The Little Things

Early spring in my zone is anything but a 128 piece brass band playing at full tilt. That brass band blaring part will come in May, but April is notable for its quiet moments. Those plants that foretell the spring to come are looking very good right now.  That they dare breach the comfort of their winter home for the windy, chilly, and sometimes snowy and sleety garden in late March and April makes them well worth growing. That transition between the winter and spring is a long and blustery hallway. Gardeners can shut the door on the winter, and anticipate the spring light at the end of the tunnel. I would describe that time as April.The most notable of the small early spring things are the small flowering bulbs that require a fall planting. The chionodoxa forbesii “Blue Giant” that is pictured above grows but 6 inches tall. But these true blue flowers with white centers can make that interminable wait for spring a little easier to bear. Left to their own devices, they will multiply at a steady rate. The bulbs are so small they can be planted with your index finger. Every day I look at the chios, as I call them.  They come early, and are ephemeral. Blink, and they are gone until next year.

My favorite spring preview is always about the crocus. These little bulbs produce the most amazing cup shaped flowers with brilliant yellow stamens in early April. Of course the best view is from down on the ground. In April, there is time for a little dallying in the garden. Bad weather in late March can lay waste to them, or shorten their bloom time to but a few days, but I would not do without them. The one March that bad weather destroyed the flowers before they even opened was a bad March indeed. I was not heartbroken. I was insulted. April is a preseason gardening time for Michigan gardeners. There is time to take a good look. Time to smell, see, and hear the garden coming to life again. The small spring flowering plants are many. Snowdrops and winter aconites come first. Pushkinia, anemone blanda, frittilaria species, scilla, leucojum, crocus –  the list is long.

My crocus collection came with the house. 20 years ago I probably had 5 plants in bloom. They have increased at a leisurely rate, and now put on a fairly respectable show. This is nothing like visiting the Netherlands at bulb blooming time. It is a quiet April moment in Michigan.

a sunny April day with crocus tommasinianus in bloom

Pickwick crocus

the Pickwick’s up close

Giant Dutch purple crocus

Of course no discussion of April in Michigan would be complete without some reference to the hellebores. Mine are just coming on. The flower stalks are tall and arching.  The flowers themselves are modest in appearance, as most of the flowers are nodding. Pick a hellebore bloom, and turn it right side up in your hand, and be enchanted.

I know exactly why I devote lots of space in my garden to hellebores. The plants are sturdy. The foliage is glossy green the entire gardening season. Properly sited, they require next to no maintenance. Clumps 20 years old are not unusual. I so appreciate that they begin blooming in April. Their early spring appearance affords me the time to truly appreciate them. My April is not usually about the work of the garden. It is much about anticipation.

I might routinely anticipate the beauty of my April garden, but the bigger reality of this year’s pre-spring moments is always a unique experience. An experience that is not especially showy, and not particularly vocal. April is a a kind of quiet that draws gardeners up to a fire of slow heat. I would say that the April garden in our northern zone is a meeting of the early spring plants, and the caring hands of the gardener in charge. Every year in April, I find reason to celebrate this relationship. Welcome, spring!

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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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May Days

the spring garden (7)If you are a gardener in my zone, there is nothing quite like the experience of May. The winter lets go reluctantly. Early March was warm and friendly. Late March, April and the first two weeks of May were chilly enough to put on a jacket, and zip it up. When I went to work yesterday morning, the air temperature was 37 degrees. These are personal observations. The dormant trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs have been responding to physical changes in the temperature and day length in a different way.  Once all of the signs suggest it is time to bud out, leaf out, or emerge from the ground, the plants go for broke. They don’t much respond to daily changes. An apple tree in full bloom has next to no defense against a string of below freezing temperatures. For sheer drama, the spring is hard to beat.

American dogwood It is so hard to believe this is already the 23rd day of May. For 23 days, I have been observing the process of spring.  The hellebores and crocus emerge early.  They are long finished blooming.  The daffodils have had a very long run, given the past month of cold nights. Only a few straggling blooms remain.   The tulips were challenged by the warm and then the cold, and then the May snow-it was not their best year.  The magnolias have already shed most of their flowers. My American dogwoods are in full bloom-how incredibly beautiful they are this spring. All of the evergreens are pushing that lush lime green spring growth that makes my gardening heart beat a little faster.  The azaleas and lily of the valley in my north side garden are blooming in much the same fashion as they have for the past 22 years.

the spring garden (8)The few perennials that I have are growing with abandon.  The lady’s mantle, catmint, and delphiniums are especially robust. That growing with abandon is a good description of the spring season.  I do not have a fancy landscape or garden. It is an ordinary trial and true urban garden. It is shot through with early spring weeds. There are places where the design is less than stellar, or not apparent. Woe the design move that is not visually apparent!  There are more than a few places that need updating. There is no time to think about that now.  The spring is the time to enjoy each and every plant emerging from the strangle hold of winter.

spring garden (23)To my delight, a modest stand of sweet woodruff, and campanula porscharskayana has completely covered the ground. The leafy remains of some old daffodils are grassy good contrast to the plants covering the ground. The weeds in the path – they are growing with abandon too. The obsession with pulling my weeds and cleaning up will come later. I am wholly engaged in watching the plants do what they do.

the spring garden (2)I have only 3 plants of variegated lily of the valley. None of them have particularly increased in size over the past 3 years. This plant has two stalks this year-how great is that? These three plants, growing in spite of being overrun by ivy, may be small, but they are an important part of my experience of spring.

the spring garden (14)The joy of designing is different. It so much more about architecture, flow, and sculpture.  It is much about line, direction, mass, texture, color, and function. Though I am designing for clients, and have done so regularly since the beginning of March, my spring is all about the plants.

the spring garden (13)I live in an urban neighborhood. Some landscapes and gardens are well designed.  Other properties have nothing much that could be attributed to great design, but every one of their plants is growing just the same as mine. If they falter from neglect, that sorry situation will become apparent later. I take several things from this.  Nature has its own independent agenda. And, those gardeners who are more interested in plants than design have my respect. At this moment in the season, I am right with them. Even though the grasses and hardy hibiscus will not be fully grown and in their glory until much later, watching the process by which they broach the spring is every bit as interesting as their flowers.  The spring means good things for every square inch of ground from which a plant might grow.

the spring garden (16)The parrotias are leafing out so fast, the leaves are wilted from the effort.

the spring garden (10)The ferns and hostas are in that gawky adolescent phase.

spring garden (29)The Princeton gold maple leaves are the most shocking shade of chartreuse imaginable.  Later in the summer, that lime green will fade to green.

spring garden (26)Everywhere I look something is growing.

spring garden (16) - CopyA seedling Helleborus argutifolius has taken 4 years to grow to blooming size.  A mild winter means I have had the please of three blooming stalks for over a month now.

spring garden (10) - CopyWhat great May days we are having.

 

 

 

Vernissage 2016

008Seven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first post entitled Vernissage. As in a beginning-not only of the gardening season, but a beginning for my writing. How pleased I was to have a  a forum for my gardening journal!  I  revisited and revised this first post in 2010,  2012, 2014, and 2015. To follow is this year’s version of that first essay, Vernissage.

VERNISSAGE (15)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. She is an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke a lot 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 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. All these years later, there is a body of work existing that I call the landscape.

May 11, 2016 006In a broader sense, vernissage refers 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.  But 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. The snow that can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of drama altogether. A very warm early March, and then a stony silent cold we have yet to shake.  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 my experience of spring has been late. But every spring gives me the chance to experience the garden differently. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I anticipate. This past winter was mild. Endlessly mild. That endless and mild cold is still going on. It has been hard to rev up. The last of this cold just about reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground.  Spring is finally underway, in a chilly sort of way.  I may not like the lingering cold, but my spring plants are holding.  The daffodils are incredible this year.  The magnolias have been blooming for weeks. The hellebores have been in bloom for going on 6 weeks.  The leaves are beginning to emerge.  The perennial garden is stirring.

VERNISSAGE (1)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 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 membership.  The birds singing this 11th day of May l means it is time to take stock.  And get started.

VERNISSAGE (3)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. Spring means the beginning of the opening of the garden. 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 spring pots of daffodils have been in uninterrupted bloom for weeks.

April 5, 2016 047This spring marks 24 years that Rob and I began working together, and 20 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. 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 the vernissage.

VERNISSAGE (14)We 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.

VERNISSAGE (9)My garden at home is greening up. A sunny but chilly evening brings me outdoors. Being outside today without a winter parka- divine. The thought that the entire gardening season is dead ahead is a very special kind of delight.

VERNISSAGE (2)Vernissage? By this I mean spring. I am so enjoying it.