Loads of rain here recently, following on a month-long drought. Such is the weather for a gardener... never perfect, never quite what we would want it to be. At least I'm not watering by hand and sprinkler now, a tiresome and well-draining activity I try to confine to items planted within the last year; anything that's been in the ground longer is on its own. The ample moisture has refreshed and renewed many plants that looked on the verge of demise, including the toasted lawn, plumping up flagging stems and leaves, triggering everything to put on fresh turgid growth in a botanical sigh of relief.
All this exuberance is especially noticeable on the largest and most heavily textured plants, those we need for bold effects, the unapologetically oversized plants all experienced gardeners instinctively turn to for accents and focal points, and to avoid monotony in a planting scheme. Tropical annuals, of course, are perfect for providing the scale and impact needed, and I couldn't garden without Cannas, Cardoons, and my beloved (and deadly poisonous) Castor Beans. But they are a lot of trouble to raise from seed every year, or carry over as bulbs, or buy again every season.
What I'm appreciating most right now are the perennials that provide that tropical look with less effort on my part, those that reliably return every year to make the late summer garden, beyond the flowery fuss of May and June, a satisfying essay in texture and form. Here then, a baker's dozen of these big, bold beauties, some of which you probably already grow, and some new ones you may want to try.
One of my top ten favorite perennials, Ligularia japonica thrives in damp shade and builds up into magnificent clumps of rich green, deeply divided foliage that gives a distinctly tropical effect. In midsummer the flowering stems shoot up head high or more, and though I'm not so fond of the shaggy golden yellow blooms, I love the seed heads that follow: tufts of golden brown that hold well into the winter before shattering.
I'm not sure why this plant is so hard to find in nurseries because it comes easily from seed... in fact I pull out dozens every spring that sprout in places I don't need it... so if any of you want a start, email me and we'll get a list going for next year!
Darmera peltata, commonly called Indian Rhubarb, is technically an American native, just not to our area. It hails from wooded streamsides in Oregon and northern California, but grows very well here in the Hudson Valley as long as it's given a spot in shade that never dries out. The thick, rhizomatous roots, lying just on the surface of the soil, make it an ideal plant for stabilizing the bank of a stream or the edge of a shaded pond.
The flowers are more curious than beautiful, naked stalks topped with a ball of pale pink blooms that poke up very early in the season, before the leaves expand. It's those leaves that are the main attraction, and why we grow the plant: scalloped discs more than a foot in diameter, held shoulder-high in a wet year like this one. They take on rich shades of bronze, gold and red in the autumn, then disappear with the first snow, leaving only the conspicuous rhizomes to mark their place until the following spring. Darmera increases gradually and steadily, never overly aggressive like Petasites japonicus, a plant often recommended for similar conditions.
Aralia cordata is a great large-scale perennial native to Japan, where its young shoots are eaten like asparagus. 'Sun King' is a golden-leaved version that was reportedly discovered there in a department store nursery by plant explorer Barry Yinger, and brought back to the U.S. where it's recently become a hot perennial. I've been growing it for about five years now, and continue to be impressed... it flattens to the ground every winter but returns faithfully in spring, quickly making a dense mound of foliage 6 ft. tall and wide.
The sprays of delicate greenish white flowers in late summer are attractive, followed by black berries that the birds relish. But it's the foliage color that makes this plant truly distinctive: it seems to have some sort of inner phosphorescence that makes it glow in the late evening light like no other golden plant. Or maybe that's just the martinis.
Miscanthus have been the most popular ornamental grasses for twenty years or more, but they're undergoing something of a reevaluation because many of the varieties can reseed invasively, particularly in Zone 6 and southward. Most nurseries are now required to put scary labels on all their Miscanthus, even the varieties that aren't a threat. One that's perfectly safe to plant here in our area, because it blooms too late to set seed, is Miscanthus x giganteus, a hybrid of unknown origin. It's also the largest of the genus by far, towering ten or twelve feet in ideal conditions.
The effect is close to that of a Bamboo, without the running propensities... a clump of Miscanthus x giganteus will gradually increase every year but never enough to cause terror and panic. After first frost, it turns beautiful shades of tawny gold until the leaves shatter in late winter. Give it space, full sun and adequate moisture and enjoy the drama that ensues!
Like an Astilbe on steroids, Persicaria polymorpha is a shrub-sized perennial that really looks great at the back of a border, or in a meadow style planting. It's related to the much hated and horribly invasive plant known locally as Japanese Bamboo (not a Bamboo at all, but equally uncontrollable). But Persicaria polymorpha doesn't run rampant, just makes a nice polite clump that increases slowly every year. Its common name is supposed to be Mountain Fleece but I've never heard anyone call it that. It's valuable for its scale, boldly textured leaves, and long-lasting plumes of flowers that age from greenish white to a pleasing tan.
Prefers full sun and average to moist soil, and as I mentioned it's strong enough to hold its own in a meadow, growing 5-6 ft. tall and able to compete with grasses, Asters, Goldenrods and other such plants. Takes its time to emerge in the spring but the hollow, persistent stalks are very distinctive so you'll be able to find it during late winter cleanup. Persicaria is a genus of plants that has been switched around a lot in recent years by botanists (damn them) but although the name Persicaria polymorpha is officially listed as "unresolved", most likely you'll find it being sold and referenced under that name... at least for the time being!
Rodgersias are substantial perennials that make a bold foliage statement. There are several species and cultivars that will grow here, including Rodgersia aesculifolia, Rodgersia pinnata and Rodgersia podophylla. The one I grow was bought as R. pinnata 'Superba', but I'm not entirely sure it was labeled correctly. Never mind, they are all beautiful, dramatic and worth the patience it takes for the painfully slow crowns to establish and build up.
In England and northern Europe they can be grown in full sun, but here they need some shade from scorching afternoon heat, and reliable moisture in the ground. Distant cousins to Astilbes, which is evident when they throw their plumes of white or pink flowers, which are attractive but nothing in comparison to the visual impact of the leaves.
Astilboides tabularis used to be called a Rodgersia until it was hived off into its own genus by the ever-annoying botanists. Culturally, it has the same requirements as Rodgersia and takes just as long to establish and really get going, but it's well worth the wait.
The platter-sized discs of fuzzy mid-green, held aloft on strong stems, contrast dramatically with other more delicate shade lovers like ferns, Thalictrums or Actaeas. Astilboides is a great feature at Margaret Roach's garden in nearby Copake Falls, NY, always eliciting lots of questions and comments on her Open Days.
With most of us trying to grow fewer Miscanthus, we're all looking around for other large, substantial grasses. Panicum virgatum, also known as Switch Grass, is a native American species with several selections that fit the bill. One of the largest and most dramatic is 'Cloud Nine'. It forms a graceful fountain of slightly bluish foliage that erupts in late summer into an enormous cumulus cloud of delicate bloom.
The whole thing ages to a pale gold by September and persists until we have a really flattening wet snow. Other good alternatives to Miscanthus are Sporobolus wrightii 'Windbreaker', Molinia caerulea 'Transparent', Andropogon gerardii 'Red October', Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' and Spodiopogon sibericus.
I know Hostas don't need any promotion... you've probably got more than enough of them already if you've been gardening for a while. But there's just something so satisfying about the large, blue-leaved cultivars that I couldn't leave them out of this list. If you can get around the deer, Hostas are incredibly reliable and one of the very few bold-foliaged plants that will survive in dry shade. I prefer most Hostas used in masses, but I love these large blues set apart as specimens, underplanted with something low and lacy, like Sweet Woodruff, so they can show off their size and texture and lovely vase-shaped form. The classic old-time variety is Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans, still a great plant after more than a century in the nursery trade, but there are lots of newer big blue cultivars to try as well, like 'Blue Angel', 'Humpback Whale', 'Blue Umbrellas' and 'Empress Wu'. Just promise me you won't become a collector.
Although it's not a true perennial, the Korean Angelica, Angelica gigas, is a very reliable biennial, meaning it needs two years to complete its life span from seedling to bloom. You may need to buy the plant two years in a row to get it going on the proper cycle, but it's worth the trouble. Handsome compound leaves, almost like an Acanthus, held on sturdy 5-6 ft. stalks, topped by striking domes of deepest red-purple. The flower color is particularly rich, and the whole plant is suffused with shadings of wine-red that make it a standout among other more ordinary greens.
Blooms in late summer, and like many umbellifers, it's a great pollinator plant. The seed heads persist into fall in an attractive way before dropping to begin the next year's seeding cycle. Best on evenly moist ground with some shade from the hottest afternoon sun, but adaptable to an average border setting as long as the soil is fertile.
Goldie's Fern (named for Scottish botanist John Goldie, not Goldie Hawn) is the largest of the native Wood Ferns, genus Dryopteris. Although one doesn't usually think of ferns as bold plants, the sheer scale of this beauty puts it in a class by itself, a well-established crown easily reaching 4 ft. tall with an equal spread on boggy soil. In our climate only the Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis, can compete, but its fronds look completely different. Dryopteris goldiana has the classic twice-compound fronds of many other ferns, just at an impressive size. Plus it has the leathery texture of all Wood Ferns that enables them to remain attractive throughout the growing season, instead of browning out in dry spells like some with more delicate fronds.
Comfreys are notoriously invasive, but this variegated type, Symphytum uplandicum 'Axminster Gold', is very well-behaved. I've had it for more than ten years and the clump increases only modestly every year, just enough to share with friends. My Vermont garden designer friend, Donald Corken, pointed out that it's unusual to find a plant with this coloring that grows in full sun, an astute observation.
Like all Comfreys, the deep, strong roots will enable the plant to regenerate quickly, so after flowering I cut the whole business right to the ground and in a week or so there's a fresh flush of new foliage. Average to moist soil is recommended by most references, but I have mine in a raised bed with light, sandy soil and it's done very well.
Something you may not have thought of using as an ornamental is common Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum. If you look at it with an unbiased eye, it has everything you'd want in a bold perennial: handsome large-scale foliage, tall sprays of milk-white or pinkish flowers, adaptability and bone-hardiness. The stems can still be harvested for early use in the kitchen and the plants will regenerate plenty of new leaves to carry through the summer.
Once established, the substantial rootstock will live for many, many years, as evidenced by their continued presence around old farmsteads. Richly manured soil will yield the largest leaves, but they will grow well in ordinary garden soil as long as it's not too hot and dry. If you want to get fancier, there's a non-edible Eurasian version, Rheum tanguticum, with jagged leaves suffused with red, and deep pink flowers. Very handsome!
You may have noticed that many of the plants I've suggested require some shade, and at least consistent moisture if not downright boggy soil. That's simply a matter of evolution... large leaves can collect more sunlight in dim conditions, and reliable moisture in the soil is a requisite for maintaining full, lush growth. If your garden conditions tend towards hot, dry and sunny, you probably won't be able to grow all of these, but it's worth trying to find a spot where you might succeed with some of them... the north side of a building, in the drip of the eaves, would be a likely place.
There are other choices not covered here, of course... Inulas are wonderful, and a great feature at James Golden's garden in western New Jersey, Federal Twist (see photo below). But I've never grown them, so I hesitate to write about them. Another obvious choice for dramatic effect is the Japanese Butterbur, Petasites japonicus, but it's so fearsomely aggressive that I couldn't recommend it to anyone who has a garden smaller than Central Park.
Those on the list above are reliable here in USDA Zone 5, adaptable and extremely valuable for adding something refreshingly audacious to your garden. Look at your plantings with a critical eye, and you're sure to find somewhere that needs more punch, more boldness, more vitality, more of a horticultural extrovert!
Inulas at Federal Twist, an inspiring garden in a lovely corner of New Jersey, well worth a visit on the Garden Conservancy's Open Days.
Plant names are often confusing, but none more so than when a Latin botanical name is used as the common name of an entirely different plant. Such is the case with "Geranium". The classic windowsill and summer container plants that we all call Geraniums are properly known as Pelargoniums, but I don't hold out much hope that we'll be using that more accurate name for them within my lifetime.
They will always just be Geraniums, and very good plants they are, too... reliable workhorses that flower all summer with minimal care, in cheerful shades of red, pink and white. If you're a plant snob and find the classic types a bit too pedestrian, there are fancy-leaved varieties out now, and obscure species to keep you occupied.
But this post isn't about those annual Geraniums, it's about the true Geraniums,
distant cousins that are often called Hardy Geraniums to avoid confusion. You'll also hear them called Cranesbills occasionally, which comes from their seed pod's resemblance to the beak of a crane.
EXHIBIT A: PELARGONIUMS
EXHIBIT B: GERANIUMS
Another big difference is that Hardy Geraniums are, well, hardy. They are true perennials that will return every year in most climates, being native to many parts of the temperate world, even our area here.
Hardy Geraniums are supporting players, not superstars, in the garden. Even though many are showy in flower, their bloom time is usually no longer than most perennials and their habit is modest, tending towards mounding or trailing forms that make them great for facing down or weaving among other, larger plants. Some of them also have a nice habit of seeding themselves in a well-mannered way, and popping up unexpectedly here and there.
Late spring into early summer, just as we have our first really hot days, is the blooming time for most Hardy Geraniums here in the Hudson Valley. There are a couple, like the hybrids 'Rozanne' (above) and the similar 'Azure Rush', that keep flowering for weeks and weeks, but most of them will bloom for two or three weeks and then settle down to provide reliable foliage texture, often weed-proof, that usually colors up nicely in the fall. They are good-natured plants that have their moment to shine, then go along and get along, without any coddling, for the rest of the season. Like a lot of people.
Most good local nurseries will have several varieties of Hardy Geranium for you to cut your teeth on, but for less common types you'll need to order through the mail. I'm trying out a half dozen new-to-me kinds that I got last spring from Digging Dog Nursery in California, an excellent source for all kinds of uncommon plants. (www.diggingdog.com) So far the old hybrid Geranium x magnificum (photo at the top of this post) has proven to be a real keeper, flowering spectacularly for two weeks in May.
'Nimbus' is another one I'm trialing and loving so far. It has delicately dissected foliage and a sprawling habit that makes it great for weaving among other perennials.
Geranium sanguineum, the Bloody Cranesbill, is one easily found in nurseries and a good introduction to the genus. It forms tidy mounds of fine-textured foliage and flowers well for almost a month, very useful at the front of a planting or along a path.
The white form is even more serviceable, complementing any color scheme. Geranium sanguineum is also more tolerant of dryish soils than many in the genus, being native to scrubby ground across a wide area from Ireland to Turkey.
Another type commonly found in garden centers is 'Biokovo', a natural hybrid between two species that was found in the mountains of Yugoslavia. It's an excellent garden plant, with glossy foliage in low, compact mounds that will eventually spread into large clumps that can be easily split. The pink flowers are charming but it's also one of the very best for fall foliage color, turning bright red and pink as cold weather arrives.
If you know what you're looking for, you can spot our native Wild Geranium, Geranium maculatum, in lots of roadside ditches and meadows, flowering among weeds and grasses in early May. It adapts very well to garden beds, as long as the soil is average to moist and it has at least a half-day of sunshine.
I grow this pretty white-flowered form of Geranium maculatum that's been given the name 'Hazel Gallagher'. You won't find it in your local garden center but it's available from Quackin' Grass, a small and delightfully quirky mail-order nursery in Connecticut (www.quackingrassnursery.com).
One of my absolutely Top Ten perennials is the Big-root Geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum. The foliage is slightly sticky and aromatic, in a medicinal kind of way that I find pleasant, but its best quality is that it's practically indestructible and forms a weed-proof carpet in just a couple of seasons. It's a problem solver I use in lots of tricky situations, like (photo above) under lanky shrubs like Old Roses.
Geranium macrorrhizum comes in several named color forms such as (above, left to right) 'Bevan's Variety', 'Ingwersen's Variety', and 'Spessart'. The first two are the most vigorous and make the best ground cover, but 'Spessart' is good too, just not quite as dense. Flowering is over several weeks in late May, and if you're a really tidy gardener you can trim them back afterwards, but I never bother.
As an added bonus, this is one of the species that has some significant fall color, turning nice shades of red, burgundy and violet after the first frost.
The Siberian Cranesbill, Geranium wlassovianum, would probably be more popular if it didn't have such an unpronounceable name. From a central crown it spreads into a dense mass that smothers weeds and flowers in June. Tolerant of very moist soil, and being from Siberia, it's bone hardy.
Geranium phaeum has some cool common names: "Dusky Cranesbill", "Black Widow", and "Mourning Bride"... and it's easy to grow here although it hails from Central Europe over into Russia. There are plain green-leafed varieties but I think the one to grow is 'Samobor' (above), its foliage beautifully marked with deep purple blotches. Needs a decent amount of moisture and tends to grow tall, so give it a cut-back after flowering and it will regrow another batch of leaves, or leave it to seed around, in which case you'll need to rogue out some of the progeny with less-well-marked leaves.
Some Hardy Geraniums have a habit of seeding around modestly and popping up among other plants in a charming way, as seen here in Peter Bevacqua and Stephen King's Claverack, NY garden. Peter says this Geranium has been in the garden so long that he can't quite remember which it is, but probably a seedling of 'Johnson's Blue', an old cultivar of the Meadow Geranium, Geranium pratense. And by the way, if you've never been to one of Peter and Stephen's Garden Conservancy Open Days, it's not to be missed! (www.gardenconservancy.org)
Another nice Geranium pratense is 'Victor Reiter', a seed strain of Meadow Geranium that emerges with deep purple foliage in early spring that later turns dusky dark green (above, with some foliage of 'Samobor' in the lower right corner) Victor Reiter was a prominent San Francisco plant collector, nurseryman, and a founder of the California Horticulture Society, and there are several good plants named for him.
One of the things that makes Hardy Geraniums so valuable is their adaptability. There are so many species and cultivars that there seems to be a Geranium for just about any garden situation. And once they settle into your garden they're very easy keepers... the groundcovering variety shown above I've had for so many years that its name has been lost, but it's still doing a fine job of keeping down weeds and holding its own against the Ostrich Fern.
Most advanced gardeners know and grow at least some Hardy Geraniums, but they're too seldom tried by beginners, which is a shame... they may not be flashy superstars but they're hardworking, dependable problem-solvers... and we all need more of those in our lives!
Spring's finally here in the Northeast, but in the deep south it arrives much earlier, and finishes too quickly, the really hot weather coming on full force by May. This little photo essay was done last year, when I visited my family in Louisiana just at the moment when everything seems to burst into flower at once, and because I wanted to document the garden my mom has created there over the last thirty-five years. It was originally sent out to a group of close gardening friends, a couple of whom have requested that I resend it, and Mothers' Day seems an appropriate time so share it with all my readers.
The houses on her street were originally summer cottages with silly names, some of which have been retained. The next house over is "Harmony Hill".
The property is four acres of pinewoods sand hill with underlying red clay, about one acre maintained as lawn and garden.
'Formosa' Azaleas line the steep drive up to the house... they were probably planted when the house was built in the 1920's.
The house sits at the top of the hill and is now almost smothered in Nandina, Leucothoe and Ligustrum.
The gnarled branches above the seat are Ligustrums originally put in as foundation plants many years ago, now tree size.
It's hard to capture in photos the magnificence of the tree canopy there... huge mature specimens of Longleaf Pine, Hickory, Red Oak, Cherry.
Dogwoods grow like weeds in the understory, volunteering everywhere and loving the sharp drainage of the sand hill.
Camellias thrive there too... we've planted a dozen or more varieties over the years.
Some start blooming before Christmas, but most reach their peak in February and March, risking late frosts.
The Azaleas are really the big guns of spring there, as in most southern gardens.
They are mostly older Indica varieties: the pale pink is 'George Lindley Taber' and the fuschia one is 'Formosa'.
'George Lindley Taber' has a sweet, light perfume that always takes me back to childhood Easter egg hunts.
The white one is 'Fielder's White', but neither my mom nor I can remember planting the hose-in-hose pink in the foreground, or what it's called.
'Gulfpride' is one of our favorites, an old lavender cultivar that's pretty much unavailable now in the nursery trade.
'Formosa' is gaudy, common and absolutely reliable, so you see it everywhere down there.
There are lots of southern Trilliums that look similar, but I'm pretty sure this is Trillium foetidissimum.
Christmas Berry, Ardisia crenata, is a pretty evergreen sub-shrub that's invasive in Florida but only seeds around modestly here.
Ophiopogon, "Monkey Grass" and clumps of Aspidistra make a good groundcover planting in areas of deeper shade.
'Kyoto Dwarf' Ophiopogon, Ajuga and Southern Maidenhair Fern mingle near the back door.
Yellow Rosa banksiae and pink flowered Loropetalum chinense clambering up a big pine.
We rooted the white Lady Banks Rose in the background from a cutting years ago, and the Cherokee Rose in front just appeared.
Crape Myrtles are very common in the deep south, and many people pollard them every year to get the best flower display, but if left to grow naturally they develop incredibly beautiful trunks.
Next to the house the plantings are more structured, with brick paths laid to define the beds. My dad and I designed and built this arch as a birthday gift for Mom twenty-five years ago.
At one time we had a collection of Tea Roses grown from cuttings we begged from elderly ladies in the older part of town. This one still survives, but I don't remember its name.
A Rosemary plant has grown to shrub size in one corner.
A Fig tree and another Loropetalum compete for sunshine.
Another late Camellia... this one is an old French variety, 'Ville de Nantes'.
Wisteria and Bamboo planted when the house was built have overrun much of the property and must be constantly beaten back. Remarkably, my 85-year-old mother and her occasional yard man, who's almost the same age, manage to keep them under control.
Salvia lyrata overtaking one of the paths. Echinaceas and Stokesias are native to these pinelands and thrive here as well, blooming in May and June.
The resident garden gnome and one of her cats. I'm very much in awe of the beauty she's nurtured here over many years of vision, passion and effort. At her age and in her current condition I'm not sure how much longer it will exist, but I think this quote from Thomas Rainer and Claudia West's book is appropriate...
"A garden's purpose is not to endure, but to enchant."
Thanks, friends, for indulging me in this little tribute.
Finally, Gentle Readers, a weekend that felt like spring! But I confess I haven't been complaining much because we were away for a couple of weeks, and the lingering cold weather gave me some extra time to do cleanup and other early season chores, like pruning. Which brings me to the topic of this post: pollarding. For those of you not familiar with the term, it's a traditional tree pruning technique that involves the regular removal of new growth back to a stump or candelabra-like structure for practical or aesthetic purposes.
As Americans we tend towards an aversion to any form of tree pruning, except for fruit trees. Our dominant aesthetic is naturalism, and we decry techniques like pollarding as butchery and desecration of the normal growth of the tree. The Europeans haven't such a limited view of the matter.
Our trip, to Germany and Central Europe, provided plentiful examples of the technique that were especially evident so early in the season, before the trees began to leaf out. I was struggling to identify most of them from the bark alone, but many types of broadleaf trees are treated thus, particularly Lindens, Planes, Hazels, Hornbeams, Horse Chestnuts, Oaks and Willows.
Obsessed as I was with taking pictures of pruned and pollarded trees, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of trees we saw in parks and gardens were allowed to grow in their natural form. But where they deem it appropriate, European gardeners are never shy to take up the pruning shears. Shaping, shearing, pollarding, pleaching and of course topiary are all highly developed horticultural skills there that are used to effectively contrast and compliment the natural growth of other plants and to provide living architectural form.
Pollarding is an ancient technique that's mentioned in Roman writing and has been widely practiced in Europe since at least the Middle Ages. It had, originally, very practical purposes: to provide fodder for livestock, easily harvestable fuel for fires, and long, supple stems for basketry and wickerwork. The term comes from the word "poll", an old term for the top of the head, therefore "topping" the tree at the head.
Interestingly, studies have shown that this unnatural treatment maintains trees in a nearly perpetual juvenile state, so they live much longer than their unpruned counterparts. There are numerous examples of pollarding in Europe that have been maintained continuously for hundreds of years.
Nowadays pollarding is done primarily for aesthetic purposes, and to maintain trees at a size that's more manageable and consistent in relation to architectural features, along streets or in courtyards and other urban settings.
Pollarding and other traditional management techniques, like coppicing, are also enjoying a revival in agriculture among permaculturists. A stand of pollarded trees allows much more light to reach the ground, so creating pasturage for animals below and harvestable material above.
Maybe it's an acquired taste, but I really like the sculptural quality of the knobbly heads, shaped by many years of pruning, and soon to be covered in fresh leafy growth.
If you want to try your hand at pollarding, you must start with a young tree so an open and balanced branch structure can be developed over time. The pruning can be done any time after the leaves drop in fall but before the trees break dormancy in the spring, so it's a pleasant chore on a warmish late winter day when you're just dying to do something outdoors.
Once you develop a pollard you have to maintain it by pruning back to the developing knob every year. Keep in mind that pollarding is an intentional technique, not at all the same as topping, which is what our road crews do to already mature trees around utility wires. That really is mutilation.
I've been pollarding a line of Coral Bark Willows on my property for several years now, gradually developing a pleasing branch structure with bushy heads of summer growth at just the right height to screen my unsightly neighbor. Our garden is not at all grand, so the willows are at the back of a shrub border and planted in a staggered line, and the effect is more farmstead than formal. It solves a screening problem for me, and I enjoy the brightly colored shoots all winter, until I do the pruning in very early spring.
Although it's definitely not for everyone, if you have an appropriate setting don't hesitate to use pollarding as a striking horticultural feature or a practical problem-solver. With a long and respectable history, it's a technique that more Americans should look at with an open mind!
It wasn't all bare trees in Europe... spring was already happening there, as evidenced by these Hepaticas blooming in the woods near Munich.
My neighbors must have thought me completely insane this weekend, seeing me out in a parka and heavy gloves, cutting down grasses and perennial stalks at my place which is still half under the snow (one consolation: dragging a heavy tarp laden with soggy plant debris is much easier over snow than over lawn!) I just couldn't resist a sunny day; even though the temps were barely above freezing and the wind was raw, it was good to be moving again and at least making a beginning at spring cleanup.
In spite of the mad labor involved, I love spring cleanup most of all for the surprises it holds of emerging and forgotten favorites... the day's efforts revealed budding Hellebores and unfolding species Tulip foliage, plus the still-pointed shoots of Fritillarias, Trilliums, Alliums, Crocus, Phlox and Peonies. And remarkably, the apparently cold-proof leaves of Forget-Me-Nots that have remained fresh and green under the snow cover.
Most perennials haven't yet revealed themselves, but one that has, and a true herald of spring, is the Cowslip Primrose, Primula veris. The leaves push up through still frosty ground, green as a bean and slightly velvety, crinkled and pleated and ready to unfurl in the first really warm week of the year.
As a beginning gardener I was a bit intimidated by Primulas, and many of them are indeed collector's plants for the knowledgeable enthusiast, but there are three species that I can recommend as easy, reliable and lovely. Cowslips were the first I tried and succeeded with, and are still my favorites. All they require is average soil that never completely bakes in the summer, and protection from the hottest afternoon sun. Full sun in early spring is ideal, though, so siting them under deciduous trees is a good plan as long as the soil is reasonably moist.
The default color is a fresh shade of lemon yellow, but they also sport into bronzy orange and even rich red. I'm sure there must be a white version somewhere (probably England) but I've never seen it for sale here. I like to separate the colors and make big patches that carpet the ground beneath my River Birches (the yellow) or complement the blue flowers of Woodland Phlox (the bronze).
I find the red one a bit more difficult to place, but it's certainly vibrant and eye-catching. Being pasture weeds in their native Europe, they're easy as pie and can be divided any time from just after bloom until around Labor Day.
Another little beauty, just as easy to grow, is Primula sieboldii, a native of Siberia, Korea and Japan that comes in shades of white, pink and magenta, many often exhibiting dual coloration with the backs of the petals different from the fronts. The flowers look a bit like snowflakes with varying degrees of fringing and dissection, making for a very charming lacy effect that belies their ease of cultivation.
The plants are stoloniferous and will make large patches in time (as seen above at Berkshire Botanical Garden)... all they ask is consistently moist soil and shade in the summer months. The foliage may even disappear below ground after June, but will return the next spring, when you've forgotten all about it. They make great companions for other diminutive spring treasures like Epimediums, Trilliums, Asarums, Anemonellas and Dodecatheons.
The third easy Primrose is another Asian native that will make itself right at home here if you have a very moist (even boggy) site, ideally along a small stream or at the edge of a shady pool. This is the Japanese or Candleabra Primrose, Primula japonica. The basal rosettes of bright, lettuce-green leaves are topped by tiered clusters of dainty flowers in every shade from white though all tints of pink to dark rose, and some even come in an unusual deep coral tone. In rich soil the flowering stems can reach eighteen inches in height, with several tiers of bloom that open in succession, making for a spectacular display when planted in quantity.
Where happy they will seed themselves freely, so it's hard to maintain separate colors without thinning them as they bloom, but if you have a particularly nice shade you can always divide it after flowering, keep the divisions watered for a couple of weeks, and you'll increase your stock three- or more-fold every year.
Rich, consistently moist soil is key to growing these beauties, but if you have those conditions they will thrive with very little care.
There are, of course, dozens of other Primroses that you can try, many of them quite choice and rare, if you become enamored of the genus Primula. But for general purpose gardening, I heartily recommend these three beautiful, easy and rewarding Primroses. Give them a try, and reap the rewards of early spring bloom for many years to come!
Why I'm Splitting with Six Popular Plants
We need to talk. You're a beautiful, desirable plant, one any gardener would be lucky to grow. But something's changed, and I just don't feel the same way anymore. The last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings, but I really feel the need to be totally honest here...
I'm sorry, but you've been seen around town WAY too much lately.
I'm old enough to remember when Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, was a hot new plant that everyone wanted to try. And we did. Tough, easy, and with a go-with-everything blue and silver color scheme, it became one of the most popular perennials in the repertoire. And therein lies the problem. Do I really want to give precious garden space to a plant that's now seen in every suburban tract house foundation planting and Burger King drive-through? I'm afraid I don't.
Foolproof though Perovskia is, I'll get my blue/purple spikes elsewhere now, from newer alternatives like Salvia pratensis 'Ballet Sky Dance' (right below) or even Agastache 'Blue Fortune' (left below, covered in butterflies), almost as well known as Perovskia but with the added bonus of being a better pollinator plant and having superior winter interest.
You're gorgeous, but you're so needy and high maintenance it's killing me.
Because I grew up in the deep south, where they absolutely will not thrive, big double-flowered Peonies were one of the first plants I wanted to grow when I started gardening in the north. Their lavish blooms, delicious fragrance, and romantic names (Lady Alexandra Duff, Sarah Bernhardt, Duchesse de Nemours, etc.) were irresistible. But after a few years their allure barely seemed to offset the brief flowering period, the susceptibility of the foliage to mildew and viruses, and the near impossibility of staking them attractively and inconspicuously. Full disclosure: I still grow some of them, but they've been banished to a cutting area in the back of the kitchen garden where I can harvest the blooms for vases but forget about the plants for the rest of the season.
In my perennial beds I now grow only the shade tolerant Japanese Woodland Peony, Paeonia japonica (left below) and 'Krinkled White' (right below), a reliably sturdy single herbaceous type. Neither needs staking or much maintenance beyond an annual cut-down at year's end.
You're just too much of a flake... and your tacky outfits are way over the top.
Echinaceas are one of the plant groups (like Hostas, Heucheras, Daylilies and a few others) that the plant breeders have gone wacky over, churning out endless new varieties each season, novelty upon novelty. What was once a reliable American wildflower has now become a collector's plant, and I've had enough. Although new colors were welcome at first, now the pretty, original shuttlecock form has been splayed open, doubled, pom-pomed and otherwise deformed, distorted and debased until it's unrecognizable. Worse yet, none of the newer varieties I've tried have proven to be particularly vigorous or long-lived. (Echinaceas aren't naturally perennials that have a long life span... in nature the crowns live only two or three years, and repopulate mainly through seed dispersal)
Call me cranky, but I'm back to planting only the straight species, Echinacea purpurea (below), and its closely related variations like the shorter 'Kim's Knee High' or the white flowered version, 'White Swan'.
Frankly, Annie, you've put on too much weight.
Yet another case of overdevelopment, and of bigger not being necessarily better. Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' has enormous mopheads that often can't be supported by the branch structure, so you frequently see her bent over after a rain, dragging her blossoms in the mud. Not pretty. And don't even get me started on the even larger and more grotesque 'Incrediball'. Awful name, awful plant.
Instead, opt for the Hydrangea arborescens varieties with lacecap heads like 'Haas Halo' (top below) and 'White Dome' (bottom below). Same tough and hardy American native genes, but with an altogether lovelier flower form than 'Annabelle' that remains self-supporting in all weathers, and even looks fetching when snow covers the dried flower heads.
Mother tried to warn me about tramps like you.
Rampantly promiscuous, Nicotianas (the Flowering Tobaccos) interbreed madly and throw off millions of dust-like seeds, resulting in carpets of seedlings whose large leaves smother nearby plants, and seldom turn out to be the color you wanted. After several years of trying to manage them by thinning and deadheading, I've decided that ruthless extermination is the only solution. Now I just hoe them out like common weeds, and I find that I still have a satisfying garden without them.
Nothing else has quite the same flower effect, but for a scattering of clean white in the same area, I'm dividing and increasing my clumps of the Japanese Aster, Kalimeris integrifolia 'Daisy Mae' (below), a reliable and well-mannered clumping perennial with a long season of bloom and clouds of crisp, dainty flowers in May and June. Not the same as a Nicotiana, of course, but far easier to manage.
I'm sorry Karl, but you're just too... uptight.
I know, I know... Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' is a modern classic. It's one of Piet Oudolf's favorite grasses. It's reliable, hardy and readily available. And it's got a really long season of interest that peaks in a beautiful golden wheat-like inflorescence. But somehow, I just find it so... rigid. And though I plant and love many tall, upright and vertical perennials like Veronicastrum, Vernonia, Liatris and Coreopsis tripteris, I still can't seem to warm up to Karl F.
When I need a tall grass with a handsome flowering, I prefer the more graceful Calamagrostis brachytricha (top below at Hudson Bush Farm) or Frost Grass, Spodiopogon siberica (bottom below). Both have height, presence, late interest and a more relaxed form that I think blends with other plants more effectively.
Of course, the whims of a gardener being what they are I'm not guaranteeing I won't grow any of the above ever again. In the meantime, I think we both need to see other people. But don't worry, we can still be friends, can't we?
Happy Valentine's Day.
"Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art."
A quote usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, although her grandson and biographer claims she never said it. Whoever did, though, was correct... to project beauty, dignity and refinement as the years pile on requires effort and yes, artistry.
I think of my own Great Aunt Ellanor, one of the many talented gardeners in my family, gone for many years now but a formidable presence in my youth. Born in the 19th century, she still carried a hint of the northern English brogue inherited from her hard-working immigrant parents, who had somehow ended up settling down in a small town on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Early photos of Aunt Ellanor show her following the fashions of the day, as any young person would, but by the time I came along she'd pared down her taste to a dignified minimum, and I can only remember her wearing black or navy blue dresses that set off her beautiful snow white hair, always pinned up in a twist at the back of her head. And though her face was a roadmap of creases, her clear blue eyes never missed anything, and her wit remained sharp until her last days.
We should all age so well, and a huge movement is underway now in the world of horticulture to create gardens that age well also. Gardeners everywhere are learning to look at plantings more holistically, and accept cycles of growth, decline and renewal as each having a beauty of its own. At this time of year, when flowers are long gone, it's tempting to retreat indoors until the first spring bulbs emerge, but if we only open our eyes a bit there's still much to be appreciated in the structure of branches, seed heads, grasses and so many more plant forms that reveal themselves once the garden's palette is reduced to near monochrome. And as Piet Oudolf has remarked, "Brown is also a color."
Striving to extend my garden's seasonal interest, I plant more grasses, fruiting shrubs and structural perennials every year. Morning light enhances the sculptural quality of many grasses, like this Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii 'Windbreaker'), here backed up by the golden fall coloring of Amsonia hubrichtii.
Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' glows in the low winter light, and is sturdy enough to stand upright through most of our snowstorms.
Pairing tall grasses with evergreens, like this native Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) provides food, cover and wind protection for birds and other small wildlife.
Even the smaller grasses, such as this Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold', take on interesting colors after a hard frost, turning from its usual chartreuse to a beautiful silvery green.
Leaving some perennials standing and allowing them to develop their seed heads provides food for many birds when snow covers the ground. These porcupine heads of Echinacea purpurea are a favorite of Goldfinches.
Many perennials that bloom after midsummer develop interesting and decorative seed heads. Left to right: New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveborecensis), Agastache 'Blue Fortune', and Ligularia japonica.
The fruit on my Viburnum dilatatum 'Cardinal Candy' must go through several more cycles of freezing and thawing before they sweeten enough to be palatable to the birds... then, in a matter of hours, they will be stripped and gone.
A few years ago I planted a row of seven Coral Bark Willows (Salix alba 'Britzensis') at the back of a shrub border to screen our neighbor's house from view. An annual pollarding in early spring keeps them dense and promotes colorful new shoots each season, at their brightest in late winter.
We tend to think of fall color only on trees, but many perennials put on quite a show before they drop their foliage, like this Epimedium 'Freckles'.
I plant the non-hardy Pennisetum 'Vertigo' every year to enjoy its bold, deep purple foliage all summer. After the first hard freeze, it collapses into a spooky frozen waterfall that I find equally appealing, and provides good shelter from winter winds for small birds.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to be included in an outing to a garden I've long wanted to visit: James Golden's 'Federal Twist', in central New Jersy. The visit was organized by the wonderful Peter Bevacqua and included fellow garden pros Betty Grindrod, Heather Grimes and Kurt Parde.
Prior to our arrival, James had expressed concern that there would be little left of interest so late in the season, but we were far from disappointed. The two acre garden is intensely planted, with no lawn and meandering paths that lead through the dense, layered plantings, some so tall that they astonish in an Alice-in-Wonderland way.
Grasses are the leitmotif here, especially Miscanthus species and cultivars, but also Panicums, Pennisetums and Schizachyriums.
Rudbeckia maxima and other giant forbs blend and weave among the grasses on the wet clay site, while smaller plants carpet the ground underneath.
Heather collects seeds from a white Baptisia. This is the time of year to gather pods, cones and seedheads for wreaths and winter arrangements.
The stark black stems of a frosted Eupatorium stand in contrast to the arching grasses, still holding onto a bit of summer green.
At the bottom of the garden, a black pool reflects the November sky.
This is an enchanting place, a testament to how beautiful a garden can be even so late in the year, and well worth a visit at any season. To learn more about the garden and be apprised of upcoming open days, subscribe to James's excellent blog, "The View from Federal Twist" at federaltwist.com.
Restraint, discernment, an appreciation for subtleties... all marks of maturity as a person and as a gardener. I value these qualities more every year, and strive for them in my plantings. And as another birthday approaches next month, I hope for them in myself.
We've had such a beautiful stretch of weather lately, still summery but foreshadowing fall, and I feel renewed and refreshed enough to do some ambitious gardening again. This is a great time for planting perennials and flowering shrubs, the warm days and cooler nights perfect to encourage plants to root in and establish before the real fall weather arrives.
And there are many plants that save their biggest show for this time of year: Sedums, Asters, most of the ornamental grasses and many others. One of the most spectacular late-bloomers is Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora', the "Peegee" Hydrangea (pictured above) an old-fashioned shrub that's often seen around local farmhouses. Its big pointed clusters of white flowers age to pink as the season progresses, and are often cut for dried flower arrangements. It's a classic, but there are lots more varieties that have been introduced since the "Peegee" came on the market just after the Civil War.
Hydrangeas are a large and varied group, native mainly to Eastern Asia and North America, and the many kinds seem to cause a lot of confusion among gardeners... in fact, they occasion some of the most frequently asked questions, such as "why won't my Hydrangea bloom?" and "what kind of Hydrangea do I have?" In this post I'll attempt to clarify some of the confusion and show you just a little of the great variety in this really beautiful genus, a favorite of mine.
When explaining the differences in Hydrangeas, I like to break them down into four main groups for simplicity's sake:
The four main categories of Hydrangea for our Zone 5 area are (clockwise from upper left) Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), Panicle Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), and Mophead Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla).
Let's start with the most distinctive and least confusing: the American native Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia. This beauty is found in woodlands all through the southeastern states, but will grow well in our area although a really harsh winter will sometimes knock it back to the snowline. However, it quickly regrows from undamaged portions and will even begin to sucker at the root, forming a well-mannered colony in time.
What makes this Hydrangea so distinctive is the beautifully shaped foliage, recognizable enough for even a child to identify, that turns gorgeous shades of gold, orange, scarlet and wine red in fall. The bark is interestingly shaggy also, and the fuzzy buds are cute. It flowers in mid- to late summer, the long panicles turning pinkish-red in some cultivars (like 'Ruby Slippers') or just a pleasant shade of blush or tan in the straight species.
One of the very best native shrubs, with only one caveat: the deer relish the fuzzy buds in winter, so grow in a protected area or net it until it grows above the browse line, usually four or five feet. Oakleaf Hydrangeas need very little pruning, just a shaping from time to time, removal of dead branches and cleaning up last season's tattered flowers in late winter or early spring.
Next comes another tough American native, the Smooth Hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens. Most people are familiar with this in one of its cultivar forms, the large-flowered 'Annabelle' (left above), but there are several lovely varieties in commerce as well as the straight species. 'Incrediball' (awful name) has flowers even larger than 'Annabelle' and 'Invincibelle Spirit' (right above) is a pretty soft pink version. These types will grow and flower well in full sun, but I think they're best when given high dappled shade from tall trees or only morning sun, as hot afternoon sun tends to make them wilt and look a bit tired.
For a more naturalistic look, there are lacecap versions too, like 'Haas Halo' (top above) and 'White Dome' (bottom above). I love these for their cool summer flowers and especially for their ability to hold snowfall in the winter. All the arborescens types can be cut almost to the ground in the spring if you want the largest flowers (but fewer of them), or pruned back by one third for smaller but more numerous flowers. They bloom on the current year's growth.
Equally tough and hardy, though not native, are all the Panicle Hydrangeas, Hydrangea paniculata cultivars, including the well-known "Peegee" that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. These are some of the most reliable shrubs for our area, and come in many beautiful varieties... some of the best are 'Limelight', which opens a cool greenish-white and ages to pink, 'Phantom' (above) boasting enormous flower clusters, 'Quickfire' and 'Pink Diamond', with open panicles that color up fast to deep rose pink, 'Unique', another one with large lacy flowers, the late-blooming 'Tardiva' and many others. All these are large shrubs, eventually 8-12 feet tall, but there are dwarf varieties available too, like 'Little Lamb' and 'Bobo', to fit into a smaller planting scheme.
Very often nursery customers will ask for a "Tree Hydrangea", but really, there's no such thing. What they're looking for is a paniculata type that's been trained into what's properly called a standard, a horticultural form that looks like a small tree, with a rounded head on top of a slender "trunk". Best used in very formal settings, these are elegant when well placed but can sometimes topple and break in winter storms, in which case they will regrow from the root in the plant's natural form, a multi-stemmed shrub. All the Hydrangea paniculata varieties flower best in full sun, and bloom on the current season's growth, so they should be pruned in early spring before they leaf out, and can be pruned hard (down to half the size) or moderately (removing 1/3 the size of the shrub).
Panicle Hydrangeas can make dramatic landscape statements. This is 'Limelight'.
Last of the four groups is the one that seems to cause the most consternation, at least in our Zone 5 climate: the Mophead Hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla. These are the gorgeous blue Hydrangeas that are such a feature of Nantucket, Cape Cod and Long Island, and southward all the way to the Gulf Coast. They are also hugely popular in Europe, where they are known as Hortensias, and were hybridized in hundreds of beautiful varieties in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The sad truth is that these romantic beauties are not well suited to our winter climate, because they set their flower buds a year ahead and must winter them over to bloom well. The plants will survive, but not the flower buds, so flowering is typically sparse, often only below the snow line, but they're sold in every big box nursery and grocery store, leading to much confusion about their hardiness.
Recently, some varieties have been developed that flower on the current year's growth, like 'Endless Summer' (blue, above), 'Blushing Bride' (white flushed pale pink), 'Twist-n-Shout' (pink or blue lacecap, left below), and 'Diva' (very large pink lacecap, right below). The jury's still out on these in our area, as they've only been on the market a few years, but some local gardeners report success, and if you must have a blue Hydrangea these are the only ones to consider here in the Hudson Valley.
There's also quite a bit of mythology about changing the color of these Hydrangeas from pink to blue or vice versa... the pH of the soil and the presence or absence of aluminum in the soil is determinative, but adding pennies, nails, aluminum foil or coffee grounds will not do the trick! Mopheads have glossy, smooth leaves and appreciate shade from the hottest sun and reliable moisture. Pruning should be done in spring, but sparingly and only to remove spent flowers and tips that have winter-killed.
There's one more type of Hydrangea I want to mention, because it's such a beautiful plant, well suited to our area and can't be confused with the four groups above... that is, the Climbing Hydrangea, Hydrangea petiolaris (shown above at the much beloved local garden of Hudson Bush Farm). This requires patience and a very sturdy pergola, fence or masonry wall for support, because once it's established and really starts growing it can become quite a lovely monster. Although slow to settle in, it isn't too picky about soil and tolerates quite a bit of sun. It can be used to perfection spilling over an old stone wall.
That's my little tutorial, and I hope it's clarified some questions for you. Hydrangeas are so varied that some confusion is inevitable, but don't let that stop you from growing and experimenting with these handsome plants, so many of which will do well here in our region. A competent nursery will always be happy to guide you in your selection and help you find the variety that suits your property best, whether it's a farmhouse, townhouse, mansion or suburban ranch!
Yes, Gentle Readers, I'm back to writing after a hectic opening season and several off-site sales that are always fun but a lot of work hauling plants, setting up and bringing everything that didn't sell back to the nursery. But it's great to get out in the community for these events to see our regular customers and connect with new ones. And of course at Pondside we're always running flat out between Mothers' Day and Memorial Day.
But now that summer's really here we're settling into a still busy but less frantic schedule, and I thought it might be a good time to take a look at one of the biggest maintenance issues for all gardeners: WEEDS!
I confess to being somewhat fascinated by weeds, admiring their adaptability and persistence and, often, their undeniable beauty. But when they threaten to overwhelm my other precious plants, it's time to spring into action and get them under control. Here I'll be sharing some strategies for staying ahead of them and steadily reducing their numbers in your garden.
First, the bad news: there's no way around it, no magic bullet, no secret plan to eliminate weeds without work and persistence. It's just a part of gardening... a BIG part... and new gardeners in particular are often overwhelmed by the sheer labor involved, especially in newly planted areas. But the good news is that it gets better over time, becomes more manageable as your garden matures and can even become an enjoyable task if you stay at it and avoid procrastination.
There are a couple of weapons in my arsenal that I just couldn't garden without: a weeding fork and a weeding hoe. The weeding fork is a hand tool with sturdy prongs to penetrate the soil, leveraging the weed and its roots out of the ground with a quick and efficient action. By using the fork with one hand and grabbing the weed and shaking off the dirt with the other, you can cover a lot of ground in short order, and the loosened soil that results is less conducive to weeds sprouting than firmer ground. The fork is my favorite weeding tool, and we sell several versions at the nursery. Some gardeners prefer the Japanese Hori-Hori knife or a pronged cultivator, both of which we also sell, and the principle is the same. Any of these hand tools are best for removing maturing weeds, and weeds growing closely among other plants.
For larger areas, like paths in a vegetable garden, and tiny weed seedlings too small to pull individually, a weeding hoe is ideal. Hoeing (the horticultural kind) is something of a lost art, but I remember my grandmother keeping her beds and edgings weed-free with just a small hoe that had been sharpened so many times that the blade was as narrow as a kitchen knife. I have a narrow-bladed hoe also that works wonders, slicing just below the soil surface to separate the tops of the weeds from their roots. Work forward, taking out the weeds nearest your feet before you advance, and do it on a hot day so the sliced weeds will dry to a crisp that's virtually invisible. It takes a bit of practice to get just the right angle to slice the weeds without digging up a lot of soil, but once you've mastered the technique it requires little effort and provides a nice upper body workout.
If you're dealing with very deep, tap-rooted weeds like Dock or Dandelion (a frightening example shown in the photo at the beginning of this post) a Dandelion fork is a useful tool. These have a slender blade with a sharp, notched end that allows you to penetrate deep into the soil and loosen the taproot for full extraction. Sort of like dental work. The Hori-Hori works well this way also.
Which brings up the legitimate issue of how do you know if it's a Dock or a Dandelion or whatever, especially if you're a novice gardener? Well, here's where my garden geekiness gets totally unrestrained, because I'm going to suggest that you buy a book on weeds. I confess to having several, but the best for our region and the only one I really recommend is Weeds of the Northeast by Uva, Neal & DiTomaso, from Comstock Publishing. You can get a gently used copy for about twenty bucks (and support an independent bookseller) by ordering from Alibris.com. What I love about this book is that it has multiple photos of every weed, in different stages of growth from seedling to flowering, and has enough text to provide accurate identification without becoming overly technical.
It's kind of fun to put a name to all those things you've been pulling out for years, but more importantly you can learn a lot about the life cycles of the plants which will help you strategize about how to control them. For instance, take the pesky Garlic Mustard, a common biennial weed hereabouts. Biennials make a compact rosette of leaves the first year, but don't flower and set seed until the second, so if you can't manage getting all the plants out, concentrate on the flowering ones. The white flowers are easily spotted and you can attack them and worry about next year's plants later, if need be.
Timing is really critical with weeding. There's an old farmer's saying: "One year's seeding is seven year's weeding", which means that if you let a weed go to seed, you'll be dealing with its progeny for years to come. And I mean years... there are weeds whose seed can remain viable in the soil for forty years. That's not a typo, I don't mean four years, I mean FORTY. So try, really try, to get those weeds out before they set and ripen their seed, which can happen remarkably fast after they flower.
Another strategy for killing weeds and/or lawn grass in an area to be turned into a bed is smothering. I use flattened cardboard boxes to cover the area, hose them down until saturated, and cover with a layer of mulch or shredded leaves. If you do it in the fall, most everything will be smothered by the spring and the cardboard will have deteriorated to the point that you can dig right through it to plant. An even more thorough technique is solarization. It takes longer (up to six months) and is less attractive in process because it requires covering the area in clear plastic sheeting to basically cook all the weeds, weed seeds and pathogens underneath. But it can be very effective. Lots of detailed information on the internet if you want to learn more.
I do everything possible not to use herbicides because they're terrible for the environment and you risk accidentally destroying desirable plants nearby. However, if you're faced with a really major infestation of the worst kind of weeds, say Poison Ivy or Canada Thistle, the nuclear option may be your only chance to get control over the situation. Mix your own concentrate at two-thirds the recommended strength and spray on a hot, still day. Glyphosate is the safest and least lingering product. Again, know your weeds and try other strategies first, only using herbicide as a last resort.
When all is said and done, no matter what your method, persistence is the real secret to keeping ahead of those weeds. Instead of putting it off until you can have a "weeding day", make it part of your daily routine. Better to spend fifteen or twenty minutes a day, every day, than to wait until you can devote a large block of time to the task. If you have time in the morning, take your second cup of coffee out with you. Or if you tend to garden in the evening, a glass of wine is a nice compensation for a half-hour spent pulling Crabgrass.
With all the rain we've had this season, even the most diligent gardeners are having a hard time keeping up, but don't be discouraged. With patience and determination, you will reduce your weed population over time, and because it's one of those jobs that provides instant gratification, you may even learn to enjoy weeding as much as I do (but I'm weird).
January's been awfully grey and gloomy, with some warmish periods that seem almost like March, but we're once again under snow cover and back to somewhat normal winter temps, keeping plants properly dormant and protected from frigid wind. For gardeners this is the time for rest, planning and evaluation. Much can be accomplished now that the holidays are over and the rush of spring chores hasn't started, so there's no reason to succumb to depression and despair! Here are some tips for getting through, and getting things done...
I love looking at plants, and over the years I've developed an enhanced appreciation for those that look good in winter, when we really value a little dose of color in the midst of the white, grey and brown landscape.
Broad-leafed evergreens are few and far between for our climate, but one that I've grown for years is a very hardy cultivar of the Swamp Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana 'Moonglow'. It does lose some leaves in the winter months, and in colder winters will bronze out completely by spring, but so far this year it's withstanding the weather and providing a nice spot of greenery along my little stream.
It's really a star during the warm months, offering an upright outline and small but exquisite lemon-scented flowers in July.
I love Viburnums too, and encourage gardening friends to try more of the many great species and varieties of these beautiful and useful shrubs. One of my favorites is 'Wentworth', a selection of the native Cranberry Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum. It's a tall shrub that gradually suckers into a nice, non-invasive clump, wonderful for naturalized areas but refined enough for a more formal planting too. The beautiful clusters of fruit are eventually eaten by the birds, but must not be palatable until they've frozen and thawed several times, because mine are always pretty persistent through the winter.
Beeches and Hornbeams are trees known for holding their leaves through the winter, which makes them valuable for hedging, but many Oaks have persistent foliage as well. My Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea, still pleases me with the glowing tobacco brown leaves that followed its bright red fall color, and hang on until the new buds break in spring.
Most perennials retreat underground for their winter dormancy but there are a few exceptions, even here in Zone 5. Yuccas have a bad rap with many gardeners, probably because they're often seen isolated in the middle of a lawn surrounded with white gravel, but I love their strong form and persistent foliage. Use them singly, or better yet in bold groups, to provide a gutsy linear texture among fussier perennials. Yucca filamentosa comes in basic green or in several nice variegated forms like 'Bright Edge' (above) or the even showier 'Color Guard', which is the reverse variegation with yellow centered, green edged blades.
Another perennial that seems dauntless in cold weather is the Bear's Foot Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. It must have some kind of built-in antifreeze because when the temperature dips below 25 or so it turns almost black a shrivels, and I'm sure it won't recover, but when there's a warm spell it recovers its color and form completely. The flower buds have been formed since fall but they seem to be soldiering through unharmed, waiting to blossom in April. Taller than most other Hellebores, it thrives in woodland soil, can tolerate dry shade, and though individual plants aren't extremely long-lived, will reseed itself when happy.
Many ornamental grasses took a beating from the heavy snowfall we had back in December, but Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' lived up to its reputation for being one of the most upright native grasses. It manages to spring back even after being coated with ice.
These young plants of 'Northwind' (left above) were just planted in July, and they've already proven very valuable for winter interest. Completely different in effect is Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition' (right above), with wiry stems so delicate that the snow can't cling and break them down.
There's plenty of twiginess in the winter garden, some of which is very attractive in form and color. Just about every gardener knows the red stemmed Dogwoods, and Cornus sericea 'Cardinal' (left above) is a great cultivar, taller than many, which makes it useful as a screening shrub in summer. There are also variegated, golden-leaved, and yellow stemmed Dogwoods that can add even more variety to a planting. Many Willows develop vibrant winter stem color too, like Salix alba 'Flame' (right above), a large shrub/tree with bright golden orange to red bark that looks gorgeous against the snow. It can be stooled down to 1 ft annually in early spring if you want a bushy hedge or screen, or allowed to develop into a tree.
I'm a big fan of the native Hydrangea arborescens, especially the lacecap versions that catch and hold the snow so beautifully. I have a group of 'White Dome' (above left), an older variety that's inexplicably hard to come by now, but I've also recently planted several 'Haas' Halo' with even larger and more voluptuous flower clusters. Magnolias (above right) aren't colorful in winter, but their elegant branching habit is very pleasing and the fattening buds look promising silhouetted against the grey January sky.
I tend to think of container plantings as a summer feature, but with a little imagination they can be designed to be quite decorative through the colder months as well. Here, little dwarf evergreens make an interesting group in a frost-resistant trough, handling ice and snow as well as the full-sized versions. You could also make a nice display of grouped containers planted up with easy and hardy rock garden perennials like Sedums, Sempervivums, Orostachys and the like.
Daily walkabouts are not only good exercise but helpful to see your property in a different light, stripped down to its essential layout. Devoid of flowers and most foliage, your garden will reveal its design strengths and weaknesses, suggesting where edits are needed and additions required. You can even lay out new planting areas when snow is on the ground, as I've done in the photo above. I find it easier to see the outline I want on this white canvas, and 2 ft. rebar stakes can be driven into frozen ground with a hammer after roughing out the line by walking it in boots. The stakes will still be in place come spring when I'm ready to cut the edge.
Reading is of course a prime winter activity for most of us plant-obsessed people, but why not try some informal writing as well? As a young gardener trying to learn the sequence of flowering, I started keeping a weekly list of what was blooming. This was around 1980, when I had my first real garden. Over the years that evolved into a full-fledged (albeit sporadic) garden journal that has given me a lot of pleasure... and preserved much useful information.
Often I'll refer to the last couple of years' entries while I'm planning the next season's work or trying to remember the name of something recently planted. But sometimes, maybe once a year, I'll look back at some of my oldest entries. It's amazing how much I've forgotten that I once grew, and how far I've progressed as a gardener. I read the names of mail-order nurseries now long out of business (then my only source of unusual plants) and the occasional notations of life events: the birth of a friend's first child, the death of a pet. But mostly it's weather, what's blooming, what's been bought and planted and where, what's turned out to be the color advertised (or not) and what's established and thrived, and of course, what hasn't. Some of the entries really make me laugh now... here, a rant from April 1995:
"Mail-order nurseries are the worst... planted today a bone-dry stick that cost $12 (plus shipping!) from Burpee... if it grows into the yellow Trumpet Vine it's sold as, it will be a miracle, and take years. If Trumpet Vines weren't so weedy I'd have no hope at all. This precious treasure arrived in a padded envelope, tied to a bamboo stake, without a bit of moss or soil, the fleshy root itself broken in two places."
More often, though, I'm writing about something delightful... the first Daffodil, or a surprisingly happy plant association, or some perennial that returned three-fold from the year before. Looking back, I can believe that most everything was worth recording... writing things by hand has been proven to solidify things in your memory... and because the gradual accumulation of that experience has made me a better gardener.
The beginning of the year is a great time to take up your pen (especially you young gardeners) and start to record what you think you'll remember (but won't), what are your successes and your failures, your favorites, surprises, disappointments, goals, frustrations and dreams. Don't make it a chore, just an occasional pleasure... sometimes in the busiest part of the year I go several weeks without making an entry, but I always return and catch up. Trust me, ten or twenty years from now (it will be sooner than you think!) you'll have a recorded body of personalized gardening information and memories that are far more precious and valuable to you than anything you can Google.
In our home we celebrated the Lunar New Year this past week, so here's wishing you all peace and prosperity ahead! It's the Year of the Rooster, and our Henry just re-feathered and is looking particularly fine right now, as is appropriate.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.