Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Entropy

“Just as the constant increase in entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy. “ – Vaclav Havel

I think this photo of my side yard illustrates Havel’s point pretty well:


After I smothered the turf from my side yard (on the right) and began planting a slightly messy mix of shrubs, perennials and groundcovers, my neighbor promptly planted a soldier-straight row of crape myrtles and Japanese holly, butted right up against my plantings. Between the hollies there is a layer of mulch about ten inches thick, which he refreshes and fluffs regularly.

Clearly, my neighbor is trying to impose a bit of order where he perceives chaos.  In my opinion, he is merely uptight and unimaginative, but Havel might claim that he is only being human in his “struggle against entropy.”

I guess this is what living in the suburbs is all about, right?

After all, the suburbs are populated with people engaged in an epic struggle to create and maintain order in their lives and landscapes.  We fled the dirt, crime, and general mayhem of the cities, and now here we are out in the idyllic ‘burbs, with our very own green space!  But alas, the earth –  even when it’s carved into plots, fenced, and gated — has its own agenda.  Left to their own devices, the weeds seed, the saplings establish, the vines crawl.

So for years we have mown and clipped our way back to a sense of order and well-being.

Except maybe not so much anymore.

Not everyone.

I think there is a small but growing minority whose preferred landscape aesthetic has shifted a little away from “order” and nudged toward “chaos.”

I think some people have realized that inviting a little chaos into their yards is not only good for the critters, but pleasing to the eye and nourishing for the soul.  Perhaps, now that we are a couple of generations removed from those ancestors who struggled against nature to survive, we now feel an emptiness where that struggle once existed.  And now, from a place of safety, we yearn to invite some of the wildness back in.

The question is, how much wildness to invite in, and how to manage it?  We are only human after all; we will not thrive if we have kudzu clogging up our dryer vents. But surely we can we can embrace a bit more looseness, a bit more variety, and yes, even entropy out here in Suburbia without everyone freaking out all over the place.

“Designing for Entropy” may sound a bit paradoxical but I am hoping that is the wave of the future for landscape designers.  How to design a landscape that allows for a little neglect without looking like the Clampetts?

We are still in the early phases of this transformation, but I do believe that more and more people are realizing how beautiful a little “chaos” can look.

I am sure that everyone who passes these two houses is struck by the difference:


I took a walk past these two houses yesterday.  The neighbor on the left was outside with his leafblower.  I could see the neighbor on the right through her big bay window.  She was eating a sandwich and looking outside, probably admiring the seedheads of her Miscanthus glowing in the afternoon sun.


For more on Design Principles, check out the following links from my fellow Roundtablers:

Garden Designers’ Roundtable

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

David Cristiani : It’s A Dry Heat : Albuquerque, NM

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Two Maintenance Ideas

"That a-hole designer said these would be low-maintenance."  (Nick Daley/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

“That a-hole designer said these would be low-maintenance.” (Nick Daley/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

True story: last week, while waiting to get a haircut, I flipped through a local home and garden magazine and stumbled upon an article about garden maintenance. Mostly I skimmed it, but then my eye caught a quote from a landscape designer based at a local nursery. He said, “If a landscape is designed right, there should be NO maintenance. None at all. That’s what a designer is for.”My jaw dropped. No maintenance at all! See, if you hire the right designer, you’ll never have to so much as pluck a leaf off of your zero-input lawn! Apparently this guy can even design it so all the leaves from your trees blow into your neighbor’s yard, too!

I almost wanted to stand up right there in the hair salon and be, “ya’ll won’t BELIEVE what I just read here in this magazine, ladies!” but they probably would’ve thought it was some juicy sex tip from Cosmo and been disappointed when it turned out to be faulty landscaping advice — shocking though it was!

I think most people who have laid eyes on plant life realize that a “no maintenance” landscape is fantasy, regardless of what some shifty designer tries to make them believe. But most ordinary people do want to believe in “low-maintenance.”

“Low-maintenance” is a slippery term, though. One person’s idea of “low” might be completely different from his neighbor’s. The type of maintenance matters, too. Landscapes that require such things as getting up on tall ladders (high hedges) or setting fires (meadows) might be considered problematic by some folks, even if the overall time requirement is lower.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that if you graphed all this out, with “Garden Maintenance Level” on the Y-axis and “Garden Awesomeness Level” on the X-axis, you would probably get a slope of m=3/1 or something like that, whatever, it would be steep.

I want my garden to have the maximum “awesomeness” factor but unfortunately I am at a point in my life where I don’t have as much time for maintenance/management as I would like. I have a half acre, many different garden beds, lots of experiments going on, lots of ideas, loads of different soil and light conditions, plus I’m always wanting to try out new plants and I’m always changing my mind and moving things around.

It’s too much! I can’t keep up with it all, and too many areas wind up looking like sh-t.

I envision that in five or ten years I will have more time to garden, but I also recognize that my body is getting older and that I will probably be gardening slower in the future. I will have to sit down more often and take more Diet Coke breaks.

With all this in mind, here are two things that I have started doing that I think will make future gardening a bit easier/lower-maintenance, at least for me:

1. Planting more shrubs and fewer perennials.

I have an area in my backyard that I am struggling to landscape at the moment. It is a pretty big space, several plants have failed there, and there is a lot of empty ground there right now. At first I wanted to plant a small ornamental tree there, something like a ‘Hearts of Gold’ Redbud, but then I realized that I would still have to plant a bunch of stuff underneath the tree. Even though a tree is a large landscape feature it really doesn’t cover much soil, does it? Planting loads of perennials there just does not appeal to me, and since the area is far away from the house, I don’t think they’d be appreciated anyway. Plus, large quantities of perennials are expensive and tending them is usually a lot of work.

So now I’m thinking something like a Doublefile Viburnum would be just the ticket in that spot. It would spread itself out and cover lots of ground, and would still make a nice specimen plant visible from the house.

There are so many interesting shrubs out there that a full-blown “shrubbery” even carries a certain appeal.

Last year I planted this Bottlebrush Buckeye waaaay in the back of my yard and I am totally smitten by it.


These things are supposed to get HUGE, and I hope mine does, because as you can see I need it to block the god-awful mess behind it. Supposedly this shrub is a slow grower but mine has tripled in size in less than a year. Those skinny little pipe-cleaner flower buds should be big ol’ bottlebrushes very soon!

This Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ has spread quickly but hasn’t gotten too tall. And it has wonderful bright yellow stems in winter:


Below, this Variegated Five-Leaf Aralia (Acanthopanax siebolianus ‘Variagatus’) is spreading quickly and I am going to let it, even if I have to get some perennials out of its way. This thing brings an amazing lightness to a very shady spot and it’s growing right under my BW:


Other shrubs that have been handsome and reliable for me (and have covered ground) are boxwood, clumping bamboo, and Viburnum ‘Conoy’.

2. Looking at what grows well in my yard and planting more of those. Yes, part of the joy of gardening is trying new things, but when you’ve got limited time and energy it is probably prudent to keep your experimental planting areas small and manageable.

In my yard, toad lilies, Japanese painted ferns, geraniums, and phlox are always healthy and lush. Astilbes, butterfly weed, and heucheras always look pathetic.

In my yard, Marshallia, geraniums, and painted ferns grow well and look good together.  Why not plant more?  (Winterberry Holly on the left)

Marshallia, geraniums, and painted ferns grow well and look good together. Why not plant more? (Winterberry Holly on the left)

Instead of trying to fight with my yard and make the latter plants work, instead of poking around the perennials area at the GC for something new (exhilarating as that it is!), I’m gonna stick to my shortlist of proven perennials for now. For now, I said.

With a lower-maintenance garden, you have time to read more garden blogs!  Let’s see what some professional designers have to say about maintenance:

Follow the links below and see what our designers have to say!

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Transitions

One of Beatrix Ferrand’s most famous projects is the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, which is known for its lavish garden rooms and magnificent attention to detail.   As you can see in the map below, each garden “room” has its own name — Rose Garden, Urn Terrace, Pebble Garden, etc. — and each room is masterfully designed and delightful to experience.


What I have highlighted in yellow on the map, though, are actually my favorite parts of Dumbarton Oaks.  You will notice they are not the individual gardens at all, but rather the spaces between the gardens, the transitions.  To me, these spaces have always been the most compelling aspect of Dumbarton Oaks, and they are evidence that Beatrix Farrand was a freakin’ genius.

Farrand seemed to put as much thoughtful design into the garden’s transitional spaces as she did into the rooms themselves.  For instance, look how this narrow stone stairway beckons you up the hill….ArborTerraceStairs

At the top of the steps you find yourself in the Arbor Terrace, a shady and restful spot with a grotto-like fountain:


Farrand was completely masterful in her use of sound and smell in these transition areas.  As you travel the paths between gardens, you can often hear the sound of water trickling or gurgling from an area that you can’t yet see. For example, as you walk up this path, you can hear the sound of a fountain in the distance….


Turn left at the end of the wall and you enter the famous Ellipse Garden and ah-ha! there’s the fountain:


Farrand also lined these transitional paths with fragrant shrubs like lilac and honeysuckle, and she paid just as much attention to the walls, paving, and plantings in these “in-between” areas as she did to the major garden areas.  For example, here is the stairway leading to the pool — a feature more interesting than the pool itself:


Below is a picture of the path on the way to Lover’s Lane (a shallow pool hidden in the woods).  At the end of the path, a statue of Pan points the way to…


the pool, where undoubtedly you will be getting up to no good with your sweetheart:


You have to love a garden that encourages mischievous behavior (although in early April when I visited this area doesn’t have a very secluded feel — gotta wait for the leaves to fill in.)

Here is a little path that jigs off to the side behind some large evergreens.  The beautiful tiled roof pokes up and entices you over:cuttinggardenpath

Turn left at the end of the path and you get a nice view of the cutting garden (just getting going) with the Prunus Walk in the distance:


And scattered throughout the entire garden are curving brick paths lined with boxwood, or rustic stairways that lead to hidden terraces, or peek-a-boos of secret spaces glimpsed between evergreens:




Please check out other perspectives on “Transitions” from my fellow Roundtablers:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Capability Gray

I may not be installing giant lakes, building fake temples, or displacing villages full of peasants, but I have been improvin’ my landscape lately, indeed I have.

First, an update on the play structure thingee I started building in February.  To refresh your memory, here is what it looked like several weeks ago:


And here it is today.  Ta-da!


The bottom deck is 6×6, and the top deck is 6×7.5 — cantilivered out, to provide a little more room upstairs.  The ladder and railing turned out a little…well, crooked, but thanks to encouragement from my fellow blogger and garden philosopher Calvin Caley, I have learned to embrace the imperfections in my handy work and simply call it wabi-sabi rather than stress about it.  Calvin shared with me his outlook on outdoor building: “after all, you’re not building a grand piano.”  Thank you, Calvin.

I still want to paint it or stain it (you can see where I tested a color), and maybe add some fun little touches like a pulley or something.  So far Charlie’s favorite thing to do is go up onto the second level (the Ledo deck) and fling his shoes off of it.

Next, I painted the little portion of fence and the gate leading to my backyard.  Here is before:


and now:


Not bad.  The metal sun and moon I attached to the gate was a purchase from a vendor at this year’s Philly Flower show.  It was created from an old oil drum by Haitian craftsmen with a hammer and nail. Pretty cool!

I want to paint some words on my gate, too, around the sun.  I think I want to name my garden…something French.  At first I was worried that would be too pretentious, especially since I don’t know a word of French and have never been to France.  

But then I remembered, this is my garden, I can do what I want!  Hurrah!

Third, I built this little trellis in a part of the yard where my annoying neighbor has a clear view of us.  He stands on his porch and often calls over with some unwelcome question or comment, so I figure if I can get a vine to completely cover this, it will reduce our neighbor’s comments by up to 80%.  (Seriously, I’m not being an ass here, he is genuinely irritating and weirdly intrusive.)


I made it completely out of stuff I found in my shed (I’m so sustainable!) except for the paint.  I’m proud of my bold color choice, but I have to say that the metal fencing between the posts is not too attractive, is it?  I am hoping an aggressive clematis will cover it up in one or two seasons, otherwise I will have to think of something else.

Last, I have a new retaining wall!  Early readers of my blog may remember the post where I dreamed of a stone retaining wall to replace the rotting timbers that are there currently.  Well, finally Mary collected enough pennies to make it happen.  So no, this was not a DIY project…

My old, terrible wall:


And the new!


This wall is cinderblock, with stone facing.  I also looked into brick and those decorative concrete blocks by Techobloc and Belgard, but the wall I wound up with cost less than half of the estimates I got for using those materials.  Anyway, I am pleased with the color of the stone they used, because the rusty color matches the natural stones I find in my yard.  I wish a nice thick capstone had been in my budget, but c’est la vie.  (Oh look, I do know French!) 

And while I love my new wall, I am very demoralized when I look at how decimated the little garden behind it was left.  Where there were once cushions of Carex pensylvanica there is now packed red clay and gravel. 

I guess a Landscape Improver’s work is never done.

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Mistakes

“A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.”

–James Joyce

13retain1_lgThen again, Joyce was a man of ideas.  I’m sure no contractor ever said to a client: “Oh, that retaining wall I put in last fall is collapsing now?  But of course!  How could something so bourgeois hold back the anarchy of our modern age??  Don’t you see??  It was futile from its inception!!!”

Anyway, it only took me a few minutes to compile a long list of mistakes that I have made over the course of my study of landscape design.  Here are just a few:

1. Giving landscape design advice to people who didn’t ask for it.  You might think that this would be obvious, but when you’re a new landscape design student all super-excited about what you’re learning, like I was, sometimes you can go a bit overboard.

[Read more...]

Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

In the Final Comprehensive of my Landscape Design Course, we had to work in teams of three. I was in a group with two other talented people (both professional designers), and our task was to redesign a small park on the campus of GW.

We brainstormed. We sketched. We had meetings — many, many meetings. We discussed. We argued. We tried to change one another’s minds and we attempted compromise.

[Read more...]

HGTV 2013 Dream House Has Lots of Plants!

It’s a bit premature to make a final judgment, but it looks as though HGTV’s 2013 Dream House  – located on Kiawah Island, South Carolina – might actually be worth cheering for!

[Read more...]

Landscaping a School Sign

The high school where I work just built a new sign at the entrance from the main road.  Within days of being built, it was vandalized.  So last week my principal asked me if I could suggest some landscaping for around the sign that might discourage hooligans from getting up close to the sign and defacing it.

Of course, I had already been landscaping the sign in my mind since the beginning of the school year, but now with the principal’s specific parameters, I am ready to offer a real plan.  Any ideas, readers? 

It is full sun (sign faces east/west), crap soil, no irrigation.  The plants have to be fairly low so that the sign stays readable.  I like the idea of some natives.  I am specifically struggling with how to shape the bed, and with what to stick between the sign and the sidewalk.  Here’s a picture:

Readers who suggest something that actually gets planted will receive a jar of my special homemade Black Walnut Chutney.  Not really, but seriously I will be grateful for your suggestions!


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