Spring, Detroit Garden Works Style

Rob decides when we will have spring. Ha. He knows just like every other gardener that the arrival of spring is attended by many false starts and deceptive signs. And at just that moment when you feel you might black out from the last of the miserable weather, nature switches on the light. But when you have a shop devoted to fine, entertaining, antique, vintage, contemporary and irresistible ornament for the gardening season to come, you do what makes sense. You pick a date, and be ready.  We go on hiatus mid January to fix up, repaint and restyle. March 1 is our first day of spring. Containers from Europe jostle their way in between a steady stream of freight shipments from all over the US. The spring collection takes weeks to display. Rarely do we dot the last i and cross the last t in time, but we are ready for company.
Nature takes her own sweet time deciding when to finally pull the plug on winter. Nature is the queen of false starts. The change of the season-a big fluid situation.  Every gardener I know stays tuned in to that station. We are having bitterly and unseasonably cold temperatures this week. But Rob says spring is here, and we believe him. Not to mention all of our clients that have braved the cold to come in anyway, and shop.  We have a greenhouse chock full of gorgeously grown hellebores in bloom. David and Karen took a trip south in February to load up plants from a number of growers. They are perfectly happy in flower in our greenhouse at 50 degrees. Their blooms are a sure sign that early spring is nigh. They handle the cold and blustery March and April weather with aplomb. Until it is safe to plant outdoors, they are perfectly happy on a sunny window sill.

A room full of hellebores does more for the winter weary spirit than anything we can think of. So our spring opening is marked by the coming of the hellebores. But a look at Rob’s spring collection is a close second. As I have been arranging what he has purchased for weeks, I know what is there. The best part of this work is watching someone see it for the first time. For those that read my essays that are too far away to experience our spring collection, I took pictures.

The dovecotes and bird houses are English made in a classical English style, and are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

The skylight environment is home to plenty of pots that Rob has planted up featuring hellebores, cyclamen, primula denticulata and obconica, and the Barnhaven series of double primrose.

A new collection of lead sculpture and fountains and English stone spheres are kept company with a group of classical urns in stone and iron.

Three English handmade and hand painted pears would be terrific on a covered porch. Iron urns stuffed with faux grasses are destined for spring pots.

I did have to spring for a vase chock full of ranunculus for our opening.  How so?  Hellebores are a member of the family ranunculaceae .

White tulips seemed appropriate for a room that features more contemporary garden ornament.

This stack of stainless steel drawers is just waiting for that gardener who has a mind to make them a feature of a contemporary garden. The very large pots are vintage fiberglass. The swallows welded to a 1/4″ thick steel rod come in a five foot, and 11 foot length. Birds on a wire. They are fabricated in France, and come with the mounting hardware.

We paired round mirrors with garlands comprised of heavy duty fish line and stainless steel spheres. The chartreuse faux grass is a welcome punch of spring color.

The French company Perigot is known for their iconic buckets. These buckets, available in three sizes, are perfect for a wide range of uses, but I am most fond of the shape, and that beautiful chrome surface. It was a project, hanging them from our ceiling.  They are so heavy that we had to thread concrete wire through galvanized pipe to provide a hanging mechanism that would not bow from the weight. The Belgian made teak tables come in four sizes. The zinc framed mirror is a very strong design, and is well made to a fault.

Vintage zinc grape gathering baskets are a favorite of Rob’s.  We have a beautiful collection of them on hand. The smallest of the Perigot buckets look great stuffed with faux grasses. The miniature white painted metal butterflies only require a small nail to hang.

These wood presentation trays are a perennial favorite with our clients.  Fashioned from vintage French wine barrel tops and hand forged iron handles by a company in the US, they speak to the idea of the garden as a place to entertain.  Our better than life size vintage fiberglass cow came with a name.  Rob named her Lucy, after a French dealer who was not so interested in letting her go. Rob’s first clue? She was situated in a thriving bed of stinging nettles. How he persuaded Lucy to part with this incredible sculpture is beyond me.  How Lucy and her husband got her out of the nettles is unknown to me too.

But we are very happy to have her.  This is an example of an ornament for the garden that is eminently capable of organizing an entire landscape around her watchful eye. Lucy has an aura. I did fill a collection of spherical vases whose spouts are set on an angle with white stock. Lucy had a fragrant meadow at her feet for our opening.

Vintage English chimney pots and milk buckets have beautiful shapes and surfaces.

Big baskets woven from thick rattan have a great texture, size, and presence.

Pardon this poor picture! Serviceable English made bootscrapers are a contrast in form to the hedgehog bootscrapers. Both are made by the same company. If dirty boots are a way of life for you, we have choices.

Danish designed pots made in Italy-these are beautiful. The creamy peach color of the clay is beautiful.

This is just part of Rob’s collection from his shop fest in England. The vintage bootscraper with a stout stone base and rusted iron scraping mechanism-a one of a kind.

These locust wood casks are made in Belgium. They come in four sizes.  Impervious to weather or rot from water, they invite any gardener to plant away. For now they are home to a collection of English made iron garden stakes in various sizes set with glass globes at the top. I predict we will not have these for long.

The orange table and chairs are manufactured in Portugal.

Though the winter weather still has all of us in its grip, there is a taste of spring available at the shop.

cut pussy willow stems for spring pots

strikingly beautiful and tall fan willow

Yes, the spring branches have snow at the base of their pots. They are weathering this late winter blast as I expected. They shrug it off. We can too.

The Little Things

Early spring in my zone is anything but a 128 piece brass band playing at full tilt. That brass band blaring part will come in May, but April is notable for its quiet moments. Those plants that foretell the spring to come are looking very good right now.  That they dare breach the comfort of their winter home for the windy, chilly, and sometimes snowy and sleety garden in late March and April makes them well worth growing. That transition between the winter and spring is a long and blustery hallway. Gardeners can shut the door on the winter, and anticipate the spring light at the end of the tunnel. I would describe that time as April.The most notable of the small early spring things are the small flowering bulbs that require a fall planting. The chionodoxa forbesii “Blue Giant” that is pictured above grows but 6 inches tall. But these true blue flowers with white centers can make that interminable wait for spring a little easier to bear. Left to their own devices, they will multiply at a steady rate. The bulbs are so small they can be planted with your index finger. Every day I look at the chios, as I call them.  They come early, and are ephemeral. Blink, and they are gone until next year.

My favorite spring preview is always about the crocus. These little bulbs produce the most amazing cup shaped flowers with brilliant yellow stamens in early April. Of course the best view is from down on the ground. In April, there is time for a little dallying in the garden. Bad weather in late March can lay waste to them, or shorten their bloom time to but a few days, but I would not do without them. The one March that bad weather destroyed the flowers before they even opened was a bad March indeed. I was not heartbroken. I was insulted. April is a preseason gardening time for Michigan gardeners. There is time to take a good look. Time to smell, see, and hear the garden coming to life again. The small spring flowering plants are many. Snowdrops and winter aconites come first. Pushkinia, anemone blanda, frittilaria species, scilla, leucojum, crocus –  the list is long.

My crocus collection came with the house. 20 years ago I probably had 5 plants in bloom. They have increased at a leisurely rate, and now put on a fairly respectable show. This is nothing like visiting the Netherlands at bulb blooming time. It is a quiet April moment in Michigan.

a sunny April day with crocus tommasinianus in bloom

Pickwick crocus

the Pickwick’s up close

Giant Dutch purple crocus

Of course no discussion of April in Michigan would be complete without some reference to the hellebores. Mine are just coming on. The flower stalks are tall and arching.  The flowers themselves are modest in appearance, as most of the flowers are nodding. Pick a hellebore bloom, and turn it right side up in your hand, and be enchanted.

I know exactly why I devote lots of space in my garden to hellebores. The plants are sturdy. The foliage is glossy green the entire gardening season. Properly sited, they require next to no maintenance. Clumps 20 years old are not unusual. I so appreciate that they begin blooming in April. Their early spring appearance affords me the time to truly appreciate them. My April is not usually about the work of the garden. It is much about anticipation.

I might routinely anticipate the beauty of my April garden, but the bigger reality of this year’s pre-spring moments is always a unique experience. An experience that is not especially showy, and not particularly vocal. April is a a kind of quiet that draws gardeners up to a fire of slow heat. I would say that the April garden in our northern zone is a meeting of the early spring plants, and the caring hands of the gardener in charge. Every year in April, I find reason to celebrate this relationship. Welcome, spring!

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The Hellebores In March

What’s better than waiting out the end of the Michigan winter is a road trip to Pine Knot Farms to pick up a collection of hellebores. After some discussion with Dick Tyler, I placed an order, and our David drove our sprinter there to pick them up.  Pine Knot Farms has been breeding hellebores for a good many years. Their strains of helleborus hybridus are incredibly vigorous, strong blooming, and hardy in our zone.  The book written by Judith and Dick Tyler, entitled “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide”, was and still is a comprehensive and succinct description of the genus Helleborus. It is an invaluable reference work, and I reach for it whenever I have a question about hellebores.

helleborus "Pine Knot Select"From Wikipedia, “Commonly known as hellebores, the Eurasian genus Helleborus consists of approximately 20 species of herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae”.  Ha. I find the book by the Tyler’s to be considerably more engaging, and a lot more detailed.  I am happy to say that Dick Tyler took the time and effort to give David a comprehensive tour of his nursery. If you are not near enough to Detroit Garden Works to shop his plants, he does ship. This is the last weekend of his hellebore festival, but he grows many thousands of plants. Just one of the many in our collection is pictured above in a photograph of Rob’s. For further information, check out their website. 

Though we purchase hellebores from a number of different growers from all over the US, I was especially interested in Dick Tyler’s plants for a good reason.  Many of his strains of hellebores have helleborus hybridus as a prominent parent. Helleborus hybridus is in and of itself a plant of complex heritage. This is a major factor in its hardiness. They  are commonly known as Lenten roses, which means they are spring blooming. The blooming shoots of my hellebores emerge from the ground in late March, and will begin to flower in April.  As our spring weather is usually very cool, they are gloriously in bloom for quite some time. The flower itself is quite inconspicuous..  What appear to be petals are actually a modified calyx. Those petal-like structures will eventually turn green, and will persist on the plants for months.

The Christmas rose, or helleborus niger, is a winter blooming perennial.  Winter blooming plants do quite well in mild climates, but have a tough go in Michigan. There are a number of clones which have some measure of parentage from helleborus niger that are able to survive our harsh winter and unpredictable early spring. We are able to buy the hellebore hybrid “Joseph Lemper” in full bloom in December.  Customers who have kept them over the winter and planted them out in the spring report that the bloom stalks will come very early in the spring, but they do manage endure our early spring night temperatures. I prefer helleborus hybridus cultivars for my Michigan garden. I do have some intergeneric hellebore varieties whose bloom stalks began to grow several weeks ago. I have my fingers crossed that they will survive the forecast overnight low tonight of 12 degrees. For this reason, I do not cut off the tattered remains of last years foliage until it appears we will have night temperatures that are more moderate. That old foliage is like a blanket.

So what is one to do with one of our hellebores in full bloom when our night temperatures are so cold?  They are actually quite obliging about a place indoors for a few weeks.  We like to pot them up in a little something that is decorative. The green or black plastic pot that they are grown in will do, but why make do at the end of winter?  Rob potted this hellebore in a basket, and topped it off with some mood moss.  To follow are more pictures of his miniature spring gardens. If you are able to stop in and see them in person, I promise you will be enchanted.

hellebores in pots

See what I mean?

 

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The Winter Landscape: Plant Hardiness

Plants are very specific about what soil, light and water conditions they need to thrive. Any gardener who has moved a sulking plant around 3 or 4 times before striking pay dirt understands this. It is simple to spot a plant that is unhappy.  Figuring out the cause of the trouble can be tough, as there are so many factors that come in to play. There are those plants, in defiance of every good intention and effort to find them a suitable home, that fail to prosper. I have killed outright plenty of plants. Given that every plant has a strong will to live and reproduce, those failures are frustrating and embarrassing. Figuring out what a plant needs to thrive is 2 parts science, 2 parts luck, and 6 parts good instincts. The hellebores in the above picture look unhappy, as they always do in February. They like the filtered sun, protection from wind, the friable soil and regular moisture that is available to them here in the growing season. They have what they need to thrive. What they do not like in February is the cold. Before any plant in a Michigan garden can thrive, it has to be able to survive our winters.

Plant hardiness zones indicate a worst case low temperature for different parts of the country. The USDA, in compiling data from weather stations, and factoring in mitigating circumstances which can influence low temperatures, has produced a plant hardiness map. Interested in that map making process?      It gives gardeners an idea of what the lowest average winter temperature can be in a given area. The hardiness map is a guide that can help gardeners select plants which are appropriate for their area. My area is at best a zone 6, and at worst, a zone 5b.  This means that plants that are able to withstand low temperatures in the -15 to -10 degrees should be able to survive in my garden. That includes these ratty looking  hellebores. Last year’s foliage may be burned from cold and wind, but they are very much alive, and waiting for some signs of spring.

The key to survival in very cold regions is dependent on that plant slowly going dormant over the metabolic slow down that we call fall, and a constant deep dormancy throughout the period of very cold weather. What the hardiness zone map does not provide for are weather events out of the norm. We have had temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s for a week. On February 18, the record high for that day of 62 degrees set in 1976 was eclipsed by a 65 degree day. One or two days of weather that warm might not affect any plants that are still dormant.  The frost is deep in the ground. But the days are staying warm. We have a low of 56 forecast for overnight tonight. Now I am starting to fret. It is too warm, way too early. Under that winter foliage, I see signs that the hellebore flower stalks have begun to emerge.

hellebore A plant breaks dormancy for a constellation of reasons.  Longer day length and warming temperatures are key. No plant reacts instantly to a brief change in conditions. But a change that persists is an invitation to wake up. Hellebores are greatly prized by gardeners everywhere. I do favor helleborus orientalis hybrids for my zone.  This group of hellebores, now known as helleborus hybridus, are bred from hellebores commonly known as Lenten roses. This group generally begins blooming in April in my zone 6 garden. Hellebore hybrids featuring the genes of Helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas rose, naturally bloom at a time which is winter in my garden. Do I have inter generic hellebores in my garden that would prosper better in zones further south?  Of course I do. I am always pushing my luck. I have had great success growing plants marginal to my zone. But nature is unpredictable. Nor does she care a whit for me and my love for my garden.

snowdropsOur bitter 2014 winter turned my zone 6 into a battle zone 4. None of my magnolias bloomed. My parrotias sustained extensive die back to their upper branches. My roses were killed back to within a foot of the ground plane. My clematis sputtered. My 20 year old boxwood had unbearable damage. It was a sobering experience, to say the least. Any plant marginal to my plant hardiness zone suffered damage of one sort or another. The winter of 2015 might have been worse. On February 20, 2015, the temperature in Roscommon Michigan was -39 degrees. The statewide average for that day was 18.5 degrees below zero. The damage done to evergreens these two back to back vicious winters was extensive. But those plants that were safely dormant managed to survive. The snow drops showing their faces yesterday worry me.  65 degrees in February is an anomaly.  The cold weather will return. How much cold can their flowers endure?

magnolia stellataOf course I am anxiously checking all of my early spring blooming plants.  This magnolia stellata was a 2 foot tall tree the day I bought my house twenty some years ago. It has prospered where it was planted.  It did not bloom in either 2014 or 2015. Its hardiness was sorely tested by a pair of bad winters.  The flowering in 2016 was a happening.  I am trying to decide if our warm weather is encouraging the buds to swell.  Not that I could intervene. Mother nature bats last. I am reading we have some night temperatures in early March in the teens.  Though I am ready to wash my hands of winter at the end of February, March is a winter month for us. Any early spring plant which is breaking dormancy right now may not fare so well in March. This is more a worry than a certainty.

Late this past summer, I replanted my rose garden. Though I know there is a limit to their hardiness in my zone, it is better for me to start over, than to do without. That was a personal decision, not a decision driven by a plant hardiness map. As for the dogwoods, I hope they will be able to endure a freakish warm spell in the middle of winter. No small part of the winter landscape are plants that endure.

 

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