Archives for January 2013

Garden Designers Roundtable: Inspiring

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I bought this poster of an 1805 pen/ink/watercolor and graphite work by William Blake at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in 1968. I was 18, and in New York to see the Broadway production of  ”Hair”-if you don’t know what that was, you’re just too young. The poster has been in my possession for 42 years; I look at it more often than you might think. Why?  I am inspired by it.  “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” has stormy weather, the interaction of opposing forces, a winged and horned creature hovering, the sun woman with the wings of an angel perched on a craggy outcrop no bigger than she-a landscape. The color relationships are exquisite.  Some days I think it is about good and evil.   Other days I think it is about the beauty of tension, like that moment just before a drop of water falls from a branch after a rain.  Other days yet I think it is about the power of a relationship.  The similar shape and expression of the four hands dramatically encloses the space between them. The composition is astonishing; I never tire of it.  Did I know I would be a gardenmaker at 18?  Absolutely not. But I did have an instinct to collect images that spoke to me like this one does.  The instinct to be inspired is a strong one.

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Inspiration is any image, thought, exchange or lightening bolt that has the power to move me to invent.  That said, I have no need to immediately understand why images move me-I just need to collect them.  The reason I chose to select it will make itself known, sooner or later.  This is not an unusual activity-I have lots of clients who rip pages from magazines, and show me pictures of family events-something in each image moves them. Brides in particular are very good at folders stuffed with images of this bouquet and that cake. The words that adequately explain being moved to invent can be complicated.  An image that expresses the entire idea in a stirring way-an inspiration.  All of the pictures in this essay-images that have inspired me.  The above pictured landscape from a magazine is natural, graceful and subtle.  A path barely visible moves the eye from the foreground to the background-to that place where the almost horizontal line of sunny grass directs your eye to the break in the trees.  Through the break, a stout tree trunk which is the furthest object from my eye. The landscape is composed to encourage you to go to that stout tree trunk; do you see it?  This image inspired me to design in a way that strongly describes the depth of the space.


People cherish different things-many of which have roots in their own particular history or memory.  I believe this photograph of a peony was taken by my Mom-but I could be wrong.  Some images I have had for so many years I no longer remember their provenance.  The important thing is that I associate the beauty and the amazing structure of flowers with her.  We had quite the long relationship.  We had a precious relationship over flowers and gardens.  Keeping that alive is no small part of what inspires me to work.

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What inspires me in this picture is the story behind it.  Yew Dell Gardens is a botanical garden just outside of Louisville Kentucky.  Theodore Klein and his wife had a commercial nursery on these 33 acres, growing countless plants here until his death in 1998.  The property was purchased, and reinvented as a botanic garden.  The above pictured allee is in fact a pair of adjacent nursery rows of American holly, now very old, and very close together.  No book on proper horticultural practices would condone planting large trees or shrubs this close together-but here is the result of what would be considered poor spacing.  How these nursery rows inadvertently became a beautiful landscape feature inspires me.  I have been waiting since the first day I saw this picture for a client to come along that would be as excited reinterpeting this idea as I am.  I feel sure the time will come.

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This is an image from an old garden journal which now survives as a collection of images I treasure. The landscape is simple, striking, and very spatially composed.  Elements both contemporary and traditional interact in so many ways.  The abstract relationships of the shapes and colors- spare but lively.  The narrative-a table and chairs on a terrace with a mountain in the background-very traditional.  The long row of whatever is blooming white leads the eye from the foreground, to the background.  The successful integration of the abstract composition with the traditional story-this inspires me.

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These trees with whitewashed trunks in a garden in the south of France make a distinct reference to agriculture.  Fruit trees would sometimes have their trunks whitewashed with a kaolin compound, to deter insects.  Kaolin, the same clay which is the basis for face powder, is a benign and useful compound.  The visual appearance-gorgeous.  The gardens of others inspire me.  I encourage clients to cut and collect any image that gets their attention-even if it is not clear what attracts them.  Sooner or later some thread that connects all of them will become clear.  The relationship of agriculture to landscape design-this interests and inspires me.

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The maze at Hatfield-pictured in the background of this photo- is one of my favorite gardens.  It would be enough, the beautiful maze so beautifully maintained, but what truly inspires me about it is the grade.  The maze is built in a subtly sunken space.  To my eye, that simple grade change is what transforms this garden from beautiful, to incredibly beautiful.  This designer-truly inspired.  Every time I see this image, I am struck by how a single simple and sweeping design move can utterly transform a space.  Any space can be transformed -I am inspired by that thought, too.

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How I see this combination of poppies and grass echo repeats the feelings I have about the Hatfield maze.  Beautifully unexpected?  Unexpectedly beautiful?  This is always on my mind. This unexpected pairing of plants is a design move that delights the eye.  The nature of each plant gives life and emphasis to the other-in color, texture and pattern.  This planting, for that short time while the poppies are in bloom, is a celebration of the ephemeral beauty of nature.

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Mom Julia never tired of seeing my projects, nor did she ever stop encouraging me to be the best I could be.  Her accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and photographer inspired me to be so bold as to try things, and not be afraid to redo what didn’t work out.  Her image I keep in my heart, not in a folder.  I keep her memory close by. But the idea is the same.  There are images, relationships, memories and experiences that inspire.  Anything that inspires invention-treasure it.  Treasure them.

The first draft of this essay I wrote in 2010.  I was inspired to rewrite it for this occasion-the January post for the Garden Designers Roundtable.  Every one of them has inspired me on one occasion or another.  On the strength of this, I would invite you to read what they have to say about inspiration.

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Jenny Peterson : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin, TX

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Monday Opinion: Diversion

January is by no means my most favorite month.  Being outdoors requires a level of intestinal fortitude I just don’t have.  I dislike the cold.  I dislike the garden- dead to the world.  I hate the relentless gray.  My spirits can be the same color as that sky-gloomy.  A little self-made diversion can help.  The first step is to alleviate that cold.  My boots and slippers alternate on the radiator, so I have warm feet for at least some part of every day. Buck likes an overnight temperature in the house of 64 degrees.  Really.  I have recently added an extra blanket on my side.  I indulge in a hot bath at least once a week, both January and February. I pile on the clothes.  On occasion I keep my coat on all day.  When my winter headband is not on my head, it is around my neck.  Sometimes I wear them in multiples.

I drink lots of coffee, and load it up with half and half. Hot and frequent meals are good, even though getting those January pounds off in late March gets harder every year.  Though I have no interest whatever in cooking, I love reading about food in January.  Reading about food is a much better plan for me than eating, though sometimes I will add a cupcake to that hot cup of coffee.  My favorite place to read online about food is 66 Square Feet.  Her writing is superb, so I am sure what she cooks is every bit as good.  She makes the story of a salad concocted from foraged roadside greens exciting, and satisfying.  The food she prepares with its roots in her South African heritage-it all sounds delicious, not just exotic.  Sustaining.  It just so happens that she gardens as well-what’s not to like about this part?   Her writing is consistently thought provoking and entertaining- her life and times quite interesting.

Reading is an excellent winter diversion.  If I am reading about gardening in January, I like to either be entertained, or transported-or both.  The Garden Outlaw is highly entertaining, sometimes provocative.  His blog post about Christmas lights was incredibly funny.  His take on the gardening world will make you forget that it is January.    If I am looking for a little transport, a tour of an English garden via the Galloping Gardener ( can be just the diversion I need.  I have taken her tours more than one time-they are that good.  The blog Rock Rose ( features a garden so unlike my own that I am transported.  She travels to visit all sorts of other gardens, and is very good at illustrating and writing about her visits.

Any garden reading which is either too involved or too serious makes me sleepy in January.  I am only looking at the pictures in Gardens Illustrated now.  I will read it later in February, when that cooped up feeling gets good and fierce.

I highly recommend an afternoon nap as a perfect January diversion.  It is a very good time to be dreaming about that garden to be.






Notes From A Hort Head

Good friends came to the shop late in the day a week ago Saturday-they had a mind to shop our sale, and go to dinner afterwards.  We liked the idea.  They bought a round of handmade Italian terra cotta pots, given our once a year sale.  What would they plant in them?  Boxwood, and more boxwood.  Rob and I got into a rather spirited discussion about boxwood species and cultivars.  M interrupted the both of us with this: LISTEN TO THE HORT HEADS GOING AT IT!

winter blooming cyclamen

I was amused, and then pleased.  Me, a hort head?  Well yes,  I guess that would be me.   My earliest days gardening was entirely about the horticulture.  Plants, soil, zones, weather and more plants-I doted on the White Flower Farms catalogue and the national weather service bulletins on TV.  Mind you, this time in my life was pre computers.  The print plant and seed catalogues were about all I had, beyond my own digging and experimenting.

I grew up into garden design via the plants.  Any plant-I was interested.  I read all that I could.  I learned the names.  The latin names-that too.  I sprung for small starts of every manner of wild flowers.   Rock garden plants-those were great too.  Peonies-species peonies.  Itoh hybrid tree peonies.  Lactiflora peonies.  Any peony-I was sure I had to have it.  The 5 acres I owned in Orchard Lake had 300 peonies the day I sold it.   Iris-loved those too.  I grew every iris I could get my hands on.  Species from Turkey.  Louisiana iris.  Japanese iris.  Bearded iris.  I could go on, but my hort headedness is not really of so much interest.  What is really interesting are the plants.

florists cyclamen

The winter in my zone is long-the better part of 6 months.  Every gardener in my zone needs a mechanism by which they cope.  January is not so bad.  The remnants and memories of the holidays sustain.  February-brutally colorless and cold.  March-still winter-although in late March comes the crocus, and the hellebores.  But March is not the glory that is spring.  Last spring was a torment, between the way too early heat, and the heartbreaking and lengthy late freeze.  I so hope for better this coming spring.

I had reason to shop for plants for an event.  Mark’s greenhouse sported two full benches of cyclamen.  Both the standard and miniature cyclamen were in full bloom-breathtaking.  Faced with all of those flowers, I loved what I saw, and grieved for the long winter that lays ahead.  There is no spring in my immediate future.  And I do miss the flowers. I filled my cart, and installed them in my window sill.  The leaves typically are dark green with striking white markings, but some newer cultivars sport leaves with big blotches of silvery white.

My windowsill is not a bad spot for cyclamen.  They like cool, even downright chilly temperatures.  Therre is something very cheery about all of this pink, red and white.

pink dwarf cyclamen

Cyclamen persicum is also known as the florists cyclamen.  This species, not hardy in my zone, has been intensively bred for winter bloom.  If you are longing for spring, these cyclamens might help you weather the winter storm. Be careful not to overwater.  Buy blooming plants that show clear signs of sending up new flowers.  I keep them on the dry and cool side, and fertilize every 3 weeks or so with a balanced fertilizer-at 1/2 strength.

Once the leaves start to yellow, I know the plants are asking for a rest period.  I will confess I have never tried to keep them over to a following winter.  I am not that good a grower.  That they help me winter my flowerless storm is enough.

hardy cyclamen

There are cyclamen that are hardy in my zone.  Cyclamen hederifolium generally prospers in lower light and dry shade.  I would try them in a few locations before making a big investment.  They can be haughty, demanding, picky, and unfriendly.  Perfectly sited, they prosper.  Thriving colonies make you and your garden look good. For years I had a patch in dry shade that was as lovely in leaf as it was in flower.

The flowers are so similar to the florist’s cyclamen that I can not tell them apart.  Were I a cyclamen head, I am sure I could spot the differences.  They are diminuitive and charming in the garden, but they are really great on my winter window sill.

Not too shabby, this.


Detroit: 138 Square Miles

I have been on my usual January buying road trip with Rob for the past 10 days. The Suburban has 1600 new miles on it!  We got home at 6:30 last night-what a relief.  For sure, there is no place like home!  It was very cold this morning.  The leaves on the rhododendron outside my home office window-drooped all the way down with cold.  But home is home, whatever form that might take.  The reentry into my Detroit landscape has me thinking about Julie Taubman’s book.  Detroit-138 Square Miles.

Detroit is my town.  I was born at Henry Ford Hospital,  and raised on Detroit’s east side. I can say that my experience of this gritty city is much a part of me.  We Detroit people make things.  The day I opened my manufacturing company, the Branch Studio,  was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  The fact that the Branch studio is growing legs and steaming ahead-of this I am proud.  Not that I am sure what I mean by this, but anyone who calls Detroit home dreams, imagines, works, and sweats Detroit style.  My city has a luminous and storied history, and a daunting present.  Julie Taubman spent upteen months photographing the current state of our gritty city.  Her 486 page photographic essay is an unvarnished, non judgmental, yet compassionate look at her city.

Her photographs are truly extraordinary, both in scope and content.  Her friends in the Detroit Police Dept looked after her more than once while she was photographing desolate or abandoned buildings and neighborhoods.  Her images may not be to everyone’s taste.  They provoke as much a sense of sorrow and loss, as a sense of awe for what was, and what is now. She devoted no end of time and film to capturing a moment.  This moment.

My photograph of her photograph is a much dulled down version of what is available to see in the book.  The quality of the paper and printing is startlingly good.  Though I have lived here all of my life, there are pictures of places I have never been.

Disrepair and despair-some of the photographs capture that feeling perfectly.  The forward, written by renowned local author Elmore Leonard is well worth reading.

The photographs of the remains of abandoned manufacturing plants collapsing from neglect are both terrifying and fascinating.  This building in the process of decomposing has a long way to go to get to a composted state.  From my association with the Greening of Detroit, I know there are many bright and able people committed to the future of Detroit.  I wish each and every one of them all the best.

138 square miles is a big space.  There has been lots of public discussion and forum about the future of our city.  By far and away, this book is the most eloquent discussion I have heard.  This collection of photographs is uninterrupted by words until the very end.  I like that the location of each photograph is documented. An added bonus-a concise and well written history of the building or neighborhood pictured.  The book is encyclopedic, but the eye behind the photographs is a very particular eye.

I am happy to say that we sold out of her book over the holidays.  This means there are people who care, and people who are curious.  Perhaps people will be moved enough to become involved.  I am also happy to say that our new shipment of books has a few that are autographed by the photographer/artist/author.  Let me know if you have an interest.