Article and photo by Donna Iverson
When some people look at bushes, they see geometric shapes, or animals or even humans. It makes them want to get out the hedge shears and transform the bush into the character of their imagination.
Topiary artist Georgia Donovan of Rockford is just such a person. She combines her love of art with her vocation of gardening, creating the most difficult form of topiary, animals and human beings. The human beings she calls her cedar sapiens or "tree people."
Free-form topiary like Donovan's is where you basically use your artistic eye to create a whimsical animal or other fantasy shape. A second type of topiary is when you use a wire frame and allow the plant to grow over it to form the shape. Somehow to me, the free form topiary is most intriguing as no two shapes are alike. They are living sculptures.
The tools you need for this garden craft are hand-held shears or pruners. One could also resort to electric or gas-powered clippers, although they pose a greater danger to the gardener. ..i.e. be very careful and wear heavy gloves.
If you are going the free-form route, topiary experts recommend you start at the top of the bush and work your way down. The bushes most amenable to holding their ornamental shape are boxwood, yew, privet, cedar, and arbor vitae.
If you want to use a wire frame, they are available at most garden centers, varying in size from small to large. Potted topiary, created using a wire frame, are great for patios and decks and even to dress up a front step. Small topiary make great house plants, and are often shaped in geometrical forms like circles, squares and spirals. Herbs make great scented topiary and possibilities include rosemary, lavender, mint, sage, thyme, bay and savory. Information on how to create an herbal topiary can be found at michigangardener.com
Digging back into history, topiary was popular in Elizabethan England, where English gardeners tried to recreate the ancient Roman gardens. But historians believe that topiary is even older than that, originating in Persia during the time of Alexander the Great. Of course, the Japanese have a long history of pruning bushes and trees into shapes, creating their graceful and peaceful Japanese gardens and diminutive bonsai.
If you are looking for topiary inspiration or just an interesting excursion, topiary gardens can be found in many states including Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Maryland and Rhode Island. The closest topiary garden is in Columbus, Ohio, and has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine as the only known topiary park to mimic an impressionist painting. There is one section dedicated to ghosts.
In Michigan, the best place to see topiary and buy supplies are garden centers. If you are interested in your own cedar sapiens like the ones featured here, contact Georgia Donovan on Facebook. Cost estimates are between $100 and $200 and that includes the tree.
Planning ahead: The Grand Garden Show on Mackinac Island this summer is scheduled to open August 30. Tickets are available at the following site: https://grandgardenshow.com. Book early if interested.
Article and photos by Donna Iverson
When the world loses its color in winter, it's often the berries that stand out .....Winterberry, Bittersweet and Holly to name a few.
As winter sets in, I often snip holly branches to bring inside as it it one of the few bright, red, long-lasting accents provided by nature this time of year.
I find these holly bushes growing as hedges along sidewalks or individual bushes tucked into gardens, like the one pictured here in the Shakespeare Garden on the grounds of the Hackley Public Library.
Plants in a Shakespeare garden are the ones mentioned in the playwrights work, with holly earning its place based on a "Song of the Holly." Part of that song includes the words "Heigh-ho Sing...unto the green holly...this life is most jolly." It is the only time the bard mentions this plant.
The most popular holly is the English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, native to Western Europe, north Africa, and southwest Asia. It needs yearly pruning to hold its shape and grows to about 6 feet tall if left unpruned. It prefers a sunny location and well drained soil. New plants grow best if planted in the spring or fall. It is an evergreen and its berries are poisonous if not deadly. It doesn't need watering except during periods of drought.
Although toxic to humans and pets, birds and squirrels can safely eat the berries in late winter, when nothing else if available. Although they prefer the sweeter berries like Winterberry. Birds will also take refuge in holly bushes during severe winter conditions.
Out west, the English holly is considered an "invasive obnoxious weed," where it is spreading into forest habitat in California and Washington state. Not so our native Michigan holly, namely Winterberry, Ilex opaca. Winterberry is similar to English holly in that it has red berries, but the berries line the stems of the plant. Unlike its cousin, Winterberry prefers wet soil, and can be found along stream banks. Almost 50 species of birds will feed on its berries, as will rabbits, moose and deer. A deciduous shrub, it grows 3 to 15 feet tall.
Near Flint, the town of Holly is named after this plant, according to the Michigan Historical Society, which states on its website that the "red berries of the Michigan holly" are thought to have inspired the town's name.
Going back in time, the holly was a sacred plant of the Druids in ancient England, symbolizing fertility and magic. It was believed that cutting down a holly would bring bad luck, and bringing holly branches inside would bring good luck. Later, Christians adopted the holly bush to reflect their beliefs, and it became associated with Christmas.
Holly remains popular, and you can check out the Holly Society of America, Great Rivers Region, which includes Michigan, for information on annual conferences...last year in Columbus, Ohio.
Photos and article by Donna Iverson
I have a cat's nature. I like to prowl around and sniff things out...at art museums, flea markets, antique shops, used book stores and especially farmers markets.
This summer it was succulents that caught my eye. Vendors were displaying succulents in artistic arrangements in pots and dishes, large and small. They were begging to be purchased and brought home.
Next, I noticed them appearing as decorative elements at my favorite coffee shops, at the yoga studio, and displayed in store windows like cheese shops. I even found one planted in my community garden along the roadside.... namely a Yucca, native to the Southwest.
The interest in succulents is one of the top gardening trends in the last few years, with a 50 percent increase in sales, according to Bloomberg News. Reasons for this uptick in interest are many including:
1. Succulents are tiny, cute, inexpensive and easy to care for. They can be left for weeks, even months without watering.
2. They can provide a visually attractive accent to the spare modern design of many urban settings including small apartments. They come in a large variety of sizes and shapes and can be grouped together
3. Millennials are reportedly driving sales, making collections of these succulents and even thinking of them as pets ..pets that you don't have to walk or feed.
4. Marketers have discovered that you can ship large numbers of succulents at low cost, simply packing them in large plastic bags, where they can travel long distances without damage.
5. And social media cranks up the interest as hobbyists, gardeners, collectors, nurseries, and gardeners all post photos and comments about their latest succulent acquisition.
6. In the north country, it is a way to have green growing things inside when it is too cold to plant outside.
Personally, I have never been interested in succulents until this last summer when the yucca caught my eye. Then I noticed a number of farmers market vendors were displaying succulents for sale in interesting pots and dishes with artistic arrangements that were hard to ignore. I caved and bought an aloe. I figured, if nothing else, it would come in handy as a natural remedy for burns and scratches.
Care instructions included infrequent watering, a sunny spot in a windowsill and a porous not glazed pot. This I could manage and so far, the Aloe vera seems pleased with its new home. Of course, next I wanted to know where it came from, was it native to the Americas? In general, most succulents come from the deserts and rainforests of South America and Africa. But it turns out that the aloe comes from the Arabian Peninsula where it grows wild.
Succulents also grow wild in California, and their increased popularity has attracted poachers. In 2018, three men were charged with trying to export $600,000 worth of wild succulents they had poached from the state parks in Northern California. Succulents have become big business.
The succulent family is a large one and includes orchids, cacti, pineapples, poinsettia, jade, and agave, from which tequila is made.
And if fiber art, rather than indoor gardening, is your thing, embroidery art featuring succulents may spark your creative spirit like this piece pictured below, created by Sam Hopkins of Muskegon, Michigan.
By Terry Grabill
Photo by Andrea Grabill
I’ve been asked by many folks, “how does someone get started in birding?” The simple answer is to have an interest in birds and notice which ones are around. But, like most interests, there are some things that can make beginning more enjoyable and comfortable. When I started birding, oh, so many years ago, there was no internet to search for information about my interests. There was me, a little book with some bird pictures, and, of course, the birds. Fortunately, we live in a time where contacts are easier to make.
As I mentioned earlier, the first and most important requirement is an interest in birds. That interest will soon have you noticing things you’ve seen for years but never paid any attention to. Those birds that fly away when you open the front door will begin to look different from one another. Rather than seeing only a bunch of birds on a wire, you’ll notice they are shaped differently. I’m a middle school science teacher. On fine spring days, I’ll often take my kids outside and ask them to make some observations of the birds we see. Most of the kids are in awe when they get a good view of even the most common birds because they’ve never taken the time to notice anything besides an animal that flies away when they approach.
Now that you’re noticing that birds are not all alike, you’ll be curious as to what it is you’re seeing. Birds differ in shape, size, color and habitat. You’ll begin to notice patterns in these differences, and you’ll want a tool to help put a name to that creature. This is where a field guide becomes important. Today, there are many options to choose from. Organized birding trips are usually led by an experienced birder that can help identify birds quickly by sight and by ear. I would think that most looking to get started in birding won’t be hiring a personal guide. Instead, consider a pocket-sized personal guide. Many publishers offer print field guides, and which one is best is really a matter of personal preference. I use the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Some friends prefer others. Nat Geo is the one I learned with. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I would recommend NOT getting one that is of a local area as most of these are limited to just the most common birds and many you’ll see won’t be represented in the book! Another pocket-sized guide is an app for your smartphone. There are lots of offerings here that you can install that will give handy, up-to-date information available anywhere…as long as you have signal! Merlin is a free download that does a nice job helping with bird identification.
Another tool that can make observation easier is a pair of good binoculars. Now, I’m not an optics snob but looking though discount store binoculars often makes birding more frustrating than looking without binoculars. Find the best binoculars you can fit into your budget. If you’re not convinced, look through some quality optics as a store and you’ll see the difference! Look for ones that have seven to eight power magnification. (the binoculars will have numbers printed on them, like 7x40 or 8x35. The first number is the magnification) Higher magnification limits the field of view, will get VERY heavy and will be hard to hold steady.
The best way to learn birds is to spend time looking for birds and noticing what you find! There are local nature clubs (such as Audubon) that hold bird walks. These are a great place for a beginner to learn from more experienced birders. The internet is full of information as well, but remember, this information is posted by anyone…and not everyone is posting correct info. Look for Facebook groups for birders. One of my favorites is Birding Michigan where you’ll find photos and tips by people that really know birding. Bird feeders are also excellent windows to local birds and their behavior.
So, there you have my starter pack for birding; interest, a field guide, quality binoculars, and time spent looking for and at birds.
For Birdgoober.com, I’m Terry Grabill.