"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.
Hey, betcha thought a post in late December would be all hollyberries, evergreens and ho ho ho, right? Well, ha ha ha, I'm feeling the Winter Solstice and yearning for yellow as a reminder that sunlight hours will now start, ever so gradually, to increase. So let's take a look forward several months and think about plants that reflect the warmth and sunshine... it's never too early to plan for the season ahead!
Colors in gardening cycle in and out of style, just as in the world of fashion. Blue flowers, white flowers, silver foliage... these classics endure perpetually. Red flowers always have fans, and there are gardeners who build their color schemes around the many shadings of purple, violet and magenta. And I've noticed that after years of being out of vogue, soft fleshy pinks are being snapped up by some of the most stylish nursery customers.
Yellow, on the other hand, is something of a problem child. Many gardeners absolutely loathe yellow flowers... maybe they grew up with too many common, gaudy Marigolds or 'Stella d'Oro' Daylilies, surrounded tragically by yards of red mulch. Whatever the trauma, it's worth a rethink because for one thing, almost every plant comes in a yellow version. That means endless possibilities for creativity in an all-yellow scheme or one that uses yellow as a foil for other colors.
Starting at the beginning of the season, spring bulbs are an easy antidote for the blues of late winter. Most of us grow and love Daffodils, and they come in every shade of yellow from ivory to egg yolk, but they're so well known that I won't discuss them here. Instead consider some other yellow spring bulbs, not so often planted but just as welcome. Species Tulips, like Tulipa dasystemon (left), are more reliably perennial than their taller, showier relatives and excellent for planting around and among emerging perennials. The Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis (center), is always the earliest flower I have, popping up even before the Snowdrops and self-seeding in evenly moist soil where it's most happy. And the elegant Trout Lily, Erythronium x 'Pagoda' (right), is a vigorous hybrid that persists and blooms beautifully year after year in rich, moist soil. Really gorgeous paired with black-red Hellebores.
Among the early blooming perennials are quite a few yellow options, these three for moist soil. Globeflowers, or Trollius (left), are Buttercup relatives that are available in yellows ranging from pale primrose to golden orange. They need consistent moisture and protection from hot afternoon sun, but when happy they will persist, and the tidy clumps gradually increase in size and can be divided after a few years. Primula veris, the Cowslip (center), is the easiest of Primroses and bulks up nicely, though not invasively, in moist shade. Can be divided every other year just after it blooms, and soon you'll have sheets of it in April. And if you have a pond, or a stream, or a bog, or even a ditch, you should be growing the Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris (right), an American native with beautiful glossy foliage and sprays of golden yellow blossoms. Will grow right at the water's edge, provides early food for bees, deer resistant, self-sows to form a colony in time... what's not to love?
For average to dry soil, in shade, I turn first to the Epimediums. Although they're pricey and slow to increase, they're worth the investment, spreading steadily to form handsome mats of weed-proof foliage after the flush of early spring flowers is past. Two good ones are Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' (left), and Epimedium x 'Amber Queen' (center), both of which increase as fast as can be expected for an Epimedium. 'Sulphureum' flowers at about 8" but 'Amber Queen' produces sprays of blossom a foot or more in height. A good companion plant is Helleborus x 'Yellow Lady' (right), happy enough in dry shade to survive and flower every year, but if you can enrich the soil just a bit, she'll put on a better display and increase more rapidly.
Shrubs that feature yellow tones in spring are great as a complement and background for Daffodils and Primulas. Plant Forsythia if you must, but I'm content to enjoy it from a speeding car (local garden designer Heather Grimes calls it "The Vomit of Spring"). A much more interesting choice could be made within the genus Cornus, the shrubby Dogwoods. Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' (left) is a yellow-twigged version of the native red-twigged Dogwood. Forms a nice colony in average to wet soil and bears fruits that feed the birds late in the season. Cornus mas (center) is a large shrub/small tree that blooms very early and sets pretty fruit that looks something like an oval cherry, edible but quite tart and used mainly for jelly in its native home of central and eastern Europe. And for a spectacular focal point in part shade, plant the variegated Pagoda Dogwood 'Golden Shadows' (right). Pagoda Dogwoods, properly Cornus alternifolia, are native to the northeastern US and so-called because of their elegant tiered branching structure. The yellow leaf margins of 'Golden Shadows' make it a standout in the shady understory it prefers, so you only need one!
Yellow flowering trees are uncommon, so the debut of the yellow Magnolias was an exciting event in the world of horticulture. There are quite a number coming onto the market now, but the first of them was 'Elizabeth' (left), hybridized at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by Dr. Evamaria Sperber in the 1950's. Just shows how long it takes many plants, particularly woody ones, to get from development into our gardens! 'Elizabeth' is a soft ivory color and very beautiful, but if you want a stronger yellow, choose 'Butterflies' (center), a nice primrose yellow, or 'Lois' (right), deeper still and a vigorous grower. Because of their parentage, many of the yellow Magnolias bloom a bit later than the pink and white cultivars, so they're less likely to be spoiled by late frosts.
Euphorbias fill a lull in the season's flowering sequence: they come into bloom along with the later bulbs and remain attractive for a very long time, bridging the gap between high spring and early summer. They are primarily foliage plants, but I think their acid yellow flowers are a refreshingly sharp tonic to the soft colors of many spring bloomers. Most of the larger, dramatic Spurges (their common name) are too tender for us, so we can only drool over them in photos of English and Californian gardens, but the two above are reliable here and I wouldn't garden without them. Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' (left) is a low mounder that stays tidy throughout the season, with colored foliage shading through wine red, bronze and even into tones of violet in the fall, always decorative and interesting. Sometimes tricky to establish (not sure why) but once it takes, it will be with you for many years. Marsh Spurge, Euphorbia palustris (center and right), is a much larger, shrubby cousin that's wonderful used in damp areas. Full sun will yield more flowers but it will also perform well in part shade. It's underappreciated because it looks a bit like a weed in a nursery pot, but once you see it well grown you'll be sold. Has a nice winter silhouette, too.
Coreopsis, or Tickseeds, are an enormous tribe, and hybrids keep coming out every year in lots of luscious new colors, unfortunately not all of them hardy for us here in Zone 5. Three tried-and-true yellows though, are (left to right), 'Moonbeam' with delicate needle-like foliage and flowers a light, bright almost greenish yellow; 'Creme Brulée', with medium textured foliage and larger, butter yellow blooms; and Coreopsis tripteris, the giant of the family from the American prairies, sporting clouds of golden yellow daisies in September atop sturdy 6-9 ft. stems.
No review of yellow-flowering plants would be complete without at least mentioning Daylilies. Enthusiasts go in for the newer pinks, lavenders and reds, but I'm still partial to a good classic yellow, especially when it has a high bud count and looks almost like a wildflower, like 'Wee Willie Winkie' (above). There are so many yellow varieties that you can plan a succession of bloom times to cover almost the whole summer. Other good yellows are 'Corky', short and floriferous with purple-brown buds, 'Berkshire Star', stately at 5 ft. tall with large golden flowers of a true lily shape, and 'Hyperion', the classic lemon yellow that's been popular since it was introduced in 1925.
There's certainly no shortage of yellow daisy-form flowers, many of them American natives that are well adapted to life in our region. One year late in the season I asked local professional gardener Ruth Defoe how she planned to spend the winter, and she replied, "I'm going to finally learn the difference between Helianthus, Heliopsis, and Helenium!" A worthy goal, as they can surely be confusing. Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' (left), is super vigorous to the point of sometimes making a pest of itself, but in the right situation can be a real problem solver. Use it in semi-wild areas where it can be allowed to run rampant, out-compete weeds and cover itself with fresh lemon curd daisies for a very long period in mid- to late summer. Heliopsis 'Summer Nights' (center), is more mannerly, staying in a nice clump and attracting butterflies and other pollinators to its mahogany-centered flowers held on slim dark red stems. The foliage too, is suffused with a reddish tint, giving the whole plant a distinctive look. Best in full sun but will grow and bloom in part shade also. Heleniums come in some delicious shades of brownish red, copper and orange, but the pure yellows, like 'Kanaria' (right), are very useful too. Flat-topped clusters of cute little daisies with prominent button centers bloom for weeks. Older cultivars are very tall (up to 6 ft.) and may need staking, but the newer varieties are shorter and less trouble... just be sure they're sited in a moist soil that never dries out, or you will loose them! Otherwise very easy and rewarding.
More yellow daisies, these all from the genus Rudbeckia! Just about every gardener has grown Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm', available everywhere, super reliable and floriferous... it's a gateway plant for novice gardeners and a workhorse for landscapers. Once you've cut your teeth on 'Goldsturm', you may want to advance to some of its more interesting cousins, all native Americans. Rudbeckia triloba, or Brown-eyed Susan (left), has smaller but profuse blooms that give a more delicate effect among grasses and other perennials. Sometimes short-lived but will usually self-sow, so you'll probably never be without it. Rudbeckia 'Herbstsonne' (center), is thought to be a hybrid between two species, but its origin in unclear. Nevertheless it's a big, beautiful plant with healthy basal foliage and flowering stems that rise to 6 ft. by midsummer producing, over a long period, bright yellow daisies with drooping petals surrounding a very prominent green conical center. My favorite is the giant prairie plant Rudbeckia maxima (right), the Great Coneflower or Cabbage-Leaf Coneflower, so called because its large, glaucous basal foliage does resemble a cabbage leaf. From the base, rigid stems ascend through mid- to late summer that bear the large-coned, yellow daisies. Best planted in groups as each stem may carry only one or two blooms, but unbeatable for providing a vertical accent among lower plants and grasses. All these Rudbeckias are easy, tough plants well adapted to our climate, great pollinator plants, and seed sources for native birds.
To complement all those yellow daisies, something spiky is called for, and here's where we run into some limitations... I can only come up with three (ignoring the thuggish Lysimachia punctata!). Baptisias now come in lots of shades, and 'Carolina Moonlight' (left) is a very beautiful soft yellow. There are stronger yellows too, and lovely blends combining yellow with bronze or reddish purple, all of them extremely easy and long-lived American natives. Another great native is Carolina Lupine, Thermopsis caroliniana (center), a wonderful meadow plant that blooms in early summer and forms decorative seed heads that persist into winter. Finally, I have a sentimental attachment to Hollyhocks, and in spite of their tendency to succumb to rust and Japanese Beetles, I still grow them. The most reliable for me is the Russian Hollyhock, Alcea rugosa (right), a nice blendable lemon yellow that is fairly resistant to rust. Also seems to be more reliably perennial that most Hollyhocks, and there are always seedlings coming along in case the original plant plays out.
Senna marilandica is a big, vigorous almost shrub-like perennial that has a slightly tropical look with its feathery pinnate leaves and clusters of bright pea-like flowers. Formerly known as Cassia marilandica, it's an American native that makes a bold statement used in a flower border, but you've got to stay on top of the seedlings that arise from the decorative seed pods. Used in a meadow, competition from grasses and other forbs will keep its progeny in check, and it provides a nice foliar contrast to most other meadow plants.
Sedums are one of my favorite plant groups... easy, useful and rewarding. They flower in several colors: pink, purplish, white and yellow. I grow some of each color, but keep them carefully segregated because pink and yellow together sets my teeth on edge. Here are three good yellow-flowered types... Sedum kamtschaticum 'Weihenstephaner Gold' (left), an unbeatable weed-suppressing ground cover, Sedum kamtschaticum 'Variegatum' (center), a clumper with refined, cream-edged foliage, and a new favorite of mine, Sedum x 'Lemon Jade' (right). It's a taller plant, similar in scale to the popular 'Autumn Joy', but reliably upright and opening soft primrose yellow from broccoli green buds. The subtle color makes it easy to combine with other late blooming perennials and it looks particularly nice with the seed heads of grasses like Pennisetum 'Hameln' or Bouteloua 'Blonde Ambition'.
Goldenrod, properly Solidago, is a genus well represented in North America with over 100 different species native. Many are so common on roadsides and abandoned fields that it seems unnecessary to include them in our gardens, but here are a couple that are refined and distinctive enough to merit domesticity. Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' (left), makes a bushy clump, vigorous but not invasive, that explodes in late summer into a shower of golden wands. The effect is quite delicate in spite of the gutsy color, and it makes for a good contrast with Asters, Boltonias and the flowering grasses. Very attractive to bees and butterflies, and tough as nails. Completely different is Solidago caesia (right), the Blue-stem or Wreath Goldenrod. It grows low and spreading, flowering all along its almost horizontal stems. Particularly useful for dry, partly shaded locations where the range of plant options is always limited. It must be mentioned that many people still believe that Goldenrods cause hay fever, but this is simply not the case... Ragweed, which blooms at the same time, is the real culprit!
With a little imagination you can create satisfying combinations using just shades of yellow and yellow-green foliage. This grouping, at the former Loomis Creek Nursery, includes yellow Violas, Verbascum chaixii, a golden conifer, a variegated yellow-twigged Dogwood and some California Poppies. The silvery plant behind is the giant Scotch Thistle, Onopordum acanthium.
There are, of course, many more yellow plants... we've only scratched the surface here. And I'd love to hear from you if you have a favorite I've left out. I hope you've enjoyed this dose of sunshine in the midst of the shortest, gloomiest days, and whatever holidays you celebrate, here's wishing you joy and peace and warmth to come.
Yes, Gentle Readers, it's been a very hot summer with record temperatures and less than average rainfall, coming on the heels of an almost snowless winter. Ground water is depleted and gardeners as well as plants are feeling stressed, tired and wilted. But we soldier on, resilient and ever hopeful... that's part of what it means to be a gardener!
Like a crisp linen shirt, white in the garden can be a refreshing and revitalizing antidote to the sultry weather. There are many choices with either flowers or foliage in shades of white to help alleviate the heat, at least visually. Here, a few of my recommendations...
The Bottlebrush Buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, is one of our most magnificent native American shrubs. Grows 6-12 feet tall and forms a colony of stems in time, but never invasive. Best in rich soil and part shade, it seldom needs pruning and and is almost never troubled by pests or diseases.
The panicles of tubular white blossom attract butterflies when they appear in July, and the handsome palmate foliage turns buttery yellow in fall. Its native range is the southeast US but it's perfectly hardy all through USDA Zone 5. Underappreciated, but highly recommended.
Oh those botanists! I still keep calling this Cimicifuga racemosa, but it's now Actaea racemosa. Nonetheless, one of the best late-blooming perennials for shade, and a native as well. Curvaceous spires of fluffy white flowers soar as high as seven feet on strong slender stems, carried well above the mounds of ferny deep green foliage. Needs at least average moisture to thrive but really at its best in an area that never dries out.
This is a plant with some fascinating common names: Bugbane, Snakeroot, Black Cohosh, based on medicinal and insecticidal qualities of the rhizomes and their reptilian appearance. I just think it's a wonderful architectural perennial that's valuable for blooming so late in the season. In addition to the plain green species, there are quite a few selections with darker, purplish foliage that are even more decorative.
Cornus 'Ivory Halo' is as cool in summer as it is warm in winter, thanks to its clean, white-margined leaves that unfold as the bright red twigs fade with the coming of spring. The red- and yellow-twigged shrubby Dogwoods are popular for their beautiful stems that show up so nicely against the snow, but most of them inspire very little interest once they leaf out. Not so with this one, a variety of Cornus alba, the Tartarian Dogwood. Easy to grow and will mature to 6-8 ft, although it can be kept smaller with pruning, and it's advised to remove about a quarter of the stems each year to encourage new shoots, which have the best winter color. The flowers aren't much to rave about, but the fruit is very attractive to birds, and the fall color is often quite good.
Hydrangea arborescens 'Haas Halo' is the lacecap cousin of the widely planted 'Annabelle', but I think much more elegant. The 14" wide blossoms are carried on sturdy stems 3-5 feet tall with deep green, glossy foliage, and because it's a seedling of the native Smooth Hydrangea, its refined appearance is backed up by a very tough constitution. Makes a stunning mass planting or a beautiful specimen, and the flowers are popular with honeybees and other pollinators. They also dry well, or if left on the plant through the winter, look wonderful dusted with snow.
One of the longest blooming perennials, Calamint (Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta) is the perfect choice to face down taller plants at the edge of a border, or lovely used in mass on its own. Low bushy clumps--not invasive like the true Mints--flower from June until September with clouds of tiny, white or ice-blue blossoms adored by honeybees. The foliage is delicate and extremely fragrant when crushed or even brushed against, adding to its cooling properties. A real workhorse in the landscape with a lot of airy charm to boot.
Miscanthus sinensis 'Cosmopolitan' is one of several white-variegated Maiden Grasses on the market ('Cabaret' and 'Variegatus' are also good choices). Tall and stately with beautiful arching foliage edged in creamy white, 'Cosmopolitan' looks great with large scale perennials and can hold its own as a contrast and complement to shrubs. Like all grasses it adds movement to any planting, and will fade to shades of golden tan and look good well into winter. Needs adequate moisture to establish but otherwise trouble free... just be sure to cut it down early in spring so the sun can warm the roots and encourage strong new growth.
Early summer is the flowering time for Viburnum plicatum 'Shasta', but it looks wonderful all season long and is so useful as a large screen I couldn't help including it in this list. Lacy flowers carried on elegantly layered branches are followed by small fruit that Robins love and clean foliage that turns shades of russet in fall. Best with reliable moisture, but will thrive in average soil as well, in sun or shade. A great, dependable shrub that can block out an unsightly neighbor in just a few seasons!
Liatris spicata is commonly seen in purple, but 'Floristan White' is a variety I've come to love. This native's fluffy wands open from the top down, while most flowering spikes open from the bottom up, and it increases reliably every year, forming something like a corm at the base of the stems that can be easily divided to increase your stock. The spikes turn a pleasing shade of tan and remain decorative through the winter. Versatile Liatris looks equally at home clumped in a traditional flower border or scattered throughout a grassy meadow planting.
Border Phlox (Phlox paniculata varieties) have been around since Victorian days and although they're sometimes martyrs to mildew and viruses, I'd find it hard to garden without them. No other summer perennial has quite the visual impact, or the delicious fragrance, especially notable in the white varieties. 'David' and 'Volcano White' (above) are two cultivars I grow, and both have improved disease resistance. One key to success is to keep them consistently moist, easier said than done in a summer like this one, but well worth the effort!
Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, is one of the crown jewels of American native shrubs. Easy to grow with beautiful foliage, gorgeous flower panicles, spectacular fall color and interesting exfoliating bark, this is truly a four-season plant. Its only drawback is that deer absolutely maul it in the winter, so site accordingly, net it, or spray and pray.
How can you resist this fall color?
One of my favorite native perennials, Eryngium yuccifolium grows roadside in the Louisiana pinelands where I grew up. The greenish-white bobble flowers are carried in branched clusters on tall stems above jagged grassy foliage that forms handsome clumps about the size of a Daylily plant. The folk name of this plant is "Rattlesnake Master", a reference to its supposed ability to cure snakebite. I'm happy just to grow it for its interesting texture and decorative winter seed heads! Perfectly hardy in the Hudson Valley given good drainage and full sun.
Another terrific native perennial is Culver's Root, Veronicastrum virginicum. Its tall, elegant habit lends needed verticality to perennial borders, but it looks fantastic in a meadow planting as well. Easy to grow, low maintenance, adaptable to most soils from average to wet, and attractive to butterflies and other pollinators. There are lavender cultivars on the market but I think their color is a bit washed-out, so I much prefer the clean white one. Blooms July into August, above pretty whorled foliage, and the spent flowers look interesting all through fall and winter, so no need to deadhead.
The White Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, is a lesser-known native perennial but one you might spot in low wet areas or even roadside ditches anywhere in the Hudson Valley. The common name comes from the unusual shape of the flowers, said to resemble a turtle's head, and the genus name is derived from the Greek chelone, meaning tortoise. Beautiful in a bog garden or at the margin of a stream or pond, where it can get the regular moisture it needs. Otherwise trouble-free, cool and lovely in late summer.
Summersweet is the common name for Clethra alnifolia, and a good name it is too, for no other American native has such a heavenly scent when in bloom. The panicles of flowers are irresistible to butterflies and honeybees, and are followed by bead-like seed heads that remain attractive into winter. Deciduous foliage that's a fresh green all summer, turning golden yellow in fall. Suckers to form colonies and happiest with damp feet and its head in the sun. There are pink-tinged varieties too, all fragrant and lovely.
The Mountain Mints, Pycnanthemum species, are enjoying quite a vogue right now among gardeners who've discovered them, and I recommend you try this one if they're new to you. It's Pycnanthemum muticum, aka Short-toothed Mountain Mint. The silvery bracts that surround the true flowers make landing pads for a whole menagerie of pollinators: butterflies, bees, moths, beneficial wasps and more. Makes a great cut flower too, lasting weeks in a vase, and the foliage smells deliciously of pennyroyal. Even though they're called "mints", there's no need to be alarmed... they are vigorous native plants but not nearly as aggressive as the culinary Mints.
A sunny spot with good drainage is the perfect home for Silver Sage, Salvia argentea. Huge furry lobed foliage like Lamb's Ear on steroids, and it blooms early in the summer with a big spike of white flowers. Not a long-lived perennial but I've had excellent results keeping it going by mulching with gravel and removing the bloom spike after flowering to prevent seed formation. A real eye-catcher in the perennial border or rock garden, and children love to pet it!
One of the big guns of late summer is the Pee Gee Hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora', a classic shrub first introduced into cultivation around the time of the Civil War. There are now dozens of varieties, in all sizes, and sold as shrub forms or standards (above) which are often called "Tree Hydrangea", a misnomer.
All of them are beautiful, reliable shrubs for our climate, winter hardy and floriferous, only requiring decent soil, reasonable moisture and a modest pruning job every spring before they leaf out.
'Bobo' is a Hydrangea paniculata variety recently introduced from Belgium, and its compact size (under 5 ft.) makes it more manageable for many situations. Plus it's a prolific bloomer.
Almost all the paniculatas start out white and turn shades of pink as fall approaches, and 'Pink Diamond' is one of the prettiest that colors up well, and has open panicles that fit better into naturalistic settings than some denser-headed cultivars. In fact, there's a Hydrangea paniculata variety for just about every taste, from beach-ball sized heads ('Phantom') to elegant attenuated lacy sprays ('Kyushu) and everything in between.
I hope you've enjoyed my list of summer coolers... I'm sure you have some favorites of your own that I passed over. The goal is to make our gardens enjoyable, personal and inspiring, even in the most trying weather!
Confession: I never cared much about Crabapples, neither liking nor disliking them to any great degree. They were another spring-flowering tree commonly seen on neighborhood front lawns, like Dogwoods and Redbuds. Pretty, but nothing remarkable. Then I inherited one at the house I bought.
It was planted about ten years prior by the two spinster sisters who lived here, and who had an infallible sense of what would look just right at this funky old farmhouse. Taken out of its suburban setting, near our clothesline and on the route we take, twice daily at least, out to the henhouse and vegetable garden, it seems perfectly suited and has reached a stage of maturity that's allowed me to fully appreciate its year-round appeal.
I have no idea what the variety is, but like most Crabapples it flowers in May, its deep pink buds opening gradually to become a fragrant cumulus cloud of white blossom, alive with bees and other pollinators. The big display lasts for the better part of two weeks, longer if the weather is cool and overcast, and as the petals drop they litter the ground underneath in a charming way, competing with the white Crested Iris and white Epimediums I've planted in the tree's shade.
Throughout the summer months it remains a substantial but unobtrusive presence that, along with two ancient Lilacs, makes up the canopy of a large shady area that's ideal for Hellebores, Hosta, Hakonechloa, Asarum and many other herbaceous plants. Its leaves are handsome, clean, glossy and (so far) disease free, so I suspect it's one of the more modern varieties that are being bred for greater resistance to the many problems that plague fruiting apples.
But make fruit it certainly does, thousands of pea-sized bobbles that cluster densely on the branches and mature to a deep ruby red by fall, and hang on through most of the winter until, sweetened by multiple frosts, they're stripped by Robins, Cedar Waxwings and Jays. Even after the fruit is gone, our tree gives us pleasure with its gnarled, mature structure and dense twiggy branches.
Choosing a Crabapple variety for planting can be a daunting task as there seem to be hundreds in cultivation, but if your home's style is farmhouse casual, stick with the white-blooming cultivars. 'Donald Wyman' (below) is a reliable, disease resistant choice with a handsome form, profuse flowers and small, bright red fruits. If attracting birds is a priority for you, make sure you choose a type with fruit on the smaller side... under one inch in diameter. If you're interested in cider-making or jelly (Crabapples contain high amounts of pectin) there are larger fruited varieties too.
If you have a more formal or modernist property, you might consider a variety with brighter flowers and colored leaves, like 'Centurion'. The deep rose-pink blossoms are followed by purple new foliage that turns a rich bronze-green as the season progresses. These are more "gardenesque" types that can be used to great dramatic effect, as in the grove planting (below) designed by Peter Bevacqua. An allée of them would also be spectacular.
For the truly romantic, 'Red Jade' (below) is a beautiful weeping form that looks right as a featured specimen with Gothic Revival, Victorian or Asian-inspired architecture. The white flowers are followed by deep crimson, jewel-like fruit about 3/4" in diameter.
Whatever your taste, there's a Crabapple that would suit the bill, and I urge you to rethink their appeal. Hardy, reliable and beautiful in all seasons, they need to be reconsidered and used more carefully and creatively. Like the potato in cooking, they can be down-home unpretentious or dressed-up sophisticated, a very useful staple that deserves being seen through new eyes, and freed from the cliché of suburban overuse.
After a wild ride weatherwise last week, things look to be settling down. There's a haze of green spreading through the woods and we're about to get into the really exciting part of the spring at last. Just for fun, test yourself on these plants that offer early spring interest and see which ones you know, and which you'd like to know. Start with the beauty above, 1) a seldom seen but rather easily grown woodlander. Its flowering is brief but exciting so when it's in bud, chill the wine and call your friends over. Answers at the end of the post!
2) From a vast tribe, this is the easiest species, though not usually seen in this color.
3) These little bottlebrushes emerge early from velvety buds and are sweetly scented, and the leaves of this shrub turn beautiful shades of red and orange in fall.
4) A handsome ornamental perennial for moist situations, but usually found in the vegetable garden.
5) Another moisture lover, this one a native. Self sows to make large colonies in time... perfect for stream margins, bogs or the edge of a pond.
6) A lively version of a common shrub, this one grows slowly and tolerates part shade, where the variegation sounds a bright note.
7) Sometimes a bit challenging to establish, but once this charmer finds a happy spot it will be with you for many years, and increase by offsets and seedlings.
8) Native shrub that now comes in many leaf colors including chartreuse, dark purple, and this one that starts out in shades of orange and coral, maturing to bronze tones for the rest of the summer.
9) An Asian plant fairly new in the trade, useful for foliar contrast among ferns, hostas and other shade plants. The glossy leaves are often flushed with pinkish red.
10) It's a mystery why this tough-as-nails, early flowering, non-invasive sweet pea relative is so little grown. Perfectly lovely under deciduous trees, gradually forming large beautiful clumps.
11) Exquisite color scheme of blood orange, olive and gold on this uncommonly planted bulb native to western Turkey.
12) Bog-dweller that unfurls super early, this plant actually generates enough internal heat to emerge through frozen soil. As bold as a Hosta when it finally reaches full expansion.
13) Very elegant little plant that grows from curious conical corms. This variety has great vigor in spite of its dainty appearance. Flowers early and then vanishes until the next spring, making it ideal to grow among late-emerging perennials.
14) Found in the Rocky Mountains, this striking conifer will grow well in our area and offers vivid golden new growth for up to six weeks in spring.
15) This plant, a native of alpine meadows, was once classed as an Anemone but now has another name. Comes in white, pink, violet or this (my favorite) dusky red. The exquisite blooms are followed by fluffy seedheads and a mound of handsome, ferny foliage.
ANSWERS: 1) Double Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis f. multiplex. 2) Cowslip Primrose, Primula veris 'Sunset Shades'. 3) Dwarf or Coastal Fothergilla, Fothergilla gardenii. 4) Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum. 5) Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris. 6) Variegated Japanese Yew, Taxus cuspidata 'Dwarf Bright Gold'. 7) Snake's Head Fritillary or Checkered Lily, Fritillaria meleagris. 8) Ninebark cultivar, Physocarpus opulifolius 'Coppertina'. 9) Crimson Fans, Mukdenia rossii 'Karasuba'. 10) Spring Vetchling, Lathyrus vernus. 11) Species Tulip, Tulipa orphanidea ssp. whittallii. 12) Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. 13) Dog-tooth Violet or Trout Lily, Erythronium x 'Pagoda'. 14) Lodgepole Pine cultivar, Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'. 15) Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Rubra'.
NOW GRADE YOURSELF!
0-4 answers correct: You're on training wheels but I envy you... there's so much more in the world of plants and gardening for you to discover and explore!
5-9 answers correct: Bravo! You're quite knowledgeable and experienced... keep up the good work!
10-15 answers correct: Congratulations, you're a real plant nerd... do you want a job?
I've got mixed feelings about this sort of mildish winter we're having... for the most part it's been chilly, gray and wet here in the Hudson Valley. On the one hand it's a bit alarming, but after the last two years, I'll take it. And gardenwise, there are some plants that are truly reveling in the lack of snow and ice and the less-than-polar temperatures.
My Hellebores keep trying to bloom, showing buds already, the Primula foliage is still fresh and juicy, and the leaves on my Magnolia virginianas are glossy, gorgeous and unmarred by the searing winds we've usually experienced by mid-January.
So far, that is...
Another group of plants that look particularly cheerful not to be buried in snow are all the smaller Sedums that not only stay (mostly) evergreen through the winter, but take on even more interesting tints in the colder months. I have a real weakness for these little creeping plants and use them wherever I can find a place: between stones, as edgers, in containers and as mini-groundcovers under larger perennials and shrubs.
There are dozens from which to choose, and I keep increasing our offerings at Pondside because our customers seem to love them as much as I do... and why not? Growing them won't impress a card-carrying member of the North American Rock Garden Society, but they're a wonderful group of plants for beginning gardeners to succeed with, being quick to establish, fast growing, easy to propagate, versatile and extremely forgiving.
Here then, some of my favorites...
Sedum rupestre 'Blue Spruce' Probably the first Sedum I ever bought, many years ago, and I still have descendants of the same plant in my garden today. I love the spiky glaucous foliage, indeed reminiscent of a coniferous evergreen, but also suggesting something from beneath the sea. It produces stalky yellow blooms in June that are to my eye somewhat incongruous, so I usually cut them off. That is, if I have the time. In June. Which come to think of it, hasn't happened lately.
Sedum rupestre 'Angelina' 'Blue Spruce's more glamorous cousin, and extremely vigorous. Makes a good edging plant and looks beautiful spilling over a wall or the edge of a container. She colors up orangey-bronze in the cooler months but in the summer stays a nice refreshing lime green. Super easy to increase your stock by sticking two-inch long cuttings into the ground wherever they're needed. Ubiquitous, but I wouldn't garden without her.
Sedum spurium 'John Creech' The spurium group contains several excellent groundcovering Sedums, and 'John Creech' is one of the best. He makes a tight, weed-suppressing mat in full sun or light shade, with clean, lettuce green foliage topped by clear pink flowers late in the season. Apparently John Creech was a former director of the U. S. National Arboretum, who first imported this plant from the Central Siberian Botanic Garden in 1971... so you know it's tough!
Sedum spurium 'Tricolor' Vive la France! (or for all you France-haters out there, just call it Freedom Sedum) Dainty leaves edged in white and tinted pink belie its remarkable ability to spread... as much as a foot in one season in rich soil... making it a prime small-scale groundcover. That said, it's easy to rip out where it's not wanted, so it should never become a problem. The rose-pink flowers and ruby stems complement the foliage tints perfectly... pretty as a Parisienne!
Sedum spurium 'Voodoo' Another spurium type, this one with deep mahogany red foliage that's stunning paired with 'Angelina' or other chartreuse plants. Similar to 'Dragon's Blood', which has been around forever and a day, but with deeper and more consistent color. The pink flowers in late summer are ok but with foliage like this, who cares.
Sedum kamtschaticum 'Weihenstephaner Gold' This is a super workhorse Sedum, always attractive and healthy looking in spite of less than ideal conditions. Serrated rosettes of glossy deep green turn bronze in winter and quickly form a tight, weed-resistant carpet in full sun or part shade. In summer it covers itself with attractive canary yellow flowers that age through shades of copper and bronze to pale tan. Large plantings can even be mown to remove the spent flowers. Easy, useful, reliable.
Sedum album 'Athoum' If pink or yellow flowers don't suit, there are Sedum album varieties with... yes, you guessed it... white flowers! 'Athoum' is one of them that's commonly used nowadays on green roofs, and I've planted a patch at the front of one of my beds (above) where it holds its own respectably as an edger. The little jellybean leaves have a high cute factor up close, and they blush shades of pinky-purple in winter. Spreads easily as pieces break off and root, but never alarmingly so.
Sedum hispanicum The Spanish Stonecrop is a lovely, delicate thing that can vary in its coloring but is always some version of gray-green, shading towards blue, pink or purple. References say it can be used as a groundcover (maybe in California!) but I've always had better luck keeping it through our harsh winters in a trough or planter. Supposedly it has white flowers but I can't remember mine ever blooming though I've grown it for twenty years. It's really beautiful paired with some of the tiniest creeping Thymes like 'Elfin'.
Sedum acre 'Aureum' Fine textured but tough as a boot, and perfect for filling crevices in stonework or edging a sunny retaining wall. Another plant I bought once, or maybe I was given a piece, years ago. Now I have big patches that mingle nicely with several other creeping Sedums and provide a tidy carpet through which my tiny early bulbs emerge. New growth is bright yellow flowers that disappear without deadheading... then fresh green foliage for the remainder of the season.
Sedum rubrotinctum 'Mini Me' The tiniest creeper I grow, with pinhead sized leaves on threadlike stems. The texture is as fine as moss, but unlike moss, this Sedum relishes full sun and dry conditions. Because it's so small it takes some time to fill in, but will eventually form a thick mat and even sometimes trails out over flat stones and attaches itself to them. Green in summer, turning reddish in fall, winter and early spring. Perfect underplanting for a larger succulent houseplant, too.
Lots of people have rock outcroppings on their property, but few of them are as creatively planted as this one at Pondside owner Jake Watt's house. Facing southwest and forming one wall of his pool enclosure, the ledge has been planted with a variety of creeping Sedums that blend beautifully with native mosses and lichens. Since these photos were taken, Jake has replaced the lawn with a carpet of Sedum as well.
Not for nothing are Sedums called "Stonecrops"... their draping and billowing textures provide the perfect foil for stone whether it be vertical or horizontal, as in this roof garden.
Mixing several compatible varieties together in a tapestry planting is easy and very pretty. Use no less than three and no more than five different kinds that have similar scale and vigor.
For a unique container display, use the smallest Sedums as a lush lawn underneath dwarf evergreens, as did garden designer Chris Locashio here.
At Pondside we like to group the smaller Sedums with Creeping Thymes, Sempervivums, the smallest Alliums, Campanulas and Veronicas... any combination we think will inspire you! There are many more kinds of Sedums and many more ways to use them, but I hope I've whet your appetite, given you some ideas and increased your appreciation for this group of easy and rewarding little plants.
"All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray..." So sang The Mamas & the Papas, which dates me. But we had a very good run this year, didn't we? A long, measured fall with lots of bright color and a real Indian Summer (another song, but that one's from my parents' generation).
The slow pace of the season gave us quite a few days to do fall gardening (hope you all got those bulbs planted!) and an opportunity to observe some of the lesser sources of foliage color that are easily overlooked while the Maples, Hickories and Oaks are blazing away.
One of the first splashes of brilliant color comes from a vine that I would never recommend planting, but there's so much of it around that it can be enjoyed from a safe distance. That's Toxicodendron radicans, aka Poison Ivy, pictured above climbing an old Catalpa tree near Kinderhook. Although I've never heard of anyone growing it as an ornamental, it's known to have been sent back to England by some of the early plant explorers and grown there by John Parkinson, who included it in his 1640 herbal.
Another early color splash, and far less toxic, is Purple Love Grass, Eragrostis spectabilis. It's native to the eastern US from Maine to Texas, and tolerant of dry, sandy and infertile soils. Not very prepossessing until it comes into flower in late summer, when the cloudlike bloom can often be noticed along highways or in unmown fields. It's used to great effect (above) in the Spencertown garden of artist Linda Horn, who's assisted by garden designer Heather Grimes.
A terrific companion for grasses, and another American native, is Amsonia hubrichtii, the Arkansas Blue Star. Pale blue flowers in late spring are followed by mounds of deer-proof foliage, whose delicate texture complements bolder plant forms. Come fall, it morphs through greeny-gold into shades of buttery yellow, sometimes quite brilliantly.
Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' is always colorful, from the moment it emerges in spring until it's covered by snow, but it looked particularly nice this fall contrasting with the leaden hue of this Rue plant, Ruta graveolens 'Jackman's Blue'.
Many of the hardy Geraniums color up nicely in the fall... this is Geranium macrorhizzum 'Ingwersen's Variety', an indispensable groundcover plant for me, and some of the smaller ones, like Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' become brilliant little mounds of red in October.
All the Hakone Grasses, also known as Japanese Forest Grass, are beautiful and graceful plants, useful for providing a linear texture in shade, but there are some that have striking autumn color as an added bonus, like Hakonechloa macra 'Nicolas'. A slow grower, but worth the wait.
Almost everyone grows some Hostas, and many of them turn bright shades of yellow after frost. This unidentified variety in my garden pleased me with its lurid, almost iridescent demise.
I don't grow many Astilbes but I'm partial to this one, 'Delft Lace'. The flowers are a good solid shade of pink, not timid or washed-out, but it's the foliage I really like. It emerges tinted reddish bronze and matures to a deep glossy green, then takes on some good color in the fall. Trend conscious, it varies from year to year... last fall it chose shades of yellow and pink and this year, red was apparently the thing!
Tan, brown and beige are colors too, and can serve as foils and complements to all the fiery shades of the trees and shrubs. Left to right: the late-blooming Aster umbellatus (here in garden designer Betty Grindrod's sunny border) has white daisies followed by these fluffy seed heads. Miscanthus giganteus, the tallest grass we can grow hereabouts, takes on silvery-gold tones before bleaching to pale tan. And cumulus clouds of seedheads are the climax of the season for the fine-textured native Boneset, Eupatorium hyssopifolium.
I love these bobbles in beige, the seed heads of one of the native Bee Balms, Monarda fistulosa or Wild Bergamot, again in Linda Horn's garden of almost entirely native plants. Also featured prominently among the tall grass plantings on the High Line.
The fall rains and cool temps always prompt many interesting fungi to emerge. This velvety brown beauty popped up under one of my White Pines and I have no idea what it's called... any mycologists out there who can help?
Three more perennials that were show-offs in my garden this season: Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomeum), pink-flowered Epimedium (Epimedium rubrum), and Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata 'Tennessee White')
Even the lowliest plants can be eye-catching as the seasons change, like this ground-hugging Sedum 'Angelina'. Lime green through the warm months, she bronzes beautifully in the cooler temperatures of fall and early spring.
There are many more colorful small plants that can be appreciated for their autumn tints, we just need to keep our eyes open for them, and savor their often vivid progression towards dormancy.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.