The Landscape At Lee Hill Farm

Lee Hill FarmI have a very good friend, Susan Cohan, who also happens to be an extraordinarily talented landscape designer. Her firm, Susan Cohan Gardens, is based in Chatham, New Jersey. She is well educated in the arts and design. Her history is varied, and rich. Mind you, this previous bit does not in any way address the length and the breath of her experience and expertise. She has a keen eye, a well developed point of view, and a huge passion for the landscape. In my opinion, her passion for every aspect of the landscape is awesome. We met during her 2014 tenure as President of the APLD. The APLD is a national association of landscape designers that has members in almost every state. They work tirelessly to improve the quality of landscape design among their members, and they work to inform the public about landscape designers with experience and talent who would be worth consulting on a landscape project. From the beginning we were professionals and associates, with a relationship that grew to regularly debate the issues regarding landscape design.  Now we are friends. The result of that friendship – she got on a plane, and came out to visit me for 4 days this past February. Those days flew by.  She is delightfully interesting, serious, and genuine, not to mention fresh, direct, and personal.  How I love all these things about her!  I was so pleased to hear that she had won a Gold Medal award in the 2015 APLD competition for planting design. I want to share that award winning design and installation. I  greatly respect how she approached the work, and brought a project to bear fruit, from the ground up.

Susan Cohan DesignHer clients had purchased a beautiful old house and property.  Many of the structural elements of the garden – walls, and walkways – were in a considerable state of disrepair. In Susan’s estimation, a renovation of the property would have to begin with repairs. A good designer lays out the issues, and details the journey. Her client committed to this aspect of the restoration. Any successful project is a result of a rapport between a designer and a client. It was agreed that the old walkways, steps, and some walls would have to come out, and be redone. Another wall was slated to be built.

Lee Hill Farm
Repairs are not that much fun. Fixing what is broken does not necessarily result in something new and exciting. Just what was, before it was broken. But an old property with beautiful walls and walks may not need something new.  A repair and renovation that goes on to become a landscape better than her client thought she could have it-that’s very new and exciting! Repairs can be lengthy and tedious. These before pictures of Lee Farm which Susan sent me do not tell the tale of the days and weeks of work that would be involved to make the hard structures of this garden whole again.

vintage stairsEvery place has its own aura. A feeling. An atmosphere.  Recreating and restoring a sense of place relies on a sure hand. How Susan approached this project tells me she has a gift for the concept of the genius of the place. This property had a long history that deserved respect.  I am sure she steeped herself in the ruination, before she put a drawing, a hand, or a shovel, to the ground.

old gardenThe heaved and crumbling brickwork and the grass challenged stonework did not faze her.

Susan Cohan GardensThis view of a landscape long neglected makes clear that a lot of work needed to be done. Landscape projects that are really good address the land, the history, the client, the structures, the furnishings, and the plants. Like a play having six acts, this project would build on itself.

redoing the stoneworkThe restoration of the hard structures took lots of time.  Lots of hard work. Lots of supervision, and even more discussion. The pace of this work took so much more time than these pictures would indicate. This picture of a degraded walk, some hand tools, and a person tells a story. A beautiful project takes a vision, and work to follow that is skilled.

Lee HillOnce the hard structures were restored, the replanting of the landscape would involve an arrangement and plant list that would convince.  A beautifully planted garden is a joy.  But this garden had to be true to the history, the aura, and the meaning of this property of great age.  I think Susan did a great job of thinking through a plant list that was not limited to what perennials were available at the time the garden was built.  It was a plant list that served and recalled the original spirit of the garden.

the stoneworkThe fountain needed repair. The stone terrace was relaid, on level ground. The brick walks were redone. The millstone was level in the center of two brick walks, intersecting at right angles. The planting had begun.

Lee Hill Farm small fileYears later, this landscape evokes the spirit of the past, courtesy of lots of skilled design help from the present.  These pictures, which Susan submitted to the APLD competition, tell a certain story.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #4Her hand is a subtle one. It takes great experience, confidence and skill to plant a landscape that gives the land, the history and the plants center stage. I can see she is interested here in a landscape that seems natural and appropriate. Genuinely believable. Flowing.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2On one level, the planting design for this project was meant to evoke the spirit of the original garden. But that design goes on to other levels. More interesting and thoughtful placement. More variety, or better performing cultivars. Designed spaces. The plant choices and the colors echo the original garden, but have relevance in the present.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #5The original iris still have a place.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #8the sweep

Lee Hill Farm Photo #9a long line

Lee Hill Farm Photo #10the layered view

Lee Hill Farm Photo #7The matching hedges of the same cultivar of peony is a way of illustrating how the design is as important as the plant choices.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #6The peonies, arbor and fountain are the strong and simple organizing feature for a constellation of perennial borders.  In May, the peonies hold forth much more strongly than they would have, had they been planted singly in a number of different places. At this moment, this view is drenched in the history of the original landscape in a visually compelling way.  It is also a very strongly designed space.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2This is an award winning project-as well it should be. This picture tells the tale-everything seems right and rings true to the setting.  As for Susan Cohan, should you have a great passion for the landscape, and live within 100 miles of her, contact her.  She is a landscape designer I greatly admire. Interested in reading further about her?

Susan Cohan Gardens



The Envelope, Please

landscape-plan.jpgOver the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time shoveling out my office. I needed a shovel!  Suffice it to say that I went over every square inch of my office in person, with the idea that I needed to sort through and clean up.  Some plans from 20 years ago did not look all that good to me, several decades later. Why should they?  Client files so old I did not recognize the name-did I need those?  Files of inspirational pictures that no longer seemed very inspirational-did I need these? Piles of notes secured with rubber bands that broke when I touched them-I could no longer remember what I was thinking when I wrote them. A point of view changes over the years-hopefully for the better. Some things from the past don’t warrant saving. I reorganized all of my books to include this past year’s purchases. I swept and dusted. What I did not pitch I updated, rethought, and reorganized. Every plan has a file now. How I love the look. Clean, and organized. Why did I the pitch the records and drawings of certain older work? Any plan that seemed immature or unfinished, not interesting or not built-I pitched them. I am happy to be free of them. Vintage does not necessarily imply valuable. But this plan dating back to 2005 still looked good to me. I remember that the architecture of the house was elaborate – winged.  The center portion of the structure was parallel to the lot, and the street. A pair of east and west wings angled sharply away from formal structure of the center section.


A residential landscape design needs to consider the siting of a home.  That house will always be the most important feature of a landscape, as it occupies the vast majority of the space. The landscape needs to respond to that. The architect clearly felt that a central entry space would be enhanced by wings at an angle. I was not consulted about the architecture-nor should I have been. My job was to come in after the house was built, and design a landscape that would scoop up that architecture, and detail an interesting and thoughtful relationship between the structure and the property.

landscape-plan.jpgThe front door was immediately adjacent to a tower that housed the stairs to the second floor. The wing of the house off the front door to the east veered sharply to the north.  The wing off the formal dining room to the west veered to the north at a different angle. The footprint of the house was complicated, and intricate. My instinct was to generate a landscape plan that would function like an envelope. An envelope, strictly speaking, is a paper structure designed to hold a letter. That letter may address a number of topics, many of which might veer off east and west as well as north and south.  An envelope – bear with me – is a an enclosure that houses a complex of written ideas.  The plain white envelope that encloses my gas bill is a case in point.  The driveway and landscape of the front entry encompasses with a singular gesture the complexity of the architecture. A white envelope. The paving design of the drive court still interests me.  The surface of the area immediately surrounding the front door area calls out the entrance-this area was to be blue stone.  The areas denoted by diagonal lines was to be concrete aggregate. The dotted areas indicate decomposed granite.


The grade of this property was very high at the street. That grade fell from the street to the back.  My idea was to place the grade of the driveway at the same grade as the street. And the same grade as the front door. This would involve cutting into the existing land form, building retaining walls to hold back that soil so high, and ending with a route to the front door at grade -as noted in my drawing.  The day I drew this plan, I could imagine how it would be to drive into a steep property, with those hills looming over both left and right, retained by stone.  The driveway would be the next best thing to a trip through a tunnel.  Leaving the grade high at the street meant that a large house would sit down, and have some privacy from the road. A drawing of a landscape plan never rises to the level of a dream. That takes a plan, and a commitment to a thoughtful installation that has room for revision. Any landscape needs the time and opportunity to speak back. Landscape plans provide a place from which to approach a project. This  plan I saved, as it approaches some issues in a way I still think has merit.

landscape-plan.jpgOf course, the back yard sees those site lines from various wings of the house beginning to converge. There was no way to avoid this. The driveway garden with an allee of trees pushes way into the back yard.  The drive court adjacent to the garage entry is formal.  The landscape beyond is equally as formal, and parallel to that drive court.   The rear yard design was parceled into three rooms, each one accessed by a gravel path that began at the driveway, and would eventually turn and traverse the entire rear yard.  The is gravel path is parallel to the wings of the house.  The left wing features a large blue stone terrace that captures a series of intricate twists and turns taken by the architecture. A large portion of the yard off this terrace is a lawn panel. The transition space between the terrace landscape and the pool landscape-a triangular perennial garden.  The central room features a large fountain. The property behind this house is a large golf course, so the rear property line would never be a visual issue. The transition from the pool landscape to the formal garden is another triangular shaped perennial garden.  The right wing, which houses the master bedroom, features a formal garden on axis, and a pavilion with climbing roses and clematis.

landscape-plan.jpgAs jarring as all of these angles seem, from a bird’s eye view, the reality on the ground would be much different.  The perennial gardens would soften the transition from one space to another. The design makes the most of all of the property available.

landscape-plan.jpgThe far east side of the property climbs steeply.  A four foot stone retaining wall would make that slope less steep. I still like the looks of this master plan.  If you are further interested in a closer look at the plans, you can click on each picture for a magnified view. I regret to say that this landscape never got built. Not every landscape plan comes to life. That’s life as any landscape designer knows it. But I still like how it addresses the architecture. I am especially pleased that I had the sense to specify a triangular block of taxus in the front yard, on axis with the front door.  This is my favorite part of this plan. This plan, I kept. The idea that a landscape is an envelope still intrigues me.




The 2014 Gardening Season

2-27-2014 (14)Though nature had no plans to attend the opening of Detroit Garden Works today for the 2014 gardening season, the robins in the tree next door are here right on schedule.  Rob says they look to be the fattest robins ever.  I personally think they have their feathers fluffed out to the max-trying to defend themselves against the extreme cold.  On the news this morning, the following.  The combination of cold and snow this winter makes this the worst winter we have had for 130 years.  This means that the oldest gardener in my zone is experiencing a record breaking and a particularly heart breakingly endless winter for the first time.  This going on 64 year old gardener can attest to the accuracy of this statement.  I have never.

Detroit-Garden-Works.jpgTaking the 2013 version of Detroit Garden Works apart, repainting and cleaning, reinventing and redoing with all the new things for 2014 is a big job.  Both of my landscape crews are instrumental in helping out the shop staff with this transformation.  This means that both Steve and I have been there with Rob to plan and consider every move that gets made.  Keeping up with the winter landscape design work for projects on deck for spring, with a big dose of Detroit Garden Works on the side means I have been really busy.  This level of being busy helps to keep my mind off the winter that has engulfed us all.  Though my landscape design practice is the love of my life, the shop is a close second.  How so?

DSC_7937All of what Rob buys interests me.  Containers, sculpture, fountains, tools are an integral part of gardening.  But placing every element in a 10,000 square foot space in an interesting and well designed way is a challenge.  But I am happy for the work-this greatly informs my landscape practice.  I am dealing with objects big and small.  Lots of colors.  This line and that one.  This shape that relates to that one.  A garage full of pallets of objects I have never seen before all need to have a home, a scheme.  Rob does the vast majority of the buying for the shop.  It falls some to him, and a lot to me about how to present his collection. It is not so much different than designing a landscape for a particular property, and a particular client.  Objects from many countries in February, each with their own shape, color, texture and mass ask for an arrangement that will please the eye.  Making sense of a whole world of disparate objects can be exasperating, but it is a job I would not trade for any other.

DSC_7944Designing a landscape asks for everything a gardener has available to them.  A love of the living earth.  A plan to compost, which will enrich any planting.  A plan to plant.  Lots of energy and good will.  Faith in one’s convictions.  And a plan that personally expresses what that gardeners values and needs from their garden.  A plan that is coherent.  Dissonant shapes, forms, textures and colors all ask for some sense to be made.  And sense can be made of those things in many different ways.  How Rob puts a series of things together is very different than mine, as it should be.  I can’t be privy to why he selected certain things, until I start to work with them.  Even then, I may visualize them in a very different way. As much as I enjoy poking around the pallets, I more enjoy making a melody from a lot of different voices.

DSC_7928Surfaces really interest me.  Some are shiny.  Some are smooth and matte.  Some are rough textured.  Others are dark-some are light.  One surface contrasted with another generates interest.  What is happening near the ground level interests me as much as what is at eye level.  Then there is that vast space overhead.  My first moves in the shop always involve covering the walls, and populating the air space.  Part of that had to do with staging the work.  An empty room is the ideal place to navigate with a big ladder.  Once that work is done, everything else is arranged to fit in the physical and visual space.

2-27-2014 (2)Anything that generates an interest in the garden is of interest to me.  What I like is big and wide-a lot.  On a good and rare day, it is deep.  Any person who responds to the garden interests me, whether it comes via my landscape practice, or my shop.  Any place that encourages people to garden is my idea of a good place.  Rob and I both subscribe to the idea that a great garden shop ultimately should provide an experience of the garden.

2-27-2014 (17)I will confess I am tired out from the work of the past month.  But this kind of tired is a good kind of tired.  I was truly thrilled that Detroit Garden Works opened for the 2014 gardening season as usual March 1-even though our winter rages on.  I am pleased we have been welcoming gardeners of every persuasion for 18 years, come March 29.  We were happy to have gardeners gracing our gates today. Spring is a state of mind-is it not?

2-27-2014 (12)Rob’s buying trips to growers of hellebores all over the US and Canada means we have plants in our greenhouse now, with many more to come.  The sight and smell of live and blooming plants is a sight for sore eyes.  We have planned an event the third week of March-a Helleborus Festivalis.  For every winter weary gardener who has another month of winter to go yet.  We have missed all of you that visit our shop!  See you soon.


Tuesday Opinion: Rhythm

Someday I will  plant a giant circle of deciduous trees.  Or a square. or a rectangle, or an irregularly shaped enclosure of trees.  Most of the trunks will be too close together.  There may be one entrance, which is also an exit.  There may be an entrance and a separate exit.  There may be one entrance, and several exits. There may be one entrance on axis, and other oblique entrances. No matter the shape, the canopies of the trees will create a tent.  Inside the tent, there will be a bench, or a collection of benches.  The garden on the outside of the tree tent will be inviting and friendly.  The inside of the tree tent will be plain.  Just grass, and a place to sit.  I would visit the tree tent every day, every season, year round.  Maybe very early, before work.  Maybe late in the day, after work.  Maybe more than twice a day.   Why would I want such a garden? A daily garden?  For the sake of rhythm.

Like most gardeners, I am tuned into my garden at specific times of the year.  The first signs of spring.  The spring trees blooming.  The planting of the spring-and the summer pots.  The roses coming on.  The late summer garden.  The fall, and finally the winter.  These moments are an intense experience.  The hellebores in full bloom make me feel dizzy, my focus is that intense.  Other times, I barely notice what is in front of my eyes.  I have this issue to attend to, or that.  The delphiniums may be sending up a strong second flush that I barely acknowledge.   Up and down-that would be me in the garden.  Miss topsy-turvy.  Would that I could be more consistent and less scattered.

On and off is not my favorite place to be.  A lengthy “on period” means I can establish a rhythm.  It is not so tough to imagine this.  In simple terms, practice makes perfect.  Those times when I am focused on the garden, day to day, my garden benefits.  The 2 months I spend planting summer pots-I am quite sure the last of those pots are the best.  Once I have gotten into a rhythm, there is flow.  I stop thinking about what to do, and just do.  Stating and stopping and starting up again in the garden shows.  A design may appear disjointed, or fragmented.  Or even worse, careless.

A regular rhythm is like a pulse, like a heart that beats regularly.  Repetition sets the stage for a rhythmic expression.  The big idea here-anything you attend to, or practice every day establishes a rhythm.  Once you have a rhythm going on, a beautiful expression is not far behind.

As for my tree tent-I imagine it as a place to recapture that sense of rhythm.  A place that can store momentum.  Of course the tree tent is an idea that could exist only in my imagination.  Maybe the real solution is to figure out how to keep the door to imagination propped open.  Today I have a large Christmas tree to decorate. It is a project I have not done before. I have assembled a collection of materials-they will be looking at me.  And my crew will be looking at me. I am sure I will be trying out different arrangements, stopping and starting, until that certain state of mind that I call rhythm gets switched on.