Speaking Of A Garden

I speak to groups on occasion.  As I believe that exchange between gardeners is a form of gardening, I am happy to do so.  I have met lots of interesting people this way.  Today I hosted a local chapter of the PEO.  I don’t know much about their organization, except that they make a point of encouraging and funding women who seek higher education, and need help getting that.  A group with a mission such as this-I felt a story about an experience which served to educate me seemed appropriate.  In the early eighties I worked for the landscape designer, Al Goldner.  My brief tenure with him before he retired proved to be an experience that greatly influenced my design life.

He had that bel’occhio gene-the beautiful eye- so aptly described by Thomas Hobbs. I discussed this last week;  gardeners are optimistic, and  appreciate and require beauty in their lives.  Al  loved all manner of plants.  He was a landscape designer with as much heart as skill, and great instincts.  When I first went to work for him in 1983, he had already struck a deal with Grand Hotel. 

Anyone reading who lives in Michigan knows that the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island has been in business since 1887-this would be 124 years.  A resort hotel dating from the Victorian era still hosts countless guests and groups beautifully every year.  A stay there-lovely, luxurious, relaxing, and gorgeous.  Dan and Amelia Musser-they too have the bel’occio gene.  Once they met Al, they decided more beautiful gardens were in order.   I am making short written work of what proved to be a long and important relationship.

By the time I came to work for Al Goldner, Grand Hotel had already invested much time, money, and people to the development of their landscape and gardens.  I would be sent there on occasion to plant.  Later, I would be sent there to design, and then plant. The property is enormous.  The hotel has an identity which is crystal clear, and an equal committment to providing everything that makes for a great experience. When Al retired, they asked me to take on the design of the gardens.  Why would I not?  They were clients with a bel’occio gene; I designed and supervised their gardens for ten great years.

My point to my group this morning is as follows.  No other hotels on Mackinac Island had gardens or container plantings when I first went there to work.  Today, the gardens and plantings all over the island attract countless visitors. Three people with a vision transformed the landscape of an entire community.

The time I spent working there was an incredible experience.  It was a winter’s work to design and order the plant material for all of the gardens.  They took every bit of 6 weeks to plant.  I have never since seen so many flowers in one place.  Though I have not been there for a very long time, I hear the gardens are still beautiful.   

Sunday Opinion: Community

So much of horticulture is really about community.  Plants have very specific requirements in terms of soil, light, water, drainage, exposure and winter hardiness.  If a plant does not get what it needs, it will languish at best, or die.  Plants requiring similar conditions would indicate a community, would they not?  This part can get tricky. 

 Good gardeners understand vigor.  Some plants are robust, chatty, and spread their cheer with abandon.  To have them is something akin to being occupied by an army.  This phrase, a line from a poem by Marge Piercy –  I have never forgotten it, as it is so seminal to the art of gardening.  The art of gardening that comes after one has mastered the basic science of gardening, that is.  In this group, I would put butterburrs.  They own a spot in my garden bordered on one side by a concrete curb and driveway.  The other borders-I maintain.  OK, I police the butterburrs.  A local nursery digs them out of my yews, my driveway and my hosta garden, and grows them on for sale.  They do me a big favor.  I would not want to do without them, but they are a poor candidate for a community.  A desolate boggy place needing plants by the thousands-they are happy to oblige.  Gooseneck loosestrife is another such plant.  Should your garden require a a bed the size of Indiana, plant a few.  In this group, I would place baltic ivy, ostrich ferns-you get the idea. 

Other plants are hesitant growers.  They lack self confidence, they are fussy, they find the reality of community overwhelming.  They may be beautiful, but they whisper.  In this group, in my zone, certain roses, heaths and heathers, big leaved rhododendrons, lupines and delphiniums.  What gardeners call plant habit might better be understood as plant personality.  A description of plant habit seems a fairly cut and dried affair, reeking of science.  Personality-a big fluid topic.  A consideration of personalities can better inform your decisions about what garden communities you intend to sponsor. 

My roses tolerate the community in which they live.  They tolerate the asparagus and hibiscus that they live with,  they ignore the vigously growing boltonia. The roses somewhat benefit from the Japanese anemone that covers the ground, and conserves moisture.  No relationships are perfect, but this community garden has prospered.  Every voice gets heard.  The climbing roses love the heat of the south facing wall.  The only exasperated voice-me trying to wade in there to deadhead the roses, or read the gas meter.  Peace is not necessarily about a lack of voices.  It is more about the balance of voices.

My small patch of meadow features panic grass, echinacea, hyssop, and monarda fistulosa Claire Grace.  I have to intervene on occasion.  I chop out pieces of the grass, and fill those holes with soil-the grass would overrun the entire bed, given free rein.  I do not plant fancy new hybrids of echinaceas here-I need vigor more than I need an unexpected color or form.  Hyssop can be fleeting in my zone-I have to replace them on occasion.  I am not an impartial observer here.  I am a supreme court justice, enforcing the law.  This community thrives, given some stern intervention.

I had big beds of baltic ivy when I moved here 15 years ago.  The lily of the valley has no problem representing in spite of its tangled thicket of stems and roots.  Both plants race and spread, equally.  If you have ever had occasion to dig out baltic ivy, you know from whence I speak.  Running a rototiller through an ivy bed-hold on to your hat; golf cleats would be an excellent idea.  My stands of crocus look fragile-nothing could be further from the truth.  They suffer the cold, snow, and sleet as if it were nothing.  I have had ample evidence of that these past few days.  Their slender leaves come up through the ivy like a warm knife negotiating a cold stick of butter.  Though they appear to be delicate, they write a definitive essay about determination. 

I am a fan of rupturewort-herniaria.  I have planted lots of them, in two separate communities.   I observe that they like good snow cover, and protection from wind.  Rupturewort can be good, or it can be horrid, given the character of any given winter. I want them in my community-so I do what I can to insure their success.  I protect them.   What I learn about plant community informs everything I do in the landscape.

Our first ever spring event is this coming weekend, April 9 and 10.  This I planned last fall, anticipating the fifteenth anniversary of the shop.  We planted every garden at the shop with spring bulbs.  The front gardens-2600 tulips.  The driveway garden-a glorious mix of many hundreds of hyacinths.  I planted hundreds of containers with all manner of spring bulbs.  This spring has been cold and slow-but I did prepare for a community gathering as best I could.  I have invited growers and landscape service people whom I buy from and admire to bring their spring plants, and information about themselves. 

The garden industry-I am a member of that community.  We all have our strengths and our quirks.  Should I not have something a client needs, I send them straight away to that place that could help them.  Other plces do the same for me. We are by no means a full service plant nursery-we have specialty plants.  This means whatever we take a fancy to at that moment.  We are willing to talk about why we choose this, and not that.   Other places have more selection.  Our greater community-some are big and strong, some are small and very personal.  All of us have our own personalities.  But to the last we are committed to great plants, great gardens, great landscapes-and great service. Should you have the time, please stop by.  My idea-a celebration of my professional and my client community is a good thing for everyone involved.        

Lots of what I know about plant communities has to do with experience.  I try things.  Should they not work, I try something else.  It may take years to get something right.  I view most things through this gardening lens.  The group of us are bound to get something right. Spring in Michigan is fast and fleeting; I invite you to participate in our version.  All of us would be so pleased to see you next weekend.

At A Glance: Ready, Or Not?

Belatedly, The First Of April

I know, today is April 2.  April 1 news is regrettably old news.  A day late will be a regular occurence now-I am back to work.  Making landscape calls for both new house construction and landscape renovation-despite the snow and ice.  Studying site plans and taking pictures.  A few unfinished projects from last year need to be buttoned up. I am almost finished with the the spring display at the shop.  I am back to designing. 

The fifteenth anniversary of Detroit Garden Works means much to me. I am pleased to report we are still going strong.  Keeping a business going 15 years pales in comparison to Clifton Little Venice in England-could it be that they are celebrating their 160th birthday?  Yes, they are.  Established in 1851, they are celebrating 160 years this year.  Clifton Nurseries is London’s oldest garden centre, only minutes from London’s busy West End.  Check them out, as I do, regularly.  www.clifton.co.uk.  Their age, cache and great style does not discourage me in the least bit.  They encourage me to be the best I can be.  I am very pleased to report that I spied English made concrete pots in the classical Italian style in their nursery-we too have these great concrete pots available. 

But April first marks a few other modest milestones. April 1 of 2009 I wrote my first Dirt Simple post. I started writing with the intention of writing every day.  Every day, rain or shine.  I have not been perfect in this regard, but I made a decent effort.  At 703 posts, I am 27 posts shy of perfect given two years, this April 1 of 2011.  Somewhat shy of perfect is plenty ok with me.  I so enjoy the writing. I enjoy so much more the contact I have made with gardeners far from me.  This could be a few miles away, or an ocean away;  my French friend and garden writer, Delphine Gitterman-we have made a relationship, never having met face to face.  Paradis Express is a daily read for me-she exposes me to things I would not have access to otherwise.   Look her up.    Ditto Rochelle Greayer at Studio G-does she not shine? 

Beyond the 2nd anniversary of the blog, April 1 was Rob’s 19th anniversary with me.  Nineteen years-holy heck.  We went to dinner in celebration of that milestone at Pepinos, in Walled Lake.  Early on, we went there regularly after work.  Though I moved away from that neighborhood 15 years ago, the hostess who has been there 27 years recognized us instantly.  She asked after us; her knowledge and interest was genuine.  We got a great booth.  We had a great dinner.  We shared a great bread pudding for dessert on the house-a lit birthday candle stuffed into the whipped cream, on Karen. Any relationship-whether personally or design oriented-matters much.  Should you live near me, and like to have dinner at a great supper club witha relaxed atmosphere, try Pepinos.  

The big idea here?  Age is good for certain things.  Age makes for great lichens, big and gorgeous plants, good looking trees.  Age has its advantages.  April first in my life is all about serious, funny and engaging relationships. This blog-a new member of the April one club.  Rob-a charter member of the April one club.  April first-of course this can only mean the best is yet to come.