The 2020 Hellebores

The hellebores do not have to compete very hard for my attention in the spring. They are just about the only perennial game in town come late March and on into April. I will admit I am out there searching for signs of them when the ground is still frozen solid. I am an enthusiast, yes. They are well worth the wait. Helleborus X hybridus-a group thought to be made up of 14 to 16 other species – is quite hardy in my zone. Other species and their hybrids, notably helleborus niger, are a little touchy for me, but well worth a try. The large leathery leaves populate sturdy compact plants, and are a rich dark glossy green. That foliage not only makes for a fine overscaled ground cover in shadier places throughout the growing season, it persists well into our winter. They prefer compost laden soil, regular moisture, and part shade conditions. That said, I have grown them successfully in full sun, and in deep shade. They are most obliging.

In an especially wet year, I will see some botrytis, but in general, the plants are healthy and hardy. They are slow to put on weight, but once they do, they bloom profusely. They are very long lived. I have more than a few that are better than 20 years old.  I hear they are not so happy to be divided, so I have stayed away from that. Their bloom story is equally as interesting.  The thick juicy flowering stalks emerge first in the spring. Each flower is surrounded by leaflets. The flower shapes and colors, given intense hybridizing efforts all over the world, are incredibly diverse. Black, white, green, red, yellow and pink are all represented in varying shades and combinations of shades. Flowers can be single, anemone flowered, or double. In my opinion, the single flowered varieties are the most persistent and longest lived. The doubles with huge petal counts are fascinating, but the singles are my favorite. A green flowered single is my favorite of all.

Once the bloom period is well underway, the plants send up new foliage. The foliage pictured above is the remains of the previous year’s leaves. In a perfect world, I would cut off the previous season’s leaves just prior to the flower stalks emerging. Should I miss that moment, I try to wait until the flowers are well out of the ground. Few gardening mishaps are as frustrating as cutting off soon to flower stalks by accident. I have done it more times than I care to remember.

What you are seeing above is a trim long past due. The scraggly brown leaves of yesteryear are not adding much to the flowering stalks coming on. David usually cuts the old foliage off, as it would require that I leap over the boxwood hedge to get within snipping distance.  At 6′ 3″ tall, he is able to step over. But he is at home in his own garden, tending to his own hellebores now, as well he should be. So I am stuck with a view, and not a presence. As it doesn’t bother me enough to risk getting there, I am intrigued to see how the plants will handle the chaos.

Several weeks in, it does not appear that any of these flowering stalks are hanging back or hindered by the lack of a cleanup. They actually seem quite indifferent to the mess. This is a rather unattractive moment, but it does illustrate the the process of nature cycling from one growing season to the next. Were I to try to get in there now and try to scoop up all the detritus, I feel every plant would be glaring at me. Years ago a friend with an extraordinary wildflower garden told me she worked very hard to see that her garden was undisturbed by her presence as much as possible. She limited her house keeping to the removal of downed limbs and branches, and all but a reasonable layer of oak leaves in the fall. Her garden was stunning. Large drifts of the same plant took hold in those spots optimal for their success. It had a relaxed and natural appearance as it was minimally and judiciously tended. Plants that have been fussed with too much have that look about them.

This area will surely test that hands off experiment. This first of this group of hellebores were planted decades ago. Should one succumb, I plant another. It is a spot that I can readily reach. But I am interested to see what will come of a hands off approach.

This old clump of Royal Heritage strain will have lots and lots of flowers.  At this stage, it is hard to imagine this plant occupying every bit of four square feet. As they are planted on the north side of a sizeable picea mucrunatum, they are slower to come on in the spring.

All of them seem to be putting forth fresh growth.

This stage is every bit as beautiful as the flowering stalks fully flushed out.

Is this a better look? I will soon have an alternate treatment available to look at.

It could be by the time this hellebore is at this particular stage, I will barely notice what did not get done.

 

Vernissage 2020

Eleven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”.The title of the post was my very loose interpretation of the French word that refers to openings. As much as it signaled the opening of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design under the name of Dirt Simple. To date I have published 1716 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, observe and reflect.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. The older I get, the less I have to say – which seems appropriate. I am vastly less certain of almost everything than I was when I was 30. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and today-April 1 of 2020. I must have been speechless in 2019-if you write, you know that happens. This date has another very special significance to me. April 1 of 1992 was Rob’s first day working with me. It has been a very engaging and productive 28 years. Yes, we have had our rough moments, but I take a great deal of pride in what we have created. I have a respect for him that continues to grow. I feel sure there will be more to come from the two of us.

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments in the landscape.  I learned plenty from her, and from her garden, over the years. In the beginning, I planted flowers for her. Our relationship developed such that I began to redesign, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre property. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I have favorite projects. An edited collection of fine white peony cultivars dating from the late 19th and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground. We had a relationship that I still treasure.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Nature is like that. As mean as it is giving. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by starting over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was just plain hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad about it as I did. I ran in to her some years later. We talked up a storm, as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This treasured client passed away September 20, 2017, at the age of 86. It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard, love, and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage might refer to any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does, sooner or later. Every spring opening has its distinctive features. Some springs are notable for their icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April. This year is a challenge like no other to all. Gardening at its most distilled is in many ways a solitary pursuit. What gets shared post that high voltage one on one relationship is a wealth of information, interest, discussion and passion that I believe will transmit a love for the garden from one generation of gardeners to the next.

I usually associate spring with the singing of the birds. I hardly noticed the singing this year, until this past week. The cold that has been reluctant to leave means there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up this time around. This persistent bad news reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 30 degrees, and March seems to be in a a chilly and threatening holding pattern that could last for months. How well said. But truth be told, spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed. I have hellebores in bloom. Thanks to the heavens for them. Spring is on the way.

Much of what I love about landscape design has to do with the notion of second chances. I have an idea. I put it to paper. I do the work of installing it.  Then I wait for an answer back. This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back. The speeches come from everywhere-the design that could be better here and more finished there. The client, for whom something is not working well, chimes in. The weather, the placement and planting final exam test my knowledge and skill. The land whose form is beautiful but whose drainage is heinous teaches me a thing or two about good planning. The sky and the ground is in the process of opening up.  The singing comes from everywhere. I make changes, and then more changes. I wait for this to grow in and that to mature. I stake up the arborvitae hedge gone over with ice, and know it will be years or more-the hoped for recovery. I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, an uncertain mid ground, and an equally ill defined end.

VERNISSAGE (4)This spring will see an average share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs. The winter cold and wind was neither here nor there. I am still wearing winter clothes. But no matter what the last season dished out, sooner or later, I get my spring. I can compost my transgressions. The sun shines on the good things, and the not so good things, equally.  It is my choice to take my chances, and renew my interest. The birds singing this first day of April l means it is time to take stock.

I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can coax or stake what the heavy snow crushed.  I can prune back the shrubs damaged by the voles eating the bark.  I can trim the sunburn from the yews and the boxwood.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Three years ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years. They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a third season. It is unclear when I will be able to plant, but I have hope.  I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes. I can wait. Being a gardener, I know all about waiting.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. I can sit in the early spring sun, and soak up the possibilities. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, renovate, plant new.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound good?

April 1 marked 28 years that Rob and I began working together, and 24 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That relationship endures, and evolves.  Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works is an invention from the two of us that reflects the length and the depth of our mutual interest in the garden. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, no matter how hard the news, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.

Our shop is in lockdown, like countless other garden businesses – as well we should be. We will meet again over the garden when it is safe for all of us to do so. In the interim, I would point out that spring is on the way, as usual. Just walk outside. You will see, smell, and hear it. As for the time being, persevere.

Detroit Garden Works March 31 2020

primula malacoides in bloom March 31, 2020

Rob planted a series of pots for spring a month ago. Of course he did. It’s spring.

From Nothing To Something

March is invariably the most desolate month of all in my garden. Everything sits in stony silence. The passing of the snow reveals a landscape sullen from months of cold. The straw colored grass is thin. Muddy dirt pools in those places where the grass succumbed. The stoic evergreens that have been unable to absorb water all winter long via their roots sport foliage that is still that wintry shade of black green. They will hide the damage wrought by desiccating winter winds until the air temperatures warm up. The trees are budded, but tightly budded. It is not time yet for the signs of spring to emerge. It is the time of the revelation of the effects of the winter season.  There are those who think the landscape and garden sleeps beneath a thick blanket of snow. Not so. The winter is actually a pitched battle for survival with winners, losers, and the compromised.

It is dry enough to walk the garden now. Everywhere, the remains of what is dead, shed and scuffed up is on display. The reveal of the landscape post the worst of the winter, come March, is a rude one. Wince-worthy. The rabbits chewed every rose right down to the ground. Of course they did. A fledgling paeonia Ostii was similarly chewed, despite being surrounded with bamboo stakes. Every wispy dried up bit of organic trash has been blown around and deposited somewhere in the yard – both high and low. . The pachysandra is laid over and down, as if it had been trampled by a lawn roller. There is a winter’s worth of street trash to pick up.

Desolation is the landscape word of this March day. It is hard to imagine that anything will ever be different. It is more difficult to imagine the garden thriving. I am a working gardener, in the most literal sense of the word. I respond to what nature provides. I am not in charge, nor am I the least bit unhappy about that roll. But March in my zone is dreary indeed.

I would not be capable of planning, orchestrating or even entirely comprehending that complex mechanism by which the winter season comes to an end. My knowledge of the process is certainly better than it was 50 years ago, but I am routinely taken by surprise. What we call the force of nature is just that. Formidable, inexplicable – magical. I know that in a month’s time, this view will have taken on an entirely different appearance than what I see now. What is skeletal now will have a more juicy and lively look.

I feel confident in saying that every gardener endures the winter as best they can. The read, and order seeds, and plan for the gardening season to come. They clean tools, look out the windows, and wait. I suspect they are as frazzled as I, forced to be an unwilling witness to the last gasp of winter. But as unpleasant as March can be, there is the sure knowledge the winter season will run out of steam, and fizzle. And then there will be signs of spring. Though we have had very moderate temperatures the past few weeks, there is a forecast for night temperatures in the twenties the next few nights. March and April are known for their tantrums. But the bigger picture calls for an end to winter. As it has been my experience that spring always arrives, sooner or later.

The first call in my yard is always adonis amurensis. It is astonishing how early this perennial emerges, grows and blooms-in one fell swoop.

It is painfully slow to multiply for me, but I would not do without it. They demand nothing in the way of care.  Shortly after blooming, they go dormant until the following late winter. I have time to watch and marvel how it emerges weeks ahead of other plants. That yellow flower beats back the late winter blues.

The snowdrops are a late winter favorite. Beloved in all of its forms and hybrids by galanthophiles and informal fans all over the globe, they breach the soil still crusty with frost, and bloom profusely. True to their name, they shrug off a late snow as if that were nothing. They transplant most readily in their green form. Once happy, they multiply and seed with abandon.  Any gardener who reads here knows I am a fan of hellebores. They are, in my opinion, the perfect perennial.  Thick glossy foliage persists in its green state until late in the winter. The flowers emerge on leafless stalks in April, and bloom for a very long time. The green remains of the flowers can persist in the garden well in to June. The current years leaves will emerge after the flowers.  With proper moisture, these 18″ tall plants grow into very large clumps. They live for decades, and do not require dividing to bloom profusely.  I leave the flower heads be, in order to encourage seedlings.

The flowering stalks emerge early from the clusters of last years leaves. They are a welcome sign that spring is on the way.

It will not be that long before the hellebores reach this height and breadth. The time will come when every gardener will be fully engaged in spring, and the memory of the March landscape will fade.

There will be plenty to enjoy indoors-pots of bulbs, and the cut stems of spring flowering perennials and flowering shrub branches while the weather outdoors is still uncomfortably cold.

As delicate as the flowers of Barnhaven primrose are, they are quite robust and hardy in Michigan gardens.

Grape hyacinths blooming in the early patchy grass make the inevitable dandelions look great.

This spring window box from years ago-full of daffodils, parsley, annual phlox, alyssum and violas-is a reminder that as always, spring will have its turn

It’s coming.

 

Some Thoughts On Places and Spaces

What are we looking at here? Lacking any recognizable objects or context, it is tough to tell. As this is not a quiz, I will identify it. A 10 foot tall concrete block wall behind Detroit Garden Works, covered with the skeletal branches of Boston Ivy, has a hat of windswept snow. Behind and above it is a typically and uniformly gray Michigan winter sky. This is a verbal explanation. But the story told by the photo is not about what it is, or where it might be. It is about how colors, shapes, textures and volumes compare, contrast and relate to one another. The color of the sky is so uniform that it appears flat. The snow roll looks volumetric and sculptural, courtesy of a variety of colors in tones of gray and white. The fanciful story is how that substantial shape of gray space is weighty as there is so much of it, and in the process of bearing down on the wall, it is squeezing a textured and frozen bead of snow over the leading edge of that wall. Another rhythmic interpretation might be that the dark textured shape is rising to meet the light shape, and what oozes out once the two shapes meet appears to have depth and volume. Freed from a discussion of what we are looking at means there is an opportunity to see relationships in a composition on an abstract level. What role does seeing abstract shapes have to do with landscape design? Great landscape design begins with the bones.  And the bare bones can readily and most easily seen in the winter. Looking at a landscape critically in the summer season is difficult. It is easy to get distracted by the flowers, weeds, leaves, scents, sounds, the neighbor mowing his lawn, and all of what else goes on outdoors in the summer.      The winter is very quiet. I am a solitary visitor to my garden. I am not distracted by weeding, watering, dead heading, smelling the roses, serving dinner or working out issues from my client’s gardens. My mind can be as blank as the winter sky, should I tune in to the landscape around me, and let it speak. The winter season is the perfect time to be receptive to the landscape speaking back. It is a time to rest, reflect, reminisce, and reconsider. It is a time when there is enough time to think. It is also a time to take advantage of how winter weather recasts a landscape in a simple and abstract way. The above photograph is nature’s snowy rendering of my fountain garden. All of the textural details of the landscape have disappeared. The snow has recreated the flat land in this garden in an intriguing and sculptural way. What will I conclude from what I see? That large undulating space that ramps up at the fountain’s edge that occupies most of this garden place is intriguing. Actually grading the ground around my fountain in this way would be difficult and certainly contrived. But I certainly could test that theory on a small scale in the spring. Strongly sculpted soil would not necessarily be compatible with the other landscape elements already existing. There is no harm in passing by what a snowstorm suggests. However, it is striking that there is no landscape element in the foreground framing or defining that view out. The bottom edge of this two dimensional photographic rendering of my landscape has nothing to say. I see that now. What would it be like to look through the branches of some trees to the fountain? Large tree branches in the immediate foreground, and the background tree branches that look smaller as they are a distance away, would provide a visual description of the depth from near to far. A landscape design that creates visual depth from a view can be a very successful landscape indeed. The winter is making me rethink this portion of my landscape.

The winter reduces a landscape to its simplest iteration.  All that remains are the big gestures. A heavy snow amplifies those bones and makes obvious the relationships between the occupied places, and the empty spaces. This photograph after a heavy snow storm at the shop is a landscape of a different sort. How we arrange garden ornament is suggestive of the possibilities to gardeners who shop our place.

The place occupied by a pergola in this landscape is both a place to be, and a place to see. What permits a clear description of the place is the empty spaces all around it. The snow strongly describes that emptiness. There is a balance between that richly layered structure, and its minimal environment. That will change some, when the climbing roses grow. But their footprint on the ground plane will be vastly less complex than the expanse of roses up towards the roof. In the summer, that ground plane will include grass, gravel, limestone stepping stones, and a fountain surround. In the winter, all of the detail washes away, leaving only an abstract description of a strongly uniformly flat plane. That plane is a place for that pergola to be.

This drone photograph is courtesy of the Sterling Development Co. This bird’s eye view reveals the relationships forged between densely populated places, and empty spaces. I will confess that I was pleased to see this photograph. The drawing of this landscape is quite similar to this photograph. I was happy to see that the plain spaces-the roof of the house, the grass and the terrace – feature the pergola and the property border landscape. There is a balance struck between places and spaces. There is a tension created by that contrast that is interesting and satisfying. To my mind, anyway. I am a designer with a certain point of view.  You may have other ideas.

A wet, windy and heavy snow storm describes a window captured all around by a galvanized metal hat, a window box below, and a pair of shutters on each side. This stripped down winter version of the landscape scene describes the window in a way that challenges and informs my decisions about how to plant those boxes.

Years ago I planted some scotch pines on standard in giant casks Rob bought in Belgium. This winter version of that planting is a study in scale and proportion. The contrast of empty and active spaces. The heavy snow on the boxwood and scotch pine, and the windswept snow coating the north side of this cask made me realize that our winter weather distills the relationships between places and spaces in a way I never could. The winter season can be observed, and much can be learned from it.

The snow hat on this finial, and the simple heft of the column supporting it are all the more beautiful for the snow covered branches surrounding them.

The snow is not always a blanket that obliterates every detail. Some times it describes the most ethereal of gestures.

If you are a designer for yourself or others, I would take advantage of the what the winter season has to offer.Truth be told, it is not an off season.