Growing Evergreens in Pots

Gardner 2005 (5)On my top ten list of frequently asked questions, the culture of evergreens in pots ranks right up there.  In theory it sounds great.  You invest in an evergreen which will provide you with a center of interest that looks great no matter the season. Perhaps there will be room on the edges for a few seasonal annuals.  The work and expense up front is considerably more than planting smaller and less expensive plants, but then you are done.  Redoing one’s pots with new plants every new season no doubt is a lot of work and expense. But as with everything connected to growing a garden, one is rarely “done”.  The Italian cypress in the pot pictured above is not hardy in Michigan, nor can one leave a terra cotta pot such as this one outdoors during the winter.  The cypress has to be wintered in a greenhouse cold storage area, and replanted every spring.  The pot is put away. There is time and trouble hauling it back to the greenhouse in late fall. 

Ford 2005 (2)This 25 year old rosemary has spent 25 winters in a glass house.  It is an evergreen-should you live in Greece or Italy, or California. Michigan winters are fiercely cold.  However unfair it seems, rosemary is just not hardy here. In return for the extraordinary pleasure of owning an old rosemary such as this one, my client is willing to weather what it takes to keep it alive and healthy.

Birmingham (14)Junipers on the other hand are ruggedly hardy. But key to the successful culture of evergreens in pots is to understand that at best, they tolerate this treatment. Growing a plant in a pot is actually about growing a plant with its roots above ground.  No plant likes this-they may or may not put up with it.  Siting is the first crucial issue.  Evergreens must survive the winter and stay green without being able to take up water.  A windy location can dessicate the needles-thus the term, winter burn.  A winter burned plant is still alive, but it’s not a good look.  It will take time to grow out of the scorched needle phase.

Orley 7-07 (2)Mugho pines, both the shrubby and the topiary forms, have the reputation of good survivability in pots.  Critical to that survival is proper watering. Should you quit watering this evergreen when your geraniums go down from frost, you are almost certain to loose it.  Judicious watering right up until the soil ball is frozen solid is a must.  If this evergreen were to unfreeze in a January thaw,  a watering might be in order.  When the soil thaws in the spring, the watering should be resumed-even if this is long before you plant your other pots.  What evergreens in containers require is not for the faint of heart.

BirmPots (26)This grand old myrtle topiary was beautifully maintained, for 11 summers.  The 12th winter in the greenhouse, a furnace went out, and it froze.  It has been in the greenhouse for the past two years; we are trying to coax it back to health.  Owning plants like this is a big committment with little in the way of any guarantee.  Just because you have provided next to perfect care for a long time does not mean you cannot loose it.  Evergreens in containers are for gardeners who relish risk. 

Hudas 8-06 (16)These mugho pines on standard have lived in these orangery boxes for 6 years.  At some point, they should be taken out, root pruned, and reset in fresh soil.  They will most certainly decline without this maintenance.  No plant stays the same, just because its container stays the same.  Plants will prosper and grow, or sulk and decline-one or the other. 

Sept 30a 005Boxwood is a good choice for a container.  As this French terra cotta pot cannot be left out, I wheel this entire assembly into the garage for the winter.  This species, Buxus Microphylla, is very tough; my hedge on the southside of my building never winter burns. In the same spirit, it tolerates a mostly dark and unheated garage from November until March.  At the first sign of moderating temperatures, I take it back outside.  A garage can get too warm for holding plants dormant long before the outside temperatures moderate. 

Sept 30a 002Waxleaf privets are an aristocratic cousin of our hardy privet.  The large leaves are lustrous and juicy looking.  They are hardy in zone 7, so they can be wintered in an indoor spot without much in the way of heat.  They grow slowly, and are available in big sizes; there is demand for the topiary forms from gardeners in more temperate regions.  They take well to pruning and shaping. 

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These giant scotch pine on standard are breathtakingly beautiful. I kept them in equally giant wood barrels for the better part of two years, before I sold them.  Evergreens need big rootballs to insure successful transplanting-so pots for evergreens need to be large.  Boxwood balls are usually larger than their foliage diameter. A well-grown evergreen in a gorgeous container is hard to beat; most likely I will keep on trying to grow them.

The View

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As you can see from this early construction picture, a good portion of the exterior of this house was slated for glass. I would not call these windows; this is glass as a building material.  Given that I was able to see the back wall of the house from across the street, a good bit of the landscape design would involve attention to the views-from inside out, and outside in.  Though the architect would be installing blinds that could be operated via an electric switch, the client was interesting in flooding her home with as much light as possible.

Aug 28a 309Luckily glass reflects light during the day.  Her life would not be on visual review from all the neighboring properties-except at night.  Given the very small size of the lot, the architect had designed a basement garage accessible from a sharply pitched drive.  I did admire how he managed to exclude the garage from the visual presentation of the of the house. The garage is rarely the most beautiful feature of a home.  It was necessary to retain the soil surrounding the house in order to permit a drive surface below grade.  This was accomplished cleanly with corrugated steel capped in corten.

Aug 28a 304The house is very tall, and the stone and glass edifice is starkly contemporary.  The land unoccupied by the house amounted to an L-shaped strip barely wider than the right of way between the street and the sidewalk. Some homes are architecturally demanding buildings.  By this I mean their sculptural element dominates the space.  My client has a big love for contemporary art and  architecture-such that the prospect of living in a sculpture appealed to her. It was my job to design a landscape that would in no way interfere with the one thought-the sculpture that would also provide a home to her.  This landscape would in no way be about plants; it needed to be about sculpture too.

Aug 28a 303The slanted steel roof presented its own problem-how to handle rain water.  A drainage system was designed, and approved by the city. It was very expensive, but it prevented water from flooding the neighboring property.  The front porch under construction here would necessitate a big flight of steps, as the bottom of the glass panels matched the grade of the first floor living space. 

Aug 28c 884As with any contemporary landscape, a restricted palette of materials makes for a clean and strong statement.  I planted a slew of Salix purpurea nana-commonly known as dwarf actic willow.  Its gracefully meadow-like appearance sharply contrasted to the hard surfaces of the house, and softened them.  The blocks of willows would be mulched in granite gravel.  The columnar poplars would not obstruct the views of the house, but would slightly break up the stone and glass surface. The placement was dictated in part to provide good views from the inside of the trees outdoors. 

Aug 28c 882The transition from the willows to the walk would be handled by lawn.  It was important for a house this size to visually include the right of way landscape, so more lawn was in order. 

Steinhardt0005Given some time, the willows took hold.  Their dense billowing appearance is simple and handsome.  These densely twiggy shrubs are solid and graceful.  Their mature height barely sweeps the bottom of the glass panels.  Their slightly bluish cast repeated the blue-green color of the poplar leaves.

Steinhardt0009The walkway to the side door is embedded in this meadow as well.   A retaining wall which permitted windows to be installed at the basement level is no longer visible-as the wall is strictly utilitarian, we screened it from view.  The look of a shrubby willow reminds me of an ornamental grass.  Ornamental grasses are difficult in the winter season.  Leave them tall over the winter-heavy snow will knock them over, and spring winds will scatter their broken branches everywhere.  Trimmed to the ground in the fall-that look is not so appealing either.  Some prominent places in a landscape wanting grasses might benefit from being shrubbed up with dwarf willows. 

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Watching my client wade through the meadow to the door was hands down my favorite part of this landscape-this a little human scale comic relief.  We did however eventually prune it to appear as though we had chopped a path through a wild garden, and poured a concrete walk. The house appears all the more handsome from a landscape that took its cue from all that gorgeous glass.

The Close of Summer

Sept 19 001There are plenty of evenings during the course of the summer that I don’t have dinner outdoors-It could be too hot, or too buggy, or I might just be too tired to take everything outside only to have to bring it back in again.  I also believe I have no end of summer days to choose from, but end they do.  Yesterday it was benignly summer; today the weather is is cold and blustering towards fall.  I know when I start coming to work in the dark, the close of summer can’t be far behind. As many nights as possible now, we all have dinner outdoors.

sept10 010Buck does all the cooking-lucky for me.  My idea of dinner on my own consists of cans of black olives, chick peas, tinned tuna, slabs of good cheese and chips of some sort.  I am also likely to eat this over the sink; who would make the effort to set a table, and then wash dishes over this? On my own, I don’t cook, I survive.  I take care of what needs doing in support of the cooking, and I am happy with this arrangement.  Buck decides to do a roast on the grill for our close of summer dinner.

Sept 19 015One doesn’t need to cook in order to appreciate great china. I could get out of hand easily; there are plenty of great china patterns out there.  I get by with 2 sets; one is on permanent view on a shelf just sixteen inches below the ceiling in my kitchen. I take it down once a year to wash it; it’s out of the way, but always there for me to see.  I built a painted Welsh cabinet for my other set.  It took a long time to accumulate a service for eight, and even more time for the platters, breadbaskets and such.  It was worth the wait; it is as much pleasure to look at as it is functional. 

Sept 25aa 015This French china is handmade by Veronique Pichon. None of her pieces have that perfect shape and repetition of design characteristic of machine made china. It is heavy, chunky and chip resistant-a good choice for china used outdoors.  The green and ochre ground, with handpainted pink and rose flowers, looks good set in my garden. 

Sept 25aa 013My stainless flatware has olivewood handles set in pewter ferrules.  The color variation in the wood has everything to do with the dishwasher.  The handles of the utensils I use every day have gone dark.  As we only have dessert once in a great while, the olivewood is still pale colored.  As much as I like limestone steps that are worn from all the walking, I like things that look like they have been used. 

Sept 25aa 010Of course we need flowers.  The boltonia, Japanese anemone and asparagus from the garden look good in a McCoy ceramic vase from the forties.  Cut flowers last such a long time outdoors-it must be the light. Cut flowers have a decidedly different feeling than flowers planted in the ground, as they are arranged.

sept10 066Buck loves to cook, and he says the rotisserie on the grill makes the work of it easy. If you are not a fan of cleaning the oven, cleaning a drip pan takes a lot less time and effort.  The big design idea here-a terrace which is close to the kitchen makes it as easy to dine outside as it is to picnic-maybe easier.  Good tools make quick work of the prep and cleanup. Sturdy china doesn’t mind being stacked for the trip back to the kitchen.    

Sept 25aa 049I like fresh food simply prepared-probably as I have been exposed to how good that can be.  Food for me is not the main attraction-it is the place, the friends, the season and the weather and the food all rolled together that makes for a great time. 

Sept 25aa 052A pavlova for dessert-definitely out of the ordinary.  A shell formed from a baked meringue is loaded with whipped cream and mascarpone cheese; this melt in your moth extravaganza is topped with a mix of the fruit of the season.  Invented in New Zealand in honor of a visit by Anna Pavlova, it is my favorite summer dessert. 

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The dark is coming early now. The porch light is on for the first time in a very long time.  Though we will no doubt get a few more chances to have dinner outside, we might need to bring blankets. Though I regret the changing of the season, I am glad to have had for a time however short,  a good gardening summer.

Sunday Opinion: Atmospheric Conditions

Very late yesterday afternoon a good client came in with a request; could I replant her terrace pots for an event scheduled for ten am this morning? I’ve known her long enough to know she is a young and talented professional who had successfully held down a number of high-powered and demanding jobs.  I know she is formidably intelligent and hard-working.  Suffice it to say I have met many people capable of great compassion; she is remarkable in how compassionately she lives her life.  A new job she was crazy about had been eliminated in a round of budget cuts, leaving her unexpectedly unemployed.  As for replanting her terrace garden in less than 24 hours over a weekend-I also know her well enough to know she wasn’t kidding.  As I hate to say no to any request for a garden no matter the parameters, I waited for more details.  Regularly people ask me for gardens, when that is not what they really want.  I find often as not that what they really want is some part of what a garden represents to them, that can be better gotten elsewhere.  A woman new to my area with three small children wanted a sports court.  I gave her the locations of three parks with sports courts close to her new neighborhood to check out.  I asked to to let me know what features she liked.  I never heard from her again; I am sure she realized that taking her children to her neighborhood park, and reaching out to her neighbors was a better solution for her isolation.  As for my client, I doubted she was preparing for a job interview on the terrace of her condo on a Sunday morning, but I was only partially right.

She would be interviewed, for a television documentary being filmed on the baby boomer generation.  I missed some of the details, but she had had occasion to talk to Tom Brokaw at an event at the University of Michigan on Saturday. He explained he was in the process of filming a story in which he intended to detail and investigate the issues facing her generation via a series of interviews. He asked if he could interview her in greater depth, at her home, the next morning, as he was impressed with how articulate she was. I asked what  she had said that had piqued his interest.  “I told him that I was at a point where I need a husband or a job”, she said.  As I know her to be confidently plain spoken, his interest in her did not surprise me in the least.

If I thought I was going to be interviewed at home by Tom Brokaw, my first thought would be how to get the place suitably dolled up-so I knew I had to get those terrace pots replanted.  It took a little while to convince her that she could do it herself.  As there was no way I was hauling seven gallon pots overflowing with ornamental cabbages up the three flights of stairs, and through her house out to her terrace, I had to convince her.  As I have always done her pots for her, I also had to loan her garden tools, and explain how to keep the debris from the old plantings from falling through the floor onto the terrace below her. As I subscribe to that notion that you never know when you are going to meet your intended, I strongly encouraged her to ask him for his ideas about how she could find that husband, or that job. Why not?  I stuffed her Prius with plants, and shooed her out of here.  As she is a very independent sort, I had only one phone call, with one question taking no more than 30 seconds.  I am sure the terrace looked beautiful this morning.

This morning I am not thinking about why Diane’s pots were full of dead, or almost dead plants.  She told me why; she had just quit watering them.  Why she quit-I have my ideas, but I don’t see that they matter.  What I did wonder was how much more effectively she would have communicated how she felt about her life, a job, a home, her culture, her situation-  had she left those dead plants for him to see. An abandoned garden, a fading bloom, a killing frost, the failing light-my emotional connection to what I do, and what I do that ends or fails, is strong.   Though I have long known that she was single, I have never had her ask me to plant the terrace with a little romance in mind. I plan to address that, the next opportunity I get. In my opinion, the most beautiful landscapes strike a powerful emotional chord with a viewer. They have atmosphere.  They may have fountains, or grass paths or shasta daisies or not,  but their most compelling feature is an unmistakeably emotionally charged atmosphere.  The gardenmaker has transformed some part of themselves into a sculpture, which is a place for others to be.  There is a question being asked, a story being told, a sanctuary being built, a celebration in progress. Gardens in which people are personally involved are the most satisfying to see.

The most emotionally charged landscape I have ever had the privilege to visit is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin.  No one there while I was there spoke above a whisper; it is clearly sacred ground. I am sure many thousands of American hands have traced the letters of the names of those who gave their lives,  inscribed in the stone of the wall.  The voices of the dead and the voices of the families of the dead can be heard, if you listen.  The bouquets of flowers, the boxes containing medals, the faded letters left at the foot of the wall are collected every day, only to be replaced the next day with more; people feel free to respond to what they experience there with their most powerful feelings. Feeling free to express is a privilege to which my country has a long history of committment. Standing there, I felt what it means to be an American.  The experience of reading the names of college friends who died in this war precipitated a flood of memories I did not remember I had.  I felt a strong empathy with everyone else I saw there, though I knew I would never see them again.  The wall is set into the side of a grassy slope.  Someone once wrote that they could imagine after generations, that the grass would grow over the face of the wall altogether, and the granite gash in the land that symbolizes a war our country fought at great human cost,  would be healed.  Well said. 

The only person that my little garden heals is me, but that is enough.  Some days the peace of it and the home of it washes over me like a warm wave.  Watching over the growing makes me feel like I have contributed a little something. If you are making a garden, the voice that is all your own will charge the atmosphere.  In store for this client next year, a garden plan of a different sort.  Why not?