March 30, 2011

Farewell, Olmstead Elm

National Park Service Photo of the Olmstead, property.

A 200 year old historic American Elm is scheduled to be cut down this week as it loses its battle with Dutch Elm Disease. The National Park Service, worried about the tree falling and damaging a building, are removing the tree which is ( was) growing for the past 200 years on the former Brookline Massachusetts property of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture ( and the father of Central Park in NYC and his first project in the US, in my home town of Worcester, MA, ironically,Elm Park).
A friend shared this report from a local radio station  WBUR, a sad tribute to an old American Elm which is being cur down this weekend ( unless our expected foot of snow tomorrow brings it down!).
Article is here.

March 29, 2011

Iris attica - Daily Awesome

Iris attica blooming in a bonsai pot, I keep this marginally hardy rare species in the cold greenhouse. This is the first year it has bloomed, and I have had the plant for four years.

I love surprises, especially when they are something like this rare Iris attica ( and I almost missed it). I got home from work and it was nearly dark ( although it's hard to tell in these photos, because the light was low and I had to use a long exposure and a tripod), but I knew that I had to capture this as an image tonight, since it would be all done tomorrow. Say hello to Iris attica ( a blue one!), a genus which is typically yellow, there are some purple forms even in the wild where it grows in Turkey and Greece.

 Iris attica is somewhat rare, and technically it is a bearded iris, which means that it's structure is similar to the more popular German Bearded Iris, or the Border Iris we all are familar with They have distinct beards ( blue, in this case) and have flowering stems that are simple or branched, which extend from Rhzomes and the typical fan of leaves. The most significant different with this species is that it is much smaller, the flower stems are about 6 inches tall.

 According to the Species Iris Group of North America, or SIGNA, this species is hard to find, and a little challenging to grow since it requires bone dry summers, and prefers to grow in zone 8 -10 ( although one source lists it as a zone 5 plant if a dry summer cover is provided. Native to Greece, western Turkey, Serbia, and Croatia, this Iris's status is currently unknown in the wild as of 2004 (D.Kramb). Sometimes seed can be found in seed exchanges from the Iris Society. This is a species that demands well drained, rocky soil and is rather tender. I keep it in the cold greenhouse, where it is essentially ever green, going partially dormant in the summer, and resumes growth in mid winter. It sits high on a window ledge in the greenhouse, where it recieves full sun year round.


March 28, 2011

Sax in the City part 2

Saxifrages, the high alpine encrusted ones found on the worlds highest mountain peaks are addictive, and I love to grow many that are planted in limestone rock and tufa rock, and all in alpine troughs that are planted all over our garden. The silver Saxifrage is a noble alpine plant, a true alpine that is one of those plants known as a 'bun'. The hard, dense, limestone encrusted rosettes that can survive the roughest mountain goat hoove and glacier like snow. This past winter had our troughs under a glacier of thier own ( see pics from January), and now that the snow has melted, they are none for the worse. Soon, they will bloom and be covered in bright delicate blossoms.

 There are many named selections of Silver Sax's as well as many species but they are not easy to find. One must either mail order them from a handful of alpine plant nurseries ( mine are from Wrightman Alpines) or, one can start them from cuttings that you can take from a friends' plant. I plant my cutting in holes that are drilled into Tufa rock, a limestone rock which is porous, and also hard to find, but worth searching for at alpine nurseries, for it is the only rock that these planted will grow in. You might try these alpined in soil or a gravelly mix, but between you and me, there is really only one way to grow the giant specimens like these, and that is to root your own plants directly into Tufa rock. Once established, they are rather care free.
A silver saxifraga growing in a trough. I still need to clean up the troughs, use tweezers to remove pine and spruce needles, and then spread a new layer of granite chips, but beyond that, there is little care.

These tiny rosettes are smaller than a blueberry, but en masse, they form an dense bun that will be covered in flowers in a few weeks. The Saxifrages sold by Harvey Wrightman are all grown in little tufa rocks, so even if you can't find some, he can sell you one via the mail, that you can pop right into a trough. Even better, try one of his alpine rocks, where three or more plants are planted in a much larger rock.


Not a saxifrage, this is tight bun that also grows at high elevations. Arenaria tetraquetra ssp. granatensis is another 'bun' plant that is a bit more challenging to grow but one that is easier when grown in rocky troughs or in crevice gardens. It looked completely dead a few weeks ago, and I almost yanked it, but upon closer inspection, you can see it starting to green up. Yay.
(For a good laugh, check out this video of a kid planting his own trough at 6 years old, after watching J. Halda plant one) here.

Speaking of alpine meadows, this Pulsatilla or Pasque Flower is a favorite floral image often seen on alpine plant calendars and placemats at pancake houses. Since it is nearly Easter, I thought that I should share what it looks like as it emerges - like a baby chick, all fuzzy and safe in its 'nest' of old foliage from last year. If you don't know this plant, you will once you see it in bloom, but sometimes it nice to see what it looks like before the money shot. If you are going to try alpines, start with this one, they are easy, and they become larger every year, just like a Hellebore does. This is a plant where the seed pod is a nice as the flower is, but even the emerging bud is interesting.


Never a plant as clever as magical Mr. Ornithophily



Aside from the familiar Nasturtiums of cottage gardens and window boxes, the genus Tropaeolum does present some hidden jewels known only amongst the elite plantmen and perhaps the geekiest of garden bloggers. A few of these tuberous forms are sometimes available from specialty bulb catalogs, with the most commonly offered being the beautiful Tropaeolum tricolor - a form with tubular blossoms, and dainty foliage, rarely found in the home garden. I encourage you to try growing this or any of the handful of other tuber ‘Tropes’ Yes, in many ways, these are the potatoes of the nasturtium family.




Destined never to become popular, I have seen more articles about the tuberous species in past few months.  In the most recent issue of the fine botanic journal - Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, a monograph has been dedicated entirely to these natives of the Andes mountains ( March 2011). As high-brow as some of the journals can be, this issue is particularly curious for me, especially as it focuses on some strange inter-specific habits these plants have with the bird species in Chile. 

Many tuberous nasturtium exhibit  ‘ornithophily’ - which describes a special relationship which some plants have between certain birds, which form a dependency to their nectar. Some tuberous, high-elevation species of tropaeolum share this unique relationship with two species of hummingbirds - a relationship so codependent, that some scientists are arguing that the plant and these two bird species, may have evolved together.





The tuberous nasturtiums of South America are quite collectable, and a few are available from rare bulb sources. I have grown five species, and two sub species - all are lovely, with stunning flowers ranging from shades of mango and melon, to a very ‘true blue’ in Tropaeolum azureum. 

All the species are growable, if you can provide an environment in which they can thrive - essentially, cool to cold temperatures, and fresh, moist air. Not the easiest conditions to recreate in the modern penthouse, but if you own an old. drafty New England home as I do me, you may have little problem at all.  Indeed these are plants best grown in a cold window, sunroom or greenhouse. ‘Cold’ being the operative word here, for most of these tuberous species demand temperatures below 70 degrees F, and they will go dormant again if they become any warmer. 




Curtis's features excellent diagrams and botanical drawings of the genus, with a long article on T. tricolor. The flowers are so tiny, that they are hardly 3/4 of an inch long.
In Chile, the plant blooms more profusely, and in case you were wondering, Ornithophily is simply a term that means that the flowers of this species is dependent on hummingbirds as their primary pollinator with only two species known to visit these blossoms. Not surprising, even our honey bee's could not fit into these blossoms although a giant bumblebee high in the Andes is threatening one species of hummingbird which is dependent on this species because it has a long tongue that can reach the nectar deep in the flower.


Of course, if Lydia lived in the Andes, no Bumblebee would have a chance of ever leaving a blossom.

March 27, 2011

Daily Awesome - Geissorhiza or Hesperantha

OK, to be honest, this is another one of those lost tag seedling pots, which I know is at the very least, an Irid, in the Iris Family, and most likely a Geissorhiza species, since I knew that I had a few pots of seedling in that fateful tray. But I also had Hesperantha species, so you bulb experts out there....help! Until then, this is a nice plant, the strongest stems of the season in my greenhouse bulb bed, and it is scented, but not in a good way.


Spring Close-Up's with the new lens


Crocus sieberi 'tricolor'

The coral-bark Maple, has branches that virtually glow in the dull landscape of March.

A golden needled pine. It's at its brightest yellow in the early spring.
A Japanese Maple trunk, with olive toned bark.
In the greenhouse, a scented geranium that was wintered over for a friend, enjoys the warm sunshine as it initiates more growth.
Tulipa clusiana var. chrysantha, a lovely species tulip forced in the greenhouse.
A fuzzy rosette of an Androsace species, a high elevation alpine growing in one of the alpine troughs.
The afore mentioned yellow Muscari, upon closer inspection, has this strange black shape at the end of its flower, like a black mod flower made of black rubber.
A dwarf rock garden peony, emerging after a winters rest. It's ferny foliage will soon unfurl.


March 25, 2011

Spring Alpine House Bulbs


Bellevalia speciosa? Hardly.

Sometime when one orders unusual or rare bulbs from a supplier, things become mixed up, and that it what I beleive may have happened here. I ordered 4 species of Bellevalia from Paul Christian Rare Plants in England, and now that this one has bloomed,  if fear that it is not what it was identified as being, a Bellavia speciosa; a rare speices of a slightly under appreciated genus which is similar to Muscari, the grape hyacinths that we all have in our spring garden schemes. Still, it's nice, and I get to identify what it is ( so if you have a guess, my best guess is that it may be Bellevalia romana.

Gladiolus watsonius , it continues to bloom like crazy. A wild form from South Africa, tiny and graceful in a pot.

Muscari macrocarpum, the fragrant Muscari that is yellow, and not blue, and one we always seem to overlook while ordering our bulbs for planting in the autumn. I adore.

Lachenalia species My mystery plant from a tray of Lachenalia seedlings that squirrels knocked over late last summer when they became trapped in the greenhouse when the vents automatically closed. I should name the strain Lachenalia 'Grey Squirrel'

Narcissus yepesii seedling.

Most of my Narcissus seeds that I acquired from Brian Duncan sprouted in this past autumn, since they are winter growing, but thank goodness I didn't toss the rest of the pots out, for this species, N. yepesii, a rare new species from Spain, has just sprouted. Yep.

March 24, 2011

Daily Awesome - Fritillaria meleagris

A pot of forced Fritillaria meleagris, or Snakes Head Lilies is neither a lily nor the 'snakey head' form of F, meleagris,for  without the checkering, this all white form looks purer and stands out in the garden more. Forced in the greenhouse, these pots are easy and a refreshing change from the typical tulips and narcissus on the same bench. These also don't seem to mind the snow that is falling today.

Common? Sure, but I like the combination of these along with the rarer and the more common tulips, crocus and every-day Dutch bulbs, for all pots are delivering an early spring on the forcing bench. These bulbs were on sale last autumn, and not only planted a few pots to place into the cold frame, I also potted some bulbs even later in December once the ground was frozen, into flats which are still chilling. Those, I will plant into the garden in a few weeks. I adore drifts of F. meleagris planted amongst the woodland, and in just a few weeks, I am certain that the warm sun will bring up the bulbs planted in the ephemeral garden along with the Trillium, Anemones and Corydalis. Come on spring, bring it on!

March 22, 2011

Planting Containers - Cool Specimen Plants


There is nothing quite like a tall massive container of Cyperus papyrus. This weekend we picked up some 4 inch pots of a very tall strain at Logee's greenhouses, and potted them in 30 inch wide Chinese pots ( don't worry, they will fill these pots by mid July, and the volume is necessary if you want 6 foot tall specimens that will stop people in their tracks. These are moisture lovers, so either sit the pots in a pond or in large trays of water. Cyperus are not hardy in Zone 5, so plan on either bringing these beasts indoors in the winter or invest in new ones in the spring. This is one of those plants that everyone will ask you where you bought it, but rarely do you find them at  nurseries for sale at full size. Just be sure to by the larger growing form, and not the dwarf. This plant is all about impressing people, so why not go all the way. Just be sure to buy the largest container that you can, there is no such thing as over-potting this genus.
A mature giant Papyrus makes an impressive container plant in just one growing season. It loves heat and moisture, growing best in standing water. Use the largest pot that you can find, and stand back!

March 20, 2011

Old Fashioned Annuals from Seed

Nemesia, Salpiglosis, Schizanthus, Larkspurs - want old fashioned annuals? Always start your own from seed, follow directions and pray for a long, cold, spring.


Flower seeds are just as particular about soil temperatures, and I was surprised to see how many errors exist on some seed packets ( like Burpee's) or lack of critical cultural information, which will lead you to disaster. SO do some homework, and you will have better luck for we all fall victim to 'lazy gardener' syndrome, and when pressed for time, simply tear open the packs of seed, and fill our trays and flats with seed, cover them carefully with soil, water and either place them all under lights, on a window sill, or even in a greenhouse, thinking that all will be fine. Yet we also all wonder why a certain flat of Snapdragons or Cabbage never sprouts, often blaming the seed company but rarely ourselves. But a little ( or a lot) of homework  is useful for obvious reasons. Your seed source may not have accurate information since even large seed companies can sometimes mislead you with inaccurate information. I will say that some seed suppliers have very accurate informations ( Thompson & Morgan, Johnny's Selected Seed for example) but others either leave critical information off of the seed packet, or they actually use inaccurate information.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks'

For example: This year I am growing a Gomphrena variety called 'Fireworks'. New in the market last year, this 2009 trial plant has impressed just about everyone who has seen it.  Gomphrena 'Fireworks' produces a cloud of magenta tiny flowers on a plant that reaches nearly four feet wide and tall, spectacular in bloom, and it blooms all summer long starting in mid-summer. The only source I could find for seeds, was Burpee's, but their seed packet and web site provided little information, and what it did provide, was confusing and contradictory. For instance: The packet back panel advises one to " Sow in garden soil after danger of frost" but it lists this information under a header titled 'Start Indoors'. It may be a minor typo, but they repeat this copy on their web site too which confused me, should I start these seeds outside now or later? Their web site advised me to sow outdoors, after frost, and then to "thin to 10 inches apart, and ( at the same time?) to transplant young plants when 1 - 2 inches high, ( not sure what that all meant, but I wanted more information, such as can I start these indoors, in the greenhouse, and what temperature requirements do they have for germination. My Winterrowd book offered better advice. 

This particular species of Gomphrena is a different species than the Globe Amaranth you are familiar with ( like Strawberry Fields, which is G. haageana or more typical G. globosa strains.).  This variety is reportedly a form of G. globosa, but native to South East Asia and not Mexico. Young plants must be started indoors in Zone 5, yet the seed can be fussy. Mastering growing this Gomprena from seed requires a few tricks. First,  they requires pre-soaking for one day, and  then germination temperatures of 70 degrees or more to germinate well. The young plants flounder until the hot, summer weather arrives, and that's when they take off. 

Starting Seeds? Do your homework, then sow.

It's just about time to sow tomatoes, any earlier, and you are compromising your crop

From Old Fashioned rarely seed garden annuals to the most common of vegetables, you'd be surprised what each seed requires for temperatures, moisture and light. A little research ( even for us pro's) pays off in the long run. I am going to review what I discovered this weekend when I decided to actually look up the specifics on what certain vegetables and flowers really prefer, even I was surprised, and, I also discovered that many seed catalogs get it wrong more often than they get it right.

First, tomatoes. Easy peasy for most of us, although the most common mistake is starting tomatoes too early. If you are having difficulties, tomatoes germinate best with some bottom heat ( I use a heating mat designed specifically for seed starting, but you can try the top of your refrigerator!. Tomatoes like warmth, with temperatures near 70 degrees. Once they emerge, I remove them from the bottom heat, and keep them near 60 degrees F.  with the brightest sunlight possible, which means, they go out into the greenhouse. These seedlings in the above image are from today, March 20, which is early for me in Zone 5, but they are rootstock plants which needed an early start.  

My actual crop, I sowed today. Still, a little early to sow tomatoes for zone 5. So your friend who is bragging about their tomatoes already being yay tall? You will have the last laugh when August rolls around. The younger the plant is when you plant it in the garden, the healthier and stronger it will grow. Believe me, it will catch up, and with no stress from roots being clipped, or from cool June air or soil temperatures. Even seeds sown in the garden in mid June will out shine any transplanted tomato so slow down on the 'starting early' ritual.

I prefer to sow tomatoes around April 15th since smaller plants grow best when transplanted, but since I am grafting some plants, I will need plants a little larger. The single greatest mistake amateur gardeners make is starting tomatoes and other plants from seed too early. Read your seed packets and catalogs ( like Johnny's) for proper sowing dates for your area. I need 8 weeks before my final frost date, which would mean that here in central Massachusetts, Zone 5b, I would start my tomato seed on April 1st. 

My heirloom tomato seeds, planted and resting on their heating pad. I am starting my plants 2 weeks earlier this year, because I will be attempting to graft some plants onto a more aggressive rootstock.

Just because your local garden center will have large tomato plants for sale in a few weeks does not mean that you should start your plants just as early. Even Mid May is too early to plant outdoors, so don't rush.  Retailers know that people will buy the first plants they can see, and their most profitable sales crop  are tomatoes and summer vegetable plants that people rush to buy and plant out in April or early May, ( when soil temperatures are far too cold), resulting in either a slow crop,  a repurchase after a frost, or in stunted plants that never mature properly. Start your tomatoes late, plant out smaller plants, with little stress and fewer bound roots, and never plant unless your soil or nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees ( which is around the first week of June, here).


Cabbage seedlings ( for early cabbage like these Fortex seedlings) must be sown in mid March for April planting and June harvest. This is an early cone-shaped form which matures fast, and is as sweet as honey and as crispy as a radish.

One would imagine that cabbage seed would prefer cool temperatures in which to germinate, but  the opposite is true. Cabbage seeds love warmth, they germinate best with sustained bottom heat, and air temps 75 - 80 Degrees F. Once they germinate, they cells must be relocated to an environment where temperatures remain below 50 degrees F.

Lettuce won't germinate unless temperatures are near or below 40 degrees F. Any warmer, and you will have leggy lettuce or reduced germination rates.

 On the other hand, lettuce seeds must never experience temperatures above 50 degrees, and they germinate best when temperatures are near 40 degrees F. I move flats like this out-of-doors on sunny days in March, and keep them in the greenhouse when it gets too cold. They can be sown out in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, since they can survive freezing temperatures if sown outside, My cell grown plants will need to be hardened off once true leaves appear, but sowing in cells will allow me to transplant them with minimal root disturbance into the garden.

Crocus in New England


A spectacular meadow of naturalized Crocus tommasinianus at our friends Mike and David's new house in Woodstock, CT. Here, they planted hundreds of crocus, snowdrops and narcissus in a sunny meadow that surrounds their new home in northern, CT.

It's the first day of spring, and besides all of the excitement about our 'super moon', the signs of spring, officially, are everywhere. Robins, Gold Finches, the first warblers migrating through, and crocus. This weekend we visited a friends
 new home in nearby Woodstock, CT, and Mike's meadow of crocus ( and soon, antique narcissus varieties) inspired me in many ways ( mostly, it inspired me in the 'Matt-you-gotta-move-outta-Worcester" way), but I do need to plant more bulbs en-masse. I have planted crocus in the lawn,  but if only my crocus looked this good. Crocus look best in grassy meadows and lawns, it's how they grow in nature, but it takes quantity ( clearly, hundreds of corms planted at Mikes home). If happy, they will self seed, but they must also be sited well, with the ideal location having lots of sun in early spring. Later, tall grass doesn't hurt them at all ( no one weeds in nature). 

Below, you can see my "meadow" of crocus, planted in an old putting green on our property. We still have snow, as you can see in the distance, where there is shade, and our many tall evergreens cast shadows over this planting, which is less than ideal, since crocus demand full, sunny slopes.


Our planting of 'Tommies' are not doing that well, and after the ducks ate them today, there is little hope that they will survive another season. Two hundred corms were planted here two years ago, and if they were able to get more sun, they would spread nicely, but my idea of a 'crocus lawn' will need to wait until we cut more trees. I do like how these crocus emerge just as the snow recedes, just as they do in the Alps.

The species crocus, or, more accurately, hybrids and selections of cloned forms of species crocus, are my favorite, as they are to most experienced gardeners. Here, the brown feathering on Crocus reticulatus x C. angustifolius ' Nida', makes this one a sunny splash in the alpine garden.

Our honey bees were busy with the early crocus.

Another view of Mike and David's crocus meadow in Woodstock, CT. It doesn't get more ideal than this.

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