Garden Designers Roundtable: Mistaken


The topic for the Garden Designers Roundtable-mistakes.  I appreciate the timing of this topic, as blunder season is just about here. I invariably misinterpret nature’s intent with regard to spring.  I am sure that spring has arrived, always weeks in advance of the real thing.  I am anxiously poking around, looking for the crocus and the hellebores.  If I am lucky, that poking will not damage tender shoots just emerging from the ground.    The true meaning of misstep?  Tulip leaves when they first emerge in my zone are the same color as the muddy soil.  Given that I never remember where I have planted them, I am as likely to smash them flat as not.  Every step I make on soil that is soaking wet from the thaw forces the life giving oxygen out of the soil.  Plants thrive in friable soil, and generally dislike compacted soil.  Why am I milling about in the garden when I know better?  The leaves of the hellebores are limp and brown now-and crying for a cleanup.  I am sure the number of emerging flowers I have snipped off thinking they were leaf stalks is appallingly high.  Were I to endure the mess for another week, the difference between leaf stalks and flower stalks would be obvious.  Yet here I am, in error.  Franklin P Jones put it so eloquently:   Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.


Once the perennials begin to emerge, the bare spaces that would be perfect for spring bulbs are painfully obvious.  Spots for snowdrops-how is it that I failed to see them 5 months ago, when I could have planted?  The chionodoxa I did plant at the edge of a path as the spot was easy to get to-could I really have forgotten the edge of this path is part of the Corgi path?  Was that outcome not as obvious last fall as it is right now?  It will be months before my small perennial garden will be anything to look at. I could have tulips and daffodils on the way.  Phlox divaricata-every year I long for it.  Every year I do not plant it. A lost opportunity is one thing, but a lost opportunity that repeats itself year after year-a whopper blooper.


Later I will find those mistakes that simply represent deficient knowledge.  Plants are very specific about what they want.  When they don’t get what they want, they have that listless and unenthusiastic look about them.  Or they die.  Wanting that catmint to thrive in a slightly too shady spot in slightly too heavy soil-that want washes over me all the time.  What would prosper in that spot, I don’t want.  The idea that the nature will suspend disbelief just for me-what is that?  Off sides is off sides.  I would conservatively estimate that my plant reference library has 50 volumes.  And I have a computer that works.  In spite of that, I persist in putting plants in the wrong place. On rare occasions, I get lucky.  I had to have a clematis growing on my garden bench-the romance of tat idea was irresistible. Though the spot had failure written all over it, I planted anyway.  Turns out, there is enough sun 4 feet off the ground to keep that clematis happy.  I know a certain gardener with a gift for making a mistake seem like a brilliant choice.  From Henry James,  She had an unequalled gift… of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.


Gardeners derive satisfaction from many different things.  Some gardeners choose to grow food.  Others like tropical plants in pots.  Others want to grow plants and sell them.  Others swoon over conifers, or rock garden plants.  Others intend to reforest a city.  A relationship with nature is not necessarily a garden-it could be a wild place untouched by designing hands.  Entertaining outdoors, putting up lights at the holidays, and camping.-these are as much an experience of gardening as the parterres at Vaux Le Vicomte.  Given that the sky is the limit, that the opportunity for self expression is always there,  I think it is a mistake-not to garden.  Gardening is good for people.  Your garden should be just that-yours.  From Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.


The most grievous error I see gardeners make is to give up a dream of having a garden environment  because they could not have it all at once.  The best part about plants is that they grow.  A bareroot tree planted in the spring and looked after will grow.  Yes, the mighty oak from the little acorn grew.  A slew of boxwood cuttings, placed in and grown on in a nursery bed, can one day become the most gorgeous knot garden imaginable.  Hellebores are gorgeous-but notoriously slow growing.  Large plants are pricey, for just that reason.  But little hellebores are readily available, and will grow into specimen sized beauties before you know it.  Now is a very good time to plant one.  From Edmund Burke:  Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

The other members of the Roundtable no doubt will have their own views on mistakes-please read on!

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristani:  The Desert Edge:  New Mexico


Detroit: 138 Square Miles

I have been on my usual January buying road trip with Rob for the past 10 days. The Suburban has 1600 new miles on it!  We got home at 6:30 last night-what a relief.  For sure, there is no place like home!  It was very cold this morning.  The leaves on the rhododendron outside my home office window-drooped all the way down with cold.  But home is home, whatever form that might take.  The reentry into my Detroit landscape has me thinking about Julie Taubman’s book.  Detroit-138 Square Miles.

Detroit is my town.  I was born at Henry Ford Hospital,  and raised on Detroit’s east side. I can say that my experience of this gritty city is much a part of me.  We Detroit people make things.  The day I opened my manufacturing company, the Branch Studio,  was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  The fact that the Branch studio is growing legs and steaming ahead-of this I am proud.  Not that I am sure what I mean by this, but anyone who calls Detroit home dreams, imagines, works, and sweats Detroit style.  My city has a luminous and storied history, and a daunting present.  Julie Taubman spent upteen months photographing the current state of our gritty city.  Her 486 page photographic essay is an unvarnished, non judgmental, yet compassionate look at her city.

Her photographs are truly extraordinary, both in scope and content.  Her friends in the Detroit Police Dept looked after her more than once while she was photographing desolate or abandoned buildings and neighborhoods.  Her images may not be to everyone’s taste.  They provoke as much a sense of sorrow and loss, as a sense of awe for what was, and what is now. She devoted no end of time and film to capturing a moment.  This moment.

My photograph of her photograph is a much dulled down version of what is available to see in the book.  The quality of the paper and printing is startlingly good.  Though I have lived here all of my life, there are pictures of places I have never been.

Disrepair and despair-some of the photographs capture that feeling perfectly.  The forward, written by renowned local author Elmore Leonard is well worth reading.

The photographs of the remains of abandoned manufacturing plants collapsing from neglect are both terrifying and fascinating.  This building in the process of decomposing has a long way to go to get to a composted state.  From my association with the Greening of Detroit, I know there are many bright and able people committed to the future of Detroit.  I wish each and every one of them all the best.

138 square miles is a big space.  There has been lots of public discussion and forum about the future of our city.  By far and away, this book is the most eloquent discussion I have heard.  This collection of photographs is uninterrupted by words until the very end.  I like that the location of each photograph is documented. An added bonus-a concise and well written history of the building or neighborhood pictured.  The book is encyclopedic, but the eye behind the photographs is a very particular eye.

I am happy to say that we sold out of her book over the holidays.  This means there are people who care, and people who are curious.  Perhaps people will be moved enough to become involved.  I am also happy to say that our new shipment of books has a few that are autographed by the photographer/artist/author.  Let me know if you have an interest.

Monday Opinion: Inside Out

For the past three years, my sister in law Tine has sent me a Christmas ornament of the Eiffel Tower.  That is, she sends the same ornament, every year.  I don’t really know who makes them, or where she buys them, but I choose to believe she buys them in Paris, and brings them home for me.  This may be nonsense-her local Ace Hardware may carry them. Or maybe she found 20 of them in a resale shop somewhere.  I only know I have never seen them anywhere but on this kiwi topiary tree in my dining room. Not that I need any explanation.  They are beautiful-a very delicate pale gold and an equally elegant pale blue.  Like I imagine Paris to be. 

 I will interpret the meaning of this gift for you.  Pete and Tine go to Paris every year, in the spring.  She wants me to go with them to Paris, in late May.  Any year would be fine.  They would stay as long as I liked.  They would take me anywhere else in France I would like to go, for as long as I wanted.  We would see the gardens, of course.  But we would also see the shops the markets, and the museums-and surely, the Eiffel Tower.  Normandy-we would go.  The south of France-we would linger there.  She is extraordinarily patient about this request.  She does not lecture, berate, or attempt to persuade me.  She just sends me the Eiffel Tower Christmas ornament-a beautiful reminder of what could be.

There are so many places I would like to visit-the end of May.  France of course, and surely all of Italy.  The Chelsea Flower showI am certain it is extraordinary.  As for the Netherlands and Belgium-a spring trip would be lovely.  The spring in Spain-what is that like?  Does Iceland have a spring?  South Africa-I imagine the country, the wild flowers, and the gardens turn plenty of gardening heads in the spring.  Don’t forget Texas, or Philadelphia, or Scotland, or Vancouver.  I hear that the Appalachian mountains are beautiful in the spring.  What place on earth wouldn’t be grand in the spring?

It’s a good thing that I have a landscape and garden.  I am always home in the spring, more often than not, working.  Most of my exposure to spring in other places is anecdotal.  Other people’s gardens.  Other people’s trips in the spring.  Other people’s photographs.  via ther people’s writings, drawings, publications and music.  Lucky for me, considering I live inside my own world much more than out there.  A new year brings possibilities with it.  I have a standing opportunity to go to Paris.  And a standing date with the garden, come spring.  




Garden Moments 2012

What are great garden moments?  The shock of realizing after the first snow in January that the garden is entering its black and white phase-like it or not.  I cannot really explain why this constitutes a great moment-it just is. 

A great moment could be as short as the blink of an eye, or as long as 20 minutes.  Moments any longer than this- which are not necessarily great moments- have to do with dental appointments, grocery checkout lines, designing, fixing a zipper, or designing.  Moments that seem to go on forever have to do with traffic jams, speeches, meetings, and the sky in the dead of winter.  This wet and snowy February day, the color was unexpectedly rich and warm.  A warm winter moment.

Great moments in the garden are not necessarily that momentous.  It could be the first time you hear the birds singing in the spring, or the first sign of the hellebores and crocus pushing forth in March.  It could be the sun that bathes a landscape in jewel like light just after a rain.  It could be that moment when you realize that a tree or a bench would be strikingly better over there.  It could be that triumphal feeling that comes when a seed finally germinates, or that heady pleasure that spreads all over everything on a beautiful summer day.  It could be the day you decide without fanfare to become a gardener.  It could be the first day you drag debris to a compost pile.  It could be the moment that a long sought after vine arrives in the mail.  Or it could be that moment in March when it became shockingly unclear whether the dogwood buds would survive the hard frost.

Every gardener’s great garden moments are individual.  My garden is the color of lush in April.  I spend a lot of time drinking this in, after the winter which is always too long.  Nothing much to see here,  but that atmosphere of anticipation is palpable.

Talking about gardening is how gardeners relate to one another.  Our warm 2012 winter, and the relentless spring hard freeze made for a lot of anxious talk in my circle.  But in the talk, there was community.  We were all equally miserable, frustrated, and vocal over it. Roses blooming in May made me nervous.  Roses blooming only intermittently, a disappointment.

Of course my most precious garden moment in 2012 was that day in June, in my garden, when I told Rob and the store staff that I had put the store in trust for him.     

July belongs to the hydrangeas.  How I love them!

In August, the annual containers shed their adolescent gawkiness, and begin to look grown up.

In September, the containers are bursting at the seams.  This moment, coming after an entire spring and summer bringing them on, is pure pleasure.

In October, the color is as crisp and sharp as the cool air.  My Norway maple sheds leaves like crazy for a month.  The day I quit raking them up was a surprisingly beautiful day indeed.  All the yellow on the ground made for a moment.   

This might be my most favorite photographic moment of the gardening year.  The end of the season color of the asparagus and rose canes- perfectly melancholy. 

Not ever having chosen to have an evergreen garland at the holidays before, I was surprised at how very much I liked it.  Cozy is good when it’s cold and December.  Having a garden-good every month of the year.