More On Perennial Gardens


This past Sunday, my opinion post had much to do with my 16 year old Hicks yews, failing.  This current northside view of my house makes me wring my hands.  Five old and very tall yews died-I had to remove them.  For years they screened the view to my kitchen door from the street.  The densiformis yews that faced them down are fine.  I stared at this view until I was blue in the face.  What should I do? 

In the far left of this picture taken from the house side-those yews, just days before I removed them.  As to what killed them, no one knows.  I already knew that I wanted to dig out these panicum virgatum grasses, and plant a perennial garden.  How so? This space once was a meadowy mix, but over time, the panic grass grew lustily at the expense of the other perennials.  I knew this grassland would grow to 5 feet tall, and promptly fall over into the path.    

I have really good soil in which to plant.  I have always mulched with bark fines-ground hardwood bark.  It deteriorates quickly, and adds loads of organic material to the soil.  Even Tim from Westside Forestry was complimentary on my friable soil.  What now?  

Of course Steve wasted no time throwing down both gloves.  Apparently I have a great opportunity to do something unusual here-don’t blow it on shasta daisies and coneflowers.  He can be infuriating.  As much as I admire a well-grown stand of shasta daisies, there are other things I like better.  The very first decision?  What season garden did I want?  A late July through fall garden I would have time to enjoy, and fuss over.  In the spring and early summer I am too busy to look, and definitely too busy to maintain something.  This is a small and irregular space; I needed to edit.  

So what do I like, besides the late summer and fall?  I like good looking leaves.  I like purple, lavender and white. I like flowers that grow on vertical bloom stalks.  I like single flowers, and flowers that wave in the breeze.  This meant the following:  Veronicas of several types, stachys monieri, Russian sage, monarda fistulosa Claire Grace, hyssop Blue fortune and adenophora Amethyst.  The white phlox David is very disease resistant, and it one of my favorite fragrances in the garden.

Planting this Summer Skies delphinium is probably ill-advised, but I have never tried to grow them before.  This blue is tough to resist.  I plan on watering them as little as possible and ignoring them unless they really seem to need some fussing.  Gary Bopp, the grower for Wiegand’s nursery farm told me not to plan on having them longer than 3-5 years.    

A blue Siberian iris and some blue-eyed grass were my only concessions to early flowering plants.  I just like both of the these plants.  A front border of lady’s mantle, Geranium Rozanne, and catmint would look good all summer long-both in and out of flower.  Both the geranium and the catmint will rebloom, provided they get haircuts.

The Veronica Purpleicious-I couldn’t resist.  I alternated it with another paler Veronica whose name I cannot remember.  Veronica breeding has come a long way; this plant habit is anything but weedy.  I know they will look great with the white platycodon I had picked out.  Balloon flowers are slow to establish, but when they are happy, they are really happy.  The simple shaped flower I find beautiful and appealing.   

The shopping I did for plants took weeks.  I could see it would take Steve a couple hours to plant. This is as it should be.  I am not a buy a plant and find a spot for it gardener.  I do not have the luxury of that much space.  I shopped for a tall plant that would provide at little screening from the street.  I settled on white hardy hibiscus.  I like their presence; the big leaves and flowers are striking.  I also appreciate how they stand up on their own.  

My favorite plant purchase was this stachy monieri “Hummelo”.  The flower stalks are thick and sturdy; the leaves are large and have a great texture.  It reminds me some of primula denticulata.  As I knew nothing about it, I read.  It is incredible-the amount of information on plants and gardening that is available courtesy of the internet.  If you see something you like, it is so easy to check its habits, vigor and persistence.  At the very least, if you want to take the trouble to grow delphiniums, you can find out what’s involved. This photograph came from Visions Pictures and Photography-my plants do not look like this yet.

I like the overall look from the driveway.  This area is informally planted with dogwoods, ivy, hosta, creeping jenny and spring flowering bulbs.  What has gone into the garden seems in keeping with this, though the perennials have been planted in rows of alternating plants.

It is easy to see in this picture that the bed widens at the far end.  In this case, I wrapped the taller plants around in a more circular fashion, but kept the front border straight.  All of this geometry will disappear as soon as the plants grow in, but the end of the garden will have a more finished, rather than abruptly linear look.  The spots that appear to look empty are the spots for adenophora; they had been cut back to the ground.

Once the perennials were planted, they were immediately mulched with hardwood bark fines.  By this, I mean ground bark.  It will conserve moisture, and looks great with perennials.  In my area, this bark is available at State Crushing, in Auburn Hills. I will keep an eye on the water and tinker with them some the rest of the summer.  No doubt some things will not work out at all, but that will be part of the fun it.  Planting a garden is just the beginning of the fun of it.

Perennial Gardens


This client has an older landscape which is truly lovely.  The trees are maturing;  the shrubs are well established.  The property is large, and entirely private.  This boxwood bed featuring a lovely antique sundial we did for her several years ago, but the majority of the landscape was done by someone else. Whomever did the landscape did a great job-I admire most of what I see. 

Her blue hydrangeas are just about the best I have ever seen.  I make it a point to go and see them when they are in bloom-I am always astonished at how heavily and beautifully they bloom.   I plant her pots every year; this is a job I look forward to, as I know the containers will get great care.

See what I mean?  Nothing here to fret over.  I have never planted this hydrangea for anyone, as I have never seen it perform very well.  This is almost enough to make me change my mind.

I am not so much a fan of perennial gardens planted in drifts, unless the garden in question has lots and lots of space.  By this I mean a space 40 by 15 feet, or better in every dimension..  I do not have, nor have I ever had a client with a perennial garden of this size.  The garden I planted at home today Buck says is 30 feet long, by 9 feet deep-small.  Relative to a perennial garden, this antique trough is very small.  Though barely 10 square feet, it is planted with 6 different types of plants, all of which seem to be fairly matched in terms of vigor.

I am poised to tackle what I was not crazy about-her perennial garden.  Tomorrow we will remove and relocate what she has, and replant her perennial border. Given that I just planted a perennial garden at home today, the subject of perennial borders is greatly on my mind.  I am not so much a fan of perennial gardens planted in drifts, unless the garden in question has lots and lots of space.  By this I mean a space 40 by 15 feet, or better.   I do not have, nor have I ever had a client with a perennial garden of this size.  The garden I planted at hme today Buck says is 30 feet long, by 9 feet deep-small.

 My client’s perennial border is not much bigger than mine.  I had some ideas that drove my selection of plants.  The garden is in a spot that only gets visited in the summer.  I eliminated spring flowering perennials.  Drifts of perennials look awkward when the space is constrained.  Meadows-and by this I mean very large spaces covered in perennial plants, are all about drifts.  The giant drifting perennial gardens of Piet Oudolf require lots of space.  A drifting style of planting  implies lots of room.  Most of my clients have relatively small spaces available for perennials.  I need to pick and choose, and edit.  In much the same way as I plant annuals, I like to plant perennials in mixed groups.

 I am sure this garden had other things in it years ago.  Plant vigor is a factor in planting perennial gardens that is too often ignored.  Some plants have great vigor, and will spread like crazy.  I am seeing that vigor here-Big patches of daylilies and a giant stand of astilbe in a washed out color dominated the space.  The Silberian iris in a row-is this a drift?  In any event, these iris are in need of division, and possibly a new home.  A single Annabelle hydrangea looks great-this I will keep. 

More than likely I will alternate planting perennials of similar vigor and height in rows, not drifts.  There will be enough variation in height, texture and color to keep the garden lively.  This also gives me a chance to plant a number of different plants, rather than larger drifts of just a few plants.  Most certainly this garden will require regular maintenance in order to thrive.  Inevitably there will be plants I have chosen that just will not like being where I plant them.  It will take a while to see how my choices work out.  Mother nature gives fairly tough exams-I have flunked more of them than I care to admit to.  Planting a number of varieties is one way of hedging my bets.

The Garden Cruise

This coming Sunday is our 4th annual garden cruise.  Detroit Garden Works sponsors this event, so that all of the proceeds from the sale of the tickets goes to benefit The Greening of Detroit.  This organization has been planting trees, and sponsoring urban farms and educational programs in the city of Detroit for the past 21 years.  I sit on their board, but I do not go to the meetings.  They do not need my help figuring out what needs reforesting, or what skills need to be taught.  The best way for me to help is to try and raise some money for them.   

I have a relationship to every garden on tour.  I may have designed the landscape, planted the containers, consulted on this issue or that.  This year one of the gardens belongs to my landscape superintendent. His hand is evident in every square inch of his garden.  The pergola, the fence, the fountain, and the concrete tiled terrace-all hand made .

Another landscape is quite contemporary in design; I designed and installed it 16 years ago.   Yet another is traditionally formal in a modern way; this landscape I designed and installed last year.  This is all by way of saying that the 7 gardens represent widely divergent styles and age. All of them are handsomely maintained.  This year’s group of gardens is an especially good one-you’ll see.         

I admire the work they do.  They persist in planting and teaching.  I am all for beautiful green spaces and tree lawns in cities.  They make what I am all for a reality.  Thery sponsor 700 urban farms throughout the city.  They have a balanced budget; all of their programs are paid for through grants, and donations.   

Like many other people, I think it is important to give back to the greater community that has enabled me to have a business.  So we aim to make the day’s outing all the much more fun with a reception at the shop at the close of the tour.  Rob makes his signature gin and tonics, Christine tends the wine bar, and we have food for all.  We pick up the bill for this, so that all the proceeds from the sale of the tickets goes right to the Greening.    

My garden is one of the 7.  I so enjoy spending the day at home, answering questions, and hearing what people have to say.  Other pairs of eyes are good for a garden.  Every year I hear something that never occurred to me.      

This landscape belongs to one of the gardeners whose house in on tour-but this is his previous house.  The new house and landscape is well worth the visit. 

This garden that I designed was on the national tour some years ago, sponsored by the Garden Conservancy.  We no longer have a branch of this tour in our area-what a shame.  Visiting gardens is one way to learn more about what you like and don’t like.  It is a great way to see new plants.  Best of all, it is an excellent way to see that a great landscape and garden is within any gardener’s reach.    

The landscapes are different enough that I suspect everyone will find something that intrigues them. 

You may be wondering if any of the gardens on the tour are pictured in this post.  Though I designed all of these landscapes, only one photograph is from a 2011 cruise garden.  You’ll just have to come and check them out for yourself.  For more information:

Sunday Opinion: Little Luxuries

An older garden is bound to have problems.  The maples in my tree lawn all have girdling roots that are beyond surgical repair.  Probably maple trees that grow to this size never should have been planted here- sandwiched in between the sidewalk and the street.  I am guessing they were planted forty years ago; at that time, girdling roots were the last thing on anyone’s mind. My city-they have no interest or means to sustain the tree lawns.  The care of these aging and declining trees fall to me.  Poor choices in the landscape can take many years to come home to roost; old gardens with substantial problems squawk like crazy.  The future can show up a lot faster than anyone ever bargained for.  I try very hard to imagine age on my landscape designs.  Will those designs age gracefully and beautifully, or will careless choices prove to be a huge headache years later?  These old and declining maples-there is nothing I can do to help them.  They have been neglected too long.  

 My 16 year old Hicks yews are also in decline-5 have died.  The five that died are 7 feet tall.  This is a very short sentence about a topic that is making me wring my hands.  No one can figure out what is wrong.  They are not getting too much water.  There is no evidence of disease, or insect infestation.  I went so far as to consult a regionally well known arborist and plant disease diagnostician. He tells me he is rarely stumped, but in this case he is stumped. Once he went on to say that my yews were getting old, I raised my eyebrows as high as they would go.  I am sure if you have not seen ancient yews in person, you surely have seen pictures of them in books-hundreds of years old.  Noting the extent of my eyebrow elevation, he quickly abandoned this line of discussion.   It was a luxury to consult him-it was a bigger luxury to just move on beyond him.  Yews tolerate less than perfect conditions quite well.  Almost every house in my neighborhood has at least one, if not some.  The yew hedge across the street from me is in perfect condition.  I have never seen anyone do a thing to them. 

In general, my trees and shrubs are looked after by Westside Forestry; I have a lot of confidence in their ability, and their tenacity.  They cannot figure out what is wrong either.  Tim wanted to dig up a few of the yews-apparently he thinks something going on underground is to blame.  I hope to hear from him tomorrow.  What it takes to look after an aging landscape can be considerable. But I will do what needs doing. One week to the day from today-the garden cruise.  Out my kitchen window, a dirt space of alarming proportions. I have some plans to plant there this week.

The dead yews-I dream about them at night.  I have been fussing and fretting about an alternative to them.  Why would I plant new yews, even if I could afford big ones at enormous cost, in a place where yews decline and die?  What would I substitute for these stalwart evergreens?  I have lots of questions, and not so many answers.  Yes, the majority of the space will be planted with a perennial garden-tomorrow.  I have purchased way too many plants; how will I place them?  You may be laughing by now-as well you should. 

A garden enchants.  A garden is a beautiful place to be, a refuge, a source of satisfaction, a place to entertain friends and family.  Gardening is good for me.  Given more than 30 years of gardening, I am quite sure about this.  Every plant that I am able to grow successfully, greatly endows my life.   If you are able to garden successfully, I am quite sure you will go on to garden again.  Every plant that I have killed-and there are many-teaches me a litlle something.  The yew business will sort itself out.  I only need to be persistent, and ask the right questions.

 The little luxuries are as follows.  My old garden, besides its yew troubles,  needs not much more than a good washing down before this coming weekend’s garden tour.  Tonight, I am washing down every surface.  I have but one bed to plant, and have made peace with the fact that it will look new.  My older garden-I am happy to stand pat with what I have done over the past 16 years.  That said, I want every space to be clean and fresh; I am washing down all of the stone surfaces.   This little job is very satisfying.  I probably will do it again several times before next Sunday.  I will probably put fresh flowers on the table, wash down the driveway, and deadhead my pots.  These little finishing touches before company comes I greatly enjoy.   

My older garden is a headache, but it is, at the same time, it is a luxury I could not do without.  I cannot imagine not having some sort of garden.  My old garden needs not so much from me, really.  For all my angst, it makes me very happy.  Buck and I were in the fountain earlier, cleaning the stone, and cooling off.  Should you not have an older garden, create a new garden. In my opinion, you will be happier, having it now. You will be more than thrilled to have it years from now.  A garden is a luxury well worth the investment.