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.


Noxious Cold

Like a good bit of the rest of the US, we were invaded by a particularly noxious and extreme cold usually confined to the northern polar regions. Fierce winds usually keep that cold where it belongs, but on occasion, that cold travels our way. In early December it became apparent that we had bitterly cold weather coming up. The first order of business was to clean out all of the fall plantings in those pots that were due to have winter arrangements, and take the soil level down four inches from the top. The floral foam form would sit on top of that lowered frozen soil. The form would be anchored into the soil with bamboo stakes, or steel rebar. Pounding a stake down through frozen soil is a good bit easier than chiselling out frozen soil. Three weeks worth of installations were accompanied by this relentless cold. Never have I been happier that we do most of our fabrication for the winter pots in the shop stockroom.

The evergreens in my garden have no where to go, and no other option but to endure. A gardener can provide their evergreens with regular water in the fall. An evergreen with juicy stems and needles is an evergreen dressed properly for the weather. Once the ground freezes, the plants will no longer be able to transmit moisture from the roots to the needles. An evergreen that goes into the dormant season dry is poorly positioned to deal with desiccating winter winds and sun, and the inevitable loss of moisture from transpiration. The water that evaporates from the needled foliage of this yew cannot be replaced until the ground thaws.

That many evergreens have needled foliage as opposed to leaves is a survival mechanism, courtesy of nature. Each needle has a relatively small surface area from which moisture can evaporate. Leaves are poor conservators of water, as they present so much surface area to sun and wind. It is no wonder that deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves in the fall.  Carrying a full set of green leaves through the winter would most likely be deadly. At the extreme other end of the spectrum, cactus have evolved to have spines in place of those leaves that are so ill equipped to conserve moisture. Those spines do collect water from rare rains, which then drips down to the roots. Water in some degree is essential to the life of plants. I may let plenty of things go in the garden, but I do water. Plants that do not get the moisture they need are stressed and vulnerable plants.

Of course our long run of cold has me worrying about the boxwood. They are broad leaved evergreens. Those leaves readily desiccate in extreme wind and cold. They are prime candidates for winter burn.  A drench of anti desiccant such as Vapor Gard on both the tops and the bottoms of the leaves coats the surface with a waxy natural compound of pine resin that reduces the evaporation rate. It is amazing what a difference an anti desiccant can make. Any evergreen planting I do after the middle of August gets Vapor Gard ahead of the first winter. It is very inexpensive insurance against disaster. The above picture was taken in April of 2014. These 20 year old shrubs were killed outright from the extreme cold we experienced in the winter of 2013-2014. Double digit below zero temperatures for days on end proved too much for them. The 100 inches of snow we had went beyond insulating them to overloading them with branch cracking weight.

A boxwood disaster is rarely apparent before April. That makes it easy to fret over them all winter.

This day was a heartbreaking day. That day in April made it obvious that the west end section of this old hedge had perished. It succumbed to a once in a lifetime extended cold well below its hardiness limit. The entire summer of 2014 I drove by so many hedges of dead boxwood still in the ground.  I could not have looked at dead plants day after day, and month after month, but disbelief, grief and denial can be very powerful.

Do I think the extreme cold spell we have just had will kill my boxwood? Our coldest temperature was 6 below zero. This is not cold enough to kill a zone 5 shrub. It was cold enough to make me dress from top to bottom for bone chilling cold. I limited the time the corgis spent outdoors. One morning at 4 degrees below zero they came in limping after 3 minutes outdoors. Cold feet. But I do not believe it has been cold enough to seriously damage the boxwood.

Once we finished removing the section of dead plants, we placed big Branch pots in front of the bare ends of the boxwood. It would be every bit of several years before the dead spots and sections would recover from this winter. Note that the tulips coming on sustained no damage from the extreme cold. They were completely dormant, and below ground. Sub shrubs such as lavender, that have live branches above ground in the winter, can be very difficult to winter over.

We did finally get the window boxes and 2 pots in front of the shop done up for winter. They feature cut boxwood twigs stuffed into dry floral foam.  After just a few days outdoors, they began to show the signs of leaf shrinkage from evaporation.

Even the backs of the leaves show signs of stress. As long as these cut stems were packed in wax coated boxes, and not exposed to sun or wind, the leaves were glossy and plump. Once exposed to the weather, they reacted as expected. Fortunately boxwood leaves stay green even as they dry.

I am sure we will have burned and dead tips on these plants come spring, but I expect them to recover.  32 degrees this morning-what a relief.

The Boston Ivy, 2017

Once a year, usually when we are at our peak of fall color, I try to write about the Boston ivy that covers a neighboring 100 foot long wall parallel, opposite, and next door to Detroit Garden Works. In the early days of the shop, that originally giant cream colored concrete block wall towering over the shop made us all squint. 5 years into our tenure, we planted 10 parthenocissus tricuspidata veitchii, spaced 10 feet apart, at the base of that wall. Not so many years later, that wall was covered with a vigorous and gorgeous vine that made the trip up our driveway as green as could be. All summer long, that vine cools this corridor leading to the front door of the store.  Despite the fact that watering the vines was always an afterthought, the leaves were invariably dense and glossy green. I am grateful that my lack of attention never impacts its performance. Few plants deliver as much and ask for so little as Boston Ivy.

This year’s fall display is the worst for a decade.  An incredibly dry summer meant the leaves on the ivy began drying up and dropping in early September. The picture above, taken today, tells the story. Large areas of this vigorous vine dropped their leaves before the cool weather arrived. An incredibly warm and lengthy late summer meant what leaves had not fallen from drought have hung on to their green color. As much as I looked forward to the spectacular fall color on this vine, nature rules the plant roost. Am I disappointed? Of course. The fall color on the Boston ivy is not just a an eagerly anticipated event, it is a happening.

From the website    Boston ivy    I  have copied and posted the following:    “Boston Ivy is a deciduous vine with bluish fruits and bright red fall foliage. A member of the grape family, Boston Ivy is commonly used as a decorative addition for buildings. This means that it is most often used to grow on sections of buildings, walls, and fences for its aesthetic beauty. The glossy dark green leaves turn bright red in the fall. Showy leaves are held late into fall or early winter. This vine does well in poor soil and can grow in shade to full sun. While technically considered an invasive plant species (originally native to Japan), Boston Ivy’s invasive tendencies are typically shortlived, as it often succumbs to native vines (such as Virginia Creeper) when dispersed out of controlled bounds. Boston Ivy has been grown everywhere from Fenway Park in Boston to Dallas, Texas. Boston Ivy is unique in how it attaches to structures and surfaces. Unlike true ivies, such as English Ivy that attach with invasive aerial rootlets that can severely weaken brick and wood structures, Boston Ivy attaches to surfaces with tendrils tipped with sticky disks. This means that that the plant effectively glues itself to structures without structurally damaging the surface. The adhesive forces are so strong that researchers with the Plant Biomechanics Group have taken notice. Because of this special quality, Boston Ivy is not only a safe addition to structures and buildings, but a wonderful energy saving plant – effectively shading buildings during the summer and allowing buildings to absorb heat during the winter thanks to its deciduous nature.” Should you have a big wall that needs some green, consider this vine.

Boston ivy asks for a big space in which to grow.  It is one of the plant world’s top contenders for vigorous vertical growth in our zone. I can attest to this. No matter variations in the fall display due to weather, this vine is a beautiful in every season. The branches are beautiful dusted with snow in the winter.  The emerging leaves in the spring are brilliantly colored.  The large glossy leaves overlap one another, completely obscuring the wall beneath it all summer long.

Boston ivy yesterday

Boston Ivy 2012

The view of the Boston ivy from the roof in 2016

fall color on the Boston ivy 2015

The Boston ivy at this moment is more green than fiery. I have my fingers crossed that the best is yet to come.









The Garden And Plant Show At Kasteel Hex

Rob is part way through his annual sojourn to Europe, shopping for the spring of 2018. He does all of the buying for Detroit Garden Works. He does an incredible job of making our shop the place for serious gardeners to shop for whatever they need, or might fall for. He procures ornament, tools, pots, sculpture and furniture-and all else that might help to define a garden. He brings Detroit Garden Works to life. His current trip includes both Belgium and France. He does have a big love for plant fairs, no matter where he is. It so happened that he was able to book a half day to see the garden and plant show at the Kasteel Hex in Belgium. It was so many years ago that Rob first shopped for garden ornament in Belgium. Over my objections, he was keen to visit the country. His most compelling argument? Belgium is close in latitude to Michigan. Garden ornament and landscape design in Belgium was bound to strike a chord in our zone. That made good sense. He has been a fan of Belgian garden and landscape design since the shop opened over 20 years ago. We have imported many things that seem fitting, appropriate and fitting in mid western gardens.

Though I have never seen a vendor at our local farmer’s market selling garlic on this scale, our scene is strikingly similar to the one pictured above.  All of the farmers at our market who take their flowers, vegetables, herbs, roses, cut flowers, and perennials to market 3 times a week interact with those people shopping much the same as I see here. There is plenty of discussion. Plenty of exchange. What happens at the market over the garden is of interest to all that participate.

My late season market features all of the vegetables that have ripened on farms in our area. These tomatoes offered for sale at Hex are much the same as what I see at my own market. It is good to see that interest in the garden alive and well in other places.

To follow are more photographs of Rob’s visit to the show. If you are in my zone, you will recognize a lot of the plants. I so enjoyed the idea that in a place so far away, people are shopping the farmer’s market in much the same way that I shop my own. Of course he would not be able to bring perennials and tomatoes home with him, but he obviously enjoyed the experience.

man contemplating the perennials for sale

dahlias for sale

lime foliaged heather

perennials laid out in blocks

A booth devoted to iris

Iris corms for sale

Heather in bloom

Booth with lots of gaura

mossed pots

A seed stand graced with a vase full of flowers

A booth featuring hens and chicks

Hens and chicks in crates


More hydrangeas!  This display is so beautiful.

Hex garden and plant show

plants and straw on a  rainy day

A rainy day at the Kasteel Hex garden market. So beautiful!

The Plant Fair