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I bought this poster of an 1805 pen/ink/watercolor and graphite work by William Blake at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in 1968. I was 18, and in New York to see the Broadway production of  “Hair”-if you don’t know what that was, you’re too young. The poster has been in my possession for 42 years; I look at it more often than you might think. Why?  I am inspired by it.  “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” has stormy weather, the interaction of opposing forces, a winged and horned creature hovering, the sun woman with the wings of an angel perched on a craggy outcrop no bigger than she-a landscape. The color relationships are exquisite.  Some days I think it is about good and evil; other days I think it is about the beauty of tension-like that moment just before a drop of water falls from a branch after a rain.  The similar shape and expression of the four hands dramatically encloses the space between them. The composition is astonishing; I never tire of it.  Did I know I would be a gardenmaker at 18?  Absolutely not. But I did have an instinct to collect images that spoke to me like this one does.        

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Inspiration is any image, thought, exchange or lightening bolt that has the power to move me to invent.  That said, I have no need to immediately understand why images move me-I just need to collect them.  This is not an unusual activity-I have lots of clients who rip pages from magazines, and show me pictures of family events-something in each image moves them. Brides in particular are very good at folders stuffed with images of this bouquet and that cake. The words that adequately explain being moved to invent can be complicated-the images bring the entire idea home-no translation needed.  The above pictured landscape from a magazine is natural, graceful, subtle-a path barely visible moves the eye from the foreground to the background-to that place where the almost horizontal line of sunny grass directs your eye to the break in the trees.  Through the break, a stout tree trunk which is the furthest object from my eye. The landscape is composed to encourage you to go there; do you see it? 


People see different things-many of which have roots in their own particular history or memory.  I believe this photograph of a peony was taken by my Mom-but I could be wrong.  Some images I have had for so many years I no longer remember their provenance.  The important thing is that I associate the beauty and the amazing structure of flowers with her.  We had quite the long relationship over flowers and gardens; keeping that alive is no small part of what motivates me. 

inspiration 011What inspires me in this picture is the story behind it.  Yew Dell Gardens is a botanical garden just outside of Louisville Kentucky.  Theodore Klein and his wife had a commercial nursery on these 33 acres, growing countless plants here until his death in 1998.  The property was purchased, and reinvented as a botanic garden.  The above pictured allee is in fact a pair of adjacent nursery rows of American holly, now very old.  How the nursery rows became a beautiful landscape feature inspires me. I am keenly interested in the intersection of landscape and agriculture.  I am equally interested in how people steward the land entrusted to their care. 

inspiration 020This is an image from an old garden journal which now survives as a collection of images I treasure. The landscape is simple, striking, and very spatially composed.  Elements both contemporary and traditional interact in a worthy way.  There are so many ways to put the design elements working here to good use.

inspiration 014These trees with whitewashed trunks in a garden in the south of France make another reference to agriculture.  Fruit trees would sometimes have their trunks whitewashed with a kaolin compound, to deter insects.  Kaolin, the same clay which is the basis for face powder, is a benign and useful compound.  The visual appearance-gorgeous. I encourage clients to cut and collect any image that gets their attention-even if it is not clear what attracts them.  Sooner or later some thread that connects all of them will become clear. 

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The maze at Hatfield-pictured in the background of this photo- is one of my favorite gardens.  It would be enough, the beautiful maze so beautifully maintained, but what truly inspires me about it is the grade.  The maze is built in a subtly sunken space.  To my eye, that simple grade change is what transforms this garden from beautiful, to incredibly beautiful. Every time I see this image, I am struck by how key a single simple design move can transform a space.  Any space can have this-I am inspired by that thought, too. 

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How I see this combination of poppies and grass echo repeats the feelings I have about the Hatfield maze. This unexpected pairing of plants is a design move that delights the eye.  Each plant gives life to the other-in color, texture and pattern.  The planting, for that short time while the poppies are in bloom, is a celebration of the ephemeral beauty of nature.       

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Julia never tired of seeing my projects, nor did she ever stop encouraging me to be the best I could be.  Her accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and photographer inspired me to be so bold as to try things, and not be afraid to redo what didn’t work out.  Her image I keep in my heart, not in a folder. But the idea is the same-some images are on paper, some images live in the imagination. In order to plan well, its important to collect those images and memories about you, as they will inspire your invention.

Sunday Opinion: What Are You Planning?

Today is January 31st-if you are not thinking about what you have in store for your garden, and what your garden has in store for you come May, you are unavoidably sidetracked, or sideswiped.  Either scenario-you have my sincere sympathies; this happens to me every year too.  I think I have all the time in the world to dream until the date finally registers with me.  The winter months can fly by faster than you think, in spite of all the endlessly daily grey.  I am corresponding with a grower out west about his large scale espaliers, putting together a list of 12 inch annual basket combinations for Bogie Lake Greenhouse to grow, sketching every possible permutation of a shape for a swimming pool that will gracefully accomodate both a lap swimmer and family recreation in a very tight buildable space, and going over and over in my mind a design for a house only 6 feet from the road, whose flat back yard space is minimal-the rest dropping off precipitously. The shop is completely torn apart for cleaning, painting and rearranging; spring shipments are beginning to arrive. No doubt the best thing about January 31st is that I will not have to live through it again for another year. But it also means I only have 6 weeks to be ready for plenty. 

 What you are planning, and planning now, is of utmost importance. The garden waits for no one.  Gardeners are tinkerers-they have to be. In my zone there is some winter time to choose this over that, make changes, establish an order of events.  The seed loving people have been hard at work for weeks already.  You can’t grow every available string bean or cosmos-or can you?   I could not live in a climate without a winter season; I not only need reverie time, but I like it. I am set in my ecosystem, for good or for ill.  California gardeners-how I admire them. They have something every day progressing or declining-no neutral.  No time out or off. Of course this is my idea of what it is like to garden in California-unsullied by any experience. Where am I going with this?  The planning for a garden informs the work.  Though nature can wreck my plans in a capricious blink of her eye, an investment in some planning time is like a little insurance.  That baby blue spruce that would look so good next to the walk will become a big Mama spruce sooner than you think-how will it look in that spot, 25 feet tall and 10 feet wide?  It takes the same time, sweaty effort and money to plant something in the wrong place as the right one.  This is an obvious example of what is a good idea to think through before you act.  Other design issues are not so clear, and just take time to get the good and beautiful solution.  When I do not have any ideas that to my mind seem worth lifting a hand for, I say so, and take the time to come back. It is possible that one’s first pass at something is the best pass.  Its equally as likely that the 4th pass will be better than the 5th.  You won’t know this unless you take the time.      

  It seems to me that very good design is a significant part of every good product, novel, music, art or cuisine that comes my way.  And that some form of reflection plays a big part in the making.  Beautiful and thoughtful are good together in the same sentence, and on the same project.  It is true that time I give to my garden or yours means that something else does not get time. It could be the most expensive thing about a garden is the time it demands.  Making the decision to devote the time is the hardest part. I meet people all the time capable of imaginative and intriguing ideas.  Committing the time to giving form to those ideas is another thing altogether.  So should you be stuck indoors, or just stuck, play along with my plan if you choose. 

I am never more focused on design than I am right now, on the verge of February first. So that process what I will be talking about.  As this weather leaves me cold, the first thing I do is turn my eyes towards my interior landscapes.  The gardens of my dreams.  Inspiration is everywhere, provided you take the time to let it work you over.  (Yes, my garden works me over.)  I am thinking that if I take the time to look at my process more critically, it will make my gardens better.  It’s a place to start.

At A Glance: Luminous

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Villa d’Este

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Landscapes such as Villa D’Este, grand in scale and of epic proportion, are a visual delight.  I affectionately call them OPG’s-or “other people’s gardens”. The other person in this case-Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, a Catholic prelate whose work on his villa and garden took place on and off between 1550 and 1572.  According to Judith Chatfield in her book “A Tour of Italian Gardens”, “… the garden was famed throughout Europe before its completion.”  No surprise there.  This grand garden is a symphony-an opera if you will- to the beauty of water in a landscape.  The first of its kind in Italy, it is a national treasure, open to the public. 

Europe 2006_09 101 I have only visited this utterly romantic garden via these photographs of Rob’s.  I can only imagine, for plenty of reasons, what it must be like to be there.  My native topography is flat, and more flat. Only occasionally will a project come along with an unexpected change of grade as a central feature.  With the possible exception of Tahquamanon Falls, water like this is not part of my experience.  But that does not mean what I see here cannot be part of my vocabulary.      

Europe 2006_09 095Other people’s gardens can instruct, provoke, and influence the way one thinks about a garden.  The idea of fern and moss covered rock can be readily incorporated into any landscape, provided the conditions are right. Proper scale is a relative thing-but I try to err on the side of overscaled.  As a friend and mentor once said, who wants to get to the end of their gardenmaking and think they were never bold enough.  It’s a good thing in a landscape, to be driven by being bold enough.        

Europe 2006_09 099Lots of people own homes several stories high. I have likewise seen more than a few homes with two-story entrances.  Then what?  A landscape needs to address these features, and views. The beauty of the composition above lies in how it describes and emphasizes great depth, and space.  In the foreground is a strong sculpture whose scale I suspect is much over life size.  When my eyes go to what the figure in the sculpture must be looking at-the mid-ground fountain pool-its jet seems much smaller than the figure.  Smaller in the midground is another way of saying further away.  The terrace whose wet surface catches the eye next narrows to a walk.  The wide entrance to the walk is clearly marked by tall walls; when the walk disappears from view, it appears much narrower. The end of the walk thus seems very far away.  Where the walk leads-a mystery, from this perspective.  This photograph is a rectangular flat object-but what it pictures appears to have great depth. 

Europe 2006_09 100Every gardener knows any move gains importance when it is repeated.  Though probably not accurately, I count 42 pots in this photograph.  They make much of those rectangles of water, as do the yews in repetition.  The shapes of those yews and lawn echo the shapes of the water.  Far in the distance at ground level, a glimpse of that shade of blue that best says “I am far away”.  That blue dwarf spruce you are thinking of might be at its visual best as far from your view as possible-rather than close up.

Europe 2006_09 112The scale and the height of this fountain jet is right, given the height and scale of the villa.  My fountain jets at home will go fifteen feet in the air, should I feel like some big waterworks are in order.  Given the size of my house and garden, that fifteen feet reads on the same order as this fountain, just at a different scale.  

Europe 2006_09 085Everything in the architecture, the surfaces and the plantings are in support of this cascading water.  There is no visual confusion aboout what exactly is the star of the show.  Though elaborate in execution, it is very simple in design.  I am quite sure the natural land forms influenced the design as much as any other element.  A semi-circular wall of espaliers might make a similar statement on a property with little elevation change.

Europe 2006_09 107Looking back at the villa and its fountains from ground level, the pools seem immense, as they are close to your eye.  The trees and sky are bigger than the villa; they keep it company, naturally. This property is in fact very large.  It might be difficult to mask that, but it is a tribute to the designer here, Pirro Ligorio, that every aspect of his composition reinforces the depth and breadth of the space.  Villa d’Este aside, it is possible to design such that no matter the size, any property can be visually spatial. 

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It is no wonder to me that gardeners seem to greatly enjoy a garden tour.  Other people’s gardens-who knows how or what they might inspire.