A Spring Mix

We plant loads of containers in April in celebration of the spring season. The length, depth, and breadth of that planting is informed and driven by those materials available that can tolerate the chill. Farmed twigs are shipped to us in early spring and late fall. They provide mass, volume and height to our container arrangements at a time when the spring season is just beginning.   I cannot express how intrigued I was, given a recent and unexpected gift of 50 stems of a new variety of pussy willow. P sent them unannounced, and I was pleased to get them. How gorgeous are these twigs? The white, gray and black catkins are quite unlike any pussy willow I know of. This variation was observed in their field, and the decision was made to propagate the plant. They sent me all of the rest of the stems they had available – 200 – with a promise there would be more available next year.

In asking for a potential name for this new cultivar, they adopted Rob’s suggestion. Spring Velvet it is. Aptly named, I think. My suggestion of Spring Sensation was the first thing that came to mind when I saw them. It is so rare that a new plant or cultivar becomes available for early spring containers. That small group of plants (I do include the cut stems of willow and dogwood in that group) that can handle the very early spring weather becomes larger as the weather moderates. April 1, my planting options were limited to twigs and cold grown pansies-provided the night temperatures did not dip below 24 degrees or so. Now, given that is April 15th, we will be able to expand our palette of plants.

Those first plantings rely on the mix, meaning the mix of colors. I would not have thought that merlot colored pansies would work well with pink wing violas and lavender pansies, but this mix turned out to be surprisingly lively. Does the variegated Algerian ivy get its leaves singed when night temperatures go too low-yes. But the risk is low enough to warrant planting them, and hoping for the best. This planter is on a covered porch, with walls on three sides. The Janet Craig dracaenas we plant here for the summer stay beautiful long into the fall.  As for the faux picks, I like what they add to the mix. Green fuzz ball picks and white deco ball stems are graphic and sculptural. They are also whimsical.

This series of boxes feature the straight and vertical stems of copper willow, and the horizontal layer of pansies. The faux grass picks add a transitional layer that softens that intersection between the copper willow and those pansies. Though the faux grass is faux, they have a relaxed look that is not only believable-it is welcome. Faux grasses have progressed from a stiff and painfully obvious imitation to a graceful and charming representation of what is to come. The signs of spring are still subtle here. Hardy ornamental grasses in my zone will just be waking up the beginning of June. These boxes speak to spring in a brash and sassy way.

This container features a tree hydrangea which we overwintered inside our unheated landscape building. It will be a while before there are leaves. The process of watching this shrub leaf out is an experience of spring not to be missed.  Three cultivars of pansies with closely related color make for a mix that is visually interesting.

Mixing colors is a way of making familiar materials seem fresh.  Once this planting grows in, it will be easier to see that the color in the pots is related to, but different from the pansies in the ground.

This contemporary spring planting features a color palette notable for its strong contrast.

This pot is entirely planted with lavender shades pansy.  The color variation is built into the cultivar. The night temperatures had improved sufficiently to permit adding white annual phlox and alyssum to the pansies. All around the contemporary centerpiece-lettuce. The faux grass is very short stemmed and droopy. The paddles are sections of palm leaves that are dried.

This box is in a very protected location. The birds nest ferns will readily handle the chill. The rest of the box is planted with white pansies and alyssum. The texture of the alyssum will soon provide a frothy foil to the broad leaves of the ferns.

The pansies we carry are sown in October, and overwintered in unheated tunnel houses. It makes sense that our grower has selected varieties that are well adapted to, and thrive under these conditions.  Though there are a finite number of pansy and viola cultivars, there are lots of ways in which those cultivars can be combined to achieve a distinctive look.  This client likes bold color, and strong contrast.

The plants in this box are pastel and pale in color. Once the phlox gets growing, the box will have a volume better proportioned to the size of the box. Looking over pictures of some of the pots we planted last week, they are indeed remarkably different from one another. It is a pleasure to have something to plant in early spring.

This basket is Rob’s planting.

 

Not only do spring containers represent a preview of what is to come in the landscape and garden, they will just be hitting their glorious best at the end of May and on into June.

April 2, 2019

What was noteworthy about this past Tuesday, the second of April? We planted containers and flower beds at 5095 for spring, 3 weeks earlier than last year. Our first spring planting. The morning was decidedly chilly, but the afternoon was sunny and warm. I could not have been more pleased or content to be outside planting. It was great. Nor could I have been more happy that we could be outside working the beginning of April. Northern zone gardeners are stuck inside longing for another time and place- for the duration of the winter. By the end of March, I am impatient for the winter season to turn to spring. And grumpy every day that it doesn’t.

The beginning of April is not always the beginning of our spring. Last year’s April was wintry in every regard. Mountains of snow deposited over the winter had no impetus to melt. The daytime temperatures were barely above freezing. The nights were plenty cold. The weather was conducive only to ice making. Giant piles of snow transformed by freeze and thaw into ice were everywhere. We planted this project April 22 last year. Embarrassingly late, that.

That I was outdoors on a sunny day with no more than a spring jacket to keep me warm was a good day indeed. I have more to be thankful for than this. My supplier of twigs sent an outstanding collection of fresh cut branches to us. That he farms willow and pussy willow provides great scale to my spring containers. Our pansies are fall sown, and over wintered in unheated greenhouses, so they are good to go outside the moment I take delivery. A whole collection of visually persuasive faux grasses-I thank Rob for them. They provide an intermediary layer between what is tall and what is short. These pots would be rather awkward without them.

A sunny warm April day, some spring centerpieces of note, and a raft of thriving pansies is enough for this early spring day. I went home both happy and satisfied. Nothing in my garden has made itself known.  Later spring will be a symphony. At home, and on the job. So many voices – so much to see. Spring in full blast is hard to keep track of. But this earliest moment, out planting, was the gift of the early season.

This bed full of a pansy mix will sparkle all season.  Lavender shades, Delta Premium violet and white, and pansy beaconsfield mixed will shimmer. If you plan to mix varieties, 3 types provide a more even mix than 2.

This bed of pansies will thrive well into June, should my client decide to delay her summer planting. She might be tempted this year to let this spring planting mature. I for one would be much happier planting her containers for summer in June. Both the soil and the air will have warmed up by then – just what seasonal tropical plants want.

Cool Wave Berries N Cream is a spreading/trailing pansy.  It is perfect for those container plantings that ask for flowers spilling over the edge. This pansy is reputed to survive our winters with aplomb, should you decide to plant it in the ground. This urn was planted with hanging baskets of this pansy. The more mature size of the plants in the basket provide height and volume right from the start.

There are few signs of the perennial garden in this area. These spring pots provide some visual interest, in the meantime. Containers in every season can be a bridge from one garden moment to another, a landscape or garden idea tested in miniature, a laboratory for testing new plants – I do value what containers can bring to the garden.

boxes planted for spring

This long trough is my favorite of the group. The columnar lemon cypress will go on to ornament both the summer and fall planting here. Pots of Persian limes between the cypress will do the same. Yellow and violet pansies compliment the spring green. The summer green will be just as luscious.

Four large planters in the back yard are routinely planted with multi-trunked Himalayan white barked birch. We take them out of the pots in the fall, and winter them inside our landscape building. Very few woody plants are hardy over the winter in pots. With their roots above ground, they struggle to handle the extreme cold of our winters, and unexpected freeze and thaw cycles. Even though our building is unheated, it provides protection from winter wind and sun. As all of the leaves drop in the fall, they have no need for light in the winter months. The birch provide much needed scale to a rear terrace that is large, and a pair of doors from the inside that are very tall.

This is the first year I have under planted the birch for spring. On the terrace-flats of pansies and violas. The mix is lively, as I hoped it would be. Anyone who plants containers brings an idea about shape, mass, texture and color to their plantings. In this early spring container planting, color is a key element.

Mixing plants implies a brew. I like this. Who knows what nature is brewing up next, but for now this spring brew tastes great.

It was a good day.

Planting Spring Pots

My penchant for planting containers for spring is based on several factors. At 30 years old, it seemed like an infinite number of springs were ahead. If I skipped planting fall bulbs, or spring pots, or a rose or a tree, there would always be next year. Or the year after that. In a blink of an eye, 30 became 50.  And with it, the dawn of the realization that though spring will probably roll around ad infinitum, my springs that had a beginning in 1950 would eventually come to an end. This is not gloomy talk. It means I am more interested than ever in observing and participating in every phase of the gardening year. I especially do not want to miss one moment of the spring season. Given that every plant in the landscape will break dormancy and grow, there is a lot to see over the course of that 3 month period. There are lots of ways to experience the spring season-why miss out on any of those opportunities?

Planting containers for spring seems even more attractive in cold weather zones like ours. Winter leaches out of our ground slowly. When that ground does thaw, it is wet. Milling around a garden when the soil is sopping wet is ill advised. My shoes, backed up by my weight, do a great job of squeezing the oxygen out of the soil, and compacting it. Compacted soil can be quite brick-like. As I like my plants to have friable soil that encourages good root growth, I stay out of the garden in very early spring. Spring containers make it easier to resist getting in to the garden too early.

It used to be that a vast majority of seasonal plants were of the summer season type. Now a gardener can find plants suitable for containers in every season. The most obvious choice is spring flowers bulbs.  Forced tulips, daffodils,hyacinths, grape hyacinths and crocus adapt very well to pot culture. The tulips in the shop garden are but 2 inches out of the ground. It will be at least a month before they start to bloom. A pot of emerging tulips faced down with violas already in bloom in a container is a sight for winter weary eyes. The best part of spring flowering bulbs in containers is how beautiful they are in every stage. It is a pleasure to be able to watch a hyacinth at close quarters come out of the ground, bud up, and bloom. The leaves and buds are juicy, and every bit as beautiful as the flowers.

It used to be that most seasonal plants offered for sale were only suitable for summer containers. That has really changed. Great plants, and lots of them, are available for container planting in every season. Right now at the shop, Rob has hellebores, pansies, violas, alyssum, primrose, rosemary and lavender topiaries, sweet woodruff, and sweet peas.  In short order, spring vegetables and herbs will be available for pots. Pansies, lettuce and parsley can be planted up to stunning effect. A hydrangea on standard can look a little bleak in a spring container, but the buds will swell soon, and the spring leaves are beautiful.

Fresh cut twigs can provide a lot of color and scale to spring containers. This straight copper willow not only has vivid color, that color is lively.

Pussy willow is a great twig choice for pots.  The fuzzy catkins covering the stems are charming.  Cut pussy willow twigs will often root in a spring pot, bringing leaves after the catkins have faded. Pussy willow would be a poor choice of a shrub for my garden, as it grows so large. Having the cut stems in a container is a way to enjoy them without making any commitment to a long term relationship. And speaking of long term relationships, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to try something new in containers every spring.

We will be starting our installations of spring pots this coming Monday. It will feel good to be gardening.

faux grass and Belarina series double primrose

white hyacinths

sweet woodruff and faux grass

tropical ferns and pansies

maidenhair ferns and Belarina primrose

grape hyacinths, primula denticulata and oxalisspring pot with helleborus, grape hyacinth, violas and sweet woodruff

spring pots with eucalyptus centerpieces

pansies and violas

lettuce and pansies

Tomorrow, the last Saturday of our hellebore festival will feature Rob’s collection of topiary plants – his best ever, I think. Thinking spring containers, we are.

Winter Window Boxes

A good many posts ago, I described a window box as a hybrid vehicle. It is generally more expansive than a pot, but smaller than an in ground garden bed. A window box is an above ground defined space which is large enough to thoroughly explore an idea, and small enough to finish every square inch beautifully. I like any landscape project that is as beautiful and polished at the finish as it was from the design beginning. This means tailoring seasonal efforts to a size that celebrates aspiration, and acknowledges limits. Planting an area in the garden with seasonal plants leaves me cold. There is too much square footage to deal with. More on the knees work than I am willing to do anymore. Too much poor soil and poorer drainage than I want to address. Get me off the ground, please and thank you. A window box is the perfectly sized venue for a bigger seasonal gesture.

A landscape client with a new house signed up for four window boxes on stands in the front of her house. Branch made them to my specifications. Though the window boxes were fabricated this past summer, it was not until November when the landscape was ready for their installation. Meaning we would address them for the winter season. We made forms for the boxes, and fabricated the winter arrangements in our shop. Dry floral foam forms were a vehicle for a collection of sparkly white picks, cut magnolia branches, faux white berry picks and noble fir. Presiding over all, a three foot diameter light ring.

We do as much of the work as we can, in the shop. We like the better part of the work to be done in a warm space. The construction is faster, and more thoughtful. All of us want to focus on the project at hand, rather than enduring the cold conditions on site. This work included creating the arrangement, and dressing the greens with lights. This layout table was large enough to hold two arrangements at a good height for working.

Each form was moved outdoors once it was finished. The cold temperature outside favors keeping the greens fresh. The palette of materials is simple. The volume and texture of the noble fir does a great job of showcasing the magnolia based centerpiece. A form this long needs support when it is moved, although all of the woody stems of the evergreens helps strengthen it. Though the form is long and narrow, we took great care to provide a rolling shape from back to front.  A good winter arrangement needs to supply a finished shape from the beginning, and create the illusion of motion and rhythm. Though most of these materials are natural, they will not grow. Creating a sense of growth from cut materials informs the best of winter container arrangements.

The form is slightly smaller than the interior dimension of the box, so it was easy to drop it in.

The pots look over scaled for the windows, but that will change once the new shutters are installed. The boxes and their contents have a very formal and dressy look, which is in keeping with the architecture.

After dark, the lights define the shapes and volumes. The view at night is important in my zone. We have a lot of short days and long nights ahead.

By this time next year, this landscape project will have landscape lighting. But for now, the window boxes provide some welcome illumination.

Every year we fill the window boxes at Detroit Garden Works for the winter season. This year, our winter and seasonal pot obligations ran long. On December 21, my crews had gone home for the holidays, and our storefront boxes were still bare. My crew had a long and arduous season, so I was not about to have them fret over the shop winter window boxes. And our supplies of branches and greens were low. Happily, our supplier emailed Rob that he had a late cutting of a new branch for him – were we interested? It did not take long for him to send 12 bales of Midwinter Fire dogwood stems our way. The form in the above picture has its fair share of holes, as this is its third season. But with a few minor repairs, it was ready. My part in the process of our winter pots is the design. My crew does all of the construction admirably well. But given that there was a time when I designed and fabricated, I was sure I could do that again. The idea was simple. Embed a light ring in a thicket of dogwood branches.

Christmas Eve day, the shop was open, so Karen had time to me a hand sticking the greens on the front face and sides of the forms. Rob and Scott helped trim the bottoms off the thickest branches. I set a row of branches close together across the back of the form, and 2 lengths of a 33 foot long light strand in front of them before starting the next row of branches. 4 rows of branches separated by four rows of lights. The branches are pushed in all the way to the bottom of the form.

The work of it was integrating each new branch into the neighboring branches. As they were fresh cut, the stems were pliable. A pair of thick wool gloves made that work easier. There was no need to cover the back of the form, as the window box hugs the window. The bottom layer of foam goes into the box. The soil had already been lowered a corresponding amount. The top layer on the front and sides holds the greens. Short stems of magnolia would separate the greens layer from the twig thicket. The large brown and green leaves not only separate the similar textures of the greens and twigs, they conceal the mechanics of the light source from view.

Though my crew would have sailed through this fabrication, it took me two days. No deadline was looming, and I wanted to enjoy the process. No twigs cover the lower portion of the light ring. The ring disappearing into the thicket and re-emerging at the top implies the thicket has depth. I would consider how to finish that spot once the boxes were installed.

Flipping the switch on the lights once the arrangements were done was great fun. We would indeed have a little midwinter fire.

Marzela and David came in the Thursday and Friday after Christmas. They fabricated and installed 2 projects we had not finished before the holiday. Karen, Rob and Scott joined in. We sometimes remove the light rings after fabrication, and reinstall them on the job. But in this case, it seemed vastly easier to just leave them in. They took care of all of the finishing work and electrical, once the forms were set.

Some of the finishing touches will only be seen by those who walk by or come over to take a closer look. We tried to address the near and far, and the day and night. The shop boxes are just the right size for that.

The pots on either side of the door are stuffed with fir and boxwood, and lit with a single 3 foot tall LED light burst from the shop. It came with a pointed metal stake that is easy to push into a form or soil.

Rob took this picture from the top of a 12 foot ladder, right at dusk. The look of them in the transition between day and night was subtle. The visual changes wrought by the light and weather come courtesy of mother nature.

I never thought about how they would look from inside my office, but I am enjoying it.