Archives for July 2012

Sunday Opinion: Reactionary

Two weeks ago I got a haircut-just this side of a military buzz cut.  I was reacting to the intense heat and the lack of electricity.  I just needed to get that hair off my face, and my neck.  This past week, that reactionary buzz cut was still soaking wet, every day, all day long.  My point?  Reacting to the conditions of the moment sometimes solves a problem.  But not always.  No matter the length or style of my hair, I perspire-copiously.  I cannot wait for the temperatures to cool down, but cutting my hair won’t make this happen any faster.  No matter the season, I have a point of view about the landscape.  My point of view is not so much different than my propensity to sweat.  It is God given, ingrained, instinctive-and above all, stubbornly reactive.  But my expected reaction is not always the best way to cope.  The heat shouldn’t make me throw up my hands in disgust.  It should only make me shower and find a way to cool off more often.  It should make me garden early and late, and not so much the middle of the day.  It should make me watch the need for water, better.

Our high heat and lack of rain has been stubbornly persistent.  This is not Georgia, Alabama,  Florida, or Texas-I live in Michigan.  Typical July weather in Michigan is hot, but not mid to high 90’s hot. Tropically high heat has made every gardeners life tough. Every gardener I know is sweating buckets, and reacting.  None of my plants like being subjected to this blast furnace style weather either.  They react-dramatically.  They shed green leaves.  The leaves on my lindens yellow, and drop.  My dogwoods are in a sustained wilt, no matter how much I water.  They just don’t like this heat.  My magnolias are rife with fungus.  They have been barraged by inclement weather since the April.  My grass is panting. My roses contracted black spot instantly-those long leafless stalks are not so good looking.  I water a section of them-every night.  My stands of Monarda Claire Grace have lost all of their lower leaves to mildew.  I have flowers and sticks to look at.

I have seen a lot of over watered plants.  Though a dip in my fountain makes me feel better and cooler, water does not mitigate the heat.  Dahlias wilt from intense heat, even when they do not need water.  Begonias will rot in an instant, should the water be stepped up in the heat.  A sure sign of overwater in a landscape-yellowing yews. You can smell ground that is overwatered.  Unlike the fresh pungent smell of compost, over watered soil smells rotten-which it is.    

My good friend Julia has thrown in the towel.  She tells me that the romance the over.  This season is a wash.  She cannot wait for the 2013 gardening season.  I understand her frustration.  She has a large garden without any in ground irrigation.  She has been dragging hoses around for weeks.  She must feel like she has a hose duct taped to both hands.  Never mind her efforts-she tells me her garden looks terrible.  Exhausting, this.  The work involved in attempting to intervene in a drought and high heat summer is considerable.  Daunting.  However I recognize that this is her reaction, and no more. 

World weather cycles span more time than a human lifetime, though I remember a season in the late 80’s-intense heat, and drought. I could not sleep for weeks-no air conditioning then.  I was planting gardens and landscapes.  There was a ban on watering.  I worried all night long about what I had planted-would those plants survive.  Reactionary, my initial response.  In retrospect, there was little loss, but lots of worry. 

Given over 30 years gardening at home, and professionally, I am inclined to ascribe the particulars of this particular season to a bigger picture.  This is just one year of many, with its own particular circumstance.  As much as I am inclined to react to the moment, I know better than to do so. As much as I would like to think that my lifetime establishes weather parameters, and thus defines nature-I know this is foolishness. It varies over a time period much longer than a human life.    My reaction to our untoward weather only makes me perspire more.  My patience, in spite of my perspiration, is more useful than my reaction.

This gardening season is not so much my favorite.   But is it what we have.  What we have-I have no plans to react.  My plan is to live, and garden.

The CC Rule


I have a young and active client with three very active children.  Her daily schedule makes mine seem sedate.  She ferries kids, entertains friends, and maintains very active family relationships.  When I can catch up to her, she is strong minded and decisive about a beautiful landscape.  Every year we do something.  We did plant a run of Belgian fence for her a few years ago-she harvests and eats those pears.  Whenever we get there to prune them back into shape is ok with her. If she has to search for her pears in a tangle of foliage-so be it.  Only very rarely does an emergency arise in her garden.


CC has an uncanny ability to decide when to fuss, and when to go with the flow. Make no mistake-this is a very valuable skill.  She knows how to get through a day.  This means that she is content to let nature take its course-as opposed to opposing whatever nature has in store.  I have been known to throw myself at every issue in my garden like I have but 10 minutes to live.  I so admire how she coolly and adeptly assesses a situation, and acts.  Or not.  The “or not” part is a choice, actually. My friend Janet came to see my garden at 7 am this morning.  Buck was a little appalled about entertaining at that hour.  But we both had watering to do-before it gets hot. We were sitting in the garden when she asked me if I ever sat in the garden.  I do every day, after work.  For a little while.  Then there are things to do.  We both make a fuss.  The car pictured above obviously belongs to an obsessed gardener I know and like who would put put his top down, and ever so slowly drive a group of giant dahlias home.  

 CC is not at all that way.  Once she has made a decision about what she wants me to plant for her, she never touches, grooms, feeds, or otherwise interferes with what I have planted.  In September, I stop by and see that every plant in her pots has interacted, and grown together. Not one plant has been trimmed, deadheaded, or groomed.  Miraculously, this lack of intervention on her part works beautifully.  This window box was planted in the early years of the store.  The shop consumed so much time there was little left over to put to this box except to water.  Did I like it then-not so much?  I greatly appreciate it now. 

An absentee attitude is a good thing on occasion.  That which nature provides, or doesn’t has charm and appeal.   Every plant has a space to start with.  They duke it out, and come to some agreement.  The begonias may be miffed that she does not cut off those dead flower heads every day, but they keep on growing.  This pot of mine is is a little heavy on the chocolate sweet potato vine, but it has a naturally flowing appearance. 

There is no doubt that I interfere with the natural order of things in my garden.  Sometimes I water too much-I never err on the side of watering too little.  Every nursery person I know will say that more plants are lost to overwatering than anything else.  I worry my plants.   I plan as if planning were the crowning achievement of a gardener.  I move things around.  I desert some plants, and plant loads of other plants.  I like getting my own way.  This spring planting I photographed in August-a community had been created without me.  So I chose to do nothing about it, except enjoy it.

When I saw this CC plantings last September, I put my elaborate and intense program on pause.  The natural order of things made for a planting that was exquisite.  Exquisitely natural and unassuming.  Enchanting-of course.  There are but a few bits of heliotrope still representing-but is that not enough?  Her white non stop begonias wre breathtaking. 


 green container plantings

I would interpret the CC rule thusly.  Scheme, draw, plant-and then step back.  Let nature react to your plan.  Give nature plenty of time.  What you see in the end should inform your ideas about gardening.  Lots of plants resent too much touching.  Too much supervision. Too much fussing can drain the life out of a garden, or a planting.  This pot I have at home I have not touched, except to water.  And I water it as little as possible.  

This petunia and licorice pot has been sparingly watered, and shows no signs of any awkward trimming.  It is a prime example of benign neglect.  And a recognition that most plant have an incredibly powerful will to live, if you let them.  

That is not to say I won’t intervene with noxious weeds, or dry soil, or any plant clearly asking for help.  But making a huge issue of a stray this or that can put a damper on your garden party.

What a difficult gardening season this has been-from the magnolia flowers frosting off, to the poor early show on the roses, to the heat and drought.  And now more heat, starting up again.  My 3D osteospermums have been sulking in the heat.  But for sure my containers have some robustly growing osteo bushes that will start to bloom again when our temperatures cool down.  The CC rule-in some cases it is the only approach that makes any gardening sense.  




Sunday Opinion: Powerful

Having just worked through 10 days of scorchingly and witheringly high heat, and gone home to a house without power for almost 5 days, I have the following observations.

Power is a word that has lots of meanings and plenty of nuance.   Now that I have my power back-meaning my electrical power- I was able to research the meaning of the word power via google.  Relevant descriptive words include might and force.  Strength.  Potency.  authority.  and energy. 

A powerful piece of music demands a response.  A powerfully executed painting demands the visual attention of a variety of people with very different points of view. That powerful painting, or that opera,  may enchant generations of viewers. A powerful argument is convincing.  Niagara Falls is a place that details the power of nature.  A powerful country depends on its economic and political strength.  The sheer power of a cheetah may overcome the incredible speed of a gazelle.  A powerful design, as in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the discovery of radium by Marie Curie in 1898, the drawings of  Leonardo Da Vinci, the plays written by Shakespeare, the theories of the universe posed by Stephen Hawkings, the paintings of  Helen Rosenthaler, or the novels of William Faulkner- very powerful ideas, and art can influence thinking for generations. Should you be an afficianado of landscape design, I am sure you are aware of the work of Mien Ruys, Kathryn Gustafson, Andre LeNotre,  Jacques Wirtz, Vita Sackville-West, and Fernando Caruncho-I could go on without respite for a few days about those landscape designers who have powerfully influenced my thinking about the landscape.  Every true gardener is endowed with electricity.  Power.  

But I have a simpler idea in mind here.  I am interested that a good portion of the meaning of power refers specfically to electricity.  Having been without electrical power for more than just a few days,  I am confident in saying that I like my electricity.  Electricity powers my computer, my air conditioning, my sprinkler system, my lights, my refrigerator-electricity powers my world.   Would I want to do without it, permanently?  Not a chance.  Sleeping in the basement was ok-not great.  I like ending the day in my own bed.  Would I be willing to isolate myself, and give up my computer?  When my electricity came back on,  I felt as is I were set free.  Would I want to do without what electricity provides-no.   The days I spent without electricity-trying.  Not great.  Really irritating and exhausting.

The power we know as electrical energy funds our culture.  It funds our ideas.  It funds our plans.  Electricity in the garden-I am sure you have experienced it.  On that one special day, or that special moment. Once you experience it, you’ll want to experience it again. That said,  I so hope you have power.  A life without it would be a very different life indeed.       



At A Glance: Back Up And Running

This was a scene from my neighborhood 5 days ago.  Incredible, the force that could snap off a tree this size.  Extremely high temperatures were accompanied by strong storms, high winds, and torrential rain.  Adding to the weather misery-a power outage that went on for days. We spent our evening hours in the fountain, cooked on the grill, and slept in the basement.   

Of course my back yard fountain wasn’t running, but the water was wet and cool-at least the first few days.

The corgis have no use for this body of water, except to take a fastidious drink now and then.  But I could see them warming up to the cooling possibilities of the water every day that went on without electricity.

We spent 2 hours night before last outside, in the water.  Milo never budged from his spot.

Though the air was 99 degrees, the water was much cooler. 

When the power finally came back on yesterday afternoon, we let out the top 6 inches of warm water, and refilled the pool. Sitting next to the water outake, we all felt like we had just been sprung from jail.  It was exhausting trying to work all day in that heat.  By this time in the evening, I wanted anything but some more heat. 

My furry friend had the same idea. 

cardigan welsh corgi

By 7 pm last night, we were invigorated.  Or at least hydrated.