Open and Closed

the view out (2)A few weeks ago I had an email from a gardener in Connecticut. She was interested in a Hudson fountain cistern from Branch for her garden, and wondered if I could consult with her about the proposed landscape, and size of the fountain.  I am reluctant to take on a design project from far away. I hate to commit to any recommendation for a landscape I cannot see in person. Designing from pictures is next to impossible. On the spot, the eye can take in all kinds of things.  The lay of the land.  The neighboring property, the driveway, the light, the grade, the existing trees, the soil conditions-there are so many factors that influence design that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph. I told her I could not help her. She was not discouraged.  She asked for an appointment-she would come from Connecticut to meet with me.  How could I say no? Her first picture, accompanied by a schematic landscape plan, told a story.  The new landscape and fountain would be constructed at the base of this beautiful stone wall.  Never did she broach the topic of the proposed landscape and garden view from an upper level terrace with a pergola overhead. I am sure she uses this terrace off the house regularly. All I could see from this picture was a view out that had been closed off by an old boxwood hedge. Were I to stand in this lower level, I doubt she would be able to see me from up above.   These boxwoods were in fact blockswoods.

the view out (1) The fieldstone wall is 42 inches high.  The boxwood is 34 inches high.  This means that her view out from her upper level terrace is missing the bottom 7 feet of her lower level garden.  Sitting down, she had no view of anything except the boxwood. A view from a high vantage point, should you be lucky enough to have a view from above, asks for a long and thrilling view out. This boxwood hedge is a screen where no screen is needed. I understand how this happened.  What was once a low border framing a view had outgrown its original intent.  A fountain and the surrounding landscape on the lower level would never be viewed from this terrace. Is this bad?  Of course. A great landscape functions on and from a multiplicity of views. A landscape in which to be is only enhanced by a view of that landscape from afar, or from up above. Good landscapes read at many different levels. This upper level is a place she visits frequently.  Why not enjoy what is going on below?  When I saw this picture, I so wanted to see through that boxwood to the sunny spot hinted at a distance.

the view out (3)Though I had insisted that I could not draw a plan for her, I did draw a plan for her.  I suggested that she move the boxwood hedge, and install a series of steps from the upper terrace, to the lower level garden. I was concerned that her view from above the garden be as good as her experience immersed in that lower garden. Any landscape that involves a change of grade needs careful engineering.  I am not an engineer, but I can imagine what is up and down.  And what needs to be open, and what views should be closed. This drawing for my Connecticut landscape is a schematic plan.  This means that the marks on this page are suggestions with questions attached.  My design for the lower level fountain garden is a schematic plan.  Once a schematic plan looks good, then the details can be worked out. Her landscape contractor had suggested a wall to the west to match the existing wall. I do not see that she needs another wall.  I like the idea of closing the view from the driveway with layers of plant material.

the view out (4)The driveway swoops east, and comes very close to this lower level landscape. Four layers of plant material will make this garden completely private from the driveway. A gate will make a subtle suggestion of what is within. Layers of landscape can provide visual interest from both sides. What is the need? A gently closed view from the driveway.

sculpture in the landscape

This terrace  has a sculpture positioned in the middle of the opening to the pool garden. An opening with a suggestion of closure interrupts the speed at which a guest moves from one area to the other. One must walk around one side of the sculpture, or the other. The time it takes to make that decision slows down the pace. A slow pace means one has time to appreciate and experience one’s surroundings. The transition from a rear terrace to the pool is a long transition.  I favor this.  There is time to absorb the foreground space, and anticipate the next space. The figure in the sculpture faces a rear porch. The arbor frames the sculpture, and invites a walk through to the other side.  There is no need or want of closure here. The hallway from this terrace to the pool garden is interesting.

Coburn (7)This small driveway terrace functions as a drop off. The enclosure supplied by the hydrangeas provides some intimacy, in anticipation of a walk to the front door. The opening in the hydrangea hedge, marked by an arbor planted with sweet autumn clematis, gives a glimpse of the landscape beyond. This landscape celebrates arrival.

conceptual landscape plan 004This landscape which I designed some years back features a long view, that opens up over a considerable distance. I always encourage a client who has long spaces to feature and describe that space. The closure comes behind the sculpture or large pot at the end of that long view.  The screening trees eliminate the view of some large electrical transformers. What needs to be open and what needs to be closed is an important part of a good landscape design.

May 10 016This gravel terrace is one step above the lawn plane. I retained that 7 inch drop with a wide piece of custom edger strip.  The low stucco walls at seat height provide some enclosure without screening the rear yard from view. I felt this terrace needed some enclosure.  In any landscape, there are views that need to be open.  Views that need to be partially open.  Or scarcely open. Those views that need screening-assess the extent of what needs to be blocked.  Blocked in summer, not in winter?  Blocked always?  Is there one place the landscape can be open?  If so, seize that opportunity. An opening in the landscape feels great. Those places where people congregate, make them feel intimate.   I am so hoping my client in Connecticut will open her pergola terrace to the landscape below.

88 Degrees

DSC_2414Though our summer has been mostly moderate and regularly rainy, we are in the throes of a hot spell. It is hot enough to make working in the garden a sweat fest. Oh yes, the hot days have gone on for a while.  If I can’t be outside at 6am, I would rather wait until 6pm. Do the tropical/seasonal plants in my pots mind an 88 degree day?  Not at all. Many of them originate in very hot climates.  They have been waiting for this heat since late May. It is important to differentiate between what you would like on a hot day, and what your container plants would like. I do not water my containers when it is hot. I might like a cool shower after a hot day outdoors, but tropical plants thrive in the hot heat. I only water them when they are dry, or in imminent danger of becoming dry. I water dry plants, not hot plants.

watering pots August 2015 (3)I have no scientific evidence to support the following-just my experience and instinct.  On an 88 degree sunny day, I do not water my pots from the top.  I would rather keep the foliage dry.  Wet and heat put together is a reliably good recipe for disease. Mildew in a container – what gardener needs that? I use one hand to raise up the trailing plants on the edge, and the other to direct water to the surface of the dirt. No matter the size of the pot, I move the wand to different locations on the edge of the pot, so I am sure all the soil gets watered evenly. All around. Watering in one spot will invariably leave some other spot dry. I water the soil, all around, in hot weather.

watering pots August 2015 (17)When plants get large, it is not always so easy to see where the interior of the pot actually is.  There’s no sense to watering outside the pot.

watering pots August 2015 (8)This chocolate soldier plectranthus has gotten so large that it takes my whole arm to to flip up the trailing portion, and direct water to the soil. As this pot is located in the corner of my deck, it isn’t feasible to go all the way around it with my wand. The best part for this plant – no water goes on the foliage.  The water need to go to the roots.

watering pots August 2015 (10)Watering a seasonal container properly takes a little finesse. This container needs water at the center.  A rim watering is not enough.  My left hand has located the surface of the soil in the middle, while my right hand delivers the water. How do I know how this pot needs water?  I touch the soil.  If it is hard and crusty,  (as soil tends to get towards the end of the growing season, when the plants are heavily rooted) I water until that soil softens, and feels spongy to the touch.  This pot I may need to water twice, to get it sufficiently soaked.  I will not water again until the soil has dried out.

watering pots August 2015 (14)Flipping the leaves up in a container gives me a look at the soil below, and helps me to direct the water horizontally across the surface of the soil.  Plants are more forgiving of their leaves being handled as a group. Handling a single leaf can result in breakage. Water directed to the roots of plants in need is life giving.

watering pots August 2015 (11)The German ivy at the lower left in this picture is trailing just about to the ground now. As the vines are very juicy, heavy, and brittle, I move the leaves just above the rootball as gently as possible, and water from the top. I wouldn’t want to risk breaking an entire branch.  I would not flip up German ivy trailers in search of the soil surface.  I shine that water down on its root ball, as best I can. Every plant in a container needs to be watered differently.

watering pots August 2015 (15)Dichondra, on the other hand, is a light weight and pliable vine.  The round leaves do a decent job of repelling water, should I water from the top. The best way to get the water to the roots of a dichondra is to get the leaves out of the way. Once I have watered those roots,  I set the vines back down.  Gently.

watering pots August 2015 (6)This pot full of belamcanda lilies is thoroughly rooted.  All of the growth is upright, so watering at the bottom is easy.  On an 88 degree day, I flood the soil until the water comes up to the rim. After the water drains,  I will refill the pot until I see evidence of water draining all of the way out the bottom.

watering pots August 2015 (1)The rush in this pot is very fond of water. The Cuban oregano-it is happy to be dryer.  Some pots need selective watering.  I make the time to do this. I pour the water to the rush, and water the oregano every so often.

watering pots August 2015 (4)This pot planted with a rose scented geranium and a number of phormiums-I water it from the top. I cannot really explain why. The rose scented geranium does not bend much.  The phormium is vulnerable to breakage at the crown.  Why all this talk about watering?  Container plantings need regular and thoughtful watering.  People regularly ask me why my pots look good so late in the season, and during really hot weather. It’s the watering.







garden in August (1) By the time August comes around, I am ready to take a vacation from the work of my garden, and just enjoy it. In May I might renovate a spot that has gotten a little tired or overgrown. I added a new strip of pachysandra this year in the fountain garden. The yews have grown a lot, and the grass is not happy in their shade. For better or for worse, I make decisions about what to plant in my pots, and get them planted.  In June, the problems generated by the previous winter become obvious.  Replacements go in the ground. 4 all but dead rhododendrons get removed. In the case of my rose garden which finally completely succumbed to the insult of two bitterly cold winters, I decided to do nothing. We not only need a new roof this fall, we need a place to shovel off the old roof.

garden in August (2)
When the weather finally warms up in July, I might start watering here and there. I do not run my sprinkler system on a regular program.  I water what I think needs to be watered.  I only rarely run all of the zones at once. Once the water goes on, broken heads, or a need for a change in coverage become obvious. Sprinkler repairs-July work.The seasonal pots begin to settle in, and put down roots.

garden in August (6)Once August comes, I want to take the time to enjoy the garden.  The watering and maintenance of the pots is not a chore.  I enjoy that.  It is a perfect way to wind down from the day. I water. I tinker with this or that leaf that needs to be removed. The maintenance of the pots is about falling in to the pleasure of a garden. I sweep up all of the maple helicopters.  I make the effort to appreciate what is there, and not worry about what should be there.  Fall is a much better time to make changes in a landscape. Mid seventies during the day, and upper fifties at night is not the norm for Michigan in August.  Why not enjoy that? A temperate August in Michigan is a gift that should be treasured. Buck and I visit each garden every day after work. The corgis come along. This August is temperate.  We are eating outdoors every night.  No matter the menu, there is always Michigan grown corn and tomatoes.

garden in August (3)Even the simplest spots that are completely familiar look good to me. Most of the plants have been there a long time, and seem happy.  Those that aren’t will be dealt with some other time.  Right now is for what is good about it. I feel like I am on vacation when I am home, and that seems like a good thing.

garden in August (4)So why is my August garden vacation on my mind?  I met with a client late last week who just days ago moved into a new house.  The house she left was a beautiful turn of the century home on a big piece of property.  She had invested an incredible amount of time in the landscape and gardens. The decision to move was a family decision.  Decisions like this are made by people all the time, including those people who have a passion for, and work the garden. Most people have important obligations and commitments, and that includes gardening people.

garden in August (5)She has only been in her new house for a few days. The property is astonishingly large. There are some old trees, and lawn as far as the eye can see. The house is almost completely obscured by overgrown shrubs. A typical suburban foundation planting had been left to its own devices. In one spot was the largest and tallest stand of Canada thistle I have ever seen. The house had not been occupied for quite some time, and that landscape had been neglected.      garden in August (12)She did tell me quite a bit about the garden she had just left. How she had planted all of the landscape and gardens herself, and how she managed to maintain it, in addition to having a job and family to look after. That discussion was about more than her loss.  It was about helping me to understand what had been important to her. I did not ask her what trees, shrubs and perennials she liked.  I did not ask her about color or style.  I wanted to know why she called me.

DSC_2446She answered without hesitating.  She told me she was a gardener, and not a designer.  What she was looking for from me was a plan.  An outline of how to go about creating a landscape and garden that would make her new house feel like a home. A way of making sense of 2.5 acres of wide open space. She knows as well as I do how much time and effort that will take. She already has a plan to remove all of the overgrown foundation plantings this fall.  Her August will be very different than mine.

garden in August (13)That said, I could sense her resolve. I could tell that she has the energy to take on a project of this size, and see it through. She is a gardener, after all. With some time and thought, I think I can provide her with a place to dig in. She is counting on me for that, and I plan to give it to her.

DSC_2431Her situation is not unknown to me. When I was her age, I had a new house and property.  For years I did nothing to it.  I was too busy getting Detroit Garden Works off the ground, and tending to my landscape practice. But there came a time when I wanted to make time for it.  That was all it took.  If this client wants to make time for it on day two of her possession of the new house, you can rest assured she is serious. She will make something beautiful and interesting of her property.

garden in August (8)
When I got home later that day, I was glad I had persisted over a period of years making a landscape and garden.  It was, and is, worth it. On top of this, a new client whose love of the garden is a call I will do my best to answer.

garden in August (14)On my deck today, many shades of green. On my mind, an avid gardener with a new house lacking a landscape.

garden in August (9)
Tonight, I have little in the way of obligations. On a Sunday in August, I do my best to enjoy the fruits of all of my work. The deck pots look good to me.

DSC_2410boxes on the north side

DSC_2413bird’s nest ferns

garden in August (15)a  big spike, growing.

DSC_2200the side garden

garden in August (11)hydrangeas coming into bloom

garden in August (16)lantana on standard

garden in August (18)This is the August news from #35.

Those Other Hydrangeas

hydrangea Annabelle (7)My previous post about hydrangeas was narrow in scope.  Annabelle hydrangeas, or hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle” are commonly known as smooth hydrangeas. Their giant spherical flower heads are identifiable from a block away.  They have an annoying tendency to flop over.  Like peonies, their giant flower heads can topple an entire stem in a strong storm. That aside, they are showy. They bloom on new wood. Most encouraging of all for gardeners in my zone? They are both plant and bud hardy to zone 3.

limelight hydrangea hedgeLimelight hydrangea, or hydrangea paniculata “Limelight” is  hardy to zone 4.  The flowers are cone shaped.  The stems are incredibly strong, and upright. The flowers are not truly white-they are a lime green verging on white. They also bloom on new wood.  This means the flowers are set on the current year’s growth. A bad winter will not impact the flowering. The 4-5 foot version, Little Lime, is just as strong and hardy as Limelight.  The diminutive Limelight cousin,  “Bobo”,  grows 2 to 3 feet tall-and is entirely hardy.

all summer beauty hydrangeaThis said, I have had lots of clients express an interest in pink, or blue hydrangeas. Can you hear me sighing?  The All summer Beauty hydrangeas, both in ground and about to be planted,that you see above, is known as a mophead hydrangea. As in hydrangea macrophylla. The mophead hydrangeas are most easily grown in zone 6- 8. Truly. It is easy to see in the above picture that my client’s “All Summer Beauty” hydrangeas died all the way back to the ground as a result of our very cold winter. Hydrangea macrophylla blooms on old wood.  In early May, I could see that these hydrangeas had no live wood above ground, meaning there would be no June bloom on them. It would be a green summer for these hydrangeas- unless the plants would throw a few blooms on the new wood.

endlesssummerShocking this zone 6-8 business. All Summer Beauty hydrangea was introduced with great fanfare. They bloom on the previous year’s wood, but they also bloom on the current year’s wood. This was good news for hydrangea growers in northern climates. We had hopes that pink and blue hydrangeas would work for us.  I find that the bloom on new wood is sparse at best. The heavy bloom is the June bloom.

hydrangea_articleThe reality of the mopheads is that they promise a lot, and deliver not so much. Success with them is varied.  It is not so easy to figure what conditions will produce reliable blooming.The majority of the June  bloom resides in the previous year’s wood – wood that needs to  survive the winter. If you are growing All Summer Beauty, do not prune in the fall. A fall pruning removes flower buds.  Site your mopheads out of the way of the wind.  If you are mophead driven, be prepared to protect your plants over the winter.

July 13, 2012 035I do have a number of clients in Grosse Pointe.  This is a metropolitan Detroit community situated along Lake St. Clair. The mopheads I see on the west side are great once in a great while.  In this community, I see pink and blue hydrangeas blooming profusely every year.  I can only surmise that the water is a mitigating circumstance.  Water side gardens cool off  very slowly in the fall.  Plants enter the dormant stage slowly.  A big lake is slow to warm up in the spring, and protects garden plants from precipitous drops in spring temperatures.  A lake nearby is a blanket, both fall and spring. The big lake side gardens are most surely a zone 6 – maybe warmer. This is my guess.

blue hydrangeas
I have one client whose stand of mophead hydrangeas are gorgeous every year. Only one, I might add.  I really have no idea why they bloom so beautifully. I was advised that this cultivar is Nikko Blue, but this information is anecdotal.  I did not plant these. They were in place when I came to work for her. They are reliable in bloom, every year.  My other clients with mopheads have lots of green years, punctuated by flowering years now and then.  Some repeated successes I ascribe to a serious program of winter protection.

[wallcoo]_hydrangea_picture_4(1)I will say I have never seen hydrangeas other than white bloom like this.  If you have a big love for hydrangeas, research any plant you have a mind to purchase.  You need to know what species of hydrangea is the parent, and how to properly prune it. You need to cast a critical eye towards that place you plan to site them.  Is it near a house wall? Is the intended planting in a windy and exposed location?

July 13, 2012 039When a mophead hydrangea is happy, it is very very happy.

FullSizeRenderA good client emailed me this picture yesterday.  He saw these hydrangeas in bloom in Rhode Island.  Could he grow them in his garden?  This is a lace cap hydrangea which like the mophead, is hydrangea macrophylla.  It will suffer from bud loss from spring frosts, a too late pruning and a too cold winter in the same way as the mopheads. As beautiful as they are, they will not reliably like being planted in a Michigan garden. If they are killed back to the ground over the winter, they can come back-but the bloom will be very sparse. I doubt my client would have much luck with these.

hydrangeas Aug 15 2013 (17)I do not have much experience with hydrangeas other than white. I have a preference for hydrangeas that wholeheartedly like my zone. Were I dead set on having them, I would experiment to see what location in the garden was the most friendly to good flowering.  Some of the newer varieties may be more hardy for you than others. There are so many varieties available to choose from.  Perhaps there is one that will work in your garden.