The 2010 Espaliers


I have been awaiting with great anticipation the delivery of a group of espaliers from the West Coast.  Even in photographs, I knew they might be among the most amazing trees I had ever seen.  I buy only a small amount of nursery material every year; those plants that have the potential to organize and electrify an entire landscape particularly interest me.  A few weeks ago, I did write about these trees, and post pictures of them from the grower. But today was the day I would finally lay eyes on them. 

The pictures did not really prepare me for what came off that semi-truck.  I was star struck.  They are very large caliper trees, whose years and years of training have produced an entirely unique and compelling living sculpture.  The intersection of nature and man can be a disaster, but in this case-breathtaking. 

Of great concern to me-the travel.  Thousands of miles these trees were trucked- under refrigeration.  Spring weather can be unpredictable-a warm journey across the country could cook the emerging foliage. A truck ride is not the smoothest-those of you who travel in trucks regularly know from whence I speak.  My eyes were on the rootballs before I even looked at the plants.  A broken rootball will kill a tree.  These rootballs were solid as a rock; the balling and burlapping the work of a consummate grower.  I breathed a big sigh of relief.

Plan A was to ship the trees via the rail as far as Chicago, and truck the last leg.  This plan depended on the grower being able to dig the trees well in advance of any leafing out. Fields too wet from spring rain prevented them from digging the trees early-we had no choice but to go to plan B-a truck coming across the country, carrying trees in the process of throwing leaves.  There is worry attached to this plan. A long trucking siege challenges and wears away at trees already stressed from the process of digging, balling, and burlapping.  Nursery people understand how much the trucking cost influences the price of a tree.  Unless you are buying trees and shrubs grown next door to a nursery, a chunk of the eventual price is very much influenced by the cost of transport. I know of no grower in this country growing espaliers of this caliber, so I shut up, and I  paid the freight.   

Seven of the trees are katsuras-Cercidiphyllum Japonicum, for those of you who want to know precisely what tree to which I am referring.   A katsura does not have showy blooms-I would describe it as an unusual tree, very architectural in form.  The leaves sprout red, grow large, and somewhat heart shaped, and mature with a decidedly blue cast. Mature trees are densely foliated, and sculptural.  In this group, I would put the beeches, the dawn redwoods, the weeping Alaskan cedars, the lindens-I am talking green sculpture when I talk katsuras.  

These katsuras have been grown and pruned with strong and precisely spaced lateral branches.  What does this mean?  In leaf, each tree will provide a green wall every bit of 10 feet tall and ten feet wide that takes up not 24 inches of width, in ground.  A living wall of green of astonishing size and very modest footprint-amazing.   If beautiful plants have the ability to astonish you, feel free. 

How these leaves survived a a week in a black, cold, and irregularly vibrating box-most plants have a huge will to survive.  This instinct served these trees well.  The katsura group of 7 weathered the storm like troupers.  The linden group of 7 are just budded-they had a much easier trip.  In my landscape practice, I try very hard to do no harm, to not impose.  How nature works is a miraculous event that needs little in the way of suggestions from me. 14 trees of astonishing provenance came my way today.  In short, thrilling.    

We soaked these trees immediately after delivery, but they had in fact been well prepared for their trip.  I sat on 6 randomly selected rootballs today-I could feel the cold, and the damp.  The rainy weather and cloudy skies the past few days-a better than good re-entry.  I made it my business to go out to see them 4 times today; every gardener understands what it is to be responsible .    


Here is a picture of my group of fourteen espaliers-are they not incredible? Barely leafing, like a crowd of teenagers, I see so much ahead for them.  Some time ago I wrote an essay about the provenance of espaliered trees-Palmette Legendre-should you have an interest.  I have a big interest in outstanding plants-this drives just about everything I design.  These espaliered trees-my only hope for them is that they have thoughtful gardeners in their future.

Evergreen Theatre

I deliberately chose to follow up yesterday’s post about the pitiful state of my garden with a discussion of evergreens in the landscape. This garden I planted many years ago; it has been maintained with distinction. I will post this picture every so often as long as I live-is this garden not the most beautiful?  Evergreens play a lead role in those transitions between the seasons.  They shine in the late fall, winter, and early spring in my zone.  Were I gardening in Florida or Spain, I would still give plenty of consideration to evergreens-the broadleaf ones in particular. Were I to find myself gardening at the equator, I would not be happy.  I have had my seasons too many years to give them up.  How to handle the transitions of the seasons-the evergreens do the work.   Yesterday’s post was all about dirt and desolation, but in fact my landscape has green structure.    

These buxus sempervirens topiary balls arrived from Oregon yesterday.  This species could be hardy in ground for four straight mild winters, and then burn and die over the fifth.  Why do I buy them?  They are incredibly beautiful in pots; I do not fault them for needing to be stored in an unheated garage or building over our winter.  This mouthwatering and luscious green sculpture in April-I cannot take my winter weary eyes off these plants.  I have a pair that have been in giant French terra cotta pots for some years.  They do fine in my unheated and unlit garage-outdoors right now, they focus my attention away from dirt, debris and the otherwise deadly and depressing.  Gardeners are a hopeful lot, are they not? 

Boxwood of this size on standard-I never see this form in boxwood hardy in Michigan.  It would take so many years to grow to this size, you would need to allocate your child’s college fund to buy one.  Buxus sempervirens grows like a weed in mild climates; these came from Oregon.  They will flush new growth twice in a growing season.  They are an investment-but given our 6 months of garden off season-worth the expense. 

Evergreen hedges are pedestrian in the summer garden; this arborvitae hedge is the last thing you notice in this picture.  They make a solid and quiet green wall onto which a gardener can sculpt their own idea of beautiful.  Evergreens do a great job of serenely enclosing spaces.  The center of interest in a landscape space can be encouraged, enlivened, made more special, via an evergreen backdrop.  

These trimmed topiary evergreens ask for a more starring role. Comfortable in the lights-yes, they are.  Can they organize a space, provide star power, hold their own-no doubt. 

Though I published pictures yesterday of my pitiful rose and perennial gardens, and what the corgis have rent asunder, my landscape is by and large defined by its evergreens.  Much behind the scenes workhorses in July, they are the star of my show in April. All of my landscape spaces are structured with plantings of those plants that stay green all year long. My public presentation looks presentable all year long.  Behind these yew hedges I have perennials and pots-none of which look like anything right now.  Better that I deal with what does not look great in April, than my neighbors.  I do feel it is my responsibility to present a dressy and neat appearance every month of the year to others in the neighborhood.  This is good manners.  Those people that plant vegetable gardens in their front yards-I am happy to not be living next door to them; that would be tough for me.  The beauty of a garden is year round, given committment and imagination.  The neighbors aside, evergreens provide structure, privacy and peace.  They break the fierce fall and spring winds-many of your other plants might prosper from the big brother or older sister an evergreen hedge might provide.  Those six months I cannot garden in Michigan-my evergreens tide me over.  

I took this picture today-the first week of April.  The needles of this dwarf scotch pine on standard are are not just green-they are juicy and saturated green.  Should you be planning a new landscape, or a landscape renovation, consider the evergreens.  Broadleaved, needled, the topiary forms, the towering trees, the hedging evergreens-look into them.  Their individual forms, their collective forms-they are a brass band that will warm your heart in the coldest months of the year.   

Though I took this picture on a July day last year, in my heart was a big thanks to those impassively dark green evergreens that scooped me up, and made my love of landscape a reality. Most of these plants were planted fifteen years ago.  Don’t delay: plan, go so far as to master plan.  Plant a few evergreens, or plant lots.  Plant little plants or plant a few big ones.  Think about where evergreens might provide a focus to a space, screen an untoward view, describe a space, break the wind, provide a beautiful backdrop.  Today is the best day of this gardening season to think about putting a plan in place. The evergreens-they can help you.

The Grim Reality

A northern garden in April-yikes. My rose bed actually looks better than usual for this time of year.  I have leaves on the climbing roses well in advance of their usual time.  A warm March and a south wall has tricked them into thinking it is spring. The boltonia is up next to the wall-but little sign of the Japanese anemone or asparagus yet.  I have great views of the hose, the gas meter, the window wells, and the dirt.   

The gas and electric meters do not fall into the realm of garden ornament, but my garden has them, like most gardens.  If you do a great job of covering them up, your bills get estimated; why do they always estimate on the so high side?  The wires-who knows what these are.  As T.S. Eliot penned in his poem “The Wasteland”, “April is the cruellest month”.  Though he by no means in referring to my garden, the phrase is perfectly appropriate.  My garden, in April, looks terrible.

The herniaria under the bench-a yellow brown.  Its unclear what is dead, what is alive, and what will be restored by warmer weather.  It all looks dead to me today.  OK, I might be overreacting. It is however, abundantly clear, no garden parties should be scheduled in the foreseeable future. Were I able to wave a wand, or put lottery winnings to righting this, or lottery winnings to an April retreat/ cottage anywhere else but right here, I would do so.  But this is where I live all year round, and this is what there is to report.    

My giant maple-how forgiving it is given Milo’s squirrel rants.  He leaps up on this trunk all winter long, thinking should he work hard enough, he will be able to climb up and destroy that squirrel.  Sections of bark are ripped off-horrifying. The pachysandra at ground level, ground off. A few intermittent broken and intermittent stems are all that has survived his daily winter onslaught. Not pretty.  

What is this grassy weed that comes on so strong in the spring?  Every year it spreads.  By the time I am able to get in there, and weed it out, it disappears.  This weed has the amazing ability to make my rose garden look littered before it ever wakes up. 

My Helleborus Angustifolius-every blooming stalk has been smashed to the ground by the snow.  I am sure once those green flowers appear, I will feel better-but today, I hate the entire winter burned mess.  Staking flowering hellebore stalks in April? I have given five years to this scheme; this April, I am ready to move on to plan B.

Lady Miss Bunny-I do so love this sculpture Rob gave me for my birthday some years ago.  This April-does the moss not need replacing? So many bones are showing-I am wincing. The moss needs replacing. Howard likes to hide under her when it is snowing-witness the pachysandra dead spots.  Dead spots-I am looking at them everywhere.  

My twig things-thank heavens they are sprouting. This very old Palabin lilac standard has been grey and grim for quite some time. I am inordinately pleased for the green haze I am seeing. The weather was very warm today-I could weep given that my garden has not responded immediately.  Who can believe I would even publish pictures of this mess of a garden-but day to day-any landscape is very much about the day to day.  It is a good time to assess, and plan.    


The grass will get greener, yes?  I will prune the winter away from the Limelight hydrangeas. Better days are to come, yes?

Sunday Opinion: Conclusions

The better part of coming to a conclusion on any matter can be a brilliant move at best, and at worst, a relief. Making a decision based on your best shot at a conclusion enables you to let go, move on-find another topic.  How often have you wanted to go to another topic? I do, regularly.  How you plan to move on-a decision worth some thought. The worst part of coming to a conclusion is once you pile a faulty premise on top of poor communication and observation, and boil this entire mess for hours, you find yourself out in left field alone with nary a chance of snagging a ride home.  Conclusions, to paraphrase, they can be very, very good, or they can be horrid.

There are those living things that do not speak the English language.  Babies, dogs, cats, horses, boxwood, gardens, nature-you get the idea. Some days I would include Buck in this list, or a client that throws me a curve ball.  Drawing conclusions about what is wrong is a gut reaction, an instinct, that regularly misses the mark.  On my mind-my sick boxwood.  The dead patches, the bright orange leaves-in lieu of drawing some conclusion without sufficient knowledge, I sent pictures to an expert at Michigan State University. 

We have had a number of exchanges, each more dysfunctional than the last.  When I sent extensive pictures, I got an email to the effect that there was no evidence of insects or disease. A conclusion on her part. Was there an intent here to close the topic?  I am trying not to make a conclusion, based on her response, of my own.  I know my boxwood out my office door has been the better part of a dream come true for ten years.  Something has gone way wrong.  It is easy to come to the conclusion that the expert in question has other better things to attend to, and has sent a form letter the substance of which is “your problem is not my department” -this I am resisting as best I can.  I know I need to speak to her in person.  Speaking in person is the best antibiotic against the scourge of faulty conclusions I know.  OK, I will call her. It is possible that there is no disease or bugs-that there is a problem that comes under the heading of “none of the above”-I may need to ask her to elaborate, maybe speculate. 

My Corgis have not been sick since they were babies.  Milo came off the plane with kennel cough.  A very rough plane trip from Florida landed him upside down in his kennel-my heart lurched when I went to retrieve him.  The snow at Metro airport was something he had never seen-he looked at me with those intelligent eyes of his.  Of course I drew the conclusion that he was looking to me to scoop him up and protect him from snow; maybe that conclusion was dead to right. But he also coughed all the way home in my lap-I got it right to take him to my vet asap. Howard was in the  fifth incarnation of a moleskin and masking tape apparatus to help his ears stand up; he was lethargic and distressed.  I came to the conclusion he was sick and tired of the whole process.  My comforting did not help him; in the morning I knew my conclusion could not have been further from the truth.  In fact, he had a terrible abdominal infection. I came in from left field in a hurry, and took him first thing to the doctor. I hate that my corgis cannot tell me when something is wrong-I am the responsible party who loves them.  How I draw conclusions-sometimes good, sometimes way off mark.

A garden has a language all its own.  It has taken me a lifetime to assimilate a few of its words, conjugate some of its verbs, learn its first tense, interpret literal translations.  I am better at listening now than I was 30 years ago.  I  make it my business to seek clarification, observe-and know better when to shut up and how to listen.   A beautiful garden takes this kind of energy and time.  There are lots of barriers to beautiful gardens and breathtaking landscapes.  The willingness to put initial conclusions on hold-in my opinion, this is a prerequisite for anyone hoping for a state of gardening grace.  In lieu of that, good gardeners regularly have the good sense to postpone their conclusions until all the evidence is in.  Sometimes, there are no answers. 

Leaping to conclusions takes much less time, and vastly less effort than getting friendly with a new language, or spending time with a living thing that cannot tell you what is wrong-in English, that is.  As much as any gardener expands their skills, their world expands from that experience. Welcome new ideas and embrace change-how easy for me to say! I like to do things how I have always done them; I hate being someplace with no map.  I am not a fan of being lost.

 Look at what is in your view, in spite of what is your instinct to conclude. Make new relationships out in that left field  Gardening friends all over the map-this is good.  Talk much, and exchange even more. Look at your conclusions; do you need throw any of them away?  A landscape has its own story to tell-not every bit of that story comes from you.  Do not be deterred by music that is different than what you are accustomed to.  A great garden sings-not every note comes from you.   All of its notes, no matter the origin, can enchant, or teach. The natural world-symphonic.  Make conclusions, should this seem a good direction.  Ditch your conclusions, should you have unanswered questions.  Given the big garden picture go past those assumptions and premises that are more a habit than a help.  Get up and go past them-this is my opinion.