February 24, 2013

My Lachenalia Bacchanalia

Lachenalia, or Cape Hyacinths are like visual candy.  These I  photographed these today a faceplate of a book from the late 1800's  that I found while cleaning in the attic.  Seems like a perfect match with these
 treasures -  South African bulb flowers which once were standard fare in winter bulb displays in
conservatory collections  in the 18th and 19th century, and now rarely found.

As many of you know already, I am gaga about Lachenalia - the rarely grown South African bulb genus that make me love winter even more ( yeah, remember - I am a winter lover!). They are quite growable, and I feel that they are as easy as paperwhite narcissus, as long as you keep them cool, which for many of use with old houses, is not that difficult in the winter. An icy, drafty windowsill that is sunny in the winter can be their perfect location.

On this snowy day (snowy weekend, actually) there are currently eight pots in bloom in the cold greenhouse, so I thought I might pick a few to share with you. It's easy to see that they are cousins of our common spring bulb, the hyacinth, but sadly, aside from a few, these have no scent.

Lachenalia aloides var. aloides, a few bulbs that I started from seed five years ago, and a pot which I thoroughly neglect. Still, each year, it decides to produce these amazing flowers. Who could ever hate these?

By far the most commonly found Lachenalia for home growers are those classified under the species aloides. Lachenalia alpides have the showiest blossoms, some with three or four colors each, and others with only a single color ( like yellow in L. aloides 'nelsonii'). There is even a greenish teal colored species with striking dark, speckled foliage, ( my specimen pot will bloom in a few more weeks). The term 'aloides' comes from Aloe, for the blossoms appear very aloe-like, not that they could ever be confused with the many aloe species which are also South African, these bulbs are low growing, with spotted foliage and brilliant when in bloom.

The plant window(the one above my kitchen sink), currently has a display with three types of Lachenalia, and a fragrant Daphne odora brought indoors for the weekend so that we can enjoy the scent.

Lachenalia are by no means new, and many of these same species were grown under glass in the 18th century after being introduced by ships returning from the Cape of Africa with one account listed as 1652 ( the Dutch East Indian Company) but the earliest account of plants being grown in England in 1752.( Lachenalia orchioides). In the United States, I have a book from 1805 which lists nearly a dozen species available for cold glass houses. For whatever reason, the genus remains rare in the trade, but one can easily find bulbs ( and seed) every autumn, with a simple Google search.

These are easy bulbs to grow, the greatest challenge may just be finding some.  I seem to post a Lachenalia post a few times of year - seach this site for more articles, and look for bulbs of any type in bulb catalogs. Just remember - they are not hardy, meaning that they cannot freeze, so they are best as house plant bulbs where winters are fierce. Grow them in pots in fast-draining soil, and plan on potting bulbs in the late summerif you live in the north.  Water them in before weather becomes cold, and bring them indoors before frost. Plants will start growth shortly after, and can be grown quite well on cold windowsills, unheated porches that remain unfrozen, in cold, sunny greenhouses, or in the winter garden if you live in California.

Bulbs can be lifted once they go dormant in the spring to avoid summer wetness ( which they cannot handle) or, if you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse, allow the pots to go bone dry during their dormant period, which lasts from June until early September. I urge anyone reading to go and try a pot of lachenalia next autumn, they are delightful, and they make winter oh so bearable.

February 20, 2013

Garden design is not the same as interior design

Texture, color and form are all reconsidered in the 'off-season', when I revisit photos that I took in the previous growing season. Each winter, I can look and analyze my own plantings and make notes on what worked, and what didn't.

Snowy days in February are good for so many things - naturally, these long nights are intended for perusing seed and plant catalogs, for making infinite wish lists for the gardens, and of course, for hot chocolate ( the good kind - home made with dark Valrhona, cream and a touch of corn starch- liquid ganache, really - it can change ones life), but I digress.... My point here is that looking out of the window at the winter garden offers some great opportunities - the chance to dream (and plan) with an open mind. A photo of my garden from a warm July day suddenly doesn't look all that bad, it's so green and lush, but I can see the gaps, I can pick out the weak spots, areas where I could use more texture, and, I can see instantly why color when experienced in the garden, isn't just about the flower itself - it's more about the color-PLUS-all of that green, and that, my friends, is what this post is all about.

As we all dog ear and flip through catalogs making our wish lists, remember one thing - a close-up photo of a flower is rarely what it will look like once experienced in the garden environment. I learned this the hard way, and stopped snipping Pinterest-like clipping of flowers, taping them to a board to reimagine what my garden might looking. A garden is not a livingroom, and landscaping is not the same as interior design. But there are some similarities that might surprise you.

February 16, 2013


I found cardoons at my local market - a relative of the Artichoke, the stems are cooked and eaten and they have
the same flavor as artichoke hearts. After trimming off the fuzz and thorns, the stems are cooked and then added to any number of traditional winter dishes.

I came across some Cardoons for sale at our local market Wegmans last week, and it reminded me about a post which I never wrote last year. Cardoons are are a vegetable which more likely is grown by some of you as an ornamental plant - a striking thistle-like vase shaped plant with grayish prickly leaves, a magnificent vase shape and by late summer, a huge, architectural statement plant for large gardens. But this relative of the Artichoke ( Cynara cardunculus) occasionally shows up at the market at a winter vegetable, and one, which I feel deserves more attention. I thought that I might share both how I grow it, and how one can cook it.

My own cardoon stems from last October as I harvested them. The leaf stalks and the midribs have a flavor similar to artichokes, and the best part? With cardoons, you get your moneys worth, as anyone who has eaten a globe artichoke knows, there is far more waste than edible parts.
 The Cardoon has a long history in American horticulture, as it was  common colonial vegetable and one grown at Monticello in long rows. Today, few bother to grow the plant for food, opting for imported artichokes or those flown in from California, but the cardoon offers a more sustainable option to air-shipped artichokes, especially for those who garden in the north, and as an ornamental and a vegetable, it can be planted in the border rather than the vegetable garden.

Young cardoon transplants ready for setting out into the garden in late April. The variety I chose last year was 'Porto Spineless' from Johnnys Selected Seeds, but be warned, it still will have some thistle-like spines along the edges of
each stalk and leaf.
 Cardoon seeds must be sown early, in late January or early February, much like artichokes. Seedlings will not need to be vernalized, or chilled for two or three weeks as artichoke seedlings require, they can simply be set out into the garden and allowed to grow all summer long. They cab behave like biennials in some climates ( I had a couple survive for two years in the garden) but generally, it is grown as an annual, with harvest planned for late October when one cuts the entire plant at soil level.

A crop of cardoon requires space, as they are really large thistle plants, but even if you don't want large, perfect specimen plants, they can be added to the perennial border as ornamental plants, just don't crowd them too much, if you want stems large enough to eat.

Provide lots of space, for a well grown cardoon can reach 5 feet tall, and nearly as wide. I included mine in a perennial bed and then planted some in a small raised bed, so they did not grow as large as they could have, but I was still able to harvest a decent amount of cardoon stalks for Christmas Eve dinner ( it's a traditional Italian dish at the Holiday's) and stored some in the root cellar for later in the winter, when I use it in traditional French gratineés. Peeled, poached and sliced, the tender stems are best in light gratin dishes with béchamel with a bit of nutmeg and alpine cheese, or served with buttered pasta. And what could ever be wrong with that!

By late October, Cardoon plants can reach nearly 4 or 5 feet tall, and able to handle light frosts. Traditionally, in Italy, it is a winter vegetable, often served at Christmas.

One must harvest the entire Cardoon plant before hard frost

Cardoons are easy, and even thought I did not fuss over mine, they still produced plants large enough for a
harvest that has lasted 5 winter months.

Peeled and cleaned cardoon stems must be cooked in acidulated water (lemon juice) until tender, about 30 minutes, not unlike artichokes.

After boiling cardoon stalks, they are cut into small slices, and then they can be prepared in any number of ways, but almost always ( and traditionally) prepared as a gratin, layered with Gruyere cheese, light cream and Parmesan.

As with artichokes, there is still a lot of waste. Nothing that the chickens and turkeys won't eat.

If you are lucky, cardoons will over winter and then bloom with blossoms worthy of cutting.

February 14, 2013

The Future of Gardening Magazines

Garden Design magazine closes it's doors.

Last Thursday, Bonnier Corp. announced to the staff of Garden Design Magazine, that it will be folding after the April issue. The announcement included this statement :

"The economic climate, compounded by the significant industry transition to digital, have limited the growth in advertising needed to make this brand viable for our future," the company said, in a statement.

I can't say that I am surprised, for as a gardener and as a visual designer, I have watched the magazine grow more desperate, more diluted, with more generalized content over the past few years, as it has obviously struggled with an ever changing market.  I'm not trying to be negative, it's just the truth - a similar path is being traveled by other gardening magazines, and I am sure that most anyone in the publishing industry will agree - the status of sustainable gardening publications is simply shaky. 


Advertising sells magazines, in fact, I once heard it said that magazines are really just advertising machines, and that more than two thirds of a commercial magazine must become paid advertising for the magazine to be profitable. This alone makes me concerned about the remaining gardening magazines ( i.e. Horticulture, and Fine Gardening - both, rather thin on ad pages).


Then there is content. As much as it pains me to admit it - it's hard for me to justify $4.99 for 4 or 5 short articles with little depth, when I can browse for ever on-line. I guess I am starting to get used to it, but I guess I expect more and more and more as far as content goes, and when I do finally pick up a magazine, if feels a bit like dead content.


The future may lie in specialized magazines and particularly journals, especially those from plant societies. Funny - just as plant societies beginning to fret about their own future, maybe their content-rich journals will be saved, as gardeners become more informed and demand more authentic content, not just shallow, short sound bytes with loads of advertising. I look at how Pacific Horticulture has changed, as well as the North American Rock Garden Society quarterly, the British Alpine Plant Society journal, or the Scottish Rock Garden Society publications. I know, you may think that these are rock gardening magazines, but they are much more - how to propagate bulbs, how to raise lady slipper orchids - all sorts of ways to start rare perennial seeds and woodland plants.

Again, my seven best gardening magazines are:

Pacific Horticulture
The Plantsman
Kew Magazine
Gardens Illustrated
The Alpine Gardener
The Rock Garden Quarterly
The Rock Gardener ( Scottish Rock Garden Club)

The Scottish Rock Garden Club publishes a terrific journal twice a year, it alone is worth the membership fee, and it
covers all sorts of topics far beyond alpines. These are some of the finest journals one can get delivered in the mail.

You may notice that there are three rock garden magazines here, but I challenge you to examine each site and study the articles - rock gardeners are generally the most accomplished gardeners, and these magazines offer much more than mere rock plants. Images stories and photos on new plants being introduced from the Himalaya, from Chile, how to raise bulbs from seed - these journals are full of rich photography and real, useful content that you can actually learn something from. If you want inspiration, join Pinterest. Ideas a a dime a dozen, but knowing more about plants is priceless.

The North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) offers this great journal which comes with membership.
It offers real content, written by knowledgeable gardeners, plant explorers and covers subjects rarely found in any other gardening magazine. I think of it as the National Geographic of gardening magazines.
I encourage each of you to consider trying a membership in a plant society, if only to get their journals in the mail. Of course, membership offers much, much more, often seed exchanges and meetings with speakers ( like going to college again).Either way,  it's fun!

People who know, understand the value of these premium publications - be they digital, or on paper. I rate them highly because my test is my throw-away test. If I can throw away the magazine, it's not worth the paper it's printed on. If I need to save them forever, then they are worth it. If I read them again and again and again, always learning more, and if they have lots of photos and interesting plants, even better.. These journals all deliver that - in loads.

February 11, 2013

My African Violet Makeover

I am on a top secret mission to make the African Violet cool again. Wait, was it ever cool?
It's time to rediscover exhibition African Violets - they make regular old store bought AV's
virtually boring. Get ready to be blown away, or at the very least, inspired.
In a secret room, on the second floor of my house, I keep a secret collection of plants under artificial lights. No, it's not pot. (It's probably a good thing as I get panic attacks if I smoke pot - just sayin'). In my secret room I grow African Violets. Lots of them. I think I've become African Violet crazy, ordering more and more each week.  I love African Violets. There. I said it. Hold the old lady jokes ( nothing against old ladies), but come on.....African Violets? Dude!

Sure, I drive a big-ass truck. Yes, I am covered in tattoo's and, yep - I have killed a turkey with my bare hands ( well, I took the picture), but I can't seem to help myself when autumn comes around, and it's time to begin thinking about gardening indoors, under lights, precisely where African Violets come into the picture. I am on a mission this year to make the African Violet ........cool.

New varieties have speckled flowers, ruffled petals and leaves, or fancy variegated leaves.

It will be a long task, for I must first navigate through cliche, redesign the iconic African Violet pot ( ugh- really? Mauve plastic?) and I will work of making the use of the color lavender illegal on every African Violet website, plant label and book. The African Violet is in need of a makeover - not the plant itself, for it seems to have everything going for it - for it's easy to grow, low cost of entry, for event the finest varieties sell for less than a Grande espresso at Starbucks, and they are highly collectable - the barrier must exist somewhere withing the name ( African Violet = Cat Lady), or the display limitations ( doilies, antimacassars and tea cups anyone?). My point it, if we all treated African Violets for what they are - the highly fascinating high-alpine tropical genus of Saintpaulia species from East African Mountains, we all might think of them a little differently. Don't believe me? Then read this great post by National Geographic blogger  Digital Nomad as he discovers the world of wild African Violets.

Kings Ransom, a new variety carried by Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses.

I myself have a long history with the genus Saintpaulia, having passed in and out of passions with this genus over my life. I cultivated plants on windowsills in high school, perfomed studies with the genus in college, and at least two times in the 30 years since graduating college, I tried collecting a few. I think I just never had the patience to keep them long enough, and justified saving deep African Violet immersion for my retirement years, when I can really appreciate their nuances - oh geesh - see? Maybe this is a sign! Early retirement on the doorstep and now, the genus Saintpaulia. I've finally figured it out!

Some African Violets one will never find at a Supermarket are selections like this one. 'Rob's Delicious' is a
semi-mini with incredible sunny, variegated fuzzy leaves.

The genus Saintpaula is small, with only  5 or 6 species - all native to south central Tanzania ( yes, African Violets are indeed from Africa, which at first, even surprised me). As I am unofficially taking the role this year of honorary African Violet Evangelist, I think it's time you too rediscover the poor, neglected common African Violet. But before we all jump off of the gesneriad cliff, a few things to note.  First, African Violets are not true violets ( the genus viola). It drives me NUTTY when people tell me that their mother grows 'violets' whenever I write about true violets ( as in 'scented sweet Viola odorata). Afriican Violets, I mean Saintpaulia are tropical-alpine plants,  found in the mountains, in cloud mists, and they are not even remotely related to any true violet.

Cosmic Blast, a variety from Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses, a specialist grower

An entire group of hybrids have pinkish variegation, and wait until you see the spotted flowers. Exhibition
varieties are so superior to commercial varieties, that once you see them, you may never think about
African Violets in quite the same way again.

Taxonomists have placed Saintpaulia firmly into the foundation of the plant family known as Gesneriadaceae - the gesneriads. Youv'ew heard of them by other names.  Gloxinia ( siningia), the Cape Primrose ( Streptocarpus or 'Strep's', as the collectors call them  and the many, many other genus within this fascinating plant family.  The Gesneriad Society itself is a serious group of plant collectors - perhaps even too serious for me, up there with the Orchid people, but I've found that although the fine, serious Gesneriad collectors are serious, the African Violet collectors remain isolated, often holding their own shows, and trading plants on-line. Clearly, the African Violet collectors are a different breed. Sort of like comfort food chefs, amongst gourmet chefs. Serious, but in their own friendly way. A secret club ( just search on eBay for African Violet leaves), and you will see what I mean.

Easy to grow, African Violets don't demand much - basically, they enjoy the same temperature we enjoy - near 70º F
I keep mine under artificial lights ( check out the Artichoke seedlings, which enjoy the warmth indoors)

This past autumn, I purchased about 30 plants from Rob's Violets, and from some collectors on eBay. African Violets can be found in most garden centers, nurseries and even in your local super market - but these are common varieties - I wanted the collector forms. New crosses, new selections, new or unusual colors and forms - types that one would never find unless one attended an African Violet show. My plants arrived small ( as they tend to come), as they were propagated recently, but this weekend, as I carefully repotted them from their tiny Dixie cups and recycled take out containers in which home collectors propagated them in, and placed them into 4 inch pots, I am starting to see why these new and rarer selections are so beautiful. They foliage, which can be variegated or tinted, ruffled or pink dappled with green, is beautiful, and they have yet to bloom.

A page from the site Lyndon Lyon, a fine breeder, grower and seller of choice African violets.
"These ain't your grandmother's African Violets"

One can grow African Violets indoors ( not in a greenhouse), for they love the same temperatures that we do - hovering around 70 degrees. There is no trick to success, other than to avoid direct sun in the spring and summer, and to keep the plants constantly moist ( never wet) and never dry, not an easy task to achieve, as one may think - especially in the winter. Many home growers create elaborate wicking devices with twine, yard, thread and vessels of water. I tried this, but I have resorted to judicious watering with a long-tipped funnel watering can, as any cold water splashed onto the leaves, will spot. But don't be afraid of getting water onto the leaves, I give my plants a warm ( tepid) rinse each week in the kitchen sink, just after I pour the tea, plate the biscuits and feed saucers of warms milk to my 12 cats....ahem.

There is so much to write about African Violets, but I will save details about the many new types and floral forms for a later post, but just to entice you - the selection is enourmous- there are miniatures which are teensy, there are new Russian varieties that are spectacular, striped forms, some with flower so large they can be measured in inches, there are some mutated from radiation, there are amazing variegated leaf forms with leaf colors that are pink, yellow and white,  and there are even new yellow flowered varieties - or at least, yellow enough to be considered.......um, yellowish?  For more information, visit the African Violet Society website.

February 10, 2013

A Blizzard Strikes

The greenhouse looks cold and frozen, in this weekend's blizzard, but even with winds howling over 75 MPH, thanks to protective evergreens, and a deep, 35 inch snowcover with ten foot drifts, everything survived the storm.

When I look up our town on Wikipedia,it states "Worcester's unique geographic location, jutting out into the North Atlantic, also makes the city very prone to Nor'easter weather systems that can dump more than 50 inches (130 cm) of snow on the region in one storm event.". This is a fact that rarely goes un-noticed here in central MA, as it seems deep snow becomes an annual event each winter ( two winters ago we had over 130 inches in one season). This year, has brought us a rather normal winter, that is except for this weekend's storm which dumped 35 inches on us in 24 hours.
As the storm began on Friday, the wild birds came out to feed, as they do, before the storm. Here, an unlikely couple share some suet. A Tufted Titmouse ( left) and a Carolina Wren.
Winter finches chow down as the storm begins to become fierce, with snow falling at a rate nearly 3 inches an hour. Goldfinches, Common Redpolls and House Finches enjoy thistle and black oil sunflower seed.

By the next morning, the drifts were high enough to cover the kitchen windows half-way up, making the interior of the house darker than normal.

On the back porch, snow sticks to the windows, and the door could not be opened since with 35 inches of snow, one has to first shovel out room for the door to open..but the dogs had to go pee....

That is....if they could get down the stairs. The snow was so soft and fluffy, and deep, that they would sink
in until the snow was over their head.

"Really?" Weasley decides to do a quick dive, do his duty, and then race back into the house where he
napped by the fire along with his favorite new toys - damp wool mittens.

The boxwood hedges near the greenhouse

The greenhouse fared well, even under 10 - 12 foot drifts. Once the sun comes out, as it does after most nor-easters, any snow left on the glass will quickly melt as the warm February sun will warm the interior of the greenhouse quickly.

In the greenhouse, the Cape Hyacinths ( Lachenalia) are just starting to reach peak bloom, along with other pots of winter bulbs. Valentines day marks the peak season for winter bloom under glass with violets, camellia and winter bulbs
coming into bloom at the same time.

Japanese Maple branches catch the morning sun Sunday, the day after the blizzard. Saturday, the sun came out only for a couple of hours at the end of the day, enough to melt the snow on the glass, but cold winds frosted the glass, and
by dawn, the temperatures dipped to below 0 F.

The next morning, everything was calm, and with the snow melted off of the glass, the greenhouse appears frosty, due to the frigid cold temperatures that arrived after the snow. I awoke at 6:00 am and the temperature was -2º F. When it is that cold, the glass will frost, but inside, everything is safe and warm. Once the sun reaches the greenhouse, the entire space will feel like May ( and smell like it too!).

A few more shots of the Lachenalia, along with other small bulbs like Oxalis, Nerine, Ornithogallum and Scilla.
On days like this, the greenhouse feels more like a garden than a greenhouse, as it seems everything is in bloom.
 I do grow many bulbs, but anyone who keeps a cold greenhouse will learn to depend on winter-blooming bulbs, for not only their ease of culture, but for their winter bloom. Even in the 21st Century, I find that keeping a glasshouse brings relaxing moments, much in the same way that such glasshouses did 200 years ago, often with the very same plants. Imagine in 1850 what such a scene must have been like, yet today, with our fast lifestyle, 2000 TV stations, electronic media and instant communication, one can still appreciate the scent of a Lachenalia or the tender petals on a rare oxalis that chose to bloom in a sunbeam just hours after a blizzard struck. Pure magic indeed.

I think you could look at this very same week on this blog, and find many images of the same plants in bloom, but
perhaps in different locations. Not everything blooms at the same time every year, but generally, most of
the South African collections blooms together. The tall Velthiemia (left) is early this year.

What does one do when it snows this much? Write, design and plant. Oh yes, and enjoy a bit of February sunshine and
fragrance in the warm greenhouse. I love winter ( I really do).

A last note - I wrote something for WILDER QUARTERLY ( not your average gardening magazine, but rather a nice-paper-quality version of what a gardening magazine should be). As if I have time to write gardening articles, but it is something I am deeply interested in doing in the near future. As many of you can tell, there is nothing I love more than design, new ideas and introducing others to appreciate the deeply interesting aspects about plants and gardening, many of which just become lost in todays easy-to-do, short, 'sound-bite' culture. Now you can see my regional 2013 WINTER GARDENING TO-DO list on-line (for free) as well as in the high-quality WILDER QUARTERLY for $18.95 via mail, or at STOCKISTS worldwide.

The only thing I was surprised at was how my article was edited. It looks like someone changed all of the botanical Latin names to common names, which they obviously Googled. (i.e. Auricula primroses were changed to 'Mountain Primroses'. I know Latin names can sometimes be challenging for people, but Auricula can also be a common name, at least in this case. I guarantee no one has ever heard of Mountain Primroses before. Look - if Big name chef's can use fancy French terms in their recipes, then gardening deserves the same respect. Come on WILDER - establish your standards beyond hip and easy. Add a good heavy dose of authenticity, something your competition cannot deliver.

On that note, I heard that GARDEN DESIGN is going out of business - let me know readers, if you have any thoughts on that rumor.