I might be making things up. I am so ready for a view like this out my office window that my reporting may simply be wishful thinking. But I do believe I heard birds singing this morning. It was thrilling just to be outside and not shudder. The sun was shining, the temperature well above freezing. Though the best thing about February 19th is that I will not have to deal with it for another whole year, I could sense some little signs of spring.
One definition of a Michigan spring is the day the snow is gone. It is gone from my roof, sidewalk and drive. My street was wet; the big piles of snow are a fraction of a bit smaller. The 39 degrees by 5 pm seemed like a heatwave. Perhaps more telling, the sun was still shining at 5pm; this is a sure sign that winter is loosening its grip. I am of course thinking already about planting. It will not be long before I have my hands back in the dirt.
There are lots of plants quite tolerant of cold. These lime needled Italian cypress are not hardy in my zone, but they do not mind chilly weather. I have grown them 5 feet tall and better, depending on how good a job I do of wintering them in the garage. The pansies, violas, alyssum, and heuchera in these pots are much more cheerful about chilly days than I am.
I have never seen Milo give any indication that he did not like any weather. He’s game, any day. But he seems more determined than ever to get out that door now. Once we reopen March 1, he will be outside as long as he can persuade someone to keep him company. I buy plants as I think they can tolerate the night temperatures. Diascia and angelina, osteospermum-even Moses in the Cradle- shake off the cold as well as the pansies.
It will be a good while before perennials are available-more than likely the same while it will take the ground to be ready for working. I try to leave my in ground gardens alone until they truly wake up. As I greatly dislike anyone dogging me when I am half asleep, I keep quiet until I can see the lights are on and I can smell something brewing. Trees and shrubs are just coming in-depending on the weather. So I plant spring pots; Milo keeps me company looking after them.
If the weather doesn’t break early in March, I will go to Bogie Lake and beg some greenhouse space to hold my spring pots. As tolerant as they are of cold, spring flowers only put on weight when there is heat. My spring pots get looking pretty good about June 1; some years, the spring pots last the entire summer. Every spring there are nights when everything has to be hauled in. Growing plants is such work-but there comes a time when I can’t do without them one more day.
We will have snow on and off in March and April. I remember a whomping snowstorm some years ago on April 16; more than a few times have we had flurries on Mother’s Day. Late snow doesn’t bother me that much-it rarely stays. The snow we get in December I am still looking at now-that’s a big bother.
I do cringe seeing my beloved spring flowers disappear beneath the snow, but they seem not to be bothered, unless the temps go below 28 degrees. I have seen fierce frosts when the tulips were 4 inches out of the ground. It may damage the leaves, but the flowers come on fine. The species crocus are a favorite of mine; there are years when freezing weather reduces their fragile blooms to gray mush. But when they are good, they are spectacular.
Our winter is all but gone. But March and April are neither winter nor spring. They are what I call the sprinter months. Move quickly towards spring, drop precipitously down and back into winter. We’ll have big wind soon-maybe ice. Our transition to spring can be a rocky one. It seems like we all are sprinting in one direction or another to keep up.
We’ll be fooled. We’ll be wringing our hands, and scrambling. But first and foremost, we’ll be ready to welcome the new season.
As my layout table has its first new coat of paint in 14 years, all the prints I’ve had stored there are piled up in my office. OK, I couldn’t resist taking a look before I put them back in storage. Some of them entertain me-I can see exactly what was influencing me at the time. The roll of drawings for the Bluewater project was just that-drawings. These unpolished sketches of landscape elements for a commercial project were highly conceptual-and certainly predate any computer programs that are now readily available to designers.
Land forms have always been of great interest to me. A big chunk of my library deals with mazes and labyrinths, land sculpture and earthworks. Robert Smithson’s 1970 sculpture ”Spiral Jetty”, constructed in 6 days on a leased piece of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is now completely landlocked as the lake is so low. The sculpture spent 20 years or better completely submerged. The sculpture has presented in many forms over the past 40 years. I have always admired it; no doubt this conceptual drawing of a maze half in and half out of some water was directly inspired by Smithson’s work.
Another favorite-the land form drawings of Hans Dieter Schaal in his book “Landscape as Inspiration”. Inspired indeed. His sprawling and energetic drawings of natural forms exposed me to an entirely different way of thinking about dirt and nature. I had never seen landscape spaces rendered in this way before. I was equally taken with the beauty of the drawings. They are by no means scaled prints, they are gestural and interpretive marks on a page. This work inspired me to take up a marker and put it to a page, and see what happens. I refer to his book regularly.
Any reference to natural forms intrigues me. A log twig bridge over Bluewater’s man-made lake seemed like just the right combination of architecture and natural materials. Buck shakes his finger at me when I design with no regard for construction, but I still think a little free spirited doodle drawing has its place. A sketch that seems to be going no where is easily discarded-provided you have not spent so much time with it that you have become attached. It is difficult to be objective about one’s own work-so I try to work fast at the conceptual stage. Anything I have invested a lot of time and work in can be hard to trash-even when trash it I should.
None of these drawings would convince a client to commit their time and money. But they might convince a client that there was a reservoir of ideas from which something of interest might emerge. If you don’t believe your designer is a person of interest, then a collaboration on your project is unlikely. If you are designing for yourself, drawings can bring ideas to the surface you didn’t know you had. Keeping a waste basket handy can be a comfort!
I am happy to have these drawings, not for their design, but for their energy. Being the fan of science that I am, I wholly subscribe to the notion that everything in motion tends to stay in motion-and what’s at rest tends to stay still. This applies as much to a design sensibility as it does to the physical world. Inertia being gravity that has gotten the upper hand, I make the effort to feed whatever energy I have regularly.
This drawing suggests at least 6 different ideas. They have similar elements, but are disconnected from each other. At the end of a series of drawings comes the integration phase. How visual and sculptural elements relate to each might be more important than any given piece. That relationship provides for good flow and rhythm. I see lots of landscapes that have good bits, but no flow. In the print, I plan for the transition between one space and another to have its own space.
Once I was able to see that technically expert drawings did not necessarily imply expert concepts, I felt much more free to draw. The marks I make with the greatest confidence? My signature. Much of that confidence comes from having made those particular marks countless times. No one critiques a signature either-it is what it is. A series of drawings about your yard might need a little time to sit, before you review. It’s February-you have time.
A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to be a member of a team charged with submitting a schematic plan for the redesign of the Baltimore Zoo. One of the oldest zoos in the country, it featured giant iron cages for the animals, and a system of roads such that visitors could drive by the exhibits. This antiquated and self-defeating organization was kept company by an infrastructure beyond repair. The team assembled was a large one; architects, exhibit planners, zoo exhibit architects, engineers, teachers, zoo scientists- all had to work together to form a viable schematic plan.
Why me? The idea was to give the zoo a second, different and compatible attraction-a botanic garden. Our group did visit the Cincinnati Zoo early on; what an incredible place this is. Some exhibits were based on the flora and fauna of a specific ecosystem. We were locked up; the animals had fairly free range of a habitat. Each exhibit made much of identifying all the plant material being used. Some exhibits featured recordings of the sounds of the animals. Other exhibits featured the most amazingly realistic concrete trees and steel lianas I have ever seen; zoo animals can destroy a natural habitat very quickly.
My part was to design landscape areas that would provoke the interest of any visitor. A zoo is a very expensive place to maintain. They need a substantial number of new and repeat visitors to stay afloat. It was not enough that the landscape be beautiful-it needed to entertain, enchant-and teach. A steel dome covered in climbing hydrangea would certainly attract attention. The cool leafy interior would enchant any child, and teach them about climbing plants. My cloud garden put every visitor on a catwalk winding through the garden-in the clouds, as it were. A meadow below of plants whose flowers and seeds were cloud like-entertaining. Of course I envisioned lots of butterfly weed.
This project had many prints associated with it. This master print reveals that the zoo would have a center named Wild Earth. This large piazza would have places to sit, to have lunch, and environments for children to play. Each major habitat of the new zoo began, and ended in the center. This master plan took great pains to engineer the experience to appeal to all the senses, and the intellect. The big idea-the importance of our wild earth.
The Directors Garden is an annual garden display. This garden would be planted new every year by the group, nursery, or design build firm chosen by the zoo director. Its placement and size would attract attention from a distance. The spoke walks radiating from Wild Earth needed an element in the distance that would encourage people to walk, and explore.
Each of the named gardens were interspersed and integrated into the animal habitats. This print is an overview of one of the zoo spokes. It is most valuable in detailing the flow of the space. The prospect of large numbers of people demands ease of travel, with plenty to look at along the way.
This design work was done very differently than most things I do. The prints were accompanied by all sorts of visual materials that helped to illustrate the concept. The avenue of trees print came with detailed botanical information on a number of tree species that might be worth including, and why. As I would not contract the work, the schematic plan needed as much information as possible-both visual and written-in support of the intent. In the end, I knew a collection of specimen trees would be planted. At this point, the main idea was an avenue from which to view the collection. This garden would be located on both sides of the car approach to the zoo, with plenty of walking paths for those wanting to go for a closer look.
The development of a schematic plan is very exciting work. This beginning work is just that-about beginnings. This schematic plan ran to hundreds of pages-mostly musings about what I imagined could be. Later there would be budgets, timelines, and construction documents. But dream time I did have.
Deborah Silver is a landscape and garden designer whose firm, Deborah Silver and Co Inc, opened its doors in 1986. She opened Detroit Garden Works, a retail store devoted to fine and unusual garden ornament and specialty plants, in 1996. In 2004, she opened the Branch studio, a subsidiary of the landscape company which designs and manufactures garden ornament in a variety of media. Though her formal education is in English literature and biology, she worked as a fine artist in watercolor and pastel from 1972-1983. A job in a nursery, to help support herself as an artist in the early 80′s evolved into a career in landscape and garden design. Her landscape design and installation projects combine a thorough knowledge of horticulture with an artist’s eye for design. Her three companies provide a wide range of products and services to the serious gardener. She has been writing this journal style blog since April of 2009.