You know it is the dead of winter in Michigan when the garden is a place to long for from afar. Most of my garden views now are through the windows. Not that I didn’t plan for good views from inside, but the sheer thrill of a landscape is being in it, or experiencing it up close. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the winter as much as the other three seasons. Ha!~ I hate being cooped up, and I am not a skier or an ice fisherman. Being outside now is a necessity to get from one place to another. I do not walk my garden in the winter. I cannot really explain this, but I do not want to disturb my dormant landscape. In my opinion, the winter is the time to let everything as it is, be. As it is, to see this part of the garden in winter requires gearing up – as in coat, hat, boots and gloves. Today I jump tromped through the snow rather that shoveling the upper deck, to take this picture. Was it worth the effort? But for a gorgeous circa 1920 Jarre de Biot, from the now closed Poterie Provencale that makes my heart beat faster every time I look at it, this scene is not that scenic. A garden growing and representing is a tough act to follow.

The best part of it may be the Parrotia Persica. There are four of them in the driveway garden. I planted them close to 20 years ago. This means they are old enough to exhibit that beautiful exfoliating bark prized by gardeners. They also hang on to their leaves throughout all but the windiest of winters. Those copper color leaves are a sight for winter sore eyes.

Even these dead leaves look good to me. But the fact of the matter is I am not looking at anything that is dead. Hibernating would be a better and much less emotionally charged word. Every woody plant in my yard grew and set buds for the spring of 2018 last summer. Some buds, on spring flowering trees are flower buds.  Smaller buds will surely become leaves once the weather breaks. The dead leaves from 2017 on the parrotias will be pushed off in the spring, when the 2018 leaf buds set in 2017, swell and grow. The parrotias were ready for this winter long before I was.

The flower buds on magnolia trees are large and fuzzy. No big fuzzy oval buds on a magnolia going in to winter means there will be no flowers. Terribly cold weather can damage or destroy those flower buds, while the leaf buds survive. A flower bud is a big and vulnerable structure, whereas every tree keeps their leaf buds close to their vest until the winter passes. It is an easy matter to spot magnolia flower buds in winter, especially when a light and dry snow falls. You can see your future in the garden if you see the signs. Happily, I see magnolia flowers in my future.

Nature does not wait until the last minute to make a move. As no growth goes on during the winter months, the formation of buds for the spring to come have to be made many months in advance. This is why watering trees and shrubs in August and on through the fall is so important. Once the leaves drop, and the ground freezes, there will be no more activity until the season turns to spring. It only makes sense that the growth of any woody plant instigated by the spring of one year culminates in the readiness for the spring of the following year. This is not in any way magical.  It is survival.

The dogwoods are the easiest to read. The big fat round buds set in September are flower buds. The small pointed buds will eventually unfurl and become leaves. In a way, I regret knowing in advance whether there will be a heavy dogwood bloom 6 months in advance of the fact. But I do like knowing in advance that if I water my trees properly at the time they are setting flower and leaf buds, I am giving them a helping hand.

Though it might appear that all there is to see here are sticks and snow, nothing could be further from the truth. Thousands upon thousands of fully formed but dormant buds are ready and waiting for the light to turn green. Imagine that.The spring season every gardener longs for will finally arrive, and will be impossible to keep up with.

The spring is a rush of events almost impossible to keep track of. I am sure there are moments I miss, no matter how much effort I put towards experiencing it all. Today I took note of the columnar fruiting pear tree in the foreground of this picture, and imagined what it will be to see it it in full bloom with the leaf shoots not far behind. I had time for that today. Those flowers in spring will last but a moment.

I also had time to think about how nature is a consummate engineer. Very little of the story of survival is left to chance. That is a big topic best left to the dog days of winter to think about. All the bare branches outlined in snow today were beautiful. But what is simmering beneath the surface is better than beautiful.

These evergreen Frazier fir boughs were cut in November. They were stuffed in to dry floral foam set in the containers I have at the end of my driveway. Though they were cut from the tree 3 months ago, the dormant buds are still plump, juicy, and viable. This is what I would call the miracle of the will to live. That will to live and prosper is so strong in every living thing. Nature makes the plant world, in all of its forms, possible. Viable.

Though the view out my window is this shade of blah and that shade of blah, and all that blah dusted with a fresh layer of snow from grey skies, what lies in wait beneath the surface is very exciting, indeed. Waiting out the winter is an exercise in restraint and appreciation. Truly.


Homing In On Winter: Part 2



Growing amaryllis in glass jars on a window sill is one way to keep the spirit of the garden going on in the winter months.  That said, gardeners like me are hard to persuade.   Those who insist that the garden is over at that moment we have a hard frost are selling their inclination to garden short.  Very short.  A gardener’s point of view is strong-all year long.  It doesn’t much matter whether you garden in Austin or Olympia or Chicago or Miami-a love of the garden can electrify a life.  Garden on-everyone.  If you garden in my zone, there are those “other six months”-like them or not. 

This might be my most favorite container I have ever planted at home.  For sure, it is my most favorite photograph of one of my containers.  How I loved how this looked, and how I regretted watching it succumb to the cold.  These Italian pots are in the basement now.  It is a quiet time for them.  Time for me to move on.

The winter season has its opportunities.  Winter arrangements in frostproof containers not only help stave off the off season blues, they are a delight to the eye.  Our shop is very busy-constructing winter gardens that reference the garden.  We produce an enormous amount of work for clients between mid November and mid December, but this post is not about my work.  I am interested in in passing along what all of that work, and all of that contact with people keenly interested in the garden, has taught me.  The upshot- every gardener has options.  All year round.  Every season.    

The moment any gardener decides to make something -and by this I mean envision, create, construct, edit, and install-is a good and satisfying series of moments.  As heartbreaking as it is to watch the garden go dormant, it is equally exciting to have a winter gardening season asking for a gardener’s best effort. Feeling low?  The best counter to that is to make something.  Make something be.  Make something happen.    

Winter container arrangements speak the language of the garden.  More importantly, they scoop up, engage, and occupy the heart of any serious gardener.  Be generous.  Go large.  

Those topiary forms that over the course of the summer that provide a form for hyacinth bean vines or mandevillea can provide a structure for winter lighting.   Lighting in the winter-essential.  Should you garden in my zone, the dark at 4pm is soon to come.  Light up the night.     

These pots are stuffed with greens.  Fresh evergreens.  In the center, variegated English boxwood.  The steel topiary forms are detailed with lights.  The time it takes to create a winter arrangement like this is time very well spent.  The process of coming to grips with the winter is every bit as important, maybe more important, than the passing of the summer garden.  Change is not so easy, but change is essential.

How do I handle the garden going dormant?  I get busy.  I decorate for the holiday-and the winter.  It helps sooth the sting that begins with the first hard frost.

Fresh boxwood is available at your local farmer’s market.  This 54 inch wide boxwood wreath-a request from a client.  Hew plans to decorate his client’s home in a big and positive way.  Spend more time making your winter season beautiful. 

Whenever I am making something, I am happy.  My advice?  Get busy.  Make something.  Make something beautiful.  I promise-the winter will fly by. 




Something In The Air

Given our warm weather last week, I foolishly expected to sense some sign of spring in the air. This foolishness on my part will happen at least 6 more times before nature finally decides to change the channel.  The weather report duly noted that we had already had our average quota of snow for a winter-I was feeling home free.      

What began as a few big flakes escalated into a driving rain of flakes in a matter of minutes.  I am looking out the window of my office this past Sunday afternoon-incredulous would accurately describe my reaction.  Who told me this was on the way?  I moved on to avoiding paying any mind to what was in the air-I had a bigger mission.  My beloved camera had disappeared.  How so?  Every winter, I close the shop except by chance or appointment, between January 15 and March 1.  How else could I clean, repaint, rework, and refresh?  That camera-no doubt I had laid it down somewhere in all the confusion-but where, exactly?     

On my fifth tour of the building, I find my camera.  I rush outside; it is snowing heavily, crazily-fast and furious.  I take lots pictures.  I have friends and colleagues who are professional photographers.  They would not dream of taking their camera out in the rain, or the snow.  I have a different take.  My camera is a tool whose images help me see, design, record.  More importantly, I am not a skier, bobsledder or figure skater.  Taking these pictures-winter recreation.  So far, so good.       

Strong winds blew over the outermost concrete pots in front of the shop-this is a first.  These pots weigh 600 pounds when they are filled with dirt.  Not long after that gust, heavy snow began to bury them.  No matter how patiently and efficiently I design, nature holds and is not shy about playing her trump cards.  Any exposure to nature-a sobering experience.  Anything that blowqs over in a storm stays put, until the wind moves on to some other city.   

Frozen water in the air-a natural experience should you garden in the snow belt.  Any landscape needs to have room for that big natural gesture that defines their zone.  Gardeners in northern climates know what I mean.  Early freezing.  January thaws. Chilly Mays-snow flurries early in June.  Unexpected winds.  You gardeners in Oregon, California and Georgia-you have your issues-different than mine.    

The entire landscape at the shop has gone to white, taupe, and black.  The red glass holiday balls are way past that holiday season, but they comfort me in February.  That color is a relief.  It was also interesting to find out that ornament meant for a tree indoors is perfectly happy outdoors in extremely cold and wintry weather.  Not that I needed to see any more snow, but heavy snow in the air is not only beautiful, it is entertaining.    

Red tulips dominate my spring neighborhood landscapes.  I am not there yet-spring is a long ways off.  But this dash of red keeps a certain fire burning.  I was relieved that above freezing temperatures had removed the snow load from the boxwood. Just in time for more snow.    

That relief was short lived.  After close to an hour outside, I realized I had locked myself out of the shop.   I walked many blocks to a friend with a phone; Buck picked me up, and took me back to the shop.  The corgis were glad to be rescued-but not nearly as glad as I.  Sorry to say-my winter persists.       

It does not really seem like news at all, but this is what we have going on-10 inches of unexpected snow.

Holiday Diorama


I have one room in the shop from which I removed the solid roof, and installed the roof of an abandoned glass house.  Many years later, 15 creeping fig plants have completely covered the walls. In early spring this space provides protection for tender plants.  The summer sun shining down and through the glass roof endows this space with heat.  This hot space encourages the fig, tender begonias, tropical ferns-not to mention all of the gardeners that appreciate this growing space.  A concrete fountain built from an old French design sits on top of the one place we could not remove the concrete floor next to the wall for the fig; an old concrete waste oil tank sits below the surface.  So we built over it; the sound of the water in the space is great. I have water, light and plants in this room, year round.      

When the growing season closes, Rob makes the moves it takes to move on. How can this green wall be transformed?  He invariably has a big idea I do not see coming.  Hundreds of white birch sticks have been stashed in the garage for better than a month-waiting to be transformed into a birch forest holiday diorama.  If you are wondering if we really talk this way-holiday diorama-the answer is yes.  What you give a name to helps to endow an idea with an identity.  Brooklyn Botanical Garden is a name that says science; La Foce speaks to romance and magic.  

Chocolate terra cotta squares-they are Rob’s idea for a home for the birch.  How can we get those heavy branches to sit up straight?   My landscape superintendent Steve Bernard suggested Rob might sink those birch branches in washed sand.  This worked perfectly.  Every birch stick is standing tall; anyone wanting a birch stick for there own holiday will have no problem lifting out the sticks of their choice.  Steve made his contribution to the display early on. 

Rob knew to buy stout white birch poles, silver snowflakes in various materials and sizes, and snowballs.  Putting them together in this particular way involves introuducing the materials to each other, and to a space.  This is a romantic description of what is really about persistence.  He hauls materials all over the place until he sees something that he likes.  So much of successful design involves persistence and patience. 

The relationship of the materials is easy to believe; where there are snowflakes, snow balls cannot be far behind.  A visually successful arrangement is believable.  I do have a neighbor down the street with a life size lighted palm tree in her front yard-this would not be for me.  The contrast of texture, shape, and mass is pleasing. The white against the dark green of the fig wall looks good.

At the last minute, Rob had Catherine add stars to the mix. How this wall looks now could not be more unlike its summer appearance.  The dramatic change is enchanting.  Every person who sees it takes something away from it that is all their own. I had a lengthy discussion with one person about the cultural requirements of Himalayan white barked birch.  Another person planned to use a birch stick as a rod over her kitchen window, and hang ornaments from it like a valance.  Yet another planned to mass snowballs and snowflakes in a white washed vintage box on her front porch.  Our discussion was primarily about how she would light it.   

Of course we needed some lighting; daylight savings time means the dark comes early now.  White and chartreuse light garlands warm up the space on a cold and gloomy afternoon.  A midwestern summer garden can be sunny from dawn to very late in the day.  A winter garden is divided between day and night, and always about not so many sunny days.  A great holiday display takes lighting into consideration. 

Anyone can garden in the winter.  There are plenty of materials that can be arranged in those pots that held tree ferns over the summer. A favorite bench can be lit from the front with a spot light, or from below with strings of lights strewn on the ground.  Decorating a garden with holiday or winter lighting is an alternative type of gardening, but gardening none the less.  There are those gardeners that are relieved when a hard freeze puts an end to the season.  There is something attractive about putting the spade and pruners away for a while, but I like to keep on gardening.