Category Archives: Garden design

Oak Park Updates

So I was very happy to learn that the residential clients for the project on Elmwood Avenue in historic Oak Park, IL wanted to move forward before things got really cold (and the ground unworkable). These past few weeks have been controlled insanity as a major renovation/addition project is ongoing at the house, so what’s a little major foundation planting? Why not, right?

click image for much larger version
A few photos the clients kindly took for me on this very rainy & cold windy day:
Almost too wet to work, still the ground was not clumpy or sticky so on we go with the install.

Looking down the driveway towards all the construction materials. The long side of the house will remain undeveloped until the spring, this will allow freer access for all the large construction vehicles and also ease the repaving job. Plants would scald pretty easily being so close to burning hot, newly-laid asphalt. As well, painting the house will be much less time-consuming without having to work around foundation plants.

The beds are laid out and hedging spacing adjusted. The Degroot’s Spire Arborvitae are just gorgeous, and the encircling boxwoods healthy and full.

Tidied up, edged with new sod, and hardwood mulch laid. There are several shrubs & one tree, a Chinese Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum), which will be planted in early spring.

click to embiggen


Question for Designer Friends: Groundplain Design?

One challenge I’ve faced in graphically representing all aspects of a woodland design is the groundplain, which is often heavily layered with colonizing bulbs, perennials, groundcovers, and ephemerals. In the past I’ve done trace overlays, weird or awkward (to me) ‘maps’ with keys explaining what goes where, CAD drawings with all other layers turned off and various cross-hatching patterns representing the various plantings, but none of them are really satisfying to me. So, any experts care to share what works for them? I’d love to hear about it!

The Catonsville House, con’t.

(History of this space & design) Beginnings of the front bed which is enclosed by the semicircular driveway. There are a myriad of further layers of planting and textures to consider, most notably perennial choices, annual displays and compositions, containers, and sculptural elements (art, water features, etc.).

click the image for humongous version


I would love to see an art piece or design element right in the center of the granite cobble medallion. Any one of these would look fantastic:

The Catonsville House

This lovely, priceless home is an authentic Queen Anne style house in Catonsville Md, where it sits among other German-influenced Victorian houses on generous lots. I basically threw myself at the owner in a bid to design the space and he was kind enough to agree.

The house has an interesting history; just one family owned it from its construction in 1905 until very recently, the Stude family. The house’s interior had never been updated (in fact it had never been touched, and while the basic structure was quite sound, the new owner was greeted with decaying ribbons of 105 year-old original wallpaper hanging from the walls, plaster walls turning to fine powder, and a side door privy/outhouse. A bit of a hoarder, the previous owner left truckload after truckload of stuff which had to be removed, sorted, and either donated or sold (among the pile of treasures, an original, complete Ouija Board game from William Fuld manufacturers in Baltimore.) The landscape too sat completely unattended for at least 80 years and perhaps longer.

The new owners have gone to great, even heroic lengths in order to wrest the house back from the underbrush, ivy, and volunteer trees. Expending enormous rivers of sweat equity, they are moving towards a kind of tabla raza from which a bold design may move forward:

Below, the detached garage. This would make a superb entertaining area, private study, guest house, or artist’s retreat. As purchased it had a bare earthen floor, which the new owners have changed to a poured concrete slab.

The rear of the house. A planned addition will bring this back another 14′.

The design has many goals, all of which center around paying homage first to the wonderful masses and lines of this home, celebrating the ebullience and life of the new family who have taken on this massive renovation project, and honoring the gentleman’s longstanding love of horticulture. Mixed in with this are the desires for permeable surfaces and responsible, sustainable plantings. The generous circular driveway will be redone using Gravelpave2, a permeable yet loadbearing paving system which allows for maximum water infiltration onsite. My first task is addressing the space contained within that driveway, and for that I made a short video for the client explaining where I was going (as I drew it):

I will update you all soon with the finished drawing seen above partially rendered. Ciao!

The Old Town Client

(client photo)

Another lovely old townhouse in Old Town Alexandria for me to design. I love working in this area for many reasons– of course, the historic aspect of Old Town is reason enough, but the architecture and the detail in this neighborhood is positively charming. The brick is fabulous! Seen above is the project before any renovation and cleanup began; decades of neglect resulted in a chaos of random growth and site strangulation. Much work was needed to get back to the bare bones.

More recently, this home is in the final stages of a complete renovation and interior redesign; as a part of that process decades and decades of happenstance vegetative growth was stripped away from the front and rear of the tiny lot:

In this intensely urban environment space is at a premium, and the rear courtyard garden is completely landlocked with no entrance save through the backdoor to the house. Thus, a crane was employed to remove some of the trees and shrubs.

We can see a charming older home behind all that detritus:

Here my friends, is the real treasure, the back courtyard:

I really can’t express how excited I am to be designing in this lovely space! The patina is just amazing.

The School

One of my more fulfilling projects has been helping to develop this small private school’s landscape master plan.  My alma mater, I was especially pleased when they saw fit to accept our son as a kindergartner.  The school has undergone tremendous growth since I was a student there– after huge expansions and renovations, the newly configured traffic flow, playgrounds, and buffer zones are powerfully stark, left to the contractually obligated minimum development by the builder.

In broad strokes, I wanted to accomplish the following practical design elements:

Reduce and eliminate turf areas while at the same time improving surface permeability wherever possible.  This one goal improves the space in a myriad of ways…  it reduces operating costs (no mowing, edging, trimming,).  It reduces carbon monoxide output, it reduces carbon footprint of the school, and of course, it reduces or eliminates nonpoint source pollution and noxious storm water run off.

Stormwater runoff is the single largest polluter of watersheds.

By reducing or eliminating turf, we reduce or eliminate potential nitrogen loading of the watershed via turf fertilizers running off the site.  I also wanted to slow or eliminate storm water runoff as much as possible.  Keeping storm water on the site for as long as possible allows for maximum infiltration via permeable surfaces– so concurrent to this goal I wished to reduce the impermeable surfaces as much as possible.  Anything I can do to reduce sewer loading and again allow for storm water to exit the site more slowly or not at all was a fundamental desire.  It was also important for me to create havens for beneficial insects and soil organisms.

From an aesthetic sense, I wanted to harmonize the Italianate architectural elements of the buildings with the landscape.  I wanted to frame the main building within anchoring tree canopies, increase shade drastically, create a sort of visual flow and set tableaux or vignettes of which invite further study or conversely, in some areas, relaxation and recreation.

My first task (and phase of construction) was the creation of a small formal garden in front of the school, formerly a simple turf island surrounded by hot asphalt.  This garden was to be markedly more formal than the rest of space; I accomplish this with certain hedging features and ease of classical lines in the stone furnishings as well as clearly defined color borders in the foreground.

In the spirit of permeable surfacing as well as traditional Italianate gardens, I selected Gravelpave² as the loadbearing yet permeable surface for the walkways and center waterfeature area. This is an ingenuous yet simple system that I look forward to employing on many more designs to come. The end result is a permeable yet load bearing surface which experiences negligible aggregate drifting or ‘migration’ and very stable properties overall. With the appropriate choice of top dressing aggregate very attractive visuals can be achieved.

Still to come: Photos of the finished garden!