Both Christmas and Chanukah start next week. This post will, therefore, be a bit longer than usual since I want to bring three books to your attention.

The first is Gardentopia: Design Basics for Creating Beautiful Outdoor Spaces by Jan Johnsen. Transforming a landscape from ordinary to charming is challenging but Jan has been doing this for many years and, in her book, she offers hundreds of ideas and techniques to do just that.

As any good designer would do, she starts you off with examining the garden’s layout, moves to consideration of the hardscape, i.e. walls, patios, and walks, discusses theme gardens as a way to get creative, shares her theories on color and how to harness it imaginatively, and then, finally, talks about plants. Everything she mentions will help you create a compelling garden.

I think her suggestion of using visualization as a starter is excellent because it is helpful in deciding what one’s goals are. For the most part, each of Jan’s ideas is one page long with a photograph to illustrate the idea. This arrangement makes it very easy to read and absorb the knowledge she is imparting. Who knows which of her ideas will trigger your imagination? While I was reading the page on repetition and seeing the photograph of three upright terracotta pots, it suddenly occurred to me that I could use that idea for a client who has a shaded brick wall that needs bright color. Perhaps I can find magenta containers for her.

Artists use trompe l’oeuil (fool the eye) all the time. Jan reminds us that gardeners should also be using it. We can make a small space seem larger or a short path seem longer by playing with perspective. The converse is also true. A few pages, later she touches on keeping axial lines narrow if we want them to seem long. She also has several ideas about curves and circles in the landscape. The idea of pooling and channeling as a way to affect pace on a walkway in one that I had never considered.

I loved her discussion of exclamation points. All too often, tall conifers are used only as hedges but Jan points out that a few could be used as vertical “punches”. There are, of course, numerous vertical structures or ornaments that could be used for the same purpose. It’s merely a matter of imagination.

Patios and decks are often too small so Jan suggests that we should think bigger. She also suggests using tape to outline the dimensions of furnishings to ensure that new ones will fit. Her discussion of hardscaping is full of ideas and tips for installation.

Individualizing a garden to reflect the personality and taste of the owner should be fun and this is where the idea of theme gardens enters. Jan quotes Gertrude Jekyll to reflect this sentiment: “The garden should fit its owner of his or her tastes, just as one’s clothes do; it should be neither too large nor too small, but just comfortable.” Sounds to me like the tale of the three bears. The theme could be anything from a stroll or pollinator garden to a whimsical or evening garden. The list of possible themes is endless.

In the chapter on color, Jan emphasizes that color not only sets mood but changes with the available  light. Color is also an opportunity to play. There is no color combination that can’t be yours. Don’t restrict your color to flowers; remember that foliage color may change with the seasons or could act as a foil to flower color.

Plant knowledge is crucial. Plants are what excite us before buying them, we should first be aware of their cultural needs. Jan shares some of her favorites as well as maintenance tips but stresses how important the quality of the soil is.

Gardentopia is a feast for the eyes and the brain. I can hardly wait to implement some of these ideas.

The second book I want to bring to your attention is Gardening with Grains. I met Brie Arthur a few years when we were both speaking at a symposium in North Carolina where she lives. She is a high-energy woman who has embraced the trend of growing edibles and brings hundreds, if not thousands of people, to that endeavor. In her latest venture, she has become fascinated with the history, the beauty, and the health aspects of growing grains.

The first grain she attempted was wheat, large swaths of it in her front yard (keep in mind that she lives in a semi-rural area that was once a tobacco field). Although she was smitten with the beauty of the wheat, she soon decided that she had to do more, i.e. harvest it, thresh it, and grind it into flour. Meanwhile, she learned that “wheat can improve your soil. Its strong roots will break through compacted soil and act as a natural tiller.” It can also be used as compost by tilling it into your soil.

Once Brie had grown her first crop of winter wheat, she set out to learn about and grow other grains. Her book focuses primarily on wheat, barley, and oats for cool season growing and corn, rice, and sorghum for warm season growing. She has learned to sow twice a year with the seed germinating in place and to sow densely in order to eliminate weeds. She irrigates only when necessary and has found that grains are the easiest and lowest maintenance of all the edibles she grows.

All you need to grow grains is space, full sun, and moist, well-drained, neutral ph soil full of organic matter. For those of us in Ohio, the growing season is essentially mid-spring to mid-fall, thus we would be growing warm season but cold-tolerant grains, i.e wheat, barley, and oats. However, if we are patient and wait until the soil warms to fifty-five degrees, we could try corn, rice, and sorghum. If you decide to grow grains, Brie asserts that crop rotation is essential. Her chapters on specific grains and their culture supplies all the information you need in order to grow any of these grains.

Because Brie sees a connection between health and grains, her short history of grain and pseudo-grain (chia, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat) culture is quite informative and, at the least, should drive us, as consumers, to find bakeries that purchase their flour from local sources instead of national conglomerates. As an environmentalist and horticulturist, she strongly believes that we need to change our methods of weed control, particularly eliminating the use of herbicides and pesticides. She also believes that there is a strong correlation between soil health, our health, and the type of fertilizers being used and that the best fertilizer is organic matter.

Growing grains is a way to reinvent the landscape at least twice a year. They vary in height and boast kinetic appeal with their textures, structure, and color. Perhaps you can think of them as an annual ornamental grass. Few plants are lovelier blowing in the wind than grasses. If you think of them this way, you will come to the realization that the grains are great garden companions and do not have to be grown as monocultures. She also reminds us that they can be used in small spaces, perhaps to replace some shrubs or to use as architectural focal points, in large masses, or in containers.

Brie gives several suggestions for annuals with which the grains can be combined but there are many others from which you can choose. She also mentions some perennials and shrubs that have worked well for her in combination with grains. Sadly, grains are also beloved by deer. Brie’s deterrents are spray repellents, motion sensors that spray water, and some plants, especially on bed edges that often keep deer from venturing further into the garden. Some of her plant deterrents are also useful in regard to rabbits, groundhogs, voles, and moles.

We don’t all have the amount of space that Brie does but I love her dream of having office parks, schools, and churches devote 1000 square feet each into growing and harvesting wheat. The result would be over one thousand pounds of organic flour that could be supplied (or sold) to local bakeries. Other grains, some that are gluten-free, could be grown instead. For those of you whose focus is the cut flower and arrangements market, grains are a natural for inclusion.

Gardening with Grains is a short but thought-provoking book. Read it!

Inside Outside: A Sourcebook of Inspired Garden Rooms

For years, I have emphasized to my clients and in my lectures, how important it is to bring the inside details outside and vice-a-versa. Ms. O’Keeffe also emphasizes the idea that the garden is not an appendage of the house but a continuation, basically another room or rooms. She says in her introduction that even though indoor and outdoor spaces may not be literal extensions of each other, they can and should share a sensibility. What she has attempted to do in this book is show us outstanding examples of how interior and exterior designers blend the two types of spaces.

I was struck by Ms. O’Keeffe’s comment about structure: “Without structure, a garden is merely an open field. …..but without some kind of permanent organizational framework there’s nothing to focus on. ….. Too little structure and there’s no “there” there.” One can create structure by framing a door or window to direct the eye; “it is also a way of perceiving a garden or an interior as if it’s a series of visual experiences.” As she points out, it not easy to ensure that a focal point is unencumbered. Many of the gardens feature beautiful paths and hedges that interconnect what were formerly disjointed areas of a property. In several instances, continuity is created with repetition of species and colors.

Every room, every garden, needs to be evaluated from different perspectives. So, we walk through them to find the best viewing spots as well as the best spots, outdoors, for fragrance, texture, and color.  Designers use meandering paths to slow the journey so that each aspect of the garden can be duly appreciated; you can too. All too often, we forget that time is an element of design. As the author points out, neither a garden nor an interior is ever finished.                                                                                                                                                 

I had to laugh at and appreciate an English designer’s solution to a dog’s penchant to treat precious plants as launching and landing pads. In those spots, there are now heavy, immovable pots. I’m assuming that those special plants were transplanted.

I loved the author’s quote from Alexander Pope that “all gardening is landscape painting” and each of the selected designs exemplifies that thought. She then goes on to say that the introduction of color is the quickest way to create mood and emotion into a room. In addition, color can enlarge or diminish a space. She also are reminds us that the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water are mood enhancers and that we can use them to acknowledge all of the five senses.

The design examples in this book, from around the country and the world, all belong to wealthy homeowners with a lot of space. Nevertheless, there are numerous design ideas that could be used in our smaller spaces.

2019 has been a blessed year for my company and my family and I am grateful to all who have used my services. As a thank you, I have sent donations to LAND Studio which helps to beautify our city and to the Cleveland Foundation which endeavors to improve the lives of women and children in our community.

Happy holidays, everyone.