Back To The Future

Our weather is being momumentally reluctant to shift into spring.  Yes, I still have snow and ice in my yard.  But  there are a few signs of spring afoot.  Bogie Lake Greenhouse transported me back to the future; the pansy house is bursting with spring color.  They are plenty big enough to go outside, pending some warmer night temperatures.  I do so associate pansies and violas with spring.  I do not mind violets in the lawn.  I like Johnny Jump Ups almost anywhere.  Plants that self sow can be a nuisance, but these plants are charming.  I know of no other flower which is commonly referred to as having a face. This refers to the prominent dark blotch on the petals of some varieties. This house is the closest thing I have to spring right now.  

The clear sky series of pansies have no face, but I treasure them nonetheless.  They also are particularly hardy in my zone.  The tolerate a fall planting over tulips or other spring bulbs, and come back fairly reliably.  This faceless pansy does have a name-primrose.  Perfect. 

Clear sky yellow pansies are plainly visible from a long ways away.  This intense yellow makes it a perfect companion to other colors.  Yellow and primrose and dark purple make for a lively mix.  I like mixes for home plantings-they seem so much more personal.  In contemporary gardens, I like one idea, expressing confidently in a beautiful shape or sweep.  For a mix that reads evenly, use at least 3 colors.

This pansy is a member of a mix; the seed produces a range of colors that are related.  My knowledge of plant breeding is nothing to speak of, but I do understand the concept of selection.  Breeding for a specific characteristic means selecting those plants that most closely resemble the ideal, and breeding on.  I may select certain colors from a mix to further refine an idea or a look.   

Mark kindly allocated some bench space to some spring pots of mine.  The selection of the plant material proved daunting, as nothing was in bloom.  I have firmly resolved to take notes on varieties and combintions I like when the plants are in bloom.  But a good deal of the fun of the planting-besides getting one’s hands in the dirt-is arranging for beautiful color.  However, planting containers with green plants has advantages.  A focus on the contrast of texture, mass and shape can make for spring containers all the more beautiful. 

All of the contrast here is about color.  The plants are all pansies that have the same habit of growth, the same leaves, and the same flower shape. 


There are plenty of plants that tolerate our cool spring.  One of my favorites is phlox intensia-annual phlox.  Pictured here is the white, and the pink bicolor.  There is a lovely lavender variety as well.  It has a lax habit of growth that can be supported by the stiff growth of parsley, angelina, or pansies.  It will still be growing strong later in the summer.  I am thinking I will start planting out this next Monday, April 4.  Bring on the lettuce, the parsley, the fennel, the pansies, violas and osteos-the list is long enough to keep me really busy.  Hopefully there will be every opportunity to do something new, break all the rules, and go out on a limb.  There usually is.

About Jenny

Jenny D works for me in the shop-this description by no means does her proper justice.  She is an incredible talented graphic designer, friend, and delightfully free spirit.  What do I mean by this?  She showed up an hour early for work this morning-the fifteenth anniversary morning-with silver helium balloons-depicting a one, and a five.  She was shocked that I was already at work at 8am; she routinely comes in at nine. Her plan was to tie those celebratory 15th celebration balloons to the window boxes outside my office before I got to work.  Get up a little earlier, Jenny; I am at work never any later than 7am.  A phone call to her husband Mark resulted in this advice-sneak up.  I would have known in any event that it was Jenny behind those balloons-who is she kidding?  I would have spotted her work in a second-I have come to know her.  The best of the fifteenth anniversary day today-her flaming hats.    

Rob and I may have worked hard, and worked even better than hard.  But how Jenny chose to acknowledge that-she is a very talented person who it is my privilege to know.  In my opinion, great companies are all about the great people who inhabit them.  She had the idea to construct a pair of flaming hats.  Jenny-you are too much.    

Much preliminary discussion went to the fire issue-would the hats precipitate a fire?  Rob and I both stood firm.  In respect for that person who conceived and engineered a fifteenth anniversary flaming hat-we would go along with her. 

We lit up-Jenny had to have taken better than 70 photographs of this event-the 15th sparklers representing.  A hat with integral sparklers-have you ever?  But truly, the event was about her.  She created this moment.

Jenny made the both of us laugh-she made a special day more than very special.

The 2011 celebration of the anniversary of the shop was organized spectacularly by Jenny.  When I got to work this morning, I had pink tulips and pink hyacinths in a vase. A great bottle of Italian desert wine, almond cookies, and a box of peanut brittle.  I knew it was from Rob-no one else knows me this well.  Jenny’s balloons came later, champagne from Monica, and birthday shortbread cookies from Pam.  It was a special day that turned out to be a delightful day.  
Thank you so much,  Jenny.

The Opening Party

I have devoted a lot of ink on and off over the past 5 years to the story of how my shop came to be.  Why is this?  As important as it was to me personally, I  think it is an interesting story. The bel’occio gene-I think both Rob and I have that.  When I look at these pictures of our opening night, I am struck by how sparsely furnished the space was.  It was a giant expenditure to get the building ready for company.

March-1996.jpgWhat I had to spend left over to furnish it was 1/4 of what it cost to make the space habitable. We did as much of the work as we could ourselves. And we bought a few great things.  Beautiful handmade pots.  An antique iron sculpture from Paris that took the lions share of what we had to spend on ornament.  So we had lots more that opening night in the way of excitement and good will than ornament for the garden.  A place where people would feel welcome came first.

Two of my oldest landscape clients sprung for this opening party-I still work for them both, and love them dearly.  They saw to entertaining my guests. Forging relationships over the landscape is one of the best parts of my job.  They encouraged me to persist in transforming a dream into a reality.  Though that night was many years ago, I still recall it vividly.

I was excited beyond all belief to have Detroit Garden Works full of people for the first time.  No landscape I have designed and installed gets my seal of approval until I see how people interact with it.  Do the spaces work?  Are they comfortable?  Are they on occasion provocative?  Is there a natural and easy flow?  Does it handle traffic, kids, entertaining, reflection and family?  Would you smile, or study what you saw?  This particular landscape was near and dear to my heart.  As it turned out, there was no need to be nervous.  Landscape clients and friends were all about expressing their good will.

March 29, 1996This night was not about making a passing grade. Or who we had been. It was a beginning.  An opening statement. All these years later, it only takes the first signs of spring to bring out the garden in us.

All of the food was served in Italian pots.  Pots from Crete.  Pots from England.  Pots from France.  The big idea here-a garden can nourish.


We had an idea about gardens.  We made that come to life.  This was one of my most favorite gardening moments ever.

Getting It All Together

Rob was instrumental in getting it all together.  When he wasn’t shovelling out old asphalt tiles, old records and debris, he was putting together a trip to Europe to shop. Though he may seem very low key, he has a fire burning for anything garden related.  That first trip to Europe, he was nervous.  Not nervous to go, not nervous about not having regular hotel reservations.  How could he make hotel reservations, when it was not clear where he would go?  He was nervous he wouldn’t find anything to buy.  I was nervous about the plane, and the big fluid travel situation, but I knew he would find great things.  He has a superlative eye, and endless energy for what interests him.     

Since we would be bringing terra cotta from Italy, it only seemed appropriate that we find a way to put our logo on a terra cotta pot.  A printing place that specialized in sandblasting patterns into glass made 25 of these pots for us-I still have one.

The finishing of the shop was well under way.  Don Taylor supervised the installation of a new bank of windows, a new window sill, dry wall mudding; of course we painted for days. We learned first hand what the phrase brick and mortar means. In this room, the first floor painting on the concrete-a tangle of grape vines and grapes.  I remember it all being very exciting, challenging, and loads of fun.   

Some things that came in required assembly-Rob did that too.  His schnauzers took to living on cardboard boxes as if they had done so their entire lives.   

Ann Berg was Rob’s grandmother; he persuaded her to come for a visit, and help out.  The plywood letters that spell out the name of the shop on our sign in front was carved in exterior plywood by Rob’s Aunt Esther and Uncle Ken.  Rob sent them the logo, which they blew up by 300 percent, and used as a template.  All of the letters, among a lot of other things, got painted by Ann.  My Mom-doing this kind of thing was not her forte.  But she did loan me 14,000.00 when I was about to run out of money.  3 years later when I had the money saved to pay her back, she waved me off.     

The day the first container arrived was a magical moment for all of us-but more so for Rob.  Communications 15 years ago were not like they are now-I really did not have a very good idea of what was in that box.  But even Rob had not seen everything he bought all together at once.  Would there be lots of objects all singing different tunes,, or would there be a collection?
No one deserved that day more than Rob-he had worked so hard.  In many ways, this 15th anniversary is really Rob’s day.  I had every confidence that his voice would make the shop different than any other place devoted to gardens.  I think this is still true today, and I am very appreciative of that.  I am much more involved in the buying now, as I can instantly see objects in other places and other countries via his I-phone.  But back then, he had to go it alone.   

At one point the entire garage was awash in excelsior.  Everything fragile was packed in those coarse wood shavings.  We recycled every bit of it-over the following 5 years.  Having in my possession, however briefly, what other people had made for the garden in places far away-everything that got unpacked felt like a gift. 

There would be many more containers to come.  Each ocean going packing container is locked once it is fully packed.  That lock can only be cut off once it is delivered to the person to whom it is sent.  I have all of those container locks-this most recent one is number 43. But this first container unpacking was a perfect moment.  


We were very close to putting away the paint sprayer, and sending out invitations to the opening.