Vernissage 2016

008Seven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first post entitled Vernissage. As in a beginning-not only of the gardening season, but a beginning for my writing. How pleased I was to have a  a forum for my gardening journal!  I  revisited and revised this first post in 2010,  2012, 2014, and 2015. To follow is this year’s version of that first essay, Vernissage.

VERNISSAGE (15)Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word recently from a client with whom I have a history spanning 25 years. She is an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke a lot to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I have 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 design, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in every square foot of her 8 acre park.  Needless to say, 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 century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and planted new. I learned how to operate a bulldozer,  I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground.  There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer was nearly a full time job. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work existing that I call the landscape.

May 11, 2016 006In a broader sense, vernissage refers to a beginning- any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh and spring ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does.  But 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. The snow that can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of drama altogether. A very warm early March, and then a stony silent cold we have yet to shake.  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 my experience of spring has been late. But every spring gives me the chance to experience the garden differently. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I anticipate. This past winter was mild. Endlessly mild. That endless and mild cold is still going on. It has been hard to rev up. The last of this cold just about reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground.  Spring is finally underway, in a chilly sort of way.  I may not like the lingering cold, but my spring plants are holding.  The daffodils are incredible this year.  The magnolias have been blooming for weeks. The hellebores have been in bloom for going on 6 weeks.  The leaves are beginning to emerge.  The perennial garden is stirring.

VERNISSAGE (1)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 structure.  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 two years or more-the recovery.  I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, and no 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 warm 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 membership.  The birds singing this 11th day of May l means it is time to take stock.  And get started.

VERNISSAGE (3)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 alberta spruce.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Spring means the beginning of the opening of the garden. 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? I can hear the birds now; louder. Rob’s spring pots of daffodils have been in uninterrupted bloom for weeks.

April 5, 2016 047This spring marks 24 years that Rob and I began working together, and 20 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. There have been ups and downs, but the 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.  No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.  The beginning of the gardening season we short list as the vernissage.

VERNISSAGE (14)We have begun to plant up spring pots.  Our pots feature hellebores, primrose, and spring flowering bulbs. What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt.

VERNISSAGE (9)My garden at home is greening up. A sunny but chilly evening brings me outdoors. Being outside today without a winter parka- divine. The thought that the entire gardening season is dead ahead is a very special kind of delight.

VERNISSAGE (2)Vernissage? By this I mean spring. I am so enjoying it.


  1. Deborah:

    Thanks for this post Deborah. I’m ready to drive home now and so much here to think about.

    “This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back”

    This refers to the garden, of course, but oh so much more….

    Have a wonderful week.


  2. Linda Sampsel says

    Love your posts!

  3. Beautifully expressed! I find the more winters I survive, the greater my pleasure in spring! So excited to see everything green up and come to life!

  4. Alicia Whitaker says

    Inspired and inspiring Deborah! You have captured the ups and downs of this unusual season and have left us, as always, optimistic about what’s ahead. I love your blog and I particularly love this post. Thank you! Alicia

  5. debra @ 5th and state says

    your prose, as your gardens, speak magic.
    congrats to a 24 year collaboration, happy spring

  6. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

  7. Carolyn Neiman says


  8. such a lovely thought process. such lovely values……and such a lovely Corgi across the lawn! we have Corgi mix rescues……and one has that coloring; but because he is part something else….he has a 6 inch long tail with a white tip! Our very first “Corgi mix” rescued in LA “Gang territory” turned out to be a “pure bred Swedish Vallhund” the predecessor of the Corgi…rescued from extinction….and very few in this country. We think she was purchased and when the owner died shortly after; she was given to the housekeeper. We found her on the street! Best dog we ever had…..and we had her for 17 years!
    Your garden values are wonderful….and I love your blog! Thank you! I live in Santa Barbara!

    I remember CZ Guest gave a talk at the Arboretum in Pasadena years ago…..(I grew up there and lived there until 20 years ago) and she showed slides of her pots wrapped in straw and things….covered with snow. She said…..”You people in Southern California have no idea how lucky you are!” But….yes. We do! I love your blog….and so admire your courage with your winters! We have one daughter (of 3) who lives in Marblehead, Mass. She lost a 14 year old climbing rose winter before last…..hoped it would recover… didn’t, Courage I don’t have! Other two live within a quarter of a mile……here in Montecito! It is a micro-climate……I hope you will visit! I have a tiny guest house! You are invited!

  9. Active listening, I love it! It really is life or death in the garden, and we learn so much in terms of balance and coping with hope and grief. How to dare to hope for a new spring and when to end things that are not working. It is also that living thing, that we see that we can make a difference.

  10. Your lawn & hedge, oh my, RIPE. Decadent. Rich.

    Of the ages. No caption required, they proclaim spring.


  11. Theresa Ullerich says

    I love the magnolia and crabapple blossoms on the ground just as much as in the tree. It’s a special day of spring when the ground is covered with pink flowers.

  12. So peaceful before the giant amount of work to begin. A happy start. I love the galvanized pots; can you tell me what the long slender plant is in the middle? This combination is so, well, springlike.

  13. Quite elegantly written.
    Beautiful photos.
    So many garden — and life — lessons.
    This is one of your best.


  14. Sandra Barnes says

    I love your website Deborah. Your Spring planted containers are so inspirational, as are all your posts. I enjoy looking back through your blogs. I would love to visit your shop but it is too far away from Staffordshire in England!
    I look forward to more ideas from your site.
    Kind regards

    Sandra Barnes

  15. Jennifer Taylor says

    Each one of your posts is a special gift. This one is peaceful and contemplative, bringing many beautiful images to mind. As so often happens when I read one of your posts, I cannot wait to get outside and start gardening in one way or another.
    Thank you Deborah!

  16. Jennifer in KS says

    Your words are so evocative – and as beautiful as your work with the Earth. Thank you for sharing your reflective practice and for the inspiration it provides to us, your readers.
    Best regards,
    Jennifer in KS

  17. Deborah,

    Your words and reflections on spring in the garden make my heart sing. Sometimes I feel as if I just live for spring………..

  18. Michelle Becker says

    I love your blog site and your inspired design sensibility, but I do need to point out that a ‘vernissage’ means, literally, “the varnishing”. Painters, of which I am one, would not consider their paintings finished until they were varnished, which was done on the eve of the art opening. So, to me, a ‘Vernissage’ represents the completion of a body of work. It’s the punctuation of an end, not a beginning.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Michelle, I am glad to know the literal meaning of the word-thank you. I understand how a painter would view vernissage as completion, or ending, but the viewer would see it as a preview, or beginning. That said, I have taken plenty of license with the word! best, Deborah

  19. Christina says

    Your garden is a precious jewel … Simplicity without a heavy setting. Would you please share which variety of magnolia that is in the bottom photo?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Christina, the last photograph is a dogwood. best, Deborah

      • Christina says

        Wow (and doh!). The structure of those bracts really don’t resemble my gorgeous dogwood ‘Venus’ in the least, which in my zone 5/6 garden don’t bloom until early June (likely later this year). Is your dogwood an earlier bloomer than Venus and can you share the varietal? I am seeking a specimen that will bloom in May and thought I would need a magnolia for that …

        • Deborah Silver says

          Dear Christina, just google cornus florida cultivars. Yes,our Venus dogwoods are later, as one of the parents is cornus kousa. best, Deborah

  20. Carol Watkins says

    Love all the pictures- is the 1st picture a Hellebore? I have just learned of this plant- a friend gave me a start in white.

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