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.

March Opinion: Gunning It

We had so many gardening friends stop by over the past 4 days in celebration of our 2012 opening.  I will admit I was beyond delighted.  Lots of our regulars responded to our spring call.  Thanks to Susan Pollack at the Detroit News, who wrote and published about our opening on Friday, we had lots of new people.  What fun-to have the opportunity to introduce ourselves to people who have never been here.  Many thanks, Susan.  Any discussion about the garden revolves around individual people, with individual ideas about what constitutes a great garden.  This means every person, both returning and new, means much.

Recreating the shop from the previous season to the new one is an enormous job.  We empty just about all of what is still standing in 10,000 square feet of space.  We clean as if we have but 10 minutes to live.  We repaint, rebuild, fix, change, alter, move around-you get the idea.  Rob’s shopping becomes a reality-this means containers and trucks to unload.  Every single garden ornament gets cleaned, moved, integrated-reimagined.  There is not one thing that has not had hands put to it.

This is work I look forward to.  I am first and foremost a landscape designer.  By the time that late November comes, I am usually finished working outside.  This year, I ran 2 crews until December 17th-the weather was unseasonably mild.  Once we clean and oil the tools, do maintenance on the equipment and trucks, that part of my work comes to a close.  The shop space is a landscape of a different sort. Certain things about this landscape project are vastly easier.  The entire place is enclosed by 4 walls and a roof.  This means I do not have to worry about rainfall, snow, winds, or any other difficult weather.  We have heat.  This interior landscape is meant to create an experience that suggests the garden. The suggestion that this pot or that trellis might not only be possible, but good.  As much as our customers know what they like, they can be persuaded by something they see.  Not something that I think, but something they see that comes from what I think.  We fuss each space down to the last square inch, knowing it will be intact but for a moment.  The overall shop landscape has to accomodate the change that comes when things go home to another garden.  

The experience of our opening was as different for us, as it was for our clients.  Though we customarily open March first, we usually have to push the snow aside, opening the gate.  Our usual opening-very quiet, and without much fanfare.  This winter was the winter that wasn’t.  We decided to do opening day differently.  We threw a party.

  This past weekend, I was so pleased to come face to face with people who love to garden just as much as I do.  The decision to do a more formal opening was dictated by the weather.  This winter’s weather was on a lot more gardening minds than mine.  Plenty of conversation had much to do with this atypical winter.  What was my take on the winter that was never a winter?  What did I think about a winter with no snow?  Are there plants that have broken dormancy, that will see damage if we have a substantial cold spell in March?  Have you ever experienced a winter like this? (no, by the way)  How do you see the spring shaping up?  Will we even have a spring?  Could we have snow in June?

I have lots of friends in the nursery and landscape industry.  They have the same questions.  How shall they schedule their crops?  Will this 40 degree weather persist into late May, or will we have reliable 80 degree days in mid-May?  No one knows the answers.  I would be lying if I said I would not appreciate some answers.  But nature calls the shots, and I have no address or phone number that would permit me to contact that natural phenomenon in charge. 

This means I have no answers. This was my first winter ever like this.  But it did seem to me that some part of our spring may be early.  And that anyone who loves to get outside and garden has had spring in their nose and on their mind for weeks.  Nature, as Rob has so aptly observed, announces spring at least 5 times before she really means it.  What does that mean for us?  We committed.  We had a party to celebrate spring.  March 1.  Judging from the numbers of people who came to say hello and shop, we were not alone in looking for a firm start date.

Rob’s partner Meg observed it appeared we were gunning it.  Gunning it out of the gate, in spite of every uncertainty.  This made me feel incredibly good; many thanks Meg.  I might have reservations and worries, but I am confident that what we have to offer falls under the one of a kind experience. Many thanks to each and every one of you who came and shopped.  No landscape design and installation means more than the relationship between client and designer who forged it.  No spring at the shop means more than the relationships, both old and new, that we have with the people who frequent our place.  We threw a spring party to which lots of you came.  To my mind,  this means spring has arrived.        

 

The 2012 Espaliers

 

 

espalier apple trees

What would spring be without some fabulous plants on order?  The garden shop is a garden shop-not a full service nursery.  We have neither the space nor the inclination for that.  But I do like to carry specialty landscape plants, plants of distinction, and great plants for containers.  My love for espaliers dates back to the mid 80’s.  If you shopped with or had a landscape designed and planted by Al Goldner, chances are an espalier was part of that relationship.  He grew these specially trained and pruned fruit trees on his farm in Howell-it was next to impossible to find them available for sale, save for Henry Leuthart’s place.  Billy drove these to us himself-typical.  The care he gives his trees is a full time and then some job.

 

espaliered pears

I buy them every year from a number of places, but this grower is my favorite.  He was formally trained in the propagation of fruit trees trained to grow in but two dimensions, as it has been done in France for centuries.  He sells no trees before their time.  The trunk sizes are substantial, and the primary arms are set and properly grown into their intended shape.  You can see in this picture that each tree is planted at the side of the pot-not in the middle.  This makes easy work of planting the tree close to a supporting wall.  This classical shape is know as a goblet-that should be clear.  This tree is older and perfectly grown.  The planting and bolting to a wall will be easy.

goblet form espalier

This old goblet espalier at one time had a supporting framework to hold its arms in place, but now is old enough and sturdy enough to stand alone.  Planted at the UBC Botanic garden, this tree is a living fence of beautiful design and form.  The history of espaliers is firmly rooted in a French agricultural tradition.  Fruit trees trained in two dimensions took up very little room in the garden; severely pruned trees produced huge yields of fruit.  Though most of my fruit comes from the grocery store, I find these pruned trees enchantingly beautiful.

Belgian fence

We unloaded 10 espaliers, all part of a free standing fence which will run 60 feet.  At a young age, a single stem crabapple whip was summarily topped.  A pair of shoots emerging at just the right angle on either side of that wound would be trained to grow out, producing the bottom half of a very large vertical diamond shape.  This method of growing and pruning multiple trees to create a whole is known as a Belgian fence.

Belgian fence

Each tree will be planted exactly 6 feet from its neighbor.  You can get the idea of those large vertical diamonds that will be created by this arrangement of trees in this picture.  I have seen Belgian fence done on a smaller scale.  The smaller the scale, the more difficult it is to keep the diamond shapes clean and crisp.  This fence will bloom with white flowers in May, and produce gold fruit in the fall.  The form will be so striking in winter.  Pruning is somewhat a matter of personal preference.  Some gardeners would like their primary branches small and delicate-they prune shoots off the main trunk hard.  Another gardener might permit small branches off the main trunks to grow such that the diamond shapes are thick and substantial.  Is this discussion not so clear? 

 Belgian fence espalier style

 

This picture makes the idea easier to see. This Belgian fence has smaller diamond shapes.  This look is created by planting the individual trees closer together.  I cannot really explain why the idea of having 10 trees that when planted together will form a wall with a continuous and geometric pattern appeals to me so much, but suffice it to say it took me all of 30 seconds to speak for these 10 trees.   

espaliered pear trees

Four  quadruple cordon espaliers were delivered-a pair of apples, and a pair of pears.  Cordon refers to the main arms of the espaliers being trained in the horizontal dimension.  The vertical distance between each arm is equidistant.  This form is common in the pruning of grapes, as well as fruit trees.  Branches growing in the horizontal dimension bear heavily.  This applies to grapes, apples, pears-and roses.  A long cane of a climbing rose attached in the horizontal dimension will bloom to beat the band. 

 

This drawing from Southern Living illustrates the cordon shape.  Of course few real trees have long arms that are as obligingly horizontal as this drawing would suggest-but this illustrates the ideal.  Branches and fruiting spurs off the main arms are kept closely clipped.  There is work to growing an espalier-but it is easy and satisfying work.  An espalier is a specialty landscape plant.  It is entirely friendly in even a small garden.  These trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.  They produce fruit.  The few hours spent pruning them feels good.

fan shape espalier

An espalier trained as a fan has arms that radiate in every direction from the central truck.  Those arms can be grown long on a big wall, or kept short in a confined space.  The bamboo stakes you see attached to this tree-travel stakes.  Every branch of every tree was firmly secured with bamboo stakes, to prevent any damage during shipping.  Though these trees are fairly old, they still rely on a physical support system to keep their shape intact.  Very long branches growing at wide angles are subject to damage, if they are not properly supported.

 

We have installed horizontal wires and bolts on some of the walls at the shop so we can display our espaliers.  The 3 bamboo stakes from the shipping phase have been left on, and will not be removed until the tree has been planted, and installed.  The process of giving an espalier a home involves bolts and ties into the supporting wall, or fence posts and wires for a free standing espalier. 

espalier forms

There is no classical precedent for this espalier shape.  It is entirely the invention of our grower.  A lively living sculpture such as this makes me want to grow espaliers from scratch.  Ours are old and established trees, but yes, they can be grown by any gardener from a single whip available from any number of fruit tree sources in the spring.  I was 35 when I saw my first espalier at Al Goldner’s farm-I still remember that day. It feels good,  carrying on, making these very special trees available years later.  This tree I call the wild at heart espalier. 

heart shaped espalier
My latest heart espalier is my 4th-I do not keep them for long.  This one, planted and successfully hardy in this large steel box for 4 years now, is happy, and grows vigorously.  This picture I took moments before its yearly haircut.  Wild at heart-yes!  A yearly haircut is not so much to ask in the way of care.  The pleasure?  Every day.  Every season.  Year after year.