The Hybridizer

hybrid pumpkinEvery  gardener at one time or another comes in contact with plant cultivars introduced as a result of the painstaking work of  someone who breeds plants. Bressingham gardens in England has a group of fine perennial plants marketed under the aegis of Blooms of Bressingham. There are countless other individuals who have devoted themselves to breeding towards a better plant.  Some hybrids are more disease resistant.  Some are more sturdy-others have larger flowers with interesting variations in color. The dogwood Venus, a cross between Cornus kousa, and Cornus nuttallii, was bred at Rutgers University by Elwin Orton.  His Venus dogwood, once it was introduced, took a gold medal at Chelsea.  Anyone who loves the landscape is all the better for the introduction of this tree.

hybrid pumpkinsI am thinking about hybridizing right now, as Rob has such a big love for the various forms and colors of pumpkins that he collects fruits from countless farms within a day’s drive of us. He cannot get enough of them.  Of course most pumpkins are grown to eat, or to carve for Halloween, but others are grown for their sheer beauty.  Every farmer who grows pumpkins is a hybridizer, whether they intend to be, or not.  Cucurbits are plants of the gourd family, and include melons, pumpkins, squash and cucumber. All of these plants, grown within range of one another, will cross pollinate with abandon. Squash flowers are huge-they intend to have progeny.  And progeny they do produce. Any pollen on the wind might settle in these giant flowers. As a result, every farm who grows curcurbits has their own distinctive offering of pumpkins and gourds. These hybrid crosses are random.  Some are beautiful, sturdy, and robust.  Others-not so much.

hybrid pumpkinsRob has been fortunate to meet some gardeners in the course of his pumpkin collecting whose big love is hybridizing these big fruits.  You are looking at pictures of pumpkins that are the result of a lifetime of careful breeding. The gentleman in question is in his late sixties, and has been hybridizing pumpkins for decades. He grows his pumpkins in a tunnel house, so he can eliminate accidental crosses. Pumpkins and squash take up an enormous amount of space as they grow.  The breeding process is slow, as not so many crosses can be made in a given year. His crosses are thoughtful, and methodical.

pumpkins 2015 (9)His current crop of fancy pumpkins sit in a shed.  They are not displayed on his farm stand, as they are not for sale. They are part of his breeding stock.  He will harvest the seed, and breed again. The near black pumpkin in my first picture with a brilliant orange waist-I have never seen anything like it.  The black pumpkin in my second picture-astonishing.  I know squash with dark green rinds-I am a fan of acorn squash, and eat them regularly over the winter.  But this black pumpkin is like nothing I have ever seen.

pumpkins 2015 (8)Anyone who grows plants has at one time or another placed a plant in their garden whose form, color and texture is a result of years of breeding.  Endless crosses that amount to nothing.  A few crosses that have promise.  And perhaps a few plants in a lifetime that are worthy of introduction.

IMG_6456I am an old school gardener-I admit to that. I favor plants that look good all season, in leaf and in bloom.  I like plants that are vigorous, and hardy.  I love plants that ask little, and perform willingly.  I love those plants that verge on the weedy side.   I see some perennial and shrubby plants that have been introduced that seem unlikely to survive the test of time.  Should I have a landscape client who is interested in the garden, I make sure that what I select for their garden has a history of great performance.  Nothing discourages a gardener more than failure. Some plant breeding quits too soon-before there is a cultivar worthy of introduction.

pumpkins 2015 (22)Keeping plants alive, and keeping plants thriving, is a big job. I can be challenged by it, despite my many years as a gardener.  One of the most important aspects of landscape design to me is to do what I can to insure success for my clients. Success in a garden encourages interest.  I mean to encourage others to garden.  Great plant hybridizers do a lot of this work for me. They spend years and thought developing plants that gardeners can grow.

pumpkins 2015 (23)The man who hybridized that black pumpkin does not make a living from his fancy pumpkins.  He grows acres of orange pumpkins that get shipped nation wide.  His tall thin pumpkins that sit up on their own are especially good looking.  We sold out of our group within two days.

pumpkins 2015 (10)All of his pumpkins, squash, and gourds have great color.  Many of them sport what we call witches warts. Rob loves the bumps.

IMG_5933But even his most simple pumpkins feature strong stems. The long stems are part and parcel of a fall fruit that delights the eye, and speaks to the harvest. I never knew how beautiful a pumpkin stem could be, until I saw his pumpkins.  Rob is a looker.  When he sees something that makes him look twice, he does what he can to foster a relationship. The pumpkins we have at Detroit Garden Works right now are all about the thoughtful work of a hybridizer with many years in the game. We so value his contribution to every garden.  And every front porch in the fall season.

pumpkin stemIf you are like me, you have wrongly picked up a pumpkin by its stem, and had that stem detach. Dang. I will confess that I have hot melt glued broken stems on to a pumpkin.  No pumpkin stem can stay intact, given the weight of most pumpkins. But for our current pumpkin collection. We have a breeder who means to meld the stem with the body of the fruit.

pumpkin stemImagine a hybridizer whose goal is to develop stems that come down onto the fruit.  Gripping stems. A stem which is integral with the fruit. What hybridizers imagine and breed for-so simple, but so important. A garden does imply a generous grip.  Some of that comes from plant breeders.  Some of that comes from us. The mix is a really good one.


Early Fall

saturated (6)The beginning of the fall season is a beginning to treasure.  All of the hard work growing from the spring through the summer of  comes to fruition. Literally. The tomatoes ripen. The farmers market is bursting with racks of brussel sprouts, giant rosettes of cabbage, and fresh and fragrant onions. Home vegetable gardens yields such that there is plenty for  neighbors and friends. The spring planted perennials have put on a lot of weight. The trees planted in the spring seem to have weathered the transplant shock, and look happier – more settled and comfortable. The memory of insults dealt to the landscape and garden from the hard winter past fade. No need now to remember them.   The beginning of fall can be the last chapter of a very good short story, or the last quarter mile of a long and exhausting run. Or both. There is a good amount of time before the fall sinks and sets in, to enjoy the fruits.

saturated (11)Fall is a favorite season for Rob.  He endures the heat of the summer.  Every plant gets watered as it should.  He good naturedly tolerates the glare.  Once the season begins to shift to fall, he is energized.  He is back and forth across every square inch of the shop, making changes appropriate to the season. Materials he has ordered for the fall season at the shop months ago arrive every day. Much to my delight, he tracks back and forth across a 100 mile radius from the shop, selecting pumpkins and gourds for his fall collection.

saturated (8)There are those gardeners who collect day lilies, or hostas.  Or perhaps they focus on wild flowers, or native plants.  Some love all manner of hardy ornamental grasses.  Some nurture their collection of African violets, or Japanese maples.  There are the rosarians, who keep the interest in great garden roses alive. When I had five acres of land, I lined out peonies in rows, like crops. The alpine plants, the lilies, the dahlias-every plant has a coterie of aficionados. The fans of gourds and the pumpkins are many. Illinois is the nation’s largest producer of pumpkins-over 12,000 acres of crop land are devoted to growing them. Though dwarfed by the Illinois production, Michigan is still the second largest producer of pumpkins and gourds. Though many carve the traditional orange pumpkin for Halloween, or use the pulp for pies, there are those who appreciate the sculptural shapes and colors.

saturated (12)About that color. My favorite part of the fall is how the low light saturates the color of everything it touches.  In summer, the sun high in the sky interrogates everything it touches. Sunny summer days are bright, and shadowless. The slanted and softer fall light brings saturated color back into the landscape. I suspect that Rob’s enchantment with the pumpkins and gourds is as much about color as the forms, textures and shapes. Fall color is term every gardener is familiar with. The leaves turning means a landscape ablaze in yellow, orange, red and purple.  An overcast summer day in a garden means any color will more intense. Never is any color in the garden more intensely representing than in the fall. The light from the sun highlights every plant from the side.  The fall garden appears as though it were on fire.

saturated (14)Every pumpkin or gourd that Rob chooses for his collection at the store has a story about color, texture, and shape behind it.  He will not buy any fall fruit that cannot stand up on its own.  He treasures the stem every bit as much as the fruit. He is as great with subtle fall color as he is with those those colors that blaze away. He probably has other criteria I am not aware of. Rob curates his collection. Every pumpkin and gourd could stand alone, and look great.  A grouping is a pleasure to be enjoyed throughout the fall.

saturated (19)The low fall light reveals texture in a spectacular way. This week was my first look at peanut pumpkins.

saturated (13)Equally astonishing is Rob’s collection of long stemmed pumpkins. He knows a grower who has been hybridizing pumpkins for 55 years. A long stem was a trait he sought. This was a friendship that has taken years to establish. Rob will visit him multiple times in late September.

saturated (22) I am so enjoying this warm late September sun.

aaaat the shop

pastel pumpkinspastel pumpkins


saturated (10)red, white, and wood

saturated (18)a saturated experience of orange

saturated (16)contrast

saturated (2)so orange, and so green.

saturated (3)red and white

pumpkins and gourdspumpkins and gourds

saturated (15)fall light

saturated (7)Last, but certainly not least, those big stems that come with pumpkins attached.

Monday Opinion: Labor Day

Labor Day 2015 (9)More than once have I had reason to expect that the warm and sunny momentum established by my summer season would blast by Labor Day in a hot fit of defiance.  Given that the forecast for today is 90 degrees, might Mother Nature forget that today is Labor Day?   Every year I hope nature will be distracted by some warm September weather, and fail to note that the season is due to change.  Have my hopes of a summer that streams on for 4 months instead of 3 ever been fulfilled?  No. This bout of hot weather aside, there are signs that the summer season is slowing.

Labor Day 2015 (2)We’ve had a few cool and foggy mornings. The sun is lower in the sky. The morning light is coming on later, and the evening darkness earlier.The seeds on my dogwoods are ripe and red; the leaves have a considerable red tinge to them.  The hardy hibiscus have more seedpods developing than flowers. The Rozanne geraniums look the best they have all season – typical. The lily of the valley leaves  are singed with their usual end of summer fungus. The Limelight hydrangea flowers are showing some pink. The flowers on the hyssop have gone gray; the plants are dropping their lower leaves.

Labor Day 2015 (3)Some of the plants in my containers have moved past the thriving stage to the tired place. They have that pale foliage color that speaks to exhaustion. Some plants have gone limp from a summer’s worth of exertion growing. A week ago I cut back all of my nicotiana, and fed them. They have been lackluster all summer; I am hoping for a fall flush. The dahlias have not been happy this summer either. I am not sure if I will get a decent bloom before the mildew takes them down. My other containers are so root bound they need soaking, not just watering. The laurentia around the fountain grew too tall in the heat, turned yellow, and flopped over. I took them out.  The fountain is turning green with algae, right on time, in time, for Labor Day.

DSC_3264But there are plenty of containers which are right at what I call that “super nova” stage. Like a star that glows prior to imploding, they are at their most beautiful best – right now.  They are as glowingly good as they ever will be. All of the plants have grown out, and matured.  Each container has an overall shape-like it or not. Some plants have engulfed their containers.  Rob’s container of Russian sage, lamb’s ear and several thyme varieties-any ideas about what the container looks like? Me neither. This planting, right now, is at its most glorious best. Our window boxes stuffed with silver foliaged plants are looking just about as good.

angel-wing-begonias.jpgThese angel wing begonias are bowed over from the weight of all of their flowers. They have been beautiful all summer, but now they are at that very big and beautiful stage that foretells summer’s end.

wasabi coleusBut no summer container plant can come close to that Labor Day super nova size like coleus. The range of colors and leaf types is astonishing. Their willingness to grow is unparalleled. I enjoy growing them, partly as it is possible to shape them by pinching. I find this entertaining. If you think I am a dull girl, you are probably right.  This coleus Wasabi was grown from 3 4″ pots. Given a benevolent September, it will reach the ground. This pot I have not touched.  All the joy in it has been watching it grow.

DSC_3388These chocolate coleus feature a brown and cream cordyline that is almost invisible now. Were you standing directly over them, you would see that I had pinched out the top to reveal the cordyline.

Labor Day 2015 (18)This modestly sized Italian terra cotta rectangle is home to a hedge sized coleus.  We pinched the bottom out, to give the impatiens some breathing room, and some light. Labor Day 2015 (19)chocolate coleus, Kingwood Red coleus, and pink polka dot plant

Labor Day 2015 (17)This pot with an orange and green phormium at the center, pink polka dot plant and heuchera bears no relation to coleus, except that it has been thriving in the same vein all summer.

Labor Day 2015 (6)coleus peaking.  the petticoat below-maidenhair fern.

Labor Day 2015 (20)coleus Amora, coleus Alligator, and a subtle dash of pink polka dot

Labor Day 2015 (12)a coleus “Tilt a Whirl” standard, under planted with hens and chicks.  The accompanying lemon cypress grown on from a 6″ pot-looking good.

DSC_2215So what am I thinking about this Labor Day? That Labor Day usually signals the start of the end of my summer gardening season, of course.  But more importantly, that a working American gardener named Rob has gone the distance every day, day after day, since the middle of May to bring all of these container plantings along to this moment. If you live nearby, and haven’t seen them in person, they are well worth the trip. As for you, Rob, have a happy and well deserved Labor Day.

On Tour Tomorrow

July 18, 2015 (16)I was in the garden early this morning. Early enough that the dew still covered every surface.  The agreement to be on a garden tour is just the beginning.  Of course you want every moment in the garden to mean something, and make a good case for that meaning. The planning starts months ahead, long about when you see what did not survive the winter, and later, when you go to plant the pots.

July 18, 2015 (31)That comittment to put your garden out there is one part bravado, one part luck, one part a benevolent mother nature, and 100 parts work.  I try to mitigate those circumstances with my clients as much as I can for the Greening tour. Monica Tabares from the Greening staffs every garden with two people. Detroit Garden Works springs for tee shirts for all of them, including the shop staff, so every tour person remembers that this event is all about the work that the Greening does.  This year means 28 people – the morning and the afternoon shifts – will be staffing the 7 gardens on tour.  Monica has told me in years past that the tour docents are volunteers from the Wayne State dental school.  I never asked about how that came to be, but I appreciate all of those students who take time on a Sunday to help make the experience a good one for all.

July 18, 2015 (18)Both crews from Deborah Silver and Co pitch in. We handle this and that.  We are available to replace plants that have gone down from whitefly, or add new grass in spots that need it. And we send tickets to the tour and reception for every client who agrees to put their garden on tour.  Some enjoy the day at homer meeting fellow gardeners.  Others leave the garden in the capable hands of the Greening people, and go on tour themselves.  Others yet are willing, but able to keep a comittment in another place that day.

July 18, 2015 (9)Every landscape that is on our tour belongs to people for whom the garden is a way of life.  Every tree, shrub, perennial and seasonal plant gets in the ground is a result of the belief that stewardship of the environment is a pleasure, a joy, and a responsibility.  The Greening has been all about that belief, since 1989.  They have planted in excess of 90,000 trees in the city of the Detroit since their inception.  They sponsor urban farms.  They teach people how to care for trees, and grow food.

July 18, 2015 (23)They are a self sufficient non profit organization. Meaning they have staff who apply for grants, and raise money.  I sit on their board, but after my first board meeting I knew that I would never catch up to their history and long range plans enough to be of any use to them. So 8 years ago Rob and I decided to put on this tour, all of the proceeds of which would go to the Greening.

July 18, 2015 (27)The money we have raised usually goes to those programs that cannot be funded by grants – programs that rely on donations.  One of those programs involves hiring young people with not so much opportunity to obtain a job.  The Greening pays them to water newly planted trees, and tend vegetable patches.  I have had occasion to hear about what an impact this experience has had on young people who were so fortunate to participate in this program. Of course I like the idea that young people become exposed to the work, and the satisfaction that gardening provides.

July 18, 2015 (67)I can barely remember my life before I grew plants, and gardened. I would want to do what I could to pass that along to others.  Especially young people. My generation will need young people to grow peonies, and heirloom tomatoes, and as many trees as they can mange. Suffice it to say that this is a cause near and dear to my heart.

July 18, 2015 (8)Monica W, the manager of Detroit Garden Works, Deborah Silver and Co, and the Branch Studio, organizes the reception we hold after the tour at the store. She furthermore organizes all of the ticket sales, so soon after the tour we have a check available to the Greening.  It is an amazing amount of work on her part to make it all seem effortless. Though she is very much behind the scenes, she is the unusual combination of the work of an engineer, and the work of a compassionate and caring person.

July 18, 2015 (49)As for me, my garden will be on tour for the 8th time tomorrow. I am happy with most everything I see.  The delphiniums that bloomed their hearts out in early June are suffering from a fungus brought on by the cold and rainy early summer.  I have no plans to replace this plant, or disguise it.  I am a gardener, and I have plenty of trouble in my garden.  It comes with the territory.

July 18, 2015 (51)I have talked with every client who has a garden on tour tomorrow. To the last they are concerned about this bad spot, or that plant that is not performing, or some boxwood still showing signs of damage from last winter.  My job near the time of the tour is to suggest that no garden on this tour is a show garden.  They are gardens that belong to real people.  People with kids, jobs, and lots of other responsibilities. Our tour is a chance for people who garden to see what other people who garden do.  This tour is about exchange. My garden is for all to see what it is –  tomorrow.

July 18, 2015 (50)Though some parts of my perennial patch are not so swell, other places look fine to my eye.  I have no doubt that every person who visits my garden tomorrow will remember the good things.  None of them will hold my failures against me.  Why would they?

July 18, 2015 (59)After years of trying to get herniaria to take hold in this garden in the front of my house, I grassed over it.  The grass looks great, and is easy to keep. I am happy to come home, and not have to weed the herniaria.

July 18, 2015 (5)If you are able to come on our tour tomorrow, I would encourage you to do so.  We have 7 really beautiful landscapes and gardens for you to see.  If you are too far away to be here – I will post pictures of all of the gardens next week. So looking forward to the tour tomorrow-this is my news.