soil that came to me was very sandy, and well drained, as most of the property was intractably heavy clay.  I spent what seemed like a king’s ransom on little spreading plants-but the sheer square footage of the area swallowed them up.  Not having one clue about mulch or weed prevention, I weeded-for years and years- before it filled in. Then I moved into crown growing plants, for a little vertical interest. I had myself a rock garden.  Dianthus, saponaria, aethionema , thymes, species tulips, iris chrysographes, and forrestii-and my favorite-encrusted saxifrage.  I could not get over the fact that the saxifrage leaves were stone-limestone- encrusted. I still can’t. My plants grew, and that success fueled my enthusiasm for more.  When I sold the house fifteen years later, it was actually liveable.  But what I hated leaving behind the most were my gardens. The rock garden was my first on that property,  but not my one and only.

My success had mostly to do with fortuitous accident.  I would never have dug out 1000 square feet of sod for a garden all at one time-not then.  The sheer size of the area of bare dirt forced me to deal with the space as a whole.  I planned little plant villages and neighborhoods. I had an east coast, and a west coast.   I saw where the water ran downhill in a fierce rain, and gravelled those gullies. I planted accordingly. I had a country going on, and it was my job to govern the whole thing. The spots I could see coming up the front walk got my favorites.  On my own, I would have started small, and added on.  What is it about add on’s that they always look added on? The sandy gritty soil-I am sure my excavating person had some he wanted to get rid of, or perhaps it was on special that day. Wherever it came from, my rock plants loved where they lived. 

My best friend Margaret gave me Louise Beebe Wilder’s book “Pleasures and Problems of a Rock Garden” written in 1938;  she had inherited it from her gardener father.  I quote from her chapter “The Steadfast Sedum”:  ”No stonecrop, we are given to understand, would have the heart to blast our budding enthusiasms by refusing to live; any soil will suit them, any situation, and they increase at a rate unknown to other rock plants.  Pin our faith to sedums, and avoid despair.”  I took her advice when ever possible.  She wrote about rock gardening with such great enthusiasm.  Phlox subulata, she writes, has “radiant color, rich fragrance, and almost universal amicability”.  Who would not want to grow that? I about wore that book out, as I read for the pleasure of her writing, and I read again for her instruction and encouragement.  I loved the sedums sight unseen-they were going to help me have a garden.

Some thirty years later, I am still interested in this idea of success and enthusiasm.  No one can be enthused about dead or near dead plants. Or a groundcover bed overrun with quack grass.  In some cases, I am unable to intervene; who knows what people do with their plants when I am not looking.  But anyone who wishes to grow a garden, or redo a landscape, or plant some pots, has the ability to help themselves.  Nurseries put tags in their pots of plants; more than likely someone works there who gardens at home.  My very first gardening job was at a place where I bought iris and daylillies by the trunkload. My ideas of a vacation is visiting a nursery.  I am possessed and obsessed by gardening.  Lacking this, trees come with planting instructions. There are books. There is the encyclopedia interneta. Every gardener knows these things; what can be much tougher is figuring out who you are. That will tell you what kind of gardener you might become, should you hope and plan to.  Plan for success, and work hard.  You’ll be a better gardener for it.