A Topiary Garden

garden.jpgI have been planting pots for this client since 2005.  He really enjoys his garden, and I look forward to planting for him every year.  As for the landscape, it was not my favorite.  A circular drive court was planted round about with ink berry.  Over the years, the ink berry died out in patches, and what survived grew leggy.  The landscape did have to its credit a number of large arborvitae which had been pruned into shapes, and several espaliers.

garden-and-landscape.jpgThe rest of the landscape was a random mix of hydrangeas that did not bloom much, and perennials which asked for full sun and perfect drainage. The vast majority of the plant material was not happy where it was planted.  Moist shade is not a spot that asks for or welcomes thyme. Thyme is very small leaved, and grows but a few inches tall.  Placing it in the landscape effectively is all about a good understanding of scale.  An old, limbed up, and half dead maple tree was not adding much to the landscape either.

garden-and-topiary.jpgBut what was obvious to me was that this client truly enjoyed his topiary plants above all.  I respect and enjoy landscapes in which the structured plants are contrasted with a looser garden.  In this landscape, the contrast did not seem to work.  I so rarely take the time to critique.  In general, I think the energy it takes to criticize would be better spent in an effort to suggest a solution, or a better way.  I was sure this landscape did not represent what my client loved about landscape-so I persisted. It did take me every bit of 18 months to convince him to redo the landscape.

placing-the-boxwood.jpgClients are ready for change when they are ready. This is not unusual.  All of us are ready when the moment comes when we are ready. My client made a decision.  We moved on that decision. It did take but a half day to rip out the ailing ink berry. Another half day for the pink hydrangeas and company.  The shape of these beds made it very difficult to plan a formal design with topiary boxwood. I had 18 months to work out the placement.  I was ready.

topiary-garden.jpgMy landscape design is predicated on an arrangement of shapes and only 2 plants.  Specimen size 3′ by 3′ Green Gem boxwood, 15″ tall Green Gem boxwood, and Little Lime hydrangeas.  My client also has a big interest in contemporary design and art.  The house is an interpretation of classic French design.  I was after a landscape design that had its roots in classical landscape design, with a nod to a modern aesthetic.  I was also interested in the landscape representing my client’s love of topiary.

boxwood-spheres.jpgA pattern of offset 3′ by 3′ Green Gem boxwood spheres was alternated with blocks of 4 squarely placed  15″ Green Gem boxwood is a pattern that is repeated in stripes perpendicular to the house.  The round shapes contrast with the geometric placement.  This view down the drive is strong.

boxwood-garden.jpgWe had drainage issues.  I will not bore you with the problems associated with the drop from the street to the driveway plane, and how we handled the water.  If you search the above picture, you can see the drain pipe to the left of the boxwood planted on the left side of the walk to the back yard.  Providing for proper drainage is essential.  Handling the drainage gracefully takes lots of planning and work.

topiary-garden.jpgThis landscape renovation honored first and foremost my client’s love of topiary evergreens.  Secondarily, the landscape renovation reflects his interest in contemporary design. I was so interested that all of the spaces be simple and integrated.  The driveway and drivecourt is a much larger space than the landscape spaces. A strong pattern would minimize the visual draw of the drive, and maximize the visual attention to the green spaces.  That said, any landscape needs to challenge and enchant.  At the end, I feel sure that the reconstruction of this landscape is particular to the taste of my client.

topiary-garden.jpgEvery client is different.  A good landscape designer needs to have the ability to absorb and then design for different. Any gardener who has a mind to design for themselves needs to first and foremost listen to their own voice, then acknowledge the demands of the space, and be bold about a plan.

topiary-garden.jpgThe renovation of this landscape went well.  The soil was surprisingly good and easy to work. We dug and planted for 6 straight days.

topiary-and-espalier.jpgFormal landscape designs have their proponents.  Vis a vis this project, I am one of them. I like formal landscapes, when they are appropriate to a site and a client.  I like other than formal landscapes, given a specific situation.  Redoing a landscape is a big fluid situation-any designer knows this.  If you are a gardener who designs for yourself, I could offer this advice.  Take the time to figure out what you want first and foremost from your landscape.  Next up, dream and scheme.  At the last, make a move.  As for this landscape-it is all about the beauty of the topiary plants.

topiary-garden.jpgMy client likes what we have done. I am pleased with the finish.

Growing Topiary Plants

topiary evergreens
I had so many calls, emails and comments about the topiary nursery in my previous post- wow!  I could thank you for that attention, but it wasn’t me who grew those plants.  It is a very special person with an extraordinary and singular vision.  People with vision-there is always something worthwhile to take from their efforts.  His palette of plants is quite spare.  His patience with the process I call growing is unlimited.  And his ability to prune is superb.  These boxwoods of his in 3 gallon pots are plants that have been given a very good start.  Any gardener could take this pot home, and resolve to grow that boxwood on.       

Another grower we buy from makes a point growing this particular form.  These boxwood with tufted top knots are charming and distinctive.  Anyone willing to take one on, and commit to growing and pruning would in just a few years have a boxwood topiary worth talking about.  To get to this stage, the nursery spends 10 years.  They are happy to hand what they grow off to you.  Are you game?

Most of my boxwoods are 21 years old.  7 years old at purchase, and 14 years in the ground.  I water and feed them.  But I would not dream of touching them with a pair of shears.  I am a serviceable pruner-not an inspired one. I am fortunate to have someone in my community who makes a specialty of pruning.  Mindy and her group of 7 takes an entire day to prune my evergreens.  The day they come-the best day of my gardening year.     

boxwood topiary

Gorgeous topiary trees and shrubs are first and foremost about the years, and the good care.  The years devoted to growing them on.  Transplanting large topiary material comes with no end of peril.  Transplant shock is routine.  They are very expensive, given how long it has taken to grow them to a subtantial maturity.   Once the plant is in place, the work begins.

It was many many years ago that I planted this topiary garden.  The first year was no cause to throw a party.  But a client with vision was determined to take relatively small plants, and grow them into plants of note.  She saw to the water, the feeding, and the pruning.  In my zone, in a good year,  boxwood flushes on an average of 6 inches.  Six inches seems like not much, but 6 inches times 10 years-a big flush.  Years later, her plants are gorgeous-gorgeous enough to make any gardener blush. 

Mindy prunes with a forest of stout stakes, and a network of level lines.  Her group clips with hand shears.  I cannot imagine how many times in the course of a day those shears open and close.  The sound of that work-I cannot describe in words how beautiful this is.  They take the time it takes to do the work properly.    

pruning boxwood

To the last, her crew is entirely modest about their skills.  They focus on the plants.  Any gardener could make it their business to learn how to do this.  Though in my heart I believe she is gifted, I would try to replicate her care, if I needed to.  Great topiary plants are about the relationship between the stalwart start of a plant, and a gardener.  Buy a plant.  Resolve to train it-just how you envision it.       

pruning carpinus

I was young, when I planted this tree.  It bore no resemblance to this, the day it went in the ground.  It is as grand and gorgeous a topiary carpinus that has ever been my pleasure to see. It is as beautiful as any topiary tree anyone might see anywhere.  The form of this tree was many years in the making.  The pruning is amazingly precise.  The company who prunes this not only has skilled people, it has big equipment.  What an extraordinary job they do of the pruning.

Mindy looks after this property.  Every hedge is perfectly pruned.  The topiary evergreens not shown in this pictuire are in excess of 20 feet tall.  Did we move plants in to this landscape, full grown?  No.  Beautifully grown, hefty specimens got planted.  Every year she works on establishing the forms.  Every year, they are bigger, and better.

My yew topiaries in these pots are but 3 years old.  The boxwood surround is but 3 years old.  Given another 10 years, we will have something to talk about.  In the meantime, I see to the day to day. I can safely say that the process of growing enriches my gardening life.  I like the dailies perhaps more than the finish.  

The hedge maples on standard in the back right cewnter side of this landscape-they have been growing on for years.  Every year, that pleached hedge of trees looks better.  One day they will fill in completely from side to side, and front to back.   The land drops from the house to the lake.  The trees nearest the water are much taller than the trees on the near side.  A lvel pleached hedge on sloping ground-years in the making.  The day they fully pass muster-a day to celebrate.  Great gestures in the landscape take time.

This beech arbor is but a few years along.  It will take another 5 years for it to fill out.  My advice to you?  Buy two small beech.  Plant them opposite each other, far enough apart,  where they will be perfect, 15 years from now.  Today is the best day to start to grow a topiary.  Planting small plants does not mean your vision is small.  Planting small plants with an eye to the future-a big vision.

Level with the horizon-is this not beautiful?  It took more than a few years to get here.  I can attest to that, as this is my yard.  Visit your local nursery.  Scrutinize what trees and shrubs might grow into something extraordinary, given your care and some time.  Take the time to source a great pruning company-or make it your business to learn how to prune.  For my clients-I source the best plant material that I can find.  I have no trouble placing those extraordinary plants.  At the same time, I buy those smaller plants that I imagine, given a few years and a lot of care, will prove to be garden makers.  I hold and grow those small plants-waiting for the right and so sparkly client to come along.  Those extraordinary large and full grown plants moved to a new home, I love this process.  Placing those smaller plants- with such a great future ahead of them-even better.

A Plant Collection

 

Planting containers is a big job, especially when there are lots of them.  I plant almost 40 containers for this client every year; I plant 27 pots of my own at home every year. Every year I have to fight off the urge to plant more pots.  That said, I have a few ideas about how to keep the project manageable-both in design and execution.  Every bill I send is completely detailed as to plant varieties and numbers.  Feel free to try this at home.  Keep track of how many plants it takes to plant your containers.  Take pictures.  Keep notes about what you like-and do not like.  This helps keep the shopping part organized.  I know ther numbers of plants this job requires;  I plan ahead.  This is essential, as she lives 45 minutes away from the shop.      

Round containers-think of them as needing layers of plants-planted in rings.  A centerpiece plant is ringed by a mid layer ring, and an edge ring.  Bigger pots need more rings-smaller ones need fewer. This long rectangular planter needs 2 long rows of plants.  When I lay out the planter, I start in the center, and work to each side, so the planting is symmetrical. This planter, just like a window box, only has so many spaces for plants.  I pick my palette, and then figure out how many repeats I will need.  The repetition of plants establishes a visual rhythm.  In contemporary plantings,  I may plant just one plant all over, and hope that plant has a favorable season.    

Once I have some numbers in mind, I think about what plants make good neighbors-both side to side, and front to back.  My diamond frost euphorbia asks for something with a denser texture and bigger flower-does it not?  Verbena is a great companion plant.  Cirrus dusty miller has big, matte, felted leaves.  A good companion? The tiny and angular leaved shiny succulent pictured above provides good contrast in form and texture, while repeating that grey-blue color.  A good companion to lavender, whose flowers and foliage are so wispy, is alyssum, which flowers low, and profusely.It is hard to see what is going on in this annual bed far from the terrace-but for the blobs of white.  That white is from the leaves of caladiums-they read well from a distance.  Later in the season, short white and tall lime green nicotiana will bloom.  The ground cover under all-white polka dot plant.  This shade planting is a much more interesting solution than white impatiens.  Lime green coleus would look great here as well.  This is a collection of plants that work well together. Larger growing plants means you do not need so many to make a statement.  Space your plants in the ground knowing how they will mature.  In-ground plantings spaced too close together not only invites disease, it can result in an overall shape that is not distinctively shapely.

This old agave-this is its final year.  Agaves need to be quite old before they bloom.  Once they bloom, the parent plant dies, leaves the baby offshoots to continue. This bloom stalk could grow to 14 feet or better.  This agave is part of a collection of plants my client has had for a number of years. We underplanted it with a mass of Kent Beauty oregano, a soft, drapy, and delicately colored ornamental oregano that will highlight the visual architecture of the agave by way of considerable contrast in scale, texture and form. 

Phormiums, or New Zealand flax have an architectural presence on a smaller scale.  The diamond frost  euphorbia will froth up and spill over the container.  This is a collection of two that looks handsome together.

Another member of the topiary plant collection, a Teucrium Fruticans on standard.  Bush germander has silver needled leaves, and grows 4 to 6 feet tall in warmer climates.  This topiary has to be wintered in a barely heated light space.  Any collection of plants that can be wintered over in a light space or garage has two advantages.  They not only live a much longer life than most annuals, they grow and become sizeable. This germander is almost 10 years old; it is a beautiful container plant indeed.

We planted white mandevillea, and staked it on four 10′  natural bamboo poles.  We secure the poles with concrete wire for strength, and covered the wire with simple raffia bows.  Lime nicotiana, white angelonia, silver dichondra, white anyssum and white million bells rounds out the collection.

The newly created plant frame around the fountain is planted with Isotoma Fluviatilis.  I spaced the plants at a foot apart, as it grounds very quickly.  Hardy to minus 20 degrees, and tolerant of heavy foot traffic, it will barely break the plane of the stone.  The new stone around the fountain is angled slightly away from the fountain, so rain will not pool there.  The plant frame helps to minimize that stone set on a slightly higher grade than the original terrace. 

Four lead pots sit on the front walk, each with its own boxwood topiary.  These boxwood are hardy in my zone 7 out of every 10 years, so I winter them in an unheated dark space for the winter-just to be sure.  The ball shaped boxwood with attending topknots is a good contrast to the tapered shape of the lead pots.  Variegated licorice at the corners, with a green dichondra in between completes the planting.


A lovely pair of Kimberly ferns flank the front door.  As they tend to grow upright in a vase shape, I planted maidenhair ferns as a groundcover under the Kimberlys.  This puts the overall edges of the planting gracefully out over the edges of the round lead pots.  I do so love pots planted green.

Sunday Opinion: Imagination And Precision

I owe the idea for this post to Nanne; she commented a few days ago about a sculpture of mine she thought exhibited imagination and precision.  What about it? Imagination may be defined as the ability to form a mental image of something which does not yet exist in any other form other that a thought.   No one will ever hire me to write a dictionary, or teach a course in philosophy, but the word imagination does suggest an activity that floats like a cloud above that stormy sea I call the Sea of Execution.

I am in the process of a series of sculptures about the landscape I believe no one will ever hire me to build.  Why would I do this?  I like making things, whether they be terraces, pinetums, bouquets, or paintings.  But more importantly, the idea of designing an object that could represent the landscape free of responsibility to make it work, live and go on growing seemed like so much fun.  At the top of my top ten list of mistakes gardeners make-and this includes me-is the expectation that a plant will obligingly represent an idea.  An idea about space, beauty, gardens, or  landscapes.  My Honorine Jobert anemone flowers are making me pretty happy right now, but my happiness is the last thing on their blooming minds. They have their own agenda; I just get to tag along.  They do not look the same as they did last year.  They are older; the summer weather is different this year. Nothing stays the same with them; what stubbornly stays the same is my effort to get them to represent  my design.  The lilac planted right next to the kitchen window in hopes that the fragrance will fill that room does not account for the 20′ rangy shrub that comes with that fragrance.  A perfectly good plant in the wrong spot is a product of the idea that design will prevail over biological destiny.  Junipers pruned into spirals, cloud pruned boxwood, stick like burning bushes with a thin frosting of leaves on top, my pollarded Palabin lilacs on standard-they tell a story much like a fairy tale.  Giant shrubs pruned down to half their mature size to fit a space-not so sweet a tale. Making these sculptureswould circumvent all of the frustration of imagining a design, and making it work; it would never have to work.

Every landscape designer has design work that never escapes escapes the page, and breathes. Pieces of that work may go on to become part of another project-like my sculptures.  Or it gets the saucing up it needs to really taste good. Every design relationship is precisely that-a relationship.  Maybe the design work has not met its intended yet. Perhaps it wasn’t worth a hoot anyway, and I should feel relieved I was never asked to transform a pig’s ear of a design into a functional landscape.  

 But I do know that the sum total of my imaginative worth needs a different measure than the the sum total of my bank account.  If I spent every day of the next 100 days giving my imagination free rein, I would still have just as much of it available to me on the hundredth day as I do today.  You need and should have this confidence in what you imagine, as you will need that energy to transform an idea into a living space.  Some ideas won’t stand for being transplanted into a landscape. It is good to know this beforehand.  The day comes when what I have imagined has to settle up precisely with what and how it will work.  The best design work in the world cannot circumvent this.  Once I buy plants in fulfillment of a design, my bank account does get involved.   Putting money to something only to find that it will not or does not work is no fun at all. 

Some issues are a matter of inches.  A bench 4 inches inches higher may be more comforatble; 8 inches is the difference between a garden and a sunken garden.  A tree planted 8 inches above grade may thrive or die, based on soil and water conditions.  A  garden gate off center by 7 inches will always look wrongly placed. A step riser taller than 8 inches is a pain to negotiate.  Paying attention to inches implies a certain precision.   

The sculpture of plastic grass that Nanne referred to in her comment was very precisely constructed.  The materials made it possible for that to work.  Had they been covered in sod-oh my.  I guess I try with my design work to make big simple gestures, as the plants that I will ask to be a party to what I imagine need the room to be what they do best-grow.  The big surprise of the construction of my sculptures-they do need to work.  I am stopped dead, trying to imagine precisely where to take them next.