Sunday Opinion: On Being 60

I have been 60 for 5 days.  This does not make me an expert on the topic-I have a year’s time to be this age and see what it means.  But here is my take on the birthday week.

 I had the sense, in my own self defense, to take a week’s time over turning 60-it was not all that easy.  Things that are tough to take sometimes benefit from a little extra time. The instinct to defend oneself-I recommend not interfering with that.  I have no problem following a logical train of thought, nor do I have any trouble getting a train of thought to stick to the tracks. So being 60-not one whit different than being 59. Or 54, for that matter, except my knee worked better then.  But people don’t live entirely by the beauty of logic; I am no different. I am much more likely to ask myself how I feel about this tree in that place, than what I think about said tree in such place.  As much as I admire rational thought, I don’t live by it.  How I live-much more complicated and with far fewer conclusions than the aforesaid.  Not neat.  I have no theorem that neatly wraps up the process of moving from one decade to the next; I was not ready to be 60.  I was skeptical-sure I would not like the sixty number next to my name.  I was furious in advance.  My process is unpredictable even to me-and sure to be messy.  Frankly, I dreaded coming up on this birthday-I felt vulnerable, unprepared, and disgusted.  How could this have happened to me?  

Never mind that the last two weeks of May and first two weeks of June are so packed with work I don’t really sleep-I dream so much about the work at night I wake up exhausted.  I cannot rest until everyone has their summer flowers.  I am sure you have noticed the days I have missed posting. There were days that got away from me. I chose to make an effort to celebrate.  Faced with a birthday that seemed too big to handle, I planned a party. A big party.  Why not stare down that which was staring me down? On Thursday night of last week, I was completely undone. A third of my pots were not planted, there were issues with the menu, several jobs needed a change of gears and follow up, my switchboard was lit up-the light was not natural, but nuclear.  I had lots of work still waiting.  I was beginning to think I had made a terrible mistake, trying to plan a  party during such a busy time.

When I dissolve into tears, Buck gets embarrassed, but he stands pat.  He clears his throat, and throws his arm around me.  What could be better?  He encouraged me to cry everything out, and then get going.  The Friday before the birthday party-a whole lot got done.  Not just for me-but for three clients. I slept soundly Friday night.  Saturday morning at 11 I get a package, and a note from a very old, and very, very dear friend who is in Paris with her husband and children.  The particulars-they belong to me.  But what she wrote me, on the occasion of my 60th, made my eyes well up and spill over.  Taking the time to make an occasion of seeing friends-this was a good idea.

My 60th birthday party was last night.  I had 60 guests; at my age, I have made a good many friends over the past 20 years.  To the last, they have endowed my life.  Old and new, my friends are the best. This is what was good about turning 60.  I have a history, honored by friends who really care about me.  One of them orchestrated an impromptu birthday sonata from all of my friends at that party-many thanks Tom.  My oldest friend, Janet-how we have loved each other for decades, rights my life.  Fred and Lynn-these two are family.  And Jane.  All of my friends are family. I am family to them in return.  

When I am really old, when I am thinking I might die, all I want around me are the people whom I love.  This is the beauty of the 60th birthday. You recognize in a different way there are relationships that matter. They see me, the person, not the age.  All of my friends look good to me; I am lucky to have each and every one of them.  This is more than good reason to celebrate.  Needless to say, I had a great time.  A lot of people I met over work, but this was not about work.  I have managed to make and sustain friendships. 

 Janet and I have been close friends for over 25 years.  We have gardened together just about every minute of the past 25 years.  Her garden-exquisite. Our relationship-extraordinary.  Did she come to the 6oth birthday party-oh yes.  Love you,  Janet. No kidding.  Some friends are newer friends, but at my age you figure out pretty quickly what is going to work, and what won’t.  My birthday week, pretty perfect.  My 6oth birthday party-it was great.

At A Glance: Summer Planting At The Shop

A Designer’s Garden

The time I spend planting pots and containers for clients sometimes enables me to see landscapes I would not otherwise see.  This old and stately Tudor style home has a landscape of considerable age- still viable, and still beautiful.  I am sure I have quoted Henry Mitchell at least three times on this topic.  “There are no beautiful old landscapes…beautiful landscapes are a result of the intensive care of the present.”  That being said, there are times when intensive care really means sensitive care.  Though this client is an interior designer of considerable skill, she felt no need to take apart, streamline, cleanup, remake, or other wise impose on a landscape beautifully situated and thriving in its own right.  

There is an understated but fully mature beauty to this property.  It takes a very mature and sure eye to leave untouched what is an integral part of the history of the property.  Her ability to leave be is pretty impressive.  These vintage wood boxes at her front door got tree-form hydrangea “Pink Diamond” .  It is a classically beautiful white hydrangea of paniculata grandiflora heritage, whose blooms pink as they age.  They seem so appropriate to the architecture of both the house and landscape. There are times when seeing what you expect to see is completely satisfying.  Certain plant materials feel right with certain architecture.  Nantucket style houses have a love affair of long standing with Rugosa roses.  1950 style ranch homes, on the other hand, can easily handle boxed hedges of gold vicary privet.  These plant materials are authentic to their respective time and place.      

This gorgeous stone staircase which I am guessing dates back to the 1920’s, is a home to old boston ivy vines.  My client made no effort to break up this old relationship-she only and gently prunes the vines away from the stair treads.  The urn set in a bed look like it has been there many years.  I have been guilty as charged plenty of times-thinking that gardening is another word for housekeeping. Like most people, I can be a contradiction in terms.  The Italian garden on the verge of ruin that I love so much I would never permit on my own property.  So I do recognize and respect a designer who deliberately keeps her hands from cleaning up the evidence of age from her landscape.

This pool is original to the house; the horizontal arms are a lap pool; the vertical arms designed for lounging in the water.  I have never seen another pool of this shape and design in person or in books. How it works to accomodate swimmers and loungers alike is simple and effective.  The overall shape striking-and well worth preservation.  

This very large oval wirework plant stand of an age and design quite sympathetic to the house and grounds, does not hold individual clay pots, as it once would have.  My client wanted to plant it of a piece.  Her point of view contrasts with the original intent of the piece, in a very effective way.  A garden of size is growing here.  The blues and whites are friendly to the overall white and lavender color scheme in evidence in all of the garden areas.  The piece sits on a bluestone terrace adjacent to the kitchen, at the rear of the house.  This garden is a very private space.   

A contemporary French terra cotta pot from the south of France is whitewashed, and planted in concert with the wirework stand.   Like other places in the landscape, my enchantment with the space does not rely on surprise. Every element seems to belong.

New to the kitchen terrace this year, a table and chairs in an entirely contemporary vein. The terrace has a new reason for being.

As sculptural as they are utilitarian, the suite is a substantial and confident dose of individual expression.  Unexpectedly, I really like it.


Much of what keeps a community, or a landscape workable is about transport.  These vegetables need to get to market before they go bad.  Those M and M peanuts-bags of this candy get shipped all over the country. You and I need to get to work; we require transportation from one place to another. A drivecourt can be a very utilitarian landscape feature-but that does not mean it needs to be an endless expanse of hard surface like the parking lot of a gorcery store.  A drivecourt facilitates transport-but it can have its own 15mph zones.  This drivecourt-I designed and built a water feature with three jets-as big as an SUV. This takes one attention away from the floor and provides some interest at eye level. The cistern is placed in the drivecourt such that it directs both physical and visual traffic.  Only days away from having the water lines hooked up, the soil brought up to grade, a boxwood skirt and flowers to finish, I only hope the music of the water running will transport them, the moment they get home.   

Establishing some structure in a garden has much to do with traffic.  How will you get from one place to another. This river front property is owned by clients with older parents and family.  A motorized cart provides transportation from the front of the house to the water.  Gravel walks large enough to accomodate that vehicle were essential to everyone being able to enjoy the outdoors. 

A fenced vegetable garden with raised beds was  high on the list of their requests.  They entertain family and friends, and cook-passionately.  The ability to grow their own summer vegetables and fruits was important.  Much of their family life and tradition revolves around the exchange and community of the dinner table.  This is an old world attitude that I like and respect.  The south side of this new addition had the best sun.  The design issue-how to combine a working vegetable garden, a means by which materials, people and tools could be transported in a beautiful way.  I designed this garden immediately adjacent to a covered porch, home to seating, and an outdoor kitchen. The best part of designing is that occasion when you have a client keenly interested in that process.  The deisgn of this garden gate, an exact replica of my client’s grandfather’s vegetable garden gate in Italy.  I will say this gate is my most favorite detail in the entire landscape.   

Six raised beds provide lots of space to grow.  I have yet to meet a passionate grower of food who thought they had plenty of space to cultivate.  The curved end boxes provide visual relief from the expected rectangular boxes one usually sees.  A series of wood tables that have been in the family a long time can be set up for a dinner party-in the garden.  I heard a party last weekend resulted in an impromptu bocce game.  Though by no means does this space approach a regulation court, it has the advantage of not looking like a regulation court.  Company on the porch and in the garden-a pleasure.  The center space is large enough to permit the acrt to pass through, without looking like a road.

My clients have to deal with a considerable deer population.  When they are not entertaining, portable screens sheild the garden from the porch.  Lacking this, deer would use the porch as their roadway to the garden. Hardware cloth set below garde and up to the bottom of the Belgian fencing keeps out smaller intruders.

Curving a section of 4″ by 6″ lumber is no mean feat.  Each of the bottom four boards have 90 parallel cuts perpendicular to their length, side by side.  The cuts-each the width of the saw blades, is called a kerf. The saw removes small parallel slices of wood from the board.  After soaking the boards overnight, Steve, my landscape superintendent, was able to bend their 4 foot sections into place. 360 cuts all together.  The top section, comprised of a series of smaller chunks of wood perfectly fitted together to form the curve-made my Steve’s brother-a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and shop teacher.  This painstakingly contructed detail makes a world of  visual difference to the end result.   

There are times when lawn is suffient to permit traffic, and gathering. traffic  The firebowl, set on the opposite side of the porch from the vegetable garden, is set at seat height so guests can congregate without the need for additonal seating.  All the these spaces in proximity and easily accessible to one another makes entertaining easy.  There are places to be, and places to move to.

The large lawn plane which spans both the old property and the new one, is finally finished; we have planted the boxwood buttons. A large party which is planned for late June-tables will be set over top of the boxwood-what fun.  This very long rectagular space can easily accomodate a tent if need be-with a dressy floor already in place.  The view from the upstairs balcony is lovely.  

The decomposed granite walk traverses the entire back of the property.  Its strong shape helps to knit the old house and propert yto the addition and new property. There is a strong sense that every architectural and landscape element has always been there.  There is no evidence of spaces being stitched together.   

This was a long and large project; I am on the verge of finishing.  I think my clients are pleased to have spaces that will be completed by friends, family, dinners, bocce-and growing tomatoes.  I like landscapes that invite people to partake of them.