Pastoral Landscapes

Rob’s shopping trip abroad for Detroit Garden Works is well into its second week.  He has attended some antique faires, as well as visiting dealers specializing in vintage or antique garden ornament.  His route from this country faire to that rural dealer has been dreamy to say the least.  I have gotten scads of pictures.  Many of them have a very painterly quality about them.  Boxwood Hill, with its path to the top looks like a scene from a Tolkien novel-a pastoral landscape fraught with history.  This photograph of surely trimmed boxwood, and a path up to the tree on top set in rough grass is heart stopping-can you imagine seeing this in person?     

These four terra cotta squares, made at the the Liberty Company in London at the turn of the century, look particularly beautiful displayed against the park like landscape.  These rare signed and stamped pots have a quietly classical and architectural presence that suits me just fine.  They have that chunky and solid English aura about them that rings true.  Any genuine expression I admire.      

Where Rob was when he took this photograph, I have no idea.  It looks to me like the junction of the road, and the road not taken- made famous by the poem by Robert Frost.  I will have to ask Rob which road he eventually took, as his camera recorded that moment seconds before he made his decision.  There is not a building nor a sign to be seen-striking, that.  This pair of two-tracks; each one holds promise. 

Like this antique curved iron bench or not, the combination of bench, lawn and light is beautiful.   

This country house is of a grand scale, but the attendant landscape is seems barely touched by human hands.  Field grass like this-full of all sorts of plants and infrequently cut or grazed is completely unlike what I would call lawn.   The grass adjacent to a wild garden I once had was overrun in the spring with every color of violet imagineable.  I don’t think I knew how good it was until it was gone.  A lawn overrun with violets;  what could be better? 

Many of the places that Rob shops have deconstructed landscapes such as this.  The look is lovely, natural and soft. In charming disarray, this landscape has a life of its own, with a minimum of interference from a human hand.  Though some may say this is evidence of neglect or poor housekeeping, I like how this space has been colonized. The natural landscape fringes and grows up onto the benches, gates, chairs, and ironwork-a natural, and beautiful relationship.   

This ancient limestone sculpture in a church yard cemetery is amazing.  The children seem to be praying for the immortal soul of the deceased-already firmly in the hands of an angel.  The expression on the face of the angel-no doubt he takes his job seriously.  Many lichens have grown up and over this old sculpture-not to mention the rough grass.    

A winding and narrow country lane high on a ridge provides Rob a great view of a herd of sheep, placidly grazing. This is a landscape of a time and place unbeknownst to me. There is eveything to be learned from landscapes that have evolved from agricultural, commerce, country, and community. There are no strident notes.  Nothing contrived, or trying too hard. What is hard- the work of a life. What gets done-a sign of a life well lived.     

This container may have had some hens and chicks planted in it a long time ago, but what you see here is a container planting gone wild,  and a moss lawn establishing itself-the handiwork of a hand far greater than mine. I cannot really explain why this photograph appeals so much to me, but I doubt I need to.

Sunday Opinion: Rob Overseas

As I write, Rob is winging his way towards Europe. He sent me this photograph from his seat on the plane as the sun was rising behind the curvature of the earth-breathtaking.  The plan-a two week buying trip that will include antique shows, and visits to dealers in garden ornament with whom we have long standing relationships.  He has not shopped for Detroit Garden Works in Europe for a few years-I have my reasons. The purchase price of any garden ornament in another country is only the beginning of what it costs to have that object in the shop.  Rob has to fly over; he needs food and lodging every day.  Anything he purchases needs to be collected, stored for a time, maybe crated for shipping,  get shipped to New York or Montreal, loaded onto a train for Detroit, cleared through US customs via a custom’s broker, trucked to the shop, and unloaded.  Everything that gets unloaded needs to be uncrated and inspected.  All of the crating and packing material needs disposal.  This is an arduous and expensive process.  Furthermore, the currency exchange rate has not been so friendly the last few years. One year I had a container devanned in Norfolk Va.  US Customs randomly picks containers arriving from Europe to be completely unloaded, and inspected.  The expense incurred by this “devanning”-mine.  In the process of offloading, and reloading, I had many objects damaged by fork lift forks, and careless repacking. Though I insure my European shipments, it took 2 years to negotiate a settlement for a fraction of the worth of the damaged load.  Every time I shop overseas, I hope for smooth sailing over the ocean, and a lucky number in customs. We concentrated on shopping the US the past few years, with good results. But no matter the origin, that unique mix of antique, vintage and one of a kind objects is what makes the shop an experience unlike any other.  Rob goes to a lot of time and trouble to insure that should you walk through the door, the odds you will find something you have not seen before are good. The odds of finding something that will delight or enchant your gardening self are very good. The only routine he observes is the change of the seasons.  To that end,  Rob is on his way back to Europe to shop.

Rob’s first scouting trip to Europe for me was in 1993. I wanted a shop devoted to interesting objects for gardens in the worst way, and for a long time.  What was available to me locally to place in a landscape or garden-not so swell. Rob had a winter ski trip he had planned to Austria; to this I added a two week trip through France and Italy.  Just to look around, and see what was available.  To meet whomever he could who shared that interest in garden ornament.  How excited we were about the arrival of 2 pallets of French pottery from the Poterie de Biot, and two pallets of Italian terra cotta from Mital- hilarious. I sold every one of those pots to landscape and garden clients.  Three years later, when I bought the building that would become Detroit Garden Works, he had a plan in place for shopping and shipping from overseas. 

That plan has changed dramatically in the past 18 years.  No longer does he haul around articles from European design publications and travel guides in a briefcase. Monica and Jenny joined forces to produce a map detailing his intended stops- courtesy of Google Earth.  A GPS gizmo called a Garmin into which he downloaded country maps and travel guides will get him where he wants to go efficiently and predictably.  Gone are the days of winging his way through the Alps trying to find France.      

Many of the relationships he made years ago are still in place.  Though he will be seeing friends he has not seen in a long time, I am quite sure there will be new people, new places-the unexpected. The Monday morning update-he’s busy shopping some place he has never been before.


The word patina refers to an oxide that forms on a metal surface. Metals react with oxygen in ways that change their surface.  The most dramatically obvious patina is rust.  Iron and steel exposed to weather will rust; a patina of iron oxide will form on its surface, eventually corroding that surface.  The shiny orange brown color of new copper will turn turquoise/green and brown with exposure to the weather. Bronze and lead both acquire patina, with time. How surfaces behave, withstand weather, or deteriorate outdoors is topic of much concern to people who either manufacture or collect garden ornament. But in regard to objects used or displayed outdoors, patina can more broadly refer to any material whose surface has been altered by age and exposure to the elements. This English antique stone urn has a surface that clearly has aged.  The stone has become pitted and worn; these open stone pores have provided a foothold for colonies of lichens. Able to withstand extended periods of time with no water, lichens spring back to life after a rain sufficient such that the stone absorbs water. This weathered quality of the surface of this pot, surely much different than its new surface, is what I call beautiful patina. 

The surface of these old iron cisterns probably bears little resemblance to their surface when the new iron was first cast.   The hot rolled, pickled and oiled steel that Buck uses to create boxes and pots is all about a resistance to any patina.  When hot rolled steel comes out of the rollers, structural steel shapes are sprayed with a chemical that forms what is called millscale; this dirty, crusty surface coating makes the steel look dark grey. Plate steel or coiled steel plate is pickled; this chemical bath is designed to delay the formation of rust. A spray of oil over the pickled steel further protects it.  Suffice it to say that welding steel is a very dirty business.  These cisterns have acquired a patina of both rust and moss; a surface that stays moist is an ideal home for moss.  The color of this aged surface is subtly beautiful.   

Concrete is a very porous material. Comprised of portland cement, sand, and aggregate rock, its surface weathers dramatically, given enough time.  The antique faux bois bench is probably 80 years old; its surface tells that story. The Italian stone putti in the background are carved from stone native to Vincenza, Italy.  This stone is exceptionally porous when new, and ever more porous as it ages.  The colonies of moss that have taken hold on these sculptures tell that story.    

Lead is a classic material for garden ornament.  At one time it was considerably less expensive to produce ornament in lead, as opposed to stone or marble. It is completely durable,  impervious to any number of century’s worth of weather; this makes it ideal for placement outdoors.  Its soft and somber grey color is handsome in a garden.   The densest of all metals, lead is is also very soft.  A large urn will collapse on its own socle or foot, given sufficient time for gravity to do its job. I could make a mark in a lead surface with my fingernail; old lead has a decidedly graphic patina.  Old lead will develop a white patina in spots; very old lead may be quite pale in color.

This lead cistern, arguably several hundred years old, evidences every day of that history, yet it still does the job for which it was made.  It hold water.

The patterns and shapes of this stone basket of fruit are blurred with age. I am sure that at one time, every grape and apple was precisely rendered.  I do not miss that stage, long past.  I like objects with a history, that tell a story of another garden at an earlier time.  The oldest object in my garden is no more than 70 years old. I like when my new things settle in, and begin to look like they belong.  

This antique English stone urn was at one time painted.  Who knows the story of the gouge in the rim, or the circumstances by which the surface has shed paint and stone so dramatically.  Garden antiques in perfect condition are rare.  By the same token, garden antiques in deteriorated condition have a character that cannot be reproduced.. Like a garden, there is no substitute for age on a garden ornament. 

This antique English cistern was rough hewn from a solid piece of Cotswold stone at least several hundred years ago.  The suface is populated with more than a few species of plants.  The stone absorbs the water it contains, keeping all those plants on the surface happy and healthy.  I am happy to report it has a new home now with a gardener who appreciates its age and patina.   

I know little of the hstory of this stone pediment, save that it is of English origin. The black patina which covers much of ther stone dates it to the Industrial Revolution-a time when the residue from burning coal patinated many architectural stone pieces.  This aged surface is visually striking.  Fragments such as this make a clear and compelling statement about time and nature.