Gadgets, Gizmos and Gardens

Are our lives poised to morph again with the introduction of yet another can’t-live-without-it gadget (the iPad) that will further separate us from each other and the land we live on?  How will this latest greatest thing really add to our quality of life in the way that gardens do?

I can surf the web anywhere via computer or smartphone, find the closest Starbucks in a town I’ve never been to on GPS , turn on the TV without getting up, track my fitness level, text my kid, order new plants, figure out how high a hill is, and never, ever have to really interact with another living being or thing.

I’m not sure how much more technology I can adopt before I burst at the seams. I’m not overloaded yet, but  I did not envision when I hand drew my first garden plan that I would spend my days wrestling with software, back lit screens and being constant contact with people (in some cases) I’ve never met in person.  I’m not saying it’s totally a bad thing, but it is all a bit disconcerting and overwhelming.  I worry that we will all become just a bit more isolated from each other.

Monday 2 | A Year of Mondays Project

This is a little bit of a cheat.  I’m about 175 miles from my home garden…two states away actually.  So before I left yesterday I went out to the garden.   When it gets warmer I hope to make some drawings, but I’m not so dedicated that I’m willing to sit on cold damp ground to make them.

Monday 2

The photograph is in this context is more about composition and exploration, but it is also a portrait of one of my favorite shrubs.  The Hellebores are already pushing up through hard ground yet this is the earliest plant to bloom in my garden- Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’–and its buds are plump and ready.

Sometimes they look better naked…

I have been determined this year to celebrate beauty in the winter landscape beyond evergreen plants, still standing perennials and grasses.   In the clearly defined four seasons in New Jersey,  winter can seem barren and devoid of  much that we find interesting in gardens.  If  we can’t put our love of bloom and foliage aside, there seems to be nothing left except to wait for spring.  Not so.

A small copse of native ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)

I am lucky to live and design gardens where there are abundant varieties of deciduous trees.  In winter, their bark’s textural interest can create a cold season landscape that is elegant and subtle in its beauty.  Bark is the unsung hero of the winter landscape.

Heptacodium micronioides in the winter landscape

Years ago I took  a class in winter tree identification.  Before that I depended on foliage as a way to identify a tree.  Since then, bark and branching structures have been the main features I use even in the summer.

Heptacodium miconioides bark (Seven sun flower)

In the stark, low light of mid-winter bark’s texture and wide range of colors and patterns are enhanced.  In the overcast grey of January they become beacons in a neutral winter landscape.

Acer griseum (Paperbark maple)
Stewartia pseudocamelia (Japanese Stewartia)

Even during a January thaw without the contrast of a snowy background these textures are complex and interesting.

Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry dogwood)
Acer saccharum (Sugar Maple)
Acer palmatum 'Sango kaku' (Coral bark maple)
Salix contorta sp. (Corkscrew Willow)

Some trees, and many more shrubs have bark that is so much more than grey.  Bark can also add a punch of color to the winter’s neutral color palette.

A grove of limbed up Picea abies and Pinus strobus (Norway Spruce and Eastern White Pine)

By no way complete, here is a short list of other trees whose bark enlivens the winter landscape.

Highly patterned jigsaw like bark: Platanus occidentalis (American poplar) taupe and white jigsaw bark, Pinus bungeana (Lacebark pine) shades of green and grey, Cornus kousa (Chinese dogwood)- taupe, brown and ivory, Lagerstromia indica (Crape Myrtle) –rust and tan,  Ulmus parviflora (Chinese elm)–intricately patterned bark that I wrote about in a previous post

Striking bark color: Betula jacquemontii (Himalayan Birch) stark white and exfoliating bark, Fagus grandifolia (American beech) smooth pale grey, Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine) –russet

Highly textured bark: Carya ovata (Shagbark hickory),  Acer pensylvanicum (Snakebark maple), Betula niger (River Birch),
Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn redwood), Cornus florida (Flowering dogwood), Malus sp. (Crabapple varieties)

Wet path in January

Monday 1 | A Year of Mondays Project

I have to put aside my gardener’s eye  to see beyond the tasks yet to be done.  I also have to keep in mind that this is going to end up being about the sum of all the parts as well as each individual image.  This morning was cold, wet and slippery on the narrow path through the garden.

Wet path in January
Monday 1

A description of my year long project is here.

It’s not about me

It’s not all about me today, but it is all about all of us.

Here’s a link to donate on line:  Haiti Earthquake Relief (William J. Clinton Foundation | Haiti)


Text “Haiti” to 90999  Your cell phone bill will receive an extra $10 charge, all of which will be passed on to the Red Cross for specific relief to the Haitian disaster victims without so much as a penny staying with your cell phone carrier or mGive.

Even in a recession, we can afford to each give something…even $1 will help.

I had planned to write a self congratulatory post on Miss R’s inclusion at Alltop as well as the Baltimore Sun, but feel that this space is best used today to appeal to anyone who reads it to send help–whatever you can–to the relief efforts in Haiti.

A Year of Mondays

The power of a single view and a creative meditation on that view isn’t new, but that idea has been tossing around in my head for months.   I thought I wanted to explore gardens and the possibility of  design influence using  Ando Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo.  Several of  my favorites are included here.

View 57
View 57

I have long known that gardening intensifies the power of observation–just as learning how to draw does.  So what could a sustained observation and the recording of one finite area yield creatively?   If I just observed what’s right outside my window–a place that I have gardened in for more than 10 years–what would I learn?

View 75
View 75

For me, it’s an intriguing idea, that a small garden area that I believe I know intimately still has something more to teach me–not so much about gardening, but about creativity and how to see.


So next Monday and every Monday for the next year after that that I am able (I do travel a bit)  I will record and post an observation (view) of  my side garden which is much less expansive or exotic than Edo–or is it?

View 10
View 10

My garden is only 11 feet wide  an approximately 45 feet long–and it is my favorite and often most neglected of my outdoor spaces.  It is south facing and is bordered by my house on one side and my neighbor’s unruly and unkempt yard on the other.  At each narrow end is a vaguely Moorish iron arbor–both left over from a flower show garden and there is a central path of slate recycled from a neighbor.  It is, as all of  my gardens seem to be, a hodge podge of  leftovers and survivors.

View 47
View 47

I realize that this might be extremely uninteresting to anyone else, but the posting of the observations will insure that I follow through for a year and that I don’t get distracted by the next shiny thing as is often the case.  Since this is the 21st century, I will include some images made by looking through a screen, but the observations will also include words and drawings or maybe even something else I haven’t even thought about yet–I really want to see where this leads me creatively so my only rules are those that I’ve stated–and I’m open to those morphing into something else and taking me down a new path–in fact, I hope they will.

Garden Designer’s Bloglink: 5 Regional Ideas

Grab a snack…this might take a while…

In December, as a guest on Garden Gossip, I extolled listeners to ‘celebrate their regions’  instead of trying to emulate a garden design style that is at odds with their specific location. That idea gave birth to this group of topic specific blog posts–Garden Designer’s Bloglink—links to the rest of the participating landscape designers/bloggers at the end of this post.

How do you define a region?

So what exactly is regional to an area? How local is the vernacular? It’s not the same 20, 40 or 50 miles away. How can we interpret what is regionally sustainable and socially appropriate in our gardens?  How can our landscapes be more in tune with the land they’re on?  How can we make the seemingly unsustainable–both in attitude and practice–more so?

What’s my region?

I design landscapes and gardens at the eastern most edge of what is known as the Skylands, in Morris County, New Jersey.   My little town is 28.5 miles west of New York City where the land begins to rise away from the sea and towards the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The annual rainfall is about 50″ and the annual snowfall about 3′.   It is sticky, hot and humid in the summer and the winters can be frigid.  What is fitting and local here is evidenced by the area’s natural and man made (the European kind, not the native American kind) history.  The immediate area has been transformed by transplanted gardeners since the 17th century.

Vintage postcard from the Skylands--there are still views like this
Vintage postcard from the Skylands--there are still views like this

Although significantly less than when I moved here 20 years ago, there are still rural farms as well as urban centers that have been there since before the American Revolution.  Old growth hardwood forests were mostly cut down to use as  building materials and to create farmland.  Local rounded stone was loosely stacked as field boundaries—I grew up exploring  one of these walls in my own backyard. These stone walls do not display the master craftsmanship of the granite walls found farther north in New England–they are more piles than walls.

5 Simple Ideas for Regional and Sustainable Style

So how to use more than 3 centuries of gardening precedent and make it appropriate to a region still mired in tradition while addressing the needs of the 21st century lifestyle?  Below  are 5 easy ideas with local examples, that can have a big impact both visually and sustainably–with some local tweaking these ideas could form the basis for a regional style anywhere.

Idea No. 1–Recycle It
Use remnants from the  300+ years of Dutch and English European gardening influence and plants colonists brought  from ‘home’ as well as the pleasure gardens created as summer playgrounds by rich New Yorkers in the 19th century.  Many of the latter reached their zenith just prior to the institution of income taxes in the 1920s when many were actually razed to avoid escalating costs.    In the photo below, the house is from that era  but the garden is contemporary–a 5 acre pleasure garden maintained by several full-time gardeners.  This level of commitment is unattainable by almost all homeowners, so how can they emulate the region’s rich gardening and architectural history in their own much more modest suburban back yards?

Local Estate Garden -- European Traditions in House and Garden
Local Estate Garden -- European Traditions in House and Garden

Reuse local stone, reclaimed brick  and architectural objects rather than buying new.  Mining and trucking stone leaves a huge carbon footprint, searching for vintage anything  is fun for the entire family and is the ultimate act of recycling.  Materials can be used as they were or interpreted in new ways–adding a mix of the old to the new and even contemporary can give a garden instant context.

Completed last fall, a recycled 19th century iron fence w/local stone patio
Completed last fall, a recycled 19th century iron fence w/local stone patio

Idea No. 2–Super Size It

Plan for natural plant size instead of relying on gas powered ‘pruning’.  Increase the size of foundation planting beds to allow for interesting plantings at their mature sizes.  I can’t tell you how many 4′ foundation beds I’ve seen–there are very few shrubs that will thrive in a space that small without a lot of pruning to keep them in check.  In the planting plan shown below, a LEED certified project I worked on,  foundation beds were made wide enough to accommodate large native flowering shrubs and small trees…with plenty of room for growth.  These beds will only require minimal upkeep despite the density and size of the of the plants.

Foundation Planting Design
Foundation Planting Design

Idea No 3–Go Native

Seek out native plants–even  for lawns.  Lawns are not the enemy for this region–too much maintenance, over watering and over fertilization is.  Rethink lawns using native fescues and organic maintenance and management.  There are alternatives out there that satisfy our regional love affair with turf.  No Mow and Eco Lawn yield lawns that require little water and no fertilizer–better yet these lawns only need infrequent mowing.

Many of the most desirable flowering trees and shrubs  in European gardens are indigenous to NJ–among them– Amelancheir canadensis (Serviceberry), Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud)  and Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood)–so why so many non-native Japanese Maples and cherries?  Find native plants for New Jersey and Morris County here , find native plants for other regions here.

Cornus florida (up the street from my house)
Cornus florida (up the street from my house)

Idea No. 4–Create Habitat

Our natural woodland was a resource for the original native inhabitants as well as the colonists–it became real estate to be developed in the New York metropolitan sprawl that is still gobbling up unprotected acreage.  Celebrate the American wilderness and designate an area where nature is invited in instead of being held at a distance or watched on television.  Create a ‘wild’ area with a meandering path through the woodland to a destination–a hammock, a bench, a shade house.  Add safe havens for wildlife–put up a birdhouse, bat house or butterfly house.  Children will spend more time exploring these areas than they will using an expensive swing set and the woodland will last and give back long after the swings are added to the landfill.

New woodland-- existing trees underplanted with native trees and shrubs
We underplanted existing trees with native trees and shrubs to create a new woodland in a suburban front yard

Idea No. 5–Percolate It

For both formal and informal areas choose natural permeable paving.  Stepping stones or recycled brick can be augmented with pea gravel or filled with low growing plants.  In the examples below gravel suppresses weeds, adds texture, a wonderful crunching sound when walked on and allows water to percolate.  The third example shows a courtyard project where the stone is planted up rather than mortared up.

Formal path of recycled brick and pea gravel with a repurposed millstone detail
Formal path of recycled brick and pea gravel with a repurposed millstone detail
An area woodland garden of native and non-native plants
An informal path through a woodland garden of native and non-native plants
Recycled bluestone interplanted with dwarf modo grasses (not native but effective)
Recycled bluestone interplanted with dwarf modo grasses (not native but effective)

Implementing these ideas will make a garden that is socially acceptable to the next door neighbors and indeed the entire neighborhood and region.

A special shout out to Scott Hokunson who invited the participants and coordinated this series..Thank You, Scott!  If you’d like to see ideas from other landscape and garden designers from other regions…here are links (in no particular order) to their regional posts:

Rebecca Sweet–Palo Alto CA– Gossip in the Garden Dan Eskelson–Priest River ID– Clearwater Landscapes Laura Schaub–San Jose CA– Interleafings

Pam Penick–Austin TX– Digging Michelle Derviss– Novato CA– Garden Porn Ivette Soler–Los Angeles CA–The Germinatrix

Susan Morrison–East Bay CA– Blue Planet Garden Blog Susan Schlenger–Charlottesville VA-Landscape Design Viewpoint Scott Hokunson–Gramby CT–Blue Heron Landscapes

Tara Dillard–Stone Mountain GA-Landscape Design Decorating Styling Jocelyn Chilvers–Wheat Ridge CO- The Art Garden Genevieve Schmidt–Arcata CA– North Coast Gardening