The Roundabout

new-house.jpgBig houses on very small properties-a given, in urban areas.  A very small property that is hosting a very large house presents a special set of design considerations.  The entire space is  instantly visible.  This makes it very difficult to create a sense of mystery, or discovery.  There are few opportunities to create “rooms”, each with their own distinct atmosphere.  There is a single view, and few options to generate other views.  It is easy for a large structure placed in a small space to look uneasy or unsettled.  Big buildings loom over small spaces.  They block the light.  They are the dominant landscape feature with a capital L.

concrete-aggregate-driveway.jpgThis particular property is very narrow.  Critical to a successful landscape design is an assessment of how the house sits relative to the grade.  This house is set very high, given that the client wanted window wells that would add light to the basement level rooms.  This meant that a retaining wall and curb was necessary to create a driveway which is level.    A driveway would necessarily be a big feature of this landscape.  There is no room to make it a secondary feature.  Given the stone on the house, I designed a concrete aggregate driveway with a stone curb.  Why so much fuss over a utilitarian feature?  When the driveway occupies a big part of the front yard landscape, that driveway needs to be functional and beautiful.


landscape-design.jpgI like a front walk which begins at the sidewalk, and ends at the front door.  That route may be direct, or meandering.  It is also nice to have a walk from the driveway to the front door.  This is a matter of convenience.  The idea of pair of walkways in this small space seemed overpowering.  I was thinking about a landscape which would be based on an ellipse.  Much like a roundabout that enables traffic to flow, without stopping and starting.  Though I am nervous approaching a roundabout, I find the process goes smoothly once I am in it.  A gravel ellipse would touch the concrete aggregate drive such that a path from the drive to the front door would be visually unobtrusive.


The gravel ellipse would be bordered on each side by garden.  This would help to keep the gravel surface out of view from the street.  The elliptical ring with the blue handled  flat shovel pictured above would have a gravel surface.  The innermost ring would be grass.


The property had been overrun with trucks over the course of the construction of the house.  Given that the soil had been compacted to an extreme, we dug into it with pick axes and shovels.  We would eventually work some compost into the soil, but I subscribe to the idea that plants will thrive if they like the existing planting conditions.

elliptical-fountains.jpgA pair of half elliptical fountains would be installed in the center of the garden. As much sculpture as fountain, they provide a focal point for the landscape. They could be planted with water plants, or not.



The big gestures are strongly horizontal, in contrast to the strong vertical lines of the house.  Once the arcs of Hicks yews adjacent to the house have a chance to settle down and grow in, they will be maintained at a height below the ground floor windows. The gravel path from the drive to the front door is already invisible from the street. The yew, boxwood, and a pair of DeGroot Spires arborvitae will provide evergreen interest over the winter months.

lawn.jpgThe garden adjacent to the lawn features plants that grow three feet tall, or less.  This garden will be dominated by peonies.  Beautiful in bloom, the make compact and glossy leaved shrubs that look good all summer.  The plants are spaced such to permit the additional of taller growing annual plants.

landscape-design.jpgThere is a mix of plants. The outside garden will be taller, once it grows in.  The Little Lime hydrangeas grow 4-5 feet tall, as will the roses. Russian sage and shasta daisies are bordered in the interior by stachys hummelo and Visions in Red astilbe.    This garden will provide a sense of privacy and intimacy for the inner fountain garden.  Adjacent to the sidewalk, a buffer of lamb’s ears and moss phlox. On the lot line, a single Vanderwolf’s flexible pine, a few magnolia stellata, and a grouping of fothergilla gardenii.  A few lilacs, a favorite of the client, were placed where they would have room to grown.  The lilacs are faced down with lespedeza.   Euonymus “Moonlight” is planted behind the yews.  A stand of “Goldner’s Bouquet” daylilies were planted on the south side of the house.

elliptical-fountains.jpgBordering the fountains, a frame of sedum John Creech will help to keep the lawn mower at bay.  Interestingly enough, it is remarkably tolerant of the overspray from the fountains.  This landscape has only one organizing idea.  But rather than a beginning and an end, there is a roundabout.

schematic-=landscape-plan.jpgA schematic landscape plan is a simple series of shapes that indicate what goes where, and how one travels from one place to another.  If the landscape plan works well on a structural level, then the additional of the plants will bring a sculpture to life that is pleasing to the eye.

The Perennial Border

Just the words perennial border are enough to evoke visions of classical English gardens-breathtaking in width, and astonishing in length.  Lavish.  Believe me, if I could, I would have one, or five or twenty perennial borders each the size of a landing strip.  Big enough to grow stately stands of every perennial I took a fancy to. There would be room for everything, from alchemilla to verbascum; I would winter giant tubs of Zantedeschia Aethiopica in number 6 loggia. I would grow peonies like crops. I would enlarge every and any border, on the slightest whim.  I would have acres in meadow studded with fruit trees, and a wildflower garden the size of a football field.  I would have a giant barn for tools, and a lunchroom that could comfortably seat the fifty gardeners I would need to have help me maintain it all.  But my reality is much more about small urban gardens; these perennial gardens ask for some solid dreaming attended by careful editing.  

This very small L-shaped garden will very much have the feeling of a large garden, as big percentage of the square footage of the yard is devoted to perennials.  The house has something of a feel of a cottage, so though the planting is regular, the plant varieties are placed in casually determined numbers.  Towards a good, but not fixed, beat. The house is a very beautiful blue grey color; my first editing step was to consider color.  The major tree in the yard-pinus flexilis “Vanderwolf’s”; the needles are distinctly blue.  An underplanting of hosta krossa regal is a contrast in texture with much the same color. A blue hybrid of Panicum Virgatum  will back up and loosen up the Carefree Beauty roses. The intersection of the bluestone walk is marked by a terrace, and a copper pergola blue with age.  The blues rule here. 

The west border is frosty in color; Jack Frost brunnera, Lamium white Nancy, Japanese painted ferns, white Japanese anemone; I threw in a few flax and Salvia May night in the sunniest and driest spots.  This border may not be 10 feet deep, but relative to the overall space, the borders are generously configured.

The star of the west border-a Bradford pear trained as a espalier.  It is an old plant, but the branches are not yet sturdy enough to maintain their shape without a form.  The posts will be stained the same color as the house. Providing privacy in the yard is the arborvitae “DeGroot’s Spire”.  The small and fine texture of the needles is appropriate for a small space.  Once they establish, I will prune off the spire part.  This arborvitae takes well to a geometric pruning. I would like to see them kept at 10 feet with a flat face-a green wall.    

The north walk off the drive is home to two generously wide perennial borders, enclosed by a tall hedge of Green Mountain boxwood.  These borders feature Salvia May Night, a dwarf monarda and geranium Rozelle; the remaining space is given to a mix of angelina, dianthus and thyme.  Wide and low, this border will feature the ground plane, and make the space look spacious.  On the far side of the drive, limelight hydrangeas and Venus dogwoods will make the garden entirely private from the neighboring house.

Perennial borders occupy a lot of space at maturity.  A new garden with tall perennials is guaranteed to look sparsely planted the first year, and stuffed the third year.  That big and wild look can warm up a small space like nothing else can.  I always find someplace to plant a few verbena bonariensis-so the big garden looks airy, and not heavy.     

When your John Cabot rose gets to this age, changes have to be made. I planted this rose 20 years ago; this perennial garden has changed dramatically over the years.  Some perennials faded-some thrive.  The trees have changed the pattern of sun and shade as they have aged.  Unlike a tree, a perennial garden changes dramatically over that length of time.  Given this volatility, I try to edit in favor of perennial plants with a propensity to be healthy; long season interest,  good habit, interesting foliage and reasonable maintenance, and reliable bloom count for a lot too.  There are good reasons not to plant plenty of perennials, should your space be really small.  That said, there will likely be room for those perennials that only pass the “I cannot live without it” muster; why do without them?