Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Unapproachable Christopher Lloyd

I love checking out my library’s new book section. Last week I discovered Succession Planting for Year-round Pleasure, a fantastic book by Christopher Lloyd. The photos are among the most beautiful I have ever seen, and I give this book my highest honors. But perhaps it deserves some demerit on the grounds of impracticality or even depressing unattainability.

For one thing, Lloyd’s long border at his estate at Great Dixter is 200 feet by 15 feet, so many of the effects which he finds practical are not possible in any garden likely to be owned by the bourgeoisie. Further, he gardens in England in perhaps the equivalent to Zone 8. Despite this, he is always looking to push the limits of hardiness with exotic plants. And outside of Britain and coastal Oregon and Washington, there is virtually nowhere in the English-speaking world where the winters are so mild, and yet the summers are not too hot for many of his plants.

So taken altogether, in any combination of 3 plants you might consider, it’s a safe bet that 1 of them either can’t be grown in your location, or will require extraordinary levels of coddling to get through the winter. At some level there’s nothing wrong with that; who hasn’t at least considered growing Dahlias or Gladioli, which must be dug up, but can then be stored in most basements? However, his planting schemes are more labor intensive than this. The semi-hardy and tropical plants he loves must be dug up, or have cuttings taken, and many are wintered under glass; to do this for all of his many varied plants, he apparently has at least 3 different temperatures in his greenhouses or cold frames.

Normal (i.e., not superhuman) gardeners use biennials and short-lived perennials (the ones which seed themselves to death) such as Lupines, many Dianthus, Digitalis (foxglove) and Lychnis coronaria, as relatively easy self-sowers, performing enough dead-heading to keep seedlings to a modest level, and hopefully to keep the mother plant alive as well. For Lloyd and his head gardener, Fergus Garrett, the chosen method for all of these but the Lychnis (rose campion) is generally to sow seeds in summer, pot them up and put in a cold frame in October, bed out the next April or May, then rip out the plants as soon as their blooms have faded. Naturally his Lupines make mine look diseased. Damn him to hell and all that. For fuzzy-leaved Verbascums, which he winters in their final positions, he actually suspends a plate of glass over their crowns to keep them dry so they don’t rot!

All that said, his plant combinations are exquisite, and many of them are obtainable by most gardeners in temperate climates. More important, the principles he espouses, the color combinations, and the methods of succession among broad types of plants, are all transferable to less intensive methods, or to other plants which are more practical for your situation. Further, I defy anyone to read this book without discovering several new plants he will plan to try out. I am made newly aware especially of several with true- and deep-blue flowers. Buy or borrow this book, but also consider his older books, The Adventurous Gardener and The Well-Tempered Garden. They have essentially no illustrations, but a wealth of cultural information and design ideas and critiques of many plants and cultivars.

The Adventurous Gardener

The Adventurous Gardener, which I obtained for $4.98 in the bargain book section at New England Mobile Bookstore, has long graced my shelves. It provides a brilliant gardener's take on any number of practical, as well as aesthetic, judgments. The first 11 chapters concern maintenance and propagation, such as "Unusual Ways with Rose Cuttings," “Maintaining Mature Hedging,” and "Some Reactions to Cutting Back" (which covers the results of radical pruning on scores of genuses of shrubs and trees).

The next 8 chapters cover trees and shrubs, Lloyd’s experience and opinions of hundreds of species and cultivars, and the best ways, culturally and aesthetically, to use them in the garden. The rest of the book covers a variety of herbaceous plants, design concepts, the theories of Gertrude Jekyll, “Planning a Border,” you name it. Of course, the book, at 250 pages, is not comprehensive. For that matter, Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden is in a sense basically the same book, except that there is very little overlap. Each is a series of essays which stands on its own. (Similarly, the estate of the late Henry Mitchell has 3 such books out, made up of his newspaper gardening columns; but Mitchell’s columns are shorter and more about literary style than detail, and his 3 books overlap each other considerably.)

This book’s greatest weakness: it only has 18 low-resolution black & white photos. These are in the book's center, and do little to illustrate the text. So in order to follow many of the chapters, which concern specific varieties of, say, crabapple trees, or concern combinations of plants, you will have to have the A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants or a similar reference at hand. That said, this keeps the book small and dirt cheap (as little as a dollar used via Amazon). I suppose I could, for lack of hundreds of glossy color photos, rate the book less than the perfect 5 stars, but I can’t see criticizing a book for not being what it is not, especially when it is so good at being what it is.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Not bad for October. (No frost yet!) Posted by Picasa

A Longer Lasting Rudbeckia?

The above photo shows part of my double border (photo taken 10/7/05). Obviously, the plants are past their peak. But note that Rudbeckia 'Irish Eyes' (near left) is still looking relatively fresh, while Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' (just to the right of 'Irish Eyes') is now basically just brown "cones" with all petals fallen or drooping straight downward. Now, 'Goldsturm' is a great plant, and I like its slightly golden tone (and brown centers) slightly more than the purer yellow petals and greenish centers of 'Irish Eyes,' but the 'Irish Eyes' habit of blooming at least three weeks later into the fall is worth something.

Also, since everyone has 'Goldsturm,' I wouldn't want to overuse that variety. Fortunately the two plants go together well, so I'll keep 'em both. Another good thing about 'Irish Eyes' (and Rudbeckia and composites in general) is that it can flower well even in its first year from seed, which is unusual at least for noncomposite perennials. I started them indoors on 2/27/05 and planted out on 4/26/05, with no coddling.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

My trellis, with Ipomeia 'Scarlet O'Hara.' Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Head in the Sun, Roots in the Shade

It’s not often that gardening makes me feel stupid.

Killing plants doesn’t. Plants die. And generally when I’ve killed them I had recognized that I was taking a risk, such as putting a silver-leaved plant in moisture-retentive soil in part shade, because I liked the way it looked there more than any other available spot. (On that score, Lychnis coronaria is far more tolerant of shade and moisture than is Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead.’)

But last week, I found myself wondering how I could possibly have failed to understand the needs of vines. It’s often said of Clematis, among many vines, that they like their “head in the sun and roots in the shade.” This would seem to fit their natural orientation climbing over shrubs or trees. But isn’t the same true of the shrubs or trees, and even herbaceous border plants, as well?

These plants also generally have their heads in the sun, and their roots are also shaded, by themselves and, in a closely planted bed, their neighbors, yet something different must be happening with vines to lead to the “head in the sun and roots in the shade” prescription – assuming it isn’t a bunch of bovine feces.

Although I’m not arrogant enough to think that such a common prescription could be entirely wrong, the bovine feces hypothesis is always worth consideration. For one thing, roots clearly don’t sense the sunlight itself. They sense temperature and moisture levels. Naturally, a good layer of mulch can, as much as shade from above-ground growth, keep the sun’s rays from raising soil temperatures and evaporating near-surface moisture. Dry soil will be hotter than moist soil. And the application of (cold) water from ground sources and deep reservoirs (i.e., most any private or municipal water supply) will directly and rapidly cool an overly warm bed of soil.

Of course, the questions remain whether one can add sufficient water to cool the soil, without damaging a plant not adapted to bogs, or whether soil in New England will ever be both quite wet and too hot for a “normal” plant – or just about any plant, given that the silver-toned Mediterranean plants which like dry conditions are also resistant to any heat that New England can dish out.

Getting back to my “D’oh!” moment of last week. The morning glory (Ipomeia ‘Scarlet O’Hara’) vines have run well over the top of my trellis (previous post). Whenever I’ve watered, I’ve see that they’re dry (by poking a finger through the mulch) and added as much water to them as I do to just about any of my herbaceous plants (10 seconds from a handheld shower head nozzle at a non-blasting but considerable flow). This seems like a lot of water, given that the 10 plants are a foot apart and seem to share each others’ water, are well mulched with cedar chips, are clear overhead to rain water, and are really only getting half sun. But while the plants have grown tall, and flowered reasonably well, they’ve still always seemed a bit peaked. So this last time, I checked the soil again a few minutes after I watered. Bone dry! I repeated this process 6 times (pausing for soak-in) before achieving, I think, the average moisture level my other plants would get from one pass.

*And then I realized... like I was shot with a diamond bullet right through my forehead, that this scarcely more than 10 square feet of planted bed was supporting close to 100 square feet of foliage – 100 square feet of plant matter which was transpiring, in the face of the sun, perhaps 10 times more water than if the bed were planted with modest-height border perennials.

Many vines like sun. And unlike most sun-loving plants, perhaps all of them will benefit from shading of the soil around their roots. But the crystalline, pure truth of the vine’s essence and needs is that it sucks up a lot of water because it is so tall and skinny and covered with foliage along its height. In contrast, trees and tall self-standing perennials keep most of their foliage on the top and side edges of the volume they “fill.” (Interior foliage, if it is not sloughed off, is largely shaded.) As such, their water needs do not go up linearly (or much at all) with their height.

On the whole, the printed sources I’ve checked speak of a need for average soil moisture for morning glories, or say “keep well watered until established.” I can’t disagree, but I am pretty sure that maintaining an average level of soil moisture will always require an above-average level of watering, for morning glories and probably for virtually any vine.

*Kurtz, 1979

Monday, June 20, 2005

My newly completed trellis (details below). Posted by Hello

Trellis, Anyone?

I’ve been largely out of commission in the garden for the past two weeks, due to jury duty and personal matters. But on Saturday (June 18) I built this 7 foot tall by 9 foot wide rustic cedar trellis. It took all day, the process including cutting with a gasoline chainsaw and electric circular saw, digging, elevating and securing all pieces with stainless steel #10 2½” screws. (Tree felling and design had been done earlier.)

The upright posts are Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar), with horizontal and diagonal stiffening pieces of the same wood or of hardwoods, as I didn’t have a lot of long, straight, smaller diameter cedar. The rear posts are set 12” in the ground, on top of 4” of rocks and sand, the remaining 12” hole then filled with 8” of sand and 4” of soil. I suspect the posts will last for 8 to 10 years, while some of the hardwood cross-pieces may have to be replaced in as little as 2 years due to rot. It’s not much work to replace cross-pieces one at a time; the difficult task is setting up posts and holding them upright while securing them.

I have yet to run vertical strings for the morning glories (Ipomeia ‘Scarlet O’Hara,’ visible in the center of the soil bed, and now just 1 foot tall) to climb, and I will also be adding some smaller pieces of wood, or horizontal wires, for various plants to climb, the exact use of which depends on what other plants I end up adding.

Given the yellow and white house, the existing morning glories, and my desire for roses, I think I’ll have to stick with red to orange or red to pink flowers.

I want to have at least one rose, given the site probably a climber like the red 7-petaled Altissimo, or the nonremontant red very double ‘Chevy Chase’, both of which Peter Schneider on Roses says are good choices for half shade. (This is an excellent book, probably the best of the “Burpee Expert Gardener” series; it consists of Schneider’s favorite 400 or so rose cultivars among the 1,400 he boasts of having grown, with many photographs and some broader cultural tips and information on classes of rose.)

For the other plants I am undecided. A clematis would be nice, especially a later bloomer that can be pruned in the spring with the rose.

Ideally, at least one of the plants will grow long and full enough to cover the top of the trellis and shade the chairs below from the mid-day sun behind them. And some broad-leaf evergreen foliage would be nice in the winter, although I think that would mean including a plant without blooms as flamboyant as rose or clematis, so I wouldn’t want to overdo the evergreens, or have to keep fighting to keep an invasive ivy off of my flowering plants.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Blooming rugosa Moje Hammarberg, among other plants in my long bed (see text below). Posted by Hello

Monday, June 06, 2005

Moje Hammarberg and his neighbors

Here’s a section of the middle of my long bed, which is finally showing some promise for the season.

Near the right we see ‘Moje Hammarberg,’ whose first bloom opened 6/6/05. Its loosely double, bright saturated purplish-pink flowers are sweetly scented, and come early and throughout the season. (This year everything is running relatively late; I haven’t seen other cultivated roses blooming to date.) This rose grows 3 or 4 feet tall and at least as wide. Like most rugosas, its wrinkly leaves are extremely healthy, its stems are extremely prickly, it will have large hips, and it’s hardy down to Zone 3 or 4 (it was introduced in Sweden in 1931). Last year I wasn’t blown away by the number of its blooms, but that was its first season, and I purchased and planted it rather late (6/20/05, consequently it was just $10 outside the Building 19 on routes 27 and 9 – their non-rugosas were looking pretty sick by that time). The only care I gave it: planted in a well-dug bed, watered when droughty, and knocked off Japanese beetles (tools: a plastic spatula and a soapy pail of water). While powdery mildew was pervasive among nearby roses and brambles, this plant never showed a sign of it, or of any stress. I heartily recommend it, especially to gardeners who think roses are too difficult.

Next from the right: Narcissus leaves (dead-headed).

Middle: Lillium ‘America is putting up quite a few big, healthy looking stalks. In my previous post I covered its scarlet lily beetle infestation. As it happens, since my one spraying of Pyrethrin, I have only seen 1 or 2 beetles per day, so I’m hoping my daily inspection and squashing regime will keep the plants healthy without resort to more radical measures.

To the left, behind a tuft of daylily foliage and the Lillium, Centranthus rubra (Jupiter’s Beard, aka Red Valerian, among other names). You can see the first small blooms just starting on top of the Centranthus. This plant handles extremes of temperature, soil and moisture – despite its Mediterranean origins and reputed preference for dry, alkaline conditions, it proved healthy and vigorous for me last year (while my Verbascum was putrefying), with a long season of bloom. Individually, its clusters of small flowers don’t compare to, say, roses, but the plant will soon be much more flamboyant than pictured here. I don’t know why it’s not more popular, unless it’s because it’s too easy to grow for bragging rights, and gets large and flops a bit on its neighbors – that doesn’t bother me if a plant is easy to shear back (no picky pruning regimen, prickly thorns or overly invasive roots). Centranthus is also available in lighter pinks and white. It is featured in the book Antique Flowers, by Katherine Whiteside (1988), a great source for discovering old-fashioned and relatively neglected species.

And to the left of the daylily foliage, a pale pink Oenothera (evening primrose). Or actually, a number of seedlings from the Oenothera, as there did not appear to be a returning (perennial) stalk. These beautiful pinkish mauve flowers appear to glow brighter-than-white in low light conditions, and despite the species' common name, appear throughout the day.And behind Oenothera: Alchemilla mollis (Lady's Mantle), and pink-flowering Allium (chive). All three of these plants are easy and healthy, although often reported to be somewhat invasive I have only found the Oenothera to be so, and its seedlings are pretty easy to identify and pull up if necessary (unlike some invasive plants which spread by runners). The chive is of course tasty with scrambled eggs.

Back Row near right: Lupines and Lychnis coronaria (rose campion, not yet flowering).

Monday, May 23, 2005

Killing the Red Lily Beetle

I have the dreaded red lily beetle (aka scarlet lily beetle). Yesterday I saw several adult beetles living on the Fritillaria imperialis in my bulb bed, as well as on the Lillium ‘America’ in my long bed, but not (yet) on the shorter Lillium ‘Stargazer’ in the same bed about 15 feet away.

So I sprayed Lillium ‘America’ with Schultz House & Garden Insect Spray (0.02% Pyrethrin) yesterday. The product claims to work on beetles, and today I saw no beetles there, although they were still on the unsprayed F. imperalis. But I have seen reports of very limited effect from this organic pesticide, and it’s close to impossible to spray-cover all parts of this Lily plant, whose leaves are still quite curled up, especially if you want to avoid overspray.

I do not want to use far more toxic pesticides such as imidacloprid. Instead, I have a more radical plan, or experiment, in mind. That is to use fumigation (i.e., gas, within an enclosure). In general, fumigants are considered too dangerous for amateur use. But I would use either cigarette smoke or carbon dioxide to kill the beetles, and I can’t see fearing either gas (well, smoke is more like an aerosol), especially when used outside, and within an enclosure.

Basically, I could upend a container like a trash can – preferably clear – on the plants. This container would have two holes in it, one connected to a hose, the other with a flap or other one-way valve on it. Since smoke (and carbon dioxide) is heavier than air, I will pump smoke into the lower hose, with air to vent out the top until the container is full of smoke. The cigarette will be held within a pipe-like mechanism, surrounded by a glass cylinder, so I can watch the cigarette burn down as I pump air into the mechanism, through the hot cigarette, and into a narrower tube placed on the filter. (I may remove the filter; why reduce the toxins?)

Of course, I do not know if this will work – ideally, kill adults, eggs and larvae. I have read of a high-school science experiment / propaganda, where tobacco smoke is shown to kill flies, which are unharmed by a similar amount of paper smoke. Also, nicotine has long been used as an insecticidal powder, and is in the tobacco plant precisely as a systemic pesticide, as are most plant toxins. It’s just a question of dose and duration, relative to the particular susceptibility of the Lily Beetle.

Provided the beetle infestation survives the pyrethrin – which seems likely – I think I will have to head out to a hardware store, or maybe a head shop, if they still have those, soon.

Whether tobacco works or not, I may also try carbon dioxide. It’s easy to get 10 to 20 oz. tanks of pressurized liquid CO2 for use in “constant air” paint ball guns (they’re rather smaller than the standard propane tank used by plumbers).

I have not been able to find anything concerning horticultural use of tobacco smoke as an insecticidal fumigant. Does anyone have any experience with such methods, or know of any source concerning the same?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Three primula bought at Home Depot for a total of $4.00. See story below. Posted by Hello

Home Depot: Godsend or Evil?

In my opinion, Home Depot offers us a dilemma of cheap products sold with a caveat emptor attitude. Here’s some of the Good, the Bad and the Nonexistent:

The Good

I started buying primroses at Home Depot in February, keeping about 3 pots at a time in my dining room window for as long as they bloomed. At $1.49 each for 4” pots, and sometimes $0.99 for slightly older stock, I figured that at worst I was still getting flowers cheaper than the doomed ones from florists. Most of the plants had no label, but the odd pot would have a plastic marker saying “Primula acaulis Danova Mix.” Probably most or all were of this type, although that’s hard to prove with a variable seed-sown strain, and a few were more of the ‘candlestick’ type in shape. As each plant’s blooms got ratty I moved it to my cellar under lights. I put 8 plants out on April 22, most in a wooded strip above the aqueduct path that will be mostly shaded once leaf-out is largely complete at the end of May. Seven of the plants still have fairly healthy looking foliage, and 2 are still blooming, which is pretty impressive considering the plants were forced into growth and bloom well before their natural period in this climate.

The Bad

The glossy boxes of Peonies and Phlox, on sale this March, showed a color photo of what to expect, but provided essentially no information about the plants, except for estimated heights, the fact that the peonies were double and might need staking, and that the peonies and phlox were each in assorted colors (i.e., nothing on cultivar or even species). A Google search also yielded nothing on these “Growing Colors” products. But at 4 peonies for $9.96, or 8 phlox for the same price, I figured if even one of each survived and proved worth keeping, I was at least breaking even compared to buying potted growing plants. I know that peonies are best planted in fall, but some sources I checked said that planting was also acceptable in the spring as soon as the soil could be worked – rather vague, I know. (The box said to plant the peonies after the ground warms to 50 degrees F.) I planted all of both species on April 22, about an inch deep, watering them in well, and conditions have been mild and moist since then. The peony buds had elongated to 3” spears, so I left 2” above ground, so the crown and base of the buds was an inch or two deep. Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but 25 days later I haven’t seen any growth from any of the phlox or peonies. Other people I know report losing bare-root plants as often as not, but 0 for 12 is ridiculous. Also, it wouldn’t cost them anything to have some more information on varieties or ancestries on the glossy box and whether to bury all of the elongated growing points, and it wouldn’t cost them much to have something on the web from the mysterious “Glowing Colors” firm which the package lists only as a P.O. Box in Lakewood, New Jersey.

The Nonexistent

While Home Depot has a large selection of deadly pesticides and herbicides, they have not offered any of the organic pre-emergent herbicides made from corn gluten. The Home Depot employee I asked had heard about such products, and had no answer for why they didn’t carry them. So I got it at my local garden center, Windy-Lo Nursery (Natick, MA). The product seemed to work. At any rate, the lawn improved a lot where I spread it (a sunny area where annual grasses had dominated in the lawn’s newly seeded first year), although I can’t prove it wouldn’t have otherwise. Tests I’ve seen on the web indicate an 80% to 90% reduction in lawn weeds, a 10% Nitrogen component, and as one would expect for corn gluten, complete safety even for food plants. I’m no purist about being organic, but why spread deadly chemicals all over a lawn if you don’t have to? (Maybe it’s because I just don’t care all that much about lawn perfection, because I will spray poisons to get rid of poison ivy, or pests in my perennials, but I think the difference to me is that the lawn is large and exactly where my kids are playing.)


I’ll continue to shop at Home Depot for hardware, and I can’t resist checking out their plants whenever I go, but I’ll do far more of my horticultural shopping at:

Windy-Lo Nursery (the closest to me, and a lot larger than it looks from the street)

The Saturday farmers’ market on the Natick Common (fresh, often field-grown plants)

One-time events at nonprofits like schools or the Mass. Horticultural Society in Wellesley (I find that plants in a well-managed one-time sale are timed right, not underdeveloped and not pot-bound)

Russell’s Garden Center (more comprehensive selection)

In the parking lot of the Building 19 on routes 9 and 27. (I never would have expected lumpen-retailer Building 19 to have decent plants, but then one of my clients told me that it was a family business not really part of Building 19, and I checked it out regularly last year. Their product is great, at least when it first comes in, and none of the bargains have been disappointments.)

Friday, May 13, 2005

Here is the right side of my long perennial border just after dusk tonight (5/13/05), shot (zoomed in) from the window next to my PC as parental duties ruled out leaving the house. Posted by Hello

Dusk from my window

At right we see Dicentra eximia and the taller and more flamboyant D. spectabilis in their new bloom, taking over from Narcissus bulbs (back left) which are past their perfection, but still beautiful and scene-stealing in the otherwise relatively monochromatic bed. D. eximia is longer-blooming, but I prefer the purer red-pink of D. spectabilis, and its more “heart” shaped flowers – and in this position, shaded from about 11AM to 3PM each day, even D. spectabilis bloomed for about 6 weeks last year. I am glad to have these plants, whose size and timing is crucial in this bed – although their niche could also be filled by early Rhododendron, which would also have winter and more early spring interest.

At left front note a green-over-brown Lillium spear, 4 Fritillaria meleagris in front of last year’s dead cropped Pennisetum grass, and the new spiderwort (Tradescantia) foliage, still streaked with red-brown. The Fritillarias are rather lost here, in part due to my reddish (not the garish dyed red! red) mulch. I have several spaces here to fill (last year’s Pennisetum, Lavandula and Verbena, I’m afraid), which means I can buy more plants without doing more double-digging. I won’t again attempt a Mediterranean plant like Lavandula on this side of the bed.

The back row has, between and to the right of the clumps of blooming Narcissi, healthy returning perennials – Lupinus, and Alcea (hollyhock), respectively. These were grown from seed sown in situ last summer, and so if all goes well this will be their first season blooming for me. (Last year I placed purchased Lupines in the front of my house, where the afternoon sun killed them.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gardening Books

There isn’t much happening in my garden, with things slowed down by excess cloudiness. (OK, the daffodils are still looking good despite last weekend’s howling winds, the bleeding hearts are beginning to bloom, the Lavender, Verbena and Pennisetum I’ve mentioned earlier are probably dead, but all the Lillium are spearing up.) So I’ve decided to write about my favorite garden books.

I just counted my gardening books. I have 98, unless I missed a few, and I’m damn proud of it, thank you very much. (If I had to report an even 100, you’d assume I was estimating or even exaggerating the count.) Most of these I bought cheap at yard sales, library sales, used book stores, or discount sections. This would of course count as a huge waste of time, if I didn’t enjoy the pursuit. Although library sales and book stores almost always have a separate section for gardening, I count myself lucky to find one useful or interesting book in a rack. It seems inevitable that more than half will be on house plants or will have titles like “Gardening,” with no focus whatsoever. (For me, the latter category can occasionally be worth purchasing if it’s big, old, well-illustrated, or written by one of the greats, who mostly seem to be British).

I won’t tell you which used book stores have had the most interesting selection, because I am selfish, but I will tell you to check out the New England Mobile Bookstore (so-called, it’s actually a masonry building) in Newton, MA. I used to take my lunch break there twice a month just to see what was new in their unusually large section of discounted books.

One of course has to have reference books showing specific plant species and types, ideally some that are broad but shallow, and others that give a whole page or more per species, with cultural information and photos of various cultivars. If you’re reading an essentially photo-less book like The Damp Garden, by Beth Chatto, the presence on the same table of a well-illustrated reference tome makes all the difference between completely useless incomprehension and full knowledge of what she’s talking about.

So, apart from reference books which one generally doesn’t “read” as such, here are the 4 books to which I return again and again:

The perennial garden: Color harmonies through the seasons, by Jeff and Marilyn Cox (1985).

This book has a lot of useful things to say about color and garden design. Some of the color theories presented are flaky and esoteric (such as detailed color-emotion link tables, and matching hues to musical notes and making a literal “color harmony”), but the reader is free to learn and choose from many color and design theories. Since garden design is a subjective art, I can reject the need to use, say, the “golden section” in a given design, yet believe that it’s a good idea to consciously consider it. (I may blog later on different cultures’ contributions to ideas about symmetry, at least 3 of which I am open to.) The book also has about 150 pages of information on specific perennials, by genus, and chapters on matters such as building up soil, and building paths – wasted pages if you already have a good basic library. For me, the book’s best feature is its 80 well-annotated color plates, arranged by season, showing either a medium close-up of 2 or 3 plants or a broader landscape view. It always inspires and humbles me. I got the book at a yard sale for a buck; it’s almost as cheap used via Amazon. (Jeff Cox’s Perennial All-Stars: The 150 Best Perennials for Great-Looking, Trouble-Free Gardens, 2002, is also a very useful possession, but not as fun or inspiring to read.)

Crockett's Flower Garden, by James Underwood Crockett (1981)

Despite its age, if you live in Zone 6 or 7 in the Northeast, this may still be the most useful “what to do when” book you can find. The book is arranged by month, with what should be done to various plant species arranged alphabetically (by common name), along with a few broader pointers, also by month. It can be a bit frustrating to have to look in 2 or 3 places to read all that is written about, say, Phlox, but since now is in fact May, it is most useful to be able to scan one short chapter to see what can be done now, and what you might have overlooked. Has color photos of given plants on almost every page, but not much on putting together plant combinations, or on good garden design. Dirt cheap used on Amazon. (Jim Crockett was the first host of the PBS show “Crockett's Victory Garden” – this, his last book, was finished by Marjorie Waters and John Pelrine, who received credit only inside the book.)

Penelope Hobhouse’s Natural Planting (1997)

This book covers the use of native and other well-suited plant choices to match your local conditions and create beautiful, generally lower-maintenance, informal gardens. Beautiful photographs, tips for various cultural types (e.g., meadow gardens, shrub borders, woodland edges) and design theory, with a moderate emphasis on the temperate conditions one might find in England or New England. New England Mobile Bookstore has long had a stack of this book selling new for $9.98 (paperback edition). This book has no section arranged by species, but that’s no loss for most garden readers, and Hobhouse shows a detailed knowledge of plants and gives plenty of tips on their specific use within the culturally arranged sections. (Hobhouse has a large number of books in print and out; all that I have read have been worth purchasing.)

The Green Tapestry, by Beth Chatto (1989)

This book has a similar philosophy and arrangement by cultural conditions as Hobhouse’s. While Hobhouse’s looks to gardens around the (temperate, Western) world, this book is all based on Beth Chatto’s garden. But that’s enough, as these are the large and varied display gardens at her retail and commercial nursery. The gardens are set in Essex, an area of England with harsher conditions (drier year-round, with a cold winter) than most of the country, and thus more like that of much of North America. While the book doesn’t have a big alphabetical plant reference in the back, Chatto does have a few pages on each of many of her favorite genera. Amazon shows used Simon & Schuster copies available from $4.50 (Another edition, presumably the one printed in Britain, starts at $124.31!) Chatto has other books worth purchasing if they match your local conditions: The Damp Garden (1996), The Dry Garden (1996), Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden: Drought-resistant Planting Through the Year (2002), Beth Chatto's Woodland Garden: Shade-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest (2002), and no doubt the revised Beth Chatto's Damp Garden: Moisture-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest (May 2005).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Front row: Nicotiana, Potentilla, Veronica, [invisible Alcea], Lavandula
Second row: Asclepias (yellow), Rudbeckia, Lillium, Pennisetum
Details Below. (August 1, 2004)
 Posted by Hello

Long Bed – Reds and Yellows

Let’s return to my long flower bed, whose theme is primarily one of ‘hot’ colors such as yellow, orange and red, but with some cooler tones, primarily on the shadier right end (covered in an April 29 post). I do want my young children to be pleased as they walk through the U-shaped path, with flowers on either side, so I have made it a little on the flamboyant side for a perennial bed. So far I’ve succeeded with my “best” critic, as my 19-month-old son runs down the grass path yelling “flowers!” upon seeing a patch of daffodils, or “poppies!” when glimpsing anything red, even the picture on a plant label.

With writing, as with a garden, one has to consider one’s audience. I assume that people searching the internet for gardening blogs are already capable of looking up plants and varieties, and so I intend to focus on my experience with plants and groups of plants – what’s worked and hasn’t worked for me, culturally and visually – rather than broader information that may be of use for people in other climates, but would just reflect my regurgitating other stuff I’ve read, or the sort of information you’d likely find on a plant’s label.

The photo above focuses on the front bed, near the right-hand side, just next to the Tradescantia and Verbena I mentioned on April 29.

What’s in it?

At front left in this view, Nicotiana ‘Nicki’ is a popular annual. It performed fabulously, its red and pink flowers blooming through the summer as one expects from most annuals (I did deadhead it almost daily with my fingers). But unlike most annuals, which turned to mush in our October 6 frost, the Nicotiana remained healthy, like most of the perennials – and even flowered into early November, as I recall the only thing to do so except for my miniature rose ‘Starina.’ I expect I will soon get the same plant for this spot.

Next to it is Potentilla ‘Gibson’s Scarlet’ – its flower stalks sprawled a bit more later in the summer, but the flowers also became more abundant. The small, dark red blooms are not as outré as some of their neighbors, but they do show up better in person (under daylight conditions) than in this photo. It also has pretty foliage. The plant is today (May 2, 2005) a beautiful mound of foliage already about 2/3 as wide and half as high as in this photo.

Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’ (speedwell) didn’t flower or grow much in 2004, but hey, it was a first year perennial. It’s already as big today as in this photo, and I expect to see its blue-purple spikes this year, especially as it’s described as “deer resistant.” I’m hoping that the slightly bluish pink of the lily behind it will allow it to gracefully fit into this composition.

What appears to be a blank space to the Veronica’s right held a tiny seedling of hollyhock (Alcea) from the Fordhook Giants Mix. The plant grew larger last year and is already an attractive clump of about 10 leaves as of today; it may bloom pale yellow, pink or dark red, judging from the seed packet photo. (I have a dozen of the same strain in the back row, behind the grass path and all of the plants discussed here.)

At front right, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ is smaller than the more popular ‘Hidcote’ and probably more bluish in hue (both types of English lavender are often sold by name despite being raised from seed, and are reported to vary in color and form). I should probably move this plant to the sunnier side of the bed and raise it up a couple inches with some added grit; it was sluggish and floppy last year, and seemed to have some powdery mildew. But perhaps with the infected multiflora roses and brambles removed from the nearby slope, and some chemical steps taken (such as baking soda in water, as I want to minimize the use of more toxic chemicals), it can flourish here in just over half sun, especially if we have a drier summer.

In general I have not been especially careful to segregate plants by water needs, figuring that in a dry year some plants will do well, while in a wet year others will; and under typical conditions, I can water, say, my Siberian Iris, while the daylily beside it will do alright with its seepage. So far, I think my only total failure was Verbascum pulverulatum (elsewhere in the back row of this bed), which flowered weakly and died before even setting seed. If I have the time to start some new raised beds in the sun, I will try Verbascum again, and move or divide other lovers of dry soil into this bed, which I will amend with grit or gravel and sand.

Second Row

At left, Asclepias currasavica ‘Silky Gold’ (a butterfly weed or milkweed, which Monarchs are attracted to). Since nothing has come up from its rather woody stump this spring, I googled this plant today and learned it’s only hardy to Zone 8b, but is often consciously grown as an annual – well worth it, in my opinion, for its large size, clean foliage and long-flowering habit. (Its milkweed pods filled with parachute seeds were also interesting, but I deadheaded most to limit self-seeding and, I thought, keep the plant strong.) So I have another place for a plant, and an improvement. Perhaps I will plant another butterfly weed, this one or the more common Asclepias tuberosa (hardy to Zone 4), and in either case will likely choose one of the more golden-orange flowered types over this yellow-gold cultivar. The yellow plant was, on its own merits, quite perfect last year, but for the fact that it was right next to Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm,’ which had, to my eye, exactly the same shade of yellow.

Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm.’ It seems that everyone who has any perennials has ‘Goldsturm’ – which is the only drawback of this excellent, long-flowering, deeply colored, vigorous and healthy cultivar (and a common problem with many cultivars which are head and shoulders ahead of their siblings, such as ‘Happy Returns’ daylily, Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam,’ and whatever that pale purple rhododendron is that’s first to bloom each spring – like right now). Once you’ve seen a few of one of these ‘All Stars’ you can drive down a country road at 40 MPH and identify the plants from peripheral vision alone. It’s enough to keep me from putting a half-dozen ‘Goldsturm’ next to the street, but it won’t keep the plant entirely out of my beds. It has returned this spring, looking healthy, but is still quite small compared to the mounds of Potentilla and Veronica in front of it.

Lillium ‘Stargazer.’ True lilies may be the most important genus of hardy flowering plants that many experienced gardeners in my area have given up on. Their mortality problem is due primarily to the lily beetle. So I am not going to go hog-wild for lilies, thinking that the more I have the sooner they will find my garden. (Unfortunately, they also eat Fritillaries.) I saw no sign of damage last year.

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' (Fountain Grass). I don’t want to have a lot of ornamental grass, but I think this was one of the finer touches in this bed, keeping its deep red color until frost. This plant is only hardy to Zone 9a, so I dug it up in November and put it in a pot in the stairway down to my basement, not knowing if this would be warm enough. So far no sign of life this year.

As you may have noticed, the bed looks a bit sparse in this photo, with considerable “bare” soil covered in mulch. Viewed more horizontally, as most people do, the multiple rows of plants filled the apparent space fairly well, but I’ll concede they’re far from filling the bed to the sort of lushness most of us hope to achieve.

I do expect that many will be ready for division this fall or next spring. They have already multiplied considerably in their one season of growth. Indeed, many were bought in quart or 4” containers, and most of the plants in this section were put in the ground in late June or July, and were thus in the ground only about a month when this photo was taken. I credit double-digging and a pickup truck load of 2-year-old cow manure.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Here is my foundation planting of bulbs in its first spring. (May 1, 2004)
 Posted by Hello

Bulbs, With Mixed Success

Moving to the front of my house, I have a bulbous foundation planting, about the only thing I planted in 2003 apart from a nursery bed. The bed gets sun from about 1:00 PM on (that’s high noon given Daylight Savings Time).

In this photo, (from May 1, 2004) the Crocus blooms have passed (you can see the grassy foliage of those in front) and the Alliums have yet to bloom. The former were of course welcome harbingers of spring, as well as being beautiful of bloom and foliage in their own right, although we would hardly notice them if they bloomed in June unless they carpeted a large section.

I was especially happy with the three orange Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) near the back. They are well worth the $6 a bulb, as much for their tall (40”) stately foliage and funky smell (some don’t like it) as for their flowers, which are rather short-lived like most early bulbs’ (perhaps a week at peak beauty). I can always justify such a purchase when I compare it to cut florist flowers.

What’s not working here? The back row, of azaleas and the Narcissus (daffodils) which are just inside them, which was here when I bought the house in 2003. While the Narcissus added a certain something when the house was white, they are barely noticeable against the now-yellow house. And the azaleas are quite hideous before they flower (pale purple) and get their leaves in mid-May; they manage to hang on to just enough withered brown leaves through the winter as to look more ugly and bleak than even bare sticks. They are slightly more compact this year after moderate pruning last June.

Finally, the predictable flaw in my all-bulb design is its lack of bloom or even foliage after late May. The nasty dying-down bulb foliage isn’t hidden at all and can’t be removed until June lest the bulbs weaken and die out over the next season or two – the few, later-blooming Alliums can’t hold their own under these conditions.

How did the plants hold up in this, the bed’s second year? Most of the bulbs have returned, to my semi-surprise given that through last summer I found dozens of holes dug in this bed by chipmunks, until I did away with them with a rather sinister trap. The rodents seem to have gone primarily for the Crocus, as there are about a third as many of these this year. The grape hyacinths and tulips seem exactly like last year, as do the Alliums, although it’s too early to tell about the Alliums’ blooms.

The most noticeable decline is in the Fritillaria imperialis. One didn’t come up at all. A second came up, but with two stalks for a while, and it does not now have a flower. I understand that bulb-splitting and non-flowering is common with these plants in the garden. (Obviously someone has figured out how to grow perfect flowering bulbs for sale, no doubt in a field with more sun, perfect drainage and high fertility.) The third Fritillaria is blooming now, but it and its nonflowering sibling are only about two-thirds of the height they reached last year. Yet the two tallish plants are still a positive, bringing vertical elements, foliage color, and one rather impressive cluster of orange blooms to an otherwise blankish wall flanked by the “undead.”

I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from growing Fritillaria imperialis based on my example. Again, they’re only getting half sun, and my soil here is only about 8 inches deep, over foundation-related gravel, meaning the fist-sized bulbs were at the bottom of the soil layer. Further, the top 3 or 4 inches of dirt seemed to be almost entirely cedar mulch of varying levels of decomposition. The breakdown of wood removes Nitrogen from the soil, but I applied a bare minimum of Hollytone 4-6-4 to the bed last summer, probably later than would do much good for the bulbs. I’m not a strictly organic gardener, but I do generally minimize my use of chemicals; for some reason it would bother me much more to kill things from a chemical excess than from neglect.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Planting Out Seedlings – Too Early?

I finished planting out the last of my seedlings today, apart from the Scarlet O’Hara morning glory I started a week ago. (I started most of them under fluorescents in my basement at the end of February). It’s a bit early by the calendar, but the 10-day forecast shows no frosts. The forecast also shows a lot of cloudiness and rain (as we have been getting for the past week and a half), and so conditions are quite favorable for transplants to recover without a lot of coddling -- to be honest, without any hardening off process.

Fingers were crossed, for I would have preferred to make the move later and more gradually but for an infestation of tiny flies in my basement. This infestation seemed hardly dented by my spraying pyrethrin, something I felt less than comfortable doing given the product’s warning that it might damage young seedlings. (Are those spots on the Papaver due to insects, insufficient light or fertilizer, or the pyrethrin? Now I have made the point moot.)

It’s been a strange spring, although I know, as the immortal Henry Mitchell has reminded us, that the perfectly average spring would be the truly strange one. In April we went from snow-covered, frozen, saturated earth to too-dry-to-allow-burning conditions in just 10 to 14 days of unusually dry, sunny and warm weather.

These conditions compressed bloom times on our early bulbs. In fact, my Crocus and Chionodoxa started bloomed before my snowdrops (Galanthus). And while snowdrops have a delicate beauty to them once you get down on your knees, no one bothers to do so when there are relatively large, colorful flowers in the same view.

After the area’s out-of-control brush fires peaked on Boston Marathon / Patriot’s Day (April 18th this year, for those of you not blessed with this Massachusetts holiday, which often grants us a 1-day reprieve on our federal taxes), Nature followed with 10 days alternating between, on the one hand, overcast days, and on the other hand, overcast rainy days. So I was able to have my 4 brush fires, the product of my messy, overgrown wooded strip, and I have been able to plant my 3 to 4 inch seedlings with some prospect of success.

What did I plant?

Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ (although I’ve had second thoughts on these “green-eyed susans”)

Rudbeckia Morveno (an orangish, generally annual form)

‘Lavender Lady’

Celosia ‘Red Velvet’ (annual)

Yarrow (Achillea) ‘Summer Pastels’

Poppy (red and white annuals)

Most went into the 42’ bed I’ve shown below, or into the slope behind this bed. This slope still has many living stumps of brambles and poison ivy, so I will now have to use a surgeon’s delicacy in killing them with loppers and chemicals, while coddling my transplants from any turn to sunny weather.

Perennial Bed, from North, with aqueduct behind, September 6, 2004. Posted by Hello

My Long Perennial Bed

All in all, my perennial bed worked out quite well in 2004, its first season, helped by more annuals than it will have in 2005 or future years. A grass path divides it into a rear inverted-U bed of 3’ width, and a straight front bed of 4½’ width. The U bed is 42’ wide. It also has a mown grass path behind it, below which is the slope down to the aqueduct.

It was of course quite a lot of work, de-sodding and double-digging the whole bed, then amending the soil with peat moss, leaf mold and composted cow manure, ratios varying depending on soil conditions, material availability and whim as I went along, with a dose of Hollytone 4-6-4 added where cow manure was not.

The bed runs East-West, sitting atop a slope several feet down to the similarly situated aqueduct. Much of it gets close to full sun from April through August, but a row of very tall white pines to the South, on the far side of the aqueduct, shade it in other seasons when the sun is lower. This may be a good thing, in that it prevents premature spring thawing and frost heaves.

Right hand of bed, September 6, 2004. Posted by Hello

Right Hand of Bed

As we move to the right, the bed is increasingly shaded by a high deciduous tree (visible next to hideous white pipe) from early May on. This provides afternoon (and even mid-day) shade, with shading beginning earlier in the day the farther one moves to the right, providing a good bed for bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), the longer-blooming fringed bleeding heart (D. eximia), Astilbe, and, since the photo was taken, a variegated Hosta last fall and a Primula just a week ago (a Home Depot $0.99 special). The bleeding hearts were freebies from my neighbor, and remained healthy despite moving with limited root structures and despite my delay in getting some of them in the ground.

I credit the soil.

This far right-hand section of the bed was actually the worst I have dug, with compacted clay and rocks making up the bulk of the “soil.” After using the mattock and shoveling out clay and rocks, I amended it most heavily, adding leaf mold, wetted peat moss and local soil in mid-May, just a day before planting. “Aging” the bed was not necessary due to my avoiding incompletely composted materials. Despite some fear of a bathtub effect, I’ve seen no signs of sluggish drainage; the site’s raised location apparently makes up for its being surrounded by packed clay.

The afternoon shade allowed my spiderwort (Tradescantia) to keep its delicate blue-purple flowers open all day (they more typically close up at noon), yet the full morning sun is enough to keep pink Cleome and red Cosmos happily flowering behind it, if a bit leggy. The red grass at left (a non-hardy Pennisetum, I believe) also grew tremendously, but the lavender in the left foreground wants more grit and sun, and the barely noticeable Verbena to the immediate right of the Tradescantia suffered from powdery mildew. This mildew was endemic to the brambles (Rosa multiflora, blackberry, and something else with 5-leaf clusters and thorns) which dominated the aqueduct slope behind until I ripped and cut them all out last fall (some visible to left of Cleome in this photo), leaving behind established clumps of goldenrod (Solidago).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

First Things

This blog will primarily cover gardening, particularly the gardening I’m doing on my 1.3 acre partially wooded property in Natick, Massachusetts (zone 6A). The property’s most unusual feature: it includes a below-ground aqueduct which used to feed water to Boston. While the aqueduct, which dates to the 1870s, has been superseded by more than one larger replacement, the MWRA (Massachusetts Water Resources Authority) maintains the pipe and keeps the path clear. Basically, it’s a wide, almost perfectly flat trail through the woods. As ground levels vary, it is bordered by upward or downward slopes, looking much like an abandoned railroad easement.

While I own a stretch of the aqueduct, I have to allow the MWRA access, and I don’t object to others’ access (despite the big “No Trespassing” sign posted by the MWRA along the street). I can’t plant on the flat part of the path, or put trees or shrubs along the slopes. The MWRA mows the flat part each year in late summer or autumn, and uses slope mowers often enough to prevent trees from sinking roots into the below-ground masonry work.

Because there is a daily stream of joggers, cross-country skiers, dog-walkers and romancers passing along the aqueduct path, I consider it, more than the street, to mark the “front” of my property, and atop the slope edging down to the aqueduct is where I have put my largest and most labor-intensive planting, a double-dug 42’ by 8’ bed of perennials (with lesser numbers of annuals, bulbs and roses). This was just planted in the spring and summer of 2004 (a year after we bought the property), but I think it worked out pretty well for a first-year performance (photo from upstairs in my house).

Above the aqueduct I have a second path, basically an allée through the trees. So far most of my work on this area has been destructive (thinning trees and brush, pulling poison ivy, brambles and strangling vines).

Of course I also have lawns in front and back of my house, although the front lawn is in significant part a leaching field, meaning I can only plant the shallowest-rooted plants upon it and should minimize walking on and watering of the area. It’s now a grass lawn, and I have yet to do something about screening the prominent white vent-pipe.

I may also cover politics, particularly local politics as it relates to my property, adjacent properties and the aqueduct easement.