What Comes With A Box

What is not to love that comes in a box?  A birthday present, a book, a new fleece, a pair of Hunter muck boots or new pair of pruners, a working washing machine, a flat of sweet woodriff from Bluestone; the box creates all kind of excitement about what is inside.  Anyone who knows me has heard me wax eloquent on the subject of the box. I like to make them, and I love to plant them up.  Big planting spaces permit plenty of garden expression. The giant Tuscan planter box pictured above was a summer home for a giant and unwieldy agave. In its plastic pot, it looked dangerous and standoffish. In the box, plenty gorgeous.  This box of generous proportions visually organizes my entire side yard garden.  Anything planted inside a box reads as a present to the garden. 

We make these Egren boxes. I named this box after Michael and Karen; they were the first to order them.  I designed them to solidly reflect the history of the classical orangery box, in a shape and configuration of my own.  The classic French made orangery boxes have steel corners, but they are made of wood, and painted.  The mild French climate supports this material-I was after a gorgeous box that would persist.  Egren boxes-my idea of a box for our climate. 

There are those landscapes that call for boxes.  These painted rectangles on the porch planted with boxwood are in support of four original Jardin du Soleil French orangery boxes placed at the four corners of the drivecourt.  That support is clean, and elegant. The trimmed boxwood in the generous boxes-a beautiful  and unexpected proportion. They separate the porch from the drive and walk. Box, boxed-a statement of very few words with big impact.  Should you be considering wood boxes, having a galvanized metal liner made to fit will confine the water in the soil to the soil.  Repeated soaking damages wood and paint.

These English iron boxes have galvanized steel liners that have been painted.  The large square of soil they hold make them perfect for topiary evergreen plantings.  Evergreens planted with their roots above ground-consider a box.  A big box. Well-grown healthy evergreens have big rootballs.  Undersizing the planter is asking for trouble.  Big boxes are a good home-a home that has room for future growth.  There will be some space for an underplanting.  Most painted finishes on metal will require maintenance sooner or later, unless that rusty looky suits you. 

A beautiful box can anchor a driveway, a terrace-or in this case, a terrace.  These brick piers were designed specifically to hold these gorgeous French boxes.  If you are looking at boxes for your garden, pay mind to those designs that get that box up off the ground plane. Boxes glued to the ground-dowdy. If I am placing boxes without feet, I try to set them on gravel; this makes the box look dressed up. Set up a bit, a box can be quite elegant. The air space at the bottom also permits water to drain away freely.    

A box can make a big statement about a change of grade.  On the ground plane, bluestone, thyme, and magnolias. These boxes deliver visual delight at a different level.  This makes for a space all the the more interesting.  When you design, look at all the levels at your disposal; these boxwood are pruned to the height of the stone table, reinforcing the statment being made about this plane.  This small courtyard, completely enclosed by the home, was designed primarily for the views from inside, not so much for utility.  Should you need a little punctuation, consider a box. A small square, a giant square, a rectangle of note. 

These English made concrete planters in the classical Italian style are not exactly boxy.  But for the purposes of this essay, they qualify.  These V-shaped squares would take any garden from the the sleepy to the sublime.   I so love their solid and understated shape and decoration-I could plant an entire garden in these squares.   No matter what I might engineer for my shop or my clients, I have a big love for classical Italian terra cotta.  Baked clay boxes figure prominently in my scheme of things.  Buck obligingly forged stands for my boxes.  Up off the ground given 17 inches or so, these boxes enchant whomever might be seated on the terrace. Choosing containers for a terrace has much to do with what you will see, seated.  These boxes have beautiful decoration on them. They are to my mind, a work of art.  I like to look at these boxes as much as the flowers. Elevating them on stands puts them within visual reach.       

A box may not immediately seem like an extraordinary garden feature.  That is a matter of placement; I will leave that to you to sort out.  For many years I had a pair of round Italian terra cotta pots in this spot.  They were beautiful, planted up-but the box makes much of the transition from the deck level to the ground.  It could be a box could do a similar thing for your garden.

Turning Loose


Fifteen years ago I engaged Madame Pellier from the Poterie de la Madeleine to make three number 0 classic anduze pots-for the front of my then new shop.  They number their pot sizes; the largest pot is a zero, the smallest, a number 8.  The 0 pot is their largest-plenty big enough for me to climb in, and be hidden from sight.  There might be room left over for the Corgis, and my most treasured possessions.  They are very big footed vases.   

Every six months or so, she would call.  She would tell me pots were breaking, during the cooking.  The third year after placing the order, Rob went to Anduze to select pots, and place an order. He told me the hillside above the pottery was littered with broken number 0’s-with my name on them.  At the end of the third year, she had three perfect pots.  Our shipper in London, Headlees, drove to Anduze, collected the pots, crated them in London, and sent them to me.

I remember the day they arrived vividly.  I thought they were surely the most beautiful three pots I had ever seen. They came with some 1’s, and 2’s of the same classic design, but those zeros were beautiful to the bone.  How I worried that I could never plant them beautifully enough.  The French-they edit everything in the garden in a way I could never hope to aspire to.  I imagine a French designer, placing them, and not planting them at all.  

I am an American designer through and through.  In my mind, I saw a garden in those pots, the shape of fireworks exploding.  Up, and out-graceful, lush-bigger than those beautiful vases.  The best dress that in my life I could ever design for those gorgeous dark green shapes.

After some years in front of the store, I took them home.  It could be I always wanted that. I placed two in the front of the house-dead center to the windows in my dining room, and our den. Having dinner, or relaxing with the dogs, they were right there-representing.  I placed the third vase in my side half lot.  This small garden came to life when this giant pot took the center; every other element revolved around it.    

I stuffed it with giant nicotianas, white angelonia, a vigorously trailing white variegated plectranthus-and petunias.  It may not be so sophisticated, but petunias deliver the goods-great color, great scent, easy care, and exceptional vigor. Fireworks.  The early days, creating a shop devoted to fine objects for gardens-there were none. No precedents. Early visitors to the shop often demanded an explanation-a shop devoted solely to fine objects for gardens?  I had none. Just a fire burning inside-every gardener can understand that. My love for landscapes and all that entailed was a very powerful engine that powered my ideas.  I am much better able to explain years later.   The commission of these pots fifteen years ago-I am amazed, and so appreciative of whatever fueled that audacity.

I could see that stately vase from inside in the morning, from the lower terrace, from the street as I drove by on my way home.  A pair of chairs in that garden made it possible for Buck and I to talk about the day’s events; close by a party of the first order going on.

I planted a path of herniaria, rupturewort, up to, and all the way around those pots in the front.  The pot was every bit as important to my garden as what was planted in it.  I wanted to be sure to devote the space to the celebration of that 0.   The hedge of dwarf Russian sage framed my view-for those days when I was just too tired to walk up close and say hello.    

Two years ago I returned the Anduze pots, and this Madeleine Faune pot to the shop.  I could not leave them out in the winter, and I so wanted pots that could stay in place over the winter; I wanted pots I could dress for the winter season. This was not an easy decision. The Faune found a loving home straight away. The zero trio-this is the second season they have been in the shop.  Only a few days ago, a client for whom I had specified a completely different series of pots, spoke for a pair of the zeros.  They were the vases she had been looking for.  She told me today she could not imagine that it would not be difficult for me to give them up.  Indeed it is. Her question alone tells me they are going to the right home. She and her husband are both crazy about them.  I will place them, plant them, and visit regularly.  I am pleased that those vases that for so many years so enchanted me are due to be passed along to someone equally as impassioned about them as I have always been.  Today was a very good day.

Sunday Opinion: Mother’s Day

The shop has been full of people all weekend, in search of something just right for a beloved Mom. You can tell the ones whom that perfect gift has eluded them so far; they have that worried look. Any offer of help was met with a smile.  I always ask if the Mom is a gardener.  Surprisingly many are not-so why shop a garden shop?  There is that instinct to buy a plant or some flowers for a Mom, gardener or not. This seems like perfectly right thinking; Mom’s and gardeners devote much of themselves to making something grow. 

My Mom was a microbiologist, virologist, teacher-and great gardener.  She grew most every tree on our 50’s suburban lot from seed.  And mind you, no maples; we had gingkos. Yes, I am bragging.  She was, however, a reluctant Mom.  I actually think she would have lived a long and happy life had she skipped the children thing-but she didn’t.  A shy and retiring scientist, we three appalled her in most every way.  I never slept, and never shut up; her gift to me was teaching me to read when I was three. Though I am sure she did this in self defense, I have had a lifelong love of reading, and most likely always will.  She read to me long after I was able to read on my own-this was quality time.  She saw to it that I was well educated, and then went on to entertain each and every one of my hairbrained schemes seriously.  I did try to be like her-thus my split college degree in biology-and literature. My gardening is very much like her; my designing is very much like me.  I can only recall her being completely exasperated with me a few times.  She could make anything grow-including me.

I guess this makes me a fan of Mother’s Day; in my parallel world, this holiday would also be known as Gardener’s Day. When I stop to consider the collective effort to plant and nurture that been my privilege to observe and or participate it-I am struck by the volume and passion of that effort.  There are many other gardening people out there, busy raising vegetables, planting trees, growing flowers, teaching gardening to their kids, weeding, deadheading, pruning, planting, moving things around, dreaming and scheming what would make the landscape a better place to be.  The sheer physical work of it is enormous; the sheer delight in the process and results of it even more so. For fifteen years I owned five acres of property in Orchard Lake-my purchase of that property and house in an advanced state of neglect was one of the few times my Mom lost all patience with me.  Though I would never want to repeat what it took to make that ruin of a house liveable, and plant three acres, that work enabled me to start my own landscape design and installation business.  Years later the sale of that property enabled me to buy the building and land that is now home to my shop.  Sometimes on a lark, I will drive by. A new house went up over a field of some 300 peonies-who could have enough peonies, if they had the room? They are one now, but not my memories of them-glorious. The wild garden is more than wild now.  But the orchard is still there, and the little trees are now big trees.  I am satisfied that I left that property much better than I found it. 

This Mother’s Day weekend was a very special one for me.  A dear friend that I had lost track of, and had not seen for 20 years appeared at the shop on Saturday.  My Mom so loved Denise; I feel quite certain that she had an invisible hand in her decision to get in her car and drive up here from Kalamazoo to see what I was up to.  I recognized she and her husband instantly-funny how that works. I was shocked to tears to see her after all these years. We spent no small amount of time talking about the trip that she and I took with Julia to see the lotus in bloom in Monroe.  Nelumbo Lutea is native to Michigan.  A sizeable stand of it is owned and protected by the Ford Motor Company, this just one of countless things that Ford Motor Company nurtures. Denise is a well known artist, and was keen to paint those lotus.  Julia, in her signature denim jumper and keds, waded resolutely into that slimy marshy water in search of some good photographs. As Denise said-it was the biologist in her coming to the fore.  No muck or snake was going to stand in her way.  She was so careful to step around each plant. I vividly remember that denin jumper floating around her like a tutu.  Thanks to Denise, I had my Mother’s Day visit with my Mom.   But even more importantly, Denise reminded me how important it is to nurture those things that matter.  She made that effort.         

Julia passed away unexpectedly and quietly in early May of 2002; few days go by that I do not think of her.  I am quite sure she has a rocking garden where she is now, and that she keeps up with what I do.  Sometimes I can feel her questions-but I always feel her approval-her hand placed quite squarely and resolutely  over my shoulder.  Should you have an interest in seeing Denise’s work-including a pochoir of that lotus from so many years ago, click on the link.  http://www.kazoopainters.com/Denisepochoirs1.html

 I hope your Mother’s Day was as wonderful as mine.

At A Glance: Shop Ready