July 23, 2009

How to Look at the Garden

July is the month when a legal guardian or conservator really ought to accompany me on trips to the garden nursery, ostensibly to restock compost and mulch supplies, and deer repellent (which must be restocked with great frequency in northern Michigan gardens). Would that I could make it in and out of the nursery with purchases only of core gardening supplies. I cannot.

In any season, my instinctual response to entering a garden shop is akin to that of a child in an old-fashioned penny candy store, where peppermint sticks and licorice whips, hot-pepper gumballs, slo-poke all-day suckers, sophisticated candy cigarettes, love-bead candy necklaces, ruby red wax lips with soda pop filling, sour lemon drops and other delectables line the shelves in big glass jars. Substitute for the candies arrays of snapdragons, lillies, yarrow, dianthus pinks, convulvulus, and so forth ad infinitum, and essentially I want one of those, and those, and those – oh, what the dickens, just one of everything! Quicker than a skinny minute, I can divest myself of the entire contents of my wallet on plant purchases that, while infatuating, often fall short of being wise.

July is not the best month to buy potted plants. Many will have become root-bound and exhausted from being stuck in pots for a couple of months, many already will have peaked in blooming. It's too early for the penny-wise benefits of end-of-summer price mark-downs. It is the month, though, when the gardener is perhaps most seriously tempted to splurge, because it's when vacancies in the garden plot become most apparent. The fulsomeness of the spring-flowering bulbs is spent, and the high summer season of flowering has reached whatever apex it is likely to attain this year, thus laying bare to the discerning eye whatever gaps, gaffes and failures there may be in the beds and borders.

However large, mature and resilient the garden output may be, it is those disappointing gaps the gardener somewhat obsessively tends to focus upon. The bee balm may have grown to five feet this year, the lillies and iris may have generously multiplied their numbers, the reliable Russian sage has come back for another vigorous outing. But still, last year's alyssum didn't re-seed itself, the columbines returned only thinly and flagging, the limerock coreopsis and several chrysanthemums seem to have disappeared altogether. In the land of Michigan's punishing winters, on a sandy, wind-whipped, lakeshore plot, with nightly visits from forever foraging deer, every summer dishearteningly reveals fatalities and terminal wounds among the garden's rank and file. The garden shop offers so many tantalizing options for potential new plant recruits, so many dreams of more, bigger, fuller, better.

July is the month to keep firmly in mind that nature laughs when the gardener makes plans. And it's the time to look at the garden in its entirety, seeing and appreciating it whole, not just zeroing in on the sore spots. July is the month to revel in how far the garden has come, to touch, smell and really see the successes, decked in their best splendor, to hear the rustle and bustle of dozens of bees in the lavender spires, the back and forth soft tympany of summer breezes at play in the tall quaking aspen.

An excellent means of elevating the sensual enjoyment of the summer garden, and minimizing its flaws, is to sit right down upon the ground in its midst. This angle of repose puts the gardener right at eye level with the garden's best display of bloom and architecture. Seated on the warm earth, the line of sight goes not downward from above, but outward to the surrounding company. To sit right among the plants, shoulder to shoulder, side by side with the flower heads, branches and leafy torsos of the garden is like drawing up a chair at a banqueting table with a large, colorful, engrossing congerie of friends in every direction you look. Remember the feeling of complete, bone-deep contentment you got as a child, when laying in a grassy meadow on a sunny summer day? It's like that. The senses will be filled, the blank spaces barely noticed.

The gardener will still, doubtless, commit the sins of lust and covetousness at the nursery. Plant and garden love is an incurable affliction, once it works its wiles upon the heart. But looking at the garden from a seat at its summer-laden board could help instill a little more restraint and wise choosing into the inevitable purchasing process. One can but hope.

July 13, 2009

Color Scheme

One spring day walking home and, as I approached the house, contemplating and critiquing the front garden as I am wont to do whenever it is within view, I was startled to see that the whole front garden was awash in waves of blue and violet flowers. This startled me because I'd not planned nor specifically plotted a blue-toned garden.

Cool shadings of color are not what come to mind in my daydreams of the idyllic cottage garden. The dream garden is painted in delicate, gauzy cream, butter yellow, pastel peach and apricot, Necco wafer colors, nursery colors, with here and there judicious splashes of apple red. If a blue were envisioned in the dream scheme, it would be an ethereal, barely-there powder blue. Any more declarative blue I'd have judged, in theory, not to my taste, not my gardening style.

Yet there the front garden stood, adorned from left to right in frank, summer-sky blue, teal, navy blue, lavender, lilac, plum and deep purple. A blue-toned garden, planted by yours truly.

This came about because the garden plantings were chosen for their shape, structure, flowering time, scent, deer-proofness, popularity with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, or just plain old nostalgic associations. Nothing was really chosen on the basis of its location on the color wheel, except the Russian sage in the back garden and the roses. The plantings were not all acquired and incorporated at once, either, in a grand and well-thought out design, but rather were accumulated little by little over the years, as money and inclination dictated. Certainly I knew the color of the flowers as each plant was brought home to be enrolled in the garden. Taken individually, the thinking went something like, hmm, a cerulean lupine, not my first choice of color, but how very good-looking!

And so it went. Lupines, violas, Canadian violets, alliums, mountain bluet centauria, lilacs, denim blue penstemon, lavender-colored chives, and velvet-robe purple Siberian iris. Stopping on the front walk, taking in the whole serendipitous blue picture painted across the late May garden, I really, really liked it. Part of the affection was simply gratitude to these perennials for continuing to come back to the garden each summer, surviving the tough, long haul through the northwestern Michigan winters, as some of the fairer-complexioned plants (columbines, gaura bee blossom, bleeding hearts, primroses) couldn't manage to do.

There are other colors I thought I'd forbid from my garden. Hot orange, neon pink, sunlight-sharp yellows once daffodil season had passed. Yet orange glows like a fireball from the daylillies at the foot of the white pines, and beneath the front windows reside mandarin-orange tiger lillies I'm currently madly in love with. The shout-pink of the creeping phlox cheerleads the garden into its first slap-happy springtime outburst, and shortly thereafter, a blood-orange and ripe-lemon petalled pyrethrum painted daisy unfurls razzle-dazzle smiles.

The moral of the story of color in the garden is that all colors work together in lovely harmony, for me. In practice, as opposed to best-laid plans, every color brings added visual value to the garden. Tints of every stripe gayly rub shoulders with one another, extending and expanding the interest, the attractiveness, the eye-candy richness of the garden. It seems there's no such thing as colors that clash in nature's paintbox. On the contrary, when it's a question of color in the garden, the more and various, the merrier and more convivial the garden fellowship becomes.

July 3, 2009

Splendid Shrubs for Michigan Gardens

When heavy-muscled storm clouds envelop the blue skies, and rain falls in foggy mists and sweeping showers for several days running, it is a chance to pause in the continual summer chores of the garden and assess how it is getting on. Among the various categories of plants that make up the perennial occupants of the garden, the shrubs flanking its boundaries and softening the front aspect of the house annually bring to the garden more density, height, color and scent. There are seven types of shrub, of the 15 or so I've planted in my garden, that can be wholeheartedly recommended for northwestern Michigan gardens.

Common farmyard lilacs in lavender, pink or white are a low-maintenance, fast-growing choice that never fail to please with their May offerings of wonderfully scented flowers. Lilac hedgerows naturalized into the wild grow all over the fields, country cemeteries, roadsides and former farm homesteads in this region, testifying to their adaptability and suitability for the hefty seasons and weathers. When in bloom, their scent pervades the air for miles through countryside and village. Picking the fragrant flowers for bouquets actually encourages lilacs to develop more flower buds for the following year. In the private garden, the flowers and the healthy forest-green foliage that stays intact late into fall give much benefit with very little care.

Forsythia likewise is exceptionally hardy, shoots rapidly upward once rooted in a sunny spot, and literally covers itself from stem to stern in merry, early springtime, sunshine-yellow flowers. The flower fragrance is clean, light and fresh, smells like springtime itself. The branches can be cut while in bud and forced into bloom indoors, long before anything else in the garden is display-ready. With regularly freshened water, the flowering branches will hold up well for a couple of weeks. If forsythia is pruned for shape and to remove dead or crossing branches after the flowers finish in spring, it redoubles its growth and flowering the next year.

Three types of shrub in the garden share the crown for being absolutely no-fuss, no-muss standout performers. Unlike hollies, bayberry, butterfly bush and elderberry which all have late-arriving, short-lived, summertime-only leafage, these three leaf out in early spring and stay foliage-full and beautiful throughout autumn. Unlike the slowpoke shasta and onondaga viburnums, they grow very rapidly, gaining a couple of feet in height and width each year. They all have lovely flowers and gentle scents. The three queens are the diablo ninebark, with rich burgundy leaves and clusters of seashell-pink flowers; the American high bush cranberry, with beautiful green foliage tipped by dark red that turns to flame-red in the fall, and cherry-red berries much loved by the birds; and the snowmound spirea, with some of the thickest, dark green foliage found anywhere in the shrub world, and cascades of sweet-smelling, late May, snowdrift-white blossoms.

The Chicago lustre viburnum, contrary to its dwarfish, hip-spreading cousins in the viburnum family, is an upright, handsome fellow who branches tall and fan-like. It always appears extremely well-groomed, with or without pruning, due to an unusually orderly, straight up, no-nonsense growth pattern, symmetrically veined and clamshell-shaped, precisely defined leaves, and very tight, neat little bundles of flowers in antique ivory. Not showy or flamboyant, it is straightforward, reliable and sturdy. It finishes off its annual strapping-fellow season with clusters of indigo berries.

Lastly let us sing the praises of the flowering quince. The tapered oval, grass-green leaves grow thick and glossy from first of May – no barren, spindly grey branches here to despoil the verdant spring landscape. The quince grows upward and outward in profligate ardor, very rapidly offering the deep thicket of branches that birds adore for nesting. It's got that unbeatable, hardy shrub resilience which, after the first year, releases the gardener from care and responsibility and does just superbly, thank you, all on its own stock. Best of all, it puts on a perfectly dazzling, citrus-honey scented princess gown of apricot flowers (or cream or cotton-candy pink, depending on variety), in late May, from head to toe. The wealth of bright and frilly flowers are a show-stopper, a fireworks explosion of color joyfully ushering in a new summer.

The landscaper Vanessa Kuemmerle, of Emeryville California, said, “A garden is like having an art museum outdoors, with constantly rotating exhibits and a living palette.” Shrubs raise the backbone and square the shoulders of the garden paintings. They contribute a feast of color to the scene, and strength and longevity in a setting where much else is all too transient and fly-by-night.