Obviously, I love plants and gardens, but I must admit that I've been less than enthusiastic about the current revival of interest in indoor plants.
For many of us who live through the 70's, the idea of "houseplants" revives less-than-fond memories of dusty Scheffleras, defoliated Ficus Trees, and mangy Spider Plants in rotting macramé hangers.
But a major trend it is, as demonstrated by the sustained interest of many thousands of enthusiastic (mostly young) people... and the remarkable popularity of many online sources of inspiration and obsession.
The wave began several years ago as a ripple of interest in succulents, noted by those of us who were working in retail plant sales. Succulents are the perfect horticultural gateway drug... visually appealing, endlessly varied, and most importantly culturally forgiving... success with them is not guaranteed but highly likely, and many youngsters got hooked.
The ready availability of reasonably priced tissue-cultured Orchids in recent years sparked an interest in that group, and from there it's an easy jump to all sorts of tropical foliage plants that can be grown indoors. A quick online search will yield hours of video how-to's on identification and culture of everything from current "It" plants like Fiddle Leaf Ficus and Pencil Cactus to more obscure and specialized groups like Hoyas, Lithops, and Rex Begonias.
If you think I'm exaggerating, check out some of the related social media, like this Instagram account @boyswithplants ... it's just for fun (thanks, Betty Grindrod, for the suggestion!) but there are some very good YouTube channels for real in-depth information, like Plant One On Me, with dozens of videos hosted by Cornell graduate and eco-model Summer Rayne Oakes. Another popular YouTube channel is Planterina, with almost 300,000 subscribers and more than 100 videos related to houseplant identification, care, and propagation. And if you really want to go down the rabbit hole, there are hundreds of videos of regular folks just giving a video tour of every houseplant they own. It's plant geekery at its best, and I love it.
Having lived in cramped city apartments for years, I can certainly relate to the hunger for life and greenery that houseplants satisfy, but now that I have two outdoor acres to play in, I no longer feel the need. I do overwinter some Begonias and succulents that decorate our porch and entrance stoop in the warm months, but they're temporary indoor residents. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for houseplants in general, I always enjoy seeing plants used in unexpected ways, as we did on a trip to SE Asia over the holidays. In any tropical locale it's startling to see plants we know as indoor specimens growing outdoors, some of them as locally native species.
Look carefully in the lower right corner of this photo and you'll see a fine specimen of Pencil Cactus, Euphorbia tirucalli, growing out of a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. This very popular houseplant is originally native to Africa but can now be found growing as a weed all over the tropics.
This bears little resemblance to the haggard, leaf-dropping specimen that graced my college apartment, but it's a Ficus Tree as it grows in nature. Ficus benjamina, the Weeping Fig, is still a popular indoor plant and quite attractive when well grown, but it can never match the magnificence of a mature tree in the tropics.
I thought these carved stone identifiers at this nature park in Bali were particularly nice. Weeping Fig (or Beringin as it's known in Indonesia) is native to SE Asia, bearing small fruit that's an important food source for several species of tropical doves.
Here's a patch of Monstera deliciosa that would make any Brooklyn homesteader weep with envy... this tropical vine, with its handsome fenestrated foliage, is often seen growing up the trunks of tall trees. Called Swiss Cheese Plant because of the characteristic holes that develop in the leaves, it also exists in a variegated form that's particularly prized here as a houseplant.
The Madagascar Dragon Tree, Dracaena marginata, makes an excellent indoor plant as it tolerates dry air very well, and its upright, often multi-stemmed form is pleasing and easily accommodated in a room. This is the variegated form 'Tricolor', at home as an in-ground shrub in a temple courtyard.
Aglaeonemas of many species are native all over SE Asia, growing in the filtered light of forest floors. That makes them particularly valuable as houseplants because they can tolerate the low light levels in many indoor situations. Here in the west they are known as Chinese Evergreen and have been hybridized into many forms with silver, spotted, and colored variegation.
Another plant that tolerates similar low-light conditions is the Dieffenbachia or Dumb Cane (so called because the sap will cause paralysis of the tongue... who tried that???) It's a native of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, but has made itself at home in many parts of the tropical world. Large and showy leaves, easily grown indoors, and comes in many named varieties.
Oyster plant or Moses-in-the-Boat is grown as a houseplant here, often in its variegated form, but in the tropics it makes a tough and reliable groundcover. The common names refer to the fact that the cooked roots supposedly taste like oysters, and the tiny white flowers (the Moses) are borne cradled within the rosette of leaves. At any rate, they need a decent amount of light to thrive indoors but are otherwise easy subjects. Native to tropical Mexico and Guatemala, their official name is now Tradescantia spathacea although often sold under the former name of Rhoeo spathacea.
Possibly the most colorful foliage houseplant you can grow is the Croton, Codiaeum variegatum, which exists in a staggering variety of leaf shapes and colors. They do have a reputation for being somewhat finicky, dropping their leaves if too wet, too dry, too cool, or just from being moved. Once you find a happy spot for them they will recover, regrow their leaves, and settle in to become reliable and very decorative houseplants.
Crotons are native to India and Malaysia, but grown worldwide. We saw many gorgeous examples in Bali, especially in the temple gardens.
Philodendron bipinnatifidum is a large, handsome member of the huge tribe of Philodendrons, many of which make excellent and dramatic houseplants. It's native to South America but used as a landscape plant all over the tropics, and in Florida and the Gulf Coast states, where it can recover from the occasional light freeze.
Green walls are a big trend now, and here's one that planted itself... at least three or four kinds of tropical ferns and a vine I can't identify, all growing happily together without any artificial maintenance, thank you very much.
The Chicken Gizzard, Bloodleaf, or Beefsteak Plant, Iresine herbstii, is frequently sold here as a summer bedder and container plant but can also be grown indoors. It comes in many color forms and hails originally from Brazil, where it grows to shrub size.
Cordylines are another plant often used in summer planters and mixed containers here in our area but they're actually shrubs that can reach 8-10 feet tall in frost-free climates. Native to eastern Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia and Polynesia, these handsome plants can be found in many color variations. To thrive indoors they require a bright light situation.
We pay a pretty penny for Elephant Ears here, both Colocasia and Alocasia varieties, so it's amusing to see them all over Bali growing in irrigation ditches.
Another familiar houseplant in the Cornstalk Dracaena, Dracaena fragrans. It's a native of Africa, where it's used as a hedge, but thriving here in a Singapore nature preserve. Slow growing, it can eventually reach a height of 50 feet in the tropics. The variety 'Massangeana' has a broad lime-green stripe down the middle of the leaf, making it a popular choice for indoor use.
A medley of tropical foliage plants, here in a public park, is soothing to the eye and just about as satisfying as a flower border, in my opinion.
Parlor palms, anyone?
Whether you grow plants indoors or not, I hope you've enjoyed this little tour. Seeing familiar plants growing in unfamiliar ways is always a revelation. And if you're a newly minted houseplant loving, apartment dwelling, greenery obsessed millennial, god bless and please keep going!
Olds like me may look on the current trend with a little amusement, but it's truly wonderful to see young people embrace what I hope will grow into a lifelong passion. Whether it will lead to an interest in outdoor gardening is yet to be revealed, especially in light of the fact that sadly, many in your age group find home ownership out of reach for now. But I hope it's the spark of a new generation of enthusiasts who can carry on as horticultural hobbyists and professionals... the gardening world needs you, and welcomes you.
What plant nerd could possibly resist walking into this tropical nursery wonderland?
It’s been a slow and stately progression through the season here in the Hudson Valley; the weather and the leaves have changed gradually but surely, and we finally had a real killing frost here just last week. Always a beautiful time around here, and many people claim it as their favorite season, despite the danger of being run down by busloads of eager leaf-peepers on the back roads of New York and New England.
The trees are so spectacular that no one really grouses about the lack of flowers in the garden, although there are a few hangers-on… Asters, Chrysanthemums and Aconitums are three that come to mind. But it’s not about flowers just now. The perennial garden is taking its turn towards being a study in texture and monochrome… the gradual annual transition from a painting to an etching.
Still, there’s abundant color among herbaceous plants that we can note for future exploitation… why not plant for appeal at this time of year, as well as for the peak bloom periods? We’re often advised to choose trees and shrubs for more than one season of interest, so why not perennials too? If, for example, out of twenty similar pink Astilbe cultivars on the market, one of them has outstanding fall color, why would I not choose that one?
Case in point is this Astilbe cultivar, ‘Delft Lace’, which bears delicate, somewhat open sprays of warm pink flowers in June and clean, deep green foliage all summer in the ferny texture that Astilbes are known for. If that’s not enough, it’s deer-proof and fairly weed suppressing once established. Then for an added bonus, when temperatures cool it takes on mottled shades of pink, red, gold and coral, varying somewhat every year. Now that’s a perennial that pays its way.
Another Astilbe for multi-season interest is this dark foliaged variety, ‘Chocolate Shogun’… it holds the deep maroon color all season and the flowers are a pleasing creamy blush that blends well with everything, then age to these beautiful bronze seed heads.
Most years it turns glowing shades of red in autumn. One note of caution: I have several plants from three different sources and they aren’t all the same. They all have the deep purple foliage but those that bloom with creamy flowers (not a definite pink) are the only ones that bear the bronze seed heads.
The true, or hardy Geraniums are a vast tribe that includes many types that color up nicely in fall. This is the unpronounceable Geranium wlassovianum, the Siberian Cranesbill, a workhorse for damp soil in sun or semi-shade.
Siberian Cranesbill blooms pinkish lilac on trailing stems that grow rapidly from a central crown to weave among other perennials in an attractive way, and as its origin suggests, it’s absolutely bone hardy.
Another Geranium workhorse that has reliable fall color is the unbeatable groundcover Geranium macrorrhizum, the Bigroot Geranium. There are several forms with flower color ranging from white to magenta… this is ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’, an oldie but goodie with flowers of a nice strong bubblegum pink.
Still flowering here as late as last week is the almost ever-blooming Geranium hybrid ‘Rozanne’, shown here weaving herself among the foamy pink inflorences of the Purple Love Grass, Eragrostis spectabilis. It’s a native grass that’s common on roadsides around here, and it’s being incorporated into plantings more and more often. Not much to look at in the foliage department, but the clouds of pinkish purple bloom are stunning when they have the right setting.
Another small scale grass that ends the season with style is the Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa macra. All its varieties are graceful and elegant throughout the year, but some of them have particularly nice fall color, like ‘Nicolas’, shown above.
The lime green variety, Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’, is the fastest growing cultivar (that’s relative) and bleaches to a pleasing shade as the season winds down, while still retaining its pendant, willowy form.
At the other end of the scale are some very large, sculptural grasses that color up well. Molinia caerulea, the Purple Moor Grass, has an upright vase-shaped form that lends itself to being used as an eyecatching feature in mixed perennial plantings. There are several good cultivars on the market, and I particularly like ‘Skyracer’ for its height and see-through habit. Add to that a lovely greeny-gold autumn hue and you have a real winner.
Even larger is the Giant Sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker’. This selection of the southwestern states native is hardy here in Zone 5 and makes a graceful mound of foliage topped in late summer by 6-8 foot plumes that age to tawny gold.
One of the best pairings for larger grasses is with the Arkansas Blue Star, Amsonia hubrichtii. It’s a terrific plant, native to the Oachita Mountains of Arkansas but perfectly reliable here in the northeast, providing one of the best displays of fall color by any perennial. As frost approaches, the finely textured foliage takes on shades of lime green, coral and violet.
Then it becomes a dramatic mass of bright golden yellow that’s unequalled among herbaceous plants.
The fall color is enough to warrant growing it, but it’s equally fascinating in May, as the curious clusters of sky blue flowers unfurl like some undersea creatures.
Stems and stalks can provide fall color just as well as leaves, as in these pinkish purplish branches of the Marsh Spurge, Euphorbia palustris. It’s another plant I like to use alongside large grasses to provide a foliar contrast in average to moist soils.
I love its refreshing blast of acid yellow flowers in late spring, an antidote to all the pink and lilac that’s everywhere that time of year.
In summer, the Marsh Spurge features interestingly textural seed heads and mounds of clean, medium green, deer-proof foliage that makes unobtrusive filler as other plants take the spotlight.
And making the case that it’s a four-season performer, the desiccated winter stems curl inward to form an intricate, wiry sculptural sphere.
Another Euphorbia that’s colorful all year is the much smaller Euphorbia polychroma ‘Bonfire’. A bit tricky to establish, and often not a permanent resident, but if you can succeed with it you’ll be rewarded by season-long shades of burgundy and ruby red, and as the frost comes, subtle overtones of lavender and violet.
Epimediums are one of my favorite groups of perennials. I love them for their dainty early spring flowers and their beautiful foliage that smothers most all weeds. Not all of them color well in the fall, but I’m gradually learning which ones do… like ‘Purple Prince’ (above), which mutates through shades of caramel and peach as autumn progresses.
Two more good choices are Epimedium rubrum (left), sporting fresh pink flowers in spring, and the hybrid ‘Freckles’ (right) with dappled leaves that turn a solid bright orange.
Lavender and purple aren’t colors I usually associate with fall, but this Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ was, I thought, quite decorative after being touched by a couple of light frosts.
More lavender and silvery grey shadings in these seedheads of Liatris ‘Floristan White’, the beautiful Korean Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) and the towering domes of Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’, a trio that thrives in full sun and damp to wet soil.
Don’t forget that green is a color too, and like pines and hemlocks growing among flaming oaks and maples, the deep green of Hellebores provides a satisfying counterpoint to the brighter colors of surrounding perennials and grasses.
Sometimes the lowliest plants can offer a real color blast as temperatures turn chilly. This Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ sports chartreuse foliage all summer that flames into shades of gold and orange in the fall.
So why lament the lack of flowers in October and November when there’s so much color and texture to hold our attention?… not only from our spectacular tree foliage but from ordinary garden perennials, if we only care to observe. Above, clockwise from upper left, Cinnamon Fern, Coreopsis tripteris, Persicaria ‘Firetail’ and Gillenia trifoliata all make a contribution to the fall garden.
Observe, appreciate, rethink. Allow the plants to be plants, and savor the full cycle of growth, maturity, decline and decay. As snow arrives this week, I’m enjoying the garden in the moment, but already starting to dream ahead to another year of renewal and replenishment. I hope I’ve given you some ideas for plants that generously offer more than a fleeting moment of beauty. And I hope you’ll try some of them, next year and in seasons to come.
There’s something about the way the sunshine angles down now, and the clarity of the light itself, that’s a subtle but noticeable difference from summer. It’s a great time to be outdoors and gardening… there aren’t so many urgent tasks, the cool nights have revived plants that seemed tired out by the heat of late summer, and suddenly it feels good to be sitting in the mid-day sun.
I love the morning fog too, adding softness and a touch of mystery to even my most mundane plantings. It’s hard to say whether I favor this time of year because so many things reach their peak now, or if I’ve unconsciously chosen plants that have late season interest because I love September. Chicken or egg, I suppose.
At any rate, we seem to have an August/September garden, and we’re enjoying it very much right now. It was an honor and a pleasure to share the moment with a group of twenty-five avid gardeners last Saturday, through the Garden Conservancy’s “Digging Deeper” program.
I’d been asked a couple of times to consider being on Open Days, but I declined because I had the impression that most Open Days visitors were looking to be “wowed”. I don’t have a wow garden. Interesting, perhaps, and quirky, definitely. But not wow.
Also, I’m a very private person, an introvert really. So I’ve always struggled to be more open, to push myself to engage with other people in a way that seems contrary to my natural inclinations.
And I was a little put off by a group I invited to see my previous garden, years ago. No one was rude, of course, but there was disappointment (“Oh, no water feature?”) and some subtle digs (“Hmmm…pink and yellow, such a tricky combination to pull off well.”)
But I had a feeling the Digging Deeper group would be different, as indeed they were. Avid gardeners all, but at every level of experience, making for a lively dynamic and lots of cross-fertilizing advice and enthusiastic participation.
The focus was on scaling down naturalistic planting concepts to a level that suits most of us, average gardeners with modest means and minimal acreage. So we looked mainly at my 3-year program of wet meadow planting and how that project is progressing. But of course, they were also shown just about every other planting here, from the sunny dry terraces to the propagation beds, to the failed meadow planting (which actually doesn’t look too bad) that my husband dubbed “The Wilderness”.
Offering your creative efforts up to the critical gaze of truly experienced gardeners is a bit daunting, but gardeners are, in general, kind people. Those with depth of experience always have interesting perspectives and really valuable suggestions to make. And it’s wonderful to see that spark of enlightenment in a novice who realizes that one doesn’t have to be a conventional gardener, that there’s so much more to real gardening than foundation shrubs, mulch, and the annual disposable hanging basket.
And so connections were made, plants shared, and friendships forged. It seems enjoyment was had all round, and I’ve even received several hand-written (imagine that!) thank-you notes.
All in all it was such a positive experience for me that I think I’ve finally turned the corner in terms of opening our garden to visitors, in some capacity, in the future.
We will never have the stylish houses, or the spectacular views, or the perfectly trimmed hedges and edges of some of our friends. But what I think our garden offers that’s meaningful for many people is relatability. That’s what I saw sparkling in the eyes of the newest gardeners: the revelation that a satisfying garden can be created, over time, on a limited budget and with only minimal professional help.
So the fact that it’s far from a perfect garden is actually its strength. There are weeds, there are gaps, there are wavering edges and failed attempts. There are areas abandoned to their fate because I’ve lost interest. But real gardeners understand all this, sympathize, and relate.
This lovely month has been a moment in the cycle of the year, to be savored fully but never to be captured, held, suspended. A garden, I’ve come to understand, is a process, not an end result. For me it’s a laboratory, a playground, and a refuge. And if this garden also helps me make connections to other people, both intellectually and emotionally, then really, what more can I ask of it?
As gardeners, we all have our favorites. I hate houseplants, I like trees, I love shrubs, but I’m absolutely mad about herbaceous plants. Perennials, grasses, ferns and sedges have been a sustaining passion for most of my gardening life, and I see no signs of the fever breaking. There’s something about the way they change daily, completing an entire cycle of emergence, growth, maturity, decline and dormancy in just one year, that’s always fascinating, exciting and touching, really… a metaphor for the human condition.
For the last couple of years I’ve been doing speaking gigs at some local garden clubs, plant societies and the like, introducing home gardeners to the new way of using herbaceous plants. This type of planting has been called, most often, the Dutch Wave, and it’s been lapping at our shores for twenty years or more. Now it’s gained enough attention, through publicity and exposure of plantings like New York’s High Line, to pique the interest of the general gardening public. Everywhere I’ve presented, interest has been high, and there are lots of questions about how it’s actually done.
I’m far from an expert on naturalistic planting, but like many seriously addicted home gardeners, I’ve started to experiment with these concepts on my own property. My venture is a wet meadow triangle of approximately 4500 square feet. Partly shaded, it’s the lowest corner of our property where everything drains, and was always a pain to keep mowed. Because the initial outlay on this type of planting is considerable, from both a budget and a labor standpoint, I divided the project into three sections. Last year I planted the first section, this season the second, and the third section is being prepared for planting in 2020.
The first section is only in its second summer after planting, but as you can see it’s filled in very densely. Weeds haven’t been much of a problem at all, after an initial going-over in late spring. There’s tweaking to be done, and there were some holes to repair where grasses drowned after our extremely wet fall and winter, but overall everything has taken well and is flourishing.
Naturalistic planting is all about choosing the right plants for your site, not trying to alter your soil and conditions to suit an arbitrary list of plants you’d like to grow. It’s the old adage of “right plant, right place”… the commonsense notion that a plant will thrive in the conditions it has evolved to grow in. This means natives, of course, but also non-natives from similar ecosystems in other parts of the world. So I had to call on all my experience, and do some homework, to assemble the list of plants for this area. Included in the first section are (more or less left to right above), Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’, Panicum ‘Hot Rod’, Molinia ‘Skyracer’, Heleniums, Scutellaria incana, Persicaria ‘Firetail’, Geranium wlassovianum, Veronicastrum virginicum, Eutrochium ‘Gateway’, and Carex muskingumensis.
If you’ve read anything at all about naturalistic planting, one term you may have encountered already is “matrix”. The idea of matrix planting is to combine three or four plants of similar requirements and relatively equal vigor (this is critical) so that they knit together and function the way ground covers have been used in the past. This “living mulch” covers all areas not occupied by larger, taller perennials and shrubs, so moisture is conserved and there is no space for weeds to gain a foothold. I took the photo above on the High Line last September, showing a mature matrix planting of Sporobolus (Prairie Dropseed), Sedums and Euphorias, through which the taller plants, like the orange Butterfly Weed, can emerge.
It’s a concept that works, but the trickiest part is figuring out which plants will suit the purpose. Many of the things that serve well in this capacity aren’t commonly available in nurseries. But the good news is that you might already have some of them, like Ajuga, Common Violet, or Creeping Jenny. Even quite thuggish plants can be employed here, if they’re balanced with equally aggressive companions, like the matrix above at Federal Twist, James Golden’s inspiring garden in SW New Jersey. The combination of Equisetum, Ajuga and Creeping Jenny is obviously not for every situation, but it works in this large, moist, densely planted garden.
Another matrix planting above, this one also at Federal Twist, of Persicaria bistorta, Sensitive Fern, and Equisetum. In their essential book on naturalistic planting design, Planting In a Post-Wild World, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West call this matrix the ground cover layer, so you will hear different terms for this undercarpeting, but the idea is the same: plants become the mulch.
Back at my place, I’ve planted up the matrix above in section 2, installed this spring. A trio of Mountain Mint, Wild Ageratum and Palm Sedge is already growing in nicely. Achieving quick density is key here… rather than planting with 1- or 3-gallon plants spaced 18” apart, the ideal is to use small divisions or landscape plugs planted just 6 to 9” on center. Getting everything to grow together as soon as possible creates a tapestry of vegetation that functions as a stable, ongoing plant community. At least that’s the goal… it remains to be seen whether my choices will balance each other out, or whether one of them will overwhelm the other two. But it’s all an experiment, and it’s just gardening after all, not open heart surgery.
Here you can see a taller plant emerging from the matrix, in this case Eutrochium ‘Baby Joe’.
As in nature, larger plants will have no trouble pushing up through a well-designed matrix, and their deeper root systems mean that they occupy different strata both above and below ground. But what about my annual mulching, you say? After the planting knits together, in a couple of seasons, you can forget about the mulch and put your efforts (and your mulch budget) elsewhere. There will be surprisingly few weeds cropping up if you’ve chosen the plants appropriate to your site’s conditions, and planted them at the proper density.
You can also use just one plant to provide the ground cover layer. Here, in the shadiest part of my section 1, Packera obovate fills in by offsets and by seeding in, carpeting the ground around the larger plants like Iris ‘Gerald Darby’ and Angelica gigas. Packera obovata isn’t as popular as its relative, Packera aurea, but having grown them both I much prefer obovata… smaller, glossier and tidier foliage, with more compact flowering in late May. In another adjacent section I used common Violets, dug from our lawn (free!). Sensitive Fern works well too, and most of us have it somewhere on our property if conditions are naturally moist. There are no rules… one has to think these things up, as Little Edie said.
Once you understand the matrix concept, you can apply it to any conditions in your garden, whether it be shady, sunny, moist or dry. Here, on our hot, dry and sunny terrace beds, I’ve used low carpeting Sedums, Veronicas, Creeping Phlox and the like to create a matrix through which grow grasses, Lavenders, Alliums, Pulsatillas, and early species Tulips.
If you don’t want to be quite so formulaic about using a matrix, you can get the same weed suppressing and moisture conserving benefits by planting grasses, perennials and even annuals very densely and allowing them to grow together into a tapestry of herbaceous vegetation. That’s the philosophy at the wild and wonderful garden of Jack Potter and David Lebe, in nearby Harlemville, NY.
Their sun-drenched hillside is on the dry side, but there wasn’t a wilted leaf in sight on a blazing hot Open Day a couple of weeks ago. With their vast plant knowledge, and through trial and error, Jack and David have assembled a plant palette that’s perfectly adapted to thrive in their conditions. Natives are a high proportion of the mix here, but by no means are they the only plants allowed.
There is no lawn, no sprinkler system. Just gravel paths, stones and plants… lots and lots of plants. Anyone interested in naturalistic planting should really make an effort to see this garden when it’s on Open Days. To wander here among so much color and texture is inspiring and enchanting, a real testament to two masterful plantsmen who are unafraid to let plants be plants.
Let me state, without judgement, that this kind of planting is not for everyone. Many people think it looks “messy” or “weedy”. There is unquestionably a higher proportion of green leaf to flower color for some people’s taste, because there is no attempt to have everything flowering at once, or continually. The idea is a progression, over a long season, where two or three or four plants make a show while others are waiting to bloom or have already passed into an attractive seed stage. And the colors and texture of foliage become as important as the flowering. The garden above, in Kinderhook, NY, might look unkempt to some, but I much prefer it to the typical lawn, foundation shrubs, and groundcover of Pachysandra or Vinca.
One of the things I point out in my talks is how, over the arc of my gardening life, tastes and interests have evolved. No longer do we care only about masses of color and traditional perennial borders that are relics of an era when maintenance labor was cheap and plentiful. Now we want manageable, sustainable plantings that require less weeding, mulching, staking and deadheading. And we want more natives, more plants that nourish pollinators and beneficial insects, feed and shelter birds, and in general make more of a contribution to the web of nature. This is particularly true of the younger gardeners I meet. But those of us who have a lifetime of experience can be at the forefront of this quiet revolution, using our hard-won knowledge of plants and their requirements to assemble successful and beautiful planting schemes that satisfy, both aesthetically and ecologically. I challenge you to that goal… I think you’ll find it fascinating and very rewarding.
Now that we’re past Memorial Day it seems like summer’s here, even if it doesn’t officially, astronomically, begin until June 21st. Everything in the garden is full, fresh and lush, especially after all the rain we’ve enjoyed this spring, and blooming plants are everywhere.
For the past few weeks our garden has been having a blue/purple moment, with Woodland Phlox, Forget-me-nots, Alliums, Amsonias and Irises going full out, juiced up by the sharp acid yellow of Euphorbias and the oranges and melons of the last Tulips. So there’s been lots of color, and very welcome after our long and dreary winter.
Now though, as the days warm and lengthen, white flowers suddenly seem to be everywhere, even on the fringes of the woods where native Viburnums, Elderberries and shrubby Dogwoods display their foamy white blossom. There’s something about white flowers that helps alleviate the heat, at least visually. Like a crisp linen shirt, white in the garden can be a refreshing and revitalizing antidote to the sultry weather that’s just around the corner.
Of course, early summer is prime time for Peonies and Bearded Iris, both of which have numerous cultivars in all imaginable shades of white, every one of them lovely. But in this post let’s look at some less obvious choices, in flower just now, that can bring the cool, soothing qualities of white to your garden just as the season turns.
Clematis, for instance, are coming on now. So many varieties in gorgeous jewel tones and delicious pastels, but the whites are very appealing too. I’ve tried several of them, and this one (above) has so far proven the most reliable. It’s ‘Guernsey Cream’, and so vigorous that I’ve been slicing off pieces of the root for the past five years and potting them up for giveaways. It opens ivory but soon bleaches to a pure clean white that has good substance, followed by decorative golden seed heads. Another classic white is ‘Henryi’, with purplish brown stamens that add a note of contrast, but he’s more finicky, and sometimes goes down to fungal disease.
Baptisias have become popular garden plants, with many color permutations on the market. I like most of them, but if I had to choose only one to grow it would be this simple white species, Baptisia alba. It has a long season of interest, from early spring when it pushes up asparagus-like shoots of sooty grey-purple, through its clean flowering and good foliage, then ending with a fine display of rattling black seed pods. I can remember, in my distant youth down south, seeing this plant scattered among tall pines in poor sandy soil, so there’s no need to coddle it. The most challenging part is finding it for sale.
Of course, being a native southerner I have a weakness for Magnolias, so I’ve accumulated several kinds that can tolerate our northern winters. One of those is the Japanese species Magnolia sieboldii, known as the Oyama Magnolia. She’s an elegant thing with fragrant, pendant blossoms, satiny smooth but of substantial texture. The stamens can vary in color from pale pink to deep raspberry red, and the buds are egg-shaped. Just a lovely small tree that would be a good choice for a spot where space is limited. All the references give its hardiness as only to Zone 6, but mine is on year eight with no winter damage whatsoever, and I know of a much older specimen in Spencertown, the coldest part of the county.
I ran into this combination at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, and it perfectly illustrates the freshness that white can bring to a planting. It’s the variegated version of Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’ (whew!), underplanted with Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum. A simple, clean and foolproof combination that you’d be wise to copy for a shady spot with average to moist soil.
Another choice for the same conditions might be the Meadow Anemone, Anemone canadensis, but only for the wilder parts of the garden. In a border it can be too aggressive, but it’s just the ticket to provide weed-conquering masses in moist woodland or shrub borders. Native to the northern tier of the U.S. and to southern Canada, so you know it’s tough and well-adapted to our climate.
Planting American natives is all the rage now, but I still don’t see this one too often in the Northeast. Hopefully that will change as more people discover the Fringe Tree, or Grancy Greybeard as I heard it called growing up. The lacy flowers are like no other, and emit a light sweet scent, especially in the evening. Grows slowly to an ultimate height of about thirty feet, and the handsome leaves turn bright yellow in fall. Sometimes botanical names can be quite poetic… Chionanthus virginicus translates roughly as “Snow-flower of Virginia”.
Still another American native is the Cranberry Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum. ‘Wentworth’ is an outstanding selection that was originally discovered in New Hampshire, offering showier clusters of bright red berries and better fall color than the straight species. The beautiful lacecap flowers are out now, reason enough to grow it. Viburnums are native to many parts of the temperate world but North America is rich in species, so they should be grown more, even though the Viburnum Leaf Beetle has become a threat to some types. I’ve had a few show up every year, but so far, not enough to disfigure my plants to any alarming degree.
I’m planting lots of the native American Sedges these days, but the first Carex to come into gardeners’ consciousness, about twenty-five years ago, were the Asian species. This is the first one I ever tried, and I still have it today… it’s Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’. The bamboo-like leaves are cleanly variegated with white and arise from a gradually (not invasively) creeping rootstock that will ultimately form a tight groundcover in moist shady ground. Lovely combined with solid green Hostas, Dwarf Goatsbeard, Ferns or Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’.
Confession: I’m a plant snob but not a collector of rare or unusual things for their own sake. I’d much rather grow something that’s a good doer and solves a problem, than give space to a struggling rarity. So yes, I have a large patch of this white variegated Hosta that’s as common as pig tracks, as my grandfather would have said. In fact it’s so ubiquitous around here that I’ve never bothered to find out its name, but it must be an older variety because it’s seen at nearly every farmhouse and suburban ranch in the Hudson Valley… a true pass-along plant. When it emerges in spring the white variegation is much creamier, so I underplanted it with one of my favorite early Daffodils, the pale yellow ‘W.P. Milner’, and I love the combination. And this Hosta increases so fast that from my original five-year-old clump, I was able to get enough divisions to cover a sizeable area under a Maple and next to a big mass of Hydrangea ‘White Dome’, where it looks fresh and clean all season and does a fine job of suppressing weeds. So there.
A full month after our American Dogwood blooms, the Asian species begin to flower. They are, in my opinion, less spectacular than our native tree, but very beautiful in a different way, displaying their pointed, star-shaped flowers against the already unfolded foliage. As with our native Dogwood, the “flowers” are actually showy bracts that surround the true flowers, the golden central cluster of stamens and pistils. There are many cultivars, some of them pink, but I grow a simple white one, Cornus kousa var. chinensis. All of them are small trees of multi-season interest, with early summer flowers, interesting showy fruit, and good fall color.
Siberian Iris are having their brief but spectacular moment just now, and one that I’ve enjoyed for many years is this dwarf white, Iris siberica ‘Nana Alba’. It’s as easy as any Siberian Iris and the shorter foliage means it doesn’t flop later in the summer like so many of the taller varieties do. Besides being beautiful and vigorous, another reason I like having it around is that my plants originally came from the late, lamented Heronswood Nursery, whose annual catalog (with no pictures whatsoever) was eagerly anticipated by plant nerds across the country. It’s one of only three or four things I still have from there, despite having ordered many more than that over the years, and failing to keep them happy. So it’s a nice, humbling reminder.
Lately I’ve been on a somewhat obsessive binge with the perennial Geraniums, and have been trying several new ones each year. Most of them come in shades of pink, blue or purple, but there are a few that are true whites, making them doubly useful as fillers and weavers among other perennials, which is what Cranesbills do so well. Very well adapted to our climate is this white selection of our native Geranium maculatum, called ‘Hazel Gallagher’. I don’t know who Hazel was, but she must have been a fine gal because her namesake plant is top-notch.
Another great white perennial Geranium is this one, Geranium sanguineum ‘Album’. Delicate foliage spangled by clean white blooms and easy, easy, easy. In fact this is one of the longest surviving perennials I have, going back to my community garden days in the East Village of the late 80’s. Geranium sanguineum, the Bloody Cranesbill, is probably the most common hardy Geranium seen in American gardens, in its magenta form. The white is sooo much nicer.
We’re lucky to have a little stream at the edge of our property, into which many acres of woods drain, so it has water flowing most of the year. It makes the perfect habitat for many things that like shade and constant moisture, including Primula japonica, one of the Candelabra Primroses, so called for its gradually unfolding tiers of flowers. They reseed reliably where happy, and I think I started out with a pure white selection called ‘Postford White’. But they are promiscuous things, and whatever color you choose, you’re eventually liable to end up with a range from white through all shades of pink to magenta. They’re all so lovely I don’t have the heart to rogue out the colors I don’t prefer, so it’s always a surprise to see what comes out.
One of my favorite recent acquisitions is this Sweet-shrub, Calycanthus x ‘Venus’, a complex hybrid of several species including the reddish-brown flowered Sweet Betsy from the southeastern U.S. It’s a spreading, multi-stemmed deciduous shrub that in late May bears luscious Magnolia-like blossoms, 3-4 inches across, that have the scent of ripe strawberries and melon. The flowers are pure white, of waxy substance, and have distinctive yellow and purple structures at the center. Truly looks like nothing else and always gets attention. Needs shade from the hot afternoon sun and reliably moist soil, but otherwise it’s not demanding. The foliage is a rich, glossy green and turns a nice shade of golden yellow in the fall.
Mock-orange, or Philadelphus, is a rather forgotten shrub nowadays, and it’s a pity. It has sweetly scented flowers and a lovely arching form that makes it look perfectly at home around an old farmhouse. In fact it’s one of those plants that was hugely popular in the 19th century, with many named varieties developed by Victor Lemoine, the French hybridizer responsible for almost all our beautiful old Lilac cultivars. But Mock-orange doesn’t lend itself to being pruned into a green meatball, so it’s never been a darling of “landscapers” or the kind of home gardeners who prefer over-tidy foundation plantings. Also, its period of bloom is glorious but brief, so although it looks respectable all year, it could never be considered a four-season plant.
Nevertheless, I love them, partly because I still grow one, Philadelphus grandiflorus, (above) that’s descended from my grandmother’s plant. In the south we call it English Dogwood, although it’s neither English nor a Dogwood, and because it suckers freely it’s often shared around among gardeners. The flowers are larger than other Mock-oranges but only slightly fragrant.
Much richer in scent are the smaller flowered hybrids, some of them doubles (above, a cultivar I’ve grown for years but have lost the name of) or the single species Philadelphus coronarius (bottom of this post). There’s also a variety with golden leaves, but I’ve never seen it except in photos, and although it certainly would provide more foliage color, I’m not sure the white flowers show up as nicely against the lime-green leaves as they do on the standard dark green kinds.
Another of my favorites is ‘Belle Etoile’ (above), a shorter cultivar sporting single white flowers beautifully marked with purple near the central boss of stamens. Whatever the variety, Mock-oranges should only be pruned by taking out a few of the oldest canes from the base every year to preserve their distinctive fountain-like habit. Never, ever cut them back halfway or attempt to shape them unnaturally.
By the time I’ve finished writing this piece, some of these plants will have already passed out of bloom… it’s early June, after all, and the flowering sequence is hurtling forward, another round of things that like it even warmer are budding up, waiting for their moment to bloom. But that’s the way gardens work, and what they have to teach us about the passage of time, about life itself. Right now I’m enjoying this lush, fragrant, exhilarating moment… my very favorite time of the year, when spring surrenders, so gracefully, to summer.
Not quite Tulip time, you say? True, if you mean the classic garden varieties that come in every paintbox color, the ones we see massed at Longwood and Keukenhof, gorgeous, lavish and eyepopping in their thousands. May is their month, here in the Hudson Valley.
But I'm talking about their wild and wonderful cousins, the species or botanical Tulips. Their time is now, blooming along with Daffodils, Hellebores, Forsythias and the other things that make the first big splash of spring color. These are the Tulips that get banished to the back pages of the bulb catalogs, with other "little bulbs" that apparently never sell very well. It's a damn shame, because in this group are some of the most arresting and rewarding of all bulbous plants we can grow here in the temperate north.
Their struggle to be appreciated in comparison with their showier cousins is longstanding... one of the great grande dames of American gardening, Louise Beebe Wilder, wrote in 1923 "To some of us who know them the wild Tulips of Central Asia, of Italy, of North Africa and elsewhere, so diverse in form, so sprightly and unspoiled, are more interesting and alluring than the splendid border forms."
I've tried quite a few of these over the years, most with some success, and several have become reliably perennial in my garden. It pays to remember that most of them come from parts of the old world that have brief, cool, wet springs followed by hot, dry summers and cold winters. Good drainage in our climate is essential or they will rot, so I find my terraced beds and our sandy loam suits many of them very well. And they like to be left alone, as Ms. Wilder writes, "in sheltered sunny corners where they will be safe from molestation by misguided zeal." There's plenty of misguided zeal in my garden, but the species Tulips survive and thrive nonetheless.
These are Tulips for gardeners who don't particularly like Tulips... by which I mean, they find the modern hybrids perhaps too formal, too stiff, and altogether too much trouble to replant every year. The species Tulips have both the grace of wildflowers and the brilliant colors, so welcome in spring, of their hybrid descendants. Plus they tend to be much more perennial. I don't know the name of the beautifully marked pale yellow in the photo above (it came here as part of a mixed bag) but it's bloomed reliably for the last six or seven years, its clump increasing slowly but surely.
Tulipa praestans is another easy one that's available in a few nice cultivars like 'Fuselier' (above), an intense poppy red. I also grow 'Moondance', a bright orange (below) and 'Shogun' in softer shades of saffron and melon. All of them, like many species Tulips, throw multiple flowers from one bulb, an added color bonus.
'Moondance' must get its name from the cool, sinuous budding growth, because when the flowers open they're a very strong orange on the inside of the cup.
For a softer color scheme, Tulipa batalinii 'Bronze Charm' is certainly charming. I haven't grown it in a few years, but I had it at my old house where it was reliable in a raised bed with good drainage, sunny in early spring but partly shaded during the summer. Think I'll try it again.
I love the colors of emerging perennial foliage, and this variegated Iris is the perfect companion for this little yellow species Tulip. I can't remember whether this is Tulipa tarda or Tulipa dasystemon, and some sources list them as the same thing. No matter what name you get them under, just get them because they are easy, perennial and as cheerful as a sunny-side-up breakfast.
The Lady Tulips, Tulipa clusiana cultivars, have a very old pedigree in western gardens, having been brought to Florence from the Near East in 1606. They are charming, especially in their slender pointed bud stage that on sunny days opens to reveal a dark central blotch. They spread by stolons to form a colony when they're happy and have naturalized in parts of Spain and southern France. Good varieties are available here from most bulb merchants: 'Cynthia', 'Lady Jane', 'Tinka', and 'Tubergen's Gem', all worth a try.
I'm going in mostly for warm shades in the areas where I grow my species Tulips, so don't have many in the pink or purple range, but there are some really gorgeous kinds in that color palette. 'Persian Pearl' (above) is one such, a variety of Tulipa humilis in jewel tones of magenta and deep yellow, the outer petals flushed with silver-grey.
Tulipa bakeri 'Lilac Wonder' is another in that part of the color wheel, but softer and sweeter with lilac pink petals opening to reveal a golden yellow blotch. Easy and prolific, a good one for newbies.
I can't get enough of this little one... it's Tulipa orphanidea subspecies whittalii (sorry folks, no common name). Which is indeed a mouthful for such a little flower. But it packs a substantial color punch, with burnt orange petals that are accented by black and olive markings on the inside of the cup. Really cute coming up through low-growing perennials like Sedums or Creeping Phlox, and reliably perennial for me in my terraced beds that drain well and bake in the summertime.
Lastly, my very favorite that I've grown (so far)... the Woodland Tulip, Tulipa sylvestris. Very happy here on a sandy loam bank in part shade, among Forget-Me-Nots, Epimediums, Crested Iris, Japanese Woodland Peonies and other like-minded companions. This one truly has the bearing of a wildflower with its slightly nodding flowers that move in the breeze. It's a very adaptable species, ranging naturally all the way from Portugal and North Africa, through the Near East and into parts of China.
One more reason to try these: they're relatively cheap to buy... 25 bulbs will typically run under $10, so you can afford to plant in quantity and experiment. Success is not assured, but likely, if you can provide their minimal requirements... all of them will bloom the first season and with a little luck some of them will find that your garden suits them very well, and remain permanent residents.
The few I've profiled here are only the ones with which I have some familiarity. There are many, many others that are available from the popular bulb merchants and, with a little searching, from specialist growers. If you want a real treat, take a minute to look at the slide show at tulipsinthewild.com. Breathtaking photographs of Tulips in their native settings, with an interactive map showing their distribution.
Easy, prolific, inexpensive, colorful and fascinating... with so many things going for them it's hard to understand why more gardeners don't give these wonderful little bulbs a try. Maybe you'll be prompted to order a few this fall and, next spring, you'll see why I'm so enthusiastic about growing them.
Another wintry week, following on teasing breaks in the weather that only hint of things to come.
It's a good time to get away, briefly, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to travel. For the rest of us, it's an endurance test.
Still, I wouldn't trade our winters for something less definitely seasonal. Just last week I was back home in Louisiana, where the camellias were glorious and the saucer magnolias, sweet olive, and winter honeysuckle were all in full flower. But it was damp and cloudy, with a wet chill that permeates everything... typical Deep South winter weather. And with the woods full of pine, holly and magnolia, there's (dare I say it) an unrelenting greenness to the landscape that made me miss our stark and spare northeastern winter.
Make no mistake, I'm as anxious for spring as anyone. But before the warm weather arrives, with its rush and push of growing things and the attendant tasks, I'd like to pause and appreciate this most unloved of seasons.
To gardeners, these are the gifts of a harsh, definitive winter. . .
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.