Archive for 2010

Inspiration....Garden Designers Roundtable

I am fortunate that as a landscape designer I’m never without inspiration. Unlike a fine artist that is typically working from an inner, personal calling to create, I always have a set of parameters that help jump-start my designs. Each new client is unique, as is their property. As I gather information about their needs and desires, and the realities of the existing site, the wheels in my brain start churning to the tune of “What if we did this?” “How would that work?” “Is this the best solution?”, and I’m off and running. My designs always start as a “form follows function” process of problem solving.  Working to satisfy my clients and develop the best possible outdoor environments for each of them has kept me interested and inspired as a designer for thirty years now!

However, once in a while I get stuck. Here are a few things I do that inspire me and keep my eyes and mind tuned to good design:

Look at fine art:  Although I like many genres of art, I find that color field painting, a school of abstract expressionism, suits my innate preference for minimalism. Take a quick look at this batch of images, I’ll wait. Cool, huh? Those huge, simplified shapes of paint wash (or stains, as they’re sometimes called) say a lot about positive and negative space, proportion, and balance.  This is the kind of visual information that I can learn from and translate into ground plane designs – planting beds, paths, patios, lawn areas, etc. Most color field paintings are also very large, and when viewed in person tend to envelope and absorb the viewer. That’s how I want my clients to feel in their gardens, like they’re part of a very special place.

A gardener's garden, Denver

Look at patterned graphics in paper and textiles: Whereas paintings of the abstract expressionist school can appear very chaotic, i.e. Jackson Pollock, printed patterns have a clearly defined structure and rhythm. This design stability allows me to really focus in on the use of color. Specifically, how various hues – sometimes quite numerous and diverse - are combined, and in what proportions. I apply this inspiration to the design of lush flower gardens, mixed borders and container gardens (read more about that here). Complex printed patterns reinforce my belief that complex plantings belong in a fairly structured and simple framework.
Colorful cottage style garden for a Denver client

Look at the natural world: When I’m walking through open space, hiking in the foothills, or driving through a larger landscape I try to identify which aspects appeal to me, and why. Is it open, or enclosed? What is the light quality? How does it make me feel – peaceful, calm, free, tense, cool, hot, etc? What materials make up the “hardscape”? What are the specific plant materials, or their overall effect? I keep this information in my visual bank of memories so that later I can recall it and apply it to specific design situations. The challenge is in creating a comparable setting within a small, built environment.

Naturalized grasses at a local park
small scale meadow garden

Look at the work of other designers: I am always looking for new ways to think through and solve problems.  When I talk shop with other landscape professionals – like we’re doing here today – I get new insights into materials, plants, maintenance techniques and other trends that I might be completely unaware of. I also look at interior and architectural design to get a fresh perspective on how other experts are working with color, texture, proportions and balance in creating three dimensional spaces.

  Kendrick Lake Park, Lakewood, Colorado  Designer: Greg Foreman
These are all things that you can do, too.  Visit art museums, art galleries, and your local library. Go on garden, home, and architectural tours. Take an art appreciation or design class. Choose a design based hobby to pursue, like photography, ceramics, woodworking, printmaking, etc. Mine is textiles:

Chilvers' garden and fiber wall hanging, Xylem and Phloem

Pull out the crayons! It’s all about training your mind to see, understand, and interpret what you’re looking at.
Have fun!

For more insights on finding – and cultivating – inspiration, click on these links to read more from members of the Garden Designers Roundtable:

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Fast, Cheap n' Easy

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Last week I posted photos of some winter/holiday planters that appealed to me. This week I played off that idea to dress up some pots of my own. I used cuttings from my own garden, and it took about 20 minutes, tops.

I started with a container full of soil, covered the soil with pine cones, then stuck the cut branches down into the soil.

I included red stem dogwood (Cornus sericea) for the - yes - red stems; the glossy, dark green leaves and blue berries of creeping Oregon grape holly (Mahonia repens); and sarcoxie euonymus (Euonymus fortunei 'Sarcoxie') provided the lighter green, trailing branches.
Here is a smaller scale version, sans the dogwood.

Are you decorating with goods from your garden? What are your favorites?

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About Photos - a Very Wordy Wednesday!

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I often get nice comments on the quality of the photographs here on the blog (thank you!). Recently, Janine asked for a few tips on how she could improve her garden photos, and I decided it would be fun to expand on my initial response.  Although I’m by no means an expert, my photographs are an important part of my business, not only for this blog, but for lectures and classes, to document the site conditions for my design projects, and for my portfolio as well. I also use photography as a design tool; in isolating my view through the lens of a camera, I can focus in on a unique composition or isolated detail.  In other words, a camera often helps me “see” better.  Last but not least, I think photography is fun --- I truly enjoy sharing my little corner of the world with you!

General guidelines:
Composition: If your subject doesn’t look good when you look at it through the viewfinder, it’s not going to look good on screen or in print. In garden shots, be especially aware of hoses, tools, or toys lying about.
Light: Try to avoid the intensity of mid-day sunlight. If the glare from glossy leaf surfaces doesn’t get you, the contrast of deep shadows will. Early morning, early evening, and – even better, in my opinion – the soft light of high cloud cover, work best.

Camera Setting: Never use the "auto" setting on your camera. Although I rarely work in full manual mode any more, I do always play with the preset modes that vary the lens aperture (opening). Photograph your subject with a few different settings. You may be surprised what the subtle differences in depth of field and focus can do in creating a better image. I’ve also found that the “action/running man” mode can be great for capturing images outdoors when conditions are breezy.

 Quantity: Take lots of pictures. For every photo you see here on the blog, I’ve usually taken 3-6 more with a slightly different angle or different camera setting. And I’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of pictures that never see the light of day!
Keep your camera handy: Most great photographs are the result of an unexpected opportunity, just being in the right place at the right time. The vast majority of the photos you see here on the blog are taken in my own garden simply because I can respond immediately to a random occurrence.
Minimize Editing: Almost every photo can use a bit of cropping – and some of them can use a lot. Light balancing (moderating glare or deep shadows) can also be helpful, but for the most part, if you’re after a natural representation of the subject matter, don’t belabor it. All the bells and whistles in the world won’t turn a bad photo into a great one (review the first two items, above).

My camera and why I love it:
For the past 18 months or so I’ve been using a Nikon D60-SLR camera with an 18-55mm lens and 10.75 mega pixels. I’ve gone through several digital cameras over the years (the first was a Sony FDMavica with 1.6! mega pixels that used floppy discs! for image capture), and now understand which features work best for me.
Large Size: I almost never use a tripod and I find that a larger, heavier camera is actually easier for me to hold steady as I frame and squeeze off the shot. That said, the Nikon D60 also has a built in stabilizer that really has improved my ability to take a still photo by hand. (I use a very small digital Polaroid that I keep in my briefcase for quick documentation during site surveys of design projects.)
Quick-set Format: My term (not Nikon’s) for the way I typically use this camera, as a glorified point and shoot (see Camera Setting, above). I’m not a professional photographer, nor am I a particularly studious amateur, but I do need good photos for my work.
Viewfinder: No more fighting the glare off a screen!
High Pixel Count: The large number of pixels available with this camera allow me to crop the images to the extreme and – somewhat – replicate the effects of both a macro lens and a telephoto lens, before they break up.

A high number of pixels also allows for better quality large format prints. Three of my photos have been cover images for Colorado Green magazine (a regional trade publication).

High Quality Lens: Finally, for the best photos you must invest in good equipment. It all comes down to the optical quality of the lens. Over the years I’ve been very pleased with both Nikon and Pentax cameras.
On my Wish List: a telephoto lens, so I can shoot up into the tree tops!

I hope these tips have been helpful and I hope you’ll leave a comment about your experiences with garden photography.

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Larch. Love.

European larch, Larix decidua, is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. It's one of those plants that I really wish I could have for my very own. I love the contrasting textures of the fine, deciduous (yes!) needles and the coarse, nubby branches. The bark is deeply furrowed, and the size of the tree is majestic. Oh, to see a forest of larch in it's native, northern European, habitat!

So what's the problem? Although Larix decidua is hardy to zone 2, and not too fussy about soil, it needs plenty of moisture and, I suspect, moderately high humidity. It also needs plenty of space, as it can grow 75 to 100 feet tall and 25 to 30 feet wide (comparable to a Colorado blue spruce). These growing requirements mean that larch is not suitable for most landscapes in the Rocky Mountain region (and why you rarely see it for sale at local nurseries).

These photos were taken at Fort Collins' (Colorado) City Park a couple of weeks ago. The trees are in a well irrigated area, and somewhat protected (and crowded) by a small grove of spruce trees. The foliage is sporting its yellow fall color; in the spring the new, emerging needles are bright green and then turn darker in the summer. I first became aware of this planting when I was a horticulture student at Colorado State University back in the 1970s. I was thrilled to see that they are still alive --- and not just a dream!

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Off Season

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I recently visited The Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado, and was enthralled by the beautiful, rich colors of the late season edibles. The foliage of the artichokes was lush and full, and still wearing its silver patina, although the vegetables are now in a strictly ornamental mode.

Strawberry foliage in hues of garnet and ruby.

A few golden delicious apples clung to the espaliered trees (Note the wonderful demonstration kitchen in the background!)

My favorite: a giant array of silvery green and purple kale. The various foliage textures in the low afternoon sunlight really made this planting sing.

The adjacent garden plot was planted in a cover crop of annual rye grass. There is a good article on selecting and using cover crops as "green manure," in the December issue of Fine Gardening magazine, if you'd like to learn more about this beneficial gardening practice.

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How to Create a New Garden Vista --- Instantly!

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The rounded bench back echos the rounded line of the wall. Design by Phase One Landscapes
One of the most valuable components of a landscape, whether large or small, is destination seating. Every garden should have a spot where you can sit and relax, dream and scheme! More importantly, a place to and look at the garden away from your main window or patio/deck view gives you a whole new vista. Gardens are composed of three-dimensional forms and, like a piece of sculpture, should be viewed from multiple points to be fully appreciated.

View from back of house to seating area. Design by JHChilvers
View from seating area to back of house. Design by JHChilvers

Two seating areas on opposite sides of a small space. Design by Phase One Landscapes
The same concept with a more rustic interpretation. Design by owner.
  Another reason to create a destination seating area is that it will pull you into the garden. There's nothing like actually walking through the space, instead of just viewing it as a static "picture," to get you interacting with nature again. A small seating area can be an oasis of quiet and calm, a place to regenerate.  Conversely, it may bring you closer to the action if you site it near a play structure or active lawn area.  Hey, there's no rule that says you can only have one!

Front yard pair of chairs perfect for watching the world go by. Design by owner.
Multi-season impact. Design by JHChilvers
Design by owner
And finally, a pair of chairs, a teak bench, a large boulder, etc. can also act as a focal point in the garden. Try and select a seat that is harmonious in color, materials, or character to the architecture of your home and the other furnishings in your landscape. Choose materials that are low maintenance or attractive to you in their rustic state. Also think about weight - you don't want something that will end up in the next county every time the wind blows.

Albuquerque Botanic Garden
Chair lift swing, Telluride, Colorado
Rustic flagstone bench in garden designed by Elenor Welshon
 Now sit back and enjoy!

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