The Winter Landscape: Plant Hardiness

Plants are very specific about what soil, light and water conditions they need to thrive. Any gardener who has moved a sulking plant around 3 or 4 times before striking pay dirt understands this. It is simple to spot a plant that is unhappy.  Figuring out the cause of the trouble can be tough, as there are so many factors that come in to play. There are those plants, in defiance of every good intention and effort to find them a suitable home, that fail to prosper. I have killed outright plenty of plants. Given that every plant has a strong will to live and reproduce, those failures are frustrating and embarrassing. Figuring out what a plant needs to thrive is 2 parts science, 2 parts luck, and 6 parts good instincts. The hellebores in the above picture look unhappy, as they always do in February. They like the filtered sun, protection from wind, the friable soil and regular moisture that is available to them here in the growing season. They have what they need to thrive. What they do not like in February is the cold. Before any plant in a Michigan garden can thrive, it has to be able to survive our winters.

Plant hardiness zones indicate a worst case low temperature for different parts of the country. The USDA, in compiling data from weather stations, and factoring in mitigating circumstances which can influence low temperatures, has produced a plant hardiness map. Interested in that map making process?  mapping plant hardiness    It gives gardeners an idea of what the lowest average winter temperature can be in a given area. The hardiness map is a guide that can help gardeners select plants which are appropriate for their area. My area is at best a zone 6, and at worst, a zone 5b.  This means that plants that are able to withstand low temperatures in the -15 to -10 degrees should be able to survive in my garden. That includes these ratty looking  hellebores. Last year’s foliage may be burned from cold and wind, but they are very much alive, and waiting for some signs of spring.

The key to survival in very cold regions is dependent on that plant slowly going dormant over the metabolic slow down that we call fall, and a constant deep dormancy throughout the period of very cold weather. What the hardiness zone map does not provide for are weather events out of the norm. We have had temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s for a week. On February 18, the record high for that day of 62 degrees set in 1976 was eclipsed by a 65 degree day. One or two days of weather that warm might not affect any plants that are still dormant.  The frost is deep in the ground. But the days are staying warm. We have a low of 56 forecast for overnight tonight. Now I am starting to fret. It is too warm, way too early. Under that winter foliage, I see signs that the hellebore flower stalks have begun to emerge.

hellebore A plant breaks dormancy for a constellation of reasons.  Longer day length and warming temperatures are key. No plant reacts instantly to a brief change in conditions. But a change that persists is an invitation to wake up. Hellebores are greatly prized by gardeners everywhere. I do favor helleborus orientalis hybrids for my zone.  This group of hellebores, now known as helleborus hybridus, are bred from hellebores commonly known as Lenten roses. This group generally begins blooming in April in my zone 6 garden. Hellebore hybrids featuring the genes of Helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas rose, naturally bloom at a time which is winter in my garden. Do I have inter generic hellebores in my garden that would prosper better in zones further south?  Of course I do. I am always pushing my luck. I have had great success growing plants marginal to my zone. But nature is unpredictable. Nor does she care a whit for me and my love for my garden.

snowdropsOur bitter 2014 winter turned my zone 6 into a battle zone 4. None of my magnolias bloomed. My parrotias sustained extensive die back to their upper branches. My roses were killed back to within a foot of the ground plane. My clematis sputtered. My 20 year old boxwood had unbearable damage. It was a sobering experience, to say the least. Any plant marginal to my plant hardiness zone suffered damage of one sort or another. The winter of 2015 might have been worse. On February 20, 2015, the temperature in Roscommon Michigan was -39 degrees. The statewide average for that day was 18.5 degrees below zero. The damage done to evergreens these two back to back vicious winters was extensive. But those plants that were safely dormant managed to survive. The snow drops showing their faces yesterday worry me.  65 degrees in February is an anomaly.  The cold weather will return. How much cold can their flowers endure?

magnolia stellataOf course I am anxiously checking all of my early spring blooming plants.  This magnolia stellata was a 2 foot tall tree the day I bought my house twenty some years ago. It has prospered where it was planted.  It did not bloom in either 2014 or 2015. Its hardiness was sorely tested by a pair of bad winters.  The flowering in 2016 was a happening.  I am trying to decide if our warm weather is encouraging the buds to swell.  Not that I could intervene. Mother nature bats last. I am reading we have some night temperatures in early March in the teens.  Though I am ready to wash my hands of winter at the end of February, March is a winter month for us. Any early spring plant which is breaking dormancy right now may not fare so well in March. This is more a worry than a certainty.

Late this past summer, I replanted my rose garden. Though I know there is a limit to their hardiness in my zone, it is better for me to start over, than to do without. That was a personal decision, not a decision driven by a plant hardiness map. As for the dogwoods, I hope they will be able to endure a freakish warm spell in the middle of winter. No small part of the winter landscape are plants that endure.

 

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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.

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On Their Own

winter potsI posted some time ago about the landscape I designed for my clients who live in a rural area outside Ann Arbor. They edited and installed that landscape on their own – to everyone’s  great satisfaction. I was happy indeed that they took my plan to heart, and edited it to reflect their point of view. Late this fall they planted a wide ribbon of grape hyacinths in the lawn beginning near the large round planter and running all the way to the road. There’s nothing like having a river of grape hyacinths to look forward to in the spring, is there? Eventually, there may be some trees on either side of that river.  Their last garden project of the season-the winter pots. They came to the shop the other day to with to consult with me about their plans, and look at materials. Of course they would do their winter pots on their own.

winter potsI spent plenty of time talking them through their design process.  They knew they wanted to use cut white birch branches, and spruce tips.  And they wanted to incorporate the color red. Their taste is tends towards the contemporary, but in a loose and brash way. Containers filled with natural materials informally arranged proved to be a strikingly beautiful contrast to their sober and spare landscape.

img_0191This post is not so much about what I advised them to do. It is primarily about what they did on their own. This winter pot is terrific.  I was delighted when Rich sent me this group of photographs. The greens in the bottom of this container are spruce tips, from Minnesota. Dan had them shipped in.  I have never seen them before. These spruce toppers sunk into the soil of a container looked like a forest of mini trees. This container is as good as it gets, in my opinion. It is relaxed, assured, and striking. The thin red twig branches against the stout birch branches-so beautiful.

winter potsI did advise them to light their pots. Their property is in a rural area. Absent a full moon, their property is shrouded in darkness. The light in the winter pots would be key to welcoming guests, and representing a warm winter. It took a bit of doing to convince them to spring for a 3′ diameter spiked light ring encircled with LED lights, but they eventually decided that my advice was good advice. After much discussion, they took that ring home with them. Set into their 5 foot diameter steel bowl container facing the road, that light ring not only illuminated what was in the pot, it lit up the walk to the front door.     img_4253The materials they chose? Mountain hemlock, for its feathery texture, and its longevity as a cut green. Noble fir is a cut green whose stout stems amicably support lights, and obligingly stay green throughout the winter. The magnolia branches in this container feature big leaves. Those big glossy green leaves are a nod to romance. The Michigan winter is spare and gray. Cut magnolia is luscious – juicy looking. The hollow birch bark rounds are chubby and charming. The faux red berry stems hover over all.  Happily, they will represent for many winters to come. The Lumineo warm LED light strings illuminate the greens.

winter containersThis is work that I am happy to share here.  I greatly admire what they have done.

winter container arrangementsaa

We provided the centerpieces for this pair of winter containers.  Our client did the rest. Lovely, aren’t they?

This planter was constructed by a client who shopped on line with us for some of her materials.

This client shopped at Detroit Garden Works for materials too.

These containers are the creation of a member of my group. I like that he had the enthusiasm to go home and make winter pots, after making them for others day after day.

I truly enjoy what people say back to me about the garden.

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Mighty White

birch.jpgMy landscape is mighty white right now.  We have already had better than twice the snow we had all season last year, and this is just mid January. I was so surprised that we got another 3 inches of snow yesterday.  Have we not had enough?  Who thought we needed more than the 16 inches we have already had? OK, I wasn’t so much surprised as weary.  The snow has piled up everywhere.  The landscape is blurred.  The glare from the snow makes everything else some variation of black..  Lots of white, with some black bits.  What gardener in my zone isn’t bleary eyed?

sun-and-snow.jpgThese reproduction cast stone pots made from a well known design by Frank Lloyd Wright are all but buried in snow.  The snow silhouette features the rim of the pot.  The shape of a mature plant, a garden bed, a tree canopy, a garden path, a terrace, a container – shape is one of many elements of design.  A shape is a 2-dimensional visual description of an object.  An outline, if you will.  Heavy snow makes it easy to see and decide if you like the shapes.

snow-covered-garden-table.jpgWe have mountains of snow and uniformly gray skies.  There are only so many ways to tell this story.  The better story is about what is missing visually, and how a landscape can be better. As I have watched the snow pile up higher and higher, I realize how much I appreciate the skillful use of color, line, texture, mass, edges, and proportion in a landscape design.  This garden table and bench has been reduced to its simplest shape, in black and white.

snow-covered.jpgDeep snow has all but obliterated any complex relationships in the landscape. What the snow has not buried are the basic and simple shapes.  The very strong and simple relationships.  A good design should be evident in every season.  In all kinds of weather. There are those gardeners who aim for one season at the expense of all the others, and I respect their choice.  It just wouldn’t be my choice.  I do believe that good design is all about what is there when there is nothing there to see.  The stone pot filled with cut evergreens pictured above has a distinct form and proportion that is described and enhanced by snow.

shop-garden-in-January.jpgThe heavy snow had reduced this landscape to its most elemental gestures.  What I still see, given the lack of color and texture, is the form. I would venture to say that a design that does not work in its most austere winter state will work no better flushed out with plants, and clothed in green.

snow.jpgGood form is a quintessentially important element of good design.  A weeping Japanese maple has an overall shape, both a leafy shape, and a twiggy shape.  That maple also has a three dimensional structure-that is its form.  The successful placement of that maple in the landscape is dependent upon an understanding of its form.  Planting small or young trees require an understanding of a form that is yet to be.  Forms come with baggage, too.  A weeping Japanese maple is so common in suburban front yard landscapes that it asks for an unusual treatment or placement for its form to be truly appreciated.  Asparagus means vegetable, which means it gets planted in the vegetable garden.  But its form may be perfect for a rose garden, or a container.

garden-bench.jpg The relationship of one form to another can be incredibly exciting, or sleepy beyond all belief.  Some forms are so striking they stay with me for a long time.  Years even.  The fluid and informally curving form of this magnolia garland is all the more striking visually against the formal and rigid form of this steel bench.  The snow is that relationship graphic and clear.  Personally unforgettable moments in a landscape usually involve a form which is under some sort of visual discussion via the weather, or the season. Landscape elements that are not up to a year round discussion should be placed accordingly.

boxwood.jpg  Some forms I do not give a moments notice.  Why wouldn’t my clients feel the same way? Whenever I am designing for a client, I always ask what was an unforgettable experience of the landscape. This will tell me a lot about what forms will have meaning for them.

snowy-day.jpgThis embarrassment of riches in snow is an experience of the landscape that is making me testy, but it has its virtues.

michigan-winter.jpgMilo thinks this winter’s garden is grand.