Sunday Opinion: The Plants

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My enchantment with plants dates back so long I can hardly remember how it started.  To the best of my recollection, a brief residence in North Carolina after I graduated from college got me interested in orchids.  Who knows what prompted that.  A plant at the grocery store checkout counter-it could have been.  Within just a few months, I was spending more on orchids than groceries.  My rental house in Chapel Hill had orchids in pots and on boards hanging from the trees.  The mild climate made it easy to cultivate them outdoors.  The slipper orchids-loved them.  Who knows why or how, but I became intensely interested in plants.  All of a sudden, I was noticing them everywhere.  In parking lots, and in residential yards.  In buildings.  In wild places, left to their own devices.  What was growing behind the garage, or at the ocean shore.  The plants-loved each and every one of them.

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The moment that I became aware of plants was not a momentous day.  Just an ordinary moment.  But in the years since, I can see that the life of the plants has altered and greatly influenced the course of my life.  Wildflowers.  trees.  tree peonies.  rock garden plants.  herbaceous perennials hardy in my zone.  the annuals that live but one season.  Ferns.  Dahlias.  Woody shrubs.  herbs.  evergreens.  succulents.  vegetables. bulbs, espaliers. moss and lichens.  Tropical plants.  The plant kingdom-the organizing metaphor, the language upon which a landscape or garden design is built.  Why am I thinking about this?  Our spring fair opened yesterday.  10 growers brought their spring plants to exhibit and sell.  We moved our fair inside-the cold, blustery, and snowy weather was so terrible.  As much as I hated to host a spring fair when fair spring weather was not in the forecast, I was ready for a spring celebration.  Lots of other people were ready for spring too-notwithstanding the current cold and gray.

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As reluctant as I was to move the growers with their plants inside our shop, they were pleased.  And the many hundreds of people who came today were happy for a venue indoors too.  Our warehouse style garage was packed with people all day long-looking at the plants.  I was astonished to hear the general consensus from all of the growers in attendance. We like being indoors, in close quarters.  The feeling-community-like.  I personally observed gardeners in that garage for hours-looking over the plants.  They were dry, warm, and comfortable.  They had lots of company.  Why should I be surprised?  It is the plants- around which no end of different people express their delight and connection with the natural world.  There was a lot of talk.  A lot of looking.  A lot of exchange.  I feel certain, after a Saturday that was jam packed from start to finish, this spring fair was above all, about the plants.

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I had lots of confirmation today that there is an instinct in people to make something grow.  Better than that-a love for making something grow.   People who had never met before, were deep in conversation, and making notes. Over the plants.  The peonies from Wiegands and the hellebores from Arrowhead Alpines-sold out.  The wildflowers from Starr Foster-all but gone.  I was so worried about the weather for our fair.  Tonight I realize that the gardening people and the plants made the weather a side story.  The main attraction?  Making something grow.

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At A Glance: Easter Sunday

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Shoots

Sum and Substance hosta
New shoots emerging is one of spring’s most exciting moments.  A decision is made to break dormancy, and grow.  A new shoot can be a leaf, or a stem or a flower.  I imagine those elongated shapes makes quick work of pushing through the soil.  These Sum and Sunstance hostas are grown under a number of trees and shrubs in a shady spot in my garden.  Though I might have a tough time digging in this rooty soil, the hostas come out of the ground entirely unscathed.  The leaves are rolled up tight.  This spring stage, which is but a brief moment in the gardening season, is truly extraordinary.     

hosta gold edger

It is an extraordinarily vulnerable moment as well. New shoots are soft and succulent-beloved of deer, rabbits and woodchucks.  Lettuce leaves get tougher as they age.  Baby vegetables-a delicacy.  If you are a fan of eating dandelion greens chances are good you eat them at a very young age.  Dandelion leaves in summer are tough and bitter tasting. The shoots of this clump of dwarf hosta are unfurling into leaves.  As the leaves elongate and unfold, they will present themselves to the light by positioning themselves parallel to the ground.  This up out and arching back takes place all within a matter of a few weeks. 

early blooming clematis

The old saying that April showers bring May flowers has a solid basis in fact.  The energy it takes to grow and push forth out of the ground is considerable.  An ample suply of moisture is critical in the spring.  Our spring has been alarmingly dry.  I watered thoroughly in mid March and am still watering in April.  The clematis on my bench broke dormancy in March-I was sure it would be frosted back to the stems when our temperatures were in the mid twenties.   Not so.  The vines were untouched, and are now in the process of setting flowering shoots.  Both vines are loaded with buds.    

beech ferns

Thelypteris decursive-pinnata is a mouthful of a botanical name for Japanese beech ferns.  Most of the beech ferns are wild runners, and too unruly for home gardens, but this one is fairly well behaved, and lush growing.  The leaf shoots emerge from the crowns rolled up like a hose.  The unfurling of the long leaves is beautiful to watch.  Early spring ostrich fern curls are popular in flower arrangements.  This stage is just as beautiful as the full grown leaf. The European ginger leaves come up and open so fast it is an easy stage to miss altogether.    

shrub roses

The new shoots on my roses are rosy indeed.  The red edges of the leaves is a sure sign of a new leaf.  So many spring leaves have a decidedly yellow cast.  the centers of these new shoots are limey green.  Chartreuse-another word for spring. The lower leaves of these roses have already turned a darker and richer green.   

fruiting pear trees

The leaves of this pear tree emerge curled around the center midrib.  Given some rain and a little warm weather, they will unfurl and lay flat. 

asparagus

Asparagus is a plant greatly prized for its shoots.  The emerging shoots are snapped off and eaten before they ever progress to the leaf stage.  It is not surprising that people do not recognize asparagus once it has become a plant with fern-like leaves.  The shoot harvesting season is relatively short.  Asparagus eventually needs to be left grow and make leaves.  This insures that the plant can photosynthesize, grow, store nutrients-and survive until the next harvest season.   

gold leaved hops

Hops is a vine that sends out underground shoots called runners in every which way-all summer long.  They require a big space in a garden, far away from any civilized space,  but they can provide great color when confined to a pot or window box. This plant shoots out every which way both above and blow ground.

moss

I have quite the collection of moss colonies growing in the gravel mulch in my shadiest areas.  I am by no means an expert on the life of mosses, but these little teardrop shoots are the fruiting bodies of the moss.  The pod at the top is full of spores.  When that pod opens, the spores disperse, in the hopes of making new plants.

The tulips at the shop had a rocky start-too much hot weather, followed by freezing weather.  But they handled the insults with aplomb.  This shoot-a tulip bud, barely showing color.  Tulip flower shoots take qiute a while to develop-probably 3 weeks from the time the leaf shoots emerge, to flowers

 

tulip mix

One of the best reasons to plant a mix of tulips is a longer period of time in which to enjoy the shoots.  Though the double Darwin tulip Akebono is in full bloom, the cream tulips are behind.  The yellow tulips are even further behind.  If you love shoots, the tulips put on a very good show.

Sun And Games

Our weather has taken a decidedly balmy turn the past few days; we have temps in the fifties.  I expect it will take a turn for the worse sooner or later, but today I am enjoying the sun.  The cold, snow and ice of a Michigan winter is usually bearable, but the grey could make you black out. I am always ready for some sun. I was outside today with no coat, enjoying that sun.  Even indoors, the light is brighter and stronger.  The days are longer. I welcome the reappearance of the sun.  The season is changing-delightful.


Sunlight is essential to living things.  Books are written and lists made of those plants that tolerate shade. The unspoken implication here-nothing living loves the dark. When I was young, I killed many a shade tolerant perennial thinking it was shade loving. I am in discussion with a client now about a design for a pool, so there has been much talk about sun and games.  Sunny and shady.  Imagine your life long enough to see what, where, and how you want to live outdoors. 

Water one observes can be sited in a number of places.  Shadier locations will provide perfect conditions for mosses and other water loving plants to take hold.  Shading 75% of the surface of a pond will not only provide refuge for fish, but it will make the job of balancing the pond ecologically much easier. For those that have an aversion to cleaning a pond mechanically, an understanding of the role of the sun is essential. Read up. A fountain burbling in the shade can be peacefully overrun with everything that blows in and takes up residence-beautiful.  Sunny water-don’t you want to get in?  


Pools for swimming are another topic altogether.  The right siting for any activity outdoors-look to the sun.  I want to swim in the sun-water is cold, even in midsummer. Enjoying a sunny July day at pool side-fine, for a while.  Watching kids play in a pool, or having lunch outdoors-a shady spot is a good idea.      

White or light surfaces poolside will reflect sunlight, and be cooler for bare feet. Reflected heat and light will dry you off in short order.  Drying off in the sun-like being on vacation.  If you are old enough to remember putting sheets on a bed that have been sun dried on a clothesline-this a simple and exquisite pleasure.  Dark surfaces absorb the heat of the sun, and radiate that heat.  A shady location sporting dark surfaces may be a late summer refuge. Hard surfaces take a long time to heat up, and a long time to give up their heat.  Plan for some, if it is your idea to be outside, late fall.


Pools with dark interior surfaces reflect light.  A swimming pool that doubles as a reflecting pool has a long season of use.  Dark surfaced pools absorb the energy from the sun-the water will be warm, but the bottom of the pool is usually obscured.  Cathy’s pool is very unusual, as it can be seen from far above; she has a view of warm water in a dark surfaced pool, to the bottom.  The interior color of her pool contrasts sharply with the surrounding garden. She gets as much from looking at her pool as being in it.  The big idea here?  Make moves that deliver at different times, in different seasons.   

This handmade Italian pot is indoors until the weather reliably warms.  Nevertheless, its detail is brought to life by the light of the spring sun streaming in the window.  The surfaces closest to the light are white; the shadows are black.  What goes on in between is a matter between you and your designer.  Or between you and your gardening self. 


My fountain is 26 feet long-of course the conditions are different end to end, and they change, given the course of the day. Mostly sunny is the outlook for my home water-I am ready for it when I get home at the end of the day. On moody days, it is enough to just watch it.  This post may seem to be a rambling late winter stream based on a lot of thoughts; you are right about that.  I am  waking up to lots of design work needing spring readiness.  But this warm March day, I am also dreaming about a warm summer’s day, and some water.