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:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Growing plants from seed

I can think of many reasons to start your plants from seed, instead of relying solely on nurseries.

1) It's fun and exciting (yes, it's a thrill when those seeds sprout).
2) You can work on your garden when the earth outdoors is frozen.
3) You end up with multiple plants, enabling you to try them out in different sites when you move them outdoors.
4) Seed is cheap.
5) There are many thousands of seed selections to choose from!

I've had good experience with the alpine plant societies. Checking the websites, I note that the North American Rock Garden Society seed list includes 4614 separate taxa. The Alpine Garden Society is offering 5893 taxa, including 43 members of the genus Draba (an easy-to-grow crucifer that I highly recommend), 70 Frits, and more than 50 gentians. And then there is the wonderful Scottish Rock Garden Society with more than 4000 entries. All seed is donated to the seed-exchanges by members. Most are garden-collected, but some are harvested in the wild. And yes, these European societies do ship to the US.
        Another option is to order from commercial providers. I've had fabulous success ordering from Alplains ( These folk collect their seed in the wilds of the west and southwest (including Mexico). A nice bonus is that they offer short descriptions, hardiness zone information, and clues as to germination requirements.
        You can also order from Rocky Mountain Rare Plants ( but you only have until Christmas as this will be their last year in business. I'm sure there are others out there, but this is a start.
        If you want to start this as a hobby, a couple of good books to keep on the shelf are Norman Deno's "Seed Germination Theory and Practice" and its supplement. In these materials he shares his experience germinating more than 2500 plant taxa. These books aren't available at stores. Try googling his name to locate a source.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What else is there to see in late December?

How about this ? . . .
The goldenrain tree, Koelreutaria paniculata, produces these bladder-like pods following flowering in mid-summer. This is another plant that is sprinkled around Ann Arbor and environs. Contact me if you want some specific addresses.

More flakey, vaguely sycamore-like barks

The top picture is Parrotia persica, a smallish tree that was given the silly 'common' name of Persian ironwood. It's a refined witchhazel relative, very uncommon in Ann Arbor as of now -- one on the west side of 7th between Miller and Huron, a small one in the Arb, and a handful in people's yards. More on this wonderful landscape plant at a later date.

     The second is Cornus mas, a dogwood that produces attractive clusters of small mustard-yellow flowers in the early spring, prior to forsythia. It seems to fly beneath people's radar, though it deserves much more respect. The 'common' name may be any combination of the words 'European', 'cornel', 'cornelian-cherry' and, of course, 'dogwood.' When I took this picture a couple weeks ago, it still retained a few of its red cherry-like fruits, which are edible and which are used in jams in Europe. Look for this plant next spring -- they are sprinkled all over town.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dividing perennials: an easy beginning

Just before the snows started to fly yesterday, I dug up a partially frozen clump of barrenwort (Epimedium sp.). There probably isn't any plant that is easier to divide. Just tease it apart so that at least one bud remains per division. From the one clump (that I paid $15 for), I can make 50 more. Now, multiply 50 times $15, and that equals $750. Took me 15 minutes. I'm making $3000 an hour!
     I use a potting soil that is a mix of sphagnum moss and perlite. Adding some extra perlite doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What a difference a couple weeks makes

I know there's a scientific explanation -- salts are concentrated in the spaces between the cells, which in turn draws the water out of the cells themselves, etc. . . But it's still seems amazing that soft broad-leaved foliage can make it through the winter and reconstitute itself when the temperature rises back up. The cyclamen photo on the right was taken yesterday.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Another nice hellebore

Helleborus x sternii (photo taken mid Nov. 2010)
Helleborus x sternii is a selection that has been in my garden for more than a decade. It is to be enjoyed as a summer foliage plant since (I believe) it wants to flower mid-winter and, unlike some of the other hellebores, just can't seem to pull it off. It is a hybrid, one of its parents being the tender H. lividus. The hybrid plants are quite variable, and it has been my experience that the bluer the foliage, the less hardy the plant. However, there are other people in the area more expert than me on the matter. Two good sources for information on hellebores are and the people at Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville ( 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Five barks, no dogs

Our first dendrology quiz! See if you can guess the species identity of the five flaky-barked trees pictured below. No two are the same. If you can identify more than two, you are a true Jedi master. A couple clues are given below.

Some hints: photos #2 and #3 are in the same family, but different genera; #2 is locally common, but you're more likely to encounter #3 at Disney World in Orlando than in Ann Arbor; photos #4 and #5 are in the same genus; the common name of photo #1 is derived from a British name for a type of maple. Click "read more" for the answers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yet more fruit of the season

Kicking these big brain fruits down the street while I walked to school remains a very fond childhood memory. So was rolling them into traffic and watching them get pulverized by cars. Originally from Texas and Oklahoma, osage-orange (Maclura pomifera) has been spread throughout the US, but can be found only in a handful of places in Ann Arbor.  There's a 600' row of the them along the west side of the North Campus Rec Building. One presumes it is remnant of an old hedge-row planted when this area was farmland. The row picks up again north of Plymouth Rd.  Osage-orange was also once planted along State St, and specimens still stand across the street from the Produce Station.
        Closer into town, there is largish tree at the corner of Glendale and Jackson, and another at Granger and Prospect. At a quick glance, the bark and overall form could lead one to mistake it for mulberry, to which it is related botanically.  You gotta love them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A note from a grower in Hillsdale County

Native plants are in full bloom around our newest wetland retention pond on the farm. The pond stores all the rainwater from the barn roofs and gutters from the house. The uplands and lowlands were planted with native plants from Greg's Native Plant Nursery purchased at the Ann Arbor Farmer's market, and some I grew myself.
        This picture was taken this summer which for us in southern Hillsdale County was a major drought. We missed ALL the rains Ann Arbor had. Our last significant rain was in May. And then nothing except a tenth until this week. A long, hot, dry summer but the native plant meadow was fantastic.
(note: Kathy Melmoth of Recipe Gardens is the classiest of the plant vendors at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market

Monday, November 15, 2010

Evergreen magnolia for Michigan gardens

This evergreen magnolia, now 20' tall, has been growing for more than a decade besides my house in Chelsea. Some winters have been harder on it than others, but it has always retained a respectable complement of leaves. A pair of goats, Daisy and Jackson, ate the foliage on the lowest branches, so I took this picture today from the roof. Magnolia grandiflorum is common in southern gardens. Cold-tolerant cultivars enable it to be grown as far north as, well, at least Chelsea. Check back on these pages in February -- I will update you with a picture of the leaves glazed with ice.  Heck, why not just subscribe to this blog right now!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

More fruit of the season

Some cultures relish this "fruit."  I don't know how they prepare it, because the fleshy seeds of Ginkgo biloba (technically not a fruiting plant) smell foul. That's why male specimens are preferred in the landscape, and pedestrians give the females a wide berth at this time of year.
        You should be able to collect lots of "fruit"  now under the male specimens along Harbrooke on Ann Arbor's west side. Discover their culinary uses, then get back to me, would ya.
        Update: Tony Reznicek at the U-M Herbarium writes that it is the “nut” inside the smelly fruit that is eaten, roasted. "It’s quite tasty and there are large-fruited selections grown in orchards in China – and the nuts are sold at Oriental groceries around here."

Himalayan white pine

My brother Steve, visiting from N.C.
With a 99 cent iPhone app, today we measured this remarkable white pine at 87 feet tall. With long (7") drooping needles in clusters of five, and a cone considerably larger than our native eastern white pine, it was identified as Himalayan white pine (Pinus wallichiana), probably well over 100 years old, on property in Grosse Pointe that was once part of a large old estate.
        OK, I know this is supposed to be a garden blog. Well, there's not much happening in gardens right now, and furthermore we need you gardeners to contribute posts! So e-mail me already:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pogo and Me

If you're curious about sampling the fruit of our native persimmon tree, now (i.e., early November) is your chance. The easiest tree to reach grows in front of the Bethlehem Church at 441 S Fourth Ave downtown. If you're not overly picky, you can sample one that has already fallen to the ground. Otherwise bring a tall ladder or a tall pole with a hook on the end. Pick one that is very soft but not overly puckered. There's only a small window of opportunity between under-ripe (think Daffy Duck after a teaspoon of alum) and fermented. Their taste is not unlike that of commercially grown persimmons; the fruit, unfortunately, is a lot smaller.
        The bark of the native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is distinct -- very dark-colored and very blocky. Several other specimens grow next to the caretaker's office in the Arb. Otherwise they're grown only rarely around Ann Arbor. I believe this is the only plant of the ebony family that you might encounter outdoors in the midwest. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.
         If you are interested in growing persimmons, Oikos Tree Crops ( in Kalamazoo is your source.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Snakebarks in winter

Now that all the leaves have fallen from this street-side snake-bark maple on Brooks Street, it's possible to appreciate its unique beauty. There are a number of Asian snake-bark species, but only one native to the US -- Acer pensylvanicum, known as moosewood or striped maple. Our native species has a clumsy form and thus does not generally make for a beautiful ornamental. Some of the Asian species (Acer tegmentosum is my favorite) are outstanding. I haven't tried to determine the identity of the Brooks Street specimen, but I presume it was planted by the home's former owner Charlene Harris, who is very active in the Chelsea Area Garden Club and the American Conifer Society.

Friday, November 5, 2010

If it still has nice green foliage, it's probably not native

I came upon a very attractive oak last week that I briefly mistook for the native shingle oak. It had unlobed leaves and horizontal branches akin to shingle and pin oak. Oddly, the leaves were deep green, and the plant showed no indication that it was preparing for the winter weather. A clue, a clue!
        The plants that hang onto their green leaves late into the fall are typically imports from Europe and Asia -- honeysuckles, buckthorns, and, in this case, sawtooth oak, Quercus acutissima. There is a degree of melancholy that one feels after trees have flamed out and cast their leaves. Not sure if these clueless imports are any consolation. But enough of that. Sawtooth oaks are attractive trees with leaves like those of true chestnuts (unlobed with bristles along the margins), and acorns enclosed in a cup with wacky long recurved scales. A nice specimen is in the open space just east of the new North Quad. Shingle oaks are in this grove also, as well as west of North Quad along State Street.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Paxistima: an evergreen groundcover that I like to show off to visitors and which is deserving of a wider introduction

Paxistima is an excellent, non-invasive alternative to myrtle and the evergreen euonymus species. I planted a piece of it more than 10 years ago in dry, crumbly, unfertilized soil in the shade of a large oak. It now forms a compact, low, six-foot-wide patch of fine dark-green foliage. What more can one ask for?
        I first became acquainted with Paxistima when working for the Forest Service in the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon. In that area Paxistima myrsinites (called Oregon boxleaf) was quite common. I even donated a pressed specimen of it to the woody-plant-identification lab at U-M, ignoring the fact that it could serve no function there. I was excited to discover that there exists a second species, Paxistima canbyi, which is native to the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia and is available in the nursery trade. OK, it's not available around here, but apparently it is used in gardens of the eastern US, and you can order it through the mail. Which I did. And so did another gardener on Orkney in Ann Arbor who is using it to very nice effect. Plantsman Michael Dirr from Georgia says that the eastern species is sometimes called 'rat-stripper.' Well!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bulbs for pennies apiece

If you are looking to purchase flower bulbs on the cheap, it really pays to wait until mid-fall. The Van Engelen bulb company has just sent out an e-mail offering 40% off on all in-ground bulbs. This is far and away the cheapest way I know of to acquire a good quantity of high quality Dutch-grown bulbs. Some examples: 100 Iris reticulata for $10.05; Alliums for 6 cents and up; Fritillaria imperialis for $3.00. Minimum order $50. I've ordered from them for many years and have never been disappointed. Note: this is NOT a paid endorsement. Here's the link:

Monday, November 1, 2010

And the biggest magnolia in . . .

Trick-or-treating in Chelsea last night, I stopped to take a picture of the largest magnolia I've ever seen in Michigan. This is the cucumber magnolia, or cucumber-tree, Magnolia acuminata, which the USDA says is native to Ohio and Ontario (but not Michigan). Obviously it is very unlike the common ornamentals. This species is a parent of the yellow-flowering selections now in cultivation. I planted 'Edith Bogue' under the high-voltage primaries, and it had to be topped by DTE contractors just a couple years later. Ah, live and learn. You can find a couple more large cucumber-trees growing along Huron on the north corners of the Rackham Building in Ann Arbor.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Biggest darn holly we've seen

I expect there are bigger ones growing on old estates around Detroit, but this is largest evergreen holly I've run across in Michigan. I discovered this one today in a back yard off Pontiac Trail.
       On a visit to the Sandy Hook National Seashore in New Jersey a decade or two ago, I learned that this species and poison ivy are among the first two woody plants to colonize the ocean-side sand dunes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hardy-orange in Michigan

Yes, you can grow citrus fruit outdoors in the open garden. Poncirus trifoliata  sports large white flowers in spring followed by fruit that looks every bit like edible oranges in the fall. You can't eat them, but you can toss them around, and where they fall you are likely to get a cluster of hardy-orange seedlings. This is a plant you need to keep your distance from -- the thorns are vicious, and the plant is truly impenetrable.  Even trimming it is very risky business. Poncirus, 'commonly' referred to as trifoliate orange or Japanese bitter orange, is very closely related to true Citrus and is used as rootstock in commercial orchards. The above photo was taken today.

Around Town with Katsura

There may be no tree prettier than a well-grown katsura... and chances are you've never heard of it. It's been over 90 years since it was first introduced to Ann Arbor, and there are some choice mature specimens in our area. Given that it's the tallest deciduous tree in all of Japan, you'd expect it to be more widely recognized.
        Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is a first choice among tree connoisseurs, or most anyone who has been privileged to see a proper mature specimen, such as the gigantic one at Michigan State University's Beal Botanical Garden. The tree sports luscious cascading branches with refined heart-shaped leaves that are elegantly arranged both in pairs and singly along the stems. The leaves emerge a bronzy color in spring, remain clean and green all summer, then turn a myriad shades of apricot, red and yellow in the fall. As a bonus the fallen leaves emit a sweet fruity cotton-candy fragrance that permeates the area. I know by the smell when one is nearby.
        Katsura trees are not common in Ann Arbor. There are a handful of large specimens on private property, but none accessible to the general public, as far as this writer is aware. Nichols Arboretum received seed as early as 1917, but none of the early attempts to get the young plants

Monday, October 25, 2010

Evergreen soloman's seals

If you have a woodland garden and like to grow the so-called wood-lilies, the 'evergreen soloman's seal' (Disporopsis pernyi) is one you should seek out. It manages fine in my dry sandy soil, and no doubt it would do even better in a proper medium. This picture was taken just yesterday (Oct 25), long after its relatives have gone underground. I have another patch that spends the summer hidden under a patch of lanky cimicifugas. It's a nice surprise to find it again when I clean up the garden in the fall. This plant stays green and attractive until mid-winter. It bears pleasant white pendulous lanterns in the leaf-axils in spring.

       I've lost records about this second evergreen wood-lily. It's not as vigorous a grower in my lousy soil. It's been suggested that it is Disporopsis arisanensis, which makes sense -- that species was sold by Heronswood Nursery, where I once bought many unusual garden plants. Has anyone had experience with them lately?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wake up, winter's coming

You've got to give credit to a plant that gets ready for the long hard winter by putting out leaves just before it frosts, or flowering after all the pollinators have ceased activity. At this time year hardy cylcamens will put out a new crop of leaves after being dormant all summer. The spring-flowering Cyclamen coum and the fall-flowering C. heterophyllum are the common species in cultivation here. The former has rounded leaves and is at the center of the photo. These seed around gently, and every plant is unique. One winter they all rotted in my garden, and I had to start over.

I think Helleborus foetidus is perfect as an evergreen maintenance-free plant for the odd corner. In my garden it doesn't self-seed excessively, and it's easy to weed out. The shoot tips are just starting to develop into flowers. They will be fully formed sometime in the absolute dead of winter. The flowers aren't pretty, but neither are they offensive. What a hoot.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Baldcypress on North U.

What gives with all the dawn-redwoods in town when you can do perfectly well with a nice native (to the U.S. at least) bald-cypress? Yes, this is the same tree that inhabits swamps and bayous of the southeast, home to ivory-billed woodpeckers (once) and prothonotary warblers (still). You can see an impressive row of them on North University just off State Street.
    Dawn-redwood and bald-cypress are in two separate genera, but both drop their branchlets of needles in the fall. The branchlets on dawn-redwood come in pairs, whereas in bald-cypress they are arranged in an alternate fashion . . . and they are soft and feathery. Check them out!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Around Town with Kentucky Coffeetree

        Kentucky coffeetree is a handsome Michigan native that remains underutilized in the landscape. Its native range, in which where it is never very abundant, includes bits of Washtenaw and Wayne Counties, but we are at its northern limit. People around here may think of it as a bit of an exotic, but there are stands of mature specimens in several Ann Arbor parks, and they make an amazing sight.
        With a twice-compound leaf that can measure a full 3' in length, it hosts the largest tree-leaf in north America.
In early fall these giant leaves turn a bright yellow, break into segments and drop to the ground, leaving behind an extremely coarse-textured and open crown. This characteristic is commemorated by the tree's Latin name:: Gymnocladus, which translates as "naked branch." Canadians of French ancestry call it chicot, a word that more commonly refers to a stump -- an undeserved insult, I would argue. Its interesting overall form and the swirly psychedelic patterns formed by the grey bark give it year-round interest.
        Coffetree grows naturally in floodplain environments, and you can see some fabulous specimens growing along the Huron River at Lower Huron Metro Park (take I-94 east to Haggerty Rd exit). It's well worth a visit not just for the coffeetrees, but for the entire assemblage of unusual trees including pawpaws, native honeylocust and blue ash. But you don't need to drive that far.  There are a half-dozen jaw-dropping specimens in Lakewood Park on Ann Arbor's west side. From the street-sign marking the intersection of Hazelwood and Central, walk a mere 100' ssw and you'll find yourself in the midst of a

Kerrytown Tree Walk

        Later summer and early fall is a great time to visit Ann Arbor's Farmers Market. It coincidentally happens to be the best time of year to educate yourself on those wonderful tall woody perennials we call trees. Following is a tour of 18 interesting common and not-so-common trees that can be accessed by strolling within a couple block radius of Kerrytown. Combine your Farmers Market shopping with the scenic walk below, and you can be guaranteed of a perfectly pleasant Saturday morning.
        Our tour begins on Fourth Ave, on the downtown side of Braun Ct, behind the Aut Bar. Ah, no tree could be considered more characteristic of the concrete urban environment that the tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Often given a bad rap and shunned by the cognoscenti, this is the tree that grown in Brooklyn and back alleys throughout the nation. This parking lot is perfect place for it -- the tree provides nice tall shade, softens and greens-up a harsh environment, and demands nothing in terms of soil, moisture or even growing space. Not recommended for around the house since there are many superior trees, and if you ever cut it down, your lot will quickly transform into an impenetrable thicket of ailanthus root sprouts.

Blue ash in the landscape

Fraxinus quadrangulata, or blue ash, is a native tree you would not be likely to stumble upon by accident, and I was suspicious when I was called to look at a back-yard tree that the homeowner had identified as this species -- and just a few blocks from Arborland no less. But there it was, all ash-like but with bark that was puffed up like Meg Ryan's lips. A lovely specimen. You can usually tell blue ash by the corky ridges on the twigs, but in this case that character was lacking. However the samaras (winged seeds) had obviously read the field manual. Blue ash seems to have some resistance to emerald ash borer, and it is often just disfigured rather than killed outright. The homeowner had been injecting his specimen annually with orthene/acephate, which seems to have done the trick. In the wild, blue ash can be found on rich moist soils in Bird Hills Park, Lower Huron Metro Park and the Sharon Hollow Reserve.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dog-strangling vine

my garden Cynanchum
Some years back I acquired Cynanchum ascyrifolium from Ellen Hornig at Seneca Hill Perennials in Oswego NY. It is a milkweed relative that has turned out to be an interesting, well-behaved low-stature plant that produces waxy white flowers over a long period of time in the spring and summer. I then encouraged Kathy Melmoth at Recipe Gardens to try selling it at the Farmers Market -- she is always looking for the next 'oh-wow' plant to introduce to her appreciative customers.
     Being an uncommon plant, Cynanchum ascyrifolium has no common name, but this morning I was inspired by a report on NPR to look further into the world of Cynanchums. The name 'cynanchum' is from the Greek words meaning 'dog-choker.'  Some 'common' names for members of the genus include 'cruel plant' and 'mosquito-trap plant' and 'swallow-wort.'  And the genus name is sometimes given as Vincetoxicum.
a dog-strangling field in Michigan
       Well, these certainly don't sound like desirable garden plants. How about something called 'dog-strangling vine?'  This is C. rossicum, and it has the potential to become the kudzu of the north. It has become established in Michigan where it has swallowed up acres of disturbed and early successional habitat, tying up everything in impenetrable masses of ropey, twisty stems. It spreads by massive underground root systems and a multitude of seed that germinates profusely. Have I mentioned it is poisonous to cattle? And to monarch butterfly larvae, which hatch from eggs laid by butterflies which have confused the plant for milkweed. You can hear more about it at It's not new to Michigan, but it's a new one to me.

Photo of field is courtesy of John M. Randall, the Nature Conservancy,