February 5, 2014


I created a chalkboard drawing for the studio which incorporated many of my fathers sketches over the years ranging from the 1920's to the late 1930's when he illustrated a nature column and had a scholarship to attend a WPA funded art program. Many of his paintings toured the country in exhibits. In later years he illustrated the covers of Parade magazine ( 1945 -1955). My reproductions here are poor representations of his talent, but it captured some of his styles.

As many of you know, this weekend we celebrated my father's 100th birthday (his actual birthday is tomorrow, Feb 6th). I know this isn't a very plant focused post, but I thought that some of you might enjoy seeing some of the photos from the event, and the tasks which lead up to it that involved some plants.

I also though that maybe you might like to see some of these early works, as well as some photos of his life in the early part of the 20th century. Dad has kept concise scrapbooks, which contain virtually every drawing and sketch that he published, beginning with his nature club that he started with neighborhood friends in the early 1930's, a scrap book that includes 600 clippings of his club newsletter sketches documenting what teenagers did in the 1930's (beer, sausages, hiking and girls).  His later scrapbooks from the late 1930's and early years leading up to the war show how his talent for art grew, as well as his interest in birds and wildlife. Here are a few examples starting with his neighborhood nature club in 1935:

Click below for more:

January 20, 2014

Forcing Branches in January

Forcing branches of early-blooming trees and shrubs is an annual tradition many gardeners practice, in fact, it is often one of the first gardening skills we learn as a child ( I admit, it was my entry drug!), but forcing in January can be more challenging in Zone 5, since spring is still three or four months away. The closer one gets to warm weather, (i.e. the longer the days become), the faster branches will force. In fact, many branches will not force if the plant has not received a required period of cold, and short-day photoperiod, which is why some trees and shrubs such as lilac and magnolia are more challenging to force, that is, unless you are about 3 weeks away from their natural blooming time.

 I like to construct a tall arrangement in the studio to distract and impress guests. When illuminated properly from above or below, such a large arrangement exploits two design tricks - scale and experience enhancement.
 Just think: Boutique hotel lobby meets posh night club.  But really, It helps me provide a focal point in a room where I don't want people to notice a treadmill and a Soloflex machine when they first walk in.

As we are planning this far-too-large birthday party, (Dad's 100th birthday), I wanted to force lots of branches to decorate the house with, and to save money. I often construct a giant arrangement in the studio for events here,  so I  have the timing pretty much planned out. I know I can force the witch hazels and yellow flowered Cornus mas in enough time, as they are almost ready to bloom now, but other branches need a little more care and even pre-treatment. I remember many forcing tricks, from my horticulture classes from my college days when we would force trees for the New England Spring Flower Show in Boston, and for another one which was held a month earlier,  sponsored by the Worcester County Horticultural Society in my home town of Worcester.

Those years taught me that with early planning, many trees can indeed be forced, tall ones like American Elm and Maples, even forced into full leaf, and shrubs like rhododendron and lilac, but I am not about to bother with wrapping trees with plastic, applying mist and damp cotton which we would wrap around magnolia and lilac buds), this time I am just forcing easy trees. Easy forcing woody plants you probably already know of, Forsythia comes to mind, and yes, I picked a few from a shrub that Joe told me was growing behind the chicken coop ( I really don't like forsythia, but I do like some for forcing, which reminds me that I really want to plant a forcing garden out back, but that's another post).

Branches from the garden are plunged into a bucket of warm water in the greenhouse to be forced for a party we are having in two weeks.

If you want some January and early February color, try forcing some witch hazel ( Hamamellis), early dogwoods like Cornus mas, or Cornelian Cherry, with small yellow fragrant flowers that are not dogwoody at all, and some early blooming Star Magnolia, Magnolia stellata. These woody plants require a little more care when attempting to force this early, I like to cut them two weeks in advance of the date needed, plunging them into buckets of warm water in the sunny greenhouse, so that they can experience a week and a half of temperature shifts above 32º F, which is important, especially for more challenging plants like the magnolia.

Cornus mas ( with the round marble-like bud ready to pop) and Magnolia stellata branches wait to be brought into the greenhouse for their first 15 days of forcing, so that they can still be vernally treated to cool nights and sunny days, but not freezing temperatures. Brought directly into the house at this time of year, the buds would simply dry off in the desert like air. Lydia and Daphne examine the lot.

Lastly, I picked some Willow (Salix) species,  I must admit that I don't know exactly what species it is, but I do remember that I purchased a potted, named selection of a pussy willow and it was obviously selected for its large catkins.  I think I purchased it at Weston Nurseries in Hopkington, MA a few years ago.  If one demands impressive pussy willows, one must tolerate the messy, aggressive if not ugly shrub for I don't care what anyone says, 99.9% of willows are not landscape worthy. We cut ours down almost completely to the ground (coppacing it) every two years, leaving about 10 inches of 1 inch diameter trunks, properly called 'stools'. In no time, the stools will produce water shoots which can reach tremendous heights in just one season. These whips will produce the largest buds, which is exactly what one wants, and this is exactly the way commercial growers of willows produce their canes. Our shrubs rewards us with 10 foot long canes and whips which we can force in mid winter. Just be sure to plant your choice Pussy Willow in a location where no one will ever need to see it.

Pussy Willows are not brought into the greenhouse, but are brought directly into a cool room in the house, where they can open slowly. They need less care, and if they open too quickly before February 1, I can remove them from the water.

January 19, 2014


The scent of this potted Daphne odora, a shrub which is not hardy outdoors here in Massachusetts, is so intense, that I swear that I can smell it right now. It's so strange!

In an effort to start participating in some of the blogging community events, I am sharing these photos today that I took in the greenhouse. The light was so bright, once the sun came out after a snow squall this morning, the last gasp from our latest Nor'easter that dropped 8 inches of snow yesterday here in the Boston area. The perfect sort of snow, really - I really should have gone out for a hike today, but there were chores to be done in the greenhouse. Seeds to be ordered, and planted, more bulbs to be brought in for forcing, a little repotting and of course, some watering. Exactly the type of work a gardener wants to do on a cold, snowy January day. At least, under the protection of glass!

The blossoms on a small Daphne odora 'variegata' can remain on the plant for over a month.

The upper benches of the greenhouse hold plant that enjoy slightly warmer temperatures. At this level, the temperatures rarely drop below 50º at night, and on sunny, winter days like today, an reach nearly 65º. Kumquats, Primula obconica and some new additions add color to a normally white landscape outside the glass.

This Persicaria capitata 'Magic Carpet', or Pink Knotweed was a gift from Gail who works as a horticulturist at the Blythewold Mansions Gardens in Rhode Island, an estate from the 1800's that has a fine collection of trees and conservatory plants. Gail informs me that this Persicaria, which is available in the trade, tends to slow down when planted outdoors here in the summer, but it really over-performs in the greenhouse, as it seems to like the cool winter temperatures, which it needs to bloom. Just the sort of color I want all winter long.

An annual that has been passed along among many plant people lately is Gomphrenia sp/ 'Grapes', or "Little Grapes'. This less showy cousin of the hot pink Gomphrenia we all see in summer container planting schemes, is a little harder to find, but it is a delightful little treasure, with a flowering habit that looks like a fireworks display. The individual flowers are tiny, but are produced in such a profusion, that the display can appear explosive. This was another gift from Blythewold Mansions, and Gail informs me that this is another one of those summer annuals which she finds is even a better potted specimen in the winter greenhouse.

Hardenbergia violacea, the Australian Pea vine, which is taking over the greenhouse a bit, this winter ( don't worry, I am allowing it to do so), continues to bloom.

The camellia's from last weekend,  that seemed to bloom in such profusion, are still in bloom. Amazing how long they last! Sure, there are plenty of blossoms on the gravel floor, but this one pot has over 15 flowers. I know, I have photographed this view twice now, but with the sunshine today, Camellia 'San Dimas' really glows red.

Some camellia's are so famous, that everyone want it, and so it is with the one on the left,  'Margaret Davis'.

Clivia crosses are just beginning to open. Most of these are from the seed that we brought back from Mr. Nakamura in Japan a decade ago, and they are just blooming for the first time. The slender, long flower shape indicates that these crosses are interspecific crosses between two distinct species, most likely Clivia miniata and C. gardenii, a fall bloming species, so these bloom in mid-winter rather than in March, when most of the C. miniata crosses bloom.

Green tips on the petals are also provide a hint that these early blooming clivia are crosses between the more pendant clivia species. This in one I may save for myself, but we sent most guests home yesterday with as many clivia as they wanted to take, since we have so many, and I need some room in the greenhouse. Maybe I will offer some here if people are interested. I will need to think of a good way to fairly offer them, as these are quite rare and unavailable elsewhere.

Snowy Hamamellis, this Witch Hazel is almost ready to pop open. I will be picking some long branches to force for my fathers 100th birthday party in two weeks. A tradition that we have been performing for about 20 years now, for his early February birthday. This branches will flower after spending only a couple of days indoors.

My new blogging desk, near the livingroom window which overlooks the backyard. When I was a kid, I would sit at this window and watch the snowflakes fall with my mom, since my parents loved snow so much that they installed outdoor lighting to illuminate the garden when it snowed. I really think that this is why I love snow so much - we always celebrated it when it snowed. The lights went on, and suddenly the yard looked like a set from the Nutcracker. Well, a little, at least! But you get the idea. It's all how you look at it. Celebrate the snow.