A Harbinger Of Spring


The most amusing event of my week?  Bunches of pussy willows, fully decked out in their silvery fur, arriving via UPS. Maybe it doesn’t take so much to amuse me, but was there not a time when every yard had a gangly overgrown and not so gorgeous salix whose main claim to fame was how they woke up and got going in March-the early fur bird of the garden?  Just about to burst, we all cut branches and brought them inside, as it was still way too cold to stand outside and appreciate this modest but sure sign of spring.  Pussy willow delivered to my door-what has the world come to?

Like its shrubby partner in crime, forsythia, early counts for a lot in my zone.  Some gardeners with foresight may have galanthus  or eranthis popping out of the ground.  Or a hamamelis in bloom. Other warm and urban southern facing walls may be softened by daffoldil leaves springing forth, announcing the imminent change of the season.  But pussy willow holding forth is a sure harbinger of spring.    Do you think you would still love pussy willow branches if they came on in June or July? Sure this is a rhetorical question; timing is everything, yes?  In a past life when I had five acres of land, only two of which were even remotely civilized, I could wade in those wild places and be sure to find pussy willow, forsythia, and rosa multiflora making moves in March.  I could see the sap was rising in the willows; the branches are waking up.  The color was distinctly different-luminous, and alive.

The poplars, whose rustling leaves stage a concert most every summer day, are all branches and trunks in March.  But there will come a time when that grey bark is suffused with with a green welling up from underneath.  There are no stands of popples where I live now. Should I decide to plant a meadow of popples, pussy willow, forsythia, wild roses, bergamot, buffalo grass, centaurea, and willow in the right of way on my urban corner lot, I most likely would be facing some highly irate neighbors. 

Not everyone shares my idea of beautiful.  Why should they? So  I’ll keep the lawn in the tree row, for now. I have another source of spring from which to draw.  My twigman has made a life of growing specific cultivars whose twigs make the faces of gardeners light up. This salix, which he calls prairie willow, I have never seen before. When I unwrap his long sturdy stems, I am delighted, relieved, beyond all belief.  His pussy willow branches are studded with furry buds, one right after another. 

Do I long for my wild pussy willows-not really.  I never pruned them properly.  The stems had missing teeth-inevitably.  They grew at angles impossible to right.  Though I have no end of nostalgia for what enchanted me 30 years ago, I am perfectly happy what came my way today.  Living and breathing-spring is on its way.

The first harbingers of spring in Michigan-they have a big job.  We gardeners are starved for sun, life, movement.  We are most interested in winter loosening its grip. There are signs from nature that will help that big ache you have.  Mine came in the mail today.


One of my favorite clients and dear friends took off this morning for Rome. As hard as it is for me to believe, she insisted my post on Villa D’Este inspired her to go visit her granddaughter who is on foreign study in Rome-and by the way, go see that  garden. By this time last week, she had enlisted both of her daughters-one of whom is Carol, the proud Mom of said student Grace.  Daughter Diane is an RN living in California-she flew out for the Romefest.  Four other friends signed on.  She organized an entourage- soon to land in Italy.  Tonight, I think.

She has the week ahead planned.  A guided visit to the Vatican.  Villa D’Este, of course.  A request from me for an Italian boater with an orange band.  A cooking course she thought sounded like fun.  I have no details on this, as once you use the word cooking within my earshot, I black out. Some time she has left to Grace to organize.  Her energy puts me to shame.

I am thinking about her, as she loves to travel.  She so enjoys the garden tour we do every year; she has been trying to worm out of me for weeks where this year’s tour might take her.   She drive-travels straight through to get her granddaughter back to Clemson University in September, and drive-travels again to pick her up at year’s end.  She travels in other ways less literal.  She considers ideas outside her realm-she is happy to go anywhere, and decide if she likes it.  She is a traveller. 

I am not a board a vehicle and go traveller.  I hate the packing and the time it takes to arrive at a destination.  I am not crazy about being away from home. I travel-reluctantly; the process exhausts me.  I am always happy to get where I am going-what is not to like about seeing new places.  Whomever can convince me to travel-many thanks.  When NASA figures out how to beam me up, I will be first in line.  On occasion, something or someone will beam me over to what never occurred to me-best regards, and many thanks for this. But I am always thinking about travelling when I design.

 I know travel is a key issue in design.  Once a mortgage survey is in my hands, my first move is to decide how, why and where one might travel in the landscape.  For anyone designing their own landscape, I would encourage them to build some roads in their garden. Some roads need to be two lane.  Other roads can be a skinny dirt two-track.  Some places need stop signs.  Other places need roundabouts.  A travel sceme is essential for you, your kids, dogs, and guests.  Plan your routes before you decide anything else.

How will you get from the house, to the grill, to the terrace, to the trash, to the rose garden, to the street, to the back door, to the compost pile, to the picnic table-how will you drive through, walk through, and linger in the space?  Where will your family and friends congregate?  If you were to walk your garden with a video camera running, would a story be told?   Expand off road wherever you have a mind to. 

No writer/gardener I ever read more clearly and more beautifully addresses the travel particular to the journey of a gardener than Dominique Browning; I have talked about this before.  Her discussion of the evolution of her garden has everything to do with travelling through, and lingering here or there. When she is stopped, she is stopped in her tracks. When she moves on to somewhere else, there is a big pair of lopping shears in her hand,  and /or significant emotional travel involved. 

She has a sense of humor about her basic unwillingness to budge off her comfort spot. She is entirely dispassionate about all of her passions.  I admire this in her.  Her writing encourages me to loosen up, and move around more.  How you will live, perch, lounge, work, read or take a nap are questions that need to be addressed before you make moves. 

 No matter how glued I am to my place, I put that aside, and encourage myself to take my clients somewhere. Somewhere better than they thought they could have it. Think about this, you people who have a mind to design your own gardens.  If you have a notion to hire a designer, first and foremost understand how you will travel through the landscape they have designed for you.

Jane’s travels are much more than I have detailed here.  Like all of us, she has roads to travel, like them all or not.  Getting control of  the layout of those roads may make things easier.  Some paths are 25mph quiet zones.  Others have lots of traffic. It is important to get this part right.  Some badly placed plants can easily be moved-your routes, not so easy to redo.  Whether you use a piece of paper, a garden hose, landscape paint, or stakes and strings, taking the time to plan your trip is a good idea.


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Every three dimensional object has a surface of one sort or another.  The dictionary defines surface as the outer or topmost boundary of a 3-D object, the external aspect of an object, or a portion of space having length and breadth but no width. How unhelpful is this?  It seems simpler to just think of the surface of an object as its skin. That skin can be represented by different textures.  Paintings have subject matter, composition, color, line, mass-a whole raft of qualities.  But how the artist physically handles the paint determines its surface. I happen to be thinking about surfaces, as I had someone ask me recently why I did not carry fiberglass or plastic pots and ornament.  

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Most of my reasons have to do with a love and interest in what nature has created.  Natural materials-wood, terra cotta, stone, dirt, leaves, flowers, water-are living materials.  That life imparts a beauty to them like nothing else can.  It might be a stretch to think of stone as living and breathing, but I do.  It makes emotional sense to me that my garden and landscape be kept company with objects made from natural materials. I once taught a class in vegetable gardening for the Greening of Detroit; I did recommend that anyone worried that their natural soil was contaminated, think about planting their tomatoes and potatoes in garbage cans.  Were they old enough to be split at the bottom, or have gashes in the sides, all the better for the drainage.  But if I have a choice, I favor the real thing. 

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Terra cotta, absorptive as it is, can provide a home for other living organisms such as mosses and lichens; no wonder old terra cotta is my favorite material for pots.  The combination of plants and terra cotta is naturally beautiful.  I have no objection to made-made materials, as long as they are manufactured to look like what they really are.  Fiberglass or plastic made in imitation of any natural material always looks like an imitation.  Fiberglas pots made with an unabashedly natural fiberglass surface can be very good looking. 

more surfaces 024Pictured above is a panel of a terra cotta square pot made by the Galloway Company from Philadelphia Pennsylvania in the early 20th century.  The river bottom clay from whence their pots were made is naturally this color.  There is no mistaking this is a natural material, even if you have never seen anything made from cream colored clay. The surface is genuine; it rings right.

more surfaces 029Do you even have a number in mind for all the different kinds of leaves that must exist? Their surfaces can be hairy, shiny, matte, smooth-there is no end of variation.  But what they all have in common are surfaces that are unmistakeably alive. They live and breathe.  I could not really explain what it is about a living surface that is so evident.  Suffice it to say that I have yet to see an imitation that was truly convincing.   

surfaces 023Concrete is a man made material which I greatly like.  These terra cotta oyster floats have blobs of concrete which help to weigh the floats down in the water.  Concrete as a material is at its most beautiful when its surface accurately represents exactly what it is-concrete. Of course everyone has had to make concessions of one kind or another over their garden.  I myself have concrete terra cotta pots made in the style of classical Italian terra cotta.  I have three places where I wanted a pot in situ 12 months of the year.  My concrete pots enable this.  Their workmanship is incredibly good.  However nothing moves me more than the clay. 

more surfaces 008Steel and iron are likewise a product of human technology.  The surface of steel will age, as it corrodes.  The pits in the surface can provide a home for small plants, just like terra cotta. How steel ages can be very beautiful; age on a man made surface greatly enhances its appearance.

surfaces 006The surface of this terra cotta pot looks like a painting.  I have no idea how it was done, but there is no evidence of paint.  Whatever altered the surface has soaked in, and become part of the clay.  I am told the material is mineral based-as are many pigments.This treatment I can live with.  The shape and texture of this pot is beautiful as well-it reminds me of a squash, without trying to look like a squash.

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This very heavy gauge wire is wrapped with hemp twine; the wires originally formed stems for some wood shaving flowers.  I think I liked these stems better than the flowers, so I saved the stems.  I took giant needle nose pliers and secured all 20 stems in the middle with the 21st stem.  After curling the ends, I had myself a decent looking bow.  Natural materials-I like having them around me.

Made By Hand


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Some time ago I wrote about a client who told me that no matter how beautiful his house might be on the inside, in the end, it is his cave.  I am quite sure he chose the word cave, as he feels his winter is tantamount to a forced hibernation.  Garden people have strong feelings like this-me included. I do make an effort to live through the winter, as best I can; more to follow on that. The upshot-I move to a diferent kind of making- as in small sculptures from natural materials. Some of these bits are left over from other projects.  The shells in this topiary were left from my shell tower construction.  The trunk sticks came from a spring centerpiece I no longer needed, but couldn’t quite throw away.  Some materials I buy specifically for interior arrangements for the home. I buy little pots all year long for these projects.  Who doesn’t have a small space somewhere that could be enlivened by a little dose of nature? A little dose of nature- hand conceived and built-this helps brighten my winter.

topiary sculptures 017Eucalyptus is not native or hardy in Michigan, but its sturdy broad leaves remind me of boxwood- super sized, that is. Eucaylptus takes well to being preserved; the lush and lively look pictured above will last a very long time.  The delicate cedar whip stems are arranged around a stout stick under a rubber band, and then glued.  The trunk has interesting texture, does it not?  Preserved reindeer moss covers the top of the clay pot.  The moss is set low enough such that the terra cotta pie crust edge can still be seen.  

topiary sculptures 007Making anything with one’s own hand is so satisfying. My friends Lauren, Buck, Marianna, Jane, Lynn, Julie and Janet-they cook.  Fred’s twice a year chili extravanza-he runs a marathon for a solid two days over it; I have been a lucky recipient.  Some sew, others compose.  Gerhardt has not only resumed, but embraced his interrupted calling as an artist, after 30 years directing an Art Academy.  At 70, he is just firing up.  What and how all of them make things energizes me. Myself-I love what these small sculptures teach me about scale, proportion, texture, color, line, mass; what I put together stays with me, when I have a garden project to design.   

topiary 009The hard wood of kiwi vine is extraordinarily beautiful.  No two lengths are ever the same.  Though I designed a number of these small sculptures with whitewashed eucalyptus and painted terra cotta pots, each one is different.  As I compare them, I see the importance of line in a composition. I see that a signature, an arrangement of lines,  is unique, and significant.  Where I might apply this in my work-who knows.  But I have seen this, and I will remember.

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This delicate preserved foliage is the devil to work with-just ask Pam.  But stuffed densely into a foam form, each individual wispy stem contributes to a mass and an overall form that engages the eye.  The black dogwood stems are loosely gathered up and glued in.  The lesson here- observing and working with the natural inclination of any natural material- makes for a graceful object.

topiary sculptures 025This lone silver plate candlestick I inherited-I do not remember why.  For years it has been on a shelf, looking at me.  The whitewashed eucalyptus unexpectedly looks good with this formal metal trunk.  Every material needs the right spot to shine.

topiary sculptures 006Rob will show up from a buying trip with pots in hand-these are actually densely fabricated paper mache.  A wispy and dense natural material seemed like it might make a good companion. Though my first choice would be for a topiary plant firmly rooted in the ground, in a landscape, I don’t mind this slight and skillfully made interior bound reference.  Making is much about doing justice to whatever greatly interests you.

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This deep purple is not a natural color in eucalyptus, but it does so celebrate the natural color of the black dogwood trunk.  Have I ever seen black twig dogwood before this past fall-no!  A first rate grower in Wisconsin sent me bunches of this dogwwod this past November.  Regularly I see things from the natural world I have never seen before- my surprise and enchantment may fuel the winter crop of topiaries.    

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This winter, Pam constructed each and every one of our topiary sculptures.  From my sketchy designs, she has created some very beautiful sculptures;  she has a sure and an inspired hand.  She is able to take an idea and confidently interpret from her own experience and eye.    I am sure you can tell she is a first rate gardener, on winter leave.