32 Degrees At Night, And Holding

cold April day 2015 (2)I see a few signs of spring.  The crocus have come and gone.  The magnolia Stellata is in full bloom, weeks behind its usual appearance.  The grass is greening.  The trees are budding out. A few forsythia are blooming, halfheartedly. Their flower buds hated the intense cold of this past winter. There are daffodils and pushkinia here and there. We have had a smattering of spring. Our night temperatures have been hovering around the freezing mark for weeks. Last week’s snow flurries on and off culminated in a brief but intense snow that actually stuck to the ground. Wow.

cold April day 2015 (4)Night before last was 30 all night long.  At 6 am the temperature dropped to 27.  At 6:45, when I loaded the corgis in the car, I realized that my windshield would need scraping. The grass was glittery with ice. All of my early spring flowering plants were frowning.  The chionodoxa were laying flat on the ground, stunned.  The flowers at the top of my magnolia stellata looked like wet blobs of kleenex.  The hellebore flowers were stooped over. The delphinium were caked with ice.The gravity of this late frost dragged everything down-including me.

cold April day 2015 (6)This April has been anything but hospitable. Snow in April means we had snow every month for the past 6 months. Not so unusual. Snow this late in April is a little unusual.  Years ago I kept a garden diary. It was not all that interesting-just a recording of what was blooming or happening when.  It must have been in the early 8o’s –  6 inches of snow on April 16. It made me laugh – I wrote that in the diary. This gratuitous winter dusting the other day was insulting. It made me scowl.

cold April day 2015 (7)Milo had an intuitive grasp of the situation.  We don’t go to the rose garden in the winter. Nonetheless, there he was, trying to get me to  venture out. As if I wouldn’t notice the winter weather.

cold April day 2015 (8)I most certainly am ready for that incarnation of spring that has night temperatures well above freezing.  Though I am perfectly comfortable outdoors on a afternoon that is 55 degrees, I would not be so happy spending the night outdoors at 30.  My trees, shrubs and perennials have been in a deep sleep all winter. A few obnoxiously cold nights won’t deter them from their scheduled appearance.

cold April day 2015 (11)Our tulips are well out of the ground. A 27 degree night did not faze them.  They grow actively in a very cold part of the year. All of those plants that emerge in the early spring are programmed to not only survive, but they thrive in cold weather. The netting of ice of the leaves of the tulips gone over in the cold did not please me, but I was not worried.  They are familiar with cold weather.

cold April day 2015 (12)I was sure they would recover. What doesn’t bounce back?  Any plants that you have bought recently that have been raised in a greenhouse need to put one toe in the water at a time in April. This is known as hardening off.  A perennial that has been wintered outdoors in an unheated space is ready for whatever insult April has a mind to deliver.  A perennial that has been heated, and brought on ahead of its normal time to emerge can be damaged by exposure to cold.  They need to be exposed to the real world-one step at a time.

DSC_9692Greenhouse grown plants need some time to adjust to the real world.  This process can be a bore to a gardener who is impatient for spring. Out in the day-but back in at night. We haul plants in and put them out dozens of times in the spring, before the season turns. Not interested in managing the transition?  Don’t acquire plants too early.  Plants already in the ground are very cagey about when they decide to make an appearance.  They respond to daylight length, and temperatures. Once they are in active growth, close to freezing temperatures can damage the new shoots or flowers. Extended below freezing weather can damage flower and leaf shoots-every gardener in Michigan got a PhD in that science a few years ago.  Your in ground plants are fine, given our very cold April.

DSC_9727These greenhouse pansies, even though they were covered, took a hit from the cold. They will recover. But they were not ready to be turned out into the cold.  Any plant not used to the cold needs protection when the night temperatures dip.  Or a lengthy hardening off. The daytime temperatures are not so critical.  Watch the night temps.  And the soil temps.  This will make you a better gardener.

purple violasThese violas were grown cold.  They shrugged of the dusting of snow, and the 27 degrees overnight. If you plant in early spring in our zone, remember that April is not always a spring month. The plants you have in your garden that lived through our winter-they will be fine. Thinking to plant new plants in a garden or a container? Look for spring annuals and perennials that are grown cold. If you can’t tell-ask. Any plant nudged along with heat under glass will be vulnerable to variations in temperature.  Baby them. That said, any cold friendly plants you put to the soil now will be spilling way over the edges of your spring in just a few weeks. I promise.

Planting Pots For Spring

spring pots April 2015 (20)I have been planting spring containers for over a week now.  Of course the earliest pots had the biggest restrictions as to what plant material will tolerate the chill. No one wants to haul their pots into the garage every night that the temperatures threaten to be below freezing.  But every gardener is ready and willing to risk being out early.  We have been stuck indoors too long.  The pansies are incredibly cold tolerant, as are the kale and cabbages.  Lettuce is fairly cold tolerant-but the leaves are very thin.  They can suffer over a cold night.  Parsley has thicker leaves-they shrug off the cold.  Ranunculus do quite well outdoors in early spring, but their time is short.  Love them while you can.

spring pots April 2015 (18)Trailing pansies are new to me.  The Cool Wave series. I love the colors, and the lax habit of growth.  They are great and graceful in urns.  By mid June, these pansies will put on a lot of horizontal weight.  This wispy look is fine for now, at a time when the garden is just beginning to wake up.

spring pots April 2015 (14)I will confess that I have a few trick up my sleeve for height in spring pots.  I could plant 1 gallon pots of forsythia in spring pots, but a 1 gallon shrub takes up an enormous amount of space.  Container space is at a premium.  These pots got a spring look via some spiralled dry palm leaf stems and dry palm leaf flowers.  Do I mind that these stems come from natural materials that are dry-no. The greater good is an expression of spring that delights the eye, and the heart.

spring pots April 2015 (6)Cut pussy willow stems are beautiful in spring pots. Though we get in loads of straight stems from our grower every spring, I value the home grown branched stems that have volume. This pot had alyssum and phlox intensia which is barely showing color. Another few weeks of warmer weather will mean growth. The plants we use in spring pots are cold tolerant, but it will take some warmth for them to grow.

spring pots April 2015 (21)Spring flowering bulbs are actively growing, despite the cold. We do pot up lots of bulbs in the fall, as they are programmed to thrive in the early part of our gardening year.  The small flowering bulbs are blooming in the garden right now.  Having a pot full at the front door is all the more fun.  From the time the tulips break ground, until the flowers open is an experience of spring not to be missed.  This tulip, Jaap Groot, is a pale  yellow, with dark yellow feathers.  The cream colored edges on the leaves are beautiful, are they not? This pot looks good already. The joy and pleasure of growing any plant is much more than the story of the flowers.

spring pots April 2015 (4)I like mixing cut pussy willow stems, the early starts of romaine lettuce, and the pansies. This is a gesture that will only get better as the spring progresses.  spring pots April 2015 (9)

These centerpieces graced the winter pots for this client.  I did not see a need to replace them for spring.  They just needed a spring hug. I like when materials can be reused from one season to another.

spring pots April 2015 (11)This spring pot features a pair of German ivy baskets whose long trailers were tied up into the birch branches that filled this pot for the winter.  It will take a few days for the leaves of the ivy to turn back towards the light.

spring pots April 2015 (10)Twigs, whether they be fresh cut or dry, add some welcome volume to a pot that is freshly planted for spring. There is no need for any pot to sit empty in early spring. Though our greenhouses are filling up with summer flowering annuals, I like to take the time to enjoy the season at hand.

spring pots April 2015 (17)There are plenty of plants to choose from-cold tolerant annuals, spring perennials, cold tolerant herbs and vegetables, and spring flowering shrubs. Just about anything green looks good.

spring pots April 2015 (3)Putting ones hands in the soil of a container again feels great.  It’s the first place I garden in the spring. I like to wait until the in-ground garden shows itself before I wade in. There are plenty of good reasons to plant for spring.

spring pots April 2015 (5)spring pots

spring pots April 2015 (23)potted pink grape hyacinths

spring pots April 2015 (2)yellow twig dogwood and cool wave pansies

spring pots April 2015 (7)the face of spring

 

 

 

Belgian Stoneware

stoneware 3Rob has been shopping in Belgium for at least 15 years. He has a considerable affection for the topography and natural landscape, as it reminds him of Michigan. The garden ornament has a solid and unaffected feeling about it. Many of the things he buys there have their roots in agriculture-cisterns, troughs, and the like. The pot pictured above comes from a pottery whose work he greatly admires. This will be the third year we have offered these Belgian stoneware garden pots. The come in three colors-taupe, gray, and black. The shapes are simple.  Though the shapes are smooth and graceful, the surface texture is gritty and rough, in a subtle sort of way.

pots 4That gritty texture and surface is typical of stoneware.  The name stoneware comes from the dense and hard quality of the clay body. This clay body, or type of clay from which a pot is made, has natural characteristics that result in pots more like stone than fired earth, or terracotta.  Stoneware pots are fired at a high temperature, and do not absorb water much after the firing. This inclination to repel water after firing makes this type of clay, and this type of pot, perfect for our climate.  Water that is absorbed by a pot which is them subjected to freezing can result in breakage.  Water expands as it freezes. This freezing action can shatter or break a clay pot. Anyone who has ever inadvertently left a machine made Italian terra cotta pot outdoors over the Michigan winter knows from whence I speak.  This stoneware is frost proof- this is great news for anyone who likes terracotta. Clay pots are made the world over. Clay dug from the ground in Philadelphia is very different than the native clay of southern France, or Italy. Not all clay is of a natural stoneware type. Pots made from stoneware clay bodies are of interest to us, and gardeners in our zone.

stoneware 2Some potters mix their own clay, or choose a clay body/mix that has been made available commercially, that suits their interest and intended use.  Porcelain is the material of choice for an artisan interested in a very fine and formal clay that can be thrown very precisely, and very thin. These large thick walled Belgian pots are made to hold many hundreds of pounds of wet soil without complaint. The natural clay is a friendly visual companion to plants that go in that soil. The texture is just enough, and no more. The gritty surface of this stoneware is a result of adding grog to the stoneware clay body. Grog refers to clay which has been fired, and then ground into hard particles of various sizes. Those particles are then mixed into the fresh wedged wet clay body before the pots are thrown.  As wet clay is incredibly heavy, there is a limit to how large and tall a pot can be thrown, before the clay starts to collapse from its own weight. In addition to providing great texture, both visual and tactile, grog helps provide the construction of a big pot with a little structure. The grog particles have been fired.  They will not absorb water, and melt.  Grog stiffens the wet clay, so larger forms can be thrown at one sitting.

Belgian stoneware 8Even so, very large stoneware pots may need to be thrown in stages. The lower portion may need to rest, and begin to harden, as in leather hard, before the pot can be made any taller. This accounts for one reason why large handmade pots are much more expensive than smaller pots that can be made in one sitting or throwing session. Another reason-the volume of clay consumed.  Very large French terra cotta pots are incredibly thick. Thin walled, large pots would not likely survive the heat of the firing. There may be many hundreds of pounds of wet clay in one pot. I would bet that clay bodies are sold by weight, and that weight can make it expensive to ship them. Of course as the water evaporates out of the pot, the weight is much less.  How a pot is dried, and how it reacts to the firing is a topic of much study.  Pots that have taken days to throw that break or explode in the kiln is a big loss in materials and time.  The cost of breakage becomes part of the cost of those pots that survive the firing.  stoneware rock collectionThese stoneware “rocks” are forms that can be used as a sculpture or seat in the garden.  The shapes are all beautiful, and different.  They have an aura about them, as they have gone beyond function to another level.  I am sure every gardener would perceive and use them differently. Nor would they appeal to every gardener.

stoneware 14These pots seemed quite contemporary in form and color when I first saw them, but I have since learned that what they do best is take on the quality and character of their environment.   I have seen them used successfully in modern, and even quite traditional architectural settings. One client with a classic 1920’s English tudor style house has a pair of these pots at the front door.  They look great.  They do not impose, or attract undue attention. They are simply and beautifully made. They look great, planted up. The statement they make when they are empty-sober and strong. I am not surprised that Rob would have them, a third time around. To follow are some of his pictures of the two containers that came in last week.  You can tell from his pictures, how much he likes them.

stoneware rocks

stoneware collection

stoneware 11

Belgian stoneware 6My discussion of the clay is cursory. I am not a scientist, or a potter.  I just love these pots.  If you have a further interest, you can read more about clay at  Hammill & Gillespie

A Quick Look At Some Stick Work

Federal Reserve Building (8)A  client who calls for work after the holidays is unusual, but we were happy to oblige.  We had materials, and there are months of winter yet to come. They had purchased these large scale contemporary birch faux bois concrete planters from Branch over a year ago.  The landscape is dominated by a single river birch.  An arrangement that would feature birch seemed natural.  We had just enough 3″ caliper poles to fill the pair of planters.  Bunches of white lepto came in handy for filling the gaps between the poles. Our last three cases of mixed evergreen boughs were just enough to soften the top of the pot with a thick blanket of green.

Federal Reserve Building (6)The ground plane of the landscape was done with groundcovers of various types in spaces dictated by a pattern of aluminum edger strip, and gravel.  The pattern established is graphically strong.  There were a few areas designated for a seasonal planting.  The concrete boxes had been planted with chrysanthemums for the fall.  What could be done in those areas that would have some height, volume and presence over the winter?  Our solution was to cut up some 1″ and 2″ diameter birch poles into random short lengths. Each piece had a hole drilled all the way through each end. Each of the poles were loosely attached to its neighbor with heavy gauge aluminum wire. The end result-a giant birch garland.

Federal Reserve Building (9)In order to get some height and mass, rolls of grapevine were stretched out and pinning into the soil.  The pinning was easy, as the ground was frozen.

Federal Reserve Building (5)We zip tied the birch garland to the grapevine where it seemed appropriate.

Federal Reserve Building (4)The large size bamboo poles was a vestige of a previous installation-not by us.  The client wanted to leave them in.  That was a good thing, as they were set into metal sleeves placed below ground.  Water had completely filled the sleeves.  The poles were solidly frozen into place by time we got there. I rather prefer the birch poles here.  They look like they belong in a winter garden in Michigan.  There is a certain authenticity to the materials used here.

Federal Reserve Building (3)In the background, the last of our big linden espaliers.  At 9′ wide and 12′ tall each, they mean something in front of this large commercial building.  Properly cared for, they will only get better looking as time goes on.  Funny how some very large commercial spaces devour almost every bit of the land they sit on. It takes the right material and a very strong design to work in a space like this.  I did not do the landscape design here, but I like it.

Federal Reserve Building (1)Hauling around four sets of fresh cut birch garland was the perfect installation for a 12 degree day.  We warmed up in a hurry. Once we were done, all we needed was some snow.  I wonder what it looks like now that we have a good snow cover.