The Garden Cruise July 23, 2023


In less than two weeks time, Detroit Garden Works will be hosting its first Garden Cruise to benefit the Greening of Detroit since 2019. I feel an intense satisfaction in being able to write that sentence. Perhaps some background for those readers who are not familiar with this event should come first. The Garden Cruise is a celebration of a lot of events. The landscape design that has been my life’s work. The extraordinary relationships created with clients culminating in the building of a landscape project. The selection and placement of beautiful and appropriate landscape ornament that physically centers and metaphorically organizes the landscape in question. And those steel boxes, benches, ornament, fountains and pergolas designed and manufactured in steel by my company, The Branch Studio.  The wild shade garden portion of the landscape pictured above, which is part of the upcoming tour, features all of these things.  It was designed and planted almost 10 years ago. The rod steel sphere fabricated at Branch Studio is fixed on top of a repurposed 19th century English stone lawn roller set on end – minus its steel armature –   as a rather contemporary pedestal. That piece was sourced and purchased in England by Rob Yedinak, and shipped to Detroit Garden Works and offered for sale. The wild garden features shade plants that beautifully represent and thrive in Michigan-so hellebores, sweet woodruff, pulmonaria, brunnera, hamamelis-and hemlocks. The big old spruce had seen better days, but why remove plants of such majestic scale and presence?

These clients are extraordinary people. They have diverse interests, but to the last they are united in their love of this house which is turning 100 years old, their love of nature and the natural world, and their commitment to preservation and restoration.  The bricks and limestone slabs were part of a wall in such disrepair that it had to come down and be rebuilt. Those stone and brick elements featured in the walk above were the original wall materials they felt were too beautiful to throw away. They asked me to design something around them. We call this path from the back yard to the front yard “the history walk”. There was story telling. History and artistry. In all my years of designing and installing landscapes, this photograph of my client in his surgical scrubs touring his garden late in the day is one of my favorites.  Gardens are good for people.


They also have a big love for entertaining outdoors in the summer. I drew a 20′ diameter circle on the site plan, and wrote the word POOL in the center. Ha! That ignited a firestorm of discussion, most of which had to do with not wanting a round pool. I was able to persuade them that round entertaining spaces are so friendly. And that it would fit handsomely in their oddly shaped lot. I was able to persuade them, once the shock of the suggestion had faded. A final design featuring the change of grade between the house and the rear lot line looked exactly like who it was for.

That is an essential part of a successful landscape design – a relationship that enables work that looks like it belongs to the client and their property.  This landscape has been on the tour before, but the way in which it is evolving and maturing makes it well worth another visit.


These clients have invested 25 years in the landscape and gardens on their 7 acre property. They went so far as to purchase the house next door, as it would complete and make whole a natural feature of the land. What an extraordinary thing to do! The property is packed with gorgeous mature trees – some usual fare, and some rarely seen outside of an arboretum.

In recent years I have been involved in the landscape design of those areas adjacent to both the main house and the getaway house. This portion of the landscape has a distinctive contemporary feel that is quite formal. The allee of columnar hornbeams pictured above is at the beginning of a very unusual trimming protocol. The outsides of the trees will be pruned flat, and the interior will be a celebration of the natural arching branches of these trees.

Adjacent and perpendicular to the broad gravel pathway which connects the main house to the other is a 50′ diameter circle of liriope spicata. The texture and mass generated by this single plant is stunning. On a breezy day, it is constantly in motion. What is perhaps the most amazing is that these clients maintain virtually the whole of their property themselves. I am not sure how many containers they have filled with seasonal plants, but that number is big.


In additional to small seating areas sprinkled throughout the gardens, there are plenty of places near the house to leisurely sit and enjoy the out of doors.  They have devoted considerable effort to providing a large terrace, pergolas, and furnishings to host friends and family comfortably for meals, parties and celebrations. Plan to spend some time exploring this landscape.

My landscape and gardens have been on the Garden tour every year since they began in 2008. A visit was mostly about how plants had grown.  The only substantial change from year to year was the container plantings. This year is not so much different, except for the deck and fountain garden.

I do have new furniture, and a mix of  of pots. French glazed pots from Terre Albine so enchanted me that I had to have some at home. All of these particular pots were broken from a series of unrelated mishaps. One of the fabricators at the Branch Studio was able to piece them all back together. I like that these beautiful pots still have a place in a garden, and I love them in my garden.
I am not posting any pictures of the fountain garden. Better that you see it in person. It is completely and shockingly different than it once was. Everything has a life span, including a landscape and garden. This part of my landscape has only been in 2 years.

This client has always had an interest in plants and flowers, but he has a fairly new and more substantial involvement. I was able to redo areas of the landscape to feature more ornamental plants and containers. He is watering his pots when they need it, and keeping his eye on all of the plants.

He is thoroughly enjoying what pleasure the outdoors can provide to people.

A large scale pool which is an entertainment focal point for his family and friends now has the ornamental gardens to go with. A mature hedge of Green Giant arborvitae provides a gorgeous backdrop and lots of privacy to the pool deck. In the immediate foreground is a series of three steel planter boxes fabricated at Branch. A section of a boxwood hedge was removed and planted elsewhere in favor of a seasonal flower display.

This landscape features a formal front yard composed of masses of spherically pruned Green Gem boxwood, boxed smaller scale Green Gems, and Venus dogwoods. A hedge of limelight hydrangeas encloses it all.  This pattern of planting encloses a spacious drive court. The house sits high on a rather steep hill, so parking near the house was a landscape priority.

The back yard with literally no flat space has been transformed by a 3200 square foot wood deck made from Ipe. The far end of this deck is 11 feet above the existing grade. Inset in the deck is a three sided infinity edge pool and waterfall. At the far end, a large scale pergola designed with louvered roof panels for shade by Branch Studio provides a shady spot for lounging and dining. The surrounding landscape is informal and lush.

I do hope as many of you as possible who are reading will attend this Garden Cruise on July 23, 2023 from 9am to 4:30pm, and the cocktails and pizza dinner reception to be held at Detroit Garden Works afterwards. So many have asked me to sponsor a tour again, and to write again. I am doing both. It will be an excellent tour well worth the time of any person for whom the garden is a way of life.

All of the proceeds of the ticket sales – 40.00 for the cruise, and 55.00 for the cruise and reception –  go to benefit the programs of the Greening of Detroit – an organization whose work I think is crucially important to the City of Detroit. For further information   www.thegardencruise.org     Tickets can be purchased over the phone or in person at Detroit Garden Works.  248  335  8057.

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.

At A Glance: The Library

My last post about the restoration of the paper mache cherubs included the above picture.  The cherubs aside, I had a number of comments about my library, and requests for more information about it.  As the last time I wrote about it was in 2009, I think it is fine to address it again. I have loved books my entire life. My Mom saw to that. The gardening books I bought in my twenties were focused on the horticulture of perennial plants. The library in my thirties expanded into woody plants and shrubs. I have a well worn copy of Michael Dirr’s book “The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants”. I am quite sure I read it cover to cover multiple times. And I still use it as a reference. Landscape design drove my book purchases in my forties, and in my fifties.  I collected books about landscape design, both historic and contemporary, in countries other than my own. The additions to my library from my sixties are dominated by monographs of specific landscape designers whom I admire. Don’t get me started on the names of those designers. It would be a written wave.

But that is what a library provides. Volumes of the printed word and photographs that can answer questions, inform planting schemes and teach good horticultural practices. They tell the story of the history of the garden, and their designers. Books are a window into history, and the work of others. My library informs my practice, but better yet, it informs my life. Landscape and garden design is my profession, and my clients have the right to expect that I have a well rounded education. I find that what I read informs my work. A good garden book is a busman’s holiday for me. I make a point of researching and buying new books every year. Reading the printed page is an absorbing and compelling activity I would not do without.  Yes, I have read all of the books in my library. Some several times over. Ursula Buchan’s book “The English Garden” I have read at least 4 times.  She is a great writer.

I have arranged my library as follows. All of my books are organized by topic. The very top shelf is populated by garden reference books. I have been gardening long enough to not need those books so often. But a ladder can get me to any volume I want to consult. I go up there more often than you would think. That said, I do use the internet to research horticultural topics. That was a source that was not available to me when I I first started collecting books. I can say that a good many articles on line are poorly thought out and barely skim the surface.  I like my books.

All of my books are organized by topic. The plant reference books are at the top of the bookshelf. Other reference books? Stone in the landscape.  Brick in the landscape-and so on.   I have other sections organized around gardens and landscapes by country.  Pictured above, a slice of my books on Italian gardens.  That section includes books referencing medieval Italian gardens, villa gardens, historic gardens-and contemporary Italian gardens.

The French section is wide. For obvious reasons. French landscape design, from formal French gardens to French country gardens is a force to be reckoned with.

The English landscape design section is long enough to acknowledge it is an important precursor to American landscape design.  Jenny Blom’s book “The Thoughtful Gardener” is outstanding.

I do have a shelf section devoted to design with a particular point of view.

A run of shelf space for American gardens and landscape designers-of course.

This lower self is as much about botany as it is about nature photography.

A library is a good place to spend time. All of those pages can inform a life. Can you tell I love my library? Of course I do. Read on about the value of a library, if you wish. February is a gardener’s reading month. Yes?     A library    

In Consideration Of All Of The Views

Creating beautiful views in the landscape is an important component of good design. Those views are not exclusive to the outdoors. The frames around windows and  glass doorways provide an ideal opportunity to create interesting views of the landscape from inside out. This is the most compelling reason there is to avoid foundation plantings that grow tall and obstruct the view out, rather than frame or enhance it. Foundation plantings? Any planting that is cozy with that place where a house comes out of the ground is considered a foundation planting. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in the 1950’s, where every house had shrubs and trees lined up tight to the base of the house. I am sure the idea was to soften that hard structure emerging from the ground with plants. This is a fine idea, as long as the plants don’t overpower what they were intended to augment. Dead center to this large window and pair of French doors is a large container. I plant it tall and lavish enough to provide an obvious focal point from the garden that can be enjoyed from inside the room.

The pot is not a foundation planting; it is at least seven feet away from the house. It is however, the star attraction out that window. I plant it for summer and most definitely for winter. The view out that window in those seasons are just as important as the views from outside. Providing room and airspace is key to a good landscape design. Even the arborvitae in the center background of this picture was planted a good five feet off the foundation. How it hugs the house now it friendly, not threatening.  There are no views from the inside out there.

At least twenty feet away from the window are a collection of much taller plants. They not only provide a garden like backdrop for the pot planting from the indoor view, they provide some privacy from the street. This means the blinds can stay up. The outside view of this pot is a feature of the walk to the front door. Anyone who gets within six feet of the front door has has a pot left and a pot right to see. It is an unexpected view, as the street view does not reveal much beyond the top section of mandevillea.  The pot also screens the maintenance opening in the boxwood hedge from this view. On the far side of the boxwood is the hose, piled up in a messy heap. No one sees that but me.

The house is symmetrical from north to south. A corresponding set of doors and a window provide an identical view out from this room. The same pot, the same distance from the foundation, on axis with the center window, repeats the gesture made to the north.  A repetition of interior views means there is an opportunity for the exterior view to form a strong and consistent exterior axis. Would that I could take a photograph looking left and right at the same time. Only a drone could visually convey this axis established by two pots placed parallel to the house, but a person coming up the walk can take it all in with a blink of an eye.

Creating views out of any interior windows asks for a good space between the window and the view. The boxwood is part of the exterior view.  From inside, one’s line of site passes over them.

I am fortunate to have a front door whose upper half is glass. There is a view out that door that has plenty of interest in the foreground and mid ground space.  As for the background, the street sign across the street is a sign of urban living. But the rest of the view is remarkably green.

The view in to the front door is accompanied by, and celebrated by, the landscape. The pots at the front door with lemon cypress stuffed with lime and variegated licorice embraces the house number. I like this. My corgi Howard is too old to navigate the back stairs from the driveway up to the kitchen, so I pick him up and drop him off at the front door every day. There are 3 sets of two steps, separated by long runs of flat walk. He is a dawdler, so I have a chance to enjoy the view. Landscapes that are designed such to provide interesting views for the people who visit and live in them are landscapes I admire.

The view out the kitchen door is framed to the right by a mandevillea in a pot. The views out is substantial, given the strong design of that element in the foreground space. The mid ground space here is a perennial garden. The background space tells the story of living in a neighborhood. I have lost the maples in the tree lawn. I plan to replant with trees that will be happier in a confined space. At one point I will be standing here, to determine the placement of those trees. One rarely has design control of the background. My advice?  Make the foreground and mid-ground views as strong as possible.

The view in, approaching the side door, is a welcoming view.

The view out here is all about perennials and roses. Yes, those roses, boltonia asteroides, and anemone Honorine Jobert were planted close to the foundation of the house. They have created a filtered view out. Perfect for a bathroom window. The arborvitae in the background have screened all but the very peak of the house next door. The planting is a better privacy solution than a blind. The large pot planted with a multi-trunked birch and carex provides the interest in the mid ground space. This pot will go on to organize the entire view of this garden in the winter. Providing for views from the inside can make the long winter season more tolerable.

The outside view is the strong view. But there are still subtle views out to the Japanese anemones all along this south side. It won’t be long before all the blinds go up for the duration of this season. That pot is centered on that bathroom window. It is also centered on the stairs coming up into this garden.

That same pot anchors yet a third view, from the sidewalk looking in. Small properties do not imply limited landscape design opportunities. All the possible views are there for your consideration.