Sunday Opinion: Community

So much of horticulture is really about community.  Plants have very specific requirements in terms of soil, light, water, drainage, exposure and winter hardiness.  If a plant does not get what it needs, it will languish at best, or die.  Plants requiring similar conditions would indicate a community, would they not?  This part can get tricky. 

 Good gardeners understand vigor.  Some plants are robust, chatty, and spread their cheer with abandon.  To have them is something akin to being occupied by an army.  This phrase, a line from a poem by Marge Piercy –  I have never forgotten it, as it is so seminal to the art of gardening.  The art of gardening that comes after one has mastered the basic science of gardening, that is.  In this group, I would put butterburrs.  They own a spot in my garden bordered on one side by a concrete curb and driveway.  The other borders-I maintain.  OK, I police the butterburrs.  A local nursery digs them out of my yews, my driveway and my hosta garden, and grows them on for sale.  They do me a big favor.  I would not want to do without them, but they are a poor candidate for a community.  A desolate boggy place needing plants by the thousands-they are happy to oblige.  Gooseneck loosestrife is another such plant.  Should your garden require a a bed the size of Indiana, plant a few.  In this group, I would place baltic ivy, ostrich ferns-you get the idea. 

Other plants are hesitant growers.  They lack self confidence, they are fussy, they find the reality of community overwhelming.  They may be beautiful, but they whisper.  In this group, in my zone, certain roses, heaths and heathers, big leaved rhododendrons, lupines and delphiniums.  What gardeners call plant habit might better be understood as plant personality.  A description of plant habit seems a fairly cut and dried affair, reeking of science.  Personality-a big fluid topic.  A consideration of personalities can better inform your decisions about what garden communities you intend to sponsor. 

My roses tolerate the community in which they live.  They tolerate the asparagus and hibiscus that they live with,  they ignore the vigously growing boltonia. The roses somewhat benefit from the Japanese anemone that covers the ground, and conserves moisture.  No relationships are perfect, but this community garden has prospered.  Every voice gets heard.  The climbing roses love the heat of the south facing wall.  The only exasperated voice-me trying to wade in there to deadhead the roses, or read the gas meter.  Peace is not necessarily about a lack of voices.  It is more about the balance of voices.

My small patch of meadow features panic grass, echinacea, hyssop, and monarda fistulosa Claire Grace.  I have to intervene on occasion.  I chop out pieces of the grass, and fill those holes with soil-the grass would overrun the entire bed, given free rein.  I do not plant fancy new hybrids of echinaceas here-I need vigor more than I need an unexpected color or form.  Hyssop can be fleeting in my zone-I have to replace them on occasion.  I am not an impartial observer here.  I am a supreme court justice, enforcing the law.  This community thrives, given some stern intervention.

I had big beds of baltic ivy when I moved here 15 years ago.  The lily of the valley has no problem representing in spite of its tangled thicket of stems and roots.  Both plants race and spread, equally.  If you have ever had occasion to dig out baltic ivy, you know from whence I speak.  Running a rototiller through an ivy bed-hold on to your hat; golf cleats would be an excellent idea.  My stands of crocus look fragile-nothing could be further from the truth.  They suffer the cold, snow, and sleet as if it were nothing.  I have had ample evidence of that these past few days.  Their slender leaves come up through the ivy like a warm knife negotiating a cold stick of butter.  Though they appear to be delicate, they write a definitive essay about determination. 

I am a fan of rupturewort-herniaria.  I have planted lots of them, in two separate communities.   I observe that they like good snow cover, and protection from wind.  Rupturewort can be good, or it can be horrid, given the character of any given winter. I want them in my community-so I do what I can to insure their success.  I protect them.   What I learn about plant community informs everything I do in the landscape.

Our first ever spring event is this coming weekend, April 9 and 10.  This I planned last fall, anticipating the fifteenth anniversary of the shop.  We planted every garden at the shop with spring bulbs.  The front gardens-2600 tulips.  The driveway garden-a glorious mix of many hundreds of hyacinths.  I planted hundreds of containers with all manner of spring bulbs.  This spring has been cold and slow-but I did prepare for a community gathering as best I could.  I have invited growers and landscape service people whom I buy from and admire to bring their spring plants, and information about themselves. 

The garden industry-I am a member of that community.  We all have our strengths and our quirks.  Should I not have something a client needs, I send them straight away to that place that could help them.  Other plces do the same for me. We are by no means a full service plant nursery-we have specialty plants.  This means whatever we take a fancy to at that moment.  We are willing to talk about why we choose this, and not that.   Other places have more selection.  Our greater community-some are big and strong, some are small and very personal.  All of us have our own personalities.  But to the last we are committed to great plants, great gardens, great landscapes-and great service. Should you have the time, please stop by.  My idea-a celebration of my professional and my client community is a good thing for everyone involved.        

Lots of what I know about plant communities has to do with experience.  I try things.  Should they not work, I try something else.  It may take years to get something right.  I view most things through this gardening lens.  The group of us are bound to get something right. Spring in Michigan is fast and fleeting; I invite you to participate in our version.  All of us would be so pleased to see you next weekend.

At A Glance: Ready, Or Not?

Belatedly, The First Of April

I know, today is April 2.  April 1 news is regrettably old news.  A day late will be a regular occurence now-I am back to work.  Making landscape calls for both new house construction and landscape renovation-despite the snow and ice.  Studying site plans and taking pictures.  A few unfinished projects from last year need to be buttoned up. I am almost finished with the the spring display at the shop.  I am back to designing. 

The fifteenth anniversary of Detroit Garden Works means much to me. I am pleased to report we are still going strong.  Keeping a business going 15 years pales in comparison to Clifton Little Venice in England-could it be that they are celebrating their 160th birthday?  Yes, they are.  Established in 1851, they are celebrating 160 years this year.  Clifton Nurseries is London’s oldest garden centre, only minutes from London’s busy West End.  Check them out, as I do, regularly.  Their age, cache and great style does not discourage me in the least bit.  They encourage me to be the best I can be.  I am very pleased to report that I spied English made concrete pots in the classical Italian style in their nursery-we too have these great concrete pots available. 

But April first marks a few other modest milestones. April 1 of 2009 I wrote my first Dirt Simple post. I started writing with the intention of writing every day.  Every day, rain or shine.  I have not been perfect in this regard, but I made a decent effort.  At 703 posts, I am 27 posts shy of perfect given two years, this April 1 of 2011.  Somewhat shy of perfect is plenty ok with me.  I so enjoy the writing. I enjoy so much more the contact I have made with gardeners far from me.  This could be a few miles away, or an ocean away;  my French friend and garden writer, Delphine Gitterman-we have made a relationship, never having met face to face.  Paradis Express is a daily read for me-she exposes me to things I would not have access to otherwise.   Look her up.    Ditto Rochelle Greayer at Studio G-does she not shine? 

Beyond the 2nd anniversary of the blog, April 1 was Rob’s 19th anniversary with me.  Nineteen years-holy heck.  We went to dinner in celebration of that milestone at Pepinos, in Walled Lake.  Early on, we went there regularly after work.  Though I moved away from that neighborhood 15 years ago, the hostess who has been there 27 years recognized us instantly.  She asked after us; her knowledge and interest was genuine.  We got a great booth.  We had a great dinner.  We shared a great bread pudding for dessert on the house-a lit birthday candle stuffed into the whipped cream, on Karen. Any relationship-whether personally or design oriented-matters much.  Should you live near me, and like to have dinner at a great supper club witha relaxed atmosphere, try Pepinos.  

The big idea here?  Age is good for certain things.  Age makes for great lichens, big and gorgeous plants, good looking trees.  Age has its advantages.  April first in my life is all about serious, funny and engaging relationships. This blog-a new member of the April one club.  Rob-a charter member of the April one club.  April first-of course this can only mean the best is yet to come.

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.