The End Of An Era

People make changes in their landscapes for lots of reasons.  For some, it may be the end of the trampoline era.  Kids need space to play, and entertain friends.  This need can be the organizing metaphor of a landscape.  I have lots of clients with mini-soccer fields, trampolines, play sets, tree houses, picnic tables, basketball hoops, bike racks, mud rooms, shed sized doll houses, badminton nets, ice rinks-you get the idea.  This client had just accompanied her youngest child to her college orientation.  It was time for a change in the landscape.  She thought a firepit would be a good substitute feature for the trampoline-that part was easy to visualize.   

The rear yard was very shallow and long, and dominated by grass.  Even the bed of euonymus under this aging Japanese maple had a big flat spot in its curve out into the yard. She did not want to intrude on any flat grassy space.  This is child friendly.  Old arborvitae hedges screened most of the rear lot line.  Every landscape move was immediately apparent-from one end to the other. 

Small perennial borders were planted on top of a series of dry stack stone walls, laid at the grade of a big bluestone terrace.  This places the shasta daisies out of range of the soccer ball, and rightly so.  Lawn ran right up to those walls. A large upper level bluestone terrace set at the grade of the floor of the house provided a place to have guests, and large table, and a built in barbeque.  On this terrace,  a small fountain and fountain pool, set on top of the bluestone.  

The fountain dominated a fairly large space on the terrace, and proved difficult to integrate into a seating area.  A group seated here would be looking into the pedestal of a fountain.  After a resolution of the trampoline issue, where would the fountain look best? This space would be great for a couch, coffee table and chairs-for adult events.  An adult experience of the garden and landscape meant the fountain would need a new home. 

Directly opposite the terrace, a small hedge of boxwood faced down some large and open growing white pines belonging to a neighbor.  Though the stairs did not come off the terrace centered on this space, that was the least of the troubles.  The problem here-a view to no where.  A way too good of a view to a neighboring house.

We planted 11 12 foot thuja nigra-these are a match for the existing arborvitaes.  This screened the neighbor’s house from view.  These evergreens were planted in a shallow arc-what need would there be to continue the long straight line of cedars down the lot line?  The idea here-create a space, shelter,  for that fountain.   

The existing boxwood were dug out, and replanted in front of the arbs.  This gives a very crisp green edge to the cedars.  The fountain and its basin were relocated into the grass.  The gap between the first arb on the arc, and the first arb on the lot line-we filled that with an existing hydrangea.  This landscape is starting to look much more interesting. The fountain looks much stronger, given this placement. 

The dry stack stone wall whose function for many years was to keep the kids, dogs, and footballs out of the upper level perennial garden and terrace-we cut curving beds in front of them.  My idea was to link the upper level terrace with the lower level landscape.  This meant I needed to move the very tall, and visually blocking, perennials on the top level, to the ground plane.  This will give my client much more space for her herbs on the top level.  And an integrating view of the lower level landscape.  A clear view to the lower landscape, softened by roses, phlox, coneflower and daylilies would make the lower landscape part of the experience of entertaining on the terrace.

Moving perennials-right now is the perfect time.  The nights are cool, the rains are regular.  We did move some roses-with giant rootballs. Four of us handled the digging, lifting, and resetting of each rose. This will work, or it won’t. If it doesn’t, a new rose is easy to plant.  The other perennials will move easily.  This is the right time.    

I am sorry for the state of the grass-we have had so much rain.  Even though we put down plywood to travel across the lawn, it has taken a terrible beating.  It will be back thriving within a week or so.  This is an entirely different landscape look.  The lawn has become a generously curving path from one part of the yard to another.  There are distinctly different spaces; rooms, if you will.  The curving beds are a great contrast to the rectilinear overall space.  

This picture is not the best, but it should be clear that the bluestone terrace has become a big part of the greater landscape. 

As for the trampoline-it is gone.  In its place, a firepit surrounded by a decomposed granite terrace.  There are some very good looking curves going on here.  Any landscape can be transformed with a few fresh ideas.  These fresh ideas-straight from my client.  Her request?   A new era, please.

Bare Bones


This landscape under renovation is at an even more bare bones stage than it was when I posted about it early in the week.  Over the past few days, all of the boxwood surrounding the walk got transplanted to the east and west property lines.  All you see left are large and irregularly growing patches of sedum.  Sedum does a decent job as a groundcover in full sun, but a plant in this prominent a spot needs to be better than decent.  It needs to be stellar.  Few very short groundcovers for sun are better than lawn.  No living material better describes the sculpture that is a large piece of ground or land.  How little could I live with in a landscape?  Grass-whether it be mowed or left rough, and some trees.     

In addition, a very large bed to the east had been mounded quite high with soil.  A pink horsechestnut had been planted very high; the bed surrounding it had been built up to the grade established by the crown of the tree.  Most of the tree was dead-the living part derelict.  The grade would need to be lowered.  Cleaning out and regrading takes a lot of time and hard work, but it is the foundation upon which everything to come is built. The shape and grade of the beds and lawn play as important a part in the design process as the plant material.  

I posted this picture of the house from last October several days ago; there were 15 trees in the front yard.  9 Japanese maples, 1 amelanchier, 2 red horsechestnuts, 1 sugar maple, and 2 red maples.  Of the 15, 7 were in an advanced state of decline; I doubt they would have survived but another year or two.  Lots of landscape asks for lots of maintenance; the two go hand in hand.   

I took this picture yesterday; all of the boxwood has been moved to other spots in the yard.  12 that were heavily damaged by leaf miner and who knows what else were pitched.  The ground was regraded to match the grade of the sidewalk and the paver landing at the street. 

I do have a thing about how a driveway is landscaped.  Everyone drives up and down their drive every day. This arrangement is particularly jarring.  On the left, lawn, boxwood, a very handsome hemlock, and some hollies.  On the right side, a field of ornamental grass intersected with one lone serviceberry, and a blob of hydrangeas.   

kkTransplanting boxwood to line the drive reveals a particularly handsome and well kept yew hedge which happens to belong to the neighbor.  This arrangement which respects that hedge makes it seem as though the yews belong to this property.  Borrowing this view helps to visually set the drive within the landscape more gracefully. 

This picture says much about the relationship of the lawn to the landscape beds.  The small piece of lawn that runs from the sidewalk to the street is in stark contrast to the giant lawn bed on the far side.  Conversely, the landscape bed in the foreground dwarfs the bed on the other side of the walk.  This speaks to visual balance.  I like asymmetrical compositions, as long as they are balanced.  Sometimes it is a good idea not to press a hard boundary too hard. This little snippet of grass next to the curb is all but overpowered by all of the pavers. 

So here we are, on the verge of something new-always a daunting proposition.  A landscape renovation of this depth is also a luxury; my client decided to just about start from scratch.  Landscapes ordinarily need renovation.  Plants fail to thrive or die.  A storm can take a giant tree down.  A small area may need to be reworked.  But this is a large scale renovation.  The best of what it has going for it at this moment-a very beautiul house 

This is a very important and exciting moment-there is a spirited conversation going on.

Renovating A Landscape

In my last essay, I spoke to the importance of determining what you need from your landscape.  This informs a new landscape, a landscape project, or a landscape renovation.  This client has been a client a good many years.  The boxwood parterre planted in the center of a bluestone terrace began life as plants just 15 inches tall.  A central fountain pool featured a small sculpture.  The landscape has changed a lot over the past 20 years.  Some years ago, the stone walls and planters at the far end of the terrace were installed based on a visit my client made to South America.  The fountain sculpture was replaced some years later by a very fine 19th century American cast iron fountain.  There were changes afoot.  All during this time, the boxwood was growing.    

At a certain point, this boxwood parterre had grown so large that the roses began to struggle.  As I have said before, a landscape never comes to maturity and stands pat.  Equality, stasis in the garden-not likely.  The strength of every element ebbs and flows-given the moment and circumstance.  That fluid community that loosely describes a landscape involves a great number of relationships that are always changing.  This part thrives and grows, at the expense of some other part.  A giant tree can pass away, leaving an entire garden community below wringing its hands.         

This beautiful 19th century American cast iron fountain was perfect for this landscape, but much overscaled, and much too important for the existing pool.  My client has a great eye, and thinks things through thoroughly.    Her strength vis a vis the landscape is an ability to plan for the future-one great move at a time.  Last summer, she let me know that the boxwood parterres, grown way out of bounds, had greatly diminished her available terrace space. She was ready to make a change.  Elements in a landscape have a lifespan.   

I think I am a good designer, but I would be telling you a tale if I were to say I designed on my own.  My clients say things, point out this or that-they enable me to design in a meaningful way.  They look at and live with that garden every day.  A designer whose pet look is evident in every project-in my mind, a failure.  Great design is about the results of a relationship, a conversation. My client knew better than I that the boxwood parterre had peaked-what would I suggest?

It was agreed that a larger fountain pool would better do justice to her lovely fountain.  I did manage to persuade her that a properly porportioned surround for her beautiful American fountain should be steel, and finished with degraded paint.  The fountain, and pool surround-we could suggest visually that both elements came together.  Some of the details of that surround we engineered in wood, and sent out to a skilled machinist to make. The steel pool surround weighs just about one ton.     

The paint finish was another story.   I primed the steel.  I sanded the primer off irregularly. I was interested in obtaining a reasonable reproduction of old paint.   

The final paint surface in the studio looked uniformly cream colored, butI knew the winter weather would work its magic. 

The boxwood parterre so long a fixture of this landscape is gone.  The terrace has that spacious feeling back again.  The fountain pool was poured 18 inches below grade; that portion of the pool, and the concrete pedestal for the fountain will be coated with black pool paint.  This will make the water surface reflective.  There is a plan for water lilies in the pool.  One the pots are put out and planted, and the furniture in place, the renovation will be complete.

The fountain surround will get a final paint finish emphasizing the soft grey and cream color you see here on the bowl.       

The last detail-the dark frame you see in the above picture.  A large terrace, or even a driveway, can benefit visually from a change in materials that breaks up the space in an interesting way.  A detail like this also serves to separate the brand new stone surface next to the fountain pool from the original stone.  This deters the eye from making comparisons.  In this regard I need not have worried; Albaugh Masonry did a superb job of making what was new look very much like the original. After I fill this frame with dirt, I am thinking of planting a very low growing plant that would tolerate foot traffic-perhaps Isotoma Fluvialis.  Other choices could be just as good looking.  This moment in a project is such fun.

More On The Warm-Up

Forty years after the fact, some of the landscape attending this fabulous home designed by Irv Tobocman is perilously overgrown.  Every gardener knows this-no garden, no landscape pays any mind to the pause button. Everything in the landscape is either moving forward, or declining.  A lower level terrace opens up a garden below grade-the natural slope of the property is retained by yet another brick wall. The brick wall is barely visible any more.  Most of the material here-I relocated.      I restored the view of the ground plane, and a view of the brick retaining wall. The Limelight hydrangeas, and the columnar gingko trees were planted above the wall-on the street side.  This brick wall is set invisibly into a natural slope; the view out the lower level of the house-beautiful. 

The gingkos trees underplanted with Limelight hydrangeas make for a substantial statement from the street.  The brick and gravel garden outside the lower level of the house-a completely private garden.   

A mini dog run for a mini dog named Pookie, and two mature crabapples are viewed prominently from the grilling terrace.  This space needed some tending to.  Areas like this I call a can opener.  Everyone has owned a can opener that works poorly-but for some reason, it doesn’t get replaced until it is about to fall apart.  Only then you realize what an aggravation it was to wrestle with, and how much better it is to have a tool that works.  The landscape here-not working so well.  Making this space look better- a breeze.  

Boxwood would enclose and remove most of the the dog run from view.  A thicket of hosta sieboldiana elegans will completely carpet the ground below the crabapples-this update aims for lush. 

The small space between the pool deck and the tall brick wall asks for a green and year round softening.  I am looking at an embarrassment of riches in hard surfaces here.  Modern can mean austere-but I like my austere a little more elegant than this.  My clients have no need to view the pool filtration pipes.  The intersection of concrete aggregate pool deck and brick wall will benefit from something living. 

I stuffed that small space with boxwood, and planted Boston Ivy on the wall.  It will make for a vibrantly green enclosure for the pool in no time. Pools generally have giant paved spaces around them-for obvious reasons.  But this does not mean they have to be cold.    

This bare gravelly space at the base of a U-shaped arrangement of very tall brick walls-stony, barky-neglected.  Though not in immediate view from the pool terrace, the look on the other side of the wall is not a good one.  An out of sight-out of mind spot.       

I planted Limelight hydrangeas here-with the idea that they would form a tall groundcover. Come summer, the flower heads will pop up above this pool wall, and bloom. The wall was necessary; it enabled a flat space large enough to build a pool.  The hydrangeas will obscure the indented portion of the wall from view, and strengthen the view of the flat portion of the wall.  

The far end of the pool deck is home to a sternly utilitarian black iron fence.  This row of hydrangeas will mitigate that jail-like look, and provide the landscape from the street with its third planting of hydrangeas.  The large block, the small block, and the single row will visually describe this large property from one end the other from the outside.  On the inside, they punctuate and soften all the hard surfaces.     

By next summer, there will be much more of a landscape to enjoy.