A Favorite Client

harriet.jpgIt isn’t hard to identify the favorite clients.  The work you do for them-they appreciate it. They are not afraid to ask you to detail every step you went through to arrive at a recommendation. Once you provide all of the details, they respond, kindly. They think over everything you say, carefully. Better, yet, they are interested, and committed.  They are clear about what they like, and polite about what they don’t like. They are willing to weather any storm.  They can be persuaded.  But they know their own mind and life, and are not afraid to stand up for that. I don’t often visit this client, for whom I did a landscape for her new house some three years ago. We had cause to meet recently-a few new issues needed solving.  Her opening topic-a leaf that had fallen from her katsura espaliers.  That heart shape leaf falling on an under planting of boxwood-a cause for celebration. That randomly falling heart shaped leaf was the first topic of her day.  The beauty of nature was number one.  All else was a distant second.   How like her, to feel this way, and show it to me.  We spent a few moments, in celebration.

DSC_4381Celebration energizes and organizes all sorts of  expression.  The landscape is, in its most basic form, about defining spaces, directing traffic, and nurturing a love of nature.  As much as a home is a three dimensional representation of the story of the life of a family, the landscape is a story about how that home interacts with nature.  That relationship with nature is about a lot of things – materials impervious to weather, and the plants.  The shapes of spaces, and their dimensions. Color, and dimension.  Depth.  Places to be. What grows and lives in the landscape parallels a life some describe as a life well worth living.

DSC_4402This landscape just three years old.  It is starting to is take root, and become part and parcel of this property.     It will take a few more years to see what the landscape screens, what it frames, what it features, how it thrives,  and how it enriches this household. A mature landscape will take a good many years to achieve, but the early signs are good.  Establishing the landscape has been a battle.  Very heavy clay soil close to the water’s edge means the soil is usually saturated. We have had casualties.  But the peonies have taken hold, as have the climbing roses and the clematis.  Once a garden built on clay soil is established, it it long lived.

DSC_4378This favorite client took my recommendations about pots and benches, steps, porch stone-this was just the beginning..  This year she had a mind to change her color scheme for her containers. Lots of color, please.  Container design can take a last minute cue.

DSC_4366A meadow garden near the water was too tall, and too green.  Some of the beds got a subtle punch of color from the addition of mid height annual plants.  We planted a few low growing shrub roses-just to see if they would take to the placement. Any successful garden depends upon the willingness to experiment, and evolve. Tinkering is is the hallmark of every inventor.  Among that big group of inventors – gardeners.

DSC_4363My client’s property is overrun with rabbits.  Rabbits that treat her gardens like a lunch buffet.  Her sculpture collection of minks, foxes and dogs that inhabit the landscape are a personal signature. She may never defeat the rabbits, but her landscape is endowed with with her hope, interest and commitment. She is a favorite client, yes. The relationship is a regular pleasure, and routinely full of surprises.  She thinks about her landscape in a way that I never could.  It is hers.  I so appreciate that she thinks about every issue, personally.

DSC_4361water’s edge garden

DSC_4355bright colored containers

DSC_4398saturated color

DSC_4359a view of the garden

DSC_4347I have never seen streptocarpella thrive quite like this. Bravo, Harriet.

Sunday Opinion: Aging Trees

A good client has lost 6 very big and very old trees in the terrible storms we have had this season. The damage to her landscape is considerable.  The remaining old trees in the same proximity look lonely, and off center. She is asking me what to do.  I haven’t answered her yet, but she will most likely need to start over. Just yesterday we had a storm, wind driven and rain laden, blow through such that Detroit Edison counts it as their 10th worst storm on record.  Luckily my neighborhood was spared.  At the shop, a giant limb of a willow sheared off, and landed on our neighbor’s roof.  Lots of people lost their power in the greater Detroit area. The big winds and the big rain took down trees in a wide range of communities.  Big trees.  As in, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.  Miraculously, no person was injured.

Big storms are the plague of the weak and the big old trees. A sapling can gracefully bend under the duress of a straight line wind.  No harm done. Old trees whose wood is stiff with age do not bend-they break. The canopy of a big tree is like a a giant sail. A wind that is too strong can stress that trunk beyond reason. For certain, large caliper trees that are snapped off above the ground, or uprooted in the height of a storm are victims of the unpredictable direction and incredible strength of that force we call nature. If you have ever seen a big tree uprooted or snapped off you understand the meaning of the word “force”.

Other trees in poor condition go over or shed big limbs without much in the way of protest. A lack of health, or a lack of regular maintenance makes them a target for the effects of severe weather.  There are a lot of limbs on the ground now.  The pruning that violent nature does is extreme. No judicious or clean cuts. I suppose storm pruning is effective.  Any limb that is weak, or growing at an unsustainable angle gets a haircut in a matter of seconds. There is no time for a second opinion.

Our trees are our biggest plants. Old trees are up there, dealing with the brunt of the weather. All kinds of issues challenge their health.  As they age, they need care.  Maples in the tree lawn develop girdling roots.  Sun loving deciduous trees in too much shade grow towards the light.  Lots of our evergreens are being threatened by needle cast disease. I could go on and on about the illnesses of trees, but that is not my point.  Trees need a gardener in charge to look after them, routinely-unless being at the mercy of nature is a place you don’t mind being.

My city does no pruning or maintenance on the street trees. I would guess this is a budget issue.  So the three trees in the tree lawn on my corner lot that they finally took down this spring – I had to make a case that not to take them down would expose people to serious danger.  They finally agreed. They were all maples, more than 2/3rds dead, suffering from girdling roots and seriously weakened by fungus.  The maples were a poor choice to begin with. Their roots need room.  They are much too large growing to restrict to the space in an urban tree lawn.  Years of neglect made them a disaster waiting to happen. One giant limb at a just about horizontal angle arcing over my street featured a home trunk entirely rotted on the interior. That tree worried me to no end.  I am glad it is gone now, before it collapsed under its own weight.  In my next life I would like to be in charge of street tree plantings.  Not that I have an agenda proud of the history of street trees in my urban community.  I just have a big love for trees, and want to see them take hold and thrive.  Old trees ask for some care.  Loosing one – grievous. Certain neighborhoods in Royal Oak have incredibly gorgeous and substantial London Plane trees, thriving.  These trees have been looked after all along the way.

An landscape asks for a regular hand.  An aging landscape asks for a better than regular hand.  There is no substitute for regular care.  This is not to say that regular care will insure you will never have storm related damage to your trees.  But it will provide them a fighting chance.

As for my dead maples, I have had the stumps ground down 24 inches. I had to transplant all of the hosta planted around them like skirts.  I raked and seeded each 6′ diameter circle of bare dirt.  Now it’s time to think about how I will replant that tree lawn.  All living plants have a life span. Long and short.  Expected, and unexpected. Looking after a property also means starting over.

A Watery Grave

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I am sure you remember the astonishingly cold and lengthy winter past.  The fallout from that winter was severe.  So many plants damaged, or killed outright.  Trying to catch up to the repair and replacement, given that it was well into April before anyone could work the ground, has been a daunting task. That cold winter has proved to be a gift that is still giving.  Our summer has been remarkably, uncharacteristically, unsettlingly cool.  I have no complaints about the fact that Buck and I were able to have dinner outdoors every day in July.  The temperatures come 7:30 pm were neither cold nor hot-just perfectly comfortable.  But for 2 hots days, and a short spell with no rain, the summer has been a dream come true for people and landscapes alike.  The last week we have had driving rains and downright cold temperatures.  The seasonal plants are not so happy with this turn of events.

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The seasonal flowers in containers have been remarkably good, although undersized for this time of year.  Tropical/seasonal/annual plants love the heat-as in hot.  What is too uncomfortably warm a temperature for me is much to the liking of most tropical plants that are native to much warmer climates than ours.  The boxes on the roof at Detroit Garden Works need to be planted with plants that luxuriate in high temperatures. It is a hot and windy spot, up there. My choice of a focal plant this year-Ruellia Britoniana, commonly known as Mexican petunia.  “When grown under hot sunny conditions the foliage assumes a metallic bluish cast that creates the perfect backdrop for the the scores of vibrant blue flowers that appear with the onslaught of hot summer weather. The blossoms are trumpet shaped and about 1.5-2 in (3.8-5.1 cm) in diameter and are borne at the tips of the stems. Varieties with white, pink, and many shades of blue are available, as are dwarf versions that form clumps that are about 8-12 in (20.3-25.4 cm) in height. Mexican petunia is very showy when in full bloom due to the clouds of admiring butterflies that swarm about the plants.”  The aforementioned is taken word for word from the floridata website. I had in my mind’s eye a hedge of ruellia 3′ tall and loaded with purple flowers-luxuriating in the heat.

angelonia.jpgI asked George at Telly’s Greenhouse if he had ruellia in 4″ pots.  He did, although the plants were small.  He wanted me to leave them in his greenhouse-his hot house-for 3 weeks.  They would grow faster for him in his hothouse than they would on my chilly roof. I was sure we would eventually get hot weather, so I delayed planting the roof until the beginning of July.   I under planted the ruellia with several colors of angelonia. “Angelonia is an exceptional summer bedding plant that can be relied upon for dependable garden performance through the hottest summer weather”-this quote from Dan Gill. For a little contrast in color and texture, a dwarf sweet potato vine every so often, to trail.   My roof garden is a perfect location for plants that thrives in high heat. As for the heat, I am still waiting.

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Those cool temperatures in midsummer?  I do believe we have our past winter to thank for that.  Days upon days of weather in the single digits or below zero made for a record breaking ice cover on the great lakes.  Over 90% of the Great Lakes were ice covered. Friends that ice fish told me that the ice was 3′ thick on Lake Huron this past winter.  Ice that thick did not melt so quickly, given our very chilly spring.  If someone told me today that Lake Michigan still had chunks of ice floating around, I would believe it.  How has that affected our summer?  The prevailing winds blowing over frozen or near freezing lakes has made for a relatively cold summer. This week, the rains just kept coming. My ruellia and angelonia look good, just small.  How have I protected my tropical plants that like high heat and hate waterlogged soil?

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The proper watering of tropical/season/annual plants in ground and in containers is key to their success.  In the heat of July, I water my containers every other day. I water my begonias only once a week in July-if that.  Their fleshy stems store a lot of water.  One bit too much water from my hose, and they will rot. The heat of July means water is evaporating out of the soil in the pots at a rapid rate.  It takes a lot of attention and some skill to water just enough to keep the moisture level even.  Not too much, not too little.  Plants that are greatly wanting for water shed leaves, and shut down.  Rescue water may revive a desperately thirsty plant, but the stress of going without can take a toll. Plants that get watered on a schedule without regard to the weather will eventually protest, and falter. Too much water is just as bad as too little. I see watering on containers now at a rate proper with 90 degree days, though many of our days have barely hit 70.

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Linden trees suffering from lack of water in the heat of the summer-their interior leaves will turn yellow, and drop.  A tree suffering from lack of water will shed interior leaves.  The leaves at the ends of the branches are actively engaged in photosynthesis.  Precious water reserves will be reserved for those leaves performing vital functions for the health of the tree.  A linden tree which is over watered will send signals.  The leaves-all of the leaves-wilt, and eventually yellow. Leaf drop will be considerable. This silver cascade dusty miller has been over watered.  The interior leaves are yellowing.

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Container plantings that are not doing well right now can largely be attributed to over water.  When the temperatures are cool, and the overnight temperatures downright cold, water less.  Maybe a lot less. Maybe not at all. The usual watering routine does not apply in a season like this.  I always put my finger in the dirt down to my knuckle before I water.  If the soil sticks to my finger, I don’t water. If the knuckle test says don’t water for 10 days, I don’t water for 10 days.  If the soil slides off my finger, I water.  Past this general rule, great watering becomes an art. A great diagnostician/gardener is an artist at heart.  If one plant in a container seems dry, I water one plant.  If it is 95 degrees, and I need water to soak a container, I may fill that container with water 3 times before moving on. When in doubt, I pass on the water.

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Many factors influence the performance of plants. Placing the plant in the right place comes first. Light and water are crucial secondary elements.  In shade, in cool temperatures, and in rainy weather I water tropical plants less.  My hardy ferns and European ginger love all the rain we have been getting.  My landscape is thriving, happy with all of the unexpected water from the sky. They have so much more potential for drainage than a plant in a pot.

rain-damage.jpgIf your annual plants have leaves that are pale or yellow green, if they look peaked, fungus marked, black and mushy, or otherwise headed to a watery grave, shut off the hose. Keep that hose in neutral in cold and rainy weather.

 

 

Pruning With A Purpose

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Pruning woody shrubs, when done properly, is good for the plants.  Cutting out dead or diseased branches helps to preserve the overall health of the plant. Branches that cross over one another may damage the bark of both branches.  Damage to the bark of a woody shrub is an invitation to insects and disease.  Thinning out a woody shrub can help to maintain it at a desired size for many years.  That thinning allows light and air to penetrate the interior spaces, keeping the interior of the shrub well foliated.  In the hydrangea hedge above, the upper branches were kept long, a practice which eventually shaded the lower branches.  The lower branches have leaves that are smaller, and fewer flowers. Once we started pruning these hydrangeas, we shortened the top branches considerably and unequally, and pruned the lower branches with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Ideally, a hydrangea should be wider at the bottom than the top.

limelights 2013 (7)As an experiment, I did not prune my limelights at home at all last spring, but for removing the spent flower heads. My reason?  I have a yew hedge in front of them.  I wanted my hydangeas to grow tall, and have lots of blooms in the top third of the plant. On the inside of this hedge is a boxwood hedge, planted fairly close to the hydrangeas.  For the health of the boxwood, I did not want a lot of foliage shading them.  For hydrangeas blooming from top to bottom, the boxwood would have needed to be planted much further away.  I did not have the luxury of that kind of space. This is what I mean by pruning with a purpose.  Good pruning encourages the plant to grow in a way and direction that works with the natural habit of the plant-and the intended design.
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This limelight hedge was planted with the specific intent of providing dense screening from top to bottom.  The branches at the bottom are slightly longer and wider than the branches at the top.  Hydrangeas, like most other deciduous shrub, cannot be pruned with a hedge trimmer.  Cutting every branch at exactly the same height produces a proliferation of growth all at the same level.  A single cut may produce 3 or 4 breaks, or new buds.  This denies light and air to the branches below.  Deciduous shrubs pruned for years in this in this manner have a thin green outer layer, and a dead twiggy interior.

pruned-limelight-hydrangeas.jpgThink shag hair cut.  Shorter on the top, longer on the sides, with each cut an alternate length and direction. Each branch has to be pruned individually, one at a time-each at its own level.  Every branch needs a home of its own, uncrowded by the leaves of a neighboring branch.  Clusters of leaves that pester one another and compete for light eventually leads to overall decline.  Lots of deciduous shrubs grow large.  A big shrub planted in a tight space that always needs downsizing will never look or be happy and healthy.  If you don’t have room for a limelight hydrangea, which will mature at 6-8 feet tall, plant Little Limes.  They can comfortably be kept at 4 t0 5 feet tall and wide.

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There are a few plants that are tolerant of shearing. Boxwood and yews are tolerant. Lindens have been pleached and formally grown into overhead hedges for centuries.  A hydrangea is not a member of this group.  They have a loose and shaggy natural shape.  Pruning them needs to work with this natural  habit.  Landscapes where every deciduous shrub is pruned into ball, mushroom or cube shapes is a look that is heavy handed, and not good for the plants. Proper pruning takes a lot of time, but that time is well spent.

pruned-limelights.jpgThe effect of just one year not pruning my limelight hydrangeas is obvious.  The shrubs have developed long bare legs  Pruned down to 36″ tall will encourage lateral buds to break, and some branching at the bottom.  From a distance, the boxwood disguises this legginess. In fact, I prune my hydrangeas differently every year.  I like trying out different approaches and observing the results.  Shrubs are quite tolerant of gardeners.

hydrangea-branching.jpgIf you do have a shrub that is had become overgrown, or is suffering from long standing poor pruning, it is possible to renovate.  An overgrown lilac might benefit from having a couple of old thick branches cut to the ground.  This will encourage growth from the base.  A privet that has been cut into a ball shape for too many years might be a good candidate for the swiss cheese treatment.  Cut holes in the exterior thicket of branches so light can penetrate.  The light is coming from overhead, so treating the top surface of the shrub is the most effective way.

hydrangea-budding.jpgI would say my hydrangeas have been cut hard this year.  I see I have buds breaking here well below the cut.  The trick is to cut close enough to a bud so no time and energy is wasted on a stub that will eventually die back.  Cut too close to a bud, and you may damage it.  For this reason, I may prune my hydrangeas again in a month of so.  To encourage more branching.  Very hard pruning can result in just a few stems, with overly large flowers that droop over.  A sturdily branched hydrangea properly pruned will be a joy come bloom time.