Archives for October 2009

Time For Tulips

Oct 15a 009
I am embarassed to admit I did not take the time to plant a single tulip last fall-how lame. But I had the entire spring season to regret that decision at my leisure. They smell divine; the colors are not only luscious, they are so welcome after our long grey winter. They are swell as cut flowers.  So what was my problem?  It is easy to let the spring bulb planting slide, especially if the fall weather is nasty.  I am not particularly fond of gardening in freezing weather, beyond digging myself a shelter in the compost pile, and settling in there for a hot lunch and warm apple pie with coffee. Planting bulbs is not especially satifying. You repeat the work of little holes six to eight inches deep times the numbers of bulbs you have; all the while your hands, nose and feet are going numb from the cold .  When you have finished, you have nothing to show for your work-just the same dirt surface that was there before you started.

Spring 2005 (3)They say delayed gratification is the most adult of all pleasures, so maybe I was being childish about the long hiatus between the planting and the blooming.  But when spring finally comes, tulips deliver.  It is no small miracle that those small white bulbs with their papery brown covers become a plant that can reach thirty inches tall or better, with strikingly large flowers.  Even people whose vocabulary does not include the word “garden”, know the word tulip. 

tulips _0002As is my habit, I welcome the one odd plant out in any mass planting. This ocean of Mrs. John Sheepers is all the better looking for it. The blooming of the tulips is one of those garden moments to be treasured. I certainly was not thinking about how cold it was the day I planted , on this spring day. My tulips shake off any late frost; most of any damage is to the leaves that appear early. They are remarkably resilient to rain and wind.

Spring05 (7)Despite some literature to the contrary, I would not describe a tulip as a perennial. Once they flower, the top size bulb breaks down into smaller bulbs and bulbils. As flower size is directly related to the size of the bulb, a smaller bulb, or collection of will produce smaller flowers, or possibly, no flowers at all.  In Holland, once the tulips have bloomed, the bulbs are dug up, sorted as to size and replanted for growing them back to top size.  I do not want to dig tulips, separate the bulbs and replant; the Dutch do a much better job of this than I could. This is a long way of saying that I treat my tulips as annuals.  When they are done flowering, I dig them and give them away, or compost them.

dgw spring_0004Daffodils are a much better choice of a spring flowering bulb, should you have a requirement that your bulbs rebloom reliably. But they are not tulips.  Treating the tulips as annuals permits me to plant them in places where I will later plant summer annuals. As I do not discriminate against summer flowering plants that are only able to grace my garden for one year, so why not have tulips?

dgw     _0009
More often than planting in the ground, I do manage to plant tulips in containers which I winter in the garage, or under a thick coating of compost outdoors.  I may plant boxes or baskets or galvanized buckets-whatever seems handy.  I also may companion plant; the basket of red tulips pictured above was planted in tandem with the giant frittilaria imperialis.  The frits were done blooming, but their curly foliage was attractive with the tulips.

dgw spring_0007
Tulips in containers have the added advantage of mobility.  They can be moved to a good spot in a spring garden, or placed on a table, or delivered to a friend who is ill.  It also enables me to plant standing up, in the shelter of my garage. 

DGW    05

I did plant tulips yesterday-1800 in all.  I did a mix of World Expression, Avignon, Maureen and Cum Laude.  Should you be interested in checking out my choices, or planting some tulips of your own, I highly recommend Sheepers.  They have a great website, with pictures that will make your mouth water.  It is not too late for you to have tulips in the spring.

The Party’s (Almost) Over

Sept 24 055Given that I took this picture September 24, why wouldn’t I be unprepared for the weather here this past week? Just three weeks ago, I still had my summer.  Though describing any Michigan weather as “ordinary” is glossing over the truth, our weather ordinarily cools off at a slow enough pace to make keeping up with the job of putting the garden to sleep relatively easy. My fall cleanup and shovelling out is based on the distinction I draw between gardening, and housekeeping.

Sept 24 052I have seen those properties that look as though every shred of organic debris has been blown, vacuumed up and disposed of weekly; anyone who has inadvertently turned a blower on themselves realize what an invasion they are. Every green leaf looks dusted; every surface has been swept, every shred or organic debris is bagged and removed.   The stone is scrubbed clean, and the cushions are only on the furniture when company is in attendance.  I like the look of cultivated soil as well as the next person, but all of the above is housekeeping, not gardening.  Years ago a gardener whom I greatly respect, Marge Alpern, told me she disturbed her plants as little as possible.  She maintained that plants can be worried such that they refuse to prosper. I think this is a point well taken. I will not take on the perennial gardens until much later in the fall.

Oct 14 063A series of nights with temperatures hovering in the mid thirties left my pots looking like this-devastated.  It does not matter one bit that I know this day is coming, I am never ready for it, nor do I like it. I do not like to let go. On a much more dramatic scale than the time changing to daylight savings, I adjust slowly, and poorly.

Sept 24 035Coleus are astonishingly intolerant of cold weather.  Anyone who does poorly with them is probably planting them out too early; every plant thrives in some conditions, and sulks in all else.  This five foot diameter fiery orange ball was glorious all season; in late August the corgis were breaking off the branches encroaching on the doorway.  They keep the extreme understory clear of any obstructions.

Oct 12 004In what seemed like the blink of an eye my fireball shed almost every leaf. Unlike the gingko tree which sheds every leaf on that certain perfect fall day, leaving a beautiful pool of yellow on the ground, the coleus leaves dessicate, drop, and disappear before you can even mourn properly. 

Sept 29 001My English-made Italian style pots were home to the biggest bouquet I have ever grown. The nicotiana mutabilis got busy throwing spikes in September, and the dahlias were blooming profusely. I like that extravagant and exuberant look.  No matter how the day had gone, I could go home and congratulate myself on having grown one of the annual wonders of the western world. You may be laughing, but how the look of it pleased and cheered me. 

Oct 14 076Though the nicotiana mutabilis is yet bravely defending its home, the cold pierced the heart of the whole.  Buck is always amazed and amused and the depth and breadth of the despair which attends the beginning of the end of my gardening year.  I alternately rage and whine-he murmurs, and pours the wine. 

Oct 14aa 010This sister to my pots, adapted for use as a fountain, bears all the signs of a season’s worth of  mineral laden water, weather,heat and growth. Does that gorgeous Italianate face not seem completely grief stricken?    

Oct 15 008
It will no doubt take time, but I will get to thinking about what I will do with these pots for the holidays, and the winter.  But for the moment, I am inconsolable.

Broom Corn

Oct 13a 004
Broomcorn, or sorghum vulgare, is an annual that can grow to fifteen feet in a season. It is a crop grown primarily for the manufacture of brooms, and whisk brooms. It appears in the literature in the late 1500’s, in Italy;  Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have introduced broomcorn to the US in 1700.  Though I have been using broomcorn ornamentally in fall pots for years,  the above mentioned facts I learned only yesterday.  As I am focused on how plants look, I am impressed with that enterprising person that dried this plant, and made brooms. I will admit I did go and check out the broom in my office.

Oct 13a 008
They make a swell centerpiece in a fall pot. For this six foot tall centerpiece, I loosely zip-tie two  levels of material to a vinyl coated steel stake, and stuff my way down. The metal stake is a good idea-these stems are juicy, and very heavy.  I like to use fresh cut sorghum and millet as they dry in whatever position you have them. 

Oct 13 014The metal stake is inserted as close to the bottom of the pot as possible. A listing, out of vertical centerpiece-on my top ten list of things I really dislike. The long fibrous panicle of the broomcorn plant arches over gracefully in a pot.  I repeat that graceful arching with some leggy Tuscan blue kale; this combination is a good foil for those utterly organized cabbages. 

Oct 13 002Sometimes I sort the broomcorn bunches for color.  The dark stems are a beautiful compliment to this Francesco Del Re pot; plugs of angelina sedum infill the gaps. As I discussed yesterday, elevating the pots allows water to drain away freely. We will need this when dressing the pots for the winter.

Oct 13 011The green-cream and peach sorghum contrasts well with its counterpart in a dark purple-brown. I do not know if any of these stems would pass muster for broom-making material, but they make for a great fall pot.  That blue kale foliage is an unusual color in Michigan landscapes; it stands out.

Oct 13 008Ornamental cabbages only get better as the night temperatures drop; they color up.  They are best planted as a tutu.  Plants with a stiff aspect need some friendly and loose companionship.  Thus this combination. The lime green angelina will take on an orange cast in cold weather, as in  37 degrees when I came to work this morning.

Oct 13 007This lace leaf kale is all about air, at the same time that it defines an overall shape.  What more could any gardener ask of a plant?  As kales and cabbages shed their lower leaves, I may bury the trunk as needed in the soil, and pitch the head forward some. The entire arrangement-saucy enough to attract attention. 

Oct 13 015

I plant my clients pots four times a year;  her pair of concrete squares, and three Francesco Del Re pots get dressed up for each season.  Every season she is looking out her kitchen window expecting to see something beautiful.  I suppose if I made a big issue of the history and ornamental use of broomcorn, she would listen. But her attention to that horticulture would not be the point.  As I try to provide her with a view to something,  I am interested in any plant, including a big rangy annual usually grown as a crop, that delivers.

Francesco Del Re

Oct 12 024
Not all handmade Italian terre cotta is created with the pale orange clay native to Impruneta in classical shapes; the Francesco Del Re pottery studio is ample evidence of that.  Even the clay they use to make their pots was unfamiliar to me.  Their trademarked terreforte clay is difficult to work, as it is loaded with minerals, but it produces a very tough pot. They color the clay to produce this finish- grigio. A  colorant which took them years to develop is added to the clay to produce this grey/brown color. 

Europe 2006_09 050Some forms are simply done, and reminiscent of the classic rolled rim terre cotta pot which has served gardeners well for centuries. Handmade terre cotta is fired for a long time-relative to the few hours allotted most machine made pots.  This slow firing improves the strength and chip resistance remarkably. The flared shape makes potting and unpotting easy.  

Europe 2006_09 047Francesco Del Re fires their pots until they vitrify.  Vitreous china and pottery refers to a clay which is subjected to sufficiently high heat for a time sufficient to turn the minerals in the clay glass-hard. I have left my handmade Italian pots out on occasion to weather the brutal Michigan winter-not a problem.  But I am careful about certain things.  I make sure there is a space, however small, between the pot, and the hard surface on which it sits.  I might slide galvanized metal washers, or nickels under the pots.  I want to insure that water drains away before it freezes and expands. Any water trapped under the pot will wreak havoc over a winter; thus I never recommend a winter outdoors for terre cotta to a client.

Europe 2006_09 060
I have left them 2/3 full of drainage material and soil; I have left them empty. I have dried them out thoroughly, and left them out of the weather, under a tarp.  The key to to keep water from collecting in or around them, which will expand when it freezes. The water you cannot see, the water a pot has absorbed will freeze and expand in the same way; I am sure you have seen a clay pot shattered by the interaction of water and freezing weather. There are places where clay pots are sundried, as frost is never an issue. Terre cotta literally translates as “fired earth”. Their only drawback-the necessity of hauling them inside in the fall, and back out in the spring.

2008 Colburn 8-5-08 (8)The pottery is guided by the design work of Elettra Brancolini; they refer to her as their artistic heart. Her distinctive design I would describe as softly modern, sometimes updated classical, and frequently very contemporary.  I admire that the pottery has put their weight behind her hand. I am sure she gardens; the pots have a generous space at the top to plant.  The proportions of this pot in all its sizes are perfection.  They quietly and beautifully set off any planting.  They are as beautiful indoors as out.

2008 Lobsinger SUMMER 2 8-5-08 (13)
The pale marks and streaks on the surface of this Vaso Flute – the evidence of the human hand. Perhaps a  hand intent on refining the shape of the clay brought water to the surface. These marks are the signature of the artist.  A machine made terra cotta pot is perfectly uniform in thickness and surface; there is no human story to be read. On visiting the pottery, Rob was struck by the fact that each artisan would be working on 30 or 40 pots at the same time; creating pots of this size from hundreds of pounds of wet clay requires that each pot be built in stages. They would collapse from their own wet weight if not permitted to dry some while in process.  Even with painstaking fabrication, Rob  says the pottery is littered with countless pots that did not survive the firing.

Lobsinger 7-07 (10)The color of the pots changes with the light, and appears different in different places. The creamy, barely yellow of this retaining wall has brought out the warm brown of the clay.  Another cooler colored spot might make the pots read a warm grey.   

Silver, Susan (1)
But by far and away the most revolutionary aspect of these terre cotta pots-they are frostproof. The clay is so full of minerals, and fired for so long at such high temperatures that they weather our winter with ease.  We have roughly six months of gardening weather, and six months of winter in Michigan.  The idea that terre cotta pots could be left out over the winter here-that I love.  You can see in the picture above the slightest space between the bottom of the pot, and the porch surface. This client was able to dress her porch and enjoy her pots throughout the winter. 

Pots like this make it possible to have a garden of a different sort during the long winter months; this I like.