New Year’s Day, 2019

Dear friends of mine dress their home and table for the Christmas holidays in a way that never fails to astonish and delight me. I have written about their holiday at least three times before, but I knew this year would be special. They spent the last two Christmas holidays visiting family in the US and abroad. They would be home this year.  M and I started talking about this year’s holiday in June, like we always do. I could say that talking goes on intermittently into the fall, but in fact, I am a listener, happy and intrigued to be privy to how his ideas evolve and gel. I am sure M2 is equally involved in this process. He is the more reserved of the two. The both of them are head over heels involved in the arts and design. They also have a sincere and passionate love of the landscape – this is how we came to meet, and fall for each other. Their holiday begins with the tree. Though they have an outstanding collection of vintage glass ornaments, the tree is always very different.

Their love of nature and the garden is always a substantial part of their tree.  They live on a large property in the country. Most of that property is wild. This year’s tree is chock full of the seedpods from butterfly weed, and assorted other weedy dry stems. The addition of the wild remains of plants foraged from their own property took a few intensely felt weekends. I truly admire and respect that they are able to set aside the demands of their professional lives, and give their all to the design and creation of this tree. It is a tour de force on so many levels.

I knew M had a plan to add clementines and persimmons to the mix. He later added mini Kishu mandarin oranges and kumquats.  I had my doubts about how that would work, but I kept that to myself. At the same time, I knew he was shopping every grocery store and farmers markets in his area for those orange fruits.   I greatly respect his eye. All it takes to be open to anything is the intent to be open.

The result is unique to them, and their point of view. Stunning, every square inch of it.  Their history, interests and passion for the arts and the garden resulted in a holiday expression of great beauty.

This New Year’s Day, I am thinking about those projects this past year that truly engaged me. Those projects that speak to the best, most inventive, and imaginative. And those projects that are created by the love of the landscape on both sides of the design equation. I have many to thank, and much to be thankful for.

As for the holiday created by my friends- thank you. It is a feast for the eyes, the heart and the soul.

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The buche de Noel, a culinary creation of theirs – exquisite.

The 2018 Pumpkins

No fall garden journal of mine would be complete without a discussion of the pumpkins.  Not just any pumpkins, but those especially beautiful and select fall fruits that Rob cuts and brings to the shop for sale in October. He is most assuredly an aficionado of this iconic sculpture of the fall season. Were you to engage him on the topic, you might be witness to a passionate discussion of shape, color, stem size and surface. And standability. He favors pumpkins that stand on their own, over the leaners. But for those pumpkin fans that admire a pumpkin on its side, he will have those too. He can converse at length on the history and characteristics of varieties generally available in our area. And their variants. You will run out of patience for the pumpkin discussion long before he runs out of things to say. Normally he is quite taciturn, but he is an unabashed fan of pumpkins. Just ask him.
One year his yearly buying trip to Europe ran long. He came home at the end of September to find not a single pumpkin at the shop. Driving for hours to the grower and field of his choice, cutting the fruits free from the vines, and carrying them to the edge of the field so they can be loaded on to the grower’s tractor and trailer would not be my choice of a day’s work. I made it clear that if he wanted pumpkins, he would need to be available to make that happen. He now plans his European buying trip so he is home for the pumpkin season. It is a good bit of travel, and a lot of work to put a collection together.  This year, he, David and Marzela made the trip in 3 separate trucks to pick pumpkins. The field was muddy, but navigable.
His relationship with the breeder and grower spans a few years now.  I suspect they enjoy each other’s company. Once he realized that Rob likes to look at pumpkins as much as he likes to grow them, he spent a lot of time talking to Rob about his breeding program, and his growing protocol. I think Rob has a fairly good understanding of what characteristics are of interest to him. A testament to his breeding skill  that spans many decades is the fact that seed companies send representatives every year to look over his crop, and buy seed.  They get first pick.  But once the round of seed buyers have made their evaluation and purchases, the coast is clear for Rob to shop.

He did this year’s shopping in two trips.  One by himself, to see what was out there. It was a tough year for growing pumpkins.  The heat was relentless, and the rain scant. I can understand that if pumpkins start to mature in late summer, they will be ready for market too early. We wait until the beginning of October to buy. Pumpkins that ripen as the temperatures are beginning to moderate will have a better chance of lasting intact a long time. As we rarely have a really hard frost before the end of October, the pumpkin season can be enjoyed a month or better.  In a mild fall, I have seen them survive with no soft or rotten spots until after well after Thanksgiving.

Though the picking is organized, it is still hard work. Rob picks what he wants, and sets them next to the road running through the field. The pumpkins are then loaded on a flat bed pulled by a tractor.

Two trailer loads amounted to about 500 pumpkins. Give or take, about 10,000 pounds worth of pumpkins. The shapes, colors, sizes, surfaces and density look great to the last. What to do with one of these pumpkins? Set in on your porch, and celebrate the fall.

All of these tall oblong and round orange pumpkins with expressive stalks look good to me.

Orange is not the only color sported by pumpkins. Orange, black, bicolor orange and green, cream, white, peach, yellow, caramel colored-take your pick.

The shop is awash in beautiful pumpkins right now; you’ll see.

Rob’s pumpkin collection

white and cream pumpkins

big and small orange pumpkins

a color palette

This is my favorite pumpkin of all of Rob’s 500 choices. It is a subtle choice. I love the creamy gold skin. The oblong shape. The thick stem whose thin green anchors grip the top of the fruit. In my opinion, this is a perfect pumpkin. Should you be of a mind to represent the fall with the pumpkin of your choice, we have lot to choose from. As for the idea of dressing a porch or a terrace in Pumpkins – why not? Beautifully grown pumpkins speak loud and clear to that moment gardeners call the fall season. Once October comes, I load up on the pumpkins.

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.

 

Vernissage, 2018

 

Nine 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 commencement of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design. To date I have published 1621 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, observe and reflect.  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, 2016, 2017, and today-April 5 of 2018. Why April 5 instead of April 1?  We are still waiting on spring.  A colleague suggests maybe April 11.  We’ll see!

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 had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I 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 property. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I have 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. We had a relationship that I treasured.

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 these 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 some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by beginning over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad as I did. This treasured client passed away this past winter.  It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard and respect for Marianne.

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, sooner or later. 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 change of status. The rule of the day was more of the same. A warmish February, and then a stony March cold that has become a stony cold April. Night temperatures in the 20’s, wind and cold has kept all of our plans, and our plants, under wraps. We hope to begin outdoors next week.

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 a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. 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 this time around. The last of this persistent cold 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 winter 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 5th 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. Two years 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. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a second season. I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. 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 26 years that Rob and I began working together, and 22 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 2018 collection of hellebores and topiary plants is a delight to the gardening eye. Our annual Spring Fair, this Saturday.

We have begun to plant up spring pots.  What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt. We will soon be able to be outside in a light jacket-hooray.

We are ready for the new season.