Greening Up


I can understand why the idea of a conservatory or greenhouse space is so incredibly attractive.  I live in a climate that is inhospitable, even foul almost half the year-if you like growing plants, that is.  This room in the shop had no windows, but thanks to a used Lord and Burnham greenhouse from which I salvaged the roof, I have a green space.  It smells like warm dirt, moisture laden air, and plants-intoxicating.  Even when nothing is blooming, it still smells like life.  The climbing fig that covers two of the four walls is probably 10 years old now.  I had to have it, after seeing the hundred year old vines in the conservatory at Dunbarton Oaks.  I thought the shop had to have water and plants someplace every day-it’s why we do what we do.         

Though the weather is stubbornly refusing to give up winter and warm up, this room is warm and inviting.  The first of our favorite spring green plants have come in.  A single resident Wollemi pine lives happily in this space year round, even though we do not heat the space between January 15 and March 1.  I am not a huge fan of tropical plants in the house.  They always have that air of resignation about them; how theystruggle  to survive in poor light, and hot dry house heat.  This room offers good light, and protection from the elements.       

Elements?  No snow is allowed here.  No wind, no hail, no temperatures below 30, no ice.  The space is not at the mercy of too much rain, or too little.  We rarely have bugs in the winter-it is too chilly.  Most everything goes outdoors once the weather is nice.  We do have the occasional toad-how they find this room, I have no idea.  It is a space we look after, and it rewards us with a place of refuge from winter.  It is also a nursery-for plants that need hardening off.  These topiary lemon cypress just arrived from California.  Though they happily tolerate less than perfect conditions, they need to become acclimatized to the cold.  

These ivy topiary are lovely.  Though they require some work to maintain their beautiful form, they are otherwise little care.  A summer outdoors recuperating from being inside all winter they will appreciate.  They are a complete vision of a garden, in and of themselves.     

The bulb pots are coming on strong, having been moved to this space. We keep it at 55-60 degrees during the day, and 40-45 at night.  The room is helping to create an atmosphere of spring.  I have only participated in the design of 2 conservatories in my whole career.  They are expensive, they require loads of proper engineering, and they can be the devil to get working properly.    

But today I see why gardeners build them.  We have rosemary cones and single ball topiaries, lemon cypress in differing forms, and a collection of ferns.  Fresh green plants-oxygen for the heart and soul.  I asked Buck where we could have one.  We can’t, he said. Too expensive, too problematic, too big a heat bill.  It would be much easier to move to the shop greenhouse for the winter.     

The lemon cypress are not hardy in my zone, but they are easy to keep over.  They grow like weeds.  That lime green color is accompanied by a faint scent of lemon.  A collection of 6 inch pots-like a party.  I have no interest in a greenhouse space in July.  But October through March-wouldn’t it be lovely?   

In the lower left of this picture, a pair of 3 gallon sanseveria.  This black leaved lime-edged variety is quite stunning.  They would be so striking in a simple container in a very shady place, fringed with lime selaginella.  I can feel a fever coming on.  The greenhouse space is providing some welcome heat.

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.

A Special Birthday

Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of the opening of Detroit Garden Works.  I had been in the landscape design and construction business for ten years, when I decided to buy this building, and open a shop devoted to fine ornament and furnishings for gardens.  Though I hardly knew it at the time, it was a very big move for me. Shops such as this were few and far between in the US, and not all that common in Europe. I wanted to be able to offer my landscape clients greater depth.  Great  landscapes imply a site, a collaboration, a gorgeous and arranged collection of plants-and some architecture.  No plant or collection of plants fully represents a landscape.  But those objects I place in a garden name names-they go on to evoke memories, create an atmosphere, and provoke the eye.   Favorable circumstances enabled me to buy this property-an accountant common to both the seller and I who brokered the sale, and a friendly zoning ruling from Bloomfield Township.      

The closing took little time.  But the property sat from March until August-I had to work.  In late August of 1995, every truck I had pulled up, and parked.  We had a lot of work to do.   

The inside of the building-really rough.  Today my office and library occupies this space. 15 years ago, this space was a wreck.  This was the main office of the Little and David Machine Company, in the demolition phase.  Less than ideal-about all I had to offer this project was my willingness to work.  I hired a construction supervisor.  Everyone who worked for me helped to transform this space.   

Oil coated the floors, and splashed up the walls.  Reviewing these pictures, I am so pleased and amazed that I had the nerve to go ahead.  My Mom cried when she saw this building-no wonder.  In my mind-a great shop devoted to great objects for gardens.  No oil soaked surface would deter me.  I persisted.  These floors defied cleaning.  I finally hired a company to come in and shot blast the floors with steel shot.  Once the top 1/4 inch of concrete was ground off, they were clean; Rob and I mopped all of the floors with clear epoxy to seal the porous concrete.  

Months were devoted to the shovelling out phase.  Cleaning up and shovelling out a fouled site-this takes a lot of time.  Everyone who worked for me signed up, and delivered.  Every compelling story has much to do with the people who make that story happen. My group-they were great.  Fortunately, none of us were shy about getting dirty.  I was sure the space had not been cleaned in many years.         

The shovelling out-we drove trucks in and out of the building and to the dump for almost 3 months.     

Once the building was empty of all the debris-I was assessing spaces.  How did it feel? To be on my own?  Liked a rolling stone-just ask Bob Dylan.   

The greenhouse room-I removed the roof here, and  stood pat with the roof open to the skies for better than 3 months.  The rain washed away much of what worried me.  The smell of oil finally dissipated. We were able to start the construction phase-new walls would enclose the office space from the shop. The construction phase took 3 months; we opened March 29, 1996.  Two old clients had offered to throw me an opening party-what fun that was.  To still be here all these years later- even better.  My fifteenth anniversary-I am treasuring this moment.