MeMe–Isn’t that the truth!?!

Sarah and/or Helen at Toronto Gardens have  graciously nominated me for a MeMe award. More a reveal–those 7 tidbits and 7 links below–than an award, it none the less indicates that someone is interested in what I have to say so I’m proud.  Isn’t it all about meme..me anyway?

No I didn't really get one of these...
No I didn't really get one of these...Trophy via U of A and has nothing to do with this award

With that in mind, here goes…

There are a few simple Meme rules:

  • Link back to the person who gave you the award.
  • Reveal seven things about yourself.
  • Choose seven other blogs to nominate, and post a link to them.
  • Let each of your choices know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog.
  • And finally, let the tagger know, when your post is up

Here’s the 7 tidbits…

  1. It’s taken me all this time (a bit more than a half century) to be comfortable with myself–warts and all (I still struggle with weight–Does this blog make me look fat?)
  2. Angst overtakes me at some point in the design process–every time.  I’ve come to realize it’s part of the process
  3. I don’t suffer fools
  4. I feel guilty that I don’t pay more attention to my own garden which is a perpetual mess
  5. I would like to walk away from a project someday completely and absolutely satisfied with every detail of the end result (see #2 above)
  6. I swear like a sailor–frequently
  7. Random connectivity fascinates me

Here’s the 7 new Meme nominees…and my reasons for nomination.  I’ll be back after this commercial break.

  1. On the Way to My Shoes –she knows the real deal and struggles with life out in the open across several platforms.  Her blog has made me cry.
  2. Finding Design with Chloe –she gives me insight into the way another designer in NJ thinks–so few of us communicate it!
  3. A Verdant Life–he is passionate about his work, honest in his opinions and varied in his choice of topics
  4. Blue Planet Garden Blog–she helps me see landscape design beyond my own four season climate
  5. Weavin Demon–she is late to find her creative outlet.  I knew at a young age so it’s interesting for me to read her perspective and watch her struggle with it
  6. Gaita Interiors–for showing all of us that there are  great options no matter what your budget
  7. Studio G–for being the only landscape design blog of its kind

There are several other blogs that I read regularly that I didn’t include here for a variety of reasons–mostly because I believe that the writers of those wouldn’t want to particpate in something like me…me…me.

My Garden State|The Meadowlands and the Hackensack River

This is a tale of human alteration of the natural world that is leaning towards having a happy ending.  Anyone who grew up, as I did, near the Hackensack River and the adjacent Meadowlands knows that even in our lifetimes, it has been permanently altered.   I had the opportunity this week to go on a river tour of the area.  The eco-tours are run by Hackensack Riverkeeper, part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, whose efforts and education on behalf of the river are instrumental in saving and preserving the Hackensack for future generations.

Storm clouds over a landfill
Storm clouds over a landfill
New York City to the east
New York City to the east

Although the water in the river is getting cleaner, what used to be a largely freshwater river basin is now brackish due to damming upstream, draining of marsh land for farming, and building up the sides of the river with fill (much of it of dubious origins).  The mounded land  in the top photo above is a toxic landfill of unknown contents.  There was a time when garbage dumping in and around the river was commonplace.   The cycle of  environmental abuse is ending.  We treated (in some cases still treat) and permanently altered this waterway for what we thought was our own benefit for centuries. 8700 of the original 30,000+ acres of the meadowlands are now protected.  Birds, fish and other species are returning. 110 species of birds were officially counted this past spring and Osprey and Peregrines are finding nesting opportunities and plentiful food.  Spartina alterniflora–a native salt marsh plant–is fighting it out with the ubiquitous Phragmites communis.

A stand of Phragmites
A stand of Phragmites communis
Native Spartina alterniflora
Native Spartina alterniflora
Sunset over the Hackensack River
Sunset over the Hackensack River

Garden Design Lessons from Vogue?

In the September issue of Vogue, beyond the luscious, fantasy filled fashion photos,  an article about the business of fashion design piqued my interest.  Entitled  ‘What Price Fashion?’, it points in a direction that is also useful for garden and landscape designers–yet I haven’t seen anyone in the traditional garden press writing about it. In the garden glossies there is a bubble of fair economic weather surrounding flowers that bloom in impossible perfection in gardens that cost more than most people make in a year–much like what is pictured in fashion magazines.

Illustration by Alex Holt-Cohan
Illustration by Alex Holt-Cohan

The article’s author, Teri Agins, describes a revised design business philosophy surfacing among fashion designers.  Even before the current recession drove shoppers away from buying anything but the essential, the author asserts that ‘…overpriced fashion no longer made any sense. Amid a declining demand for clothes and accessories, the biggest challenge for fashion houses is to better justify why things cost what they do.’ Don’t we as landscape designers have the same challenge?  In the good old days, before the recession hit, we could often propose  big ticket gardens for our clients  based solely on their own need to possess the glamorous garden  images they had seen in magazines and coffee table books.

With signs of  an emerging economic upswing, the New York Times reported this week that even the super rich aren’t getting richer for the first time in thirty years.    These are the clients for luxury products like designer dresses and designer gardens and they will, in the future, spend less–although less, in the upper income brackets is relative.  Some fashion designers are providing ‘more’ for less by reinventing old business models, finding creative ways to provide interesting and novel details not found in more expensive clothes, and keeping close track of what their customers want–without sacrificing quality and growing their businesses at the same time.  Can’t we as landscape designers benefit from the same thinking?

Consumers are questioning the inherent value in what they are buying from well known designers in all disciplines.  Of course I know that custom built gardens aren’t the same as couture, but how many of us are still lamenting the loss of  ‘the good old days’ without exploring new and real ways of upping the value of our work? Not perceived value…real value. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know–gardens enhance people’s lives in so many tangible ways and clothing doesn’t…STOP!!!  Great, thoughtful and innovative design offered at a fair price enhances people’s lives no matter what the product.

Right now, there is an opportunity to change direction that doesn’t come along often.  I think it’s time for landscape designers (myself included) and garden designers to look for new ways to give their customers more for less without sacrificing sound garden practices or bleeding their bottom lines.   Offering the same isn’t working for many now and isn’t likely to work in the future.

Read the article in the September issue of Vogue,  it’s on page 394. Oh, and tell me what you think, I’d love to hear your comments on this one for sure!

Portland | Distilled

New and unknown destinations of all kinds always fuel my creative process, but I need time to put all of what I experience in perspective. When something is new it swirls around in my head and is exciting–like a new love affair.  As with any relationship, the test of time filters what is going to be longer lasting than that first heart stopping crush.

It’s been a month since my trip to Portland, Oregon to attend the APLD International Landscape Design Conference and it has taken me that long to process some of what I experienced there…so here goes…

One of my favorite quotes carved into stone at the Ecotrust Building
One of my favorite quotes carved into stone at the Ecotrust Building

Much has been written about Portland as being the greenest and most sustainable city in the United States and evidence of that commitment to a healthy planet is everywhere.  Portland’s citizens embrace an active outdoor lifestyle and even in the most urban core of the city, it is impossible to ignore the natural world that surrounds it and its influence on city life.

Outdoor Portland
Outdoor Portland

The landscape designers in Portland might protest, but the gardens I visited, for all of their genus loci,  seemed rooted in a similar philosophy to other types of  ‘natural’ gardens like those from the 18th century created by landscape gardeners like Capability Brown.  In those long ago and greatly celebrated gardens, the idea as I understand it, was to evoke an idealized vision of the natural landscape.

The water features below are extremely different stylistically.  All were inspired by the natural world and all were man made.  Each interpretaion is unique and evokes a respect for and awe of nature.   For me, a month later, this is the lingering idea..a river runs through it.

The koi pond at the Portland Japanese Garden
The lower pond at the Portland Japanese Garden
Lawerence Halprin's iconic Ira Keller Frountain
Lawrence Halprin's iconic Ira Keller Frountain
Snake pond at Michael Schultz and Will Goodman's garden
Snake pond at Michael Schultz and Will Goodman's garden

Postscript:  I thought originally that my next blog post about my trip would be  ‘Portland | Underfoot’ since there were so many interesting paving ideas there.  I’ve decided instead to publish that as an album on my Facebook Studio page instead.

Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day | August 2009

My home gardens are in need of some attention.  I’ve been busy with design work so it’s a case of the shoemaker’s children–my clients’ gardens look great!  Here’s what is blooming outside my house this morning despite my neglect..

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'
Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'
Coreopsis lanceolata sp.
Coreopsis lanceolata sp.
Sedum 'Matrona'
Sedum 'Matrona'
Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis

My Garden State | Sandy Hook

My uncle was visiting from Montana.  They don’t have an ocean there, so off we went to ours.  I picked a beach destination I’d never been to before even though it’s the closest public beach to my house.  Sandy Hook, which is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area,  is so popular that on a hot summer day the parking lots are often full by mid morning–that popularity is one of the reasons I’ve never gone.  I was in for a very pleasant surprise.

Protected dunes and a view of the Atlantic
Protected dunes and a view of the Atlantic

Located less than 25 miles from Manhattan, Sandy Hook  has a seven mile stretch of beach that is home to more than 300 varieties of migratory birds.  Posted many places on the island were ‘wanted’ posters offering a $4000 reward for information about the wanton destruction of an active plover nest earlier in the summer.  It’s wise to stay on the paths here.  There’s rampant poison ivy, that without really knowing it, I suspect provides food for birds and protects them from human intrusion.

Wildlife Management area with shipping lane in the background
Wildlife Management area with shipping lane in the background

Sandy Hook also boasts the country’s oldest lighthouse–still in operation–as well as an active Coast Guard base.  I wasn’t expecting  the military presence on a trip to the beach.  Fort Hamilton is on the northern end of the island as is an old growth holly forest and there were several missile and cannon displays as well as an abandoned gunnery built in 1902.  While exploring the ghostlike abandoned gunnery and adjacent wildlife management area, we could hear the pop of  rifle practice in the background. Long a strategic and practical entry point to the New Jersey/New York shipping lanes, Sandy Hook is an odd combination of  historical, military/industrial and natural.

Gunnery Ruins
Gunnery Ruins

Fort Hamilton’s  boarded up and tumble down historic buildings are slated for development through a public/private partnership.

Lighthouse circa 1764
Lighthouse circa 1764

But back to the beach…there’s a dog friendly beach, designated areas for fishing sensibly away from bathing beaches, a clothing optional beach (and this is a National Park) as well as beautiful clean and sandy family beaches.  A very active bike lane runs the length of the island.

The day we went was hot and sunny and the wind was from the west so the water was relatively calm.  This is not a big surf beach.  Despite the westerly breezes, there weren’t any insects like those that sometimes plague Long Beach Island, but Sandy Hook’s water isn’t as clear as it is in southern New Jersey.  The beach was cleaner–this park is serious about taking your garbage with you.

The dunes with the park's visitor's center in the distance
The dunes with the park's visitor's center in the distance

Notice that there’s almost no blown about trash on these dunes–and look how many people use this beach on a weekday.  It’s quite remarkable.

A sea of umbrellas
A sea of umbrellas
Wide sandy beaches and bathers
Wide sandy beaches and bathers

When I started extolling the virtures of ‘My Garden State’ earlier this summer, I had no idea that I’d be introduced to someplace as uniquely New Jersey as Sandy Hook.  Go if you can.

Lounging Around

A ritual of summers past was to go into the back of my parent’s garage and drag out an ancient aluminum chaise lounge.  This contraption with its flat straps, springs and yellow, green and orange vinyl floral cushions made me feel glamorous.  Add sunglasses, an iced drink, baby oil and a copy of  Harper’s Bazaar and I was in the Rivera of my dreams.

Flash forward…as a landscape designer who loves to create outdoor living spaces, I’m asked to plan for and purchase chaise lounges more than any other piece of furniture other than those for dining.  Sure some people want a conversation area or a kitchen, but that’s after the lounge.   Here’s a roundup of chaise lounge options in my resource library for backyards, patios, pools and decks  that  I have used in the past as well a couple that are new to me.

Photo credits: Top row L-R: via Momoy, via OKA, via Dedon; Center row L-R: via Branch, via Mckinnon and Harris, via Andrew Crace; Bottom row: L-R: via Lebello, via  Arthur Lauer, via Fanuli

August | Lazy Days of Summer

A Cercis canadensis leaf on the ground yesterday
A Cercis canadensis leaf on the ground yesterday

Allen Lacy, in his wonderful book, The Garden in Autumn describes the beginning of the fall garden season as starting mid-August in his New Jersey garden.  Bit by bit, the days are starting a little later and ending a little earlier, the fall’s coming show of color is appearing early on some trees and on the ground in random richly hued leaves.

August is when I really start to think (the operative word there is think) about next spring.  Landscape designs (of significant size) that are started now won’t likely be constructed until after next winter’s thaw, spring blooming bulb offerings are sent to clients,  plants that need to be moved or divided are mulled over, but not much gets physically done–it’s too hot, too muggy, or too many people are on vacation–take your pick.  Since the abundance of the late summer harvest isn’t a factor–no veggies here–in my garden and that of my clients, time slows down now  in anticipation of  the coming cooler mornings and evenings.

I’m not really sure of why, but August reminds me of  Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ants.  I wonder if  unlike the end that befell the unprepared grasshopper, this month of comparative idleness is part of the antlike preparation that will end happily with a burst of energy and renewal once the weather cools down and the garden bekons once again.

Retrofit | Ready to Party!

I am rarely offered a blank slate on which to create an outdoor living space.  Nine out of ten landscape or garden projects I design for my clients involve keeping at least some of the existing elements.   These types of ‘retrofit’ projects have distinct challenges from start to finish.  The trick is to find a way to make it all look like and work as a unified garden space.

In the case of the  almost completed project pictured below, the clients–who are wonderful to work with–had a laundry list of things that they wanted to keep:  mature trees, two sheds, a gazebo, a deck/patio combination, a fire pit area built by the client, and an existing 25 year old vinyl pool with a too small and decrepit paver deck and a retaining wall built of landscape timbers.  My job was to unify all of these disparate elements into one unified party space.  The  pool deck was to be replaced as part of that effort and a spa hot tub added–but not in the pool area.

A color study for the proposed party space
A color study for the proposed party space

My biggest design challenge was to create a logical flow of movement that would allow people to get from each of the existing areas to the others on a complex but not steep slope.   The home was built in a ‘bowl’ and the pool was 3′ up a slope above the patio and the gazebo was above that.  There was space available to enlarge the pool deck.  Three new sets of steps were added to create a seamless flow–to the front of the the gazebo, to the existing wooden deck and to the new and greatly enlarged pool deck.  The new bubbling box (read hot tub) was placed next to the deck allowing for winter use.   A  stone retaining wall was built into the existing slope to enable to pool deck to be enlarged and actually be useful–the old deck was a 3′ strip of brick that didn’t accommodate people or furniture.  No ‘before’ photos–I started the project last January when it was under ice & snow.

Overview existing and new garden elements still to be planted
Overview existing and new garden elements still to be planted

Rather than try to unify all of the somewhat randomly placed geometric structures, I opted for a curvilinear plan that would allow each structure to function within a more natural setting.  The photo above (with newly seeded lawn areas under salt hay) shows the curvaceous layout.

New stone deck allows for entertaining and relaxation by the pool
New stone deck allows for entertaining and relaxation by the pool

Bluestone, granite and sandstone were combined in this project and all are local to my region.  The pool deck was originally going to be aggregate but we couldn’t settle on a style.  Once stone was chosen, the challenge was to find one that worked after all of the other materials had been installed.  The blond sandstone was partially picked because it will be fairly cool on bare feet.

Three stone detail on new steps
Three stone detail on new steps

Another challenge proved to be the surpise that the 25+ year old pool was not aluminum–it was plywood and therefore had to be treated with kidgloves and couldn’t have a new stone coping added to it–the plastic ‘clips’ had to stay.  We scored the concrete deck foundation to allow for future replacement should that become necessary.

Slab steps were added to the gazebo to allow for access to the front.  Previously the only way to access this space was to walk all the way around it.  Steps were also added to the deck on the gazebo side to allow easy service from the grill and kitchen–again previous access was to walk all the way around and up the hill.

Slab steps added to gazebo
Slab steps added to gazebo

The plantings have been added and there are hoses on timers that will remain for a few weeks until they are established.  I’ll take photos of those next summer.  This project was started in April and was supposed to take 6-8 weeks.  It took 16 due to over a month of rain, changes in materials, modifications to the original plan, a couple of small ‘flubs’ and a mason who is an absolute perfectionist and could not, would not work any faster.

It’s now ready to party.

Field Trip: Terrain at Styer’s

Entry Sign

I don’t participate in the latest fads.  I keep current with what  the newest trends, destinations, colors or even plants are, but unless the opportunity to experience them is temporary I don’t feel the need to go in the first week, month or even year.  I  like to let things mellow a bit before jumping into the fray.  That’s why I decided it was finally time to see if all the hype about  Terrain at Styer’s was true.

Fountains and Planters at the main Shop Entrance
Fountains and Planters at the main Shop Entrance

Located outside of Philadelphia, it’s been over a year since Styer’s, which was already an excellent garden center, was transformed into what should be a new garden center paradigm.  Much has been written about Terrain. Its parent company is Urban Outfitters,  the hip retailer that also owns Anthropoligie.   They are merchants who understand their retail concepts generating 1.5 billion dollars in sales in 2007.

Stick Fence and Grasses in the parking lot
Stick Fence and Grasses in the parking lot

I allowed about 45 minutes for the stop and could have used twice that.  What makes this garden center different?  Unlike most others it has a distinct  retail viewpoint beyond the seasonal selling of plants.    The Terrain concept is realized at every turn, from the way the store environment is laid out to the design of the store fixtures to the merchandise, it all supports the Terrain retail philosophy.   Plants are huge part of the  merchandise mix and are displayed  in traditional (read practical) garden center set ups on tables and nursery rows as well as in containers, as props and as interior structural elements.  Terrain’s unique point of view begins to reveal itself in the parking lot and continues throughout the entire retail experience.

Wide aisles in on of the plant merchandise areas
Wide aisles in one of the plant merchandise areas

Reclaimed siding, stick fencing, willow wattles, salvaged architectural elements  are teamed with quirky new merchandise creatively displayed throughout Terrain–the same way they do in the Anthropologie stores.  Natural is juxtaposed with artificial, new with old.  Every opportunity to create customer discovery experiences and garden vignettes is maximized.  Merchandise is richly layered and ideas abound.  I found some wonderful rosy sandstone spheres  under a plant table that not only displayed plants but containers and other garden ornaments.  This was intentional and not a space saving trick.  The merchandisers at Terrain also understand the power of negative space–and there’s plenty of it to allow eyes to rest and the imagination to re-group.

Furniture and accessories
Furniture and accessories

Within the larger environment, there are several garden shops, a cafe and a full landscape design studio at Terrain along with enough plants to satisfy any gardener.  Shops are housed in cleverly designed shed-like structures and each has its own focus.  The main shop displays garden ornaments, plants, small pots, furniture, books and an area for spa products wiht a green wall of  staghorn ferns and other epiphytic perennials..  A hot house for tropicals and house plants has a wonderful planted arch, terrariums, containers and more accessories.   The potting shed houses garden practicalities like hand tools and amendments.  The design studio is a separate building adjacent the nursery area.  There’s also a shade house and the day I was there, a sale tent.  The sales staff–all in Terrain shirts or aprons–were knowledgeable and willing to answer any and all of my questions.

Green wall
Spa Green Wall
Merchandise Mix
Chic merchandise mix
A Fountain with clear glass 'bubbles'
A Fountain with clear glass 'bubbles'
Hollow Log Planter
Hollow Log Planter

Most garden centers need to take some cues from Terrain.  Garden shoppers are sophisticated and want great design and inspiration along with their 2 gallon perennials and bags of bone meal.  I say Bravo!