Fall Container Plantings

fall-container-planting.jpgThough most of my work involves landscape design and installation, I have a big love for container plantings. They can be different every year – what a relief to let go of something that didn’t work out so well.   Best of all, they can be planted for every season.  The beginning of any new gardening season sets me to thinking about how I would like to plant the pots. Unlike my landscape, which changes only incrementally from year to year, my containers are empty and waiting at the start of every new season.  In Michigan, we have four seasons every year, each lasting about 3 months, give or take. Four times a year,  I have the opportunity to start over.

fall-centerpiece.jpgHow I choose to design and plant pots is a process I look forward to.  Certain plants that I may have never given a moment’s notice suddenly interest me.  Certain plants or materials that I have never seen or used become available. Growers of all kinds give a special gift-a vocabulary from which a container planting is eventually able to speak. A color combination that suddenly strikes my fancy. There was a time when I dreaded the coming of the fall.  All I could think about was the beginning of the end of the garden. What a silly notion.  Fall is a great time to plant in a landscape or garden. The temperatures are moderate, and the rainfall more regular.  Fall is also a great time to plant containers.

DSC_4793The leaves of the trees maturing, turning color, and dropping, is a spectacular event. The sun low in the sky endows everything in the garden with a special glow.  The cutting flowers and vegetables at my local farmer’s market speak to the abundance of the harvest. Every color from the sky to the kale to the red peppers is completely saturated. The ornamental grasses are never more beautiful  than they are in the fall.  Caring for fall containers is easy.  Cool temperatures means infrequent watering.  Trouble with bugs-not so much.

DSC_4799  The summer annuals are slowing down, and showing signs of displeasure with the cool nights. The coleus and non stop begonias in my containers are the first to show signs that their season is coming to a close.  They like hot sunny weather.  Nights in the 40′s are not to their liking.  I am reluctant to give up my summer containers; they have provided me with so much color, texture, and form all season long.  My containers are always their best in September.  They have grown in, and grown up.  The dahlias are never better than they are in September and October.

DSC_4877However, it is but a short time from the peak, to the decline.  That said, the decline of the summer summer loving plants does not mean the decline of the garden.  We have a fall season, dead ahead.  Summer containers can be switched out for fall.  Local nurseries, garden centers and farmer’s markets carry all kinds of fall blooming and cold tolerant plants. Pansies and asters are great in fall containers.  Dwarf evergreens shine in fall pots. Succulents, even tropical succulents, are tolerant of cooler weather.  Foliage plants are especially gorgeous in the fall.  The ornamental cabbage and kale are extraordinarily beautiful. I like heucheras better in the fall than the summer. So many of the ornamental grasses are suited for a planting in a fall container.  Chrysanthemums have their place-they thrive and bloom in cool weather.  There are lots of choices, if you decide to go ahead and choose.

DSC_4878I like adding fresh cut and preserved or dry natural materials to fall pots.  Why not?  They provide me with the option of going taller and wider. They have the potential to provide a sculptural quality to fall containers that is hard to obtain otherwise.  Faux materials, as in the orange suede floret stems in this pot, can add a lot of color. There will not be so much in the way of growth from the fall pots unless the weather stays moderately warm and sunny-just like the weather we are having right now.  The ornamental grasses that are available can add some height and rhythm to fall containers. This is welcome, given the static quality of chrysanthemums, asters, and ornamental cabbage and kale.

DSC_4892The only draw back of the ornamental grasses is the size of their rootballs.  Big grasses have even bigger root systems.  A six foot tall grass is likely to take up a lot of space in a pot. An ornamental grass transplanted into a pot is not rooted in.  A good wind or hard rain can knock them over.  It is possible to get all of what is good about a grass or a grain by cutting them, and securing them to a bamboo pole.  A stout 8′ bamboo pole only takes up one inch of space in a container.

DSC_4893In addition to ornamental grasses, broom corn and millet dry beautifully.  The colors mix well with preserved eucalyptus, twigs,  the ripe seed pods of butterfly weed, gomphrena, Chinese lanterns, mature echinacea stems and thistle. Any garden has plenty of materials that can be harvested for a fall container.  If the roadside weeds suit you, be sure you shake out all of the ripe seeds before you use them.

DSC_4895Some materials I turn upside down and hang for a few days prior to use.  If you need an element to be upright, let gravity do the work of drying it in that position.  Other materials look better in a casually draped state. I do dry the grains indoors.  Once they are outside, and the seeds mature, you will have gold finches swarming your pots.  This is an experience of fall that is pure pleasure.

Sept 26 2014 (2)New to me this year-dry banana stalks.  They curl as they dry in a way that only nature could create.  They are quite heavy, so we attach them to bamboo stakes in two places before we use them in pots. If you use any preserved or cut materials in pots, they need anchoring.  You need to supply what the roots once did.  Rob does a great job of finding great dried and preserved materials for pots.

Sept 26 2014 (1)These pots are quite large, and ask for an arrangement proportional to that size.  The centerpieces provide a lot of height, and a lot of visual interest.  The kale and cabbage are enormous this year-thanks to the cool summer.  If you do use them in containers, be sure to water at the soil line, and not over the leaves.  The leaves shed water, and can leave the soil dry. The leaves of some varieties are arranged densely around the stalks-if they do get wet, and do not have a chance to dry out, the plants can develop mold.

DSC_4905The most important part is to exercise your imagination, and enjoy the experience of fall gardening.  Though my pots at home still look good, I am thinking ahead to what I might want to see for fall.  I have plenty of trees and shrubs that are getting ready to turn color.  My fall pots will look right at home.

Sept 26 2014 (4)eucalyptus, black and green millet, and “Coral Queen” kale

Sept 26 2014 (3)finished fall arrangement

Sept 26 2014 (6)ready and representing the fall

 

A Landscape For A Gardener: Part 4: The Finish

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A Landscape For A Gardener: The Plants

plants (2)The focus of the landscape in the rear yard was and still is the pond. The informally planted pond gardens, surrounded by old scotch pines and punctuated by a small barn, look and feel as though they have reached a mature state of natural equilibrium.  I am not fooled.  A devoted gardener created this garden, and spends lots of time and effort caring for it. The new garden pictured above occupies the mid ground space, which separates the formal pool deck from the sprawling pond landscape. Since this garden will primarily be viewed from above, a collection of equally small growing perennials will feature the flowers, framed by foliage.

plants 2 (6)The arrangement of the different varieties is informal and random.   The modest height of the plants will not obstruct the view to the pond. The bed is anchored by the dwarf white hydrangea, “Bombshell.  The firepit garden includes hemerocallis “Citron”, an Al Goldner variety, and amsonia heubrechtii. The bed on the near side of the stone walk from the pool deck to the pond (not yet installed) is planted with small growing shrubs- spirea “Tor”, rhus aromatica “Gro-Low”, and clethra Ruby Spice.

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Perennial cultivars include alchemilla mollis, astilbe “Fanal”, Buddleia “Lilac Chip”, Leucanthemum “Snowcap”, Coreopsis “Moonbeam, perovskia “Peek-a-Boo”, Geranium “Tiny Monster”, Carex “Emerillo”, lavender and blue moss phlox, allium “Millenium”, nepeta “Persian Blue” and monarda “Grand Parade”.

plants 2 (4)Turning the corner from the south side garden to the rear yard, a group of columnar liquidambar “Slender Silhouette” frames the view to come.  Viburnum “Shasta”, viburnum “Mohican”, aesculus parviflora, and variegated red twig dogwood are underplanted with variegated solomon’s seal, and epimedium “Frohn Leiten”.

plants 2 (2)The columnar sweet gum is a great choice for a tree of substance that will grow comfortably in a small and narrow space. The informally growing shrubs bring the pond garden to the foreground, and smooth the visual transition from the more formal house gardens towards the pond.

Plants 2 (14)The landscape has 12 espaliered trees.  8 katsuras provide a lot of screening on both the north and south lot lines without taking up much in the way of space.  These espaliers will be grown into and maintained as a solid green wall.  The north and south perimeter of the front yard landscape is planted with hydrangea “Little Lime”.  Small properties ask for plant material small and narrow in scale.  A pair of old silver maples in the tree lawn had to be removed.  Giant girdling roots eventually did them in.  We replaced the street trees with honey locusts.  Though they fill the bill as street trees, their canopy is open growing, and their roots are friendly to the well being of companion plants.

the plants (14)The south side garden includes fruiting pear trees, and a run of arborvitae, planted for privacy.  The garden includes Macy’s Pride rose, Sunny knockout rose, hyssop, astilbe “Sprite, and the dwarf Russian sage, “Peek-a-Boo”.  Towards the rear, the pear espaliers are underplanted with brunnera “Jack Frost”, and pachysandra.

the plants (6)The brunnera wraps around the side, where the garden is shaded by an overhang.  The sunnier areas are planted with herbs, both perennial and annual. Pots were added at the last for tomatoes, and flowers.

fence gardenIn the front yard, a garden was planned for both sides of the iron fence.  Given the low height of the fence, the perennials are correspondingly short.  The garden is anchored with a number of helleborus “Jacob”.  Added to this, more dwarf buddleia, anemone “Snowdrop”, sweet woodriff, aster “Wood’s Blue”, Salvia “Marcus,  heuchera “Venus”and Euphorbia polychroma.  This garden will be planted with small spring flowering bulbs this coming month.

the plants (8)The fence actually follows the line set by the sidewalk, which is not parallel to the house.  This width of the garden on either side of the fence varies depending on the location.  This helps to create the impression that the fence runs parallel to the house.  Why would I think this was important?  This space is more formally designed.  I am usually reluctant to plant perennial gardens in a front yard. If I do plant them there, I like the effect to be compact and tailored-not a look that nature is particularly inclined to.  Perennial gardens only look as good as the quality of the maintenance devoted to them.  But this client loves, and looks after her gardens.

the plants (7)This garden also solves the issue of how the fence interacts with the landscape. Mulch or stone under the fence-rather bleak.  Grass up to the fence is very difficult to maintain in a beautiful way.  This fence is an architectural feature of the yard-the garden says so.

July 17 2014 (67)The front yard features two types of dogwoods.  A pair of cornus kousa “Venus” will growing to a height of about 15 feet, and features large white flowers in June.  A pair of variegated cornus kousa “Samaratin” are planted between the boxwood describing the curved stone wall, and the fence garden.

succulent-garden.jpgA narrow strip of a bed separates the driveway from the walk to the front door. That garden is entirely comprised of hens and chicks and sedums.  Sedum Vera Jamieson, Dazzel Berry, Mr. Goodbud, John Creech, Matrona and angelina were outfitted with drip lines, so they could be watered on an appropriately infrequent schedule.

the plants (13)Columnar Bradford pears on the north lot line will provide a little large scale company to the house.

the plants (10) The garden at the front is planted with azalea “Stewartsonii, and a collection of blue leaved hostas of varying sizes. The cultivars include  hosta sieboldiana elegans, krossa regal, Halcyon, Regal Splendor, and Mouse Ears.  Regal splendor is a krossa regal variety with cream edges.  By mt client’s special request, a few rhododendron “Nova Zembla”.

the plants (9)Of course the pool yard has a more serious fence and gate-this is code.  But the iron work is light, and permits a glimpse through to the pool terrace pergola.

the plants (4)The last of the planting? Due to the location of several underground mechanical boxes, this area could not be planted in ground.  A frost proof Belgian stoneware pot would be planted with a dwarf Japanese maple. We will most likely drop-pot the maple, meaning we will drop in into the container, plastic pot and all, for the spring, summer, and fall. The maple will be stored in the garage for the winter.  Once in a while I am fortunate enough to have a client who wants a landscape filled with gardens. She has a very special way with plants.  This landscape will shine, given her care.

A Landscape For A Gardener : Part 2: The Dirt

DSC_5410By the final months of 2013, the sidewalk was nearing completion, the driveway base got poured, the curving front courtyard wall and pillars for the cast iron fence were complete. The iron work-yet to come. At least we were past the point of contractors parking in the front yard.  It is next to impossible to convey to an electrician that the weight of his vehicle damages the structure and drainage capacity of  soil.  We just breathe a sigh of relief when they are finished and gone.  The ground that has been driven over for years had become much like a parking lot, only paved with dirt.  To make matters worse, our area is noted for its heavy clay soil.  This project involved lots of hand digging to reintroduce oxygen to the soil, and the addition of compost to leaven the clay.

June 24 2014 (36)The soil would need grading to the levels established by the house, drive, walk and terraces. This part of the landscape installation takes the most time.  Once the soil is graded, a good rain will tell if there are any non-draining areas.  Once plants are in the ground, they cover over any water that may be sitting on top of the soil. It is vastly easier to spot drainage problems in this stage.  Eventually the iron fencing got installed, all but one panel.  We needed access to the yard with a machine, and tools.  The new blue stone sidewalk was for foot traffic only-and certainly not our feet.

June 24 2014 (37)It is such a relief to get to the dirt stage. I like moving soil around, marking bed lines, and preparing beds to be planted. It is a sure sign of progress.  On the subject of soil for woody plants, I am a member of the do not disturb camp.  Years ago I would dig holes for every tree and shrub at least 3 times bigger than the size of the root ball.  Once the shrub was planted, I would back fill the hole with soil concocted in the wheelbarrow.  Topsoil, sand peat moss, compost, and worm castings were blended to make the soil of my dreams.

June 24 2014 (35)Years later, a study from Michigan State disputed the wisdom of planting a tree in soil which was anything other than existing soil.  Once the roots reached the end of the heavenly soil, the shock of the native soil could set the tree back for years.  This only makes sense.  A root ball needs to be set on firm ground-not new soil.  This makes sense too.  New soil is full of air.  A tree that sinks below grade is a tree that will have problems.  I choose plants that thrive not only in my hardiness zone, but in my soil.  I caution clients who insist on having rhododendrons.  They look great in full bloom at nurseries here in the spring, but I am quite sure none of those plants are Michigan grown.  Though there are neighborhoods nearby with giant and thriving rhododendrons, that is not the norm.

The Plants (25)Last fall, we did purchase 8 large katsura espaliers for this project. When it became clear that there would be no movement on the landscape until this spring, we heeled those trees in at our nursery yard.  We did plant them while we were grading and preparing beds.  The root balls measured almost 40 inches across, meaning the trees were very heavy, and difficult to handle. I was interested to make the move before they began to leaf out, in the interest of less stress for both the trees and my crew over the transplant.  This particular spot on the lot line was well above the grade of the neighboring property.  A very low retaining wall, not visible in this picture, was built to keep the soil in place.  The large solid balls of the katsuras proved to be a help maintaining the grade we needed.

June 24 2014 (34)Once the grade was established, all of the beds to be landscaped were edged in aluminum edger strip. This insures the integrity of the bed lines, and more importantly, it keeps the lawn grass out of the borders.  A landscape within reasonable maintenance limits is a landscape every client appreciates.  Edging beds is not only a skill, it is a whomping lot of work.  A landscape bed with sloppy edges has a sloppy look.  Crisp edges and mowed grass can make the most weed stricken garden look better.  An existing Japanese maple that had survived the construction was protected from the grade change with a stone well.

June 24 2014 (33)Areas which would be planted with perennial material are treated differently than those for trees and shrubs. A tree which is properly sited for zone, existing soil and light will, given a little care, take hold and thrive. There will be no deadheading, or dividing.  With any luck, that thriving will go on for many years.    If you count out horseradish, and some of the big growing grasses, most perennials do not put down roots that deep.  But I do like 16 inches of decent well drained soil, if I can get it. A garden grown on sand is easily to establish, and the devil to keep year after year.  The gardens to be planted on this heavy clay soil may take some doing.  More than likely, we will loose some plants.  But once established, and top dressed every year with compost or ground hardwood bark, a garden in heavy soil will have a long and happy life.

June 24 2014 (24)Establishing the proper grade in the back yard took some finesse. Of course, matching the new grade to the old would be ideal.  But the new house and walks have created drainage issues which never existed before.  The most likely spot for water to pool is dead ahead.  The contractor had run several large storm drains to exactly this spot.  The last part of the grading would be to lower the grade from the stone walk yet to come to the pond.  The big idea here was to plan for surface water to have an unobstructed path to the pond.  What could be better than keeping the level of the pond up with rain water?

DSC_2107We were ready for plants.