Scheming

This is the time of year I start planting annual plants for clients.  I am hoping we are at the tail end of the third rainiest spring on record; I planted all week last week in the cold rain.  It is a good thing I really like to do this; it kept my mind off my wet feet.  I have other things to think about besides being wet-like a color scheme, for instance.  I just planted one small garden at the shop, in illustration of the idea of scheming.  Scheming can refer to some underhanded activity-I prefer to think of it as an orderly way of working, or a way of working where all the pieces fit together in a satisfying way.  The concept of a color scheme for a garden is easy to understand.  Putting plants together where all of the respective colors workwell together-not always so easy.  

Color schemes that feature contrast will be lively.  The wild card of course is that every flower comes with a plant that has leaf color. The heliotrope pictured above has intensely purple flowers.  The leaf color is a medium green.  Flower color may be your primary interest-but there is a green scheme that needs attention too.  The lime licorice in this pot is a green that contrasts well with both the flowers and the leaves of heliotrope.   

Both the lime and variegated licorice are invaluable in planning a color scheme.  This lime green will read yellow, when planted next to yellow flowers.  It will read very lime green when paired with red flowers.  Red geraniums and lime licorice is a color combination that reinvents the red geranium.

This lantana topiary has several shades of yellow in the flowers.  Both lemon yellow and deep yellow are represented.  Why did I choose variegated licorice in this pot?  That more blue green leaf relates better to the deep bluey-green of the lantana foliage.  The alyssum chosen here is called “citron”.  In a composition featuring yellow, it reads cream yellow.   All of the greens featured here are related.  All of the yellows relate.  

The third element in the lantana pot is a yellow potunia.  Potunias are a series of petunias developed  for a compact habit of growth, making them perfect for a container planting that does not necessarily ask for a trailing element. The lantana pot has a piecrust rim and band at the top-I would not want to completely cover that interesting detail.  The pot is not that large-I would not want it to be overwhelmed by the planting.  But the best part are the two tone yellow flowers-a perfect element for a yellow and green scheme so strongly suggested by the lantana standard.  

Persian Queen geraniums have brilliantly lime green leaves; I value this about them more than their hot pink flowers.  The lavender trailing verbena is a cool and striking foil for both the Geranium, and the scotch moss (sagina subulata aurea). Purple and lime green is a great place to start scheming. 

Variations on a color create visual interest.  Heliotrope can vary from deep dark purple, to lavender.  Sky Blue petunias are a very pale version of Royal Velvet petunias.  Yellow petunias with Sky Blue and  Royal Velvet petunias- a color scheme begins to tune up.  Add some white petunias for bright, and some lime licorice to the green scheme makes for a series of color relationships that create visual interest.

The scheme for this small anuual garden is as follows.  Lavender verbena bonariensis, lime and white nicotiana alata are my tall elements.  Mixes of three plants mix more evenly overall than mixes of 2 plants.  My mid level plant-bicolor angelonia-white and purple in the same flower.  Vanilla Butterfly marguerite is the pale cream yellow verson of the intense lemon yellow “Butterfly”.  Purple heliotrope and yellow potunias finish up that level.  On the border, white, sky blue/lavender and dark purple putunias mixed with lime licorice.  This color scheme-white/purple and lime, with a dash here and there of yellow.  If you think you see petunias and licorice planted from back to front between my tall flowers, you are right.  The big growing annuals take a long time to come on.  I like a bed of flowers that engages my eye from the start as well as the finish.  We’ll see if my scheming amounts to something good looking; I have my fingers crossed.  All is in the hands of the plants, and how they grow, now.

Muddy Day

May 25 is not my idea of a great time for a chilly rain day, never mind the cold rain for days that we have had. Oh I know, Memorial Day, which we celebrate four days from now, traditionally marks the earliest that I can plant tender plants in my zone.  Every year, I think there is bound to be some variation in that regularly scheduled programming that will let me get out earlier than usual.  Every year, I see that hope dashed. 

May is a perfect time to plant new perennials, divide old ones, and move plants.  There are of course exceptions.  Move and divide peonies and oriental poppies in the fall only.  But cool temperatures and regular rain help transplants and new plants get established.  But what we have now is soil soup.  A good client stepped off the driveway this morning into a new bed, thinking she would walk across the dirt. Almost knee high in mud, she had to be rescued. What is mud?  Soil suspended in water.  I am thinking a lot about soil today.  I have time. 

Great soil is a special dish gardeners nurture or prepare for their plants.  Natural topsoil , usually present in the top 8 inches of the earth, is teeming with bacteria, micro organisms, minerals, and organic matter.  There is so much bacterial activity in soil it is correctly understood to be living.  Soil berefit of organic material and humus is unfriendly to the nutrient uptake of the roots of plants.  By this, I mean unfriendly to life.   The iridescent, airless, non-draining and stinking blue clay that gets excavated from future basements-not so much living goes on there. This urban landscape project-that clay that sits on top, and does not drain is an issue.  The water from our relentless rain is like a lake sitting on top of the clay in this yard.

Great soil is easy to identify.  It smells earthy, truffle-like, humid; great compost laden soil smells great.  It holds moisture, but drains surely.  Loaded with air, it crumbles to the touch.  Should your soil seems to be a perfect material for clay pots, do something to leaven that clay.  If your sandy soil runs through your fingers, invest in a giant compost pile, or a collection of succulents.  You are a gardener-so you were born with the hope gene.  Nurture your soil. 

There are those to say that native soil cannot be changed to any appreciable degree, but I am certain my soil at home is vastly better than it was 16 years ago.  I mulch all of my beds with bark fines-ground hardwood bark mulch.  It disintegrates in a season or less, adding lots of organic material to my soil.  No wood chips, please.  Wood, or cellulose, requires the action of bacteria that feed on nitrogen to live in the decomposition phase.   Any plant mulched with wood chips will soon look nitrogen-starved.  Bark, or lignin, readily breaks down, and will nurture your soil.  The smaller the bark particulates, the faster decomposition will occur.  Via the bark fines, I load my soil every year with organic material.   


My plants seem to like this regime.  My boxwood flush 8 inches of growth every spring.  My European ginger is thriving.  My Princeton Gold maples leaf luxuriously. The yews under the maples-flushing new growth everywhere. My lawn is thick and green.  None of these plants get any fertilizer.  I just make sure that the soil in which they grow is loaded with organic matter and air.  My enriched soil living and breathing-see the result above.

A Plant Collection

 

Planting containers is a big job, especially when there are lots of them.  I plant almost 40 containers for this client every year; I plant 27 pots of my own at home every year. Every year I have to fight off the urge to plant more pots.  That said, I have a few ideas about how to keep the project manageable-both in design and execution.  Every bill I send is completely detailed as to plant varieties and numbers.  Feel free to try this at home.  Keep track of how many plants it takes to plant your containers.  Take pictures.  Keep notes about what you like-and do not like.  This helps keep the shopping part organized.  I know ther numbers of plants this job requires;  I plan ahead.  This is essential, as she lives 45 minutes away from the shop.      

Round containers-think of them as needing layers of plants-planted in rings.  A centerpiece plant is ringed by a mid layer ring, and an edge ring.  Bigger pots need more rings-smaller ones need fewer. This long rectangular planter needs 2 long rows of plants.  When I lay out the planter, I start in the center, and work to each side, so the planting is symmetrical. This planter, just like a window box, only has so many spaces for plants.  I pick my palette, and then figure out how many repeats I will need.  The repetition of plants establishes a visual rhythm.  In contemporary plantings,  I may plant just one plant all over, and hope that plant has a favorable season.    

Once I have some numbers in mind, I think about what plants make good neighbors-both side to side, and front to back.  My diamond frost euphorbia asks for something with a denser texture and bigger flower-does it not?  Verbena is a great companion plant.  Cirrus dusty miller has big, matte, felted leaves.  A good companion? The tiny and angular leaved shiny succulent pictured above provides good contrast in form and texture, while repeating that grey-blue color.  A good companion to lavender, whose flowers and foliage are so wispy, is alyssum, which flowers low, and profusely.It is hard to see what is going on in this annual bed far from the terrace-but for the blobs of white.  That white is from the leaves of caladiums-they read well from a distance.  Later in the season, short white and tall lime green nicotiana will bloom.  The ground cover under all-white polka dot plant.  This shade planting is a much more interesting solution than white impatiens.  Lime green coleus would look great here as well.  This is a collection of plants that work well together. Larger growing plants means you do not need so many to make a statement.  Space your plants in the ground knowing how they will mature.  In-ground plantings spaced too close together not only invites disease, it can result in an overall shape that is not distinctively shapely.

This old agave-this is its final year.  Agaves need to be quite old before they bloom.  Once they bloom, the parent plant dies, leaves the baby offshoots to continue. This bloom stalk could grow to 14 feet or better.  This agave is part of a collection of plants my client has had for a number of years. We underplanted it with a mass of Kent Beauty oregano, a soft, drapy, and delicately colored ornamental oregano that will highlight the visual architecture of the agave by way of considerable contrast in scale, texture and form. 

Phormiums, or New Zealand flax have an architectural presence on a smaller scale.  The diamond frost  euphorbia will froth up and spill over the container.  This is a collection of two that looks handsome together.

Another member of the topiary plant collection, a Teucrium Fruticans on standard.  Bush germander has silver needled leaves, and grows 4 to 6 feet tall in warmer climates.  This topiary has to be wintered in a barely heated light space.  Any collection of plants that can be wintered over in a light space or garage has two advantages.  They not only live a much longer life than most annuals, they grow and become sizeable. This germander is almost 10 years old; it is a beautiful container plant indeed.

We planted white mandevillea, and staked it on four 10′  natural bamboo poles.  We secure the poles with concrete wire for strength, and covered the wire with simple raffia bows.  Lime nicotiana, white angelonia, silver dichondra, white anyssum and white million bells rounds out the collection.

The newly created plant frame around the fountain is planted with Isotoma Fluviatilis.  I spaced the plants at a foot apart, as it grounds very quickly.  Hardy to minus 20 degrees, and tolerant of heavy foot traffic, it will barely break the plane of the stone.  The new stone around the fountain is angled slightly away from the fountain, so rain will not pool there.  The plant frame helps to minimize that stone set on a slightly higher grade than the original terrace. 

Four lead pots sit on the front walk, each with its own boxwood topiary.  These boxwood are hardy in my zone 7 out of every 10 years, so I winter them in an unheated dark space for the winter-just to be sure.  The ball shaped boxwood with attending topknots is a good contrast to the tapered shape of the lead pots.  Variegated licorice at the corners, with a green dichondra in between completes the planting.


A lovely pair of Kimberly ferns flank the front door.  As they tend to grow upright in a vase shape, I planted maidenhair ferns as a groundcover under the Kimberlys.  This puts the overall edges of the planting gracefully out over the edges of the round lead pots.  I do so love pots planted green.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Stone

 

Designing, planting and tending a landscape or garden is an avocation, a profession, a passion -and a nemesis of the most unpredictable and formidable sort.  The pure joy that a great garden has to give back has a substantial responsibility that comes along with it.  The landscape could be described as the responsibility for the health and happiness for a flock of living things. A lot of marbles have to be kept on the table-all at the same time.  Every plant that dies on my watch-I take it very personally.  Plants die routinely, and with astonishing regularity-in spite of knowledge and experience.

 

Some plants die from old age-every living thing has a lifespan.  Some things die from a particularly fierce winter, or relentless rain, or extraordinary heat.  Some things die from lack of water-of these deaths,  I am particularly ashamed.  Some things die from poor siting, or a a site whose ecology changes drastically-as in the loss of an old mature tree.  The living community that describes my garden is ephemeral-fleeting.  No tree, shrub, perennial, or garden experience comes with a lifetime guarantee.  Should you decide to garden, the disappointments are part and parcel of the experience.  Fortunately, a landscape has other elements that live longer.

Some elements in my landscape shrug off the water, the winter, the heat; the stone in my garden is the next best thing to indestructible.  Stone persists in my landscape in spite of my neglect, poor science, or ignorance.  What can I count on to be there every day, as best as I could count on anything?  The stone stairs to my rose garden have been there as long as I have had my garden.  I would guess it will still be there, when I celebrate my 100th birthday.

Stone in the landscape roughly refers to what we call hardscape.  Stone beautifully populates those places to be, that soil to be retained,  those spaces to entertain, and those walks with a natural material that provides an enduring hard surface.   Stone is eminently capable of expressing your need for a change of grade.  Stone provides paths and walks that enables travel from one space to another.  Stone provides a beautiful and durable surface for a terrace.  Compacted decomposed granite- shards 3/8 inch in diameter and smaller- makes level and hard surfaces that survive in driveways and garden paths, year after year. I so like balancing those living, and therefore fragile elements in a landscape with a crispy defined highly textural natural material that endures.

I am not a geologist-I am a gardener.  But I can say with great conviction that the stone readily available to me regionally is always my stone of choice.  Regional stone that is native to Michigan will look like it belongs in a Michigan garden.  Stone native to the East coast, or west coast I can appreciate, but a sense of authenticity of place is important in making a landscape visually believable. No doubt an entire library exists which describes the color, texture and use of stone world wide.  But I am primarily interested in stone that naturally occurs in my region of the country. In addition to bluestone and granite,  Indiana limestone, and Valders stone from Wisconsin are favorites. 

The fountain in my back yard is finished in Valders stone. The step down in submerged in water the entire season. This very high density dolomitic limestone is prized for its low water absorption.  This makes it ideal for applications in or around water. Indiana limestone, also known as Bedford limestone, is principally comprised of calcium carbonate.  The decomposition of marine animals at the bottom of the inland sea that covered the Midwest for countless centuries created limestone.  The limestone quarried near Bloomington Indiana is acknowledged to be the highest quality limestone in the United States. It readily absorbs water; the limestone caps on my retaining walls have aged beautifully.

Should you need a hard and enduring surface or wall, natural and native stone will endow your garden with a sense of permanence.  The formation of stone takes generations, and it will take generations to decompose.  Do not be shy about inviting a natural element into your garden with proven longevity.  It provides a quiet and appropriately natural foil for your plants.

 

I was a rock collector, as a kid.   Every type of rock, every shape, every surface-I was enchanted.  Nothing has much changed; I have a big love for all manner of rock.  Stone carpeting the ground, stacked up like a wall, hand carved into a cistern, or half buried in a rock garden-I value it all.   The stone slabs carpeting this conservatory floor-I have never seen anything remotely like it before.  It has an exotic, architectural, and other-worldly look.

Stone cold, set in stone, stone faced, hard as stone -these are all phrases that describe a certain attitude that withstands the elements, the vagaries of nature, and popular sentiment.  Stone comes with an aura of history about it.  The eldest plant in my garden I estimate to be about 80 years old-a trifling age, compared to my stone. Relationships in a composition might be more important than the one, or the other. How an ephemral element interacts with a permanent element-always interesting. That great age one associates with natural stone has much to do with the creation of,  and value,  of stone garden ornament. 

Stone ornament for the garden is a centuries old art and practice.  A material which is virtually impervious and certainly accepting of the weather makes an ideal medium for sculpture, urns, finals, cisterns, plinths, and benches. Many antique pieces provides homes to thriving colonies of moss and lichens. Before Michaelangelo’s David was a sculpture, it was an ancient block of marble from the earth.  Antique containers and urns hand carved from a single piece of stone are rare, and very costly.  Dry cast limestone is a dry mix of cement, sand, mineral pigments and crushed natural stone, which is forced into molds, and vibrated under pressure until it fills the mold evenly.  This method of manufacture makes stone garden ornament more readily available and affordable.

The stone in my garden is beginning to settle in.  Plants have decided to take up residence in its crevices, and on its surface.  I like how this makes me feel. This Belgian bluestone table with antique hand-carved corbel bases would indeed be lovely in a garden. Any gardener who has ever carried rocks around their garden, or had their fingers pinched setting a stepping stone knows that stone does not give.  I like a material in my garden with this attitude.

I wrote this essay in a special capacity.  I was so pleased that The Garden Designers Roundtable invited me to guest post with their group for the month of May.  The Roundtable is a group of garden and landscape designers who write regularly on topics related to landscape design.  This blog is a great read.  www.gdrt.blogspot.com.  Interested in an ongoing discussion of plants, gardens, landscapes and design?    www.facebook.com/GardenDesignersRoundtable.

To read all of the posts on the May discussion of stone in the landscape, click on the links below.  Enjoy!

Sunny Wieler : Stone Art Blog : West Cork, Ireland

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin TX

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA