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.

Sun And Games

Our weather has taken a decidedly balmy turn the past few days; we have temps in the fifties.  I expect it will take a turn for the worse sooner or later, but today I am enjoying the sun.  The cold, snow and ice of a Michigan winter is usually bearable, but the grey could make you black out. I am always ready for some sun. I was outside today with no coat, enjoying that sun.  Even indoors, the light is brighter and stronger.  The days are longer. I welcome the reappearance of the sun.  The season is changing-delightful.

Sunlight is essential to living things.  Books are written and lists made of those plants that tolerate shade. The unspoken implication here-nothing living loves the dark. When I was young, I killed many a shade tolerant perennial thinking it was shade loving. I am in discussion with a client now about a design for a pool, so there has been much talk about sun and games.  Sunny and shady.  Imagine your life long enough to see what, where, and how you want to live outdoors. 

Water one observes can be sited in a number of places.  Shadier locations will provide perfect conditions for mosses and other water loving plants to take hold.  Shading 75% of the surface of a pond will not only provide refuge for fish, but it will make the job of balancing the pond ecologically much easier. For those that have an aversion to cleaning a pond mechanically, an understanding of the role of the sun is essential. Read up. A fountain burbling in the shade can be peacefully overrun with everything that blows in and takes up residence-beautiful.  Sunny water-don’t you want to get in?  

Pools for swimming are another topic altogether.  The right siting for any activity outdoors-look to the sun.  I want to swim in the sun-water is cold, even in midsummer. Enjoying a sunny July day at pool side-fine, for a while.  Watching kids play in a pool, or having lunch outdoors-a shady spot is a good idea.      

White or light surfaces poolside will reflect sunlight, and be cooler for bare feet. Reflected heat and light will dry you off in short order.  Drying off in the sun-like being on vacation.  If you are old enough to remember putting sheets on a bed that have been sun dried on a clothesline-this a simple and exquisite pleasure.  Dark surfaces absorb the heat of the sun, and radiate that heat.  A shady location sporting dark surfaces may be a late summer refuge. Hard surfaces take a long time to heat up, and a long time to give up their heat.  Plan for some, if it is your idea to be outside, late fall.

Pools with dark interior surfaces reflect light.  A swimming pool that doubles as a reflecting pool has a long season of use.  Dark surfaced pools absorb the energy from the sun-the water will be warm, but the bottom of the pool is usually obscured.  Cathy’s pool is very unusual, as it can be seen from far above; she has a view of warm water in a dark surfaced pool, to the bottom.  The interior color of her pool contrasts sharply with the surrounding garden. She gets as much from looking at her pool as being in it.  The big idea here?  Make moves that deliver at different times, in different seasons.   

This handmade Italian pot is indoors until the weather reliably warms.  Nevertheless, its detail is brought to life by the light of the spring sun streaming in the window.  The surfaces closest to the light are white; the shadows are black.  What goes on in between is a matter between you and your designer.  Or between you and your gardening self. 

My fountain is 26 feet long-of course the conditions are different end to end, and they change, given the course of the day. Mostly sunny is the outlook for my home water-I am ready for it when I get home at the end of the day. On moody days, it is enough to just watch it.  This post may seem to be a rambling late winter stream based on a lot of thoughts; you are right about that.  I am  waking up to lots of design work needing spring readiness.  But this warm March day, I am also dreaming about a warm summer’s day, and some water.

Galvanized Metal

I know that last week I was waxing poetic on the subject of garden urns, but the most recent deliveries to the shop are about another point of view altogether.  Rob’s winter shopping reflects his attraction to galvanized metal in just about any form. Galvanizing is a process by which iron or steel is coated with a thin layer of zinc.  This protects the steel from rust and corrosion.  Garbage cans, fencing, horse troughs, car frames, I-beams, farm buckets, baking pans, guard rails and gutters, mailboxes, ductwork, light poles-lots of every day objects are created from galvanized metal.  I think Rob is especially interested in how a ubiquitous material can be transformed into an ornament great for a garden-such as this fanciful wire playhouse made from galvanized fencing.      

Though a galvanized watering can is an iconic garden ornament, the same could not be said for these vintage industrial storage barrels.  Tall and thin, they have a great shape and a beautifully weathered surface.  I could see them planted with morning glories on a very tall tuteur-the blue flowers would be so beautiful with this blueish metal. A country garden would welcome a look like this.  Alternately, planted with giant blue agaves, they might be just the thing for a contemporary garden.  

Containers421[1]Galvanized buckets and troughs have graced many a barn and farm garden.  It’s no stretch to plant them with vegetables, flowers or herbs.  My favorite pot compositions of Rob’s are his “roadside weed” plantings.  Loose, grassy and verging on scraggly, they are charmingly natural and unstudied.  A bucket is a perfect container.  A sizeable pail can be an unexpectedly handsome home for a lotus.  My brother had a garden party once (Petey most assuredly is not a gardener)-he used a number of large pails as burn buckets once the light started fading.  I must admit it looked great-his casual grouping of fires in buckets. 

C1191[1]This large galvanized steel cistern is English in origin. The pitted, highly textured surface is indicative of some age. A tomato garden with herbs would be smashing.  It would be equally as attractive as a fountain.  It is also the perfect height to accomodate a large thick stone top-a perfect dining table base for a contemporary garden.  Galvanized metal is a chamaeleon garden material-it seems to adapt and make itself at home in a variety of settings.

I am not a watering can person.  I am a fan of hoses right where I need them; I dislike carrying water from one place to another.  I use my vintage watering can as a vase for lilacs, or whatever else seems to be blooming in my garden.  I might plant it.  Or I might collect them, and hang them on a wall. They are among the most friendly on the eyes of all essential garden tools-they look good, just being there. 

Zinc itself is a bluish white metallic element-atomic number 30, should you care to know.  It is a brittle metal at room temperature, but malleable when heated.  Exterior ornament of all kinds has traditionally been made of zinc.  Zinc work tops are prized in some kitchens. This piece which we outfitted with mirror could have been a decorative surround on a dormer window. Very old zinc pieces can have considerable damage, as it is a fragile material as metals go.  

New galvanized metal is shiny and bright.  This surface will rapidly weather once it is outdoors, but inside it is luminous, lovely, and yet sturdy looking.  It is anything but reminiscent of your Mom’s sterling silver. 

DSC04106This old French water cart would be my nemesis-I cannot imagine filling it with water, and hauling it to the garden, many times over.  But parked in one spot, I could come to appreciate its form, and its history.  Not everyone loves classical garden sculpture; it’s a good thing they don’t need to.  Though it would not be my choice, I have seen gardens where vintage tools are displayed as sculpture to beautiful effect. 

Are you wondering what you are looking at here?  So did I, when I first saw them.  A number of very narrow panels of extruded metal, some of them 12 feet long, showed up here last week.  He shrugged.  Industrial metal shelving?  Regardless of their origin, he sees them as objects with possibility.  A narrow garden shelf attached to a brick wall?  Trellissing on a wall, or free standing and in ground? Three or four lashed together might make a swell flat bridge over a stream bed.

Taubman 0021
This vintage flower bucket, and its companion biscuit tin make vases of a different sort on this table.  Looking at objects sometimes is much more about our idea of the function of the object, than what is there to see.  I am used to seeing galvanized metal ductwork; sheet metal window boxes take that idea one step further, to good effect.  I have made them, and painted them.  I have made them, left the surface as is, and installed them in this natural state with with black iron supports.  They are a very smart looking and economical vehicle for a planting.  A modest material that gives back plenty visually-this I like.

Sunday Opinion: A Sense of Balance

It should have been the good news of the week-the clearance from my surgeon to retire my training wheels 30 some days after my knee replacement.  But getting up the nerve to actually turn loose of my secure vehicle for a cane has been a tough go.  After 33 days, I had gotten attached to all of its deluxe features.  Four omnidirectional caster wheels that could turn on a dime, locking handbreaks, a comfortable seat should I suddenly get tired, a sizeable storage compartment-the Hugo-mobile enabled me to safely get from one place to another, even if  I faltered.   I could prop my leg up and ice that new knee just about anywhere.  In the early aftermath, it did indeed keep me aloft.  I didn’t go far, but it was always with me. Buck tells me that later that my physical therapist was patiently instructing me to push it along with my fingertips only; I don’t remember hearing that.  He was not nearly so enchanted with it as I-mainly as he’s been hauling it up and down the stairs every day for the past few weeks.  But he has remarkable patience-at least where I am concerned.

Though I understood the words perfectly that the time had come to move on, I was incredulous that anyone would expect me to ditch my great ride for a stick. Sticks were for placing strategically into spring and fall pots, staking wayward perennials, throwing to Milo, picking up after a storm, unstopping a drainage hole in a pot, or drawing bedlines in prepped soil.  How could I expect that a stick half my height, and one tenth of the size of my leg would keep me upright?

My physical therapist-she was on the front line of all this angst.  Considering how she handled it, I am sure I was not the first person to be dubious about putting their faith in a stick.  She explained that an artificial knee is an incredibly strong gizmo whose design and installation procedure would take your breath away.  It is virtually impossible to break. We did not go over the worst case, we went over what I should do if I fell.  Number one, stay down until you assess your problem-no need to panic, and try to leap up.  Leaping up in the wrong way-that can be bigger trouble than a fall.  We practiced. Good advice for a new knee, or a life-don’t you think? If you are wondering how in the world this relates to gardening or gardeners-I will get to that.  But my quick answer-the challenges that life throws at me, I see in personal terms-and I am very personally, a gardener.

 Back to my physical therapist-she explained the weak link in the whole constellation of events was the musculature, charged with keeping a knee in place, that had been in decline all the while I fooled around, putting off what would fix an irreparably deteriorated joint. Muscles that don’t get used atrophy, and waste away.  No kidding they were wasted-the ensuing physical therapy designed to target strengthening those muscles made my hair stand on end-and I have a ways to go yet.

My surgeon wants me to sign up for a month of out-patient physical therapy-a more aggressive program.  I can flex to his satisfaction, and I am off any regular tylenol-this is not typical of his knee people at this stage. He told me that in spite of how I have fast tracked a recovery that he feels fine signing off on, he wants me to sign up for a month of more aggressive PT.  Why? 

 Gardeners need good strength.  A physical plant that hums along.  The ability to back up on a whim.  The ability to stand and work, on uneven ground.  The ability to swoop down and pluck a weed.  The ability to dig a hole-digging a hole is an art, but it is also hard work, is it not?  The ability to get down and see the crocus sieberi face to face.  The ability to drag a hose, lift a three gallon potted shrub, man an edger-the ability to stand on one’s highest tip toes to prune a broken branch.  I will never play squash, or participate in a ballet, but I need knees to garden. 

Yesterday Buck put the stick in my hand; let’s try it, he said.  It took only three steps before I left his arm behind. At first I concentrated on the order of events.  Put the stick out there, move the new knee leg up to it, follow up with the knee that is still working-repeat.  Keep going.  I walked through every room and back again.  The stick-I wasn’t leaning and looming over it.  It just gave me a fingertip point of reference.  I could not believe how good it felt, to be moving under my own steam.  That stick-graceful and unobtrusive.  A stick-a small object of considerable strength, grace, and cache; I have a new appreciation.  The Hugo-I am over it.

I think I understand balance in a new way.  As a designer, I realize that symmetrical  compostions have a great and formal strength.  Formally designed spaces are stable and quiet.  I am a bilaterally symmetrical being that has been balanced for a good many decades-this has not changed.  I was meant to be securely upright, and on my feet. I am in fact back on my feet-this feels so good.  I spent the better part of the day, stretching, and relaxing.  The tension of my worry about the integrity of my balance drained away.  I felt so good today!  I never lost the ability to be on my feet-I had lost confidence.  So much for bilateral symmetry-there is another world out there.

 I understand that asymmetrical compositions need to address how elements of unequal weight can be balanced-either by placement, or repetition.  Or how any and all design elements make for balance. Some impossibly balanced compositions provide no end of interaction, and interest.  How nature reaches equilibrium, either in ponds, or climax forests-every gardener knows about this. I am confident in saying to said gardeners that if you physically feel off balance by a composition, that composition is no doubt off balance aesthetically.  Are you comfortable looking, or walking through that garden of yours confidently, securely on your feet?  Does any element seem lonely, or too heavy?

No matter what I intellectually bring to any issue,  I respect the natural course of events.  It is my idea that when I am really old, and not gardening anymore, I could make some drawings regarding my impression of the natural course of events. But for the moment, I am back on my feet and moving-good deal.