Sizing Up The Situation

We are a good week or so into our container planting season. The location of the planters or the light and available water drives the selection of the plants. Sizing up the situation is key to successful container plantings. This pair of planters are tall and wide, as they needed to be,  placed in front of substantial stone pillars. Their narrow depth is friendly to the fact that they are placed on a walkway. It is easy to see why my clients selected them. What plants did they ask for? These triple ball eugenia topiaries came in a 1 gallon pot. They would fit. Their shape addresses the formality of the entrance, and they add some much needed height and scale set against the mass of stone. Eugenias are also very tolerant of the shade cast by the north side of the house. There were at least 3 good reasons to plant them. When designing and choosing plants for containers, spend some time assessing your conditions.      The interior of this front porch has a very high roof overhead. Add a northern exposure to the roof overhead means the shade here is serious shade. The porch is massive, and overscaled. Lots of stone and iron flank a pair of dark wood doors. This location asks for very shade tolerant plants with bold texture and good size that would soften and complement the architecture.  The leaves of the lime dracaena “Janet Craig” will burn with the slightest exposure to sun. But in a place like this, they will thrive. The chartreuse leaves brighten the shade. They are striking in an architectural way.

The purple and white flowering streptocarpus is a relative to African violets, and likewise thrives in low light. Given its diminutive size, it is most effective in a mass, as a supporting cast member in a container. The bird’s nest ferns are tropical, meaning they are not hardy in my zone. They offer big and strong mass, shape, and texture to a container planting, while asking for little in the way of light. The black tubes on the porch steps are irrigation lines which will provide water to the containers.  No rain falls here given the roof, so all watering must be done mechanically, or by hand. We run the tubes through the bottom and out the top when we plant the pots as a courtesy to the irrigation contractor. Last but not least is the selection of the containers.  They are of simple shape and smooth texture, which contrasts to the visual complexity of the stone, iron, and glass.  The dark color echoes the dark wood doors, and visually defers to the plants.

This deeply shaded and constantly wet spot was the perfect place for a large scale container. Everything that ever got planted in this ground promptly drowned.  The caladiums and ferns tolerate the the shade, and their striking texture and color help to keep all eyes off the soggy dirt. I have on occasion planted sanseverias in the dirt. They never looked entirely happy, nor did they grow, but they lived. A container is a great idea for a place where nothing else wants to grow. Consider containers for those stubbornly bare spots. A soil and drainage structure above ground can circumvent poor conditions.

This painted brick chimney features a very interesting brick applique, quite unlike any I have ever seen. It thus asks for an arrangement of containers and plants that will not obstruct a view of that feature. The green and white under plantings emphasize that white brick. The triple ball Green Mountain boxwood topiaries can be planted in the ground for the winter, and will only get better with age. I would guess that these boxwood topiaries would would be fine in these lead pots for a number of years.  The white mandevillea will loosen up the look a little, although I will advise my client to clip every once in a while.

This contemporary landscape is dominated by a long and tall corten steel wall. Both the steel and the stone will absorb a lot of heat.  The mid century modern pots are mid sized at the top, and small sized at the bottom. This situation calls for drought resistant plants. As for style, the wild and rangy rosemarys are good against the geometry established by the wall, bench, and terrace. The wide growing small felted leaves of the variegated licorice, and the cloud of tiny blooms from the euphorbia at the bottom will soften the look, without obscuring the shape of the planters.

A container all on its own, well away from a porch or wall, asks for some volume and mass. Once this Limelight hydrangea topiary grows out and blooms, this 24″ by 24″ container will have a living tall and wide presence.  The petunias, white phlox and variegated licorice will provide a wide and soft cushion below, in contrast to those big coarse hydrangea leaves. As the container is 30″ tall, there is room for the roots of a shrub to go deeper than the typical annual plant. The grass, ground cover, gravel, and stone are all on the same level-the ground plane. A tall container and a statuesque central and defining plant that represents the landscape on an entirely different level is particularly effective. Formal landscapes ask for equally formal container plantings.

This client owns a pair of particularly fine and detailed bronze urns. The recent planting was designed to never obstruct or impinge on the view of the urns. The white mandevillea will grow up, and provide some green company to the porch columns. The white sunpatiens will flush out, and grow wide.

This small front porch does have a roof, but it does face south. This tall pot has a very small planting area.  A tree form fuchsia with long and graceful arms readily fits in the small space. The petunias and licorice will not thrive to the extent they do in full sun-but in this situation, restrained growth will be good.

This delicate wire planter on legs is also placed on a covered porch, facing east. The pink caladiums will flush out, as will the button ferns. This will soften the blocky look of the walls and floor. The container is light enough to be taken out for some overhead light once in a while. The creeping jenny will cascade. A little judicious pruning will help keep that jenny narrow.

These large Italian terra cotta pots occupy a partly shady corner on a terrace that occupies most of the floor space. Small beds permitted the planting of Boston ivy, and climbing roses, but containers provide an opportunity to really warm up the space. The fuchsias will bloom all summer in this protected location, as will the sunpatiens. These containers were planted on May 9 for an event on May 12. There would be no time for growing.  So we planted gallon pots and baskets rather than 4″ pots. This is an equally good strategy if you need to plant seasonal containers late. Many greenhouse 2 or 3 crops a season, or an edited selection of annual plants in 6″ or 8″ pots. A new terrace, a birthday gift of a pot, a new house, an engagement party-there are plenty of good reasons to plant late.

In the meantime, all of the containers we planted for spring look terrific right now. These plants are thriving in our cool weather. I like to plant seasonally. By this I mean the best place for heat loving annuals right now in my zone is a greenhouse. Deciding when to plant is an important decision.  I will do most of my container plantings in the next 3 weeks.

Rob placed this basket full of white gerbera daisies next to this antique stone cistern. I think he did a great job of sizing up this situation.

 

 

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The Little Things

Early spring in my zone is anything but a 128 piece brass band playing at full tilt. That brass band blaring part will come in May, but April is notable for its quiet moments. Those plants that foretell the spring to come are looking very good right now.  That they dare breach the comfort of their winter home for the windy, chilly, and sometimes snowy and sleety garden in late March and April makes them well worth growing. That transition between the winter and spring is a long and blustery hallway. Gardeners can shut the door on the winter, and anticipate the spring light at the end of the tunnel. I would describe that time as April.The most notable of the small early spring things are the small flowering bulbs that require a fall planting. The chionodoxa forbesii “Blue Giant” that is pictured above grows but 6 inches tall. But these true blue flowers with white centers can make that interminable wait for spring a little easier to bear. Left to their own devices, they will multiply at a steady rate. The bulbs are so small they can be planted with your index finger. Every day I look at the chios, as I call them.  They come early, and are ephemeral. Blink, and they are gone until next year.

My favorite spring preview is always about the crocus. These little bulbs produce the most amazing cup shaped flowers with brilliant yellow stamens in early April. Of course the best view is from down on the ground. In April, there is time for a little dallying in the garden. Bad weather in late March can lay waste to them, or shorten their bloom time to but a few days, but I would not do without them. The one March that bad weather destroyed the flowers before they even opened was a bad March indeed. I was not heartbroken. I was insulted. April is a preseason gardening time for Michigan gardeners. There is time to take a good look. Time to smell, see, and hear the garden coming to life again. The small spring flowering plants are many. Snowdrops and winter aconites come first. Pushkinia, anemone blanda, frittilaria species, scilla, leucojum, crocus –  the list is long.

My crocus collection came with the house. 20 years ago I probably had 5 plants in bloom. They have increased at a leisurely rate, and now put on a fairly respectable show. This is nothing like visiting the Netherlands at bulb blooming time. It is a quiet April moment in Michigan.

a sunny April day with crocus tommasinianus in bloom

Pickwick crocus

the Pickwick’s up close

Giant Dutch purple crocus

Of course no discussion of April in Michigan would be complete without some reference to the hellebores. Mine are just coming on. The flower stalks are tall and arching.  The flowers themselves are modest in appearance, as most of the flowers are nodding. Pick a hellebore bloom, and turn it right side up in your hand, and be enchanted.

I know exactly why I devote lots of space in my garden to hellebores. The plants are sturdy. The foliage is glossy green the entire gardening season. Properly sited, they require next to no maintenance. Clumps 20 years old are not unusual. I so appreciate that they begin blooming in April. Their early spring appearance affords me the time to truly appreciate them. My April is not usually about the work of the garden. It is much about anticipation.

I might routinely anticipate the beauty of my April garden, but the bigger reality of this year’s pre-spring moments is always a unique experience. An experience that is not especially showy, and not particularly vocal. April is a a kind of quiet that draws gardeners up to a fire of slow heat. I would say that the April garden in our northern zone is a meeting of the early spring plants, and the caring hands of the gardener in charge. Every year in April, I find reason to celebrate this relationship. Welcome, spring!

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The Hydrangeas

Little Lime hydrangeasSometime between mid July and mid August, the Limelight hydrangeas come in to bloom. It is a moment worth waiting for. The fast growing large leaved plants bloom profusely on the current year’s growth. They are easy to cultivate, asking for not much more that some decent light and some regular water. The spectacularly large flowers are a gorgeous mixture of lime green and white. Limelight hydrangeas are known for their sturdy stems, which keep those flowers aloft in all but the stormiest weather. They do need a lot of room. A single well grown shrub can grow 8′ tall by 8′ wide. Hydrangea “Little Lime”, pictured above, is a hybrid of Limelight that only grows 4-5 feet tall, and as wide. They make themselves right at home in an informal or cottage style garden. But its relaxed habit of growth can look just as interesting in an alternative universe –  a more formal planting.

Little Lime hydrangeasThis mature size is not only friendly to smaller gardens, it looks great in a mass planting. This landscape is situated on a very steep slope, so these Little Limes are responding to the force of gravity. Some gardeners may find their sprawling habit unruly and irritating. Others will find them charming, even beautiful. They certainly endow the late summer garden with their willingness to bloom. All of the pictures in this post but one were taken on days with temperatures above 90 degrees.

hydrangea LimelightMy Limelights are 12 years old, or more.  Some years I prune them down to between 24″ and 30″ inches.  Some years I only remove the old flower heads and 6″ of stem. I always prune them in the spring, when the leaf buds begin to swell. The final result in terms of the flowering and height is fairly uniform, year to year, no matter how I prune. This illustrates the important of choosing shrubs whose mature size will fit the space that is available. I have been watering them twice a week for the past several months, as we have had very little rain.  The group to the far right in this picture get the least water, as they are difficult to reach.  They are shorter than usual, but they have plenty of flowers. How reliable they are to grow and bloom is a very good reason to plant them.

after the rainYesterday morning, after an exceptionally heavy and blustery rain, the water soaked flowers had fallen over in to the path. We’ll see what happens once they dry out. There is no staking hydrangeas at this stage.  If you are bound and determined to keep them upright, very stout and tall tomato cages need to be put in place in the spring. If the flower heads do not spring back up, I will cut some, put them in water, and let them dry indoors.

limelight hydrangeaLimelight hydrangeas can provide an easy going and breezy sense of enclosure. My hydrangeas are planted in a block, not in a single row.  Though the shrubs are very open growing, multiple staggered rows provide a dense green screen which makes my front yard garden quite private.

hedge of limelight hydrangeasGiven enough room, a generous sweep of Limelight hydrangeas can be quite architectural in feeling. Once these hydrangeas are pruned in the spring, they are not pruned again until the following spring.  Few deciduous shrubs can tolerate or perform well having been sheared. Hydrangeas are no exception. Prune to the best of your ability in the spring, and then turn loose of them. Looking for a rule?  The plants will tell you a very detailed story. Very few things bother hydrangeas.  They will bloom in part shade, but not as profusely. The flowers will be smaller, and the leaves will singe on the edges if they get too dry. I mulch them with bark fines in the spring after I prune. I water infrequently, but regularly. Outside of that, I just enjoy them.

limelight hydrangea Limelight is a hybrid of hydrangea paniculata.  Paniculata refers to the fact that the flower heads of these hydrangeas are comprised of hundreds of individual flowers arranged in a cluster around the flower stalk-this flower form is called a panicle. The individual florets will acquire a pink tinge as they age. When the temperatures cool down in the fall, the flowers will age to rose pink. I water the plants more in the early fall than I do in late summer. Truly?  The sure sign of a plant that has gone too dry are flowers that brown before their time. I do everything I can to extend the hydrangea season. I do leave the flower heads on all winter – why not?  Most of them stick tight throughout the winter for me.

August 10,2016 (64)I do not grow hydrangea Little Lime at home, but I have planted plenty of them elsewhere. Their shorter stature means there are flowers at eye level, on top of this retaining wall.  Had I planted the much bigger Limelight in this location, I would be looking in to the stems from the lower level. I recently planted a row of Little Limes in front of an old hedge of Limelights.  This will insure flowers from top to bottom.

August 10,2016 (71)The Little Limes smaller size makes them quite companionable to a host of other perennial and annual plants.

hydrangea BoboHydrangea Bobo is not related to either Limelight or Little Lime, but it is a panicle hydrangea.  Hybridized by Johan Van Huylenbroeck, the same breeder that developed the Pinky Winky hydrangea,  was patented and introduced by Proven Winners. Topping out at 3′ tall by up to 4′ wide, it is beautiful in a mass. Though this group has only been in the ground for 2 inhospitably hot and dry months, they are blooming.  By next year, the chances are good they will completely cover this large sunny area. I can cross this group of Bobo’s off my list of plantings to worry about. They’ll be back.

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Independence Day

July 4 2016 004The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. I like the story of how America came to be independent. I like anyone who has a mind to think and act independently. I like even more that I live in a culture that places a premium on freedom. That freedom came and continues to come with a very big price. I so respect any person who contributes to what it takes to let freedom ring. Today I am thinking about those people who valued independence and freedom above all. The 4th of July is a holiday that celebrates the best of what Americans can be. There is always a lot of impassioned discussion about what constitutes the best we can be. I like any idea delivered with passion and conviction. Bring it on-I am listening.  What did I do over the celebration of this 4th? I spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky I am to live in America. I went to the shop at 7am to feed the dogs, and check on MCat. Once Rob arrived to water the plants at the shop, I knew I could go home with no worries. I came home. Buck and I had lunch on the deck at noon.. Home with family is good.

July 4 2016 001I weeded, dead headed, watered, and greatly enjoyed being outdoors at home. I took pictures.  I rarely have a chance to be home during the day-I so enjoyed this. The corgis despise the booms from fireworks.  I have one hand on them, and the rest of me thinking about how great it is to be home, and to be free.

July 4 2016 025To follow are pictures of my garden from today. I hope you are enjoying your fourth as much as I am enjoying mine.

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FullSizeRender (9)I have a little fireworks of the gardening sort going on today.