Archives for March 2013

Holed Up

I expected to feel exasperated-but this scene made me laugh. The cut pussy willows are representing for all the world as if it were spring.  At their feet, the remnants of hard packed snow and frozen ground tell a different story.  Though it is late March, our weather is quite February-like.  This is the late winter hand we have been dealt.  We have not been able to do so much outside the shop, as everything is frozen to the ground.  Some espaliers breaking bud when the arrived went in the garage.  Other, unquestionably dormant, we placed outside-and we hope for the best.

prairie-willow.jpgPrairie willow-I am confident it is tough as nails.  It grows in the prairies-this means that weather extremes are the norm.  I had no problem placing the bunches outdoors; they will shrug off the cold.  But what would anyone do with them?  Pots, and the soil in them, are still frozen solid.  A vase full of prairie willow inside-that would not only be beautiful, it’s just about all we can do.  The prairie willow may be fine outside given night temperatures in the teens, but we are holed up, pending a shift of the season.  Plants and animals have great mechanisms for dealing with untoward weather.  The bears hibernate.  The bats congregate deep in caves.  The plants go dormant, and stay that way.  Lichens go dull in color when dormant.  A heavy rain brings them roaring back to an interactive life.  Some pine cone seeds will not germinate, unless there is a fire. Other seeds will not germinate unless they have a cold period, or a good soaking.  The perennials die back to the ground.  They endure the winter, their life on hold- underground.

The first truly warm day of spring-insects hatch, and swarm. The grass puts on a green outfit. The bulbs, long silent underground, push up towards the sun.  The process by which the natural world wakes up after a winter is an extraordinary event to witness.  Who knows what day will signal sweet release from the dormant season.  No doubt, every northern gardener is waiting. Given that people do not hibernate, they are witness to every moment of the winter.


I am a natural organism that does not go dormant.  My winter life involves heat and shelter.  This means I live through the winter, like it or not. I am not a skier or a snow shoe afficianado-I endure.  My experience of the dormant season involves lots of winter gear-coat, boots, gloves, and hat.  And the time it takes to get dressed.  No doubt, I am a hothouse variety.  In Victorian times, miniature greenhouses known as Wardian cases would protect tropical plants from any hint of cold.  Rob’s placement of these cyclamen in a Wardian case-his dry and subtle humor at work.  Cyclamen cleave to the cold. No need to heat them up.   What really needs a place in this Wardian case-all of us gardeners living in northern climates.


The late winter weather aside, we have plants.  Potted bulbs.  Hellebores.  Delivered just today, topiary plants, big and small.  Bulb pans overflowing with angelina.  Tiny euonymus topiaries.  We have had to make a place for the plants under glass, and inside.  We heat this space to 50 degrees.  Any amount of sunshine will quickly warm it up.  From now until the middle of May, this room will be stuffed with plants.  The moment the winter weather breaks, every gardener will be looking for plants.

greenhouse-space.jpgThe plants make the space smell great.  The hyacinths blooming fill the entire space with their fragrance.  Rob washes down the floor almost every day.  The resulting humidity is a welcome break from the dry winter air.


Even this stoneware cat has an aura opf contentment, given a sunny spot on a bench.

These double ball boxwood-leaved honeysuckle topiaries are charming in their stump pots.  The moss on the surface tells the story.  These plants have been grown with heat, water, and some shade.

topiaries-in-pots.jpgEuonymus trained into a topiary standard is a great plant for a small space.  It is the most luscious shade of green imaginable.

rosemary-topiary.jpgRosemary on standard, and tubs of lavender have that warm Mediterranean look-not to mention the fragrance.

rhubarb-and-lemon-cypress.jpgRob starts rhubarb in pots early-they make such great centerpieces in spring pots.  The large leaves atop red stalks-you can’t miss them.  Nothing could be further in color and texture from rhubarb than a lemon cypress. This lime foliaged version of an Italian cypress is not hardy in our zone, though it will tolerate fairly low temperatures.  They also look great in spring containers.  Plants wintered in a space that stays above freezing grow fast.

ivy-topiaries.jpgIvy topiaries are great for shady locations outdoors, and they are fairly easy to winter indoors.  The vines grow fast if they are happy.  Regular snipping to hold the shape is one of those garden chores that is actually a pleasure.  How Rob has paired them will simple terra cotta cylinders is handsome.

bulbs-in-a-basket.jpgThe shop has a few other places that get good light, and a fair amount of sun on a sunny day.  Forced bulbs are good for low light spots indoors.  They come already programmed to bloom.  If the light is too low, the green of the foliage will fade, and the leaves will stretch and flop over.  It’s only natural that plants seek the light-it is essential to their well being.

ivy-pots.jpgEven low light tolerant plants will struggle if that low light goes on for too long.  We rotate our plants in and out of low light areas, in a effort to keep them happy.  Plants placed in the dark too long look as grumpy as gardeners who are stuck indoors.

white-hyacinths.jpgHyacinths forced in pots provide a lot of late winter pleasure.  The leaves are good looking.  The buds are good looking.  The flowers will last quite a while, provided they have a well lit spot that is not too hot.  Potting them low in a container provides a little support for the big leaves and large flowering stalks.

spring-plants.jpgSpring plants indoors-a way to make the best of the worst of it.


At A Glance: Perspective


















If you garden, March is an acutely disappointing month.  If March feels like an illness to you, it is. That late winter gardener’s fever–entirely predictable.  The hope that spring is almost here when it is in fact many weeks away-a normal symptom of said illness.  Once March arrives, no matter what constitutes likely and reasonable, I am over the winter.  I have eyes, ears and a nose for spring.  Though I have written this in countless ways for the last month, this time I really mean it!  The thought that spring is near has been much on my mind- for weeks.  What the gardening heart hopes for bears no remote resemblance to reality-that conflict would be a good definition of a Michigan March.  Hope versus reality-game on.


My yard is a trashed by the winter.The grass is the color of hay.  That hay has been pounded into the ground by the corgis, so the color is actually dirty hay.  How many gallons of paint do you suppose a paint manufacturer might sell if they names a color dirty hay?  Well, ok, gardeners might warm up to it.  But the idea of dirty hay is pretty unappetizing.  Just like March in Michigan.


The isotoma around my fountain at home looks dead.  The leaves are brown and black, accented by a glaze of rot.  Who knows if or how much of it has survived this winter.  Some of the coldest days of the winter are courtesy of this March.  How it looks right now-horrifying.  The clematis are but brittle sticks, and the boxwood are burned.  My moss stuffed cow-known as Lady Miss Bunny, has dead weeds sticking out of her side.  Dead rotting leaves are sprinkled all over the yard.  Could my garden possibly look worse than it does right now?


The European ginger?  The leaves are limp, and lay flat on the ground-exhausted.  I so understand this feeling.  The look of it-I try not to look.  Many of the leaves have those large black patches gardeners know as decomposition.  I do not dare clean them up yet-we have night forecasts in the 20’s for the next week.  Most of the snow was gone, meaning really cold night temperatures could hurt.



My hopes for March are always unrealistic.  Last year’s March was warm-enticing.  Though it satisfied my need for an early spring, it made me uneasy.  April confirmed that unease.  Freezing temperatures over an extended period of April days was destructive to early spring flowering trees, maples, and birch.  No spring for us, last year.  The 2012 spring disaster- every gardener in my zone remembers.  The nights covering vulnerable plants to no avail. All of the hellebores blooming collapsed in pathetic heaps on the ground. Such shock-realizing that our spring would be erased by deadly low temperatures.  Gardeners far away wrote to me, their voices charged with grief and irritation very much like mine.  Gardeners in my zone and in many other regions have been waiting for a glorious spring for close to 2 years.


March is anything but a spring month; March is in fact the last of the winter season.  We have has snow more days these first 2 weeks of March, than not.   A single oddball 62 degree day made me believe the winter was over-I truly believed that the crocus, eranthis and hellebores were but days away.  But one day does not a spring season make. The utter cold has returned; just this morning, four inches of fresh snow.  I m shoveling, not gardening.  March is a month marked by the tumultuous transition from one season to another.  Sometimes that transition is easy and sensible.  Other times that transition is so slow, boring, and treacherous,  one could weep.


The trees and shrubs have no such angst.  They go dormant given the day length and temperatures.  They set buds for spring season, months ahead.  They prepare.  They have no expectation of mercy.  They wait.  The urge to emerge revolves around a complex set of conditions.  Natural relationships that culminate in the OK to grow.


A bud is an undeveloped shoot.  A leaf or a flower shoot.  Once formed, that bud may lay dormant for months, waiting for the moment when conditions favor growth.  When woody plants form buds, the exterior of that bud is tough-encapsulating.  Breaking dormancy is a very vulnerable state-best not to do so, unless there is a reasonable expectation of success.  Nature provides mechanisms by which that tender stage we call growth is protected from its enemies, until the time is right.   Many plant buds are covered in scales.  These modified leaves protect the life brewing within that bud from cold, wind,and physical insult.


Many buds are covered in a gummy substance that further protects them from untoward conditions.  These magnolia flower buds have a remarkably rigid hinged casing that is covered in soft downy hair.  This magnolia is always the first plant to bloom in my yard. The buds are swelling, meaning that spring will arrive. Everywhere in my zone the buds are beginning to swell.  They anticipate spring in a very different way than I do.  They intuit the natural shift of the season. They respond to that subtle change in conditions, in a slow and subtle way.  These buds may swell, but they won’t break dormancy until there is a more extended period of moderate weather.


The buds can hold a very long time, if the weather does not take a more friendly turn. Most perennials have naked buds. What you see in this picture is the remains of my asparagus.  The spring shoots are still safely ensconced below ground. They have little defense against bitter cold. They stay dormant, buds and all, until they have the all clear. The leaf buds of the roses, encased in the same waxy substance as the stems.  They are ready, but holding their cards close.


The cream colored knobs on this yew-the flowers that will hardly be noticed.  The flowering stage is remarkable, the day a gust of wind throws a cloud of yellow pollen into the air.  At the tip of each branch, an elongated bud known as a candle.  Named for its resemblance to a candle, this growth tip is comprised of the countless needles which will populate the new shoots.  These needles lay flat against the stem, until the spring weather encourages them to spread out and grow.  The buds do a better job of predicting the arrival of spring than my winter weary heart.



The 2013 Espaliers

It is no secret that I am very fond of espaliered trees.  Espaliers?  These are trees or shrubs which are pruned to a 2-dimensional shape.  Though the practice dates back many centuries, a French monk, Fr. Legendre, published a book in 1684 entitled  “Palmette Legendre”.  He detailed his method for drastically pruning fruit trees so they could be grown against the monastery walls.  This made it possible to grow many more trees, and harvest more fruit, in a small space.  The French word espalier is derived from the Italian word “spalliera”, meaning “something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against”.  These fruit trees rested their shoulders against the wall.

unloading-the-espaliers.jpgFr. Legendre discovered that fruit trees that were subject to this kind of hard pruning, and enjoying the warmth generated by the wall,  produced better yields.  The growth generated in the third dimension would be cut back to the fruiting spurs. The first espaliers were pruned to encourage long horizontal arms.  It seems that horizontal branches bear more fruit than vertical ones. This horizontal shape is known as a cordon, and is quite similar to how grapes are pruned.


Eventually, many different styles of pruning emerged.  Some styles are just as decorative as they are utilitarian.  The tree pictured above has been trained into a classic fan shape.  All of the primary arms radiate outward from the trunk in the shape of a fan. This shape is great for a wall that is both tall and wide.  Blank walls in the landscape are a perfect spot for an espalier.  The pattern of green, light and shadow that the tree creates provides interest in a spot that is otherwise empty.  Should I under plant an espalier, I like like a short growing plant.  Part of the beauty of an espalier is being able to see the entire shape, from top to bottom.

espaliered-trees.jpgEspaliers are traditionally created from fruit bearing trees.  Though apples prefer a sunny location to fruit well, a pear tree is fairly tolerant of a shady location.  I am partial to pears.  Their glossy leaves are beautiful, and they seem more resistant to fungal problems.  Many fruit trees require another tree for cross pollination.  If you want to grow an espalier for fruit, be sure you grow a pair, or pick a variety that is self pollinating.  All  fruiting trees are beautiful when they bloom in the spring.  An espalier fruit tree in full bloom is especially gorgeous, as the white flowers dramatically detail the geometry of the shape.

These four espaliers are Kieffer pears, trained in the candelabra form.  It is easy to see here that an overall form has been determined for the large branches.  Once a horizontal branch reaches the width desired, the young branch is turned towards the sky, and tied to a form.  That branch will require support until it gets enough to stand on its own.  Pear wood hardens off quickly.  If you are training an espalier, be sure to make any change in direction when the branch is still very young.  Barely visible at the top of this picture is a horizontal fish line.  The branches are tied to this to keep them vertical, and keep them the desired distance from neighboring branches.  We have secured the branches in this manner for display only.  Once they are planted against a wall, galvanized steel eyes will need to be installed in the mortar.  The branches will be tied to those eyes using a flexible and expandable landscape tie.

espaliered-rose-of-sharon.jpgThough a fruiting tree is a traditional subject for an espalier, lots of trees and shrubs readily take to this kind of pruning.  Pictured above is a white rose of sharon, trained into a fan. The picture is not the best.  Imagine many branches emerging from the soil in a line., rather than a mass.  Any branch which emerged from the ground outside of the line-either to the front or back-was removed.  The fan is created with many branches, rather than just a select few.  This shape of this shrub reminds me of fan coral.  It will be a solid mass of green, in leaf-and a solid mass of white in flower.

A Belgian fence is a series of espaliered trees that are planted equidistant from each other. Each interior tree has a single trunk which comes up up out of the ground about 18″.  Years ago, that trunk was pruned down to 18″.  A pair of emerging side shoots were trained at a specific and repeating angle.  The collection of trees produces multiple diamond shapes.  Ideally, each diamond is the same size as its neighbor.  Maintaining the diamond shapes requires faithful and regular pruning.  The larger and simpler the diamonds, the easier the care.  This group of trees are Calloway crab apples.  They have a beautiful cinnamon colored bark, and flower and fruit like all crab apples.

The large espaliers in this picture are lindens-old lindens. The cordon espaliers in front of them-Bradford pears. Both species are ornamental, and tolerate hard pruning. These trees may also be allowed to fill in between the horizontal layers. This would result in a solid thin wall of green.  They could be grown against a wall, or as a freestanding green wall.  Any espalier which is grown as a fence will need lots of support and direction in the early years.  Big bamboo stakes are prefect for this.  The bamboo you see on the foreground trees was attached to keep all the branches in place during shipping.

This espalier has been grown in a goblet shape. The change in direction from a horizontal to vertical is a gently curve, as opposed to the right angle of a candelabra style.  As the main arms are fairly well established, we only needed to secure the tops of the branches to keep the tree representing its intended shape.


These fan espaliers are apples and pears of various varieties.  A whole orchard could be grown in a relatively small space.  Training espaliers is an art form, but a form that can be learned.  As slowly as trees grow, you would have time for your knowledge to grow.  A large caliper espalier is an investment, mainly due to the years it took to get it to size.  This particular grower does not sell any trees unless they are at least 7 years old.  Over the course of that 7 years, he waters and feeds, and keeps the yellow bellied sapsuckers from drilling holes in their trunks.  He has trees that have had a major arm die back-heartbreaking this.  But once an espalier is established, they are no more care than any other tree or shrub.  Some nurseries and garden centers carry 1-2 year old plants.  This makes it easy to give one a try.