The Front Door

I never use my front door-unless I am outside after work, watering my pots. If I am out there watering, the chances are very good that I will exchange hellos with people walking the neighborhood.  When company comes, I am on the inside looking out.  Why I would care how the landscape at my front door looks-simple.  My friends are walking up that walk.  We have a visit or a dinner planned.  I have every interest in making that walk welcome them.  It takes a little time to get to my front door from the street; any visitor has time to see what I have going on.   The front door pictured above-my clients were interested in making a change. 

Making friends feel welcome is but one of the ways that my landscape gives me pleasure. My clients had the same idea.  They changed the door and sidelights for the first time in twenty-some years.  Their choice of a new door and sidelights-a beautiful update.  Part of that update was a new pair of containers for the front porch.  A porch generous enough in size to accomodate both pots and guests; I like the size of the porch.  These chocolate stained concrete vase shaped pots, much larger, and much more emphatic-they make a statement.  Purchased just in time for the winter season, we filled them with twigs, dyed eucalyptus, and a wide densely constructed nest of cut greens. The scale of the planters and plantings frames the front door in such a way to make the invitation read from the street.  This also makes friends knocking on the front door feel welcome. 

Just today, we planted these pots for spring.  The winter centerpieces we kept.  The height of the twigs, and the mass of the eucalyptus, are scaled properly with the size of the door, and the size of the porch.    Guests approaching have a sense of the landscape at eye level-this is a friendly gesture.  How I landscape places in my yard where friends come to visit-I like that landscape to put its arms around my friends, and say hello. 

Some city gardens are built on very small properties.  A conscious choice was made here-to block the view of the front door with a luxurious square of boxwood, dominated by an antique urn.  I planted that urn very tall. How that planting obscures the front door makes the walk to the door an adventure.  Front yard landscapes have much to do with the relationship between the public presentation from the street, and the welcome issued to family and friends. 

This front walkway behind that urn planted very tall is actually an extension of a drivecourt.  A shallow porch benefits greatly from its overscaled width.  I so like the decision to do four pots on a narrow porch.  Everything about the numbers of pots, the placement and the planting influences to what extent you say hello, and welcome.

Some front doors are not symmetrically placed.  A tall portion of wall existed to the right of this front door.  A tall pot, barely visible here, is home to a planting of zebra grass and variegated plectranthus.  The planting is at eye level from the street.  The landscape successfully frames the front door. 

This client loves the big statement that her limelight hydrangeas make-they are glorious.  The view from the street to the front door-a long view.  Her contemporary faux bois selettes from France-they still read from a long ways away.  Up close, a mass planting of white New Guinea impatiens is complimented by lime green creeping jenny-the creeping is almost  4 feet long, come mid July.  There is no walk from  here to there-but there is a view that engages the eye in a lively way.

Not all porches permit pots placed symmetrically.  One planter at the door can be every bit as strong as a pair.  In this case, one giant planter is balanced by a substantial planter box.  The landscape obscures the walk.  This makes for a public presentation of the landscape separate from the private experience.  I live in an urban neighborhood.  This means I have concern about what I want to contribute to the beauty of the neighborhood, and how I might want to more personally welcome my guests. 

The back door of my property sees lots of action.  I load and unload the dogs every day-I park just 15 feet from the back door.  We take the trash out.  We come and go, and park here-all the time.  Treasured friends come in the back door regularly.  But my front door-the landscape and the pots-I have a thing about this special place.  It is my obligation and pleasure to present as beautiful a presentation as I can.  To the neighbors walking by.  To casual visitors driving by.  To special guests.  On my mind is what people driving by, and guests coming up the walk-what do they see?  What have I been so well mannered to put at their eye level.

Good manners?  Any guest of mine, I do try to consider their experience first- before I consider my own. Beautiful pots, overflowing with plants, at the front door-this is no doubt a gesture of respect, and affection.

Sunday Opinion: A Sense Of Balance

The idea of balance in design is intimately related to our physical understanding of balance.  At the conclusion of an event some years ago, I stupidly decided to avoid the long route to my car via the lighted sidewalk, and cut through an intervening landscape bed.  In the dark,  I stepped directly into an unexpected drainage ditch set 18 inches below grade.  Loosing my balance, I went down hard and sideways-my unfortunately high heeled  foot hit the steel drainhole cover at an impossible angle, and I crashed to the ground.  The stress of the bad landing left me with a broken leg.  Every day for the ensuing ten weeks I had every reason to think about the importance of balance.  I never did master the art of dragging the hose weighty with water up the two steps to my upper deck-while on crutches.  I could not balance my cup full of coffee in my hand, and still hold the crutch-I did not have enough fingers.  I had to move my coffee pot from the kitchen to my desk.  As my house sits up high, negotiating the stairs while on crutches proved particularly nerve wracking; no doubt I was unstable on my feet, and fearful of falling.  It was not until I was able to ditch the crutches that I regained my sense of equilibrium; my bilateral symmetry was restored.  This is a fancy way of saying I had back a functional leg on each side of me, and my center of gravity.   The day that I was again securely balanced was a very good day.  I still loose my balance on occasion; I cannot focus on anything up close without my reading glasses.  When I forget I am wearing them, and start to walk somewhere, my inner sense of balance vanishes; this is not a pleasant sensation. 

The idea of balance in design falls into two broad categories.  Symmetrical design, in which every element left of center is matched equally with identical and  corresponding elements right of center, is visually very stable.  Of course landscape is a sculpture one views in the round, so the symmetry always applies to a particular view.  Choosing which view will be the dominant view should come early in the design process.  It is just as important to identify the center of any given view.  The degree to which a design is symmetrical, and therefore completely stable, determines its formality.  A composition symmetrical from every view is very formal. Very formal landscapes laid out on visual axis have an equilibrium such that your eye moves around the composition, and eventually comes to rest. Those clients for whom an atmosphere that is serene is important usually gravitate towards formally balanced landscapes.  

As people are visually completely familiar with the appearances of the human figure and face, a symmetrical arrangement that is out of square, or balance, can be spotted instantly.  I have installed formal landscapes where I have had a surveyor lay out a swimming pool, or landscape beds in an effort to be sure every line perpendicular to a residence is as perfectly perpendicular as possible, and likewise every horizontal line is as closely horizontal as one could manage.  The science of generating these lines involves checking and rechecking one’s measurements.  A tree planted out of vertical is instantly apparent as such.  If it is not the deliberate intent of the design to introduce a skewed line, then the appearance of that tree will always be irritating.  A swimming pool installed out of square is a problem not easy to solve.

Landscapes can just as easily be asymetrically balanced, but this is more complicated, and requires more skill.  Asymmetrical compositions are not at rest; angled lines are very active visually.  The excitement of it all asks for a keen sense of balance.  As Vita de Sackville West is reputed to have said, “It isn’t that I don’t like sweet disorder,. but it has to be judiciously arranged.”  The relationship of a massive evergreen to the shape and size of the groundcover bed underneath it speaks to establishing a sense of visual balance.  The placement of one large element can be balanced by a number of smaller elements placed elsewhere in such a way that a pleasing relationship is made. A diagonally planted mass of light colored foliage plants in the horizontal plane can be balanced by a single tall dark vertical plant. Asymmetrically curving beds relate to each other via the shape of the lawn, walk, or path between them. A driveway approaching a house on an angle needs a balancing counterpart to provide the eye with the directions about where to go next, or that eye will fall off the edge of the composition.  Some visually compelling element placed to direct the eye from one place to the next provides an active view with a stable rhythm. I like a good beat.  A driveway with a giant landscape bed on one side, and lawn on the other appears lopsided. A house placed asymetrically on a piece of land asks for a landscape to balance all that visual weight concentrated off kilter; properly done, the relationship of house to landscape can be as pleasing as it is exciting. 

An informal landscape is not a justification for a landscape lacking design. Once while installing a landscape, I had a chance to observe an identical activity taking place across the street.  Trucks arrived with plants, the plants were placed in order as they came off the truck, and planted.  At the last, beds were cut around the plants.  Some curving lines had glaringly flat spots.  Some beds curved inward too close to the trunk of a tree, and then curved outward where no plants were planted-resulting in big barked areas. I saw no one checking any views; I did see trees placed dead center on windows. I have seen other very informal landscapes perfectly balanced in its color, texture, proportion and mass; it was clear a very skilled person was driving the design process.

The choice one makes as to the formality and symmetry of a landscape design is just that-a choice.  I like them both, equally.  My landscape at home is very formal and bilaterally symmetrical, as that is what gives me what I need, and what pleases me.  This does not prevent me from admiring other differently designed spaces, or designing informally for a client whose love of line is anything but horizontal and vertical.  I just like to see that moves in a landscape get made deliberately and thoughtfully.  By design. 

However,  I am also exposed to plenty of landscapes where I cannot sense the design idea behind it, but the plants are lovingly cared for.  Some might lack for plants, but the lawn is mowed and the yard neat.  There are others in which the gardens are weeded, the trash is picked up, the garbage cans, lawnmowers, rowboats, children’s toys and bikes are not part of the public view. There are flowers at the door-though that door might be painted lavender to match a set of lavender shutters. Neat, clean, and well-tended,  on purpose.  These landscapes balance me; they help keep me from tripping, and falling over from my own design obsessed foolishness.

OK, Here’s the Story


I spent the day of the Greening garden tour at home, talking to people about my landscape, but I also fielded a lot of questions about Rob’s.  From “which garden is Rob’s?” ,  to “what was his idea here?”-and so on.  Apparently the store was so busy he was unable to get to his own garden, and talk about it with people.  What a shame.  As he is such an integral part of Detroit Garden Works as manager, buyer, and dreamer, people are naturally curious about what his personal landscape is all about. I’ll try to tell the story as best I can, as I think it warrants telling.


He is a formidably talented designer.  More and more he consults with clients about the placement of ornament, pots and the like. He has a gift-you just need to ask him to put that to your project. Until you lay eyes on what he has done with this very small piece of property, you don’t really understand the extent of that talent.  I have over the years installed this terrace when he would be in Europe, or snapped up that collection of nyssa sylvatica (his favorite tree) when I ran across it.  He spent no small amount of time designing this landscape for himself, consulting with me, and reinventing the design; he finally, reluctantly, signed off. I knew I had to wait until he was out of town;  one fall while he was shopping in Europe, my crew installed it. 


It’s important for clients to see a designer put themselves in the same boat a designer might ask a client to row.  Making things grow, and pulling a landscape together, can be much like rowing upstream.  If you are to entrust your garden and your money to a designer, you want to feel confident they know what they are doing, and that they have been in a boat much like yours.  This spring, the bones of his place looked great.  Simple strong gestures from a sure hand. No matter how he fretted, the result was confident.  If it appears a design is in place on this the bleakest day of the spring, they you can be assured it will only look better as the season goes on.


It’s a very tough thing to go home and garden, when you eat, breathe and sleep it for other people, most days of the week.  He told me two things were paramount.  He wanted to make much of his view of the lake, and he wanted something along the lines of cohesive lake cottage style. This may sound vague, but he had no problem putting it together.  And he wanted it manageable; its pure torture to have something in a garden that needs attention, when you have no energy to answer.  He likes having no back yard.


This very old French faux bois tree trunk planter is home to  a thriving colony of laurentia; that pale heliotrope blue is a rare color in an annual. So light, so delicate-everything that the planter is not. The side terrace garden is a mirror image of the shape of the driveway. The terrace itself is screened from the road just enough, by a wing wall, backed up by giant boxwood in a stocky Belgian wood planter.  


Two chairs in the front yard are front and center to the lake view.  A quietly beautiful vintage American birdbath from Ohio is kept company in the sunken oval of grass by a gracefully swooping pin oak. This tree, his specific choice.  The simple Italian pots stuffed with ferns, heucheras, selaginella and the like have that strong woodland mossy feel.


The wing walls are a distinctive feature of the architecture of the house; the placement of these two pots make note of that. The placement of the collection of pots direct the eye around the entire space, and suggest what is yet to come.


I discovered while installing this landscape that the exterior walls has been buried in soil berms.  The house is actually quite tall coming out of the ground.  The collection of pots counterbalances the height of the steps, and sets them down visually. The architecture of the house and steps can be seen all the way to the ground.  This gives the landscape a European flavor. Years of travelling Europe to buy for the store has much influenced him.

Rob knows how to place an object in a garden such that it will give you pause-quietly.  Thus this planter, half on the gravel path, half off. Though the volume is turned down to a murmur, this landscape has a very distinctive voice.

The story of these steps says everything about the fire he has burning. These giant bolted panels of railroad ties have been lying in the abandoned railway two track next door for the past 14 years.  He finally wheeled a ball cart, rated to carry 1800 pounds, over there, loaded these 8 foot wide fragments onto the cart-horizontally-  and ran them up hill all the way to the store-in the incoming traffic lane, no less.  He told me he had no plan for what he would do, had a car appeared.   He tells me he had to lie down for 15 minutes once he got them here; he was rode hard and put away wet, getting the steps of his dreams home.  What kind of heart for gardening do you have to have to do this?  A very big one.