Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lessons in Design

Temperatures are finally out of the teens in the day time and in the high 20s today. But it's raining / sleeting / icing. Let's look at pictures from warmer seasons gone by.

I'm happy with the way the bluestone sidewalk on the west side of the house has developed into an allee.

In the beginning it started out as just a way to get from the front of the house to the back.

I planted both sides, added and took out, planted more, and after a couple years it became an inviting path, with the rounded maple in the distance beyond the bend in the walk as a focal point.

Now, in fall the maple in the distance positively calls you to come down this path. Come this way!

It's a very short allee, but there are a few sights to see along the way. In spring dwarf deutzias ('Nikko') have pretty white flowers at ground level and the bright fountainy hakonechloa grasses ('Aurea') spill over and try to tickle your feet.

In summer it is a bit of cool respite on the way to the back yard on a hot day. Not only does this allee beckon the eye with its focal point and mystery around the bend, but it also beckons with cool blues and bright yellows in a shady spot that makes you want to pause.

From the opposite direction the open curve brings you from the sunny yard into a cool passage and then opens to the driveway and the street.

This walk did not start out as an allee. Originally, when the flagstones were first put in, I was only concerned with hiding the ugly stuff all along that side of the house. I didn't want to have to see the electric meters, the air conditioning units and the cellar bulkhead door.

In 2007 this is what we had. My entire design plan for this area was to use plants to hide things.

I planted pretty shrubs and trees -- white blooming fothergillas, a standard panicle hydrangea, a beautiful pink flowered redbud with heart shaped leaves. At certain times it was lovely, but these plants didn't really screen anything. Some dwarf Alberta spruces in the middle did start to block the electric meters, but the strip of plants looked like a gardener's fantasy against a wall of ugly.

So I lushed it up. Miscanthus and other grasses and lots of plants went in. It was much better at hiding utilities on the wall, but the house still loomed above the strip of plants.

By 2010 it looked like this on a rainy summer day. I loved the lushness, but it was getting hard to actually navigate the path and the oversized grasses were unmanageable.

That's when I started thinking of this area as a garden itself, not just a strip along the house with impossibly big plants for screening. Don't accentuate the house, I finally decided -- instead pull the eye away and create an entire space out into the yard and beyond the walk.

More plants. A new gravel garden seating area off to the left was installed, which began to make this an area to walk through, maybe to linger in. All this planting out away from the house made me less likely to see the utilities up against the house wall. The miscanthus eventually came out.

Then one day as I walked along the path, I looked up and saw this. An obvious focal point across the lawn.

What pleases me most is what I learned in creating this allee. I began by just wanting plants to hide the side of the house. There was a job to do: block things out. But good design can do so much more.

I learned to create alternatives. Let the eye see something else (a focal point in the distance), give the visitor something to do on the way (rest in the cool, look at individual plants along the edges), create a destination (that bend in the walk -- what's around it?), frame the space (enclose it with plants on either side, a darker area leading to a lighter one beyond), and make it legible.

This allee is legible because it has a clearly readable function. It is a path through the garden. You know what it is. You walk it, you go somewhere when you do. The shrubs and chairs and yes, even the a/c units give it human scale that counteracts the enormity of the side of the house.

Those air conditioning units are still there, the bulkhead door is too. The electric meters on the wall are even worse now since we put in solar panels and they stuck the monster inverter box on the wall.

But I no longer see them when I am in my inviting, restful, beautiful allee.


  1. I enjoyed seeing how your gorgeous alee developed over the years. You have done very well. Your alee in autumn is particularly lovely. I am not a professional landscaper or garden designer, so, unfortunately, a lot of my expertise has come through the hard school of trial and error. I know when something is right, but many times it has taken me a while to get there! I have moved countless plants in an effort to find the right place/the right combination. I am gradually becoming a better designer.

    1. Trial and error is the best teacher, but boy does it take a toll!

  2. I think you have done a wonderful job. The realization of the maple as a focal point solidifies the plan. It is true that the plan changes over time. Good ideas, not so good ideas, until finally you feel it is starting to work the way you envisioned. There is the satisfaction!

    1. Thanks! You know the satisfaction of something that finally "works" -- a great feeling.

  3. Love the process you went through and the lesson you learned, which is one we all need to learn one way or another ... give eyes something beautiful to rest on and the less attractive views melt away. That you have created a garden area that is yours and makes you happy is what makes gardening so rewarding, don't you think?