The Winter Landscape: Gray Days

Michigan winter weather can be fiercely inhospitable and miserably cold, but the vast majority of the days will be some listless shade of gray. As in garden variety gray, moody gray, or good and plenty dreary gray. Giving a name to the gray of the day is where we are at. For the past week, we have had warmer than usual air temperatures and lots of rain. That warm wet air passing over the cold and frozen earth has produced some spectacular ground level clouds collectively known as fog. Dense fog is so saturated with water that tiny droplets condense, and are suspended in mid air. That fog throws every object at a distance into a watery unfocused blur. The further away the object, the less distinct its shape. Any object up close has a clearly defined outline, but not much detail. The rim of the fountain at the lower right of the picture above is close enough to the camera lens that the surface has some detail. The grapevine on the pergola is back lit by the blue gray fog. There is little differentiation between the vine and the pergola. It is seen in silhouette, meaning all that is seen is a flat two dimensional outline of a shape made black by a pale background.In this composition, the fountain edge is closest to the eye. The vine and pole are some distance away.  The pot with a sphere, and the grapevine on the phone pole occupy the mid ground. The distance they are away is described by their lack of detail and contrast. The sphere is a precisely geometric shape made from a hard material. Its appearance is somewhat sharper, but uniformly gray. The phone pole is further back, and less distinct. As the eye moves further and further the back, objects lose their individuality, and read as tonal masses. The fence line and willow trees in the background have very soft shapes. This is a too long paragraph about a picture I took at the shop on a foggy morning, but it does illustrate the concept of depth and spatial relationships can be described in a landscape composition.  Though the picture is a two dimensional flat object, there is the illusion of distance, depth, and spatial relationships.

The winter landscape can be austere. Our foggy days have made everything in sight appear to be black or some shade or another of blue gray, and a dash of near white here and there. But the lack of color and lush form from the plants enables the eye to appreciate other relationships.  The contrast of the deliberate geometry of this sphere, and the mass of the limestone urn, set against the tangle of grapevine and the bare branches of the trees – visually satisfying in a haunting sort of way.

I do enjoy the lindens on the driveway in every season of the year. In the spring, the buds breaking and new leaves is a sign of life on a big scale.  The dense head of leaves provides shade in the summer. The yellow leaves in fall may be their most dramatic moment. But the silhouettes of their trunks and branches against a somber winter sky makes me appreciate their structure and stature. I also see that some 20 years after they were planted, the part they play in the landscape at the shop still interests and satisfies me.

Snow drags that winter gray down the ground plane.  On this day, the sky and the ground were just about the same color. The snow on the evergreens accentuates their texture in a strongly graphic way. Those evergreens are indeed supremely green in the summer, but on a winter day they go black. The shape and texture of Himalayan white barked birch is subtle on a snowy gray day. This detailed view of their structure cannot be appreciated in any other season. Any plant still standing once the winter comes will provide interest. If you live in a gardening zone like mine, it is worth planning for some sort of structure that will persist over the winter.

Rob took this photograph, and posted it to his detroitgarden instagram account. The silhouettes of the trees reflected in the rain water sitting on top of the ice on the lake perfectly illustrates the effect of fog on the landscape.

Another of Rob’s photographs is composed in such a way to make clear that there can be much to see of great beauty in a winter landscape.

Of course both the season and the weather are extremely important factors in landscape design.  Mother nature would not have it any other way.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

The Winter Landscape: Evergreens

evergreens in the landscapeThe role played by evergreens in the landscape could hardly be overstated in northern climates. The deciduous plant material in my landscape will finish their annual shedding come the end of October or the beginning of November. It will be another 6 months before I lay eyes on an emerging leaf. That is a long time to do without any green. Many evergreens have needles in lieu of leaves. A green needle presents a very small surface area to the extreme cold and desiccating winds that are common in our winters. Water evaporates from a needle at a much smaller rate than it does from a leaf. That size restraint nature bestowed on the chlorophyll producing needles of evergreens means they are able to survive the winter in spite of the fact that their roots are frozen, and unable to take up water or nutrients. An evergreen hardy in my zone is engineered to endure. This is not to say that evergreen needles cannot burned by extreme cold and wind-they can. But in a reasonable winter, the green will endure.  Leaves, whether they be from perennials, shrubs or trees, are not engineered to survive our winters.  Thus the mechanism that we know as fall causes plants to shed their leaves ahead of the deep freeze. Though an evergreen is dormant in the winter, they are able to sustain their green. That green is much darker, more somber and entirely fitting for a winter season. In looking at the above picture, I notice two things. My eye does not focus on the winter branches of the neighborhood maples. What I see first is the green. Secondly, I realize I may have devoted too much space to an evergreen presence in my landscape. I have my reasons.

summer landscapeThe time I have available to tend to my landscape is limited. I like to come home to a good look, not a a lot of work to be done on top of the workday I have already worked. This need for an orderly and low maintenance landscape is particular to me. What any gardener needs from a landscape and garden is particular to them, and the zone where they garden. My evergreens represent beautifully to my eye no matter the season, and no matter the weather. A landscape featuring trees and shrubs is a landscape that looks well kept, and can be kept well kept with a minimum amount of work, all year round. This picture taken in late summer illustrates how evergreens can provide structure to a landscape. Structure? The composition and form of my landscape is established by the evergreens. My Limelight hydrangeas break bud in April, and by the beginning of August their flowers are the star of the show. But the evergreens provide a foreground element, and a background element that enhances that look. The Hicks and densiformis yews disguise the woody green leaved legs of those hydrangeas. The arborvitae behind them provide a dark green backdrop that makes those greenish white blooms all the more striking.

summer landscapeI am appreciative of all the evergreens have to offer in season. They are obligingly green as can be. Evergreens are densely foliated and lush. They do an excellent job of screening an untoward view, or creating shapes of all kinds planted en mass. This spring I did no pruning whatsoever to them. The boxwood were pruned in late June of 2015, after the spring flush of grown. The spring growth in 2016 was relatively uniform, so I skipped pruning them. A year off the shears never hurt a plant or a gardener. The arborvitae should be pruned. A severe ice storm could prove damaging. Keeping them at a shorter and uniform height takes advantage of the strength inherent in a group. Some individual trees that seem wobbly are already kept in line by strapping their trunks in several places to the trunks of their neighbors with arborist’s tree tie webbing.

evergreens in the landscapeBut the time of year that I am most happy for my evergreens is the winter. That green in the off season is a pleasure and a comfort. They provide a visual sense of warmth and enclosure during a very cold and inhospitable time of year. The mature flower heads of the mass of the deciduous hydrangeas do add color and volume to the winter garden, no doubt. The evergreens not only provide green in the off season, they screen the view of the bare branches of the hydrangeas from the street view.

The snow we had last week was friendly to my landscape, in that the design and form established by the evergreens is still evident. Snow falling on an established structure of a variety of evergreens can be beautiful.

picea mucronataFour picea abies mucronata were in the front of the house when I bought it 20 years ago. They were about 4 feet tall when I transplanted them to the driveway side. That was the last time I did anything to them, except look at them. I do not need to weed, nor do I feed them.  I do water the hellebores in front of them when they need it. The needles go quite black green in winter.

spring landscapeIn the spring, the new growth is chartreuse.  My hellebores stay green most of the winter, although 4 ” of snow will completely cover them.

helleborus hybridusWe rarely have snow cover that comes in early January and persists until March. We have no snow on the ground now.  This is the third winter for this new batch of hellebores. As they were 4″ pots when I planted them, I think it is safe to say they are happy here. I am happy to have this evergreen groundcover patch to look at.

taxus densiformisThis spreading yew was big when I bought the house. I would guess it has been there over 30 years.  It is a great example of how evergreens can be used in an informal setting to great effect.  Buck occasionally complains that it has encroached on the driveway, but I rather like how it has softened the look of the stone and concrete brick drive. The bare patch of snow and dirt to the left? It is ferns and hostas in the summer. That spot will be bare until May.

boxwood green velvetBoxwood are broad leaved evergreens. They can be more susceptible to winter burn than needled evergreens, as those leaves have a big surface area through which water inside the leaf is constantly transpiring, or evaporating to the atmosphere. The most effective way I know to limit damage from winter burn is to spray them with a commercial grade antidessicant.  I use Vapor Gard. This water based wax is made from pine resin. The wax coats the leaves, and helps prevent moisture loss. I find it to be much more effective and much less unsightly than burlap. That said, in our truly terrible winter 3 years ago, I did have patches where the boxwood died back, leaves and stems.  The plants have begun to grow out of this. I do nothing to protect my boxwood, as they are all growing in fairly sheltered places. In January, they have a much stronger visual presence than my deciduous trees.

summer landscapeNo doubt the green of the boxwood in summer is vibrant. Live green, I call it.

winter landscapeThe dormant green is not as showy, but it is green nonetheless. The texture and shape stay the same throughout the seasons.  What the weather of each season does to the evergreens is my greatest source of pleasure in my own landscape.

winter containersThis is surely why most all of our winter containers feature cut evergreens. Even the trimmings will stay green all winter. Amazing, that.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Saving The Best For Last

Persian ironwoodMy designing life may have been consumed with finishing up as many of our landscape projects as possible, and dealing with the demands of our holiday and winter container work, but the garden has never been far from my mind. Every day, as I am loading up the corgis in the morning, or preparing for them to disembark in the evening, I see what is pictured above. This antique French pot from Biot sits on an Italian terracotta socle, which in turn sits on top of the substantial stump of a maple that succumbed years ago to girdling roots. It was made in the early part of the 20th century by a French pottery that is no longer. I love the shape, the color, and the history. The pale yellow glazed rim finishes the hand thrown raw clay body. There is ample evidence of its age.  Moss spores have infiltrated the surface, and taken up residence. I have never felt the need to plant this pot, as I doubt a planting would make it look any better than it already does.  It pleases me to see this pot every day, in every season, year after year. In the summer, the ground is covered by Sum and Substance hostas, and ferns. In mid-November, the pot is embraced by a pair of Parrotias, just coming into fall color.

persian ironwoodThis essay is not really about my old garden pot. It is about a not so well known and underused small growing tree that saves the best of its beauty for the last of the year. Parrotia persica is the only species in the genus Parrotia. The tree matures at about 25′ tall, and as wide. My group of four trees has been in the ground for close to 20 years, and might be 18 feet tall.  Suffice it to say they grow very slowly. It is irregular growing, and branches out quite close to the ground.  Parrotia persica is one of only two only species in the genus Parrotia. The loosely oblong leaves are quite reminiscent of hamamelis, or witch hazel.  This is not surprising, as they are in the same family. Those leaves have a purple/copper colored  tinge when they emerge in the spring, which matures to a deep  rich green in summer.

persian ironwoodPersian ironwood is reputed to have some of the best fall color of any deciduous tree. A single tree may have red, yellow, orange and maroon colored leaves at the same time. Only once in a while do I get fall color like this.  In most years, the leaves turn yellow and peach, long after many other trees have already dropped their leaves. By the time they begin turning color, all of the hostas and ferns that grow in proximity to them have gone dormant.

persian ironwoodThe branch structure and exfoliating bark endows this tree with considerable winter interest.  The old bark sheds in a patchy way, revealing the new bark underneath. It is not uncommon for the bark on my trees to have green, yellow, peach, gray and brown coloration all at the same time. The bark does not shed in huge sheets like the London Plane.  I rarely notice the flaking bark on the ground. The literature says that parrotias bloom in very early spring, much like witch hazel.  Clusters of red stamens are surrounded by brownish bracts; the flowers do not have much in the way of petals.  The bloom is subtle.  That said, I have never seen my parrotias bloom.

parrotia persicaAt the end of December, the trees still had most of their leaves.  The yellow fall color had matured to a rich coppery color. Though the landscape and garden has gone dormant, this spot is still beautiful in color and texture. These leaves will hold most of the winter, no matter how tough that winter might be.  Some leaves will last long enough to be pushed off by the new leaves emerge in the spring. Should you have a winter season, a parrotia is at its most beautiful at that time of year. The picea abies “mucronata”, or dwarf Norway spruces, and the parrotias completely screen this part of my garden from the street.

The old pot has a sheltered place to be.

persian ironwoodAs a result of the horrifically cold winter we had three years ago, I did have twig die back in the midsection of this tree. That damage is easy to see in the picture above. I would have thought the damage from the cold and wind would have been most prominent at the top of the tree. I cannot explain what happened, but the trees have begun to recover. I have never seen any damage from insects or disease, and I do nothing to look after it besides watering the hostas around them during dry spells. Parrotias are remarkably healthy and just about maintenance free.

 

persian ironwoodI may have snow and cold for the next few months, but I will also have this parrotia, and three others, all decked out for winter.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

The Holiday At Home

home for the holidaysThe holiday season is a very busy time for us. This work is different than landscape and garden design, but not unrelated. The winter work does not revolve around the plants.  It revolves around people. For that reason alone, I greatly enjoy it. I am party to a lot of holiday celebrations. Families. Children. Community. Helping hands. Every client who asks that their pots and landscape be dressed for the holiday and winter has a reason to request the work. Whether or not I ever learn the circumstances, I make every effort to treat every project as if it were my own. That means I may not get to my own until late December.

holiday decoratingThis year was no exception. Dan and crew installed a giant Christmas tree in my side garden pot the second week of December. I put faux fruit and bleached pine cones on my garland on a Sunday morning a few days later. I have always found the Williamsburg style of holiday decorating appealing. I also think is looks good, and is appropriate to my circa 1930 house. Owen and LaBelle did the the grapevine and lights, and installed it a few days after that. This held me over until the 23rd, when my pots both front and back which transformed my house into a home. David and I put together this year’s version of a Christmas tree at the shop.  It was easy to transport all of a piece.  Buck and I celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and we were ready. I am happy for a late installation date, as I will leave this up all winter. I may run the lights all winter too.

holiday garlandA few days ago I had the chance to come home early, and take a leisurely tour. I like how the garland looks with my 19th century concrete urns and pedestals on my front porch. I like just as well how the warm colors of the fruits look with my yellow/peachy brown brick. The boxwood looks how it always looks-fresh and green.

traditional winter garland and associated pots

The front door

winter arrangement in a vintage Galway pot

winter centerpiece with curly willow

on the driveway, red bud pussy willow, 2 shades of purple eucalyptus, and Norway spruce

a pair of pots

holiday treeOur Christmas tree. This year I took a steel topiary form, and covered it with grapevine and lights. I set the form in an incredibly beautiful galvanized tub that Rob purchased in England this past September. A foam form is wedged in the top of the pot. The foam was stuffed with German boxwood. The spikes on the bottom of the topiary form were pushed all the way into the foam.

christmas treeI decked out that lighted grapevine topiary tree with feathered birds and clusters of small chartreuse holiday glass balls.

Christmas treeWe had a very merry Christmas.

holiday lightinglast night

holiday lightingthe front door New Year’s Eve

holiday lightingA little holiday fireworks in the garden.  Happy New Year!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save