Sunday Opinion: Convince Me

On occasion I will have that client who tells me I need to convince them that they should grow such and such a plant, or reconfigure a portion of their garden like so.  Hmm.  On the subject of what seems convincing, I do admire those landscapes that seem to be all of a piece.  A clear vision, consistent language and execution is very much about what I do, and what I hope to do.  A great garden feels like a world unto itself-complete, confident, and convincing.  The French royal gardens designed and built by Andre LeNotre in the 19th century are certainly a world unto themselves in every detail.  Who does not admire how French garden designers were and are able to edit and edit again?  Their gardens are finely distilled creations that make you feel as though in addition to seeing them, you have had a generous glass of some fabulously complex and satisfying French wine.  I may experience a landscape and drink the attendant wine many times, and be convinced of its beauty-but this does not convince me that I should have such a garden myself.

Some gardens are unforgettable, they are so completely convincing.  Many years ago I saw an old Victorian house, with a rectangular vegetable patch off center in the front yard.  In the spring, there would be rows of lettuce of many different varieties, each separated by a row of orange marigolds. The patch would evolve over the summer, as she planted vegetables of the season. She did not grow every vegetable available to her-she chose to plant only certain vegetables, with specific varieties of flowers. Though the garden would evolve over the summer, it had that unmistakeable look of belonging to someone with a definite point of view.  I have never forgotten the garden; it was charmingly believable.  I went so far as to try to imagine its owner, and what she might be like.  Did this garden convince me to have one like it-no.  I was only convinced that how she gardened genuinely represented her idea of beautiful. 

A convincing garden is much like a country of its own.  There is a visual language, rules, boundaries.  Neighborhoods are laid out just so.  There are roads, stop signs, places to park oneself, shelter; one may or may not need to ask for directions.  There may be a park, or a sports field.  There will be a government in place, though the style may vary greatly; someone is most assuredly in charge.  Some governing bodies are quite democratic; I am sure Buck would describe mine as a not always  so benevolent monarchy. He is funny, that one-but he has a point.  I have staved off every request he has made for a few tomato plants.  We tried them one year.  What a terrific amount of room they took, and what a mess they made, for not much fruit.  I have adhered to my no vegetable zone policy ever since. Buck actually likes his weekly trip to Farm Boy Produce on Auburn Road; everyone is happy. One of the great and adult pleasures of a garden is that you get to be in charge of how it looks-for better or for worse.  On certain issues, I am happy to entertain other ideas-but I reserve the right to refuse to be convinced.

In my opinion, design for clients is not so much about convincing them to do this or that.  I like the word convincing as an adverb, much better than a verb.  Too many things work in a landscape for me to to insist that what I have in mind is the right course.  There are as many right courses as there are people who make a career of persuading others.  When someone is trying to persuade me, I cannot help but feel their underlying assumption is that they know what is right.  Their job is to get me to recognize that. Isn there not great potential for irritation-someone with the attitude that they know to a certainty what is right for your garden?  I find the best design relationships are just that-a relationship.  Any client can assume I design with them in mind-as much as I am able.  If the design interests them, there must be something in it that strikes a chord, and resonates.  Prints can be hard to interpret with a 3-D understanding;I make every effort to explain clearly what leads me to any given plan.  Explaining is vastly different, and much more friendly than that persuasion business.  Clients may say yes or no, or maybe- with this change.  They are, after all, in charge of their garden. 

There all always exceptions.  I will never forget an older Italian business man who came into the shop. He loved anything Italian, every Italian garden, and his business-a big business he had made from the ground up.  He bought a very old marble fragment of a lion-as I recall, the two back paws were missing.  Though there surely had been a marble base at one time, it no longer existed. The sculpture was Italian in origin, and feeling-and large.  It had to have been four feet long and two feet wide; the marble was greatly deteriorated from age. He also purchased a simple, even larger English stone cistern.  His idea was to place and prop up the marble lion in the cistern, and display the two, together, in the lobby of his building.  I could neither imagine these two things in concert, nor could I imagine them in a sizeable lobby of a business- but he was sure it would be beautiful, and brushed me off.  I was not convinced, until I saw them installed; the end result was spectacular.  The sculpture had great presence and dignity-I was not able to see what he saw, until they were placed, and lit.  He insisted that the lion appear to be rising out of the cistern; we obliged.  Not that he needed it in any way, I was persuaded by what I saw. 

I suppose that once you invite a designer to play a part in your garden, there is that element of wanting to be convinced.  Should you not be, there are lots of other choices.  Some choices seem not to make very good horticultural sense, but I have seen plenty of plants grow where all my instincts would indicate a no-go. I have been fooled by nature plenty of times.  I am convinced this will happen many more times before I am done designing and gardening.  Clients speaking back-this can fool me; this can delight me.

At A Glance: Glimpses of Spring



I am writing this Friday post late Saturday afternoon; sorry, it has been a busy week.  The warm weather has brought in  friends and clients -for a spring hello, and for spring work.  I am so glad to be back to work designing. Every project has its own 3″ by 5″ card-they go on my bulletin board wall.  This way, I can see everything I have going on at a glance. I get messages; “please put me on the board for….” -I like this. Green cards for design.  Blue cards for design going into the build phase.  Lavender cards for spring plantings.  Pink cards for summer plantings.  Yellow cards for parties and events. This may seen archaic to most, but it works great for me.   Having a stack of design and build cards-each design project benefits the other.  Design is very much about rhythm and regular engagement, and I am engaged on a number of fronts.  Everything is budding-I am sure you have noticed, as I have.     

This green flowered primula “Francisca” was discovered by Francicsa Dart on a traffic island in Canada in 1995. Green flowers look good for a long time-as their petals photosynthesize just like leaves-the info from the new issue of “Gardens Illustrated”.   Many older green flowered primroses have been propagated too long, with attendant viruses that weaken them. This primula is an exception- remarkable for its robust growth.  Budding is about anticipation, and expectation; people and plants share this come spring. This late wait- just one of a list of rewarding things a gardener has to look forward to.  This late winter wait is a vast improvement over the post holiday wait-I’ll take it.

The forsythia in the outlot has budded and swelled in the twinkling of an eye; this is its habit.  The recent night temps in the twenties has not damaged the emerging flowers, but it has thrown them into a cryogenic state of inanimation.  I am sure this terminology would make any biologist laugh-but whatever.  These buds are at a standstill. If I cut and brought these branches inside, they would pop overnight.  Watching them move ahead, and then screech to a halt outdoors-a good lesson about how good timing helps any new venture.

My hellebores have sent up buds very cautiously-there is something in the hellebore internal clock which hedges the bloom time bet. How plants interact with weather is incredibly interesting, and beautifully complicated.  No stalks will push these buds skyward until conditions seem optimal.  After all, the purpose of the flower is to make itself available for pollination, set seed, and thus insure the survival of the species. An inauspicious start out of the box doesn’t speak well for a good finish. That those flowers thoroughly enchant me; I am sure nature is rolling her eyes.  Make what she will of my naivete, I like the enchanting part of spring blooming.    

I am so fond of willows-in any and every form.  Their most amazing moves come right about now.  Their branches tell you when the spring sap is rising-branches dulled and browned by winter come alive-before the leaves bud.  Willow tree branches will go intensely yellow green, and glow, in early spring.  These trees light up, when the season turns-like no other plant.  This is a gift to the garden.

My rhododendron flower buds have been in place since last season. All winter they impassively withstood every insult the Michigan winter had to serve up. They are still tight and tightly closed.  It is much too cold for opening day. A few 60 degree days does not impress them-they need to be sure winter has let go-before they let go.   

No one could fault Rob for lacking a sense of humor.  These budding bulbs are made of wax, and have wicks.  Planting them in wood trays and candle holders in natural and preserved moss; this represents a wickedly funny hope for budding.  I have seen a lot of second takes at the shop this week.  This budding out is all about how just about everyone is searching for any sign that the winter is over. Some have succumbed-and taken them home for spring dinner parties; our warm weather is dicey at best, until June 15.

On every gardener’s mind- is it time?

Planting For Spring

Word has it that we will have night temperatures in the teens and up to 20 degrees tonight-welcome to spring in Michigan.  My tulips that are four inches tall-I am hoping blistered and burned foliage will be the only damage.  As for my crocus just barely representing themselves-who knows.  But as tough as spring can be, there are those plants that are resistant to temp troubles. The charteuse leaved geranium, Persian Queen, can take a lot of cold.  Should the cold linger, it will languish; I am not a bit afraid to plant it out April 15, and hope for a steady warm-up.  Osteospermum handles cold even better-these daisies that come in a wide range of colors last long into the summer as well.  Petunias roll their eyes, and are moodily tolerant-don’t count on them to grow now how they do in hot weather.  Alyssum-the workhorse of the spring garden that moves on into summer without any fuss.

Pansies and violas are a mainstay of a spring garden.  I do not use the word mainstay lightly;  the longevity of early spring perennial blooming hinges entirely on the weather.  Should we have an early warm up, or a late freeze, they fade.  Pansies and violas take the ups and downs with equanimity.  Some hybrids survive our winters after a fall planting.  This is worth some flag waving; in the fall,  I can bury tulip bulbs, and overplant the surface with pansies-the spring gratification far outweighs the winter delay. 

Heuchera has seen a breeding explosion like few other perennials in recent years.  Peach, orange and lime foliage-these leaves are seductive. The black leaved varieties don’t send me.  Black foliage to me is about drama-what drama is there in a black leaved plant that grows 6 inches above ground level?  Black leaves on a dirt background-mud, in my mind. I have never been much of a fan of heucheras in the garden-they need division too often for me.  In pots, they shine; I plant them all the time.  Their color and shape is beautiful-up close to the eye. 

I have an aversion to empty pots come spring-they look so forlorn. One’s winter stick center can be kept on through the spring, but I want to see some real plant life going on, early on.  My gardening season is short-best to plan to savor every day. 

Empty pots at the front door do not exactly say welcome. Nothing in the ground is making much of a move yet-save the hellebore flowers.  A nation of hellebores would not warm up this front door-they have an entirely different seat on the garden bus. Low to the ground, they are not so hard to pass over.  They need an intimate, traffic stopping space to shine. I am truly sorry they are not more widely grown.  However, the fact is, once nurseries get good traffic going on in the spring, the hellebores are finished blooming, and sit there on the shelf,  benignly green.  It is easy to miss them.  When I see my patches of crocus push up in the spring, I always regret that I didn’t add to them last fall.  Gardeners need to be six months ahead of the season-how hard is that?  

Though spring plants tolerate cold, they thrive in warmer conditions.  These south side window boxes put on weight from the moment of planting.  The Persian Queen geraniums never skip a beat, and will still look great come October.  How lobelia grows here defies everything I had come to believe about lobelia.  They will thrive in full son on the south side, if the watering is dead on.  This picture was taken the end of June, after an April 1st planting.

This lead egg cup from the Bulbeck foundry in England is a focal point in this garden.  It would not do-for it to be empty in the spring.  Too many other spring views depend on its state of dress. The shape, arrangement and placement of landscape elements in this garden look good, given how early the season.  A Bulbeck stuffed with spring plants-beautiful.

The plants of spring are specific in their color shape and habit.  Once the season passes, that look is gone.  A long spring-this I like.