Archive for April 2011

Rediscovering Viburnum ‘Mohawk’

April 30, 2011

Early in my design career, I worked with a client on a master plan for a house she had moved into recently, in the District of Columbia. The back yard was designed to have two different seating areas (actually, three, if you counted the small porch overlook into the landscape). For the one nearest the house, we installed a small flagstone patio on stonedust adjacent to the deck and to a basement entrance to the house. We wanted to camouflage the entrance, which was a simple concrete opening; I chose skip laurels which over the years have done the trick.

But I also wanted to include something more ornamental that would provide fragrance, so I planted a couple of ‘Mohawk’ viburnums. Because we don’t maintain the garden on a regular basis, when we do spring cleanups in the back yard, I go along with a crew myself. And often – as this year – the visit coincides with the Mohawks in bloom. Sheer bliss.

Viburnum x 'Mohawk', blooms

Viburnum x Mohawk covered in blooms in early April

Not only are the blooms ornamental and prolific in the right site, they have a heady, clove-like fragrance that is simply intoxicating.

Viburnum Mohawk blooms

This Mohawk viburnum is covered in blooms.

And up close, the flower heads remind me strongly of crabapple blooms – another spring beauty in our region, but without the heavenly scent.

Viburnum x 'Mohawk' blooms

Even at the back of the shrub, up against a lattice screen, the blossoms are happy.

This variety of viburnum, developed by the National Arboretum’s Dr. Don Egolf (after whom a variety of the Chinese redbud was named), is resistant to leaf spot and powdery mildew. An added bonus are its orange-red leaves in fall. No wonder the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society gave it a Gold Medal Plant Award in 1993.

It’s listed as being suitable for light shade, so I am considering including it in a plan for a client with a partially shady back yard who loves fragrant plants. What a great way to start the growing year!

Red, White & Blooming at the White House

April 23, 2011

In mid-April, some friends with an extra ticket to the White House Spring Garden Tour asked if I’d like to join them. I was thrilled – I’ve never been on the White House grounds before, Congress had just come to its senses (well, at least partially) and averted a government shut-down, and I was longing for a jolt of spring. I had no idea how much we’d get to see but I chose my Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens for the D300 and we headed downtown.

White House Spring Garden tour

The ticket and our guide to the gardens!

The White House Grounds (according to our brochure) are “the oldest continually maintained landscape in the United States” and are open to the public twice a year, for Spring and Fall Garden Tours. Over the years, the grounds have been “enhanced” by a series of landscape architects “to seem idealistically natural” (again the brochure).  I can’t say that everything I saw quite fit with that concept (for example, on a large hill in the center of the South Lawn I saw a group of massive Camellia japonicas in bloom – beautiful, but hardly “natural” looking).  Here and there, usually on the periphery of the more formal areas, however, were stands of trees in bloom or leafing out that looked more like a woodland grove if you averted your eyes from the buildings behind them.

White House Gardens

Blooming redbuds and magnolias near the Northern Red Oak planted by President Eisenhower greet visitors as they enter the South Lawn area from East Executive Park.

The tour  sent us through paths along the South Lawn, and up towards the South Portico, where on the porch a military band was serenading the crowds. I was more entranced by the neatly clipped wisteria growing up the side of the Portico and along its beautiful ornate iron railings.

White House, South Portico

Wisteria growing up the side of the South Portico porch. See the bandleader on the left side of the porch? And check out the patriotic color scheme of the red tulips and blue hyacinths against the white building.

White House Gardens, wisteria

Couldn't take my eyes off this wisteria. Look closely - it's about to bloom! If only this tour had been a week later - with lots of sun in the meantime.

Moving away from the South Portico, we caught glimpses of the Rose Garden and the Oval Office as we headed down for a glimpse of the Kitchen Garden and the views around the central fountain that faces E Street N.W.  The Kitchen Garden was neatly planted (and mulched) with lots of lettuces and herbs – cool weather crops very appropriate for the kind of temperatures we’ve been having.

White House Kitchen Garden

The Kitchen Garden, with a cherry tree (?) in bloom in the background.

White House Gardens, White House grounds

The Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial are visible from the hill on the South Lawn. Pity about the bald sky, but you can't have everything.

The magnolias, most of which were still at peak bloom, were probably my favorite trees (along with a number of huge, magnificent dissected Japanese maples just leafing out). Here’s a favorite shot of one next to some more formal plantings near the fountain.

White House Gardens

A saucer magnolia in bloom softens the clipped yew hedge and bedding bulbs surrounding it on the South Lawn.

Redbuds in Bloom

April 16, 2011

It has been a cold and rainy spring here in the Washington area so far. The Tidal Basin Yoshino cherries bloomed late, forcing the mobs who wanted to stroll under their gorgeous branches to bundle up as if it were still late February.

Now it’s mid-April, and the weather is warming up a bit. My crabapple is getting ready to burst into bloom (the parts that don’t have fireblight, that is . . . sigh). In the meantime I’ve been admiring another one of my favorite spring trees, the Eastern  redbud (or Cercis canadensis).

Cercis canadensis

A redbud tree as a specimen in a suburban DC front yard.

This tree’s buds form directly on the branches, before the leaves come out, and are usually a very intense purple-pink shade.

Cercis candensis, Forest Pansy

Cercis canadensis buds on a tree limb in early spring.

Before you know it, the limbs are literally covered in these buds, which expand into small blossoms.

Cercis canadensis

Cercis candensis in bloom

A favorite type of redbud for designers around here to include in residential gardens is called “Forest Pansy.” Its leaves are burgundy, as opposed to green, unless the weather gets too hot, in which case the unusual color can fade.

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy', redbud, foliage

The foliage on a Forest Pansy cultivar has a reddish tint. Note the heart-shaped leaves.

These trees have stout trunks and a spreading habit – give them room when siting them. They rarely grow over 25′ tall, and have life spans of 35-40 years – nothing like an oak or maple. But in the right place in the landscape they can add a lot in spring.

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy,' redbud

A Forest Pansy redbud brightens an early-spring landscape.

For those who crave something a little more exotic, you can look for a Chinese redbud, or Cercis chinensis. The National Arboretum developed a cultivar of this rarer version of the redbud some years ago, called ‘Don Egolf,’ but I haven’t been able to find it except occasionally from mail-order firms. When I was down at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden the first weekend in April, however, I spotted several C. chinensis ‘Avondale’ trees.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Cercis chinensis 'Avondale', Chinese redbud

A Cercis chinensis tucked into a mixed border at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Their habit is very different from that of a regular redbud – much more upright in shape, making them ideal for including in tighter spaces. When I saw one on its own around the corner from this one, however, I didn’t care for the way it looked as a specimen standing alone – it seemed like a bunch of large redbud branches stuck into a vase, like a crape myrtle trying to sprout pink buds along its branches from the ground up. Still, I wouldn’t mind finding a way to include one in a mixed border of trees, like here. Especially in the garden, variety can add spice to life.

A River (Sometimes) Runs Through It – Part 2

April 9, 2011

Last week I set the stage for another “before and after” design problem and solution. This garden is on a normal-sized suburban lot in Bethesda, MD. It came with a daunting topographical problem in rainy times. Click here to see the “before ” pictures.

As explained in the last post, I decided to use a dry stream bed concept to cope with the periodic gully washers while providing a welcoming feel to the front yard. Plantings that went in included serviceberry trees (Amelanchier x ‘Autumn Brilliance’), hostas, Louisiana iris, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), and variegated redtwig dogwoods (Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’),  to name just a few.

Dry streambed plantings, Amelanchier

Three years after the garden was designed and planted, an Amelanchier anchors the right side of the dry streambed plantings.

The neighbors at the bottom of the hill have paid us the ultimate compliment by saying  they have “the best view in the neighborhood.”

Dry streambed, landscape design

The dry streambed ends near a bed of river birch and inkberry hollies at the bottom of a steep hill.

Even the county culvert area got a facelift that makes it look like part of the garden. Here’s the “before” photo from last week.

A county culvert on the side of the clients' property added nothing to any curb appeal of the property.

And now, “after.”

The culvert area, now part of the garden, is almost unrecognizable from before.

It’s been over five years since we planted the garden. The streambed has worked well, although ironically, two summers ago it was so dry that the owners decided to install an irrigation system just for the bed areas. Last summer’s torrential rains have once again proven the value of the design. We continue to tweak the beds here and there. The garden has won an award and been published in some magazine articles and even a book. But my greatest pleasure, beyond its success from a design standpoint, is watching it change with the seasons, and learning to photograph it in challenging light conditions which can be frustrating or rewarding. I’ll leave you with two favorite shots, the first taken from the same perspective as the opening “before” image,

This is the view that now welcomes visitors. The dry streambed is invisible from this perspective.

and my favorite, the garden bathed in late-afternoon light.

dry streambed garden

Baptisia, alliums and red-twig dogwoods surround the channel of stones and boulders.

There seems to be a wealth of references and online information about dry streambeds these days. I recommend it as a design solution to what can be otherwise daunting drainage issues. And it has the added benefit of allowing you to dress up the banks with appropriate plantings. Another example of making lemonade from lemons!

A River (Sometimes) Runs Through It – Part 1

April 2, 2011

Several years ago, an architect I know and have worked with before introduced me to a client of his whose home renovation was nearing completion. Most of the work was a beautiful interior renovation; the only changes to the exterior consisted of adding a porch and a cleverly-disguised laundry room on the front of the house. In the course of construction, as is often the case, the plantings around the house had taken a beating, including a dogwood tree and some azaleas.

House, almost done. Landscape, almost done in. (The flowering dogwood just to the right of the wooden ramp didn't make it.)

The entire place needed a make-over. But there was one small catch, which is detectable from the photo above if you look closely at it. The lot sloped dramatically (OK, the drama isn’t visible from this shot) from the left side of the house to the right, beginning with a very large hill on the left property line, and ending in a county culvert on the right property line. Strong rainstorms had always cut a gully line right in front of the house, turning the area into a muddy mess and eroding the soil or any semblance of a lawn.

Enter the concept of the dry streambed. We decided that creating a “channel” of large (5″ – 8″) river jack stones and boulders (and adding the same material to the bare county culvert at the bottom of the property) would slow down rainfall when storms hit and allow me to design planting beds around it with plants that could withstand periodic flooding.

The contractor had already built a mortared flagstone walkway over the portion of the “gully” area right in front of the steps, so we had to excavate underneath it and place perforated black pipe that would facilitate the water draining from one section of the dry streambed to the next and down to the culvert.

dry streambed

The dry streambed snaking under the pre-existing walkway. Yellow paint lines outline the planting beds on either side of the streambed and the foundation of the house.

The streambed was designed to funnel water down to a county culvert, at the foot of the hill, that parallels the side street.

A county culvert on the side of the clients' property added nothing to any curb appeal of the property.

The owners wanted a front garden that was as appealing as the makeover their home’s interior – and exterior – had received. They also knew solving the drainage problem was paramount. Next week: the garden, five years on.


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