No, that’s not a shot of a revolutionary way of planting in pavement — that’s a photo of one of the enormous China Girl hollies being taken to its new home at the property belonging to L. and A., my longtime clients. This holly is a mature plant; in my Air Spade In Action post (May 16), you can see it set on the ground, opened to its full, voluptuous 9′ width.
You’ll also notice that shrubs flanking the steps and walk here are mostly mature plants. L. and A. have spent years developing their landscape, and it has the flavor of a place owned by art appreciators. The plants have been tended with care, diligence, and skill, and their character reinforces the design intentions evident throughout the gardens.
Landscape architects often heed Frederick Law Olmsted’s dictum, “Plant thick, thin quick” (a motto we learned in Lenny Mirin’s Landscape History class at Cornell — Lenny?), and plant shrubs more densely than the mature size of the plant might dictate. Clients often want to see immediately gratifying plantings, which means a minimal view of the mulch and a maximal view of plants.
Which is fine — as long as someone goes back in a few years later and actually does the thinning. The making of a landscape is not a one-off deal.
At the North Shore garden this past week, as we were in the midst of reworking two areas on the property, I had a revelation. My clients have been devoted to their gardens for years, and they enjoy and promote the evolution of their place. Their enthusiasm for their landscape has allowed me to make the refinements that continue to animate it.
Thinning out the plantings is one aspect of this work: dismantling the holly hedge gave us ten wonderful plants to use around the property, while allowing us to develop a planting in place of the hedge that uses a combination of new, younger plants and older transplants that have grown into their habits. Toby and I have discussed in earlier posts the idea of planting densely and allowing the plants themselves to elbow each other both into a coherent ensemble and into a set of individual character actors.
This week, I was able to take mature, idiosyncratic plants — in this case, rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurel — and transplant them in an area where each plant’s form would be visible. This sort of refinement is possible when a landscape has been designed, planted, and growing for years; it is the stage at which the character of plants can truly be showcased.
Not every landscape reaches this stage, which requires something of the eye of an editor and a knowledge of horticulture in addition to the skills of a designer. A property may be sold, a client may find other priorities, or may simply feel overwhelmed by the “planted thick” place. Rather than thin it out or make new spaces in the landscape, that client or new owner may ask for an entirely new planting.
Refining a landscape by reimagining its plantings, though, and in some cases developing new spaces to fit a changed use of the property, can breathe new and vigorous life into a place. Mature plants, well-situated, give a well-structured place the look of inevitability that is difficult to achieve with the callow youth of new nursery-grown stock.
Some of my favorite work has involved shaping spaces with mature plants reused from the same site. I tend to see character in plants, and really like gussying them up to highlight that character. Putting together a collection of plants in this way is like developing the singing skills of a choir; individually, each singer’s voice is distinctive, and together, all the voices blend to create shifting and satisfying harmonies.
This kind of design starts with a plan, but requires an agile mind onsite, as the plants move from one situation to another, and relationships among their forms change. It’s challenging to see a plant from all sides, envision how it will work in harmony with the others to join it, be sure it works horticulturally, and assemble the collection to best effect.
There is no way to plan precisely that kind of work in advance; the joy of it comes when shifts, tweaks, and adjustments bring about a result that fits just right, and that pleases. This week, I got to spend three days of orchestrating this kind of work, and every minute was a pleasure. Here are before and after photos of one planting area we changed: