Bare Branches

March in Michigan is as much about bare branches as November in Michigan.  This makes me sympathetic to any local gardener who thinks that bare branches are a synonym for dead branches.  No wonder people in my zone so value evergreens.  I am really tired of looking at them; this is March 25th for pete’s sake.  Every day, it is still winter.  This is part of why I am so interested in espaliers as landscape plants-they look great in that leafless stage.  The past few rainy days have been accompanied by temperatures near freezing.  Every branch is glazed with ice. 

This morning it was very sunny and cold; the bare branches were glittering.  Rain drops froze before they dripped off the branches-what I would not give for this look at the holidays.  Weather has a way to drawing attention to the color, structure and overall shape of those bare branches. In addition to their leaves, flowers and possibly fruit, woody plants have beautiful bones. Actually, most woody plants in their leafless stage are still beautiful.   

I do not grow forsythia in my garden.  I have only planted it on very large properties with room to spare.  The only truly beautiful planting of forsythia I have ever seen is the Forsythia Dell at Dunbarton Oaks.  Should you be there at the right time, it is spectacular.  But the forsythia across the street from me were very good looking today.  You can tell they are about to burst into bloom; the cinnamon color of the stems is glowing.  Covered in ice, it looked good enough to eat. 

Lindens have a robust overall shape, but the branches are weepy, drapy, and languid. Interesting this, for a tree that has a round overall shape. The bare branches have a jewel like appearance today. Not that I wouldn’t prefer to be smelling the flowers right now, but this is all I have available.  

Crabapple branches are hunky and gnarly; the color is a bright red brown. The sun and ice brought all of that to life.  It is incredible to think that in a few short weeks this branch will be floating in a pale pink tutu.   

I moved all of the potted bulbs inside yesterday-the frosting of ice and all.  It was 19 degrees last night-17 is forecast for tonight.  24 hours these pots have been in the garage-they are still icy. How is your spring coming along?

A Fence Of A Different Sort

What am I up to here?  Many years ago I installed a fence which was more sculpture than fence for a young client who owned a  second home in Harbor Springs.  Second homes, vacation cottages-they have landscape requirements all their own.  People go to the cottage to have fun, and relax-not work.  The landscape needs to survive and thrive with intermittent care.  I would hate driving up to a landscape that looks neglected.  Lake and woods properties can be easy-whatever nature has seen fit to put there is generally quite beautiful.  But this second home was in a neighborhood in a northern community right on Lake Michigan. Lacking a woodland, or sand, beach grass and water, some kind of landscape was in order. 


The house was small, and the property very small.   A gravelled car park, and a stone walk across the yard to the front door were the first order of business.  The gravel, grass, and rows Sum and Substance hosta would cover the ground plane with stripes.  My young client happened to be an artist; she was interested in a design with a strongly graphic and whimsical quality. A few Annabelle hydrangea would provide some height and interest during the summer months. 


The large shuttered windows seemed to ask for window boxes.  Both the width and the location of the windows and boxes would dictate the placement and the width of the lawn stripes.  As the boxes were fairly high off the ground, easy access to them with a stepladder would make caring for them all that much easier.  The grass stripes would lead your eye right to the boxes. It is a fairly simple matter to automatically irrigate a window box, if you already have in ground irrigation.  This is not foolproof, but it can buy you some time. 

The dry laid flagstone walk which traversed the yard perpendicular to the stripes was set with large joints.  Where the walk crossed over a grass stripe, we put grass between the stones.  Where it crossed a gravel mulched stripe of hostas, we put gravel between the stones.  The size of the joints between stones depends on what kind of traffic you expect to have.  Guests in sneakers would do just fine with such a walk-guests in high heels would need to pay careful attention.    

The property featured a giant walnut; I knew the hostas would tolerate that.  But something seemed missing.  Some element that would strongly reflect the point of view of the owner-something fun. And most of all, something that would not require regular maintenance. So I designed and built a fence- not to screen, nor to keep anything in or out.  A sculpture of a fence, if you will.   

We built the fence with three materials.  Peeled cedar fence poles, available locally, would form the uprights.  Tall posts alternating with short ones would provide interest on several levels.  We drilled through the cedar poles, and used copper plumbing pipe for the horizontals elements, and an arbor that would go over the walk.  Fresh cut curly willow would informally spiral around the posts.  The willow would be held in place with 1/4 inch copper tubing.  The fence post finials-a nest/hairdo of copper wire. 

Rob handled the contruction of the arch.  10 foot long willow pieces were inserted in the ground next to the cedar post, and wound up and aroung that post.  Smaller willow braches were added to the top of the post, and secured with copper tubing.  The flexible tubing repeated the shape of the wire finials, and went on to wrap and secure the willow to the rigid pipe.  As I gave all of the pictures of the finished fence to my client, the shape of the top of the arbor is from memory-I think Rob made an informal fleur de lis to finish.

All of the rigid pipe was covered in curly willow, and secured with copper tubing.  This was not a particularly orderly or repetitive process-we did what we thought looked interesting.  The relationship of the metal to the willow proved to be great visual fun. 

I did hot melt glue the short willow pieces on the low posts, more as a method to hold them in place while the water pipe was wound round, rather than a securing mechanism.  I remember coming by long after finishing the fence-some of the willow stuck in the ground had rooted.  What unexpected fun.  There would be other construction projects featuring willow, but this one was especially satisfying.

Once the fence bones were built, I was ready to go.  Is the fence still there?  It would be about 17 years old now.  I have no plans to go back and look.

You Really Can’t

In my heart, I knew better than to do this-but today, I went back anyway.  My first garden, and the 5 acres of property that came with it was my home and passion for 15 years.  I sold it, and left it, in good order.  Even the house was eminently liveable.  The people who bought the property-I knew they had plans to build a new house.  My offer at the closing to provide photographs of the gardens-they were not interested.  My interests are my interests-I have no real need to convince other people to treasure what I do-they do, or they don’t. But I went back today, as I have written posts about my first garden-I thought I would end that series with good news. But as I drove up my street, I had a clear view of my cedar clad ranch, and the building going on behind it-not so swell, this first view.  Today’s visit was not my first.  I have been back maybe 5 times over the past 15 years.  What I saw today was not so much different than I saw 15 years ago.  I was expecting a home in place, and a beautiful landscape to go with.  Not so.  But anyone who gardens has a big dose of hope lodged firmly in their DNA.  I am no different.     

A good bit of the property was covered in dirt piles, piles of concrete, dumpsters, trucks and erosion fencing.  This comes with building a new house-but this new house has been under construction for most of the 15 years since I sold it.  I see trees struggling to survive, given the years that piles of excavated soil have been heaped over their roots.  Like those trees, I am struggling to understand what the big idea is here.  

Mountains of excavated soil sit in the orchard meadow.  This is not a good look.  The ancient junipers that lined the drive-they were never so gorgeous.  But they were old, and sculptural-they had green, in the round. They have not been treated kindly.  Limbed up and one-sided as they are now, I feel guilty that I ever left their care to someone else.  

The view down the drive-none of the gardens around the house appear to have survived.  My little existing house is dwarfed by a giant, yet unfinished house sitting behind it.  My prized peony collection was rooted out and cast off to make way for that house.  How this property has been treated-I do not admire what I saw today. The wild garden-maybe it survives, as many of the plants are native.  The ancient almost record breaking ash is intact, and dead.  I vastly prefer my pictures, and my memories of the time when I happily gardened all over this piece of land.  I learned so much, stewarding this big piece of land.  What I saw today-I am at a loss to put that into words.  The truth of the matter-you really can’t go home.

The Brush Fence


You would laugh if you could see all of the boxes of 35mm pictures that are littering my drawing studio right now.  No matter whatever possessed me to get them down off the shelf, and go through them, I am in that sore tooth phase-I cannot leave them alone.  Thus the posts about my first garden.  Apparently more is to come from those pictures; some projects I still like.  I have a little time to write about them-this March is shaping up to be a winter month, not a transition from winter to spring month. This picture of a brush fence I built many years ago strikes a current chord.  I have had a container of English terra cotta and antiques stuck in England for 6 weeks-over a round of chestnut fencing that US customs does not like.  Chestnut fencing is very common in England-chestnut slats and wire make for a rough and cottage ready, simple fencing that comes in  rolls.  There are panels, and gates, to go with. Chestnut fencing may be a fixture in England, but customs is not happy that I wish to import it to the US.  Why is this?  Standard fumigation techniques have been outlawed, with no substitute put in place.  Suffice it to say that this has been very difficult.  They are worried the fencing has bugs and I want to make available gardening materials from England.  We finally got the fencing heat treated; the container should be in my hands by April 4.   
This client lived on a corner. Corner properties have no back yard.  This means no clearly defined front and public space, and back, or private space.  This 1920′s tudor style house made its own architectural demands. My idea-a rough brush fence would define the front landscape, separate from the side and rear.  I still love this fence, though it is long gone.  Thick maple branch posts set at intervals capture good size and very long branches-laid in between; all of the branches were courtesy of Westside Forestry.  The big idea here-a fence can be built from what is due to be discarded.  The bottom branches were laid in between parallel sets of maple poles.  The poles were then wired together with concrete wire to keep them parallel, and the next layer of brush would be laid.  Very low tech.    

 Once the fence was in place, of course I planted sweet autumn clematis.  What better plant to grow over, and soften this structure.  The front gardens got laid out and planted.  Yews trimmed in oval shapes were set square in generous swoops of Japanese painted ferns marked the arbor entrance to the side garden.   

Large flowered clematis hybrids were planted at the base of the brush fence, which eventually was frosted with a single plant of sweet autumn clematis. Trained to grow sideways on the top of the fence, it added considerable height to the fence.   One late winter night, a straight line wind took the fence down.  Looking at this picture today, I remember my shock.   The maple posts snapped.  They were not one bit rotted-that same wind took half of the roof off my building and deposited it in the street.    

Always in a garden-there is trouble.  Plants that do not survive the winter.  Plants that do not survive terrible storms.  Too much water; not enough water.  Plants that do not survive with no reasonable explanation.   Trouble-every garden sees plenty of this. This trouble-terrible.  The timing could not have been better though-it was very early spring.  Nothing else in the garden was damaged.         

 The broken brush fence exposed what I had thought to keep private for my clients.  This turn of events-not much to my liking.  As it turned out, it was a fairly simple matter to repair.    

In the side yard, off the sun porch,  a formal herb garden had been under construction.  We were able to go ahead and plant, once spring came.   

A very small formal garden sited off a side porch-this is how it looked, only seconds after it was first planted.  The brush fence that made this space private-we put that fence back up, better than ever.  This sheltered garden was devoted primarily to herbs. The tall hedge you see on the right of this picture-Cornus Kousa.  It was planted in a curve opposite to the curve of brush fence. These features made the side garden very private.  

The herbs, notably basil, had good company.  Heliotrope.  Perovskia.  Marguerite daisies. Granite cobbles, and decomposed granite.  The entrance from the street-a recently rebuilt brush fence.  This garden exists only in these pictures now-the client went on to reconfigure the entire landscape.  Every garden I work in is different than it was 20 years ago-nothing in a garden stands still.