A Secret Garden

Who knows how many times my Mom read The Secret Garden to me.  Once I learned to read on my own, I doubled up my exposure to this well known children’s tale.  Though I was taken in by the relationship that was forged in the privacy of a beautiful garden, I was more fascinated by the garden itself.  Walled off from the world, quiet, serene-the possibility of a completely private world all of one’s own imagination and invention enchanted me.  I have clients who live in old neighborhoods in close proximity to other families. Those neighborhoods are in transition now.   Old modestly sized homes are being torn down in favor of much larger homes.  

I have a client in just such a situation.  The lot behind her has been summarily clear cut; a large home is in the works. All the the old trees on the lot line that screened her from that neighbor are gone.  An old and deteriorated home next door has been sold, and is scheduled to be razed.  A new home, no doubt bigger and taller than homes original to the neighborhood has her feeling under siege. On the garden tour this July she commented to me that though I live in an old neighborhood with small lots and many large two-story homes, my yard is completely private.  She had an interest in staying ahead of the construction that would loom over her on two sides of her property for the at least two years.    

Lots in her community are small; the parcels reflect a time and place long past. She was willing to reduce the width of her driveway to less than 9 feet, if it meant that she could plant screening in anticipation of a new house next door. I understand this need.  I like my neighbors, but I like my private garden more.  I have no need or inclination to be privy to what my neighbors are up to.  Most importantly, I want the sanctuary that a landscape can provide.  We saw cut a strip out her asphalt driveway so we had room to plant.     

Arborvitae as a screening material in a right space has its limitations. When very tall, they fall prey to ice storm damage.  They grow wider than one would like.  Like many evergreens, they are much narrower at the top than the bottom.  If you need screening up high, a layered planting works well.  Deciduous trees provide great screening of a neighboring second floor.  A columnar tree takes up relatively little room on the ground plane.  Carpinus, gingko, tulip tree, beech, amelanchier,-there are plenty of choices.  Planting an amiable evergreen between the columnar trees gives you an evergreen screen occupying the first five feet out of the ground-excellent.  Driving up the drive, or walking down the drive for the mail, there is privacy.  

This columnar English oak hybrid, Crimson Spires, has densely growing blue green leaves, and a decidedly columnar habit.  This cultivar of English oak is stubbornly hardy-never mind its good looks.  In two years these trees will be branching out such that my client will get the gist of her secret garden.  Within 8 years whatever goes on next door will not be part of her landscape.   

On the lower level, we have another issue to address. The neighbors wood fence is old and quite deteriorated. What will be when that fence is replaced, or not replaced?  The densiformis yews will make how the new neighbors will handle their landscape their issue, and not hers. 

We planted a secondary screen which will add another layer of privacy to the back yard.  The arborvitae “Emerald Green” has a beautiful deep green color year round, and grows quite dense.  I will recommend that this hedge be maintained at the height of the gutter on the garage.  This will make the maintenance of the hedge more manageable.  It will also make the rear yard garden entirely private from this side. 


We will see if the narrower drive is easily negotiable. If it proves to be too narrow, there is an option to add a little more drive on the house side.  The views out from the windows on this side of the house will be green.

The 2010 Espaliers


I have been awaiting with great anticipation the delivery of a group of espaliers from the West Coast.  Even in photographs, I knew they might be among the most amazing trees I had ever seen.  I buy only a small amount of nursery material every year; those plants that have the potential to organize and electrify an entire landscape particularly interest me.  A few weeks ago, I did write about these trees, and post pictures of them from the grower. But today was the day I would finally lay eyes on them. 

The pictures did not really prepare me for what came off that semi-truck.  I was star struck.  They are very large caliper trees, whose years and years of training have produced an entirely unique and compelling living sculpture.  The intersection of nature and man can be a disaster, but in this case-breathtaking. 

Of great concern to me-the travel.  Thousands of miles these trees were trucked- under refrigeration.  Spring weather can be unpredictable-a warm journey across the country could cook the emerging foliage. A truck ride is not the smoothest-those of you who travel in trucks regularly know from whence I speak.  My eyes were on the rootballs before I even looked at the plants.  A broken rootball will kill a tree.  These rootballs were solid as a rock; the balling and burlapping the work of a consummate grower.  I breathed a big sigh of relief.

Plan A was to ship the trees via the rail as far as Chicago, and truck the last leg.  This plan depended on the grower being able to dig the trees well in advance of any leafing out. Fields too wet from spring rain prevented them from digging the trees early-we had no choice but to go to plan B-a truck coming across the country, carrying trees in the process of throwing leaves.  There is worry attached to this plan. A long trucking siege challenges and wears away at trees already stressed from the process of digging, balling, and burlapping.  Nursery people understand how much the trucking cost influences the price of a tree.  Unless you are buying trees and shrubs grown next door to a nursery, a chunk of the eventual price is very much influenced by the cost of transport. I know of no grower in this country growing espaliers of this caliber, so I shut up, and I  paid the freight.   

Seven of the trees are katsuras-Cercidiphyllum Japonicum, for those of you who want to know precisely what tree to which I am referring.   A katsura does not have showy blooms-I would describe it as an unusual tree, very architectural in form.  The leaves sprout red, grow large, and somewhat heart shaped, and mature with a decidedly blue cast. Mature trees are densely foliated, and sculptural.  In this group, I would put the beeches, the dawn redwoods, the weeping Alaskan cedars, the lindens-I am talking green sculpture when I talk katsuras.  

These katsuras have been grown and pruned with strong and precisely spaced lateral branches.  What does this mean?  In leaf, each tree will provide a green wall every bit of 10 feet tall and ten feet wide that takes up not 24 inches of width, in ground.  A living wall of green of astonishing size and very modest footprint-amazing.   If beautiful plants have the ability to astonish you, feel free. 

How these leaves survived a a week in a black, cold, and irregularly vibrating box-most plants have a huge will to survive.  This instinct served these trees well.  The katsura group of 7 weathered the storm like troupers.  The linden group of 7 are just budded-they had a much easier trip.  In my landscape practice, I try very hard to do no harm, to not impose.  How nature works is a miraculous event that needs little in the way of suggestions from me. 14 trees of astonishing provenance came my way today.  In short, thrilling.    

We soaked these trees immediately after delivery, but they had in fact been well prepared for their trip.  I sat on 6 randomly selected rootballs today-I could feel the cold, and the damp.  The rainy weather and cloudy skies the past few days-a better than good re-entry.  I made it my business to go out to see them 4 times today; every gardener understands what it is to be responsible .    


Here is a picture of my group of fourteen espaliers-are they not incredible? Barely leafing, like a crowd of teenagers, I see so much ahead for them.  Some time ago I wrote an essay about the provenance of espaliered trees-Palmette Legendre-should you have an interest.  I have a big interest in outstanding plants-this drives just about everything I design.  These espaliered trees-my only hope for them is that they have thoughtful gardeners in their future.

Green Walls

securedownload[2]I have seen plenty of walls in my career that have taken my breath away; surely there are countless and untold thousands of other beautiful walls I might not ever see.  I cut an article out about the stone wall at the Picasso Museum in Antibes many years ago-I am still crazy about it.  Janet has been there many times; her entire expression changed, just talking to me about it.  But no stone, concrete or brick wall could ever compare, in my mind, to a green wall.  This nursery row of espaliered katsuras is just about the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on.  I could keep on looking at this, as long as I was able to keep on gardening.

July21 010Janet has some gorgeous walls of her own-green, and otherwise. This old carpinus so beautifully shaped and trimmed is a lot of things.  Green punctuation. Green sculpture. Some days it reads to my eye as a brief green wall.  Were you ever able to see the giant glass window behind this wall, from which a beautiful shade garden can be viewed, you would understand the part played by this carpinus.  It makes for enclosure, solitude, privacy.   DSC_0006The bricked south side of my house encloses my interior space, but it functions in my garden like a wall.  That wall radiates heat to my roses and Japanese anemones.  The corresponding green wall to the north-Thuja “Nigra”-a dense arborvitae with a uniformly vertical habit.  It corresponds in heft and height to the wall of my house.  It creates one of the four edges of the composition of this garden space.   Not incidentally, it shields me from a view of the two story house next door. My private garden-just what I want, when I get home.

July21 042Green walls do not only screen untoward views.  They provide living enclosure to  private garden spaces.  This classical bust, positioned to peer through a green wall is quietly and beautifully wreathed, framed,  in green.  

Aug 17a 016Not all green walls need be so formal and planar.  Irregularly and thickly placed evergreens can enclose a garden space in a more natural way than a flat wall. Though I am delighted to see or read about the great European gardens, designing in the round is a luxury.  I have a small space upon which to garden, as do most clients I have.  My clients with properties 8 acres or better-not so many.  Green walls are most definitely a part of my design vocabulary. I have no problem planting small plants in anticipation of a green wall;  plants grow.   

Ilitch0605 (2)Only once have I had the occasion to plant carpinus of this size.  Their planting and care consumed me for three years, until they established properly.  Behind them, another wall of spruce.  Behind and beyond those spruce, properties with no stewards.  That view, once it disappeared, never intruded again on my clients delight in their garden. My arborvitae were seven feet tall when I planted them-I waited, and was rewarded with a beautiful tall wall-faster than I thought.

securedownload[5]Espaliers trained from London Plane trees-this is a very big gesture. When the day comes that all those favoring big gestures in the landscape need to line up and congregate, I will get up and go.  This swooping green wall is defined by trees whose trunks have calipers suggesting considerable age-the green has yet to grow in. 

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Patience by no means is one of my strong points.  Unless there is a garden at issue.  I have infinite patience for the growing of the green-as do most gardeners.  Green walls?  Should you have a place for one, or several-spring is coming.

Parthenocissus Tricuspidata

Oct 18a 007I have never forgotten my ninth grade science teacher, Dr. Watson.  He concluded every lecture or discussion with the statement, “And that is the beauty of science”.  Though at the time I thought he was a crackpot, I now know he was absolutely right. Today I am thinking about Parthenocissus Tricuspidata; Boston Ivy is an ordinary plant with a fancy scientific name whose primary claim to fame is its ability to grip to and cover walls with dense sheets of leaves.  Why today?  The fall color of Boston Ivy is one of nature’s most spectacularly glowing moments, ranking right up there with the aurora borealis.  

Oct 19aaa 028One wall of the building next door to me sits right on my property line; that would be just about two thousand square feet of beige concrete block.  Needless to say, I was not too crazy about the look.  Five Boston Ivy plants have just about transformed that wall in four years time; today it is looking exceptionally good.  The science behind all this color-the formation of the abcission layer.  Don’t black out; I’m talking about the beauty of science here.  As soon as the nights get long enough in the fall, the cells that connect the leaves to the stems begin to rapidly divide-but they do not expand. This produces a brittle callus, which slows, and finally prevents the flow of nutrients from the stem to the leaves.  The plant is going dormant, and putting any expenditure of energy on hold.  This is a survival mechanism, the instinct to preserve life, and the beauty of science.  

Oct 18a 005At the same time, the leaves slow down and eventually quit producing chlorophyll-that chemical that makes leaves green.  If chlorophyll is not constantly manufactured in a leaf, the leaf will fade in sunlight. Chlorophyll masks the other pigments existing in leaves; the yellows, oranges and reds that were there all along are revealed when the production of chlorophyll ceases.  

Oct 19aaa 020Though day length triggers this process, the temperatures, the moisture in the soil, and sunlight influence the overall show.  A dry growing season can encourage leaves to drop early before they reveal any color.  High winds can sever the dry corky abscission layer with the same result. At any rate, the variation and intensity of color on this wall is different every year given weather conditions.  I can see that light, water, wind, sun and overnight temperatures affect the leaves on wall at different rates. 

Oct 19aaa 031It is easy to see the chlorophyll fading at different rates in different leaves-the color variation within each individual leaf is beautiful. 

Oct 18 003Anthocyanins are responsible for the red and purple pigments in leaves.  They are manufactured from sugars that are trapped in the leaf.  Oddly enough, these pigments are not present in leaves during the growing season. The role of these pigments is not so well understood.  If you are interested in reading more about it, The United States National Arboretum has an excellent article on line about the science of color in autumn leaves.

Oct 19aaa 003Metasequoia Glyptostroboides-I wish this were my name.  The Dawn Redwood is an ancient evergreen tree with a twist; it drops its needles in the fall, after turning this glorious peachy orange.  This deciduous evergreen is an anomaly amongst evergreens, which ordinarily hold their foliage all winter. 

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The brilliant colors of fall leaves holds but a very short time.  These pigments break down when exposed to light, or heavy frost.  The brown color you see in these leaves is a result of the only pigment left-the tannins. The story of parthenocissus is not only about the beauty of science. It is just as much the story of the miracle that is nature.