Friday, November 29, 2013

The Garden by the Road

The Photography of Darren Higgins

The border serves as a buffer to the road in a part of the yard that was pointless as lawn. Photo by Darren Higgins

We had such a warm response to Michael Tortorello's article in The New York Times last week that I've decided to share a few photos taken by DC-based photographer Darren Higgins that did not make the article. While I did my best to avoid coverage of the less-than-flattering aspects of the house and garden (they are legion), both Michael and  Darren Higgins thought the full context of the garden's relationship to three roads was worth revealing.  It was a horrifying thought to me. Even in my wild fantasies of glowing media coverage, the subject of my garden on the bus route was not quite the angle I imagined. So here is a last peek at the garden before I hide it for another four years.


Jude tears across the front yard. Photo by Darren Higgins

On the day of the photo-shoot in late October, I gave Darren a 7 am tour of the garden. I showed Darren the two or three angles that it was perhaps possible to shoot the garden without getting a road, car, or our house in the background. He politely acknowledged my input and then went to work, generally ignoring my advice and seeking to tell the larger story: that this is a garden surrounded on all sides by roads. Darren placed a ladder out in the road and even climbed on our roof. Darren did a masterful job of not just getting interesting angles, but of telling the story of this garden, its context, and how we use it.

But after seeing his photos, I realize Darren was right. All gardens are a reaction to their contexts. Instead of being surrounded by forest, or the ocean, or a charming architectural backdrop, the context for our house is the street. The placement of the garden, the selection of species, and the character of the planting is all about buffering and even embracing its proximity to roads.

Gravel path and planting. Photo by Darren Higgins

The photo above shows the "border" garden as it intersects our small front lawn. The border is composed of mostly perennials, but here in late October, it is the annuals that really pop. The first year this border was composed of large blocks of mostly native perennials, but to be honest, it was dull as hell. Very little bloomed for more than a few weeks, and the vast majority of summer it was a green blob. The problem was not the natives (it's entirely possible to create a showy native border), but the concept of massed perennials in a small space. It was a landscape concept and this is a tiny garden space. So this year I played with the idea of a successional border. Succession planting (Great Dixter style, not ecological succession) plays with the idea of one wave of color or texture following the next from April to November. This means mixing annuals and tropicals into the perennial border and even planting three or four rotations of plants. All of the annuals here were grown from seed or bulb: Salvia leucantha, Marigold (Tagetes patula '???' I think a French or Himalayan; it was a seed I got from a friend), Pinca Zinnia, 'Arabian Night' Dahlia, Agave parryi, Helenium autumale, Nasella tenuissima, and Canna 'Firecracker'.

Photo by Darren Higgins

The proximity to the sidewalk and road defines the garden. The planting must screen, yet be friendly. A wall or fence would be inhospitable and out of context.

Photo by Darren Higgins
The house has great light and wonderful large windows that look out on the border. The clipped yew in the foreground was one of the few plants that came with the house, though it was almost twice its current size and V-shaped. I initially thought I would remove it, but now am rather fond of them. I've also transplanted a pyracantha from the side yard and am espaliering it up the chimney.

photo by Darren Higgins
The plantings in the border go from 18" tall in the front (where it borders the lawn) to seven to twelve feet tall on the back end (seen in the photo above). This angle was entirely different two months earlier, but the unusually wet early summer created fungal problems that wiped out a three large masses of Agastache 'Black Adder', Persicaria 'Firetail', and Helenium 'Rubinzwerg' that had performed marvelously the year before. Our terrace was completely exposed, so knowing that perennials would not fill the gap in two months, I added the fast growing late season Canna and banana (Ensete maurellii). The large banana was two feet tall when planted in July. I've always claimed that D.C. summers are subtropical . . . 

The "duck blind" from the roof.
Here is a small terrace my brother-in-law dubbed the "duck blind." It's a 12'x12' bluestone and gravel terrace carved into the tallest part of the border. It literally sits on the road and the driveway, but most of the year, the terrace is hidden from both. The planting between the driveway and terrace is six and a half feet wide, proving that it's entirely possible to get layered screening in even narrow spaces.

Within the duck blind, the road and driveway disappear. Photo by Darren Higgins

My wife Melissa and her mother Gail having wine on the terrace. Melissa is also a landscape architect and quite a talented plantsman. Many of the selections in each garden are hers, though she generally acknowledges that I am more obsessed. My mother-in-law is a fantastic gardener herself. Our family eats out in this space several times a year. It gets sun all day long, but mornings are my favorite. The wedge-shaped planting seems to exaggerate the motion of the sun. I think that's why I like the large leafed tropicals. Deep shadows lift to bright pools of light, then back to shadow.

photo by Darren Higgins

I definitely think I overdid the tropicals this year, but the Red Abyssinian Banana is something I will definitely try to keep. The sheer size was delightful. Feeling dwarfed by this giant made the space feel that much cozier. Plus the light on the leaves highlight the beautiful deep red margins. Initially, my goal was to create a meadow-like planting evocative of a wild plant community, but the size of this space and the proximity to the road changed my strategy. When your context is roads and unattractive house, subtle plantings don't work. In a small space, one has to exaggerate effects with larger than life plants. That was my goal this year: go bigger, bolder, more over the top. Next year, I won't tone it down, but I do need to make it more cohesive.


The gravel path. Most of the materials for the garden were building supplies that we had or recycled. I have large ambitions for the two yews on either side of the bath. I eventually plan to trim them into an arc over the path.

Photo by Darren Higgins
This is the other garden along the other road. The first round of plants was just planted this spring, so everything is small and not grown together yet. The idea here is a garden of green textures that evoke a woodland edge. Lots of small shrubs line the street with another gravel path around a raised berm. The stone in the foreground is a yet to be installed path that will lead to the back garden--not yet created. This garden still needs several rounds of planting, including a heavy seeding this winter of woodland edge natives, followed by several hundred plugs of woodland floor natives.

photo by Darren Higgins
This corner is a rather random moment. I've massed low grasses (Sporobolus, Deschampsia, Carex) and other native perennials along the edge, and then plan to seed the center of this bed this winter. The masses around the edge will serve as a frame for the wilder seeded planting in the center. The orange flowers are Profusion Zinnias that I grew from seed last winter--leftovers from the border garden. They are incredibly durable annuals, though I probably won't use them here next year. 

photo by Darren Higgins


And a final shot of Jude, Melissa, and Gail enjoying snacks in the border garden. Ok, that's it folks. This garden's 15 minutes in the spotlight is officially over. On to more worthy and interest topics. 

30 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your garden. It looks nice. I love the bananas.

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  2. Thanks for the wider context. You garden on a version of the lot and neighborhood that most people have, and it's great to see how something really satisfying -- beyond grass and foundation bushes -- can be created there.

    Has you garden influenced your neighbors? How do they feel about it?

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    1. Hi Cindy,

      They have generally been lovely about it. There are some great gardeners in the neighborhood who enjoy it, and the rest seem to appreciate the effort, even if the aesthetic is a bit wilder than the rest of the street. I am incredibly fortunate to live on a street of open-minded, laissez-faire-in-spirit neighbors who support each other without being judgemental. With the exception of the garden, it is my favorite part of living here.

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  3. Your yard is incredible. I remember once in class when we were talking about Christopher Lloyd and you said "wouldn't it be great to be famous for your garden?" You are on your way! :-)

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    1. You are too nice, Mary. I think the warm response to this garden is because it is entirely relatable to most other people. Of course, as a designer, who wants to be relatable, right? We'd all rather have envy than sympathy ;)

      I do have big aspirations for the garden, many of which will simply take time and money to achieve. But in the meantime, the process is quite enjoyable.

      Happy holidays to you!

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  4. Holy cow, man. This garden is the greatest inspiration I have ever had for my corner lot, which also faces two streets and a public sidewalk. PLEASE post more pictures in the Spring. Using your garden for inspiration, I have begun a list of must haves for my garden for next year with that red banana on the top of the list. Yes, we all love Dixter, but your garden is so real and perhaps attainable. It is gorgeous and I love it.

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    1. Thank you, it's a jumble, but for me the most important thing is that it's pleasurable. We enjoy it immensely.

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  5. I don't think you have any reason to hide your garden...it's a REAL garden...and as such, even more applicable to most of us who don't own estates (how nice would that be)! I feel your pain, however, we live on a busy corner (a block from the main bus route...the city bus garage is two blocks from our house) and the city is putting in a new light rail line a block from our house...which will be awesome once it's done...but right now, the whole neighborhood looks (and sounds) a bit like a war zone! Even without that, I'm endlessly frustrated when taking photos of the garden, always trying to find an angle where I don't have to see day-glo recycling bins and garbage cans, cars and the general detritus of living in a city. For the past 3 months, I've been working around a couch that the college students next door placed in their parking strip...it's a rather retina-searing shade of puce. I've actually been working on a post on using (and often hiding) our borrowed landscapes in urban gardens...like they say, no garden happens in a vacuum...

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    1. Hi Scott,

      It's great to hear from you: someone I regard as an expert at making the most with limited space. Your garden is exquisite and your taste in plants always inspires me to get online and spend an exorbitant amount of money trying to emulate your selections. It's great to hear about the light rail line . . . I'm sure you'll be sitting on a real estate fortune soon. Then you can sell it and get your estate out in the country, right?

      Our city is about to start ripping up a bunch of asphalt in front of our house for pedestrian improvements and bioretention beds (both of which I'm incredibly pleased about), but it will mean living in a construction zone for several months. Hope you survive the excavators and puce couches! Best to you.

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  6. Contexts are sooo helpful. B/c most of us don't have estates with pastures or forests for views.

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  7. Your garden is delightful but what strikes me as most endearing is your love and care of it. As we engage with the ever-evolving natural component in our gardens it has the ability to get under our skin and nurture in us something very special. That something includes creativity, pleasure, satisfaction, knowledge, well-being and most importantly, an emotional connection to both the place and nature. May you spend many happy years loving your unique piece of earth!

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    1. Hi Olga,

      Yes, that's it. I do think the love and care is communicated to others, even if they don't understand the design or the plants. And while this space is flawed on many levels, we do love it immensely.

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  8. I think the important work of creating habitat and biodiversity happens gardens like yours. It visibly demonstrates that grass lawns and sheared shrubs need not be the status quo and when millions of acres of urban/suburban home landscapes are at stake, that matters.

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    1. Hi Sandy,

      Yes, I agree. I'm not sure this garden is much of a habitat yet--though it's getting better. Right now, there's been much more insect wildlife in the border garden (which is heavily exotic) than the native side, so I'm hoping to make some big additions next year which really will diversify the range of natives offered throughout. And there's still a small side garden yet to tackle that will remove more lawn in favor of garden. For me, the habitat and biodiversity are a big part of the pleasure of gardening. I think that is an angle that is too often forgotten. Thanks for the comment.

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  9. "Bigger, bolder and more over the top"…I love it! So many gardens are SO carefully planted and tended that they just don't seem real. Your garden is a lesson to us all, if we only stop and look and listen. Already, I can't wait to see it in another year! And yes, you have given me lots of inspiration for my space here in the Piedmont of North Carolina..thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Libby. I never really wanted to have a "real" garden, but one that was unattainably beautiful . . . but that silly fantasy is best saved for another garden, not this one. Happy gardening in NC!

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  10. Inspiring. Shows the possiblities with a regular lot on an average street. Bet the neighbors love it.

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  11. Please move to my neighbourhood in Sydney, Australia. It's not that far away and we need you. Easier to grow all those big bold tropicals!

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    1. Ha! Yes, though if I were in an area where tropicals grew easily, I'd probably want to create Alpine rock gardens. We always want what we can't have, right?

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  12. Good show, as your neighbors across the pond say! I hear you on typing it together more in teh future, but staying bold. Love the banana with it all, the pavers, people using it. Not to mention well-designed / maintained...nothing does worse than ugly-messy-weedy landscape / xeriscape!

    My old place affected neighbors little to none in 15 years, and I was the first on the block, so they all had to see it. Stay where you are...that's a good thing to affect good, by having an open or horticultural culture.

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  13. I agree with the other comments- your garden is more inspiational to most gardeners because of where it is. This is the kind of space so many have to deal with and you're shown that it can be an enjoyable space to be in and foreget the roads around it.

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  14. This is wonderful! So many of us have front yard areas that are problematic - cars, people walking over small plants, dogs, drainage problems, road salt,... We need fresh ideas beyond lawns. I am sharing your blog and the Times article on Facebook. Hope you'll keep these beautiful photos up for a good long while! Thank you for sharing your home garden!

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  15. So what's your plant on overwintering your tropicals and Agaves. I'm experimenting with different methods this winter. Maybe we could exchange notes.
    Your garden reminds me of the many gardensmI have started and left over the years. I too start out with a grand plan and always change as it goes. But, that's what so great about landscape design and gardening, it's always changing through the years and seasons.

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  16. A garden that's beautiful but also seemingly attainable is so much more inspirational than a dream garden could ever be. I'm thinking of artists' gardens, designers' gardens, the gardens of plant nuts with an eye for design. The other common denominator is gardening in a "real" place, surrounded by busy streets and lawn-loving neighbors, not on an estate in a contextual vacuum. These are the gardens that are most interesting and inspirational to other gardeners, as yours is surely becoming. Right now I'm obsessed with that little terrace surrounded by an exuberance of foliage.

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  17. I too have a small yard... although my approach is different (I am into creating Serenity in the Garden) I thoroughly applaud you and your lovely garden! Less Mulch, More Plants!

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  18. I like what you have done along the road. Looks nice to me and practical too. Jack

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  19. Your love of gardening shows through your space. I have enjoyed how you show the wide perspective since all the elements of a good design should flow with one another and your gardens do just that. I am sure your neighbors enjoy what you have to share...very nice! Glad to have found your blog and am now following by e-mail.

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  20. Lovely garden. Thanks for the tour! Excellent use of space. Just like your wife, you seem to have great talent in landscaping. By just looking at the pictures, I feel at ease. I can now attest what my friend from Columbia SC Landscapers said about landscaping one's property wherein it does not only improved your quality of life as the owner, but also brings inspiration to other people who observe it.

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  21. So refreshing to see a garden much like (but much better than) my own garden. I live in urban Minneapolis and face the (42-foot-tall) sound barrier to a freeway. My entire over-the-top front garden was orginally designed from my living room windows as a way to screen out at least some of that wall (and secondarily, to provide some screening from the sidewalk and street). But as my garden has evolved, I've come to think of it as my gift to our street and spend the most time on the borders on either side of the sidewalk, which I cannot see from inside the house. Our street has houses of exactly the same type and vintage as your neighborhood, and this massive wall is so dominating... but I watch people passing on the street and without exception they turn their heads to look at the garden instead of the wall as they pass by. The best compliment was from a very elderly neighbor around the block who had a hip replaced and was under doctor's orders to get out and walk around the neighborhood every day. She said that the one thing that got her out of bed every day for that painful walk was thought that she would be able to see what was happening in my garden that day. That was really humbling. Like you, I live in a neighborhood where there are no gardening rules or expectations, which is wonderfully liberating. And when I don't have time to keep the garden beautifully weeded, nobody raises an eyebrow. ;}

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