Last week, Dan Crow picked his way through the wind-blasted garden that surrounds his home in Perry. “It looks like a disaster,” Crow said. “This is the ugliest time of year. Everything’s beat up. Yesterday there were two trees down — a Serbian spruce and a pine.”
It sounds like a back-breaking mess. So why is Crow smiling?
That’s easy. He is a gardener.
Gardeners are crazy. They can’t wait to bend over and lift things. They love worms, dirt, sweat and bugs. They embrace work and like it even better when nature fights them back.
In other words, they have a clue or two about life that civilians could learn from.
“Change is good in the garden,” Crow said. “You can always incorporate something new and different into it. It’s good for the soul.”
Every year, Crow and his partner, Jim Fasel, fill their five acres with flowers, tulip trees, conifers and huge sprays of ornamental grasses. The evergreens have held the field alone since fall, but some didn’t survive the winds of March.
The pair are used to it. Their gardens nestle in a forest of Scotch pine and red pine planted in the 1930s. Neither species is long-lived. “We lose 10 or 15 a year, but that opens space for us to plant new things,” Crow said.
Crow has been gardening for as long as he can remember. By the time he left his mother’s house in Dearborn to go to college, he had ripped out her whole lawn and converted it to garden. He was the chief gardener at the Michigan governor’s residence for 15 years.
Now he owns his own landscaping business, Outdoor Expressions, in East Lansing. He keeps up with cutting-hedge trends like the umbrella garden he’s putting together for this weekend’s Lansing Home and Garden show at the MSU pavilion. The show is the biggest in the state, a March tide-over for pale Michiganders starved for lush garden sights and smells.
All gardeners, from the apartment dweller with two pots on the porch to pros like Crow, know that gardening escalates. Compared to the average backyard putterer, Crow is far down the garden path of madness. Crow’s display at the garden show will be full of perennials and flowers, forced into bloom, and another recent enthusiasm, rustic “dry stack” stone walls and bridges that hold together with no mortar.
“Just like like Roman aqueducts,” Crow said. “It all depends on the keystone.”
Last week, as the weather warmed up, his business phone started to ring in earnest. It’s a sign of the season. In March, garden dreams are already ripe.
Music by other means
You won’t find a fence, a wall, or a straight line of any kind in the gardens surrounding Mary Alice Stollak’s East Lansing home.
“A straight line stunts beauty,” she said. “Even along sidewalks, I make sure the gardens flow.”
Stollak retired in 2009 after 16 years as the director of the MSU Children’s Chorus. Her garden, nurtured over 30 years, is music by other means. She pronounces “verdant” “vare-dent,” the same way you say “Verdi.”
“Notes never stand still,” she said. “One of the most important things in music is phrasing. A phrase always moves forward. Even long held notes have to have energy.”
She thinks of gardening the same way.
“The lines of the garden have to move forward. They have to have energy.”
Last week, she peeked through the snow flurries into her garden and a cluster of low, pale blooms peeked back at her. Hellebore, the harbinger of spring, was back.
Stollak grew up in suburban Milwaukee and learned gardening from her father, an artist and the first person to warn her away from straight lines. She and her two brothers are still avid gardeners.
She started her music training at a southside Milwaukee liberal arts school near her home with beautifully kept grounds and the garden-y name of Alverno College.
Even before she went to Alverno, she detoured through the grounds while walking to and from grade school to bask in the gardens and sculpture.
She still thinks of her garden as a sanctuary. Most of her garden is hidden from the street.
“Once we create something of beauty, both in music and our surrounding environment, it becomes a spiritual oasis,” she said.
Her East Lansing home has gardens on all sides, so there are a lot of shade plants like ferns and hostas. Instead of straight fences, a graceful curtain of evergreens — mostly hemlocks and Norwegian pine — loom as a backdrop. She rarely cuts them back. Stollak is much less of a control freak in the garden than in the rehearsal room.
“The electric hedge trimmer has removed all sense of grace and beauty from evergreens,” she said. “They need to move, to flow.”
One of her favorites is a 4-foot tall campanula. “I allow my hostas to get huge and verdant,” she said. “Oak-leaf hydrangeas have become very, very big. When they’re in bloom, they are glorious.”
Variegated ground cover catches the sunlight in different visual chords. A crescendo of color wells upward from perennial beds, with lots of clematis (a climber) and a climbing rose. A walkway meanders through ferns and wildflowers. “It’s always a work in progress. It just seems to happen,” she said. Her computer spreadsheet, with alphabetical listing of about 70 shrubs and plants, is less a planning tool than a document of her passions, like a musical recording.
There are two activities in which Stollak loses herself completely: rehearsals and gardening. Her husband, Gary, has to remind her to eat. “Hours could go by and I would have no idea,” she said.
In spring, she might put in seven or eight hours in the garden. Sooner or later, a wooden bench — a gift from the MSU Children’s Choir for her retirement — begins to beckon.
“That’s where I get some of my best ideas,” she said. “I look around and I have a creative moment: ‘Oh, that would be lovely there.’”
The east side’s all-season hub of garden things is the Hunter Park GardenHouse in Hunter Park on Kalamazoo Street.
“It’s going to be a crazy jungle in here in August,” program manager Rita O’Brien said with a grin. “You’re going to see tomatoes trellised up to the ceiling, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant.” Two outside gardens, including a children’s garden, will be in full bloom.
Going to be? The place is already mildly crazy, and it’s only mid-March. This is a hoop house, where passive solar energy pushes the growing season throughout the Michigan winter.
Last week, two kinds of kale towered over O’Brien, crowning a lavish array of fresh greens. “The winter was so warm the kale looks like palm trees,” O’Brien said. The lettuce is big and juicy. The collard greens are coming up as thick and fast as money from a Zimbabwe printing press.
Thursday, a group of visiting students from Bingham Elementary School helped harvest 10 pounds of greens. They skimmed a generous amount for a communal salad at the picnic table.
Much of the crop goes to help keep the hoop house operating. Last week, O’Brien sold a load of greens to Fork in the Road restaurant.
Soon the bins will be cleared and seeded for the summer season. Tomato seedlings, broccoli and onion sprouts are already waiting in starter planters sprawled over large tables. Slots for membership in the hoop house CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture group, are expected to go fast.
The hoop house is a constant hub of programs, from gardener certification classes to yoga to school visits. On Sundays, gardeners get together to compare notes and share garden dreams.
“Season extension is a big topic these days,” O’Brien said. This year, there are worm composting bins, brick paths to help older folks make their way around the beds, and a giant rainwater catchment system. Last week, Girl Scouts filled and seeded overhead baskets with lettuce mix and festooned the hoop house with potential salad.
Beth Monteith and her husband of 28 years, Gary Novak, have worked out an interesting formula for marital harmony in the gardens surrounding their west side home.
“We both have strong opinions,” Monteith said. “Rather than constantly negotiate, we each just take a side. He does the left side, I do the right.”
When they’re both working in the garden, they stay in their respective plots, admiring each other’s work from a distance.
“We both paint our pictures for each other,” she said. “If we tried to paint together on the same canvas, we’d end up with mud.”
Monteith was in California when I talked with her last week. Just for fun, I called Novak, who is here in Lansing, to see if they had their story straight. I should have known.
“Gardening is like doing a painting,” he began. “You don’t want somebody looking over your shoulder and saying, ‘Put more red in.’ It’s a personal thing. Each of us has our own canvas.’
To add zest, they have a “winner of the month.”
“Sometimes it’s a draw,” Monteith said.
Their gardening rhythms are different, too. Monteith prefers low-level, constant activity.
“I rest a little bit, just a little, until I’m ready to go again,” she said.
Novak treats the garden more like a home improvement project. “I go there once a month and plow through it,” he said. “I won’t pull a weed unless I can do all of it at once. It’s like some people do physical exercise.”
Monteith grows vegetables and bright flowers, while Novak has the shadier side of the garden. “Hers is lively and bright and mine is more subtle and natural,” he said.
“Mine looks more like a riot going on,” Monteith said. “Give everybody a chance.”
Their west side house was built in 1884. Soon after it was moved to Vine Street from Michigan Avenue in the 1920s, much of the plant structure, from hostas to buttercups to day lilies, was established.
Novak, a landscape architect, has made lasting changes his wife admires (from afar).
“It’s so lovely to look at his garden. He’s got a double-file viburnum that he’s nurtured and trimmed into these gorgeous horizontal branches.” The bush is studded with white flowers that spray outward like the Death Star slowly exploding.
“He looks at perennials with a long-term eye and develops their characteristics,” she said. “I’m much more about how it’s going to look this year.”
Monteith loves to handle “thugs” invasive plants like menarda (bee balm) that relish elbowing their neighbors aside.
“Bring me the thugs,” she said. “When I taught school, I was the person they would send those kids to that nobody else could work with.”
It was hard to say whether she was talking about kids or menarda. “You have to keep your eye on ‘em and trim ‘em back,” she said. “You don’t end up in trouble if you stay attentive.”
Monteith will return to Lansing this week with packets of lettuce seeds purchased out West.
“You can put in lettuce and kale really early,” she said. “I’ll be turning soil, taking a look at everything. I dream of the fragrance of the soil.”
Monteith and Novak agree that the backyard is their favorite room in the house.
“We eat in the yard all the time in the summer,” Monteith said. “We have candlelight croquet. You lose points if you knock a candle out.”
Manage vs. control
Like many people, Ben Graham sits at a computer all day making a living. Being a graphic designer is fun, but there’s more to life than pushing pixels.
“It’s great to put that down and work with fertile dirt and organic things for an hour or so every day,” Graham said. “I still work with color and texture. It’s an aesthetic pursuit, much like my career, but the medium is totally different.”
Graham lives on Tecumseh River Road on the northwest side of Lansing. He’s only three miles from downtown, but he looks across the street through his garden to Tecumseh Park and the Grand River. Deer often pick their way through the woods behind his house.
His house sits on two and a half city lots, and he’s converted about a third of his land into garden.
When he started shaping the garden six years ago, he moved tons of dirt, by wheelbarrow, to make a suitable area.
“It’s a passion and a hobby, to get myself out of the studio, get outside and deal with soil,” he said.
Gardens can shelter, conceal or invite. Graham’s garden does all those things. Most nights, he eats in the garden and enjoys the screen it provides from the street. When he’s in the mood, he works out front and schmoozes with passers-by.
“It’s a conversation starter,” he said. “People who live five blocks down the street stop and we become acquaintances because of that.”
Graham worked with vegetable gardens as a college student and later got hooked on the endless variety (and work-generating potential) of annuals. By now, he has built three gardens at various houses where he’s lived, but the Tecumseh River garden, six years old, is the most elaborate.
Some gardeners can’t step outside without bending over and fussing, but most of the time Graham spends in the garden is pure relaxation. He’ll take a 15-minute break from work during the day to watch butterflies and tree frogs cavort among the flowers and grasses.
Perennials anchor the garden, enhanced by a yearly pageant of changing annuals. Most years, Graham extends the garden according to a master plan mapped out in his head.
“There’s some aspects of an English garden, but most of it’s more free-form,” he said.
Graham is partial to ornamental grasses — because of their height, texture and color — and canna lilies with their exotic flowers. “They’re very impressive and large — six, seven feet tall — with huge, burgundy colored leaves,” he said. “It has a very vibrant but subtle flower that attracts hummingbirds.”
Graham also likes milkweed, home plant of the Monarch butterfly, although many people rip it out as a weed. Like all gardeners, he is always watching his levels on the control-freak scale. With living stuff, you can’t push your God streak too far, but you can’t throw up your hands, either. “I manage the garden rather than control it,” he said.
Unlike some gardeners, Graham doesn’t fight late fall by covering plants up from the frost.
“By that time it’s ready to go,” he said.
A bouquet of gardeners share
their styles, hopes and delights
Tomato, onion, pepper and eggplant seedlings cover every flat surface of Jared Talaga’s east side Lansing apartment. He has 40 trays with thousands of plants.
“I don’t really have much living space anymore,” he said.
The tomatoes Talaga canned last year have just run out, but he’s not planning on eating all that produce. Talaga is an Americorps volunteer with the Ingham County Land Bank and a recent MSU graduate in urban and regional planning.
Talaga’s garden dreams are ambitious. Last year, he joined two other volunteers to start Floodplain Farms, a small, two-acre farm on Lansing’s east side, on South Francis Street. His farming partners are Neal Valley, an Americorps volunteer at the South Lansing Community Development Association, and MSU horticulture grad Jackie Cosner. They, too, are surrounded by flats of seedlings at home.
There is a daunting job ahead of them. For years, the vacant lot in the shadow of I-496 has been a dumping ground for neighbors’ yard waste. An epic round of brush clearing has begun, but there’s a long way to go. They cleared a fraction of the parcel and planted garlic in the fall, but this will be the garden’s first full year.
Last week, Talaga looked over the uneven sod and windblown flotsam, but saw something else.
“There will be an acre of tilled area, with nice rows, with huge tomatoes and peppers,” he said. “We’ll have a water catchment system and solar passive greenhouses.”
Floodplain Farms really does sit in a floodplain, so it can’t be developed. Talaga is working with the Ingham County Land Bank and the city of Lansing for a five-year lease at the princely sum of $10 a year.
“We don’t see making money the first few years, but we want to expand to Lansing restaurants, especially since they have become interested in serving local foods,” Talaga said.
They also plan to start up educational programs and join the burgeoning complex of urban farms and hoop houses in the surrounding Urbandale neighborhood. In all, 36 city parcels have been converted to community gardens there.
“We can farm in the city and educate people, too.” Talaga said. “Those are two things we love.”
Talaga and his partners are picking up compost from five Lansing restaurants to put in the soil. It’s fun to imagine that many molecules from last year’s meals at Fork in the Road will likely make it into next year’s.
The early activity has already sparked interest among neighbors. A man next door invited them to use a plot of land he owned, next to the farm. Another neighbor offered the use of his water hookup.
In a few weeks, Talaga will get his apartment back and the seedlings will be in the ground.
“I’m ready for a nice heirloom tomato I can just pop off the vine and eat right there. I can’t remember what a good tomato tastes like.”