Narrow Fence Line Planting

In the suburban New York/New Jersey gardens where I do much of my landscape design work, fences are a part of the landscape. They become, by virtue of the height and length, a major landscape feature–whether intended or not. Creating a planting scheme to complement them depends on the fence and the homeowner’s intent for their yard and the shade sun patterns created by the fence itself.  The two examples below are stylistically different, but both are created in a very narrow space and require minimal care.

A hot, small space between a fence and a driveway can become a lush cottage garden that requires little water and simple maintenance.  For this small project I wanted the formality of the fence to be softened by the relaxed planting style. The white fence is a major player in the design  and a visual partner to bloom and foliage colors that are limited to yellow, blue and grey.

Perennials and Driveway fence

Yarrow and fenceFastigiate and dwarf varieties of plants are excellent choices for creating a layered interesting planting design in a narrow space. In the backyard below, the homeowner asked me for as much flat green space for three teenage boys to practice sports. Plants needed to be able to withstand errant balls and and occasional out of bounds play. The garden is less than four feet wide and is a straight line along the fence. It is layered to create four season interest and is composed of three plants:  fastigiate hornbeams (Carpinis betulus ‘Fastigata), a diminutive weigela–Weigla florida ‘Midnight Wine’ for color and spring bloom, and upright, narrow boxwood Buxus sempervirens ‘Monrue’  (Green Tower boxwood).  The maintenance consists of weeding and mulching when necessary and an annual prune for the boxwood.

Fence planting

 

 

Re-Making an Old Garden for a New Family

Often my landscape design clients I ask me to insert some contemporary flavor into an existing landscape. These renovation projects are similar to interior updates in that the new has to dovetail seamlessly with the existing. This family had a very traditional, overgrown and poorly maintained landscape that had no place for three active, young girls to be outside except the driveway, an in need of repair pool, and a too small patio. The house sits on generous lot that is also promontory with a steep slope up to the front door and an even steeper slope back to the rear property line.

Devlin Before Pix

Most people would look at this and say ‘What’s wrong with that? It’s beautiful!”.  On the surface it was, but on closer inspection there were many functional issues and I saw opportunities to open up sight lines, to create family and entertaining space as well as to make better transitions from one place to the next and technical options to correct erosion and drainage problems. I also saw a yard that when it was first designed, twenty-five years ago, had been well thought out–but was now way past its prime. The fireplace, for example, had been shored by someone up on the back end with 2 x 4’s where the footing had separated from the stone work. That was just a disaster just waiting to slide down the hill if not repaired or demolished. Boxwood hedges that defined several ‘rooms’ had been allowed to get too big and many had large dead sections or were riddled with fungus. Trees that had been smaller had now outgrown their sites, had dead wood, or were in two cases just dead. Every last bit of masonry had to be repaired…there were loose stones and steps throughout.

devlin pool afterAfter our arborist completed recommended tree work and removals, the pool renovation came first. We repaired the coping, re-plastered in a new darker color, added crisp, blue glass subway style waterline tile, added two bluestone decks and a ribbon around the pool. We demolished the tumbled down pergola to gain some square footage and open up usable space.  The very crooked fence was straightened out and the hillside above the now exposed stone wall was planted. New furniture was ordered that added to the contemporary feel of the space. An attempted water feature repair did not work on the old water wall so that will be the final piece added to the puzzle later this year.

Hydrangeas and water wall w pool

 

Camelllia espalier and pool

I met several times with the clients and their children to discuss what to save and what to demolish as well as what their ‘dream’ yard would entail.  The kids wanted a play space beyond the front yard swing. The adults wanted safe and usable pool space as well as a larger entertaining space. They also wanted a more contemporary feeling within the context of what was there.

An old dog run behind the garage that had a more gentle slope than the rest of the property was re-made into a children’s play area. The children hand painted curtains for their ‘stage’.

Devlin play area

Extra fence from the pool area was used to enclose it on the lower side and the chainlink fence that had contained the dogs was removed.  A simple balance beam was made from felled tree trunks, a playhouse/stage area with a new bright blue deck was built under the existing stairs and a slide added to the top. The remaining stockade fence was stained white to brighten up the shady area and a carnival silly mirror was added to it just for fun.

Charlotte on the slide

The final phases of the renovation ended up being the most problematic.  Almost all of the existing bluestone had to be relaid since it was incorrectly installed the first time. Retaining walls had insufficient foundations and were failing and were replaced.  The hillside below was stabilized and planted with native Carex to aid in soil retention.  The fireplace was demolished and new walls were added to a reconfigured patio.  The enlarged patio has a firepit and contemporary furnishings. The new seatwall has built in speakers and the steps to the pool have been widened as has the walkway to the adjacent courtyard.  A garden now visually links the patio with the pool decks.

Patio seating areas

A courtyard was turfed over and the boxwood hedges and plantings in the front yard redesigned.  A small, curved path at the driveway entrance was re-configured to allow for two chairs for adults who supervise the driveway bike and scooter riding.

Devlin front entry

Side walk to front

Sections of hedge were removed from each side of the walkway to unify both sides of the front lawn.  A scraggly pine was removed to allow what will be a beautiful Cornus kousa more light and room.  Boxwood were replace with those from other areas and were pruned into clean lined shapes. Nepeta and daylillies were transplanted from the driveway to add seasonal interest.  Plants were added to a side walk as well as to the driveway areas and new micro patio.

Devlin Driveway entry to patioThe best thing is that every time I visit there are bikes, hula hoops, pool toys and chalk art everywhere. What was once a problem space has become one that is loved and used.  I can’t ask for a better result!

chalk play

 

Garden Design Details: Container Planting

For me, it’s the end of container season.  I only plant them for a few clients. Planter design is not a core service of my landscape design practice because I find them to take as much time to prepare for and execute as any other planting design. In reality, that’s what a container is, a planting design executed in a very small, seasonal space. I do have clients who specifically ask me to design their containers and I say yes, but I just don’t overtly offer to do it.

Turquoise Anduze pot

 

Turquoise pots and entry

Nobody ever taught me the rules of containers so I approach them in the same way I would any design. I lean towards structure planted with abandon in my garden design and my container plantings reflect that for the most part. Since the space and number of plants I can use is so limited, I am a ruthless editor.  I don’t personally love planters filled with lots of different kinds of plants. I think it makes a stronger visual statement to limit them in the same way I would any other design. The container above has four varieties in it, the one below three. In a really big planter I may use as many as five, repeated throughout the design.

Barn pots

My approach is the same as for any design–first decide on the primary structure and then build down from there. In a garden that may be a tree, a pergola, or a sculpture, in a pot, it’s the same–there has to be something anchoring it all.

Variagated willow and blue pot

When I shop for container plants,  I shop for all of  them at once, collecting special plants from a wide variety of sources. The process takes several days. If a specific request was made, such as the variegated willow standards in the pots above I will seek them out. Each season I limit the color palette which aids in later editing. This year my palette included chartreuse, deep green, salmon/apricot, white/grey and a very saturated purple.

Atelier Verkaint pots on seatwall

Most of the time I use the client’s own containers, but over the past few years I’ve been specifying them in larger designs so I know they will work within the context of the larger landscape that I have designed. Planters to scale and the right style for the larger context are details that make or break a project.

concrete floor tiles

Contemporary Tiles and the Middle Ages

Sometimes my mind connects the dots in unexpected ways.  I visited ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) in New York over the weekend.  You would think I’d be all mid-mod and forward thinking. But no.

I fell for these concrete tiles from Grow House Grow.  They are a new product for the company, frost proof and come a a wide variety of colors.

concrete floor tiles

My mind immediately went to the Middle Ages and the floor at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Since my images of that were lost in an iPhone debacle, I borrowed this one from Wikimedia to illustrate the point.

Floor Sainte Chapelle

Now to find a place to use the contemporary ones in a garden design!

Magnolia brooklynensis 'Black Beauty'

Magnolia Lust

As part of my job as a landscape designer, I regularly walk the growers and nurseries to see what is new and what looks good.  I learn about plants new to me that I may want to trial and try. Like many other designers, I get on a plant jag and have a love affair with a group of plants for a while and then move on to flirt with something else that catches my rather short plant attention span.  Today I have plant lust.  I was at the fabulous NJ wholesale grower, Pleasant Run Nursery yesterday and fell for Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Black Beauty’ that is just now in bud.

Magnolia brooklynensis  'Black Beauty'I didn’t buy it because I didn’t know it.  I came back to the studio after laying out some plants on a project, poured a glass of wine, and had a ‘first date’ to find out more.

Blooming later than the masses of M. soulangiana that are in my neighborhood, it reliably blooms after the late freeze that sometimes causes magnolias to loose their buds and hence their bloom. It’s dramatic and different. It is hardy to Zone 4 and is a small tree reaching 15-20 ft (most say smaller)–a perfect size for small gardens and suburban lots. There is nothing not to like!

I think I will have a long term relationship with this tree and it will be the first plant added to my home garden.

 

Trials and Neglect in my Home Garden

I’m not a landscape designer who has a wonderfully designed garden that is a terrific advertisement for my craft at my home. I should, I live on a corner, but as I’ve shared here before it’s mostly a neglected mess with good bones and a rotating cast of plants. My home garden is quirky and in a constant state of flux. Since my landscape design practice is design only, I don’t have a crew I can ‘borrow’ for the big tasks, so they wait and are ignored for as long as possible. I’m mostly not very motivated to work in my own garden after spending my days designing beautiful ones for others.

This spring I wanted to do a major switch out of some elements in the garden to enable me to try some new plants and design ideas.  I grow plants to observe and trial that I want to try in my design work and I have limited space. That means every few years some have to go to make room for others.

cleaned out garden at hedges

Beyond my own neglectful gardening style, my garden is under siege. Deer, rabbits, feral cats, squirrels, chipmunks and voles and dogs who are allowed to pee on my plants are the culprits.  The yard is unfenced and I don’t water regularly or provide much in the way of added nutrients beyond compost and good soil to start with. Usually the plants that I take out are victims of their own success.  Over a period of  time they have proven themselves to me as worthy.  All have been in my garden a minimum of three full growing years  which is my loose time frame to trial a plant.

Here are my anecdotal notes on some of the plants which survived and thrived  and were removed yesterday to make room for others.  There is also a plant that I was sorry to see gone…I wasn’t ready to wave goodbye to it just yet.

Amsonia hubrichtii– I grew this from a 4″ pot and it became a monster–the one remaining plant was almost 4′ across and 3′ high.  It was never bothered by deer but it was also not a a plant I loved beyond the lovely light blue bloom in mid-spring.  Mine never had the brilliant fall color–just a dull gold.  The pests never bothered it.

Cornus alba ‘Elegantisima’–Grown from a big box cast off 1 gallon pot.  I loved the variagated foliage and the red twigs in winter, but it was too big even when coppiced regularly.  It is a vigorous grower and has a loose informal shape when left to its own devices. The pests left it alone completely. The image below was taken just after a freezing rain.

Cornus alba 'Elegantisima'

Vernonia noveboracensis–I like really tall perennials and I love this plant in the wild.  I’d rather have plants that don’t self seed everywhere in my garden since I don’t have time to edit them.  The exception to that is Verbena bonariensis.  As for the Veronia,  I don’t have enough room for this garden giant that thrives on neglect!  Over 6′ tall with violet blooms in late summer. I just got tired of it. No pest problems whatsoever.

 

Vernonia noveboracensis

Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ and  Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetale’–These are paired together because I bought them as a pair.  The thought was to have the pink Persecaria grow up through the yellow leaves of the Rhus.  They did for one season.  I over romanticized the Rhus, it is a rangy looking thug. It looks fantastic in a pot though.  I can see why people fall for it and I would consider using it in a container.  It spread on its root stock into the lawn and other areas of the garden.  The Persecaria is supposed to be a thug…it’s a dud.  It didn’t thrive on my neglect and lack of ample moisture.  The good news is that neither were bothered by much of anything else.  The critters left both alone.

Rhus and Persecaria

 

The plant that bothered me to remove was a prized Styrax japonicus ‘Emerald Pagoda’.  Two years ago when the 17 year cycle of cicadas had them chomping leaves and creating garden mayhem everywhere–except my town, my young Styrax was the only plant  in my garden that was attacked. I decided to watch it and hope for the best.  I didn’t get my wish and it sadly went to the compost heap yesterday.

So what is going to take the place of everything I removed?  Plants I’ve never grown before…

Filoli

Garden Visit: Filoli

My visit last week to one of the great American gardens, Filoli, in northern California, was a revelation in many ways.  I have wanted to visit since I first saw pictures of it years ago. The garden was designed in the early 20th century by its original homeowners with a team of architects, artists, and horticulturists. There is no known master plan yet it has survived largely in tact which is a rarity for American estate gardens of this size and scope.

Filoli

Sometimes my travels are guided by my desire to experience specific places firsthand. My trip to Marrakesh and Majorelle was one of those. Standing in a place, in real time and feeling the human factor and scale is important. At Filoli it is very important.  As big as the garden is, it feels intimate.  There is a succession of garden rooms unified through the use of specific plants as well as how they are used.

Filoli Yews and Boxwood Hedges

Thinking about what a design might have looked like in plan view and then ‘feeling’ it out on the ground makes me think about the power of great design. For me, a photograph can never replace the human experience.  The intersection between the man made and the natural interests me as a landscape designer. Ultimately what I design are places for people. Filoli is definitely a garden for people.

Filoli Gardens

In landscape design terms, I want to see what the designer(s) intended from my own 5’7″ viewpoint. Being in a place and noting how the site was honored or not, how I am directed to move through it by plants and paths, how I experience hidden, surprise and obvious views, by noting the themes and repetitive motifs, by seeing how the elements all hang together allows me to grow and stretch as a designer.  These visits are my master classes, learning from others firsthand, yet through my own lens of experience.

Cherry trees at Filoli

Pansy parterre at Filoli

Of the many gardens I’ve visited, none use the axial views better than Filoli. They are strong and thoughtful, directing views and embracing the surrounding California landscape.  It is both very symmetrical and not at all.

Filoli Axial view through gateFiloli axial view through the gardenFiloli axial view with tulips and yewsFiloli Axial view with brick walk and stepsFiloli Axial view from bench

Filoli as a designed space is overwhelmingly about rectangles–on the ground plane as well as on the vertical plane. There are very few curves…an arch here, a round fountain there or a boxwood ball. Even the famous cylindrical yew towers read as rectangles.  Although traditional, it doesn’t feel dated or outmoded.

Filoli rectagular garden

Filoli pink and blue garden

The rectangles are softened with exuberant plantings in calculated and calibrated color palettes.  They are punctuated by clipped and trained plants. There are pollarded sycamores and espaliered fruit trees as well as a beech hedge and cascading varieties of wisteria. The hundreds of yews are the stars of the garden.  The plants are used design elements at Filoli.  They are equal players defining as well as decorating space.

Yews at Filoli

Filoli pollarded trees

Filoli view from hilltop

I was happy to spend a day in great company, walking and talking in this remarkable garden. It exceeded my expectations and I felt as if I cheated our late out of the gate spring in New Jersey with a few days of bloom and sunshine on the California coast.  Visit if you can.

Green Gardens

Green is a thing. Right now it’s a missing thing. It’s what I miss most during winter and what makes me smile first in the spring–those small green shoots pushing up through frigid earth. I’ve been thinking about making flowerless gardens. Gardens that are mostly green. Gardens that rely  on scale and texture and subtlety of hue and maybe some skilled pruning.

Princeton garden

In New Jersey, where I practice landscape design, this may prove to be more difficult than it is in warmer climates where there are bolder choices and plants with immense architectural leaves. Many of the images here are from gardens I’ve visited in the south–Miami, Dallas, and New Orleans.  All are interesting to me and there are no flowers in them.

Dallas Conf Day 3 024

Whatever broad bold foliage we have here the deer seem to love …like hostas, so I’ll find a substitute of some sort. Broad strappy foliage is easier to find–grasses have that in abundance. Subtle transitions of green along with texture will create the primary interest beyond shape.

Vizcaya green parterre Scale and shape and texture become much more important when color is limited. Finding companions that work with each other and can stand visually on their own and help define space is challenging with flowers–without it’s crucial.

South Jersey + New Orleans Garden District 026

Finely textured plants can disappear with out something with muscle to play off of. There can still be drama, but it’s more mellow (pun intended). These gardens don’t have to be formal and clipped, they can be loose and natural or somewhere in between.

Jungles Coconut Grove

Creating a planting plan that will be interesting in four seasons yet not be totally without seasonal specific floral interest will be a challenge–most of the plants I love anyway have super cool foliage and interesting bloom. Choosing plants for foliage and texture is usually where I start a planting design, after the permanent structure of the garden has been figured out. Bloom, however beautiful is secondary and fleeting.

Winter Park Garden

So for now, while the land is frozen in white and snowy limbo, I’ll just have some green dreams and wait for opportunities to reveal themselves in the upcoming spring landscape design projects.

 

 

My Award Winning Garden Design

Last fall, I entered a garden I designed in New Jersey in 2015 APLD International Landscape Design Awards in the Planting Design category. It was awarded the highest honor, a Gold Award. To be honest, I knew the value of the design, but since it is the antithesis of current planting trends, I was really pleased. Current trends in planting design seem to require ornamental grasses and meadow-like qualities. This garden has neither, but that doesn’t make it unsustainable or unfriendly to all  but deer.

Lee Hill Farm 3

The garden’s underlying structure of boxwood hedging and pyramids gives it definition. My client specifically asked that I not use any ornamental grasses as they felt they were too ‘beachy’ looking.  The 7800 square foot garden was originally built in the 1920s when the 15 acre property had a working greenhouse and two full-time gardeners. The bones of that garden remained: stonework in disrepair, heaved brick walks, and a leaky concrete pond.

pots et al 010

pots et al 009

Lee Hill Farm 1 Before

The homeowners wanted to re-imagine the space in the spirit of the original, but with lower maintenance and an eye towards family use and deer resistance. A new stone wall was built to create a level terrace on the west slope with new gravel paths and existing brick walks that were excavated and re-laid linking to existing steps.

pots et al 011

rumson, harding, westfield, scranton 039

Lee Hill Farm 9

Planting beds were edged with recycled steel and damaged stonework was repaired. Millstones from throughout the property were inserted into the relaid brick paths to indicate transitions. The homeowner repaired the pond with salvaged parts; inexpensive off the shelf, steel arbors were added to support climbing roses; and drip irrigation installed.

Lee Hill Farm 6

Planting plans from the 1940s were available and indicated that the original garden had a color palette of deep blues and pinks punctuated with seasonal yellow and white accents. They were the inspiration for the new seasonal bloom sequence that starts out predominantly blue, white and pink; changes to white, yellow and pink; and back to blue, white, and pink. The historic property had been documented as General Lafayette’s winter headquarters at some point during the Revolution. Boxwood hedges and repeating pyramids are a nod to formal 18th century French gardens. That they are also deer resistant and provide winter interest was also considered. An organic maintenance plan was put in place–the evidence of this is the seeded areas between the natural bluestone slabs which as long as they are ‘green’ are mowed and left to their own devices.

Lee Hill Farm 5Lee Hill Farm 8Lee Hill Farm 10

The finished garden is lush and sensual with abundant bloom and textural interest.  It is a traditional garden that was never meant to be ‘naturalistic’, but it was, and is meant to be of its time and place and I’m very grateful that it has received an award as acknowledgement that it’s okay not to follow the trends.

Photography by Rich Pomerantz and Susan Cohan.  All rights reserved.

 

Design vs. A Sense of Place

I’m not an architecture critic.  I am someone who loves great architecture both contemporary and historic. In my work as a landscape designer part of my focus is to create landscapes and gardens that surround the attendant architecture in such a way that the design partnership between them is timeless and seamless.  As a designer this may seem counter intuitive, but I believe that the best design has a sense of place and that my hand in that should be less, rather than more, visible.

Last week I visited Frank Gehry’s new building for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.  It is a tour de force of glass and structure.

Gehry's Fondation Louis Vuitton from streetFondation Louis Vuitton Paris

It stands alone in the Bois de Boulogne. Its sail-like architectural exoskelleton is remarkable, but it is a single design statement that has little or no relationship to its surroundings. I have seen his buildings and structures in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and now Paris, and in each and every case they dominate rather than caress.

In an urban environment with competing architectural statements like the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the IAC building viewed from the High Line in New York (both below), this isn’t so obvious. But in the Parisien forest park, the building is very beautiful, but it is not of the place it’s in and that bothers me.

Gehry Disney Concert Hall LA copyGehry IAC building in NYC

I admire the imagination and innovation in Gehry’s work. The buildings themselves are structures of great beauty. I enjoy the intellectual challenges that his architecture presents me with, but what I now don’t like is how they don’t sit on the land with ease.  Even through the viewing prism of Lurie Park in Chicago the Pritzker Pavillion sits above it, alone and lofty as a single statement.

Gehry Pritzker Pavillion Chicago

I believe it is our responsibility as designers and architects to embrace and celebrate our surroundings, and so, while I admire Gehry’s vision and virtuosity, as well as the power his buildings have to draw admiring crowds and challenge the status quo I wish they would also honor the land they are on.

Garden Travel: Back and Forth

Next week I’m travelling again. This time on a search for garden antiques and vintage in the markets in Paris and parts of Belgium. I am continuing on to Rome for a few days of play after that. For the first time in many, many years, I won’t be taking my laptop with me.  I’ve traded the bulk and weight for my camera stuff and a tablet, so please follow my Instagram account for what I see and off the cuff inspiration.

I’ve also been waiting a while to post about a visit to Vizcaya when I was in Miami in November so here it is.  I was enchanted.  For a landscape designer, like me, who finds inspiration in classicism and order, this garden was sublime.  Inspired by Venice, yet built in the tropics, it transcended my expectations–which were high to begin with.  We arrived in the rain which magically stopped when I went out to the garden.

vizcaya main parterre

Lush and green, in November, Vizcaya was largely flowerless which did not detract from its interest.  Layers of texture, geometric forms and varied stone and stucco create the depth.

Vizcaya Levels of geometry

Interesting uses of repeated geometric shapes–circles, triangles and rectangles on both the horizontal and vertical planes create cohesion and draw the eye through the garden.  A single pop of color creates a focal point.  Great editing is what makes great design, not piling up detail upon detail just to have them.

Vizcaya Symmetry

The same view from a few steps over takes the asymmetric organization of the previous view to one of almost perfect symmetry.

Vizcaya mashup of traditional and local materials

Celebrating Italian gardens and Floridian materials using coral stone, native limestone and juxtaposing them with Italian terra cotta and antique statuary and urns.

vizcaya secret garden

I’ve often thought that any garden style can be interpreted within the context of a specific region or plant group.  A formal planting in the secret garden using cactus, grasses and agaves for structure and interest.

Vizcaya inside the summer house

Last but not least was the summer house with views of the Grand Canal–a conceit if there ever was one complete with gondola moorings.  This structure has been damaged during the Florida hurricane season and needs repair, but still had incredibly beautiful mosaic floor and lattice work.

There was much more to see, and if getting away from the cold dreary winter is on your list…Vizcaya fits the bill perfectly.