Where Do You Stand?


perspective 004Some landscapes appear and feel spacious for no more complicated a reason than they exist on large properties.  The Chicago Botanic Garden has many beautiful long views, as it physically sits on 360 some odd acres. How I visually process space has to do with what is called perspective. If I walk in the Botanic garden, and Daffodil Island is in bloom, the daffodils appear to my eye like tiny yellow dots-and lots of them.  Daffodils physically measure up at a fairly decent size, but they appear smaller and smaller, the further away they are from my eye.  The position of the eye, relative to an object-perspective.  The most dramatic illustration of perspective?  Picture yourself 5 feet from the KLM 747 Anna Pavlova; the size is overwhelming.  A city with wings. 230 feet long, and wings 200 feet wide-my entire property would hold a quarter of this plane.    Only moments after that plane is aloft, it appears as a black speck streaking towards the horizon.  Once a black speck, I know it is miles from my eye.  These Anamese oil lamps pictured above are on the floor beneath me-I know this, as I am looking at their tops. They are also 10 feet away from my eye. 

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Then I move the globes to the surface of a table, and sit down to photograph them; they appear much larger than what they actually are.  They are close enough to take up most of my field of vision-so they appear huge. My eyes are on the same horizontal plane as the lamps-I am seeing clearly the side view.  Explaining the idea of perspective is difficult, but people instinctively understand and orient themselves to it-via the horizon line. Dense fog on a sunny day is disconcerting, as the horizon disappears.  Sometimes at twilight on Lake Superior, the sky is the same silvery blue as the water-your eye cannot pick out the horizon. Where you are standing is not clear.  

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Milo is my little wide-body, billiard table shaped corgi. He acquired these nicknames, as I am usually looking down on him.  His legs are about four inches long; his back some 13 inches off the floor. My eyes are 60 inches off the floor; I see Milo in plan view.  Unless he in on the deck, and I am in the yard-is he not a very good looking dog from the side?  Before you completely loose interest in this discussion, I will say that an awareness of how perspective works can help create views, and make the smallest urban garden appear spacious.  Those gardens smaller yet can be designed with a strong spatial sense.  If you are ever going to think about perspective in a landscape, now is the time.  Who would want to address it in May?  May is for moving a project along, yes?      

recovery 009I am in the process of putting the shop back together, as we reopen for the 2010 season next week.  The logistics of this has been a little daunting, as my on my feet time is somewhat limited yet.  Luckily my four wheeler has a seat-so I can take a break. This puts my eye at dining table height.  The table and pitchers loom large in the foreground space.  The exaggeration of the size of the foreground elements moves the background even further back.   

recovery 026Varying the heights and sizes of the foreground elements helps to give the foreground itself dimension.  The visual path your eye takes from one object to the next reveals that each object is in a different plane.  A recognition of multiple planes makes for the illusion of space.  This is after all, a flat object we call a photograph.  But visual space is represented here.

recovery 012The position and direction of the concrete table in this composition moves the eye into the deep space of the photograph. The table is so wide in the foreground, it runs off the edge of the page.  The table width appears much smaller, as the table appears to move back in space.  The large masses of  table, and lighthouse contrast with the objects on the back wall that appear so small. 

recovery 014Not every bench in a landscape needs to be placed at the end of a garden.  Placed at the beginning, with its back to your eye, the sense of space from front to back is exaggerated.  The bench back is like a fence-enclosing the space beyond.

recovery 013It is important in any composition to direct the eye of the viewer from the front to the back-and out again.  The white wood rectangle in this picture frames a view of the foreground appearance of this bench.  The frame invites the viewer to focus on what is within the frame.  The bench then appears to go back in space-quickly.  In the far background-a pair of doors suggesting another space beyond.   

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It is anything but magic to see like this.  It only requires that you look long enough to provoke some speculation about how to see spatially. If no light comes on standing in a spot in your garden, take a picture.  A picture is a flat object, with four edges-the camera will frame the view, and record your placement of plants and ornament  dispassionately.     

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I read countless gardening books when I first started gardening.  None of them gave me one clue about how to see spatially.  I could count on most of them to tell me to plant the tall plants in the back, and the short plants in the front.  Expecting plants to carry a composition is asking a lot.   There are other, maybe more interesting ways of composing. Place some big things in some small spaces.  Try some tall things in the foreground space, and some very small things way in the back. Tomato stakes are great for trying different placements. Should you look long enough, you will know where you stand.

Which Will You Choose?

dgw c (75)Gardeners make choices based on lots of issues, but most can figure out what appeals to them straight off.  Some love old crusty, rusty and well worn antiques; others find that state of gentle disrepair lacks visual punch. Many antique urns have been painted at one time or another; white having been a very popular color.  Worn white will either be just the thing, or seem jarring.  For others, the prospect of a classical urn leaves them cold-old or new.  But if the idea of an urn resonates with you, which you will choose depends on several things.    

2008 DGW Inventory - CONTAINERS 5-7-08 (6)Dry cast limestone urns are usually based on classical handcarved limestone designs dating back hundreds of years.  Many of those designs are European in origin. Dry cast limestone is a process by which limestone dust is mixed with a binder, and poured into molds. These reproductions are much more affordable than their antique counterparts.  Some old designs would not be available at all, but for a reproduction.  On occasion I find a piece I feel I must have, with no placement in mind.  But a classical European urn may be very much out of place in front of a Cape Cod home.  Now would these elaborately footed urns  ring right against the backdrop of my own arts and crafts style home.  However, they might be elegant and unexpectedly beautiful in a contemporary setting.  The location you have in mind should influence your decision.

dgw c (69)The scale of an urn is an important consideration.  Very small urns may need pedestals to set them off properly. If the shape and decoration of an urn is a good bit of what you find appealing, then they need be placed where those things can be easily seen. Small urns have another significant disadvantage.  From a small size follows a small planting area; you will need to edit your plant choices. Perhaps of more importance-how easily will you be able to water, and water again, when the weather gets hot?  Small pots dry out faster than is easy to keep up with.

dgw c (77)I like urns of a generous size.  I have plenty of room to plant-either lots of one thing, or a collection.  An urn planted such that in late summer it is a garden bouquet of good size is a pleasure.  Watered properly, they retain moisture evenly, over a longer period of time.  A container that can wait for me to get there with the hose- this I appreciate.  Any urn I plant becomes part of the working garden.  A gorgeous urn with a poor planting is a frustration no gardener needs.   

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 This English wirework urn is of English manufacture.  It has a matching pedestal, which provides plenty of height for a good show of trailing plants off the rim.  The bowl of the urn has all but disappeared by late summer.  In this case, the lush planting is of more important visual importance than the urn itself.  The plainest most homely galvanized bucket can be glorious- given an inspired planting.  The only advantage of a decorative urn is a beautiful appearance during those times when they are not planted.  In some situations, a container which is also a sculpture is a good idea.

dgw c (68)These French art deco style urns have such style and presence one might be inclined not to plant them.  The Waterloo Urn I discussed in yesterday’s post is placed out in the open landscape. Unplanted, it could be placed anywhere calling for a sculpture-no need to have water conveniently nearby. 

2008 Fisher, Margie 8-11-08 (5)This lead urn is watered via a tube connected to the irrigation system in this yard.  In much the same way as greenhouses tube their hanging baskets, or geraniums, these tubes buy a gardener a little time.  They are not really a substitue for hand watering, as the coverage can be uneven, too long, or too short.  If the tube runs on a nearby irrigation zone, that pot is at the water mercy of whatever else is being primarily watered.  I am more than willing to look after my plantings; some automatic irrigation helps me to hedge this pledge. Those days that I come home really late will not need be a crisis.  The level of your ability to maintain pot plantings is an important part of the selection process. 

dgw c (84)These concrete pots are English made reproductions, but they have that aged look. The surface is such that I would plant the tall, and vase shaped-nothing trailing.  Ala some voluminously opulent Flemish flower painting.  There is no choosing these pots if the decorative story being told does not greatly appeal-why cover up what so appealed to you in the first place?  In this case, the urns and there plantings need to strike a balance, so they look great in relationship to one another.    

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These cast iron urns with zinc liners are French from the Victorian period.  That French green color is a dead giveaway. Their unusual and striking design would make them sensational in the right place.  My year 1 choice would be to plant these with big blue agaves, and call it a day. After one season, something even more fabulous may come to mind.  I will admit I did buy my house 15 years ago for the four urns outdoors that were original to the house-I had to have them.

The Garden Urn

Sir Cecil Beaton took this photograph of Queen Elizabeth posed in front of the Waterloo Urn at Buckingham Palace in 1938.  As lovely as she is, I could not take my eyes off that urn.  Carved from a single piece of Carrara marble weighing 20 tons, this garden urn is 15 feet tall. Napoleon himself lay claim to the block of stone; he was travelling through Tuscany on his way to make war in Russia.  This piece had a long and chequered history before it was finally installed in the landscape at Buckingham Palace.  It is an impressive and dignified piece deserving of a formal name.  I sometimes wonder what I would plant in it, should I ever be asked.  Do you have an idea? 

15a1[1]When I first got interested in dealing in garden antiques, it was tough going- educating myself about them.  Outside of a few well known reference books, garden auction catalogues proved helpful.   A garden urn, I learned, is a container with a foot, or pedestal.  The small urn pictured above was manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Ironworks in England in the 19th century, and is a handsomely proportioned piece. 

This old French cast iron urn sports a classic campagna, or bell shape. The rim flares such that there is plenty of room to plant.  The paint has completely worn off the rim, and the paint on the foot is deteriorated.  You can see exactly where any water would accumulate on the outside.  The three I had all went to the same garden; that I like, keeping an ornament family together.
This elaborately decorated urn features grandly arcing handles.  Such beautiful curves!  It has been painted so many times, the iron flower and rope detail has lost definition.  But as with any antique, the original finish is an important part of the value of a piece.  Only once have I had a client take an antique urn with great color and patina and media blast and paint it.  This pained me, as an antique garden urn robbed of of its visual history lacks a sense of stewardship.   831[1]These American concrete urns on associated pedestals came from the Philadelphia area.  They are among the most favorite garden urns that have ever come my way.  The bell shape is decorated with what seems like thistles to me.  I know little else about them.  They are in very fragile condition; I bring them in for the winter.  Their rims have been so worn by rain and exposure to the elements that I can see the aggregate in the concrete mix clearly.   Stately and frail, they are.

C1311[1]These diminuitive concrete urns have a highly textured surface, just like my thistle urns. They are old-vintage-pieces, not antiques.  The faded red color is unusual, and the shape is beautiful.  I could easily see them indoors.  Old garden urns are fine unplanted.  They have an aura and a presence that needs nothing else, should the sculpture alone please you.


This bronze urn and pedestal have belonged to a client for a good many years;  I know not its provenance.  I routinely debate with myself, choosing a planting for a beautiful urn.  In this case, a planting spilling over the edge softens the hard lines of the urn. The emsemble is plain, but for the wreath on the pedestal-this detail is not obscured by the planting.   

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This very fine antique urn has its foot buried in a block of boxwood.  I would have designed a space for this that revealed the entire piece-but the placement was not my call.  I plant this urn as lushly as I can, to provide some balance to the volume of boxwood.   Nicotiana mutabilis and dwarf pink cleome-a beautiful cloud.

Aug 22 060My own Italian terra cotta garden urns on plinths from Mital-I so love them.  I trim what ever obscures their decoration.  In the winter, I move them to my front porch, and plant them for the holidays.  The rest of the winter they are empty, awaiting spring. 

DSC_0060Antique urns take to a winter planting with ease.  This client landscaped her yard to celebrate her fine antique footed pots. I completely understand this gesture. 

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I am very fortunate to have those clients who have no fear of taking a beautiful urn indoors.  I have decorated them for the winter in a way that obscures nothing of the beauty and graceful shape of the sculpture. What this picture does not show is a gorgeous mosaic,  framed and on the wall in the background-the subject of which is a beautiful urn filled with flowers.  Beautifully footed, like any ballerina, is a garden urn.

Sunday Opinion: Smelling Like Dirt

Someone said, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”  The idea of resuming contact with the dirt after a long winter seems so obvious, one wonders why anyone bothered to write it out loud.  But today I am happy someone said it.  I spend a lot of time in the winter reading the magazines that came in the mail, and got set aside for reading during a less busy time.  I like my magazines, as I believe my eye or my heart or both will be educated and intrigued by what I see and read. I greatly value photographs of anything I cannot see in person. I am reading now-the winter sees to that. Though I once believed that with perserverance, I would be able to read every book that had ever been written, I know the foolishness of that now.  But for the annotated and largely visual version of the world, I would be exposed to very little.  I subscribe to magazines written in languages I cannot read or speak.  I like them as well, and I draw from them as much as any English language magazine.  I cannot really explain this. I read everything I can get my hands on, this time of year. However, I can explain why the dirt quote is on my mind today.

 There is no need to name names and cite specific articles, but I am amazed at the number of garden magazine features that seem to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with gardening. I am sure you have seen them.  The immaculately dressed host is graciously serving smart starters and a chic wine to guests on the rear terrace next to the pool.  In the distance, a view from a movie of a vineyard, or the craggy cliffs in Corfu,  or some equally stunning natural and temperate wonder.  No one is perspiring, or shivering.  There are no bugs, no dirt.  I have to strain my eyes to see that the landscape and gardens have not one leaf out of place-as the garden is not really the subject of the article. The garden is a background for an effortless and lovely lifestyle, beautifully captured on film. Not that I need to, but I will repeat-no sign of the dirt.   

Make no mistake, I entertain in my garden.  I design for others with the idea in mind that they will have company. I live in anticipation of those perfect moments, when they show themselves; this may or may not happen when I  have guests. I do fuss about this and that, when I think to have friends to the garden-I do want everything to be just so.  No one could ever enjoy my garden as I do, but this does not mean I do not go for company gold.  I do.  But little of what goes on there even approaches perfection.  I am always leaving my cocktail someplace, as I need to pull a weed or pick up sticks.  I do this while I have company-my friends are used to this. 

 Gardening is about something else all together than the magazine articles I am reading now.  It is not about a chic lifestyle, nor is it an alternate version of my living room.  My far view is of M-59, a very busy 4 lane road.  There are days when the motorcycles and fire trucks provide the soundtrack for my outdoor dinner parties. We are likely to be driven indoors later by the mosquitos.  Gardening is a dirty, sweaty, and mostly solitary business that does not translate well into magazine spreads.  It could very well be that a garden will improve the quality of your life, but not in any predictable or sterile way.  The magazine articles are notable for what they leave out, or ignore.  Plant catalogues would have you believe that every plant requires little and delivers a lot, year after year.  Well, some do, but most do not.  My friend Marianne once commented that some garden books seem to be about photography and not so much about gardens. I love beautiful photographs as well as the next person, so this does not bother me particularly.  But when I read a garden magazine, I am interested in the garden, not the movie version of the garden.  Even the how-to horticulture magazines do not capture that which comes from working the dirt. Formulas, recipes and how to’s draw the life out of that primal experience.  Work the dirt, plant some seeds, experience the miracle that transforms a seed into shoots and roots, sprouting. There is not so much more to talk about really.  Watching a plant grow, or spotting that it has grown- only a gardener would find this amusing or entertaining.  Though Buck is way up there on the indugent scale, he sometimes does roll his eyes.  Just like I do, when he is debating a dinner menu.  To each his own obsession.  No kidding, I can imagine the smell of dirt so vividly in late February I believe I am actually smelling it. Few magazine articles are able to trigger this.   

A garden is so much about how it engages all the senses.  I will put my hands on all my plants over the course of a season.  How everything smells after a good rain-delicious.  The first sign of spring-the birds resume singing their songs. As for how I smell-I have choices.  I could smell fresh, or musty. I can wash up, or not.  I can perspire, in reaction to that which moves me.  I can shower, and cool off, and sit out.   As for what I like to smell-I make choices. Fresh is ok, as long as there is some natural scent hovering.  The fumy smell of compost-delicious.  Mown grass-the perfect perfume. Rosemary or lavender, equally perfect.  Much of the beauty of a garden comes from how it smells.  Basil, the ultimately perfect perfume. Wear it or eat it-take your pick, or do both. 

I grow vegetables and herbs at the shop. I invariably have plants left over at the end of May; we grow them on through the summer.  I can water and eat tomatoes at the same time-this is how I like them best.  Warm and ripe from the sun. Unsullied by any fancy preparation.  Corn and tomatoes are a staple of Buck’s late summer menus-all else is window dressing.  My vegetables at work have yellow leaves, bug holes, and can look scraggly, but they taste fine. Everything in the garden looks good to me, in one genuine way or another. 

Having the chance to smell like dirt in the spring-I can hardly wait to put the magazines away.