A Landscape For A Gardener : Part 2: The Dirt

DSC_5410By the final months of 2013, the sidewalk was nearing completion, the driveway base got poured, the curving front courtyard wall and pillars for the cast iron fence were complete. The iron work-yet to come. At least we were past the point of contractors parking in the front yard.  It is next to impossible to convey to an electrician that the weight of his vehicle damages the structure and drainage capacity of  soil.  We just breathe a sigh of relief when they are finished and gone.  The ground that has been driven over for years had become much like a parking lot, only paved with dirt.  To make matters worse, our area is noted for its heavy clay soil.  This project involved lots of hand digging to reintroduce oxygen to the soil, and the addition of compost to leaven the clay.

June 24 2014 (36)The soil would need grading to the levels established by the house, drive, walk and terraces. This part of the landscape installation takes the most time.  Once the soil is graded, a good rain will tell if there are any non-draining areas.  Once plants are in the ground, they cover over any water that may be sitting on top of the soil. It is vastly easier to spot drainage problems in this stage.  Eventually the iron fencing got installed, all but one panel.  We needed access to the yard with a machine, and tools.  The new blue stone sidewalk was for foot traffic only-and certainly not our feet.

June 24 2014 (37)It is such a relief to get to the dirt stage. I like moving soil around, marking bed lines, and preparing beds to be planted. It is a sure sign of progress.  On the subject of soil for woody plants, I am a member of the do not disturb camp.  Years ago I would dig holes for every tree and shrub at least 3 times bigger than the size of the root ball.  Once the shrub was planted, I would back fill the hole with soil concocted in the wheelbarrow.  Topsoil, sand peat moss, compost, and worm castings were blended to make the soil of my dreams.

June 24 2014 (35)Years later, a study from Michigan State disputed the wisdom of planting a tree in soil which was anything other than existing soil.  Once the roots reached the end of the heavenly soil, the shock of the native soil could set the tree back for years.  This only makes sense.  A root ball needs to be set on firm ground-not new soil.  This makes sense too.  New soil is full of air.  A tree that sinks below grade is a tree that will have problems.  I choose plants that thrive not only in my hardiness zone, but in my soil.  I caution clients who insist on having rhododendrons.  They look great in full bloom at nurseries here in the spring, but I am quite sure none of those plants are Michigan grown.  Though there are neighborhoods nearby with giant and thriving rhododendrons, that is not the norm.

The Plants (25)Last fall, we did purchase 8 large katsura espaliers for this project. When it became clear that there would be no movement on the landscape until this spring, we heeled those trees in at our nursery yard.  We did plant them while we were grading and preparing beds.  The root balls measured almost 40 inches across, meaning the trees were very heavy, and difficult to handle. I was interested to make the move before they began to leaf out, in the interest of less stress for both the trees and my crew over the transplant.  This particular spot on the lot line was well above the grade of the neighboring property.  A very low retaining wall, not visible in this picture, was built to keep the soil in place.  The large solid balls of the katsuras proved to be a help maintaining the grade we needed.

June 24 2014 (34)Once the grade was established, all of the beds to be landscaped were edged in aluminum edger strip. This insures the integrity of the bed lines, and more importantly, it keeps the lawn grass out of the borders.  A landscape within reasonable maintenance limits is a landscape every client appreciates.  Edging beds is not only a skill, it is a whomping lot of work.  A landscape bed with sloppy edges has a sloppy look.  Crisp edges and mowed grass can make the most weed stricken garden look better.  An existing Japanese maple that had survived the construction was protected from the grade change with a stone well.

June 24 2014 (33)Areas which would be planted with perennial material are treated differently than those for trees and shrubs. A tree which is properly sited for zone, existing soil and light will, given a little care, take hold and thrive. There will be no deadheading, or dividing.  With any luck, that thriving will go on for many years.    If you count out horseradish, and some of the big growing grasses, most perennials do not put down roots that deep.  But I do like 16 inches of decent well drained soil, if I can get it. A garden grown on sand is easily to establish, and the devil to keep year after year.  The gardens to be planted on this heavy clay soil may take some doing.  More than likely, we will loose some plants.  But once established, and top dressed every year with compost or ground hardwood bark, a garden in heavy soil will have a long and happy life.

June 24 2014 (24)Establishing the proper grade in the back yard took some finesse. Of course, matching the new grade to the old would be ideal.  But the new house and walks have created drainage issues which never existed before.  The most likely spot for water to pool is dead ahead.  The contractor had run several large storm drains to exactly this spot.  The last part of the grading would be to lower the grade from the stone walk yet to come to the pond.  The big idea here was to plan for surface water to have an unobstructed path to the pond.  What could be better than keeping the level of the pond up with rain water?

DSC_2107We were ready for plants.

A Landscape For A Gardener: The Structure

August-2012.jpgThis landscape project took a little better than two years to build, from start to finish.  We planted new pots on the rear terrace for summer, in mid August.  A client who is an avid gardener and naturalist with a large piece of property decided to take down her home of many years, and build anew.  The building project had already been going on for better than a year before my first visit.  The west half of the property, dominated by a huge pond and barn, was untouched by the construction. The pond was full of water lilies, and skirted by all kinds of bog loving plants.  Old  scotch pines, and densiformis yews of considerable size and age provided lots in the way of screening of the neighboring properties.      July 11 2013 (15)
I never saw the original house and garden. Judging by what was left intact, it must have been lovely.  Lots of plants had been heeled in as far away from the construction as possible. Discussions with my client confirmed her knowledge and interest in horticulture. Her keen interest in the landscape is every designer’s dream – a knowledgeable client with lots to contribute to the process.  The old and the new would have to meld seamlessly.  Fortunately we had plenty of time before we would put a shovel to the ground.

July 11 2013 (19)My first visit took place at that moment in the construction when every square foot was occupied by building materials, mud, machines, and mountains of unwanted dirt. It was very hard to imagine the landscape at this point, there was still so much work to do. It takes a certain courage and calm to take apart an established landscape in anticipation of a new house to be built.  All of the hard structures would have to come first.  Once the house is out of the ground, that elevation sets the grades for everything else-the driveway, the walkways, terraces, and in this case, a fountain and a pool.  All of these architectural elements would dictate the tone, tenor, and placement of the landscape elements..  It was time for the first round of landscape design drawings.

Aug 10 2012 116
The house was in the later stages of construction.  The walls were up – some stone, and some brick.  A sample of the brick color and pattern, still in the front yard. Most of the windows had been installed. The lion’s share of the work was going on inside. Pallets of the remains of the building of the stone walls-still in the front yard.  Also visible here, a temporary air conditioning unit.  The months of machines and men going back and forth across the dirt had compacted the soil, squeezing just about every last bit of air out of the soil.  Even a moderate rain would produce puddles that would not drain.  There would be drains installed by the contractor, and more drains later, by us.

Aug 10 2012 115There was much discussion between my clients, their architect and I regarding the location and size of the driveway and walkways – all of it good. Many of the decisions about the pool, the pool deck, and pergolas had already been made.  Any client knows more about how they want to live than anyone else.  They were keen for a low wall opposite the front door, the interior of which would have a fountain, and seating.  I did a number of drawings of the possibilities. My primary contribution was to suggest a break in the wall to the north, which would permit easy access through from one side of the yard to the other.

July 11 2013 (22)Though there was hope that all of the stonework would be done by late September of last year, it wasn’t.  In August, it all seemed possible.  But a very rainy fall and an early appearance of winter weather meant that the landscape construction would have to wait until spring. The last of the hard structures would be a series of low walls and gates in wrought iron. August 23 2013 (46)The luxury of a long project is the time there is to think through every decision.  A low curved wall drawn on paper is a different matter than the reality of the wall.  Having the time to react, and perhaps change direction can be good.  Beyond that, construction delays are inevitable.  Heavy rains do not deter any activity on the inside, but can create lengthy delays on the outside.  Multiple contractors means the prospect of poor interface multiplies.

July 11 2013 (11)One later addition –  a fire pit.  Adding a structure such as this in a landscape renovation happens all the time. But for a new house, waiting for all of the hard structures to be built before the installation of the landscape helps insure a a look that is deliberate and all of a piece. Hard structures can create issues with drainage.  No landscape with thrive, planted in soil that cannot or will not drain.  Taking time with this now means fewer problems getting a landscape to establish later on.

July 11 2013 (7)Nonetheless, I was looking forward to that moment when we could begin dealing with the dirt.

A Favorite Client

harriet.jpgIt isn’t hard to identify the favorite clients.  The work you do for them-they appreciate it. They are not afraid to ask you to detail every step you went through to arrive at a recommendation. Once you provide all of the details, they respond, kindly. They think over everything you say, carefully. Better, yet, they are interested, and committed.  They are clear about what they like, and polite about what they don’t like. They are willing to weather any storm.  They can be persuaded.  But they know their own mind and life, and are not afraid to stand up for that. I don’t often visit this client, for whom I did a landscape for her new house some three years ago. We had cause to meet recently-a few new issues needed solving.  Her opening topic-a leaf that had fallen from her katsura espaliers.  That heart shape leaf falling on an under planting of boxwood-a cause for celebration. That randomly falling heart shaped leaf was the first topic of her day.  The beauty of nature was number one.  All else was a distant second.   How like her, to feel this way, and show it to me.  We spent a few moments, in celebration.

DSC_4381Celebration energizes and organizes all sorts of  expression.  The landscape is, in its most basic form, about defining spaces, directing traffic, and nurturing a love of nature.  As much as a home is a three dimensional representation of the story of the life of a family, the landscape is a story about how that home interacts with nature.  That relationship with nature is about a lot of things – materials impervious to weather, and the plants.  The shapes of spaces, and their dimensions. Color, and dimension.  Depth.  Places to be. What grows and lives in the landscape parallels a life some describe as a life well worth living.

DSC_4402This landscape just three years old.  It is starting to is take root, and become part and parcel of this property.     It will take a few more years to see what the landscape screens, what it frames, what it features, how it thrives,  and how it enriches this household. A mature landscape will take a good many years to achieve, but the early signs are good.  Establishing the landscape has been a battle.  Very heavy clay soil close to the water’s edge means the soil is usually saturated. We have had casualties.  But the peonies have taken hold, as have the climbing roses and the clematis.  Once a garden built on clay soil is established, it it long lived.

DSC_4378This favorite client took my recommendations about pots and benches, steps, porch stone-this was just the beginning..  This year she had a mind to change her color scheme for her containers. Lots of color, please.  Container design can take a last minute cue.

DSC_4366A meadow garden near the water was too tall, and too green.  Some of the beds got a subtle punch of color from the addition of mid height annual plants.  We planted a few low growing shrub roses-just to see if they would take to the placement. Any successful garden depends upon the willingness to experiment, and evolve. Tinkering is is the hallmark of every inventor.  Among that big group of inventors – gardeners.

DSC_4363My client’s property is overrun with rabbits.  Rabbits that treat her gardens like a lunch buffet.  Her sculpture collection of minks, foxes and dogs that inhabit the landscape are a personal signature. She may never defeat the rabbits, but her landscape is endowed with with her hope, interest and commitment. She is a favorite client, yes. The relationship is a regular pleasure, and routinely full of surprises.  She thinks about her landscape in a way that I never could.  It is hers.  I so appreciate that she thinks about every issue, personally.

DSC_4361water’s edge garden

DSC_4355bright colored containers

DSC_4398saturated color

DSC_4359a view of the garden

DSC_4347I have never seen streptocarpella thrive quite like this. Bravo, Harriet.

A Path To Somewhere

DSC_4037This terrace sits a number of steps above the surrounding landscape and garden. I would guess the terrace sits almost 3 feet above the ground plane.  There are plenty of places to sit. Lots of chairs with plump cushions make this experience of the outdoors comfortable.  I would choose being outdoors above any other place to be, like most gardeners.  Anyone who sits here has a great overview of all that is going on here.  A landscape structured around a sweep of old hornbeams, blocks of hydrangeas and boxwood framing, is softened by generously sized perennial plantings.  All of the pots and boxes help to bring the garden upstairs, and up closer.

DSC_3892Landscapes that are viewed from afar, or from up above, have their charms. The stray weed, or problem plant will not read all that well.  The overall impression is stronger and more lasting than any individual detail. My deck is five feet above the ground plane – I can take in the whole garden at a glance.   From a design perspective, the organizing idea may be much clearer from a distance.  A bird’s eye view of a garden looks much more like the landscape plan drawn on paper. For the same reasons, spotting problems with a design is easier, if that design can be seen all at once-in plan view.  The ground floor view of a landscape in three dimensions can be very different than a 2 dimensional drawing that describes it.

August 10 2014 (30)Immersion in a garden can be great.  All of the subtle details, the contrasts of textures, the relationships of one plant to another, and the flowers can be better appreciated up close.  I have spent lots of time over the years wading in to people’s gardens-to pull weeds, or dig plants that needed dividing.  Up close can also mean that bugs, disease and snakes become part of the experience. It is tougher to spot the ground hog burrows and ground bees nests. The whole point of layering a perennial garden is so that depth of the space can be appreciated from the perimeter. Gardens planted from a variety of plants close in height have a beautiful undulating rhythm, provided those plants mature at a height below eye level. Gardens planted with with plants taller than eye level need a way in,  or a place to step back.

DSC_3889A tall shallow garden without a place to step back is like having a seat at a movie that is too close to the screen.  That movie experience makes it impossible to focus, and make sense of any visual information. Up close to a field of sunflowers is the same visual experience as up close to a row of them.  There is no sense of the depth of the garden, unless there is an alternate way to view them.  These gardens have plenty of space to step back, and take it all in. The plantings are graduated in height.  For some, a grass walkway is all it takes to bring the garden up close.  For others, a walkway is a better solution.  A garden walkway makes it possible to enjoy a garden after a rain without risking soaking wet shoes.  Its easier to push a wheelbarrow or cart on a hard surface. For those that like to walk the garden in the evening, a path can help light the way.

DSC_3886This all around the garden walkway is a long one. A gravel path was an obvious choice.  A stone walkway of this width and length would be overpowering visually, especially given that it is set close and parallel to a large stone terrace. A decomposed granite path is simple to install.  We dug out 6″ of soil, and installed in its place 4″ of crushed limestone, and a 2″ top dressing of decomposed granite.  This was a very long and fairly wide walk.  We have 2 clients who like to cruise the garden, together. Four feet wide is a comfortable width for 2 people who are friendly with one another to walk side by side. So 40 yards of soil went to the compost pile at our landscape yard.

August 27 2014 (6)This property is notorious for retaining water. Before the landscape construction began, we did install a fairly extensive drainage system. Forty yards of gravel in place of forty yards of soil can’t hurt the drainage effort.  Decomposed granite is composed of granite chips, 3/8 of a inch and smaller in size.  The very small pieces are known as fines, and have the appearance of sand.  Once the gravel has been compacted, rain will wash the fines down, and help to interlock the larger pieces.  This water permeable walk is quote hard, once it has a little age. It would be easy to ride a bike here. It is a lot of work to haul stone and soil, but there is little in the way of materials.

August 27 2014 (10)The most expensive material is the edger strip. These 16 feet long by 4″ high aluminum strips keep the gravel where it is intended.  It also keeps the grass out of the walk. Just before the stone goes in, we use a layer of non-woven landscape fabric that is permeable to water, but discouraging to weeds.  If a decomposed granite walk goes through a garden, there is little need for edging.  We may mulch the perimeter plantings with the same stone. Perennials that seed in the walk may be welcome.

DSC_4043Once the granite is in place, we go over and over it with a compactor so the surface is firm, and level. Given the inch and a half of rain we had this afternoon, this path looks a lot more like gravel, and a lot less like sand. Gravel is a friendly material to use when there are irrigation valve boxes and heads set close to the surface.  We just go around them.  Given a little dry weather, my clients will be able to go around too.