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

A Landscape For A Gardener: Part 4: The Finish

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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 : Part 2: The Dirt

DSC_5410By the final months of 2013, the sidewalk was nearing completion, the driveway base got poured, the curving front courtyard wall and pillars for the cast iron fence were complete. The iron work-yet to come. At least we were past the point of contractors parking in the front yard.  It is next to impossible to convey to an electrician that the weight of his vehicle damages the structure and drainage capacity of  soil.  We just breathe a sigh of relief when they are finished and gone.  The ground that has been driven over for years had become much like a parking lot, only paved with dirt.  To make matters worse, our area is noted for its heavy clay soil.  This project involved lots of hand digging to reintroduce oxygen to the soil, and the addition of compost to leaven the clay.

June 24 2014 (36)The soil would need grading to the levels established by the house, drive, walk and terraces. This part of the landscape installation takes the most time.  Once the soil is graded, a good rain will tell if there are any non-draining areas.  Once plants are in the ground, they cover over any water that may be sitting on top of the soil. It is vastly easier to spot drainage problems in this stage.  Eventually the iron fencing got installed, all but one panel.  We needed access to the yard with a machine, and tools.  The new blue stone sidewalk was for foot traffic only-and certainly not our feet.

June 24 2014 (37)It is such a relief to get to the dirt stage. I like moving soil around, marking bed lines, and preparing beds to be planted. It is a sure sign of progress.  On the subject of soil for woody plants, I am a member of the do not disturb camp.  Years ago I would dig holes for every tree and shrub at least 3 times bigger than the size of the root ball.  Once the shrub was planted, I would back fill the hole with soil concocted in the wheelbarrow.  Topsoil, sand peat moss, compost, and worm castings were blended to make the soil of my dreams.

June 24 2014 (35)Years later, a study from Michigan State disputed the wisdom of planting a tree in soil which was anything other than existing soil.  Once the roots reached the end of the heavenly soil, the shock of the native soil could set the tree back for years.  This only makes sense.  A root ball needs to be set on firm ground-not new soil.  This makes sense too.  New soil is full of air.  A tree that sinks below grade is a tree that will have problems.  I choose plants that thrive not only in my hardiness zone, but in my soil.  I caution clients who insist on having rhododendrons.  They look great in full bloom at nurseries here in the spring, but I am quite sure none of those plants are Michigan grown.  Though there are neighborhoods nearby with giant and thriving rhododendrons, that is not the norm.

The Plants (25)Last fall, we did purchase 8 large katsura espaliers for this project. When it became clear that there would be no movement on the landscape until this spring, we heeled those trees in at our nursery yard.  We did plant them while we were grading and preparing beds.  The root balls measured almost 40 inches across, meaning the trees were very heavy, and difficult to handle. I was interested to make the move before they began to leaf out, in the interest of less stress for both the trees and my crew over the transplant.  This particular spot on the lot line was well above the grade of the neighboring property.  A very low retaining wall, not visible in this picture, was built to keep the soil in place.  The large solid balls of the katsuras proved to be a help maintaining the grade we needed.

June 24 2014 (34)Once the grade was established, all of the beds to be landscaped were edged in aluminum edger strip. This insures the integrity of the bed lines, and more importantly, it keeps the lawn grass out of the borders.  A landscape within reasonable maintenance limits is a landscape every client appreciates.  Edging beds is not only a skill, it is a whomping lot of work.  A landscape bed with sloppy edges has a sloppy look.  Crisp edges and mowed grass can make the most weed stricken garden look better.  An existing Japanese maple that had survived the construction was protected from the grade change with a stone well.

June 24 2014 (33)Areas which would be planted with perennial material are treated differently than those for trees and shrubs. A tree which is properly sited for zone, existing soil and light will, given a little care, take hold and thrive. There will be no deadheading, or dividing.  With any luck, that thriving will go on for many years.    If you count out horseradish, and some of the big growing grasses, most perennials do not put down roots that deep.  But I do like 16 inches of decent well drained soil, if I can get it. A garden grown on sand is easily to establish, and the devil to keep year after year.  The gardens to be planted on this heavy clay soil may take some doing.  More than likely, we will loose some plants.  But once established, and top dressed every year with compost or ground hardwood bark, a garden in heavy soil will have a long and happy life.

June 24 2014 (24)Establishing the proper grade in the back yard took some finesse. Of course, matching the new grade to the old would be ideal.  But the new house and walks have created drainage issues which never existed before.  The most likely spot for water to pool is dead ahead.  The contractor had run several large storm drains to exactly this spot.  The last part of the grading would be to lower the grade from the stone walk yet to come to the pond.  The big idea here was to plan for surface water to have an unobstructed path to the pond.  What could be better than keeping the level of the pond up with rain water?

DSC_2107We were ready for plants.