July 25, 2019

Mid-Summer Update

I don't know how the weather is where you live, but here in New England, it's suddenly summer. Mid-summer, in fact, and while spring has been extraordinarily cool and wet, we finally had some of that hot and humid weather the east coast is so well known for. You may all know that I am a winter person, but there is no denying that the plants love this heat and moisture. I always notice that it is the week after the Fourth of July when the tropical, warm-loving plants really begin to show us why we invest in them each year. Particularly the alocasia and colocasia. These 'elephant ears' just sit there for most of June, probably stretching their roots a bit but basically doing little more than thinking about growing, but after a week or two of hot weather combined with near 100% humidity - things begin to transform quite literally overnight.

The deck planting this year is completely random due to my schedule and projects. This was the first year that I just took all of the extra plants laying around the greenhouse that was not used in client gardens and shoved them all together into spare containers. Yet look what happened? Everything seems to work together. Red flowers, dark leaves, and lime-colored foliage along with jewel-colored blooms has morphed into this jungle of color that I just love.  Even lotus in a tub of water.

OK, now for some messyness. I know things seem to always look nice in photos, but look closer here - weeds everywhere.

Messy! Before clean-up - Our long-walk has a long history here as it was built by my uncle Frank and my dad back in 1926. I know this because I have photos of it being installed. 200 feet long has transformed over the years but this year it was just a weed mess lie everything else in the garden. That 'Haas Halo'  row of hydrangeas is something that I think needs to be extended down the entire walk.


The long walk is a 200-foot long border and walk in our 3 generation garden (if we had kids it would be a 4 generation garden). Ever summer the walk is weeded -by hand, with knives and some home-made tools. It was a chore I had to do as a child and later one that I learned to loath as it takes an entire day or two on one's hands and knees. I use an old carpet to kneel on, and while it's a bit ile therapy, the sacrifice of time always puts it off later and later.

To make matters worse, old gardens mean more invasive plants, and as plantsmen, we have more invasives than anyone should have to deal with. This means that bamboo's, self-seeding vines, wisteria, and countless other annual weeds run amuck on one side of the border, and on the other side, a hedge of European Hornbeam that has been pleached (or more accurately, trimmed). Not exactly low-maintenance, but then again, I have never claimed to be one who chooses low-maintenance solutions (weird, especially for someone who hates garden work, and who can't afford to hire help as well).

My mom hand weeding 'the walk' in the 1960s.
 This walk has been transformed over the 90 or so years that it had been here. I mean, in the 1920s and 1930s this humble country garden in a small city was really just a typical arts & crafts movement garden of that era - straight lines, a formal layout, and really rather typical for modest New England homes who first decided to layout and landscape their backyards. I have an old Fletcher Steel landscape book just focused on his suburban backyard layouts. Two or 4 acres like this property often just had a few straight hedges, walks, birdbath, gazing ball, and fish pond features, and the typical clothes drying area, chicken coops and someplace to hide the trash.

Our long walk ran alongside this green, and today Joe and I argue most about how hard it is to maintain, discussing whether we should just remove the rocks that have been there for so long, and just make it a gravel walk, or should we buy lottery tickets so that Power Ball could fund the care of it and the entire garden? Even today, I received a call from someone who either saw photos of our sweet peas in a Martha Stewart magazine or in Better Homes & Gardens, hoping to snatch a garden tour - and I laughed. Later explaining that our garden is not some fancy, garden-tour-type of garden. No 'open days'here! Unless you want to come weed!

My dad and his dog 'Flash' taken around 1926 on the long walk. At that time it had wild blueberries planted along one side, and delphiniums on the other.

My dad used to spread rock salt on the walk, which is how he used to control the weeds. Not completely environmentally sound but he was from another generation, and while still a big environmentalist his entire life, never saw the harm in using salt to kill the weeds. Many have told us to just use an herbicide, but we aren't about to take that route either, nor would we use vinegar for that too has its issues, and won't work anyway on the perennial weeds. Hand weeding on hands and knees remains the only way to get a tidy look. Then, hedge sheers on poles for the hornbeams.

A view (from our roof) of our back yard circa 1950 showing how formal everything looked. The golf green is on the left.

Another view of the walk. Photos like these showing tall trees, then no trees, then tall trees again help me confront making major changes to the garden as they reinforce the notion that garden does change and evolve continuously. All of this as we contemplate cutting down some 100-year-old trees and many 30-year-old trees.

Here is the walk after we weeded it and trimmed the hedges. A little manscaping always helps, but there is plenty more to be cut. The giant 15 foot tall Joe Pye Weed that self seeded into the walk on the left was something we were going to remove, but then it bloomed. What do you think? On the right in the foreground, look at how nice the Anemonopsis are going to look!

The walk is also strategically positioned so that one can view it from the kitchen sink.

I've also been busy photographing garden flowers for my upcoming book Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening, but 98% of the shots will never make it into the book. My problem now is how to store all the shots and data as my laptop - even at this moment, is nearly out of memory.

This was the year that I skipped growing vegetables (except tomatoes) to make more room for flowers as I needed props, and I have this thing that every shot in my books needs to be photographed by me, or grown by me. A concept that I really should step away from as it takes so much time and effort, yet I honestly believe that this is important and not often seen in many gardening books. It does drive my publisher batty, though!  This never made it in, but I was thrilled to have finally found 'Geen Trick'  Dianthus to grow.

Tithonia always have a place in my garden as it is the ultimate pollinator, and an essential component of the late summer displays, but generally we grow the orange form. This year I wanted to grow four color-forms that are not commonly found, particularly this golden-yellow selection which I found from the British seed company Chiltern Seeds. It's the perfect PMS 123 color that enhances other warm colors like magenta and purple.

In my new garden (where that golf green used to be) I have planted many annuals for the book, and while I used to plant most of these hardier and rarer types near the greenhouse, the dogs seem to have discovered digging, and I;ve given up planting there. This African Foxglove (Ceretotheca) towers above even the tithonia at this point in the summer, attracting its share of hummingbirds and bees to boot. I don't see any white flowers in this seed mix, but I know that I saved plenty of seed from our white flowered ones from last year. Say - do you think that I should start selling seed on-line? I've been tossing around the idea.
Ammi majus always performs best when it is self-seeded (and I don't mean direct-seeded). It's just one of those flowers like it's close relative Queen Annes Lace and most wild carrot relatives that share the self-seeding trait with the entire clan of umbellifers or shall I say, Apiaceae.

Speaking of Apiaceae, this white Ammi majus (or I think, 'Lime Green') was first tagged as something else - a Ferrula sp. but it is stockier and nicer than the pimnker forms.

Scene in the new boder with annuals, some grasses that I am setting out and a new Daylily.
This new border has allowed me to experiment boldly. My vision for the border is ultimately a more natural planting, aside from the boxwood edging. It runs parallel to the long walk, but about 50 feet to the left of it - which includes the entire space where the golf green used to be, and is comprised of another 200 foot long path  - it's axis runs from the center of our living room window , through the middle of the garden directly to the old goldfish pond, and through the new gourd tunnel). I still need to find the perfect artwork or object to place in a cross walk where now an old urn sits, but this 'natural garden' concept may or may not work here. I have not decided yet.

I could say that I want low maintenance (right) but then I start sowing seeds of perennials and annuals, dividing perennials or buying 10 of these, and 20 of those....I can't help myself as this space is such a luxury, and I can go all 'Christo Lloyd' on the border - which is 12 -15 feet deep on either side. I know that eventually I will need to plant more grasses or even just go all 'hydrangea-crayzee' and have a no-weed garden - but for now, the reality is more like "Oh look - I can plant 38 snapdragons in this clump....""And 6 dahlias over here...." I need to stop becasue I am not going to have time to weed it all.

I am growing some rare gladiolus hybrids here. 'Rare' only becasue these came from Poland and the Ukraine, and prove to be some very interesting colors like chestnut brown and grey speckled with lavender - Eastern Europe is really making some leaps with gladiolus breeding and yes, I predict that once we are done with dahlias - the gladiolus may be our next 'it' flower.

So full-disclosure - I had this opportunity offered to me by a TV network who was interested in a series or a documentary about my work and garden (God knows why!) but I entertained it -pitching ideas for them about what might be interesting for their audience. The executives entertained the concept for a while, pushing it out further and further as I said 'how about sweet peas? How about the Winter Greenhouse? We landed on rare Japanese Chrysanthemums, how I grow and train them, so I invested in far too many plants this spring - most of which I am still growing and training, even though - I am sad to say - the deal is off as the network is reconsidering other projects. It still may happen, but yes - I am stuck with a few hundred pots of Japanese and exhibition chrysanthemums, and most bare spots in the garden and on the decks look like this - simply becasue I don't want to throw them out.

I seem to have been able to source most of the rare annuals for my book, but this is the third year that I am growing this one, and I just love it. Incarvillea sinensis 'Cheron White', also available from Chiltern Seeds. If you are familiar with the genus, it looks nothing like any other Incarvillea. Last year in Yunnan we saw three species, but only geophytes (bulb types) not this one which is one of 16 species native to China, but is an annual. Started in the greenhouse in February, I have planted all of these in slate containers (cubes) and have found that 6 or so plants per square foot will give you the best display.

Another self-seeder, this Amaranth with red leaves self-seeded in another walk (nothing like it's parents which were thin-leaved forms), this often self seeds at a local flower farm I know, but I have only had other species self sow. I have left them to grow tall, and tall is an understatement, for they are now near 7-8 feet tall.

It's July and that means lily season. I missed our annual Lily Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden and the New England Lily Society but I learned that they held their show this year at the Arnold Arboretum nearby here, but I could not make it. I can't blame them as this year NALS hosted both the National Show and the International Show. This yellow trumpet seedling is ridiculously fragrant.

I've grown so many lilies this year that the fragrance is intense, and we sit there saying "should we move the vase? Or tolerate it as long as we can?" every evening. This arrangement is about 4.5 feet tall, which you cannot tell in this photo. That's a 14-inch urn. So moving it would not be easy. Still, this is summer, and we both love the scent which reminds me of both my early experience with Lily Society shows when I was a kid in the '70s at our local Worcester County Horticultural Society shows every summer. Nerd.

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!