Archives for 2021

Beauty

A client came in last week wearing a tee shirt that had the word BEAUTY printed across it. A few days later her Mom came in, wearing the same shirt.  I have no idea as to the origin, intent or meaning of that word having been printed on that shirt. I did not ask. But it did set me to thinking about beauty. And how the pursuit and appreciation of it has been a life’s work, and the source of so much pleasure and satisfaction. Like many others, I came to be a gardener from an intense interest and fascination with the natural world. The visual drama of an emerging leaf, the impossibly intense blue color of a delphinium flower, the fragrance of a mock orange in bloom, the shape of an ancient beech tree-everything about the life of plants provides vigorous exercise and engagement to all of the senses. It is not at all unusual to know of a gardener swooning over this or that flower. So normal in my circle and probably yours. The beauty of nature provides a profound pleasure for the heart, hand, and soul, if you will.

A definitive explanation of what constitutes beauty is next to impossible, as it does not exist in a vacuum. A beauty designation is entirely arbitrary and fiercely personal. There is a unique relationship between the observer and the observed. What is seen and what is there to be seen. There are those gardeners who adore green flowers or spring ephemera, and those who wax poetic about hot pink peonies, yellow dahlias and red hibiscus. There are others that would be hard pressed to name a plant they don’t like, just as there are those who think that a beautiful landscape would by definition be confined to hellebores and beech trees. Zinnias are most beautiful to me in large part as they remind me of my Mom. Everyone has their own closely held ideas about what is beautiful.

What constitutes beauty in a garden is a topic of endless discussion. Gardeners and designers of gardens fiercely debate the fine points, and acknowledge their common ground.  I admire some gardens and landscapes more than others, as some are more beautiful to me than others. Whether it be plants, houses, landscapes, art, books, music, bridges or… garden pots, a need for beauty has always been an integral part of the human experience.  It is as simple and as complex as that.
It has been my good fortune over the years to come in contact with ornament for the garden of great beauty. I owe most of that exposure to Rob, who has been shopping and buying for Detroit Garden Works since before it opened in 1996. It is our 25th year in business this year. I find it remarkable that a modestly sized garden shop in the Midwest has not only survived for that long, it has prospered –  buying and selling objects and plants of beauty for the garden. That beauty designation by Rob might include something smart and forward thinking. Some other item might be redolent of the earthy odor of history, sassy and off center, or strongly evocative of a farm garden. His is a very discerning eye, and his range of expertise in his field has been amassed over a long period of time. Opening the shop all those years ago was about wanting to share that aesthetic with other gardeners, and make beautiful garden ornament available to others.  That is what we do – celebrate the beauty of the garden.
Which brings me to a discussion of these pots.  They are of French manufacture. A poterie that has been in business since the late nineteenth century has evolved from a company making terra cotta roof and drain tiles to a fine art studio creating pots of great beauty for the garden. The poterie was built but 300 meters from their clay quarry. There is precious little about them that is not to like.  The sculptural shapes are classically French. The designs date back centuries. Each pot is hand made, and signed by the artisan who made it.

The pots are made via an ancient process. Heavy rope is coiled around a wood form that describes the shape of the pot being made. The clay is pressed onto and into that rope form, until the desired thickness and shape is reached.  As the clay dries, it shrinks away from the rope form. The rope is unwound from the wood form, and will be reused making the next pot. The success of this incredibly simple process depends on a potter of great skill and experience to make a pot of uniform thickness and integrity that can withstand the great heat of the firing process.


This particular finish is a tour de force. The top third of the exterior of the pots, the rims and interiors of each, is drenched in a thick creamy and lustrous glaze that looks good enough to eat. The body of the pots has a thinly applied ceramic matte patina comprised of many shades of cream, taupe and gray. There are places where the red clay body shows through. The cloud like appearance and texture of this finish is hard to describe. I like that. Any object whose beauty defies description will continue to enchant. The surface of each pot is its own painting.

The contrasting surfaces are as appealing to the touch as they are to the eye.
This picture makes it clear that each pot is hand made. Each one of these olive jars is subtly different in shape and size than its neighbor.

The pattern of the rope inside survives the glazing and firing process.
The stamps
The collection of medium olive jars


The tear drop jarre

This is indeed an extraordinarily unusual and beautiful collection of pots.

A Pergola From Branch Studio

 

I am several years into a landscape project with great and ever so patient clients. In 2019 we removed their old dysfunctional driveway, regraded the entire front yard, and added back a new driveway and a landscape to go with. So far, so good. The back yard has been the subject of our efforts for better than a year. As the house is built on and into a steep hill, the rear yard had no flat usable space outdoors. Unless you count the 400 odd square feet pictured in the photo above. A large scale ipe deck with a swimming pool –  part of which is cantilevered over an 11 foot drop in grade –  has strongly addressed that problem. They like to entertain, and they are actively involved in supporting their greater community. They also like spending time out of doors. They were keen to create a place that would be beautiful and functional. The deck and pool were monumental undertakings, due to the sheer size, the difficulty accessing the site, and the extreme grade.  We are very near the end of that part, but for the glass rails that will surround the deck.  I am hoping the project will be entirely finished by the end of May, so they have the rest of this season ahead of them to enjoy it.

One component of that landscape was a pergola to be fabricated at Branch. Those of you who follow this blog know that I bought a 7 acre property with industrial buildings and large capacity bridge cranes in 2004, with the express idea of designing and fabricating heirloom quality objects for the garden in steel. We have been at exactly that over the ensuing years. The years have provided an opportunity to tune up fabrication protocols. And they have provided a framework for the evolution of design. Our original pergolas from years ago were designed primarily to provide large scale, organizing structure to a landscape. Seating areas under them naturally came to mind. They also could support large growing lax vines. Think climbing roses, climbing hydrangea, grapes and wisteria, or sweet autumn clematis. Both the strength of the steel and the permanent performance of the finish made them a great partner for vigorously growing vines that would put on weight, year after year. Those leafy plants that eventually grow over the roof would eventually provide shade.

However, not every location for a pergola is accommodating to in ground plants.  The south end of this deck is long ways away from any soil, and the location is very sunny. We needed a structure with the intrinsic ability to provide shade. A pergola that could provide a shaded area for dining and seating would be a welcome addition to the deck furnishings. The curving louver design was inspired by the art glass sheathing a waterfall next to the pool. Engineering this roof took time. Eventually, 28 individual fixed louver steel roof panels that could be dropped into a framework built in to the roof were fabricated. The structure is 32 feet long, and 14′ deep. The 11′ height of the structure matches the height of a horizontal frame set in a series of 6 large windows on the facade of the house. The columns and corner brackets are beefy, as the roof is heavy.

The pergola is tall enough that its roof does not interfere with the view out the picture windows. Nor does it restrict light coming in to those windows. It looks remarkably light and airy, considering it weighs 4500 pounds. The ipe deck is incredibly strong, but a pair of support beams traverse the underside of the deck to provide an additional level of support to the steel columns.

All of the roof panels are identical. But they cast different levels of shade depending on their orientation. Since the spring season is up next, and the intensity of sunlight at that time of year is subdued, the panels were placed to provide a more open shade from the south side. Being outdoors on a sunny spring day is one of the garden’s most memorable experiences.

Viewed from the north side, the shade is more saturated. As the panels are dropped in, and held in place by the roof framing mechanism, the panels could be rotated to provide more shade from the south side later in the season. The panels could also be alternated one by one, or row by row, for other versions of shade. It would only take 2 people several hours to completely change the arrangement. The louver style means that warm air will be able to dissipate quickly.

Viewed from the northeast, it appears that the  areas of sun and shade will be balanced.

From the north side, the shade cast will be much more pronounced. The sun is still low in the sky now, so it will be interesting to see what level of shade is provided once the sun is directly overhead. In any event, the pergola will go a long way towards providing a comfortable place to enjoy the outdoors.

Everyone’s interest and participation in the landscape is unique to them. I have come to have loads of respect for all forms that expression might take. On a practical level, it means trying to provide whatever direction it takes to get people outdoors. It also means cultivating empathy as an essential element of good design. What could happen next is not predictable, but I have had numerous instances over the years of a tentative interest in nature blossoming into a commitment to the health and well being of a piece of property. Or down the line a garden with which to teach their children how to grow vegetables and flowers. Or a new found love for spring flowering bulbs or fruit trees. It happens.

There is a special personal satisfaction in having taken the design of a structure for the landscape to another level. Our head of design and engineering, Dan Moore, and his fabrication group of 6 do a terrific job of manufacturing our stock line of boxes, pots, fountains and ornament. They do an equally great job of engineering and fabricating something they have never made before. I think they like making those forays into the unknown. All they needed from me was the concept.

It will scarcely be another month or two before this space will be humming with activity. The waterfall will be running and the pool will be open to the sky.The glass rails should be installed by Memorial Day. The furniture has arrived, and is in place; the outdoor grill is hooked up. I can easily imagine this space full of people enjoying a summer evening.

The last part, as usual, will be the landscape. We will be ready to start that in a few weeks. Most of what we plant will be trees. A new generation tucked in to an existing old woodland.

Savoring this moment.

On The 4th Floor


Detroit Garden Works has a milestone of note in its immediate future. It was the evening of the 28th of March in 1996 that we announced the opening of the shop via an evening reception to loyal friends, family, and clients of Deborah Silver and Company. That following morning, we welcomed anyone and everyone with a big love for the garden to visit and see what we were all about. It is hard to believe that this was 25 years ago, but there you have it. A vintage machine shop provided a home for the dream. In the months leading up to the opening, we decided to paint the concrete floor in the entrance room. That concrete was from an addition made in the 1940’s, and did not match the exposed aggregate character of the original floors dating back to the 1920’s. That floor would be a way of saying welcome. I am happy to say that the floor would need repainting every six years or so, necessitated by ever increasing foot traffic. The third floor painting was quite worn, and we had an anniversary coming up. It was time to get going on the fourth floor.

Dan’s crew cleared the decks. Drew scraped off what was left of the loose paint. Dan laid out the space for the base coats from a sketch. Drew painstakingly painted most of the base coat shapes, and I rolled the rest. We were underway. How I decided on the design has lots to do with making a simple reference to being in a garden. Equally important is a realistic assessment of what would be possible to paint –  given my age, and the fact that we would need to have access to that floor as soon as possible. 6 containers from Europe were due in at any moment. What was in those containers would need homes. But I did want to celebrate what the Works had done such a great job of over the past 25 years –  offering passionate gardeners a way to express themselves through meaningful objects for their landscapes. Gardeners of all descriptions, I might add. Lookers and doers. Those that swoon over any object imbued with history. Cottage gardeners as well as those seeking a clean contemporary look. It took years of plowing the proceeds from every sale into amassing an inventory with both diversity and depth. The Works is packed.

This picture clearly shows the largest area of wear sustained by the previous floor. Part of our concrete block wall sprung a leak, and water had been sitting in this spot on and off for several years. The rest of that floor was in remarkably good condition. I ascribe that in total to the quality of the paint. Porter Paint, routinely used by sign painters, comes in a 100% acrylic formula which hardens much more than latex paint. Owned by PPG, Porter’s exterior Acri-Shield paint is exceptionally durable and comes in a vast number of colors. It is eminently strong enough to use as a floor paint. Happily, one of a few paint stores in Michigan that carries this paint is near us. See more about this great paint store here:  https://www.pontiacpaint.com/

The floor would have but a few elements.  A grassy plane, admirably described by the French as a “tapis vert”, is as elemental a garden as any. And it is the starting point for any number of more elaborate expressions. That green square is a prominent part of the logo for the Works. In additional to the green plane, there would be a surrounding gravel path, and a planted area marked by large leaves to enclose that gravel. Painting the gravel was the first order of business, as plants from both sides would likely overlap onto it.

This would be the easiest part of the painting. A series of colors would be dripped on to the floor surface from a wood plant marker. The only finesse to this part would be slowly thinning the paint so it would drip at a reasonable rate-not too slow, and not too fast. Of course there was plenty of wrist and shoulder action, so the drips would be spaced out.

There were 4 colors to start with, and more colors created by mixing those initial colors. I did remember to use a pinkish taupe color reminiscent of the decomposed granite we use in our garden installations. It’s a subtle color variation, but it is there. As for the random drips over the edge, has not every gardener dealt with gravel moving around? It goes with the territory that there are limits to what a gardener can impose on nature.

Some effort was made to keep the gravel darker and less detailed on the edges.  Once the leaves to come were painted over the edges, that would help create a little sense of depth. This is decorative painting-not fine art. But a nod to composition and technique gives the mural a little more polished look.

I have never painted large scale leaves on the floor before, and it took some experimenting to find the right tool. I finally settled on a 1″ sash brush. The bristles are arranged on a steep angle.  With the longest bristles closest to me, I would set the brush on the floor, deposit some paint, and push the brush away from me. 1 stroke, 1 leaf. No going over or redoing. A stroke laid was a stroke played.  Once I got that action down, The large leaves went fast.  Of critical importance was a finely engineered three legged saddle topped stool with an adjustable seat height. I was able to paint and push along to the next location.

Positioning the work is an essential element for any successful project. Trying to work in an awkward position adds so much time to a project. Painting gracefully is dependent on establishing a rhythm. Sunne made sure I had music playing all day long.

Some of the two weeks it took to paint the floor was absorbed by watching paint dry. Our concrete floor in winter never warms up much, so the drying time was considerable.

At some point it seemed like there were enough colors of those big leaves. The gravel and lawn areas would be so finely textured that a contrast would be welcome. I did want to establish the mass and size of that border before tackling the interior. By no means was any of the application of paint established in advance. Just an outline of the shapes.

What now?

I thought I might get away with just a suggestion of grass here and there, with some accompanying drips, but that looked like I was loosing interest, or energy, or both. I resigned myself to making thousands of grassy marks with that sash brush held backwards, and settled in to the job. It took more time to do this one step than any of the other elements, but it was well worth it.

Those marks were very lively. They brought the dark center up to the same visual plane as the gravel. Eventually I settled in to the job, and two days later that portion was finished.

Drew was in charge of the aerial snapshots, which helped to give an overview of how the floor looked in its entirety.

The brush strokes were deliberately styled on an angle. Grass does not grow in horizontal rows. It grows every which way. Painting the blades on varying angles helped to create an overall look, as opposed to a linear look.

It is easier to see the grass marks undulating in this picture. I like the action of the pattern.

The English daisies on the previous floor was a favorite finishing touch, so I wanted to repeat that. A generous blob of white paint had its edges feathered with a wood garden stake. This gave the flowers a much more windblown and casual look, in contrast to the grass blades and stylized leaves.

The centers of the flowers were done in our signature lime green color.

Due to the transparency of yellow pigment, it took 3 or four coats to get the color to represent clearly.

The largest daisy medallion is a nod to our anniversary. You have to look very close to see the the 25 in the very center, as it is painted in the same lime color as the disk.  That was deliberate. There will be many years to come for the Works after this one.

It was a good day, the day the room started to come back together.That floor grounded the space, and would compliment whatever went in there.

One of the fabricators at Branch said it the best.  He called Detroit Garden Works a passion project. Yes, it is.

A Perfect Moment

By late January, winter has an immutable grip on my zone. It’s cold, but the cold is not the spirit breaker. Its the gray. All the imperceptibly different versions of gray. The massive and almost daily uni-cloud that covers the entire landscape from the sky on down. We have weeks and weeks of it yet to go. Michigan has an impressive number of cloudy winter days. That day after day gray, on top of the cold and wintry weather, is a serious damper for anyone who lives to be out of doors. Gray days and lengthy nights ask for a little intervention. Just in case you are asking why I still have a lighted tree on my deck January 21, this is the reason. That glow from the tree is warm and inviting. It banishes a bit of the gloom. And it casts what the winter has to offer in a positively beautiful light.

It is not too many for me – having two lighted trees. This one in my side yard illuminates the entire area. People often ask me what kind of lights I use. That doesn’t matter so much, although LED lights are certainly more economical to run. What really matters is using lights in sufficient quantity to provide the quality and extent of light you want. Though this is the south side, it is exceptionally dark in the winter. The surrounding arborvitae are every bit of 14 feet tall, and their foliage turns black/green in response to the cold. They are brooding and monolithic. The tree provides just enough light to bring this part of the landscape into a winter focus. On a gray day, the tree sparkles. I don’t visit this spot so often in the winter, but I see it from inside every day and every night. The light is an invitation to enjoy the landscape from afar. Its no secret that I believe lighting and winter containers are both essential elements of the winter landscape. How and when to provide it may be addressed in November and December, but what they provide is most welcome in January and February.

Lighted containers installed in the landscape in November and December are ready for the winter weather. Containers decorated for the holidays celebrate a specific event, but once those holiday elements are removed, a winter container is set to perform over the long haul. We will have wind, heavy snow and bitter cold along with the gray. Once in a blue moon, we have a snow unlike all others. The wet sticky snow falls slowly and vertically in windless and entirely quiet conditions. The total snow fall is but an inch or two or three. But it sticks to and steadily builds on every surface it touches. The quality of this kind of snow is such that it even sticks to vertical surfaces. I have never heard a weather news caster predict such an event, but air temperature and humidity play a crucial role. The science aside, it is a perfect moment in the winter landscape. No lighted winter container is ever more glorious than when clothed in snow like this.

The same is true for the landscape. A good design is both revealed and invigorated by weather. It is a vital element in the landscape over which a gardener has no control. Some weather is entirely destructive, but there is always the opportunity to re imagine and rebuild.  Whether it be rain or snow or fall leaves, or the drop of spent magnolia flower petals, a fresh coat of weather tells a story. In the above picture, the design elements of line, mass and texture are illustrated in a graphic way. The color of the light is in especially striking contrast to the somber surrounding landscape.

Fantail willow branches sport an infinite variety of curving shapes. The snow, and a strategically placed spot light, feature not only their shapes, the the overall shape created by their placement.

To follow are too many pictures of my visit to the garden that day. I was outside at 6:45 am, and back indoors by 8:15.

 

 

The towering maple in the far left background and the weeping Norway spruce in the right mid ground have probably been there better than 50 years. The arborvitae and foreground boxwood are about 20 years old. The Princeton Gold maples in the far background were planted in 2005. After that, the large container in the side yard. Next, the hydrangeas. The arbor and John Davis roses are probably only 4 or 5 years in. Did those climbing roses look at beautiful here as they did in full bloom? Oh yes. A lot of years came together in preparation for this perfect moment. It was indeed a very brief moment. This extraordinary snowfall melted away within a few hours. The relationship between nature, the landscape, age and the ephemeral keeps me designing.