June 2, 2017

Home Again, Garden Growth and Enough About this Slow, Cold, and Rainy Spring

Broad Beans (four varieties) are in bloom and will soon form pods. This is one crop enjoys the cooler than normal temperatures this spring.

Now that I am home from traveling a bit,  (seems like everyone wants me to see their garden, but I am enjoying it). The home garden needs attention though - endless attention. I am trying to catch up with some garden chores - Oh geesh! That sounds like the most cliche statement of all - but don't we all say that?  Weeds are growing faster than weeds, and sweet peas need daily staking but the cool weather makes such tasks enjoyable, at least for me. I visited White Flower Farm this week and bumped into Cheryl who was busy with muddy jeans and boots, planting their border. We both agreed that this weather really couldn't be better. 

The truth is that it is June now and for much of us, we have little to complain about if we are true, hard-core gardeners given the weather and it's delightfully wet and cool gift (sure, we can;'t cut the lawn, but in many ways, that's a gift to us gardeners as well!).

The blossoms on broad beans (or lava beans) are black and white, and surprise most vegetable gardeners as they are attractive enough to be perennials in the border (but they would be short lived). 

It may be rainy and cool, but that's just the type of weather I enjoy working in the garden in. What's getting in the way a bit is the cooler temperatures, but while a delay in warm weather is interfering with the sowing of squash, cucumber and melon it's providing the ideal conditions for the cool-weather crops such as the sweet peas, the shell peas, lettuce, cabbage, radishes, turnips and especially the broad beans (or fava beans) which seem to be thriving - believing that they are growing in the British Isles. I guess by raising both warm weather and cool weather crops, I am covered one way - not some brilliant mast plan, but it sounds logical and smart.


The odd bracts on the rare Dove Tree or Hangerchief Tree -  Davidia involucrata - , first discovered by Augustine Henry in 1871, it was lost in cultivation until Ernest Henry Wilson brought back a living specimen I think more about the sad fact that Wilson moved to Boston to take a position at Arnold's Arboretum in 1907, but in 1930, he died in a car accident --  just two miles from our house here in Worcester, Massachusetts.


It's been so chilly that the Tomatoes eggplant and pepper seedlings are sleeping over in the greenhouse, but this also means that I am feeling a bit better about sowing all of them later than I typically do.  We are experiencing a weather phenomenon not that uncommon here in the Northeast, when a large low pressure area or vortex sets up over sub-arctic Canada, blocking warmer weather from arriving for the summer, and swirling down bands of rain and instability that has very cold air at high elevation which brings us daily thunderstorms and hail. Thankfully, we've missed the hail with each storm, but the pattern seems to be continuing through next week.

Also known as the Ghost Tree, Davidia involucrata can take years to bloom (I planted this tree 28 years ago and it bloomed for the first time 5  years ago). In typical years, frost kills the buds and the bracts never show.

Davidia is the only member of its genus. It's bracts do look like white pieces of cloth which is where one of its common names comes from - the Hankerchief tree. The giant leaves of Petasites japonicus sap. giganteus in the foreground, each leaf is nearly two feet across. With such weather - hail can damage these large leaves in just seconds, so fingers are crossed.

Paeonia cambessedesii is a rare deep pink species with nice bluish foliage - it's endemic to the Balearic Islands and northwestern Majorca.  Grazing feral goats have endangered it in its native habitat (which is odd, because it is very toxic if consumed by most grazing animals). It takes 5 years to bloom from seed, so this seed-raised plant is very special to me, and this is the first time it has bloomed. I add lime yearly as it grows in limestone cliffs and rocky limestone screes.

The arucauna chicks are growing big, and fast. One lonely goose is nearly the same size.

In the greenhouse Ixia hybrid 'Venus' puts on a show. This South African bulb is not a typical plant seen in the Northeast spring, but I grow in it pots in the greenhouse where it emerges in the autumn and blooms in May just as pots are going outside.  I imagine the Ixia would perform better in a hot and dry garden, California or the Southwest.


In the greenhouse, the last of the winter-growing South African bulbs are now blooming in pots. Now, Ixia, Sparaxis and Babiana may be  late summer bloomers in warmer Mediterranean gardens, here I grow most in pots as a winter-growing bulb, allowing them to bloom in the spring just before they go dormant (under glass). 

Ixia grow well in much of California, but in a typical Zone 5 garden they can be disastrous. I think they are best grown in pots, either planted in spring for late summer bloom, or as I grow them, kept dry all summer but grown on under glass in the winter for bloom in the early spring. I visited another greenhouse while touring gardens in western Connecticut this week, and one had a large collection of South African bulbs - the homeowners gardener was trying to explain to me why the foliage all looked dead but then remembered that he followed this blog, and he knew that I understood that these winter flowering bulbs all look untidy in summer.

Babiana gets it's name from Baboons, which consider the corms a tasty food source in South Africa. You can see the foliage turning brown as this is late in their growing season, as they emerge with the fall rains here and bloom near the end of their growing season in May, before they go dormant for the summer (kept dry and hot, in the greenhouse until autumn again).

I have more luck with Babiana hybrids, grown in pots that are treated in much the same way as all of my other winter-blooming South African bulbs. I grow both seed-raised species, and inexpensive bulbs purchased here and there from Dutch distributors. These fancier hybrids bloom more reliably in pots and containers, but as you can see in the photo above, will also have some fading foliage, as it is another one of those bulb plants which blooms just before it goes dormant. The colors are strong and bright, and nothing like any other tone in the spring garden. I keep these pots in a sand bed under glass, but on sunny days I can move some into the garden.

Cobaea seedlings - the Cup and Saucer vine still warm in the greenhouse. This is a favorite vine of ours, and we usually plant them on netting against our back porch where it will cover an entire wall of windows with a curtain of green. This year, we are planting them across the entire front of our house (where we have the ugly jalousie windows). We can now view these from our new kitchen, so it will be nice to block out a view of the street.

Salpiglossis seedlings are coming along nicely, but still require the warmth and protection of the greenhouse as it has been cool and wet. The trick with Salpiglossis aside from total darkness and surface sowing the seed (which seems oxymoronic- hint, use cardboard), is that they hate any root disturbance. Transplant carefully into 6 inch pots from cells, and allow to dry out between waterings.


Unusual annuals are an addictive challenge for me, always on the lookout for something only found in old nineteenth century catalogs or in old gardening books. What I can't find at specialty nurseries must be raised from seed, and paying attention to cultural requirements is often key when it comes to having success with many of these rarely seen plants. Take Salpiglossis for example. An annual which demands strict cultural care from the moment one sets seed in a pot - I now use single cells, 72 pack flats with a hand-held seed sower that makes sowing a single seed easier. 

Salpiglossis seed needs warmth (25 deg.F), complete darkness and yet still be exposed to the air. covering the seed flats with cardboard on a heating mat works, but pay attention as it will need to be removed as soon as the seed germinates.  At this point, temperature management takes over, for if plants are kept too cool, flowering could be delayed until autumn (but you might have healthy looking foliage). The ideal growing temperature is in the 68 - 72 deg. range, which makes our cool spring weather rather imperfect.

Planting depth is also key with carefully transplanting Salpiglossis. Plantlets must be set in at exactly the same depth as when they were growing in cells. Then comes pH management, for while 5.5 to 5.8 is idea, and higher and leaves will yellow and go chlorotic as pH affects how some seedlings access nutrients. Which brings us to fertilizer. A Cal-Mag 13-2-13 is best, but if ones growing area a bright and sunny as in a greenhouse, a 20-10-20 can be tolerated.  Key here is low Phosphorus. This is probably why one rarely sees Salpiglossis for sale at nurseries or garden centers, which makes mastering their culture even more desirable, at least for me.

Our native Mayapple (Podophyllum) is surprisingly pretty up close. I think their blooming period has been extended with the cooler weather.

A different view of the greenhouse from the end of the long fence. Just an old Rhody that still blooms.

A white flowered wisteria, so fragrant that it reminds me of orange blossoms.

Rhodochiton atrosanguineum or the Purple Bell Vine just beginning to bloom. This plant was seed raised in the greenhouse and absolutely pouted through the entire winter (it hates the cold nearly as much as Joe does). Once the sun began pushing the daytime temperatures above 80 degrees, growth began to accelerate. I think that it will enjoy warmer summer temperatures once they arrive.

Many annuals are placed out in one of the beds leading to the greenhouse. Since this is in a part of the garden where the dogs have access, "terrier guards' have been temporarily placed. Doodles is still digging big holes, though.

Vegetables are grown throughout our garden now, even though there was a time when this entire side of the yard was dedicated to just veggies. Here you can see come potato bags in the foreground, three rows of broad beans, some onions, carrots and sweetpeas for cut flowers. The two dead boxwoods need to be removed (dog pee victims).

We grow two varieties of asparagus, this older bed of 'Purple Passion' and a new bed of 'Jersey Supreme'. Massachusetts was once a leading grower of asparagus at the turn of the last century, and there are still a few big asparagus farms near us.

Many people like pencil thin asparagus, but I prefer thick stems. Asparagus is once of those vegetables that tastes best when home grown, is freshly picked and cooked immediately. I'll stop harvesting from this bed around mid-June, allowing the remaining stalks to mature into ferny foliage.

With seven varieties of potatoes being raised this year, I am testing a few more varieties out in these new potato grow bags and in pots, as many British growers raise their exhibition potatoes. In containers, I use a soil mix which I s 50 percent compost from our compost. pile and 50 percent ProMix commercial potting mix. Start with 4 inches of soil mixed with a handful of 0-0-60 high potash fertilizer, and some 10-10-10. I set in 2 or 3 seed potatoes, and top off with 3 more inches. Later in the season, the additional soil is added as the plants grow (potatoes form above the seed potato).

I am attempting a 'set-inflicted  Okra trial this year (I mean, why not? I live in the North where few raise Okra) I have planted 8 varieties in the greenhouse since it is a long-season crop and one which demands warm, summer temperatures.  This is a risky crop as they are prone to mildew in cook weather, and they love heat (in fact, southern Florida can grow them better then northern Florida, for example). I hope it gets hot soon, so that I can move these containers outdoors. 


  1. This is my 4th year of struggling to learn Zone 4 gardening after living decades in zone 7. And next year I will be back in my Zone 7 gardening area. But it has been a long, cold winter here in Montana and I can't wait for a little heat. And neither can my tomatoes.

  2. Everything looks so nice... and that species peony is great!

  3. Great photos! Those broad beans plants look gorgeoous and the agparagus - I bet the taste will be one of a kind. My family grows broad beans for ages, and it means the taste of the spring for m. I'm still not ready to try growing asparagys yet. I'm not sure I'll handle with it, though I would realy love to :) Thank you for the graet post! Greets!

  4. The Dove Tree is amazing! I and my snow peas are enjoying the cool weather, and I still have a couple late daffodils blooming happily. My tomatoes and peppers will be very thankful for the coming warm temperatures, though!

  5. Great pictures of a great garden. Would love to have such on my flower garden as well (https://www.gardenloka.com/). Cheers to us gardeners :)


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