May Days

the spring garden (7)If you are a gardener in my zone, there is nothing quite like the experience of May. The winter lets go reluctantly. Early March was warm and friendly. Late March, April and the first two weeks of May were chilly enough to put on a jacket, and zip it up. When I went to work yesterday morning, the air temperature was 37 degrees. These are personal observations. The dormant trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs have been responding to physical changes in the temperature and day length in a different way.  Once all of the signs suggest it is time to bud out, leaf out, or emerge from the ground, the plants go for broke. They don’t much respond to daily changes. An apple tree in full bloom has next to no defense against a string of below freezing temperatures. For sheer drama, the spring is hard to beat.

American dogwood It is so hard to believe this is already the 23rd day of May. For 23 days, I have been observing the process of spring.  The hellebores and crocus emerge early.  They are long finished blooming.  The daffodils have had a very long run, given the past month of cold nights. Only a few straggling blooms remain.   The tulips were challenged by the warm and then the cold, and then the May snow-it was not their best year.  The magnolias have already shed most of their flowers. My American dogwoods are in full bloom-how incredibly beautiful they are this spring. All of the evergreens are pushing that lush lime green spring growth that makes my gardening heart beat a little faster.  The azaleas and lily of the valley in my north side garden are blooming in much the same fashion as they have for the past 22 years.

the spring garden (8)The few perennials that I have are growing with abandon.  The lady’s mantle, catmint, and delphiniums are especially robust. That growing with abandon is a good description of the spring season.  I do not have a fancy landscape or garden. It is an ordinary trial and true urban garden. It is shot through with early spring weeds. There are places where the design is less than stellar, or not apparent. Woe the design move that is not visually apparent!  There are more than a few places that need updating. There is no time to think about that now.  The spring is the time to enjoy each and every plant emerging from the strangle hold of winter.

spring garden (23)To my delight, a modest stand of sweet woodruff, and campanula porscharskayana has completely covered the ground. The leafy remains of some old daffodils are grassy good contrast to the plants covering the ground. The weeds in the path – they are growing with abandon too. The obsession with pulling my weeds and cleaning up will come later. I am wholly engaged in watching the plants do what they do.

the spring garden (2)I have only 3 plants of variegated lily of the valley. None of them have particularly increased in size over the past 3 years. This plant has two stalks this year-how great is that? These three plants, growing in spite of being overrun by ivy, may be small, but they are an important part of my experience of spring.

the spring garden (14)The joy of designing is different. It so much more about architecture, flow, and sculpture.  It is much about line, direction, mass, texture, color, and function. Though I am designing for clients, and have done so regularly since the beginning of March, my spring is all about the plants.

the spring garden (13)I live in an urban neighborhood. Some landscapes and gardens are well designed.  Other properties have nothing much that could be attributed to great design, but every one of their plants is growing just the same as mine. If they falter from neglect, that sorry situation will become apparent later. I take several things from this.  Nature has its own independent agenda. And, those gardeners who are more interested in plants than design have my respect. At this moment in the season, I am right with them. Even though the grasses and hardy hibiscus will not be fully grown and in their glory until much later, watching the process by which they broach the spring is every bit as interesting as their flowers.  The spring means good things for every square inch of ground from which a plant might grow.

the spring garden (16)The parrotias are leafing out so fast, the leaves are wilted from the effort.

the spring garden (10)The ferns and hostas are in that gawky adolescent phase.

spring garden (29)The Princeton gold maple leaves are the most shocking shade of chartreuse imaginable.  Later in the summer, that lime green will fade to green.

spring garden (26)Everywhere I look something is growing.

spring garden (16) - CopyA seedling Helleborus argutifolius has taken 4 years to grow to blooming size.  A mild winter means I have had the please of three blooming stalks for over a month now.

spring garden (10) - CopyWhat great May days we are having.




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.

Planting Container Gardens for Spring

spring container gardensYesterday morning dawned very windy, very rainy, and very cold. This is entirely normal for Michigan in mid-May.  What gardener is surprised by this?  All of us. Once Mother’s Day comes and goes, all of us expect that the time to plant summer containers is nigh.  Nothing could be further from the reality.  Spring in Michigan lasts for 3 months-the same length as any other season. Detroit Garden Works does have plants available now – as in cold tolerant, road ready for a spring container, plants. Cold sensitive summer plants – those are best kept in the greenhouse where they are being grown until the night temperatures are reliably above 50 degrees. . We have planted lots of pots for the shop in the past month, but all of those plants are adaptable to chilly spring conditions.

May 6, 2015 025We had lots of people come in yesterday, in spite of the pouring rain and cold. Our Amanda spent half the day scheming with Rob about how to protect our plants from the predicted overnight low of 32 degrees.  Gardeners of every persuasion, dressed in fleeces, rain jackets, sweaters, knee high rain boots and warm hats were asking in one way or another about when to plant for summer. I gave the same answer that I always give.  not now; not yet.

spring container gardensIt is fine to plant containers for spring now. It has been fine since late March. A late March planted container will thrive until the beginning of July. March, April and May are spring months in Michigan. Only cold tolerant plants thrive in containers during the spring season. Our  summer season opens in June, and goes through August. Would that I could convince more northern zone gardeners to celebrate the spring with lots of spring flowering bulbs and cold tolerant container plants. We hold a spring fair every year, with exactly that purpose in mind. There is so much about the spring season to enjoy. Experiencing the process of the landscape and garden waking up in spring is an extraordinarily beautiful phase.

DSC_5433 We planted lots of containers with daffodils this past fall.  From the moment the leaves broke ground until the blooms began to open was over 6 weeks ago. Watching those bulbs break dormancy  is an experience of the spring season that is not to be missed. A container planted with spring flowering bulbs provides a visual short course in how the seasons change from winter to spring. Some foliage that emerged early was damaged during a run of very cold nights in late March. The flower buds were unharmed, as they came later. Our cold persisted throughout April, and now in to May. Those normal chilly temperatures are a luxury. All the spring flowers going into nature’s cooler at night means they are available to enjoy over the longest possible period of time.

potted daffodilsYou may think the spring arrives overnight, and vanishes within a few days. This is not the case. The trouble and expense of planting containers for spring will be rewarded with a whole season’s worth of pleasure.  We do not force our daffodils.  We pot them up, and winter them in our unheated garage.  As soon as the temperatures warm a bit in March, we move them outside.  The fact that the bulbs are not forced into bloom outside of their normal season means they can be planted out in the garden, where they will bloom at the normal time next year.

potted daffodils It is not a good idea to plant for summer just yet. There are so many good options for spring one hardly knows where to begin.  In the garden, the hellebores and spring flowering bulbs have been in bloom for weeks.  The scilla hyacinthoides and camassia are coming on.  The sweet woodruff, and loads of spring wildflowers are in bloom. The Virginia bluebells are particularly good this year. The magnolias are still holding on, and the crabapples are still coming on. The American dogwoods are in full bloom. My clematis have been growing steadily, and are budding up.  A dense patch of ornithogalum is in bloom. The fern fronds are uncurling, and the hostas spikes roll out new leaves every day.  The fresh leaves on the Princeton Gold maples are the most intense shade of chartreuse imaginable. So much spring around us!  There is something new to see every day.  These are not the dog days of summer. These are the emerging days. Some containers to compliment the spring season-a natural.

Mother's Day flowers (7)Is it fine to plant containers for summer right now?  No, it is not. Spring is not the time to plant for summer. Summer annuals look out of place now, as they are not yet in season. Nor will they do well. Tropical plants set out into cold soil and air temperatures may be set back for for a long time from cold shock. Your local greenhouse can easily reach 80 degrees on better on a sunny day. Plants that thrive at 80 degrees do not want to be outside now.  If you made no plans to plant a few containers for spring, it is not too late. What you plant today will be great looking into July.

spring lettuceThe spring is a great season for container planting.


Vernissage 2016

008Seven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first post entitled Vernissage. As in a beginning-not only of the gardening season, but a beginning for my writing. How pleased I was to have a  a forum for my gardening journal!  I  revisited and revised this first post in 2010,  2012, 2014, and 2015. To follow is this year’s version of that first essay, Vernissage.

VERNISSAGE (15)Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word recently from a client with whom I have a history spanning 25 years. She is an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke a lot to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I have learned plenty from her, and from her garden, over the years. In the beginning, I planted flowers for her.  Our relationship developed such that I began to design, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in every square foot of her 8 acre park.  Needless to say, the years flew by, from one project to the next.  I have favorite projects. An edited collection of fine white peony cultivars dating from the late 19th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and planted new. I learned how to operate a bulldozer,  I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground.  There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer was nearly a full time job. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work existing that I call the landscape.

May 11, 2016 006In a broader sense, vernissage refers to a beginning- any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh and spring ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does.  But every spring opening has its distinctive features. Some springs are notable for their icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground. The snow that can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of drama altogether. A very warm early March, and then a stony silent cold we have yet to shake.  I usually associate spring with the singing of the birds. I hardly noticed the singing this year, until this past week. The cold that has been reluctant to leave means my experience of spring has been late. But every spring gives me the chance to experience the garden differently. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I anticipate. This past winter was mild. Endlessly mild. That endless and mild cold is still going on. It has been hard to rev up. The last of this cold just about reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground.  Spring is finally underway, in a chilly sort of way.  I may not like the lingering cold, but my spring plants are holding.  The daffodils are incredible this year.  The magnolias have been blooming for weeks. The hellebores have been in bloom for going on 6 weeks.  The leaves are beginning to emerge.  The perennial garden is stirring.

VERNISSAGE (1)Much of what I love about landscape design has to do with the notion of second chances. I have an idea.  I put it to paper.  I do the work of installing it.  Then I wait for an answer back. This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back. The speeches come from everywhere-the design that could be better here and more finished there. The client, for whom something is not working well, chimes in. The weather, the placement and planting final exam test my knowledge and skill.   The land whose form is beautiful but whose drainage is heinous teaches me a thing or two about good structure.  The singing comes from everywhere. I make changes, and then more changes.  I wait for this to grow in and that to mature.  I stake up the arborvitae hedge gone over with ice, and know it will be two years or more-the recovery.  I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, and no end.

VERNISSAGE (4)This spring will see an average share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs.  The winter cold and wind was neither here nor there. I am still wearing warm clothes. But no matter what the last season dished out, sooner or later, I get my spring.  I can compost my transgressions. The sun shines on the good things, and the not so good things, equally.  It is my choice to take my chances, and renew my membership.  The birds singing this 11th day of May l means it is time to take stock.  And get started.

VERNISSAGE (3)I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can coax or stake what the heavy snow crushed.  I can prune back the shrubs damaged by the voles eating the bark.  I can trim the sunburn from the yews and alberta spruce.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Spring means the beginning of the opening of the garden. I can sit in the early spring sun, and soak up the possibilities. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, renovate, plant new.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound good? I can hear the birds now; louder. Rob’s spring pots of daffodils have been in uninterrupted bloom for weeks.

April 5, 2016 047This spring marks 24 years that Rob and I began working together, and 20 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. There have been ups and downs, but the relationship endures, and evolves.  Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works is an invention from the two of us that reflects the length and the depth of our mutual interest in the garden.  No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.  The beginning of the gardening season we short list as the vernissage.

VERNISSAGE (14)We have begun to plant up spring pots.  Our pots feature hellebores, primrose, and spring flowering bulbs. What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt.

VERNISSAGE (9)My garden at home is greening up. A sunny but chilly evening brings me outdoors. Being outside today without a winter parka- divine. The thought that the entire gardening season is dead ahead is a very special kind of delight.

VERNISSAGE (2)Vernissage? By this I mean spring. I am so enjoying it.