On The 4th Floor

Detroit Garden Works has a milestone of note in its immediate future. It was the evening of the 28th of March in 1996 that we announced the opening of the shop via an evening reception to loyal friends, family, and clients of Deborah Silver and Company. That following morning, we welcomed anyone and everyone with a big love for the garden to visit and see what we were all about. It is hard to believe that this was 25 years ago, but there you have it. A vintage machine shop provided a home for the dream. In the months leading up to the opening, we decided to paint the concrete floor in the entrance room. That concrete was from an addition made in the 1940’s, and did not match the exposed aggregate character of the original floors dating back to the 1920’s. That floor would be a way of saying welcome. I am happy to say that the floor would need repainting every six years or so, necessitated by ever increasing foot traffic. The third floor painting was quite worn, and we had an anniversary coming up. It was time to get going on the fourth floor.

Dan’s crew cleared the decks. Drew scraped off what was left of the loose paint. Dan laid out the space for the base coats from a sketch. Drew painstakingly painted most of the base coat shapes, and I rolled the rest. We were underway. How I decided on the design has lots to do with making a simple reference to being in a garden. Equally important is a realistic assessment of what would be possible to paint –  given my age, and the fact that we would need to have access to that floor as soon as possible. 6 containers from Europe were due in at any moment. What was in those containers would need homes. But I did want to celebrate what the Works had done such a great job of over the past 25 years –  offering passionate gardeners a way to express themselves through meaningful objects for their landscapes. Gardeners of all descriptions, I might add. Lookers and doers. Those that swoon over any object imbued with history. Cottage gardeners as well as those seeking a clean contemporary look. It took years of plowing the proceeds from every sale into amassing an inventory with both diversity and depth. The Works is packed.

This picture clearly shows the largest area of wear sustained by the previous floor. Part of our concrete block wall sprung a leak, and water had been sitting in this spot on and off for several years. The rest of that floor was in remarkably good condition. I ascribe that in total to the quality of the paint. Porter Paint, routinely used by sign painters, comes in a 100% acrylic formula which hardens much more than latex paint. Owned by PPG, Porter’s exterior Acri-Shield paint is exceptionally durable and comes in a vast number of colors. It is eminently strong enough to use as a floor paint. Happily, one of a few paint stores in Michigan that carries this paint is near us. See more about this great paint store here:  https://www.pontiacpaint.com/

The floor would have but a few elements.  A grassy plane, admirably described by the French as a “tapis vert”, is as elemental a garden as any. And it is the starting point for any number of more elaborate expressions. That green square is a prominent part of the logo for the Works. In additional to the green plane, there would be a surrounding gravel path, and a planted area marked by large leaves to enclose that gravel. Painting the gravel was the first order of business, as plants from both sides would likely overlap onto it.

This would be the easiest part of the painting. A series of colors would be dripped on to the floor surface from a wood plant marker. The only finesse to this part would be slowly thinning the paint so it would drip at a reasonable rate-not too slow, and not too fast. Of course there was plenty of wrist and shoulder action, so the drips would be spaced out.

There were 4 colors to start with, and more colors created by mixing those initial colors. I did remember to use a pinkish taupe color reminiscent of the decomposed granite we use in our garden installations. It’s a subtle color variation, but it is there. As for the random drips over the edge, has not every gardener dealt with gravel moving around? It goes with the territory that there are limits to what a gardener can impose on nature.

Some effort was made to keep the gravel darker and less detailed on the edges.  Once the leaves to come were painted over the edges, that would help create a little sense of depth. This is decorative painting-not fine art. But a nod to composition and technique gives the mural a little more polished look.

I have never painted large scale leaves on the floor before, and it took some experimenting to find the right tool. I finally settled on a 1″ sash brush. The bristles are arranged on a steep angle.  With the longest bristles closest to me, I would set the brush on the floor, deposit some paint, and push the brush away from me. 1 stroke, 1 leaf. No going over or redoing. A stroke laid was a stroke played.  Once I got that action down, The large leaves went fast.  Of critical importance was a finely engineered three legged saddle topped stool with an adjustable seat height. I was able to paint and push along to the next location.

Positioning the work is an essential element for any successful project. Trying to work in an awkward position adds so much time to a project. Painting gracefully is dependent on establishing a rhythm. Sunne made sure I had music playing all day long.

Some of the two weeks it took to paint the floor was absorbed by watching paint dry. Our concrete floor in winter never warms up much, so the drying time was considerable.

At some point it seemed like there were enough colors of those big leaves. The gravel and lawn areas would be so finely textured that a contrast would be welcome. I did want to establish the mass and size of that border before tackling the interior. By no means was any of the application of paint established in advance. Just an outline of the shapes.

What now?

I thought I might get away with just a suggestion of grass here and there, with some accompanying drips, but that looked like I was loosing interest, or energy, or both. I resigned myself to making thousands of grassy marks with that sash brush held backwards, and settled in to the job. It took more time to do this one step than any of the other elements, but it was well worth it.

Those marks were very lively. They brought the dark center up to the same visual plane as the gravel. Eventually I settled in to the job, and two days later that portion was finished.

Drew was in charge of the aerial snapshots, which helped to give an overview of how the floor looked in its entirety.

The brush strokes were deliberately styled on an angle. Grass does not grow in horizontal rows. It grows every which way. Painting the blades on varying angles helped to create an overall look, as opposed to a linear look.

It is easier to see the grass marks undulating in this picture. I like the action of the pattern.

The English daisies on the previous floor was a favorite finishing touch, so I wanted to repeat that. A generous blob of white paint had its edges feathered with a wood garden stake. This gave the flowers a much more windblown and casual look, in contrast to the grass blades and stylized leaves.

The centers of the flowers were done in our signature lime green color.

Due to the transparency of yellow pigment, it took 3 or four coats to get the color to represent clearly.

The largest daisy medallion is a nod to our anniversary. You have to look very close to see the the 25 in the very center, as it is painted in the same lime color as the disk.  That was deliberate. There will be many years to come for the Works after this one.

It was a good day, the day the room started to come back together.That floor grounded the space, and would compliment whatever went in there.

One of the fabricators at Branch said it the best.  He called Detroit Garden Works a passion project. Yes, it is.



Paint is one of the most versatile and accessible of any decorative material.  Though cave paintings were done centuries ago, the first patent in the US for paint available in a can was granted in 1867.  Early paint was composed of many different materials and colorants, suspended in a medium which would make the color brushable.  Vintage painted steel and wood garden furniture is readily available-in various states of disrepair.  Old, chipped, and weather worn paint on a garden bench can be charming.  A fresh coat of paint can dramatically alter the appearance of a house, or shed.  Old style adirondacks chairs with original paint are always in demand.  Old chairs repainted in vivid colors are visually invigorating.  Paint types and formulas are available for every surface and situation imaginable.  Some day I would like to try Annie’s chalk paint ( http://www.anniesloan.com/index.html ) both inside and out.  The surface sounds beautiful, and it can be used inside and out.  No matter the circumstance, I use Porter Paint.  It is a favorite brand of sign painters.  In my opinion, it resists cracking, fading, and peeling better than any other paint I have used.  The exterior Acrishield is 100% acrylic paint-not latex paint.  We use this on any exterior surface we want to paint.  Porter Paint is made in Pennsylvania, and is not always easy to find, but amazingly, it is available in my neighborhood ( http://www.pontiacpaint.com/).  Paint is a relatively inexpensive decorating material with one caveat.  What was once painted will eventually need to be repainted.  Is that so bad?


Rob and I bought a small collection of fiberglas garden ornament which was delivered late last week.  Though we had a lengthy discussion about the finish with the rep, I was not happy with what got delivered.  Fiberglas is a friendly material, in that it is impervious to weather, and light weight.  But it is by no means a natural material.  If I have to have fiberglas, I like it to look like fiberglas.  Fiberglas finished to look like something it is not-just saying.  The plaque pictured above had been spray painted the most horrifying shade of dead white imaginable.  I knew I had to paint it.  A dear friend had just introduced me to hand screened en grisaille wallpaper-meaning wallpaper that is all shades of gray from black to white.   Those gray landscapes have been on my mind.  I bought 4 quarts of Porter exterior paint, and went to work.  What is pictured above-the finish.  It is by no means a great work of decorative art, but this painted surface is much easier on the eye than what was. 


This set of wall hangings depicting a classical interpretation of the four seasons-not so great looking.  The white is harsh.  The pits in the surface of the fiberglas, even more harsh.  Beautiful white painted surfaces outdoors can be difficult to achieve.  A very stark architectural white that is fresh and airy on an indoor surface can be strident and off putting outdoors.  Toxic white I call it, as no one seems to warm up to it.  White outdoors is always warmed by the quality of natural light.  This flat and unnatural white made me squint.


Buck tells me that cast concrete which is not vibrated sufficiently develops what is known as bug holes.  The air which produces this pitting has not been vibrated out of the mix.  I am sure these fiberglas bug holes were deliberate.  This was an effort to make brand new molded fiberglas look like aged stone.  I am sure it is as unconvincing a surface to you as it is to me. The pits were sprayed with a very dark stain.


This pitting is not so attractive. After all, cherubs are supposed to look sweet, or devilish-not scary.  The runny nose look-not my favorite. 


The pitted areas would have been much more effective, has they been confined to the shadow areas.  A base coat of Porter exterior satin paint filled in the worst of them.


The figure of the summer season on the far left in its original state shows how some ornament for the garden can be vastly improved in appearance with a little paint.


The annotated collection is much more to my liking.  After the base coat, I used a slightly darker color in the shadows, and a slightly lighter color on those surfaces closest to my eye.  A little paint can go a long way towards improving the looks of anything it touches.  The best part?  If a first effort or color doesn’t work, there’s always the option to try again.


Though I would touch the surface of an antique or lovely vintage ornament for the garden,  a little paint can go a long way.

A Signature

We are into the maelstrom phase of the spring redo of the shop.  It seems like everything has been moved, washed, and otherwise made ready to make friends with what what is on its way here.  Ourt first container from Europe-in customs in Romulus as I write.  Some months ago I wrote about a concrete floor that I had painted to resemble a “tapis vert”.  Lierally translated from the French, a tapis vert is a green carpet.  It is to my mind the most elemental version of a garden.  Every garden bears the signature of the garden maker.  A group of plants are arranged, have a form, that comes from human hands.  Though a wild meadow studded with poplars may not seem to have a signature, it does.  Certain and specific species thrive there.  The placement of the trees has everything to do with how seed is dispersed.  The most natural wild place has a signature, no matter how subtle.  Milo was a baby when I painted the floor with my representation of a lawn edged in gravel; he could not wait for the barricades to come down so he could go lie on it.   

Five years has taken its toll.  Lots of traffic from both people and objects had dulled the colors.  There were places where the paint had simply worn away.  Since spring is all about fresh, a fresh take on the floor seemed in order.  Moving everything to the sidelines was a big job, as was a thorough cleaning.  The paint needs every chance it can get to stick.  Howard decided to pitch in and help Pam with this. 

The floor got washed twice, and hand dried, in an effort to remove as much grime as possible.  The cleaning of this building is a full time job.  Dirt, plants and water get tracked all over.  Last time, I painted with floor with Benjamin Moore exterior 100% acrylic paint in a satin finish.  Acrylic paint is much harder than latex; the paint finish is washable, but not too shiny.  This time, I decided to use the acrylic version manufactured by Porter Paint.  We use this brand on all our painted furniture that goes outdoors, and on the extira board panels in the Jackie boxes we make.  Porter paint is a paint of choice for sign painters.  It is extremely durable outdoors.  This floor gets plenty of abuse-every muddy or wet day in every season, someone is bringing what’s on the ground across this floor.  Durability is important. 

What particular green to use as a base coat-I spent plenty of time stewing over that.  As the previous painting featured a green leaning towards yellow, I decided to change to a grass green.  Fern green.  A green not yellow, not blue.  Just green.  You cannot tell the temperature from this picture; the building is cold this time of year.  Big and drafty and a fortune to heat, we keep the temp down and out coats on-usually somewhere between 50 and 55.  This means the paint dries slowly, but I cannot imagine taking on a project like this any other time of year.   

The chocolate border is a paint color called “afternoon tea”.  How appropriate to the time of year.  Have you ever picked a paint color that had a name you did not like?  I haven’t either.  The person whose job it is to name paint colors-they must be bursting at the seams with ingenuity, and endowed with a stellar vocabulary.  Two base coats were applied-this part took 3 days.  Letting the paint dry enough is essential.  I do like to apply a second coat as the first coat is just barely shy of being dry.  I believe this makes the top layer stick better.   

The texture of the green ground the first time around came from a series of stokes meant to have a grassy feel.  I am sure I applied 3 additional colors over the ground.  Ths time I had something different in mind.  I wanted to apply the paint as if it were being written rather than painted.  This meant thinning the paint down until it ran a bit.  All of the paint was applied with a paint stir stick, not a brush. 

My paint stick was just inches above the surface while I was writing-this was a tough position to maintain for long.  But it was great fun.  That paint stick was a cross between a baton, a light stick and a pen.  Sometimes I would draw, sometimes I would sign.  I shook the stick on occasion like Milo shakes off the snow.

What did I write?  Whose names did I sign?  You will have to decide for yourself, come March.

The border-tomorrow.


These clients live in a condominium, perched high above the existing grade of the land on three sides.  This does not necessarily limit their gardening-it just makes it more of a challenge.  Their front walk is actually a catwalk, as their property begins to fall away the minute you step off the driveway. 

212The walk culminates in a covered porch; the front door is at right angles to the walk, and not visible until you are right up there.  All of this makes the brick wall they see coming up the walk an important element in their landscape.  We started with pots, as there is no ground to plant in; this part looks great.  But I thought that wall needed what all walls seem to need-a sculpture, a painting, a mirror?   

312As my clients have quite a collection of art, they were receptive to the idea of a painting.  Paintings that survive the weather need to be made of different materials that what an artist ordinarily would choose.  I paint on extira board, which is used for making exterior signs. It does not absorb water, nor does it deteriorate outdoors.  Porter Paint is a 100% acrylic paint; it is color fast, very tough and hard, and sheds any weather. As this paint is actually exterior house paint, and does not have the body of artist’s colors, I decided I would pour the painting.  A beaker was the perfect tool.

414I poured the painting over the course of about 4 hours.  Some areas I wanted to blend colors.  In other areas, I wanted colors to sit distinctly side by side. All in all, I poured one and a quarter gallons of paint-a big fluid situation, to say the least.  I supported the extira board underneath on 8 quart cans of paint, so if the board sagged from the weight of the paint, it would be evenly supported.

512Within 3 days, the surface of the paint had skinned over sufficiently that I could stand it up to take a look.  While I was happy with the color and the shapes, I wanted more texture.  The painting would be viewed from some distance coming up the walk.  The near view, on the porch, would present a different look.   I wanted to address both views.

614Using a carpenter’s awl, I poked, scratched, lifted up and pushed around that partially dry paint.  The areas of paint I lifted off the surface, I stuffed with pieces of bamboo.  At this fairly wet stage, I needed to support the paint until it dried.  Once the paint was thoroughly dry, I stuffed those shapes with preserved reindeer moss.

Though I thought all the existing elements on the porch were good, it seemed like something was missing.  Treating this porch like a room made me think differently about furnishing it.  I prefer not to think of this as a painting.  It is a garden ornament, inspired by the picturesque landscapes in England of the 18th century.  Those landscapes were composed to look like landscape paintings. This painting is a version of those English landscapes, with a much more modern point of view.

810The close view I like.  All the elements are different, but they look good together.  The Italian terra cotta plaque is so much more important visually  than when it had no company.

From further away, the painting pulls the colors and shapes of the distant landscape onto the porch.   It was actually great fun to make, should you have a spot, and an inclination to paint.