Archives for June 2010

The Hudson Box

It helps me to define something, should I be able to give it a name. I could write a book about places, landscapes and their names.  Detroit Garden Works-I named the shop by making a list of all those words that I thought best described what I had in mind.  My city, my love of what goes on locally, the garden-of course, and works-as in works of art, in the works, working garden, work it out-you get the idea.  My garden-Rob named it Corgi Run.  It is a perfectly apt description of a landscape designed to accomodate two boisterous dogs of very short stature without looking like a dog run with decoration.  The flowers are up high-as in roses, or containers, and the boxwood has corgi doors carved in their favorite entrance and exit spots.  I have grass-and only the most rugged groundcover on the ground plane. My beloved beech ferns are on an intermediate level; the hellebores are outside the fence. Corgi Run-the name says it all. I wanted to design a handsome box with rugged good looks that would be equally at home in a contemporary landscape as a more traditional one. Subtle, stately, engaging.  Naming it after Rock Hudson seemed just right.  The Hudson River landscape paintings-handsome, and distinctly American paintings.  OK, so I have an active imagination.  Hudson-what does that word suggest to you? Try naming the place before you design and plant it-who knows where that might take you.   

The Hudson box has but a few details-a generously large molding at the top ordinarily used in the construction of iron handrails, and two smaller and simpler moldings, my obscure nod to a classic Italian terra cotta double rolled rim pot. The simplicity of the design lends itself to the construction of lots of different shapes.  This particular rectangle fits the spot in a satisfying way.  Spots that need square containers, or rectangular containers seem to need just the right size-not just any size.  For years I had two round matching Italian terra cotta pots in this spot.  The round worked fine,I like the fitted Hudson box better in this space.

These squares were made to fit a specific space on a flight of cypress stairs.  The boxes are in lieu of a handrail-a simple be careful on the stairs.  The box in the background is home to an espaliered apple tree.  We lined the box with styrofoam insulating sheeting; the tree has lived over the winter in the box for three seasons now.  In this case, a very large box, capable of holding a considerable soil mass, seemed like a good idea for the health of the tree. The cypress deck is large and sparingly furnished-a big box works just fine here.

I rarely buy window boxes for the shop-what size would I pick?  No two windows are the same.  I like window boxes that go wide of the windows, so it looks like the window has something substantial to sit on.  This variation on the Hudson box with associated brackets were made for this specific window-and they look like it.  There are actually three separate boxes.  Part of this has to do with not placing too much stress on the wall when we hang them, but part has to do with the galvanzing process.  A zinc bath of some 800 degrees can warp steel that is not adequately captured by a frame.  Long boxes are particularly subject to damage.  Now we build long or large boxes from a thicker steel. 

This Hudson box was outfitted with plumbing, and makes a fine fountain. The box has legs, so the boxwood skirt does not obscure too much of the detail of the bottom of the box.  This year the boxwood covers the legs altogether.  Hudson boxes make beautiful fountain cisterns.   

Not every design looks so great in a very large size; this box is still graceful when it is large.  It anchors this side door entrance garden with ease.  My client plants for all four seasons; there is always something interesting going on. Driving up, she has a seasonal garden going on-dead ahead. The driveway garden-I have written before about the importance of the landscape that marks your arrival home.  I may not get to every garden every day-but I do indeed drive up every day. I want to like what I see, when I come home.        

The largest of my Hudson boxes to date-a cistern 4′ by 8′.  It was designed to be placed in an overscaled drivecourt.  Without going into any detail, my client shares a driveway with two other homes; a big drivecourt was needed to handle family and friends. The size of this cistern breaks up a giant paved space, with a garden object of interest.  

This big red SUV has nothing on this Hudson box cistern -does it? Exactly my intention.  Stately, handsome, graceful, bigger than life-this is how I remember Rock Hudson.  Buck’s construction is true, square, level. This cistern, though the planting is yet to come, shows no signs of him wrestling this 1800 pound object as he welded it. It is a garden ornament of grace and dignity-I cannot wait to see the three fountain jets, representing.      

This Hudson box is set in concert with a long and low window.  It features an ever so slight bow front.  Pictures of the summer planting to come.  The Hudson box-I am pleased with it.  Every one of these Hudson boxes were fabricated by Buck.  A Buck week-he deserves it.

Buck Week

I was remiss in one very important regard concerning the development of the Jackie boxes a few days ago.  They would not have been possible without Buck.  A Saarinen scholar in architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 70’s, a licensed contractor, and an architect and Director of technical design with Rossetti Architects for years-he agreed to come on at Branch.  He makes it possible for me to make the idea of beautiful objects for gardens a reality.  Though he has lived in Michigan for over 30 years, he is Texas to the bone.  He still has the accent; his southern style language can be better than colorful.  He loves anything that goes fast or makes lots of noise; this makes him a Harley guy.  Outside of this,  he is a very talented CAD designer, and an exactingly precise and formidably talented fabricator. He informs all of my design with a construction process that is solid, durable, true and square. And he is famous with me for having infinite patience,  as I struggle trying to put a good design together. I thought I should take some time to talk about some of the things he has made, and how he makes them. 

The Jackie box is by no means the only box we manufacture.  This lattice box with a diamond medallion and button is a complex box to make, though the general construction is very much the same as the Jackie box. He contructs the size of the lattice based on the overall size of the box.  The idea is to represent as many complete diamonds as possible, with no awkward shapes on the frame edges.  You can see in this three quarter view that all the partial diamonds match all the way around. The liner in this case is extira board varnished with marine varnish.  I like the contrast between the solid steel diamond, and the open latticework diamonds.  It is a detailed yet elegant box. Best of all, it is so perfectly contructed no one would notice the construction.  Buck has no interest in a slip that shows. 

This lattice box, custom made for a client, has a copper liner. The look is much more formal than the extira version, but much the same warm color.  Special request from clients, he handles them like the professional that he is. He personally sees to every detail.  Every box is tig welded-by Buck.  He shepards them through the hot dip galvanizing process.  He acid washes them himself.  Every box we make-made by hand.  

We did make the tall lattice box with the panel at the top; the intricate detail of the lattice welcomes and supports the plain rectangle at the top.  This rectangular shape does a great job of making a considerable statement at the front door. 

One season a client requested a cream yellow extira board panels.  I followed suit with a planting that celebrated that yellow.  In late fall, the extira boards got a coat of dark chocolate paint.  What made by hand gets you is the ability to update by hand.  This I like.

Our tall lattice boxes now sport extira panels in a dark blue grey.  This color so celebrates the color of the acid washed steel. A dark base color lends importance to the variation in the steel finish color.  Acid washing is more than unpredictable.  No matter how many tests we make, each run has its own character.  Should you like the variability of the color of lead, you will like this finish. 

My Jackie box-I hope it is as reserved and beautifully formal as Jackie K.  Buck saw to all of the details.  The lattice box makes much of every gardener’s love of lattice,  and then some.  Every single box we have at the shop comes from Buck’s hands.  This week-I plan to celebrate that.  Buck week.

Sunday Opinion: Blue In The Face

When I was young, I had a dear friend named Margaret Dickson.  We met when I took a job working for Al Goldner at Goldner Walsh in the late 80’s.  She began as a client of Al’s-she went on to hybridize daylilies and plant annuals for him.  They went on to have a very special relationship the likes of which I had never seen before, or since.  I have no plans to discuss that; they have both passed on.  Suffice it to say, how they scooped me up and made it their business to school me-I was lucky.  I planted annuals on Margaret’s crew. That was just the beginning.

Al paid me 16,000.00 a year in 1984, with a 4000.00 bonus at the end of the year.  In 1985, a client of his who refused to pay 4000.00 of her bill-that bill got paid with my bonus.  I ran the crew on that job.  I recall I was more angry about some ill defined blame for some not really legitimate wrong being foisted onto me than I was about the money. The client was enormous maintenance, and astonishingly self centered and thoughtless.  The  shopping, the planting- a sonata in her honor.  She had no comprehension of the amount of work that went into trying to create exactly what she saw in her mind’s eye.  She missed the boat-plain and simple.  Our crime-the garden did not look mature when we finished.  I was taken aback to learn that not all gardens have a gardener in charge. What I learned from this was that some work needs to be accompanied by lots of discussion, so people are not disappointed, or taken by surprise.   Some work requires explanation, teaching-at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.  When clients ask how long they should water their new boxwood-I say until you are blue in the face. I tell them that if they keep breathing regularly once they fell that blue coming on, they will be able to hold out even longer.  A strong finish is harder than a strong start-but you need both.   

   In retrospect, I think Al knew exactly what he was dealing with in me.  Though I would never dream of making any crew person working for me responsible for a disagreement about a bill, I learned something very important from him.  Relationships are difficult, and complicated.  I might spend my time time raging, or I might spend my time trying to make it all work.  The willingness to live through the blue in the face phase is an important tool I would not want to be without.     What I learned from the two of them about making things grow, and making relationships with clients grow, has stayed with me for a very long time. I feel their collective hands on, between my shoulder blades, encouraging me, every day.  This is my best description of what it means to have a mentor and a teacher. The 4k he nicked me-I got over it.  The money I spent restoring my fountain made my stomach churn-but that particular churning went away as soon as I had water.  The water representing that I come home to every day is what I think about.   

I digress.  This essay is really about Margaret, not money. Once I respectably survived working on her crew, she took me in.  She spent hours telling me everything she knew.  She had me over to not only tour her garden, but hear how she made it, what she chose to plant, and how she maintained it.  Her garden had lush hedges of Japanese painted ferns as a border; this I had never seen.  It was informal and rowdy in appearance-she knew when to stop fussing with plants, and just let them be.  She gave an extraordinary amount of time to me-how I loved her for this.  We became the best of friends.  Much late I weeded her garden when she was very sick and dying.  One day I visited her; she insisted she had seen a grey goose in her garden.  That would have been me.  March 29 of 1995, Margaret died.  Her funeral was held in a makeshift greenhouse on my property in Orchard Lake. I will admit I was so beside myself about loosing her, I was so beside myself about being asked by the family to speak about her, I drank two big glasses of wine at 10:30 am.  I spoke about her-who knows what I said.  I showed up at the appointed hour, and delivered.  I do remember half way through my talk, a big wind swept through, and showered all of us with water droplets from the condensation on plastic tunnel house roof.  I have no doubt it was Margaret, sweeping, brushing all of our collective grief away.  That would be just like her. 

She made me put my name on a garden speakers list; she told me I was able to teach.  If you are able to do, you should, she would say.  She encouraged me to start my own business, and was after me regularly about opening a shop.  I opened Detroit Garden Works one year to the day after she died.  There is a plaque on my greenhouse wall; the company that owns the shop property is called Margaret Properties.  Many years later, I hold close how she taught me to water any situation until I am blue in the face.  Whether it be a client, a job, my own garden, or your garden.  Many thanks, Margaret.

At A Glance: What A Difference The Vase Makes