Grading The Garden


The internet has made it possible to see landscapes and gardens from all over the world.  19th century English gardens.  Gardens of the Italian Renaissance.  Landscapes indigenous to the south of France.  Contemporary landscapes in Holland, Brazil, and California.  Ancient landscapes in Mexico and Egypt.  The moon?  It has a landscape that has been recorded.  Should you be interested in landscapes in Australia, Morocco, St Louis, Paris, Louisiana, Scotland or Japan-the pictures are there to see.  The essays are there to read.  Gardens in every country and every city, world wide.  What is available to see and read about has no boundaries.


I am sure I am not the only person that finds this wealth of information both visual and written astonishing.  The volume of information available about the landscape past and present is more than I could ever in 5 lifetimes attend to and absorb.  I do search topics on my own that interest me, while try not to loose sight of the fact that the internet is an electronic highly edited representation of those best bits of a garden.  Great garden photographs and great gardens are not necessarily one in the same.


As for grading one garden better than another-I don’t do this.  What would be the point?  A landscape or a garden is a highly individual expression.  Comparing one to the other is of dubious value.  I like most every garden that I have the opportunity to see and absorb.  Every garden has that moment or that gesture which is well worth thinking about.  A well known landscape infused with considerable history?  There is much to learn, and respect. A little well tended garden in my neighborhood that pops-I admire this.  Maybe as much as I admire Hidcote, I equally admire the gardeners in my neighborhood who have the idea to design, plant and maintain.  The true test of a beautiful garden has to do with sincerity, and persistence.


As for a list that defines the top ten gardens in the world-really?  I find it very difficult even to pick favorites.  Not that there is any need for such a list.  No one takes on the work of a garden for a good grade.  They take it on in pursuit of a life that values the natural world.  Each person individually interprets what it means to garden, given their space and circumstances.  All of the gardens worldwide the size and scope of mine contribute in a big way to a better world.  That person with a passion for orchids, and that person who grows food, and that person who plants trees or meadows-each one has something to contribute.  It could be the best garden in the world is one’s own.  What can be learned from tending a garden day to day and year after year is considerable.  I have a strong and sentimental relationship with my own garden.


Grading does interest me in another way- grading the ground, that is.  Up and down.  Level.  Above grade.  Below grade.  Let’s assume that ground level is one grade.  Above ground is another level.  Below ground is yet another grade. When I bought my house and property, the topography was hilly.  Lots of slopes.  Not so many flat places.  Getting from one place to another involved climbing up and skidding down.  A series of low stone walls and stair cases made the property much easier to navigate.

driveway.jpgA stone wall and staircase made the business of moving from the driveway grade to the upper level side yard quick and compact.  The upper level lawn was 3 feet above the grade of the driveway.A slope that would permit that change of grade would take up lots of room.  A small property like this benefits from the visual interest provided by changes of grade, and a mechanism for achieving that change quickly and gracefully.     In a hard rain, soil from the slopes on either side of the driveways would wash onto the driveway-in spite of a covering of grass.  How could I tell?  The abundance of weeds and grass growing between the driveway bricks.

driveway.jpgThe obvious solution was to retain the soil with a low dry stack wall. The wall was built tall enough to capture the steepest part of the slope.  No more soil erosion meant no weeds in the drive.  It would be a few years before I would tackle the slope on the street side.

new-walls.jpgOnce the grade was contained on the street side with a wall, my hellebores grew much better.  Rain would soak in, rather than running off.  How can you tell that the grade slopes from right to left?  The left wall is 2 more courses high than the right wall, though the tops of the walls are equal and level with the horizon.

driveway.jpgHow many years are we looking at here?  I would guess 10 or 12.  When I drive up after work, I like what I see. Not just layers of plants, but lots of levels, up and down.

stairs.jpgThese 6 steps can be a challenge, if you are carrying a 40 pound bag of soil. But this area was graded specifically to make an inviting entrance to the garden.

The Landscape Plan

Sept 6, 2012.jpgIn September of last year, a plan for a pool, pool house, and landscape was approved and awarded a permit to build.  Those drawings, and the concept for the pool house-time consuming to produce. There are ideas, drafts, and more drawings.  There are lots of meetings.  A client, with a Capital C.  An architect.  A pool contractor.  A building contractor.  And planning with a big P.  A big organizing idea is essential. These clients wanted a pool, and place to entertain family and friends.  This meant siting the pool near the house and existing terrace.  A home, terrace and a pool when sited properly make the flow of traffic in the space easy and comfortable.  The pool, pool house, and surrounding landscape needed a flat place to be, despite the existing slope from the yard towards the house.  Sloped sites are good for mountain climbers, hikers, and short visits.  A landscape that invites people to linger asks for a flat, or near to flat grade, to navigate.  To sit.  To congregate. The idea to create a level landscape with a close proximity to the house was the organizing metaphor for the design. A primary or seminal idea will provide a foundation that connects every other gesture to the whole.

Sept-13-2012.jpgOnce the space was graded flat, the construction of the pool began.  The soil that was available as a result of the excavation of the pool was repurposed on site in a spot that would afford the client more flat space.  These clients planned to spend a lot of time in the landscape.  They did not have the idea to view it from afar.  They wanted plenty of room for any activity that involved people.

November-2012.jpgOnce the pool walls were installed, the retaining walls that would hold back the sloping ground were installed. These concrete walls had footings installed down 42″ below grade.  This is standard in my zone.  A footing 42″ below ground means frost will not heave or damage the wall.  The wall has a purpose-holding back all of that soil on the upper level.

November-9-2012.jpgThe foundation for a pool house included the apparatus required for heated floors.  That came first.  The pool house itself would be constructed with solar panels on the back side of the roof that would heat the space in the fall.  Details like this makes a landscape in a climate like ours enjoyable early in the summer season, and late into the fall.

November-14-2012.jpgThe concrete retaining walls needed a skilled stone mason to transform them from the necessary to the beautiful.  Steve Templeton, owner of Templeton Construction, managed all of the construction with  grace, speed, and aplomb.  The dirt and disarray notwithstanding, these walls were beautifully conceived, and solidly constructed.

December-2012.jpgThe construction of the pool and pool house was an affair handled start to finish by my clients, and Templeton Construction.  My part?  I watched. My design work was long finished.  The landscape installation-to come.



By the time that March of 2013 arrived, the big ideas were beginning to take shape.  Some parts of the landscape took place into the late fall months, notably the finish grading and seeding of the displaced soil.  The first order of business in the landscape was the installation of the large trees.  They had to be planted first, as once the rest of the landscape was finished, there would be no access for the equipment necessary to handle large trees.

April-2012.jpgBy April, the pool house was up; the interior was under construction. The pool was finished, and waiting for warmer weather.  The landscape comes last, as the heavy construction occupies just about every inch of the space around it.  Once the exterior was finished and the debris cleaned up, we were ready to begin.

May-2013.jpgIn May, the addition of soil, grading, and prepping of the oil to plant was underway.  All of the beds were graded to meet the grade established by the pool and pool house. The existing landscape needed to be welcomed into the new design.

June-2013.jpgOnce all of the woody plant material was planted, and an irrigation system in place, the project was ready for grass, perennials and annuals.

June-2013.jpgBy this time, my clients were more than ready to give up the construction phase, and move in.  Who could blame them?  A project like this takes a lot of time to plan and execute.  There are problems that require attention.  In this case, quite a bit of drainage work was done before the finish.  Heavy spring rains created delays.

August-2013.jpgThe day when all of the commotion dies down, and a project comes to a finish, is a good day for a client. From start to finish, 11 months.  It is a satisfying day for all of the contractors who contributed to the final outcome.

August-2013.jpgOf course with a landscape, there is no final outcome.  This was the beginning.  I find that big projects created from a few bold and simple ideas are easier to stage and execute.  A plan for the logical order of events helps make a project come to fruition with a minimum amount of lost, down, or wasted time.  But even more importantly, a simple plan that focuses on establishing spaces, and creating structure leaves the door open for the future.  Should a client have success with a new landscape, and become more interested, gardens can be added.  A grove of fruit trees might be just the thing.

August-2013.jpgNew landscapes, whether big or small, benefit from a plan that prioritizes what needs to happen first.  A plan that asks for a lifetime’s worth of landscape development to be installed all at once puts a big burden on the client.  Once the installation is finished, my work is done.  But the work is just beginning for the client.  I like them to have the opportunity to decide whether they would like to take things further.  After they catch their breath with this phase, that is.

August-2013.jpgOnce the structure of a landscape is installed, it may speak back in a way that a designer and the client did not anticipate.  There may be surprises, second thoughts, or new ideas.  There may be something that does not work out.  Better one problem to solve, than a long list of problems to solve.

August-2013.jpgI think it is important for clients to experience success in maintaining a project.  A landscape design and installation is no better than the maintenance it takes for it to prosper.  They might decide they like the landscape that is doing well enough to do more.  A big perennial garden might be just the thing, providing the timing is right.  Not everyone would want as much to care for as I have.  Not everyone would want as little to care for as I have.  That degree has to emerge.  Better that the first part of the project creates a structure which can stand on its own.

late-August-2013.jpgThe degree to which a client is willing and excited to take ownership at the end of a project is no small measure of the success of the design.




The winter is a perfect time to discuss what goes into a coherent landscape plan.  If you have a mind to make some changes, plan now.  Draw now.  Search for the right clematis now.  Read the seed catalogues now. Be ready, when the season turns. A hard and thoughtful look at a landscape now is perfect-most of all that is visible now are the bones.  A good landscape begins with great bones.  No matter what style of gardening appeals to you, the bones tell the entire story in a simple and spare way.  In a way, your landscape is a narrative you imagine, write, and bring to life.  My first look at a landscape design revolves around the shape of the land into and onto which that landscape will be built. Why this picture?  The path across a steep slope is set on a wee bit of level ground.  Getting from here to over there is easy.  That path leads the eye to believe there is something ahead worth visiting.

This house is set high off the existing ground.  Old brick walks contained by pressure treated lumber make the transition from the house to the yard in a very awkward and fussy way.  There are small bits of level-nothing of a size that would permit company.  The lounge is set in a barked bed, and slants down from head to toe.   

A new landscape sets the brick wings, and a gravel inner terrace at one step out of the back door. All three areas set at the same grade creates a flat surface large enough for people to congregate. This makes carrying a tray of burgers outside to the grill easy and manageable.  We prolonged the big step down into the yard until the last moment-post terrace. A riser of 1/4 inch thick steel retains the gravel, while a pair of stucco walls are set at a height convenient for sitting.    

Level ground is friendly to people.  1 person, or a group of people makes no difference.  People are comfortable on the level ground in a landscape.  Would you choose to sit on this left bench, given the choice?  Looks dicey, doesn’t it?  It looks for all the world ready to pitch forward and fall over.  The right bench-solid, sturdy, and inviting.  It is set level with the horizon.  Worrying about one’s footing is not my choice for a garden activity.  

This new house and landscape has been in progress for about 6 months. The fall rain was relentless.  But this picture makes clear that the lawn panel framed with gravel is a level space.  Many of yards of soil were involved in creating this level place.   The land drops to the water’s edge past that panel. The level lawn panel-easy on the eyes and the legs.    The slope to the water-a journey.     

The level lawn panel  made for a drop off to the property line.  My idea here-every place that I would expect traffic, gathering, use and community needs to be level.  The lower slopes got drains, for the columnar maples.  My idea here-one step out of the house, and one step off of the house terrace to the yard makes for a simple experience of the landscape.

This level idea carried across the width of the back of the house meant a significant drop to the street.  Not all spaces need to be level, least of all this one.  The yew hedges set considerably above the street grade provide my client with lots of privacy.  The big idea here? The ground can be sculpted and shaped.  Up or down. Flat or hilly.  This property had been a field for 20 years, so the property could be graded all of a piece with relative ease.  

The decomposed granite drivecourt is level with the entrance to the garages.  Level to the eye, that is.  A drivecourt needs to drain, to the center of that court.    It furthermore needs to drain to the street.  Not everything is apparent to the eye-most landscape companies use transits to determine the rate and the extent of fall to make sure water does not collect.  Water sitting on a driveway or terrace is a nuisance in a rain storm, and can be treacherous if it freezes. 

This drivecourt looks flat.  The drop to a center drain is very subtle indeed. A slight drop to drain away water is about the science, not the view.   

 My property came with a giant drop in the side yard. One year I sprung for a single retaining wall to make that slope easier to negotiate.  

The next year, a reworking of the ground for a second level terrace. A generous landing and stairs with deep treads makes it easy for me to get from one place to the other.

Now I have a well defined lower level flat space, an upper level flat space, and a staircase that gets me from one place to the other.  Level I like.