The Most Daunting Day Of The Year

Was this the most daunting day of my gardening year?  Absolutely not.  A landscape dusted with fresh snow can be lovely.  As much as I dislike the garden going to sleep, fresh snow on a landscape that has structure from evergreens, the trunks of trees and the branches of deciduous shrubs is beautiful.  This snow in late February was just about the only snow we had all winter. 

When the snow stopped falling, I was enchanted.  The wet snow stuck to everything.  I realized that I had so missed the snow this winter.  Anyone who lives in my area likes the change of the seasons. Our late fall season persisted all winter long.  I hated the sameness of it.  The worst of the winter for me?  The every day grey skies.

The spring season is just about the best.  Every blade of grass, all the new growth on the shrubs and trees-fresh.  Spring green.  Spring never lasts quite long enough to suit me. But more than likely the fact that it comes but once a year has something to do with its appeal. 

See this-this is the most daunting day of the year. The residue of a single late snow still persists in the shadiest parts of the garden.  The grass is matted down, and an unappetising shade of tan.  Every place that Milo digs in when he takes off is a muddy blotch of a divot.  But for my evergreens-desolate. 

The beech ferns-I never cut them back in the fall.  I am sure leaving the dead fronds over the crowns helps them winter the winter better. This is probably nonsense, but I believe it nonetheless.  The european ginger has a purplish hue, and is plastered to the ground much like the grass.  There is not one thing to be done about this-but to endure it, and hope for March to pass. 

This garden belonging to a client looks like anything but a garden.  On March 10, it looked like bare dirt with a hint of white frost, the dead remains of some tufts of ornamental grasses, a few shreds of some Annabelle hydrangea heads, and a birdbath that looks like its lifeline has been disconnected.  A plug in the garden is exposed, a little trash has blown in-there are sticks and branches down from the high winds we had a week ago.  It is hard to believe anything grew here.  This is a daunting day.  

I have started to make landscape calls.  Clients invariably apologize for the state of their garden, but I remind them that this is March.  The last of the winter.  I like looking now-the most daunting moment is also the simplest moment.  Lots of issues are made clear.  Just when I think it couldn’t possibly look worst, the weather will break in favor of spring.  Gardening people like JB, pictured above, know that now is the best time to review, and plan.  The smallest spring project thoughtfully undertaken now will grow faster than you think.  Sooner than you think, there can and will be fewer daunting days in your garden.  It is good to get outside now, and take a look around-even if you must wear a winter coat.   

This client lost 60 trees to the emerald ash borer over the past 2 years.  Very daunting, this.  But enough trees came down such that the lake across the street is now visible.  My clients are liking that they have a glimmer of a view of water from their hilltop property.  The disaster of the loss of many trees presents them with a great opportunity.  The mess of broken branches and debris can be cleaned up.  The view out can be framed.   The site line going over the hill could be a river of chionodoxa in the spring, and a groundcover all summer and winter.  Shrubs with a loose wild habit could edge the remaining trees.  Under the best of circumstances, landscapes evolve.  Some plants grow too vigorously.  Others succumb to any number of ills.  Things change.  There is work for every gardener to do every spring-is this not a very good thing?    

This garden lost part of its reason for being.  A nearby garage was torn down, and replaced in another location.  The curve in the path that once went around the garage makes no sense now.  The trench for the power lines to the new garage will be filled in within days, but the effect of the loss of a major structural element makes the garden seem disconnected-adrift. I will take this opportunity to discuss with her how it is important that gardens have structure that frame and suggest that garden, during the winter season. Never sell short the ability of the human eye and heart to imagine.  Imagining the parameters of this garden as it stands is difficult, not impossible.  Strongly suggesting the possibilities, the locus of a summer garden,  is what makes a winter garden work.    

You can barely see the lake in this picture.  I am standing very near the house.  Given that there had never been a long view, this sculpture set in an ocean of northern sea oats was not only the near view-it was the only view.  On this most daunting day of the year, we are discussing how this may be different, beautiful in a way it never was. Clearly something needs to change here.  My advice?  A daunting day is a call for the old blood to turn over.  Wring your hands if you must, but I find a lot of looking, and a little reverie, goes a long way towards turning that most daunting day aside.

Passover Tables

 We do cut flowers and props for weddings, parties and events on occasion.  I particularly enjoy creating a landscape to celebrate a specific moment, and that moment only.  A beautifully imagined and executed event enchants the eye from that first moment, and can provide a framework around which great memories are created.    

A good client participates in a one a year fundraiser for the educational programs at her synagogue.  Participants create a Passover table around a theme of their own choosing.  Tickets are sold, both to a luncheon, and an evening event.   

My client has a big love for her part in this event.   We may meet in November preceeding this late February event.  We will meet three or four times subsequent to that, in order to have a plan in place.  She also has a highly critical eye, and is willing to do what it takes to get every detail just to her liking.    

My part in this?  Part advisor, part fabricator, part problem solver, part fifth business.  Fifth business?  This is the one person in the opera who knows the relationships between all of the main characters, and keeps the audience apprised.  When I am good, I am the fifth business.  I try to anticipate the what will fit in and frame the space, what will go together quickly, what will represent the theme, and what will create a mood.    

Most importantly, I realize that events belong to the people who host them-not me.  I have certain skills with flowers.  I have certain skills with designing spaces, working with color, creating visual interest, and proportion.  But an event is never about my skills.  It is about people who congregate and interact over a special celebration. 

I think the toughest job any floral or event designer faces is figuring out how to work in such a way that the people involved, and that cause for celebration, shine.

My client thought long and hard about the theme for her Passover table.  Every detail is thoughtful.  Every detail contributes to the whole.  Each object makes reference to the history, the holiday, and the theme she took so long to create.

Best of all, there is so much of her here.  The objects she treasures are the foundation of her expression.  There is a very clear story being told here-about both Barbra and Rashi’s vineyard. 

I like the opportunity to participate in events that tell a story.  A real story.  Jenny went just before the tea to take these photographs-I was determined that we would do this. 

Our photographs are by no means professional.  But a visual story about the relationship over which this table was forged is a story the both of us want to remember.   


Lily’s Pots

Next week I will be giving a talk to 50 members of a local garden club.  I am happy to speak to any group free of charge, provided they come to me.  It is an easy matter for me to show pictures from my computer, or from a book in my library.  My closet is a collection of the garden gear I like the best.  I can put a container planting together, and discuss those issues which influence my choices.  I can talk about the history and care of great garden ornament. I am equally at home with ideas about how to repurpose apple crates, iron headboards, galvanized livestock watering troughs  and old fishing tackle boxes. I can speak to what anyone should expect from a landscape designer, or an irrigation contractor.  When I am in my element, I have lots of physical examples to choose from.  I am too old to take my shop talk on the road.

This garden club is leaving the topic up to me.  No doubt I will choose a topic that is timely.  Early spring perennials no garden should be without.  Spring container plantings.  Designing a landscape project for the spring.  But no matter the group, no matter the time of year, some questions I see over and over again.  I am not especially creative-how can my garden pots be more beautiful?  What is the secret of growing good container plantings?   Given this topic, I refer to Lily. I am quite sure I have written about her before. She likes me to plant every color and form under the sun-the more the better.  It matters not what I throw at her, her mature pots would make a grown gardener weep.  She has an unerring instinct about how to make plants grow.     

Everything thrives for her.  She could pick up a yucca plant that had been in the trash at the side of the road for weeks, and grow it on to prize winning proportions.  She has a soft spot for dramatic plantings-this I oblige.  But once I have planted, she is in charge.  She does take charge. 

She understands perfectly that annual plants form roots that are very shallow.  Unlike the deep rooted grasses, or baptisia you have tried to dig out and divide.  Everything that goes on in a container or ground planted annual garden happens in the first 8 to 10 inches below ground.  Annual plants only want to set seed before the end of the season, they will bloom and set seed at the expense of a substantial root system.  Only long term plants grow deep.    

This means that top 8 inches of soil needs to be loaded with organic material, and watered regularly.  There are those times when people ask me why my containers grow up lush;  I simply say I water regularly.  I water when the plants need water.  I don’t skip, or put off the watering to another time.  Regular watering is critical to success with plants.

I make sure that the soil that goes into containers is loaded with organic material.  This helps the soil to retain moisture evenly. Organic material leavens soil, so air is a substantial part of the underground party.  Notice I say soil.  I do not plant in peat based soil mixes. 

Peat based soil mixes are easy to carry out to the car, but they are sterile.  Prefessional growers plant in sterile soil mix.  They cannot afford disease to infect a crop upon which their livlihood depends.  But once a soilless mix dries out, it takes lots of work to rewet.  A cursory watering of a container planting in soiless mix means the surface gets a little moisture, and the roots are dry as dust.

If you are a hit, hit and miss waterer, plant in soil.  Potting soil.  A 40 pound bag of potting soil is not that much-get that high school kid at your local nursery to load your trunk with all of the bags that you need, and get help unloading those bags at home.  This effort will be worth it.  Real soil will buy you some time in August, when you are at a high school softball game rather than home watering your pots.  There is no harm mixing some peat, or composted manure into your soil-every effort you make to enrich your soil will pay off many times over. 

Lily’s pots always look well grown.  You see the hose on the ground in the foreground-she knows how to use it.  The time it takes for her to water, dead head, and clean up her pots is time she is willing to give.  Don’t have the time?  Hedge your bets.  Plant succulents.  Plant fewer pots.  Group the pots that need water close together.  Invest in a hose that is lightweight.  Have a good irrigation contractor install automatic irrigation in your pots.  (automatic irrigation really means you have a little more time before you do a personal check-automatic irrigation cannot replace you!)  


 There is not a gardener anywhere that does not enjoy the results of a beautiful garden.  A great pot.  A great moment.  My secrets are anything but monumental.  Let no container lack for water. 

It matters not whether the style and color of these containers appeal to you. If one boxwood in a pot satisfies your idea of beautiful, the rules are the same as what applies to Lily’s pots. Or the landscape at Longwood Gardens.  Or my garden.  Or your shade garden.  Or the roses at Janet’s.  Or the pots on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  What matters is that hand that gets put to seeing that the plants thrive.

My topic for the garden club next Monday?  You are able.  And since you are able, you should.  Plant it, Detroit.

Helleborus Orientalis

Rob bought a slew of greenhouse grown hellebores in 8″ pots for our opening last weekend.  They were absolutely stunning.  Beautifully grown plants were loaded with flowers and buds coming on-much like the plants in my garden in mid April.  Hellebores are one of my most favorite perennials, for reasons not limited to their breathtaking flowers.  This variety-helleborus orientalis “Spring Promise”.

Helleborus orientalis blooms very early in our season with flowers much like a single rose- thus the common name Lenten Rose.  Native to many parts of Europe, the largest collection of species are native to the Balkans.  This means they are quite cold and frost tolerant.  The thick leathery foliage is semi-evergreen in my zone.  This means the leaves look great all season long, and on into late winter.  Only the foliage of peonies compares in substance and color.  A mass of hellebores makes a very good looking groundcover. 

They thrive in moisture retentive soil rich in organic matter.  They are remarkably tolerant of shade, although my collection is in full sun, on the north side of some densely growing Picea Mucrunulatum. The flowers are relatively large for a plant growing under 18 inches tall; plants which are properly situated will bloom heavily.

However, hellebores do not increase in size very rapidly. My group took almost 5 years to make a decently fabulous spring display. This also means large plants, if you can find them, can be very pricey.  The plants that Rob sourced are the largest I have ever seen for sale, and this particular cultivar is quite beautiful.  Blush white flowers surround electric lime green nectaries-gorgeous.  The red stems, and dark green leaves are handsome.     

Hellebore flowers are comprised of 5 petals, which are actually sepals, surrounded by a ring of cup shaped nectaries.  The flower on the right still has its nectaries intact.  These sepals will remain on a plant for months after the bloom period.  They appear as though they are still in bloom long after the bloom period is over.  Some speculate that these persistent sepals aid in the production and viability of the seed. 

helleborus orientalis

 We did buy some smaller plants, which we promptly potted up into small clay pots.  Hellebores grown in a greenhouse can be forced to bloom ahead of their normal bloom period.  They are a refreshing and sophisticated change from forced hyacinths and tulips.  Once the flowers fade, they can be planted out in the garden. This variety of hellebore is called “Cinnamon Snow”.

 This bloom has matured, and dropped all of its stamens and nectaries.  It is clear their is a seed developing in the center of the protective ring of sepals.  Hellebores will seed prolifically, if they are happy.  I clean up my hellebores very gingerly in the spring-I do not want to disturb any seedlings that might be germinating.  I plan to cut back the tattered foliage from last year tomorrow, as I am sure the flowers are already emerging from the ground. 

spring blooming hellebores

On closer inspection, I can see signs of life.  I can tell from the dark color of the buds that this hellebore will have dark flowers.  The stems of last years leaves are laying on the ground now-it is time to snip them off.  It is a beautiful moment when the flowers are in bloom, before the new year’s leaves have begun to emerge. 

  Another hellebore with closer proximity to my spruce is showing the effects of that protective location.  The buds are much further along than those in more exposed locations.


This hellebore is white blooming.  I will confess that I like the green and white blooming hybrids the best, but each and every one of them is lovely.

pink blooming hellebore

It will not be long before my garden has this spring look.  But for now, I have a few plants of Helleborus “Spring Promise” to tide me over.