Sunday Opinion: Sowing the Seed

The dense fog this morning has me thinking. To my mind, what characterizes gardeners first and foremost is not that they garden, but how they keep on gardening. Fog, storms, wind, poor soil, drought, floods, bugs, disease, failure-no matter; they keep on gardening.  I am thinking about this, as I live in a community, like most other communities in this country, under economic siege.  The heavy wet white fog I drove through at 6 am this morning is as good a description as any of what I see and live with right now; eyes wide open, I couldn’t see a thing.    Without much exception, the people I come in contact with are afraid, or uneasy- unsure about how to navigate.  A fogged-in atmosphere like this touches everything, and everyone. 

I have lived in the greater Detroit area my whole life.  I grew up thinking the most fabulous sculpture imaginable was a well designed automobile. That idea is alive and well; more thousands of people than ever attended the yearly Dream Cruise down Woodward Avenue in August.  A festival honoring the beauty and diversity of the automobile was an idea that took root, and grew.  The serious economic and environmental problems currently affecting Detroit defy description, much less solutions.  I so strongly support the Greening of Detroit, as it seems to me it will take people who have that tenacity that describes gardeners to make Detroit thrive again-even if that involves reinventing its landscape. There needs to be some seeds sown that root, and take hold.

I am in the thick of two substantial projects right now.  One is ready to begin construction;  the other is is midway through the design phase.  Both projects involve interesting and committed clients.  Multiple design issues making lots of noise; this is my idea of a good time.  Designing makes me wake up and see; I cannot decribe that process any better than this. Once I am in the “wake up and see” mode, I see everything differently.  How a vignette could be arranged in a more striking way.  How I might use a material creatively. This is about the imagination, in gear. My imagination in gear over these projects that energize me made me step back and see what it is to be fogged in and not know it.

Some weeks ago I had a front door, and a rear door replaced at the store.  I ordered a door with a window for the front, and a solid door for the back.  When my contractor arrived to install the doors, we explained that the salesperson had ordered both doors with windows, by mistake.  Though the door with a window costs more, he would charge me the same as for the door with no window.  It crossed my mind that for security reasons, a rear door with a window into the garage not visible from the street might not be a good idea.  However, as the door that no longer closed properly was a bigger security issue; I said ok.  At 6:10 this morning I went into the garage-a space some 4000 square feet with no windows.  I am accustomed to going everywhere in the store without turning on the lights; I know the space well enough to confidently navigate in the dark.  Though the light switch next to the back door is a long way from the entrance to the garage, I always got there.  The one exception-a low, heavy and close to immoveable  black iron planter inadvertently got left in the path to the light switch.  I was in a heap on that concrete floor before my brain got the message. I have been very cautious, and tentative ever since, negotiating my way to the light. I remembered this today, seeing the light from the window at the far end of the room.  From the inside, that window provided security to me. Providing security from the inside suddenly seemed like a very important seed that deserved to be planted in, and kept watered.  There’s a chance that something might grow. There’s nothing that breaks up a white fog better than some sunshine.

This all may seem painfully obvious, and hardly worth mentioning.  But routinely I have to tell clients who want their new landscapes to look old and established  that the time this takes cannot be circumvented.   I tell them the crummy spring weather applies equally to everyone-one’s love and devotion to gardening doesn’t get you a pass on the frost sure to come. How fiercely you want cosmos in that dark corner of your garden does not make your chances of success better.  Likewise, the fog of tough times falls on me too-not just other people. 

The clients and projects that engage me help to burn off the fog.  Those relationships are like seeds.  Not every seed germinates, but enough do to keep things going and growing.  Another favorite thing about gardeners is their hope.  The winter will end, the weather will warm, and the garden will grow again.  If it grows slowly or poorly, they tend it with special care until the weather gets better.  Should that special care not help, they do differently, or even start over.  They stake up the delphiniums that have gone over, and they replant when things die.  This seems like a good way to live, does it not?

Cruise Day

I was ready for cruise company by 8 am yesterday. My table centerpiece, a nod to my orange and carmine summer. I thought my red onions, cherries, and orange dahlias from the Pontiac farmer’s market looked plenty sassy.
22I never really worried about the weather; gardening people usually like weather. And I plain have faith that when I need to be in the garden, I will be able to.  But this morning promised perfect weather, and delivered partly sunny; the 74 degrees in the afternoon-perfect for touring. 

32All day long there was a steady stream of keenly interested and thoughtful people.  I so enjoyed being there, hearing what people had to say about my place, and the other 7 gardens on tour.  So many questions; what plant is this?  How do you do this? What is your idea here?  It is such a good way to figure out if your design ideas are being translated into the garden you intend.  Listen to what people say; are you being clear?

44I heard not one cross or disparaging word.  All I heard was energetic appreciation-for the gardens and the people behind those gardens.

53My neighbors, Fred and Jean, brought their Oscar and Beckett for the day they spent as docents; they were right at home.  My corgis would have been low little and long wrecks over all the people; I left them at the store.

64The overcast day made all my color look  intense and rich-just as I intended.  I like this color so much I am already fretting over what I will do next year. 

72Adding people to the garden is always the best part. People we had-over 300.  This hefty increase over last year was unexpected-and so welcome.  We had a party going on.

82Landscape clients, customers of the store, new people, old friends-a great mix made the reception afterwards so much fun.  So much talk about gardens-I could not have had a better time.

92Gardening is bloody blasted hard and frustrating work, but this tour made it all seem so worth it.  My favorite comment came from a woman whom I did not know.  “You don’t use unusual or rare plants particularly-its how you use them, the numbers you use, and the shapes you make that is so interesting”-this was music to my ears. 

101A close second, this woman here from Cleveland for the tour.  She was determined she was taking a variegated Moses in the Cradle she saw in my yard home with her.  “Will you please get me one of those plants before you have a cocktail?”-too funny.  We got her the plant.

111Diana and I both dearly love the Baumgartners.  They have sold their house and garden, and are moving out east to be near their kids. We will so miss them.  I was so glad they put their garden on tour; I have worked for them for almost 25 years. From the looks of this picture,, they enjoyed it every bit as much as I did. 

Rob’s gin and vodka tonics were as big a hit this year as last. He was not the least bit perturbed that we ran out of everything-invoices, change, napkins, glasses, food and wine.  This was just what we hoped for.




From all of us, to all of you who supported the Greening of Detroit Garden Cruise, many, many thanks.  And best regards to you, Michael Willoughby, for giving to me a perfect moment.

Tour Preview

tour3Every gardener on this year’s tour is passionate about their landscape.  How they choose to express it is individual-nothing surprising there.  My lot and one half garden is multi-levels, much to the delight of my corgis.  I have carved openings in the boxwood for them, and installed  bark racetracks; the garden is friendly to them.  My landscape is orderly; my pots are anything but-this is how I like it. So serene, with my favorite plants-and some unexpected surprises and punctuation marks.  The day of the tour, Fred and Jean are my docents.  English born and bred, educated in England in horticulture despite the second World War, they guide guests with their Shitz Tzu’s  Oscar and Beckett in tow-just meeting the two of them is a treat. I plan this year to open my shell grotto/reliquary enclosed porch by popular demand-.

Another garden of size is organized around some large sculptural elements carved into the earth. one comtemplative space features old evergreens, beautifully pruned. A wild flower slope, a rose garden-there is so much to see.



One small urban garden reveals a modernist taste and crisp green and white plant palette. Their old tudor home takes to this surprisingly well.  Every inch is thoughtfully tended to.  A driveway lined with tomatoes and herbs is a happy surprise.  This small property is jam packed with good moves.  tour1
Another garden is as colorful and engaging as its owner in the private spaces, and coolly formal in its public spaces. This gardener tells me she likes to feel like she’s on vacation when walks in her rear yard-you will see why. I have every reason to stay home now-she tells me.


tour14Every garden has water in one form or another-fountains, a pool; two properties are on lakes.  Water-what a great thing in a garden..
One garden on the tour I have a special relationship with.  These two committed gardeners  design and plant on their own. My involvement in their garden has to do with pots, and sculpture, and miscellaneous advice-but the two of them have put it all together in their own very distinctive and lively way. It will enchant you.  tour10
Their taste is eclectic, atypical-but it all works, with its own language and style. Their gestures are big and warm.  I so admire their confidence and their range.  They make it easy to understand the process of taking your voice in hand, and making something of it that is beautiful.  tour12
Each gardener’s  love for the garden and all that represents,   extends to a respect for the work of the Greening of Detroit, and my request that they put their garden on tour.  They are all busy planning for company July 19.  I am amazed, and so pleased how seriously they all take the prospect of like minded visitors.  By Wednesday next, our web site,, should have the descriptions of all the gardens posted for those of you would might want to check out a more thorough description of those gardens on this year’s tour.  We all hope you can make it.

Garden Tour

The noted and very fine  architect Michael Willoughby has long been a member of the board of the Greening of Detroit.  Who knew this group has been planting trees, sponsoring urban education and farms, in Detroit since 1989-this year is their twentieth anniversary.  Michael has been asking me to join this group for a long time-I finally told him,  in exasperation, that I had no patience for groups or committees-but I would do what I could do. So I went to their website. WOW. These people have done a lot for our city, and they keep on doing it, in the most serious way.  I understand their sentiments exactly.  Plant trees in big cities, in as big a numbers as you can manage. Teach people to grow plants, grow plants that are food. Rehabilitate urban spaces.  Clean up and plant.  Foliate as best you can.  Soften urban spaces with plants; teach people about the planet Earth.  They have been at the issue of greening for a very long time; they did not get to this concept via popular culture, fashion or trend. They have been at it in a big and quiet way for twenty years.  They impress me-their administrators, their board, their teachers, their volunteers.  I taught a class for them downtown on growing vegetables in containers.  The group was lively, smart, and willing.  I had the best time.

So last July, trying to get Michael Willoughby off my plate,  I sponsored a tour of 7 gardens of my design, to raise money for this group. Our top end ticket included a little something to eat, and a little something to drink.  I have to tell you,  the 10,000.00 we raised for them from the sale of those tickets was a very important accomplishment in my life.  The Greening of Detroit planted a tree in Detroit in my name, as a thank you. I can’t explain how this made me feel,  except to say these people made me feel that my efforts made a huge  difference.  They won me over.

So now I am a commissioner for the Greening of Detroit, and we are planning our second garden tour July 19.  I promise you will see beautiful gardens,  and what you spend for your ticket will go directly to a group intensely committed to the ecological well-being of our city.  If you live within a stone’s throw of Detroit,  I would invite you to participate.  If you live far away from me, I would urge you to support your local green group.  Green groups, world wide-I like the idea of this.

Tomorrow’s post-pictures of this year’s gardens.   Again,  Look at them. Help them, if you can.  Spread the word, if that is what you do best.  Meet up with all of the rest of us-July 19, 2009.