The Weather

corgi-weather-vane.jpgWhat’s your weather like today?  Mine is cool and rainy, punctuated by torrential downpours of short duration.  Two days ago the temperature was above 80 degrees by late afternoon.  The forecast calls for 48 degrees tomorrow, and 39 degrees tomorrow night. The transition between summer and fall is marked by moody weather. There will be frequent swings in temperature, wind, rain, and fog.  Gardeners follow the weather with great interest.  Some plant by the phases of the moon. The weather forecast lets me know how to dress for a day in the garden.  A dry hot and sunny summer day asks for different gear than a cold rainy fall day. An early winter day hanging holiday garland might as for warm clothes from side to side, and top to bottom.

helleborus-orientalis.jpgWeather forecasts the change of the seasons.  Longer days, and warmer temperatures in late March signal the hellebores and crocus to come out of the ground.  Plants do have a mechanism by which they recognize that the cold and dormant season is over.  A biological clock. They know when it is too dicey to show themselves, and when it is time.  In much the same way, they know when the winter is approaching.  Their growth slows, and deciduous shrubs and trees prepare to shed their leaves in anticipation of the dormant winter season.  I understand next to nothing of the biology and chemistry of this, but it seems like plants keep very good track of the weather.


As long as I have been gardening, I routinely see weather conditions I have never seen before.  I cannot remember a winter like our past one-not that I should.  It was the coldest and snowiest winter we had had in over 100 years-why would I? A morning sky that is so pink that it changes the color of everything in the garden like a piece of colored acetate over my camera lens-we has such weather early this morning.  Clouds of some fantastic shape and arrangement-there they are, though they never looked like that before or since.


Fog so dense that everywhere I looked was blinding white-that weather was on a boat bound for Mackinac Island many years ago.  I have never experienced that again.  Rain so hard that it bounced back skyward-memorable.

cafe-au-lait-dahlia.jpgOur summer has been cool and rainy, overall.  It was perfect weather to work, and have dinner outdoors.  All of the plants in the landscape have that lush well watered look.  So many evenings were perfectly comfortable-not too hot, nor too cold.  That bland temperate weather was memorable.  All of September was quite warm and sunny-the dahlias loved it as much as I did.  The weather is a daily companion to a garden, which brings me to the real point of this post.

Aug1 a 2014 (14)The longer I design landscapes and gardens, the more I believe that weather is one of the most critical design issues.  I am not talking about plant hardiness, or light and shade conditions, or soil that never gets rain, or is always flooded.  I think good design features the many faces of the weather.  For many of my clients, my design is first and foremost concerned with establishing some structure- some good bones.  Good bones can be built upon, or stand on their own.  Structure in the landscape in my zone has to take the winter season into account.  Our fall and winter is every bit of 6 months long.  Once the perennial garden fades, and the leaves of the shrubs and trees fall, all that is left is the structure – the bare bones.

perennial-garden.jpgI only have one very small perennial garden.  But for the trunks and branches of the dogwoods and magnolia, and the green of the yew hedge, that garden has little in the way of visual interest.  The horseradish collapses in a heap of rotten leaves, as do the lady’s mantle, the bear’s britches, and the Rozanne geraniums.  The phlox and hibiscus stand resolute for months after, but the snowy soon obliterates their shapes.

fall-leaves.jpgMy evergreens respond to the weather in a very different way.  The leaves that cover the tops of the boxwood underneath the magnolias celebrates the fall landscape.  The wet weather makes every boxwood leaf shine and glitter.  A dusting of snow illustrates the shapes described by that box.  A thick layer of snow is like a winter hat.  These rectangles of boxwood underneath the magnolias are very simple.  Though they have been there for many years, my eye does not skip over them.  Every day, the weather transforms them.  The landscape is designed to change with the seasons, and change even more often with the weather.

magnolia-petals.jpgOne can readily design a spring garden. Designing in celebration of spring weather is another issue altogether. The weather in Michigan is always a big fluid situation. The simpler the landscape, the more striking it will be, whatever the weather.

August 2013late day in summer

fall-leaves.jpgfall leaves

winter.jpgsnowy day

winter-landscape.jpga winter landscape

Winter Green


The color green has not nearly so much significance to a gardener as living green does.  I have never taken the time to record how many different plants I have on my property, but suffice it to say that there are lots.  Each of the plants have a certain shade of green associated with them.  Taken as a whole, a garden is a green tapestry.  Only a fraction of the possible colors of green represent in my garden today.  A good portion of the garden is still dormant.  My roses, shrubs and trees are bare.  The perennials are buried under snow whose crust has frozen solid.  My isotoma fluvialitis is entirely brown.  What’s to look at?  The living green in winter is a certain kind of green we call evergreen.  Given that our winter is still holding on in March, this is the perfect time to be thinking about evergreens, and how they endow the winter landscape.


That group of plants that manage to stay green over our winter-not such a big range, but impressive in their delivery.  The ability for spruce,  douglas fir, white pine, boxwood, and rhododendron to stay green over the winter is an extraordinary story of adaptation.  Evergreen trees and shrubs do not shed their needles and leaves at the end of the season.  They shed interior needles on species specific schedules during the growing season-but definitely not during the winter.  Evergreen trees has evolved such that the individual needles have very little in the way of surface area.  Those needles are vastly better adapted to resist the drying from winter winds, and survive without photosynthesis going on, than a big fat juicy leaf of a hydrangea.  Hydrangeas, and many other deciduous plants, shed that juicy liability in the fall.  The needled and broadleaved evergreens-they tough it out.


My urban property has but one large spruce.  I am sure it has been here at least 40 years.  Maybe 60 years.  This tree is green, winter and summer.  The winter green is moody and dark, unlike the summer emerald green.  I am never more appreciative of that green than I am right now.  I barely notice this tree in the summer.  In the winter, I see it coming from blocks away.  The evergreens that define my winter garden-I could not be more appreciative.


Yews are needle leaved evergreen shrubs.  Their dense and dark forest green needles provide such beautiful structure to a garden.   In the spring, the new growth is lime green.  In the depths of the winter, the color is almost black.  Watching the change in color given the season is to understand how plants deal with stress.  A yew floating in much too much water-the needles will be yellow.  A yew that dies makes a spectacular issue of that demise.  Orange needled yews-I am sure you have seen them.  Yews in the thick of enduring the winter-the needles are almost black.  The color green teaches, should you be watching.


Evergreens provide a stalwart backdrop in the winter for the snow covered branches, and the wispy tufts and remains of the perennial garden.  This black green backdrop of hedged yews brings a magnolia into clear focus.  Were this view open to the street, the delicate tracery of the branches and the overall shape of this tree would be lost.  Specimen evergreens need ample space around them-appreciative space.  Hedging evergreens whose repetition defines spaces help to create winter interest.


Broad leaved evergreens are a glutton for punishment.  Rhododendrons feature broad leaves with big surfaces that suffer much more damage than needled evergreens.  Those big leaves react to winter weather graphically.  Those big leaves are sitting ducks for serious cold and vicious wind.  The rhododendron outside my home office window tell me whether the day is cold.  In cold weather, rhododendron leaves curl and drop down.  In very cold weather, the droopy outline of the leaf is rolled in on itself- much like a pencil.  In much the same way as I curl up on a cold day, their curling and dropping mechanism helps protect them from extreme cold.  In the picture above, the leaves are hanging, dangling, from the stems.  This is a winter profile, generated by adaptation.  Once the leaves fan out, I know the temperature has moderated.  Rhododendrons prosper far better in warmer zones than mine, but my few plants grace my garden with green all winter.


Boxwood-no other evergreen shrub describes a landscape better.  Most of our suppliers winter their boxwood in tunnel houses.  How so?  A boxwood out of the ground, in a pot, is an evergreen needing protection from the winter.  Boxwood in containers require special care, as their roots winter above ground.  Lots of water prior to the freeze is a good idea.  A wilt pruf spray- not a a bad idea.  Evergreens in pots at the front door is a very good winter look.


Boxwood in the ground prospers in my yard. The evergreens, both big and small, both needled and broad leaved, define a landscape both summer and winter.


If a winter season is unavoidable, the evergreens help to make it a little easier to bear.  They organize a space when snow has all but obliterated any of the details.  Once established, evergreens are long lived, and low maintenance.

snowy-day.jpgThis day would have been ever so much more bleak, without the evergreens.