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.

Spring, Detroit Garden Works Style

Rob decides when we will have spring. Ha. He knows just like every other gardener that the arrival of spring is attended by many false starts and deceptive signs. And at just that moment when you feel you might black out from the last of the miserable weather, nature switches on the light. But when you have a shop devoted to fine, entertaining, antique, vintage, contemporary and irresistible ornament for the gardening season to come, you do what makes sense. You pick a date, and be ready.  We go on hiatus mid January to fix up, repaint and restyle. March 1 is our first day of spring. Containers from Europe jostle their way in between a steady stream of freight shipments from all over the US. The spring collection takes weeks to display. Rarely do we dot the last i and cross the last t in time, but we are ready for company.
Nature takes her own sweet time deciding when to finally pull the plug on winter. Nature is the queen of false starts. The change of the season-a big fluid situation.  Every gardener I know stays tuned in to that station. We are having bitterly and unseasonably cold temperatures this week. But Rob says spring is here, and we believe him. Not to mention all of our clients that have braved the cold to come in anyway, and shop.  We have a greenhouse chock full of gorgeously grown hellebores in bloom. David and Karen took a trip south in February to load up plants from a number of growers. They are perfectly happy in flower in our greenhouse at 50 degrees. Their blooms are a sure sign that early spring is nigh. They handle the cold and blustery March and April weather with aplomb. Until it is safe to plant outdoors, they are perfectly happy on a sunny window sill.

A room full of hellebores does more for the winter weary spirit than anything we can think of. So our spring opening is marked by the coming of the hellebores. But a look at Rob’s spring collection is a close second. As I have been arranging what he has purchased for weeks, I know what is there. The best part of this work is watching someone see it for the first time. For those that read my essays that are too far away to experience our spring collection, I took pictures.

The dovecotes and bird houses are English made in a classical English style, and are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

The skylight environment is home to plenty of pots that Rob has planted up featuring hellebores, cyclamen, primula denticulata and obconica, and the Barnhaven series of double primrose.

A new collection of lead sculpture and fountains and English stone spheres are kept company with a group of classical urns in stone and iron.

Three English handmade and hand painted pears would be terrific on a covered porch. Iron urns stuffed with faux grasses are destined for spring pots.

I did have to spring for a vase chock full of ranunculus for our opening.  How so?  Hellebores are a member of the family ranunculaceae .

White tulips seemed appropriate for a room that features more contemporary garden ornament.

This stack of stainless steel drawers is just waiting for that gardener who has a mind to make them a feature of a contemporary garden. The very large pots are vintage fiberglass. The swallows welded to a 1/4″ thick steel rod come in a five foot, and 11 foot length. Birds on a wire. They are fabricated in France, and come with the mounting hardware.

We paired round mirrors with garlands comprised of heavy duty fish line and stainless steel spheres. The chartreuse faux grass is a welcome punch of spring color.

The French company Perigot is known for their iconic buckets. These buckets, available in three sizes, are perfect for a wide range of uses, but I am most fond of the shape, and that beautiful chrome surface. It was a project, hanging them from our ceiling.  They are so heavy that we had to thread concrete wire through galvanized pipe to provide a hanging mechanism that would not bow from the weight. The Belgian made teak tables come in four sizes. The zinc framed mirror is a very strong design, and is well made to a fault.

Vintage zinc grape gathering baskets are a favorite of Rob’s.  We have a beautiful collection of them on hand. The smallest of the Perigot buckets look great stuffed with faux grasses. The miniature white painted metal butterflies only require a small nail to hang.

These wood presentation trays are a perennial favorite with our clients.  Fashioned from vintage French wine barrel tops and hand forged iron handles by a company in the US, they speak to the idea of the garden as a place to entertain.  Our better than life size vintage fiberglass cow came with a name.  Rob named her Lucy, after a French dealer who was not so interested in letting her go. Rob’s first clue? She was situated in a thriving bed of stinging nettles. How he persuaded Lucy to part with this incredible sculpture is beyond me.  How Lucy and her husband got her out of the nettles is unknown to me too.

But we are very happy to have her.  This is an example of an ornament for the garden that is eminently capable of organizing an entire landscape around her watchful eye. Lucy has an aura. I did fill a collection of spherical vases whose spouts are set on an angle with white stock. Lucy had a fragrant meadow at her feet for our opening.

Vintage English chimney pots and milk buckets have beautiful shapes and surfaces.

Big baskets woven from thick rattan have a great texture, size, and presence.

Pardon this poor picture! Serviceable English made bootscrapers are a contrast in form to the hedgehog bootscrapers. Both are made by the same company. If dirty boots are a way of life for you, we have choices.

Danish designed pots made in Italy-these are beautiful. The creamy peach color of the clay is beautiful.

This is just part of Rob’s collection from his shop fest in England. The vintage bootscraper with a stout stone base and rusted iron scraping mechanism-a one of a kind.

These locust wood casks are made in Belgium. They come in four sizes.  Impervious to weather or rot from water, they invite any gardener to plant away. For now they are home to a collection of English made iron garden stakes in various sizes set with glass globes at the top. I predict we will not have these for long.

The orange table and chairs are manufactured in Portugal.

Though the winter weather still has all of us in its grip, there is a taste of spring available at the shop.

cut pussy willow stems for spring pots

strikingly beautiful and tall fan willow

Yes, the spring branches have snow at the base of their pots. They are weathering this late winter blast as I expected. They shrug it off. We can too.

At A Glance: The Library

My last post about the restoration of the paper mache cherubs included the above picture.  The cherubs aside, I had a number of comments about my library, and requests for more information about it.  As the last time I wrote about it was in 2009, I think it is fine to address it again. I have loved books my entire life. My Mom saw to that. The gardening books I bought in my twenties were focused on the horticulture of perennial plants. The library in my thirties expanded into woody plants and shrubs. I have a well worn copy of Michael Dirr’s book “The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants”. I am quite sure I read it cover to cover multiple times. And I still use it as a reference. Landscape design drove my book purchases in my forties, and in my fifties.  I collected books about landscape design, both historic and contemporary, in countries other than my own. The additions to my library from my sixties are dominated by monographs of specific landscape designers whom I admire. Don’t get me started on the names of those designers. It would be a written wave.

But that is what a library provides. Volumes of the printed word and photographs that can answer questions, inform planting schemes and teach good horticultural practices. They tell the story of the history of the garden, and their designers. Books are a window into history, and the work of others. My library informs my practice, but better yet, it informs my life. Landscape and garden design is my profession, and my clients have the right to expect that I have a well rounded education. I find that what I read informs my work. A good garden book is a busman’s holiday for me. I make a point of researching and buying new books every year. Reading the printed page is an absorbing and compelling activity I would not do without.  Yes, I have read all of the books in my library. Some several times over. Ursula Buchan’s book “The English Garden” I have read at least 4 times.  She is a great writer.

I have arranged my library as follows. All of my books are organized by topic. The very top shelf is populated by garden reference books. I have been gardening long enough to not need those books so often. But a ladder can get me to any volume I want to consult. I go up there more often than you would think. That said, I do use the internet to research horticultural topics. That was a source that was not available to me when I I first started collecting books. I can say that a good many articles on line are poorly thought out and barely skim the surface.  I like my books.

All of my books are organized by topic. The plant reference books are at the top of the bookshelf. Other reference books? Stone in the landscape.  Brick in the landscape-and so on.   I have other sections organized around gardens and landscapes by country.  Pictured above, a slice of my books on Italian gardens.  That section includes books referencing medieval Italian gardens, villa gardens, historic gardens-and contemporary Italian gardens.

The French section is wide. For obvious reasons. French landscape design, from formal French gardens to French country gardens is a force to be reckoned with.

The English landscape design section is long enough to acknowledge it is an important precursor to American landscape design.  Jenny Blom’s book “The Thoughtful Gardener” is outstanding.

I do have a shelf section devoted to design with a particular point of view.

A run of shelf space for American gardens and landscape designers-of course.

This lower self is as much about botany as it is about nature photography.

A library is a good place to spend time. All of those pages can inform a life. Can you tell I love my library? Of course I do. Read on about the value of a library, if you wish. February is a gardener’s reading month. Yes?     A library    

A Few Thoughts On Turning 68

June 15th was my 68th birthday. I had never intended or planned to be 68, but there it was, and here it is. I will admit the idea and the reality of it stung some. Turns out I did not have to go that milestone alone. Rob and I have worked together 26 years, meaning he knows me fairly well. He knew I was coming up on a moment threatening to pitch me into the weeds. His idea was to counter that with peonies. Lots of them. He has good instincts. It is no secret that I have a big love for peonies. In the early 1990’s, when we first started working together, I had rows and rows of peonies lined out like crops in a big block in one big section of my 5 acres. I would guess I had peonies numbering in the hundreds of plants. Divine, this. Every year, buffalo grass came up between the peonies. Did I plan for that grass?  No. Those peonies and that unexpected gorgeous grass was an unforgettable experience. The day before my birthday, bucket loads of peonies and cut branches of mock orange were delivered to the store. I was flooded with good memories.

Rob arranged and set the bouquet pictured above on my conference table.  A 68th birthday was beginning to look a little better. I am just as enamored of peonies now as I was 45 years ago. Happily, some things in a gardening life stay the course. It is good to know that despite the years that have gone by, my interest in plants is as strong as ever. And the interest in certain plants is a flame that still burns bright. I have no peonies in the landscape and garden at home that I have tended for the past 20 some years. But I have planted lots of them for clients. I am satisfied that I have done some small part to keep peonies a part of the landscape.

I have been a gardener for 45 years. I have been a landscape and garden designer for near as long. So what would I have to say after all these years in the profession, at the age of 68?  Every experience is an opportunity to add to your knowledge and understanding. Take that opportunity, and hold it close. Trust your own instincts. How you garden does not have to work for anyone else but you. If you design for yourself, indulge your eye and your inclinations. If you garden for others, be sure you represent your client a little more than you represent yourself.

Failure in the garden and landscape can be a good friend, truly. Fear of failure is mostly about fear. Failure is an emotionally charged word for what ought to be called plan B. The A plan is not necessarily the best plan. I have seen some E plans that were quite impressive. E plans are A plans that have been rethought, reconsidered, reworked, polished, and tuned up. Your E plans might be good, should you give them a chance. Every gardener matures, and evolves. Evolution is a process that can inform every gardening effort, if you let it. Give the eye that God gave you a chance to be.

Under no circumstances do I believe that the ability to generate great design is a gift. Great designing is the outcome of the mix of hard work, experience, imagination and nerve. Every person comes with a lot of things, standard issue. A confident and coherent voice surely comes with a person hood, though it may take some time to mature. That voice of yours just needs a free rein and some nurturing.  I do subscribe to certain gardening and design practices, as they work for me. What works for me is no more and no less than just that. Every gardener needs to discover what works for them, and proceed accordingly.  No doubt the best part of tending a garden is that there is the opportunity to team up with nature and make something grow. We all do that differently.

I know the cultivar names, history and growth particulars about all of these peonies. Rob knew that would be so. I did a good job growing peonies. That ability to grow them was not so special.  I wanted to grow them, so I took the time to learn how. But these cut flowers were indeed special. This beautiful and fragrant birthday bouquet conjured up gardening memories spanning many years. In my opinion, the best design in the garden and landscape calls up those memories and moments that are important.

I photographed my birthday peonies every day, after I had taken some time to simply enjoy them. They made me remember why I became a gardener. They made me certain that I had made a good choice to become a landscape designer. Turning 68 doesn’t change that.

Some blooms held perfectly for better than a week.

The Coral Charm peonies maintained their form, but the color faded to a creamy pale yellow.

Just a few days ago, the petals began to drop. I could hear them hitting the table surface. That was a new experience of peonies. I cannot really explain why that sound was so enchanting. Except to say that I just turned 68.

Al Goldner once told me that the only regret he had as a landscape designer was that he was never bold enough. That has always stuck with me, but at 68 I understand what he meant. There is time to do something with that. There is purpose, meaning and beauty in every step of a life.