Archives for July 2009

A Folly

The benign looking mini- roof structure you see in the above picture houses my folly.  Folly?  The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as “…any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder.”  Others have described them as buildings, or remnants of buildings useful only as ornament. I am greatly enamoured of the shell grottoes in England and Italy.  Not to mention sculpture at Bomarzo in Italy, or the French folly garden Le Desert de Retz by Monsieur de Monville. Somehow I got the idea that I should have one, though no shell structure could survive an outdoor installation in my zone.  Nor would my 1930’s vintage house suffer some 19th century ruin wedged into the side half-lot. So bring the garden inside.   The fact that I designed and built this mini-tower through the roof of my back porch,  encrusted it in glass and shells-a project that took more money and even more time than I ever imagined-makes this a  folly, no question.

I had a contractor cut a 6′ by 6′ hole in my porch ceiling, and build a four sided exterior plywood tower with half moon windows that goes up 14 feet from the floor of my porch to a squarish dome.  He shingled the structure with left over shingles I found in a closet in the basement. He covered the outside in MDO board, milled and installed moldings, and finished the outside gracefully; only I see the folly part-not my neighbors. No, I did not apply for a permit for this; can you imagine the questions?  He also removed the plaster ceiling of the porch, and installed more plywood;  I had something weighty in mind. He thankfully  never inquired abut my intentions-how would I have explained?

I rented a scaffolding (which I was sure I wouldn’t need longer than 3 weeks) and assembled two ladders. One ladder to get me to the platform, and another to get me up to the top. I glued some 900 pounds of recycled, tumbled bottle glass fragments on the ceiling  one piece at a time.  Each frosted white, random sized piece, I buttered liberally with ceramic tile mastic, and pushed into the surface, until it stuck.  I am sure you are starting to understand that I had no idea what would really be involved in making this.

It was a huge relief to get off the glass part, to the shelling; I could stand on the scaffolding and work.  Working high up on that ladder, over my head made me very uneasy.  I had no plan for the shells.  I bought  numbers of shells that I liked from Shell Horizons in Florida-by the gallon, or by the pound. White, orange, and orange-brown.  Then I tinkered, until it seemed like I had a design that would work.

Obviously this was a winter project.  I would go to work for 2 hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon, and glue shells in between.  For what seemed like a lifetime.  It seemed like every week I needed more shells.  Not the least of my concerns was that I had planned to shell the entire porch ceiling, once the tower was done.  I started to worry I would never have the stamina to finish.

59Happily I came to my senses when the tower was done.  More shells on the ceiling would just distract from the tower, right?  So I mossed the ceiling;  a little construction pressure can jump start the imagination.  Gluing dried moss onto sheets of foam core that could be stapled to the plywood in big sheets-the construction of this part of the folly took long-but not nearly as long as that tower.

No doubt this has that folly aura, but I absolutely love it.  Having admired shelled grottoes, buildings, furniture and the like my entire gardening life, I no longer needed to dream about having one of my own.

Sunday Opinion: Tunnel Vision

A client broached the topic.  “I am afraid I have tunnel vision about my landscape, and I don’t even know it”.  She made me laugh. That is a paradox if I ever heard one; I told her.   If the words were coming out, the idea had already taken hold.  It says a lot about a certain kind of good design process that she would even consider the pitfalls of  tunnel vision.  It is worth worrying about-no question.  Ranking right up there with sheets that have been on the bed one too many days,  every gardener needs to think about what it would be, how it could  be better, to make a change or two.  Do new. Prune up, remove, take a new direction-get fresh.  Think about what it would mean not to have something. I have an old, big, and not good looking maple on my driveway. What is left of a crown that has been greatly thinned by scald and maple decline, does not screen any untoward view.  What would it be like to cut that thing down, and put a sculpture on the trunk that has been left really high?  As I view the tree from my Romeo and Juliet balcony, a tall trunk and sculpture might be striking. Pleasing.  Better than what I look at now.

Am I a victim of my own tunnel vision?  The tree was fairly mature the day I moved in 15 years ago, albeit in better condition than it is now.  If its always been there, does that prove it should always be there? Getting fresh can be plenty scary, especially when it involves taking down a tree.  But sometimes a tree is just one of God’s biggest weeds. Just because something is big, doesn’t make it precious. I would never take down a healthy  tree on a whim; I would rather design around it, or showcase it.  It is a case of tunnel vision, though, when you can’t see that some trees are just weeds.

Tunnel vision is as common as a dandelion in a lawn.  Don’t worry if you have them every so often. Start to worry when your one dandelion is starting to colonize.  I have a neighbor who has thrown his Christmas tree in his back yard for the past two years.  Now he has 3 little dead magnolias he put in, and didn’t water; they are still in the ground.  And later, plastic pots on their sides have the skeletons of  dead plants in them.  A decaying rowboat makes another statement.  He somehow got the idea his backyard was a place for refuse; now it has become a refuse dump.   Never mind him; my Princeton Gold maples are screening that mess from my view.  But if you come to some day,  and find you have tunnel vision colonies, get the best professional help you can find.

I am the first to admit that I am my own worst enemy in my yard.  I have a thing about history in a garden.  I have two old Palabin lilacs on standard that I inherited; their heads must be 8 feet in diameter.  I have always barked underneath them-why?  Because that has been their history.  I know there are plenty of times I would give anything for a good designer to shake me.  Even when I do get it, from Buck, or a friend, I still can be stubborn about holding on to what has always been for dear life.  The process of change is not really that charming.

I lived in my house for 6 years doing nothing except watering, and barking the beds I inherited.  It finally occurred to me that no matter how busy I was, if I were going to get a garden made in what lifetime I had left, I had better get moving. The best thing about sponsoring a garden tour to benefit the Greening of Detroit was raising 12,000.00 for them.  The second best thing was hearing people tell me they were inspired to ditch the blinders, and take on a project that had been been staring at them for a good while.  As I like to be encouraged too, this felt good.

In my dreams, I would throw off the constraints of my history, I would entertain new ideas;  I would embrace the unknown. I would research.  I would stop fussing, and look at things from a different angle, or in different light.  I would learn, digest, and make plans.  I would fume, and come up to grade like a firecracker that just got its fuse lit.

Every day I ask my clients to give up the ideas they have had about their landscapes for a new and fresh idea.  Old landscapes may need some chopping, some rearranging.  and some re-orienting, I tell them. There are those places that only a bulldozer can rescue.  Or places that need more lawn, or a thorough cleanup.  I am familiar with their shock.  One very good client whom I told over the phone that she needed to take down two gigantic spruce trees that covered most of the gorgeous facade  of her house, and plant a garden there instead, told me to shut up; then she hung up on me.  Two days later the trees were gone.  My clients put up with plenty from me; I know  first hand that feeling of dread and distaste that comes along with knowing there needs to be some changes made.  But in truth, a little change can be like a new sparkplug for your gardening engine.

At a Glance: The Old Neighborhood



childhood home   1955-1969









OK, Here’s the Story


I spent the day of the Greening garden tour at home, talking to people about my landscape, but I also fielded a lot of questions about Rob’s.  From “which garden is Rob’s?” ,  to “what was his idea here?”-and so on.  Apparently the store was so busy he was unable to get to his own garden, and talk about it with people.  What a shame.  As he is such an integral part of Detroit Garden Works as manager, buyer, and dreamer, people are naturally curious about what his personal landscape is all about. I’ll try to tell the story as best I can, as I think it warrants telling.


He is a formidably talented designer.  More and more he consults with clients about the placement of ornament, pots and the like. He has a gift-you just need to ask him to put that to your project. Until you lay eyes on what he has done with this very small piece of property, you don’t really understand the extent of that talent.  I have over the years installed this terrace when he would be in Europe, or snapped up that collection of nyssa sylvatica (his favorite tree) when I ran across it.  He spent no small amount of time designing this landscape for himself, consulting with me, and reinventing the design; he finally, reluctantly, signed off. I knew I had to wait until he was out of town;  one fall while he was shopping in Europe, my crew installed it. 


It’s important for clients to see a designer put themselves in the same boat a designer might ask a client to row.  Making things grow, and pulling a landscape together, can be much like rowing upstream.  If you are to entrust your garden and your money to a designer, you want to feel confident they know what they are doing, and that they have been in a boat much like yours.  This spring, the bones of his place looked great.  Simple strong gestures from a sure hand. No matter how he fretted, the result was confident.  If it appears a design is in place on this the bleakest day of the spring, they you can be assured it will only look better as the season goes on.


It’s a very tough thing to go home and garden, when you eat, breathe and sleep it for other people, most days of the week.  He told me two things were paramount.  He wanted to make much of his view of the lake, and he wanted something along the lines of cohesive lake cottage style. This may sound vague, but he had no problem putting it together.  And he wanted it manageable; its pure torture to have something in a garden that needs attention, when you have no energy to answer.  He likes having no back yard.


This very old French faux bois tree trunk planter is home to  a thriving colony of laurentia; that pale heliotrope blue is a rare color in an annual. So light, so delicate-everything that the planter is not. The side terrace garden is a mirror image of the shape of the driveway. The terrace itself is screened from the road just enough, by a wing wall, backed up by giant boxwood in a stocky Belgian wood planter.  


Two chairs in the front yard are front and center to the lake view.  A quietly beautiful vintage American birdbath from Ohio is kept company in the sunken oval of grass by a gracefully swooping pin oak. This tree, his specific choice.  The simple Italian pots stuffed with ferns, heucheras, selaginella and the like have that strong woodland mossy feel.


The wing walls are a distinctive feature of the architecture of the house; the placement of these two pots make note of that. The placement of the collection of pots direct the eye around the entire space, and suggest what is yet to come.


I discovered while installing this landscape that the exterior walls has been buried in soil berms.  The house is actually quite tall coming out of the ground.  The collection of pots counterbalances the height of the steps, and sets them down visually. The architecture of the house and steps can be seen all the way to the ground.  This gives the landscape a European flavor. Years of travelling Europe to buy for the store has much influenced him.

Rob knows how to place an object in a garden such that it will give you pause-quietly.  Thus this planter, half on the gravel path, half off. Though the volume is turned down to a murmur, this landscape has a very distinctive voice.

The story of these steps says everything about the fire he has burning. These giant bolted panels of railroad ties have been lying in the abandoned railway two track next door for the past 14 years.  He finally wheeled a ball cart, rated to carry 1800 pounds, over there, loaded these 8 foot wide fragments onto the cart-horizontally-  and ran them up hill all the way to the store-in the incoming traffic lane, no less.  He told me he had no plan for what he would do, had a car appeared.   He tells me he had to lie down for 15 minutes once he got them here; he was rode hard and put away wet, getting the steps of his dreams home.  What kind of heart for gardening do you have to have to do this?  A very big one.