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.

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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

 

 

Big Pots

foliage-plants.jpgI am usually done planting containers by the 4th of July.  This year, a very late cold spring meant my container plantings have gone late.  Thankfully most of these late plantings are for clients who had containers planted for spring.  Today we planted 21 very large containers for a commercial client.  As much as I like the idea of having acreage available in which to thoroughly express a container planting idea, big pots can be a challenge.  The plants have to grow to sufficient size to balance, offset, and compliment the size of the container. The late call for planting means I am shopping everywhere for plants in their prime that can answer the call.

July 8 2014 (67)This container is large enough to hold the both of us, and then some. The size of the building entrance, and the building obviously asks for containers of this size.  Proper proportion is a very important element of good design.  Big places need big pots.  Big pots need bigger plantings.  A garden dining table may be perfectly dressed with a low container of much smaller dimensions.  Every space comes with its own visual demands.  Whatever the size of a space, I like to size up with a container.  And further size up with a planting.  Container plantings that go wider, or taller than a container helps keep all of the elements proportional.  A bit more green than pot makes for a happy relationship.  That said, a beautifully shaped or detailed pot might be better featured with an underscaled planting.  The tenants of good design can be broken to great effect. The rule about rules is best summed up by the fact that there are no rules.  Beautiful in the garden has everything to do with an eye that rules and the gardener in charge.

July 8 2014 (71)A big city downtown is more hard surfaces than green spaces. Vast hard spaces.  Businesses who own big buildings understand that the experience of the city is softened by generous sized plantings in containers.  A big container in a city is an opportunity to make a statement about nature in a place that is anything but natural. When we plant downtown, it is a rare passerby who does not comment, or stop to talk.  The natural world is a place that all of us respond to.

July 8 2014 (82)I do think the plantings should appeal, interest, or provoke those people who come and go. They should be scaled such to provide a natural visual haven. Designing for containers in public places requires lots of thought, and a lot more shopping.  The pots we planted today meant a previous busy week of scouting what material would be available the second week of July. Some plants I have to rule out.  I was not interested in blooming plants that needed a lot of deadheading.  Or a watering schedule that could not be quantified. Or plants that would not grow large.  Plants for commercial projects need to grow vigorously.  Fuss budget plants need not apply.

July 8 2014 (91)Commercial plantings in the shade are the toughest to design. Urban shade is different than your shade.  Cities with hard surfaces everywhere means that light gets reflected from cars and the street into the shadiest spaces. Planting shady commercial spaces with sun plants is a gamble that routinely pays off.  The reflected light keeps those sun plants thriving.  Plants that thrive in the sun also thrive with less than perfect watering.  Some commercial spaces tucked underneath awnings or expansive overhangs-sun or shade?   I went with the shade here.  The alocasia and the abutilon should grow large and arch over this container, given enough water. This combination, properly watered, with thrive in the shade.

July 8 2014 (75)

These pots are under a large awning.  However, this is a very light shady spot.  The glare in the window of the revolving door makes that obvious. There is no worry about a lack of light.  There is a worry about the water though.  Even in a pelting rainstorm that must have dropped between 1 and 2 inches of rain, none of that rain got into these pots.  They will have to be hand watered.

July 8 2014 (92)I am sure you have noticed by now that many of the plant choices for these shady pots are foliage plants.  The centerpiece of this pot is a strelitzia-a bird of paradise.  They can grow to an enormous size, and they are quite tolerant of shade.  The wasabi coleus is a big grower too.  I have seen it grow to better than 3 feet tall in a single season.  The caladiums do a great job of representing the color red in a big way.  The wasabi coleus above, and the lime licorice and creeping jenny below do a great job of making that red glow.

July 8 2014 (93)Big growing and large leaved foliage plants do a great job of stepping up to large containers. The light coming through the leaves-beautiful.