The Saucer Magnolia

The saucer magnolias are in outrageously heavy bloom everywhere I go, and everywhere I look. They are over the top beautiful this year, much to my delight. They ornament the spring blooming landscape in a way no other flowering tree could hope to rival. Every saucer magnolia in bloom now I can spot from better than a block away, the blooms are so profuse. They blanket every branch with 6″ long petals and sepals that look like a saucer, and flutter in the slightest breeze. When the saucer magnolias are good, they are the visual equivalent of a torrid romance. So much drama! The entire canopy of the tree is dressed in the most glorious shades of pale and rose pink. The texture is incredible.The saucer magnolia in bloom, formally known as magnolia soulangiana, is a spring moment like no other.

Perhaps it is a good thing that a heavy bloom on this magnolia is not always a given. All that saucy sweetness might be cloying in too big or too long a dose. Trees that profusely flower-I can never decide if I like that or not. With perfectly moderate and cool days and nights, magnolias may bloom for a week to 10 days. Any weather too hot, too cold, or too this or that will cut surely cut short the display. The saucer magnolia flowers are notoriously susceptible to an early demise from a spring freeze. As freezing night temperatures in March are not unusual, years with no flowers, and more frequent years with sparse flowers are the norm. So when nature is cooperative, I truly enjoy the spectacle of it all. Planting a magnolia out of a south facing full sun location can help delay the bloom long enough for the threat of frost to pass.

Saucer magnolias in my area have quite hefty trunks, indicating a planting from many years ago. That speaks volumes about the hardiness and the suitability of the tree for this area. Though the flowers may frost off before they open, the trees are completely hardy to zone 4. They are a mid sized tree that matures to about 25 feet tall and equally as wide, meaning it is easier to place them on a small property than a shade tree. The tree itself is every bit as ornamental as the flowers.  The bark is a smooth and pleasing shade of gray.  Old trees have colonies of lichens ornamenting that bark. Mature trees have very sculptural overall branch structure. The glossy leaves are large.  This is a tree that has great texture in bloom, and in leaf. The yellow fall color is spectacular.

I have seen magnolias devastated by scale, or marred by fungus, but by and large they are fairly carefree. They like the middle of the road. Soil that is not too dry or too wet. They like a good amount of sun, but they don’t fuss if there is a little less. They will endure in less than perfect conditions. They mean to oblige. This makes them a perfect choice for a gardener looking for an ornamental tree of substance. Though some might fuss about the petal drop, I find that pink litter on the grass to be an excellent reason to have some grass underneath them.  The effect is magical.

There are many other varieties and hybrids of magnolias, many of which are garden worthy. I plant them whenever I get a chance. They are as sculptural in their structure as they are ethereal in flower. If this is not enough to persuade you to plant a saucer magnolia, consider this.  A 2 gallon size saucer magnolia is available to you at your local garden center right now at a very reasonable cost.  Plant a small magnolia, and stand back. Sooner than you think, this one magical magnolia week of the year will be a week you will treasure .

This beautiful old saucer magnolia in flower is already shedding petals. Lovely, this.

This picture I took on the fly from my car, which I stopped in the middle of a very busy road. The person behind me was irritated, but when the saucer magnolias are good, I take time to enjoy them. Never mind his honking. The spring is a time to take the time to enjoy.

I do not have any saucer magnolias at home. Their mature width is tough in a landscape as small as mine.  I planted the magnolia “Galaxy”.  They have a more upright habit of growth, and tend to be single trunked. That shape suits my landscape better than a saucer magnolia. That moment when their intensely rose pink flowers are backed up by my Norway maple in full bloom is an experience of spring that makes my heart pound. This said, I am sure the spring season energizes every gardener. I am so glad that other gardeners close to me have the saucer magnolias of considerable age and in full bloom for me to enjoy. My landscape is happily a relative of what goes on in my neighborhood and comunity.

Galaxy magnolia in bloom overhead

Hello spring.

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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 Hellebores In March

What’s better than waiting out the end of the Michigan winter is a road trip to Pine Knot Farms to pick up a collection of hellebores. After some discussion with Dick Tyler, I placed an order, and our David drove our sprinter there to pick them up.  Pine Knot Farms has been breeding hellebores for a good many years. Their strains of helleborus hybridus are incredibly vigorous, strong blooming, and hardy in our zone.  The book written by Judith and Dick Tyler, entitled “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide”, was and still is a comprehensive and succinct description of the genus Helleborus. It is an invaluable reference work, and I reach for it whenever I have a question about hellebores.

helleborus "Pine Knot Select"From Wikipedia, “Commonly known as hellebores, the Eurasian genus Helleborus consists of approximately 20 species of herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae”.  Ha. I find the book by the Tyler’s to be considerably more engaging, and a lot more detailed.  I am happy to say that Dick Tyler took the time and effort to give David a comprehensive tour of his nursery. If you are not near enough to Detroit Garden Works to shop his plants, he does ship. This is the last weekend of his hellebore festival, but he grows many thousands of plants. Just one of the many in our collection is pictured above in a photograph of Rob’s. For further information, check out their website.  Pine Knot Farms hellebores

Though we purchase hellebores from a number of different growers from all over the US, I was especially interested in Dick Tyler’s plants for a good reason.  Many of his strains of hellebores have helleborus hybridus as a prominent parent. Helleborus hybridus is in and of itself a plant of complex heritage. This is a major factor in its hardiness. They  are commonly known as Lenten roses, which means they are spring blooming. The blooming shoots of my hellebores emerge from the ground in late March, and will begin to flower in April.  As our spring weather is usually very cool, they are gloriously in bloom for quite some time. The flower itself is quite inconspicuous..  What appear to be petals are actually a modified calyx. Those petal-like structures will eventually turn green, and will persist on the plants for months.

The Christmas rose, or helleborus niger, is a winter blooming perennial.  Winter blooming plants do quite well in mild climates, but have a tough go in Michigan. There are a number of clones which have some measure of parentage from helleborus niger that are able to survive our harsh winter and unpredictable early spring. We are able to buy the hellebore hybrid “Joseph Lemper” in full bloom in December.  Customers who have kept them over the winter and planted them out in the spring report that the bloom stalks will come very early in the spring, but they do manage endure our early spring night temperatures. I prefer helleborus hybridus cultivars for my Michigan garden. I do have some intergeneric hellebore varieties whose bloom stalks began to grow several weeks ago. I have my fingers crossed that they will survive the forecast overnight low tonight of 12 degrees. For this reason, I do not cut off the tattered remains of last years foliage until it appears we will have night temperatures that are more moderate. That old foliage is like a blanket.

So what is one to do with one of our hellebores in full bloom when our night temperatures are so cold?  They are actually quite obliging about a place indoors for a few weeks.  We like to pot them up in a little something that is decorative. The green or black plastic pot that they are grown in will do, but why make do at the end of winter?  Rob potted this hellebore in a basket, and topped it off with some mood moss.  To follow are more pictures of his miniature spring gardens. If you are able to stop in and see them in person, I promise you will be enchanted.

hellebores in pots

See what I mean?

 

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The Winter Landscape: Evergreens

evergreens in the landscapeThe role played by evergreens in the landscape could hardly be overstated in northern climates. The deciduous plant material in my landscape will finish their annual shedding come the end of October or the beginning of November. It will be another 6 months before I lay eyes on an emerging leaf. That is a long time to do without any green. Many evergreens have needles in lieu of leaves. A green needle presents a very small surface area to the extreme cold and desiccating winds that are common in our winters. Water evaporates from a needle at a much smaller rate than it does from a leaf. That size restraint nature bestowed on the chlorophyll producing needles of evergreens means they are able to survive the winter in spite of the fact that their roots are frozen, and unable to take up water or nutrients. An evergreen hardy in my zone is engineered to endure. This is not to say that evergreen needles cannot burned by extreme cold and wind-they can. But in a reasonable winter, the green will endure.  Leaves, whether they be from perennials, shrubs or trees, are not engineered to survive our winters.  Thus the mechanism that we know as fall causes plants to shed their leaves ahead of the deep freeze. Though an evergreen is dormant in the winter, they are able to sustain their green. That green is much darker, more somber and entirely fitting for a winter season. In looking at the above picture, I notice two things. My eye does not focus on the winter branches of the neighborhood maples. What I see first is the green. Secondly, I realize I may have devoted too much space to an evergreen presence in my landscape. I have my reasons.

summer landscapeThe time I have available to tend to my landscape is limited. I like to come home to a good look, not a a lot of work to be done on top of the workday I have already worked. This need for an orderly and low maintenance landscape is particular to me. What any gardener needs from a landscape and garden is particular to them, and the zone where they garden. My evergreens represent beautifully to my eye no matter the season, and no matter the weather. A landscape featuring trees and shrubs is a landscape that looks well kept, and can be kept well kept with a minimum amount of work, all year round. This picture taken in late summer illustrates how evergreens can provide structure to a landscape. Structure? The composition and form of my landscape is established by the evergreens. My Limelight hydrangeas break bud in April, and by the beginning of August their flowers are the star of the show. But the evergreens provide a foreground element, and a background element that enhances that look. The Hicks and densiformis yews disguise the woody green leaved legs of those hydrangeas. The arborvitae behind them provide a dark green backdrop that makes those greenish white blooms all the more striking.

summer landscapeI am appreciative of all the evergreens have to offer in season. They are obligingly green as can be. Evergreens are densely foliated and lush. They do an excellent job of screening an untoward view, or creating shapes of all kinds planted en mass. This spring I did no pruning whatsoever to them. The boxwood were pruned in late June of 2015, after the spring flush of grown. The spring growth in 2016 was relatively uniform, so I skipped pruning them. A year off the shears never hurt a plant or a gardener. The arborvitae should be pruned. A severe ice storm could prove damaging. Keeping them at a shorter and uniform height takes advantage of the strength inherent in a group. Some individual trees that seem wobbly are already kept in line by strapping their trunks in several places to the trunks of their neighbors with arborist’s tree tie webbing.

evergreens in the landscapeBut the time of year that I am most happy for my evergreens is the winter. That green in the off season is a pleasure and a comfort. They provide a visual sense of warmth and enclosure during a very cold and inhospitable time of year. The mature flower heads of the mass of the deciduous hydrangeas do add color and volume to the winter garden, no doubt. The evergreens not only provide green in the off season, they screen the view of the bare branches of the hydrangeas from the street view.

The snow we had last week was friendly to my landscape, in that the design and form established by the evergreens is still evident. Snow falling on an established structure of a variety of evergreens can be beautiful.

picea mucronataFour picea abies mucronata were in the front of the house when I bought it 20 years ago. They were about 4 feet tall when I transplanted them to the driveway side. That was the last time I did anything to them, except look at them. I do not need to weed, nor do I feed them.  I do water the hellebores in front of them when they need it. The needles go quite black green in winter.

spring landscapeIn the spring, the new growth is chartreuse.  My hellebores stay green most of the winter, although 4 ” of snow will completely cover them.

helleborus hybridusWe rarely have snow cover that comes in early January and persists until March. We have no snow on the ground now.  This is the third winter for this new batch of hellebores. As they were 4″ pots when I planted them, I think it is safe to say they are happy here. I am happy to have this evergreen groundcover patch to look at.

taxus densiformisThis spreading yew was big when I bought the house. I would guess it has been there over 30 years.  It is a great example of how evergreens can be used in an informal setting to great effect.  Buck occasionally complains that it has encroached on the driveway, but I rather like how it has softened the look of the stone and concrete brick drive. The bare patch of snow and dirt to the left? It is ferns and hostas in the summer. That spot will be bare until May.

boxwood green velvetBoxwood are broad leaved evergreens. They can be more susceptible to winter burn than needled evergreens, as those leaves have a big surface area through which water inside the leaf is constantly transpiring, or evaporating to the atmosphere. The most effective way I know to limit damage from winter burn is to spray them with a commercial grade antidessicant.  I use Vapor Gard. This water based wax is made from pine resin. The wax coats the leaves, and helps prevent moisture loss. I find it to be much more effective and much less unsightly than burlap. That said, in our truly terrible winter 3 years ago, I did have patches where the boxwood died back, leaves and stems.  The plants have begun to grow out of this. I do nothing to protect my boxwood, as they are all growing in fairly sheltered places. In January, they have a much stronger visual presence than my deciduous trees.

summer landscapeNo doubt the green of the boxwood in summer is vibrant. Live green, I call it.

winter landscapeThe dormant green is not as showy, but it is green nonetheless. The texture and shape stay the same throughout the seasons.  What the weather of each season does to the evergreens is my greatest source of pleasure in my own landscape.

winter containersThis is surely why most all of our winter containers feature cut evergreens. Even the trimmings will stay green all winter. Amazing, that.

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