Archives for October 2013

At A Glance: Peonies In Bloom

pale-pink-peonies-in-full-bloom All of the pictures in this post came from companies in the US and Canada that grow peonies for sale.  Interested in adding some to your garden?  My local nurseries sell well rooted peonies in pots in the spring, but if you are interested in a specific cultivar, you may need to order from a peony grower for a bare root fall delivery.Either next spring, or the year after, or in my next life, I will have the chance to design a landscape around a collection of peonies. I have time.

Cora Stubbs Song Sparrow Farms



Hollingsworth Peonies


Song Sparrow Farm

Mrs. FDR


The Fawn

White Cap


Krinkled White

Those nurseries that specialize in growing peonies for sale-support them.  Buy some. A gardening world without peonies-dreary.  The peonies blooming-so glorious.

Martha's-peonies.jpgThis picture was taken at Martha Stewart’s peony garden, and posted on her blog.  Truly beautiful.


Planting Peonies



Once the fall sets in, I focus on all of those plants that favor a fall planting.  Of course the spring flowering bulbs are routinely planted in the fall, but right now I am thinking about peonies. I have had a big love for peonies my entire gardening life. At one point early in my gardener history, I had many hundreds of them planted on my property in rows, like crops. This infatuation with peonies predates my infatuation with design.  I wanted those plants, and had no idea of what to do with them beyond digging a hole and planting. I was young, working, and struggling.  Every extra cent went to plants, and in the fall, to peony roots.  The picture above, one of the few that I still have.  Peonies are just about the easiest perennial on the planet to grow.


Peonies are ordinarily sold as bare root divisions, in the fall.  A cluster of juicy roots with dried tops arrive bathed in barely moist sphagnum moss.  Of particular interest-the number of eyes.  Those red eyed shoots with send forth stems, come spring.  A standard division-3 to 5 eyes.  Double divisions are occasionally available.  A peony asks for just a few things.  Full sun, somewhat alkaline soil, and a planting at the proper depth.  Per the drawing above from the Canadian Peony Society, the eyes should be 2 inches below ground-after they are watered in and the ground settles.  They may refuse to bloom, if the are set to shallow or too deep.  As long lived as peonies are, they resent transplanting.  Smaller divisions transplant more readily.  Larger divisions are a temptation; it will take a number of years to grow a peony division into a robustly shrubby and heavily blooming plant.   Peonies are incredibly long lived perennials-perhaps the longest lived of all perennials, save asparagus.  Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground, come the winter.  In May their thick stems and glossy leaves are topped with an amazing variety of flowers.  Post the bloom season, their strong stems and glossy leaves grace the garden with  a broadleaved presence.


I cannot remember which birthday it was, but my Mom gave me a trip to the National Peony Convention in Mansfield Ohio.  I was in my mid twenties. I had to have been the youngest attendee at the convention by 30 years or better.  I have a distinct memory of a great worry.  What if not enough people my age got interested in growing peonies?  My Mom put that to rest.  Could I have afforded the trip and the lodging and the meals?  No.  Older people who were more established or perhaps retired attended the convention.  There certainly were other gardening Moms taking their kid to specialty plant meetings and exhibitions.

Julia.jpgMy love of gardening has everything to do with Julia.  Along with exposure to good books, manners, and study habits, she saw to my exposure to nature, dirt, and plants.  I can still remember what a happy trip this was.  Rooms full of peony flowers in milk bottles, each specimen more lovely than the last.


On the table tops-the blooms submitted for exhibition.  Under the tables-the rejected flowers.  Perhaps there was a blemished petal, or the form wasn’t perfect.  I could not imagine how it came to be that thousands of peonies from all over the country happened to be at peak bloom on the same day.  I learned that once a peony bud shows color, it can be refrigerated, a plastic bag over it’s head, in the vegetable crisper.  2 days before you want the flower in bloom, bring it out of the crisper, recut the stem, and place it in deep water.  Voila. The year after this show, I put 50 stems in the fridge.  I had no lettuce, celery or radishes, but I had peonies for almost 6 weeks.

photographing-the-peonies.jpgThis was an incredible opportunity to see they flowers from many different cultivars.  There were lectures about herbaceous peonies, and tree peonies.  I saw my first herbaceous/tree peony cross-then an unnamed”Itoh Hybrid”.  The flower was a pale yellow with dark red flares-so exotic.


My scrapbook detailing that visit is old, but still a part of my library.  My peony growing days are long over. That moment in my gardening life when I had hundreds of them lined out is but a memory.  I do not have anyplace to plant them now.  But every fall, I long for them, just the same.


Were I to limit myself to just a few peonies, I would choose these.  Moonstone.  Mrs. FDR.  Miss America.  Kansas.  Sea Shell, Red Charm, Dinner Plate. Princess Margaret, Coral Charm, Kansas.  Do Tell, Krinkled White, Festiva Maxima.  Doreen, Do Tell, Gay Paree, Nick Shaylor.  Charlies White, Pillow Talk, and Bu-Te.  Cytheria, Dinner Plate, Ludovica, and Paula Fay.  The Fawn, Miss America, White Innocence, and Princess Margaret.  I would want to grow White Cap, too. This is not a few peonies-this is a list from a person who has a big love for peonies.  Lucky for me, I am but a short drive from the largest collection of herbaceous peonies in the US.


In the 1920’s, WE Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, donated a collection of 280 varieties to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan.  More than 90 years later, many of his original plants are still healthy and blooming.  An avid collector and grower of peonies himself, he had the kindness to share that with other gardeners.


His grand daughter, Martha G Parfet, recently donated a half a million dollars to honor her grandfather, and establish the WE Upjohn Peony Garden Fund to help with the restoration and the protection of this historic peony garden.


What a treasure-a peony museum.




Fall Is For Planting

planting-bulbs.jpgI like planting in the fall.  The weather is cooler, and the rain more reliable.  The work of it seems easier. Some plants are not so happy with a fall planting.  I like to delay planting beech, birch, magnolia and dogwoods until the spring.   Other species readily transplant in the fall, when they are dormant.  Dormant plants suffer the trauma of transplant more readily when they are sleeping . I am uneasy about planting perennials much past the end of September, for fear they will not have enough time to root before the frost heaves them every which way- including out of the ground.  However, it is never too late to plant spring flowering bulbs.  Should you be able to get your shovel in the ground in February, the bulbs you bought in October will most likely be fine-provided you stored them in a cool spot.

spring-flowering-bulbs.jpgThis is our bulb planting week.  We are tackling this project for clients later than usual-it has been a very busy fall.  Most of our projects involve large spaces planted with tulips for spring.  But we do have those people for whom we add a little of this and a little of that every year.  No matter the scale of your garden, and the spaces you have available for spring flowering bulbs, taking the time to plant them is well worth the effort.  When the winter breaks here in March, and the crocus come into bloom-that is a day I treasure.  Both the Farmer’s Almanac and the National Weather Service is predicting a very cold and very snowy winter here.  There is everything good about defending your gardening self with some spring flowering bulbs.

spring-flowering bulbs.jpgThe spring flowering bulbs include tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and a whole host of small flowering bulbs.  Don’t forget the alliums, which will bloom in June.  All of the nurseries local to me have bulbs available.  It seems like preaching to the choir to be encouraging gardeners to plant spring bulbs, but I have my reasons.  Planting bulbs is just about the least satisfying planting done in the garden all year.  When it is cold, windy, and wet, you are out there burying brown blobs in the dirt.  When you are finished planting, you have nothing to show for all the work. Even more discouraging is the fact that the show is months away.  I wouldn’t say that bulb planting is particularly pleasant for gardeners-it takes effort in conditions that are usually less than ideal.  But the rewards in the spring-enormously satisfying.

planting-for-spring.jpgAs difficult as it may be to generate excitement for a job with no immediate rewards, the pleasure to come is worth the wait. Each one of those brown orbs is loaded with the promise of the gardening season to come.

spring-flowering-bulbs-in-pots.jpgI plant a lot of bulbs in pots.  I find this easier than trying to imagine where my perennial garden might need tulips, or where I planted daffodils last year.  I do not force the bulbs I plant in containers.  I bury them under a huge pile of leaves, or store them in the garage, and bring them out early in March.  I want them to bloom at the same time that they are blooming in the garden.  Pots of spring flowering bulbs can be placed on a front porch, or by the back door, or dropped into a container.  I like that I can move them around.

white-hyacinths.jpgThis may seem counter intuitive, but bulbs in pots will rot if they freeze solid through and through.  The temperature of the soil is always warmer than the air temperature-but bulbs in pots do not have the luxury of the protection of the ambient warmth of the ground.  There are certain places in our shop garage that are good for storing planted pots of bulbs.

grape-hyacinths.jpgSpring flowering bulbs are programmed from the start to come up, throw leaves, and bloom.  Very little gets in the way of the way of that.  I have had good luck repotting spring bulbs already in bloom into different containers, providing I handle them carefully.  We did these grape hyacinths in little pots with the bulbs exposed for an event.

daffodils.jpgMiniature daffodils handle life in a pot a liottle better that the large flowered varieties.  If I do pot up big growing daffodils,  I keep the soil level well below the rim of the pot.  That rim helps to keep the flowers and leaves standing upright.  If I do bring potted flowering bulbs indoors, I try to find a relatively cool spot for them.  An ideal spring for bulbs in the ground depends on cool weather during the day, and chilly weather at night.  Once the weather gets warm, spring bulbs will fade.

spring-flowering-bulbs.jpgThe bulbs it would take to make a handsome spring garden could fit in a modestly sized box. I would seize one of the few remaining warm afternoons we will have, in pursuit of a little spring color.

box-of-bulbs.jpgA little box of spring flowering bulbs makes a big statement about spring.

tulips-blooming.jpgtulips in the spring – indescribably delicious.


Sunday Opinion: Keeping America Beautiful



Keep America Beautiful is an organization which has been devoted to promoting the idea that a clean environment is a beautiful and healthy environment since 1953.  The original group of business people and public figures had the idea to link the private and public sector in a campaign to stamp out littering.  If you are any where near me in age, you will remember the public service announcements in the 1970’s featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody and the tagline “People start pollution.  People can stop it”.  The Ad Council of America considers it one of the most successful public service campaigns ever mounted. It had to have been fairly successful-I still remember it vividly, some 40 years after the fact.  I would sooner stuff my lunch trash in my own coat pocket than throw it on the ground.  Their role in recent years has been to focus on the merits of recycling.  Both technology and human ingenuity have helped to create ways to transform trash into products that can be reused.


Why am I talking about litter?  We were downtown last week, decorating 50 planter boxes on Woodward Avenue that feature trees at the center.  As the aluminum fencing around each box is about 18 inches tall, I suggested decorating each tree truck with corn shocks, and other decor that suggested fall.  The result is a celebration of fall that can be seen from a car, or on foot.  So what does this have to do with litter?  The boxes themselves were littered.  Lots of litter.  I would guess that it takes an incredible amount of time and money to regularly clean them.  Though there’s no need to litter, it happens.

Woodweard-Avenue-Detroit.jpg While we were installing this fall display, a Detroit police officer pulled over to the curb near us, set off his siren, and turned on his lights. Yes, we were startled, and yes we watched.  The officer called out to a man on the side walk who had just thoughtlessly dumped his lunch trash and plastic bottle on the sidewalk to pick up his mess, and put it in the trash barrel not 10 feet away.  There was much discussion and lots of resistance, but the man finally picked up his mess and put it in the garbage can.  I admire that officer who treated littering and polluting as a crime against the environment.

Woodward-Avenue-planters.jpgThat officer let it be known loud and clear that he expects his city to be orderly, safe, friendly, busy, crime free-and clean. Pollution free-one trashy moment at a time. The incident made a big impression on me.  Obviously clean cities happen via groups of concerned people who bring their influence to bear.  Clean cities perhaps rely even more on those individuals who take the time and effort to protect the environment.  It also occurs to me that a clean and litter free city has much to do with a collective sense of ownership, and stewardship.  How can that pride of  ownership and stewardship be fostered?  One litter free block at a time.  One clean day at a time.  One proud person at a time.


We were hired to make a statement about fall in the downtown Detroit area.  My thoughts regarding the design were as follows.  I wanted to celebrate those trees on Woodward Avenue that managed to grow in a thoroughly urbanized city.  I wanted to draw attention to the trees, and the planter boxes.  I wanted to make anyone who rode or walked down Woodward to be engaged by what we did.  I wanted to, for a brief moment, to draw attention to nature.  My hope was that attention would foster respect.

city-tree.jpgI may not get my wish-this go round. If you are a gardener, you understand that it can take a lot of time to develop a garden, or a landscape.  It can take more than a lifetime.  As for a litter free America, it may take many generations.  But I am happy to report that more people than not are informed and supportive of a clean, beautiful, and healthy America.  Gardeners have for generations been interested in a clean and beautiful environment.     Woodward-Avenue.jpg

Gardeners have homes that they choose to keep beautiful and clean.  Gardeners who move to another property have been stewards.  My idea?  I would encourage anyone and everyone to garden.  Once you garden, you understand the treasure inviolate that is nature. Would that everyone would be a gardener.