A Vase Full Of Flowers

I would imagine that there are lots of gifts, in the form of cut flower arrangements, exchanging hands today.  Though a vase full of flowers is a traditional Mother’s Day gift, it is a thoughtful and appropriate choice.  In the interest of keeping those fresh cuts fresh as long as possible, I take the time to condition them.  These Matsumoto asters have very long, tough, and woody stems.  I cut them down to the approximate length I well need, and then strip off any foliage that might be below the water line.    

I do like cut flower arrangements that are more about the flowers than the foliage, but there are other good reasons to remove most of it.  any leaves below water will immediately begine to deteriorate.  Bacteria proliferate under such circumstances.  Eventually it will interfere with the stem’s ability to take up water.  That uptake is essential to a vase of flowers that lasts. A flower flush with water will stay fresh longer.

The cut flowers I buy from a wholesale flower house may be local, or they may come from a long ways away.  Though modern transportation means that a cut flower spends as little time as possible in a box, there is an immediate need to get them a drink of water.  After stripping the low foliage, I recut every stem on a slant.  This maximizes the stem surface that can absorb water.  The asters, ranunculus, and grape hyacinths in these arrangements have a naturally good shelf life.  The purple campanula, white phlox, and orlaya (this is the Queen Anne’s lace like flower)  need 24 hours of conditioning-meaning immersion deep lukewarm water in a cool spot- before they are arranged.  

Dutch iris are fleeting in a vase under the best of circumstances, so I buy them in tight bud.  Making sure the flowers you buy are fresh to begin with is important.  If you are buying flowers from a grocery store, find out what day their fresh flowers come in.  Check for any browning.  Whether you are picking tomatoes or fresh flowers, the same rules apply.  Even if those buds of iris are not showing color, once the stems absorb water they will pop overnight.  Roses in tight bud, showing no color, may never open. 

Ranunculus have an amazing long vase life.  They are readily available in the spring season.  Buying cut flowers that are in season means they are readily available at a reasonable price.  Long stemmed red roses available at Valentine’s Day in February are hot house grown, or shipped into my area from California, or South America-an out of season luxury. 

The giant long stemmed Pacific hybrid blue delphiniums are indeed a sight to behold, but they are difficult and awkward to arrange.  The shorter growing belladonna delphinium is every bit as beautiful a blue, and much more graceful in a vase. The delphiniums were arranged in this vase first.  The larger flowered tulips and iris came next.  The dashes of white sweet peas-last.  Trumpet shaped vases help give a cut flower arrangement a graceful overall appearance.  Cylinders can be tough.  Every flower wants to be upright. 

 Tulips are long lasting in a vase too.  But as their stems tend to be wobbly, they like a little existing structure to lean up against.  I try to condition tulips with plenty of natural light.  They look to the light.  I like them to be upright while they are taking up water that first day out of the box.  The flower heads are heavy, and the stems slight- inevitably the stems will swoop.  Conditioning will make them much easier to arrange. 

The Dutch iris are very stiff and set, once they open.  I like to pair them with other flowers that have a more relaxed habit in the vase.  Multiflowered double yellow tulips and sweet peas loosen things up a little.  This arrangement went to a Mom with great grandchildren.  Pastel flowers are easier to see that dark colored ones.  A bouquet of fragrant flowers adds a whole other dimension to the enjoyment of those flowers.

A mix of all white flowers is always a beautiful choice.  Veronica, lisianthis, phlox, campanula and orlaya in a vase suggests the profusion of the garden.  For a thoroughly modern Mom, a vase full of one kind of flower may be more appealing. 

I like mixed flowers in a vase for one practical reason.  If the campanula wilts and fades, it can be removed.  Clean water, and a little fluffing means the arrangement it there to enjoy for a few more days. 

There are those circumstances when arranging flowers in oasis, or floral foam is a necessity.  But flowers arranged in water that is kept fresh will last.  All of those green stems in clean water is a pretty look.

A smaller scale arrangement will be easier to handle.  Recutting the stems every other day, and clean water will help with their longevity.  If you buy cut flowers that routinely come with buds-such as lisianthus and ranunculus, making those buds part of the arrangement becomes part of the charm. 

The lavender and purple veined freesia in this vase-wonderfully fragrant.  The feverfew-very garden like.  The ranunculus-like little peonies. 


Cut flowers from the garden make lovely arrangements, but I have little in bloom right now.  What’s available in my yard and maybe yours right now-lily of the valley. Given that they are usually in bloom on Mother’s Day might be just enough of a good reason to grow them.   


They Don’t Like Me


catawba rhododendron

I shouldn’t take it personally.  They don’t like much of anyone who gardens in my zone.  Why should they?  If you look at a map that details where rhododendron catawbiense in native, you’ll see the Appalachian mountains from West Virginia extending as far south as Alabama.  I do not garden in the mountains, nor is my climate remotely like West Virginia.  One neoighborhood in my area features big stands of old oak trees.  The rhododendron are passable there.

pink azaleas

I have seen rhododendrons in private gardens in Philadelphia that grow to great heights, and great widths.  The shrubs are thickly foliated; the glossy leaves healthy and robust.  A big shrub in full bloom is a sight to behold.  Even in a good spring, those massive flower heads with their seductively beautiful individual florets are fleeting.  But if they did not flower, a broad-leaved evergreen is a plant to be coveted-especially if 6 months of winter is part of your yearly gardening program.

rhododendron catawbiense

There are otherworldly gardens in Scotland and England that feature extravagantly happy and healthy stands of rhododendron.  So what do they want that I do not have?  Just about everything, as it turns out.  They want an acid soil, lots of organic material, lots of sun, but protection from winter winds, regular moisture and perfect drainage.  As imposing as they are is in every way equal to how particular and demanding they are about soil type and ph, and siting.

American dogwood

In general I subscribe to that school of thought that says if you you don’t have it to begin with, you chances of making it happen are slim to none.  I do not believe I can create an Appalachian mountain weather and soil zone in my yard that would fool rhododendrons into believing they had been planted in West Virginia.

When I was young, I put huge effort into to amending soil, in the belief that it was within my power to fool the plants.  Plants are actually very specific about what they need, and if they don’t get it, they will not prosper.  The right soil, siting, light, mositure, drainage, weather. When you match the plant to the existing conditions, you get romance.  Real romance.  Now, I try very hard to match the plant to the existing conditions.  Plants planted where they do not want to be sulk, decline, and die.  This is not a good look for a landscape or garden. 


 Can I really turn my basic heavy clay Oakland County Michigan soil into an acid soil native to the open Appalachian woodlands?  Not really.  But that does not mean I do not lust after a beautifully grown rhododendron in my own yard.  Lots of other people have the same idea.  My local nurseries are stuffed with row after row of rhododendron, and azaleas, even though they mostly languish here.  Rhodies are easy to dig, being shallow rooted.  And those flowers are close to irresistible.

pink azaleas

The flowers are incredibly beautiful, and the leaves so handsome-who wouldn’t be captivated by the thought that they might make one grow and prosper?  I had a client once who spent a fortune every year replacing and coddling them.  We bought big ones, tall ones, short ones dense from regular pruning-I was so relieved the day she gave them up.  Who wants to get a failing grade in rhododendron 101, year after year?

red rhododendron

This said, I have a number of rhodendron in my yard. I inherited a group of a Rhododendron catawbiense hybrids that are red-I do not know the name.  The color is electric. They must be 20 years old by now.  2 years ago Melissa from M and M Flowers pruned them back hard-they had become very leggy, as old rhododendron do.Last year, I had very few blooms-I suspect they were pouting.  This year, they are stellar.  Why-I have no idea.  They are planted on the north side of the house.  They get almost nothing in the way of sun, which would encourage good blooming.  I am quite sure the soil is basic.  I use no chemicals in an effort to change the ph-this I could not stomach.  I don’t feed them.  They are surrounded by pink azaleas of an equal age, with a groundcover of lily of the valley.  I have no idea what the soil and drainage is like here-I have never waded in to check.


I leave them be.  As rhododendron are very shallow rooted, I am sure they appreciate that I am not poking around.  This part of my landscape is that which came before me, and I do not disturb it.  Right now, I have a show-some fading dogwoods, the red rhododendron, a stand of hot pink azaleas, and a lush carpet of lily of the valley.

I did loose one a few years ago.  The group of three PJM cultivars I planted as replacements have looked like the devil since day one, and still do.  Whatever.  They have not grown one inch in three years.  Unhappy?  Oh yes. 

A Rhodendron catawbiense “Boursault” is blooming outside my home office window right now.  It is the so called “iron-clad” rhododendron.  I moved my computer screen to the side a few days ago, so I have an unobstructed view of it. Right this minute-it is breathtaking.  I would guess it is 8 feet tall, spindly and leggy-but it is blooming to beat the band. 

I do have a cluster of PJM rhododendron roaring back from a hard pruning two years ago.  The bloom this year-who knows what it might have been, but for a perfectly timed frost. I am mildly surprised that I have never touched this north side garden since I moved here 16 years ago.  But the fact that these displaced plants do as well as they do asks for a little respect. 

I leave them be-these West Virginia natives of the Appalachia stuck in a city garden in Michigan are doing the best they can.  I truly appreciate their effort.  I did have a bout with black vine weevils a few years back-I did treat for this.  Those bugs have not been back.  The highlight of this spring, with its round after round of disappointment from wretched weather, belongs to my rhodies.         


Spring Frost

frost damage

There may have been little in the way of winter weather in my zone, and the 80 degree days we had in March were disturbingly unusual-but the winter weather we have had this spring has been devastating.  Every bloom on twelve magnolias in my yard-and lots of other yards- was summarily frosted off at the end of March.  OK, no flowers this year.  But a week ago Sunday-24 degrees overnight.  The new leaves pushing out past those dead blooms were hit hard.  You can tell from my picture, this Galaxy magnolia does not look good. 

The new growth on the boxwood at the shop-pushed out too early due to an abnormally warm March-was thoroughly damaged by frost.  24 degrees in midwinter-all of the evergreens have gone dormant, and are laying low.  They can shrug off this kind of cold.  Evergreens which have broken dormancy, and are actively growing, are vulnerable.  New growth is soft-as in very tender. A very hard freeze in April-devastating. That extremely cold night proved fatal to every new shoot on this boxwood.   

frost damage

Deciduous material suffered as well.  The leaves on these hops-too pale green, and burned brown.  This plant has cold burn.  I am seeing this damage everywhere-on maples that have leafed out.  Japanese maples planted in open areas have been partivcularly hard hit.  One grower I know feels he has lost a lot of trees.  Terrible, this.

The flowers on our espaliers dropped.  Those espaliers that had already shed flower petals will bear no fruit. Though these fruit trees have leafed out, any chance of fruit was frosted off.   I hear from friends in the gardening business of hostas 8 inches out of the ground, turned to mush.  This old rosemary, just a week out of storage, was hit hard.  The damage is everywhere-so discouraging.   The fruit tree growers in our state-devastating, the losses.    

Finally, the rain we needed so badly in April is falling in early May.  I do think the very dry conditions contributed to the frost damage.  A healthy and juicy plant is better able to fend off trouble than a stressed one.  Water stress-try working in the garden all day without a drink of water when it is hot as blazes.  Big stress.  I welcome the rain.  Rain drops on large foliaged plants is so beautiful.  These Chicago figs are loving the bath. 

Creme Brulee coral bells

Many perennials hold those rain drops.  This Creme Brulee heuchera is looking good. Though its leaves are struggling with the cold, the rain looks like good medicine. 

Water is life giving.  Miraculous, that.  No matter that I had to change my sopping wet socks twice today-I am grateful for the rain.  The difficulty I am having dealing with plants damaged by frost-soothed by the big rains. I am happy about the rain.   

This red lettuce is growing like crazy.  It is somewhat cold tolerant-the brutal frost passed it by.  The fresh leaves soaked with rain-do they not look delicious?  That gardening is not for the faint of heart is abundantly clear this spring.  The tulips bent over to ground encased in ice-this was painful to see.  The rain soaking my dry garden and landscape-a little respite from bad news.  Always, there are those good things, and those bad moments.

As delicate as a pansy bloom appears, pansy plants are very sturdy and cold tolerant. They duck down in inclement weather; they survive.  They are the mainstay of spring-along with the spring flowering trees, the early planted vegetables, and the wildflowers.  Not one pansy or viola sustained any frost damage at the shop.  They are the perfect plant for a season marked by tumult.   What to do about plants damaged by frost-wait.  Be patient. Make no moves before their time.  Many plants will releaf-many plants will handle the killing frost in their own way.  Don’t intervene until you really need to.  Survival is a primal instinct.  Like you, plants have the instinct to survive and prosper.   Give them space. 

 These yews had all of their new spring growth frosted off.  But I am seeing new shoots-they are re-leafing.  The spring rain helps fuel that.  Nature has a way of bringing any gardener up short.  But the will to live is a very strong one.  Should you garden, that natural force is more your friend than your foe.  Enjoy the rain.

The Details

As I have written before, my job for a client is best described as a conceptual plan.  A schematic plan.  A few broad strokes, an idea.  All of the details, which make a landscape project, are all about a relationship.  The strength of a designer/client relationship makes all the difference in the world.  My client was discerning, committed, articulate-a joy to work with.  These rustic concrete planters with iron rings-she thought they were prefect for the front door.   

garden pergola

She wrote me once that she dreamed regularly about what this garden would look like.  That’s when I started sending her the landscape/garden installation news, regularly.  She was decisive-but she was open to suggestions.  She took a lot of time with me.  I took an equal amount of time with her.  All of the details of this project have everything to do with her taste.   

stone walls

She made me want to be the best I could possibly be.  My landscape design practice has been graced with clients like this.  She asked me to design this landscape as if it were mine.  I had never been asked that before, but I did just that.  But I have Harriet to thank for all of the details that emerged along the way.  This is her house and garden-not mine. 

white barked birch
She made time to work through the details.  These Himalayan white barked birch-especially for her.  Birches are a favorite tree. The details of my plan are all about what she likes. 

espalier trees

stone planter box with espaliered katsuras.  Frank Lloyd Wright reproduction stone urns.

steel pots

Steel fence and tapered steel Hudson pot

gate cane bolt detail

garden gates

side gate

steel fencing

steel fence with shelf

outdoor shower

outdoor shower

exterior spiral staircase

circular staircase from the first floor terrace to the second floor balcony

bluestone paving

stone terrace in bluestone squares and dots set on the 45

hot tubs

 Spa featuring blue grey glass tiles, and copper waterfall

hot tubs

spa detail

 deck/dock cantilevered over the water

 The house is beautiful.  The landscape-my best effort.  I could not be more pleased about the relationship, the process, the finish.  She influenced and brought to bear every personal detail.   All my thanks,  Harriet.  I could not have begun to do this project without her.  Our relationship is on a certain kind of common ground.  That ground will be an organizing metaphor for the future of this landscape.  I expect to hear about this landscape again from her-soon.