At a recent horticultural symposium, I was privileged to view images and hear a description of the creative process as practiced by a robed Zen landscape designer. The magnitude of the boulder installations was befuddling to folks like me. Defensively and clodlike, I stifled a derisive snort when he explained that he spent many hours in a client's garden simply listening and resonating with the various harmonic convergences present and apparent, it seemed, chiefly to the enlightened. I love birdsongs, but many of my clients would be resistant to me billing them for meditation time on their porch. Maybe if I showed up in my bathrobe it would help.
This session, and including others in the series, pictorial layouts in hort pubs, garden tours and meandering walks and drives, all point to the "hardest" part of creating a beautiful, efficient, durable and desirable landscape: stone and wood structures, paths, walls, falls and knolls in or on many of these "outdoor living spaces."
The master plan, which does things like anticipate a gazebo where the sycamore went in last year, identifies functions and spaces, shapes and planes. Structure is the canvas upon which we paint plants, the frames in which we showcase their best features. We modify their environments and make good neighbors of desert dwellers and hostas.
Water runs downhill. We've seen it. It traverses the hillside in a downward manner, unless, of course, the soil is so open and porous, water can't move laterally before it's sucked to Hades as in the North End. In many other parts of town, the soil is so fine, tight and compacted that water sits on top long enough to evaporate into white-crusted saucers. And foothill slopes are so steep that water is in the neighbor's driveway most of April. To improve large areas of soil in any terrain is a task of scary proportions.
Yet it's quite feasible to improve or alter relatively small areas when sculpting and elevation are used to modify drainage characteristics. A slightly raised bed on the north can be modified with an organic amendment or acid treatment, one of the few occasions which calls for peat. Make it deeper if it sits on clay and work the fill with a fork. A light mulch is OK, but ferns, rhodies, hinokis, yews and azaleas provide their own living mulch as they shade the soil. Groundcovers work well, too, but vinca should be trimmed before it sits down at the dining room table. A raised bed on the south or west side can transform a leaden soil into a suitable home for a diverse population of botanical commoners and oddballs, with the addition of a coarse forest compost.
Conifers are quite preferential about drainage, which is not to say that they're camels. They prefer to be slightly moist, with regular access to a good drink when they need it. Deciduous beings, as a general rule, with their tender leaves and fine stems, turn resentful and ill tempered when thirsty. With forethought and a wheelbarrow, plants adapted to dry environments may reside at the top, while their thirstier counterparts welcome the damp environment at the bottom.
Saving the best part 'til last: Plant selection totally blows your skirt up. The shapes and dimensions in the spaces clarify their conditions. There's minimal ambiguity about size or contours, orientation or exposure, drainage or retention. It's the information plants would provide about each other in the Personals. Selecting the right plant for the right place is what defines the garden people dream about.
Go for a hike and study the land. Either on a grand scale from a mountaintop or the vignette of a hillside spring, take note of the plants and how they've found homes to suit their habits, and how the contours of the ground have shaped the plants upon it. Meadow grasses seem to reflect the sort of nap we brush on velvet as the terrain exposes blades to wind or sun. The lushness of foliage in the drainage and the exuberance of blossoms on the rise tell a lively story of challenges and change.
Hardscape and sculpting are the pages upon which the story is told. Seasons as chapters, pathways as plots, sheltered plants as shadowy characters and each a star in their own act. The crannies and grottos are where the delicate find shelter. The bodyguards are the boulders or tree canopies who protect astilbes and lobelias. Forget-me-nots are like shy boys hugging the wall at a dance and weeping spruces drape themselves over the sunny slope like a torch singer on a grand piano. No sketch, with the exception of me on your deck in my pajamas, is too humble or too lurid for a frame.
Linda Jarsky is an advanced master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer, and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf.