Archives for September 2011

Night Light

Rob has been putting in some very long days.  He doesn’t quit until the daylight is gone.  He sent me an entire group of pictures about his 9 o’clock dinner hour.  Rural France is not in any way lit like my neighborhood at night.  The light is intense, but just every so often.  The dark is punctuated by the occasional light.  I cannot imagine having dinner outdoors only inches from the road.  Public American landscapes are all about medians, curbs, and most importantly, big spaces.  Big segregated spaces.  Rural French landscapes are about a very close relationship between travel, commerce, farming, neighborhood, and the natural landscape.  It is a small country.  Dinner on the edge of the road-a unique experience.         

 The lamp illuminating the striped tablecloths-just enough light to make the space cozy.  I have mixed feelings about landscape lighting.  Lighting for safety’s sake is a given.  Stairs, doorways and sidewalks are spaces that get used regularly at night need to be well lit.  Lighting the landscape is so easy to over do. The best light-natural light. Sunny, overcast, early late, stormy-natural light is much about climate and weather.  What comes next is about artifice.  How much artifice is too much, and how much is just right?       

Up lighting gives every element of the landscape a theatrical look-as in the the drawings and paintings Degas did of dancers in the theatre.  Down lighting, expertly done, believably replicates the the light of the moon.  In this picture, all of ther light is coming from the top down, or from the side.  Up lit trees have a very theatrical and unnatural look to them.  I light my pumkins in my pots at Halloween-it gives them an extra measure of holiday creepiness.  At the Christmas holiday, I pull out all the lighting stops.  We have more dark than light, and our natural light is likely to be about grey and overcast.  

Rob’s pictures are provocative.  Perhaps uneven lighting creates an exciting atmosphere.  Very bright street lighting is about providing safe passage, but has that carnival, rather than theatrical look to it.  Black shapes, and long shadows are visually striking. The CFL’s-or compact flourescents are cool to the point of being cold.  The CFL’s,  in combination with incandescent lighting-the French are doing such innovative work with combining the two.     

Artificial light is not one bit like the light from the sun.  This is not to say that one source of light is better than another.  Just different.  This lit doorway has a lonely but starkly beautiful look.  This is a landscape experience of a different sort.  Rob has a big interest in lighting.  I am sure I will see the results of this evening in France somewhere is his winter and holiday lighting schemes.   Rob’s late evening in France was as much about the light as the place.  The deserted streets in the evening is much different than in my neighborhood, where there is activity almost all night long.  Every season I vow to spend more time thinking about how a landscape can be beautifully lit.  This is not to say I do not consider the lighting-I have a contractor whose point of view and skill I really like.     

The warm light illuminating this building comes from within.  The green walls appear all the more blue, given the compact fourescent light from the street. The green walls, blue shutters, and orange light-vivid.

This is the mayor’s office.  The warm yellow orange light from the interior spilling out into the street is comforting.  The contrast of light and dark is graphic and moody. 

The sign designating the Rue Pietonneire is still visible, even in low light at the end of the day.  Haunting, this.

Patine Ancienne

Rural France is home to many artists who make garden pots.  Each one has their own style and finishes, most of which are based on designs and shapes dating back to the 18th century.  Detroit Garden Works will have a substantial and wide ranging collection of French terra cotta come spring.  This has everything to do with Rob’s willingness to travel.  It is not possible to shop these pots from a catalogue, a website, or over the phone.  You have to go.  To see them in person.  Anything you see in the shop Rob has seen in person. 

This modest showroom gives an overview of this artist’s point of view.  Much of what Rob bought here has to be custom made.  This style, in this finish, or this color.  That style in this size.  How he shops is much more rigorous than what this picture would suggest.  When a 40 foot container of terra cotta from France arrives, it will be an edited collection, with a point of view.  There will be multiples, with careful consideration to size.  There will be a small representation from certain potteries whose output is limited.   

This particular pottery features very unusual finishes on their terra cotta.  Rob hears that no outsiders are ever permitted in the studio.  This particular poterie is represented by a broker Rob met in Paris a few years ago.  She arranged for a visit and consulted with him on his order.  She will be supervising the manufacture, will inspect all of the pots prior to shipment, and will arrange for pots to be readied shipment.  Multiple orders will need to be consolidated, and packed into a container dropped at the poterie with the most substantial order.  The most important issue-the finishes.  She will look every pot over.   

Many of the poteries have an interpretive finish they call a patine ancienne.  There are many very old French terra cotta pots still in use; the climate is mild, and pots can be left outdoors all winter.  Old glazed French pots are characterized by how much of the glaze has been shed from exposure to weather.  The old pots are priced at a premium.  I have but a few truly antique French terra cotta pots.  Interpretive finishes-some are great, some are overwrought. 

Rob tells me that he has an interest in the patine ancienne.  Patina refers to a surface condition which has acquired a certain look or color or texture from age.  Antique stone urns from England may have large colonies of lichens and mosses that verify their age.  Though he has an interest in aged surfaces, he prefers some contemporary interpretations over others.     

This particular poterie features finishes that he likes.  They have a feeling of age which is subtle.  Not too hard hitting.  When I first saw these pots in his pictures, I was sure I was looking at vintage pots.   

We have bought many containers of pots from the Poterie Madeleine over the years; we have sold all but a very few.  Their high gloss glazes in jaune, (yellow), vert (green), flamme (green and brown flames), and blu lavande (this is a hard color to describe-it is blue and lavender mixed) were beautiful. They were the classic vase Anduze I always associate with French terra cotta. The ownership of the poterie has changed since we first shopped there; the pots are different-the business is different.  Madame Pellier is no longer there.  I have many good memories of dealing with her over an order.  The new pots-they are too hurriedly made, says Rob.  He tells me we need to move on-so be it. The classic vase Anduze pot pictured above-the surface is beautifully different than anything we have ever had before.  

This poterie has captured his interest.  The colors and finishes defy description.  They are not overwrought.  There is ample evidence of the human hand.  These trays-he laid them on the floor to study them.  The poterie that makes them have studied equally.   

If you are a gardener, you have a relationship with clay pots.  The simplest machine made terra cotta pot is a friendly home to a plant.  That fired earth breathes. It promotes good root growth.  It soaks up water freely; that water can evaporate just as quickly.  This tray speaks much more eloquently to the clay earth from which it was made than a machine made pot.  The decoration is simple, and strong.  I am sure when the time comes that I can pick up this tray in my hands, it will have weight, and heft which is as much physical as it is visual.  The finish is subtle and moody.  I could live with this. I might not be able to live without it. 

This interpretation of patine anciennne is beautifully rendered.  I am sure the work of it is lengthy.  Rob purchased from the poterie’s available objects.  He placed a very large special order, which we do not expect to be completed until well into November.  Every piece will be well worth the wait.  Great garden pots-Rob has made a life’s work of this.  What he has brought my way-priceless.

A New Brick Walk

In 2004 I bought 7 acres of land that was home to a pair of 15,000 square foot industrial buildings.  One of the buildings is home to all of the landscape vehicles, machines, tools and materials.  The other is a place where we fabricate ornament for gardens in a variety of media.  It was a big move, but the landscape company needed the space, and I needed to design and make things for gardens.  A brick road dating back to the 1920’s came with the land and buildings.  Buried under 8 inches of composted weeds, I did not discover the brick until I had owned the property for over a year.  Steve dug up a bucket full of bricks, and called me over to see them.  I was thrilled.  We have used them on several projects.  I have been waiting a long time for a 2 day break in the landscape schedule, so I could take some of that brick home for my front walk.  We had a breather; Steve and his crew would dry laid the brick on a bed of slag. 

These are handmade bricks, made in Ohio in the late 19th and early 20th century.  They are sometimes called shale brick, as they are made from that silica rich material.  They are sometimes called fireclay bricks, as they were fired at such high temperatures for so long that the clay particles actually melt, and vitrify, like glass.  They are incredibly durable, and absolutely impervious to weather or weight.  Not incidentally, they happen to be beautiful. 

The invention of paved roads had much to do with the invention of the automobile.  Dusty rocky roads were hard on paint, chrome, and touring outfits. Asphalt was invented in 1930, but it was a while before the material and technique was perfected.  These rock hard overscaled bricks were perfect for roads.  No cars come to my front door, but I knew they would be a welcome replacement for my broken and nondescript 1930’s concrete walk.  The tools are pretty simple, but the skill required is considerable.  Each brick is a different size, and a different thickness.  The walk needed to slope slightly towards the sidewalk, to insure positive drainage.  The steps needed to be level; a step out of level can trip someone.   

My front walk gets very little traffic, besides the mailman.  Mine is a corner house; the driveway is around that corner from here.  Buck and I use the basement door, and so do our friends.  In good weather, the gate to the garden is at the end of the drive.  I was mostly interested in a look that would compliment my 1930’s house. 

I had some worry about the color of the brick.  The house brick is a creamy, yellow-golden tan-how is that for a description? But the front steps and porch are quarry tile; it is as brick orange as can be.  I went for it.  I do not have enough knowledge to thoroughly explain how this walk was installed, but I do know a few things.  Almost everything in Michigan which is wet set, or mortared into place, will break or crack eventually, given the severity of our winters.  I dry lay stone or brick whenever I can.  A brick which has heaved up is easy to set back down.  A broken mortar joint-not so easy to fix.  A dry laid walk needs a base of coarse stone, so water will quickly drain away.  Freezing temperatures and water expanding as it becomes ice can play havoc with any hard surface in the landscape.     

The edges of the brick were captured by steel edging, and an existing stone wall.  This keeps them from sliding side to side.  The steps have to be wet set.  The mortar holds those bricks level, and in place.  No one needs a brick sliding forward, given their foot on a step.  This particular pattern of brick is called stack bond, or Jack on Jack.  For a truly tight and non moving walk that gets heavy traffic, choose a pattern where the joints never line up.  The bricks will interlock.  I like the look of Jack on Jack, and this is a perfect place to use it-a low traffic walk.

The mortared brick steps need time to set up, and become strong before anyone uses them.  The top flight of steps got set first; the dry laid walk was installed up to the grade of the steps.  On day 2, the lower flight of steps was installed.  Note the very thick steel holding the bottom layer of bricks in place.  No one needs a walk to slide out from under them.  Some improvements were made.  The lower flight of steps were quite steep, compared to the top flight.  Steve split the difference, so each flight is more uniform, and easier to navigate.  Most people navigate stairs without looking at them.  There is the instinctive expectation that the each riser will be the same.   

Last night, the walk was ready for company.  Of course Howard and Milo had to come out to see what all the hoopla was about. I’ll say there was hoopla-I think the walk looks great.  I will have to brush sand into the cracks quite a few more times to fill them.  There are other joint materials, but this is a traditional material.  The joints are wide enough that I could seed them with alyssum, or plant them with hens and chick babies.    

I am so pleased with the outcome.  The color, pattern and texture seem appropriate to the place.  I am sure you cannot make heads or tails of the landscape design on that upper level;  the plants need to grow in.  Given some time, you’ll see.  It is enough for now-a beautiful front walk.

Sunday Opinion: The Changing Of The Season

Every year I tell Buck with great confidence that I will keep my summer season going past Labor Day.  I watch the weather-especially the night temperatures.  I water like crazy-all of my completely root bound containers need water daily.  We just had a 4 day spell of temperatures in the 90’s-one day we soaked the roof boxes twice.  Of course I interpret this to mean that somehow summer will go on into September, at the expense of the fall. 

I have plenty of half baked ideas-this is just one of them.  I know Labor Day formally celebrates the economic and social contributions of people who work.  It is celebrated with speeches, barbeques, picnics, and fireworks.  I love labor day weekend-my neighborhood streets are jammed with cars.  There is music in the air.  My immediate neighbor always has a party.  I get to go to the party, based solely on my proximity.  But labor day also represents the opening day of the fall season.  Kids go back to school.  The night temperatures drop.  My containers may go on another 6 weeks, but the season is already changing.  Those beginning changes are so subtle, it is easy to ignore them.  The days are a little shorter, the nights cooler, the sun not nearly as hot.

We have four seasons in Michigan.  Not just summer and winter-spring, summer, fall, and winter.  Each one lasts about 3 months.  The summer season has been extreme-lots of cold, then rain, then the fierce heat and more rain.  Most of the maples in my neighborhood have been defoilating from fungus for weeks. There is mildew on everything; I started getting calls for fall plantings two weeks ago.  I do not fault the gardeners for this.  There is always something that doesn’t work out. How hard you work, how passionate you are, the amount of time effort and money you spend, has little or nothing to do with success.  I have plantings that I have tried every gambit I can dream up; they can still do poorly, given the right circumstances.  The lime nicotiana I plant on my deck every year with glorious results is completely out of bloom. I can put the entire weight of my experience and interest to a planting that is struggling, and still come up wanting.  That summer is coming to a close can be a very good thing.  I am ready to be relieved of that which just didn’t work out.

This labor keeping up a garden is considerable.  This is a polite way of saying that should you decide to garden, you will have blisters, scratches, bug bites, soaking wet feet, aching muscles, sweat running everywhere, calloused hands, sunbaked arms, and a  A giant amount of sweaty work that every day will threaten to do you in.  Late this afternoon I chopped down the asparagus in between my roses to 12 inches above ground.  This took 2 hours.  I had gobs of debris-all of which I hauled down the steps to the trash.  This may not be the best move for the asparagus, but I have boltonia and white Japanese anemone coming on that I would like to look at. I went on to water 2 new plantings by hand.  I watered all of the pots-I have 26.  At the shop, I have 40 pots, the driveway gardens, and the roof boxes.  I am on duty for that over the holiday.  That the temperature is 59 today-excellent.  My labor day will not be labor free, but it will be manageable.   

Overall, the shop gardens look good-but for the window boxes.  There is too little contrast in leaf forms, and the overall shape is ungainly to my eye.  The mildew is spreading underneath.  Grassshoppers, snails and aphids have been lunching there nonstop.  On the up side, I will not have to deal with them much longer.  My windowbox troubles are about to be eclipsed by the coming of the fall.  A new season means looking forward another chance to interpret the garden.