The Plantings At The Shop

No matter how many container plantings we do in a given year, planting the shop for the summer is a given planting. I put this close to home project off until the great majority of our clients are planted. Some might think that I take the winter to plan what I will do in the summer shop garden, but I do not. Once we start bringing in annual plants for sale, I keep looking until something triggers a decision. Rob plants a lot of containers for the shop, and this year’s collection is especially good. I could characterize how he composes and plants in the following way. He favors green above all, but lavender, rosemary, and all the the herbs to go with run a close second. He gravitates towards annual plants that are relaxed in habit and subdued in color. A wood box may be filled from start to finish with Grosso lavender. An Italian terra cotta pot may feature a Malabar spinach vine trailed up a rusted rod steel sphere. A vintage galvanized steel trough might be planted with tomatoes and herbs. Slatted wood boxes lined with coir, and planted with verbena bonariensis, peach dahlias and pale yellow marguerites are as casually elegant as they are unstudied. His shade container with bird’s nest ferns and selaginella fly out the door. All of his container plantings are reserved. His touch is light. This year’s shop planting is in admiration and recognition of that work. My idea in the big planting bed was to plant a collection of summer blooming annuals in mixed colors, in a a random and relaxed pattern. Nothing too flashy or fussy; think cream colored marigolds. A strip of brown paper towel down the center of the bed would establish a no plant zone. Weeding a wayward and unstudied planting asks for access.

This planting is dominated by 70 some 1 gallon pots of Sonata cosmos. Of course we laid out those cosmos first. As casually as we imagined Rob would place them. We had no idea if the pots were mixed colors, or a single color. Next to come, lots of the airy growing  nicotiana suaveolens, nicotiana perfume bright rose, lime and white, a few purple angelonia, and cream white marigolds. None of these plants truly meadowy-these are all hybrid tropical plants. But mixed in a casual way. It took my crew all of five minutes to grasp the idea.  In less than 2 hours, we had a garden. I am sure Rob would have never plant the nicotiana Perfume Bright Rose-that was my idea.

Once every plant was in the ground, we watered, and watered again. Watering new plantings is nearly a daily job. Hot weather can be deadly to a plant that has not yet rooted into the surrounding soil. Many annual plants are grown in soilless mixes.  Once that small rootball dries out, look out. Annual plants in the ground or in containers regularly watered with take hold and thrive. Once established, sun loving annual plants are remarkably unfazed by dry soil.

Regular rain and moderate temperatures early in the growing season resulted in a dramatic spring flush on the boxwood. We have held off pruning, as our current temperatures have been in the high eighties. Next week is slated to be much cooler, and Melissa and her crew will prune. A gently geometric pruning will provide a pleasing contrast to the planting.

New this year- we covered the entire planting with a mulch of  ground bark fines.  This will help conserve moisture in the soil, and discourage weeds, although who knows.  Maybe the weeds will look good with the planting. Decades of professional gardening and maintenance has made me a weed pulling, plant staking, dead heading, raking and wash down the driveway kind of gardener. When I say nature bats last, I am also saying that this gardener bats in the clean up position. Having just turned 67, I doubt I will be making any substantial changes to the way I work. This planting is not what I would have done, left to my own devices. But having done it, I will try to leave it be, and see what happens.

The window boxes have a similar feeling, but include some plants not in the ground garden. Dwarf cleome, sky blue petunias, variegated sage and white trailing verbena have been added to the mix.

But for that far too bright rose pink nicotiana, this has something of the feeling of Rob’s compositions.

Those of you who are able to visit Detroit Garden Works know that we have galvanized metal planter boxes that traverse the entire length of the roof that faces our street. From this vantage point, it is easy to see that the boxwood has at least 8 inches of new growth. It will take Melissa and her crew all day to prune it. The plants chosen for the garden are in the 24″ high range. The garden will not be visible from the street. To see it, you will have to walk up the driveway and look in. I have always planted this garden taller than the boxwood. Why? Tradition, for good or for ill. This hedge is now in its 20th year, and despite the ravages of two really terrible winters, is quite something in its own right. It will be the star of the summer show, especially given that both the composition and plant choices are plain and simple. Metaphorically speaking, my gardens usually wear shoes and socks. This garden is decidedly less formal than that.

But back up to the roof garden. The boxes were made to sit on the parapet wall that runs across the front. They are outfitted with irrigation, as climbing up here, hose in hand, requires a substantial extension ladder and no small amount of nerve. It is a hot and windy place. The boxes hold 3 rows of plants. The back row is planted with the lemon lime leaved pineapple sage, and a new white, pink and blue angelonia. This hybrid has very thick stems, and was originally developed for the cut flower trade. Both of these plants like full sun and heat. This new angelonia is reputed to grow 40″ tall. If it does, this row of plants will help to mitigate the effects of the wind for all.

The middle row is comprised of 3 colors of vista petunias, interspersed with white and pink Gaura. The white tinged pink petunia cultivar “Silverberry” was planted in the two center boxes. Then moving towards the edges on both sides, Vista “Bubblegum”, and finally Vista “Fuchsia”. Petunias are the one of the most ordinary annual plants, but this cultivar is a vigorous grower seldom bothered by any problems. We try to stay away from problems on the roof. In the front row, a thick planting of the annual white variegated vinca vine.

We are ready just in time for summer.








Color Scheming

ageratum-artist.jpgSome gardeners come to a scheme for planting annuals based on favorite colors, or color combinations.  Others like a certain style of planting.  Others focus on the size of the flowers, or the color of the leaves.  The best plantings involve scheming on as many different levels as possible.  I plant the annuals in front of the shop in a different way every year.  That way, sooner or later, everyone will see something they like.  This is the best part of planting annuals.  Every year, there is a chance to try something new.

annual-planting.jpgLast year’s scheme was all green.  I planted panicum grass inside the boxwood.  More than a few customers said it looked like we were going out of business, as we had not cut the grass.   Like I say, everyone has a different idea of beautiful.  I knew I wanted to do something with purple. The color of this ageratum artist is so luscious.  It is a light blue/purple that I call heliotrope blue.  Lots of blue with a big dose of lavender.  Dark purple has a way of turning dull, if it does not have lively companions.  The blue salvia mystic spires has gorgeous blue/purple flowers that are so striking up close.  Plant it in a garden, and the color sinks into the background.  In the mid and background of this picture, you can barely make out the purple angelonia.

The planting needed some friends that would make that brooding dark purple more visually appealing.  We added both lime and white nicotiana to the purple angelonia.  This plant is airy growing, simple in flower, and sports big flat leaves.  This will contrast beautifully with the narrow leaves, smaller stature and flower spikes of the angelonia. So far, the planting has three colors in the mix.

tricolor-petunias.jpgMixing colors adds depth to a planting. Pictured above is a bedding petunia called “Great Lakes Mix”. The mix of white, medium blue/purple and dark purple petunias is a lively way to visually represent the idea of purple. A mass of white, or another light color can be quite striking.  A mass of dark purple can look dull and flat.  The value of the color purple, meaning its lightness or darkness, is very similar to the value of many greens in the landscape.  Dark purple blends with green, rather than standing out from it.  Determined to have lots of dark purple?  Underplant it with lime or white.   I dropped a floret of a red geranium onto this mix. This is a scheme I have planned for a client. The red will be all the more brilliant, given the purple mix.  The purple mix is even more lively, given the red.  Color in a garden is never about a color.  It is about the relationships that define every individual color in a strong way.

the dinnerplate dahlia fluerelSo far so good.  But this is a big planting bed, with boxwood that is over 3 feet tall.  The garden would need to be anchored by something.  A four foot tall dahlia would certainly provide a visual anchor to the garden.  This white dinnerplate dahlia called Fluerel has a pale yellow center, and pale yellow green buds.  This secondary color will relate to the lime nicotiana. The big flowers will be visible from a car driving by.  The nicotiana will soften the look of this stiffly growing upright plant. We will stake it securely, early on. We will do the same with the nicotiana.  The stakes are not the best look, but plants will completely disguise them in short order.  All there will be to do next is water and wait, and how the scheme is a good one. If the scheme is a good one, all the relationships will be both friendly and serious.   KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI saved the beginning of the story about this garden for last. I read the garden blog Gardenista almost every day.  Last winter they put up a post about a dinnerplate dahlia called “Cafe Au Lait”.  The story came from a the blog of a florist who features home grown flowers., if you are interested. This dahlia features flowers the color of cafe au lait, naturally.  Some flowers are more pink.  Some are more towards the cream side.  I have always been reluctant to grow these dahlias.  They can be too tall, too stiff, and too ungainly.  The blog post was very detailed in how and when to pinch them.  The pinching early on results in more flowers with long stems.  But it was the astonishing color that made me ask Mark from Bogie Lake Greenhouse to order 30 of them for me, and bring them on.  The entire rest of the garden is an effort to feature these dahlias.
Tomorrow we will add more ageratum to the edge.  I am after an 18″ wide rounded band of this color rolling down to the gravel to border the garden.  That low carpet of ageratum may not be prominent for long, but when it does fill in, it will lighten the look of all of the other plants.  There is a good while before the dahlias will have much to say. The ageratum border might be the best part of the garden, for a moment.  I am still thinking about what will go in the window boxes. Having and taking the time to look at a garden before proceeding is part of the pleasure of the process.

The Caliente Geraniums

tree ferns

I am sure you can tell from the dearth of posts this week that I am in the thick of the spring planting season. Every year at this time I have the opportunity to experience in fresh detail the meaning of the word seasonal. Though I have a number of landscape projects underway, and the shop is incredibly busy, I make time to plant summer annuals for clients. These tree ferns which have belonged to my clients for years come under the heading of annual flowers, as we have to winter them indoors in an unheated space. They are a very unusual and unlikely summer annual-I like this about them. The wild lime coleus planted underneath, and the begonias in the chimney pots will have much more to say in 6 weeks than they do now.

waxleaf privet topiaries

We have wintered this pair of waxleaf privets for the past 10 years. I think this is the last year for them-in these pots. I love how overscaled the tops are as opposed to the green glazed bottoms, but I have root pruned them for the last time. I dare not go one bit further with that. We were barely able to get the lavender scaevola and lime licorice skirt in the pot. I advised my client that she either needed bigger pots, or new topiaries. Somehow I doubt she will give up the privet standards.

growing herbs in containers

The largest of the two second floor decks has a number of containers which we plant with herbs. What herbs? Lots of sweet Genovese basil, lemon basil, several kinds of variegated culinary thyme, gold marjoram, garlic chives, oregano, and both flat and curly parsley. These are her favorites. At the corners of the big pots-strawberries. They do not bear for long, but the leaves and trailers are beautiful in herb pots. One pot not seen in this picture is entirely taken up with an old rosemary. Just for punctuation-some flashlights millet. They will take a while to grow on.

cedar planter boxes

That old wild rosemary is visible in the top left of this picture. We store this plant over the winter; the storage is worth the trouble. The big planter box, which separates the deck from the walkway that traverses the entire rear of the house, gets flowers. As I had a request for lots of color, the box is planted with red and dark red violet dahlias. The cool color of variegated licorice and lavender star verbena makes all that color seem all the more saturated. As I like my mixed colors in threes, the border also includes Caliente Dark Red geraniums.

planting containers with annuals

Several years ago, at the Independent Garden Centers convention and trade show in Chicago, I heard Alan Armitage speak. He trials bedding plants at a garden at the University of Georgia in Athens. There were lots of plants he had issues with-as in poor color, substance or performance. But he was highly complimentary of the Caliente geraniums. If he liked them, I was sure that I would too. Interestingly enough, he recommended that gardeners in southern states plant them with afternoon shade.  I wondered if they would tolerate a little bit of shade that marks the locations of these boxes.

caliente geraniums

I asked my grower to grow 10 cases of each color for me last year. I planted lots of the orange variety in my roof boxes. They bloomed non-stop in that very hot and very windy location. They were virtually self-cleaning. That vivid color was readily visible from the street. Caliente geraniums are a cross between an ivy geranium, and the mop headed zonal geranium. They are vigorous growers; the colors are clear and intense. The flower heads are loose, like a typical ivy geranium.

annual planting patterns

Years ago we built 2 very long boxes that are attached to the outside of the†railing of the walkway. This means the boxes drain to the terrace below, not onto the deck walk. This year I planted caliente geraniums in dark red, coral, orange and pink. The flower heads are much more informal than those of zonal geraniums, but I wanted an even looser look. I planted diamond frost euphorbia between each geranium. The edges of the box are planted with white and lavender star verbena, variegated licorice, misty lilac wave petunias and creeping jenny.

English lead boxes

The landing of the staircase that goes to the ground floor has a pair of English lead pots. A pair of Daniella are ringed in pink and red solenia begonias. They will easily handle the part sun conditions of this terrace. The lime green variegated leaves will have some company from the creeping jenny in the boxes above, once it grows in and starts to trail.

lead planter boxes

So many places I plant have pairs of pots in different light conditions. I try to pick plants that are the tolerant sort. These plants will grow in a fairly uniform manner, though one box gets noticeably more sun than the other.

second story decks

The small terrace at the far end of the house is off the master bedroom. An old varigated abutilon with peach flowers in the pot on the left came out of winter storage. A red mandevillea is paired with a new petunia variety whose petals are splashed with pink and lime yellow. The center pot is stuffed with a dahlia favorite-Hypnotica lavender. This dahlia is about the strongest performing dahlia I have ever grown. The right hand pot features an Orange Punch canna, accompanied by lime nicotiana.

kidney shaped swimming pools

On the ground floor, a swimming pool is encircled by roses, perennials, small growing shrubs, and old viburnums. We added verbena bonariensis, sonata white and Rosalita cleome, lime nicotiana, heliotrope, and surfinia sky blue petunias. They are steadfast in delivering color all summer long, while the perennials come and go. Will I come back later in the summer to take pictures? Of course.

A Couple Of Days Worth


My annual planting season is in full swing.  My cork board is filled with job cards-there is a lot of work to do.  I do the design work-but that part is a fairly small part of the process.  Finding and ordering plants is followed by an installation and cleanup.  We like to check back fairly soon after a planting to be sure everything is growing ok. 

 It is a well known fact that only one person at a time can drive a bus.  What goes into planning and planting a job is much like delivering a busload of people to a destination.  A lot of seats on the bus are occupied by growers of perennials, annuals, tropical plants, herbs, and vegetables.  I know them on a first name basis.  I only ask for special help when I really need it.  I try to order by the truckload. I have a lot of respect for people who grow plants for a living-it is not easy. 

Some seats on the bus are for the people who plant.  They get seats in first class.  The most outstanding design on the planet means nothing if the installation is not first class. They know to water plants before they load them on a hot day.  They will water again-any plant they bring back at the end of the day.  They plant expertly, and quickly.  They know which side of a plant should face forward.  They know how to plant a rootball crooked, so a plant stands up straight.  They know how to soak a planting through and through.

There are two seats on my bus for the people who supervise.  They see to it that everyone is focused on a common goal.  They make executive decisions on the spot when they are needed.  They organize and direct every move.  They all work together amazingly well-I can barely keep up, placing the plants.  There is one seat for a runner-he delivers forgotten plants and materials to to the job.  There is one seat on the bus for Monica.  Every project has a job sheet detailing the scope of the work, the plant material, the hardgoods, and the time spent.  She is really good at spotting what might be missing from a sheet.    

  There are several seats on the bus for me.  Three days a week I shop the markets-between 5:30 and 6 am.  I need to get in and out in a timely way,  I go when the traffic is sparse. I am likely to run into other people who garden professionally; a few minutes may be spent socially, or in a discussion of a particular client that we have in common.  Several other days a week I drive to this greenhouse or that one-to see what looks good.  Then there is a seat I call the order desk. Plant numbers must be calculated, plants ordered, and a delivery coordinated. I direct the crew pulling material for a job.  Sometimes I draw the planting scheme on a picture of a pot from a previous year.  Sometimes I place the plants personally.   

A truckload of plants provide a couple of days worth of material.  Some jobs take a day or better; other days we may do three projects.  In any event, I have a lot of projects swirling around in my head.  I know instinctively when I see a plant that would work for a project-or a plant around which a project can be organized.  Some plants I need I might have to pass on.  Maybe there are not enough available, or they are not the quality I had hoped for.  Selecting the plants is one job I cannot delegate. 

 Blue salvia has never particularly appealed to me; so much undistinguished foliage with not so many flowers.  The Cathedral series is an intriguing one- it comes in a dark purple, white, lavender, and blue sky.  The mix is really good looking, especially if you like subtle color.  I signed up for 24 cases. We’ll see what comes of that decision.  Tomorrow I will shop the market, and order another truckload that will get me through the weekend.  It’s the time to plant the annual flowers. 

75 degrees today, and sunny.  I’ll take it.