October 1, 2019

Tulips, Alliums and my current thoughts about spring Bulbs

Dare yourself to try tulips in colors you normally would not plant. A red tulip may be more complex in color than you might imagine it to be. Find yourself hating orange? What if it was a deep persimmon color flushed with purple, violet and magenta? Tulips offer all sorts of color options far beyond the slick, commerical studio photo may indicate.

It's nearly too late to order bulbs, but there is still a bit of time (do it now!). I am high on bulb-ordering and planting right now, and thought that I might share some new insights and ideas I have about my bulb planting schemes, and some from others that I recently discovered.

Ordering bulbs is one of those things that sometimes overwhelms me. I am experienced enough to know that in July I must order the rarest of the rare which often must be imported from overseas - Latvia or Lithuania (and as such, the cut-off date for these smaller European nurseries is before Aug. 1st - not to mention that things sell out quickly). Not that I order all that much anymore from Ruksans or that Lithuanian crocus nursery, but sometimes I try to remember, and if lucky, I get a few treasures. 

Bulb planting and curating is indeed an art, and a craft that good gardeners keep perfecting over their lifetime. The good news is that bulbs are rather fool-proof, so there is no bad time to begin, and fear of messing it up is rarely a threat. Still, when it all comes together and you discover the ideal combination of bulbs in the garden, the effect can be extraordinary. Far too often, especially in the US, we plant bulbs as an afterthought. We pick up a few - a dozen of these, 24 of those, some crocus for along the walk, maynbe a frittilaria or three and feel that we are doing the right thing. Most of us learn by seeing, and it seems every year we are pushing oursleves to try something new. One neight has an amazing display of giant allium and soon others invest in a dozen or six, to flank their walk or set in the border. But what else could you do?

I say...let's raise the bar much higher. Plant complex matrixes in our perennial borders. Push ourselves to try colors that we wouldnt dare buy or combine. Plant something you've never grown before. Break the rules and try combining two, three, eight colors that make you feel uncomfortable. Blow your budget by investing in 100 bulbs of just one type - like giant frittilaria imperialis or F. persica and see what happens.

Tulips combined with other spring bulbs and flower from my garden (in this rejected photo from my new book) show how surprisingly well they all combine together. Of course, such density doesnt happen in the garden, but notice how red and white striped tulips here and there play against other bulbs like the frittilaria.

After that, I seem to get lazy. Or, maybe just dazed and confused with all of the choices offered in the main-stream imported Dutch bulb catalogs. This shouldn't stall me. I have been growing bulbs since I was very young begging my mom to let me buy bulbs at a local discount store (Spag's in Shrewsbury, MA) at around the same time I would be asking my dad to buy me Matchbox cars. Im sure that at young age, I would choose colors that I probably would never buy today, as experimenting in a garden is a right of passage for most gardeners. Plant fearlessly and learn.

We may think that the harsh-coloring of tulips like this red and yellow parrot tulip are too extreme for us, but in a garden that is still mostly grey and brown, it stands out and acually feels very natural.

Don't get me wrong, I love color, and after 30 years as a graphic and product designers - I love to experiment and play with palettes - but back then, I was probably more likely to be moved by a fancy striped 'Rembrant' tulip than being as strategic as creating a palette and an integrated garden design. The funny thing is, I've never walked away from those streaked and striped 'Rembrant'-type tulips, in fact, I am even more interested in sourcing the correct 'Rembrant' types - those that actually have the virus that causes the window-paneing and streaks - but sadly, they are hard if not impossible to find easily in the US anymore (and the very great ones, while available in the UK, are always sold out by the time I remember to order some),

I am always pleased with this combination in very late winter or early spring. Maybe becasue it is like fire or 'heat'? But it totally works in my garden.

This past weekend I had the incredible honor to be asked by the Massachusetts Master Gardeners annual Symposium. Joining three other speakers, I stayed for the entire day and learned much more than I thought I might. The topics were perfectly timed for the season, with noted bulb expert Jacqueline van der Kloet author of the new book 'A Year in My Garden'  that will be available in the US next February on Amazon (it's available in the UK sooner, however). 

Here in the states you may know of her work in planning the fantastic bulb palette at the Chicago Lurie garden, (or that blue allee of scillas and other blue minor bulbs at the Bedford, NY home of Martha Stewart). Jacqueline's slide show was very inspirational for me, as not only do I enjoy seeing how others combine their bulbs, but it changed how I think about choosing and planting bulbs. You can visit her website to see how she combines bulbs and plants, but I'd say get her book as well. She layers a matrix across an entire garden or bed, often mixing bulbs within perennials and grasses as the Dutch tend to do to make gorgeous communities of plants.

I should mention that the other two speakers were Paul Zammit - the Director of Horticulture from the Toronto Botanical Gardens, and Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter. (I know, right? How could I forget that line up?). Fergus had many slides with bulbs, as did Paul who showed them mostly in containers, but still so inspirational. Seeing three accomplished gardeners share their ideas on what one can do with bulbs had me staying up all night ordering tulips. These seminars are dangerous.

Now, this year, I was a good boy and ordered many of my tulips and bulbs earlier (just a few weeks ago), starting with bulbs sell out quickly, a(mostly Madonna lilies) and galanthus varieties so with me, a deadline is always good, but for everything else, I keep stalling and making list after list, usually committing only once I start seeing my favorite varieties selling out. I hate that feeling. My problem is usually that I cant make up my mind.

In gardening, we are often taught to plant great numbers of one variety together, and while this works well with many plants, it can be boring. Imagine this bed of tulips with two more varieties of contrasting or similar colors, or smaller bulbs are perennials scattered throughout.

Jacqueline van der Kloet focused three points - the color palette, the transitions between the various bulb seasons -and how to integrate bulbs into borders or with other plants. So imagine a bed of perennials and interplanted bulbs through the entire spring season. It can begin with smaller bulbs, the early ones like snow drops and crocus, and then transition along with early emerging perennials into one stage of early to mid-season tulips and maybe narcissus in one color palette, and then how that same bed could move into a late-spring statement, maybe with giant alliums and the tallest tulips that were late-blooming. I think in this country, we forget to weave in a web of densly planted bulbs of many types within our perennial borders. Instead we either clump types together, or we place a few allium and call it a day.

Both Fergus and Jacquiline used similar varieties as well, which surprised me as maybe I was missing something. Sure there were muscari and scillas set out as a carpet - even forgetmenots, self seeded in pools of color usually over planted with a red or apricot Darwin or early tulip, but then tall and magestic late blooming tulips scattered throughout a bed with emerging perennials took over - and more than one color sprinkled around a border as if they too self seeded in amongst the perennials and other bulbs. Both used lily-flower tulips that bloom late, but are very tall - like brilliant orange 'Ballerina' tulips and 'Merlot', a deep wine colored one with vase -shaped buds. Two tulips I would never think of buying when I see them in catalogs. 

A mid of colored tulips works well, but while this formal English bedding scheme of nothing but tulips works here at Tower Hill; Botanic Garden, few of us have the time and dollars to pull out an entire Victorian bedding scheme once it is complete to install something else. I do plant a few rows like this around the garden, near the greenhouse or along a drive, but always remember that you can create your own mix of tulips and sprinkle them through a border of perennials.

Top back this up, 'Merlot' shows up frequently on top Euro garden designers 'favortie plants' lists. So I need to order some, as apparantly the color blends in well with other plants, and it is of a shade of purple that works well in the garden. I mean - let's face it, some tulips in purple are too dark or just receded when viewed in the garden. Others are too lavender, or feel out of place in the natural setting. 

Now here's the thing about tulips - something I learned early-on in my career when I used to help install spring flower show displays in the late 1970's - There is hardly a bad combination of colors when it comes to tulips. So honestly, mixing up a bunch of similar or even different colors is often not a bad idea. Most colors work well, but if you are committed to a scheme or want to curate a particular palette, it's not a bad idea to mix three different varieties of the same or similar color. A peachy pink, a dark pink and a magenta, for example. Many of us have learned this lesson with dahlias, but now let's take it to tulips. I want to plant a bed of all the red tulip shades together to see if it will convince me that solid red tulips can be beautiful in the garden.

Tulip colors are often much more complex than we imagine that they are. A wine colored variety with an orange one may seem like it wouldnt work, but once you examine the colors in a petal, you can begin to see the variety of tones and layers in a blossom that might make you rethink how you combine colors. Solid or bi-colored pre-curated mixed sometimes feel sterile compared to a complex mix of bulbs.

We tend to make crazy rules about color, which I understand but not if you have never grown that particular plant and have seen it in flower in your garden. I've worked with a few clients this spring who had very strict rules about the colors they wanted with their tulips. And while I tried to convince them that in springtime, combinations like orange and purple are extraordinary once viewed in a spring garden (particularly one that is still mostly brown or grey, with lime green growth emerging) but I think many people just imagine a harsh Sunkist orange (as in a closeup of a tulip photo in a catalog) and seeing the entire picture - meaning, the low-angle setting spring sunshine which is so bright and direct, especially when it illuminates the petal from an angle, and the atmospheric tones of a spring garden - mostly every shade of greyish brown - essentially a canvas of earthy colors (more grey on overcast days, and more chocolate and cocoa on sunny days) all with speckles of lime green foliage on branch tips, or reddish emerging tips on perennials). 

Look at the colors on this parrot tulip. On an overcast day, it's almost blue or violet - yet a photo in a catalog may look simply bright red. Light is everything when it comes to tulips and most bulbs, and the fact that this purple-blushy red tulip blooms when the garden is still mostly brown, granite and grey? Means that it looks outstanding in the landscape.

We really need to think like artists or painters and not interior designers when we choose our spring palettes with bulbs (or even annuals). I mean - you may not be interested in white flowers, but snowdrops? How precious are those in February or March? You never think about a color palette when planting those bulbs. They 'fit' perfectly with dried woodland leaves, composting branches and bits of the remaining show. 

'Black tulips' which are really dark violet, always seem like a good idea, but just be sure to site them well. They need distance behind them or light-green foliage somwhere to add contrast. If you do the often mimiced scheme of black and white together the effect can even be worse, as the white tulips will stand out and the dark ones will recede. Think first then plant.

So imagine tulips now. I've experienced great excitement with tulips that few might think are attractive in the garden - those bright yellow and red or maroon-streaked varieties like 'Hellmar', 'Gavotta' or brighter yet - 'Keizerkroon' or a favorite 'Bright Parrot' which to many with taste, may seem like a clown-pants inspired combo, but there is a reason why it is the one parrot that sells out first in most catalogs - when you see it in full bloom in the brown and grey garden of April? You instantly 'get it'. It 'works' then, and only then. Even better when combined with the deep purple of Muscari or the blues of hyacinths - I mean - It's spring 100%. And it's a combo that would never work in June or even in high summer where it truly would be considered tasteless and eye-bleeding, but in April or May? It is completely acceptable and creates joy in much the same way Easter pastels do in March, but never in October.

Here dark tulips set against a light background work great. Even on an overcast day.

Speaking of pastels colors and Easter colors - in the garden, that palette can often be dull. You need to push it a bit into Sweet Tart bliss with the addition of other candy colors to really make it work. What I mean is, again - a palette that can work in the grey and brown canvas of early spring will rarely work any later once the foliage emerges in the garden. I often have to remind new flower gardeners that while planning a garden in winter is fun and important (the process of cutting out photos of flowers from seed catalogs or using screen-grabs to create an idea board), the reality is often very different once you get the plants out into the garden. 

Most tulips pair well with each other, but I find that the pure or solid colors like solid pink or solid red are often the most difficult to use outdoors. Be open to using shaded tones, light orange to dark orange combined with purple, or many shades of orange (which in tulips often include bits of pink) combined with other colors.

We should all pay attention to the total atmosphere of space. Reflected light, the angle of light, what the plants will be set against, a dark hedge or a distant view, even a fence that is painted white. Remember that the real garden experience is often missed by planning merely on paper or on-screen. More often than not, we forget that a garden is mostly all green (or brown and tan in spring).

Similarly to the black-tulip -juxtaposition concept, lime green and burgundy foliage on perennials and shrubs in early spring can be used as a great effect with tulips. Notice the tulip foliage which often is a harsh, kelly green that does little to enhange the blooms, but the gold tradescantia and peony foliage add as much color to the canvas as the tulips do.

I like to encourage folks to first take notes and digital photos (scroll back on the pics you took the past few seasons - flag those that worked, or ones that revealed insights that surprised you, and also mark what didn't work. I do both, and often my notes in a notebook are the most useful, then backed up with photos that are visual. In this way, my handwritten notes reminded me that all of those borders with purple, white and pink tulips I saw at posh suburban gardens were - well, yawwwwnnnn. While a few with the sparkle of Princes Irene orange tulips and violet tulips with an underplanting of Muscari were 'wow'. 

Tulip 'Princes Irene' is a long-time favorite of mine. Many might think of it as simply an orange tulip, but depending on the light that particular day, it can look burginy feathered with a blush of lavender frost across the entire petal, or purple againse persimmon. It pairs perfectly with blue Muscari or scilla. It's dark stems too make it a standout in a spring garden.

The combination made my heart race and it felt like spring. I also noted down why, because Princes Irene is a unique tulip - one that has a faint feathering on violet on the outside of the petals - over the 'orange' (and while I realize that orange is a polarizing color' this ain't no orange tulip - it's a complex blend of colors (like most good tulips) that changes over time. Once you add the airbrushing of pale lavender blush over the deep persimmon of the bloom and the violet feathering, along with the dark stems and foliage - and the underplanting of deep violet muscari, and you can instantly see why this is a favorite of botanical garden planners, good garden designers, and again, why it sells out early. Also, it was featured on the cover of last years' White Flower Farm catalog.

'Broken' or 'Rembrant' types are always a favorite with me.


This year, I am ordering 100 each of the tall, lily flowered tulips - 'Ballerina' (orange) and 'Merlot'. If both experts use them in their gardens, I must try - and it does make sense, at least in dense, community plantings which are essentially the borders I have here (a combo of grasses, small shrubs, perennials and self-sowing annuals). I need tall tulips to emerge through all of the growth and to float above the bright foliage -much of which is lime green or purple.

'Gavotta' is a dark wine colored tulip with custard colored edges, another favortie of mine as it fits nicely into the landscape, but it is harder to mix in with other tulips.

I also am designing an earlier matrix of multi-flowered narcissus, muscari, scilla to provide early color, and a secondary palette of Early Tulips, that is more traditional 'spring', if you will - Easter candy-colored blooms ranging from 'Apricot Beauty' tulips, to lavender, ones white brushed with red, and pale yellow brushed with white 'Vancouver'. I love this combo which when combined with Muscari 'Valerie Finnis' reminds me of the old, spring flower shows that I used to go to as a kid at Horticultural Hall in my home town on Worcester, MA.

In the greenh
This winter I am forcing a collection of swarf iris -mostly Iris reticulata named selections, not just because they are easy, but because they are beautiful, and interesting when viewed as a collection with all of the varieties.
 They are also rather inexpensive.

Let's not forget forcing bulbs. If you plant to do any forcing, these too are best to order first so that you can get them chilling. I'm planting my bulbs for forcing this week - as I need 16 weeks of vernal cooling. This year I am focusing on growing all of the dwarf iris I can get my hands on (so far 25 varieties of I. reticulata). They are easy (yes, I am lazy and impatient at times), and I can take them out from under then benches near the foundation where they chill near 38° F as early as New Years' Day, to provide a boost of spring color both in the greenhouse and indoors briefly in mid-January. 

Iris reticulata bulbs are placed into plastic pots with a quick-draining potting mix, and kept outdoors until November or when hard-freezes threaten as I dont want the bulbs to freeze. They then are moved to a location which is dark and just above freezing until New Year's Day or after. For me, that's in the greenhouse on the floor under a bench but you might try an isulated beer cooler on your porch or in an unheated garage or shed that doesnt freeze.

Of course, paperwhites have been ordered - most of the various varieties because I love the scent of cat pee (really, they all smell good to me), and some smaller forcing narcissus - particularly the hoop miniatures, which have become very inexpensive this year for some reason (the 'Julia Jane' strain) which I pot up thickly in 4 inch pots. These too will add cheer in January and February.

I can already imagine what my plant windows will look like starting in late January with the forced bulbs, but it does take some planning -which is sometimes difficult in late summer and early autumn with other tasks calling you.

I am working of a bit of a mini-master plan of the garden, in an attempt to just be more mindful about what I plant. The new borders and walks where the putting green used to be, isn't complete yet as I spent the summer working on my new book, but there are spots where I want to plant different combinations of things. One side path that leads to the old stone long walk has about 8 feet shaded by a tall Picea japonica 'Skylands'. The soil here is perfectly loamy and well-draining, and I filled it with turks cap lilies (Asiatic pendant ones) last year, which did very well. I trialed a few Fritillaria pallidiflora here for the past two years, and they thrived so this year I am adding 40 more. A little excessive but I've learned that investing in a big show with some plants is much better than getting just 5, or 10. It's an excellent habit to exercise with any plant in the garden. 

My TIp for you? Keep your tulip bulbs cool, and not indoors until you plant them. THe buds inside tulips can abort in room-temperature settings (like a hardware store).  Also avoid discount tulips if they have been mistreatred - a local supermarket keeps thier bulbs outside too late in the season and I know they have frozen many times before being sold. Ideally, good garden centers will keep them in a cool room, and not expose them to hot temperatures. When in doubt, mail order is often the best way to get bulbs at the right time for planting.

Of course, before investing in significant numbers of one plant, it's always good to trial them. I have killed many fritillaria imperialis over the years, but I have one yellow one in a certain spot that has bloomed annually for over 20 years. In this spot, I want to plant a larger collection of them, but as they are costly to invest in, I will wait a year or two. This year I am still ordering a few smaller lots of other bulbs (tulips in various colors) and narcissus) to 'trial' as one really should observe them 'in the garden' on-site, to see how the colors really look in the unique light and colors of your garden. I sometimes just plant these smaller lots in the veg garden, because I can use them as cut flowers, moving them later if I love the combos into the borders.

Alliums were never really all that interesting to me, but lately, I've appreciated their value. I'm referring here to the large if not gigantic and tall alliums like 'Gladiator' and 'Ambassador.' While costly, (and always worth it if you can spare not eating for a month) when May arrives, one rarely regrets all of that ramen. To make things more afforable, I've learned to tier-out various large alliums, not buying as many of the super-sized ones, just a few. I plant 6-12 of each giant variety filling in with smaller ones. The reality ends up being about 25 per bed, but again, they are being mixed-together with other bulbs and perennials and together, put on a sensational show that doesn't break the bank.

Cut-flower farms for tulips are becoming more commom like this one in Rhode Island, but notice how the rows of colors are rather uninteresting. These places are a great place to see lots of varieties together though, and if labeled, make notes of how you imagine certain colors being planted together.

Jacquiline showed how she mixes and planted large amounts of bulbs in the mixed borders. She has her team mix up a batch of bulbs in a wheelbarrow and then tosses then into a border so that they land irregularly spaced. On commissioned sites, she has the border mown, so that one can see the bulbs, and then a team goes in and moving from one end of a bed to the other, they get planted.

Jacquiline did share a tip - which she sometimes has to use, which is after they toss around all of the bulbs, she sets out apples where the allium might go, as these are bulbs that are sometimes shipped separately and you don't want to shove a spade into an expensive fritillaria! While randomness is encouraged when spacing bulbs, there are placed were rows work (at least in my garden). I don't mind a tidy row of something lined along a path if it is well-curated with tiers and interest.

There have been years when I tried mixed that were just 'too expected' or too pretty, if that could be a thing. This mix just wasnt for me as it felt a little too contrived or matchy matchy.

Mostly though, all of us agreed that mixed planting is the way to go, with a natural approach that is both modern and respectful of nature. Such garden is not only good pollinator communities but ecosystems, a point Fergus made when they had Great Dixter audited recently  (2017) to discover the biodiversity. I don't have the details as I forgot my notebook, but his first response from the government authorities on such matters was more of a nod, as they expressed that a 'garden' that is cultivated may not be as diverse as natural woodland or meadow would be. The results were staggering in favor of a garden is more varied - discovering even rare bees and other animals that shocked the auditors.

 I think we get caught up in things like permaculture, so-called 'bad invasives' and native plants - all very important, of course, but we fail to recognize the complex plant communities of our own gardens. Great Dixter even established a Biodiversity Committee in 2012, a lesson that many American public gardens could learn from or introduce, as few of us think about biodiversity in the cultivated and curated garden. We know that pollinators appreciate a mixed community, but so do other species. Learning that these complex relationships exist in the artificial or curated space is proving to be just as important as those in wild sites. I really want to learn more about this in the future.

Don't forget to plant plenty of bulbs for cut flowers too.  Often these choices are different than tulips I might choose for the borders. Darker colors are stylish now, and in a vase or indoors they can often be more effective than in the garden.
That does raise a point however, that I want to research more, after being prompted to consider writing about how spring bulbs are 'good for pollinators' by a gardening organization. As with most topics suggested to me, I started to dig a little deeper on the subject, always questioning and proof checking my sources to see, for example, if snowdrops are indeed an excellent source of pollen for early emerging bees. I quickly learned that no, they are not, as are not most spring-blooming bulbs. Sure, bees do visit these flowers, but often at risk. Honey bees may benefit the most (they are non-native, remember) but the native bees rarely visit these flowers, and aside from Bumblebees, few if any native pollinators visit imported plants this early in the spring. One study at Cornell even looked at how such plantings can harm native bees, acting like ' bird feeders' in winter - where finches and migratory seed eaters begin to depend on a site and source, that only briefly appears off-season, thus luring them into an environment that won't consistently deliver food and energy.

What I learned (briefly) was that native plants that bloom early are the best for native bees and pollinators. Pussy willows, for example, or Skunk cabbage. Shrubs that bloom early are ideal as well, as they last longer and thrive consistently when the weather is truly right where a snowdrop blooms when it is too cold, and while irresistible for pollinators, often attracts them to their death or crocus which will open for an hour if the sun is positioned to their liking and the temperature is just perfect, but will close as soon as a cloud passes over or when snow flurries strike.

It is bulb planting season but I cant start until next week. Still, keeping up with the orders as they come in is often a chore. My advice is to plant as they arrive, and don't save them up for a bulb planting day, as the task could be too much to undertake in a single day.

For now, I need to go plant bulbs as the boxes are arriving.
I know. Most of us don't have a team when it comes to planting bulbs. A task I always forget about until that time comes when on that gorgeous fall day, I have to commit to digging and planting a thousand bulbs by myself. Fergus had a slightly easier plan, and that was to set in one bulb at a time around existing perennials (which is what I will probably do). He

Lastly, you have permission to order all that you want now, as I just placed my orders today :)
One must protect one's resources~!

Some of last years tulips in my garden combined with primroses and anemones show how well many colors do go together.

August 18, 2019

It's Just Art. Curating Botanic Harmony and Some Common Sense Gardening

Just as an artist creates a composition, what we choose to grow and how we combine it with others in the garden is

As with the arts (music, fine art, or any human creative endeavor), horticulture combines many fascets of influences to get to a new creation. It also involves talent, learned skills., and then, of course, nature itself - which we have very little control over. Gardening is part science and part art, but not always is it an equal split. That depends on our approach to gardening.

I'm often asked about a particular gardening trend, what I support, and what I don't do. While I'm honestly not trying to duck out of a direct answer, I feel that I do a little bit of all the trends combined.  Gardening for me is more about the plants themselves.  I understand and appreciate gardens and the gardeners who have created them regardless of their purpose. Yet while our garden isn't as noble as let's say a pollinator garden (comprised of just native plants)?  It is a product of and a reflection of the folks who created it. A bit of this and that. I imagine that most people who garden have a garden like that.

What I can say is that this garden is not a purists garden at all. In fact, it's a messy, weedy collector garden (which is why I never have garden tours and rarely allow visitors as most people would be surprised by how messy it is. What you see here on the blog is carefully photographed to show only the nicer parts.

Yes, it's that time again. In fact, it's a little late to order some bulbs. I always seem to miss out on ordering the super rare crocus from Latvia or Lithuanian nurseries as the cut off date is Aug. 1, but I did just get a large order of Bearded Iris placed - something in the past I always missed out. Late summer is not only the best time to plant these rhizomes, but it's the only time to really get the greatest varieties from iris nurseries, All of the iris you find at garden centers come through 'the trade', and are generally older if not ancient varieties that meet some sort of criteria such as they don't mind growing in nursery pots, or they multiply well for the trade, or they are inexpensive to get because they are older varieties.

Most plant people will agree, while the commercial trade has plenty of extraordinary plants to offer today, even more are available from the actual plant breeders or specialty nurseries who carry hundreds of varieties that may never be selected for commercial propagation either because their color didn't meet a buyers taste level, or the plant grows too tall for shelves, or it doesn't bloom or grow well in a nursery container, or it doesn't propagate easily or quickly - the list is long, but I can say this - the finest looking plants never make the final cut for one reason or another.

I imagine that your garden is producing as well as ours is right now. I mean - it's mid-August, and tomoatoes abound along with cucumbers, peppers and herbs. I've found myself making seasonal favorites like gazpacho (because it is still so hot and humid) and Lithuanian chilled Beet Soup (with fresh buttermilk dill and hot, new potatoes set into the icy, bright pink broth. Classic summer fare around here when it is too hot to prepare anything in the afternoons. Any time of year other than August and these dishes would seem out of place.

The garden does dictate what we eat most of the time - whether we want it to or not. There are only so many days when I can eat yellow wax beans or sweet corn (well, nearly every day for the corn!). The rest needs to be 'put-up' which of course, always coincides with the hottest day of the year - just when you really want to be using a pressure cooker!

I'm not growing as many veggies this year as last, we don't really have the room, but the few tomato plants we have are keeping us surprisingly at our tomato limit. I usually over-plant but maybe just a dozen plants or so is really enough for two guys?

Late crops - those planted now for autumn and early winter harvest are becoming my thing lately. This year I have planted some branching purple sprouting broccoli, late winter cabbage, and kale. I've found that younger plants set out in August produce quickly as soon as the weather turns cool (which is only a month away!). The broccoli is new for me this year, and I'm trying not to use floating row covers on it - tolerating any insect damage and butterfly larvae until harvest, which should be after a hard frost. We'll see how that goes!

How many lilies are enough? I really don't know yet! I'm kind of reaching my limit though on fragrance in the house!

I do try to curate parts of the garden, but mostly what is 'curated' are collector plants grown in pots that go back into the greenhouse in the winter (camellias, succulents, bonsai) and the rest are whatever we felt like adding at the moment while shopping at Logees or at a plant sale.

Part of the 'collection' is the annual standby's - the old bay laurel topiary, a huge gardenia, about ten large tubs of citrus and agapanthus - all specimen plants that are hauled out of the greenhouse every spring, and dragged back in ever autumn. I sometimes call these the burdon plants, as, after ten years or so, you are just 'taking care of them', as they often lose their appeal, but they are too much of an investment in time and heat to let go of. This may be the year we do that, however, as not working anymore means that I should probably allow the greenhouse to freeze without heat for a few months. I know that I say that every year, but this time we may actually do it.

Another view of the deck planting this summer. A little bit of everything.

It may be good practice to learn to let go of some plants, especially those that can be replaced easily. Working as a horticulturist this spring and summer I've watched many nice homeowners in suburban Boston buy full-grown agapanthus and other container plants - wholesale, and in full bud to grow just as summer container specimens, and then allow them to freeze dead in the winter - treating them as annuals.

Somehow we are still living with our agapanthus collection as if we are on a big estate  - dragging them into the greenhouse every fall, fertilizing them and dividing them, and then bringing them out in spring. This was the old way of keeping many conservatory plants in the North (I know, you Californian and southern growers are thinking "what's all this fuss about plain ol' agapanthus?", but they are a precious plant here in the North).

The Spencer sweet peas were very tall this year, and the flower stems longer than they have ever been. Most bloomed well into July but are just finishing up.


I get so many emails sent to me about all sorts of things, but soil management and fertilizing are the most common questions. Knowing what a plant needs is a good place to start, but that doesnt mean that you need to be a chemist and must adjust the iron or calcium in your soil. If you add plenty of organic plant material to your soil (i.e. composted leaves and maybe clean horse manure) all the nutrients a plant needs should be there. At least as far as vegetables goes.

Horse manure was certainly easy to come by a hundred years ago, but today that's a whole different story.  I do use mostly manure in our garden, but it comes from our poultry coops. I will sometimes add lime as our soil is acidic, for ccertain crops that grow and access nurtients better in a slightly alkaline soil (like spinach, or with Christmas Cactus in pots, for example) but other than that, the only fertilizer I use is a chemical based one and only for plants growing in the greenhouse or in containers, as those are leeched out by heavy watering and are growing in a soilless mix.

I call this common sense gardenings, for most of the time plants tell you what they need. In our beds, the absolute finest treatment is a spread of compost and manure in the spring as a mulch, and then excellent irrigation through the summer. The annual flower beds I've planted this spring are taller than I am with this treatment.

I trialed some mini sweet peas this year, growing them in pots. I was very happy with the results. Hard to find, these came from the UK but I am on the hunt for more this coming year.

One of my favorite old-fashioned annuals (perennial, really, but an annual for most of us) is this white flowered Summer Gloxinia (Incarvillea sinensis). Very easy from seed, and just a terrific summer annual for containers, and one rarely seen.

Incarvillea sinensis, (summer gloxinia) is difficult to find at garden centers so you will need to raise it from seed, but that is easy once you find the seed! I bought mine from the British company Chiltern Seeds, and yes, they ship to the US. Start early underlights, and pinch them regularly. I planted about 9 plants in this 12-inch square slate pot, and it's been putting on a show like this since about the middle of July, and doesnt seem to want to stop.

I adore marigolds. I love the smell of them. and the smell of them. I do. These are from some some heirloom seeds grown by my good friends at Bunker Farm in Vermont. Definately my go-to source for rare or unusual annuals. These are 'Tangerine Gem and 'Cinnabar', both popular cut-flower farm varieties now but excellent for border that need height.

Scabiosa come into their own in the summer, and they last so long when cut for a vase. Sometimes longer than a week.

Another new favorire, and one I also got from Helen at Bunker Farm is this Rudbeckia triloba. I'm partial to wilder-looking rudbeckia more than the big, floppy hyrbids, and this one blends in so well in the garden, that I must plant lots of it next year. Easy enought from seed, I know that most likely it wont come back next year as most rudbeckia are semi-perennial, if not biennial in nature. It will always be safer to just plant lots of plants all toegher every year from seed started in mid-spring.

This is just one single plant, and look at it. Just a cloud of color, perfectly paired rusty tones with that chocolate button of an eye, and set against the agastache? I can only imagine what 24 plants together will be like. It's tall, nearly 5 feet but it has flowers from stem to stern. Or top to bottom, all open at the same time. I am really enjoying the color palettes in this garden, setting cool violets against the lime yellow of goldenrod and then pops of hotter colors like this. Gardening IS art!

I've added some new gladiolus to the garden this year. These are from a Czech Republic breeder and come in incredible colors like rust, grey and this meat color. This one is gigantic as well.

Seedling trumpet lilies showing some interestig color patterns are still opening in the new border. The lilies in the new border are planted with all sorts of natives and near-natives (like selected named and sterile forms of Goldenrod). Its definately a weedier or more natural style of planting though as I experiment with self-seeders, grasses and more pollinator plants like agastache.


Trumpet lilies just starting to end their show in the long border.

I've added a few new species lilies to the garden this summer. They provide the 'look' of native lilies, but our local L. canadense remains something that grows better in our woodland, but sadly most of them are lost due to a neighbor and his obsession with filling in a wetland behind our property.

'Tiger Babies' is a strain of L. lancifolium with pink tiget lily like blooms. I am a sucker for any turkscap-type lily or an Asiatic that is pendant. My first choice for all garden lilies. Another great lily for a more natural look.

When was the last time you saw this plant? I think of all the Amaranthus, this one A. tricolor is my favorite because it is so showy and uniquely so - just try fitting this into a color scheme or designer garden. Maybe a lakeside motel? That's what the color palette reminds me of. Barkcloth from the 1950s or lithographs from the 1800s. Whatever - it's totally old fashioned, vintage and rarely seen today - which means that it makes the cut in my garden.

Agapanthus blooming in the gravel garden. These are all in tubs and pots and are loaded with buds this year after transplanting 2 years ago. Some are 5 feet tall.


There are many potted plants here, which are easier to care for but which do take some time to water - daily. Their fertility needs to be adjusted through the summer, and many must be repotted as the soil acidity changes over a year in the same pot. Christmas cactus are repotted with a bit of lime, and in a loose mixture of compost and coir potting mix (professional potting mix), as they in particular do better and turn dark green when grown in fresh potting mix that isnt acidic.

Agapanthus are repotted or topdressed annually, but only divided every 4 or 5 years. They get a scoop of a slow-release Osmocote, (20-20-20) in the early summer, as do most of our plants. The citrus get a higher dose of iron, and an annual refresh of their soil with a new bag of ProMixBX. This keeps the flowering well and dark green with lots of fruit. Sometimes they get a booster of iron chelate but only if the soil is fresh.

What I do appreciate about out agapanthus is that they are varieties not commonly found in the trade. Most of the varieties found here in the North are commercially grown and forced into bloom early (really - most gardeners here think that they naturally bloom in early June becasue the plants that come in for mid-May sales are already well budded). Even the garden center sales people at the wholesale nurseries here tell me "oh, they'll bloom all summer, don't worry abour them being almost through flowering in late May.") which is incorrect, of course. Our plants that were wintered over in the greenhouse bloom in Late July and August, and some of these varieties like 'Storm Cloud' are 5 feet tall. This is the way to grow agapanthus. Huge tubs with tall stalks and buds that emerge in mid-June.

Of course, flowers next year on agapanthus means that you need to care for your plants well this current summer by feeding them. for their embryonic flower buds are forming now for next year. This  means plenty of water, a balanced feed (10-10-10) and not allowing the crowns or roots of the plants to freeze. I'll be sharing more info on how to get massive and gorgeous agapanthus plants in the North, in my new book 'Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening' that comes out next year, (sorry, it was time for a pitch!).

A few agapanthus taunting the hummingbirds this summer.

Gardenias are treated exactly the same way as the citrus, but the camellias get special care. Always top-dressed with new ProMix and then shredded bark wood mulch, and a sprinkle of Cottonseed meal on the surface of the soil (slow-release nitrogen), but also a liquid feed for acid-loving plants at half strength. Most of the camellias are growing in 12-inch pots and won't be transplanted for many years. Their soil becomes depleted quickly.

Just have to share these begonias from our deck. Can anyone really have too many begonias in summer? Most look best near the end of August, even those that barely survived a winter indoors and lost all of their leaves. Repotted with fresh soil and summer shade and humidity - they do this.

 Begonias all go into fresh commercial potting mix in early summer. If they didn't, they would just do practically nothing in their old mix. A bit of a slow release fertilizer in each pot (a teaspoon) and some additional compost keeps them growing strong and healthy.

In the borders little is done for fertilizer in the summer, as mostly the rain and compost is doing the trick. Some slow-release organic feeds that were applied when plants or bulbs were first planted are still doing their thing (kelp meal, bone meal, lime) but in the spring next year I may hit some beds with a sprinkle of superphosphate if I cant get a manure mulch from a horse farm.

A rejected cover shot from my new book 'Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening' due out next year.

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.