Archives for January 2013

Winter Rain

Michigan is in the middle of several days of rain.  This in and of itself is not particularly remarkable, but for the fact that it is the end of January.  Winter rain in zones where the ground freezes is just cause for alarm.  Our frost is not so deep this year-15 inches down into the ground.  Any amount of frozen ground means that rain will not be absorbed; 15 inches of frost means frozen.  Todays rain will run to drains and sewers, or it will sit.  As Thursday’s forecast calls for a daytime high of 25, any water not absorbed by a storm sewer system by then will freeze.  This roadway between the shop and Branch will be a sheet of ice come Thursday, if this water has no place to drain.

The day has been spectacularly gloomy and foggy.  The rain has been both steady, and heavy.  Many roads are flooded.  This picture was taken at Branch.  The buildings there sit on 7 acres of land.  This land is comprises of little rocks, big rocks, and a thin layer of compost.  The landscape plants you see here are heeled in-above ground.  There is not much point to digging into the rocky soil.  Our landscape nursery sees lots of materials come and go.  We heel in, above ground.

Our rocky property drains like crazy.  In a hot summer, Steve has to watch and water our nursery stock daily.  7 days a week daily.  The only rain water sitting today is the rain on the concrete.  The land itself has no puddles. The compost piles should be thoroughly saturated by this heavy rain.  Any water in the piles that freezes will expand.  This expansion will move the compost-no harm in that.  Nature will incorporate air into the compost.


Water that freezes in a pot that does not drain can prove very distructive.  This Francesca del Re pot blew over in the 60mph winds we had last week.  Though this frostproof pot is made from a clay that is loaded with minerals and grog, it broke.  Sufficient wind and water give life.  Extreme wind and water can spell disaster.


Winter rain is deadly to pots and sculpture that do not drain.  Water that freezes expands.  Nothing stops that expansion.  Concrete sculptures can be shattered.  Even the best handmade terra cotta pots will absorb water.  Once that absorbed water freezes and expands, it can shatter a pot.   Years ago I had a client with an antique cistern that she did not drain.  Water that collected and froze in that cistern split the cast iron cistern open.  Providing for good drainage is not just a summer issue.  Anywhere water collects and sits is a recipe for trouble.


This cast stone urn on a plinth at the shop is not draining.  Part of tomorrow’s work will be setting the water free.  Lets say that the water was left to freeze in this urn.  The shape of the urn is outfacing.  This means that the water that expands as it freezes will have an outward and upward journey.  I would guess the freezing process will not harm this urn.  But any water that is trapped in a pot, or under a sculpture-the winter weather in Michigan could damage it.


It is pouring rain tonight!  No end of ornament in the garden will collect that rain.  Michigan gardeners-check out where water is collecting.  Prepare for the freezing temperatures to come.  If water that threatens to freeze threatens you, make a move.  Drain the water away ahead of the freeze to come.


Rain in the winter-it can be beautiful.  It can mean trouble.  Pelting rain and fog in late January-nature at work.


Tuesday Opinion: Tolerances

Tolerances in industry refers to the tolerance for error. (please tolerate this overly simplistic and largely uniformed discussion of industrial tolerances)  Parts manufactured for a coast guard cruiser have to be as close to dead to the right size as any manufacturer can make them.  A government contract may demand parts with a tolerance of .0001-one one thousanth of an inch-or better.  Even closer to perfect. Why would they need a product with this level of accuracy? Many companies may contribute to the construction of that boat.  All the parts from all the manufacturers have to fit together, and fit together remarkably well, for the boat to work.  The time to discover that a part was sloppily made and not working, is not when said cruiser is three miles from shore in a storm. Buck makes strap steel spheres at Branch-some of the 5.5 feet in diameter.  If two pieces of steel cross over one another at just slightly the wrong angle when he begins, that error will compound itself on every cross over to come.  This level of error makes for a sphere that will look out-of-round.  Not life threatening, but not pretty either.  There are those times when a lack of tolerance make sense.

The difference between a landscape drawing and the installation of the drawing can be big, and still work out.  Frequently, maybe always, I have to make adjustments from the ideal-so easily drawn on a piece of paper-to the reality, which is an existing piece of ground.  This and that and more can be shifted and interpreted such that the spirit of the design is intact once it is planted.  The process of landscape design and installation is a big fluid situation, quite unlike getting a space ship into orbit.  Many years ago on a spring melt down day, Rob reacted fiercely.  “Deborah, we are not performing brain surgery on a human being who has a life and family. We plant gardens and landscapes that delight the eye.  We make people happy.  We plant flowers.”  Who could argue with that?

Designers whose tolerance for variation from their design that approaches .0001 inch-whoa.  I wonder how they get through the day.  I am sure there are those whose cache makes that possible-but who would want such a life?  I do not tolerate change from my design with clients-I welcome it.  I adjust, and rethink.  Every person’s experience of nature is not only different than mine, I owe them the respect I tender to any other living thing.  I don’t always need to understand.  I only need to tolerate those ideas which are different than mine.  I want to get through the day.  I want to see the project realized.  I don’t want to live obsessed about a point of view that varies from my own.  An obsessed life works fine for me.  I apply my obsessions to my own life, and my own garden.

Gardeners are a very passionate and opinionated lot.  Of course this includes me.  We like some plants much better than others.  There are those of us for whom the sun rises and sets on a well grown stand of shasta daisies.  There are others whose idea of a decent leaf is measured solely by its square footage.  There are those gardeners who would not think of planting any annual plants.  Some gardeners revere what readily reseeds more than any other plant.  There are those gardeners that grow everything that strikes their fancy.  Some like but three plants-and they grow these three plants in profusion, and in every possible configuration..  There are those who devote the lion’s share of their ground to tomatoes, brussel spouts, and herbs.  Farmer gardeners-very passionate!   There are those who have a plant they intend to explore in depth.  Thus the life of the Camellia Society, and the Peony Society.

There are those who favor wild and native plants.  The wild gardeners love the beauty of the little and ephemeral plants.  The native plants only people garden and mission at the same time. Though I have never felt the urge to convince another gardener to see the natural world how I see it, I respect the sincere feeling that motivates a sense of mission.  There are those who exhibit competitively the dahlias they have grown-a great dahlia show is a pleasure to attend.  There are groups who meet over orchids, and roses.  Gardeners who belong to groups-sociable gardeners.  Some gardeners are only in it for the dash to the finish-an event or wedding or graduation at home that asks for a gardener’s touch.  Some are in it for the long haul-growing gingko trees from seed.  Others value the solitude, and their individual experience of nature.

There are those of us for whom well rotted and garden ready compost is a crowning accomplishment.  Other gardeners are not so hands on.  They may love the beauty of a garden-from afar. They might be so moved as to hire me to design for them.  Another gardener might spring for a master plan, and do the work themselves.  There are those who like orderly, and those who are happiest when the garden is wildly exuberant. There are grower/farmers who intend to feed the planet.  I respect that intent.   There are those growers who serve that small gardening group whose interests are focused on organically grown produce.  Organic milk, specialty vines, heirloom daffodils and apples.  There is room for everyone. A beautiful landscape and garden-there are so many paths to that end.  So many interpretations.

Anyone with a big love for the garden and the landscape gets to be seated under a very big tent.  A seat under this tent is just that-one seat.  Of course your seat can be by itself, or near other people with a similar seat.  Those gardeners around you that love the lawnless look, the wild flowers, the hybrid peonies, house plants, foraged greens, the mowed lawns, heritage tomatoes, perennial borders, hellebore hybrids, espaliered fruit trees, outdoor kitchens, grasses of note, pruned boxwood, pressed flowers, ponds-everyone gets a seat.

At A Glance: A Blanket Of Snow

pot feet












Vineyard In Winter

Tuesday’s post for the Garden Designers Roundtable on inspiration was a longer than usual post for me.  Why?  The topic of inspiration is of serious interest to any professional designer- that includes me.  Without inspiration, design is pedestrian.  Plodding and sleepy. Solid and exciting design doesn’t appear with the wave of a wand-even after years of experience designing.  Every new project needs to be imagined in just that way-new.  It seems obvious that exposure to new things in horticulture, the arts, and design would keep the eye fresh.  But perhaps exposure to old things might be just as inspiring.

Does anyone need an landscape and garden to live?  This is a topic that would invite debate, but that is not my intention here. People do not need landscape in the same way that they need food ( which has to be grown), and a relationship with nature that permits survival.  Most certainly there was a time when no person was afforded the luxury of a landscape that did not also feed them.  The invention of espaliered trees came from a monk, experimenting in how to coax maximum yields of fruit from his trees, in order to feed the entire monastery.   A ha-ha is a change of grade which kept the farm animals out of the kitchen gardens adjacent to the house.  The landscape and garden at Monticello was designed around the growing of crops for food.  The need for farms that produces food is elemental, and ancient.

I have a big interest in how agriculture has influenced landscape design.  Also of interest is how growing landscapes are thoughtfully and meticulously designed.  Their design is focused on cultivation, harvesting, and yields.  This vineyard is planted with Chardonnay grapes.  The rows are spaced equally.  Why this particular spacing?  Perhaps it is based on the width of a vehicle that inspects the vines.  Or perhaps it is a comfortable space for harvesting grapes.  I feel very certain that the spacing has everything to do with the efficient use of the land.  This landscape is not intended to be ornamental.  It is intended to be a part of a maximum yield with the most simple cultivation effort.  A beautiful byproduct?  How breathtaking is a grape orchard, following the natural contour of the land?

I find how the rows are laid out, how the vines are attached to the fences, how the vines are pruned, how the land rolls, and how the vineyard looks in the early morning on a winter day – satisfying. The repetition of forms is both inspiring and comforting.  I like the idea that the farm draws sustenance from the ground-and that the interaction between nature and people also provides sustenance to the eye.    I like landscapes that work.  They feels comfortable, and meaningful.

This vineyard is comprised of thousands of grape vines, planted with the same spacing, all pruned the same.  Though the land rolls up and down, the planting repeats itself.  Though I don’t grow food, or cook, I admire the beauty that is a working farm.

A vineyard in January is a good place to visit.  It is as good as any gallery or museum.  The utter cold makes speech difficult-all the better.  Feeling the history of the cultivation of the ground is bound to inspire something.

Such extraordinarily cold weather we are experiencing now. I have bundled up, and piled on the clothes.  Though extreme cold can damage plants, the frost beautifully desribes the shapes of the plants, and the structures on which they are grown.

I like a landscape that is attuned to, and features the weather, whatever that weather might be. No landscape is better at this than a farm.

So cold right now.  So warm-the the evidence of the day’s work.