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.

 

 

The Amaryllis Crop

February in a northern garden designer’s life ought to be snoozy. 25 years ago, my landscape design work finished up in mid November, and did not resume until the snow and cold looked to be waning the following March. I can’t remember what I did with those winters now, so it couldn’t have been much. How fun, to not have much to do. Oh to have those quiet winter baby days back. Now there are requests for design year round. Some late 2017 projects are inching slowly towards the drawing board now, as I reserve the right to indulge in a little bit of horsing around. Even though the engine is running, the parking brake is on.

It takes an entire winter to re imagine Detroit Garden Works for the season to come. That process is still in process. If you follow Rob’s instagram page DetroitGarden you know the walls, fixtures and floors in the largest part of the store are swathed in painter’s plastic. Wayne is here spray painting the ceilings, a job that was last done in 1995. Yes, they were due. Moving everything our of those rooms, dusting and scraping the loose paint, and repainting all of the shelves and trim took most of January. Two containers from overseas have arrived. A container from France should be docking in NY shortly, and two more will arrive from Belgium and Vietnam towards the end of the month. The shop is due to reopen March 1. February is a busy time, ready  or not. Most annoyingly, part of my winter has involved some involuntary babysitting. If you read this journal regularly, you know I am not a fan of plants in the house. I love having a plant free season. Like most houses, I have a house which is notable for a lack of natural light in the winter. My house is dark (by plant standards), hot and the air is dry- an environment that plants don’t want. Well I don’t want them either. The bugs and dirt don’t bother me. Nor the fact that tropical plants hardly look like they belong inside a house in Michigan. I could live with those things. The fact that they need regular care and attention leaves me cold. Enough of my time gets absorbed by the needs of the plants for a good portion of the year. I like the time off from that group of living things that have no problem dying on you despite a huge effort to keep them happy and healthy. The phalaenopsis orchids pictured above are a gift scheduled to be delivered the end of the week. That I can live with, as the end of my responsibility for them is near. After having them for one day, a new bud is withering.  I can’t get rid of them fast enough.

The amaryllis are another story. Rob sells scads of them in the shop at the holidays. Invariably, there are a few left over. Some bare root bulbs I gave away to good customers when no one was watching. I knew anything left over would come to me, as my office is warm. Karen potted up and watered them liberally, and moved them to the utility room near my office. Then she went on break. There they sat. I have a little frig for my milk and a spot for cereal, so every morning making breakfast I had to look at them. Not one was making any move to come on. Not one was looking like it was shriveling or dying. They were in a state of suspended animation.

After three weeks of scowling at them every time I walked in that room, I looked up their culture on line.  I did not read anything that I did not already know. Popular lore suggests that after potting and watering, the bulb so be left alone until it puts forth growth, either in the form of flowers or leaves. By mid January these bulbs had been watered only once in the 6 months since they arrived. Another article (which of course I cannot find now) suggested that watering the bulbs normally, but sparingly in advance of any growth was fine.

Tired of looking at their expectant bulb faces, I had a decision to make. I had to either throw them away, or see if I could get them to grow. I knew I would feel guilty, and face ridicule from Rob if I didn’t try to grow them on. So I soaked the pots thoroughly, and moved them to an all plastic Rubbermaid tabouret in my drawing studio. The tabouret has tall sides, so I could slosh the water and dirt around with impunity. The industrial windows are 6 feet tall, and face south. At least if we had no sun, there was still plenty of light. The tabouret also has wheels, so I could move them away from the windows when the temperatures dropped into the single digits.

You see what was happening here? My carefree February became an obsession to get those bulbs to break dormancy, grow and bloom. I  scrutinized them every day. I had to come in on Sunday to be sure they didn’t need anything. I was certain that the bulbs that had been potted in non-draining jardinieres would rot if I wasn’t especially careful with the water. And the one’s planted to larger fiber pots would come blind from having been over potted. None of this happened. One by one, they began to grow. One bulb threw a pair of stalks at once, and is in full bloom on my conference table right now.  I have to admit The big showy white flowers are a welcome contrast to that other kind of white blanketing the entire landscape.

One hapless bulb had been left behind by shoppers as it one bloom stalk withered and rotted from the cold in the greenhouse. So I cut it back, and watched to see if another bloom stalk would emerge. After sulking for a few weeks, I could tell something was afoot. It is February, so I had time to turn the flowering stalks leaning towards the light away from the window.

My amaryllis crop, which I never sought or wanted, had me in its grip. The attention it took had expanded to an alarming amount of time. I was going in there 4 times a day just to look things over.

The second bulb to bloom had red flowers – not my favorite. So I took it in to Dave and Heather so they could enjoy it. Now I have 3 stops to make every day, checking on the amaryllis. And to make matters that much worse, I have made a list of suppliers of unusual amaryllis bulbs and the varieties I like available to Rob, as well as a source of heat mats so we can provide them with the heat they want and need to come on. And finally, the time it took to take pictures and write this post-hours more.

Now you know why I do not like having plants in the house.

 

Lay In Some Lavender

Our early September has been surprisingly chilly. As in 48 degrees early this morning. My tropical plants in containers look insulted by the turn of events-both at home, and at the shop. I am not especially ready to give up my summer containers. I regret any face off with nature, as 100 percent of the odds are against me. We’ll see how long I can keep them going. The weather turning this quickly from summer in to fall has me thinking about plants that gracefully survive that transition. Rob planted a number of pots at the shop with lavender this spring. They were as tolerant of our cold April as they are of this chilly September. They are shrugging off the chill as if it were nothing more than a tiny blip on a very big screen. Maybe I need to lay in some lavender.

Lavender is an iconic garden plant treasured by gardeners world wide. The soft and subtle bluish green or gray foliage is topped by equally subtle flower stalks sporting diminutive flowers in white, lavender and purple. I hear tell of varieties that have pink flowers. The plant, and the plant blooming on thin stalks that wave in the breeze, is self effacing. Lavender speaks softly to the charm of a cottage garden. It speaks loudly to those precisely laid out fields of lavender in France and England. Even in pictures, those rows and rows of lavender blooming enchant. What is not subtle about lavender is the the strength of its fragrance. That powerful and unforgettable fragrance speaks to the garden in no uncertain terms. It speaks just as clearly to the romance that is the garden. I have seen countless pictures of American, English and French gardens planted with lavender. I imagine those gardens are all the more to experience, given that familiar and pungent fragrance.

I like romance in the garden, no matter what form it takes. This means I would plant lavender with a lavish hand-if I could. But as much as I like lavender, it does not like me, or my garden. My zone is the northern most range of its hardiness. Our poorly draining and intractably dense clay soil is a poor home for all of the cultivars of lavandula. Lavender thrives in a freely draining soil, especially in the winter. I have had individual plants thrive fore 5 years or better, as long as they were perfectly sited, and if I only pruned it in the spring. Late summer of fall pruning in my zone is an invitation to disaster. A dead lavender is heartbreaking. I know. Several attempts at borders or drifts of lavender in my garden invariably resulted in random failures. My hedges always had holes, and replacement plants were never the size I needed. I was young when I pulled out all the stops trying to get lavender to thrive in my garden. Though the idea is intoxicating to this gardener, I never plant it in in the garden now. I find that lavender is much happier in my zone in containers.

Rob plants no end of containers with lavender in the spring. It is very tolerant of the cold weather that accompanies the spring. Some of his summer containers that were not snapped up in the spring feature lavender that had been planted very early in the season. All summer long, that lavender prospered. The chilly early fall weather has not endangered any of those plants.  For gardeners looking for container plants to span the spring, summer, and fall season, you might consider lavender.

Rob likes lavender well enough to plant pots full of it. He buys 1 and 2 gallon pots of it in the spring by the truckloads, as well as lavender trained in to topiary forms. Every pot looks good, loaded with lavender.

Lavender and thyme like similar planting conditions, and do well in a pot together. This subtle and restrained planting reward anyone brushing by. The fragrance of lavender and thyme mixed together is delightful.

This lead container had a pussy willow centerpiece, lavender, pansies and ivy planted in it for spring.  When I came to do the summer pots in late June, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of all that lavender thriving.  This particular cultivar is called Grosso.

A client who was opening a restaurant loved Rob’s idea to plant wood crates and pots full of lavender. This container planting will have a very long life. I suspect it will look great long into the fall.

These containers looked beautiful-today. Though planting lavender directly into my garden has never worked out very well, these pots of lavender and thyme are entirely satisfactory. So pleased to have a little lavender in my gardening life. To follow are pictures of lavender that make my heart beat faster. Click on what is written below each picture for details and pictures credits.

  Lavender “Grosso”   

lavender “Phenomenal” from Peace Tree Farms 

lavender angustifolia “Munstead” from RHS plants

lavender “Provence” from Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

Lavender “Platinum Blonde” from American Nurseryman Magazine

lavender “Anouk” from American Meadows

There are so many varieties of lavender available. Make a place somewhere for this plant. You will appreciate the romance.

Interested in a good overview?

A more detailed discussion of lavender

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The Garden In August

I have a hot mess of a perennial garden at home. I have tinkered with it for 20 years, and it still is a hot mess. Not that I mind the mess. Minding a garden is an ongoing experience like no other. The moves I have made towards a reasonably good design are as follows. My work life is incredibly busy in the early part of the season. I realized I have little time to tend or appreciate a perennial garden at home until later in the summer season. A summer or late summer garden would better suit my life. A garden that would look good very early in the morning, or very late in the day would even better suit my life. I go to work early, and come home late. Given this, I have been aiming for a late summer flowering garden replete with white flowers. I did cheat a little by planting some white David Austin roses, Winchester Cathedral, that bloom in June, but the majority of this garden looks its best in late July. That part makes sense. But why white flowers? White flowers shrug off the heat. They look cool and collected, even on a 90 degree day. They never look frazzled. I would not want a garden that looked like me at the end of the day. White flowers read beautifully from a distance.  And they are showy at dusk. This means that when I am fixing coffee at 5:00 am, I can see through the window what is happening in that garden. I might take a second look when I am cleaning up after dinner-at dusk.

I do have clients that favor white flowers in their containers, for no other reason than they like white flowers. I understand this. The white is crisp, and cooling to view. They are as striking and simple in a contemporary garden as they are in a traditional one. White in the garden provides a beautiful and strong contrast to every shade of green. The purple petunias in this container are more visually lively, given some white.

This Limelight hydrangea standard has flowers that are a creamy pale green. The bright white background provided by the house makes the subtle color of the hydrangeas pop. Pale and pastel flowers can provide the same punch as white flowers. Pale colors read strongly; the eye spots them first.  Containers to be viewed from the street, or gardens to be viewed from a distance benefit from the inclusion of some pastel blooming plants.

To my mind, nothing says summer in Michigan better than white petunias. They always look fresh.  Though some gardeners find them pedestrian, they can provide strong visual support to a composition.

Euphorbia Diamond Frost has to be one of the most beautiful and versatile white flowered annual plant for containers that it has ever been my pleasure to plant. I love how light and lacey it is. The thin stems and diminutive flowers lighten and loosen every plant in its vicinity.

See what I mean? Double petunias are scraggly and awkward growing plants. The euphorbia hides all of those ungainly stems. It could be that the pale green buds of this petunia are more beautiful than the flowers. The white helps that subtle color read clearly.

My color scheme for my containers this year was lime, pink-and white. These begonias are called Apple Blossom. The reverse of the petals is pink. The yellow centers of the white begonias relate to the yellow brick behind them. Pink and white begonias, white and pink Gingerland caladiums, lime green dieffenbachia, lime green ferns and variegated tradescantia – I have so enjoyed the various shades of green, the white, and the dashes of pink.

This color scheme is interesting and restrained.

apple blossom  begonia

I planted this annual garden at Cranbrook in 2005 for an evening event. At dusk, the forms of the plants and the flowers were easy to see.

white annual garden

white caladiums in the late day sun

The white caladiums highlight the dark rose pink color of the nicotiana in front of them, don’t they? White flowers and leaves in the background will highlight and better describe and illuminate darker colored plants placed in front of them.

This photograph of the front of the shop taken yesterday is not so sharply in focus. But that soft focus illustrates how white flowers can punctuate and enliven a garden.

Night before last I was late to tour the garden. The white and light flowers lighted my way. Truth be told, there was a time when white, light and pastel flowering plants did not much interest me. I am sure every gardener has that moment when their taste changes. White flowering plants in the landscape is an idea that has become more important to me, especially given my aging eyes.

So pleased to be able to see this.

 

 

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