Berried Treasure

It is not hard to believe that we will be beginning our winter and holiday containers and decor in another week or so. The past 10 days have been an intense effort to unpack and display in the shop all of the materials Rob purchased almost a year ago for this season. Our kickoff open house begins November 7-just a few days away. I like this moment. It requires looking at countless individual materials with the idea to put them together in a way that makes visual and emotional sense. The beginning is always about fits and starts, with a liberal dose of hand wringing. What seemed like a good idea on Monday gives way to another idea on Tuesday. But eventually we all settle in to the job at hand, and the work of it evolves and gets done. It is the very best way to become familiar with what is available to include in winter arrangements. As I most likely was a gardener from the first moment I took a breath, of course I favor natural materials from that garden for the winter pots. Rob addresses that basic need with an incredible collection of fresh cut farmed twigs in a variety of species and sizes. They come from all over this country of ours. Densely branched bunches of lustrous alder branches-we carry them. Sumac and poplar branches harvested from our collective properties are so sculptural. The glossy cinnamon gold colored flame willow branches both straight and branched always arrive first, as their leaves are the first to drop. Soon to come are the pussy willow, the copper curly willow, and the red and yellow twig dogwood. The premium cut greens of all types are equally as juicy and lively. Pairing those branches and greens with berry stems for winter containers is a natural. The fresh cut branches of Michigan holly, ilex verticillata, are drop dead gorgeous. However, they come with a steep price, and require some serious prep, if they are to survive the season. The ilex berries above, zip tied to a stout stand of fresh cut first year growth red twig dogwood, need a thorough soaking with VaporGard prior to their installation. This agricultural grade natural anti dessicant formulated from pine resin will keep the berries attached to the stems, and plump – for months. The centerpieces pictured above went to a client willing to go the distance to have fresh cut berried stems in their pots.

There are alternatives. The quality of the appearance and manufacture of faux berry stems has improved at an astonishing rate over the past 10 years. What used to be an embarrassing imitation of the real thing has become an entirely convincing expression of the beauty of berries. This new generation of faux berry stems are manufactured as much for durability as beauty. The color can be true enough to fool the eye. Or unabashedly dramatic. The stems do not disintegrate or discolor outdoors.

There is an astonishing artistry that is evident, both in the design and construction. Though these stems are faux berry stems, the evidence of the human hand is obvious. These materials make it possible for me to construct winter arrangements that can handle gale force winds, endless snow and relentless cold. Packed away for the summer, they will be equally as beautiful in year two or three. Many of them that Rob purchases are tall enough to be seen from a good ways away. The berry picks pictured above are unabashedly cheery – the prefect antidote to the landscape going dormant.

There is much to love about having choices in stem length, branching, and berry size. Choosing materials that are a proper proportion to the overall size of the arrangement is important. Do all picks need to be inserted into the soil or a dry floral foam base? No. If the perfect stem is not tall enough, they can be discretely zip tied to a neighboring natural branch. Picks with flexible branching permit an arrangement that is graceful.

Berry beautiful.

Red berry picks destined for outdoor pots need to be completely weatherproof. It only took one time seeing red berries disintegrate and run red on the sidewalk to drive that point home. We test all of our picks by soaking them in water, even if we have been told they are weatherproof.

44 inch long red berry picks in concert with a mass of cut red twig dogwood branches will make a statement in a container all winter long. That red will be strikingly handsome set in a landscape renowned for its gray and brown. It could be I enjoy the winter pots better than any other season. They most certainly last the longest. I will take my own apart in March, mostly from the embarrassment of seeing the snowdrops and the berry picks at the same time.    Red berry picks are the norm, but they are not the only game in town. It is great to be able to take your pick.

black and white

blueberry picks

golden ochre

green

cream berries with brown stems

fuzz ball style berry picks

short blueberries

I have yet to see a winter container that had too many berry picks, but even just a few adds a lot to the mix.If a project calls for lots and lots of berries, sticking them individually is a better strategy than attaching them to the twig centerpiece. Once a centerpiece reaches a certain weight, keeping it perfectly upright will require additional ballast. Hand sticking berry stems is more time consuming, but it can provide a welcome intermediary layer between the vertical and horizontal elements. Winter pots can be the most challenging to create, as nothing will grow or fill in. The day they are done, they are done.

Looking forward to the berries.

 

A Blast From The Past

Anyone familiar with my garden knows I am a fan of evergreen plants. That makes sense. I live in a gardening zone notorious for its lengthy off season. Not only are our winters long, but our early spring and late fall can also be cold and anything but green. So I grow yews, and arborvitae, and of course, boxwood. A landscape that has something to say all year round is a good landscape. I would say the signs of spring probably presented themselves seriously a week ago or so.  The maples in the tree lawn are dusted with their chartreuse blooms. The grass began greening up. The hydrangeas in the foreground of the picture about are just beginning to leaf out. My large concrete pots are more visually important now than they will be at any other time during the season. They are beautiful, just so. unplanted. But the front yard landscape at this moment is really all about the boxwood. It is green and robust in much the same way it has been all winter.

The boxwood is quick to shed its winter coloration, as are the arborvitae, yews, and the old spruce in the background of the above picture.  I never tire of any of the evergreens, as the weather from one event to the next changes their appearance. The surfaces of the evergreens shimmering with rain drops in the spring is as beautiful as those same surfaces hatted by leaves in the fall, and snow in the winter. They are a crucial part of my landscape.

The role they play is never easier to see than it is now.  I can walk between the pruned and leafless hydrangeas, and see what a prominent role they play in the landscape. And I can even more appreciate the longevity of that service. Most of my boxwood at least 15 years old.

But cultivating evergreens in very cold climates comes with a price. The street side of my boxwood paints a different picture.  Extremely cold and windy winters can damage them. It is important to water evergreens well before winter. Once the ground freezes, the roots will have no opportunity to absorb water again until spring. Needled evergreens present very little surface area to the elements. That structure helps them to naturally conserve moisture over the winter. Though boxwood leaves are small, they are much more broad and thin compared to evergreen needles.  Extremely cold and windy weather can can quickly desiccate the leaves. If you have ever had a cut boxwood wreath on your front door for the holidays, you are aware of how incredibly long cut boxwood branches stay green. The same is true for cut evergreen boughs, or Christmas trees. This damage I am seeing now occurred months ago. The return of the warmer weather is revealing the result of terribly cold weather we had the end of January.

The polar vortex which occurred in January of 2019 is again part of the conversation. The intense cold that gripped a significant portion of the northern midsection of the US set records for cold and wind chills in a number places. I do know what I was doing then. I stayed at home, and only let the dogs out for a few minutes at a time. It was the coldest recorded winter temperature event for Chicago in 25 years.

From Wikipedia   “In late January 2019, a severe cold wave caused by a weakened jet stream around the Arctic polar vortex[3] hit the Midwestern United States and Eastern Canada, killing at least 22 people.[1][2] It came after a winter storm brought up to 13 inches (33 cm) of snow in some regions from January 27–29, and brought the coldest temperatures in over 20 years to most locations in the affected region, including some all-time record lows.[1][4] In early February, the polar vortex moved west,[5] and became locked over Western Canada and the Western United States.[6] As a result, February 2019 was among the coldest and snowiest on record in these regions. In early March, the cold once again shifted east, breaking records in many areas.[7] In mid-March, the cold wave finally retreated, but combined with above-average temperatures, precipitation, and a deep snowpack, widespread flooding ensued in the Central US.” Yes, it was a vicious weather event.

The impact of that extremely cold weather is beginning to be seen. I was faint with surprise when I saw the entire top of this picea mucrunata was dead. If you look up the phrase  “top of my spruce is dead”, most articles cite winter winds and extreme cold first. I see no eveidence of disease or insect damage. Could the polar vortex be to blame?

Of course the time to think about safeguarding evergreens from winter damage is in the fall. I have never seen damage on the boxwood cultivar “Winter Gem”. I plant it extensively now. I rarely plant “Green Velvet” anymore, which is the cultivar I have at home. Thankfully it rarely gets any damage, as I live in a neighborhood where the wind is broken by multiple buildings that surround my landscape, and the sun is tempered by large trees. I have never seen winter damage on boxwood that has been sprayed to the dripping point with VaporGard in the fall. A dry day when the daytime temperature is above 50 produces optimum coverage. Later in the fall, a windbreak of burlap can help. I would have never thought to protect my spruce, but maybe I should. A last bit about the boxwood.  Given the extreme cold we have had in the past years, the price of boxwood has skyrocketed. Replacing my damaged boxwood will be very expensive. Hopefully I will remember this day come the fall.

On a positive note, the below freezing temperatures and snow forecast for this past weekend never materialized. I am pleased to report my magnolia stellata is still in full bloom.

Survival

Several weeks ago my neighborhood in Michigan featured a weather extravaganza of substantially below zero temperatures with wind chills approaching -30 degrees, followed promptly by several days in the fifties. Astonishing, this. Nature is as extraordinary as it is unpredictable. Though I have observed and taken note of natural phenomena over a lifetime of seasons, I regularly experience nature up to something I have never seen before. How I love this. What I have never seen before in the landscape and garden not only keeps me interested, it teaches me. I like adding this and that to my body of experience. Yes, I will always and forever be a student of nature. There really isn’t any other choice, is there?

Those interminable few days I felt imprisoned by extreme cold were followed by days warm enough to be outdoors with or without a jacket. I cannot ever remember a time when 50 degrees felt more delightfully warm and invigorating! How I enjoyed that brief episode of tolerable winter weather. That warm moment had a frigid one hot on its heels.The early morning just days ago was notable for the 1/4″-1/2″ of ice coating every surface, much of which still remains tonight. Yesterday and today?  Rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, and wind on a loop that kept repeating. A whole winter’s worth of nasty weather, one version after another, hour after hour.

The bitterly cold weather was not a hardship for me. The National Weather Service had advised in advance we had a polar vortex set to dip down into our zone. I took heed of that prediction. My house, constructed and outfitted specifically almost a century ago to provide shelter did what it was designed to do. I had a warm space, with hot and cold running water and electricity. I was lucky in that regard. So many people lost power. I did fully gear up to take the dogs outside, but our exposure to a hostile environment was as limited as I could make it. Out and in, we were, as fast as having old dogs would permit.  A limited exposure to terrifying cold temperatures meant we survived without incident. Terrifying cold? Not the usual thing, but not that unusual either.

The details? A down 3/4 length coat that zips up above the neck. A hood on that coat with a velcro closure. A fuzzy warm headband. Flannel lined jeans. Merino wool socks. Shearling lined winter boots. A wool scarf wrapped around my shoulders and face. And wool gloves underneath wool mittens. Did I forget anything? All of this for an exposure to seriously below zero temperatures for less than five minutes. I do indeed have lots of information and gear to comfort and protect me in bitter cold conditions.  But what about the landscape outside my door?

Winter hardiness in plants is a big, wide, and fiercely debated topic. Annual plants are tropical in origin, and perish once the temperature goes below freezing. Perennial plants routinely die back to the ground. The life in their roots is protected by a mass of soil around them. They winter over in a dormant state. Lavender is a sub shrub. Those stems above ground are alive the entire winter. It is no surprise that sub shrubs in my zone can succumb to brutal winter weather. Anything living above ground in my zone is subject to punishing winter weather. The short story is as follows: Deciduous trees in my zone jettison their leaves in the fall, and shut down for the winter. They hibernate. Likewise woody shrubs. The roots below ground remain viable, but the production of chlorophyll goes on hiatus. The fierce winter weather and winds rarely bother the bare twigs of trees and shrubs. Those twigs are shut down, and buttoned up. Once spring is truly upon us, the buds set in late summer will begin to swell. Perennials in my zone die back to ground level, and wait for a call to grow in the spring. Evergreens? The broad leaved evergreens suffer in brutal winter weather more than any other plant. The picture above, taken in the spring of 2014, after the most brutal winter I have ever experienced, was all about digging up some dead boxwood that had been growing for better than twenty years in front of the shop.

I had no advance warning that we would be subjected to below and just above zero temperatures for lengthy periods. Every brutally cold day that went by was accompanied by an escalating worry. Evergreens of all types were damaged and killed outright in this once in a lifetime fierce winter. The gravelled spaces in the foreground of these pots planted with boxwood this picture show no trace of the plants that died from extreme cold and wind. A friend in the landscape maintenance business persuaded me to stand pat with all of the other damaged plants in this hedge. I am glad I took her advice. Five years after the fact, the south side of this boxwood hedge is all green. These damaged plants did indeed survive.

It takes a lot of exposure to gardening and observing that outcome before it becomes clear that every plant’s first and foremost goal in life is to survive. Species annual plants that most surely will die with the first hard frost will produce seeds. Perennials die back to the ground and go dormant-in an effort to survive the winter. Deciduous trees and shrubs quit producing chlorophyll, and shed their leaves prior to winter. Most woody plants start slowing down in August, in anticipation of the dormant season.  Needled evergreens under stress will set cones profusely. It astonishes me that an evergreen in decline will put huge energy to providing seed for the next generation. Survival can be all about the next generation. As for the here and now, those needles have evolved to present as little surface area as possible that might be damaged by desiccating winds and cold.

I may fear for the plants in my landscape in a bad winter, but they have evolved such to handle adverse conditions. Very few of them need me to intervene on their behalf. In conditions that are so bad as to threaten their life, there are things gardeners can do to provide their treasured plants with a leg up. Good drainage is a major component of winter hardiness. Even Japanese iris want a well drained winter situation. Burlap can help protect boxwood from desiccating winter wind and sun. VaporGard can provide a similar layer of protection.

But by and large, plants have very complex and astonishing mechanisms built in via evolution which are geared to protect their chances of survival. My contribution to that effort is minimal. This is a long way of saying that nature looks after its own. The best contribution I can make to my evergreens is to water them liberally before the ground freezes. An evergreen needle or leaf which is loaded with water prior to the frozen ground is a leaf that is better able to survive.

This section of my 25 year old boxwood hedge shows the sure signs of superficial winter wind and cold damage. This trouble can be trimmed off in the spring. What interests me more is that the substantial dead sections from the 2013 winter have healed.

The evergreens in this pot outside my office door are showing signs of damage from our extreme cold. How could they not? These are cut branches. They have no connection to a parent plant. There are so many ideas that can occupy  a garderner’s winter. My evolution as a gardener-on going.

The Snow March First

It is not so noteworthy for us to have a snow the beginning of March. Though every gardener in Michigan is winter weary, we know March is not a spring month. It is the last of the winter blast month. So a forecast for snow did not get my attention. What did get my attention was an early day snow with golf ball sized flakes that stuck to every surface outdoors. Those sticky dripping wet flakes kept coming for hours. That wet snow clung to and described every tree trunk and twig in its path. I could not keep my eyes off the transformation of the landscape.

Eight inches worth of snow later, every element of the landscape was draped in the most gorgeous blanket of snow. I have long been a proponent of landscape design that features the weather. I also like a landscape with clearly defined bones that represent the design idea, no matter the weather. This winter weather provided ample evidence of that idea.

To follow are too many photographs of this snow event. I have never ever ever ever seen snow as beautiful as this. Nor have I ever seen my landscape look quite this. It is easy to understand the fascination with nature. There is always something new to experience, even in the most familiar places.


picea mucrunata

magnolias and parrotia overhead

winter pots, still beautiful in March

wall untouched by snow

hydrangea flower heads

view to the street

snow struck flame willow

landscape composition

It was easy to tell the snow was coming out of the northwest.

second story terrace railing
The dogwood tree out the kitchen window was dressed to the nines. Last of all, a short video of our early March weather. What a special and unprecedented experience.

snow movie