Vernissage 2020

Eleven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”.The title of the post was my very loose interpretation of the French word that refers to openings. As much as it signaled the opening 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 under the name of Dirt Simple. To date I have published 1716 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. The older I get, the less I have to say – which seems appropriate. I am vastly less certain of almost everything than I was when I was 30. 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 1 of 2020. I must have been speechless in 2019-if you write, you know that happens. This date has another very special significance to me. April 1 of 1992 was Rob’s first day working with me. It has been a very engaging and productive 28 years. Yes, we have had our rough moments, but I take a great deal of pride in what we have created. I have a respect for him that continues to grow. I feel sure there will be more to come from the two of us.

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 in the landscape.  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 redesign, 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 still treasure.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Nature is like that. As mean as it is giving. 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 starting over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was just plain 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 about it as I did. I ran in to her some years later. We talked up a storm, as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This treasured client passed away September 20, 2017, at the age of 86. 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, love, and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage might refer to any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh 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 is a challenge like no other to all. Gardening at its most distilled is in many ways a solitary pursuit. What gets shared post that high voltage one on one relationship is a wealth of information, interest, discussion and passion that I believe will transmit a love for the garden from one generation of gardeners to the next.

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. This persistent bad news reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 30 degrees, and March seems to be in a a chilly and threatening holding pattern that could last for months. How well said. But truth be told, spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed. I have hellebores in bloom. Thanks to the heavens for them. Spring is on the way.

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 planning. The sky and the ground is in the process of opening up.  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 hoped for recovery. I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, an uncertain mid ground, and an equally ill defined 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 first 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 the boxwood.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Three 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 third season. It is unclear when I will be able to plant, but I have hope.  I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes. I can wait. Being a gardener, I know all about waiting.  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 28 years that Rob and I began working together, and 24 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, no matter how hard the news, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.

Our shop is in lockdown, like countless other garden businesses – as well we should be. We will meet again over the garden when it is safe for all of us to do so. In the interim, I would point out that spring is on the way, as usual. Just walk outside. You will see, smell, and hear it. As for the time being, persevere.

Detroit Garden Works March 31 2020

primula malacoides in bloom March 31, 2020

Rob planted a series of pots for spring a month ago. Of course he did. It’s spring.


  1. It’s wonderful to see the spring plants in the greenhouse . Stuck in the house I long to go out to our local nursery to buy some pansies to restore some normalcy to my life. I will wait a while longer.

  2. Sue Malizia says

    Loved reading about you and loving the garden center pictures! Helps getting me through this “shelter in place” time…I really think I’m going through Garden Center withdrawls! Can’t wait to get out there to shop and get some plants!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Sue, you will have your shot at shopping garden centers again. Its just delayed this year. But spring will not delay-it will come as it always does. I take great comfort in that. best regards, Deborah

  3. Thank you so very much. My garden is sustaining me this spring. Please keep writing.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Carol, I do have much more time than usual to write-we will see what comes of that. best, Deborah

  4. Bravo!

  5. deborah gordon says

    Beautifully written and well said. Hurry spring!

  6. Laura Tonar says

    Thank you for everything you share through your writing and photos!

  7. Thank you for you insights and knowledge and photos. I have been following you since the beginning during the recession.

  8. Lisa at Greenbow says

    Your shop looks so exciting. I am sure your regulars are chomping at the bit to get in there to get some fresh spring/summer things. Just seeing pictures makes me want to get out and do something even though it is still chilly and wet here.
    Congratulations on your long blog anniversary and your long working relationship with Rob. You two make a great team.

  9. Lloyd Michael says

    I can compost my transgressions ❤️

  10. Andrea Martone says

    I was told by a well known art dealer & friend in New York that the term Vernissage refers to the (in English) “varnishing” with a coat of clear varnish
    the artists did to their paintings just before exhibiting their works.
    So yes it is about new exhibits, but not really anything to do with spring itself.
    Thank you for your articles
    They are greatly appreciated especially now!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Andrea, you are exactly right. In that spirit, the spring season in the garden is nature exhibiting her new works. best regards, Deborah

  11. Reading your blog is educational and instructive. Today the beauty of your words during the difficult times in our world was like hearing a symphony! Spring is my favorite season and you have reminded me to turn off the harshness of the virus and listen to the beautiful lyrics of spring!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Silvia, I think it is fine to walk away from worry, and enjoy and engage with the outdoors. I think that is satisfying, and absorbing. all the best, Deborah

  12. Amy Ryberg says

    What a beautiful reverie. This year is so strange, so frightening. I’m so glad I stopped by your shop for the Spring opening. The primrose I bought is still blooming on my dining table.
    Stuck at home, we will all have more time to nurture our gardens, and ponder this time of suspended life that we’re living through.
    Your article is so meditative, brought tears.
    Blessings all
    Be safe

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Amy, thank you for your letter. I think many people will have renewed interest in the garden-for all kinds of reasons. It provides a lot of solace and hope. best regards, Deborah

  13. A landscape designer also, I wrote a heartfelt letter to all my clients, encouraging them to see the beauty in all they already have around them. I don’t know when I’ll see them and our gardens again but I said I’d be there for them on the phone to help
    them with any projects they want to pursue on their own. From time to time I will remind them to look at their quinces, their deutzias and the new viburnums we planted last summer….I feel a bit like a teacher who has left the classroom. I look at your shop and sigh….will those plants find homes? So much hope, trust and planning goes into our business. Thank you for your always inspiring words and pictures. Please be careful!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Ellen, we’re taking it one day at a time. I know from experience that pansies can be great in Michigan until the 4th of July. We will see how they hold. If they don’t, we’ll make the best of that. Take good care, Deborah

  14. Silvia Weber says

    Dear Deborah,
    A beautiful message of inspiration and hope. See you on the other side, soon. Love, Gerry and Silvia

  15. Christine says

    Thank you for your eloquence and peeks at the sun this spring. Félicitations to you and Rob for 28 years of a creative partnership.

  16. Patricia Rainwater says

    Thank You! we needed that!!!

  17. and I’m sure loving going through ALL of them….cheers and cheers…. Greg

  18. Today is day 13 of the 14 day quarantine after a trip to Israel to visit relatives. Thankful for a few warm days in Montana to get outside and clean up flower beds…breathing spring air and marveling at the tulips coming to life lifted my spirits. Thank Mother Nature for a bright spot of normalcy….more to come. Thank you Deborah for bringing beauty in wonderful descriptive words.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Diane, “Thank Mother nature for a bright spot of normalcy”-love that. Thank you for writing. best, Deborah

  19. Brooke Hamilton says

    You are in inspiration to me as a gardener, and on a deeper level as a human being always hoping to be better and live on this beautiful earth the way God intended. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Brooke,thank you for your comment. Gardens inspire good things in people. I have seen plenty of evidence of that over the years. And I never tire of seeing it. best regards, Deborah

  20. Gardening. The slowest of the performing arts.

    Take care Deborah

  21. What a beautiful tribute to gardeners ( your special client and Rob in particular ) and gardens alike,,, but what struck me most was your depth of emotion, honesty and descriptive verbiage about your journey,, A joy to read, Thank you!
    The shop is beautiful!,, and God willing, will be open to all soon!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Diane, I have no doubt but what the shop will open again. Who more than a gardener understands what it means to wait! best, Deborah

  22. So much emotion in gardening and the relationships that come of it. A time for reflection, promise, hope as well as grief. Beautiful written

  23. Dera Weaver says

    I look forward to your posts and always stop whatever I’m doing at my desk to read them immediately. This one is particularly apt for our situation today, with the added weight given to “waiting” just now. I am recovering from a total knee replacement done on January 30, and I am beginning to grasp the limitations that my new situation will put on my future gardening, and I have been a bit sad. Your words cheer me up and give me hope for the season to come.

    Dera Weaver

  24. Nella Miller says

    Thank you Deborah for this beautiful and reflective post..
    The photo of the shop waiting in quiet hope and promise, just what I needed today! My garden is still very much asleep here in Zone 5 on the Niagara escarpment..
    I will do what you suggested while I wait…prune my box and evergreens of browned winter damage..mostly wandering in contemplation of what is to come…not only in the garden…stay safe and well!

  25. Deborah…as usual, eloquently said. Your posts are as much about gardening as they are about life itself. Over the years, I’ve read them and have been stirred to reflect, compare and contrast the similarities. You’ve inspired hope, patience and peace. You’ve reminded us that regardless of how much we plan, change, or fight against – nature will always persist. These present-day circumstances is nature at its’ most fierce, and hopefully, as you’ve always inspired, we will all learn from this and be kinder to this earth and ourselves. You’ve touched many lives through your words and stewardship. A heart-felt thank you.

  26. Dear Deborah,
    Thank you for your images, your words and your inspiring work. You have informed and influenced my gardening and outdoor décor for many years now. Stay well, I look forward to many more posts from you in the years ahead.

  27. Brownie Warburton says

    Working in gardens in Newport RI, there have been countless times I have turned to your blog for inspiration and design ideas. I lust for the containers darn the shipping costs…….and the beautiful shop buildings hedges……I could go on stay well and outside and thank you for your guidance on many levels.

  28. Sheena McGrath says

    I was glad to read your post and see that you’re still blogging, even if you can’t get out there. You are right about listening to the garden’s “answer” to your design ideas – I always put it more inelegantly (“throw it at the wall and see what sticks”), but we all propose, and the garden disposes.

  29. Lynn K Balog says

    The best thing about gardening is when I chanced upon your garden blog!

  30. Pippa Honess says

    Dear Deborah
    Thank you so much for all your writings which I so look forward too.
    Here in the UK we are well into spring, indeed at the moment it feels more like summer.
    And at this time when the world is going through turmoil and we also are in ‘lock down’,
    thank God for our gardens, which I am sure at the end of all this will look better than ever.
    The joy of being able to step outdoors each morning to see what has emerged and to see
    seedlings in the greenhouse and hear the birds singing gives us so much to be grateful for.
    In gratitude, Pippa

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pippa, it is good to hear what is going on in your garden. Thank God for the garden-oh yes. best regards, and look after your health. Deborah

  31. Dear Deborah,
    What a touching and beautiful tribute to your friend and fellow gardener. I tend to a three acre yard and garden and I know that someday I will face the same decision. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking that must have been for the two of you.Thank you for sharing.

  32. What a gift! I treasure your annual Vernissage post, just like your annual summer Garden Cruise. This post is even more lush and meaningful and personal than ever. I am printing it so I can read and reread it at leisure, while sitting in a comfortable spot. Take good care Deborah, and thank you for years of the Dirt Simple Blog which so many of us love.

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