Sunday Opinion: What Are You Planning?

Today is January 31st-if you are not thinking about what you have in store for your garden, and what your garden has in store for you come May, you are unavoidably sidetracked, or sideswiped.  Either scenario-you have my sincere sympathies; this happens to me every year too.  I think I have all the time in the world to dream until the date finally registers with me.  The winter months can fly by faster than you think, in spite of all the endlessly daily grey.  I am corresponding with a grower out west about his large scale espaliers, putting together a list of 12 inch annual basket combinations for Bogie Lake Greenhouse to grow, sketching every possible permutation of a shape for a swimming pool that will gracefully accomodate both a lap swimmer and family recreation in a very tight buildable space, and going over and over in my mind a design for a house only 6 feet from the road, whose flat back yard space is minimal-the rest dropping off precipitously. The shop is completely torn apart for cleaning, painting and rearranging; spring shipments are beginning to arrive. No doubt the best thing about January 31st is that I will not have to live through it again for another year. But it also means I only have 6 weeks to be ready for plenty. 

 What you are planning, and planning now, is of utmost importance. The garden waits for no one.  Gardeners are tinkerers-they have to be. In my zone there is some winter time to choose this over that, make changes, establish an order of events.  The seed loving people have been hard at work for weeks already.  You can’t grow every available string bean or cosmos-or can you?   I could not live in a climate without a winter season; I not only need reverie time, but I like it. I am set in my ecosystem, for good or for ill.  California gardeners-how I admire them. They have something every day progressing or declining-no neutral.  No time out or off. Of course this is my idea of what it is like to garden in California-unsullied by any experience. Where am I going with this?  The planning for a garden informs the work.  Though nature can wreck my plans in a capricious blink of her eye, an investment in some planning time is like a little insurance.  That baby blue spruce that would look so good next to the walk will become a big Mama spruce sooner than you think-how will it look in that spot, 25 feet tall and 10 feet wide?  It takes the same time, sweaty effort and money to plant something in the wrong place as the right one.  This is an obvious example of what is a good idea to think through before you act.  Other design issues are not so clear, and just take time to get the good and beautiful solution.  When I do not have any ideas that to my mind seem worth lifting a hand for, I say so, and take the time to come back. It is possible that one’s first pass at something is the best pass.  Its equally as likely that the 4th pass will be better than the 5th.  You won’t know this unless you take the time.      

  It seems to me that very good design is a significant part of every good product, novel, music, art or cuisine that comes my way.  And that some form of reflection plays a big part in the making.  Beautiful and thoughtful are good together in the same sentence, and on the same project.  It is true that time I give to my garden or yours means that something else does not get time. It could be the most expensive thing about a garden is the time it demands.  Making the decision to devote the time is the hardest part. I meet people all the time capable of imaginative and intriguing ideas.  Committing the time to giving form to those ideas is another thing altogether.  So should you be stuck indoors, or just stuck, play along with my plan if you choose. 

I am never more focused on design than I am right now, on the verge of February first. So that process what I will be talking about.  As this weather leaves me cold, the first thing I do is turn my eyes towards my interior landscapes.  The gardens of my dreams.  Inspiration is everywhere, provided you take the time to let it work you over.  (Yes, my garden works me over.)  I am thinking that if I take the time to look at my process more critically, it will make my gardens better.  It’s a place to start.

Sunday Opinion: Wait One Moment, Please

Once my garden finally comes to life in the spring, it seems so utterly groggy for so many weeks, I finally feel like poking it with a big stick. More than once have I smashed shoots just emerging from the ground, milling about where I had no business. One foolishly warm day in March turns the old blood over, as Theodore Roethke would say, and I am out there searching for any sign of life.  The next day is inevitably wintry. I am admirably able go on to my clients about the proper time for this or that, but frankly I am not any better at waiting than the next gardener.  My landscape is a study in static the end of January. Every day is just about as dreary as the next.  The sky I can see, which surely must be thousands of square miles, is the same sullen shade of bleak from edge to edge, and top to bottom. A relentlessly uniform tour de force, if you will.  Michigan is known for for its astonishing number of sun-free winter days, should anyone be interested in that. How annoying -to be waiting for the weather to change.

Every walking surface is an icy and bumpy history of the footsteps of those few who venture out.  The mail man has his signature bootprint.  There are the corgi paws, the Fex Ex man, whose boots are distinctly different than the UPS man, and the meter reader prints. The arrival of the mail truck ranks as an event. Friends in the neighborhood honk the horn as they drive by; they are waiting for spring too. Still stubbornly wearing tennis shoes, I slide all over the terrain.  Playing ball with the corgis in the drive is more about keeping my balance than watching them.  They slide around, slip up and flip over- with gusto.  They draw no distinction between a balmy spring day and today’s plate of frozen mush.  Milo manages to find yet one more fresh deep patch of snow in which to bury his ball, and them triumphantly dives and retrieves it, as if he had never before had so much fun.  He has better than an instinct to survive the waiting; he lives for that triumphant moment when can burst through the door, and be outdoors.  Why can’t I do this? I man that door for him as if it were the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. (Waiting does strange things to people.) I may wait 15 seconds before I fling the door open-he is spot on at full speed the moment I make my move.  He is halfway down the drive, and already circling back to see if I am there; I assure you I am not through the door yet.  We may do this a dozen times a day, or better.  

The seed and nursery catalogues come in droves in January.  They can furnish me with no small amount of diversion, entertainment, and serious interest, while I am waiting.  I even study the descriptions of the vegetable seeds-though I grow none.  Sorting through 500 tomato varieties, both heirloom and new, is better than a walk through my neighborhood.  The packages are alluring, all the varieties worth pondering. I have been known to buy packets of seeds of plants I have no intention to grow.  It’s enough to just look at them.  A nursery on the West Coast grows espaliered lindens, and sells them large enough to plant free standing-how intriguing is this? The growers from Lake County in Ohio are many; the land there is rich and productive.  Herman Losely and Sons, Bluestone Perennials, Lake County Nursery-they all grow great plants; reading their catalogues often inspires design ideas. Sunny Border Nursery-I could order a semi-truck load of rock plants and hens and chicks from them on a day like today.  I have a stack of those catalogues measuring 23 inches tall. My stack of magazines, all relating to design in some way or another is probably 4 feet tall.  I do not have the time to really read during the gardening season. Cote Sud, Cote Ouest, the English version of Country Living- I stack them up for the winter when I can concentrate, and cut out images I do not wish to part with.  I do have a stash of magazine pages I go through on occasion, some dating back a long time.  Sitting in the waiting room of the garden, all of these materials provide a little hope for the future.  I winter-read, with the exception of Garden Illustrated; for this publication, I can’t wait. When it comes, I read.

 I have a collection of antique seed catalogues, dating back to the turn of the century. Suttons Seeds from England, Marshall’s Seeds from New York City in 1927, Dreer’s from Philadelphia-I love the old ones. The engravings are beautiful, but more, I appreciate the earnest notes of those gardeners, caught in the stranglehold of January, favoring this variety or that. No matter where these catalogues came from, and no matter where I find them, gardeners are mumbling to themselves about what they will do once the starting gate swings open. These notes are invariably in pencil.  Any note in pencil can easily be changed, updated, altered, or tuned up, right?  Shall I buy one packet of 25 seeds, or are three packets, at a better price, what I really need?  Wait-would this variety be better? Things are underlined; the margins are full of scribbles. Gardeners all over are writing about what seeds they will be growing, waiting for that time when they can stop writing and start growing.  I would begrudgingly admit this time of year may be about waiting, but it should be about planning, and anticipation.

Wait one moment please-am I really thinking I am tired of again trying to find perennials that will mature properly short enough in front of my boxwood?  Or should I move that boxwood two feet forward, and plant the taller plants of my dreams behind it?  Whatever decision I make, there will be better than several winter months in which to consider that decision. No need for any ink yet. A garden is big work-this makes the planning all the more important.  Taking one’s winter to plan is a sterling idea; it is even a better idea to take your eyes off the skies, and put them to use elsewhere. I would be the better for taking my own advice.  Once I take the time to sort through what has been in my garden, I will be waiting for my big box of seeds, in beautifully rendered packages clearly marked 2010, to finally arrive.

Sunday Opinion: The Authenticity Of Place

I met three new people yesterday.  A couple with a sizeable property working with an architect on designing a large open conservatory space and terrace that would allow them to spend more time and entertain out doors, were equally as interested in addressing their landscape.  I spent several hours with them, discussing the scope of their project. They were very interested that I understand why they had bought the house. He was very clear in comunicating that the house was relatively unimportant in their decision process; they bought on the strength of his keen interest in the property.  It is large, has many mature trees, and a very interesting and varied topography.  The house sits quite high; the view driving up almost suggests the house sits on a cliff.  He discussed at some length how much the placement of the house suited him.  Those of you familiar with Julie Messervy’s book, The Inward Garden, will recall her discussion of what she calls “archetypal gardens”.  Each child’s physical experience of “place” later in life culminates in a psychological concept of the world. ( This is an unfairly condensed version of her ideas; If you are a gardener, I could not too highly recommend reading this book.)  He feels a genuine connection to this particular place. 

He went on to discuss the importance of his family, and his relationships with them.  This in and of itself is not remarkable; many people value family above all else. What was interesting was his description of that life.  His interaction with friends and family was very much intertwined with his interaction with the natural world.  He wanted everyone in his immediate sphere to experience nature in some way. His children would be exposed to and learn about nature.  As to benefits, many people talk about a need for peace and serenity at home.  I can so well relate to that feeling.  He was especially articulate, describing how wearing the demands of  public life can be.  He emphasized how important the landscape and garden was in restoring and maintaining his sense of well being.  In conclusion, he told me that a house and home was no doubt a wonderful thing.  But no matter how nice a house might be, in the end, it would always be a cave. He would be happiest, outdoors.  His interest that the landscape be beautiful and well looked after is a personal and proprietary interest of his. He is interested that the landscape spaces flow such that he is able to entertain, teach his children, entertain and enjoy the beauty and excitement of every square inch of it.  Though I do not expect to see him turning soil, this person is a gardener. 

What interested me the most about meeting the two of them was how they had organized their first meeting with me.  They had thought a lot about what the landscape meant to them, and felt that this discussion was the first order of business. They made a distinction between the big scheme of things, and and all else that came under the heading of details.   I like when I see people thinking personally, abstractly, intelligently and passionately about the prospect of a garden.  They genuinely represented themselves.  I share with them an interest as a designer that the sculpture which is the landscape have an authenticity of place. 

Though I only know enough to be dangerous discussing the idea known as “genius loci”, the words translate literally from the latin as the genius of place.  I interpret this to mean that a landscape, authentic to the environment and culture from whence it comes, has a genuine and special beauty. In classical times, the actual meaning of the phrase meant not so much the place, but the guardian divinity of that place. Clearly nature is the guardian divinity of the property under discussion; they both made reference to this with as much delight as conviction. An idea much discussed in England in the 18th century, this distilled bit from Alexander Pope;  “Consult the genius of the place in all…”  The large landscape parks in England from this time period were designed with the idea that a truly successful landscape was a more civilized, less savage, and virtually indistinguishable version of what nature might herself create. Much later, Lawrence Durrell would say ” …you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all the spirit of place.”  As much as I (The aforementioned came largely from an article on genius loci from The Journal of Urban Design written by Jiven and Larkham) am interested in philosophical underpinnings, I am much more tuned in and trusting of the judgments made by the eye.  I think landscapes that don’t look or feel right, that are not seated in the environment in which they are made, that are disconnected, and lack a sense of authenticity, have that movie set aura about them to which I could never belong.

A sense of belonging is not so easy to come by, for anyone.  However, I clearly belong to my garden, and the gardens I make for others.   The third person I met at a dinner party last night.  I was introduced to him by both name and profession; he spent a few minutes talking to me about his landscape.  He said when he came home at night, and closed the car gates behind him, there was not a single visual clue anywhere on the property or in the landscape that would reveal that he lived in Michigan.  He had a classically formal French garden, perfect in every detail.  Every bit of this delighted him. I have not seen the garden, so I have no opinion about it.  But were I ever asked to do any design work for him, I would want to understand what would provoke such an intense longing for another time, and another place, that he would find such a dislocation beautiful.  I have designed plenty for people with a penchant for formal and edited French design.  Or perennial borders with an English flavor. But none the less, these are American gardens, set in Michigan. I happen to think Michigan is a very beautiful place, as do the clients I just met.  That we treasure our place is common ground.

Sunday Opinion: Gifted, Feted, and Otherwise Entertained

As much as I may be breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays have come to a close, I do so enjoy them.  They are such an opportunity to gift, fete and entertain those with whom one feels close. They make for a winter landscape that is warm. Though I am readily absorbed by the process of dressing my home and garden for the winter, sharing that outcome with others is the best part by far.  Buck and I did host a fete for friends in late December.  If “a fete for friends” sounds like a charity function to you-it was.  We were all in need of some good natured hubbub, lots of laughter and fun, in each other’s company. Some friends brought appetizers; others brought cookies or wine. Everyone brought some holiday cheer.  As I was the only person who knew everyone, there were people meeting for the first time-and sharing interests. I learned that the C’s knew the B’s long ago from a mutual vacation spot.  That Cantoros Italian grocery store has this or that you cannot find elsewhere. That this friend was sure to become a friend of that one.  At one point Buck was firing up the Harley in the basement for an equally enamoured friend; later he was showing super eight movies from the 20’s on one of his vintage projectors.  One friend’s favorite moment?  As Buck is showing his movies and talking about his projector collection, the 20-something daughter of another friend standing behind him is filming the entire scene-on her i-phone.  The generation gap documented start to finish-in some 30 seconds. Put friends together-what shakes out is sure to paste a smile on my heart for days.

A colleague and friend has a gift for giving.  He pays attention to who people are; were you ever to get a gift from him, you would understand how seriously he pays attention.  My Christmas gift from him is invariably a shopping bag chock full of what must have taken him the entire year to amass.  Every single thing speaks to what he has observed and remembered about me. There’s nothing big, or hugely expensive, with the exception of his lavish hand with great cheese-just clear evidence of respect and affection for me, the person. I do not get this from him only at Christmas.  Valentine’s Day last year came midway through my effort to paint 100 little watercolors of auricula primroses;  nine little auricula hybrid plants came by post on the 14th.  I treasure his ability to put another ahead of himself; I am not nearly this thoughtful.

We have had friends over a lot this holiday season. Some bring treats and toys for the dogs. They fill the house with unmistakeable signs of life.  They invite us back by return phone call; we have been to their studios for tour dinners.  We planned a spaghetti cookoff with new friends-of course both dinners were the best.  We had New Year’s brunch at a friend whose menu was as elegant as her salon style manner of entertaining.  New Year’s dinner with neighbor friends featured the pub food they served at their pub in England many years ago.  Their entire family treats us like we belong to them.  Still other friends set their table and entertained us as if we were visiting heads of state.  This treatment from friends feels good.    

Friends took us to Sunday brunch today at a favorite restaurant of theirs in Detroit. The uniformly green building has no sign in front, just the initials LdV on the gate. Around back, in the alley, they park your car for you.  This small Italian restaurant/bar has superlative food; my eggs benedict and prosecco was perfect. I could not keep my fork out of Buck’s pasta.  A small band filled the place with music-jazz, calypso-everyone was laughing, talking, dancing and having fun. Add to this the spirited conversation with friends-a perfect afternoon.  So many things got said that I was afraid I would forget-I took notes.  I hear tell the second Sunday of the month is their pajama brunch.  Yes, you are welcome in your pajamas.  Some come in outlandish constume-and if you are still there at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, a group picture gets taken.  I can’t wait.  Who knew a Sunday could be so much fun?

Our friends independently came to the decision that they were done griping, whining, and fearing.  As hard as it is to navigate in a gloomy fog, getting lost is a choice, not a given.  They talked a lot about how as Americans, they grew up knowing about imagination, ingenuity, hard work, and goodwill-this comes with our culture. It is still part of the culture. Of note, a recent program to recruit volunteers to teach kids in Detroit to read had 2000 people sign up-incredible, and incredibly good for our city, said our friends. Something good for our city-within our grasp.  Watching this very diverse group of Sunday brunchers fill a room with laughter, music and fun, I believed them.  Why shouldn’t I?  It occurred to me that but for these friends, none of this would be on my mind.

For 2010, I could take all the energy with which I have been gifted, feted, and otherwise entertained by my friends, and pass it along in some way. The simple science?  From Newtonian physics, we know that anything in motion tends to stay in motion-unless acted upon by an outside force. Outside forces I can keep outside, should I determine they might stop me in my tracks.  Inside forces keep the fire burning. Keeping the fire burning-a good goal for the new year.