A Few Thoughts On Turning 68

June 15th was my 68th birthday. I had never intended or planned to be 68, but there it was, and here it is. I will admit the idea and the reality of it stung some. Turns out I did not have to go that milestone alone. Rob and I have worked together 26 years, meaning he knows me fairly well. He knew I was coming up on a moment threatening to pitch me into the weeds. His idea was to counter that with peonies. Lots of them. He has good instincts. It is no secret that I have a big love for peonies. In the early 1990’s, when we first started working together, I had rows and rows of peonies lined out like crops in a big block in one big section of my 5 acres. I would guess I had peonies numbering in the hundreds of plants. Divine, this. Every year, buffalo grass came up between the peonies. Did I plan for that grass?  No. Those peonies and that unexpected gorgeous grass was an unforgettable experience. The day before my birthday, bucket loads of peonies and cut branches of mock orange were delivered to the store. I was flooded with good memories.

Rob arranged and set the bouquet pictured above on my conference table.  A 68th birthday was beginning to look a little better. I am just as enamored of peonies now as I was 45 years ago. Happily, some things in a gardening life stay the course. It is good to know that despite the years that have gone by, my interest in plants is as strong as ever. And the interest in certain plants is a flame that still burns bright. I have no peonies in the landscape and garden at home that I have tended for the past 20 some years. But I have planted lots of them for clients. I am satisfied that I have done some small part to keep peonies a part of the landscape.

I have been a gardener for 45 years. I have been a landscape and garden designer for near as long. So what would I have to say after all these years in the profession, at the age of 68?  Every experience is an opportunity to add to your knowledge and understanding. Take that opportunity, and hold it close. Trust your own instincts. How you garden does not have to work for anyone else but you. If you design for yourself, indulge your eye and your inclinations. If you garden for others, be sure you represent your client a little more than you represent yourself.

Failure in the garden and landscape can be a good friend, truly. Fear of failure is mostly about fear. Failure is an emotionally charged word for what ought to be called plan B. The A plan is not necessarily the best plan. I have seen some E plans that were quite impressive. E plans are A plans that have been rethought, reconsidered, reworked, polished, and tuned up. Your E plans might be good, should you give them a chance. Every gardener matures, and evolves. Evolution is a process that can inform every gardening effort, if you let it. Give the eye that God gave you a chance to be.

Under no circumstances do I believe that the ability to generate great design is a gift. Great designing is the outcome of the mix of hard work, experience, imagination and nerve. Every person comes with a lot of things, standard issue. A confident and coherent voice surely comes with a person hood, though it may take some time to mature. That voice of yours just needs a free rein and some nurturing.  I do subscribe to certain gardening and design practices, as they work for me. What works for me is no more and no less than just that. Every gardener needs to discover what works for them, and proceed accordingly.  No doubt the best part of tending a garden is that there is the opportunity to team up with nature and make something grow. We all do that differently.

I know the cultivar names, history and growth particulars about all of these peonies. Rob knew that would be so. I did a good job growing peonies. That ability to grow them was not so special.  I wanted to grow them, so I took the time to learn how. But these cut flowers were indeed special. This beautiful and fragrant birthday bouquet conjured up gardening memories spanning many years. In my opinion, the best design in the garden and landscape calls up those memories and moments that are important.

I photographed my birthday peonies every day, after I had taken some time to simply enjoy them. They made me remember why I became a gardener. They made me certain that I had made a good choice to become a landscape designer. Turning 68 doesn’t change that.

Some blooms held perfectly for better than a week.

The Coral Charm peonies maintained their form, but the color faded to a creamy pale yellow.

Just a few days ago, the petals began to drop. I could hear them hitting the table surface. That was a new experience of peonies. I cannot really explain why that sound was so enchanting. Except to say that I just turned 68.

Al Goldner once told me that the only regret he had as a landscape designer was that he was never bold enough. That has always stuck with me, but at 68 I understand what he meant. There is time to do something with that. There is purpose, meaning and beauty in every step of a life.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Gardeners have a complicated relationship with their gardens. The balance of power goes back and forth, much like any other serious relationship. A treasured plant/child that fails to thrive-whose fault is that? Exasperation is as prevalent as passion over a garden. A death in the garden, as in a major tree, is tumultuous, and instantly redefines that relationship – for better or for worse. Failure can hang over a garden, and thus a gardener, like a black cloud. A love for the garden can smooth over no end of resentment regarding the day to day difficult details – to a point. Gardeners and nature come face to face just about every day. The outcome is rarely a compromise. The status of most gardens is, to this gardener’s eye, more about win and loose, than a meeting of the minds.  Nature bats last.  I have gardened long enough to know this to be true. Poor soil conditions, light, water, and unfavorable weather can drive the most devoted gardener to the brink.

The intensely stubborn gardener who comes face to face with an overpowering, spectacularly uncaring, and uncompromising nature eventually come around and understands that nature is not a partner. It is an independent force to be reckoned with. There is no reasoning with nature. Those gardeners who believe they can negotiate a relationship with the natural forces that affect their garden have my sympathy.

Truth be told, every gardener is on their own. Some give in. Some give up. Others ignore trouble. Still others take hold of trouble, and address it, one shovel full at a time. I know so many hands on gardeners-the work they do to keep a garden and landscape healthy and viable is amazing. I admire all of them. Some who love their landscape ask for help from me, once trouble bubbles up beyond a quick fix. Some troubles need a helping hand.

Why this essay? A client came to me in despair that his landscape on the front side of his house was beyond repair.  Could I please remake it? Could I start all over again? He was happy for me to strip out everything in this steeply sloping landscape, and begin anew. My visit confirmed that a large area of ground cover had been overrun by weeds. That said, he had a king’s ransom in groundcover, well rooted in, that would not need replacing. I told him that I thought this marriage could be saved.  We just needed to root out the weeds, establish crisp boundaries, restore and create a consistent grade, and add some plant material that would establish a simple and strong design. As much as I love beautiful and thriving plant material, I am in favor of good design organizing the planting. This slope is very steep.  It would be difficult for me to maintain. My idea was to restore a relationship. I did not see the need for a new one.

This simple sketch illustrated how I planned to make some sense of a weed infested steep slope.  My client was dubious that he could restore order to his landscape. I think he was right in that regard. This restoration needed a group effort. I was sure that my group could bring this landscape around. He did like the drawing, and gave me the go ahead. The weeding part would not be overwhelming, as we had four people on that tedious problem. Our weeding process involved tools- all of my staff have their own hori-hori knife. For especially difficult weeds, we had garden forks, and spades. Our process is neither tentative nor dainty. There are times when a tough intervention is a good idea.

This was a marriage eminently worth saving. We removed and rebuilt all of the rock edges of this bed. A strong curve on the house side would be contrasted with a straight side rock edge on the road side. We added soil behind the new rock wall to unify the and simplify the slope from the road to the garage. A landscape bed with a deliberate shape and volume is visually satisfying.  We removed a next to dead dogwood, and replaced it with a columnar beech.

I had no problem having a crew go over every square inch of this bed, and remove weeds. We filled the low spots with new soil. We grubbed out and lowered the high spots. We added more ground cover, densely planted, in the bare areas. We added boxwood to bolster the existing boxwood. We rebuilt the rock edges. We dusted the entire bed with a few inches of ground hardwood bark mulch. And we put him in touch with our irrigation contractor, with the idea of installing a low tech watering system that could deliver the water needed. The restoration was vastly more cost effective than a start from scratch approach. And vastly better looking.

There were a number of Japanese forest grasses existing in this bed that were thriving. We replanted them in a dense circle around a treasured sculpture, and added more. The idea was to make the sculpture a more strikingly prominent feature of the landscape.

In my opinion, the outcome of this renovation is good. The revised landscape features a beautiful steel sculpture.  The ground plane is simply curving, weed free, and plant covered.

My client is pleased by the outcome of this project.  I am especially pleased that we were able to save so much of what existed here. What we added was little. What we rearranged was a lot. The few additions and the considerable subtractions transformed this landscape.

The difference between a landscape gone awry, and in sore need of some restoration, and a strikingly beautiful landscape can be not much more than a few degrees this way or that. Every garden marriage can be saved. I believe this.

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Fall Planting

If you garden in southeastern Michigan, your garden is drenched. We have had the kind of steady hard rain spanning a good many days that I call mushroom rain. I see them popping up everywhere. I am not complaining. We have had a very dry summer, and a hot and dry early fall. The cabbage and kale at the shop have needed daily water. My pots at home needed water just about that often. I have worried about the dogwoods that need water in September to set good buds for the following spring, and the evergreens that need to be water loaded and juicy before the ground freezes. I know from my large tree contractor that our ground is dust dry, down deep. The trees he has been digging with a large tree mover have dry rootballs. This has made me very uneasy about what a very cold and windy winter might mean to a plant that has not had sufficient water during the growing season. Few perennials, shrubs or trees are prepared for the winter having gone through the summer and fall bone dry. But for those few plants that rely on dryer winter conditions for survival – though I am sure there are plenty, I am thinking some species of iris, and lavender that do not tolerate wet winter conditions –  most plants like a little stored water and nutrients before they have to face the winter. Perennials whose tops die back to the ground in the fall still have a robust and juicy root system that sustains them through the winter. Deciduous shrubs shed their leaves in the fall-yes.  But their living stems will need to survive all the harsh conditions that a winter has to dish out, and enough stored energy left over to leaf out in the spring.

The dormant/winter season for plants is nothing like my winter sleep. My blankets and a dose of house heat keeps me warm. Nothing about me or around me freezes. A usual night’s sleep is 8 hours or so. A temporary respite. Mammals that hibernate the entire winter season astonish me. They do not come out of hibernation especially ready to face the day. They have lost a lot of weight, and are very hungry and thirsty. Hibernation is not at all like a good night’s sleep. I am reminded of the time a surgeon advised me that I would not be “asleep” for my surgery. I would be unconscious, and all of my normal functions paralyzed. A machine would breathe for me. The surgical team would see to it that my life was sustained. Though I appreciated his candor, I was frightened by this. No plant has a surgical team standing by. Their condition going into the winter will either be enough to sustain them throughout, or not. Our winter is not a big sleep. Dormant means shut down. Strong winter winds and low temperatures take their toll on plants whose only defense against the winter was a kindly summer and fall season. Needless to say, I have been watering like crazy.

I have no idea if the torrential rains we have had the past week will be enough to sustain my shrubs and trees through the winter, but it can’t hurt. I have not dug down to see how deep this rain has penetrated, but I know enough to be happy for every drop we have had.

Our fall is usually cool, and the rain is somewhat regular. It is a perfect time to plant. The weather is mild. The plants are no longer in active growth, so moving them is less stressful. Unlike the spring season, when planting conditions can be less than ideal. The soil is freezing cold even though the ground has thawed. Sopping wet spring soil can be a poor environment for newly planted plants. The act of planting compacts the wet soil, driving out much needed air. The night time temperatures can swing up and down without warning. Spring is a sweet season for established plants, but can be very tough on new plantings. Who in Michigan has not witnessed tulips in full bloom encased in ice, and snow on the ground? So many times, my hope to plant a landscape in late March has had to wait until May. Michigan summers can be brutal. The heat and dry in the summer can be hard on transplanted trees, shrubs and perennials. No matter how much I water, the plants look grief stricken. Fall planting is a recipe for success in my zone. Though the daytime/night time temperatures are cool, the soil is much warmer than it was in the spring. The water from the sky seems like it is packed with vitamins and minerals, doesn’t it?

I am delighted with the prolonged rain. I hope that water has made some inroads on our dry soil. Cool fall temperatures mean that rain does not evaporate very quickly. The effects of our heavy rains will surely persist. I could have never delivered this volume and quality of water from my hose. My container plantings are most certainly coming to the end of their season. But the recent rains have endowed them with some saturated fall color.

A rain drenched garden is a good looking garden. Even these drought tolerant variegated kalanchoes look invigorated by the rain.   I can think of only a very few times when my garden was threatened by excessive rain. In most cases, water distress has more to do with poor drainage than too much rain. Our parched ground may not be restored to a normal moisture content by our recent rains, but every drop of it is appreciated.

Chilly, windy and rainy fall weather-bring it on. We have more to plant.

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The Garden And Plant Show At Kasteel Hex

Rob is part way through his annual sojourn to Europe, shopping for the spring of 2018. He does all of the buying for Detroit Garden Works. He does an incredible job of making our shop the place for serious gardeners to shop for whatever they need, or might fall for. He procures ornament, tools, pots, sculpture and furniture-and all else that might help to define a garden. He brings Detroit Garden Works to life. His current trip includes both Belgium and France. He does have a big love for plant fairs, no matter where he is. It so happened that he was able to book a half day to see the garden and plant show at the Kasteel Hex in Belgium. It was so many years ago that Rob first shopped for garden ornament in Belgium. Over my objections, he was keen to visit the country. His most compelling argument? Belgium is close in latitude to Michigan. Garden ornament and landscape design in Belgium was bound to strike a chord in our zone. That made good sense. He has been a fan of Belgian garden and landscape design since the shop opened over 20 years ago. We have imported many things that seem fitting, appropriate and fitting in mid western gardens.

Though I have never seen a vendor at our local farmer’s market selling garlic on this scale, our scene is strikingly similar to the one pictured above.  All of the farmers at our market who take their flowers, vegetables, herbs, roses, cut flowers, and perennials to market 3 times a week interact with those people shopping much the same as I see here. There is plenty of discussion. Plenty of exchange. What happens at the market over the garden is of interest to all that participate.

My late season market features all of the vegetables that have ripened on farms in our area. These tomatoes offered for sale at Hex are much the same as what I see at my own market. It is good to see that interest in the garden alive and well in other places.

To follow are more photographs of Rob’s visit to the show. If you are in my zone, you will recognize a lot of the plants. I so enjoyed the idea that in a place so far away, people are shopping the farmer’s market in much the same way that I shop my own. Of course he would not be able to bring perennials and tomatoes home with him, but he obviously enjoyed the experience.

man contemplating the perennials for sale

dahlias for sale

lime foliaged heather

perennials laid out in blocks

A booth devoted to iris

Iris corms for sale

Heather in bloom

Booth with lots of gaura

mossed pots

A seed stand graced with a vase full of flowers

A booth featuring hens and chicks

Hens and chicks in crates

Hydrangeas

More hydrangeas!  This display is so beautiful.

Hex garden and plant show

plants and straw on a  rainy day

A rainy day at the Kasteel Hex garden market. So beautiful!

The Plant Fair

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