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Annuals in the Landscape

Categories: Annuals

A couple of months ago I’d found myself up in Burlington. I’d been planting some of the flower beds on campus, so annuals were on my mind. We (miraculously) got a place to park right outside the store, and I jump out. Looking towards the road, I see an abomination of an annual planting, one of the cliches in the modern landscape, the sign planting. I’ll let the picture do the talking here. (click on all the pictures to view a larger size)

I’m not an expert, but I will admit to an opinion or two. Granted, planting annuals commercially, on a large scale in public places, is somewhat trickier than it appears. But it seems like so many people are lousing it all up. So over the past month or so I’ve been taking notes on what makes successful flower plantings, and, after crossing off the bits that made me sound like a cranky old guy,  I’ve come up with some guidelines on how to make annual plantings that matter. Like all things, you’ll probably read some that apply to all sorts of plantings, even if you never find yourself with a 10′ by  50′ bed to fill with color.

1. Consider your audience.

Where are people viewing your planting? This is the very first step to consider before planting. Gardens can be viewed in very different ways, depending on where the viewer is located. Like the flagpole planting above. I count 6 kinds of flowers mashed together. The viewer for this garden? Drivers and passengers on Dorset Street. The viewer here is driving at 30 mph. It’s not a time to be subtle. The myriad of different colors in a small area at best look like a greenhouse just threw up on the lawn and, at worst, won’t even be seen.  Scale is important too-what’s the backdrop? Here’s another example.

I count five of six kinds of flowers here, kinda mish-mashed together in about 3 feet. It’s a nice combination, certainly something I wouldn’t have come up with (too subtle for my outlandish guy taste), and looks nice while walking right next to it. But look at it in the context of the rest of the landscape-

Can you even see the subtle pinks, blues and yellows? Or is the scene dominated by the giant yews, and the annuals have lost the battle?

Take this better example, the front of a flower border in a formal backyard setting. The masses of flowers, while pretty when up close, are still beautiful from a distance, in this case, the back porch and sitting area where most functions take place.

2. Buy larger.

I fully realize it’s 90 degrees outside right now. That’s why I’m inside writing. But to a plant, summer in Vermont is pretty short. Why wait? Particularly on large plantings. Go ahead and treat yourself to larger plants, maybe annuals that come in 4″ pots. They are in bloom right when you plant them, look like something immediately. The little plants from 4 and 6 packs just look silly out in the landscape, and take a month or so to start looking like anything. Save them for filler in your landscape, or the vegetable bed. This is some lost looking 6 pack flowers in the midst of some large perennials, taken about a month ago. They still look a little lost even now.

3. Buy more of less.

This relates to what we’ve already discussed up above-planting large groups of plants to make a statement. I will admit to that heady spring rush, the first trip through the greenhouse when everything looks so vibrant and new after snow all winter. Resist that temptation to buy one of everything. More impact can be had from massing a couple of types of plants together.

And when you fail, you can fail big. Like this mass planting of a large leaved red Oxalis planted in front of Proctor hall last year…

4. Avoid straight Lines.

Quite a while ago on an estate in Charlotte I planted a spectacular row of peonies. My memory says the line stretched for hundreds of feet, so it was probably about 50. They started to fill in great, flower all about the same time, and was beginning to look like the hedge we intended. After a couple of years, a water line broke in January directly underneath the line. We dug the peonies (they weren’t screaming, but I thought I saw the roots shivering), fixed the line, and planted them back. To this day, the dug plants are a little smaller, and the hedge dips a half of a foot where they are.

Staight lines are stressful. Ask anyone that has a boxwood hedge. They cower in fear that some random car will plow through the line. What if one or two of the flowers die? You’re looking at a hole all summer long. Maybe you can live with that.

5. Read the tags that came with the plants.

There are hundreds of varieties of annuals. The goal of growing them in a greenhouse is to get them all saleable for the end of May, so they need to fill out the pot. So yes, they all look about the same size. What you may not know is that some had to be started in March to look that big (geraniums), while others may have been started only a month or so ago (Bacopa), and still others may have been thrown on the greenhouse floor, stepped on a couple times, deprived of water, cursed at, and thrown in the pot last week so they don’t get too large too fast (petunias). One of my favorite flowers, Anagalis, looks small and dainty in a four inch pot, cause they don’t really like greenhouse life. The tag recommends a 14-20″ spacing, and they indeed grow all of that. You wouldn’t know it looking at them in May. Go look at the front of Emma Willard now, though. It looks like this-

6. Ignore the tags.

Some companies are better with their tags than others. Of course, they are looking to sell more plants, so spacing may get fudged a little bit. Some companies, though, are totally inexcusable. Proven Winners, for example. One of my standards in planting are Supertunias, a new hybrid of Petunias that spread quickly with large flowers in nice shades that don’t require much fuss (trimming, deadheading). An average Supertunia at Middlebury gets spaced 2′ apart, and they are still touching in a month. Even the ones where the tag says 6-10″ spacing.

Maybe they mean in a pot.

But don’t get too worked up about spacing. And please don’t use a tape measure. I can remember passing by a landscaper in Shelburne lining a sidewalk in front of a funeral home with two kinds of perennials, both spreaders (that’s a nice way of saying invasive, one of them was an artemisia.) He was out there with a tape measure, moving each plant a quarter inch this way or that, until they were just right. Within a month, they were filled out. The next year, the plants were all mushed together. Cound’t tell they were perfect anymore.

7. Use perennials and shrubs.

Annuals are expensive. And they don’t come back. And while large beds are nice, and massing flowers makes the most impact, budgets don’t always allow. So selective use of perennials and shrubs can fill in a lot of space and still give a flower garden effect.

Here’s a good example from a bed on Court Street-notice the Shasta Daisies in the center of the bed. That’s a good choice, as they bloom in the middle of the summer, and, with one deadheading (see below) they will rebloom in the fall. Even not in bloom, they stay an attractive green providing a nice backdrop.

Another example is in front of the Johnson Art Building. This is a large bed, in an area of campus that desperately needed a splash of color. Planting this bed strictly in annuals would be cost prohibitive, and a bear to maintain, so we planted the center. Sticking with the bright color idea, that’s a Bloodgood Japanese maple in the center, with a gold Juniper at it’s base, and a matching set of a dwarf Blue Spruce, flanked by a dark blue Salvia. It’s enough of a color palate that we aren’t hemmed in each year in color choice.

It’s tough to see in this picture, but the gold Juniper is offset , slashing diagonally across the bed. This gives four zones in the bed, a large and a small, so we can can go with two different color schemes and not have them clash. Pink, peachy, and purple on one side, and then golds and reds on the other.The blue spruce is the separator between the two.

8. Take care of your plants.

I’m a firm believer in tough love. I water new landscape plantings infrequently (water less, but more at one time). Annuals, though, live a coddled life in the greenhouse, with water and fertilizer daily. Taking them from an oreo and pop tart diet to the harsh realities of real soil can be difficult for them, like learning to do your laundry freshman year. In the fall we remove bark mulch from the annual beds, and put on about 3″ of compost. Over the winter cold earthworms draw the compost down into the soil, and we are able to plant right into compost/soil next spring.

Water. A lot, then a little. This year I watered twice the first week, once the second (rain or not, it didn’t matter), then the rest of the growing season if it hasn’t rained for week I’ll water. And we’re talking a real rain, more than a half of an inch. Anything less doesn’t count.

I don’t get too worked up about fertilizer. The compost does a good job of that. If I had to make an inorganic recommendation, though, I’d say something in a slow release.Organic fertilizers are wonderful, but if your annuals are deficient, you probably don’t want to be waiting for the right soil temps, enzymes, and mineral breakdown of organics.

9. Avoid cliches.

Not only planting the base of a flagpole, but I’m talking about the tipped planting pot with flowers in the ground “spilling” out of it, the cast iron bed frame in the ground  making a “planting bed” (bed? Planting bed? Get it? Huh? Huh? Get it? Huh?), the toilet bowl filled with flowers (Route 125 in Hancock), or the death march of marigolds lining a walk to a front door.

Cliches can be a more subtle, too, but just as tiring. Like rock plantings. Here’s a local example-

A rock in the middle of nowhere, and two each of the three most popular perennials-Silver mound Artemisia, Autumn Joy Sedum, and Stella D’Oro Daylily.

10. Ask a grade school kid about the color wheel.

It takes a LOT of flowers in a small area to be able to safely ignore color combinations, more than you are willing to plant. And the range of colors found in annuals now means that just because a color wheel says the two go together, it may not.

I will admit to landscaping like a guy. I’m just not very subtle. Bright, contrasty colors are my signature in flower plantings. Like yellows and golds next to Middlebury Blue college signs, or tacky reds and pinks underneath a Japanese maple. My favorite colors in perennials seem to be peaches and apricots. My favorite annual colors seemingly come out of a kindergarteners crayon box.

This goes back to the audience concept as well. All flower books seperate “hot” colors like red and orange from “cool” colors like blues. What they don’t say? Hot, bright colors look good from a distance, like shocking reds. Pale subtle colors look good closer up.

How about one color? Like Morning Star Grass, a green grass with a bright white streak up the center, with a white Bacopa at it’s base.

Another example-Rainbow’s End Dwarf Alberta Spruce, a rare spruce where the new growth comes out gold, with a gold Bidens crawling around the base.

11. Fuss a little bit.

If you are making an investment in annuals, you are going to have to invest in some time into them as well. It’s worth it. A mid-summer haircut goes a long ways to keeping the plants looking fresh and happy for the haul to fall. Some modern annuals don’t need deadheading (removing spent flowers), but chopping off flowers and seedheads at once scares them into better blooms in a week or two. Petunias will branch and flower more if trimmed.

12. Use something big once in a while.

Start with something tall, and work down from there. Unfortunately, many annuals all seem to be about the same height, and that gets dull. Mess around with some grasses, or old fashioned plants like Datura or Night Flowering tobacco. Not only will they fill up a lot of space (cheaply!), but they’ll provide a focus point for the whole bed. Here’s a night flowering Tobacco in a pot with an Oxalis at the base. Even in the daytime, green is a color, and theOxalis has plenty of presence on it’s own.

12. Have some fun.

Humor in the landscape can, and shoud be subtle. (remember what I was saying about cliches?) Annuals are such a broad catagory, that it’s easy to have fun with them, and like a joke, doesn’t need to live from year to year. I’ve seen all Black flowered gardens, for example, or all blue beds with one red “accidental” flower in the center. Or this-a funky grass called King Tut-an Egyptian Papyrus, that I decided to plant in front of the formal stone entrance to Old Chapel Road. It looks like I’d lost my mind. Naturally, I have.

13. Steal ideas.

Horticulture has a grand tradition of theft. One of my favorite plant combinations I ever used was actually just discovered by the plants on a greenhouse bench being adjacent to one another.

Steal ideas Draw inspiration from other sources, like art. Remember about the color wheel above? Ignore it, like that hack Claude Monet, and be brave enough to pair blues with pinks, or even use a surfeit of silver, even though it’s not on the color wheel at all.

14. Ignore everything I say.

I thought this coleus would look good in a bed.

A Wednesday Thunderstorm

Categories: Trees, Weather

Last wednesday we had a rip-banger. Thunderstorms developed in the hot summer air over Northern New York, and built as they tracked across the lake. The line continued to build once across the lake, and erupted on top of Middlebury.

I was sitting at home, (I was at work early), watching lightening strike all around us, many up on the ridge of Snake Mountain, some in the fields below. The wind was howling, and sheets of rain poured down. The Middlebury weather station recorded a 20 degree temperature drop in less than a half of an hour, and more than a half an inch of rain in the same amount of time. Peak wind gust came in at 40 mph.

The college weathered the storm ok, but 3 trees took it quite hard. A Green Ash behind Emma Willard (Admissions) took a lightning strike-that was interesting, as it was the shortest tree around, but it was all by itself in the center of the back yard.

Another tree we lost, not surprising, but still sad, was a large Weeping Willow on the northwest side of Battell Beach (the upper Quidditch Pitch). We almost always see Adirondack chairs underneath this tree. The center two stems of this tree had a fast moving fungus that caused a rot in the sapwood of the two center trunks. The sapwood is what carries water upwards to the branches, as well as nutrients throughout the tree, so having this vital structure rot away was a irrecoverable death in waiting. High winds torqued one of the trunks, and broke it away to lean against one of the remaining ones. We removed the tree the next day, before it broke further on someone sitting in a chair.

The final tree may or may not be a casualty, time will tell. One of the large Norway spruces we left in the Main Quad Tree Removal, the most southern one, was hit by lightning. Friends at work in the service building told me it was the most impressive lightning strike they’d heard in a long time. The tree shows a classic spiral scar from the top of the tree all the way down to the bottom root flare. Bark like shrapnel was scattered all over the quad in long 3′ strips, and filled the back of one of our gators. The prognosis of the tree is unknown. The roots seem to be intact-while there is bark peeling on the root flare, it does not seem too bad. Certainly I’ve seen trees recover from worse. We’ll know in a couple of weeks-if the tree is going to die quickly we’ll know soon.

Edge and Atwater

Categories: Atwater Contest

Yes, dear readers, I’m still cheating on you on another blog. The Atwater contest is nearing completion, though, and in one of the final posts for Turf Battle I’m again writing about a landscape concept you all might find interesting. I write about Edge, and how it effects the composition of masses and spaces within the landscape.

Space and Atwater

Categories: Atwater Contest

I’ve just finished a blog post for the Turf Battle competition that I thought readers of this blog may find interesting, as it pertains to landscape design, the Middlebury landscape in particular. In Space, I wrote about the hierarchy of outdoor spaces on campus, and how the master plan for Middlebury sees our outdoor spaces. I found it fascinating to research, as most of my landscape design courses I took never focused on such large and lofty areas such as these. It’s a quick read, hope you enjoy it.

Annual Review

Categories: Annuals

Regular blog readers (all four of you or so) probably don’t realize I can read about you as well. Through the wonders of an add-in on the blog called Blog Stats, I can see not only how many people are reading pages on this blog, but what pages they are hitting. It can be kinda funny.

I can use the information almost like a forecast. My post a year or two ago on Forecasting a Nor’easter tends to get many page views as a storm comes up the coast-it’s one of the only places where you can look up exactly what that “benchmark” is the forecasters are always mentioning. Similary, do a web search on Pagoda Dogwood, and Google will probably lead you here.

It can be humbling, though. Some of my favorite posts have been the least popular, showing the lowest number of page views. Like Black Eyed Susan-one of my favorite plants, and favorite posts. Next to no one read that. Or Plants of a Mis-Spent Youth-the secret I barely want to tell anyone about how I’m filling Middlebury with unusual plants. My very least popular posts, though, have been on Annuals.

We don’t plant a lot of annuals at Middlebury-it’s a space and time thing. It’s best to plant annuals at the end of May and beginning of June, when our department is busy with Commencement and reunion. And with 200 acres, where would we stop? But we do have a couple of prime locations where annuals really brighten an otherwise boring area, and they’re fun to plant. In the past I’ve written about what we planted, thinking that plant geeks like me care, and would want to read about them. Well, site stats say they don’t.

So I skipped it this year. Our normal plantings on Old Chapel Road and the front of Johnson were as popular as always, based on comments from people walking past, but I never posted about what they were. Unlike my own garden, where I sure as hell wished I’d kept track of all the names of the daylilies I’ve planted, I do keep careful track of what we plant at Camp Midd, and naturally I watch carefully. So this year, I thought I’d actually review what we planted, and how well they grew.

North end of Old Chapel Road

I was in the retail garden center business long enough to see so many plants come and go I couldn’t even keep track of them. Gardeners are trained well to plant something new, something exciting. My new role as campus horticulturist requires consistency. I need to know that what I’m spending our budget on is going to work, is going to grow and flower for reunion, language school in the summer, and last through fall family weekend in September. But the plant geek in me likes new things, so clearly I’ve been well trained. And don’t forget the marketing in greenhouses-plants are bred now to look good in little pots and six packs very early, so they sell well. And nobody writes or reviews how well they grow once they’re out of they’re coddled existence.

(Side note: Greenhouses are not a coddled existence, but it is a good phrase anyways. During my first experiecence with commercial greenhouse production I couldn’t believe how harsh the greenhouse magician treated the plants. In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to water. The worst thing to do to a greenhouse is to water it. Most plants in greenhouses die from fungus and rot, the pestilence of over-watering. My boss would smile upon casting his gaze at a greenhouse full of plants just starting to wilt. You can fix that with water. You can’t fix a root rot so easily.)

I have some old faithful plants I put into the annual plantings every year here. Mostly yellow and gold. The official Middlebury color is a very dark blue, which make it easy for a color wheel challenged horticulturist to play off of that with bright yellows and golds of summer flowers. My wife wanted to paint our house a dark blue, and brought the bloom of the Tiger Lily that came planted in front of our house down to the paint store to pick the right shade-she’s taught me more about color than four years of Plant and Soil Science at UVM ever did. Sadly, there is no Middlebury Dark Blue flower, at least none I know. That’s why the Middlebury College sign across from Admissions gets yellow and gold flowers. (including Black Eyed Susan, you did read that post, right?)

This year, at the end of Old Chapel Road, by the stone pillars, I went with some standbys, and some new flowers. Most impressive this year were the Diascias, ordinarily a finicky flower. I tend to think fo them like a pansy, better in the cool springs and falls, not so great in the heat of the summer. This one a banner year, though, with a pink Darla Appleblossom from Goldfisch blooming all summer long next to the road

Diascia 'Darla Appleblossom'

and a great Darla Orange Diascia from Goldfisch in the front north side.

Diascia 'Darla Orange'

Something everyone should plant more of is an annual with a terrible name, Scaevola. Proven Winners is trying to give it the rather bland common name of Fan Flower, so I guess that’s better than the latin. I used to love selling this plant in a hanging basket, as it’s as nearly foolproof . I’ve seen this plant go into full wilt, hanging over the sides of the pot looking for the compost bin, but with a quick drink of water covered in full blooms in 3 days. Mostly seen in a pale-ish blue, this year I used a really pretty white, and I never drove past and saw this plant out of blooms.

Scaevola 'Whirlwind White'

A flower I always fall in love with in the greenhouse, and a good contrast to Middlebury blue is Marguerite Daisy. Not a great choice for annual beds, though, at least not for us. Many annuals cycle-blooms like mad for several weeks, then next to none while it sets seed (or thinks it does, as most hybrids probably don’t anymore). In a container, or in the hands of someone with more time on their hands than I, this plant will do well, as snipping off dead flowers keeps it blooming well. I like the Vanilla Butterfly cultivar from Proven Winters, in a nice pale yellow. It also comes in a gaudier bright yellow, and a pale pink that only looks good for 3 days in the greenhouse, and then never again.  Here’s the Vanilla Butterfly on a good week. Look at the picture above of the Middlebury College sign for a bad week. Look hard, it’s in there.

Argyranthemum 'Vanilla Butterfly'

Speaking of falling in love in the greenhouse, every year for the last several I’ve been planting Angelonia, Angelonia angustifolia. I fall for the Proven Winners ‘Angelface Blue’, even though they don’t trust us with the latin, and are calling it Summer Snapdragon. This is beautiful in a little 4″ pot, all upright and full of dark blue, almost purple blooms. It does sort of look like a snapdragon, with a couple of bloom spikes sticking up across the greenhouse bench. They get planted, and promptly fall over on the ground, staying there for several weeks until the base of the plant sends reinforcements. I’ll probably keep planting it, though, as there is nothing like a summer romance.

Angelonia 'Angelface Blue'

There were two dissapointments in the bed this year, one of which I should have known better. Osteospermum (latin and common name this time) is another of those very popular spring greenhouse flowers, and it’s been getting the royal treatment from hybridizers ever since. The problem is that they are like a pansy, only worse, gone mad, only blooming in the spring and fall, and going on vacation in the heat of the summer. We planted a Proven Winner called Lemon Symphony, in a nice pale yellow with a purple (!) eye. It was so sad looking at picture time in late August, I didn’t even take its picture.

Another plant that does not work in a planting bed turned out to be a foliage plant, Pseuderanthemum ‘Black Varnish’. Great cultivar name, as the thick glossy leaves are a dark, almost black red. This would be a great plant in a container as a focal point, standing tall in the background. Massed together in a outdoor bed, with no side shoots, it just looked a little silly. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Maybe if I’d pinched the tops of the plants off in early July to promote branching they might have filled out some.

Pseuderanthemum 'Black Varnish'

Not dissapointing, but not thrilling, was a Calibrachoa called ‘Noa Yellow’. The common name is Million Bells, for many tiny petunia shaped flowers that cover the annual, but Million Bells may be a Proven Winner trademarked name. Some of the Calibrachoas grow like crazy, while some never really grow much after their greenhouse sojurn. ‘Noa Yellow’ ran the middle course, blooming well, but never really expanding out into the garden to fill space. Chalk it up to another plant for containers.

Calibrachoa 'Noa Yellow'

South side of the bed

Sustainable Landscaping

Categories: Landscape

While doing a post on the Sustainable Sites Initiative for the Atwater Landscape contest blog Turf Battle I’d remembered I also wanted to write about a homeowner version of this document called Landscape for Life. I first read about this project at the wonderful Garden Rant blog, then immediately went to read the document. I’d been following the work of the Sustainable Sites inititive for a while, and am over-joyed to see a less ‘industrial’ application.

Like the Sustainable Sites website, the Landscape for Life website is a great resource in an of itself, but the true reading is found in the large document, available for download. Highly recommended  winter reading for your inner gardener.

Tree Hazards and Removals

Categories: Trees

How do we decide when to remove a tree?

It’s the hardest part of our job here in the landscape department, deciding when to give up on one of our trees, and schedule its removal. Some of our oldest trees on campus have their life span measured not in years, but in centuries, so removing one of our noble specimens is very difficult. Even taking down a little young tree makes us sad. We obviously can’t remove a tree just because it doesn’t look quite right, or is in an inconvenient location-our bar is set higher than that. We look at tree risk, the factors that make a tree hazardous.

Students in my Winter Term class learned a simple definition of a hazard tree. A tree is a hazard if it has something to fall on. A tree needs a target to make this dubious list. Sadly, this isn’t much of a guide for us on campus. As you’ve probably noticed, we’re a target rich environment-between buildings, other trees, sidewalks, roads, power transmission lines, sculptures, squirrels, bike racks, students, staff, parked cars, professors, and light poles, we’ve got our share. We certainly prioritize them, and may speed removal of certain hazards quicker than others, but we assume that all trees on campus need to be watched pretty closely.

This fall the landscape department made a special project out of looking for hazardous trees. We surveyed about 2/3 of our 2275 mapped trees, specifically looking for hazardous defects, such as a crack or a split, something that could potentially make the tree fail and injure someone or something. And while it is certainly true that if you start looking for problems you can find them, in our case we identified only 120 trees that met our definition of hazardous, less than 5% of our population.

Of these 120 trees or so, 60% are maples, with Sugar Maple itself making up 40% of the hazard trees, double their representation in the population, as maples make up about 30% of our total. This is shocking, for a state whose tree is the Sugar maple, but not surprising, as Maples, Sugar in particular, are very intolerant to urban conditions, root compaction being one of the worst.

A hazardous tree comes in varying degrees. It’s like having a history of heart trouble in your family-being a hazardous tree is not a sentence of doom, just a cause for, well, not alarm, but extra vigilance. The majority of our hazardous trees will have risks mitigated by good care, such as corrective pruning, cabling, bracing, and simply close monitoring.

There are, of course, trees where even the best of solutions aren’t enough. Generally, these are trees arborists would call ‘over-mature’, or past their expected life span. While a tree in the woods can slowly fall apart and die without any thought to dignity, on campus we can’t wait for catastrophe to happen. Unfortunately, as would be expected, the majority of risk trees are in the older areas of campus, places where similar species and ages are planted together. A good example of this would be the east side of Voter Hall, where several large Silver Maples have serious problems, but make up the majority of the tree canopy.

So of our 120 hazard trees on campus, 6 are slated for removal this year.   These trees contain flaws so egregious that no amount of fixing would make them safe, so it is time to let them go. As is our custom most years, we try to schedule large tree removals over Holiday break-chainsaw and chipper noise during finals isn’t conductive to study. I’ll post some pictures in the next couple of days to show the trees we are removing and why. I think you’ll find it interesting, and you all may want a chance to say goodbye.

Some Late Fall Color

Categories: Trees

We’re in the bitter end of fall here, at least in terms of foliage. To me, this is when trees really start to shine. Maybe it’s all the bare trees nearby, or the perpetually cloudy skies, but the remaining foliage seems to take on an extra glow, or maybe urgency. Foliage colors that wouldn’t have turned a head 2 weeks ago now looks spectacular in the dying season, like the russet brown of the Star Magnolia behind Voter Hall. Sunlight breaking through the clouds acts like a highlighter pen. The wet cold makes any color seem all the more special. Here’s a little slideshow of trees and some shrubs that turned my head late last week.

Best Addition to the Landscape 2010

Categories: Outdoor Art

Everybody has been talking about it, and I know I’m late to the party in posting a picture of the mural on the back of Wright Theater. What I wanted to post, though, was not the best picture of the mural out there, but a picture of the mural in the context of the greater surrounding landscape. I only wish and dream that someday a landscape I put in would have even a fraction of the power this piece has to transform a space. Thanks to Sabra, Kate, and everybody else who made the project happen.

'Cosmic Geometry' (click for larger picture)

Shade Plantings, and a new Service Building look

Categories: Landscape

Landscape books often write about shade as a “problem”, or give chapters on “solutions” for shady locations. I think that’s crazy talk.

Shade plantings require a slightly different mindset, like stepping two feet to the left and looking at the world slightly skewed. Full sun is luxuriant-throw anything in there, and it’s bound to look good. How can you go wrong with something in bloom? But shade draws a sharper line, and making dark locations look good without relying on a full palette of blooming plants requires looking at other properties of your plants, things gardeners and landscapers take for granted in the light of day. Master planting in the shade, and the required skills will make your sun plantings all that more rich and interesting.

Like the color green. You know green, it’s all that stuff beneath the blooms on your Coneflower. Green is a color too, and without the laziness of the myriad of colors of flowers to rely upon, shade draws out an appreciation of the multiple hues of greeen. Or how about texture? Think of the huge leaves of hosta, and play that against a finely textured grass. It’s about making the plants talk about what they are for the entire season, not just the couple of weeks they are in bloom.

I bring all of this up because of one of my favorite landscape jobs this year, maybe of my entire 4+ years here so far. The service building doesn’t have a glorious name (how could it?), and the north side had an overgrown thicket of juniper, hating life in the shade, and Bayberry, a nice plant prone to suckering from the roots to over-fill any area given it. Yearly our department was asked to rediscover the sidewalk leading up to the main door, as the shrubbery in the beds nearby were eating any free space the path may have had. Once again I failed at a before picture. I actually took one this time, and deleted it by accident from my cell phone. Trust me, it was a jungle.

Here’s the after picture. All of what you see was a thicket, including the grass now on the left side underneath the White Pine. The large tree on the left is a Red Maple, which strangely enough turns a bright yellow every fall, instead of the Red of it’s name. They do that sometimes.  The bench by the door was already there, and frequently used by my wife on her breaks from the Grille working the night shift, so that was staying. (And I would have gotten to this landscape eventually anyway, but having her out there a lot certainly did move it up on my priority list. Work until 3 in the morning, I figure you deserve a nice garden to relax in…)

This was also the first landscape job where I got to work with Brad Lambert, our resident mason in facilities. Really nice guy, and more than willing to put up with my crazy ideas.  The landscape had a BFR for no known reason right at the end of the walk to the front door, and, rather than move it, we decided to build a small stone wall off from it, and we put a dwarf Weeping Hemlock (‘Cole’s Prostrate’) right at the top to cascade off of the new wall. Less work to build the wall then move the 500 pound rock out of the way.

BFR,Stone Wall, and Weeping Hemlock

Brad and I were having fun, so he stuck around and made a stone path through part of the garden. Someone stopped by, probably going upstairs to Human Resources, and leaned their bike against the wall, so a bike rack seemed in order.

We had a little extra stone, so Brad jazzed up the bench some too.

Nancy's bench

The stone is Panton stone, originally used as the low wall around the deck at Proctor, and we stole recycled it from storage.

Other woody plants in there include an Upright Yew, in an attempt to screen the parking lot from the front door, and some “Landmark” Rhododendron, another great shade evergreen with red flowers in the early spring. I haven’t planted this one before, but I’ve had good luck with other small leaved rhodies, so I have hope. There is also dwarf Japanese Golden Yew, Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’. This plant stays gold all winter long, adding some nice color near the walkway.

We left a woody plant in there, tucked behind the bench. I don’t even recognize it when I first started working at Middlebury-it’s not really supposed to live this far north.

Oregon Grape Holly

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia aquifolium,  is a solid Zone 5 plant, though some people say Zone 4 with protection, which this location certainly has. Native to the west coast, this Barberry cousin has chains of yellow blooms in the early spring (the state flower of Oregon no less), and  purple grape shaped fruit in the fall. Edible, you can make jam from it, but I wonder if it’s one of those fruits that needs copious white sugar to make it palatable. The evergreen leaves are shaped like holly, and are used as such by florists.

The plant fun I had here, though, was in the perennials. Hostas are the backbone, their thick large leaves giving a coarse texture to play off of in the rest of the garden. Current plant breeding has given the hosta genus much more interest than the old fashioned green and white leaf with purple flowers your grandmother ringed all of her trees with back in the 60’s.

Guacamole Hosta

We used ‘Guacamole, an apple green and gold leaf with large white flowers late in the summer, scenting the air with a jasmine fragrance, along with my favorite scented Hosta, ‘Royal Standard’. ‘Cherry Berry’ is another hosta, put next to the pathway, with spear shaped gold and green leaves, but really planted for their dark purple blooms, followed by masses of little red seeds, hence the name.

Cherry Berry Hosta

Another hosta, massed underneath the memorial Red Horsechestnut at the end of the bed is ‘Gold Standard’, once again with gold and green leaves. This is the same hosta we planted underneath the giant Sycamore at the Deanery on College Street.

Other plants are sprinkled in there as well, included a cool variegated Carex, ‘Evergold’, and some red leaved Snakeroot, Cimicifuga ‘Hillside Black Beauty’. We also stuck in some Heuchera, a new cultivar called ‘Mocha’, and a great Japanese Painted Fern named ‘Ghost’. We didn’t forget about spring, sticking in a perennial Forget me Not with the strange latin name of Brunnera, a.k.a. Siberian Bugloss. The forget me not everybody knows is Myosotis, but that’s a biennial, and hard to manage in commericial landscapes (it gets weeded and pulled quite a bit) The Siberian Bugloss has large dark leaves like a hosta, and seemingly live forever.

My favorite shade plant is next to the walkway-it’s small blooms in the fall need to be seen closely. And once you’ve looked, you’re hooked. Tiny speckled purple blooms like tiny orchids cover the plant all fall. The name, though, is unfortunate-Toad Lily. Let’s go all Latin on it, though, and call it Tricyrtis. The speckles on the blooms and leaves may make it look like a toad, but that’s rather silly. Native to Eastern Asia, from Nepal to Japan, even to the Philippines. Tricyrtis is in the Lily family, and needs shade to thrive in the south, but this far north does fine in quite a bit of sun, given proper moisture. It is only hardy to Zone 5, but I’d try it elsewhere, given sufficent snow cover. The cultivar we used is ‘Gilt Edge’, featuring gold ringed leaves all summer long.

Tricyrtis 'Gilt Edge'