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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Narcissus

6006000160632_10001035_l Poeticus Recurvus
Narcissus, commonly known as daffodils or jonquils, flower in the spring in my zone from bulbs planted the previous fall.  They are native to southwestern Europe and North Africa. From Wikipedia,  “The species are native to meadows and woods in southwest Europe and North Africa with a center of diversity in the Western Mediterranean, particularly the Iberian peninsula. Both wild and cultivated plants have naturalised widely, and were introduced into the Far East prior to the tenth century. Narcissi tend to be long-lived bulbs, which propagate by division, but are also insect-pollinated.” It is generally accepted that there are about 50 species of narcissus, and another 60 known naturally occurring hybrids. Named narcissus hybrids number in the many thousands. The species daffodil Poeticus var. Recurvus pictured above is commonly known as Old Pheasant’s Eye.  It is remarkably tolerant of wet soil.  The delicate flowers bloom atop a grassy foliage usually 12″-15″ tall. It is sweetly fragrant, and very persistent. Planted in moisture retentive soil that has a decent percentage of organic material, it will increase and bloom for decades with little or no care. The flowers are diminutive and graceful; up close, the blooms are stunning.

narc_triandrus_lemon_drops_mainThe narcissus Poeticus does not remotely resemble the large brassy yellow trumpet flowered daffodil that is common in spring gardens throughout the US. From the Missouri Botanical Garden website (a plant reference I use frequently), “King Alfred was introduced in 1899 and quickly became recognized as the standard yellow trumpet daffodil. And it remained the standard until the 1950s when new yellow trumpet daffodils featuring larger flowers, better form and/or better performance became available. Since the 1950s, ‘King Alfred’ production from bulb growers has decreased rapidly to the point where this daffodil is not currently available in commerce today except through a very limited number of specialty nurseries. But the legendary name lives on. Most bulbs sold today as ‘King Alfred’ are not in fact ‘King Alfred’ but are large all-yellow look-alikes (such as ‘Dutch Master’) that are being marketed under the famous ‘King Alfred’ name by use of such descriptive labeling as “improved King Alfred” or “King Alfred type”.” In my opinion, bigger and more showy is not necessarily better. There are so many species and heirloom varieties of narcissus that are so much more beautiful in flower than the standard large yellow daffodil. The narcissus triandrus variety “Lemon Drops” pictured above was bred and introduced by Grant Mitch in 1956. The small nodding flowers are especially fragrant, and have a natural subtle beauty.

narc_trumpet_pink_silk_extra_3_It is no secret that I am a big fan of spring flowering bulbs. Though planting those dormant brown orbs in the chill of the late fall is not my favorite garden activity, I truly enjoy how that planting creates a sense of anticipation for the spring. There is a wide range of spring flowering bulbs that are well worth planting, but I have a special affection for the narcissus. They are truly perennial when properly sited. They perform reliably. They increase over the years with little or no maintenance. I have clumps that have never been divided, that still bloom profusely. Deer want nothing to do with them. Narcissus Pink Silk is a descendant of that famed first “pink” daffodil Mrs. R.O. Backhouse, and was introduced in 1970. This heirloom daffodil is as lovely now as it was 45 years ago. There is nothing over bred or flashy about it.

spring3 DallasNarcissus make fabulous and long lasting cut flowers, provided they are conditioned properly. The stems exude an irritating sap when cut.  I condition them for at least 24 hours before arranged them with other flowers. I do deadhead my daffodils when they are done flowering, as I would rather that they expend their energy expanding their clump via the production of offsets than setting seed. The above pictured daffodil Dallas was bred in 1942, and is classed in division 3-daffodils with small cups.  Daffodils are classed in 13 different categories, which relate to size, color and shape.

moschatus-3s.jpgThe species daffodil Moschatus pictured above is large flowered, but subtle in form and color. Many hybrid narcissus have this daffodil in its parentage. Famed American garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder called this her favorite daffodil: “The solitary pale nodding flower has an infinite appeal, a fragile tender grace that I think is not duplicated in the race….No more exquisite flower could be found for a cool, tended corner….Not to know this daffodil is to be poor in experience.” This photo by Becky Matthews was taken in rural Tennessee in March 2004. The species daffodils are more likely to “naturalize”, meaning the clumps will increase in size, and persist for many years. The fancier, newer hybrids may not perform as well over the long run.

narc_pink_passionale_mainI have more than a few large clumps of the daffodil Pink Passionale in my garden.  Enough so that I can cut them and bring them indoors in the spring. This large cup variety was a favorite of garden writer Henry Mitchell.  It is easy to see why.  I brought a bouquet of them to Rob this past spring.  That vase of flowers encouraged him to look into assembling a daffodil collection for Detroit Garden Works this fall.  All of the varieties under discussion here are on his A list.

BroughshaneThe daffodil Broughshane was bred by an Irish hybridizer, Guy Wilson. From 1930 and into the early 1960’s, he was widely acclaimed as one of the best breeders of white narcissus.

Narcis Sea Princess _2164.jpg_f1The narcissus Sea Princess is a small cupped narcissus bred in 1984.  It is perfect for naturalizing.

DA980 April QueenDaffodil April Queen was first offered for sale in 1936. The blooms are reputed to be one of the longest lasting in flower in the daffodil kingdom.  The small orange cup is strikingly beautiful.

Croft-16-Daffodils-Mrs-Langtrydaffodil Mrs. Langtry, introduced in England in the late 19th century.

narc_jonquilla_sailboat_extra_1__1 fragrant multi floweringThe narcissus jonquilla Sailboat features wind swept petals-thus the name. The jonquilla group features narcissus with multiple blooms on a stem that are quite fragrant. I am sure you are seeing by now how difficult is it to choose which daffodils to grow. Interested in the classification system for daffodils?  daffodil classes

narc_small_princess_zaide_mainThe miniature narcissus Princess Zaide, how could we forget this one?  late flowering, shallow cupped, and sporting a chartreuse eye.

Narcissus_W.P.MilnerRob’s list is long, but each one of these daffodils would make a fine addition to the spring garden.  Forgive me all of these pictures, but once you take the time to study the available narcissus, it is easy to be taken by a plant that is so carefree and persistent in the landscape is so beautiful. W. P. Milner, here.

DA971 glory of lissedaffodil Glory of Lisse

narc_cycl_toto_main_2narcissus Toto

bacec9d68af99a7ee04ad4a4191b985f narcissus British Gamblenarcissus British Gamble

daffodil Fidelitydaffodil Fidelity

DA985 horn of plentydaffodil Horn of Plenty

DA944 daffodil romancedaffodil Romance

angel_daffsx1200 thaliadaffodil Thalia

-Daffodils-3a-Baths-Flame

narcissus Bath’s Flame

narc_large_stainless_mainnarcissus Stainless

1008398 miniature nbarcissus Elkaminiature narcissus Elkanarc_small_dreamlight_mainnarcissus Dreamlight

1280px-Narcissus_Xit miniatureminiature narcissus xit

215 narcissus Firebirdnarcissus Firebird

PL2000008432_card2_lg Nivethdaffodil Niveth

narc_triandrus_katie_heath_extranarcissus Katie Heath

narc_triandrus_katie_heath_extra_1_This closeup of narcissus Katie Heath-breathtaking. Surely there is a daffodil here that would enchant you.

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.