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Arbors: Style and Placement

This is Dan’s first arbor, an earlier version of the one pictured in the previous post. While I’m not crazy about the use of twinkle lights in the garden, here they lent an ethereal air to the forest and served a practical purpose, as well: A night light for the doggy relief area during those late nocturnal and early morning runs.

Choosing an arbor that is in harmony with the architectural style of the house and the landscape style of the garden, and siting it appropriately, are crucial to having it integrate well into its surroundings. While budget is an issue for many gardeners, as is not having a live-in arbor-artist, there are still many choices available ready made, or with only “some assembly required.”

Smooth, unfussy surfaces and sleek styling go well with contemporary, modern, or mid-century homes; ornate curlicues and botanical themes with cottages, farmhouses, and Victorians. Unpeeled logs or rough-sawn boards are good choices for a rustic look. If you are fortunate enough to own a period-style house, spend some time leafing through books or magazines on historic homes and gardens, or seek out Garden Conservancy Open Days tours to gather ideas.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in other people’s gardens is an arbor that serves no function and looks as if it were simply dropped into in the yard. The problem is most pronounced in new developments, where the homeowner may have been left with the minimum “builder’s landscaping” and the only alternatives are to either plant what one can afford and wait for everything to grow, or to spend a fortune to purchase and install mature specimens.

You can’t go too far wrong if you remember that arbors are meant to be doorways, either actual or implied. If you think of them as solid doors, you’ll realize that you would never just stick a door in the middle of the lawn. Arbors need to be attached to something; the house, the fence, a garage, an outbuilding; or have a suggestion of attachment; such as to trees on either side of a pathway, or the plants that cover them.

Arbors as Garden Doors

Guest Blog by Dan Freed

People are always curious about Dan’s garden structures (left), so I’ve asked him to write about them. You can see more photos of the construction of the great Arts and Crafts rose arbor at (The inspirational twig arbor shown there is from the garden of Inta Krombolz.)
What is it about a door that takes you from one place to another? As you pass through, it promises the excitement of a new experience, a mystical quest of stepping into the unknown, making a new friend, or gaining a new perspective. Every garden deserves a proper door, creating a distinct transition from the crush of a relentless world. It’s a boundary, a magical opening that only I know exists. Here there is a freedom, a peace, a point of view, a unity with something quite extraordinary. It leads to a place where the sun shines, the rain falls, and there is an energy that I cannot begin to understand, but only feel. It is a protected place that few will ever find. I sometimes share the secret of my doors and point in their direction. If you are drawn to that place, you will be welcome.
Such is the passion behind the Arbors that I have built. In some strange way, these structures always seem to build themselves. I start with my love of working with the natural materials of aging cedar logs and fieldstones that are in ample supply on our wooded lot. I then take inspiration from the space itself. I will spend some quiet time there sitting alone on a chair, observing, listening and sketching.
Simple construction is always a driving objective. Working alone always brings a special challenge to the project, an opportunity to draw on the “engineering” gene that runs a bit rampant in my soul. Making the simple look complex always gives me a little extra thrill.
One of the fun aspects of building a garden structure is the ample opportunity to work with negative space, creating form with only a slight inference of its existence. Let the visitor fill the void. Accents of stained glass, copper sculpture, and the traditions of Arts & Crafts are also never far from my thoughts.
In the end this all seems to take me where I was going.....

Winter Rituals

Some people complain about the avalanche of plant catalogs that begins to arrive this time of the year, but I look forward to them. While winter has its own charms, color is not one of them and I miss it. Aside from the visual stimulation, though, the catalogs also sound the starting gun of an annual winter ritual at our place --- planning the next phase of the garden.

Like any other ritual, it holds the elements of celebrating a particular occasion, focusing on a single subject, sustained concentration, the dreaminess of entering another world (of imagination), the consultation of sacred manuscripts (garden books and catalogs), and locking myself away from the world in my retreat house (snowed-in at the top of the hill). Dan, the financier, hole-digger, and hardscape constructor, participates as acolyte.

Towards the end of the ceremonies, I speak the hallowed liturgical phrases that have been handed down from time immemorial by women gardeners: “Honey, can you please just do this one itty bitty thing in the garden next year?” (This can mean anything from “Can you hand-dig a hole to accommodate a ten-foot tree?” to “I can’t find a fountain that I like; can you build me a custom-made one from all of these mis-matched parts that I’ve collected over the past ten years?”) Dan chants the refrain, “How do you expect me to do THAT?”

I recommend this as a winter activity for all gardening couples. The mild friction and hot air that permeates the house during the services helps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, so it also helps the environment. We’ve found this ritual makes the blood circulate faster as well, keeping both participants warm, and bringing a rosy glow to the cheeks.

City folks can substitute a visit to a botanical garden ,or public historical garden done up for the holidays, a flower show, etc. The necessary heat can be generated by selecting a parking space, choosing where to have lunch, or a polite discussion of why the celebrant is purchasing a $60 gardening book when the family has no garden.

If you have your own gardening rituals, I sure would like to hear about them.

To Lawn or Not to Lawn

If you are on the fence about whether to convert part or all of your lawn into a cottage-type garden, do give it a try. I was astonished to learn, at a talk by Leslie Jones Sauer (to see my earlier blog on forest restoration click here), that grass is nearly as impervious as asphalt! This is because of the nature of turf grass plants. That greensward effect is the result of lawn grass’s ability to quickly establish an underground net of interwoven roots. That’s what holds pieces of sod together.

That root system is only a few inches beneath the surface and, in a “good” lawn, so dense that very little rainwater penetrates beyond it. So, non-lawn gardens actually help the environment.

How do you decide how much, if any, of the lawn to keep? At our place, I’m very generous about what I consider to be the lawn. If it stays green after I cut it with the mower, it’s the lawn. We have about 8,000 square feet of it --- not quite 5% of our total property. About 90% of the landscape is wooded, with the remaining 5% given over to various types of things that fall into the category of gardening and active landscaping (flower beds, mulched seating areas, work areas, the garden house, etc.)

I found Julie Moir Messervy’s book The Inward Garden very helpful in deciding what should remain lawn and what should be something else. The basic question, of course, is how do you want to use your yard? Because we raise puppies for The Seeing Eye we have two Black Labs on hand most of the time – our own Emma and a puppy that needs to be heavily exercised. Being no spring chickens ourselves, we found that the most reliable means of ensuring the puppies’ exercise is Frisbee. Since the pups ultimately need to learn to retrieve, this also kills two birds with one stone. So, we need a lawn space that can accommodate two 50+ pound dogs running at high speed simultaneously; 8,000 square feet is barely enough. Folks who regularly host charitable fundraisers may need quite a bit more; folks with no kids or dogs may need far less.

We have three seating areas and a porch that each offer a different view. Even though the garden is quite informal, the underlying structure of it is not. The shape of the lawn is roughly a horizontal ellipse that has flower beds around the perimeter. A narrow bed anchored by mature trees divides the lawn into two nearly-equal parts: An open, active sun-filled one, where most of the daily action happens; and a passive one that is shady and inspires relaxation.

The garden edge is marked by a decorative twig fence and an arbor, as well as two mulched paths that lead through the back woods to the garden house. Those paths were established five decades ago when they were simply the easiest way for our family to walk through the woods to get “out back.” From the porch, they create natural viewing axes that we’ve emphasized with plantings and by adding garden doors in the deer fence. A combination of heavy shade and planned neglect creates an effect where the lawn grass fades imperceptibly into the leaf litter and mulch of the forest floor.

Growing and maintaining acres of lawn that you don’t actually use is a waste of time and energy that could be put to better use, such as growing ornamental and native plants.

Papyrus Prolonged

Last spring I bought a 10-inch pot of Papyrus, not quite knowing what I would do with it. I already knew it wouldn’t survive in the shade where we have our fountain. How silly would THAT have looked, anyway?

I had kept an umbrella Cyperus (C. alternifolius) in my sunny apartment when I was still in college. It was easy to care for (just add water) and was unusual enough for me to want to include it in my collection of 150 (really!) houseplants.

The Papyrus (C. papyrus) was quite a bit more weird-looking, but I had always wanted one. I also knew that it was zone 9 or 10 and would not survive the winter outdoors. Oh well, it was a great bargain at just 10 bucks!

I’m never sure what Dan’s reaction is going to be when I bring home a new plant. “Oh wow,” he said, “it looks like something from outer space. I love it!” When I explained the plant’s cultural needs and why it couldn’t go in the spot where we actually HAD water, his recommendation was to set it next to “those other alien-looking things” (Ligularia), to see how it did. The Ligularia are in a bog garden, which allows them to tolerate quite a bit more sun than you would expect. The bog needs occasional help from a hose during very dry periods, so it would be easy enough to just turn the hose a little to the right to hit the Papyrus at the same time.

By summer, the Papyrus had stretched up to five feet and was making new shoots and flowers like crazy. It was too late to try another spot; Papyrus was happy where it was. I convinced myself that, after all Dan’s under-construction drainage ditch looked kind of like a dry stream bed, so it made sense to have a water plant there. And, the Ligularia did need some sort of vertical accent until its own, other-worldly flower pods began to emerge.

In October I was starting to panic. Hard frost time was approaching and I had grown very fond of Papyrus. By November, I knew it was do or die (the freeze was late) and I decided that, if Papyrus could fit into the house, I would take heroic measures to overwinter him. At six-feet, six inches, it was a close call through the doorway, but there’s even a little growing room left before he tops out at the eight-foot ceiling. I had no idea what to do next.

Call it coincidence, serendipity, or synchronicity, but by chance I sat down next to Fran Lawn, Director of Land Restoration at Schuykill Center for Environmental Education, at a seminar. He overheard me talking to someone else about overwintering my Papyrus and volunteered that it could be held over in a Chinese koi pot and that, if its root ball were too large, all of the soil could be removed, the roots could be weighted down with stones, and submerged in water. The main thing was to keep the roots wet.

As luck would have it, I was able to find a lovely copper cache pot that was just the right size and I didn’t have to disturb Papyrus at all. It’s a good thing, too. Since he came inside, a two-foot bud has opened and grown to four feet and there are three new shoots coming along.

I should know better, but by now, Papyrus has become more like a pet than a plant. I check his progress every day and, if I think he’s not getting enough light, walk him around the room from place to place, to follow the sun. If all goes well, I should be able to roll him out into the yard next spring.