June 25, 2006

Vireyas: Tropical Rhododendrons

Rhododendron "Valentine"
I think that is it amazing that even though one may be growing and collecting plants for many years, that one can still stumble upon an entire genus that few others are growing, and one that offers so many varieties and choices, and so it is with the Vireya section within the genus Rhododendron. Of the 900 species within Rhododendron, 300 are Vireyas.

These are tropical Rhododendrons, and must either be grown as house plants where there are cold winters, or they must be grown in a frost free greenhouse, which is where we keep ours. Simply said, Vireyas like the same conditions athat any cool orchid would like, specifially, if you can grow Pahiopedulums, the lady slipper orchids, then you would most likely have success with Vireya. They prefer cool, damp, frost free conditions. Yet they can be grown on a windowsill, with a tray of pebbles, in a room which remains cool or unheated most of the winter.
Although commonly known as Vireya, these

Rhododendron christianae from Papua New Guinea

Native to the areas near and around Borneo and Papua New Guinea, Vireyas grow in the wild on shadow moist mountain slopes, where it remains moint, humid and relatively cool most of the year, generally in the clouds and mist near the cloud line. This give you an good indication of what they like in an environment.

R. 'Tropic Glow'
We plant ours in a special mix of fir bark and water retentive soil that one would actually use for plantings on a deck. The pots are relativelt small for the plants, which themselves are quite woody and branchy, with few leaves. The plants prend the summer out doors in the open shade, where they recieve rains and nutrients from summer thundershowers, and are move back to the greenhouse at the first sign of frost, where they spend thier winters getting misted occaisionally, and still never drying out.

R. 'Saxon Glow'
Flowers can occur at anytime, although I tend to get a good burst of bloom after first moving them to the outside, around now, in July, and then again, in OCtober, when we start getting the fall rains. The colors of the blossoms on these tropical rhododendrons is the reason one collects them. With colors that span the spectrum throughout the warm ranges of melon, coral, golden mango and peachy pinks, they fill a gap which temperate Rhody's could never fill. Try collecting a few Vireyas and enjoy the discovery of something perhaps new to you.

June 24, 2006

Planting with Autumn in Mind

The Lost Art of Exhibition Chrysanthemums

June may be the time of peak early summer bloom for many, but just as any other month of the year, there are steps to be taken, to assure future displays. Planning ahead requires ordering catalogs as well as plants, since many plants which are interesting are only available to ship on very specific dates throughout the year. So it is with Chrysanthemus.

I am one who dispises the bushel basket mums one sees at garden centers and home stores starting in September, opting instead for more interesting and unusual varieties. Growing Chrysanthemums is just one of those skills and passions which has fallen out of favor in the past seventy years or so, but there was a time when spectacular fall displays where arranged around the specific culture of the Chrysanthemum. The artistic culture of raising mums for show, competition or for displays, as gone the way of the private estate greenhouses, where at one time, the gardening staff for families such as the Vanderbuit's and others, prided themselves with grand and spectacular displays of carefully trained cascading mums, with thier tumbling branches which were fussed over for monthes throughout the summer, pinched and tied to forms so that they could reach enormous lengths.

Other mums, all classified to specific standards, are often trained to single stems, and were once popular in the florist trade, like the incurve standards, which we know as tacky funeral flowers or football mums, here in the U.S., and then there are the spider mums, as well as recurves and poms, spray types, and fancy brush novelties, all were pain-stakingly disbudded to sinle stams, then when fall arrived, moved into the conservatory for display. Unless one is as obsessive as I am, or able to aford a full time staff of gardeners, I can see why the art of Chrysanthemum growing has fallen away from popular culture. But isn't is ashame?

In an effort to explore the lost art of fine chrysanthemums culture, I sought out these old varieties and have been practicing growing them. Only a few people bother with any of the fancy mums, even the Chrysanthemum Society seems to be weak in membership as well as exhibitions and information. Still, I encourage you to reject the bushel basket mums, sprayed with growth retardent all summer, and heavily fertilized to produce monsterous mounds of meaningless conformity. Hardy mums or what we call those genetic monsters available in the fall are just so clone-like, that if you want to look like everyone else on the block, with your fall display consisting of a bale of hay, some pumpkins, a few pots of mums and a gourd or two, then this blog certainly is not for you.

In asia, just the opposite happens. There, especially in Japan, the Chrysanthemum is held in the highest of regards. Check out my friend Masashi's website, showing jsut how beautiful the fall festivals of Chrysanthemums are in Japan.

Anyway, June is the time to star any show or exhibition mums, available , really, at only one retailer, Kings Mums, and only delivered in the mail until the end of June, when in the northern hemisphere, in the U.S., they must be planted. There are many types to choose from, Large Exhibition types like Incurves and recurves, as well as Spider's, all which must be carefully disbudded to a single stem, and then flowers as large as dinner plates will happen near the end of October. Plant the cuttings, as they arrive, I keep most in the greenhouse until July, then set the containers out into the garden, and lift them just before frost, since here in New England, they bloom later, and the cold weather will kill them. ONce in the greenhouse, they provide spectacular displays until Thanksgiving, in late November. THis year, as in others, I am growing many standard forms, as well as some Japanese varieties such as the mi8niature bonsai tyles, and the incredible cascade forms, which have weaker stems that are trained to grow horizontal, tieing each stem to bamboo canes, extended horozontally, then untied near bloom and hung in hanging baskets.

Help invigorate the lost art of growing real Chrysanthemums, next year, order cuttings in May and amaze your neighbors with mums like they've never seen.

June 19, 2006

Must Have Peonies-Itoh Intersectionals

Itoh Intersectional-'Garden Treasure'
Sure, there are yellow peony available. Many of the tree peony crosses are yellow, as are many of the hard-to-find species coming onto the market. Yellow in the world of Paeonia may seem novel, but it really isn't new. Yet most yellow forms come in the Peony we know as woody tree peony, which are challenging to grow if you live like I do, north of Zone 6. With our cold temperatures which often reach zero F. these plants fail and never really give the show that an herbaceos peony does, (the sort that die back to the ground every year, but which produce a mass of blooms in June). I think I have found the cure...

So...what would happen, if one crossed the species we know as tree peony, with an herbaceous species, which fall dormant back to their crowns each and every year? Well, Toichi Itoh has succeeded, and his crosses, known collectively as the Itoh-hybrids (which more correctly are known as Inter-sectionals) which are most certainly, next to some of the even more collectable species from Tibet and China, have become the must-haves for plant geeks like us. These Itoh crosses are starting to reach very few specialty nurseries whom have an agreement to carry them, and suddenly the world of Paeonia is changing before our very eyes.

Imagine an herbaceous peony, like the ancient Festiva Maxima, but with massive yellow flowers, some plants with as many as fifty open at the same time. This is reportedly what you get with these somewhat costly, yet must-have plants. The good neews is any Peony is truly a long-lived investment, which becomes better and better each year. Imagine your neighbors when they see a massive clump of yellow peonies growing near your driveway. You are not going to find these jewels at Home Depot. If you want onw of these great plants, there are specific times of the year when you can plant or have them delivered. Visit this nursery site - Hollingsworth Peonies for more info and for ordering these fine plants. There are really only about three sources in the United States.

June 17, 2006

Iris variegata

After a week away at a conference in the heat of the desert in Las Vegas, it's nice to come home to late spring again, although, it is predicted to reach a very Vegas-like 92 degrees here Sunday. I am not one for fancy Iris, prefering simple species to the fancy German Bearded types, but this simple beauty is in the Germanica group and yet is exhibits a refined beauty that I find very pleasant in the early June garden.

A true species from hungary, Iris variegata is not variegated at all, at least the foliage isn't as one may be lead to believe by it's name. Instead, it is a Standard Dwarf Bearded (SDB) type with great potential in the border, if, again, you can find a source for it. The now closed Heronswood Nursery is where this clump arrived from four years ago. The yellw standards are brilliant, but the veined cream and blackberry falls are what makes this plant so striking, even from a distance. I love the brownish, muddy colors of the lost and vintage German Bearded Iris, and this species reminds me of them. Slightly fragrant, it does well, in this bed in front of the greenhouse.

June 9, 2006

Shake Your Rebutia

The Bolivian cactus Rebutia pulchella
What's wrong with people? Why don't other people grow these? Ther are SO many genus and species of various South American Cacti that are remarkable growable; plants that just need the simple conditions of a cold dry winter windowsill that is sunny, or a poarch that doesn't freeze, or a garage window, where they can be forgotton, literally, from October until April, and then watered. And look what happens.

Now, granted, I never really had success with these plants until I built the greenhouse, where they survive total neglect and abuse, but I think I am having some success because they can get ice cold, near freezing, which is what really triggers them to bloom, and I can keep them bone dry and still give them direct sun through single pane glass. But I do know that I have a studio room that is unheated with southern exposure windows, so one could try these over-blooming cacti if you have such a place as a cellar window that stays cold in the winter and gets sun.

Rebutia perplexa

I first became introduced to these blooming cacti during a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show one year. A gentleman there exhibits an spectacular display of cacti, in fact, almost unbelievable in it's diversity. I then foudn a book on Echinocerus publishedc by Kew Monographs, where it talks about the popularity of collections in the UK of blooming cacti in unheated small greenhouses, much like an alpine house. Here in America, I think it gets too cold in the north east for many of these South American beauties, but there are many other cacti that can live outside if given the right conditions. But I wanted to grow these in pots. After finding a few genus to try, I discovers that there are many Bolivian cacti that have an amazing range of flowers. Rebutia, Lobivia, Notocactus - try google and see what you can find. Even on eBAy, there are many available, most under $5.00 US.

Lobivia arachnacantha with it's dark stem color and spider-like thorns

I potted my collection up in a loose, fast draining mix composed mostly of sand and pumice, with some peat and perlite added. The plants are kept in the sunniest part of the greenhouse year round, and simply get waterd occaisionally starting once buds form in May, and then throughout the summer. In the fall, I withhold water, and the pots are pushed up right against the glass, where they get full sun in the winter, but ever frost over a bit on cold nights when the temps ouside fall to below zero F and the glass frosts over. This cold, triggers the plants to bloom, and many cacti can indeed freeze if they are kept dry, and the cell walls are less turgid.

A collection of blooming cacti at the Chelsea Flower Show

June 4, 2006

Garden walk in the rain

Cyrtanthus brachyscyphus
The rain has not kept us from working in the garden, and even though it is flooding, many things we're still planted since the weather has been at least, good for that!
A walk around the yard, with the camera reveals some surprises. Like this first blossom on a winter dormant South African Cyrtanthus bulb, C. brachyscyphus. Samll, no taller than 8 inches, I was happy to find it establishing itself in a small clay pot in the greenhouse. You can tell why it is called the fire lily in South Africa, it provided a little spark on such a dready day.

A blizzard of Enkiathus Blossoms
Somtimes, it's not about the flowers on the reen, or in this case the shrub, but it's more about the geshtault of the moment. As the Japanese find great respect in this (FOr instance, Cherry blossom festivals or Sakura are really not about the flowers on the tree, but about how the shatter and fall, twisting in the wind and the patterns they make on the rocks, streams and ground. How very Wabi Sabi. Anyway, I could not help but think of that, as I discovered this dusting of Enkiathus blossoms on the gravel walk to the greenhouse.

Camassia leichtlinii semiplena
The Camas Lily, native to the pacific north west is a North American bulb that provides welcom color and the magnificence of height, during a time when there are remarkable few bulbs in bloom, at the begining of June. I feel a special attachment since my brother had once lived in Camas Washington, and it was there where I first found fields of this beautiful American bulb plant.; Typcally blue, there is a white form, and above, a rarer double form of the white Camas lily. Inexpensive enough, one can afford a dozen or two, look for them in specialty bulb catalogs, they are not that difficult to find.

Saxifraga X 'Sieben'
We keep a number of troughs, and this is a tiny one, kept mostly in the Alpine house where we keep many of the Saxifrages. Here, S. 'Sieben" shows a dainty wire of a stem, with tiny white saxifrageous blossoms. It appears happy enough to not be in the rain, where the pounding drops could dislodge some of the llimestone dusting on the foliage of this high elevation alpine plant from Europe.

Rhodohypoxis baurii in a trough
I have one trough that is in full sun, and for the fun of it, I planted some bulbs in it too, including some frost tender Rhodohypoxis, another summer blooming South African that I happen to be fond of at the moment. I have so many, that I decided to stach a potful in the sunny trough next to an Allium.