Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy New Year

As the new year approaches the gardens here in Seekonk are nestled under a blanket of snow. Just days before the "Blizzard of 2010" my fence contractor installed the three wooden arches that now mark the entrances to the front garden pictured above. The ensuing snow fall has brought all outdoor labor to a standstill. In truth after spending much of November and early December planting bulbs and preparing the beds for winter, I welcome this well deserved respite from garden chores. Things left undone will simply have to wait for a thaw. In a month or so I'm sure I'll find myself impatiently awaiting the first signs of spring. For now, however, I'm content to enjoy the pristine white landscape from the comfort of my couch. Garden catalogues began arriving before christmas and their glossy photographs have already begun to fuel endless fantasies. Fantasies that don't include April temperatures in the 90's, July hail storms, snails or those slimy lily beetle grubs that made mincemeat of my asiatic lilies last year. Perhaps this summer my new arches will provide the perfect support for the large-flowered clematis that I've always coveted,but have yet to grow successfully. Of course if all of my schemes unfolded according to plan, I might come to miss the challenges and inevitable disappointments that are the gardener's lot in life... or perhaps I'd finally achieve that much touted inner peace that thus far has eluded me.

In any case, I wanted to thank you all for your support and encouragement and for taking the time to read my blog. Here's wishing you a wonderful new year filled with beautiful gardens.

May all your fantasies grow into reality.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Getting Along Swimmingly

At about this time last November a client, for whom I've worked for a number of years, approached me about designing a swimming pool for her home in Wilton CT. Of course I jumped at the chance even though the site posed two challenging problems. The first concerned her property's steep grade and the second, which proved to be an even more daunting issue, involved an adjacent reservoir.

The proximity to a wetland area combined with the precipitous slope leading up from the water negated the usual setback regulations. In other words the Wilton Wetland Commission essentially controlled the entire property. I won't regale with the sordid details of the permit process. Suffice it to say that I would have liked to give a piece of my mind to the members of that commission, but sometimes it just isn't possible to speak truth to power. The cost of acquiring the town's approval amounted to little more than highway robbery and their requirements were for the most part ludicrously unnecessary. Nevertheless, my client was committed to the project and we persevered. Although after months of work we still haven't completed the construction, the overall design is taking shape nicely.

In order to mitigate the grading issue, I decided to divide the slope into four separate patio spaces joined by wide flights of stairs. At the very bottom of the pool garden a four foot high wall eliminates the need for a fence, leaving the view of the reservoir unobstructed.

On the second patio level I installed a spa, which is quite close to the house and can be used year around even after the pool has winterized.

We had always intended to construct the cabana, which sits at one end of the pool and has a lovely view of the house and surrounding property.

The fireplace at the opposite end of the pool,however, was a later inspiration that both nicely balances the cabana and provides a spot for gathering on cool nights.

Last month I worked with a very talented backhoe operator for a few days. Together we set the forty large boulders that retain the slopes between the separate patios. The adjoining garden areas are planted with broad sweeps of low, flowering shrubs and perennials that won't obstruct the view.

Although the landscaping may not look like much now, I'm confident that in the years to come the plantings, which are arranged in a palette of blue, white and pink, will both soften and compliment the patios and pool.

As far as the rest of the construction is concerned, we still have to install the fence, the stair rails and the lighting as well as finish both the exterior and interior of the cabana. Given last night's unexpected snowfall, I have a feeling that we'll still be working on this project next spring. I have, however, promised my client that we'll be ready for a Memorial Day party come the end of May. If by chance you were wondering about the small dog that makes an appearance in many of my pictures, his name is Puck and he's my one year old miniature Labradoodle. He's something of a mischievous fellow so I guess his name suites him perfectly.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


A year or so after installing the cottage garden in the front of my house I decided that it would be nice to edge the walkways with a low-growing border of some sort. I contemplated dwarf boxwood but thought the effect would be too formal. I also considered lavender, but it does not winter over reliably for me. As it happened a client of mine in Darien, CT was in the process of selling her house and asked if I would like to give some of the perennials in her garden a new home. Some years earlier,as a backdrop to her swimming pool, I had installed a red and yellow garden in which I had included a few groupings of Stella d'oro daylilies. Back then Stella's hadn't achieved quite the level of ubiquity that they currently enjoy. Since that time they have become a mainstay of mall parking lots and other commercial enterprises. Their popularity is understandable. Like most daylilies they are tough and easy to grow. They offer a tremendous flush of bloom in June and then continue to flower more modestly until frost. Their foliage is low and grassy and their small albeit brassy yellow flowers command attention even from a distance. It occurred to me that my client's Stella's would make a cheap ( i.e. free) edging plant for my cottage garden and so I separated her clumps into approximately fifty divisions and planted them along my walkways.

I soon regretted my decision. In spring and late summer the mounds of arching green leaves sprinkled with blossoms were pleasant enough. When the plants burst into full bloom in June, however, the sheer number of flowers overwhelmed the garden and in truth their color was a bit jarring for my taste. The majority of the plants in my garden are not exotic or uncommon. For the most part I select cultivars because of their compositional attributes rather then their pedigree so I don't consider myself to be a plant snob. Even so, each time I'd observe Stella's growing in front of gas stations and shopping plazas I found that I liked them less in my own garden. In fact for years I've been rather embarrassed by their display and in June I'd resolve to rip them out in the fall. Yet once September rolled around and the plants acquired a more sedate charm I'd inevitably change my mind. After all digging out and replacing fifty large daylily clumps is a labor intensive task that requires an outlay of cash.

This past August, however, I received a copy of the Oakes Daylily catalogue. Its pages are filled with tempting photos and the inside front cover promises extra-large divisions. Many of you may remember that I'm not a fan of ordering plants through the mail, having been disappointed time and again by the tiny weaklings that arrived on my doorstep. After repeatedly leafing through the Oakes' catalogue I found that I couldn't resist the variety pictured above, Siloam Bye Lo, which Oakes and the internet list as a diminutive repeat bloomer, and so I ordered fourteen to replace the Stella's along the shorter arms of my walkway. To my pleasant surprise the divisions I received were indeed quite generous and as a bonus the company sent me three additional plants for free. I was so impressed that I've decided to bite the bullet and order thirty-five more this week. It will be such a relief to be rid of the Stella's once and for all and greatful friends have been more than happy to take them off my hands.

As for the rest of my property in Seekonk, despite the fears I expressed in an earlier post, the front garden at least is holding its own. My asters are blooming as are dahlias, roses, phlox, coreopsis, anemones, and salvias. In the early morning and late afternoon light it still looks quite lovely.

The Hot Colored garden is a bit of tangle, though it still has some color and a certain blowzy appeal.

Sadly, the Blue & White garden suffered during this long hot summer. The leaves of the ostrich ferns were completely brown a month ago and I've already cut them to the ground. The hostas are looking tired and there are relatively few plants in bloom. Still from certain angles it's possible to get a feel for its former charm.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dinner Is Served

At the risk of repeating myself I must profess that I am exceedingly fond of dahlias. In fact they are probably one of my all time favorite flowers. While my peonies are incomparably lovely, they bloom for but a few weeks and I have yet to discover an attractive way to keep their heavy flowers upright. Many of my roses offer fragrance as well as voluptuous beauty, but the bushes are plagued by a host of insects like Japanese beetles. Invariably by mid-August their leaves are disfigured by black spot and mildew. Dahlias, however, are relatively pest-free and bear blossoms in an almost limitless array of colors, shapes and sizes. Though they have very little scent, they more then compensate for their lack of fragrance by producing an abundance flowers at the tail end of the season when little else is in bloom.

In the past I've restricted my choice of dahlia varieties to those with relatively small flowers the modest size of which compliment the perennials and flowering shrubs in my gardens. This spring, however, I decided to plant a combination of tea roses and dinner plate dahlias in the parallel beds pictured above. Last summer I grew zinnias and Italian sunflowers in these beds and thought this new pairing would make a wonderful combination for cutting. I'd wanted to try my hand at tea roses for some time, but they're too fussy for my perennial borders and my gardens aren't large enough to accommodate the scale of the dinner plate dahlias.

Once the standard requirements of full sun, good soil and a little bone meal are fulfilled, the real trick to growing large flowered dahlias is figuring out how to stake them properly. The blossoms are so enormous (the pink one pictured above is almost a foot across) that their stems invariably snap if they aren't given a good deal of support. A couple years ago I discovered a very attractive solution to this problem literally in my own backyard.

Shortly after I purchased my property a crop of pesky Sumac seedlings appeared in the field behind my house. Sumac is a tenacious, fast growing weed tree and despite persistent springtime mowings the saplings continued to sent up new shoots.

To my dismay each year this new growth has gotten taller and now the towering stems must be cut by hand. A few autumns ago, while sawing down the current crop it occurred to me that the the long straight saplings would make wonderful heavy duty garden stakes. Not only are they more attractive than those available at garden centers, but they have proved to be the perfect sturdy supports for many plants, including my dinner plate dahlias.

In early May I arranged three Sumac stakes in a tight triangle and planted a single dahlia tuber in its center. Over the course of the summer I've looped twine around the stakes making a tight cage that has successfully held the dahlia's heavy stems in place. As it turns out the stakes are really only good for one season, but out in the field there's already a fresh crop of ten foot tall saplings ready to be harvested.

As for the tea roses, I made the mistake of buying cheap bare root plants from a discount store. Of the twenty I purchased only about half took hold. Still I've been encouraged by the fact that many of the survivors have thrived. Next year I'll shop with an eye to quality not cost and focus on fragrance. After all there's nothing like coming home to the sweet smell of roses.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

August Field Trip

Some of my readers may recall that last October I posted an essay entitled "Rock The Slope". Included were pictures of a rock garden that I had recently installed for clients who own a large parcel of land that straddles the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. The property, of which I'm quite envious, includes a mill pond with a rushing brook and waterfall, a few out buildings and an historic Barrel Mill that my clients converted into a charming residence. Last year I promised to share some photos of the other projects which I have completed on the property and thought the dog days of August might be an opportune time to take a virtual field trip.

During our initial consultation more than five years ago, my clients asked me to include a swimming pool in their master plan. I'm a firm believer that in the Northeast whenever possible pools should be hidden from view. After all for almost eight months of the year a swimming pool is little more than a cement hole covered with a tarp. After analyzing various options I placed a pool garden parallel to the foundation of their existing barn. The siting of the pool seemed a logical choice and brought a sense of order to the randomness of their property. I enclosed the entire garden, which contains an arbor, patios and a twenty by sixty foot rectangular pool, with a black chain link fence hidden by privet hedges.

My clients already owned a dramatic pair of wrought iron gates, which made a wonderful addition to the garden.To further integrate the barn into the new design, I centered a parterre on its facade.

The parterre serves as an entrance to the pool garden and connects it with a flower-filled rock garden that leads back up to the main house.

The parterre is laid out in a simple geometric design and its beds are planted with boxwoods, low maintenance roses and perennials punctuated by tree-form lilacs and hydrangeas. The centerpiece of the parterre is a fountain that I fashioned out of a mill wheel, one of a number that my clients found on the property. The granite wheel sits on a sunken fiberglass basin filled with the same peastone used on the pathways. Water spilling over the fountain's sides seems to magically disappear into the gravel walkway.

As for the rock garden on the far side of the house, it is filling in nicely. I think that its palette, a subdued combination of greens and whites, subtly compliments the adjoining pond and woods.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cottage Industry

The other day a client who visited my gardens here in Seekonk remarked that my house was like an English cottage. While I don't technically live in a cottage, I think the facade of my house is well suited to the landscape style commonly referred to as a cottage garden. In truth though, the plantings surrounding my home have a bit more structure than is typically associated with the more haphazard cottage look. Over the past few years, however, I have let certain plants self-seed and the result has softened the garden's original design. For the most part these serendipitous additions have enriched the overall effect. I admit, however, that it's a fine line that I'm walking. Recently I've begun to question at what point lush becomes simply overgrown. Although it may be difficult to tear healthy plants from the ground for the sake of aesthetics, heavy handed restraint is required when a good thing becomes too much of a good thing.

Adhering to a designated color scheme is essential to keeping some semblance of order and intention in the garden. Along the back side of my house the hot colored garden is currently dominated by a stand of lilies the flowers of which were supposed to be yellow with darker rust stripes. Unfortunately as their blossoms mature the petals fade to a color that reads as white. This year I also purchased a batch of copper-colored yarrow. Unfortunately like the lilies its flowers take on whitish tones as they age.

To my eye the white flowers mar the integrity of the garden's design. While there is something appealing about abundance, without the structure of a rigid color scheme the planting looks simply cluttered. I've been tempted to cut the lilies and stuff them in a vase but haven't quite summoned up the nerve. This fall I'll dig up their bulbs and move them to the front of the house where their creamy petals will work to greater advantage. Since I haven't decided how to successfully use a plant with orange flowers that after quickly fading remain white for weeks on end, I may have to consign the yarrow to the compost pile.

Lately I've been wondering if much of anything is still going to be flowering in my garden come September. Spring in the Northeast arrived a good month ahead of schedule. With the exception of a nail-biting dip in the thermometer in mid-May that had me running my sprinklers throughout the night to ward off the frost, the weather has remained warm. In fact the last few weeks have been downright hot. 2010's precocious growing season is playing havoc with the sequence of bloom that I have meticulously choreographed. This year my lilacs flowered in April and my peonies peaked in May a good three weeks ahead of schedule. Many of the plants that I rely on for color in the late summer and early fall are already in bloom. Even my Autumn flowering anemones are in bud. Of course it's disappointing that once again my best laid plans have been foiled by Mother Nature. My frustration, however, was somewhat eased when this lovely vignette unexpectedly appeared in my Blue & White Garden.

In the past my Oakleaf and Lacecap hydrangeas haven't bloomed at the same time as the low-growing hosta. If the Clematis Heracleifolia that twines around the urn had opened its sky blue bell-shaped flowers ahead of schedule the composition would have been perfect.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Blue and White

I find it hard to believe that almost twelve years have passed since I first installed the Blue & White garden at my home here in Seekonk. I can still remember the youthful exuberance with which I laboriously cleared brush with a pickax that first summer and the weight of the countless wheelbarrows I filled with debris. Now that I'm in my mid-forties I wouldn't consider undertaking such a back-breaking task. Having adopted the mantra that it's foolish to spend days on a chore that a machine can accomplish in a matter of hours, I'd hire a backhoe operator instead.

Although over the past decade my acre of land has evolved well beyond my original imaginings, in many ways the Blue & White garden remains my favorite part of the property. Partly this is because of its location near the field and river and partly it's because of the color scheme, which I still adore. Since the garden is set in what has become for all intents and purposes the back of the house, it is the last outdoor room that guests discover when visiting my home. At this time of year it remains barely visible until one reaches the edge of the checkerboard patio.

Even from the top of the stairs that lead down to the garden's mulched pathways the rectangular lily pond is concealed from view. Only the sound of splashing hints at the existence of a hidden water feature. Perhaps this slight element of surprise adds to its charm.

I've often wondered if it is the soothing color palette or the fact that the garden is set in the lowest part of my property that always seems to make the air feel cooler. If only I had the inclination to lounge on the bench beneath the arbor. Sadly, I find it difficult to relax in the garden. After a few minutes I invariably become distracted by a chore that requires my attention.

It's only when friends drop by that I take the time to simply enjoy the garden. For those brief moments I set my tools aside and try to view the garden uncritically as if seeing it through their eyes.

Maybe I should begin a new tradition and start making summer solstice resolutions. My first would be to spend more time savoring the fruits of my labors.

After all, in a few short months, the leaves will be turning and I'll be cutting the faded stems to the ground. So today I plan to pick up a book and go sit in garden and read. But first I have some snapdragons to plant and dahlias to stake.The roses need water and the daylilies are ready to be deadheaded and I really should mow the lawn again.....