At A Glance: Landscape Materials

A multi-story building downtown at 1001 Woodward had an entry plaza that I would call chilly and uninviting.  Bedrock Realty, the new owner, has an idea to warm things up.  Kelly Deines of Rossetti Architects asked if I could put together a landscape that would include 2 pair of our espaliered arbors.  We were happy to oblige.  The livestock tanks-courtesy of our local farm store.  The steel arbors-courtesy of Buck and his group at Branch.

Espaliered pear arbor

espaliered-pear-arbor.jpgOwen was one of a crew of 7 that helped plant those trees.

artificial-turf.jpgArtificial turf

arbors-and-stock-tanks.jpgSteel forms for the espaliers

planting.jpgcosmos and pennisetum under planting the espaliers

1001 Woodward 2013 (43)finished planting

planted.jpgartificial turf bands on the stock tanks

turf-band.jpgartificial turf secured with hot pink zip ties

trimming-the-turf.jpgtrimming the turf square and true

furniture.jpgurethane furniture specified and installed by Rossetti Architects

downtown.jpgpeople in the space

landscape-materials.jpgThe linden trees in a granite planter box were underplanted with creeping jenny.  Espaliered trees, artificial turf, pink zip ties, galvanized metal livestock watering tanks, cosmos, little bunny pennisetum, molded urethane French style arm chairs and creeping jenny and a plaza typical of a vintage urban skyscraper-landscape materials that came together to create a place for people to congregate outdoors.


Pruning The Boxwood

June 23b 2013 (1)The day the evergreens get pruned at the shop is one of my favorite days in the gardening year.  Mindy from M and M  Flowers comes with a crew; they make a day of it.  The first order of business is the discussion.  Are we pruning as usual?  Is there perhaps a new shape or different direction in mind?

pruning-boxwood.jpgMaking changes to the shape of a boxwood hedge- even an established hedge- is not difficult or impossible.  It just takes time. The spheres at the corners of the parterres have not grown in evenly all around. The west side spheres get more water, as the land drains in that direction.  The east side spheres are planted in what was once asphalt, and they are shaded by the lindens.

pruned-boxwood.jpgThe spheres to the east also suffered a considerable fungal infection that has been very difficult to cure.  Simply put, the conditions for the 4 spheres are not at all equal.  One pair is much larger and more robust than the other.  So there was discussion about a moving towards a different shape at all 4 corners.

boxwood.jpgThe corner spheres could be trimmed as follows.  The bottom of the shrub could be brought into line with the existing rectangular hedge.  The top of the shrub could be pruned as a top-knot, or a smaller sphere that would appear to sit on top of the hedge.  This pruning would take a few years to accomplish, as it means pruning down to old wood.  There would be bare spots that would need to grow in.

green-velvet-boxwoodWe have some time to think this over.  Though I like to wait until the spring growth is fully flushed out before any pruning is done, pruning back to bare wood as the heat of the summer season is imminent is a recipe for burn. Boxwood grows out of winter burn fairly readily, but summer burn is an unsightly state of affairs that persists.

formally-pruned-boxwood.jpgI am not so sure that it bothers me that the spheres do not match.  Perfection is a state that does not really apply to living things.  We may just stay the course. But there is always the option to change course in a landscape.  That just takes planning, and patience.

pruning-evergreen-shrubs.jpgThis hedge has been grown from the species buxus koreana microphylla.  It is a big growing boxwood.  The hedge has been maintained at a height of 32″ and a width of 48″ for a number of years.  Grown in full sun, it readily handles the winter wind and cold weather.  The only danger posed by the winter is when we have heavy snow, the weight of which can crack the woody branches.  Those cracks make the shrub more susceptible to fungal infections.  It’s not always easy to decide whether to remove the snow, or let it be.  Disturbing branches when they are frozen can produce more damage than the snow itself.

pruning-a-boxwood-hedgeKorean boxwood does have a pronounced orangy cast in the winter, a characteristic that is not to everyone’s taste.  Our most important issue is tending a hedge that is in good proportion to the size of the building.  If that large overall size were not so important, “Green Velvet” boxwood maintains its green color all winter, and matures at 3′ by 3′.  “Green Mountain” boxwood is  virtually indistinguishable from Green Velevet, but matures at 4′ tall, and 3′ wide.  “Green Gem” is a good choice, if a more refined leaf and smaller mature size is what your garden needs.


pruning-the-boxwood.jpgWe lost 2 boxwood in the hedge over this past winter.  We did have one replacement available. In this spot, we went another direction.  We stitched the hedge back together, with a pair of potted boxwoods.

pruning-the-boxwood.jpgThe pruning makes a world of difference in the appearance of this garden.  I am enjoying that change thoroughly.  If you have a boxwood hedge or specimen boxwood plants that ask for a precision pruning, I highly recommend M and M Flowers.  Their work is superb.  248  340  0796.


The Magnolias

galaxy-magnolia.jpgIn most every year I have written this blog, there is an essay about magnolias.  I have a big love for them.  The flowers are dramatic and showy-I so welcome a gesture of this magnitude after a long winter.  A good bloom is never a certainty.  They bloom early in my spring-which also means they bloom late in my winter.  Last year, given a string of April days in the low twenties, every bud was reduced to a gooey black rotted mess, hanging from the branches.   That hanging persisted well into the summer-a vile reminder of the capricious nature of spring weather.

blue-sky.jpgBut when the magnolias are good, they are very very good.  My neighborhood has plenty of old saucer magnolias in evidence.  Some are planted very close to the foundations of homes-they do not seem to mind this.  Many have multiple trunks that have grown to considerable size.  A saucer magnolia in full bloom is heart stoppingly beautiful.  My saucer magnolias are a hybrid of magnolia soulangiana, named Galaxy.  The day I planted the three of them in my driveway garden, they had long spindly arms-gawky, they were.  The one tree with the most sun has grown to a considerable size.

magnolias-and-maples.jpgThe second tree will catch up to tree number one in the next few years.  Tree 3 took a giant hit in the trunk from a careless truck driver in the driveway.  Late this winter I took down an old Norway maple in this area whose girdling roots have been hard at work squeezing the life out of it.  So little of the canopy was green last year-looking at it made me wince.  It was time to give up the maple, in the interest of the health of the magnolias-and a group of parrotias.

galaxy-magnolia.jpgThis cool spring made for a glorious magnolia bloom season.  I admired them up close.  I stood under their blossom laden branches.  I admired them from afar.  Why this love of magnolias?  The spectacular bloom aside, they are a very handsome tree.  The grey bark is beautiful.  The mossed bark on old trees-sensational.  The leaves are large, and glossy.  Their winter shape is strikingly architectural.  They are beautiful trees, no matter the season.  Their mature size is a size that any modest city property such as my own, could accommodate.  I have a city lot and a half, which is home to 11 magnolias-no kidding.     magnolia-butterfly.jpg

8 of my magnolias are planted in the half lot, in the front of my yard.  They are under planted with boxwood.  They are yellow magnolias-yes yellow.  Hybridized by Phil Savage, the blooms of the magnolia “Butterflies” are the most astonishingly gorgeous pale yellow imaginable. I met Phil Savage when I was young, and working for Al Goldner.  Al was a landscape designer who owned a nursery.  He loved plants-and he loved design.  I was so lucky for my exposure to him, and his work.  Al made it his business to introduce anyone designing for him to people who grew great plants.  So many years later, I treasure that experience.

magnolia-Butterflies.jpgPhil owned a large property in my area.  Though he passed away a few years ago, that property is loaded with magnolias-many of which exceed 60 feet in height.  I had occasion to see his trees in full bloom a few years ago, courtesy of a niece, who is a client.  I was astonished at what I saw.  Yellow, peach, pale pink and hot pink flowers on magnolias that towered high above the ground.  My pictures of his property are so bad-I would not publish them.  But the experience of his vision about magnolias-this I will never forget.  This is why I plant magnolias, any time I have the chance.


The bloom, even in a really great year, is not long.  Should you need more than that momentary experience of their shockingly beautiful flowers, consider their leaves, and their gorgeous shape.  I for one do not mind an experience of the garden that is fleeting.  Every season has  its perfect moment.  I do not need any plant, any garden, or any landscape to to do more than their season.  I do not hold the brevity of a season against any tree.  As for  Phil Savage’s property-yes.  It has been sold.  The buyer I would guess has no interest in that magnolia forest the likes of which I am sure does not exist any where else on this planet.  The new owner has another idea in mind.  I hear from friends and colleagues in the growing community that there is a plan to take cuttings.  I so pray this plan comes to be.

A plan to preserve and nurture the magnolias bred by Phil Savage-this seems a fitting essay for Mother’s Day weekend.

B Is For Boxwood

boxwood-spheres.jpgRegular readers of my essays know I have a big love for boxwood.  This fairly small and very dense growing evergreen shrub is as versatile as any plant it has been my pleasure to plant.  It is tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions, and it is quite shade tolerant. Its natural growth is charmingly shaggy.  It is more than tolerant of pruning-that is, pruning into shapes.  Long hedges.  Curving and scrolling hedges.  Spheres, squares, rectangles, pyramids trapezoids and triangles-boxwood tolerates this too.  Boxwood hardy in my zone is also hardy in pots-provided they get proper water and drainage.  Boxwood is just about the most obliging plant material on the planet-for those gardeners that are as interested in design as they are in plants.

boxwood-topiary-spheres.jpgBoxwood flowers are tiny, and anything but showy.  The leaves are quite small and unprepossessing.  The texture the mass of leaves make-interesting and lively enough.  Not massive and sculptural, like the leaves of ligularia,  petasites, gunnera, rodgersia or alocasia.  Quietly textured.  Where boxwood shines has to do with volume, mass, and shape.  A hedge of boxwood is satisfyingly regular and pleasing-no matter whether the hedge is natural and shaggy, or closely cropped. A mass of multiple boxwood plants can create shapes of great visual interest.  That mass can be pruned flat-like a sheetcake.  That mass could be pruned on an angle, or in undulating waves.  That mass could narrow at one end, and wide at the other.  Boxwood will oblige-whether the landscape design is crispy contemporary, or unabashedly traditional.

boxwood-spheres.jpg Boxwood grown over a period of time can be shaped into specimen plants-the hallmark of which is the evidence of the pruning hand of a gardener. Pruned boxwood in traditional forms and shapes dates back centuries.  Pruned boxwood with a decidedly modern shape-equally as compelling.  Why am I so interested in the shapes, the mass, the volume and the texture of boxwood?  I am as interested in design as I am interested in plants.

boxwood-on-standard.jpgA completely natural and God given landscape-that would be the wild and untouched places in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The climax forests. The primeval forests.  The roadside weed colonies.  What grows out of the tarmac, or next to the railroad tracks.  An accident of nature can be the most thrillingly beautiful sight imaginable.  Part of why people travel is to experience the natural world-untouched by people- in places all over the earth.  An undisturbed stand of birch, a field full of Queen Anne’s Lace, a bog ablaze with marsh marigolds in the spring-all gardening people love these places.

hardy-boxwood.jpgThat said, I am at heart, a designer.  I favor landscapes that make a statement from the heart, the head, and the hand.  People can be heavy handed, but they can also be kind, patient, observing, caring, daring, brilliant, and nurturing.  I am interested in the choices gardeners make.  I am also very interested in the choices designers make.  Choices gardeners make provide for astonishingly different outcomes.  Designed landscape spaces are structured.  They may be structured around use, and traffic.  They may be structured with beauty in mind.  They may be structured for a particular season, a favored color, a sense of visual balance, for mystery, for fun, for meditation.  They may be structured around a very personal and particular point of view.

triple-ball-boxwood-topiary.jpgBeautifully structured landscapes transform an idea or thought into a picture.  I would explain this idea in this way.  Many people could not draw a portrait, but every person is able to recognize the face of an acquaintance or friend.  Many people recognize the faces of people they have not seen for years, or people they only know slightly.  Visual recognition is a very powerful human attribute.  We all have it.   Designers appeal to visual recognition.  The delight that comes from visual recognition-extraordinary.  Design that manages to engage all of the senses is great design.

boxwood-topiary.jpgWe had a number of boxwood topiaries delivered a few days ago, from a grower on the West Coast.  We do not order plants over the phone, sight unseen, via an availability list.  Rob flies out there every winter.  He walks the fields.  He chooses plants that he feels beautifully represents his point of view, as a designer.  He discusses the pruning, the care.  His buying-incredibly personal.

double-trunked-boxwood-topiary.jpgAny great design bears the mark and hand of a client, empowered by the hand of a skilled designer.   I will say that the design of my landscapes is primarily about a relationship, forged.  A passionate client, and a passionate designer makes for landscapes of note.  I feel very confident saying that great landscape design springs from a relationship marked by mutual passion and respect.  I have a great respect for the boxwood topiaries that Rob chose to buy.  I feel completely confident that should I recommend to client that they invest in an old plant with a history, they will not be disappointed.  There is a provenance in which to trust.

boxwood-spheres.jpgThe intense rain this afternoon-so great for these newly relocated plants.  The new growth is glowing.  My clients who asked that I draw the locations for 100 boxwood in pots in his landscape-this post is dedicated to them.

Iseli-style-boxwood-topiary.jpgThis boxwood topiary-astonishing in its age and size.   Rob tells me it reminded him of Thomas Church.  I can see why he fell for it.  There is the sure evidence of a patient, committed, and loving hand.  We make extraordinary plants like this one available to gardeners.  But more than that, we design.