Archives for August 2018

The Wilson Foundry and Machine Co

Rob recently posted a photograph to his instagram of the urns and planter boxes in the front of my house. You can see that photo here:  Rob’s instagram page  A reader asked for more detail on those urns, and the story behind them. You can barely see one of the four in the right hand side of the picture above, just about buried in petunias.  As it happens, there is a story behind those pots, that dates back 88 years.

Some 23 years ago, my good friend Frech knew I was looking to move closer to a building and property that I had purchased that would become Detroit Garden Works. He called and insisted that I go look at a house for sale just 2 miles from the shop. I made an appointment with the sales broker, and arrived 20 minutes early.  I had a lot of time to look at those cast iron urns. I had never seen any urn quite like them. There were two at the front door, and two more at the driveway entrance. I fell for them head over heels. I am embarrassed to say that I had decided to try to buy the house before I ever set a foot inside. I loved those pots.

I have spent some time since then, researching them, as I have never seen any garden urns quite like them.  There was a long ways to go from the inquiry to an answer. I knew from the seller that the house was built by the owner of a foundry in Pontiac, which would eventually become a foundry for General Motors. I was able to determine that the Wilson Foundry and Machine Co, was established by A. R. Wilson. He was actually a huge help to Willys, helping to pull them through an economic down turn that threatened to bankrupt the company. He was a manufacturer amply endowed with vision.

His foundry would become the largest major supplier to Willys International, of cast iron engine blocks and parts. None of their parts were welded together from individual pieces of steel.  Each part was cast from molten steel poured into a sand mold. That process is complicated, and astonishing.

Though I am not a historian, I did find that Mr. Wilson had a son, Charles E. Wilson, who was the assistant general manager of the Wilson Foundry and Machine Co. A University Of Michigan publication from the 1920’s, part of which is pictured above, confirmed that a Charles E Wilson, who graduated in the U of M class of 1923, at one time lived in my house. I purchased my house from two men who had done an incredible job of keeping up a house of great age. They did give me lots of materials they had collected on the history of the house, all of which were lost during a flood in my basement.  But I do remember them telling me that the father, A.R. Wilson, built my house as a wedding gift to his son and daughter in law. The house is solid concrete block, finished in brick, copper and limestone.  The construction was commercial grade. Though I live but a block off a major roadway, my house is quiet inside. It stays cool well into the summer, and stays warm well into the winter.

The old paint on the pots was peeling, and faded.  I decided to have Buck media blast them, to remove all of the paint. I was shocked to see that the bare steel was gray. Raw cold rolled steel is dark. Literature from the Wilson Foundry speaks of their castings being “gray metal”. Once I saw them in their stripped state, I knew that the Wilson Foundry designed and cast them specifically for his son’s home. I have searched high and low for any cast iron urn that resembles mine. I have never found anything like them. They are incredibly thick cast iron, and incredibly heavy.

Once the countless layers of old paint came off the urns, the stamp of Wilson Foundry and Machine Co was easy to see.  Of course I believe that my four pots were more than likely the only garden urns ever produced at this foundry devoted to engine blocks for Jeeps. The urns and the planter boxes were powder coated 30% gloss black.  The finish should last a very long time.

My house is registered with the US data base of historic homes. But it was pure instinct on my part to speak for the house that was a home for these urns.  24 years later, I am happy for my decision. The Branch Studio made 8″ tall square steel bases for the urns, so they would sit up and stand out in the front yard landscape. They also made me almost 60 feet of planter boxes in between those urns  in which I could plant whatever I fancy in all of the seasons. The assembly is a container designer’s dream come true.

The boxy Branch base was set under the hexagonal urn base, and on top of the original brick and limestone pillars. A few weeks ago removed an old scraggly hedge of taxus densiformis, so my planter boxes could be seen from the street.

In place of the yews is a short but deep hedge of Green Gem boxwood.  A lower layer of landscape is so much better in front of the planter boxes.  I am so pleased that those gorgeous urns have become a major feature of my front yard landscape.

urns and boxes

the view from the sidewalk

The urns float just above the old boxwood flanking the front walk. I like the look. The boxes are planted with nicotiana mutabilis, nicotiana alata lime and petunias. No fancy plants – just a fair number of them.

Those urns and boxes read just fine, even from across the street.

Every day, I come out this front door with Howard.  He is not able any more to navigate the stairs to the basement. So I put him on the front porch, drive the car around to the front, and pick him up. It takes him a while to get to the curb. I don’t mind this. I have the Wilson Foundry and Machine Company urns to look at. The landscape here has a history. It has evolved significantly over the past 88 years, and these pots are part of that.

 

A New Landscape

A client who built a new house was not so enamored with the landscape that resulted. I understand that what it means to be in that spot, as I have watched it happen plenty of times.  Building a new house calls for lots of decisions, and incredible focus. The decision making on the landscape for a new house comes at a time when the client is exhausted from the effort of getting the interior spaces built and liveable. It is hard to maintain that concentration and energy to the very end of any project, much less a project of this scale. It can make sense to stand pat with a landscape until you have lived there long enough to figure out what you want from it.  Once her house was built, she was interested in revisiting the landscape. I think she was surprised by how keen an interest she had in the out of doors.  She walked out to meet me with a set of plans a year ago March.

The landscape in place was simply not to her taste. She wanted a much more formal design, with plantings in multiple layers. She wanted some punctuation with less formal elements, like roses and hydrangeas. I was fortunate in that she had spent a good deal of time collecting pictures of landscapes she liked. I client who can articulate what they like in one way or another is a good client. To my mind, there were two issues that stood out. It is a very large house positioned very close to the driveway. And the grade dropped dramatically from the front door to the drive, and from the south end to the north. The house was uncomfortably perched on top of a hill. The driveway location was a given. I thought the landscape needed to provide an ample space for the house to sit, and create a sense of depth.

My plan called for a pair of long rectangular parterres on either side of the front walk. The right hand parterre would dead end into the angled garage wall. To my mind, this creates the illusion that the landscape came first, and the garage second. An additional landscape planting on the far side of the drive court would repeat that linear run of evergreens from the house side, and would include a large sweeping bed of Little Lime Hydrangea.  But the most dramatic change would be in the installation of low brick retaining walls with limestone caps. These walls would enable a flat space in front of the house, upon which a formal landscape could be built.

It is tough to spot those walls in the drawing, but this construction picture explains it. I very rarely design projects that we do not build, but my schedule was already booked out for quite some time. Her landscape and maintenance contractor is a very well respected company that I was confident would build the project with the same care and precision that I would. I was also interested in her interest and commitment to a beautiful landscape. So I took on the design portion, and turned the plans over to her contractor.  I actually was surprised to find how much I liked having a project that I could watch come to life, without having to participate except in an advisory way.  Schecter Landscaping did a terrific job of the layout, construction and planting.

I did go by on occasion, and I did draw some of the smaller areas with greater detail that I would have were I doing the installation. But all in all, I was delighted having a design only role.  I took my crews several times to see the progress on the installation. The retaining wall on the lower left in the above picture is almost 3 feet tall. The house no longer feels like it is sliding down a hill.

Once the block wall was up, the planting was able to proceed. I like the preponderance of evergreens in the front, as the landscape will read every month of the year. The house has a number of complex shapes and angles, so the locations of the vertical arborvitae were determined by the shape and size of the parterres.  Those trees are far enough away from the house that they do not obstruct views from the inside out.

The steps were replaced with rock faced limestone slabs, and the existing paver bricks were taken up and reset.

The evergreens read just as well from the house side as they do from the driveway. The empty space on the right in this picture eventually got 48″ by 48″ brick landings for a pair of large pots. The rest of the space has a single row of roses.To the bottom left is the walkway and steps which bisect the right hand parterre, and lead to the side door entrance.

The walk to the side door culminates in a small radiused terrace, large enough for a bench and a pot. The trio of wood boxes sit in a bed, which now has been planted with a collection of small stature summer blooming perennials.

All of the planted elements of the landscape were in place last summer. She was very pleased with the outcome, and so was I. We did install a collection of pots, which we planted both for fall and winter. But it would take a year before she would see anything of the hydrangeas.

They came in to bloom just a short time ago. The parterres are planted with hydrangea “Incrediball” – one of her favorite varieties. The opposite side of the drive is planted with Little Lime hydrangeas. It is already possible to see that the landscape has multiple layers.

The car park is flanked by 2 rectangles of ground reserved for seasonal plants. Elements of the landscape from the house side are repeated here, so the overall volume of landscape exceeds the volume of paving.

It is great fun to be at a this point with a big landscape project. And even more satisfying to have a client who is happy with the outcome.

view from the car park

front walk

the view out

The view from the road is what I hoped it would be.

Up On The Roof

Those of you who make a practice of visiting Detroit Garden Works are aware that we have planter boxes on the roof. Eight rectangular heavy gauge sheet metal boxes span the entire width of the front of the shop. Designing and maintaining the planting for those boxes is a challenge. The weather conditions up there are extreme. It is always hot, windy, and completely exposed to whatever nature has a mind to dish out. Furthermore, whatever gets planted in them has to make some sort of impression from the ground. How are impressions made from afar? Light or pastel colors always read better at a distance. Large leaves are helpful. But the biggest impression to be made in this instance comes from the mass. This is 40 linear feet of boxes. The mass possible in these boxes is always in my favor, if I take advantage of it.

The design is not the only issue. Growing and maintaining plants on the roof has its own set of issues. It isn’t very practical to drag a hose upstairs, so we do have automatic irrigation in the boxes. You would think that would eliminate all of the water worries, but it doesn’t. The need for water changes all the time. Its very difficult to determine the moisture in the soil from the ground, although I personally can spot wilted plants from a long ways away. We have to get up on the roof to groom the pots, and feed them, so it is easy to check the water in person. Chelsea was up there to dead head the green and white plectranthus, and she noticed that the soil was bone dry in a number of places.  It was easy to figure out that some of the micro mist heads had become clogged. Once they were cleaned, the water was flowing again.

The box is planted with two rows. The back row is planted with bouteloua gracilis “Blonde Ambition”.  Commonly known as blue grama grass, or mosquito grass, this hybrid of the species has chartreuse flower heads which gives way to blond seed heads. Those seed heads that resemble mosquito larvae hang from only one side of the flowering stalk. This makes for a horizontal seed head that is as beautiful as it is unexpected. Hardy in zone 3, it is happy in dry to moderate moisture conditions. The seed heads hold through the fall, and in to early winter. For the full rundown, see the entry from the Missouri Botanic Garden website:   grama grass “Blonde Ambition”  Between each grass is the annual blue salvia cultivar, Cathedral Sky Blue.  Salvias are not especially showy, but the color of this cultivar is captivating. Mealy cup sage, or salvia farinacea, is notorious for sporting lots of foliage, and less in the way of flowers.  The grama grass is a perfect companion. It all but obscures the foliage of the salvia. The airy seed heads hover over the the more dense and static salvia flower spikes. I was not expecting the combination to be so appealing.

 The row closest to the street has green and white plectranthus, and white petunias, alternating.  The plectranthus has thick juicy leaves, so this plant is fairly well suited for drier conditions. Petunias, once established like the heat, and moderate water. The plectranthus is already cascading over the edge of the boxes, and hopefully the petunias will grow and ride the wave of plectranthus. We usually have our first hard frost late in October, which means we have almost 3 months more time to go with this planting.

It is easy to see in this picture that white flowers have the best visibility of any color in the landscape. That white will help to draw attention to the cloud of seed heads behind them. The salvia is tough to see from the ground, but it does read as a pale heliotrope blue haze.

The plectranthus is beginning to wind its way into the grass. We will edit that, if it seems to be smothering its neighbors. I do not anticipate much of that, as the front of the boxes faces south. But there will come a point where we let it all go, and watch what results from nature’s free for all. The 4th quarter of a container planting can be its most interesting phase. Once a planting reaches its mature size, its overall shape will have a sculptural element, in addition to the color and texture.

This may not be the most showy of my roof box plantings, but it is most certainly my favorite ever.  I like how loose and informal it is. I love the color. I have David to thank for these pictures up on the roof-I do not go up there. Climbing up to the roof of the Works on an extension ladder is not for me.  How it looks in these photographs makes me think I may want to bring this scheme downstairs somewhere.

There is something about this that makes me glad to be a gardener. And appreciative of the opportunity to plants these boxes differently every year. I suspect Rob really likes them too.    the roof boxes