January 23, 2017

My Garden Projects for 2017

Each January I share a list of the garden projects I plan to undertake in the coming year. Here are about ten things I am looking at either collecting, growing to perfection and covering in detail on this blog.

People sometime ask me -
"How do you keep coming up with ideas?" And the answer is, I don't think that I will ever run out of new gardening projects or ideas, for my back-up list is so long, that it might take 300 years to accomplish all that I wish I could do. I blame this relentless drive on - my mother. I remember her tearing pages out of gardening magazines , knitting patterns and and recipes Better Homes and Gardens, and then organizing them into 3 ring binders.

My dad who was an artist, was no better. He kept hundreds of images in manilla envelopes - all torn from various art magazines ( and ok, if you really knew him - some pretty ladies from Cosmopolitan) and he organized these  all by subjects or topics - written in sharpie on the outside of the envelope. I still find stacks of "Dogs and Horses". 'Womens Hair', 'snow scenes' and 'floral patterns'. This was indeed 'early Pinterest'. (and BTW - Why the hell didn't I invent that site?).

It was inevitable then, that I too would become an influence hound, but thankfully, I have bookmarks, digital folders on my desktop and yeah - private Pinterest boards. There, I keep my private inspirational images - what dahlia varieties I am planning to focus on, and secret sources for more hard-to-find plants which I can't afford to share publicly just yet (often because a really great dahlia can quickl y become sold out in just a week or two). Look, I have to protect my own garden projects too! For that reason, I am not sharing exactly what dahlia varieties I am ordering this year or what plants I am ordering until I actually place my order (funny, right? But hey - we all do it, right?). You can depend on me to share my secret sources and best varieties eventually, you can count on that.

Flower shows, such as this Dahlia Show held at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden last year is something I really take time to review. For example, just the shades of pink and salmon among various varieties of dahlias affects which ones appeal to me, and I can only capture that information in my own digital photos, as the catalog images are often too poor or highly adjusted.

I will be raising fewer dahlias this year, but focusing on only the exhibition varieties that I want to grow for dahlia society shows - fewer varieties, but more plants of each. I also plan on a different and separate dahlia garden for cutting flowers only.

There are some givens, for example, I will be planting an enormous sweet pea collection - perhaps ALL of the varieties. I haven't listed that as something new I will be trying.

Mostly though, I use my own notes combined with the photos I take during the year which I save in iPhoto (and eventually store somewhere in the cloud and on a hard drives). These are images of gardens that I visited or places I vacationed at, photos of the tags on plants or a special planting scheme that I found interesting. I have many photos from flower shows where I only show the tag with the name on it, so that I will remember what Dahlia variety or Lily variety to try and find on-line. Much of this, I am shamelessly selfish with, after all, I don't want to share with you that I just discovered this amazing lily variety before I can snag a dozen bulbs! Sorry.

Alpine troughs will factor in as well, but again, I assume that most of you will expect this.

This past year I was fortunate to visit many gardens and natural sites, from Iceland, to Yellowstone, and botanical gardens  such as Denver Botanic Garden and the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden. You will notice that I was very inspired by the gardens at Coastal Maine, and especially those of Amy Goldman Fowler . Her phenomenal garden, I think because she is both a plantswoman and a collector really inspired me to try many new things. Our visit to her farm in upstate New York was a highlight of the year.

Lastly, not all of these projects will come to fruition, and some new ones will jump onto the list. I just need a target, a goal (or ten goals). I know, it's usually pretty ambitious, but you me! I will also revisit last years list maybe in my next post, to see where I netted out.


We often overlook ornamental peppers, but when combined with more obscure heirloom varieties, a collection of peppers makes more sense - both horticulturally interesting, not to mention the culinary and cultural aspects.

1. Collection of Potted Unusual Chili Peppers  - This past summer Joe and I had the pleasure to tour Amy Goldman's extraordinary farm and garden .  I saw many things which I personally felt might be something I might like to try, but nothing surprised me more than her collection of peppers in pots. If you are not familiar with Amy Goldman Fowler's books, I highly recommend them, if only for the information along, they are priceless, but their design and quality take them over the top.

'Chiltern' an heirloom bird pepper.  On looks alone it's stunning (and I am not a big hot-chili dude).
Ornamental peppers are not new to me,  if anything, they are a bit nostalgic. I remember my parents  raising some ornamental varieties, but mostly I remember and Peter and Nancy Pockevicius who lived just past the woods, behind our house. Peter was quite a passionate and highly accomplished gardener who raised amazingly large beets, and had a huge vegetable garden which we marveled at because it never had a weed in it. He also always kept a few pepper plants in pots through the winter.

Pepper 'Super Tramp' in Amy Goldman's garden shows how lovely even a culinary pepper can be as a potted specimen.

2. Celtuce - raised to perfection of course.
Nothing new, Celtuce is something many of us have seen in old seed catalogs but I believe that it deserves rediscovery. Celtuce, or Celery-Lettuce is something I always dismissed as a novelty - something worthy of inclusion only in the Guerney's Catalog but never something one would actually grow. But after seeing it in many late 19th century seed catalogs, I began to wonder what the story behind celtuce was?

My dish of braised Celtuce that we enjoyed last week. These crispy slices of jade came from all things, an heirloom lettuce variety similar to a head of Romaine, allowed to grow tall. More common in China, I predict that it will be popular in the West as well.

All changed for me last week, when I ordered a dish of 'Stem Lettuce' at a new (and very authentic) Chinese restaurant near us, a restaurant where everyone seated is Chinese, mostly students, but a few families, (Red Pepper). I discovered that the crispy, jade-like razor-thin pieces of Celtuce stem is delicious and worth the space in the garden. Besides, it fits into my interests of 19th century plants and crops which deserve rediscover.

In the 1850's, mignonette, both in pots as a winter-blooming greenhouse plant, as well as in the early summer garden was about as fancy and accomplished a gardener could get. When was the last time you appreciated the scent? I thought so.

3. Mastering the Culture of Mignonette (in the garden, and in pots)
Not new on my list, but you know what? I don't give up easily. I haven't had much luck raising Mignonette. Maybe I haven't paid enough attention to its cultural techniques (frankly, it's been hard finding any good cultural information beyond when to sow it as a bedded plant, or for potted plants in a greenhouse or conservatory (July), but I am persistent and identifying 2017 as the year when I master this crop which so captivated the Victorians both in pots, and in their gardens.

I dream of growing a gourd tunnel, maybe this year I will attempt something similar to this one that we saw this summer at Amy Goldman's farm.

4. A Gourd Tunnel - only if I am adventurous and overly ambitious, but this one at Amy Goldman's was so incredible that I can't help but think about creating one over our long path. I have this idea to raise Indian gourds which my co-worker Sameer introduced me to, various bitter gourds and maybe even some South East Asian gourds, similar to those that another friend - Chau Ho brought to us this summer which his father grew. Again, the foodie in me is curious. Without Curtis here this summer, we may not be able to follow through on this one, as he was going to construct the frame, but I am keeping it on my list.

Campanula pyramidalis (from the Great Dixter website) shows how  tall these plants can be when raised as conservatory plants. Rarely seed as a container plant today, they are exactly the sort of thing that interests me.

5. Collection of Campanula pyramidalis -  I am trying a crop of potted Campanula pyramidalis, common as a potted plant raised for conservatory displays or even for temporary displays in those large English manor homes (such as Great Dixter (from which this image came), ), and today perhaps only seen at large botanic gardens.

Campanula pyramidalis can be a 6 foot tall and impressive campanula when containerized.  It was always on the head gardener's lists of must-have plants for summer color on private estates and  favorite of the late Christopher Lloyd.  C. pyramidalis also appears in many 19th century gardening books where it is described  as a 'fine, indoor display specimen' that is, if one can consider a 16 foot tall specimen 'acceptable'! Most containerized specimens will be a more manageable 4-6 feet tall.

I've seen it grown for display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, and Longwood conservatories.

6. Other Annuals for temporary potted displays - I am thinking about trying Schizanthus again. after the success of Nemesia Last year , of which I fussed over with prudent cultural care, the right nutrients, day-length and temperature range. These more challenging annuals often need to be sown late in the previous year here in New England, usually in late August, kept in a cool greenhouse and then allowed to mature and bloom in early spring while it is still cool.

Last years' successes included annual Phlox drummondii and  Nemesia, both started off slow, but performed so well for me, that I was to try a few others this year.

Focusing on just a few new annuals each year makes the task a bit easier, as proper culture is often necessary for these plants which one rarely sees at garden centers here in the North East. If I lived in California or London, these plants might be easier to find, but they are not something often grown where summers are hot and humid.

4. A Secret Project for a magazine article

5. Secret Project  for a Book Proposal

And... in case you are wondering what I am planning to add to the garden:

'Kniphofia 'First Sunrise' growing at the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden in Maine last year. If only I could find this variety on-line, but I am having no luck - help!

1. A Significant Planting of Hardy Kniphofia 
Last June, while touring the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden (lust, lust, lust!) a planting of kniphofia stopped me in my tracks. Yes, kniphofia - in the state of Maine! I know, it was coastal Maine where it is a bit more mild, but none-the-less, I can't get this planting out of my mind.

The head gardener there explained to me that this strain, called 'First Sunrise' is most hardy, and although the garden is firmly located in a slightly more mild coastal USDA Zone 6, that they still heavily mulch the planting with salt-marsh hay (I've already started this planting, but I plan on a significant learning curve). The idea that South African plants from the Cape could be hardy in a winter-wet New England snow garden isn't all that novel, as some gardeners are having luck with a few species of gladiolus, moraea, neuron and agapanthus - usually in those odd warmer zones we all have either near large rocks, under the eaves of a house or garage, or on a ledge open to winter sun. I am always one to push the zones, and after seeing this planting of hardy knip's, I diving in.

There are a few hardier kniphofia in the market already, mostly thanks to collectors (such as Ellen Hornig) who collected seed from species which have exhibited cold hardiness - we have a couple which bloom every-other year or so, but these newer selections show promise, although, I am still mulching well.  Always check the hardiness zones, but I look for those which seem to be testing well in USDA Zone 6.

Honeynut Squash, a tiny new variety designed to be a delicious as an ancient one! Photo from Harris Seeds.

2.  Honeynut Squash - I was introduced to this sweet, little squash developed at Cornell University by Dan Barber and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (no, not in person, but via his writings and a documentary). Always willing to test a yummy, heirloom-inspired squash, I can't resist anything that appeals to my inner foodie).

What looks like a tiny darker Butternut, the Honeynut is just one of a handful of well - handful-sized squashed bred not for looks or marketability, but because of flavor. It looks like it may be hard to get seeds of, Harris Seeds is backordered.

Nothing compares to a vine-ripened, heirloom watermelon picked from the home garden.

3. Watermelon and/or Unusual Melons
Amy Goldman is to blame for this one. Joe is Armenian, and melons are his weakness. Modern seedless and commercial varieties are nothing - cardboard compared to a garden-grown, more choice variety which may not ship well. How could I  go through life without such treats?

Any Goldman sent us home with the back seat of my truck full with three baskets full of precious, vine-ripened heirloom melons and watermelons from her farm, and even though we had enough  melons for a family of 10 to last a week, they only lasted 2 days in our house.

If you've never experienced a watermelon picked from the garden? Then you are missing out.  Like peas, potatoes, tomatoes and tomatoes, melons freshly picked and eaten, warm from the sun, the flesh crispy and fresh from the rain of an overnight thunderstorm - yum. Yellow, orange, pink, sweet and utterly delightful. Melons, and especially watermelons meet my criteria of what deserves what little space I have in the home vegetable garden.

Symphytum x uplandicum 'Axminster Gold'
7. Other Plants - some choice plants one my list that I saw in gardens this year - Symphytum x uplandicum 'Axminster Gold' a variegated Comfrey which I've never thought of introducing, but it captured my heart at the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden. What a statement plant, both in the evening, and in full sun. I should mention that the bees liked it too. It's one of the few structural, herbaceous plants which dies to the ground each year, but which emerges the following spring getting better with each year. I almost didn't want to list it here, as I wanted to keep it secret.  Kind of how I felt about this Hibiscus which I added to my garden last year after seeing it at Wave Hill. What the Hell. You're welcome.

The Showy Ladyslipper, Cypripedium reginae - now available at Plant Delights Nursery, may make my list (if I can afford a few and if they don't become sold out). Also seen at the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden, I feel that I can offer a nice, slightly moist and acidic spot for this rarity.

More extreme-colored tomatoes, like this one called Indigo  'Kumquat' is so purple when immature, I love it! The entire Indigo series make great garden plants and produce good sets of healthy fruit.
Purple tomatoes help any bowl or plate of heirloom tomatoes or 'new' heirloom varieties look perfectly color-balanced, and why not - I have no problem mixing it up when it comes to tomatoes, as long as they taste great, are somewhat disease resistant and perform well in the garden.

Annuals such as this Viscaria oculata make wonderful and interesting containers - one section per container. A practice we've lost lately- that of unusual seed raised annuals not found at garden centers, but inspired by pots found in displays from where people really know about plants like Sissinghurst or by curators at more informed botanic gardens. (image from Pinterest, but I know you can find pre-started plants at Annie's Annuals)

Viscaria oculata - as a pot plant on the terrace
Claimed to be a classic annual potted terrace plant for displays, Viscaria oculata selections are again, rarely seen, and never found at main stream nurseries or garden centers (except at Annie's Annuals who clearly have their act in order).

I am also thinking about raising Okra varieties, Prune Plums, Dwarf Cherries and possibly another all white garden in front of the greenhouse. Not to mention a new alpine garden, a culinary herb garden in a new formal parterre behind the house with boxwood and brick, and.....and.....

Amaranthus salicifolius, above (1845 Charles Huber) (syn. A. tricolor var. slicifolius?) with thin leaves. Introduced it seems in the late 1800's by  Mssrs. Vetch and Sons, now perhaps lost in cultivation, but appears to be listed in the RHS plant finder and mentioned in many old gardening texts pre 1920. The common name of 'Fountain Plant' was sometimes used.

I am looking for Amaranthus salicifolius (perhaps synonymous with A. tricolor?) It's listed in many books pre-1900 as a fine-leaved amaranth commonly grown as a conservatory plant. I welcome any information on this, or any fine-leaved amaranth suitable for containers. I have a Suttons Seed catalog from 1924 which lists it with a photo, but I cannot find anything later than this.

TO  close this out - - a few more projects I am considering this year (or, at least the seeds have been ordered!). I am considering some more cut flowers such as Lisianthus, and annual delphinium the Yankee series, as well as some of the newer cut flower Stock varieties (Katz and Quartet fro Johnny's), tall marigolds (have some ideas about Indian wedding garlands and Day of the Dead flower paintings, plus - I am just a sucker for tall, old fashioned marigolds), annual Sweet Williams (dianthus Volcano mixed), purple artichokes (Colorado Star) for the veg garden, red Brussels sprouts, red okra (I guess I like red veggies), and an embarrassing amount of sweet peas (if I have room).

Also, thinking about: Tuberous Begonia's, dwarf bearded Iris collection, mini hosta (God knows why), leeks, three types of onions (Red Long of TropeaSierra Blanca), ParCel celery (for the foliage - should be great for soups in which I mostly would use celery for anyway).

For plants, I am tempted by the selection of Mangave's in the new Plant Delights catalog - they might be a safer alternative to Agave (piercing risk with four pairs of doggy eyeballs - we made one trip to vet already!).

I really have no idea where I will be planting everything, but I may be able to talk Joe out of using the back 40 for dahlias this year, and till that over again for veggies and cut flowers. Wish me luck!


  1. So are you planning to sleep this year? My goodness that's an ambitious list and I can't wait to come along on the journey. I love that you're always coming up with something cool that I've never heard of before.

  2. I have read that Campanula pyramidalis stays in bloom longer indoors than it does outside due to pollination. I will be anxious to hear all of your results.

    1. Hi Cindy, I did too. Something about snipping off all of the stamens according to Fergus G, but we'll see if I go that far!

  3. That sounds like a very fun gardening year, that's for certain! The purple tomatoes are interesting--I've only tried one variety a couple of years ago. I've already got 20+ other varieties in the middle of germinating and I don't think I can squeeze any more in this year. Will be looking for an update on how those go.

  4. I bought Symphytum 'Axminster Gold' a few years ago at Broken Arrow Nursery. It shows it's comfrey personality well - growing in dry clay in deep shade but managing to survive and attract some interest from plant geeks. This summer it was trampled several times by a black bear but he was rerouted and it resprouted. Btw, sorry to hear you won't be on board with NARGS anymore but hope you still get a chance to attend meetings. cheers, Sabra from Asheville

    1. HI Sabra, well, I did suspect that this comfrey might be 'comfrey-like' (a good thing for me, and after-all, I love Petasites too!). I have just the place for it (or three!). Time to drive out to Broken Arrow I suppose (they keep hounding me anyway). No worries about NARGS, I think once my term ends in May I could have more time to contribute in different and perhaps more useful ways. It will be in good hands, looking at the slate. Thanks!

  5. Hardy is a relative term applied to Kniphofia. Growers can't agree: is it zone 5 or 6a? Growing in Maine is the definition of hardy although they must offer protection in the winter. Digging Dog in CA has two rated at 5: 'Bee's Sunset' and 'Coral.' but neither is 'hot poker' orange if that is what you're after. Does the Maine Coastal Botanic Garden hold a plant sale? You do like a challenge.

  6. Other sources for Cyp. reginae (some even have alba):

    http://greatlakesorchids.com/store/ (hoping mine from here overwintered successfully)

  7. That sounds like an ambitious list. It will be interesting to see your progress this coming year. I have grown Viscaria 'Blue Angel' for several years. As for Kniphofia, I live in New Brunswick, Canada, zone 5, and grow several varieties Kniphofia with no problems. They are not mulched in the winter but do require a well drain soil to survive the winter. Last year I purchased Cyp. reginae at the Rare and Unusual Plant Sale in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia for $20.00CAN. The plant was barely breaking the surface of the pot but by the end of June it was a good sized plant with two blooms. They are impressive and a beautiful addition to the garden.

  8. Very ambitious indeed! It is so great to see the clear influences from parents and how you grew up. I vividly remember my mom growing pots full of wildflowers one year despite moving around so often, and I still love wildflowers the most. I have never exhibited anything, but the race for prized bulbs and plants sound rather fun and exciting. I do hate when catalogs misrepresent the true color of their stock! Good luck with all of your projects!

  9. Dear Matt

    Reading you from France for a while now.

    So sad about your recent loss, been through this too last year.
    I noticed that you didn't post for a moment and wondered if everything was allright, I sadly know why now.

    I am impressed by your new year projects and wanted to give a small contribution : you should find a precise culural guide for Mignonnette on Google books in" The Horticultural Register, Volume 4 ;Volume 1835" page 144 to 146.

    Hoping it will help.


    1. Thanks so much, Francois. I will check out the link. I use Google Books most often, so it shouldn't be a problem - I've found a few resources on there for Mignonette - fingers crossed that this is even a better one - it's date is so early! Can't wait!! thanks.

  10. Michele5:23 PM

    Your pictures always brighten my day. Looking forward to seeing more of the ornamental peppers - it is a recent pet project of mine too since they look great and the deer won't eat them (they haven't yet, I should say).

  11. I'm doing something similar to your tomato, pepper and melon ideas here in Amazonian Ecuador: I'm trialling 120 varieties of tomatoes, 80 varieties of peppers and a dozen types of cucurbits. This is the home of tomato diseases, and there is no winter to reduce their incidence. Early blight resistance is my top priority, tomato mildew is present (but not very harmful) and I've lost plants to several wilts (including the easy-to-diagnose bacterial wilt.) I've got 850 tomato seedlings on my porch: they go into the ground over the next two weeks. Pepper sowing will take place this month. Cucurbits (including heirloom melons) will depend on space available.

    So far, none of the 38 tomato varieties planted in the ground survived to make more than 2 trusses with very small fruit. Early blight kills them fairly thoroughly. Some in pots in the rain and pots under the eaves (to avoid the rain) have prospered. In the greenhouse (which acts as a large transparent umbrella), about half produced substantial growth and fruit, though the light in the greenhouse is only about 1/3 full sun due to dirt and shade cloth. The best flavored variety so far (to my taste) has been Snow Cherry. Iva's Sweet White has produced very well and also has good flavor. Mountain Magic F1 has been the best producer of larger tomatoes that taste fine, but all my production is very low so far.

    The peppers I've tried so far have been disease free!? Eggplants have fared poorly due to giant grasshoppers, spider mites, and who knows what else. I may need to grow transplants of these much larger before setting them out.

    I've bought a lot of varieties that supposedly have various disease resistances, including to early and late blights. We'll see how they do. Recognizing tomato diseases is tricky: I may have to get out my good microscopes to diagnose some. I'm sure I've got quite an assortment.

  12. Holy Cow Mike, that list is far more ambitious than mine! Sounds like you and yours are really enjoying it there - and it seem you have some land too! SO happy that this move all worked out for you. I wonder if you will find some resistant varieties of tomatoes - for warmer climates perhaps? Snow Cherry and Iva's Sweet White are interesting because of their ancestry, but I would imagine that F1 types might be more resistant, right? Looks like you are on a mission!! Never one to slow down, right? Enjoy!

  13. I have very little land, but IKIAM University (where my sweetie works) had a vacant greenhouse (more like an extra-large plastic umbrella, 16 x 35 meters) that I'm using. I'm not close to filling it yet.... Also, I'm supplying one of the indigenous communities with 160 tomato seedlings for their enormous commercial greenhouse (it's at least 3 times larger.)

    Southern breeders have worked on a lot of resistances: I bought a bunch of varieties from the deep south.

    1. I look forward to hearing more about your tomato adventures down there Mike! BTW, your Rhodies are doing surprisingly well, even with our terrible drought last summer. You were right!

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  15. Your photos are amazing. I try to grow these variety of plants.

  16. Michele8:14 AM

    what a wonderful garden. your plants looks very healthy and well taken care of.

  17. Its really a nice post and the beautiful photos tells about your experience at the gardens that you have visited and the project list is quite long and hope all you projects will get fruitful results. Thank for sharing.


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