What Will You Plant?

I did plant my first container project last week for a client who had an event, and was willing to take the risks associated with planting in cold soil. Planting for an event means I use the largest and most established plant material I can, in hopes that the shock of cold soil and cold nights will bother them less than small plants. My rationale could be entirely without merit – and just a feeble effort to make myself feel better about shocking these tropical plants with unhappy conditions. But soon enough the nights will be warm enough to plant. At home, I like to get my containers out early, fill them with fresh soil, and look at them for a while. We had a new and improved soil mix blended for us in March that has more compost, leaf mold, and ground bark.  I am hoping this soil will retain moisture better, so the pots we plant do not have to have to be monitored so closely for water. When the soil in my pots is plenty warm, it is time to plant.

What will you plant? The process of deciding what to plant is not logical or linear, but certain issues are influential. The light conditions rank right up there.  Geraniums do not like a shady location, and white non stop begonias will burn and fail in hot sunny locations. This issue is fairly easy to resolve. Most plants have care tags in them. Sun means sun. Shade really means partial or dappled shade. If you have deep shade, shop the house plant department. Locations that are part sun and part shade can be trickier. Those white begonias may tolerate some morning sun, and want more protection from noon on. Caladiums will tolerate a lot of sun if they have sufficient water. 6 hours of sun might satisfy those plants needing full sun. Shop at a nursery if you want help selecting the proper plants for your locations. Most nurseries in my area have people who are expert in the light and water of seasonal plants.

Once the science has been satisfied, there are plenty of other decisions to be made. The first is to understand your objective in planting the pot in the first place. If you want the pots on your front porch to be seen from the sidewalk, then planting large flowered plants, or vines in a pale or bright color will help them to read successfully from afar. If you want them to screen an untoward view, plant your pots tall, and maybe plant multiple pots in the same location. If you want a pot to anchor a garden or landscape bed, plant large pots big and wide. Be clear in the planting that the container is a focal point around which other elements will revolve. If you like small, subtle, and or fragrant flowers, plant them near where you will be able to sit to enjoy them. If your idea is to stop any visitor in their tracks, then plant annuals that bloom lavishly, or whose foliage is striking

Annual container plants have an attitude. Some are dramatically formal. Others are free wheeling. Others still are modest in form and flower. That plantatude factor might influence what you choose. Large flowered tropical plants have an exotic and otherworldly aura about them. Dahlias, zonal geraniums, cannas and mandevilleas are tropical plants with big showy flowers. ooo la la. Some annuals plants with dramatic foliage include alocasias, calocasias, agaves and cannas. Even small succulent plants can be dramatic, as their forms are fascinating. Coleus foliage is not that large, but the color of the leaves can be very dramatic. If coleus are pinched regularly, they attain great size and interesting shapes.  If the drama of it all makes you happy to be gardening in containers, then go for it. If the drama needs a formal and contemporary aspect, then fill your pot with lots of the same plant, in the same color. In a shady spot, a Janet Craig dracaena (large glossy chartreuse leaves) underplanted with creeping jenny (dimuitive chartreuse leaves that trail downwards) and lime selaginella (a creeping velvet textured club moss) in a container would make a very dramatic statement indeed. A container of a single color makes the forms and textures of the plants prominent. All of the drama of tropical plants comes naturally in my zone. A pot full of dahlias grown in a tropical zone might blend into the landscape, and would not have the drama that I associate with exotic plants.

If something lighter and more subtle is more appealing, choose seasonal plants have forms and flowers that have the look of the perennial garden. There are tropical forms (meaning non-hardy) of lavender – as in French or Spanish lavender. The annual blue salvia is quite similar in color and form to the hardy types. Marguerites, or Boston daisies bring the look of a shasta daisy to a container. Annual phlox flowers look much like phlox subulata, or moss phlox. Angelonia is a graceful stand in for veronica, or any other spike forming perennial. So why not plant the perennials in the containers?  Perennials have a very limited and specific bloom time. If cut back, many perennials will rebloom, but the down time is significant. Annuals that have that perennial aura, with some exceptions, tend to have a more relaxed habit of growth.  That more cottage like farm and garden look is easy on the eye.  What says summer breeze in our zone better than daisies? Getting sunflowers to work in a formal or contemporary container would be tough. Sunflowers look like they belong in the vegetable garden, no matter how they are placed. They have an aura.

The arrangement of the plants in a given container creates a distinctive mood.  Symmetrical arrangements are more formal. I usually plant my pots symmetrically, as my pots are formal and classic/traditional Italian terra cotta. That style pot works well with my 1930’s house. The pots are a big part of the composition.  What do your pots ask for?  Asymmetrical arrangements of many types of plants is more garden like, and less fussy. Plantings of a single cultivar are the most formal, and also the most contemporary. Planting a stiff growing plant (like a dahlia) with an airy growing plant (like euphorbia diamond frost) relaxes the look. The relationships established by the color and form of one plant to its companions is part of why gardening in containers is so interesting

Of course, color plays a big part in the selection of plants.  Some colors are appealing; others not so much. Pink and orange together is loud, even rowdy. Gray and white is subtle. All white, and all green-so chic. Purple and red looks like royalty. Yellow and white is sunny. This is my take on color combinations. Everyone sees color differently. How you see color, texture, mass and form should be evident in what plants you choose for your containers. What will I plant?  I have no idea…yet.

 

 

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Budding

Don’t take your eyes off of May. You may miss a fleeting moment that will not be available to see again for a very long time. Nor will next spring look quite like this one. This spring moment is a unique moment. Enjoy this spring like it is the only one you have ever experienced.  This seems a proper response to nature’s May extravaganza. The spring is an opera of the grandest sort. This once yearly production is a month long celebration of the opening of the garden. That age old and dramatic play with a cast of many thousands has a beginning in March. By April, one can feel the momentum building. I swear I can feel the ground shuddering, ridding itself of the frost in the ground. OK, maybe I can’t, bit I imagine that I do. No matter how road ready one is for spring, come the beginning of May, there will be much too much to absorb.  One dramatic moment after another leaves a gardener blinking, and struggling to keep up. That complex constellation of spring stories is attended by no end of subplots, addendum’s, asides, unexpected turns and twists. Following the progression of spring is an unforgettable exposure to the natural world.

How many thousands of words would your essay about spring amount to? I will sheepishly admit to a novella, but for the fact that the spring comes too fast. Watching the spring play out is the best program it has ever been my pleasure to watch. So mostly, I watch.The cast is huge. The costumes are gorgeous. The spring orchestra has too many members playing their individual instruments to count. The volume is turned up. Every scene is juicy.

The plants in my garden responding to the call of spring are many. This 14th of May, some of my plants are fully leafed out. Others are just coming out of the ground. The ornamental grasses and hardy hibiscus have not made a move.  They like the warm soil of early June. My clematis are fully budded up. The hostas and ferns are unfurling. Evergreens are sending forth their new growth, known as candles. That the new growth on evergreens is known as a candle speaks to the season when the sun returns. The roses are leafing out, and growing on. The lilies are up. The delphiniums are almost 2 feet tall. The boxwoods are carpeted in their lime green new growth. The dogwoods are loaded with flowers. The azalea and rhododendron buds are swelling. Intoxicating-all of it.

The Princeton Gold maples are just about fully leafed out. The lime green color of the leaves is both fresh and luscious. Not one of the three 2 story houses in close proximity to mine can be seen. This has become a fairly shady garden, thus the yews along the fence, the pachysandra European ginger and beech ferns on the ground –  all of which are bouncing back fast from the winter. I spend more time looking at or being in this garden than any other place in my yard. In the summer it is quiet but for the sound of the water, and private.  In the spring, it is growing in every dimension and direction.  I take this picture almost every day. As the lens is focusing on what is there, so am I.

My picea abies mucrunatum candle in the most astonishing fashion. That lime green new growth is a feature of the spring growth on most evergreens. If you are accustomed to thinking that evergreens are dark and dour, watch the fireworks in the spring.

The dogwoods are breathtaking. I have not seen them bloom so profusely for a good many years. An upper deck means I have a view of them at eye level, and  from the top down. Changes of grade in a garden enable multiple views. There is nothing particularly extraordinary about any of the plants. Nor is this a show garden. Nature works the spring miracle everywhere equally. It is all there, everywhere, to be appreciated.

The Boston ivy at the shop leafs out slowly over the course of a solid month. It still has a few weeks to go before the walls will be completely covered in green.  The space between this east facing wall and the concrete driveway could not be any wider than 6 inches.  I do not recall planting one ostrich fern in that gap, much less all of these. I am sure how they spread happened over a period of years, but this spring I suddenly notice how thick and lush they have become. I am sure the heat of the summer will test them, but right now they are lovely.

Should anyone wonder where the phrase “grass green” came from, please reference the above picture.  It is a spring green color quite unlike any other plant. Mine has responded strongly to all of the rain we have had in the past month. Later I will appreciate how soft it is underfoot. How the transpiration from all of the leaf blades will provide natural cooling on hot summer days. The green color will darken. But right now, I am enjoying this simple version of spring.

Too soon, the spring growth will harden off, and this moment will evolve from an experience to a memory. I intend to keep looking as long as it lasts.

 

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Mind Your Freeze and Queue

I have had this photograph saved on my computer for so long that I no longer remember where it came from. If this is your photograph, please email me and bawl me out for posting your picture without attribution or permission. But I will take the chance, and post it anyway. Why so? It illustrates dramatically how nothing in the garden happens on a reliable timetable.  The trains may run on time, but nature takes her time deciding when one season ends, and another starts. These tulips covered in snow speak volumes about what it means to garden. I might write 10,000 words about the unpredictability of nature, and how no gardener can will a season into being when they are tired of the last one, but this photograph tells the entire story with one image. Gardeners may plan and scheme, and favor their own agenda, but nature bats last. She is known for knocking every one of her moves out of the park. Tulips in full bloom covered with snow are a a lesson. I like lessons. Can you not hear her bat hitting the ball? Michigan gardeners are in that hazy phase between the spring and the summer gardening season. I understand the impulse to push the boundaries, and forge ahead, but in fact our current gardening season is not in any way the summer season.  Spring is in full swing.

Mind your freeze and queue? We had temperatures at or below 32 last night. At 7am this morning, the temperature was still 32. The overnight forecast tonight is for 34 degrees-not exactly balmy. A hard freeze will damage the blooms on fruit trees, the tender shoots of hostas, and any seasonal plant native to tropical regions. It may damage budding clematis, and the new shoots on roses. A nighttime freeze in May is not unheard of in our zone. Frost free dates are plentiful after Memorial Day, in Michigan. Memorial day is a few weeks away-just saying. This means the wet and cold spring weather is current in the garden queue. No gardener likes to be stuck in the seasonal queue.  We are all impatient, and ready to let loose. You might try to cut in the line leading up to to the summer season, but why rush? Summer is a good ways off for us. This means you have time to enjoy and appreciate the spring. Our small greenhouse is stuffed full of plants that do not like cold soil, or cold nights. We anticipate that our gardening clientele are ready. We do not heat this house much, but it is protected from very cold temperatures, wind, and hard spring rains. We are very careful to advise any customer who buys from this house that these plants will not be happy outdoors right now.  The warmer days, and warm nights, are yet to come. The soil warming up is a true sign of summer.

A Solenia orange begonia in full bloom wreathed with lobelia and creeping jenny does my winter weary heart a world of good.  Truth be told, the longer this basket enjoys the protection of a greenhouse, the better it will look once it is moved outside. I have never been much in a hurry to rush the summer season. Tropical/seasonal plants are native to warm places. Those warm places feature warm soil. A tropical plant subjected to cold soil and cold temperatures will suffer. By no means will they grow. They circle the chilly spring season in a holding pattern, and languish. They suffer set backs that may never be made up. My solution?  Enjoy your spring as long as you can.

Our greenhouse features a lucky sourcing of cut dogwood branches-they have been glorious for over a week. We had a fresh batch delivered today. We do have tropical ferns and streptocarpus that require a warm environment. We can keep cold sensitive plants in this space until the threat of frost is gone. If you fall for a lemon tree or a myrtle topiary, move them indoors when cold weather is a threat. If you have a rosemary or lavender, both of which are cold tolerant, don’t test them.  Lavenders and rosemarys grown in greenhouses are not particularly  acclimatized to very cold temperatures.

There are plenty of plants that thrive in colder environments. This fuchsia topiary will come out of the spring in a very strong way, and  endure the summer. Other plants that are happy to bridge that wide river between spring and summer are pansies, petunias, dianthus, dusty miller, alyssum, violas, million bells, sweet peas and cold tolerant herbs-look up transitional container plants on your own. There are lots of choices for chilly spring conditions available. I know the need for some color and life motivates every gardener.  Plant away with those annuals and perennials that shrug off the cold. But I would encourage you to enjoy your spring. Stretch it out. Summer will come soon enough. That fresh coming to life of the garden you see everywhere now is the treasure that is spring.

Rob plants lots of lettuce tubs in the spring. We bring them on in our greenhouse. They fly out of the shop, once the weather warms up. This tub is spending the night indoors. It will be too cold to leave it outside.

The predicted night temperatures tonight tell a story about spring. Spring is not so sweet. It can be very cold and windy. I wore my winter coat to work today. Such is spring in Michigan. It is predicted to be so cold overnight, tonight. The truly warm is yet to come. Be patient. If you cannot be patient, beware. Our spring weather than turn on a dime. The beauty of this moment? Spring is everywhere I look. In full bloom. This pair of arched espaliered crab apple trees is in full bloom at the shop now. So beautiful.

The spring season is all about the growth, and the greening. I try to take the time to appreciate this moment.

My clients Rich and Dan have a river of grape hyacinths in bloom right now. This is a spring moment that is truly extraordinary.

My grass at home is long and the most intoxicating shade of spring green imaginable. I am savoring the spring scene.

To follow-more love of the spring season. This spring container that Rob planted with lavender and violas looks terrific right now.

The window boxes in the front of the shop full of pansies are so beautiful, and appropriately in the spring queue. What a glorious day, today.

 

 

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Spring Beauty

Once our season finally and resolutely turns away from winter and embraces spring, there is enough fresh heaven to make any gardener’s heart beat faster. The early blooming ornamental trees light up the springtime sky with masses of flowers overhead. The flowers of the magnolias, crab apples, cherries, apples, and dogwoods bloom with abandon.The lime green flowers of maple trees against the blue spring sky sing spring. The buds on the bare branches of deciduous shrubs swell, break dormancy, and begin to leaf out. The garden coming back to life is pure joy to the heart of a gardener. The wild flowers have been holding forth for at least a month. That substantial group we know as spring flowering bulbs are in the thick of their bloom. The lilacs are beginning to bloom; bravo, beloved syringa! Everywhere a gardener looks, there are plants growing and blooming. Intoxicating, this moment.

Our April may be and usually is rainy and cool. All the plants drink up the April weather. Every plant has its own schedule – no surprise here.  Plants are very specific about what conditions they want to survive, grow and bloom. At this moment, every plant in the landscape is making their much anticipated yearly debut. Every individual voice is contributing to that symphony we call spring.

PJM rhododendrons tolerate our hot summers and frosty winters better than the big flowered and big leaved rhododendron maximum that grow like weeds to 15 feet in the warmer woods and gardens in Pennsylvania.  I will confess I have a few of those big rhodies in my garden. I coax them along. But the PJM hybrid grows and blooms reliably.  The flowers are an electric shade of light purple. If you like your spring served up with a side order of splashy, plant some.

One of spring’s most breathtaking moments is an espaliered fruit tree in full bloom. Melissa and her sister own a celebrated landscape design/build and maintenance company in my area. She bought this espalier from Detroit Garden Works years ago, and has spent a good many more years training this tree to embrace her chimney at home. She put many years of thoughtful pruning to make this expression of spring what it is – sensational. I have never seen better. The big idea here is that an espalier of this caliber can be grown by anyone who is into the garden for the long haul.

A mass of yellow and white tulips is as cheery as it is striking. Though the bloom time is fleeting, I cannot imagine a spring without tulips. This is a very dressed up and showy spring moment, whether you plant 60 or 600.

The dogwoods are just now coming in to flower, and they are spectacular this year. Only one year in 3 or 4 do mine bloom this profusely. As long as the weather stays cool, the blossoms will hold. Cool spring nights lengthens the life all the early bloomers, much like a floral cooler extends the life of cut flowers.

The peonies are not blooming yet – they will be the star of the June garden. But they are in season as cut flowers. These Coral Charm peonies bring the spring indoors. I was able to watch them open from the bud stage top the full blown flowers for over a week.

The Branch Studio has a new line of contemporary pots and garden tables. Nothing says new better than a wall of Boston ivy leafing out, and ostrich ferns unfurling. Weeks ago we planned to photograph them in front of this wall as it was emerging. This early spring moment is to be treasured.  Though I am as anxious as anyone else to be outdoors enjoying warm weather, the spring season is as much a time to appreciate the process of the greening, as it is a time to plan and plant.

This block of Himalayan white barked birch planted 15 years ago is beautiful in every season. The spring show is about the catkins, or flowers.  Hundreds of tiny flowers are arranged around a drooping spike. A catkin is as subtle as can be, but many thousands of them create haze of green that hovers above all of those stark white branches. A quiet kind of spring beauty, this.

For a gardener who is looking to make changes in the design of their landscape and garden, now is the perfect time to focus intently on the part that plants play in creating structure and shape. The bare bones are greening up, and the perfect time to plant is just ahead.

 

 

 

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