June 28, 2013

A Visit to Annie's Annuals

Finally, I was able to visit Annie's Annuals - one of my favorite nurseries ( from a list of many, it may be number 1 for container plants). I hope you are seated, since you must prepare yourself for awesomeness!

Annie's Annuals is well known among the gardening geeks for offering plants found no where else ( nursery-wise). It's as if someone took your great grandfathers cold frames of pansy seedlings, and combined it with Kew Gardens, a plant explorer fresh back from China in 1900 ( and South American, and South Africa too), and then gave them a nursery where they could sell their discoveries.

Did I mention that they use now growth regulators ( virtually unheard-of in the nursery trade today) so that even these annuals will perform like crazy in your garden? Look - if you were like me, and wondered who would ever buy a nasturtium seedling via the internet, then all I can say is that you need to try it. Just once, and let me know. Last year, I ordered many Californian natives, as well as hard-to-germinate cold-weather annuals like Nemisia, and I soon discovered why people order these plants from Annie's - they were well branched, in 4 or 5 inch containers, (perfectly packed in a box, I must say) - I could never have raised such seedling, even in my cold greenhouse. Annie's is like having a private English gardener raising your fancy annuals ( and biennials and perennials) for you - it's my secret to growing many hard to grow plants like some poppies. Try them next year.

for unusual and well grown plants. You may have thought that Annie's Annuals primarily sold Californian natives and plants that perform well in western gardens, but many of the plants from Annie's make excellent Eastern plants for early spring or summer beds, exceptional salvias and late blooming annuals, and some tender greenhouse plants found no where else via mail order. I love Annie's, so here are a few pics to share from my trip there with the fabulous Garden Blogger Fling'ers.

 A glorious day color , fine plants and inspiration at Annie's Annuals in Richmond, CA.

Amazing what a white marker on a black nursery pot can look like! This works for me.

Every region of the United States has its garden mecca, and for those of you who live in the Western part of the country, the specialty nursery known as Annie's Annuals comes as no surprise, but you might be surprised to know that many of the fine plants sold by Annie's are also sent to gardeners who collect and grow unusual or rare plant elsewhere in the Country, as many of the species are just impossible to find anywhere else. This past weekend, I was so fortunate to visit this fine nursery, to see Annie herself present a bit about what her nursery offer ( thanks for the shout out Annie!), and to speak a bit about what makes her place so special and different, but sadly, I never had a chance to catch up with her after the talk, which was part of this garden bloggers fling that I am attending this weekend in San Francisco.

Coastal Wildflowers of California

Now that my duties with Design Week and HOWLive are over, I have a little personal time to travel around the San Francisco area and botanize. Joined by my friend Wendi from LA who flew up to join me, we are traveling up the coast from San Francisco along the beautiful coastal highways which begin near the Muir Woods just over the Golden Gate Bridge, and along the shoreline from Bodega Ba, Fort Ross State Park, Salt Point State Park, Sea Ranch, ending at the foggy, and rocky shoreline of Mendocino, where we spent the night enjoying great food, and even better wine.

OK, I'm on a bit of a holiday for the rest of these week - traveling from San Francisco up the coast nearly to Oregon, and then back again through Napa and Sonoma, before returning to S.F. for the Garden Bloggers Fling. I'll be sharing a few photos showing highlights of this trip -  I hope you enjoy them!

Mimulus aurantiacus

Late June may not be the best time to see wildflowers and native plants, but I think that any time of the year would be interesting for a plantsperson in this part of the United States. We have been blessed with incredible weather, ( yes, it's been foggy and rainy here while my design conferences were happening, but today, the temperatures reached near 90º F and the fog has all but disappeared. Near the coast, the air temperatures remain cool, but I am certain that once we drive inland tomorrow, towards Sonoma and Napa, that we will be basking in temps nearing 100º.

Read more below:

June 25, 2013

Design Week SF - a Week in the Bay Area

A bronze lion stalks prey in front of a giant Chilean Gunnera at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. 

Thanks to everyone who came to my talk and presentation at HOWlive Design conference today!
I look forward to meeting with you throughout the event!

A late nineteenth century ornate bronze vase by Gustave Dore (1882) which represents an allegory of the annual wine harvest in France,  contrasts nicely with the contemporary design of Hertzog & de Meuron. Plants selected are
naturally architectural such as Gunnera and Date Palms. This is brilliant placement, with the bronze tones, a balance of simplicity and complexity.

Pleached trees are rarely seen in America, but I can appreciate the time it takes to cut trees back like this, and even the overall look. It's not for everyone but it's a method of maintaining size and conformity popular since the 1700's. Often seen in Paris and Europe, it does take annual heavy pruning, a difficult task when trees are this size, as seen in the courtyard in front of the California Academy of Sciences ( note it's famous green roof, those domes with the plant material on them).

The super tall growing Impatiens sodenii lines the sidewalk which leads to the botanic garden. This is an impatiens which can grow to 6 feet tall, and here, it is evergreen. I grow it in the greenhouse, and bring out tubs of cuttings for use in the garden during the summer.

A Cineraria species ( stellata?) carpets the ground under trees near the botanic garden.

Many people are shocked to see date palms in San Francisco, but it's Mediterranean climate makes the area ideal for such desert plants that can take moisture during their  dormant period.

A great pond, with giant Gunneral growing in clumps.

A great lawn near the entrance of the San Francisco Botanic Garden invites people to lounge.

I am so tired, I need to crash for the nigh, as I am presenting a speech in the morning. Once I am done with HOWlive design Conference, and Design Week, I promise that I will post more soon, especially since Thursday and Friday I am taking as personal vacation days - and then, taking in the Garden Bloggers Fling on Friday and Saturday. Stay tuned!

June 17, 2013

Pelargoniums, and a new potting bench

Pelargonium oblongatum, another precious summer dormant species of pelargonium ( geranium), that blooms while dormant, and without any leaves. I am really starting to collect more of these amazing species from South Africa, my collection just can't be large enough! It spends its life under glass, in a pot set on a bed of sand.
An inexpensive Ikea purchase is transformed into a potting bench. It probably won't last long outdoors, but as we have a new floor installed into the studio, this piece was destined for the dumpster, but now has a second life outdoors. 
I've been wanting to place a simple potting bench outside of the greenhouse, not for potting plants, as I have a large proper potting bench inside the greenhouse, but just some shelves where I can store tools, and mostly to use for preparing watering cans with fertilizer. A task that always breaks my back, as I am often mixing solutions for bulbs or containers, and bending over with the hose. This little bench, a prop we bought a few years ago for a display I designed for the New England Spring Flower Show for only a couple of hundred of dollars, as it looked a bit like a Japanese-influenced potting-type bench, we've been keeping it in the studio where it just collected junk. Now, at least it has a purpose. Not designed for outdoor use, it will probably only last a few years with our weather, but it's better than throwing it into the dumpster.

June in the formal garden. There is a gap in bloom this year, and few vegetables as the puppies are also kept on this side of the yard. Everything is looking a little shaggy, as the boxwoods and bay laurels still need to be trimmed, but that won't happen until late June, when I return from my trip to San Francisco. For now, I am lucky that it looks half-way decent. It looks much better in this picture than it really does, believe me.

The bench gives me a place to store some plants away from the dogs such as this Deuterocohnia brevifolia, a bromeliad that looks more like a cacti than a pineapple relative - they form perfect mounds when grown in containers. Yes, those
are Devil's Tongue Arum in the back. I am having a second childhood!

Pelargonium dichonrifolium ( or P. exhibens). Help! One of my summer dormant species that spends its entire life under glass, in a sand bed.

Pelargonium sidoides,  a great container plant for decks and terraces ( I keep thinking of the specimens I saw in the South African garden at the Denver Botanic Garden's last summer. This plant, I planted in a large urn.

Just to confuse you, this is a true Geranium, not a pelargoinium. The giant of all geraniums, G. maderense spp. alba is a common cottage garden plant in northern California, but most everywhere else, it is a rarely seen Mediterranean gem, making a magnificent potted plant, and if you are lucky to get a pot of this giant to bloom, even better. This one self seeded into a number of my container plants which spend the winter in the greenhouse.

June 15, 2013

Propagating Hakonechloa, and a new planting scheme

Hakonechloa, or Japanese Forest Grass is stylish and attractive, and most any garden will benefit with a planting of thjis award winning plants. It even thrives in the dry shade garden, but plants are expensive, and the best cultivars often sell out quickly. If you have a mature clump, you can divide it, often resulting in dozens of new plants, but this is a task best undertaken during a brief window of 2 weeks in mid spring, just as the plants are exiting dormancy, and beginning to grow new growth. 
 If you're like me, you dream of having sweeping drifts of perennials and other herbaceous plants, interplanted with bulbs and the occasional annual, inspired by the current trend of more natural landscape schemes, such as those designed by Piet Oudolf and his contemporaries, but the sheer volume of plants required to achieve such looks can be out of reach, financially, for most of us. It's been my long-term goad to redesign our back yard ( garden) to slowly eliminate the lawn and to replace it with such a planting scheme, but, such aggressive design takes time, but perhaps, not as much money as I might have dished out, simple because I am propagating many of my own plants which are either already in the garden, or, from seed and cuttings.

As if I have nothing better to do, I am in the middle of redesigning a large part of our property - essentially, the entire back 2 acres which we can see from the house. All this amidst preparing for a large presentation next week at HOWlive in San Francisco, an even bigger app design project at work that every child under ten around the world will want next Christmas, and, yes - planting the summer garden, containers and vegetables. So naturally, it's the perfect time to propagate some plant material, right?

Dig a large clump of Hakonechloa early in the spring just after the new growth begins. This is the only time one should attempt to divide this valuable plant. One mature clump however, may provide you with a dozen or more divisions.

Propagating ones one perennials is extremely cost effective, and as my design plants call for dozens of Hakonechloa, or Japanese River Grass, I'd much rather propagate my own, rather than dish out $18.95 for a one gallon pot, which is, after all, just a liner ( division) from someone else. My process started early this spring, in early May, for Hakenochloa must be divided after it has started new growth in the spring, but not any later than late June, as its rhizomes form roots shorty after extending, if not at the same time.

If one attempts division too early in the spring, or too late in the summer, the resulting divisions would need to be larger as the plant, not unlike bamboo, forms long, trailing growth, which all connects back to the central plant. The problem is that these long growths have no roots, as the plant grows and divides much like a spider wed, extending rhizomes during the summer, producing foliage, but the roots on these extensions don't emerge until the following spring, just as the plant starts to extend new rhizomes, and this is the 2 week window when the plant can be divided into many small plants. Just as the new growth is 2 or 3 inches tall.

Bring your clump of grass up close, on a table or a potting bench, and carefully start to remove the soil. Root systems on Hakenochloa are weak, and most likely, your soil will drop off cleanly, leaving a tangled web of rhizomes and sprouting stems. Now you can begin to divide the clump by cutting away sections with root systems on each one.

I dug up one of our larger golden Hakonechloa selections during the first week of May, just as the plant was starting into growth, and brought the entire clump into the greenhouse so that I could examine and divide it while it sat on the potting bench. In this way, I could carefully remove soil, and see exactly where I needed to snip apart the strong, bamboo-like extensions.

This section is almost too small to plant, as the runner only shows one root. It may fail, if potted up.

One needs to look carefully, tugging and pulling apart slowly the clump, looking for extensions that have both new growth as well as at least 3  or 4 growths. You will notice that some have no roots at all, and these I discard.

The root system on Hakonechloa is complex, and teh runners that connect each section are woody-like, and hard to cut - use garden Fiscar brand scissors or wire cutters, and cut segments carefully, looking for both roots and new growth on each section.

I use a commercial soiless mix, combined 50/50 with composted bark, a mix common in the nursery trade, but one that perennials and many seedling like, as it combines peat, bark and lots of air space for oxygen. I pot up each division into 5 inch pots, paying close attention to the planting depth, keeping the new growth and roots at exactly the same depth as when the mother plant was growing outdoors.

Once potted, I place the trays on a bench in the greenhouse for a week or two, as full sun will injure the new growth, and I fertilize with a 9-17-49 Fertilizer to stimulate root growth, which is essential at this stage, as Hakonechloa are slow at rooting, even during their most aggressive growth spurt of the year. Divisions should spend time under shade cloth or outdoors in a protected, cool area for 6 - 8 weeks, to allow roots to fill the container before planting out in the garden.

Plants in June, are well rooted and ready to plant out into the garden.

My planting scheme calls for 48 Hakenochloa, as a more natural blended garden requires large drifts of grasses for textural interest and color.  This particular design uses golden Hakeonochloa in a meandering 'stream-like' planting, which runs through the center of this large new bed. Hakenochloa, when mature, appears fluid - the foliage lies in one direction, providing a flowing texture which few plants can offer, but to achieve this effect, one does need multiple plants. You can do the math, as I saw plants at our local nursery no larger than my divisions for $18.95. Combined with my seed raised perennials such as Rogersia, Anemone and Primula species, you can see how dollars can add up. I'll share more about my design plans for the largest part of my garden, until then, back to work. There is much more to plant.

Primula seedlings and Rogersia seedlings ready for transplanting. These plants had a long journey, spending a winter out in the cold frame being stratified, and then time spend being grown on in the greenhouse. Some of these seeds we wild collected while hiking in the Alps two years ago ( the Primula elatior). I imagine large swaths of P. elatior, as we saw them in the wild, and then interplanted with perennials, which will provide interest throughout the rest of the year.

So this is where my scheme becomes weird - I am combining Asiatic primula, such as this Tibetan native Primula denticulata in the same planting scheme, along with other Asian herbaceous plants, with European natives. Shhh, don't tell the purists! My theory on landscape design sometimes clashes with those who are more formally trained, but I support the global collection sometimes, yet as I mature, I like to keep things more natural.

I am planting a few dozen seedlings of Anemone hupehensis, formally Anemone japonica, (or A. hupehensis var. japonica) to provide an autumnal display. These need a year in the garden before they will bloom, but I can wait. I just love their graceful wands of pink anemone blossoms, and interplanted like this, they should make this bed  a standout in the garden come late September.  Starting these plants from seed, again, saves on plenty of money, as one autumnal Anemone can cost $18 -$20 dollars. I have 3 flats of 36 plants each. Nice.

The final planting scheme, which is misleading here, as the plants appear too close together, but remember that the Primula will bloom early ( the P. denticulata will bloom in March), followed by the P. elatior. I also planted 48 Columbine ( 'Songbird Series') which I also started from seed, which will bloom in June. The Anemone will start blooming in late August and September, and the grasses will carry the scheme through the summer, and even the winter.

Another view looking north. Ignore the wire in the background ( and the little bog garden that our friend Glen Lord  gave us - it's full of Pitcher Plants, which are just beginning to bloom!), the wire is for our tortoise, so that he can dine on the lawn.

Oh, and in case you are wondering what Rogersia is - here is a brief intro: ( I know, sometimes I forget, assuming that everyone is familiar with all of these plants that I yak about!). Above is a photo I took today of some Rogerisa which I started from seed five years ago. I was introduced to Rogersia many, many years ago, while still in high school, while working as a gardener at the Stoddard Estate, a Fletcher Steele designed garden. It can be difficult to find, unless you look for it at specialty nurseries. Rogersia is not rare, just not common.

You generally will find two species: Rogersia aesculifolia ( because, this species has foliage which looks very much like Aesculus, or the common Horse Chestnut), and R. pinnata, which is what I propagated this year from seed. The seed is quite tiny, and challenging to germinate, so I don't expect many of you to try growing it this way, but it is by far the most economical way to grow this slow growing plants, as, like many good plants, Rogersia are expensive. At $35 for a one gallon container, I try to add one or two of he red-leaved cultivars to my collection each year, but from seed, the plain green is just as attractive.  Architectural and long-lived, it sits high on my must-have plant list for shade gardens.

June 12, 2013

How to grow the healthiest tomatoes

My tomato seedlings are strong and have good root growth, thanks to my new fertilizer which is lower in nitrogen, and rich with micro nutrients. The roots are at the perfect stage for planting out, just reaching the edge of the 5 inch pots, and the leaves are just reaching their second pair stage. No flowers,  and no hormones or growth regulators used, and in those found at most garden centers.  These will catch up with any tomato planted a month ago, and out perform.

It's scary to think about, but this is about the 48th year that I am planting tomatoes in my garden. I think I first planted tomatoes when I was about 5 years old, with my dad - following along side the wheelbarrow as he dug compost from the larger compost pile where we used to dump all of the garden clippings, raked leaves and old manure from the coops. In the 1960's, dad would do what many Americans did, create rings of paper or felt to keep cutworms off of the plants, and it was one of my first chores to tear pages from Life magazine ( and one year, a Playboy magazine which I was sworn to privacy about, but apparently he ran out of Life, and one could never destroy a National Geographic). It was my job to fold the pages into neat, tight bands, which would then slip over the weak seedlings that we started in the cold frames, and the he would apply the paperclip or masking tape, to hold the ring in place. I would then get to use the trowel to fill the ring with soil.

It all seemed so magical to me - scientific, really, since it involved a wagon with galvanized buckets of manure, fertilizer and limestone. Each element assembled in some sort of alchemy which I never understood, deep in a hole which would then have one of my mothers precious seedlings placed in it. I did understand that this was food for the baby tomatoes, never really appreciating how good a home grown tomato was, they were all I knew. I had little contextual reference at that time.  I think all I really associated with tomatoes was "what's all the bother? There was planting, which was fun, and eating our in the garden in the warm sunshine ( even better, along with a fresh cucumber or pepper and a salt shaker), but there was the weeding, and....the weeding. The staking followed, and eventually the harvest and the massive canning process out at the fireplace that stood near the woods ( the same one we use today when we slaughter the turkeys. 
Oh Mom, really? 801 quarts? Of course I was born 12 years later, but this gives you an idea of what I was born into - child labor - garden labor at an early age.

Today, Tomatoes are precious, so, I must be old. As no work seems hard, even though one may become sore after a day of digging simple holes. Back when I was a kid, dad would brag about how many plants he had planted, and my mother would type long lists of canned goods that demonstrated and documented their hard efforts ' 265 quarts of tomato sauce, 125 quarts of whole tomatoes, 183 pints of piccalilli. I'm lucky if I can 12 quarts every year. Sad, but true. Sorry mom.

But it is tomato planting season again, but on a much smaller scale. The greenhouse and tall trees now stand where the largest vegetable garden once stood, but even through I've reduced the gardening space to 8 raised beds, the soil is still deep and rich, a gift my family has been blessed with for over 100 years on this land. I try not to get too geeky about tomatoes, accepting a few years ago that what will happen, will happen - blight, late blight, Phytophora infestans, whatever, if it comes, it comes, and it will - eventually. All I can do is try to keep my plants as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Tomatoes are best planted in new locations each year, and this year, I am growing a few in some raised beds which I allowed to rest over the past two years ( I grew cut flower sweet peas in these last year). Turned over by hand with a pitch fork, the beds were covered with straw from the duck coops all winter, and ground limestone was added.
I don't know about you, but with all of the rain we've been getting here in New England, I'm a little late in planting my tomatoes, but, waiting until mid-June will have little effect upon my tomato harvest, for regardless of what the garden center sells us in April ( yes, I saw tomato plants being sold two months ago!), June is still be best time to plant warm-loving tomatoes into most gardens. 

My tomato plants are at the perfect size to transplant into the ground. Sown around mid to-late April in the greenhouse ( April 21st this year), the plants have been grown on in sterile soil (ProMixBX), in 5 inch pots, and hardened-off outdoors for ten days. They are now all ready for planting out into the raised beds and containers which I have prepared. 

Grounds horticultural limestone is added at a rate of 5 lbs per 8 x 10 foot bed makes my hands look like I am an Olympic gymnast. Oh, OK, I know my body looks like one too - shut up!, But that still doesn't make my tomatoes grow any better - with our acid soil, I need lime to neutralize the soil, which allows the plants to access more nutrients ( that's why you apply lime). The proper pH for tomatoes fits within 6.0 to 6.5. 
There are many things to consider with planting tomatoes as study after study has proven many many home remedies as false ( Epsom Salts, Aspirin, Molasses) for simple science is all you need to know about. Proper soil temperature ( 60º - 70º for optimum root growth), proper nutrition ( a granular well balanced fertilizer dug-in at planting, or a balanced organic applied 6 months earlier), a soil test and appropriate pH balance additives such as ground limestone, and not granular lawn lime in my case, and the best varieties you can find - I am planting a mixture of new hybrids as well as some interesting heirlooms.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, but like us, they should not eat junk food all the time. A fertilizer with the analysis of 10-10-10 might make a great kick-off meal, but a diet with this ratio provides far too much nitrogen, and you will have healthy looking plants, but they will have mostly leaves with few fruit. Look for a formula where the first number is the lowest.
Although a good balanced granular 10-10-10 fertilizer is dug into each hole at planting, along with a half bushel of compost and rotted manure, for the rest of the year, I use my special tomato liquid blend that I mix myself ( more on that later, and no....I never use manure tea or compost tea, another legend many we laugh about over beers when I get together with horticulture professors).

I grow most of my tomatoes in containers with fresh, sterile soil which I buy each year ( never, ever save it, for it carries disease and virus'). In the garden, most diseases begin in the soil, so good old black plastic landscape mulch works fine. Sure, there is little else one can do ( leading botanists have even proven that copper fungicide rarely works well), and most diseases arrive through the air, so eventually, every plant will succumb to something icky, but the goal is the discourage any breakout for as long as possible, and to pray for hot, sunny weather!

Check out my Marigolds...this year I was fed up with commercial nursery annuals, as they are all drenched in growth regulators ( just try to find a marigold in a 4 pack that is taller than 5 inches and that does not have a flower on it!). This variety, a tall growing classic Burpee yellow will reach 4 or 5 feet tall, and I am planting these along the back side of the tomato bed - no, not to discourage insects ( so funny, right:? But you'd be surprised at how many gardeners still believe in this legend), but I plant them because I love them.

Pole beans were planted today also, this time where I had tomatoes growing last year. With two days of warm rain coming, and warm soil, it was a rush to get many of these warm-weather loving plants sown including cucumbers, squash and sunflowers. Let the rains begin.