Planting Containers For Fall

fall-container-arrangements-4If you read this journal of mine regularly, you know that in addition to my passion for landscape design, I am a devoted fan of planted containers. Part of that attraction has to do with an interest in the containers themselves. Whether it be an antique urn, a mid century concrete planter, or a re-purposed galvanized barrel, beautiful and interesting containers endow a garden with the personality of the gardener in charge. A great container is a sculpture that happens to provide a home for a collection of seasonal plants. A container planting is a one season only, miniature version of the landscape.  A statement about the the garden in real time. I am very interested in how gardeners express themselves in a container planting. Any gardener that takes the time and trouble to plant containers every season is a gardener who has my interest. How so?  I am a fan of any devoted and serious effort in the garden.  I plant my pots differently every year. That is the fun and the challenge of container plantings. Will I like this years crop of pots better than last year’s? That short three month window will tell. Not having to live with this collection of plants for longer than a season means I am more likely to feel free enough to experiment. The landscape is much about developing a relationship that is deep, wide, and long standing. In contrast, a container planting is a celebration of the season at hand. The joy of the moment. I have a whole season to reflect on what I have done, without any worry about the future.  A container planting is about being present. They are a perfect foil for the landscape, which is as much about the years as it is about the effort.

fall container arrangementsGiven that the fall season is dead ahead, we have begun planting containers for fall.  We frequently construct centerpieces for the pots from natural and dried materials. It is not only of visual interest to include harvested materials, but those materials help to provide scale and volume to the container arrangements. At the center of every centerpiece is a bamboo pole. All of the materials are attached to that pole with zip ties.  That stake gets pounded down into the container when it is installed.  The pole driven deep in the soil is what keeps that centerpiece aloft, and perfectly vertical.

fall-container-arrangements-8Fresh cut broom corn is a staple in our fall pots. Sorghum vulgare is a very tall coarse growing plant that somewhat resembles corn. The plant is largely used in the production of corn brooms and whisks. The seeds are arranged on panicles about 20 inches long. Once the seed is removed, those wiry panicles are used in the production of brooms. Corn brooms are sturdy, and long lasting. But the cut stems of broom corn, thick with mature seeds, adds a lot of color and textural interest to a fall arrangement. Over the course of the fall, the birds will feed on the broom corn stalks in our arrangements.  I like this. The stems and seed heads are quite heavy, so we anchor tall centerpieces to 3/4″ thick bamboo poles.

fall-container-arrangements-6We use lots of other materials for these fall centerpieces. Fresh cut millet, preserved millet, preserved eucalyptus and all manner of dried materials can all be built into a fall centerpiece. We are just as likely to shop the garden, or the field at our landscape yard for branches, the dried perennial seed heads of hibiscus, acanthus, and echinacea, and maturing weeds. The shop carries a great variety of materials that can be incorporated into a fall container.  Though the fall signals the beginning of that time when the garden goes dormant, the fall harvest is a time to be celebrated.

fall-container-plantings-30These centerpieces were made for a client that wanted something that would last the fall and go on throughout the winter season.  The yellow twig dogwood is exceptionally long lasting, but for a fall arrangement we needed to strip off the leaves.  Preserved eucalyptus will last outdoors for months without deteriorating.  The white berries are artificial, but convincing even in close proximity. What got planted at the base of this arrangement in the fall did have to be changed for the winter. Her interest was in a pair of front porch pots that would be inviting beyond the summer season. We were happy to oblige.

fall-container-planting-2015-6The orange berries from the American bittersweet vine are vibrant, and so appropriate to the fall season. These woody fruiting vines can loosen up a static arrangement.  If we use bittersweet in a fall pot, we add it to the centerpiece after it is installed. Some elements in fall containers ask for a last minute addition. Every airy gesture made at the last minute is the most personal gesture. Personal gestures in the garden are remarkable.  Those I have seen, I remember.

dsc_4905Not every fall centerpiece has to be yellow, orange, red and brown. A fall color scheme can take its cue from an architectural feature, or the preference of the gardener. This client had a particular love for rainy fall days.  This is our interpretation.

fall-container-arrangements-2Another client with small children makes every effort to engage her children with nature. For her, we combine a simple centerpiece with pumpkins on a stick. Container plantings are personal. A garden with personality is much to be admired.

dsc_4793A fall container centerpiece can be simple or elaborate. It can be a combination of fresh and dried materials. A hydrangea topiary you have had in a pot all summer can do duty in the fall season. It can be a fistful of weeds from the lot next door. It can be anything you wish. The important thing is to endow your garden with a personal expression of the season. It is a world of good to answer the close of the gardening season with beautiful fall containers. The fall centerpiece is the first part of that seasonal gesture. What comes next in that pot is up to you.

fall-container-arrangements-7whitewashed ladder branches and orange millet

dsc_4898broomcorn and preserved eucalyptus

sat-1layered centerpiece with broom corn and preserved and dyed black eucalyptus

sept-26-2014-2fall centerpiece with fresh cut broom corn, caramel preserved and dyed eucalyptus, and dyed banana stems

fall-container-arrangements-3sticks and stems

ladderbranch centerpiecePlanting fall containers are a favorite part of my designing life in late September and October.

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Letting Go

containers-mid-september-7By mid September, change is in the air. As much as I would wish that the summer would persist past Labor Day, it never does. The summer season falters right on cue. The blazing heat generated by the summer sun is waning. The sun is lower in the sky. The garden is cooler. The night temperatures are a little chilly. We are beginning to get a little rain. The plants in my containers are beginning to look like summer is coming to a close. The petunias which have been sulking all summer are sliding headlong into decline. Any thin leaved foliage looks pale and unhappy. The bloom on any container plant is more sparse. The showy oregano blooms in the driveway pots have matured and turned brown. I am lucky for the licorice and nicotiana that has come on strong with the cooler weather. The big thick leaves of the alocasia have not gotten the message yet. They still look great. It is just about time to think about letting go.

containers-mid-september-6The upkeep of my containers is a summer long pursuit. The watering required by our very hot and dry summer was just about a full time job.  The driveway garden took a long time to water, as there are plants in ground there too. Once the plants became root bound, their need for water was insatiable. I watered. And watered again. Ordinarily, looking after the pots is generally a pleasure. The maintenance is relaxing. A plant that is unfairly crowding another may need some pruning back. Some flowers need dead heading in order to keep blooming well.  Old leaves mature, and need to be removed. Other plants need to be headed back to promote better flowering. Or staked. Most of this is fiddling, and not really work. But once the season begins to turn towards fall, I quit most everything except the watering. My last act was to cut all the flower stalks off the nicotiana mutabilis.  They had mostly gone to seed.  And I knew they would come on again once the weather cooled off. I favored more flowers over seed.  Why do I quit fiddling?  What I do to manage the plants is about what I think they need.  What plants do when left to their own devices is always an education. Plants grow at different rates. Some tolerate crowding while others do not. Some grow much bigger than expected. Others languish. How every plant in a container adjusts to a lack of intervention from me is interesting to watch.

containers-mid-september-9For whatever reason, nicotiana seedlings by the thousands appeared in the driveway in June. I have never seen this happen, not in 20 years. I have no explanation for this, beyond the fact that the nicotiana mutabilis started going to seed early – I suspect from the heat. And I was watering a lot. But these seedlings did not necessarily look to be mutabilis to me. Pulling them out of the bricks would have been no small amount of work. In spite of my propensity for order, it seemed like a better plan to just be grateful that I had all those volunteers working this garden. Any plant that wished to grow in the driveway this summer was welcome to do so.  Of course the most robust group of seedlings were those in proximity to the water draining out of the pots.

watering volunteer seedlingsI eventually took to watering them on purpose. Buck would sit on the deck so we could talk while I was watering in the drive. He had a lot of questions about why there were so many weeds in the drive, and my reason for watering them, but I waved him off. If I had set out to grow nicotiana in the brick, I am sure my efforts would have been an utter failure.  No doubt nature was in charge of this event. For some reason, conditions were perfect for nicotiana seed to germinate.

containers-mid-september-3The very first seedling to bloom was nicotiana alata lime – a cultivar which I am growing in the ground this year.  I never got a chance to take a picture of it, as I accidentally ripped the plant out of the brick dragging the hose over it. Dang it all.  If you are a gardener, you know that any plant you kill is a burden to be born by you alone. Anyone else would yawn.

nicotiana langsdorfii

The next to bloom was nicotiana langsdorfii, which I have not grown in these pots for at least 8 years. It could be my letting go in September many years ago resulted in seed that has laid dormant in between the bricks for years, only to be induced to sprout for some unknown reason this June. I suppose it could be that the frequency of my watering kept the sand between the bricks moist long enough for the seed to sprout. Nicotiana langsdorfii, from whence did you come?

containers-mid-septemberUp close it is easier to see how the letting go is creating a new dynamic. There was no reason to remove the variegated alocasia leaf that was shading the showy oregano.  That oregano had already given up. The green leaf hovering over the dead oregano was a much better look. The large lower leaves of nicotiana mutabilis in the upper pot covered the bare stems of the licorice close to the soil line. I have never had any trouble growing licorice, but this year all of the leaves on the stems close to the soil died back. I have no idea why. The licorice recovered, and had grown vigorously all through and on top of the puny petunias. These pots, left to their own devices, are looking better than they did 2 weeks ago. The alocasia is very happy, on the house side. The back side of this pot is in a fairly shady spot. The sunny side is the primary viewing side. Driving up the drive, the alocasia is leaning towards the light. One of the most difficult parts of container planting design is picking the plants that will be able to handle and perform in light conditions that vary.

containers-mid-september-5Buck has enjoyed the alocasia all summer. He kept me posted if a leaf was turning brown, or developed a hole or tear.   I have never grown them before, so I am giving them a serious look. They are slow to get started. Given plenty of heat, they thrive. They react very slowly to change. It’s clear they can anchor a summer container on in to the fall.

containers-mid-september-10I have learned that my driveway is not just a place to park.

containers-mid-september-2Welcome to the September nicotiana fest underway in the driveway.

 

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A New Driveway

drivewayEvery landscape project presents its own particular set of challenges. In the ordinary course of events, the planting of a landscape comes after the installation of the hard structures. A new house has to be designed, built, and close to a finish, before the landscape installation can begin. Hard structures in a landscape renovation refers to pergolas, gates, terraces,  arbors, sidewalks, underground electrical conduit for landscape lighting, air conditioners and generators, and the driveway.  Our current project is a perfect storm of related but separate renovation work on the outside, all going on at the same time. The concurrent installation of a new driveway, and our landscape installation, has been an experience like no other – just ask my landscape superintendent, Dan. I have designed plenty of driveways, both simple and complex, but I have never had to work on a landscape without one. This driveway is being installed in sections. A section gets removed, a new base is put down, and the new driveway is installed. All of the asphalt debris, and countless machines were on site. We have been scrambling for several weeks to get the big trees installed in those short and intermittent slots between the old driveway removal and the new driveway install.  As you can see, there is no clear path from the road to the landscape we are installing at the top of the hill.

pinus flexilis 00133 pinus flexilis hybrid pine trees, 9 feet tall and better, with 36″ diameter rootballs, got delivered curbside this morning. We could not truck them to the spot where they will be planted.  The new sections of driveway are not ready for traffic, and the rest of the old drive is gone. We had already cleared the old failing plants from the area for these new trees, one wheelbarrow load at a time. My client came to the rescue. She arranged for the driveway contractor to bring an electric power jack to the site, and provide 3 people in addition to our 6 to get those big trees uphill. Soulliere Stone Design, owned by Tim Soulliere, is in  charge of installing the new driveway. Removing the old drive, widening the new drive by 40″, installing a drive of concrete pavers and curbing piece by piece, is a big job which is turning out to be a beautiful job. But today he suspended his work, and gave us a huge hand.

pinus flexilis 002The bad news?  We could only move one tree at a time. The good news?  We were not pushing each tree up a fairly steep slope by hand. The newest portions of the drive had not yet been sanded. Polymeric sand is swept into the spaces between each paver, locking them together. In its current unfinished state, the drive could tolerate the pallet jack used by the paving crew move pallets of pavers to the spot where they are needed. Given the steady, sure, and thoughtful hand of a client, the driveway crew and the landscape crew came together to get a job done. The front and newest section of the new driveway was protected by sheets of plywood.

pinus flexilis 005The parts of the driveway that had already been stiffened by the addition of polymeric sand took the trips up with one tree at a time effortlessly. However the effort expended by both crews was considerable. Despite the pulling power of the jack, there was concern that the battery would need recharging before the last of the trees were moved. They pushed. Every landscape project, whether large or small, asks for creating an order of events all aimed at the finish. In the event that the order of events is interrupted, cooperation makes a job move forward.

pinus flexilis 003These 33 trees are taking up a lot more space on the ground plane than they will when they are planted. My grower has had these pinus flexilis “Vanderwolf’s” in the ground for a good many years.  They are incredibly beautiful plants. A group of 14 we will plant as a hedge.  Pinus flexilis refers to their very flexible branches. We will be able to co-mingle branches from one tree to the next to make a solid and dense hedge where there is a need for screening.   pinus flexilis 01019 pinus flexilis “Joe Burke”, an irregular growing hybrid, will enable us to go around a number of old tree sized junipers. The junipers lowest branches are 7′ to 10′ off the ground. The ground level branches have been lost. Up high, the branches are beautiful, and swooping. The planting of the Joe Burkes will involve positioning one tree at a time, fitted to the previous tree, and in anticipation of the tree to come, in that irregular open space at ground level. They will have a loose and graceful habit.  The wind off the lake will animate the branches. The blue color of the needles is a good companion with the juniper branches, and the color of the new driveway.

pinus flexilis 007Pinus flexilis is on my short list of pines worth growing.  Absent any pruning, they become open with age like other pines. But with judicious heading back in the spring, the Vanderwolf’s can be quite dense. They are slow growing, and adaptable. I will probably protect them from the wind coming off the lake for this first winter, to avoid burn to the needles.  They are tolerant of partial shade, which is unusual for a pine.  These will be sited with a western exposure, so it is important that they will thrive in less than a full day of sun. Each blue needle has a white stripe, which makes this tree stand out in the landscape.

pinus flexilis 009I have a new landscape superintendent as of the past February. I am happy to report he is by far and away the best I have ever worked with.  He is as knowledgeable about sound landscape practices as he is unflappable. This project is challenging, but he is easy going about working shoulder to shoulder with a whole raft of other tradespeople who are working on this project. He is confident in the outcome. It pleases me that despite his 30 years in the landscape business, he has never seen or planted a pinus flexilis. How easy it is to have an enduring and long standing interest in the natural world. There is always something new. This planting project will be a pleasure.

The Boston Ivy 2015

fall color boston ivy (1)
A two story high concrete block wall  of a storage rental business sits right about on the west lot line of the Detroit Garden Works property. It goes on and on, and sky high, for 120 feet. When the building went up some 15 years ago, I was unhappy about that 2400 square feet of beige concrete looming over us; that industrial glare was relentless. The front door to the shop is on the east side of the building. Our front door is on the side of the building. Quirky, yes. The history of the building determined the location of our front door. We warmed up to the prospect of a main door on the side. We had the idea that the walk down the long side of the shop to our front door would be a walk through a garden, and create anticipation for the experience to come. That giant wall was threatening to do in our idea to create a garden of our outdoor space.

fall color boston ivy (2)The friendly neighbor proved amenable to me planting Boston ivy on that wall. I knew of no other plant that would grip that wall for dear life, and grow up to cover a wall of this size.  I planted a 1 gallon pot of parthenocissus tricuspidata veitchii every 12 feet- 10 plants in all. The wall swallowed them up. But I knew if I kept them watered, and had some patience, these 10 plants would clothe that entire wall in green.

the Boston Ivy 022Some 15 years later, that wall is solidly covered with Boston ivy. We don’t always remember to put the water from the hose to the roots of those 10 plants. I have never seen them protest.  All summer long, we have 2400 square feet of lustrous green.  I would also like to point out that there has been no damage to the wall whatsoever over all of those years.  Their gripping mechanism is strong enough to support lateral branches in excess of an inch in diameter, but they have not harmed the masonry. But better than that glossy green all summer is the fall color. The fall color of Boston ivy alone is enough to warrant its inclusion in the landscape.

IMG_6255Rob took some pictures for me from the roof of our building. The vines do not color up evenly, or consistently.  The 2400 square feet in October is a tapestry ranging from green to olive, from peach to yellow, with dashes of flame red and cream. That wall is a fall garden story of astonishing size that goes on for weeks.  From start to finish, the Boston Ivy fall display spans 60 days.

IMG_6254Rob’s view from the roof tells the entire story. Though we have on occasion had a lateral branch detached in high winds, the gap fills in within a blink of an eye. Boston ivy is a more than willing grower. Willing, in our case, is a big plus. Should you grow it on a house with windows, be prepared to prune, and prune again. This giant concrete wall is a garden. How these vines have covered this wall is as delightful as it is miraculous. The most miraculous moment comes that one week in the fall when this wall is fiery gorgeous.

the Boston Ivy 027This concrete wall is spectacular right now, in a way I never really imagined.  I just took the first step. I put the plants in the ground, and watered. The ivy did the rest. This simple story is like any story waiting to be written about a landscape.  Plant some trees. Plant some shrubs. Plant some perennials, and a raft of bulbs.  Look after them. What grows will delight you.

October 29 2015 116the wall in late OctoberOctober 29 2015 115Our gloriette looks so beautiful with the Boston Ivy behind it. The fall is a favorite season of mine. There is so much color that comes courtesy of nature. How I love this late season moment.  How appropriate that the end of the gardening season is attended by so much fiery color and fan fare.

fall color boston ivy (3)The Boston ivy leaves will fade, and eventually fall. Their fruits are their brilliantly blue. The first frost will blacken these fruits.  But for now, I am enjoying all the color.  I have written about the Boston ivy every year for the 7 years I have been writing this blog.  Interested in how these vines looked in 2009?  Click on!

http://deborahsilver.com/parthenocissus-tricuspidata/