July 31, 2016

A Summer Visit to Connecticut's White Flower Farm Nursery

There are real reasons why many gardeners wish that they lived in Oregon or Washington, and there are even more reasons why some of the worlds most well know plant nurseries exist there - in the Pacific North West,  the mild climate rich with moisture and mild winters allow plants to grow as if they are within the protection of a greenhouse year round. Here in New England - no so much.
But we do have a few classic nurseries, in particular, White Flower Farm (and of course, Broken Arrow and Logee's Greenhouses - all are in Connecticut, but although each are treasures, White Flower Farm in particular is unique. 

What I find appealing about White Flower Farm is it's backstory. A small mail-order nursery started by two New York writers -  Jane Grant and William Harris in the 1930's whom grew it into a mail order business in the 1950's. Eliot Wadsworth bought the company from Mr. Harris in 1976 (about the time when I first visited while in high school- dare I admit), and the nursery continues to grow under both an active management team, closely watched by both Eliot Wadsworth and his son, Eliot Wadsworth II along with a talented staff of dozens of horticulturists and plant professionals. This makes WFF unique in todays world. Eliot Wadsworth (the younger) called me a year ago and asked if I could come visit - inviting me and a few other younger plant people down, to chat about ideas, so I gladly took advantage of this offer, for I have a special place for White Flower Farm in my heart.

The old farm buildings and original farm house of White Flower Farm are fully restored and lived in, even today. so peaceful and perfectly Connecticut. 

While some may think of the well-known mail company as expensive or even a bit elitist, I like to think of it as a first and foremost, a destination where one can always find high-quality, well grown plants, top varieties, and sometime the only place where one can buy new varieties in this country (like Blackmore & Langdon selections of tuberous begonias and delphinium). Secondly, it's a nursery where I can always find mature perennials that are perfect for my New England garden, and perhaps the ultimate source for bulbs, in particular, Amaryllis, of which I still will say are perhaps the largest in size available today, and the broadest selection I know of. expensive? Sure, but they are generally packed with at least 3 buds, which extends their value across the entire winter season. Their narcissus selection is generally better than most on-line sources as well, as they often feature new selections, which are hard to find in the large Dutch bulb retailers.

In a time where one is more likely to buy plants from a big-box store nursery or their local nursery, it raises the question, why should one order mail order plants? And yes, it's true, the variety had broadened with brand-name selections (like Proven Winners), and many local nurseries have become more competitive and savvy as to customers needs and wants (which is what we all chatted about), but White Flower Farm does offer more thoughtful selections than most local nurseries, and these are what I usually go to them for. I would like them to offer more of these, in the future.

Containers with mixed plantings are trialed on the property, and current recipes are featured as well, such as these.

A big part of what White Flower Farm offers is indeed, the 'farm' itself. If you live in the northeast corridor, I highly encourage you to make a visit. I had to admit that I haven't been there for 12 years (yikes!) but I do occasionally order from them. Mostly, Blackmore & Langdon selections as well as bulbs for fall planting - especially Amaryllis), but there was a time between 1980 and 1997 when my entire family - my sister, mom and friends - would all make the journey south for an hour and a half, to visit beautiful Litchfield CT, with it's estates and rolling farm fields, stone walls and vista's that make one feel as if one stepped into a Frank Capra film circa 1940, just to make a day of it.  The added fact that one could fill the trunk with siberian iris, primula denticulata and other floral gems made the trip even more useful, but it was simply, a destination. After all, this is western Conneticutt and home of many of the fine farm estates within the 3 hour commute time to New York City.

Wisteria drapes over a pergola on the owners original farm house.

On this hot (steamy, really) July day, a few of us drove or flew to these Litchfield hills, between the rumbles of thunder and the occasional calls of Whippoorwills, various thrushes and Bobolinks to park our cars on what looks very much like a set from Christmas in Connecticut or Holiday Inn. This is Katherine Hepburn country. White shuttered farm houses, long breezy porches. long stony walls and hydrangea or wisteria clambor over any open pergola or towering elm. Everything just looks as if it was designed by a set designer, a team of landscape designers, and award winning interior designers - (and well,  the truth is, it all probably all was!). Still, we like that sort of thing. It's all where we dream we could live.

In the many display borders at White Flower Farm, visitors can get ideas and then purchase the ideas with potted plants which are on display nearby. The Japanese Bishop Dahlias are stunning, proving why any red-leaved single dahlia has value.

White Flower Farm hasn't really changed all that much from the past decades, which I appreciated. There were still long rows of perennials in large pots to buy, many of a large size, and in the hottest varieties, most not usually the sort found at nurseries around here. There are a few additions, most notable, a long perennial border designed by famed British plantsman Christopher Lloyd, which looked absolutely fabulous, even though we were there a bit early in the season for the full effect which looks as if may be around September 1st. 

How many nurseries in the US can say that they have that? And have horticulturists on staff who often check in with Fergus Garret on the status of the border? Along with an incredible greenhouse full of  famous Blackmore & Langdon (the UK proprietor) tuberous begonias.  Products like these are part of what make White Flower Farm so special and unique to me. For I have seen these B&L selections at the Chelsea Flower Show, and in old Horticulture Magazines, yet here, I can buy them ( be forewarned - they are costly), but if you appreciate such things, you will be delighted.

Yes, there is even a white border.

The plantings here are diverse, with many borders still active from a time when I last visited, including a white flowered border (duh) and long test beds, where horticulturists trial various plants before they make it into the catalog or onto the website. There was a time when White Flower Farm ruled the catalog world, and there was a time when folks had to hand out $5 just for the privilege to get this catalog which they called 'The Garden Book'. I remember it well. About a quarter inch thick, it was was we used to plan our perennial borders with, and one saved them from year to year. We would laugh over the fictional character Amos Pettingill (hey, they owners were writers, after all!), and we hated throwing the books out, so they often found they way all dog eared and marked up into the file section of the book case, along with the Wayside catalog.

The old original farm buildings are used for staff, and often not seen by visitors. The place is immaculate.

Today, that all sounds too quaint, but it was only 25 years ago. In world of e-commerce, I find it sort of nice that behind White Flower Farm in not an office park or an overseas call center, but a real farm, with real horticulturists, greenhouses and real people who garden. That is something we all should cherish in America. There is something genuine about this business, and even though their plant selections may need some tweaking or updating, there is a new spirit here, and many of us sensed it. It's not a place where terms like 'generic' or 'poor quality' exist, and so I wish them well as they get better at what they do so well.
Perhaps the greatest feature at White Flower Farm is a rather new one - a massive perennial border in the British style, designed by Christopher Lloyd on one of his last visits to North America. It's a treasure and one which is evolving and getting better with each year. I need to come back to see its full splendor later this summer.

We walked along the entire border (yes, that is our dear friend Kelly Norris in red pants, of course). If only we could see more of these long borders in the US. Eliot Wadsworth (the younger) who runs marketing, is on the left. This place clearly has a future, which is nice to see with family-run businesses.

The trial gardens were in peak bloom, and not a single weed could be seen (ok, I saw one), but the staff quickly yanked it.

I found it fascinating that they were trailing amaryllis in the border. Perhaps the only time I have ever liked a double amaryllis, I have to admit. Now, if I could only afford 12 bulbs.

In the trial garden, I was captivated by this annual marigold 'Strawberry Blond'. I don't believe that this photo captures its color, but it was nearly pink, or biscuit colored -- believe me, it's a color you will want when you see it live. There were a few plants here that I have seen on-line in photos, but didn't react to, until I saw them in person. The other is that new yellow flowered Cosmos 'Xanthous', which clearly had the nicest ferny foliage display we had ever seen - who cares what the flowers look like!

Bidens 'Bee Alive' was so pretty, with burgundy tipped foliage and a golden haze of flowers. I would need to plant it in large numbers to recreate this, but soon nice.

We all agreed that this was the most talked about coleus we saw - some loved it, some hated it - I'm more on the 'loving side' and want it's glossy leaves somewhere in my garden, but I just don't know where yet.  Look for Coleus 'Shiny Shoes', next spring and decide for yourself.

The famous Blackmore & Langdon award winning delphinium are new at White Flower Farm this year, and although I wanted to order them, I had to watch my budget. If you can afford them, they are some of the finest.

There is a retail experience here too. And it hasn't changed much since the 1980' except for more selections. I particularly liked the planting schemes, although I missed some of the classics (like the heather border and the tricolor hedge) which were replaced with newer selections.

It was off-season for many plants, which as any good plantsman knows, is the right thing to do. There is a season for everything, and there are more seasons when one shouldn't plant (or sell) some plants.

I bought four hydrangea 'Haas Halo', which just may be the ultimate pollinator plant - and these were covered with hundreds of such pollinators, which made getting them into my truck a challenge. The last thing I wanted was a wasp filled car on my commute home! Don't look at the mess, I rarely clean my car!

My next post will deal with these! A-may-zing.  Really.

Summer visits to White Flower Farm in  Connecticut is about as close as one can get to visiting a British nursery or estate. Or, is this the set of the Great British Baking Show?


  1. Thanks for sharing your visit. I bought 'Shiny Shoes' this year and I am crazy about it. Some days, especially if it is wet, the younger leaves are simply irridescent; like a oil slick on a puddle, without the environmental hazards. I only have one plant; I can't wait to have more to try in different settings and combinations.

  2. Thanks for you blog. I was particularly interested in the marigolds as I live in Michigan where the deer love flowers! Marigolds seem to help keep them at bay, but I get tired of the same old yellow ones all the time. I will try the variety Strawberry Blonde and add some more color to my garden.

  3. I think I love the color of 'Shiny Shoes' but it may be too shiny for plant combinations. I am going to try it though!

  4. Maybe 'Shiny Shoes' coleus would be effective with some dark-colored but matte plants, like a purple sedum or one of those black-leaved peppers (whose fruits could echo the gloss), or a dark Pennisetum...


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