Archives for March 2013

At A Glance: Easter Sunday












Pruning Trees

March 30a 2013 (2) There are plenty of reasons to prune.  The branch of a tree, shrub, or rose may be dead, and need removal.  It may be growing across the sidewalk, and need some heading back.  An old lilac may be blooming only at the top, 15 feet above ground, and need rejuvenation.  Branches of shrubs that cross over each other, and rub off the bark is an invitation to disease or insect damage.  Intact bark protects the life inside.  Pruning can help keep woody plants vigorous, healthy, and beautiful.

Plants maintained as hedges require regular pruning. The lindens at the shop form a hedge the body of which is above ground.  The branches at ground level have been removed over the years so people may walk underneath them.  Regular pruning of the trees promotes a good framework of branches that represent the desired shape.  These lindens were overdue.  Though I am a serviceable pruner of shrubs and roses, this job asks for an expert.  Someone who knows how to safely navigate high above the ground, and someone who understands the consequences of each cut, deliberately pruning in anticipation of a desired result.
pruning-the-lindens.jpgTrees that are trained as an overhead hedge are pruned with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Anyone who has ever topped a shrub knows that the plant responds to a single cut with multiple sprouting shoots.  This results in a dense pattern of twigs on top, which blocks the light to the interior.  Every branch of a plant needs light.  Shrubs that are repeatedly cut back so every branch is the same length eventually decline on the interior, and will need more drastic pruning to restore them to health from the inside out.

Pruning trees in late winter means there will only be a short time before growth resumes, and the healing of the cuts can begin. Another reason to prune now is that the cuts will stimulate growth at a time of year when new growth is expected.  Trees actually stop growing and begin to go dormant in late summer.  This is part of the process by which they are eventually able to  go totally dormant, and endure the winter without injury.  I do not like to prune seriously at the end of the summer or in the fall-the plants should be going to sleep.  Not shocked into growth.  Pruning these trees the end of March will encourage dormant buds to flush out.

on-the-roof.jpgThe roof next to the trees turned out to be handy.  This perch, and a long and very sharp pole pruner, enabled Jack Richardson, owner of Guardian Tree Experts, to trim the inside flat sides of the lindens.


When the trees leaf out, those leaves will make a giant rectangle above ground.  They will represent this better next year than they will this year. Pruning that waits too long means more time will be needed for the trees to grow in how you envision.  The trees were originally planted far enough away from the building so the shape would be easy to see.  This also permits light to wash that dark wall.  The relationship of the sun to the shade is a feature of this space in the summer.

pruning-trees.jpgThe big cuts make it easy to understand the concept of lateral growth.  The thick branches are pruned back to a smaller branch which is already growing in the proper plane.  The smaller branch will benefit from the growth energy in the tree directed its way.  Dormant buds at this point will emerge, and grow into the space around the larger branch.

hedging-the-lindens.jpgThe overall vertical plane has been reestablished.  In a year, a decision can be made about whether to prune again, or wait until the following year.  That said, frequent and less drastic pruning makes for a quicker recovery time.  Regular pruning from the beginning helps to create a strong and healthy structure.

dying-tree.jpgThe ultimate pruning means taking a tree down to the ground.  This maple, suffering from girdling roots and severe injury from lightning has become a hazard.  The large left lateral branch is at such a near horizontal angle that the branch has begun to split.  The original wound never really healed, and now the tree has begun to rot.  No one could foresee the exact moment that this big tree will give way, but all of the signs are there.  This tree needs to come down.

taking-down-a-maple.jpgNorway maples are especially prone to girdling roots.  A root that encircles a tree trunk can eventually grow enough to strangle the tree.  At a certain point, the pruning of the offending root is too late to make a difference.  Every one of the maples on my property had significant girdling roots when I moved there.  Knowing that this tree would eventually die, I planted other trees around it.  The loss of a large tree can be devastating to the community planted underneath it.  This maple had been in serious decline for many years.  Very little remained of its crown.

There are 5 trees that were planted fairly close to the maple-2 magnolias, and 3 parrotias. Those trees had been in ground and growing long enough for their upper branches to reach the height of the lower branches of the maple. The time was right to take the maple down. The 5 remaining trees will prosper from the light, space, and less competition for water. They should grow very fast now; their filtered shade will be just what the garden underneath them will need.  Guardian Tree Experts in Ann Arbor-they do first rate work.  The trees are ready for a little spring weather.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Mistaken


The topic for the Garden Designers Roundtable-mistakes.  I appreciate the timing of this topic, as blunder season is just about here. I invariably misinterpret nature’s intent with regard to spring.  I am sure that spring has arrived, always weeks in advance of the real thing.  I am anxiously poking around, looking for the crocus and the hellebores.  If I am lucky, that poking will not damage tender shoots just emerging from the ground.    The true meaning of misstep?  Tulip leaves when they first emerge in my zone are the same color as the muddy soil.  Given that I never remember where I have planted them, I am as likely to smash them flat as not.  Every step I make on soil that is soaking wet from the thaw forces the life giving oxygen out of the soil.  Plants thrive in friable soil, and generally dislike compacted soil.  Why am I milling about in the garden when I know better?  The leaves of the hellebores are limp and brown now-and crying for a cleanup.  I am sure the number of emerging flowers I have snipped off thinking they were leaf stalks is appallingly high.  Were I to endure the mess for another week, the difference between leaf stalks and flower stalks would be obvious.  Yet here I am, in error.  Franklin P Jones put it so eloquently:   Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.


Once the perennials begin to emerge, the bare spaces that would be perfect for spring bulbs are painfully obvious.  Spots for snowdrops-how is it that I failed to see them 5 months ago, when I could have planted?  The chionodoxa I did plant at the edge of a path as the spot was easy to get to-could I really have forgotten the edge of this path is part of the Corgi path?  Was that outcome not as obvious last fall as it is right now?  It will be months before my small perennial garden will be anything to look at. I could have tulips and daffodils on the way.  Phlox divaricata-every year I long for it.  Every year I do not plant it. A lost opportunity is one thing, but a lost opportunity that repeats itself year after year-a whopper blooper.


Later I will find those mistakes that simply represent deficient knowledge.  Plants are very specific about what they want.  When they don’t get what they want, they have that listless and unenthusiastic look about them.  Or they die.  Wanting that catmint to thrive in a slightly too shady spot in slightly too heavy soil-that want washes over me all the time.  What would prosper in that spot, I don’t want.  The idea that the nature will suspend disbelief just for me-what is that?  Off sides is off sides.  I would conservatively estimate that my plant reference library has 50 volumes.  And I have a computer that works.  In spite of that, I persist in putting plants in the wrong place. On rare occasions, I get lucky.  I had to have a clematis growing on my garden bench-the romance of tat idea was irresistible. Though the spot had failure written all over it, I planted anyway.  Turns out, there is enough sun 4 feet off the ground to keep that clematis happy.  I know a certain gardener with a gift for making a mistake seem like a brilliant choice.  From Henry James,  She had an unequalled gift… of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.


Gardeners derive satisfaction from many different things.  Some gardeners choose to grow food.  Others like tropical plants in pots.  Others want to grow plants and sell them.  Others swoon over conifers, or rock garden plants.  Others intend to reforest a city.  A relationship with nature is not necessarily a garden-it could be a wild place untouched by designing hands.  Entertaining outdoors, putting up lights at the holidays, and camping.-these are as much an experience of gardening as the parterres at Vaux Le Vicomte.  Given that the sky is the limit, that the opportunity for self expression is always there,  I think it is a mistake-not to garden.  Gardening is good for people.  Your garden should be just that-yours.  From Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.


The most grievous error I see gardeners make is to give up a dream of having a garden environment  because they could not have it all at once.  The best part about plants is that they grow.  A bareroot tree planted in the spring and looked after will grow.  Yes, the mighty oak from the little acorn grew.  A slew of boxwood cuttings, placed in and grown on in a nursery bed, can one day become the most gorgeous knot garden imaginable.  Hellebores are gorgeous-but notoriously slow growing.  Large plants are pricey, for just that reason.  But little hellebores are readily available, and will grow into specimen sized beauties before you know it.  Now is a very good time to plant one.  From Edmund Burke:  Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

The other members of the Roundtable no doubt will have their own views on mistakes-please read on!

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristani:  The Desert Edge:  New Mexico


Sunday Opinion: The Narrative

The posts of the past several weeks have a theme.  The winter season is holding on for all it’s worth.  Don’t believe me?  We have snow in our forecast for the next 2 days.  My last post, entitled “Holed Up” garnered a comment from Tara Dillard.  She is a person I have never met.  She is a landscape designer in Georgia who writes a blog-I read her blog, (  and she reads mine.  I leave comments for her every so often-she posts comments for me too.  This constitutes a relationship of a certain sort.  Though we have never met, I appreciate and am interested in her point of view.  I believe she has an interest in mine.  This is what I would call a narrative-a story.  Not a fancy story, not a dramatic or life changing story-just a simple story about two people who have a passion for the same thing.

She commented on my most recent post:

It’s ridiculous but the bench with the cat on it, and another underneath, melts my heart.

Most gardens never reach this level of narrative.


A photograph I posted of an English stoneware cat basking in a sunny spot in our greenhouse space prompted her to write.  Gardens and narratives-I have been thinking about this all day, thanks to her. A narrative is a story.  The beginning story of this post is about how a landscape designer in Michigan and a landscape designer in Georgia have an exchange of ideas.  This is a very modern, internet driven story.  I suspect that we are very different, and have very different opinions about a lot of things.  It is possible that we would have never made the effort to continue to talk, had we met in person.  But the internet has enabled us to meet, and exchange ideas.   Having made a commitment to write a blog on landscape and garden design,  I was not expecting back talk.  That said, the back talk is my favorite part of the writing.  Tara’s backtalk is of the most interesting sort.

There is a second story here.  Tara’s comment about gardens and narratives-provocative.  I have her to thank for explaining how interested I am in narrative driven design.  The land tells a story.  The plants tell their stories.  A client tells a story.  I have a story. I do believe that the most beautiful landscape and garden designs are generated by a story.  Should I have a concept that I wish to explain to a client, I create a story.  That story is a bridge between two very different people.  That bridge is a place where designer and client might meet, on occasion.

A garden or landscape that tell a story is a very powerful garden, indeed.  The story may be about a love for plants, or a love for a passel of children, or a love of design, or a love for nature.  The constant?  The story.  If I am able to encourage a relationship with a client that becomes a narrative, I know we will forge a relationship.

Thank you Tara. The landscape design that traces the narrative, creates a narrative, is a good design.  A design worth considering.   Every landscape should work.  Should grow.  Should prosper.  But every landscape of note tells a story.