My designing life may have been consumed with finishing up as many of our landscape projects as possible, and dealing with the demands of our holiday and winter container work, but the garden has never been far from my mind. Every day, as I am loading up the corgis in the morning, or preparing for them to disembark in the evening, I see what is pictured above. This antique French pot from Biot sits on an Italian terracotta socle, which in turn sits on top of the substantial stump of a maple that succumbed years ago to girdling roots. It was made in the early part of the 20th century by a French pottery that is no longer. I love the shape, the color, and the history. The pale yellow glazed rim finishes the hand thrown raw clay body. There is ample evidence of its age. Moss spores have infiltrated the surface, and taken up residence. I have never felt the need to plant this pot, as I doubt a planting would make it look any better than it already does. It pleases me to see this pot every day, in every season, year after year. In the summer, the ground is covered by Sum and Substance hostas, and ferns. In mid-November, the pot is embraced by a pair of Parrotias, just coming into fall color.
This essay is not really about my old garden pot. It is about a not so well known and underused small growing tree that saves the best of its beauty for the last of the year. Parrotia persica is the only species in the genus Parrotia. The tree matures at about 25′ tall, and as wide. My group of four trees has been in the ground for close to 20 years, and might be 18 feet tall. Suffice it to say they grow very slowly. It is irregular growing, and branches out quite close to the ground. Parrotia persica is one of only two only species in the genus Parrotia. The loosely oblong leaves are quite reminiscent of hamamelis, or witch hazel. This is not surprising, as they are in the same family. Those leaves have a purple/copper colored tinge when they emerge in the spring, which matures to a deep rich green in summer.
Persian ironwood is reputed to have some of the best fall color of any deciduous tree. A single tree may have red, yellow, orange and maroon colored leaves at the same time. Only once in a while do I get fall color like this. In most years, the leaves turn yellow and peach, long after many other trees have already dropped their leaves. By the time they begin turning color, all of the hostas and ferns that grow in proximity to them have gone dormant.
The branch structure and exfoliating bark endows this tree with considerable winter interest. The old bark sheds in a patchy way, revealing the new bark underneath. It is not uncommon for the bark on my trees to have green, yellow, peach, gray and brown coloration all at the same time. The bark does not shed in huge sheets like the London Plane. I rarely notice the flaking bark on the ground. The literature says that parrotias bloom in very early spring, much like witch hazel. Clusters of red stamens are surrounded by brownish bracts; the flowers do not have much in the way of petals. The bloom is subtle. That said, I have never seen my parrotias bloom.
At the end of December, the trees still had most of their leaves. The yellow fall color had matured to a rich coppery color. Though the landscape and garden has gone dormant, this spot is still beautiful in color and texture. These leaves will hold most of the winter, no matter how tough that winter might be. Some leaves will last long enough to be pushed off by the new leaves emerge in the spring. Should you have a winter season, a parrotia is at its most beautiful at that time of year. The picea abies “mucronata”, or dwarf Norway spruces, and the parrotias completely screen this part of my garden from the street.
As a result of the horrifically cold winter we had three years ago, I did have twig die back in the midsection of this tree. That damage is easy to see in the picture above. I would have thought the damage from the cold and wind would have been most prominent at the top of the tree. I cannot explain what happened, but the trees have begun to recover. I have never seen any damage from insects or disease, and I do nothing to look after it besides watering the hostas around them during dry spells. Parrotias are remarkably healthy and just about maintenance free.
I have said many times over the course of the 7 years that I have been writing this blog – no northern zone gardener needs to close up shop with the first really hard frost. We can appreciate the season, we can be inventive, and we can defend ourselves against the long dark time. A thoughtfully planned landscape features trees with interesting bark, structure and fruit that warm the winter view. The skeletal remains of shrubs and perennials provide visual interest. Evergreens in the landscape are ever appreciated over the winter. A successful landscape is as beautiful in the winter as it is in the other three seasons. Designing a landscape that is consistently lively year long has been a life’s work for me. Any winter garden can be stunning. Many gardeners have made an effort to create a dialogue with their landscape that goes on day after day, all year round. Seasonally planted containers are a personal and engaging way to keep the story of the garden alive. Beautiful winter arrangements in pots can make the most quiet winter landscape glow with color, texture, mass, and light. The energy expended creating arrangements for winter pots results in a surplus of electricity sure to light the winter months. The most simple and easy to achieve celebration of the winter garden is container design and installation. It can be different every year. It can be as elaborate as you wish, or as simple as the meeting of lots of twigs and lots of lights. I recently posted on the importance of including lighting in those winter containers. Choosing the most effective means to light a pot of course depends on what you plan to put in them. We start with the branches. We have a grower who grows shrubs solely for their cut branches. His cut willow and dogwood branches are strikingly beautiful. That first fresh cut branch delivery day is a good day for all of us. The colors are brilliant. The lengths are generous. Once we cut the ties, each branch bunch branches out.
The curly copper willow may start out as a thick stem at the base, but at the top, the multiple curly branches delight my eye with their cinnamon color and exuberant mass. These dancing cut stems set into a winter container arrangement will endow any gardener’s winter with color, texture, rhythm – and vitality. Many of the fresh cut branches we set into winter containers go on to root, and grow on and out in the spring. I cannot really explain the intense pleasure I derive from this, except to say though the life of the garden cycles through the seasons, it is always alive in some form.
Red twig dogwood is a shrub common in my zone. It tolerates wet feet, and likes full sun. I do not have a spot big enough in my yard to grow red twig dogwood, but I am happy to have the cut branches available to place in winter containers. The hybrid red twig dogwood known as “Cardinal” features branches a much more brilliant red than the species.
This picture clearly illustrates the color of the hybrid Cardinal red twig, as opposed to the darker red of the species. No matter your taste in red, our twig supplier delivers well branched bunches of a uniform size. Red twig shrubs specifically grown for cut branches are regularly pruned, as the current year’s growth has the best color.
Flame willow is a strong growing shrub that grows very tall, and does not produce much in the way of horizontal branching. These tall vertical branches are a coppery cinnamon color. One bunch in a container is a statement. Multiple bunches in a container will make anyone stop and look. I always hope there will be flame willow still available when it is time to do my own pots.
These winter container centerpieces featuring flame willow, faux red berry picks, and incense cedar are set to go in to a pair of winter pots we will install next week. The color is saturated and in dramatic contrast to the late November landscape.
I usually have to remind Rob to buy me fresh cut alder branches. They are not showy in color or height. They are garden variety fresh cut twigs. There is plenty to like about a material that is ordinary as can be. They represent the winter garden in a more subdued way.
The red twig pussy willow from our grower is spectacular. The bunches are better than 5 feet tall. The medium bunches come in at 4 feet tall. The red, green and brown coloration is so easy to to appreciate, and work with.
These tiger branches are new to us. They are harvested from a desert plant noted for its silvery gray bark, segmented by black horizontal bands. They are stunning indeed. Our clients think so too – we just got in our third shipment. I like to have a wide range of branches available. Beautiful natural materials are an invitation to participate in a little winter gardening.
My neighborhood is like countless others all across this country. Rows of homes bisected by a road. It is an older neighborhood, dating back to the 1930’s. The size of the right of way trees speak to that age. The right of way? The ROW is that strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. In my neighborhood, the right of way is planted with trees and grass. Yes, you do see a dead tree dead ahead. Large growing shade trees, or street trees, take poorly to having their roots confined between parallel ribbons of concrete. Many of the maples on my street are in serious decline, victims of their own roots that grow round and round in between the bands of concrete, rather than having the opportunity to stretch out, and live large. Girdling roots will eventually strangle a tree. OK, this horticulture discussion is finished. The neighborhood trees in full fall color deserve a mention, do they not? I toured my neighborhood this morning, just to see the fall color on the trees.
It was not in the cards for me to take a fall color trip to some more rural location. I work most every day. My fall color trip through the neighborhood took an hour this morning. During the summer months, the trees are a fairly uniform shade of green. In the fall, every tree represents the fall season individually. A tree tour in my neighborhood is the best in the fall. Each tree turns color on their own schedule. Some trees go yellow for fall. Others go red. The sugar maples are the most incredible combination of yellow, peach, orange and red imaginable. This sugar maple, just a block away from home, is beautiful, and fiery.
Fall color is a phenomena not completely understood. Day length is key to triggering fall color. But temperature, weather and placement all play a roll. Sometimes the science has to take a back seat to the experience. The fall in Michigan is a season like no other. The air is crisp. The falling leaves give way from the branches of the trees, and silently waft their way to the ground. The fallen leaves crisp up, and crunch underfoot. The sun low in the sky ignites the color.
A Japanese maple in its summer green grows on to become riveting red in the fall. Good landscape design in my zone takes the fall season color into consideration. I am in favor of a landscape that thoughtfully places evergreen trees in beautiful concert with deciduous trees. Contrast in the landscape makes for a very pretty party. No season is more about contrast than the fall.
I planted 4 Venus dogwoods in the right of way in front of my house this summer. They have beautiful fall color right now. Planting dogwoods in the right of way is a gamble. The city may dislike my choice of a ROW tree. We will see. This fall season in Michigan-incredibly beautiful. The neighborhood trees are looking really good right now. The fall gardening season is a moment to treasure. Agreed?