The Designs in My Mind

“I have a new vision for the backyard.”

I say this to my husband as I gaze out the kitchen window, assessing the lawn, trees, and borders. It is all unsatisfactory! All of it!

He looks at me with suspicion as he sips coffee. My urge to create new territory is not new territory for us.

“Does it involve ripping out something you’ve already planted?” he asks.

How much should I tell him?

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Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Designing With Native Plants

Susan Abraham of Lush Life Landscapes

For this month’s GDRT, I had the the pleasure of interviewing Susan Abraham, instructor of Landscape Design at GWU, and founder of Lush Life Landscapes, a garden design firm based in Northern Virginia that is devoted to native plants and “ecological artistry.”  I love that term!  I also love her website, which does a better job of presenting a philosophy of sustainable garden design than any other other design site I’ve seen.  It’s eloquent, informative, positive, and totally avoids the kind of preachiness that is all too evident in the world of green design.  Enjoy getting to know Susan! 

MG: Where do you think your interest in ecological garden design originated?  Did you have a different career prior to becoming a landscape designer?

SA: My interest in ecological garden design originated in Southern California as I tended my garden.  Water shortages began in earnest in the region, and I noticed information available at local nurseries about xeriscaping using Mediterranean plants suitable to the local climate.  This piqued my interest in the variety of native plants thriving in open areas, and led to an interest in historic techniques used to capture, store and use rainfall in irrigation.

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Art and the Garden, Part II: Learning to See

La Siesta, by P. Picasso

All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

Pablo Picasso

One of the more frustrating aspects of teaching school is being party to a system that drives the joy out of learning for probably nine out of ten students.  By the time students get to high school, they have had their “skills drilled” and their “proficiencies assessed” so often it’s no wonder they finish out their secondary education in a cynical haze so thick that neither my most inspired lessons nor my most intimidating deathstare can penetrate it. 

In American classrooms today, there is so little opportunity for personal expression and genuine exploration it is almost laughable.

Except it’s not.  It’s tragic. 

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Some Thoughts on Garden Ornament

Nothing announces the mood or atmosphere of a garden more so than Garden Ornament.  Sure, you can plant an Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ and a carpet of black mondo grass, but it’s really the stone lantern that declares:

“This Japanese Garden.  Please now be feeling sense of reverence and quiet awe.”

In the case of one of my neighbors, it’s the red Victorian gazing ball held aloft on the ears of three stone rabbits that announces:


I love all kinds of garden ornament, from dignified to kitsch, which is why I face a dilemma.  Since garden ornament tends to set the tone of the garden more so than any other individual garden element, there should be some sort of consistency among the pieces chosen.  An overall statement should be made.

Personally, I’m torn about which direction I want to go with ornament in my garden.  On the one hand, as I get older I find myself drawn to more dignified, classic pieces.  I love the idea of a stone column in my garden, surrounded by ferns and set off by evergreens…soothing, dignified, timeless.

But I also like this:

Gnome-B-Gone, by Fred Conlon

I mean, I know my garden is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, but I don’t want it to appear completely bipolar.

Luckily, there are some pieces of garden ornament that are more neutral and can fit into any scheme.  Most pots, for example, don’t hit you over the head with their personalities; they’re like the Zeligs of the garden and can blend into cottagy, modern, whimsical, or classic schemes.

This is why pots are all I have at the moment.  Pots and a couple of metal dragonflies hovering among my perennials. 

Perhaps my difficulty with garden ornament speaks to a larger problem with my sense of self.  My garden doesn’t really know what it is, therefore, perhaps I don’t really know who I am.  Should I wear floral scarves or chunky metal watches?  Should I try to do more serious writing or should I learn carpentry? Should I take a stand more often or just laugh stuff off and go with the flow?

Am I a stone column or a Gnome-B-Gone?

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: By the Sweat of Your Brow Will You Weed Your Bed.

My husband and I moved into our house in Burke, VA (Zone 7a) early in 2003 and immediately got to work on “letting the yard go” for about, oh, 4 years or so.  I’m sure the neighborhood was horrified by our neglect, as I know you will be when you see the “before” pictures.  Continue reading

Do Garden Designers Need To Have Pretty Gardens Themselves?

Next week I will be participating for the first time in the Garden Designer’s Roundtable, a website that features a monthly round-up of blog-posts by garden design professionals.  Each month, several of the Roundtable’s designers provide their unique perspectives on a given topic, with links to all the posts published on GDRT.  Cool!

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Thomas Rainer Hits It Out of the Park AGAIN.

I’m sure that my readers are but a small, ragtag subset of Grounded Design readers, but if you haven’t read Thomas Rainer’s new post, “Why the Perennial Border Matters“, please do so. 

In his post, Thomas presents for our consideration the intricately planted (some would say “fussy”) traditional English perennial border.  He compares the study of great perennial borders by the likes of Christopher Lloyd to “training for a triathlon” — in other words, the ultimate planting design challenge. 

Long Border at Great Dixter.

Now, I’ve never been a big fan of English perennial borders — not because the plantings aren’t magnificent, but because they’re always laid out along a flat, straight axis.  Garden paths that resemble I-80 through eastern Nebraska are not really my cup of tea.  Perhaps because of my upbringing in the hills and woods of the Piedmont, I prefer a bit of curve or rise or dip in my garden experience, but whatever.

That is not really the point. 

What resonates with me about Thomas’ post is his assertion that a great perennial border demands profound plant knowledge from the designer.  I love that he is writing about this kind of thing because in my mind it elevates planting design from the way we often see it presented — as a paint-by-numbers exercise — to what it can be, what it should be — high art! 

To create a planting masterpiece, it is not enough to be familiar with basic design principles.  It’s not even enough to be familiar with bloom time and foliage texture, is it?  A great planting designer needs to be familiar with all of the ages and stages of his medium.

This line from his post really gets to the heart of the matter:

“Mixing tulips, for example,  among various perennials is incredibly tricky. Their leaves can easily smother newly emerging perennials. But Lloyd and Garrett understood exactly what perennials can co-exist with hundreds of tulips.”

So this is the kind of knowledge that, if applied, can elevate a planting from merely pleasing to downright exquisite.  For me, knowing that the foliage of  my Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ starts to green out around July 4th, or that my Autumn fern turns a glorious tawny orange in the fall but my Southern Wood Fern doesn’t, or that the stems of my Toad Lilies only retain that excellent purple tinge until about June 1st, so that combo with Astilbe ‘Delft Lace’ I was so proud of will only last a few weeks, duh!!– ahem – this is the kind of profound understanding of plants I need to be striving for. 

High maintenance?  Uh, yeah.  But the maintenance is part of the pleasure.  Those guys who love vintage cars hardly ever actually drive them, right?  They fuss over them, polish them, tinker with them – that’s how they enjoy them.  Same with gardeners.  We enjoy our gardens by working in them, clipping, digging, yanking, chopping, nipping, stomping — possibly even flinging, weeping, or cursing.  Sitting in an Adirondack chair with a lemonade gazing upon the flowers?  Yeah, sounds good, maybe I’ll try that one day.

And fussy?  I guess an intricate mixed planting with highly choreographed bloom-time that takes into consideration the changing texture, form, color, and culture of each plant in the design could be considered fussy.  But then, you could say Renoir’s work was fussy, too.  And the poetry of TS Eliot.  Martha Graham’s choreography?  Shakespeare’s Hamlet?  Also fussy. 

So thanks, Thomas, for pointing out that “low-maintenance” should not always be the guiding principle of garden design.  Thanks for reminding us that this is art we’re talking about.

Let’s Tour and Critique the 2012 HGTV Green Home

On its website, HGTV is showcasing the 2012 “Green Home”, the eco-friendly, LEED-certified hippie sibling of their regular “Dream House.”  This year’s Green Home is located in the “sustainable community” of Serenbe, outside of Atlanta, Georgia. 

Like all of HGTV’s giveaway homes, this one is beautifully and thoughtfully appointed on the inside, but the landscaping is pretty much a snooze-fest.   Here’s a shot of the front.

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