Beloved Boxwood


I can think of few plants that have a better service record than my beloved boxwood.  Properly cared for, they are very long lived.  Old boxwoods have an aura of age which only adds to their beauty.  They demand little, and give much.  Few broadleaved evergreens can tolerate our cold winters.  Though our nurseries are stuffed with blooming Catawbiense hybrid rhododendron in the spring, it is a constant battle to keep them happy and healthy.  They simply like Philadelphia better than Detroit.  Ilex, kalmia and the like suffer here as well.  The boxwood-they thrive.  I plant the very hardy Buxus microphylla hybrid Green Velvet; the winter color is as richly green as the summer.      

This giant untrimmed ball of buxus microphylla koreana has lived in this French terra cotta pot for 5 years.  We wheel it into the garage for the winter-to protect the pot, not the boxwood.  The garage has neither light nor heat-not a problem.  In March we wheel it back outside for another season.  Boxwood can be quite hardy in pots or windowboxes outdoors all winter; the container needs to be frostproof, and the maintenance thoughtful. The buxus microphylla which forms the hedge outside my shop will take on an orangy-olive color in the winter; this winter color is typical.  The front of the shop is a southern exposure.  The hedge has been there 12 years, and has yet to burn over a winter. Most of the hybrids of boxwood hardy in zone 5 come from this species.

Buxus Sempervirens, commonly called European, or Southern box, is the boxwood variety of my dreams.  Lush and large growing, they adapt easily to any sculptural pruning you might dream up. They can grow to twenty feet tall.   If you have seen the boxwood planted by Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, you know how a boxwood planting can be sculpture.  Pruned into undulating cloud shapes, this planting is a showstopper.  I have seen this boxwood planted in ground in my zone, but a particularly vicious winter has the power to kill them. They are rated for zones 6-8; this rating means what it says. I therefore recommend using them in pots, and wintering them in an interior space. They only need an unheated space; you want them to go dormant, and only wake up when the worst of the winter is past. 

I rarely see boxwood topiary of size grown from a zone 5 hardy boxwood.  Boxwood is a relatively slow grower; it might take 7 years to get a cutting of Buxus Green Velvet” to 24″ tall. Boxwood in general are expensive.  Southern box grows faster in a mild climate, such as the Pacific northwest; they routinely flush growth twice there in a single season. As southern box is a big plant when mature, large scale topiaries such as these are usually grown from this variety.  A topiary this size, with a trunk caliper this large-very pricey.  But priceless in its return.  While it is an investment, your investment will grow and prosper over the years-what gardener could ask for more?   

This boxwood sphere with its attendant topknot/hairdo-what a great looking and very special plant.  You might grow topiary boxwood yourself from cuttings-it just takes years.  Any grower of nursery material-how incredibly patient they are. They can see the potential for a decently sized plant in a cutting.  But very large specimen boxwood such as these do not come along so often; most growers like to sell their material in a shorter time frame.  Now and then we will find a grower who has a love for growing unusually large or largely unusual plant material; these growers interest me. 

Boxwood is as happy in a supporting form as it is being the star of the show.  Their tolerance for clipping and shearing makes them an ideal formal evergreen hedging material, when a small hedge is desirable.  These large circular beds beds planted with tulips have a drama that would not be possible with tulips alone.  Their geometry and symmetry is an organizing metaphor for this particular garden.  The loose growing tulips have an excellent visual partner in the boxwood.

This is not to say boxwood is without its problems. The boxwood at the Chicago Botanic garden suffered terrible damage after last year’s winter-as the sign says. The boxwood in the front of my shop sustained damage much like this. In my case, huge snow loads, as well as freezing and thawing, weighed the plants down such that stems split, and allowed a fungal infection to invade.  Heartbreaking. 

These boxwood in my garden suffered similar damage-but I would not for one moment consider not growing them.  They are beautiful year round.  Gorgeous in growth.  Beautiful in the rain, or with fall leaves dusting their tops.  Beautiful as a topiary or a hedge.  Spectacular in pots.

They are a quietly handsome groundcover, under my Yellow Butterflies magnolias.   The day the petals fall to the boxwood-one of my favorite days of the gardening year.

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.