Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rock the Slope

This summer a client, for whom I've done quite a bit of work in the past, asked me to take a look at a new project. He and his partner's historic summer house, a renovated barrel mill, is sited on a wonderful piece of property that includes acres of woodland, a large mill pond, a river, and a waterfall. Earlier that spring my client's mason had begun work on a stone patio adjoining their second floor bedroom and balcony. From the outside the patio would be accessible via a ramp system intended to provide wheel chair access. Once the construction was underway my client realized that he wasn't certain how best to integrate the patio and ramp with the precipitous slope that borders the back of the house.

My solution involved constructing a low retaining wall to frame the patio and a large rock garden to retain the embankment. We also decided to build a rustic stone staircase to provide access to the woods above the house. I thought that the formality of the wall, which could also be used for casual seating,would provide an interesting contrast to the naturalistic flow of the rock garden.

I also thought that by manipulating the grade of the existing slope, the placement of the rock stairs, and the choice of plant material I could visually draw the water closer to the patio. When viewed from certain vantage points, it now appears that the mill pond touches the stairway, though in fact it is some distance away.

The goal when laying out a rock garden is to create a finished product that doesn't look manmade. In order to achieve a natural effect the boulders must be substantial. Rocks of this size can only be set by a skilled backhoe operator with the help of one or more assistants. I find that the rocks look best when at least a third of their surface is buried beneath the ground. I also like to place them in groups of three or more, though I will occasionally set pairs or single stones. In the past I have installed rock gardens using boulders purchased from a stone supplier. In this case we had the advantage of being able to gather all of the rocks on the site, a luxury which insured that the finished design would blend with the indigenous outcroppings.

I suggested that we limit out plant selection to low maintenance ground covers like junipers and cotoneasters. In part this was because I had already designed and installed substantial gardens on the property, which require a good deal of upkeep. Additionally, I didn't want the rock garden's plantings to compete with the natural beauty of the woods and pond. For a little added interest I included some low-key flowering shrubs and perennials along with a few choice dwarf evergreens. The garden's color scheme, however, which relies almost entirely on foliage, is predominantly shades of green, silver, and blue.
Though perhaps it looks a bit bare and stark at the moment, I'm confident that once the plantings mature the garden will subtly compliment its surroundings.

We've had some glorious early fall days here in Seekonk. I only wish my skills as a photographer were equal to the task of capturing the exquisite play of sunlight on the russet leaves and autumnal blooms. Still, I'm convinced that the garden's current incarnation rivals spring's more commonplace charms.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Confessions of an Impatient Gardener

When I initially sat down to work on another installment of "A Year In the Garden", I had intended to discuss the various plants that are contributing autumnal color to the gardens here in Seekonk. I selected most of the photos accordingly and have included them despite the fact that, instead of my original topic, I've decided to write about something all together different. The time has come, I think, to make a confession.

When designing for clients, I make it a rule to meticulously research the ultimate heights, widths, and invasive tendencies of the plants I recommend. I deemed such rigorous investigation necessary after learning a terrible lesson the hard way. Many years ago I added Artemisia 'Silver king', a lovely plant with filigreed silver foliage, to a client's perennial border. In less than a year its invasive stems had run rampant throughout the entire garden. I bloodied my hands tearing it out piece by piece and vowed never to make the same mistake again. Yet, despite years of experience and public lectures in which I have cautioned my audience to carefully consider the mature stature and habit of any plant before making a purchase, the truth of the matter is that I don't always "practice what I preach". Visitors strolling through my property would be well advised to take heed of the old adage "Do as I say, not as a I do" because, in truth, some of my more impetuous decisions have been motivated sheerly by impatience and the ill-advised pursuit of an instantaneous effect.

As portions of the gardens here in Seekonk have passed their tenth season the folly of my ways has become more apparent. The hedge of Leyland Cypresses, that I installed because of their notoriously rapid growth, has started to encroach on the garden it surrounds. For the first few years the trees created a lovely feathery screen. Guests invariably gasped in admiration upon hearing that the impressive trees had been only five feet tall when first planted. Unfortunately, to the detriment of other shrubs and perennials, the leyland's wide-spreading upper branches are now casting shade where none is desired. Meanwhile the lower branches have started to thin out, exposing the driveway they had been planted to conceal. In hindsight a slower growing and more compact evergreen would have been a much better choice, but I was in such a hurry to create an instant effect that I turned a blind eye to the future.

A similar problem has occurred with the Moonglow Junipers that I planted in the hot colored garden nine years ago. What were once striking, golden-needled accents have metamorphosed into flat topped gargantuans the size of which has thrown off the proportions of the entire garden. Unlike the Leyland Cypresses, whose habit I'll adapt to for the time being, the junipers will be unceremoniously ripped out of the garden this fall. I haven't decided on a replacement yet, but am determined to exercise some restraint. At very least I plan to selected a shrub that, unlike the junipers, can be easily trimmed to keep it in bounds.

Then there are those species of rampantly spreading perennials that fill a large bare spot so satisfyingly in one season, only to become an invasive nuisance the next. Glyceria Maxima, the lovely striped grass that I planted at the edge of the farm pond, falls into this category as does the variegated Aegopodium in my Blue and White garden. Though in my defense, I didn't actually plant the Aegopodium (pictured below). It must have arrived with some hostas that I had transplanted from a client's garden. Initially, I thought its silver and white leaves were charming so I left in place. Now I find myself tearing it out by the handful. Last year I dug a low trench around it in an attempt to keep its running stems in bounds. I installed trenches around the Glyceria Maxima as well, but as an escape artist its skills rival those of Houdini. I'm afraid that at some point I will have to take shovel in hand and consign every last bit of it to the compost pile. In the end these impulsive choices only make more work for me. I confess that here are times when I feel more like a lion tamer than a gardener.

This is all by way of a warning. Heed my advice and profit from my mistakes. Great gardens aren't created in an instant.Don't let your decisions be ruled by impatience and never mistake a lion cub for a house cat. Compact trees and shrubs will generally be smaller when you purchase them than their larger cousins and therefore require a bit more patience. And perennials that have multiple stems bursting out of their pots will likely soon be bursting out of your garden as well.

I arranged the bouquet on my kitchen table with flowers I just gathered from the garden yesterday. I made the one pictured below last May. I include it as a reminder that now is the time to purchase spring flowering bulbs (see post entitled Spring Bulbs). Depending upon where you live, tulips and daffodils can planted until Thanksgiving, but late october is generally the best time. I usually start planting mine after the first frost when I begin digging up my dahlia tubers.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Day of The Dahlia

Even though there are still a few more days of summer left on the calendar, the oppressive heat and humidity have finally loosened their grip. For the past few evenings the air has been cool and the mornings have sparkled with a dewy brightness. This is the time of the year that I most enjoy my gardens.Beyond some casual weeding and deadheading, there is little work to be done. Gone is the sense of urgency that marks the spring and the feeling of futility that mars the dog days of summer. All of my mistakes have been duly noted, yet there is still time to enjoy the successes.

The cooler weather brings a winsome beauty to the garden. In the late summer light the flowers seem lovelier or perhaps, because I know that the growing season is drawing to a close,I study them with a less critical eye. And of all the plants blooming in my garden now, the dahlias are undoubtedly one of my favorites.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who gardens in Greenwich, Ct remarked that there was very little blooming in her garden after Labor Day. When I suggested that she plant some dahlias, she replied that she didn't like them much. Needless to say,I insisted that she take a second look at the genus. Very few flowering plants are as easy to grow or come in as many colors, shapes, and sizes. Some have blooms that are as small as thimbles, others as large as dinner plates. There are single varieties reminiscent of daisies and a whole assortment of doubles. Some like "Bishop of Llandaff", which for years I've planted in the hot-colored garden, have striking red-toned leaves. I'm particularly fond of the waterlily types, which as the name suggests have flowers shaped like waterlilies. For ease of maintenance I usually select varieties with flowers no larger than 4 or 5 inches across. Those that produce larger flowers are tiresome to keep staked and appear out of proportion with the perennials in my gardens.

Generally, dahlias prefer full sun and rich soil and benefit from a dusting of bonemeal at planting time. Because they aren't hardy here, I dig the tubers every fall and store them in the cool dry, crawl space area beneath my office. Last July I noticed a yellow dahlia growing somewhat horizontally through the blue-flowered nepeta that edges my cottage garden (see blog dated 6/11/09).I realized that I must have accidentally tossed a tuber in the general vicinity when I was planting a group of the same variety nearby. I liked the effect so much that this year I decided to plant a row of them beneath the nepeta. The tubers grew up through the nepeta foliage and then unexpectedly kept growing straight upward. Since this was not the effect I was hoping for, I waited until the plants were about three feet tall and then carefully bent them over. Now they are growing almost like a ground cover and have produced an amazing abundance of flowers. It seems that they actually bloom more heavily when the stems are trained horizontally.

Canna Pretoria (pictured above between Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' and Helenium 'Moorheim Beauty' ) is another favorite late summer bloomer. The yellow striped leaves topped by bright orange flowers make a wonderfully bold statement in the garden this time of year. Like dahlias, cannas are not hardy and must be dug and stored in a similar fashion. While they do not exhibit nearly the same range of flower color or form, they are available in a variety of sizes and many have colorful foliage. I often plant them between my tulips. Once the summer heat arrives their robust growth quickly fills the empty space left by the dormant bulbs.

The yellow Ligularia 'Desdemona' that edges the "farm pond" has been blooming with great abandon this year. At the moment Its flowers look particularly lovely combined with the blue ageratum-like blooms of Eupatorium 'Coelestinum'. It seems my attempt at mimicking Mother Nature has fooled at least a few of her children. This summer some newly hatched painted turtles decided to take up residence amongst my waterlilies.

In memoriam:
At the end of August my dog, "Crash", was struck and killed by a car on the road near my house. He was my dearest pal, my boon companion,a goodwill ambassador, and a favorite of friends and clients alike.He kept me company while I worked at the drafting table and accompanied me to many job sites. His absence has left an indescribable void and the garden remains a less joyful place without him.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Aging Gracefully

Last week I stopped by the home of a client whose property I had redone a few years ago. In all honesty revisiting past projects can be a dicey venture. Some clients take a lax attitude toward maintenance or implement changes that are incongruous with the original design. In this case, however, I was pleased to see how lush the plantings had grown and how well the maturing design suited the house.

When I first met with these particular clients, a successful lawyer and his wife, a large flowering pear tree obscured much of the house and hid the front door. As is often the case, the foundation beds, which were planted with a hodgepodge of shrubs and perennials, were narrow and poorly defined. The overall affect lent the house a dark and cramped aspect. In addition the orientation of the front walkway focused attention on the side yard instead of the front door ( a particular pet peeve of mine). Its placement in conjunction with the planting scheme accentuated the proximity of a semi-circular, gravel driveway, which further detracted from the beauty of the house.

The house, which is much larger than it first appears, is set back from the road on a substantial piece of land. To give it a more proportional frame I greatly enlarged the foundation beds and lengthened the front walkway. Since the clients primarily enter the house through a side door near the garage, extending the entry walk did not affect their day to day lives and allowed visitors a clearer view of the door. Because the house is relatively low and has a lovely stone facade, I selected primarily ground hugging plantings that wouldn't conceal the stonework and added more height on the sides to soften the corners of the house.

To further draw attention to the front walkway I framed it with widely spaced boxwood balls interplanted with a foil of grassy Liriope. The Liriope remains green for most of the winter and throws lovely blue flowers at the end of the summer. The remaining plantings, all of which are placed in large groups ( except for a pair of low-growing Japanese Maples), include evergreen Japanese hollies and cotoneasters to ensure winter interest along with deutzias, quince, hydrangeas, and roses for color during the growing season. The blue flowers in the photos are geranium Rozanne, a perennial that blooms for most of the summer.

I am particularly pleased with the look of the cobble and peastone driveway. And because cars ride on the cobble bands the peastone remains tidy. Instead of the usual gray gravel, I selected a tan stone ( actually a combination of various browns) that I had seen used to great affect on the walkways in the Tuillerie gardens in Paris.

Although, as I have mentioned, the entire property is quite large, the site, which for all intents and purposes functions as the backyard, is situated on a narrow strip of land between the garage and the house. When I began the project there was no visual barrier separating this space from the parking area, which made guests feel as though they were sitting in the driveway.

There was also no visual distinction between the front and back yards. An open lattice fence planted with vines alleviated this problem and also beautified the blank wall of the garage.

To make the back yard area feel more spacious I removed unnecessary retaining walls and enlarged a small porch attached to the house. The original porch was both awkwardly sited and too small to function as a viable sitting area. To create even more socializing space I installed a pair of interlocking square patios. I find that squares tend to make a narrow yard feel wider. The original design called for three interlocking squares, but the clients were concerned that this would create too much patio space. Subsequently they confessed that we should have included the third square. In all the years that I've been working no-one has ever complained that their patio was too large.

My client likes to garden and so this part of the property is planted with masses of perennials, flowering shrubs, roses, grasses and pockets of annuals all set off to great advantage against the clean lines of the bluestone and brick patios.

Here in Seekonk things are looking a bit drowsy. My chores these days consist primarily of dead heading and staking. Though despite all my efforts, June's fresh exuberance is definitely a thing of the past.Despite the snails and rainy days there are plenty of flowers to cut for indoor arrangements. Even so,I'm looking forward to September when hopefully the humidity will drop; the sunlight will take on a softer more flattering brilliance and the gardens will catch a second wind.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grateful Dead-Heading

As August approaches the gardens here in Seekonk have settled into their mid-summer rhythm. Though I may occasionally fill a bare spot with a showy annual or two (make that an even half dozen), most of my time these days is spent on routine maintenance. While it's true that autumn's tawny seed pods have a certain romantic charm, during the blowzy dog days faded petals and browning stems can make the garden look tired and disheveled. Deadheading, the process by which old flowers are removed with scissors or pruning shears, is the best way to keep plants looking fresh, giving the landscape, as it were, a horticultural face lift.

In addition to the purely aesthetic benefits, removing spent blossoms from certain plants will often prolong the bloom cycle or encourage another flush of flowers later in the season. For annuals like zinnias, dahlias, and cosmos deadheading is absolutely necessary to ensure that the plants remain in bloom until frost. Certain perennials: heleniums, monardas, and rudbeckias, for example, also benefit from this practice. And while it can be time consuming, I find that removing the dead flower heads from summer-blooming shrubs like spireas and buddleias reliably extends flower production.

Because seed production diverts energy from the mother plant, flowering bulbs like daffodils and lilies also benefit from deadheading. Since bulbs generally bloom only once a year, however, you won't reap the benefits of your labor until the following spring when you'll be rewarded with larger and more prolific plants. Of course, if you want your plants to self-sow, at least a few seed heads should be allowed to reach maturity. I often encourage biennial and short-lived hollyhocks, lychnis, foxgloves, and columbines to set seed, ensuring that I have a continuous supply of new seedlings every year.

Though not technically "deadheading", I also make a habit of discarding dying or discolored foliage. Removing brown leaves serves both an aesthetic and functional purpose. In addition to detracting from the garden's beauty, dying leaves may carry and spread mildew and other diseases.

I'm enormously fond of daylilies and have planted several large groupings in the the gardens here. Unfortunately, I find that as the plants reach the end of their bloom cycle, their foliage begins to brown out. By August, what was once a lovely mass of grassy vegetation crowned with bright blooms has become an unsightly tangle of dying leaves topped by brittle faded stems.

A few years ago I discovered that, if I grabbed a handful of the browning leaves by their tips and yanked upward, the old foliage easily came away revealing new green shoots near the soil line. Subsequently, I realized that I could simply cut the plants almost to the ground once they've finished blooming. Though this drastic measure produces an unappealing bald spot in the garden for a few weeks, the plants soon throw new growth that remains fresh until hard frost.

The next time you have a few minutes to work in your garden bring a pair of pruning shears and trim away the dead flowers.
You'll be glad or should I say grateful that you did.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

David and Goliath

As I write this post, yet another torrential thunderstorm is beating my gardens to a pulp.Thankfully, I took this group of pictures a few days ago when, although the sun wasn't shining, at least there was a break in the rain.

It seems that inevitably there comes a point every summer when winter's optimistic imaginings collide with the reality of trying to manipulate an essentially ungovernable force. I'm afraid that once again I have reached that point and find myself wondering why I continue to invest my time and energy on such a fragile endeavor.

Just outside my window a formerly upright stand of lychnis Coronaria is virtually horizontal. Flamboyant dinner plate dahlia blossoms hang from broken stems. The double cosmos that I lovingly started from seed in my basement are plastered on the ground. And the arching sprays of sea foam roses that blanket the slope in the Blue and White garden have been reduced to a sodden tangle.

Each year brings a new set of battles;glutenous groundhogs, unexpected frosts, drought, wind storms, and of course a variety of insect infestations. If I sound a bit demoralized, perhaps at the moment I am. Yet I know that as soon as the sun comes out and the ground dries a bit, I'll venture back out to the garden armed with stakes, twine, and pruning shears, determined to repair the damage.

Despite the perception that it is genteel avocation, serious gardening is not for quitters or the faint of heart. As with the proverbial conflict between David and Goliath, courage and optimism are necessary attributes if one is to continually engage Nature on such an intimate level.

So Perhaps as an optimistic nod to more benevolent weather, next week I'll reward myself with a trip to the nursery to pick out a handful of new treasures.

Though my yoga teacher councils me to live in the moment, the garden encourages me to look toward the future. Here's to sunnier skies and gentle breezes. Namaste.