Planting Plans and Combinations

I have been thinking a lot about planting plans since I’ve been working on the Colonial Park Perennial Garden project. There are so many choices and points of view and it has forced me to really consider my own. I have always relied on my visual instincts when it comes to design–even with plants. That may seem out of fashion, but I also consider the lessons of the land I’m working with and what a particular site can teach me. I will never be done growing and evolving as a designer–just like the gardens I design.

For me, planting plans are about a hard to define quality that combines hints from the site, foliage, sun and shade, long lasting interest, bloom sequence, color, mood, habitat, the environment, deer and rabbits, the seasons, movement, availability, and on and on and on and not necessarily in that order all of the time. All of these are layered in my mind as I work through to a solution. I prefer to use fewer plants that are repeated in different combinations and proportions, rather than more used sporadically. The repeated elements are generally texture and color although with fewer plants, the interest happens with the proportions of each in relationship to each other and the whole. My mind is never at rest when I’m working on a planting plan. Each individual combination of plants has to layer all of the elements listed with its immediate neighbors and also convey some kind of lasting visual/visceral quality that is difficult for me to pin down. I admire the work of other designers, but what they can do is not what I can do. Planting design is intensely individual and no two designers have the same viewpoint just as no two pieces of art are the same. There can be copies and forgeries, but the real thing has the unique qualities of the designer’s hand stamped on it.

Although I would never use barberry in a plan because it is highly invasive where I live and work, this combination of an unidentified golden pygmy barberry (possibly Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’) threaded with Drumstick Alliums (Allium sphaerocephalon) in John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli’s Sakonnet Garden stopped me, made me smile and consider it in a garden full of such moments.  Here’s another–Nicotiana langsdorfii and Asclepias spp. These are two plants that I would not have thought to combine yet I loved them together when I saw them.

Another planting that just made me think and has the emotive quality I often find elusive is by Deborah Silver in Michigan and is closer to what I like to do but also very different. The soft greys and purples in front of hard edged boxwood add a luminous, feminine quality to the crisp, geometric hedge. The three different foliage sizes and textures repeated throughout are highly edited yet don’t feel meager. They feel full and soft and ample. The soft grey combined with the deep violet picks up on the slate roof and is masterful in its proportions.

Although these combinations by others are beautiful in their own right and tick off some of the items in my never ending round Robin of a list, my combinations are different. I like restful, blowzy plantings with things spilling out over an underlying structure that somewhat like an overstuffed piece of furniture if that makes any sense. I want my gardens to make you exhale and everything that troubles you from that day or moment just falls away. I want the mess to be okay too which makes my viewpoint the antithesis of many formal and Japanese Zen gardens although I have employed elements of both.

In the end, my practice is to just start with the structure and then build softness and serenity with punctuation points around that. It evolves though, and often the first plant grouping laid down doesn’t make the final edit. Everything moves and shifts and changes as I make studies month by month to insure that there is equal time given to the seasons. Winter is included in that with both evergreen and the wonderful ‘mess’ left standing. The solution for both small and large gardens always reveals itself to me through the thought and the physical process of making the drawing which in turn is always driven by the site. No two are ever alike. Going back to where I started on this ramble. I’m not sleeping well, my mind is active and the park planting plan is almost done. I am editing as I go along. Then I will worry it some more and edit it again until I believe it’s well and truely finished–hopefully by my self imposed deadline in two weeks.



Design for a Public Perennial Garden

Every now and then I take a project that isn’t private and residential. Enter the Perennial Garden at Colonial Park in Somerset County. Currently it is a large circular garden with an entry aisle of double borders and a central gazebo. Plants that have been able to survive and thrive in less than ideal conditions dominate. Those conditions include the lack of an overall current garden plan, rampant deer, and a predominance of aggressive, deer resistant self seeders/spreaders. There is a gardener dedicated to the space. There are too many of too few plants to make the garden sing.

My approach to this project has been very different from what I normally do which is what attracted me to it. I have spent the past four months visiting, observing, cataloging existing plants (some to reuse, others not), and imagining what I would want from a garden like this if I was a casual visitor. There are few ‘sacred cows’ except the central gazebo which is, in my mind, an okay place to start. A central ADA compliant path will be added to it from the parking lot. A request was made by the head horticulturalist of the park to focus on native plants and their cultivars. As far as I can make that work, it’s what I do normally anyway. First look to the natives and then if they don’t or can’t fulfill the design goals, look elsewhere.

As it is, the current configuration doesn’t invite any kind of interaction except from the resident groundhog and deer. Brides use it as a background for their pictures yet there is little in bloom in June.

I believe that gardens should be experiential. Being able to walk and rest inside, to see plants up close adds to the experience of a garden.  This one only allows looking at it from the sidelines. That became my first goal of the redesign. I want to honor the circular history of the garden but not be strictly bound by it, I want ample space for plants while lowering the maintenance, and I want the garden to be a place for all except the groundhog and deer!

I experimented with several layouts, playing with paths and circular sections that would still allow the gazebo to be the central feature. Using a spiral based on the nautilus created by a Fibonacci sequence was one of those layouts. It clicked for me. We have a meeting to discuss it and a few other issues next week. Meanwhile, the concept is below and I will work on plant lists.

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


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.



Balcony floor

Garden Visits: Princeton

I visited gardens yesterday in Princeton, New Jersey. The tour was arranged by the New Jersey Landscape and Nursery Association (NJNLA) and featured four very different gardens by designer Bill Kucas.

What struck me about these outdoor spaces was that their details is what really made them interesting. In each space the features beyond plants were detailed beautifully, but when I asked about what made the spaces personal, that had been left up to the clients. In each space, with the exception of the one still being built, the choice of furniture and accessories beyond what the landscape designer had envisioned is what finished them and made them useful, wonderful places for people. Is a patio or deck really a place for people if there’s nowhere to sit or gather? Too often landscape designers stop at the plants and hard surfaces and leave the finishing touches up to the homeowner when the total vision should include all of the accouterments. Our interior design peers would never leave a space unfurnished!  None of this in anyway detracted from the day…even the predicted rain held off until we were leaving the very last one.

By far, my favorite detail of the day was a balcony with thin brick or roofing tiles set on edge.  It was finished with a rectangular copper gutter above and containing Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata).

Balcony floor

Additionally, there were other beautiful masonry details in each garden.  The pier below was unusual in that it combined stone, wood and concrete – each as its own detail but unified in the end product.

Garden pierWall fountain bluestone and brick paving detail

There were multiple seating areas in each space. Each had furnishings and accessories appropriate to the design and surrounding architecture.  There was contemporary furniture from Design within Reach and vintage Smith and Hawken at one site; Restoration Hardware dominated another; a third had a collection of antique and vintage pieces.  All of these ‘additions’ helped define the personality of the space and were lost opportunities for the designer to ‘finish’ the project through space and or furniture planning.  It’s true, sometimes clients want to do it themselves, but often they want to collaborate and don’t have access to the ‘To the Trade’ options that designers can provide.

DWR table and chairsFireplace Princeton

Pergola and marriage of materials

Lanterns in treeNow it’s back to work creating gardens and landscapes instead of being a ‘tourist’ in my own state on a busman’s holiday!


Travel Inspiration for gardens in The Designer

The summer issue of The Designer, APLD’s quarterly design magazine is out.  In the editorial is a piece I wrote about my trip to Morocco last winter and how the patterned surfaces found everywhere there have continued to influence my landscape design work.

What isn’t included there are some of the detail images of that still come to mind when I start to design a garden or, specifically a planting plan, so I decided to share them here. I take dozens of detail images for future reference where ever I go, but seldom share them. They’re my reference material and often don’t make much sense to anyone else out of context–these do I think.

Brick wall with windows Fes

Iron window detail Marakesh

Tile fountain museum of Fes

La Mamoumia Hotel tile detail


APLD Membership Bacge

The Power of Showing Up

Seven years ago, I just showed up in Philadelphia one day.  I didn’t know anyone except the person I was with.  I walked into a room of 200 strangers and sat down.  By lunch time I had introduced myself to a handful of those strangers, all of whom did what I did, many of whom I admired.  I walked with them in the 100+ degree heat throughout Philadelphia chatting and visiting gardens.

APLD Membership BacgeI asked questions, I listened, I visited gardens and I was welcomed in a way that few other groups of people had ever welcomed me. Philadelphia was my first Association of Professional Landscape Designers conference and  just by showing up I found kindred spirits who spoke my language, laughed at goofy work related jokes and actually listened to my opinions and found value in what I had to say.  All I did was show up.  I was asked at that first conference to help start a New Jersey State Chapter.

From that first experience I worked behind the scenes to help elevate my profession through the only group that represented landscape designers.  Not garden designers or landscape architects, they’re somewhat different, although some also call themselves landscape designers.  Two years later I submitted my (at the time) best built work for APLD’s peer review certification process.

APLD Certified Member BadgeBeing certified upped my game further.  Not only did the process validate my work, my clients all asked what the fancy new letters were after my name in my correspondence with them when I passed the muster.  It was also a way for me to personally and professionally elevate the profile of my profession.  I joined the national association’s Awards Committee. Another year later I was asked to serve as Membership Chair on the National Board of Directors.

In Philadelphia, I just wanted to see what it was like and to visit a few gardens.  I was curious.  I wanted a professional community. Now seven years later, crisscrossing the country, attending APLD’s annual landscape design conferences I have met and talked to hundreds of other designers…all of whom showed up too.

What I now know is how valuable this community is to me personally as well as our profession at large.  In 2014, I will be the President of APLD ushering in what I hope will be changes that will continue to elevate our profession and help it navigate the profound changes that will occur to the land we live and work on as well as how we define landscape design in the 21st century.  I never thought this would be the case–all I did was show up.

Branch Studios

Garden Accessories: A Visit to Branch Studio

I’m still in Detroit and processing everything I’ve seen so far.  I was lucky enough to spend a few days with landscape designer Deborah Silver and her dog and human partners before the 2013 APLD Landscape Design conference started.  One of the highlights was a side trip to Branch Studio where Buck Moffat and his crew of metal workers bend, shape, stamp, laser cut, weld, rivet, galvanize and patina steel into a variety of  extraordinarily beautiful handmade containers and garden accessories–all dreamed up by Deborah. Branch Studios Branch Studios Fountain Attention to detail and the care given to each piece marks them as objects of beauty unto themselves.  That we can have them in gardens when there is so much of the opposite out there is in itself a luxury for a designer.  For someone who values fine craftsmanship and classic beauty,  the containers and and architectural features created at Branch are worth their price.

Branch Studio plantersPlanters on the workroom floor are above.  Below the same planters designed by Deborah and planted up in downtown Detroit.

Branch planters downtown Detroit

I started out my professional life as a metalworker so the melding of landscape and metal in this particular environment was fascinating for me.  It was the best of both worlds.

Branch Studio box planter

Branch Studio planter boxes

Branch Studio Pergola

Dwell Studio 'Bungalow' for Robert Allen

Garden Design Details: Dwell Studios new Bungalow fabric

I’m always on the lookout for cool outdoor fabrics and try to add them whenever I can to customize furniture for my garden and landscape design clients. I just discovered this new, super fun fabric story ‘Bungalow’ designed by Dwell Studios for Robert Allen.

Dwell Studio 'Bungalow' for Robert Allen


image via Robert Allen

Yes, it’s Sunbrella fabric so it can take the heat and sun and rain, but it’s always best to have easy storage for cushions and pillows. Make sure that cushions are constructed from outdoor foam –which is much more pourous –if you live in an area where it rains.


I haven’t been here very much in the past few weeks…this April has been unusual in more ways than just the weather.   It’s been busy…way beyond what is usual.  March was warm so  my super active design season started early…so actually April is more like May–which is always my busiest month.

Here’s what’s been doing…

We moved a big tree.  This sugar maple was 18,000 lbs. and moved about 40′ to its new home.

The tree, just dug, on the move

I’ve been working on a designer show house space…that will open on May 1 with previews next week.  Here’s a link to the Pinterest board, but this week I’ve been running around getting all sorts of details taken care of for that (like ordering the beautiful piece below for the feature wall)…it’s not done yet by the way!


Made in Haiti from a 55 gallon oil drum

I’ve been working on designs for several clients…


A Family Party Space…


And last but not least there’s Leaf.  The spring issue published on April 2nd and we’re already hard at work on the summer issue.


Garden Designers Roundtable: Reality Check! Designers Save Money


This post is a bit of a rant because I find that so many people don’t really get it. Landscape renovations and installations are as big a construction project as any bathroom, kitchen or home addition. Few would attempt those without a having a detailed plan or hiring qualified contractors, yet many people with a shovel and a free weekend believe that they can build their landscapes themselves. Worse yet are those who profess to be professionals and do not have the training or skills to mitigate even the most basic of landscape related problems. (The tortured River Birch below was installed by a ‘professional’ at my local Dunkin’ Donuts)

Huh? Might be the most stupid planting mistake I have ever seen

Because I am a landscape designer this may seem like a self serving post, but it’s really not. I earn a fairly good portion of my fees because clients hire me to correct problems with their already built landscapes and gardens. Either they built it themselves or someone else just did a shoddy job via lack of experience or professionalism. Problems range from easy fixes like appropriate plant choices to major issues with stonework and drainage.

Working with a designer isn’t really out of range financially for most people. It’s not only for the well-heeled and financially overblown. The fact is that designers save their clients money at every step of the way in essence earning their own keep. In my design practice I save my clients money by helping them to avoid costly mistakes before they are made, by passing on at least part of the professional discount I receive on furniture, accessories and plants and offering choices that are ‘to the trade’ only that fit their specific budget.

Even a DIY weekend warrior can save money with as simple paid consultation with a designer before that shovel goes into the ground. The emphasis here is on paid. A free consultation won’t yield in much unless a signature is put on the dotted line for the totality of the work and then that consultation’s value will be hidden in some other cost. (No one works for free.) A paid consultation can be as little as $75 and as much as several hundred. A professional designer will listen to their clients and be able to assess problems and talk about possible solutions, a professional designer will be able to steer a client to choices that will serve their lifestyle and budget, and a professional designer will often offer ideas for building a project in stages with a plan for one, five or even ten years as their client’s budget allows. A designer will also insure that the outside is unified, works with the architectural style of the house and isn’t over or under built for the neighborhood. A professional designer will make sure they communicate any town or housing authority regulations that will impact a project. They will have a roster of artisans and contractors who can do the job at a high level of quality if that’s what their client’s choose. Most importantly, a professional designer will consider the ramifications of what is proposed to be built on a property’s resale value therefore protecting what is most people’s biggest investment–their home.

Don’t make this, the most common mistake in any of the building trades. Hire a designer before starting a landscape project…even if it’s just for an hour’s consultation and save headaches and money.

To hear what other professional landscape designers have to say about reality…

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : Easy Bay, CA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

A Garden is a Lovesome thing…

The poem in the title (and below) , by Thomas Edward Brown, is carved in stone at the entrance to the private pleasure garden Ellen Biddle Shipman designed for Gertrude Seiberling at Stan Hywet Hall.

Sculpture at the end of the garden

There is an innate femininity to Shipman’s gardens.  As a divorced, single parent with a career at the beginning of the 20th century I can’t even imagine the prejudice she faced.  When I visit her surviving gardens I am always aware of their rigid formalism tempered with softer plantings and color.  Gardens are always an expressive art and bare the imprint of their makers.

The reflecting pool at the garden's center

During her long career, Shipman made many gardens.  Some are wild, but most have an underlying formality typical of the times.  The design features are always softened by other elements–much like Shipman must have been in real life.

Geometry softened by plantings

That the garden is called the ‘English Garden’ does it a disservice.  It is uniquely American both in its design and its designer.  The garden is of its time and place and has been faithfully restored to Shipman’s plans.

Garden Cottage

I loved that her plan, which is shown at the garden’s entrance is very adamant about not substituting plants or features.  She must have had a steel backbone to stand up and make sure her vision was realized exactly as she saw it in her mind’s eye. Plantings included boxwood, hydrangeas, espaliered apples, climbing roses, peonies, standards, iris and most suprisingly the day I was there, the native–and a personal favorite of mine–Thermopsis caroliniana.

Thermopsis caroliniana

Whenever I visit a Shipman garden or their remnants, I’m always in awe and don’t necessarily take the best photos…I’m too busy trying to get inside this woman’s head…to feel what she wanted me to feel and to learn from her all these years later.

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot–
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not–
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.


Garden Design Details: Classic Box Planters

Sometimes it’s hard to improve on a classic.  Since a visit long ago to Versailles, I have had a secret love affair with the classic box planter.

An army of trees boxed for a king...

Also known as an Orangerie Planter or tree box planter, these containers can add drama to a garden or a patio.  The simple cubed geometric form adds structure and a tree, well I welcome the opportunity to add trees just about anywhere.  They can work in traditional and contemporary settings.

The tree greens the space

There are, in my mind a few features that make these planters different from any other square planter.  First, they have feet which improves air circulation under the planter and helps to keep it cool and second, they have corner finials.  Below are some of the many variations on a the classic.

The most classic are from Les Jardins du Roi Soleil. These planters are built to last centuries, open on one side and have the pedigree.

The real deal...

Updated with reclaimed wood and rusty iron details…from Clayton Gray Home.

Reclaimed wood and contemporary lines

A concrete and cast iron antique version found at Decorati


Great age and wonderful patina

From Restoration Hardware…the Versailles planter.  Well, not really but they did reinterpret it.

The re-interpreted classic

Gothic and Victorian variations from Horchow.

Gothic Variation
Victorian variation

So even though my garden doesn’t have the style or scale of Fountainbleu…

Fontainbleu. The Orangerie of the Queen. ca. 1670 - 90. Etching.

I have a box planter next to the garage that this year is home to a large tropical fern. It does a wonderful job of hiding my plant hospital.  It’s powder coated steel with a removable box for planting.

You can never go wrong with classic black...

For more box planters…traditional and contemporary here is my Box Planter board on Pinterest.



In my Reader…my book!

This was ‘leaked’ yesterday by a friend on Facebook…it was supposed to be a surprise…

Over the winter I created a look book of built work.  It’s a hybrid between a coffee table book of garden eye candy and more serious text.  I want to do more collaborative design work with architects and interior designers, so the content and pictures are designed to peak their interest.   A soft cover version will be used as a portfolio piece for potential clients.  I’ve always had a ‘leave behind’ portfolio, but my secondary hope is that a book will hang around either office or home when brochures get recycled or filed and cd’s get lost in the shuffle.

Here’s a preview–it’s a little slow to load, but you’ll get the idea.  Let me know what you think!  I haven’t seen the finished product yet…the test print will arrive on Thursday.

Design Challenge: Garden Designers Rountable

All of us are working on the same real life design problem this month–a landscape renovation for a young couple’s New England country home.  Tuesday’s Find will return next week.

For my part, I’m going to attempt to explain my process–or how I arrive at the conceptual design idea.   I actually cultivate a  lack of continuity in my initial thoughts because that scatter-shot method serves my creative purpose–ideas flow fast and freely…so here goes.

Even with pictures and descriptions, I have to walk a property–to experience it in three dimensions to be able to understand its nuances and its land speak.  What I found at Amy’s  (abcddesigns) country house was a property in need of cohesion.  The clean sophisticated simplicity of  the architecture and materials of the existing home and the out buildings needed an overall concept to tie them together visually and functionally.

The entry courtyard

Each structure was beautiful unto itself, but none really related to another by anything other than proximity.  There was no real arrival experience.

Path to the front door

In the back there had been some attempt to place these structures in logical places, but what the property lacked was flow.  Each space seemed separate–they needed the landscape to unify them.

The main house and 4 of 5 outbuildings

The first step in my process, after finding out the homeowner’s dreams for their property  is to plot everything–measurements are taken and located on a drawing to scale.  Below you’ll see is my notes scribbled on a copy of that basemap. I don’t do ‘bubble diagrams’ because I am visualizing the space as I make notes.  This works for me and doesn’t lock me into an idea.  My notes address client requests, ideas of  my own and whatever else seems appropriate in the flow of the creative process.  I work quickly–changing and editing as I go along letting some ideas become more fully realized and letting others fall away.

Ideas and notes

On the property there is already a mashup of  materials in play.   When I visited in the fall, Amy had already replaced the turf in front of the barn with a bluestone courtyard.  There were granite slab steps, bluestone walks, wood fences and stone walls.   I chose bluestone as the unifying material.  It’s plentiful locally and classic.

Wood, gravel. bluestone and granite

One of the things that interests me most about landscape design is how to get people from one point to another and how they will interact with each other as well the three dimensional space.  Sometimes plants form that underlying structure, some times its paths and hard surfaces.

The Conceptual Plan

Amy’s style is eclectic yet contemporary.  To create a unified design that complemented the architecture and without moving any of the major features, I developed a geometric scheme based on the existing relationships.   On her wish list was a patio by the screen porch and an herb garden.  On her husband’s was a spa and a lap pool.  They are not avid gardeners and do not want to be.

By searching for relationships between the existing outbuildings and creating new ones with paths and patios, I have been able to unify the space and create logical transitions between each area.  This is drawing would be the first of many revisions in the design process.  There are no real details in this plan.  It’s simply starting point.

For the rest of the Roundtable designer’s ideas for the same project, visit the links below

Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler, Los Angeles, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

In my Reader…Fernando Caruncho

I was reminded of  Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho‘s work late last spring while on a garden crawl with fellow designer Jane Derickson.  Several years ago I had read and article about Caruncho’s work in New Jersey by Anne Raver in the New York Times.  Before that time I hadn’t been aware of his work.  I have since bought Mirrors of Paradise:  The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho.

So, if you don’t know his work, here’s a short introduction.  Please click the images to view the source.

In my Reader…Gardens Illustrated’s Podcasts

Here’s an auditory post.  Most of us who are serious about garden and landscape design read Gardens Illustrated, the English garden magazine.  Both informative and beautiful, I’ve been reading it since I found my first copy on the newsstand many years ago.  I subscribed for years until I figured out it was less expensive to buy each issue than to pay for the additional overseas postage.

This post isn’t about the magazine–it’s about the fabulous podcasts the magazine posts and anyone can download and listen to for free.   As I write this I’m listening to (for the second time) Beth Chatto talk about her gardens, life and ecology.  The topics are wide ranging and eclectic and they don’t always focus on one person, place or thing.  Thes podcasts (available back to 2007) are not only informative they’re incredibly entertaining–take a moment and listen.

In my Reader…Dirt Simple

This is one of my favorite blogs about landscape design written by a landscape designer. Its author, Deborah Silver, is also the owner of Detroit Garden Works and The Branch Studio.  Her landscape design aesthetic is traditional as is the shop merchandise and the garden accessories she designs.  She has flawless taste, a remarkable humility, technical chops and a keenly analytical and creative mind.  In other words, she’s the real deal.  In Dirt Simple, Deborah muses on her life, her shop and her design work.  For me, this is a regular read, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  Her images illustrate most posts–here are a few recent ones.

The shop store front with window planters below.

In praise (mine) of humble materials used in elegant fashion for this potager’s enclosure.

Capturing the view.

A glowing border.  Deceptively simple in fact.

Just in case you thought things were too subtle…the designer’s own terrace.

Fieldtrip: James Rose Center

Last Saturday morning I headed north to Ridgewood, NJ to help with the annual spring clean up at the quirky and impossibly creative James Rose Center.

The Guest House

This modernist bastion of free thinking and improvisation is located in a community of entitled suburbanites surrounded by traditional homes and manicured yards.  It is, as you would suspect, an anomaly.

A covered section of the roof garden

Rose, mad genius that he was, experimented with so many convergent ideas here that it is impossible to convey them all through photographs in a blog…one visit would not even be enough to absorb them all.

One view of the roof deck
Turn around and this is the view of the roof deck

Rose built the home/studio/garden in 1953 and lived there for almost 40 years until his death in 1991.  As I understand it, the building and surrounding garden were in a constant state of experimental flux for almost all of that time.

Light and shadow

Its still evolving history makes it  a vital emblem of  a changing world from a fertile and busy mind who fundamentally understood that change was constant and necessary.

A tree is given room to grow between exterior rafters
The same tree reveals itself again in the second story

Combinations of materials high and low, new and recycled, permanent and temporary are freely juxtaposed throughout the building and garden.

Stairway to the roof

In Rose’s own words– “to reveal what is always there is the trick. The metamorphosis is seen minute by minute, season by season, year by year. Through this looking glass, ‘finish’ is another word for death.”

View out from in

Over 60 years ago Rose wrote the closest definition I have ever found of a garden.

Man and nature, nature and man

From his 1958 book Creative Gardens— “A garden is an experience…If it were possible to distill the essence of a garden, I think it would be the sense of being within something while still out of doors.  That is the substance of it: for until you have that, you do not have a garden at all.”

Fence detail

To  visit the James Rose Center is to experience a garden where then is now, now is then, the inside is out, the outside is in and the top is bottom and the bottom is the top.  It is also an opportunity to take a glimpse into the mind of one of American landscape architecture’s most original thinkers.

Ladies’ Choice

I don’t usually post the same things here as I do on my Facebook fan page and Twitter. Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak at a symposium sponsored by the local and exceptional arboretum-Frelinghuysen.  I am also not an easily agitated public speaker, but I was the lone designer in the company of  two other women, both of whom are experts in their respective fields-a nursery woman and a garden writer. It was to a sold out crowd of avid home gardeners, nursery people and other designers.  I don’t know why this gave me pause.  I have in my career spoken to large crowds on big stages about lots of things with narry a thought.

Anyway, we were each given a set 20+ of statements such as:  Childhood Favorites, My Kind of Red or My BFF-Foliage that were to form our presentations. The three of us had very, very different points of view.

Heidi Hesselin, who along with her husband Richard own Pleasant Run Nursery, spoke eloquently about plants.  She is one of the most knowledgeable plants people I know and I have been buying from her incredible wholesale nursery for many years.  If I have a question about a specific plant, Heidi is one of the few people I call for an accurate answer.  Valerie Sudol has been the garden columnist- penning the Garden Diary for New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star Ledger, for years.  Her presentation was also very plant focused.   My presentation was different since I came at it from a designer’s point of view.  I tried to include as much design information within the context of the questions as possible.

I went first and the visuals from my presentation are below.  Except for the plant list, I told stories about each image.

Overall the day was a success–with one exception…I was in a darkened auditorium when for the first time in months it was sunny and 60 outside and would have rather been in my garden!

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.

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

Do what I say…not what I do!l

As a landscape and garden designer, I only have one hard and fast rule:  create a space that compels people to venture out to use it.  Whether it’s a path, a patio, or just a comfortable place to sit and read a book, I want to get people outside to reconnect with their land.

For my clients I always create a place to explore, gather, pause, or linger.

That could mean adding a small a patio that overlooks a community  pond where before there was nothing but an eroded hill…

DiTrolio Pond

It could also mean a creating path to beckon you from one place to another easily…

Best path

Or it could mean building a place to toast marshmallows after chasing fireflies on a summer evening.

McSweeny Firepit

Outdoor spaces that invite interaction are a part of every design I create but…my home garden has none of that.

I have a path…but no place to linger.

I have a patio, but no comfortable place to sit,  a firepit…well that’s just not a part of ammenities around here.

My work is built outside to coax people into using it and enabling them to reconnect with the natural world around them yet here I am day after day drafting designs for others on paper or via my laptop.  I guess I need to hire myself so I can lure myself  outside!

Thank you to Susan Morrison who suggested the idea for this post. Three other APLD landscape designers on both coasts are fessing up today also. Take a minute to visit their blogs (links below) and see if they also need to hire themselves to get outside!

Susan Morrison –  Rebecca SweetScott Hokunson

Inspiration and Influence: Image Spark

I love tools that allow me to work intuitively.  I don’t mind spending time to master the use of a new tool, but when one comes along that is as elegant  as Image Spark  I have to share.  Image Spark a place to find and save visual inspiration.

It’s the first site I’ve found for visual bookmarking that makes sense to me.  I use Flickr and PhotoShop for many things, but Image Spark is a snap (no pun intended) to use.  It’s easy and intuitive.   It is social in that you can view and share images from others by simply hitting a plus icon–use the minus to delete.  You create a library of images via your own photos or easy (and automatically credited) uploading from the web (with a simple right click for Windows) or by grabbing images from other users.   You can make images private if you don’t want to share them.  Here’s a link to my library part of which is shown below.

Image Spark Library
Image Spark Library

The best part of Image Spark is not the library, it’s what you can do with it.  Using a very simple drag and drop interface you can create mood boards with your images. This type of visualization is key for any designer.  Images can be resized and placed how and where you want them–the same way you would do with a traditional cut and paste mood board.  Currently, there is a 2 mood board limit and the only way to share them (other than the screen shots I made) is to do so via a link.  Below is a screen shot of an inspiration board I made using some of the images from my library shown above–click on the board to enlarge it or view the original is here.  Yeah, I was in one of those Secret Garden meets Wuthering Heights meets Out of Africa moods.

Garden Inspiration
Garden Inspiration

Speaking of sharing…I have to thank my very own art school student, Alex, whose instructor in a Design Procedures class turned him on to the site and he in turn showed me.

Show House Videos No. 1 and No. 3

It’s the beginning of designer showhouse season.  Designer previews for one that will take place in May 2010 are going on for those invited to submit their concepts for  a design space.  In the past I’ve kept an on-line journal for documenting each step of  these display gardens.  I’m not going to do that this year.  Instead, if I choose to participate, and it’s still an if, I’m going to upload video.

Here’s the space I really want as well as choice No 3.  I shared my No. 2 choice over at Designers on Design. We are all competing for spaces via design concepts and briefs.  No one knows who or how many other designers have their eyes on any particular spot. I’m sure, there are others who want my No. 1 too so I can’t share my plan until I know if I’ve won the space.  We will be notified mid-December.  I’m still not sure if I’ll even draw up more than one concept–that’s a lot of time…

I love abandoned garden spaces–if you dig deep enough they bear the imprint of those who once tended them. This enclosed  former garden (55′ W x 116’L) had those ghosts and spoke to me in a way that allowed me to visualize what it once was and what it could be immediately.

As I already said, go on over to Designers on Design (link above)  to see No. 2 choice billed there as ‘The Sweet Spot’.  Here’s choice No. 3 (15.5′ W x 97′ L)–don’t mind my lovelies and beautifuls…it was way past lunch time and my brain wasn’t tuned to the lingo channel.

I went out for coffee and a snack with both of the other landscape designers on the video who I know through being a member of  APLDNJ–only one of whom is also considering No. 3–the other is considering No. 2.

The ‘L’ Word


This post could also be called ‘What’s In a Name?” The new Twitter list tool has me thinking. I am thrilled to be included on so many people’s lists, but I’m wondering about the category most have put me in. I have always been a designer.  First I was a jewelry designer, then a fashion designer and lastly (and it is the last) a landscape designer. A designer first, the discipline second.

Back to Twitter lists.  On most people’s lists I am included in a list that has some sort of ‘gardening/gardener’ reference.  I wonder if they would include me there if the word ‘landscape’ wasn’t part of the title?  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, but if my own history is considered, it is the ‘D’ word, not the ‘L’ word that is the defining factor.

In Praise of Craftsmanship

As a landscape designer who runs a design only practice, I am dependent on those who build my work to realize my vision.  I have, over many years, through trial and error, found several contractors and artisans who embrace excellent craftsmanship and practice what they preach, but they are getting harder and harder to find.

Dry stacked locally sourced pudding stone
Dry stacked locally sourced pudding stone

Cheap materials and quick building techniques afforded by interlocking wall systems and concrete pavers are not part of my design vocabulary.  On all of the projects I have done over the years, I have only specified them once–and that was on the deal breaking insistence of a client.  I would not take that project today.  I believe in using local, natural materials but even those can be used in a slipshod and slap dash manner.

Which wall below do you think will stand the test of time?

Below are some photographs of the now three year old project shown in the video.  We  replaced ancient and crumbling concrete steps and walks with a terraced front yard built of native pudding stone and locally plentiful bluestone walks and steps.  Dan Lupino, dry stone wall builder, really made the project sing with his attention to detail and incredible artisanship. The old lawn area was reduced by fifty percent and is maintained organically by the homeowner.

Terraced Entrance
Terraced Entrance
Dry stacked lower terrace pier, steps and wall
Dry stacked lower terrace pier, steps and wall
Upper terrace piers with lamps
Upper terrace piers with lamps