Spring Planting

crabapple espalier

I enjoy doing spring plantings for my clients.  It gives me a chance to get into the garden early, and assess how everything fared over the winter.  This winter was a breeze, but for a cruelly early break in the weather in March.  It remains to be seen how Michigan’s fruit and berry crops will be affected.   It was disconcerting to see that this pair of crabapple espaliers had long since bloomed out, and set leaf in mid-April, but I am happy about how they look.     

gingko tree

This garden is graced by a gingko of great size.  The entire layout and landscape of the house was organized around this tree.  The groundcover is finally starting to fill in.  It will not be so much longer before the boxwood completely obscures the wall.  A grand old plant such as this one needs little more than a big open space around it.   

fall planting

It is possible to arrange for a great spring planting months ahead of time.  Clusters of yellow tulips were planted in the fall; the pansies were planted over top.  Fall planting of pansies may seem like an exercise in futility, given that winter is not far off, but newer strains of pansies are proving quite hardy.  The clear sky series of pansies-especially tough.  The pansies came up lush and thick this spring, and were in full flower on April 10.  This garden had quite the jump on spring. 

planting pansies

Planting pansies and violas in ground in the spring is not nearly as prevalent as what it once was-I am sorry for this.  The spring season lasts just as long as any of the others.  Tulips don’t present much in the way of foliage at ground level, so they are a perfect candidate for a little company.  I also find that working with color in the spring is very tough-if I don’t have the names and faces right in front of me.  This mix that features a rose pansy will look great with the red/pink/rose and white pansy mix.  This is the ideal time to blob them in-I don’t plant everywhere.  I plant where I can see dirt. 



This picture was taken from the perspective of a 9 year old-any adult walking by will see the dirt spaces on the edge thickly planted with pansies.  That color at ground level adds a whole other dimension to the idea of spring garden.

Of course we plant the attending pot for spring.  This landscape is very simple.  Its beauty is all about the weather, and the seasons.  This small planting of flowers says all that needs to be said about spring.   


Bulbeck lead egg cup

I hate to see any pot sit empty-waiting.  In another month, this planting will overflow this big pot.  The sweet peas planted in the center will completely cover the tree of heaven branches in the center.  Stick support?  The English call a flexible stick that props up this or that in the garden a withy, or withe.  Withies-a natural and much less obtrusive version of a galvanized metal peony ring.  Slated to trail over the edge, a lime yellow sedum called Ogon.  The purple kale planted at the base of the sticks will grow considerably in size, before it bolts from the heat. 

tulip mix

 The curving shape of the tulips leads the eye right to this lead pot-imagine the disappointment, were it to be empty.  A pansy mix similar to what rings the pot borders the tulips. The front door seems so much more welcoming.

lead egg cups


Once the pots are planted up, and the pansy border added, these tulips make a much stronger statement.  They have a community of like minded spring friendly plants.  I do have another client whose wild flower garden goes right up to her front door.  At this time of year, it it is breathtakingly understated.  That garden would not work for me at home, nor would it work here.  Every property and house with a gardener in charge makes for an entirely individual celebration of the spring.   

spring container planting

The side porch has a sentry pooch.  I have seen him with hats, bandanas, necklaces and sunglasses. Sometimes there is a pumpkin on his head.  You have it right-there are kids who live here.  But for spring, a bucketful of lavender and a few pansies provide just the right touch-welcome, spring.  

spring pansy mix

I saw these at a nursery yesterday.  Irresistable, this.



Sum and Substance hosta
New shoots emerging is one of spring’s most exciting moments.  A decision is made to break dormancy, and grow.  A new shoot can be a leaf, or a stem or a flower.  I imagine those elongated shapes makes quick work of pushing through the soil.  These Sum and Sunstance hostas are grown under a number of trees and shrubs in a shady spot in my garden.  Though I might have a tough time digging in this rooty soil, the hostas come out of the ground entirely unscathed.  The leaves are rolled up tight.  This spring stage, which is but a brief moment in the gardening season, is truly extraordinary.     

hosta gold edger

It is an extraordinarily vulnerable moment as well. New shoots are soft and succulent-beloved of deer, rabbits and woodchucks.  Lettuce leaves get tougher as they age.  Baby vegetables-a delicacy.  If you are a fan of eating dandelion greens chances are good you eat them at a very young age.  Dandelion leaves in summer are tough and bitter tasting. The shoots of this clump of dwarf hosta are unfurling into leaves.  As the leaves elongate and unfold, they will present themselves to the light by positioning themselves parallel to the ground.  This up out and arching back takes place all within a matter of a few weeks. 

early blooming clematis

The old saying that April showers bring May flowers has a solid basis in fact.  The energy it takes to grow and push forth out of the ground is considerable.  An ample suply of moisture is critical in the spring.  Our spring has been alarmingly dry.  I watered thoroughly in mid March and am still watering in April.  The clematis on my bench broke dormancy in March-I was sure it would be frosted back to the stems when our temperatures were in the mid twenties.   Not so.  The vines were untouched, and are now in the process of setting flowering shoots.  Both vines are loaded with buds.    

beech ferns

Thelypteris decursive-pinnata is a mouthful of a botanical name for Japanese beech ferns.  Most of the beech ferns are wild runners, and too unruly for home gardens, but this one is fairly well behaved, and lush growing.  The leaf shoots emerge from the crowns rolled up like a hose.  The unfurling of the long leaves is beautiful to watch.  Early spring ostrich fern curls are popular in flower arrangements.  This stage is just as beautiful as the full grown leaf. The European ginger leaves come up and open so fast it is an easy stage to miss altogether.    

shrub roses

The new shoots on my roses are rosy indeed.  The red edges of the leaves is a sure sign of a new leaf.  So many spring leaves have a decidedly yellow cast.  the centers of these new shoots are limey green.  Chartreuse-another word for spring. The lower leaves of these roses have already turned a darker and richer green.   

fruiting pear trees

The leaves of this pear tree emerge curled around the center midrib.  Given some rain and a little warm weather, they will unfurl and lay flat. 


Asparagus is a plant greatly prized for its shoots.  The emerging shoots are snapped off and eaten before they ever progress to the leaf stage.  It is not surprising that people do not recognize asparagus once it has become a plant with fern-like leaves.  The shoot harvesting season is relatively short.  Asparagus eventually needs to be left grow and make leaves.  This insures that the plant can photosynthesize, grow, store nutrients-and survive until the next harvest season.   

gold leaved hops

Hops is a vine that sends out underground shoots called runners in every which way-all summer long.  They require a big space in a garden, far away from any civilized space,  but they can provide great color when confined to a pot or window box. This plant shoots out every which way both above and blow ground.


I have quite the collection of moss colonies growing in the gravel mulch in my shadiest areas.  I am by no means an expert on the life of mosses, but these little teardrop shoots are the fruiting bodies of the moss.  The pod at the top is full of spores.  When that pod opens, the spores disperse, in the hopes of making new plants.

The tulips at the shop had a rocky start-too much hot weather, followed by freezing weather.  But they handled the insults with aplomb.  This shoot-a tulip bud, barely showing color.  Tulip flower shoots take qiute a while to develop-probably 3 weeks from the time the leaf shoots emerge, to flowers


tulip mix

One of the best reasons to plant a mix of tulips is a longer period of time in which to enjoy the shoots.  Though the double Darwin tulip Akebono is in full bloom, the cream tulips are behind.  The yellow tulips are even further behind.  If you love shoots, the tulips put on a very good show.

From Winter Into Spring

spring container planting

This past winter, and what we have seen of spring so far has been a roller coaster. Not so cold, very hot, freezing cold again-up and down.  The 2012 season so far-dicey for planting outdoors.  The below 30 degree weather-just too cold.   But at last we are planting spring containers-how I love to have my hands in the dirt again.  This oval painted tin tub planted with scabiosa, pansies and violas is fresh, and represents the new season in a cheery way.      

whitewashed eucalyptus

But not everything in the spring garden needs to be new. I have clients that plant their containers all of the four seasons.  Before you decide that such a schedule is too much work, consdier repurposing elements from one season to the next.  These cream bleached twigs and whitewashed eucalyptus winter arrangements went from the front door boxes to the back yard boxes-given spring. The blooming of the Bradford pears makes all that winter white look unexpectedly fresh.   

The winter evergreens around these centerpieces were removed.  The yellow twig dogwood, bahia stems, and lavender eucalyptus-still beautiful even after 6 months of winter.  The centerpieces transition gracefully into spring.  All that is new in these pots are some pansies and violas. Granted our winter this year was a no show, and that may account somewhat for their longevity.  Some gardeners have objections to anything in a container that is not a live plant, but I am more interested in persuading people to try gardening, and helping them succeed-so they keep gardening.    spring containers

Preserved natural materials are incredibly durable.  They can be taken apart, and reconfigured.   I have had centerpieces like this last several seasons.  A change of venue, or a new element is often enough to make what was an old idea look new.  I thought about removing the bahia stems, but in this case I like the brown.  The color seems fine, and provides another layer of interest.  Pansies and violas have trouble carrying a container arrangement in a striking way.  They need some element that is large enough to provide them some visual context.   

planted crate

A wood crate planted with chard, lettuce, and orange pansies-what gardener wouldn’t fall for this? Beautiful plantings come just as easily to a repurposed container as a fancy urn.  If there is a plan to use a wood crate on a regular basis, painting the inside with a glossy exterior grade paint will improve its longevity. Galvanized pails, tin cans with great labels and potato chip tins-they can make for charming container plantings.       

Dry or bleached twigs know no particular season.  Paired with pansies and variegated ivy, they look spring like.  A stick stack such as this could stay in a container all year round-the look changes considerably given the nature of the supporting cast.  Tired of the color?  Repaint them, or stain them.

fresh cut twigs

Cold tolerant early season plants include the pansies and violas, lettuce, angelina, rosemary, sweet peas, osteospermum, dwarf grasses, annual phlox, herbs such as thyme and mint, ornamental cabbages and kales, petunias and million bells-the choices are many.  But most of them have a very small scale.  These fresh cut hornbeam twigs add a little interest from the start, and will make this doorway look even more inviting as the pansies grow in.   

annuals for spring

We preserved and repurposed the winter centerpieces for these pots outside a restaurant.  Lime sedum and coral bells-we planted lots of them.  Perennials are great in spring containers.  Columbines, Jacob’s ladder, dianthus, and hosta are among my favorites.  Spring flowering vines look great even when they have finished flowering.  Who doesn’t have a spot for a 1st year clematis in the garden, after a spring container planting fades? 

cold tolerant annuals

The Creme Brulee coral bells add some heat in the way of orange, and some contrast to the cool colored violas.  The lavender colored eucalyptus was startling in these pots over the winter, and perfectly appropriate to the spring planting. In commercial settings, I like to see strong color.  It does a great job of saying hello and welcome.

lemon cypress

The chartreuse Italian cypress, or lemon cypress, is not hardy in my zone, but they are fairly obliging and easy to winter over.  A shrub this size will be 4 feet tall or better in just a few years-in which case it will make a beautiful centerpiece in a big pot of spring flowers. 


Years Later

I have mixed feelings about going back.  One would like to think that a landscape would grow and go on once planted, but that is rarely the case.  I side with Henry Mitchell on this.  He says there are no beautiful old landscapes.  Beautiful landscapes are a result of the intensive care of the present.  Landscapes that fare well are well looked after.  Even so, 20 years is a long time.  Though I planted this landscape 20 years ago, I was not so worried.  The client is a gardening person with a sincere appreciation for nature.  I am sure he got this from his Mom-who is a quite the gardener.  They had to replace a second story deck that had rotted.  The landscape in that area would need to be redone. 

acer campestre

I did have the chance to see how the landscape had weathered the years.  This triple trunked acer campestre was barely 8 feet tall when I planted it.  The placement in the lawn made it look lonely years ago.  Small but so good looking, it was a tree worth waiting for.  It is a chunk of a tree that has grown on to considerable size.  Even the bare branches are an effective screen from the neighboring property.  I would bet it is lovely in full leaf.      

hydrangea petiolaris

A second garage needed some softening.  The bed in front was very narrow-what would thrive there?  A pair of 2 gallon hydrangea petiolaris did not make much difference when they were planted, but now that garage has a cottagy look that is appealing.       London Plane tree

A 10 foot tall London Plane tree planted 20 years ago has grown considerably.  The euonymus hedge behind is probably 15 feet tall. But for one thin spot directly behind the London Plane, everything seems happy.     

  evergreens in the landscape

The view to the lake from the side yard is framed in a variety of evergreens.  I like the informal tunnel look.  Best of all, all of the plants seem healthy. They’ve been looked after.

redbud trees

A pair of redbuds on the lakeside did what redbuds do in open settings.  The have that typically windswept look that comes with age, dieback and weather damage.  The center of the left hand tree sustained some damage, but the side branches on the edges seem to be growing fine.     

wood decks

With the new deck in place, the attending landscape will need to be redone.  In some ways, this can be a blessing.  A construction project sweeps away the bad as well as the good.  Though I cannot remember what I did with my reading glasses 5 minutes ago, I do remember what the landscape looked like here.  I have a chance to make it better.     

bluestone terrace
Certain features I still like.  This bluestone terrace was designed in 3 sections-with a space for plants.  It helps to visually break up a large terrace space.  What was planted here, I cannot remember.  There is no doubt that my plant vocabulary is better now than it was 20 years ago.  Even if what was here was good, there is a chance to do it better.

magnolia JaneIt is difficult to tell from this picture, but the stone wall here is 8 feet tall. It is a retaining wall for a private upper level terrace. The entire property is steeply and irregularly sloped from the street to the lake.  The wall was all but obscured by a hedge of 6′ tall Magnolia Jane.  Who knew Jane would grow this tall?  This spot is in need of a new idea at ground level.       

columnar gingko

The house is very tall out of the ground, and of course the views of the water are paramount.  A columnar gingko does not obstruct any views, and is now as tall as the roof of the house.  Gingkos are taprooted, so they can be a good choice for planting in close quarters.  They are also very tolerant of urban pollution, making them a good city tree.   

bluestone terrace

The upper level terrace is completely private now.  I am sure there are plenty of glimpses of the water from here. 

Picae Cuppresina

A picea abies cupressina, a columnar spruce, has adapted well, considering how close it is planted to the house.  A large open area would have been an ideal place to plant, but ideal places do not always exist.  Difficult places always seem to abound-funny this.

The lakeside stone terraces were planted intermittently with the white rugosa rose, Blanc Double de Coubert.  Not all of them have declined to this extent, but they all should be replanted.  A lot of plants have been lost.  Bare soil is an invitation to the weeds.    

landscape renovation

Some plants thrive, others never take hold.  Lifespan, damaging weather, neglect, illness, an errant basketball-there are always lots of chances for things to go awry.  But sometimes what goes awry can inspire a better design, or a more useful one.  Some places in my garden decline because they don’t interest me anymore.  If a spot doesn’t interest me enough to take care of it, then perhaps a little change is in order.

Given enough freeze and thaw cycles, even this huge slab of stone will break down. Just like the wood in the deck finally rotted beyond repair.  What happens next might well be very exciting.