Beautiful Views

A place to be, a beautifully organized and finished space, a landscape composition-beautiful views go by many names.  I love plants as much as the next gardener, but I have a bigger interest in the plants being integrated into a whole that makes a strong statement and engages the eye.  Gardens are perpetually unfinished, but a good thought moving towards completion delights me the most.  Of course I think that-I am serious about designing landscapes. This landscape-I have worked here 25 years.  25 years means time to evolve, time to attend to the little details, time to be surprised by what unexpectedly happens, time to take an idea, and grow up with it.   

My client is an afficianado of the classic English landscape park.  She admires the work of Capability Brown, an 18th century English landscape architect who designed upwards of 170 park landscapes.  His landscapes were simple, and natural-as opposed to formal and structured. But as much as he sought to simply represent  nature, there is much evidence of his hand.  My client likes putting a subtle and natural hand to her landscape.  Most strikingly, the old trees grow out of the lawn-sans barked circles around their trunks.  Mulching trees with bark conserve moisture, and are something of a defense against damage from a string trimmer-but they are anything but natural looking. There is no bark anywhere on this property.  Many years ago we regraded the entire back yard, with the idea in mind of creating interest at the ground plane.  The ground rolls, dips and goes flat-most of this sculpture is covered with grass.   Her early 20th century tudor home, built on a substantial piece of property, makes that thought to establish a park entirely believable.   

Old stone walls, old trees, and but a few flowers-usually white- make for beautiful, and entirely serene views. I like landscapes that suggest reverie.  I am not so much a fan of landscapes that are noisy or demanding.  I see some landscapes I would describe as overwrought. The red leaved maples planted next to the chartreuse foliaged thuja-very lively.  I like to visit landscapes with great visual excitement, but at home, I want sanctuary.  It is very important to think about what you want and need from a garden before you plant.   

A property of this size is unusual in an urban community.  The public parks that exist in my community tend to be outfitted with benches, playgrounds, softball fields and the like.  A landscape park can make much about what is not there.  This landscape is quietly contemplative in feeling.  The presence of the client is felt only in how beautifully she maintains her property. 

There have been plenty of changes over the past 25 years, but they are hard to spot.  This lawn area was once home to a swimming pool of natural and irregular shape.  On occasion she will entertain outdoors; the light in early evening is beautiful in this spot.


The pool had become a considerable burden to maintain, as it was very old and always in need of some kind of repair.  The lawn area into which it was set was lumpy and difficult to navigate.  When the pool was removed, the lawn was regraded level enough to make entertaining comfortable.   

It takes many years to cover large spaces such as this one with plants.  There are thriving colonies of plants here-not 3 of this or five of that. Save the mature trees, no one plant stands out and demands recognition.    

There are those unexpected moments.  This wisteria has been in this spot as long as I have worked here. This spring’s show was particularly showy. The landscape near the house, glimpses of which can be seen in this photograph, are very formal and simple.  They contrast with the flowing lines of the greater landscape-but in a quiet way.   

Another client with whom I am working now is studying this view of her vintage Adirondacks furniture.  Should the old honeysuckle thicket behind be removed, in order to open a view to the bigger landscape beyond?  Do the chairs need the company, or would they be more beautiful set against the big expanse of lawn behind them? We are thinking about it.

The Garden Cruise


For the past three years I have sponsored a tour of landscapes and gardens of my design or influence-in the interest of contributing to the programs of the Greening of Detroit.  I am embarrassed to say that I only became acquainted with the Greening only three years ago.  This year is their year long 20th anniversary celebration-marking a 20 year committment to planting trees in the city of Detroit, sponsoring urban farms (over 600)-and the teaching.  Teaching people how to grow, how to protect and preserve the environment. What they do for our city-astonishing.  One of their board members, the architect Michael Willoughby, nominated me to their board.  I was pleased to accept. I am not the best board member-I am better at a local, and more hands on event in support of them .

I committed to sponsoring this garden tour, the proceeds of which would go to the Greening.  100 percent of the proceeds of all ticket sales-every dime goes to the Greening of Detroit. Deborah Silver and Co, and Detroit Garden Works maintain the cruise website, advertise the cruise, and put on the reception.  I am happy to do so in recognition of what they do for our city.

I am out of my element, if the topic is politics.  I am not good attending meetings, nor am I happy to be part of a committee.  I have no interest in discussing community service-I was just raised to believe I should do my share. I was raised to believe that if I am able to help, I should.  I told Monica from the Greening-I will make it my business to organize a tour, with the intent of raise money for the important work that you do, to the best of my ability.

The past two years, the tour has raised 25,000.00 for the Greening.  Were you to ask me for a list of projects I am most proud of-this tour would be right up there.  Should you live in my area-try the tour.  This year, we had people calling in March for tickets.  The tickets are available at Detroit Garden Works.  If you cannot tour July 18, consider a contribution to the Greening of Detroit. 

 I am not the go to person for social, political or economic innovation.  But I am quite sure that the work of the Greening over the past twenty years has benefitted our city.  I would do what I could to support it.  If you are able to support it via the tour-I am asking that you do so.  Hard times have hit all of us-should you not be able to tour, spread the word however you can. The tour is exceptionally interesting to committed gardeners. Check out the tour website:

These photographs do not begin to do justice to the gardens on this year’s tour.  It is a friendly and fun event for gardeners.  I’d be pleased should you decide to join us.

A Dwarf Conifer Garden

I made my first visit to this garden in 2006.  My clients-serious gardeners.  Ray is first and foremost a rock lover.  He collects little rocks, big rocks, boulders-like I said, he loves rocks.  He built a waterfall and pools in their backyard-I was impressed by his efforts.  Janice-she is a committed science teacher, and horticulturally adept.  She is a player.  The two of them asked me to intervene in their efforts.   In 2007, I planted a group of dwarf conifers for them.   

The pond bridge, the waterfall, the pools,the deck, and the perimeter plantings were largely in place when I got there.  I assembled a group of dwarf evergreens I thought would soften Ray’s rocks, and provide year round interest.  They live in a neighborhood; the views to the neighbors-not so good.  They needed a landscape that addressed their sophisticated tastes in plants, that also screened out untoward views. A private garden oriented around interesting and unusual plants.

Proper planting means big spaces in between.  Dwarf conifers grow slowly, but they grow. Some so called dwarf confiers actually attain considerable size when they age. I am by no means an expert on the topic, so I studied up on those evergreens that interested me in terms of shape or needle texture or color.  A few key or central plants, and a supporting cast for each.  The first year-there is lots of bark in evidence. 

My visit today, some three years later-a different story.  They are great gardeners-every conifer has grown, and looks healthy.  I could barely believe I was visiting the same garden.  Dwarf evergreens of contrasting forms, colors and textures had covered the ground.  It may be tough to spot, but my arrangement of dwarf conifers took into account a view of a blue spruce on a community berm at a distance. Blue evergreens-they look their best far away. Study this picture.  That blue spruce far away adds visual depth to what is a small garden. Placing blue needled evergreens far and away adds great depth to a landscape.  Though this spruce does not belong to them, it is part of their garden view.   

The varying textures and colors of greens are very pleasing to the eye.  I would imagine this garden is lovely with a dusting of snow, or on a rainy day.  The best part of evergreen plants is how weather changes their appearance.  No doubt there will be some sort of weather, every day.  Planning a landscape to take advantage of  all of the seasons is worth the challenge.  A good landscape design takes the predictable growing, the weather, and the unexpected issues into account, and still reads strongly.  How this garden looks today pleases me.     

Ray’s bridge has settled down-it reads as part of a whole now, given its green company.  Goldfish swarm the pool.  There is a water lily blooming.  Most everything I planted is growing vigorously.-no garden is without loss and disappointment.   These clients have an oasis of their own making.  They have done all the work of the watering, the pruning, the feeding, the nurturing-the fussing about.  I spent two days there.  They have done four years worth of work.   

I do not mind visiting some projects, years later, with enchantment on my mind.  My favorite clients-those gardeners that scoop up the idea and the installation-and go on from there.  How I admire those clients who understand what it means to take up the reins, and go on. A Princeton Gold maple planted outside the fence, and as far away as possible, lights up the foreground planting.  It was mrecilessly hot and sunny yesterday, but the look here is lush and refreshing.     

This conifer garden-I would have it.  They have looked after it in such a way that they deserve a prize.    I do my share of the work-but a committed steward is everything to a garden.  Some days I would just as soon give away my garden as have it.  Then I have lucky days.  Yesterday Buck accidentally locked himself out of the house an hour before I got home.  All the watering chores got done.  I was only adrift for one second- I got in the fountain, and had a glass of wine.    

Their garden-beautiful.  I love going back, and seeing a project that has no further need of me.

Hard Surfaces

This is my year to focus on hard surfaces in the landscape.  Having just had a knee replacement, stairs and uneven terrain are a challenge.  Even walking on grassy slopes is difficult.  I have had a very personal experience with what hard surfaces can provide in the garden-and the lack thereof.  They are a necessity for vehicles; even the underground grass support grids do not support regular or heavy vehicular traffic.  Interior hard surfaces support all manner of human activity.  Flooring for kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, bedrooms-there are so many choices.  As is apparent in the above photograph, should you wish to have some outdoor space that will support human activity, a hard surface of some sort is a good idea.  The interior flooring flowing outdoors-a beautifully utilitarian and visually satisfying gesture.  Outdoor “rooms” are very much different in feeling and execution than interior spaces, but in or out, a level hard surface can facilitate plenty in the garden.  

This bluestone has been cut in what is known as an Aschlar pattern.  Several sizes of squares and rectangles can be laid in a pattern that seems random at first glance.  The pattern allows a stone mason to lay the surface quickly-as there is a big idea governing the sequence of the stones.  The appearance of random makes it a good choice for landscapes not demanding an ultra formal or ultra contemporary hard surface treatment.  Interesting that-very formal and very contemporary landscapes have much in common . This bluestone is graded and sold as “full range”.  Full range refers to the wide color variation in the stone.  Each stone exactly the same color-selected stone such as this demands a premium price.  Expect to pay over and above for select.  Each stone is as much about what was discarded for a job, as what is acceptable.  The muted colors of the full range is easy on the eye.  Should you be thinking of a large terrace, darker is better.  No one needs their terrace glaring up at them.    

Some large hard surfaces-by this I mean a drivecourt, benefit from a change of material, or mixed materials.  Cars and UPS trucks are large, and need lots of paving.  This concrete aggregate drivecourt is punctuated by a compass built from hand cut bluestone slabs.  The pattern draws the eye away from the large expanse of hard surface. A group of materials is good, should your paved space be large. 

My own narrow driveway opens into a piazza of considerable size.  The driveway/piazza design was done in 1930-I have not changed one dimension.  Whomever designed it, I am appreciative. My driveway opens into a terrace, which is driveable.  The brick which surfaced both was still intact, but heaved up here and there.  Impossible to shovel, and dicey to walk on.  I replaced the brick with a Belgian made concrete brick made by Unilock- called Capthorne. The uniformity of the brick makes it easy to lay. It is equally easy to move over, and stand on.  It gracefully represents the unusual original drive and drive terrace.    

Stone-cut and carefully laid-there is nothing like it.  This walk, bordered in granite setts-it is my all time favorite. My client and his stone mason laid this walk long before I met him; his love of natural materials and precise planning produced a hard surface that is incredibly beautiful.       

Some hard surfaces are not so hard.  Eric and Julie liked the idea of water in their yard-but had no interest in the upkeep.  A frame of decomposed granite encloses a hard surface of recycled and tumbled blue bottle glass.  The glass-a maintenance free suggestion of water.  The terrace seems small, and intimate, given the change of materials. Switching, matching, investigating harmonious materials can make a hard surface lively.

Concrete pavers are not my favorite.  I like my concrete to be honest about being concrete.  Concrete in imitation of some other material-hmm.  Some landscapes demand natural materials-no imitations need apply.  Some modern and contemporary landscapes demand materials not one bit natural; materials conceived and generated via the human hand can be stunning.  The big idea here is about authenticity of place.  Should you own a tudor home in the English style, stay away from concrete-unless you find a believable hard surface material.  Should you own a mid century modern house, look at the brick from the same period.  A contemporary home-read and research concrete-it is a material appropriate to you. Should you be in between, lay the concrete pavers, and water copiously.  A moss fringe around each concrete paver-a visual blessing.

The architect Michael Willoughby designed and built this home.  The stone on the walls-he repeated on the ground.  I so love how his spare vision does not lecture.  The hard surfaces are extraordinarily soft.  The hard surfaces here, beautiful. 

No doubt you have places in your garden in which you intend to entertain, have dinner, meet friends, relax.  Your choices of what lies underfoot-many.