A Few Thoughts On Turning 68

June 15th was my 68th birthday. I had never intended or planned to be 68, but there it was, and here it is. I will admit the idea and the reality of it stung some. Turns out I did not have to go that milestone alone. Rob and I have worked together 26 years, meaning he knows me fairly well. He knew I was coming up on a moment threatening to pitch me into the weeds. His idea was to counter that with peonies. Lots of them. He has good instincts. It is no secret that I have a big love for peonies. In the early 1990’s, when we first started working together, I had rows and rows of peonies lined out like crops in a big block in one big section of my 5 acres. I would guess I had peonies numbering in the hundreds of plants. Divine, this. Every year, buffalo grass came up between the peonies. Did I plan for that grass?  No. Those peonies and that unexpected gorgeous grass was an unforgettable experience. The day before my birthday, bucket loads of peonies and cut branches of mock orange were delivered to the store. I was flooded with good memories.

Rob arranged and set the bouquet pictured above on my conference table.  A 68th birthday was beginning to look a little better. I am just as enamored of peonies now as I was 45 years ago. Happily, some things in a gardening life stay the course. It is good to know that despite the years that have gone by, my interest in plants is as strong as ever. And the interest in certain plants is a flame that still burns bright. I have no peonies in the landscape and garden at home that I have tended for the past 20 some years. But I have planted lots of them for clients. I am satisfied that I have done some small part to keep peonies a part of the landscape.

I have been a gardener for 45 years. I have been a landscape and garden designer for near as long. So what would I have to say after all these years in the profession, at the age of 68?  Every experience is an opportunity to add to your knowledge and understanding. Take that opportunity, and hold it close. Trust your own instincts. How you garden does not have to work for anyone else but you. If you design for yourself, indulge your eye and your inclinations. If you garden for others, be sure you represent your client a little more than you represent yourself.

Failure in the garden and landscape can be a good friend, truly. Fear of failure is mostly about fear. Failure is an emotionally charged word for what ought to be called plan B. The A plan is not necessarily the best plan. I have seen some E plans that were quite impressive. E plans are A plans that have been rethought, reconsidered, reworked, polished, and tuned up. Your E plans might be good, should you give them a chance. Every gardener matures, and evolves. Evolution is a process that can inform every gardening effort, if you let it. Give the eye that God gave you a chance to be.

Under no circumstances do I believe that the ability to generate great design is a gift. Great designing is the outcome of the mix of hard work, experience, imagination and nerve. Every person comes with a lot of things, standard issue. A confident and coherent voice surely comes with a person hood, though it may take some time to mature. That voice of yours just needs a free rein and some nurturing.  I do subscribe to certain gardening and design practices, as they work for me. What works for me is no more and no less than just that. Every gardener needs to discover what works for them, and proceed accordingly.  No doubt the best part of tending a garden is that there is the opportunity to team up with nature and make something grow. We all do that differently.

I know the cultivar names, history and growth particulars about all of these peonies. Rob knew that would be so. I did a good job growing peonies. That ability to grow them was not so special.  I wanted to grow them, so I took the time to learn how. But these cut flowers were indeed special. This beautiful and fragrant birthday bouquet conjured up gardening memories spanning many years. In my opinion, the best design in the garden and landscape calls up those memories and moments that are important.

I photographed my birthday peonies every day, after I had taken some time to simply enjoy them. They made me remember why I became a gardener. They made me certain that I had made a good choice to become a landscape designer. Turning 68 doesn’t change that.

Some blooms held perfectly for better than a week.

The Coral Charm peonies maintained their form, but the color faded to a creamy pale yellow.

Just a few days ago, the petals began to drop. I could hear them hitting the table surface. That was a new experience of peonies. I cannot really explain why that sound was so enchanting. Except to say that I just turned 68.

Al Goldner once told me that the only regret he had as a landscape designer was that he was never bold enough. That has always stuck with me, but at 68 I understand what he meant. There is time to do something with that. There is purpose, meaning and beauty in every step of a life.

Vernissage, 2018

 

Nine years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”. As much as it was the commencement of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design. To date I have published 1621 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, observe and reflect.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014,2015, 2016, 2017, and today-April 5 of 2018. Why April 5 instead of April 1?  We are still waiting on spring.  A colleague suggests maybe April 11.  We’ll see!

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I learned plenty from her, and from her garden, over the years. In the beginning, I planted flowers for her.  Our relationship developed such that I began to design, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre property. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I have favorite projects. An edited collection of fine white peony cultivars dating from the late 19th and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground. We had a relationship that I treasured.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by beginning over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad as I did. This treasured client passed away this past winter.  It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage does refer to a beginning- any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh and spring ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does, sooner or later. Every spring opening has its distinctive features. Some springs are notable for their icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of no change of status. The rule of the day was more of the same. A warmish February, and then a stony March cold that has become a stony cold April. Night temperatures in the 20’s, wind and cold has kept all of our plans, and our plants, under wraps. We hope to begin outdoors next week.

I usually associate spring with the singing of the birds. I hardly noticed the singing this year, until this past week. The cold that has been reluctant to leave means there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up this time around. The last of this persistent cold reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 60 degrees, and March seemed to last 60 days. How well said!  Spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed.

Much of what I love about landscape design has to do with the notion of second chances. I have an idea. I put it to paper. I do the work of installing it.  Then I wait for an answer back. This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back. The speeches come from everywhere-the design that could be better here and more finished there. The client, for whom something is not working well, chimes in. The weather, the placement and planting final exam test my knowledge and skill. The land whose form is beautiful but whose drainage is heinous teaches me a thing or two about good structure. The singing comes from everywhere. I make changes, and then more changes.  I wait for this to grow in and that to mature. I stake up the arborvitae hedge gone over with ice, and know it will be years or more-the recovery. I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, and no end.

VERNISSAGE (4)This spring will see an average share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs. The winter cold and wind was neither here nor there. I am still wearing winter clothes. But no matter what the last season dished out, sooner or later, I get my spring. I can compost my transgressions. The sun shines on the good things, and the not so good things, equally.  It is my choice to take my chances, and renew my interest. The birds singing this 5th day of April l means it is time to take stock.

I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can coax or stake what the heavy snow crushed.  I can prune back the shrubs damaged by the voles eating the bark.  I can trim the sunburn from the yews and alberta spruce.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Two years ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years.  They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a second season. I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. I can sit in the early spring sun, and soak up the possibilities. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, renovate, plant new.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound good?

April 1 marked 26 years that Rob and I began working together, and 22 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That relationship endures, and evolves.  Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works is an invention from the two of us that reflects the length and the depth of our mutual interest in the garden. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir. Rob’s 2018 collection of hellebores and topiary plants is a delight to the gardening eye. Our annual Spring Fair, this Saturday.

We have begun to plant up spring pots.  What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt. We will soon be able to be outside in a light jacket-hooray.

We are ready for the new season.

Friday Night Opinion: Horticultural Hostility

I make a point of publishing essays that focus on all the good that gardening provides. Why wouldn’t I?  I do believe that gardens are good for people, and the act of gardening is even better. Reading about gardens and gardening is an excellent pursuit. Looking at gardens is like looking at at a sculpture that expresses one person’s singular relationship with nature. An interest and attachment to the landscape -both wild and designed- is good, no matter one’s age, or circumstances. Involvement,  interpretation and imagination is what makes the gardening world go round. In my opinion, a beautiful landscape is first and foremost a place to be. But it could just as easily be one of those natural places one can observe from afar, without intruding. Everyone’s idea of a place to be or observe is different, and worthy of the respect.   Other gardener’s interpretations get my respect, standard issue. I do my best to refrain from judgment. No gardener needs my opinions or experiences to live or work. I have my point of view, which may or may not strike a chord. Gardeners I have met are passionate and thoughtful individuals who have managed to garden independently.  I wish all of them well.  Their ideas, both traditional and daredevil, interest me, and enrich my gardening life.

I try to fend off what irritates my gardening eye. I make light of the weeds, even though I dread them.  I write as if digging a hole was no more effort than thinking a thought. I roll my eyes, and breeze by an unmitigated cold and rainy summer as if having poor containers did not matter. I never cry in public about a treasured tree that dies. I never chide a neighboring child who snaps off all of the buds of the lilies in a fit of childish pique. An old landscape of mine in disrepair? I would rather focus on bringing it up to speed. I do not talk about distructive bugs or bug poison-both of these topics equally disgust and silence me. Disease in plants is heartbreaking, but I have no plan to make that heartbreak rule the day. Gardening comes with a lot of scrapes, scuffs, disaster, and injury. Some things in my garden make me feel like my digging arm is broken. No need for anyone to hear about the setting of the bone, and the cast.  I choose to make much of the small victories.  The race well run. The effort that goes beyond. Every gardener understands this.

I have never had much to say about deer, even though their exploding populations now more than ever bring incredible ruin to beautiful landscapes and gardens all over the country. Deer damage has escalated in my area dramatically over the past 10 years. But I do not want to write about the deer problem. It is a big problem with no easy solution. I do not have a solution.   The rabbits that stripped the bark and shoots from my espaliers this past winter-I took that experience as an occasion to discuss how plants can recover from drastic and thoughtless pruning.  I try to discuss what is within the grasp of every gardener to influence. The troubles-every gardener has them.  I do not see that these troubles need front page coverage. Trouble is so ordinary.

I do not review gardens or landscapes. I would rather point out what I like, should someone ask. What other gardeners and garden designers do is their own affair, and I admire their effort, first thing. Lots of what I see is beautiful, and thoughtful. The longer I professionally garden and landscape, the more I realize that many things work. That there are no hard and fast rules. Be free, and garden-this would be my advice. Though some would value the results of the world series of gardening with a list of the best, the reality is much more low key, personal, and not so easy to rank. We all have the opportunity to create our own garden.  We can endow the landscape as we see fit.  I have never seen the need to convince anyone to garden or design like I do. I like the exposure to lots of different voices- they educate me. Another point of view does not challenge my confidence in my voice. I encourage clients to speak their peace – their voice is essential to my work  No one knows better than they do what is not working, or what does not look good, or what they do not understand. Strong relationships between people and nature have produced incredibly beautiful gardens and landscapes. All of what I see challenges and delights me.

I only occasionally allow hostility to punctuate my narrative. There are those moments when the hair on the back of neck stands up.  Of course a too brutal weather makes me hostile. Any plant mowed down with an electric hedge trimmer makes me hostile. Contractors driving up over the root system of an old tree makes me hostile. I have a bigger list than this-but what is the point of publishing it? Hostility is not a good look. I like the look of benign resignation better – whenever I  have enough grace to manage it.

I plan to start planting my annual and seasonal containers tomorrow.  I have some lingering hostility that our night temperatures have been too cold to plant, before now.  37 degrees is forecast, tonight. It is a late start for us, considering the number of plantings we have to do. But not too late a start warranting any hostility. Cold in Michigan towards the end of May is ordinary, and routine. I plan to be benignly resigned to a late start – as best I can. So with as much grace as I can manage, our summer container and in ground planting season is open. I am looking forward to it.

Checking In To The Grumpery

DSC_8800The month of March in Michigan always manages to test the good nature of the most graceful and exuberantly positive gardener. The bitter last of the winter is still firmly entrenched. It is 20 degrees, with snow flurries today.  It will be 14 degrees over night. I don’t know why these buckets of cheerfully fake red poinsettias irritate me so much.  If I didn’t know it was March, I would think it was Christmas time.

DSC_8788The north side of every cranny on my property has dirty snow and dead leaves on top of ice. The night temperatures regularly sink below freezing.  Dead tree branches litter the garden. The cold winds come and bring paper and plastic trash. Burned orange evergreen needles jump out at me. The south side of every Alberta spruce in my neighborhood is burned.

espalier damage

Tree trunks of espaliers whose bark has been gnawed off by rabbits-I fear for the lives of these plants.

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Boxwood tips turning from cream to tan-I see the signs that signal winter kill. Never mind the bare boxwood branches courtesy of the winter of 2014.

DSC_8789My snowdrops that have just emerged will be subjected to 14 degree temperature over night. These should be named frozen through and through drops. I do not see any signs of the crocus-that is a good thing.

DSC_8798Some patches of my hellebores are still smothered in icy snow.  I am thinking of shoveling the last of the winter off of them, but I probably would take the crown of the plant with it.

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The dead fern heads and cold singed European ginger laid flat out-I am more than ready for this phase of the year to be over. If you are a gardener, this is what March Madness really means.

DSC_8767My yard is dirty.  I have a big love for dirt-but not this kind of dead grass and compacted muck dirt. The dirt just outside the doorways is salt saturated. This dirt is in my car, and on my kitchen floor.  When it dries, it dries white.  A dirty white, that is.

DSC_8793Potholes, gaping and deep potholes, open up in the neighborhood streets. I believe a neighbor, out of desperation, filled this with dirt. A water main broke here in late January. A huge disk of ice sat here until a few weeks ago, when the pavement seemed to disintegrate over night. The skies are the same color as this road.

DSC_8784  Even the dogs had that accusatory look on their faces-can’t you do something about the endless winter?

DSC_8782We are still stuck indoors and moping. Why I went outside to see the dead leaves on the ivy – I am not sure. Maybe just to verify that we are truly living the misery.

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I have talked to Buck at great length about all of this. On a number of occasions. Finally last night he advises me to go to the grumpery, and leave him be. I do not fault him for his exasperation. We have an understanding about the grumpery.  The grumpery is a place for any gardener who is so over the winter that they need to be quarantined.  I am hoping I do not need to spend too many more days there.

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