The Weather

corgi-weather-vane.jpgWhat’s your weather like today?  Mine is cool and rainy, punctuated by torrential downpours of short duration.  Two days ago the temperature was above 80 degrees by late afternoon.  The forecast calls for 48 degrees tomorrow, and 39 degrees tomorrow night. The transition between summer and fall is marked by moody weather. There will be frequent swings in temperature, wind, rain, and fog.  Gardeners follow the weather with great interest.  Some plant by the phases of the moon. The weather forecast lets me know how to dress for a day in the garden.  A dry hot and sunny summer day asks for different gear than a cold rainy fall day. An early winter day hanging holiday garland might as for warm clothes from side to side, and top to bottom.

helleborus-orientalis.jpgWeather forecasts the change of the seasons.  Longer days, and warmer temperatures in late March signal the hellebores and crocus to come out of the ground.  Plants do have a mechanism by which they recognize that the cold and dormant season is over.  A biological clock. They know when it is too dicey to show themselves, and when it is time.  In much the same way, they know when the winter is approaching.  Their growth slows, and deciduous shrubs and trees prepare to shed their leaves in anticipation of the dormant winter season.  I understand next to nothing of the biology and chemistry of this, but it seems like plants keep very good track of the weather.

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As long as I have been gardening, I routinely see weather conditions I have never seen before.  I cannot remember a winter like our past one-not that I should.  It was the coldest and snowiest winter we had had in over 100 years-why would I? A morning sky that is so pink that it changes the color of everything in the garden like a piece of colored acetate over my camera lens-we has such weather early this morning.  Clouds of some fantastic shape and arrangement-there they are, though they never looked like that before or since.

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Fog so dense that everywhere I looked was blinding white-that weather was on a boat bound for Mackinac Island many years ago.  I have never experienced that again.  Rain so hard that it bounced back skyward-memorable.

cafe-au-lait-dahlia.jpgOur summer has been cool and rainy, overall.  It was perfect weather to work, and have dinner outdoors.  All of the plants in the landscape have that lush well watered look.  So many evenings were perfectly comfortable-not too hot, nor too cold.  That bland temperate weather was memorable.  All of September was quite warm and sunny-the dahlias loved it as much as I did.  The weather is a daily companion to a garden, which brings me to the real point of this post.

Aug1 a 2014 (14)The longer I design landscapes and gardens, the more I believe that weather is one of the most critical design issues.  I am not talking about plant hardiness, or light and shade conditions, or soil that never gets rain, or is always flooded.  I think good design features the many faces of the weather.  For many of my clients, my design is first and foremost concerned with establishing some structure- some good bones.  Good bones can be built upon, or stand on their own.  Structure in the landscape in my zone has to take the winter season into account.  Our fall and winter is every bit of 6 months long.  Once the perennial garden fades, and the leaves of the shrubs and trees fall, all that is left is the structure – the bare bones.

perennial-garden.jpgI only have one very small perennial garden.  But for the trunks and branches of the dogwoods and magnolia, and the green of the yew hedge, that garden has little in the way of visual interest.  The horseradish collapses in a heap of rotten leaves, as do the lady’s mantle, the bear’s britches, and the Rozanne geraniums.  The phlox and hibiscus stand resolute for months after, but the snowy soon obliterates their shapes.

fall-leaves.jpgMy evergreens respond to the weather in a very different way.  The leaves that cover the tops of the boxwood underneath the magnolias celebrates the fall landscape.  The wet weather makes every boxwood leaf shine and glitter.  A dusting of snow illustrates the shapes described by that box.  A thick layer of snow is like a winter hat.  These rectangles of boxwood underneath the magnolias are very simple.  Though they have been there for many years, my eye does not skip over them.  Every day, the weather transforms them.  The landscape is designed to change with the seasons, and change even more often with the weather.

magnolia-petals.jpgOne can readily design a spring garden. Designing in celebration of spring weather is another issue altogether. The weather in Michigan is always a big fluid situation. The simpler the landscape, the more striking it will be, whatever the weather.

August 2013late day in summer

fall-leaves.jpgfall leaves

winter.jpgsnowy day

winter-landscape.jpga winter landscape

Fall Container Plantings

fall-container-planting.jpgThough most of my work involves landscape design and installation, I have a big love for container plantings. They can be different every year – what a relief to let go of something that didn’t work out so well.   Best of all, they can be planted for every season.  The beginning of any new gardening season sets me to thinking about how I would like to plant the pots. Unlike my landscape, which changes only incrementally from year to year, my containers are empty and waiting at the start of every new season.  In Michigan, we have four seasons every year, each lasting about 3 months, give or take. Four times a year,  I have the opportunity to start over.

fall-centerpiece.jpgHow I choose to design and plant pots is a process I look forward to.  Certain plants that I may have never given a moment’s notice suddenly interest me.  Certain plants or materials that I have never seen or used become available. Growers of all kinds give a special gift-a vocabulary from which a container planting is eventually able to speak. A color combination that suddenly strikes my fancy. There was a time when I dreaded the coming of the fall.  All I could think about was the beginning of the end of the garden. What a silly notion.  Fall is a great time to plant in a landscape or garden. The temperatures are moderate, and the rainfall more regular.  Fall is also a great time to plant containers.

DSC_4793The leaves of the trees maturing, turning color, and dropping, is a spectacular event. The sun low in the sky endows everything in the garden with a special glow.  The cutting flowers and vegetables at my local farmer’s market speak to the abundance of the harvest. Every color from the sky to the kale to the red peppers is completely saturated. The ornamental grasses are never more beautiful  than they are in the fall.  Caring for fall containers is easy.  Cool temperatures means infrequent watering.  Trouble with bugs-not so much.

DSC_4799  The summer annuals are slowing down, and showing signs of displeasure with the cool nights. The coleus and non stop begonias in my containers are the first to show signs that their season is coming to a close.  They like hot sunny weather.  Nights in the 40’s are not to their liking.  I am reluctant to give up my summer containers; they have provided me with so much color, texture, and form all season long.  My containers are always their best in September.  They have grown in, and grown up.  The dahlias are never better than they are in September and October.

DSC_4877However, it is but a short time from the peak, to the decline.  That said, the decline of the summer summer loving plants does not mean the decline of the garden.  We have a fall season, dead ahead.  Summer containers can be switched out for fall.  Local nurseries, garden centers and farmer’s markets carry all kinds of fall blooming and cold tolerant plants. Pansies and asters are great in fall containers.  Dwarf evergreens shine in fall pots. Succulents, even tropical succulents, are tolerant of cooler weather.  Foliage plants are especially gorgeous in the fall.  The ornamental cabbage and kale are extraordinarily beautiful. I like heucheras better in the fall than the summer. So many of the ornamental grasses are suited for a planting in a fall container.  Chrysanthemums have their place-they thrive and bloom in cool weather.  There are lots of choices, if you decide to go ahead and choose.

DSC_4878I like adding fresh cut and preserved or dry natural materials to fall pots.  Why not?  They provide me with the option of going taller and wider. They have the potential to provide a sculptural quality to fall containers that is hard to obtain otherwise.  Faux materials, as in the orange suede floret stems in this pot, can add a lot of color. There will not be so much in the way of growth from the fall pots unless the weather stays moderately warm and sunny-just like the weather we are having right now.  The ornamental grasses that are available can add some height and rhythm to fall containers. This is welcome, given the static quality of chrysanthemums, asters, and ornamental cabbage and kale.

DSC_4892The only draw back of the ornamental grasses is the size of their rootballs.  Big grasses have even bigger root systems.  A six foot tall grass is likely to take up a lot of space in a pot. An ornamental grass transplanted into a pot is not rooted in.  A good wind or hard rain can knock them over.  It is possible to get all of what is good about a grass or a grain by cutting them, and securing them to a bamboo pole.  A stout 8′ bamboo pole only takes up one inch of space in a container.

DSC_4893In addition to ornamental grasses, broom corn and millet dry beautifully.  The colors mix well with preserved eucalyptus, twigs,  the ripe seed pods of butterfly weed, gomphrena, Chinese lanterns, mature echinacea stems and thistle. Any garden has plenty of materials that can be harvested for a fall container.  If the roadside weeds suit you, be sure you shake out all of the ripe seeds before you use them.

DSC_4895Some materials I turn upside down and hang for a few days prior to use.  If you need an element to be upright, let gravity do the work of drying it in that position.  Other materials look better in a casually draped state. I do dry the grains indoors.  Once they are outside, and the seeds mature, you will have gold finches swarming your pots.  This is an experience of fall that is pure pleasure.

Sept 26 2014 (2)New to me this year-dry banana stalks.  They curl as they dry in a way that only nature could create.  They are quite heavy, so we attach them to bamboo stakes in two places before we use them in pots. If you use any preserved or cut materials in pots, they need anchoring.  You need to supply what the roots once did.  Rob does a great job of finding great dried and preserved materials for pots.

Sept 26 2014 (1)These pots are quite large, and ask for an arrangement proportional to that size.  The centerpieces provide a lot of height, and a lot of visual interest.  The kale and cabbage are enormous this year-thanks to the cool summer.  If you do use them in containers, be sure to water at the soil line, and not over the leaves.  The leaves shed water, and can leave the soil dry. The leaves of some varieties are arranged densely around the stalks-if they do get wet, and do not have a chance to dry out, the plants can develop mold.

DSC_4905The most important part is to exercise your imagination, and enjoy the experience of fall gardening.  Though my pots at home still look good, I am thinking ahead to what I might want to see for fall.  I have plenty of trees and shrubs that are getting ready to turn color.  My fall pots will look right at home.

Sept 26 2014 (4)eucalyptus, black and green millet, and “Coral Queen” kale

Sept 26 2014 (3)finished fall arrangement

Sept 26 2014 (6)ready and representing the fall

 

A Landscape For A Gardener: The Plants

plants (2)The focus of the landscape in the rear yard was and still is the pond. The informally planted pond gardens, surrounded by old scotch pines and punctuated by a small barn, look and feel as though they have reached a mature state of natural equilibrium.  I am not fooled.  A devoted gardener created this garden, and spends lots of time and effort caring for it. The new garden pictured above occupies the mid ground space, which separates the formal pool deck from the sprawling pond landscape. Since this garden will primarily be viewed from above, a collection of equally small growing perennials will feature the flowers, framed by foliage.

plants 2 (6)The arrangement of the different varieties is informal and random.   The modest height of the plants will not obstruct the view to the pond. The bed is anchored by the dwarf white hydrangea, “Bombshell.  The firepit garden includes hemerocallis “Citron”, an Al Goldner variety, and amsonia heubrechtii. The bed on the near side of the stone walk from the pool deck to the pond (not yet installed) is planted with small growing shrubs- spirea “Tor”, rhus aromatica “Gro-Low”, and clethra Ruby Spice.

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Perennial cultivars include alchemilla mollis, astilbe “Fanal”, Buddleia “Lilac Chip”, Leucanthemum “Snowcap”, Coreopsis “Moonbeam, perovskia “Peek-a-Boo”, Geranium “Tiny Monster”, Carex “Emerillo”, lavender and blue moss phlox, allium “Millenium”, nepeta “Persian Blue” and monarda “Grand Parade”.

plants 2 (4)Turning the corner from the south side garden to the rear yard, a group of columnar liquidambar “Slender Silhouette” frames the view to come.  Viburnum “Shasta”, viburnum “Mohican”, aesculus parviflora, and variegated red twig dogwood are underplanted with variegated solomon’s seal, and epimedium “Frohn Leiten”.

plants 2 (2)The columnar sweet gum is a great choice for a tree of substance that will grow comfortably in a small and narrow space. The informally growing shrubs bring the pond garden to the foreground, and smooth the visual transition from the more formal house gardens towards the pond.

Plants 2 (14)The landscape has 12 espaliered trees.  8 katsuras provide a lot of screening on both the north and south lot lines without taking up much in the way of space.  These espaliers will be grown into and maintained as a solid green wall.  The north and south perimeter of the front yard landscape is planted with hydrangea “Little Lime”.  Small properties ask for plant material small and narrow in scale.  A pair of old silver maples in the tree lawn had to be removed.  Giant girdling roots eventually did them in.  We replaced the street trees with honey locusts.  Though they fill the bill as street trees, their canopy is open growing, and their roots are friendly to the well being of companion plants.

the plants (14)The south side garden includes fruiting pear trees, and a run of arborvitae, planted for privacy.  The garden includes Macy’s Pride rose, Sunny knockout rose, hyssop, astilbe “Sprite, and the dwarf Russian sage, “Peek-a-Boo”.  Towards the rear, the pear espaliers are underplanted with brunnera “Jack Frost”, and pachysandra.

the plants (6)The brunnera wraps around the side, where the garden is shaded by an overhang.  The sunnier areas are planted with herbs, both perennial and annual. Pots were added at the last for tomatoes, and flowers.

fence gardenIn the front yard, a garden was planned for both sides of the iron fence.  Given the low height of the fence, the perennials are correspondingly short.  The garden is anchored with a number of helleborus “Jacob”.  Added to this, more dwarf buddleia, anemone “Snowdrop”, sweet woodriff, aster “Wood’s Blue”, Salvia “Marcus,  heuchera “Venus”and Euphorbia polychroma.  This garden will be planted with small spring flowering bulbs this coming month.

the plants (8)The fence actually follows the line set by the sidewalk, which is not parallel to the house.  This width of the garden on either side of the fence varies depending on the location.  This helps to create the impression that the fence runs parallel to the house.  Why would I think this was important?  This space is more formally designed.  I am usually reluctant to plant perennial gardens in a front yard. If I do plant them there, I like the effect to be compact and tailored-not a look that nature is particularly inclined to.  Perennial gardens only look as good as the quality of the maintenance devoted to them.  But this client loves, and looks after her gardens.

the plants (7)This garden also solves the issue of how the fence interacts with the landscape. Mulch or stone under the fence-rather bleak.  Grass up to the fence is very difficult to maintain in a beautiful way.  This fence is an architectural feature of the yard-the garden says so.

July 17 2014 (67)The front yard features two types of dogwoods.  A pair of cornus kousa “Venus” will growing to a height of about 15 feet, and features large white flowers in June.  A pair of variegated cornus kousa “Samaratin” are planted between the boxwood describing the curved stone wall, and the fence garden.

succulent-garden.jpgA narrow strip of a bed separates the driveway from the walk to the front door. That garden is entirely comprised of hens and chicks and sedums.  Sedum Vera Jamieson, Dazzel Berry, Mr. Goodbud, John Creech, Matrona and angelina were outfitted with drip lines, so they could be watered on an appropriately infrequent schedule.

the plants (13)Columnar Bradford pears on the north lot line will provide a little large scale company to the house.

the plants (10) The garden at the front is planted with azalea “Stewartsonii, and a collection of blue leaved hostas of varying sizes. The cultivars include  hosta sieboldiana elegans, krossa regal, Halcyon, Regal Splendor, and Mouse Ears.  Regal splendor is a krossa regal variety with cream edges.  By mt client’s special request, a few rhododendron “Nova Zembla”.

the plants (9)Of course the pool yard has a more serious fence and gate-this is code.  But the iron work is light, and permits a glimpse through to the pool terrace pergola.

the plants (4)The last of the planting? Due to the location of several underground mechanical boxes, this area could not be planted in ground.  A frost proof Belgian stoneware pot would be planted with a dwarf Japanese maple. We will most likely drop-pot the maple, meaning we will drop in into the container, plastic pot and all, for the spring, summer, and fall. The maple will be stored in the garage for the winter.  Once in a while I am fortunate enough to have a client who wants a landscape filled with gardens. She has a very special way with plants.  This landscape will shine, given her care.

A Landscape For A Gardener: The Structure

August-2012.jpgThis landscape project took a little better than two years to build, from start to finish.  We planted new pots on the rear terrace for summer, in mid August.  A client who is an avid gardener and naturalist with a large piece of property decided to take down her home of many years, and build anew.  The building project had already been going on for better than a year before my first visit.  The west half of the property, dominated by a huge pond and barn, was untouched by the construction. The pond was full of water lilies, and skirted by all kinds of bog loving plants.  Old  scotch pines, and densiformis yews of considerable size and age provided lots in the way of screening of the neighboring properties.      July 11 2013 (15)
I never saw the original house and garden. Judging by what was left intact, it must have been lovely.  Lots of plants had been heeled in as far away from the construction as possible. Discussions with my client confirmed her knowledge and interest in horticulture. Her keen interest in the landscape is every designer’s dream – a knowledgeable client with lots to contribute to the process.  The old and the new would have to meld seamlessly.  Fortunately we had plenty of time before we would put a shovel to the ground.

July 11 2013 (19)My first visit took place at that moment in the construction when every square foot was occupied by building materials, mud, machines, and mountains of unwanted dirt. It was very hard to imagine the landscape at this point, there was still so much work to do. It takes a certain courage and calm to take apart an established landscape in anticipation of a new house to be built.  All of the hard structures would have to come first.  Once the house is out of the ground, that elevation sets the grades for everything else-the driveway, the walkways, terraces, and in this case, a fountain and a pool.  All of these architectural elements would dictate the tone, tenor, and placement of the landscape elements..  It was time for the first round of landscape design drawings.

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The house was in the later stages of construction.  The walls were up – some stone, and some brick.  A sample of the brick color and pattern, still in the front yard. Most of the windows had been installed. The lion’s share of the work was going on inside. Pallets of the remains of the building of the stone walls-still in the front yard.  Also visible here, a temporary air conditioning unit.  The months of machines and men going back and forth across the dirt had compacted the soil, squeezing just about every last bit of air out of the soil.  Even a moderate rain would produce puddles that would not drain.  There would be drains installed by the contractor, and more drains later, by us.

Aug 10 2012 115There was much discussion between my clients, their architect and I regarding the location and size of the driveway and walkways – all of it good. Many of the decisions about the pool, the pool deck, and pergolas had already been made.  Any client knows more about how they want to live than anyone else.  They were keen for a low wall opposite the front door, the interior of which would have a fountain, and seating.  I did a number of drawings of the possibilities. My primary contribution was to suggest a break in the wall to the north, which would permit easy access through from one side of the yard to the other.

July 11 2013 (22)Though there was hope that all of the stonework would be done by late September of last year, it wasn’t.  In August, it all seemed possible.  But a very rainy fall and an early appearance of winter weather meant that the landscape construction would have to wait until spring. The last of the hard structures would be a series of low walls and gates in wrought iron. August 23 2013 (46)The luxury of a long project is the time there is to think through every decision.  A low curved wall drawn on paper is a different matter than the reality of the wall.  Having the time to react, and perhaps change direction can be good.  Beyond that, construction delays are inevitable.  Heavy rains do not deter any activity on the inside, but can create lengthy delays on the outside.  Multiple contractors means the prospect of poor interface multiplies.

July 11 2013 (11)One later addition –  a fire pit.  Adding a structure such as this in a landscape renovation happens all the time. But for a new house, waiting for all of the hard structures to be built before the installation of the landscape helps insure a a look that is deliberate and all of a piece. Hard structures can create issues with drainage.  No landscape with thrive, planted in soil that cannot or will not drain.  Taking time with this now means fewer problems getting a landscape to establish later on.

July 11 2013 (7)Nonetheless, I was looking forward to that moment when we could begin dealing with the dirt.