The extraordinary Mr. Phil Savage

I have a big love for magnolias; I would have any and all of them, if I could.  I admire their big glossy leaves, and pale grey bark.  Most zone 5 hardy magnolias top out at 25 feet; they are a perfect tree for a small property.  Their spring flowers are strikingly large-and simply beautiful.  Some years our spring is so short they might be in bloom only a few days; I do not fault them for this.  Write a protest letter to Ms. Nature-should you have an inclination-but do not expect an answer.  Zone 5 gardeners-we ought to be used to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune-I am quoting Shakespeare here. No matter how many years in a row I would need to live through a late season killing frost, I would still plant magnolias.  Magnolias are so beautiful in every other regard, I have no problem recommending them.

Magnolia Stellata, or star magnolia, and the saucer magnolia, Magnolia Soulangiana, are common to my area. They, and their progeny and hybrids, grace many a spring landscape in my city.  Wada’s Memory, a hybrid of Magnolia Stellata, is a particularly beautiful white cultivar.  Ivory Chalice, bred by Dr Leach from the species Magnolia Denudata, is exceptionally striking in a good year.  It blooms early, and the blooming can be damaged by unexpected cold.  Should you have Ivory Chalice on your property this year, I am sure you are dancing with delight.  Plant this tree if you are a trouper gardener.  Do not plant this tree if you live by your expectations.

But by far and away, my favorite magnolia is Yellow Butterflies.  Bred by Phil Savage, a world renowned magnolia hybridizer, its fragrant pale yellow flowers are the best part of my spring landscape.   He lived on a large property right on Woodward Avenue in Bloomfield Hills for many years.  I met him in 1987 courtesy of Al Goldner, a noted landscape designer who mentored me for some years.  Al was very interested that any designer first and foremost needed to learn as much as possible about plants.  He was forever hauling his group to see this breeder, or that farm.  It was an education bordering on priceless; I understand that now.

I have no photographs of Phil Savage’s property, but I can describe it.  Magnolias towering at the better part of 50 feet tall were everywhere. Some were white, some were pink.  Others were peach, or yellow, or bordering on orange-colors I had never seen before.  Some trees with trunk calipers approaching 40 or 50 inches-magnolias grafted onto ash tree rootstock. The grafts were giant and incredibly sculptural.  Visiting his property was like visiting another planet. 

Just a few years ago, I visited his property again-courtesy of his niece-a client. He had passed away, and the property was for sale.  She thought I might like to see the magnolias in bloom.  What I saw there took my breath away.  A lifetime devoted to growing trees was in evidence everywhere. Magnolias, and more magnolias.  The size of his trees-like nothing I had ever seen. A giant forest of magnolias-imagine it. Most of these trees have never been introduced into commerce; the scientist and the dreamer had grown trees like I have never seen before or since.  The property is pure magic. 

The property was purchased from the family by a group intending to build a facility for the aged.  His niece was concerned that many of his trees would be felled, destroyed, in that process. I did have GP Enterprises, who successfully moves big trees, look at the property.  So many of the big trees were much too big to be moved. This was not so much comfort for her-she felt her Uncle’s work should be looked after, not cut down.  I was powerless to do anything-this felt so bad.

Phil Savage’s most beautiful and well-known cultivar-Butterflies.  This clear pale yellow flowering magnolia -I planted ten of them on either side of a walk to my back yard, and underplanted them with boxwood.  They have been in 6 years now; this spring their blooming is heavy and gorgeous.  A cross between the cucumber magnolia-Magnolia Acuminata, and Magnolia Denudata Sawada’s cream-it is exquisite in bloom, in leaf, in bark, and in habit. Every day for the last week, I pull up in front with the corgis in tow-and get out to take photographs. They lean out the rear window as if to ask-what are you up to?  I am up to trying to capture the color, the shape, the fragrance-all those things that defy recording.  No photograph could possibly do justice to how beautiful they are right now-come by if you can. 

I know I posted a few days ago about how I wish Detroit had a botanic garden, and that in the event I decided for the first time to buy a lottery ticket, and won, I would put that money towards a botanic garden for my city.  I could refine that dream.  The group that bought the property-they have no plans to build over Phil Savage’s magnolias right now; their project is on hold.  If I could, I would write them a check, and wave them off.  I would make a botanic garden-presided over by the most singular and amazing magnolia grove it has ever been my privilege to see.  I have my dreams, yes I do.


Wish me luck.

Sunday Opinion: Success

Though there is nothing revolutionary or even provocative about the idea, I have been thinking about it. That is, that nothing makes for enthusiasm quite like success.  A friend was asking about my very first garden-what exactly was that like?  In 1980, armed with 4000.00 in cash from the sale of my first house in Ferndale, and an 8000.00 loan from my grandmother, I was able to buy a house and 5 acres in Orchard Lake for $60,000.00.  How so?  Though Orchard Lake is a very nice community and five acres is a whomping lot of land, we were in the middle of a recession, and the house in question was a disaster in every way.  The furnace had been installed in a dirt hole under the house-a ladder was required to go take a look at it. The first spring I lived there, said hole flooded; I had no heat at all after April 1. Every other part of the house was on a par with this, or worse.  The house was so bad, I had to get homeowner’s insurance through a state pool of high risk properties. I was 30 years old-what did I know?  All I could see was the property-and the possibilities that property would afford me.  My Mom cried when she saw it-I remember being so annoyed with her.  I had enthusiasm-what else did I need?

I actually needed plenty, and couldn’t afford one thing, once the mortgage and that insurance was paid every month.  We knocked down the garage, whose roof was balanced on unmortared columns of concrete blocks, and disposed of it one truckload at a time.  The hand-excavation for the drive-in garage had left the foundation of the house exposed-an excavating guy said he would bring in 300 yards of sandy dirt, and rough grade it all for 2000.00.  Nana to the rescue, a second time.  I think she had more confidence that I could make this work than my Mom.  She decided up front that if I could not make a go of it, she would bail me out.  She never said so out loud, but I think from the start she insured me against disaster.

But back to my first garden.  I was left with a really roughly graded, unmowably steep slope of a giant size-now what? Most of the gardening I had done to that point was confined to reading and mooning over plant catalogues, and garden books from the library. I had a few beds around the house-a few great plants trying to survive the weedfest. Not having an unlimited budget, I wanted plants that would spread.  Ground covers for sun.  Many sunny groundcovers came under the heading of rock garden plants-so I decided I would have a rock garden.  A sympathetic neighbor with an ancient Ford tractor dragged huge rocks from the property up to the top of the slope, and  turned them loose. Gravity made half the placement decisions, the puffy new soil the other half.  My rocks sank like the stones they were- at least half way into the ground. My first success-each rock looked like it had been there long enough for the earth to come up around it like an opulent stole.

My second success-what dumb luck that the soil that came to me was very sandy, and well drained, as most of the property was intractably heavy clay.  I spent what seemed like a king’s ransom on little spreading plants-but the sheer square footage of the area swallowed them up.  Not having one clue about mulch or weed prevention, I weeded-for years and years- before it filled in. Then I moved into crown growing plants, for a little vertical interest. I had myself a rock garden.  Dianthus, saponaria, aethionema , thymes, species tulips, iris chrysographes, and forrestii-and my favorite-encrusted saxifrage.  I could not get over the fact that the saxifrage leaves were stone-limestone- encrusted. I still can’t. My plants grew, and that success fueled my enthusiasm for more.  When I sold the house fifteen years later, it was actually liveable.  But what I hated leaving behind the most were my gardens. The rock garden was my first on that property,  but not my one and only.

My success had mostly to do with fortuitous accident.  I would never have dug out 1000 square feet of sod for a garden all at one time-not then.  The sheer size of the area of bare dirt forced me to deal with the space as a whole.  I planned little plant villages and neighborhoods. I had an east coast, and a west coast.   I saw where the water ran downhill in a fierce rain, and gravelled those gullies. I planted accordingly. I had a country going on, and it was my job to govern the whole thing. The spots I could see coming up the front walk got my favorites.  On my own, I would have started small, and added on.  What is it about add on’s that they always look added on? The sandy gritty soil-I am sure my excavating person had some he wanted to get rid of, or perhaps it was on special that day. Wherever it came from, my rock plants loved where they lived. 

My best friend Margaret gave me Louise Beebe Wilder’s book “Pleasures and Problems of a Rock Garden” written in 1938;  she had inherited it from her gardener father.  I quote from her chapter “The Steadfast Sedum”:  “No stonecrop, we are given to understand, would have the heart to blast our budding enthusiasms by refusing to live; any soil will suit them, any situation, and they increase at a rate unknown to other rock plants.  Pin our faith to sedums, and avoid despair.”  I took her advice when ever possible.  She wrote about rock gardening with such great enthusiasm.  Phlox subulata, she writes, has “radiant color, rich fragrance, and almost universal amicability”.  Who would not want to grow that? I about wore that book out, as I read for the pleasure of her writing, and I read again for her instruction and encouragement.  I loved the sedums sight unseen-they were going to help me have a garden.

Some thirty years later, I am still interested in this idea of success and enthusiasm.  No one can be enthused about dead or near dead plants. Or a groundcover bed overrun with quack grass.  In some cases, I am unable to intervene; who knows what people do with their plants when I am not looking.  But anyone who wishes to grow a garden, or redo a landscape, or plant some pots, has the ability to help themselves.  Nurseries put tags in their pots of plants; more than likely someone works there who gardens at home.  My very first gardening job was at a place where I bought iris and daylillies by the trunkload. My ideas of a vacation is visiting a nursery.  I am possessed and obsessed by gardening.  Lacking this, trees come with planting instructions. There are books. There is the encyclopedia interneta. Every gardener knows these things; what can be much tougher is figuring out who you are. That will tell you what kind of gardener you might become, should you hope and plan to.  Plan for success, and work hard.  You’ll be a better gardener for it.

Travelling

One of my favorite clients and dear friends took off this morning for Rome. As hard as it is for me to believe, she insisted my post on Villa D’Este inspired her to go visit her granddaughter who is on foreign study in Rome-and by the way, go see that  garden. By this time last week, she had enlisted both of her daughters-one of whom is Carol, the proud Mom of said student Grace.  Daughter Diane is an RN living in California-she flew out for the Romefest.  Four other friends signed on.  She organized an entourage- soon to land in Italy.  Tonight, I think.

She has the week ahead planned.  A guided visit to the Vatican.  Villa D’Este, of course.  A request from me for an Italian boater with an orange band.  A cooking course she thought sounded like fun.  I have no details on this, as once you use the word cooking within my earshot, I black out. Some time she has left to Grace to organize.  Her energy puts me to shame.

I am thinking about her, as she loves to travel.  She so enjoys the garden tour we do every year; she has been trying to worm out of me for weeks where this year’s tour might take her.   She drive-travels straight through to get her granddaughter back to Clemson University in September, and drive-travels again to pick her up at year’s end.  She travels in other ways less literal.  She considers ideas outside her realm-she is happy to go anywhere, and decide if she likes it.  She is a traveller. 

I am not a board a vehicle and go traveller.  I hate the packing and the time it takes to arrive at a destination.  I am not crazy about being away from home. I travel-reluctantly; the process exhausts me.  I am always happy to get where I am going-what is not to like about seeing new places.  Whomever can convince me to travel-many thanks.  When NASA figures out how to beam me up, I will be first in line.  On occasion, something or someone will beam me over to what never occurred to me-best regards, and many thanks for this. But I am always thinking about travelling when I design.

 I know travel is a key issue in design.  Once a mortgage survey is in my hands, my first move is to decide how, why and where one might travel in the landscape.  For anyone designing their own landscape, I would encourage them to build some roads in their garden. Some roads need to be two lane.  Other roads can be a skinny dirt two-track.  Some places need stop signs.  Other places need roundabouts.  A travel sceme is essential for you, your kids, dogs, and guests.  Plan your routes before you decide anything else.

How will you get from the house, to the grill, to the terrace, to the trash, to the rose garden, to the street, to the back door, to the compost pile, to the picnic table-how will you drive through, walk through, and linger in the space?  Where will your family and friends congregate?  If you were to walk your garden with a video camera running, would a story be told?   Expand off road wherever you have a mind to. 

No writer/gardener I ever read more clearly and more beautifully addresses the travel particular to the journey of a gardener than Dominique Browning; I have talked about this before.  Her discussion of the evolution of her garden has everything to do with travelling through, and lingering here or there. When she is stopped, she is stopped in her tracks. When she moves on to somewhere else, there is a big pair of lopping shears in her hand,  and /or significant emotional travel involved. 

She has a sense of humor about her basic unwillingness to budge off her comfort spot. She is entirely dispassionate about all of her passions.  I admire this in her.  Her writing encourages me to loosen up, and move around more.  How you will live, perch, lounge, work, read or take a nap are questions that need to be addressed before you make moves. 

 No matter how glued I am to my place, I put that aside, and encourage myself to take my clients somewhere. Somewhere better than they thought they could have it. Think about this, you people who have a mind to design your own gardens.  If you have a notion to hire a designer, first and foremost understand how you will travel through the landscape they have designed for you.

Jane’s travels are much more than I have detailed here.  Like all of us, she has roads to travel, like them all or not.  Getting control of  the layout of those roads may make things easier.  Some paths are 25mph quiet zones.  Others have lots of traffic. It is important to get this part right.  Some badly placed plants can easily be moved-your routes, not so easy to redo.  Whether you use a piece of paper, a garden hose, landscape paint, or stakes and strings, taking the time to plan your trip is a good idea.

Sunday Opinion: Holiday Spirit

I do believe that gardening is a beneficial activity; I highly recommend it.  The walking, weeding, bending, hauling and digging it requires can provide all the exercise you need, and then some.  While weeding, I can hear the birds, feel the sun on my neck , taste my own sweat and put my hands in the dirt; my senses get their exercise too. I am entertained watching the corgi races while I prune. There is the element of satisfaction that comes with making physical progress on a project.    Riding a stationary bike or lifting barbells has no appeal to me whatsoever.  What’s to see?  I am sure there are circumstance under which I would run, but none of them are pleasant.  Gardening is hard work, but you get more back than an admirable physique-just my opinion. 

Exposure to nature teaches a thing or two. There are no end of events in my garden that make clear I am neither the president nor chairman of the board of said enterprise-nor will I ever be up for either position.  This is a grown up experience-realizing you are not in charge, nor are you the center of anything.  I am the sole depositor to the garden bank account.  As nature doesn’t fix what she wrecks, you learn what stewardship is all about.  I’ve not met the gardener that does not respect the sanctity of life.  I’ve heard tell of toad families rescued from window wells,  goslings trapped in the swimming pool netted out to safety-in spite of the flapping fury of the goose Mom. My gardening clients talk to and play with my dogs when they are here, and I know the names of their dogs.  No one bothers the insects in my garden-although I do throw my Japanese beetles in the trash.  The arborvitae hedge that will take three years to recover from ice damage taught me more than I ever wanted to know about patience.  Maintaining a garden is a daily lesson in what is meant by committment.  Learning to garden is a process with no end and no diploma; the only person likely to be clapping and dancing about your hellebores would be you.  Anyone who has trouble identifying what constitutes a reality check would be set straight with a little gardening. 

The gardeners I know by and large have good manners.  They don’t mow on Saturday morning at 8am-only non-gardening people do that.  They don’t keep boats, bikes and trash cans within view of neighboring gardens. They clean up after their dogs and kids.  They do not burn garbage in their fireplaces. What the world sees of them is neat and orderly. The neighbor behind me-I have spent untold amounts in trees and fencing, the sole purpose of which is to obliterate my view of his 2007 and 2008 Christmas tree skeletons, his decaying canoe, his broken pots, dead bushes, and unmowed grass.  He is most definitely not a gardener, nor is he a serviceable housekeeper. Gardeners are happy to share their gardens.  This extends to offering cuttings or a start, or some useful advice.  I see this willingness to share evident no matter the size, circumstance or scope of their garden. 

Gardeners do seem to have values.  Only once in fourteen years have I have something stolen from the store-an old and spectacularly beautiful lavender topiary.  What made me so mad about it was knowing the person who stole it could not have been a gardener; I am sure it was dead within a month. I do not guarantee any plant sold at my shop.  I would not want to suggest to anyone that I have control over what they do not do, or do too much of.  Gardeners know that ignorance of the horticulture is no excuse. They do not demand restitution-they own their own trouble.  They are an honest lot; a nickel in the driveway gets taken to the counter. They don’t envy the gardens of others-they appreciate them.  I can be thoughtless and act poorly the same as the next person-but my garden reminds me that the heat of the moment pales in comparison with the big picture.

I like the holidays for these same reasons.  They bring out the best in people.  The holidays remind us that if we are able, we should help others in whatever way we can.  This may be volunteering, or contributing or instructing-something my garden does routinely for me.  Decorating for the holidays makes people feel good and act better.  I have seen lots of smiles, and been treated to an equally large number of “happy holidays” and “Merry Christmas” greetings.  Rob, whose optimism, patience and good manners rarely desert him, helps people plan to decorate, or entertain in a garden-like fashion. It’s nice to see adult faces lighting up once a sense of holiday spirit takes hold; I see him make this happen all the time. Last year an outspoken client came to the register with a wreath she wanted-in the next breath she is telling me her work hours had been cut and changed, and she really had no business buying it .  I told her I would take whatever she had in her wallet in settlement of the debt.  I took her twelve dollars, and she left smiling.  Two days later she was back-a platter heaping with her homemade baklava in tow. Good spirit-there’s nothing quite like it.     

 I have never seen so many gardens lit for the season as I have this year. Some are beautiful, some are dramatic-some are out there-but what they share in common is the gesture of light against the dark. I can attribute some of this to our warm November weather; Janet thinks the reason has to do with an instinct and the good will to provide light in a dark time.  A spirited gesture. I think she may be right.