Up and Down



The installation of a landscape for a new house is a lengthy process, as it needs to be.  Though some disciplines cross over, there will be the excavators, the rough carpenters, the plumbers, the inspectors, the finish carpenters, the gutter people and the air conditioning techs, the kitchen designer, the pool and spa people, the painters, the stone masons-the list is long.  Coordinating a project of this size is a challenge.  There are bound to be things that don’t happen on time, or things that happen out of order.  The landscape is last of the outdoor work.  I have been on this project since last August, with a long hiatus born of relentless rain from mid-September through October.  Delays are the order of the day on a large project.


 But in December, after the walls and planter box were built, the stone installed on the front porch, the outside of the house finished, we were able to install the crushed granite drivecourt.  At least the front of the house would be somewhat presentable for the winter. Everone involved did a great job-it just took more time, more space, and was more messy than anyone anticipated.  

 The stone on the lower portion of the walls of the house were inspiration for the wing walls on either side of the drive, and a stone planter box on the lot line.  On the ground level, the drivecourt is surrounded by stone.  A drivecourt was necessity; no parking is permitted in the cul de sac, and the street parking is chopped up by a substantial number of driveways.  The idea was to make this utilitarian space as visually pleasing as possible.


A large stone planter box is home to 5 katsuras, which will be underplanted with boxwood in the spring.  This will provide evergreen screening on the ground plane from the downstairs windows of the neighboring house.  Some Himalayan white-barked birch will be planted in the spring to the left of the stone box.  A short hedge of arborvitae will be planted on the lot line to the right of the box.

The view from upstairs is equally as important.  The living areas upstairs will be as private as that narrow space between the lot line, and the corner of the garage allows.  As the espaliers grow, they will create a green wall that takes up relatively little width. This is an old neighborhood, where the homes are quite close together.  Addressing visual issues downstairs and upstairs is important. 

We were there on Friday, trying out some pots and furniture for the garden.  A pair of these concrete boxes with diamond panels and iron rings will flank the front step.  A small vintage English teak bench looks great on the porch.  Settling these details before early spring gives me hope we will finish the project well before the onset of summer.

We had installed the iron fencing and gates, and the pergolas a few weeks ago.  The winter weather has been so mild, we were unexpectedly able to get this part of the project finished. The property perimeter fencing was chosen especially for the privacy it provides.  The iron fence running from the property line to the house will insure good views into this part of the garden, and provide a safe outdoor space for a beloved dog. 

Upstairs, the second floor balcony terraces are done.  I can see that the  12  6″ caliper columnar red maples planted last September will provide great screening  from the house next door during the summer, at a time when privacy matters most. Evergreens provide great screening on the ground level.  They tend to be too narrow at the top to screen an upstairs view.  If they are large enough to screen a view 20 feet off the ground, the width of those trees on the ground floor is considerable.  Lacking the luxury of ground level space, these columnar trees will do a great job where they need to.  The Belgian wattle fencing will handle the job on the ground floor.  

The lakeside was a muddy mess for a long time, but we were finally able to get in there and grade, and set the major lawn panel and its crushed granite frame.  A pair of steel pergolas almost 40 feet long each were slated to be installed off each end of the house, and frame the lawn panel on the ground floor. 

 This picture was also taken in early December.  The major grading, the majority of the evergreen planting, and this lawn panel got done-I was pleased to have this much finished.  But this lakeside rear yard is still quite exposed to the neighboring homes on the cul de sac side.  The screening issues were complicated by the fact that nothing over 4′ tall could be planted in the space between the cul de sac curb and the house.  This restriction would enable everyone who lives on the street to still have a view of the lake.

Restrictions are an invitation for good solutions.  The pergola, outside the setback line, is 10 feet tall, and will never be any taller than 10 feet.  This means no view of the lake will ever be obstructed.  Both of the pergolas have a great look from upstairs.  Who wouldn’t  like to wake up to this view?   Once it is planted with climbing roses and clematis, there will be that much more to see from here, and some shade to sit in downstairs.

The pergola on the opposite side will be planted in a like matter.  Venus dogwoods will be plated to the outside of each of the pergola, in an effort to screen both neighboring houses from view.  

The views from the third floor cupola clearly reveal a foreground space dominated by the pergolas, the midground gardens yet to come, and the far view which is the lake. A widow’s walk, or deck enclosed with railings on the roof, is an Italianate architectural feature popular in American houses built near the sea in the 19th century.  This widow’s walk is a completely enclosed all weather room.

 The room is ringed with windows to take advantage of all of the views.  The opportunity for a bird’s eye view of the landscape and the lake in every sort of weather, and all of the seasons-very special indeed.

Both the house and the gardens show a lot of progress. It won’t be long now, to the finish.

The Sylvan Lake Effect

 Rob called me at home early this morning with a weather alert.  A spectacular hoarfrost had built up at his house overnight; in minutes I was on my way.  As a result, I have a much better understanding of why people so prize lake living.  I have had lots of clients with lake properties.  They are an amazingly homogeneous group.  Nothing in the landscape must obstruct even a fraction of the view.  Every element in the landscape must be subordinate to, and in celebration of that view.  Some lake communities have specific ordinances that restrict any obstruction of the view.  Rob has no lake front, but he does have a beautiful lake view.  Lake properties are highly prized and expensive.  Today reminds me why that is.  This morning, the fog hovering over the water and the frost on the lake front trees-spectacular.  I am also seeing why a lake environment demands a very specialized design discussion.   

The temperature at 7 am-1 degree. The pin oak in his front yard was clothed in spicules of ice.  I know this sounds creepy, but it was incredibly beautiful.  The bark of the tree was even colder than the air, as it was loosing heat like crazy.  The warmer wet air around those branches condensed on every surface.  A large and lacy coating of ice was a first time in person hoarfrost weather event for me.  

Even the chain link fence was coated in frost. Chain link fence ordinarily reads dark in a landscape, much like a window screen.  Even though most screens are bright galvanized metal, they appear dark, and permit a view through. The pattern of this fence is graphically rendered in white-visually graphic, and new.  How rare to see the dark and delicate branches of trees thickly rendered in white. 

The lake effect-I have a picture.  This hedge of carpinus tells the story.  Those trees open to the lake are covered with frost.  Those trees sheltered by the house have none.  Anyone who designs formally in long runs has lots of issues to consider.  Do the soil, light, or exposure conditions exist equally start to finish?  Maybe not.  The patience to grow hedges level with the horizon, the skill to cultivate them for a uniform effect-a job for a committed gardener.  The variation I see here-I have seen it in countless other forms.  This hedge-challenged by nature.  I would expect to see a different pattern of growth based on the level of exposure to the lake. 

These lilacs in Rob’s yard screen him from his lake front neighbor.  I would be hard pressed to decide if these lilacs in bloom are better looking than this winter rendition.  As much as I dislike the winter, these branches coated with frost were incredibly beautiful.  Beyond the beauty, the wind and weather that comes off a lake can be very tough on plants.    

This horizontal and wild thatch of stems on an ornamental tree-enchanting.  Identifying the tree would add nothing to the discussion.  What would add?  In my zone 4-5, the winter appearance of the landscape is equally as important as the summer.  Bare branches and ice have their day-as they did today.  If this tree belonged to me, on this day, I would be delighted.

The old willows on Sylvan Lake were much more astonishing than this photograph suggests.  I am sure the stub ends of these giant branches were created in a strong storm. The thin branches were so coated in frost, they just about described the meaning of vertical.  The larger Sylvan Lake view this morning-I understand what it means to have a long and wide view of a natural phenomenon.  The lake effect-substantial.  From my kitchen window, I have an excellent winter urban view of M-59. I have a pair of dogwoods planted just outside these windows for good reason.   

Everywhere and anywhere the sun struck the willows, the frost melted.  These upper branches are yellow, and yellowing up more and more as spring approaches.  The lower branches, frost laden. As much weather as I have been exposed to, a view like this was a first.  

Almost every day of all of the years that I have been a gardener, and a landscape designer, I see something new.  I regularly experience something I neither planned for or anticipated.  How great is this?