Some Very Good Reasons To Plant Containers For Spring

Our early spring season has been notable for its soaking and relentless rains. Daily rain. As in  “don’t go out without your muck boots on”  rainy. And  “don’t even think of stepping into the garden”  rainy. The boxwood pictured above are slated for an early landscape installation. They spent the winter indoors, in the building we use to house equipment and vehicles. By mid-March, those plants needed to come out of storage. The process was not pretty, as you can see. No gardener can tell ahead of time how the season will change from winter to spring. That transition is rarely smooth and easy. Into our second week of daily rain, the ground is simply too wet to work. We have heeled these boxwood in, not knowing when we will be able to begin planting.

These rainy days are gray and dreary. The cold is magnified by all of the water in the air. Bone chilling. I stand on the edges of my garden, knowing it is off limits right now. Stepping on the ground when it is completely saturated with water drives all of the life giving oxygen out of that soil. Compacted soil is unfriendly to any plant that is trying to grow. So how can a gardener garden early on, given these conditions? Plant some pots. The soil in containers drains much more readily than the soil underfoot. The soil of your choice loaded up in a container drains freely. Containers can be readily be planted in the rain, just ask my crews. Containers can furthermore be planted with all manner of seasonal plants that do a great job of tolerating the cold. Our trees are still leafless, and few perennial plant has dared venture forth, but for the hellebores, and the early spring flowering bulbs. What else can help soften the very early spring blues? I would suggest that a worthy preview of the spring season to come might begin with some containers confidently planted with plants that endure in spite of the cold.

These branchy style cut pussy willow stems speak to and echo the spring garden. Pussy willow is a very large growing shrub that blooms very early. If your landscape is not large enough to accommodate this big rangy shrub, the cut branches look terrific in spring containers. The blue preserved and dyed eucalyptus acknowledges that blue color that is so beautiful and reminiscent of our spring. Pansies and violas are entirely cold hardy right out of the flat, provided they have been grown in cold conditions.

We buy pansies and violas that were started from seed last summer. They are over wintered in houses with no heat. They are ready for the April chill. If the temperature threatened to go below 25 overnight I would cover them.  If I wanted to protect their blooms from a windy 28 degree night, I would cover them. This seems like a call to plant away to me.  Pansies and violas are among some of the most charming, sparkly, and cheery plants that endow our northern tier spring season. I would not do without them.

Planting in cold blustery weather is not my favorite, but I am ready for spring. So I plant anyway.  This large container is home to a Turkish hazel tree – corylus corlurna. It survived the winter in this container, and threw out scads of long pink catkins a week ago. Bravo! We planted the ground level soil with an overall mix of blue and  purple/blue bicolor pansies and white alyssum.  In several weeks, when the filbert tree leafs out, this container planting will sing spring.

Have you ever seen a spike bloom?  Me neither. This particular spike was planted in this client’s container last summer.  I wintered the plant over in a greenhouse. I was faint with surprise when we went to pick up that spike for her spring garden. Planted in this container, there is an incredibly beautiful and fragrant bloom spike that takes all of the visual attention away from a landscape that has not yet emerged. The pale lavender pansies will grow and spill over the edges.  Are spikes cold tolerant?  Utterly.

This is a favorite spring container, just planted a few days ago. The fat and fuzzy cut pussy willow branches preside over all. A cream/green preserved eucalyptus provides some mid level interest, and subtle color. The box is stuffed full of a white pansy with a purple blotch, beautifully grown and just about ready to come in to bloom. The spring gardening season is all about hope, delight, and renewal. The garden coming to life again – what could be better? The very early spring container planting season gives any gardener a chance to whoop up the coming of spring.   I like how this spring container addresses that moment.

This big container features pansies, alyssum, and lettuce underneath a centerpiece of cut pussy willow and tiger branches. Lettuce is a chilly weather vegetable, but it will wither in extreme cold. Pots planted with lettuce now will need to be covered when the night temperatures go low. I suspect the same is true for myrtle topiaries. I will confess that I have a habit of pushing the limits of plants to tolerate cold in our early spring. But my best friend in the early spring is floating row cover. Vegetable gardeners cover their early transplants with this non woven fabric to protect them from the cold. I use it to protect my early spring container plantings facing a fiercely cold night. Floating row cover keeps the temperature underneath that cover 10 degrees higher than the air temperature.

What plants tolerate a cold container environment? Pansies and violas, for sure. Dusty miller. Spikes. Alyssum. Chicago figs. Rosemary and lavender, cold grown. Ivy will take some cold. Chard, parsley, chervil and thyme shrug off the cold. Early spring flowering bulbs are great in containers.  Think daffodils. Hellebores are so beautiful in early spring pots. Once that spring pot fades, those hellebores can be transplanted into the garden. Osteos.  Marguerites.  Interested in planting early spring containers? Try everything. There will be some successes, and some failures.  Any gardener can handle and be energized by these odds.

Spring is on the way.  So excited. Am I ready? Yes I am.

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The Hellebores In March

What’s better than waiting out the end of the Michigan winter is a road trip to Pine Knot Farms to pick up a collection of hellebores. After some discussion with Dick Tyler, I placed an order, and our David drove our sprinter there to pick them up.  Pine Knot Farms has been breeding hellebores for a good many years. Their strains of helleborus hybridus are incredibly vigorous, strong blooming, and hardy in our zone.  The book written by Judith and Dick Tyler, entitled “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide”, was and still is a comprehensive and succinct description of the genus Helleborus. It is an invaluable reference work, and I reach for it whenever I have a question about hellebores.

helleborus "Pine Knot Select"From Wikipedia, “Commonly known as hellebores, the Eurasian genus Helleborus consists of approximately 20 species of herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae”.  Ha. I find the book by the Tyler’s to be considerably more engaging, and a lot more detailed.  I am happy to say that Dick Tyler took the time and effort to give David a comprehensive tour of his nursery. If you are not near enough to Detroit Garden Works to shop his plants, he does ship. This is the last weekend of his hellebore festival, but he grows many thousands of plants. Just one of the many in our collection is pictured above in a photograph of Rob’s. For further information, check out their website.  Pine Knot Farms hellebores

Though we purchase hellebores from a number of different growers from all over the US, I was especially interested in Dick Tyler’s plants for a good reason.  Many of his strains of hellebores have helleborus hybridus as a prominent parent. Helleborus hybridus is in and of itself a plant of complex heritage. This is a major factor in its hardiness. They  are commonly known as Lenten roses, which means they are spring blooming. The blooming shoots of my hellebores emerge from the ground in late March, and will begin to flower in April.  As our spring weather is usually very cool, they are gloriously in bloom for quite some time. The flower itself is quite inconspicuous..  What appear to be petals are actually a modified calyx. Those petal-like structures will eventually turn green, and will persist on the plants for months.

The Christmas rose, or helleborus niger, is a winter blooming perennial.  Winter blooming plants do quite well in mild climates, but have a tough go in Michigan. There are a number of clones which have some measure of parentage from helleborus niger that are able to survive our harsh winter and unpredictable early spring. We are able to buy the hellebore hybrid “Joseph Lemper” in full bloom in December.  Customers who have kept them over the winter and planted them out in the spring report that the bloom stalks will come very early in the spring, but they do manage endure our early spring night temperatures. I prefer helleborus hybridus cultivars for my Michigan garden. I do have some intergeneric hellebore varieties whose bloom stalks began to grow several weeks ago. I have my fingers crossed that they will survive the forecast overnight low tonight of 12 degrees. For this reason, I do not cut off the tattered remains of last years foliage until it appears we will have night temperatures that are more moderate. That old foliage is like a blanket.

So what is one to do with one of our hellebores in full bloom when our night temperatures are so cold?  They are actually quite obliging about a place indoors for a few weeks.  We like to pot them up in a little something that is decorative. The green or black plastic pot that they are grown in will do, but why make do at the end of winter?  Rob potted this hellebore in a basket, and topped it off with some mood moss.  To follow are more pictures of his miniature spring gardens. If you are able to stop in and see them in person, I promise you will be enchanted.

hellebores in pots

See what I mean?

 

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The Week Of December 5

Be forewarned, there are an astonishing number of pictures about to come your way. Last was a very busy week for us. But for the pictures, it would all be a blur. My crew is great about photographing everything. They pictures of last years work help inform the work we are doing now. Smart phone cameras and text messages mean I can communicate with the group who is doing the installation while they are 0n site. I hate to have to go back and redo, but I hate worse if something does does not seem as good as it should be. How I am able to stay in touch with my crew means the work is all that much better, the first time around. I can be two places at once-in the shop, and on the job. My landscape crew helps on and off, but they have been finishing up the last of the year’s landscape projects. They will be back today to help out with the work ahead. Buck’s crew at Branch is working for me for the winter holiday season. They makes all of our garlands, and install them. They handle lighting issues. They also install containers.  Marzela and David have been focused on the construction of green blankets and centerpieces. All of us whittle greens for Marzela, as the lot of us can hardly keep up with her. David and Salvadore do a splendid job with construction centerpieces, and adding elements one at a time. I am lucky to have each and every one of this group of 10 people. They are independent, intelligent, and thoughtful. They express their opinions, but not at the expense of keeping up. We do this work together. They go the extra mile, routinely. You cannot teach what they have to offer. They came to me with good values, not the least of which is a commitment to doing a great job. A lot gets done in a week’s time.  You’ll see. What you will see in these pictures is a design direction from me, and a gifted making by them. I help with the fabrication, but I can walk away and come back later, knowing someone will have picked up my part and gone ahead with it.  I still have 15 projects to go. I will be happy if I can finish them by Friday next, but maybe I won’t. I will not push a project out there that is not ready. I am stubborn, that way. The work you are about to see has as much to do with the the relationship we forge with a client as the design and fabrication relationships.  We make a concerted effort to represent their taste. We try for better than they thought they could have it.

winter containers
classic English cast iron boxes with lighted topiary forms

Large Bulbeck lead planter arranged for winter with curly willow, plum eucalyptus, white berry picks, and noble fir

contemporary winter arrangement ready to be installed in a large steel box

late day sun on that large steel box dressed for winter

winter arrangements awaiting installation in a pair of Atelier Verkant stoneware pots on the same projectfinished winter arrangement with yellow twig dogwood, yellow fuzz ball picks and variegated boxwood

pair of handmade concrete pots dressed for the winter season with flame willow, red berry picks, incense cedar and mixed greens

traditional winter arrangement in an urn on a pedestal with red bud pussy willow, green eucalyptus, and mixed greens

winter pots flanking a company entrance with sumac branches, pine cone picks and noble fir

holiday garland and pots with red bud pussy willow, berry picks, bleached pine cones and German boxwood

a pair of Branch Hudson boxes dressed for winter with red bud pussy willow and fuchsia eucalyptus

classic traditional holiday arrangement with red berry picks, holiday sparkle picks, and red sinamay

fountain surround pots for the winter with grassy textured green picks and noble fir

atelier verkantaccompanying atelier verkant pot with silver sparkle branches, grassy green picks, frosted faux evergreen picks, noble and silver fir

a traditionally decorated green garland for the holidays

winter arrangements in classic French orangery boxes with curly copper willow, blue gray eucalyptus, and gold sinamay

pair of custom fabricated concrete planters with winter arrangements with red twig dogwood, plum eucalyptus and mixed greens

outdoor lighted tree decorated with poplar branches, faux cherry clusters and feather birds

a second lighted outdoor holiday tree dressed with poplar branches, feathered birds, and faux cherries.  For extra light at night, the entire trunk of the tree is wrapped with Lumineo LED light strings, ahead of lighting the branches

indoor holiday tree with blue gray glass ball ornaments, gold glittered banana stems, and gold plastic foil stars

winter containers with gray and white branches and picks

contemporary winter wreath and container

contemporary winter container with red twig dogwood, sage eucalyptus and mixed greens

winter pot with white painted branches, pine cone picks, and gray eucalyptus

finished winter pot with frosted pine cones lit from above

a pair of winter containers featuring white eucalyptus and noble fir. The steel garlic topiary forms are strung with lights.

That pair of pots at night

night light

This steel Bethlehem star fabricated and lighted for Christ Church Cranbrook was a project designed, engineered and fabricated at Branch. We delivered this sculpture, and we were there to assist with the installation.

the star shining

This morning, we will resume the work.

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On Their Own

winter potsI posted some time ago about the landscape I designed for my clients who live in a rural area outside Ann Arbor. They edited and installed that landscape on their own – to everyone’s  great satisfaction. I was happy indeed that they took my plan to heart, and edited it to reflect their point of view. Late this fall they planted a wide ribbon of grape hyacinths in the lawn beginning near the large round planter and running all the way to the road. There’s nothing like having a river of grape hyacinths to look forward to in the spring, is there? Eventually, there may be some trees on either side of that river.  Their last garden project of the season-the winter pots. They came to the shop the other day to with to consult with me about their plans, and look at materials. Of course they would do their winter pots on their own.

winter potsI spent plenty of time talking them through their design process.  They knew they wanted to use cut white birch branches, and spruce tips.  And they wanted to incorporate the color red. Their taste is tends towards the contemporary, but in a loose and brash way. Containers filled with natural materials informally arranged proved to be a strikingly beautiful contrast to their sober and spare landscape.

img_0191This post is not so much about what I advised them to do. It is primarily about what they did on their own. This winter pot is terrific.  I was delighted when Rich sent me this group of photographs. The greens in the bottom of this container are spruce tips, from Minnesota. Dan had them shipped in.  I have never seen them before. These spruce toppers sunk into the soil of a container looked like a forest of mini trees. This container is as good as it gets, in my opinion. It is relaxed, assured, and striking. The thin red twig branches against the stout birch branches-so beautiful.

winter potsI did advise them to light their pots. Their property is in a rural area. Absent a full moon, their property is shrouded in darkness. The light in the winter pots would be key to welcoming guests, and representing a warm winter. It took a bit of doing to convince them to spring for a 3′ diameter spiked light ring encircled with LED lights, but they eventually decided that my advice was good advice. After much discussion, they took that ring home with them. Set into their 5 foot diameter steel bowl container facing the road, that light ring not only illuminated what was in the pot, it lit up the walk to the front door.     img_4253The materials they chose? Mountain hemlock, for its feathery texture, and its longevity as a cut green. Noble fir is a cut green whose stout stems amicably support lights, and obligingly stay green throughout the winter. The magnolia branches in this container feature big leaves. Those big glossy green leaves are a nod to romance. The Michigan winter is spare and gray. Cut magnolia is luscious – juicy looking. The hollow birch bark rounds are chubby and charming. The faux red berry stems hover over all.  Happily, they will represent for many winters to come. The Lumineo warm LED light strings illuminate the greens.

winter containersThis is work that I am happy to share here.  I greatly admire what they have done.

winter container arrangementsaa

We provided the centerpieces for this pair of winter containers.  Our client did the rest. Lovely, aren’t they?

This planter was constructed by a client who shopped on line with us for some of her materials.

This client shopped at Detroit Garden Works for materials too.

These containers are the creation of a member of my group. I like that he had the enthusiasm to go home and make winter pots, after making them for others day after day.

I truly enjoy what people say back to me about the garden.

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