Archives for June 2018

A Few Thoughts On Turning 68

June 15th was my 68th birthday. I had never intended or planned to be 68, but there it was, and here it is. I will admit the idea and the reality of it stung some. Turns out I did not have to go that milestone alone. Rob and I have worked together 26 years, meaning he knows me fairly well. He knew I was coming up on a moment threatening to pitch me into the weeds. His idea was to counter that with peonies. Lots of them. He has good instincts. It is no secret that I have a big love for peonies. In the early 1990’s, when we first started working together, I had rows and rows of peonies lined out like crops in a big block in one big section of my 5 acres. I would guess I had peonies numbering in the hundreds of plants. Divine, this. Every year, buffalo grass came up between the peonies. Did I plan for that grass?  No. Those peonies and that unexpected gorgeous grass was an unforgettable experience. The day before my birthday, bucket loads of peonies and cut branches of mock orange were delivered to the store. I was flooded with good memories.

Rob arranged and set the bouquet pictured above on my conference table.  A 68th birthday was beginning to look a little better. I am just as enamored of peonies now as I was 45 years ago. Happily, some things in a gardening life stay the course. It is good to know that despite the years that have gone by, my interest in plants is as strong as ever. And the interest in certain plants is a flame that still burns bright. I have no peonies in the landscape and garden at home that I have tended for the past 20 some years. But I have planted lots of them for clients. I am satisfied that I have done some small part to keep peonies a part of the landscape.

I have been a gardener for 45 years. I have been a landscape and garden designer for near as long. So what would I have to say after all these years in the profession, at the age of 68?  Every experience is an opportunity to add to your knowledge and understanding. Take that opportunity, and hold it close. Trust your own instincts. How you garden does not have to work for anyone else but you. If you design for yourself, indulge your eye and your inclinations. If you garden for others, be sure you represent your client a little more than you represent yourself.

Failure in the garden and landscape can be a good friend, truly. Fear of failure is mostly about fear. Failure is an emotionally charged word for what ought to be called plan B. The A plan is not necessarily the best plan. I have seen some E plans that were quite impressive. E plans are A plans that have been rethought, reconsidered, reworked, polished, and tuned up. Your E plans might be good, should you give them a chance. Every gardener matures, and evolves. Evolution is a process that can inform every gardening effort, if you let it. Give the eye that God gave you a chance to be.

Under no circumstances do I believe that the ability to generate great design is a gift. Great designing is the outcome of the mix of hard work, experience, imagination and nerve. Every person comes with a lot of things, standard issue. A confident and coherent voice surely comes with a person hood, though it may take some time to mature. That voice of yours just needs a free rein and some nurturing.  I do subscribe to certain gardening and design practices, as they work for me. What works for me is no more and no less than just that. Every gardener needs to discover what works for them, and proceed accordingly.  No doubt the best part of tending a garden is that there is the opportunity to team up with nature and make something grow. We all do that differently.

I know the cultivar names, history and growth particulars about all of these peonies. Rob knew that would be so. I did a good job growing peonies. That ability to grow them was not so special.  I wanted to grow them, so I took the time to learn how. But these cut flowers were indeed special. This beautiful and fragrant birthday bouquet conjured up gardening memories spanning many years. In my opinion, the best design in the garden and landscape calls up those memories and moments that are important.

I photographed my birthday peonies every day, after I had taken some time to simply enjoy them. They made me remember why I became a gardener. They made me certain that I had made a good choice to become a landscape designer. Turning 68 doesn’t change that.

Some blooms held perfectly for better than a week.

The Coral Charm peonies maintained their form, but the color faded to a creamy pale yellow.

Just a few days ago, the petals began to drop. I could hear them hitting the table surface. That was a new experience of peonies. I cannot really explain why that sound was so enchanting. Except to say that I just turned 68.

Al Goldner once told me that the only regret he had as a landscape designer was that he was never bold enough. That has always stuck with me, but at 68 I understand what he meant. There is time to do something with that. There is purpose, meaning and beauty in every step of a life.

Carry Over, Carry On

Once the winter weather moderates, one of the first things on my mind is planting containers for the new season. In the spring, I can work the soil in a container long before an in ground garden is ready for my feet, or my shovel. That spring container will celebrate that early chilly season, until the advent of summer weather asks for a change. Though this client’s spring plantings ordinarily thrive until the end of June, a spate of very hot weather in May moved the date for a summer planting forward several weeks. During the course of planting their pots, I am thinking about those container plants that can survive the change of the seasons. Those plants that can be carried over.

The cordyline pictured above is a fairly new variety with a beautiful variegation.  I bought it as a 4″ pot. Not so impressive in that little pot. I recall it had five long leaves. No one shopping for plants at Detroit Garden Works that spring season spoke for it. At the end of the season, I could not bring myself to pitch it out. My grower overwinters plants from the shop and my good clients as a courtesy. I know the work of this is a lot of trouble for him, so I hope the materials he custom grows for us and the container plants we buy from him non stop in the spring season helps to balance out his willingness to hold over plants for us. Many of those plants are large old topiary plants belonging to clients – eugenias, boxwoods, jasmine, scented geranium standards, ferns and the like. Not a 4″ cordyline. But he was good natured about it. A number of little but beautiful cordylines spent the winter with him, in an unheated greenhouse that rarely dipped below 40 degrees.  In the spring, I scooped up that spiky plant, and planted it in a container at home. How I loved the the olive green, cream and brown variegation. I wintered it over again, in a much more robust state, and planted it at home in a container for a second season. By this spring, that cordyline had a substantial presence. It was ready for a placement in a container garden of a client. An under planting of pansies was all it needed.

This summer planting of that mature specialty cordyline under planted with frosted curls grass delights me. A simple but visually strong planting, this. It looked terrific in the early spring, under planted with pansies. There was no need to dig it out of this box, and cast it aside.  It will represent the summer in much the same beautiful way as it celebrated the spring. Surely this cordyline will sail through the fall. We are so fortunate that we have a grower who permits us to park plants with him in an unheated space over the winter. It is a rare grower who caters to an end user clientele who will winter over container plants. The cost of heating a glass house over the winter in our zone is prohibitive. It makes sense that most specialty tropical plants that are better than a year old are grown in parts of the US that do not experience temperatures below freezing. Many of the large tropical plants we see available are grown in Florida.

This spring planting here featured a centerpiece of fresh cut pussy willow and fan willow. In a circle all around that centerpiece, a number of gallon pots of lavender. The low stone planter was stuffed with white osteospermum. Rob buys in lots of large lavender plants early in the spring. They are remarkably cold tolerant, and their good size right from the start makes an impact in spring pots.

The lavender was just coming in to its own when it came time to plant for summer. The cut twig spring centerpiece was replaced with a white mandevillea. Summer for this container-done. Both mandevillea and lavender like conditions on the dry side, so the summer container design melds the old plants with the new. The osteospermum did get replaced with a quartet of blue foliaged escheverias, the color of which echoes the color of the lavender stems and foliage.

This pair of planter boxes repeated the same lavender, and a pair of rosemary standards in the back row. The front row is filled with classic early Michigan spring container plants – pansies, violas, sweet alyssum and annual white phlox intensia.

Once the spring plants were removed, it was obvious to see that the lavender and rosemary were thriving. The initial investment in those plants is offset by the fact that they will perform in these boxes another two seasons.  Should you garden in a warm climate, carrying over plants from season to season or year to year is probably a given.  But Michigan is noted for having four distinct seasons with widely varying conditions. These rosemarys would have to be wintered in a cool indoor space for the winter. The lavender is usually successful over the winter in the ground, provided they have perfect drainage.

We planted the front row of these boxes with variegated licorice, and a second crop of 4″ petunias. The petunia plants are small, but they are rooted to the bottom of the pot. They are at a perfect stage to transplant. The top growth will come later.

The petunias and licorice like the same conditions as the established rosemarys and lavender, so the watering will be a simple one size fits all.

Not every spring pot has plants that can be carried over.  We do use preserved eucalyptus, fresh cut spring branches and in this case, metal picks that look like Queen Anne’s lace, in the interest of variety. Spring is the toughest season to plant in our zone. Not so many plants can tolerate the cold, and most of them that do are of small stature.

Once this pot was cleaned out, the top 10″ of soil is replaced with fresh soil. If there is a suspicion that the cypress bark mulch in the bottom half of the container has deteriorated and is no longer draining well, we empty the entire pot, and start fresh. For pots that are tall, or for plantings that require fast drainage, we may use large gravel rather than an organic material in the bottom. It is a good idea to use drainage material that can be carried over in giant pots that are difficult or time consuming to empty. Essential to maintaining the exit of water from the pot is a layer of landscape fabric between the soil and the drainage material. Soil that works its way down into the drainage layer will eventually interfere with the drainage.

The figs and petunias will summer well in this pot. These are Chicago figs, meaning they are hardy as far north as Chicago. We will winter over good looking specimens at the end of the summer.  If a client has a protected and well drained spot for them, they can spend the winter outdoors.

To follow are more pictures of the switch to summer.

Yes, this spike has been wintered over several times.  Having large material available for large pots means the resulting planting is proportional to the size of the pot.  The bay plants in the foreground pot have a new collar of scented geraniums which will grow wide.

spring container planted in mid April

summer planting with a Persian lime and diamond frost euphorbia

The spring planting in this area features a Limelight hydrangea on standard under planted with lavender.

That pot will go on through the fall unchanged. Note that the hydrangea in this pot will get more water than the surrounding lavender.  Selective watering in containers such as this one can make a huge difference in the outcome.

spring window box featuring lemon cypress

same box for summer. Eventually, the lemon cypress planted on either side of the bar in the box will grow together, and read as one.

spring planting

white angelonia and variegated licorice – ready for summer.

 

 

 

 

The Branch Studio Prototype Sale

If you read this journal regularly, you know I own a fabrication company known as The Branch Studio.  We manufacture garden ornament, boxes and pots for the garden. We also manufacture custom steel ornament, pots and fountains for private clients and designers nationwide. This weekend, Rob has organized a sale of Branch prototype pots at Detroit Garden Works. They are available for sale at or below our cost to manufacture them. I am sure you have questions, so let me explain.

Any company that designs a three dimensional object intended for production begins with drawings on paper. Some designs get test built in paper or foam core board. I cannot imagine how architects take a set of drawings for a building and review them, imagining in the third dimension. Some architects make a practice of building models of buildings they are proposing.  I have seen pictures of some that are beautiful in their own right. Buck and I have a much more low key process. We talk, and we trade sketches. As I am a designer, and he is a fabricator, there are fireworks. He wants a design that once fabricated is sturdy and serviceable. He wants a fabrication process that is smooth and reasonably quick. I want a design that is beautiful, properly proportioned, and with just enough detail to make it memorable. It is difficult to determine if a design for a container detailed on paper meets all the criteria that both Buck and I require to put that design into production. So we manufacture the idea, and take a good long look at the result. A prototype from Branch is an idea that gets spelled out in steel.

We were interested in a few designs for more contemporary garden pots to round out our collection of garden boxes. The round Barry tapers began with a half-oval rib detail that culminated in a round steel leg. The V-shaped flanges on either side of that vertical rib seemed like a great idea, visually. I find that many contemporary garden pots to be dry and lacking interest. Shape is an integral part of contemporary design for garden pots, but a shape without some detail seems blank and wanting.  During the production of this prototype, Buck had several issues. The subtle V flanges were flat, which made it very difficult to weld them to the curved surface of the round body of the pot. It was not possible to curve those small pieces mechanically by rolling them prior to welding them on.  Once the flanges were welded on to these tapered curved pots, the welding process threw the the top of the pot out of round. The flange sections were flat, and the rest of the container round. Viewed from above, the shape wobbled. Not pretty, this. The addition of a thin flat round ring welded onto the top of the pot to cover the the out of round result worked, but it seemed of  too meager proportion to the rest of the pot. In addition, welding the flanges to the surface of the pot took an incredibly long time. Of course I was interested that the flange that look like it had melted over the vertical rib. As Buck informed me, steel does not melt over anything. The V steel flanges were good looking, but just too labor intensive to create. It took Owen upwards of an entire day to weld the flanges for a single pot. A detail that takes an entire day to weld is too fussy. The picture above tells the story. The pot on the left features the subtle detail of the flanges. The top rim is too thin. The revised pot on the right has no flanges, and a rim with substance. The revised pot, which we have put into production, is simple and substantial.

Rob decided to relieve Branch of a various prototype pots they had made over the last year by staging a prototype sale. Most of all of these prototypes are available for less than what it took to produce them. I could say that I have mixed feelings about that, but I don’t.  It takes time, effort, and no small amount of investment to move an idea along. I will say that it is hard for me to let go of the prototypes we have available with my beloved flanges. But so be it.  Any person who purchases a Branch prototype gets a one of a kind garden pot at an incredibly good price. Then good news for us? We can go on designing, and we can manufacture new ideas.

The Dean pots. We love the farm and cottage look of them.  But farm and cottage style suggests a price that is equally down to earth. These Dean pots cannot be made for what it cost to manufacture a galvanized metal washtub.

These small Jackie boxes have an experimental finish that Buck calls a polar finish. A second wash after the galvanizing process brings out the white in the finish. These prototypes are about a finish we decided not to pursue, but that does not mean there is any defect in the finish. Someone out there may quite like them.

So pleased to see so many Branch Studio prototypes together in the same place. Today, 7 experimental pots found new homes. I a so pleased about that.Seeing how Rob has arranged the new contemporary stock boxes intermixed with the contemporary Branch Studio prototypes – terrific. You can see what changes have been made. And as we will not produce them again, they are one of a kind pots.

We have a new design we are looking at-Branch produced 4 of them. We are calling them the framed tapers. They are loosely based on a pair of pots Rob brought back from France. He really likes them, so we’ll see if other people do too.

Interested?

At A Glance: Green Schemes

We are better than halfway, doing our summer container installations. More on that later.