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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Thinking Spring: The First Of The Small Flowering Bulbs

first crocusThe first spring flower in my garden is always a snowdrop, but the crocus are never far behind. This year, they are early. I suppose an unusually mild winter and a decent string of warmish days account for that. Last year, spring begrudging arrived in late April.  My crocus had barely been in bloom a day before one bitterly cold late April night knocked them to the ground. A gardener’s life is much about moments – some of which are very brief. I am more than a week into the crocus blooming-this is a good year for them. This first crocus is blooming through the remains of an old clump of lady’s mantle. I only do the most rudimentary of fall cleanups. I like a garden to have a winter blanket. Still, that crocus bloom pushing its way up through the matted mess of roots and decaying leaves, is a testament to the persistence of life.

FullSizeRender (5)My crocus do not seem mind the thicket of baltic ivy that covers the ground where they emerge every spring.  There is more to this than meets the eye.  Baltic ivy on the surface is a tangled mess of vines.  But underground the roots are stout and unbelievably thick. If you have ever tried to remove a patch of Baltic ivy, I am sure you threw aside your trowel for a sharp bladed trenching shovel. A mature stand of ivy slated for removal takes the sharpest and biggest tool, a steely amount of determination, and a will to overcome. Add to this a lot of sweat and time, and you will get the picture.  My crocus does not mind the ivy. They thrive, in spite of it.

IMG_0144They push through what is underground, and emerge above ground-effortlessly. Gracefully. They manage their life with equal parts of grace and tenacity. It could be that my most favorite part of the crocus blooming is how they make me get down on the ground to see them. Being close to ground level is an experience of nature like no other. Ground level in a garden is an experience of a living city that is thriving. That experience is what keeps me gardening.

FullSizeRender (3)The story of the earth, and all of the life teeming just below and just above the surface, is a tale that delights each and every gardener. I am sure that what makes gardeners such a close but equally diverse group is their respect for the miracle that is nature. Everyone experiences gardening differently. Those differences make for lots of stories that get passed around.  The respect that every gardener feels for that incredible force that we call nature is what glues us all together. On the flip side, I am just about unglued waiting for our winter to end. The crocus is making that easier to bear.

IMG_2853So my story, this 23rd of March, is that I have crocus in full bloom. Crocus are incredibly beautiful. They are a member of the iris family.  The white stripe at the center of the leaves is typical. Crocus bulbs are planted in the fall. The corms are small, and not very expensive. They take next to no effort to get them planted 3 inches below ground. Even on a cold November day, planting crocus is doable.

DApril-16a-2013SC_0040-9-620x416When they bloom, there is an explosion of color. The blooms are large and showy. They populate an area readily and without any intervention from me. I have never done anything to them, except plant and enjoy. I greatly admire how they shrug off the late winter weather. The coming of the crocus tell me that spring is on the way.

IMG_2856The beginning of spring is not always so easy to detect. One spring day, the birds start singing. That is my first sign. The dormant garden has nothing much to say, but for the crocus.  The crocus emerge and go on to bloom during that time when nature is not entirely sure it is ready to swing in to spring. If you are a gardener, transitional blooming early spring bulbs might jump start your spring.

crocusCrocus are not native to North America. The first species crocus bulbs reputedly made their way to the Netherlands in the mid 16th century from Turkey. This photograph of crocus tommasinianus blooming, via Wikipedia, provides ample evidence that the species crocus are just as lovely as the more readily available giant Dutch hybrids –  derived from the species crocus vernus. Crocus_longiflorus5 from wikipediaCrocus longiflorus, photograph from Wikipedia

crocus blue pearlCrocus chrysanthus Blue Pearl  blooming around a fence post, from Wikipedia. It is a gardening moment that stops me dead in my tracks. How enchanting is this? Happy spring to you.

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The Tulipiere

the tulipiere (14)Last fall, a friend who had business in Amsterdam wrote me that he had gone to a shop specializing in handmade Delft china.  They made vases in sections, which when assembled, would provide a striking display for tulips.  From Wikipedia:  “A tulipiere or tulip-holder is an ornate vessel in which to grow tulips, and is usually made of hand-crafted pottery, classically delftware. They are typically constructed to accommodate one single bulb per spout with a larger common water reservoir base. They were not designed as vases for a cut bloom, as is sometimes supposed. While fairly uncommon in modernity, during the 17th century tulipieres were used to grow tulip bulbs indoors and were common pieces of decorative art. After the advent of large-scale global trade in the 17th century, numerous flower bulbs from Asia such as the tulip, crocus, and hyacinth became luxury items in Europe and these bulbs remained an exotic novelty until the end of the 17th century. Large floor-standing pyramid-shaped tulipieres were particularly ornate, and dedicated to the love of a tulip.”  My friend and I-we both love tulips.  In the ground, and inside in a vase. Both tulipieres were shipped to me-one for me, and one for him.

the tulipiere (15)My delft tulipiere arrived last December.  It is a tower devoted to the display of the tulip. I loved the shape, stature, and the history surrounding this structure. Many tulipieres dating back to the 17th century were very elaborate, and hand painted. Modern tulipieres are more streamlined, and simple in shape and color.  But the idea is the same.  A vase that would provide a forum for the tulip would delight gardeners of all persuasions. Though the tulipiere was originally designed to hold tulip bulbs, which would root in the water, grow and bloom, I knew I would only use my tulipiere for cut tulips.

the Tulipiere (6)Jody Costello, whose company is known as J Costello Designs, does an amazing job of providing cut flowers for homes and events in our area. She was a participant in our spring fair 2 weeks ago. I can count on her to bring the most amazing array of spring cut flowers.  Her buckets of ranunculus, sweet peas, hyacinth, clematis, garden roses and tulips took my breath away.  Bunches of cut flowers wrapped in kraft paper and string were flying out of her booth on that Saturday.

the Tulipiere (4)On my mind was my tulipiere.  As she brought a great collection of cut parrot tulips, I asked her to arrange flowers in that Delft tower with an expression of spring all her own.

the tulipiere (11)How she arranged spring flowers in this vase was of interest to everyone who came by. This about tulips: the tulips are the mainstay of the spring bulb garden. The cultivars available to plant are just about endless.  The very early species tulips are quite persistent.  The Darwin hybrids feature giant flower heads in the midseason.  The Triumph tulips combine great flowers size with shorter, and more weather resistant stems.  There are double flowering early and late tulips.  The bunch flowering tulips are a bouquet springing from the ground.  The fringed tulips are all about an unusual texture on the edge of the petals.  The lily flowering tulips are late,  and vase shaped.  The viridiflora tulips feature green streaks in the petals. The late flowering tulips extend the season with their tall stems and large flowers.

the Tulipiere (5)Our tulips in the front of the shop are better than a foot tall right now. The big leaves are a sure sign of spring onm the way.  Some say the time between the emergence of the leaves and the bloom is a month.  I have never tested this theory, but I can say that once the tulips come up, I am tuned in to their story.  Those papery brown orbs that we planted last fall are growing every day now.  Our spring has been steady, but slow.  My hellebores are just beginning to bloom.  The crocus I usually see in March peaked a few days ago.  My magnolia stellata is in full bloom today-weeks behind their usual bloom date.  Only yesterday did I see forsythia beginning to bloom, and the grass growing greener.

the Tulipiere (8)Every gardener in my zone anticipates the spring with great excitement.  I am no exception.  Our winter has some snow, not record breaking snow, but long and lingering cold. The break in the cold was so welcome.  We have had cold mornings, and moderate afternoons.  Many layers of clothes in the morning gives way to a tee shirt in the afternoon. Winter is making some gestures towards spring.  The willows are leafing out.  My chionodoxa are in full bloom.

the Tulipiere (7)
As for my tulipiere, Jody did an incredible job of arranging flowers in it.  Cream parrot tulips, white hyacinths and white sweet peas.

the Tulipiere (3)Spring comes in a lot of different forms.  Every gardener in a northern zone is waking up. My tulipiere, full of tulips, sweet peas and hyacinths-a breath of spring. Fresh and sweet.  I can smell the spring coming. Thanks, Jody.

You can buy this tulipiere directly from the maker in the  Netherlands:

Ruben Gerritsen | Heinen Delftware B.V.
Heinen Delftware BV
Nijverheidsweg 4V
3881 LA Putten
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0)341 362204

r.gerritsen@heinen-delftware.nl
www.heinen-delftware.nl <http://www.heinen-delftware.nl/>

 

 

 

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Vernissage 2015

Six years ago today, April 1, 2009, I published my very first post. How pleased I was to have a  a forum for my gardening journal!  I  revisited and revised this post in 2010,  2012, and 2014.  To follow is this year’s version of the essay Vernissage.

snowdrops in spring

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word recently from a client with whom I have a history spanning 25 years. Our conversation over the years speaks a lot to the value of nurturing long term 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 every square foot of her 8 acre park.  Needless to say, 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 century was exciting to research and plant.  A grove of magnolia denudata came a few years later.  Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and planted new.  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 was nearly a full time job.  Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new.

snowdropsIn a broader sense, vernissage refers to a beginning- any opening. I would prefer to associate spring with that idea described by vernissage. This has a decidedly fresh and spring ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does.  But every spring opening has its distinctive features. Last year’s spring was notable for its icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground. The snow that was still very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of drama altogether. A cold none of us could shake. My first sign of spring was the birds singing, early in the morning-just a few days ago. I still see snow on the north side of every place. It was a bit of a shock, realizing how long it had been since I had heard the birds.  Why the break of my winter this year is about hearing the singing-who knows.  Maybe I am listening for the first time, or maybe I am hearing for the first time. Or maybe the birds are singing ahead of the spring.  Every spring gives me the chance to experience the garden differently.  To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature.  This past winter was the most miserably cold I ever remember.  It just about reduced my spirit to a puddle on the ground.  Spring is not so close to being here yet, even though it is April 1.  But I see the signs.

hellebores.jpg
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 two years or more-the recovery.  I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution seems to have a clearly defined beginnings, and no end.

hellebore.jpgThis spring will see more than anyone’s fair share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs.  The winter cold was that bad. 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 membership.  The birds singing this first day of April means it is time to take stock.  And get started.

Hyacinths bloomingI 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. Spring means the beginning of the opening of the garden.  Later, I will have time to celebrate the shade.  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? I can hear the birds now; louder. Rob’s pot full of hyacinths that he put on a table outdoors was instantly full of bees.

spring containers
Today also marks 23 years to the day that Rob and I began working together. There have been ups and downs, but the 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.  No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.  The beginning of the gardening season we short list as vernissage.

spring containersWe have begun to plant up spring pots.  Our pots feature hellebores, primrose, and spring flowering bulbs. What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt.

spring containersA sunny and warm day brings every gardener outside.  Being outside today without a winter parka- divine.

pansiesVernissage? By this I mean spring.