Sunday Opinion: Success

Though there is nothing revolutionary or even provocative about the idea, I have been thinking about it. That is, that nothing makes for enthusiasm quite like success.  A friend was asking about my very first garden-what exactly was that like?  In 1980, armed with 4000.00 in cash from the sale of my first house in Ferndale, and an 8000.00 loan from my grandmother, I was able to buy a house and 5 acres in Orchard Lake for $60,000.00.  How so?  Though Orchard Lake is a very nice community and five acres is a whomping lot of land, we were in the middle of a recession, and the house in question was a disaster in every way.  The furnace had been installed in a dirt hole under the house-a ladder was required to go take a look at it. The first spring I lived there, said hole flooded; I had no heat at all after April 1. Every other part of the house was on a par with this, or worse.  The house was so bad, I had to get homeowner’s insurance through a state pool of high risk properties. I was 30 years old-what did I know?  All I could see was the property-and the possibilities that property would afford me.  My Mom cried when she saw it-I remember being so annoyed with her.  I had enthusiasm-what else did I need?

I actually needed plenty, and couldn’t afford one thing, once the mortgage and that insurance was paid every month.  We knocked down the garage, whose roof was balanced on unmortared columns of concrete blocks, and disposed of it one truckload at a time.  The hand-excavation for the drive-in garage had left the foundation of the house exposed-an excavating guy said he would bring in 300 yards of sandy dirt, and rough grade it all for 2000.00.  Nana to the rescue, a second time.  I think she had more confidence that I could make this work than my Mom.  She decided up front that if I could not make a go of it, she would bail me out.  She never said so out loud, but I think from the start she insured me against disaster.

But back to my first garden.  I was left with a really roughly graded, unmowably steep slope of a giant size-now what? Most of the gardening I had done to that point was confined to reading and mooning over plant catalogues, and garden books from the library. I had a few beds around the house-a few great plants trying to survive the weedfest. Not having an unlimited budget, I wanted plants that would spread.  Ground covers for sun.  Many sunny groundcovers came under the heading of rock garden plants-so I decided I would have a rock garden.  A sympathetic neighbor with an ancient Ford tractor dragged huge rocks from the property up to the top of the slope, and  turned them loose. Gravity made half the placement decisions, the puffy new soil the other half.  My rocks sank like the stones they were- at least half way into the ground. My first success-each rock looked like it had been there long enough for the earth to come up around it like an opulent stole.

My second success-what dumb luck that the soil that came to me was very sandy, and well drained, as most of the property was intractably heavy clay.  I spent what seemed like a king’s ransom on little spreading plants-but the sheer square footage of the area swallowed them up.  Not having one clue about mulch or weed prevention, I weeded-for years and years- before it filled in. Then I moved into crown growing plants, for a little vertical interest. I had myself a rock garden.  Dianthus, saponaria, aethionema , thymes, species tulips, iris chrysographes, and forrestii-and my favorite-encrusted saxifrage.  I could not get over the fact that the saxifrage leaves were stone-limestone- encrusted. I still can’t. My plants grew, and that success fueled my enthusiasm for more.  When I sold the house fifteen years later, it was actually liveable.  But what I hated leaving behind the most were my gardens. The rock garden was my first on that property,  but not my one and only.

My success had mostly to do with fortuitous accident.  I would never have dug out 1000 square feet of sod for a garden all at one time-not then.  The sheer size of the area of bare dirt forced me to deal with the space as a whole.  I planned little plant villages and neighborhoods. I had an east coast, and a west coast.   I saw where the water ran downhill in a fierce rain, and gravelled those gullies. I planted accordingly. I had a country going on, and it was my job to govern the whole thing. The spots I could see coming up the front walk got my favorites.  On my own, I would have started small, and added on.  What is it about add on’s that they always look added on? The sandy gritty soil-I am sure my excavating person had some he wanted to get rid of, or perhaps it was on special that day. Wherever it came from, my rock plants loved where they lived. 

My best friend Margaret gave me Louise Beebe Wilder’s book “Pleasures and Problems of a Rock Garden” written in 1938;  she had inherited it from her gardener father.  I quote from her chapter “The Steadfast Sedum”:  “No stonecrop, we are given to understand, would have the heart to blast our budding enthusiasms by refusing to live; any soil will suit them, any situation, and they increase at a rate unknown to other rock plants.  Pin our faith to sedums, and avoid despair.”  I took her advice when ever possible.  She wrote about rock gardening with such great enthusiasm.  Phlox subulata, she writes, has “radiant color, rich fragrance, and almost universal amicability”.  Who would not want to grow that? I about wore that book out, as I read for the pleasure of her writing, and I read again for her instruction and encouragement.  I loved the sedums sight unseen-they were going to help me have a garden.

Some thirty years later, I am still interested in this idea of success and enthusiasm.  No one can be enthused about dead or near dead plants. Or a groundcover bed overrun with quack grass.  In some cases, I am unable to intervene; who knows what people do with their plants when I am not looking.  But anyone who wishes to grow a garden, or redo a landscape, or plant some pots, has the ability to help themselves.  Nurseries put tags in their pots of plants; more than likely someone works there who gardens at home.  My very first gardening job was at a place where I bought iris and daylillies by the trunkload. My ideas of a vacation is visiting a nursery.  I am possessed and obsessed by gardening.  Lacking this, trees come with planting instructions. There are books. There is the encyclopedia interneta. Every gardener knows these things; what can be much tougher is figuring out who you are. That will tell you what kind of gardener you might become, should you hope and plan to.  Plan for success, and work hard.  You’ll be a better gardener for it.

At A Glance: More Mossy

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These great photographs are courtesy of Rob Yedinak.

Rainy March Day

We’ve had a run of unseasonably warm weather that has helped to make a major overhaul of the outdoor spaces a lot easier. We have another week yet to go on that giant project.  But today the rain blustered its way in-not that I mind.  The front gardens have tulips sprouting; I like to see them get a good drink once they break ground.  Weather is an important design element in garden making-I feel lucky for this.  Barring distructive weather, I like how nature changes the channel.  It is so interesting to see what the rain makes of how we have put the collection together.


I am likely to keep writing for a while about collecting-its part of what I do.  I also have a keen interest in how and what gardeners collect.  Collections are somewhat about scale and emotional cache-100 beans of assorted varieties on display has a much less dramatic impact than 100 corgis running.  This probably accounts for why I do not have a hellebore collection-I have masses of white and green hellebores of varying species and cultivars.  The mass makes the statement, not the specific plant.  I am sure you know by now I am not a plant collector-I have other things in mind.  As in the relationship of these modern Belgian elm barrels, with this 19th century English stone bench. Round shapes versus rectangular-there is a face off right up front.  New and old in proximity-interesting.   The rain makes much of, and magnifies color relationships.  The galvanized steel bands on these barrels repeat that wet limestone grey. A satisfying discourse here.    

The music of the spheres-I am a fan.  I collect them-to this I confess.  What gardener could pass up an allium?  I have spheres made of grass, steel, seed heads, limestone, boxwood, mineral; there is something about the stability and beauty of a sphere that makes them so satisfying in a garden.  These stone and glass spheres-where might they find a home?  In the landscape, or on the kitchen table-take your pick.  Rain wet stone, by the way, is really beautiful.

Some elements of the spring collection get here strictly on the basis of their presence-on their own. You shut your eyes, and cross your fingers, that when a collection of pots arrive, they make themselves at home, without going sleepy.  I value anything that asks for my attention in a strong way.  How they come to make friends at the shop is a process of trial and more trial. This Belgian steel garden table with a concrete top works with these dark and textured pots like I hope for things to work.  The late light on the rims of these pots recall the blue steel.  The relationships between the shapes-music.  The drenching March rain makes every gesture look better.  

I have some very chunky and fluidly finished granite benches-from our neighbor, Canada. Stone so thick and expertly rock faced-beautiful.  Those rustic cylinders I have been writing about-you are seeing their wet  incarnation.  These objects make for a relationship that will attract attention.  Once I see a gardener fall for something, I understand the process of deciding how and where that object might fit.   

A pair of very old forged steel snake bench supports-I forget how I came by them.  Buck made a new back and seat from white oak, and put back together what age and neglect threatened with a trip to the scrap yard. These old snakes look handsome in concert with these dry cast limestone deco urns-don’t you agree? Someone will come along, and love this look for their garden.  There might be something about it that adds to their collection. 


We have shopped for garden ornament in England regularly for the past 15 years. Their garden history I greatly admire and value. What we retrieve and bring over always seems to move in with us -without fanfare.  This vintage English trestle table is home to plenty of diminuitive plant species of the lichen/moss sort-a gorgeous old garden table.  Is this table appalled by its complement of French contemporary chairs-not in the least bit. The Brits-the gardening Brits-really friendly.  

Anyone who collects devotes lots of time and thought to their collecting-I am no different.  How a garden collection I put together gets integrated into a garden-this is all about what it is to have a relationship with other gardeners.  My gardening community-I would not give it up for anything.

Putting Together A Collection

Creating and arranging a collection is a passion known to many, not just gardeners.  Even the most hard line minimalist collects their empty spaces as if empty spaces were on the endangered list; yes?  Gardeners collect seeds, tools, hellebore cultivars, rocks, birdfeeders, trees-you get the idea.  I have amassed a collection of books in the past 25 years that must number over a thousand volumes by now. It is a long standing coherent collection documenting my adventures as a gardener. Putting together and arranging a coherent collection for my shop is a big part of being able to advise people about how to design their gardens. 

Every year’s collection for Detroit Garden Works is different.  It might be based on one particular object whose size, surface, shape or style or aura proves to be a magnet for Rob’s attention.  Alternately, his  basis for a collection might be triggered by a place he has visited or an idea that’s surfacing.  We made a conscious effort to shop the US for antique, vintage and new things a few years ago.  Thus the collection always has a strong American element. An organizing metaphor-we like these. His point of view about what is beautiful is a catalyst for a constellation of pots, sculpture, prints, garden furnishings, fountains-any object which might evoke a little magic for a garden.   


These clay cylinders are all about what Rob calls a chamaeleon surface. In addition to their gritty texture, the color changes given the light.  After last night’s rain, the color was saturated and rich-different than their dry color.  Mineral surfaces exploring color and texture such as this will be friendly to no end of different kinds of plants. Pots of simple shapes makes the color and texture the most important element.  These pots will take on the atmosphere of its placement, and plants, and play a serious supporting role in big visual scheme of things.  

These rectangles made from thin slabs of volcanic rock are close in color, shape and size to these oval galvanized tubs.  Their differences give the eye a workout.  I am seeing his idea become tangible.   A collection of objects of simple and varied shapes distinguished by their interesting surfaces are what I would call a visual variation on a theme.    

A pair of very old and fine American urns and pedestals dating from the early twentieth century focuses my attention on their shape and surface-and away from a historical label.  In another context, I would see them as very traditional American garden ornament.  In Rob’s context, kept company by a family I would not have imagined, I am looking at them in a different way.  The impossibly wide and low shape of the urns, the simple swirls indented in the pedestals-I am thinking about the universality of beautiful objects for gardens-never mind their age, period, or label.     

Volcanic rock in its natural state-this I am used to seeing.  Volcanic rock slices are a product of modern technology.  I have not seen this before.  The intersection of ancient materials transformed by modern technology-Rob has gotten my interest. This I admire about him so much; he posits lots of questions to whomever might be interested- without fanfare.  He assumes that gardeners are a group in touch with the physical world, and provides them beautiful choices.  Alternative choices.  

This Austin and Sealey sculpture from  19th century England was minutes from being moved as I took this picture. I liked the old hand carved stone backed up by a contemporary Belgian elm barrel-why would I go there?  I am looking at shapes and surfaces without regard to the sentiment of a given period-many thanks to Rob.  It is the best of what I have to offer as a designer-a gardeners point of view, without any predicatable baggage.

A major reconfiguration of the shop is a major effort.  We do this every spring.  Spaces get emptied, cleaned-raked and ready to redo and live new- a dream come true.  Every new gardening season warrants new thinking-we try to oblige. The driveway is congested with things from this show or that, that source or this vintage shop in Virginia-if you have an interest in how Rob spent his winter, come and look around.


I do not have to do that much work to figure out where Rob is going; not really.  No one could possibly love their I-phone as much as he does. The internet/photo capability of that phone has set him free.   I get indundated by the photographs he takes-everywhere he goes.  client’s homes.  trips.  vacations-ok, busman’s holidays.  buying expeditions.  random thoughts. By the time the winter is coming to a close, I have a huge photographic record of his collecting.  He prints and posts the pictures he has sent me on a big wall in the workroom.  I have advance warning.  But this does not truly prepare me for what gets unloaded here in the spring .  The evidence and impact of his collecting-it will take me a season to absorb.