May Days

the spring garden (7)If you are a gardener in my zone, there is nothing quite like the experience of May. The winter lets go reluctantly. Early March was warm and friendly. Late March, April and the first two weeks of May were chilly enough to put on a jacket, and zip it up. When I went to work yesterday morning, the air temperature was 37 degrees. These are personal observations. The dormant trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs have been responding to physical changes in the temperature and day length in a different way.  Once all of the signs suggest it is time to bud out, leaf out, or emerge from the ground, the plants go for broke. They don’t much respond to daily changes. An apple tree in full bloom has next to no defense against a string of below freezing temperatures. For sheer drama, the spring is hard to beat.

American dogwood It is so hard to believe this is already the 23rd day of May. For 23 days, I have been observing the process of spring.  The hellebores and crocus emerge early.  They are long finished blooming.  The daffodils have had a very long run, given the past month of cold nights. Only a few straggling blooms remain.   The tulips were challenged by the warm and then the cold, and then the May snow-it was not their best year.  The magnolias have already shed most of their flowers. My American dogwoods are in full bloom-how incredibly beautiful they are this spring. All of the evergreens are pushing that lush lime green spring growth that makes my gardening heart beat a little faster.  The azaleas and lily of the valley in my north side garden are blooming in much the same fashion as they have for the past 22 years.

the spring garden (8)The few perennials that I have are growing with abandon.  The lady’s mantle, catmint, and delphiniums are especially robust. That growing with abandon is a good description of the spring season.  I do not have a fancy landscape or garden. It is an ordinary trial and true urban garden. It is shot through with early spring weeds. There are places where the design is less than stellar, or not apparent. Woe the design move that is not visually apparent!  There are more than a few places that need updating. There is no time to think about that now.  The spring is the time to enjoy each and every plant emerging from the strangle hold of winter.

spring garden (23)To my delight, a modest stand of sweet woodruff, and campanula porscharskayana has completely covered the ground. The leafy remains of some old daffodils are grassy good contrast to the plants covering the ground. The weeds in the path – they are growing with abandon too. The obsession with pulling my weeds and cleaning up will come later. I am wholly engaged in watching the plants do what they do.

the spring garden (2)I have only 3 plants of variegated lily of the valley. None of them have particularly increased in size over the past 3 years. This plant has two stalks this year-how great is that? These three plants, growing in spite of being overrun by ivy, may be small, but they are an important part of my experience of spring.

the spring garden (14)The joy of designing is different. It so much more about architecture, flow, and sculpture.  It is much about line, direction, mass, texture, color, and function. Though I am designing for clients, and have done so regularly since the beginning of March, my spring is all about the plants.

the spring garden (13)I live in an urban neighborhood. Some landscapes and gardens are well designed.  Other properties have nothing much that could be attributed to great design, but every one of their plants is growing just the same as mine. If they falter from neglect, that sorry situation will become apparent later. I take several things from this.  Nature has its own independent agenda. And, those gardeners who are more interested in plants than design have my respect. At this moment in the season, I am right with them. Even though the grasses and hardy hibiscus will not be fully grown and in their glory until much later, watching the process by which they broach the spring is every bit as interesting as their flowers.  The spring means good things for every square inch of ground from which a plant might grow.

the spring garden (16)The parrotias are leafing out so fast, the leaves are wilted from the effort.

the spring garden (10)The ferns and hostas are in that gawky adolescent phase.

spring garden (29)The Princeton gold maple leaves are the most shocking shade of chartreuse imaginable.  Later in the summer, that lime green will fade to green.

spring garden (26)Everywhere I look something is growing.

spring garden (16) - CopyA seedling Helleborus argutifolius has taken 4 years to grow to blooming size.  A mild winter means I have had the please of three blooming stalks for over a month now.

spring garden (10) - CopyWhat great May days we are having.

 

 

 

Grape Hyacinths

Muscari_armeniacum2In my opinion, a drift of grape hyacinths in full bloom is one of spring’s  crowning moments. They may be small, but they pack a big visual punch. The muscari group is one of the most charming and most reliable of all of the small spring flowering bulbs. The tiny corm, planted only 3″ below the surface of the soil in the fall, will give rise to a pair of thin strappy white striped leaves, and a flowering raceme the most brilliant shade of cobalt blue.  That blue makes a spring garden worth growing.

grape hyacinths (2)From my  favorite on line horticultural reference for the Midwest, the Missouri Botanic Garden Plant Finder, I read the following:

“Muscari armeniacum, commonly called grape hyacinth, is an early spring-blooming bulbous perennial that is native to southeastern Europe (including Armenia). It features conical racemes of slightly fragrant, tightly packed, deep violet blue, urn-shaped flowers atop scapes rising to 8” tall in early spring. Each bulb produces 1-3 scapes with 20-40 flowers per scape. Each flower has a thin white line around the rim. Dense inflorescence purportedly resembles an elongated, upside-down bunch of grapes, hence the common name. Scapes rise up from somewhat floppy clumps of narrow, fleshy, basal, green leaves (to 12” long) that appear in autumn and live through the cold St. Louis winter to spring when the plants flower.”

This description tells me that Muscari will grow well in my garden, but I would like to add that they are simple to plant. All you need is some decent friable soil, and a finger to push them below ground. I have seen corms left laying on the surface send a few roots into the soil, and bloom on their sides the following spring. They are willing.

grape hyacinths (3)Grape hyacinths will come up and thrive just about anywhere you plant them.  I would avoid soggy soil that would rot the corms, and dark places fit only for ferns. They come up through a lawn without complaint. They are incredibly hardy. I have never done anything to mine, except plant and enjoy. They are persistent year after year, and can make substantial clumps. The only difficulty?  You have to buy and plant them in the fall.  Preferably in 50’s or 100’s. If you are willing and able, they will be too.

DSC_5201A new landscape project I am about to install involves the installation of a fairly large partial shade garden. My clients are very fond of blue flowering plants, and especially blue spring flowering bulbs. The rustic stone walk was finished in late October.  The coast was clear to plant bulbs, which we did fairly late in November.  It was cold, but as long as the ground is not frozen, spring flowering bulbs can be planted. Since the planting would be late, we stored the bulbs in a cool place, so they would not suffer from being out of the ground so long. Muscari cultivars seldom grow talled than 8″, so planting them near the walk made sense.

DSC_5204We planted a variety of muscari cultivars, all the the blue and white range. We planted the tried and true muscari armeniacum, and  Blue Magic, Atlantic muscari, Magical Mixture, and superstar. Lots of cobalt blue, light blue, with a smattering of white. We also planted several types of camassia, and chionodoxa forbesii Blue Giant, to extend the blue spring bloom period. Later yet, there will be some smaller growing alliums.  These muscari blooming make a quite a statement, even though they are blooming in an ocean of bare dirt.

DSC_5199The planting of this woodland garden got a head start last fall.  The locations of these bulbs will direct the height and bloom season of what I plant with them. We will plant sweet woodriff and European ginger. Were the soil not so sandy, I would plant forget me nots. I will plant more Virginia bluebells to the patch that is existing, Jack in the pulpit, Dutchman’s britches, anemone sylvestris, campanula porscharskyana, lamium white nancy, and so on.

DSC_5197We also have planned for a few Venus dogwoods in the sunniest places, a few witch hazel, and a few Canadian hemlocks. Blue leaved hostas, big and small. If we plant any astilbe, it will be a loose and airy growing version. A stand of goatsbeard is a good choice for the back of the shady border. Like snakeroot,  they take some time to establish and grow – but they are well worth the trouble.

DSC_5196Right now, this is a garden of possibilities.  What a pleasure to be at that point, in early spring. If you are planning a garden in our zone right now, check out the Missouri Botanic Gardens opinion about your choices. And leave some spaces and places for grape hyacinths.

the Plant Finder

Hellebore Hardy

hellebore hardy (1)Would that every plant in my garden could be hellebore hardy. Hellebore hardy? Hellebore hardy is that state of plant being which is as tough as nails, bud and bloom hardy, every day in hostile weather, as in every crappy spring wild card day hardy. We have had crazy cold and blustery weather the first 12 days of April. As in daytime highs of 28 degrees, and some night time lows at 19 degrees.  If it were January, or February, or even the first part of March, these temperatures would not bother anything in my garden.  At that time, every plant is dormant, and oblivious to the day to day changes in temperature. This kind of cold in the spring can damage emerging flowers and leaves. Our espaliered fruit trees are very close to blooming.  I am hoping they hold off for a week, as below freezing temperatures can easily damage or wipe out those flowers. The flowering stalks of my hellebores emerged from the ground a month ago. The have been growing steadily, in spite of a lengthy bout of really cold and windy weather.

hellebore hardy (3)The flowering stalks of the hellebores usually come out of the ground in my zone in mid March. They are programmed to come out of the ground, fighting. How they fight to bloom enchants me. March and April are politely known as transitional months in Michigan.  As in 2.5 parts winter dueling fiercely with .5 parts of spring.  Hellebores bloom in spite of that conflict-  I admire that cheekiness about them. Their ability to withstand cold, snow, ice, freezing rain and wind when they have broken dormancy and begun to grow is remarkable.  All the more extraordinary is their ability to shrug off this hostile weather while in full bloom. This picture was taken at the end of the day on April 10. I was worried that every flower would be at least damaged, if not obliterated by morning.

hellebore hardy (2)It was not an idle worry. My white flowered magnolia stellata is full of white flowers gone to brown mush.  The early flowering magnolias are not hellebore hardy. Their flowering can be laid low and obliterated by cold April weather.  I don’t love them less for this.  I just know that a tumultuous spring has its disappointments, and its survivors. My stellata blooms well 2 out of 5 years.

hellebore hardy (8)The hellebores are survivors.  They do not need any help from me if the beginning of spring is deadly cold. They never ask for much of anything, actually. As for April 11, my hellebores revived. Once the snow and ice melted, and the air temperatures warmed up, my hellebores got back to the business of blooming. My old clumps are sensational this year.

hellebore hardy (12)This big clump, one of many of the old Royal Heritage strain that I grow, is unfazed by inclement weather.

hellebore hardy (5)It is hard to believe that these flowers survived night temperatures ranging from 19 to 27 degrees, over a period of almost 2 weeks.

hellebore hardy (6)Hellebore flowers are big and showy.  What is just as showy is how they handle the late winter weather. Showier still is that these plants are still growing strong, despite their age.  Most of my original group was planted well over a decade ago. I do not often see the Royal Heritage strain offered for sale – pity that.

hellebore hardy (9)To follow are some pictures of my hellebores – both old and new.  I appreciate every one of them, especially given that most of the rest of the garden is still biding its time, hoping for a clearer sign that spring is here.

hellebore hardy (7)Royal heritage strain

hellebore hardy (17)Conny is a newer variety.  This is its 3rd spring.

hellebore hardy (10)Royal Heritage strain

hellebore hardy (11)Royal heritage strain

hellebore hardy (14)Royal Heritage strain

hellebore hardy (18)This spotted double is a newer variety whose name I cannot remember. Lovely, and sparse.

hellebore hardy (16)My newest group of more recently bred hellebore hybrids are gawky and thin. I am hoping to see them put on some weight this year. It is too soon to determine whether they will form big and persistent clumps. The Royal Heritage Mix may not have the interesting shapes and the clearer colors as the newest varieties that are available, but they are reliable. Should you have an interest in this discussion regarding hellebores persistence, I would invite you to read an essay from the well known English gardener and garden writer, Noel Kingbury. His column is a regular read for me. He worries that the new cultivars are not as vigorous as the old fashioned varieties.  His life is a world away from mine, but his commentary on the garden is of interest to me.   http://noels-garden.blogspot.com/2016/02/hellebore-troubles.html

Favorite Perennials: The Daisies

Bellis_perennis_dsc00906It is no accident that the subject of the painted floor at the shop is bellis perennis, or English daisy. Daisies are a favorite perennial plant of mine. Bellis is the original plant to which the name daisy was applied. This daisy spread throughout Europe and eventually made its appearance in North America. The yellow disc like center with a star of radiating petals is characteristic of all daisies. As you can see in this picture from Wikipedia, the flowers are the small yellow structures you can see at the edge of the yellow disk in the picture above. The flowers are surrounded by white bracts, radiating all around. Daisies are a member of the aster family. The word aster comes from the Greek word meaning “star”. The aster family is commonly known as the family of daisies.

oxeye daisiesThe aster family is reputed to make up almost 10% of all flowering plants.  That is a staggering number. Not every member of the aster family looks like a daisy.  Sunflowers and echinacea have that daisy look, but artichokes do not. The English daisy is a lawn weed for some that I greatly admire. In my garden it is charming, and not so much weedy.  Just as weedy is the perennial oxeye daisy. Leucanthemum vulgare acts just very much like its name.  It is a tall rangy grower that will eventually flop over if it does not have support from its neighbors. It is native to every state in the US, and all of Canada.  I would call that willing. This native roadside daisy is prohibited in some states-mostly for agricultural reasons. They can act as a host for viral diseases of crops. Cattle avoid eating them. That said, I have planted them. This loosely configured perennial garden on the lake features the oxeye daisy, as well as chasmathium latifolium in the shadier areas. The taller species asters are still quite short at this time of year. The amsonia “Blue Ice” is short, but scrappy.  The other perennials in this garden were chosen for their ability to withstand the advances of the daisies.

551 from monroviaI love our wild daisy. It is fresh, sunny spirited, and uncomplicated. Should you not require a plant that behaves in an adult like manner in an unmowed meadowy spot, they will persist. They may migrate, but any day with daisies blooming is a good day. It is hard to dislike them, even when they are a nuisance. I do not farm crops or raise cattle, so I do plant oxeye daisies-primarily the cultivar known as “May Queen”. Do not plant an oxeye daisy if you want order in the court.  If introducing a wild daisy with a long agenda to your garden makes you uneasy, the wild shasta daisy, leucanthemum maximum, is a better mannered choice. The first hybrid shasta daisy was bred by Luther Burbank, who spent 15 years crossing various wild daisies, in search of a worthy garden plant. They all feature big white star like flowers with yellow button centers. Not every gardener has the space or patience for wilding daisies.

July 23, 2013 (13)The shasta daisy “Becky” is a sturdy and persistently perennial improvement over the classic tall shasta “Alaska”.  I say improved, as I like the somewhat shorter height of Becky. In this garden, it is entirely companionable with the white tall phlox “David”. They make great cut flowers.  They don’t ask for much in the way of care.  White flowers in the perennial garden provide punctuation to the sentence “This is a garden”.  That white is visible from a great distance. The flowers are not fancy.

 

wayside gardensThis cultivar, chrysanthemum superbum “Real Neat” is available from Wayside Gardens, is a daisy whose breeding has gone over to the fancy side. The best part is that gardeners of all persuasions will be able to find a daisy to their liking.

chrysanthemum sheffield pinkChrysanthemums are in the aster family.  Certain varieties of chrysanthemums have a distinctly daisy-like appearance.  This variety, Sheffield Pink, is the latest perennial to bloom on my block. It was planted underneath a tree in my neighbor’s yard.  The tree died a few years ago, but this daisy mum still comes back and blooms in October, just like it has for at least 15 years.

October 29 2015 080Sheffield Pink is not only hardy, it is persistent. I do not see that it gets any special care, but for the fact that my neighbor mows carefully around it. It gets water from the sky, or maybe the hose on occasion. I never see any evidence of disease or ill health. Many daisies are like this.  Given a good start, a well grown stand of daisies is sure to come.

daisiesThis poster via Wikipedia illustrates the great range of flower forms and colors in the aster family. No matter the particulars, daisies thrive with a minimum of care and fuss, providing they are sited in decent soil, with reasonable water, good drainage, and in full sun.

photo by Jack DykingaThe persistence of the daisy could be no better evidenced than in this stunning photograph taken by Jack Dykinga recently in Death Valley. An El Nino that brought rare fall rains to the desert has resulted in a Death Valley super bloom.  Thousands of dormant seeds of geraea canescens, or desert gold plant, germinated following the rains. This annual daisy-like flowering plant is a member of the aster family, and is sometimes known as the desert sunflower. The article about the Death Valley super bloom is beautifully documented on the National Geographic website.    Death Valley Super Bloom

photo by Jack DykingaThere are few flowers as buoyant, sunny natured, and persistent as a daisy.  See what I mean?