The Maddening Middle Of March

The middle of March-would that I could sleep it off. March is still winter in Michigan. It is 30 degrees during the day, and can be in the teens at night. Like it will be tonight. Every gardener in my zone is marching to a tune that plays the following refrain over and over again-the winter is not over yet. No, not yet. Unlike that spectacular snow from a week ago, our snow now is dirty and frozen. The snow barely liquifies during the day, and then refreezes at night. Horrifyingly heavy icy globs of snow have bent over sections of my boxwood and yews in an alarming way. There is little movement towards the new season.  Maddening, this.

The soil is slowly thawing. And it is sopping wet. I would not step foot in my garden right now. My weight would drive precious oxygen out of the soil. Or I would crush the crown of a plant that I cannot see yet. March is all about those things that cannot be done yet. It is a terrible state of affairs to be ready for something that is on hold. Who likes to be put on hold? No one.

Rob organizes a helleborus festivalis at the shop in March, aimed at those gardeners who are struggling to cope with the last of the dregs of the winter. I admire his positive approach. As unwilling as I am to let go of my seasonal grumpiness, I can’t help but appreciate his representation of early spring. The cut branches of pussy willow, prairie and fan willow are beautiful. When the time comes, they will grace many a spring pot.

But the hellebores are the star of the show. Our greenhouse is chock full of them in bloom. We shop all over the country to bring this alternative experience of a Michigan March to gardeners in our area. Hellebores are amazingly adaptable to being kept indoors for a few weeks, until they can be planted in the garden in April. I will confess to have kept a collection of juvenile hellebores indoors until mid May before planting them out. They handled being stuck indoors for 2 months without a hitch.

The hellebores from growers in more temperate zones than ours provide respite from our inhospitable weather. The smell of green plants is such a relief. A lot of excited talk goes on in this greenhouse over the course of the day.

I have a special affection for the hellebore Madame Lemonnier. The flowers are exceptionally large and side facing. The plants are vigorous, and will form very showy clumps in the garden. The hellebores that are commonly known as Lenten Roses are completely hardy in our zone. My helleborus orientalis hybrids are buried under several feet of snow in my garden. But the cultivars in our greenhouse are a spectacular spring preview.

The hellebores we have available for sale right now cannot be planted into the garden for another 3 weeks. But they will thrive indoors until the worst of the winter weather has passed. If you can provide good light, air circulation, and water, they will keep you company until the both of you can be outdoors.

The dressiest way to enjoy them is to plant them up in containers. In this form, they can be moved outdoors to a front porch or terrace when the night temperatures moderate. Hellebore flowers are tiny and modest.  What appear to be petals are actually modified leaves that will mature and persist on the plant long after the flowers have finished blooming.

The flower in the center of this picture has finished blooming, but the sepals have retained their size and color. Rob plants up containers featuring hellebores every day this time of year. A container version of a garden looks good in March. More of Rob’s late winter containers are to follow.

hellebores and cyclamen

hellebores in containers

green hellebore planted up

Rob has seen to stocking other natural, preserved and dried materials for spring pots. Our cut pussy willow branches are terrific this year. Our faux stems are fun. If you are a gardener who longs for the start of the spring season, try our shop. Shrug off March. We are ready, even if the garden is not quite there yet.

Welcome to our version of spring.

The Snow March First

It is not so noteworthy for us to have a snow the beginning of March. Though every gardener in Michigan is winter weary, we know March is not a spring month. It is the last of the winter blast month. So a forecast for snow did not get my attention. What did get my attention was an early day snow with golf ball sized flakes that stuck to every surface outdoors. Those sticky dripping wet flakes kept coming for hours. That wet snow clung to and described every tree trunk and twig in its path. I could not keep my eyes off the transformation of the landscape.

Eight inches worth of snow later, every element of the landscape was draped in the most gorgeous blanket of snow. I have long been a proponent of landscape design that features the weather. I also like a landscape with clearly defined bones that represent the design idea, no matter the weather. This winter weather provided ample evidence of that idea.

To follow are too many photographs of this snow event. I have never ever ever ever seen snow as beautiful as this. Nor have I ever seen my landscape look quite this. It is easy to understand the fascination with nature. There is always something new to experience, even in the most familiar places.

picea mucrunata

magnolias and parrotia overhead

winter pots, still beautiful in March

wall untouched by snow

hydrangea flower heads

view to the street

snow struck flame willow

landscape composition

It was easy to tell the snow was coming out of the northwest.

second story terrace railing
The dogwood tree out the kitchen window was dressed to the nines. Last of all, a short video of our early March weather. What a special and unprecedented experience.

snow movie 

Coming Home

Rob shops on and off all year long, but in the month of September, he shops in Europe and the US, traveling just about full time. Months ahead of the fact, he is shopping for the spring season to come. Last year’s extended shopping trip was to France. Suffice it to say that he landed in Paris, picked up his rental car, and hit the ground running. For weeks he drove all over France attending antique shows, visiting dealers with whom he has long standing relationships, potteries, small specialty businesses, and the Maison Et Objet design fair. This biannual fair, one of the largest in the world, features high style objects for both inside and out.

In January of last year, his trip to the Mart in Atlanta resulted in the purchase of a container load of pots from Vietnam. A dealer in Louisiana who owns potteries and contracts out the manufacture of pots to her specification in Vietnam is a friend and valued supplier. Rob places an order, based on pot shapes and glazes that he sees in person. These stoneware pots are frost proof. Her glazes are beautiful, intriguing, and equally as frost proof as the clay body. The frost proof part is a big issue for gardeners in Michigan. A pot that can stay out all winter is of great value in our climate. Pots that can stay in place over the winter are pots we like.

This year, we placed an order for a 52 foot long container, stacked to the ceiling. The Vietnamese potteries are unusual in the following regard. They not only manufacture to order, they ready their goods for shipment. They are expert packers. They are happy to load a container bound for other countries. Their packing expertise has a lot to do with the thriving tennis shoe industry in Vietnam. Each pot you see in the above picture has 3 smaller sizes nested inside. The smaller pots, in graduated sizes, are nested inside the Mama pot protected by a layer of recycled tennis shoe sole cut offs. The pots that Rob orders and brings in from Vietnam are gorgeous. They are compatible with both tradition and contemporary landscapes. When he orders an entire container load, this means that the price to our customers is all that much more reasonable. I can say that Detroit Garden Works will have lots of frost proof glazed stoneware pots available for great prices this spring.

Not all of Rob’s shopping is as efficient and reasonable as the load of pots from Vietnam. He shopped at a number of small potteries in France this past September. Few of them have the ability to pack, and deliver. They make the pots, and offer them for sale. Locally. He placed a special order for pots, knowing that we would need help to get them ready to ship. Our shipping company played a vital role in getting this container to us. They send trucks to all of those places where Rob shopped, to pick up the goods and consolidate them in their warehouse in Paris. Once all of his purchases have been collected, they are boxed or crated for shipment. Once everything is ready, the goods are handed off to a freight company that will see that our container is shipped door to door, from Paris France to Sylvan Lake Michigan. Countless rules and regulations govern the import of goods from other countries. In a good year, all goes smoothly. This year, a glitch. The bill of lading did not specify the city, so the transport company decided their work was done once the container arrived in Detroit. It sat on the railway for better than a week after it cleared customs, while all the parties involved decided how to get our container transported the last 28 miles. Heather’s last week with us was in part spent training our new internet sales and service person Jackie in the fine art of getting a container derailed by incomplete paperwork back on track.    Once the container was unloaded, all of the boxes went into our garage and stockroom. There were a lot of boxes and crates to unpack. 204, to be exact. Every pot Rob purchased came to us in its own box.  Every box was stuffed with heavyweight kraft packing paper. Very large pots came in wood crates built especially for this purpose.

The trip from Paris can be a rough ride, so expert packing is necessary. Though the entire container load was insured, our primary interest is in pots delivered in perfect condition. In all of the 204 packages, only one pot has a small chip in the glaze.

A collection of both new and antique wood barrels would not be subject to breakage, so they were blanket wrapped.

In the upper left of the above photo you can see Jackie moving a pot she had just unpacked. That will give you an idea of how much paper was used to pack the pots. I was standing near the top of our rolling ladder to take this picture.

We are fortunate to have a paper recycling facility available to us. After all of the boxes were knocked down and placed flat in our box truck, we started loading the paper.  It would take 3 truck loads before all of the paper was gone. Now we are taking inventory, pricing, and displaying asfast as we can.  The shop reopens for the season in 2 days.

A first look at the pots from Les Enfant de Boisset made clear why Rob fell for them.  The color is a rich and lively mix of olive greens.

Even the interior of the pots is beautiful.

Detroit Garden Works is opening for the 2018 season March 1.


Bringing The Outside In

Given that the inside and outside are very different places to be, it is no surprise that designers who are equally at ease whether inside or out are the exception rather than the rule. I know a few, and I admire them for their ability to move from inside out and back in again without skipping a beat. A client asking me for interior design gets referred to someone else. I know enough about interior design to know I would be seriously out of my depth. Several years ago I made major changes to the interior of my own home, with the help of a very well regarded interior designer. She happens to be a friend, so we fought like cats and dogs more often than I want to admit. None of that difference of opinion is visible. She had an overall vision of the project from the beginning, and the results, happily for me, reflect that. She stuck by her ideas. One space flows into another. There are visual and spatial surprises. My interiors do not look like what she would would have for herself. They look like me, only better and more finely tuned than what I could have ever done on my own. The fact that she is at her best inside, and I am at my worst inside, made for an interesting relationship.

Though I would rather be outdoors than anywhere else, it seems natural that a thoughtful balance between in and out is a relationship worth cultivating. Cultivation churns up a lot of dirt. More on that to come! A dwelling is a place to be out of, and protected from, the elements. I like that the water comes out of the faucets in my house, rather than from the ceiling. My house is a getaway from extreme heat and cold, wind, pelting rain, snow, mosquitoes and so forth. I am appreciative and interested in all manner of wildlife, but a mouse in the house is a no go. Windows are just that-a view to, rather than an immersion in the natural world. Being inside has its value and charm.

That idea in favor of separation and distinctly different experiences between inside and out has been challenged in recent years. Exterior grade furniture upholstered in exterior grade fabric makes an outdoor living room possible. That furniture can be placed on an exterior grade rug. Exterior kitchens that mimic and rival a well equipped interior kitchen further blur the line between the inside and out. Exterior grade is a fancy way of saying weather resistant. My outdoor furniture is resin wicker. It is lightweight, and impervious to sun, rain, snow and ice. The cushions are specifically designed to drain quickly after a downpour. After 8 years outdoors, the fabric  is a wee bit faded, and moss and lichens have begun to grow in the seams. I do not mind plants growing on my cushions outdoors; that seems appropriate to the place.

An ancient roof at Detroit Garden Works was showing strong signs of age.  It was not doing such a great job of keeping what was outside on the outside. Every rain would produce drips from one end of the building to the other. It only took a week or so to install a new roof. And another 2 or 3 weeks to track down some trouble spots. But one significant trouble spot needed attention. In 1995, we installed a 3′ by 3′ skylight near the entrance doors to the shop. It was a way to bring the light from outdoors into the interior. But the wood framing had deteriorated over the years such that we had more than light coming through that hole in the roof.

A decision was made to replace the skylight with a bigger skylight. This 8′ by 8′ domed skylight is technologically vastly superior to our previous version, and its great size floods the area with light. We even have views of the trees on either side of the building.  I would think a banana plant would be very happy under the dome. The size was a bit of a shock, but this is a dose of the outdoors inside I am sure we will enjoy.

Given how much work we had already done to introduce more light into the shop, it was decided to repaint the ceiling. The last time we had painted it was in 1996. That job was rather easy, as the space was empty. Our general contractor sprayed the ceilings while Rob pushed him around on our rolling ladder. I still remember the name of the color-Winter Pear. Once the skylight was in, we realized how really dark that color that ceiling color was. Repainting this was not a job any of us wanted to take on, so I called Wayne.

We moved every object in both rooms to the garage. We gave Wayne a hand covering the walls and floors with plastic and painters tarps, picking up paint, and renting the scaffolding he needed. We primed the raw steel beams with iron oxide primer. Every square inch in the airspace got repainted the same color as the walls-Dove White, from Benjamin Moore. We had entered into the churning up dirt part of cultivating better light inside the shop. Though we had covered every surface, paint dust managed to get on just about everything.

Wayne ran the heat at 65 degrees to get the paint to dry more quickly, so the blower from the furnace did a good job of pushing the paint particulates everywhere. The painting went very fast, the cleanup took some time.

We are happy with with the outcome.  We have just enough of the outdoors inside now to make our garden shop feel more like the garden. You’ll see.

Everything will move fast now.  We are beginning to put the store back together.  A 40 foot container from France will be at our door this Friday morning. And March 1st, Detroit Garden Works will be back open for the 2018 gardening season. We have had time to make all of these changes, courtesy of the great outdoors.    The February garden