The 2014 Gardening Season

2-27-2014 (14)Though nature had no plans to attend the opening of Detroit Garden Works today for the 2014 gardening season, the robins in the tree next door are here right on schedule.  Rob says they look to be the fattest robins ever.  I personally think they have their feathers fluffed out to the max-trying to defend themselves against the extreme cold.  On the news this morning, the following.  The combination of cold and snow this winter makes this the worst winter we have had for 130 years.  This means that the oldest gardener in my zone is experiencing a record breaking and a particularly heart breakingly endless winter for the first time.  This going on 64 year old gardener can attest to the accuracy of this statement.  I have never.

Detroit-Garden-Works.jpgTaking the 2013 version of Detroit Garden Works apart, repainting and cleaning, reinventing and redoing with all the new things for 2014 is a big job.  Both of my landscape crews are instrumental in helping out the shop staff with this transformation.  This means that both Steve and I have been there with Rob to plan and consider every move that gets made.  Keeping up with the winter landscape design work for projects on deck for spring, with a big dose of Detroit Garden Works on the side means I have been really busy.  This level of being busy helps to keep my mind off the winter that has engulfed us all.  Though my landscape design practice is the love of my life, the shop is a close second.  How so?

DSC_7937All of what Rob buys interests me.  Containers, sculpture, fountains, tools are an integral part of gardening.  But placing every element in a 10,000 square foot space in an interesting and well designed way is a challenge.  But I am happy for the work-this greatly informs my landscape practice.  I am dealing with objects big and small.  Lots of colors.  This line and that one.  This shape that relates to that one.  A garage full of pallets of objects I have never seen before all need to have a home, a scheme.  Rob does the vast majority of the buying for the shop.  It falls some to him, and a lot to me about how to present his collection. It is not so much different than designing a landscape for a particular property, and a particular client.  Objects from many countries in February, each with their own shape, color, texture and mass ask for an arrangement that will please the eye.  Making sense of a whole world of disparate objects can be exasperating, but it is a job I would not trade for any other.

DSC_7944Designing a landscape asks for everything a gardener has available to them.  A love of the living earth.  A plan to compost, which will enrich any planting.  A plan to plant.  Lots of energy and good will.  Faith in one’s convictions.  And a plan that personally expresses what that gardeners values and needs from their garden.  A plan that is coherent.  Dissonant shapes, forms, textures and colors all ask for some sense to be made.  And sense can be made of those things in many different ways.  How Rob puts a series of things together is very different than mine, as it should be.  I can’t be privy to why he selected certain things, until I start to work with them.  Even then, I may visualize them in a very different way. As much as I enjoy poking around the pallets, I more enjoy making a melody from a lot of different voices.

DSC_7928Surfaces really interest me.  Some are shiny.  Some are smooth and matte.  Some are rough textured.  Others are dark-some are light.  One surface contrasted with another generates interest.  What is happening near the ground level interests me as much as what is at eye level.  Then there is that vast space overhead.  My first moves in the shop always involve covering the walls, and populating the air space.  Part of that had to do with staging the work.  An empty room is the ideal place to navigate with a big ladder.  Once that work is done, everything else is arranged to fit in the physical and visual space.

2-27-2014 (2)Anything that generates an interest in the garden is of interest to me.  What I like is big and wide-a lot.  On a good and rare day, it is deep.  Any person who responds to the garden interests me, whether it comes via my landscape practice, or my shop.  Any place that encourages people to garden is my idea of a good place.  Rob and I both subscribe to the idea that a great garden shop ultimately should provide an experience of the garden.

2-27-2014 (17)I will confess I am tired out from the work of the past month.  But this kind of tired is a good kind of tired.  I was truly thrilled that Detroit Garden Works opened for the 2014 gardening season as usual March 1-even though our winter rages on.  I am pleased we have been welcoming gardeners of every persuasion for 18 years, come March 29.  We were happy to have gardeners gracing our gates today. Spring is a state of mind-is it not?

2-27-2014 (12)Rob’s buying trips to growers of hellebores all over the US and Canada means we have plants in our greenhouse now, with many more to come.  The sight and smell of live and blooming plants is a sight for sore eyes.  We have planned an event the third week of March-a Helleborus Festivalis.  For every winter weary gardener who has another month of winter to go yet.  We have missed all of you that visit our shop!  See you soon.




An ornament is anything which enhances the appearance of a person, a place, or an object.  A gorgeous piece of vintage Miriam Haskell costume jewelry can dress up a simple black dress.  Christmas decorations collected over a lifetime ornament a tree, and the family traditions that come with the celebration of a holiday.  Hand screened en grisailles wallpaper from Zuber in Paris can supply a room with all the ornament it could ever possibly need.  A good friend just opened the door for me on this particular kind of ornamental-thanks, M.  The decorative arts spans as many cultures as it does centuries.  Early 20th century handmade American quilts ornamented many a bed and bedroom.  Hand made furniture, hand embroidered linens, a vase of cut flowers, hand made candles, hats suitable for church on Sunday, letterpress wedding invitations, chandeliers, great shoes-ornament celebrates every aspect of daily life.


Ornamental is a word frequently applied to those trees whose sole function is about beauty.  We grow lime, lemon, pecan and avacado trees for the fruit they provide.  We grow shade trees in hopes for a cool spot in the garden in the heat of the summer.  Some trees are farmed for their wood, their apples, or their rubber.  Ornamental trees are cherished for their extraordinarily beautiful leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, shape, or fall color.  This group of trees ornament the landscape.  The crabapples blooming are the ballerinas of the spring.  Those clouds of white, pink and carmine flowers can be breathtaking.  There is that spring moment when all the talk is about the crabapples blooming.  The magnolias provide strikingly large and architectural flowers and large leaves.  Yellow magnolias are unusual, and are ornamental for that reason additional to their lustrous bark, large leaves, and architectural shape.


The dwarf Japanese maples delight the eye with their forms and leaf colors. The standard acer palmatum features beautiful bark, lacy leaves, and a mature size around 25 feet.  Princeton Gold maples shower the garden below with lime green in the spring.  The white flowers of chionanthus fluttering in a spring breeze-delightful.  The kousa dogwood features flowers that bloom late enough to escape our early spring frosts.  Old kousas are prized for their exfoliating bark.  Witch hazels bloom early enough in my zone that their subtly wispy flowers attract attention.  Tree lilacs bloom later in the summer.  Flowers overhead-ornamental.  The substantive and shiny foliage of hellebores is enough for any gardener to plant them.  The early spring flowers thrown in spite of cold weather-they ornament the garden.


Ornament for the garden-I have a big interest.  I am not particularly partisan.  I like figurative sculpture in the garden.  I like French cast iron urns from the 19th century.  I like Belgian wood planter boxes.  I like English hand carved stone troughs.  I like classically shaped and hand made Italian terra cotta pots.  I like braided steel cable fencing.  Galvanized horse troughs available at the local feed store make great containers for vegetables, or lotuses.  I like to see a mix of all of the above, selected  by that particular gardener with confidence.


I all but covered this 20′ long table for spring in the shop some years ago.  This would not be a table about to host a dinner-where could you possibly put your plate?  It is strictly ornamental.  Just for the sheer visual joy of it.  Memories are made from how every gardener chooses to ornament their gardening life.  I remember each and every detail of those gardens that strike a chord with me.  I ornament my landscape as if I had a very important garden party looming.  Though chances are good I will never host a garden party of any consequence, I like strikingly beautiful landscapes and gardens.  When I do my best, I sleep well.



Pots planted with spring flowers are not especially utilitarian.  I have never eaten a pansy.  But my eyes have feasted on the shapes and colors of spring flowers planted in pots.  To say pots such as these enhance the appearance of my garden is an understatement.  Buck tells me that organic matters.  He is so right.  But the manner in which that organic gets delivered matters too.  This means the fencing and the gates to the vegetable garden matter, in the visual scheme of things.  This means that a gardener with a very small property needs to choose those few ornamental trees which delight them the most.  Ornament is so much about the result of the process of choosing.


This is my driveway.  I pull up here at the end of every day.  What I see first when I get home-ornamental.  My idea of ornamental-mine and Buck’s, that is.  Our idea of ornamental-that what makes our house and garden truly ours.


In lieu of writing, I spent the weekend going through my work stuff.  Desk stuff, drawing studio stuff, catalogue stuff.  Letter stuff, note stuff, picture stuff, closet stuff, blueprint stuff. My drafting studio was a wreck.  The table itself-piled so high with stuff that MCat had moved in, and was using it as a penthouse floor catbed.  I am one of those people who require a clean space in order to work.  Visual anarchy makes it next to impossible for me to concentrate.  All I can think about is where does this belong, or what could I do with that.  Mounds of stuff, and not a flat space anywhere to draw, paint, construct, dream or doodle.  I needed a shovel and a soil sifter, and plenty of garbage bags.  There are those times that I go too far, pitching this or that.  A phone number I need the second I have thrown it away.  One time I found my checkbook in the trash.  After I had turned the rest of my space up side down in search, I casually looked in the trash. 


A collection of stuff is made up of lots of individual things.  Some things make my world go round.  My keys, my computer, my books, my Suburban, my socks and shoes. Dog treats, my coffee pot, tools, paper, books-these things I could not do without. Other things litter the landscape.  An out of date driver’s license, a pile of change, Milo’s puppy collar, a dead pen, a left over piece of water color paper, a few granite bricks, magazines from 2008.  Broken things-I have an impressive collection.  My entire office had evolved into the equivalent of my kitchen junk drawer.  Rather than dump the lot, all the stuff needed going through.  Some stuff matters. 

I have a file folder for every year dating back to 1998.  They are home to letters from friends and clients.  Articles.  Photographs.  Stuff that means something to me. I am more careful about the stuff I collect now than I was 20 years ago.  In any given year, that file has no more than 30 entries.  I edit-as best I can.  It ought to be 10 entries or less every year, but I am an American.  We have a big country, with lots of open spaces.  This means I collect, dissect, am pathetically sentimental, go on and hold on too long. 

    Looking for a rocking discussion of what constitutes stuff?  Fire up your computer, and go to UTube; bleep up George Carlin stuff.  You’ll find it.  The first time I saw his comedy routine about how we organize our lives around our stuff, and how our stuff gets spread out wherever we go- I could not stop laughing, nor could I stop thinking. A house provides refuge, but it also is a giant box that holds all our stuff.  What about all of my stuff?  My costume for a party in 1994-is it time to let that go?  Last winter was completely absorbed with the process and rehabilitation from a knee replacement.  That titanium thing organized my entire winter.  The stuff enabling me to walk-a prosthesis, a pain pump, a walker, a cane, a portable exercise bikea good stuff.  The usual winter cull of the fluff stuff  never happened. No old plans got filed.  Nothing found its way to the trash.

January of 2011; my 2010 work got done.  I went shopping for 2011.  I am home, and taking a second breath-that second breath involves a bad cold that seems to be hanging on.  February 1, 2011-I am looking at the stuff that has accumulated since January of  2009.  Several years worth of stuff. My stuff is not the sort of thing that anyone would want.  It’s just litter, clutter, Roly poly bugs long since deceased.  It took every bit of two days, and I kicked up a lot of dust.  But today I am ready for something new.  Where are you, Something New?

I am ready to make your acquaintance.


more surfaces 013

Every three dimensional object has a surface of one sort or another.  The dictionary defines surface as the outer or topmost boundary of a 3-D object, the external aspect of an object, or a portion of space having length and breadth but no width. How unhelpful is this?  It seems simpler to just think of the surface of an object as its skin. That skin can be represented by different textures.  Paintings have subject matter, composition, color, line, mass-a whole raft of qualities.  But how the artist physically handles the paint determines its surface. I happen to be thinking about surfaces, as I had someone ask me recently why I did not carry fiberglass or plastic pots and ornament.  

more surfaces 002

Most of my reasons have to do with a love and interest in what nature has created.  Natural materials-wood, terra cotta, stone, dirt, leaves, flowers, water-are living materials.  That life imparts a beauty to them like nothing else can.  It might be a stretch to think of stone as living and breathing, but I do.  It makes emotional sense to me that my garden and landscape be kept company with objects made from natural materials. I once taught a class in vegetable gardening for the Greening of Detroit; I did recommend that anyone worried that their natural soil was contaminated, think about planting their tomatoes and potatoes in garbage cans.  Were they old enough to be split at the bottom, or have gashes in the sides, all the better for the drainage.  But if I have a choice, I favor the real thing. 

more surfaces 022
Terra cotta, absorptive as it is, can provide a home for other living organisms such as mosses and lichens; no wonder old terra cotta is my favorite material for pots.  The combination of plants and terra cotta is naturally beautiful.  I have no objection to made-made materials, as long as they are manufactured to look like what they really are.  Fiberglass or plastic made in imitation of any natural material always looks like an imitation.  Fiberglas pots made with an unabashedly natural fiberglass surface can be very good looking. 

more surfaces 024Pictured above is a panel of a terra cotta square pot made by the Galloway Company from Philadelphia Pennsylvania in the early 20th century.  The river bottom clay from whence their pots were made is naturally this color.  There is no mistaking this is a natural material, even if you have never seen anything made from cream colored clay. The surface is genuine; it rings right.

more surfaces 029Do you even have a number in mind for all the different kinds of leaves that must exist? Their surfaces can be hairy, shiny, matte, smooth-there is no end of variation.  But what they all have in common are surfaces that are unmistakeably alive. They live and breathe.  I could not really explain what it is about a living surface that is so evident.  Suffice it to say that I have yet to see an imitation that was truly convincing.   

surfaces 023Concrete is a man made material which I greatly like.  These terra cotta oyster floats have blobs of concrete which help to weigh the floats down in the water.  Concrete as a material is at its most beautiful when its surface accurately represents exactly what it is-concrete. Of course everyone has had to make concessions of one kind or another over their garden.  I myself have concrete terra cotta pots made in the style of classical Italian terra cotta.  I have three places where I wanted a pot in situ 12 months of the year.  My concrete pots enable this.  Their workmanship is incredibly good.  However nothing moves me more than the clay. 

more surfaces 008Steel and iron are likewise a product of human technology.  The surface of steel will age, as it corrodes.  The pits in the surface can provide a home for small plants, just like terra cotta. How steel ages can be very beautiful; age on a man made surface greatly enhances its appearance.

surfaces 006The surface of this terra cotta pot looks like a painting.  I have no idea how it was done, but there is no evidence of paint.  Whatever altered the surface has soaked in, and become part of the clay.  I am told the material is mineral based-as are many pigments.This treatment I can live with.  The shape and texture of this pot is beautiful as well-it reminds me of a squash, without trying to look like a squash.

more surfaces 010
This very heavy gauge wire is wrapped with hemp twine; the wires originally formed stems for some wood shaving flowers.  I think I liked these stems better than the flowers, so I saved the stems.  I took giant needle nose pliers and secured all 20 stems in the middle with the 21st stem.  After curling the ends, I had myself a decent looking bow.  Natural materials-I like having them around me.