The Hybridizer

hybrid pumpkinEvery  gardener at one time or another comes in contact with plant cultivars introduced as a result of the painstaking work of  someone who breeds plants. Bressingham gardens in England has a group of fine perennial plants marketed under the aegis of Blooms of Bressingham. There are countless other individuals who have devoted themselves to breeding towards a better plant.  Some hybrids are more disease resistant.  Some are more sturdy-others have larger flowers with interesting variations in color. The dogwood Venus, a cross between Cornus kousa, and Cornus nuttallii, was bred at Rutgers University by Elwin Orton.  His Venus dogwood, once it was introduced, took a gold medal at Chelsea.  Anyone who loves the landscape is all the better for the introduction of this tree.

hybrid pumpkinsI am thinking about hybridizing right now, as Rob has such a big love for the various forms and colors of pumpkins that he collects fruits from countless farms within a day’s drive of us. He cannot get enough of them.  Of course most pumpkins are grown to eat, or to carve for Halloween, but others are grown for their sheer beauty.  Every farmer who grows pumpkins is a hybridizer, whether they intend to be, or not.  Cucurbits are plants of the gourd family, and include melons, pumpkins, squash and cucumber. All of these plants, grown within range of one another, will cross pollinate with abandon. Squash flowers are huge-they intend to have progeny.  And progeny they do produce. Any pollen on the wind might settle in these giant flowers. As a result, every farm who grows curcurbits has their own distinctive offering of pumpkins and gourds. These hybrid crosses are random.  Some are beautiful, sturdy, and robust.  Others-not so much.

hybrid pumpkinsRob has been fortunate to meet some gardeners in the course of his pumpkin collecting whose big love is hybridizing these big fruits.  You are looking at pictures of pumpkins that are the result of a lifetime of careful breeding. The gentleman in question is in his late sixties, and has been hybridizing pumpkins for decades. He grows his pumpkins in a tunnel house, so he can eliminate accidental crosses. Pumpkins and squash take up an enormous amount of space as they grow.  The breeding process is slow, as not so many crosses can be made in a given year. His crosses are thoughtful, and methodical.

pumpkins 2015 (9)His current crop of fancy pumpkins sit in a shed.  They are not displayed on his farm stand, as they are not for sale. They are part of his breeding stock.  He will harvest the seed, and breed again. The near black pumpkin in my first picture with a brilliant orange waist-I have never seen anything like it.  The black pumpkin in my second picture-astonishing.  I know squash with dark green rinds-I am a fan of acorn squash, and eat them regularly over the winter.  But this black pumpkin is like nothing I have ever seen.

pumpkins 2015 (8)Anyone who grows plants has at one time or another placed a plant in their garden whose form, color and texture is a result of years of breeding.  Endless crosses that amount to nothing.  A few crosses that have promise.  And perhaps a few plants in a lifetime that are worthy of introduction.

IMG_6456I am an old school gardener-I admit to that. I favor plants that look good all season, in leaf and in bloom.  I like plants that are vigorous, and hardy.  I love plants that ask little, and perform willingly.  I love those plants that verge on the weedy side.   I see some perennial and shrubby plants that have been introduced that seem unlikely to survive the test of time.  Should I have a landscape client who is interested in the garden, I make sure that what I select for their garden has a history of great performance.  Nothing discourages a gardener more than failure. Some plant breeding quits too soon-before there is a cultivar worthy of introduction.

pumpkins 2015 (22)Keeping plants alive, and keeping plants thriving, is a big job. I can be challenged by it, despite my many years as a gardener.  One of the most important aspects of landscape design to me is to do what I can to insure success for my clients. Success in a garden encourages interest.  I mean to encourage others to garden.  Great plant hybridizers do a lot of this work for me. They spend years and thought developing plants that gardeners can grow.

pumpkins 2015 (23)The man who hybridized that black pumpkin does not make a living from his fancy pumpkins.  He grows acres of orange pumpkins that get shipped nation wide.  His tall thin pumpkins that sit up on their own are especially good looking.  We sold out of our group within two days.

pumpkins 2015 (10)All of his pumpkins, squash, and gourds have great color.  Many of them sport what we call witches warts. Rob loves the bumps.

IMG_5933But even his most simple pumpkins feature strong stems. The long stems are part and parcel of a fall fruit that delights the eye, and speaks to the harvest. I never knew how beautiful a pumpkin stem could be, until I saw his pumpkins.  Rob is a looker.  When he sees something that makes him look twice, he does what he can to foster a relationship. The pumpkins we have at Detroit Garden Works right now are all about the thoughtful work of a hybridizer with many years in the game. We so value his contribution to every garden.  And every front porch in the fall season.

pumpkin stemIf you are like me, you have wrongly picked up a pumpkin by its stem, and had that stem detach. Dang. I will confess that I have hot melt glued broken stems on to a pumpkin.  No pumpkin stem can stay intact, given the weight of most pumpkins. But for our current pumpkin collection. We have a breeder who means to meld the stem with the body of the fruit.

pumpkin stemImagine a hybridizer whose goal is to develop stems that come down onto the fruit.  Gripping stems. A stem which is integral with the fruit. What hybridizers imagine and breed for-so simple, but so important. A garden does imply a generous grip.  Some of that comes from plant breeders.  Some of that comes from us. The mix is a really good one.


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.

The Stick Crop

natural-twigs.jpgThe most glorious color award in the landscape must surely go to the fall season.  From the asparagus to the sweet gums, color is in the air.  The green of the evergreen shrubs and trees is all the more intense by contrast with the colors sported by the leaves of deciduous plants.  Once those leaves fall, the landscape takes on a much more subdued and subtle palette. The natural birch branches, honeysuckle vine rolls, grapevine deer, wood crates and pumpkins in the above picture are one shade of brown or another.  The bark of the linden is a gray variation of brown. So much brown!  The garden is going quiet. For every gardener unwilling to go quiet, the branches, twigs and poles available late in the fall can offer a new lease on a garden life.

red-curly-willow.jpgFor those gardeners who live in more northerly zones, the time between the last of the fall leaves and the spring crocus can be a very long time indeed. This means that the shrubs and trees that sport bark with great color are of great interest. Planning a landscape for winter interest is a good idea in my zone. My dilemma-space.  I have a very small urban property.  I run up against the limits of the space all the time.  Given a large property, I could have swaths of red and yellow twig dogwood, groves of bungeana pine, a group of London planes, and all manner of interesting willows.  Lacking that kind of space does not mean that I have to do without some winter color.        red-twig-dogwood-bundles.jpgI am fortunate that there are farmers in this country that grow certain species of shrubs and trees from which they harvest cut branches. Our shipment of cut branches arrived a few days ago.  The colors are astonishing.  The dogwood branches have glossy bark in a variety of shades of red and yellow.  The curly copper willow is a yellowy orange.  The flame willow is the color of cinnamon. The red bud pussy willow has a glossy dark red brown bark, and red orange buds. This color and bark texture destined to last throughout the winter- so welcome.

red-twig-dogwood.jpgThe species red twig dogwood is dull and dark red. Cut from the garden, this dogwood has small branchlets, and cream colored growth scars. New cultivars of dogwood sport clearer and more intense color than the species.  Spring Meadow Farms has been instrumental in offering great new cultivars of vibrantly barked shrubs to nurseries.  Dogwood which is grown for branches is at some point cut back near to the ground. This process is known as coppicing.  The English have been growing shrubs and cutting them back hard with the express purpose of harvesting the branches for fencing for centuries. A shrub that is cut back hard responds with vigorous new growth.  The straight and unbranched new growth provides the best color, and the glossiest bark.  The red twig dogwood “Cardinal” has the most brilliantly red bark of any cultivar I know.  The color of these branches is as luscious as a red tulip.

pussy-willow.jpgPussy willow is an enormous growing shrub whose main claim to fame is the fuzzy and silvery spring catkins that sally forth in the spring. But pussy willow branches are a gift to a winter landscape. We buy the cut branches at 6 feet tall or better.  The green and chocolate bark, and the orange red buds are sensational.  So how do I use these glossy barked and beautifully colored branches?  In containers at the front door.  On the mantle for the holidays. Over the door.  They can be woven into wreaths. In any application, they are a lively reminder that the harvest from the garden can endow your winter seaso..

red-bud-pussy-willow.jpg A casual bunch of branches has a more informal and traditional look. They pair well with other materials available for the season-grapevine, evergreen boughs, pine cones, dry hydrangea flowers and berries-even the sturdy remains of perennials from the garden.  Ornamental grasses, cut and fixed to a bamboo stake make a graceful foil to the more substantial branches.

yellow-twig-dogwood.jpgAn arrangement of fresh cut branches can have a very contemporary look, placed vertically in a container. The height is a welcome addition to a winter container.  Stems stuck into soil may very well root and sprout in the spring.  The willow leafing out means the branches can be part of a spring container planting.

cut-twigs-and-branches.jpgThe branches are beautiful this year.  They make an enormous visual impact in a winter landscape with minimal color.poplar-poles-and-grapevine-rolls.jpg These poplar poles are much bigger than a branch.  There are places where barked poles are the perfect thing.  A celebration of the season in whatever style and shape suits you.

twig-time.jpgDetroit Garden Works is a source for branches, twigs, poles, and other natural materials in November.  These materials help to make the celebration of the winter season all the better.  These branches can help make a winter landscape all the more beautiful.




The Driveway Garden

the driveway garden (1)
I have a whole lot of landscape surrounding my driveway. Why so?  I drive up and drive out of  it at least 2 times a day, maybe more. There are plenty of other places in my garden that I see only intermittently.  An example that explains how frequent visitation drives design-see the following.  As my house is on a corner, I drive by the front door every day. This is a drive by, not a visit. Until the hydrangeas come into bloom, I am only in that garden to water the pots.  Let’s go to the back door. Lots of traffic there. My driveway is a daily experience.  I suppose I could remove my driveway, as neither Buck nor I use the garage to house cars. I could do a narrow walk to the curb. But that makes getting groceries inside or taking the trash out a challenge.  A driveway makes the transportation of vehicles, and items in and out easy. Given its size and function, it is also easy for a driveway to be unsightly. By that I mean, untouched by a landscape. A great driveway landscape is a quality of life issue.  It should make you reluctant to leave home in the morning, and happy to get home at night.

the driveway garden (10)My landscape crowds my driveway, both on the ground plane, and overhead. I I have trees that arch over both sides of my drive.  This means I have birds singing here in the morning and evening.  New to the driveway trees this past week-a solitary catbird. I only prune when Buck complains he can’t walk by, or the branches scrape up against my car.  4 Parrotias, 3 magnolias and 4 dogwoods.  My driveway garden is congested.  Lots of trees over a drive minimizes a big utilatarian paved space, and goes on to celebrate the garden.  There are yews, both upright and spreading.  There are garden spaces too.  Hellebores, hostas and butterburrs.  In a sunnier spot, there are delphiniums, nepeta, adenophora and alchemilla early on, and phlox and white hibiscus.  It has a weedy and relaxed look.  The lime green of the alchemilla flowers is especially pretty right now.

June 23, 2014 (90)My driveway landscape is a big fluid mix of plants.  This is an effort to make the driveway the least important visual issue, in spite of the need for a car park.  The driveway is necessary, yes. Is the driveway the most important issue in the landscape?  I think not. I would suggest that a thoughtful and beautiful landscape could make the necessity of a driveway a treasured feature. To follow is my take on that driveway. Let’s get back to that expresion of lime green.  The flowers of alchemilla mollis- so beautiful. Other sources of that lime green come from variegated lily of the valley, hosta montana variegata, and gold drop hostas.

the driveway garden (4)What looks like a brick driveway is in fact a concrete brick manufactured by Unilock called Capthorne.  This material looks like it might have been original to my 1930’s home. Whomever designed this driveway in the beginning did a great job.  The drive to the street is in the top left of this picture.  The landscape completely shields it from the view presented by my deck. The parking area looks a lot more about piazza than parking.  I have planted the driveway pots with much the same color scheme as the landscape.

the driveway garden (5)Lots of green. And even more lime green. The driveway garden has a lot of old Sum and Substance hosta, which foreshadow the lime green Princeton Gold maples, and the lime sagina subulata in the upper level fountain fountain.

the driveway garden (6)The lime green in the pots is coming from Wasabi coleus, variegated white sunpatiens, creeping jenny, variegated licorice, and several lime green tropical plants whose names I cannot remember. I am not so concerned if I cannot name a plant.  I am very concerned if I cannot put together a garden that is cohesive.  So many great gardeners I know have no knowledge of the botanical names.  Sometimes, they have no names of any sort.  But they know how to make things grow.  That said, I have plants whose names are unknown to me in my driveway pots.

the driveway garden (3)I aspire to the making things grow group.  The design of my driveway garden pots needs to reflect the landscape all around. This means, to some degree, that I choose plants by instinct.  Plants that strike my fancy.  As this is my home landscape, I have no one to answer to beyond myself.

the driveway garden (7)I do strongly feel that container plantings are an opportunity for any gardener to express themselves in a seasonal way. My driveway landscape has been many years in the making.  The pots and annual plants in the ground is my opportunity to change things up. A chance to make a statement. Go in whatever direction suits me at the time. I have planted my driveway with lots of different schemes over the years.  I like the yearly chance to re imagine.

the driveway garden (2)This year, the lime represented by the green and gold plectranthus, the nicotiana lime, and the variegated sunpatiens, is enough lime green to please me.  The one nicotiana mutabilis in a sea of lime green is an outlier.  I try to design for that. The warm yellow wall looks so great, dressed in lime green.

the driveway garden (9)I have worked for years to make the driveway landscape more visually important than the driveway.  This year, I am pleased all around with the results.  Everything in the landscape takes years to settle in.  In  my mind, everything is working together.

Sept 8, 2013 (192)
Tonight,  both Howard and I have cause to celebrate.