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



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.



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

Dutch concept gardens

Garden Portrait: Appeltern, The Netherlands

It’s hot.  It’s summer.  I’m indulging in a bit of armchair travel inside in the cool.

I am a fan of conceptual gardens.  Why?  They challenge our ideas of what constitutes a garden. There are trial gardens for plants, so it makes sense to me that there should also be trial design gardens. Last year, I visited  two, Cornerstone in Sonoma and Les Jardins des Metis in Quebec. Both made me think about what I do as a landscape designer in new ways. These concept gardens are usually built to last for a season or two, so their creators aren’t inhibited by issues of longevity and maintenance or client demands.

A relative newcomer to the scene, the Festival Gardens at Appletern Gardens in the Netherlands is in its fourth season this year.

Dutch concept gardens

It’s part of a much larger 22 acre garden park that includes many different types of gardens.  My favorite of the 2013 concept gardens called Balans (Balance) and was designed by Babako.  It is a linear installation reminiscent of Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork.

appletern gardens 2013

In addition to the annual concept gardens there are 17 other types of gardens loosely organized around a theme or type of outdoor space.  I’m putting it on my ever increasing list of ‘must visit’ gardens.

Appeltern Gardens

In interior design, this garden would be called ‘transitional’ as a mix between traditional and contemporary styles.  I’m loving the single pale blue, beach glass tones in the gabions.  Imagine them lit at dusk.  Dreamy.

Modern DIY Garden

This garden appeals to the DIYer in me.  I could probably put most of this together in a weekend from stuff I hoard  have in the garage, use it all summer and then switch it up the next.  Why does everything need to be so permanent?

Herb garden at Appletern

I was a little disturbed by an image of purple loostrife in full bloom in the Appletern Herb garden and I’m not sure about kidney shaped beds EVER, but I loved the trees and the color story.

All images via Appletern Gardens


Rock Garden

Field Trip: Leonard J. Buck Garden

Tens of thousands of years ago, a glacial lake drained leaving behind basalt outcroppings now known as Moggy Hollow in its wake.  Flash forward to the 1930s, when Leonard Buck planted them and established what would become a world class rock garden in a wooded glade on his estate in Far Hills.

Rock Garden

Inch forward a few seconds in the earth’s history and you have the sunny and cool 21st century spring afternoon when I visited what is now a county park.

Buck Garden Far Hills

I am not a rock  or alpine garden officiando, but the Leonard J. Buck Garden does something else very well.  It seamlessly (for the most part) blends the gardeners hand within the broader context of the natural world.  Even with the contemporary interest in natural planting schemes, this garden stands out.

There are large swaths of woodland, but they are augmented with pathways, viewing ledges, plants and rustic structures. There is evidence of slope conservation and reintroduction of native plants, and there also are the eccentric plants, such as the dwarf boxwoods (Buxus ‘Kingsville Dwarf’) that mound up hillsides and on rock formations here and there.

Buck Gardens Far Hills NJ

Other groups of spring bulbs on a slope of hardwoods seem more natural.  There are many varieties of ferns and Solomon’s Seal.  There are Trilliums (thanks to the electrified perimeter deer fence) and Aquilegia and Epimediums and flowering trees.  The thoughtful placement and planning of paths and bridges over the park’s meandering stream allows an easy ramble of  discovery.

Directions to the garden can be found here.

Wave Hill view

Vista and View Preservation

An article yesterday in the New York Times about a proposed and (yes) sustainably built and ‘green’ corporate headquarters that will rise above the Palisades along the Hudson River galvanized my thinking about view preservation as part of the whole save the planet movement.

Wave Hill view
View of the Palisades from Wave Hill

Views and vistas need to be preserved.  They are seldom considered when giant wind turbines are erected on mountain tops or along the shoreline. They’re not considered when housing developments climb up a hillside.  They’re not considered when a swath of land is taken up for new corporate headquarters.  Yet a property with a view is worth more than one without.

Parks and public spaces aren’t enough to protect many views that are in the way of our continued sprawl as well as so-called environmental progress.  In the New York metro region, land is valuable and in increasing short supply hours and miles away from the city. Our views need to be preserved as much as the remaining open space.

Views and vistas are part of the environment and should be preserved as such.  Shouldn’t the beauty of the earth’s landscape be just as important as saving its air, waterways and soil?  Humans need beauty as much as air, water, and soil.  For me, and many others I suspect, these views and vistas move me to my deepest core.  My heart stops on a drive or hike when I get a glimpse of the beauty of a vista and world beyond.  They soothe me when little else will, and inspire me when all else fails.  They deserve respect and preservation.


Bernard Trainor garden

Postcard from Silicon Valley

I finally got to see two gardens that made my heart sing.  Both were what interior designers call ‘transitional’ design sitting comfortably between traditional and contemporary.  We landscape designers don’t label our work in that way.  What I will say that is probably more in our lingo is that both used hardscape and plants in a way that made them very much of their time and place.  The designer’s hand was evident but not overwrought.  Both were full of smart and useful ideas. Both had the budgets to carry out a clear view without much end evidence of compromise, but this is a postcard so I’ll mostly let the pictures speak for themselves.  Time is limited so I can only cover one!

The garden is one designed by  Bernard Trainor  in Los Altos. (He’s one of my design idols by the way…)

Bernard Trainor garden
Entrance under a canopy of trees
Bernard Trainor meadow planting
A newly planted meadow on a wedge shaped lot
Bernard Trainor pool
Pool planting
bernard trainor wall
Wall and water feature


Garden Portrait: Boat’s End, Australia

Since the local bookstore with a great selection of foreign magazines closed I have missed leafing through (and buying) stacks of international design magazines.  Now, unless I’m making a trip to NYC where I now buy and browse, I look for them on the web.  So with that backstory…I was enthralled with Sarah and Roger Budarick’s drought tolerant garden, Boat’s End, in Australian House and Garden.

The garden combines Australian natives and compatible non-natives to dramatic effect.  The scale, color and vistas in this garden is what I’m attracted to.  I can’t grow most of the plants in my zone 6 climate that gets plenty of water.  I can, however, take away plenty of design inspiration!

Photo credits:  top to bottom all by Brigid Arnott.

There was a previous article about the garden in Gardening Australia that goes into much more detail.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Hort Idols the Live Show!

Today I want to take a different approach (are you suprised?) to the idea of who my horticulture idols are and share how much I’ve learned from visiting the gardens I’ve seen with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program.  Some famous, some not, the creators of these gardens shine each year when the gardens are open to the public.

Entrance to a private walled garden in New Jersey

Open Days have allowed me to see extraordinary gardens that I would not have had access to otherwise.  Each one has inspired me.

Patrick Chasse's under pool grotto at the White Garden in New York

Every design discipline has its stars…its creators, its communicators and its mavericks.

An extraordinary potager in a private New Jersey garden

Until 1989 when the conservancy first worked to preserve The Ruth Bancroft Garden in California, America’s private gardens were at risk.

The magical interior of Michael Trapp's garden house in Connecticut

Now, more than twenty years later, tens of thousands of people visit private and public gardens each and every year.

Entrance to the greenhouse gardens at a private New Jersey garden

I’ve been visiting gardens since the first directory was available.  Each spring I visit with my guidebook and camera in hand…

Bunny Williams' understated porch in Connecticut

a day planned out…alone or with a companion I set out to discover America’s garden idols…live!

The round pool at Hortulus Farm in Pennsylvania

On a side note…Leaf Magazine will be giving away ten 2012 Garden Conservancy Open Days Guides during its holiday givewaway starting December 1st.

For more reading on other designer’s Horticultural Idols visit the links below…

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Arlington, Virginia
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA
Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin, TX
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Under a Rock…a semi shameless plug

I’ve been under a rock.  A leafy rock.  As you know I’m part of a small dedicated team –including Rochelle Greayer and Lynn Fellici-Gallant and a talented group of outside contributors and designers, who will be publishing an on-line design magazine called Leaf  in October.  The project has been gobbling up huge amounts of time.

Leaf  will focus on all things relating to outdoor design…not just gardens although there will be plenty of those.  Our first emailed flyer is below…

Our first mailer...

The response has been so positive that the pressure to deliver what we envision is even greater than what I imagined it would be.  I must be slightly (probably more than slightly) crazy to do this on top of an already flourishing design business.  I’ve always loved a challenge!  I hope you’ll join us as we explore design outside.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Rock Stars

Last week I was at an event where more than 100 designers went mad for their industry’s stars.  I mean paparazzi mad.  Photo ops, flashes everywhere, one on one moments and book signings for all who wanted.  I lamented that the U.S. landscape design industry doesn’t cultivate that type of celebrity. We should.  If we did, and our greats were famous, we might get some of the lucrative licencing deals that architects, interior designers and even fashion designers get for outdoor products.

Here are three who work with stone in the Northeast who are deserving of even wider celebrity status than they already have.   They are artists and dry stone wallers.  They make the most rigid of materials fluid.  Their work dances across landscapes and their craft is slowly disappearing yet their work will stand for centuries.   They are our Rock Stars.

Lew French works on Martha’s Vineyard.  He uses stone in unusual and surprising ways.  Here’s a link to a profile done several years ago on CBS Sunday Morning.  He, like the NYC designers I saw, has big name clients and a book.

All photos above via Lewis French

Dan Snow works from his base in Vermont. He has written two books and the first, In the Company of Stone, has been in my library since the day it was published. There is also a film about his work called Stone Rising, The Work of Dan Snow.  He is a master at bending traditional techniques and making them into something else entirely.

Photo above via The Gardener’s Eden

Two photos above via In the Company of Stone

Andy Goldsworthy isn’t a dry stone waller. He is an artist who sometimes uses stone.  Yes, he’s British, but much of his work is here–he spent three years as a visiting professor at Cornell.  There are films and books galore.  Wall details the project shown below at Storm King Art Center.  This wall is legendary among local artisan masons.

Photos above via Susan Cohan

If you’d like to see Goldsworthy’s  last lecture as a visiting professor at Cornell, click here.

If you’d like to read our other posts on stone…this month Garden Designers Roundtable is thrilled to have guest bloggers Deborah Silver and Sunny Weiler blog along with us. Everyone’s links are below.

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Sunny Wieler : Stone Art Blog : West Cork, Ireland

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Peterson : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin TX

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA

Just a big tease…

I’m so happy that I have taken some time beyond the meetings I attended to do some limited exploring of the Bay Area.  It will take me a while to digest all that I’ve seen and to muse on the wonderful people I’ve met.  So until I do that here’s a wee wee bit of what I’ve seen so far.  I know, I’m just a big tease…there will be more in future posts, but for now I’m off for my last day of adventure!

Display at Berkeley's The Gardener shop
Euphorbia blooming in an IGA parking lot
The rainy hills in wine country

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