Planting For Spring

Word has it that we will have night temperatures in the teens and up to 20 degrees tonight-welcome to spring in Michigan.  My tulips that are four inches tall-I am hoping blistered and burned foliage will be the only damage.  As for my crocus just barely representing themselves-who knows.  But as tough as spring can be, there are those plants that are resistant to temp troubles. The charteuse leaved geranium, Persian Queen, can take a lot of cold.  Should the cold linger, it will languish; I am not a bit afraid to plant it out April 15, and hope for a steady warm-up.  Osteospermum handles cold even better-these daisies that come in a wide range of colors last long into the summer as well.  Petunias roll their eyes, and are moodily tolerant-don’t count on them to grow now how they do in hot weather.  Alyssum-the workhorse of the spring garden that moves on into summer without any fuss.

Pansies and violas are a mainstay of a spring garden.  I do not use the word mainstay lightly;  the longevity of early spring perennial blooming hinges entirely on the weather.  Should we have an early warm up, or a late freeze, they fade.  Pansies and violas take the ups and downs with equanimity.  Some hybrids survive our winters after a fall planting.  This is worth some flag waving; in the fall,  I can bury tulip bulbs, and overplant the surface with pansies-the spring gratification far outweighs the winter delay. 

Heuchera has seen a breeding explosion like few other perennials in recent years.  Peach, orange and lime foliage-these leaves are seductive. The black leaved varieties don’t send me.  Black foliage to me is about drama-what drama is there in a black leaved plant that grows 6 inches above ground level?  Black leaves on a dirt background-mud, in my mind. I have never been much of a fan of heucheras in the garden-they need division too often for me.  In pots, they shine; I plant them all the time.  Their color and shape is beautiful-up close to the eye. 

I have an aversion to empty pots come spring-they look so forlorn. One’s winter stick center can be kept on through the spring, but I want to see some real plant life going on, early on.  My gardening season is short-best to plan to savor every day. 

Empty pots at the front door do not exactly say welcome. Nothing in the ground is making much of a move yet-save the hellebore flowers.  A nation of hellebores would not warm up this front door-they have an entirely different seat on the garden bus. Low to the ground, they are not so hard to pass over.  They need an intimate, traffic stopping space to shine. I am truly sorry they are not more widely grown.  However, the fact is, once nurseries get good traffic going on in the spring, the hellebores are finished blooming, and sit there on the shelf,  benignly green.  It is easy to miss them.  When I see my patches of crocus push up in the spring, I always regret that I didn’t add to them last fall.  Gardeners need to be six months ahead of the season-how hard is that?  

Though spring plants tolerate cold, they thrive in warmer conditions.  These south side window boxes put on weight from the moment of planting.  The Persian Queen geraniums never skip a beat, and will still look great come October.  How lobelia grows here defies everything I had come to believe about lobelia.  They will thrive in full son on the south side, if the watering is dead on.  This picture was taken the end of June, after an April 1st planting.

This lead egg cup from the Bulbeck foundry in England is a focal point in this garden.  It would not do-for it to be empty in the spring.  Too many other spring views depend on its state of dress. The shape, arrangement and placement of landscape elements in this garden look good, given how early the season.  A Bulbeck stuffed with spring plants-beautiful.


The plants of spring are specific in their color shape and habit.  Once the season passes, that look is gone.  A long spring-this I like.

Finally, Spring Plants

I laid eyes on my first batch of spring plants today-I was ridiculously pleased.  I could not take my eyes off these yellow pansies-nor could my nose.  Living plants have that most divine life-smell;  it was as if I got my first deep breath of saturated oxygen in months. This first contingent of plants I have special appreciation for-every sense I have is the better part of starved.  The spring plants deliver. I am not so much a fan of pansies with blotches-frequently called faces-I am not interested in anything remotely resembling black in the spring.  I love and welcome these big clear faced pansies. 

It is much too early for tulips-mine are 4 inches out of the ground, thanks to the very mild March we are having. These are fakes.  Though I value my plants like other people value their kids, I am unabashed about having these.  Made from some rubbery material with a decidedly tulip-like sheen, they cheer me up every time I walk by them.  So pink, they are!  The decision to carry fake plants is twofold-very few places carry them anymore-though the technology, appearance and feel of them is incredibly good now.  Those rayon tulips I saw 15 years ago were hard on the eyes, and dreadfully tough to take. These tulips bring spring to mind; this is enough to ask.  More importantly, I like to plant pots for spring-I am ready now.  The chilly spring weather is great for my bulbs and woodland flowers-they last and last, going into nature’s cooler every night.  But planted pots don’t gain much weight until the night temperatures really warm up.  A few fakes can give some needed heft and scale to a spring pot. Planting pots for spring-try it.  You may really like it.

I maintain the traffic island across the street from the shop-all the township does is mow the grass every so often.  As I prune the forsythia and honeysuckle, and look after the crabapples, I have no guilt about cutting and forcing some branches for the shop.  The masses of forsythia bloom heavily in the spring, given that I prune them properly after they bloom.  You are looking at 20 cut stems here-I would say the shrub planting from whence these stems came is happy.  I would not want forsythia in my landscape-not enough summer, fall,  and winter interest to warrant a spot on my small property.  But if I had land, I would plant them in rows, like radishes, and marvel at their glorious moment.  Have you seen Forsythia Hill  in bloom at Beatrix Farrand’s garden at Dumbarton Oaks in DC-truly glorious. 

Plants soften the edges and hard surfaces that make up much of the natural world. If I were able, I would plant every container I have; the plants bring so much to the party.  A crate is a crate-a crate full of hyacinths, smelling fresh and fragrant, is a spring moment.  

Amongst Rob’s plant choices today-what I call ashcan flowers.  I have not seen them in 30 years.  Ranunculus acris-a spring blooming perennial ranunculus, grew wild next to my trashcans, in the alley of my first house.  They like a low spot and don’t mind water-I so like plants that are happy in tough spots.  Yellow in the spring-this is a good look.

Rob designed and planted his first spring pot-a wire basket lined with moss got a mass of blue pansies-and a tuteur of prairie pussy willow. Belgium, England, and Oregon do much with plant towers from natural materials-he likes them.  I have to admit, these yellow stems against those china blue blooms says early spring loud and clear. I am waking up.  

This pussy willow is a new one to me; prairie pussy willow, I am told.  I plan to call for the nomenclature.   The best part of a love for horticulture-no matter how many years it has been on your mind and heart, something new is bound to come your way. regularly. I had Rob move this pot 10 times before I found this spot to photograph it.  Those grey fuzz balls on their yellow stems are worth a good look.  That spreading topknot of willow I photographed in front of my old linden.  This visual relationship makes the most of each element.   I have a mind to learn about this salix. 


Inside, my greenhouse roof provides the necessary light for lots of plants.  I could do without a lot of things-but not the plants.  I share this in common with gardeners from sea to shining sea-and beyond.

At Close Range


I have talked every which way, and in every language I am familiar with about composition and space; can you tell it is a topic close to my heart?  My space has been very limited the past six weeks-so I am more than familiar with what goes on at close range.  I can describe in every detail what I see out the one window at home where I spent the lion’s share of my time the past 6 weeks.  The rhodies right outside that window were a green version of a thermometer. If I had my way, what would be up close to my view, every day?

What is up close and important for Buck is his kitchen-and everything else that goes on at the dinner table.  People sitting down, relating over a meal-this may be his idea of life’s most important moments.  Everything gets discussed and decided-at close range.  In his work life, his eyes are focused, via a magnifier in his welding helmet, on laying down via his mig welder, a perfect and smooth bead of E-70s silicon bronze wire-that perfectly laid bead welds one piece of metal to another.  He is twelve inches from that work. The Englishman Phillip Thomason, arguably the most influential garden pot maker of the twentieth century, could not have been far from his work, when he carved this green man and affixed it to the wall of one of his garden boxes. Were it mine, I would want to be able to be at close range-a view like this is a good one.�
This photograph says a lot about near and far.  The front edge of this shell basin is in sharp focus. That front edge is parallel to the lens of the camera. Any object or plant, or combination thereof, which presents at close range, and at eye level, gets to be really important. That importance has nothing to do with the object or plant-it has to do with placement.  The background-how will you handle it?

Some pots can weigh in visually just fine, placed on the ground.  Others need a socle, or a gentle lift up, or a pedestal.  A pot at eye level is the visual equivalent of a finial. I define a finial as any beautiful finish to a pedestal, a garden, a space, or an entrance.   Plant that pot set at finial eye level or not, its beauty is at close range.  What you see, near and far, is all about good garden composition. Almost anything I see up close, I marvel at.  Should you want my attention far away, make that happen.    

These small terra cotta pots, waterproofed with masonry waterproofing paint and painted white, with their associated paint soaked bows, would not get a passing glance-but for their placement at eye level on a shelf.  Given a good chance to look at them, your idea about them being insignificant may take a back seat to what you see.

Contemporary garden ornament is much about shape and surface. Shape and surface up close has a much different feeling than shape and surface at a distance.  That placement within a space orients a viewer-no revelation here.  But placement is at your discretion- move things around.  Go far, get closer-move up to close range; see what you like best.  

Some plants, some garden objects, some gardens and landscapes, are best viewed from above eye level.  You can sort that out-just look, and see what view makes your heart pound the most.  If the light doesn’t go on, don’t worry.  I have been looking up and down, down and out, at a distance and up close, at my little property for 15 years-I do not have it sorted out.  I like this about gardening-Every year I bring something new to my approach.   

My garden tolerates me-amicably.  Should I bring something new home, chances are good that somewhere the landscape will invite the newcomer to dinner, and eventually ask them to stay on.  Where, how, and under what circumstances-this is your job.  Is this not a good job? 


Anything you cannot live without, and think to add to your garden-it may be more useful to ditch the idea of where, and think about its placement-relative to your eye, in the composition in question.  I know lots of gardeners that create based on instinct, and not idea. Those that create based on a genuine love and caring do just fine. There is really no need to give words to, or explicate the creative process. I only write about design in hopes of explaining my process. I greatly admire lots of gardeners that do things differently than I would-why wouldn’t I?     


Up close, every gardener gets engaged-yes?

Trimmed Up


Last March, when I was thinking about taking on writing a daily blog for the first time, I had some ideas about it-not the least of which had to do with the seasons.  I wanted to write what I thought day to day-not especially about the past, and maybe a bit about the future.  The news of the day-in this I was most interested.  The winter is excruciatingly long in Michigan; making writing for day to day interest in the depths of my winter, for other gardeners stuck in a similar spot, a challenge.  In defense of the winter months, lots of design issues can be broached and discussed. I have done that, maybe in more detail than you like. The 2010 store collection and how it came to be looks great-but all of this is lacking a certain kind of life. No collection comes to life until the plants get here. All I have a mind to do right now is think and talk about plants.  Steve has been on a road trip, checking out nurseries from whom we have plants ordered and soon to be on the way.  Relevant to my Sunday post about pollarding, his photograph above is of a willow stock plant, being pollarded.  The branches will not be used for firewood, as they are frequently used in Europe-these rootless cuttings will be sent out to growers all over who wish to grow on this cultivar.  These trimmings will become trees someday.         

Some older boxwood specimens spend the winter in tunnel houses.  Winter snow loads can devastate what has taken many years to grow. A tiny boxwood you may purchase at a nursery most likely takes seven years to get to that 12″ size.  Bigger plants take many more years to grow.  Nursery people do what they can, to protect what has taken so much of their time and effort, to grow on. 

I so love this photograph of Steve’s.  The dirt road, impressed with dusty tractor tracks, is in stark contrast to these painstakingly grown and trimmed plants.  Wow-do you not think you are looking at an alternative planet?  Or at the very least an alternative idea about plants?  Like trimmed topiary plants or not, the energy, will and work cannot be denied.  Growers and gardeners-a relationship.

I spoke for a big group of these plants.  They are beautifully grown, and healthy.  But I mostly admire the hand in evidence that sculpted these plants.  Make no mistake-so many years, so much effort, so much passion-one has to pause and admire what made this field come to be.  Growers by and large have no prize in mind-they grow, and live to grow.  Their hands-I plan to celebrate them.  I am sure you do too.

I see junipers grown and trimmed in this fashion regularly.  Yews grown like this-news to me. When I think old, gorgeous, and thoughtfully grown yews, I think England.  I am now seeing old and trained yews on my side of the pond-I will have some. Sensational topiary plants grown on this side of the ocean-I am clapping my hands. 


Buxus Sempervirens is not hardy in my zone.  I have avoided the plant like the plague-who wants to deal with a serious gardener’s grief when they loose a major plant?   I cannot plant this species of boxwood in the ground-all of us need to be committed to taking them into the garage for the winter. These topiary grown and trimmed boxwood would make my heart pound, planted in pots-a handtruck taking them to shelter for the winter is well worth the effort.    

 My pots are standing, waiting for plant material of this caliber.  How they have been grown and trimmed up before they ever get to me-many thanks to those growers whose committment and investment stands largely behind the scenes.  The hands put to a living plant by any gardener-no matter personal or professional, no matter a home or a growing field-I so greatly value this.