How to Incorporate Art In the Garden

About 20 years ago when my husband and I were new to Pasadena we went to see the newly renovated gardens of the Norton Simon Museum. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend a visit. Nancy Goslee Power designed it to reflect the essence of Monet’s garden in Giverny, and it was spectacular. It still is. Her elegant use of sculptural art throughout the garden is masterful and adds a depth and magnificence to what might otherwise be simply a beautiful garden.

It made me think. While it makes obvious sense to incorporate art in the garden of a museum, would it not be as powerful to do so in the garden at home? It may seem out of reach and something for only the wealthiest clientele. But shouldn’t art be accessible to the average homeowner as well?

I would say yes. But rather than hearing from me, I thought it might be more meaningful to read about art and it’s place in the garden from one of my longest clients, a dear friend and accomplished Ceramic artist based in Pasadena, Joan G. Aebi.

Joan G. Aebi

interview with the artist

NCR: Joan, how did it happen that you first began to bring your pottery into the garden?

JGA: The first thing I did was the “chard pile” which, if you make a lot of ceramics, you have a lot of things that don’t turn out very well. You get a nice sense of satisfaction when you have a piece that you thought was going to be great and it turned out Ucky instead—you take it and slam it into the ground and it breaks apart. You get a real charge out of that!

From the beginning, long before we worked together on her design, Joan began throwing her discarded sculptures into a pile in the front yard of her house at the base of a massive and ancient Deodar Cedar. Thousands of broken pieces of pottery stretched out in a 15′ radius beyond the base of the tree making a fascinating understory—a uniquely artful yet accidental interpretation of mulch.

One of the hands you can find near the chard pile

JGA: The other thing is that at that time I was doing a lot of people and casting people in clay. So I had chests, backs, and hands and faces, and I would throw them in there. Then the neighborhood kids started going through and and say “Oh my god! There’s a hand!” so they started going through and looking for treasures.

The other thing is that’s amazing about it is the stuff sinks into the ground. With as much stuff as I’ve put in there you’d think that the pile would be really high but it just sinks in.

Deodars can grow in a variety of soils as long as they have good drainage. In this case, with so much clay going into the soil water from the irrigation and rains goes into the pile and becomes absorbed by the clay. Slowly, over time, the moisture is released into the soil below creating an unlikely symbiotic relationship with the tree.

NCR: You also had some totem poles out there before we worked together on your design.

JGA: I had a friend who was making some outdoor sculptures and I got the idea of making totem poles and I really liked the idea of, you know, sort of staking up the different types of pots that you could stack and make these totem poles.

NCR: Did you those pieces start with the intention of being used for the totem poles or did you select ones that you had already made and thought they would work for this application?

JGA: Both. I started by using pieces that I had made and stacking them and then I would say I need a top to this and how am I gonna do it? After a while it really became that I was making a totem pole.

NCR: When I saw your artwork I just knew that it had a place in the garden and as much as we could use we should incorporate it in there. I don’t know if that was your intention for your sculptures.

One of many “people pots” placed throughout the garden

JGA: It really wasn’t. But as with some of my ceramics you end up with so many more pieces than you know what to do with so this was a great way of dealing with it. And they work. They belong. I hadn’t really used any of the people pots outside. That was you. That was great. I mean I love it that they’re out there. They’re not real refined so they really work well in the feeling of a garden where things happen in a free flowing sort of way.

NCR: It seems like art in the garden is a really personal choice. What do you think about how others might be able to incorporate art in the garden?

JGA: It depends on the person and what they want to do. I think that the garden is a great place to display art. Especially ceramics because ceramics can stand up to being outside. Particularly things that are high fired will work well. Metal also works. I think it’s wonderful to have these unique pieces in the garden.

Also, if you have something that can take the weather, put treasures in the garden! That can be art for the garden! Whatever! But treasures should go in the garden, just like artwork. It makes it personal. These bits of who you are make a personal statement rather than standard “garden art”. And your garden is so much more special with it.

Check out our post Garden Art: Found Items for more ideas on this!

Finding your own art

One of the main take-aways from our conversation is that art, however you define it, gives you a means of expressing your own true self. And this applies even in the garden.
Joan is an artist, so she has a wealth of opportunity to use her own pieces to enhance her outdoor spaces. But you don’t have to be the artist to bring art into the garden. You only need to know what you love. Here are some suggestions on how to find something magical while incorporating art in the garden.

Resources

. Contact your local Arts Organization. In Pasadena, Armory Center for the Arts is a great resource for you to discover and connect with the local art community.
. Contact your local matal’s guild, or pottery studio where you might also discover an artist you love
. Consider using treasures you have or one’s you’ve found and bring them into the garden in an artful way (Contact us if you need help with that)
. For art in the garden, you will want to stick with durable materials that can withstand the elements: metal, pottery, concrete, and glass are the four best choices.
. Stay away from plastics at all costs!
. Wood can be amazing but it weathers and rots. To keep it looking good it should be sealed and never placed directly in or on soil

San Francisco episode of HGTV’s The Outdoor Room – with Jamie Durie. Jamie along with the other contractors all added their own custom art pieces to the garden.

Tillandsia Art

Can a plant be a piece of art? Some might say no. I say, absolutely, yes! You might think “Of course a plant person would say that!” Perhaps it sounds like I’m elevating plants to an unreasonable status. Let me be clear. I don’t think that all plants are works of art, but Tillandsias, or Air Plants, are not your regular, run of the mill plant. Tillandsia Art, therefore, is something distinct and even extraordinary!

This marvellous, group of ancient plants (estimated at around 30 million years old) are members of the Bromeliad family and come in copious sizes, forms and colors. In fact there are at least 500 known varieties and can be as small as your thumb or as large as your head.

But the thing that I like most about them, what makes them unique, and frankly magnificent, is that they grow without soil!

What?! You are probably exclaiming. That’s right. No soil. No planting. None of it! You can stick it on a shelf or hang it on the wall; you can put it in a glass bowl or string them up on a wire. This is why Tillandsias are without a doubt, Living Art. Without the limiting nature of their soil-bound counterparts, they can go just about anywhere.

How to care for them

It’s tempting for me to dive into the care of these crazy little relics but I’ll resist the urge. My mission with this blog is about creating magnificent gardens through great design, proper tools and dynamic art. Caring for Air Plants properly is absolutely important, because while they are very low maintenance plants, they by no means are not NO maintenance. They need a very special kind of attention and if you don’t give it to them, you will most assuredly kill them. So instead I suggest you check out airplant.com to get the basics.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up! Let’s learn creative techniques on how to use them to create your own one-of-a-kind Tillandsia Art.

How to Create TILLANDSIA ART OF YOUR OWN

Creating your own piece of art with tillandsias is limited only by your imagination. Your piece can be simple, using only a single plant, or large and complex, using multiple varieties. Here are some examples of how I’ve used them in creating works of art for myself and my clients. I also have ideas I’ve been tossing around but haven’t executed yet.

Wall Art #1, GreenWall

Green walls are an amazing answer to small space design. Indoors or out, sometimes the only way to green up the space is by going up. There are a slew of products out there for this: wooly pockets are a favorite, and other cell based planters are common as well. Tillandsias, however, offer a fantastic alternative. But there is a right and wrong way to do it.

Learn from my mistake! I had a client who was looking for an 8’x2’ green wall. Attempt #1 was pretty beautiful. The client loved it. I loved it. Unfortunately the Air Plants did not love it. It was not successful.

  • I used marine grade plywood as my framing board. This part was successful. Since the plants need to have water sprayed upon them regularly you need a moisture barrier which can hold water that won’t seep through to the wall. Marine grade plywood is great for that.
  • I used nails as supports for each air plant. Not in and of itself a problem but ultimately was not a good solution for my design.
  • I used a variety of Tillandsia called Ionantha Guat for the entire board. Turns out, these are very small and not very hardy. They are sensitive and short lived.
  • I placed the Ionantha Guats too close together on the hard board. They began to die almost immediately. I replaced about 1/4 of the plants but they continued to die until I reworked the design.

Why did they die? Probably a combination of a few factors. Because they were placed so closely together but up against a hard board, the theory is that the 3 main saboteurs were 1. Not enough air flow, 2. They continuously dried out too quickly after being watered, 3. Their delicate nature was sensitive to the above two issues and so they could not get established.

Wall Art #2, GreenWall

TIllandsia Art

I ended up revising the greenwall and started almost completely from scratch. I kept the board, removed the nails, did some research, and found a new technique and some new plants.

  • Instead of nails, I used peat moss held to the board with 1” chicken wire. I then nested the Tillandsias with their wiry roots (and some fine gauged wire) in to the framing I had created.
  • Instead of the tiny Ionantha Guat, I used a combination of Bronze Crown, Stricta Hugo, Aeranthos Purple Leather and several others to make a wall that varied in color and texture. It was far more dynamic and contained larger, more sturdy plants to withstand the rigors of the indoor conditions. The peat moss rather than just the board backing allowed the plants to hold moisture better, preventing them from drying out instantly but did not keep them soggy either. A beautiful result.

notes about greenwalls

When building an extensive green wall, the client should be made aware that, 1. Just because they are Air Plants, it does not mean that they require no maintenance and 2. Tillandsias die and need to be replaced just like any other plants. ALL green walls require ongoing maintenance and a replacement program (and budget). Tillandsias are no different.

Wall Art #3, Accent on Art

Some of the larger Air Plants are so primevally dramatic all by themselves. They yearn to shine in the spotlight all alone. I have created a mounting board with long nails to support them but the nails were insufficient—the plant would tip forward and fall off its perch. The solution was to use nylon wire and a hook and eye solution. The eye was screwed into the board and the nylon wire with a hook was wrapped around the base of the plant and affixed to the eye. Voila! The best part is that the nylon is practically invisible.

tillandsia art Curtain

Ok, I’ve never actually done this one but I totally want to give it a try. Air Plants can literally be strung up and survive the process. By that I mean that you can use a needle and nylon thread and basically sew through them to create an effect such as a curtain. Take the needle and nylon and pierce it through the base of the plant, tie knots if you want to prevent them from sliding down. This will not kill the plant (I know! Hard to believe, right?) I’ve seen it done but would love to try making a full doorway curtain with them. If any of you have done this, send pictures!

Tillandsia Art Planters

About a year ago I received one of my favorite requests from a client. Someone had gifted them an old steel wheelbarrow. My instructions were to transform it into a beautiful planter that…wait for it… would not require irrigation. The wheel barrow was alarmingly unstable and could not bear a great deal of weight. But the clients were adventurous and artists so I knew I could have some fun with it.

Using lava rocks (because they are extremely lightweight), some of the artists own pottery and a wide array of Tillandsias, strategically placed, I knew we could make something fantastic.

Conclusion

The moral of this art story is that ANYTHING can be turned into a fabulous piece of botanical art by incorporating Tillandsias into it. Hopefully you’ve gotten a few ideas to get you going and you’re ready to give it a try yourself. I think you’ll fall in love with them as I have. And if you’re not ready to make your own, we at Minanda Landscape Design offer custom, one of a kind garden art and would be happy to work with you to create a spectacular piece of Tillandsia art for your home, office or outdoor room! Just give us a call or send an email: minanda@mac.com

Cheers!

Connect With Your Garden

These are strange days, right? Perhaps that’s an understatement. The outbreak of a global pandemic was simply not on my radar. At all. I’m certainly not the only one. As far as I can tell each of us is filled with urgent stories of surreal experiences, and intense emotions as we grapple with this new, unprecedented reality. During this forced isolation I think we’re collectively yearning for connection. What could be better than taking time to connect with your garden?

The garden has been a place of solace to me ever since I was a child. I remember one Saturday afternoon being scolded by my dad. I was about six years old and had surely committed some egregious offense. My punishment: 2 hours in the “Weed Patch”. The Weed Patch was a small rectangle of about 10’x15′ where we planted our tomatoes and wild flowers every year. My dad used that chore as a punishment because it took me away from friends and tv. I’d trudge through the Patch with messy tears and snot smeared across my face and my little trowel in hand to begin my penance. But at some point during the chore, the tears would stop and I actually began enjoying myself.

Lately, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with the weight of this crisis and the stories of human tragedy and fear. Do you feel it, too? I spend too much time scrolling through news articles and social media posts then feel shaken with an urge to fight or run.

A few days ago, I woke up to news that the State Department initiated a Level 4 travel advisory (seriously limiting International travel). It was quickly followed by the governor of California instituting a “stay-in-place” ordinance. I was apoplectic over the ramifications it could have for my return from Japan as well as for our family and friends struggling back in California. I needed to do something to settle myself down.

Feeling like the walls were closing in, I bolted outside. Here in Tokyo, I don’t have a much of garden to speak of. I merely have a narrow strip containing a row of anemic, dwarf azaleas with a constant understory of weeds. Out of mindless habit, I got down on my hands and knees and started pulling. The sun was shining. It was a little breezy. There were birds chirping—so many birds. And before long I began to feel like myself again. I could breath freer, my shoulders softened and I felt calmer. I could hardly believe how quickly the fear settled into a calm disquiet. Not perfect. But so. much. better.

It reminded me that in the most emotional and difficult times, to connect with your garden—whether by weeding it, planting something new in it, or simply walking through it—can help you find peace in the one place you can still go right now. Connecting with your garden allows you to effect change, not just in the garden but in your mind, body and spirit. And that is something we could all use a little bit of.

I encourage you, whether you are a career landscape professional, an avid enthusiast, or an admirer, take a few minutes out of your day to try one of these suggestions. Connect with your garden and the space around you and disconnect from the challenges on the horizon. I promise, you won’t regret it!

TAKE A MINDFUL WALK IN THE GARDEN

The first thing our maintenance team does when they arrive at our clients’ homes before getting to work is to walk around and take a look. It’s one of the most important steps in maintenance because it gives you a chance to take stock of what’s there and determine how you want to set your priorities.

Here’s how:

  • Start at the place closest to your door and walk slowly around all the planting areas, making a complete loop through the garden.
  • Your pace should be slow. No faster than if you were trying to sneak up on your pet without waking them up.
  • First look around with a soft focus. You’re trying to get a sense of the garden as a whole. Does anything stand out? Is there a plant that you love but can’t see because it’s blocked by something else? Are there any plants that are way bigger than you remember them being? Or way smaller?
  • Next, look at each individual plant as you pass it. Is it blooming? Are any of the blooms looking old and spent? Are there any leaves or branches that are brown or dying? Do you see weeds? Are there plants growing on top of other plants? Do you see any pests?
  • Make a mental note of what you see that stands out to you. Plan on returning to any spots that you really want to play with.
  • No judgement allowed. If you haven’t spent much time in the garden lately, that’s fine! The goal here is connecting with your garden, making observations and maybe considering what you might want to do with it next time.
  • Don’t forget to take some deep breaths as you go along. This is important. Just because it’s good for you!
  • End at your starting point. You now have a mental map of your garden and hopefully have enjoyed a nice break.

MEDITATIVE WEEDING

Once a chore imposed on me as a child, now, it’s one of the most meditative, dare I say enjoyable, gardening tasks I perform. The more weeds the better!

Here’s how:
It’s usually best to have a tool with you: hori hori, dandelion fork, hand hoe, weeding fork or if you have a bad back, a long handled tool: long handled diamond fork, Niwashi (Japanese weeding tool), etc. But hands also work.

  • Find the spot with the most weeds. (Don’t be scared!)
  • If the soil is hard, using your tool, dig down the side of the weed and leverage the weed out of the ground.
  • If the soil is soft and relatively loose pinch the base of the weed with your fingers as low as possible, below the soil level if you can.
  • Try to bring up the weed with it’s roots in tact. If you leave roots, it’s offspring will be back before dinnertime.
  • Start slow and pay attention to what you’re doing to really try getting those roots. As you get the hang of it, move faster but continue to concentrate. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to the task.
  • Put the weeds in the compost heap (one that heats up, in order to kill any seeds)
  • Continue until you are sufficiently relaxed and mentally present. Or until the weeds are gone.
  • If you still feel anxious but all your weeds are gone, try weeding your neighbor’s front yard, for good measure. It helps with mindfulness and will help you make friends too (as long as you stay 6′ apart).

Note: This is a great activity to do with kids! It isn’t difficult, they get to see what a great job they’ve done and they feel a sense of accomplishment. My garden never had fewer weeds than when my son was a willing helper!

CLEAR THE PLANTS, CLEAr THE MIND

Certain plants, particularly strappy ones, continuously shed leaves to make room for fresh new ones. Clearing out those yellowing or brown leaves makes a huge difference in having a beautiful versus a so-so looking garden.

Here’s how:

  • Identify the plants in your garden that have regular die-off. Hemerocallis (Day Lilies), Agapanthus, Carex, Dietes (Fortnight lilies), Elymus Giant Rye Grass and most grasses are the most notorious ones.
  • Using your hands, fluff up each of the plants (unless it has sharp edges, in which case use a tool), lift up the fresh green blades/leaves and see what’s underneath.
  • Pull yellowing and brown leaves from the base and remove with your hands. If it freely comes loose, great.
  • If the leaves do not come loose, use one of your knife-like tools. I like the hori hori or the turf cutter for those.
  • Cut away from the very base of the plant watching out for fingers and drip lines.
  • If you’re working on shrubs, always use your clippers to remove any branches. No tearing.
  • If you have browning leaves on a shrub you can simply run your hands through the plants to shake loose anything that has died off. Don’t pluck!
  • After you finish a plant or two, stand back. Appreciate that you have made a change here and things look better than they did when you started! Sometimes you can’t tell when you’re in the middle of it, so stepping back from time to time helps.

DEADHEADING FOR GOOD HEADSPACE

All blooming plants should be “deadheaded” regularly. All that means is take off the flowers when they look kind of old and sad. Roses, for example, will bloom much more prolifically if you continuously cut away the spent roses. It’s the same for salvias, lavenders, and all the others.

Here’s how:

  • Start with a good pair of clippers. Or a bad pair if that’s all you have. In fact, since you’re most likely stuck at home, if you don’t have clippers I won’t tell anyone if you use a pair of household scissors (just don’t forget to clean them afterwards otherwise your kid’s next art project might be ruined).
  • You are looking for bloomers that look old and sad. By this I mean that their color has faded compared with newer blooms, they droop downward or have lost some or most of their petals.
  • If you have a plant that has flower spikes (the bloom is at the end of a long stem), you should cut it down as close to the base as possible.
  • If you’re working on a rose bush, find the rose you want to cut, look down the stem for the next cluster of leaves that faces outward of the plant and cut about 1/4 of an inch before that leaf. The new rose will grow from that junction.
  • If you’re deadheading a flowering shrub such as a lavender just cut off the bloom down the stem as close to the first leaf cluster as possible.
  • When deadheading an azalea or camellia, grab the old bloomer in your hand and gently try to snap or pull it off. If it doesn’t come off in your hand, it isn’t ready yet. (For azaleas, try putting a little cooking oil on your fingers before working with them—to avoid getting sticky from the sap which I find particularly annoying.)
  • What ever the plant is that you’re deadheading be sure to talk lovingly to it as you look for each bloom you want to remove. Stay with me, ok? I don’t mean tell it your problems—although I sometimes find them to be excellent, non-judgmental listeners. What I mean is, speak your thoughts as you look for the blooms that need to be cut, “How are you doing? You look like you’re about done, is that right? Wow, you’ve lost all your petals already, I’m sorry I missed that.” It’s another way to be present in the moment with what you are doing. To suspend judgement of anything else that’s happening in your life or in the world, to let go of the past and not worry about the future. Just take that moment to think about that flower in front of you. Right now.

PLANNING AND PLANTING FOR THE FUTURE

There are few things more hopeful than planting seeds! These teeny tiny capsules of hope are one of the best ways to connect with your garden. Planting seeds is another great activity to share with kids.

Here’s how:

  • Sunflower seeds are my all time favorites for personal gratification. The seeds are big and easy to plant, they germinate in about as much time as it takes to put your tools away, and the end result of bright, boppy, funflowers is less than 2 months away.
  • Plant a new group every two weeks to make your sunny days last longer.
  • California poppies or other wildflowers make another great choice for planting. And talk about easy. Water the soil where you want them to go. Loosen the soil. Then sprinkle them, don’t bury them. Finally press them down to make firm contact with the soil, and water once more and keep things moist. You’ll see them germinate in about a week.
  • Veggies are a must for some extremely gratifying gardening. Choose varieties that you actually like to eat. Don’t plant tomatoes if you don’t like tomatoes! Cucumbers, zucchini bell peppers and of course tomatoes are great choices and easy to grow. Start with 4” pots and plant them either in larger pots or directly in the ground. Cucumbers and zucchini can cascade over the edge of a pot, making a lovely green edible garden even with very little space.
  • Give yourself a schedule for watering, weeding and feeding your veggies every week. They need you! And having a routine when things feel loosy-goosy at home is a mental health saver!
  • Enjoy the satisfaction of seeing something you have put your energy and positivity into, grow and thrive despite whatever is happening around you.

There is simply no roadmap for what is happening in the world right now. We are charting new territory. It’s sometimes scary, and upsetting, and sometimes inspiring. One thing is for sure though, the effects of staying inside constantly can be toxic. Be sure to step out and breath deeply. The beauty that you find outdoors and to connect with your garden can offer you the gift of inspiration, rejuvenation and optimism. Be well!

Now, let’s go out and get our hands dirty!

What’s in the Garden Pro’s Tool Kit?

There are few things more irritating than being waist deep in a giant, twisted rosemary bush—or worse, rose—discovering that a whole 3/4” diameter branch has died off, and realizing that you didn’t bring your ratchet pruners. So instead of using the proper tool, you try gnawing it off with your standard clippers. It takes twice as long, and leaves a jagged stump. It’s not pretty. What you should have had with you is the Garden Pro’s Tool Kit!

When I design a garden I’m crossing all my fingers and toes that the client will also hire my team to maintain it . I cannot overemphasize the importance of good maintenance. It’s as much a part of the art of landscape design as it is the function of it. This is why my kit and the kit of everyone on the team is filled to the brim with not just necessities, but handy little conveniences too. This way we keep the gardens looking just as I envisioned them in the design, and keep our sanity too.

Every Landscape Pro’s Tool Kit will have some of the same equipment. But for every individual there is a different recipe for getting the job done with ease. If you plan on spending a lot of time cheering on those plants and trying to get them to behave, here’s what you need, now!

Every garden pro’s tool kit needs…

Garden Tools
My Felco Clippers are a must!

Your favorite pair of clippers. Mine are a pair of Felcos that are about 12 years old. Like a great pair of jeans this tool seems to mold right into only my hand. Keep them oiled and clean them after each use. Spraying a bit of alcohol on the blades prevents spreading disease.

Garden tools
Turf cutters have dozens of uses in the garden

Turf cutter referred to by my son as the “Death Stick”. It’s a great one for the tool kit that is often overlooked. Good for turf but also, there simply is nothing better when reducing the diameter of any strappy plant. You can use your free hand to select a section and then dive right in to the base to go just below the soil line and get a clean cut. Warning: watch out for drip lines and fingers! It will ruin you if you miss.

My other go-to is a hori hori. I barely leave the house without this one. It has so many uses, and if you don’t have one yet it’s a must for your next purchase. You can use it for dividing, cutting, digging, planting, seeding, opening compost bags and, of course, looking super-cool.

Discovering ratchet pruners was like having dark clouds part and the sun pour down on me! I received them as a gift and thought, “that’s nice”. But once I discovered their magic I was won over. Sometimes you really need to cut a substantial branch but don’t have the room for loppers. Ratchet pruners can handle up to 3/4” but I’ve surely cut up to a full inch.

Battery Powered Blower I am four-square against the big gasoline blowers and in most residential gardens they are 100% not necessary. The small Toro blowers that have a rechargeable battery are perfect for clearing off walkways and they don’t suffocate us all with their fumes. If you are doing more than one property, either bring your charger or a back-up battery for longer use.

Large Items

Pole pruners
Loppers
Pruning scissors
Short ladder

Super Handy Small Stuff

Green landscape tape
Twine
Screw driver
Soil moisture probe
Irrigation flags
Extra Drip tubing
Drip tubing connectors and T’s
Drip tubing staples
Multi-tool (Swiss Army Knife)
WD40

Save Yourself Necessities

Lip balm
Sun screen
Heavy duty cream for dry hands
Hat with wide brim (not a baseball cap)
Knee pads
2 pairs of gloves (in case one gets wet or…otherwise “soiled”)
Large refillable insulated water bottle—no PET bottles, they get hot and gross anyway
Granola bar or banana, some kind of quick energy for when you bonk from working in the sun too long

How to Carry it all

It’s best to have wheels so you don’t have to lug it everywhere. Sometimes you have to cover some pretty significant obstacles to get your tools to their final destination. Either way, always choose the smallest one that comfortably carries everything you need. Some recommendations:
Paint bucket from a Hardware Store
Bucket with pockets on the outside
Case with rollers
Hip toolbelt for the 4 or 5 items you use constantly (clippers, hori hori, turf cutter, twine for me)

The trick in having the absolute best Garden Pro’s Tool Kit is to remember to occasionally take inventory. Sometimes you wind up with items you find you really don’t ever need or struggle to make due without things you do.

I guarantee, you will be a better, more professional Landscape Specialist with a solid kit that you can rely on to get the job done right every time.

Let me know what else you put in your toolkit!

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, Finding Inspiration

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens
Japanese Garden at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens

One of my favorite things to do since I’ve been living in Tokyo is to pick out any garden on the map and go for an explore. It’s a pretty great way to see the city considering the abundance of gardens and parks scattered throughout. On this particular day, I discovered Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, which wasn’t even close to what I thought I was looking for.

It was the very beginning of summer and the tail end of the Ajisai (Hydrangea) blooming season. I was excitedly looking for the most stunning display of blooms that I could find. Back home in the scorching Los Angeles heat, Hydrangeas—total water hogs—have simply gone out of fashion because they do not conform to our Water Wise culture. This was my opportunity to see something new.

SOME ADVENTURES START WITH DISAPPOINTMENT

After reading one of my trusty expat blogs I landed on the perfect place to see them: Hakusan Shrine! It took me a full hour on the train followed by a 10 minute walk to get there. But I’m always happy to go to great lengths for a fabulous garden. As I approached, a throng of visitors with impressive camera equipment in tow told me that I must be in the right place.

The shrine was small but beautiful, and there were blooms but certainly not in the vast quantities I had imagined. Try as I did to be enthusiastic the wow-factor I was looking for after such a long journey was absent. But, I’d been living in Tokyo for about a year now, so I fully appreciate that there is an unimpressive ratio of hits to misses when you follow recommendations on expat blogs. One just has to be prepared, each time, to experience either knock-your-socks-off amazement or utter disappointment.

I spent a generous 20 minutes at the Shrine, pulled out my phone and found another patch of green on the map to go and check out. I’m so glad I did!

KOISHIKAWA GARDENS

The Koishikawa Botanical Garden is an extension of the Graduate School of Science at the University of Tokyo. Visitors to the garden—locals, foreigners and students alike—were exploring, relaxing, and working to identify and classify the various species of plants.

It was early summer. The weather seemed to be easing me in to the oppressive heat that would descend any day. I entered the garden and strolled along a densely wooded path, up the side of a ravine, emerging onto a clearing. In stark contrast, orderly botanical gardens grouped specimens of medicinal, aromatic and systemic plants. The demonstration of biodiversity and intricate classifications of vascular plants marched in tidy double rows. This seemed a total divorce from the wild that I had just passed through moments ago.

Next in my discovery were vast meadows carpeted with blooming clover. All a-buzz, it was alive with drunken bees and butterflies loop-de-looing from flower to flower.

The garden expanded out before me with ever more surprises. My next stop was a memorial—a substantial stone with a plaque nearby commemorating the 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama Earthquake. It along with the resulting fires and tsunamis decimated the city leaving 140,000 people dead and thousands homeless. Survivors flooded into the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens for refuge. While many left within a few months, some stayed, making it their home for over 2 years.

even more to see at KOISHIKAWA BOTANICAL GARDENS

Continuing on I walked through another more wooded section of the garden before coming upon a clearing. Beyond it revealed a magnificent traditional Japanese garden. The babbling river spilled into a picturesque lake where a gasp of Koi and a few turtles were paddling about. Beyond the lake sat a stunning red building housing the University’s museum. I’m not exaggerating to say that the beauty of this garden stopped me in my tracks.

Although I felt satisfied with my journey at that point, I wasn’t even close to finished. There was a shrine nested into a hillside, and a Ginkgo biloba tree, instrumental in the early days of botanical research. Newton’s Apple Tree, said to be grafted from the original and given to Y. Shibata, the former president of the Japan Academy by Sir G. Sutherland the former director of the National Physical Laboratory is also there. That’s right, a grafted apple tree from which the fateful apple tumbled upon the revered physicist’s head is right there in Tokyo.

My last stop at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens was a demonstration trial of sweet potato farming. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal but I assure you, sweet potatoes are a thing here! Tiny example—Starbucks does not offer a Pumpkin Spice Latte in Tokyo, rather a Sweet Potato Latte. No joke!

All in all this garden was a real treat!

INSPIRATION AND DESIGN

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens is beautiful on so many different levels. It is a supremely peaceful place. Whether you prefer fields, woods or the gardens, there is something for everyone. Respite from the chaos of the city lets you enjoy the beauty of nature and inspired design.

This experience, however, was so much more than that. It was a reminder that every so often it’s important to step off the path you’re on. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we’re we think we’re supposed to be doing, that we miss opportunities. We miss the bigger picture.

That day in July, I thought I was going to see a shrine and some Hydrangeas. That was the plan. Once the plan turned out to be a bust and a total disappointment there was a slight pause: do I pack up and go home, or improvise?

When I’m designing a garden, I know exactly what products and materials I want to use. I’ve already done the research from over 20 years in the business. There’s one place I go to for modern planters and a different one for traditional planters. I go to the same vendor for lighting because they have exactly the model that I prefer. I know what types of stone I can get at my trusty rock and gravel supplier, Sunburst Rock. And yet, I know that there are innumerable resources, both conventional and otherwise, out there.

conclusion

This little adventure in disappointment and triumph reminds me that in my quest to create spectacular, innovative gardens I must spend more time seeing the world around me. The most amazing objects, places, and creative ideas are there for the taking. When I’m hyper focused on finding something specific, perhaps I’m missing something even more exquisite. By accepting that the shrine wasn’t a win then opening my eyes to possibilities, I discovered something even more valuable.

Happy hunting!

Product Review: Hyperowl Garden Grafting Tool

THE GRAFTING TOOL I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I NEEDED

I first saw an ad for the Hyperowl Garden Grafting Tool on Instagram about six months ago. People have been talking about how great Insta’s ad targeting is but I had simply never seen it. They’d been feeding me ads for cosmetics—hilarious because I only occasionally wear mascara—so those ads get no traction with me. But this one I kept coming back to.

I had never even once attempted to graft a tree! But this nifty tool had me mesmerized, dreaming of the magical fruit concoctions that I could create. Demonstrating the perfect puzzle notch cutting feature, I was simply Wowed! I needed to know more!

One of my Gardening Specialists had been doing quite a bit of grafting recently so I quickly sent her a link to inform her of this wonder-tool. To which she promptly informed me that she had been using this tool for over a year. So, I set aside some time for an interview with Jana.

a conversation with jana: about the Hyperowl grafting tool

Natalie: You’ve been grafting fruit trees for a while now. Have you ever done any grafting with a different tool prior to using the Hyperowl?  

Jana: I’ve been grafting for about three years now so considering you have to wait for a while to see whether your effort was a success, that’s not a long time. That said, I’m definitely planning continue on the bumpy road of manipulating nature. I started out using a grafting knife, which certainly challenges a person’s mental endurance, since you’re often holding that very sharp knife in heart-attack inducing positions. It was bad enough when I practiced on cut branches, but became truly challenging when working up in a tree, balancing on a ladder, holding the grafting tape in my mouth and being poked by a branch in both eyes. Then, I joined the California Rare Fruit Growers organization and attended their annual graft exchange. That’s when they presented the grafting tool that would make my life much easier.

Natalie: That sounds completely treacherous! So when you started using the Hyperowl Garden Grafting Tool instead of a knife, in addition to reducing the dangers, did you find it to be sturdy?

Jana: The tool is well made, lightweight and works effectively. It is very important to spray the blades with a bleach solution between cuts so that you don’t end up spreading disease between grafts and trees. Because I do that after every single cut, the metal blade is a little rusty, which doesn’t bother me at all. 

Natalie: Do you feel like it gives you a clean cut? Do the notches fit together perfectly?

Jana: It cuts well and the cuts are clean. To make a complementary cut, you simply turn the tool, therefore the cuts match perfectly as long as the circumference of the graft matches the circumference of the receiving branch closely. You want as much contact as possible between their respective cambium layers (the thin green layer right under the outer bark) for the best possible success rate. The only challenge for me is to center the receiving branch so that the cut is even on both sides, especially when the branch is quite thin. It is easier to achieve an even placement of the cut on the graft, since you’re holding the graft in your hand. Ideally, there should be a centering mechanism or visual aid to help center the cut. That would be my main suggestion if the manufacturer wanted a tip on how to improve the tool.

Natalie: Do you use the cellophane that they provided or something different?  Are there any other ways that you’ve modified how you use this tool compared with the way it was intended?

Jana: I like to use Parafilm instead (available online), it’s more stretchy and adheres to itself more readily, which is a desirable trait when trying to achieve a good seal. Also, three different attachments are provided to create a different shape of cuts, but I picked one that seems to be working best for me and I don’t bother switching them.

a conversation with jana: about grafting

Natalie: What types of trees have you grafted with it.  Are any types more successful than others?

Jana: I have grafted citrus, apple, apricot, pomegranate, persimmon and avocado. Citrus, was the most successful with this tool. I want to mention it’s crucial to get citrus graft material from Citrus Clonal Protection Program (CCPP). The program of University of California Riverside offers grafts free from citrus greening disease (aka Huanglongbing or HLB disease) a quickly spreading, fatal disease for citrus trees. CCPP offers an incredible selection of grafts for very reasonable prices. I also grafted apple (90% success), apricot (90%), pomegranate (50%) and avocado (so far so… not good). It’s also possible to graft various fruit onto one tree, as long as they are closely related. I recently successfully grafted plum onto apricot, as well as several different crosses like plumcot, aprium and nectaplum onto my apricot tree.  

Natalie: How successful would you say your grafts are with this tool vs. with the grafting knife?

When a fat bird sits on your graft.

Jana: There are many factors at play when it comes to grafting success. The quality of the graft, the time of year, the grafting technique, and how fat the birds are that land on your new graft. Fruit trees require different individual grafting techniques. Citrus trees and persimmons, warrant bud grafting, in which a grafting knife must be used. You cut a T shape in the bark of the receiving branch, peel the bark to expose the cambium layer and then insert the bud into the space. Despite having an extensive theoretical knowledge of the technique, my success rate on that one was zero.

The next best method for citrus is the Z cut method, which also requires the use of a grafting knife. A series of heat waves followed my grafting spree. The rate of success on that one was about 10%. Then I attempted to graft citrus with the Hyperowl and the success rate was about 20%. Not amazing but much better than using the other methods. Here is a note of caution when using the Z cut method on citrus. Your arms will look like a mountain lion used you as a scratching post. Using this tool it’s more like you had a play date with a rambunctious house cat. When I used the Hyperowl on apple and apricot trees, the success rate was about 90%. It made the process infinitely faster and more convenient—no animal analogies required.

final word

I really enjoyed getting this information from Jana about grafting. Although I spend most of my waking hours in gardens, designing them, visiting them and writing about them, grafting is something that I’ve never really delved into before now. The challenge excites me and the discovery of this tool has me ready to dive in head first.

What about you? Are you an experienced grafter? If so, let me know what your favorite methods are. And if not, what do you think? Will you give it a try?

Good luck!

Draw Them In Deep

MAKE THE MOST OUT OF The Far Corners Of Your Garden

The best part about having a garden is…using it! Whether you want to have activities, entertain guests, or just sit back and enjoy, the important thing is that it’s there for your pleasure, anytime. But every garden has an neglected or unsightly corner, right? How do you make the most out of those spaces? Sure, the patio next to the back door gets a lot of action, but how do you draw them in deep to take full advantage of every square foot?

Barriers

Do you have a junk drawer in your house? No judgment here. Surely we all have at least one. (I think I have three). Unfortunately, for a long time, I also had one in the garden. There were pots with dead plants, 5 dozen bamboo poles I rescued but didn’t have a plan for, an assortment of orphaned pavers and bricks, my son’s punching bag that never got punched. What a mess! The best part was that it was in a hidden patio behind the garage. No one could see it. The worst part was that it was in a hidden patio behind the garage. No one could use it.

There in lies the problem. These garden junk drawers become barriers to using real living spaces. If you don’t fix them, you’re surrendering part of your property! Other common barriers to having functional spaces are:

  • Broken or nonexistent paths
  • Large items stored without containers
  • Broken down fencing
  • Unpleasant views
  • Uneven paving
  • Overgrown plants requiring maintenance

Think of it this way. What if you suddenly found out that your neighbor’s fence was built 5’ inside your property line? Probably you would want to reclaim that space, right? So, let’s look at how we can reclaim space in order to take control over what we already own.

How to make the most out of the far corners of the garden

How do you draw them in deep? The same way we do it inside the house. People use the kitchen because that’s where the food is. The living room has the t.v. and places to sit. The bedroom is where we go to sleep. The bathroom…well, you get the idea. Rooms have a purpose.

Gardens should also be designed with rooms that have a purpose because, when you do, people will go to them.

Include these rooms to Draw Them In Deep

  • Cooking/dining room: depending on the space available they might be the same place or divided, but they are always adjacent to one another
  • Entertaining room: this may be part of the dining or lounging room and has an adequate amount of seating for your needs. It’s the place you bring your guests to enjoy the outdoors
  • Lounging/relaxing room: outwardly looking in to the garden
  • Private room: inside and surrounded by the garden
  • Fun and games room: big open flat space for games
  • Vegetable garden and gardening work room: a great place to have a potting table and shelves for proper storage of garden tools, amendments, and pots

These are all garden rooms that have purpose and that, matched with the right family, would get a lot of great use—IF they are convenient to access. If an outdoor room is inconvenient to get to or cluttered and messy, no one will go there!

do’s and don’ts to creating spaces that draw them in deep:

  • DO make sure there is a smooth, direct, and uncomplicated path to your room. If it is at the top or bottom of a slope, it is imperative that you either have a smoothly leveled and paved ramping system, or a proper set of steps. By proper I mean they should be no shorter than 5 1/2” and no taller than 6 1/2”. The tread should be no smaller than 12” deep. You can still use natural materials like wood or stone, but they must follow those dimensions and be perfectly stable. Even if it’s a flat path, be sure that you have a paving or planted surface that is maintained. Gravel, decomposed granite, even mulch is fine if it’s properly maintained. If it’s planted, be sure it’s trimmed and filled in. No one wants to walk through mud, sand or scratchy, tall brush to “relax”.
  • DON’T store “stuff” outside in or near your destination room. Whether it’s garden tools, extra pavers, or that broken bike that you plan on fixing yourself as soon as you have a free minute, it should be put neatly away in a storage unit. Home Depot or any hardware store will have Rubbermaid units of various sizes. Even an ugly storage unit is better than no storage unit. Trust me on this. Apart from being unsightly, that broken bike or extra pavers will remind you of what you haven’t had time to do. Every. Single. Time. And not only won’t you go out there but you definitely won’t bring guests.
  • DO make creative storage a challenge. A custom wood bench, with the correct dimensions can store tons of stuff. If you get some sizes of plastic storage containers and make a bench with storage in the seat, and a slow closing hinge for the lid you can hide a lot of sins. Also, built in BBQ’s have a lot of storage, and slim cabinets can be built along perimeter fencing or walls just like inside the house.
  • DON’T make a circuitous path to your destination room. We all know that the quickest distance between two points is a straight line. I’m not suggesting that you cut through your flower garden to make a straight path to the courtyard. Just take care that a person doesn’t have to walk around unsightly areas, narrow pathways, or inconvenient terrain.
  • DON’T put your compost bin in the very back of the yard. Unless your car is parked there, you have some other reason to go there daily, or you are a super avid and daily gardener it will get neglected. Compost is one of my most favorite things about gardening. It’s so rewarding to take waste and magically turn it into food for your plants…for FREE! That said, if not taken care of regularly it will turn into a soupy, smelly mess which you will avoid.
  • DO tuck the compost bin right into the garden. Hide it with your favorite plants and make a beautiful pathway to get to it. You can use mulch or gravel for paving around it so you have somewhere to stand and tend to it.
  • DON’T put a stand alone grill in the back of the garden. If you have a stand alone grill and a dining table, it will become inconvenient and frankly irritating to go back and forth to the house kitchen for supplies. For stand alone grills, the best place is with short, direct access to the kitchen door.
  • DO put a full outdoor kitchen deep into the garden. Fully stocked outdoor kitchens will have cabinets, drawers, a trash can—plenty of room to store dishes, utensils and even food and beverages. This makes it not only convenient, but also an excellent way to be sure draw them in deep.
Complete outdoor kitchen under covered patio in far corner of garden.

When designing a garden the best way to ensure that you draw them in deep and achieve the goal of using all of your available space is to resist the “junk drawer” scenario by working in ample storage space to your design. This way you have the things you need tucked away out of site leaving the usable space ready to be used.

Don’t relinquish precious square footage. Get the most out of your garden design by creating the rooms you most want to enjoy to relax, dine, and play!

Have fun!

Biggest Landscape Designer FAIL

It was about 15 years ago and I had landed my biggest project as an independent landscape designer. I was feeling pretty smug. I wasn’t just doing little flower beds anymore. This was big time, and I was ready! There would be no big landscape designer fails for me!

The property was a sprawling mountainous estate with a recently installed swimming pool and a half acre of the San Gabriel mountains exploding upward into the distant limits of the property.

Gearing up for success, setting up for a fail

The design program was wildly ambitious. My enthusiastic clients had envisioned a babbling brook tumbling down terraces and terminating into a pondless water feature behind the pool. They wanted a generous deck and kitchen for entertaining, private seating areas dotted through the property and hillside, native plants to stabilize the slope, lots of trees and more.

Let’s be frank here. It was a designer’s dream come true. Not only was the design program exciting but the client’s themselves were delightful. We just “got” each other. Spoke the same language. When they’d start to describe something I could practically finish their sentences.

I worked hard on that design. Really hard. I worked in every landscape nuance that I thought would thrill them. And in our first presentation meeting, not to brag, but I totally nailed it.

WHY THINGS TOOK A TURN

Everything was going great! So when I arrived with the contractor for our 3rd and final meeting to review the construction cost estimate, I had my calendar ready. The contractors could break ground next week. I was that confident.

They anxiously took the estimate and began to read. As my clients flipped through the pages, with me prattling on about the process of construction, I suddenly felt a chill that was descending upon the room and it was impossible to ignore. When they arrived at the last page I could actually see the blood drain from their faces as they caught sight of that bottom line. $95,000.

They were shocked, angry and disappointed. —stunned that their little project would cost nearly a hundred grand. And I was equally stunned that they would expect otherwise from such an expansive project.

There was a huge mistake in the design process. No, not a mistake, a total FAIL! And although it took a minute for me to get there, I soon realized that the fail was 100% on me. This, in my experience, is the number one Landscape Designer Fail, and I had made it, big time!

WHAT WAS THE BIG LANDSCAPE DESIGNER FAIL?

***We never established a budget***

THE HOW AND WHY OF THE FAIL

As part of my process, I have a form that I fill out in my initial meeting with every client. It allows me to make note of things like large trees, problematic views or drainage situations. It acts as an interviewing tool to discover what the client wants to accomplish. Also, it reminds me to discuss phasing and budget.

That last one is where it gets uncomfortable. A very common conversation back in those days might have sounded like this:

Me: So, do you have a budget in mind for your project?
Client: Well,…we don’t really know how much these things cost.
Me: Costs for landscape can have a very wide range depending on the size and scope of the project; what kind of amenities you want. That sort of thing. Is there a range you’re thinking of?
Client: We really want to do the whole project at once if possible. And we have money set aside for this.
Me: Ok, well, let’s get into these drawings and then get some bids. If we need to make some changes along the way we can certainly do that.

Anyone see a problem with this conversation?

This here is where the Landscape Designer Fail starts: NO ONE wanted to discuss an actual dollar amount. Without that discussion early on in the process it is extremely difficult NOT to fail.

The importance of discussing budget at the beginning of a project, in the middle of the design and throughout the process cannot be understated.

MILLION DOLLAR ADVICE FOR DESIGNERS

Clients don’t know how much things cost. And why should they? That’s why they hired a designer.

Let’s face it though, talking about money is uncomfortable. There’s even a podcast about it that’s actually called, This Is Uncomfortable, and it’s all about life and how money messes with it which, in this line of work, I can totally relate to.

So, to help you avoid some of my terrible mistakes here are my top 5 Pro-Tips on how to discuss money with a client, and a flow chart to get you going!

  1. Speak with confidence and don’t apologize for pricing. They may be uncomfortable about discussing money and budget but if you are not, you can help steer the conversation to a productive place. It’s better for them to consider this now than once they have a design they’ve fallen in love with but cannot afford.
  2. Don’t get into a game of chicken with the client about who will give up a number first. It’s awkward and unprofessional. The client is worried that if they say they have $50k but the price is only $30k, you’ll take them for a ride. Be prepared to offer a price range, even a wide one, based on the size of their property. Be sure to emphasize that it is just a “ballpark figure” and you need at least a preliminary design to narrow it down.
  3. Take notes about your budget conversation and email it to the client so they have the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. If the client tells you they want to see the design before deciding how much they want to spend, this is especially important. When presenting designs and estimates, have your notes out clearly on the table and refer back to your agreement to proceed with the design without a budget.
  4. If their budget is wildly low, be prepared with suggestions for phasing or referrals. Sometimes a client’s budget will be so low that you will know immediately they cannot afford their project. For example, a full front and back yard makeover will not be accomplished with $5000. Not ever. However, that $5k will get them a complete design and the new parkway installed. When they have another $5k or $10k they can chip away at another phase. Ultimately the client gets their dream landscape.
  5. Most important tip: Do not lead your client to believe that the cost will be less than you believe it to be. No one wins! If the budget is $25k and you are pretty sure it’ll cost close to $35k, it is not helpful to say, “We’ll find a way to make it work”. It’s better to say, “Let’s itemize these costs and then decide what we can change or do without”.

In conclusion

The best advise I can give to help you avoid the Biggest Landscape Designer Fail is to encourage you to find your own voice in discussing money. It can be humorous, analytical, or any style that suits your personality. When you are totally sure that both parties have the same understanding of budget and services your project will be off to a great start and a spectacular finish!

Good luck!

Boundless Landscape Border Ideas

glass landscape border
Garden in West Seattle with a super-cool idea to separate the front yard from slope out front.

Landscape border ideas? “Boring!” you might be thinking. But wait a sec. Borders are brilliant! Something as simple and straightforward as that border can be the difference between a basic garden and a spectacularly innovative one. Perhaps you think I’m over-selling a bit here, but I assure you, this is exactly the detail that makes a garden stand out.

It’s true, in the most basic terms, borders are just lines in the ground that divide two spaces. But before you draw one of those basic lines in the garden with some bender board you must first ask yourself, What do I want from this design? Do I want a nature-scape where the borders are invisible—grasses, perennials and trailing vines tumbling over one another to make a sea of horticultural communion? Or do I want to separate the garden and the turf to let each region of the garden shine on its own?

Either way, never overlook this oft missed opportunity to insert your own panache into your design.

An aside about Turf

I’m going to break a little blogging rule now and mention turf which is not our main topic of conversation here. It’s related however, and, in my opinion, an important aside. There’s a huge movement for removing lawns, particularly in the hotter, drier regions of the US. The primary goal is to dramatically reduce water usage. There are numerous other angles to explore as well. I have strong opinions about this, and I assure you we will discuss it at length, so I encourage you to stay tuned for our series entitled To Grass or Not to Grass, which will look at these issues and investigate design solutions for turf and turf-free gardens. This post is not that space. Right here, we’re just acknowledging that lawns exist and they often require borders. No judgement! Ok, back to the subject at hand…

FUNCTION: Why Do We Need Borders in the Landscape?

landscape edging with river rock
The edging in front of the stone prevents grass from creeping in.

Separation. A little distance. That’s all we’re trying to do. We want our garden residents—turf, decomposed granite (referred to as dg), shrubs etc.—to stay on their own sides. First let’s look at how things spread.

Grass: By it’s nature, turf grass is a spreader. It either uses underground runners (rhizomes) or above ground runners (stolons) to propagate itself and take over any non paved area within reach. Without a border it’s grass, grass everywhere!

DG: It is strong and inexpensive and if it’s stabilized with a polymer it can be as hard as, well, rock. It’s an excellent choice for walkways and patios. Nonstabilized dg however, has a consistency not much firmer than wet sand. Without a proper border, dg will spill out into the surrounding areas, look messy, alter the soil biology and ultimately cause your space to lose shape.

These are just two factors that make landscape borders so important!

FORM: Why do we need borders in the Landscape?

Because they look great! We now know what can happen if we don’t install physical barriers, but looking beyond that the most important part of garden design is making every item look intentional. The hard objects that help us keep things separate in the garden are just as important and can be just as interesting as the plants they are there to retain.

basic landscape BORDER MATERIALS

Here are the super basic choices for borders. Note I didn’t say bad choices. Every one of them serves a purpose and may be the perfect one for your needs. Here are 7 of the most common ones. I’ll discuss the top three.

  • Benderboard
  • Steel edging
  • River rock
  • Concrete Band
  • Brick
  • Concrete paver
  • Wood
steel edge landscape border
Clean, invisible line of the steel edge

Benderboard vs. Steel Edging
In a battle between the two, steel edging is the clear winner, hands down. It comes in 20’ powder coated 4” sheets of brown, black and sometimes green. You get steel stakes with your purchase to anchor it into the ground, and it is sturdy stuff! The reason I prefer it is that it makes a very clean line—straight or curvy—and it almost never comes popping out of the ground when it’s installed correctly. The cost is typically around $55 per 20′ panel

Benderboard, on the other hand comes in two varieties: one is brown, about 1/4” thick x 5” high, comes in 40’ rolls and is made of HDPE plastic and also comes with plastic stakes, the other is a black edge with a rounded bubble at the top and made of an unspecified plastic. The black one, I never use, ever. It simply looks unprofessional and will often start inching it’s way out of the ground as soon as you turn your back on it. But at a cost of only around $25 for a 40′ roll plus installation, it is an adequate cost effective substitute.

river rock landscape border

River Rock
The third basic edging material is river rock. By this, I’m referring to the white-ish speckled stones that are relatively consistent at about 6”-9” in size, although you can certainly find them somewhat, and even much larger. I often see them used as borders in a garden, marched in a single file row around turf areas. While, I myself often use them in my borders, I assure you that this application (the single row of matching rocks) is not an elegant choice. But we’ll get to design in a moment.

River Rock Pro-Tip: The most important thing to know if you are using river rock is that you must ALSO add edging first! Rocks do not a true border make. These rocks, when laid out, leave holes and openings for sneaky creepy grass to find its way in, or dg to find its way out. If you’re going to be there to maintain the garden and keep the grasses at bay then have at it. But it’s a risky move and extremely frustrating and time consuming to keep that mess managed. I know! I’ve made that mistake exactly 3 times before figuring it out.

Beautiful landscape Border Materials

We know that borders are used to divide spaces, and that’s really all there is to it. No one ever said that it had to be rocks or a straight piece of metal or plastic. Somehow, over time however, that’s just what evolved in most typical gardens. But there are so many interesting materials out there that can be repurposed and used to do the same job.

I have a husband and wife client pair, one is an artist who works with pottery. Along the side of their property lived stacks of cast off bricks, multi-celled cement blocks, and pile upon pile of broken and unused pieces of the artist’s pottery. It was an absolute gold mine!

I started out using some randomly sized rocks and boulders and then interspersed small groups of varying patterns of old bricks and blocks. Finally I selected uncommon and exceptional pieces of pottery from what she referred to as the “chard pile” and voila! We had a border, literally unlike any other!

So many different materials to make a whimsical and unusual border.

unconventional border material ideas

I was lucky with that project. It’s not often that you find such a unique assortment materials all in one place and at no charge. You can however keep your eyes open for all kinds of items that would work well in your border. Here are a few examples of borders I’ve designed and others that I’ve seen and either fallen in love with or been intrigued and amused by.

  • A trench of pea gravel with tumbled glass. Contain it in edging with landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from emerging and rocks from sinking.
  • Spanish roof tiles on their ends to create an “S” curve.
  • PVC or metal drain pipe cut to varying sizes. Place on ends in the ground, then add plants into the actual pipes. Cascading plants such as Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ or a wild strawberry would do the trick.
  • Gabions. Wire frames filled with rocks or any other chunky type of material. In collaboration with another designer, we once made gabions out of broken tiles and tea sets and won an award for it!
  • Dried bamboo poles—anything from 2” to 5” in diameter, cut to varying heights and “planted” on their ends. It makes an interesting natural edging with a twist.
  • Flagstone “planted” vertically to be about 6”-9” high, and irregularly organized: this is a great choice if you’ve had a recent flagstone project because there’s almost always leftover pieces that are too small for paving. Use these smaller pieces to make a low vertical border.
  • Skateboards. They will degrade but that’s part of the charm. I recommend wood decks not plastic. The plastic turns to powder with over exposure to sun and moisture.
  • Metal car rims (avoid plastic. See above). You get the best impact with a variety of designs!
  • Bicycle rims. Unlike with the car rims, bike rims are finer and thiner and look modern and streamlined when you use matching ones. But if you want to avoid the problem of many things marching in a row, it would be interesting to bury them to varying depths to make the border of a varying height.
  • Glass wine or other beverage bottles turned upside down and “planted”. Caution: don’t use clear. They get dirty and moldy inside and it’s unsightly. Darkly colored bottles mask this problem.

Try mixing materials! Bottles, bamboo and drain pipe—all round objects—can be combined to make a dynamically interesting, colorful and extraordinary border. If you’re adding something like rims or skateboards, it’s likely going to be difficult to find enough of them to make a complete border with only that subject. Consider using boulders and river rock to supplement with these special items.

So, what do you think? I hope now that you’ve poured over some of these unconventional landscape border ideas that you’ve come up with some of your own. I find that once you break away from the home improvement or landscape supply center’s choices for border materials, you begin to look around your world and consider everything a possibility. As long as you continue doing that, you are going to create some killer gardens!

Send me photos of your great borders and I’ll happily post them here!

Good luck! -Natalie