Planting Containers For Spring

Our local newspaper recently confirmed what all of the gardeners in my area already knew. One would have to go back 134 years to find an April as cold as the one we have just lived through. Who knows what gardeners did in 1887 given their blisteringly cold April. I am cautiously optimistic that better weather is on the way,  even though it is barely 50 degrees today. I have had clients tell me that we won’t have any spring. That summer is just about here. Don’t believe it. We always have a spring. The March and April of it has just been exceptionally cold. May is a spring month as well, despite those who insist on planting summer annuals and vegetables before the soil is warm enough for them.  Anyone who treats May as a summer month is bound for some disappointment. We have been planting spring containers for a few weeks now. We have relied quite a bit on pansies and violas, as we have a grower who starts them the previous summer, and winters them in a cold greenhouse.We have planted some annual phlox, and I took a chance on some dwarf white fuchsia, rosemary, lavender and lettuce. These plants have been hothouse grown, so placing them outdoors abruptly can result in leaf damage. What it has been too chilly for is a long list.

The buds on the trees are swelling, but we are still leafless. The landscape looks groggy. Off color. My magnolia stellata has flower buds barely breaking and showing white. I am sure many of those buds will never open.The hellebores are thinking about it. Not a peep out of much else, but for the early flowering spring bulbs. The only perennial plant in my garden who has dared to venture forth is Alchemilla-lady’s mantle. Those new leaves are hugging the ground. As they should! But this daffodil mix pansy is as bright and cheery as can be. Though they are diminutive in size, pansies can provide a vivid preview of the color to come. Plant a few, or plant a truckload, the effect is the same. A little or a lot of color can energize  gardener. Daffodils are just beginning to bloom, and the tulips will be a good while yet. This means the timing for an appearance from pansies and violas is just right.

It is a lot to ask of a plant, to be ready to grow and bloom ahead of time. Our pansies have been fine with temperatures as low as 22 degrees.  For this project we loaded up and left them in the truck, which was parked in our landscape building, for 3 days. That protected them from our recent our ice and sleet storm. But I can report that those plants that endured that nasty weather outdoors look just fine today. How I welcome their forbearance. I am always amused to hear a plant described as shade loving. They are in fact shade tolerant. Lots of seasonal plants can tolerate chilly temperatures, but few persevere in really cold weather like the pansies.

Fresh cut pussy willow is a mainstay of our spring pots. The catkins are a glossy and furry gray. Once they are cut, they will hold that moment  as they dry. Pussy willow stems indoors, in water, will produce pollen, and many stems eventually leaf out. Their behavior in this regard is a great example of how routine and powerful the will to live can be. I especially enjoy how effortlessly they adapt to a second life in a container.

The pansies are small and short in April. A another month, they will be overflowing these boxes. But for now, a tall centerpiece of preserved eucalyptus and faux stems provide them a forum from which to speak up. There are those transitional times in the year when a gardener has the option to represent the sentiment of the season generously.  In a very short time, there will be breaking news from all of the plants in the landscape. Right now, spring containers have no competition.

Color plays a big part in any seasonal planting.  Colors placed side by side that are closely related make for a subtle expression.  Colors that strongly contrast in both hue and value make for more drama.

I do like color mixes that are not entirely predictable. No gardener needs a computer generated plan of action. I like that odd color out. I like color mixes that are imperfect. I like efforts in the garden that are unpredictable. The best voice is one’s own garden is one’s own voice. Trust that. Whatever I do in my garden, landscape, or containers, I always like when I can see that my choices are based on a relationship between my hands and the materials.

I am a professional designer. I do take pains to discuss with my clients about what they would like to see.  There is a relationship that needs to be honored. I do not expect them to direct me. I encourage them to express to me what is important to them in style, shape and color and affect. I try to interpret that.

This client chose a sunny and contrasting color palette for her spring planting. I admire that gesture. She is as tired of our long winter as I am.

Sooner or later she will see the lettuce at the center of these boxes. The spring garden is full of surprises, is it not?

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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More Reasons To Plant Containers For Spring

Spring flowersPlanting containers for spring is a great idea. To follow are some of my favorites.

spring container plantings

stock and alyssum

favorite spring pots

bok choy in containers

May containers

lavender in a basket

chard and pansies

 spring pots

spring trough

small spring containers

a bucket full of spring flowers

favorite spring pots

baskets and tubs 005

persian queen geranium and lobeliaMy recommendation for containers this 17th of May in Michigan?  Do not be thinking coleus, New Guinea impatiens, begonias, licorice in any of its forms, sweet potato vine, cannas – the list of summer container tropical that do not tolerate cold soil is long. Annual plants that are greenhouse grown for summer containers will not like our cold soil, or the cold air.  Refrain from planting these cold sensitive plants until the soil and the air temperatures warm up. Containers planted with spring and cold tolerant plants deliver every bit of three months, and will happily accompany your spring garden coming on. Choose to be in real time. The choices are many.

spring container in mid MayThe tropical annuals that are greenhouse grown for summer containers are living in a warm world right now. Everything regarding their culture is right as rain.  They have great soil. They have been fertilized. They are growing in a warm environment. Their place on a greenhouse bench is an ideal world. A greenhouse, on a sunny day in March, gets very warm, as in upwards of 80 degrees.  Those sunny days in April push those plants with tropical origins into very active growth.  A greenhouse crop of container plants is usually available for purchase way ahead of predictably warm weather outdoors. The transition from a hot house to your garden can be a huge shock to those plants. If you do not have a glass house to protect annual topical plants from the late spring Michigan weather, focus on what the spring has to offer.

viola potI understand the idea to shop now. Every serious gardener wants to purchase the best from a big collection. I would only suggest that your awesome early picks need to be, at the very least, housed in the garage until the night temperatures are reliably over 50 degrees. It can be heartbreaking, getting ahead of the weather.  At this moment, I am trying to stay focused on all thing spring.

At A Glance: Spring Containers

May 11, 2013 (8)

favorite spring pots (26)

spring flowers

favorite spring pots (11)

favorite spring pots (14)

favorite spring pots (2)

favorite spring pots (23)

favorite spring pots (19)

favorite spring pots (13)

favorite spring pots (9)

favorite spring pots (3)

favorite spring pots (4)

favorite spring pots

favorite spring pots (16)

favorite spring pots (22)

favorite spring pots (8)

 

favorite spring pots (21)

favorite spring pots (17)

spring container

late spring 014Spring containers are just one of a thousand reasons this season is such a delight.