June 30, 2014

Manboxes, Mangaves, Manfredas and that Angry Wood Pecker

I love odd color combinations, and our window boxes this summer show just how great a container can look when one gets a little creative with plant material. My rule? No green. "They're 'Man boxes' ", says my friend Jess calls them, planted in tones of tanned leather, olive drab and khaki - with just a touch of camo. Cigar anyone?

It's become a bit of a joke amongst my designer friends - how 'ugly' can I make a garden? Each year, a few of us challenge each other to see how odd a color combination can we create - since so much of what available today is just pink and blue. This year, I think I've nailed it - in what we've come to call my 'Man garden'. Window boxes planted in the tones of leather, camo, army green and olive drab. I think it's the reduced amount of green that helps these colors work. I tried adding salmon impatiens with what seemed to be the perfect shade of coral, but the foliage was just too green, so I removed them this week, and replaced them with some Begonia 'Firefly', which really complements the odd yet striking mix of earth tones.

But so much more is happening around the garden. Click below to see more:

June 21, 2014


Self-seeded biennials like Foxgloves (digitalis) continue to emerge in random locations around my garden - all tracking back to an original planting of seed-raised plants that I planted while in high school 30 years ago.

The very idea of a 'cottage garden' conjures up images of hollyhock framed borders, cockle shells and pretty maids-in-a-row, but the reality is often less-than pretty, edging on weedy, self-seeding messy beds of sturdy,  yet uninteresting perennials, often in colors that could trigger epileptic shock to an artist or designer who shrieks at the site of scolding orange poppies and inky violet lupins, along with the poison yellow of daylillies. Sturdy and long-lived is indeed how many North American gardeners define the perfect garden, but truth-be-told, there is little agreement as to what actually defines a true 'cottage garden', a term which disturbed the late Christopher Lloyd, even though he wrote 'the definitive book on the subject', as any Brit will tell us - cottage gardens can mostly be described as casually planted idealistic plantings often found in tourist calendars, cheap paintings on greeting cards and in fairy tales. 

Click below for more cottage garden inspiration:

June 18, 2014


A large golden yellow Rebutia sp. thrives on neglect, and winter cold ( if kept dry) in a bonsai pot.

I must have been around ten years old, when I started growing cacti. As most young boys, cacti fascinated me, at least enough so that I collected a windowsill full in my bedroom. I remember when one finally formed a large flower bud and bloomed one spring - - I felt as if I had raised the rarest plant of all, as even my mother had never been able to bring a cactus into bloom ( aside from her Christmas Cactus!). Today, I have to admit that I phase in and out of cactus collecting - which is OK, I suppose, as the cacti remain healthy and fine ( most of them, anyway) with about as much abuse as I can give them. Apparently, cactus are rather care free - at least when one has a cold, glass house.

June 15, 2014


I love books. I love to read, and I especially enjoy gardening books by serious plant people, and few come as serious as Vita Sackville-West, but I have to admit to you that I have yet to have discovered the joys of her writing - nor have I journeyed to Sissinhurst -- that is, until now. This weekend, I traveled, it seemed, through every path, border and bedroom of this well known rambling Elizabethen Castle, through the lyrical and easy words of Sarah Raven - an author whom up to now focused more on cookery books, but with this book, shares a most personal and delightful journey with us, as she is married to Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

Vita Sackville-West enjoyed all plants - roses in particular, but also winter and summer blooming bulbs, such as the Scarborough Lily, or Cyrtanthus alatus. Strangely enough, mine was in bloom today in the greenhouse, although in the book, Sarah Raven tells us that at Sissinhurst, it is planted near a wall, and it blooms in the autumn.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press, I received a complimentary copy of this beautiful new book with text by both Sarah Raven and Vita Sackville-West ( she has access to all of her papers and notes). The result is a book that I can guarantee will sit by my bedside for some time (even though I read the entire 364 pages in two days -- rare is the book that can not only capture my attention for it's entire length, even rarer is one that I will whole heatedly recommend to you my readers ( it's true - I am often sent books to review, but I only will rave about ones that I truly enjoyed - this one, I think has been elevated to my top 5 of all time list).

I loved how Vita Sackville-West added humor and casual notes to her writing. For example, she wrote about how children like to pop the squeaky, rubbery flower buds on fuchsia's. Here are some of mine, still being trained.

I'm the sort of gardener who often makes notations in my favorite books, circling paragraphs, sketching large parenthesis around helpful tips, and scribing lists on blank pages of must-get plants. My copy of this book is already all marked up, so sorry, no giveaway this time! This was the perfect book for me, over-all, practically flawless, from it's fine paper quality to the typeface for the text. I believe it is a terrific book for both the book lover, and the plant person. St. Martin's Press clearly has taken a thoughtful approach with the design of this book, the rag paper pages, with tipped in color images and many black and white photos provide the perfect balance of inspiration, and information.

Vita enjoyed many flowers, including German Bearded Iris, but I enjoyed learning about how she was also drawn to teal and aqua colored flowers as I am, like Ixia viridiflora and Puya - I think I will need to add a Puya to my greenhouse collection, as she grew hers in the greenhouse too.

Fragrance was important to Vita Sackville-West, and a favorite cut flower for her was Night Stock - Mathiola bicornis. Ours was just blooming this week, as it only lasts until mid-June in our New England garden. An old fashioned annual, it must be seeded early for one to enjoy its night-scented blossoms before the summer heat arrives.

Sometimes I get distracted by errors with botanical Latin, but here, the book educates me using proper, RHS Latin, and although a few errors still exist, most are with common names, which may very well be regional differences than actual errors ( I would consider Miltonia sp. a 'pansy' orchid, and not a Paphiopedilum). By and large, this flawless book engages the reader, with Ms. Raven's easy-to-read text, which is both fluid and intimate - the fact that she has such a deep connection with Vita Sackville-West and access to her notes and files, makes the content in this book especially rich, with much of the tips and notes new.

Vita loved blue, and gold, which happens to be a favorite combination of me too. The osmanthus, in the rear, was also a favorite wall plant for her - it's fragrance so intense in the autumn both here in the greenhouse, and in her garden. Also a favorite plant for her - the blue Felicia daisy, shown here in one of my containers.

The book begins with a detailed history of Sissinghurst, which dates back to 1530, but it doesn't dwell on the factual history, rather it tells a story of how Vita and Harold found themselves as keepers of this Castle and its surrounding buildings in the 1930's - only about 1/3 of the book is dedicated to the history of Sissinghurst, with the balance of the pages exploring Vita's personal favorite plants - which makes this book so consumable - again, I read it on a gorgeous June day for about 6 hours outdoors when I should have been working in the garden - such indulgence! With all of glorious June right there in front of me - the peonies, the roses, the lilies - but no, I read.

Raven has organized all of this information in a very useful way - clearly, she is a plant person herself, so the book feels natural to someone like me, who naturally clusters plants into these same categories. Fragrant plants and scented plants ( Vita's fav's are not just listed, but each has a story, so you understand why she loved the plant, and how she liked to grow it). Many of the chapters are divided not only by Vita's favorite plants, but also by season, within each chapter - imagine, her best favorite plants for spring, for summer, for autumn or winter - I scribbled down 'Get more Emuris, plant more Lilium regale - my 24 bulbs vs her 600 bulbs!  Plant a trough with Cyclamen coup and Galanthis for the cold greenhouse - white wash terra cotta pots for lilies in the greenhouse. This book is not weak with inspiration, at least for someone like me.

Some of these chapters are also segmented by indoor plants, and outdoor plants, providing insight into what Vita loved on her window ledges in the dark, days of winter, and what she loved to grow during the hottest months of August ( no much, actually). To someone like me, having such information such as what her favorite and must-have plants for winter containers in the cold glass-house, or what she loved to grow in troughs and sinks, or what bulbs she could not live without, I found truly inspirational ( I wonder if it is too late for me to plant Tigridia in large pots?).

Stone and tufa troughs were a favorite of Vita Sackville-West, especially when planted with saxifrages and blue gentians, which makes me want even more gentian species for our troughs. Here are how they looked this morning.

My lists now, for plants to sow or grow are longer, but there are many of the same plants growing my my garden, the same shrubs, the same trees, the same tender tropicals in the greenhouse that Vita grew, but Sarah Raven has edited and added so much more to this book, she just seems to know what gardeners are craving right now. I do want to try more Salpiglossis in the greenhouse or in containers this summer and autumn and winter - as Vita Sackville-West grew hers best as a potted plant for the cool greenhouse ( as I discovered for myself, last winter).  I already have a few Scarborough Lily's in bloom, just this week, but I never, ever thought that I could grow 'Heavenly Blue' morning glories in the winter greenhouse for color in January. Although I grow many of the same plants she had, there are many still to try. I overlook Sparaxis as a summer potted bulb, but could not live with hers, and with so many small South African bulbs in pots doing well here already, I really must add that to my list along with gladiolus species for the summer containers.

Vita loved cut flowers, especially little bouquets that she could place around the home. A favorite of hers for both the border, and the vase, were German Bearded Iris - today, our vintage collections, generally dating from the era when Vita gardened, between 1880 and 1936, may even be some of the same varieties.

If you love cut flowers, a good portion of this book is dedicated to the culture of Vita Sackville-West's cut flower favorites, be they shrubs, vines, roses or perennials. Sarah Raven has created a masterpiece, worthy of praise and space, on any gardener's bookshelf or night stand. Not only is this book accurate and delightful, it has a comprehensive index, which clearly shows how much care and accuracy has gone into this book.

June 9, 2014


Left to right - 'Aquilegia caerulea Songbird series  'Nightingale', 'Songbird Series 'Bluebird' and Songbird Series 'Dove'

Do you remember when you were a little kid? Mom's cosmos and zinnias seemed to be more than 6 feet tall? Those Larkspur's and asters towered over the top of your head, and fragrant roses where at nose level? Those were all great, but there was something magical about the delicate dangling blossoms of Columbine, which hung just at eye-height. Well, then you were only about 3 feet high yourself, but just tall enough that you could peer deep inside those long spurs of Columbine, the trumpets of daylilies and giant, papery blooms of Oriental Poppies with their deep, black boss of stamens (and usually with a surprise bumblebee bumbling around inside) - nostalgia in the garden, the charm of these vintage flowers is often lost to the more sophisticated of us - experienced gardeners who generally snub those plants that are often sturdy survivors. Denizens of abandoned or ill-kempt perennial borders. Plants for the lazy gardener. The amateur, and not as 'hip' or stylish as a 'Patty's Plum' Papaver or a 'Nora Barlow' aquilegia.

Songbird Nightingale, Songbird 'Cardinal' and Songbird 'Robin'

But sometimes I like to challenge the elitist not-so-deep inside me, for I am man enough to admit that although I may grow heirloom leeks and poach them with a homemade mustard vinaigrette, I still can appreciate a good egg McMuffin ( with Canadian Bacon, not sausage - come on). And so it goes with my gardening -- I do raise rare South African bulbs from seed, and high alpine narcissus from Morocco, but I also love to indulge in tall, golden marigolds and scarlet geraniums (within reason, of course), and even though a hybrid columbine mix may seem like an exotic perennial to many new gardeners, to those of us who spend hours trying to track down rare Podophylum, it is something that usually gets back-listed in favor of endangered primula seed from the Himalaya.

But remember - epic Egg McMuffins, baby.


Sometimes simple, common -- even hybrid, is OK.

It can even be ….awesome.

June 4, 2014

Fare Well Dad. A Life Well Lived.

Vitty A. Mattus. 1914 - 2014. My dad's self portrait from 1960, when he was my age.
My dear friends and readers, I am sad to announce that my father passed away this past Monday. I'll be taking a few days to deal with plans and family matters, but obviously, at one hundred years old, this is both a life loss, and a life celebration.