Caveat Emptor

While I was host of “The Victory Garden,” Scotts was our sponsor, and every spring, a huge semi-truck would pull up in front of my house, loaded to the ceiling with free Scotts products for us to use during the filming season. Potting soil, spreaders, tools, mulch — you name it. Whatever they manufactured, we were free to request in any quantity we desired.

It was heavenly.

Needless to say, I got quite spoiled.

osmacoteEqually, ensconced in this comfortable sponsor bubble, I blithely forgot what things cost in the real world. And why not? Whatever I needed was free in the supply shed. So vast were the quantities that I still have cases of various items in the garage, a decade after I left the show.

But yesterday I noticed we had finally run out of Osmacote. This is Scotts’ slow-release fertilizer, lasting 4-6 months, and it is ideal for a number of uses, especially potted plants. So off I went to Lowes, and bought two 1.5 lbs jars for $10.48 each, plus tax. I didn’t think much about it at the time, until I read the directions and realized each 2 gallon pot required a very large cap-full. A quarter way through the collection, I was already down one bottle. So, I thought, this means it will take 40 bucks to fertilize the houseplants? Can’t be! Can it?

On a lark, I decided to do a bit of online searching. As I always do, I started on Amazon to establish a base price. Imagine my surprise when I found I could have ordered a 50lb bag for $130 bucks, or $2.60/lbs vs the $6.98/lbs I paid at Lowes. Then, after a bit more searching, I found another place selling a 50lbs bag for $107, or $2.14/lbs, also with free shipping. Oh my sainted aunt!

Now it’s true some people won’t want or need 50lbs of Osmacote, but the savings were similar for smaller 10 and 25lbs bags. The moral of the story here is that it REALLY pays to shop online for things you use regularly in the garden, because the markup on small quantities is obviously outrageous, preying on convenience and ignorance of the consumer.

Caveat emptor!

Bad Timing

blackrotgrapesTiming is everything in the garden. I’ve known this for a very long time, but it was recently brought to my attention again in a particularly visible way. So, short story: For years I have had a wonderful grape vine over the arbor my father built me for my 40th birthday. It’s a seedless Concord cultivar, and for the first few years, it produced a decent crop of grapes. Then year after year, just as the grapes were getting luscious, they would start to turn black, eventually turning into unpleasant dried-out raisins, called in the trade ‘mummies.’  I thought, oh well, that’s too bad, and turned my attention to other things, thinking that this was something endemic in this particular variety. Then last summer, looking once again at this unpleasant non-harvest, I decided to investigate further. It turns out the problem is a very common fungal blight called black rot, native to the North East, and that it’s treatable using a combination of pruning techniques and fungicide treatments. (As an aside, this particular fungus pretty much dooms organic grape production in the East, for those who may be wondering.) So this spring I pruned away, and was encouraged by the formation of dozens of heavy grape clusters, more than I had ever seen before. Dozens and dozens and dozens. Oh, I could already taste the jam!  I readied the sprayer, and waited until those luscious green globules began to form, then off I went, carefully applying the fungicide to each cluster.  Everything was so looking dandy — until today.

Oh Michael! If only you had read the literature more carefully, you would have found that 1) the fungicide you use on your tomatoes for late blight isn’t the best for grapes and 2) you must begin spraying before the fruits form. In fact, the first indication of the problem shows up with those brown/black spots on the leaves. Now truth be told the thought had crossed my mind that this might be the case, but you have to be very careful about what you spray during bloom time, as many products can damage both blooms and pollinators, so on the false assumption that discretion was the better part of valor, I waited. Wrong answer, and I am guilty on two counts. The first is an unnecessary application of an ineffective fungicide, and the second is not carefully reading the literature. This is really inexcusable, especially for someone in my business, and now I am paying the full price of what will inevitably be the complete loss of the grape harvest yet again.


The only good news is that in the garden, you almost always get a do-over.

On to vintage 2017.

Hardening Off

Onion, sorrel, and parsley awaiting there turn on the potting bench.

Onion, sorrel and parsley on the potting bench awaiting their garden debut

With the price of nursery plantings heading north of the Pole this year, there is every impetus in the world to grow your own annuals and vegetables from seed. (For a complete how-to on that process, click HERE)

But now what? Your seeds have sprouted, your new little plants are showing promise, are they ready for the garden? The answer is a big “no.” There is a VERY critical next step to this process that you skip at your peril — hardening off. Essentially, your seedlings need time to adjust to the temperatures and light levels outside of their cozy indoor incubator. Place them directly out into the garden, and sun scald and death are likely to be the result.

During the Victory Garden years, we used large cold frames for hardening off, but the frames were difficult to open and close, and without close monitoring, inevitably I would forget to water the flats on warm spring days, often bringing entire batches of seedlings to a tragic end. A sprinkler on a timer helped, but still the process was bulky.

Coincidentally last year, in a quest to provide a better summer potting area, I had refurbished a wonderful old work bench, which has become my new favorite workplace in the garden:


(The incredible salvaged soapstone sink is another marvel and probably the most useful improvement I have ever made to the landscape, but that is a story for another day.)

The relevant factor for today’s post is that the potting bench has become my favorite place for hardening off. It’s out of the direct sun, but has full, bright light. It’s open to the air, so rain can fall on the plants, relieving me of some watering duties, and most of all, it’s convenient, in a location I pass by several times a day. The only drawback is that it doesn’t provide the thermal protection of a cold frame, but I have gotten around that problem by simply bringing planting materials out a little later from the greenhouse. The point here is that any open space out of the direct sun but in bright light will serve your hardening off purposes — nothing more elaborate is required. Don’t however, rush the process. A week in this open-air waiting room is essential before these little guys can grow up to be vegetable stars in the garden.

BTW: Don’t forget to find Michael Weishan & Associates on Facebook, where I check in several times a week with interesting photos and tips.

Mulching Made Eas(ier)


Here’s a dirty little secret your landscaper would prefer you not to know: your annual application of shredded pine mulch is one of their highest mark-up activities of the entire growing year. Why? Because the process is highly labor intensive; the exact quantities of mulch applied are hard to determine unless you use an entire truckload, leading to up-charging (intentional or not), and the bloody stuff is expensive but barely lasts a season, requiring you to begin again next spring.

There’s a much simpler way: pine mini-nuggets in bags.

Now at first this may seem counter-intuitive. How can buying product in bags be cheaper than buying in bulk? The answer: it’s not. The difference however is that the mini-nuggets are made from bark (as opposed to shredded wood) and the bark — with its natural preservative properties — lasts from 2-4 seasons, not just one. Also, the bags are SO much easier to spread. Just rip them open and pour around your plantings, which is far less laborious than loading and dumping those wheel barrows full of mulch. And finally, the nuggets can be easily moved around delicate plantings with a fine kitchen broom. Trust me, it works like a charm, and keeps those clumsy workers from destroying all those emerging shoots. We started using these mini-nuggets in the perennial areas during my Victory Garden years, and I have slowly expanded their use to the entire property, eliminating shredded mulch entirely.

(As an aside, mulching, especially in perennial gardens, is really something you should do yourself, as I have never seen anyone be as careful with plants as the person who planted them. Mulching season is also the perfect time to feed new growth and prune winter damage, so if you’re physically able, this is one task you should do yourself.)

One caveat: it’s the MINI nuggets you want. Not the larger ones. I’m not sure what makes such a difference, but the large nuggets look entirely out of scale with smaller plantings and simply don’t form as nice of a covered surface. Also, you will find that after a season or two, the nuggets fade from UV exposure to a bleached wood color. This doesn’t affect their decay rate, but if you love that dark brown hue, you can lightly top-dress the beds in the spring to restore the color.



Clivia (with their near cousin, the pink amaryllis, blooming in the kitchen.

Clivia (with their near cousin, the pink amaryllis) blooming today in the kitchen.

Legacy is an amazing thing. As a child growing up in the 70s, I was captivated by the TV gardener and garden writer, Thalassa Cruso. I’ve written about her several times before, so I will only add here that my debts to her continue. She, along with my grandfather, inspired me down countless new horticultural paths, some which still bear fruit today. One of the more spectacular is pictured above, the magnificent yellow clivia, first brought to my attention in the pages of Thalassa’s classic, Making Things Grow.

Since I  wrote about these plants and their history in 2010 (that’s kyl’ -vee -ah to you) I’ve continually wondered why we don’t see more clivias in American indoor gardens.  One barrier to popularity is certainly perceived cost, as a single small division of a variegated or rare color variety can easily go for $30-50. However, this is one investment the average indoor gardener shouldn’t shy away from. Clivias are extremely easy to grow. They require only dappled light, and because the leaves arise from a large, fleshy bulb, you can forget to water them for a week and never know the difference. (In fact, over-watering is the only sure way to kill clivias.) Each year after  blooming, 1-3 off-shoots will appear, which will eventually form into full sized bulbs, creating a massive floral display in the following seasons. With any other plant, you’d be tempted to re-pot as soon as the plant mass fills the pot surface, but don’t be in a hurry with the clivia. They resent being divided, and often will sulk for a year or two without blooming. The only other real trick with the clivia is that you need to mimic their natural winter cooling period. Nighttime temperatures must to dip into the 55-60º range for several months in order for the flower blossoms to set — much like forcing bulbs indoors. This shouldn’t be a problem though if you have a cool sun room, enclosed porch or greenhouse space to winter them in. When you see the flower spikes beginning to form, bring them back into the warmth and you’ll be treated to a month-long floral display.

A very lush reward for very little work.

Thanks again, Thalassa.


A Typical Spring Day


So ladies and gentlemen, in case you’ve ever wondered, this is what a busy garden designer’s desk looks like on a March morning. In addition to adding and amending to a stack of clients’ plans, I have a bucket load of seeds to get started in the greenhouse, including all the tomatoes to be planted this afternoon!

But before that, I have an announcement to make: we’ve added a Facebook page. From now on I will be updating that fairly regularly, both with content from the blog, but also with other interesting topical material I find along the way, so come “like” us over there to receive the latest tips and techniques. A Youtube channel is also in the works — but one step at a time.

Weather Whipsaw


Predictably, when the weather briefly moved into the 70s last week, my phone began to ring. Excited clients were wondering about getting started with planning (certainly) and with planting (certainly not.) A few seemed disappointed by my lack of enthusiasm for getting going. It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to the new planting season. It’s just that I knew better than to trust Mother Nature. Our freeze-free date in this part of the world is April 20, almost a month away. Our frost-free date is in early May. And just as I suspected, the temperatures are set to plunge over the next five days with overnight lows in the 20s.

So what will happen to the plants that have already started to grow? It depends on the plant. Cold-hardy species like the crocus above have complicated measures within their cells to shift water outside of the cell walls, which prevents the cell itself from bursting. Other less hardy species lack this ability. Fortunately, nothing has really leafed out, but the buds are swelling on most of the deciduous shrubs, and there could be some damage there too, we’ll just have to wait and see. And as gardeners, we do a lot of that — there is only so much we can do especially in years of weird weather fluctuations like this one. But we CAN control our own actions, and that’s really the point of this piece. Go out right now and disconnect that water line you so optimistically turned on last week — before it bursts — and throw a cover over those pots of pansies you just finished planting by the back door, too soon, too soon! And make sure the covers are down on any cold frames or outdoor growing areas you may have. Real spring will soon arrive, never fear. But for now, just sit back and enjoy the last remnants of the winter weather show.

Biennial Pleasures

vertical 4

Biennials feature heavily in this lovely cottage border.

There’s a whole group of wonderful plants that have fallen from favor in American gardens — biennials. The reason why is not hard to fathom, because there is so much confusion and misinformation out there about how to grow biennials that the average gardener just throws up his or her hands and heads for the far more comprehensible displays of annuals and perennials. Besides, who wants to invest in a plant that won’t even bloom the first year, and then dies the second? The answer to that question is you do, and here’s why: if you’re a fan of cottage gardens and wanted to identify one surefire design element that makes them “cottagey,” I’d argue it’s the heavy use biennials in these gardens. Because biennials seed themselves once established, they randomly appear in places where you’d never think to place a seed, but which bind and hold the more established plantings together in a wonderfully artistic fashion. In addition, many of my favorites, like Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, lunaria and foxgloves, bloom in that odd period right after the bulbs finish and right before the summer annuals and perennials start.

The dried seed pods of lunaria last throughout the year.

The decorative dried seed pods of lunaria last throughout the growing season and can be used in dried arrangements.

So what’s the trick to growing biennials? There are two, actually, and both very simple. Even though nurseries sell plants and seed in the spring, spring is NOT the time you should be interested in biennial species. Buy the seed now (and I would add, seed, not pre-started plants as they are expensive for species that so readily sprout themselves)  stick the packets in the refrigerator in an airtight container, and forget about them until August. (This is a Zone 6 recommendation; adjust the timing up or down depending on the mildness of your autumn weather.) Then, as the gardening season moves into fall, find a couple of empty locations in the border, and sow HALF the seeds directly into the ground with a light 1/4″ covering of soil. Mark the spot with a stake to remind yourself there is something there, and make sure the area is irrigated in dry weather. (Some biennials, like foxglove, have very tiny seeds, so you may wish to start these in containers and then transplant them directly into the garden later.)

So what about the rest of the seed? Put the remainder  back into the fridge until next spring, and then as soon as the soil can be worked, find a few more empty spots and repeat the process. If you revisit your fall planting locations, you will notice that your former seeds are now tiny seedlings that sprouted in the autumn, and then went dormant for the winter. These will bloom in the current season, which for clarity’s sake we’ll call year 1. The seeds you’ve just planted will bloom the next spring, in year 2. This double planting, which no guide ever mentions, is key to the process of getting biennials established in your garden: the first fall’s planting will self-sow for bloom the following year, year 3; year 2’s planting for year 4, etc. until the flowers appear every year as if they were annuals.

The second trick: be sure not to cut off the flower heads until the seeds pods have developed and opened. With species like lunaria, you’ll want to leave the decorate pods in place in any event, but you may be tempted to cut down the spent blooms of species like foxglove. You can indeed remove them, but not until the seed pods have opened. Then, as you cut the stalks, shake the pods out over the garden, randomly scattering the seeds to achieve that relaxed, cottage garden look.

Simple huh? Remember, you heard it first here!

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #8: The Collector’s Garden

Last summer on our way to Scotland we stopped in the ancient market town of Ely to see the cathedral. Ely’s was one of the first of the Gothic cathedrals, and a trip from Cambridge through Ely, Lincoln and then finally to York allows you to witnesses the full architectural maturation of the English Gothic style. But as fate was have it, the cathedral was closed: Netflix had decided that Ely would be a great stand in for Westminster in its new series Monarchy, and place was totally roped off for filming. Luckily however, as a totally unexpected consolation prize, I stumbled across this magnificent little garden in the shadow of the cathedral close.


This tiny space — and tiny it was, I doubt it measured much more 10 x 30′ — was literally packed with plants. Most were in pots, and almost all were either in flower, about to flower, or had some other striking characteristic such a boldly variegated foliage. I show you these pictures because this is the one type of garden, the collector’s garden, that can and does break all the standard rules of landscape design: there’s no real focus, there’s no axis, the space is cramped and over-utilized, the design totally lacks a color scheme and a half a dozen more. It is a collection, not a landscape. But it works thanks to the quirky passion of its owner, in the same way some over-the-top avant-garde artist will comfortably wear an outfit to a party that you and I would hesitate even to try on in the privacy of our own homes.

So today’s lesson is that “if you’ve got, flaunt it.”

And if you don’t, best to abide by the rules like the rest of us.

ely garden2

Frost Against the Panes

One of the most beautiful greenhouses in the United States, at Tower Hill Botanical Garden outside of Boston, which was built as a classical winter conservatory. Another of my hibernal favorites is Logee‘s in Danielson CT, where you can not only enjoy the oldest commercial greenhouses in the US, but also indulge your buying fancy.

It is in the dead of winter that the greenhouse is at its best, for then is the contrast of life and death the greatest. Just beyond the living tender leaf — separated only by the slender film of the pane — is the whiteness and silence of midwinter. You stand under the arching roof and look away into the bare depths where only the stars hang their cold faint lights. The bald outlines of an overhanging tree are projected against the sky with the sharpness of the figures of cut glass. Branches creak and snap as they move stiffly in the wind. White snow drifts show against the panes. Icicles glisten from the gutters. Bits of ice are hurled from trees and cornice, and they crinkle and tinkle over the frozen snow. In the short sharp days the fences protrude from a waste of drift and riffle, and the dead fretwork of weed-stems suggests a long-lost summer. There, a finger’s breadth away, the temperature is far below zero; here, is the warmth and snugness of a nook in tropic summer.

This is the transcendent merit of the greenhouse — the sense of mastery over forces of nature. It is an oasis in one’s life as well as in the winter. One has dominion.

But this dominion does not stop with the mere satisfaction of a consciousness of power. These tender things, with all their living processes in root and stem and leaf, are dependent wholly on you for their very existence. One minute of carelessness or neglect and all their loveliness collapses in the blackness of death. How often have we seen the farmer pay a visit to the stable at bedtime to see that the animals are snug and warm for the night, stroking each confiding face as it rises at his approach! And how often have we seen the same affectionate care of the gardener who stroked his plants and tenderly turned and shifted the pots, when the night wind hurled the frost against the panes! It is worth the while to have a place for the affection of things that are not human.

From The Garden Lover
Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1928