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.

The 2014 Espaliers

fan-pear-espalier-in-bloom.jpgAs long as I am on the topic of pruning woody plants, I would like to devote a little time to a discussion of espaliered trees.  An espalier is any tree which has been trained to grow in two dimensions. Espaliers can have great height, and great width, but with next to no depth.  They are pruned flat.  This training can take a long time.  They are great trees for very shallow places.

4-cordon-crabapple-espalier.jpgThe history of growing espaliers dates back centuries, to a certain French monk, Fr. Lergendre, who was entrusted with the important job of providing food for his monastery. In those days, providing food meant growing it. Some of his discoveries were made out of sheer need.  He wanted to grow lots of fruit trees, as he had lots of people to feed.  The trees planted closest to the monastery walls fruited more heavily and more reliably, as the flowers were protected from late frosts by the heat generated from the walls.  As his space was small, and his need great, he moved them closer and closer to the walls. And closer and closer together.  There were many varieties he wished to grow.  Eventually he cut the back branches off of the trees all together.  Amazingly, the trees he eventually trained to grow flat against the walls produced more fruit than trees cultivated in the open. His work over a lifetime was detailed in a book he wrote, “Palmette Legendre”, published in 1684.    The art of training fruit trees to grow against a wall in formally pruned shapes has persisted to this day.

candelabra-Golden-Delicious-apple-espalier.jpgHaving worked for Al Goldner in the 80′s, I inherited his love of espaliers.  He actually grew them on his farm in Howell.  Many a time I have gone to look at an old existing landscape with a mature espalier, and known it was his design.  We buy them from a number of different growers, in different shapes and sizes.

candelabra-style-redbud-espalier.jpgThis redbud was an experimental espalier subject for one grower.  It will have flowers on the main trunk this year. Almost any tree can be grown into an espalier, provided that the training and tying begins at an early age.  A framework of bamboo or wire must be in place, so each branch grows the desired length and in the desired location.  The process of making a branch turn from the horizontal to the vertical takes a lot of time, and must be started when the branch is young and flexible.

pear-espalier.jpgBranches on a fruiting pear tree harden off at a fairly early age.  The decisions as to which shape and direction to take has to be done early on.

pear-espaliered-arbors.jpgWe have a collection of 7 old fruiting pear arbors.  The eighth pair has already found a home.  They are outrageously beautiful.  We do construct a steel hoop armature for every arbor, so the vertical branches can be tied in place.  These espaliers have sufficient age and strength that they will not need that armature for long.  This is plant material that can make an entire garden.  Like every other plant, any gardener can grow a tree arbor, provided they have some time and patience.

espaliered-apple-trees.jpgWe also have a collection of 40 espalier apple trees of more modest size and dimension, and a small collection of espaliered grapes.  If you have an interest in growing, training and pruning, an espalier might be a perfect addition to your garden.  Interested further?  I have written several essays about espaliers.  If you type the word espalier into the search line of this blog, you’ll find them.

 

 

Pruning With A Purpose

limelight-htdrangeas.jpg
Pruning woody shrubs, when done properly, is good for the plants.  Cutting out dead or diseased branches helps to preserve the overall health of the plant. Branches that cross over one another may damage the bark of both branches.  Damage to the bark of a woody shrub is an invitation to insects and disease.  Thinning out a woody shrub can help to maintain it at a desired size for many years.  That thinning allows light and air to penetrate the interior spaces, keeping the interior of the shrub well foliated.  In the hydrangea hedge above, the upper branches were kept long, a practice which eventually shaded the lower branches.  The lower branches have leaves that are smaller, and fewer flowers. Once we started pruning these hydrangeas, we shortened the top branches considerably and unequally, and pruned the lower branches with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Ideally, a hydrangea should be wider at the bottom than the top.

limelights 2013 (7)As an experiment, I did not prune my limelights at home at all last spring, but for removing the spent flower heads. My reason?  I have a yew hedge in front of them.  I wanted my hydangeas to grow tall, and have lots of blooms in the top third of the plant. On the inside of this hedge is a boxwood hedge, planted fairly close to the hydrangeas.  For the health of the boxwood, I did not want a lot of foliage shading them.  For hydrangeas blooming from top to bottom, the boxwood would have needed to be planted much further away.  I did not have the luxury of that kind of space. This is what I mean by pruning with a purpose.  Good pruning encourages the plant to grow in a way and direction that works with the natural habit of the plant-and the intended design.
limelight hedge 2
This limelight hedge was planted with the specific intent of providing dense screening from top to bottom.  The branches at the bottom are slightly longer and wider than the branches at the top.  Hydrangeas, like most other deciduous shrub, cannot be pruned with a hedge trimmer.  Cutting every branch at exactly the same height produces a proliferation of growth all at the same level.  A single cut may produce 3 or 4 breaks, or new buds.  This denies light and air to the branches below.  Deciduous shrubs pruned for years in this in this manner have a thin green outer layer, and a dead twiggy interior.

pruned-limelight-hydrangeas.jpgThink shag hair cut.  Shorter on the top, longer on the sides, with each cut an alternate length and direction. Each branch has to be pruned individually, one at a time-each at its own level.  Every branch needs a home of its own, uncrowded by the leaves of a neighboring branch.  Clusters of leaves that pester one another and compete for light eventually leads to overall decline.  Lots of deciduous shrubs grow large.  A big shrub planted in a tight space that always needs downsizing will never look or be happy and healthy.  If you don’t have room for a limelight hydrangea, which will mature at 6-8 feet tall, plant Little Limes.  They can comfortably be kept at 4 t0 5 feet tall and wide.

pruned-limelight-hydrangeas.jpg
There are a few plants that are tolerant of shearing. Boxwood and yews are tolerant. Lindens have been pleached and formally grown into overhead hedges for centuries.  A hydrangea is not a member of this group.  They have a loose and shaggy natural shape.  Pruning them needs to work with this natural  habit.  Landscapes where every deciduous shrub is pruned into ball, mushroom or cube shapes is a look that is heavy handed, and not good for the plants. Proper pruning takes a lot of time, but that time is well spent.

pruned-limelights.jpgThe effect of just one year not pruning my limelight hydrangeas is obvious.  The shrubs have developed long bare legs  Pruned down to 36″ tall will encourage lateral buds to break, and some branching at the bottom.  From a distance, the boxwood disguises this legginess. In fact, I prune my hydrangeas differently every year.  I like trying out different approaches and observing the results.  Shrubs are quite tolerant of gardeners.

hydrangea-branching.jpgIf you do have a shrub that is had become overgrown, or is suffering from long standing poor pruning, it is possible to renovate.  An overgrown lilac might benefit from having a couple of old thick branches cut to the ground.  This will encourage growth from the base.  A privet that has been cut into a ball shape for too many years might be a good candidate for the swiss cheese treatment.  Cut holes in the exterior thicket of branches so light can penetrate.  The light is coming from overhead, so treating the top surface of the shrub is the most effective way.

hydrangea-budding.jpgI would say my hydrangeas have been cut hard this year.  I see I have buds breaking here well below the cut.  The trick is to cut close enough to a bud so no time and energy is wasted on a stub that will eventually die back.  Cut too close to a bud, and you may damage it.  For this reason, I may prune my hydrangeas again in a month of so.  To encourage more branching.  Very hard pruning can result in just a few stems, with overly large flowers that droop over.  A sturdily branched hydrangea properly pruned will be a joy come bloom time.

 

 

The Bad News

DSC_9332Every warmer day, there are new signs of the damage sustained in the landscape from our once in better than a lifetime winter.  The news is discouraging.  Any gardener who has zone 5 or 6 plants in their landscape is feeling the side effects of a zone 3 or 4 winter. I do not know the cultivar of pine in this neighborhood garden, but I am quite sure these trees are bone dead.  I was a long ways away, but a close inspection was unnecessary.  That saturated orange brown color on every needle but for the very bottom branches-very bad news.

DSC_9403Our past winter was a once in 130 year event.  Record cold. Record snow. The ice on the Great Lakes-3 feet thick.  The ice on the Great Lakes are still 40% covered with ice.  Some say it will be well into June before all that ice melts.  Chilly is the prediction for our immediate future.   This specialty and marginally hardy spruce grew and prospered in this client’s garden, for going on thirty years.  This past winter proved too be too cold.  Just too cold.  No one could have foreseen a winter like this, nor could this spruce have been protected.  Unless you are older than 130 years, this is this first time you have seen a winter this fierce.

bamboo.jpgLike other stands of mature bamboo I have seen this spring, the culms and leaves are dead.  It is impossible to predict yet if the roots survived.  Time will tell.  We have had a very long period of mild winters.  That length of time was long enough to tempt gardeners to push the limits.  My magnolia stellata bloomed today.  The flowers are small, and look like wet kleenex.  Not that I am complaining.  I am shocked it is blooming at all.  Planting magnolias in a northern zone is a leap of faith.  A story about hope. Our winter was very rough, and every gardener in my zone is being educated daily about how that winter is intruding on our spring.

alberta-spruce.jpgI have not seen a single Alberta spruce untouched by the winter.  Every neighborhood I have visited has alberta spruce burned on the south side.  Some very exposed locations show burn all around.  Fierce burn.

winter-burn.jpgMany landscapes show damage which is hard to understand.  Some plants are untouched.  Others are burned all over.  Others are burned in specific spots.  Some have been killed outright.  Do I have a simple and swift explanation-not really.  Some species of plants that are marginally hardy in our area-many of these are in the killed outright list. Do I have zone 5 and 6 plants in my landscape-yes.  A once in 130 year winter cycle would not prevent any gardener from testing the limits.  The fact is, my 20 year old  garden is but a short intermission in the bigger scheme of things.  This spring is making me realize that nature bats both first and last.  There is no negotiating once a winter tests the limits of cold hardiness..  Too cold is simply too cold.  No zone 6 specialty conifer could not have fared well this past winter.  I have no easy and simple answers.

winter-damage-on-boxwood.jpgI love boxwood as much as the next gardener.  Every Green Velvet boxwood in my garden at home is unscathed by this past winter.  They are green and good to go.  This boxwood hedge in a neighborhood garden south of me did not fare so well.  The cause of the damage?  Salt spray generated by cars driving by at a brisk speed is a toxic bath that can damage boxwood.  Extremely low temperatures can test boxwood cultivars intended for warmer zones.  Exposed plantings of boxwood were bleached by sun reflected off of deep snow.  A boxwood that went into the winter dry can be severely damaged by cold winter winds. Evergreens need to be well watered in the fall.  They cannot absorb water from the roots once the ground freezes.  Water evaporates quickly from evergreen leaves given cold temperatures, wind and sun.  The damage on this hedge is hard to pinpoint. How that damage should be handled-it is too early to tell.

winter-burn-on-boxwood.jpgBoxwood is a broad leaved evergreen.  It needs to be well watered and juicy before winter.  Once the soil freezes, no boxwood can access the water it needs to keep the leaves juicy and green.  The water available at the root is turned off.  Strong winter winds makes the water in the leaves evaporate at an alarming rate.  An evergreen cannot replace the water it looses by evaporation over the winter.  What that leaf has to sustain it in November will have to do for the rest of the winter.  An evaporation rate that exceeds the store of moisture means leaves will dry out and die.

damaged-boxwood.jpgThe boxwood leaves on the interior of the shrub, protected from salt winter wind and sun scald may survive the toughest winter.  The damage I see on the boxwood at the shop makes me want to rush out there with my pruners. Notwithstanding my instinct to remove any sign of damage, I will wait.  Viable branches that have lost their leaves will releaf, given some time. Boxwood damaged by repeated soaking in road salt may not recover. Marginally hardy varieties of boxwood may be dead from the cold.  Hicks yews are not so wonderfully hardy.  Yews pruned after August show striking signs of damage.   I am inclined to wait and see how all of my plants will respond.  Plants have a will to live.  I would advise giving them the room they need to recover.

boxwood-damage.jpgA sick and challenged plant needs time to sort out the insult and injury on their own.  This is my opinion.  This spring following a once in a century winter-what do I know what will be?  I do know this section of boxwood has been struggling with fungus for 4 years.  An extraordinarily bad winter may have done them in.

winter-kill.jpgI have a plan to grieve privately about the damage to my beloved boxwood hedge, and wait.  I know I need to wait for the plants to respond.  Once they respond to warmer weather, I will know what to do.  It is not clear yet what is lost, and what is burned, and needs pruning.  Having never experienced a winter like this before, the last thing I want to do is interfere with the natural order of things.  If you are as passionate a gardener as I am, the waiting will be horticultural hell.  But all of us would go to hell and back for a garden, wouldn’t we?