A New Tune

Tender Spring 05 (4)Tender is a very smart dress shop where they take their fashion seriously.  As I take the landscape seriously, we relate just fine to one another.  Commercial clients understand that the presentation of their business outdoors says a lot about what goes on inside. They want the outside of their store to look as fresh and newly conceived as what they carry inside.  I am thinking about Tender today, as Fine Gardening magazine wants to publish a picture of one of my containers in their special spring container issue.  As part of their profile on me, they asked me why I value container plantings. 

Aug 28d 399A container planting is a one-season committment. Unlike the landscape, the plants have to be replaced every year. The responsibility for a landscape can go on for many years.  I sometimes don’t make changes that I should, out of sheer inertia.  But my containers force change on me.  I have no choice but to observe and learn how to do better, and redo them-or be stuck twiddling my thumbs from sheer boredom.  A container planting is a miniature version of any landscape.  I would much prefer growing up as a gardener over four square feet and some annuals, than 100 square feet and a truckload of shade perennials.    

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My work enables me to design many landscapes, but there is only one which belongs to me.  I’ve made some decisions about it that I will no doubt keep as long as I garden there. Though I value history and continuity in my landscape, my annual containers are perennially fresh in that saucy adolescent sort of way. By the time they get tiresome, they are over; a new season is not far behind, chasing me about what is next.   

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I also like the idea that any person interested in gardening is not shut out by their hard surfaces.  Containers are great for people who lack land.  I entertain guests for dinner on a wood deck-should I do without a garden there?  I have planted the pots pictured above a good many years, sometimes four times a year. This kind of exposure to handling the same pots, the same surface, and the same location in a fresh way is a challenge I am heir to-so I should best welcome it.   

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People experience nature on a lot of levels.  One year, every spring pink flowering tree I saw irritated me.  A pink tree-ridiculous.  A tree, looking like a party dress for an eight year old-what serious gardener would want one?  This year, the pink crabs and magnolias enchanted me.  I so appreciate that one aspect of gardening invites me to indulge my mood with a gesture that is very much about the moment.  The gestures I make new every season-they are worth it.

Tender #2 (1)Pumpkin hats on the conical boxwood-this made me smile. The willow sticks dyed orange-I bought an entire container load of these some years ago from Spain- in lots of jewel like colors.  Several hundred thousand sticks-no kidding. Getting a phytosanitary certificate sufficient to get them through customs was a headache that made me want to black out.    Though looking at this picture makes me want them again in the worst way, I know something new is just ahead of me.  

Tender #3 (1)The winter is our quiet season.  Our colors are subdued, but not our gardening spirit. But for these planters, with their Alberta spruce topiaries and their greens, this view would be more bleakly about concrete than need be.  

Tender07This year one gallon size PJM rhododendron and dwarf globe arborvitae filled the rectangular pots.  I bought dead trees from my nursery supplier, and varnished the bark after dusting them with copper spray paint.  Platinum ball ornaments and squares of tarred jute ornament the trees. Each tree had a bird’s nest of fine platinum colored wire at the base.  A winter landscape.

A new supplier sent me the most divinely cinnamon colored  curly willow this fall.  Flame willow, they call this.  The short blonde curly cloud you see at their base-peach paper covered wire.  How this willow and these paper picks came to be in my hand-a new look for these pots forced me to consider new materials in unlikely partnership.   The blue green noble fir-a strikingly lush base to all of these orangy top knots. Gardens in containers-it can be more than you bargained for, should you let it.


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Green is a secondary color, made from a mix of the primary colors, yellow and blue.  Greens made from lots of yellow, and only a dash of blue, we call lime green, or chartreuse.  Yellow and green mixed in equal parts I call true green; I cannot spot a yellow, or a blue cast.  Greens made from lots of blue and a dollop of yellow-the blue greens. But to a gardener, green is about much more than a mixing formula.  Green is the color of life. 

I have never seen a landscape or a garden that did not have green as its dominant color. Why would I? Chlorophyll enables plants to live, be nourished, and grow.  Any experienced greenhouse grower can tell if a plant lacks for something a block away, by assessing its green.  A plant needing water goes greyish; a starving plant, and an overwatered plant will take on a sallow, yellowish appearance. Healthy, robust plants are robustly green.

DSC_0004Judging from the numbers of people I try to help grow healthy yews who cannot spot that yellow/green yews indicate a water or drainage problem, I think green is so pervasive in a landscape, people stop seeing it. If you are not tuned in to green, you are missing a good portion of the pleasure and satisfaction of a landscape. Designing with green in mind-don’t miss this.  

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My helleborus angustifolia suffers at the hands of our rough Michigan winters. The foliage is ratty and tattered by spring. But their green flowers make my heart pound, and the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Though my yews, so black green in winter weather, warm in the sun and turn juicy green, the hellebores are my first flowers.  Fresh green, they are. They are a sure sign of life in my garden. 

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I like color.  This means I like the green as well as the red, pink, orange, brown, blue, orange and yellow.  This all green planting I like as well as a great stand of echinacea. Green enchants me as much as any other color.  By the way, that stand of echinacea will be all the more striking if it is companion planted with a blue green panic grass. The blue/red, or magenta flowers look so beautiful with blue/green grass.  A garden is about much more than the flowers blooming. 

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White Christmas caladiums light up a shady area.  The variegation is not really white; it is a very pale green. Depending on the light at any given moment, they can be a lively visual discussion about the beauty of green.  These leaves are very thin.  Substance in any natural material refers to its thickness.  Thin substanced leaves transmit light well, and glow.  

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Many shades of green are represented in this pot.  Variegated licorice has a decidedly blue cast; pair it with Dallas Blues panic grass-subtle and gorgeous. The trailing Kent Beauty oregano is blue green as well-the nicotiana alata lime is the center of interest in this pot as it stands out, as it is the only yellow green element. Design is very much about deliberate.

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Green can be dark and moody.  Inky fingers coleus, and black calocasia are black greens.  The dark medium green borders on the Inky Fingers are just light enough to describe the dancing form of the coleus.  The dash of lime licorice-an exclamation point. 

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Lime green is so fresh, it speaks to spring.  New growth is this color-on yews, the flowers on the maple trees, the willow trees whose branches tell the story of the spring sap rising. Growing green is pale green. Lime green in the summer landscape can provide juicy definition to a shady area.  It can provide punch every bit as good as a blooming plant.  Lime green is fresh respite-plant it where you need this.

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Nero di Toscano, the Tuscan blue kale, is distinctively blue green.  I hear people eat this-but I just want to look at it.  It gives great companionship to this blue columnar juniper; the delicate blue green variegated licorice and showy oregano are like a frothy slip at the base. This design is much about proper scale for the planter, and contrasting textures, mass and shape, line and direction, rhythm-but it is so very much about the color green.     

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Were I pressed, I would have to say Nicotiana Alata Lime is my favorite flower.  Everything about it delights me-the simple shape, the nodding habit-but most of all that lime green.  I never tire of them. My taste in garden and landscape plants has evolved over the years. My intent to design with  the greens in mind did not come to me my first day gardening-I was very busy trying to get some decent horticultural practices in place-among a thousand other things.  The fact that gardening still energizes and enchants me after all these years-I chalk that up to the greens.

When Color Really Matters

Aug 28d 892There are times when color is the most important element of a landscape design.  This building, circa 1880, had become home to a well known and cutting edge advertising firm-Harris Marketing.   Any commercial client in the design business is keen that the landscape reflect as much attention to design as possible.  What you see outside is a visual reflection of what goes on inside.  In this case, the architecture and materials of the building itself made the color issue a very important design issue.

2000-2001 145Though the building was large, and several stories high, there was very little land on which to landscape.  The building facade was comprised of brick of an astonishingly bright orange color, and stone.  In addition, the right of way space was paved in orange brick.  Any successful landscape design would need to address that color in a thoughtful way, and then create visual interest in a very tight space.  My first decision was to choose one plant element that would represent that brick color-a Crimson Sentry maple.  Since the right of way locusts were planted at regular intervals, and framed in brick, I planted a row of these columnar red/orange/brown leaved maples in the spaces between the locusts-this visually added the right of way trees, and the land in which they were planted, to my landscape design.   

2000-2001 148I rarely plant dark foliaged trees, as the color can be hard to work with, and muddy at any distance.  This siting places these maples close to the viewers eye, backed up by that bright orange brick; the color of those leaves worked well.  Large bottomless planter boxes made from corten steel served a dual purpose.  The eventual orange brown of the steel would make my color references stronger.  They also permitted me to make a grade change in a small space. They made a 3-D representation of the brick borders around the locust trees. This unexpected element catches the eye. 

Aug 28d 894I planned to plant hydrangeas in the boxes, and Sum and Substance hostas in the ground.  The greenish white flowers of the hydrangeas, and the lime green foliage of the hostas would contrast with those orange brown leaves in a sparkly way.  We lined the planter boxes with sheet insulation; once the ground would freeze in the boxes, I wanted it to stay frozen.  Too much freezing and thawing might hinder my chances for success with hydrangeas, whose roots would be above grade.

Aug 28d 890Making this long run in several boxes dramatically reduced the fabrication cost, and made transport much easier.  The boxes and hydrangeas would also screen the basement level windows, and window air conditioners from view.  Old buildings like this one a very difficult to adapt to modern air conditioning.  This fact did not need to be part of the public presentation of the building.

2000-2001 160A stripe of PJM rhododendron unexpectedly repeats the maple leaf color.  I think it is a good idea to be clear in executing what you are trying to achieve.  There would be no opportunity to explain to passersby what I meant.  If I need to explain the intent of a design, I need to rethink the design. 

2000-2001 150It would take some time for that corten steel to orange up.  Corten steel only rusts to a certain point, and then becomes stable. Once the hydrangeas matured, they completely screened the lower floor windows.  Though I would not ordinarily block light to the interior of a building, there were security issues that my client decided were more important.

2000-2001 156The finished landscape has a beat.  A lively rhythm, and attention to the color relationships established by the building and environment attracts attention-any business hopes for this.  I would have been happier for more evergreens given our climate, but my client reasoned that few people would be walking by in the winter.  The orangy brown boxes would make a statement to people driving by.  Any strong geometric statement would attract the kind of attention they were looking for. 

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When this project was finished, I realized the white Annabelle flowers would make much of the white trim around the windows. I have yet to have a project that did not speak back to me when it was finished about something I had not considered.  I like this about what I do.

Sunday Opinion: At The Intersection

Yesterday was the last day for regularly scheduled hours in the shop until March 1.  I still come to work every day, but there is a change in the routine.  I am on an internal, diurnal, noctural, natural, subdural, under the weather schedule.  I am not looking out the window, I am looking in.  I don’t plan much. I put my watch in the drawer. I eat potato chips whenever I feel like it.  My mind wanders, and my hands are itching to make this, try that, hold whatever up to the light. 

I have design projects needing some resolution by spring.  All of them are in my mind; I like to let things cook before I put a pencil to paper. That cooking can take a long time; the long low heat makes for a tender stew with great flavor.  Things surface in no particular order-fine.  My reaction to the gardening season 2010 being in the distant future?  Spring can wait. In December I am still working furiously; this spills over into early January. Long about January 5,  I shift gears.  No more daily lists.  I sleep soundly and long. Were I a bear, I would Dylan Thomas my way resolutely into that good night.  The seasonal life suits me perfectly. I like very very on, and very, very off; I am not a big fan of a daily drip. 

My life changes during my late year streaming.  Do you not admire this lingo coming from an old girl? It so amuses me.  My concept of streaming is more stream of consciousness.  You never know what might float by.  January is time to give time to what surfaces, and see where it takes you.  It is about taking direction from something that hasn’t crossed my mind yet. A new year is firstly about second chances, and more importantly, about the future. The future is our most precious treasure.  As much as the present infuses my life with color, serious discourse, and energy, the future pushes me. My January is all about that future.  Rob is shopping for Detroit Garden Works holiday and spring 2010 as I write.  I have had 130 or so emails from him, loaded with photographs, in the past two days. January is a perfect time to take some ideas, and turn them into a collection for the shop. We talk plenty, seeds get sown , a plan gets buried in some good dirt-something good grows out of this. The winter lays me low; I am a growing girl, no question.  I do the best I can to live good naturedly over the winter.  Making topiary sculpture from natural materials, painting, designing new pots for Branch to build, repainting and rearranging the shop, reading, my spring design projects-I am terribly busy in an aimlessly good way. I need for nothing to be all put together right now. 

At the intersection of Routine Street and Invention Boulevard, there is never any question which route I will take.  Routine Street is at least 8 paved lanes wide, and goes on with nary a twist nor turn for what seems like a lifetime. This is not to say I am not influenced by the work of others-far from it. There are so many talented people out there whose work I truly respect and value. But January life is about turning what influences me inside out and upside down and running it down the block.  If I am able to explain how, and with what materials, and why I have done what I have done, I will. I know I will be moving on to something else today. What I did yesterday does not completely define me.  I would want to be a what will come next girl.  I also believe that if a person can teach, they should. Transmit what they can.  If people listen and try to reproduce my experiments, I am happy for this.  As I think my eye and my sensibility is unique to me, no one could take that from me. I do meet people in various design fields who never seem to veer off what someone else has dreamed up-this is mostly about a lack of confidence, not a lack of imagination. Rarely there will be someone who deliberately claims the work of others as their own; I feel sorry for them.  They have eliminated any possibility of satisfaction from their lives. How miserable a deed, and consequently, how miserable this must feel.

 Invention Blvd is an uncharted and unmarked two track known for its hairpin turns, narrow bridges, wildlife in the road and predictably foggy weather.  Does this not sound like the best fun?  I have written this post in fits and starts over the past two days.  That’s how things work for me, in January.