I've lived in the same small house in Michigan for over thirty years. When I moved in, my yard had little but a couple diseased crabapple trees. They are still there, still diseased: I am going to paint the trunk of the one that dies first a bright cobalt blue. I also inherited an old rhubarb plant that could be fifty or more years old, a few Oriental poppies, and some mediocre peonies that I should remove. When I first moved in, I needed help to plant a couple lilac shrubs, because I had never planted anything bigger than a tomato plant. Most of my neighbors had hideous foundation junipers and yews and very manicured lawns. And they never changed anything about their front yards for decades.
Well, no longer. Although we still see the dreaded trucks of chemicals come around and spray what doesn't need spraying and kill what shouldn't be killed, most of my neighbors are organic now and stay out of the big box poison aisle. And in the past few years, their plant palette has grown.
Now during our national staycation, neighbors are outside much more than they were, kids or no kids, taking neighborhood walks (with or without dogs).Our gardens, including mine with its tiny ponds and "drifts of one," are our collective consolation.
Since the lilac debacle, I've been buying and growing and killing plants from local garden centers and mail order catalogs, going to gardening lectures, touring gardens all over the country, and reading gardening books and magazines. As time has gone by, I have developed more confidence in my own gardening. The following are the plants that I've come to rely on in my own early spring garden, and some books that I can recommend to others.
Structure for the Garden
I don't have the budget for lots of stonework, so I rely on some plants, mostly shrubs, to do the job for me.
Early flowering shrubs
No shrubs bloom earlier in my neighborhood than the hamamelis hybrids (witch-hazels). The spidery little flowers bloom by the end of February--they are still hanging on now in early April. The branching easily forms an elegant vase shape. The leaves are beautifully corrugated and the fall color is often stunning. Maybe because I have several varieties now, one of mine produces hazelnuts.
I have half a dozen different kinds: one with long leaves, one with yellow berries, one with strange variegated leaves, one with so many flowers you can barely see the giant shrub, and Viburnum Carlessi "Compactum"-- the Koreanspice Viburnum. Carlessi is the first to bloom and has a heavy beautiful rose like scent that can be smelled across the street. Beautiful heavy leaves as well.
Dwarf Conifers and other small evergreen plants
Most conifers are evergreens, but not all evergreens are conifers (e.g. boxwood). A dwarf conifer only means that the conifer (cone-bearing) will not grow as large as the standard version of the plant, so it still pays to do some research. There are too many to choose from, but get several as soon as possible and allow for the size they will eventually be. It's absolutely essential in Michigan gardens to have some trees and/or shrubs that retain their green color year round. Your seasonal affect disorder will thank you.
I don't know why more people don't grow yuccas in their front yards in Ann Arbor. Most are polar vortex hardy here and are green, or in the case of a couple variegated ones, green and yellow, year round. Later in the year, the mature ones will produce a huge flower stalk and then die, but not before producing the pup that will take its place.
I have a love/hate relationship with bamboo, but the slowest growing clumping versus "running" bamboos will always have a part in my garden, along with the grasses that I leave up all winter, and cut down in early spring. In a very cold winter, I might lose a bamboo, or at least have to cut back all the shriveled leaves. This year was so mild, the leaves stayed green all winter. Do not plant running bamboo--when it grows too big, it will take you several years and some very thick plastic to kill off without chemicals. (Although I did not plant it, I can speak from the experience of getting rid of it.)
And the Returning Bulbs and Perennials
Early spring bulbs
We are so lucky to have the largest bulb selection in Michigan at Downtown Home and Garden. Every fall they sell the bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers to plant for next spring's bloom. Right now on my walks I'm seeing small narcissus and a few of the early larger narcissus ("daffodils") snowdrops (galanthus), winter aconite (eranthis), Scilla Siberia (it has naturalized in one neighbor's front yard forming a cheerful blue carpet), and crocus--both the larger Dutch spring flowering kind and my favorite, the smaller species varieties, which last longer. The leaves of smaller species tulips and larger daffodils are coming top and should flower soon. The earliest irises in our neighborhood are the small iris reticulata which come in many shades of blues, yellows, and whites. Most of these early bloomers come back year after year, and some of them increase.
The first to emerge are the trilliums, some native to Michigan, and bloodroot. There are many kinds of trillium to collect. Do not pick trillium or bloodroot in the wild, since they are protected. There are trustworthy nurseries that propagate them in Michigan, and you may have a neighbor who can dig up a plant or two in their yard since they slowly increase. (My neighbor uses tiny net bags to collect the seed of trilliums from our gardens and plants them out with great success.)
Although the flowers of Virginia bluebells (mertensia Virginica) are not quite up, the emergent foliage is so beautiful, I might as well count them. If you can get one plant to overwinter in your garden, you will have many forever. They are a bit difficult to dig up and transplant. so go ahead and pay more for one good potted up plant from a garden center.
You might think it's a weed, but I think it's a wildflower
There are boring ones and beautiful collectible ones that magically appear. Keep the best and pull the rest.
Forget me Nots
I let them seed around and remove most, but not all, when they get straggly.
Hellebores (Lenten roses)
There are so many new kinds of hellebores being developed and most of them love Michigan. The holy grail of unusual foliage, forward facing flowers with intricate patterns and multi-colors, and foliage that stays good-looking all year round (although most people cut it back right before flowering) is HERE NOW. My earliest blooming hellebore started blooming in January and has not stopped blooming yet in April, the color of the blooms changing from stark white to old gold.
A ground cover that seems to thrive in Michigan. Once you cut back its foliage in early spring, tiny orchid-like flowers emerge. Many different flower colors and foliage types are available at larger garden centers and by mail order.
Although the most famous variety is Corydalis lutea, a bright yellow that will repeat flower all summer if it is happy, as well as seed around, there are also all shades of pink, white, and the elusive blue to be found.
There has been a renaissance in availability of hardy ground cover sedums (stone crops) and hens and chick (sempervivums). It helps to have a hypertufa trough to put them in. or some area with good drainage so they won't get waterlogged.
Very few gardening books stay in print for very long, so even the best garden authors are not always available as new books. Here are some books that are available to be ordered from Literati.
Every gardener should read a few profiles of gardens by the actual gardeners. Good author, good photographer, and good lecturer--this book just came out.
In an urban garden, nothing is more important or will give more long term pleasure than the shrubs that you choose.
Shrubs get another plug in this well written book about changing your garden design as you get older.
Baldwin is the leading expert on growing succulents in your garden, and has several other books on the subject, even an adult coloring book!
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