What Will You Plant?

I did plant my first container project last week for a client who had an event, and was willing to take the risks associated with planting in cold soil. Planting for an event means I use the largest and most established plant material I can, in hopes that the shock of cold soil and cold nights will bother them less than small plants. My rationale could be entirely without merit – and just a feeble effort to make myself feel better about shocking these tropical plants with unhappy conditions. But soon enough the nights will be warm enough to plant. At home, I like to get my containers out early, fill them with fresh soil, and look at them for a while. We had a new and improved soil mix blended for us in March that has more compost, leaf mold, and ground bark.  I am hoping this soil will retain moisture better, so the pots we plant do not have to have to be monitored so closely for water. When the soil in my pots is plenty warm, it is time to plant.

What will you plant? The process of deciding what to plant is not logical or linear, but certain issues are influential. The light conditions rank right up there.  Geraniums do not like a shady location, and white non stop begonias will burn and fail in hot sunny locations. This issue is fairly easy to resolve. Most plants have care tags in them. Sun means sun. Shade really means partial or dappled shade. If you have deep shade, shop the house plant department. Locations that are part sun and part shade can be trickier. Those white begonias may tolerate some morning sun, and want more protection from noon on. Caladiums will tolerate a lot of sun if they have sufficient water. 6 hours of sun might satisfy those plants needing full sun. Shop at a nursery if you want help selecting the proper plants for your locations. Most nurseries in my area have people who are expert in the light and water of seasonal plants.

Once the science has been satisfied, there are plenty of other decisions to be made. The first is to understand your objective in planting the pot in the first place. If you want the pots on your front porch to be seen from the sidewalk, then planting large flowered plants, or vines in a pale or bright color will help them to read successfully from afar. If you want them to screen an untoward view, plant your pots tall, and maybe plant multiple pots in the same location. If you want a pot to anchor a garden or landscape bed, plant large pots big and wide. Be clear in the planting that the container is a focal point around which other elements will revolve. If you like small, subtle, and or fragrant flowers, plant them near where you will be able to sit to enjoy them. If your idea is to stop any visitor in their tracks, then plant annuals that bloom lavishly, or whose foliage is striking

Annual container plants have an attitude. Some are dramatically formal. Others are free wheeling. Others still are modest in form and flower. That plantatude factor might influence what you choose. Large flowered tropical plants have an exotic and otherworldly aura about them. Dahlias, zonal geraniums, cannas and mandevilleas are tropical plants with big showy flowers. ooo la la. Some annuals plants with dramatic foliage include alocasias, calocasias, agaves and cannas. Even small succulent plants can be dramatic, as their forms are fascinating. Coleus foliage is not that large, but the color of the leaves can be very dramatic. If coleus are pinched regularly, they attain great size and interesting shapes.  If the drama of it all makes you happy to be gardening in containers, then go for it. If the drama needs a formal and contemporary aspect, then fill your pot with lots of the same plant, in the same color. In a shady spot, a Janet Craig dracaena (large glossy chartreuse leaves) underplanted with creeping jenny (dimuitive chartreuse leaves that trail downwards) and lime selaginella (a creeping velvet textured club moss) in a container would make a very dramatic statement indeed. A container of a single color makes the forms and textures of the plants prominent. All of the drama of tropical plants comes naturally in my zone. A pot full of dahlias grown in a tropical zone might blend into the landscape, and would not have the drama that I associate with exotic plants.

If something lighter and more subtle is more appealing, choose seasonal plants have forms and flowers that have the look of the perennial garden. There are tropical forms (meaning non-hardy) of lavender – as in French or Spanish lavender. The annual blue salvia is quite similar in color and form to the hardy types. Marguerites, or Boston daisies bring the look of a shasta daisy to a container. Annual phlox flowers look much like phlox subulata, or moss phlox. Angelonia is a graceful stand in for veronica, or any other spike forming perennial. So why not plant the perennials in the containers?  Perennials have a very limited and specific bloom time. If cut back, many perennials will rebloom, but the down time is significant. Annuals that have that perennial aura, with some exceptions, tend to have a more relaxed habit of growth.  That more cottage like farm and garden look is easy on the eye.  What says summer breeze in our zone better than daisies? Getting sunflowers to work in a formal or contemporary container would be tough. Sunflowers look like they belong in the vegetable garden, no matter how they are placed. They have an aura.

The arrangement of the plants in a given container creates a distinctive mood.  Symmetrical arrangements are more formal. I usually plant my pots symmetrically, as my pots are formal and classic/traditional Italian terra cotta. That style pot works well with my 1930’s house. The pots are a big part of the composition.  What do your pots ask for?  Asymmetrical arrangements of many types of plants is more garden like, and less fussy. Plantings of a single cultivar are the most formal, and also the most contemporary. Planting a stiff growing plant (like a dahlia) with an airy growing plant (like euphorbia diamond frost) relaxes the look. The relationships established by the color and form of one plant to its companions is part of why gardening in containers is so interesting

Of course, color plays a big part in the selection of plants.  Some colors are appealing; others not so much. Pink and orange together is loud, even rowdy. Gray and white is subtle. All white, and all green-so chic. Purple and red looks like royalty. Yellow and white is sunny. This is my take on color combinations. Everyone sees color differently. How you see color, texture, mass and form should be evident in what plants you choose for your containers. What will I plant?  I have no idea…yet.

 

 

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Spring Beauty

Once our season finally and resolutely turns away from winter and embraces spring, there is enough fresh heaven to make any gardener’s heart beat faster. The early blooming ornamental trees light up the springtime sky with masses of flowers overhead. The flowers of the magnolias, crab apples, cherries, apples, and dogwoods bloom with abandon.The lime green flowers of maple trees against the blue spring sky sing spring. The buds on the bare branches of deciduous shrubs swell, break dormancy, and begin to leaf out. The garden coming back to life is pure joy to the heart of a gardener. The wild flowers have been holding forth for at least a month. That substantial group we know as spring flowering bulbs are in the thick of their bloom. The lilacs are beginning to bloom; bravo, beloved syringa! Everywhere a gardener looks, there are plants growing and blooming. Intoxicating, this moment.

Our April may be and usually is rainy and cool. All the plants drink up the April weather. Every plant has its own schedule – no surprise here.  Plants are very specific about what conditions they want to survive, grow and bloom. At this moment, every plant in the landscape is making their much anticipated yearly debut. Every individual voice is contributing to that symphony we call spring.

PJM rhododendrons tolerate our hot summers and frosty winters better than the big flowered and big leaved rhododendron maximum that grow like weeds to 15 feet in the warmer woods and gardens in Pennsylvania.  I will confess I have a few of those big rhodies in my garden. I coax them along. But the PJM hybrid grows and blooms reliably.  The flowers are an electric shade of light purple. If you like your spring served up with a side order of splashy, plant some.

One of spring’s most breathtaking moments is an espaliered fruit tree in full bloom. Melissa and her sister own a celebrated landscape design/build and maintenance company in my area. She bought this espalier from Detroit Garden Works years ago, and has spent a good many more years training this tree to embrace her chimney at home. She put many years of thoughtful pruning to make this expression of spring what it is – sensational. I have never seen better. The big idea here is that an espalier of this caliber can be grown by anyone who is into the garden for the long haul.

A mass of yellow and white tulips is as cheery as it is striking. Though the bloom time is fleeting, I cannot imagine a spring without tulips. This is a very dressed up and showy spring moment, whether you plant 60 or 600.

The dogwoods are just now coming in to flower, and they are spectacular this year. Only one year in 3 or 4 do mine bloom this profusely. As long as the weather stays cool, the blossoms will hold. Cool spring nights lengthens the life all the early bloomers, much like a floral cooler extends the life of cut flowers.

The peonies are not blooming yet – they will be the star of the June garden. But they are in season as cut flowers. These Coral Charm peonies bring the spring indoors. I was able to watch them open from the bud stage top the full blown flowers for over a week.

The Branch Studio has a new line of contemporary pots and garden tables. Nothing says new better than a wall of Boston ivy leafing out, and ostrich ferns unfurling. Weeks ago we planned to photograph them in front of this wall as it was emerging. This early spring moment is to be treasured.  Though I am as anxious as anyone else to be outdoors enjoying warm weather, the spring season is as much a time to appreciate the process of the greening, as it is a time to plan and plant.

This block of Himalayan white barked birch planted 15 years ago is beautiful in every season. The spring show is about the catkins, or flowers.  Hundreds of tiny flowers are arranged around a drooping spike. A catkin is as subtle as can be, but many thousands of them create haze of green that hovers above all of those stark white branches. A quiet kind of spring beauty, this.

For a gardener who is looking to make changes in the design of their landscape and garden, now is the perfect time to focus intently on the part that plants play in creating structure and shape. The bare bones are greening up, and the perfect time to plant is just ahead.

 

 

 

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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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