Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday, with the greens of spring in full riot, I went for a walk with my partner. We visited a state park nearby that is part of the Blackstone River National Heritage corridor. The weather was dubious, as there was a heavy mist falling, yet the walk was fun. There was, however, an upsetting element to this walk. There were tons of invasive nonnative plants all along the walk. There was no major variety to this invasion, but the sheer numbers were staggering.

First came the Berberis species, vulgaris or thunbergii. They were everywhere. One large specemin lurked right next to the path laden with flowerbuds. I'm uncertain which species this was, but it looked to have pendulous flower clusters that would produce yellow flowers. Other examples of Berberis were lower growing, others growing in shady spots were reaching for the sky.

Celastrus orbiculatus was making inroads in a few spots, but the greedy tendrils weren't covering everything as thickly as I've seen elsewhere. Perhaps the park rangers are working to remove it.

Lonicera possibly of the maackii or tatarica family, was absolutely everywhere. The flowers are about to emerge and I suspect they'll show the plants to be of the tatarica group. They grew most thickly right along the path where the sun was brightest, although gangly versions grew further in the trees with less light. Little grew beneath them due to the shade they were casting. Birds will most happily spread their seeds further afield.

Of course Rosa multiflora made an appearance, but like the bittersweet it wasn't appearing in great abundance. If only the multiflora in my own yard were following the same pattern. It's sprouting up absolutely everywhere this year.

There was no sign of Lythrum salicaria, the horrible purple loosestrife, but I'm sure it was lurking around somewhere.

The good news is there were plenty of native plants chugging along, including a variety of evergreen fern that I'd love to try and grow in my own garden. I'm hoping that if funds or initiative allow the park will try and cull out these unwanted invaders to preserve what natives are there.

Recommended Plant of the Week: Magnolia soulangiana. In the north, we cannot reliably grow the beautiful evergreen magnolias so common in the south (Bracken's Brown Beauty can survive if in a protected location, but I've never seen a very large one). The common saucer magnolia offers up huge flowers and a tree large enough to provide shade. Toward the end of April here in Massachusetts, the trees are covered in sweetly scented flowers. These flowers are pink at the base and change to white toward the ends of the petals. It's a fantastic classic plant that certainly deserves a showcase position in the garden.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Plant Disappointments

"Your tastes will mature," said a co-worker to me one day. I was complaining about some plant or another and swearing up and down that I'd never enjoy that particular tree/shrub. Over time my tastes have changed, but there are still many plants that fit into the category of "Disappointing."

My biggest plant gripe is with fad plants. At one point it was anything in the Amelanchier species. Yes, a nice native plant that doesn't get overwhelmingly large, flowers, and has fall color. It will tolerate city conditions and fits well into a small garden. Sounds good. In nature, it's a great plant. The flowers will cover the tree turning it into a fluffy cloud of white. The flowers don't last all that long, but in spring we'll take what we can get. The foliage varies in quality and can range from yellows to oranges to reds. These trees also produce fruit for birds. Excellent, you want one, right? So what's my problem with these plants? Well, I like them enough in the wild, but there are so many other plants that offer far more. There was a time at the nursery when rabid customers would arrive in droves to see this miracle plant their landscape architect had recommended and then they'd take one look and say, "Is that all?" The fad surrounding the plant was far greater than the plant itself. Would I own one? Sure. Would it be the centerpiece of my small garden? No. I've also seen what happens when these trees mature and they can be some pretty gnarly ugly things. They're pretty in flower and the fall foliage is nice, but the rest of the year they're a Gothic mess.

Hosta "Great Expectations" was all the rage one year. Sure it looked interesting and I was hoping to have one. A co-worker and I were given plants to test out in our yards. Before long the expectations turned into frustrations as the plant just sat there in the garden. Other hostas nearby chugged right along, but Great Expectations just sat, expectantly. After about 3 seasons of being the same exact size, it disappeared. My co-worker had a similar experience with the plant. According to a grower we'd talked to, the plant was having issues. Tissue cultured versions of the plant just weren't growing and there were so many of these plants on the market because it had a sudden explosion of popularity. If you could find a plant divided from a healthy parent, things might turn out different. I expected more than this and decided to skip getting another.

Of course, there are plants I've changed my mind about. Witch Hazels, for example. Hated them to pieces when I first saw them. They were gangly, yellow, and their leaves were unimpressive. Over time, however, I realized that there was more than just yellow, the plants could be beautiful in the right location, and the fact that I saw them flowering in January in southern Rhode Island sure made them more appealing. Even the native "virginiana" is an interesting plant that flowers far later than other blooming plants. The forests in New England are full of them. Sure, they're a common yellow and the flowers are small, but some years they're holding onto flowers near Thanksgiving.

Have my tastes matured? Somewhat. I'm more willing to give plants a second look now, although I still haven't changed my mind about many others (which I'll discuss later). Native plants hold more interest for me now, especially since a number of them are quite hardy. Will I rush out to buy the new Echinacea or Hydrangea? Probably not. I'll wait and see how nature deals with these introductions before I decide whether or not they'll appear in my garden.

Recommended Plant of the Day: Erianthus ravenna. If you're looking for an ornamental grass that becomes a beast, this is the one for you. It's a reed-like grass that reaches 12-15 feet or so. The seed heads are whitish/silver and look a bit like pampas grass. It's native to southern Europe, but is hardy to zone 5. I've seen a stand of it growing and didn't think much of it at first, until the seed heads started growing so much higher than the clumps. Plant it as a specimen plant by itself, or put it in as a summer screen.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Hemerocallis "Now and Zen"

With spring impending, thoughts turn to green growing things. At times, this desire for green becomes obsessive. Some might say it turns to addiction. I once worked with a woman who thought nothing of spending $200.00 on perennials at each and every garden center she visited. Now, the money wasn't spent on creating massive drifts of flowers. Instead, she focused on unusual plants and plants more challenging to grow. Double flowering trilliums ended up being a multi-year obsession. She'd purchase three, two would not survive the year, and the next spring she'd try again. I'm not sure I could tolerate the heartache of losing such a beautiful plant time and again.
The addictions didn't end with trillums. Hostas and daylilies figured prominently in her garden cart everywhere she went. Usually, these plants were the newest introductions or rare hybrids. Often times, she'd try and talk the grower into digging up a daylily that wasn't yet for sale. More often than not, they'd relent and dig out a fan. Shopping with her was an amazing trip and the kind of behavior I swore I'd never engage in. "I'll never become a plant addict like THAT," I'd foolishly say to myself.
The past couple years my addiction has been daylilies. Vacation trips have been impacted by a wish to visit garden centers or growers. Last summer it was Olallie Day Lily Gardens in South Newfane, Vermont. It's just a short drive from Brattleboro, where my partner and I were vacationing, and was a grower I'd wanted to visit for a while. Luckily, I was limited by the contents of my wallet and so came home with a far less damaging amount greens than possible. "Bayou Bride" and "Mystical Rainbow" had caught my eye, along with a long list of others. There was one, however, that I'd had regrets about. It was a tall reddish purple daylily called "Katahdin." I'd walk around the growing fields time and again and come back to this plant. I hemmed and hawed and then finally decided to show some restraint. I left with the plants as "Katahdin's" flowers waved with an air of melancholy in the rear view mirror.
This year I discovered a daylily auction site online. It's quite dangerous as I could easily lose an entire paycheck to these auctions. So far, I've ordered just two plants. There's a grower in Maine (near where I like to visit when traveling there) who offered up "Now and Zen" and also "Katahdin." I remembered fondly my time last summer and vowed to win the auction. Luckily I was the only person bidding on the plant and managed to win it handily. So, my "Katahdin" saga has finally come to a satisfying end.
My addiction is under control. I hope. But there's a daylily farm in New York I might want to visit this summer and I can always go back to Tranquil Lake or Olallie. Looks like I'd better do some garden expanding this spring, just in case.

Recommended Plant of the Day: Since I've been talking about daylilies it's only fair that I recommend one. I've had Hemerocallis "Coburg Fright Wig" for quite some time. The poor thing was in a neglected part of the yard and I didn't notice the flowers. Then I moved it to a newer garden area and last year it produced amazing blooms. Not only were they colorful, they were huge. The base color is yellow, but every other petal has a red tip. Given the size of the flower, it puts on quite a show. This is a "spider" day lily, which means the flower petals are long like fingers. It's an excellent addition to any daylily collection.

Coburg Fright Wig

Friday, February 22, 2008


It's snowing once again so it's the perfect time to discuss lilacs. Oh to smell their perfume and watch their clusters of flowers sway in the breeze.

Lilacs are a personal favorite of mine (favorite of mine is a phrase you'll be reading frequently). At first I was tempted by the scent and the memories of spring they bring about. Then I was drawn in by the numerous flower colors they offer. But once I started meeting them at the garden center and planting them in my own yard I discovered their best quality: durability. Yes, the scent is nice, but their ability to thrive in just about any soil and survive dry summers is even more important.

This conclusion came about when I was working for a garden center. I'd always liked lilacs and found myself drawn in by the different types offered. Syringa vulgaris Sensation, was one of the first with its purple/white edged flowers. Then of course there was my attraction and subsequent disappointment with Syringa vulgaris Primrose. But one year, I discovered the lilac's tenacity and determination to survive. A landscaper had ordered a number of lilacs and never came to pick up his order. The poor plants were abandoned in the holding area; pushed further and further to the back as new orders were brought in. Then in August, I came across them while cleaning out plants and orders. The poor things had once been nicely dug and their roots/soil wrapped in burlap. Not any more. The burlap had rotted and the root balls were falling apart. The plants themselves, however, didn't seem to notice the indignity. I corralled them all and decided I would buy/rescue them and plant a hedge in the yard. At the time I wasn't sure how well they would do or if they'd even survive the experience.

Imagine my surprise when these plants not only survived, but thrived. There's a row of these lilacs planted next to a fairly busy road and sidewalk. It's a hot and dry exposure. The soil in this area has a heavy sand content (from back when the yard was a parking lot for horses and carriages) and receives sun all day long. The plants grow and flower with little in the way of attention and they always amaze me with their durability.

There are lilacs elsewhere in the yard, including an ancient stand of white common lilacs that came with the house. Exactly how old these lilacs are is unclear, but they perform well each season even with a Philadelphus attempting to take over. There had been others planted near it including more whites and a common purple, but this one is the only one to survive the competition from giant maples in the back yard.

Generally, lilacs enjoy sweet soil. Sprinkling some lime around them every couple years will be appreciated. Regular garden soil is fine for them although as I've discovered they tolerate all kinds of soil conditions. Sunlight is of utmost importance. Without it they will fail to flower and will readily contract the dreaded powdery mildew. The only other thing lilacs will not tolerate is wet feet, so planting them in a wet area is not advised. Not only will the plant fail to thrive, it will contract powdery mildew far more readily in damp locations. Fertilizing in the spring with a balanced fertilizer is fine (10-10-10 or 8-8-8 or any slow release fertilizer without a high first number).

Pruning lilacs is a bit more tricky, especially if you're worried about flowers. If not, then pruning in the early spring is best. An older plant can be cut back by 1/3 each year, with the removal of the largest thickest trunks, to promote lush new growth. If the lilac is especially overgrown, it can be cut back to the ground in the early spring with a reasonable chance for a full recovery. In order to preserve flower buds, prune the lilac right after it flowers. Remove any spent flower heads and trim out any branches that interfere with each other. Aim to open up the interior of the shrub to help with air flow and prevent powdery mildew. Of course, damaged or dead branches can be removed at any time.

Along with being especially tough, lilacs have few pests. Lilac borer can be a problem with some plants (for some reason, they like one of my Sensation lilacs). The insect is easily spotted because it leaves large exit holes in the trunk of the plant. Most lilacs will survive the insect, but become weakened by repeated infestations. As for diseases, lilacs are prone to powdery mildew and dieback caused by fungus. The mildew is not usually life threatening to the plant. The dieback can be, however. The tips of the plant will wilt, blacken and die and slowly this death will work down into the plant. At first it appears that the plant is thirsty, yet this is brought about by too much water combined with a fungus called Verticillium. This is an easy thing to identify as when you cut back the drooping growth you'll notice a brown/purple ring inside the stem. Improving drainage around the plant or backing off on watering will help the plant recover. Trim out any infected branches. Most often I've seen this wilt occur when the plants are too close to an automatic sprinkler system or planted in an area where water collects (near down spouts for example).

So, you're interested in lilacs, which ones will you look for? My list starts off with a group of vulgaris cultivars. Katherine Havemeyer has a wonderful scent and lavender-pink flowers. Lucie Baltet is a personal favorite of mine. The flower clusters are smaller than on most lilacs, but the buds start off a coppery-pink color and then the flowers open pink. It's an unusual color, especially when seen with other lilacs. President Lincoln is a fantastic grower and has single blue flowers. It's one of the most prolific bloomers I have, out flowering others planted nearby. Sensation has purple flowers with a white edge, but almost no scent. Sensation tends to be a but rangy in its growth habits too, but I still enjoy it. Krasavitsa Moskvy or Beauty of Moscow is an excellent white. The buds are pinkish but open a creamy white. Last but not least is Monge. It has wine-red/purple flowers. Not the darkest purple I've seen, but certainly the most interesting. The growth habit has been more shrubby than the others and it tends to send up lots of sucker growth. This is fine, as I can dig up the youngsters and share them with fellow gardeners.

One other option, which isn't part of the Syringa vulgaris list above, would be Syringa chinensis. This shrubby lilac becomes as wide as high (about 8 feet or so) and throws off a tremendous number of flowers. They are smaller than on the vulgaris cultivars and the color is the commonly seen pink-lavender, but it is certainly a plant worth having.

There are also French hybrids, which flower later than the vulgaris cultivars. I'm not as familiar with these plants, as I prefer the "classic" lilacs. If you're looking to extend bloom time, these are excellent options.

Previously I'd mentioned Primrose. I have a love-hate relationship with this plant. On the one hand, I'd love to find a true yellow lilac. On the other hand, Primrose is often promoted as being yellow...but it really isn't. The buds start out a creamy yellow color but when the flowers open they open creamy white. Yes, if you put something white behind/near the flower it does have a yellowish cast...if you squint...and the light is just right. In my mind, the color is reminiscent of certain brands of vanilla ice cream. Certainly not worth going out of the way for.

So, with the snow falling steadily, and the lilacs out in the yard slumbering away one can think towards spring and scent and green.

Recommended Plant of the Day: Hydrangea quercifolia. An excellent hydrangea for shadier spots it produces large panicles of white flowers. The leaves are large and look like oak leaves--hence the common name "Oak Leaf Hydrangea." Now on most hydrangeas, the flowers are the best feature. This plant, however, offers up excellent fall foliage and interesting bark that peels off. Once cooler weather hits, the foliage turns various shades of yellow, rust, red, burgundy...all rich fall colors and all on the same plant. Some years the flowers will hold on for quite some time, turning a pinkish shade in the process, and still show when the foliage turns. There are various hybrids out there which are all worth trying, but the standard Oak Leaf is an excellent choice on its own. For more information visit:

For more information on lilacs visit:

If you're looking for a source for lilacs I recommend:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Anticipation of Spring

It's been a snowy, rainy, icy winter here in Massachusetts. Now that February is quickly departing, Spring must be arriving soon. I can tell that winter has lasted too long as I've begun looking through gardening catalogs and websites with many sighs and thoughts of warm workable soil. The snowdrops in the warmer part of the garden have begun flowering but the Hellebores haven't shown much activity yet. Snowdrops are one of my favorite bulbs. They're easy to grow, multiply without dividing, and tolerate all kinds of growing conditions. Today brings about some warm(ish) dry weather which means I'll begin cleaning up broken branches and clearing out the horrible bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, that keeps turning up in the yard.

Invasive plants are a topic I've had an interest in for quite some time. Bittersweet and I have a long and antagonistic relationship. Once I think we've finally broken up for good, its sprung up somewhere else and grown far faster than any plant has a right to. Added to this list is the infamous Black Walnut, Jugluns nigra. Ok, ok, it's not on any invasive plant lists that I've seen, but its managed to become a major thug in the yard. Squirrels bury the nuts and before long there are seedlings all over the place. Cut down a seedling, turn around, and suddenly it has sprouted new leaves and shows a determination to survive similar to the bittersweet. Last, but not least, is the truly nasty Rosa multiflora. I have no idea where this first turned up in the yard, but it has made such a pest of itself I'm about ready to pour gasoline on any stems I find and light a match. It's quite pretty when it flowers and the hips are excellent in wreaths but beyond that the plant is downright nasty. Oh, I suppose the birds enjoy hiding in it and I'm sure the berries provide a nutritious food source, but I've had enough. So, the major tasks this spring include dealing with the invasives.

While the invasives are thriving in the yard the same cannot be said for plants I pay money for. I've managed to kill numerous perennials, shrubs and trees. The poor things think they're gaining a safe home and I manage to put them in the wrong place or forget to water them. In other cases, they just mysteriously fail to thrive. While working with customers I'd suggest that plants are very much like children, more often than not they don't turn out like you'd hope. So although I enjoy plants and can spend all kinds of money on additions to the garden, I do not have a 100% success rate.

Recommended Plant of the Day: Each post I'll recommend a plant that I've grown and enjoyed or one I've experienced in the trade and have wanted to grow.
So, for this entry I recommend: Epimedium grandiflorum "White Queen." Epimediums are fantastic perennials. They tolerate dry shade, have few problems with insects or disease, and spread fairly rapidly. Additionally, they divide easily to be shared with friends. "White Queen" has proven especially tolerant of my garden. The flowers are showy and far larger than other Epimediums. They have massive spurs, reminicient of Columbines and the light green leaves always look fresh.