As Susan Cohan, a very talented and skilled American landscape designer would say, a great landscape design is about making a space work. It works for the client. It works for the plants selected. And it solves problems. No where is that more evident than designing for a very small space. A very small property means every square inch needs to work. This very small front yard needed a decently sized driveway, and a graceful way to get to the front door from both the sidewalk, and the drive. It needed to ground a house that was very tall. It needed to provide a place to watch young children playing on the drive. It needed to provide ongoing visual interest – every bit of which was exposed to the street. It needed to accommodate a client’s interest in a fountain in the front yard. I thought there needed to be a single strong shape which would organize every other element in the landscape. An ellipse seemed a natural choice. The shape of the front yard was a very shallow rectangle. An ellipse would make the most of that natural shape in a more interesting way. An elliptical shape that touched the north side of the driveway, and reached across to the south side would provide a means to reach the front door. It would also permit a way to walk the garden that had no beginning and no end. From the driveway, one ring of the ellipse would be a gravel path that would lead to the front door. That path would also encourage walking through the space. The gravel ellipse was wide enough to accommodate a bench, wherever the client might want one. An interior ellipse of grass would make it possible to view the garden, and the fountains from a number of different vantage points. The fountain Buck built was actually a pair of fountains. Each was fabricated as a half-ellipse. Anyone approaching the front door would walk through the fountains. Anyone coming to the front door from the driveway could follow the gravel path, or take the fountain view route. Rows of boxwood and yews matching the curve of the ellipse would give the garden some winter interest. As for the perennial garden, there are but a few plants. The inner ring is a collection of peonies, faced down with alchemilla mollis. Once the peonies mature, they will form a lustrous large leaved interior hedge taller than the boxwood. The fountains are the center of interest to the design, and they are front and center. We did eventually move them back off of the sidewalk a bit, just so the space would breathe better. The interior garden would mature at the same height as the fountains. This height was a direct response to the height of the house. I planted yews in the ellipse closest to the house-who would want to block the views from inside out with anything taller? Eventually we would plant a DeGroot Spire arborvitae on either side of the from facade of the house. The lower step to the front door needed to describe that ellipse that governed the shape every other landscape element. Scott Albaugh from Albaugh Masonry did a great job of this. In a very small space, the details matter so much. Our shapes were by no means perfect. But they were accurate enough to be convincing. At this stage in the installation, the ellipses read in a graphically strong way. Once the landscape was planted, that shape became much more subtle. The day a landscape is installed is just that-the first day. Given some time for the plants to mature, that ellipse describing the horizontal ground plane will be softened by the height and the sprawl of the plants. This design looks different from different vantage points. Changing the visual channel is easy; there is a path. Any guest getting out of the car in the driveway could find their way to the front door. They might take the long way-or the short way, in bad weather. This design is intended to make the garden accessible and friendly to people. Though just about every idea can be seen from the drive or the street, the elliptical path invites a stroll through. What can readily be seen now will not always be the case. The outer ring of this garden will mature at a height of 4 to 5 feet. Roses, shasta daisies, Russian sage, Little Lime hydrangeas-the height of these plants will provide a little mystery and privacy to the inner ellipse. The border on the sidewalk-moss phlox and lamb’s ear. I will be very interested to see this garden when it has a few more years on it. Hopefully it will be a small space that has something interesting going on.
Whenever Buck does a CAD drawing for a project, or an object, he includes a drawing of Man 01. For those of you who do not do design drawings on a computer, CAD stands for computer assisted design. This line drawing of a man who is 6′ tall is stored in his computer as a “block”. Buck has thousands of blocks stored in his computer. Those blocks are stored drawings of shapes and forms he uses over and over again. Pasting a block into a drawing means he does not have to draw that portion from scratch. An entirely new shape will require a drawing from start to finish. A complicated design for an object to be made can take many hours to draw.
I have watched him translate an idea into a precisely rendered drawing. Who knows how long ago it was that he learned the language of this two-dimensional design program. It must be a long time, as his fingers fly over the keyboard of his computer faster than my eyes can follow. I see lines drawn to precise lengths that connect to other lines, which finally, and exactly, describe a form. Down to the last 1/64th of an inch. Given a specific engineering inquiry, he can design to 1000th of an inch. This level of precision isn’t an issue for you and I. What purpose does the man01 block serve? This 6′ tall idea of the height and volume occupied by a man is size that is easy to recognize. 6′ tall isn’t short, but it isn’t tall, either. Man01 is a average size guy. When man01 is standing next to a planter box we are thinking of building, I have more than the dimensions of that box. I have a size and height that is familiar to me. I can compare the size of the man, to the size of the proposed box.
Anything that Buck makes at Branch, requires a drawing. He has the drawings for our stock products stored in his computer. The company that laser cuts our steel, or the company that rolls our steel in multiple dimensions, require those drawings to program their computers to cut or roll to our exact specifications. Building an object successfully that involves a number of different people and operations doesn’t happen via a breakfast meeting or a conference call. What is drawn on the page is an exact template for what will be built.
Buck makes those drawings with the help of a computer program programmed to precisely, and mathematically describe a form. He drives the bus. He tells the computer what he wants to see. The many years he spent as an architect required a working knowledge of how to translate a design into a drawing. Not just any drawing. A drawing that would spell out to a contractor exactly how to build a house, a stadium, a heating system, a plumbing plan, or a fruit cellar. A bell tower, or a topiary form, or a bench. But rest assured, a mathematically precise rendering of an idea of an object does in no way indicate that an object will be beautiful.
Man01 is a gesture in a beautiful direction. The proportion of a planter box for the garden is a key element of its design. How a person would relate to the dimension and proportion of that box, whether standing or sitting, will influence how a gardener eventually views, and reviews, that form. Every person has an idea all their own about what is beautiful and of interest. Each person likewise has an idea of what doesn’t move them. This makes garden ornament very difficult to design. One way we broaden our appeal is by offering different sizes. Comparing a set of possible sizes to the mano1 block helps us to decide what to build and what not to build. The computer is a tool that helps with the decision making process.
Man01 is a symbol on Buck’s drawings for scale and proportion. Woman01 is a scale I sometimes ask for from Buck. 5.5 feet. But no matter the gender, human scale is an element that should inform landscape design. A good feeling for the scale and proportion of a property, the plants, and the people can produce visually interesting relationships.
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.
An old client bought a new house. The landscape out front was not so swell-I am sure you can see an overgrown and poorly tended collection of plants that have no relationship to each other. A great landscape needs to respect, enhance, and challenge the space and the architecture. Not to mention the need for an expression that is interesting, and polished. This home was built in the 1920′s. Who knows what landscape might have been planted after the house was finished. I felt really certain that the current landscape was cursory, if not left over, and not so much oriented around the architecture. This is not an unusual. Not everyone is so interested in the landscape, much less good landscape design.
My client, however, was very interested in landscape design. She wanted her new home to have a new landscape. A fresh design. A design that she would delightedly call her own. Delight is a state most everyone can relate to. Landscape delight revolves around a few issues. A home is the largest feature on any plot of ground. The shape, the size, the height, and the style of that architecture should inform the attending landscape. A delightful landscape looks like it belongs to the house and property upon which it is planted. A good landscape resonates with a house and property. That house informing the design does not mean reproducing the landscape design of that period. It only means that any large structure that sits on a property needs to be grounded in a thoughtful and beautiful landscape design, properly proportioned. A good landscape has an idea about house and ground that is delightfully framed and executed. On my first visit, I so loved the house, and all of its features.
My first installation visit to this property was about eliminating her feeble collection of plants in front, and creating some basic green structure. The cost of implementing this part of the plan would depend in large part on the size of the plants. Great design is not one bit related to the cost of an installation. We can buy and install plants of many different sizes. The design called for green structure that came away from the house, and enclosed the sidewalk to the driveway in a configuration that made visual sense. In other words, a bed of some size. She wanted to make the biggest impact she could within the confines of her budget.
Great landscape design may be about a moment imagined for the future. Small plants cost less. Big plants cost a lot. Most of the boxwood on this project are 12″ to 15″ tall. We paired lots of those little boxwood with four boxwood of considerable size. Contrast is a very powerful design element. In this case, the contrast in size made the entire installation look more important visually.
The 15″ Green Gem boxwood are really small. Small enough that they are grown in pots. Small works great, when they are contrasted with companion plants of greater size. 36 inch round Green Gem boxwood spheres are rare, indeed. Splashy. These four big bits would make lots of the smaller bits.
This is the first part of the plan to be installed. Designing with staging in mind involves 2 things. The part has to look finished on its own-not piecemeal. The “part one” also has to be ready and friendly to the next phase, whenever that phase comes along.
The installation of this boxwood parterre would look fairly routine, but for the larger balls on the four corners. The four boxwood of scale attract attention. Behind the boxwood, several rows of Little Lime hydrangeas.
This picture explains the visual logic of the location of the parterre. That space could be handled in lots of interesting ways. It could be lawn, or ground cover, or more boxwood, or a combination of all the aforesaid, or gravel, or? For now, part I is holding its own.