Saving The Best For Last

Persian ironwoodMy designing life may have been consumed with finishing up as many of our landscape projects as possible, and dealing with the demands of our holiday and winter container work, but the garden has never been far from my mind. Every day, as I am loading up the corgis in the morning, or preparing for them to disembark in the evening, I see what is pictured above. This antique French pot from Biot sits on an Italian terracotta socle, which in turn sits on top of the substantial stump of a maple that succumbed years ago to girdling roots. It was made in the early part of the 20th century by a French pottery that is no longer. I love the shape, the color, and the history. The pale yellow glazed rim finishes the hand thrown raw clay body. There is ample evidence of its age.  Moss spores have infiltrated the surface, and taken up residence. I have never felt the need to plant this pot, as I doubt a planting would make it look any better than it already does.  It pleases me to see this pot every day, in every season, year after year. In the summer, the ground is covered by Sum and Substance hostas, and ferns. In mid-November, the pot is embraced by a pair of Parrotias, just coming into fall color.

persian ironwoodThis essay is not really about my old garden pot. It is about a not so well known and underused small growing tree that saves the best of its beauty for the last of the year. Parrotia persica is the only species in the genus Parrotia. The tree matures at about 25′ tall, and as wide. My group of four trees has been in the ground for close to 20 years, and might be 18 feet tall.  Suffice it to say they grow very slowly. It is irregular growing, and branches out quite close to the ground.  Parrotia persica is one of only two only species in the genus Parrotia. The loosely oblong leaves are quite reminiscent of hamamelis, or witch hazel.  This is not surprising, as they are in the same family. Those leaves have a purple/copper colored  tinge when they emerge in the spring, which matures to a deep  rich green in summer.

persian ironwoodPersian ironwood is reputed to have some of the best fall color of any deciduous tree. A single tree may have red, yellow, orange and maroon colored leaves at the same time. Only once in a while do I get fall color like this.  In most years, the leaves turn yellow and peach, long after many other trees have already dropped their leaves. By the time they begin turning color, all of the hostas and ferns that grow in proximity to them have gone dormant.

persian ironwoodThe branch structure and exfoliating bark endows this tree with considerable winter interest.  The old bark sheds in a patchy way, revealing the new bark underneath. It is not uncommon for the bark on my trees to have green, yellow, peach, gray and brown coloration all at the same time. The bark does not shed in huge sheets like the London Plane.  I rarely notice the flaking bark on the ground. The literature says that parrotias bloom in very early spring, much like witch hazel.  Clusters of red stamens are surrounded by brownish bracts; the flowers do not have much in the way of petals.  The bloom is subtle.  That said, I have never seen my parrotias bloom.

parrotia persicaAt the end of December, the trees still had most of their leaves.  The yellow fall color had matured to a rich coppery color. Though the landscape and garden has gone dormant, this spot is still beautiful in color and texture. These leaves will hold most of the winter, no matter how tough that winter might be.  Some leaves will last long enough to be pushed off by the new leaves emerge in the spring. Should you have a winter season, a parrotia is at its most beautiful at that time of year. The picea abies “mucronata”, or dwarf Norway spruces, and the parrotias completely screen this part of my garden from the street.

The old pot has a sheltered place to be.

persian ironwoodAs a result of the horrifically cold winter we had three years ago, I did have twig die back in the midsection of this tree. That damage is easy to see in the picture above. I would have thought the damage from the cold and wind would have been most prominent at the top of the tree. I cannot explain what happened, but the trees have begun to recover. I have never seen any damage from insects or disease, and I do nothing to look after it besides watering the hostas around them during dry spells. Parrotias are remarkably healthy and just about maintenance free.

 

persian ironwoodI may have snow and cold for the next few months, but I will also have this parrotia, and three others, all decked out for winter.

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The Hydrangeas

Little Lime hydrangeasSometime between mid July and mid August, the Limelight hydrangeas come in to bloom. It is a moment worth waiting for. The fast growing large leaved plants bloom profusely on the current year’s growth. They are easy to cultivate, asking for not much more that some decent light and some regular water. The spectacularly large flowers are a gorgeous mixture of lime green and white. Limelight hydrangeas are known for their sturdy stems, which keep those flowers aloft in all but the stormiest weather. They do need a lot of room. A single well grown shrub can grow 8′ tall by 8′ wide. Hydrangea “Little Lime”, pictured above, is a hybrid of Limelight that only grows 4-5 feet tall, and as wide. They make themselves right at home in an informal or cottage style garden. But its relaxed habit of growth can look just as interesting in an alternative universe –  a more formal planting.

Little Lime hydrangeasThis mature size is not only friendly to smaller gardens, it looks great in a mass planting. This landscape is situated on a very steep slope, so these Little Limes are responding to the force of gravity. Some gardeners may find their sprawling habit unruly and irritating. Others will find them charming, even beautiful. They certainly endow the late summer garden with their willingness to bloom. All of the pictures in this post but one were taken on days with temperatures above 90 degrees.

hydrangea LimelightMy Limelights are 12 years old, or more.  Some years I prune them down to between 24″ and 30″ inches.  Some years I only remove the old flower heads and 6″ of stem. I always prune them in the spring, when the leaf buds begin to swell. The final result in terms of the flowering and height is fairly uniform, year to year, no matter how I prune. This illustrates the important of choosing shrubs whose mature size will fit the space that is available. I have been watering them twice a week for the past several months, as we have had very little rain.  The group to the far right in this picture get the least water, as they are difficult to reach.  They are shorter than usual, but they have plenty of flowers. How reliable they are to grow and bloom is a very good reason to plant them.

after the rainYesterday morning, after an exceptionally heavy and blustery rain, the water soaked flowers had fallen over in to the path. We’ll see what happens once they dry out. There is no staking hydrangeas at this stage.  If you are bound and determined to keep them upright, very stout and tall tomato cages need to be put in place in the spring. If the flower heads do not spring back up, I will cut some, put them in water, and let them dry indoors.

limelight hydrangeaLimelight hydrangeas can provide an easy going and breezy sense of enclosure. My hydrangeas are planted in a block, not in a single row.  Though the shrubs are very open growing, multiple staggered rows provide a dense green screen which makes my front yard garden quite private.

hedge of limelight hydrangeasGiven enough room, a generous sweep of Limelight hydrangeas can be quite architectural in feeling. Once these hydrangeas are pruned in the spring, they are not pruned again until the following spring.  Few deciduous shrubs can tolerate or perform well having been sheared. Hydrangeas are no exception. Prune to the best of your ability in the spring, and then turn loose of them. Looking for a rule?  The plants will tell you a very detailed story. Very few things bother hydrangeas.  They will bloom in part shade, but not as profusely. The flowers will be smaller, and the leaves will singe on the edges if they get too dry. I mulch them with bark fines in the spring after I prune. I water infrequently, but regularly. Outside of that, I just enjoy them.

limelight hydrangea Limelight is a hybrid of hydrangea paniculata.  Paniculata refers to the fact that the flower heads of these hydrangeas are comprised of hundreds of individual flowers arranged in a cluster around the flower stalk-this flower form is called a panicle. The individual florets will acquire a pink tinge as they age. When the temperatures cool down in the fall, the flowers will age to rose pink. I water the plants more in the early fall than I do in late summer. Truly?  The sure sign of a plant that has gone too dry are flowers that brown before their time. I do everything I can to extend the hydrangea season. I do leave the flower heads on all winter – why not?  Most of them stick tight throughout the winter for me.

August 10,2016 (64)I do not grow hydrangea Little Lime at home, but I have planted plenty of them elsewhere. Their shorter stature means there are flowers at eye level, on top of this retaining wall.  Had I planted the much bigger Limelight in this location, I would be looking in to the stems from the lower level. I recently planted a row of Little Limes in front of an old hedge of Limelights.  This will insure flowers from top to bottom.

August 10,2016 (71)The Little Limes smaller size makes them quite companionable to a host of other perennial and annual plants.

hydrangea BoboHydrangea Bobo is not related to either Limelight or Little Lime, but it is a panicle hydrangea.  Hybridized by Johan Van Huylenbroeck, the same breeder that developed the Pinky Winky hydrangea,  was patented and introduced by Proven Winners. Topping out at 3′ tall by up to 4′ wide, it is beautiful in a mass. Though this group has only been in the ground for 2 inhospitably hot and dry months, they are blooming.  By next year, the chances are good they will completely cover this large sunny area. I can cross this group of Bobo’s off my list of plantings to worry about. They’ll be back.

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Covering The Ground

groundcover (2)Not every plant in the landscape is the star of the show. What constitutes the star of the show, and whether you need one in a landscape is a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that if a design is deliberately composed around a center of interest, or constellation of interests, that focal point organizes the visual experience.  Every visual element has a different visual weight. The sum of all of the visual weights is zero – zero at the bone. What do I mean by this?  That incredible feeling that accompanies the experience of anything landscape that is breathtakingly beautiful. I am sure every gardener understands that moment. That most important landscape element, whether it be a beautiful beech, or a gorgeous arbor, or a pool, asks for a supporting cast. That cast may involve a whole host of shrubs or perennials of more modest demeanor than the diva plant. Or a series of plants that willingly covers the ground in proximity to that focal point. Little plants can do big work. Bare soil is an invitation for weeds and permits water to evaporate too quickly. Bark mulch is useful for slowing the evaporation of soil moisture, but it is not a ground cover. Some ground cover plants, with very little intervention on the part of a gardener, enable a good green show to go on. Ground cover? Ground cover is the green equivalent of a green skin, or the green equivalent of a considerable or deliberately designed mass. What does it take for you to notice a plant that is covering the ground? Lots of them. Truth be told, any plant, or combination of plants, could be a ground cover. If you think ground cover only applies to pachysandra, vinca, baltic ivy, and low growing junipers, there is a whole world of ground cover plants, and ground cover combinations that could energize, and de-mulchify your garden.  What are the options? I cannot take any credit for this mix of campanula porscharskyana and sweet woodruff in my yard.  I planted both in proximity to each other.  Nature did the rest. How this group of plants cover the ground is a partially shady area is beautiful.

groundcover (3)Sweet woodruff is a determined grower.  4 years go I tried to dig it out of my hellebore beds.  So much work to no end. It took four years, but every bit of it is back.  Sweet woodruff is small and hard working.  How did it jump my gravel path? How did that sweet woodruff get established in the ivy?  I have no answers. It is a good idea to make some moves, and then let nature respond to your ideas. I am in favor of a ground cover that is a mix of plants. Interested in a vigorous mixer?  Creeping jenny, either the lime or the all green version, will cozy up to anything it is planted with.

groundcover (4)The hosta Gold Drop is an old cultivar, but it covers the ground as if it were a teenager. What would I mix this hosta with? It is already mixed with baltic ivy.  Were I to try to introduce another plant, I would go for something taller.  As in variegated Solomon’s seal, or in lighter shade, kalimeris “Blue Star”.

groundcover (5)Lily of the Valley is a ground cover that spreads all over the place.  The beautifully scented flowers in the spring are delightful.  They need a careful placing.  Not too much sun. A liberal dusting of shade.  Lacking a perfect setting, this groundcover will tolerate both deep shade and a fair amount of sun.  A ground cover that is this easy to place and grow is a plus.  Easy to place and vigorously growing might mean invasive.  Planting invasive plants in certain areas in a landscape might be a good idea. Think that through. Some years, the leaves of Lily of the Valley are singed with fungus. It is not perfect, but that is no reason not to consider it.  groundcover (6)I do like my Japanese beech ferns. They spread more readily with some sun, but they tolerate deep shade.  It is a ground cover with more height than the usual  ground cover plants.  I did mix them with European ginger.

groundcover (8)European ginger is a ground cover any gardener could love.  The round to heart shaped leaves are glossy gorgeous.  They can prosper in a wide range of conditions. When it is happy, it will seed vigorously.

groundcover (7)The conditions around my fountain range from full sun to considerable shade. The isotoma I planted here is happy as it can be – from the shade to the sun. It is a supporting cast to my lead cherubs sitting on limestone spheres, and my fountain. Isotoma Fluviatilis is a willing ground cover in full sun to part shade. It likes plenty of water, even going into the winter.  When it is happy, it readily creeps in every direction. I like that it stops short of covering the feet of these lead sculptures.  This groundcover bed is only 18 inches wide.  This would not be a spot for baltic ivy, vinca, or pachysandra, or any other large growing plant.

groundcover (9)Hellebores make a beautiful ground cover. They are crown growing, which means you have to plant them fairly close together. Given a few years, they will cover lots of ground with gorgeous glossy leaves that persist well in to winter, and early spring flowers.

August 7 2016 (33)I have ground cover of a different sort on my deck. My wood deck would be a bleak affair, but for all of the pots I have planted there. All of my planted pots are a ground cover for the focal point. This deck is a place for Buck and I to meet at the end of the day, and a place for our friends to come for dinner. All of these deck covers make having dinner outdoors a pleasure.

006I planted lots of 15″ Green Gem boxwood as a ground cover for this client with a very contemporary home.  The idea here is that a ground cover could be 2 inches tall, or three feet tall. Any plant that is planted in a mass constitutes a ground cover.

bobo hydrangeaBobo hydrangeas are fairly new to me. They grow 30″ tall, by 30″ wide. This is my first effort to cover ground with hydrangeas. I’ll bet within a year or two they will completely cover this large area.

groundcover (10)Happy coming home tonight-to all those plants that cover my ground.

 

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More Reasons To Plant Containers For Spring

Spring flowersPlanting containers for spring is a great idea. To follow are some of my favorites.

spring container plantings

stock and alyssum

favorite spring pots

bok choy in containers

May containers

lavender in a basket

chard and pansies

 spring pots

spring trough

small spring containers

a bucket full of spring flowers

favorite spring pots

baskets and tubs 005

persian queen geranium and lobeliaMy recommendation for containers this 17th of May in Michigan?  Do not be thinking coleus, New Guinea impatiens, begonias, licorice in any of its forms, sweet potato vine, cannas – the list of summer container tropical that do not tolerate cold soil is long. Annual plants that are greenhouse grown for summer containers will not like our cold soil, or the cold air.  Refrain from planting these cold sensitive plants until the soil and the air temperatures warm up. Containers planted with spring and cold tolerant plants deliver every bit of three months, and will happily accompany your spring garden coming on. Choose to be in real time. The choices are many.

spring container in mid MayThe tropical annuals that are greenhouse grown for summer containers are living in a warm world right now. Everything regarding their culture is right as rain.  They have great soil. They have been fertilized. They are growing in a warm environment. Their place on a greenhouse bench is an ideal world. A greenhouse, on a sunny day in March, gets very warm, as in upwards of 80 degrees.  Those sunny days in April push those plants with tropical origins into very active growth.  A greenhouse crop of container plants is usually available for purchase way ahead of predictably warm weather outdoors. The transition from a hot house to your garden can be a huge shock to those plants. If you do not have a glass house to protect annual topical plants from the late spring Michigan weather, focus on what the spring has to offer.

viola potI understand the idea to shop now. Every serious gardener wants to purchase the best from a big collection. I would only suggest that your awesome early picks need to be, at the very least, housed in the garage until the night temperatures are reliably over 50 degrees. It can be heartbreaking, getting ahead of the weather.  At this moment, I am trying to stay focused on all thing spring.