Archives for August 2012

Bold And Beautiful

I cut this picture out of a magazine years ago-would that I could say I had designed this.  White washing tree trunks has its roots in agriculture.  Lime wash was used to prevent sunscald on ornamental and fruit trees.  Grape vines were frequently lime washed to discourage fungal problems and pests.  Kaolin, a type of clay used as a base for face powder, would be sprayed on the trunks and undersides of the leaves of fruit trees, though this has proved largely ineffective against insects and disease.  Agriculture aside, the painting of these tree trunks set in a pattern of boxwood is visually arresting-bold.      

I workede for a landscape designer in the 1980’s-Al Goldner.  He once told told me his one regret regarding his career was that he had not been bold enough. As in bold design.  Bold textures.  Bold color.  Bold curves.  Confident moves.  Bold thinking.  I remember this about him more than anything else-his committment to visually striking design. 

Boldly textured leaves make an emphatic statement.  The calocasia leaves holding forth over the skinny legs of this antique faux bois planter-the invention of my client.  She has an instinct for boldly textured and dramatic containers.  Black calocasia and phormium are plants perfectly capable of a bold visual delivery.  There is nothing subtle about them but for the color. This planting is about bold forms and relationships. 

Espaliered trees are a form of growing and pruning that I greatly admire.  What is so bold about these American hornbeams was the idea to bend the leader over at the pergola roof line.  I am sure this shape was established at a very early stage in the lives of these trees.  A bold vision of what would be many years later drove this planting.  By this time the trees probably have no need of the pergola for support and guidance.  One could imagine that the pergola could be removed, and the shape represented entirely by the trees. 

This garden calendar is bold all right.  The size is competely unexpected.  Ordinary plants in unexpectedly small or large sizes attract interest.  An overscaled element in a garden properly done can be a bold gesture. A single big idea makes a bigger impact than many little ideas clamouring for attention.        

 Amaranthus is bold in both form and color.  Small intimate spaces can suddenly acquire a romantic atmosphere with one rose in a small vase.  Big spaces may need bold gestures to create an atmosphere.  A single rose in a large room with many people will seem lukewarm and lackluster. A big part of making a bold statement in a landscape is getting the scale right.        

This green man medallion hand cast by Phillip Thomason on one of his modern coadestone boxes is a sculptural marvel.  Phillip Thomason may be is premier pot maker of the 21st century.  His works rarely come to market.  His commissions are many-get in the queue.  This hand made box could easily organize an entire landscape.  The face is boldly modelled; the features are distinct, even from a distance.   

This 1950 Dodge Coronet woodie is as bold as can be.  The shape, the abundance of chrome, the color,  size and the styling-all bold.  It looks big enough to hold enough to hold a decent sized event. Heavy and strong enough to protect its occupants. Automotive designers are not just concerned with safety and efficiency, but great style.  This vintage station wagon-a sculpture on wheels.   

This rare and massive cast iron tank would be a bold addition to a landscape.  It has battleship like proportions, but very graceful lines.  It would come with a very bold price-much more than the original price of the Dodge Coronet pictured above.  Luckily bold design has almost nothing to do with price.  Everyone has seen landscapes that look like they cost a lot of money and have little to show for it.  Will I buy the iron tank?  I am thinking about. 


It was a bold urban planner who made the decision to line this street not far from me with London planes.  What a welcome relief they are from the standard Norway or silver maples. They seem incredibly healthy, given that these giant trees  are constrained on both sides by cement.  The maples in my neighborhood all show signs of stress from girdling roots, not to mention the sidewalk sections that are lifted off grade by their roots.  I would not have thought London planes would make great street trees, but this bold move seems to be working. 


There are plenty of choices, should bold flowers appeal to you.  Dahlias-the showgirls of the flower world.  In that same vein, add in hardy hibiscus, delphiniums, bearded iris, giant alliums and oriental lilies. Bold flowers planted as hedges-very bold.  Someday I will have an opportunity to plant a long thick hedge of hardy hibiscus.      



Topiary evergreens have bold shapes. This simple planting in a lead box, set in a paving arrangement scaled to celebrate that box may not be moving or romantic, but it certainly is handsome.

This pair of white glazed French pots make a spectacularly bold and elegantly formal statement. All of those cut delphiniums in one place took my breath away.  There was no need for any other flowers. 

 dolly tubs

All of these vintage dolly tubs lined up on a terrace with i gallon size chartreuse dawn redwoods, or tomatoes, or dwarf horsetails  in them-every bit as bold as as that embarassment of riches in delphinium.  Bold is as bold does.

Monday’s Strictly Opinion: Angie’s Theory

Bear with me, as I am about to post for the umpteenth time about proper watering.  I have just cause-most problematic issues I am dealing with now regarding the landscape have to do with water.  A scheme for watering the plants has been the hottest topic of our season, given the high heat, and the utter lack of rain.  I mean to discuss the water that your plants, garden, and landscape require.  Thoughtful and dispassionately informed watering makes a difficult season more manageable.  I hope by association to address the problems that arise from too much water.  My clients who have not watered, or who have overwatered-we have a discussion pending,   

Our August nights have been on the cool side- downright chilly.  I ordinarily dial back the water when the nights cool off.  This makes sense.  Cool temperatures means water evaporates from the soil at a slower rate.  Hot days do not tell the entire story.  The night time story is a story line worth following.   My advice?  Ignore the day temperatures.  Follow the night temperatures.

Overly wet soil under any circumstances, hot or cold,  can result in root rot.  Rotted feeder roots means that no matter how much water is available to absorb, the mechanism for that absorption has been destroyed.  A plant with root rot cannot absorb any water from the soil.  Your worried watering may be killing your plants. Why am I blathering on about the importance of proper watering?  A misguided hose, watering can, or sprinkler system kills more plants than any other factor.  Too much water kills more plants than drought, insects, or disease.  Too much water can sicken and endanger an entire landscape. 

Those gardeners that never water anything are not really gardeners.  Those gardeners that water over and over again given a tough summer season are fearful gardeners.  I understand that fear-I reacted to the steamy heat and dry with my hose, open full blast.  But I see now that my off the top of my head reaction was harmful.  Thoughtful watering makes for a great landscape and garden.  As Buck says, be cool, and assess the situation.  Being cool, and properly assessing the situation-a good thing.   This is my theory.  Cool off.  Observe before you make a move.  Water only when there is a call for water. Do not water solely thinking you will help plants suffering in the heat.  Plants have an extraordinary will to live.  A drink now and then will help them to survive.  An ocean of water -they may drown.   

Consider these simple examples.  Japanese iris love wet ground-during their growing season, that is.  Flooded fall and winter ground will kill them.  Lavender can endure heavy clay-meaning astonishly water retentive soil-over the summer, but winter wet will kill them.  Yews are a snap to grow, unless an overactive irrigation system drags them down, and eventually drowns them.  Established landscape plants rarely need supplemental  irrigation, unless there is a drought.  Overwatered trees and shrubs will go yellow in leaf.  Hydrangeas appreciate a regular source of water-it takes a lot for them to produce prodigious blooms of great size.  Water them regularly.  Smart watering makes the difference between a passable landscape-and a stellar landscape.  Think through the wet and the dry-make a plan to endorse and follow that happy medium. 

Angie supervises one of my crews.  She is of the opinion that containers and plants should be watered first thing in the morning.  This gives them the entire day to soak up, to make use of,  that morning water.  Once dusk comes, the warmth of the day has already absorbed the the day’s watering.  The excess-so much steam.  This is a theory, remember.  This is a garden story that might make no sense scientifically, but could make emotional sense.  Dryer, overnight, given cooler temperatures-a good thing.  Good water during the day feeds the plants.  Dryer at night ensures their survival. I like my summer container plantings to go on into the fall.  Watching the water really carefully now will make a difference in their longevity.

 I usually water my containers after work-this is when I have time.  I load up the corgis at 6:15 most mornings-to go to work.  They fuss if I am late serving breakfast-they really fuss if we do not leave on time.  Given those dogs, I am not a morning waterer.  Tonight I find that all of my containers have just enough moisture to survive until morning.  If I water them tonight, they will be soaking wet in overnight chilly weather.  I make a call – no water tonight.  Tomorrow morning I will water-the corgis loaded up in the Suburban.  I will load them in the car, and water what really needs water.  

I read somewhere long ago that plants do most of their growing in the wee hours of the morning-meaning 4 until 6am.  It makes sense that their roots need to be able to breathe then.  My containers are the most water sensitive of any plants I grow.  As I am interested that they grow on into the fall, I am interested in testing Angie’s theory.  Water in the morning.  Make the daytime evaporation rate work in the interest of enabling  dryer and happier plants overnight-before morning. 

Every gardener needs to carefully observe how their plants react to their care.  Good observation makes for a really good garden.  Great gardens are unquestionably more about care than design.  Make every effort to get the water right.               






At A Glance: Home On Sunday Morning

planting containers

The last two weeks have been incredibly busy and demanding.  Multiple plans needing  tuneups sufficient to submit to planning boards for permit review.  A drawing for a fence for permit review.  Landscape plans for a new house just about finished.  A detailed proposal for a large garden sculpture.  Big problems with drainage needing a big plan of attack, and small problems with the garden needing individual and very focused attention.  The shop is on the brink of a change of seasons-this means new things coming in needing a place to be.       

 In the mix-Buck’s 65th birthday.  We had friends from out of town.  A party for 30 that included dinner.  The flowers for those tables and a birthday cake.     

My life is no different than anyone else’s.  Everyone has much to much to attend to, and a time frame which is short.  In the garden, the demands can be endless, and the work hard.  It seemed like a good morning to just dawdle.

The morning light was so beautiful.  And after all,  I did need to water the pots.  I dialed all the demands down, and took my time.  The Corgis were impatient-they are used to leaving for work at 6am. I ignored them.  The morning light, the peace and the quiet, was too beautiful to ignore. The pots have grown so much since May.  That subtle color scheme that seemed so sleepy in the beginning has grown on me. 

Light can wash over a landscape in a very soft and forgiving way.  This Sunday morning was all about what looked good.  What managed to be inviting.  What seemed fine.  I was not about to make a list, and rush to get through it.    

The garden is a great place to putter.  Meaning that I had no tools, no mission, and no task in mind, other than a little water.  I had work to do in the afternoon for a Monday deadline, but that could wait a little while.   

I am rarely home in the morning, so this was a treat.  The days getting shorter means that soon enough I will be leaving the house in the dark. 

I have been watching this pot develop over the past few months.  The lemon grass is taking a leading role here.  I had no idea it would grow this large, and grow so fast.  Several weeks ago its spread was threatening to overwhelm its neighbors-I cut some out.  That did not seem to slow it down one bit.  It’s time to quit tinkering, and just enjoy the show.  It has a very gracefully droopy look that I like.   

My roses were terrible in June, and more than terrible in July.  Given our cooler August nights and some rain, they have had the idea to grow and bloom some.     

The driveway garden gets the lion’s share of my visual attention, given the daily coming and going.  Everything looks remarkably happy, given how tough the summer weather has been.  Plants are amazingly resilient.  They show little sign of what they endured.   

Out the front door, all seems well.  The boxwood are flushing a second time-this a sure sign of how long we have had hot weather.  The hydrangeas are loaded with flowers.   

 What a beautiful morning.

Growing Begonias

growing begonias

Growing begonias-why do so many of my clients feel that no matter how much they love the gorgeous blooms and foliage, prove unwilling to plant them?  Who knows where the idea came from that large flowered begonias like shade, and lots of water.  Herein lies the difficulty.  Popular direction can be anything but accurate. Begonias actually like some light.  A fairly decent amount of light.  And they like a watering regimen that runs on the dry side. 

yellow begonias

The needs of most plants are quite simple.  Plants that thrive in your zone, that is.  Unless you are trying to grow meconopsis, which only thrives in the Himalayans or England- in Michigan-  or if you are trying to grow rhododendrons in the impossibly clay and alkaline soil of the midwest, when what they want is an acidic and instantly draining forest floor type eastern US compost.  Plants happy to live in our midwestern yard to begin with have simple needs.  Are you hoping to make your gardening life more simple?  Learn what those appropriate plants that you so love need, and give.  Plants that do not like your conditions-let someone else grow them.   

apple blossom begonia

Plants not suited to the zone in which you garden will always struggle.  Be prepared to fight a battle you cannot win.  You may take the lead early on, but what plants want will win in the end.   Beginning gardeners place a plant where they want it.  It takes experience and acute observation to realize that plants have a specific environment they like.  Should they not get what makes them prosper, they will pout, then languish, and finally die. Beginning gardeners either understand this and grow, or they give up gardening.      


The journey which could best be described as my gardening education is littered with dead plants.  Dead yews, dead clematis, dead rhododendron, dead begonias-the list is long.  I would be embarrassed to have to own up to the plants I have killed.  It could be that I should be sent to that jail especially reserved for people who have committed horticultural transgressions.  There have been times when I deserved to have my license to plant, grow, and garden- revoked.  But I have made it my business to learn from those dead plants.   As for begonias, they have very large, juicy, and succulent stems.  This I observe – over water them today, those stems will rot off tomorrow.

The tropical plants we treat as annuals only need one season of thoughtful care.  No doubt begonias are not native to my zone.  That said and acknowledged, I so love begonias-all of them.  I like the leaves.  I more than like the flowers.  In late August, our nights can be cool.  Water evaporates more slowly when the temperatures cool off.  I am even more careful to keep my begonias on the dry side now.

My advice is simple.  Give them morning light.  If you need to grow them on the north side, as I do, grow them very dry.  Those thick juicy stems are loaded with water.  They have a water reserve they can draw on, should you be late getting to them with the hose.  Too much water can be deadly.

These silver leaved begonias-I have no idea of their name or origin.  I chose to grow them for their leaf color.  Like any other begonia I grow, I made it my business to check the water in the soil with my finger.  Too much water when it is very hot is an invitation for fungus to move in.

cultivating begonias

I am always putting my finger in the dirt  .  This means I put a finger to the rootball of a yew, a dogwood, a begonia – barely moist soil makes most plants happy.  Should your finger in the soil result in sticky soil-don’t water.  Wait.  If you put your finger down deep in the soil only to have that soil slide off your finger-water.  Hoping to grow great begonias? Learn what they like.  Pass by those plants that you will not be able to make happy under any circumstances.  Most of all, monitor the water.