Monday, April 30, 2012

Top Ten List... Books 3, 4 and 5

Several years ago, about a hundred local residents and I attended a workshop on developing a new garden and xeriscaping.  As the speakers talked about maintenance of a meadow and which mature trees to salvage in our private woodlands, we all realized their suggestions might be of a much greater scale than our own backyards.

I have a small garden, much smaller than the seven acres recommended during that workshop, and in fact, much smaller than most suburban landscapes.  Space is at a premium and my garden is under scrutiny from many different angles, literally.  So I really appreciate David Stevens’ guidance in Small Space Gardens and Backyard Blueprints: Style, Design and Details for Outdoor Living.  Both books loosely group garden design into four stages.
Stage 1
David recommends we keep it simple when planning our small garden and first decide how we want to use the space.  Instead of following the latest fashion, it’s more important to base our plans on our actual needs.  I often employ a similar technique when helping friends decorate their homes.  For example, who says a separate dining room is necessary if you seldom eat at home?  Maybe the space would be better used as a second living room, office or library.

David suggests we create a wish list, which in the garden may include:
comfortable places to sit and enjoy the garden;
protected places to cook, dine and socialize;
areas to grow food, store water and compost;
if you have children or pets, places for them to play;
space for exercise and chores, such as laundry;
definition of property boundaries;
and storage.
Perhaps you are a lover of a certain species of flora, such as Dianthus or Iris.  Displaying a collection of plants is just as important as exhibiting art or collectibles in your home.  So add it to your wish list.

Stage 2
In general, we must work with what we have.  This means understanding the soil conditions, sun and wind exposure and microclimate of our garden; addressing water-logged or exceptionally dry and uneven or sloped areas; and assessing views beyond the garden.  Hand-me-downs and antiques are usually some of the most beloved objects in our homes.  And existing plants and mature trees make a garden unique.
This Silver Maple is the only large tree in our little garden.
A lot of people may have removed it, but we love the shelter it provides in the summer,
its beautiful bright green foliage in the spring and golden leaves that last into December.
Stage 3
Consider style.  We can comb ideas from garden traditions without copying them exactly.  I often ask decorating clients to provide me with “inspirations” to help me better understand their personal styles.  A photo from vacation or a favorite sweater may supply as much insight as a page from a décor magazine.  Ultimately, here is your goal: your garden should reflect your personality, and your house and garden should relate well to one another.

Stage 4
And finally small urban gardens are often rather long and lean: “shotgun”style.  It seems counter intuitive, but by dividing space into rooms, you actually make the whole garden feel larger and more regular in shape.  It is all about controlling the view:
limiting the view to build intimacy;
directing the view to increase a sense of journey and adventure;
borrowing views from outside your yard;
and inventing or implying more space just out of sight.

Many of the same ideas are discussed in Valerie Easton’s A Pattern Garden: The Essential Elements of Garden Making.  Patterns are the fundamentals that lead to successful garden design, no matter what the size and scope of the garden.  Patterns transcend style and location and even time.
Valerie lists 14 patterns:
Scale… once again, scale is about how a garden relates to its house and other surroundings.  You’ll notice scale tops Valerie’s list.

Patterns 2 through 5 are about movement and discovery in the garden.
Garden Rooms… shape space and define use.
Pathways… provide direction and a sense of entry.
Bridges and Gates… facilitate movement and add decoration.

Shelters and Borders… create privacy and protection and define property and garden room boundaries.  Valerie talks about enclosure and exposure.  Shelters include arbors, pergolas and gazebos; borders include fences, walls and hedges.
Patios or Terraces… offer space for living.
Sheds or Work Spaces… provide utility and storage.
Patterns can develop as your garden evolves.
At first, we had a rather low fence across our back property line,
but 4 years ago, our neighbors built a second house just a few feet away.
So, Walter constructed this lovely, tall lattice fence to give us more privacy.
This is a little "breakfast" patio at Glen Burnie House and Gardens...
a garden can be historic and livable!
Focal Points… create visual and physical destinations.
Water… even the smallest birdbath or fountain engages the senses and attracts wildlife.
Ornamentation and Containers… bring your own humor and personality to the garden.
I finally brought water to my garden last year by burying
this pretty pot about 8 inches and adding a solar fountain.
A "shrunken" clay head keeps this potted Spirea from looking too serious!
And finally Materials… link and support all the other patterns.  Materials are the physical, well materials, like wood, stone, paving and gravel, in the garden.
I like this combination of brick and concrete
in a small urban garden sandwiched between two buildings.
It is part pathway, part courtyard, part garden floor.
I know it may all sound a little theoretical, and you might be wondering “Where the heck are the plants in all these patterns?”  Just remember… plants must adhere or relate to each pattern.  Plants climb up arbors and trellises.  They serve as hedges and soften pathways.  They embellish our garden rooms and containers.  Distinguished plants excel as focal points, and every plant in our garden should help us maintain (or even play) with scale.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Once in a Lifetime… Scrolls by Itō Jakuchū

Earlier this month, I had the very great opportunity to visit Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū at the National Gallery of Art.  This exhibition of mid-18th century scrolls is part of the 2012 National Cherry Blossom Festival and the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s original gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C.

Our local cherries started to bloom as early as February.
The genre of Chinese academic bird-and-flower painting probably developed from more decorative art by the 7th century and was firmly established in Japan, through the spread of trade and Zen Buddhism, by the 15th century.  Although described as bird-and-flower, both Chinese and Japanese paintings traditionally include many other scenes from nature and are deeply rooted in conventional, poetic and religious symbolism.

Itō Jakuchū worked from 1757 until 1766, on his 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower paintings, which he entitled Colorful Realm of Living Beings.  Itō donated the scrolls and the Śākyamuni Triptych, which includes The Buddha Śākyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, to the Shōkokuji Monastery, where they were displayed during Buddhist ceremonies.  The monastery became a popular pilgrimage site because of Itō’s work, which was honored as masterpieces even in his lifetime.  In 1889, the Colorful Realm collection was sold to the Imperial Household in order to pay for upkeep of the Monastery, and the scrolls disappeared from regular public display for many decades.

The Colorful Realm remains a cornerstone of the Sannomaru Shōzōkan or Museum of the Imperial Collections, and the Triptych is still owned by the Jōtenkaku Museum at the Shōkokuji Monastery.  All thirty-three scrolls are on loan to the National Gallery of Art through the weekend.
Peonies and Butterflies, c. 1757, ink and color on silk,
from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757-1766
Courtesy of the Sannomaru Shozokan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The Imperial Household Agency
Peonies and Butterflies, the earliest scroll, has been used a lot in exhibition publicity, and its spacious, unpainted background shows how much Itō drew from centuries of prior bird-and-flower paintings.  It is beautiful.  But the later scrolls are mesmerizing, literally sublime.  The subjects are up close and center: birds, fish, butterflies and insects, reptiles and sea creatures, surrounded by flowering shrubs and trees throughout the seasons… maple, hydrangea, nandina, plum and, of course, cherry blossoms… shells, lilypads and grasses, earth, water and stone, all amazingly recognizable and stylized.  The silk scrolls recently underwent an extensive restoration, and the fine layering of paint, sometimes thickly but precisely applied, sometimes translucent, is especially interesting in winter scenes.  Itō even painted “snow” on the back of scrolls to mimic its wintry shadows and transitory nature.

Here is my advice.  If you are anywhere near D.C. this weekend, visit Colorful Realm.  Yes, there is a catalog, but it can only remind you… not replace… the experience of seeing the paintings for yourself.  Even if you plan to visit Japan, you may not have the opportunity to view these scrolls again.  The National Gallery has extended its hours: 10 am until 8 pm today and 11 am until 8 pm tomorrow.  Admission is free.

These paintings are surprisingly large and incredibly fragile, hence their short time on exhibit, and no photos are allowed.  Be forewarned, the scrolls are all displayed in one gallery.  It will be crowded!  But it is worth it.

I grew up in Northern Virginia, and viewing the cherry blossoms (an activity known as hanami in Japan) was an annual tradition for our family.  Of course, the beautiful cherries, mainly Prunus × yedoensis, Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’ and Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ around the Tidal Basin, in East Potomac Park and near the Washington Monument, bloomed exceptionally early this year with our warm spring weather.  But the city-wide Cherry Blossom Festival lasts through this weekend.  In addition to Colorful Realm, you may want to catch a related exhibit, Orchid Mystique: Nature’s Triumph at the U.S. Botanic Garden, before it closes at 5 pm on Sunday.  Admission to the Garden and Conservatory is free.
Orchid in the color of cherry blossoms!

Beautiful Japanese garden inside the Conservatory at the U.S. Botanic Garden
Other Japanese exhibits at the Library of Congress, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Geographic Museum and Textile Museum, in honor of the cherry tree centennial, will remain on display at least into the summer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Top Ten List... Book 2

Plants placed in a sea of mulch or adrift in a vast green lawn may look tidy, but they seem rather naked to me.  I am a sucker for that lovely interweaving of plants when one green, maybe slightly black and glossy, blends into another, maybe deeply veined with a touch of red.
Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers, by Barbara W. Ellis, confirms my love of creeping, spreading vegetation and a garden full of texture.

Barbara begins her book with a strong case for ground covers: as a lawn substitute, especially under trees and in rocky or uneven spots; to stabilize slopes and bogs; to visually link separate areas of the garden; and to soften hardscapes like paths and driveways.  She provides particularly useful information about how different ground covers spread, aggressive species to avoid, and combining ground covers with structural elements.
The side steps leading up to our backyard are interplanted with six varieties of Thymus.
Echinacea purpurea is allowed to seed where it can find an inch! 

The second part of Covering Ground is a celebratory list of all the plants that serve well as ground cover.  In general, Barbara organizes them by sun exposure and rate of growth just like most plant catalogs.  But then she takes it a step further and looks at other shared characteristics: sun lovers with beautiful foliage; ground covers that can handle foot traffic; traditional foliage and flowers for shade; native woodland plants; and shrubs, vines and trees that weep and creep.
Unidentified Ferns with Epimedium and Stylophorum diphyllum
cover this small, shady bank near a tiny stream.
The Celandine Poppy will probably reseed faster than the other plants.

She suggests lists for alkaline and acidic soils, seaside locations, water-logged soil, dry shade and even areas with almost no soil at all.  Plus there are special sections on dwarf conifers, fragrant herbs, ornamental grasses, Heath and Heather and other plants that perform wonderfully as ground cover.
Covering Ground reminds us to use native foliage plants in our gardens.  They are both stunning and sturdy.
I found this Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny Spurge) cheerfully brightening a dark garden
before spring had even arrived.  Wouldn't it look lovely in your garden?

In the final section of the book, Barbara shares practical knowledge about how to tackle site preparation, the very real economics of purchasing and propagating plants, and, finally, how to plant, edge and maintain large areas of ground cover.

Every time I read Covering Ground, I’m inspired to introduce new ground covers to my garden and pay closer attention to ones I already love.  Leptinella squalida ‘Platt’s Black’ is my recent favorite!

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Top Ten List... of Books on Garden Design

The recent weeks of 70 and 80 degree weather have accelerated our spring here in Virginia and created a rather frenetic succession of bloom.  But we have many months of active gardening ahead of us, and I am trying to remain calm and really think through my plans.  It’s so easy to get swept away with all the lovely perennials and pots, seeds and shrubs, trees and trellises, at the local nursery.  I know that if I can get the layout, silhouettes and views right in my garden, all the details, plants and accessories will fall into place.

There are ten books I seem to turn to, time and time again, when considering the design of my garden, starting with…

Gardening with Shape, Line and Texture: A Plant Design Sourcebook by Linden Hawthorne.  Linden encourages us to think about the golden ratio and other artistic devices when choosing and placing plants in our gardens… no matter how large or small… and to incorporate the following elements: scale, visual and environmental harmony, texture and contrast, rhythm and repetition, and then finally foliage and bloom color.

She divides plants into five general categories.

Horizontals and Tiers provide stability to the garden and are comparable to the foreground of a painting.  Examples of Horizontals and Tiers come in all heights.  They may hug the ground like Cerastium tomentosum (Snow-in-Summer) and Phlox subulata (Creeping Phlox) or serve as ornamental trees like Cornus alternifolia (Pagoda Dogwood) and Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum 'Shasta' (Shasta Viburnum).  But they all reinforce the horizon line.
Even this Cornus florida has a strong tiered quality.
Verticals and Diagonals lend interest and energetic motion to the landscape.  I think most of us are drawn to Verticals, such as Alcea (Hollyhock), Digitalis (Foxglove) and Verbascum (Mullein) in a cottage garden, or Echinacea (Coneflower) and varieties of Rudbeckia  and Liatris (Black-Eyed Susan and Blazing Star) from our native meadows.  A repetition of Verticals can be at once dynamic and reassuring… think of a grove of Birch trees.  Diagonals, like Crocosmia and Hemerocallis (Daylily), bridge the space between the extreme horizontal and vertical.  Some plants, like Iris and Yucca, combine diagonal foliage with very tall vertical stems and dramatic blooms.
Iris at a local nursery show off their exciting, blade-like leaves.
Weeping and cascading Arcs and Fountains are usually my favorite plants in the garden.  These are the ones that grow vertically or diagonally, at first, and then begin to arch.  They provide a visual and tactile softness, especially when compared with strong Horizontals and Verticals, and often enhance the garden with gentle motion as they interact with wind and rain.  Arcs and Fountains come in all sizes: relatively low Carex (Sedge) and Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart), taller grasses like Pennisetum (the appropriately-named Fountain Grass) and shrubs like Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) or Syringa reticulata (Weeping Lilac).

Clumps and Mounds form the greatest mass and visual weight in the landscape and include a lot of our tried-and-true foliage: Buxus (Boxwood) and Kalmia latifolia (Laurel), Hosta and Heuchera (Coral Bells), Lavandula (Lavender) and Santolina (Cotton Lavender).  Even though many of these plants bloom, we tend to value them for their dense, rounded shapes.

And finally Clouds and Transparents are the most ephemeral and decorative plants in the garden.  Scabiosa (Pincushion Flower), Aquilegia (Columbine), Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel) and Anethum graveolens (Dill) all possess fairly discreet, ferny, feathery leaves and almost-gauzy flowers on tall, delicate stems.  Clouds and Transparents seem to capture sunlight and movement in their own magical haze, which is emphasized by the frequent visits of bees and butterflies.
The massive Hosta 'Sum and Substance' grows to almost 4' across.
The purple lanterns of Aquigelia vulgaris lighten the green tableau.
The truth is that you probably could create an incredibly peaceful, possibly boring, garden completely out of Clumps and Mounds.  But Gardening with Shape, Line and Texture motivates us to combine plants in all five categories to build something more complex.  Plus anyone named Linden Hawthorne must know a thing or two about plants!