Sunday Opinion: Nuts In Love

I knew I was nuts in love with gardening at a fairly early age.  In my mid twenties, a single orchid plant I bought on an inexplicable whim-I set the a slipper orchid potted in green plastic on the picnic table under an oak.  This move, the sum total of my interest in the landscape of my rented house in Chapel Hill North Carolina.  A week later I had three.  3 months later I had fifty.  I could not get enough of those paphiopedilums-the slipper orchids. Caring for the paphs left me barely enough time to go to work.  I read everything I could get my hands on.  Though some paphs are ephiphytes (air-rooters), and some are lithophytes, they are by and large rooted in what passes in tropical countries for soil-very composty, thin soil.  From the Paphs I moved on to the phragmepediums-a logical progression to my mind. Slipper orchids with tails-beautiful.

Orchids make up the second largest family of plants on the planet.  This would be in excess of 26,000 species-2 times the number of bird species, and 4 times the number of mammal species.  There are easily over 100,000 cultivars of orchid species.  Though these statistics make my 50 plants seem like nothing, I was 25 and struggling to make ends meet. Nonetheless, I was busy buying orchids. Making homes for them.  Fussing and fretting over them.  Moving on from the paphiopedilums to the phragmipediums-I did not have the sense to realize that if I didn’t want to dig myself in deeper, I should quit digging.  I have been digging ever since. Should you be familiar with orchid flowers-they are not particularly pretty.  They are arresting in form and color.  I was mesmerized. 

 I had a wee garden as a child-my Mom saw to that.  I planted radishes, beans, stuck sticks in the ground, collected rocks, built fences and carved stream beds into the ground.  Though I remember little from that long ago, I remember that dimunuitive landscape.  It was fenced.  My Mom made no inquiries-she averted her gaze. She never intruded-she just encouraged me.  On occasion, I would invite her to my garden-when I was in a tea party mood.   Once I was 10, all of that interest went dormant-until at 25, I saw that orchid.  Some circuit got switched on-a three phase electrical system with three hot wires, and one neutral wire.  240 volts, and 100 amps-this is a whomping lot of electricity.  I was oblivious to the amperage-after all, all I had done was buy an orchid plant. The paphs and the phrags were followed by the dendrobiums, the oncidiums-I was head over heels nuts in love. 

By the time I was 29, in 1979,  I had bought 5 acres of land including an unliveable, and uninsurable house.  I was blithely unconcerned about the furnace set in a hole under the house-on a dirt floor.  My trouble with that would come later.  I could not take my eyes off of all of that land.  I had land.  My nuts in love circuit- switched on.  I cajoled a neighbor with an ancient Ford tractor to set giant boulders in a slope I meant for a rock garden.  I alone double dug a peony bed some 80 feet long.  I mapped out a wild flower garden fully three quarters of an acre, and planted it. Years later, it featured stands of yellow lady slipper orchids, and 2 handsome clumps of cypripedium reginae.  Violets of every description bloomed in the lawn and beds as far as the eye could see.  I sorely miss that garden.  I planted thickets of Michigan holly in the low and swampy spots. I planted starts of acer triflorum-gifts from nurseryman Ed Losely-and dragged the hoses hundreds of feet to keep them watered. A metasequoia from work whose leader had snapped off-I planted that too.  I bought so many peonies I finally lined them out like crops.  Over the course of 15 years I planted better than 20,000 daffodils in the orchard meadow-most of which were purchased at Frank’s nursery for a nickel a piece after Thanksgiving. I had room for everything, and time for little. I would mow the two acres of grass at night-thank heavens my tractor had a headlight.  Gardening with a flashlight-routine. The grime under my nails was a permanent fixture. 

That five acre property from my thirties belongs to someone else now-thank heavens.    My nuts in love is still three phase-just three different phases.  I have the landscape, the shop, and Branch-all of which take lots of energy, and all of which give me lots of energy.  No matter how or why I garden, there are card carrying gardeners everywhere nuts in love just like me.  How great is this?

At A Glance: The Greens

Oregonia

Noble fir

German boxwood

silver fir

white pine

magnolia

scotch pine


Douglas fir
cut mixed greens

For Adults Only

Some trees delight gardening adults, and gardening adults only.  They do not burst forth dramatically with a blizzard of white blooms in the spring-like a Snowdrift crabapple. There is not a frothy pink blooming ballerina of a crabapple tree in the bunch.  They have no orange and green tulip like flowers on trees closing in on 100 feet tall-as in Liriodendron. 

They have none of the drama of Chamaecyparis Nootkatensis pendula-the weeping Alaskan cedar. None of them are the robustly strong and stately shade trees that ought to be thriving in the tree lawn of every community-the lindens, the sugar and red maples, the zelkovas, the oaks, and sycamores.  They are not a member of the corps of the tree elites-the beeches in all their forms hog most of the room in this category. The Japanese maples consume every spot not taken by the beech. European weeping beech, tri-color beech, Rohani Beech, fernleaf beech-the list is long. The dirt under a mature beech-fit for mulch. No beech suffers any close company in the absence of a feverishly devoted ground-gardener. Acer Palmatum, available in countless permutations-too precious for words. I see them much more than I should.

These architecturally interesting and subtly beautiful trees are not touchy-like the white cercis-and the dogwoods. Any summer day I can see an American dogwood in decline, a Kousa dogwood with wilted foliage and fungus, a birch struggling with borer or ice storm damage, a pin oak with foliage a stark and unpleasant bright yellow from chlorosis.

The adults only trees are never weepers. Weeping trees are hard to respect-admit it. Their tears are relentless. The weeping cherries with their gall-like grafts, the weeping larch, the Camperdown elms-I do not want to come home from work and look at drooping trees-just my preference. So what trees make my adults only list? First and foremost, Parrotia Persica. The Persian Ironwood tree. It grows 20-30 feet tall. It is intimately related taxonomically to the witch hazels. What’s to love here? This small growing multi-branched tree sports subtle witch-hazel like flowers in the spring.   The bark exfoliates as the tree ages. An old Parrotia is a living sculpture with great dignity, and quiet presence. In my garden, it is utterly maintenance-free. Its leaves are disease and insect resistant-my grove of 5 looks great all season long. The fall color varies-but I can count on my Parrotias to hold their leaves really late, and last; most of the leaves hold throughout the winter. Should you be a gardener like me, you tour your garden regularly, and get up close. You give time to seeing it. My parrotias are incredibly beautiful.

On my short list of trees for gardening adults, I have the following criteria. Sculptural branch structure. Great bark. An overall gorgeous shape. Sturdily persistent. Beautiful spring and fall color-this means leaves that make my heart pound. This means the parrotias, the magnolias, the katsuras-and pictured here, the musclewood tree-carpinus caroliniana.  Any tree that makes me think sculpture gets my grown-up attention. 


The leaves are subtly serrated and highly textured; the greenish-yellow fall color persists late into the fall. They branch very low to the ground. They are not showy or dramatic-they are handsome.    


The trunks are indeed muscular. Their winter aspect is every bit as satisfying as the summer.  I have other trees on this short list.  The yellow wood, Cladrastis lutea probably grows the largest.  Maackia Amurensis has glowing green bark, subtle summer flowers, and a beautiful mature shape-very stout, low, and very wide.   

I planted these Lindera glauca var salicifolia quite a few years ago for a client.  Lindera benzoin-the spicebush-is perhaps a better known species. The linderas are shrubs-but they grow large with a minimum of attention.  This species in particular has blue-green willow like leaves.  The texture of the foliage is quite striking.  But it is the fall color- a pale peach-that is a showstopper.  This color persists very long into the fall.  �

The peach will fade to a pale khaki color; the leaves will persist all winter. I took this picture this morning-still peachy November 21. 


I have those days when I am more than willing to be seduced by anything that grows.  In truth, there are probably few trees that I would turn away from my door.  But today, when I tromped around and photographed the parrotias-what fun I had.  Buck asked me what I was doing out there-he could see me from the window.  I told him I was checking out how much my garden, and my gardening, had grown up.

Winter Pots

Our winter greens finally arrived yesterday-today we began “planting” winter pots.  I have clients that cannot bear to have their pots sit empty over the winter-I do not blame them.  In some ways, a winter pot is more difficult to design and plant than a summer one.  Of course the materials are more limited, but the toughest part is determining a proper scale and proportion.  The winter pots do not grow; they cannot be trimmed or groomed into a finished shape.  The shape and scale they have the day they go in will be the shape and scale they have throughout the season. I need to hold that thought from start to finish.    

Most of the construction of what goes in my client’s pots goes on in the garage at the shop.  A warm space makes the construction go faster.  It is tough to clean up and hose down on site now.  In Michigan, the water gets turned off to the outside spigots in anticipation of freezing weather.  I like to leave the mess at home.  I know the diameter of the pots I need to fill-I make a decision about the scale from my notes, photographs, measurements, and memory of the containers, and the space.  This gets me close.    

Proportions that are generous, and of proper scale are pleasing to the eye.  Odd this-I almost never see anything outside that is overscaled to the point of asking for a redo.  I routinely see landscape gestures that are too small.  Plantings that are too small for the containers, pots too small for for the front porch, a single hydrangea when 5 are called for, 1 tree trying to hold down a space meant for a grove.  The proper scale for a winter display-not so easy.    

The construction of winter pots involves several issues.  Design-this comes first. Color, texture, materials, scale-this comes second.  The actual construction is all about a natural look that is invisibly sturdy enough to withstand a Michigan winter-start to finish.  All of the elements of a winter pot designed and constructed in the studio go on to the installation phase on site.  Tall heavy twigs need thorough anchoring. Though you cannot see it, the centerpiece in this pot has bamboo, steel and concrete wire-we like a stand up straight construction that endures.  Every evergreen stem is sharpened at the base-a tight fit means a persistently long lasting fit. We have four to six winter months ahead.  What I do today needs to last.

I really want to talk about the color and the texture here, but the real news-a scale assessment.  Invariably I have to go back, and adjust; almost always, I have a need to add.  The process is simple.  Plan, aim and construct as best you can. Then step back, and look.  I would advise that you look a second time.  Then step back and see. Fill in. The gaps, the underscaled elements-it is all there for the seeing.  The fill in stage-necessary. 

This giant pot needs 2 more bunches of yellow twig dogwood, and two more bunches of preserved eucalyptus-to get the proportions right. I wish I could get everything perfect the first go around, but frankly-I rarely deserve the spot on award.  I usually need to go back.  The big idea here?  Any project worth doing deserves an energy at the end equal to the energy at the start.  Start strong-finish stronger.

The summer pots dressed in their winter outfits-they look good.  Every one of these pots have lights.  For the dark hours.  We hook up, we bury the extension cords-day and night-we have plans.   

I am enchanted by the blue berries of the cut juniper against the brown eucalyptus in this pot.  I so like the effort of a mix of greens.  Douglas fir branches-graceful.  Everything seems to be working here-the basket weave pot, the draping greens way wide-this winter pot has everything going for it.  


The long rectangle in view from the kitchen-the mixed greens include incense cedar, German boxwood, and southern boxwood.  The effect is soft and swooping. drapy. The garland lights buried in these evergreens will make for some night life. The winter approaching-we are in the process of getting ready.