Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wave Hill Garden Kicks Off Horticultural Lecture Series with Larry J. Wente & Country Life: Integrating Architecture & Landscape Design

This was the inaugural horticulture lecture of the new year/new season: (Beat out NYBG by about half a day…)

It was a fitting kick-off, too. 
Wave Hill bills the much anticipated Horticultural Lectures as “Architectural and Garden Design: Three Perspectives.”

The first guest speaker, Larry J. Wente, is a quiet, persistent gardener and architect.   
The expansive gardens for his country home, which is essentially an estate in my humble opinion, embraced years of dedicated planning and artful landscape design.
The property is 41 acres, and while he clearly is passionate about his gardens and the intimate, detailed planning he poured his life into for every garden room, he said, “It had to end sometime!”

From a lecture review standpoint, Wente’s presentation was a good mix of “before” and “after” gardening magic. 
He took the audience on a garden tour that spanned a decades-long timeline and virtual tour around the estate -- and from blueprint layout to finished garden room – in a mix of seasons.  
The preview was almost better than an on-site tour, allowing the audience to see the expanse of the garden rooms, vistas and maturation of plant material over time and place. 
OK, we didn’t get to experience heady fragrance or feel the brush of the grasses or see the sun set across the fields.  No. We weren’t seduced by any of those garden art come-hither flirtations. But then again, we did didn’t linger. And we learned a lot.

Wave Hill wrote “His Dutchess County property, where the integration of a barn-like home with the surrounding farmland and meadows intentionally blurs the line between house and garden, is a favorite on Garden Conservancy Open Days.” 
We could readily see why.
This garden is a jewel – it’s been lovingly crafted and tended over time, with the plants and the design leading Wente’s aesthetics to integrate a garden for all seasons with the architecture. Like two peas in a pod or two sides of the same coin or…
Well, some garden lovers don’t get this integration concept. 
Sometimes it seems everyone wants an English garden.  As if nothing else existed or was possible. So it was satisfying to learn how a master accomplished this feat of fusion.

Also, Wente seems so special because unlike many architects I’ve encountered, he clearly Loves plants!
You can see it in his exuberant display gardens and the great variety of plants and plant textures and structures. 
He quoted the beloved New York City public garden designer, Lynden Miller, from her book, “Parks, Plants & People: ”Beautifying the Urban Landscape”, saying he too believes good garden design is “painting with plants.” Lynden smiled from the audience. 

He showed inspiring use of color.  
Besides the color combinations of the blooms in full blossom and the mix in the perennial borders, he showed a lovely end of season garden palette when the colors transition from blue to purple to grey.  He mixes with yellow for contrast. 

He says he abandoned his original color scheme for the pool garden and instead followed his color aesthetic. The use of Japanese red blood grass punctuates the garden and acts as an accent in the gold and bronze-colored plant garden there.   

Most outstanding is how he made the blue solar panels integrate into a garden design with the use of contrasting red poppies. Brilliant!  

Wente noted many of his garden “rooms” have been featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine. He pointed out a few times that he and his partner’s curious tuteurs –  rather large-sized, bold silver creations that were paced among the giant alliums -- were omitted by the MSL photography team. “They seemed to think they were a bit tacky,” he grinned.    

He went on to point out his influences, including the Spanish landscape designer, Fernando Caruncho, best known for his minimalist and classic garden design and use of light and shadow.
Here is a recent article written by my amazing garden friend, Donna Dorian.  I think she is something of a Caruncho expert, having lectured and written about this masterful designer on more than a few occasions:

Wente introduced a vertical design element in his gardens to create mystery -- taking inspiration from the Italian gardens he visited.   

He also substitutes natives to achieve a look. For example, Wente can’t do olive and cypress trees, but he can do apple and spirea. “It’s a different feel but essentially the same style and look,” he added.

He also showed a great use of bamboo in pots.  

He uses a fair amount of grasses, especially the Karl Foerster grasses because of the all-season color and texture and contribution to pollinators in the winter months.  
The textured view of apple trees is ethereal.
The images elicited a soft wave of “Ohhhs.”
The gardens boast a great variety of plant material, including perennials and grasses  - -Wente says he loves to see them blowing in the wind.  (Don’t even think about Dylan here.)

He employs turf grass walkways frequently throughout the garden because it’s cool on the feet.  Nice. One doesn’t always need pavers or gravel or stones.

As a successful architect in the design firm, Gertler & Wente Architects, LLP, it’s not a surprise to see how Wente made excellent use of designing gardens on the axis.
The pool garden, for example, has an axis point to the pool house so that the view slows the walking there.  
In another place, the use of a large blue pot at the end of an arbor walkway acts as a designed focal point. 
Wente knows how to draw the eye.
And the heart.

Wente concluded his garden tour and lecture by including images of family and friends IN the garden.  Silly how this is rarely if ever done at presentations, now that I think about it.   
Wente narrated the portfolio of family members delighted to be in the garden.  “The best thing about having a garden is to have people in the garden.  Look at my granddaughter – she looks like something out of a Sargent painting,” he beamed.   His partner Jack and their families could be seen enjoying and embracing the beauty of the gardens.  


Wente quickly showed two of his clients’ design projects.  There was an intriguing Hudson River green roof cover that screened the home for the neighbor’s house up above.  The green roof allowed an un-interrupted view for the neighbor and an energy-efficient, beautiful roof alternative for his client.  Nice neighbor to have…  
He also showed a modern, mid-century take on a courtyard garden that opened up the space to draw the eye to a reverse side valley view.  

The last garden design example was another one near the Hudson River. The house and garden was appointed with waterfalls, and water features to create a fairyland of a “natural” garden.

There was a two question Q&A, the most salient one asked:   
How do you manage the maintenance? Larry smiled.  “We have a woman - with help. Otherwise, Jack and I used to do it all.” Wow.  That’s garden love and commitment. 

Audience guests were keen to say hello to each other after the Holidays so there was the post-lecture hugs and kisses and catching up.  Our little group went across the street for some delicious seafood dinners, wine and some garden catching up of our own. 
A perfect evening for garden lovers.

From a Duchess to a Queen! 
I am very much looking forward to the next Wave Hill lecture: February 22 with Rosemary Verey: Queen Of Horticulture.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Exploring the Passion for Ornamental Grasses at MetroHort

The first meeting of the New York MetroHort professional group featured Bill Kolvek, nursery owner, member of the Perennial Plant Association, frequent lecturer and New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and Bergen Community College, teacher about perennials and ornamental grasses. 

Kolvek offered a fast-paced presentation because it was clear he has a lot to say and share.  The audience warms to a speaker who had lots and lots of images to share, and Kolvek didn’t disappoint.  Full-color images of regal, fashionable, architectural, pretty grasses flowed like models on the runway.  And not so coincidently, elicited a few oohs and ahh’s along the way. Take that Victoria Secret!

Kolvek’s insight and knowledge of the grasses and grass-like plants was evident.  He made the lecture fun – with lots of anecdotes and background and real-life experience with growing and maintenance, that is all so important to the hort professionals in attendance.  After all, we have to live with more than the pretty catalog picture… Our clients’ gardens are living art that we manage over seasons.

The variety of ornamental grasses, sedges and rushes is astounding.  And the recent introductions make these plants a must-have addition in the garden and as part of any container garden composition.  Grasses provide a lucky extra in the garden: they offer four-season interest, color, winter beauty and food for pollinators.  Kolvek pointed out that many grasses now thrive in shade.  We also learned about many native grasses including the Carex pennsylvanica.  Nice flowering too. 

I liked the looks of ‘Goldband’ and while I couldn’t quite see it, Kolvek enthused about the plant’s olive green color.  That shade of green is a welcome addition to a garden designer’s palette. Overall, the plant was described as showing with lots of winter interest. The Carex elate 'Aurea' is a startlingly beautiful accessory to the blues and green grasses in the garden.

Love the Aurea with daisies

The Muhlenbergia capillaris grass was hands-down glamorous. Its showy pink plumes are pretty pink tutus that leave one swooning.  

There was mention of its inability to sustain our northeastern US zone 5, 6, 7 and thanks to global warming, 8.  I thought I heard mention this ballerina like grass is good to zone 5.  It’s a tender perennial…
However, I will tell you that I tried twice to include these beauties in Garden State gardens back in ’05 and ’06 and met with little success, even given a southwestern microclimate situation where the grasses were planted next to the house – giving added heat/warmth.   
I would so love to use this beauty (I still have the grower’s postcard in my home garden design office simply because it’s so pretty….
If anyone has other experiences or advice on this, please share.

Kolvek went on to say the Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ are the “coolest grass” he’s worked with. 
I love them too and have used them in several clients’ garden designs. 
Especially one in Spring Lake (aka “the Irish Riviera”) in the Garden State. 
Six years ago, I chose to include this grass as an elongated “S” border on one side of the small yard because of its beauty, no doubt – the color complemented the blue house color – but also because of its size and structure and flowering charm.

Panicum amarum ‘Dewey Blue’ was a new one to me and I very much liked the look.  I will surely use these in future garden designs.

Some exciting new introductions that left the audience as breathless as international fashion buyers included the Panicums ‘Thundercloud’ and ‘Ruby Ribbons’  

along with the Pennisetums ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Sky Rocket’ and ‘Cherry Sparkler’  – all with incredible foliage.   
Not hardy in colder climates but I will use as spectacular tender perennials in garden design and container compositions.

There was a pointed inclusion about bamboo – it’s a true grass, after all.
I do feel bamboo is an overlooked design element because too many are afraid of its invasive qualities. However, if you or the garden designer chooses wisely, bamboo is an elegant, unmatched addition to a garden: in containers – if too invasive – or in the landscape. Homeowners too often don’t know the difference. There are those that are indeed invasive (oy are they! We are in a constant battle with one neighbor’s creeping bamboo) and those that are just elegant grasses. I have often frequented Little Acre Farm ( to secure such grasses as Fargesia nitidia (grows to about six or seven feet).  
The variegated leaves of the Pleioblastus variegatus is like garden magic – the leaves turn beige in the winter and back to green in the summer.  Just be sure to keep this morphing maven in a contained space – it is one of the bamboos that will take over the garden.   

Tried and true wonders that Kolvek (and me) love include Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and ‘Little Bunny’ – good to zone 6 but could be ok in zone 5 due to our climate change… These stalwarts of the garden provide consistent texture, color and drama especially for smaller spaces.   Same is true for the variety of Miscanthus.  New to me was the ‘Gold Bar.”  Brilliant color for all-season interest.

Kolvek did warn about the self-sowing of the popular Moudry grasses

A cute highlight was when Kolvek showed how his puppy equally loves grasses and snuggled in this beauty, the clumping ‘Ice Dance’ along with his bone. 

As an adult dog, he still loves his bone-hiding grass! 

Light shade and moisture was suggested for the Carex (more light requires more moisture is a good rule of thumb.)
I loved the Rushes Kolvek previewed, including the Juncus ‘Twisted Arrows’ and ‘Unicorn!’  What fun for a zoo garden. 

I can see an evening solar light illuminating these twisting architectural specimens.

I use Liriope often and don’t feel they are overused when incorporated into a design appropriately and not just plopped all over.  They are hardy, require minimal maintenance and provide color and foliage options that give the garden a four-season interest. 
The new ‘Peedee Ingot’ is adorable.  And the color of preppy green and purple is exciting – I can’t wait to use this beauty.

The Lazula ‘Ruby Stilleto’ gave me a jolt of garden design inspiration just looking at the image! 

I used the Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Arabicus’ in a garden design back in ’01.  Because of the high cost of the Mondo Grass at that time, we used very few to line a walkway in front of dwarf  Nandina.  Over the years, we have divided the clumps with much success.  The black color fronting the winter red nandina and the light to dark green in spring and summer is outstanding.  There are very few black plants for us to use and I adore this one.   

I also use the Hakonechloa macra “Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’ frequently.  All season color and the texture are key. I love the way it feathers and fluffs in the breeze, too.  These grasses looked particularly stunning fronting dwarf Joe Pye Weed. The pink and glowing bright greens made a hit in the garden and with the client.

There was a short, lively Q&A following the exciting lecture with questions included “What kind of grass would you suggest for a 40th floor rooftop garden in New York City?” Answer:  short ones!  

Kolvek provided the MetroHort attendees a full plant list.  My NYBG friend and all things Horticulture, Charles Yurgalevitch, Ph.D., Director School of Professional Horticulture The New York Botanical Garden, and MetroHort Secretary (and all things Italian) was a true gentleman and shared his plant list with me.  Thank you.

Readers can go directly to the Kolvek Perennial Plants website:

The native plant list (found on the home page) is a godsend.  Be sure to use this helpful list.  You will be adding not just natural beauty and sustainability to the garden but you will be aiding our native pollinators by using natives and not invasive ornamentals. 

I couldn’t help but notice the lovely botanical art on the Kolvek Perennial home page is an Illustration by Anne Kolvek.  What a talented family!  Thank you for sharing your love of plants and celebrating the art of the Garden!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Home Renovation Update and Tips

Did you ever see a Taper?  They are the most curious of creatures… They look like something out of the movie, “Avatar!”

They walk on stilts in order to tape the sheetrock. 

I love the way they work: so agile and confident on those metal stilts.  There should be some kind of Olympics or Reality Show for construction trades.  I would cheer for this team.

Every trade team has their own unique work style and character. Not unlike major sports teams.

Our Garden State home renovation continues and I have more than a few observations and updates.  Crazy that all this effort marches right through the holidays. 

We are in the midst of the ongoing scenario that reminds me of the Peanuts’ “Pig-Pen” – meaning balls of dust everywhere we step, no matter what one does to ameliorate the “dust.” 

Before - and with some cleanup!
I couldn’t take the disorganization or dust a minute more, so right before Christmas – and before the sheetrock team even did their work, er, dust contribution -- I had to make some sense of it all and put what is now the home office: soon to be the water view side of the master suite back to some kind of order.  
That meant vacuuming multiple times, followed by an equal number of the companion effort of washing the wood floors. Then vacuum then wash, then…
I put some of the books and garden design tools back out from under the tarps.

After cleanup reorg
Then like some inspired, reverse-order Scarlett O’Hara, I staple-gunned sheets to the newly installed windows to create window treatments.  

We felt almost human…

Guest room temporary reorg with Scarlett drapes!

Then two days later, just like Scarlett, I had to rip them down. 

The sheetrock team was here.

And they move the rooms full of sheetrock like a shopping contestant on a timed clock.
They move muy rapido:  Sheet rock hauled into every room from where it was piled like books in the library.

I couldn’t believe this truck wasn’t going to smash into the house when the sheetrock was delivered! 
A big Wii game-like control panel, allows the delivery man, slash tech editor and manager, to expertly and adroitly take on Power Ranger arms to swing these babies inside and stack ‘em up.  


The sheetrockers cut the boards, a nail gun drives in the nails to secure the boards and then onto the next spot.  Almost a staccato musical with the swish, swish, zoom, zip, zoom…
Amazing time and motion study.


Then the aforementioned Avatar Tapers come in and tape the sheetrock’s seams.
Paste, smooth. Paste, smooth.  Repeated with skill and patience.
Avatar Tapers

At the same time, the siding continued and the front and back covered porch pillars went in and up. 
Trying to keep the workmen’s sharp objects off the newly crafted front porch was a challenge.
Here, UPS delivered the highly anticipated spray foam insulation onto the newly laid bluestone porch. 

Wouldn’t  you think the universal, yellow caution tape oh-so-obviously communicating that it was not OK to go onto the front porch would’ve prevented this drop off on this spot? 

Later, after Christmas, my husband donned a hazmet suit to spray the foam insulation into the roof of the new back covered porch.  Yikes!  This stuff is very scary.  And try “gently” peeling specs off the face – even though hats, goggles and face guard were worn.
It’s times like this one wonders if it’s all worth it.

Then you see the new front door complete xx and you get downright giddy. Especially after you receive wowsy texts from the neighbors applauding the look. 
Me trying out the key on the new front door!

Or you see the sun streaming in and making what look like illuminated floral patterns on the wall.  A magical miracle of sunshine and glass! 

We’ve had the masons complete the reassembly of the back terrace and a new step, allowing egress out of the dining room.   
The electrician has installed some lights (hello 20th Century. We’re getting there) and the plumber visited too.

We are managing the GC work now ourselves.  We needed to part ways with the one we had due to terms that were laid out to us that we couldn’t meet.
And the relationship had turned ever so swiftly to one that was filled with ill will and recriminations and name calling, of all things, on top of some serious arithmetic errors and budget sleight of hand…. 

We have saved for about ten years to renovate our home. We knew it would be a big deal, a lot of inconvenience and loss of privacy – and money J   but we are patient, modest people.  We never expected the biggest issue to be one of lack of good, decent communication from someone who is supposed to be an advocate for us – one who is paid to work for us.  After the term demands couldn’t have been met, we agreed it was best for us to operate in a more peaceful, respectful way.
I will get a shaman to come in and remove the bad spirits and energies. Just have to find one that is local.

By the way, I do a lot of garden design for my clients utilizing the principles of feng shui and, of course, will do so for us too. I am also applying many of the good energy practices to the house/home design.  I love what is recommended for the front door alone. More on that later.

In an effort to help others pondering or embarking on a home renovation, we offer a few suggestions.

Our Tips for Choosing a GC:
  • Do not just check references, but also check other work contacts. Ask the other trades. And/or the competition. Reputations are made and lost on the ability to sustain client relationships and often one or two good jobs, just completed, do not give the full picture.  Look online for reports of abuse.
  • Determine the work style of the GC.  If you are the type of person who requires back up and transparency, do not just look at a finished home project to choose your GC. It may have been hell to get there.  Too often homeowners look at the finished pictures in a portfolio and do not gauge how the GC manages the process of the work.  Those of us accustomed to teamwork and corporate work structures cannot abide sloppy, poorly managed and error prone work documents and processes.  Interview the entire work style – not just the finished home work project.
  • Ask if the GC has a line of credit. I do. I pay my teams most often way before my client pays me and could use this if needed. Our GC always complained loudly that she did not have any money to pay her teams if we didn’t submit a check immediately.  An established, credible GC should have enough working capital to pay the team(s) until you write the check.  Plus the GC gets their 10-15% from you straight away – and that could help cover the team cost if it is so necessary, right?
  • Establish a work process that suits you – the client  - and ask if the proposed GC can work within these guidelines. Say I will prefer meeting notes, emails and/or text and phone updates.  Document it as part of the working contract.   Meeting notes, especially, help clarify what was decided and who is responsible. Keep up the reports even after construction starts.  So many of ours fell to me to do early on and then afterwards meetings turned into an ATM – merely an opportunity to tell us, “I need these checks and now… “ 
  • Make certain the GC understands they are responsible for the Spreadsheets and managing of the budget. They are your advocate and need to manage to your stated budget even if that is a working aspirational budget.  They need to update accordingly and be held accountable to meeting the approved working budget.  And share this with you.  You are working the home renovation project together.
  • Establish weekly or bi weekly meeting updates that are more about the design and the workflow than about writing checks.  Walk the construction site. See what manifests itself – the space and rooms look different once the work commences than when it was on the blueprint. We only made a few design changes from the start – adding two windows.  But if we had focused on the design work rather than check writing at the meetings, we could all have discovered the need for the windows sooner.  My cousin pointed out to us it might be nice to add the one, and the window in the loft was my idea once I saw the room framed out… I’ve heard of many home renovations going spectacularly over budget due to design changes requiring massive change orders. We didn’t have that.  But do walk the site and see if the work in progress suggests something else you might do at that time and save money later.  Or add something you just can’t live without now that you See it.
  • Establish payment schedules. While it is true that most construction trades require a deposit and one can plan for that, there is simply no need for immediate payments and the high drama that goes with demanding checks as soon as the request is sent.  Most every business operates on net-30 or 60 days and there is no reason for home construction to be any different.  Our GC was always in a high drama mode waving pieces of paper with a number on it or emailing demands.  We had to manage our monies and move from various accounts so the immediate turn around didn’t work nor was it necessary.  I found a huge error when I took the time to review the spreadsheet and proposals from the trades.  Further, permits and weather often modify even the best work schedule so payments based on work are not always established as set in stone. 
  • But it is always preferred to provide an invoice with the original budget proposal, the back up and the invoice. This standard operating procedure and should be provided with courtesy and clarity.  With proper notice and back up, payment can readily be made with confidence  -- within a week, 30 days, (or a day) whatever is agreed to.  We have continued to pay our excellent trades and craftspeople on this weekly and monthly schedule. No problems. No drama.
  • Review the proposals and spreadsheet before signing the contract. Review repeatedly.  Overbudget occurred to us due to sloppy, mis-management errors and no detailed itemized list of necessary items on the proposed and final budget proposal and spreadsheet.
  • Establish a realistic timeline for the work.  This way you know you will be moving things for not just “a few weeks” but for a year  -- or whatever.  Demand that you get more than a few weeks’ (or in our case, days – notice – especially if you travel for work) about moving the household items so that you can pack and store with respect and assurance and will know where items are for the duration of the work project.
  • Update the workflow and timeline as the work progresses.
  • Courtesy and preferred client relations should be a given, but it’s not.  So establish what you need up front.  Everything. Not just the construction work.  Interview many points of contact.  Make it a joyful, blissful project. After all, it’s your dream house.