A garden designer’s job is to create spaces.

As a designer I create planting compositions and combinations.  And lay out planting beds.  And water gardens.  And seating walls.  And patios.  And pergolas.  Yet none of these are primary.  The primary is using all these things to make spaces.  Spaces that are inviting for humans to move through and experience.

And I realize now that this is what is truly –though slowly– coming together here in Timshala..

Yes, it is slow.  And yes, sometimes I find it so frustrating how slowly the garden is coming together.

I’ve been here about two years, and still it doesn’t mostly look the way it should and will.  It is still much too open.  Still not enough flowering plants.

Then recently, while I was whining about it, someone said to me, “Do you remember what it looked like when you started!?”

And I have to admit, I didn’t.

So I looked it up.

This was the blank slate. Mailbox in the snowIMAG0052

This is what it looks like now. Same view.woodland-walk-sept-2016-6-w-pergola-capture

And what I see is SPACES.  The walkways – which were the first thing I put in — take you through the various spaces, from the woodland to the perennial border to the pergola to the patio.  There is now a “there” there.  There wasn’t when I started.

Perhaps some kind person will remind me of this next time you hear me whining about how slow it all is.

Garden views matter. Even when you’re indoors. Maybe especially when you’re indoors.

One of the first (of many) mistakes I made in garden design – in my own garden, fortunately – was thinking about plant combinations in isolation.  Not thinking about where the viewer was going to be until it was too late.  Then I looked up to the distance, and….”whoops”.   I had made lovely plant combinations – but the neighbor’s chain link fence was not an appealing backdrop.

Gardens don’t exist in isolation.  Viewers don’t just look at what you want them to see…they see everything!

And except for lucky people like me, people who make gardens, most people don’t spend most of their time outdoors.

So part of designing a garden is seeing it in your mind’s eye — knowing what it will look like from inside.  Because that is where most people are, most of the time.

Whether it’s looking through a door or window, the garden has to be exciting from everywhere.

So…some examples.  Acer Hot Wings through blinds. closeup.20160520_105928This is a Hot Wings Maple, Acer tatarian ‘Hot Wings’ seen from my bedroom window, through the blinds.  The brilliant red samaras look like flowers on this wonderful small tree.  And in the background, past it, you see a part of my winter garden.  Of course this tree looks beautiful when seen from outdoors.  But I think this framing adds to its beauty.  And the almost invisible screen makes it look almost like a watercolor doesn’t it?

Here is a terraced  garden I created, seen from the living room. Ny Terraced Garaden seen through door


And here is part of a roof I did  in NY. CPW view from a window Capture

This part of the roof doesn’t really have enough space to sit – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a garden and give pleasure.

It’s important to remember that a garden is  part of the house, part of day-to-day life, not an isolated creation.

The Importance of Motion

I have been watching people walk along the driveway, now (as of a few days ago) lined on both sides with a dozen Kohlreuteria – Golden Rain Trees.  The trees are about 6’ to 8’ tall now, nowhere near their future majestic 20’ -25’.  And yet, one can see that the visitors are aware of the driveway in a way they weren’t before the trees went in.  They, and I also,  walk more deliberately, more experiencing of the driveway and its goal: the house at the end.  The house is no less visible than it was a week ago.  But here is the difference: now it isn’t just ‘over there’; the approach itself has become a sensory and visual experience.

Almost everyone who now visits and strolls through the garden “gets it” this way in some sense.  It is still very raw; there are now lots of baby trees and shrubs everywhere, but they truly are babies.  It will be several years before the actual spaces created by the plantings start to take shape.

The woodland will be defined by the shade created by large trees and the layers of understory trees and shrubs and groundcovers.  The orchard trees will be their own space, with a low-growing colorful grassy area defining that space.  And so on, for each of the areas we have planned.

And yet, visitors already seem to experience those spaces and shapes, which will actually come later.

Here is what I think is the reason:  the one thing is complete is the paths.  And in a sense I think this – motion — is the essence of what makes the garden a garden.   This is probably true for every garden.

In a garden, motion is the interplay between plants and us.  The plantings define the spaces; the paths and openings help define the plantings.

Motion takes place at many levels.  We have the driveway;  the major 4’wide walking paths; the large stepping stone paths; the mown paths through grasses and meadows.  A different kind of level is within the plantings themselves.  Even where we don’t actually walk, we can create a sense of motion with plantings that move the eye.

For example, you don’t actually step through a “trail” of Hostas winding through a large bed of ferns – but your eye does.  The pop of red from poppies waving in a distant meadow causes you to change the focus of your vision to the meadow, another kind of motion.  I think of these as mental motion.

And I think this is why so many people are enjoying the garden, immature though it is.

Vistas, Inside and Out

As I continue to design the gardens at Timshala, I realize that contrary to my usual practice, which is to work from the house outward, I’ve done more around the perimeter and very little around the house.  And I just realized why.  Until the house was complete, and I could actually experience what the outside looks like from the inside, I could not really visualize it.

The house is an octagon, and there are French doors leading out the garden on every face of the octagon.  The views are complex, fascinating, and – for me at least – almost impossible to imagine.  I can’t even say, as I normally would, “Well this wall faces north so we will use shade plants here…morning sun lights the east wall…afternoon sun for the west well, etc.”  None of the doors or walls or windows are so clear in their orientation.

And then there is the issue of time of day.  How does the property look in the morning?  Afternoon?  Evening?  Even nighttime is interesting because the moon and stars seem so much more vivid here than in the city.

So this is without a doubt the most complex and wonderfully challenging design I have ever created.  There are vistas to be created from so many locations around the garden.  From a ‘clearing’ in the woodland….and a seating area at the edge of the orchard … and patios  from the living room and bedrooms… from  paths leading through the various spaces.  And now…I’m working on the many and varied vistas from the inside.fog timshala 10.23.2014.

Here is one particularly beautiful scene, through the’ back’ door, looking sort of east,  just before dawn, when fog often softens the world.  Some newly planted red leaf birches surround a garden light, their backdrop a distant scene of an adjacent forest.

Lilac Childhood

I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, literally on the wrong side of the tracks; within sight and hearing of the tracks actually.  But we had one great wealth: our front yard was completely filled with Lilacs.  Nobody knew who planted them or when.  Nobody cared for them.  As a child I ran through them, as if they were a private forest.  When they bloomed I could cut armloads of them, bringing them to my favorite teacher.

Many years later when I was visiting Winnipeg I decided to take a drive past our old house and discovered that the Lilacs were gone (as was the house, but the Lilacs were what hurt me).  The area had been cleared for urban renewal, and never built.  It was just barren.  And it still makes me cry.

There is profound unity between the garden designer I am now and the seminal power of those Lilacs.

The Gardener’s Lament: You Should Have Been Here When…..

The thing about a garden is that it never looks the same as it did the last time you looked.  A tree may grow leaves….then flowers…then berries…then the leaves change color…then they fall,  exposing the bark.  No matter when you take a stroll through the garden it always looks a little different than it did the last time.

Whenever I have visitors to my garden, no matter how much they are admiring of what they see, I find myself explaining that it doesn’t always look ‘this’ way; That last week those Irises were not blooming and they will stop blooming in a couple of weeks but the flowers will be replaced by seedheads that I like to use in dried arrangements.

Those big, blowsy white flowers that just appeared on the Oak Leaf Hydrangeas will be pink in a couple of weeks.   The blue sheets of Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow) that are covering the ground will disappear completely, replaced by whatever plants come up in their place – Irises, Japanese Anemones, Ornamental Grasses, etc.   And they will also change – the grasses, for example starting out as green leaves, then perhaps adding soft, beigy-pink plumes, then turning gold for autumn.

So when people ask me when the garden is at its best I don’t have an answer.  Except…you should have seen it last week…or you should come back next week.

This changing beauty is one of the things I love about gardening, so it’s not really a lament.  Rather, it’s the Gardener’s Song and we sing it constantly.



A client of mine once noted that in virtually every garden I design – from the smallest rooftop container garden to many-acre country gardens – I use plants in mass as part of the design.  It was a good observation.

Many plant lovers – and I admit I am one of them – satisfy their hunger for plants by getting one or a few of a beloved plant and spot them around the garden.  The result, as many have said before me, is a collection not a garden.  And I surely want to see and enjoy – and have others share — the details of the plants I love.

But creating spaces is my primary design goal…and plants are my design material, the means by which I create spaces.  You can’t do it with different plants spotted around.

So, for example, the driveway will be lined with Sargent Cherries – ten of them – creating a sense of direction, of motion, and defining the space which is the driveway. And incidentally, by leading to it, also defining the space which is the house.  Here’s the post I did about the Cherries.  https://timshalagardens.com/2013/02/28/what-can-i-use-instead-of-much-loved-hawthornes/

Ten flowering crabapples define the orchard; it is a space of its own.

Similarly, the grass meadow – over an acre of tall grass (I haven’t decided yet which grass species will be appropriate in this climate for the effect I want) will be shared with red Flanders Poppies,  Papaver rhoeas in the spring.   Then, by the time the Poppies have died back the grasses will have their seed heads moving in the breeze for the remainder of the year.

The powerful bed displaying Bronze Fennel (200) and Rosa ‘Morning Has Broken’ (18) is a space of its own and will also help define the lawn that leads to it.

A copse of six Witch Hazels,Hamamelis fills the area between the driveway and the front door with winter beauty and fragrance.  It makes that area a definite Place.

These are all beautiful plants in their own right.   And they would be no less beautiful if planted in ones or twos.  But then they wouldn’t also be acting as part of the design.  They would be a collection, not a garden.


Planting in layers is a well-known principle of garden design and a principle I follow whenever I can.    Usually what is meant by this is vertical layering…that is, an overhead layer of large trees, an understory layer of small trees and shrubs and another layer, perennials and groundcovers underneath.

However I am now deep into the planning of a garden layered in both directions; vertical, yes, but also horizontal.

Plants layered back to front, behind one another, create a feeling of depth, of generosity, of abundance.    When you see single layer of plants – trees lining a highway, or as I once saw, a single row of tulips planted evenly spaced in soldierly perfection – the effect is thin and puny – uninteresting.    It’s also unnatural.  In nature plants are opportunists.  They plant themselves willy nilly, wherever they can – behind, beside, in front of one another, creating a lush effect.  From every vantage point you see foreground plants and background plants intertwining.

I’m trying to create a more stylized version of that.  So in the Woodland we’ll have Pines and Junipers, Maples, Dogwoods and Redbuds,  Birches and Sassafras .  Beneath these trees will be shrubs like Fothergilla and Oakleaf Hydrangea and Sumac and Witchhazel., And beneath these will be Goldenrod, Purple Coneflower, with  Carex pennsylvanica and Tiarella cordifolia as groundcovers.

Everywhere you look there will be plants in ‘gay profusion’ (that lovely phrase from the song Scarlet Ribbons).

Was all this always here? Or…I am nature’s handmaiden.

Many years ago, when I was first making my own Brooklyn garden, I had an afternoon garden party- office friends, neighbors, acquaintances.  Most were people who didn’t know a lot about plants or gardens, but knew I had been spending every spare moment on the garden, studying landscaping, selecting plants, placing them just so.

So when a guest who did not know I had been doing this – and obviously knew even less about plants – walked out and exclaimed “This is gorgeous.  Was all this always here?  Is it all natural?” there was a collective gasp. My other guests probably expected me to draw blood.

But perversely, I was pleased.  First of course I explained to him that there had been NOTHING here before.  It had been an Ailanthus-filled, overgrown, weedy, trash-strewn empty lot.  Everything he saw and liked was man (or woman)-made.

But still I was pleased.  Because if it looked as if it had always been there, it looked natural, comfortable…as if it belonged.  And that is exactly what I was (and still am after all these years) after.

What had been there originally also looked natural I suppose.  But it would never have drawn the “this is gorgeous” response.  He knew it was beautiful.  He saw that it was right, somehow.  And that is what I wanted to accomplish.  Not a duplicate of a natural landscape, but a stylized version that has a kind of beauty nature almost never achieves.

As a designer, I use the tools and materials of nature, but to my own purpose.  I create compositions, seasonal changes, color blends and contrasts.  I try to control the way the eyes move through a space and the way visitors are invited to travel.  It is nature…but controlled.

I am proudly nature’s handmaiden.