Dirt

 

I have been told that dirt is what gets picked up by a vacuum cleaner, and soil in a medium in which to grow plants.  Semantics aside, I prefer the word dirt.  What is under my fingernails, and inside my socks is dirt.  That dried material on the end of my spade or on my trowel is dirt.  What cakes the floormats in my truck is dirt. What the dogs track in-dirt.  What provides a home for my trees, shrubs, and perennials, and my container plants-dirt. 

Dirt is a big word.  Some dirt is cream white, and grainy-do not count on it to retain water.  Sand is a type of dirt whose particles do not stick together.  Water drains right through it. On the beach off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia-sand.  It drains and dries within seconds of its exposure to waves.  A sand beach on the ocean-one of life’s great pleasures. What grows there?  Tufts of grass.  Those tufts always look stressed, and tired, I might add.  Sand is a lean medium.    

Some dirt is an iridescent colored and greasy material that sticks to everything-shovels, hands-and roots that are gasping for a little air.  Clay is a very heavy water retentive dirt.  Once it dries out, it is hard-bone hard.  Terra cotta pots are made from clay dirt.  The word terra cotta, literally translated, means fired earth.  Very heavy clay dirt is loath to give up its water.  Farmers use clay to line the bottom of ponds built to provide water for livestock.  I have only built one pond that was lined in clay.  I had a client who was game.  12 inches of clay lined her pond.  Once all of the air was compacted out of it, the water level in the pond stayed fairly constant. The heavy clay soil pictured above-like the bottom of that pond.  

Both sand and clay-dead dirt.  I don’t mean this, really.  Both are composed of minerals-natural elements.  Silica, iron, manganese and the like. A ball of clay that I have squeezed all of the air out of-rock like. My clay rock is not so different than a granite rock,  in theory.  Granite is just harder than clay.  Formed clay, like granite, has been a building material for centuries.  Drain pipes, chimney flues and floor tiles-made of fired clay. Natural rock may be inert, but it is has a history that one could call a life.  Some geologists think that rock is a living organism.  This may be true in the abstract, but would you expect a columbine to take hold in a stack of quarry tile?  Not likely. 

Good dirt, the kind of dirt that encourages vigorous growth and health, is loaded with organic material.  What does this mean exactly?  Plants grow and prosper.  Once the seeding, fruiting and blooming is done, they die.  Even the biggest and the oldest trees enentually die. When living things die, they decompose.  They become compost.  Compost is the decomposing residue of the lives of many.  In undisturbed forests, lichens and moss colonize the surfaces of rocks.  Those colonies catch the debris from falling leaves-and trees.  This lean dirt, these natural and shallow pockets of decomposed plant material, provide a medium in which plants can take hold, and thrive. 

 Clay dirt, and sand dirt mixed together makes a leavened soil.  The sand particles help break up the clay.  This means water can be supplied to a plant, and then drain away before the roots rot.  But leavening is not enough.  Great dirt is loaded with organic material.  compost.  The remains of other plants.  Organic material further leavens dirt-dirt great for growing is loose, friable.  Air is a big part of the party.  Roots need air to survive, and thrive.  Who knows what other nutrients in decomposing plant material contribute to the next generation of plants. 

What else from that organic material?  There is plenty of controversy.  There are those who say compost feeds the soil.  There are those who say all compost does is promote an even absorption and slow release of water.  Water retention, if you will.  There are those that say organic material fuels the next generation of plants.  That organic material,  unsullied by any human intervention, makes for healthier, better lives.  Purely organic soil, organically grown plants-whenever I hear this, I swing back to some straight dirt talk.  Good dirt is essential to a garden.   

 good dirt

Great dirt is crumbly, friable.  It holds moisture to a point, then it drains.  A high compost content makes soil rich-I cannot really explain what I mean by rich, but I can smell it.  It has a certain feel.  It falls off  the spade and trowel. Great dirt running deep will endow your garden.  Dig a big scoop of your soil.  Pick up what your hand will hold.  If it sifts out between your fingers, add lots of clay, and lots of organic material.  If it sits in your hand like a heavy lump, add some sand, and lots of compost.  Aim to amend your soil. Your treasured plants need air, minerals, and compost. Thinking to plant a garden, or install a landscape?   Cook up some really good dirt.

good dirt

I could not cook a dinner for friends if my life depended upon it.  But I can make, or amend, or tweak dirt-cook dirt- such that plants grow.  I do what I can to provide good dirt for every plant on my property.  Could I teach a class in soil science-no. This is by no means a scientific discussion of soil. This is a fairy tale about good dirt.  A story-no more.  Take this story where you will. But I will say that the dirt under your nails will help your garden prosper. 

 

Sunday Opinion: Vernissage

Three years ago today, April 1, 2009,  I published my first post. To follow is a reprint of that post, entitled “Vernissage”.

dsc_0014b

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage speaks to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word recently from a client with whom I have a history spanning 25 years.  This 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, one project to the next.  I have favorite projects.  A 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 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.        

In a broader sense, vernissage refers to a beginning- any opening.  This has a decidedly fresh and spring ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  as 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.  This year, a different kind of drama altogether. My first sign of spring was the birds singing, early in the morning.  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.  Every spring gives me the chance to experience the garden differently.  To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature.

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.  It is my most important 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.  

But no matter what the last season dished out, 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, renew.  The birds singing this first day of April means it is time to take stock.  Start new.

  I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can stake what the heavy snow crushed.  Spring can mean opening-the opening of the garden.  Later, I can celebrate the shade. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, move, and renovate.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound like a life? I can hear the birds now; louder.

Vernissage. Think of it.  Spring

 

The client I spoke of in this post April 1 of 2009 is moving to a new house, a much smaller property the end of this month.  Her passion for one garden is coming to a close.  A new garden is waiting.  No spring that came before will be quite like this one.Though I have published 987 essays in 3 years, the most important one is the next one.  And the next one after that.  Today also marks 20 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 that reflects that relationship.  Vernissage?  This 20th anniversary is most assuredly a spring moment.  The both of us, in concert, and individually,  have plans for the next twenty.  Yes we do.

At A Glance: Fresh Faces

clear sky pansy “Primrose”

blue pansies with dill, thyme, chives, and alyssum

viola

mixed whiskered violas

clear sky pansies

clear sky blue pansies

bicolor violas

bicolor violas, yellow pansies and red twig dogwood

spring window box detail

yellow violas

yellow violas

lavender violas

violet and lavender violas

violas, grape hyacinths, black twig dogwood, and lettuce

citrus mix pansies

spring flowers

spring planting with yellow twig, prairie willow, nemesia, pansies, heuchera and phlox

whiskered violas

violas with whiskers

wire plant stand

wire plant stand planted for spring

Flowering Trees

paperbark maple

 

Every spring, I swing by my Mom’s house last house.  She died in 2002-so yes, this yearly visit is a pilgrimage of sorts. I had occasion to visit a regular client in the same neighborhood about what we would do this year, so I drove through the neighborhood. The landscape looks entirely different than when she owned it, save for an old record breaking size paperbark maple on the left side of this photograph.  She grew this tree from a twig start from Musser Forest (do I have the name right?)-I am guessing better than 25 years ago.  Paper bark maples are highly esteemd for their shaggy, cinnamon colored bark.  Why am I talking about it?  The girl that grew this maple taught me how to garden-and to love trees.

dawn redwood  This dawn redwood down the street from my Mom’s old house is an astonishing tree.  It is thriving in an urban neighborhood, just a few feet from a driveway.  The driveway of a gardening person, I might add-the yard always looks well cared for.  In my twenties, I loved visiting this tree before or after I visited my Mom.  Sometimes we would walk down the street to look at it together.  Forty years later it is still well worth the visit.  The woody trunk and branches are beautifully sculptural.

weeping cherry

As for ornamental, or smaller growing flowering trees-what do you make of them?  Some years, I cannot get enough of them. That cloud of spring pink is intoxicating.  The cherries, apples and crabapples have thousands of small blooms that flutter in the slighest breeze.  They can also be swept away in an afternoon, if the wind is strong enough.  They bring ballerinas and tutus to mind.  The flowers are just plain pretty, and that is sufficient reason to grow them.  Maybe more importantly, those blooms are seductive.  They may encourage a not so gardening minded individual to actually purchase and plant a tree.  Who knows where that could lead.  A few years later, perhaps they might be planting katsuras, or weeping Japanese white pines.  I love them the most for this reason.

bradford pearsA neighborhood street lined with Bradford pears  is a good spring look. This is a large growing ornamental tree whose fruit is small, and better suited for birds than people.  Bradford pears are highly susceptible to wind and storm damage.  Plant a good cultivar, such as Cleveland Select, and give it room.  They are not so broad, but they may grow as tall as 60 feet.

I have no idea what this pink flowering tree is, but it is certainly exuberant, blooming in front of a red shingle house. I like the nerve of this.  It takes the edge of of all of that sugary sweetness.  Some years, flowering trees strike me as silly. Somehow a petunia handles being pink much better than a tree.  All that frou frou and fluff, on a tree, for heaven’s sake.  But the fairy tale part of the tree is very short lived.  The bloom span might be two weeks, in the longest and best spring ever.

yellow magnolia

Every last bud on my 8 Butterflies magnolias frosted off a few nights ago.  I imagine this tree in my Mom’s neighborhood suffered likewise.  Magnolias are much more dramatic in bloom than cherries or crabs.  The individual flowers are much larger.  In the years when the flowers frost, there is a whole season ahead in which to enjoy a tree that has beautiful bark, leaves and attractive structure.

This dark foliaged crabapple lives in the traffic island across the street from my shop-I can see it out my office window.  Every year it virtually defoliates by late summer-usually from drought and fungus. Once in a white we will clean up around the base, and prune.  But every year in the spring it is a happening.  This showgirl has a heart of steel.

This is a fairly large tree-I have no idea what it is.  It’s the wrong shape for a Bradford, and it looks too symmetrical to be an apple.  But it is breathtaking in bloom, whatever it is.

weeping cherry

Weeping trees leave me cold.  But I rather like how this tree is trimmed on the bottom.  And it certainly is willing to bloom.  Such a stark landscape for such a tree with such a romantic air.

pink flowering trees

My favorite part of small growing flowering trees?  They lend themselves to being planted in groves, blocks, or swirls. They are quite comfortable being the star of a show.  The flowering branches are great in a vase.  All this pink?  Just a little fleeting frosting.