The 2014 Gardening Season

2-27-2014 (14)Though nature had no plans to attend the opening of Detroit Garden Works today for the 2014 gardening season, the robins in the tree next door are here right on schedule.  Rob says they look to be the fattest robins ever.  I personally think they have their feathers fluffed out to the max-trying to defend themselves against the extreme cold.  On the news this morning, the following.  The combination of cold and snow this winter makes this the worst winter we have had for 130 years.  This means that the oldest gardener in my zone is experiencing a record breaking and a particularly heart breakingly endless winter for the first time.  This going on 64 year old gardener can attest to the accuracy of this statement.  I have never.

Detroit-Garden-Works.jpgTaking the 2013 version of Detroit Garden Works apart, repainting and cleaning, reinventing and redoing with all the new things for 2014 is a big job.  Both of my landscape crews are instrumental in helping out the shop staff with this transformation.  This means that both Steve and I have been there with Rob to plan and consider every move that gets made.  Keeping up with the winter landscape design work for projects on deck for spring, with a big dose of Detroit Garden Works on the side means I have been really busy.  This level of being busy helps to keep my mind off the winter that has engulfed us all.  Though my landscape design practice is the love of my life, the shop is a close second.  How so?

DSC_7937All of what Rob buys interests me.  Containers, sculpture, fountains, tools are an integral part of gardening.  But placing every element in a 10,000 square foot space in an interesting and well designed way is a challenge.  But I am happy for the work-this greatly informs my landscape practice.  I am dealing with objects big and small.  Lots of colors.  This line and that one.  This shape that relates to that one.  A garage full of pallets of objects I have never seen before all need to have a home, a scheme.  Rob does the vast majority of the buying for the shop.  It falls some to him, and a lot to me about how to present his collection. It is not so much different than designing a landscape for a particular property, and a particular client.  Objects from many countries in February, each with their own shape, color, texture and mass ask for an arrangement that will please the eye.  Making sense of a whole world of disparate objects can be exasperating, but it is a job I would not trade for any other.

DSC_7944Designing a landscape asks for everything a gardener has available to them.  A love of the living earth.  A plan to compost, which will enrich any planting.  A plan to plant.  Lots of energy and good will.  Faith in one’s convictions.  And a plan that personally expresses what that gardeners values and needs from their garden.  A plan that is coherent.  Dissonant shapes, forms, textures and colors all ask for some sense to be made.  And sense can be made of those things in many different ways.  How Rob puts a series of things together is very different than mine, as it should be.  I can’t be privy to why he selected certain things, until I start to work with them.  Even then, I may visualize them in a very different way. As much as I enjoy poking around the pallets, I more enjoy making a melody from a lot of different voices.

DSC_7928Surfaces really interest me.  Some are shiny.  Some are smooth and matte.  Some are rough textured.  Others are dark-some are light.  One surface contrasted with another generates interest.  What is happening near the ground level interests me as much as what is at eye level.  Then there is that vast space overhead.  My first moves in the shop always involve covering the walls, and populating the air space.  Part of that had to do with staging the work.  An empty room is the ideal place to navigate with a big ladder.  Once that work is done, everything else is arranged to fit in the physical and visual space.

2-27-2014 (2)Anything that generates an interest in the garden is of interest to me.  What I like is big and wide-a lot.  On a good and rare day, it is deep.  Any person who responds to the garden interests me, whether it comes via my landscape practice, or my shop.  Any place that encourages people to garden is my idea of a good place.  Rob and I both subscribe to the idea that a great garden shop ultimately should provide an experience of the garden.

2-27-2014 (17)I will confess I am tired out from the work of the past month.  But this kind of tired is a good kind of tired.  I was truly thrilled that Detroit Garden Works opened for the 2014 gardening season as usual March 1-even though our winter rages on.  I am pleased we have been welcoming gardeners of every persuasion for 18 years, come March 29.  We were happy to have gardeners gracing our gates today. Spring is a state of mind-is it not?

2-27-2014 (12)Rob’s buying trips to growers of hellebores all over the US and Canada means we have plants in our greenhouse now, with many more to come.  The sight and smell of live and blooming plants is a sight for sore eyes.  We have planned an event the third week of March-a Helleborus Festivalis.  For every winter weary gardener who has another month of winter to go yet.  We have missed all of you that visit our shop!  See you soon.

 

Tuesday Opinion: Rhythm

Someday I will  plant a giant circle of deciduous trees.  Or a square. or a rectangle, or an irregularly shaped enclosure of trees.  Most of the trunks will be too close together.  There may be one entrance, which is also an exit.  There may be an entrance and a separate exit.  There may be one entrance, and several exits. There may be one entrance on axis, and other oblique entrances. No matter the shape, the canopies of the trees will create a tent.  Inside the tent, there will be a bench, or a collection of benches.  The garden on the outside of the tree tent will be inviting and friendly.  The inside of the tree tent will be plain.  Just grass, and a place to sit.  I would visit the tree tent every day, every season, year round.  Maybe very early, before work.  Maybe late in the day, after work.  Maybe more than twice a day.   Why would I want such a garden? A daily garden?  For the sake of rhythm.

Like most gardeners, I am tuned into my garden at specific times of the year.  The first signs of spring.  The spring trees blooming.  The planting of the spring-and the summer pots.  The roses coming on.  The late summer garden.  The fall, and finally the winter.  These moments are an intense experience.  The hellebores in full bloom make me feel dizzy, my focus is that intense.  Other times, I barely notice what is in front of my eyes.  I have this issue to attend to, or that.  The delphiniums may be sending up a strong second flush that I barely acknowledge.   Up and down-that would be me in the garden.  Miss topsy-turvy.  Would that I could be more consistent and less scattered.

On and off is not my favorite place to be.  A lengthy “on period” means I can establish a rhythm.  It is not so tough to imagine this.  In simple terms, practice makes perfect.  Those times when I am focused on the garden, day to day, my garden benefits.  The 2 months I spend planting summer pots-I am quite sure the last of those pots are the best.  Once I have gotten into a rhythm, there is flow.  I stop thinking about what to do, and just do.  Stating and stopping and starting up again in the garden shows.  A design may appear disjointed, or fragmented.  Or even worse, careless.

A regular rhythm is like a pulse, like a heart that beats regularly.  Repetition sets the stage for a rhythmic expression.  The big idea here-anything you attend to, or practice every day establishes a rhythm.  Once you have a rhythm going on, a beautiful expression is not far behind.

As for my tree tent-I imagine it as a place to recapture that sense of rhythm.  A place that can store momentum.  Of course the tree tent is an idea that could exist only in my imagination.  Maybe the real solution is to figure out how to keep the door to imagination propped open.  Today I have a large Christmas tree to decorate. It is a project I have not done before. I have assembled a collection of materials-they will be looking at me.  And my crew will be looking at me. I am sure I will be trying out different arrangements, stopping and starting, until that certain state of mind that I call rhythm gets switched on.

 

 

Monday Opinion: Sharing

Gardener/readers write me on and off, astonished about the degree to which I am willing to share my knowledge and process.  Why wouldn’t I?  I was raised to believe that sharing with others was good.  If you are like me, you grew up with a Mom who encouraged sharing.  Share a toy.  Share you seat on the bus.  Loan your sister your prized sweater. Share the letter your teacher sent home with you with your Mom – this would be a Mom talking.  Share your questions, hopes, fears, and aspirations.  That call to share had another call attached to it.  Share, with the idea that you might help.  If you are able to share such that you can help others, help them.  I arrived on this earth endowed with plenty of infantile selfishness-it took a Mom to temper that.  Did I really want to share my prized baloney and mustard sandwich on white bread with a classmate who had no lunch?  Not until I was instructed that sharing was a very special kind of giving.  A kind of giving that was part and parcel of being a decent human being.  My Mom assured me I would feel good about it.  And that what I got out of the giving was in the end,  irrelevant. This also from my Mom.   I may have had no relationship whatsoever with that kid who had no lunch.  I may not even have known her name.  But if I could get by with a half a sandwich, which of course I could, it was incumbent upon me to share the half I could do without with another.  It was the right thing to do.  And it did, incidentally,  feel good.  Now, the sharing seems effortless.  I am by no means the exception.  I believe that people come by the instinct to give and share, naturally-don’t you?

The right thing to do-what is that?  Every gardener, and landscape designer, comes face to face with this question over the course of a project.   I like to share the design process with a client, just like nature reveals herself to me.  In a genuine design relationship, lots of things are shared.  Needs, dreams, concerns, budgets-there are lots of topics to cover.  The client’s issues are invariably more important than mine.  A beautiful design that does not work for a client is not necessarily a beautiful design.  It is a design the heart of which fails to engage a client.  This is a polite way of describing a dust bin.  Just my opinion, this.

In the shop, we try to share the best advice we have available.  A client with whom we do not share our knowledge is a client who has not gotten from us what they should.  No matter my willingness to share, there are those times where we fail. I take that failure personally.  We should be able to give timely and sound advice.  That given, there are those times when what gets said doesn’t get heard-or what was heard bears no resemblance to what was said.  This happens all the time.  Communication is the art of life, is it not?  Some things that go wrong in the garden can be squarely attributed to the nature of the season.  Other things that go wrong might be attributed to a casual share, without any depth, or an insincere communication.

I have this communication problem on occasion with my garden.  I may plant what I want, without listening to what has been shared with me by nature-about my weather, my zone, my seasons, my soil-you get the drift.  I am eminently capable of being insincere with nature, as I don’t really want to answer to her.  What I do not hear can come back to haunt me.  Yes, usual sharing implies another who is engaged, and listening.  Nature does neither.  Nature has no need for a relationship with me. I am a small part of a much bigger scheme.  She has no time for me.  The entire burden of a successful relationship with nature depends on me.  How tiresome is this?  A gardener of the true sort establishes a fluid truce with nature-this is a kind of sharing.  Sharing, with the primary responsibility clear from the start.   Sharing as I usually experience it as a designer is a person to person pursuit.  That sharing works some times-other times, not.   Most people have shared something at one time or another that has not been heard.  Operas have been written and performed for centuries about this.  It is tougher than it appears, sharing in a real and thoughtful way.

The most difficult moment in the landscape design process comes at the beginning.  You have a design to present.  You have a conceptual plan to share.  Taking enough time with this part is essential. The design is a collaboration-there is the sharing of information that goes back and forth across the table.  That sharing may take a lot of time to transform into a final plan.  Once there is agreement on the big issues, there are lots of details to share.  Secondary but so essential to sharing-patience.  Patience is not my long suit, but I try.  Patience can also be overrated.  Knowing how to bring an unfounded worry to a close is a way of sharing that is caring.

The second most difficult moment is that moment when a project is done.  You will no longer be there every day, working on this part, but watering and tending that other part that is finished.  Some clients can see instantly that moment when an installation becomes their garden-they say thank you much, and push off on their own.  Bye Bye.  Other clients are less confident.  You may need to drive by, regularly.  Sometimes it’s important to keep on sharing until there is no more need.  Am I good at this?  Sometimes.  Other times, I call the memories of my Mom in- to give me a hand.

I would share anything I know about horticulture or design with anyone.  What I know is just my experience-nothing more, and nothing less.  Is my knowledge special?  Not particularly.  What works for me is different than what works for lots of other gardeners.  As much as things in the garden fail, lots of things work.  Designers would do well to keep that in mind.  There is no one way.  There are lots of ways.  Do I worry that someone else might duplicate my work from something I shared with them?  No.  My eye is my eye-this part of me is not transferable, nor can it be replicated in every detail.  Lucky, this-for everyone involved.  Anyone who might try to replicate my work will eventually be frustrated and unsatisfied.  Hungry.  Every person with a sincere interest in the landscape needs to rely on their own vision to finish a garden, or a landscape, or a moment.  Every landscape I design and install needs a client to eventually sweep the scene with what is all their own.  Having had good advice and design help, eventually being left on one’s own is a very good place to be.    There is so much satisfaction to be had from one’s own invention.  Some create gardens on their own.  Some create landscapes via a relationship with a designer. All sincere paths to good design are good paths.

Whether you are a landscape designer, or landscape architect, or a passionate gardener,  I will respect you enough to assume that you are a creative person whose job it is to imagine a project, and research anything you need to bring that project to fruition.  I assume you are able. There are no shortcuts.  Take the time, and do the work you need to do.  The work you put to any project will, in the end, reward you.  What someone has shared with you is not necessarily the gardening gospel.  It is a point of view.  And not necessarily your point of view.  Trust your eye.  If you cannot trust your eye,  look outward.  Most importantly, look inward.

I have a big interest in good gardening outcomes.  World wide, there are so many beautiful landscapes and gardens that support that idea.  Your computer is a means by which you can learn.  What is out there being shared?  Garden Design by Carolyn Mullet-I read her facebook page every day.  The time she takes to share-extraordinary.  Her editing, and choices of a topic to share-equally extraordinary.

What comes of your exposure to the work of others is that germ of an idea that might inform your own garden.  Respond honestly and passionately to the work the work of your designer.  In the interest of a better outcome-share what you can.  Listen when you have a mind to.  The aura created by that sharing all around – beautiful.

Designing With Hydrangeas

hydrangeas-hedge.jpgThe last two posts focused on the cultivation of hydrangeas.  In short, what hydrangeas are available, and under what circumstances do they perform.  Most of them are easy to grow, and willing.  Some are marginally hardy.  Some are not at all hardy in my zone.  Some represent better than others.  Growing hydrangeas is a much different and much easier topic to discuss than designing with hydrangeas.  One could grow no end of them-as I do.  I have 50 in my front yard.  Putting them together in a coherent and satisfying way-this would be garden design.  A garden or landscape design implies an idea, a scheme, or a plan.  The purchase of a hydrangea is easy.  Designing a place for it in a landscape-not so easy.  Any plant that I have a mind to include in a landscape gets a thorough vetting.  By this I mean-what does this plant require?  How much space does it take?  Where will it thrive? How can this plant be integrated into the whole?  Once I have an idea for a space, is a hydrangea the best plant to express that idea?  The picture above depicts a planting of limelight hydrangeas, before the bloom.  This is the perfect moment to think over their addition to your landscape.  Flowers can be very seductive, and distracting.   A big growing coarse leaved shrub that needs plenty of space-that would be a hydrangea. A hydrangea planted in too small a space is like being occupied by an army-beautiful flowers notwithstanding. This is the simple and working description, not the romantic one.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgFlowers are just but one aspect to consider.  There are the green times.  The winter times. The fall color.  The early spring. Make it a point to be intimately acquainted with anything you plan to introduce into the garden, should the overall design be important to you. This planting of hydrangeas works well with certain other elements in the landscape.  The yews are dense, and clipped.  The boxwood is denser, and more closely clipped.  The peonies have big leaves.  The lady’s mantle blooms at ground level in a sumptuous way.  The hydrangeas?  They preside over all-given their height and exuberance.  Hydrangeas have a density and bulky aspect that makes them ideal for garden situations where they cannot overwhelm their neighbors.  Small leaved or delicate perennials can be visually and physically overrun by a neighboring hydrangea.  Stout evergreen hedges can give a crisp look to a blowsy growing shrub.  Yews can help support the lax stems of hydrangeas.

Annabelle-hydrangeas.jpgAnnabelle hydrangeas will flop over in an instant.  If you plan to make them part of a landscape design scheme, stake them early.  This client loved the big growing rangy shrubs with their giant flower heads-but he equally loved the design of his landscape.  These Annabelles were staked first thing, in the spring.  The boxwood provides an orderly edge to the space.  They also provide some green interest in the winter months.

grass-border.jpgHydrangeas are big growing.  They need lots of space.  This planting of Annabelles has a grass border.  The slender simply textured blades of grass contrast and highlight the big leaves and rangy growth of the hydrangeas.  The ivy was part of an existing bed when we renovated the space-I did not see any reason to get rid of it. The texture of the grass with the hydrangeas is more pleasing than the texture of baltic ivy.

Annabelles-in-bloom.jpgThe flowers of hydrangeas are overwhelmingly beautiful. And overwhelming.  They need a big space to be.  They are a perfect match with massive architectural features, as a stone wall or flight of stairs.  Their sheer bulk, strong presence and white flowers makes them ideal for expressing a long sweep, or directional line in a landscape.  The white flowers make a great backdrop for other flowers, either perennial or annual.  Their height, which can be somewhat controlled by pruning, makes them ideal for facing down other larger landscape elements, like trees.

hydrangeas.jpgA hedge of Limelight hydrangeas is a soft way of defining a space.  You need the room to let them grow up to be what they are destined to be.  A long run of them can enclose a space, in a friendly way.

hydrangeas.jpgA landscape dominated by evergreens, and deciduous trees at a distance, can be leavened, brightened, by hydrangeas.  The leaf is a medium green, and the white flowers can be seen from blocks away.

hydrangea-border.jpgHydrangeas develop woody legs, over time.  Face them down with shorter growing ornamental grasses-or in this case, Honorine Jobert anemones.  Your design may ask for layering.  A design is not about this plant, or that plant.  It is about a community of plants, the interaction of all with the weather and the seasons.

hydrangeas-and-yews.jpgGreat design is intimately associated with the relationship a designer assigns from one plant to another.  The relationship of the plants to the space.  What defines that relationship?  Color, mass, texture, line, volume, weather-all of these design elements figure into the design of a landscape.  A design that accommodates, makes use of, and features the habits of the plants involved is design that is visually sensitive.

hydrangea-wall.jpg

The most important element in design?  The gardener in charge.  It is easy to grow hydrangeas.  It is much harder to design successfully with them.  But when the design plan is well done, a beautiful shrub goes on to help create a breathtakingly beautiful space.