Archives for October 2010

A Pergola For The Grapes

Lots of plants climb-all of them climb in different ways, but they all do the big job of providing interest when the planting space is small.  Climbers are of great value in the garden; they take up little space on the ground plane, and go on to generously represent high off the ground.  A small garden, a small space, a small garden space needing some live activity up high-climbing plants may be just what you need.  Some climbing plants that need a supporting structure are incredibly strong and vigorous-grapes fall into this category.

A client interested in a pergola that would support grape vines, and a swing she might enjoy with a grandchild informed the design.  An overall diameter of 14 feet would be proportional to the space.  Buck felt that a design based on curves would provide the greatest strength. 

Any gardener who has ever grown a vigorous but lax vine requiring support knows the heartache. Big strong vines can crush a light duty trellis in no time.  Wisteria, grapes and trumpet vine require serious support.  A lax vine has no natural mechanism by which it attaches itself to a vertical surface.  Clematis and climbing roses need a trellis to support their skyward growth.  Though wisteria and grapes have tendrils quite capable of a good grip, they need some physical encouragement to get up and off the ground.    

Once they are up and off the ground, grapes grow with a vengeance.  They need a very strong structure to support them.  I like steel in this application; there will be no need for paint or any other maintenance once the vines get large. The circular shape fit fine in a small area near the vegetable garden. 

For the most part, Buck  fabricated this pergola up side down.  This enabled him to work more easily with incredibly heavy pieces of steel.  Amazingly, he fabricates these large structures all on his own.  The installation today involved bolting together some 21 pieces of steel fabricated in the studio.  Level, square, plumb and true works well in the lab. In the field, it takes a lot of people, and a lot of moving up and down, and side to side-to get the pergola back to level and plumb.     <
 All of the side trusses were put up with a single bolt and nut.  Once every side truss was in place, a single long bolt that would secure 2 trusses at a time replaced the single temporary installation bolts. Buck routinely assembles an installation kit for his big projects.  Steve indicated he wanted Buck to attend this installation-he did. Every piece of steel has a label.  He did a sketch detailing the order of events, the assembly of the poles and trusses, and the roof members.   

My client was pleased.  She greatly appreciated the architectural appearance of the pergola.  When I know I have grapes to sustain, I go for serious architecture.  The Boston Ivy clings to walls all on its own.  Climbing hydrangea is slow and pokey to take hold; all I have to do is wait.  Climbing roses do not need anything all that strong; they just need whatever you are willing to give. Trumpet vine-research this before you plant-it is a thug of a plant.  The sweet autumn clematis will work with you.  Ancient ivy climbs whatever is within its range.  The climbing plants-I am sure you are familiar with their demands. A pergola strong enough to get grapes aloft and keep them there-I left that to Buck.     

Sunday Opinion: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

I am a reader, as I was raised to be such.  My Mom read to me non stop until I learned to read.  I never had the good sense to ask her later about why she did this, so I can only assume she thought it was important for people to read.  Reading in its simplest form exposes people to new words; a decent vocabulary is a tool by which people attempt to communicate.  I use the word attempt, as no number of words strung together necessarily insures communication.  Communication is an art form, not necessarily covered in a grammar primer.  Gardeners nonetheless become better, given a better vocabulary.  The best way to acquire gardening skills is to garden, but reading about it can be great fun. 

I know the meaning of verge, bosquet, pergola, porcelain berry, (ok, ampleopsis brevipedunculata is the latin version which precisely communicates the plant in question) bond beam, espalier, species, compost, environment, tap root, topiary, tree lawn, perennial -you get the idea.  Every word relevant to gardening implies an idea.  Reading that exposes me to those words goes on to expose me to ideas from other countries, other gardeners, other times, other places, other eras, other environments, other points of view.  I have a considerable library for good reason-there is always something that is new to to learn.  Part of being a well rounded gardener implies being a good reader.  Not to mention that there are those times when I would rather sit and read than dig a hole or water plants. My magazines pile up all season long, in preparation for winter. I am a reader, not a skier.

I have many hundreds of books; I refer to them, and reread- regularly.  My library is my window on the world. My books do not go out of style.  They don’t wear out or break.  It is amazing how little of the information they contain is obsolete.  A two volume set of photographic plates, entitled Jardins de France, is a prized possession.  Published in 1925, there are places pictured that no longer exist-except on these pages.  The Encylopedia Brittanica that my parents spent so much money to make available for me to read has been replaced by the internet.  Any gardening vocabulary word you might type into the Google search engine will likely get you many more websites than you could possibly digest. But the idea is somewhat the same.  A book you can hold in your hands is a different experience than looking at a computer screen, just like the music you hear in person is completely unlike any recording of music. Clare Lockhart, a high school English teacher, was obsessed with teaching how to write an elegant paragraph. If you didn’t learn, you had to keep writing them until she was satisfied you had that skill in place.  I cannot help but think all that practice with paragraph construction has helped to make my computer searches better and faster. But no matter the source of your reading material-what you read will inform your gardening. My advice-read up.  I do find that I get far fewer questions about plant culture than I did years ago, as the computer has made asking questions easy and convenient. I am better able to field questions about fruit trees and tropical plants, as I can look them up.

I have a long history of writing.  Like my Mom and my grandmother Nana, I kept a journal.  Some parts of that journal were personal-other parts recorded the peony bloom, or the date of the spring thaw, or random thoughts about my gardening efforts. Everything I write down sticks with me. I hope you enjoy reading my essays as much I as enjoy writing them.  The process of writing is exploratory, and helps me to think things through. 

 What I write is a rich stew.  Nature is the meat-how I cook that meat directs my writing.  My experience can  flavor the stew with garlic, rosemary-or romance.  I would furthermore encourage everyone to keep a journal.  Most things I wrote in my journal in my twenties either make me smile, or wince.  At 45, I threw away 27 years worth of journals; it was a good decision.  What you have a mind to write about translates what you think about or experience into information you might use. It can also give you a better picture about weather cycles, plant hardiness-the nature of things.  What interested me about gardening twenty years ago is much different than what interests me now, so  I am back to writing.    

You may think that no gardener needs to think about arithemetic as using it comes so naturally.  Most of the skills I use I learned in elementary school.  I dilute my moss dye using a 1 to 5 ratio.  Mixing soil, calculating how many perennials I need for a project, the flats of groundcover, the yards of decomposed granite-simple arithmetic.  Figuring the numbers of tulips I need to fill a spot may be the least favorite part of the process of having tulips in the spring.  I usually err on the side of way too many, which works out fine in the end. There are other things I have too many of-too many pots, too many hydrangeas, too many ferns-too many plants on a small city lot.  I still scheme about how wedge more in.  This excess is about enthusiasm, not poor math skills. 

We are installing a circular pergola today that Buck made.  A good deal of my excitement about seeing it put together and in place is that my grasp of the mathematics that enabled him to construct it is a skill I do not have.  He saw this structure clearly in his mind long before he put the first two pieces of steel together.  My excitement is about seeing it for the first time. I am sure it will be a very elegant visual paragraph about the structure required to adequately handle growing grapes.  You’ll see.

At A Glance: Boston Ivy

Coloring Up

Ideal conditions for great fall color involve a season with decent soil moisture, warm days, and temps at 45 degrees or below at night.  Ideal conditions- rare.  Abruptly early freezing can interrupt the process by which leaves slowly stop producing chlorophyll; rather than a display in technicolor, we get a limited range of mud-brown and mud grey.  This year, it is more than startling that we have not yet had a hard frost; it has been years since Halloween came and went before a killing frost.   The night temperatures for the next 10 days look like they will hover in the low forties.  We seem to be headed for great color. What is coloring up?  Gingko leaves turn a gorgeous citron yellow in the fall; that color matures to a brilliantly clear golden yellow.  But a gingko’s main claim to fall fame is about the drop. They drop most every leaf on the same day. Should you happen to be available that day, that drop is a happening.  

Red maples are aptly named for the intense red color of their fall leaves-but they can disappoint in a dry year.  Should that red color be important to you, chose a named cultivar of acer rubrum especially bred for great fall color- like October Glory or Red Sunset.  Maple leaves are large, and grow parallel to the ground.  This makes the shade they cast particularly dense.  But in the fall, the leaves are translucent; light shines through them. This brings that red fall color to life in a spectacular way. 

My Princeton Gold maples have an intensely gold fall color.  The transition from green to yellow can take weeks.  I have never had the inclination to dry flowers in a flower press, but I love pressing fall leaves-in every stage.  Searching for my favorite fall leaf is not so different from shelling on a beach, or cutting the best garden flowers for the dinner table. Any gardener understands nature is a teacher, a resource that should be respected and protected- and a source from which to draw a good life.   

Disanthus Cercidifolius is a rare tree in my zone; native to China and Japan, they thrive in the Pacific northwest.  This particular tree I saw just a week ago for the first time at Landscape Supply in Taylor. Wow.  Related to witch hazel, this small growing tree has large heart-shaped leaves.  However this tree comes into its own in the fall.  Leaves turning purple, gold, orange-and finally red; Disanthus wrote the book on fall fireworks.  Thriving in uniformly moist and acid soil not unlike what makes rhododendron happy-who would not have one if they could?   

Unlike the regal Disanthus, my Norway maple is distinguished only by its age and size.  This means that the sheer volume of fall leaves that will blanket my entire yard in yellow is newsworthy. This day-before I get to scooping them up-is a glorious day.  I was lucky to get this picture before the Corgis got into the yard; they relish making a little ruckus running through these leaves. 

Magnolias have lusciously large leaves-but their fall color I would charitably describe as “tan”.  The beauty of the fall leaf drop has everything to do with the boxwood tables underneath them.  These drab fallen leaves are a kind of late season frosting on a series of shapes.  The spring drop of their yellow petals is followed by a fall drop of their dehiscing leaves.  There is a pattern, a order of events-the season changing.  The fall color on the magnolias-not anything to celebrate.  

The body of leaves that fall on the properties we maintain-we collect them all. We compost them.  Steve organizes the dispensation and decomposition of every scrap of organic matter we collect. We have at least 7 giant piles going as I speak-all of them are at different stages in the cooking process. Every leaf dropped from my giant Norway maple will be composted, and be returned to the soil.   

My Nicotiana Mutabilis is still thriving-it shrugs off the October cold.  Its giant flat leaves are as green as my evergreens; this plant has no plan to shut down anytime soon.  Each elongated leaf is still producing chlorophyll for all it is worth.  Should you be looking for a plant that starts out strong, stays strong, and finishes very strong-consider this nicotiana.

In the fall, the work is leavened with delight.     

I have substantial walls enclosing the Detroit Garden Works property; those walls were in place in 1996.  Many years ago, I planted Boston ivy on all of these walls.  Parthenocissus Tricuspidata Vetcheii.  Those walls today are uniformly and solidly and beautifully covered with the leaves of this vine.   Those giant 3 lobed leaves are turning color rapidly-every leaf is different.  Harmonic–the fall color on the Boston Ivy. In the fall, many of my thoughts revolve around the look of the leaves.