Michigan Holly

ilex-verticillata-berries.jpgIlex verticillata is a deciduous holly that goes by many common names.  We call it Michigan holly, or winter berry. They say it is fairly easy to grow, but my my experience was not that successful.  It is easy to spot when Michigan holly is thriving.  The branches are loaded with dense clusters of bright red berries that are visible from a long ways away.  They ask for a soil that is fairly moisture retentive, even swampy. There are newish cultivars that have especially bright red berries. Winter Red is a recommended cultivar for our zone.  It is a strong growing mult stemmed shrub that matures to 8 or 9 feet tall.

Michigan-holly.jpgThe berries make it worth growing.  But if you do not have space for such a large shrub, growers harvest and sell bunches of the berried branches in late fall.  They are beautiful in fresh holiday arrangements that only need last for a week or two.  Indoors, the berries will eventually rot and drop from house heat.  Outdoors, they are longer lasting. Up until a few years ago, I almost always opted for faux berries in winter pots.  Though the color of a berry pick cannot begin to approximate the color of the real thing, they could be counted on to last the whole winter.  Once we started spraying our winter berry with Vapor Gard, our success improved dramatically.  The berries stayed put, and stayed plump well into February. Vapor Gard is a professional grade anti desiccant which is only available in a gallon concentrate. Premixed wilt pruf in a spray bottle will help too.  Be sure to soak the berries when there is no threat of rain, and let them dry.

Michigan holly (2)A client for whom the holiday isn’t right without winter berry branches reports that in mid to late January, the birds discover the berries.  One by one, they begin to disappear. The birds raiding the berries is a treasured part of his holiday experience.

Michigan holly (3)berried holiday containers

Michigan holly (4)winter berry

Michigan holly (6)This container has 6 bunches of Michigan holly in it.  Bunches available at our farmer’s market come bunched together with a rubber band.  We do not take the bunches apart- this disturbs too many berries.  A bamboo stick inserted into the bottom of the bunch is what goes in the foam in the container. Michigan holly is beautiful, but it needs to be handled with care.

Michigan holly (7)Red berries in a lighted container will look like fire when the daylight wanes.

fierySee what I mean?

 

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.

Limelight Hydrangeas In Bloom

August 29 2014 (29)I know this is the mid westerner in me talking, but is there any shrub more widely hybridized and marketed and eventually disappointing than the hydrangea? I can barely keep up with the new cultivars. Some are blue.  Some are blue and pink.  Some are red. Some claim to bloom all summer.  A list of  of all the names would take better than a paragraph.  All Summer Beauty, Nikko Blue, Endless Summer, Pinky Winky, Vanilla Strawberry, Invinciball – the list is long. The promises made for these new introductions are big. The performance of various cultivars of hydrangeas in the mid west-a mixed report. I drive by big plantings of hydrangeas every day that are all about the leaves with precious little in the way of flowers. Some are planted in much too much shade.  But others just are not great bloomers. If you are a gardener in my area, and have a big love for hydrangeas that bloom reliably, consider the paniculata hybrids, especially the Lime lights.

August 29 2014 (26)We did have a terrible winter-no gardener would dispute this.  But the hydrangeas I see everywhere with one bloom or so is a usual thing.  Some cultivars bloom on old wood.  In a hard winter, the bloom shoots freeze.  Though the plant may come back and thrive, there are little to no blooms.  Some cultivars rely on more temperate zones than ours.  Some cultivars seem to bloom with abandon for growers, but fail to deliver with gardeners.  The Limelight hydrangeas pictured above are on a very busy street in my area, in full sun. They are blooming their hearts out.  I have no idea what the gardener in charge does for these plants, but they are gorgeous. It could very well that this gardener leaves well enough alone.  This brick wall would be lonely indeed without the hydrangeas.

August 23 2014 (14) I plant professionally, meaning plants that cannot or do not perform are discouraging.  I hope that every landscape I design and install encourages my clients to become involved, take over, and become interested in gardening when I am finished.  This means I favor plants that have some success features built in. I like plants that thrive. Hydrangeas in full bloom are breathtakingly beautiful. Hydrangeas are by nature lusty growing and just about fool proof, given a proper placement.  If you are keen for the flowers, and lots of them, Limelight delivers.

DSC_3979

I have read so many articles claiming that hydrangeas thrive in the shade.  Hmm.  The shrubs may tolerate part shade, but good blooming on hydrangeas in my area asks for a fair amount of sun.  Do  not plant hydrangeas in shade, if you have a love for their flowers. They like regular moisture – the leaves are large, and thin.  Those leaves will crisp if the plant goes dry.  I have my hydrangeas at home on a drip zone, so when they need a drink, I can provide it right to the roots.  I do not recommend overhead watering except when it comes from the sky.

DSC_4001The old Annabelle hydrangea is as charming and as floppy as ever. They bloom early, usually in June.  I like them placed on top of a wall, where their cascading habit looks graceful and deliberate.  The Oakleaf hydrangea is just as beautiful in leaf as in flower – maybe more so.  This bony structured, open growing hydrangea with its loosely arranged blooms-gorgeous.  Climbing hydrangea does tolerate a lot of shade.  It sits for a long time after planting.  Once it gets going, it can engulf a wall.

DSC_3982Pink and blue hydrangeas perform sporadically in my area.  There are neighborhoods where they are lush and floriferous.  I only have one client whose Nikko blue hydrangeas bloom heavily every year.  They are grown in full sun, in a fairly protected location.  The idea of using chemicals to alter the Ph of the soil is not my idea of gardening. Their is a hydrangea cultivar hydrangea macrophylla “Nantucket Blue”, for those gardeners with blue hydrangea envy.  I have never grown it, but I have seen it for sale with the caveat “acidify the soil with sulfur for a deeper blue color”. There are those times when I am envious of what gardeners in other parts of the country are able to grow that I cannot, but that feeling is not that deep seated.

DSC_4046Lime lights are very big growing plants.  Mine at home are over 8 feet tall this year.  They have loved all of the rain.  If your space is smaller, plant a smaller growing version.  Little Lime tops out at 4-5 feet. Little Lamb is another smaller growing panicle hydrangea.

hydrangea-Bombshell.jpgI am trying a new cultivar this year. “Bombshell’ is a dwarf cultivar that typically grows in a rounded mound to only 2-3′ tall and to 3-4′ wide. It was discovered growing in Boskoop, The Netherlands, in May of 2003 as a naturally occurring branch mutation on Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’. It is particularly noted for its dwarf/compact shape, abundant star-shaped sterile flowers with elliptic sepals, dense nearly round flower panicles, and free blooming habit. It blooms earlier and longer than most other panicle hydrangeas.” – this description is from the Missouri Botanical Garden. I recently planted them with a collection of perennials that mature to about the same height.  Big growing shrubs that are pruned to fit small space always have that uncomfortable and anxious feeling about them.  A hydrangea planted with all the room it needs to grow is not only less maintenance, it looks good.

DSC_3983The Lime Lights are putting on a particularly good show this year.

DSC_4000It wouldn’t be late summer in Michigan without them.

 

At A Glance: Gray Leaves

June 24 2014 (3)silver cascade dusty miller

July 26 2014 (23)silver king begonias

July 27 2014 (9)sage

victorian rosemaryvictorian rosemary topiary and silver falls dichondra

DSC_2714helichrysum icicles

DSC_2709 (2)

silver king begonias, watermelon pepperomia and pink polka dot plant- Persian Shield in the center

Hudas-05-20-475x356[1]centaurea gymnocarpa, cirrus dusty miller, and silver licorice

July 26 2014 (25)White caladiums and silver king begonias

July 27 2014 (15)silver king begonias-several varieties

July 27 2014 (29)silver king begonias

July 27 2014 (18)silver king begonias

June 24 2014 (20)silver cascade dusty miller