Friday, January 30, 2009

Ellie's Alley

Wouldn't it be great to come home to this colorful alley every day? Ellie does. This is the alley beside her house. Originally intended as a (very narrow) driveway, it is now an immense planter. She added brick on top of the surface and made "planters" by creating raised-beds over the pavement. Narrow walkways of dapple shade can get you lost (mentally) in this minuscule magical forest. This is a popular stop every July on Garden Walk Buffalo.

The water feature. It's small, but it's there.

Her little back alley has a small sitting area (big enough for a small table & one chair), window boxes, trees, shrubs, flowers, strings of lights and what is probably the smallest water feature I've ever seen. She didn't want to miss out on the water feature craze, so she created a pond (puddle?) that is about the size of a canned ham–enough to qualify as a water feature on the Garden Walk Map. I think it takes a lot of looking for the birds to find.

The front of Ellie's charming Civil-War-era little cottage. The alley is behind the gate to the right.

Ellie's house has been featured in a variety of national and regional gardening magazines, including People Places Plants, Great Backyard Gardens and Garden Gate's Backyard Retreat.


Ellie just sent me this most recent shot. Okay, it's not the romantic magical retreat year round.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bird strikes lightning

I get no respect. First, the lightning lightning rod gets installed. Next season, it gets a a plastic non-recyclable-lives-forever-grocery-bag stuck on it. Even recent 75-mile-an-hour gusts have not torn it off (past rant here). But now, apparently, my high-minded, witty, commissioned-to-a-real-sculptor-piece-of-art-I-designed is now a favorite birds-sitting (and shitting) spot. It's too steep a pitch on this part of the roof for me to ever consider getting up there myself to take the bag off. I may have to wait until I find a roofer working on a house in the 'hood and pay them to go up there. As far as the birds go, I could electrify the lightning rod, though that sounds counter-intuitive.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Squirrel torture

With torture being in the news so much recently. it made me think of this bird feeder we saw on the Parkside Garden Tour last year, one of the many garden tours around Buffalo. I don't know how well it reads in the photo, but the owner of the birdhouse has attached a metal slinky around the post that holds up her bird feeder. I asked her if it was an effective squirrel deterrent. She said no, but it slowed them down and they were much more entertaining to watch trying to get up the pole. Wish I had squirrel pictures to show you.

For the squirrels around my garden, I'm considering water-boarding.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Flower Eaves

I've never seen eaves as pretty as the ones on this building in Rome. When we were there last, my wife dragged us off the beaten path just to show me this building, her favorite in Rome. I previously had never been keen on artwork on the outside of a house. Not that I don't think it's a good idea, it's the permanence that would bother me. I don't think I could decide on one definitive piece of art to last for time immemorial.

This entire building is themed with flowers fruits & vegetables. In addition, there are many balconies with plants and plantings along the base of the building. Makes for one complete, beautiful package.

Do you have artwork on the outside if your house? Would you? Could you?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

House I, 1996/1998, Roy Lichtenstein, fabricated and painted aluminum.

Since Washington's been in the news a little bit lately, it's as good a time as any to show off some of the garden sculptures we saw when we were visiting last spring. We're planning on another trip to Washington in April this year and will have more time to get out and about and see more than just the area around the Mall. Although you could spend a week there and not see everything.

Here's a quick romp through the 6.1-acre National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. It contains native American species of trees, flowering trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennials. It has a fountain, used for skating in winter, and walking and seating areas. Everything's free–except the cafe.

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, stainless steel and cement.

Would current school kids even have the faintest notion of what a typewriter eraser looks like? My daughter had no clue. I suppose if you're 35 or older you'd "get" it.

Thinker on a Rock, 1997, Barry Flanagan, cast bronze.

I'm trying to keep rabbits OUT of my garden. Beats a gnome though.

Stele II, 1973, Ellsworth Kelly, one-inch weathering steel.

This is supposedly loosely based on a French kilometer marker. They have big kilometers over there.

Cluster of Four Cubes, 1992, George Rickey, stainless steel.

A cubist's tree? This is a kinetic sculpture. It moves.

Untitled, 1989, Joel Shapiro, bronze.

Sort of reminds me a a gardener, inelegantly, tripping over something, headfirst.

Chair Transformation Number 20B, 1996, Lucas Samaras, patinated bronze.

Depending on what angle these are viewed from, they look angled, leaning back or springing forward. Makes me think of what Escher's dining room chairs might look like.

Six-Part Seating, 1985/1998, Scott Burton, polished granite.

Something functional that could be put to good use in my own garden. Though I don't think I'd want to have to move them too often.

Spider, 1996, cast 1997, Louise Bourgeois, bronze with silver nitrate patina.

We have a sculpture park just south of Buffalo with dozens of outdoor sculptures that I'll get around to posting about at some point. There are many that remind me of this piece there. Might scare kids from coming into the garden. It's got that going for it anyway.

Cheval Rouge (Red Horse), 1974, Alexander Calder, painted sheet metal.

A bit over scale for most gardens I suppose, but none the less dramatic.

Four-Sided Pyramid, 1999, Sol LeWitt, concrete blocks and mortar.

One of my favorites. Looks like an Op Art painting, tricking the eye. A few posts back, I had mentioned creating art from dry-stacking pavers & bricks. If you had a large enough brick budget, and the space to do it, you too could have this in your back yard. Though Sol LeWitt was aided by a team of engineers and stone masons. Maybe you shouldn't try this at home.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

I try to avoid labeling.

This is my contribution to the Garden Blogger's Design Workshop for January on Labeling and Record-Keeping.

Left: one of the many signs used to label the Harry Potter Garden. If they weren't labeled, you'd have no idea how dangerous these plants can be.

I only take the time to label things in the yard the morning of Garden Walk each year. Garden Walk is our big garden tour (largest in the country!) with over 300 urban gardens open for viewing. Last year, we had around 2,000 people coming through our yard. That figure comes from my neighbor, who had his kids count visitors. I can be caught running around looking for tags that haven't been written on too much, minutes before crowds start coming, labeling only the plants of which I'm sure of their names. No Latin. No spell-check.

I only label for the benefit of these visitors. Any other time of the year nothing is labeled. I do keep plant tags in a plastic pot in the garage. They're more for looking up plant info for the blog, or the occasional person asking about a specific plant. Trouble is they're just thrown in there and many of the labels are of plants that have gone on to meet their maker in the big compost pile in the sky. Someone should really go through them and clean 'em out.

Right: We get as many comments about the MTV house as we do anything else in the garden.

I do also label some things of interest to people that aren't all that into plants. Specifically the husbands that get dragged around from garden to garden. I've designed a lot of interpretive signage for museums over the years and I've enjoyed doing the same around my yard for the Garden Walk visitors. One is a sign about the fact that MTV filmed a TV series in the house just behind me, on the other side of my fence.

It was the 2003 season of Fraternity Life. Sounds like it'd be a loud madhouse of pranksters & bawdiness–but we hardly knew they were there. I had no idea it was going on until I saw a guard wandering up and down their driveway one day from my bathroom window. Later that day I saw the same guard on a TV news segment on MTV being in town to film this series. That's how I found out.

It was very quiet the fall they filmed the show. The only way we knew they were there was something going on was the bright lights set up around their back yard. It was so bright that at night, it would light up my hallway–jarring at 1 a.m. when I'd get up to go to the bathroom. (And at 3:30 a.m. And 5:00 a.m., being over 40 sucks.)

The show, when it aired, held our interest for two episodes. We couldn't bear watching more. It was cool to see our house though (from the back, and only the top half, and only rarely, and blurry) on TV. Turned out fine though. My wife and I went to college with the Executive VP and GM of VH1 ( and former Executive VP of Music Programming for MTV). We emailed him just to let him know that they were filming in the house behind us. He sent us a big basket of wines and cheeses in return for our troubles (which were none) and we were invited to the wrap party (which we politely declined).

Left: the sign highlighting some of the architectural details of the house.

Another sign I put together was for the architectural style of the house. Buffalo's a living architectural museum with houses running the gamut from high-style Stick Victorians, Sears & Roebuck mail-order bungalows, Prairie Box classic four-squares and Dutch colonials–and that's just my street! A few blocks away you can find Civil War-era cottages, H.H. Richardson-designed towers and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed private home. I wanted visitors to appreciate the architecture of this 112-year-old house of which I am lucky enough to be the current steward.

Other signs I put up are for the Harry Potter garden, which I've posted about here. I've also had labels made for my espalier and climbing vines.

To date these signs were printed off my computer onto photo paper. Sucks if it rains, I have to reprint. This year, if it's in the budget, I may get them printed to be permanent. Next year, I will add labels for my lightning rod, an original piece of artwork by a a local sculptor, and the formal vegetable potager garden.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Fond Farewell

Adam Zyglis, editorial cartoonist for the Buffalo News, summed it up pretty well for me in this cartoon that appeared in yesterday's paper. I'm sure, if he'd had more room, he would've added the screwy hiring methods of Alberto Gonzales and the judicial hirings, lack of scientific progress in stem cell research, Exxon Mobil's generation of the largest quarterly corporate profits in human history. I could go on...

I try no to be too overtly political in my commenting. I would never want to purposely offend friends, family, or any of my clients. So I only have you to vent to.

Every time I've seen President Bush selectively recounting his two terms in office it makes me ill. His greatest claim is that he's kept America safe from terrorists since September 11, 2001. If you buy into the fact that his presidency started on September 12, 2001, that is an accurate statement of fact.

If you consider that his presidency started in January, 2001, which it did, then it is also fact that the greatest terrorist attack in American history since Pearl Harbor happened on his watch. And THAT was not keeping America safe by any stretch. That's not getting enough play in the press.

Nearly 3,000 people died in that attack. 4,200 Americans have died in the Iraq war. That's nearly 7,200 Americans that have died in terrorist attacks and an unrelated war on a country that neither terrorized us, nor had the capacity to terrorize us.

This is not including the estimated 150,000 Iraqi lives lost. Just because they're not American lives does not lessen the loss. That's also the single greatest loss of lives since the Vietnam War. And this has made us safe how?

And he has not even mentioned the current Israeli/Palestinian "conflict." The same conflict, of which, a year ago he said he was going to help settle before the end of his presidency. Even at the time he made those comments I thought he was delusional. Turns out he is.

And where is Osama Bin Laden? The guy he wanted "dead or alive?"

And I don't even want to discuss what a mess retirees would be in now had he gotten any traction four years ago with the retirement investment accounts based on the stock market he proposed.

Now, looking back. I feel as though everyone that voted for him to have a second term should apologize to those of us that didn't. During his first term, I thought that his presidency was just a small four-year setback, a momentary blip, in the always-forward progression of our country. It now may take a generation to undo the mess and debt he's left us.

He can take his millions in past and future compensation from his time as president and settle into a good life in retirement, leaving the country much worse than when he came into office. Much like the corporate CEOs he's taken to (verbal) task as a lame duck president.

My house and or apartments in the past have been broken into, and I've had stuff stolen. Has that ever happened to you? I remember a mixture of the emotions of intense helplessness and rage. That is the same feeling I get when I see President Bush defending his years in office. I'm glad he made hard decisions. I just wish, for all our sakes, he'd made the right ones.

Good bye and good riddance.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Indoor inspiration outdoors

I'd had this idea for quite a while a few years ago. It's one of those random thoughts that festers for a while before it actually happens. The goal was to get rid of the grass underneath the "horsey swing," part of my daughter's play set.

The ballroom of the Chateau. It was used as a make-shift hospital during World War I.

I knew it couldn't be anything too ornate–kids would be playing on it. Since it was for the playground, at first I thought I'd do a checker board–and create some actual checkers made from painted slices of tree trunks. But size was a problem. In order to get the correct number of squares, at common sizes of available stone tile, the proportions of the space were all off. It would have required buying larger tiles than needed and two cuts per tile for 32 tiles. I didn't want to work that hard. This is the sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night throughout a winter season when I can't actually get out there and garden.

Gardens surround the Chateau.

We took a trip to the Loire Valley of France and while touring the Chateau de Chenonceau, it struck me how cool the diagonal floor tile pattern was in the ballroom–the part of the chateau that is built over the River Cher.

The maze garden of Chateau Chenonceau.

The chateau had great gardens as well. I remember particularly being impressed with the maze and the vegetable gardens. But there were many other gardens including the formal gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherin de Medicis (with fountains, sitting areas and 32,000 color-specific annuals planted each spring), a "green," and 70 hectares of wooded trails. You should check out their website, there's great 360-degree views of each garden. They also feature floral art displays regularly. When we were there throughout the chateau were unbelievable floral displays featuring moss-covered stones & urns.

Early on. We looked at dirt for almost two years. Some of these low grasses are slow growers.

But back to my garden. I came back determined to abandon the hopes of a checkerboard under the play set and instead figured out how many 1-foot tiles I would need if they were placed on a 45-degree angle. It worked - with minimal cutting. And a diamond pattern makes sense, I justify–it seems to be a recurring theme in my garden. There are diamond/harlequin patterns in all my lattice and even the espalier is diamond-shaped.

In the spots where there were no tiles, I planted a variety of Steppables and Jeepers Creepers brand low grasses and mosses:
  • Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum "Pink Chintz")
  • Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)
  • Pink Pussy-Toes (Antennaria dioca "Rubra")
  • Irish Moss (Sagina subulata)
  • Baby Tears (Sedum album "Chloroticum")
  • Silver Kisses (Anacyclus depressus compactum)
  • Goldmoss Stonecrop (Sedum acre)
  • Dwarf Yellow Wallflower (Erysimum kotschyanum)
Here is the checkerboard grass garden in context. In the foreground is the Harry Potter Garden, behind the checkerboard is the raised-bed vegetable potager, followed by the patio and another raised bed garden anchored by a Royal Purple Smoke Tree.

In retrospect, I should have researched these more. Some of them get annoyingly tall, specifically the Goldmoss Stonecrop (the yellow stuff in the photo at the top). If I had it all to do over, I'd plant all Irish Moss.

What garden projects are festering in your head at this time of the year?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cinder Bar

I ran across this homemade, and good-looking, "on the cheap" solution for an outdoor kitchen when I went on our local Black Rock & Riverside Tour of Gardens this past summer. I thought it was an inventive way to create a temporary outdoor kitchen for the summertime. Here, in the city, where we have winter time driveways that get used as summertime patios, having something temporary makes good sense. It can be removed as the weather gets worse and access to driveways and the occasional garage is needed. We don't use our garage in the summertime other than storing garden stuff.

This particular configuration covers up a gas grill cleverly. She's got candles in the open spaces of the cinder blocks for evening wear. This garden tour extends into the night and there are a couple dozen of the gardens that are open for viewing 8-10 p.m. (Which, I am told, devolves into a traveling, drinking, garden party). I haven't visited these gardens at night, but I'd love to see the lighting schemes for ideas. And I like a party.

She's got what looks like some herbs to soften the look of the cinder block kitchen and for throwing on whatever's cookin' that night. It's just one step away from the picnic table and also blocks the view of the picnic table from anyone that might peer down the driveway. And hides the grill–grills are ugly. They look like weak-limbed, Darth-Vador-helmeted go carts.

I have a grill in a fairly unexposed area of our deck. But I was thinking that a few well-placed cinder blocks (which I have), with some barn-board planks (which I have) would make a great summer-time bar. I like the idea of incorporating candles into it.

I've seen on Garden History Girl a post about an artist that can go into a Home Depot and, by dry-stacking garden supplies as simple as pavers, creates contemporary (and temporary) garden-worthy sculptures. I may have to try to combine the two efforts to come up with something even more clever!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Floating Garden of Bellagio, Lake Como

This is a few years old, but I've had these photos for a while and I felt guilty for trashing some of the urban public gardens in Rome, so I thought I'd post this. It wasn't just me though. Elizabeth from Garden Rant and Gardening While Intoxicated also mentioned, in a comment from that post, that she found no interesting public gardens in Rome, but gardens in other parts of Italy more than made up for it. I would just say that, when in Rome, don't do what they do.

The hotel with the floating garden on the lake.

I won a trip to Italy from a local printer back in 2000. It was random drawing. I've only ever won two things in my life–and they were both trips! The trip included a week-long stay that covered Lake Como, at this hotel, and a four-star hotel in Venice, complete with transportation and a modest budget for meals. For someone that travels a lot to begin with, this was the trip of a lifetime.

In the hallway in the basement on the way to the spa and the indoor pool, an original Magritte painting was hanging on the wall. Let's just say that's never really happened in any other hotel I've stayed in–not the Days Inn, not a La Quinta, not even a Comfort Inn.

The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, opened in 1873, is a five-star hotel in Ballagio on Lake Como, on a promontory that juts out into the lake. The Sovereigns of Spain, Romania, Albania, Egypt; all the Russian and English aristocracy; Winston Churchill, Roosevelt, the Rothschilds, John Kennedy; Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino.... these are just some of the famous guests that have enjoyed a stay there. I don't have to tell you that when we showed up, in the rain, with our beaten up, roll-aboard suitcases, we felt more like the Clampetts that the Kennedys.

The Villa Carlotta entrance, one of the many Villas and gardens open to the public around the Lake. This was on the opposite side of Lake Como from the Hotel Serbelloni. This garden was recently featured in a gardening magazine, I can't remember which one.

Italian-style gardens surround the Villa, terraced into the hillside, with Mediterranean and subtropical plants growing in the pleasant micro climate around the lake. It receives sunshine almost all year round, and mild temperatures in every season.

Some of the gardens around the Lake were downright tropical.

While we were there, a garden "instillation," seen in the photo at the top of the post was going on. I don't remember much about the instillation, its time was nearing its end when we were there, but it was three floating barges fitted with a garden. I believe you could take a boat out there and stroll around, but I don't think there was anything there you couldn't see from the shore.

The climate & soil around Lake Como must create the perfect conditions for rhododendron. The steroidal rhododendron are like none I've ever seen previously.

We spent our days visiting gardens in other Villas around the lake and hiking the hills. (my wife called them hills, I called them mountains, a difference of perspective and cardiovascular fitness). I don't believe any of the other hotel guests went hiking.

The summer before, George Lucas was on Lake Como filming the romance/wedding scenes for one of the Star Wars movies. That's how other-worldly beautiful it is–it's used as a setting for other worlds.

Never got the invite to George Clooney's Villa though. Maybe next time. Bet he's got a nice garden. That's one garden my wife would be willing weed.


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