18 Years

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18 years ago, on March 29, Rob and I were hosting a party to celebrate the opening of Detroit Garden Works.  My landscape design and installation firm was the ripe old age of 10.  I had always had a dream of a place where clients could find beautiful and intriguing objects to ornament their garden.  No such place existed in my area.  So Rob and I decided to create one.  Crucial to the mix – my accountant.  He also represented a gentleman with a machine shop for sale.  Jeff was able to persuade his client to sell the property and building to me on a land contract.  This proved to be crucial to the mix.  Had I gone to a bank asking for a commercial mortgage to open a retail garden ornament business in an area zoned for light manufacturing, I would have been politely swept out the door.  A shop retailing garden ornament?  What exactly is garden ornament?

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A garden group came to the shop Saturday for a talk on garden ornament. I pointed out that garden ornament – as in furniture, tables and chairs, benches and other seating- provides a place for a person to be in a garden.  It is one thing to observe or review a garden, but garden ornament can provide a place to spend time in that garden.  After work.  Before work.  To watch the birds.  To entertain friends. To relax.  To think things over.  To rest.

antique-iron-trough.jpgA garden ornament can provide a focal point for a garden.  An old galvanized washtub overstuffed stuffed with lavender or rosemary can be the star attraction of an herb garden.  A sculpture in the landscape can organize a garden, endow it with atmosphere, and make an invitation to interact.  Pots positioned on either side of a front door say welcome to my house.  And welcome to my idea of making you feel welcome.  Gardeners place birdbaths in their gardens for obvious reasons.  Gardeners also have very different views about what constitutes a beautiful birdbath.  Finding a garden ornament that suits your garden in particular is what gives that garden a personal and individual feeling.

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A structure in a garden, as in a pergola, can enclose a space, and give it a sense of intimacy.  A fountain brings the sound and sparkle of water to the garden.  An arbor or trellis provides a home for climbing plants. A vintage bootscraper, rain barrel or garden umbrella is utilitarian.  I could say that any non-living element in a garden would qualify as a garden ornament, but that is not exactly true.  Some objects trigger a memory of an experience, a special occasion, or a person. Those memories are very real.  Some vintage or antique garden ornament come with a feeling of history or culture attached to them.  Some ornament is whimsical.  Some is repurposed from old farm implements and tools. But no matter the origin, I am still interested, 18 years later, in how garden ornament can endow a garden with a little magic.

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Interested in more on that moment which was so magical to me 18 years ago?  Here you go.

Sunday Opinion: Rob Overseas

As I write, Rob is winging his way towards Europe. He sent me this photograph from his seat on the plane as the sun was rising behind the curvature of the earth-breathtaking.  The plan-a two week buying trip that will include antique shows, and visits to dealers in garden ornament with whom we have long standing relationships.  He has not shopped for Detroit Garden Works in Europe for a few years-I have my reasons. The purchase price of any garden ornament in another country is only the beginning of what it costs to have that object in the shop.  Rob has to fly over; he needs food and lodging every day.  Anything he purchases needs to be collected, stored for a time, maybe crated for shipping,  get shipped to New York or Montreal, loaded onto a train for Detroit, cleared through US customs via a custom’s broker, trucked to the shop, and unloaded.  Everything that gets unloaded needs to be uncrated and inspected.  All of the crating and packing material needs disposal.  This is an arduous and expensive process.  Furthermore, the currency exchange rate has not been so friendly the last few years. One year I had a container devanned in Norfolk Va.  US Customs randomly picks containers arriving from Europe to be completely unloaded, and inspected.  The expense incurred by this “devanning”-mine.  In the process of offloading, and reloading, I had many objects damaged by fork lift forks, and careless repacking. Though I insure my European shipments, it took 2 years to negotiate a settlement for a fraction of the worth of the damaged load.  Every time I shop overseas, I hope for smooth sailing over the ocean, and a lucky number in customs. We concentrated on shopping the US the past few years, with good results. But no matter the origin, that unique mix of antique, vintage and one of a kind objects is what makes the shop an experience unlike any other.  Rob goes to a lot of time and trouble to insure that should you walk through the door, the odds you will find something you have not seen before are good. The odds of finding something that will delight or enchant your gardening self are very good. The only routine he observes is the change of the seasons.  To that end,  Rob is on his way back to Europe to shop.

Rob’s first scouting trip to Europe for me was in 1993. I wanted a shop devoted to interesting objects for gardens in the worst way, and for a long time.  What was available to me locally to place in a landscape or garden-not so swell. Rob had a winter ski trip he had planned to Austria; to this I added a two week trip through France and Italy.  Just to look around, and see what was available.  To meet whomever he could who shared that interest in garden ornament.  How excited we were about the arrival of 2 pallets of French pottery from the Poterie de Biot, and two pallets of Italian terra cotta from Mital- hilarious. I sold every one of those pots to landscape and garden clients.  Three years later, when I bought the building that would become Detroit Garden Works, he had a plan in place for shopping and shipping from overseas. 

That plan has changed dramatically in the past 18 years.  No longer does he haul around articles from European design publications and travel guides in a briefcase. Monica and Jenny joined forces to produce a map detailing his intended stops- courtesy of Google Earth.  A GPS gizmo called a Garmin into which he downloaded country maps and travel guides will get him where he wants to go efficiently and predictably.  Gone are the days of winging his way through the Alps trying to find France.      

Many of the relationships he made years ago are still in place.  Though he will be seeing friends he has not seen in a long time, I am quite sure there will be new people, new places-the unexpected. The Monday morning update-he’s busy shopping some place he has never been before.

Galvanized Metal


I know that last week I was waxing poetic on the subject of garden urns, but the most recent deliveries to the shop are about another point of view altogether.  Rob’s winter shopping reflects his attraction to galvanized metal in just about any form. Galvanizing is a process by which iron or steel is coated with a thin layer of zinc.  This protects the steel from rust and corrosion.  Garbage cans, fencing, horse troughs, car frames, I-beams, farm buckets, baking pans, guard rails and gutters, mailboxes, ductwork, light poles-lots of every day objects are created from galvanized metal.  I think Rob is especially interested in how a ubiquitous material can be transformed into an ornament great for a garden-such as this fanciful wire playhouse made from galvanized fencing.      


Though a galvanized watering can is an iconic garden ornament, the same could not be said for these vintage industrial storage barrels.  Tall and thin, they have a great shape and a beautifully weathered surface.  I could see them planted with morning glories on a very tall tuteur-the blue flowers would be so beautiful with this blueish metal. A country garden would welcome a look like this.  Alternately, planted with giant blue agaves, they might be just the thing for a contemporary garden.  

Containers421[1]Galvanized buckets and troughs have graced many a barn and farm garden.  It’s no stretch to plant them with vegetables, flowers or herbs.  My favorite pot compositions of Rob’s are his “roadside weed” plantings.  Loose, grassy and verging on scraggly, they are charmingly natural and unstudied.  A bucket is a perfect container.  A sizeable pail can be an unexpectedly handsome home for a lotus.  My brother had a garden party once (Petey most assuredly is not a gardener)-he used a number of large pails as burn buckets once the light started fading.  I must admit it looked great-his casual grouping of fires in buckets. 

C1191[1]This large galvanized steel cistern is English in origin. The pitted, highly textured surface is indicative of some age. A tomato garden with herbs would be smashing.  It would be equally as attractive as a fountain.  It is also the perfect height to accomodate a large thick stone top-a perfect dining table base for a contemporary garden.  Galvanized metal is a chamaeleon garden material-it seems to adapt and make itself at home in a variety of settings.

I am not a watering can person.  I am a fan of hoses right where I need them; I dislike carrying water from one place to another.  I use my vintage watering can as a vase for lilacs, or whatever else seems to be blooming in my garden.  I might plant it.  Or I might collect them, and hang them on a wall. They are among the most friendly on the eyes of all essential garden tools-they look good, just being there. 

Zinc itself is a bluish white metallic element-atomic number 30, should you care to know.  It is a brittle metal at room temperature, but malleable when heated.  Exterior ornament of all kinds has traditionally been made of zinc.  Zinc work tops are prized in some kitchens. This piece which we outfitted with mirror could have been a decorative surround on a dormer window. Very old zinc pieces can have considerable damage, as it is a fragile material as metals go.  

New galvanized metal is shiny and bright.  This surface will rapidly weather once it is outdoors, but inside it is luminous, lovely, and yet sturdy looking.  It is anything but reminiscent of your Mom’s sterling silver. 

DSC04106This old French water cart would be my nemesis-I cannot imagine filling it with water, and hauling it to the garden, many times over.  But parked in one spot, I could come to appreciate its form, and its history.  Not everyone loves classical garden sculpture; it’s a good thing they don’t need to.  Though it would not be my choice, I have seen gardens where vintage tools are displayed as sculpture to beautiful effect. 

Are you wondering what you are looking at here?  So did I, when I first saw them.  A number of very narrow panels of extruded metal, some of them 12 feet long, showed up here last week.  He shrugged.  Industrial metal shelving?  Regardless of their origin, he sees them as objects with possibility.  A narrow garden shelf attached to a brick wall?  Trellissing on a wall, or free standing and in ground? Three or four lashed together might make a swell flat bridge over a stream bed.

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This vintage flower bucket, and its companion biscuit tin make vases of a different sort on this table.  Looking at objects sometimes is much more about our idea of the function of the object, than what is there to see.  I am used to seeing galvanized metal ductwork; sheet metal window boxes take that idea one step further, to good effect.  I have made them, and painted them.  I have made them, left the surface as is, and installed them in this natural state with with black iron supports.  They are a very smart looking and economical vehicle for a planting.  A modest material that gives back plenty visually-this I like.