Archives for March 2012

Lily’s Pots


Next week I will be giving a talk to 50 members of a local garden club.  I am happy to speak to any group free of charge, provided they come to me.  It is an easy matter for me to show pictures from my computer, or from a book in my library.  My closet is a collection of the garden gear I like the best.  I can put a container planting together, and discuss those issues which influence my choices.  I can talk about the history and care of great garden ornament. I am equally at home with ideas about how to repurpose apple crates, iron headboards, galvanized livestock watering troughs  and old fishing tackle boxes. I can speak to what anyone should expect from a landscape designer, or an irrigation contractor.  When I am in my element, I have lots of physical examples to choose from.  I am too old to take my shop talk on the road.

This garden club is leaving the topic up to me.  No doubt I will choose a topic that is timely.  Early spring perennials no garden should be without.  Spring container plantings.  Designing a landscape project for the spring.  But no matter the group, no matter the time of year, some questions I see over and over again.  I am not especially creative-how can my garden pots be more beautiful?  What is the secret of growing good container plantings?   Given this topic, I refer to Lily. I am quite sure I have written about her before. She likes me to plant every color and form under the sun-the more the better.  It matters not what I throw at her, her mature pots would make a grown gardener weep.  She has an unerring instinct about how to make plants grow.     

Everything thrives for her.  She could pick up a yucca plant that had been in the trash at the side of the road for weeks, and grow it on to prize winning proportions.  She has a soft spot for dramatic plantings-this I oblige.  But once I have planted, she is in charge.  She does take charge. 

She understands perfectly that annual plants form roots that are very shallow.  Unlike the deep rooted grasses, or baptisia you have tried to dig out and divide.  Everything that goes on in a container or ground planted annual garden happens in the first 8 to 10 inches below ground.  Annual plants only want to set seed before the end of the season, they will bloom and set seed at the expense of a substantial root system.  Only long term plants grow deep.    

This means that top 8 inches of soil needs to be loaded with organic material, and watered regularly.  There are those times when people ask me why my containers grow up lush;  I simply say I water regularly.  I water when the plants need water.  I don’t skip, or put off the watering to another time.  Regular watering is critical to success with plants.

I make sure that the soil that goes into containers is loaded with organic material.  This helps the soil to retain moisture evenly. Organic material leavens soil, so air is a substantial part of the underground party.  Notice I say soil.  I do not plant in peat based soil mixes. 

Peat based soil mixes are easy to carry out to the car, but they are sterile.  Prefessional growers plant in sterile soil mix.  They cannot afford disease to infect a crop upon which their livlihood depends.  But once a soilless mix dries out, it takes lots of work to rewet.  A cursory watering of a container planting in soiless mix means the surface gets a little moisture, and the roots are dry as dust.

If you are a hit, hit and miss waterer, plant in soil.  Potting soil.  A 40 pound bag of potting soil is not that much-get that high school kid at your local nursery to load your trunk with all of the bags that you need, and get help unloading those bags at home.  This effort will be worth it.  Real soil will buy you some time in August, when you are at a high school softball game rather than home watering your pots.  There is no harm mixing some peat, or composted manure into your soil-every effort you make to enrich your soil will pay off many times over. 

Lily’s pots always look well grown.  You see the hose on the ground in the foreground-she knows how to use it.  The time it takes for her to water, dead head, and clean up her pots is time she is willing to give.  Don’t have the time?  Hedge your bets.  Plant succulents.  Plant fewer pots.  Group the pots that need water close together.  Invest in a hose that is lightweight.  Have a good irrigation contractor install automatic irrigation in your pots.  (automatic irrigation really means you have a little more time before you do a personal check-automatic irrigation cannot replace you!)  

 

 There is not a gardener anywhere that does not enjoy the results of a beautiful garden.  A great pot.  A great moment.  My secrets are anything but monumental.  Let no container lack for water. 

It matters not whether the style and color of these containers appeal to you. If one boxwood in a pot satisfies your idea of beautiful, the rules are the same as what applies to Lily’s pots. Or the landscape at Longwood Gardens.  Or my garden.  Or your shade garden.  Or the roses at Janet’s.  Or the pots on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  What matters is that hand that gets put to seeing that the plants thrive.

My topic for the garden club next Monday?  You are able.  And since you are able, you should.  Plant it, Detroit.

Helleborus Orientalis

Rob bought a slew of greenhouse grown hellebores in 8″ pots for our opening last weekend.  They were absolutely stunning.  Beautifully grown plants were loaded with flowers and buds coming on-much like the plants in my garden in mid April.  Hellebores are one of my most favorite perennials, for reasons not limited to their breathtaking flowers.  This variety-helleborus orientalis “Spring Promise”.


Helleborus orientalis blooms very early in our season with flowers much like a single rose- thus the common name Lenten Rose.  Native to many parts of Europe, the largest collection of species are native to the Balkans.  This means they are quite cold and frost tolerant.  The thick leathery foliage is semi-evergreen in my zone.  This means the leaves look great all season long, and on into late winter.  Only the foliage of peonies compares in substance and color.  A mass of hellebores makes a very good looking groundcover. 

They thrive in moisture retentive soil rich in organic matter.  They are remarkably tolerant of shade, although my collection is in full sun, on the north side of some densely growing Picea Mucrunulatum. The flowers are relatively large for a plant growing under 18 inches tall; plants which are properly situated will bloom heavily.

However, hellebores do not increase in size very rapidly. My group took almost 5 years to make a decently fabulous spring display. This also means large plants, if you can find them, can be very pricey.  The plants that Rob sourced are the largest I have ever seen for sale, and this particular cultivar is quite beautiful.  Blush white flowers surround electric lime green nectaries-gorgeous.  The red stems, and dark green leaves are handsome.     

Hellebore flowers are comprised of 5 petals, which are actually sepals, surrounded by a ring of cup shaped nectaries.  The flower on the right still has its nectaries intact.  These sepals will remain on a plant for months after the bloom period.  They appear as though they are still in bloom long after the bloom period is over.  Some speculate that these persistent sepals aid in the production and viability of the seed. 

helleborus orientalis

 We did buy some smaller plants, which we promptly potted up into small clay pots.  Hellebores grown in a greenhouse can be forced to bloom ahead of their normal bloom period.  They are a refreshing and sophisticated change from forced hyacinths and tulips.  Once the flowers fade, they can be planted out in the garden. This variety of hellebore is called “Cinnamon Snow”.

 This bloom has matured, and dropped all of its stamens and nectaries.  It is clear their is a seed developing in the center of the protective ring of sepals.  Hellebores will seed prolifically, if they are happy.  I clean up my hellebores very gingerly in the spring-I do not want to disturb any seedlings that might be germinating.  I plan to cut back the tattered foliage from last year tomorrow, as I am sure the flowers are already emerging from the ground. 

spring blooming hellebores

On closer inspection, I can see signs of life.  I can tell from the dark color of the buds that this hellebore will have dark flowers.  The stems of last years leaves are laying on the ground now-it is time to snip them off.  It is a beautiful moment when the flowers are in bloom, before the new year’s leaves have begun to emerge. 

  Another hellebore with closer proximity to my spruce is showing the effects of that protective location.  The buds are much further along than those in more exposed locations.

 

This hellebore is white blooming.  I will confess that I like the green and white blooming hybrids the best, but each and every one of them is lovely.

pink blooming hellebore

It will not be long before my garden has this spring look.  But for now, I have a few plants of Helleborus “Spring Promise” to tide me over.

Spring Fete

greenhouse space

Jenny did get a chance to take a few pictures at the beginning of our 2012 preview party last night.  Perhaps some of them will at least give a feeling for what the shop looks like the first day of the gardening season.  I hate for anyone who couldn’t be here to miss out on the feeling of it all.  There is nothing quite like spring.  The time for plans, new ideas, getting back outdoors-and that lime green color that says spring so eloquently.     

French glazed terracotta

Our winter has been anything but.  I do not believe the ground ever froze.  I have lots of friends and colleagues in the nursery business-none of us know what to make of this.  Or what it means for the spring.  March ordinarily is a winter month for us.  It usually is milder than February, and much milder than January-but winter nonetheless.  I not only have forced bulbs in full bloom, my tulips are out of the ground.  The espaliers in the garage are breaking bud.  Today, 38 degrees and snow showers.  Tomorrow night, some say 12 degrees, others say 17.  We jut decided to go ahead with a little spring all of our own invention.  Yes, we had the heat on.   

Rob’s trip to France in September resulted in a late January ship date.  A relatively easy trip through customs meant our first container arrived while he was in Italy.  In 1`6 years, this was the first time he was not here for an unloading.  My landscape crew has worked steadily this winter, as the weather permitted such.  They played an unprecedented, but substantial role in transforming the shop from last season, to this season for the simple reason that it was possible to work. 

Detroit Garden Works

Weather of a markedly different sort is not that unusual, if you look back long enough.  I am sure there are those gardeners who lived out long and comfortingly average gardening years without so much as a blip.  My apprehension about a strikingly atypical winter is is fairly well matched by my interest and curiousity about the unknown.  So we are celebrating our usual March 1 reopening with an emphasis on spring-as that spring seems to be lurking about.   

helleborus orientalis
Rob sourced some great hellebore plants-we potted them up in plain clay pots, and set them in saucers-old fashioned, this treatment.  These spring blooming helleborus orientalis cultivars can be planted out, and enjoyed for years to come, in April.  But this moment, hellebores blooming March 1st is an enchanting promise of spring.  Lots of them went home Thursday night.

glazed French pots

The French glazed containers, antiques, and vintage garden ornament looked so good to my eye-and my gardening heart.   So many years ago we brought over containers of French pots from a number of regional poteries.  This newest group brings back so many memories of our early years.   They also are so strikingly different than the containers from years ago.  Every reference to the history of French pot making is intact, but each poterie has a contemporary interpretation of that history all their own.  These cream white glazed French pots are offered with a new option of a square base.  How I love that Rob saw fit to include these glazed bases.   How these footed urns sit now-graceful and solid. 

hellebore hybrids

Today we had lots of company-there are many other gardeners anticipating spring just as much as we are.  A vintage French wood sink on legs stuffed with hellebores-does it get any better than this? Sure it does-but for March 1st, this will better than do.

forcing spring bulbs

We did pot up and force bulbs in containers.  How I managed to get color showing March 1-I have no tips to offer other than to say our unheated garage was warmer than usual.  My potting schedule and treatment was the usual.  

We added bits of forsythia branches, moss and lichens to some of the bulb plantings in baskets. A spring scene that might help fend off the worst of this season with no name.  On the table, bunches of faux tulips to be added at that later date when the real ones have run their course.  Why not?  

forced spring bulbs

The corgis are back on duty now, after a long hiatus.  They like having visitors, just like we do.  We have coffee and sweet bites, if you have a mind to get out of the cold, and warm up to the our idea of spring.

 

The 2012 Espaliers

 

 

espalier apple trees

What would spring be without some fabulous plants on order?  The garden shop is a garden shop-not a full service nursery.  We have neither the space nor the inclination for that.  But I do like to carry specialty landscape plants, plants of distinction, and great plants for containers.  My love for espaliers dates back to the mid 80’s.  If you shopped with or had a landscape designed and planted by Al Goldner, chances are an espalier was part of that relationship.  He grew these specially trained and pruned fruit trees on his farm in Howell-it was next to impossible to find them available for sale, save for Henry Leuthart’s place.  Billy drove these to us himself-typical.  The care he gives his trees is a full time and then some job.

 

espaliered pears

I buy them every year from a number of places, but this grower is my favorite.  He was formally trained in the propagation of fruit trees trained to grow in but two dimensions, as it has been done in France for centuries.  He sells no trees before their time.  The trunk sizes are substantial, and the primary arms are set and properly grown into their intended shape.  You can see in this picture that each tree is planted at the side of the pot-not in the middle.  This makes easy work of planting the tree close to a supporting wall.  This classical shape is know as a goblet-that should be clear.  This tree is older and perfectly grown.  The planting and bolting to a wall will be easy.

goblet form espalier

This old goblet espalier at one time had a supporting framework to hold its arms in place, but now is old enough and sturdy enough to stand alone.  Planted at the UBC Botanic garden, this tree is a living fence of beautiful design and form.  The history of espaliers is firmly rooted in a French agricultural tradition.  Fruit trees trained in two dimensions took up very little room in the garden; severely pruned trees produced huge yields of fruit.  Though most of my fruit comes from the grocery store, I find these pruned trees enchantingly beautiful.

Belgian fence

We unloaded 10 espaliers, all part of a free standing fence which will run 60 feet.  At a young age, a single stem crabapple whip was summarily topped.  A pair of shoots emerging at just the right angle on either side of that wound would be trained to grow out, producing the bottom half of a very large vertical diamond shape.  This method of growing and pruning multiple trees to create a whole is known as a Belgian fence.

Belgian fence

Each tree will be planted exactly 6 feet from its neighbor.  You can get the idea of those large vertical diamonds that will be created by this arrangement of trees in this picture.  I have seen Belgian fence done on a smaller scale.  The smaller the scale, the more difficult it is to keep the diamond shapes clean and crisp.  This fence will bloom with white flowers in May, and produce gold fruit in the fall.  The form will be so striking in winter.  Pruning is somewhat a matter of personal preference.  Some gardeners would like their primary branches small and delicate-they prune shoots off the main trunk hard.  Another gardener might permit small branches off the main trunks to grow such that the diamond shapes are thick and substantial.  Is this discussion not so clear? 

 Belgian fence espalier style

 

This picture makes the idea easier to see. This Belgian fence has smaller diamond shapes.  This look is created by planting the individual trees closer together.  I cannot really explain why the idea of having 10 trees that when planted together will form a wall with a continuous and geometric pattern appeals to me so much, but suffice it to say it took me all of 30 seconds to speak for these 10 trees.   

espaliered pear trees

Four  quadruple cordon espaliers were delivered-a pair of apples, and a pair of pears.  Cordon refers to the main arms of the espaliers being trained in the horizontal dimension.  The vertical distance between each arm is equidistant.  This form is common in the pruning of grapes, as well as fruit trees.  Branches growing in the horizontal dimension bear heavily.  This applies to grapes, apples, pears-and roses.  A long cane of a climbing rose attached in the horizontal dimension will bloom to beat the band. 

 

This drawing from Southern Living illustrates the cordon shape.  Of course few real trees have long arms that are as obligingly horizontal as this drawing would suggest-but this illustrates the ideal.  Branches and fruiting spurs off the main arms are kept closely clipped.  There is work to growing an espalier-but it is easy and satisfying work.  An espalier is a specialty landscape plant.  It is entirely friendly in even a small garden.  These trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.  They produce fruit.  The few hours spent pruning them feels good.

fan shape espalier

An espalier trained as a fan has arms that radiate in every direction from the central truck.  Those arms can be grown long on a big wall, or kept short in a confined space.  The bamboo stakes you see attached to this tree-travel stakes.  Every branch of every tree was firmly secured with bamboo stakes, to prevent any damage during shipping.  Though these trees are fairly old, they still rely on a physical support system to keep their shape intact.  Very long branches growing at wide angles are subject to damage, if they are not properly supported.

 

We have installed horizontal wires and bolts on some of the walls at the shop so we can display our espaliers.  The 3 bamboo stakes from the shipping phase have been left on, and will not be removed until the tree has been planted, and installed.  The process of giving an espalier a home involves bolts and ties into the supporting wall, or fence posts and wires for a free standing espalier. 

espalier forms

There is no classical precedent for this espalier shape.  It is entirely the invention of our grower.  A lively living sculpture such as this makes me want to grow espaliers from scratch.  Ours are old and established trees, but yes, they can be grown by any gardener from a single whip available from any number of fruit tree sources in the spring.  I was 35 when I saw my first espalier at Al Goldner’s farm-I still remember that day. It feels good,  carrying on, making these very special trees available years later.  This tree I call the wild at heart espalier. 

heart shaped espalier
My latest heart espalier is my 4th-I do not keep them for long.  This one, planted and successfully hardy in this large steel box for 4 years now, is happy, and grows vigorously.  This picture I took moments before its yearly haircut.  Wild at heart-yes!  A yearly haircut is not so much to ask in the way of care.  The pleasure?  Every day.  Every season.  Year after year.