Thursday, June 18, 2009

Miss R's Facelift

As of 3:00 pm EST on June 18, 2009

Miss R has moved to
a new location

Please join me there

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Plant Torture? Not Necessarily.

A couple of years ago a client told me she wanted to drive into her driveway to a beautiful garden and asked me to design one for her. Easy enough request. She also wanted to screen off the back yard with some trelliage but didn't want climbers on it. Easy enough request. She wanted a deer resistant cottage style garden in her favorite color combination--blue and yellow. Again, easy enough request.

When the trellis work was installed, there was only one logical place for it so that's where it went. What was left for this garden of easy enough requests was a 30" wide bed between the fence and the blacktop in the blazing sun where the plow would push the snow in the winter months. Not so easy any more. These types of garden problems are what landscape designers excel at and when it really makes sense to consult with a professional.

Heat loving, deer resistant driveway garden

Now three years later, the garden is thriving without irrigation or much care and it looks great. What's the secret? Plant choice. All of the plants chosen for this garden are drought tolerant, heat and sun loving, and tough as nails.

Here's the list:

Agastache x 'Black Adder'
Achillea 'Moonshine'
Baptisia austrailis
Iris germanica
Stachys byzantina
Sorghastrum nutans 'Sioux Blue'

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bloom Day--June 09

This is my first bloom day. With a cool June and two weeks of mostly gray and's what was blooming this morning.

In order top to bottom: Thermopsis caroliniana, Clematis sp. (a rescue, not sure of cultivar), Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle', and one of many Lychnis coronaria.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Garden of Lost Plants

My professional need to know plants is how I ended up with The Garden of Lost Plants. My personal gardens looked more designed when I was an amateur.

The sunny 'Deer Eat This...Sucker!' garden with a Buxus topiary awaiting installation elsewhere

I am not a plantaholic, although to look at my home garden, you would think I was. My planting design knowledge of plant needs, form, structure and maintenance comes from personal experience. As a landscape designer, I learned early on that specifying plants for a specific site without having firsthand knowledge of them can lead to garden disaster in a season or two. I just can't design a great garden from pictures and descriptions in a book or a catalog...I have to know the plant. Obviously I can't grow everything so that's where garden visits come in.

A woodland native I'm trying this year--Silene virginica
photo via Northcreek Nursery

I have one of many plants--with few multiples--I watch each grow, observe how big it really gets, what texture the foliage creates, if the bloom color and time is what I expect, and if the way I neglect them allows them to survive. I am always experimenting and have found winners and losers through this hodgepodge, totally unscientific process. My garden is not fenced or sprayed--I barely have time to pull the weeds. It is in a sub-urban environment with deer, rabbits, chipmunks, moles and a dog who has no respect for my efforts. Add kids and this is a similar environment to many of the landscape design projects I work on.

Another new one for '09 although I can't believe I haven't grown it before--Asarum canadensis
photo via Rush Creek Growers

I try to make The Garden of Lost Plants look as if they've seen a designer's hand, but it's a challenge with one of each. I group plants together using basic design principles--contrast of foliage texture and color, diagonal repetition of color, shape and structure that helps to create a visual pull through the space. I make sure plants are peaking out from around corners to beg further inspection. Those that I suspect will be showstoppers get the 'look at me I'm a star' placement.

I rotate plants in and out of empty spaces that are still in containers until they go to a new home and I've been known to dig something up and take it to a client--leaving a hole until a new orphan or test case takes its place. Some plants are so successful that I have too many--bearded Iris for one, Leucanthemum superbum 'Becky' is another. A couple of years ago I added some woodies for trial and structure. That has helped with design cohesion a bit.

Plants move in and out of my garden constantly. It is pretty and somewhat over the top and yes, there are things that stay for years. Sometimes they even survive the lawn guy's string trimmer.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Old Man

The old man disappeared a few months back. His ancient Lincoln Continental, with its glossy finish gone flat and peeling from years in the sun, was always parked in the driveway. Every day, as I passed by on my early morning walk, I picked up his newspaper and put it on the trunk of the car so he wouldn't have to bend down so far.

The old man's yard was unique to him. Two beautiful cherry trees heralded each spring's return, their lowest branches adorned with hanging baskets full of faded plastic blossoms. A garden of pinwheels stood at the foot of one. He had a sense of whimsy.

The old man disappeared a few months back. The Lincoln is gone--a neighbor parks his car in the empty driveway now. The garden is overgrown, but the pinwheels, hidden in the knee high grass, remind me that the old man had once been there and I smile.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Romantic Ideal

Those who know me, know that I am not very...well not a girlie girl. They also know that my ultra-romantic and feminine side comes out in other ways. One of those is my love for bold, evocative statements in the garden. As a landscape designer whether I'm working on a contemporary or traditional design, the object is the same...extravagant gestures, layers of texture and dreamy places to slow down and enjoy it.

I think this is the most romantic image in a garden ever. Over exposed? Yes. But Fragonard's 'The Swing', pictured below, is the essence of romantic ideal. The young woman is joyful at being in love and in the garden...she is participating in her environment rather than just giving it a look or a walk through.

Jean-Honore Fragonard 'The Swing'

Has our concept of what is romantic in a garden changed since the 18th century? I don't think so. We still want the same human experience as the girl on the swing. What has changed is the availability of skilled labor to maintain the estate sized model it is based on and the philosophy that all natural resources are inexhaustible.

The romantic ideal might seem old fashioned, but it's a point of departure only limited by lack of imagination. There is the possibility of creating lush and jubilant outdoor spaces without being bound to a planting scheme or a single style. Romantic gardens beg human interaction--the discovery of a secret, a place for intimate conversation, or a solitary escape from the stresses of daily life. They are the sum of their parts...not just the framework for a floral display.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Business as Unusual

These are scary times for landscape designers whose practices overlap both the creative service and construction industries. Anyone in my business who tells you they are thriving is not being entirely truthful. The sad state of the global economy that is a financial disaster for so many is not what I'm writing about here. The media has scared consumers who do have the means and the need for our services into hunkering down, not spending any money and worst of all believing that they 'shouldn't'.

I consider myself to be fairly typical of landscape designers who are out there now. I have work, just not the amount or size of work I've had in the past. I am lucky to have loyal clients who come back again and again as well as some new ones who are willing to spend on new projects.

Creativity is needed in our business so that it isn't business as usual, it is time for business to be unusual. We need to educate our clients about the intrinsic worth of what we provide and make it invaluable to them. We need to enhance their lives in every way possible--drawing them outside into the larger world so that our services become what they are willing to spend money on.

This summer is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and I am reminded of the lyrics that very wise Joni Mitchell wrote all those years ago:

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil's baragin
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Friday, June 5, 2009

A rose by any other name...

I've started to wonder about my blog name. Few, mostly those with kids, know the wonderful book by Barbara Cooney, Miss Rumphius, and the story behind it. Read it if you can.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

About ten years ago I got all paranoid about using my real name as an identifier on the Landscape Design forum at GardenWeb. Miss Rumphius had been my favorite book to read to my son when he was small and I identified with her as a character--hence the screen name. Most people referred to me as Miss R. I stopped posting at Garden Web shortly after it was taken over by iVillage, but that's another story.

I decided to carry the Miss R moniker over to my blog for no real reason other than people already knew me by that name. Now I wonder if it might not be the best name for what I write about. Miss R's third third rule 'Do something to make the world more beautiful' still is, but the name...maybe not so much.

I have no idea what I'd call my blog other than Miss R, but I'd be interested in what everyone who reads here thinks. Leave a comment and let me know.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mired In Tradition

Last Sunday, in Bucks County, PA, I went on my second Open Days garden crawl of the season. These visits recharge my creative juices and offer me a first hand opportunity to see what other landscape designers and talented amateurs have created. I look carefully, take photographs and experience the gardens in three dimensions. Being in a garden is so much different than looking at pictures of one especially for a designer as interested in creating spatial relationships as I am.

What I already knew, and what three of the gardens I visited confirmed, is that on the east coast, those with the means to build a landscape of substance opt to emulate traditional English gardens. The old stone houses and barns that give Buck's County its lure form the backdrop for the gardens. Although one garden had a beautifully enhanced woodland, there was not one meadow in the acres and acres of mixed borders and mowed turfgrass that I saw. Planting styles differed within these gardens but the traditional garden design paradigm did not.

A rustic twig bridge in the woodland at Hortulus Farm Garden & Nursery

There were some beautiful vignettes and ideas within these classic schemes. One, at Willow Farm, had a grey/blue and burgundy palette juxtaposed with honey hued native stone that I particularly liked.

Blue/grey and burgundy plants with native honey colored stone

Another, at Hortulus, had a bold yellow planting scheme punctuated by a large terra cotta urn that was dramatic and interesting.

Yellow and terra cotta in combination at Hortulus

A third really great idea was again, at Hortulus. The formal fountain at the far end of a double mixed border was actually a swimming pool. It read as a fountain until you noticed the steps. This idea could be adapted for many different situations both grand and intimate.

The swimming pool fountain

This contrast between classic and contemporary design was magnified by the last stop of the day, an interior designer's shop in Lambertville, NJ, Reinboth & Company. I try to check this small shop out each time I'm in the area since it is really well edited. The garden accessories in their courtyard were clean, crisp and modern. It seemed restful and welcome after a day of observing such traditional points of view.

Contemporary garden accessories at Reinboth & Co.

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Garden State--Basking Ridge

Yesterday I stopped for a bit in the village of Basking Ridge. I went specifically to take pictures of the White Oak that has lived there for more than 600 years. Known as 'The Old Oak', this ancient tree has been growing and shading the sacred ground that is the Presbyterian Church graveyard for almost 300 years before the first person was buried there in 1733.

I have a fondness for old graveyards, and the Old Oak made my visit incredibly special. At lunchtime, I was the only living person there and the noise of traffic and the bustle of noontime activity in the village seemed distant, event though the church and cemetery are at a busy crossroad.

Standing next to it, this American native tree's trunk is more than 6' in diameter--its branches are supported by crutches and cables.

The raw power of the oak's presence combined with the remnants of 18th and 19th century lives lovingly carved into the headstones is hard to describe. For me, it was an emotionally charged experience full of reverence for nature and respect for those who had been.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Arching Bells

Maybe because its Latin name could inspire fear in any designer, or maybe because it isn't seen often, but Nectaroscordum siculum ssp. Bulgaricum should be used by more garden and landscape designers. A bulb, hardy from zones 6-10, it is delicate yet architectural with mauve, ivory and pale green bells arching from a single stem. N. siculum is sometimes called the Sicilian Honey Lily or sold as Mediterranean Bells. It is another underused plant that deserves more attention.

I have used it in my garden as well in those of several clients. The deer don't eat it and it starts its show right after the alliums--to which it's related. The leaves, like alliums, aren't terribly attractive and can easily be hidden by careful planting design that allows N. siculum to punctuate shorter plants with more interesting foliage. The first time I saw it in a garden, its companion was Hosta 'Sum and Substance' and the combination stopped me in my tracks.

A European native, this bulb is easy to grow in sun or partial--so easy in fact that these have been slowly multiplying in an abandoned garden near here for as many years as I can remember.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Long ago I lived in Lille...France that is

I have long been fascinated with all things French. I even went so far, years ago, to live there for a while. Not in romantic Paris or sunkissed Aix en Provence, with its fields of lavender, but rainy, industrial Lille. My only garden there was a pot of geraniums on my kitchen balcony to brighten up the grey skyline view.

Even though the photographs evoke the grey that, for me, is unique to northwest France, imagine how thrilled I was to find the work of Frank Lefebvre and his company Blue Nature. Primarily interior, there are outdoor pieces as well. Some designs are modern and clean lined while others are traditional flights of fancy.

Inspiration--This would make a wonderful deer fence for any garden

I just flat out want this...for me or one of my landscape design clients

Using petrified, reclaimed and untreated wood this company, based near Lille, crafts beautiful and evocative pieces that honor and respect the materials they are made from. Isn't this what the best garden design does also?

Clean and crisp--fusing ancient and modern
Just because--again a great inspiration piece

All photographs: BLEU NATURE – Sarl BN HOME Photographers : Didier Knoff and Gilles Piat

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I started thinking about this when all of my white shrubs bloomed at once this spring. They are supposed to bloom in a kind of sequence. The absence of color was just as, if not more powerful, than a garden full of color.

Just the spireas--lilacs & fothergilla were blooming too

I know the idea is not new, but white has a symbolic power beyond the absence of color and I think it's appropriate for our times.

The staircase at Chanel for the 2009 Haute Couture collection
photo via Chanel

A puff of dandelion seeds (plenty of those around here)

A lace table cloth


Nautical ropes

Weathered Picket Fence

Dodecatheon meadia--native and beautiful
Photo via

White wicker

The White Garden at Sissinghurst
photo via Meade/

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Often way over my head

My neighborhood has some unusual street trees. A few blocks away there's a solid block of Sweet Gums (Liquidambar stryaciflua) that make an incredible tricolored foliage show in the fall and an unbelievable knee high mess when they shed their macelike fruit. Bags and bags of them are heaved to the sidewalk by the homeowners who have to rake them from front yards, sidewalks and hell strips.

Anyway, when I was out for my early morning walk today I noticed a young, low branched Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in bloom. An eastern native, it's not often I get to see these exotic flowers at eye level as the trees in my parts are tall, tall, tall and their blooms are usually 50-60-70 feet above my head.

A sun kissed 'tulip'

Monday, May 25, 2009

Talking to Myself

I have in some way and in fits and starts kept a journal for years. There have been times when just the act of chronicling what ever was happening in my life has helped me sort it out. As a teenager they consisted of pages and pages of laments, descriptions of parental and personal drama, social slights and ad hoc adventures.

After graduating from art school I starting making illustrated journals in black bound sketchbooks and for years I kept them safely in a box to be looked at now and then. Ten years ago, all but one of these sketchbook journals were destroyed in a basement flood.

Studies for a series of landscape inspired brooches circa 1977

What wasn't destroyed were the two new types of journals I had been keeping. In dated composition books I kept a series of garden journals. My garden composition books were often carried with me to the nursery, library or bookstore. My first designed garden is in one. Although I have an extensive design education and years of experience, I am a self taught gardener. My garden journals contained sketches, ideas, bloom times, receipts, plant labels all types of information that I wanted to remember.

A page of one of my garden composition notebooks

In small sketchbooks I kept travel journals. Since I have always had to travel on the cheap, these journals became souvenirs of my adventures. I recorded descriptions of places and made collages of tickets, postcards and sketches. Ephemera was collected and the notebooks were created on the go. They were a record of where I had been in the world larger than my own backyard.

From a trip to London in 2001

In both of these new journals there were also tidbits of the old journals--personal notes and the occasional lament.

When I first started writing Miss R, I didn't realize that it would evolve into a new type of journal. The first year was stop and go, and I didn’t really pay much attention to the content or frequency. Now I realize that the content is really an extension of my years of writing about my life. No, I don't often write about personal drama, but I do definitely write about the way I feel about what I do. I also write about places I've been and plants I've seen and post drawings, designs and other tidbits of my creative life.

A recent page from my current notebook

I still carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas, plant names, or make a quick sketch of something--although digital pictures have replaced some of my sketches. I realize that recording my ideas and experiences has been part of my life long creative process.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Field Trip--Upper Montclair

I have a soft spot for bearded Iris. I use them often in the gardens I design. They are reliably deer resistant and I like their sculptural blooms and their grey green spiky foliage.

Each May, when I was a teenager, my mother and I would go to a neighboring town during bloom time to visit Mr. Grey--an Iris expert who grew and sold hundreds of varieties in straight rows in his suburban yard. We would choose one or two to try in my mother's garden. I still have a yellowed and much cherished typewritten sheet that I follow from Mr. Grey explaining his best practices for dividing, cleaning and planting the tubers. I learned from Mr. Grey that the easiest way to keep track of when to divide iris is to do so every presidential election year.

Yesterday was a glorious, perfect day. Off I went to Upper Montclair to the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.

One of the long Iris borders at Presby and the crowd of admirers

Van Gogh's Iris, 1889 (Getty Museum)

Iris at Presby Iris Gardens 2009

It's close by--less than 30 minutes away, yet I'd never been at bloom time before. Consistent here, Iris start on May 15. Of the 3000 varieties in the garden dating back to the 1500's, here are a few of my favorites.

Thornbird (1988)

Auntie Em (2007)

Quaker Lady (1909)

Gracchus (1884)