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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Vernissage 2017

Eight 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 ordinary beginning of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning of my writing a journal style blog focused on garden and landscape design. To date I have published 1560 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, and observe.  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, and 2016.

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 have a history spanning 25 years. She is an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments.  I have 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 park. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I had 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.

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 those 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 7 years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was and needed to be designed by her. That new landscape was all about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenge posed by beginning anew.

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. 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-drama altogether. A very warm February, and then a stony March cold we have yet to shake. Loading trucks this morning for our first spring container planting job, the temperature was 37 degrees.

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 the signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, as are the crocus. 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. The last of this persistent cold just about 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 warm 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 second 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. A week 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. Now what?  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 25 years that Rob and I began working together, and 21 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 2017 collection of hellebores and topiary plants is a delight to the gardening eye.

We have begun to plant up spring pots.  What a relief to put our hands back in the dirt. Being outside today without a winter coat- divine. The thought that the entire gardening season is dead ahead is a very special kind of gardeners delight. Vernissage? By this I mean spring.

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