Sunday Opinion: Smelling Like Dirt

Someone said, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”  The idea of resuming contact with the dirt after a long winter seems so obvious, one wonders why anyone bothered to write it out loud.  But today I am happy someone said it.  I spend a lot of time in the winter reading the magazines that came in the mail, and got set aside for reading during a less busy time.  I like my magazines, as I believe my eye or my heart or both will be educated and intrigued by what I see and read. I greatly value photographs of anything I cannot see in person. I am reading now-the winter sees to that. Though I once believed that with perserverance, I would be able to read every book that had ever been written, I know the foolishness of that now.  But for the annotated and largely visual version of the world, I would be exposed to very little.  I subscribe to magazines written in languages I cannot read or speak.  I like them as well, and I draw from them as much as any English language magazine.  I cannot really explain this. I read everything I can get my hands on, this time of year. However, I can explain why the dirt quote is on my mind today.

 There is no need to name names and cite specific articles, but I am amazed at the number of garden magazine features that seem to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with gardening. I am sure you have seen them.  The immaculately dressed host is graciously serving smart starters and a chic wine to guests on the rear terrace next to the pool.  In the distance, a view from a movie of a vineyard, or the craggy cliffs in Corfu,  or some equally stunning natural and temperate wonder.  No one is perspiring, or shivering.  There are no bugs, no dirt.  I have to strain my eyes to see that the landscape and gardens have not one leaf out of place-as the garden is not really the subject of the article. The garden is a background for an effortless and lovely lifestyle, beautifully captured on film. Not that I need to, but I will repeat-no sign of the dirt.   

Make no mistake, I entertain in my garden.  I design for others with the idea in mind that they will have company. I live in anticipation of those perfect moments, when they show themselves; this may or may not happen when I  have guests. I do fuss about this and that, when I think to have friends to the garden-I do want everything to be just so.  No one could ever enjoy my garden as I do, but this does not mean I do not go for company gold.  I do.  But little of what goes on there even approaches perfection.  I am always leaving my cocktail someplace, as I need to pull a weed or pick up sticks.  I do this while I have company-my friends are used to this. 

 Gardening is about something else all together than the magazine articles I am reading now.  It is not about a chic lifestyle, nor is it an alternate version of my living room.  My far view is of M-59, a very busy 4 lane road.  There are days when the motorcycles and fire trucks provide the soundtrack for my outdoor dinner parties. We are likely to be driven indoors later by the mosquitos.  Gardening is a dirty, sweaty, and mostly solitary business that does not translate well into magazine spreads.  It could very well be that a garden will improve the quality of your life, but not in any predictable or sterile way.  The magazine articles are notable for what they leave out, or ignore.  Plant catalogues would have you believe that every plant requires little and delivers a lot, year after year.  Well, some do, but most do not.  My friend Marianne once commented that some garden books seem to be about photography and not so much about gardens. I love beautiful photographs as well as the next person, so this does not bother me particularly.  But when I read a garden magazine, I am interested in the garden, not the movie version of the garden.  Even the how-to horticulture magazines do not capture that which comes from working the dirt. Formulas, recipes and how to’s draw the life out of that primal experience.  Work the dirt, plant some seeds, experience the miracle that transforms a seed into shoots and roots, sprouting. There is not so much more to talk about really.  Watching a plant grow, or spotting that it has grown- only a gardener would find this amusing or entertaining.  Though Buck is way up there on the indugent scale, he sometimes does roll his eyes.  Just like I do, when he is debating a dinner menu.  To each his own obsession.  No kidding, I can imagine the smell of dirt so vividly in late February I believe I am actually smelling it. Few magazine articles are able to trigger this.   

A garden is so much about how it engages all the senses.  I will put my hands on all my plants over the course of a season.  How everything smells after a good rain-delicious.  The first sign of spring-the birds resume singing their songs. As for how I smell-I have choices.  I could smell fresh, or musty. I can wash up, or not.  I can perspire, in reaction to that which moves me.  I can shower, and cool off, and sit out.   As for what I like to smell-I make choices. Fresh is ok, as long as there is some natural scent hovering.  The fumy smell of compost-delicious.  Mown grass-the perfect perfume. Rosemary or lavender, equally perfect.  Much of the beauty of a garden comes from how it smells.  Basil, the ultimately perfect perfume. Wear it or eat it-take your pick, or do both. 

I grow vegetables and herbs at the shop. I invariably have plants left over at the end of May; we grow them on through the summer.  I can water and eat tomatoes at the same time-this is how I like them best.  Warm and ripe from the sun. Unsullied by any fancy preparation.  Corn and tomatoes are a staple of Buck’s late summer menus-all else is window dressing.  My vegetables at work have yellow leaves, bug holes, and can look scraggly, but they taste fine. Everything in the garden looks good to me, in one genuine way or another. 

Having the chance to smell like dirt in the spring-I can hardly wait to put the magazines away.

At A Glance: Gerbera Daisies


Lerner 62

Wasserman Dinner 12-05 (6)


Hofley Wedding 05 (46)

2007 FIsher (25)





The Sprinter Months

DSC00703I 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.   

DSC00699One 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.  

DSC00894I 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.  

DSC00867If 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. 

DSC00709We 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. 

DSC00710I 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.  

DSC00711Our 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.

The Bluewater Drawings

landscape plans 042As 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. 

landscape plans 025Land 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.  

landscape plans 043Another 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.   

landscape plans 027Any 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.  

landscape plans 028None 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!

landscape plans 047I 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.   

landscape plans 037This 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.    

landscape plans 033
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.