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.

Winter Window Boxes

A good many posts ago, I described a window box as a hybrid vehicle. It is generally more expansive than a pot, but smaller than an in ground garden bed. A window box is an above ground defined space which is large enough to thoroughly explore an idea, and small enough to finish every square inch beautifully. I like any landscape project that is as beautiful and polished at the finish as it was from the design beginning. This means tailoring seasonal efforts to a size that celebrates aspiration, and acknowledges limits. Planting an area in the garden with seasonal plants leaves me cold. There is too much square footage to deal with. More on the knees work than I am willing to do anymore. Too much poor soil and poorer drainage than I want to address. Get me off the ground, please and thank you. A window box is the perfectly sized venue for a bigger seasonal gesture.

A landscape client with a new house signed up for four window boxes on stands in the front of her house. Branch made them to my specifications. Though the window boxes were fabricated this past summer, it was not until November when the landscape was ready for their installation. Meaning we would address them for the winter season. We made forms for the boxes, and fabricated the winter arrangements in our shop. Dry floral foam forms were a vehicle for a collection of sparkly white picks, cut magnolia branches, faux white berry picks and noble fir. Presiding over all, a three foot diameter light ring.

We do as much of the work as we can, in the shop. We like the better part of the work to be done in a warm space. The construction is faster, and more thoughtful. All of us want to focus on the project at hand, rather than enduring the cold conditions on site. This work included creating the arrangement, and dressing the greens with lights. This layout table was large enough to hold two arrangements at a good height for working.

Each form was moved outdoors once it was finished. The cold temperature outside favors keeping the greens fresh. The palette of materials is simple. The volume and texture of the noble fir does a great job of showcasing the magnolia based centerpiece. A form this long needs support when it is moved, although all of the woody stems of the evergreens helps strengthen it. Though the form is long and narrow, we took great care to provide a rolling shape from back to front.  A good winter arrangement needs to supply a finished shape from the beginning, and create the illusion of motion and rhythm. Though most of these materials are natural, they will not grow. Creating a sense of growth from cut materials informs the best of winter container arrangements.

The form is slightly smaller than the interior dimension of the box, so it was easy to drop it in.

The pots look over scaled for the windows, but that will change once the new shutters are installed. The boxes and their contents have a very formal and dressy look, which is in keeping with the architecture.

After dark, the lights define the shapes and volumes. The view at night is important in my zone. We have a lot of short days and long nights ahead.

By this time next year, this landscape project will have landscape lighting. But for now, the window boxes provide some welcome illumination.

Every year we fill the window boxes at Detroit Garden Works for the winter season. This year, our winter and seasonal pot obligations ran long. On December 21, my crews had gone home for the holidays, and our storefront boxes were still bare. My crew had a long and arduous season, so I was not about to have them fret over the shop winter window boxes. And our supplies of branches and greens were low. Happily, our supplier emailed Rob that he had a late cutting of a new branch for him – were we interested? It did not take long for him to send 12 bales of Midwinter Fire dogwood stems our way. The form in the above picture has its fair share of holes, as this is its third season. But with a few minor repairs, it was ready. My part in the process of our winter pots is the design. My crew does all of the construction admirably well. But given that there was a time when I designed and fabricated, I was sure I could do that again. The idea was simple. Embed a light ring in a thicket of dogwood branches.

Christmas Eve day, the shop was open, so Karen had time to me a hand sticking the greens on the front face and sides of the forms. Rob and Scott helped trim the bottoms off the thickest branches. I set a row of branches close together across the back of the form, and 2 lengths of a 33 foot long light strand in front of them before starting the next row of branches. 4 rows of branches separated by four rows of lights. The branches are pushed in all the way to the bottom of the form.

The work of it was integrating each new branch into the neighboring branches. As they were fresh cut, the stems were pliable. A pair of thick wool gloves made that work easier. There was no need to cover the back of the form, as the window box hugs the window. The bottom layer of foam goes into the box. The soil had already been lowered a corresponding amount. The top layer on the front and sides holds the greens. Short stems of magnolia would separate the greens layer from the twig thicket. The large brown and green leaves not only separate the similar textures of the greens and twigs, they conceal the mechanics of the light source from view.

Though my crew would have sailed through this fabrication, it took me two days. No deadline was looming, and I wanted to enjoy the process. No twigs cover the lower portion of the light ring. The ring disappearing into the thicket and re-emerging at the top implies the thicket has depth. I would consider how to finish that spot once the boxes were installed.

Flipping the switch on the lights once the arrangements were done was great fun. We would indeed have a little midwinter fire.

Marzela and David came in the Thursday and Friday after Christmas. They fabricated and installed 2 projects we had not finished before the holiday. Karen, Rob and Scott joined in. We sometimes remove the light rings after fabrication, and reinstall them on the job. But in this case, it seemed vastly easier to just leave them in. They took care of all of the finishing work and electrical, once the forms were set.

Some of the finishing touches will only be seen by those who walk by or come over to take a closer look. We tried to address the near and far, and the day and night. The shop boxes are just the right size for that.

The pots on either side of the door are stuffed with fir and boxwood, and lit with a single 3 foot tall LED light burst from the shop. It came with a pointed metal stake that is easy to push into a form or soil.

Rob took this picture from the top of a 12 foot ladder, right at dusk. The look of them in the transition between day and night was subtle. The visual changes wrought by the light and weather come courtesy of mother nature.

I never thought about how they would look from inside my office, but I am enjoying it.

 

 

 

 

 

One View At A Time

The rear south side of this yard is the last leg of the landscape renovation that has been going on here for a number of years. It is a good way to work-tackling one view at a time. The time to let the landscape speak back is time well spent. It is very hard to visualize what a two dimensional design drawing will look like, fleshed out into the third dimension with plants. After 30 years, I am able to visualize what is to come fairly well, but I have been surprised plenty of times. The surprises that dismay me are equal to the surprises that delight me. No one who keeps a landscape bats 1000. Nature can and does throw a wicked fast curve ball. But in this case, the curve ball was a new 2 story garage on the neighboring property. The building is located very close to the property line. My client realized she would have to add screening, to make her view of it less prominent.

The only plant of any size on that side is a beautiful older tricolor beech. That tree is providing a lot of shelter from the neighboring view up high. Some of the lower branches have died, or been cut back out of the way of the grass path. In an effort to provided some screening at a lower level, we added a pair of 2 1/2 inch caliper tricolors. All three trees will eventually will grow together as one. The original tree had a decided lean to it, so the new trees will help to provide some ballast on the back side. Deciduous trees are a great choice for providing screening that needs to be tall. The trunk of a tree takes up next to no room at the ground level, and the branches, twigs and leaves filter out an unwelcome view up high.

We planted four columnar katsura trees on either side of the beech conglomerate. Planted as fairly small trees, they will grow skyward at a fairly fast rate. The upright heads will grow together, and make a handsome hedge high above the ground. Why the upright yews near the fence? This variety can easily grow to six feet tall. The color and texture of the yews is quite similar to that of the neighbor’s arborvitae. Once the yews reach the height of the wood fence, the two evergreens will take over some of the screening job in the winter. Why yews instead of the matching variety of arborvitae?  The yews will be much more tolerant of the shade cast by the katsuras.

Emerald Green arborvitae do grow quite tall, but once they get to fourteen or fifteen feet, the growth slows down. They also become susceptible to damage from heavy snow loads. It is easy to compare the height and scale of the deciduous trees to the Emerald Green arborvitae in the above picture. Only a deciduous tree will completely screen that two story garage.

 

From the opposite side of the yard, it is easy to see how prominently the neighbor’s new garage figures in this landscape. The katsura trees will fill in the gap between the beech, and a maple in the neighbor’s yard. Small urban properties present a particular challenge to the landscape design. The ground space is limited, and the views to neighboring properties are many. Some years ago we addressed the screening on the east-west axis. The six foot tall hedge of Green Mountain boxwood pictured on the left of the photo above, was planted directly adjacent to the leading edge of the terrace.  A screen that is planted near to the space to be screened does not have to be that tall.  If my clients are on their terrace, that space is private. From inside and upstairs, a hedge of Venus dogwood screen the view into the rear neighbor’s yard.

 

Venus dogwoods top out at about 20 feet tall. Tall enough to blur the view of the power lines, and the next door neighbor’s yard. Note that the tree closest to the lot line in in the curve still sits proud of the power lines. There are few things more discouraging than having the power company trim a tree away from the lines. They are concerned with keeping the power corridor clear, not making artful or judicious pruning cuts.

The dogwood has a loose and graceful habit of growth. They do not provide a solid green wall. The property to the west was fairly well covered within 3 years of planting.

The boxwood provide a solid screen six feet off the ground plane. The high and low combination of the dogwood and the boxwood do a great job of providing a small yard with some privacy.

We did plant arborvitae at the end of the driveway. They extend into the rear yard the length of the garage wall opposite to them. This place is not a place to linger. It is a hallway connecting one place to another. The solid and lush evergreen wall makes for a simple and quiet transition from the driveway to the private part of the landscape.

One day, many years ago, an effort to provide for screening and privacy for another client via the landscape looked like this. The neighbors house sits quite a bit higher that this property. The row of large round yews behind the new trees were transplanted there from the front yard of the client’s house. A group of densiformis yews were planted on the slope above the stone wall.

Not so many years later, this side garden is entirely private, courtesy of a group of the columnar carpinus “Frans Fontaine”. The neighboring house has just about disappeared from view. Even in the winter, the densely twiggy structure of the trees provides good screening.  Deciduous trees, especially of the columnar form, are a great choice for creating a walled garden.

 

Designing With Hydrangeas

Lots of gardeners in my zone has a love affair going on with hydrangeas. As well they should. They are rangy growing shrubs that deliver a heart stopping show of big luscious blooms from early to late summer, provided they get some regular water, and a decent amount of sun. It is that easy to have a spectacular show of flowers in the landscape in late summer. Even the fall color on the blooms is good.The Annabelles start blooming in June, and are followed up on into August with cultivars big and small –  too numerous to list or review. Every season seems to bring a new collection of hydrangea cultivars to market. It is easy to understand why. They give a lot, and do not ask for much. The oak leaf hydrangeas are equally stunning both in leaf and in bloom, and are incredibly shade tolerant. Our hydrangea season is late this year. Think back to that April we had that was snowy and cold the entire month – you get the picture.  My overgrown Limelight hydrangeas needed a strong pruning this spring. I could not tell now that they had been pruned down to 14″ above grade. They are blooming lavishly. They make me look like an expert gardener. In spite of what I do or do not do, they thrive.

Hydrangeas are easy to grow, but they can be difficult to site in the landscape. They are big growing show offs that don’t naturally play well with neighboring plants. A single Limelight hydrangea can grow easily to 7 feet tall, and 7 feet wide. Even the smaller growing cultivars have giant flowers. They can easily become the elephant in the room-impossible to ignore.  It takes some thought to integrate them into a garden, or a landscape. I am not so much a fan of their woody legs, so I try to place them where that bottom third of the plant is not so much a part of the overall view. I also favor planting blocks of them, meaning I like lots of them as opposed to planting a single plant. They want to be the star of the summer garden, so why not let them show off?  Masses of summer blooming hydrangeas speak to summer in the Michigan garden in a way that no other plant does.

My limelight hydrangeas at home have a long bank of planter boxes placed in front of them. Those boxes are planted with nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis. The boxes hide those long woody hydrangea stems coming out of the ground. The delicate airy mass of nicotiana flowers interact in a contrasting way with those giant hydrangea blooms. The hydrangea flower backdrop makes it easier to see the nicotiana from a distance.

The foliage of the nicotiana repeats the big leaves of the hydrangea. The large leaves are a good foil for the diminutive boxwood foliage. The simple mass of boxwood sets the stage for a late summer.  Nothing can rival the excitement generated in the spring as the landscape roars back to life, but I look forward to this late summer display. On a 90 degree August day, this looks fresh and inviting. The hydrangeas are part of a story.

As a designer, I have a concern about about how spaces come together, and read. Shrubs, perennials,annual plants, and containers have their contribution to make. The design issue is making sure all the various voices work together in some way. The green leaves of the Persian Lime in the center of the pot helps to balance the green of the hydrangea foliage. The big growing hydrangeas need some equally strong minded company.  I did face down my limelight hydrangeas with an outside row of Little Limes. Was that a good idea?  It is too soon to tell, as the Limelights were very hard pruned this spring, so they have fewer and larger flowers this year. This is only the second season for the Little Limes, so they are not yet full sized. They are actually quite different in coloration than Limelight.

This landscape project from last year features a long sweeping curve of upright yews. All that is visible from the street of the Incrediball hydrangeas are the flowers. An annual planting at the base of the yews provides another layer of interest.

Inside the Incrediball hydrangea hedge is a mass of Bobo hydrangea, also faced down with flowers. All those woody stems and leaves are sandwiched in between plants that reveal the best part of these big growing plants, and obscures the least interesting. Hydrangea Bobo is the smallest growing of this series, which means it is the easiest of the three to place. It is perfectly scaled at 3′-5′ tall for smaller gardens. Small spaces can easily be overwhelmed by big growing hydrangeas.

We planted several large masses of these on either side of a pool. The creamy green color of the flowers contrasts dramatically with the color of the water. This hydrangea grows large enough to just obscure the fact that the bed was originally terraced into two levels with large informally placed slabs of stone.

Though the grade does drop considerably and quickly from the pool to the water, the mass of low growing hydrangeas helps to soften the descent. The transition from the pool level to the lake level happens fast.  The hydrangeas provide a reason to slow down, and linger.

The view of these hydrangeas, filtered with tall later blooming perennials and annuals, is a soft and informal look. Hydrangeas are stiff and static growing, and benefit from some airy companionship. Phlox have that same stiff habit of growth. In this arrangement, the phlox looks so much more relaxed, given a static growing plant that is so much larger growing.

There are those places where a single hydrangea can make a statement. This tree hydrangea, one of a pair, spends the winter in my landscape building, in a big plastic pot.  In the spring, it is pruned, both on the top, and the roots, and planted back into this large box. A second pruning a month or six weeks later helps to provide a network of strong branches which will help support the blooms. The box is large enough to permit an under planting of euphorbia, petunias and variegated licorice. Seeing it yesterday for the first time since it was potted up in May was a treat. Part formal and part exuberant, it is everything a well grown hydrangea can be.

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