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  Though the form in which the work was recorded may be outdated, some of the work I rather like.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.

At A Glance: The First Trip

Rob’s first buying trip to Italy was in the fall if 1993-two years before I would buy the property and building that would become Detroit Garden Works.  It was an exploratory trip in the truest sense of the word.  The goal of the trip-see what was out there in terra cotta pots, and other garden ornament.  I bought no end of European design magazines-that was just about the only way we could think of to search.  We had no idea where he was going, and once he got there, what he would find.  These pictures have a slightly blurry and romantic look for several reasons.  These are my digital pictures of what Rob photographed with a 35mm camera 18 years ago.  The other?  The excitement he must have felt to see these pots in person is recorded in these pictures; I cannot really explain this any better.  Eight months later 3 pallets of pots arrived.  I was conducting my landscape business from my home then.  Ralph and Kirk from GP Enterprises were kind enough to accept delivery at their commercial yard.  I had never seen clay pots like them before. I felt like I had just met my intended.  The 522 Italian terra cotta pots, 120 bowls, and 160 pot feet that were delivered 3 days ago?  It feels just the same now as it did then-only better.

Italian Terra Cotta

These three words-Italian terra cotta-are more than enough to get my attention, and make my heart pound.  Terra cotte-translated literally from the Italian-fired earth.  Pots fashioned from fired earth-what could be better?  What better container in which to grow a plant?  Containers from clay-what could possibly be more basic and natural?  The clay pot is a gardening icon.  I have stacks of them in my garage-I would wager that you do too.  On occasion, a client will fill their trunk with unneeded clay pots, and bring them to me.  Who could bear to throw one away?  Crusty with age and use-all the better.  I have yet to have a client insist on a brand new clay pot, if all I have in a size they need is a used pot.  Used and vintage plain terra cotta pots provide just as good a home for a plant as a new one.    

Italian terra cotta has been a part of my gardening life as long as I can remember.  The machine made clay pots of my twenties were no nonsense sturdy and functional.  Though the clay is fired, it is porous.  The clay will wick moisture away from the roots of a plant.  This can be helpful if you are a heavy waterer.  If you don’t always get to watering whern you should, a glazed or other moisture conserving pot might be a better choice.  That porousity also means that the container breathes; air is essential to proper root development.   Machine made terra cotta will break if dropped, or left out over a Michigan winter.  There are two critical factors that influence the durability of a clay pot.  The quality of the clay is crucial.  The best terra cotta pots on the planet come from Impruneta in Italy; the local clay is superior in quality.  The other factor-the temperature and duration of the cooking. Fine handmade Italian terra cotta is fired upwards of 1700 degrees.  The purpose of a long firing is a maturation process by which the pots are “soaked” with heat.      

Machine made terra cotta has its place.  They are available in an astonishing range of sizes and shapes.  It is important to properly size a pot.  Underpotting a plant leaves no root for root development.  Overpotting a plant can result in the soil staying too wet for too long.  Azalea pots and bulb pans are low and wide; this shape is specifically designed for shallow rooted plants that do well in less soil rather than more.  Long toms (a reference to tomatoes) and rose pots are tall; they accomodate the long root runs of these types of plants.  In any event, a classic clay pot is basic to anyone who grows plants.  A handmade Italian terra cotta pot-an object of great beauty and durability.     

Delivered yeserday, an entire container of handmade Italian pots.  The container is 40 feet long, by 10′ wide and 10′ tall.  There were a whomping lot of pots on that truck.  Why so many?  Having a container delivered empty to the pottery means the packing costs are less; they pack and protect their pots quickly and expertly.  Of the entire lot of hundreds of pots, one was broken.  But the big issue is the volume.  When we buy lots of pots direct from the manufacturer, we get a better price per pot.  This helps make a handmade Italian terra cotta pot more affordable. 

Any wood that comes from overseas has to be heat treated, so no pathogens come along with the pots.  Even the pallet wood is cooked.  Likewise the excelsior-the pots are protected with wood shavings when they are stacked, and anywhere the steel strapping material touches a clay surface.     

Each pallet is then shrink wrapped.  I imagine the trip across the ocean on a boat can get dicey in bad weather.  The durability of these pots helps make shipping them easier.  Should you thump a terra pot, it should ring with almost a metallic sound.  This tells you it is a high fire pot.  Pots that thud when thumped-low fire.   

This is an embarrassment of riches in terra cotta pots, but it means someone who needs four matching, or 8 matching might find something they like.  The soft orange color will beautifully compliment a planting.  Their rugged good looks you will have for a very long time, given proper care.  My own pots, but for 3 large English made concrete pots in the classical Italian style, are impruneta terra cotta.  A beautiful clay pot is tough to beat.  The first pallet of pots I bought 15 years ago was Italian terra cotta-I still remember what a thrill it was to unpack those 14 pots.  They were very expensive, as is anything you bring over from Europe, a little at a time.  But every one of them found a home, and many of them I am still planting for those clients. 

You may be wondering what about this pot enthralls me so much.  It is not just the simple beauty of the form, the soft color and subtle surface.  

A beautifully planted Italian terra cotta pot can mean this for a garden.

The Staddle Stones

A collection of antique staddle stones arrived in the first container from England.  They precisely represent what kind of garden ornament appeals to Rob the most.  Any object with great age-that is instantly appealing to him.  Add to that an architecturally arresting form and compelling surface-I can bet that object will be in my future.  Our collection is modest-7 stones.  They are greatly prized by gardeners and collectors of fine garden ornament.      

Via Wikipedia, staddle stones were used as supporting bases for granaries, hay ricks, and game larders.  These words are not part of my native vocabulary-but words of any kind relating to gardening interest me.  These stones would elevate any number of structures with different purposes above grade.  They would protect a store of grain, hay, or game from water, or vermin infestation.  This photograph is courtesy of; this structure is of of their design and manufacture.�
The origin of the word staddle?  In middle English, staddle, or stadle derives from the word stathel, which derives from the the old English word stathol-a foundation, support, or trunk of a tree.  I am thinking about the Tolkien novels right now-all of which I have read multiple times.  OK, I have my quirks.  A disclaimer here.  I am not a scholar regarding the history of garden ornament.  I am a horticulturist and landscape designer with 15 years of exposure to garden ornament of various kinds.  This makes my knowledge of the history of garden ornament anecdotal.  Sometimes I am way over my head.   But these antique objects do interest me keenly-so I have made an effort to learn something about them.  A stone carved to do the job of a trunk of a tree-I am interested in this.    

This particular staddle stone may look for all the world like a stone mushroom.  Staddle stones placed in landscapes as ornament are actually described as stone mushrooms.  But in fact, the domed top made it very difficult for rodents to climb into the granary.  The flat top provides sturdy contact between the building, and the stone stilts.     

They are very beautiful objects in their own right.  But their shape was dictated by a need.  An agricultural need.  A cultural need.  A way of life need.  Nothing interests me more as a landscape designer than the intersection of nature, agriculture, horticulture,  and landscape.  I have spent a lot of time at that intersection-stop and learn.  On the green signal, get going.  Yield to oncoming traffic.  Turn right on red-only when the coast is clear.  Anyone who gardens professionally understands this dance perfectly.  Any hands on gardeners understands this even better. These stones were carved from massive blocks of stone in a shape and size dictated by function.  The stones are a visual essay in form simply following function. 

This photograph came from  It is a “web based project to collect and reference geographically representative images of every square kilometre of the British Isles”.  What an ambitious project, and what a pleasure to be able to see such a structure.  The brick building pictured above is held aloft by 9 staddle stones-so beautiful.  Any building lifted off the ground by staddle stones-there is no small amount of calculation involved in determining how many staddle stones it takes to raise a building bearing weight above grade.  A considerable requirement of stones for even a small structure meant a thriving local business for staddle stone carvers.  The upper Hexford granary in Oxfordshire exists above grade courtesy of 36 staddle stones.    

Many of these stones are well over a century old.  They are shaped from single blocks of stone.  The individual shapes vary-there is always the evidence of the human hand.  Our collection by and large was at some time carved from Cotswold stone.   

This photograph Rob sent me from England-compelling. These mushroom stones are truly mysterious and organic in shape-beautiful.      

The antique staddle stones seem quite at home in the shop.  They are breathtakingly beautiful-the historic use, the shapes, the surfaces, the color of the various stones,the lichens.  They, among other things, make me so glad I decided to be a gardener.