August 18, 2019

It's Just Art. Curating Botanic Harmony and Some Common Sense Gardening

Just as an artist creates a composition, what we choose to grow and how we combine it with others in the garden is

As with the arts (music, fine art, or any human creative endeavor), horticulture combines many fascets of influences to get to a new creation. It also involves talent, learned skills., and then, of course, nature itself - which we have very little control over. Gardening is part science and part art, but not always is it an equal split. That depends on our approach to gardening.

I'm often asked about a particular gardening trend, what I support, and what I don't do. While I'm honestly not trying to duck out of a direct answer, I feel that I do a little bit of all the trends combined.  Gardening for me is more about the plants themselves.  I understand and appreciate gardens and the gardeners who have created them regardless of their purpose. Yet while our garden isn't as noble as let's say a pollinator garden (comprised of just native plants)?  It is a product of and a reflection of the folks who created it. A bit of this and that. I imagine that most people who garden have a garden like that.

What I can say is that this garden is not a purists garden at all. In fact, it's a messy, weedy collector garden (which is why I never have garden tours and rarely allow visitors as most people would be surprised by how messy it is. What you see here on the blog is carefully photographed to show only the nicer parts.

Yes, it's that time again. In fact, it's a little late to order some bulbs. I always seem to miss out on ordering the super rare crocus from Latvia or Lithuanian nurseries as the cut off date is Aug. 1, but I did just get a large order of Bearded Iris placed - something in the past I always missed out. Late summer is not only the best time to plant these rhizomes, but it's the only time to really get the greatest varieties from iris nurseries, All of the iris you find at garden centers come through 'the trade', and are generally older if not ancient varieties that meet some sort of criteria such as they don't mind growing in nursery pots, or they multiply well for the trade, or they are inexpensive to get because they are older varieties.

Most plant people will agree, while the commercial trade has plenty of extraordinary plants to offer today, even more are available from the actual plant breeders or specialty nurseries who carry hundreds of varieties that may never be selected for commercial propagation either because their color didn't meet a buyers taste level, or the plant grows too tall for shelves, or it doesn't bloom or grow well in a nursery container, or it doesn't propagate easily or quickly - the list is long, but I can say this - the finest looking plants never make the final cut for one reason or another.

I imagine that your garden is producing as well as ours is right now. I mean - it's mid-August, and tomoatoes abound along with cucumbers, peppers and herbs. I've found myself making seasonal favorites like gazpacho (because it is still so hot and humid) and Lithuanian chilled Beet Soup (with fresh buttermilk dill and hot, new potatoes set into the icy, bright pink broth. Classic summer fare around here when it is too hot to prepare anything in the afternoons. Any time of year other than August and these dishes would seem out of place.

The garden does dictate what we eat most of the time - whether we want it to or not. There are only so many days when I can eat yellow wax beans or sweet corn (well, nearly every day for the corn!). The rest needs to be 'put-up' which of course, always coincides with the hottest day of the year - just when you really want to be using a pressure cooker!

I'm not growing as many veggies this year as last, we don't really have the room, but the few tomato plants we have are keeping us surprisingly at our tomato limit. I usually over-plant but maybe just a dozen plants or so is really enough for two guys?

Late crops - those planted now for autumn and early winter harvest are becoming my thing lately. This year I have planted some branching purple sprouting broccoli, late winter cabbage, and kale. I've found that younger plants set out in August produce quickly as soon as the weather turns cool (which is only a month away!). The broccoli is new for me this year, and I'm trying not to use floating row covers on it - tolerating any insect damage and butterfly larvae until harvest, which should be after a hard frost. We'll see how that goes!

How many lilies are enough? I really don't know yet! I'm kind of reaching my limit though on fragrance in the house!

I do try to curate parts of the garden, but mostly what is 'curated' are collector plants grown in pots that go back into the greenhouse in the winter (camellias, succulents, bonsai) and the rest are whatever we felt like adding at the moment while shopping at Logees or at a plant sale.

Part of the 'collection' is the annual standby's - the old bay laurel topiary, a huge gardenia, about ten large tubs of citrus and agapanthus - all specimen plants that are hauled out of the greenhouse every spring, and dragged back in ever autumn. I sometimes call these the burdon plants, as, after ten years or so, you are just 'taking care of them', as they often lose their appeal, but they are too much of an investment in time and heat to let go of. This may be the year we do that, however, as not working anymore means that I should probably allow the greenhouse to freeze without heat for a few months. I know that I say that every year, but this time we may actually do it.

Another view of the deck planting this summer. A little bit of everything.

It may be good practice to learn to let go of some plants, especially those that can be replaced easily. Working as a horticulturist this spring and summer I've watched many nice homeowners in suburban Boston buy full-grown agapanthus and other container plants - wholesale, and in full bud to grow just as summer container specimens, and then allow them to freeze dead in the winter - treating them as annuals.

Somehow we are still living with our agapanthus collection as if we are on a big estate  - dragging them into the greenhouse every fall, fertilizing them and dividing them, and then bringing them out in spring. This was the old way of keeping many conservatory plants in the North (I know, you Californian and southern growers are thinking "what's all this fuss about plain ol' agapanthus?", but they are a precious plant here in the North).

The Spencer sweet peas were very tall this year, and the flower stems longer than they have ever been. Most bloomed well into July but are just finishing up.


I get so many emails sent to me about all sorts of things, but soil management and fertilizing are the most common questions. Knowing what a plant needs is a good place to start, but that doesnt mean that you need to be a chemist and must adjust the iron or calcium in your soil. If you add plenty of organic plant material to your soil (i.e. composted leaves and maybe clean horse manure) all the nutrients a plant needs should be there. At least as far as vegetables goes.

Horse manure was certainly easy to come by a hundred years ago, but today that's a whole different story.  I do use mostly manure in our garden, but it comes from our poultry coops. I will sometimes add lime as our soil is acidic, for ccertain crops that grow and access nurtients better in a slightly alkaline soil (like spinach, or with Christmas Cactus in pots, for example) but other than that, the only fertilizer I use is a chemical based one and only for plants growing in the greenhouse or in containers, as those are leeched out by heavy watering and are growing in a soilless mix.

I call this common sense gardenings, for most of the time plants tell you what they need. In our beds, the absolute finest treatment is a spread of compost and manure in the spring as a mulch, and then excellent irrigation through the summer. The annual flower beds I've planted this spring are taller than I am with this treatment.

I trialed some mini sweet peas this year, growing them in pots. I was very happy with the results. Hard to find, these came from the UK but I am on the hunt for more this coming year.

One of my favorite old-fashioned annuals (perennial, really, but an annual for most of us) is this white flowered Summer Gloxinia (Incarvillea sinensis). Very easy from seed, and just a terrific summer annual for containers, and one rarely seen.

Incarvillea sinensis, (summer gloxinia) is difficult to find at garden centers so you will need to raise it from seed, but that is easy once you find the seed! I bought mine from the British company Chiltern Seeds, and yes, they ship to the US. Start early underlights, and pinch them regularly. I planted about 9 plants in this 12-inch square slate pot, and it's been putting on a show like this since about the middle of July, and doesnt seem to want to stop.

I adore marigolds. I love the smell of them. and the smell of them. I do. These are from some some heirloom seeds grown by my good friends at Bunker Farm in Vermont. Definately my go-to source for rare or unusual annuals. These are 'Tangerine Gem and 'Cinnabar', both popular cut-flower farm varieties now but excellent for border that need height.

Scabiosa come into their own in the summer, and they last so long when cut for a vase. Sometimes longer than a week.

Another new favorire, and one I also got from Helen at Bunker Farm is this Rudbeckia triloba. I'm partial to wilder-looking rudbeckia more than the big, floppy hyrbids, and this one blends in so well in the garden, that I must plant lots of it next year. Easy enought from seed, I know that most likely it wont come back next year as most rudbeckia are semi-perennial, if not biennial in nature. It will always be safer to just plant lots of plants all toegher every year from seed started in mid-spring.

This is just one single plant, and look at it. Just a cloud of color, perfectly paired rusty tones with that chocolate button of an eye, and set against the agastache? I can only imagine what 24 plants together will be like. It's tall, nearly 5 feet but it has flowers from stem to stern. Or top to bottom, all open at the same time. I am really enjoying the color palettes in this garden, setting cool violets against the lime yellow of goldenrod and then pops of hotter colors like this. Gardening IS art!

I've added some new gladiolus to the garden this year. These are from a Czech Republic breeder and come in incredible colors like rust, grey and this meat color. This one is gigantic as well.

Seedling trumpet lilies showing some interestig color patterns are still opening in the new border. The lilies in the new border are planted with all sorts of natives and near-natives (like selected named and sterile forms of Goldenrod). Its definately a weedier or more natural style of planting though as I experiment with self-seeders, grasses and more pollinator plants like agastache.


Trumpet lilies just starting to end their show in the long border.

I've added a few new species lilies to the garden this summer. They provide the 'look' of native lilies, but our local L. canadense remains something that grows better in our woodland, but sadly most of them are lost due to a neighbor and his obsession with filling in a wetland behind our property.

'Tiger Babies' is a strain of L. lancifolium with pink tiget lily like blooms. I am a sucker for any turkscap-type lily or an Asiatic that is pendant. My first choice for all garden lilies. Another great lily for a more natural look.

When was the last time you saw this plant? I think of all the Amaranthus, this one A. tricolor is my favorite because it is so showy and uniquely so - just try fitting this into a color scheme or designer garden. Maybe a lakeside motel? That's what the color palette reminds me of. Barkcloth from the 1950s or lithographs from the 1800s. Whatever - it's totally old fashioned, vintage and rarely seen today - which means that it makes the cut in my garden.

Agapanthus blooming in the gravel garden. These are all in tubs and pots and are loaded with buds this year after transplanting 2 years ago. Some are 5 feet tall.


There are many potted plants here, which are easier to care for but which do take some time to water - daily. Their fertility needs to be adjusted through the summer, and many must be repotted as the soil acidity changes over a year in the same pot. Christmas cactus are repotted with a bit of lime, and in a loose mixture of compost and coir potting mix (professional potting mix), as they in particular do better and turn dark green when grown in fresh potting mix that isnt acidic.

Agapanthus are repotted or topdressed annually, but only divided every 4 or 5 years. They get a scoop of a slow-release Osmocote, (20-20-20) in the early summer, as do most of our plants. The citrus get a higher dose of iron, and an annual refresh of their soil with a new bag of ProMixBX. This keeps the flowering well and dark green with lots of fruit. Sometimes they get a booster of iron chelate but only if the soil is fresh.

What I do appreciate about out agapanthus is that they are varieties not commonly found in the trade. Most of the varieties found here in the North are commercially grown and forced into bloom early (really - most gardeners here think that they naturally bloom in early June becasue the plants that come in for mid-May sales are already well budded). Even the garden center sales people at the wholesale nurseries here tell me "oh, they'll bloom all summer, don't worry abour them being almost through flowering in late May.") which is incorrect, of course. Our plants that were wintered over in the greenhouse bloom in Late July and August, and some of these varieties like 'Storm Cloud' are 5 feet tall. This is the way to grow agapanthus. Huge tubs with tall stalks and buds that emerge in mid-June.

Of course, flowers next year on agapanthus means that you need to care for your plants well this current summer by feeding them. for their embryonic flower buds are forming now for next year. This  means plenty of water, a balanced feed (10-10-10) and not allowing the crowns or roots of the plants to freeze. I'll be sharing more info on how to get massive and gorgeous agapanthus plants in the North, in my new book 'Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening' that comes out next year, (sorry, it was time for a pitch!).

A few agapanthus taunting the hummingbirds this summer.

Gardenias are treated exactly the same way as the citrus, but the camellias get special care. Always top-dressed with new ProMix and then shredded bark wood mulch, and a sprinkle of Cottonseed meal on the surface of the soil (slow-release nitrogen), but also a liquid feed for acid-loving plants at half strength. Most of the camellias are growing in 12-inch pots and won't be transplanted for many years. Their soil becomes depleted quickly.

Just have to share these begonias from our deck. Can anyone really have too many begonias in summer? Most look best near the end of August, even those that barely survived a winter indoors and lost all of their leaves. Repotted with fresh soil and summer shade and humidity - they do this.

 Begonias all go into fresh commercial potting mix in early summer. If they didn't, they would just do practically nothing in their old mix. A bit of a slow release fertilizer in each pot (a teaspoon) and some additional compost keeps them growing strong and healthy.

In the borders little is done for fertilizer in the summer, as mostly the rain and compost is doing the trick. Some slow-release organic feeds that were applied when plants or bulbs were first planted are still doing their thing (kelp meal, bone meal, lime) but in the spring next year I may hit some beds with a sprinkle of superphosphate if I cant get a manure mulch from a horse farm.

A rejected cover shot from my new book 'Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening' due out next year.