SOS: Plants Overboard

I get calls from people with trouble. More than landscape design, they need emergency services. When the basic requirements to sustain life go awry, and awry over time, an entire landscape can be threatened.  The storage facility next door to Detroit Garden Works had me landscape their property when it was built-some 10 years ago.  A company in Texas committed to enhancing and softening their buildings engaged me-a plan was installed.  3 years ago this facility was sold-to a person who has never activated the irrigation, never prunes, never feeds, and barely mows.  I have been forced to watch this landscape decline-it is next door.  I do not understand the thinking here-a landscape that was considerable to install does not take that much to maintain.  Should the landscape need replacing-very expensive.  What is the thought process here?  The property next door-shabby.  Making things grow is really not all that tough, if you are paying attention.  Like every living creature, plants need food, water and shelter. The water laying below the sod, and on top of the soil in the picture above-dreadful.  A lawn mower ripped the sod away-grass floating in water does not root.  I knew I had a client in trouble.  

My client-her only clue that something was wrong was her poorly performing impatiens.  Yellow leaved, stunted-and not growing. This picture was taken August1-terrible.  No kidding, this property was not draining.  Every plant was overboard without a life jacket.  Drowning.  I see this more than I would want to.  The process of creating a subdivison-not so pretty. Some are built on land that does not perk-or drain.  Giant basements come first-the stinking and metallic clay from that basement excavation gets spread on the surface of the property being built.  The native topsoil has been scraped off, and sold.    

This old and regal fir has been drowning for quite some time-the end is near.  The new growth at the tips drooping-a dead giveaway.  Too much water rots the roots of trees, shrubs, perennials.  No matter how much water is available, the plants cannot absorb it.  Rotted roots-terrible.  Ironic-a plant or tree wilted from root rot cannot be helped by more water.  Plants need drainage away from their roots-unless they are lotus, bog plants, or banyon trees.  When I water a tree, or a perennial, or a pot, I have every expectation that the water will drain away.  Should it not-big trouble. 

There are those landscape companies that make a business of rocking up and planting new suburban homes.  They build great grindstone rock outcroppings without one clue as to how to plant them.  This opera of a bed-left blank.  The soil that does not drain-in their defense, I will say it is very difficult to explain to a client that wants flowers and color that they have to deal with the dirtiness underground.  I have some skill in this regard-I brought that to bear with this client.  Her landscape was in great distress, and in danger of dying altogether.  Not that I love delivering that message-I still try to help, if I can. 

No one likes to spend their hard earned money getting water to drain.  You get this-do you not?   I like to show my friends my pots, and my fountain-would I take them to the basement to show them my new furnace?  No.  If I spend money, I like that expenditure to be fun-and an event I can share.  A new set of dishes, new garden chairs, a new pot-you get the idea.  Persuading people to drain their property-a tough go. 

This client had other landscape issues.  The design of this boxwood square implied some object of interest that was missing.  A barked bed hosting two plants not related to each other-whoa.  My client was at the mercy of a design build company that had little idea of how to design, and even less idea about how to build. They planted in soil that did not drain, topdressed with some dark bark so all would look good, and moved on. 

I did persuade her to add a pair of artichoke finials from Garden Traditions to her rear yard-the giant stone pergola and pool needed some company. The triangular growing junipers in the above picture-who would plant this plant as a hedge??- we replaced with arborvitae.   

Solving her water issues was the organizing metaphor of our relationship. We installed drains, catch basins, regraded, planted- all at enormous expense.  The company that installed this landscape rolled in, made a few moves, and drove away-leaving my client to pick up the pieces.

I did replace the drowning boxwood in front of her pool, after excavating and replacing that basement blue clay with soil that would sustain life.  I did a giant amount of work for her-none of which blooms or can be shown to friends.  The entire process wearied the both of us.  I cannot remember how we parted ways-but there was a point at which I could no longer convince her to go on cleaning up the dirtiness that was going on underground.  I happened to drive by the other day-looks to me like all of her plants have proper food, water and shelter. Her landscape is thriving.  I feel good about this.  Food, water, and shelter-simple.

At A Glance: What Now?

A Level Playing Field


I have skimmed over many gardening articles in the past few years advocating the abolition of lawn in the landscape.  In general, I do not favor the act of banning.  Those who would ban this or that somehow have the idea that the lives of others are just waiting for them to intervene and save them.  Thanks very much, but I have done a fairly good job up until now making my own decisions about how to live my life.  That aside, I think lawn has an important place in the landscape.

Perhaps I should distinguish between lawn, and grass.  I do not have lawn-as were rolled, tended and cut every other day in those classical English gardens that make my mouth water.  I have grass-that low and densely growing perennial that covers considerable and any amount of square footage without any maintenance- save a weekly cutting. Grass grows willingly.  It grows on slopes as well as flat ground.  Grass covers bare soil, and vigorously resists invasion from weeds. Beautifully graded soil, covered in grass-a sculpture. 

Grass is all about endurance.  Grass endures the impromptu soccer game, the garden party, the dog play, the car tires, the wheelbarrow grooves,-grass sits on the ground, enduring a lot of  physical activity in a garden-with few complaints.  It has to be the most versatile and accomodating plant on my planet.  That green skin of grass covers a fair amount of my property, to good end.  It enables me to get from one place to another. When of a mind to goof off, I might lie down on it. It enables me to be in the garden.

My corgis have legs barely 8 inches tall.  They are not so crazy about gravel or concrete-they like grass under their feet.  Their favorite time of the day-home, with the grass underfoot.  A level playing field for their horseplay is essential to their play.  The job of a retail dog has its demands.  They are happy to get home, cut loose, and relax.  The lawn is a place the four of us can relax and enjoy the garden.   

Were you be here, you would understand. When I come home, I want an outdoor place to be and sit-this means a patch of grass. I will admit I have one client with no grass-save for a patch big enough for him to take a nap. You may think this funny-I think he has a very keen sense of what luxury means.  

Is there another plant other than grass that would tolerate and facilitate my nightly corgi show?  I think not.  The most ordinary and familiar of plants can be of such importance in the big scheme of your landscape. 

I have devoted no small amount of time to a discussion of grade. Earth, moved up, and down.  Level ground makes people feel secure.  No one would enjoy a garden cocktail party on a slope. Once that grade is established, there are a lot of ways to handle the space.  It is as important to have functional and useable spaces as it is to have trees or roses. 

We like our grass.

Red, Pink and Light


Reams have been written about the science and psychology of color. I doubt I have much to add to that discussion beyond saying that no small amount of the pleasure I take in gardening involves tinkering with color.  One of the best parts of annual gardening is that my committment to a composition is for one season only.  I so like the chance to start over.  My annual plantings are a brand new party dress for my garden-the color of which gives me lots of pleasure.  There are few colors I do not like; though I am not a fan of grey, I planted the front of the shop last week with lots of silver grey foliage.  Planting a scheme which has a good possibility of not appealing to me is part of the fun it. OK, maybe my idea of fun is a little offbeat-but so be it.  Strong color has always appealed to me; how I express strong color depends on the effect I hope to achieve.  Pink and red make a great color combination.  The above pictured pots are based on a pink and red scheme, but the effect is formal and elegant.

Park Princess dahlias are as big a statement about pink as one could hope for.  Were I to pair this plant with orange geraniums and yellow boston daisies, or red cannas, the effect of the color would be hot and tropical.  As I was after a more formal and restrained expression of color in the planting, the pink and red I have leavened with lavender and pale pink.  Light colors have the added property of reading well front a distance; these front porch pots make as much visual sense from a distance as they do up close.

Tickled Pink million bells are a strong red violet at the throat, but the overall color reads as light, almost white, and airy.  They help to take some of the heat out of the purple wave petunias in this pot.  The variegated licorice acts like lots of ice cubes in this big drink of magenta red violet.  Had I used lime licorice here, and orange millions bells, the effect of the color would have been much different. The color is there, but expressed in a more restrained way.   

Once the pale pink mandevillea and lime nicotiana in this pot gets going, it will read in cool contrast to the cherry red geraniums and pink petunias.  Hot and light colors mixed together is visually lively.  Considering some of the ways in which color works will produce better and more satisfying containers.

Red flowers can be dramatic in a landscape, as red and green contrast sharply.  Red is most effective when viewed up close, or when the dose of red is a big dose.  Red tulips, poppies, dahlias, geraniums, solenia begonias-they represent the color red effectively.  Red mandevillea grows vigorously, and blooms heavily.  Should red be your pleasure, any of these plants can deliver.  Red caladiums are a different experience of red.  The red color is overlaid on a green leaf; the visual effect is muted. 

I plant lots of geraniums-they are the little black dress of the annual world.  It is no wonder so many people plant them-the color is striking.  But pairing red geraniums with pink petunias, or strawberries, yellow dahlberg daisies or lavender star trailing verbena can make that red look like a fresh idea.
The big shot of bold color from these solenia pink begonias is the star of the show on this side porch. All the other plants lay low, in support of the dominant scheme. 

Persian Queen geraniums are so versatile in a container planting.  The lime green leaf is electric when paired with red; the flower is an equally electric pink. This discussion of pink is entirely different than the neighboring pots-but all the pots are friendly to one another.

Pink and red geraniums alternating in the series of pots on a flight of steps get an alternating underplanting as well.  I like garden ideas that are expressed clearly.  Once I make a decision about where I want to go with color, I try to express that decision in as many subtly varying ways as I can.  This endows individual pots with  distinctively different compositions that still work well together overall. The planting has a rhythm and visual interest that helps make the flight up or down an interesting one.

Red, pink and light, coming up.