Friday Night Opinion: Horticultural Hostility

I make a point of publishing essays that focus on all the good that gardening provides. Why wouldn’t I?  I do believe that gardens are good for people, and the act of gardening is even better. Reading about gardens and gardening is an excellent pursuit. Looking at gardens is like looking at at a sculpture that expresses one person’s singular relationship with nature. An interest and attachment to the landscape -both wild and designed- is good, no matter one’s age, or circumstances. Involvement,  interpretation and imagination is what makes the gardening world go round. In my opinion, a beautiful landscape is first and foremost a place to be. But it could just as easily be one of those natural places one can observe from afar, without intruding. Everyone’s idea of a place to be or observe is different, and worthy of the respect.   Other gardener’s interpretations get my respect, standard issue. I do my best to refrain from judgment. No gardener needs my opinions or experiences to live or work. I have my point of view, which may or may not strike a chord. Gardeners I have met are passionate and thoughtful individuals who have managed to garden independently.  I wish all of them well.  Their ideas, both traditional and daredevil, interest me, and enrich my gardening life.

I try to fend off what irritates my gardening eye. I make light of the weeds, even though I dread them.  I write as if digging a hole was no more effort than thinking a thought. I roll my eyes, and breeze by an unmitigated cold and rainy summer as if having poor containers did not matter. I never cry in public about a treasured tree that dies. I never chide a neighboring child who snaps off all of the buds of the lilies in a fit of childish pique. An old landscape of mine in disrepair? I would rather focus on bringing it up to speed. I do not talk about distructive bugs or bug poison-both of these topics equally disgust and silence me. Disease in plants is heartbreaking, but I have no plan to make that heartbreak rule the day. Gardening comes with a lot of scrapes, scuffs, disaster, and injury. Some things in my garden make me feel like my digging arm is broken. No need for anyone to hear about the setting of the bone, and the cast.  I choose to make much of the small victories.  The race well run. The effort that goes beyond. Every gardener understands this.

I have never had much to say about deer, even though their exploding populations now more than ever bring incredible ruin to beautiful landscapes and gardens all over the country. Deer damage has escalated in my area dramatically over the past 10 years. But I do not want to write about the deer problem. It is a big problem with no easy solution. I do not have a solution.   The rabbits that stripped the bark and shoots from my espaliers this past winter-I took that experience as an occasion to discuss how plants can recover from drastic and thoughtless pruning.  I try to discuss what is within the grasp of every gardener to influence. The troubles-every gardener has them.  I do not see that these troubles need front page coverage. Trouble is so ordinary.

I do not review gardens or landscapes. I would rather point out what I like, should someone ask. What other gardeners and garden designers do is their own affair, and I admire their effort, first thing. Lots of what I see is beautiful, and thoughtful. The longer I professionally garden and landscape, the more I realize that many things work. That there are no hard and fast rules. Be free, and garden-this would be my advice. Though some would value the results of the world series of gardening with a list of the best, the reality is much more low key, personal, and not so easy to rank. We all have the opportunity to create our own garden.  We can endow the landscape as we see fit.  I have never seen the need to convince anyone to garden or design like I do. I like the exposure to lots of different voices- they educate me. Another point of view does not challenge my confidence in my voice. I encourage clients to speak their peace – their voice is essential to my work  No one knows better than they do what is not working, or what does not look good, or what they do not understand. Strong relationships between people and nature have produced incredibly beautiful gardens and landscapes. All of what I see challenges and delights me.

I only occasionally allow hostility to punctuate my narrative. There are those moments when the hair on the back of neck stands up.  Of course a too brutal weather makes me hostile. Any plant mowed down with an electric hedge trimmer makes me hostile. Contractors driving up over the root system of an old tree makes me hostile. I have a bigger list than this-but what is the point of publishing it? Hostility is not a good look. I like the look of benign resignation better – whenever I  have enough grace to manage it.

I plan to start planting my annual and seasonal containers tomorrow.  I have some lingering hostility that our night temperatures have been too cold to plant, before now.  37 degrees is forecast, tonight. It is a late start for us, considering the number of plantings we have to do. But not too late a start warranting any hostility. Cold in Michigan towards the end of May is ordinary, and routine. I plan to be benignly resigned to a late start – as best I can. So with as much grace as I can manage, our summer container and in ground planting season is open. I am looking forward to it.

Checking In To The Grumpery

DSC_8800The month of March in Michigan always manages to test the good nature of the most graceful and exuberantly positive gardener. The bitter last of the winter is still firmly entrenched. It is 20 degrees, with snow flurries today.  It will be 14 degrees over night. I don’t know why these buckets of cheerfully fake red poinsettias irritate me so much.  If I didn’t know it was March, I would think it was Christmas time.

DSC_8788The north side of every cranny on my property has dirty snow and dead leaves on top of ice. The night temperatures regularly sink below freezing.  Dead tree branches litter the garden. The cold winds come and bring paper and plastic trash. Burned orange evergreen needles jump out at me. The south side of every Alberta spruce in my neighborhood is burned.

espalier damage

Tree trunks of espaliers whose bark has been gnawed off by rabbits-I fear for the lives of these plants.


Boxwood tips turning from cream to tan-I see the signs that signal winter kill. Never mind the bare boxwood branches courtesy of the winter of 2014.

DSC_8789My snowdrops that have just emerged will be subjected to 14 degree temperature over night. These should be named frozen through and through drops. I do not see any signs of the crocus-that is a good thing.

DSC_8798Some patches of my hellebores are still smothered in icy snow.  I am thinking of shoveling the last of the winter off of them, but I probably would take the crown of the plant with it.


The dead fern heads and cold singed European ginger laid flat out-I am more than ready for this phase of the year to be over. If you are a gardener, this is what March Madness really means.

DSC_8767My yard is dirty.  I have a big love for dirt-but not this kind of dead grass and compacted muck dirt. The dirt just outside the doorways is salt saturated. This dirt is in my car, and on my kitchen floor.  When it dries, it dries white.  A dirty white, that is.

DSC_8793Potholes, gaping and deep potholes, open up in the neighborhood streets. I believe a neighbor, out of desperation, filled this with dirt. A water main broke here in late January. A huge disk of ice sat here until a few weeks ago, when the pavement seemed to disintegrate over night. The skies are the same color as this road.

DSC_8784  Even the dogs had that accusatory look on their faces-can’t you do something about the endless winter?

DSC_8782We are still stuck indoors and moping. Why I went outside to see the dead leaves on the ivy – I am not sure. Maybe just to verify that we are truly living the misery.


I have talked to Buck at great length about all of this. On a number of occasions. Finally last night he advises me to go to the grumpery, and leave him be. I do not fault him for his exasperation. We have an understanding about the grumpery.  The grumpery is a place for any gardener who is so over the winter that they need to be quarantined.  I am hoping I do not need to spend too many more days there.

Sunday Opinion: The Peaceable Kingdom

Blossom and FriendsWe have had quite a run of unseasonably cold weather the past week – night temperatures in the 20’s. The ornamental kales and cabbages that often persist without a blemish into December look wilted. I have reluctantly put away my tee shirts, and stacked up wool sweaters and fleeces in their place. The evergreens in my landscape have begun to change color.  The winter color is a darker, or more bronze green.  I can see that the winter and holiday container work will be more difficult than usual. I would work with any kind of soil rather than frozen soil. I am pleased our methods of construction have evolved such that only the final installation takes place in the field. Even so, our garage space is a chilly place now. I have traded sneakers for warm boots.

old unknown sheep breedNonetheless, there is much to look forward to.  The garden going quiet means there will be time to reflect on the season just past.  What not only worked, but worked peaceably.  For instance, elements of  garden design that contrast can be interesting.  Elements of design that out and out fight with one another can make a space disquieting and uncomfortable.  Simple landscapes where the relationships are subtly detailed and modest are liveable and restorative. High energy landscapes are certainly dramatic and exhilarating, but even the most devoted eye needs an occasional place to rest.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI do value evergreens, as they can make a sleeping garden feel warmer, and more visually inviting in the winter months. They make a landscape feel substantial.  Even though they have gone dormant too, the green is a sure reference to life.  As for the leafless trees and shrubs, and the remains of the perennials, there is an opportunity there to appreciate the subtle textures and colors of bark.  The landscape may be gray and brown, but there are infinite variations of those colors.  The variation in the overall shapes of plants, and their appearance in winter weather is an invitation to appreciate the sculptural forms in nature.

american_blackbelly (2)So warm and woolly is and will be the order of the day for months to come.  But there’s no sense worrying about the months to come part.  Only a few small bits and pieces of the landscape work remains-the weather turning has a lot to do with that.  We have our winter and holiday containers and outdoor lighting season immediately ahead.  This late season work makes it possible to enjoy the holidays and the winter season over a longer period of time than most. So why all of the pictures of the sheep today? The moment I start thinking winter and holiday, I think peaceable.  As in the peaceable kingdom.  Though the rams generally have horns, and some with multiple horns, a flock of sheep has a very peaceful aura about it.   They are also an incredibly beautiful group of creatures. Though I am sure this American blackbelly sheep could be an adversary to be reckoned with, he has an affable and dignified expression.

e4a2f2e86b475a34-ValaisBlacknosesheepFrom There are more breeds of sheep than breeds of any other livestock species. Worldwide, there are more than one thousand distinct sheep breeds. There are more than 40 breeds in the United States alone. Sheep come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors. Their wool is prized for its warmth.  This Valais blacknose sheep is native to Switzerland.

awassi ramawassi sheep

breeds-of-sheepunknown breed of sheep

Dreadlocked_sheepunknown breed of sheep

cheviot sheepcheviot sheep


manx loaghtan sheep in the UKmanx loaghtan sheep

East-Friesian-sheepEast Freesian sheep

jacob's four horned sheepJacob four horned sheep

blue faced leicesterblue faced Leicester longwool sheep


Cheviot sheep

Barbados Blackbelly sheepbarbados blackbelly sheep

dorsethornsheepdorset horn sheep

boreray sheepboreray sheep

booroola merino rammerino sheep

hebridean sheephebridean sheep

Leicester-Long-wool-Sheepleicester longwool sheep

Lundysheepheaddetaillundy sheep

Norweigan sheep breedNorwegian sheep breed

Romney sheepRomney sheep

sheepsheep face

TexasDallSheepTexas Dahl sheep

slovakian sheepSlovakian sheep

YearlingEwesWensleydaleWensleydale sheep

shetland sheepshetland sheep

rare-breeds-childrenHerdwick sheep

Texel sheepTexel sheep



Flock of sheep, New Zealand, Pacificflock of sheep


lincoln-sheepLincoln sheep


Capone RS 12-01Jacob’s four horned sheep.

black wensleydaleblack Wensleydale sheep

So why all the loosely connected thoughts about landscape design, the peaceable kingdom, the holidays ahead, the garden season just past, and the beauty and diversity of nature?  That is what a Sunday in November can do for a gardener.

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.