What Goes In The Ground

I have two diverse groups of flowering plants that get my attention.  There are perennial flowering plants, and seasonal plants.  The perennial plants stay with me year after year-given the best of all possible worlds.  In reality, perennial plants have short bloom times, need lots of work dividing and deadheading, they get diseases, they fade away-but we still call them perennials.  A perennial only promises one thing-they may be so kind as to overwinter in some form or another.  Perennial are  by no means maintenance free, much less absolutely and undeniably perennial.  In my opinion, perennial is a noun I would never use to describe garden plants.  That which I least expect to thrive, thrives.  Things die, routinely, every day, unexpectedly.  The minute I congratulate myself on the perfect plant for a specific spot-all hell breaks loose. I have been proven wrong so many times-it is not funny.

 In my opinion, only a very few perennials are really rugged enough to thrive over a period of years. At the top of my list-peonies.  Properly sited and planted, they could easily live a century or better. Next up- asparagus; I regularly see vacant land with rows of asparagus intact.  I can imagine the house and farm, given the truly perennial expression of the asparagus. What comes next?  I suppose I could put hemerocallis on this list-though they require division every 7 years or so.  Hellebores live from year to year without much attention; I have never divided, deadheaded, or treated them for illness.  Wild flowers thrive on a lack of attention-provided that they are perfectly sited.  All of the perennial plants that come after this-save the groundcovers-pachysandra, vinca, and baltic ivy-fairly persistent, and fairly demanding.

Other perennials are quite up front about what they demand. Bear in mind, any plant that clearly exhibits a need for tending-times that tending by 3.  Roses top the list-a well grown collection in my zone is a feat.  Bearded iris-so beautiful and so labor intensive.  Delphiniums-multiply the bearded iris factor by 3.  I have little need to go on about those perennial plants whose need for attention is perennial-I am sure you have met them.  A good bit of the trouble has to do with less than optimal soil and water, less than ideal watering, and less than perfect attention.  Were I to retire, the first thing I would do is plant perennial gardens, and live in them all summer long. 

The seasonal plants-they make no bones about their ephemeral nature.  They open the season reluctantly-they like warm soil.   When the season closes, they perish.  They grow fast, try their best to set seed, shine for months on end-and vanish with the first hard frost.  There are those gardeners that dig and store their dahlias and cannas.  There are those that move their marginal plants into their garage for the winter, and park their cars outside. Anyone who takes gardening seriously has their obsessed habits-this extends to trying to keep plants alive from year to year that hate the cold. 

I am an advocate of planting seasonal flowers, as I think they return to me in kind. They willingly bloom for months.  This means their bloom time is not 10 days or two weeks-it is months.  That I have to plant them every year-I willingly make that concession.  Every day of my short summer season-I like a party going on.  That I have to replant every year-fine.  This means I have the chance to ditch my failures, and design anew.  I like the design part of gardening every bit as much as the physical work of it.

No tropical flower makes my heart pound like the flowers of plants native and perennial plants hardy in my zone.  I am greatly enamoured of flowers that have that modest and strikingly natural beauty that I might characterize as residents of my home garden.  My natural environment has a beauty that no tropical plant could ever surpass.  What might be better than a green flowered hellebore?  But there are very few flowers I would turn away.  A top 10 list leaves too many interesting possibilities out.  Given my very small yard, it is a relief that some plants do not persist. 

This said, annual and tropical plants in the ground for the summer season-I love them.  The color-I would not do without it.  Annual plants in the ground-be prepared for lots of expense, and even more work.  But most plants have a very strong will to live, and flower, provided they have the right encouragement to do so. 

Most plants require a soil that drains readily.  Tropical plants enjoy a soil engorged with all the best that great compost can deliver.  They like that great draining and astonishingly fertile soil to be warm.   Land in my zone tends to be very heavy clay soil with poor drainage.  The soil warms slowly in the spring.  My advice-plant in early June.  Anywhere you intend to plant seasonal plants in ground-work the soil.  Provide for air.  Poufy, well draining soil-your seasonal plants will  thrive in this. Plant for spring, so you don’t plant for summer too early. If you water with automatic irrigation, choose your plant species carefully.  Impatiens handles overhead and over generous watering fairly well.  Zinnias have no use for it-once established, I water them well at the ground level, and let them go dry before I water again.

Above all, experiment.  How improbable is it that zonal geraniums would thrive along side New Guinea impatiens, in full sun, with overhead irrigation?  You will never know what works unless you you try.  Planting 4″ pots of annuals may give you a headstart, but lots of annuals are easy to grow from seed.  If the expense of planting flowers that only live one season is not an investment you wish to make, there is the option of learning how to grow.  

In ground spaces too small for a perennial collection  are perfect for a mixed annual garden.  All summer long there will be a reason to visit and enjoy.

Planting Great Containers

Every great pot starts with some rocking good science.  A container needs to be sized to comfortably hold the plants you want to grow when they are full grown. Rhubarb planted in a 10 inch pot-not a good look.  Nor is it a workable idea. Every container needs lots of drainage material; I usually plant large containers with 2/3 drainage material and 1/3 soil.  Very small containers I might fill to the top with soil, with a small piece of landscape fabric over the drain hole.  The ability to maintain even moisture is essential to the health of the plants.  Good soil holds water.  My soil mix is a custom blend of compost, topsoil and sand-I do not grow plants in soilless mixes.  Growers mix is designed for professional growers who require a weed, pest, and disease-free medium.  It takes a skilled hand to properly water and feed any plant grown in peat based plant mixes-every grower has their own formula. For a gardener, the best part about them is how easy the bags are to pick up and carry.  Ease of soil transport is not a factor in planting great containers.  I like to grow plants in soil.  real soil.  I like all the organisms, the micronutrients-I like living soil, not sterile plant mix.
The next issue-where will they go?  Pots flanking a formal front porch may ask for the same plants that you use on your terrace-but how you use those plants is about inspired design.  Great containers have everything to do with good design.  This traditionally styled two tiered wirework plant stand is a completely unexpected choice for a contemporary concrete deck/terrace featuring a stainless steel braided wire railing.  That juxtaposition of the round and delicate wirework with this minimal fencing is a visual surprise.  As for the planting, imagine this planter without its topknot of faux tulips and grass.  You get this-dull.  The additional height breaks the horizontal line of the fence-this makes for great rhythm.  The planting at the same height as the rail-static. The idea that stops short, comes up short. That tulip and grass hat-very sassy.  This single planter holds its own, in front of that somber forest of hundreds of tree trunks.  The big-faced pansies are in the larger bottom tier, and the diminuitive violas in the top; the size of flowers themselves should be proportional to the size of the container.  The restricted plant palette has a contemporary feeling; the mix of colors has a more personal feeling without getting too frou-frou.  I like this planter, how and where it is placed, and how it is planted, relative to this forest dominated landscape.    

Sometimes the shape of a planter will suggest how the plants should be used.  Pale yellow pansies in the center back, and bright yellow pansies on the edges highlight the color and form of the violas in the front.  Light colors do a great job of bringing dark colors placed in front of them to life.  The yellow twig dogwood placed in a row, rather than a bunch , celebrates the shape of the container.  The ivy at the corners-a yellow variegated variety that repeats the yellow of the flowers.  Plants that would thrive in this lighting situation go on to work together well.  This look-a thoughtful and put together look.

Pots in commercial settings need to read well from the street.  I would not want anyone passing my shop to not get a good look.   This can mean generous height, and compelling color.  Subtle works much better up close to the eye.  In this case, a bunch of yellow twig dogwood has been augmented with faux yellow flower stems made from bleached and dyed palm leaves.  Forsythia is common in my spring landscape; passing by in a car, this centerpiece is entirely believable.  More striking than real forsythia, this centerpiece will provide great scale and visual punch throughout the spring.  A pot of tulips in the center can be switched out for fresh when the flowers fade; annual phlox intensia and violas will grow and do well on into early summer.  The red violet, lavender and pale yellow tulip mix is from John Sheepers-they call it the Princely mix.  The color combination is really lovely.  Small pots for a tabletop ask for one thing, well grown.  Small pots have to be placed close to eye level to be appreciated, so  I plant small pots with plants that are easy to grow to perfection.  This pot of violas seems happy-no yellow leaves, no dead flower heads.  It looks good, up close.

In terms of container design, it does not matter whether you are planting a vintage bulb crate from the Netherlands, or a fine pair of antique urns-the container is as much a part of the planting as the plants themselves.  These tulips were planted low, so the lower foliage would not obscure the beautiful surface and vintage lettering on the crate.  The boxes on the roof of my shop-they were constructed of sheet metal, and reinforced on the inside with pressure treated limber.  They are a vehicle for the plants that make my summer roof garden.  These rectangular boxes hold soil, and support plant life.  They are not in any way beautiful.  They are serviceable.  Every space demands a little something different.  At my office front door-I want beautiful containers, well designed, and thoughtfully planted.  On the roof, I want to make but one point.  Anyone who looks at what is growing  on the roof-I want them to see that garden.  A beautiful garden.   

Planting in the ground- a second cousin twice removed from planting in containers.  Big spaces on the ground plane ask for a different approach than containers.  Soil and seasonal flowers, above ground, in containers, could not be more different than seasonal flowers planted into the ground.  More tomorrow-I promise.

At A Glance: Peaking?

Food. Water. Shelter.

I will make no bones about it.  Sourcing great annual planting was excellent May 10th of this year-it has become tougher every day that has gone by.  I like planting a fresh crop, the rooting and top growth perfect for transplant-I like all those conditions than almost never come to be.  We had an inordinately warm spring.  Plants under glass-multiply that warm by 10. This means annual plants growing in excess of 100mph; seizing that brief moment was the big idea of the annual planting season. Unfortunately I cannot plant 77 projects in a week.  So much for carpe diem.  There is more time involved in planting my clients up than either of us like.  You no doubt are getting tired of reading about it-but this blog is about what I do, and when I do it-so bear with me. A too hot early season has meant a lot of shopping on my part. I plant good material-nothing less, nothing questionable.  My June plantings-not so much great plant material is available. A client suggested I visit Deneweths.  As I had never been there, I was intrigued. I showed up at their door last Sunday at 9 am.  

Wow does not begin to describe what I saw.  As their greenhouses are located across the street from a residential neighborhood, my guess is that this huge growing range and giant retail greenhouse has been here a good many years.  I would guess a family owed and operated business.  Though I was a first time visitor, I had no problem getting oriented.  They make much of written signage and suggestion.  I was just about the first person there-having this giant place virtually to myself-I felt like I was on holiday.  My first glimpse-breathtaking. 

For better or for worse, I scrutinize what I see. That is much about what my clients pay me for; if I cannot tell the difference between a well grown plant, and a poor one, if I cannot tell the difference between a good move and a poor one-why would they have me?  This football field and more under glass had beautiful, fresh, compact and healthy plants and baskets-from sea to shining sea. Note the date-not May 10-this was June 13.  I was impressed, and excited.  

I have never seen hanging baskets of million bells of this caliber.  I am somewhat envious-I have a tough time getting them to grow.  They abhor alkaline soil-even limey water can make them sicken, yellow, and die.  Everywhere to be seen, perfectly grown million bells baskets in mouth watering color combinations-I was enchanted. 

Growing plants under glass for a specific market and specific time frame-I do not have the nerve for it. It would surely kill me-the worry.  Annual plants are a highly perishable crop.  The work to produce them-enormous.  The price of each 4″ pot, flat, or basket-not so much.  The sure hand here-astonishing.  Annual plants need germinating, transplanting from cutting plugs, the right food-the right water.  And that shelter from that storm that might accurately be described as a Michigan spring.  Every flat and 4 inch pot-perfect for transplant.  I was incredibly impressed. 

Every place I looked, every plant was healthy, happy-and asking for a home.  Had I brought a semi truck, I would have stuffed it full. Having had my fill of overgrown, anemic and questionable plants, I was enchanted to visit a place that understood clearly what it takes to grow beautiful plants, and steadfastly brought their weight to bear- keeping beautiful plants available every day, routinely, to anyone who had occasion to visit.  Five weeks in aun unseasonably warm spring-a lifetime, if you are an annual grower. 

Spacing is an important issue with annual growing.  Every grower wants any given bench to host as many plants as possible, but plants placed placed too close together suffer.  No air.  No room to grow.  Next up-those slimy rotting leaves, and fungus.  The spacing here-excellent for the plants. There is no doubt in my mind that the person who owns and runs this greenhouse has a big love for plants-first and foremost.  

This petunia-I have never seen it before.  I could not take my eyes off of it. Seeing this petunia in prduction and for sale tells me that Deneweth’s makes it their business to attend plant trials, look at new varieties-and grow what they think looks fresh and beautiful and will do well. Attending and assessing trial gardens-a considerable amount of work no plant shopper ever sees.  Independent greenhouses do lots of work over and above what you might see.  Please-support them!   

Gardening is a dirty business. But when I shop, I give high marks to a clean place.  My shop-I insist that it be clean.  Sunday morning at Deneweth’s-there was a cleaning crew.  Every aisle was water swept clean of debris. This level of clean-there is a person in charge who takes great pride in their business.  Great pride-I would suggest that you patronize businesses that work this hard to be this great.        

The million bells baskets-miraculous.  The color combinations-striking.  Should Deneweth’s not be dreaming up these combinations on their own, they care enough about making a quality product available to get help designing.  I really like this point of view.  They clearly know how to grow. That they would seek help designing, pairing, combining-their work is no doubt to your advantage.

Every plant had signage with the particulars.  Any serious gardener could read, and make a decision, based on a wealth of information, succintly written.  I learned a few things I did not know,  from these cards.  Independent garden centers-How I respect how they deliver food, water, and shelter!  I would urge you to buy from them, and others in your neighborhood.   Deneweths-out M-59 from Pontiac to Hayes, north up Hayes to 22 Mile-go right. They are eminently worth the visit.  

Heavenly-the flowers.