Greening Up


I can understand why the idea of a conservatory or greenhouse space is so incredibly attractive.  I live in a climate that is inhospitable, even foul almost half the year-if you like growing plants, that is.  This room in the shop had no windows, but thanks to a used Lord and Burnham greenhouse from which I salvaged the roof, I have a green space.  It smells like warm dirt, moisture laden air, and plants-intoxicating.  Even when nothing is blooming, it still smells like life.  The climbing fig that covers two of the four walls is probably 10 years old now.  I had to have it, after seeing the hundred year old vines in the conservatory at Dunbarton Oaks.  I thought the shop had to have water and plants someplace every day-it’s why we do what we do.         

Though the weather is stubbornly refusing to give up winter and warm up, this room is warm and inviting.  The first of our favorite spring green plants have come in.  A single resident Wollemi pine lives happily in this space year round, even though we do not heat the space between January 15 and March 1.  I am not a huge fan of tropical plants in the house.  They always have that air of resignation about them; how theystruggle  to survive in poor light, and hot dry house heat.  This room offers good light, and protection from the elements.       

Elements?  No snow is allowed here.  No wind, no hail, no temperatures below 30, no ice.  The space is not at the mercy of too much rain, or too little.  We rarely have bugs in the winter-it is too chilly.  Most everything goes outdoors once the weather is nice.  We do have the occasional toad-how they find this room, I have no idea.  It is a space we look after, and it rewards us with a place of refuge from winter.  It is also a nursery-for plants that need hardening off.  These topiary lemon cypress just arrived from California.  Though they happily tolerate less than perfect conditions, they need to become acclimatized to the cold.  

These ivy topiary are lovely.  Though they require some work to maintain their beautiful form, they are otherwise little care.  A summer outdoors recuperating from being inside all winter they will appreciate.  They are a complete vision of a garden, in and of themselves.     

The bulb pots are coming on strong, having been moved to this space. We keep it at 55-60 degrees during the day, and 40-45 at night.  The room is helping to create an atmosphere of spring.  I have only participated in the design of 2 conservatories in my whole career.  They are expensive, they require loads of proper engineering, and they can be the devil to get working properly.    

But today I see why gardeners build them.  We have rosemary cones and single ball topiaries, lemon cypress in differing forms, and a collection of ferns.  Fresh green plants-oxygen for the heart and soul.  I asked Buck where we could have one.  We can’t, he said. Too expensive, too problematic, too big a heat bill.  It would be much easier to move to the shop greenhouse for the winter.     

The lemon cypress are not hardy in my zone, but they are easy to keep over.  They grow like weeds.  That lime green color is accompanied by a faint scent of lemon.  A collection of 6 inch pots-like a party.  I have no interest in a greenhouse space in July.  But October through March-wouldn’t it be lovely?   

In the lower left of this picture, a pair of 3 gallon sanseveria.  This black leaved lime-edged variety is quite stunning.  They would be so striking in a simple container in a very shady place, fringed with lime selaginella.  I can feel a fever coming on.  The greenhouse space is providing some welcome heat.

Back To The Future

Our weather is being momumentally reluctant to shift into spring.  Yes, I still have snow and ice in my yard.  But  there are a few signs of spring afoot.  Bogie Lake Greenhouse transported me back to the future; the pansy house is bursting with spring color.  They are plenty big enough to go outside, pending some warmer night temperatures.  I do so associate pansies and violas with spring.  I do not mind violets in the lawn.  I like Johnny Jump Ups almost anywhere.  Plants that self sow can be a nuisance, but these plants are charming.  I know of no other flower which is commonly referred to as having a face. This refers to the prominent dark blotch on the petals of some varieties. This house is the closest thing I have to spring right now.  

The clear sky series of pansies have no face, but I treasure them nonetheless.  They also are particularly hardy in my zone.  The tolerate a fall planting over tulips or other spring bulbs, and come back fairly reliably.  This faceless pansy does have a name-primrose.  Perfect. 

Clear sky yellow pansies are plainly visible from a long ways away.  This intense yellow makes it a perfect companion to other colors.  Yellow and primrose and dark purple make for a lively mix.  I like mixes for home plantings-they seem so much more personal.  In contemporary gardens, I like one idea, expressing confidently in a beautiful shape or sweep.  For a mix that reads evenly, use at least 3 colors.

This pansy is a member of a mix; the seed produces a range of colors that are related.  My knowledge of plant breeding is nothing to speak of, but I do understand the concept of selection.  Breeding for a specific characteristic means selecting those plants that most closely resemble the ideal, and breeding on.  I may select certain colors from a mix to further refine an idea or a look.   

Mark kindly allocated some bench space to some spring pots of mine.  The selection of the plant material proved daunting, as nothing was in bloom.  I have firmly resolved to take notes on varieties and combintions I like when the plants are in bloom.  But a good deal of the fun of the planting-besides getting one’s hands in the dirt-is arranging for beautiful color.  However, planting containers with green plants has advantages.  A focus on the contrast of texture, mass and shape can make for spring containers all the more beautiful. 

All of the contrast here is about color.  The plants are all pansies that have the same habit of growth, the same leaves, and the same flower shape. 

There are plenty of plants that tolerate our cool spring.  One of my favorites is phlox intensia-annual phlox.  Pictured here is the white, and the pink bicolor.  There is a lovely lavender variety as well.  It has a lax habit of growth that can be supported by the stiff growth of parsley, angelina, or pansies.  It will still be growing strong later in the summer.  I am thinking I will start planting out this next Monday, April 4.  Bring on the lettuce, the parsley, the fennel, the pansies, violas and osteos-the list is long enough to keep me really busy.  Hopefully there will be every opportunity to do something new, break all the rules, and go out on a limb.  There usually is.

About Jenny

Jenny D works for me in the shop-this description by no means does her proper justice.  She is an incredible talented graphic designer, friend, and delightfully free spirit.  What do I mean by this?  She showed up an hour early for work this morning-the fifteenth anniversary morning-with silver helium balloons-depicting a one, and a five.  She was shocked that I was already at work at 8am; she routinely comes in at nine. Her plan was to tie those celebratory 15th celebration balloons to the window boxes outside my office before I got to work.  Get up a little earlier, Jenny; I am at work never any later than 7am.  A phone call to her husband Mark resulted in this advice-sneak up.  I would have known in any event that it was Jenny behind those balloons-who is she kidding?  I would have spotted her work in a second-I have come to know her.  The best of the fifteenth anniversary day today-her flaming hats.    

Rob and I may have worked hard, and worked even better than hard.  But how Jenny chose to acknowledge that-she is a very talented person who it is my privilege to know.  In my opinion, great companies are all about the great people who inhabit them.  She had the idea to construct a pair of flaming hats.  Jenny-you are too much.    

Much preliminary discussion went to the fire issue-would the hats precipitate a fire?  Rob and I both stood firm.  In respect for that person who conceived and engineered a fifteenth anniversary flaming hat-we would go along with her. 

We lit up-Jenny had to have taken better than 70 photographs of this event-the 15th sparklers representing.  A hat with integral sparklers-have you ever?  But truly, the event was about her.  She created this moment.

Jenny made the both of us laugh-she made a special day more than very special.

The 2011 celebration of the anniversary of the shop was organized spectacularly by Jenny.  When I got to work this morning, I had pink tulips and pink hyacinths in a vase. A great bottle of Italian desert wine, almond cookies, and a box of peanut brittle.  I knew it was from Rob-no one else knows me this well.  Jenny’s balloons came later, champagne from Monica, and birthday shortbread cookies from Pam.  It was a special day that turned out to be a delightful day.  
Thank you so much,  Jenny.

The Opening Party

I have devoted a lot of ink on and off over the past 5 years to the story of how my shop came to be.  Why is this?  As important as it was to me personally, I  think it is an interesting story. The bel’occio gene-I think both Rob and I have that.  When I look at these pictures of our opening night, I am struck by how sparsely furnished the space was.  It was a giant expenditure to get the building ready for company.

March-1996.jpgWhat I had to spend left over to furnish it was 1/4 of what it cost to make the space habitable. We did as much of the work as we could ourselves. And we bought a few great things.  Beautiful handmade pots.  An antique iron sculpture from Paris that took the lions share of what we had to spend on ornament.  So we had lots more that opening night in the way of excitement and good will than ornament for the garden.  A place where people would feel welcome came first.

Two of my oldest landscape clients sprung for this opening party-I still work for them both, and love them dearly.  They saw to entertaining my guests. Forging relationships over the landscape is one of the best parts of my job.  They encouraged me to persist in transforming a dream into a reality.  Though that night was many years ago, I still recall it vividly.

I was excited beyond all belief to have Detroit Garden Works full of people for the first time.  No landscape I have designed and installed gets my seal of approval until I see how people interact with it.  Do the spaces work?  Are they comfortable?  Are they on occasion provocative?  Is there a natural and easy flow?  Does it handle traffic, kids, entertaining, reflection and family?  Would you smile, or study what you saw?  This particular landscape was near and dear to my heart.  As it turned out, there was no need to be nervous.  Landscape clients and friends were all about expressing their good will.

March 29, 1996This night was not about making a passing grade. Or who we had been. It was a beginning.  An opening statement. All these years later, it only takes the first signs of spring to bring out the garden in us.

All of the food was served in Italian pots.  Pots from Crete.  Pots from England.  Pots from France.  The big idea here-a garden can nourish.

We had an idea about gardens.  We made that come to life.  This was one of my most favorite gardening moments ever.