Bon Voyage, Monsieur Rob

Rob flies to Paris today on the first leg of a three week shopping trip for Detroit Garden Works.  Having not shopped in France for a few years, he is very keen to make the trip; he has been planning it for weeks.  Once he made a list of the places he wished to visit,  Julie and Jenny pitched in, mapping and documenting his route in minute detail.  Incredibly minute detail, that is.  As detailed as his itinerary has been documented on paper, it will be but a broad guideline.  He will make his own way.  

Travelling overseas is enough to tax the patience of the most patient of people.  The mechanics of shopping overseas has become exasperatingly complicated.  Rob lets none of this get in his way.  He has a great passion for beautiful ornament for the garden-no matter the period or style.  He may be rooted in the American midwest, but he has an unerring gift and instinct for beauty wherever he may find it.  Whatever it takes to get his gift to our doorstep-we will oblige.  The shop is what it is, in large part due to Rob.

Detroit Garden Works has always had a strong representation in antique, vintage, and contemporary objects for gardens from a number of countries; this is by choice.  8 years ago he spent an entire trip shopping in Belgium, on the strength of his idea that their landscape and climate was very similar to ours.  He spent an equal amount of time talking to clients about that point of view.  He spent even more time educating me.  Years later,  no one needs educating.  Belgian design is influential in this country, and popularly respected in a number of ways.  He is a buyer with an eye that is consistently ahead of his time.  We will see what this trip to France brings. 

Western European gardens were incredibly influential in the design of American gardens.  He has an interest in representing that history.  He also has an interest in distinctly American gardens-those landscaped places that draw and build on that history, and go on to represent an entirely unique and singular point of view.  He may pass by untold numbers of objects before he commits.  The containers that will come from France later this year as a result of this trip will speak to his greatly edited committment. 

I have no worries whatsoever about him travelling overseas for weeks.  He has made many friends abroad, in the past fifteen years.  His friendships in Europe have endured, and helped him make other friends.  This pottery will custom make pots for him.  That broker will engineer a container from several places.  A old European dealer will send him to something somewhere off the map.  He will make new friends, find new places.  His hotel in Montmartre in Paris-an arrangement spanning fifteen years. He is in good hands, notwithstanding his own good hands.

The spring of 2012 at Detroit Garden Works will have a French flavor.  That buying trip to France will be integrated into all the other voices we hear.  My most favorite moment of the Detroit Garden Works year-breaking open the locks on our containers.  Who knows what will be.  That unknown collection yet to come from Rob-I am quite certain it will challenge and enchant me. 

Bon Voyage, Monsieur Rob.

Fencing For Privacy

I would say relatively few of my clients fence for privacy.  Most gardeners would choose plant material to screen untoward views. if they had the chance.  But very small urban properties-mine included-do not have the luxury of space.  This client designed and had built a fence which would afford him some privacy from neighbors very close by.  Painted that shade of disappearing green, it would screen the garden at the ground level from a neighboring house.  The lindens would provide screening in the airspace, an important consideration in neighborhoods with two story homes in close proximity.


Though the landscape has the appearance of a sunken garden, the lindens were actually planted in raised beds.  This did a great job of making the ground plane of the yard even more private. The trees create the illusion of a much bigger space than what actually exists.  Only the trunks occupy any space in the yard.  The tree tops are shared with the neighbors, creating more privacy for all.  A wood pergola with a gridded roof and gravel floor would provide space for seating and dining.   

10 years later, the lindens had grown considerably, and grown unchecked.  I will specify lindens for screening in a small yard, as they respond really well to pruning.  Left unpruned, they grow to enormous size.  The privacy fence appeared black in the increasing shade.  The hydrangeas were getting that leggy light starved look. A wisteria vine planted on the pergola had run rampant, and had almost completely covered the roof. 

Arborvitae that had been planted in the raised beds around the pergola; there was insufficient room for any more lindens.  The privacy they afforded from yet another neighboring house had further limited the available light under the pergola.  An update was in order, the first of which involved the fence.The arborvitae were removed altogether, in favor of a new fence.  Though these Belgian woven hazelwood panels provide a lot of privacy, light still comes through.  The wood for these panels is farmed using a method known as coppicing.  The shrubby trees are periodically cut back to the ground.  This hard pruning result in long straight branches, suitable for weaving into the panels  The coppice wood from which the fencing is constructed still has its bark.  This gives the fencing a much longer life.  Importing wood from another country that still has its bark is a laborious and expensive procedure.  Both US customs and the USDA have to be absolutely sure there are no pests hiding under that bark. The peeled cedar fence poles come from the upper peninsula of Michigan; 4 feet is set below ground to insure the fence will stay straight.

Venus dogwoods were planted in lieu of a large growing evergreen; their airy habit of growth will provide privacy without blocking so much light.  The wisteria got a much needed haircut and thinning.  The boxwood will will provide some green during the winter months, and will never grow so large as to obstruct a view of the fence.    

The lindens were given their first haircut.  Pruning trees that have never been pruned involves small steps over a period of time.  In a few years, they will read as a deciduous hedge above ground.  All of the other plant material in the yard will grow better, given the extra light. 

The original back yard fence found a new home in the front yard.  A neighboring white wood fence with a lattice border was not particularly appealing to my client, nor did it do any justice to the trunks of a hedgerow of Ivory Chalice magnolias. Along the driveway in front of the garage is a pass through-not a spot to linger.  The solid wood fence provides complete enclosure close to the ground.  The magnolias do the work up high.  


The dark solid wood fence handsomely compliments those tree trunks.  Most importantly, this fence clearly represents the aesthetic of sense of my client.  It is important to drive up to a landscape that pleases your eye.

The Garden Gate

Every landscaped space has an entrance.  That entrance may be physical, as in a path or stairs that lead the eye, and inspire the feet.  Some entrances are strictly visual.  A large open space without a visual cue about how to enter and where to go may seem muddled.    A landscaped space running the depth of a property might have screening, or fencing on the long side, but there should be clues about where to enter, and where to exit. Some gardens have a gate at the entrance.  Garden gates are beautiful, and functional. This gate spanning a driveway is one of a pair that when closed, says private.  When they are open, they say welcome.   

This decomposed granite walkway to the rear landscape is bisected by a pair of gates. The gate is a visual cue about a change of venue.  In the time it takes to open the gate, and pass through, a visitor has paused, and is ready to move on.  This gate does not particularly keep anyone or anything in or out.  It is a beautiful opportunity to rest both visually and physically, before going on.  

Some gates are part of a wall.  The brick wall enclosing this garden permits a visit to the rear of the landscape; take your pick, which gate you wish to open.  The pair of gates finishes each end of the long mirrored section of wall.  A landscape beyond is clearly visible above the wall; the gates are an invitation to visit that space.  The gates are wood, painted in a subtle color that does not detract in any way from the beauty of the walls.    

Vegetable gardens in my zone need to be fenced.  We have woodchucks, rabbits, and deer for starters.  The gate here-an exact replica of my client’s father’s vegetable garden in Italy.  A simple pine frame with a crossbar and an X covered in galvanized chicken wire seems completely appropriate to the feel and the function of the space.  The simple hand forged gate hardware-beautiful.  This garden gate is designed to make good on its promise to keep out furry trouble. 

Gating an arched space can be handled in a number of ways.  This gateway has a fixed panel of ornamental iron at the top.  The gates are tall rectangles that cleanly meet that pediment.  These gates separate the rear yard from the pool yard.  These gates are beautifully forged, yet easy to see through.  A gate left open is inviting.   

Some walls ask for a gate that is barely visible.  Why is this? This gate goes to a place not nearly so dramatic a place to be as this pool deck.  Some gates are about utility, and function.  Subtle gates make passage possible, without disturbing any of the visual experience of the space.     

This solid wood gate has the look of an interior door.  That solid surface screens the space beyond, and provides a beautiful backdrop for a small antique sundial. Once the arborvitae grow in, the tall chain link utility fence will no longer be visible.  The gravelled space in the foreground functions much like a foyer in a home. 

Some gates have a specific purpose.  This gate may not be gorgeous, but it is child proof.  Some gates are more about safety, than beauty.  Clients with small children need to restrict certain spaces-in this case, a swimming pool.  Once the children are old enough, the gate can be removed.  


My gates and fence keep kids out of my yard.  I have no objection to kids in my yard, but my fountain could be a hazard.  Both gates into the yard are kept locked. They also keep my corgis on the property, and out of the street.  The open ironwork preserves the view out, and the view in from the sidewalk; there is no need to block the view, just the passage.  These gates replicate a pair of iron panels outside the front porch.  They do a graceful  job of making a space both private and safe.

Sunday Opinion: The Sky’s The Limit

I have never been asked to undertake a landscape or garden project where the sky was the limit.  Do I regret this?  In theory, it all sounds good-a design project from my heart, head and hand, given the chance to soar without any need for fuel, wings, wind, or approval.  This thought might, for a moment, be thrilling.  Let’s test the no limits theory.  Should I put a piece of blank drawing paper on my drafting table, what would be my first move?  Picture me unable to put the pencil to the paper. 

Were I have to walked into my own house for the first time, with no interior walls, no division of space, no ceilings or floors-I would be way over my head, trying to make any visual sense of it.  One cannot imagine a building into being. Making a building has much to do with understanding all kinds of limitations.   A building has lots of restrictions as to its placement on a lot.  Properties are required to drain or perk, before a building can be built.  Water and electrical lines must be installed according to building codes.  Weight bearing walls, sanitary sewers, height restrictions-there are no end of mitigating factors that influence the design of a building.  I greatly admire and respect architects who design beautiful buildings.  When I look at them, I do not see compliance with building codes, or physics, or proper engineering.  I don’t see how the heat, light and water functions.  I am not aware of what keeps the walls standing or the roof in place.  I see a sculpture; I see shelter.  The architect has managed to create a visually sound sculpture that first and foremost is structurally sound.  Anyone who owns a home understands what it means when there is a structural problem.  My house is 81 years old.  A lack of vents in the roof soffits was allowing water vapor to build up such that plaster was falling off the ceiling in 3 rooms.  Did I see this coming?  Of course not.  I only saw a beautiful old house that would provide me a home.  That home now has 36 soffit vents, and repaired plaster, neither of which I think about any more.

 I just finished a landscape design for a property on a lake that has been a field for 25 years.  I have a client who is willing to trust my judgment about the landscape.  This does not mean it is a project without parameters.  First and foremost, I have a client with a family and a history who purchased this property with the intent of building a home.  She has likes and dislikes.  Notwithstanding that she is willing to listen, this will be her home, and her garden.  The landscape design needs to respect her parameters.  This is a given, not an option.  At this moment, there is her residence under construction which occupies a very specific space.  That house has created certain  outdoor spaces which govern how and what I will do.  Every room has a specific orientation to the light which is non-negotiable.  The rear of the house facing the lake faces south.  There are lots of windows on this side of the house.  A large porch attached to the house has a roof over the entire space.  The views will be great; the protection from the south sun will be great too.

The property has boundaries-there is a formally and legally determined set of lot lines, on three sides.  The 4th lot line, a curving border, describes a set back from a lake. Those boundaries are a given. Any landscape plan can take advantage of neighboring views, but it cannot impose on neighboring views.  A neighboring house has a view across my client’s property of the lake.  The purchase of the property included a height restriction on plant material in this space, so the neighboring lake view would not be obstructed.  The challenge of the landscape design is to create something beautiful in that space that makes no visual reference to a restriction.     

  As for other restrictive circumstances influencing landscape design-there are lots.  Plants that thrive in California will not thrive in Michigan.  Plants are very specific about what they want.  Would that I could grow the roses that thrive in California.  But no matter how badly I want them, I cannot have them.  There are hardiness issues that govern what can be successfully grown.  Soil composition and exposure narrows one’s palette of plants. Trying to grow most roses on sand is an exercise in futility;  unless you consider rugosa roses. Rhododendron do not like our heavy clay alkaline soil.  They hate even worse our winter winds.  It is easy to fall for them at the nursery.  It is incredibly difficult, maybe impossible, to get them to thrive.  I inherited a stand of them planted on the north side of my house.  15 years later, they are still here.  They are big, and have that gangly and windswept look that comes from having been planted in a hostile climate. Are they beautiful-not really. The question of beauty in the landscape has everything to do with how well it thrives. 

Your constraints, restrictions, parameters, restrictions, boundaries and mitigating circumstances are good friends to your design.  A garden of great beauty is a garden that works.