A BUSY AND HOT TIME IN THE GARDEN

Sorry I've been blogging so intermittently lately; things are busier than I would like and I have been working on this week's window box post for a really long time!

Anyway, allow me to catch you up on what's happening.

First off, the most exciting thing to happen in my garden perhaps ever.


Do you see that? That's the temperature of my compost pile and one that I'm pretty sure it has never reached before. After months of just piling stuff in there but paying no other attention to it, last week I spent about an hour getting that thing in shape. I peeled off the whole top layer and put as much as I could fit in a wheelbarrow. Then I took the rest of it and put the left side on top of the right side and then shifted it all back and threw the wheelbarrow stuff back on, watering in between every layer. Five days later I was flirting with 140 degrees! That hot will discourage worms but for now I'll take the heat because I think I have a few weed seeds in there. I'm noticing that some of the places where I put compost last year seem to have new garlic mustard weed plants and I think the compost was the culprit.

Last weekend was not great for us weather-wise (would you believe we are still having frost warnings?) but I did get a fair amount done in the garden. I've been slowly making my way around the garden edging, weeding and mulching, and the areas that are finished look so good I can hardly take my eyes off them. Even parts of the garden that are pretty bare either because perennials there didn't come back or because they are waiting for annuals look fantastic.


I planted an Aralia 'Silver Umbrella' over the weekend. I've been looking for this plant for a long time and finally ordered it from Broken Arrow Nursery. I hope it will be a stunner.


The portable greenhouse is utterly behind capacity. I need the weather to warm up so that I can move some things out.

I'm way behind on the vegetable garden and really need to carve out some time for that. So far all I have planted is peas, which have germinated poorly, and parsley grown from seed this winter.

'Thundercloud' sedum

I spent Monday helping move plants from a wholesale nursery near the Wisconsin-Illinois border for our master gardener plant sale. Mr. Much More Patient built a couple of elevated trays so I could almost double the capacity in my car. We fit about 130 gallon-sized perennials in there! I also picked up a few plants I was planning to buy, including some 'Thundercloud' sedums which are supposed to stay in this lovely ball shape and appeal to my bizarre love of meatball plants.

Me and Ted, the creator behind this Katie's Krops garden.

I spent Thurdsday at the grand opening of a Katie's Krops garden in Wisconsin as part of my partnership with Troy-Bilt. I can't wait to tell you all about the great kid who is behind this garden and my day there.

This coming weekend is our master gardener plant sale. We've gone totally nuts this year and we'll be selling 15,000 plants in THREE hours. If you're in southeastern Wisconsin, please come and shop until you drop! The plant sale tends to take up all my time between now and then, so my own garden will have to continue waiting for awhile. We've got a bit of a weather delay anyway. Have a wonderful weekend!





THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WINDOW BOX DESIGN

Designing containers is one of my favorite parts of gardening. There are so many options and there's so much less commitment than designing a garden: You get to redo it every year.

Pretty much everyone knows about the thriller, spiller, filler method of designing containers and although this isn't the only way, it's a pretty fail-safe method.

Except when it comes to window boxes. I love window boxes because I think they do more for curb appeal than almost any other kind of container, but they don't follow the same rules of design.

To create a great window box design, start with the right box. Always make your window box bigger than you think, both for ease of design and to reduce the amount of time you need to water. You want a window box to anchor your window, so make it longer than the base of your window, extending out at least to the window trim if not a few inches longer. Undersized window boxes never really look right. I upsized quite a bit when I bought our window box and I wish I had gone even larger.

Window boxes are the exception I make to self-watering planters. Generally, I'm not a big fan of them: I prefer to control the moisture level myself and when you plant in large containers, it's not that big of a deal to quickly water everything every couple of days or once a day in the heat of summer. It's a good chance to do a little deadheading and check on the condition of the plants. But window boxes can be difficult to water, so I use a self-waterer in mine. That allows me to go four or more days without watering it.

The design of a window box depends on a lot of factors including if your eye reads multiple boxes as one or more.

MULTIPLE SMALL WINDOW BOXES



If you have several window boxes under separate windows on your house, unless the boxes are very close together, your eye will read this as individual boxes. For these, it's important to be mindful of not making a design too busy. The window boxes will have a much greater overall effect if they each have the same design. Two or three varieties of plants, planted en masse will be stunning.

MULTIPLE WINDOW BOXES ON THE SAME LEVEL
This window box on Mackinac Island is actually three or four boxes but because the planting continues seamlessly it reads as one long box. 

Designer Jack Barnwell bridged the gap between boxes with vines that meet in the middle. 
These window boxes in Charleston are all separate but they have identical plantings that read as one long box. 
If window boxes are all on the same level, say under a row of windows, and don't have a lot of space between them, design them as though they are one large window box in which the design continues from one box to another.

CLEARLY SEPARATED BOXES



If there aren't a lot of window boxes, perhaps a pair of matching boxes clearly separated, mirror the design in each box.

And keep in mind the actual window situation when you design them. If the window box is outside of casement windows (as mine is), you either have to mount the box low, which can be a bit odd looking when it's not fully in bloom, strategically place plants around where the windows will open, or accept that you'll only be able to crack the windows and not open them fully.

That's the rough design guidelines for window boxes. Here's where we get to the specific design. Thriller, spiller, filler in the traditional sense doesn't work for most window boxes because the proportions are off if you have something tall and spiky in the middle. But a variation of thriller, spiller, filler, does have some merit if you look at the window box from the side. In other words, tall plants in the back, medium plants in the middle and cascading plants in the front.

TEXTURE IS KING

My window box from a few years ago. It's pretty, but it's not stunning. Notice how there is no variation in texture?
What I've found in designing my own window box is that, more than any other kind of container, texture is king. It matters more than absolutely anything else. One year I did a really beautiful window box design that was filled with gorgeous colors that repeated themselves through the box. It grew beautifully but something was off. It wasn't until the end of the summer that I figured out what it is: everything in the window box had the same texture. Superbells had half-dollar sized leaves with half-dollar sized flowers. Lysimachia (creeping Jenny) had coin-sized leaves spilling over the front of the box. Lobelia was slightly smaller, but pretty close in texture. It all fell flat.

When I started paying attention to the elements that I loved in a window box, I realized there were always bold forms and delicate treasures. That's the way texture works though, you only really notice texture when it stands in opposition to other texture. It works the same way that complimentary colors do.

There are so many wonderful annuals out there now that unless you are really stuck on a specific color theme, I think it works best to pick one plant that you really like to work off of. Make a mental note of its texture. Then choose a second plant with a different texture. Then choose a third plant with the exact opposite texture. Remember that factors other than leaf and flower size determine a plant's texture. I like using Blue Mohawk grass in containers because of its spiky nature. Consider airy plants that read a little softer as well.

This spring container in Charleston has a nice balance of textures. The flowers and round leaves of the cyclamen have a bold texture. Spiky leaves in the back have a good contrasting color as well. Airy asparagus ferns add softness, and smaller texture flowers frame the front.
KEEP COLOR IN MIND

I have a horrible time sticking to a limited color palette, but in most cases, it's for the best. Of course if you go back up to the top photo, you'll see every color under the sun and it still works, I think because it's such a huge planting. Let's say that's the exception though. For most home window boxes, you're going to have much more impact with fewer colors.

http://www.deborahsilver.com/blog/a-bit-more-box-talk/
Deborah Silver used a restrained color palette in this wild and wooly window box. Lime, white, lavender and a tinge of pink. That's it.  Deborah Silver photo
 If you have good contrasting texture, you can make a huge impact with seemingly no color (although of course green is a color too. Check out this amazing box, again from Deborah Silver.

Deborah Silver photo
PLANT PLACEMENT

I started this all by saying that window boxes offer a chance to break from the thriller, spiller, filler mode. Take a glance at the photos above and you'll see that there are plenty that don't subscribe to that planting theory. In general, the smaller the window box, the better a thriller, spiller, filler scenario works. Keep proportion in mind. If you have a single tall plant in the center of a very long window box, it just doesn't look right (I'm certain this has to do with a rule of thirds). But if you put a series of tall plants in a long window box, that can work.

An example of a small window box with small "thriller" in the middle. Take note at how the color of the pansies echoes the color of the box itself. 

In the photo above, this small window box in Charleston using a cyclamen as a thriller. Normally that would be more a filler, but it's the tallest thing in the box and the whole thing works because it's a small box and the white of the cyclamen is tied in to the white alyssum on the ends.

Spillers are hugely important in window boxes and I love it when a window box planting looks like it's just dripping. For a lone window box like mine, I always try to plant a trailing plant near the corner as well as plant that will stick out a bit on the sides right at the end. I don't like to see bare ends on window boxes.

Deborah Silver photo

You don't have to have a thriller at all. Mounded plantings can be beautiful and I think they are particularly effective the closer the box is to eye level. And just to bring this full circle, the above container is an excellent example of how important texture is in a container. That window box would be far less interesting were it not for the wide array of textures.

All of which makes designing a window box so much fun. So go forth and design!

It is no secret that I think Deborah Silver is the container design guru. If you want more window box inspiration, go to her Pinterest page to see more of her work. 


HAVE A CUP O' WILLOW

I posted this photo on Instagram over the weekend because it's just that ridiculous.


No, I'm not growing a bumper crop of lattes (although that would lovely). What you see here, this odd coffee-cup graveyard of sorts, was about plan C for this little area of the yard.

It started with this post on A Way to Garden. Margaret Roach is responsible for more than a few of my plant purchases and she really got me on this one. I got about 35 10-inch willow sticks in the mail last week and after soaking them for a few hours (the directions said to soak them overnight if you didn't plant them within a few days, so since I was within a "few days" I cut that time down to hours), I set about planting them.

The willow area is to the north of our driveway out by the road. I smothered most of the weeds there with thick layers of cardboard last summer and worked in some manure and topsoil before planting. Then I put down some landscape fabric.

Did I just hear a collective gasp? I know, landscape fabric is the devil's invention. And I'm not the only one who feels like that. I hate the stuff. But everything I read about planting willows said that they absolutely do not like any root competition and it all suggested laying down landscape fabric.

After pinning all that stuff down, I cut small holes, inserted a rod (actually a plant stake) to create a hole, then tucked in the willow stick and tried my best to get the soil in good contact with it (not easily done through landscape fabric). Then I went around with the hose and made sure to water all the sticks in really well (willows need water, especially in my somewhat sandy soil). And that's when I saw the water start to pool on top of the landscape fabric.

I quickly went back to check that I had indeed bought water permeable fabric, which I had, but obviously it wasn't THAT permeable. So now what? There was no way I was going to pull up all that fabric, buy new stuff and somehow get it around all those little sticks that you can barely see once they are planted. Mulch, which I was planning to do regardless, will probably help the water stay on top the "permeable" fabric until it can soak in, but even that didn't seem like enough to me.

What's growing in that coffee cup? Just a willow stick with a little gravel around it to help hold the cup down.

And that's how I ended up raiding our stash of coffee cups. I poked a hole in each and put it over the tip of the willow stick, then I filled each cup with about a half-inch of gravel to help weight the cups down. When I water, I just fill up the cups and hopefully they will help the rain funnel in better as well.

Oh, and the important bit: what I'm planning on doing with all these willows. Two of the varieties I bought: Salix gracilistyla 'Mt. Aso' and Salix elaeagnus f. angustifolia aka Rosemary willow are purely decorative plants that I think will be beautiful. The rest of the varieties I bought are Salix purpurea, which is extremely bitter and distasteful to deer. It also makes a good fedge, and the more I read about fedges the more I think I want one. 

So the area where the willows are now planted is sort of a nursery bed. Some of the angustifolias have been planted in places where I hope they will live forever, a few others in pots, and the pink pussy willows should look good over there. If my plan works, the rest of the varieties will be coppiced every year as I build a fedge. 

In the meantime, I get to do one more thing that leaves my neighbors shaking their heads. It's not the first time. 

GARDENING LIKE IT'S GOING TO RAIN

Quick giveaway notes: The winner of the Perfect Garden Hose is Linnae! Congratulations, Linnae. Check your email. The rest of the giveaways are still open. The next to close is the giveaway of the A.M. Leonard Deluxe Soil Knife

There is efficient gardening and then there is the kind of gardening you do when a rainstorm is predicted that night. The latter kind of gardening is bound to leave with sore muscles where you didn't know you had muscles, very dirty and utterly spent.

I gave the patio chairs a new blue hue. I wish it was more navy, but you take what you can get when it comes to spray paint. They were dry by the time the rain came that night.

That's the kind of gardening I did Sunday. I also had a few painting projects started on Saturday—spraying the patio chairs and painting the cellar doors—to finish up. Among the day's gardening accomplishments:

  • I planted two small hornbeams that I picked up on a bit of lark (and to test whether they really are deer resistant before I invest in more). Hornbeams will pleach (grow together), so ideally some day they will form a bit of a raised gateway to the vegetable gardening area.
  • I planted 15 or so bareroot irises along the little creek. I'm hoping they will love this spot and take over an area that is otherwise nothing great to look at.
  • Stuck an equal number of small trillium bulbs in the shade garden (which needs tons of work; lots of plant labels acting as tombstones this year).
  • Dug out all of the Russian sage (Perovski atriplicifolia) and the drumstick alliums (Allium sphaerocephalon) out of the skinny patio garden and moved them to the other side of the house. Also rescued a healthy clematis (I think it's 'Mrs. N. Thompson'), hopefully rescued another (maybe 'Westerplatte') and declared a pathetic little tangutica not worth the effort. 
  • Potted up some of the ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) that are in the way of path in the woods to sell at our master gardener plant sale at the end of the month. 
  • Dug out much of the "soil" in the skinny patio bed that has been giving me so much trouble and replaced with with bagged garden soil, top soil, compost and manure.

It might not be much to look at right now, but the new skinny patio bed is all cleaned up, soil heavily amended/replaced and mulched until it is planted later this month. The only thing I didn't move was a daffodil that's been there forever. It's the very first thing to bloom in the entire yard every year and I just felt like it deserved to keep its spot.

That last one was the real killer, but getting in there and really digging down offered some answers as to why nothing has been thriving there. About 6 inches down it is entirely sand. Over the years the soil in that bed has been mounded up as I added compost and mulch on top of it, but since it was planted I was never able to incorporate that in. Since it's already a little drier area because of the small eaves on the house, very little moisture was getting to plants, even though I watered somewhat frequently. When I dug up the Russian sage and the clematis, they all came up bareroot—no root ball at all. 

I mixed the whole thing up, along with the remaining sand, to a depth of at least 18 inches if not more. Because I don't expect to plant here until the end of the month, I also covered it up with a thin layer of pine bark fines mulch and it is now a lovely blank canvas. Or it was until the dog walked through it Monday monring.

I still have to do a small area on the other side of the cellar door, but that was quite enough for yesterday.

Back to waiting for rain though. Because we were supposed to get a rather impressive storm, the only thing I watered all day was the two hornbeam trees. Everything else—the bare root irises, trillium bulbs, alliums and transplanted Russian sage—was left to wait for the deluge. Skipping the watering step when planting something is a rarity but doing so allows you to fly through so many other tasks so it's a great coup when you can get Mother Nature to do the work for you.

We didn't get as much rain as I had expected Sunday night, but more is predicted this week. I gave everything a dose of water but I'm hoping Mother Nature gives everything a nice, big drink.