More Fun Than I Bargained For

carving-pumpkins.jpgI will confess that I look forward to Halloween. Though it is first and foremost a low budget fright night celebrating demons, devils, and the walking dead, it is also a garden party.  The worst horror for me-after the harvest, the garden season is done until next year.  Halloween, by contrast, is an angst free celebration of the coming of the dark time.  Though no childhood celebration of Halloween of mine was complete without carved and lighted pumpkins, every year I consider foregoing this ritual.  The pumpkins are incredibly heavy.  Gutting them is a messy and slimy affair.  The carving takes more time than you think.  No one lights pumpkins for a week or two-it is a one night delight.  Are you in?

carved-pumpkin.jpgYes, every year I relent.  I carve pumpkins.   Prielipp Farms at my local farmer’s market has someone load my choice of carving pumpkins into my car-they are really swell about this.  Rob carts them from the suburban to my workroom.  There they are, looking at me.  My carved pumpkins come last-after I carve them for clients. So they day before Halloween, I have 6 pumpkins to carve.

carved-pumpkins.jpgI have no use for patterns.  What fun is that, to follow a pattern that someone else has imagined? I make a few marks on the surface with a marker, and get cutting.  Every pumpkin carving evolves from the first cut to the finish.  Like most other garden projects, one move suggest another.  A big idea sketched out, a plan for the placement of walkways, porches and trees will eventually come down to the closing details.  Once a carving begins, all those other issues clamoring for my attention fade away. It’s just me, a vague idea, and a knife.

carved-pumpkin.jpgThis pumpkin carving began with a drill-and ends up looking like it was drilled.  It may be a foolish pleasure, but I highly recommend carving pumpkins for Halloween.  It is the last event of the fall.  How I enjoy it.  Enjoyment of the garden is rarely an academic exercise.  It is a shockingly sensory loaded enjoyment of nature, in all of its forms.  The sound of wind or the cicadas, the smell of the roses, the sounds of the birds, the tulips opening the first really warm day of spring, watching the Boston Ivy change color, the geese flying south, cutting the lids off the pumpkins-I call this experiential and primary source material for a life appreciative of nature.  Halloween is just the right dose of mock horror I need at the end of the season.

Halloween-garden.jpgI do get lots of visitors on Halloween.  I want to make it worth the while of the both of us.  Once my carved pumpkins were set, I was pleased.  I had company coming.

Halloween-night.jpgOur Halloween was perfect.  Rainy and ominously windy.  I only worried for a moment that no one would come.  Of course they would come.  Halloween is but one night every year.  And come they did.

Halloween-night.jpgI was so worried that my votive candles in my pumpkins would blow out, considering the gusty winds and rains.  Rob sent me home with 6 Belgian made candles whose claim to fame is their willingness to burn in adverse conditions.  The wind does not blow these candles out.  These candles not only stayed lit in the wind and rain, they blackened the insides of the pumpkins-to great effect, I might add.

Halloween-pumpkin.jpgEarly in the evening, I could see that my pumpkins were cooking, given the strength of the Belgian candles.  At my request, Buck vented all of the pumpkin lids with florists picks.  Who knew those Belgian candles would provide another dimension to my Halloween garden!  The carved pumpkins promptly blackened-this was a horrifying event I had not anticipated.  The smell was rather delicious, and the steam rising was dramatic.  I was scrambling to make sure they wouldn’t collapse before the end of the evening.

Halloween-pumpkin.jpgTrick or treaters coming up my walk were treated to the smell of cooking pumpkin, and the visual experience of superheated pumpkin in the rain steaming from every cut.  Rob and I spent some time observing the scene from the sidewalk.  Every little visitor was talking about the pumpkins.  Which one they liked the best. There were lots of questions at the door about who carved them.

fiery.jpgMy garden design life is a serious life.  I see it that way.  But there are those moments in the garden that are memorably and simply great fun.  I suspect that I enjoyed my Halloween at least as much as my guests.

lighted-pumpkin.jpgThe only time I see this group of kids who live in my neighborhood is Halloween night.  They don’t have an appreciation of my yellow magnolias, or the shapes of my boxwood.  But they do respond to what I have carved from the fruits of the harvest.  Every one of them says thanks.  The very youngest children say thanks too, prompted by the parents accompanying them.

lighted-pumpkin.jpgThe hauling and heaving around of my big pumpkins in the process of carving them-it took its toll.  I have the old lady backache, and my hands are still sore.  So be it.  This Halloween was more fun than I bargained for.

lighted-pumpkin.jpgThe garden’s most memorable moments seem to revolve around that surprise I did not see coming.

Halloween-night.jpgOnce it was dark, these faces took on another dimension, given the interaction of rain, wind, and fire.

trick-or-treater.jpgThis Halloween visitor could not have been more than 3 feet tall.  I would guess he was 9 years old.  His costume- sensational.  We were all having fun.


At A Glance: Peonies In Bloom

pale-pink-peonies-in-full-bloom All of the pictures in this post came from companies in the US and Canada that grow peonies for sale.  Interested in adding some to your garden?  My local nurseries sell well rooted peonies in pots in the spring, but if you are interested in a specific cultivar, you may need to order from a peony grower for a bare root fall delivery.

peony-mix.jpgEither next spring, or the year after, or in my next life, I will have the chance to design a landscape around a collection of peonies. I have time.

Cora Stubbs Song Sparrow Farms



Hollingsworth Peonies


Song Sparrow Farm

Mrs. FDR


The Fawn

White Cap


Krinkled White

Those nurseries that specialize in growing peonies for sale-support them.  Buy some. A gardening world without peonies-dreary.  The peonies blooming-so glorious.

Martha's-peonies.jpgThis picture was taken at Martha Stewart’s peony garden, and posted on her blog.  Truly beautiful.

Planting Peonies



Once the fall sets in, I focus on all of those plants that favor a fall planting.  Of course the spring flowering bulbs are routinely planted in the fall, but right now I am thinking about peonies. I have had a big love for peonies my entire gardening life. At one point early in my gardener history, I had many hundreds of them planted on my property in rows, like crops. This infatuation with peonies predates my infatuation with design.  I wanted those plants, and had no idea of what to do with them beyond digging a hole and planting. I was young, working, and struggling.  Every extra cent went to plants, and in the fall, to peony roots.  The picture above, one of the few that I still have.  Peonies are just about the easiest perennial on the planet to grow.


Peonies are ordinarily sold as bare root divisions, in the fall.  A cluster of juicy roots with dried tops arrive bathed in barely moist sphagnum moss.  Of particular interest-the number of eyes.  Those red eyed shoots with send forth stems, come spring.  A standard division-3 to 5 eyes.  Double divisions are occasionally available.  A peony asks for just a few things.  Full sun, somewhat alkaline soil, and a planting at the proper depth.  Per the drawing above from the Canadian Peony Society, the eyes should be 2 inches below ground-after they are watered in and the ground settles.  They may refuse to bloom, if the are set to shallow or too deep.  As long lived as peonies are, they resent transplanting.  Smaller divisions transplant more readily.  Larger divisions are a temptation; it will take a number of years to grow a peony division into a robustly shrubby and heavily blooming plant.   Peonies are incredibly long lived perennials-perhaps the longest lived of all perennials, save asparagus.  Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground, come the winter.  In May their thick stems and glossy leaves are topped with an amazing variety of flowers.  Post the bloom season, their strong stems and glossy leaves grace the garden with  a broadleaved presence.


I cannot remember which birthday it was, but my Mom gave me a trip to the National Peony Convention in Mansfield Ohio.  I was in my mid twenties. I had to have been the youngest attendee at the convention by 30 years or better.  I have a distinct memory of a great worry.  What if not enough people my age got interested in growing peonies?  My Mom put that to rest.  Could I have afforded the trip and the lodging and the meals?  No.  Older people who were more established or perhaps retired attended the convention.  There certainly were other gardening Moms taking their kid to specialty plant meetings and exhibitions.

Julia.jpgMy love of gardening has everything to do with Julia.  Along with exposure to good books, manners, and study habits, she saw to my exposure to nature, dirt, and plants.  I can still remember what a happy trip this was.  Rooms full of peony flowers in milk bottles, each specimen more lovely than the last.


On the table tops-the blooms submitted for exhibition.  Under the tables-the rejected flowers.  Perhaps there was a blemished petal, or the form wasn’t perfect.  I could not imagine how it came to be that thousands of peonies from all over the country happened to be at peak bloom on the same day.  I learned that once a peony bud shows color, it can be refrigerated, a plastic bag over it’s head, in the vegetable crisper.  2 days before you want the flower in bloom, bring it out of the crisper, recut the stem, and place it in deep water.  Voila. The year after this show, I put 50 stems in the fridge.  I had no lettuce, celery or radishes, but I had peonies for almost 6 weeks.

photographing-the-peonies.jpgThis was an incredible opportunity to see they flowers from many different cultivars.  There were lectures about herbaceous peonies, and tree peonies.  I saw my first herbaceous/tree peony cross-then an unnamed”Itoh Hybrid”.  The flower was a pale yellow with dark red flares-so exotic.


My scrapbook detailing that visit is old, but still a part of my library.  My peony growing days are long over. That moment in my gardening life when I had hundreds of them lined out is but a memory.  I do not have anyplace to plant them now.  But every fall, I long for them, just the same.


Were I to limit myself to just a few peonies, I would choose these.  Moonstone.  Mrs. FDR.  Miss America.  Kansas.  Sea Shell, Red Charm, Dinner Plate. Princess Margaret, Coral Charm, Kansas.  Do Tell, Krinkled White, Festiva Maxima.  Doreen, Do Tell, Gay Paree, Nick Shaylor.  Charlies White, Pillow Talk, and Bu-Te.  Cytheria, Dinner Plate, Ludovica, and Paula Fay.  The Fawn, Miss America, White Innocence, and Princess Margaret.  I would want to grow White Cap, too. This is not a few peonies-this is a list from a person who has a big love for peonies.  Lucky for me, I am but a short drive from the largest collection of herbaceous peonies in the US.


In the 1920′s, WE Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, donated a collection of 280 varieties to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan.  More than 90 years later, many of his original plants are still healthy and blooming.  An avid collector and grower of peonies himself, he had the kindness to share that with other gardeners.


His grand daughter, Martha G Parfet, recently donated a half a million dollars to honor her grandfather, and establish the WE Upjohn Peony Garden Fund to help with the restoration and the protection of this historic peony garden.


What a treasure-a peony museum.




The Branch Catalog


Last fall I contacted Jonathon Hofley, owner of Motor City Publishing, about doing a project for Branch.  He has handled all of the print advertising for Detroit Garden Works, from the first day we went into business.  He is responsible for everything we do to speak and spread our story-from inserts in the New York Times, to the lettering on our trucks.  He maintains the garden cruise website, he arranges to have our landscaping company and garden cruise tee shirts printed. He answers me, even if I write him on a Saturday night.   If you have a business that needs an advocate, he and his brother Eric do an outstanding job.  For the record, they write and publish the Michigan Gardener magazine.  We pass out their free publication like crazy every month.  Both of them are serious gardeners.  The both of them have a mission to spread the good gardening word, which makes them an ideal partner.


But back to last fall-I had a special project in mind.   The Branch Studio has been producing great ornament for the garden for going on ten years.  Manufacturing anything takes an incredible amount of time to get right.  The Branch boxes, pergolas, and fountains underwent countless revisions.  Revisions in size and proportion.  Revisions in construction details.  We were at the point where I felt we had  beautifully made and weatherproof ornament for the garden.  I felt it was time to formally introduce ourselves to people who had both professional and personal interest in ornament for the garden.  To gardeners and designers in other places who were not in a position to visit Detroit Garden Works.



I told Jonathon that I wanted to imagine, produce and print a catalog for Branch.  I wanted a catalog with great pictures that would tell the story.   He immediately suggested we engage a photographer whose skills we admired.  I already had a photographer in mind, a local photographer named Roy Ritchie.  His photographs of Detroit are graphic, edgy, and beautifully composed.  I especially like how the raw image itself is a starting point for his work- and not necessarily the end result.  How he handles light and color makes him, in my opinion, an artist.


November last we began shooting the photographs.  Roy wanted to take a picture of a box, in a garden, in a way I would have never have imagined.  Though Roy’s ideas about this first picture made my head swim, we went with his recommendations.  We hired a photographer, an artist, and an expert. Once we spent enough time with him, explaining the history and the process, we got out of his way, and gave him the freedom to work without restriction or commentary.

the-Branch-catalogue.jpgWe have been making steel garden ornament long enough that I had lots of pictures of Branch objects in gardens, and in a variety of seasons.  Once Roy shot the major full page photographs, Jonathon took on the job of laying out each page, and arranging each of the photographs.  With the exception of a few paragraphs about the company and the products, the catalog is an illustration of who we are, and what we make.

Branch-catalogue.jpgThe back page is the back of of our house.  We show the sizes and styles of the stock pieces we build.  12 boxes, 3 vase shaped pots, 3 pergolas, and three fountains. Each piece is dimensioned.  Of course we have the capability to manufacture by special order.  We mailed out 650 catalogs the end of March.  We’ve been very pleased by the response.  Buck and his group have been busy non stop, producing both stock and custom pieces.  I especially like that all of the hard work and effort Buck has put into bringing this enterprise to life is getting some attention.
Branch Catalogue (14)If you are interested further, there are plenty of pictures, and a digital version of the catalog at