Had I But Four Square Feet…

Alice Harding, whose book “The Peony” is a classic on the subject of growing peonies once remarked, “Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the centre, and proceed to worship.”  My sentiments exactly.  But there are other plants that might make muster in my four square feet.  Most certainly nicotiana would be high on my list.  My three foot square Tuscan box is full of them at this moment, and they are looking good.   Henry Mitchell describes peonies as “that rare combination of fluff and majesty”-nicotiana could not be further from that description.  

The flowers are utterly simple.  A long slender tube fans out at the end into 5 distinctly scalloped lobes.  They look back at me with that guiless and frank signature look.  The nod in the breeze.  Can you tell I really like them?  There are lots of species, hybrids and cultivars; I like them all.  Nicotiana sylvestris grows better than 6 feet tall, always needs staking, and attracts every aphid in the neighborhood-so I rarely grow that. The diminuitive nicotiana langsdorfii is a charmer.  

Perfume purple and Perfume white are lovely.  They seem to maintain that same graceful spacing along the flowering stems as the species nocotiana alata.  Shorter nicotiana, such as the Avalon series, have densely bunched flower heads that lack grace to my eye.   

By far and away, my favorites are nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis.  I like them even better, grown in a mix.  Nicotiana mutabilis grows tall, and also needs staking, but it is worth the trouble.  Hundred of white, pink, and rose pink flowers grow on the same plant.  It is never better for me than it is in September; it will put on incredible growth in the fall.  The tiny flowers are always fluttering over something. 

They are not fond of really hot weather, so I have no idea what will become of this planting. Those that talk weather are saying it will be really hot here for another month.  You wouldn’t think this giant pot would dry out very often, but it is a rare hot day that I do not have to soak the corners.  Do I water parts of container plantings-absolutely.  I did soak it thoroughly this morning, knowing there was a possibility our temperature would hit 100 degrees today.  So I had time to take a long look.    


What else am I growing here?  Pink mandevillea, white angelonia, Persian Queen geranium, white mini petunias, and white variegated trailing plectranthus. I have an event going on here-a nicotiana fest.

Orangerie Boxes

Should I be in the mood for some lemons, limes or oranges, there’s a grocery store nearby that has them available year round.  Not so, in 15th century France.  Once citrus made an appearance in France, the only way to make them regularly and reasonably available was to grow the trees.  Between 1684 and 1686, an orangery was built at the palace at Versailles.  An orangery is a building which houses citrus trees during the winter months.  There are over 1000 citrus trees grown in wood boxes at Versailles; many of them are orange trees-thus the origin of the word “orangerie”.  The box pictured above is of Belgian manufacture, the last of a series we had at the shop.  This client needed 7, so they would need to be made up.  

I call any large box big enough to hold a tree an orangerie box.  I was indeed delighted to get a request for 7 custom made orangerie boxes that will actually be used to grow lemon trees.  Buck was happy to oblige.  He built them out of white oak, a common material for garden benches and ornament.  The finished boxes would be painted white. 

They would be lined with sheet metal liners; this keeps the water in the soil away from constant contact with the interior wood surface.  Oak is an incredible durable wood in the landscape.  Oak log rounds buried in the ground for use as stepping stones will last many years.  The liners will add even more years to the life of the boxes. 

Buck designed and made a jig that would hold the bevelled boards for a pair of panels.  Thin strips of wood used as spacers kept the vertical boards exactly the correct distance apart.  This space between the boards allows the box to breath, and the wood dry out readily.   


Buck tells me that the spaces between the boards are not equal.  They range from 1/16th of an inch to 3/16th of an inch.  I am taking his word for this, as I cannot spot this by eye.  Why would he do this?  It enabled him to build the box to an exact outside dimension, while keeping all of the vertical pieces of wood the same width.  His manner of construction is incredibly precise.    

Once the individual panels were finished, he was ready to assemble the boxes.  At 30″ by 30″ by 31″ tall, these boxes are very heavy. 


The finished boxes have steel bands bolted to each panel; this will keep the oak from warping.  I rather like them just how they look here, but my client has another idea. 

I am hoping I get a picture of what they look like with lemon trees in them.  I imagine they will provide very good homes for those trees.   

And not just good homes-these will provide very handsome homes.

A Little Sass With All This Sizzle

Usually I am a landscape and garden designer; this week I have been a prop delivering a steady stream of water at the shop, for clients, and at home.  Proper watering in extremely high heat can be tricky.  Annabelle hydrangeas, for example, wilt down at the the slightest provocation on a hot day.  This makes sense.  Their leaves are big, and very thin.  This means water is evaporating from the leaves at a high rate-thus the wilt.  This does not necessarily mean the Annabelles need water.  Avoid hosing down plants, thinking you will cool them off.  Fungus, and mildew can run wild in hot humid conditions.  Unnecessary water can aid and abet diesease. Check the soil that your Annabelles are growing in-water if that soil is dry. Ironically, I have seen more plants suffering from too much water in this heat, than too little. The New Guinea impatiens pictured above-water like crazy.  If they lack for water when the buds are small, those buds can drop, sending an entire plant out of bloom until new ones form.  I had this happen at home-Fiona Brinks from Bordines set me straight about it.     

Many annual plants have tropical origins.  They thrive in the heat.  Annual vinca will barely perform in Michigan-it needs heat Florida style to really perform well.  Though I am dropping over from the heat, many of the annual plants are thriving, provided they are properly watered.  This pot of coleus and lime irisine benefits from some shade at the hottest part of the day, and the petunias tolerate this condition. All of these plants are shrugging off the heat. 

 These pots look pretty sassy, in spite of the 96 degree weather we have today.  The New Zealand flax is quite tolerant of heat, sun, and shade.  The dracaena Janet Craig will burn in the sun, but it is very tolerant of heat.  The Solenia begonias have no problem in sun, provided the watering is dead on.  Too much water, and those succulent stems will rot.  Too little, and they will flop over.  Siting plants in conditions they like means your heat management will go better.

Thick foliaged and waxy leaved plants transpire less than thin leaved plants.  When a farfugium wilts, no doubt it is asking for water.  A phormium never gives any visual cue about whether it likes how you are caring for it.  The tuft of leaves that comes off with a slight tug from rot at the base usually looks perfectly healthy up top. Not every sign of trouble can you spot with your eyes.  You may need your hands, or your sense of smell, or your instincts.  Great gardening demands every skill you have, and then some.  

Observe your plants-get to know them.  Weeks after the planting, I am astonished by the size of this Persian Queen geranium standard.  It must be very happy-it has quadrupled in size. I spent a lot of time looking at this plant, and assessing its location.  Plants tell a story-take time to read that story.      

These tomato pots are thriving.  I did not see a single yellow leaf or blotch.  This client has what it takes to properly look after plants.  She’s met every challenge coming from from a season of one kind of unreasonable weather followed by another.  I am quite certain she gardens by eye, and by instinct. 

Annual plants in containers set on hard surfaces in the sun-choose your plants accordingly. These plants appear to be happy.  A summer annual garden can be such a pleasure-should you choose carefully, and water accordingly. 


This scotch pine on standard has an underplanting of creeping jenny.  The creeping J is entirely tolerant of of the shade, and the water necessary to keep these New Guinea impatiens thriving in the sun.  My advice?  Observe carefully.  Plan accordingly.  Should you be gardening in a state or region experiencing this recent record breaking heat-take notes.

The Garden Cruise

I will admit to being a little tired today-the garden tour is an all day affair.  It happened to be conducted in 93 degree heat-but I am happy to say we had a great turnout.  The gardens to the last looked fresh and well tended.  The annual plants are thriving on our heat.  I did go through 3 cases of water at my garden-most people come to my place in the afternoon.  But I had a little treat waiting for the hot and the tired who came after 2.

 My fountain is my most favorite feature in my landscape.  It is a pleasure to watch, and to hear.  But it turned out to be quite the cooler for my overheated guests.  I invited everyone to take off their shoes, and get in.  Almost everyone took me up on the invitation.   

Six of the seven gardens on tour featured water in some form or another.  A pair of beautiful swimming pools-one from the late 1920′s, and one from the 1970′s-each made a strong visual statement.   I myself would not want one.I have a scaled down, hybrid version of a swimming pool.  My fountain is filtered and cleaned with same equipment that cleans a pool or spa.  This means my fountain does double duty-when I have a need, I get in it, and cool off.  This fountain could be home to a hot gardener, but yesterday it was home to a school of goldfish and some water cabbage.    

Not everyone has space for a vegetable garden that consumes acreage.  This small garden has a trio of tomatoes, underplanted with various herbs.  What is better in late summer than homegrown tomatoes?  This very small garden made a big nod to the idea of good food from the garden.

This very contemporary home I landscapes probably 16 years ago.  The columnar beech are maintained at a level beyond my wildest dreams.  It is an intellectually ad toughly minimal landscape.  I was happy to hear the level of discussion that I did.

When someone calls me to design a Japanese garden for them, I direct them elsewhere.  I am a westerner by heritage, culture and experience.  Under no circumstances could I design a Japanese garden-I am woefully inadequate.  In this case, I did reluctantly design and plant a contemplative garden in that Eastern style.  There was much talk on the tour about this small space-unexpected, it was.  No kidding-it is the only landscape space I have ever done like this.

One of the Dearborn landscapes is freshly done-it has been in ground but 11 months.  The son of one of my oldest and most treasured clients got the bug for gardening from his Mom.  Many thanks, CB.  This house new to he and his family has been completely renovated.  A pergola with a solid roof is slated to go over his western facing rear terrace any day now.  This formal landscape with a decidedly modern twist-fresh and striking.

Perennial gardens,planted largely with white, purple and lavender hardy plants, got some help this first season from some verbena bonariensis. 

A Normandy style tudor on acres of land belongs to oted interior designer Linda Powers.  I had nothing to do with this old and established landscape.  I came late to the landcape conversation; I consult with her about her container plantings, and plant them.  Her garden was the subject of much conversation.  Her old Stewartia in full bloom-on every Iphone in the group.


It was a very hot day, yes.  But all manner of keen gardeners came out, and toured.  The reception afterwards-I had such a good time. At 5pm, Buck promised he would water the pots, so I could go that afterglow party.    I live a charmed life.