Monday’s Strictly Opinion: Angie’s Theory

Bear with me, as I am about to post for the umpteenth time about proper watering.  I have just cause-most problematic issues I am dealing with now regarding the landscape have to do with water.  A scheme for watering the plants has been the hottest topic of our season, given the high heat, and the utter lack of rain.  I mean to discuss the water that your plants, garden, and landscape require.  Thoughtful and dispassionately informed watering makes a difficult season more manageable.  I hope by association to address the problems that arise from too much water.  My clients who have not watered, or who have overwatered-we have a discussion pending,   

Our August nights have been on the cool side- downright chilly.  I ordinarily dial back the water when the nights cool off.  This makes sense.  Cool temperatures means water evaporates from the soil at a slower rate.  Hot days do not tell the entire story.  The night time story is a story line worth following.   My advice?  Ignore the day temperatures.  Follow the night temperatures.

Overly wet soil under any circumstances, hot or cold,  can result in root rot.  Rotted feeder roots means that no matter how much water is available to absorb, the mechanism for that absorption has been destroyed.  A plant with root rot cannot absorb any water from the soil.  Your worried watering may be killing your plants. Why am I blathering on about the importance of proper watering?  A misguided hose, watering can, or sprinkler system kills more plants than any other factor.  Too much water kills more plants than drought, insects, or disease.  Too much water can sicken and endanger an entire landscape. 

Those gardeners that never water anything are not really gardeners.  Those gardeners that water over and over again given a tough summer season are fearful gardeners.  I understand that fear-I reacted to the steamy heat and dry with my hose, open full blast.  But I see now that my off the top of my head reaction was harmful.  Thoughtful watering makes for a great landscape and garden.  As Buck says, be cool, and assess the situation.  Being cool, and properly assessing the situation-a good thing.   This is my theory.  Cool off.  Observe before you make a move.  Water only when there is a call for water. Do not water solely thinking you will help plants suffering in the heat.  Plants have an extraordinary will to live.  A drink now and then will help them to survive.  An ocean of water -they may drown.   

Consider these simple examples.  Japanese iris love wet ground-during their growing season, that is.  Flooded fall and winter ground will kill them.  Lavender can endure heavy clay-meaning astonishly water retentive soil-over the summer, but winter wet will kill them.  Yews are a snap to grow, unless an overactive irrigation system drags them down, and eventually drowns them.  Established landscape plants rarely need supplemental  irrigation, unless there is a drought.  Overwatered trees and shrubs will go yellow in leaf.  Hydrangeas appreciate a regular source of water-it takes a lot for them to produce prodigious blooms of great size.  Water them regularly.  Smart watering makes the difference between a passable landscape-and a stellar landscape.  Think through the wet and the dry-make a plan to endorse and follow that happy medium. 

Angie supervises one of my crews.  She is of the opinion that containers and plants should be watered first thing in the morning.  This gives them the entire day to soak up, to make use of,  that morning water.  Once dusk comes, the warmth of the day has already absorbed the the day’s watering.  The excess-so much steam.  This is a theory, remember.  This is a garden story that might make no sense scientifically, but could make emotional sense.  Dryer, overnight, given cooler temperatures-a good thing.  Good water during the day feeds the plants.  Dryer at night ensures their survival. I like my summer container plantings to go on into the fall.  Watching the water really carefully now will make a difference in their longevity.

 I usually water my containers after work-this is when I have time.  I load up the corgis at 6:15 most mornings-to go to work.  They fuss if I am late serving breakfast-they really fuss if we do not leave on time.  Given those dogs, I am not a morning waterer.  Tonight I find that all of my containers have just enough moisture to survive until morning.  If I water them tonight, they will be soaking wet in overnight chilly weather.  I make a call – no water tonight.  Tomorrow morning I will water-the corgis loaded up in the Suburban.  I will load them in the car, and water what really needs water.  

I read somewhere long ago that plants do most of their growing in the wee hours of the morning-meaning 4 until 6am.  It makes sense that their roots need to be able to breathe then.  My containers are the most water sensitive of any plants I grow.  As I am interested that they grow on into the fall, I am interested in testing Angie’s theory.  Water in the morning.  Make the daytime evaporation rate work in the interest of enabling  dryer and happier plants overnight-before morning. 

Every gardener needs to carefully observe how their plants react to their care.  Good observation makes for a really good garden.  Great gardens are unquestionably more about care than design.  Make every effort to get the water right.               

 

 

 

 

 

The CC Rule

 

I have a young and active client with three very active children.  Her daily schedule makes mine seem sedate.  She ferries kids, entertains friends, and maintains very active family relationships.  When I can catch up to her, she is strong minded and decisive about a beautiful landscape.  Every year we do something.  We did plant a run of Belgian fence for her a few years ago-she harvests and eats those pears.  Whenever we get there to prune them back into shape is ok with her. If she has to search for her pears in a tangle of foliage-so be it.  Only very rarely does an emergency arise in her garden.

 

CC has an uncanny ability to decide when to fuss, and when to go with the flow. Make no mistake-this is a very valuable skill.  She knows how to get through a day.  This means that she is content to let nature take its course-as opposed to opposing whatever nature has in store.  I have been known to throw myself at every issue in my garden like I have but 10 minutes to live.  I so admire how she coolly and adeptly assesses a situation, and acts.  Or not.  The “or not” part is a choice, actually. My friend Janet came to see my garden at 7 am this morning.  Buck was a little appalled about entertaining at that hour.  But we both had watering to do-before it gets hot. We were sitting in the garden when she asked me if I ever sat in the garden.  I do every day, after work.  For a little while.  Then there are things to do.  We both make a fuss.  The car pictured above obviously belongs to an obsessed gardener I know and like who would put put his top down, and ever so slowly drive a group of giant dahlias home.  

 CC is not at all that way.  Once she has made a decision about what she wants me to plant for her, she never touches, grooms, feeds, or otherwise interferes with what I have planted.  In September, I stop by and see that every plant in her pots has interacted, and grown together. Not one plant has been trimmed, deadheaded, or groomed.  Miraculously, this lack of intervention on her part works beautifully.  This window box was planted in the early years of the store.  The shop consumed so much time there was little left over to put to this box except to water.  Did I like it then-not so much?  I greatly appreciate it now. 

An absentee attitude is a good thing on occasion.  That which nature provides, or doesn’t has charm and appeal.   Every plant has a space to start with.  They duke it out, and come to some agreement.  The begonias may be miffed that she does not cut off those dead flower heads every day, but they keep on growing.  This pot of mine is is a little heavy on the chocolate sweet potato vine, but it has a naturally flowing appearance. 

There is no doubt that I interfere with the natural order of things in my garden.  Sometimes I water too much-I never err on the side of watering too little.  Every nursery person I know will say that more plants are lost to overwatering than anything else.  I worry my plants.   I plan as if planning were the crowning achievement of a gardener.  I move things around.  I desert some plants, and plant loads of other plants.  I like getting my own way.  This spring planting I photographed in August-a community had been created without me.  So I chose to do nothing about it, except enjoy it.

When I saw this CC plantings last September, I put my elaborate and intense program on pause.  The natural order of things made for a planting that was exquisite.  Exquisitely natural and unassuming.  Enchanting-of course.  There are but a few bits of heliotrope still representing-but is that not enough?  Her white non stop begonias wre breathtaking. 

 

 green container plantings

I would interpret the CC rule thusly.  Scheme, draw, plant-and then step back.  Let nature react to your plan.  Give nature plenty of time.  What you see in the end should inform your ideas about gardening.  Lots of plants resent too much touching.  Too much supervision. Too much fussing can drain the life out of a garden, or a planting.  This pot I have at home I have not touched, except to water.  And I water it as little as possible.  

This petunia and licorice pot has been sparingly watered, and shows no signs of any awkward trimming.  It is a prime example of benign neglect.  And a recognition that most plant have an incredibly powerful will to live, if you let them.  

That is not to say I won’t intervene with noxious weeds, or dry soil, or any plant clearly asking for help.  But making a huge issue of a stray this or that can put a damper on your garden party.

What a difficult gardening season this has been-from the magnolia flowers frosting off, to the poor early show on the roses, to the heat and drought.  And now more heat, starting up again.  My 3D osteospermums have been sulking in the heat.  But for sure my containers have some robustly growing osteo bushes that will start to bloom again when our temperatures cool down.  The CC rule-in some cases it is the only approach that makes any gardening sense.  

 

 

 

Lily’s Pots


Next week I will be giving a talk to 50 members of a local garden club.  I am happy to speak to any group free of charge, provided they come to me.  It is an easy matter for me to show pictures from my computer, or from a book in my library.  My closet is a collection of the garden gear I like the best.  I can put a container planting together, and discuss those issues which influence my choices.  I can talk about the history and care of great garden ornament. I am equally at home with ideas about how to repurpose apple crates, iron headboards, galvanized livestock watering troughs  and old fishing tackle boxes. I can speak to what anyone should expect from a landscape designer, or an irrigation contractor.  When I am in my element, I have lots of physical examples to choose from.  I am too old to take my shop talk on the road.

This garden club is leaving the topic up to me.  No doubt I will choose a topic that is timely.  Early spring perennials no garden should be without.  Spring container plantings.  Designing a landscape project for the spring.  But no matter the group, no matter the time of year, some questions I see over and over again.  I am not especially creative-how can my garden pots be more beautiful?  What is the secret of growing good container plantings?   Given this topic, I refer to Lily. I am quite sure I have written about her before. She likes me to plant every color and form under the sun-the more the better.  It matters not what I throw at her, her mature pots would make a grown gardener weep.  She has an unerring instinct about how to make plants grow.     

Everything thrives for her.  She could pick up a yucca plant that had been in the trash at the side of the road for weeks, and grow it on to prize winning proportions.  She has a soft spot for dramatic plantings-this I oblige.  But once I have planted, she is in charge.  She does take charge. 

She understands perfectly that annual plants form roots that are very shallow.  Unlike the deep rooted grasses, or baptisia you have tried to dig out and divide.  Everything that goes on in a container or ground planted annual garden happens in the first 8 to 10 inches below ground.  Annual plants only want to set seed before the end of the season, they will bloom and set seed at the expense of a substantial root system.  Only long term plants grow deep.    

This means that top 8 inches of soil needs to be loaded with organic material, and watered regularly.  There are those times when people ask me why my containers grow up lush;  I simply say I water regularly.  I water when the plants need water.  I don’t skip, or put off the watering to another time.  Regular watering is critical to success with plants.

I make sure that the soil that goes into containers is loaded with organic material.  This helps the soil to retain moisture evenly. Organic material leavens soil, so air is a substantial part of the underground party.  Notice I say soil.  I do not plant in peat based soil mixes. 

Peat based soil mixes are easy to carry out to the car, but they are sterile.  Prefessional growers plant in sterile soil mix.  They cannot afford disease to infect a crop upon which their livlihood depends.  But once a soilless mix dries out, it takes lots of work to rewet.  A cursory watering of a container planting in soiless mix means the surface gets a little moisture, and the roots are dry as dust.

If you are a hit, hit and miss waterer, plant in soil.  Potting soil.  A 40 pound bag of potting soil is not that much-get that high school kid at your local nursery to load your trunk with all of the bags that you need, and get help unloading those bags at home.  This effort will be worth it.  Real soil will buy you some time in August, when you are at a high school softball game rather than home watering your pots.  There is no harm mixing some peat, or composted manure into your soil-every effort you make to enrich your soil will pay off many times over. 

Lily’s pots always look well grown.  You see the hose on the ground in the foreground-she knows how to use it.  The time it takes for her to water, dead head, and clean up her pots is time she is willing to give.  Don’t have the time?  Hedge your bets.  Plant succulents.  Plant fewer pots.  Group the pots that need water close together.  Invest in a hose that is lightweight.  Have a good irrigation contractor install automatic irrigation in your pots.  (automatic irrigation really means you have a little more time before you do a personal check-automatic irrigation cannot replace you!)  

 

 There is not a gardener anywhere that does not enjoy the results of a beautiful garden.  A great pot.  A great moment.  My secrets are anything but monumental.  Let no container lack for water. 

It matters not whether the style and color of these containers appeal to you. If one boxwood in a pot satisfies your idea of beautiful, the rules are the same as what applies to Lily’s pots. Or the landscape at Longwood Gardens.  Or my garden.  Or your shade garden.  Or the roses at Janet’s.  Or the pots on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  What matters is that hand that gets put to seeing that the plants thrive.

My topic for the garden club next Monday?  You are able.  And since you are able, you should.  Plant it, Detroit.

Peak Season

 

The containers on my deck have grown like crazy in the past month-we are  approaching peak season.  The weather has been perfect; most days have been sunny.  Even so,  we have had night temperatures lately in the 60′s.  There are signs of summer’s end, as much as there are signs of summer’s peak. Though I could easily do with this weather a few more months, September 1st is just 2 weeks away.  Once labor day comes, our summer is in decline.  The nights are colder; it seems like less heat and energy comes from the sun.     Annual plants grow and bloom with one end in mind; they need to set seed, before they are done in by frost.  This is an exhausting task. All the while my container plants are putting on size and blooming great, there are signs of stress.  The mildew I have struggled to avoid on my dahlias-it has claimed a few stalks.  The fancy leaved geraniums pictured above are so rootbound I have to soak them every day.  The Japanese beetles have discovered my canna flowers.  The coleus despises the cooler night temperatures.        

The mildew seems to be spreading to my petunias, for heavens sake.  And the aphids on my licorice-this is a first for me.  Do all of my containers grow to perfection-not even close.  Just close enough to provide me with a lot of pleasure, looking after and at them.  There are a few things I do to make the best of the last leg of the summer.  I do feed my pots with liquid fertilizer regularly.  Geraniums like lots of feed-ferns, not so much.  Each one of my containers has a lot of plants in them, or plants that have grown large. I soak my pots with water, and then soak them with feed.  Liquid feed is like a shot of B-12; I avoid the next watering as long as I can, so the plants benefit before a watering washes it all away.  I am sure to flush my pots through between waterings, to prevent a build up of salts that can become toxic.   

  Most of my containers have grown skirts by now.  When I water, I lift the plants up so I can see the soil.  I water the surface of the soil-not the plant leaves.  There is no sense encouraging mildew to spread. I soak them thoroughly, and then let them get quite dry. The rectangles on my north wall only get water twice a week.  Overwatering begonias in hot weather is asking for rot.  Caladiums will hang their heads when they need water.  I snap off the old leaves out that get too tall, and threaten to engulf my chartreuse Janet Craig dracaenas. 

Growing plants in containers is a live and learn proposition.  As in-this rainbow coleus is a very big grower.  This means there are big sections of stalks between sets of leaves.  This makes it tough to get a good shape from the plant in a container.  These Italian terra cotta urns look like they have top hats-funny, this.  This variety would make a great hedge in the ground.

I know Milo is pretty handsome, but the message here is about keeping things clean.  I remove dead or diseased foliage.  I sometimes thin plants to improve air circulation. And I pick up what falls on the ground.  I leave no debris.  What I would gladly let decompose in my garden I don’t think is good for my containers.  My big Norway maple is raining disease ridden leaves; I pick them up, and throw they away.  Fungus can live over the winter.  Sometimes clean gardening practices is your only defence.      

My terrace is my version of a kitchen garden.   Buck cooks here, and I look after the pots.  My small bi-level deck has 14 containers.  It is a rare evening that there is not something to putter over-I like this.  I only get into trouble when I let them go too long.  Consistent attention is much better than an occasional look.  Hauling the containers here from the basement, filling them with soil, and planting-that’s real work. The work now is not that tough, and at some time during the process I plain start to feel better.  

The jumble pot of petunias and trailing verbena has been great, and still looks great-even on the inside.  I have been very careful to pick up the plant mass hanging over the edge, and deal directly with the soil.  I have kept this on the very dry side-a strategy that seems to be working.     

I only had one shot left on my camera before the battery died the other morning.  The pink light at dawn-wow. My little garden is anything but perfect, but at moments like this, I am very glad to have it.