Sunday Opinion: Imported From Detroit

I am a fan of my city; I have lived here all my life, and I still like it. I was born near the Jefferson plant in 1950.  I subsequently lived in Burns Park in Indian Village in Detroit until I was 6.  Though my family moved me to East Detroit in 1956, I routinely rode my bike downtown for a chocolate soda at Hudson’s, and took a tour around Belle Isle on my way home.  It is incredible to think that my parents never worried one bit about a 10 year old biking with friends miles away from home. But we did not think of Detroit as miles away then-it was our city. Detroit was and still is my city; I write this with pride. You may think of a car as a mechanism that allows you to get from one place to another, but my idea of the cars that have been expertly designed and engineered and efficiently produced- starting with Henry Ford-a product of infinite complexity that came on to move people and goods efficiently, reliably, and beautifully. The automobile- a game changer, ranking right up there with the light bulb, modern vaccines, and air travel.  My city, my gritty city, was instrumental in getting this country, and many other countries, on the road. That same city is also home to many thousands of talented, energetic and imaginative people doing all sorts of things-the same kinds of people that live in your city.

 Better than 15 years ago, a landscape client greatly respected in the product branding business (she named the Saturn) was kind enough to take me through a process by which I was able to give a name to the shop.  Giving a name to something which does not yet exist-not so easy.  But she organized the process.  Make a list of all the words that in your mind describes what you want this shop to be.  My list was long.  Of course garden was the first on that list.  It’s what we do.  Eventually the word “works” appeared on the list.  As in the works, this works for me, a work in progress, work the problems out, working well, not working; work is an apt synonym for gardening, is it not?  The word work is a favorite.  Also on my list, Detroit.  I had by that time done landscape and events outside of Michigan.  Though I live some 30 miles north of downtown Detroit, Detroit is where I live.  My geography has plenty to do with my attitudes and practices as a gardener. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I believe all great work, all great art, all great landscape is local.  I do not for one second believe that all the most creative people people in the world live in Milan, Los Angeles, Paris, or New York City.  What captures the attention of the media is a very small version of what is out there to see.  Incredibly talented and capable people live all over this globe-and lots of them in my town.  Some live in the Netherlands, or England, or Sweden, or Australia, Belgium, Canada or Wisconsin. In every city, town and township in every country there are people doing work that is breathtaking.  Really beautiful.  The internet has made it possible to appreciate this in a way that staggers the imagination.  I learned about the hellebores of Judith Knott Tyler from the internet; I have since bought her plants, and her books.  Small business people and artists lived and worked in remote places long before there was an efficient way to find out about them. 

The three words I chose that would become the name of the shop needed an arrangement. It seemed only natural that the word Detroit would come first.  The climate and community in which I work influences everything I do.  I practice horticulture in the midwest.  This means I design American gardens from a midwesterner’s point of view.  I would not want this any other way.  I believe authenticity of place is a critically important factor in landscape design.  There are lots of landscapes, both historic and contemporary that I admire from other places.  But what I have is this place.  And I have the conviction that what can be designed and grown in this place is equally as beautiful as what might be designed somewhere else.  There may be certain things about Michigan gardens that have no equal or parallel anywhere else.  This belief keeps me warm and working.

Why am I talking about Detroit?  The ad for the Chrysler 200M which aired this past Sunday, of course.  Chrysler bought 2 minutes of time during the Superbowl to talk about the genius of this place.  The genius of the people who work and live here.  I admire the gritty talk, the gritty music and photography.  All of that was perfectly authentic as to place.  But most of all I admire the clear conviction from start to finish that Detroit has produced something fabulously engineered, paintakingly built and beautifully sculptural- that cannot be found anywhere else. It is a very impassioned statement about taking ownership of what had melted down, reinventing with what was left standing, and forging something stronger and better. The ad closes with a simple but very powerful evocation of the idea of genius loci-the pervading spirit and atmosphere of place- Imported From Detroit.  Detroit has problems-terrible problems that all but defy solving.  But we have many people here with the guts, foresight, talent and imagination to take on the work of creating a local landscape where people can live and thrive.  The two minutes worth that Chrysler managed to bring to the discussion-have you seen it?

At A Glance: Still Snow Struck

The Painted Border


Repainting this concrete floor has gone on for over a week now.  I am hoping to finish up quick.  A container from England is sitting in customs; we need to be ready for that delivery. The four color green ground of this painted rug needed a border.  The base color is a dark chocolate.  Though I knew where I wanted to go color wise, I needed a texture that was unlike the texture of the ground.  Contrast is not strictly confined to color.  Though I had the best time signing the floor with loops of paint in a steady stream from my stir stick, I wanted a different texture for the border.  A clear definition of the edge.

The border is entirely painted with drips.  Those of you who read this blog regularly know dirt follows me around.  It is always under my fingernails, and in my sock tops.  As a painter, I know anything I wear will sooner or later show evidence of the painting process.  I am likely to have paint on my shoes, my hands my face, and my hair.  It is a life condition-I have no other explanation.  Paint drips usually land on me.  My plan-the paint would drip on the floor, and not so much on me.   

I was after a gravelly texture.  It seems like it ought to be the simplest thing in the world to get paint to drip-it happens unbidden all the time.  But regular drips, not too fast drips, not too big drips-this involves paint at a perfect consistency.  Thick enough to permit multiple drops, but thin enough to deposit small and civilized gravel-like shapes.  This part was work.  It will be a good thing when this floor is covered with the great things we have coming for spring.  My globs, lines and blips tell the tale.  3/8 inch and down decomposed granite is remarkably uniform.  My painting is anything but.    

But a paint card laid is a paint card played-there is no mopping up.  I could work another two weeks to erase any evidence of my hand, but why would I want to?  My approach to landscape design is formal-whether the result is traditional or contemporary.  I favor landscape design that emphasizes structure and utility.  Distilled design that makes a clear statement.  But I do understand that the most formal design on paper is subject to wind, weather, grade, hardiness, and all manner of unforseen caprice.     

It may be what I like the best about this painting are those capricious places. A loop of green paint might find its way out there, should the muscles fueling my hand unexpectedly flex.  An inadvertent flex might end up being my favorite part.  My advice?  If you want to paint a floor, make a plan, lay it out, prepare for any eventuality, and then go for broke. The same applies to a garden.  Plan your heart out.  Then go for broke. 

Those irrepressible blips are a personal signature.  When I sign a check, or a document, or a letter; when I design a landscape, I sign my name on the dotted line. My signature on the dotted line is not a guarantee of perfection-it is a vote of my confidence in my work.  What I do confidently is anything but perfect.  But it might be interesting.

The Border

I have been painting the border of painted concrete floor in the shop the past few days; the word “border” is on my mind. The language of the garden-a special language that crosses over national boundaries and may span centuries.  To whit-a verge refers to an edge in the garden, deeply cut with an edging spade.  A verge also refers to the shoulder of a road.  This is primarily a British term.  I greatly admire British gardens and gardeners; I equally like their use of language.  When I am edging a bed, the idea that I am creating a verge lends great dignity and creates excitement about what amounts to plain hard work.  I know how to amuse myself, when I am working.  A well cut verge is not so unlike a precipice that you could fall into, and break an ankle.  A passionately cut and serious edge on a bed.  Sharp clean edges make for a beautiful presentation. I fancy the grass border pictured above on this walk qualifies as a shoulder of a modest road-a grass verge.  The grass also forms a border for a luxuriant bed of variegated Krossa Regal hosta.  This plant is so textural and lyrical in appearance, a quiet setting would seem to display it to best advantage.  In this case, a border of grass.

This hedge of limelight hydrangea, bordering a hedge of lilac, itself bordered by grass, borders a road.  A border? A border is a line or a mass that visually indicates a boundary.  This border of three plants in three heights forms a boundary.  It screens a private garden from a public thoroughfare. This landscape border is on the verge of spilling over onto the roadway.  OK, I have a very active imagination.   

This boxwood, punctuated by crabapple standards creates a border which separates the public presentation of the landscape from private garden.  There is no reason why the landscape which faces the street need be an entirely public landscape.  This border creates a boundary.  Should you drive by, you are visually privy to what exists planted on the streetside of the boxwood.  Should you be an invited guest, you are also privy to what is planted on the house side of the border.  I like the idea of making friends especially welcome with a landscape experience all their own.    

My fountain brings me great pleasure.  A concrete affair faced in Valders stone, it needs a border that separates it from the grass.  Grass clippings in the pool-not good.  A border of herniaria replicates the look of the grass, but needs no mowing.  The Valders stone is a border which protects the herniaria from the chlorine in the fountain.  Some borders are about visual definition; some borders are about protection. 

This formally clipped yew hedge is a border clearly delineating this driveway. This is a dicey move in our zone; road salt can severely damage yews.  Should you be thinking of bordering your drive with an evergreen, look at your salt habit.  The junipers planted on this slope, so beautiful in their winter color, a spectacularly generous border bewtwen the lawn plane, and the driveway plane.  This simple border tells you everything you need to know about the elevation of the house. 

Perennial borders-no one does them better than the Brits.  My zone 4to5 makes me reluctant to invest too much in a perennial border.  I had lots of space here-so half of it went to a hydrangea border.  The hydrangeas, rugged and dependable.   Given the design of the border, the lawn reads as a road, a generous path to somewhere.  In this case, a pergola.  Yet to come, a focal point at the end of this grass verge which would encourage travel.  I think one of the most important elements of landscape design involves how to encourage people to travel through, and experience that landscape.  

This low and so beautifully constructed wall is a border, a retaining wall, between one level and the next.  A change of grade asks for a boundary.  A change of grade requires steps.  I like to signal that one level is ending, and another level is to come.  I like moves in a landscape that are clear and easy to read.  Clear and confident moves are beautiful to my eye.    A crisp verge-how I love this.