A trip to the American Peony Society yearly meeting and exhibition in Mansfield Ohio in the 1980′s-I cam home knowing I had to grow peonies. I also knew I would have a very tough time choosing which of a few I would grow. So I grew them like crops, in long grass-infested rows. I have no idea where this grass came from, nor do I know what grass it is. Do you? They did amazingly well with this less than ideal care. Peonies are very persistent and long lived. By the time I sold that first garden property, the patch probably had 400 peonies in it.
This picture taken from my rock garden in 1987 makes me wonder-how did I manage to work a job and look after all of this? If you can spot that the peony hedge that is running along the drive is infested with quack grass-I coped as best I could. Keep in mind, you are looking at the front half of the property. Thank heavens, the back half was wild-I never did get into it much to bring any order to bear-beyond the rows of peonies and Siberian iris, and a giant run for the Newfoundlands. The back third-groves of poplar trees, and giant old ash trees sporting a groundcover of rosa multiflora, brambles, quack grass and all other manner of tall wild plants. Those tall wild plants grew over all the trash the previous owners took to the back, and dumped. But this wild place was home to lots of wildlife I have not seen since moving to the city. The most precious-the owls. I rarely ever saw them, but I could hear them. On the opposite side of the drive from the meadow garden, a wild semi-shady place that rewarded me with stands of trillium -once I hauled away the dead trees and brush. I responded to that cue. For those of you who live in my area, I spent a few years working for Frances Hughes, at Hughes Gardens. He specialized in bearded iris, daylilies, and wild flowers. Any wildflower he sold was dug from his garden-few wildflowers were grown in pots. His stands of double bloodroot were legendary. So many times I saw him dig a small start, brush the dirt off the roots, and bag the plant for a customer. Only a few customers were able to persuade him to part with big divisions of his wildflowers. Those clients paid dearly. My wildflower garden-years in the making.
I did not make very much money working for Frances-he probably did not make that much either. No one grows, gardens, and sells plants because they want to-they grow, as they are compelled to grow. It is as vital an act as taking a breath. I was able to get by, but what I learned from him was worth a fortune. He would put a start of dodecatheon-shooting star-in my pay envelope at the end of the week. Or a start of anemone nemerosa. He introduced me to uvularia-merrybells. Merry Bells-who would not want that in their garden? The rare and unusual trilliums-he grew them all. I planted everything, and hovered over these plants like my life depended on it.
But the greatest gift from Frances were the violets. Every wildflower he ever potted up in the spring had a violet of some kind attached. I have read no end of articles about how to eradicate violets-what for? I thought mine looked great. The weedy grass areas in my wildflower garden were quickly colonized by violets from Frances. Some were named cultivars. Some were random crosses. But all of the violets seeded far and wide. All of the violets bloomed. My rough carpet of quack grass and violets-the most beautiful perennial garden I have ever had. I have few good pictures, just great memories.
The garden was full of diminuitve species, and ash trees. The largest, by my measure of the caliper 8′ off the ground, was only 2 inches shy the Michigan record ash tree. Later in the season, the ferns would carpet the ground.
Cypripedium pubescens-the yellow ladyslipper orchid-is native to Michigan. Many variations exist in the wild-my stands of these orchids came from Al Goldner. Amazingly, Michigan has more native orchid species than any other state, save Florida. My family vacationed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I was a child. A bouquet of pink lady slippers-Cyprepedium Acaule-that I picked in the woods and brought to my Mom got me a serious spanking. My Aunt Blanche made it clear-do not ever, ever, pick the wildflowers. Pink ladyslippers are all but impossible to cultivate in a garden-what they require only nature is able to provide. I consequently made a point of listening to Blanche. Cypripedium reginae-though I was young and not so skilled-they grew for me.
I never cleaned this garden. I attribute my success with growing wildflowers with my ability to leave them be. They resent too much housekeeping. They are not fond of too much fussing. I would plant, water, and let them be.
Sometimes I would intervene. My 5 acre first garden was located fairly far away from any human hub. But where I lived was rapidly developing. This picture from the back of my pickup-sods of hepatica rescued from a developer’s bulldozer. This drive around, dig, and rescue-on a Sunday morning of course. Many Sunday mornings, actually. These hepatica had a friendly adoptive home on my property.
This was a very happy time in my gardening life-my early thirties. I was enchanted by every plant that came my way. I gardened early, worked the day, gardened late, and studied by night. This program suited me just fine. My Mom photographed me this day, picking chionodoxa for a a vase she brought by. How pleased I was to send her home with spring flowers from my own yard. Better yet, the spring impending some odd thirty years later feels much the same. I am thrilled-spring seems imminent.
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.
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.
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.