Sustaining

My apologies to all of you who read my essays. Two days ago, the server for all of our associated websites and this blog crashed. All is rebuilt now, but my latest post, this post named “Sustaining” was a casualty, but for the beginning two paragraphs. The original version cannot be restored. To follow is a rewriting of that post. For those of you that were able to read before the crash, I hope this version will be tolerable, or better. For those of you seeing it for the first time, this is the first in a series I hope to write about planting containers for the garden. It’s that time.

The instinct to sustain comes standard issue with all living things. Animals strengthen and support their newborn young with mother’s milk, a home, and protection from danger of all sorts. That Mom supplies her young with all of the necessities of life, whether it comes from her, or from  a source of water, shelter or food nearby. Some parents with no innate directive to protect or feed their young produce progeny by the hundreds or thousands. Sustenance comes in a lot of different forms. People, those most complex of all the creatures, do much the same, but in a more complex and individual way. Luckily, many kids lacking sustenance emerge with a will to grow, standard issue. Some seed within them grows. What is truly amazing is how many varied paths of affirmation work. Astonishing, this. Plants likewise have mechanisms to not only grow, but protect their own survival for generations to come. Even the most cursory study of seeds, and the conditions under which they germinate and grow, makes it clear that the urge to survive is a most basic tenet of life. The flowers have a grand purpose. Pollination and the the eventual production of seed insures the survival of the species. Those of us who treasure flowers whenever they appear are witnessing the story of how a species is sustained from one generation to the next – every bit as much as their ephemeral beauty.

Anyone who gardens has that instinct to nourish and nurture. That comes part and parcel with the urge to try to make something grow. The effort it takes to grow and sustain a landscape and garden is considerable. Aching backs, permanently dirty nails and sunburned noses, scrapes scratches, bruises, frustrations and failures tell the story. All that effort in search of that perfect moment. The gardener enjoying the garden they create and sustain. The natural world is a world in which every living thing jostles for space, breathes, and prospers, or not. The outcomes are not always predictable or positive. Every living thing is as capable of sustaining injury or damage as they  Anyone who gardens has seen treasured plants demolished by deer, or destroyed by an exceptionally hostile winter. The list of the plants that have died on my watch is a very long list. Those plants that have persisted are a source of great joy. Life and death in the garden is pure theater. Why else would gardeners come back for more, year after year? The spring season is anticipated for months, and the experience of watching plants break dormancy and grow is an experience like no other.

Gardeners of all description are in the full swing of it now. All because the relationship people forge with nature is sustaining. There are landscapes and gardens being cleaned up. There are new plants going in the ground. There are plans for a new terrace, or a fountain. Some older landscapes are getting a refresh. A garden bench is getting a fresh coat of paint. I for one have always enjoyed weeding;  its solitary and contemplative byproduct is a tonic. Pulling weeds does not require much in the way of concentration, so there is time to hear the birds.  In a frantic world, the garden is other worldly, and restorative. That spring move into the garden is the emotional equivalent of a trip to the cottage or the beach without any travel time involved. We mark the beginning of the summer gardening season by planting containers. It’s a specialty of the house.

Rob plants containers in May in his own inimitable and sustaining style. He puts up planters that combine herbs, vegetables and flowers in a relaxed and graceful way. His plantings strongly evoke the agricultural roots of all gardening. Planting crops that feed communities is life sustaining. A place for growing vegetables and herbs in the garden takes many forms. Some gardeners plant ornamental plants incidental to a working garden. Others want a few tomatoes and some herbs to cook with. No matter the form or extent, growing those plants that sustain life sustains a very basic emotional need – a working connection to nature of which we are all a part.  Rob is apt to purchase lots of containers that compliment these first container plantings. Baskets of all shapes and styles, wood boxes and crates, galvanized buckets and tubs all speak to the farm garden.  Even the contemporary stainless steel wire baskets with fabric liners pictured above pair remarkably well with a planting of herbs.

The herb pots come first for a simple reason.  They not only whet the appetite for the summer season to come, many herbs – basil excepted – are quite tolerant of unpredictably chilly spring weather. The pot pictured above is planted with a couple miniature petunias. They shrug off cold weather as well. The plastic liner in the reed baskets help improve their longevity.

vintage berry baskets planted with rosemary, variegated scented geraniums and anbual phlox

Will the grapes produced by this grapevine be sufficient for a few bottles of home made wine, or jars of marmalade? No. But planted up in a vintage champagne grape crate, this container planting is earthy in every regard.

Mint is an impossible thug in the garden. It will run everywhere, and is very difficult to eradicate or control.  But a planting in a bucket means this fragrant herb is available for seasoning lamb or as a garnish in a summer drink.

Topiary plant forms have long been a mainstay of the formal garden. The tin pots Rob chose for them recall that history. These lavender and scented geraniums on standard are a more cottage garden version that pair will with pots of herbs and flowers. These are under planted with alyssum and lavender bacopa.

basket of herbs

vintage oval bucket filled with basil

rosemary, variegated lavender, bidens, variegated thyme and alyssum

tomato under planted with gold oregano and thyme

for the love of lavender

a collection of associated vintage and new pots

Chicago figs and yellow petunias

tomatoes and herbs planted in terra cotta long toms.

handled bucket with strawberries, thyme, and white dianthus

Rob planted The Fed  in Clarkston with loads of lavender and herbs last year. He will be doing it again this year. These pots hit all the right notes, don’t they?

Sheared: Part Two

Anyone who chooses to look up topiary plants of distinction on their computer will find no end of articles with pictures of grand gardens featuring breathtaking topiary plants.  Many of them have been cultivated long enough to have acquired shrine status. The size and scale of many of these topiary plants is staggering, never mind the work that is involved in keeping them up. I enjoy seeing them as much as the next person. But I also have great admiration for gardeners who on a more personal scale grow on plants that require a substantial and steady commitment to the maintenance. The single ball boxwood topiaries that are pictured above began as fairly modest plants grown at a farm specializing in boxwood in the Pacific Northwest. My memory is of a head diameter of perhaps 10 or 12 inches. The trunk would have been in the neighborhood of a quarter to a one half inch caliper. When these topiaries arrived, their trunks were secured to bamboo stakes virtually identical in size to the trunk, and as tall as the the stem and head. This is smart staking. The head of a topiary is the most vulnerable to catching the wind, and snapping off. Young topiaries are fragile. If you expect to grow them on, protect every part of them, bottom to the very top. I can’t say exactly how long we wintered these trees for my client, but it may have been 8 years or so.  They summered in pots, and wintered in our unheated garage space. We were taking no chances with winter weather. Did we do the yearly pruning?  No. We farmed that job out to an expert.

These topiary starts of lemon cypress- cupressus macrocarpa Goldcrest “Wilma” will top out at 3 feet or so. Outdoors, in a zone 7 or warmer, Goldcrest can grow to 16′ tall or so. The dwarf version Wilma makes a good house plants, provided they have a really sunny south facing location for at least 4 hours a day over the winter. They like cool temperatures, so wintering them over in a house kept at 72 degrees can be a tough go. Like most cypress, they appreciate evenly moist soil. If you let the rootball dry out, you have lost the plant. It is the juvenile foliage that has the best lime green color, so regular trimming will preserve that color. They appreciate a summer outdoors, but I try for a full sun morning with a little protection from the worst of the afternoon sun. Be advised that each stem you trim will probably turn brown at the cut. But once that branch starts growing again, that cut mark will fade from view. This is a quick look at the care issues with lemon cypress. Should you have the idea to grow them, look up their culture on line, and read.

No topiary in our zone is more challenging to grow than a myrtle. Myrtis communis compacta is an evergreen shrub that is especially genial and tolerant of frequent pruning. What they are not tolerant of is dry soil. During the winter, they need bright light, and even moisture. Myrtle topiaries of the scale and size pictured above requires a passionate and faithful grower. I have not seen myrtle topiaries of this size and scale very often, but I can attest that these clients lavished no end of attention on them.

Certain trees are quite tolerant of close pruning. The carpinus pictured above has been expertly trimmed by a virtuoso with shears. I am quite sure there was a lift involved. They respond enthusiastically to pruning. This sheared shape is close to the natural shape of the tree, meaning the health of the tree is not endangered. A tree is a vast subject for a topiary, but the time between prunings can be fairly long. Linden trees are equally amicable about this kind of pruning. The boxed lindens on the driveway at Detroit Garden Works are pruned every other year at most.

Limelight hydrangeas make gorgeous single ball topiary plants. The loosely spherical head in full flower is quite spectacular.  As hydrangeas are naturally very coarse growing plants, their shape is a study in contradictions. They are informally formal. Our grower trims the hydrangea standards twice a season. Once in late March or early April, and again later in May. This schedule helps to produce a strong network of branches that helps keep the flower heads aloft. Even so, we often tie up the branches with stretch tie, to make sure the framework is strong. The stake is as tall as the very top of the plant.

Italian cypress is not hardy in our zone-how I regret that. But if a client is willing to winter them over in an unheated greenhouse they can provide a dramatic focal point to a container for a number of years. This evergreen is naturally very narrow and conical, so the pruning required to keep them tight is a matter of emphasizing and more clearly defining what is already there.

This young boxwood topiary is delightfully under scaled for its under planting. The boxwood head has not been sheared, but left to its natural devices.  It gives a very traditional landscape form a much more contemporary look.

Yews make good topiary subjects, although they do not respond as well to close shearing. This double ball taxus lived for 4 years in this pot, all year round, before succumbing to a particularly cold winter. A little looser treatment produces a better looking plant. As in green through and through. Drastically sheared yews are common in the landscape, but the development of a topiary form is not a goal. It is a once a year effort to exert control over a plant that may be poorly sited. Improperly sheared yews sporting a thin skin of green, and bare branches and trunks underneath is not a good look. It also contributes to the decline and ill-health of the plant.    Junipers are rough coated evergreens, but they respond surprisingly well to pruning.  They are also happy with a long term home in a large container. They are low maintenance shrubs and trees in general, so they shrug off the shearing.

Westringia fructicosa, commonly known as Victorian rosemary, is a dwarf shrub that responds well to development as a topiary. I rarely see it offered for sale, which is unfortunate. This particular single ball topiary made a beautiful container specimen.

Culinary rosemary, or salvia rosemarinus, is a well known subject for topiary. The clippings smell delicious, and its use as an herb is legendary. This particular unsheared topiary is underplanted with fiber optic grass and strawberries.

specimen single ball rosemary on standard

coleus topiary

double ball eugenia under planted with begonias

double ball boxwood topiary under planted with curly parsley

variegated Algerian ivy topiary

unsheared double ball rosemary under planted with lettuce and pansies-perfect for a spring container planting.

Shear Pleasure: Topiary

 

Gardeners have been pruning plants just as long as they have been growing them. It isn’t too hard to figure out why. A broken tree limb or dead cane on a rose needs to be cut off, as dead branches are just plain unsightly. A wild hair of a shrub branch hanging over the walk can and should be trimmed out of the way. The branches of lilacs, roses, hydrangeas and other woody plants that cross over one another have the potential to damage one another. Every branch of every plant moves, given the natural flow of air. Bark that gets worn down to bare wood endangers the health of that branch. Healthy shrubs, meaning properly pruned shrubs, have a branch structure that permits the free flow of air and light. Sometimes a little intervention helps to encourage healthy growth. I am sure you have noticed, that in the wild, there is as much dead as there is living going on. Some branches can be infected by disease. Removing that diseased portion helps to insure the health of the rest of the plant. Some plants eventually grow in to each other’s space. Some pruning can be best described as refereeing.

Lilacs are woody shrubs that greatly benefit from a pruning overhaul. Removing the 3 largest branches at the ground level every few years of a mature and sizeable lilac keeps the plant youthful. This is a shrub that greatly benefits from a turning the old growth over. New branches that sprout from the ground level will grow fast, and bloom profusely. Old branches become leggy, woody, and tall, and produce few blooms. Old unpruned lilacs are notable for their abundance of dead branches, thick woody growth, and pitifully small and sparse blooms 15 feet or more above ground. Regularly pruned lilacs are more compact, and bloom heavily. Great looking lilacs require regular pruning. Once a year to shape and rejuvenate. And a second time to remove the dead flower heads. Other shrubs, notably oakleaf hydrangeas, do remarkably well with no intervention whatsoever. I have a single shrub almost 25 years old that I have never touched with a pair of pruners. It is lovely, and blooms well every year. Some plants decline with pruning. I would not prune an American dogwood except to remove a dead branch. Excessive pruning on maple trees expose ordinarily shaded branches and trunks to the glare of the sun, resulting in scald.

To prune or not to prune, and how to properly prune for health and well being, is a topic with considerable coverage on line.  Any gardener wanting a consultation on pruning practices for any given plant can find numerous articles available to read. General articles about pruning are invariably too general. Not all plants respond well to generic pruning. This seems obvious to me, but apparently not to all. A good look at any landscape where every shrub cultivar is pruned to the same shape and size will tell that sorry story. The human hand armed with hedge trimmers set to a one size fits all is not about gardening. This is about a spring housekeeping chore executed by an unwilling and irritated housekeeper. A once a year housekeeper, mind you. The results are visually embarrassing, and can endanger the plant. That said, gardeners have been pollarding trees and coppicing shrubs for centuries. Every story has at least two sides, does it not? Once you have read about how to prune a plant for health and well being, decide what you believe. Or sign up for what appeals to you. Or follow a plan that seems most logical and sensible. As a first and a last resort, adapt what seems in keeping with your style of gardening, and wade in. Plants are remarkably resilient. I have seem them recover and flourish in spite of very heavy handed and misguided pruning.

This is by way of saying that no one needs my opinion about how to prune. My pruning practices are the result of decades of experience. By this I mean, trial and error. It is not a bad way to learn. Plants are incredibly tolerant of almost everything you have to dish out. My pruning practices work for me-and not necessarily others. A gardening friend of mine cuts her spireas and other fast growing deciduous shrubs to the ground in the spring-so they don’t get out of hand and grow too tall. I am sure no pruning article would recommend this, but it works for her. If you have a mind to try this, prepare ahead for a look you might not like. There’s always next season. Or try it by a half. Or try it with one plant. I have pruned hydrangeas by 2/3rds and  by 1/2. I have left them unpruned. I have given them shag haircuts. They still perform beautifully. As if they were unaware that I had done anything.  If they are woody and leggy, I prune some branches harder than others, to encourage some green sprouts at the base. This year, I have not touched them. I prune based on what I am in the mood for.

If you like to prune for the shear joy of pruning, then topiary plants are a perfect plant. Topiary is the art of pruning plants into various geometric shapes. Some plants take well to regular shearing, and respond to training better than others. The myrtle topiaries in the pictures above are woody shrubs. They are not hardy in my zone. A summer outdoors in a fairly sunny place can be followed by a winter indoors in a spot with decent light.  Training them to grow into a a single trunk takes a bit of skilled work, and a good bit of time. Rob buys plants already trained into topiary forms every spring. Taking over the care of an existing topiary is infinitely easier than starting from scratch. They are irresistibly delicious to any person of a gardening bent. That said, no myrtle topiary will tolerate going dry. Do not buy them if you are not a watering sort.

Lemon cypress is a very large vertically growing evergreen tree that is very tolerant of pruning. They make great topiary plants at a young age. Shear away. I had a pair that I shifted up into larger pots every year for 5 years. At that point, I had to let them go. I had no winter storage that could handle them at 5 feet tall, and 2′ wide. But the five years I had them was a relationship I treasured. I learned how to clip each branch individually. The time I spent clipping was relaxing and absorbing. It was a challenge to clip evenly to a finished and beautiful shape. I most certainly would grow them outdoors if I could, and I would prune them on a larger scale.

All of Rob’s topiaries are in a fairly shaggy state right now. I like this state of a topiary best of all-the anticipation of the haircut to come. I have been known to study a topiary for a week before I break out the shears. I see gardeners do this all the time. Their boxwood spheres and cones, their juniper spirals, their Christmas trees, their lantanas,  their lindens and their hornbeams – the pruning is an event.  Topiaries do demand regular pruning. They demand all of what you have available to give them. That is part of their charm.

Rosemary makes for an ideal topiary. They take well to pruning. The clippings can be added to the cooking du jour. The smell of the cut stems is strong; piney and divine. The oil from the stems perfume both the hands and the shears. The fragrance of rosemary is treasured by gardeners.

Lavender is marginally perennial in our zone, provided a long list of requirements are met. I have planted countless numbers of them, most of which perished within a few years. Lavender topiary in pots provide a way to enjoy lavender without all of the pitfalls that come with an in ground planting. Like rosemary, the cut stems perfume the air all around it. The flowers are modest in size and color, but a lavender in full bloom is glorious. A lavender topiary in full bloom is a cause for celebration. Likewise, a beautiful topiary plant. Beautifully grown and trimmed topiaries are strong evidence of the gardening hand. How I admire the work and dedication that goes in to them.

If you haven’t yet, try one. If you do grow topiaries, bravo.

 

 

Some Thoughts About Design

Late in December of 2012, we were gearing up to install the winter pots and lighting at Detroit Garden Works. Central to that display were 6 tall narrow concrete pots that had been fabricated at Branch. They were the devil to address, no matter the season. How so? Despite their height and heft, the top opening was a paltry 11″ by 11″. Barely enough space there to say hello, much less make a statement. Making a statement in the landscape involves a grasp of scale and proportion. This is a way of saying that every gesture you make will read better if it is generous enough to hold its own in a natural environment. Tomato cages had prongs only 9″ apart-they would easily fit down into the pots. 100 stems of copper curly willow were zip tied in 2 places to each form. When you compare the volume and square footage of twigs at the tip top to the space occupied by the prongs at the bottom, it is easy to see how something of great scale can be fashioned from an opportunity created by a tool, device or armature. Absent a tomato cage, some bamboo stakes or stout branches held in position with wire could accomplish the same thing. Absent a stash of copper curly willow, pruning debris, or the skeletal remains of weeds in the field could create the same shape. The human species is one of very few that comes standard issue with the ability to make and use tools. And the gift for improvisation.      Nature is an awe inspiring and implacable force.  As is, on a smaller but surprisingly determined scale, the evidence of the human hand. That intense interaction between forces over the the landscape and garden has held my interest for a half century. That time seems short to me, for as much as the laws of nature continually and unpredictably assert themselves, a landscape and garden continually presents a fresh opportunity to respond and interact with the out of doors. Some interaction is characterized by defiance, as Henry Mitchell so famously once said. Other relationships forged over design are marked by surprise, discovery, or dismay. Add a dash of regret and a sprinkling of wrong thinking – you get the idea. Such is my anecdotal evidence that a landscape imagined and created by design can be a very long and satisfying affair.

I was hardly prepared for the outcome of the willow stacks, once they were placed. The thick glossy and architectural willow stems en masse were cloud like from even a short distance away. The repetition of the pots visually strengthened and clarified the the idea. The blue gray skies made that orange colored willow all the more vibrant. In no way did that color blend in with or repeat an existing color. It was a dramatically contrasting element. The verticality of the willow was in opposition to the long lengths of boxwood. The willow soared over a largely horizontal landscape. All this from some willow zip tied to a tomato cage. The success or sleepiness of any designed element in a landscape is revealed the moment it is put in place. It is simple to see what reads well once nature has had a chance to work on it. It is very hard to anticipate what will work in advance. Designers do drawings and make models, but the longer I design the more I am convinced that drawings are most useful for the parameters they set, and what they suggest. Drawings are certainly of use In this case, I made a decision about how to handle the pots, and was prepared to revise and adjust, once they were placed.

By landscape elements, I mean plants of every description size and habit, water, hard surfaces, structures, pots, ornament and sculpture. It is difficult to place some of these elements and then revise. How painful to move a walkway, or increase the size of a terrace. No one ever promised that a successfully designed landscape and garden would be easy or formulaic. But a willingness to revise the design of a landscape indicates great respect for the point of view exerted by natural world. Be advised that nature will have eventually have a say in it all. Design as you will, plant and place – the critique from nature will follow shortly. That critique will be dispassionate, and likely maddening. Relishing that interaction will make every gardener a better designer. And every designer a better gardener.

Light is essential to life. Landscape design mindful of lighting conditions for plants and for people is good landscape design. Every gardener in my zone is aware of how the short gray sunless days reiterates that the garden has gone dormant. I would rather design my way around that situation rather than go dormant.  Good design directly addresses as many scenarios as possible. Even the dark daunting days.  Nature always suggests how I could better accomplish that by looking over the work. A landscape lighting design for the winter landscape is design fueled by need. Nature obligingly provides the dark days. A good designer is willing to take that cue, and shine. Lighting by design makes every landscape engage the dark in a way that is friendly to people.

I have been designing and installing a winter garden for Detroit Garden Works for the past 15 years. Every year is different. But no matter the specifics, I know that garden has to withstand the worst of what nature has to dish out. The wind, cold and snow can blow away all and everything that is not secure. Any landscape element needs to be constructed with strength and longevity in mind. Make to last.

Once the wind quits blowing, the effect of the snow dust on the willow is enchanting. Since the weather makes itself known in a different way each and every day, landscape design which showcases that unique natural phenomenon produces a landscape that is revitalized daily. Well, sometimes vitality. Sometimes mortality. The same result can be had by placing plants in conditions in which they thrive. Nature will be in charge of how plants prosper, or fail. These cut natural materials cut nature out of a portion of the winter relationship. I will not need to worry about how the twigs and greens will prosper and grow. The winter seasonal display is  a rare opportunity for a designer to express themselves freely. Nature provides the frosting.

It is not as if anyone could fault the winter landscape at the shop without the pots and lights. It would be equally dour and dormant as all else within view. But the landscape, pots, lights, gray skies and snow from 2012 tells a story. A story I am happy to tell again.

Fire and ice

winter landscape lighting

winter’s night

Why am I blathering on about design at such length?  Because it is January. I have time to. You do too.