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.    


The contrast between Milo’s white fur, and the mud he’s been running through and spattering all over it is quite spectacular, is it not? I admit I could not take my eyes off of him. Contrast is all about those elements that are set in strong opposition to one another.  In his case, clean and pristine white versus mud-dirty black. Contrast can be expressed in many ways-big versus small, textured versus smooth, light and dark.  Relationships that emphasize differences are what creates contrast. In any case contrast is like a tuba in a brass band-oom pah pah.

Contrast creates interest and excitement.  The figures in this plaque were carved in such relief that they almost leap off the wall.  The physical depth from the back plate to the outstretched hand of the most forward cherub is great-and even more greatly exxagerated by the late day sun.  The slanting sun makes the darks very dark, and the lights almost white. There are not so many shades of grey.  Like a silhouette, black and white makes the ultimate statement about contrast.    

Color contrasts make for lively compositions.  Purple and yellow together is a loud conversation across the color wheel. The white alyssum is a contrast in texture with the smooth textures of the pansy petals and leaves; there is a second conversation going on here.  White contrasts dramatically with any intense color, and attracts attention from the eye at a distance.  Small compositions can have big impact given a dose of white.  This little eight inch pot has a lot going on for its size.

Metallic or shiny surfaces reflect light.  But in this case, the contrast is relatively low.  There are blacks, and shiny silver in this composition-but lots of grey tones in between.  The eye moves from white to black with a lot of steps in between. This picture is easy on the eye, as the contrast is low. 

These electrically fiery red tulips set aginst their cooly green foliage is anything but calm and soothing.  This has the same impact as a thunderclap right outside your bedroom window in the middle of the night.  I wouldn’t anticipate anyone not following the contrast analysis here.  The important part is choosing great contrast where it will be effective in a garden, and making a conscious decision for quiet where the garden benefits from quiet. 

 Subtle contrasts are not always so easy to spot-or plan for.  Huge swaths of impatiens have cache from their mass, but they also may have that air of a shopping center planting.  A group of shade tolerant plants providing contrasting textures, sizes and colors can be vastly more interesting. It’s important to pay attention to the stems and foliage that come with a flower-they are better than 50% of the visual output of the plant.  Liriopes in pots-upright and grassy in texture, look great with green dichondra-that silvery round leaved trailer.  They contrast in every way except their color.  The fingered leaves of hellebores are all the better for a pairing with sweet woodriff.  Their overall shape is very similar; their size differential is dramatically contrasting.

Some contrasting elements are slight-but enough to make a big difference.  These V shaped steel pots are so much more striking for the steel bands that describe their shape. The banding catches the light, and solidly finishes the form. 

I have a particular fondness for a little color sass in the spring-for all the obvious reasons.  They make a brave face when it’s still very cold here.  I won’t want yellow and purple in my summer garden, but this kind of one-two punch is perfect for April. I’ve had temperatures in the 60’s the past two days-what a lovely contrast to my winter.