In Anticipation


This client has a very distinct point of view about what she likes, and a sincere interest in the landscape.  She is a young person with a flock of young kids-how she manages to even think about it surprises me.  What we do for her is very low key and simple.  The hydrangeas on standard in her summer pots we winter over in the ground.  Most times we plant white, sometimes there is a little lavender or purple.   

A few years ago we made these steel boxes for her; they sit on the ground, as her windows are very low.  I took this picture of one of those boxes September 5-this was the first time I had seen it since it was planted.  The white non-stop begonias were thriving; I was impressed.  They are not the easiest plant to grow. The heliotrope has faded from the picture, but the box by and large looked great.  June Bride caladiums, euphorbia Diamond Frost, cirrus dusty miller and variegated licorice have all grown together quite companionably.    

All good things must come to an end-I wonder if Chaucer’s summer pots were waning when he wrote this.  Can you hear me sighing?  Steve cleared out all but one of my deck pots yesterday-I cannot bear that look of decline.  I should do like this client.  When summer comes to an end, she moves on to the next season.  Having kids, she was interested in a containers that would look just right for Halloween. 

I like Halloween.  The best are all the kids that come to the door in costume.  Next best, I love any holiday that depends greatly on the plants and props native to the season, presented in a suitably holiday way. I could not engineer anything as horrifying as what the average 10 year old could dream up, so I focus on the plant part.  First up for these pots, a centerpiece of broomcorn, and 3 colors of amaranthus, zip tied to a stake that goes most of the way to the bottom of the box.  A good deal of the soil had been removed as part of the rootball of the hydrangea on standard.  We topped up the boxes with new soil. 

The cabbages and kales I have written about before.  There color only gets better, as fall progresses.  But when I am thinking Halloween, my kale of choice is Redbor.  Redbor kale is stalky growing, and krinkly leaved.   

The color of redbor is an amalgamation of grey, turquoise, purple and black.  As the night temperatures decline, that color gets a little more emphatically black.  Black for Halloween?  Perfect.

I planted the kales in the outermost corners of the box, and angled them out.  Tied around the bottom of the centerpiece-2 bunches of molten orange dyed eucalyptus. We like a little fire going on at the center.  The turquoise and cerise cabbage front and center is a little tame and off color,  but it will keep the planting looking great and full until Halloween.      

The orange eucalyptus appears to have pushed to redbor kale outwards.  This is a very easy way to be spooky-plant the plants out of kilter.  What might take the place of that cabbage in the front?  A lit pumpkin?  A skull?  A giant spider?  A skeleton hung over the side? A mummified hand dripping in plastic blood?    No doubt I will consult the kids about that.  In the meantime, my client is happy to have a lively planting in her boxes at the front door.   

Every nursery, farmer’s market, roadside stand, grocery store, garden and vacant land has materials that look great in fall pots.  As for the spiders, skulls and skeletons that need to be added that one night, any kid can help you get ghoulish.

Walking The Field

I would bet that if I organized and offered a shopping trip with Rob, it would fill up in an instant.  There would be a waiting list.  He has an eye for where to go, what to see, and what to commit to that interesting and beautiful.  His less obvious searches includes sifting through the debris and dried materials that tends to accumulate in vacant land.  This abandoned tangle of wire fencing and rotted posts may not upon first glance seem like much seem like much. But I would say the chances are excellent I will see this found object, or this combination of colors and textures and materials, or some semblance of this idea somewhere soon.   

Vacant land has a story to tell.  This grass likes the watery ground.  Other species only come so close, before conditions are no longer optimal.  Plants are very specific about what they want-this picture makes that clear. Given this picture, it is no wonder that lawn saturated with water from automatic irrigation thrives.  Other plants are not so crazy about it-they stay away, if they can.  I know him well enough to know this wild grass laying over is appealing.  Some spot or another in the shop will have this look.            

Wild asters have small and insignificant individual flowers, but large colonies of them can be very beautiful.  Weedy and wonderful, this.  Rob’s pictures are a harbinger of what is to come from him.   The other day Rob nailed a  twig bird feeder to a chestnut fence post, and set the post in a tall limestone cylinder.  Wedged into the cylinder around the fence post, a few wisps of weedy plastic grass.  The idea of plastic grass appeals to no gardener, but should you come in, take a look.  There is an utterly natural and believable look to the entire assembly.      

This vacant land is littered with giant logs, the remnants of their roots intact.  The goldenrod and asters have grown up around them.  The story that lies behind this picture is unclear.  They do not look cut, they look rotted off at the very base.  They look like they were dumped here. But perhaps this land was inadvertently flooded long enough to kill all of the trees.  I am just waiting for Rob to ask if I can send a truck and trailer after them.  They would be the perfect material for a stumpery. 

 I have no clue what thesese shrubby trees might be.  They have been dead long enough that the bark is peeling away from the wood from a long standing sun burn.  Spooky branches, he calls them.  Would they not be perfect for a Halloween vignette?  Rob is just as likely to find inspiration from spooky branches in a tract of vacant land as the library.  To put it mildly, he has an active imagination.  A genuinely original imagination.    

He and I both love asclepias tuberosa-milkweed.  Few wild and weedy plants have big luscious leaves like these.  The story of how milkweed seeds mature, and are sent aloft is one of the most delightful stories that nature has to tell.  When the pods mature, and crack open, the seeds are packed tight in that pod with the unopened parachutes attached, just waiting for a stiff breeze to send them all aloft. An afternoon sky full of milkweed seeds is one of the best visual pleasures of fall.   

Thistles are a pernicious weed in cultivated gardens.  They are almost impossible to eradicate; the roots go very deep, and are very strong.  Who would want to touch one?  But the seed pods are beautiful.  The seeds nourish many a goldfinch.  They look great in fall arrangements. If you know of any tract of vacant land in zone 4-5, there will likely be a thistle patch.        

There is a fall party going on here-undisturbed.  No one has had a mind to refurbish, zone, or organize this space for residential use.   Vacant land in no means implies a vacant space.  There are plenty of plant species thriving with no need for any supervision.  It may be that the most beautiful places on earth are places that are solely supervised by nature.   Every gardener appreciates this.  

Rob took all of these photographs-of course he spotted this giant thickly growing clump of asparagus.  Did it grow from a seed?  Was there a farmhouse here decades ago?  The mystery that is nature is alive and well on this vacant land.  A shopping trip with Rob to a vast tract of vacant land?  It might be better than you think.

Monday Opinion: Expertise

Someone once said that the definition of an expert is someone from out of town.  I prefer local, if that works.  I have several clients with conservatories that were made in England, and shipped over.  Crews came with those structures, to install them.  They were truly beautifully made; the installations superb.  But as with a furnace, a dishwasher, a car or a table saw, every beautifully made expensive thing sooner or later needs adjustment, service, or maintenance.  Having a serviceman come from England is impractical for lots of reasons.  I have dealt with Tanglewood Conservatories in Maryland.  They build beautiful glass houses; a consult on a problem is entirely within reach.  But given the choice, a conservatory built by a company within 50 miles of me would be ideal.  Should there be no one, I will consult an expert from out of town.  

I have been the expert from out of town.  I have done cut flowers and decor for parties, weddings, and events.  I have landscaped in parts of the country other than my own.  Working out of town is a challenge.  For cut flowers, my supplier will fly material to me.  This usually works fine.  Except for the Casa Blanca lilies.  They take days to open.  I drove them to West Virginia with me, 5 days ahead of the event. 20 buckets of lilies in my Suburban was more perfume than I ever want to experience again. The day I realized that 2500 roses had been flown to Charleston, South Carolina instead of Charleston, West Virginia, was one of the most hair raising days of my entire career.  I owe it all to a trucker that I promised the freight charge plus 500.00 that I got my flowers trucked to me in time for the party.  Why so many roses?  We were recreating the Stork Club from the 1940’s.  Once I have my flowers, I may need supplies.  When I am out of town, I do not know where the closest hardware store might be, or a place to get sandwiches for lunch.  Nowadays, computers have made that sort of trouble easy to solve. Invariably party and event venues are staffed with people who would vastly prefer a local person who knows the ropes.  They have a point.  I am a time consuming nuisance, not knowing where the loading dock is, or the restroom, or the kitchen. 

I have designed and trucked landscape materials to a number of cities and states other than my own for installation.  I have designed projects in other states that I did not install-but only those states in which my horticulture would stand. That said, I do no landscape work out of my zone, or a zone similar to mine. I have turned down work in California, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Florida.  I may be an expert, but I have no expertise whatsoever about plants in those areas. The first thing anyone has a right to expect from an expert is expertise.   In California, I would be a design expert- sans expertise.   

This past week I got an SOS from a client in Toronto.  He had engaged an expert pool company to design and install a pool in his backyard. So far, so good.  I am not sure how it happened that the pool company came to design the landscape to go with.  I understand the big idea.  Dealing with one person over a pool, a terrace, the landscape, the irrigation and lighting sounds great.  The fact of the matter is that a person expert in designing and building pools may not be a good choice for a landscape designer.  As Rob put it, if you need to have heart surgery, you need a team.  An internist, a nursing staff, a heart surgeon, an anesthesiologist-and who knows who else.  For sure you do not want your anesthesiologist performing your heart surgery.

Landscape in no way mirrors the life and death situation of a serious surgery.  But my client’s pool contractor did what he knew best; he paved the entire back yard save for 4  2′ wide strips around the perimeter.  All that paving will be blazing hot and glaringly uncomfortable, come next summer.  The paved yard has all the charm of a parking lot.  He specified at least 15 different species for the few square feet left for plants.  I spent the weekend redesigning the landscape, much of which involves sawcutting concrete.  The landscape design as it was drawn would have been impossible to like, and impossible to maintain. 

This expert in pool design and installation has no expertise in landscape design that I can see.  He did not have the good sense to say no to my client.  It will not be easy for him to remove some of what he just paid to have installed-but better to deal with it right now, than deal with the consequences next year.   Almost every field is so complicated and requires so much knowledge-very few people are expert in multiple fields.  I do not design sprinkler systems, or lighting.  I defer to Gillette pools when I design how a hot tub will look.  I am not an expert in drain fields.  I cannot cook, sew, play the clarinet, or hang wallpaper.   If you should ask for any of this from me, chances are excellent that I will recommend someone local with expertise.

At A Glance: Dutch Blue Hydrangeas

I did some cut flower arrangements for a client last week; she likes blue.  I thought blue hydrangeas might be just the thing- but  I was not prepared for these.  This is a Dutch blue florist’s hydrangea-wow.  I cannot imagine a hydrangea this color in the garden.  It seems like this shocking blue would be very difficult to make work with other plants.  But if an ultra-blue flowered hardy hydrangea should ever become available in my zone, I would most definitely give it a try.