The Summer Container Plantings

The demand for landscape design and installation has been one after the other this spring.  I am sure you can tell, given how few and far between my posts have been of late. Our persistently chilly weather has given way to some gardening friendly weather. Suddenly, the summer container planting season is here, and my board is chock full of projects that will need doing beautifully, and with dispatch. The summer plantings begin later in May, and finish up in late June.  Late June? The spring plantings are just beginning to come in to their own now. Clients with spring plantings are not in a rush to plant seasonal tropicals. Given that tropical plants dislike cold temperatures, and hate cold soil, a spring planting can stave off that urge to plant summer containers too early.
Of special interest to me is the unique role played by containers in the landscape. No news here,should you be familiar with Detroit Garden Works. For 23 years now, the shop has been a premier source for great ornament for the garden.  I am happy to say that our reputation in recent years has become a a national phenomenon. Jackie deals with clients all over the country, and manages a steady stream of shipments going out. The shop website is good, and easy to navigate. Jenny keeps it fresh and lively.

Of course the lion’s share of our focus is on containers of every conceivable period and style. Vintage dolly tubs and new locust wood casks belted with galvanized steel rub elbows with a select collection of European and American antique urns. Of course the choice of a container is a significant factor in container planting. It is as much an important part of the container arrangement as the plants. That empty container represents the opportunity to throw a party in celebration of summer. The limited square footage imposed by the edges of a container means the design idea has to be simple. And it has to be visually strong.The plants need to be companionable, or at least tolerant of one another. Container plantings at war with nature make me uneasy. Given the almost limitless number of plants that can thrive in a container, it would take several gardening lifetimes to even make a dent in all of the possibilities.

A container planting matures in but a few months. What a pleasure to be able to watch that process. Mercifully, it all comes to an end with a hard frost. One can abandon a scheme that disappointed. Or explore a new idea come the new season. A collection of containers is a visual diary of what is on a gardener’s mind at that moment. A landscape and garden involves a long term commitment. There is strategy and planning involved. Decisions that are made one year are not so easy to change years later. An old tree that succumbs to an illness or bugs can make for chaos in the garden below. Growing a landscape on can feel like a full time job. The blooming of the double bloodroot, dogwoods, lilacs and peonies are ephemeral, but the gardener gets to enjoy them year after year, barring a disaster. A collection of containers set within that landscape keeps the garden dialogue fresh and interesting.

Containers do not need to be large to be good. I still like this planting, 10 years after the fact. I like the color of the gold marjoram complements the color of the glaze. The lavender star trailing verbena is a lively contrast to the yellow petunias.  The overall shape is relaxed, and proportional to the container.  Small containers ask for small growing plants.

Hot sunny places are the perfect location for seasonal plants. The profuse bloom on these petunias and mandevillea speaks to those conditions. Seasonal tropical plants are a way to have flowers every day all season long. The plastic liner in this wicker basket helps to keep the wicker from deteriorating from constant exposure to moisture. And that plastic means a basket this size will not require watering every day in the heat of the summer.

Double white petunias are leggy, and those legs are not so attractive. Pairing them with euphorbia Diamond Frost disguises that unfortunate trait, and holds up those heavy double flower heads. The datura  provides a contrasting texture both in leaf and flower.

This wooden trough features a large collection of different plants, all arranged in a very informal way.  Insouciant in feeling, this.

Any container planting can be endowed with a contemporary feeling-the design plays a major role in that.

Lush and lavish by summer’s end speaks to months of consistent maintenance. For those whose life means picking up a hose comes last, an irrigation contractor can install watering lines that can buy you some time. If the need for low maintenance is a deterrent to planting, many tropical plants don’t need dead heading, staking or frequent water. A clear understanding of what kind of gardener you are can inform the plant selection process. The big idea is to enjoy the process as much as the results.

 

I planted trees, shrubs and perennials in my own pots last year. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that. What will I do this year? I do not have a clue, yet.

The 2019 Tulips

A few days ago I drove to Metamora to see a client. For those of you not in my area, it took over an hour and a half to make the trip out and back. I only saw tulips blooming in one place that entire trip.  A group of 30 or so bright peach tulips outside a business were easy to spot, even though I was driving 55mph. They looked glorious.  Nearer to my client’s property, miles on a country gravel roads, I saw nary a one. How disappointing, given that we are coming up on peak tulip season. There are so many species and groups from which to choose. A smattering of every class of tulip could keep a gardener in tulips for 6 weeks or better. But planting tulips has been in decline in our area for quite some time.

I am sympathetic to gardeners who are having to deal with exploding populations of deer. They are incredibly destructive to landscapes and gardens alike. They can mow down an emerging collection of tulips in no time at all. Once the flower bud has been eaten off, that is it. No secondary bloom stalk and bud will replace the first. To see them destroyed is frustrating. It will be a year before there is an opportunity for a second chance.  I would guess that declining tulip planting is in direct proportion to increasing deer populations. We have them at the shop, even though we are in an urban area. The vacant field next door is hardly what I would call a friendly habitat for deer.

We do drench the young tulips from the time they break ground with Deer Scram or Liquid Fence.  We have a number of deer repellent sprays, and we alternate them. We also fortify the perimeter of the bed with Plant Skydd. I find that deer repellents work, as long as we are possessed with applying it often and consistently. Of course this is a nuisance and an expense – but less so than the prospect of no tulips. Every tulip that came up is either in bloom, or about to bloom.

The first year following a fall planting of tulips is always the best. We plant number one grade bulbs that have been patiently grown on to that size by growers in Holland. A number one grade bulb results in a number one grade flower. A tulip bulb will divide itself after the first year. A smaller grade bulb produces smaller flowers, and in many cases, no flowers at all. So yes, a planting of tulips is not a forever planting, unless you limit your choice to the early flowering species tulips that are known for their persistence. If you should decide to defy nature, and provide optimum conditions for a repeat bloom the following spring, the foliage must be left intact until it completely matures. This can take a month or more. The process of photosynthesis enables the bulb to store food for next year’s flowers.

The length of flowering has everything to do with the weather. A warm spring means a brief flowering period. A long cool spring means the flowers will last longer. This is true for every spring flowering bulb or ephemeral. Unlike the crocus, or the double bloodroot, who have been known to bloom and drop their petals over the course of one day, there will be that moment when the tulip flowers are perfectly glorious. That moment of great beauty is not much different in duration than the lilacs, peonies, redbuds, dogwoods and magnolias-brief, but so sweet.

Tulips come in a wide range of colors.  Just about every color, with the exception of blue. Gardeners in my zone who value blue is the spring have to content themselves with forget me nots, brunnera, lobelia, nigella and delphinium, among others. Choosing a collection of colors and succession of bloom can be a lengthy process, as there are so many possibilities. The flowers are large and striking, to say the least. This means they may not play well with other plants whose flowers are not so large or spectacularly showy. They can be tiresome in their demand for attention. In much the same way as peonies, delphiniums, lilies, hibiscus-you get the drift.

I have tried to dispassionately cover all of the reasons why not to plant tulips, but I would not dream of not having them myself. From the time they emerge from the newly thawed soil to the bloom a month later, their rapid growth is an enchanting process to watch. The leaves are beautiful in volume and form. Newly opened tulip flowers grow larger with every passing day. They brave the wind, cold temperatures and the occasional spring snow with aplomb. Even the tallest varieties stand upright without assistance. They make terrific and long lasting cut flowers, given a cool spot indoors. The variations in flower and leaf form, height, color and bloom time make them one of the most versatile of all spring flowering plants.

I plant a collection of tulips at the shop every year. This moment has been many months in coming, and is so welcome after a long drab winter.  A lot of pictures get taken. Parents photograph their children with them in the background, and friends who come to shop do the same. I never see anyone walk by them without taking a good look.

The bloom is just about at it peak moment, should you be inclined to take a look. As for the trouble it takes to get to this moment, none of that interferes with the experience. Did I mention that fresh spring fragrance?

stunning, this.

 

 

The Big House

A Michigan spring is a big fluid situation. We have cold days and cold nights. We have hot days and freezing nights. Every day is a new weather drama, with a new cast of characters. We have a glass roof over one room inside Detroit Garden Works. Once we start buying in seasonal and tropical plants, it feels like a little house. During those cold spells, we jam no end of cold intolerant plants under that glass roof, to keep them happy. For years we have moved seasonal plants in and out of our garage, given the night time temperature forecast. That in and out is a a huge chore. So late last winter we made arrangements to purchase a big house for our plants.  A 60′ long by 30′ wide gothic styled house that would put all of our seasonal plants under cover. The house got delivered on a flatbed truck.  Seeing the boxes and pieces on the ground made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This is a greenhouse?

Of course I asked Buck to take the lead. He was reluctant to take on the big house, but he did. The worst part of getting it aloft was the fact that we could not dig into the ground to set the posts. I suspect this part of our property was formerly a road bed. It was full of asphalt, big rocks, and giant pieces of concrete. It took a week, 4 people, and a jackhammer to dig all of the holes for the posts. The landscape crew took on that thankless job, day after day. The Branch crew saw to setting every post in concrete in a perfectly vertical position. This may sound easy, but it is not. I have never seen so many levels and so many measuring tapes in one place in my life.

Once the posts were set, we were ready to set the ribs aloft. We had willow branches in the way that had to be cut, and a lots of work to be done in the airspace. The willow that had to be pruned back provided material for a tool the Branch fabricators needed. I will say this tool took my breath away. I like simple solutions.


One person on the ground held the rib in the proper position with the willow tool, so the person on the ladder could bolt the support bars in place. The greenhouse came with directions that were very unclear. Given that this was Branch’s first greenhouse, they proceeded cautiously. But once the ribs were set, the structure was rock solid.

I had no idea how a 2000 square foot piece of 6 mil plastic would go over the house, and be secured, but it turned out to be fairly simple.  We had to wait for a windless day, with no rain. Apparently wet plastic is very difficult to slide over the ribs.  After laying out the plastic next to the house, ropes were secured to the edge of the plastic with the help of small rocks. Rocks? The plastic was bunched up over a rock, much like the paper wrapper over a tootsie roll pop, and then secured with rope. Of course it is done this way. The plastic would slip through a loop of rope, no matter how tight it was tied. The rock secured the plastic to the rope. This is how greenhouse people do it. Ingenious.
Each rope was thrown over the top of the house, and handed off to a person on the other side.

8 rope pullers and two wrinkle reliever people made quick work of getting this giant piece of plastic over the top. The plastic keeps heat in the house, and wind, rain, hail and other weather events off the plants.

Once the plastic was in place, it was secured on both sides in a channel with a locking cap that runs the entire length of the house. This was a very cold day. Instantly it seemed warmer inside the house than out. Seasonal plants hail from tropical climates.  They dislike cold temperatures, and cold soil even more. In mid May, the best place for annual plants is under cover.  Planted out in our cold soil too soon, they sit there. Inside, they grow.

The short ends of the house are rigid polycarbonate panels. We will install the polycarbonate sliding doors later.  Right now, the house is open to promote good air circulation, and to permit carts to come and go.

The final layer over top of the house is a shade cloth. It blocks 40 percent of the sun coming through the plastic.  This will keep the house much cooler when the weather gets hot.  This means less stress to the plants that are in small pots. And a more comfortable place for people to look at plants. The long sides have separate plastic panels that roll up, so when its warm, some of the heat is able to escape.

We are by no means a business specializing in seasonal plants. Nor are we a nursery specializing in trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers for the landscape. We specialize in pots, tools, ornament, sculptures, fountains, furniture and interesting objects for gardens.  Rob sees to making the Works a place friendly and engaging to those people who garden. And those people for whom the beauty of a garden is a way of life. Those objects around which a garden or landscape can be organized is just a part of the equation. Of course we treasure the plants, especially plants that can be grown in containers.

 

It seems fitting and reasonable to have a plant house. What I had not planned on was how much I would enjoy it. Thank you Branch for putting up a big house.

 

 

The Amaryllis Crop

February in a northern garden designer’s life ought to be snoozy. 25 years ago, my landscape design work finished up in mid November, and did not resume until the snow and cold looked to be waning the following March. I can’t remember what I did with those winters now, so it couldn’t have been much. How fun, to not have much to do. Oh to have those quiet winter baby days back. Now there are requests for design year round. Some late 2017 projects are inching slowly towards the drawing board now, as I reserve the right to indulge in a little bit of horsing around. Even though the engine is running, the parking brake is on.

It takes an entire winter to re imagine Detroit Garden Works for the season to come. That process is still in process. If you follow Rob’s instagram page DetroitGarden you know the walls, fixtures and floors in the largest part of the store are swathed in painter’s plastic. Wayne is here spray painting the ceilings, a job that was last done in 1995. Yes, they were due. Moving everything our of those rooms, dusting and scraping the loose paint, and repainting all of the shelves and trim took most of January. Two containers from overseas have arrived. A container from France should be docking in NY shortly, and two more will arrive from Belgium and Vietnam towards the end of the month. The shop is due to reopen March 1. February is a busy time, ready  or not. Most annoyingly, part of my winter has involved some involuntary babysitting. If you read this journal regularly, you know I am not a fan of plants in the house. I love having a plant free season. Like most houses, I have a house which is notable for a lack of natural light in the winter. My house is dark (by plant standards), hot and the air is dry- an environment that plants don’t want. Well I don’t want them either. The bugs and dirt don’t bother me. Nor the fact that tropical plants hardly look like they belong inside a house in Michigan. I could live with those things. The fact that they need regular care and attention leaves me cold. Enough of my time gets absorbed by the needs of the plants for a good portion of the year. I like the time off from that group of living things that have no problem dying on you despite a huge effort to keep them happy and healthy. The phalaenopsis orchids pictured above are a gift scheduled to be delivered the end of the week. That I can live with, as the end of my responsibility for them is near. After having them for one day, a new bud is withering.  I can’t get rid of them fast enough.

The amaryllis are another story. Rob sells scads of them in the shop at the holidays. Invariably, there are a few left over. Some bare root bulbs I gave away to good customers when no one was watching. I knew anything left over would come to me, as my office is warm. Karen potted up and watered them liberally, and moved them to the utility room near my office. Then she went on break. There they sat. I have a little frig for my milk and a spot for cereal, so every morning making breakfast I had to look at them. Not one was making any move to come on. Not one was looking like it was shriveling or dying. They were in a state of suspended animation.

After three weeks of scowling at them every time I walked in that room, I looked up their culture on line.  I did not read anything that I did not already know. Popular lore suggests that after potting and watering, the bulb so be left alone until it puts forth growth, either in the form of flowers or leaves. By mid January these bulbs had been watered only once in the 6 months since they arrived. Another article (which of course I cannot find now) suggested that watering the bulbs normally, but sparingly in advance of any growth was fine.

Tired of looking at their expectant bulb faces, I had a decision to make. I had to either throw them away, or see if I could get them to grow. I knew I would feel guilty, and face ridicule from Rob if I didn’t try to grow them on. So I soaked the pots thoroughly, and moved them to an all plastic Rubbermaid tabouret in my drawing studio. The tabouret has tall sides, so I could slosh the water and dirt around with impunity. The industrial windows are 6 feet tall, and face south. At least if we had no sun, there was still plenty of light. The tabouret also has wheels, so I could move them away from the windows when the temperatures dropped into the single digits.

You see what was happening here? My carefree February became an obsession to get those bulbs to break dormancy, grow and bloom. I  scrutinized them every day. I had to come in on Sunday to be sure they didn’t need anything. I was certain that the bulbs that had been potted in non-draining jardinieres would rot if I wasn’t especially careful with the water. And the one’s planted to larger fiber pots would come blind from having been over potted. None of this happened. One by one, they began to grow. One bulb threw a pair of stalks at once, and is in full bloom on my conference table right now.  I have to admit The big showy white flowers are a welcome contrast to that other kind of white blanketing the entire landscape.

One hapless bulb had been left behind by shoppers as it one bloom stalk withered and rotted from the cold in the greenhouse. So I cut it back, and watched to see if another bloom stalk would emerge. After sulking for a few weeks, I could tell something was afoot. It is February, so I had time to turn the flowering stalks leaning towards the light away from the window.

My amaryllis crop, which I never sought or wanted, had me in its grip. The attention it took had expanded to an alarming amount of time. I was going in there 4 times a day just to look things over.

The second bulb to bloom had red flowers – not my favorite. So I took it in to Dave and Heather so they could enjoy it. Now I have 3 stops to make every day, checking on the amaryllis. And to make matters that much worse, I have made a list of suppliers of unusual amaryllis bulbs and the varieties I like available to Rob, as well as a source of heat mats so we can provide them with the heat they want and need to come on. And finally, the time it took to take pictures and write this post-hours more.

Now you know why I do not like having plants in the house.