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.

Getting It All Together

Rob was instrumental in getting it all together.  When he wasn’t shovelling out old asphalt tiles, old records and debris, he was putting together a trip to Europe to shop. Though he may seem very low key, he has a fire burning for anything garden related.  That first trip to Europe, he was nervous.  Not nervous to go, not nervous about not having regular hotel reservations.  How could he make hotel reservations, when it was not clear where he would go?  He was nervous he wouldn’t find anything to buy.  I was nervous about the plane, and the big fluid travel situation, but I knew he would find great things.  He has a superlative eye, and endless energy for what interests him.     

Since we would be bringing terra cotta from Italy, it only seemed appropriate that we find a way to put our logo on a terra cotta pot.  A printing place that specialized in sandblasting patterns into glass made 25 of these pots for us-I still have one.

The finishing of the shop was well under way.  Don Taylor supervised the installation of a new bank of windows, a new window sill, dry wall mudding; of course we painted for days. We learned first hand what the phrase brick and mortar means. In this room, the first floor painting on the concrete-a tangle of grape vines and grapes.  I remember it all being very exciting, challenging, and loads of fun.   

Some things that came in required assembly-Rob did that too.  His schnauzers took to living on cardboard boxes as if they had done so their entire lives.   

Ann Berg was Rob’s grandmother; he persuaded her to come for a visit, and help out.  The plywood letters that spell out the name of the shop on our sign in front was carved in exterior plywood by Rob’s Aunt Esther and Uncle Ken.  Rob sent them the logo, which they blew up by 300 percent, and used as a template.  All of the letters, among a lot of other things, got painted by Ann.  My Mom-doing this kind of thing was not her forte.  But she did loan me 14,000.00 when I was about to run out of money.  3 years later when I had the money saved to pay her back, she waved me off.     

The day the first container arrived was a magical moment for all of us-but more so for Rob.  Communications 15 years ago were not like they are now-I really did not have a very good idea of what was in that box.  But even Rob had not seen everything he bought all together at once.  Would there be lots of objects all singing different tunes,, or would there be a collection?
No one deserved that day more than Rob-he had worked so hard.  In many ways, this 15th anniversary is really Rob’s day.  I had every confidence that his voice would make the shop different than any other place devoted to gardens.  I think this is still true today, and I am very appreciative of that.  I am much more involved in the buying now, as I can instantly see objects in other places and other countries via his I-phone.  But back then, he had to go it alone.   

At one point the entire garage was awash in excelsior.  Everything fragile was packed in those coarse wood shavings.  We recycled every bit of it-over the following 5 years.  Having in my possession, however briefly, what other people had made for the garden in places far away-everything that got unpacked felt like a gift. 

There would be many more containers to come.  Each ocean going packing container is locked once it is fully packed.  That lock can only be cut off once it is delivered to the person to whom it is sent.  I have all of those container locks-this most recent one is number 43. But this first container unpacking was a perfect moment.  


We were very close to putting away the paint sprayer, and sending out invitations to the opening.

A Special Birthday

Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of the opening of Detroit Garden Works.  I had been in the landscape design and construction business for ten years, when I decided to buy this building, and open a shop devoted to fine ornament and furnishings for gardens.  Though I hardly knew it at the time, it was a very big move for me. Shops such as this were few and far between in the US, and not all that common in Europe. I wanted to be able to offer my landscape clients greater depth.  Great  landscapes imply a site, a collaboration, a gorgeous and arranged collection of plants-and some architecture.  No plant or collection of plants fully represents a landscape.  But those objects I place in a garden name names-they go on to evoke memories, create an atmosphere, and provoke the eye.   Favorable circumstances enabled me to buy this property-an accountant common to both the seller and I who brokered the sale, and a friendly zoning ruling from Bloomfield Township.      

The closing took little time.  But the property sat from March until August-I had to work.  In late August of 1995, every truck I had pulled up, and parked.  We had a lot of work to do.   

The inside of the building-really rough.  Today my office and library occupies this space. 15 years ago, this space was a wreck.  This was the main office of the Little and David Machine Company, in the demolition phase.  Less than ideal-about all I had to offer this project was my willingness to work.  I hired a construction supervisor.  Everyone who worked for me helped to transform this space.   

Oil coated the floors, and splashed up the walls.  Reviewing these pictures, I am so pleased and amazed that I had the nerve to go ahead.  My Mom cried when she saw this building-no wonder.  In my mind-a great shop devoted to great objects for gardens.  No oil soaked surface would deter me.  I persisted.  These floors defied cleaning.  I finally hired a company to come in and shot blast the floors with steel shot.  Once the top 1/4 inch of concrete was ground off, they were clean; Rob and I mopped all of the floors with clear epoxy to seal the porous concrete.  

Months were devoted to the shovelling out phase.  Cleaning up and shovelling out a fouled site-this takes a lot of time.  Everyone who worked for me signed up, and delivered.  Every compelling story has much to do with the people who make that story happen. My group-they were great.  Fortunately, none of us were shy about getting dirty.  I was sure the space had not been cleaned in many years.         

The shovelling out-we drove trucks in and out of the building and to the dump for almost 3 months.     

Once the building was empty of all the debris-I was assessing spaces.  How did it feel? To be on my own?  Liked a rolling stone-just ask Bob Dylan.   

The greenhouse room-I removed the roof here, and  stood pat with the roof open to the skies for better than 3 months.  The rain washed away much of what worried me.  The smell of oil finally dissipated. We were able to start the construction phase-new walls would enclose the office space from the shop. The construction phase took 3 months; we opened March 29, 1996.  Two old clients had offered to throw me an opening party-what fun that was.  To still be here all these years later- even better.  My fifteenth anniversary-I am treasuring this moment.

Sunday Opinion: Bel’occhio

My first exposure to Thomas Hobbs and his partner Brent Beattie was an article in the July-August 2003 issue of Gardens Illustrated.  The article featured their extraordinary nursery, Southlands, located in Vancouver.  One shockingly beautiful, full page black and white photograph of their century old English glasshouse full of tropical plants-I have never forgotten this photograph by Arthur Meehan.  I subsequently read every word of the essay, and remembered.  The 1.5 acre nursery seemed beautifully laid out, and stocked with an astonishing range of beautifully grown plants, and great looking pots and urns of every description.  I do think Gardens Illustrated is the finest garden magazine in print on the planet-I have every issue, and I reread them regularly.  Their interest in Southlands-better than well deserved.  I aspired to the Hobbs/Beattie eye for beauty many years ago; I am happy to report that Southlands is still there, thriving.

Rob usually takes a holiday in the winter; just a few weeks ago he went to British Columbia.  He made his first personal visit to Southlands. He tells me the nursery was packed with people-people who are passionate about gardens, and people who need beauty to live.  Though the Gardens Illustrated article was published 8 years ago, his photographs confirm that their committment to their place has not waned one bit.  How I envied him his visit.

Rob brought me a copy of Thomas Hobbs’ book, The Jewel Box Garden, not knowing I had bought a copy the year it came out in 2004.  My library could easily stand 2 copies of this book-it is that good.  Over the past few days, I have reread the book, given Rob’s visit.  This reading is different than the first.  The first time around, I was captivated by his use of tropical plants in pots.  Phormiums, agaves, bananas-his gestures were bold.  How he used plants made his point of view eminently clear.  Make every square inch of your garden beautiful-why not?    I admire any designer who has great confidence in their eye.  The confidence to construct a coherent world-down to the last preposition of their language.  Such is the sensibility that characterizes Thomas Hobbs.

This reading, I was struck by how well he writes.  I was also much more tuned into his writing about bel’occio. Bel’occio is an Italian word which literally translates as “beautiful eye”.  He makes no bones about the importance of an eye, a life that demands beauty.  “Not everyone recieved the bel’occio gene.  Those of us who did are the lucky ones”.  I have been thinking about this for a few days.  There are plenty of things I see in the landscape that are not beautiful.  I have no plans to create a forum to address that-I keep those thoughts to myself.  I am not a critic, I am a landscape and garden designer. 

 Sometimes I see things that in my opinion are outrageously ugly-but I try to resist putting my camera or my words to that.  Routinely I see popular ideas about the environment bandied about- without any demonstrably firm foundation in science.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion-I have no need to wade into that.  My idea for my life-create something beautiful. Talk about, illustrate, engender, participate in, felicitate, stand up for the beauty that a love of nature can endow.  My camera, my words, my design-these pursuits are fueled by my energy.  I have some rules about what I put my energy to.  I am interested in the natural beauty of nature, and in creating beautiful places, beautiful gardens, beautiful landscapes-beautiful moments.  My energy is governed by the demands of my bel’occio gene.  I think this is a good use of my life.

No one gardens because it is easy and fun.  No one plants and cares for a landscape because they have nothing else to do. No one puts their hands in the dirt without passion.  Growing plants from seed, growing vegetables to eat, planting pots or perennial gardens, designing and planting landscapes, -all of this is a natural result of the bel’occhio gene. Many thanks, Thomas Hobbs, for explaining this so eloquently.