Vernissage, 2018


Nine years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”. As much as it was the commencement of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design. To date I have published 1621 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, observe and reflect.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014,2015, 2016, 2017, and today-April 5 of 2018. Why April 5 instead of April 1?  We are still waiting on spring.  A colleague suggests maybe April 11.  We’ll see!

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I 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 the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre property. 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 and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground. We had a relationship that I treasured.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by beginning over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad as I did. This treasured client passed away this past winter.  It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage does refer 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, sooner or later. 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-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of no change of status. The rule of the day was more of the same. A warmish February, and then a stony March cold that has become a stony cold April. Night temperatures in the 20’s, wind and cold has kept all of our plans, and our plants, under wraps. We hope to begin outdoors next week.

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 there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up this time around. The last of this persistent cold reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 60 degrees, and March seemed to last 60 days. How well said!  Spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed.

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 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 winter 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 interest. The birds singing this 5th day of April l means it is time to take stock.

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. Two years ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years.  They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a second season. I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. 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?

April 1 marked 26 years that Rob and I began working together, and 22 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That 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. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir. Rob’s 2018 collection of hellebores and topiary plants is a delight to the gardening eye. Our annual Spring Fair, this Saturday.

We have begun to plant up spring pots.  What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt. We will soon be able to be outside in a light jacket-hooray.

We are ready for the new season.


  1. karen Knight says

    Beautiful and touching sentiments. Thank you. karen

  2. congratulations!

    • Jane Cruickshank says

      Dear Buck…Deborah is amazing and has brighten my world inside and out and your pots, spheres and fountains warm my heart and yard. Happy thanks to the both of you…

  3. Carolyn Hefner says

    Thank you for your creativity and gathering of such unique pieces! My husband and I visited your shop yesterday in weather that felt like January; however, the pots filled with lettuce and the healthy leaves of the rhubarb were definitely a promise of spring’s arrival! The smell of the lavender that was wafting through the garden room filled with lush greenery…it was a beautiful afternoon visit!
    Thank you!

  4. Lori Brasier Bencsik says

    This is so lovely. “….that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws gardeners closer to the knowledge that life is both equal parts mystery and miracle.” I had the great privilege to visit Marianne’s garden when I was writing about Detroit Garden Works for the Free Press several years ago, and wanted to interview clients. It was an amazing afternoon in a gorgeous garden. As I recall, Marianne and I enjoyed ice tea on a terrace overlooking acres of white hydrangeas and a reflecting pond. I’ll never forget it. Thank you, Deborah, for reminding me of life’s wonderful moments.
    Lori Brasier

  5. I’m a master gardener in middle Tennessee. I’ve followed your blog for years. You have taught me so much. I have enjoyed every post. My only regret is your not here in Tennessee that I might visit your shop. Thank you for sharing your world of knowledge talents.

  6. Bill Bird says

    My wife Jenine and I have been anticipating your Spring Fair this upcoming Saturday. We will leave Holland (the west side of the state), have breakfast at one of our favorite spots and with haste, once again find your Detroit Garden Works. It is the herald to spring that we are longing for. Thank you for your dedication to your posts…..they are next to the Bible for me in understanding and appreciating the beautiful world we are part of. I applaud you for your keen eye, your resolve to be creative and your graciousness to share all this with your ‘fans’.
    We love you. See you this Saturday. Bill Bird

  7. Mark Walker says

    Saddened to hear your story about a treasured client dying this past Winter. I can only imagine the enjoyable hours spent on the grounds of her 8 acres. These tranquil times can perhaps come to a grinding halt on a small city lot if a person is forced by age or health to downsize. Probably most important for you to remember that the break up had everything to do with the struggles and discomfort of a person coming to grips with letting go of those things and times treasured most in life.

  8. Jane Cruickshank says

    I have always enjoyed and learned from each and everyone of your posts but for multiple reasons this one was very special. I am so ready for spring and warm weather outside but thanks to you and Rob the Works has started the process inside. Thank you, thank you.

  9. I have been reading and enjoying your posts since the beginning! You and Rob create a fabulous business. Thank you for your time and words.


    There can be little doubt that your career decision was the proper one. However, as evidenced by the above post, I enjoy your reports every bit as much as I would enjoy your gardens. For that I call you “Deborah Silvertongue”.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Meribeth, I do think I made a good choice of a career. Some 40 years later, I stand by my decision – to become a garden and landscape designer. I do hope my landscapes and gardens speak with more energy and passion than my words. My words? I like to write. My love of landscape design and my love of writing – that is what I have to offer. Many thanks for your letter. all the best, Deborah

  11. lisa naro says

    How I look forward to your posts. This one was truly special and memorable. Thank you.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Lisa, thanks for your letter. Happy to hear that this post was truly special. best regards, Deborah

  12. Just lovely – thank you!

  13. Thank you for sharing gardening knowledge and your precious personal thoughts. Thanks for the photos that sometimes bring tears; they get me every time and show quite honestly how much you enjoy your job. I wish happy days in the dirt for everyone who feels what you feel!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Laurie, I am never more happy than when I am knee deep in dirt. I do enjoy my job. I like to think that my thoughts give a voice to gardeners. Sounds like you love those days in the dirt too. Thank you so much for writing. all the best, Deborah

  14. Thank you for sharing. You are a wonder in many ways.


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Howard, I am always happy to hear from you.Thanks for that.The wonder is all about relationships. You to me, and me to you. And the garden with their gardeners. best regards to you. Deborah

  15. Rob Beebe says

    This is such a fine essay, Deborah. Spring’s deep contrasts, along with it’s annual sincere promise about rebirth and renewal, has been captured beautifully in this classic essay. Thank you!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Rob, this is an essay I have rewritten most every year for the past 9 years. But you are right.The true story is the rebirth and renewal of the garden. That is a classic story, my friend. best regards, Deborah

  16. Over the years of reading your blog, I’ve always felt as if a friend were carrying me along on her journey. No doubt your many readers feel the same.
    You write with a lot of style — funny, poignant, informative, illuminating.
    And always inspiring.
    Thanks so much for sharing.


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Terry, you have been a reader since the very beginning. I thank you for that. I like that you think my writing has style-thank you! I always like hearing from you. best regards, Deborah

  17. Pat Parks says

    I too am fortunate to have found your blog several years ago. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and for your inspiration. The relationship with your long time client brought to mind my own. We spent years perfecting her home decoration and landscape through all life’s changes. It is the ultimate working experience and makes it all worthwhile.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pat, the relationships forged between people are precious to all of the involved parties. I know from whence you speak. all the best, Deborah

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pat, everything in the garden has its ups and downs. The people who have been and are important to me makes it all worthwhile-just like you said. thanks for writing, Deborah

  18. My condolences on the loss of Marianne. You express a fine friendship built on mutual interests. What fun you both must have had designing and enjoying Marianne’s garden. Despite the cold start to spring, we as gardeners, hold on to the fact that garden rebirth is around the corner. Delayed, but still, coming nearer and nearer every day. Our singing birds tell us so. Oh the anticipation! Despite the cold, like you, I am outside daily, cleaning up winter damage (my bonfire will exceed all others), down jacket, hat, gloves and all. Sad to lose some shrubs, trees…but this provides the opportunity to add something new. Thank you so much for another lovely post.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Susan, My spring is cold. The garden has damage. Like you, I will push on. Loss is indeed an opportunity. Thanks for writing that. best regards, Deborah

  19. Judi Floyd says

    I, too, am a gardener from middle Tennessee. Whenever I see your blog site in my mail inbox, I am truly excited. I so enjoy your beautiful writing and photos. You’re a gifted lady who brings the world of landscape design and all that it entails into homes across America. What a treasure you are, Deborah. Thank you!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Judi, I am so fortunate that what I write means something to gardeners from very different places. I treasure every letter people write me. Thanks for writing. all the best, Deborah

  20. What a beautiful post of caring and gardening. You just have a way with words
    And your love of gardening. I so wish you were closer so I could spend hours in your shop feeling spring. Seems like we have been waiting way too long. Snow coming tomorrow again. But the promise of spring is in our thoughts and our thoughts and in our hearts. Thank you for all you share with us. You inspire me and open my heart. Peace.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Karen, the garden has a way of prying open the heart – you are right about that. I am lucky to be a gardener. It has provided me with a way of life. all the best, Deborah

  21. Deborah Malinowski says

    I love your posts!
    This one was so wonderful…so touching & heartfelt.
    Thank you for generously sharing your work, your thoughts, your observations. I have learned from you, & been inspired by you.
    Wishing you all the best!!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Deborah, I was raised to believe I should share. I thank my Mom for that world view. all the best to you, too. Thanks, Deborah

  22. My condolences for your friend, know that she is watching over you and she is with you in the quiet moments especially when you are in a favorite place in a garden.

    Thank you for sharing

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Addiz, I prefer to think she is watching over me. Just like she did when we were together. thanks, Deborah

  23. Lisa at Greenbow says

    I am so ready to be scooped up by spring. She has been playing peek-a-boo with us. It is sad to lose a friend in any way. It is good that you have such fond memories of her. I am so glad you continue to write. Your way of looking at the garden is interesting. I enjoyed the pretty pictures of green to come and the way it is. Your shop looks tremendous as usual. Some day I will peruse this place.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Lisa, I am happy that people far from me read. It makes my community feel big and warm. thanks for your letter. best, Deborah

  24. What a very touching expression of your soul so eloquently written. Thank you for the inspiration and for your love of the pen and earth particularly on this snowy April 6 morning.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Linda, I do love the pen and the earth. thank you for that observation-it so pleased me. best regards, Deborah

  25. Nanette Brawer says

    Thank you for your lovely story. Years ago a friend of mine helped me plant a very dainty climbing rose…named “Kathleen”. My young friend passed some years back with a cancer. That rose was my nemesis for quite a while. She wouldn’t grow very well, but I just couldn’t cut her down. I kept her on the trellis, letting her bloom her short blooms, waiting for growth that never would come. Two seasons ago, she suddenly went crazy with bloom and growth! I had no idea she could be as mighty and beautiful and generous as she has become! What a wonderful surprise and now she is unstoppable! It is as if my old friend came back into my garden to stay…

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Nanette, Nature works in mysterious ways. Every gardener, including me, has a story to tell like yours. all the best, Deborah

  26. Meya Kindred says

    Thank you for this beautiful post. There is something special about friendships forged in the garden.

    I started following your posts only a few months ago. But the allure of Dirt Simple lead me to visit your wonderful shop last month on my way to Italy, while unexpectedly stranded in Detroit during the second Nor’easter.

    And although the stories and pictures of Detroit Garden Works on your blog help give us a familiarity with the shop, my visit was far more than I could have imagined. The ambiance, with the spectacular flowers arrangements, the fountains, the moss wall, and all the exquisit antiques was over the top.

    I had the pleaseure of meeting you and the infamous Milo. And Rob was kind enough to tell me about his wonderful career, his many European travels, and even gave me a list of his favorite Italian gardens to visit.

    Thank you for providing a wonderful March snow day diversion from the Detroit Metro Airport. I just wish Kansas City was a bit closer to Detroit so I could visit more oftern.

    It is suppose to snow again in Kansas City this weekend. Perhaps spring will arrive sometime next week.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Maya, I remember your visit. It was a pleasure to meet you and talk to you. Thank you for this letter. best regards, Deborah

  27. VW garden says

    I just discovered your blog and have enjoyed several hours of reading posts over the past week. I was so inspired by your pots that yesterday I planted Prairie Fire sedge, Lime Marmalade heuchera, variegated vinca, some butter yellow pansies and a butter yellow primrose with a golden center in my front porch pot . . . plus several tall branches cut from my contorted filbert and skewered into the center for height. I think it turned out quite well, thanks for the ideas! I’m looking forward to doing something interesting for next winter as well. How did I live without pot twigs before this?

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