Archives for March 2018

A Pruning Strategy

The best time to prune deciduous shrubs is whenever you have the time available to prune. But no doubt some pruning dates are better than others. Late March is the perfect time time in my zone, provided the ground is dry enough be walked on. The bare branches make it easy to spot what is dead or weak. Or which cuts would result in a better looking or more graceful shape. In general, the shag haircut theory of pruning promotes good shrub health. Big at the bottom, and narrower at the top. Pruning such that no two branches are the same height or forced to  occupy the same space helps to insure that every bud ready to leaf out will have its own light and air space. A place to grow without interference is an ideal place for a branch to be. I like to leave the branches near the ground long, and the branches on the top shorter. Visualizing what has to be cut back on the top so the lower branches get the light they need will result in a shrub that is green and growing from top to bottom. If you think the Limelight hydrangeas above do not look like I took my own advice, you are right.

There is a story behind these leggy Limelights.  Planted as a 5 plant by 5 plant block of 25 some 12 years ago, they had overgrown their space. The lesson here? A shrub that will grow 6 feet tall by 6 feet wide probably will top out at 8′ by 8′ left to its own devices. Keeping a plant smaller than its genetically determined size is, over time, a losing battle. My 25 plants had become a single organism. Removing any of them from the mix would expose a not so lovely look at a dark and bare interior. It was time to take out the outer front and side rows. Once I reduced the size of the block to a four plant by 4 plant block, I could see what I had left over was a mass of hydrangeas on 3′ tall bare stalks. As in, a block of multi-trunked hydrangeas on standard.

Of course these hydrangeas had gotten leggy in the interior. I am sure no light reached the ground during the summer. The outside rows has been pruned to facilitate growth from top to bottom. The interior shrubs has been pruned to encourage growth on the tops. All very predictable, this. Last spring I planted Little Lime hydrangeas in from of those Limelight legs, thinking this shorter version would create a coverup.

That strategy left more that a little to be desired. Little Lime is by no means a smaller growing version of Limelight. The flowers are a different shape and color. I was not crazy about the two plants side by side. Hydrangea Bobo might have been a better choice. That said, I knew my only real option with the limelights was to take a renovation strategy. Hard pruning old hydrangeas hard is only shocking if you do not take into account how fast and much they grow between April and the late July bloom time. A single branch may grow 3 or 4 feet in one season.

This is a radical and grim look, but I suspect they will be full of flowers by the beginning of August. How so? The renovation plan calls for a second pruning in June. I am not interested in long single branches with few and hugely ungainly flowers. Cutting back a long branch midway to the bloom time will result in side branching at the cut. This may result in a delayed flowering, but there will be flowers nonetheless. Next year they will regain their fulsome look.

Hydrangeas respond much more quickly to renovation pruning than other less vigorous shrubs. It won’t be long before they start growing out of this.

Knowing the best time to prune doesn’t necessarily result in action. I should have pruned these hydrangeas harder last spring, when the extra rows of plants came out. If you are like me, what I need to do in the garden routinely gets away from me. How indulgent hydrangeas are of less than stellar care is just one of the reasons to like them. Pruning times depend on whether they bloom on new or old wood. Since the Limelights bloom on new, or the current season’s growth, no matter how much or how little you prune, you are not removing flower buds. Just buds which will become leaves. So prune away.

 Pruning is a paradox. We sometimes prune back shrubs to limit their size, not realizing that a pruning cut, from a shrub’s point of view, is a call to grow. To branch out. A single pruning cut on a large sized branch results in lots of buds breaking in every direction below that cut. This late winter photograph of a hedge in my neighborhood tells the story. A hedge of substantial size was cut back for a number of years-at the height this gardener could reach. The result was lots of branching at the top, which eventually shaded out the branches at the bottom. Once the hedge became too tall to prune without a good sized ladder, the pruning stopped. The result is a rather interesting mix of bare sticks at the bottom,  dense branching at the mid level, and long unbranched growth at the top. Add to that mix, some weed trees that got a foothold in the hedge, and have grown to a large size. In this location, a very tall vase shaped hedge is probably a good idea. The traffic on both sides can come in and out the driveways under the umbrella shaped part of the hedge. I will be interested to see the summer look.To prune or not to prune-now is a good time to decide.

The Maddening Middle Of March

The middle of March-would that I could sleep it off. March is still winter in Michigan. It is 30 degrees during the day, and can be in the teens at night. Like it will be tonight. Every gardener in my zone is marching to a tune that plays the following refrain over and over again-the winter is not over yet. No, not yet. Unlike that spectacular snow from a week ago, our snow now is dirty and frozen. The snow barely liquifies during the day, and then refreezes at night. Horrifyingly heavy icy globs of snow have bent over sections of my boxwood and yews in an alarming way. There is little movement towards the new season.  Maddening, this.

The soil is slowly thawing. And it is sopping wet. I would not step foot in my garden right now. My weight would drive precious oxygen out of the soil. Or I would crush the crown of a plant that I cannot see yet. March is all about those things that cannot be done yet. It is a terrible state of affairs to be ready for something that is on hold. Who likes to be put on hold? No one.

Rob organizes a helleborus festivalis at the shop in March, aimed at those gardeners who are struggling to cope with the last of the dregs of the winter. I admire his positive approach. As unwilling as I am to let go of my seasonal grumpiness, I can’t help but appreciate his representation of early spring. The cut branches of pussy willow, prairie and fan willow are beautiful. When the time comes, they will grace many a spring pot.

But the hellebores are the star of the show. Our greenhouse is chock full of them in bloom. We shop all over the country to bring this alternative experience of a Michigan March to gardeners in our area. Hellebores are amazingly adaptable to being kept indoors for a few weeks, until they can be planted in the garden in April. I will confess to have kept a collection of juvenile hellebores indoors until mid May before planting them out. They handled being stuck indoors for 2 months without a hitch.

The hellebores from growers in more temperate zones than ours provide respite from our inhospitable weather. The smell of green plants is such a relief. A lot of excited talk goes on in this greenhouse over the course of the day.

I have a special affection for the hellebore Madame Lemonnier. The flowers are exceptionally large and side facing. The plants are vigorous, and will form very showy clumps in the garden. The hellebores that are commonly known as Lenten Roses are completely hardy in our zone. My helleborus orientalis hybrids are buried under several feet of snow in my garden. But the cultivars in our greenhouse are a spectacular spring preview.

The hellebores we have available for sale right now cannot be planted into the garden for another 3 weeks. But they will thrive indoors until the worst of the winter weather has passed. If you can provide good light, air circulation, and water, they will keep you company until the both of you can be outdoors.

The dressiest way to enjoy them is to plant them up in containers. In this form, they can be moved outdoors to a front porch or terrace when the night temperatures moderate. Hellebore flowers are tiny and modest.  What appear to be petals are actually modified leaves that will mature and persist on the plant long after the flowers have finished blooming.

The flower in the center of this picture has finished blooming, but the sepals have retained their size and color. Rob plants up containers featuring hellebores every day this time of year. A container version of a garden looks good in March. More of Rob’s late winter containers are to follow.

hellebores and cyclamen

hellebores in containers

green hellebore planted up

Rob has seen to stocking other natural, preserved and dried materials for spring pots. Our cut pussy willow branches are terrific this year. Our faux stems are fun. If you are a gardener who longs for the start of the spring season, try our shop. Shrug off March. We are ready, even if the garden is not quite there yet.

Welcome to our version of spring.

The Snow March First

It is not so noteworthy for us to have a snow the beginning of March. Though every gardener in Michigan is winter weary, we know March is not a spring month. It is the last of the winter blast month. So a forecast for snow did not get my attention. What did get my attention was an early day snow with golf ball sized flakes that stuck to every surface outdoors. Those sticky dripping wet flakes kept coming for hours. That wet snow clung to and described every tree trunk and twig in its path. I could not keep my eyes off the transformation of the landscape.

Eight inches worth of snow later, every element of the landscape was draped in the most gorgeous blanket of snow. I have long been a proponent of landscape design that features the weather. I also like a landscape with clearly defined bones that represent the design idea, no matter the weather. This winter weather provided ample evidence of that idea.

To follow are too many photographs of this snow event. I have never ever ever ever seen snow as beautiful as this. Nor have I ever seen my landscape look quite this. It is easy to understand the fascination with nature. There is always something new to experience, even in the most familiar places.


picea mucrunata

magnolias and parrotia overhead

winter pots, still beautiful in March

wall untouched by snow

hydrangea flower heads

view to the street

snow struck flame willow

landscape composition

It was easy to tell the snow was coming out of the northwest.

second story terrace railing
The dogwood tree out the kitchen window was dressed to the nines. Last of all, a short video of our early March weather. What a special and unprecedented experience.

snow movie 

huawei p9 lite black

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metal sheet texture