June 16, 2019

A New Garden Blooms, a Career Adjustment, and My 2019 Projects (finally).

I could just call this post "June in Rain" as we here in the northeast are experiencing what may be the wettest and coolest spring ever. Not that the plant's mind at all, for them, this wet weather without the high, humid temperatures is like living in Seattle. Thank goodness too, as this year - as I prep for my next book on flowers, I am focusing on growing many - oh so many - cool-weather annuals. I, and the plants couldn't be happier.

Personally, as you can tell, I haven't been posting here much - that was due to my job as a horticulturist for a landscape firm in Boston which while I loved, was proving to be just too much given the schedule and the commute. My writing for my book was suffering (getting up at 4:30 am and commuting at least 2 hours in traffic each way was just exhausting). And while I loved the people and especially the clients, I proposed a change to my schedule - and now will be shifting to a part-time position. Sure, I loose insurance and benefits, but I really feel as if I need to focus on my writing and my personal growth with my own intellectual property too - I really wasn't giving it any time to grow ever since I left Hasbro - now two years ago. Last year, if you remember I did 'invest in myself' and went on a botanizing trip to Western China (Yunnan) for a month which was an incredible opportunity. I need to do more things like that rather than design containers around swimming pools. Both are important of course, as is making money but -- I have far too many irons in the fire right now, as well as some very exciting opportunities in the future which I cannot talk about yet, so I amd saying "Matt, just hang in there and see what develops for another year or so.". I tend to get impatient and jump from projects if they don't prove growth worthy immediately. I need to learn patience.

While much of the garden was neglected due to my job this spring, the alpine troughs seemed to do just fine with no attention, especially this clump of Saxifraga longifolia, a single monocarpic plant that bloomed tall and lovely last summer died, but from its roots emerged these plants - all kin that were starting to send up tall wands of flowers a few weeks ago.

So, here I am again folks. Finally posting, and focusing on my summer in my garden again. Working on my next book and trying to blow the deadline as those dates were slipping away quickly.

And here is how they looked last week. I so appreciate the alpine saxifrages for their sturdiness in troughs. So much nicer than sempervivums (which are fine, but rather ordinary and a bit too easy for me so I stay away from most as I like a challenge). Plant snob, I know, but hey - I like uniqueness and special plants.

Even though I seemed to spend all of my time working since March, I was able to raise plenty of plants for a new garden which we started last June, but one that remained fallow all summer because I was in China much of last May, June, and part of July. This garden sits directly in the back yard, smack in the middle with a view from our new window that we put in this past winter. It's where my parents had a golf green - a putting green of all things, complete with bent grass and metal holes with flags - weird because no one in my family golfs, but it was constructed in 1926 by my dad and his brothers who all spent their summers working as greenskeepers at a golf course just at the end of our road. There they were also able to use the greenskeeper shed as their clubhouse (which historically is significant as they shared it with Robert Goddard. the father of modern rocketry - (as in the Goddard Space Center). He shot off his first rocket from their golf course, and my dad and his brothers were all there laughing at "the crazy scientist". Kind of like the movie 'October Sky'. 

I missed sharing so much this spring. - like this Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty'which not only has colonized a bit with three tall specimens, it has also seeded around a bit. Not a bad weed to have!

That golf green was lovely, but high maintenance as it required a special mower that eventually broke.  So after my father died (at 100 in in 2014) we let the lawn grow in, and now, in an effort to remove all of our lawns, I decided to just make the entire back yard a massive garden. planted with perennials and plenty of annuals, which has been my focus this year.

My new garden where the golf green used to sit consists of two long borders and a gravel path that is roughtly 80 feet long and has two borders about 14 feet deep on either side. This year it is mostly planted with rare annuals and some perennials, lined in boxwod and eventually lined with cobblestone once we win the lottery. It's always nice to have a grand vision! How do you like our new windows? This is a view I have never shown before on the blog as there used to be an ugly bow window circa 1966 there.

This new garden still needs work as we just started laying out gravel walks and boxwood hedging. I have yet to decide on whether it will be brick paths or peastone. I also have just set temporarily an old rusty urn in the center, but I am looking for the perfect sculptural object (like this amazing sundial on a concrete or limestone pillar that I saw at Trade Secrets but regret not investing in). For now, it's a little cliche, but the urn will need to do as I am on a tight budget. Health insurance and mortgage you know. Some things come first.

OK, here I go - sharing an embarassing shot but really - this is what the garden looks like right now. I have invasive bamboo (Sasa japonica), weeds, and still need a few tons of pea stone or brick to cover over the crushed rock that we laid down last june, but really - I garden is never really done, right?  At least we got the new window finished, and moving onto the other windows. They will eventually be black, but this one was too late to alter so it's sashes will be painted black.

SOme of the rarer annuals I am growing is this Monkey Flowers.

Schizanthus blooming in the new border.

I am raising plenty of rare and unsual annuals for this next book project. Ones that I have either grown before and failed at, or ones that are so challenging that I have really had to master them before I could feel comfortable writing about them. SOme, like this Schizanthus I havent grown here since I was in high school (really!). I remember my parents taking me to Buchart Gardens in Victoria BC and they had a greenhouse (it was September) full of potted Schixanthus. It was 1976 and even though I only had a home-made greenhouse that my dad had made me, I raised a crop that was pretty successful but I had failed ever since. I think that that greenhouse was cooler than the one I have now, and that mayhave helped.

Nemesia has always been a favorite border plant here, especially since one rarely finds it at garden centers - until now though, as new hybridizing has brought Nemesia to the forefront - with Proven Winners selling a few strains and a few other branded forms. This one, however, is still rather uncommon. This is Nemesia cherianthus 'Masquerade',a  pretty named selection of our Californian native. More understated than any of the newer hybrids, it is lovely in a big Guy Wolff pot on the walk where it has been blooming since late March. You will probably have to raise this beauty from seed as it will be hard to find in the trade, but it is worth adding to your spring line-up.

This is one cool-weather annual you may find at a good garden center - Mimulus x hybridus 'Monkey Magic' (becasue it's commonly called Monkey Flower). Botanically this may be Diplacus now, but I'm not going to get too geeky here.
Mimulus - all of them, make excellent container specimens in the spring. They'll fade once it gets hot and humid here, but I like to plant 12 inch clay pots with them. 0 a different species or hybrid in each one, usually about 6 plants per pot. I am not one to mix plants in containers -rather, I prefer to combine different pots of specimen plants together into curated collections which I can edit rather than make 'floral arrangements' in one container.

Speaking of California natives. - this is a beauty right? So rarely seen in gardens is this easy-to-grow annual that thrives in long, cool sprin weather such as we are having right now. Phacelia campanularia or the Californian Bluebell make a sensational statement in the border with its true-blue blooms and purple-tinted foliage. It too will collapse once the weather gets hot and humid here, but right now? It is king.

The late Beth Chato was mad about here poppies, particularly this one which is commonly referred to as "Beth's Poppy', a gift from garden designer and nursery woman Helen O'Donnel in Vermont who rasies so many lovely hard-to-find cool-weather annual that she sells for a few weeks in the spring. A real treasure, this annual is Papaver dubium ssp. lecoquii var. albiflorum. It lacks the grey spotting at the bottom of each petal so I am not exactly certain about the species but Helen did get it from friends in England and I still treasure it - saving the seeds, of course.

Another view of the new border with pink Vaccaria and scarlet Emilia in the foreground. Two other rarely grown annuals.

Of course, Salpiglossis or 'Bearded Tongue' is a must for any old fashioned flower border. These are just coming into bloom, and are plants that I will lift in the fall to bring into the greenhouse for some winter color as well.

Annual phlox has always been something that I had wanted to master - again, since high school - ever since I read Ruth Stout's book The No Work Garden where she wrote about a circle of Phlox drummondii that she would sow at the end of her driveway. Actually, that would be in Junior High for me, as I just found the book and saw the inscription in it with the date 1971 from my Mom  who bought it for me one summer in Kennebunkport, Maine when we would be there on vacation. Ugh. I was such a nerdy kid! You would think that I would want a book on baseball or something?! The greenery in the foreground will prove to be a stunning strain of Clarkia once it blooms. Can't wait. Oh - the Phlox is 'Creme Brulee'.

Shirley Poppies just coming into bloom late this year. Plenty more of these to come soon.

A quick, rather thoughtless bouquet that looked old-fashioned enough so I took a photo of it.

Now, this IS a trumph for me. If you follow this blog then you know that I've been trying to master growing Mignonette for years now. Finally! I've done it. It's fragrance is milder than I imagined, but certainly oldfashioed. - like violets or cotton candy? Maybe talc. I imagine that this is what Mary Todd Lincoln smelled like. (Wierd, but ...right?)

While I am on the subject of things that I have always tried to grow. - I finally found big carnations to try. This new strain called 'Pinball Wizard' comes so close to the big, cut flower carnations but it is classified as a garden pink. Still, it looks like a carnation and better yet, it smells like one too. I know, I know....with the baby's breath behind it I am kind of making a homage to tbe 1980's florist shop - but why not?
Gilia tricolor is another one of the rarely seen annuals that might be worth growing. I have planted two beds and some pots with this precious little thing, and while the plants are skimpy, they are starting to take off (with weekly pinching). The flowers though are beautiful and with baby blue pollen, even more special.
Vaccaria hispanica, or Cowcockle is something that I have tried many times, and this year I have had the best luck - both with direct sowing (which is the proper way to grow this speedy old-timer) but also with transplants using deep root cells. This area in the new garden has about 150 plants in it and it is just abuzz with pollinators and loaded with flowers. The pink is so nice in the garden, not a harsh pink but one that fits in with everything around it, that I am addicted. It's a brassica, so yes, the bunnies like it, but there is plenty to go around.

I am growing plenty of tall, English Spencer sweet peas this year again for the book, but I am also trying some very old-fashioned dwarf sweet peas from England like these. Only a few inches tall, they are filling out some nice old clay pots with thier first fragrant blooms. Maybe these 'knee'hi's' and 'Cupid' strains will make a comeback again? They are hard to find right now, and the strains are rather muddled as you can see, but with some careful selection, I could see these being popular as they were in 1900.

Cerinthe major (and C. minor) are so easy to grow from seed, that I have no idea why more people are not growing these stunning annuals. Now I am planting large areas in the borders with them.

I know, I promised that I woudl talk about my projects this year. Yes, I am growing lots of sweet peas again after taking last year off, but also - a big Japanese and exhibition chrysanthemum project is underway. HUndred of cuttings are ready to be transplanted for a special late autumn project I am working on

We are also trying a collection of Lotus in pots and containers. Both giant selections and tiny, if not miniature ones like these tea-cup sized lotus. 

That's it for now. Lots more pics to come of the new garden and even other projects as I get my feet back on the ground! Happy late spring!

May 15, 2019


A couple of weekends ago I was thrilled to have been invited to Snug Harbor Farm on the coast of Maine for a book signing. A gem of a specialty nursery. and worth a visit if you can make it - just an hour and a half north of Boston.

We have some wonderful nurseries and sources for plants and accessories here in the Northeast but one, in particular, is quite extraordinary. Snug Harbor Farm located in Kennebunk Maine is one of the more special places worth a visit in you ever find yourself in New England.  I've known owner Tony (Anthony) Elliott for years, and while I've written about Snug Harbor Farm from the first year that it opened I have never actually ever visited there. Why? I don't know other than I'm a pretty busy guy and now that my parents are gone I never seem to make time to go to Kennebunkport (where we spent every summer as kids).

Tony invited me up to speak about my book and to participate in a seed sowing workshop.

I was surprised then when I visited this weekend of where Snug Harbor Farm was. - right on route 9 about a mile from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge -  a place where I would ride my bike often to go watch birds (geeky bird-watcher-Matt at age 12). I have to say that Snug Harbor brought back plenty of memories of Maine for me from the smell of the tidal plane and marsh grass to the sounds of gulls and terns. But what makes Snug Harbor special is what Tony and his talented team of horticulturists, stylists and workers have created - a menagerie, a botanic garden, a nursery - I'm not sure what to call it or how to describe it other than it's magical, and it recalls early visits I had made to the now infamous. Alan Haskell nursery in New Bedford, MA if any of you readers have ever had experienced that 'pleasure'.

Salvias, cut branches of crab apples and other shrubs forced into bloom along with cut flowers made the barn where I spoike and talked about my new book so beautiful.
Snug Harbor appeals to a wide audience, from flower lovers to succulent fans,there is hand made pottery and an entire indoor section with home goods that are well curated and stylish, but what they excel in are topiaries. Their signature look are tall, slender, pointed topiary and they are so well trained and tight that even I almost left with a few. I doubt that I could do any better - even though I have lots of experience in topiary craft.

Rosemary globes outside one of the greenhouses ready for sale. Each one perfectly and painstakingly trained.

Some greenhouses had long displays of potted plants that would run the entire length of the greenhouse. If you haven't noticed already, Tony styles every square inch making this plant very Instagram worthy.

Succulents and other sturdy plants for container planting are also a specialty. Tony offers selections that are rarely found at big box stores or garden centers, and most are displayed in long greenhouses.
This place is like your favorite lifestyle magazine or book come-to-life. Every corner reveals something else just as a good, inspirational book does. Hand crafted pottery, rare poultry, ccute animals, amazing hedgery,  outdoor sculptures, original installations - hidden  ideas are absolutely everywhere.

Tony designs pottery and it's everywhere around the farm. There are barns with old English pottery too.

Handmade pottery in one of Tony's barns.

As if the plants and pottery weren't enough, how about rare pigeons?  This loft alone was photogenic, but these Frillback pigeons are a rare breed - check out their curly-feathers. 

Our colder than average spring means that seedlings should be started later. Something you won't find at big garden centers who are all trying to push tender annuals far too early. Here, small seedlings will be perfectly timed for planting out at the proper size - which is small and based on weather trends, not marketing numbers. I love that. No growth regulators to stunt or force early flowering, and everything properly pinched and hardened off.
The craft of topiary isn't as easy to master as one may think, but as these myrtus show us, weekly. clipping and cold temperatures help create a tight, and proper specimen.

Few greenhouses offer such a selection or displays of succulents like this. I like how Tony's team displays plants on the upper shelves but then offers smaller plants below for sales.


At Snug Harbor, the succulent collection is like the shoe department at Barney's or Nordstroms.

A trip here entertains, inspires and fulfills any need for regeneration of ideas. If you are a creative type like me, it's just. what one needs on a long, cold spring where it seems everything is behind. Now I want privet hedges, more cold frames, larger pottery, succulent collections on stairs and a psychedelic peacock.

At every turn, there is brilliantly sited artwork for sale.

Even these concrete spheres in front of the old chicken coop are fabulous and thoughtfully set out.

Inside the farmhouse store, more product in every room from fragrance to home goods. 

Back to topiary. these are some of those trademarked shapes that Tony and his team at Snug Harbor do so well.

Hello! A lavender hedge.

Curry Plant sphere topiary - imagine the wedding that might get these?

Lemon cyperus hedgery - for the special client who wants to have an extra special terrace.

It was so nice to see other topiary that were more like something a real plantsperson might create too. LIke these Flowering Maples, which would take me a full year to get to flowering size for my containers.

Topiary filled at least three greenhouses. How perfect is this? If you could choose only one...which one would it be?