Planting Containers For Spring

Our local newspaper recently confirmed what all of the gardeners in my area already knew. One would have to go back 134 years to find an April as cold as the one we have just lived through. Who knows what gardeners did in 1887 given their blisteringly cold April. I am cautiously optimistic that better weather is on the way,  even though it is barely 50 degrees today. I have had clients tell me that we won’t have any spring. That summer is just about here. Don’t believe it. We always have a spring. The March and April of it has just been exceptionally cold. May is a spring month as well, despite those who insist on planting summer annuals and vegetables before the soil is warm enough for them.  Anyone who treats May as a summer month is bound for some disappointment. We have been planting spring containers for a few weeks now. We have relied quite a bit on pansies and violas, as we have a grower who starts them the previous summer, and winters them in a cold greenhouse.We have planted some annual phlox, and I took a chance on some dwarf white fuchsia, rosemary, lavender and lettuce. These plants have been hothouse grown, so placing them outdoors abruptly can result in leaf damage. What it has been too chilly for is a long list.

The buds on the trees are swelling, but we are still leafless. The landscape looks groggy. Off color. My magnolia stellata has flower buds barely breaking and showing white. I am sure many of those buds will never open.The hellebores are thinking about it. Not a peep out of much else, but for the early flowering spring bulbs. The only perennial plant in my garden who has dared to venture forth is Alchemilla-lady’s mantle. Those new leaves are hugging the ground. As they should! But this daffodil mix pansy is as bright and cheery as can be. Though they are diminutive in size, pansies can provide a vivid preview of the color to come. Plant a few, or plant a truckload, the effect is the same. A little or a lot of color can energize  gardener. Daffodils are just beginning to bloom, and the tulips will be a good while yet. This means the timing for an appearance from pansies and violas is just right.

It is a lot to ask of a plant, to be ready to grow and bloom ahead of time. Our pansies have been fine with temperatures as low as 22 degrees.  For this project we loaded up and left them in the truck, which was parked in our landscape building, for 3 days. That protected them from our recent our ice and sleet storm. But I can report that those plants that endured that nasty weather outdoors look just fine today. How I welcome their forbearance. I am always amused to hear a plant described as shade loving. They are in fact shade tolerant. Lots of seasonal plants can tolerate chilly temperatures, but few persevere in really cold weather like the pansies.

Fresh cut pussy willow is a mainstay of our spring pots. The catkins are a glossy and furry gray. Once they are cut, they will hold that moment  as they dry. Pussy willow stems indoors, in water, will produce pollen, and many stems eventually leaf out. Their behavior in this regard is a great example of how routine and powerful the will to live can be. I especially enjoy how effortlessly they adapt to a second life in a container.

The pansies are small and short in April. A another month, they will be overflowing these boxes. But for now, a tall centerpiece of preserved eucalyptus and faux stems provide them a forum from which to speak up. There are those transitional times in the year when a gardener has the option to represent the sentiment of the season generously.  In a very short time, there will be breaking news from all of the plants in the landscape. Right now, spring containers have no competition.

Color plays a big part in any seasonal planting.  Colors placed side by side that are closely related make for a subtle expression.  Colors that strongly contrast in both hue and value make for more drama.

I do like color mixes that are not entirely predictable. No gardener needs a computer generated plan of action. I like that odd color out. I like color mixes that are imperfect. I like efforts in the garden that are unpredictable. The best voice is one’s own garden is one’s own voice. Trust that. Whatever I do in my garden, landscape, or containers, I always like when I can see that my choices are based on a relationship between my hands and the materials.

I am a professional designer. I do take pains to discuss with my clients about what they would like to see.  There is a relationship that needs to be honored. I do not expect them to direct me. I encourage them to express to me what is important to them in style, shape and color and affect. I try to interpret that.

This client chose a sunny and contrasting color palette for her spring planting. I admire that gesture. She is as tired of our long winter as I am.

Sooner or later she will see the lettuce at the center of these boxes. The spring garden is full of surprises, is it not?

Who Can Take It?

Who can take it-this vile April weather? Mother Nature has been lavish with the bitter cold, snow, wind non-stop since last November. Today, we have significant icing on her cake. Everything outdoors is coated with it. 340,000 people in Michigan have no power. It is even too icy to walk out and take pictures.  I am not a good sport about being forced to stare out the window the middle of April. The relentlessness of it all makes me want to fall to the ground and black out. This may sound dramatic, as it should. Winter needs to high tail it out of here.

Buck has had enough of my ice storm company today, so he scraped a path from the back door to the steps-just far enough so I could take this picture. He decided a trip to the grocery store through the icy slush was better than watching me wring my hands. We will not be enjoying a spring evening here later. Ha! You would think that after as many springs as I have seen, I could muster a little patience and fortitude. Apparently not. I am a gardener, and I want to get out there. Don’t you?

There are many plants in the garden that are not particularly fazed by by leftover winter weather as much as I am. Snow drops are aptly named. From the BBC website, “Their leaves have specially hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil and their sap contains a form of antifreeze to prevent ice crystals forming. On very cold mornings, clumps will flop down as the water is ‘frozen’ inside the cells, but soon perk up again once temperatures rise and the sap can flow again.” Cold weather triggers the transformation of stored starch into sugar in the leaves of the snowdrops. Just like salt on a freezing roadway, the sugar in the water inside snowdrop cells lowers the temperature at which the water in those cells will freeze.  Water in plant cells that freezes rock solid destroys those cells. The snowdrop sugary antifreeze helps protect these early harbingers of spring. Snowdrops? They have a DNA that insures the survival of their species.  Freezing temperatures rarely bother the early spring bulbs, provided the freeze is of short duration. The DNA of early blooming spring bulbs meeting a delayed Michigan spring-show time.

The small spring flowering bulbs have another survival strategy. Many of them thrive in open to medium shade, as the ability to bloom and set seed before the leaves on the trees get to full size means makes for a more successful colony. These spring bulbs are also able to multiply via the production of offsets, which eventually grow into full sized bulbs. As a group, they seem to tolerate tolerate very chilly weather. Once in bloom, their worst enemy is weather that is too warm.

Spring flowering bulbs will send up leaf shoots early, if there is a spell of warm winter weather. If the weather cools back down, their foliage may or may not be damaged by frost. The foliage comes up first. At this stage, the flowers on these daffodils are still safely ensconced below ground. Once the season has shifted to spring, the flower buds will emerge.  Once the spring flowering bulbs are in bloom, cool nights are essential to the longevity of the flowers. They will fade fast in hot weather. In love with the idea of a spring garden? Consider spring flowering bulbs, and hope for cool, and not crazy, weather.

Hellebores are incredibly cold tolerant. I have seen flowering stalks laid flat by overnight temperatures in the low 20’s. Once the day warms up, they snap right back as if the insult had never happened. Extraordinary, this. It is fortunate that it is too icy for me to go and take a look at them. I would just be fretting over nothing. This plant shrugs off bad weather. The perennial hellebore is a mainstay of an early spring garden in Michigan. None of my hellebores are in bloom yet. But they will be.

My crocus had just come in to full bloom day before yesterday. The flower spikes emerged prior to our last snow. That late season squall did not seem to bother them a bit. The flowers stay closed in cloudy or stormy weather, and and open in sunny weather.  This is an adaptation that serves them well. Freezing rain pummeling an open crocus flower would turn it to mush.

My crocus are quite happy in a bed dominated by Baltic ivy. I never notice their foliage ripening. Crocus are beautiful grown in grass, but my grass is not fit for company this time of year. I like them much better in groundcover, or a perennial bed.

Pansies and violas are quite cold tolerant, provided they have had a chance to harden off with measured exposure to cold weather. All of ours are cold grown the previous fall, and wintered over in a greenhouse without heat. They are ready to go in the garden immediately. Like other spring blooming plants, they can tolerate very cold temperatures as long as those super cold temperatures don’t last too long. I have seen them bounce back from a 19 degree night. What they do not like is wind.  It makes sense that these big flat faced flowers would not fare well in a gale.

Detroit Garden Works is putting up a 30 foot wide by 60 foot long high gothic tunnel house this coming week. Hooray. At long last we won’t have to haul tender plants in and out of the garage. We have been covering our pansies at night for several weeks, with a double thickness of row cover, or frost cloth.  This very lightweight non woven fabric can keep the temperature underneath 5 to 8 degrees warmer than the air temperature. 5to 8 degrees can be a game changer. We zip tie bamboo stakes to our plant tables, stretch the cloth tight, and rubber band it to the tops of the stakes. We further zip tie the fabric at the bottom to the bottom rail of the table. That fabric can damage plants if it is able to inflate and deflate on a windy night. Every table looks like a neatly made bed. I am over making beds. I favor a house under which we can grow and sustain great plants.  Our tunnel house will be the perfect thing to protect our plants from all sorts of bad weather. A shade cloth over it will help to maintain a proper moisture level in the heat of the summer. Our grower Karen is happy about the house. Me too.

But sooner or later the weather will turn to spring. I am hoping it will be a long and temperate season. I cannot wait for all of the early season plants to arrive. The annual phlox, violas, angelina, and alyssum surround a rosemary in this spring container planting makes me long for better weather.

This picture of a trio of spring containers was taken a few years ago on May 31. Think of it. If spring lasts until the first of June, we have a lot of springtime ahead of us.

 

Vernissage, 2018

 

Nine years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”. As much as it was the commencement of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design. To date I have published 1621 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, observe and reflect.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014,2015, 2016, 2017, and today-April 5 of 2018. Why April 5 instead of April 1?  We are still waiting on spring.  A colleague suggests maybe April 11.  We’ll see!

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I 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 the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre property. 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 and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground. We had a relationship that I treasured.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by beginning over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad as I did. This treasured client passed away this past winter.  It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage does refer 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, sooner or later. 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-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April.  This year, a different kind of no change of status. The rule of the day was more of the same. A warmish February, and then a stony March cold that has become a stony cold April. Night temperatures in the 20’s, wind and cold has kept all of our plans, and our plants, under wraps. We hope to begin outdoors next week.

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 there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up this time around. The last of this persistent cold reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 60 degrees, and March seemed to last 60 days. How well said!  Spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed.

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 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 winter 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 interest. The birds singing this 5th day of April l means it is time to take stock.

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. Two years ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years.  They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a second season. I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. 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?

April 1 marked 26 years that Rob and I began working together, and 22 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That 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. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, once we smell spring in the air, we stir. Rob’s 2018 collection of hellebores and topiary plants is a delight to the gardening eye. Our annual Spring Fair, this Saturday.

We have begun to plant up spring pots.  What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt. We will soon be able to be outside in a light jacket-hooray.

We are ready for the new season.

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.