December 12, 2015

A December Tour of the Greenhouse

We're all so busy during these last few weeks before the Holidays, that it's hard to rake a break from all of the cooking, decorating, shopping and trying to finish up everything at work before the year comes to an end. I look forward to my Christmas break because thankfully, I do get one, with only a couple more days of work until January 4th. I can't wait. Hopefully, it will give me some free time to work on the blog, in the greenhouse, and to just relax and catch up on some reading. I always treat myself to one, good order of antique gardening books, which I can loose myself in.

Here are some bulbs, citrus and camellias which are dominating the greenhouse this warm December in New England.

Massonia jasminiflora, an unusual, collectable genus of low, near-to-the-ground tender bulbs from the cape of South Africa. Just a pair of pustulated leaves, with a cluster of white, tubular blossoms.

Of course, there is also the greenhouse, and work doesn't end in there; We are having some minor plumbing issues - need a new faucet, and a new hose but most of the tasks are just the fun type - repotting, staking tropaeolum vines, which I still am experimenting with in an attempt to find the perfect trellising system for these tiny vines. Some older tubers however are being a bit more aggressive this year, one large 24 inch pot of a Tropaeolum x brachyceras has so many stems emerging that I can't even count them. I wonder if it split or multiplied this year? Right now, it looks as if it could take per the greenhouse! I may just train it onto a tall column of chicken wire.

 Ipheon recurvifolium, a relative of the common blue Ipheion uniform which we sometimes see in the fall, Dutch bulb catalogs. Taxonomists continue to argue if this should be placed into Tristagma, as T. sessile, but it doesn't change that that this bulb has been blooming under glass for 2 months now. Three tiny bulbs was all I could afford of this sweet thing from Uruguay, but maybe it will set seed or divide.

I so love snow, but I have to admit that this unseasonably warm sunshine was healing. I'm definitely thankful for the break as well, since I have not been able to make time to wrap the greenhouse glass inside with bubble wrap - maybe we will be lucky and El Nino will grant us a mild winter?  I am kind-of OK with 60 degrees F in December - my heating bill for the winter so far has been $42. Can't complain about that, but it does make me sound like an old fart - I should be hoping for snow, and a white Christmas like 5 year old Matt somewhere inside of me.

Another bulb which is blooming now, is this Cyrtanthus (Fire Lily). This is a cross who's parentage which we are not sure about, but it's a reliable bloomer each autumn.

Paperwhites have been planted for Christmas. I prefer to grow them in soil, and then top dress the pots in gravel, and later, with moss from the woodlands.

Meyer Lemons do so well in the cold greenhouse. I love how they ripen starting in December, almost the same time that they ripen in California. I have two large trees now, but I may get one more. It seems we can never have enough Meyers for tea, marmalade and for cocktails.

Summer succulents were cut back, and the cuttings are being rooted in seed flats. This helps me save space, and it refreshes the plants, since cuttings perform much nicer when set out again in the spring. Plus, I can quadruple my collection, which is always nice.

Clivia miniata bloom here in March, but the interspecific crosses - those which are crosses between the autumnal blooming species such as C. caulescens and C. gardenia with the spring blooming C. miniata, tend to bloom around Christmas time. This one, which is a cross we made about ten years ago, is sending out 5 spikes.

It's nearly citrus season in the greenhouse, and aside from the Meyer Lemons, we keep adding other citrus like these Kumquats, which are still green. They should ripen in January, and will provide a nice treat when eaten whole, warm from the sun, my favorite way to eat kumquats.

Limequats are a cross, which are already ripening. Terrific in Holiday cocktails, these may not last through my Holiday break! They are tart and sweet, and much juicer than typical kumquats.

My good friend from college,Jeannie, which is Chinese but practically hawaiian now, loves her Calimondin oranges, since most of her friends are from the Philapines. She may be spending Christmas with us, so I hope to impress her with this large variegated Calimondin - it's just beginning to ripen now.

Camellia season has started under glass here in New England. We can't grow camellias outdoors, but under glass, they thrive if it is kept cold. It's been so warm, that I fear that many of mine may bloom early this year.  For now, the late sassanqua fall-blooming ones are ending, and a few Higo types like these singles.
'Yuletide', a classic fall-blooming camellia is effortless in the cold greenhouse. 

I know, it's a blurry shot, but still, so pretty. This is a new single red, but I can't find the label! 

Many of the large Higo camellias are blooming, now, and most will last throughout the winter, especially those which have been planted in the ground in the greenhouse, like this one.

Chrysanthemums continue! A stunning apricot spice colored quill-type.

One of the great benefits of an unseasonably warm winter? I can order bulbs on markdown from the mail order catalogs, in volume. Most are %50 or more off right now, as are peonies. Check your favorites sources - it's not too late as long as they can still ship, and while your ground is still thawed. I plant bulbs until the ground freezes in January in some years.

December 10, 2015


A contemporary photograph of classic chrysanthemums by Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda, Chrysanthemums, 2011 c-print. First cultivated in China, cultivated forms date as far back as the 15th Century B.C. Today, they remain important in much of Asia and especially in Japan where their appreciation remains unmatched.

This was a very special year for me. As many of you know, this year I grew (and trained) a collection of exhibition and Asian chrysanthemums - a collection which, thanks to many who shared plant material with me including Smith College, and Brian from Kings Mums . I had an opportunity which I could not turn down for an editorial piece for a publication next year, but due to a shortage of plant material ( an indication of how rare these plants actually are) I had almost not been able to get any cuttings started. Thanks to these folks, in addition to Five Form Farm and Mark Hachadorian from The New York Botanical Garden who helped me make some further connections, I was able to complete what ended up being one of my most fascinating special-growing-projects. 

Be prepared, this is a long post, but I wanted to share with you not only my process and results, but some of my influence as well. It's my hope that all of this might inspire even a few of you to consider growing chrysanthemums  next year, thus rediscovering this interesting, beautiful and historical craft and flower which sadly, is close to becoming extinct from culture. Consider joining the American Chrysanthemum Society too, for on their site, you will find great cultural advice. Facebook will connect you with very good growers in the UK too, such as Ivor Mace. Few grow these exhibition chrysanthemums today, and as you will see, for a few practical reasons, but mostly because they require some work to grow well.

A late nineteenth century rare Victorian chromolithographic trade card for Van Houghton Cocoa. once the world's most prominent chocolate maker. These collector trade card featured anything from children to tourism, to even how to grow the 'new' and stylish chrysanthemums .

A Century and a half ago, these larger, looser and more formal chrysanthemums where treasured greenhouse and conservatory plants. Grown outdoors and later in the season, brought indoors where they would bloom under glass for autumnal and winter displays. Yes, the chrysanthemum was considered a Christmas-time flower, blooming from early November until nearly January when set on display indoors.

What helped the chrysanthemum achieve such popularity during the Victorian era is exactly what keeps these plant uncommon in our gardening world today - and those reasons are more practical than anything else. SImply said, time and money. These are not plants for those with a modern home or lifestyle, unless you have an unheated brightly lit room that could act as a conservatory (an unheated bedroom?) for these chrysanthemums are tall, need to be raised in pots, and will not bloom until late in the season.

So, given that few today have a cold greenhouse, let alone a conservatory, growing and even moreso, displaying these plants will be a bit of a challenge. A hundred and fifty years ago, the idea of owning a conservatory or greenhouse, was not uncommon, at least amongst those with the means. Estates often had greenhouses from raising display plants, and most every proper Victorian home came with a conservatory room attached. Like show dogs or race horses, exhibition and Japanese chrysanthemums need growers and a staff to train. Today their culture and thus, their survival is left to the wealthy, a few botanical gardens and the a handful of crazy, obsessed working folk like me who are willing to sacrifice vacations, retirement and a career over raising something which few people ever see anymore. Whatever. 

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December 6, 2015


The winter holiday lights display at your local botanic garden may surprise you. This one, 'Winter Reimagined' at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston MA is worth seeing.

Is your neighborhood like mine? Deficient in Holiday light displays?   There used to be a time the whole family would jump into the station wagon (what's a station wagon mommy?) and drive around looking for impressive holiday displays. Today who really has time for that, besides, am I the only one thinks that there is something just a little weird about secretly looking at other peoples houses? SO, because isn't 1960 anymore, and because those handful of home who really go all out have seemed to become too...well, disco-y, why not make the experience nicer - visit your local botanical garden. Most have now discovered that Holiday light shows are not only good for getting a little extra bump at the fourth quarter gate, but the shows offer an experience found at few other venues in December.

In the Boston area or New England? Need I say more? After last winter, we are ALL for reimagining it!  How's this for a Wednesday - Saturday night event in December with the family? Hot chocolate, snacks in the cafe, and an entire freaking botanic garden illuminated at night. Awesome.

Even in the evening, the brand new 'Garden Within Reach'  at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden which opened this week looked inviting. The temperatures here in the East have certainly been anything but winter-like, but after last winter, I'm not complaining. It made looking at Holiday lights enjoyable (as in wearying-a-t-shirt-enjoyable).

This past weekend we visited our closest Botanical garden - the Tower Hill Botanic Garden about an hour west of Boston, up in the wooded New England hills of rural Boylston, MA - one of those quaint, New England villages which already looks like a Christmas card with a white church and steeple, a town common and a sub shop. I go there a lot, but I have to admit, on this visit (I was just going for a meeting), I was surprised. In a good way. It was breathtakingly transformed into a Christmas wonderland.

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