Forty-Four Degrees

It was 44 degrees when I got to work at 7 am this morning. Only the pansies, lettuce, annual phlox, snap peas,and a few others, go for this.  The angelonia, sweet potato vine, New Guineas impatiens, lantana and a whole host of others,  despise it.  Many nurseries sell vegetables early, and then sell them over again after late frosts damage them or kill them.   The cold spring weather is a perennially hot topic for Michigan gardeners. 

Every year’s struggle to get everyone’s flowers planted in a very small time frame,  is all the more complicated by the weather.  The annual flowers we use are definitely not native to Michigan.  Most of them come from warm, even hot tropical regions where the soil is never really cold.  I don’t like to plant any of these plants until the night temperatures are reliably above 50.  It is May 31st today; we have yet to get there. Should you put a finger in the soil today, it will be surprisingly chilly.  Air warms up, and cools off, much more quickly than soil.

I am of the opinion that planting too early stunts the growth of tropical plants.  I have seen impatiens and begonias never recover from too early planting;  I hear regularly “this was not a good year for my impatiens”.  Having a good year with flowers actually depends quite a bit on some good horticulture. People  sabotage their plantings, as they have the option of deciding when to plant. It isn’t the weather; late May cold is a regular feature of our spring.

I often buy early, to get what I want, and hold.  They say delayed gratification is an adult pleasure-but that doesn’t make it easier for me to wait.  Vastly more difficult than waiting, is persuading my clients that they should wait.  I have had occasion to ask a client to sign off on a planting I knew was too early,  and I have planted a few of those gardens twice in one spring.  I don’t like doing this, as its a waste of time and money-never mind that I can’t stand dead plants on my hands when I knew perfectly well how to keep them alive.

This part may be much more intuition than science.  I believe a later planting pays off at the end of the season. By this I may mean a week later. I rarely plant my own annuals before June 15-nothwithstanding those people who think the summer is half over by June 15.  My plants take hold faster, and perform in every way superior to plants put in too early.  I am always taking my pots apart in November, not because the flowers have gone down, but because I am just tired of taking care of them.  I don’t stress my annuals by planting too early, not watering sufficiently, not deadheading, grooming and fertilizing.  I think I have them longer, given this treatment.  I try not to worry my plants with too much of my own nonsense.  Should I plant early, I know the result belongs to me, not the Michigan May weather.


Some years ago my Mom bought me beach towels for my birthday; this gift infuriated me.  “What am I supposed to do with these”, I asked her.  “That you don’t know what to do with them is why they are a gift from me.” ; she fired right back. She was right. I work, and work more.  But after she died, I took the money she left me, and built a fountain in my yard.  It has a ledge for sitting, and is deep enough to get in and soak. On hot days, I take my glass of wine, and my beach towels out there; it takes no time to shed the pressure of a work day.  My garden is designed to provide me privacy, relaxation and serenity, as my work-life is anything but serene and relaxing.   Every living thing needs water-and in many more ways than one.�
Water is sublimely satisfying in a garden, no matter what form it takes. A rain barrel, a pond with fish, a pot, a fountain or pool-take your pick. I think about water in the landscape routinely now.
This cistern was placed on a stand, so as to put the action of the water at a level high enough to be clearly see from the terrace.  Boxwood will soon eliminate the view of the stand, and become part of the fountain.�
Almost any pot can be converted into a fountain.  The water spilling over the edge of the pot is collected, and recirculated via an underground cistern.  The pot sits on a rigid Fiberglas grid which will be covered with large flat stones.
This lovely Doulton-Lambeth coadestone vase made in England in the 19th century has a waterproof metal liner.  The liner is home to a group of aquatic plants.  This arrangement eliminates the problem of soil and fertilizer getting into the fountain, and damaging the pump.
This client liked the idea of water, but not the reality.  A mulch of  tumbled sea glass the colors of water is a simple and effective substitute.
My fountain is framed in herniaria, a short perennial that is tolerant of the overspray a fountain can produce.  It also provides a buffer between the grass clippings from the mower, and the water.  The filtration system, identical to the type used in a swimming pool, keeps the water scrupulously clean.  The ledge below water is a great place to sit on a blisteringly hot day. Getting in all the way isn’t bad either.

A private body of water suitable for family swimming can double as an elegant reflecting pool for more formal entertaining. A light color on the interior will reflect light, and make the water appear blue. A pool with a dark interior will absorb light, and reflect the sky on its surface.
This very large ,sculptural waterfall is beautiful even when the water is still. The smallest pot spouting water has the same magical effect; don’t do without water in your garden.

Corgi Run

If you have ever been to my store, or my home, it’s easy to figure out that I am a dog in a person suit, and my Cardigan Welsh Corgis are little people in dog suits. The little people have the run of both of my places.

I call my garden Corgi Run-presiding over it is a very fine weathervane-English made of course.  It was a birthday present from Rob, whose feelings about dogs are no different than mine.�

Milo, my dark brindle Corgi, has an unexpectedly big and disarmingly compelling personality.  He persuades customers to pitch his beloved balls for him.  He is a dog with a lot to say-vocal, is putting it mildly.  I am convinced he understands English.  He is as relaxed with visitors as he is in front of a camera;  I should have named him Hambone. Rob thinks I should buy him a flock of sheep for his birthday this year.


My red brindle corgi Howard, is a dog’s dog.  Bred like Milo, for herding cattle and sheep, he herds everyone who comes in until he is sure they are friendly.  He is always working. Letting me know when someone comes, patrolling the property.  Extremely reserved, even shy, he will let out a blood-curdling howl when startled. I think he is as handsome as Cary Grant, although he abhors having his picture taken.


The pair of them welcome every visitor with their version of a  Las Vegas style welcome- a lot of horn and hoopla. They can be a lot of horn and hoopla in a garden, too.


A reader with corgis wrote me recently to ask what I recommended planting in a garden with dogs.  I do not think what you plant is nearly as important as where you plant, and at what level.  My dogs are creatures of habit-they have their routes. I designed my garden not only to hide their routes, but  accommodate them.howard23_4


My boxwood hedges have “corgi doors” cut into them, at their level.  They love going in one door, and out the other.


My asparagus is companion planted with roses; they avoid that area altogether.  My row of snakeroot has a barked corgi route immediately adjacent. My fountain has a frame of herniaria surrounding it, which acts like a doormat for all the grass clippings and other debris corgis carry around on their feet. They are too short to be any problem to my pots-I feel for gardeners with tall dogs.  The many changes of level in my yard are like a obstacle course they never tire of;  those stairs also slow them down.  They sit under my life size moss cow when it’s raining. I make sure they have room on the deck to observe what’s doing in the neighborhood. Any low groundcover is bound to show Corgi-wear, but after all, it is their garden too. It’s a good look, a garden that looks like someone lives there.

I do not have any kids, except the aforementioned kids. I would never want a garden so precious it had no room for dogs and kids.  The small garden space which was all mine as a child no doubt played a part in why I do what I do now.


More Ado About Leaves

The fact that not all foliage is “green” comes as no surprise to any gardener.  Modern hybridization of plants has  produced some truly unusual leaf coloration.  The numbers of coleus hybrids available has dramatically increased, although the nomenclature is confusing, and some colors go beyond moody to just plain muddy.  This sparkling variety has clear,  brilliant color, and a luxuriant habit of growth.  I do like plants that make me look like a good gardener. �
Even the red and orange coleus varieties seem to have much improved coloration and habit.  Plant hybridizers work very hard.  �
  The toothy leaves of this coleus variety are unique; the lime centers only make the orange seem more orange.  Supremely orange.  �
 This green and white variegated hibiscus is notable for its leaves, rather than its flowers.  The occasional red blooms are a pleasing surprise. A red-stemmed, variegated leaf hibiscus that grows large and vase shaped gets my attention ahead of the big flowered tropical hibiscus.  Why is this?;  see for yourself.  �
This small leaved coleus the color of butterscotch  has a good companion in this tree fern.  Though tree ferns can grow to 18′ tall in New Zealand, a one gallon size plant makes a good show in a container over the course of a Michigan  season. The exotic and unexpected appearance of foliage of another color can create drama and interest in public places.  Who would think a diminutive thread leaf alternanthera could make such a big statement in the same pot with a giant canna?  This is about the good fun that gardening can be. Who knew this pot would grow out better than I thought it could be?

The incredible range of plant material available guarantees that no annual gardener need ever repeat themselves.  It occurs to me that much of what I am able to do depends on the people in my area who grow plants.  They test different things, they make the tried and true  available, they see to it that I am able to work.  They get out of bed on a Sunday at 3am when the heat in a greenhouse goes off.  They are gardeners of a different sort.  They depend on the plants to pay their mortgages, and educate their children.  I support my local growers; I hope you do too. �