The Boston Ivy, 2017

Once a year, usually when we are at our peak of fall color, I try to write about the Boston ivy that covers a neighboring 100 foot long wall parallel, opposite, and next door to Detroit Garden Works. In the early days of the shop, that originally giant cream colored concrete block wall towering over the shop made us all squint. 5 years into our tenure, we planted 10 parthenocissus tricuspidata veitchii, spaced 10 feet apart, at the base of that wall. Not so many years later, that wall was covered with a vigorous and gorgeous vine that made the trip up our driveway as green as could be. All summer long, that vine cools this corridor leading to the front door of the store.  Despite the fact that watering the vines was always an afterthought, the leaves were invariably dense and glossy green. I am grateful that my lack of attention never impacts its performance. Few plants deliver as much and ask for so little as Boston Ivy.

This year’s fall display is the worst for a decade.  An incredibly dry summer meant the leaves on the ivy began drying up and dropping in early September. The picture above, taken today, tells the story. Large areas of this vigorous vine dropped their leaves before the cool weather arrived. An incredibly warm and lengthy late summer meant what leaves had not fallen from drought have hung on to their green color. As much as I looked forward to the spectacular fall color on this vine, nature rules the plant roost. Am I disappointed? Of course. The fall color on the Boston ivy is not just a an eagerly anticipated event, it is a happening.

From the website    Boston ivy    I  have copied and posted the following:    “Boston Ivy is a deciduous vine with bluish fruits and bright red fall foliage. A member of the grape family, Boston Ivy is commonly used as a decorative addition for buildings. This means that it is most often used to grow on sections of buildings, walls, and fences for its aesthetic beauty. The glossy dark green leaves turn bright red in the fall. Showy leaves are held late into fall or early winter. This vine does well in poor soil and can grow in shade to full sun. While technically considered an invasive plant species (originally native to Japan), Boston Ivy’s invasive tendencies are typically shortlived, as it often succumbs to native vines (such as Virginia Creeper) when dispersed out of controlled bounds. Boston Ivy has been grown everywhere from Fenway Park in Boston to Dallas, Texas. Boston Ivy is unique in how it attaches to structures and surfaces. Unlike true ivies, such as English Ivy that attach with invasive aerial rootlets that can severely weaken brick and wood structures, Boston Ivy attaches to surfaces with tendrils tipped with sticky disks. This means that that the plant effectively glues itself to structures without structurally damaging the surface. The adhesive forces are so strong that researchers with the Plant Biomechanics Group have taken notice. Because of this special quality, Boston Ivy is not only a safe addition to structures and buildings, but a wonderful energy saving plant – effectively shading buildings during the summer and allowing buildings to absorb heat during the winter thanks to its deciduous nature.” Should you have a big wall that needs some green, consider this vine.

Boston ivy asks for a big space in which to grow.  It is one of the plant world’s top contenders for vigorous vertical growth in our zone. I can attest to this. No matter variations in the fall display due to weather, this vine is a beautiful in every season. The branches are beautiful dusted with snow in the winter.  The emerging leaves in the spring are brilliantly colored.  The large glossy leaves overlap one another, completely obscuring the wall beneath it all summer long.

Boston ivy yesterday

Boston Ivy 2012

The view of the Boston ivy from the roof in 2016

fall color on the Boston ivy 2015

The Boston ivy at this moment is more green than fiery. I have my fingers crossed that the best is yet to come.

 

 

 

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Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Gardeners have a complicated relationship with their gardens. The balance of power goes back and forth, much like any other serious relationship. A treasured plant/child that fails to thrive-whose fault is that? Exasperation is as prevalent as passion over a garden. A death in the garden, as in a major tree, is tumultuous, and instantly redefines that relationship – for better or for worse. Failure can hang over a garden, and thus a gardener, like a black cloud. A love for the garden can smooth over no end of resentment regarding the day to day difficult details – to a point. Gardeners and nature come face to face just about every day. The outcome is rarely a compromise. The status of most gardens is, to this gardener’s eye, more about win and loose, than a meeting of the minds.  Nature bats last.  I have gardened long enough to know this to be true. Poor soil conditions, light, water, and unfavorable weather can drive the most devoted gardener to the brink.

The intensely stubborn gardener who comes face to face with an overpowering, spectacularly uncaring, and uncompromising nature eventually come around and understands that nature is not a partner. It is an independent force to be reckoned with. There is no reasoning with nature. Those gardeners who believe they can negotiate a relationship with the natural forces that affect their garden have my sympathy.

Truth be told, every gardener is on their own. Some give in. Some give up. Others ignore trouble. Still others take hold of trouble, and address it, one shovel full at a time. I know so many hands on gardeners-the work they do to keep a garden and landscape healthy and viable is amazing. I admire all of them. Some who love their landscape ask for help from me, once trouble bubbles up beyond a quick fix. Some troubles need a helping hand.

Why this essay? A client came to me in despair that his landscape on the front side of his house was beyond repair.  Could I please remake it? Could I start all over again? He was happy for me to strip out everything in this steeply sloping landscape, and begin anew. My visit confirmed that a large area of ground cover had been overrun by weeds. That said, he had a king’s ransom in groundcover, well rooted in, that would not need replacing. I told him that I thought this marriage could be saved.  We just needed to root out the weeds, establish crisp boundaries, restore and create a consistent grade, and add some plant material that would establish a simple and strong design. As much as I love beautiful and thriving plant material, I am in favor of good design organizing the planting. This slope is very steep.  It would be difficult for me to maintain. My idea was to restore a relationship. I did not see the need for a new one.

This simple sketch illustrated how I planned to make some sense of a weed infested steep slope.  My client was dubious that he could restore order to his landscape. I think he was right in that regard. This restoration needed a group effort. I was sure that my group could bring this landscape around. He did like the drawing, and gave me the go ahead. The weeding part would not be overwhelming, as we had four people on that tedious problem. Our weeding process involved tools- all of my staff have their own hori-hori knife. For especially difficult weeds, we had garden forks, and spades. Our process is neither tentative nor dainty. There are times when a tough intervention is a good idea.

This was a marriage eminently worth saving. We removed and rebuilt all of the rock edges of this bed. A strong curve on the house side would be contrasted with a straight side rock edge on the road side. We added soil behind the new rock wall to unify the and simplify the slope from the road to the garage. A landscape bed with a deliberate shape and volume is visually satisfying.  We removed a next to dead dogwood, and replaced it with a columnar beech.

I had no problem having a crew go over every square inch of this bed, and remove weeds. We filled the low spots with new soil. We grubbed out and lowered the high spots. We added more ground cover, densely planted, in the bare areas. We added boxwood to bolster the existing boxwood. We rebuilt the rock edges. We dusted the entire bed with a few inches of ground hardwood bark mulch. And we put him in touch with our irrigation contractor, with the idea of installing a low tech watering system that could deliver the water needed. The restoration was vastly more cost effective than a start from scratch approach. And vastly better looking.

There were a number of Japanese forest grasses existing in this bed that were thriving. We replanted them in a dense circle around a treasured sculpture, and added more. The idea was to make the sculpture a more strikingly prominent feature of the landscape.

In my opinion, the outcome of this renovation is good. The revised landscape features a beautiful steel sculpture.  The ground plane is simply curving, weed free, and plant covered.

My client is pleased by the outcome of this project.  I am especially pleased that we were able to save so much of what existed here. What we added was little. What we rearranged was a lot. The few additions and the considerable subtractions transformed this landscape.

The difference between a landscape gone awry, and in sore need of some restoration, and a strikingly beautiful landscape can be not much more than a few degrees this way or that. Every garden marriage can be saved. I believe this.

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At A Glance: Recent Work

Plenty of fall containers got planted this past week.  In looking over all the pictures, it is obvious that the star of the show (after Marzela, of course) is the story of the leaves. Ornamental cabbage and kale are known for their substantial leaves. This container is a mass of different types of large blue green leaves, as our fall weather has been too warm for the plants to have taken on their characteristic fall color. Once our warm spell comes to an end, color will become as prominent a feature as the size and texture of the leaves.

Other leaves play just as important a role in our fall containers. Eucalyptus branches have the remarkable ability to absorb both dye and glycerine. That color is a welcome addition to a fall container. Our broom corn stalks come with a wealth of strappy, corn-like leaves, in addition to their wiry seed heads. We hang the broom corn upside down for as long as we can, in our garage. As the leaves dry, they twist and curl in a way only nature could achieve. Those dry leaves contribute much in the way of rhythm to the arrangement.

Cabbage and kale leaves can be glorious, but they are static. The leaves of the Tuscan kale, broom corn and eucalyptus loosen up the composition. Now all we need is some chilly weather, for the colorworks to begin.

David does a terrific job with arranging the broom corn and dry leaves around a bamboo stake. All of the leaves get removed from the stalks, and are added back to the arrangement one at a time. Though his work has an artless, relaxed and tousled look about it, the actual process requires a lot of strength and concentration. If I need a tighter and more tailored look to the centerpiece, I ask Marzela to construct it. This way the both of them are able to exercise their own sense of construction and style. How materials get handled is how a look gets created.

enjoy the pictures.

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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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