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.

Some Thoughts On Places and Spaces

What are we looking at here? Lacking any recognizable objects or context, it is tough to tell. As this is not a quiz, I will identify it. A 10 foot tall concrete block wall behind Detroit Garden Works, covered with the skeletal branches of Boston Ivy, has a hat of windswept snow. Behind and above it is a typically and uniformly gray Michigan winter sky. This is a verbal explanation. But the story told by the photo is not about what it is, or where it might be. It is about how colors, shapes, textures and volumes compare, contrast and relate to one another. The color of the sky is so uniform that it appears flat. The snow roll looks volumetric and sculptural, courtesy of a variety of colors in tones of gray and white. The fanciful story is how that substantial shape of gray space is weighty as there is so much of it, and in the process of bearing down on the wall, it is squeezing a textured and frozen bead of snow over the leading edge of that wall. Another rhythmic interpretation might be that the dark textured shape is rising to meet the light shape, and what oozes out once the two shapes meet appears to have depth and volume. Freed from a discussion of what we are looking at means there is an opportunity to see relationships in a composition on an abstract level. What role does seeing abstract shapes have to do with landscape design? Great landscape design begins with the bones.  And the bare bones can readily and most easily seen in the winter. Looking at a landscape critically in the summer season is difficult. It is easy to get distracted by the flowers, weeds, leaves, scents, sounds, the neighbor mowing his lawn, and all of what else goes on outdoors in the summer.      The winter is very quiet. I am a solitary visitor to my garden. I am not distracted by weeding, watering, dead heading, smelling the roses, serving dinner or working out issues from my client’s gardens. My mind can be as blank as the winter sky, should I tune in to the landscape around me, and let it speak. The winter season is the perfect time to be receptive to the landscape speaking back. It is a time to rest, reflect, reminisce, and reconsider. It is a time when there is enough time to think. It is also a time to take advantage of how winter weather recasts a landscape in a simple and abstract way. The above photograph is nature’s snowy rendering of my fountain garden. All of the textural details of the landscape have disappeared. The snow has recreated the flat land in this garden in an intriguing and sculptural way. What will I conclude from what I see? That large undulating space that ramps up at the fountain’s edge that occupies most of this garden place is intriguing. Actually grading the ground around my fountain in this way would be difficult and certainly contrived. But I certainly could test that theory on a small scale in the spring. Strongly sculpted soil would not necessarily be compatible with the other landscape elements already existing. There is no harm in passing by what a snowstorm suggests. However, it is striking that there is no landscape element in the foreground framing or defining that view out. The bottom edge of this two dimensional photographic rendering of my landscape has nothing to say. I see that now. What would it be like to look through the branches of some trees to the fountain? Large tree branches in the immediate foreground, and the background tree branches that look smaller as they are a distance away, would provide a visual description of the depth from near to far. A landscape design that creates visual depth from a view can be a very successful landscape indeed. The winter is making me rethink this portion of my landscape.

The winter reduces a landscape to its simplest iteration.  All that remains are the big gestures. A heavy snow amplifies those bones and makes obvious the relationships between the occupied places, and the empty spaces. This photograph after a heavy snow storm at the shop is a landscape of a different sort. How we arrange garden ornament is suggestive of the possibilities to gardeners who shop our place.

The place occupied by a pergola in this landscape is both a place to be, and a place to see. What permits a clear description of the place is the empty spaces all around it. The snow strongly describes that emptiness. There is a balance between that richly layered structure, and its minimal environment. That will change some, when the climbing roses grow. But their footprint on the ground plane will be vastly less complex than the expanse of roses up towards the roof. In the summer, that ground plane will include grass, gravel, limestone stepping stones, and a fountain surround. In the winter, all of the detail washes away, leaving only an abstract description of a strongly uniformly flat plane. That plane is a place for that pergola to be.

This drone photograph is courtesy of the Sterling Development Co. This bird’s eye view reveals the relationships forged between densely populated places, and empty spaces. I will confess that I was pleased to see this photograph. The drawing of this landscape is quite similar to this photograph. I was happy to see that the plain spaces-the roof of the house, the grass and the terrace – feature the pergola and the property border landscape. There is a balance struck between places and spaces. There is a tension created by that contrast that is interesting and satisfying. To my mind, anyway. I am a designer with a certain point of view.  You may have other ideas.

A wet, windy and heavy snow storm describes a window captured all around by a galvanized metal hat, a window box below, and a pair of shutters on each side. This stripped down winter version of the landscape scene describes the window in a way that challenges and informs my decisions about how to plant those boxes.

Years ago I planted some scotch pines on standard in giant casks Rob bought in Belgium. This winter version of that planting is a study in scale and proportion. The contrast of empty and active spaces. The heavy snow on the boxwood and scotch pine, and the windswept snow coating the north side of this cask made me realize that our winter weather distills the relationships between places and spaces in a way I never could. The winter season can be observed, and much can be learned from it.

The snow hat on this finial, and the simple heft of the column supporting it are all the more beautiful for the snow covered branches surrounding them.

The snow is not always a blanket that obliterates every detail. Some times it describes the most ethereal of gestures.

If you are a designer for yourself or others, I would take advantage of the what the winter season has to offer.Truth be told, it is not an off season.

Hoop It Up: Lighting The Winter Landscape

The benchmark of our winter and holiday season is the seasonal lighting made available at Detroit Garden Works. Any current year’s collection becomes available towards the end of October. We measure all else we offer for winter gardens to clients by the effort we make to have something of value available to light the landscape. Providing for some light is never more urgent than it is in the winter months. The daylight hours are few, and mostly gray. That night that starts in the afternoon, and persists late into the following morning asks for intervention.

Rob Yedinak is entirely responsible for anything lighted we have to offer the winter landscape. He not only buys a variety of lighting materials, but he imagines and fabricates light sculptures from those materials. What he manages, to the delight of any gardener facing the dark days to come, is an engaging answer. His best known effort is a collection of steel circles wound round with LED string lighting. These light rings come in two versions. One style of hoop can be hung from a stout tree branch or pergola. It can be laid flat in a birdbath or pot. It could be hung against a wall or a garden gate. The hanging hoops come with multi strand jute rope. That jute helps to disguise the wire at the end of the light strand. It is a very simple and beautifully made lighted sculpture.

A later incarnation provided a four pronged steel base which enabled the ring to be securely installed in a pot, or in the ground. A free standing lighted sculpture, if you will. The above picture illustrates a 3 foot diameter ring installed as an integral part of a winter window box at the shop. Every element of that arrangement is stuffed into a dry floral foam base. I was interested that the lighted hoop be an integral part of the arrangement. A hoop on four legs made it easy to evenly sink those legs into to the foam base, and stuff branches, magnolia and evergreen boughs all around it. The very best part of this process is the ability to construct the arrangement in a warm and dry space.

Though we glue several layers of foam sheets together, that foam has no strength. It can hold hundreds of stems, and the spiked legs of the light ring securely. But unsupported, that foam will break. During the construction phase, it sits on top of a piece of plywood. We slide the arrangement off the plywood into the container just like a cookie coming off a baking sheet. This process does require very careful measuring to insure a good fit.

But the big story here is how Rob’s spiked and lighted hoops look at night. They appear to float over the arrangement. Thought we covered the foam with light strings before we stuck the branches into the foam, those circles of light are as distinctive as they are satisfying. They stand out from the glow.

This picture clearly illustrates the standing mechanism. The base is securely welded to the ring. This is a very large ring, so the spikes that go into the soil are wired to 4 pieces of rebar that go deep in to the container.

This lighted hoop is 5 feet in diameter. It does a terrific job of highlighting the centerpiece During the day, that steel hoop is very sculptural. The light rings add a whole other dimension to a winter container arrangement. The LED lights draw very little in the way of electricity. We have clients who run them in their garden all year round. To follow are as collection of pictures of winter arrangements featuring the hoops. If I had a mind to make just one winter gesture in the garden, I would hang or spike one in a spot where I could see all winter. It is a lot of look in a small and durable package.

Why am I writing about lighted hoops for winter containers in October? Jackie has been steadily shipping them out all over the country for the past 3 weeks. Whether you are local or far away from the Works, if you have a mind to hoop it up this winter, you may want to contact her now.  Jackie@detroitgardenworks.com.  Further interested in sizing and pricing?  Lighted hoops from Detroit Garden Works

Water In The Garden


I suppose there are those moments when rain in the garden means trouble. A windy and strong downpour can knock the peonies and the delphiniums to the ground. Heavy rains can weigh down the flower panicles of hydrangeas in full bloom. A tree hydrangea whose flowers are stooped over from heavy rain – I avert my eyes. Why is it that the only time we have silly crazy and pounding rain is when I am trying to get Milo out of the car and in to the house at the end of the day?  I do not love being drenched. But in general, I am very grateful for that rain that nurtures my landscape and garden.

The garden after a heavy rain has a juicy and saturated look. Even the air seems freshly washed. The lichens on the backs of my chairs are a sure sign that those chairs have been watered. Our rains are more regular come the fall season. Given cooler temperatures, these pots will not require any water from a hose for a few days. What the picture above does not express is the action and sound of that rain, but this does:  pouring rain The sound and the action of water in the landscape is a benefit of another sort.

I may have told this story before, but in my mind, it bears repeating. My last birthday gift from my Mom before she passed was a stack of beach towels. Beach towels? I asked her why. I am embarrassed to say I was irritated by her gift. Mom’s have a different vision – don’t they? She replied that of course I did not have a use for beach towels. I was always working. She thought it might be a good idea for me to go to the beach once in a while. She left me some money when she died. I spent every penny of it on this fountain in my back yard. Every day after work, I go to this particular beach, and think of her. The sound of that water adds the element of music to the garden. The action of the water is both mesmerizing and relaxing. It is no surprise that many people feel that living on a body of water of some sort is a quality of life issue. My garden life is all the better for this body of water.

Years ago I had no interest in water in the garden. That was tone deaf. Sounds in the garden are so much a part of the landscape. The birds and bees-and the water. I routinely suggest to clients that a water feature in the garden is a good idea. Big or small – that makes no difference. A representation of water in a garden within earshot endows that garden with a special gift. Call that whatever you like-communing with nature, or enjoying blissfully relaxing white noise.

This recirculating fountain jar features a basin that can be installed above or below ground. The pump is in the basin, and is disguised by a layer of rock over a screen. The action of this fountain is very subtle, but unmistakable. Of course there is maintenance involved. The basin needs refilling occasionally, as water is inevitably lost to evaporation. At the end of the season, a trap door in the basin provides access by which the pump can be removed and stored for the winter. This pot is glazed stoneware, so it can be left out for the winter. I might be inclined to put a simple plywood cover over the top to keep snow out of the pot. The fountain jet passes through the drain hole, and is sealed in place, the pot no longer drains.

This 3 tiered fountain was forged in cast iron by an English artist Michael Hill. The fountain has been installed in a large pool, which captures the water coming over the edges. This fountain both streams and splashes water. It provides a very lively focal point for this part of the landscape.

This is the first Hudson fountain cistern the Branch Studio made many years ago. Subsequent to that time, we have fabricated and shipped them all over the country for clients and designers in search of a simple, rugged, and substantial fountain to place in the landscape. They have also made this fountain in custom sizes and versions. One very large fountain that went to California has a 1/2′ thick and 10″ wide steel return-suitable for sitting.

Some 12 years later, we have this Hudson fountain cistern running at the shop. Like the look?  See this for the action and sound: Hudson fountain cistern

This oval fountain with its angled handles was inspired by a vintage tub Rob brought back from France years ago.

Branch hemispherical fountain purchased and placed in the landscape by the design firm Reed Dillon and Associates.

small glazed fountain ensemble

This oval stick fountain was fabricated at Branch. The client who purchases it was sufficiently enchanted to have it craned over his house to it final location in the garden. Water sustains life for all living things. You and me, and the landscape. A fountain – a vessel for that water – can take no end of interesting and visually satisfying forms. Suffice it to say that if it lives and prospers, it has gotten sufficient water.