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.

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.



Hellebores: Recent Forms

hellebores-2014.jpgI have only been growing helleborus orientalis in my garden for 10 years or so.  Why I was so late adding them to me garden is a mystery.  Perhaps they were done blooming by the time I started haunting nurseries for plants.  I may have missed them.  Perhaps the time it took a hellebore to grow into a decent sized blooming plant was too long to make commercial production widespread.  Whatever the reason, I am a fan now.  They are sturdy plants with thick leather like foliage.  Many of them are hardy in zone 4, which means very hardy. They thrive in light to medium shade, and like alkaline soil-perfect for my yard. In a mild winter, the foliage is evergreen.  The color of the petals eventually fade, but they hold onto the stalk for a long time after the flower is spent.  In June my plants will look like they are covered with green flowers.  My plants are a strain grown from seed called Royal Heritage mix.  This mix has been around for a fairly long time, and produces somewhat muted flowers from dark purple to pink, white and green.
double hellebore.jpgHellebores increase in size slowly, so the prices for good size plants can be considerable.  The flowers emerge on leafless stalks in early spring-late March or early April in my yard.  The new season’s leaves come from the ground after the flowering cycle is over.  They are long lived, and make dense clumps some 18 inches tall or so.  They are willing seeders, should you have the mind to grow them on.  The species helleborus orientalis features nodding flowers,  meaning they face down.  You would have to get down on the ground to look up into their faces, or cut the flowers and float them in a bowl.

yellow hellebore.jpgOne can now find varieties with yellow flowers-shocking,  this development. The first yellow hellebore I ever saw in person-I could not take my eyes off of it. This development was only the beginning.  Breeders in Japan, England, Canada and the US  (and no doubt in many other countries) are breeding plants with double flowers. Spots.  picotee forms.  unusual colors. Helleborus Black Oddyssey is just that-an inky black.  Helleborus Ivory Price is a strong grower, and features flowers that face up.  Michigan hybridizer Chris Hansen is responsible for breeding a breathtakingly beautiful group of hellebores known as “Winter Thrillers”.  Improved flower color, flower size, plant vigor, and foliage are the trademark of these plants.  He has been breeding hellebores for over 15 years; his newer introductions are stunning.  There is a wealth of information about hellebores on line now.  If you are interested, make a cup of coffee, and explore.

double hellebore.jpgI have never been so much a fan of double flowers.  The singles just appeal to me more.  This is a preference that is being challenged by the new varieties of double hellebores.  A flower such as this is very hard to pass by.  A fan of double bloodroot might well be taken with this hellebore.  Many of the newer named hellebores are available via the technology of tissue culture.  Helleborus orientalis hybrids of old were all seed strains.  No technology existed to exactly reproduce a particular plant.  Not that I do not treasure seed strains of hellebores.  There is always the chance of once in a lifetime spectacular plant.  No one discusses the beauty of seed strains better than Carolyn from Carolyn’s Shade Garden.

hellebore-Anna's-Red.jpgA love for seed strains of hellebores implies a gardener that can successfully bring on seedlings or grow successfully from seed (I am thinking Joseph Tychonievich who grows for Arrowhead Alpines in Michigan)-or that gardener who is intrigued by the prospect of a seedling that is yet to flower.  Not your thing?  Lots of hellebores are available true to name-meaning they are being reproduced by tissue culture.  I do have a few plants from my Royal heritage mix that are extraordinary in plant habit and bloom-others are not so swell.  This named cultivar, Anna’s Red, is an outstanding plant.  It was named after Anna Pavord, UK gardener and writer.

hybrid-hellebore.jpgNo matter what you might fancy, there is probably a hellebore that will appeal to you.  Hellebores, in my opinion, are part of that group of plants that I call fancy plants.  Fancy, as in new hybrids of hosta.  Fancy, as in unusual.  Like the Rembrandt tulips-although their news is now centuries old.  Lots of rare and gorgeous plants that gardeners are prone to become besotted over are not such great growers.  But I feel convinced that the new hybrids of hellebores are rugged plants. I feel confident in saying any effort you make to grow them will be rewarded.

anemone-flowered-hellebore.jpg I have never seen one that did not make my heart pound a little faster.  This single flower with an anemone center-wow.  Though I have always favored green or white single flowered hellebores, I see no good reason not to change my mind.   Interested further?  The book “Hellebores – A Comprehensive Guide”,  written by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler is a  classic.  Judith’s nursery, Pine Knott Farms, is a major supplier of fine hellebores.  Even a casual internet search will provide lots of information and sources for this stellar spring blooming perennial.

double-white-hellebore.jpgRob always has a fresh idea for Detroit Garden Works.  This winter has been so severe and so long, I doubt anyone will be turning over the dirt much in March.  The freezing and snowy landscape notwithstanding, every gardener will be ready to talk plants the first day we hit 40 degrees.  He has a plan for a big opportunity for some gardening conversation.  In late March, we will have over 600 hellebores available for review and purchase.  A helleborus Festivalis.

hellebore-hybrid.jpgEvery gardener has a big interest in plants.  The plants are a bridge where every gardener of every persuasion might meet.  That bridge is a place to be.  A chance to move from where we are, given a little conversation and exchange, to where or how we might want to be gardening.  We hope you are able to join us March 22nd and 23rd  at Detroit Garden Works for a little taste of the spring to come.

pink-double-hellebore.jpgA double pink hellebore might be just the thing to chase away the late winter blues.