stone-walkway.jpgThis past fall I had a call from a great client from years ago. They bought a new house- recently built, and close to finished on the inside. The outside revealed a large piece of property  with dirt as far as the eye could see. The contractor on the house recommended a landscape architect-a landscape professional I happen to greatly admire.  My first visit to the site was during the installation of his complex and beautifully imagined walk from the driveway to the front door. A curved set of steps lead to a generously scaled landing, centered on the dining room window, and not the front door.  Had the walk been centered on the front door, the landscape would forever have looked off balance and lopsided. A bump out halfway to the front door would prove to be a perfect spot for a bench. The curved walkway falls within the center space, defined by the front porch and dining room window taken as a whole.  That walkway would be the dominant element of the front landscape.


stone-walk.jpgMy clients were a little uncertain about the complicated landscape that was additionally proposed.  I understand that uncertainty. Any landscape involves lots of time and commitment. They were concerned that the landscape proposed was too involved, meaning it would be in need of frequent and ongoing maintenance. I  understand this point of view. I reserve complicated gardens for clients who latch onto the idea of a complicated garden as if it were all they ever wanted from their life. Other clients, who love the landscape, may have kids and demanding jobs that drain time away from maintaining an intricate landscape.

096Consideration of the maintenance was a key part of the design for my own landscape at home.  I would make regular time to take care of my containers, and dead head a few roses. But I also wanted to relax in and enjoy my garden when I got home from work. These clients were of similar mind.  They both are busy working people, and they are raising a family. A very simple landscape that would look put together and elegant every season of the year would respect  the lives of my clients.  By way of contrast, a simple landscape would visually reinforce that stone walkway as the dominant element of the landscape.

Of great importance was the fact that the house was built on rather steeply sloping ground from side to side.  A stone retaining wall encloses that space, and isolates the remainder of the property from the front yard. The landscape would have a clearly defined space in which to be. As evident in the drawing in the first picture, the landscape beds are rectilinear and opposite in direction from the walk. The visual read is as though the landscape came first, and was overlaid by the walk.
Laying out all of the spaces in advance is the last step of a design. What is drawn on paper only rarely translates to the actual space perfectly. My drawings are not perfect, as I draw by hand.  I have also had more than a few surveys with inaccurate dimensions.  Trying the landscape on for size before you plant is a good idea. Once the plants are purchased, they may not be so easy to return.
099No decision was made immediately as to what would go on either side of the walk leading up to the porch.  There was no need.  Those spots could be handled in a number of different ways, each of which could be good.  I had a plan to suggest different pots for the porch, and move these urns to the side.  I would bring the new pots out, so they could try them on.

DSC_6022We did cover the new limestone walk with plywood and tarps. There was no reason to put put any more dirt on that walk than necessary. As we did this job fairly late in the fall, the temperatures were chilly, and we had had a lot of rain. We had a need for a considerable amount of soil to bring the grade up to the grade set by the walk. The pipes for the irrigation had already been set.  The irrigation contractor would finish the job just before we were ready to mulch the planting. We use ground hardwood bark fines, which deteriorates fairly quickly, and adds much needed compost to the soil.  The mulching will need to be done every year.

DSC_6023We did plant three Venus dogwoods-small trees.  The geometry of the ever green planting was strong enough from the start that larger trees really weren’t necessary.  I like planting smaller trees.  They take hold quickly and put on weight fast. The center rectangle would be grass.  As the grass would go right up to the trunk of the tree, it would have to be clipped by hand around the trunk.

DSC_6256A tree set in the lawn without a ring of mulch is a maintenance headache, but given that the rest of the landscape would take very little work to maintain, I splurged on the look.

DSC_6250My clients did decide on four Jackie boxes from Branch-2 rectangles, and two squares. The area between the box and the front wall was planted with white tulips, and will have annuals in the summer. The area underneath the window was planted with white variegated hosta.

DSC_6028The look coming up the walk-simple, but lush. The house has particularly beautiful architectural details.  The landscape will never obscure any of those.

beautiful-stonework.jpgThe area in front of the wall will be planted in the spring.  Either a low sun tolerant ground cover, or perennial-or mix of perennials.  A low wall is a challenge to work with.  While the base of it needs softening, a beautiful wall should be visible.  I have a few months to think that through.

LH winter 2014 (24)We did have time to squeeze in some winter pots. It is a little tough to see in the photograph, but the rectangular bvoxes sit on decomposed granite, for ease of maintenance.  I would not object however, to alyssum growing in the gravel.

DSC_6262Part 2 is set to come next year. But for now, the front of the house is entirely presentable.



Garden Designers Roundtable: Stone


Designing, planting and tending a landscape or garden is an avocation, a profession, a passion -and a nemesis of the most unpredictable and formidable sort.  The pure joy that a great garden has to give back has a substantial responsibility that comes along with it.  The landscape could be described as the responsibility for the health and happiness for a flock of living things. A lot of marbles have to be kept on the table-all at the same time.  Every plant that dies on my watch-I take it very personally.  Plants die routinely, and with astonishing regularity-in spite of knowledge and experience.


Some plants die from old age-every living thing has a lifespan.  Some things die from a particularly fierce winter, or relentless rain, or extraordinary heat.  Some things die from lack of water-of these deaths,  I am particularly ashamed.  Some things die from poor siting, or a a site whose ecology changes drastically-as in the loss of an old mature tree.  The living community that describes my garden is ephemeral-fleeting.  No tree, shrub, perennial, or garden experience comes with a lifetime guarantee.  Should you decide to garden, the disappointments are part and parcel of the experience.  Fortunately, a landscape has other elements that live longer.

Some elements in my landscape shrug off the water, the winter, the heat; the stone in my garden is the next best thing to indestructible.  Stone persists in my landscape in spite of my neglect, poor science, or ignorance.  What can I count on to be there every day, as best as I could count on anything?  The stone stairs to my rose garden have been there as long as I have had my garden.  I would guess it will still be there, when I celebrate my 100th birthday.

Stone in the landscape roughly refers to what we call hardscape.  Stone beautifully populates those places to be, that soil to be retained,  those spaces to entertain, and those walks with a natural material that provides an enduring hard surface.   Stone is eminently capable of expressing your need for a change of grade.  Stone provides paths and walks that enables travel from one space to another.  Stone provides a beautiful and durable surface for a terrace.  Compacted decomposed granite- shards 3/8 inch in diameter and smaller- makes level and hard surfaces that survive in driveways and garden paths, year after year. I so like balancing those living, and therefore fragile elements in a landscape with a crispy defined highly textural natural material that endures.

I am not a geologist-I am a gardener.  But I can say with great conviction that the stone readily available to me regionally is always my stone of choice.  Regional stone that is native to Michigan will look like it belongs in a Michigan garden.  Stone native to the East coast, or west coast I can appreciate, but a sense of authenticity of place is important in making a landscape visually believable. No doubt an entire library exists which describes the color, texture and use of stone world wide.  But I am primarily interested in stone that naturally occurs in my region of the country. In addition to bluestone and granite,  Indiana limestone, and Valders stone from Wisconsin are favorites. 

The fountain in my back yard is finished in Valders stone. The step down in submerged in water the entire season. This very high density dolomitic limestone is prized for its low water absorption.  This makes it ideal for applications in or around water. Indiana limestone, also known as Bedford limestone, is principally comprised of calcium carbonate.  The decomposition of marine animals at the bottom of the inland sea that covered the Midwest for countless centuries created limestone.  The limestone quarried near Bloomington Indiana is acknowledged to be the highest quality limestone in the United States. It readily absorbs water; the limestone caps on my retaining walls have aged beautifully.

Should you need a hard and enduring surface or wall, natural and native stone will endow your garden with a sense of permanence.  The formation of stone takes generations, and it will take generations to decompose.  Do not be shy about inviting a natural element into your garden with proven longevity.  It provides a quiet and appropriately natural foil for your plants.


I was a rock collector, as a kid.   Every type of rock, every shape, every surface-I was enchanted.  Nothing has much changed; I have a big love for all manner of rock.  Stone carpeting the ground, stacked up like a wall, hand carved into a cistern, or half buried in a rock garden-I value it all.   The stone slabs carpeting this conservatory floor-I have never seen anything remotely like it before.  It has an exotic, architectural, and other-worldly look.

Stone cold, set in stone, stone faced, hard as stone -these are all phrases that describe a certain attitude that withstands the elements, the vagaries of nature, and popular sentiment.  Stone comes with an aura of history about it.  The eldest plant in my garden I estimate to be about 80 years old-a trifling age, compared to my stone. Relationships in a composition might be more important than the one, or the other. How an ephemral element interacts with a permanent element-always interesting. That great age one associates with natural stone has much to do with the creation of,  and value,  of stone garden ornament. 

Stone ornament for the garden is a centuries old art and practice.  A material which is virtually impervious and certainly accepting of the weather makes an ideal medium for sculpture, urns, finals, cisterns, plinths, and benches. Many antique pieces provides homes to thriving colonies of moss and lichens. Before Michaelangelo’s David was a sculpture, it was an ancient block of marble from the earth.  Antique containers and urns hand carved from a single piece of stone are rare, and very costly.  Dry cast limestone is a dry mix of cement, sand, mineral pigments and crushed natural stone, which is forced into molds, and vibrated under pressure until it fills the mold evenly.  This method of manufacture makes stone garden ornament more readily available and affordable.

The stone in my garden is beginning to settle in.  Plants have decided to take up residence in its crevices, and on its surface.  I like how this makes me feel. This Belgian bluestone table with antique hand-carved corbel bases would indeed be lovely in a garden. Any gardener who has ever carried rocks around their garden, or had their fingers pinched setting a stepping stone knows that stone does not give.  I like a material in my garden with this attitude.

I wrote this essay in a special capacity.  I was so pleased that The Garden Designers Roundtable invited me to guest post with their group for the month of May.  The Roundtable is a group of garden and landscape designers who write regularly on topics related to landscape design.  This blog is a great read.  Interested in an ongoing discussion of plants, gardens, landscapes and design?

To read all of the posts on the May discussion of stone in the landscape, click on the links below.  Enjoy!

Sunny Wieler : Stone Art Blog : West Cork, Ireland

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin TX

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA


Sinking A Garden

Aug 28d 289
Sinking a garden can be a good idea for lots of reasons. In this case, the most compelling reason had to do with proximity.  My clients live in an urban neighborhood in which the properties are small, and the homes are big. Large homes loom over their back yard on three sides, making privacy a big issue.  My first thought was to enclose their yard with little leaf lindens.  The lindens would provide wide screening up high; the trunks would take up very little space on the ground plane. We would take the additional step of sinking this garden by elevating its edges. 

Aug 28d 288A retaining wall of pressure treated lumber was installed near the lot line; the lindens were planted some sixteen inches above grade.  A six foot high wood fence, painted “disappearing green”, would provide complete screening at the tree level.  My clients are very fond of the buildings in New Harmony, Indiana.  All of the later additions and modifications to the original architecture have been painted “disappearing green”-a color which recedes from view such that it is easy to see the original architectural intent of the buildings. I would describe the color as a dark muddy green brown.  With  the trees and fence in place, the screening would be a dominant element of the garden, but occupy a very small space.   I lowered the ground plane as much as I could without endangering the drainage of the loqwer level.  The trees instantly gained 18 inches in height; this placement put the lower branches of the lindens just above the top of the fence.  This is what I would call engineering one’s screening.  

Aug 28d 662Of course that sixteen inches of soil was not going to stay put without some retaining on the front edge as well.  My clients chose a rustic stone for the tree planter box walls, and the retaining for the garden beds.  You see stone laid out everywhere on the site; the stone mason needs to pick and choose which stones fit together so the mortar joints are small and unobtrusive.  It would be three steps up into the house; I made them deep and wide-easy to navigate. It was most important to them to have a private garden; they were willing to deal with the up and down.  

Aug 28c 466The sixteen inches of plant mix filling these beds would vastly improve the quality and drainage of the soil.  The garden would be easy to plant, and weed.  The worst thing about weeds-how far they are away from your fingers, and what your back has to do in order to get your fingers where they need to be.   An entire tool industry is built around that distance.  These gardens would be closer to the hands maintaining them.

Aug 28d 665
A new addition to the house would limit access to the back yard.  The big idea-the French doors you see on the left of this photo were installed in the rear wall of the garage.  Designing this space would be part two of this project.

Aug 28d 663This landscape would eventually have three distinct levels.  The change of grade would provide a lot of visual interest for a very small space.  Not incidentally, a sunken garden dramatically reduces ambient noise.  Earth is the only thing which really blocks sound; no amount of plant material will screen out unwelcome noise.  Homes built in close proximity face both audial and visual screening issues.  I like living in a neighborhood, but am I enchanted with my neighbor’s kids shrieking or the sound of their lawn mower-no, not so much.

Aug 28c 462
Every gardener appreciates that the sound of water in a garden is  delightful and relaxing.  The sound of water also masks other sounds not so soothing.  Though I live but a block from a very busy six lane urban thoroughfare, my  concrete house and sunken rose garden keep the intrusion to a minimum.  This waterfall /fountain makes the change of level a modest musical event. No matter how small, every garden has the potential to be eventful. 

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With the fence, trees, stone and water in place, we are ready for phase two.