A Fernery

Oct 19aa 002As fond as I am of ferns for shady spots in a perennial garden, there are plenty of tropical  species too handsome to pass up. I have a client whose pair of Australian tree ferns flank her front door every summer; they have spent the winter in the greenhouse for the past six years. On a smaller scale, Victorian parlor ferns and Boston ferns prosper in a shady spot outdoors over the summer, and make a decent show in a cool light place indoors over the winter.  Every fall we fall heir to a number of plants clients have no place for, but can’t bear to compost.  Won’t we take them? Try as I can, I can’t say no to a plant in need of a home. Added to these were a number of ferns Rob grew in pots at home this year.  As the dwarf crested ferns we planted 2 years ago in this antique French fountain are clearly very happy,  Rob decided a fernery was in order.

Oct 19aa 027Once Rob gets a theme going, he has a sure hand putting a vignette together.  The fern collection is kept company with lichen encrusted sticks from Oregon and carved wood mushrooms from Belgium.  The giant fronds of what we call Macho ferns from his yard arch out some 30 inches, and cascade gracefully to the floor.  We have turned on our heat, but an industrial building from the 1940′s heated with old Modine greenhouse furnaces stays decidedly cool.

Oct 19aa 013A chartreuse dracaena named “Janet Craig” that grew vigorously over the summer in an oak barrel is brought inside. Its fountain like habit of growth is fern like, but the texture much more simple and dramatic.  I find shade loving tropicals are indispensible for growing shade containers that are fresh and lively-different than the usual. This plant will winter well here; it will make a fine centerpiece for a shade pot next summer.

Oct 19aa 009A pair of woven wood chairs and a table are drawn up to the fountain wall covered in baby tears.  The elements of water and moss add to the woodsy look of a fern room.  I cut a hole in the ceiling here large enough to handle the roof of an old Lord and Burham greenhouse. A shop devoted to all things garden would seem lacking without water, and a space to grow plants.

Oct 19aa 021As the room starts to fill up with plants, the space begins to feel like a conservatory.  It is no wonder people go to great trouble and expense to have glass houses, or grow lights in the basement.  I perfectly understand that feeling of being shut in, once I am shut out of the garden.  These ferns make me think about having plants at home over the winter. 

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Small tropical ferns have amazingly intricate leaf shapes and configurations. Their appreance seems natural-as opposed to tropical. Though I have enjoyed landscapes in Florida and Georgia, they do not look like home. I am not particularly a fan of that group of tropicals I call house plants.  They look so tropical-and so out of place in my northern environment.  A collection of ferns skillfully grown and arranged might make you really feel you are in an indoor garden.  This is an illusion any Michigan gardener would welcome.  The space moves beyond appearing like a conservatory, and starts looking like a garden.

Oct 19aa 028We find a home for the other bits as well.  A pair of variegated Algerian ivies are so striking in a pair of old faux bois planters.  A spike encircled with Cuban oregano organizes a collection of small agaves and echeverias; Rob is calling this the arid zone.  An old varigated ivy single ball topiary in need of a haircut will get a winter home somewhere in this room. The climbing fig that covers the walls completes the green picture. 

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Designing this space, just like designing any other, relies on a cohesive selection of materials and the establishing of  strong visual relationships between them.   This space is beginning to feel like a refuge from a Michigan outdoors which gets less hospitable as the fall wears on.  Most interior spaces have a spot or two that can support a little plant life. There are lots of ways people continue to garden even when the season wanes; this is just one of them.

Time For Tulips

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I am embarassed to admit I did not take the time to plant a single tulip last fall-how lame. But I had the entire spring season to regret that decision at my leisure. They smell divine; the colors are not only luscious, they are so welcome after our long grey winter. They are swell as cut flowers.  So what was my problem?  It is easy to let the spring bulb planting slide, especially if the fall weather is nasty.  I am not particularly fond of gardening in freezing weather, beyond digging myself a shelter in the compost pile, and settling in there for a hot lunch and warm apple pie with coffee. Planting bulbs is not especially satifying. You repeat the work of little holes six to eight inches deep times the numbers of bulbs you have; all the while your hands, nose and feet are going numb from the cold .  When you have finished, you have nothing to show for your work-just the same dirt surface that was there before you started.

Spring 2005 (3)They say delayed gratification is the most adult of all pleasures, so maybe I was being childish about the long hiatus between the planting and the blooming.  But when spring finally comes, tulips deliver.  It is no small miracle that those small white bulbs with their papery brown covers become a plant that can reach thirty inches tall or better, with strikingly large flowers.  Even people whose vocabulary does not include the word “garden”, know the word tulip. 

tulips _0002As is my habit, I welcome the one odd plant out in any mass planting. This ocean of Mrs. John Sheepers is all the better looking for it. The blooming of the tulips is one of those garden moments to be treasured. I certainly was not thinking about how cold it was the day I planted , on this spring day. My tulips shake off any late frost; most of any damage is to the leaves that appear early. They are remarkably resilient to rain and wind.

Spring05 (7)Despite some literature to the contrary, I would not describe a tulip as a perennial. Once they flower, the top size bulb breaks down into smaller bulbs and bulbils. As flower size is directly related to the size of the bulb, a smaller bulb, or collection of will produce smaller flowers, or possibly, no flowers at all.  In Holland, once the tulips have bloomed, the bulbs are dug up, sorted as to size and replanted for growing them back to top size.  I do not want to dig tulips, separate the bulbs and replant; the Dutch do a much better job of this than I could. This is a long way of saying that I treat my tulips as annuals.  When they are done flowering, I dig them and give them away, or compost them.

dgw spring_0004Daffodils are a much better choice of a spring flowering bulb, should you have a requirement that your bulbs rebloom reliably. But they are not tulips.  Treating the tulips as annuals permits me to plant them in places where I will later plant summer annuals. As I do not discriminate against summer flowering plants that are only able to grace my garden for one year, so why not have tulips?

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More often than planting in the ground, I do manage to plant tulips in containers which I winter in the garage, or under a thick coating of compost outdoors.  I may plant boxes or baskets or galvanized buckets-whatever seems handy.  I also may companion plant; the basket of red tulips pictured above was planted in tandem with the giant frittilaria imperialis.  The frits were done blooming, but their curly foliage was attractive with the tulips.

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Tulips in containers have the added advantage of mobility.  They can be moved to a good spot in a spring garden, or placed on a table, or delivered to a friend who is ill.  It also enables me to plant standing up, in the shelter of my garage. 

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I did plant tulips yesterday-1800 in all.  I did a mix of World Expression, Avignon, Maureen and Cum Laude.  Should you be interested in checking out my choices, or planting some tulips of your own, I highly recommend Sheepers. www.johnsheepers.com  They have a great website, with pictures that will make your mouth water.  It is not too late for you to have tulips in the spring.

Broom Corn

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Broomcorn, or sorghum vulgare, is an annual that can grow to fifteen feet in a season. It is a crop grown primarily for the manufacture of brooms, and whisk brooms. It appears in the literature in the late 1500′s, in Italy;  Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have introduced broomcorn to the US in 1700.  Though I have been using broomcorn ornamentally in fall pots for years,  the above mentioned facts I learned only yesterday.  As I am focused on how plants look, I am impressed with that enterprising person that dried this plant, and made brooms. I will admit I did go and check out the broom in my office.

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They make a swell centerpiece in a fall pot. For this six foot tall centerpiece, I loosely zip-tie two  levels of material to a vinyl coated steel stake, and stuff my way down. The metal stake is a good idea-these stems are juicy, and very heavy.  I like to use fresh cut sorghum and millet as they dry in whatever position you have them. 

Oct 13 014The metal stake is inserted as close to the bottom of the pot as possible. A listing, out of vertical centerpiece-on my top ten list of things I really dislike. The long fibrous panicle of the broomcorn plant arches over gracefully in a pot.  I repeat that graceful arching with some leggy Tuscan blue kale; this combination is a good foil for those utterly organized cabbages. 

Oct 13 002Sometimes I sort the broomcorn bunches for color.  The dark stems are a beautiful compliment to this Francesco Del Re pot; plugs of angelina sedum infill the gaps. As I discussed yesterday, elevating the pots allows water to drain away freely. We will need this when dressing the pots for the winter.

Oct 13 011The green-cream and peach sorghum contrasts well with its counterpart in a dark purple-brown. I do not know if any of these stems would pass muster for broom-making material, but they make for a great fall pot.  That blue kale foliage is an unusual color in Michigan landscapes; it stands out.

Oct 13 008Ornamental cabbages only get better as the night temperatures drop; they color up.  They are best planted as a tutu.  Plants with a stiff aspect need some friendly and loose companionship.  Thus this combination. The lime green angelina will take on an orange cast in cold weather, as in  37 degrees when I came to work this morning.

Oct 13 007This lace leaf kale is all about air, at the same time that it defines an overall shape.  What more could any gardener ask of a plant?  As kales and cabbages shed their lower leaves, I may bury the trunk as needed in the soil, and pitch the head forward some. The entire arrangement-saucy enough to attract attention. 

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I plant my clients pots four times a year;  her pair of concrete squares, and three Francesco Del Re pots get dressed up for each season.  Every season she is looking out her kitchen window expecting to see something beautiful.  I suppose if I made a big issue of the history and ornamental use of broomcorn, she would listen. But her attention to that horticulture would not be the point.  As I try to provide her with a view to something,  I am interested in any plant, including a big rangy annual usually grown as a crop, that delivers.

At A Glance: Great Gourds

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