Part One: A Schematic Plan

A great client with whom I have a close relationship called more than a year ago to say she had bought a new house. Her last house was built from the ground up on a lake property we landscaped five years ago. I never imagined there would be a second project. This new land locked house actually dates back to the 1920’s. A stately Georgian style house on a large piece of property captured her heart. Georgian style refers to the classical proportions established by the Greeks and the Romans, and a symmetry that is clear and satisfying. I was intrigued. My first visit a year ago July revealed a gorgeous and solidly built brick home. The front door entrance, porch, steps and keystones above the windows were limestone. The existing landscape was formal, but the yews had not been pruned properly, and were in decline.  The boxwood were flourishing. The driveway came alarmingly close to the front door. A deteriorated asphalt driveway would need replacing. These were my initial impressions out front.

She had told me she had a big yard in need of a landscape. As the house sits very close to the road, I was very interested to see the lion’s share of the property in the the back and side yard. The driveway to the garage lines up with the driveway across the street, as seen in the above picture, and is elevated 3 feet above the rear yard. Landscaped beds above and below a concrete retaining wall signaled the need to make a 90 degree turn into the garage. Though most of the property is enclosed by an imposing brick and limestone wall, a broken concrete dry stack wall on the north lot line must have at some point replaced a brick wall that failed. The rear portion of the house is more complicated, architecturally.

The garage features a small addition, perhaps for storage. A narrow group of concrete steps was the only access to the back yard.  Given that this addition was three feet above the rear yard grade, an iron rail was in place. A concrete balcony with an iron rail was most likely an addition after the fact. A house that is coming up on 100 years old probably has had several owners. This suggests that improvements from one owner to the next may not have made an entirely logical progression, although most of the brick and limestone details were consistent throughout.

To the south, a glassed sun porch off the formal living room immediately got my attention. I was sure it would prove to be a lovely room, with great views to the yard. Above the sun porch was a parapet wall/balcony off the master bedroom. The landscape plan would need to address both of these views. The grade dropped away dramatically from this porch and the garage wall to the left in this picture.

The dramatic existing drop in grade from the garage and sun room walls suggested the possibility of a rectangular sunken garden of some description tucked in to that L shape formed by the long wall of the garage, and the sun porch. Why not make something of that drop in grade?

I am embarrassed to say that the only plan I have now is my original marked up hand drawn schematic drawing. All of the finished drawings have gone out to my client, the large tree contractor, the stone mason, the irrigation contractor-and of course, my landscape superintendent. But it will do by way of illustrating my scheme. Identical limestone terraces to the east and west of the sun porch would provide an at grade flat space for grilling and dining to the east, and to the west,  a place designated for the cultivation of herbs and vegetables in pots. The terrace proud of the sun porch would provide a view to and steps down into a sunken garden. That garden would be enclosed by seat height walls. A pergola would surround the pool, with sets of columns and a roof 6 feet wide. A pergola of this style is commonly referred to as a cloister. In this application, a rectangular covered walkway will surround a central fountain feature. The area above the pool would be open to the sky.

My client was perfectly happy with a conceptual drawing. She trusts my judgment in a way that is rare, and I treasure her for that. I did not need to do construction grade drawings for her. And not for my stone mason either. We had a number of conversations about grade issues, and the number of steps we would need down into the pool garden. I trust him every bit as much as my client trusts me. Mike, from Mountain Pavers Construction, is every landscape designer’s dream come true.  He can translate a concept into a finished piece of work. He brought a concept to life.

The limestone walls called out in the plan, capturing the sunken garden, turned in to brick walls with limestone caps. That wall was determined to be seat height-22″ high. My clients very sandy soil made quick work of digging the foundations for those walls. Mike would eventually pour the footings for the cloister pergola, which would be manufactured at the Branch Studio.

My large tree contractor, Ralph Plummer from GP Enterprises was my first contractor in. He spaded in a number of large evergreens along the perimeter of the property, per my plan. We have worked together better than 25 years, and I can rely on the quality of his trees and his installation. As usual, he planted giant trees in perfect concert with my conceptual plan. Once those trees were planted, the construction of the brick walls that would enclose the sunken garden could be built. Mike determined all of the finished grades of the yard prior to building those walls. The concrete footings you see in the above picture would be covered with soil at the close of construction. By the time that this picture was taken, Mike had moved on to setting the limestone outside the sun porch.

The view from my client’s upstairs balcony illustrates how a landscape feature designed to be viewed from above would prove to be a delight for this client. In my opinion, a good landscape addresses the views up close, as well as the views from afar.

Once the defining exterior walls were in place, and the brick risers for the steps down into the pool garden, it was easier to see how a few lines on a piece of paper had become a reality.

Mike did a perfect job of matching the brick on the walls to the brick on the house. Adding an architectural element to a house of this age asks for matching materials, and style. At this point I could see that what I had intended to add to the architecture and landscape of this house would be believable. An awkward or thoughtless addition would always stand out in not a good way.

Make no mistake, you are seeing photos that do not reflect the time it took to get to this moment. More than a few months passed before these walls were in place. And the footings for the stairs.

Mike Newman – mason extraordinaire. Bravo!! There is a good deal more that has already happened with this project. We are ready to begin the installation of the cloister this coming Monday. I hope to post several times more by then.

 

The Branch Studio: Recent Work

It has been a while since I have written about Branch, so to follow are some snapshots of recent work. Pictured above is a 12′ wide by 8′ deep rose arbor.

rose arbor from the side

Custom made fountains with custom powder coat finish

rectangular fountains in place

Jackie box with a polar finish

custom fountain, shown in its galvanized state prior to a powder coat finish

garden arbor with traditional twisted steel bar

custom rectangular lattice box

custom table base for interior table. The vertical bars at the outside corners are support bars stabilizing the base while it is under construction. As a side note, the Branch work table top is a solid piece of 1/2″ thick steel, which is perfectly flat and level.

tapered box

custom pergola being assembled prior to galvanizing, to be sure everything fits properlyweathered Branch finish on the left box. Newly finished box on the right.

wood and steel gate designed by and fabricated for Zaremba and Company

round tapered Hudson pots for a rooftop garden

custom planter boxes

large scale custom Barry pot

custom pergola

quartet of low bowls

custom radiused set of lattice boxes

contemporary planter box

porch railing panels

 
custom obelisk

Four spout fountain

custom box and rail for the Foundation Hotel in Detroit, designed by, and fabricated for, Zaremba and Company

custom oak and steel boxes

The shop

The Branch Studio In Philadelphia

Jackie A is the outside sales manager for both Detroit Garden Works, and The Branch Studio. If you have ever inquired about getting a light hoop shipped out to you, or a custom pergola built, you have probably had occasion to talk with her. A talented landscape designer in her own right, she has a particular interest in sourcing and placing fine objects for the garden and landscape. In addition to handling a steady stream of sales and arranging for shipping for those sold items all over the US, she is currently managing the payments, collections and shipping to the US of several containers packed with goods purchased by Rob in Belgium, Germany, France and England during his September buying trip for the spring of 2019. She is a very capable member of our staff, and we are lucky to have her representing us.   We made a decision some time ago to exhibit at the ASLA 2018 trade show, which closed yesterday in Philadelphia.  The American Society of Landscape Architects sponsors a yearly meeting for members which includes seminars and tours of interest, and a trade show. Branch is one of 350 exhibitors at this show. It is worthwhile to take Branch products on the road, so designers can get a look at them in person. Pictures don’t tell the whole story. There is something about being able to see the design, material, construction and finishing up close.
Jackie planned every detail of the trip, from deciding what objects she wanted shipped out to Philadelphia, and how she would arrange them, to a lighting scheme for the booth. As she and David would fly out, a computer loaded with a slide presentation featuring custom work previously fabricated at Branch, catalogues and brochures would also have to be shipped. She gave herself several months to pull it all together. As she is meticulous in her attention to detail, everything arrived as scheduled. As is typical for most convention centers, the uncrating and set up was done by Pennsylvania Convention Center staffers. I was especially pleased about Jackie’s decision to take a fountain to the show. I am sure there was plenty involved in putting a working fountain on display. It had to be reviewed and approved by the convention venue. Planning the electrical was an issue. It was a very good idea, to include a fountain in our display. Branch manufactures a number of styles of fountains. They come equipped with a pump, so once the fountain is leveled and filled with water, one only has to plug it in to enjoy it. In recent years Branch has started fabricating covers for the pumps, so the interior of the fountain is as finished and polished as the exterior. Branch fountains are substantial, and can make a big statement in a landscape or garden. Our fountains are not inexpensive, but clients see the value of them. The action and sound of water in a garden cannot be overestimated.

Once all of the major pieces were unpacked, Jackie and David were able to fine tune the display. A bank of LED lights was attached to the underside of the Stuart dining table. That light made it easy to see the steel base and Ipe feet. The boxes of Branch catalogues, brochures and cards all needed a place to be. Jackie did a great job of designing this small space. She made sure there was plenty of space for people to linger, and engage. Our galvanized steel containers, pergolas, fountains and ornament are unique in the garden ornament business. I am not aware of any other company that hand manufactures heavy gauge steel planter boxes, pergolas or fountains such as these. Each piece is painstakingly finished in a two step process involving commercial hot dip galvanizing in a molten zinc bath – with a lifetime of service in mind. Our steel ornament is weatherproof, and virtually rust proof. A little spot of rust where the galvanizing did not take can be put to bed with a dot of cold galvanizing compound. The design and manufacture of fine ornament for the garden was a dream of mine that the Branch Studio has fulfilled, one beautiful garden heirloom at a time. Not familiar with what we make at Branch?    

By Friday afternoon, our Philadelphia popup shop was ready for company. This is the fourth time we have exhibited at the ASLA show, and if the previous shows are any indication, it will take some time before we see inquiries. It can take a while before the right project comes along that would ask for our boxes or ornament. Designers have a lot of questions. Jackie was prepared with lots of answers.

Exhibiting on a national stage at a trade show attended by landscape architects was a meeting I welcomed. Branch is a grown up company, just barely hitting its stride. Ornament in the garden can endow a landscape with atmosphere. The Branch finish is very reminiscent of the look of that classic garden material, lead. Each Branch box comes with a reference to the history of garden pots, standard issue. That said, we have shipped out Branch products in their galvanized state, for those clients who favor the more contemporary finish that the powder coating process offers.

By no means is Branch an overnight sensation. We have 15 years behind us. 15 years getting our process, and our product line in order. This year, our lead times on custom orders have been at times 12 to 16 weeks out. Would that we could fill custom orders faster, but we work one project at a time. Branch Studio is busy. I am so happy about that. As for our pop up shop in Philadelphia, I thank both Jackie and David for their work putting the Branch Studio on the road. They will be packing up this morning, and heading home tomorrow.

And of course, many thanks to all of those people who have both expressed interest in the work, and spoken for it.

 

Recent Work

One of my crews has been planting fall containers full time and just about non stop for going on a month. I suspect we will be able to finish up by the end of this coming week. I am pleased that the warm weather has finally retreated. Really? Great seasonal container design is all the better for the inspiration that comes standard issue from nature. Our most colorful season is nigh upon us. The dogwood leaves have turned red and orange. The green leaves of the oak leaf hydrangeas everywhere are trending towards maroon. At the shop, the leaves of a single branch on the 5500 square feet of wall covered in Boston ivy are a brilliant red. This is a signal. Our fall season is underway. Cooler temperatures are a signal to deciduous plants to shut down their production of chlorophyll. Soon enough the green landscape will give way to the yellow, red, orange and purple we associate with fall. The rosemary in the above containers I would call a plant for all seasons. Planted in early April, these plants have grown on and still look great, seven months later.

Cooler temperatures means the ornamental cabbage and kale are beginning to color up. The color of their leaves will continue to intensify once the temperatures are reliably below 50 degrees. The most intense color will surface after a frost. That color will be more saturated after several frosts. Gardeners have a lot to look forward to. What you see in the picture above is a pale version of the the final mile. The changes to the leaves in the ornamental cabbage and kale as a result of dropping temperatures are part of the bigger process we call fall.That visual leafy change from summer to fall is the best reason for planting containers for fall. Should the experience of every season enchant you, bring that joy home. Pots at the front or back door, or on a terrace, are a daily reminder to enjoy the season at hand.

Ornamental cabbage and kale differ from the vegetable versions in several significant ways. Ornamental varieties form large flat rosettes.  The centers of these rosettes is what will eventually show color. The outer leaves stay green. The colder it gets, the more striking the color.  It won’t hurt you to eat ornamental cabbage, but the leaves can be shockingly bitter. You are on your own with that. Cabbage for consumption eventually form heads as part of their natural cycle of growth. Cabbage grown for consumption is mild. Cabbage meant for fall pots is all about the look of the leaves.  Kale meant for consumption evokes widely differing and strong opinions. Suffice it to say not everyone loves that taste. But kale representing in fall pots is about a visual discussion of the season.    The intersection of agriculture and landscape design is my most favorite place to be. Vegetables provide food. But the history and practice of growing plants for food contributes much to the ornamental garden. One obvious example is the corn maze. The availability of fresh sweet corn is a highlight of the summer. A field of late planted, late to mature corn bred and grown for silage with a maze cut into it is an experience of the farm enjoyed by many in the fall. This ornamental form of agriculture brings visitors to farms to buy pumpkins and apples at a time when their growing season has come to a close.  Interested in more information on local harvest events open to the public?  

There are few fall container plants as showy as the ornamental cabbages and kale, but their true strength lies in their persistence. They are not only cold tolerant, they are frost tolerant.  I have seen them endure temperatures as low as 20 degrees without harm. Clients often ask me how long a fall planting will last. Each if our four seasons lasts 3 months, give or take. I value container plantings, as they celebrate the season at hand, so I’ll take three months.

Everything in the garden is ephemeral to one degree or another. A white oak tree can survive 300 years, and the lilac bloom time in my zone is 2 weeks in a good year.  The crocus can be felled by frost the first day they open, or with cool days and nights, last a few weeks. The transitory nature of life is part of what makes it so precious. The Rosebud cabbages in the above picture were grown from seed, probably sown in late June or July. Three or four months past the germination of that seed, they look as luscious as they are robust. I expect this pot will look good throughout the fall, and into early winter.

Broom corn is a crop grown for just that reason-corn brooms. The seed is a favorite of birds.  We have to keep the garage door at the shop closed, otherwise we would be inundated by birds. But this material has interest even when the seeds are gone. The long stringy stems would persist all winter and then some. We use all sorts of materials in concert with the cabbage and kale-some natural and some not. The big idea is to represent the fall season in a satisfying way.

dyed birch branches, faux seed ball stems and Rosebud cabbage

bleached sticks, broom corn and Coral Prince cabbage

broom corn, eucalyptus, faux orange seed ball stems and Coral Queen cabbage

Himalayan white barked birch under planted with Prizm kale and creeping jenny

fall pot set in ornamental grass

pair of pots with Ruby Queen cabbage

Lemon cypress and Coral Prince cabbage

centerpiece with the kids in mind

A trio of pots are all dressed up for fall.