Fall Planting

If you garden in southeastern Michigan, your garden is drenched. We have had the kind of steady hard rain spanning a good many days that I call mushroom rain. I see them popping up everywhere. I am not complaining. We have had a very dry summer, and a hot and dry early fall. The cabbage and kale at the shop have needed daily water. My pots at home needed water just about that often. I have worried about the dogwoods that need water in September to set good buds for the following spring, and the evergreens that need to be water loaded and juicy before the ground freezes. I know from my large tree contractor that our ground is dust dry, down deep. The trees he has been digging with a large tree mover have dry rootballs. This has made me very uneasy about what a very cold and windy winter might mean to a plant that has not had sufficient water during the growing season. Few perennials, shrubs or trees are prepared for the winter having gone through the summer and fall bone dry. But for those few plants that rely on dryer winter conditions for survival – though I am sure there are plenty, I am thinking some species of iris, and lavender that do not tolerate wet winter conditions –  most plants like a little stored water and nutrients before they have to face the winter. Perennials whose tops die back to the ground in the fall still have a robust and juicy root system that sustains them through the winter. Deciduous shrubs shed their leaves in the fall-yes.  But their living stems will need to survive all the harsh conditions that a winter has to dish out, and enough stored energy left over to leaf out in the spring.

The dormant/winter season for plants is nothing like my winter sleep. My blankets and a dose of house heat keeps me warm. Nothing about me or around me freezes. A usual night’s sleep is 8 hours or so. A temporary respite. Mammals that hibernate the entire winter season astonish me. They do not come out of hibernation especially ready to face the day. They have lost a lot of weight, and are very hungry and thirsty. Hibernation is not at all like a good night’s sleep. I am reminded of the time a surgeon advised me that I would not be “asleep” for my surgery. I would be unconscious, and all of my normal functions paralyzed. A machine would breathe for me. The surgical team would see to it that my life was sustained. Though I appreciated his candor, I was frightened by this. No plant has a surgical team standing by. Their condition going into the winter will either be enough to sustain them throughout, or not. Our winter is not a big sleep. Dormant means shut down. Strong winter winds and low temperatures take their toll on plants whose only defense against the winter was a kindly summer and fall season. Needless to say, I have been watering like crazy.

I have no idea if the torrential rains we have had the past week will be enough to sustain my shrubs and trees through the winter, but it can’t hurt. I have not dug down to see how deep this rain has penetrated, but I know enough to be happy for every drop we have had.

Our fall is usually cool, and the rain is somewhat regular. It is a perfect time to plant. The weather is mild. The plants are no longer in active growth, so moving them is less stressful. Unlike the spring season, when planting conditions can be less than ideal. The soil is freezing cold even though the ground has thawed. Sopping wet spring soil can be a poor environment for newly planted plants. The act of planting compacts the wet soil, driving out much needed air. The night time temperatures can swing up and down without warning. Spring is a sweet season for established plants, but can be very tough on new plantings. Who in Michigan has not witnessed tulips in full bloom encased in ice, and snow on the ground? So many times, my hope to plant a landscape in late March has had to wait until May. Michigan summers can be brutal. The heat and dry in the summer can be hard on transplanted trees, shrubs and perennials. No matter how much I water, the plants look grief stricken. Fall planting is a recipe for success in my zone. Though the daytime/night time temperatures are cool, the soil is much warmer than it was in the spring. The water from the sky seems like it is packed with vitamins and minerals, doesn’t it?

I am delighted with the prolonged rain. I hope that water has made some inroads on our dry soil. Cool fall temperatures mean that rain does not evaporate very quickly. The effects of our heavy rains will surely persist. I could have never delivered this volume and quality of water from my hose. My container plantings are most certainly coming to the end of their season. But the recent rains have endowed them with some saturated fall color.

A rain drenched garden is a good looking garden. Even these drought tolerant variegated kalanchoes look invigorated by the rain.   I can think of only a very few times when my garden was threatened by excessive rain. In most cases, water distress has more to do with poor drainage than too much rain. Our parched ground may not be restored to a normal moisture content by our recent rains, but every drop of it is appreciated.

Chilly, windy and rainy fall weather-bring it on. We have more to plant.

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The Last On The Limelight Hydrangeas

Given that close to 7000 gardeners have read my last post on hydrangeas in the past few days, I am encouraged to write again.  I went back out last night to rephotograph my hydrangeas with a specific purpose in mind. How do I site them in the landscape, and how do I take care of them? I have a significant disclaimer up front. How I grow hydrangeas is not the be all and end all. How I grow them works for me.  What will work for you involves a lot of independent thought, trial, and error. I would be the first to suggest that you trust your own experience over mine. That said, first up is a discussion about how to grow and manage these big shrubs. No matter where you plant them, hydrangeas reward a gardener who is willing to prune. I only prune in the spring, when the buds are beginning to swell. Limelight hydrangeas that have gotten leggy and ungainly will respond to a pruning to within 18″-24″ above grade. Just be advised that a hard pruning is a restorative pruning that may take 2 years to bring them back up to heavy blooming stage. A yearly pruning down to 18″-24″ results in fewer, and larger flowers.

Want more flowers rather than large flowers? Prune the topmost branches shorter than the bottom branches-so every branch is exposed to the light. Prune several times early in the season to promote branching. Come mid May, I stop pruning.This hydrangea on standard has a beautiful branchy structure as a result of multiple pruning sessions. Notice how the flowers are much smaller than my hydrangeas at home? Post an early spring pruning, a lighter pruning over the course of a few spring weeks results in an embarrassment of riches in smaller flowers.

In love with the giant flowers? Prune vigorously. Pruning deciduous shrubs is not just a matter of style, and it certainly is not a matter of control. Pruning promotes growth that maximizes the opportunity for good blooming. A Limelight left to its own devices will have lots of growth on the top that eventually results in leggy and leafless lower branches.

Big shrubs do and will grow big. Harder pruning may result in a finished size and height at the low end of their growth range. Severe pruning-as in pruning right down to the ground, forces growth from below ground, from what are called basal shoots. I never prune hydrangeas that hard. I like having some old wood to support all those new branches to come. Pruning is all about what the future. The Limelights bloom on new wood – the current year’s growth. If you grow hydrangeas that bloom on the previous year’s growth, prune right after they bloom. This enables them to grow and set flowers for the season to come before winter. Leave them be until after they bloom the following year. But no matter what cultivar you grow, adequate light and water will reward your effort to grow them.

Hydrangeas are big growing shrubs with course leaves and giant flowers. This means they are eminently able to hold down a spot in the garden all on their own. But how does a gardener beautifully integrate them into a garden and landscape?  I make sure they have lots of company-both taller and shorter. My landscape can accommodate them at their full height. I have a much larger and taller hedge of arborvitae planted behind them. That dark green foliage highlights the flowers in a dramatic way.

There are several more layers of plantings in front of them. A hedge of Hicks yews whose health had been declining for years was removed. A series of planter boxes were put in their place. This years planting of nicotiana and angelonia is as loose and airy as the hydrangeas are solid and stiff. Companions to hydrangeas that have a looser habit of growth compliment them. A middle layer of loosely pruned taxus densiformis is faced down with clipped boxwood shapes. 4 layers of companionship is none too few for a shrub that grows 6-8 feet tall.

Limelight hydrangeas integrated into a garden

Limelight hydrangea hedge faced down with boxwood

Limelight hydrangeas faced down with anemone “Honorine Jobert”

hedge of Limelights as a border to a large group of mixed evergreens

These hydrangeas are pruned to keep them at a 5.5-6 foot height.

Between the large evergreens and the hydrangeas is a mass of boltonia asteroides.

Limelights and boxwood

Limelights in a garden

new planting of annabelles and limelights together

Limelights blooming top to bottom

Limelights massed in containers

My client’s containers featuring Limelights on standard are robust and showy this early part of September. We will heel them in the ground at our landscape yard late in the fall, and plant them back in these pots come spring. I do have clients who have and do winter them over in their containers.  I am not that nervy with plants that do not belong to me, but I am not surprised to hear this. Hydrangeas ask for little, and are so satisfying to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome Home, Boxwood

My last two posts about this project might make you suspect that my primary interest in this landscape has to do with hard structures. Not so. The hard structures just need to be installed first, as they set the grade and determine the location of all of the plantings to come. I can move a tree or shrub-but not a swimming pool. Every landscape project is governed by those immutable issues. A driveway, a fire hydrant, a house, a city sidewalk, an electrical pole, a stone terrace – these landscape elements are fixed, for better or for worse. Every landscape contractor on a new house or extensive renovation project would prefer to have the immutable elements established up front. A landscape installation of this size requires an order of events. Hard structures, first. Once the new dock, retaining walls, pool and pool terrace were done, it was our turn. GP Enterprises plants all of my big trees for me. They have an installation of trees going on in the front yard of this project which I will get to later. Once it was time to transport 420 36″ diameter Green Gem boxwood from my yard to a project over an hour away from our yard, GP stepped up and sent two trucks, 2 trailers, and 4 of his people to give me a hand. It took 8 people, 4 trucks, and two days to bring the boxwood due to be installed in the back yard to the site.  My client texted me late that day, “Welcome home, boxwood”.  Loved that from her.

She knew the back story. Though we had procured the plants, and were ready to plant last fall, a fall planting proved to be out of the question. A new dock installation was beset with problems and significant delays. The stonework on the retaining walls took weeks and more weeks. It looked as though the entire back yard was filled with big trucks, and pallets of stone. Bad weather helped to seal the deal. Late last fall, all 420 of these boxwood were moved inside my landscape building, and set on top of 6″ of mulch spread over the concrete floor, for the winter.  Why the mulch layer over the concrete floor?  Concrete can absorb and draw the moisture out of a root ball. A dry plant coming out of winter storage would most surely be a dead plant. The effort was worth it. These 420 strong survived the winter indoors without any problem, but a very cold and relentlessly rainy spring pushed our installation date back much further than I ever imagined. Once the middle of May arrived, I knew this installation would need to be pushed into July. The day I finally had those boxwood on site was a day many months in the making. Dan and his crew measured and set the dig lines. We only needed to make one small change. 10 inches to the south. The walls and stairs had been built very close to the measurements called out on the plan. We went over and over the lines. It took less than 2 hours for me to sign off on the layout.

Once every line was set and checked, the planting would be underway. This is a very formal and geometric landscape. The precision of the layout took a good bit of time, as it should. Insuring that they would be planted in the right place involved a lot of stakes and lines, and twice as many measurements. Once a boxwood went in to the ground, I would be very unhappy at the prospect of having to move it. My crew would be even more unhappy.  Each root ball weighs 235 pounds. Sliding a 235 pound root ball into place is vastly less work than lifting 235 pounds out of the ground.

It was not my idea to dig individual holes for each boxwood. Oh no. We dug overscales trenches with an excavator that would allow us to place and level each double row of boxwood.  Our 420 boxwood were graded at 36″ tall, by 36″ wide. But that grading is a loose business. Some were taller, and shorter. Others were flatter, or more ball shaped. Some were decidedly lopsided. Of course we would sort through and select the plants that would be neighborly in shape and height. The oversized trenches would permit moving the boxwood this way and that, up and down, in service of the precision asked for by the design. A planting of this scale and scope asks for some mechanical help. We use our front end loader frequently, but I rarely have a need for an excavator. Dan decided to rent that machine for a month. That proved to be an excellent decision. We were able to spend more time on the plant selection, placement, and planting, and less time hand digging.

The contrast between the boxwood and bare dirt was extraordinary. I was so pleased to see these gorgeous plants going in to the ground. Welcome home boxwood, indeed.

Once Dan had a day under his belt, he was able to establish an approach to the work that would make the best use of everyone’s time, and move the project forward in the most efficient way possible. He would plant the entire south side, before moving to the north.

The plan calls for three gardens. I find that woody plant material is much more easy going regarding conditions than perennials. I have planted countless shrubs and trees and seen them readily adapt to their home.  Perennials are much more sensitive to poor living conditions.  Dan saw fit to provide 18″ of good soil, and install drainage for good measure.

I suppose it is time to discuss the design for this part of the property. This lower terrace is the mid ground space from the house looking out to the river. Dan took this picture from the upper pool terrace level. It is clear that the landscape not only needed to be proportional to the size of the property, and the walls and stairs, it needed to read from a distance. The second floor of the house is slated for a large terrace situated on the roof of the rear porch. The view from that upper level balcony is an important view. An every day view. It will be a beautiful view, no matter the season or the weather. These boxwood are massive, and the shapes designed are simple and on an appropriately large scale. Their formal arrangement is in beautiful contrast to the amorphous quality of the water, and the wild landscape in the distance.  As a mid ground feature, it introduces and enhances the views out. The views from the river towards the house would be equally dramatic. A 14 foot long gas firepit whose flames will be enclosed by glass will provide a place for my clients and their friends to gather and relax. The bluestone coping is set at seat height.  Glass enclosing the flames?  This is a very windy location.  My clients expressed an interest in the classical and formal landscape. They were interested in gardens, and the seating to go with. They went so far as to tell me that the landscape part of their renovation to their home and property would be their favorite. They were interested in places they could view from afar, and places they could be. They wanted to live outdoors exuberantly, and entertain privately.

These pictures taken from the upper level do not express the enclosure and intimacy created on the ground floor by the boxwood.  Once my clients and their company are seated in this lakeside garden, they will have a quiet and private place to be. Given the many conversations I have had with them, I understand that they want strong and beautiful views from afar, and intimacy and enclosure up close. The design is my response to that request.

This view from the south towards the north does not describe the gardens to come. But it does do a good job of describing the structure of the landscape.

I do believe that the first step with any landscape design is to establish some structure. I have the idea that my relationship with these clients is a long term relationship. What we have done here is a giant first step. But a first step, nonetheless. I am certain I will hear more from them, as the landscape progresses. Who knows where we will be in 5 years. I do favor an initial landscape design that is all about creating some structure.  Any client that wants to go beyond establishing that initial structure will let me know. To follow are drone pictures taken by my clients from last week.

As Mary Keen says, “Nostalgia in gardening often surfaces as a longing for that older, deeper relationship between person and place that we rarely achieve in modern life.”

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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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