Vernissage 2017

Eight years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”. As much as it was the ordinary beginning of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning of my writing a journal style blog focused on garden and landscape design. To date I have published 1560 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, and observe.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014,2015, and 2016.

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I have a history spanning 25 years. She is an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I have learned plenty from her, and from her garden, over the years. In the beginning, I planted flowers for her.  Our relationship developed such that I began to design, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre park. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I had favorite projects. An edited collection of fine white peony cultivars dating from the late 19th and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All those years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property 7 years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was and needed to be designed by her. That new landscape was all about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenge posed by beginning anew.

In a broader sense, vernissage does refer to a beginning- any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh and spring ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does. Every spring opening has its distinctive features. Some springs are notable for their icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of no-drama altogether. A very warm February, and then a stony March cold we have yet to shake. Loading trucks this morning for our first spring container planting job, the temperature was 37 degrees.

I usually associate spring with the singing of the birds. I hardly noticed the singing this year, until this past week. The cold that has been reluctant to leave means there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see the signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, as are the crocus. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up. The last of this persistent cold just about reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 60 degrees, and March seemed to last 60 days. How well said!  Spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed.

Much of what I love about landscape design has to do with the notion of second chances. I have an idea. I put it to paper. I do the work of installing it.  Then I wait for an answer back. This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back. The speeches come from everywhere-the design that could be better here and more finished there. The client, for whom something is not working well, chimes in. The weather, the placement and planting final exam test my knowledge and skill. The land whose form is beautiful but whose drainage is heinous teaches me a thing or two about good structure. The singing comes from everywhere. I make changes, and then more changes.  I wait for this to grow in and that to mature. I stake up the arborvitae hedge gone over with ice, and know it will be years or more-the recovery. I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, and no end.

VERNISSAGE (4)This spring will see an average share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs. The winter cold and wind was neither here nor there. I am still wearing warm clothes. But no matter what the last season dished out, sooner or later, I get my spring. I can compost my transgressions. The sun shines on the good things, and the not so good things, equally.  It is my choice to take my chances, and renew my interest. The birds singing this second day of April l means it is time to take stock.

I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can coax or stake what the heavy snow crushed.  I can prune back the shrubs damaged by the voles eating the bark.  I can trim the sunburn from the yews and alberta spruce.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. A week ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years.  They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. Now what?  I can sit in the early spring sun, and soak up the possibilities. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, renovate, plant new.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound good?

April 1 marked 25 years that Rob and I began working together, and 21 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That relationship endures, and evolves.  Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works is an invention from the two of us that reflects the length and the depth of our mutual interest in the garden. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir. Rob’s 2017 collection of hellebores and topiary plants is a delight to the gardening eye.

We have begun to plant up spring pots.  What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt. Being outside today without a winter coat- divine. The thought that the entire gardening season is dead ahead is a very special kind of gardeners delight. Vernissage? By this I mean spring.

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The Hellebores In March

What’s better than waiting out the end of the Michigan winter is a road trip to Pine Knot Farms to pick up a collection of hellebores. After some discussion with Dick Tyler, I placed an order, and our David drove our sprinter there to pick them up.  Pine Knot Farms has been breeding hellebores for a good many years. Their strains of helleborus hybridus are incredibly vigorous, strong blooming, and hardy in our zone.  The book written by Judith and Dick Tyler, entitled “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide”, was and still is a comprehensive and succinct description of the genus Helleborus. It is an invaluable reference work, and I reach for it whenever I have a question about hellebores.

helleborus "Pine Knot Select"From Wikipedia, “Commonly known as hellebores, the Eurasian genus Helleborus consists of approximately 20 species of herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae”.  Ha. I find the book by the Tyler’s to be considerably more engaging, and a lot more detailed.  I am happy to say that Dick Tyler took the time and effort to give David a comprehensive tour of his nursery. If you are not near enough to Detroit Garden Works to shop his plants, he does ship. This is the last weekend of his hellebore festival, but he grows many thousands of plants. Just one of the many in our collection is pictured above in a photograph of Rob’s. For further information, check out their website.  Pine Knot Farms hellebores

Though we purchase hellebores from a number of different growers from all over the US, I was especially interested in Dick Tyler’s plants for a good reason.  Many of his strains of hellebores have helleborus hybridus as a prominent parent. Helleborus hybridus is in and of itself a plant of complex heritage. This is a major factor in its hardiness. They  are commonly known as Lenten roses, which means they are spring blooming. The blooming shoots of my hellebores emerge from the ground in late March, and will begin to flower in April.  As our spring weather is usually very cool, they are gloriously in bloom for quite some time. The flower itself is quite inconspicuous..  What appear to be petals are actually a modified calyx. Those petal-like structures will eventually turn green, and will persist on the plants for months.

The Christmas rose, or helleborus niger, is a winter blooming perennial.  Winter blooming plants do quite well in mild climates, but have a tough go in Michigan. There are a number of clones which have some measure of parentage from helleborus niger that are able to survive our harsh winter and unpredictable early spring. We are able to buy the hellebore hybrid “Joseph Lemper” in full bloom in December.  Customers who have kept them over the winter and planted them out in the spring report that the bloom stalks will come very early in the spring, but they do manage endure our early spring night temperatures. I prefer helleborus hybridus cultivars for my Michigan garden. I do have some intergeneric hellebore varieties whose bloom stalks began to grow several weeks ago. I have my fingers crossed that they will survive the forecast overnight low tonight of 12 degrees. For this reason, I do not cut off the tattered remains of last years foliage until it appears we will have night temperatures that are more moderate. That old foliage is like a blanket.

So what is one to do with one of our hellebores in full bloom when our night temperatures are so cold?  They are actually quite obliging about a place indoors for a few weeks.  We like to pot them up in a little something that is decorative. The green or black plastic pot that they are grown in will do, but why make do at the end of winter?  Rob potted this hellebore in a basket, and topped it off with some mood moss.  To follow are more pictures of his miniature spring gardens. If you are able to stop in and see them in person, I promise you will be enchanted.

hellebores in pots

See what I mean?

 

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March 1

Detroit Garden Works retreats into a semi-closed state from January 15 until the first of March.  During that time we do repairs, repaint, clean, and rearrange. An over simplified outtake on of law of nature we call entropy posits that everything tends to fall apart. Anyone who has ever had a garden, a washing machine or a favorite pair of boots understands how true this is. So every winter we take on a building maintenance project of one sort or another. 10,000 square feet and everything we have in it is a lot to keep clean and in working order. Once that is done, we rearrange every room to include all of the new things for spring that have been coming in since last September. That is an incredibly labor intensive and time consuming job, but by March 1, the shop will have that spring fresh look to it. I know we are just about ready for opening day when Rob is out photographing.

The landscape crews forego the lion’s share of  their winter off to participate in re-imagining the shop for the coming season.  This involves lots of patience moving fragile items, lots of sheer manpower for those incredibly heavy and awkward things, and plenty of attention to detail.  I will confess to asking to move some things around multiple times until I feel the design of it reads right to me. In better than 20 years, I have yet to hear a complaint. At that moment when I am too worried that a direction I have chosen will not work out, Marzela has been known to tell me that that we have it all in hand.

Detroit Garden WorksIt is hard to describe the process by which we turn over a past season to a new one. It is a big fluid situation. Every year, I am surprised by how a small group of people manage to transform the atmosphere of a big space from what was past to the present. The entire process from the patching and painting to the finish runs between 3 and 4 weeks. My job as a designer has a yearly winter project that goes on in my own house.

Detroit Garden Works has been in business going on 21 years. We are in the midsection of the country, 30 miles north of Detroit. That geography may define what plants we are able to grow, but it by no means defines or confines our vision of the garden to the midwest. This means that a gardener who plants herbs in a vintage wood crate is just as likely to find something for their garden as the person who values the clean lines of a contemporary  garden pot. Gardeners are a very diverse lot, and what Rob buys for the shop reflects that.

This group of stone troughs, sinks, and staddle stones that Rob purchased in England this past September are all better than 100 years old, and are covered in lichen colonies that speak to their great age. The large stones with iron rings in the center are cheese stones, that were used to squeeze excess water out of the cheese by virtue of their sheer weight. Though their history is agricultural, their effect in a garden is sculptural.

A collection of English made wood birdhouses in a traditional style are as whimsical as they are utilitarian.

A collection of baskets, chimney stones, wood grape crates, galvanized buckets and steel bird and dog cutout sculptures complete one part of the 2017 collection.

Another room is full of classical antique and vintage urns, benches, tables, sundials, and sculpture.  Any of these garden ornaments would compliment a traditional garden.  It is just as likely that any one of them could organize or define the mood of a garden.

Objects for the garden can set a tone, create a mood, or organize a space. It only takes a gardener who is interested to take their garden to that level. A garden ornament may be dear, or not.  What gives it an aura is the selection and placement of a gardener who who has something else to express about a garden that means much to them.

pussy willow

Of course, our shop would be incomplete without plants.  At this very early stage of thje season, we do have fresh cut pussy willow twigs, both straight and branches.  And a collection of fan willow. The stars of our March season are the hellebores.  By far and away, they are the mainstay of the early spring perennial garden. Our collection this year numbers close to 1500 plants, in various sizes.  We carry named varieties, and a large collection of the justly well known Pine Knot Farms hellebore strains.  How pleased we are to be able to offer these hellebores for the first time.

For those of you too far away to see our collection in person, we can take pictures, and we do ship. And by all means enjoy the following pictures that Rob has taken of individual plants. It is just about impossible for me to pick a favorite. That could account for the fact that I have lots of them in my garden. A hellebore purchased now will be perfectly happy in a light and cool spot until it can be planted outdoors the beginning of April.  This early dose of spring is so welcome. It could be that the best part of the winter landscape is the beginning of the end of winter.

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Winter Ready

lighted winter containerWe finished our last winter installation this Tuesday past. A client who is out of town on holiday did not mind if her winter pots did not get done until after December 25th. Her home is now winter ready for her return. Yesterday we finished the winter pots at the store. So we are ready for winter too. The garland got done early in the season. We only have 6 or 7 to do in any given year. Buck’s fabricators at Branch make them, and install them. They do help a great deal with the winter containers, once those holiday garlands are done and hung. Once the first 6 garlands for clients were done and up, they made our shop garland. We had that garland, and not much else until 2 weeks ago, when Rob had a moment to dress this cast iron cauldron for winter. The spruce tips were a new green for us-of course he wanted to try them out. The hand wrought iron topiary form from England is wrapped with Lumineo LED string lights. Not so easy to see in this picture are a number of small scale pine cone picks that for all the world look like they are attached to those spruce tips. For weeks, a garland and a single pot were all we had to show for the winter.

So why wouldn’t I dress the store for winter early in the season? Lots of our shop clients would like to see what we have a mind for the season. Some of them might be inclined to take some aspect of our idea into consideration for their own winter holiday. There are plenty of good answers to that question. The strongest answer is that our clients come first. We did just shy of 60 projects between November 10 and December 24. Just about 200 containers. And two holiday parties. This is a lot of of work to do in a very short amount of time. Not every client can be first, but it is easy to do the shop last.

There is another reason why we dress the shop for the winter last. I consider it a personal challenge to design and install from the left over materials. If you were raised as I was, the meals featuring leftovers were not my favorite. Some were downright unappealing.  But as a designer, I have always been intrigued by the possibility that good design can take a rag tag group of the last of the materials, and make something worth looking at from them. I cannot really explain this, but metaphorically speaking,  making a beautiful meal from a group of leftovers is a challenge that is satisfying.

The greens in the window boxes at the shop were the leftover scraps from a busy season.  Even those scraps proved to be not enough. The day after Christmas we bought 6  Frazier fir Christmas trees at a tree lot for one dollar each.  It took four trees to produce enough greens for the window boxes at the shop. These were trees that were moments from being discarded-  I was happy to rescue them from the discard heap. The labor to cut up the branches was considerable. But the end result was worth it. The window boxes do not look like they were stuffed with a material that no one wanted. The spruce tips in the centerpiece came to us late in the season, so we had those left over as well. I was more inclined to try to put them to use, than pitch them.

It is impossible to tell in advance which twigs will be left over. Every year the twig overage is different. This year, we had curly willow left, and just about nothing of any other type of twig. So curly willow was destined to play a part in the shop winter pots. The sage eucalyptus was not so popular this year, but the color is striking with the curly willow, and the red berries.

I will admit we never have any bleached pine cones left over, no matter how many we buy.  So I did purchase 2 cases of them, just for my clients and the shop winter display. We put them in the garland, and in all of the pots and window boxes.  At the close of the season, we had 2 bags left. Detroit Garden Works has their only sale of the year between December 25 and January 7.  One of those bags of cones was sold yesterday, and I am sure the last one will find a home soon.

lighted winter containerWe also manufacture the most stunning lighted rings for winter gardens; I have posted pictures of them plenty of times. Both the hanging and spiked versions are just about gone now.  But we did have 4 steel rings that had not had lights put on them, so we used those rings as a base for a collection of curly willow wreaths that sit at the back of each window box. Those three foot diameter wreaths are properly scaled to our industrial sized windows, and that vibrant color reads even at a distance.

Lighting is such an essential part of any Michigan winter display. They gray days will vastly outnumber the sunny ones from now until April. We did use left over incandescent garland light strings in the window boxes and pots, as we are transitioning over to stocking only LED lights. The light strings on the garland are attached to the grapevine portion of that garland.  Those light strings are LED lights.  One string is 110 feet long, which eliminates the need to string light sets together.  As the LED lights have a 10 year lifespan, we can store the grapevine with the lights still attached for next year’s garland, and maybe the year after that.  The grapevine is a durable material.

Detroit Garden Works for winterI will enjoy being able to walk past all my leftovers every day all winter long.

winter lightingThat pot at the end of the driveway has some company now.

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