This site is for people who like plants -- growers, enthusiasts, aesthetes, novices and professionals, those who appreciate wild things and those who appreciate the cultivated. I garden in Chelsea, and I've been visiting people's yards for 20+ years in the course of my work. My goal is to make this blog a community project, so if you share my interests, please consider becoming a participant and contributing content -- Guerin. Info:

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Birdwatching people-jam in northwest Ohio

I had no idea that the pastime of birdwatching had come to this. We scheduled our early-May visit to Maggie Marsh in northwest Ohio for a Tuesday in order to avoid any weekend crowd. It was quite cool and very windy, far from an ideal day for viewing migrating song birds. No matter. The place was packed with birdwatchers. Definitely upwards of a thousand people crowding onto the boardwalk. Maybe 5 humans for every little warbler. I have to say: this is a good thing. A large population of people finely attuned and dedicated to appreciating and preserving our wonderfully diverse bird population, whose numbers superbly reflect the biological health of our planet.

Still, it was comical at times. We came across a logjam of people with truly expensive binoculars, cameras and flash accessories all viewing and documenting a solitary Tennesee warbler. It was like a fashion shoot.

At one point along our walk, I briefly spotted a bird whose identity was lost to me, and I jokingly made the off-hand comment to my partner, “Must have been a female Cape May warbler.” In short order there was crowd around us, all peering through binoculars and passing down the word that there was a female Cape May warbler.
I can’t make too much light of this. I saw a dark thrush in the dark shade in front of a dark tree, and someone commented that it was a grey-cheeked thrush. One more for my life list.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Three marvelous tree oddities

I passed this tree while driving down Stein Rd off Whitmore Lake Rd.  Creepiest looking apple tree I've ever seen. The resident told me that she had been informed that this was "the oldest" apple tree in Michigan by another passing forester. It's not an impossible idea: the two "bottoms" of the tree are rooted, so, if you use your imagination to fill in the large gap, you can see it once had a massive trunk.

Here's a very queer looking beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) growing in Ann Arbor west of town. It is one of a small grove of beech oddities. The person who developed the property was an avid collector of woody plants and left behind an entire box of neatly-typed notes of his acquisitions. There's an example of his notes (with address information redacted) at the bottom of this post.

I admit this one isn't quite as remarkable, but this is what my lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) looked like this spring. What a cool tree. I saw a few others in town this spring that displayed the same marvelous shredding. Why isn't this more common in commerce? Probably because it is slow to grow and does not provide as full a screen as, say, a blue spruce. There were several comely specimens once in Nichols Arboretum. They died. I don't know why. But I'm certain they were well over 30 years old, and surely provided more usefulness than your common austrian pine or blue spruce.

Ooh, interesting fact from Wikipedia: the species is native to the mountains of China, but . . wait for it . . it has naturalized in the Sierra de la Ventana of eastern Argentina. Sounds exotic. Who wants to visit with me?
To the right: the first page in a whole box of records of woody plant acquisitions.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fall Colors!!

Maples are well-known and loved for their fall colors, but here are some contenders that I am particularly fond of. Top of my list is sassafras. It can be a range of colors depending on whether it is grown in shade (yellow) or full sun (fiery red). Sometimes it is all colors at once.

Such a sad story with the white ash. Such a spectacular range of fall colors including electric green and shades of purple. This picture, taken yesterday, was sent to me unsolicited by a tree trimmer friend. If you are able to develop an eye for the tree's particular palette of colors , when you drive down the highway at this time of year you can readily see that there are still good numbers of specimens around, mostly on the small side, sometimes having grown back from the roots after being attacked by the emerald ash borer.

I don't know anyone who is fond of virginia creeper (AKA woodbine). But at least it puts on a modest show before going dormant. The reds contrast nicely with the dark-colored bark that it uses as support.

How about Amelachier (AKA shadbush, shadblow, serviceberry, sarviceberry, saskatoon, etc)?  Better known for its early spring flowers and delicious fruit, it creates a nice effect when the leaves turn color in a staggered fashion.

I learned one species of Smilax (greenbrier) when I was in college. The name I learned is no longer considered valid, and according to there are five species present in Washtenaw County. I'm going to make a stab and say this is Smilax hispida. Correct me if I'm wrong. I usually let the plant have its way in my garden because I think it's just . . interesting.

Colchicum is finishing up. So easy to grow, so easy to divide and make millions more.

Ditto Arum italicum, although it doesn't require any effort to help it get around the garden, it does it all on its own.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Crazy Worm on It's Way

The ecosystems of southern Michigan were worm-free until European settlers introduced them, along with the dandelions, queen-anne’s-lace, and a host of deadly diseases.  I don’t know how prevalent earthworms worm before the last ice-age, but there were none left when the final glacier retreated 12 or so thousand years ago.

If you think earthworms are nothing but benign, you are misinformed. Yes, they help aerate heavy soils, but in light-to-medium textured soils they can be devastating by consuming the organic matter and decimating the productivity of surface horizons. In the sandy soil where I garden in Chelsea, incorporating compost only improves the soil for several seasons, after which the action of earthworms leaves it positively crumbly, sterile and hydrophobic — in fact worse than before I added the compost. I hate them.

arboretum_wormThere’s a new species of earthworm headed our way. It’s the “crazy worm.” Last year it was found in the University of Wisconsin’s arboretum. It’s called the crazy worm because it jumps around so wildly that it is not possible to hold in one’s hand. It comes from Asia and is so prolific and aggressive that it drives out our familiar “native” European earthworm. The worm reaches maturity in just two months, and is parthenogenic (no mate required). As a result populations explode rapidly. No good will come from it.

Our native plant communities evolved without earthworms. Quoting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s News: “‘Amynthas [the crazy worm] was listed as a prohibited species under Invasive Species Rule NR 40 since its adoption in 2009, because we knew their introduction into our state poses a huge threat to the future of our forests,’ says Bernie Williams, invasive species specialist in forest health at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.” The worms eat so much that they eliminate the spongy surface organic layer and leave behind an easily-compacted, balled-up water-repellant granular soil.

Here’s a link to the article in the News:

Friday, June 20, 2014

Winter damage? Don't give up!

-- by Brent Kryda
Some of us might have noticed that certain perennials and trees have taken a bit of time to come back from the brutal beating they received this winter.  I am still waiting patiently for my evergreen Magnolia grandiflora to revive, and many fellow tree growers consider this to be a quest in vain.  "It's not from around parts this cold."  "Zone denial is a thing of the past, we have real winters again."  "This is spruce country.  If you want an evergreen, stick to needles."  These points have some truth to them (never mind that with the exception of some remnant boreal bogs, this is not really spruce country), and this winter did take a toll on many species. 

Take the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), for instance.  While we did see a decent amount of those majestic pink blossoms, they tended to be severely reduced in quantity in all but the most protected locations.  To further make us think that the trees were dead, many of our decorative friends took a much longer time to leaf out than many other deciduous trees.  The same can be said for many other more "southerly species", such as sweetgum (Liquidambar styracifua) and the noble baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), two species more associated with Virginia and Mississippi than with anything this far beyond the Ohio River.  Even the much loved redbud is pretty much at its natural northern limits here, and most planted specimens are undoubtedly the product of nursery stock raised further south to take advantage of a longer growing season.  That said, even Michigan-sourced and wild trees (including the sheltered ones along the banks of the Huron in Delhi Metropark) took a heavy hit from the intense and prolonged cold.  Flower buds simply could not cope with the fury of winter 2014. 

But there is still hope!

As you can see, this 2012 planted baldcypress is taking it's sweet time getting re-needled.  Most of the buds at the tips of its structure have yet to produce anything remotely green, but the tree is making a comeback.  My advice is to be patient with all but the most definitively sub-tropical stuff and just let the things heal.  I write this because I have seen so many redbuds and the like given the axe this season even after they started to leaf out just a little bit!  I know that many gardeners have already long finished their spring culling, but if you have some lazy bones among you like yours truly does, just keep being lazy.  If they are native/adventive to some place reasonable nearby as all the trees mentioned in this post are, they will recover even if it takes a good part of a season.  North American trees are no strangers to sudden violent winters, as some of our native palms from Oklahoma can testify.  Heck, even that prize rose bush will probably shoot back up from the stem, even if that hardy banana or crepe myrtle did not; plants are pretty resilient and full of surprises.  We Michigan gardeners have reasons, namely November through March, for being impatient, but one of the reasons we are so into plants is because we are also willing to be humbled and enjoy the show.  Plant on!

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Sure Cure for Winter Blues

One of the things most of us garden type people like to do come the first few warm weeks of spring is to patrol the lawn and beds looking for any sort of hopeful sign that life is waking up.  For most, this means getting ecstatic over even the first dainty crocus that pops up, while still others enjoy snowdrops or similar early spring bloomers.  Crazy native plant people, like your post author here, go nuts over the arrival of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus Foetidus) in both our local natural mucky areas and even some gardens.  For some early powerful color, though, nothing punches winter in the face more than the aptly named orchid iris, otherwise known as Iris Histroides.

I mean come on, look at the thing.  Even the most charming orange crocuses simple pale in comparison with the deep blue of the orchid iris.  This particular cultivar, 'Lady Beatrix Stanley' (which I recommend), is perhaps the best of the bunch.  Even from a few houses down, the flowers are a distinctly noticeable new blue jeans sort of blue that just begs passers by to take a second look at the cultivated wonders of the domestic landscape job. 

Those who sneak a closer look are rewarded by this wonderful white blotches and yellow veins.  Indeed, if there was to be an official spring mascot flower of Ann Arbor, it would have to be this appropriately hued blue and maize treasure.  Not only does the color scheme work, but the plant happens to love our assortment of local soils, anything from our pesky brown clay to our sandier reaches.  Whatever their soil, they are definitely in love with the drier side of life, and they can handle rock gardens very nicely as during their dormant season they neither need nor prefer much in the way of water.  This is probably because they, like their close relatives Iris Reticulata (so close, in fact, that they are in the same sub-genus and not usually distinguished between), come from the drier reaches of the eastern Black Sea, i.e.Turkey and the Caucasus mountains.  That said, they work just as well in beds or even dry, exposed parts of the lawn.  All in all, a great plant to help fire us up for our wonderful springs.

Post submitted by Brent Kryda

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A look back on winter 2014

submitted by Brent Kryda in South Lyon:

These past few months have been brutal for just about everyone, the gardeners among us most of all.  As Guerin pointed out in his last post, us zone denial types have certainly taken a hit; had I been a bit wiser and paid attention to the weather rumors and long term forecasts, I would not have given my Magnolia Grandiflora a trial run in the ground this season.  That said, Guerin also mentioned that the snow that came along to blanket our landscape would provide an amount of insulation for the tender ground-level plants.  To some degree, this was certainly true.  Up here in South Lyon, I managed to lose none of my zone 6 plants!  The most noticeable victory was the survival, without any burn whatsoever, of an Agave Parryi.

One of the most noticeable defeats, for many of us I am sure, was how much sun we did get this winter.  While we Michiganders may joke that the sun goes down one night in November not to be seen again until April, the truth is that we had our fair share of bright blue days this past frigid season.  This was murder on our broadleaved evergreens.  While I saw many rhododendrons survive the worst of those terrible lows, most of them have since been scorched in the southerly direction.  I've been growing them for years and have a great deal of experience with the evils of winter sun, but it took 2014 for me to really get schooled in the fact that some things don't like southern exposure. 

They at least have the benefit of curling their leaves into pencils; certain hollies and boxwood did not do nearly as well.  The truth is that winter 2014 was very cold for a very long time, with few thaws to speak of.  This meant that our evergreen friends were baking in the sun and did not have a means of replenishing their dessicated foliage.  Even the shallow rooted rhododendrons could not take a sip from the surface level soil, because it never had a chance to thaw even a little.  In some ways, our wonderful borderline zone 6 greater Ann Arbor area was acting more like something hundreds of miles to the north.  Yes, the minimum temperatures for the most part technically stayed above zone 5 lows, but the prolonged cold definitely brought us out of our fake subtropical revery.  I did notice some of the more well-established hollies and even bamboo managed to hold their own, at least in the more sheltered locations.  The many overused Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea Pungens) seem to be looking more robust than ever, as does the completely out of place Jack Pine (Pinus Banksiana) that sprawls over my front lawn. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wow, did it get cold! Be thankful for the blanket of snow.

Those of us who like to push the boundaries of the USDA hardiness zones need not worry about the frigid temperatures early in January. The think blanket of snow provided superb insulation for everything it covered. If you are growing a marginally hardy woody plant, say perhaps an evergreen magnolia or a species of Corylopsis, it wouldn’t be unusual for the uninsulated parts to die back. However, the root-stock and buried stems will come about unscathed. In many cases a simple pruning in the spring will make everything right as rain.

One nursery that used to sell me somewhat tender plants was located in a part of upstate New York where the temperatures routinely dropped much lower than in southern Michigan. The low temperatures were rarely a problem for the grower since she could always depend on a thick blanket of snow. This just goes to show some of the limitations of the USDA hardiness zones which are based entirely on absolute low temperatures.  There are many other factors that determine whether a particular plant is ‘growable’ in a specific location.

Anyway, to back up some . . . I think we've gotten out of the habit of proper winters in Michigan. We certainly didn't break any records for low temperature. Furthermore, I expect the average temperature for the month will turn out to be well above the historic norm.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Can't hardly believe it's December already

It's December, and this is what my side yard looked like just a couple of days ago. Quite a spectacular mess from my big-leaved magnolia, for sure. OK, the leaves are big, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that they are relatively few. My leaf vacuum is JUST barely able to suck them up.

Someone who knows the evergreen(ish) viburnums might be able to identify this plant growing in front of one the administration buildings on Thompson. I assume the species epithet begins with the letters "rhytid" but that's as far as I've ever gotten with this group of unusual and impressive shrubs. Maybe they are a little gloomy, but they deserve much wider use, in my humble opinion.

This honeysuckle no doubt started as a volunteer from a seed shat out by a robin. I placed the 8-1/2 x 11" sheet of paper in the photo for scale.  The corner of this yard is now a no-man's-land.

A gotta say: the iPhone can take nice enough pictures, but it never does justice to large objects.  It invariably makes the largest landscape objects appear positively puny.