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.

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.

Rise And Shine

We designed and installed the landscape here in 2015, part of which included a large blue stone landing linking the driveway to the front door. I always appreciate the opportunity to design the hard surfaces at the front door. Too often the walk and porch are too narrow, and any steps too shallow. The front door certainly asks to be a focal point of a home.  That generously paved space made it possible to place a quartet of good sized steel planter boxes from Branch in concert with the door. The pots get planted in the spring, and are updated for all of the seasons to come. The winter is perhaps the most dramatic of all, as it should be.  The Michigan winter is very long. The days are short and gray, and the nights come early and are black dark. Rob’s lighted steel tree forms on rod steel legs were installed directly into the pots – a request from my intrepid clients. A pair of seven footers in the back pair, and a pair of five footers in the front do an astonishingly good job of introducing light into the winter airspace. The resulting glow is warm and atmospheric. The lighting in the containers accomplishes something that traditional landscape lighting rarely does. It creates an opportunity for theater in the landscape.

Is theater a good quality in a landscape? Of course. Divine theater is created in the landscape by nature in countless unanticipated ways. That theater is what gives rise to those perfect moments in the garden. An unforgettable moment that will probably never be repeated is what gardeners garden towards. That is landscape theater at its best. Every gardener has their own version of that experience. Pictured above is a property that had major regrading and a new driveway last year. The landscape would have to wait until spring, as would the landscape lighting. As a temporary measure, we wrapped galvanized pipe with LED string lights. The pipes were threaded over steel rebar that had been sunk deep in the ground. The lighted pipes were not fancy, but the repetition of them on a wide sweeping curve was ruggedly sculptural. And they lit the driveway enough for a walk to the mailbox for the morning paper. Contemporary lighted landscape bollards from Louis Poulsen are due to be installed this month. They will light the way in a much more formal way. They are a permanent lighting solution that will be more about function than theater.

There came a time when Howard was of an age that he could not navigate the steep steps going down into the garden from the deck. Lighting those steps with landscape lighting would certainly have helped me find my way up and down. But it would have been of no use to him, or our relationship. The lighting from the container pictured above made it possible for him to see me in the garden, and for me to see him. I had no worry that he would attempt the stairs, as he could see me. This moment was certainly theater. It told a story. I have this picture, and a very good memory.

No doubt these lighted containers at the end of the driveway are handy for illuminating the car door handle in the early morning, and a welcome home at night. There is a landscape down light in a nearby tree that no doubt makes the area easier to see at night, but the pots on the wall loaded with strings of lights at the base are more cheery and inviting than instructive. Landscape lighting that features specific objects or places in the landscape dictates the scope of the interaction. Designing and placing seasonal lighting in containers is a kind of gardening. They are as much celebration of the time as they are a reaction to it. It can organize a space or frame even a dimly lit view. They are a reason to view and visit the garden, despite the dark, cold and snow.

As the winter season soldiers on, the benefit of lighted winter pots intensifies. The visual interest and comfort they afford is difficult to ignore on a late January afternoon.

Our first lighted containers were designed specifically to celebrate the holiday season in December. It is a short bridge to cross, taking the concept of holiday decorating outdoors. The above container arrangement certainly draws on that history. But as remarkably different this holiday container is from the surrounding landscape, it is the light that brings the arrangement to life. It was remarkably time consuming to attach strings of lights vertically to a collection of branches. But that light transformed the view. The formal foreground landscape in contrast to the naturally chaotic background is a visual discussion easy to pass by in the winter. The lighted pot gives pause as much as pleasure.

The lighting materials available now are light years ahead of what we worked with 15 years ago in presentation, durability and economy. Most notable is the recent advent of twig lighting of various types and sizes. In any given winter season, Rob will carry 10 or 15 different styles. The come with pointed ends that can be inserted in the soil or a form. The lights are securely affixed to the faux twigs, and the entire assembly is covered in a waxy waterproof material. Embedded in a natural twig centerpiece, the lighted effect is enchantingly simple to achieve, and satisfying to look at. The string lighting typically put in the greens are not especially effective in lighting the centerpiece materials, unless those lights are applied with a very heavy hand. On occasion we will wrap a centerpiece with string lights at the base multiple times. But there is a limit to how far that light will migrate from its source.

There is also a limit to the height of manufactured twig lighting. The lighting technology is certainly there. But shipping an object that is too large or tall to go UPS or FedEx means it has to go freight. Shipping via a freight carrier is very expensive. So certain garden staples-like topiary forms, plant climbers and twig lights are either limited to a shippable height, or come in pieces that have to be put together by the end user. We only ship our full height topiary forms once in a while, as the cost is so great. We really make them for our local clients. So in the container pictured above, Rob hand wound string lights up each branch to get the height he wanted. It was well worth the trouble. These lights can be seen from a long way away. The globe shape of cherry lights is a welcome change from the the typical pinpoint of light of most light strands.

This window box at the shop from 2019 stuffed to overflowing with the stems of the dogwood “Midwinter Fire” is handsome during the day, but true to its name at night. Most of the lighting action comes from a pair of 50 foot strands of Lumineo brand garland style string lights sprinkled on the surface. The low cut branches of magnolia obscures the wiring during the day. The lighted ring is a contrasting, precisely geometric shape whose outline is clearly visible at night. This lighted container says nothing about a holiday, but it says everything about the designed winter landscape.

That same box assembled this year features twig lighting placed in the thick of the sticks. Exterior lighting from years ago was so much about the profusion of cords and wires that the daytime look was terrible. One had to spend an inordinate amount of time concealing the works, or choose to celebrate either the day or the night.

Not much in the way of electrical trappings is apparent here. These twig lights are integral to small white stems, the color of which pairs well with fresh cut twigs of a lighter color. And in this case, faux white berry stems. The walk to my office door will be well lit and visually lively, morning and night, the entire winter.

This cut Fraser fir tree in my side yard container is secured with 4 pieces of steel rebar pounded down in to the soil, and galvanized steel guy wires. Given that LED string lighting draws so little in the way of electricity, they can be made in long lengths. Rob carries strands that are over 100 feet long each. This makes lighting a tree much more simple and efficient. This is all the light I will have in my side yard all winter, and it is all the light I need. The tree is visible from every window facing my south side landscape, and from the street as I drive up after work. I will not take it down until the soil in the pot thaws in March.

LED lighting produces just about nothing in the way of heat. This means the mountains of snow we are sure to get will glow from the inside, rather than melt. We do indeed take winter container lighting seriously. It is rise and shine worthy.

Lighted Steel Hoops

I don’t remember how long ago it was that Rob began experimenting with attaching lights to steel forms, but I would guess it was at least 10 years ago. There was a series of steel augurs, wound with rope lights, and hung from stout branches in the linden trees. Any farm tool was fair game. This was in the very early days of our winter and holiday season, so Rob haunted every store within driving distance for different kinds of exterior lighting.
There were galvanized steel pipes of varying lengths completely covered with light strands. They were threaded over a solid pipe that had been driven in to the ground. The quality of these incandescent light strings was on the poor side, and they furthermore required a lot of electricity to run. LED outdoor lighting was in its infancy, and the harsh bluish light was reminiscent of gas station bathroom lighting. Light to be interrogated by, as it were. There were winter arrangements that had lighting wound around the pots. There was a phase when he made his own lighting by assembling cords and bulbs bought one at a time. There were galvanized buckets with lights, greens and cones. Set it on your porch, plug it in, and celebrate the winter. Rob never was one for overly elaborate or complicated displays. He likes simple and casually striking. There were winter container arrangements that had light strings as mulch. Strands of C-7 and C-9 lights were piled high. Eventually we had to upgrade all of our existing exterior circuits to 20 amps each, and we added more circuits for good measure. We were lit.

Sooner or later, something solid was bound to come from all of his tinkering. The day he came home with a pair of vintage wagon wheels that he wound round with lights, and hung in the airspace in the shop, I could tell something was in the air. There was something about that circle of light that was as satisfying as it was fascinating. A client bought them both in short order. That winter, he spent a lot of time designing a steel hoop especially engineered to hold and securely capture the lights, and we manufactured them in different sizes.
A year later, he designed an integral stand for the rings. This meant they could be securely inserted into a pot, or in the ground. In the air, or in the ground-you can take your pick, or do both. By this time, he had found an LED lighting line that he liked. The lighted hoops were a winter decoration that could be enjoyed year after year. Three years in to the lighted hoop manufacture, he suggested that perhaps it was time to move on to another shape. I was incredulous. That circle of light was so simple, so visually striking and so easy to use, I couldn’t imagine him giving it up. So we have fine tuned the engineering, and continued to make them. Jackie has shipped them all over the US and Canada. To gardeners, and not gardeners. To designers, florists, and restaurateurs. A sure sign of a great design, they adapt instantly to any setting.

Clients for whom we do winter pots ask for them now, and we are happy to oblige. That ring of light features the fixings in a winter centerpiece in an elegant and stunning way.

Rob manufactures them in sizes starting with a 2 foot diameter, on up to a 7 footer. Pictured above is a 5 foot diameter light ring. Since the lights are on the outside of the hoop, we sometimes install string lighting at the bottom of the centerpiece, and or in the greens.

The sculptural quality of the hoops make them a design asset even during the day. I have no idea how many hoops Rob has out there now, but there are lots. Every time I see one, I think about his long term interest in lighting the garden and landscape in the winter. He tells me he enjoys seeing the work of others fabricating their own version of lighted hoops. It is a testament to a great idea that variations on this theme have sprouted in other places by other people. To follow are pictures of winter arrangements new and old that feature his light rings. They are all different in execution, and all the same in their successful effort to keep the winter dark at bay.

See what I mean?