Be Picky About Perennials

pereennial garden  I know the title of this post sounds heartless, but there is no need to plant every plant you can find in your garden unless you are young, you want to learn by doing, and you have acreage. If this is not your situation, there is nothing wrong with being choosy. The fact of the matter is that no perennial plant is without its shortcomings. Some fall over, or seed relentlessly. Some are disease prone, or beloved of bugs. Others fail to perform unless they have a full time nanny. Still others would grow in your bedroom window if you take your eyes off of them. Still others have a painfully awkward habit of growth, or an incredibly short life span. Those perennials with nondescript or poor foliage – I will not plant them. I make a point of seeing new hybrid introductions in test gardens, as I am fiercely protective of what plants I give ground to in my own yard, or my client’s gardens. I designed and planted the garden pictured above 15 years ago. This year I will redo it.  I suspect my plant palette will be different. I like plants that deliver and endure.

double bloodrootThis said, I routinely break my own rules. I would plant double bloodroot, knowing that their yearly bloom time might be a few hours, and their foliage dies back in the blink of an eye. I would attempt to grow roses, even though they come with a long list of do’s and don’t’s. I like snakeroot, even though there flower stems droop.  The joy of my garden? My choices may be thoughtful or capricious. Either is fine. No one will be stopping by this week, or any week, to grade my garden. For good or for ill, and thankfully, I am in charge of my garden decisions. No one cares or ever will care more about my garden than I do. So I do think through my decisions about what to plant. I will have no one else to blame for my bloopers. I may ignore my own advice when I am so inclined. I make mistakes, most of which make me laugh. I should have known better. Be assured that I have planted lots of perennials that languished and died. I have planted even more that I wish would die. A poorly performing perennial that struggles back year after year to no good end – nothing makes me more furious than a mediocre performance from a plant.

Walters Gardens astilbe Visions in PinkYou may find fault with my notion that plants in my garden need to perform. So let me visit the idea of performance. A garden is a terrific amount of work, much of which is not all that much fun. I like plants that reward my efforts with their beauty. A great performing plant is a plant whose habit, substance, hardiness, flowers and foliage are equally beautiful.  The Visions series of astilbe come very close to this level.  They do remarkably well in open shade, and are tolerant of full sun if they have sufficient water.  The foliage is glossy and healthy all season long. The flower stalks are sturdy. They are hardy in my zone.

blue delphiniumIt’s a rare gardener who is not besotted by the sight of a well grown stand of blue delphinium. The day they come into full bloom is the June day we will have a driving rainstorm that will take most of them down to the ground. You can see the support strings in this picture from the RHS. But there are ways to limit your exposure to disaster. Thin mature clumps, to promote good air circulation and discourage fungus. Pinch them back early, for more sturdy stems.  Plant the smaller growing species, d. belladonna or d. ballamosum, or shorter growing hybrids, as opposed to the exhibition sized varieties. If you buy seed for delphiniums bred in England or New Zealand, consider their climate before you try to grow them in Wyoming. If you must have those big delphiniums, be good natured about the aphids and the less than wonderful foliage once the bloom is finished. Don’t forget to feed and feed again.

pure peonies    Every living thing is flawed one way or another. This includes me, and my opinions about what perennial plants I would recommend. I have a point of view based on my experience, patience, and . None of the aforementioned Some flaws are charming.  Other flaws are deal breakers.  I avoid plants that are not truly hardy in my zone. I also pass by those plants that need and thrive in an environment that I cannot provide.  A flawless perennial is even rarer. It may not even exist. It would have gorgeous foliage, a long and heavy bloom time, a weatherproof habit of growth, good resistance to disease and bugs, a minimum in hands on maintenance – as in deadheading, division, staking, feeding or any other attention, perfectly hardy ands winter tolerant in my zone, adaptability to a wide range of light and soil conditions, a long life span, a healthy respect for the plants next door, vigor without aggression, a compact habit, great substance, early to show and late to go down-am I missing anything? This photograph of a hedgerow of the peony “Moonstone”, from Pure Peonies, is a good example of a perennial that is worth a second look. If you love perennial plants, pick and choose what to grow.


The Landscape at 3 Years

June 11, 2015 (2)The very best part of doing containers for clients at the last of a landscape installation for a new house is the chance I might be able to to come back the following year. The opportunity to come back means I can watch, and be part of how that landscape settles in and prospers. The summer container planting comes around once a year, every year. In the best of all possible worlds, the process of the landscape design and installation results in a relationship that is on going.  Planting seasonal containers is ongoing.  I was happy to be invited back.  The John Davis roses, which were part of the original landscape installation, are just about to the roof of the pergola, this June of year 3.

June 11, 2015 (1)Any new landscape comes with troubles.  What you thought would be perfectly happy in this spot refuses to perform. What seemed like a reach takes hold like you never imagined.  Anyone who gardens knows trouble-and how that trouble can be difficult to foresee. This property fronts on a lake. The very heavy clay soil refuses to dry out. We had no end of troubles, getting this landscape to take hold. It is difficult, and takes time, to establish plants on a clay based soil. In the middle of year 2, a daunting year 2, we were making progress.  Year two was not my favorite.  It just had to be lived through. But once the plants take hold, they go for broke. Year 3 is looking good. Along this path to the side yard, each Rozanne geranium is the size of a small shrub.  The astilbes are loaded with flower spikes. The yews have settled in, and are lush and dark green.  And the roses-well, you can see for yourself.

June 11, 2015 (9)John Davis is a climbing rose which is incredibly vigorous and long lived. If pink flowers are to your liking, this rose will reward you with steady growth and lots of roses. I have a client withe John Davis roses that are better than 20 years old.  It is undeniably hardy-bear in mind these roses on planted on the lake side, and subject to terrific winds and cold in the winter. Our last two winters were fiercely cold.  I see damage to plants everywhere from those vicious winters.  These roses never skipped a beat. Planting this summer annual container next to this John Davis in glorious bloom-what a treat.

June 11, 2015 (3)This landscape has begun to come into its own. I did not know this, until the moment I got there with a truckload of flowers for the pots. The best part of spending the day here planting the containers here was the pure pleasure of experiencing a landscape and garden that has rooted in and has settled down.  Everything is breathing, regularly.  There is new growth on every plant, from the yews, to the Venus dogwoods, to the Himalayan white barked birch, to the hydrangeas-to the columnar red maples. The landscape is thriving. The heart of it is beating regularly, and strongly.

June 11, 2015 (5)The boxwood dots in the lawn have put on a lot of weight. That dark green I see everywhere is a healthy green. How is my client managing a landscape on soil that does not drain?  She manages, as she tends to the landscape. Her thoughtful work is obvious. The views from the second story deck was beautiful. That beauty is not of my doing, some three years after the original installation.  It is hers. All a garden needs is for someone to take ownership, like she has.

June 11, 2015 (4)I did plant lots of containers for her today.  She wanted orange geraniums, and nasturtiums.  I planted them wherever I could.  Next week I will plant her cutting flower boxes. We have had incredibly cold and rainy weather. I have postponed planting the zinnias and the sunflowers until next week.

June 11, 2015 (10)The wet meadow is loaded with amsonia Blue Ice-it is in bloom now. The shadier portions are planted with species monarda, and northern sea oats-Chasmanthium latifolium.  The fact that it seeds is all to the good. That wet meadow will dry sometime soon. Cleome and sonata cosmos will provide color in this garden all the summer season long.

June 11, 2015 (8)Though my trip here was to plant containers, how the landscape has taken hold has my attention. Plants in the right place is all the work of a garden-and all of the pleasure.

June 11, 2015 (7)Willy’s garden is presided over by a big group of columnar red maples.  Their foliage is lush this year – finally.  The hostas are fanning out. In the front of the house, the peonies were full of blooms. The birch are growing. The katsura espaliers leafed out beyond all belief.

June 11, 2015 (11)All of the containers featured orange in one form or another.  I was pleased that this urn was stuffed with annual plants in a relaxed fashion.  My crews do an amazing job of arranging all the plants that are scheduled to go into a container in a lively, lovely, and unpretentious way. From the start.

June 11, 2015 (14)I cannot really convey with words what it meant to walk on to a property with a landscape wrought by a relationship with a very special client that seems happy in most every regard. I ws so pleased with everything I saw. My working life right now is busy-jammed packed and intense.  Most days I am up at 4:30 am, and drifting home at 6pm. This seasonal planting settled me right down. Thanks, Harriet. This landscape is growing  just as you would want it to.  I am sure I heard that growing going on.

The Landscape At Lee Hill Farm

Lee Hill FarmI have a very good friend, Susan Cohan, who also happens to be an extraordinarily talented landscape designer. Her firm, Susan Cohan Gardens, is based in Chatham, New Jersey. She is well educated in the arts and design. Her history is varied, and rich. Mind you, this previous bit does not in any way address the length and the breath of her experience and expertise. She has a keen eye, a well developed point of view, and a huge passion for the landscape. In my opinion, her passion for every aspect of the landscape is awesome. We met during her 2014 tenure as President of the APLD. The APLD is a national association of landscape designers that has members in almost every state. They work tirelessly to improve the quality of landscape design among their members, and they work to inform the public about landscape designers with experience and talent who would be worth consulting on a landscape project. From the beginning we were professionals and associates, with a relationship that grew to regularly debate the issues regarding landscape design.  Now we are friends. The result of that friendship – she got on a plane, and came out to visit me for 4 days this past February. Those days flew by.  She is delightfully interesting, serious, and genuine, not to mention fresh, direct, and personal.  How I love all these things about her!  I was so pleased to hear that she had won a Gold Medal award in the 2015 APLD competition for planting design. I want to share that award winning design and installation. I  greatly respect how she approached the work, and brought a project to bear fruit, from the ground up.

Susan Cohan DesignHer clients had purchased a beautiful old house and property.  Many of the structural elements of the garden – walls, and walkways – were in a considerable state of disrepair. In Susan’s estimation, a renovation of the property would have to begin with repairs. A good designer lays out the issues, and details the journey. Her client committed to this aspect of the restoration. Any successful project is a result of a rapport between a designer and a client. It was agreed that the old walkways, steps, and some walls would have to come out, and be redone. Another wall was slated to be built.

Lee Hill Farm
Repairs are not that much fun. Fixing what is broken does not necessarily result in something new and exciting. Just what was, before it was broken. But an old property with beautiful walls and walks may not need something new.  A repair and renovation that goes on to become a landscape better than her client thought she could have it-that’s very new and exciting! Repairs can be lengthy and tedious. These before pictures of Lee Farm which Susan sent me do not tell the tale of the days and weeks of work that would be involved to make the hard structures of this garden whole again.

vintage stairsEvery place has its own aura. A feeling. An atmosphere.  Recreating and restoring a sense of place relies on a sure hand. How Susan approached this project tells me she has a gift for the concept of the genius of the place. This property had a long history that deserved respect.  I am sure she steeped herself in the ruination, before she put a drawing, a hand, or a shovel, to the ground.

old gardenThe heaved and crumbling brickwork and the grass challenged stonework did not faze her.

Susan Cohan GardensThis view of a landscape long neglected makes clear that a lot of work needed to be done. Landscape projects that are really good address the land, the history, the client, the structures, the furnishings, and the plants. Like a play having six acts, this project would build on itself.

redoing the stoneworkThe restoration of the hard structures took lots of time.  Lots of hard work. Lots of supervision, and even more discussion. The pace of this work took so much more time than these pictures would indicate. This picture of a degraded walk, some hand tools, and a person tells a story. A beautiful project takes a vision, and work to follow that is skilled.

Lee HillOnce the hard structures were restored, the replanting of the landscape would involve an arrangement and plant list that would convince.  A beautifully planted garden is a joy.  But this garden had to be true to the history, the aura, and the meaning of this property of great age.  I think Susan did a great job of thinking through a plant list that was not limited to what perennials were available at the time the garden was built.  It was a plant list that served and recalled the original spirit of the garden.

the stoneworkThe fountain needed repair. The stone terrace was relaid, on level ground. The brick walks were redone. The millstone was level in the center of two brick walks, intersecting at right angles. The planting had begun.

Lee Hill Farm small fileYears later, this landscape evokes the spirit of the past, courtesy of lots of skilled design help from the present.  These pictures, which Susan submitted to the APLD competition, tell a certain story.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #4Her hand is a subtle one. It takes great experience, confidence and skill to plant a landscape that gives the land, the history and the plants center stage. I can see she is interested here in a landscape that seems natural and appropriate. Genuinely believable. Flowing.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2On one level, the planting design for this project was meant to evoke the spirit of the original garden. But that design goes on to other levels. More interesting and thoughtful placement. More variety, or better performing cultivars. Designed spaces. The plant choices and the colors echo the original garden, but have relevance in the present.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #5The original iris still have a place.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #8the sweep

Lee Hill Farm Photo #9a long line

Lee Hill Farm Photo #10the layered view

Lee Hill Farm Photo #7The matching hedges of the same cultivar of peony is a way of illustrating how the design is as important as the plant choices.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #6The peonies, arbor and fountain are the strong and simple organizing feature for a constellation of perennial borders.  In May, the peonies hold forth much more strongly than they would have, had they been planted singly in a number of different places. At this moment, this view is drenched in the history of the original landscape in a visually compelling way.  It is also a very strongly designed space.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2This is an award winning project-as well it should be. This picture tells the tale-everything seems right and rings true to the setting.  As for Susan Cohan, should you have a great passion for the landscape, and live within 100 miles of her, contact her.  She is a landscape designer I greatly admire. Interested in reading further about her?

Susan Cohan Gardens



The Weather

corgi-weather-vane.jpgWhat’s your weather like today?  Mine is cool and rainy, punctuated by torrential downpours of short duration.  Two days ago the temperature was above 80 degrees by late afternoon.  The forecast calls for 48 degrees tomorrow, and 39 degrees tomorrow night. The transition between summer and fall is marked by moody weather. There will be frequent swings in temperature, wind, rain, and fog.  Gardeners follow the weather with great interest.  Some plant by the phases of the moon. The weather forecast lets me know how to dress for a day in the garden.  A dry hot and sunny summer day asks for different gear than a cold rainy fall day. An early winter day hanging holiday garland might as for warm clothes from side to side, and top to bottom.

helleborus-orientalis.jpgWeather forecasts the change of the seasons.  Longer days, and warmer temperatures in late March signal the hellebores and crocus to come out of the ground.  Plants do have a mechanism by which they recognize that the cold and dormant season is over.  A biological clock. They know when it is too dicey to show themselves, and when it is time.  In much the same way, they know when the winter is approaching.  Their growth slows, and deciduous shrubs and trees prepare to shed their leaves in anticipation of the dormant winter season.  I understand next to nothing of the biology and chemistry of this, but it seems like plants keep very good track of the weather.


As long as I have been gardening, I routinely see weather conditions I have never seen before.  I cannot remember a winter like our past one-not that I should.  It was the coldest and snowiest winter we had had in over 100 years-why would I? A morning sky that is so pink that it changes the color of everything in the garden like a piece of colored acetate over my camera lens-we has such weather early this morning.  Clouds of some fantastic shape and arrangement-there they are, though they never looked like that before or since.


Fog so dense that everywhere I looked was blinding white-that weather was on a boat bound for Mackinac Island many years ago.  I have never experienced that again.  Rain so hard that it bounced back skyward-memorable.

cafe-au-lait-dahlia.jpgOur summer has been cool and rainy, overall.  It was perfect weather to work, and have dinner outdoors.  All of the plants in the landscape have that lush well watered look.  So many evenings were perfectly comfortable-not too hot, nor too cold.  That bland temperate weather was memorable.  All of September was quite warm and sunny-the dahlias loved it as much as I did.  The weather is a daily companion to a garden, which brings me to the real point of this post.

Aug1 a 2014 (14)The longer I design landscapes and gardens, the more I believe that weather is one of the most critical design issues.  I am not talking about plant hardiness, or light and shade conditions, or soil that never gets rain, or is always flooded.  I think good design features the many faces of the weather.  For many of my clients, my design is first and foremost concerned with establishing some structure- some good bones.  Good bones can be built upon, or stand on their own.  Structure in the landscape in my zone has to take the winter season into account.  Our fall and winter is every bit of 6 months long.  Once the perennial garden fades, and the leaves of the shrubs and trees fall, all that is left is the structure – the bare bones.

perennial-garden.jpgI only have one very small perennial garden.  But for the trunks and branches of the dogwoods and magnolia, and the green of the yew hedge, that garden has little in the way of visual interest.  The horseradish collapses in a heap of rotten leaves, as do the lady’s mantle, the bear’s britches, and the Rozanne geraniums.  The phlox and hibiscus stand resolute for months after, but the snowy soon obliterates their shapes.

fall-leaves.jpgMy evergreens respond to the weather in a very different way.  The leaves that cover the tops of the boxwood underneath the magnolias celebrates the fall landscape.  The wet weather makes every boxwood leaf shine and glitter.  A dusting of snow illustrates the shapes described by that box.  A thick layer of snow is like a winter hat.  These rectangles of boxwood underneath the magnolias are very simple.  Though they have been there for many years, my eye does not skip over them.  Every day, the weather transforms them.  The landscape is designed to change with the seasons, and change even more often with the weather.

magnolia-petals.jpgOne can readily design a spring garden. Designing in celebration of spring weather is another issue altogether. The weather in Michigan is always a big fluid situation. The simpler the landscape, the more striking it will be, whatever the weather.

August 2013late day in summer

fall-leaves.jpgfall leaves

winter.jpgsnowy day

winter-landscape.jpga winter landscape