Archives for July 2012

Some Like It Hot

cardigan welsh corgi

The blisteringly hot and persistent heat of the past week has made many a gardener, and the above pictured corgi, miserable.  Howard, who would not set foot outside the door if he thought he would get his feet wet, had an alternate plan for yesterday.  Strong winds were pushing water over the coping of my fountain.  He doesn’t look all that thrilled with his situation, but he had no plans to go elsewhere either. I had to laugh, watching him stand with obvious annoyance in a few inches of water.  Just like the rest of us, there was no getting around the heat.    


It may be stating the obvious, but plants evolve in response to their environment.  Though last week’s Garden Designers Roundtable topic focused on texture in the landscape, there was quite a bit of discussion about how the surface of a leaf says everything about a mechanism for survival.  I had never really thought about it before, but plants that live in environments where rain is extremely scarce have evolved to minimize the evaporation of water.  Those leaves are thick skinned.  Tropical plants where rain is frequent and heavy can survive just fine with thin and jumbo sized leaves.    

Petunias are native to Argentina.  Many species of helichrysum, like the variegated licorice pictured above, are native to South Africa.  The blue-green frosted curls sedge is a cool season grass, meaning it grows best before the advent of hot weather, and after the cessation of hot weather.  It tolerates, but does not grow much, in really hot weather.  These plants are equipped to handle the heat.

sunny window boxes

Most of the plants I use in containers are hybrids of non-native, tropical plants.  The petunias like to be grown on the dry side, and usually do well in the heat of our summers.  They come from places that are routinely hot.  New Zealand sedges, of which the hybrid Frosted Curls is an example, are native to a far more temperate zone than mine. They can tolerate our midsummer heat.  But not all heat is created equal.  Extreme heat is one thing, but extreme heat that goes on for an extremely long time takes a toll.

heat loving annuals.jpg

The petunias are fine, and growing lushly-at the moment.  They are dealing with this weather far better than I.  The white mandevillea will sit until the weather gets hot-they are native to central and South America.  Many mandevilleas are native to Brazil.  They grow and bloom like crazy in hot climates.  I expect this white mandevillea will get bigger and bloom more should our hot weather persist.  Nicotiana species can be found in environements all over the globe.  I find mine do quite well over the summer, and rebloom profusely.  Nicotiana mutabilis in particular will rev up in the fall, and send out substantial new flowering stalks.


Cassia didymobotrya is commonly known as the popcorn plant.  The fragrance of buttered popcorn is strikingly apparent, should you run your fingers across the stems and leaves.  It is a shrub, native to South America, that will grow 4 to 6 feet tall in one season.  They may grow larger, given a hot season.  They make a substantial showing in a container garden.  They throw yellow flowers on and off all summer. I am particularly fond of the pea-type leaves.  Cassia is a tropical plant with a very airy appearance.  Planted in a cast iron cistern placed at the edge of our asphalt street, it looks stress free, and is growing well.

Texas sage topiary

Texas sage is as it suggests-it thrives under desert conditions.  I have never had a leucophyllum bloom for me, but perhaps this year I will get lucky.  They like desert conditions, but oddly enough require some humidity to bloom well.  I cannot believe the usual Michigan humidity is far behind. I know that many grey foliaged plants are native to dry places.    Lavenders and grey salvias will not tolerate too much water for long. 

I do know there can come a point when heat can severely damage plants.  The first line of defense against life threatening damage is to go dormant.  Both plants and animals will aestivate, meaning they slow down their activity, in order to conserve moisture and energy.  Petunias and impatiens will go out of flower, if they temperatures get too hot, and stay too hot. Our drought-like conditions are not helping one bit with the effects of the heat.  Many lawns in my area have gone brown and dormant-they are aestivating.  Should the soil temperature gets too high, roots can literally cook.  I remember a summer in the mid eighties where many growers in the Cleveland area lost nursery stock from soil temperatures that soared over 100 degrees.  There is nothing that can be done to defend against extreme weather like this.

white nicotiana

The best I can do to help my plants survive a bout of unusually hot weather is to water them when they need it. Even if that means I am outside with a hose when I would rather be anywhere else.  So far, so good. 


Sunday Opinion: Effort

I have been on the business end of a hose recently for what seems like a lifetime.  A lifetime?  Not really.  The extremely hot weather Mother Nature has thrown my way simply means I have had to make an effort.  Certainly an extra effort.  Anyone who gardens knows that preparing soil for new roses requires great effort.  Cooking compost requires great effort.  Planting a hedge of yews, or a rose garden, takes effort.  Any garden, on the best day of its year, that looks effortless, but is anything but.  Making the effort is what makes a charming garden stellar.  A thoughtful landscape remarkable.  A simple gesture, fueled with great effort, can be extraordinary. 

 Anyone who gardens knows that the work of a garden is never done.  That work can consume every ounce of effort you have available, and then some.  Once you catch your breath, some other surely labor intensive project beckons.  All that is required is your committment.  Committment is a fancy word for effort-I will translate.  Significant effort is what makes for a great garden.  The best effort?  The best garden.  Effort that makes your hands and back hurt-I am sure you are familiar with it.   Anyone driven to plant a perennial border of note, or a landscape that enchants, has already come to terms with, and signed up for, considerable effort.   That activity driven by effort makes you sweat all over.

  I would call landscape and garden design the anticipation of a great effort.

The impulse to devote great effort implies, and results in the the laying out of the beds, the edging, the planting of the beds, the watering, the maintenance.  For established gardens in my zone, effort this minute is all about supplying adequate water.  Every week, every day, there is something in my garden that asks for my effort.

Effort fuels the impulse to move things around. The energy to make changes. Once I commit my effort, I sort out and think through all of the options.  No idea can stand on the strength of a thought.  A great idea is no idea, unless there is a mechanism for expression. 

All of my efforts, given this extraordinary heat, are directed towards keeping everything alive.  I am watering the roses, the trees, the containers-suffice it to say that I am watering.  On any given day, the best of my efforts may be directed in response to a specific challenge.  On other and more quiet days, my effort might make for a design that might mean something.

My advice?  Make the effort.  You will be amazed, at the end of a gardening day, how good that effort feels.  


What’s Rob Been Up To?

hanging baskets

What Rob has been up to involves some steel, some shade plants, and the airspace.  Before I say more, I should make it clear that I have always detested hanging baskets.  I would only purchase one to plant in a container.  Under no circumstances would I hang pots of plants in the air.   Why anyone would think this is a good look is beyond me.  A planting disassociated from the earth or the ground plane- is this innovative-or is it just plain silly?  The usual white plastic baskets with zinc wires terminating in a reinforced coathanger hook-they do not help the hanging basket cause. I get that growers choose a hanging basket that reflects heat, and conserves moisture. Why wouldn’t any garden center grow a second crop, in their greenhouse airspace?  A garden center is all about delivering a fresh and lustily growing group of plants to a consumer.  They have nothing to say about the look-but I do.  Suffice it to say that when I see white plastic hanging baskets fresh from the nursery summarily hung from a hook on the porch-this idea about gardening makes me wince.  However, Rob is up to gardening in the air in a way I find incredibly appealing.

hanging baskets

What has Rob been up to?  He ordered a series of sizes in steel spheres.  He ordered a series of fiber pot bowls.  Once planted, his grow spheres were hung from the branches of the big lindens at the shop.  Having had no end of requests for perennial or annual plantings underneath and in the shade of big trees, I applaud his idea.  A fiber bowl can be folded in half, and wedged into the sphere.  Shade loving plants can be planted in great soil, in that fiber bowl..  The bowl breathes. The plants live, and thrive.

alternative hanging baskets

Every gardener I know has that dead zone.  Deep shade cast by a tree.  The soil underneath that tree is congested with roots that require an axe, and infinite effort to penetrate.  Endless articles have been written about what to plant in the dry shade under an old tree.  Work and more work-and to what good end?  Are your plantings in the deep shade cast by an old tree thriving and newsworthy?  Mine are not.  I am starting to like these grow spheres, hung in the lower branches of a shade tree.  These Miss Muffet caladiums in a mossed basket hanging from a branch of our lindens-I am beginning to get interested in his particular take on the hanging basket. 

birds nest ferns

Rob’s planted spheres are remarkably original, and remarkably lively.  He dispensed with the white plastic, and the coathanger. His idea is both sculptural, and natural. He took great pains to hang the spheres at different heights via a hank of jute. 

hanging baskets

The shop has nothing planted in the ground, save our trees.  Every square foot of the ground is gravelled.  This makes it easy to display all manner of ornament for the garden.  What a relief to see his shady basket creations hung high and low, under those trees.  I would certainly recommend that if you plan to add hanging baskets to your garden, figure out how to hang them at a level that makes sense to your eye.  A white plastic basket in the air is a visual tutorial in a lack of gardening effort.  Moss baskets, please.   


vinca maculatum

 I do have a great fondness for vinca maculatum.  The variegated leaves are substantial.  They keep on growing, late into the fall.  They are easy to winter over.  The vines drape down, and keep on draping.  Baskets of them hung high will eventually make for a curtain of green that goes to the ground.  The plastic baskets here are entirely hidden by the vines.  We hung them very high in the grape arbor.  Julie insists she needs a ladder to water them.  These hanging baskets are ok by me.

green plants

Just inside the shop door is a sky light.  Rob has hanging baskets of pothos cris-crossing that 6′ by 6′ light space.  I would think by fall his hanging garden will provoke a great deal of comment.  In conjunction with his hanging shade gardens, his selaginella brick constructions.  He has planted a number of containers with shade plants set way above the rim of the pots.   

birds nest ferns

Selaginella, or club moss, is a densely growing shade loving tropical plant.  A four inch pot of club moss is a 4″ square brick-green on the top, and heavily rooted on all of the other sides.  Rob has been planting shade pots-in this case, a birdsnest fern, in a mound of selaginella.

green container planting

OK, I usually plant 4″ pots with the rootball cube in the ground, and the top side facing the light.  Rob has a different idea.  Any plant can be planted on the 45-by this I mean, on a 45 degree angle.  Those rooty soil cubes can make a wall.  This selaginella has no problem living,  planted on the slant.  This French concrete pot is all the better for a planting that lifts off.  The plants are beautiful.  The planter is equally beautiful.  The sum total of the two-all about Rob.

club moss

This planting of his is extraordinarily beautiful.  I just noticed it a few days ago.  What Rob is up to is so quiet, so self effacing-and so so and very very very good.  The rooted bricks of selaginella planted on an angle enabled him to present a single bird’s nest fern high off this French terra cotta pot.  Beautiful, yes?  His grow spheres, beautiful too.      


Delivering The Fountain

steel fountain

A client who had looked a long time for a fountain  fell hard for Buck’s contemporary steel creation.  I ws more than a little surprised, considering her more traditional taste in garden ornament.  But she was certain that this fountain was the perfect choice for her garden.  The job of transporting and setting it in place fell to Steve.  As you can see,  he was planning the move.      

Once he drained the fountain, he wrapped the fountain stem with heavy woven landscape straps.  As the fountain weighed in at about 400 pounds, and the site was not particularly friendly to the use of a front end loader, we would have to move the piece by hand.  12 hands, to be exact.  Each of three straps had a person at each end.  The straps would be a lot simpler to grasp that the smooth side of the bowl.  My crew can lift a lot, provided they are able to get a good grasp.

We excavates the soil from the spot where the fountain was to be placed, and filled it with coarse gravel.  A square concrete tile was placed over top.  This made it much easier to check to be sure the spot was level.  It is also much easier to adjust this tile to get it level, as opposed to the fountain.  It seemed like the fountain would be a good fit in this circle of boxwood-but we wouldn’t know for sure until we got it there.

The fountains we have manufactured at Branch of late come race ready.  The jet inside this fountain is attached to a steel plate, and comes with a valve that regulates the height of the jet.  Having a special event?  Open up the valve.  A tee fitting off the jet pipe is attached to the pump.  The cord for the pump comes through a hole in the base of the fountain.  The jet and pump assembly sits in the bottom of the fountain, making it easy to level the jet.  All the customer needs to supply is a source of electricity.

Getting the fountain through the gate was a challenge.  Luckily the gate itself was easy to lift off its hinges. Once the fountain base was resting on the second step up, the fountain would be flipped over on its side. The fountain has 4 eye hooks inside should the fountain ever have to be lifted.  It proved handy for tying the jet in place for the move.

There were but a few inches of room to spare, but that proved to be enough.  Luckily, any circular or hemispherical shape is not only very stable, but it is very strong.  This steel is relatively thin, considering how large an object it is, but there was no worry that the edge would be damaged.  At this point, we were rolling the fountain on its edge, rather than carrying it. I roll pots around the shop that I could never lift off the ground.

The last stage of the journey did involve lifting the fountain over a boxwood hedge.  My crew made it look like no big deal. 

They left me to fill the fountain-my pleasure, and my worry.  If the level were the least bit off, the water would tell that tale.  Water is always level-it’s people that get things crooked.  As I cannot abide a statue or pot that isn’t sitting level, I was willing to wait.   

I needn’t have worried.  It read perfectly level to my eye.  The wide rim of the fountain finishes the shape in a beautiful way, but it also masks any little bit it might be out of level.  The fountain was filled with water to just under that rim.  My client did very well with this-the fountain looks remarkably good in her garden. She had had an electrical box installed a long time ago, so an hour after our arrival, the fountain was running. 

The entire garden made more visual sense given a centerpiece.  The peach trees have a much more opulent and exotic look. I am standing on her porch, looking out.  The water seems to be at just the right height.  After trying the jet at a number of levels, she decided on this.  Just enough height to make for a great sound.

My client thinks it looks like I designed this fountain especially for her garden.  Since I would have never considered it for her, I realize that giving clients the chance to look without prejudice can result in an interesting outcome.