Vernissage 2015

Six years ago today, April 1, 2009, I published my very first post. How pleased I was to have a  a forum for my gardening journal!  I  revisited and revised this post in 2010,  2012, and 2014.  To follow is this year’s version of the essay Vernissage.

snowdrops in spring

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. Our conversation over the years speaks a lot to the value of nurturing long term 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.

snowdropsIn a broader sense, vernissage refers to a beginning- any opening. I would prefer to associate spring with that idea described by vernissage. This 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. Last year’s spring was notable for its icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground. The snow that was still very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of drama altogether. A cold none of us could shake. My first sign of spring was the birds singing, early in the morning-just a few days ago. I still see snow on the north side of every place. It was a bit of a shock, realizing how long it had been since I had heard the birds.  Why the break of my winter this year is about hearing the singing-who knows.  Maybe I am listening for the first time, or maybe I am hearing for the first time. Or maybe the birds are singing ahead of the spring.  Every spring gives me the chance to experience the garden differently.  To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature.  This past winter was the most miserably cold I ever remember.  It just about reduced my spirit to a puddle on the ground.  Spring is not so close to being here yet, even though it is April 1.  But I see the signs.

hellebores.jpg
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 seems to have a clearly defined beginnings, and no end.

hellebore.jpgThis spring will see more than anyone’s fair share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs.  The winter cold was that bad. 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 first day of April means it is time to take stock.  And get started.

Hyacinths bloomingI 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.  Later, I will have time to celebrate the shade.  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 pot full of hyacinths that he put on a table outdoors was instantly full of bees.

spring containers
Today also marks 23 years to the day that Rob and I began working together. 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 vernissage.

spring containersWe 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.

spring containersA sunny and warm day brings every gardener outside.  Being outside today without a winter parka- divine.

pansiesVernissage? By this I mean spring.

 

 

March 29, 1996

Detroit Garden Works opening 1996
It was nineteen years ago tonight since Rob and I were hosting an opening party for Deborah Silver and Company’s new venture-Detroit Garden Works. My landscape design/build firm, Deborah Silver and Company, was founded in 1986- 10 years before this special moment.  Though the vast majority of my landscape design works since 1986 revolved around the sculpture of the ground and the horticulture involved in designing landscapes and gardens, I felt like a certain element was missing.  An interest in art and sculpture meant I had an interest in ornament in the garden. What do I mean by ornament for the garden?  Any object which represents an important memory, a point of view about what is beautiful or emotionally important, which can imbue a landscape, or a portion a landscape with atmosphere.  A landscape with atmosphere is all I would ever hope to create.   Though I was keen to include this layer in my landscape design, precious little was available.

Detroit Garden Works 2015 Rob joined the landscape company in 1992, after completing his degree in landscape architecture at Michigan State University. It became clear early on that his landscape design work was austere, low key, and unpretentious.  Years later, he knows how to mix up and make believable a certain deliberately casual and subtle look better than anyone else I have ever known. He is a champion of a sparse look that always hovers just over and on the right side of weedy. That early mix of modernism and mess confounded me, and drove me crazy. No design project of his ever came to a definitive close. Clients wanting direction that had parameters in mind got his tinkering with no boundaries. How did we resolve those early years, co-designing ?  He had a romance going on with the garden like no other person I had ever met. I reserved judgment. This is one of the better decisions I have ever made. I truly admired his point of view. That commitment took me a long way. The idea that we would open a shop devoted to fine quality ornament for the garden was an idea we shared.

Detroit Garden Works 2015 collectionIn the fall of 1992, Rob had a winter trip planned to Czechoslovakia to ski.  I financed a side trip, a very casual and weedy trip, to scout European ornament for the garden.  I should say that I am an advocate of art in the garden, and I was trying to push that idea along.  And that my definition of art in the garden is very broad. Skillfully placed garden ornament can imbue, even organize a landscape with meaning. An antique garden ornament saturates the immediate environment with a sense of another time and place –  history.  Vintage farm troughs recall that time when agriculture was so much a part of life.  Vintage ornament of an agricultural history satisfies that longing for connection.  Contemporary sculpture in the garden can evoke an appreciation of form, mass, and texture in a very direct and abstracted way. I wanted the perfect bench, the most striking container, and topiary forms that would work while they were being beautiful-for my landscapes. I knew that Rob would take this on.  Now, Rob buys for Detroit Garden Works.  He attends the flea markets, fairs and factories. He has relationships with garden antique dealers, both in the US and abroad. He makes it a point to meet the people who make things for gardens.  He gives them the time and space to speak to their craft. What eventually makes its way to Detroit Garden Works in the spring of each year is a very carefully but subtly curated collection that is painted with a very broad  and soft brush.

Detroit Garden Works 2015 collectionA few clients from the first supported my interest in beautiful ornament for the garden.  One client bought a pair of hand made Italian terra cotta pots from Mital for his front porch. They came from Italy on a pallet, and got delivered to a commercial address down the road. Another bought a collection of hand made French glazed pots-on my say so.  That faith was all about a serious and mutual romance for the landscape.

Detroit Garden Works 2015 collectionThis past September, Rob made his 22nd trip to Europe on my watch- to shop for the Detroit Garden Works 2015 collection.  In that smallest of European countries, England, he managed to put 4000 miles in just about 30 days on his rental car.  He showed up for one antique show after another. He shopped antique dealers specializing in vintage and antique ornament for the garden.  He visited small artisanal companies manufacturing this or that for the garden. He haunted flea markets. His 2015 collection for Detroit Garden Works is broad and deep.  He can be moved-by the old, the vintage, and the new. He can also be moved on a lark -these ornaments come with humor and charm shot through them.

Detroit Garden Works 2015 collectionHis shopping is always about the stories of the people.  The antiques dealers with a long history of collecting.  The people whose pottery who is still making pots going on two hundred years later. The artisan who is creating their own special brand of ornament. The dealer who has taken the time to make very fine quality reproductions of classic garden ornament.  The armillary maker whose attention to the science, physics, and fabrication warrants a closer look.  I greatly admire how he takes the buying to heart.  His big heart has made Detroit Garden Works  a destination for gardeners of every persuasion.

Detroit Garden Works 2015 collection Detroit Garden Works is in the business of offering beautiful ornament for the garden.  It could be antique.  It could be vintage, and funky vintage.  It could be of a French, English, or American persuasion. It could be of English origin, through and through. It could be new, with a particular point of view.  It could be contemporary.  It could be arts and crafts inspired, or mid century modern. It could be Belgian in origin-old, vintage, and new. It could be none of the above, just waiting for a particular gardening client to be interested in a particular piece.

Detroit Garden Works collection 2015Our opening party for Detroit Garden Works 19 years ago was largely attended by our landscape clients, and friends.  Our 10,000 square foot building that night dwarfed what ornament we had available that first night. We had a big idea. And not so much in way of delivery. This was and is how it should be. It takes years to bring an idea to fruition. 19 years ago the two of us had an idea. The intervening 19 years have meant lots of changes. Today I am looking at this building and what it holds, and thinking a romance for the garden has taken us a very long way, in a lot of different directions.

Detroit Garden Works collection 2015Our two containers from England have been very slow to get on the rail from the port in Virginia to us.  But I suspect by the time the spring really comes, we will be ready. If your relationship with your garden is a long standing romance, we welcome that.  We would invite you to review our spring 2015 collection.

Detroit Garden Works collection 2015zinc topped tables

Detroit Garden Works 2015country fair and market

Detroit Garden Works collection 2015riveted copper tubs

Detroit Garden Works 2015 collection
antique stone planters

Detroit Garden Works collection 2015Any pot, urn, bench, trellis, or sculpture that you place in your garden has a narrative attached. Detroit Garden Works was predicated on this idea. This post is a weedy  narrative about our history.  Thank you to each and every one you who have shopped at Detroit Garden Works over the past 19 years. Many thanks.  Deborah

The Collectors

the collectorI may not know all of their names, but I recognize their faces. Those people for whom the world turns on an axis determined by a garden, a landscape, or a property –  firmly entrenched at the center of their universe. That landscape may be a dream, or a work in progress. It is most assuredly a life’s work. That landscape is visionary, and very personal.  I would not call it a hobby, or even an avocation. I would call it a passion for nature that runs deep, and most of all, wide.  That emotional landscape is the foundation upon which all else in life rests. Their interests are varied. Some collect seed.  Some collect heirloom vegetables.  Some collect memories of nature.  Some dig, and find the smell of soil the most intoxicating perfume they have ever had the pleasure to experience. That experience of the garden is constellation wide. There is the smell of grass, the sounds of the birds, the sight of the first clump of crocus coming into bloom. Some click with and collect a specific plant. Some take great pains to prepare seed beds for a favorite species. Some see themselves as stewards. Some are all of the above, and more.

 

the collectorThese two have been clients of Detroit Garden Works for many years. Most recently they bought the house and property next door to them.  For the property, not the house. The second half of a bowl shaped parcel of land defining their landscape was part of an adjacent property. They chose to purchase that property which would make their landscape whole. The reuniting of the two pieces of land-the act of a collector.

DSC_8575They came to Detroit Garden Works today, and left with 2 full flats of hellebores.  The discussion about which varieties would be appropriate for their garden was lengthy, and interesting.  I so admire that the two of them see themselves as stewards of a large property. The lengths to which they go to look after it, and develop the landscape is astonishing. Their garden making is not a project.  It is a way of life.

DSC_8573A smile upon the face of a collector is music to my eyes. This is not about commerce – this is about a world view. A world view that I recognize and admire. They have differing points of view about lots of issues.  The one hates looking at weeds.  The other hates pulling weeds. Somehow they work it out.  It is obvious they have a long standing and serious romance with their garden that sustains the both of them.

DSC_8572The two of them weighed down with a collection of hellebores did my heart good. It is a sure sign that great plants have a strong and committed audience.

DSC_8576 They collect earth, nature, garden, shade plants, landscape, hellebores -they grow vegetables and trees. They grow it all, in their own style. They enable us to thrive.  Rob and I treasure them. Plain and simple, they are family. This is the best part of our hellebore festival. It brings out the collectors.

 

 

Awash In Hellebores

helleborus.jpgI am embarrassed to complain, given what the people in Boston have endured this winter, but I will say it.  We have had a long tough winter. We had the better part of Boston’s snow last year. This year, no heart or record breaking snow, but plenty of snow nonetheless. The snow I could plow through, and shrug off. The tough part was an interminable run of very cold weather, lots of it below zero. Dressing for a trip outdoors was an event the likes of which was almost intolerable. Boots, gloves, coat, hat, and lots of layers in between. All of this piling on took lots of time. That effort did not come to much good-the cold was bone chilling.  No one took the arctic winter poorer than the corgis. Every day they would plead with me to change the channel. They were bored and irritable. It was a daily thing, wanting to be let out every possible door to the outside-in hopes one would reveal habitable weather.  The spring in Michigan does not come easy or in an orderly fashion. Mother nature takes her time, deciding when the season will change from winter to spring. We have been made to wait.

detroit garden works helleboresWe feel better about the weather, having worked to introduce our own indoor version of spring. In March, we take delivery of over 1000 hellebores from growers all over the US and Canada. We invite gardeners in our area to come, browse and review our collection, and speak for them. We mean to offer gardeners a respite the winter, with our hellebore festival. It takes a few days, but our greenhouse space is starting to look like and smell  like a garden. Our March weather seems to be moderating-we have hope we are on a track to spring.  But if the spring outdoors is practically still weeks off,  we have a version of spring in our greenhouse. Should the spring be a few weeks off, the hellebores are content to reside in  sunny window until the ground outside can be worked.hellebores_double_pink_strain__84306Hellebores are a hardy perennial in our zone. Many of them are hardy in zone 4; most of them are eminently hardy in zone 5.  I treasure them, as they are the first perennial to bloom in my garden in April.  Hellebore foliage is large, and will persist long past the fall and into the winter. In warmer zones, the foliage is evergreen. The Orientalis hybrids throw their bloom stalks very early in the spring, arising out of the declining foliage from the previous season. The new foliage which is to come after the blooming is lush and substantive. They are tolerant of a wide range of conditions in the garden. I grow them in full sun, but I water them when they need it.  They are equally as happy in a lightly shaded location. They can live and increase in a garden for many years, without any need for division. Deer do not touch them. The flowers are surprisingly large, and quite beautiful.

detroit garden works helleboresThe flowers of the hellebores my Mom grew in her garden 50 years ago did not look like these. The blooms were nodding-down facing. To enjoy her bell shaped flowers required getting down on the ground to look up into their faces. She would cut them, and put them in a vase in the kitchen window.  Her favorites were the white and green flowered hellebores, as the pink cultivars were a muddy not so appealing pink.  It took years to grow on a hellebore to a decent size, as they were only available as young starts.  There was always lots more foliage than flowers. Nonetheless, she loved the look of them in her shade/wildflower garden.  Their foliage would last the entire summer and beyond, unlike the spring bulbs and ephemeral wildflowers she cultivated. The hellebore world has changed dramatically since then.

pink flowering helleboresThis group of plants have been the subject of intense breeding all over the globe. A lot of attention has been devoted to breeding plants who flowers are out and up facing. Some breeders have produced strains of hellebores with double flowers, or unusual coloration. Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne, who own Northwest Garden Nurseries, have bred some stunning strains of hellebores.  The same can be said for Judith and Dick Tyler who own and operate Pine Knot Farms. These names are just two of a long list of hellebore enthusiasts who breed and sell plants in Belgium, Germany, England, Japan, the US and Canada.

detroit gardenworks helleboresMost of the plants in the greenhouse are hybrids of helleboris Orientalis. Helleborus Orientalis is not a species of hellebore, strictly speaking. It is a plant which is an interspecific cross from a number of different species hellebores-the O’Byrnes think maybe more than 16 species have a part in what is properly known as helleborus x hybridus. They do not come true from seed, so many of these named varieties are referred to as such and such “strain” of hellebore.  Given that the plants may take 3 years to flower, many breeders sell their young plants with pictures that show the possible color range. The advent of tissue culture has made it possible to clone specific plants, and make them available to interested gardeners.  My discussion of the history and science is quite limited-for a detailed look at hellebores, do visit the website of Plant Delights Nursery. Some of the hellebores we have came from a trip Rob made there a few weeks ago.  Tony Advent does a terrific job making great garden plants available to serious gardeners.  He also does a great job of providing an overview of the history and proper culture of the plants he sells.

   http://www.plantdelights.com/Article/Hellebore-Lenten-Rose/Hellebores/Christmas-Rose/

dscn1230The hybridizing of hellebores to produce stronger growing and beautifully flowered hellebore cultivars has been a shot heard round the world. Today, hybridizers in Europe, Canada, Japan and the US have created cultivars featuring study and garden worthy plants, and breathtaking flowers. The vast majority of the plants we have available now are cultivars that have a proven performance record. And we feature large sized plants that are old enough to produce a good crop of flowers from the start. But we also have a limited number of one of a kind plants that would appeal to a hellebore collector.

detroit garden works helleboresI did buy a collection of named hellebores last February from a nursery in British Columbia, Canada, named Fraser’s Thimble Farms.  They ship small plants to the US, bare root. I did have to pot them up, and baby them along in the window sill of my drawing studio until they took hold. I finally planted the entire lot of them in a patch in my garden that used to be occupied by some not so wonderful looking yews. Just yesterday I could see that the snow had melted, and all of those small plants look like they survived our winter. I am not expecting all of them to bloom this spring, but I have hopes.

h 5We do have gardeners come in who are not familiar with hellebores. This is not so surprising. Some nurseries are reluctant to carry plants that take 3 years to flower from seed, or are already out of bloom in May.  The good news for gardeners is what appears to be the flower is actually a modified calyx, or petal like structures that surround the actual flower. The flower is in the center, and these true petals will drop when the flowering period is over. But the calyx persist on the plants for months, giving the appearance of a really long bloom time. Still, I try to site hellebores in spots that make them easy to view in early spring.

Detroit Garden Works hellebores March 2015 (16)Hellebores also make great container plants.  Everything we ordered for our collection is in, and our Hellebore festival is slated for Friday March 20 through Sunday March 22. Can you come ahead? Of course.