Survival

Several weeks ago my neighborhood in Michigan featured a weather extravaganza of substantially below zero temperatures with wind chills approaching -30 degrees, followed promptly by several days in the fifties. Astonishing, this. Nature is as extraordinary as it is unpredictable. Though I have observed and taken note of natural phenomena over a lifetime of seasons, I regularly experience nature up to something I have never seen before. How I love this. What I have never seen before in the landscape and garden not only keeps me interested, it teaches me. I like adding this and that to my body of experience. Yes, I will always and forever be a student of nature. There really isn’t any other choice, is there?

Those interminable few days I felt imprisoned by extreme cold were followed by days warm enough to be outdoors with or without a jacket. I cannot ever remember a time when 50 degrees felt more delightfully warm and invigorating! How I enjoyed that brief episode of tolerable winter weather. That warm moment had a frigid one hot on its heels.The early morning just days ago was notable for the 1/4″-1/2″ of ice coating every surface, much of which still remains tonight. Yesterday and today?  Rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, and wind on a loop that kept repeating. A whole winter’s worth of nasty weather, one version after another, hour after hour.

The bitterly cold weather was not a hardship for me. The National Weather Service had advised in advance we had a polar vortex set to dip down into our zone. I took heed of that prediction. My house, constructed and outfitted specifically almost a century ago to provide shelter did what it was designed to do. I had a warm space, with hot and cold running water and electricity. I was lucky in that regard. So many people lost power. I did fully gear up to take the dogs outside, but our exposure to a hostile environment was as limited as I could make it. Out and in, we were, as fast as having old dogs would permit.  A limited exposure to terrifying cold temperatures meant we survived without incident. Terrifying cold? Not the usual thing, but not that unusual either.

The details? A down 3/4 length coat that zips up above the neck. A hood on that coat with a velcro closure. A fuzzy warm headband. Flannel lined jeans. Merino wool socks. Shearling lined winter boots. A wool scarf wrapped around my shoulders and face. And wool gloves underneath wool mittens. Did I forget anything? All of this for an exposure to seriously below zero temperatures for less than five minutes. I do indeed have lots of information and gear to comfort and protect me in bitter cold conditions.  But what about the landscape outside my door?

Winter hardiness in plants is a big, wide, and fiercely debated topic. Annual plants are tropical in origin, and perish once the temperature goes below freezing. Perennial plants routinely die back to the ground. The life in their roots is protected by a mass of soil around them. They winter over in a dormant state. Lavender is a sub shrub. Those stems above ground are alive the entire winter. It is no surprise that sub shrubs in my zone can succumb to brutal winter weather. Anything living above ground in my zone is subject to punishing winter weather. The short story is as follows: Deciduous trees in my zone jettison their leaves in the fall, and shut down for the winter. They hibernate. Likewise woody shrubs. The roots below ground remain viable, but the production of chlorophyll goes on hiatus. The fierce winter weather and winds rarely bother the bare twigs of trees and shrubs. Those twigs are shut down, and buttoned up. Once spring is truly upon us, the buds set in late summer will begin to swell. Perennials in my zone die back to ground level, and wait for a call to grow in the spring. Evergreens? The broad leaved evergreens suffer in brutal winter weather more than any other plant. The picture above, taken in the spring of 2014, after the most brutal winter I have ever experienced, was all about digging up some dead boxwood that had been growing for better than twenty years in front of the shop.

I had no advance warning that we would be subjected to below and just above zero temperatures for lengthy periods. Every brutally cold day that went by was accompanied by an escalating worry. Evergreens of all types were damaged and killed outright in this once in a lifetime fierce winter. The gravelled spaces in the foreground of these pots planted with boxwood this picture show no trace of the plants that died from extreme cold and wind. A friend in the landscape maintenance business persuaded me to stand pat with all of the other damaged plants in this hedge. I am glad I took her advice. Five years after the fact, the south side of this boxwood hedge is all green. These damaged plants did indeed survive.

It takes a lot of exposure to gardening and observing that outcome before it becomes clear that every plant’s first and foremost goal in life is to survive. Species annual plants that most surely will die with the first hard frost will produce seeds. Perennials die back to the ground and go dormant-in an effort to survive the winter. Deciduous trees and shrubs quit producing chlorophyll, and shed their leaves prior to winter. Most woody plants start slowing down in August, in anticipation of the dormant season.  Needled evergreens under stress will set cones profusely. It astonishes me that an evergreen in decline will put huge energy to providing seed for the next generation. Survival can be all about the next generation. As for the here and now, those needles have evolved to present as little surface area as possible that might be damaged by desiccating winds and cold.

I may fear for the plants in my landscape in a bad winter, but they have evolved such to handle adverse conditions. Very few of them need me to intervene on their behalf. In conditions that are so bad as to threaten their life, there are things gardeners can do to provide their treasured plants with a leg up. Good drainage is a major component of winter hardiness. Even Japanese iris want a well drained winter situation. Burlap can help protect boxwood from desiccating winter wind and sun. VaporGard can provide a similar layer of protection.

But by and large, plants have very complex and astonishing mechanisms built in via evolution which are geared to protect their chances of survival. My contribution to that effort is minimal. This is a long way of saying that nature looks after its own. The best contribution I can make to my evergreens is to water them liberally before the ground freezes. An evergreen needle or leaf which is loaded with water prior to the frozen ground is a leaf that is better able to survive.

This section of my 25 year old boxwood hedge shows the sure signs of superficial winter wind and cold damage. This trouble can be trimmed off in the spring. What interests me more is that the substantial dead sections from the 2013 winter have healed.

The evergreens in this pot outside my office door are showing signs of damage from our extreme cold. How could they not? These are cut branches. They have no connection to a parent plant. There are so many ideas that can occupy  a garderner’s winter. My evolution as a gardener-on going.

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.

The Amaryllis Crop

February in a northern garden designer’s life ought to be snoozy. 25 years ago, my landscape design work finished up in mid November, and did not resume until the snow and cold looked to be waning the following March. I can’t remember what I did with those winters now, so it couldn’t have been much. How fun, to not have much to do. Oh to have those quiet winter baby days back. Now there are requests for design year round. Some late 2017 projects are inching slowly towards the drawing board now, as I reserve the right to indulge in a little bit of horsing around. Even though the engine is running, the parking brake is on.

It takes an entire winter to re imagine Detroit Garden Works for the season to come. That process is still in process. If you follow Rob’s page you know the walls, fixtures and floors in the largest part of the store are swathed in painter’s plastic. Wayne is here spray painting the ceilings, a job that was last done in 1995. Yes, they were due. Moving everything our of those rooms, dusting and scraping the loose paint, and repainting all of the shelves and trim took most of January. Two containers from overseas have arrived. A container from France should be docking in NY shortly, and two more will arrive from Belgium and Vietnam towards the end of the month. The shop is due to reopen March 1. February is a busy time, ready  or not. Most annoyingly, part of my winter has involved some involuntary babysitting. If you read this journal regularly, you know I am not a fan of plants in the house. I love having a plant free season. Like most houses, I have a house which is notable for a lack of natural light in the winter. My house is dark (by plant standards), hot and the air is dry- an environment that plants don’t want. Well I don’t want them either. The bugs and dirt don’t bother me. Nor the fact that tropical plants hardly look like they belong inside a house in Michigan. I could live with those things. The fact that they need regular care and attention leaves me cold. Enough of my time gets absorbed by the needs of the plants for a good portion of the year. I like the time off from that group of living things that have no problem dying on you despite a huge effort to keep them happy and healthy. The phalaenopsis orchids pictured above are a gift scheduled to be delivered the end of the week. That I can live with, as the end of my responsibility for them is near. After having them for one day, a new bud is withering.  I can’t get rid of them fast enough.

The amaryllis are another story. Rob sells scads of them in the shop at the holidays. Invariably, there are a few left over. Some bare root bulbs I gave away to good customers when no one was watching. I knew anything left over would come to me, as my office is warm. Karen potted up and watered them liberally, and moved them to the utility room near my office. Then she went on break. There they sat. I have a little frig for my milk and a spot for cereal, so every morning making breakfast I had to look at them. Not one was making any move to come on. Not one was looking like it was shriveling or dying. They were in a state of suspended animation.

After three weeks of scowling at them every time I walked in that room, I looked up their culture on line.  I did not read anything that I did not already know. Popular lore suggests that after potting and watering, the bulb so be left alone until it puts forth growth, either in the form of flowers or leaves. By mid January these bulbs had been watered only once in the 6 months since they arrived. Another article (which of course I cannot find now) suggested that watering the bulbs normally, but sparingly in advance of any growth was fine.

Tired of looking at their expectant bulb faces, I had a decision to make. I had to either throw them away, or see if I could get them to grow. I knew I would feel guilty, and face ridicule from Rob if I didn’t try to grow them on. So I soaked the pots thoroughly, and moved them to an all plastic Rubbermaid tabouret in my drawing studio. The tabouret has tall sides, so I could slosh the water and dirt around with impunity. The industrial windows are 6 feet tall, and face south. At least if we had no sun, there was still plenty of light. The tabouret also has wheels, so I could move them away from the windows when the temperatures dropped into the single digits.

You see what was happening here? My carefree February became an obsession to get those bulbs to break dormancy, grow and bloom. I  scrutinized them every day. I had to come in on Sunday to be sure they didn’t need anything. I was certain that the bulbs that had been potted in non-draining jardinieres would rot if I wasn’t especially careful with the water. And the one’s planted to larger fiber pots would come blind from having been over potted. None of this happened. One by one, they began to grow. One bulb threw a pair of stalks at once, and is in full bloom on my conference table right now.  I have to admit The big showy white flowers are a welcome contrast to that other kind of white blanketing the entire landscape.

One hapless bulb had been left behind by shoppers as it one bloom stalk withered and rotted from the cold in the greenhouse. So I cut it back, and watched to see if another bloom stalk would emerge. After sulking for a few weeks, I could tell something was afoot. It is February, so I had time to turn the flowering stalks leaning towards the light away from the window.

My amaryllis crop, which I never sought or wanted, had me in its grip. The attention it took had expanded to an alarming amount of time. I was going in there 4 times a day just to look things over.

The second bulb to bloom had red flowers – not my favorite. So I took it in to Dave and Heather so they could enjoy it. Now I have 3 stops to make every day, checking on the amaryllis. And to make matters that much worse, I have made a list of suppliers of unusual amaryllis bulbs and the varieties I like available to Rob, as well as a source of heat mats so we can provide them with the heat they want and need to come on. And finally, the time it took to take pictures and write this post-hours more.

Now you know why I do not like having plants in the house.

 

Noxious Cold

Like a good bit of the rest of the US, we were invaded by a particularly noxious and extreme cold usually confined to the northern polar regions. Fierce winds usually keep that cold where it belongs, but on occasion, that cold travels our way. In early December it became apparent that we had bitterly cold weather coming up. The first order of business was to clean out all of the fall plantings in those pots that were due to have winter arrangements, and take the soil level down four inches from the top. The floral foam form would sit on top of that lowered frozen soil. The form would be anchored into the soil with bamboo stakes, or steel rebar. Pounding a stake down through frozen soil is a good bit easier than chiselling out frozen soil. Three weeks worth of installations were accompanied by this relentless cold. Never have I been happier that we do most of our fabrication for the winter pots in the shop stockroom.

The evergreens in my garden have no where to go, and no other option but to endure. A gardener can provide their evergreens with regular water in the fall. An evergreen with juicy stems and needles is an evergreen dressed properly for the weather. Once the ground freezes, the plants will no longer be able to transmit moisture from the roots to the needles. An evergreen that goes into the dormant season dry is poorly positioned to deal with desiccating winter winds and sun, and the inevitable loss of moisture from transpiration. The water that evaporates from the needled foliage of this yew cannot be replaced until the ground thaws.

That many evergreens have needled foliage as opposed to leaves is a survival mechanism, courtesy of nature. Each needle has a relatively small surface area from which moisture can evaporate. Leaves are poor conservators of water, as they present so much surface area to sun and wind. It is no wonder that deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves in the fall.  Carrying a full set of green leaves through the winter would most likely be deadly. At the extreme other end of the spectrum, cactus have evolved to have spines in place of those leaves that are so ill equipped to conserve moisture. Those spines do collect water from rare rains, which then drips down to the roots. Water in some degree is essential to the life of plants. I may let plenty of things go in the garden, but I do water. Plants that do not get the moisture they need are stressed and vulnerable plants.

Of course our long run of cold has me worrying about the boxwood. They are broad leaved evergreens. Those leaves readily desiccate in extreme wind and cold. They are prime candidates for winter burn.  A drench of anti desiccant such as Vapor Gard on both the tops and the bottoms of the leaves coats the surface with a waxy natural compound of pine resin that reduces the evaporation rate. It is amazing what a difference an anti desiccant can make. Any evergreen planting I do after the middle of August gets Vapor Gard ahead of the first winter. It is very inexpensive insurance against disaster. The above picture was taken in April of 2014. These 20 year old shrubs were killed outright from the extreme cold we experienced in the winter of 2013-2014. Double digit below zero temperatures for days on end proved too much for them. The 100 inches of snow we had went beyond insulating them to overloading them with branch cracking weight.

A boxwood disaster is rarely apparent before April. That makes it easy to fret over them all winter.

This day was a heartbreaking day. That day in April made it obvious that the west end section of this old hedge had perished. It succumbed to a once in a lifetime extended cold well below its hardiness limit. The entire summer of 2014 I drove by so many hedges of dead boxwood still in the ground.  I could not have looked at dead plants day after day, and month after month, but disbelief, grief and denial can be very powerful.

Do I think the extreme cold spell we have just had will kill my boxwood? Our coldest temperature was 6 below zero. This is not cold enough to kill a zone 5 shrub. It was cold enough to make me dress from top to bottom for bone chilling cold. I limited the time the corgis spent outdoors. One morning at 4 degrees below zero they came in limping after 3 minutes outdoors. Cold feet. But I do not believe it has been cold enough to seriously damage the boxwood.

Once we finished removing the section of dead plants, we placed big Branch pots in front of the bare ends of the boxwood. It would be every bit of several years before the dead spots and sections would recover from this winter. Note that the tulips coming on sustained no damage from the extreme cold. They were completely dormant, and below ground. Sub shrubs such as lavender, that have live branches above ground in the winter, can be very difficult to winter over.

We did finally get the window boxes and 2 pots in front of the shop done up for winter. They feature cut boxwood twigs stuffed into dry floral foam.  After just a few days outdoors, they began to show the signs of leaf shrinkage from evaporation.

Even the backs of the leaves show signs of stress. As long as these cut stems were packed in wax coated boxes, and not exposed to sun or wind, the leaves were glossy and plump. Once exposed to the weather, they reacted as expected. Fortunately boxwood leaves stay green even as they dry.

I am sure we will have burned and dead tips on these plants come spring, but I expect them to recover.  32 degrees this morning-what a relief.

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