June 11, 2013

Nostalgia and the June Garden

I picked a few old world roses from the early 20th C. and some vintage peonies that were once my grandmothers from around 1910. In this 600 year old Chinese vase, this almost looks like an arrangement from Saipua! (sorry for the blur).

Last week while visiting my friends iris breeders Jan and Marty, we were discussing how we both had some of our grandmothers peonies in our gardens. Jan had transplanted ( saved-slash-rescued some of her moms') and I, some of my moms, although I still live on the same property, so it was not really a 'rescue', as it was "oh, I thought I got rid of those, and now they are back" sort of thing. Peony's are terribly long-lived and tenacious, except when you want them to be.

Today, I wish I was more careful with the peonies that once lived in our garden, but most were crushed under the tractors when the greenhouse was built twelve years ago, and few, if any, survived. below, a pink one from the late 1800's still blooms ( intensely fragrant!), and I know I can replace some of our older ones as I have the vintage names, but its just been something I have been putting off. To be honest, I think I am more attached to the newer selections, especially the inter-sectionals, or Itoh Hybrids, which are a cross between a tree peony and and herbaceous kind ( the sort that die to the ground each winter). These intersectional peonies are stronger, more robust in growth and flower, sometimes not even needing staking. I keep some antique varieties off the the edge of the garden for nostalgia's sake, but if they don't perform as well as I expect, they are sometimes put out of their misery. I don't have time for willy nilly emotions when it comes to some plants ( others, I will take a sword for - you know that).

A 100 year old unknown peony that was once my grandmothers, still blooms in the garden where it was first planted around 1910.

A new intersectional peony, a lovely yellow form, blooms upright and sturdy in the perennial border. Even the foliage is nicer with these newer crosses.

An heirloom iris has strong, rootbeer-like grapey fragrance, but it barely compares with newer crosses such as the big German Bearded below.
This large new (2010) German Bearded Iris "Greatest Show on Earth" has on-trend coloring and massive flowers.

Other new German Bearded Iris have striking stripes and colors, such as the aptly named"Crows Feet" introduced in 2006, which has brilliantly striped falls.

Some new Itoh Hyrbid Peonies have pure yellow blossoms, with little or no red in them.

Just an update on those pansy's that I started last summer and transplanted into the garden in the autumn - this is the proper way to grow pansy's, as when others are failing in summer heat, these are growing stronger and bushier. Hopefully, they will self sow for next year.

Artichokes are growing fast ( with little chokes already showing!). The pansy's probably should be pulled out to provide more air movement around the base, but I just can't bring myself to do this just yet. Maybe in another week or two.
Baby Artichokes! These will probably be ready to pick while I am in California amongst the 'real big artichokes being harvested' in two weeks, as I will be in the San Fran area.
The lemons that provided us with many jars of marmalade in January, still have a few fruit on them, but these will be harvested as the trees are well budded and ready to start the season over again, now that they are out from the greenhouse for the summer.

In the alpine troughs, the late blooming silver saxifrages are starting to bloom. I always enjoy their delicate white flowers, sometimes produced on long panicles, and other times, just like this. They always remind me of the Italian Alps and the Dolomites, where they grow on the highest, limestone mountain peaks.

In the vegetable garden, the seedling onions ( 'Copra' from Johnny's Selected Seeds) that I started in January, are already thickening up. Some are already being harvested as green onions for weekend morning omelette's.
There was a time when every onion we grew came from onion sets. Then, I discovered that the finest onions are grown from seed, and that onions ( as well as other alliums such as leeks and shallots) must be sown early, indoors, often as early as late January here in Massachusetts. It's always surprising to watch them mature faster than those grown from sets in my side-by-side comparison studies. With plenty of water, good sandy loam and fertilizer low in nitrogen, my onions can grow as large as those found at Whole Foods by the end of July, but what really wins me over is the texture - crispy and sharp, home-grown onions are superior to store bought ones.
The many primula ( Primrose) species which Is started from seed this winter, are ready to be placed out into the garden, where they will bloom next spring. I dug a new bed this weekend ( I have blisters to prove it!), and most will be going in there. These are Primula denticulata - blue forms, from the Himalaya, but I have at least 7 species that I will be transplanting over the next few weeks.

Primroses are best grown from seed for many reasons, but mostly for cost. Sure, it's hard to find most varieties and species other than those polyanthus or acaulis types grown for the potted plant trade, which are rarely hardy once planted out, but when grown from seed, primroses can be very hardy, often withstanding very cold temperatures, even in Alaska and Canada - so there are no excuses why you should not grow some next year. My favorite for garden performance are the drumstick Primroses ( Primula denticulata, and the Polyanthus forms, Primual veris ( the wild cowslips in England), and  Primual acaulis. The only thing 'acaulis' means is that the flower does not have a stem, just a pedicel, so the flowers sit down low in the rosette of foliage, whereas the Polyanthus forms have a stem, and then pedicel, like a magic wand, if you will. In the garden, stemmed forms are usually better, but they are rarely sold in pots as the stem once wilted in the garden center, rarely comes back with full force. Primula veris have stems, but the flowers are not that showy, a characteristic I happen to appreciate, so I grow many of these, and the fact that they are the easiest to grow from seed, helps.

Sunday was beautiful here, bright blue skies, cool temperatures and hardly a breeze or a cloud in the sky. The perfect June morning for home made Black Cherry Buttermilk muffins.

June 5, 2013

Inspired by Artisional Iris

The fields at Joe Pye Weed's Garden show off some of the incredible and talented breeding results performed by
passionate life-long iris breeders Jan Sacks and Marty Schafer in Carlisle, MA.

Today. I want to talk about my favorite group of iris, those known as Siberian Iris, and for that, I am visiting a friends Siberian Iris breeding farm, to show you not only some amazing new colors and forms, but to help rally more interest in this overlooked group of Iris.

First, some Iris 101 - Everyone can close their eyes and visualize what an Iris looks like, but this massive genus ( with 300 plus species) can make a new gardener feel over-whelmed, and an experienced gardener, well, overwhelmed too. Without getting too geeky on you - if you are interested in growing iris,my executive brief for you  would simplify the top line groups - you know, those that grow from bulbs vs roots, vs rhizomes.  If you prefer to generalize, which can be easy in a huge genus where close-ups of each flower may all look at first, to be similar, I would organize all the different types of iris into 6 buckets. 

Bearded Iris - those flouncy huge Iris which gardeners either adore, or hate - you know, those with thick rhizomes that look like ginger roots. Your grandmother grew these...

Siberian Iris, with grassy foliage, hardy as and oak tree yet harder to find, and yeah, your grandmother grew these too, usually purple, often surrounding a gazing ball...

The Japanese Iris, - unless your granny was a serious gardener, most likely, you've only seen these painted on Japanese screens at a museum. Lovely, but a bit more demanding.

Florist Iris - you know, Dutch Iris - those blueish-violet ones you get at the florist, often as tight buds, but the flowers last for a few days. 

Louisiana Iris - Iris that I cannot grow, but similar to Japanese Iris for more southern gardeners

Rock Garden Iris - here I included dwarf, bulbous ones, or those dwarf species that grow from creeping Rhizomes

Collector Iris  hard to grow Alpine House forms - from the Middle East and Turkey - Aril's. Junos and the like 

A ginger colored seedling - expands the color range of Siberian Iris

This sorting is rough, and not anything like the way the American Iris Society organizes groups, but it helps me think about what I can and cannot grow. One needs to be realistic with a plant family such as iris, as someone walking into a nursery asking for and iris plant, could be thinking about any one of these. The AIS divides first all iris as bearded or non bearded, and then includes species as a group, but truth be told, there are species in all of these groups ( species, meaning how that particular iris appears as a wildflower where it is native).

Siberian Iris a known for being long-lived and floriferous. Making them ideal candidates for perennial borders.

More advanced gardeners divide Iris by HOW they grow. Like... Rhizomes, clumping roots, bulbs or just roots.For more info, check out the American Iris Society site. There you can lose yourself in the acronyms ( SDB - Standard Dwarf Bearded. MDB - Miniature Dwarf Bearded, what iris don't have beards, why an iris would ever want a beard, etc. Knock yourself out, but I'll be thrilled if you just takeaway that there are many types of iris', and that you have a rough idea about what iris group you are talking about the next time you go to a nursery - this is important, and each type requires a different cultural treatment. Also, if you are looking for cut-flower iris, know that the bulbous types sometimes last longer than a day, but that most flowers only last a few hours to a day. Just important FYI if you pin these to Pinterest, hoping to get some for a wedding.

The breeding fields at Joe Pye Weed's Garden are jam packed full of incredible, new iris varieties. Each one gets a different colored flag, unidentifing whether the seedling is worthy of the compost pile, or for additional breeding.

Without writing an essay about the broad and diverse word of Irids, I really just wanted to talk a but about some fine garden iris - particularly, those known as Siberian Iris'. These are clump forming, often long-lived iris' that seem to be overlooked by many contemporary gardeners, and I really don't know why. I could guess that first, there are few if any commercial growers growing them anymore, so the distribution channels are dry, or I could guess ( rightly, so) that there are few breeders dedicated to advancing this group, so the public as well as buyers at wholesale nurseries over-look them, or I could guess that perhaps people associate Siberian Iris with the few, antique cultivars that most every gardener has seen - a very 'wild' looking, purple strain with rather unremarkable flowers - yeah, the one your grandmother grew that was passed on to you.

Gentle grey tints, and mustard gold colors are emerging as hot trend colors with Siberian Iris. Few flowers can offer this palette.

My friend Jess admires the Siberian Iris' big cousin the German Bearded Iris, which is more common, but often
plagued by more disease and the need for constant care.

Jess responded " But with all of these amazing colors, like custard yellow, butterscotch, mustard gold and those gray ones, they would be so hot right now at hip nurseries like Terrain..why arent' they being sold there?" "good question" I added. Yet, I knew the answer was clear. Plants developed for large retail distribution must meet specific criteria to even be considered worthy of micro-propigation, let along the years of field testing required for a large Dutch corporation or an American distributor to even think about marketing a plant variety to the masses. I am not being critical here, as shelf height, performance under the stressful conditions of black plastic nursery containers, and long shelf life are essential for big box stores if they are ever going to purchase a truck full of a particular, over performing plant which is also well behaved.

" But why don't we see these colors at nurseries then?" Jess asked.
Jan knew the answer " Because it takes at least ten years for one of our selections to even make it to a wholesale grower. Breeding iris is not difficult, but it does take time. A couple or three years for seedlings to grow before they even think about blooming, then at least 5 years of perfomance in our field, where we evaluate each seedling looking at a variety of traits, be it a new color, a better color, flower form, height, either tall, or short. Quantity of flowers produced, branching or not, resistance to diseases and pests..." and the list went on. " If you are buying a Siberian Iris at a nursery today, you are most likely buying a variety that was hot in the 1970's or 1980's". 

I love the new brown tints, as well as the golden mustard colors when combined with berry tones.

I would add that if you get one from a friend or family member ( as these are on the short-list for pass-along plants), then you are most likely getting a default form from the early part of the 20th Century or late 19th Century - a time when the Siberian Iris was common as a perennial plant, encircling bird baths, lining walks ( as it can be divided annually), or engulfing a gazing ball. Siberian Iris however are worth re-discovering, as they offer some of the finest characteristics that most other iris cannot compete with - over performance. It's easy to fall in love with those giant, flouncy German Bearded Iris' that smell like grape jam, and look as if they were constructed from delicate tissue paper and hand painted in bright, watercolor type tints, but the lesser known Siberian Iris has one thing over its fancier cousin - it gets better with each year, rather than requiring annual division of fans. 

All from the same seed pod, one of the skills needed by any plant breeder is the ability to edit
offspring. Just look at the variety here, and imagine how you would choose the best? Would your
criteria include height? Fragrance? Amount of buds or flowers? Color? Awesomeness?

The Siberian Iris' offer something year round in the garden, so I feel that they are far superior. Their grassy blades of erect foliage along always looks nice, adding a well needed vertical texture in the perennial bed, the flowers of course, are produced in abundance, whereas the German Bearded Iris in all of it's forms, only offers a few flowers during its short season. Siberian Iris' also have artful seedpods, which can be left on the plant for winter interest, or picked for dried arrangements. The only problem I know with Siberian Iris is that they are difficult to find - which just may be the first thing I address when that big company calls me someday for me to put together my ultimate curated set of top 10 plants that I will market under my own brand ( heh heh). Until then, you now know that these amazing plants exist, and you know where to find some of the newest varieties - Jan and Marty's Joe Pye Weed's garden.

Soft pinks and mauves have yet to win awards with Siberian Iris ( just check the RBG awards list - where seletions from 20 years ago only feature purple and one yellow variety). Clearly, there is something far more interesting and important
happening with the Siberian Iris - so who is going to move to exploit this trend?

Asclepias incarnata, one of our native mildweeds, stems are pinned to a sweet pea fence, so that the Baltimore Orioles can use the dried bard to make their long, stocking-like nests.

As soon as we walked down the sloping hill in Jan and Marty's back yard, we could hear both Baltimore Orioles and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks - two of our most colorful summer migratory songbirds, and both have a similar song which is so appealing. Jan pointed out that these Orioles seem to  return each year, and that this year they have at least 3 nesting pairs on their property. It's easy to see why they return, which their large pond off to the side, where they draw their irrigation water, and towering white and red oak trees that Orioles prefer, the location already has much to offer, but Jan shared a secret which I found fascinating - a few years ago Jan and Marty discovered that their Baltimore Orioles had very specific nest building resources on their property -  they discovered that they prefer to use the peeling, white bark on the perennial weed Asclepias incarnata which they used to pull in after frost in their large cutting garden, but now, they allow it to not only remain all winter, they actually cut the stems and clamp them to their pea fencing, as the Orioles continue to pull the 12 inch strips of strong, stringy bark, so nesting couples are so territorial, that they won't allow the other nesting pairs to harvest their cache, leaving Jan and Marty to cut string and yarn, which they leave on their porch roof, which the other orioles use.

On the left, a Baltimore Oriole nest constructed with the bark of Asclepias incarnata, a native milkweed which
has long, stringy fiberous bark when allowed to dry in the field through a winter.

These reminded me of epaulet's on a British Captain's jacket, but then again, how many iris are named after that? Jess asked Jan how they name their plants, and she responded with "Many of the names come from country dances as we used to be folk dancers".  

The breeders weren't keen on this color and form, but I lust for it!

With such a color palette available, I would hope that those of us who care about such things, will help promote these iris in our own gardens.

June 2, 2013

Product Review - Troy Bilt TB30 Neighborhood Rider

The new Neighborhood Rider manufactured by Troy Bilt offers value and practical features wrapped up in a unique design that allows this ride on mower to do things average ride-ons could never do before - like fit through gates.

I can hardly be labeled 'a lawn geek', yet...there was a time (1972?), when along with my two brothers, we would have to cut my family lawn bi-weekly, as part of our exhaustively long garden chore schedule. Fast-track to today - and although I'm not admitting any less competitiveness today ( humph? Really?)when it came to cutting the lawn properly, it was a very big deal ( maybe because my Dad was an artist, and a one-time greenskeeper during college - yeah, that could be a couple of reasons why). Dad had an uncanny and almost unhealthy appreciation for attractive lawn stripes and grids,( you know - estate-meets-Fenway-Park-quality-stripes) and as a family we we're (and continue to be) perpetually 'old-school' - which mean - - OK. I'll be blunt. ,Push-mowers.  Push mowers without engines. Push mowers without engines before they were hipster cool.

It took guts, gear and talent. My brothers got the guts and gear, but I got the talent. Which, when it comes to lawn care, I somehow ( thankfully) lost.

Today, our once impeccably stripy lawn neither stripy, plaid or impeccable. It's  clearly much smaller, but it is the same lawn. I mean, it smells the same, unlike other peoples lawns, which is difficult to describe, but it must be our unique combination of weeds and grass selections.  Gardens change, or evolve, which is completely normal, and I have accepted this as part of maintaining, or shall I say ' stewarding' a piece of land which has been in my family for over 100 years. Today, our garden has more trees, more beds, and more things to navigate around, and to make this terrible long post shorter -  I have avoided investing in a ride-on mower for these reasons. Yes, a ride on would be fun, but I could never justify it.

Ride Forest, Ride - The TB30 Neighborhood Rider allows the rider to see exactly where the edge of the lawn
is, allowing one to navigate close to rare plants and flowers beds, without giving them a hair cut.

Now - my older brothers have their own homes, their own kids who they can torture, and their own lawns ( some, even with nice, neat rows and striped), which leaves me (the youngest) with our older ( ancient) family lawn. All 2.5 acres of it. Even though I have the largest lawn in the neighborhood, there is no ride-on mower in our garage - until now. All of our neighbors have riding mowers, which they use to cut their puney quarter acre lots, but a riding mower just never made my short-list. That is, until the folks at Troy Bilt came along, and I discovered this odd, yet appealing design. And, the seat, cup holder and…mmmmm I kind of like it.

I'm not a small dude, and little things like leg room can often be a make or break design flaw. With this TB30
Troy Bilt Neighborhood Rider, I have room to spare, clearly it's because of it's scooter-like design, it's comfortable,
 as if I am seated in a chair. No, that is not a horn in the middle of the wheel - I tried. But look at those lines,
nice design for a wheel on a mower, right?

When I chose to review a ride on mower, the decision did not come easy. Believe me, Troy Bilt makes some serious lawn equipment, but if I was to really be honest about this review, I wanted to find something new, not just accept a fancy ride on with headlights and all the bells and whistles just because it was free. Sure, it would have been fun to ask for a giant lawn tractor, or even a zero-turn beast just like the one that the landscapers use ( hey, Joe still isn't talking to me!), but as a product designer, I was not finding anything interesting - from a usability point, about the more typical tractors or mowers. This past March, while in Scottsdale at our Troy Bilt Saturday 6 kick off, I saw exactly what I wanted to write about - this crazy smaller ride-on mower that looked like something one would see cruising down the chip aisle at your local WalMart than on a golf course. I had to know more about this thing.

Although we no longer have sweeping, large lawns, we do have many 'garden rooms', and each one requires
some mowing, This mower fits through our garden gates, which is essential - some push mowers in the past
have not been able to squeeze through our gates. 

The TB 30 Neighborhood Rider, isn't even called a mower - it's a "rider", what ever that means. OK - it may look a little less 'buff' than it's bigger bro's, but this little red beast has some impressive features - the main one, being practicality. When I asked the folks at Troy Bilt who where helping us test the equipment while in Arizona, what they were thinking when they designed this thing, they replied with far more answers and reasons than I had asked about.

First, The "scooter-like" design was intentional - designed this way for a very good reason.

The TB 30 Neighborhood Rider is designed to do things that it's greater kin, cannot. For example, first - it can fit through  ones average 30" garden gates ( bing - we have lots of those!).

Second, the Neighborhood Rider is designed not to have a long tractor-like front ( you know, the hood and long vents where farm tractors usually have their engines - not necessary on any lawn mower, but in this case, it allows one to see exactly where they are cutting - how brilliant is that? No more cutting into beds, nipping off rare plants as you turn, or guessing where you are cutting.

Third, the 18 turning radius allows one to turn as if navigating around pallets of Oreos at a Wal.....wait - I mean I can carve around by alpine beds without trimming a single precious saxifraga from Tibet. Seriously, this is a huge plus for us with rare plants, as most ride on mowers are designed not for practical reasons  - like for those people who have gardens, but instead  for aesthetic ones.

Forth, the chair-like seating - which allows one to sit like a human with knees in a comfortable position ( my issue with most toilets, too - BTW-TMI), leaving lots of room, especially around the steering wheel. I rarely find this feature designed well with other ride-on mowers.

So guy's, this is not just for you ladies, you dudes can now ride it - no excuses ( don't worry, the designers at Troy Bilt still took care to add a beer holder.

Mow responsibly. ( hmmm - another toilet issue….).

See how the wheels steer? While sitting in the seat, I can see precisely where the lead wheel is running, allowing
me to cut close to beds and hedges without hitting cobblestones or dropping off of the edge.

The techy specs themselves, I will leave up to you, check out side-by-side comparisons here.  I rarely look at those sort of things, opting to buy based on first for looks. I do buy for cost, usually going for the most expensive because I believe that one gets quality for a good price, yet I also appreciate some design practicality - or impracticality if it looks awesome. And while I am on the subject of design - let's be real, this machine is not ugly, if anything, I love it's black and red motif, and, it certainly matches my red and black chickens.

The blades on this ( an most of the Troy Bilt machines) devours grass, so few clipping are produces - most just get chomped up underneath. That said, you can use a bag if you save your clippings for mulch or the compost pile.

The Troy-Bilt Neighborhood Rider is not a big pricepoint either, retailing for just over $1000, it's has so much going for it, that many home gardeners might find it practical and useful. Great for both small, or large gardens, it takes up far less room than most ride on mowers, it is easy to start ( like many of the Troy Bilt products), it cuts the grass so cleanly and tightly, that I didn't need a bag.

 On the down side? It doesn't have headlights, (or a horn for that matter). Then again, I am a toy designer.  But there is that drink holder, and a cushy seat with springs. Oh, and a nice feature is that when you stand up, the mower automatically turns off. Nice.

All in all, I can say this - the way I feel about the ride-on mower category has changed forever. If you've been looking for a mower that you can ride, but one that is smaller, less expensive and more maneuverable, than finally, there is one. It's truly practical, and not about being a massive 4WD beast. Many of us will appreciate that.

The Troy Bilt TB30 Neighborhood Mower and Troy, our official Troy Bilt Rooster ( sold separately).

 NOTE:  Full Disclosure -- naturally - Troy-Bilt provided this TB30 Neighborhood mower for free ( but I got to choose what I wanted to test as well as write about). I am not an easy person to please. The mower, as part payment for being a 2013 Saturday 6 blogger, was offered free to me to keep ( and one will be given away this year to one of my readers). I was encouraged to be honest, to share my opinion and I know they really meant that. Honestly. So...OK. A headlight would have been nice! Stay tuned for an awesome Troy Bilt giveaway coming soon this summer on this blog - you won't believe how generous it will be.