Monthly Archives: March 2015

March 28, 2015

Composing Artful Modern Gardens

a blog called plot midcentury

This winter, I had a chance to talk to Los Angeles landscape architect Lisa Gimmy about her work. Many of her garden designs address transitional spaces like patios and terraces that are close to the house, so I was especially interested in what she had to say.

Not to knock Southern California’s midcentury modern gardens, but there are so many at this point that they are a dime a dozen—only they really aren’t, because designers like Gimmy have a fresh approach that isn’t about mimicking all the other modern gardens that have come before. She seems to set an intention to treat each and every project with dignity and engage it as the “only” garden. Note: That’s my impression—not her words.

Gimmy tends to emphasize a garden’s sculptural qualities, so scale, texture and form reign. When she was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, her mentor quoted John Russell, and Gimmy never forgot it: “The history of art, if properly set out, is the history of everything.”

a blog called plot modern gardens

As part of the conversation about spaces adjacent to a residence, these planters—custom-made of fiberglass—are some great examples of functional (privacy) and aesthetic needs being met by one component. Photo by Lisa Gimmy Landscape Architecture

Gimmy sees the connection between the house and garden as a dialogue: “Depending on the house, the nature of the dialogue is somewhat different. The first time I designed a garden for a Richard Neutra house, it was fun to play up the juxtaposition between the machine-like precision of the house against a free-form garden.”

a blog called plot modern gardens

Photo by Deniz A Durmus

Gimmy’s design for a Mid-Century modern house in Los Angeles, California, makes artistic use of agaves and palms elevated behind a retaining wall, with fine-needled rosemary trailing over the side. This pool area backdrop offers an incredible visual experience, but because it’s above eye level, Gimmy brought some plants down to what she calls “the human experience level” with planters.

“The footing for the wall comes out to the pool, so the only way we could get plants into that area was with containers. We did the same thing at the front door,” she says.

a blog called plot modern gardens

Photo by Peter Bohler

The outdoor living area is so tight that the design had to incorporate every inch of space. Consider the elements woven into the design to accomplish a fully-realized garden that can’t only be defined as small:

*Slim seating fits in the narrow walkway on the pool deck.

*Hillside plantings create views that add dimension to the garden and make it seem larger.

*Container plants and lighting make the space feel like home, even though there’s so much hardscape.

March 18, 2015

Bee Chalet Giveaway

bee giveaway

I’m excited to offer this giveaway, which is connected to the newly-launched Crown Bees Indiegogo campaign. Crown Bees has a goal: to create a network of Bee Boosters who support and raise native bees that can later be shared with local farmers.

“Since one out of every three bites of food we eat depends on bees, we need more native bees to help take the stress off of honey bees,” says Dave Hunter, CEO of Crown Bees, a supplier of gentle, solitary bees such as mason bees and leafcutter bees as well as American-made bee houses and supplies.

“Together, native bees and honey bees will pollinate more crops and protect our food supply,” he explains.

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Hunter challenges everyone to be part of the solution and support Crown Bees’ mission today by becoming a Bee Booster and donating to their grassroots campaign.

According to Hunter, everyone can be part of the solution. “Everyone needs to help by either supporting the campaign or by raising native bees to pollinate crops. In turn, this lightens the workload of troubled honey bees and helps keep food on your table,” says Hunter.

“This is a mission we all have to believe in – and act on now, not later,” he says.

Bee Boosters will connect on a new website called Bee With Me. The interactive community unites people across the country that care about the environment, want to help save bees, and are interested in learning how to raise native bees or already have a bee house in their backyard.

Native, solitary bees, such as mason bees, are easy to raise. It’s easier than hanging and filling a birdfeeder. As an added benefit for homeowners and parents, these gentle bees rarely sting and increase the production of flowers and veggies in gardens.

Crown Bees is sweetening the pot for contributors. Everyone who joins the Indiegogo campaign at any level will become a Bee Booster with access to Bee with Me. Additionally, every contributor receives the new “All about Native Bees” e-book and a shout out on Crown Bees’ website.

Looking Back at Small Space Design

A Blog Called Plot

The human tendency to stay close to home is one of the reasons people can so happily live in condos and apartments. It’s a good thing that our cultural and economic transition from large homes to smaller ones has been met with open arms by the real-estate market, which has pushed the development of condo buildings and smaller houses. The design community has gathered around to support smaller homes, too, offering an endless supply of tips and ideas for these spaces on Houzz and Pinterest.

The Horticult, putting a fine point on D.I.Y.

The Horticult, putting a fine point on D.I.Y.

There’s also a heritage of beautiful small space design in dense European cities, especially outdoors, where a postage stamp-sized garden is the most you can hope for unless you’re a royal. They’ve shown us that just a sliver of the outdoors—even a porch—is enough space for the good life.

I wrote about Thomas Church’s way with small gardens in a previous post, and Charles Birnbaum, President and Founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, notes that several influential landscape architecture firms have carried on with high standards for the creation of exquisite gardens of the tiny variety.

In terms of their design approach, Jim van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme find their connection to Thomas Church in their view of a garden as work of art. As Charles says, “Where there is overlap is perhaps that plants have sculptural qualities—you see this with Church in the way he would prune trees and shrubs to take advantage of their sculptural qualities. And I would say that for Jim and Wolfgang, the winter interest of plant materials would achieve the same effect.”

Taking its name from their book Bold Romantic Gardens, a retrospective exhibition of Oehme, van Sweden’s body of work in landscape design will open in October and continue for six months at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Organized by Birnbaum, the exhibition will reveal how van Sweden’s emphasis during the design process leveraged gardens as an art form, but outdoor living was never neglected or given short shrift.


A small town garden in Washington, D.C. by Oehme, van Sweden.

The book Bold Romantic Gardens has become a fixture in the garden lover’s library, and is filled with photos of the expansive meadow gardens that they have become known for. Also included is van Sweden’s own small Georgetown garden. One of the most photographed, published and influential gardens in the United States, the Georgetown garden shows how much can be done with limited space. 

“The garden was built around borrowed views because it was a small space. He created a false perspective,” says Birnbaum.

When van Sweden passed away in 2013, Adrian Higgins wrote about the significance of that garden in the Washington Post:

The design partners set out to prove their theories — and win clients — by converting the deep but narrow backyard of Mr. van Sweden’s Georgetown rowhouse into a space layered with grasses, perennials and small trees in a way that blurred boundaries and paths. The object, Mr. van Sweden wrote, was “to lead the eye deeper into a scene which is not completely revealed, even in so tiny a space.”

Another Georgetown residence, the Eaton-Jones garden that appeared in van Sweden’s 2011 book The Artful Garden, exemplifies a small space garden formula that on the face of it seems different from Church’s. According to van Sweden, the use of positive and negative space, form and scale, light and shadow, and rough and smooth textures is what makes or breaks a garden.

History of small space gardens

The Eaton-Jones garden by Oehme, van Sweden.

With less than 1500 square feet to work with, the designers of the Eaton-Jones garden (pictured here, borrowed from the OVSLA website, photographed by Roger Foley) decided to make a water feature—a lily pond adjacent to a functional lap pool—the garden’s focal point. Taking up a third of the entire garden, you would think the feature would take over and feel out of place, but instead it’s balanced by a terrace that supports seating for the owners to relax and entertain. The terrace is surrounded by Hakone grass, bear’s breeches and canna lilies for movement, beauty and active gardening. A small shed in the back stores tools and makes the garden seem longer because of its scale. Break it down to its elements and what does the garden have?

*Plants that are conducive to the site

*Opportunities for tilling the soil

*Useful areas for living

In many ways, the Eaton-Jones garden follows Church’s recipe for small space design.

Kaveri Lily Bulb Giveaway

lily bulb giveaway

I’m well aware that not everyone lives in Florida, so this lily bulb giveaway is for those of you who live in colder climes. The ground will thaw soon, and it will be time to plant bulbs. Enter to win a 5-Pack of these gorgeous new Oriental Asiatic ‘Kaveri’ lilies from Longfield Gardens to add a punch of color to your bed or border. With large, fragrant flowers, ‘Kaveri’ has eye-catching petals that are golden yellow brushed with tangerine and burgundy. The vigorous, 3’ to 4′ plants produce lots of buds so you’ll enjoy weeks of flowers.
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House + Garden Dynamic


Because there’s no getting away from the architecture in a small space garden (there it is, right beside you) the garden becomes an extension of the house. Miami landscape architect Raymond Jungles references his design for the Jones garden in Key West when he thinks about the indoor-outdoor connection: “First I have to understand what the architecture is, and work with it, not against it. My own philosophy is to blend the indoor and outdoors.”

“What I ask myself is how the design will allow the two to be connected. The Jones garden is a very small site with narrow spaces outside the architecture. Because it was a renovation and there wasn’t an architect on board, we had to reimagine the space, and use it right up to the property line. That garden really exemplifies what we can do in small spaces. In this case, we even put the pool in the front yard where the driveway was, and took chunks of the house out so the garden could extend plants further in,” he says.

To make the best use of the architecture, “you have to know what’s happening with the light,” explains Jungles. “The orientation to the sun and to the light is critical to the design of spaces. Before we do anything on a project, we know what light each area is getting at all times of day, and of course that changes seasonally.”

The shadows cast by walls, houses, and other design features impact plant choices, the siting of furniture and water features, and how garden rooms will be used. Access to light connects back to understanding the architecture, because the house is usually the most massive obstruction to light that a garden designer contends with, as well as the largest surface to play against with the garden’s design.

*Water features sparkle in the sun year-round if they’re put in the right spot.

*Large, sculptural plants animate the garden more when they make funky shadows on hardscape instead of being tucked into the back of a border.

*Shade trees can transform an exposed porch into a comfortable outdoor living room.

“I also think that a small garden should include a strong statement to grab the eye and bring focus to the space,” says Jungles. “A boldly painted wall, a beautiful set of outdoor furniture, or a  really interesting plant used in repetition can work.”

Jungles recently designed a small garden area outside his home office. The bold stroke here is the repetitious planting of monstera.

Jungles office

“I didn’t want to use twenty plants. It would be distracting here. In Bali, they make a water garden using a single vessel with a water lily in it.” Well said!

Because the designs created by these influencers have been well-photographed, and widely shared, they’ve directly impacted the gardens that we find in our own backyards, and the ones I’ll be writing about in my book. When you look at the many styles shown its pages, remember that those gardens may be dressed up in many ways, but the simple truths first revealed in modern gardens are their strength.

Win a Bug-Off Instant Screen

garden blog

You’re a gardener, so you’re constantly going in and out of the door when the weather is nice. How annoying is it that you have to open and close the door every time you walk through, in the process letting bugs in the house? If you’re carrying something, you have to put it down, open the door, pick it up, walk through the door, and then kick the door shut with your foot. That’s five steps to get outside. Not the best experience, right? The alternative is to step through the Bug-Off Instant Screen and be done with it.

That’s why you’ll definitely want to enter to win the Big-Off Instant Screen.

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The winner will receive an easy-install screen that’s custom sized to their door of choice. It will make your spring and summer SO much better.

Also, consider that it isn’t just you using the door. If you have kids, you know how obsessed they are with using the door repeatedly. Parenting magazine has a story on their website about this fascination. It may be fun for kids, but adults usually find it pretty aggravating to hear the door opening and shutting all day long. If you remove the door option for kids by installing a Bug-Off screen, Parenting has a great idea: give them something else to open and shut. Toddlers love playing with Tupperware.