Last week I visited garden travel writer Alice Joyce (Bay Area Tendrils), and spent a delightful few hours in her charming garden, located just 20 minutes north of San Francisco. I knew I was meeting a kindred spirit as soon as I saw her Red Umbrella! We drank iced lemon verbena tea, and she shared the story of her garden, including the provenance of her impressive collection of plants. Alice's garden is a rich tableau (built one compact-car load of materials at a time) which will continue to evolve as the plants mature under her guidance.
Alice is an artist first, and this shows everywhere in her garden; from the clever use of applied color and found objects to the artful combination of foliage textures. It made me think about how different a hand-built garden is from a landscape that is designed and built all at once. Alice's sketchbook (above) filled with notes, lists, clippings, sketches and ideas, collected over the life of her garden, is quite different from the neat CAD plans and Excel plant lists that describe the design projects I do.
Few of my clients are serious gardeners; you will not find them pointing out the stunning combination of purple Corylus leaves and the vining tendrils of variegated Ampelopsis, as Alice does here. The gardens I design are valued and appreciated for their combined beauty and durability, and not so much for the special attributes and personalities of the plants I use.
So it is always a treat for me to visit a hand-built garden. I can appreciate the gorgeous plant combinations: some of them intentional, some happy accidents.
Here the fine purple leaves of Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' are the perfect foil for the coarser green leaves of Lemon Verbena (the source of our tea, and easily the best lemon scented plant I know, including lemons!) Each of these plants needs some training to remain in bounds and attractive, especially in a small garden. Therefore, I might hesitate to use them front and center in a 'designed' garden, unless a skilled gardener is also on hand to guide them through the seasons.
One of the most challenging tasks for me as a landscape designer is choosing all the plants for a garden at once. This certainly is not the nature of a gardener, who acquires plants from a variety of sources over the years, tucking them in as they are acquired, and perhaps moving them about as they mature and their habits are discovered. Garden writers like Alice also regularly receive trial plants from growers, so many of her favorites came to her by chance. For me, that is a great way to build a garden, around a collection of plants.
Consider the beautiful combination Alice has created above...a bed of Gold Heart Ivy, through which Begonias and Lysimachia 'Outback Sunset' emerge and blend. This has taken years to achieve; my attempts to recreate would no doubt look pretty small for quite some time. The imperative to create landscapes that are lovely in infancy as well as in maturity might lead me to safer choices. But my personal preference is for these thoughtful, elegant constructions any day!
I particularly love how Alice used two accent colors, a rich Moroccan blue and a creamy yellow, consistently throughout the garden. Here sections of trellis emerge from the gold like gems, and the combination glows all year round.
Another lovely detail. Look at this beautiful piece, tucked into a shady corner. A simple wrought iron plant stand, topped with a lacy openwork sphere, both painted that rich yellow. So simple, so effective, the work of an artist. Such details cannot be contrived for a client out of thin air, unless they have the makings of them already.
An avid gardener, living in their garden day to day, year to year, knows the little touches that make their space unique. Knows the splashes of color that need to be added. My best hope is to inspire my clients to such details over time. To add these personal touches for them feels rather like presuming to name their children!
The other thing I pay attention to when choosing plants for client projects is their susceptibility to disease. Melianthus, for instance, which Alice is showing below is notorious in these parts for attracting whitefly. I might hesitate to invite an infestation into a client's yard, particularly if I'm encouraging them not to spray. But I'm willing to accept responsibility for whatever I plant for myself, and know that there will be wins and losses.
The other huge difference between a hand-built vs. a contractor built garden is, of course, the hardscape. How would I specify this gorgeous outcrop planter Alice created out of field stones and cobbles? Such a delicious little confection can only be created on the spot, really.
Containers are the other 'old friends' in a hand-built garden. I use containers all the time in my designs, and they are usually purchased all at once and coordinate beautifully. But my own courtyard is a wonderful hodge-podge of pottery purchased over the last 10 years or so, and therefore, like Alice's beautiful grouping below, much more interesting. It's nice when a client has a bit of a collection to start with. And containers don't have to have plants in them to work...One shallow vessel in Alice's garden below is filled with green glass; another year-round easy pop of color.
When I design for non-gardeners, I have to assume that the plants I choose will only receive minimal attention. They need to get along by themselves, and play nicely with their neighbors. For this reason, I pay particular attention and obey the rules regarding plant size and spacing.
But in my own garden, those rules are flexible, and I regularly bend nature to make my plants do as I wish. I think this is true for many gardeners. Alice described training her Cotinus to have the upright, graceful posture of a dancer. A gardener can decide exactly what effect they wish to create, and will deliberately choose plants that need guidance over the years to achieve their objective.
When I see a beautiful combination like this (Crocosmia, Cuphea and Teuchrium) my gardener's soul is satisfied. I realize how I have come full circle, from gardener to designer back to gardener again. Perhaps the two need not be so different after all, and that the true mark of my success as a designer will be in their synthesis.