Carry Over, Carry On

Once the winter weather moderates, one of the first things on my mind is planting containers for the new season. In the spring, I can work the soil in a container long before an in ground garden is ready for my feet, or my shovel. That spring container will celebrate that early chilly season, until the advent of summer weather asks for a change. Though this client’s spring plantings ordinarily thrive until the end of June, a spate of very hot weather in May moved the date for a summer planting forward several weeks. During the course of planting their pots, I am thinking about those container plants that can survive the change of the seasons. Those plants that can be carried over.

The cordyline pictured above is a fairly new variety with a beautiful variegation.  I bought it as a 4″ pot. Not so impressive in that little pot. I recall it had five long leaves. No one shopping for plants at Detroit Garden Works that spring season spoke for it. At the end of the season, I could not bring myself to pitch it out. My grower overwinters plants from the shop and my good clients as a courtesy. I know the work of this is a lot of trouble for him, so I hope the materials he custom grows for us and the container plants we buy from him non stop in the spring season helps to balance out his willingness to hold over plants for us. Many of those plants are large old topiary plants belonging to clients – eugenias, boxwoods, jasmine, scented geranium standards, ferns and the like. Not a 4″ cordyline. But he was good natured about it. A number of little but beautiful cordylines spent the winter with him, in an unheated greenhouse that rarely dipped below 40 degrees.  In the spring, I scooped up that spiky plant, and planted it in a container at home. How I loved the the olive green, cream and brown variegation. I wintered it over again, in a much more robust state, and planted it at home in a container for a second season. By this spring, that cordyline had a substantial presence. It was ready for a placement in a container garden of a client. An under planting of pansies was all it needed.

This summer planting of that mature specialty cordyline under planted with frosted curls grass delights me. A simple but visually strong planting, this. It looked terrific in the early spring, under planted with pansies. There was no need to dig it out of this box, and cast it aside.  It will represent the summer in much the same beautiful way as it celebrated the spring. Surely this cordyline will sail through the fall. We are so fortunate that we have a grower who permits us to park plants with him in an unheated space over the winter. It is a rare grower who caters to an end user clientele who will winter over container plants. The cost of heating a glass house over the winter in our zone is prohibitive. It makes sense that most specialty tropical plants that are better than a year old are grown in parts of the US that do not experience temperatures below freezing. Many of the large tropical plants we see available are grown in Florida.

This spring planting here featured a centerpiece of fresh cut pussy willow and fan willow. In a circle all around that centerpiece, a number of gallon pots of lavender. The low stone planter was stuffed with white osteospermum. Rob buys in lots of large lavender plants early in the spring. They are remarkably cold tolerant, and their good size right from the start makes an impact in spring pots.

The lavender was just coming in to its own when it came time to plant for summer. The cut twig spring centerpiece was replaced with a white mandevillea. Summer for this container-done. Both mandevillea and lavender like conditions on the dry side, so the summer container design melds the old plants with the new. The osteospermum did get replaced with a quartet of blue foliaged escheverias, the color of which echoes the color of the lavender stems and foliage.

This pair of planter boxes repeated the same lavender, and a pair of rosemary standards in the back row. The front row is filled with classic early Michigan spring container plants – pansies, violas, sweet alyssum and annual white phlox intensia.

Once the spring plants were removed, it was obvious to see that the lavender and rosemary were thriving. The initial investment in those plants is offset by the fact that they will perform in these boxes another two seasons.  Should you garden in a warm climate, carrying over plants from season to season or year to year is probably a given.  But Michigan is noted for having four distinct seasons with widely varying conditions. These rosemarys would have to be wintered in a cool indoor space for the winter. The lavender is usually successful over the winter in the ground, provided they have perfect drainage.

We planted the front row of these boxes with variegated licorice, and a second crop of 4″ petunias. The petunia plants are small, but they are rooted to the bottom of the pot. They are at a perfect stage to transplant. The top growth will come later.

The petunias and licorice like the same conditions as the established rosemarys and lavender, so the watering will be a simple one size fits all.

Not every spring pot has plants that can be carried over.  We do use preserved eucalyptus, fresh cut spring branches and in this case, metal picks that look like Queen Anne’s lace, in the interest of variety. Spring is the toughest season to plant in our zone. Not so many plants can tolerate the cold, and most of them that do are of small stature.

Once this pot was cleaned out, the top 10″ of soil is replaced with fresh soil. If there is a suspicion that the cypress bark mulch in the bottom half of the container has deteriorated and is no longer draining well, we empty the entire pot, and start fresh. For pots that are tall, or for plantings that require fast drainage, we may use large gravel rather than an organic material in the bottom. It is a good idea to use drainage material that can be carried over in giant pots that are difficult or time consuming to empty. Essential to maintaining the exit of water from the pot is a layer of landscape fabric between the soil and the drainage material. Soil that works its way down into the drainage layer will eventually interfere with the drainage.

The figs and petunias will summer well in this pot. These are Chicago figs, meaning they are hardy as far north as Chicago. We will winter over good looking specimens at the end of the summer.  If a client has a protected and well drained spot for them, they can spend the winter outdoors.

To follow are more pictures of the switch to summer.

Yes, this spike has been wintered over several times.  Having large material available for large pots means the resulting planting is proportional to the size of the pot.  The bay plants in the foreground pot have a new collar of scented geraniums which will grow wide.

spring container planted in mid April

summer planting with a Persian lime and diamond frost euphorbia

The spring planting in this area features a Limelight hydrangea on standard under planted with lavender.

That pot will go on through the fall unchanged. Note that the hydrangea in this pot will get more water than the surrounding lavender.  Selective watering in containers such as this one can make a huge difference in the outcome.

spring window box featuring lemon cypress

same box for summer. Eventually, the lemon cypress planted on either side of the bar in the box will grow together, and read as one.

spring planting

white angelonia and variegated licorice – ready for summer.

 

 

 

 

Bold Or Bashful?

Designing great container plantings asks for thoughtful decisions about lots of visual issues. A container is a landscape in miniature. Every design issue that manages to get addressed in such a confined space means that container will satisfy the viewer on multiple levels. Superb container plantings are layered, organized, and deliberate. I greatly admire container plantings that are visually interesting, whether they be formally or informally imagined.  I especially like the organization phase. How do I plant for my clients? I like to know to location of the pots, the size and style of the pots, the architecture of the house, the sun and shade exposure, and the style of planting that most closely represents the point of view of the client. But truth be told, I ask about color first. Color is an incredibly important design element, if for no other reason that everyone reacts individually and strongly to color. The pale yellow and vaguely violet upright verbena named “Limonella” pictured above has a subtle coloration that I find fascinating. My grower, on the other hand, could not decide if it was good or blah. Consequently he only grew a few flats.

There are plenty of seasonal plants that have equally reserved coloration.  This bench is home to showy oregano, silver dichondra, variegated licorice and euphorbia “Diamond Frost”. Though they all have subtly different textures, shapes, and habits of growth, the color is uniformly subdued. The color green reads as a neutral color in the landscape for obvious reasons. A pot of white geraniums surrounded by a frothy mix of the aforementioned plants would be quietly satisfying in coloration. The contrast between the unflappable form of the geraniums and the airy and flowing form of the supporting cast provides visual interest on a different level. The fact that each of these plants requires similar light and water means there will be opportunity for each individual plant to thrive.

Some seasonal plants are bashful in coloration for other reasons. The Cathedral series of annual salvias are avilable in a range of colors, from white, pale blue, lavender and dark purple.  What makes their effect in a container reserved is the fact that they will always sport more foliage than flowers. The individual florets are small. Breeders have worked hard to create a flowering salvia with more visual punch, but I find the quieter bloom habit charming. Scaevola, commonly known as fan flower, features diminuitive lowers all along fleshy green trailing stems.  It provides as much volume as color to a container arrangement.

Yellow and pale lilac petunias are subdued in color, and similar in value – meaning the colors do not contrast much. Mixing them with the Limonella trailing verbena is an idea I would like to try. Adding vanilla marigolds to the mix would introduce a like color element with a contrasting height.

These yellow with a blue eye streptocarpus would be a great fit with the yellow and pale lilac petunias, but the science would be all wrong.  This plant requires a fairly shady location to prosper. It is always good to keep in mind that good horticulture comes before any other design element.

Some tropical plants are anything but bashful.  Persian Shield is a plant prized for the brilliant red violet color of its foliage. I have never seen it bloom. That color is the most vibrant given a partial shade location. It may fade in full sun. Red violet is a shade of purple that leans to the red side. Some call this color magenta, or carmine. As I favor harmony in color, and contrast achieved by light and dark, I would plant lilac and or red New Guinea impatiens with it. The red geraniums in the background of this picture accentuates the red highlights in these purple leaves.

Persian Queen geraniums pack a powerful punch of color.  The intense hot pink flowers sit on top of intensely lime green foliage. If bold color is to your liking, this plant delivers the goods. You can calm the color with dark purple petunias, heliotrope, or the softer colored lime licorice – or add flames to the fire with red annual phlox or red seed geraniums. This plant is great for pots that are viewed from afar. There would be no problem spotting even a small container of these in the landscape.  The dahlias are the show stopper darlings of the container world.  The colors are intense and jewel like.  The sheer size of the flowers is as powerful as the color. Given lots of sun, regular moisture and food, they will bloom profusely. The best flowering actually comes near the end of the season.  They are beautiful in September and October.

There are plenty of plants for partially shaded locations that have strong color.  Begonias are hard to beat. A mix of all the colors available is as effective as a mass of all one color.  The less well known lime selaginella, or club moss, can effectively lighten up the shadiest spot. With a regular source of moisture, it will cascade over the edge of a pot.

But if you love all and every color equally, and are pleased by representing as many of them as you can in a container, you are not alone.  There is something so lavish and exuberant about a mass of mixed color plants. Nature’s colors all go together. If mixed colors are pleasing, then the next most important design element is the overall shape. Plants that grown tall and linear can be balanced by plants that grow low and wide. Airy growing plants can be countered by plants with a prominent structure. All of the contrasting shapes, tectures and colors of green will certainly knit the arrangement together.

See what I mean?

 

Spring Flying By

It seems ridiculous to be talking about spring container plantings when our current 80 degree temperature is expected to soar into the 90’s over the new few days. But better an ephemeral spring than none at all.  April was a very tough month. Scary freezing temperatures and snow hovered over the entire month.  Planting this year’s the spring pots required coats, hats and gloves, but we got them all done by April 20. These Branch Studio boxes pictured above were planted with lavender, rosemary, lavender mix pansies and alyssum, and have grown considerably since our early April plant date. The spring is all about a celebration of the first to emerge, and endure. Simple and satisfying, filling planter boxes early on with chilly soil, and plants that shrug off the cold.

Rob planted lots of pots and baskets for spring.  Most of them are gone now. Who could resist a basket full of lettuce? Cold tolerant vegetables make great container plants. There is something so fresh and juicy about spring green.

I have a number of clients for whom I plant spring pots, and to the last, they all like something different.  This client has a decidedly contemporary point of view. We planted accordingly. Tall and short pussy willow in several distinct layers speak to an architectural arrangement. Taupe dyed eucalyptus all around provides some weight in the midsection. The light and dark pansy mix-sparkly. The contemporary Belgian pot is a beautiful shape, and has a subtly textured surface. The planting features the pot. The selection and arrangement of plants in a container adds the evidence of a point of view. That point of view provides another layer of engagement to the viewer. The color of the pussy willow and eucalyptus echoes the color of the container in a succinct way, and it helps to greatly animate the color of the pansies and violas.

That giant cast iron cauldron at the end of the Detroit Garden Works driveway gets dressed up every season.  We mean it to say hello, and welcome. The previously pictured container would be too tailored and austere for this spot. I like containers in which every element is intended, and has a reason to be. The end of May, these pansies are blooming profusely. A spring container can be enjoyed from the moment it is planted until summer arrives July first.

These citrus mix pansies planted weeks ago have grown in, and are still growing. The centerpieces are fake and fanciful, to my client’s delight. The pot in the background has a sweet pea captured inside a tightly configured ring of pussy willow. Sweet peas are notoriously sloppy growers. The pussy willow will support this lax growing vine. The placement of the sweet pea next to the bench insures that fragrance is part of the enjoyment of the container.

This early spring pansy planting underneath a multi trunked birch is the first breath of spring in this landscape. Comprised primarily of trees, shrubs and ground cover, this under planting of pansies and alyssum previews what is to come in this park like setting. Spring can never come soon enough in our zone. The hellebores in my yard were buried in snow until late April. It seemed like the flowers bloomed and matured in the same breath. Many of the spring flowering trees were very slow to come on this spring, but for the redbuds.  I suspect that as they bloom before they leaf out, the flowers came at their usual time, and lasted for weeks. The crabapples leaf out, and then bloom; they were fleeting in flower. My dogwoods had 6 days of glorious bloom, and then faded fast in the heat of the past few days. I may have missed the lilacs. Who knows what 90 degree weather will do to the spring container plants, but they have been glorious so far.

pale yellow and red violet in a spring garden

Columnar rosemarys inside a quartet of steel obelisks. The cool wave pansy mix “Peaches and cream” has a gracefully trailing habit.

Daffodil mix pansies and romaine lettuce at the end of May

Cut pussy willow branches, cream eucalyptus, and bicolor pansies

4 spring pots with concord eucalyptus and lavender mix pansies.

pussy willow, pansies, and ivy in a shady location

pussy willow, rosemary and pansies framed by a hedge of Ruby Queen oakleaf hydrangeas – this is a very good spring look. I am sorry to report that our spring is rapidly fading. I am happy to have some pictures.

The Big House

A Michigan spring is a big fluid situation. We have cold days and cold nights. We have hot days and freezing nights. Every day is a new weather drama, with a new cast of characters. We have a glass roof over one room inside Detroit Garden Works. Once we start buying in seasonal and tropical plants, it feels like a little house. During those cold spells, we jam no end of cold intolerant plants under that glass roof, to keep them happy. For years we have moved seasonal plants in and out of our garage, given the night time temperature forecast. That in and out is a a huge chore. So late last winter we made arrangements to purchase a big house for our plants.  A 60′ long by 30′ wide gothic styled house that would put all of our seasonal plants under cover. The house got delivered on a flatbed truck.  Seeing the boxes and pieces on the ground made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This is a greenhouse?

Of course I asked Buck to take the lead. He was reluctant to take on the big house, but he did. The worst part of getting it aloft was the fact that we could not dig into the ground to set the posts. I suspect this part of our property was formerly a road bed. It was full of asphalt, big rocks, and giant pieces of concrete. It took a week, 4 people, and a jackhammer to dig all of the holes for the posts. The landscape crew took on that thankless job, day after day. The Branch crew saw to setting every post in concrete in a perfectly vertical position. This may sound easy, but it is not. I have never seen so many levels and so many measuring tapes in one place in my life.

Once the posts were set, we were ready to set the ribs aloft. We had willow branches in the way that had to be cut, and a lots of work to be done in the airspace. The willow that had to be pruned back provided material for a tool the Branch fabricators needed. I will say this tool took my breath away. I like simple solutions.


One person on the ground held the rib in the proper position with the willow tool, so the person on the ladder could bolt the support bars in place. The greenhouse came with directions that were very unclear. Given that this was Branch’s first greenhouse, they proceeded cautiously. But once the ribs were set, the structure was rock solid.

I had no idea how a 2000 square foot piece of 6 mil plastic would go over the house, and be secured, but it turned out to be fairly simple.  We had to wait for a windless day, with no rain. Apparently wet plastic is very difficult to slide over the ribs.  After laying out the plastic next to the house, ropes were secured to the edge of the plastic with the help of small rocks. Rocks? The plastic was bunched up over a rock, much like the paper wrapper over a tootsie roll pop, and then secured with rope. Of course it is done this way. The plastic would slip through a loop of rope, no matter how tight it was tied. The rock secured the plastic to the rope. This is how greenhouse people do it. Ingenious.
Each rope was thrown over the top of the house, and handed off to a person on the other side.

8 rope pullers and two wrinkle reliever people made quick work of getting this giant piece of plastic over the top. The plastic keeps heat in the house, and wind, rain, hail and other weather events off the plants.

Once the plastic was in place, it was secured on both sides in a channel with a locking cap that runs the entire length of the house. This was a very cold day. Instantly it seemed warmer inside the house than out. Seasonal plants hail from tropical climates.  They dislike cold temperatures, and cold soil even more. In mid May, the best place for annual plants is under cover.  Planted out in our cold soil too soon, they sit there. Inside, they grow.

The short ends of the house are rigid polycarbonate panels. We will install the polycarbonate sliding doors later.  Right now, the house is open to promote good air circulation, and to permit carts to come and go.

The final layer over top of the house is a shade cloth. It blocks 40 percent of the sun coming through the plastic.  This will keep the house much cooler when the weather gets hot.  This means less stress to the plants that are in small pots. And a more comfortable place for people to look at plants. The long sides have separate plastic panels that roll up, so when its warm, some of the heat is able to escape.

We are by no means a business specializing in seasonal plants. Nor are we a nursery specializing in trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers for the landscape. We specialize in pots, tools, ornament, sculptures, fountains, furniture and interesting objects for gardens.  Rob sees to making the Works a place friendly and engaging to those people who garden. And those people for whom the beauty of a garden is a way of life. Those objects around which a garden or landscape can be organized is just a part of the equation. Of course we treasure the plants, especially plants that can be grown in containers.

 

It seems fitting and reasonable to have a plant house. What I had not planned on was how much I would enjoy it. Thank you Branch for putting up a big house.