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.

Food. Water. Shelter.

I will make no bones about it.  Sourcing great annual planting was excellent May 10th of this year-it has become tougher every day that has gone by.  I like planting a fresh crop, the rooting and top growth perfect for transplant-I like all those conditions than almost never come to be.  We had an inordinately warm spring.  Plants under glass-multiply that warm by 10. This means annual plants growing in excess of 100mph; seizing that brief moment was the big idea of the annual planting season. Unfortunately I cannot plant 77 projects in a week.  So much for carpe diem.  There is more time involved in planting my clients up than either of us like.  You no doubt are getting tired of reading about it-but this blog is about what I do, and when I do it-so bear with me. A too hot early season has meant a lot of shopping on my part. I plant good material-nothing less, nothing questionable.  My June plantings-not so much great plant material is available. A client suggested I visit Deneweths.  As I had never been there, I was intrigued. I showed up at their door last Sunday at 9 am.  

Wow does not begin to describe what I saw.  As their greenhouses are located across the street from a residential neighborhood, my guess is that this huge growing range and giant retail greenhouse has been here a good many years.  I would guess a family owed and operated business.  Though I was a first time visitor, I had no problem getting oriented.  They make much of written signage and suggestion.  I was just about the first person there-having this giant place virtually to myself-I felt like I was on holiday.  My first glimpse-breathtaking. 

For better or for worse, I scrutinize what I see. That is much about what my clients pay me for; if I cannot tell the difference between a well grown plant, and a poor one, if I cannot tell the difference between a good move and a poor one-why would they have me?  This football field and more under glass had beautiful, fresh, compact and healthy plants and baskets-from sea to shining sea. Note the date-not May 10-this was June 13.  I was impressed, and excited.  

I have never seen hanging baskets of million bells of this caliber.  I am somewhat envious-I have a tough time getting them to grow.  They abhor alkaline soil-even limey water can make them sicken, yellow, and die.  Everywhere to be seen, perfectly grown million bells baskets in mouth watering color combinations-I was enchanted. 

Growing plants under glass for a specific market and specific time frame-I do not have the nerve for it. It would surely kill me-the worry.  Annual plants are a highly perishable crop.  The work to produce them-enormous.  The price of each 4″ pot, flat, or basket-not so much.  The sure hand here-astonishing.  Annual plants need germinating, transplanting from cutting plugs, the right food-the right water.  And that shelter from that storm that might accurately be described as a Michigan spring.  Every flat and 4 inch pot-perfect for transplant.  I was incredibly impressed. 

Every place I looked, every plant was healthy, happy-and asking for a home.  Had I brought a semi truck, I would have stuffed it full. Having had my fill of overgrown, anemic and questionable plants, I was enchanted to visit a place that understood clearly what it takes to grow beautiful plants, and steadfastly brought their weight to bear- keeping beautiful plants available every day, routinely, to anyone who had occasion to visit.  Five weeks in aun unseasonably warm spring-a lifetime, if you are an annual grower. 

Spacing is an important issue with annual growing.  Every grower wants any given bench to host as many plants as possible, but plants placed placed too close together suffer.  No air.  No room to grow.  Next up-those slimy rotting leaves, and fungus.  The spacing here-excellent for the plants. There is no doubt in my mind that the person who owns and runs this greenhouse has a big love for plants-first and foremost.  

This petunia-I have never seen it before.  I could not take my eyes off of it. Seeing this petunia in prduction and for sale tells me that Deneweth’s makes it their business to attend plant trials, look at new varieties-and grow what they think looks fresh and beautiful and will do well. Attending and assessing trial gardens-a considerable amount of work no plant shopper ever sees.  Independent greenhouses do lots of work over and above what you might see.  Please-support them!   

Gardening is a dirty business. But when I shop, I give high marks to a clean place.  My shop-I insist that it be clean.  Sunday morning at Deneweth’s-there was a cleaning crew.  Every aisle was water swept clean of debris. This level of clean-there is a person in charge who takes great pride in their business.  Great pride-I would suggest that you patronize businesses that work this hard to be this great.        

The million bells baskets-miraculous.  The color combinations-striking.  Should Deneweth’s not be dreaming up these combinations on their own, they care enough about making a quality product available to get help designing.  I really like this point of view.  They clearly know how to grow. That they would seek help designing, pairing, combining-their work is no doubt to your advantage.

Every plant had signage with the particulars.  Any serious gardener could read, and make a decision, based on a wealth of information, succintly written.  I learned a few things I did not know,  from these cards.  Independent garden centers-How I respect how they deliver food, water, and shelter!  I would urge you to buy from them, and others in your neighborhood.   Deneweths-out M-59 from Pontiac to Hayes, north up Hayes to 22 Mile-go right. They are eminently worth the visit.  

Heavenly-the flowers.

Wednesday Opinion:The First Day Of My Sixties

The first day of my sixties-not half bad.  At market at 6 am, Crystal from Julie’s Floral gave me a really great bottle of chardonnay-and a kiss.  Monica brought a slew of my favorite chocolate cupcakes covered in sprinkles from Ellen’s-have you ever tried them?  Rob redeemed himself somewhat with a fine pair of leather handled French pruners from Arno-they are a perfect size and heft for a gardener with small hands.  Both of the annual planting jobs I did today went well-I am down to my last 14 plantings.  People for whom I plant late get big material-as a greenhouse is the perfect place to grow annuals until the Michigan weather really warms up.  My pots at home are not done-but they will get done in the next week or so.  I plant later in June every year.  All in all, today was a credible debut.  Think of it-a debut.