March Opinion: Gunning It

We had so many gardening friends stop by over the past 4 days in celebration of our 2012 opening.  I will admit I was beyond delighted.  Lots of our regulars responded to our spring call.  Thanks to Susan Pollack at the Detroit News, who wrote and published about our opening on Friday, we had lots of new people.  What fun-to have the opportunity to introduce ourselves to people who have never been here.  Many thanks, Susan.  Any discussion about the garden revolves around individual people, with individual ideas about what constitutes a great garden.  This means every person, both returning and new, means much.

Recreating the shop from the previous season to the new one is an enormous job.  We empty just about all of what is still standing in 10,000 square feet of space.  We clean as if we have but 10 minutes to live.  We repaint, rebuild, fix, change, alter, move around-you get the idea.  Rob’s shopping becomes a reality-this means containers and trucks to unload.  Every single garden ornament gets cleaned, moved, integrated-reimagined.  There is not one thing that has not had hands put to it.

This is work I look forward to.  I am first and foremost a landscape designer.  By the time that late November comes, I am usually finished working outside.  This year, I ran 2 crews until December 17th-the weather was unseasonably mild.  Once we clean and oil the tools, do maintenance on the equipment and trucks, that part of my work comes to a close.  The shop space is a landscape of a different sort. Certain things about this landscape project are vastly easier.  The entire place is enclosed by 4 walls and a roof.  This means I do not have to worry about rainfall, snow, winds, or any other difficult weather.  We have heat.  This interior landscape is meant to create an experience that suggests the garden. The suggestion that this pot or that trellis might not only be possible, but good.  As much as our customers know what they like, they can be persuaded by something they see.  Not something that I think, but something they see that comes from what I think.  We fuss each space down to the last square inch, knowing it will be intact but for a moment.  The overall shop landscape has to accomodate the change that comes when things go home to another garden.  

The experience of our opening was as different for us, as it was for our clients.  Though we customarily open March first, we usually have to push the snow aside, opening the gate.  Our usual opening-very quiet, and without much fanfare.  This winter was the winter that wasn’t.  We decided to do opening day differently.  We threw a party.

  This past weekend, I was so pleased to come face to face with people who love to garden just as much as I do.  The decision to do a more formal opening was dictated by the weather.  This winter’s weather was on a lot more gardening minds than mine.  Plenty of conversation had much to do with this atypical winter.  What was my take on the winter that was never a winter?  What did I think about a winter with no snow?  Are there plants that have broken dormancy, that will see damage if we have a substantial cold spell in March?  Have you ever experienced a winter like this? (no, by the way)  How do you see the spring shaping up?  Will we even have a spring?  Could we have snow in June?

I have lots of friends in the nursery and landscape industry.  They have the same questions.  How shall they schedule their crops?  Will this 40 degree weather persist into late May, or will we have reliable 80 degree days in mid-May?  No one knows the answers.  I would be lying if I said I would not appreciate some answers.  But nature calls the shots, and I have no address or phone number that would permit me to contact that natural phenomenon in charge. 

This means I have no answers. This was my first winter ever like this.  But it did seem to me that some part of our spring may be early.  And that anyone who loves to get outside and garden has had spring in their nose and on their mind for weeks.  Nature, as Rob has so aptly observed, announces spring at least 5 times before she really means it.  What does that mean for us?  We committed.  We had a party to celebrate spring.  March 1.  Judging from the numbers of people who came to say hello and shop, we were not alone in looking for a firm start date.

Rob’s partner Meg observed it appeared we were gunning it.  Gunning it out of the gate, in spite of every uncertainty.  This made me feel incredibly good; many thanks Meg.  I might have reservations and worries, but I am confident that what we have to offer falls under the one of a kind experience. Many thanks to each and every one of you who came and shopped.  No landscape design and installation means more than the relationship between client and designer who forged it.  No spring at the shop means more than the relationships, both old and new, that we have with the people who frequent our place.  We threw a spring party to which lots of you came.  To my mind,  this means spring has arrived.        


The 2012 Espaliers



espalier apple trees

What would spring be without some fabulous plants on order?  The garden shop is a garden shop-not a full service nursery.  We have neither the space nor the inclination for that.  But I do like to carry specialty landscape plants, plants of distinction, and great plants for containers.  My love for espaliers dates back to the mid 80’s.  If you shopped with or had a landscape designed and planted by Al Goldner, chances are an espalier was part of that relationship.  He grew these specially trained and pruned fruit trees on his farm in Howell-it was next to impossible to find them available for sale, save for Henry Leuthart’s place.  Billy drove these to us himself-typical.  The care he gives his trees is a full time and then some job.


espaliered pears

I buy them every year from a number of places, but this grower is my favorite.  He was formally trained in the propagation of fruit trees trained to grow in but two dimensions, as it has been done in France for centuries.  He sells no trees before their time.  The trunk sizes are substantial, and the primary arms are set and properly grown into their intended shape.  You can see in this picture that each tree is planted at the side of the pot-not in the middle.  This makes easy work of planting the tree close to a supporting wall.  This classical shape is know as a goblet-that should be clear.  This tree is older and perfectly grown.  The planting and bolting to a wall will be easy.

goblet form espalier

This old goblet espalier at one time had a supporting framework to hold its arms in place, but now is old enough and sturdy enough to stand alone.  Planted at the UBC Botanic garden, this tree is a living fence of beautiful design and form.  The history of espaliers is firmly rooted in a French agricultural tradition.  Fruit trees trained in two dimensions took up very little room in the garden; severely pruned trees produced huge yields of fruit.  Though most of my fruit comes from the grocery store, I find these pruned trees enchantingly beautiful.

Belgian fence

We unloaded 10 espaliers, all part of a free standing fence which will run 60 feet.  At a young age, a single stem crabapple whip was summarily topped.  A pair of shoots emerging at just the right angle on either side of that wound would be trained to grow out, producing the bottom half of a very large vertical diamond shape.  This method of growing and pruning multiple trees to create a whole is known as a Belgian fence.

Belgian fence

Each tree will be planted exactly 6 feet from its neighbor.  You can get the idea of those large vertical diamonds that will be created by this arrangement of trees in this picture.  I have seen Belgian fence done on a smaller scale.  The smaller the scale, the more difficult it is to keep the diamond shapes clean and crisp.  This fence will bloom with white flowers in May, and produce gold fruit in the fall.  The form will be so striking in winter.  Pruning is somewhat a matter of personal preference.  Some gardeners would like their primary branches small and delicate-they prune shoots off the main trunk hard.  Another gardener might permit small branches off the main trunks to grow such that the diamond shapes are thick and substantial.  Is this discussion not so clear? 

 Belgian fence espalier style


This picture makes the idea easier to see. This Belgian fence has smaller diamond shapes.  This look is created by planting the individual trees closer together.  I cannot really explain why the idea of having 10 trees that when planted together will form a wall with a continuous and geometric pattern appeals to me so much, but suffice it to say it took me all of 30 seconds to speak for these 10 trees.   

espaliered pear trees

Four  quadruple cordon espaliers were delivered-a pair of apples, and a pair of pears.  Cordon refers to the main arms of the espaliers being trained in the horizontal dimension.  The vertical distance between each arm is equidistant.  This form is common in the pruning of grapes, as well as fruit trees.  Branches growing in the horizontal dimension bear heavily.  This applies to grapes, apples, pears-and roses.  A long cane of a climbing rose attached in the horizontal dimension will bloom to beat the band. 


This drawing from Southern Living illustrates the cordon shape.  Of course few real trees have long arms that are as obligingly horizontal as this drawing would suggest-but this illustrates the ideal.  Branches and fruiting spurs off the main arms are kept closely clipped.  There is work to growing an espalier-but it is easy and satisfying work.  An espalier is a specialty landscape plant.  It is entirely friendly in even a small garden.  These trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.  They produce fruit.  The few hours spent pruning them feels good.

fan shape espalier

An espalier trained as a fan has arms that radiate in every direction from the central truck.  Those arms can be grown long on a big wall, or kept short in a confined space.  The bamboo stakes you see attached to this tree-travel stakes.  Every branch of every tree was firmly secured with bamboo stakes, to prevent any damage during shipping.  Though these trees are fairly old, they still rely on a physical support system to keep their shape intact.  Very long branches growing at wide angles are subject to damage, if they are not properly supported.


We have installed horizontal wires and bolts on some of the walls at the shop so we can display our espaliers.  The 3 bamboo stakes from the shipping phase have been left on, and will not be removed until the tree has been planted, and installed.  The process of giving an espalier a home involves bolts and ties into the supporting wall, or fence posts and wires for a free standing espalier. 

espalier forms

There is no classical precedent for this espalier shape.  It is entirely the invention of our grower.  A lively living sculpture such as this makes me want to grow espaliers from scratch.  Ours are old and established trees, but yes, they can be grown by any gardener from a single whip available from any number of fruit tree sources in the spring.  I was 35 when I saw my first espalier at Al Goldner’s farm-I still remember that day. It feels good,  carrying on, making these very special trees available years later.  This tree I call the wild at heart espalier. 

heart shaped espalier
My latest heart espalier is my 4th-I do not keep them for long.  This one, planted and successfully hardy in this large steel box for 4 years now, is happy, and grows vigorously.  This picture I took moments before its yearly haircut.  Wild at heart-yes!  A yearly haircut is not so much to ask in the way of care.  The pleasure?  Every day.  Every season.  Year after year.


Spring Fete

greenhouse space

Jenny did get a chance to take a few pictures at the beginning of our 2012 preview party last night.  Perhaps some of them will at least give a feeling for what the shop looks like the first day of the gardening season.  I hate for anyone who couldn’t be here to miss out on the feeling of it all.  There is nothing quite like spring.  The time for plans, new ideas, getting back outdoors-and that lime green color that says spring so eloquently.     

French glazed terracotta

Our winter has been anything but.  I do not believe the ground ever froze.  I have lots of friends and colleagues in the nursery business-none of us know what to make of this.  Or what it means for the spring.  March ordinarily is a winter month for us.  It usually is milder than February, and much milder than January-but winter nonetheless.  I not only have forced bulbs in full bloom, my tulips are out of the ground.  The espaliers in the garage are breaking bud.  Today, 38 degrees and snow showers.  Tomorrow night, some say 12 degrees, others say 17.  We jut decided to go ahead with a little spring all of our own invention.  Yes, we had the heat on.   

Rob’s trip to France in September resulted in a late January ship date.  A relatively easy trip through customs meant our first container arrived while he was in Italy.  In 1`6 years, this was the first time he was not here for an unloading.  My landscape crew has worked steadily this winter, as the weather permitted such.  They played an unprecedented, but substantial role in transforming the shop from last season, to this season for the simple reason that it was possible to work. 

Detroit Garden Works

Weather of a markedly different sort is not that unusual, if you look back long enough.  I am sure there are those gardeners who lived out long and comfortingly average gardening years without so much as a blip.  My apprehension about a strikingly atypical winter is is fairly well matched by my interest and curiousity about the unknown.  So we are celebrating our usual March 1 reopening with an emphasis on spring-as that spring seems to be lurking about.   

helleborus orientalis
Rob sourced some great hellebore plants-we potted them up in plain clay pots, and set them in saucers-old fashioned, this treatment.  These spring blooming helleborus orientalis cultivars can be planted out, and enjoyed for years to come, in April.  But this moment, hellebores blooming March 1st is an enchanting promise of spring.  Lots of them went home Thursday night.

glazed French pots

The French glazed containers, antiques, and vintage garden ornament looked so good to my eye-and my gardening heart.   So many years ago we brought over containers of French pots from a number of regional poteries.  This newest group brings back so many memories of our early years.   They also are so strikingly different than the containers from years ago.  Every reference to the history of French pot making is intact, but each poterie has a contemporary interpretation of that history all their own.  These cream white glazed French pots are offered with a new option of a square base.  How I love that Rob saw fit to include these glazed bases.   How these footed urns sit now-graceful and solid. 

hellebore hybrids

Today we had lots of company-there are many other gardeners anticipating spring just as much as we are.  A vintage French wood sink on legs stuffed with hellebores-does it get any better than this? Sure it does-but for March 1st, this will better than do.

forcing spring bulbs

We did pot up and force bulbs in containers.  How I managed to get color showing March 1-I have no tips to offer other than to say our unheated garage was warmer than usual.  My potting schedule and treatment was the usual.  

We added bits of forsythia branches, moss and lichens to some of the bulb plantings in baskets. A spring scene that might help fend off the worst of this season with no name.  On the table, bunches of faux tulips to be added at that later date when the real ones have run their course.  Why not?  

forced spring bulbs

The corgis are back on duty now, after a long hiatus.  They like having visitors, just like we do.  We have coffee and sweet bites, if you have a mind to get out of the cold, and warm up to the our idea of spring.



garden shop

Have I mentioned that the shop is reopening tomorrow afternoon, March 1st, at 5?  We dial down January 15th-this means we are open by chance (which is every day) or by appointment.  How so?  It takes 6 weeks to clear everything out of the shop, clean like crazy, and repaint.  In February we had 2 containers arrive from France, and numerous other domestic shipments-in preparation for the spring gardening season.  Every new garden ornament needs to be introduced to what we love, and have.  The introductions can take longer than you think to make work.  I know we are ready-Jenny says the place is packed.  

potted spring bulbs

Tomorrow night is our preview night.  We have never done a March 1st event at the shop before, but the weather has been very mild, making all of us all the more anxious to get outdoors.  And our new things for spring are very beautiful.  One of the best parts of having a small business is that new ideas are always welcome. Spring on March 1st in Michigan-why not?  We plan to make a party of it.   

French terracotta pots

My favorite part of the shop spring are customers telling me that the place looks entirely different than the last time they were here.  It is especially important that we get the old blood moving, reassess, clean and clean out, and renew.  Redo.  This is no small part of the satisfaction I take in having the shop.  I like to change things up.  This means that sooner or later everyone will find something that really appeals to them. The work involved in this is considerable, but I do that work willingly.  Every gardener has a story to tell-I am no different.  

English salt glazed pots

Gardeners are a very diverse lot.  God forbid there there would ever be a country called Gardenia-how would the populace ever agree on a Constitution, much less a Bill of Rights?  It would bore me beyond all belief to be on either of these committees.  I am in favor of freedom of expression.  Great objects for gardens, and great plants help serious gardeners to express themselves.  They also help any person for whom gardening suggests a way of life express themselves.    

garden shop interior

I especially like this year’s mix of big and little, serious and whimsical, antique and contemporary, purely beautiful and utilitarian.  Anyone who has an interest in gardening, design and the natural world-we are interested in them.  There have been enough people that like this that I am happy to say the shop is celebrating its 16th spring.


By no means did the last 6 weeks happen by my own hand.  There is Rob-if you shop here you know him.  He does the buying.  Before he buys, he dreams it all up.  Once everything gets here, I spend a lot of time looking it all over.  My landscape crews are instrumental in the moving, the painting, and the re-installation.  7 people on this crew.  5 people staff the store.  It takes everyone of the 12 people involved to remake 10,000 square feet.  I would invite you to come and see what they did. 

Mcat has change of routine issues.  The past 6 weeks I have seen him everywhere, trying out a new patch of sun, or a new arrangement.  I admit to a little of this myself.  It takes 6 weeks to shed what was.  Years later, I still have projects, and container plantings I still really like, but I always grateful, and energized,  for the chance to start over.   

antique French porcelain sign

The shop this spring has a decidedly French flavor.  What’s to like about French gardens, pot makers, garden antiques, vintage French grape gathering crates, contemporary garden ornament?  Just about everything.  The French have an ability to edit that I could only imagine in my dreams.  French gardeners never forget their agricultural history.  They know how to be fancy, they know how to live in close proximity to the earth.  They made great wines, great cheese, and great gardens. 

This is Rob’s idea of a container planted in the French style.  I should rephrase this-he plants containers all of his own invention.  But I see the impression this last trip to France made on him.   A forced cluster of crocus bulbs got the soil washed off, so they could be replanted with those bulbs above ground.  The bulb is as much about the presentation of this plant as the flowers are.  The container-very simple and roughly textured-a great contrast to the delicacy of the crocus.  The tufts of coir fiber stuffed into the dirt-all about a wiry description of the airspace.  This container, barely 8 inches tall overall, is about great design, grace, and restraint.       

faux grass stems

I still have work to do tomorrow.  Some places need finishing touches.  The garage is clean and organized.  William Schwab, a sommelier with Papa Joe’s for 14 years, who has his own shop in our neighborhood now, will be pouring and discussing French wines tomorrow night.  Rob shopped personally for the little something to eat-French cheese and the attendant crackers, figs, pears, and grapes.  He redid all of the lighting last night.  French music-of course! We had help with that-thanks Michael. If you are local to us, I hope you will come by either tomorrow night, or over this early spring celebration weekend.  If you are reading in another state or country, I will post more pictures.    Jenny promises to upload all of our spring things on our website this Friday.   

garden shop

It is so great to be 61, and having the time of my life.