Sunday Opinion: Atmospheric Conditions

Very late yesterday afternoon a good client came in with a request; could I replant her terrace pots for an event scheduled for ten am this morning? I’ve known her long enough to know she is a young and talented professional who had successfully held down a number of high-powered and demanding jobs.  I know she is formidably intelligent and hard-working.  Suffice it to say I have met many people capable of great compassion; she is remarkable in how compassionately she lives her life.  A new job she was crazy about had been eliminated in a round of budget cuts, leaving her unexpectedly unemployed.  As for replanting her terrace garden in less than 24 hours over a weekend-I also know her well enough to know she wasn’t kidding.  As I hate to say no to any request for a garden no matter the parameters, I waited for more details.  Regularly people ask me for gardens, when that is not what they really want.  I find often as not that what they really want is some part of what a garden represents to them, that can be better gotten elsewhere.  A woman new to my area with three small children wanted a sports court.  I gave her the locations of three parks with sports courts close to her new neighborhood to check out.  I asked to to let me know what features she liked.  I never heard from her again; I am sure she realized that taking her children to her neighborhood park, and reaching out to her neighbors was a better solution for her isolation.  As for my client, I doubted she was preparing for a job interview on the terrace of her condo on a Sunday morning, but I was only partially right.

She would be interviewed, for a television documentary being filmed on the baby boomer generation.  I missed some of the details, but she had had occasion to talk to Tom Brokaw at an event at the University of Michigan on Saturday. He explained he was in the process of filming a story in which he intended to detail and investigate the issues facing her generation via a series of interviews. He asked if he could interview her in greater depth, at her home, the next morning, as he was impressed with how articulate she was. I asked what  she had said that had piqued his interest.  “I told him that I was at a point where I need a husband or a job”, she said.  As I know her to be confidently plain spoken, his interest in her did not surprise me in the least.

If I thought I was going to be interviewed at home by Tom Brokaw, my first thought would be how to get the place suitably dolled up-so I knew I had to get those terrace pots replanted.  It took a little while to convince her that she could do it herself.  As there was no way I was hauling seven gallon pots overflowing with ornamental cabbages up the three flights of stairs, and through her house out to her terrace, I had to convince her.  As I have always done her pots for her, I also had to loan her garden tools, and explain how to keep the debris from the old plantings from falling through the floor onto the terrace below her. As I subscribe to that notion that you never know when you are going to meet your intended, I strongly encouraged her to ask him for his ideas about how she could find that husband, or that job. Why not?  I stuffed her Prius with plants, and shooed her out of here.  As she is a very independent sort, I had only one phone call, with one question taking no more than 30 seconds.  I am sure the terrace looked beautiful this morning.

This morning I am not thinking about why Diane’s pots were full of dead, or almost dead plants.  She told me why; she had just quit watering them.  Why she quit-I have my ideas, but I don’t see that they matter.  What I did wonder was how much more effectively she would have communicated how she felt about her life, a job, a home, her culture, her situation-  had she left those dead plants for him to see. An abandoned garden, a fading bloom, a killing frost, the failing light-my emotional connection to what I do, and what I do that ends or fails, is strong.   Though I have long known that she was single, I have never had her ask me to plant the terrace with a little romance in mind. I plan to address that, the next opportunity I get. In my opinion, the most beautiful landscapes strike a powerful emotional chord with a viewer. They have atmosphere.  They may have fountains, or grass paths or shasta daisies or not,  but their most compelling feature is an unmistakeably emotionally charged atmosphere.  The gardenmaker has transformed some part of themselves into a sculpture, which is a place for others to be.  There is a question being asked, a story being told, a sanctuary being built, a celebration in progress. Gardens in which people are personally involved are the most satisfying to see.

The most emotionally charged landscape I have ever had the privilege to visit is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin.  No one there while I was there spoke above a whisper; it is clearly sacred ground. I am sure many thousands of American hands have traced the letters of the names of those who gave their lives,  inscribed in the stone of the wall.  The voices of the dead and the voices of the families of the dead can be heard, if you listen.  The bouquets of flowers, the boxes containing medals, the faded letters left at the foot of the wall are collected every day, only to be replaced the next day with more; people feel free to respond to what they experience there with their most powerful feelings. Feeling free to express is a privilege to which my country has a long history of committment. Standing there, I felt what it means to be an American.  The experience of reading the names of college friends who died in this war precipitated a flood of memories I did not remember I had.  I felt a strong empathy with everyone else I saw there, though I knew I would never see them again.  The wall is set into the side of a grassy slope.  Someone once wrote that they could imagine after generations, that the grass would grow over the face of the wall altogether, and the granite gash in the land that symbolizes a war our country fought at great human cost,  would be healed.  Well said. 

The only person that my little garden heals is me, but that is enough.  Some days the peace of it and the home of it washes over me like a warm wave.  Watching over the growing makes me feel like I have contributed a little something. If you are making a garden, the voice that is all your own will charge the atmosphere.  In store for this client next year, a garden plan of a different sort.  Why not?

Benches From Britain

Sept 25a 008I could easily picture Gertrude Jekyll perched on this old English wood garden bench.  Wearing a long skirt, a cardigan, and serviceable brogans, I can hear her in dignified fashion holding forth on some garden design topic or another with as much energy as authority.  This straight-backed bench, of slight design and simple materials,  is unmistakably English in origin.  I have never been to Britain, and I know few people of British extraction-but I have looked at vintage and antique English garden furniture long enough to successfuly guess its origin.   

Sept 25a 005
The old porcelain tag on this bench reveals the teak came from decommissioned and broken ships of the Royal Navy.  How like the British to recycle disaster and the materials thereof without fanfare. What people designed and made for their gardens was so much a product of who they were, and the culture from whence they came. I have a much tougher time visually determining the origin of new garden ornament.  Designers are able to access design and materials from all over the world now.  I find some contemporary teak furniture cold and lacking flavor and identity, for this reason.  

dgw_0002This decidedly English style high backed bench of utterly simple design is a contemporary piece that seems authentic to the culture of its origin.  It used to be there were no designers, just craftspeople with good sense about proportion, practicality, and sturdy construction. What worked was also beautiful. This bench doesn’t try too hard.  No doubt it will be in service a very long time, given its heft.  Its visual heft makes it a good candidate for a special spot in a garden.  It could just as easily hold a number of people waiting for a bus, or a pile of kids intent on climbing it.     

Europe31Sir Edwin Lutyens was a British architect of great renown whose practice spanned the late 19th century and early 2oth century.  Gardeners all over the world know of him, from his association with Gertrude Jekyll.  Her steadfast support of his career, and the projects upon which they collaborated are well documented.  The most beautiful bench of his design might be the Hestercombe bench, but the bench most often associated with his name is known as the Lutyens bench.  The distinctively curved back and scrolled arms have been the inspiration for subsequent English bench-makers; this version is a beauty. 

Europe18Many of our antique and vintage pieces come from dealers in England. Most of them represent garden objects from of other countries, not just their own.  As much as the English gardener of my imagination is keenly interested in plants of all sizes, species and habit, the antique dealers we buy from with are game for anything that might endow a garden with beauty and history. 

Europe12However, one must go to England to find English garden benches.  Their modest and sturdy look is so appealing.  Even the old benches clearly have many years of service yet to come.   A colony of pale green lichens found a home on this bench-no doubt the result of many years of service in some English garden blessed with regular rain. 

Europe37This quietly elegant spindle back bench is likewise mottled with colonies of this lichen and that moss.  Its timeworn surface and low key design made it so easy to incorporate into a garden.  British wood benches are team players.

dgw0006This old painted bench had sustained some dry rot from years of contact with the ground.  We stabilized the legs from underneath, and placed it on a gravel terrace.  Though 70 years old, I think my clients will enjoy it a good many more years.  Painted furniture in a garden has a charm all its own.  The frilly skirt and the angled back of this bench is a departure in form from most English benches I have known and loved-but how I like it.    

An old bench such as this one could quietly transform the garden into which it were placed.  As Mary Keen says, “Nostalgia in gardening often surfaces as a longing for that older, deeper relationship between person and place that we rarely achieve in modern life.”

Serious Moonlight

Cranbrook 2005  3 (1)
I have been a supporter of the Cranbrook Academy of Art for some years.  They produce several events a year to raise money to support their programs.  It is a unique institution among graduate art schools in the US, and a considerable asset to our community. I like being involved.  We planted the annual garden surrounding the Orpheus fountain in May, in anticipation of their event to come in July. I took my cue for design and decor from the title of the event.

Cranbrook 05  1 (23)A large tent would be a temporary home to a collection of art destined for auction that evening.   Each work was donated by a previous graduate of the academy; this part of the event generated considerable interest and participation.  Tables reserved for groups representing the major benefactors for this event were placed in the fountain garden.

Cranbrook 05  1 (22)The remnants of puddles you see on the ground in the above picture bring back memories for me; it rained fiercely the afternoon of the event. What I had thought I would have the entire day to accomplish would have to be done in less time.   The threat of bad weather makes any garden party all the more exciting to plan and produce-in this case, it was more excitement than I really wanted. 

Branch Cranbrook & Serious Moonlight CD (38)A cocktail reception would be held in a grassy area immediately adjacent to the showpiece of the Cranbrook landscape-the Triton pools.  We fashioned simple tents for the hordoerves tables from double layers of white fabric attached to bamboo poles.  Steel shoes for the poles were sunk in the ground at an outward angle, stretching the fabric tight and smooth.  Nature had another idea in store; the intense downpour changed that flat profile to a graceful swoop.  This unexpected contribution from the sky was a good one; I liked the swooping fabric against the curving path. We had painted a rambling path for guests arriving at the Lone Pine entrance to the garden to the reception area, with athletic paint. 

Cranbrook 05  1  (1)The big gesture?  I had the idea to affix paper lanterns to slender steel rods anchored with bricks which would sit on the on the pool bottom. Advance measurements of the water depth  enabled us to create the impression that the lanterns were floating on the surface of the water.  What fun it was to get in these fountains; I never expected this opportunity to come along.  A crew of four of us spent the better part of the afternoon wading in the water.

Cranbrook 7 (20)We set up hundred of lanterns of different diameters.  Each steel rod had a platform at the top holding a votive candle.  As we set the lanterns, we lit the votives rated to burn for ten hours, and hoped no more rain or wind would come our way. I was equally concerned that no water from the pools wick its way onto the paper.  I was interested in creating a little moonlight magic, not a wet paper mess.

Cranbrook 05  1 (11)It seemed the rain had cleared off, and we did finish with an hour to spare before guests were due to arrive. The reception would begin at the very far end of the pools, and guests would wind their way uphill.   

Cranbrook 05  1 (12)I was happy to have finished my part as the catering staff was setting up. I was on my way home to get dressed; I did not want to miss how all of this would look at night. 

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (20)Attending an event gives you the chance to experience it as other people do.  There is plenty to be learned from this-what proves awkward, what is not visually strong enough when a space is full of people, what proves to be good that you never gave a moment’s  thought to.  Any party in a garden will surprise you.

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (41)
I made it back just in time to see the garden begin to fill with people.  Little did I realize what the night would add to this party-more on that tomorrow.

A Sculpture for the City

2008 Branch 8-12-08 (20)
When a landscape architect for the city of Sault Ste Marie called about a sculpture/fountain that he might install in a tiny new city park, I did not tell him that I had nothing for him.  Who wants to talk to a client about what you cannot do for them? I am able to do things differently, as I have a very talented staff who are able to manage and fabricate all manner of custom work for clients. The fabrication studio shown above makes it possible to produce work in concrete, steel, wood and any combination thereof.  I told him we would be happy to design and quote a fountain for his project.

2008 Branch 8-12-08 (13)The upper peninsula of Michigan, and the Sault in particular, is home to a substantial population of American bald eagles.  They are proud of the fact that the eagle which symbolizes our entire nation thrives here, as well they should be.  The bald eagle is as much a local treasure, as it is a national one.  As any fountain placed on City property would be subject of discussion, design and review by committee, it seemed those firecely wild and independent birds would make a fitting subject for a sculpture, and appeal to a broad audience.  We chose a subject matter we knew would strike a chord with a number of people.  Given some drawings and dimensions of this object, a CAD drawing was produced enabling the project to be quoted.  Nothing with cities proceeds quickly, but it does proceed; we were cleared to build.

August 13 pictures 163This fourteen foot tall steel sculpture interpretive of a tree would cover a plumbing system designed to propel water out the topmost branch.  Attached to that tree would be a network of steel twigs representing an eagle aerie.  The galvanizing tank in which we hot dip galvanize all of our steel is only 5.5 feet wide; one branch of the tree would have to be mechanically installed after the contruction process was complete. The fountain was designed in the round for viewing, not designed to fit a tank. 

August 13 pictures 168

A five ton bridge crane allowed us to lay the sculpture down on a trailer, and transport it to the galvanizer. It was a days work for for the tank operator to carefully suspend and dip this piece, and its wide branch, without incident.  We stayed the entire length of the galvanizing process, so the piece would not have to be stored there; we trailored it home that night.  


The hot dip galvanizing process covered every surface with a layer of zinc; this zinc would protect the steel from rust.  The steel plate welded to the bottom of the sculpture would be bolted to a concrete foundation, ensuring that no wind or other  bad weather could topple it; that plate accounted for 300 of the 2000 pounds of steel used in all.


Acid washing the galvanized steel changed the finish dramatically.  What was silver is now a very dark streaky grey.  We hooked up a hose once the finish was completed, to check that the plumbing would work; this moment gave Buck more than a little anxiety.  If there were a problem with the plumbing, how could it be repaired? As he is a very thorough and thoughtful fabricator, the fountain passed its most important test. 

DSC_0016Life-size bald eagles hand sculpted  from a steel rod and mesh galvanized armature, and acid stained mortar, would be attached to the sculpture via steel sleeves made to match the size and angle of the legs.   

buckBuck followed  this semitruck on whose whose flatbed that sculpture was securely tied down-for 340 miles.  The next day, he supervised the installation, driving home late in the day. The sculpture had been installed.

The landscape architect, John Rowe, had designed a pool which captured the fountain water underground, and recirculated it. The design of the pool was much more about native Michigan rock, than water.  The clump of steel cattails provided sculptural interest closer to eye level. We kept the concrete sculptures high in the air; they can be seen from far away. The stone edge was wide enough to provide seating.  The materials used are gritty, as befits this urban neighborhood. It does indeed look like it belongs there.