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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in flowering shrubs (11)


Dialogue with Self About Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit

You were very harsh in judging this plant last season.

Well, you too would be harsh if 5 out of 6 hydrangeas that were planted in clients’ gardens, 2 of them Invincibelle Spirit, turned black and withered; those that bloomed did so on a flimsy and minuscule scale and when they were done, drooped and turned black.

What did you do with the unsuccessful hydrangeas?

As they represented a significant investment, I could not bring myself to discard. Instead, I replanted them in my test garden.

And what happened next?

All of the allegedly dead hydrangeas immediately began growing new foliage and, by the following year, flourished impressively, just as the grower had promised.

That you had to replace 5 hydrangeas in your clients’ garden was unfortunate and your frustration with the plant’s failure to impress was understandable. But, was it necessary to bad mouth Invincible Spirit? Why, just look at the sublime photo above, taken this season in your garden. Aren't the soft pink globes beautiful?

Yes, they are. I think my reaction last season was prompted by the grower who promised a lush pink flowering SHRUB, but neglected to alert gardeners not only to be patient, but also to expect the plant to behave as a perennial. In addition, my abrupt judgement was facilitated by gardening colleagues who also complained about drooping mop heads that turned black when they were spent.

Did everyone associated with this plant, from grower to writer, get it wrong? What is so bad if a plant droops? Don’t some of your gardening friends stake their white Hydrangeas Annabelle to prevent them from drooping? How many perennials in your garden need support, anyway? Baptisia, Peony, Delphinium, Platycodon, Anthemis? All of them, depending on their location in relation to the sun, might need staking. Whats wrong with supporting Invincibelle Spirit, as well? You already own the bamboo sticks and the green plastic twine. Now, you have another plant to tie up. Just because the grower made a mistake by calling this a shrub, when clearly it is performing as a perennial, is no reason to refrain from staking it. Simply add it to the list of perennials that require maintenance. As for the heads that turn black, have you never seen a head turn black before? Why the fuss? Belacamda’s large seed pods are black, as are the pods of Baptisia. And what about the ugly black dead heads of Rudbekia? You never complain about them. Can’t Invincibelle Spirit be dead headed throughout the growing season, just as some other perennials are?

Of course it can be staked and deadheaded. There is no reason not to do so. The second photo above reflects an attractive, staked Invincibelle Spirit, in its second year in my garden. Actually, it has generated many positive comments from passers-by who have compared it to a pink Phlox paniculata. [ Yes, this season I moved it to the front garden where all can appreciate it ].Just like some perennials do, Invincibelle Spirit needs staking, the flower heads turn black, and the plant starts off scraggly, taking a year or two in the garden before it looks impressive. In retrospect, this is not a traditional hydrangea bush. To Proven Winners, who are responsible for introducing it to North America, say after me:- For the greatest pleasure, and to avoid disappointment, treat Invincibelle Spirit as a perennial.


A Magnolia for Manija; Honoring Parents with a Garden

Magnolia Ann, close up image:

A very sweet and kind client gave me one of my largest garden contracts this past summer. It came as a great surprise because she lives in a part of town where most homeowners are hands-on people who prefer to do their own gardening. However, Manija earns a living with her hands, and to protect her manual skills, she needs others to do such work for her.

A week after I designing and planting the proposed rose garden – I had framed her back yard with over 120 feet of plants, including accent perennials - I found a message from her on my answering machine. When this occurs, usually my heart sinks because I expect that a client is calling to complain about one thing or the other. What a relief to discover that Manija needed more work done. Unfortunately, this time I would have to decline.

Magnolia Ann will grow 10 feet high and wide at maturity. image:

Manija asked for a Magnolia tree to be planted in between the patio and the rose garden. I am not an expert on trees, especially Magnolias, and would have preferred not to get involved with such a project. However, to satisfy a client, I initially agreed to take on the project and she quickly approved the quote. Since the choice of the Magnolia variety was left to me, I selected Magnolia liliflora Ann. That choice was influenced by two factors: color and hardiness. Firstly, the client appreciates richly colored flowers and this variety blooms in a purplish-red color. Secondly, M. Ann blooms later than most Magnolias so that its buds are less likely to be damaged by early spring frost. In USDA Zone 5 a.k.a. Canadian Zone 4, frost damage is an essential consideration.

When I arrived at the nursery to purchase the tree, it became evident that the size of Magnolia that I had planned on buying was not only too puny but diseased as well. Actually, all of the smaller Magnolias were sick. Climate-wise, it was an unusual season, many plants had been adversely affected, and the nursery would not guarantee certain products. In order not to disappoint the client, I would have to purchase a disease free Magnolia one size up - which I was prepared to do. However, there was a logistical problem to overcome.

My staff and I [three people in all] could not lift the tree. Unlike the smaller Magnolias that were potted and easy to carry, the larger ones were balled and burlapped - they were dead weight. Since I am a flower gardener who does not work with heavy equipment, there was no way that I could physically deliver the tree. Besides, the earth in the client’s neighborhood is compacted clay and, although I was prepared to struggle planting a smaller tree, a larger and deeper hole, to accommodate the monstrous root ball, would be too difficult for me to handle. With some quick thinking, I approached the contract department of the nursery and asked for the charge to deliver, plant, and guarantee the tree. Their quote was only slightly higher than mine and the additional cost was of no consequence to Manija, who agreed to work directly with the nursery.

A week later, on a routine visit to examine the rose garden, Manija walked me over to admire the newly planted Magnolia. She told me how wise it was to have declined to plant it because the nursery staff had a most difficult time digging the hole. They had been aware, before coming, that there was a soil problem in her neighborhood, brought heavy equipment for excavation and plenty of soil amendments. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a formidable job, even for them.

While she was sharing this scenario with me, I noticed that a very short stake had been inserted into the earth right in front of the Magnolia. Affixed to it was a brass plaque, engraved with the message “To Papa with Love”. Manija noticed that I was staring at it and explained that Papa was her father, who had died in India a few months earlier. After the funeral, on her return to Canada, she had brought back an urn filled with his ashes. His favorite tree had been the Magnolia and she would honor his memory by not only planting one in her garden but also by burying his ashes under the tree.


Designing for Others and Ourselves

During the course of this gardening season, I dealt with clients whose needs were remarkably varied. Each one’s requirements compelled me to create original garden compositions that were custom tailored to a client's wish list. There was to be no reusable plan and no formula design because every client I interviewed had unique or specific requests. Most had well established color preferences, some had peculiar aversions. One client instructed me not to plant perennials with small flower heads or miniature petals. An objective such as this one might seem easy to fulfill. However, it turned out to be a challenge. During the busy and hectic season, I worked with plants that already had a successful track record for color, texture, height and floriferousness. That helped to streamline the work and made me more efficient. There was no time to pay attention to the size of the flower head or the scale of the petals. As expected, after the garden was completed, the client was displeased with some of the plants in my repertoire and asked that they be replaced. So much for trying to be efficient!

When the gardens started to bloom, it was fascinating to discover how many clients rejected the same plants. This past year, I have had to remove Nepeta Walkers Low and Salvia nemerosa Plumosa from all of the beds in which they were planted. Most clients decided that Nepeta grows to an overflowing size and makes the garden appear messy and when the Salvia flops down to grow horizontally, it appears far messier than it does in the trade photos. However, the most devastating criticism came recently when some clients saw the Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit in bloom for the first time. I had planted this new pink variety in four gardens because I wanted to give my clients something different; something original that would help make their gardens look unique. Sadly, three clients phoned to request that I remove and replace it. They complained that it appeared either  floppy, messy, skimpy, scrawny, or shabby. It is unfortunate that a plant with so much touted potential should bring so much disappointment. This is not the first time that a new plant has been more attractive in print that in the garden. I become so enthusiastic when I read about new varieties that I forget that one must be wary of the marketing hype disseminated by growers and distributors.

Given our deep involvement in the needs of all of the clients, sometime’s it becomes hard for us to figure out what kind of gardens we want for ourselves. In her blog Designers on Design, dated July 13, 2010, Susan Lundrigen posted an interesting perspective on this subject. Her post got me thinking how I managed to maneuver through this obstacle. A creative trick that helped me to design a personal garden was to treat it as if it weren't mine. I designed it so that it pleased my wife and children. That gave it a theme, a focus and direction. However, after it was completed and started to bloom, I began tweaking it because the act of making it pleasing to others sensitized me to my own garden needs. Now, whenever time permits, I make incremental changes to my flower beds in order to convert them into the garden that I didn't know I wanted.

This has been a busy planting season, one in which I have worked 12 hour days since the first week of May. Now is the time to take a well deserved rest before bulb-planting and harvesting of perennials begin. Therefore, I will be away from my computer and this blog, until the week of September 5.

 A bientot!


Update on Knock Out Rose "Rainbow"; don’t walk, to your nearest garden center to buy the Rainbow variety in the Knock Out Rose series before it is sold out and while it is still safe to plant. I added it to my test garden at the beginning of the season to see how it would perform. [See my blog entry of May 19, 2009.] And perform it did. It blooms floriferously.

Gardening colleagues report that by year three, after the first bloom of the season, the volume of this shrub was enormous and that it became necessary to shear downits shape by a size or two. The haircut did not affect its subsequent flower power in the weeks that followed.

For most of the growing season, the entire rose bush is covered with the most delightful shades of coral flowers with subtle yellow centers. Each batch of blooms is more numerous than the one before and the color intensity is both striking and moderate at one and the same time. I was unsure if coral would blend well into the garden and that turned out to be an unnecessary concern.

This enchanting plant integrates well wherever it is placed and draws attention to itself with its unique color saturation. Don’t be afraid to mix this rose bush into any color scheme. You won’t be sorry that you did.


A Vivid Pink Flowering Shrub

Planting the wrong color or the wrong shade of a color in the garden can sometimes be a serious matter. If gardeners or their clients have fixed ideas of how they want their gardens to look, choosing the right plant becomes critical. Here is an example of a challenge I sometimes face.

My clients all ask for vivid pink Rhododendrons or Azaleas, as long as they are not pink-lavender or orchid-pink in color. Before breeders introduced new cultivars that could survive here in zone 5a, only lavender-colored Azaleas and rhododendrons were available to us. Each spring, some neighborhoods would be covered in seas of lavender. Consequently, my clients, who wished to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, insisted that I plant any other color but that one.

Here is a photo of Rhododendron Olga Mezitt. Unlike the picture, the flower is lavender-free when grown in the garden. It glows like a giant luminous pink neon bulb. I try to plant it as often as I can in combination with Azalea Mandarin Lights [orange] and Azalea Lemon Lights [yellow]. These three non-lavender flowering shrubs combined on one lawn, create an explosion of multicolor that effortlessly erases the drab grey of early spring. It’s like the overture to a Broadway musical!

If you live in a climate that has been growing many richly colored rhododendrons ever since you can remember, try to imagine what it might be like to live where only one color rhododendron exists. Spring gardening used to be very boring here in zone 5a. I’ve made it my goal to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.