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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At A Glance: Recent Work

spring boxes featuring lavender around a fountain

blue eucalyptus

porch planted for spring

fresh cut pussy willow

at the front door

window box

pussy willow and pansies

oval urn

spring pot

mixed cool wave trailing pansies

purple and white

yellow pansies and yellow/violet bicolor violas

blues and purples

blue and lemon pansies, with cream yellow alyssum

vintage crate with lavender and blue violas

pussy willow and ocean pansies

 

 

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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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Some Very Good Reasons To Plant Containers For Spring

Our early spring season has been notable for its soaking and relentless rains. Daily rain. As in  “don’t go out without your muck boots on”  rainy. And  “don’t even think of stepping into the garden”  rainy. The boxwood pictured above are slated for an early landscape installation. They spent the winter indoors, in the building we use to house equipment and vehicles. By mid-March, those plants needed to come out of storage. The process was not pretty, as you can see. No gardener can tell ahead of time how the season will change from winter to spring. That transition is rarely smooth and easy. Into our second week of daily rain, the ground is simply too wet to work. We have heeled these boxwood in, not knowing when we will be able to begin planting.

These rainy days are gray and dreary. The cold is magnified by all of the water in the air. Bone chilling. I stand on the edges of my garden, knowing it is off limits right now. Stepping on the ground when it is completely saturated with water drives all of the life giving oxygen out of that soil. Compacted soil is unfriendly to any plant that is trying to grow. So how can a gardener garden early on, given these conditions? Plant some pots. The soil in containers drains much more readily than the soil underfoot. The soil of your choice loaded up in a container drains freely. Containers can be readily be planted in the rain, just ask my crews. Containers can furthermore be planted with all manner of seasonal plants that do a great job of tolerating the cold. Our trees are still leafless, and few perennial plant has dared venture forth, but for the hellebores, and the early spring flowering bulbs. What else can help soften the very early spring blues? I would suggest that a worthy preview of the spring season to come might begin with some containers confidently planted with plants that endure in spite of the cold.

These branchy style cut pussy willow stems speak to and echo the spring garden. Pussy willow is a very large growing shrub that blooms very early. If your landscape is not large enough to accommodate this big rangy shrub, the cut branches look terrific in spring containers. The blue preserved and dyed eucalyptus acknowledges that blue color that is so beautiful and reminiscent of our spring. Pansies and violas are entirely cold hardy right out of the flat, provided they have been grown in cold conditions.

We buy pansies and violas that were started from seed last summer. They are over wintered in houses with no heat. They are ready for the April chill. If the temperature threatened to go below 25 overnight I would cover them.  If I wanted to protect their blooms from a windy 28 degree night, I would cover them. This seems like a call to plant away to me.  Pansies and violas are among some of the most charming, sparkly, and cheery plants that endow our northern tier spring season. I would not do without them.

Planting in cold blustery weather is not my favorite, but I am ready for spring. So I plant anyway.  This large container is home to a Turkish hazel tree – corylus corlurna. It survived the winter in this container, and threw out scads of long pink catkins a week ago. Bravo! We planted the ground level soil with an overall mix of blue and  purple/blue bicolor pansies and white alyssum.  In several weeks, when the filbert tree leafs out, this container planting will sing spring.

Have you ever seen a spike bloom?  Me neither. This particular spike was planted in this client’s container last summer.  I wintered the plant over in a greenhouse. I was faint with surprise when we went to pick up that spike for her spring garden. Planted in this container, there is an incredibly beautiful and fragrant bloom spike that takes all of the visual attention away from a landscape that has not yet emerged. The pale lavender pansies will grow and spill over the edges.  Are spikes cold tolerant?  Utterly.

This is a favorite spring container, just planted a few days ago. The fat and fuzzy cut pussy willow branches preside over all. A cream/green preserved eucalyptus provides some mid level interest, and subtle color. The box is stuffed full of a white pansy with a purple blotch, beautifully grown and just about ready to come in to bloom. The spring gardening season is all about hope, delight, and renewal. The garden coming to life again – what could be better? The very early spring container planting season gives any gardener a chance to whoop up the coming of spring.   I like how this spring container addresses that moment.

This big container features pansies, alyssum, and lettuce underneath a centerpiece of cut pussy willow and tiger branches. Lettuce is a chilly weather vegetable, but it will wither in extreme cold. Pots planted with lettuce now will need to be covered when the night temperatures go low. I suspect the same is true for myrtle topiaries. I will confess that I have a habit of pushing the limits of plants to tolerate cold in our early spring. But my best friend in the early spring is floating row cover. Vegetable gardeners cover their early transplants with this non woven fabric to protect them from the cold. I use it to protect my early spring container plantings facing a fiercely cold night. Floating row cover keeps the temperature underneath that cover 10 degrees higher than the air temperature.

What plants tolerate a cold container environment? Pansies and violas, for sure. Dusty miller. Spikes. Alyssum. Chicago figs. Rosemary and lavender, cold grown. Ivy will take some cold. Chard, parsley, chervil and thyme shrug off the cold. Early spring flowering bulbs are great in containers.  Think daffodils. Hellebores are so beautiful in early spring pots. Once that spring pot fades, those hellebores can be transplanted into the garden. Osteos.  Marguerites.  Interested in planting early spring containers? Try everything. There will be some successes, and some failures.  Any gardener can handle and be energized by these odds.

Spring is on the way.  So excited. Am I ready? Yes I am.

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