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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.