Friday Night Opinion: Horticultural Hostility

I make a point of publishing essays that focus on all the good that gardening provides. Why wouldn’t I?  I do believe that gardens are good for people, and the act of gardening is even better. Reading about gardens and gardening is an excellent pursuit. Looking at gardens is like looking at at a sculpture that expresses one person’s singular relationship with nature. An interest and attachment to the landscape -both wild and designed- is good, no matter one’s age, or circumstances. Involvement,  interpretation and imagination is what makes the gardening world go round. In my opinion, a beautiful landscape is first and foremost a place to be. But it could just as easily be one of those natural places one can observe from afar, without intruding. Everyone’s idea of a place to be or observe is different, and worthy of the respect.   Other gardener’s interpretations get my respect, standard issue. I do my best to refrain from judgment. No gardener needs my opinions or experiences to live or work. I have my point of view, which may or may not strike a chord. Gardeners I have met are passionate and thoughtful individuals who have managed to garden independently.  I wish all of them well.  Their ideas, both traditional and daredevil, interest me, and enrich my gardening life.

I try to fend off what irritates my gardening eye. I make light of the weeds, even though I dread them.  I write as if digging a hole was no more effort than thinking a thought. I roll my eyes, and breeze by an unmitigated cold and rainy summer as if having poor containers did not matter. I never cry in public about a treasured tree that dies. I never chide a neighboring child who snaps off all of the buds of the lilies in a fit of childish pique. An old landscape of mine in disrepair? I would rather focus on bringing it up to speed. I do not talk about distructive bugs or bug poison-both of these topics equally disgust and silence me. Disease in plants is heartbreaking, but I have no plan to make that heartbreak rule the day. Gardening comes with a lot of scrapes, scuffs, disaster, and injury. Some things in my garden make me feel like my digging arm is broken. No need for anyone to hear about the setting of the bone, and the cast.  I choose to make much of the small victories.  The race well run. The effort that goes beyond. Every gardener understands this.

I have never had much to say about deer, even though their exploding populations now more than ever bring incredible ruin to beautiful landscapes and gardens all over the country. Deer damage has escalated in my area dramatically over the past 10 years. But I do not want to write about the deer problem. It is a big problem with no easy solution. I do not have a solution.   The rabbits that stripped the bark and shoots from my espaliers this past winter-I took that experience as an occasion to discuss how plants can recover from drastic and thoughtless pruning.  I try to discuss what is within the grasp of every gardener to influence. The troubles-every gardener has them.  I do not see that these troubles need front page coverage. Trouble is so ordinary.

I do not review gardens or landscapes. I would rather point out what I like, should someone ask. What other gardeners and garden designers do is their own affair, and I admire their effort, first thing. Lots of what I see is beautiful, and thoughtful. The longer I professionally garden and landscape, the more I realize that many things work. That there are no hard and fast rules. Be free, and garden-this would be my advice. Though some would value the results of the world series of gardening with a list of the best, the reality is much more low key, personal, and not so easy to rank. We all have the opportunity to create our own garden.  We can endow the landscape as we see fit.  I have never seen the need to convince anyone to garden or design like I do. I like the exposure to lots of different voices- they educate me. Another point of view does not challenge my confidence in my voice. I encourage clients to speak their peace – their voice is essential to my work  No one knows better than they do what is not working, or what does not look good, or what they do not understand. Strong relationships between people and nature have produced incredibly beautiful gardens and landscapes. All of what I see challenges and delights me.

I only occasionally allow hostility to punctuate my narrative. There are those moments when the hair on the back of neck stands up.  Of course a too brutal weather makes me hostile. Any plant mowed down with an electric hedge trimmer makes me hostile. Contractors driving up over the root system of an old tree makes me hostile. I have a bigger list than this-but what is the point of publishing it? Hostility is not a good look. I like the look of benign resignation better – whenever I  have enough grace to manage it.

I plan to start planting my annual and seasonal containers tomorrow.  I have some lingering hostility that our night temperatures have been too cold to plant, before now.  37 degrees is forecast, tonight. It is a late start for us, considering the number of plantings we have to do. But not too late a start warranting any hostility. Cold in Michigan towards the end of May is ordinary, and routine. I plan to be benignly resigned to a late start – as best I can. So with as much grace as I can manage, our summer container and in ground planting season is open. I am looking forward to it.

Spring Pruning

pear espaliered arbors (4)Every plant in the landscape will better realize its potential if it is kept properly pruned. A shrub that is kept pruned will respond by being densely twiggy-a strong branch structure is essential to good health. Plants that are pruned in such a way that every branch gets its fair share of light and air is a healthy plant. Every tree, shrub and perennial has its individual requirements.  I prune the hydrangeas after the buds swell in late March or April. I prune out the dead wood, and branches that cross over each other.  Branches that rub against each other may damage the bark – damaged bark is an invitation to insects and disease.  I prune each branch individually, so every shoot has its own light and air space. The forsythias and lilacs need to be pruned right after they flower, in a very natural and loose way that mimics their natural shape.

pear espaliered arbors (5)Very few plants tolerate close formal or shaped clipping. Boxwood and yews tolerate this better than other species. This results in a proliferation of growth at the ends of the branches.  Eventually the light and air is excluded from the interior of the shrub. I see lots of deciduous shrubs that have been sheared, resulting in a thin layer of green at the top, and bare branches below. Those shrubs will eventually have to be hard pruned in order to renovate them, or removed altogether. It is important to keep in mind that a pruning cut is a call to grow, and will produce a reaction.  The breaking of multiple new shoots is not uncommon from a single pruning cut.

pear espaliered arbors (6)Pruning to keep a shrub within the bounds of a confined space will fail sooner or later.  Planting shrubs or trees that will gracefully fit a space when mature is good planning. A tree planted within 3 feet of a sidewalk is a bad idea, unless that tree is a very dwarf or grafted form.  I prune most plants in the spring, although there are exceptions.  I prune maples late in the summer, and grapes in the winter. The roses and clematis have their own special routine. I prune boxwood after the first flush, so I don’t have to prune again later.  Pruning too late in the season is risky, and may expose a treasured plant to winter injury.

pear espaliered arbors (3)For those people who just love to prune, an espaliered tree is a perfect plant.  Espaliers are any tree pruned to lay flat, in two dimensions, against a wall. Trees pruned in this fashion, with proper support early on, make beautiful living free standing fences.  Some espaliers are pruned to assume a particular shape. They need a a sure and regular hand willing to prune. Some gardeners prune them to follow the shape of the arms, as trained.  Others prune them so all of the spaces between the arms fill in with a solid structure of branches. These pairs of keiffer pear espaliers have been grown, and pruned to assume an arch shape. Once a pear arbor is purchased, we fabricate a steel arbor matching the shape of the espalier which bolts together at the top.  The arms of the pear trees and tied to the steel arbor, which is installed on the underside of the trees, to maintain the shape.  We were fortunate enough to obtain 8 pear arbors.  All of them are gone now, and each required a little something different in terms of the steel support. An espalier pear arbor in full bloom is astonishing. It is a treasure, loaded with fruit, later in the summer.

pear espaliers (1)These espaliers had some pruning over this past winter that made me cringe.  The lower arms had the bark chewed off the arms, and shoots were clipped off by a very sharp set of teeth.  This malicious destruction of property-rabbits.  Cuts to a branch on a tree or shrub at a sharp angle indicates rabbit damage. We have never had this kind of devastating damage to our espaliers over the winter before.

pear espaliers (2)Nature has plenty of pruning agents which may or may not be to your liking.  Terrific wind storms, or ice storms can bring down dead or weak branches in trees and shrubs. Fierce weather can be an agent of pruning.  Keeping trees and shrubs properly pruned is your best defense against damage from natural causes. The rabbit damage to our espalier collection was considerable.  Only 12 of our trees were spared.  Next fall, we plan to put up a galvanized metal fence to protect the trees.

pear espaliered arbors (7)In the meantime, the pear trees responded to the rabbit pruning in exactly the same fashion as they have always responded to pruning.  They pushed out new growth. I was astonished to see buds emerging from old thick wood-although I should not have been. The will to live is very strong. Lots of life is lurking underneath that bark. The trees responded to this severe pruning by sending forth new shoots.  Should you ever fear that your pruning may damage a plant irreparably, take these pictures to heart.

pear tree sproutingThe scars of the rabbit damage to the bark will always be there. But the bare lower branches are already beginning to re leaf.

kieffer pear espalierPlants are amazingly tolerant of bad pruning.  What they don’t like is no pruning at all.  The best way to learn is to read, and then do.  The resulting shape and health of your shrubs will tell you if the job you have done is good, or needs a different direction. What a relief to see the new growths on these espaliers.

 

The Spring Garden

May Day (3)Despite a run of very warm weather, and the tomato plants I have seen sitting outdoors for sale, it is still very much the spring season here. One of my favorite things about gardening in the mid west is the fact that the seasons change.  I like all of them.  Spring is a special favorite, as it comes on the heels of the dregs of the winter.  Speaking of the dregs, we have a forecast for 37 degrees overnight. Our last frost date is the end of May-some 2 weeks away. This is no hardship.  The spring season, even on the coolest of days, is a delight. My variegated lily of the valley is proof positive of that. My tulips are on hold, in full bloom. The dogwoods are just about in full bloom, as are the lilacs.

DSC_0457The spring flowering trees are at their best when the spring is cool and moderate. Some years ago all of the flowers on my magnolias were frosted off, and the new shoots sustained damage as well. Our past winter was terrifically cold-especially in February. As a result, my magnolia flowers are so so this year. But I have seen lots of crab apples, cherries, red buds, and Bradford pears striking in bloom. The spring flowering trees-I would take a chance on them. My dogwoods are just beginning to bloom. Spring blooming trees are a marvel, and there are so many kinds to choose from. I see very few young flowering trees when I drive through neighborhoods.  And not so many stands of tulips either.

spring season (5)I ascribe this to the notion that many people feel the spring is especially ephemeral, and is shorter than the other seasons. However, the spring is just as long as every other season. The spring does not begin with a flowering phase.  The long process by which plants emerge from the ground and break dormancy is every bit as beautiful as a patch of daffodils in bloom. That pale limey green I call spring green is as visually lush as the new growth.

DSC_0219These dwarf spruce are not so dwarf any more, after 30 years in the ground.  When the new growth emerges on the tips of every branch in the spring, the visual effect is spectacular. The hellebores have been in bloom for at least a month. The warm weather pushed every plant full speed ahead.  At times there was too much to look at, and not enough time to look.  A good friend in the nursery business told me years ago that his gardens are designed to peak in late summer-this is when he has the time to appreciate them. I want it all.  Every season. This is why I make a special effort to enjoy the spring, even though it is a very busy time of year.

May Day (4)This patch of creeping jenny, campanula, and sweet woodriff is lush and fresh.  That quality applies to every inch of the spring landscape. All of the failures in the garden now are winter failures. Everything in the spring garden is growing robustly.  Regular rain sustains all that growing. There hasn’t been enough time for bugs and fungus to take hold. The time for disappointment comes much later.  The spring is about promise and possibility.

spring season (2)My yellow magnolias are rarely in bloom longer than a week or 10 days, but each one those days is heavenly. I look forward to them with great anticipation. The spring garden has an expectant atmosphere. How ephemeral the flowering makes the experience of that blooming all that much more sweet.

spring season (1)My perennial garden is finally beginning to fill in.  The delphiniums should be so beautiful this year.  They have just about filled the tomato cages that I hope will keep them aloft when they flower. Would that the catmint would keep this shape.  By midsummer it will fall to the ground, splay out, and need shearing.  This moment is a good one.

Mother's Day 2014 (41)Rob plants lots of spring pots, many of which feature lettuce, bok choy, chard, and herbs. This pot is good enough to eat. That luscious quality speaks to the best of what spring has to offer. There is no other fresh like spring fresh.

DSC_0433This new garden we did for a client last year has a few early flowering perennials-notably euphorbia polychroma and anemone sylvestris.  My client planted yellow and white viridiflora tulips, and white triumph tulips.  What a charming spring garden she has.

May 11  2015 009 I can hardly believe I have seen basil for sale outdoors already.  It despises cold soil, as do tomatoes, and many of the summer season annuals.  The best way to tell if you can plant for summer is to put your finger in the soil.  If it is very cold, wait to plant any tropical plants. A week of consecutive night temperatures above 50 degrees is a sign you might consider planting tropical plants. I am not ready for geraniums, or calocasia, or caladiums.  I want my spring as long as I can have it. The best way is to ignore the siren call to plant for summer when it is too early is to cultivate a spring garden, and enjoy the spring around you while it lasts.

At A Glance: A Spring Evening In The Garden

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HowardHave I ever seen Howard lie down in the bed next to the fountain? Of course not. Did Milo feel compelled to follow suit?  Of course. They insisted it was all in good fun. hmm.