Sunday Opinion: Holiday Spirit

I do believe that gardening is a beneficial activity; I highly recommend it.  The walking, weeding, bending, hauling and digging it requires can provide all the exercise you need, and then some.  While weeding, I can hear the birds, feel the sun on my neck , taste my own sweat and put my hands in the dirt; my senses get their exercise too. I am entertained watching the corgi races while I prune. There is the element of satisfaction that comes with making physical progress on a project.    Riding a stationary bike or lifting barbells has no appeal to me whatsoever.  What’s to see?  I am sure there are circumstance under which I would run, but none of them are pleasant.  Gardening is hard work, but you get more back than an admirable physique-just my opinion. 

Exposure to nature teaches a thing or two. There are no end of events in my garden that make clear I am neither the president nor chairman of the board of said enterprise-nor will I ever be up for either position.  This is a grown up experience-realizing you are not in charge, nor are you the center of anything.  I am the sole depositor to the garden bank account.  As nature doesn’t fix what she wrecks, you learn what stewardship is all about.  I’ve not met the gardener that does not respect the sanctity of life.  I’ve heard tell of toad families rescued from window wells,  goslings trapped in the swimming pool netted out to safety-in spite of the flapping fury of the goose Mom. My gardening clients talk to and play with my dogs when they are here, and I know the names of their dogs.  No one bothers the insects in my garden-although I do throw my Japanese beetles in the trash.  The arborvitae hedge that will take three years to recover from ice damage taught me more than I ever wanted to know about patience.  Maintaining a garden is a daily lesson in what is meant by committment.  Learning to garden is a process with no end and no diploma; the only person likely to be clapping and dancing about your hellebores would be you.  Anyone who has trouble identifying what constitutes a reality check would be set straight with a little gardening. 

The gardeners I know by and large have good manners.  They don’t mow on Saturday morning at 8am-only non-gardening people do that.  They don’t keep boats, bikes and trash cans within view of neighboring gardens. They clean up after their dogs and kids.  They do not burn garbage in their fireplaces. What the world sees of them is neat and orderly. The neighbor behind me-I have spent untold amounts in trees and fencing, the sole purpose of which is to obliterate my view of his 2007 and 2008 Christmas tree skeletons, his decaying canoe, his broken pots, dead bushes, and unmowed grass.  He is most definitely not a gardener, nor is he a serviceable housekeeper. Gardeners are happy to share their gardens.  This extends to offering cuttings or a start, or some useful advice.  I see this willingness to share evident no matter the size, circumstance or scope of their garden. 

Gardeners do seem to have values.  Only once in fourteen years have I have something stolen from the store-an old and spectacularly beautiful lavender topiary.  What made me so mad about it was knowing the person who stole it could not have been a gardener; I am sure it was dead within a month. I do not guarantee any plant sold at my shop.  I would not want to suggest to anyone that I have control over what they do not do, or do too much of.  Gardeners know that ignorance of the horticulture is no excuse. They do not demand restitution-they own their own trouble.  They are an honest lot; a nickel in the driveway gets taken to the counter. They don’t envy the gardens of others-they appreciate them.  I can be thoughtless and act poorly the same as the next person-but my garden reminds me that the heat of the moment pales in comparison with the big picture.

I like the holidays for these same reasons.  They bring out the best in people.  The holidays remind us that if we are able, we should help others in whatever way we can.  This may be volunteering, or contributing or instructing-something my garden does routinely for me.  Decorating for the holidays makes people feel good and act better.  I have seen lots of smiles, and been treated to an equally large number of “happy holidays” and “Merry Christmas” greetings.  Rob, whose optimism, patience and good manners rarely desert him, helps people plan to decorate, or entertain in a garden-like fashion. It’s nice to see adult faces lighting up once a sense of holiday spirit takes hold; I see him make this happen all the time. Last year an outspoken client came to the register with a wreath she wanted-in the next breath she is telling me her work hours had been cut and changed, and she really had no business buying it .  I told her I would take whatever she had in her wallet in settlement of the debt.  I took her twelve dollars, and she left smiling.  Two days later she was back-a platter heaping with her homemade baklava in tow. Good spirit-there’s nothing quite like it.     

 I have never seen so many gardens lit for the season as I have this year. Some are beautiful, some are dramatic-some are out there-but what they share in common is the gesture of light against the dark. I can attribute some of this to our warm November weather; Janet thinks the reason has to do with an instinct and the good will to provide light in a dark time.  A spirited gesture. I think she may be right.

At A Glance: Light Bars


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Finishing Up Outdoors

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Four weeks of non stop work installing the bulk of our outdoor winter and holiday decor came to a close this afternoon. Friday’s installation schedule left no time to write until this morning.  Seasonal work can be grueling; there is a limit to the time you have-never mind if you don’t feel good, or don’t have any ideas worth pursuing, or if the weather is uncooperative.  I should finish the outdoor work by Wednesday of next week. It has been 14 degrees here, with high winds, for three days-this is the most compelling reason to finish the outdoor work.     

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Someone asked me yesterday how I manage to avoid churning out work, but produce creative and varied work, under pressure, and fast.  I don’t know.  I do know I dream about work every night in the heat of the spring and early winter season.  I wake up in the middle of the night, in the middle of a discussion about a project.  Its easier for me to talk about the mechanics-those things that make it possible for me to take an idea and translate it into a visual form.  

Dec 1 009My heated workspace, undisturbed, ranks number one.  My tools rank a close second.   My crews know to never borrow a tool without returning it.  Rob on the other hand-if you are reading this Rob, can you return my pruners?  Frustration is a bucket of cold water that will unpleasantly drench any project you might have a mind to take on.  A well lit, warm space, surfaces at the right height, good tools, and I am half way there.   

Dec 1 002Detroit Garden Works is a source of materials for me, as well as the garden, or the field next door. The farmer’s market is a logical choice.  I hear tell that Target is selling pearl lights this year. The materials that are everywhere around me make their own suggestions.  I try to listen. 

DSC_0005Fragments of materials can find a home at the holidays, so I save the bits that have promise.  Having tools and materials at hand set the stage; inspiration can come from a lot of places.  This wreath of wood shavings dyed red is a dramatic dose of holiday cheer all by itself.  The red wood shaving rose brooch came from another source all together.

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The forest floor is a perennial source of inspiration.  Wiring and gluing it all together is pretty good fun. This year’s wreath list is down to the last 6, and then there will be some time to think about one of my own.  After Christmas, we make an evening of a travelling dinner with friends; we share our homes dressed for the holidays. Most of the pleasure of decorating for the holidays is sharing it.  My neighbors put their lights up in big numbers this year, as November was mild.    Dec 11 013

Some gifted person invented a machine that stuffs magnolia into a steel frame in a dense and orderly fashion. They are zip-tied to the floor of a large box for shipping; they arrive with every leaf perfect.  As it will be displayed indoors on a very large stone fireplace, I glued in two more rounds of leaves on the outside edge to give it more presence.
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My favorite part of this wreath-what would you guess?  The individual ends of the jute string bow have unravelled slightly after our first rainy snowfall.  Though the bow is frozen solid, it has a gracefully natural look not one bit my doing. 
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It is 17 degrees this morning.  This is all the reason I need to start moving towards decorating indoors.

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Happy Holidays!

Southern Magnolia

Dec 7 035I have been planting magnolias in landscapes for over twenty years; I am a fan.  They are chunky, open growing, large leaved trees that satisfy the gardener in me in every regard. Old trees have a gorgeous shape; the flowers, and later, the leaves are breathtaking.  There are a number of magnolias that prosper in my cold climate; Wada’s Memory, Yellow Butterflies, Galaxy-my love list is long. As I have tried to grow the Magnolia Grandiflora hybrid “Brown Bracken”, reputedly the hardiest of the grandiflora hybrids, without success, southern magnolia only graces my gardening life at the holidays. 

DSC_0028I cannot imagine ever tiring of these large, shiny, ovate leaves.  What leaf do you know that is shiny green on one side, and felted cinnamon brown on the reverse? As much as I admire this mix of color revealed in a mature tree, I value the trimmings in wreaths and garlands at the holidays.

2007 Vlasic, Paul HOLIDAY 12-6-07 (12)My supplier farms these trees; his November prunings and clippings are sent all over the country  at the holiday.  All green leaved wreaths, mixed green and brown wreaths, garlands, bunches of 16″ long clippings-even 4′ and 6′ tall branches-glorious. Broad leaved evergreens are prized by gardeners in northern climates; I am never so happy to have them as right now. 2007 Vlasic, Paul HOLIDAY 12-6-07 (15)
Holly does poorly as a cut green-even outdoors.  Freezing temperatures can spoil the foliage overnight.  Though popular for interior holiday arrangements, its shelf life is fleeting at best.  Magnolia holds up our entire season.  As it dries, the leaves curl.  This makes for places to stuff fresh needled greens, berries, ornament-and lights.    

DSC04251A southern magnolia wreath kept indoors, and carefully stored, will last many years.  The dark green leaves will turn a pale platinum green.  The felted backs of the leaves do not change in color or texture. Very old magnolia leaves are brittle, but stable.  With good care, a treasured magnolia wreath is a keepsake. Outdoors, the leaves will turn an olive brown when dry, but this takes a long time. Depending on the sun expsoure, it is well into January before the leaves fade.

2007 Barrett Holiday (30)Magnolia garlands open to reveal deep spaces; they take well to being lighted with no visual trace of a cord. Fresh needled evergreen garlands go dry, stiff, and off color fast.  Magnolia garland is hefty; It will keep its shape outdoors in spite of stormy weather.  

2008 Hermelin, Jennifer WINTER 12-18-08 (2)
The cut stems shine in winter pots. Their lush appearance is so unlike the prevailing landscape. A single bunch of cut stems yields enough individual leaves to dress up several evergreen wreaths, a mantle garland, or a package.  After the holidays we make table top topiary sculptures from any bunches we have left.  None of the magnolia need go to waste. 

DSC_0015In February my garland still looks fine; it will look just about like this when I take it down in March. I have had clients store their garlands, lights and all, and use them again the following season.  Why not?

This garland stuffed with twigs, moss, noble fir, and acorns is lovely. A gift of the season, from the garden.