talk, think & design like a pro
To keep deer from munching their way through perennials in spring and evergreens in winter, turn to Russian sage. I grow it in tandem with day lilies to foil their appetites in season but also make use of the spent stems, bundled like bouquets and tucked into Rhodies and Mountain laurels. Enough of the volatile oils remain in the stem to be a deterrent throughout the winter, however harsh; in the five-plus years that I’ve been doing this not a single leaf has been lost. It looks better than netting or burlap and, unlike sprays, doesn’t need to be reapplied ~ the fact that it also doesn’t cost a dime makes this thrifty Yankee doubly happy!
Three hints for creating dramatic planters and staying in budget:
1: Use a central plant that can either overwinter in your house (as the black taro here) or a shrub that will fill a landscape requirement come fall.
2: Add new perennials (see the chocolate mint in the pics below) that can be used in the garden when this growing season is over.
3. Add perennial divisions from your own garden (see the cimicifuga ‘hillside black beauty’ in the pics below) that need time to mature before being added to another planting area.
For these planters, I’ve stayed with the darks ~ this includes the flower of the ivy geraniums that were a splurge but hopefully can be held over in the greenhouse for next year. I love the smoky effect against the bronze green of the house and the contrast with the terra cotta planters, but I could easily spike it w/ chartreuse or lime for contrast. Note that I’ve stayed with plants that the gophers won’t decimate~would have loved fat orange begonias, but it only takes one season to learn how crafty they are!
If you’re going to make a raised bed, make a raised bed! This took 9 landscape timbers each measuring 6″x6″x8′; 3 per side were used to make the 8′ length, the remaining 3 were cut in half to make the 4′ width.* The brackets were made for me by the local tech high school; each measures 12″x14.5″x3/16″, the bend occurs at the 3″ mark of the long side. Holes were drilled 1″ either way from the top, bottom and side edges with the third hole evenly spaced between; each hole accommodates a 3″ wood screw.
If you’re building these yourself, they’ll run about $200 for materials, including the compost to fill them ~ worth every dime, as they require no bending for installation or maintenance. The edges are fat enough to afford reasonably comfortable seating for planting or weeding and the width (2′ from either side) makes them usable, with proper surfacing of the surrounding ground, by wheelchair gardeners.
*You could get fancy and do a greek key pattern, but the brackets are so sturdy I didn’t bother.
The choice of color is often the worst design dilemma for most people; for me it’s a piece of cake. One of the first gardens I ever created was built around a bluestone walkway (read about the origin of that here). There were three elements affecting the color palette, the strongest of which was, you guessed it, the bluestone. Once I had chosen that particular shade of blue the only choice left, in keeping with good design, was to stay within that color range or choose its opposite. The two remaining design factors made that choice effortless.
The bluestone is formal; the client is formal. The most formal color? White. In addition, the client works seventy hours a week; the only time he’s really going to see this garden is late into the evening. The color most visible in low light? White. What looks great with white? Blue. What looks great with bluestone? Blue. What color was absolutely made for sunlight? Blue. The client has a blue and white garden.
Staying true to our color choices is where most of us falter. When I say blue I mean blue, not purple or lavender or mauve. White is white, not yellow tinged with cream, not even the very palest of shell pink. When you lose definition, you lose contrast; when you lose contrast, you lose design. You may have a very pretty assemblage of things, but you don’t have design. It’s brutal, I know, to walk away from the most astonishing flower you’ve ever seen just because it’s a shade or two off hue; do it anyway.
I read all these books and hear all these designers talking about color selection being the palette with which you paint the garden. I disagree, because I think of color in intimate, emotional terms. Blue is inviting and serene; it’s the sound of your child laughing as you play at the water’s edge. White is a radiant seaside Victorian, painted wicker on the veranda luminous in the moonlight. Orange is a bonfire at the rim of a frozen pond, cold cheeks and hot embers. Red is scarlet lipstick against pale skin all in black; it’s Bogart and Bacall and killer dialogue. Green is the branch of a tree dipping into the river as you drift downstream, the paddle stilled for just a moment as you reach up to draw your hand along the leaves. Lavender is a field in the south of France, bread and wine and heady perfume. Purple is the final reflection of rimrock at twilight, coyotes howling in the distance as you make love in the warm desert wind.
I designed a garden several years ago for my chiropractor, a charming man who tolerated my perpetual ruination of his handiwork with relative good humor. The doctor and his wife lived in the upper half of a large duplex on a busy city street; his office was on the first floor. Color became key to creating not just a look, but a feel to this new landscape. It needed to be vibrant and welcoming.
The couple early on developed a rare and very clear division of territory; the public areas were his, the courtyard hers. This left me free to design for one person, and one purpose, at a time. To make choices that worked for this property, I started with the basics. What did I know about the site? It was a large, square, white building newly wrapped, front and side, by a ramp for handicapped access. The ramp added an element of architectural pizzazz, but it too was white. The only dampening of this luster came from a rather sickly maple at the edge of the sidewalk, which was soon removed, leaving the property all white, all the time.
What did I know about the doctor? He was reserved in public, but deliciously funny in private. Danced well enough to compete; preferred the samba, notoriously sensual in its movement. Member not just of a healing profession, but of an holistic healing profession, which has a different sensibility. And avid rosarian, which meant that he adored, and had, roses in every conceivable color.
In this case, white was not even in the running for plant materials. In fact any pale color, with that backdrop and that amount of sun, would fade to nothing. To achieve contrast, I needed to go as far in the opposite direction as the province of flowers allows: not truly black, but the darkest purple I could find. Having decided that, I went looking for its mate and there, in the back yard, I happened upon orange rose. It wasn’t apricot, it wasn’t salmon, it was orange. I flipped. Rose petals in hand I wandered the nursery, laying in the fragrant heads of Hidcote lavender and the fat, full blossoms of Jackmani clematis. I know, I know, blue is the true opposite of orange; I don’t care. Purple and orange sends me, blue and orange just looks like a Mets uniform. The fact that they were my ex-husband’s favorite baseball team may have a tiny little something to do with it. Look, I told you color was emotional.*
So now we have roses in tangerine, and coral, and Mandarin silk. We have Hermés boxes and frosty bottles of Orange Crush. We have Concord grapes, cool to the tongue, and hand-painted plums on Limoges plates. We have Purple Haze and Twilight Time. We have orange daylilies to inject the blood of the commoner, and Black Knight delphinia to guard the roses fair. We have a low-growing, sterile variety of woolly lamb’s ear to play off lavender’s gray-green foliage and the gray-green leaves of the flowering crab. We have design and dialogue. We have contrast and character and man! do we have color.
We also have people smiling as they come up the ramp, people who are otherwise in pain. Ex-husband jokes aside, color has a profound impact on our spirits. I didn’t wear red until I was forty-three, undoubtedly because my mother always insisted I should. It started with red lipstick and a postman who was ridiculously appealing; it went on from there. The color, not the man who was, sadly, married. Anyway… the point is that it changed my perception of myself, which changed how I presented myself, which changed everything. It has become the color everybody associates with me, even though I’m most often in black, so apparently I now sport a red attitude no matter what shade of lipstick I wear.
You’ve noticed by now that I tend to limit color selection within the confines of each garden space; I do this primarily because it makes the space look larger. Continuity of color allows the eye to take in the garden as a whole, without interruption. I can punch that monochromatic scheme here and there with its color contrast, and still have a unified field. I can remove the contrast if I up the ante in foliage, and still have visual interest. From a practical standpoint, it’s a great system for people who tend to lose track of precisely what they planted.
Equally sophisticated is planting within a short range of tints, like pink to magenta. In this case, I would skip the contrast and simply allow the colors to flow, each into the other. I’ve done this in linear fashion, from pale to deep or throughout the space, at random, with the same success. Again, the eye sees all of this as one because, with this scheme, we’re really just playing with different saturations of the same color.
Riskier, but a great deal of fun, is a planting that runs the gamut of all hot, or all cool colors. This style requires a lot of space to be effective; the stroke must be bold for the impact to be perceived.
How do you choose color? Go back to the beginning. Who are you, and what do you want to say? When you have the answers to those two questions, the colors will choose you.
*the original of this article was written as part of my six-week design course syllabus; this many more years removed from the ex, I find that I’m not so dismissive of blue and orange~I do note that my preference tends to be more along the lines of Tiffany blue and Hermés orange rather than the Mets combo, but it’s progress, no?
If you need more incentive this Fall to grab your pruning saw than my usual mantra of pruning-is-therapy, here’s a useful stat for 30 minutes of work: it will burn about 200* calories!
*based on a weight of 150 lbs
The image of water is the primary Taoist allegory, but imagery of light runs a close second. In addition to being aesthetically potent design aids, these are both sources of energy and, as such, can also be practical design aids. As I discussed in the first of this series, The Tao of Garden: Water, my pathways are often inspired by evidence left in the land itself from these two forms of chi. In the Water path, inspiration came from the literal tracks left alongside my client’s house after a hard rain; that became the sister walkway of my very first project, whose design arrived on a literal ray of light. Here’s how I described the process for the article From Image to Idea:
One of the best walkways I’ve ever designed began life as a shadow pattern made by the client’s house sometime along mid-afternoon. This shadow was fascinating. The line it created off the roof of the garage fell just at that place on the edge of the lawn where you would expect someone to step off the driveway and proceed toward the front door. Another transition point occurred where garage met house and shadow met shadow; a third hit precisely in line with the edge of the entrance. A turn at that spot would angle the visitor toward the door, just a few paces away.
I followed those lines and edges, walking back and forth a dozen times. I measured and marked the outline before I lost the pattern; fifteen minutes later, the shape had changed so completely it held no interest for me at all.
Both of these walkways are examples of the design opportunity presented by timely observation, by understanding the potential that each of these energies affords the designer who actively seeks them. There’s a pre-class assignment I give students enrolled in my six-week landscape design course: to photograph their properties in morning, afternoon and evening light from the eight compass points (N, S, E, W, NE, SE, SW, NW), which is the very assignment I give myself when I take on a new property. Those twenty-four shots, taken in those three different lighting atmospheres, will give you much of the practical information you need to understand the way sun moves through a site. This information can be separated into two categories, those of direct light and ambient light. The first is more important to the nuts-and-bolts of material selection, but the design spark is often found in the ambient part of the equation, so don’t miss the chance to grab those design cues, as well.
My shadow-line pathway was as direct as it gets, though, a pure product of the sun’s position relative to the house and my good fortune to be there when the lines were cast. Those shadows helped me realize another goal for this property’s redesign, which was to rebalance the visual weight of the garage. To avoid the ledge which comprises most of the front yard, the house sits some distance from the road; in addition to creating a very long driveway, it focuses the eye on the (seemingly huge) garage. Running the walkway along the shadow lines and using the intervening space as the main garden has the effect of ‘pulling’ the house forward, giving it visual parity with the garage. Both of these design resolutions are the product of that one well-timed visit, and it was a good early lesson for me about creating the opportunities for design to catch fire by watching the property as it goes about its day.
There’s another reason for observing the sun, and that’s to avoid the fate of a client who was building a house but sought my advice about two months too late. Too late because the pipes had been laid and the pad poured by the time I got there; too late because of the three gentlemen involved ~ an architect, a builder and a real estate broker ~ not one had looked at the house’s orientation to the sun prior to the pipes and the concrete. The result? The cars occupy the warm, sunny south and east sections and the humans occupy the rest. Need I tell you that, in addition to being unnecessary and really, really dumb, this is also more costly? Heat and light, both of which would have been at least partially supplied by natural means had the house plans simply been flipped, are now the product of utilities. I have no idea how much of a difference this makes to the annual total for those bills, but over the life of the house I imagine it will be significant. I also imagine that, over the course of a winter, having virtually no interior sunlight will make a great deal of difference to the ambience of the house and the mood of the occupants. All this because nobody bothered to say, Hey, where’s east, again?
This will also have an impact on the kinds of plants the owner will be able to choose for the finished landscape; although he certainly can install a garden along the garage to grow sun-lovers, that space will not be part of the daily visual. The house’s orientation confines material selection to the cold- and shade-tolerant column, and also limits the stone options for hardscaping. Not that I’m a fan of using brick in the primary, year-round stonescape anyway, but this rules it out even for secondary or summer-use paths. The simple equation is shade = damp = potential slip & fall. Moss-covered brick may look charming, but bruises don’t. Broken bones don’t. Lawsuits don’t. ‘Nuff said?
Finally, let’s talk about opening light patterns through trees by thinning the canopy. I talk about my favorite example of this in the syllabus for my six-week design course, Mindful Landscape Design:
The one thing I can say that was absolutely fabulous about the course at Harvard was the opportunity to hear a lecture by Edward Larrabee Barnes, a landscape architect whose work is as close to perfection as anyone is likely to come. In his presentation were two slides of the same stand of trees. Same season, same time of day. What’s different? he asked. About five trees, as I recall. Their removal subtly changed the quality of light within the stand, and changed our ability to see the individual trees within the grouping.
When you alter the light, you alter the viewer’s perception of the scene. In many cases, you alter the plant materials which can be used; by increasing the amount of sun filtration, you increase your options. Light also alters color perception; pale, cool tones tend to ‘pop’ in reduced light, but while you’d think that the deep hues are perfect for full sun, many of those tend to wash out. Understanding the totality of light conditions on the property will enable you to make the right design choices, but you’ll also want to take advantage of staff knowledge at your local nursery. The plant tag may not tell you ‘washes out in bright light’ but a fellow gardener will!
I’ll talk about using moonlight in the next of this series. Until then, follow the light…
It will come as no surprise that I did theater as a girl and I mention that here because the typical stage production is entirely linear, actor to audience and back again. Theater in the round was designed to break that fixed arrangement and provide an alternate experience, more visceral, more involving. It’s a different dynamic, and it’s precisely what’s needed in landscape design.
The model most designers use adopts a ‘painterly’ perspective very like the linear view of traditional stage. Stand here, look there, create little outdoor rooms and paint them with flowers. This is landscape as scenery, as decor, and pretty as that decor may be, it lacks the feel of a robust show. It lacks that because we are quite literally standing in the wrong place.
Designing from the outside-in keeps you separate from the play and, yes, I am going to say it, the play’s the thing. Not to catch the conscience of a mind, but to catch the conscious mind itself, to fully imagine the theater of landscape in the round. Designing from the inside-out gives you multiple perspectives and multiple opportunities to see a property as fluid, something that changes as you move through it.
Standing inside requires more from the designer, perhaps, but it also offers more in terms of design cues. There’s more to be seen in the round than can be perceived from an outside vantage, and that increased awareness offers us an expanded range of response. There’s something additional at work here, though, and that’s sheer physical volume. The volume of space, and the volume of things in that space, elicit a bodily response from us that the painterly approach cannot generate. We react, we mere mortals, to the size and shape and age of things; we react to light and to the pace of our steps as we move from A to B. Sight alone cannot give us this visceral response. Space requires our presence to be understood, requires us to stand within, to feel whatever we can.
I’m tempted to say feel whatever we can in relation to the objects inside that space, but our response isn’t limited to the objects. We also respond to the visual weight of the space itself. If you’re a fan of high ceilings, you’ll know that a small room with a low ceiling feels cramped; with a higher ceiling, that same footprint could feel positively airy. In cases like this, perception is reality and the only way to get the perception is to put yourself in the middle. You won’t get every observation, or every bit and bite that others get, but you’ll comprehend more than you would by standing outside and merely looking at the scene.
One more point: the impact of shapes within the space is also registered bodily; sharp things actually feel sharp, soft things feel soft, and the way we move around those shapes, the way we engage them, is a function of that bodily perception. That perception is at work in relation to age, as well. Standing alongside a ten-year-old tree will evoke an entirely different response from standing by one that’s been around for a century. Ancient trees like the giant redwoods in the Northwest will elicit, from most of us, not only a sense of reverence, but also a feeling of kinship. That kinship, albeit to a lesser degree, is the emotion in play with grand old trees of all kinds.
Old stonework has an ethos all its own, as well. So does architecture, in equal measures because we envision its history and because it invokes our own. These things have a weight that goes beyond the object’s true dimension, and that weight is only apprehended by putting ourselves into the mix, by physically engaging with the space and all the elements within it. Only after that do we have enough information to begin the design process.
That process is a matter of putting the visual cues together with the physical cues to establish the design equivalent of a neural network. That’s another 3-D image, which again takes us out of the purely linear, to-and-fro of either standard theater or standard landscape design. Using all the cues gives us a complete picture and allows us to draw that picture in reality, on the ground. Establishing these mental, visual and physical links allows us to produce a design which will evoke, for visitors to the property, a rich, round experience.
AESTHETICS OF LOCALE: The Use of Vernacular Aesthetic to Enhance Residential Landscape Design and Preserve the Intangibles of Place
The vernacular aesthetic of a region’s botanic array is one of the chief means by which humans connect ~ emotionally, psychologically and spiritually ~ to the places they inhabit. That array, particularly in the residential landscape, is often stripped out and replaced with a hybridized, standardized confection, doing disservice both to the site’s human occupants and to its biotic community. I claim it further a disservice to the human community as a whole, since these landscapes are part of the common visual and are therefore a shared aesthetic wherein the diminishment of one is the diminishment of all.
Designers are under the imperative to act, but until we begin to value the inherent aesthetic of locale as much as we value the right of property owners to impose upon the land whatever design they fancy, residential landscapers will continue to favor homogeneity over diversity to the detriment, not only of native flora and fauna, but ourselves. The ‘blank slate’ approach to design, although sustainable in the sense that hybrid plant varieties will continue to be available, comes at too high a price; once lost, vernacular aesthetic will be impossible to recover. UNESCO’s drive to preserve intangible cultural heritage reminds us that vernacular, the visual as well as the verbal, has societal value.
It is time to step away from this impositional methodology, take the landscape as a partner in the process and create built environments in harmony with the totality of their natural surrounds. It is time for us to put the vernacular aesthetic foremost in the design brief; time for us to consider the intangibles of place a bona fide value; time for us to recognize the whole pie and not merely our piece. The whole is the landscape of the everyday, what the environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan calls ‘near nature’ and that very nearness contains within it the opportunity for daily connection, person to place. Person to generic anywhere lacks the power of connection, which also means it lacks the power to provide the emotional and psychological benefits which accrue from such contact. Further, maintaining the visual connections between the botany of the specific design site and the botany of the broader region enables design cohesion by effecting subtle repetition of color and form. These more delicate connectors, often not consciously recognized but nonetheless registered, contribute to the feeling that the property remains intact despite the incorporation of the built landscape.
The aggregate of land in the residential arena is huge, and as designers we have a responsibility to see the broader impact of our actions on the health and well-being of all the players. Designing to the vernacular aesthetic is a direct and immediate exercise of that responsibility.
Brick is sold by the piece and by the pallet. Used brick has been salvaged from sites/buildings undergoing redevelopment and is usually more expensive than new. Bricks vary widely in color but not in size; discounting the half-bricks used by masons to face concrete, dimensions are a pretty regular 4”x4”x8”.
Brick is fine for secondary paths, but since it tends to be slippery when wet I avoid its use in primary walkways or areas which are usually in some degree of shade (shade = damp = potential slip and fall).
Concrete pavers are brick-sized and multi-colored. I’m not crazy about them for anything but driveways — and even then with reservations — but they are incredibly durable. There are porous versions, and also some designed like sheets of mosaic tiles allowing grass to grow in and around them, softening the look.
Cobblestone is sold by the piece and by the pallet. There’s a wide range of available sizes and most stone yards carry them in three colors: gray, black and pink. They’re sized in jumbo (10”x7”x4”) and regular (9”x5”x4”) but many stone yards also carry a ‘landscapers’ size which corresponds to brick. These can act as visual breaks in a brick walk without changing the measurements, but also can act as a foot break by providing additional traction to guard against slipping. I use them with longer granite treads, both for the interesting visual mix as well as safety.
Granite treads are ordinarily used to top the risers on brick staircases or as hearth/mantle pieces, but they are terrific walkway material. They tend to be more expensive, but mixing them with cobblestone cuts the cost. Since they can be installed quickly, the cost of labor is reduced so I find that it’s pretty much a wash in budgeting the overall project. Although most granite is sold by the square foot, treads are usually priced by the linear foot; you may also, as I have, luck into pieces that the stone yard really wants to clear out, so don’t be afraid to ask if there’s a deal to be had!
Flagstone and slate are compositionally similar — both are sedimentary rock — and both can be had in regular or irregular shapes. Both also have a wide range of color; I’m a huge fan of lilac bluestone (a sandstone more in the purple range than blue) and a flagstone called chocolate gray, which mixes beautifully with the color range of New England granite. I do this because I prefer stonework to sit in a site rather than on it and a visual blend that mimics what is seen in the broader arena helps ensure that the built and unbuilt environments mesh.
Gravel comes in all shapes and sizes; peastone (so named for it’s size) is the most common for walkways, but I find that ¾” round has just the right ‘crunch’ to evoke walking along the stone beaches so common to Maine. Loose stone is sold by the ton; the supplier will be able to give you the approximate area covered by a 2″ or 3″ layer.
River jacks are the smooth, flattened, round stones you probably ‘skipped’ as a kid, although the ones for landscaping can be quite large. Smaller jacks are great for adding visual interest to walkways (they’re usually too expensive to be anything but top dressing) while the larger are perfect for adding drama or directionality to artistic stonework — areas meant for viewing rather than walking. While the smaller are most often sold by the ton, larger stones are sold either by the piece or pallet.
Groundcovers other than grass are used both for visual cohesion and weed control; those that are walkable include moss and creeping thyme. These wouldn’t survive in areas of heavy traffic, but for occasional use pathways they’re super.
Bark mulch: I’m not really a fan of mulching pathways, but use it liberally in the gardens and around trees. I like something commonly referred to as ‘dark bark’ for its shredded consistency and its color, since I don’t find the bark chunks to be as effective in weed control and the Day-Glo orange stuff is positively scary. Mulches, like compost, are sold by the bag or by the cubic yard (3’x3’x3′) meaning you’ll have to do a bit of math to figure out what you’ll need to cover at a 2″ to 4″ depth. Don’t go deeper than that, by the way; it won’t benefit the plants and just tends to go moldy. Mulch should not come in contact with the tree trunk; it rots the bark! Yes, I know you see it all over the place, but Master Gardeners everywhere will tell you it’s a no-no.
There are lots of other possibilities for use as mulch, including buckwheat hulls, pine needles and chocolate-scented whatevers, but for simplicity’s sake I prefer covers that blend into the scenery, stay where I put them and do their job. Primarily, that’s weed control, moisture control and erosion control. A secondary benefit can be an enhancement of acidity (in the case of pine needles or cedar chips) but I tend to use liquid applications of products like Miracid for specific plants and let the mulch simply be the mulch.
NB: I’ve seen a lot of homeowners using compost in place of mulch, but it seems to me that only provides a ready surface for weeds and doesn’t actually use the compost to advantage, which is the ‘leavening’ of the garden soil itself to give the roots of your plants the environment they need to be successful. Hate to use the trite adage of building a house on a good foundation, but in the case of both houses and plants, underground is where it’s at!
Annual: a plant that goes from seed to flower to seed in one growing season; aka one and done. Included are most of the flowers commonly used in planters and hanging baskets, like impatients and begonias, as well as those sown for ‘cutting’ gardens, like cosmos and zinnias.
Biennial: a plant that forms in year one, flowers in year two, sets seed and dies; aka two and through. Many of these plants, like Dame’s Rocket, appear to be perennial because they self-sow and the patch continues to flower.
Bulb: a nifty little self-contained system, often related to garlic or onion, that produces flowers. With the exception of tulips, which seem to peter out over time no matter what you do, bulbs will continue not only to flower year after year but continue to produce more of themselves by forming bulblets, connected to the parent bulb but capable of being split off and planted on their own.
Some bulbs, like my favorite Turk’s Cap lilies, also produce bulbils which form at the leaf junctures all along the stem. These bulbils drop like seed, sprout, and eventually form plants of their own. Clever things, having two forms of reproduction!
Perennial: plants which, with few exceptions, come back up year after year, often doubling in size in just a season or two. The exceptions are the so-called ‘tender‘ perennials, like delphinia, which never seem to acquire the strength (at least in Northern gardens) to survive and thrive. Their more rugged brethren ~ Siberian iris and day lily ~ are virtually indestructible even in the hands of the most derelict gardener.
Save for peonies, the Garbos of the garden, clump-forming perennials should be divided every three to five years to avoid the center of the clump becoming so congested it begins to die out and forces all new growth to the outer edge of the ring. Anyone who’s ever tried to separate an old, untouched clump of Siberian iris knows how impenetrable that center can be, impervious to all but the sharpest of spades. Dig and divide in three to five, for the good of both the plant and your back! If you’re faced with such a clump, use a straight spade (your local hardware store likely has someone who can put a sharp edge on it) and be ruthless. Ordinarily I’d say hand-separate to tease out each individual rhizome (or tuber, in the case of day lilies) but when the clump is that far gone your spade and a sturdy work boot are the best course.
There are a couple of other circumstances that cause this type of center die-back as well: crown rot, a fungus which affects hosta, among others, causing die-back at the crown; and iris borers, pesky little caterpillars that eat their way through the meaty flesh of rhizomes, their favorites being bearded iris. Both are pretty easy to spot and pretty easy to correct.
Herbaceous plants: die back at the end of every year and flower solely on new growth ~ think green herb rather than brown spice.
Woody plants: do not die back every year and flower on both new and old (aka woody) growth. Many of these plants, oddly enough, are herbs ~ the landscape workhorses of lavender, English thyme and Russian sage among them.
Architectural plants: usually refers to those plants with bold, clean shapes that make a ‘statement’ in the landscape. I prefer a broader definition, one that encompasses plants which directly reflect architectural shapes ~ a vase-shaped tree, for example, is the flip side of a sharply-angled roof, while a globe-shaped tree is its complement. This still leaves out all material too delicate or fussy to be considered a statement of anything, but keeps the design process focused on the interrelationship of all shapes on the site, whether architectural, botanical or topographical.
In the article Divide and Conquer, I encouraged you to use the geometry of both the land and the architecture to create a design that complements the site. If you’ve done that, here’s your reward. In this phase of the design process we enter the realm of style, where personality comes to the fore. I’ll use the sharply-pitched roof of an historic home in the West End of Portland, Maine, to show you how those elements are woven into landscape design.
The house was a stick-built John Calvin Stevens whose most prominent form, streetside, was the strong peak of the porch roof. Even without the extremely Victorian trim colors of violet and teal, this roof line was inescapable, and needed something to act as visual ballast. My first choice would have been to plant something with a complementary O-shape, but on such a small city lot there was no way to install a globe-shaped tree of sufficient weight.
Vase-shaped it was. After that, it was a matter of finding something mid-story, zone-hardy, with strong color and a tolerance of city life. Spring blossoms would be nice, and perhaps a good Fall color change. Summer was something of an issue, not in terms of blooming but because the clients spent a good part of the season on island. All the plant material had to be somewhat indifferent to care.
So what was the choice? An Ornamental Plum which, though it has a nondescript flower, has a gorgeous bronze leaf, tinged purple, that stays vivid Spring through Fall. It’s fronted by a row of tree-form PeeGee Hydrangea for that circular balance, and the geometry of the space is echoed in the perennials: lush, round peonies, Miscanthus Gracillimus with its sharply-turned blades, the fat trumpets of day lilies… you get the idea. In a very small area, we have a very rich garden.
By using the modern versions of heirloom varieties we acknowledged the historic nature of the property, but we kept the space rooted in the here-and-now. Many of the perennials are childhood favorites of the owners, and the color scheme is a reflection of what I suspect is the secret wild side of two people who outwardly seem quite reserved.
This is where those three self-descriptive words (see the article Three Little Words) come in handy; it’s a way of getting quickly to what really matters. It’s a cipher, a translator for the enigma of personality. In the act of describing themselves, people reveal not only who they are, but what they want in terms of garden design. There are other ways, as well; sometimes it is as simple as asking, Why? What is there about that plant, that tree, that style of garden, that speaks to you? It may be a childhood memory; more often, it’s a question of self-image.
Let’s go, for a moment, to another site, studded with harsh juniper against the backdrop of a gorgeous wet meadow (see the article Gardening Heresy). Juniper is rugged and strong and imposing, the traits many associate with masculinity. It came as no surprise to find that the person who planted the stuff — and Mugo pine and Balsam and Blue spruce and Cotoneaster — was a man. Here’s the question that he never asked: Is it possible to express those qualities in a style that is compatible with the site?
When I handled the redesign, I did ask and my answer, of course, was yes. There are any number of so-called ‘architectural’ plants, plants that are bold enough to stand alone, impressive enough to anchor a group. They are the ‘alphas’ of the plant world, and for the alphas of the human world — male and female — they make a statement. There are also techniques of mass planting for dynamic line, and repeat planting for dramatic effect. Compressing the focus to such a narrow lens was too limited to serve either the property or the owner. The wide angle that comes from asking the question gives us more room to play, and more stuff to play with.
So far we have three little words and one really great question; let’s add a tell. Yes, just like poker, and every client I’ve ever had and every student I’ve ever taught has revealed at least one. The first example of a tell you’ve read about already: those wild Victorian colors of teal and violet. It’s true that the owners were being historically correct but those colors had to be, they just had to be, an expression of personality as well. You couldn’t enter that house day after day and not love them. That said volumes, to me, about the personalities of the people who would make such a choice.
The same kind of tell was revealed by one of my first students, so quiet on those rare occasions when she spoke that I had to lean in a bit just to hear her. She didn’t really know what she wanted, she said, and she didn’t really know what she liked, but there would be Oriental poppies somewhere on her property. Classic orange, and lots of them. Period.
An Oriental poppy is about the sexiest flower going, with a fat seed pod nestled in a blue-black throat at the base of a grand orange bowl. Except at the hand of Georgia O’Keefe flowers don’t get much more erotic so, quiet or not, buttoned-down or not, this woman obviously had a wild streak. Since I am only too happy to encourage wildness, I urged her to develop a design based on that color and that passion. Passion is a strong indicator of true self, and whether that passion is for color or form or scent or anything else, it’s a good guideline for the implementation of your design.
There are more subtle expressions, too, and they can be tipoffs. Recently I asked a client who was struggling to find her style what the ideal table setting would be for a dinner party. They would dine by candlelight, she said, and the service would be set on a beautiful damask cloth. Plain china with a simple gilt rim; clear crystal goblets; Victorian sterling with mother-of-pearl handles.
Sounds like a garden to me, and I’ll tell you how it translates. Unlike plain linen, damask has a tone-on-tone pattern woven in thread with a slight sheen; this implies an appreciation of texture and the subtle layering of a quiet garden. The plain china is minimal and unfussy; the gilt edge adds just that bit of elegance, as does the mother-of-pearl in the hilt of the flatware. That tells me she wants plants with good bones and no frills, but varieties perhaps a little out of the ordinary.
Imagine her crystal, reflected by candlelight in the burnished sheen of vintage sterling, and think rich, dark sensuality. There are dozens of shrubs and perennials in the darkest purples that fill the bill, and reds so deep we call them black. Pair either of those with cream and chartreuse; mate the purple with violet or the midnight red with copper pink and you have a smoldering, sexy, multi-layered landscape. Since we already had the variety of Japanese maple known as ‘bloodgood’ and some fat cream-to-copper hydrangea on the property, my color choice was set and it was just a matter of bringing in the additional pieces that would add depth and texture.
Whether or not you understand the language of the garden, you already are speaking a language that can be used to mark your path. Parlay your description of self, your passions and your quirks into an authentic, resonant design. The trick is to go inside yourself before you go out into the landscape.
I shot a piece for the local news on a project I recently finished, trying to tell the show’s viewers — in two-and-a-half minutes — how to use the features of their land to direct their landscape designs. I can take a bit longer here, but it’s really quite simple. The design exemplifies the land, the implementation of that design exemplifies the person.
The reason I chose that particular site to film was that it showed, in graphic detail, what happens when you don’t take your design cues from the land. The property itself is a big, bold hill on which sits a big, bold house, unfortunately fronted by a bitsy little walkway replete with bitsy little curves set in bitsy little bricks and cobbles. The architect followed the land; the builder followed the land; the only person who didn’t follow the land was the landscape designer, and so the design falls flat.
There are any number of sites like this, and I suspect it’s because the designs for these sites are conceived on paper and not on the land. When your design emanates from the property, you move out of the realm of two-dimensional design and into the world of 3-D; in this world, the entire property becomes a walkable sculpture. This is the first leg of the design triangle.
Whether hilly or flat, treed or pastoral, city or country, each site has a geometry with which you can play. A hill provides a strong arc, a flat city lot is often graphically rectangular. A stand of spruce evokes a triangle, an old apple tree is a circle. Trees are classified, in fact, by their growth habits: globe-shaped, columnar, vase-shaped, spreading.
The house, which is leg number two, has a geometry as well, but that geometry varies depending on the side in view. A pitched roof that forms a strong triangle may be the dominant feature on the front, while the rear of the house may be a simple square.
If you combine the primary shapes from each aspect of the property and each aspect of the house, you have the beginnings of a pattern. To complete the landscape leg of the design triangle you need do only one of two things: conform to the pattern, or move in counterpoint. For example, that prominent roof peak forms the same angle as a vase-shaped tree. If you install that tree, you conform to the pattern; if you install a globe-shaped tree, you complement the pattern.
Either choice is correct, as long as the choice is an equivalent visual weight. A tree-form Pee-Gee Hydrangea, for example, could be the perfect complement to a sharply peaked roof if that roof sits atop a cottage. If that roof sits atop a two- or three-story house, however, such a little tree will be overwhelmed and the effect lost. If the property size realistically does not permit a more substantial globe-shaped tree, then a tall vase-shaped tree becomes the logical choice to balance such a large structure.
No worries, though, if your heart was set on round. There are vase-shaped magnolias with fat, round flowers to choose from, and round stands of lilac with with elegant, floral cones. The decision to compare or contrast can be made at all levels, and each decision helps define the next choice.
I have a client who insists that secretly I think of his property as my client, and that he just pays the bills. He says it as a joke but the truth is, he’s not wrong. My commitment is to the land first, because most of what I do is permanent. The house will change hands time and again, but generations from now the trees will be there, the granite will be there, the peonies will be there. If I design for the land, that design will do more than just transcend owners; it will allow whoever lives there the freedom to change styles without altering the essential elements of the design. Property-centered design forms the skeleton; you can flesh it out as you like without starting from scratch and without losing the beauty of mature growth. This particular property is lucky to have an owner who is a good steward of the land and dedicated, despite his teasing, to preserving it.
Years ago I redesigned a sunny, southwestern slope overlooking an expansive wet meadow, taking it from a thicket of juniper to waves of lavender, day lily and ornamental grasses. The lavender is in there to discourage the deer, who hate the scent, from eating the day lilies, which they love. The grasses are there because they have shallow root systems — just the thing for soil retention on a slope — and are happiest in full sun. The lilies are Hyperion, because the owner loves yellow, and the lavender is Hidcote, because purple is the color opposite of yellow and Hidcote is the best of the purples.
The truth, though, is that this space could have been filled with anything that met the design criteria of the space and the needs of the site. It could have been reed grass and blue oat grass and miscanthus; it could have been a stream of lavender; it could have been common orange day lily and Russian sage. Anything with a billowy, breezy habit would have done.
The design criteria dictated only the form, which was meant to balance, to mimic the form of the meadow just beyond. The other two legs of the triangle were fixed: the house was there, the meadow was there, and the land rolled gracefully from one into the other. There was nothing else to do, in keeping with those elements, but to fill the slope with materials that fit the texture and the temperament of the land.
The former owner committed design treason when he installed juniper — stiff, sharp, severe — on a site that was soft, round and inviting. He did it because he liked juniper, apparently of every genus and every variety; he did it because it suited his style.
The problem was that his style didn’t suit the form of the land. It might have suited the architecture of the house, had the house been built on a parcel surrounded by something more structural than meadow. On a site with a mountain view or even a view of the city, the architecture would have taken on a harder edge, and the rugged nature of the juniper would have been right at home.
The gentle roll of this site, combined with the ephemeral feel of the meadow, made the introduction of such harsh plant material visually disturbing. Visual dissonance leads to emotional dissonance, that feeling just beneath the skin that something isn’t quite right.
This is not the same as using color contrasts or geometric opposites to do fun things with the visual palate; it is a type of dissonance akin to watching a delightful romantic comedy where, in the last scene, everybody dies. I grant you, there are some movies in which that actually could be amusing, but for the most part it would just leave your brain screaming What?
Remember the qualities that drew you to the site in the first place. Remember that form follows function. What is the function of landscape design? To complement the site. How do we do that? We complete the design triangle by establishing the shape of things to come.
I adore two men, neither of whom I’ve had the fortune to meet. Fellow gardener Henry Mitchell, because he cares as much about language as he does about gardening, and James Howard Kunstler, because no one writes about the misuse of land with a sharper tongue, nor has a sharper eye.
I say this, I suppose, as a way to gird my loins against what I suspect will be the wholesale rejection of an article I just submitted. I met the editor’s deadline, but I don’t think I met her expectation. I realize that writers are neurotic on principle and I realize that a day or two of silence doesn’t necessarily mean that she hates it, but I am wrapping myself in two of the toughest guys I know, just in case.
The problem is me, naturally; I said yes to an assignment that I should have passed. It was the first thing this magazine ever offered me, and I lept at the chance before I saw the site they wanted me to review. I’m having this wild flashback to the time a bunch of neighborhood kids and I snuck onto the site of a new house being built. We were up on the foundation when one of my fellow hooligans spied a car coming around the corner. Everyone else had the brains to take the short drop to the inside, but I jumped out, landing on some construction debris and shredding the ligaments in my right ankle.
I think this is going to be that; I think I have torn the connective tissue between this lovely little mag and me. This time it’s not because I was doing something wrong, though, unless you consider offering a highly opinionated opinion wrong. Honest to God, I tried to keep my mouth shut and write some pleasant little piece extolling the virtues of this thing that everybody else seems to love. I just couldn’t do it, and I swear that neither Henry nor Jim could have done it, either.
The site is dead boring; there’s no other way to say it. Well, that’s not exactly true, I suppose, because I spent seven hundred words saying everything but “this site is painfully, unrelentingly dull.” Well, that’s not exactly true, either; I spent four months and seven hundred words. I kept going back to the installation praying that I would see something, anything, even remotely interesting, praying that I’d find some way around the truth, praying that I’d have an aneurysm before the deadline. None of that happened, and though I wanted to say that the site might have bored me to tears if it hadn’t been so banal that it sucked out the energy needed to cry, I didn’t. Not one of those seven hundred words is that truthful.
I know that it’s just a demonstration garden, and I know that it’s demonstrating for a good cause, but these people were given two-and-a-half acres of land to play with. Two-and-a-half acres! I’ll grant that it butts up against a major thoroughfare, which isn’t the greatest backdrop, but it fronts the bay, which ain’t too shabby. And did I mention the two-and-a-half acres? Can you imagine the fun they could have had with the design? Can you imagine the fun we could have had if they’d had fun?
We’re on the Maine coast; how about a compass rose? How about a series of waves, or fat, geometric forms? I wouldn’t have cared if they’d made one huge P for Portland — in fact, I’d probably have been pretty amused — but to do something as pedestrian as you’d see at the mall is unforgivable.
But I didn’t say that in the article, either. I didn’t quote Jekyll’s “wearisome monotony of variety” to describe the planting of this and this and this example of pest-free whatever, and I stifled any expression of glee in recounting the substantial loss of plants the garden had suffered. I did urge them to take advantage of the loss and replant with a freer, more robust hand, but that wasn’t enough to make me happy about the article. I suspect it won’t make the editor happy, either, but for reasons opposite mine.
So here’s the second seven hundred words, and the likely end of my free-lance career with Port City Life. At least I’m not bored.
What if I told you that the success of your garden had less to do with plants than with proportion? Or that a simple ratio, used by the Hindus and the Moors and brought to Europe by a thirteenth-century Italian, could solve almost all your design issues? You’d probably think that I’d abandoned my Master Gardener roots, or worse, but it’s true.
I designed a garden years ago that seemed to make people unusually happy. I watched as they marveled over this or that feature, this or that plant, and I began to wonder why the space was so magnetic. The need to figure out what I had done led me to research the relationship between design and human behavior, and that lead me to Fibonacci and his ratio. It is the proportion used by da Vinci to compose paintings and by the architect Le Corbusier to configure buildings.
The ratio creates a geometric figure known as a ‘golden rectangle,’ which occurs when the short side is .618 times the long side. Even in modern society, that relationship is everywhere: an index card, a credit card, common rug sizes, you name it. For any number of reasons, humans gravitate to that proportion. Perhaps because we recognize the ratio even in our own bodies: our torsos are typically about one-third the overall body measurement, leaving the bulk of us squarely in Fibonacci territory. Looking at the human face straight on, our eyes are usually set a third of the way from hairline to jaw, and I’ve read (though I have yet to ask for volunteers) that if you put a frame around the average human head, that frame would be of golden proportion. Lo and behold, the perimeter of my garden marks a near-perfect golden rectangle.
That ratio also makes an appearance in the Fibonacci sequence, a rather famous series of numbers that goes like so: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. The next number in the sequence is 13, which is both the sum of the two numbers that come before it and the product of the ratio. If I multiply the number 8 by the ratio’s inverse, 1.618, I get the number 13. As an artist I can tell you that there is a certain ‘dynamic tension’ in an odd number of items that doesn’t exist with an even number, but it never occurred to me that using a proportionate number of ‘odds’ to ‘evens’ could give the entire space that same kind of energy.
It’s fascinating to find math, a left-brained function, and art, which is decidedly right, in complete agreement. Had I applied myself more diligently to math in school, my studies would have told me to fill the garden with plant materials in that proportion; fortunately, my artist’s sensibility told me the same thing. When I checked the planting chart for the garden, I found that I had grouped the shrubs and perennials according to the Fibonacci sequence of 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8, a combination that gave the garden balance.
The ratio also applies to plant height: a six-foot dwarf tree looks perfectly balanced against shrubs that max out at about four feet; those four-foot shrubs look fabulous paired with perennials of two-and-a-half feet. Even if you’re new to gardening those numbers will have a familiar ring; they seem to be some of Nature’s favorite heights. The proportion looks right to our collective eye because we see it all around us.
The only plants in my ‘golden rectangle’ held over from the original landscaping are two Boule de Neige rhododendrons, anchoring the space left and right. I pruned them into tree form by elevating their canopies, eliminating the bottom two-thirds of the branches. It’s a style that instantly gives leggy, overgrown rhodies a real presence, and it also frees the area beneath the canopy for planting complementary material. I capped the height at six feet and confined the flowering to the upper third of the shrub. That balance between visually open and visually full — what an artist knows as positive and negative space — also repeats the torso-to-body proportion, which gives the rhodies a subtle human quality.
I built the garden further by installing eight Nikko Blue hydrangea, and not just because I wanted those luscious, round heads as a summer echo of the spring-flowering rhododendron. Here in Maine, even though we’re a Zone 5 along the southern coast, Nikkos suffer a good deal of die-back; ironically, that makes them ideal for the interior of this garden. Every year they confine themselves to their four-by-four-foot allotment, giving them the perfect proportion against the elevated rhodies. The majority of the perennials that complete this garden are about two-and-a-half-feet tall, the golden companion to the shrub height.
The walkway wrapping the three exposed sides of this garden repeats the proportion, as well. The thirty-inch-squares of bluestone are arranged in a pattern that uses a strand (2, 3, 5) of the Fibonacci sequence, a fact that leaves me alternately pleased and dismayed. Pleased that at last I know the reason the design works so well, dismayed that the reason seems to have little to do with artistic brilliance.
So for all you left-brainers out there who think you couldn’t design a garden for love nor money, think again; here’s a method of creation that’s right up your alley. For the right-brainers, here’s a way to channel your instincts and fine-tune your ideas. As for me, I think this year I’ll play around with proportionate color, and see if I can control the saturation ratio. Hmmm… looks like I’ll have to add thirteenth-century mathematics to my list of favorite Italian things!
The current landscaping within the area pictured below does nothing to highlight the beautiful birch at the center, nothing to enhance the landscape as a whole, and nothing to improve habitat for the local wildlife. There’s one solution to all three problems — one simple act of stewardship in the form of half-highs, a cross between high-bush and low-bush blueberry, to replace the assorted perennials and weed-infested grass. There’s nothing wrong with the perennials in and of themselves, so in accordance with my favorite mantra ~ reduce, reuse, recycle and replant ~ they’ll be transplanted to other areas of the property. The grass covering the back half of the space will be dug and ditched, the soil amended and the blues installed all around.
Balsam fir • Red maple (Swamp maple) • Sugar maple • Rock maple • Mountain maple • Yellow birch • Paper birch • Gray birch • American hornbeam • Blue-beech • Pagoda dogwood • Cockspur thorn • White ash • Green ash • Larch • Hackmatack • Tamarack • Black gum • American hophornbeam • White spruce • Cat spruce • Black spruce • Jack pine • Red pine • Norway pine • White pine • Bigtooth aspen • Quaking aspen • Trembling aspen • Pin cherry (fire cherry, bird cherry) • Black cherry • White oak • Northern red oak • Black willow • American mountainash • Northern white cedar • Arborvitae • Basswood • American linden • Eastern hemlock
Downy serviceberry • Eastern serviceberry • Smooth serviceberry • Allegheny serviceberry • Bog rosemary • Buttonbush • Sweetfern • Gray dogwood • Red osier dogwood • American hazelnut • Bush-honeysuckle • Leatherwood • Common witchhazel • Winterberry • Black-alder • Common juniper • Sheep laurel • Lambkill • Sweetgale • Northern bayberry • Bush cinquefoil • Black chokeberry • Beach plum • Chokecherry • Rhodora • Labrador tea • Staghorn sumac • Meadow rose • Pasture rose • Virginia rose • Pussy willow • American elder • Scarlet elder • Canadian yew • Highbush blueberry • Mapleleaf viburnum • Hobblebush • Arrowwood viburnum • Nannyberry • Witherod • Wild-raisin • Highbush cranberry
VINES AND GROUND COVERS
Running serviceberry • Bearberry • American bittersweet • Virgin’s bower • Bunchberry • Checkerberry • Wintergreen • Creeping juniper • Partridgeberry • Woodbine • Virginia creeper • Lowbush blueberry • Cranberry • Fox grape
White baneberry • Red baneberry • Columbine • Spikenard • Silverweed • Jack-in-the-pulpit • Milkweed • Marsh marigold • Harebell • Blue cohosh • White turtlehead • Bluebead-lily • Trout-lily • Dog’s-tooth-violet • Joe-pye weed • Boneset • Blue flag • Indian cucumber-root • Obedient plant • Solomon’s seal • Bloodroot • New England aster • New York aster • Foam flower • Wild-oats • Violet • Viola species
Maidenhair fern • Lady fern • Hay-scented fern • Spinulose wood fern • Marginal wood fern • Ostrich fern • Sensitive fern • Cinnamon fern • Interrupted fern • Royal fern • Long beech fern • Christmas fern
I used to be a working chef. I tell you that because chefs are more than just really good cooks; we live, eat, sleep and breath food. I still cook, of course, mostly because I don’t know how to stop. I still create recipes and talk to fellow foodies and host dinners so that I can use my friends to test the new creations. I still can be counted on to have a bag of roasted garlic in the fridge, and usually some roasted shallots as well — the small ones, so there’s lots of caramelized bits — and I still make the best scones you’ll ever taste. I tell you this because when I was injured and had to stop being a chef, I was lost for a long while. I didn’t think there could be, ever, anything I’d love as much as I loved that life.
I was wrong. Mercifully, wonderfully, wrong, and I can tell you the moment I knew I was a goner as surely as I could tell you the moment I fell for this lover or that, what he looked like and what he smelled like and the very first things we said. I knew it the moment I heard myself trying to explain to a friend why the Fibonacci ratio works for land design, and why people universally seem to gravitate toward the golden proportion. I knew he thought I was nuts, and I knew I didn’t care; I was in gardener heaven. In the nerd section, to be sure, but heaven nonetheless, the heaven of passionate immersion.
I used to read cookbooks the way other people read novels, cover to cover and usually in bed, curled up with M.F.K. Fisher or my prize possession, a 1927 copy of Fannie Farmer, reading about the science of cooking. By my bed now is the 1956 copy of Landscaping for Western Living I found at a Salvation Army a few weeks ago, and I became so enamored of a book called Designing for Human Behavior I’d checked out of the library that I hunted down a copy for my own. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, by the way; the bulk of it is dull as ditch water. There are parts, though, there are parts, and in my quest to understand why we respond to our environment the way we do, I’ll settle for parts.
It doesn’t talk about landscape architecture, really, just about architecture proper, but the thing that makes me craziest about my profession is that we don’t treat spatial design outdoors the way architects treat spatial design indoors. We don’t take into account the forms we see, in the land and the existing structures, when we design the gardens or choose the materials.
We talk about sunlight, the quantity of it or the quality of it, but we don’t talk about ambient light, and how that will make the space feel as people walk through it. How it will change throughout the day. What it will look like as the sun, slowly, slips behind the moon. How the cool of the evening will be washed into the granite steps, and how the morning dew will pool in the dips and turns of the stone, the quartz fault lines shimmering just below.
We talk about curve, but we don’t talk about curvaceous, about luscious and full and round. About the shocking sensuality of an Oriental poppy, the lush roundness of it or the perfect circle of jet buried at its core. We don’t talk about double peonies, with row upon row upon row of curved petals in pink so pale it’s nearly white or so deep it’s like blackberry sorbet. We don’t talk about stacking those curves, the one upon the other, across the lawn or down the hillside like clouds, like waves, like ripples in a pond or bubbles blown by a giggling five-year-old.
We don’t talk about arc in counterpoint to line, a full-on arc, from edge to edge with a radius, with a depth of curve that reflects the height of the building it’s designed to match. We talk about globe and sphere, but only in tree shape and never in shadow, equally round, equally grand, a shadow that kisses but never covers the far edge of the walkway as it turns toward the door. We don’t talk about what it means to reach but never quite touch, or about what it means that the shadow line hits that mark only once a day, and only for a matter of minutes. About what it means to stand quietly there and watch it happen, and then watch it shift, and then go about your day. About what it means that this occurs only at a particular time of year, or about what it means to watch that shadow line recede as the season wanes and the sun drops low.
We talk about perspective, but only in the literal sense of proportion and never in the figurative point-of-view. We don’t talk about the fun of configuring a garden that changes someone’s mindset, or state of mind or state of being. We don’t talk about the power of the garden to alter who we are. About the power to lift us out of ourselves, to ease sadness, to instill calm, to transfix with beauty, fleeting.
We talk about walkways that turn, ever so slightly and for no apparent reason, but we don’t talk about constructing a walkway that turns the walker’s head. About the difference between an S-curve, that doesn’t cause you to look in another direction, and an actual 90º turn that does. About the power of the turn, and what it means to reposition someone physically, to build into the design an opportunity for pause. That pause leads to reflection, and reflection to serenity, and serenity to the very essence of the garden.
I talk about all of it. I talk about it here, in my classes and to my clients. I probably talk about it in my sleep, but that’s another story. Welcome, fellow gardeners, to the love affair that never ends. I wish you passionate gardening.
I remember standing in my parents’ kitchen several years ago listening to my mother complain about the trees in the back yard, how the branches had all grown back, how shaded the area had become, how poorly the sun-loving perennials she’d planted were doing. All this by way of discussing, yet again, the apparently never-ending argument she and Dad were having about pruning the trees on their woodland property. “Wouldn’t you think after all this time,” she was saying, “he’d just take care of it?” She meant, of course, wouldn’t he just give in and give her the bright, sunny space she wanted? No, actually, I wouldn’t have thought that; Dad liked the trees and didn’t give a damn about the flowers. I managed a certain amount of diplomacy in my answer, I think, but I really wanted to say, “What are you, nuts?”
Expecting my father to change was as crazy as expecting my mother to change, but that pales in comparison to the kind of crazy you have to be to expect Nature to change. If you build a house in the woods, it doesn’t matter how many trees you remove, you have a house in the woods. You do not have, and you will not have, sunny meadows full of flowers, because nature will work overtime to fill that space with the things that were there before you. All you have to do to see the advantage that Nature has over you is to take a look at a pine cone and count the seeds, then take a look at the number of pine cones on a tree. Think you and your little pruning saw are any match? Think again.
While you’re thinking, take a look at the little propellers the surround a maple seed. They’re designed to carry that seed far enough away from the parent tree that the sapling will get all the sun and nutrient it needs to survive, and oak trees are so clever they get squirrels to do the work for them. Clever as we are, with all the tools at our disposal, we are simply outgunned. Nature has a bigger arsenal and all the time in the world.
It’s easier to find the right environment — for a plant or a person — than to continually manipulate a wrong environment in an attempt to get it to behave according to your desire. My favorite example of this happened a few years ago and involves a couple of peegee hydrangea, an extraordinary oceanside property, and people with way too much money.
The hydrangea had been planted in partial shade, which is okay everywhere except waterfront property. On waterfront property things planted in the shade never completely dry out, and things that don’t dry out are the ideal breeding ground for mold. When I saw these poor little trees I realized that fully half of the branches — the half that were in the deepest shade — had blossoms that were absolutely black with mildew. The other half — the ones that received a bit more sun — were lovely. The damp ocean breeze enveloped the entire tree, of course, but the sunnier side was able to dry out before the mildew could take hold.
Now most of us would say, Oh, I get it, I need to plant something else there, and put the peegees in another spot. That was exactly my advice. Did the owners take my advice? No. They hired a guy with a tree spade — a nifty, but very expensive, bit of machinery — to dig up the trees and turn them around. Yes, you heard correctly; they rotated the hydrangea 180º and stuck them right back in the ground. That, by the way, is the too much money part.
Nature doesn’t care how much money — or time, or energy — you throw at something; she’s going to do what she’s going to do. Our best hope as gardeners is to read a site correctly and to plant accordingly. Our best hope as humans is to do the same. If you’re happiest in full sun surrounded by lots of open space, or if you want to grow the things that are, plant yourself in that environment. If you want to be cozy, or cool and quiet, wrap yourself in a cocoon of trees and grow woodland things. Attempting to change the nature of Nature is a project even Sisyphus would reject.
If I asked you what you wanted, would you be able to answer? It’s a powerful thing, wanting. Gardens, both in myth and in reality, are all about longing. The things that address our longings, whether we have acknowledged them or not, are the things that make the garden successful. The opposite, of course, is also true; the things that fail to hit the mark or, worse, hit raw nerves need to be acknowledged up front. A garden that misses your true desire, no matter how beautiful, will never be right for you.
Recently I asked a student who was having trouble with a particular section of her design whether she liked the tree she was trying to design around. She said yes, but actually shook her head no as she was saying it! I see this a lot; it seems that if we think we are supposed to like something, we tell ourselves we like it despite our gut reactions. You can put all the plant material you want around something you hate, but there’s no way to disguise it. If you don’t like that particular thing, you don’t like it, period, and for purposes of design it really doesn’t matter why. It only matters that you say, I don’t want that, because the internal no cannot be overcome.
The ‘don’t want’ list is the easy part; the ‘want’ list is much more ephemeral. Items on this list are composed of memory and dream, of past and future, and they are often oddly conflated. I wear a ring that reminds me of my grandmother despite the fact that it looks absolutely nothing like the ring she wore. They’re both aquamarines, and that’s about it. Mine is pale, simple, set in white gold; hers was the darkest aqua I’ve ever seen wrapped in an elaborate, yellow gold setting. So why are they the same in my head? It took a few years to figure it out, but it goes back to the tin of peppermint candies she kept on her kitchen table, in which was a mix of the ordinary red-striped ones that I didn’t much like and some others that I really, really did. Whenever I visited I’d dig through the tin to find them, and they were always there, thin, oblong, in clear cellophane wrappers. Can you guess their color?
So I wear an aquamarine that looks like a Crystal Mint, and want is satisfied. I don’t just have Grandma’s ring I have Grandma, and Grandma’s kitchen, and the memory of cinnamon toast and soft-boiled eggs in pretty, porcelain egg cups. You couldn’t have just cereal for breakfast in Grandma’s house; you’d be dead by lunch without an egg. I have a fair recollection of the perfume she wore, with hints of lily-of-the-valley, and a vivid sense of the lilacs to the left of the kitchen door. I suspect it’s my desire to be close to her that drives my gardening; I can nurture and tend the same way I was nurtured and tended.
I can also be productive, which is terribly important to me as a Yankee, and my product is beautiful, which is terribly important to me as an artist. What do I want? To feel connected. No great surprise that I emphasize whole-property design. I want everything on the property to have a cohesive, visual connection, so that everyone who enters the property has that same emotional experience.
So how do you go about the task of defining want in terms of the landscape? If, like me, you’re living in an area that appeals to you geographically, all you need do is identify the qualities of the colors and shapes and scents in the things that surround you every day. When I moved back to Maine years ago, I realized how very much I’d missed the salt in the air; you can smell it even a mile inland. I missed the birch, how they gleam in the moonlight, how they bend, laden with snow, how they rise in Spring when the weight of Winter is passed. I missed the pine — the graceful white and the rugged, gnarled pitch — but I also missed the rugosa and the bayberry, and the beach grass along the dunes.
Quick, then, like a Rorschach, what do your instincts tell you that means in terms of landscaping for me? How does that inkblot of ephemeral want translate to a statement of practical, plantable want, a want that I can take to the nursery and say, Give me these, please. Here’s my analysis: I want graceful materials that are also rugged and resilient, and I want materials with strong, clean scents that perfume the air and linger in my head, on my clothes, on my skin. Why does the scent need to cling? Perhaps it’s as simple as being wrapped in something I love, perhaps it’s an inability to let go, perhaps it’s like wearing a lover’s shirt or sleeping on his side of the bed when he’s gone. I don’t know why; I just know that’s what I want.
Oh, and I want things that rustle when the wind comes up, or shifts as it did just now. I’m writing this out on the deck at a friend’s house, about half a mile from shore, and the wind has turned. It’s coming off the water now, picking up salted energy. If I walk down I know the waves will be up, and I’ll hear another sound I adore, and I’ll see the crest, and I’ll watch the water pour over the sand and pull away, pour over and pull away, pour over and pull away.
Those rhythms, which are such an integral part of both my internal and external landscapes, have a design quality to them. I can use the same motion that I see in the curve of the wave, the line of the shore, the angle of the rock against which the water beats. They have a design quantity, too, in the number of steps I take to move from this point to that, in the number of things I move past, left and right, as I go along. There is a quantity of color, and a quantifiable effect of color, and of scent, and of sound.
The garden of desire is built first from language. What do you want?