My First Garden: Part 2


My first driveway-a 400 foot long ribbon of dirt. As I bought the house in October, I did not understand what that would mean in April after an inch or two of rain.  But only once did the man across the street need to come haul my car out of the mud with his Ford tractor. Rough-everything about the property was neglected.  I could work all weekend, and hardly spot what I did.  But eventually the property did begin to work and look better. 

The day I was able to buy gravel for the drive was a good day.  I did a half-baked job of grading it with my lawn tractor and a drag bar; I went on to persuade the gravel hauler to drop half his load every so many yards.  I don’t remember my aching arms-I only remember how thrilled I was to have a real driveway.  

 My lot was 300 feet in width, and over 900 feet deep.  In the midsection-a low spot that collected water.  Good horticulture had finally begun to influence where I planted things.  My first choice for that wet spot-a 3 foot tall larch in a five gallon bucket.  It grew like a weed, as did the spartina pectinata aurea marginata.  Prairie cord grass loves marshy places, and will spread vigorously.  I was fine with that-I had lots of room.  It has a gracefully droopy look.  The star of the bed-a collection of Japanese iris, backed up by a stand of yellow flag iris.  The tree in the background was dead, but plenty of bird species nested in it.  I kept it until the wind blew it over in a storm.  I would learn that Japanese iris like wet during their growth period, but a gradual drying off and good winter drainage.  I would move them three times before I got it right.

 Gradually I added arborvitae, hoping to screen the road from view, and a single metasequoia set in the lawn to the left of the spartina grass.  Planted in that low lying ditch of a spot, it grew incredibly fast.  I bought it for a song; for whatever reason, the leader had died back.  It was a park grade tree-meaning it was useful in a landscape where it would look fine, viewed from far away.  It promptly developed a pair of leaders from the side-I rather liked that two-pronged look.  Even up close. 

There were not so many plant species here, just lots of a few things.  The bed finally got large enough to make a little statement from my bedroom window. The larch pictured on the right-a cultivar with distinctly blue cast.

The part of my property closest to the road was home to an orchard at one time.  Many of the properties in this neighborhood had old fruit trees-it must have been a very large orchard at one time.  Three rows of apple trees, an intermediary swath of weeds,  and one row of pears were all that remained.  I liked these remains.  Cutting the grass around the trees involved a wild ride on the mower.  The ground was very uneven, and there were rocks that would pop up every spring in new places.  I finally decided a meadow would be in order.  I think I was beginning to really think about landscape here.  It became a substantial feature of my garden-by virtue of what I did not do.  A giant unmowed area can make a big statement.

All I planted into it were as many daffodils as I could spring for every fall.  I bought many a daffodil just before Thanksgiving for 10 cents each.  I owned this property 15 years.  My goal was to plant 1000 daffodils every year; I think I came close to that.  I would rough cut the meadow once a year in the very late fall, or the very early spring.  Never have I had a garden that gave so much pleasure with so little work as this one.  The four-sided brown pyramids you see?  I built the pyramids out of exterior grade plywood, and stapled cut boxwood to them for a client.  Once she was done with them, she gave them back to me.  I think the brown boxwood stems and leaves held on for at least 4 years after I placed them in the meadow.  They were my first garden sculptures.     

I no longer remember what these vertical evergreens were, but they marked the entrance to the meadow.  I mowed a path through it, so I could walk the garden whenever I wanted.  I invariably went this way to the mailbox, and then back up the drive past the wild garden.  I eventually planted some species roses in this garden.  Rosa Complicata is one of my favorites.  Rosa Canina did well for me as well.  Rosa glauca (in those days rose rubrifolia) and rosa seticera-I grew these too.  I did nothing to care for them-they seemed to thrive.  In the far top left of the picture, a very old marble sculpture of a torso of a lion-a gift from Al Goldner, a landscape designer and mentor whom I greatly admired.   

The daffodils were beautiful in the spring, as were all the meadow plants coming out of the ground so green and so lusty.  The quack grass was rampant, but it did not deter the queen anne’s lace, and the asters.  There would be a point in the summer when the entire meadow was a haze of lavender and purple. 

This pot from Italy-my first, in 1993.  I eventually did sell it to a client whom I felt wanted it even more than I did-I couldn’t say no.  But while it was there, I hauled water in a five gallon bucket all the way out there almost every day to keep that pot planting going.   


Though I knew but a little something about horticulture, and but a little something about composition, this picture really pleases me.  I had an idea to grow plants, and create landscapes.  I was having the time of my life.

My First Garden


When I took my Mom to see this house I had bought-she cried.  She was aghast.  Then she was mad-eventually she was just plain scared.  I was 30 years old-I had sold my little house in Ferndale at a profit of 7000.00-and bought this decaying uncared for wreck of a dwelling for the princely sum of 60,000.00.  I say princely, as I was blithely unconcerned about what it would take to make it liveable.  All I could see was the land-almost 5 acres.  I barely glanced at the house.  Too bad I no longer have the picture that showed a drive-in garage below grade. The furnace in a dirt hole under the house.  The garage had stacked, unmortared concrete block for columns, and roof from interior plywood.  Needless to say, I was unable to obtain any reasonable homeowner’s insurance; I had to go into a high risk very expensive insurance pool.  I did hire an excavating company to tear down the garage, and bring in fill.  The hill you see above-fill dirt.  The rocks-I persuaded a neighbor with a 1927 Ford tractor to haul rocks up that slope.  My idea-a rock garden.  Why not? 

My first house ever in Ferndale did not have a garden.  I had been making my living in my late twenties, such as it was, in fine arts.  A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts awarded me a grant to teach, and have a studio, in the Ferndale school district- in an artist in residence program.  I had to live in Ferndale, so my grandmother fronted me the down payment money for a house-5000.00.  I did pay her back, by the way.  My 15,000.00 a year salary/stipend was lots more than I was accustomed to.  All of my exposure to gardening, via my Mom, was only barely beginning to surface in an adult way. Gardening is a solitary pursuit.  Not so social.  Once I turned thirty, things changed.   The house in Ferndale-I had no garden.  But  I did have a huge collection of bearded iris.  This second house I bought for the property, as I was determined to garden.   I was 31.     

The house had lots of problems.  The brick was falling off.  It was heated with oil-filling the tank took 600.00-at 65 degrees, that oil lasted for 10 days in January.  Out of money, I turned the thermostat down to 45.   My first March in the house,  the hole under the house housing the furnace flooded-the furnace was ruined.  The place falling down around me, all I thought to do was plant.  I piled on the clothes, and lived without any heat.  The red heuchera you see here-an Alan Bloom introduction.  This is my memory of this time-more about the future, than the present.  The house you see here-a shambles.  The inside was just as bad; it smelled terrible.  I was young, and had a particular vision.  I lived through it.       

I had lots of energy-the kind that borders on and crosses over into obsession.  Politely put, I was so passionate about growing plants I could barely sleep. Composition was an idea I brought to bear in a painting.  My efforts at composing my garden ran into trouble.  I knew next to nothing about growing plants.  To this day I still say, if you want to learn how to garden, start gardening.  Put something in the ground, nurture it.  See how you like it-where you have placed it.  You will grow up eventually, if you keep at it.   I hauled no end of soil, rock, and plants around.  These Siberian iris planted in the shade of some old spruce-a beginner’s mistake.  I would learn plenty by virtue of what prospered, and what languished.  What was going on in this bed-not much, besides a collection of plants.  Every gardener has to start somewhere-there is no shame in that.  I got my feet wet. 

A few years passed.  Every spare dollar I had went to plants, and more plants.  My cat Babyhead was in his glory outdoors-much like I was.  Most of my first gardening choices were perennials.  Later I would add dwarf Hinoki cypress, and other shrubs/evergreens that seemed interesting.   

The rock garden-I planted into that noxious fill dirt- thymes, dianthus, antennaria, saponaria, dwarf spirea, calamintha, iris pumila-iris; how I loved them. 

Iris-how I better loved them.  This stand of spuria iris still looks good to me.  Though I loved the bearded iris, I grew as many types and species as I could.  Louisiana iris.  Japanese iris.  Siberian iris.  I grew species iris native to Turkey under hats that would keep the late summer rain off of them.  Nuts I was-for iris.    


The concrete steps out the front door eventually got a bluestone cladding. I had no idea how to do this-I just went ahead and did it.  My first garden-the encrusted saxifrages, the martagon lilies, the paeonia tenuifolia, the clematis Sho-Un, the iris species, the peonies-I had a mind to grow plants.  Just like you.

The Olive Jars


Apparently I am still writing about Italian terra cotta-bear with me if you can.  The container that arrived just a few days ago has brought back a flood of memories from the past fifteen years shopping for great terra cotta-I have some 35mm images that describe those memories.  Once the shop had a home, and an address, Rob went shopping not one bit more seriously, but in greater volume, and with more confidence.  In the early 1990′s, he met and did business with Klaus and Ilona-they brokered Italian terra cotta from a number of different potteries.  Rob would meet them in Florence, and shop.  Though Klaus was German, his mother lived in Tuscany-in those days.  Rob became part of their Italian/German family.  Many bottles of great chianti and home bottled olive oil from Klaus’s Mom arrived in the container with our terra cotta in those days.  They helped bring order to Rob’s orders. Few of the potteries we bought from did much business exporting to the US.  The order we placed very early on with Carlo Chiti-the money disappeared, and our request for pots went unanswered.  Carlo Chiti-if you are out there, we are still waiting for our pots.  Klaus and Ilona no longer rep Italian terra cotta, but their generous help and support more than a decade ago taught Rob much about how to shop in Italy.     

The terra cotta pots, and sculptures manufactured by Mital are legendary.  Giant and ornately sculpted vases from Mital grace gorgeous gardens all over the planet.  In my opinion, the most beautiful classical Italian terra cotta pots ever made come from Mital.  My own terra cotta collection revolves around pots from them.   

A series of terra cotta pots of this exact design were made by Franco’s grandfather early in the 20th century for the Biltmore Estate.  These replacements for two broken pots, made from the original mold, were about to be shipped when Rob visited Mital in 1998.  Based on this photograph, I ordered three of them for the shop.  One client spoke for all three-he is as crazy about classical Italian terra cotta as I am.

Rob’s first trip to Mital in 1998-not so much about the history.  It was much more about meeting people.  Franco’s father’s vintage Lancia was as much a part of the landscape as the terra cotta.  There was much discussion of that car.  The personal relationships that Rob nurtured so many years ago over a love for fine terra cotta was instrumental in our ability to offer fine terra cotta to our gardening clients.  

I cannot speak or write with any authority about the use of terra cotta pots for storage of olive oil.  But I do know the terra cotta of the 12th and 13th century primarily consisted of jugs to hold water (mezzine), tiles and bricks for buildings, and jars for storing certain liquids and grains (orci).  By the 16th century, as the production of olive oil became an increasingly more important agricultural product in Tuscany, the production of orci-those jars used for the storage of the oil- increased accordingly-dramatically. 

In the yard at Mital, an incredible collection of antique terra cotta olive jars, side by side the olive jars still in production there.  What was once traditionally made in Italy to store oil is still being made, though their use has expanded.

   The ancient olive jars at Mital-a collection amassed over a lifetime by his father.  Franco was clear-none of the ancient jars were for sale.  Though they were simply diplayed at the pottery, they were a treasured reminder of all the the history of his craft.  Glazed on the inside, olive jars both new and antique have a distinctive shape.  The large oval bodies tapering at the bottom permitted the jars to be stored upright in metal or clay rings, or in wood braces aboard ships.  The relatively narrow necks still permitted easy access to the oil; the handles were useful should the jar need to be moved.

Olive oil should be stored in a dark cool place for maximum longevity.  The jars-perfect for this.  But ancient terra cotta olive jars are incredibly beautiful in their own right. My personal collection of terra cotta from Italy includes one 18th century olive jar, purchased from an Italian antiques dealer in northern Italy.  The year it arrived from Italy, Rob filled it with water.  Unbelievably, the scent of olive oil filled the air.     

Though I plant my jar with flowers every year, it is every bit beautiful enough to stand on its own, unplanted.  The day it is moved to the deck for the summer is a very good day indeed. I spend plenty of time thinking through what I will plant-this part is my pleasure.  

This Italian olive jar, empty, but faithfully supporting a climbing rose-this might be my most favorite garden photograph ever.  I have no idea where Rob took this picture, but it describes what I love so much about Italian gardens-they have a long standing romance with their gardens that is unmistakeable.   


This ancient terra cotta pot with obvious damage is an important visual part of this vineyard landscape.  I am sure it was not placed here for that purpose.  There simply was no thought to discard it.  If I had the chance, would I buy a pot such as this?  No doubt-yes I would.

Sunday Opinion: What Came First?

I have been sorting through box after box of old 35mm photographs of gardens and landscapes-old projects both for clients, and for myself.  I have always been a fairly decent record keeper.  This extends to keeping old letters, cards and notes-any and all materials that might be relevant to what I might have been doing in a garden at the time.  This includes garden journals, newspaper and magazine articles, tear sheets, plant tags, sketches, and the like.  I especially treasure the notes and letters from clients.  Even those letters that explain how I might have done a better job of helping them-of course I kept those.  No one takes the trouble to explain how things might be done better unless they 1) think you are capable of better, and 2) believe that their effort to explain will be heard.  These are good things, worth remembering.  Unbelievably, I have file folders dating back to 1986-my very first year in business.  I have every appointment book dating back to 1986 as well.  Why I am I looking through all of this? 

2011 is a year with multiple milestones for me, one of which is coming up quick.  Detroit Garden Works will celebrate its 15th year in business on March 29.  My design/build firm, Deborah Silver and Co, will celebrate its 25th year in business on July 1, 2011. Though I could write a novelette (OK- maybe a full length novel) about the failures, the things that didn’t work and the mistakes that were made, this is an accomplishment of which I am proud. 

Beyond this, I am interested in how those earlier years get lumped together.   Projects between 1986 and 1999 were all recorded with a 35 mm camera-pre my ability to use digitally based tools.  Thus my ungainly and tough to share storage boxes of pictures-most of which have inexplicably become all mixed up and out of order over the years  For all the world, the boxes look like the “Borrowers” have been in them, messing about.  You know, from the book “The Borrowers”-those mythical little people that live in the floorboards, and wreak havoc in the lives of those human sized people they borrow from.   Stacks of images that need resorting-this I have put off.  The photo boxes take up a lot of space, so they have been piled high on the shelves nearest the ceiling – out of the way, out of mind, and off the top 10 list.  What interests me about these pictures?  Though the form in which the work was recorded may be outdated, some of the work I rather like.  Some of the work-I rather like what it says about me.  Though the digital pictures I take now are more detailed, clearer, sharper and can be viewed in a much larger and simpler format, I can tell the work belongs to me. 

The most fun of all-pictures of my own first garden.  I see not so much evidence of design-but I do see a person who loved plants. In spite of the fact that I had little money to put to it, I had a big garden.  I was very big on the doing it myself part.  Those pictures of me in my garden-I look happy. Standing next to a tree peony in full bloom at the corner of my house-easily 5 feet tall, and 5 feet wide-I look delighted.  It’s clear what came first.  I was a gardener first.