Monday Opinion: Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day falls in early May, just as the garden and their gardeners are waking up and working hard bringing on the new season.  Like tens upon thousands of countless other kids, I was brought up, nurtured, and loved by a very special Mom.  By this I mean a parent whose unconditional love helped me to be.  A Mom who read to me, taught me, showed me how to plant my first seeds and helped me weather no end of  storms. A Mom who forgave me my shortcomings.  A Mom who encouraged me to be independent.  She made sure that I not only drank my milk, but that I knew where it came from.  May 1 was the 10th anniversary of her death-I still miss her.

Though I wrote about this is a past Mother’s Day post, I am writing about it again.  In 2004, a client, whose wife and mother of his children was suffering from an incurable illness, called.  Could I possibly make a visit on Mother’s Day?  He wanted me to talk to her about what changes and what annuals would go in the garden that year.  He asked if I could plant their project first, as he felt the time she had left was running short.   I drove those many miles out to Oakland Township to meet with them.  They made the rounds of the gardens with me.  Her concern for her husband, her four children, and her garden was evident.  I could see that no matter her illness, she wanted to discuss the future of the garden.  Though that walk was difficult for her, the responsibility she felt towards those she had always nurtured seemed as robust as ever.  Funny how one’s own troubles have a habit of fading away, when there is another in need of help.  She was a Mom I hold in great regard, and I will never forget that particular Mother’s Day.    

I write about this again, as this Mother’s Day, he came by.  He was on his way to a Mother’s Day brunch with his wife’s mother. He tells me that though it is hard to be both and Mom and a Dad, all of his kids are doing well.  He wanted to be sure his garden was on my list of places to plant for the summer.  Did the garden need anything?  That I still look after their garden was a Mother’s Day moment for me.  I can’t help but think it was no accident that he came by yesterday.

There are other women who have provided me with great inspiration and encouragement.  Mien Ruys and Xa Tollemache.   Kathryn Gustafson, Beatrix Farrand, Andrea Cochran, Ursula Buchan, Marella Agnelli, and Claude LaLanne.  A real list would be miles longer than this, and would certainly include Eleanor Roosevelt.  A thorough list would include some nurturers of the male variety- Dick Beier, Fletcher Steele, Geoffrey Bellicoe, Jacques Wirtz and Fernando Caruncho.  The most comprehensive list has lots and lots of names.  I like the Mother’s Day holiday.  It is a chance to honor those who have been nurturing, and a reminder to nurture anyone and anything that means something to me.            


At A Glance: Early Purple

purple pansies

Cathedral Sky Blue salvia

lavender bicolor violas and lettuce

lavender lisianthus

lime leaved coral bells and lavender streptocarpus

wisteria Blue Moon

 Opal Moon escheveria, angelina, and sweet alyssum

lavender clematis

purple pansy mix

spring planting

carmine pansies and alyssum

purple violas and angelina

purple columbine

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.