Monday, July 16, 2012

Gardening with Books.

Gardening became an interest of mine long before I was actually conscious of it.  My parents told stories of growing up on farms and of one relative in particular who had an obsession with pansies.  This aunt would start pansies from seed each year and then toil endlessly in the garden all summer.  She also had heart troubles and would frequently skip out on tasks like laundry or housework in general, yet be out on her hands and knees on the hottest summer day gardening.  I kind of respect her approach.

               While a child I spent a great deal of time in the outdoors, basically because my mother would tire of me messing up the house and say, “Why don’t you go spend some time outside?” while pushing me out the door.  Local swamps and forests became my regular hangouts.  At the same time, I developed a love of reading.  Eventually these two interests would cross and I started to collect books on gardening. 

               So, what books shaped my interest in plants?  Well, quite a few over the years, but much of my early interest was colored by the PBS series “The Victory Garden.”  My parents enjoyed the show and because of this, so did I.  Books based on the series eventually entered into my addiction and my full blown horticultural disease was born.  There were other books, of course, and many other plants along the way.  This post is dedicated to these texts filled with plant knowledge.  Unfortunately, many of these books are out of print but they are easily accessible via used bookstores and/or the internet.

1.       Masters of the Victory Garden: Specialty Gardeners Share Their Expert Techniques.  By Jim Wilson.  This book is probably to blame for my interest in daylilies and wildflowers.  Each chapter focuses on a specific plant type and the specialists who focus on growing them. 

2.      Crockett’s Flower Garden.  By James Underwood Crockett.  Unlike the other Victory Garden book, this one focuses on the flower garden month by month.  Annuals, perennials and biennials are all discussed as well as important information such as how to divide perennials.  Unfortunately, one of the recommended perennials is purple loosestrife (although the book was originally published in 1981, prior to the loosestrife invasion).

3.      Green Trigger Fingers.  By John Sherwood.  This is the first in a series of horticultural themed murder mysteries.  Sherwood worked, and wrote, for the BBC and then started writing a couple series of books.  I’m not sure when I first encountered his books, but I was drawn to them for the descriptions of the English countryside as well as for the plant information.  They’re all pretty light reading, yet the horticulture is interesting and it’s probably this book I owe an interest in primroses to.

4.      Beautiful Madness. James Dodson.  This is a more recent book, from 2006, but it sums up extremely well what gardening is and how it impacts people.  The author spent many years writing about golf courses, but found time to visit local gardens as well.  His own garden in Maine became an obsession and he found himself driven by the “beautiful madness.”  Although out of print, this book has a nice entry at his website:

5.      Hardy Roses: An Organic Guide to Growing Frost and Disease Resistant Varieties.  By Robert Osbourne and Beth Powning.  There’s just something about roses.  Unfortunately, that something is often disappointment here in New England.  Those perfectly formed Tea roses just don’t enjoy winters in New England all that much.  My first attempts with roses met with disaster.  This book changed all that, particularly since it lays out planting and pruning extremely clearly.  The roses recommended are fantastically tough and this book helped foster my interest in old garden roses, which tend to be more durable and often have fantastic scent.

6.      A Small Farm in Maine.  By Terry Silber.  In this book, the author and her husband leave the world they know behind in order to farm in Maine.  Herbs are a major focus of their business and the book details their beginnings and eventual retail shop.  This book totally drew me in and I strongly wished I could have done the same.  Unfortunately the author passed away in 2003 and the farm itself shut down operations in 2006.  They also wrote the book Growing Herbs and Vegetables: From Seed to Harvest, in 1999 although I’ve not read it as of yet.

7.      A Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden.  By Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd.  North Hill is an amazing garden and I hope to actually visit it at some point soon.  Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd created a garden that challenged the idea that gardening in Vermont was a limited prospect.  They used the land well and fully understood their site.  Because of this, they managed to get plants to survive through Vermont winters that many said would fail.  Not only did the plants survive, the garden expanded and grew into something remarkable.  Wayne Winterrowd has passed away and work has begun to turn North Hill into a hybrid botanic garden/learning center.

8.      Landscaping with Herbs.  By Jim Wilson.  An excellent book for adding herbs to the garden (or to containers).  It doesn’t have nitty gritty information about herbs, but instead offers up design ideas.  The pictures and suggestions are fantastic and I refer to this book often when looking for ideas.

Recommended Plant:

Hemerocallis “Siloam Frosted Mint.”  I encountered this daylily at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens and was immediately taken by the large iridescent yellow flowers.  It was quite a robust plant overall and had a number of buds waiting to open.  I’m expecting it will end up in my garden at some point.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Designing For The Future

One of the design tactics that has bothered me the most over the years (I know, I know, it’s all about the complaining) is packing a plan full of plants.  Sure, the planting looks fantastic for the first few years, but then it soon becomes an overgrown mass of festering evil sprawling over the front lawn.  I’ve seen a design chock full of evergreen azaleas, boxwood, a weeping cherry, and various broad leaved rhododendrons.  It looked great on paper and was probably spectacular the first few years.  The cherry, however, was planted only about 10’ off the corner of the house.  The azaleas were packed in extremely close to one another.  The boxwood flanked the front door and the rhododendrons were beneath the living room windows.  Unfortunately, it had disaster written all over it. 

               It is extremely important when designing to plan with the future in mind.  Plants will not stay the same size they are when purchased.  Many plants do not approve of heavy pruning and even if they do it often takes a careful hand to cut correctly.  The cherry in that design was the Weeping Higan Cherry, Prunus subhirtella Pendula.  This tree grows quickly and can reach a height of 30’ and has arching branches that reach outward 30’.  I’ve seen mature specimens flanking the entrance to a park and they towered over the entry road.  This is not a delicate and small weeping plant; it’s a real bruiser once it gets growing.  Years ago, a customer asked me about purchasing one as they wanted it to grow beneath their dining room window.  The window was about 5’ off the ground and their intent was to plant the cherry there for birds to perch on.  They were totally convinced they’d be able to pull it off.  All the while I was envisioning the tree inviting itself in for dinner by crashing through the window. 

The fun doesn’t stop with the weeping cherry in that plan, however.  The azaleas in the design would eventually be shaded out by the cherry if they didn’t grow into each other prior.  Boxwood, Buxus sempervirens in this case, although easy to prune and shape, does require this maintenance yearly if planted next to a doorway.  Further, Common Boxwood has a certain…odor reminiscent of feral male cats.  Broad leaved rhododendrons, generally speaking, grow fairly large (8-12’ or more and equally as wide).  They’re not a good choice for planting beneath windows (unless a dwarf variety is used which I will mention in a future post). 

So, what can a gardener do to avoid a hostile horticultural takeover?  First, research your plants.  The internet or your local library offer excellent gardening information.  Ultimate heights, widths, and growth rates are all obtainable and you should check them out in advance.  Thuja occidentalis “Nigra” is a commonly planted arborvitae and often ends up at the corners of a foundation planting.  It looks great when it’s small, but what it really wants to do is grow close to a foot each year and reach an eventual height of 30-40’.  Not the best choice for a foundation plant unless you’re willing to prune it at least once a year and even then there are better options.  Here in New England it’s also a deer magnet and they love to nibble it away to nothing.  Knowing the growth habit in advance and some of the plant particulars like attractiveness to deer, can save lots of heartache in the future.

Next, once you’ve researched your plants, make sure they all have more than enough room in your plan.  Even with the information you’ve gained, plan some extra space to be on the safe side.  Why?  Well, plants are much like children; they behave in extremely unexpected ways.  Yes, the rhododendron you purchased said it would reach a height of only 5’, but since your location is fantastic it has decided to dominate your foundation planting.  Ultimate height and width numbers are guidelines, not numbers written in stone.  Your mileage may vary.  Watch out for snakes, etc.  If there are gaps in the plantings you can always add perennials, bulbs, or even annuals to fill in the space.  Be patient and let the plants grow out.

So far I’ve mentioned plants getting too large for a site, is it possible to choose plants that just stay too small?  Of course!  There’s a homeowner not far from where I live who decided they wanted a living privacy hedge.  There are many suitable plants for this task but they went with a double row of Picea glauca ‘Conica.’  This plant is commonly known as the Dwarf Alberta Spruce and its growth rate is measured in amounts of less than an inch per year.  The homeowners started off with plants that were maybe 2’ tall.  The ultimate height of the tree would probably have made an excellent screening hedge (8-12’).  Unfortunately it would have taken decades for them to reach this height.  Eventually, they decided to put up a fence.  Researching before planting is so very important.

Need some resources to start researching?  Sure! 

1.       Any book by Michael Dirr.  I still have an old hardcover copy of his book, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Use.  His works are pretty much the go-to resources for shrubs and trees. 

2.      Any of the Taylor’s Gardening Guides.  There are many of them and they’re great resources for basic plant information including everything from annuals to trees.

3.      Garden magazines including Horticulture, Fine Gardening or the BBC publication Gardens Illustrated all have information on plants and design.  Gardens Illustrated is a particular favorite of mine due to the excellent photography.

4. has tons of information about plants, gardening, and reliable resources for plants.

5.      Check your local botanic garden website.  Tower Hill Botanic Gardens here in Massachusetts, for example, has a horticultural hotline you can call on Wednesdays from 2-4pm.  They also have many resources on site at the garden.  If you’re into native plants, check out The Garden in the Woods which is located in Framingham, Massachusetts.  The Costal Maine Botanical Gardens is another fantastic resource if you’re planning a trip to Boothbay and/or midcoast Maine.

These are all resources I rely on constantly as even though I’ve worked with plants for many years, there are always new things to learn.

Recommended Plant:

Asarum europaeum or European Wild Ginger.  This fantastic little perennial works well in shady locations.  It fills in slowly, more or less ambling across the ground.  The dark shiny leaves look fantastic throughout the growing season and it encounters few diseases or pests.  I’ve read that it prefers moist soil, but I’ve had it grow quite well in a dry spot with a little extra water to get it established.  If you’re looking for a slow growing perennial for near a walkway or as a companion plant to other slower growing shade plants, this is an excellent choice.  Note:  In no way is this plant related to the culinary ginger—that plant prefers tropical growing conditions.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Garden Design on the Cheap

               So you have a new house or you’re looking to replace existing landscaping and are on a budget.  What do you do?  Those shows on HGTV offer lots of great, yet expensive, ideas.  Is it possible to design a garden on the cheap?  Oh, it sure is.  There are many ways to plan out a garden and do it on a budget.  Here are some tips to help you on your way.

1.       Plan, plan, plan.  Figure out which plants are best for your site and narrow down choices in advance.  As I’ve mentioned before, knowing which plants do best in your location is one of the most important factors for success.  Do not make last minute impulse buys.  Take your list and ideas with you when shopping for plants.  Take pictures of the area you want to plant and bring them along as well.  Knowing the site well and choosing plants in advance will help save money in the long run.

2.      Visit as many garden centers and/or supply stores as possible—yes, even big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s.  It’s surprising to learn prices and how much they vary from store to store.  At the same time, note the quality of the plant—keep an eye out for diseased leaves, or droopy foliage.  I once worked for a while at a local Home Depot.  Every now and then, tucked into a new plant shipment, were some interesting choices.  During one such delivery there were some rhododendrons I knew were not available locally.  The plants looked great and were really cheap.  Needless to say, a couple plant lovers came in and snapped them up right away.  I wouldn’t buy a specimen tree at a big box store, but certain shrubs and perennials would be fine.  Local garden centers may offer special deals during the summer to entice customers in.  Take advantage of them.  Generally speaking, your local garden center will also be able to offer more in the way of customer service.  However, if you need a trio of lilacs and Home Depot has them at a great price, grab them while you can.

3.      Set aside money for one major specimen plant.  If you truly want a showy tree for the garden, make sure you have funds set aside specifically for it.  Go to local garden centers and do comparison shopping.  This will be your big budget item so it’s best to aim for quality over price.  What should you choose?  Well, aim for a smaller decorative tree such as: Cornus kousa (Korean Dogwood), Cercis canadensis (Redbud), Chionanthus virginicus (Fringe Tree), Syringia reticulata (Japanese Tree Lilac), Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple), Prunus “Hally Jolivette” (Hally Jolivette Cherry), Styrax japonica (Japanese Snowbell Tree).  All of these plants produce flowers except for the Acer griseum.  None of these trees get tremendously huge and work well in a foundation planting.  Still, give them at least 15’ distance from the house to allow for spreading growth.  Please note that I’m avoiding weeping cherries, Japanese maples, and Florida dogwoods.  Weeping cherries become very large fairly quickly and can overpower a house, or come barging into the house to say hello.  Japanese maples are planted all the time and although they’re fairly inexpensive, why not aim for something a little different?  Florida dogwoods have trouble with a fungal disease called Anthracnose and although there are varieties that are less prone to it, I’d skip this plant to be on the safe side.  Another popular specimen tree, frequently planted for decorative bark and summer flowers, is the Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia).  It tends to grow larger than other trees I’ve listed and its hardiness is somewhat questionable (Zone 5-ish possibly even 4 with protection).  They prefer rich, organic soil and do not tolerate hot, dry, windy locations.  If your yard is protected from scorching sun and you have space to plant it further from your house, then it might make an excellent choice.  I’ve also noted that this tree in particular takes a while to settle in after transplanting.  It may be a few years before it starts to take off and produce a major show of blooms.

4.      Plant perennials.  Many perennials can be purchased inexpensively and some are easily propagated via division.  Hostas, daylilies, Siberian Iris, Monarda (Bee Balm), ornamental grasses, and numerous other perennials grow rapidly and need dividing fairly often.  One pot of Monarda, for example, can probably be divided immediately upon purchase if there are enough runners present (Mondarda is in the mint family and spreads via runner growth).  Perennials extend the bloom time of the garden and can add interesting textures/foliage as well.

5.      Plant perennial herbs.  There are many perennial herbs available and most often I’ve found them to be much less expensive than other perennials.  Sure, they may not be as showy as a cluster of Asiatic Lilies, but they’re frequently difficult to kill and interesting when mixed in with other plants.  Chives, catmint, lemon balm, apple mint, chocolate mint, or garlic chives, would all make excellent garden additions.  The mints will need some roping in, since they can quickly turn invasive, but they’re great plants with a little preparation.  Thyme is also a perennial herb, but has the awful tendency to die unexpectedly after flourishing for a few years.  Although an annual, dill might be a good choice as well since it frequently spreads readily via seeds. 

6.      If you must plant annuals, aim for something showy.  Geraniums, impatiens, marigolds and pansies are commonly planted annuals.  Unfortunately, it frequently takes a number of them to have a decent showing.  Instead of planting these, aim for one of the more unusual annuals that will add some bulk to the garden.  This way, you can plant fewer of them yet still get masses of flower color.  For example, Nicotiana alata, is a great annual that can reach up to 3’ high and produces lots of white trumpet shaped flowers.  There are many annual salvias that produce interesting flowers in shades of rich blue and purple.  You might also consider annual flowering herbs such as Borage officinalis or nasturtiums.  As an aside, one annual to avoid is Verbena bonariensis as it is proving to be invasive in some situations, even here in New England.

7.      Visit plant swaps and garden club sales.  They always offer interesting plants and you can frequently find inexpensive options.

8.      Repurpose.  You’ve found some large interesting rocks while digging in the yard?  Add them to the garden.  There’s an ugly statue in the front yard that you cannot get rid of because it was a gift.  Clematis might look quite nice scampering over it.  Your neighbor is disposing of some hostas to make room for more lawn—adopt them!  Even if the hostas are an uninteresting variety, they can be used to take up space.  Use them as a ground cover beneath your new decorative tree or use them as filler plants on the shady side of the house.  Those bricks from the chimney you had removed?  Use them in the garden to build stepping stones or as a section of wall.  Be creative, there may be many free items in your own yard that just need to be repurposed to find new use.

9.      Mulch everything.  Yes, it is an expense, but you want the plants you’ve spent hard earned money on to survive weed growth and/or summer drought.  Mulch is an important cost to factor in and should be considered essential.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to help retain soil moisture and keep things cool.

10.   Think about walkways, water features, structural needs (such as stone walls), house color, roof drip line, and driveway position.  Why?  Well, they’re all expensive additions and/or changes.  Those lovely stone walls you see being built on television are expensive.  Water features are nice, but are hardly essential.  Unless you’re willing to pay to have your house painted, you’re stuck with that color so plan out flower colors in advance.  Walkways are generally needed and can be expensive additions/replacements.  If possible, use what you have.

Recommended Plant:

Borage officinalis or Common Borage.  This fantastic annual herb offers up interesting fuzzy foliage, bright blue flowers, is edible, and attracts lots of honey bees.  What’s not to like?  Well, maybe the bees, but still, it’s a great plant.  It grows rapidly, tolerates full sun and dry conditions, and more or less makes itself at home rapidly.  If you’re looking for an annual herb to add some interesting color and texture to a foundation planting, consider borage as an option.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Not Quite a Native

There are many plants here in New England that have become established parts of the landscape.  They’re so established, in fact, that they’re practically natives.  Unfortunately, they’re not actually natives and in some cases they’re invasive.  These “almost natives” frequently appear in places you’d expect natives to turn up; abandoned fields, roadside drainage ditches, along waterways or lakes, and even along roadsides.  In the background they flourish, to the point where they just seem like they belong there.

Perhaps one of the most common of these plants is Hemerocallis fulva, frequently referred to as the “ditch lilly.”  This daylily appears all over roadsides throughout New England and is also planted in gardens.  Colonists brought this plant with them from Europe and it quickly escaped from their gardens.  The tuberous root system is quite tenacious and will thoroughly settle into an area.  It will appear near old abandoned house foundations, in cemeteries, and I’ve seen clumps of it happily growing in fairly shady areas along dirt roads.  In some locations it is quite invasive and seems to belong, but it’s not a native.
                                                     Hemerocallis fulva
          Another colonial garden plant that appears to be native is the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris.  As with the common daylily, this plant was brought over by colonists.  If you’re interested in finding old home sites, stands of lilacs are excellent place markers for foundations.  Lilacs often turn up in the strangest of places, yet once upon a time, a garden or home was nearby.  I’ve found them in wooded areas growing next to long abandoned home sites; where all that was left was a pile of rocks that made up the foundation.  My guess is that someone scavenged these foundation stones to build stone walls in the area at a later date.  The lilacs, however, survived just fine.  Lilacs will spread in a few different ways depending on variety.  Most plants will slowly grow outward by sending up new stems in the form of sucker growth.  In some cases, lilac stems will root in where branches touch the ground.  In the case of the foundation lilacs I discovered they were spreading by low growing suckers, almost like a ground cover.

          Surprisingly, one of the most favored of all garden plants isn’t all that common as a native plant in North America.  Roses, so often seen in gardens, along the beach, or even bordering parking lots, are actually much more frequently found as a native plant in Asia.  Even the common Rosa rugosa, seen so often at New England beaches, is native to Asia.  Rosa virginiana and Rosa carolina are native to North America and appear in the wild here in New England (although competition from Rosa multifloria and other invasive plants is cutting down on their habitat).  So most of the roses found growing in the wild aren’t natives, but are instead garden escapees.  Rose collectors will often scour cemeteries and abandoned home sites in an effort to find old garden roses for preservation.  The rose pictured below appears near where I live.  Two homes have it scrambling over rocks in their front yards.  But in this picture, the rose is growing at what was once a home site.  It’s not a native, yet this plant in particular seems to appear frequently here in central Massachusetts.  My guess is, it was a commonly planted climber that has gone out of fashion but that has proven to be durable.  It only blooms once in the early summer and today, with so many options availabe, it has fallen by the wayside as a garden option.  So although you may find beach roses or roses like the climber below turning up throughout New England, they’re not native, although they certainly seem to belong.
                                              Unidentified climbing rose.

                                                           Rosa rugosa

 This next plant appears in wet areas including spots where the plant is partially submerged during the growing season.  Yellow Flag Iris, or Iris pseudodacorus, turns up wherever there is moist soil.  In some cases, the plant has become invasive, but at the same time it almost seems to belong where it is growing.  Again, this is a plant once frequently planted as a garden ornamental.  The native habitat for this iris is actually Europe and it also turns up in Asia and northwest Africa.  Because it can pull pollutants out of the water through its tuberous root system, it was used as a natural water treatment filter.  Unfortunately, this plant is hideously invasive in some locations, but at the same time has become so commonly seen it looks almost like it belongs.  It is, alas, not quite a native.
                                               Iris pseudoacorus

 Sometimes, the best intentions can lead to major problems in the plant world.  Frequently planted as a food source for birds, Russian Olive or Elaeagnus angustifolia, has become a major pest.  It is incredibly invasive as the seeds are readily spread by birds.  At the same time, the plant has been around long enough so that it almost seems like a native.  I’ve seen massive stands of it growing along highways and it appears so often I almost don’t notice it any more.  The foliage is a silvery grey color and the flowers are small and yellow. 
                                                 Russian Olive Flower

                                                Russian Olive Foliage

There are many other plants that fall into this category of “not quite a native” including Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, which I’ve mentioned before.  Purple loosestrife, or Lythrum salicaria, is seen all along waterways here in the southern part of New England and I’ve seen it appearing in southern Vermont and above Portland Maine.  Like the other plants mentioned, these often invasive plants have become ubiquitous and have settled in to the point where they almost belong here.  Efforts to eradicate some of these plants continue and hopefully success will be had before the actual native plants are lost entirely.  At the same time the landscape has been so altered by these plants that they’ve almost become the new “natives.”

 For this post I double checked my memory using: Wikipedia and 

Recommended Plant:  Arrowwood Viburnum or Viburnum dentatum.  This is one of our native viburnums and an excellent garden plant.  The white lacy flowers appear in late spring and dark purple berries turn up in late summer.  The berries attract birds and the dense upright stems offer lots of nest building real estate.  Luckily, the plant tolerates all kinds of growing conditions from damp rich soil to dry sandy soil.  It will tolerate some shade although grows best with as much sun as possible.
                                                   Arrowwood Viburnum Flower

                                          Arrowwood Viburnum Fruit
When I took the picture of the Arrowwood Viburnum fruit, the weather had been unseasonably warm after an initial cold period.  The fruits stayed on the plants and actually fermented.  Birds weren't taking the berries due to this, and the area was filled with the scent of earthy, wine like, fermentation.