July 25, 2019

Mid-Summer Update

I don't know how the weather is where you live, but here in New England, it's suddenly summer. Mid-summer, in fact, and while spring has been extraordinarily cool and wet, we finally had some of that hot and humid weather the east coast is so well known for. You may all know that I am a winter person, but there is no denying that the plants love this heat and moisture. I always notice that it is the week after the Fourth of July when the tropical, warm-loving plants really begin to show us why we invest in them each year. Particularly the alocasia and colocasia. These 'elephant ears' just sit there for most of June, probably stretching their roots a bit but basically doing little more than thinking about growing, but after a week or two of hot weather combined with near 100% humidity - things begin to transform quite literally overnight.

The deck planting this year is completely random due to my schedule and projects. This was the first year that I just took all of the extra plants laying around the greenhouse that was not used in client gardens and shoved them all together into spare containers. Yet look what happened? Everything seems to work together. Red flowers, dark leaves, and lime-colored foliage along with jewel-colored blooms has morphed into this jungle of color that I just love.  Even lotus in a tub of water.

OK, now for some messyness. I know things seem to always look nice in photos, but look closer here - weeds everywhere.

Messy! Before clean-up - Our long-walk has a long history here as it was built by my uncle Frank and my dad back in 1926. I know this because I have photos of it being installed. 200 feet long has transformed over the years but this year it was just a weed mess lie everything else in the garden. That 'Haas Halo'  row of hydrangeas is something that I think needs to be extended down the entire walk.


The long walk is a 200-foot long border and walk in our 3 generation garden (if we had kids it would be a 4 generation garden). Ever summer the walk is weeded -by hand, with knives and some home-made tools. It was a chore I had to do as a child and later one that I learned to loath as it takes an entire day or two on one's hands and knees. I use an old carpet to kneel on, and while it's a bit ile therapy, the sacrifice of time always puts it off later and later.

To make matters worse, old gardens mean more invasive plants, and as plantsmen, we have more invasives than anyone should have to deal with. This means that bamboo's, self-seeding vines, wisteria, and countless other annual weeds run amuck on one side of the border, and on the other side, a hedge of European Hornbeam that has been pleached (or more accurately, trimmed). Not exactly low-maintenance, but then again, I have never claimed to be one who chooses low-maintenance solutions (weird, especially for someone who hates garden work, and who can't afford to hire help as well).

My mom hand weeding 'the walk' in the 1960s.
 This walk has been transformed over the 90 or so years that it had been here. I mean, in the 1920s and 1930s this humble country garden in a small city was really just a typical arts & crafts movement garden of that era - straight lines, a formal layout, and really rather typical for modest New England homes who first decided to layout and landscape their backyards. I have an old Fletcher Steel landscape book just focused on his suburban backyard layouts. Two or 4 acres like this property often just had a few straight hedges, walks, birdbath, gazing ball, and fish pond features, and the typical clothes drying area, chicken coops and someplace to hide the trash.

Our long walk ran alongside this green, and today Joe and I argue most about how hard it is to maintain, discussing whether we should just remove the rocks that have been there for so long, and just make it a gravel walk, or should we buy lottery tickets so that Power Ball could fund the care of it and the entire garden? Even today, I received a call from someone who either saw photos of our sweet peas in a Martha Stewart magazine or in Better Homes & Gardens, hoping to snatch a garden tour - and I laughed. Later explaining that our garden is not some fancy, garden-tour-type of garden. No 'open days'here! Unless you want to come weed!

My dad and his dog 'Flash' taken around 1926 on the long walk. At that time it had wild blueberries planted along one side, and delphiniums on the other.

My dad used to spread rock salt on the walk, which is how he used to control the weeds. Not completely environmentally sound but he was from another generation, and while still a big environmentalist his entire life, never saw the harm in using salt to kill the weeds. Many have told us to just use an herbicide, but we aren't about to take that route either, nor would we use vinegar for that too has its issues, and won't work anyway on the perennial weeds. Hand weeding on hands and knees remains the only way to get a tidy look. Then, hedge sheers on poles for the hornbeams.

A view (from our roof) of our back yard circa 1950 showing how formal everything looked. The golf green is on the left.

Another view of the walk. Photos like these showing tall trees, then no trees, then tall trees again help me confront making major changes to the garden as they reinforce the notion that garden does change and evolve continuously. All of this as we contemplate cutting down some 100-year-old trees and many 30-year-old trees.

Here is the walk after we weeded it and trimmed the hedges. A little manscaping always helps, but there is plenty more to be cut. The giant 15 foot tall Joe Pye Weed that self seeded into the walk on the left was something we were going to remove, but then it bloomed. What do you think? On the right in the foreground, look at how nice the Anemonopsis are going to look!

The walk is also strategically positioned so that one can view it from the kitchen sink.

I've also been busy photographing garden flowers for my upcoming book Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening, but 98% of the shots will never make it into the book. My problem now is how to store all the shots and data as my laptop - even at this moment, is nearly out of memory.

This was the year that I skipped growing vegetables (except tomatoes) to make more room for flowers as I needed props, and I have this thing that every shot in my books needs to be photographed by me, or grown by me. A concept that I really should step away from as it takes so much time and effort, yet I honestly believe that this is important and not often seen in many gardening books. It does drive my publisher batty, though!  This never made it in, but I was thrilled to have finally found 'Geen Trick'  Dianthus to grow.

Tithonia always have a place in my garden as it is the ultimate pollinator, and an essential component of the late summer displays, but generally we grow the orange form. This year I wanted to grow four color-forms that are not commonly found, particularly this golden-yellow selection which I found from the British seed company Chiltern Seeds. It's the perfect PMS 123 color that enhances other warm colors like magenta and purple.

In my new garden (where that golf green used to be) I have planted many annuals for the book, and while I used to plant most of these hardier and rarer types near the greenhouse, the dogs seem to have discovered digging, and I;ve given up planting there. This African Foxglove (Ceretotheca) towers above even the tithonia at this point in the summer, attracting its share of hummingbirds and bees to boot. I don't see any white flowers in this seed mix, but I know that I saved plenty of seed from our white flowered ones from last year. Say - do you think that I should start selling seed on-line? I've been tossing around the idea.
Ammi majus always performs best when it is self-seeded (and I don't mean direct-seeded). It's just one of those flowers like it's close relative Queen Annes Lace and most wild carrot relatives that share the self-seeding trait with the entire clan of umbellifers or shall I say, Apiaceae.

Speaking of Apiaceae, this white Ammi majus (or I think, 'Lime Green') was first tagged as something else - a Ferrula sp. but it is stockier and nicer than the pimnker forms.

Scene in the new boder with annuals, some grasses that I am setting out and a new Daylily.
This new border has allowed me to experiment boldly. My vision for the border is ultimately a more natural planting, aside from the boxwood edging. It runs parallel to the long walk, but about 50 feet to the left of it - which includes the entire space where the golf green used to be, and is comprised of another 200 foot long path  - it's axis runs from the center of our living room window , through the middle of the garden directly to the old goldfish pond, and through the new gourd tunnel). I still need to find the perfect artwork or object to place in a cross walk where now an old urn sits, but this 'natural garden' concept may or may not work here. I have not decided yet.

I could say that I want low maintenance (right) but then I start sowing seeds of perennials and annuals, dividing perennials or buying 10 of these, and 20 of those....I can't help myself as this space is such a luxury, and I can go all 'Christo Lloyd' on the border - which is 12 -15 feet deep on either side. I know that eventually I will need to plant more grasses or even just go all 'hydrangea-crayzee' and have a no-weed garden - but for now, the reality is more like "Oh look - I can plant 38 snapdragons in this clump....""And 6 dahlias over here...." I need to stop becasue I am not going to have time to weed it all.

I am growing some rare gladiolus hybrids here. 'Rare' only becasue these came from Poland and the Ukraine, and prove to be some very interesting colors like chestnut brown and grey speckled with lavender - Eastern Europe is really making some leaps with gladiolus breeding and yes, I predict that once we are done with dahlias - the gladiolus may be our next 'it' flower.

So full-disclosure - I had this opportunity offered to me by a TV network who was interested in a series or a documentary about my work and garden (God knows why!) but I entertained it -pitching ideas for them about what might be interesting for their audience. The executives entertained the concept for a while, pushing it out further and further as I said 'how about sweet peas? How about the Winter Greenhouse? We landed on rare Japanese Chrysanthemums, how I grow and train them, so I invested in far too many plants this spring - most of which I am still growing and training, even though - I am sad to say - the deal is off as the network is reconsidering other projects. It still may happen, but yes - I am stuck with a few hundred pots of Japanese and exhibition chrysanthemums, and most bare spots in the garden and on the decks look like this - simply becasue I don't want to throw them out.

I seem to have been able to source most of the rare annuals for my book, but this is the third year that I am growing this one, and I just love it. Incarvillea sinensis 'Cheron White', also available from Chiltern Seeds. If you are familiar with the genus, it looks nothing like any other Incarvillea. Last year in Yunnan we saw three species, but only geophytes (bulb types) not this one which is one of 16 species native to China, but is an annual. Started in the greenhouse in February, I have planted all of these in slate containers (cubes) and have found that 6 or so plants per square foot will give you the best display.

Another self-seeder, this Amaranth with red leaves self-seeded in another walk (nothing like it's parents which were thin-leaved forms), this often self seeds at a local flower farm I know, but I have only had other species self sow. I have left them to grow tall, and tall is an understatement, for they are now near 7-8 feet tall.

It's July and that means lily season. I missed our annual Lily Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden and the New England Lily Society but I learned that they held their show this year at the Arnold Arboretum nearby here, but I could not make it. I can't blame them as this year NALS hosted both the National Show and the International Show. This yellow trumpet seedling is ridiculously fragrant.

I've grown so many lilies this year that the fragrance is intense, and we sit there saying "should we move the vase? Or tolerate it as long as we can?" every evening. This arrangement is about 4.5 feet tall, which you cannot tell in this photo. That's a 14-inch urn. So moving it would not be easy. Still, this is summer, and we both love the scent which reminds me of both my early experience with Lily Society shows when I was a kid in the '70s at our local Worcester County Horticultural Society shows every summer. Nerd.