Archives for September 2010

More Hounds

I am very pleased that Troy is in the process of creating his third collection of hand sculpted concrete hounds for the Branch Studio, as all but one of the original 18 dogs have been sold.  Detroit Garden Works gets inquiries about them regularly-no wonder. His sculptures accurately represent the forms of the hounds, but what is extraordinary about them is how they capture the soul and being of of a hound.  He grew up in a rural Michigan community in a family that hunted, gardened, fished, and grew a lot of their own food.  He was a naturalist, farmer, fruit grower, plantsman and gardener before he ever turned to sculpture.  His understanding of the natural world is evident in all of his work.             

His Annie is a Cattahoula Leopard cur-one of the oldest North American mongrel breeds.  Bred in Loiusiana to hunt wild boar, they are also known as Catahoula hog dogs.  Fiercely dog-like, smart, energetic and unruly, Annie is much more like a wolf than a poodle.  That barely civilized soul of hers you can see loud and clear in Troy’s sculptures. 

The sculptures begin with the a steel rebar armature that gets covered with a heavy duty wire mesh. The armature is designed and built to give the concrete strength, not describe the finished shape. But even at this stage, it is easy to see that the finished sculpture will have energy and grace.  

The frame is hot dip galvanized, to keep the steel from rusting once it is coated with cement.  Steel and cement in contact with one another is an unfriendly affair.  Cement absorbs water; steel in contact with water rusts. The galvanizing process helps keep the two materials away from each other. 

The entire form is packed solid with cement; this is a time consuming and tedious affair.  Once the form has cured, a layer of mortar is applied, and hand carved.  This is a simple description of a process which requires a considerable knowledge of how mortar can be worked before it sets up.  I have watched him work an entire day when all the mortar would do is fall off the concrete. Or another day when nothing was to his liking; he would chip it all off the next day.

Should the mortar set up faster than you can sculpt it-troublesome. A clear understanding of how the materials work allows him to concentrate on what makes these dogs sculpture.  To the last they have energy, attitude, rhythm, tension-life.   

Each dog would have a whole lot of one thing going on.  His sleeping dogs would be sleeping deeply, oblivious to all else.  His howling dogs would keep on howling, or howl louder. His playing dogs had nothing else on their mind except play.They were all engaged in some singular hound activity.  Whether sleeping, playing or barking at the moon,  I knew they would really come to life outdoors.

Though I really like all kinds of sculpture in a garden, I am particularly fond of these.  They are of a scale and grace that makes them as natural as they are striking.  Imagine this moment in the landscape without the hounds-sleepy.  Garden sculpture that does not necessarily engage, energize or require a landscape does not appeal to me as much. The dogs look great from a distance, as they are very simple and direct expression of the artist’s view of the living world.  Don’t ask me what I mean by this, but these dogs are as witty as they are wily. I doubt my garden will ever have a 19th century limestone sculpture of the huntress Diana, a steel sculpture done by Richard Sera, or a Deborah Butterfield horse, but it could have this dog. I could move it to a different spot every year. I am guessing that before long the dog would have a name. 

When Annie would visit, no surface outdoors was too high off the ground for her,  or off limits to her. You could not help but admire all that energy and zest for the out of doors.  See what I mean?

Sunday Opinion: September

I woke up this morning and it was September. The floors in the house were cold; it is 49 degrees. Naturally, I think I smell the beginning of an end.  I see a blustery wind broke a giant branch off one of my daturas.  7 flowers and 3 times that many buds went down with it, for pete’s sake.  I notice for the first time that my garden looks like it is slowing down. My giant coleus ball by the kitchen door has that deflated look about it. Would I put off September for another 30 days if I could?  Though summer’s end is not my idea of a cause for great celebration, it is probably time-so no; I am ready for September. Time to stop looking at that garden- its time to do something about those things that need to be divided, moved, pitched, or added to.  September is a great month to work in a garden.  Cooler temperatures and more regular rain is a friendly environment in which to plant.  Though the air temperatures are cooling, the soil is still warm, and cools off slowly.  The roots of plants continue to grow until the ground freezes.  In my zone, that date is 4 months away. 

I do not really garden in the summer.  I maintain what’s there.  I pollarded the lilacs, dead headed the roses, and wired up the panic grass after a big wind.  I water, and as I am watering, I look at it, and enjoy it.  I also sit in it, entertain, contemplate, and live in my garden.  The season is changing.  September is break out the fork and spade month. I think fall is the best time to plant.  Spring in Michigan is  unpredictable, inconsistent, and can be amazingly inhospitable.  My local nurseries seem to have a good supply of great looking plants in the fall-I think I might do some planting.

 I have several perennial gardens that need renovation. I planted them for clients 10 years ago or better.  Trees nearby have grown and are casting shade; the too crowded daylilies are not blooming as profusely as they should.  Civilized patches of black eyed susans have distressingly burgeoned into oceans of black eyed susans.  Some things they really like are not all that long lived, and need to be replanted.  Is there a spot for more peonies? The kousa dogwood that has never looked good-September is a good time to make changes.

Should you plant new perennials in the fall, they most likely will look like two year olds next spring.  They will look identical to perennials you planted last spring. If you are late to the party, redemption can yet be yours. I like to have new perennials in the ground by the end of September, so there is time for some rooting to take place.  Nothing is so discouraging as seeing your perennials with their crowns heaved up out of the ground in the spring.It is a lot of work to buy a plant, bring it home, dig a hole, and plant.  It only makes sense to optimize your chances of success.  If you are like me, dead plants make you very crabby.    

I went out to Wiegand’s Nursery this afternoon.  The parking lot was full of people loading all manner of plants into their vehicles.  I saw perennials, evergreens, houseplants and shrubs being jammed into trunks and back seats.  I saw two kids in the back seat of a car-they both had flats on pansies on their lap.  Never mind that look of distaste I could see from 10 feet away-they might decide to garden once they grow up.  Some young people were engaging in a heated discussion about something garden related-great.  All of these people had the right idea.  They know they have September to dig up, divide, rearrange, replace a dead tree, cut a new bed-act on their ideas. 

My Mom took me to the American Peony Society Convention at the Kingwood Center in Ohio  for my 30th birthday-that would have been 1980.  It was my idea of the best 30th birthday present I could imagine. She obliged, and we had the best time.  I have a scrapbook of photographs she took.  There are a few of me, and one of her-all the rest are of peonies.  Each photograph is labelled with the cultivar name, and class.  I still refer to it, many years later.  I have no memory of where we stayed, what we wore, or what we ate.  But I do remember that I was by at least 20 years the youngest attendee.  Many growers and exhibitors made a point of telling me they were so happy to see a young person intensely interested in peonies.  I so much better understand their concern today than I did 30 years ago.  Anyone who loves plants wants to see that they continue to be grown by the next generation.  I had that same feeling today- seeing so many people younger than I, buying plants in celebration of the September gardening season.

At A Glance: The Shop Floor

In 2005, I painted one of the concrete floors in the shop to look like a lawn panel surrounded by gravel.  A painting of a tapis vert-a lawn panel of a definite shape.  A landscape painting. Howard in the grass

paint drips and swirls

Milo in the grass 


It might be time for a new idea.

Evergreen, Ever Lovely

Being Labor Day weekend, I knew I could expect the weather to change. Sure enough, it was 51 degrees when I came to work this morning, and I hear I can expect 48 degrees overnight.  Our British born Christine who works weekends came in today in shorts-and a sweatshirt-grumbling about how “perishing cold” it was.  The onset of fall gets me to thinking about reworking the garden-so it might be better next season.  But fall also has a way of bringing the issue of planting evergreens to the fore-as we have a very long leafless winter season ahead. Norway spruce thrive in our climate; should you have the space, they are brave and comforting against the winter skies. 

There are many cultivars of thuja; they can be very effective in providing year round privacy. Thuja Smaragd, or Emerald Green arborvitae, takes up little space on the ground compared to the big growing pines. Thuja Nigra is bigger growing, but still fairly vertical.  I could not do without them in my small urban garden.  In this landscape, thuja Pyramidalis provides privacy on a grand scale.    

Taxus media “Moon” is an upright growing yew that rarely needs any side pruning.  Taxus media “Hicks” is the old standby for vertical yews, but they are much more open in growth.  Choosing the right cultivar of evergreen for your purpose is important.  The natural habit of a plant  is a vastly superior to that too heavily pruned look.     

I use Green Velvet boxood almost exclusively-as it keeps its color and performs well even when we have terrible winters. It tolerates shearing well.  Should I need boxwood that grows taller, or bigger than 3′ by 3′, Buxus microphylla var koreana is a good choice.  It is much more open growing than Green Velvet, but sometimes the eventual scale of a plant is the most important issue.  The foliage of Green Mountain boxwood is very close in appearance to Green Velvet, and matures at 4′ by 3′. Vardar Valley boxwood has a beautiful blue cast.  Faced down with Japanese painted ferns-really beautiful.  Boxwood is handy as a companion planting to deciduous shrubs. It helps to relieve that twiggy look, or that cut to the ground perennial garden look-in the winter.  
There are no end of interesting and visually arresting cultivars of dwarf evergreens. Though I am neither a connoisseur nor collector, I know a beautiful and well grown evergreen when I see one.  People who love dwarf conifers really really love them.  Designing a landscape for a collection is great fun.  For each specimen plant or plant grouping I may choose a companion evergreen that will showcase that specimen.  The juniper “Calgary Carpet” is a juniper I can take to.  This prostrate evergreen has needles with a silvery sheen that is very attractive.      

Given my druthers, I would only plant blue needled evergreens far in the distance.  Everything at a great distance in a landscape has that far away blue cast.  The color blue seems so natural-far off. But creating an informal tapestry of various shades of green  can be very appealing.   

This old dwarf scotch pine on standard rules this view-never mind a climbing hydrangea  that has been draped over this wall for decades. All of the attending horizontal elements make much of the singular shape of this specimen evergreen. 

The most commonly planted evergreens in my area represent but a fraction of what is available to plant. In the above photograph, Pinus Flexilis “Vanderwolf’s” on the left, and Pinus Heldreichii Leucodermis further down the drive.  One of the nurseries where I buy plants lists 42 cultivars of Chamaecyparis alone. This is more than enough to replace one’s regret at the passing of the summer with an interest in making some new friends.