Vernissage 2020

Eleven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”.The title of the post was my very loose interpretation of the French word that refers to openings. As much as it signaled the opening of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design under the name of Dirt Simple. To date I have published 1716 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, observe and reflect.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. The older I get, the less I have to say – which seems appropriate. I am vastly less certain of almost everything than I was when I was 30. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and today-April 1 of 2020. I must have been speechless in 2019-if you write, you know that happens. This date has another very special significance to me. April 1 of 1992 was Rob’s first day working with me. It has been a very engaging and productive 28 years. Yes, we have had our rough moments, but I take a great deal of pride in what we have created. I have a respect for him that continues to grow. I feel sure there will be more to come from the two of us.

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments in the landscape.  I learned plenty from her, and from her garden, over the years. In the beginning, I planted flowers for her. Our relationship developed such that I began to redesign, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre property. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I have favorite projects. An edited collection of fine white peony cultivars dating from the late 19th and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground. We had a relationship that I still treasure.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Nature is like that. As mean as it is giving. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by starting over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was just plain hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad about it as I did. I ran in to her some years later. We talked up a storm, as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This treasured client passed away September 20, 2017, at the age of 86. It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard, love, and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage might refer to any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does, sooner or later. Every spring opening has its distinctive features. Some springs are notable for their icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April. This year is a challenge like no other to all. Gardening at its most distilled is in many ways a solitary pursuit. What gets shared post that high voltage one on one relationship is a wealth of information, interest, discussion and passion that I believe will transmit a love for the garden from one generation of gardeners to the next.

I usually associate spring with the singing of the birds. I hardly noticed the singing this year, until this past week. The cold that has been reluctant to leave means there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up this time around. This persistent bad news reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 30 degrees, and March seems to be in a a chilly and threatening holding pattern that could last for months. How well said. But truth be told, spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed. I have hellebores in bloom. Thanks to the heavens for them. Spring is on the way.

Much of what I love about landscape design has to do with the notion of second chances. I have an idea. I put it to paper. I do the work of installing it.  Then I wait for an answer back. This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back. The speeches come from everywhere-the design that could be better here and more finished there. The client, for whom something is not working well, chimes in. The weather, the placement and planting final exam test my knowledge and skill. The land whose form is beautiful but whose drainage is heinous teaches me a thing or two about good planning. The sky and the ground is in the process of opening up.  The singing comes from everywhere. I make changes, and then more changes. I wait for this to grow in and that to mature. I stake up the arborvitae hedge gone over with ice, and know it will be years or more-the hoped for recovery. I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, an uncertain mid ground, and an equally ill defined end.

VERNISSAGE (4)This spring will see an average share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs. The winter cold and wind was neither here nor there. I am still wearing winter clothes. But no matter what the last season dished out, sooner or later, I get my spring. I can compost my transgressions. The sun shines on the good things, and the not so good things, equally.  It is my choice to take my chances, and renew my interest. The birds singing this first day of April l means it is time to take stock.

I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can coax or stake what the heavy snow crushed.  I can prune back the shrubs damaged by the voles eating the bark.  I can trim the sunburn from the yews and the boxwood.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Three years ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years. They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a third season. It is unclear when I will be able to plant, but I have hope.  I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes. I can wait. Being a gardener, I know all about waiting.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. I can sit in the early spring sun, and soak up the possibilities. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, renovate, plant new.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound good?

April 1 marked 28 years that Rob and I began working together, and 24 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That relationship endures, and evolves.  Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works is an invention from the two of us that reflects the length and the depth of our mutual interest in the garden. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, no matter how hard the news, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.

Our shop is in lockdown, like countless other garden businesses – as well we should be. We will meet again over the garden when it is safe for all of us to do so. In the interim, I would point out that spring is on the way, as usual. Just walk outside. You will see, smell, and hear it. As for the time being, persevere.

Detroit Garden Works March 31 2020

primula malacoides in bloom March 31, 2020

Rob planted a series of pots for spring a month ago. Of course he did. It’s spring.

The Cotehele Holiday Garland

Courtesy of an article in the holiday issue of the British edition of Country Living, I became acquainted with a National Trust property in England known as Cotehele. The property features a rambling stone manor house built in the 14th and 15th centuries, on 1300 acres of property.  It is one of the oldest and most well preserved Tudor houses extant in England today.  It has been owned and maintained by the National Trust for a very long time. People visit for the gardens, art and tapestries, and events. They support the Cotehele conservation efforts. Country Living visited for the Christmas garland, which has graced the Great Hall from late November through the beginning of January, since 1956.

The story of the Cotehele garland is an enchanting one. The project takes about a year, start to finish. All of the flowers that go in to the garland are grown at Cotehele. In a good year, 35,000 flowers will be grown and dried especially for the garland. The seed which gets ordered in December will be sprouted, and transplanted into individual planting packs. Grown on until they are sturdy enough to go in the ground, many thousands of seedlings are planted out in April. Both staff gardeners and volunteers help plant, tend, and harvest the flowers.

At harvest time, the flowers are cut, and bunched for drying. The flowers are hung upside down in the attic above the kitchen to dry. The varieties of flowers grown are different every year, but the garland is predominantly populated by white flowers. One year the garland was constructed in commemoration of the end of World War 1, and featured red white and blue flowers. The Cotehele garland not only takes months to create, but it is organized around an idea decided upon prior to construction.  The garland is not only beautiful, but it is meaningful to the community from whence it comes.

In early November, a team of Cotehele gardeners and volunteers assemble to begin the task of creating the garland.  Bunches of pittosporum branches are tied to a stout rope, one bunch at a time, very close together. This creates a green garland some two feet wide  and sixty feet long whose branches will capture and hold the flowers as they are stuffed in to the greens. It takes 3 people about a week’s time to transform 40 wheel barrow loads of pittosporum into a 60 foot long garland. Astonishing, this.

The garland is hung high in the air space in its green state, and large scaffolding is positioned so volunteers and staff can safely stuff flowers into the greens. The stuffing of the garland with the dried flowers takes lots of hands over the course of 2 weeks. One account says it takes 40 people two weeks to flower up the garland.

The resulting garland hung in place is magical. In a year in which the dry flowers are especially plentiful, a garland is hung on the jawbones of a whale that has framed the doorway of the great hall since 1837.

The story of the holiday garland at Cotehele is a story worth telling. So many people active in the garden for the good of all. This garland is a story about a community, a place, a gardening community, and a sense of purpose. It is a compelling story.

This holiday garland makes my heart soar. Any sincere expression of the garden is a source of great joy to me. A community garden such as this at Cotehele is a sure indication of how the love, persistence, and cultivation of a garden can benefit many. I am sure to see it in person is a breathtaking experience.

Cotehele garland 2018

If you are interested in the full story, click on the following link.

Deck the Hall

If you are also interested in why I might be talking about a holiday garland on March 11, please read on. The Cotehele garland inspired me to do a version for my newly restored cherubs.  See to follow what has occupied my hands over the past two weeks.

twisted jute rope and dry integrifolia leaves

leaves meeting in the middle

adding the flowers

garland end

I am well on my way to finishing the second garland. How I have enjoyed the magic that is making something.

 

New Year’s Day, 2019

Dear friends of mine dress their home and table for the Christmas holidays in a way that never fails to astonish and delight me. I have written about their holiday at least three times before, but I knew this year would be special. They spent the last two Christmas holidays visiting family in the US and abroad. They would be home this year.  M and I started talking about this year’s holiday in June, like we always do. I could say that talking goes on intermittently into the fall, but in fact, I am a listener, happy and intrigued to be privy to how his ideas evolve and gel. I am sure M2 is equally involved in this process. He is the more reserved of the two. The both of them are head over heels involved in the arts and design. They also have a sincere and passionate love of the landscape – this is how we came to meet, and fall for each other. Their holiday begins with the tree. Though they have an outstanding collection of vintage glass ornaments, the tree is always very different.

Their love of nature and the garden is always a substantial part of their tree.  They live on a large property in the country. Most of that property is wild. This year’s tree is chock full of the seedpods from butterfly weed, and assorted other weedy dry stems. The addition of the wild remains of plants foraged from their own property took a few intensely felt weekends. I truly admire and respect that they are able to set aside the demands of their professional lives, and give their all to the design and creation of this tree. It is a tour de force on so many levels.

I knew M had a plan to add clementines and persimmons to the mix. He later added mini Kishu mandarin oranges and kumquats.  I had my doubts about how that would work, but I kept that to myself. At the same time, I knew he was shopping every grocery store and farmers markets in his area for those orange fruits.   I greatly respect his eye. All it takes to be open to anything is the intent to be open.

The result is unique to them, and their point of view. Stunning, every square inch of it.  Their history, interests and passion for the arts and the garden resulted in a holiday expression of great beauty.

This New Year’s Day, I am thinking about those projects this past year that truly engaged me. Those projects that speak to the best, most inventive, and imaginative. And those projects that are created by the love of the landscape on both sides of the design equation. I have many to thank, and much to be thankful for.

As for the holiday created by my friends- thank you. It is a feast for the eyes, the heart and the soul.

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The buche de Noel, a culinary creation of theirs – exquisite.

The 2018 Pumpkins

No fall garden journal of mine would be complete without a discussion of the pumpkins.  Not just any pumpkins, but those especially beautiful and select fall fruits that Rob cuts and brings to the shop for sale in October. He is most assuredly an aficionado of this iconic sculpture of the fall season. Were you to engage him on the topic, you might be witness to a passionate discussion of shape, color, stem size and surface. And standability. He favors pumpkins that stand on their own, over the leaners. But for those pumpkin fans that admire a pumpkin on its side, he will have those too. He can converse at length on the history and characteristics of varieties generally available in our area. And their variants. You will run out of patience for the pumpkin discussion long before he runs out of things to say. Normally he is quite taciturn, but he is an unabashed fan of pumpkins. Just ask him.
One year his yearly buying trip to Europe ran long. He came home at the end of September to find not a single pumpkin at the shop. Driving for hours to the grower and field of his choice, cutting the fruits free from the vines, and carrying them to the edge of the field so they can be loaded on to the grower’s tractor and trailer would not be my choice of a day’s work. I made it clear that if he wanted pumpkins, he would need to be available to make that happen. He now plans his European buying trip so he is home for the pumpkin season. It is a good bit of travel, and a lot of work to put a collection together.  This year, he, David and Marzela made the trip in 3 separate trucks to pick pumpkins. The field was muddy, but navigable.
His relationship with the breeder and grower spans a few years now.  I suspect they enjoy each other’s company. Once he realized that Rob likes to look at pumpkins as much as he likes to grow them, he spent a lot of time talking to Rob about his breeding program, and his growing protocol. I think Rob has a fairly good understanding of what characteristics are of interest to him. A testament to his breeding skill  that spans many decades is the fact that seed companies send representatives every year to look over his crop, and buy seed.  They get first pick.  But once the round of seed buyers have made their evaluation and purchases, the coast is clear for Rob to shop.

He did this year’s shopping in two trips.  One by himself, to see what was out there. It was a tough year for growing pumpkins.  The heat was relentless, and the rain scant. I can understand that if pumpkins start to mature in late summer, they will be ready for market too early. We wait until the beginning of October to buy. Pumpkins that ripen as the temperatures are beginning to moderate will have a better chance of lasting intact a long time. As we rarely have a really hard frost before the end of October, the pumpkin season can be enjoyed a month or better.  In a mild fall, I have seen them survive with no soft or rotten spots until after well after Thanksgiving.

Though the picking is organized, it is still hard work. Rob picks what he wants, and sets them next to the road running through the field. The pumpkins are then loaded on a flat bed pulled by a tractor.

Two trailer loads amounted to about 500 pumpkins. Give or take, about 10,000 pounds worth of pumpkins. The shapes, colors, sizes, surfaces and density look great to the last. What to do with one of these pumpkins? Set in on your porch, and celebrate the fall.

All of these tall oblong and round orange pumpkins with expressive stalks look good to me.

Orange is not the only color sported by pumpkins. Orange, black, bicolor orange and green, cream, white, peach, yellow, caramel colored-take your pick.

The shop is awash in beautiful pumpkins right now; you’ll see.

Rob’s pumpkin collection

white and cream pumpkins

big and small orange pumpkins

a color palette

This is my favorite pumpkin of all of Rob’s 500 choices. It is a subtle choice. I love the creamy gold skin. The oblong shape. The thick stem whose thin green anchors grip the top of the fruit. In my opinion, this is a perfect pumpkin. Should you be of a mind to represent the fall with the pumpkin of your choice, we have lot to choose from. As for the idea of dressing a porch or a terrace in Pumpkins – why not? Beautifully grown pumpkins speak loud and clear to that moment gardeners call the fall season. Once October comes, I load up on the pumpkins.