All posts by Chris Tracey

Stone Resurrected

We all have memories of special places from our youth:  beaches, fishing holes, horse ranches, libraries and many more old haunts as numerous as the people who carry those memories.  For me, places with stone features are what resonate. There was the granite wall where all the kids sat waiting for the bus, the stone fort which was a remnant from the King Phillip’s War, and the 180′ long segmented breakwater, (where a brother fell into some scary white capped water). However diverse and distant our memories of all these places may seem, they all have some things in common.  Each place was a destination and the journey to visit was filled with anticipation.  When we were in these places, the universe seemed all right. All these places seemed permanent.  We could imagine they had always existed and would long remain.

What makes stone spaces special to me is how powerfully they evoke age.  Stone by virtue of being stone suggests that it will last forever.  Manmade stone structures are our attempt to domesticate a material both unyielding and often grotesque, into something beautiful and permanent.  Stone structures evoke my European roots.  I imagine ancient churches, stone shelters, arched bridges and the many ruins and think, History happened here.

As our land use changes and our architectural styles evolve, many of our old farm walls will disappear.  In my exploration for more adaptive dry stone craft styles, I have been examining new building processes and the resulting forms.  One of my favorite new styles finds its form as a tall mass of counter intuitive stone placements, with high contrast between stone sizes and orientation of courses.  The resulting form, though newly minted, is one imbued with age: part ruin, part wall, domestic yet primitive. Pictured here is one such sculptural wall I recently installed here at the entrance to Avant Gardens. Notice the shelving, both recessed and extant: not just a playful gesture, but a suggestion that this wall may once have been part of an interior space.

One stone to another

Chris Tracey

Spanish Impressions

The courtyard at Casa del Herrero with various tilework and paving.

The Northeast has many wonderful gardens but the ones that stand out as must see destinations are not built with plants alone. These gardens display structural materials and contours which challenge our formed perspectives in unexpected ways.  It is easy to slip into the parochial mentality of using traditional materials in traditional ways.  The best remedy for this is traveling! Nothing inspires and excites like unfamiliar architecture and a different climate, which imprint their unique personality upon the landscape.  This winter we explored, once again, southern California. Three places stood out, not only for their plants collections and designs, but for their use of decorative stone, tile and brick.

Detail showing band of tiles.

In the community of Montecito, Santa Barbara County, we visited Casa del Herrero.  Situated on a 7 acre trapezoidal site, this Spanish Colonial Revival is center stage to the surrounding gardens. While it is impossible to separate the house from the landscape as a unified whole, there are still individual vignettes and motifs that can find translation in New England gardens.  During our mid winter tour, Kathy remarked that the grounds were wonderful, even without many blossoms. Molly Barker, the executive director replied, ?Our tiles are our flowers?.  Though our cold climate gardens may never have the exquisite tilings of Casa del Herrero, it would take only a few to add flavor and personality to any courtyard or entry garden.

Use of tile as risers in brick steps at Lotusland.

Inlaid pebbles adorn the surface of the platform for this garden orb.

Pebble Mosaic Paving at Lotusland

Ten minutes from Monticeto, is Santa Barbara, home to Lotusland, the estate and garden created by the late Polish opera singer, Madame Ganna Walska.  Married six times to a series of wealthy husbands, Madame obviously never thought enough is enough.  This is equally evident in the gardens, dramatic and lush, living stages set sooo over-the-top that you forget where the bottom is. This stunning, fantastical landscape is another world, which is saying something since, in Santa Barbara, over-the-top is ?whateva!?.  Handsome and playful tile work is seen throughout, but the decorative stonework, constructed of small rounded stones (beach pebbles) set in mortar is spectacular.  This stone integrates well with many other hard surface materials: brick, cement, natural stone, bluestone and schist.

The Blue Iguana that greets you at the Inn.

Patio Paving Combination at the Blue Iguana Inn in Ojai.

Another stop on our tour was the Town of Ojai, CA, which shares a personality similar to Taos, NM.  Each is ripe with creative energy that manifests in house, garden, public and private space, culture and lifestyle.  Throughout southern California, water availability is an ongoing concern and Ojai is no exception.  This is, no doubt, one of the reasons that tiles and decorative stone craft play such an important role in the landscape.  The aesthetic contribution is colorful and constant.  While in Ojai, we stayed at The Blue Iguana Inn.  Here they used beach pebbles in several ways: to create the motif of the reptile, to simulate the shadow of a tree in a sitting area, and as a face on stair risers. As New Englanders we never tire of looking at stone, but finding new ways to use it is essential to expand the New England landscape vernacular.

–Chris Tracey, Avant Gardens

Pruning 401

Shadows at the Getty

Shadows at the Getty

Woody plants don’t need any help from our saws and secateurs.  They would all produce much more growth if we just left them all alone. So why don’t we abandon them to their feral origins?  Forsythia, Calycanthus and Winterberry, just to name a few, most definitely look their best when we let them go wild.  That’s the point, isn’t it, to look their best.

Unfortunately, the majority of our cultivated garden woodies need a little help to get ready for the party, and some need to freshen up several times during it.   So, we prune plants to control their shape, size, flower production, fruit production, density, cast shadows, let in light, obscure light etc.  We do this solely for our own amusement, but the results can make an enormous impact in our landscape. Sometimes the effects are sublime.

Composition of Light and Dark

Composition of Light and Dark

Unless you are a gardener familiar with good pruning practices, you may not recognize their effect in the garden.  The woody plants will appear  handsome, well shaped, symmetrical or amorphous yet balanced.  The common observer will think these plants grew naturally into these forms.  However, when woody plants are left unpruned, their messiness will be noticed, and you, as the garden steward, will get the blame. It’s like making and implementing a decision that avoids a disaster: no one sees the disaster prevention happening, so your good judgement and actions go unnoticed.  That’s okay…you know what you did and people with a discerning eye will also know.  Good pruning elevates your landscape to another level and it’s never too late to start.

Pruning 301

This is the third in a series of blogs preceding our upcoming pruning workshop.  Today we’ll examine growth habits and regenerative responses.  Make the most of our upcoming workshop but reading through this series of blogs first.  For questions, address Chris @
 Let’s review each of our five plant categories:
Chamaecyparis o. 'Fernspray'

Semi-open Form Conifer

Deciduous Conifers– This group produces a central leader. A central leader is a single trunk headed straight up to the sky. Structurally, this is the best of all growth habits.  It is pretty much impossible to prune them into any other form; they will always revert to a single leader. Their branching is symmetrical. This group regenerates well because of the dormant buds present throughout the trunk (old wood).

Evergreen Conifers– Of the tree forms, some naturally produce a central leader while others produce multiple leaders.  Most can be trained to a central leader if you have the patience and start training them in their youth.  Multiple leaders have the tendency to spread apart under snow and wind loads.  This group does not regenerate well because dormant buds are not present on old wood. Small shrubs forms of evergreen conifers will be addressed in the workshop.


Closed Form…Boxwood

Broad Leaf Evergreens- Most are multi-stemmed  and should be left that way. These produce many stems from the base as well as many primary, secondary and tertiary branches.  This group regenerates well; they will sprout from old wood, when damaged or presented with more sunlight as dormant buds exist throughout.

Clethra barbinervis form

Open Form of Deciduous Shrub/Tree

Deciduous Trees-Some naturally produce a central leader while others produce multiple leaders.  Most can be trained to a central leader if you have the patience and start training them in their youth.  Although snow and wind loads are not as detrimental to this group, they have greater stuctural integrity as single leader specimens.  Most have strong regenerative response to pruning, damage and increased light exposure.

Deciduous Shrubs-Most are multi-stemmed  and should be left that way. These have strong regenerative properties and can be cut back as far as you’d like (if you don?t mind foregoing a years blossoms).

In general, Alternate branching plants are easier to prune into “open forms” by a process called thinning out (think apple trees in an orchard or well-tended Tea Roses), but don’t respond as well to  extensive tipping back (shearing), which produces that scrumptious chicken croquette shape.  The exception to this occurs when the alternate branching pattern has short internodal spacing (the distance between one branch and the next is very short). Many evergreens such as boxwood, yews, and arborvitae produce closed forms without any help from shears because of their short internodal spacing. Opposite branching plants generally take more work to prune into open forms, but in many instances it is worth the effort.   This branching habit tends to produce  a “closed form” and shearing only intensifies this, often resulting in the “cartoon strong man form”, all upper body with skinny little legs.

Pruning Basics: 201

This is the second in a series of blog posts leading up to our April 17, 2011 pruning workshop.  These posts will address things you should be familiar with before you take pruners to plants.  If you’ve signed up for the workshop, we encourage you to read through blog posts.

In the blog entry Pruning 101,  you were asked to identify the plants you are intersted in pruning.  With plant names now in hand, you next need  to decide which of the following woody plant groups your tree/shrub falls under.

Opposite Branching

  • Conifers deciduous e. g.  Larix (Larch), Metasequoia (Dawn Redwood), Taxodium (Bald Pond Cypress)
  • Conifersevergreen e. g. Pinus (Pine), Picea (Spruce) Abies (Fir)
  • Broad Leaf Evergreen e. g. Rhododendron, Ilex (Holly), Pieris (Andromeda)
  • Deciduous Tree e. g. Acer (maple), Quercus (Oak), Stewartia, Fagus (Beech)
  • Deciduous Shrub e. g. Rosa (Rose), Viburnum, Salix (Willow), Spirea, Vaccinium (Blueberry), Lavandula (Lavender)

These 5 groups are your launching off point: each embodies of group of plants that generally have specific growth/branching habits and regenerative responses/capabilities.  We will leave the regenerative processes for the next blog.

alternate branches

Alternate Branches

Growth and branching habits are responsible for growth patterns in all plants and they fall under one of two groups,  alternate or oppositeAlternate branching occurs when only one new shoot/leaf node develops along a plant limb at any given point while the next developing shoot/leaf node occurs at a different point on the opposite side of the limb-see example. Opposite branching occurs when two new shoots/ leaf nodes develop at the same point along a limb, but on opposite sides of the limb-see example.  Although the examples here are clear, it is often less so because there can be a considerable amount of variation.  Make an attempt to differentiate these patterns on your own plants, while noting their variability.  We will examine what this variability means to the pruning process when regenerative responses are discussed in the next posting.

Pruning Basics 101

This will be the first in a series of blogs leading up to our April 17, 2011 pruning workshop. That stated, this article will help everyone on there way to pruning, even if they can?t join in the fun on April 17th. These blog posts will address things you should be familiar with before you take pruners to plants.  Make the most of our upcoming workshop by reading through thisseries of  blog posts. For questions, address Chris at

Styrax japonica in winter

Every plant has a name, both Latin and common. For a beginner, knowing one or the other is crucial. If you don’t know either, then it’s impossible for any professional to tell you how to prune it. Photographs will help to identify it. Let’s assume it is the off seasons, late fall through early spring, when all our deciduous plants are posing unclothed, their bare limbs shivering. You will snap 2 or 3 photos: one of the entire plant, and one of an individual 8 -12″ section of an outer limb, and perhaps one of the trunk or base of the plant.  If you think that the bark or the terminal buds (the very end of the branches) is unique, than snap a photo of that too. Make notes about anything you recall it doing in the previous year, e. g. “It bloomed white on Mother’s Day” or “the fall color was butter yellow”.  Send this information to Avant Gardens (or a good local nursery) via email and we’ll help you out (you might want to reference this blog to let us know you’re not sending spam; we get nervous opening up attachments from senders we don”t know). Don’t be shy. People in the plant trade love to share information!

If the growing season has begun and  plants have leafed out, take three photographs: one of the whole plant, one of the plant in flower (if it does bloom), and one showing a small segment of branch with leaves attached. Does your plant has some other distinction, like mottled bark, unique cones, columnar habit, scent, etc? Snap that picture or make  notate these observations.  Make note of anything you remember about that plant that will help identify it. ( A note that your mother-in-law gave it to you probably won’t aid in identifying it, unless of course she remembers what it is– and it is not a problem to ask her. )  Remember that you can always ask us at Avant Gardens or check your local nursery.

Examples of helpful shots are:

Styrax bark

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernleaf Gold’

Chamaecyparis branch

Environmental Sculptor: Ron Rudnicki

“To the illuminated man or woman, a clod of dirt, a stone and gold are the same”….Bhagavad Gita

Rudnicki's Pedestal Basin

Rudnicki’s Pedestal Basin

A man reaches for the end of a strap hidden within a pile of stone. From a void his hand appears with the strap.  Now cradled in the strap is a mass of stone. This stone, the fertile ground to where our sculptor, Ron Rudnicki, brings his tools, is now just a great mass. All acquaintances left behind, soon it will be freshly minted and asked to play in ensemble. For now, all is in flux, all possibility: Ron and the stone standing still between reflection and rotation.  The only certainty is that a new relationship will develop. Now a piece, formed from Ron’s reflections and memories, will inform his admirers, his clients and their communities. Perhaps some of Ron’s reflections will become theirs, but the overwhelming presence of the piece will remain, bridging generations, creating new communities. Prescience from a pile of stone.

Ron Rudnicki portrait

Ron Rudnicki

Ron’s sculpture gardens invite interaction. He places stone, found and composed, or tooled and contrived, into the landscape. Often it is both. He builds sculpted garden environments with stone that create a sense of permanence, perhaps because his work sometimes appears to have been uncovered rather than constructed. These gardens, united with their sites, honor existing and future stewards where stone is not seen as a static, unchanging mass. Stone is an active participant in the garden construct and will continue to find new expression through the eyes of the viewer.  Stewards of these gardens may enjoy these spaces framed through their windows, observing the changing light through the course of the day and the seasons. Others will find repose within these spaces.  No single right or wrong connection can be brought to these living, breathing, rhythmic spaces, dynamic in themselves but which allow those of us with stronger biological rhythms to draw out new meanings as we continue to engage them.

You shouldn’t be left thinking that no plant can grow where stone is so dominant. Though Ron confesses nomenclature isn’t his strong suit, he instinctively integrates  strong architectural plants, whether they be bamboo, hellebore or forest grass, into his stone environments.The individual who becomes the caretaker of his sculpture gardens may want to play with companion plantings. Ferns, grasses and the occasional burst of color are welcome suitors in spring and summer.

Ron’s work is part of the permanent collections at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA and Jack Lenor Larsen’s Longhouse Reserve in East Hampton, NY, as well as in the gardens of private collectors.

Attending The Guardian

Winter Silhouette of our Ancient Oak

We are the brief, but committed stewards of one of the oldest trees in our town.  A Quercus bicolor, commonly known as Swamp White Oak, spreads its majestic limbs, covering 6400 sq. ft of garden in the lower area of our property.  It stands as a venerable member of an ancient clan, reaching its many arms, some 50 feet long, in all directions, from a trunk with a robust 12 1/2 foot caliper.  Although it is no more than 60 feet tall, an understatement for a 200+ year old tree, it’s sublime presence creates a complete and awe inspiring space. Stand in the welcoming shade of  its vast crown, place your hands on the deeply furrowed face of its trunk, letting your fingers feel the wrinkles of 200 hundred years, raise your eyes to wander into this living sculpture, home to thousands upon thousands of flying and crawling insects, not to mention dozens of birds, proving a feeding ground for so many more creatures; one of many children not of our own womb, but generously lent to us by the most grand and trusting mother, Earth.  Everyday, we take care of this grand old tree, and in return, it takes care of us.

Come and share this sacred space when you visit, if only for 5 minutes. When the time comes for you to plant an heirloom tree, you will see the road of time stretching out before you, and on it, your loving, grateful heirs and when you look behind, the beautifully wrinkled and wise faces of your ancestors.

Clematis macropetala ‘Lagoon’

Here on High Hill Road, much of the winter is spent searching for sources of the most promising new plants available in the horticultural market.  We’re always optimistic, but we hold all newcomers to the standards set by great plants introduced in the past.  Clematis macropetala ‘Lagoon’ introduced in 1958 by George Jackman and Son, has been on the market 52 years. Wow!  This is comparable to the career of BB King and just as blue, but “the thrill is not gone”.

We planted Clematis m. ‘Lagoon’ at the base of a mop-headed silver leaved Capulin Cherry, Prunus salicifolia. That “bad-hair-day” cherry’s branches bowed down and insisted on giving ‘Lagoon’ a ride. As early as April, this vigorous clematis beguiles nursery visitors with blue blossoms as it adorns the branches of its silvery companion. “What is that blue flowering tree out near the parking area?” we are asked. You won’t need a tree to enjoy this 6 to 10′ vine, as it would do equally well climbing a trellis or arbor.

Clematis macropetala ‘Lagoon?’ needs little pruning.  If it does get too rambunctious where it is planted, it can be pruned back in late June or July, after it has finished flowering, since it blooms early on old wood. Clematis like a slightly alkaline soil, so scratching in a handful of dolomitic limestone will keep it happy if your soils tend to be acidic. It is very hardy, growing well in USDA hardiness zones 3-8.

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Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’

We have fallen in love with the New England forest.  It happened several decades ago, but it seems like only yesterday that the spell of fall was cast upon us.  We know it’s the maples celebrating, in a festival of color, their happy home.  A selection of Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ begins this celebration in spring, with leaves emerging orange, unfurling to lemon-yellow with orange margins and finally settling in with yellow-green tones through the summer.  Fall harkens ‘Orange Dream’ with a glorious display of yellow-gold.  As winter peels off her leaves, the architectural intricacies of this small tree are revealed.  Each season bring forth a new song from the branches of Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’.

‘Orange Dream’ appreciates an eastern exposure, where her feet will stay cool through the summer.  She grows only a few inches a year, but will eventually find her way to 10′ x 10′.  Site in a small garden or as an understory and you will fall in love too.