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.

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

Checking In To The Grumpery

DSC_8800The month of March in Michigan always manages to test the good nature of the most graceful and exuberantly positive gardener. The bitter last of the winter is still firmly entrenched. It is 20 degrees, with snow flurries today.  It will be 14 degrees over night. I don’t know why these buckets of cheerfully fake red poinsettias irritate me so much.  If I didn’t know it was March, I would think it was Christmas time.

DSC_8788The north side of every cranny on my property has dirty snow and dead leaves on top of ice. The night temperatures regularly sink below freezing.  Dead tree branches litter the garden. The cold winds come and bring paper and plastic trash. Burned orange evergreen needles jump out at me. The south side of every Alberta spruce in my neighborhood is burned.

espalier damage

Tree trunks of espaliers whose bark has been gnawed off by rabbits-I fear for the lives of these plants.


Boxwood tips turning from cream to tan-I see the signs that signal winter kill. Never mind the bare boxwood branches courtesy of the winter of 2014.

DSC_8789My snowdrops that have just emerged will be subjected to 14 degree temperature over night. These should be named frozen through and through drops. I do not see any signs of the crocus-that is a good thing.

DSC_8798Some patches of my hellebores are still smothered in icy snow.  I am thinking of shoveling the last of the winter off of them, but I probably would take the crown of the plant with it.


The dead fern heads and cold singed European ginger laid flat out-I am more than ready for this phase of the year to be over. If you are a gardener, this is what March Madness really means.

DSC_8767My yard is dirty.  I have a big love for dirt-but not this kind of dead grass and compacted muck dirt. The dirt just outside the doorways is salt saturated. This dirt is in my car, and on my kitchen floor.  When it dries, it dries white.  A dirty white, that is.

DSC_8793Potholes, gaping and deep potholes, open up in the neighborhood streets. I believe a neighbor, out of desperation, filled this with dirt. A water main broke here in late January. A huge disk of ice sat here until a few weeks ago, when the pavement seemed to disintegrate over night. The skies are the same color as this road.

DSC_8784  Even the dogs had that accusatory look on their faces-can’t you do something about the endless winter?

DSC_8782We are still stuck indoors and moping. Why I went outside to see the dead leaves on the ivy – I am not sure. Maybe just to verify that we are truly living the misery.


I have talked to Buck at great length about all of this. On a number of occasions. Finally last night he advises me to go to the grumpery, and leave him be. I do not fault him for his exasperation. We have an understanding about the grumpery.  The grumpery is a place for any gardener who is so over the winter that they need to be quarantined.  I am hoping I do not need to spend too many more days there.

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.