Archive for January, 2011

Setting the Stage for a Garden

Saturday, January 1st, 2011


Every garden has it’s own personality, and home ownership is always evolving…

So when I meet with a client we always get to talking about the history of the site. What came before and then what is next. There is a sense of invention and crafting. I want to hear what their favorite memories of gardens were over the years and I usually ask them to begin filling a folder with magazine clippings of their favorite gardens and gathering spaces. I also suggest they take note of what they like in their neighborhood, and write down plant names that they saw and loved in nurseries. When we meet again we get to pour over these collections, and begin sketching the layout of their ideal space. From this it’s natural and easy to begin creating the time line for a design process that usually takes around four seasons.



Knowing that some of your favorite memories of a garden in the past will be included often reminds us how good it is to be involved in the garden in a hands on way. I think there is something beneficial about being a part of the building process even in small ways. It prepares us for caring for it once it’s installed. So when I suggest we start the whole process by preparing the beds for planting with sheet mulching I’ll often ask clients if they want to be involved.



In the two before pictures above you can see how David spread mulch over the cardboard on both sides of the sidewalk. Then additional soil from my excavation with my crew for a patio in back was added to raise the level of the front. The mulch served a dual purpose; it removed the grass and improved the soil with composting. When you dig in after six months of incubation the top foot of earth is soft and loamy from all the natural tilling the worms and other soil animals have done on their own. Meaning, you improve the soil and let nature do more of the heavy lifting. This process usually takes up to six months and I like to schedule it over the winter while it’s too cold to plant. When spring arrives we can either start planting or start the hardscape excavation process depending on the garden.



With this small crafts man garden we wanted to create privacy on a busy street while ensuring that the garden didn’t crowd the walkways that are regularly enjoyed by neighbors, and not building a giant wall to the outside. We tried a couple of different ideas and then eventually combined parts of each of them to the final landscape. First by raising the height of the soil and building a small retaining wall we made a clear distinction between the street and the garden. I removed the walk way in the middle and created a sunken gathering area in the center. The new path to the front door was off to the side and not strait down the center breaking the area in half and using up valuable space for planting. The sunken gathering area and raised beds meant that now you could sit out in the front with privacy once the garden grew up. Beyond the public walkway a second natural boundrey to the street was built in, with a mixed planting of arbutus and myrtle trees. Without a formal hedge we were able to create a fully secluded garden that also had small openings and breaks for pedestrians to be able to enjoy the garden in passing.



To soften all the hard rock and cement I chose lavender and mexican feather grass to move softly in the wind. The colors blending so that the space felt larger and more continuose. This was the reason behind the choice of rock of course as well. We needed something that would suit the age and style of the house but would also integrate with the silver color of all the newly poured cement the house had come with. Small details like using the extra stone that was left over from the rockery made a perfect landing for recycling bins and expanding the visibility of the driveway entrance.



With each project my intention is not to bring anything to the dump. So even when I planned a park for Exeter house two years ago a large cement structure that had to be removed from one part of the park was broken up and used as the foundation for a sculpted mound and rockery. This don’t mean that things need to look scrappy or unplanned, in fact it takes a fair amount of planning to hide these changes, however they also always save the construction process time and money in moving materials and in the end also change what we see as waste. Often in being open to more complex issues in design like waste, these materials will actually open up whole other innovations and solutions to problems that you couldn’t have planned for. For instance using the extra soil from our first patio project in back meant that I would elevate the garden behind the rockery in front, while sinking the small gathering area, and all of a sudden the perspective of someone sitting in the garden shifted so that the garden slowly rises up around them obscuring the street further. We were also able to reduce the width of the wall since it was now supported on one side, materials were cut in half, and the price tag for labor as well. Yet all these details are just the things you hope people don’t notice in passing. What you hope is that as they sit in their private space the garden feels restful and expansive. You also hope that neighbors look forward to getting to that particular part of the sidewalk because there is something about the presence of someone enjoying their garden, something beguiling about the swaying of the grasses and the fragrance of the lavender that inspires the senses and then the mercurial mind.