Sunday Opinion: In Praise of Frivolity

Twenty years ago it would have been a routine fall to plant upwards of 30,000 bulbs for clients. At that time, I conducted my business from home-five acres in Orchard Lake, on a street full of five acre parcels.  I was no bother to my neighbors; our houses were far apart, and private.  The house was a wreck, but the property was beautiful-and big.  The boxes would arrive in late September, each with its big full color picture of what the brown and cream blob inside would become the following spring. Bulb planting is not exactly satisfying work.  You dig up the ground when everything else in the garden is going to sleep. When you are finished planting, all there is to see is the same dirt surface you started with.  It seems like the planting was always accompanied by cold, windy and generally inhospitable weather. It did not seem like planting at all-we were burying all manner of small objects that bore no resemblance to the living.  Bulbs may smell like they are alive, but the smell is not delicious like good soil, compost, dead leaves and worms.  The anemone blandas bulbs were so hard and shrivelled one could hardly imagine anything good could come from them.  These I would soak overnight before planting; there is nothing like adding the element of sopping wet to a cold gardening day. In short, there is nothing fun or festive about burying bulbs.  I would look at those pictures on the boxes every so often, just to reassure myself that eventually the work would come to something beautiful. 

 The small bulbs-species and hybrid crocus, eranthis, galanthus, species tulips, anemone blanda, chionodoxa, scilla and so on-I would plant by the hundreds at a time. They would come packaged in yellow netted bags of 10 bulbs each.  It was easy to hold 10 or better in one hand.  I shouldn’t complain-they are vastly larger and easier to pick up one at a time than most seeds.  The investment of time to get all these nut like objects a few inches underground on as chilly fall day was worth it, come spring.  Pushing up through chilly soil into even chillier air, they are the only game in town in March and early April. It amazes me how these diminuitive plants with their delicate flowers are not only supremely robust, but they are incredibly persistent.  A planting of white anemone blanda I did in rough grass twenty years ago is better now than it was then.  I am embarassed to say the sum total of my small bulb planting last fall consisted of buying Rob a muscari mix from John Sheepers for Christmas.  He planted them in a pair of concrete faux bois planters after New Years-they have been in bloom here at the shop for weeks; drop dead gorgeous.

With the exception of certain varieties of daffodils, the bigger bulbs are not so persistent.  Even daffodils will arrive at that day when they need separating to maintain good flowering.  I planted 1000 daffodils in the orchard meadow on that five acres every fall for 15 years. Some I bought at Franks nursery for a nickel a piece after Thanksgiving.  Some were left over from the fall planting. I mostly planted the cream colored Ice Follies, and Old Pheasant’s Eye-my favorite. The last spring I spent there, heavenly.  The digging and dividing is someone else’s job now.  But I would bet that they will live a long time yet, even flowering poorly.  Much poorer than declining daffodil clumps is the fact that I did not plant a single one last fall.

Tulips, the big frits, the hybrid hyacinths-their first year is their best year. Top size bubs produce top size flowers.  I could dig and dry and replant and grow on-but the Dutch do a much better job of this than I ever could.  It has become tougher to persuade a client to plant big drifts of tulips, knowing it probably will need to be done again the following year. I occasionally see a group of tulips that lasts five years, but rarely.  Having just been in Chicago, where tulips and hyacinths were coming into bloom everywhere I looked, I’ve decided that the fact they need frequent replacement is not a very good reason to pass them up.  After all, no one expects their non stop begonias or coleus to live a second season. Is it fivolous to plant fall bulbs?  Maybe.  But a little garden frivolity never hurt anyone.  I am firm in my resolve to plant bulbs this fall-lots of them.  I hope you do too.  To follow-another picture of those pots with Rob’s muscari; this small planting has taken me by storm.

At A Glance: A Busman’s Holiday

Should you be a regular reader, my apologies! I have posted every day for more than a year-but the past few days I have not had access to a computer.  I have been in Chicago for the past three days, at the Botanic Garden Antique Show, and the larger Chicago environs.  The Chicago Botanic Garden-divine.  Should I, one, ever buy a lottery ticket, and two, win-every dime would go for a botanic garden for my city.  Some nights, when I cannot sleep, I make plans for the Detroit Botanic Garden. I have my hopes-don’t you?  If you have not been to the Chicago Botanic Garden-consider a trip.  It is stunning, absorbing-amazing.  Did I say stellar?  Rob and I went all over the Chicago map, visiting plant suppliers, and dealers in garden antiques.  A busman’s holiday.  This is term, referring to those of us who take a holiday that involves a visit to an unknown sector of that life work we live every day.   


downtown, in the distance

traffic, jammed.

daffodil hill-at the gardens.  We are late for the opening. 

they have boxwood troubles too-just like me. 

Everywhere in Chicago-spring bulbs, pushing forth. Not just at the garden-neighborhoods.  restaurants.  Northwestern University. street corners.

I could not be more pleased that Chicago is in my Detroit neighborhood.  The Midwest-a good gardening place to be.  This garden-breathtaking.

Antiqueing-anything goes. 

Packing the Sprinter the end of the day Friday.

Checking out at stop number 6-this photo was taken at 8:30 pm Detroit time. OK-so dinner was late.

Every gardener could be interested in anything-given the slightest encouragement. I am no different. The Chicago trip was such great fun.

Flowering Trees

 

All trees flower; the spent chartreuse blooms from the Norway maples in my neighborhood have begun to blanket the streets like an algal bloom on a pond.  I do so appreciate that vibrant spring green; I feel deserving of it, after my winter. Green flowers seem appropriately dignified, for a tree. But those early and girly pink flowering trees-do we love them? This old weeping cherry-is it beautiful, or is that candy pink ballerina’s tutu too too much?   

I am very fond of all the magnolias that manage to survive in my zone.  The saucer magnolia has opulently scaled pale pink blooms.  They flop open in a decadent and provocative manner.  The slightest frost stains the pale flowers with rust; the slightest heat finishes the flowers off in moments.  The ground beneath them will be littered with decaying petals-no other tree makes such an ostentatious display in bloom.   It is the Sarah Bernhardt of flowering trees; do I like this?  Whether I do, or not, I like seeing this play, every year.   

These weeping willows are astonishly dramatic, at the blooming and leafing out stage. This grove is dripping yellow green spring. No small part of how beautiful they look is the large space that was given over to allowing them to be what nature intended.  Willows are perfectly splendid in the spring. 

This old crabapple ignites, and lights up the sky behind my neighbor’s garage; it is in full bud right now, ready to burst forth on the scene from my terrace.  I do not even see this tree the entire rest of the year.  The next 10 days, it turns the air pink.  Do I like this?  Would I have this?  Am I happy to have it right now-yes.

Across the street is an old top grafted cherry.  The trunk bark is split open like a weak seam on a tight shirt-who knows whether lightning, scald, or other damage created such a giant wound.  But the tree has put on its frothy petticoat every year I have lived here, despite the fact it gets no care of any kind. Some days I marvel at the contrast of its dainty blooms, and its scarred trunk-other days I cannot bear to look.  Are grafted, weeping and blooming trees an alien nation- born of man’s misguided meddling with nature?  No matter my answer to this question, would I have inherited this tree, I would care for it, and treasure its persistence.  

My big Norway is in its glory right this moment-chartreuse and blue never looked so good.  This stage will be gone, before I have had my visual fill. Some trees are architectural; their branch structure, or bark, or shape, or leaf forms reward the eye of a gardener.  The giant shade trees- their massive dignity have graced streets all across this country. They are able to put a protective roof over a garden in such a graceful way you might not even notice.   The ornamental trees-those smaller trees with odd forms, or showy blooms-they have their day, and their place.  Should you be thinking about trees, try to figure out what you like; I hope you have more success than I.   

Who are the ornamental trees?  If you like subtly natural, look at the amelanchiers (serviceberries, or shadblow), cornelian cherry, witch hazel, and its relative, parrotia.  If you like the showgirls, go for pink cherries, crabs, and magnolias. Magnolia Jane is small growing and very floriferous. If you blush at that pink, try the Venus dogwoods, snowdrift crabs, apple trees, the magnolias stellata, or the yellow magnolias-Yellow Butterflies, or Elizabeth. Should you live in my zone, visit a nursery right now, and review your choices. Be seduced-this is what spring is all about.


My ornamental tree review, The Galaxy Magnolia Girls, are putting on their show nightly, as long as the cool temperatures last.  I do not plan to miss a single performance.

More On Pruning

This hedge has everything going wrong.  More than likely, it gets topped every year with an electric hedge clipper.  The work goes fast, and the result makes me cringe.  Repeated cuts into the top layer has resulted in so many branch breaks that the resulting dense top layer of foliage forms an impenatrable barrier to light to the interior of the shrub.  This hedge is mostly sticks, all year round.  Pruning branches individually takes a lot more time, but the time it takes is worth it.  Sometimes I describe pruning as a haircut-specifically, a shag haircut.  The branches on top are short and shaggy; the upper side branches are headed back slightly to allow light to get all the way to the bottom.   

The early season look of this hedge is ample evidence that skirting up a shrub is a bad idea.  In an effort to keep the sides of the shrub perfectly vertical, all those stray side branches have been pruned off. Not so clear from this picture is that the hedge had been planted so close to the driveway that any side branches would impinge on that hard surface.  This hedge in its natural state would be 4 times as wide, and beautiful.  A skirted shrub is all legs, with little tufts of green on the top.  Naturally, carefully consider placement before you plant. 

This lilac hedge is wedged between two driveways. There really isn’t room between the drives for any plant that I know of, even though the screen is welcome to both neighboring parties.  To make the best of a bad situation, regularly removing the largest stem to the ground every year will encourage the lilac to sprout from the ground level.  This keeps the green coming from below. This hedge has a decidedly layered look.  A lower layer of green, then a taller layer of sticks, then another layer of green. This striping is very evident in early spring. Its clear these lilaces were pruned across the top, all the same height, on repeated occasions.  Pruning branches irregularly, at all different heights, encourages green all over.  Only a few plants can be pruned into boxes and globes, or balloons.   Balloon bushes are those skirted up stick shrubs with balls of green at the top; they look like a hot air balloon, only not as pretty.  This is a particularly displeasing look, as it bears no remote resemblance to any plant’s real habit of growth.

These hydrangeas have been pruned back to a few main trunks.  Though the look is sparse, there is little to fear.  Limelights bloom on new wood.  They do not bloom until July in my zone.  There is plenty of time for this shrub to grow and put out flowers.  Cutting back to these main trunks in the spring keeps the shrb in scale with the allocated space in a natural way.  Letting pruning go for too long only makes your shrub renovation look even more extreme.

Hydrangeas grow fast.  This bleak look lasts for only a short time in the spring.

I prune my own hydrangeas to a roughly symmetrical height, first.  Mine are grown in blocks, not rows; they make a substantial mass when they bloom.  They are also tucked behind a Hicks yew hedge; I need every inch of height I can get out of my hydrangeas so I can see their flowers from the street.  Pruning should be done with a particular end result in mind.  I do not prune my hydrangeas any lower than 30″ overall, as I like their height.  

Once I have pruned down to the height I like, I then prune out crossing branches.  I may prune out the center of the shrub if I think it has gotten too dense. I leave the outside branches alone. There might be some vague resemblance to an egg laid on its side, with holes in the top-when I am done pruning.  

It is easy to see that this single old calloused cut from last spring resulted in three new branches.  Pruning is not the end of something-it is the start of something bigger.  These three branches from last year, located in the center of the shrub, I have pruned back hard. I like to avoid long runs of woody branches-as I do not like hydrangea plants that droop.  A sturdily branched undercarriage makes for a strong and weather tolerant shrub. 

This bed of hydrangeas belongs to a client.  They face down an old stone wall which is but four feet tall. She cuts them back very hard-to within 14 inches of the ground.  She has in mind to keep the flowers at about the same height as the wall.  Pruning hard keeps the eventual plant height in bounds.  


In bounds, but blooming beautifully; this I like.