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

 

 

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…

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.

 

Garden Design Details: Fall Beyond Foliage

I had some rare time in between landscape design projects and clients last week and as I’ve been meaning to take my new camera lens out for a spin, I stopped by Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown to search out some of the details of the season.  The focus of this public park is plants…not necessarily design although it has its designer-y moments.  I go here when I need a plant fix.  I send my landscape design students here to photograph and learn about plants just as I did years ago when I was learning.

Winding path Frelinghuysen Arboretum

Grasses, asters, Japanese anemones and Monkshood were at their peak and the large swaths of hardwood foliage astound, but there are many other details that can make a landscape’s planting design special in the waning warmth and long low light of autumn. Sometimes they are stalwart summer hanger’s on and sometimes they are plants whose season is now.

Semi spent bloom Heptacodium

The almost spent bloom structure of a Heptacodium miconoidies (Seven Sun Flower) has beautiful open structure and pale pink color.

Branches Acer japonica

I’m a sucker for contorted branches of a Japanese maple silhouetted against some foliage ‘stained glass’…

Autumn fern

The gold and russet fronds of Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn Fern) in a woodland setting adds some unexpected living color to the ground plane. Mostly the oranges of fall are fallen from above.

Nicotiana sylvestris

The late blooming native Nicotiana sylvestris (Woodland tobacco) is a giant in most gardens but so worth it in terms of drama.  One of my personal favorites, and easily raised from seed, it takes forever for this plant to appear, and does smell a bit like an ashtray…remember those?

Pinus bungeana

Pinus bungeana‘s (Lacebark Pine) exfoliating camo bark.  Who wouldn’t want this in their garden?  I don’t see this tree in commonly in the trade or used enough in gardens.  In fact, I’ve only ever seen one once in a residential garden where I kept it from being cut down!

Aconitum and Anemone japonica

Lastly, as I said in the beginning the Aconitum and Anemones were at their peak.  So pretty reaching for the light.

 

Spring Bulb: Asphodelus fistulosus

I don’t usually write about plants I haven’t grown, but I’m so starved for spring I started looking through some images thinking to do a post about early spring bloomers.

Asphodelus aestivus Vobulis

Instead I found some lovely images of  Asphodelus fistulosus (Hollow stemmed asphodel) from my trip to Morocco in January.  It took a bit of sleuthing to figure out what this plant was…I hope I’m correct!  It was blooming everywhere in Volubilis, a Roman ruin, in the northeast near Fes and made me so happy to see it thinking that spring wouldn’t be far away at home.  Boy was I wrong!

Asphodelus aestivus close upAsphodelus aestivus with ruins Vobulis

It is a weed there, so beware here, several states list it as a noxious weed and it is prohibited! There were piles of it pulled out from unwanted spots. A member of the lily family, it has a long bloom season and is shorter than Eremurus and much less showy, but pretty nonetheless.  I don’t think it will be hardy in most of NJ since it’s listed as hardy to -0 and this winter we had a few days below that!

 

Hydrangea paniculata 'Tokyo Delight' iced

Ice in the Garden

We had our first significant snow of the season yesterday.  It turned into rain last night and covered everything with a thin coat of ice.  I’m torn between the beauty of it and the knowledge that some of my boxwoods may not survive or will, at the very least, need a severe pruning in early spring.

For now I’ll focus on the morning’s transient beauty in my New Jersey home garden before it melts.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Tokyo Delight' icedHydrangea paniculata ‘Tokyo Delight’

Malus 'Coralburst' on ice

Malus ‘Coralburst’

Fothergilla gardenii on ice

Fothergilla gardenii

Spirea thunbergii on ice

Spirea thunbergii

Spirea thunbergii Mt. FujiSpirea thunbergii ‘Mt. Fuji’

Cornus alba 'Elegantisima'Cornus alba ‘Elegantisima’

Veronia and maple

Planting Design: Late Fall Texture and Color

Now that we’ve begun the season of darkness and it looks like midnight at 5 pm, bursts of golden color during the day is important. I love the last of the riot of color and texture that is in my front home garden.  The details become very important.

Veronia and maple

Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed) seed heads and browned leaves and stems against a background of Acer rubrum ‘Autumn Blaze’ (Red maple) foliage.

I look for plants that at minimum do three seasons of heavy lifting even if it’s in a period of decay.  They have to be tough and deer resistant.  They also have to play well with others and offer opportunities for textural combinations since most of their bloom times are fairly short lived.  Here are some of the stars in my New Jersey home garden in late fall.  None are difficult to grow or find and all are suitable for a small space–some take up airspace like the narrow yet 7′ tall Veronia rather than having a big footprint others like the Amsonia need a wide birth and frequent division to keep them where they are.

Leucanthumum superbum 'Becky'

Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’ (Shasta Daisy) 

Cotinus coggygria 'Ancot'

Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’ (Golden Spirit Smokebush)

Amsonia and sedum

Amsonia hubrichtii (Threadleaf  bluestar) and Sedum x ‘Autum Joy’

Fothergilla gardenii and red twigged dogowood

Fothergilla gardenii foliage and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (Red Twigged Dogwood) twigs.

Crabapple

Malus x ‘Coralburst’ (dwarf crabapple) fruits.

Vernonia noveboracensis seed heads

 Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed) seed heads.

 

Planting Design: Planting for Fall Drama

I never tire of visiting other people’s gardens. Good or bad they always have something to teach me.  This past weekend I visited two.  One in New Jersey and the other across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.  They both showcased ornamental grasses and their power to transform an autumn garden.

James Golden writes about his garden on a wonderful blog, View from Federal Twist.  He describes himself as a ‘new American’ style gardener.  What he is really is a an engaged and talented plantsman with an eye for design.  I previously visited and wrote about his Brooklyn garden for  Leaf  but leaped at the opportunity to spend a day talking gardens and design at his country garden.  It will be open for Garden Conservancy Open Days on October 19th if you want to see it in person.

James Golden Pond at Federal Twist Miscanthus and Sanguisorba Wave Hill chairs and grasses

After lunch and shopping for some hairspray (see the tale at the end of this post) we visited Paxon Hill Farm.  The display gardens there were glorious and interesting and full of fall ideas for planting.  It would be worth it to couple a visit here with the Open Days tour.

Pond at Paxon Hill Farm

 

Paxon Hill Farm Display Garden

Hairspray?  I suggested that James use it to keep some of the seed heads in tact that he wants to keep for winter interest without having to worry about self seeding.  Not the average garden tool, but it should work very well.  My preference is for unscented Aqua Net. Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.

 

 

Ogre

Garden Visit: Atlanta Botanical Garden

I’m in Atlanta for the inaugural Garden Bloggers Conference and I came two days early to explore.  Yesterday, visiting the Atlanta Botanical Garden with friends and fellow landscape designers Kathy and Tom Carmichael. we were beset by monsters!

Ogre

But seriously.  The garden’s blockbuster installation of creatures was produced by the same team, the International Mosaiculture of Montreal,  who have built fantastical creatures around the world since 1998.  There is another group of them on view until September 29th at the Montreal Botanic Garden.  These are huge.  Some are 20′ tall and made of thousands of plants.

Cobra

 

Unicorn

I suspect these creatures were the reason the garden was so crowded.  There were long lines at the ticket booth as well as streams of cars entering the garden all day long. This is a very good thing for a public garden.  Often they are quiet places with few visitors. My favorite creature was the Earth Goddess.  She was beautiful and built in a way that she appeared to spring forth from the surrounding woods and water.

Earth Goddess

Mien Ruys

Planting Design: Ornamental Grass Hedges

It’s the season when ornamental grasses are doing their best to be the stars of the landscape.  The current trend of naturalistic and meadow-like plantings are perfect for ornamental grasses, but so are hedges.

In this garden, designed by Mien Ruys who considered to be the mother of the current naturalistic planting movement, a Miscanthus hedge sits next to one that is traditional, clipped and evergreen. The possibilities are evident.

Mien Ruys

Many grasses can be planted as hedging both tall and short.  They can stand independently or be used as low edging. Below, two types of grasses, a Pennisetum and a Miscanthus, are used by Belgian design firm Archi-Verde as free-standing hedges.  It would be refreshing to use grasses as the ‘outline’ in a parterre instead of the traditional evergreen edging much in the same way the Victorians used annuals to create highly patterned effects.

Grass hedges

Grass hedges can add color or be designed to be a textural through-line in a garden much like any other linear element.  At his own property in New York state, photographer Larry Lederman, has created a bright yellow hedge of Hakonechloa macra ‘Aurea’.

Hakonechloa hedge

Image via New York Social Diary

The best part about these hedges is that they need very, very little in the way of maintenance.  Cut them down once a year and divide them every few years.  A low maintenance hedge?  Now that’s something to consider.

 

 

 

Planting Bambi’s Buffet

Twelve years ago I built a garden on what was a deer path in my narrow side yard.  Why? To experiment with plants primarily for deer resistance, but also to know and grow new plants for my landscape designs.  I don’t generally plant things for clients that I haven’t grown.  That means this garden as well as my others are in a constant state of upheaval and change.  The side yard gets almost totally replanted every three to five years; the others which are more public get things tucked in or dug up.

Side yard unplanted

This is a replanting year for the side yard.  Many of the previous plant experiments have been removed.  Some of the structural plants or things that I’m attached to for whatever emotional tug they have on me remain.  The space was better designed and built out of entirely found materials when I started it (below), now it’s somewhat of a hodgepodge with a nod to design.

narrow side yard garden

The garden faces south and has hot sun in the middle of the day with shade on each end as well damp areas and those that are dry so it suits a wide range of situations.  The soil has been amended in the same way I would have a garden prepared anywhere–with rich organic matter and not much else.

Here are the 5 I’m most excited about from a much more extensive planting list.

Aesculus parvivlora var. serotina ‘Rogers’ – I’ve wanted to grow this for years.  It’s a tough sell to a client though since they usually look like they’re defective in containers in the nursery.  This is a plant for someone with patience…I have that!

Aesculus parviflora var

Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’ -I don’t have a good image from the plants I bought because it looks crappy in the container right now, but I have high hopes for this one.  I love it’s airy qualtiy and that’s hard to find in a small ornamental grass.  Here’s a link.

Helenium x ‘Ruby Tuesday’ – I’ve killed more Heleniums than I have previously admitted to, but I keep trying…

Helenium x Ruby Tuesday

Hypericum x ‘Blue Velvet’ – much finer foliage than its cousins.  Grey blue too.  I’ve had great success with every Hypericum I’ve grown and use the groundcover Hypericum calycinum often.  It’s a fantastic and showy semi-evergreen groundcover for a south facing slope which in my mind is akin to planting Hell.

Hypericum

Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’ (also known as Stachys alpina ‘Hummelo’) – I’m finally getting around to a plant that everyone raves about–it’s not blooming right now but has very beautiful foliage.  We’ll see if it makes the appetizer tray in Bambi’s buffet!

Stachys monieri 'Hummelo' foliage

 So in a couple of seasons I’ll let you know what’s been eaten at this buffet since you’ll see them in future designs if they hold up.  In the meantime I’m going to try some in client’s gardens that have sturdy deer fences!

 

 

The Lurie Garden in high summer

Garden Travel: Planting Design and Architecture in Chicago

I took a walk very early this morning to The Lurie Garden and Roy Diblick’s new garden at the Chicago Art Institute.  My first observation (actually I walked them yesterday afternoon also) is how distinctly the spatial and planting design of both sits well with and plays off the surrounding architecture.  This is not easy to do.

My second observation is that I preferred the smaller Diblick designed garden to Ouldouf designed one at The Lurie.  It was more intimate, more suited to the residential scale I work in.  It was also unfinished–a second half has been prepped for planting.

The Lurie with surrounding architecture.  I know that most will cringe that I’m not talking about Piet Ouldof’s beautiful plantings.  What I observed isn’t detail, it’s a powerful context and connection to place.

Lurie and Gehry

Chicago skyline and Lurie hedges

Gehry and LurieRoy Diblick of Northwind Perennial Farm talks eloquently about creating plant communities and creating symbiotic relationships between plants.  This small garden surprisingly isn’t dominated by the Richardson Romanesque shard of the Stock Exchange, instead both sit comfortably with each other.

Richardson Romanesque

Roy Diblick

Roy Diblick planting design

Planting Design: A Wet Shady Meadow

I will admit to having to take some time to wrap my head around an addition to a garden that we installed last year.  Although we have improved the overall drainage on the expansive site, there is one pesky area that is still a little bit damp.  It’s walk-able and mow-able, but my client has come around to what I had originally suggested for the spot – a wet, shady meadow.

Meadow style plantings and damp shade don’t have to be mutually exclusive and here are three plants I’m considering to give it multi-season color, drama and texture.  They are all in my experience reasonably deer resistant also.

Rogersia pinnata – a plant I haven’t used in a couple of years since most of the shady spots I’ve been working in have been dry woodlands.  I’m going to try two varieties for their rough texture and difference in foliage and bloom color.  The one I’m most excited about is ‘Chocolate Wings’

Lobelia silphatica – one of my favorite self seeders.  My current client LOVES blue.  It may be the perfect plant for this area.

Juncus inflexus ‘Blue Arrows’ – another choice for color and fine threadlike foliage with a stiff vertical habit

I’m excited about this part of the project because it allows me to flex and stretch in ways that I don’t always have the opportunity to do.

 

 

 

Ferns and Grasses

Field Trip: Native Plant Garden at NYBG

When a new garden destination opens, I always like to wait a bit and let the crowds simmer down so I can explore it in peace. I need that space to process my ideas and to really see a place. The Oehme, van Sweden designed Native Plant Garden at The New York Botanical Gardens opened in May to gushing and effusive reviews.

Ferns and Grasses

The hand of ‘The New American’ garden style attributed to OvS is evident throughout the 3.5 acre site that comprises more than 100,000 plants native to the Eastern Seaboard.  It is contemporary and has flashes of genius.  It is, to my eye, a clearly designed space that wants to also be natural. Vignettes abound that never occur so frequently in the wild. Some are painterly and others are dramatic. This is a garden after all and a teaching one at that.  It covers a lot of regional and geographic botanical territory and includes mature and new plantings.  Some areas are so densely planted that they have little room to grow and the maintenance will have to be intensive for garden crews or they’ll look awful in very little time. My favorite places were those in and bordering the woodlands that combined structural punctuation points with soft underplanting.

Foam Flowers - Tiarella cordifolia

Woodland edge

The garden’s central water feature is contemporary and at first I thought it looked too jarring. After exploring the garden and giving it some thought, I understand the design philosophy that clearly places our collective responsibility for these native and wild places in a contemporary context. Sustainable materials, storm water recycling and bio filters are all unseen yet declared parts of this feature. Other areas provide shelter and food for wildlife. Signage indicates and explains natural communities in an engaging way.

Central water feature at NYBG Native Plant GardenBio filter and ducks at NYBGAs a designer, I appreciate the subtlety of another designer’s hand, but wonder how many visitors will notice the details.  In some ways the garden is too natural and I suspect some won’t get it at all.  They’ll think that this is just what’s out there in the real world, when in reality it’s not.  If the garden is to be a success, people have to stop and read and listen and look carefully to see the details.  When viewed as a whole, it could be perceived as just another messy, unmanicured space that so many find threatening because they are so far removed from the wild.

boxwood hedging

Planting Design: Wave Hedges

As always, I’m primarily interested in how people move through a three dimensional outdoor garden space.  I’m also interested in how to guide the experience–whether it’s an arrival sequence or just a meandering walk.  Lately I’ve been experimenting with what I call wave hedges.  They are short curved hedges of boxwood or other dense evergreen that from one view appear to be continuous, but from another are actually low waves of curved green ‘walls.’

Below are two examples for gardens that are being built this season or early next.

boxwood hedging

 

Wave hedge foundation plan

Fragrant blooms of a yellowwood tree

Native Plants: Cladrastis kentukea – Kentucky Yellowwood

My little town has an unusual collection of street trees.  On my block alone there are red maples, dogwoods, redbuds, oaks, and two native beauties – Cladrastis kentukea all planted in the hell strips.  1′ to 2′ abundant clusters of fragrant white blooms on two side by side trees made me screech the tires on the way home the other day.  This isn’t a common tree around here and it is a stunner in every way.  I have to remember to us this beauty in more landscape designs!

Fragrant blooms of a yellowwood tree

Kentucky Yellowwood

Cladrastis kentukea has a loose informal shape suitable to casual settings or as a feature tree in a large landscape.  Its native range is further south – hence the name.  Yellowwood is hardy from zones 4-8, with brilliant yellow fall foliage. It is a large shade tree that can reach 30-50 feet, likes full sun, and has a long taproot so make sure it’s planted where it can stay.

Cathedral of Trees Muir Woods

Garden Designers Roundtable | My Cathedral

Spiritual journeys often reveal themselves over time.  I am not one for those that are organized.  For many years I have found mine  in the company of trees. They are a cathedral that moves me to tears each and every time with their beauty and bounty.  They give back to the earth like no other; a perfect life cycle.

Cathedral of Trees Muir WoodsYellow flag irisesDancing trees covered in moss

Basking Ridge Oak

This spring as I drive all over my Garden State chasing after work, clients, and plants the devastation of our hardwood forests and my most sacred places again brings me to tears.  My eyes fill up as I write this. Upended roots and downed trees are everywhere.  Broken limbs torn from the hearts of their trunks are wounds that won’t easily mend.  Our forests may take hundreds of years (if ever) to recover from two autumns of extreme weather.  Yet Mother Nature has a way of fixing herself and providing solutions where there are seemingly none.  The dead and dying become part of the perfect circle as hosts and nesting places.  So I stop whenever I can and offer whatever constitutes as prayer that the cathedrals will rise again and offer some other soul solace and joy.

Old Growth ForestHerons nesting in trees

Some other landscape and garden designers are celebrating trees in their own way today as part of the Garden Designers Roundtable monthly thematic posts:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

 

 

 

New Garden Plants

My Wee Spring Plant Nursery

Here I go getting all plant-y again…

In January I offered to share a snippet of  my favorite  Heuchera ‘Molly Bush’ which I’ve grown for almost 20 years back to Allen Bush who bred it to begin with.  He graciously sent me a care package in return.  I’m excited to see how these gifts fare in my home garden after its makeover this year.

I’m giving them all spots in pots before I set them out into the garden since I’ve just started a major renovation and the clean-up is yet to be finished in my holding areas.  I will also pay attention to them since they’re on a table right outside my back door.

New Garden Plants

 What was in both packages:

Stachys ‘Silky Fleece’ (back right) – From Jelitto where Allen works now. I know the deer won’t like that and I have just the spot for it– in the front border opposite a big and hopefully divided super easy to grow Stachys byzantium that a client gave me years ago and thrives in all kinds of neglect.

Arum ‘Tiny’ (back left) – I’m super excited about this one –a dwarf variety that originally came from Monksilver in the UK.  I’ve always wanted to grow Arums and just haven’t gotten around to it, so now I have no excuse.  Let’s hope I don’t kill it.

Chrysogonum ‘Norman Singer’- (front right)  The one you can’t see behind the tag…this is a totally new plant for me.  I’ve never grown it.  It’s a native shade lover and I have dry shade so we’ll see if it can duke it out!  I’m thrilled to have it.

Erigeron pulchellus var. pulchelus ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’–(front left) Another eastern/mid-Atlantic native.  I have a soft spot for Erigerons so I have to find a special partially shady place for it. (Why do I always think of swans and teddy bears when I type the workd Erigerons?)

Heuchera ‘Molly Bush’ -In the center of it all from the original plant I bought from Allen all those years ago.  It’s been in both of my gardens since then.  And no, the few available in the trade aren’t the same…they’re just not.

This isn’t an eye candy type of post…I have to wait for these babies to grow up a bit for their glamour shots!

Leaf Magazine Spring 2013

Spring is Sprung with Leaf Magazine

I hope you’re not tired of hearing about the new issues of Leaf and my involvement with them.  I think the latest issue–out today– Spring 2013–is as good, if not better, than those that have come before it.

Leaf Magazine Spring 2013

It’s a great source of professional pride for me that we–Rochelle Greayer and I– continue to publish it and to push the envelope of what we believe a great American magazine focusing on design outside can be.

Our audience continues to grow–our last issue was seen by more than 1 million people.  We are actively seeking publishing partnerships (however that becomes defined) and exploring new ways to deliver content to even more readers. So please  enjoy this issue and let me know what you think in the comments or email me at scohan @ leafmag dot com.

Witch Hazels…I’m bewitched.

It started out simply.  Admiration in a late winter garden.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

I’ve planted them for my clients for years, but have never had one of my own.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Spring Promise'
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Spring Promise’

Then I wrote a piece for the upcoming issue of Leaf.  Then I became obsessed.  I have to have one–I am bewitched!

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Hardy in zones 5-8, Hamamelis hybrids have a rich range of color, fantastic fall foliage, and are generally a medium to large, broadly vase shaped shrub.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

The bonuses are the super early bloom time…late January to mid-March in my zone 6 part of New Jersey as well as their deer resistance.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Sunburst'
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Sunburst’

As I said.  I want one.  I really, really, want one.

 

Winter Gardens

Garden Designers Roundtable: Winter Inspiration

I’m totally obsessed with winter gardens.  The thing is though, by spring, just like everyone else I get caught up in the sexier spring and summer seasons and completely forget to plant for winter.  This year I’m going to try and change that.

Winter Gardens
Seed Pods
Winter Gardens
Winter Grasses

Most hope that permanent structures and some evergreens will be enough in winter, but I’m more interested in other elements that are unique to the season that will be as interesting and visually satisfying as other seasons.   There are plants beyond evergreens that add to the winter garden, but they require skill and maintenance to look good throughout the season.  Evergreens create bones and a backdrop and help to make things work in March and early April when just about everything else looks really crappy.  They, along with interesting and exfoliating bark, sing when there is snow.

Winter Gardens
Heptacodium miconiodes and evergreens in snow

As a designer, what I’m really excited about is creating a neutral and textural  garden story for winter that combines plants with structural elements and shadows to create a complex and interesting space.  I don’t need a lot of color in January like I do in June.  For me, winter is fairly neutral. The flat, blue quality of our eastern winter light with its long shadows lends itself to thoughtful color and texture juxtaposed with shadow play.

Winter Gardens
Winter Grasses and Stone Wall

Although the climate and light are different there, a visit to the Denver Botantic Gardens  spurred my interest in pursuing winter garden design even further.  Above, the neutral color palette makes this swath of mixed grasses have even more drama than it would have at the height of the summer. Too many people cut grasses down too early.  Wait until the end of February for that chore and reap the rewards.  Snow can make them look a bit untidy, but white and tan is an beautiful color combination.

Winter Garden Interest
Shadow play on Stone
Winter inspiration at NYBG
Shadow ‘allee’ at New York Botanical Gardens

Two ways to consider structure in the winter garden are as a canvas for shadows created by the long low light (above) and as as structural focal points (below).

Winter Garden Inspiration
Columns providing structure

A third, more fleeting way to add cold weather structure is to actually incorporate opportunities for ice to form, or to use it in big chopped up chunks as a winter feature where there was water in warmer weather.  When I lived closer, I used to make a pilgrimage to see the huge and jewel-like ice crystals on the Delaware River in mid and late winter, but I never actually considered this idea for a garden until I saw the two examples below, both at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Water Feature with Ice
Monumental ice formations on a water feature
Winter garden inspiration
Ice ‘boulders’

Inspiration is everywhere…even in January.

For more inspiration, try these ideas from the other Garden Designers Roundtable blogging designers:

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Jenny Peterson : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin, TX
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN
Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Nectaroscordum siculum

Garden Designers Roundtable: Plants, Memory and Dance

I have reached an age when I am able to stitch together seemingly disparate memories into a fluid life’s story. The ability to see, the kind of sight gained through years of training, observation and memory, is what leads me to connect plants to memory. They are visual cues to the young girl whose book Let’s Imagine took dancing feet to far off and exotic places just by closing my eyes. Since a very young age I have had a fascination with Fred Astaire’s dance and style. Like so many young girls I wanted to be a ballerina. I still tap my gypsy feet to the slightest beat and have spent many, many solo hours on a crowded club dance floor lost in a my own world of sound and movement. My lifelong mantra has been “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” (Thank-you Kurt Vonnegut.)

This dancing, swirling memory trail leads me back to plants. When I see maple samara twirling down from branches above, I think corps de ballet. When I see a grove of  leaning, gnarled trees I think of dancers and want to be among them. It’s a palpable, visceral feeling of memory and imagination. So, indulge me and let’s play Let’s Imagine.

Read the clue in each image’s caption and then close your eyes and imagine the most beautiful dancers you’ve ever seen.  Yes, plants even rooted in the ground as they are, do dance…

Nectaroscordum siculum
Ballerina
Edgeworthia
Pas de deux
Cercis canadensis 'The Rising Sun'
Tap
Blue Agave
Sway
American Beech
Arabesque
Ferns
Pirouette

For more memorable dance partners, try these Garden Designer’s Roundtable posts:

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA
Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA
Rochelle Greayer:  Studio ‘g’ : Harvard, MA
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Garden in autumn

My Dirty, Little Garden Secret

Yes, I have a secret.  You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything about my own gardens this year.  That’s because I have a dirty, little secret about them.

Here it is.  For the past year I have done nothing in the garden besides cutting back my neighbor’s wisteria before it overtook my studio windows and pull one giant weed.  I really mean nothing.  No supplemental water, no mulch, no deadheading or cutting back, no planting, no weeding, no deer spray, no nothing other than what I mentioned above.

Garden in autumn
My front garden in the fog a few days ago

Why?  I wanted to see just how little maintenance the various gardens could takebefore they looked truly awful.  Why?  This is what happens to my installed gardens more often than not with unskilled labor taking care of them.  That and all of the shrubs are pruned within an inch of their lives.

Here’s what happened.  The two gardens that were largely perennials and grasses look like hell.  The two that are mixed-shrubs, trees, and perennials look fine–a little blowsy but fine.  I do (honking my own horn) attribute the success of these two gardens to good design.

I will have hell to pay later on and the Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and the wild onions will need a hard taskmaster next year.  My gardener friends are appalled, but my neighbors still stop when I’m outside and tell me how beautiful the gardens are.  So now my secret is out.

Succulents

An Afternoon in Berkeley

I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with two designers who have been a huge influence on me over the last ten years.  Michelle Derviss and David Feix were kind enough to take time out of their busy days to chauffeur me around Berkeley to visit some of David’s gardens.

Succulents
Subtle color combination in a hellstrip via designer David Feix

I didn’t take many photos since David’s got thousands on his Flickr page (linked above) and I wanted to focus on our wide ranging conversation.  Sometimes it’s so much more important to pay attention to people instead of plants!

Susan Cohan Gardens Planting Design

Golden Light, Grasses and Gardens

I’ve been a bit neglectful here.  I’m hoping this little bit of magic will make up for it, but I will confess to wanting to break out of the garden and write about other things that interest me.  They may pop up here in the future–they will still be about design and creativity, and as I see it everything fuels my design discipline which is garden/landscape driven so it will relate! With that thought, though, I’ll share these lovely grasses.

Susan Cohan Gardens Planting Design
Backlit grasses from a design project

There is no better season to enjoy the beauty of ornamental grasses than fall when the light is golden and makes them an other worldly radiance.