Sunday Opinion: In Praise of Frivolity

Twenty years ago it would have been a routine fall to plant upwards of 30,000 bulbs for clients. At that time, I conducted my business from home-five acres in Orchard Lake, on a street full of five acre parcels.  I was no bother to my neighbors; our houses were far apart, and private.  The house was a wreck, but the property was beautiful-and big.  The boxes would arrive in late September, each with its big full color picture of what the brown and cream blob inside would become the following spring. Bulb planting is not exactly satisfying work.  You dig up the ground when everything else in the garden is going to sleep. When you are finished planting, all there is to see is the same dirt surface you started with.  It seems like the planting was always accompanied by cold, windy and generally inhospitable weather. It did not seem like planting at all-we were burying all manner of small objects that bore no resemblance to the living.  Bulbs may smell like they are alive, but the smell is not delicious like good soil, compost, dead leaves and worms.  The anemone blandas bulbs were so hard and shrivelled one could hardly imagine anything good could come from them.  These I would soak overnight before planting; there is nothing like adding the element of sopping wet to a cold gardening day. In short, there is nothing fun or festive about burying bulbs.  I would look at those pictures on the boxes every so often, just to reassure myself that eventually the work would come to something beautiful. 

 The small bulbs-species and hybrid crocus, eranthis, galanthus, species tulips, anemone blanda, chionodoxa, scilla and so on-I would plant by the hundreds at a time. They would come packaged in yellow netted bags of 10 bulbs each.  It was easy to hold 10 or better in one hand.  I shouldn’t complain-they are vastly larger and easier to pick up one at a time than most seeds.  The investment of time to get all these nut like objects a few inches underground on as chilly fall day was worth it, come spring.  Pushing up through chilly soil into even chillier air, they are the only game in town in March and early April. It amazes me how these diminuitive plants with their delicate flowers are not only supremely robust, but they are incredibly persistent.  A planting of white anemone blanda I did in rough grass twenty years ago is better now than it was then.  I am embarassed to say the sum total of my small bulb planting last fall consisted of buying Rob a muscari mix from John Sheepers for Christmas.  He planted them in a pair of concrete faux bois planters after New Years-they have been in bloom here at the shop for weeks; drop dead gorgeous.

With the exception of certain varieties of daffodils, the bigger bulbs are not so persistent.  Even daffodils will arrive at that day when they need separating to maintain good flowering.  I planted 1000 daffodils in the orchard meadow on that five acres every fall for 15 years. Some I bought at Franks nursery for a nickel a piece after Thanksgiving.  Some were left over from the fall planting. I mostly planted the cream colored Ice Follies, and Old Pheasant’s Eye-my favorite. The last spring I spent there, heavenly.  The digging and dividing is someone else’s job now.  But I would bet that they will live a long time yet, even flowering poorly.  Much poorer than declining daffodil clumps is the fact that I did not plant a single one last fall.

Tulips, the big frits, the hybrid hyacinths-their first year is their best year. Top size bubs produce top size flowers.  I could dig and dry and replant and grow on-but the Dutch do a much better job of this than I ever could.  It has become tougher to persuade a client to plant big drifts of tulips, knowing it probably will need to be done again the following year. I occasionally see a group of tulips that lasts five years, but rarely.  Having just been in Chicago, where tulips and hyacinths were coming into bloom everywhere I looked, I’ve decided that the fact they need frequent replacement is not a very good reason to pass them up.  After all, no one expects their non stop begonias or coleus to live a second season. Is it fivolous to plant fall bulbs?  Maybe.  But a little garden frivolity never hurt anyone.  I am firm in my resolve to plant bulbs this fall-lots of them.  I hope you do too.  To follow-another picture of those pots with Rob’s muscari; this small planting has taken me by storm.

The Grim Reality

A northern garden in April-yikes. My rose bed actually looks better than usual for this time of year.  I have leaves on the climbing roses well in advance of their usual time.  A warm March and a south wall has tricked them into thinking it is spring. The boltonia is up next to the wall-but little sign of the Japanese anemone or asparagus yet.  I have great views of the hose, the gas meter, the window wells, and the dirt.   

The gas and electric meters do not fall into the realm of garden ornament, but my garden has them, like most gardens.  If you do a great job of covering them up, your bills get estimated; why do they always estimate on the so high side?  The wires-who knows what these are.  As T.S. Eliot penned in his poem “The Wasteland”, “April is the cruellest month”.  Though he by no means in referring to my garden, the phrase is perfectly appropriate.  My garden, in April, looks terrible.

The herniaria under the bench-a yellow brown.  Its unclear what is dead, what is alive, and what will be restored by warmer weather.  It all looks dead to me today.  OK, I might be overreacting. It is however, abundantly clear, no garden parties should be scheduled in the foreseeable future. Were I able to wave a wand, or put lottery winnings to righting this, or lottery winnings to an April retreat/ cottage anywhere else but right here, I would do so.  But this is where I live all year round, and this is what there is to report.    

My giant maple-how forgiving it is given Milo’s squirrel rants.  He leaps up on this trunk all winter long, thinking should he work hard enough, he will be able to climb up and destroy that squirrel.  Sections of bark are ripped off-horrifying. The pachysandra at ground level, ground off. A few intermittent broken and intermittent stems are all that has survived his daily winter onslaught. Not pretty.  

What is this grassy weed that comes on so strong in the spring?  Every year it spreads.  By the time I am able to get in there, and weed it out, it disappears.  This weed has the amazing ability to make my rose garden look littered before it ever wakes up. 

My Helleborus Angustifolius-every blooming stalk has been smashed to the ground by the snow.  I am sure once those green flowers appear, I will feel better-but today, I hate the entire winter burned mess.  Staking flowering hellebore stalks in April? I have given five years to this scheme; this April, I am ready to move on to plan B.

Lady Miss Bunny-I do so love this sculpture Rob gave me for my birthday some years ago.  This April-does the moss not need replacing? So many bones are showing-I am wincing. The moss needs replacing. Howard likes to hide under her when it is snowing-witness the pachysandra dead spots.  Dead spots-I am looking at them everywhere.  

My twig things-thank heavens they are sprouting. This very old Palabin lilac standard has been grey and grim for quite some time. I am inordinately pleased for the green haze I am seeing. The weather was very warm today-I could weep given that my garden has not responded immediately.  Who can believe I would even publish pictures of this mess of a garden-but day to day-any landscape is very much about the day to day.  It is a good time to assess, and plan.    


The grass will get greener, yes?  I will prune the winter away from the Limelight hydrangeas. Better days are to come, yes?

At A Glance: Spring Yellow

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Pink Of My John

Viola tricolor is a very old garden species-known to most north American gardeners as Johnny Jump Ups.  This weedy and equally cheery viola will seed with abandon, once you have it, and have it happy.  It has many common names in England; “Pink of My John” is my favorite of those names.  Many of the common names for violas have to do with the part of love that is pure folly-any gardener understands all about love and folly. Pink of My John may perfectly describe my relationship with my garden.  I had a wild garden of considerable size many years ago-the grass in that area was overrun with every color of violet imaginable-how I loved this.  Viola, violet, pansy-I am a fan of the entire range.  In the early 19th century, Viola tricolor was crossed with a variety of other viola species, resulting in the hybrids viola x wittrockiana.  Simply stated, the pansy.   

The word pansy derives in part from the French word “pensee”-which literally translates as “thought”.  Pansies frequently have dark faces-thus the human reference.  I myself am much more fond of pansies without faces-I like my spring color clear and strong.  The ”Clear Sky” series of pansies are remarkably floriferous, and come back reliably from a fall planting in my zone.  This Clear Sky light blue, with its darker blue blush is so distinctively a sign of spring.  I know of no other flower, in any other season, that has this color.  Several years ago it was the thrill of a lifetime to be in Texas to see the blubonnets blooming everywhere in late March. For one wild moment I thought I would have to move to Texas, just to have that blue in my life.  

White flowers-I could write at least a dozen essays about their appeal.  The white pansies are a little shy in their blooming until it warms up-but when they do bloom, you notice. A pansy flower does have the most beautiful form-does it not?

Clear Sky blue is just that-saturated sky blue.  Pansy flowers have little substance; they are thin petalled.  In the right situation, the sunlight coming through this pansy is an experience of color that no paint could ever deliver.  Living blue. All of us who have endured a very long winter-the signs of life are more than welcome.

This viola is from the Sorbet series-Lemon Chiffon is an appropriate name.  Plant hybridizers are those scientists behind the scenes that breed plants for great color, heavy flowering, disease resistance-and in the case of pansies, heat tolerance.  The new hybrids of pansies can perform non-stop through the end of June in my zone.  As I do not plant my summer pots until all of my clients pots are done, a spring planting tides me over.   

I like seeing hybridizers introducing color mixes.  This mix called Ocean Breeze- has four related color groups-and everything in between.  Masses of an identical color are dramatic.  Masses of varying and related colors are charming and friendly.  These violas are notable for their dark lines-known as whiskers.  The whiskers-are they not beautiful? 

These violas represent another mix; the citrus mix comes on fast and blooms like crazy. Planted up, there is a rhythm and beat that is really tough to ignore.  Such small flowers, organizing a following-I am impressed.

This purple picotee pansy is a new one for us this year.  Mark assured me that he saw it perform well in trials.  The whiskers, the white, the purple edges-a happening. 


My advice; don’t skip the spring. Leap into it; you will not be sorry.