Sunday Opinion:The Romance Of Possibility

The very same Louise Beebe Wilder whose book on rock gardening (Pleasures and Problems Of A Rock Garden) I mentioned in last Sunday’s post, also penned several lines about gardening that are among my most favorite.  “In her own garden, every woman may be her own artist without apology or explanation.  Here is one spot where each may experience the romance of possibility”.  No wonder it is so often quoted by gardeners and garden writers alike.  “The romance of possibility”  so succinctly describes the source of that compulsion which makes every gardener put a shovel to soil-again and again-season after season.  I suppose there are those people who have gardened, and walked away, but I do not know them personally. I do know some for whom indulging that shot at romance is on hiatus. A new child, an imminent move, an illness-these big things can tie one’s gardening hands.  I myself am shuddering at the thought that this year I must see to a new roof.  Worse than the expense, the thought of the damage threatening my garden -I don’t know how I will cope.   I can save ahead for the roof,  but I despise the idea of regrowing or replacing my roses, or some boxwood crushed by the three layers of shingles that have to come off and down.  But as I see dealing with this come November, and today is the first day of spring, I choose to think about the possibilities.

Some possibilities involve an investment of time and imagination, and not so much money.  My blocks of limelight hydrangeas were almost seven feet tall when they bloomed last summer.  I barely trimmed them last March; I wanted the height. In August I could see the mass of flowers towering over my yew hedge. It is possible for me to cut them harder, and keep them lower-what would this do?  I prune one client’s hydrangeas to 20 inches tall out of the ground-her  four foot plus plants do not obstruct her view of the lake.  My hydrangeas span a considerable drop in grade; could I prune such that the eventual height of each block will be the same?  Would they be better, two feet shorter?  Would I like to give this a try?

For the past 5 years, I have been pruning a pair of palibin lilacs on standard rather hard after they bloom.  The heads have gotten so large, they are always on the verge of out of bounds.  It has taken every bit of five years to change their shape from a giant ball to lower and wider ovals.  This shape I like better. But those ovals are not uniform all the way around-have I the nerve to pollard them? Pollarding a tree heads back all of its branches breathtakingly close to the primary trunk.  Though I love the look of pollarded trees in European cities and gardens, I am a little faint of heart, subjecting two of my own to this treatment.  They never seem to mind how hard I prune-they flush out again without any complaint.  It is a possibility on my mind, pollarding the lilacs.  In my own garden, pollarded trees like I see in books about European gardens-it would no doubt be a romantic experience.

Though our winter has been very mild this year, my Helleborus Angustifolius survived the mild winter with very little damage-but their giant stems were flattened by the weight of the snow.  As they bloom on last year’s growth, I cannot cut them back.  Shall I trade them in for some orientalis cultivar whose tattered leaves can be pruned off in March, as the flowers push forth from the soil on their own fresh stems?  I have quite a few years invested in these giant hellebores, but they really do not like this climate. Should I decide to cut my losses, is there something else that would compliment my beech ferns even better?

All of the elements of my fountain garden seem to be working well, and growing fine.  But something seems to be missing-what is it?  Do I need a new fence?  Should I stain my old fence black?  Does my fountain need something?  If so, what?  This has to be the most exciting part of the first day of a Michigan spring-what are my possibilities?  As I am only thinking things over, I can let my imagination run wild. My imagination gets a little frayed come September, but a long winter has set me to longing to be out of doors, tinkering.    

Other years, my spring has been much more about repairing winter damage than romance.   One winter, ice and snow brought an entire hedge of 14 foot tall arborvitaes to its knees.  The only possibility at my disposal-have it tied back up, look after it, and hope for the best.  This was three years ago; perhaps this year it will look its old glorious self again. Splayed out and winter burned boxwood took its share of time and effort, as did the cleanup of wind and ice damaged trees.  My spring plans-dashed.   

This winter though, has been very grey, very long, and quite benign. A little romance seems to be right around the corner.

At A Glance: Rusting Steel



I spent the better part of this week walking from one end of my property to the other- watching Rob and a crew haul out everything he had ordered for spring, tear the entire existing space apart, and put it all back together.  I could not even guess how many thousands of pounds of terra cotta, stone, wood, lead, were involved all told-but I would guess many.  I thought his method was smart-everything got moved into the driveway lane, leaving each side ready to be cleaned up, and re-raked.  Though our all over surface is compacted decomposed granite, it doesn’t feel like spring until it every vestige of last year gets raked out. Those of you who know of the late Allen Haskell-he took up, washed, and relaid all of the gravel in his nursery every spring.  Think of it.  Beyond relevelling the gravel, even more interesting was how he put things together. 

I would not have a word for this, but for Pam.  She designs, plants, and maintains gardens, so she has a point of view about it.  She was telling me she admired another desgner she knows for her ability to “layer” in plants.  By this she means plants are paired or grouped so while one is going quiet, another is coming on.  Daffodils with daylilies, or oriental poppies with phlox, or phlox with Japanese anemone.  Skilled perennial garden designers are adept at arranging plants to avoid what I call a gaposis. I like treating these perennial spaces with big growing annuals, but some like to handle this perennially. A large clump of oriental poppies going dormant is not such a pretty sight-something needs to be coming on strong in the spot in front of that poppy-otherwise a gaposis. 

I think this is a good description of how Rob has arranged the outdoor spaces. He packed materials in close quarter that seemed to like each other or play off each other.  In this case, the steel striped bench echo the wood stripes; its scrolls recalls the scrolling corbel detail.  Surfaces and colors are different, but friendly. Lots of materials and styles are represented here.  His arrangement is a conversation about choices.   

Contemporary garden ornament can include a wide range of objects. This early twentieth English wood trestle table is clean lined enough to be quite comfortable with some galvanized steel wire crates, and some painted French garden chairs. The round acid washed steel pots are finished with a nod to traditional forms, but have a subtly more modern shape.  

This space is densely populated.  On the table, below the table, in the air, on the ground-everywhere you look, something is going on.  I am surprised how amiable the contemporary limestone balls are to the modern lead sculptures of classical design.  I do not see any argument about to erupt.  I suppose any object for a garden implies that partnership-all of these things have a landscape to come in common.  Maybe this accounts for how they all get along. 

A pussy willow stem and a trench drain have almost nothing intrinsically in common.  What they do share is how they are arranged in a similar V-shaped fashion.  The color of the iron repeats the stems of the still dormant Boston ivy. What a different view will present itself once that wall is green. But given the early spring season, I like the bouquet shapes.

These steel tuteurs are Rob’s interpretation of some formally trimmed yews at Versailles.  I have already been scheming about what could be planted inside them, that would still reveal the outer form.  But it is the multiple forms in multiple pots that makes for such a big impact.  The blue/grey and terra cotta color scheme is repeated in the background in a very rhythmic way, alternating pots of different shape and height.  

An arrangement of geometric shapes is so pleasing to the eye; the V-shapes in differing materials compliment that.  The color is strikingly contrasting-black and white, with just a little in between.  A restricted color palette is a modern gesture; the twigs soften this.  

He has quite an eye, and an ability to layer all his own.

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.