Pink Of My John

Viola tricolor is a very old garden species-known to most north American gardeners as Johnny Jump Ups.  This weedy and equally cheery viola will seed with abandon, once you have it, and have it happy.  It has many common names in England; “Pink of My John” is my favorite of those names.  Many of the common names for violas have to do with the part of love that is pure folly-any gardener understands all about love and folly. Pink of My John may perfectly describe my relationship with my garden.  I had a wild garden of considerable size many years ago-the grass in that area was overrun with every color of violet imaginable-how I loved this.  Viola, violet, pansy-I am a fan of the entire range.  In the early 19th century, Viola tricolor was crossed with a variety of other viola species, resulting in the hybrids viola x wittrockiana.  Simply stated, the pansy.   

The word pansy derives in part from the French word “pensee”-which literally translates as “thought”.  Pansies frequently have dark faces-thus the human reference.  I myself am much more fond of pansies without faces-I like my spring color clear and strong.  The ”Clear Sky” series of pansies are remarkably floriferous, and come back reliably from a fall planting in my zone.  This Clear Sky light blue, with its darker blue blush is so distinctively a sign of spring.  I know of no other flower, in any other season, that has this color.  Several years ago it was the thrill of a lifetime to be in Texas to see the blubonnets blooming everywhere in late March. For one wild moment I thought I would have to move to Texas, just to have that blue in my life.  

White flowers-I could write at least a dozen essays about their appeal.  The white pansies are a little shy in their blooming until it warms up-but when they do bloom, you notice. A pansy flower does have the most beautiful form-does it not?

Clear Sky blue is just that-saturated sky blue.  Pansy flowers have little substance; they are thin petalled.  In the right situation, the sunlight coming through this pansy is an experience of color that no paint could ever deliver.  Living blue. All of us who have endured a very long winter-the signs of life are more than welcome.

This viola is from the Sorbet series-Lemon Chiffon is an appropriate name.  Plant hybridizers are those scientists behind the scenes that breed plants for great color, heavy flowering, disease resistance-and in the case of pansies, heat tolerance.  The new hybrids of pansies can perform non-stop through the end of June in my zone.  As I do not plant my summer pots until all of my clients pots are done, a spring planting tides me over.   

I like seeing hybridizers introducing color mixes.  This mix called Ocean Breeze- has four related color groups-and everything in between.  Masses of an identical color are dramatic.  Masses of varying and related colors are charming and friendly.  These violas are notable for their dark lines-known as whiskers.  The whiskers-are they not beautiful? 

These violas represent another mix; the citrus mix comes on fast and blooms like crazy. Planted up, there is a rhythm and beat that is really tough to ignore.  Such small flowers, organizing a following-I am impressed.

This purple picotee pansy is a new one for us this year.  Mark assured me that he saw it perform well in trials.  The whiskers, the white, the purple edges-a happening. 


My advice; don’t skip the spring. Leap into it; you will not be sorry.

Spring Schemes

I am at that weepy stage-I am so glad spring is finally knocking at my garden door.  Tomorrow Mark is delivering the first full truckload of spring plants-this is my idea of an important event. My perennial garden is still sleepy-but for the crocus, and the magnolia buds.  OK, the butterburr and hellebore flowers have broken ground-tentatively.  I am hoping by time things break loose at home, I will be negotiating steps like a regular person.  But I digress-my topic today has to do with the colors of spring-are they not so specific to this season?  I make a point of planting in some way with spring flowers; no matter how fleeting the season, I would not think of doing without them.   


Blue pansies and blue lobelia-this color is seasonal color in Michigan; sign up now, or hold your peace until next spring.  I am not so much a fan of blue-except for spring blues.  The clear sky pansies, the lobelia-delicious.  I like pairing the blues with the greens-they are courteous enough to yield the floor to each other.  By this I mean, some partnerships are perfect.  Persian Queen geraniums and creeping jenny lend the lime to the scene; parsley is never so ornamental as it is in the spring.  The texture is rewarding, the dark green color previews the gardening season to come.  Those among you that value parsley as an herb; fine- there are lots of gardeners out there that would have a mind to plant parsley for the betterment of a dinner.  But there are those of us who see parsley ornamentally; I like mine in spring pots.   

Queen of the Night tulips-a dark purple color that goes to black in certain early spring light.  I am mostly a fan of that rich purple part- any plant rich with color this time of year warms me up.  These dark purple tulips that have blue green company from their foliage.       

This photograph is from a spring some years ago.  I do not tire of seeing these older pictures.  The black, white, and lime spring color scheme is a good one.  I would go so far as to go on record- this combination of colors is a favorite.  The black tulips can be very drab if you don’t view them up close.  The white highlights their deep color. 

Black and white tulips-so beautiful.  Every garden has a conversation going on-listen, if you will.  Sometimes I step back, and let the garden speak for itself.  My only wish for my garden, and my client’s gardens-that all of us have a garden that speaks back on occasion.

These pale and icy yellow pansies -so easy on the eye inthe spring. Clear Sky primrose. The hosta tribe-soon to spring to life-they provide structure, shelter in this pot.  The yellow reeds add some height and texture. 

The lavenders, and their sturdy parent, the purples, bring a spring to life.  The stone,  lead and concrete and steel endure-as well they should.  But every garden pot, ornament, trellis, bench, fountain,  bucket and cistern longs for some life. Spring plants to the rescue.   

My most favorite plant of the spring season-citron alyssum.  Do you know it-that pale yellow alyssum that wakes up late, but  lasts late into the summer.  Many stars of the garden are modest.  Mostly I avoid saying the words alyssum citron.  I let the plant speak for itself. It is a great companion for yellow petunias and pansies-and most herbs.  

Spring schemes-I am keen to see how trhis year’s scheme works out.  It will not be long now.

The Big Picture

I have been consulting with a client who has an existing landscape.  They know it is unfinished, and unresolved.  They gave me their drawing in tandem with a request.  We cannot really explain what is not working here, but can you help us get a little room for something colorful and lively?  I plan to help them.  So what do I not like about this drawing?  The drawing is not color coded. I can read lines, but I do this for a living.  A group of lines-not friendly to a client.  Would it not be good to differentiate the like trees from the grass from the like and the different shrubs?  A landscape drawing may make me think about the artful signature that is a line-but a landscape schematic needs to explain clearly its idea to its intended.  Where is the house?  What part is the driveway, and what part is the living landscape? Where will the tulips go?  Four rectangles at an angle strongly suggest the parking scheme-at least to me.  But where is the living and breathing part?  Where in this drawing is what will make architecture and nature intersect, beautifully?  Everyone wants to come home, and be glad for where they live-a good landscape plan fosters this.  A clearly drawn plan will show if this is working, or not.      

My client has no end of boxwood-strikingly well grown, and maintained.  Miles and miles of it.  Well grown plants do not necessarily make a coherent and beautiful landscape-I tell them.  I have plenty of personal experience.  My perfectly grown clematis, the hybrid known as  Sho-Un, was planted in a spot the most rank amateur gardener would avoid-what was my problem? Five years later, I had to move it-and in moving it, I killed it.  I understood my clients concern about changing up many miles of beautifully grown plants., but in this case, I think it is worth the trouble.    

The dominant feature of this entry landscape drawing is a drivecourt of monumental proportions.  I could stage a rock concert here, or a reception for four hundred people, and have room to spare.  As much as I admire its bold scale, it seems natural to key the landscape elements in recognition and reinforcement of the shape it describes. There will be no ignoring it.  It is large enough that a landscape feature could exist in that oval of paving stone, and not obstruct traffic in the least.

This photograph may give you a better idea of the drivecourt square footage in question. The center oval detailed in a different material from the rest of the asphalt drive was a good move. Nonetheless, we are looking at a giant space here.  A sweeping move of this scale needs friendly and solid company.  The existing landscape pays no mind, does not follow up a gesture of this scale.  The drivecourt as it stands-lonely.  The boxwood look very small, and not as visually important as they should.  Some larger growing plant element backing up that boxwood will add weight and visual heft. 

The walk to the front door needs to set a mood.  Hello, and welcome to my home-this idea does fine, for starters.  Beyond the welcome, that walk should represent a distinctive and strong hello.  A house is a very large object; the landscape should help sit that structure down onto the land.      

These gorgeously grown diamonds of boxwood are just that-gorgeously grown diamonds.   This shape and configuration is outside the language established by the architecture of the house,  and its attendant drivecourt. The drivecourt, in my mind, is all about beautiful curves, and not much about diamonds. What will I do with these boxwood diamonds?   

The original drawing is focused on the drivecourt, with no indication of how that landscape would sit on the property as a whole.  My perspective?   Every landscape composition needs to be detailed with all the edges in evidence.  The foreground space implies a midground space-and a far view.  I orient my drawings to the primary view-from the front door out. I redrew their landcape plan in an effort to make the house, drivecourt and landscape more harmonic, and less fussy.  What would you want to see every day? My idea-emphasize what is already there in such a way that the big picture is clearly stated. 

This drivecourt-of massive proportion and clear design-I have a mind to go along amicably, and reinforce its big statement.  The big statement in any landscape-I would advise you to figure out what that statement is, and go for broke-in support.  I come in contact with plenty of statements not of my choosing or design-this does not bother me in the least.  Any existing big statement implies consent.  I have no need to go back to the beginning.  I like to put my weight to any idea a client felt comfortable consenting to. If you have inherited a landscape, what are the strong elements well worth keeping? 

The both of them understood the difference between beautifully grown plants, and a beautiful landscape.  We spent the better part of two hours going over their issues.  Hopefully moving some plants, and adding a little of this and that will better serve them-and showcase all those beautiful plants.     


What they see, near and far,  should provide visual exploration of the big picture.

Sunday Opinion: Convince Me

On occasion I will have that client who tells me I need to convince them that they should grow such and such a plant, or reconfigure a portion of their garden like so.  Hmm.  On the subject of what seems convincing, I do admire those landscapes that seem to be all of a piece.  A clear vision, consistent language and execution is very much about what I do, and what I hope to do.  A great garden feels like a world unto itself-complete, confident, and convincing.  The French royal gardens designed and built by Andre LeNotre in the 19th century are certainly a world unto themselves in every detail.  Who does not admire how French garden designers were and are able to edit and edit again?  Their gardens are finely distilled creations that make you feel as though in addition to seeing them, you have had a generous glass of some fabulously complex and satisfying French wine.  I may experience a landscape and drink the attendant wine many times, and be convinced of its beauty-but this does not convince me that I should have such a garden myself.

Some gardens are unforgettable, they are so completely convincing.  Many years ago I saw an old Victorian house, with a rectangular vegetable patch off center in the front yard.  In the spring, there would be rows of lettuce of many different varieties, each separated by a row of orange marigolds. The patch would evolve over the summer, as she planted vegetables of the season. She did not grow every vegetable available to her-she chose to plant only certain vegetables, with specific varieties of flowers. Though the garden would evolve over the summer, it had that unmistakeable look of belonging to someone with a definite point of view.  I have never forgotten the garden; it was charmingly believable.  I went so far as to try to imagine its owner, and what she might be like.  Did this garden convince me to have one like it-no.  I was only convinced that how she gardened genuinely represented her idea of beautiful. 

A convincing garden is much like a country of its own.  There is a visual language, rules, boundaries.  Neighborhoods are laid out just so.  There are roads, stop signs, places to park oneself, shelter; one may or may not need to ask for directions.  There may be a park, or a sports field.  There will be a government in place, though the style may vary greatly; someone is most assuredly in charge.  Some governing bodies are quite democratic; I am sure Buck would describe mine as a not always  so benevolent monarchy. He is funny, that one-but he has a point.  I have staved off every request he has made for a few tomato plants.  We tried them one year.  What a terrific amount of room they took, and what a mess they made, for not much fruit.  I have adhered to my no vegetable zone policy ever since. Buck actually likes his weekly trip to Farm Boy Produce on Auburn Road; everyone is happy. One of the great and adult pleasures of a garden is that you get to be in charge of how it looks-for better or for worse.  On certain issues, I am happy to entertain other ideas-but I reserve the right to refuse to be convinced.

In my opinion, design for clients is not so much about convincing them to do this or that.  I like the word convincing as an adverb, much better than a verb.  Too many things work in a landscape for me to to insist that what I have in mind is the right course.  There are as many right courses as there are people who make a career of persuading others.  When someone is trying to persuade me, I cannot help but feel their underlying assumption is that they know what is right.  Their job is to get me to recognize that. Isn there not great potential for irritation-someone with the attitude that they know to a certainty what is right for your garden?  I find the best design relationships are just that-a relationship.  Any client can assume I design with them in mind-as much as I am able.  If the design interests them, there must be something in it that strikes a chord, and resonates.  Prints can be hard to interpret with a 3-D understanding;I make every effort to explain clearly what leads me to any given plan.  Explaining is vastly different, and much more friendly than that persuasion business.  Clients may say yes or no, or maybe- with this change.  They are, after all, in charge of their garden. 

There all always exceptions.  I will never forget an older Italian business man who came into the shop. He loved anything Italian, every Italian garden, and his business-a big business he had made from the ground up.  He bought a very old marble fragment of a lion-as I recall, the two back paws were missing.  Though there surely had been a marble base at one time, it no longer existed. The sculpture was Italian in origin, and feeling-and large.  It had to have been four feet long and two feet wide; the marble was greatly deteriorated from age. He also purchased a simple, even larger English stone cistern.  His idea was to place and prop up the marble lion in the cistern, and display the two, together, in the lobby of his building.  I could neither imagine these two things in concert, nor could I imagine them in a sizeable lobby of a business- but he was sure it would be beautiful, and brushed me off.  I was not convinced, until I saw them installed; the end result was spectacular.  The sculpture had great presence and dignity-I was not able to see what he saw, until they were placed, and lit.  He insisted that the lion appear to be rising out of the cistern; we obliged.  Not that he needed it in any way, I was persuaded by what I saw. 

I suppose that once you invite a designer to play a part in your garden, there is that element of wanting to be convinced.  Should you not be, there are lots of other choices.  Some choices seem not to make very good horticultural sense, but I have seen plenty of plants grow where all my instincts would indicate a no-go. I have been fooled by nature plenty of times.  I am convinced this will happen many more times before I am done designing and gardening.  Clients speaking back-this can fool me; this can delight me.