Hydration, Hydration, Hydration…



July 2011 in southeast Michigan has proven itself to be dry and beastly hot.  Fraleighs has been receiving a number of questions about drought stress and watering, so it might be time to summarize a few things:

With recent daytime high temperatures topping out in the nineties and marginal rainfall totals, just about the entire landscape would benefit from supplemental irrigation.  This is especially true for newly planted and establishing plants.  Plants selected for ‘drought tolerance’ will not exhibit this trait until their root systems are fully established.  How long it takes for a plant to become established depends a little on what type of plant it is and a whole lot on how large it is at the time of planting.   Smaller perennials and shrubs may only need one growing season to become established in their new environment, whereas a large tree may take several years to become fully rooted-in to the point where supplemental irrigation is a luxury rather than a necessity.  It is up to the conscientious gardener to provide the additional water to ‘even out’ nature’s deficits until a plant is established.

The next question we regularly are asked to address is the frequency of watering.  How often?  This is never a question we can answer with a glib ‘once a day’ or ‘once a week’.  Too many variables exist to have a pat answer, other than to say ‘monitor your soil moisture.’   We’ve found that a trowel and a dollop of common sense are as useful for watering as is a hose.  Frequently checking the soil moisture 6-8 inches below the surface is the single best way to determine how much (or little) supplemental irrigation needs to be applied.  ‘Evenly moist’ is the target for most plants, especially newly establishing ones.  ‘Moist’ means neither soaking wet nor bone dry but comfortably in between.  ‘Evenly’ means don’t let the soil dry out completely between waterings either.  The common sense part comes in the form of ‘the hotter, windier, and drier that it has been the more frequently I need to monitor the soil, and the more frequently I’ll probably need to water’.  Theprobably part kicks in because not all soil types are the same in how they retain moisture — sand dries out much faster than loam, and clay can sometimes retain irrigation too well, leading to situations of over-watering for some plants.  That’s where the appropriately frequent soil moisture monitoring becomes so critical to determining how much and when supplemental irrigation is needed.

How should the supplemental irrigation be applied?  Again, there is no single answer, but whatever means are used should  result in ‘evenly moist’ monitored to a depth of 6-8 inches.  Will an automated irrigation system make this happen?  Probably, but it must be adjusted to compensate for weather and soil conditions.  Will a hand-held hose work?  Yes, in capable hands a hose can be very precise, but time consuming.   How about a compromise (heck, even the politicians are considering it these days!) — maintain an automated irrigation system and supplement with a manually activated sprinkler on the thirstier beds?  We even sell special hydration bladders (TreeCOVErs &ArborRain systems) to assist in the spot-watering of establishing larger shrubs and trees.  It is also worth noting that slower, lower volume irrigation is more effective than quick, high volume waterings that tend to run off rather than soak in to the soil.

Lastly, it is worth acknowledging that severe conditions (such as the recent heat) take their toll most heavily on marginal plants; otherwise established plants that are poorly suited to their environment will be the ones that perish.  If that sad outcome befalls one of your plants, be sure to mention it to our staff as you select a replacement –  we’ll be glad to help you find an option better suited to your site conditions.

Update: for further information from Michigan State University on the topic, visit:

The dos & don’ts of irrigating landscape plants

Update: for even more insight into watering techniques and hydration biology:

Janet Macunovich’s “You Can Leave a Hose to Water, But You Can’t Make it Think”

Got color?

This is a great time of year to spend in your garden, and offers an opportunity to evaluate your landscape’s the season-long bloom potential.  While the individual perennials we sell don’t typically have May-to-October flower-power, grouping different kinds together can create a succession of color in your landscape.  Any time you see a ‘pause’ in your flowers, stop by Fraleighs to see what we have in bloom — we don’t force our perennials to bloom early or late, so finding something in flower means its likely to bloom at the same time next year, filling in the color gap in your garden.  It is also worth noting that recent studies indicate that providing a diversity of plants is important for beneficial insect populations, even if they aren’t necessarily flowering perpetually.  But we’re going to shoot for that perpetual bloom, anyway!

Summer Color Abounds…

Bring yours home today!

Hydrangea 101


Hydrangeas have long frustrated Michigan gardeners due to their sometimes confusing diversity.  Specifically, one showy but temperamental species has caused many folks to swear off the genus entirely, and that is a shame considering all the great cultivars in other hydrangea species that are available today.  In an attempt to ‘lift the veil’ on the mysterious clan that is the genus hydrangea, here goes:

The bad actor: the Big-leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla cvs) These are what many folks conjure up when they think of ‘hydrangea’: big, round inflorescences of ecstatically blue flowers.  Sadly, due to climate, soil type, and the species’ biology this ideal is hard to come by in most of Michigan.  Our winters tend to fry the old growth (including the following summer’s flower buds) unless extensive measures are taken to protect the plant’s tissues.  Newer introductions try to get around this by flowering on old and new wood, but the new wood flowers appear rather later in the season than most people would like.  Lastly, our soil pH makes a true-blue hydrangea coloration an uphill battle.  Big-leaf Hydrangea are pH sensitive — in acidic soil with available aluminum ions, they bloom blue.  In alkaline soils, such as in much of Washtenaw County, they bloom pink.  Heavy feeders to begin with, Big-leaf Hydrangeas must have a steady stream of acidifying aluminum sulfate fertilizer to have any hope of blooming blue around here.  This all adds up to heartbreak for a lot of folks hoping to grow a true-blue hydragea, but not willing or able to provide the rigorous maintenance required by the species.  It is worth noting that Big-leaf hydrangeas come in lace-cap flowering and exclusively pink forms, but these cultivars all still possess the same stringent requirements as the blue fellas.  Hardy variegated-leaf cultivars are at least effective as a foliage plant, and they may even flower sporadically, depending on the preceding winter.

The classic: Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens cvs)  If folks think of another type of hydrangea at all, they think of the ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea that grew in their Grandmother’s garden.  Stout, reliable, and unswervingly white, this hydrangea is about as simple as you can hope to get.  A moderate size mound of pale-greenish-turning-white flowers is perfectly situated for shady situations.  This species likes its moisture, and will engage in “hydrangea calisthenics” if they are in a overly dry or sunny situation.  That is to say, they do slow-motion jumping jacks with their wilting and recovering leaves.  Since they bloom reliably on new growth, this species circumvents the winter-kill issue that plagues the Big-leaf hydrangea.  Newer introductions of this species include ‘White Dome’ (lacecap flowers), ‘Incrediball’ (larger inflorescences), ‘Invicibelle Spirit’ and ‘Bella Anna’ (pink-blooming forms).  Smooth hydrangea: reliable for the shade.

The sun-lover: Panicle Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata cvs) These plants tend to be larger, woodier and more robust than the other members of the genus.  They bloom on new wood, and have upward-pointing grape-cluster shaped panicles of flowers.  Most cultivars bloom mid-summer, starting white and blushing pink as the season progresses.  Adaptable to moderate shade, this species flowers best in full sun.  Different cultivars provide a range of eventual sizes from medium-sized shrubs to small trees.  Likewise, the timing of the blooms varies from mid-June into September based on the individual varieties, so with a suite of cultivars (e.g. ‘Quickfire’ (early), ‘Pinky-Winky’ (mid), and ‘Tardiva’ (late)) one can have three months of continuous blooms in southeast Michigan.  This versatility and ruggedness makes the Panicle Hydrangea cultivars some of our very favorites.

The autumn rebound: Oakleaf Hydrangea  (Hydrangea quercifolia cvs) No, they don’t really bloom in the fall, but what other hydrangea species offers a nice fall leaf color?  Reliably burgundy, the oak-leaf-shaped foliage makes for an elegant finish to the shade garden’s season.  Oakleafs have similar growing requirements to Smooth hydrangeas, but have a mid-summer grape-cluster shaped inflorescence rather than a round flower arrangement.  The stems provide a hint of winter interest at maturity, showing off some shaggy strips of tawny-to-cinnamon colored exfoliating bark.  Wintertime is also a dangerous time for this species, too, but not because of hardiness.  Of all the hydrangeas we sell, the Oakleafs are by far the most susceptible to deer and rabbit browse. Caveat emptor!  Oakleaf hydrangea cultivars range in size from the dwarf ‘PeeWee’ and ‘Sike’s Dwarf’ varieties to the massive ‘Alice’ introduction.  ‘Snow Queen’ is the industry standard for both eventual size and flowering performance.

The vine: Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris)  The oddball of the group, this dear plant is a reliable-if-slow-growing vine that climbs rough shaded surfaces.  The vine grows slowly, attaching to rough surfaces such as stone, brick, mortar, or bark by small root-like holdfasts.  It does best in semi-shaded to shaded locations, and blooms midsummer with white, lacecap arrangements of dainty flowers held away from the surface it is climbing.   The spent flower arrangements are even effective in early winter as catchments for the first dollops of snow. There are now even variegated-leaf cultivars such as ‘Mirranda’ available, however we hasten to add the variegation may make them grow even slower than the species!  Likewise, there are ‘Hydrangea Vines’ that are actually Schizophragma hydrangoides, that express similar characteristics and habits to the ‘true’ climbing hydrangea, with the added thrill of pinkish flowers and dissected leaves.

I hope this rekindles someone’s interest in the genus Hydrangea.  In this case, one ‘bad hydrangea’ shouldn’t spoil the bunch!


The bridge on Jackson Road over Mill Creek just west of the nursery reopened as of this morning after a summer-long construction project.  No more detours for Fraleigh’s customers, clients, or staff!!! IMG_4484cer

A Bouquet of Butterflies


To paraphrase a certain movie about baseball: “Plant it and they will come.”  Above is a rogues gallery of flying flowers, and two-thirds of the images were taken here at Fraleighs!  With the addition of key flowers and forage plants in your landscape, you too can have a bouquet of butterflies; seek out our staff to find out why we love perennials such as Blazing Star, Milkweeds, Joe-Pye Weed, Iron Weed, Goldenrod, Coneflower, and Sedum to name a few.  Or start with the National Wildlife Federation’s link to Butterfly Gardening before stopping out to see us:  http://www.nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife/Gardening-Tips/How-to-Attract-Butterflies-to-Your-Garden.aspx

Happiness, now with stripes.

Our first two Monarch caterpillars of the season were spotted today in the patch of Ascelpias incarnata that grows next to Fraleighs’ Retail Sales Office: IMG_3705ce

Perennials rockin’ out in the July “Polar Vortex”


Lets plant more Perennials!!

Butterflies (and other pollinators) lead a hard-knocks-life, as proven by the tattered Red Admiral shown below.  Let’s plant more nectar-producing perennials, particularly the native varieties.


For the whole scoop, check out University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home”.

Would you like that with or without freckles?

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