Spring At Detroit Garden Works: An Addendum

As I was writing about the spring opening of Detroit Garden Works, it occurred to me that what the shop does best is reflect the taste and sensibilities of a wide range of gardeners. I have Rob to thank for that. Many years ago I made a landscape design call to a client whose house and art were of a contemporary ilk. On his rear terrace was a classical and traditional Smith and Hawkins teak bench. That disconnect made me blink. I suggested that he find some terrace furniture that more accuratetly represented his aesthetic.  So called contemporary garden ornament has been available for commercial projects for a long time-if you equate simple and functional with contemporary. I am thinking urban trash receptacles, bike racks and giant fiberglass cylinder planters. What was readily accessible to private gardeners was meager. Times have changed in that regard.

Shopping European markets has also made a big difference in the style of ornament we are able to offer.The Belgians, Dutch and French have been of a contemporary mind in the garden for quite a while. The containers pictured above are made from recycled tires from a manufacturer in France. They would look very disconcerting in my garden, but my client with the contemporary art collection would feel right at home with them.

I probably have said this before, but it is worth repeating. Any idea about period or style that you express indoors is fine to take outside. And advisable. A well done landscape does have an aura- an aura of genuine expression of some kind or another is unmistakable. A judicious selection of garden ornament is a strong and vibrant way to indicate an aesthetic point of view in the landscape.

A tree is a tree, with its own aura. That same species planted in a random grove in tall grass creates a different aura, driven by the aesthetic of the gardener in charge. A collection of that same tree planted in a grid could have a very formal aura-or a contemporary one. A garden ornament added to any one of these landscapes can organize and make the intent of that gardener clearer. This room at the shop is interesting, in that it takes traditional objects, and by association with more contemporary ones, gives those traditional ornaments a more contemporary aura. In the above picture, vintage French galvanized metal seed pans were lined up and stacked on a shelf against the far wall. The overall shape and grid has a very contemporary feeling, though I am sure the pans were originally used as a simple growing tool. The traditional glazed French jarre with a cream rim in the foreground is a very traditional shape. Paired with a vintage modern teak garden furniture set, the clean lines and simple shape of the container becomes its dominant visual characteristic.

On the walls in the background of this picture, a pair of antique French conservatory windows look at home in a more contemporary setting.  Their visual meaning is about their simple geometry, and not about their history. I would imagine the conservatory they came from was probably of a traditional sort.

The birdbath in the above picture is an antique piece from England. It is easy to imagine it in a classical English garden. But I suspect it could be right at home in a more austere and modern garden. To determine whether a classical piece might work in a contemporary garden, I try to ignore where or how the piece might have been used, and concentrate on its overall shape. The short version is to appreciate it in the abstract, and without preconceived notions.

The urn pictured in the opening above has a very traditional connotation and shape. Its visual aspect is in strong contrast to the concrete bowl planters placed on top of the wall. Each asks for a specific kind of garden.

I have seen lots of fish ornaments for gardens.  Some are whimsical.  Others are accurate to a specific shape and color of a kind of fish.  These French made steel sardine garden stakes have a sleek and contemporary look. They represent in the abstract the rhythm and sparkle of a school of fish in water. Rob has used these in contemporary container arrangements to great effect.

The vintage containers on this shelf have a decidedly modern feel.

This grill bears no resemblance to the Weber of my childhood. Contemporary fixtures for kitchens have been around a good while.  It is so great to see them becoming available for the outdoor kitchen. This Ofyr grill uses wood as a source of heat, and the top rim is a cooking surface as well as the grate.

This collection of grape gathering baskets have quite a history, but attached to a wall and planted in an architectural way, they could be a welcome addition to a contemporary garden.

This contemporary version of birds on a wire come from the same French company that makes our sardine stakes. They come with one, two, or three birds wide at the top. Oh the possibilities, for a contemporary garden maker.

Spring, Detroit Garden Works Style

Rob decides when we will have spring. Ha. He knows just like every other gardener that the arrival of spring is attended by many false starts and deceptive signs. And at just that moment when you feel you might black out from the last of the miserable weather, nature switches on the light. But when you have a shop devoted to fine, entertaining, antique, vintage, contemporary and irresistible ornament for the gardening season to come, you do what makes sense. You pick a date, and be ready.  We go on hiatus mid January to fix up, repaint and restyle. March 1 is our first day of spring. Containers from Europe jostle their way in between a steady stream of freight shipments from all over the US. The spring collection takes weeks to display. Rarely do we dot the last i and cross the last t in time, but we are ready for company.
Nature takes her own sweet time deciding when to finally pull the plug on winter. Nature is the queen of false starts. The change of the season-a big fluid situation.  Every gardener I know stays tuned in to that station. We are having bitterly and unseasonably cold temperatures this week. But Rob says spring is here, and we believe him. Not to mention all of our clients that have braved the cold to come in anyway, and shop.  We have a greenhouse chock full of gorgeously grown hellebores in bloom. David and Karen took a trip south in February to load up plants from a number of growers. They are perfectly happy in flower in our greenhouse at 50 degrees. Their blooms are a sure sign that early spring is nigh. They handle the cold and blustery March and April weather with aplomb. Until it is safe to plant outdoors, they are perfectly happy on a sunny window sill.

A room full of hellebores does more for the winter weary spirit than anything we can think of. So our spring opening is marked by the coming of the hellebores. But a look at Rob’s spring collection is a close second. As I have been arranging what he has purchased for weeks, I know what is there. The best part of this work is watching someone see it for the first time. For those that read my essays that are too far away to experience our spring collection, I took pictures.

The dovecotes and bird houses are English made in a classical English style, and are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

The skylight environment is home to plenty of pots that Rob has planted up featuring hellebores, cyclamen, primula denticulata and obconica, and the Barnhaven series of double primrose.

A new collection of lead sculpture and fountains and English stone spheres are kept company with a group of classical urns in stone and iron.

Three English handmade and hand painted pears would be terrific on a covered porch. Iron urns stuffed with faux grasses are destined for spring pots.

I did have to spring for a vase chock full of ranunculus for our opening.  How so?  Hellebores are a member of the family ranunculaceae .

White tulips seemed appropriate for a room that features more contemporary garden ornament.

This stack of stainless steel drawers is just waiting for that gardener who has a mind to make them a feature of a contemporary garden. The very large pots are vintage fiberglass. The swallows welded to a 1/4″ thick steel rod come in a five foot, and 11 foot length. Birds on a wire. They are fabricated in France, and come with the mounting hardware.

We paired round mirrors with garlands comprised of heavy duty fish line and stainless steel spheres. The chartreuse faux grass is a welcome punch of spring color.

The French company Perigot is known for their iconic buckets. These buckets, available in three sizes, are perfect for a wide range of uses, but I am most fond of the shape, and that beautiful chrome surface. It was a project, hanging them from our ceiling.  They are so heavy that we had to thread concrete wire through galvanized pipe to provide a hanging mechanism that would not bow from the weight. The Belgian made teak tables come in four sizes. The zinc framed mirror is a very strong design, and is well made to a fault.

Vintage zinc grape gathering baskets are a favorite of Rob’s.  We have a beautiful collection of them on hand. The smallest of the Perigot buckets look great stuffed with faux grasses. The miniature white painted metal butterflies only require a small nail to hang.

These wood presentation trays are a perennial favorite with our clients.  Fashioned from vintage French wine barrel tops and hand forged iron handles by a company in the US, they speak to the idea of the garden as a place to entertain.  Our better than life size vintage fiberglass cow came with a name.  Rob named her Lucy, after a French dealer who was not so interested in letting her go. Rob’s first clue? She was situated in a thriving bed of stinging nettles. How he persuaded Lucy to part with this incredible sculpture is beyond me.  How Lucy and her husband got her out of the nettles is unknown to me too.

But we are very happy to have her.  This is an example of an ornament for the garden that is eminently capable of organizing an entire landscape around her watchful eye. Lucy has an aura. I did fill a collection of spherical vases whose spouts are set on an angle with white stock. Lucy had a fragrant meadow at her feet for our opening.

Vintage English chimney pots and milk buckets have beautiful shapes and surfaces.

Big baskets woven from thick rattan have a great texture, size, and presence.

Pardon this poor picture! Serviceable English made bootscrapers are a contrast in form to the hedgehog bootscrapers. Both are made by the same company. If dirty boots are a way of life for you, we have choices.

Danish designed pots made in Italy-these are beautiful. The creamy peach color of the clay is beautiful.

This is just part of Rob’s collection from his shop fest in England. The vintage bootscraper with a stout stone base and rusted iron scraping mechanism-a one of a kind.

These locust wood casks are made in Belgium. They come in four sizes.  Impervious to weather or rot from water, they invite any gardener to plant away. For now they are home to a collection of English made iron garden stakes in various sizes set with glass globes at the top. I predict we will not have these for long.

The orange table and chairs are manufactured in Portugal.

Though the winter weather still has all of us in its grip, there is a taste of spring available at the shop.

cut pussy willow stems for spring pots

strikingly beautiful and tall fan willow

Yes, the spring branches have snow at the base of their pots. They are weathering this late winter blast as I expected. They shrug it off. We can too.

A Belated Valentine

I suspect it has been better than 10 years ago that Rob bought a small collection of oversized kraft paper mache cherubs that had been used for display at a holiday vendor showroom, and had them shipped to the shop. He asked me if I was interested. Yes I was. The purchase cost was nothing. The shipping was something else, as I recall. I was delighted with them. We hung them from the ceiling with fish line, and attached lighted holiday garlands to their hands. The flying cherubs elicited plenty of comments. In subsequent years, I white washed that kraft paper. We sold a few.  Rob loaned some to a restaurant he liked for Valentine’s Day. Six months later, we got them back. The years went by, like they always do.

Then the story of their history gets blurry. The last photo I can find of them hanging in the holiday airspace at Detroit Garden Works is 2012. Is it possible they have been in storage for 6 years?  In January, Karen brought the last 3 remaining cherubs down from the roof of our tool room. She was charged with organizing and repacking all of the boxed holiday items for the winter. We store all of our holiday items on that roof. The three remaining paper mache cherubs were stashed in the far back of that space in plastic bags. Karen took them down, and brought them to my office. What would I like to do with them??

I was astonished and more than a little distressed to find that the putti had come on hard times. Feet and hands were completely detached, wings were askew-some sections had big dents. One cherub had broken upper arms.  I have no idea how this happened. Frankly, I don’t want to know, as I have this inexplicable fondness for them. What is the attraction? They have typically chubby baby boy figures, and astonishing swirling donut like hairdos. The hands and feet are webbed. Their tummies are substantial. Their only garment is ill fitting, and not very stylish. But they have benign and charming faces. And they have wings-what gardener doesn’t fall for a winged creature?

Cherubs have been the subject of countless garden ornament sculptures for centuries. Some represent love, even amorous love. Some depictions are mischievous and Puckish. Some cherubs are reminiscent of children, and innocence. Others bring angels to mind. It is not my intent to write about the origin and history of putti, cherubs and angels in garden ornament. A February project to my mind is less about study and scholarship and more about diversion.  My paper mache babies were in disrepair, and needed to be put back together.  I used fabric and hot melt glue to to reattach the hands and feet. I filled the dented elbows and tummies with light weight spackle.

Suffice it to say that my repairs were not museum quality. The repair joints were lumpy and clumsy – painfully obvious. More obvious was a need for me to cover my repairs with a decorative element that would disguise my inept repairs.  Left over from the holiday season were a number of bunches of dried integrifolia. A California supplier provides dry bunches of branches from this tree. The leaves cling tightly to the branches, even outdoors, exposed to our winter weather. The juvenile foliage is toothed and sharp.  The mature leaves are smooth and quite strong. The stems last a a very long time in their dried state.

I spent a number of hours stripping integrifolia leaves from their branches, and sorting them by size and shape. Some leaves dry flat.  Others dry with an up curve. Others curve down. Applying those leaves over my amateurish repairs would add another dimension to the surface of my cherubs. Now was the perfect time to take this project on, as I had both the time and inclination.

Buried in a box in the office were a number of packets of single mulberry paper flowers. I bought them years ago, with no particular use in mind.  I just liked them.  At last, a place to use them. These paper flowers were perfect for covering the cut ends of those integrifolia leaves. The renovation of the cherubs took on a life of its own. How I have enjoyed reinventing these paper mache sculptures. Pictured above, cherub 1.

From the beginning, I had the idea that I would ask Wayne to spray paint these cherubs all one color, once I was done. Now I am not so sure that they wouldn’t be just fine in their present green and white state. I have time to think about the final finish. Cherub 1 got a full head of integrifolia hair.

I did run out of mulberry paper flowers, so a search on line took me to a company who sells many versions of them. The daisy type flowers are more appealing to me than the roses. They arrived in bunches, each flower attached to a short length of paper covered wire. I glued through my first order of 400, and my reorder arrived in no time. Should you be interested:    mulberry paper flowers

The arrival of the polar vortex in Michigan was a sure sign to stay home. I can say that one of the deciding factors for my choosing landscape design and installation as a career was the idea that I could stay home in nasty winter weather. I took two cherubs, all of my materials and my glue gun home with me. I never ventured to work for seven days. I was busy, in a leisurely sort of way. I knew that viciously cold weather was out there, but I ignored it, but for taking the dogs outside.

I set up shop in my dining room. The peace and quiet meant I could concentrate. I recall a 20 minute period when I felt stir crazy, but that moment soon passed. Every inch of those cherubs got some attention. Cherub 2 got some integrifolia leaf eyebrows and eyelids, and some hot melt glue eyes. A mulberry leaf flower applied backwards improved the shape of the nose.

The cherubs needed  some elevation off the table surface in order for me to work on them. The integrifolia leaves are fairly tough, but dry foliage is brittle. A cardboard box kept the cherub aloft. More cardboard did a fine job of keeping hot melt glue off my dining room table.

A very good time was had by all.

hand detail

cherub 2

Cherub 2 aloft in my office. Rob gave me a hand drilling holes for screws, washers and toggle bolts. Given how they are finished, they will always need to be in the air.

cherub 3

I plan to keep them in the airspace for the foreseeable future. Part two of the project coming up next-you’ll see.

The Light Rings

If my memory serves me correctly, it was 7 years ago that Rob wound strand lighting around a few vintage wagon wheels, and suspended them from the ceiling of the shop for the holidays. I doubt they were on display for a week before the lot of them was purchased by an enthusiastic client. Over the next several years he designed and redesigned custom made steel circles, carefully engineered and fabricated to accept lights that would hang from a stout tree branch. Of course the light cord was disguised by a substantial hank of jute. An extension cord run up the trunk of the tree would connect to the plug at the top of the branch. They were so beautiful. Arresting. A circle of light with with no visible means of support shining in the winter night. What could be more simple and more joyful? This version of winter lighting is spare and eminently satisfying, both in its shape, and installation. Tie the ring to a substantial branch, and plug it in. Winter gardening in my zone is all about the quality of the light. Not only the body benefits from vitamin D.

A later design of Rob’s included a four pronged mechanism that would enable the light rings to be set securely into the ground, or the soil in a container. This revolutionized my winter container design. How I love incorporating lighting in winter pots. The ring set in the pot encouraged a whole new avenue of design. A few years ago, he suggested that his lighted circles had run their course, and perhaps he should move on to another design or shape. I was incredulous. Those light circles had enchanted clients both near and far. A restaurant in Newfoundland Canada bought 7 of the largest size, and five of the medium size-for their outdoor dining space. They, and countless other design and private clients both local and nation wide have spoken for those lighted circles. Year after year. I suspect I will never tire of them.

A circle is a simple shape. It is a closed and regular curve that divides a plane into two regions. The interior, and the exterior. This from Wikipedia. The interior of this light ring is inhabited by a brightly burning light burst. The exterior is the greater landscape. The circle here is a means by which to focus on a particular albeit temporary feature-the light.  A circle has no beginning or end. It’s recognizable symmetry is a source of visual delight in nature, and in designed spaces of all kinds. The circle is the basis of all kinds of graphic design, of which the polka dot dress is a familiar example. The circle was also the basis for the wheel, which makes all manner of modern machinery possible. It is interesting to note that all circles are the same, except for their diameter, and the width of their border. Circles of different materials and sizes that intersect create other shapes.

The space between 2 endpoints marked on a circle is called a chord. I do not know the history of this definition, but I can attest to the fact that landscape designs that strike a chord with a client or a viewer are engaging, and emotionally satisfying. A circle is a complete entity unto itself. A circle comes standard issue with a sense of completeness. As in the rotation of the seasons.  Though I may not have so many words to put to the experience, circular shapes and spaces evoke a response. In laying out a curved area in the landscape, I start with a chord-or a section of a circle. This is fairly easy to do, with a bamboo stake and string. Finding the center of that circle which will produce the desired chord may take a while, but eventually there will be consistently curving line.

Taking the time to draw the chord on the ground helps to eliminate the squiggles. By squiggles, I mean those bed lines that curve in and out in rapid succession around this shrub and that tree – without an overall sweeping curve that is visually cohesive. It helps to provide focus to what landscape elements belong in the exterior of that partial circle, and what belongs outside. The light ring pictured above is made from steel, but that steel does not need to be that thick. Steel rolled into a circular shape is as stable and strong physically as it appears to be. The ring celebrates the centerpiece. The pussy willow that pushes past the edge of the circle creates a relationship between the geometry of one element and the natural form of another. Both materials are stronger visually given the form of the other. The ring also compliments the rectangular geometry of the planter box, and narrower and wider rectangle of the greens. The composition without the ring would be fine. But its presence completes the composition in a way that organizes all of the other shapes and materials.

Rob has the rings made in a variety of sizes, from two feet in diameter up to seven feet. The ring pictures above is five feet in diameter – a good size considering the size of this pot. The first rings were strung with strands of incandescent twinkle lights that had brown cords.  Now we use only LED lights, for longevity’s sake. The lights go around the outside of the ring, and each bulb faces out. We ship them out with and without lights, and we have made them in custom sizes for a particular application.

This ring is hung high in a window, so it can easily be seen from the street.

Led lights produce little in the way of heat, so the snow has collected on the inside lower edge of the ring pictured above. The contrast of the snow and the light provides a little welcome interest to the winter landscape, even during the day.

This is my first year with light rings at home. I drive up to them, and I can see them from the deck above.

The 6 inches of snow that fell yesterday just made them look better.

H sent me these pictures of her winter boxes last night. She is enjoying hers too.

I have indeed talked before about these rings recently, but the fact is we are looking at more weather that looks just like this for quite a while yet. These lighted circles make it easier to bear with the winter.