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.

At A Glance: Spring Yellow


Planting Those Pots For Spring

My last post dealt with how I prep a pot for planting. I am sure other people have methods that work just as well for them.  As I plant lots of pots, I need a method that works well in general, and specifically in consideration that the maintenance will be handed off to someone else. When deciding what to put in a pot, I have my list of questions.  Is growing plants your most favorite thing to do, after your children, or breathing?  Do you have a stack of responsibilities that makes a low maintenance planting a plus?  Are you watering on the fly, or do you make time to individually water plants in a given container? Do you like big bouquet plantings that look like a Dutch flower painting?  Does the farm and garden look appeal-or something much more crisply contemporary?  How do you like your color? I planted the middle Anamese pot first with a 1.5 gallon rosemary-in recognition of that muddy blue green color at the bottom of the pot.  Some small green kale with purple veins repeat that blue/green, but are a great textural foil to the needled rosemary.  Hot pink annual phlox and orange pansies make for a friendly color combination that reminds me of vegetable rows altenating with marigolds.  I paid much attention to that pot’s color-what would harmonize, and what would pop, in a casual way. The loose planting is a great contrast to the simple shape of the pot.  The large pot presented another challenge.       

Large pots demand a planting in proportion to that size. Either the plants need to grow up into the pot, or something of scale needs doing from the beginning.  Our spring season is short, and cool-not so much growing goes on.  For that reason I like branches, even faux material, that will give the planting some presence from the beginning.  The curly willow branches remind me of the color of the glaze; some faux fern curls and pea-green stems brighten the willow branches, and add substance and heft to the centerpiece.  

The tips of the willow have the slightest suggestion of orange-as do those fern curls.    I took apart an orange grass pick; some faux material can have a much better and more subtle appearance if you spread it around. Taking materials apart, and putting them back together in your own way-I invite you to do this.  Using unexpected materials-why not?  The yellow pansies and angelina will grow.  Up close to the eye, the willow and spring plants will get your attention.  From a distance, you will see a larger overall form more than the individual elements.  

The little Anamese pot-I planted with black willow, and Easter Egg mix alyssum.  A simple vertical element in contrast to a low wide mass-a simple and elegant arrangement.  This small pot is planted with material that grows in proportion to the scale of the pot.  As I write this, I am wondering how a large scaled plant would look in this pot; knowing the rules is what makes it possible to break them with great style.    

The three pots are quite different in feeling, but fairly harmonious in color.  They will come on in no time, should we have night temperatures well above freezing.  Once established, they will handle the Michigan spring with ease.  The palette of available plants that tolerate cold may not be so great in my zone, but planting what I do have in a series of glazed pots celebrates spring in fine fashion.

How interesting would it be to see how a group of gardeners would interpret a planting for these pots. I am sure every one would be different-based on who they are, where they garden, and what about plants move them.  Pots of lovely shape and complex color would give any planting, in any zone, a big head start.

A Dirty Little Secret

I happily buy pots from Nancy LaMotte.  Her firm, Anamese Garden and Home, which is based based in Louisiana, designs beautiful glazed pots which are made in Vietnam.  The shapes are beautiful; the construction is superb. She asked if I would write an essay about planting pots for her newsletter.  Why not?  As I am ready to post a tutorial or two about my methodology for planting containers, I am happy to plant a trio of her pots.  How beautiful they are; these glaze drips running over the interior terra cotta surface are a preview of what is to come.   

Successful container planting is much about the dirt, and the drainage of that dirt.  Once you have chosen a beautiful pot, container, or urn-what stacks up on the inside has much to do with a planting living up to the beauty of its home.  Number one for me-insuring good drainage.  I fill every pot at least one-third full, maybe more, with a porous well draining material.  Coarse gravel, bark, terra cotta shards, cell pack plastic liners-a thriving pot planting drains instantly. A layer of non-woven landscape fabric will keep your soil from sifting down into, and plugging, the drainage material.  Most plants love regular and reliable water, but they hate sitting in it. 

Perhaps even more important-the soil.  Every gardener has a mix-I am no exception.  I like a heavy soil, leavened with lots of compost and a big dollop of sand.  Though plenty of garden centers sell giant bags of peat based “planting media”, I am a fan of  topsoil.  As in the closest thing to good garden dirt that is available.Peat based plant mixes are light-you can carry a giant bag to your car.  But peat based planting media implies a professional grower on the other end who will feed that sterile soil at whatever parts per million it needs to produce good plants.  My dirty little secret-good and hefty soil is essential for great plantings.  A compost based soil that does not dry out too fast, that has nutrients, is perfect for garden variety gardeners.  I am no fan of hauling forty pound bags of soil around-so I farm that job out to whomever I can persuade to help me.  This is worth the trouble-making sure the pots get filled with great soil.

I topdress my soil with Osmocote, a time release fertilizer. A small amount gets released, or osmoses through the wall of the granule, immediately.  The rest will release over time in response to temperature.  The warmer the weather, and soil temperature, the faster the rate of release.  The plants you buy at nurseries and farmer’s market’s are grown in fertilized soil, but at a certain point, the care and feeding will be up to you.    

I mix the osmocote into the top 4-8 inches of soil-this is an essential part of the process.  Potted nursery stock that has osmocote on the surface-the person who applied that is very careful not to do too little, or too much.  Too much feed is worse than no feed at all. 

These gorgeous pots are ready for some plants. How will I choose?  Nancy calls this glaze “swamp”; this color has a lot of possibilities, does it not?  The next essay-all about the sheer fun of planting a spring container.