The Boston Ivy 2015

fall color boston ivy (1)
A two story high concrete block wall  of a storage rental business sits right about on the west lot line of the Detroit Garden Works property. It goes on and on, and sky high, for 120 feet. When the building went up some 15 years ago, I was unhappy about that 2400 square feet of beige concrete looming over us; that industrial glare was relentless. The front door to the shop is on the east side of the building. Our front door is on the side of the building. Quirky, yes. The history of the building determined the location of our front door. We warmed up to the prospect of a main door on the side. We had the idea that the walk down the long side of the shop to our front door would be a walk through a garden, and create anticipation for the experience to come. That giant wall was threatening to do in our idea to create a garden of our outdoor space.

fall color boston ivy (2)The friendly neighbor proved amenable to me planting Boston ivy on that wall. I knew of no other plant that would grip that wall for dear life, and grow up to cover a wall of this size.  I planted a 1 gallon pot of parthenocissus tricuspidata veitchii every 12 feet- 10 plants in all. The wall swallowed them up. But I knew if I kept them watered, and had some patience, these 10 plants would clothe that entire wall in green.

the Boston Ivy 022Some 15 years later, that wall is solidly covered with Boston ivy. We don’t always remember to put the water from the hose to the roots of those 10 plants. I have never seen them protest.  All summer long, we have 2400 square feet of lustrous green.  I would also like to point out that there has been no damage to the wall whatsoever over all of those years.  Their gripping mechanism is strong enough to support lateral branches in excess of an inch in diameter, but they have not harmed the masonry. But better than that glossy green all summer is the fall color. The fall color of Boston ivy alone is enough to warrant its inclusion in the landscape.

IMG_6255Rob took some pictures for me from the roof of our building. The vines do not color up evenly, or consistently.  The 2400 square feet in October is a tapestry ranging from green to olive, from peach to yellow, with dashes of flame red and cream. That wall is a fall garden story of astonishing size that goes on for weeks.  From start to finish, the Boston Ivy fall display spans 60 days.

IMG_6254Rob’s view from the roof tells the entire story. Though we have on occasion had a lateral branch detached in high winds, the gap fills in within a blink of an eye. Boston ivy is a more than willing grower. Willing, in our case, is a big plus. Should you grow it on a house with windows, be prepared to prune, and prune again. This giant concrete wall is a garden. How these vines have covered this wall is as delightful as it is miraculous. The most miraculous moment comes that one week in the fall when this wall is fiery gorgeous.

the Boston Ivy 027This concrete wall is spectacular right now, in a way I never really imagined.  I just took the first step. I put the plants in the ground, and watered. The ivy did the rest. This simple story is like any story waiting to be written about a landscape.  Plant some trees. Plant some shrubs. Plant some perennials, and a raft of bulbs.  Look after them. What grows will delight you.

October 29 2015 116the wall in late OctoberOctober 29 2015 115Our gloriette looks so beautiful with the Boston Ivy behind it. The fall is a favorite season of mine. There is so much color that comes courtesy of nature. How I love this late season moment.  How appropriate that the end of the gardening season is attended by so much fiery color and fan fare.

fall color boston ivy (3)The Boston ivy leaves will fade, and eventually fall. Their fruits are their brilliantly blue. The first frost will blacken these fruits.  But for now, I am enjoying all the color.  I have written about the Boston ivy every year for the 7 years I have been writing this blog.  Interested in how these vines looked in 2009?  Click on!

The Hybridizer

hybrid pumpkinEvery  gardener at one time or another comes in contact with plant cultivars introduced as a result of the painstaking work of  someone who breeds plants. Bressingham gardens in England has a group of fine perennial plants marketed under the aegis of Blooms of Bressingham. There are countless other individuals who have devoted themselves to breeding towards a better plant.  Some hybrids are more disease resistant.  Some are more sturdy-others have larger flowers with interesting variations in color. The dogwood Venus, a cross between Cornus kousa, and Cornus nuttallii, was bred at Rutgers University by Elwin Orton.  His Venus dogwood, once it was introduced, took a gold medal at Chelsea.  Anyone who loves the landscape is all the better for the introduction of this tree.

hybrid pumpkinsI am thinking about hybridizing right now, as Rob has such a big love for the various forms and colors of pumpkins that he collects fruits from countless farms within a day’s drive of us. He cannot get enough of them.  Of course most pumpkins are grown to eat, or to carve for Halloween, but others are grown for their sheer beauty.  Every farmer who grows pumpkins is a hybridizer, whether they intend to be, or not.  Cucurbits are plants of the gourd family, and include melons, pumpkins, squash and cucumber. All of these plants, grown within range of one another, will cross pollinate with abandon. Squash flowers are huge-they intend to have progeny.  And progeny they do produce. Any pollen on the wind might settle in these giant flowers. As a result, every farm who grows curcurbits has their own distinctive offering of pumpkins and gourds. These hybrid crosses are random.  Some are beautiful, sturdy, and robust.  Others-not so much.

hybrid pumpkinsRob has been fortunate to meet some gardeners in the course of his pumpkin collecting whose big love is hybridizing these big fruits.  You are looking at pictures of pumpkins that are the result of a lifetime of careful breeding. The gentleman in question is in his late sixties, and has been hybridizing pumpkins for decades. He grows his pumpkins in a tunnel house, so he can eliminate accidental crosses. Pumpkins and squash take up an enormous amount of space as they grow.  The breeding process is slow, as not so many crosses can be made in a given year. His crosses are thoughtful, and methodical.

pumpkins 2015 (9)His current crop of fancy pumpkins sit in a shed.  They are not displayed on his farm stand, as they are not for sale. They are part of his breeding stock.  He will harvest the seed, and breed again. The near black pumpkin in my first picture with a brilliant orange waist-I have never seen anything like it.  The black pumpkin in my second picture-astonishing.  I know squash with dark green rinds-I am a fan of acorn squash, and eat them regularly over the winter.  But this black pumpkin is like nothing I have ever seen.

pumpkins 2015 (8)Anyone who grows plants has at one time or another placed a plant in their garden whose form, color and texture is a result of years of breeding.  Endless crosses that amount to nothing.  A few crosses that have promise.  And perhaps a few plants in a lifetime that are worthy of introduction.

IMG_6456I am an old school gardener-I admit to that. I favor plants that look good all season, in leaf and in bloom.  I like plants that are vigorous, and hardy.  I love plants that ask little, and perform willingly.  I love those plants that verge on the weedy side.   I see some perennial and shrubby plants that have been introduced that seem unlikely to survive the test of time.  Should I have a landscape client who is interested in the garden, I make sure that what I select for their garden has a history of great performance.  Nothing discourages a gardener more than failure. Some plant breeding quits too soon-before there is a cultivar worthy of introduction.

pumpkins 2015 (22)Keeping plants alive, and keeping plants thriving, is a big job. I can be challenged by it, despite my many years as a gardener.  One of the most important aspects of landscape design to me is to do what I can to insure success for my clients. Success in a garden encourages interest.  I mean to encourage others to garden.  Great plant hybridizers do a lot of this work for me. They spend years and thought developing plants that gardeners can grow.

pumpkins 2015 (23)The man who hybridized that black pumpkin does not make a living from his fancy pumpkins.  He grows acres of orange pumpkins that get shipped nation wide.  His tall thin pumpkins that sit up on their own are especially good looking.  We sold out of our group within two days.

pumpkins 2015 (10)All of his pumpkins, squash, and gourds have great color.  Many of them sport what we call witches warts. Rob loves the bumps.

IMG_5933But even his most simple pumpkins feature strong stems. The long stems are part and parcel of a fall fruit that delights the eye, and speaks to the harvest. I never knew how beautiful a pumpkin stem could be, until I saw his pumpkins.  Rob is a looker.  When he sees something that makes him look twice, he does what he can to foster a relationship. The pumpkins we have at Detroit Garden Works right now are all about the thoughtful work of a hybridizer with many years in the game. We so value his contribution to every garden.  And every front porch in the fall season.

pumpkin stemIf you are like me, you have wrongly picked up a pumpkin by its stem, and had that stem detach. Dang. I will confess that I have hot melt glued broken stems on to a pumpkin.  No pumpkin stem can stay intact, given the weight of most pumpkins. But for our current pumpkin collection. We have a breeder who means to meld the stem with the body of the fruit.

pumpkin stemImagine a hybridizer whose goal is to develop stems that come down onto the fruit.  Gripping stems. A stem which is integral with the fruit. What hybridizers imagine and breed for-so simple, but so important. A garden does imply a generous grip.  Some of that comes from plant breeders.  Some of that comes from us. The mix is a really good one.


At A Glance: Late Fall

maples shedding

mid-November.jpgbleached maples leaves

maple-fall-color.jpgmaple leaves

Japanese-maple-in-the-fall.jpgJapanese maple in late November

gingko-and-hydrangea-in-the-fall.jpgGingko and hydrangea


pear-tree-in-fall.jpgpear tree

pear-espalier.jpgpear espalier

Venus-dogwood-fall-color.jpgVenus dogwood

oak-tree.jpgold oak

snow-today.jpgsnow today

Leaf Me Alone



Why is it that the moment you want something the worst is that very moment you are destined to loose it?  I mourn the loss of the leaves, come fall.  It is the end of a story that has unfolded over many months.  Once the plants have leaved out in the spring, we are awash in the green that leaves provide.  Everywhere I look in my little garden, I see green leaves.  The stiff little boxwood leaves all precisely laid along the stems.  The big lax rhododendron leaves flopping this way and that.  The big handed Princeton Gold maple leaves are held parallel to the ground, and shade every plant and every person beneath them.  The curly fronds beech ferns have that missing front tooth look.  The magnolia leaves are simple, big, and strong.


The hellebore leaves fan out, whorled around their stems.  The hydrangeas leaves are ovate-each shrub is smothered with them.  The rose leaves are glossy, and subtly serrated.  Perennial geranium leaves-they are the most astonishing clubby shape, and heavily veined.  The leaves of grass we refer to as blades. The leaves of the Parrotia are stiff, and marked with strong parallel veins.  The dogwood leaves are softer, more subtle.  The leaves of the hardy hibiscus-large and thin.  The leaves of butterburr-the elephant in the garden room.  Yews do not have leaves.  They have needles.  Those green needily configured leaves grace the garden year round.


The leaves of the Palabin lilac are short and pert.  Snakeroot has large and dramatically serrated leaves.  The peonies feature thick glossy leaves that endow the garden long after they have finished blooming.  Thyme leaves-so small.  Dandelion leaves-coarse and uncouth.  Horseradish leaves-the ultimate height and breadth of uncouth. Scotch moss leaves are soft and mossy in appearance.  The platycodon leaves are thick and stiff as a board and quite blue in color.  The big sail like delphinium leaves are all a spring storm needs to blow a stand of tall and ethereal blue blossoms over and onto to its knees.


Creeping jenny has round leaves-the lime version can cover the ground in no time.  The lime leaves of the hosta Sum and Substance are stiff and heavily veined-in the summer.  Regal, this plant.  At the first frost they collapse in a heap.  Not so regal, how they melt in the cold, and go down.  Russian sage, lavender and dusty miller have silvery gray leaves.


There are those leaves in colors other than green.  This list is long.  Red leaves.  Variegated leaves.  Yellow leaves.  White leaves.  But the leaves do more than delight a gardener with their shape, mass and color.  Leaves photosynthesize, meaning that they absorb, and convert sunlight into energy.  The leaves of a plant fuel its growth and health.  In the fall, those food makers are shed from the plants about to go dormant.  The process by which a leaf provides a plant with energy all summer,  matures, colors up, and drops, is an extraordinary story.


Fall color is all about the leaves.  The lime green shoot that leafed out in the spring, and energized a plant all season long, matures in the fall.  The life cycle of a leaf represents the life cycle of a garden.  How astonishing that the leaves turn such beautiful color in the fall before they drop. That garden day that I treasure the leaves the most is the the spring.  The leafing out in spring is all about the hope for the future of the garden.  My second most treasured day?  That moment when all of the leaves in my garden have colored up, and are about to fall.


Once fall comes, the leaves have done their job. No leaves make a better show of the end of the season than Boston Ivy.  They make a party, in celebration of a season well lived.  The close of their season-fiery.  Just look at the leaves.

the-stems.jpgAll that remains now of these Boston ivy leaves are the stems.  How could I miss them-they are the most astonishing shade of pink imaginable. They come away from the wall in a way that stops me dead in my tracks.  All summer and fall long I look at these leaves, and marvel.  The garden asks for a lot, but the story it delivers is delightful.  Epic.