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.

The Olive Jars


Apparently I am still writing about Italian terra cotta-bear with me if you can.  The container that arrived just a few days ago has brought back a flood of memories from the past fifteen years shopping for great terra cotta-I have some 35mm images that describe those memories.  Once the shop had a home, and an address, Rob went shopping not one bit more seriously, but in greater volume, and with more confidence.  In the early 1990′s, he met and did business with Klaus and Ilona-they brokered Italian terra cotta from a number of different potteries.  Rob would meet them in Florence, and shop.  Though Klaus was German, his mother lived in Tuscany-in those days.  Rob became part of their Italian/German family.  Many bottles of great chianti and home bottled olive oil from Klaus’s Mom arrived in the container with our terra cotta in those days.  They helped bring order to Rob’s orders. Few of the potteries we bought from did much business exporting to the US.  The order we placed very early on with Carlo Chiti-the money disappeared, and our request for pots went unanswered.  Carlo Chiti-if you are out there, we are still waiting for our pots.  Klaus and Ilona no longer rep Italian terra cotta, but their generous help and support more than a decade ago taught Rob much about how to shop in Italy.     

The terra cotta pots, and sculptures manufactured by Mital are legendary.  Giant and ornately sculpted vases from Mital grace gorgeous gardens all over the planet.  In my opinion, the most beautiful classical Italian terra cotta pots ever made come from Mital.  My own terra cotta collection revolves around pots from them.   

A series of terra cotta pots of this exact design were made by Franco’s grandfather early in the 20th century for the Biltmore Estate.  These replacements for two broken pots, made from the original mold, were about to be shipped when Rob visited Mital in 1998.  Based on this photograph, I ordered three of them for the shop.  One client spoke for all three-he is as crazy about classical Italian terra cotta as I am.

Rob’s first trip to Mital in 1998-not so much about the history.  It was much more about meeting people.  Franco’s father’s vintage Lancia was as much a part of the landscape as the terra cotta.  There was much discussion of that car.  The personal relationships that Rob nurtured so many years ago over a love for fine terra cotta was instrumental in our ability to offer fine terra cotta to our gardening clients.  

I cannot speak or write with any authority about the use of terra cotta pots for storage of olive oil.  But I do know the terra cotta of the 12th and 13th century primarily consisted of jugs to hold water (mezzine), tiles and bricks for buildings, and jars for storing certain liquids and grains (orci).  By the 16th century, as the production of olive oil became an increasingly more important agricultural product in Tuscany, the production of orci-those jars used for the storage of the oil- increased accordingly-dramatically. 

In the yard at Mital, an incredible collection of antique terra cotta olive jars, side by side the olive jars still in production there.  What was once traditionally made in Italy to store oil is still being made, though their use has expanded.

   The ancient olive jars at Mital-a collection amassed over a lifetime by his father.  Franco was clear-none of the ancient jars were for sale.  Though they were simply diplayed at the pottery, they were a treasured reminder of all the the history of his craft.  Glazed on the inside, olive jars both new and antique have a distinctive shape.  The large oval bodies tapering at the bottom permitted the jars to be stored upright in metal or clay rings, or in wood braces aboard ships.  The relatively narrow necks still permitted easy access to the oil; the handles were useful should the jar need to be moved.

Olive oil should be stored in a dark cool place for maximum longevity.  The jars-perfect for this.  But ancient terra cotta olive jars are incredibly beautiful in their own right. My personal collection of terra cotta from Italy includes one 18th century olive jar, purchased from an Italian antiques dealer in northern Italy.  The year it arrived from Italy, Rob filled it with water.  Unbelievably, the scent of olive oil filled the air.     

Though I plant my jar with flowers every year, it is every bit beautiful enough to stand on its own, unplanted.  The day it is moved to the deck for the summer is a very good day indeed. I spend plenty of time thinking through what I will plant-this part is my pleasure.  

This Italian olive jar, empty, but faithfully supporting a climbing rose-this might be my most favorite garden photograph ever.  I have no idea where Rob took this picture, but it describes what I love so much about Italian gardens-they have a long standing romance with their gardens that is unmistakeable.   


This ancient terra cotta pot with obvious damage is an important visual part of this vineyard landscape.  I am sure it was not placed here for that purpose.  There simply was no thought to discard it.  If I had the chance, would I buy a pot such as this?  No doubt-yes I would.

Italian Terra Cotta

These three words-Italian terra cotta-are more than enough to get my attention, and make my heart pound.  Terra cotte-translated literally from the Italian-fired earth.  Pots fashioned from fired earth-what could be better?  What better container in which to grow a plant?  Containers from clay-what could possibly be more basic and natural?  The clay pot is a gardening icon.  I have stacks of them in my garage-I would wager that you do too.  On occasion, a client will fill their trunk with unneeded clay pots, and bring them to me.  Who could bear to throw one away?  Crusty with age and use-all the better.  I have yet to have a client insist on a brand new clay pot, if all I have in a size they need is a used pot.  Used and vintage plain terra cotta pots provide just as good a home for a plant as a new one.    

Italian terra cotta has been a part of my gardening life as long as I can remember.  The machine made clay pots of my twenties were no nonsense sturdy and functional.  Though the clay is fired, it is porous.  The clay will wick moisture away from the roots of a plant.  This can be helpful if you are a heavy waterer.  If you don’t always get to watering whern you should, a glazed or other moisture conserving pot might be a better choice.  That porousity also means that the container breathes; air is essential to proper root development.   Machine made terra cotta will break if dropped, or left out over a Michigan winter.  There are two critical factors that influence the durability of a clay pot.  The quality of the clay is crucial.  The best terra cotta pots on the planet come from Impruneta in Italy; the local clay is superior in quality.  The other factor-the temperature and duration of the cooking. Fine handmade Italian terra cotta is fired upwards of 1700 degrees.  The purpose of a long firing is a maturation process by which the pots are “soaked” with heat.      

Machine made terra cotta has its place.  They are available in an astonishing range of sizes and shapes.  It is important to properly size a pot.  Underpotting a plant leaves no root for root development.  Overpotting a plant can result in the soil staying too wet for too long.  Azalea pots and bulb pans are low and wide; this shape is specifically designed for shallow rooted plants that do well in less soil rather than more.  Long toms (a reference to tomatoes) and rose pots are tall; they accomodate the long root runs of these types of plants.  In any event, a classic clay pot is basic to anyone who grows plants.  A handmade Italian terra cotta pot-an object of great beauty and durability.     


Delivered yeserday, an entire container of handmade Italian pots.  The container is 40 feet long, by 10′ wide and 10′ tall.  There were a whomping lot of pots on that truck.  Why so many?  Having a container delivered empty to the pottery means the packing costs are less; they pack and protect their pots quickly and expertly.  Of the entire lot of hundreds of pots, one was broken.  But the big issue is the volume.  When we buy lots of pots direct from the manufacturer, we get a better price per pot.  This helps make a handmade Italian terra cotta pot more affordable. 

Any wood that comes from overseas has to be heat treated, so no pathogens come along with the pots.  Even the pallet wood is cooked.  Likewise the excelsior-the pots are protected with wood shavings when they are stacked, and anywhere the steel strapping material touches a clay surface.     

Each pallet is then shrink wrapped.  I imagine the trip across the ocean on a boat can get dicey in bad weather.  The durability of these pots helps make shipping them easier.  Should you thump a terra pot, it should ring with almost a metallic sound.  This tells you it is a high fire pot.  Pots that thud when thumped-low fire.   

This is an embarrassment of riches in terra cotta pots, but it means someone who needs four matching, or 8 matching might find something they like.  The soft orange color will beautifully compliment a planting.  Their rugged good looks you will have for a very long time, given proper care.  My own pots, but for 3 large English made concrete pots in the classical Italian style, are impruneta terra cotta.  A beautiful clay pot is tough to beat.  The first pallet of pots I bought 15 years ago was Italian terra cotta-I still remember what a thrill it was to unpack those 14 pots.  They were very expensive, as is anything you bring over from Europe, a little at a time.  But every one of them found a home, and many of them I am still planting for those clients. 


You may be wondering what about this pot enthralls me so much.  It is not just the simple beauty of the form, the soft color and subtle surface.  

A beautifully planted Italian terra cotta pot can mean this for a garden.

The Staddle Stones

A collection of antique staddle stones arrived in the first container from England.  They precisely represent what kind of garden ornament appeals to Rob the most.  Any object with great age-that is instantly appealing to him.  Add to that an architecturally arresting form and compelling surface-I can bet that object will be in my future.  Our collection is modest-7 stones.  They are greatly prized by gardeners and collectors of fine garden ornament.      

Via Wikipedia, staddle stones were used as supporting bases for granaries, hay ricks, and game larders.  These words are not part of my native vocabulary-but words of any kind relating to gardening interest me.  These stones would elevate any number of structures with different purposes above grade.  They would protect a store of grain, hay, or game from water, or vermin infestation.  This photograph is courtesy of www.oakgazebo.co.uk; this structure is of of their design and manufacture.�
The origin of the word staddle?  In middle English, staddle, or stadle derives from the word stathel, which derives from the the old English word stathol-a foundation, support, or trunk of a tree.  I am thinking about the Tolkien novels right now-all of which I have read multiple times.  OK, I have my quirks.  A disclaimer here.  I am not a scholar regarding the history of garden ornament.  I am a horticulturist and landscape designer with 15 years of exposure to garden ornament of various kinds.  This makes my knowledge of the history of garden ornament anecdotal.  Sometimes I am way over my head.   But these antique objects do interest me keenly-so I have made an effort to learn something about them.  A stone carved to do the job of a trunk of a tree-I am interested in this.    

This particular staddle stone may look for all the world like a stone mushroom.  Staddle stones placed in landscapes as ornament are actually described as stone mushrooms.  But in fact, the domed top made it very difficult for rodents to climb into the granary.  The flat top provides sturdy contact between the building, and the stone stilts.     

They are very beautiful objects in their own right.  But their shape was dictated by a need.  An agricultural need.  A cultural need.  A way of life need.  Nothing interests me more as a landscape designer than the intersection of nature, agriculture, horticulture,  and landscape.  I have spent a lot of time at that intersection-stop and learn.  On the green signal, get going.  Yield to oncoming traffic.  Turn right on red-only when the coast is clear.  Anyone who gardens professionally understands this dance perfectly.  Any hands on gardeners understands this even better. These stones were carved from massive blocks of stone in a shape and size dictated by function.  The stones are a visual essay in form simply following function. 

This photograph came from www.geograph.org.uk.  It is a “web based project to collect and reference geographically representative images of every square kilometre of the British Isles”.  What an ambitious project, and what a pleasure to be able to see such a structure.  The brick building pictured above is held aloft by 9 staddle stones-so beautiful.  Any building lifted off the ground by staddle stones-there is no small amount of calculation involved in determining how many staddle stones it takes to raise a building bearing weight above grade.  A considerable requirement of stones for even a small structure meant a thriving local business for staddle stone carvers.  The upper Hexford granary in Oxfordshire exists above grade courtesy of 36 staddle stones.    

Many of these stones are well over a century old.  They are shaped from single blocks of stone.  The individual shapes vary-there is always the evidence of the human hand.  Our collection by and large was at some time carved from Cotswold stone.   

This photograph Rob sent me from England-compelling. These mushroom stones are truly mysterious and organic in shape-beautiful.      


The antique staddle stones seem quite at home in the shop.  They are breathtakingly beautiful-the historic use, the shapes, the surfaces, the color of the various stones,the lichens.  They, among other things, make me so glad I decided to be a gardener.