One View At A Time

The rear south side of this yard is the last leg of the landscape renovation that has been going on here for a number of years. It is a good way to work-tackling one view at a time. The time to let the landscape speak back is time well spent. It is very hard to visualize what a two dimensional design drawing will look like, fleshed out into the third dimension with plants. After 30 years, I am able to visualize what is to come fairly well, but I have been surprised plenty of times. The surprises that dismay me are equal to the surprises that delight me. No one who keeps a landscape bats 1000. Nature can and does throw a wicked fast curve ball. But in this case, the curve ball was a new 2 story garage on the neighboring property. The building is located very close to the property line. My client realized she would have to add screening, to make her view of it less prominent.

The only plant of any size on that side is a beautiful older tricolor beech. That tree is providing a lot of shelter from the neighboring view up high. Some of the lower branches have died, or been cut back out of the way of the grass path. In an effort to provided some screening at a lower level, we added a pair of 2 1/2 inch caliper tricolors. All three trees will eventually will grow together as one. The original tree had a decided lean to it, so the new trees will help to provide some ballast on the back side. Deciduous trees are a great choice for providing screening that needs to be tall. The trunk of a tree takes up next to no room at the ground level, and the branches, twigs and leaves filter out an unwelcome view up high.

We planted four columnar katsura trees on either side of the beech conglomerate. Planted as fairly small trees, they will grow skyward at a fairly fast rate. The upright heads will grow together, and make a handsome hedge high above the ground. Why the upright yews near the fence? This variety can easily grow to six feet tall. The color and texture of the yews is quite similar to that of the neighbor’s arborvitae. Once the yews reach the height of the wood fence, the two evergreens will take over some of the screening job in the winter. Why yews instead of the matching variety of arborvitae?  The yews will be much more tolerant of the shade cast by the katsuras.

Emerald Green arborvitae do grow quite tall, but once they get to fourteen or fifteen feet, the growth slows down. They also become susceptible to damage from heavy snow loads. It is easy to compare the height and scale of the deciduous trees to the Emerald Green arborvitae in the above picture. Only a deciduous tree will completely screen that two story garage.

 

From the opposite side of the yard, it is easy to see how prominently the neighbor’s new garage figures in this landscape. The katsura trees will fill in the gap between the beech, and a maple in the neighbor’s yard. Small urban properties present a particular challenge to the landscape design. The ground space is limited, and the views to neighboring properties are many. Some years ago we addressed the screening on the east-west axis. The six foot tall hedge of Green Mountain boxwood pictured on the left of the photo above, was planted directly adjacent to the leading edge of the terrace.  A screen that is planted near to the space to be screened does not have to be that tall.  If my clients are on their terrace, that space is private. From inside and upstairs, a hedge of Venus dogwood screen the view into the rear neighbor’s yard.

 

Venus dogwoods top out at about 20 feet tall. Tall enough to blur the view of the power lines, and the next door neighbor’s yard. Note that the tree closest to the lot line in in the curve still sits proud of the power lines. There are few things more discouraging than having the power company trim a tree away from the lines. They are concerned with keeping the power corridor clear, not making artful or judicious pruning cuts.

The dogwood has a loose and graceful habit of growth. They do not provide a solid green wall. The property to the west was fairly well covered within 3 years of planting.

The boxwood provide a solid screen six feet off the ground plane. The high and low combination of the dogwood and the boxwood do a great job of providing a small yard with some privacy.

We did plant arborvitae at the end of the driveway. They extend into the rear yard the length of the garage wall opposite to them. This place is not a place to linger. It is a hallway connecting one place to another. The solid and lush evergreen wall makes for a simple and quiet transition from the driveway to the private part of the landscape.

One day, many years ago, an effort to provide for screening and privacy for another client via the landscape looked like this. The neighbors house sits quite a bit higher that this property. The row of large round yews behind the new trees were transplanted there from the front yard of the client’s house. A group of densiformis yews were planted on the slope above the stone wall.

Not so many years later, this side garden is entirely private, courtesy of a group of the columnar carpinus “Frans Fontaine”. The neighboring house has just about disappeared from view. Even in the winter, the densely twiggy structure of the trees provides good screening.  Deciduous trees, especially of the columnar form, are a great choice for creating a walled garden.

 

Designing With Hydrangeas

Lots of gardeners in my zone has a love affair going on with hydrangeas. As well they should. They are rangy growing shrubs that deliver a heart stopping show of big luscious blooms from early to late summer, provided they get some regular water, and a decent amount of sun. It is that easy to have a spectacular show of flowers in the landscape in late summer. Even the fall color on the blooms is good.The Annabelles start blooming in June, and are followed up on into August with cultivars big and small –  too numerous to list or review. Every season seems to bring a new collection of hydrangea cultivars to market. It is easy to understand why. They give a lot, and do not ask for much. The oak leaf hydrangeas are equally stunning both in leaf and in bloom, and are incredibly shade tolerant. Our hydrangea season is late this year. Think back to that April we had that was snowy and cold the entire month – you get the picture.  My overgrown Limelight hydrangeas needed a strong pruning this spring. I could not tell now that they had been pruned down to 14″ above grade. They are blooming lavishly. They make me look like an expert gardener. In spite of what I do or do not do, they thrive.

Hydrangeas are easy to grow, but they can be difficult to site in the landscape. They are big growing show offs that don’t naturally play well with neighboring plants. A single Limelight hydrangea can grow easily to 7 feet tall, and 7 feet wide. Even the smaller growing cultivars have giant flowers. They can easily become the elephant in the room-impossible to ignore.  It takes some thought to integrate them into a garden, or a landscape. I am not so much a fan of their woody legs, so I try to place them where that bottom third of the plant is not so much a part of the overall view. I also favor planting blocks of them, meaning I like lots of them as opposed to planting a single plant. They want to be the star of the summer garden, so why not let them show off?  Masses of summer blooming hydrangeas speak to summer in the Michigan garden in a way that no other plant does.

My limelight hydrangeas at home have a long bank of planter boxes placed in front of them. Those boxes are planted with nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis. The boxes hide those long woody hydrangea stems coming out of the ground. The delicate airy mass of nicotiana flowers interact in a contrasting way with those giant hydrangea blooms. The hydrangea flower backdrop makes it easier to see the nicotiana from a distance.

The foliage of the nicotiana repeats the big leaves of the hydrangea. The large leaves are a good foil for the diminutive boxwood foliage. The simple mass of boxwood sets the stage for a late summer.  Nothing can rival the excitement generated in the spring as the landscape roars back to life, but I look forward to this late summer display. On a 90 degree August day, this looks fresh and inviting. The hydrangeas are part of a story.

As a designer, I have a concern about about how spaces come together, and read. Shrubs, perennials,annual plants, and containers have their contribution to make. The design issue is making sure all the various voices work together in some way. The green leaves of the Persian Lime in the center of the pot helps to balance the green of the hydrangea foliage. The big growing hydrangeas need some equally strong minded company.  I did face down my limelight hydrangeas with an outside row of Little Limes. Was that a good idea?  It is too soon to tell, as the Limelights were very hard pruned this spring, so they have fewer and larger flowers this year. This is only the second season for the Little Limes, so they are not yet full sized. They are actually quite different in coloration than Limelight.

This landscape project from last year features a long sweeping curve of upright yews. All that is visible from the street of the Incrediball hydrangeas are the flowers. An annual planting at the base of the yews provides another layer of interest.

Inside the Incrediball hydrangea hedge is a mass of Bobo hydrangea, also faced down with flowers. All those woody stems and leaves are sandwiched in between plants that reveal the best part of these big growing plants, and obscures the least interesting. Hydrangea Bobo is the smallest growing of this series, which means it is the easiest of the three to place. It is perfectly scaled at 3′-5′ tall for smaller gardens. Small spaces can easily be overwhelmed by big growing hydrangeas.

We planted several large masses of these on either side of a pool. The creamy green color of the flowers contrasts dramatically with the color of the water. This hydrangea grows large enough to just obscure the fact that the bed was originally terraced into two levels with large informally placed slabs of stone.

Though the grade does drop considerably and quickly from the pool to the water, the mass of low growing hydrangeas helps to soften the descent. The transition from the pool level to the lake level happens fast.  The hydrangeas provide a reason to slow down, and linger.

The view of these hydrangeas, filtered with tall later blooming perennials and annuals, is a soft and informal look. Hydrangeas are stiff and static growing, and benefit from some airy companionship. Phlox have that same stiff habit of growth. In this arrangement, the phlox looks so much more relaxed, given a static growing plant that is so much larger growing.

There are those places where a single hydrangea can make a statement. This tree hydrangea, one of a pair, spends the winter in my landscape building, in a big plastic pot.  In the spring, it is pruned, both on the top, and the roots, and planted back into this large box. A second pruning a month or six weeks later helps to provide a network of strong branches which will help support the blooms. The box is large enough to permit an under planting of euphorbia, petunias and variegated licorice. Seeing it yesterday for the first time since it was potted up in May was a treat. Part formal and part exuberant, it is everything a well grown hydrangea can be.

A Pruning Strategy

The best time to prune deciduous shrubs is whenever you have the time available to prune. But no doubt some pruning dates are better than others. Late March is the perfect time time in my zone, provided the ground is dry enough be walked on. The bare branches make it easy to spot what is dead or weak. Or which cuts would result in a better looking or more graceful shape. In general, the shag haircut theory of pruning promotes good shrub health. Big at the bottom, and narrower at the top. Pruning such that no two branches are the same height or forced to  occupy the same space helps to insure that every bud ready to leaf out will have its own light and air space. A place to grow without interference is an ideal place for a branch to be. I like to leave the branches near the ground long, and the branches on the top shorter. Visualizing what has to be cut back on the top so the lower branches get the light they need will result in a shrub that is green and growing from top to bottom. If you think the Limelight hydrangeas above do not look like I took my own advice, you are right.

There is a story behind these leggy Limelights.  Planted as a 5 plant by 5 plant block of 25 some 12 years ago, they had overgrown their space. The lesson here? A shrub that will grow 6 feet tall by 6 feet wide probably will top out at 8′ by 8′ left to its own devices. Keeping a plant smaller than its genetically determined size is, over time, a losing battle. My 25 plants had become a single organism. Removing any of them from the mix would expose a not so lovely look at a dark and bare interior. It was time to take out the outer front and side rows. Once I reduced the size of the block to a four plant by 4 plant block, I could see what I had left over was a mass of hydrangeas on 3′ tall bare stalks. As in, a block of multi-trunked hydrangeas on standard.

Of course these hydrangeas had gotten leggy in the interior. I am sure no light reached the ground during the summer. The outside rows has been pruned to facilitate growth from top to bottom. The interior shrubs has been pruned to encourage growth on the tops. All very predictable, this. Last spring I planted Little Lime hydrangeas in from of those Limelight legs, thinking this shorter version would create a coverup.

That strategy left more that a little to be desired. Little Lime is by no means a smaller growing version of Limelight. The flowers are a different shape and color. I was not crazy about the two plants side by side. Hydrangea Bobo might have been a better choice. That said, I knew my only real option with the limelights was to take a renovation strategy. Hard pruning old hydrangeas hard is only shocking if you do not take into account how fast and much they grow between April and the late July bloom time. A single branch may grow 3 or 4 feet in one season.

This is a radical and grim look, but I suspect they will be full of flowers by the beginning of August. How so? The renovation plan calls for a second pruning in June. I am not interested in long single branches with few and hugely ungainly flowers. Cutting back a long branch midway to the bloom time will result in side branching at the cut. This may result in a delayed flowering, but there will be flowers nonetheless. Next year they will regain their fulsome look.

Hydrangeas respond much more quickly to renovation pruning than other less vigorous shrubs. It won’t be long before they start growing out of this.

Knowing the best time to prune doesn’t necessarily result in action. I should have pruned these hydrangeas harder last spring, when the extra rows of plants came out. If you are like me, what I need to do in the garden routinely gets away from me. How indulgent hydrangeas are of less than stellar care is just one of the reasons to like them. Pruning times depend on whether they bloom on new or old wood. Since the Limelights bloom on new, or the current season’s growth, no matter how much or how little you prune, you are not removing flower buds. Just buds which will become leaves. So prune away.

 Pruning is a paradox. We sometimes prune back shrubs to limit their size, not realizing that a pruning cut, from a shrub’s point of view, is a call to grow. To branch out. A single pruning cut on a large sized branch results in lots of buds breaking in every direction below that cut. This late winter photograph of a hedge in my neighborhood tells the story. A hedge of substantial size was cut back for a number of years-at the height this gardener could reach. The result was lots of branching at the top, which eventually shaded out the branches at the bottom. Once the hedge became too tall to prune without a good sized ladder, the pruning stopped. The result is a rather interesting mix of bare sticks at the bottom,  dense branching at the mid level, and long unbranched growth at the top. Add to that mix, some weed trees that got a foothold in the hedge, and have grown to a large size. In this location, a very tall vase shaped hedge is probably a good idea. The traffic on both sides can come in and out the driveways under the umbrella shaped part of the hedge. I will be interested to see the summer look.To prune or not to prune-now is a good time to decide.

Buds

You know it is the dead of winter in Michigan when the garden is a place to long for from afar. Most of my garden views now are through the windows. Not that I didn’t plan for good views from inside, but the sheer thrill of a landscape is being in it, or experiencing it up close. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the winter as much as the other three seasons. Ha!~ I hate being cooped up, and I am not a skier or an ice fisherman. Being outside now is a necessity to get from one place to another. I do not walk my garden in the winter. I cannot really explain this, but I do not want to disturb my dormant landscape. In my opinion, the winter is the time to let everything as it is, be. As it is, to see this part of the garden in winter requires gearing up – as in coat, hat, boots and gloves. Today I jump tromped through the snow rather that shoveling the upper deck, to take this picture. Was it worth the effort? But for a gorgeous circa 1920 Jarre de Biot, from the now closed Poterie Provencale that makes my heart beat faster every time I look at it, this scene is not that scenic. A garden growing and representing is a tough act to follow.

The best part of it may be the Parrotia Persica. There are four of them in the driveway garden. I planted them close to 20 years ago. This means they are old enough to exhibit that beautiful exfoliating bark prized by gardeners. They also hang on to their leaves throughout all but the windiest of winters. Those copper color leaves are a sight for winter sore eyes.

Even these dead leaves look good to me. But the fact of the matter is I am not looking at anything that is dead. Hibernating would be a better and much less emotionally charged word. Every woody plant in my yard grew and set buds for the spring of 2018 last summer. Some buds, on spring flowering trees are flower buds.  Smaller buds will surely become leaves once the weather breaks. The dead leaves from 2017 on the parrotias will be pushed off in the spring, when the 2018 leaf buds set in 2017, swell and grow. The parrotias were ready for this winter long before I was.

The flower buds on magnolia trees are large and fuzzy. No big fuzzy oval buds on a magnolia going in to winter means there will be no flowers. Terribly cold weather can damage or destroy those flower buds, while the leaf buds survive. A flower bud is a big and vulnerable structure, whereas every tree keeps their leaf buds close to their vest until the winter passes. It is an easy matter to spot magnolia flower buds in winter, especially when a light and dry snow falls. You can see your future in the garden if you see the signs. Happily, I see magnolia flowers in my future.

Nature does not wait until the last minute to make a move. As no growth goes on during the winter months, the formation of buds for the spring to come have to be made many months in advance. This is why watering trees and shrubs in August and on through the fall is so important. Once the leaves drop, and the ground freezes, there will be no more activity until the season turns to spring. It only makes sense that the growth of any woody plant instigated by the spring of one year culminates in the readiness for the spring of the following year. This is not in any way magical.  It is survival.

The dogwoods are the easiest to read. The big fat round buds set in September are flower buds. The small pointed buds will eventually unfurl and become leaves. In a way, I regret knowing in advance whether there will be a heavy dogwood bloom 6 months in advance of the fact. But I do like knowing in advance that if I water my trees properly at the time they are setting flower and leaf buds, I am giving them a helping hand.

Though it might appear that all there is to see here are sticks and snow, nothing could be further from the truth. Thousands upon thousands of fully formed but dormant buds are ready and waiting for the light to turn green. Imagine that.The spring season every gardener longs for will finally arrive, and will be impossible to keep up with.

The spring is a rush of events almost impossible to keep track of. I am sure there are moments I miss, no matter how much effort I put towards experiencing it all. Today I took note of the columnar fruiting pear tree in the foreground of this picture, and imagined what it will be to see it it in full bloom with the leaf shoots not far behind. I had time for that today. Those flowers in spring will last but a moment.

I also had time to think about how nature is a consummate engineer. Very little of the story of survival is left to chance. That is a big topic best left to the dog days of winter to think about. All the bare branches outlined in snow today were beautiful. But what is simmering beneath the surface is better than beautiful.

These evergreen Frazier fir boughs were cut in November. They were stuffed in to dry floral foam set in the containers I have at the end of my driveway. Though they were cut from the tree 3 months ago, the dormant buds are still plump, juicy, and viable. This is what I would call the miracle of the will to live. That will to live and prosper is so strong in every living thing. Nature makes the plant world, in all of its forms, possible. Viable.

Though the view out my window is this shade of blah and that shade of blah, and all that blah dusted with a fresh layer of snow from grey skies, what lies in wait beneath the surface is very exciting, indeed. Waiting out the winter is an exercise in restraint and appreciation. Truly.