Wednesday, July 16th, 2008
I am not a gardener. I do think about landscape all the time as it is so integrated with architecture but I don’t “garden”. I haven’t had much success with indoor plants, and I don’t have the time for much of a garden outside. I have been trying since we moved in to our house (almost 8 years ago-wow) to make some sort of landscape that works with the mid-century style (and I use that term loosely -it was built in the mid twentieth century, and has some nice clean lines, but it isn’t a mid-century modern gem, as that term seems to conjure up).
I have all kinds of ideas about the design in terms of volume, scale, color, contrast and flow. My problem has really been (other than lack of funds to hire someone to execute it) the nature of the plants themselves. I am naturally drawn to plants, trees and shrubs that are quite architectural in shape and proportion but these types of plants are usually in warmer and/or drier climates. I visited some friends in Tucson right before we purchased our house and their front “lawn” consisted of gravel and one beautiful mesquite tree. The shape and silhouette of that tree will be forever imprinted on my mind. We also saw many palo verde trees in Tucson. In fact, these seem to be favorites of Rick Joy, a local modernist architect. I think this is the loveliest tree I have ever seen. Those green trunks!
Our yard when we moved in looked like the parking lot of a suburban strip mall. You know those “mall bushes” that are like little balls with tiny tiny leaves and can withstand enormous amounts of pollution? Spirea maybe? That was pretty much it. Slowly we’ve been removing everything one by one. But what to replace it with?
When I design a piece of clothing, I have an idea in mind about the cut, volume, shape and texture of the garment. I can work with the fabric and seams to mold it into shape. In my thinking about landscape design I have been looking for plants that already have a certain texture and shape to create overall volume and design, like the palo verde, but that will work in a mid-western climate. One by one I have been discovering plants that are sparse and airy, have interesting overall shapes, have unique leaves and textures and have colors that will contrast our almost black house, like silvery grey and chartreusey green. Things that won’t work in our climate I plant in pots. (more images of our garden here)
I never even considered shaping the plants themselves. Until this spring. There is one bush that we never removed because it was so large and old the task seemed daunting. On a whim I went at it with the pruning shears. I felt like Edward Scissorhands. I cut away all the dead wood and lots of the volume and all of a sudden it was like I was working with fabric. A shape started to emerge from under the huge ball of dead shrub. I could see the old, knarly branches and the individual shape of the leaves. And I started to like the way it looked. And it started to work with the architecture. I assumed it would die after all that cutting, but it didn’t. And now the leaves are a wonderful chartreusy green and it actually looks healthier than before. Here is a type of gardening I’m actually good at and I could get addicted to.
I talked to a guy at the local landscape/garden center about my shrub cutting. And he actually encouraged me to do more pruning. He said many plants benefit from aggressive cutting. He cuts his dogwoods back to the ground every spring so that they grow sparsely. Sparse? I like that. So I went home and began cutting some more. Right now I’m running out of material, so if you live in South Minneapolis you might want to keep an eye on your bushes….