Dethroning the Heirloom Tomato

headerI was putting together my seed order this morning after suffering another disastrous year with late blight in which the majority of my tomatoes, mostly heirlooms, were dead by early August along with most of the harvest, and I came across this interesting article on the Johnny’s Select Seeds site entitled 10 Tips for Growing Heirloom Tomatoes. The tips, are, in order: Learn How to Graft; Protect and Support; Prune Correctly; Space Generously; Grow on Mulch; Lay Drip Lines; Prevent Disease; Choose with Care; Water Judiciously; and finally Review Best Practices.


Now granted, these guidelines are for the professional grower, but really… Even a very brief perusal of these tips reveals that growing heirloom tomatoes is no longer a simple matter (as it once was) of getting a few plants in the ground and sitting back with salad fork in hand. There was a reason that many of these tomato varieties were retired in the first place: they failed easily and spectacularly. And now, in a round of sentimental wishful-thinking that I must admit to have promoted in the past, we’ve popularized these varieties once again — lionized might be the better word — and along with this new-found ubiquity have come many diseases that were formerly, if not entirely banished, certainly minimized. When the box stores starts selling heirloom tomatoes,  you know you’re in trouble.

Where then does all this leave the heirloom tomato grower besieged by late blight as we have been for the last three years? In the proverbial manure pile, I’m afraid. Now granted, while none of the techniques outlined in the article above are particularly difficult, they are particularly costly. By the time you add up all that mulch and drip line and horticultural miscellany, the proverbial 64-dollar tomato is not far off. Tomatoes are by far my favorite product of the vegetable garden, but this is getting just too crazy, even for me. Add to this that none of these tips guarantee you a harvest. Do them all, and you may still fail. Last year I watched 5′ tall, bushy plants loaded with fruit collapse into a rotting pile of mush just a few weeks short of harvest — despite spraying. Of the little I was able to salvage, almost all came from a few of the more disease resistance modern cultivars. “Brandywine’, ‘Rose’, ‘Abraham Lincoln’ — heirlooms all, withered away before my very eyes.

Just to be clear: as a garden historian and lover of all things old, I adore heirlooms plants, and I certainly understand full well the need to protect our horticultural heritage.

But, and this is a big but, in certain cases we’ve got to dismiss romance and face up to reality.

And growing tomatoes in the home garden, at least here in New England, is one of those cases. At least since late blight arrived a few years back and seems set to stay with a vengeance.

So here’s what I am planning to do, and I urge you to do the same if you’ve encountered major disease problems in the last few years: First of all, I am going to ditch the worst performing heirlooms. These include most of the large potato-leaved varieties like my beloved ‘Brandywine’ that seem to summon late blight from the skies. I know, I know, the flavor is not going to be the same, but better a decent good-tasting crop than no great-tasting crop at all. I plan to select varieties with the best disease resistance I can find. This is particularly important if you garden near others, say in a community plot. Late blight is spread by the wind and can travel many miles in a day, so if your neighbor is growing susceptible varieties, you’re pretty much cooked.  Secondly, I’m going to adopt plastic mulch and soaker hoses in a much less amply planted  tomato garden, following the article’s advice. Most people have a number of soakers hanging about the shed doing nothing except tripping the unwary. Now’s the time to put them to good use. Thirdly, I’m going to try, if I have time, this grafting business, and report back on my success. (Though it sounds scarily complicated, grafting is actually quite easy if you pay close attention to details. The Johnny’s article links to a very good piece from the University of North Carolina, which takes you step by step through the process.)

And finally, I am going to send up a fervent prayer to the tomato gods…

You think I’m kidding about this last one, don’t you?

I’m not.

The Original Victory Garden

As host of the Victory Garden on PBS from 2002-2007, I started to collect WWII Victory Garden memorabilia — posters, brochures, signs, that sort of thing. Then, a few weeks ago I came across this 1942 film on the FDR Presidential Museum and Library site. It was in pretty bad shape; faded color, bad sound. There were a few other versions out there on Youtube as well, but each of worse quality than the next. So, I decided to restore this little gem, as well as to add a modern commentary, making it both a valuable historical record of past practice, and a useful guide for those interested in growing their own food at home today. It’s hard to believe now, but people like the Holders in this film grew almost half the country’s produce by the end of WII, right in their own backyards. These days, we don’t need to grow vegetables for the war effort, thank god, but you will reap ample rewards by growing at least a few fresh veggies for your own table. Nothing tastes better than produce from your own garden, and now’s the time to start planning.


Autumn Color

Now that the leaves are gone, at least here in the Northeast, other sources of color in the garden begin to shine in the pale golden November light. Here are a few of my favorites in a brief photo essay put together this past week.

Heathers – many of which display spectacularly colored winter foliage  –  combined here with golden dwarf chamaecyparis, mugo pine, and pinks in the rock garden.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, caught at a November sunset:

Deciduous Holly, Ilex verticillata – always an autumn showstopper, at least until the wild turkeys find the berries:

From my garden to yours, the warmest wishes for a hale and hearty Thanksgiving.

Creating Effective Seasonal Indoor Displays

Effective seasonal displays invoke the best of you, your spirit, your style – not that of the local homegoods store. Above is the November display outside my dining room: gourds from the garden, art books from collections or places I’ve visited, and some of my antique bottle collection. Granted, this may not be for everyone, but it works here because it’s real and speaks about me and my interests.

Every year at this season my mailbox bulges with questions about how to create effective indoor seasonal displays. I’m always a little loath to give advice on this subject, for fear of going down the Martha Stewart road. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of much of Martha, but a little goes a long way. Just because Martha prefers this or that color, or this or that arrangement, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right one for you. To my eye, too many seasonal decorations wind up looking like homegoods store front windows: generic collections of lovely little chatchies that could belong to anyone. So here are my thoughts on creating truly effective seasonal decorations for your home.

1) First of all, find the right spot. Seasonal displays look best where they would occur normally, and, where they will be seen: plants massed against a windowsill, for instance; a fall display in the corner of the front hall; Christmas decorations on a door or porch. Resist the temptation to plunk things hither and yon; it just starts to look like decorations exploded from a box. In my house there’s a long bench along the hall that runs past the dining room from the kitchen that I use for my seasonal decorations. Its central location on the main drag of the house makes it an ideal spot for changing displays of cut flowers, bulbs, produce and other materials from the garden and greenhouse. (Here was what this same spot looked like last February.)

2) Use changes of height and level. Five gourds plunked in a row on a table do not make an effective seasonal display. Some type of staging material, such as a stool, pot, or bench that creates a difference in height will allow you to set decorations at different levels and create a much richer visual effect.

3) Stick to your personal style. It’s like that old Donnie & Marie song: “She’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock-and-roll.” Whatever you are, embrace it, and make sure your interior decorations reflect that as well. Nothing looks more out of place than attempting to transplant someone else’s design ideas onto your own style palette.

4) Show off what you love. At any time of year, I revel in the hard-won achievements of my garden. My fall display includes all the various squashes I’ve raised this summer (and plan to consume this winter, one by delicious one) along with books, and antique glass bottles, two other passions. These happen to make a pleasing visual combination in any case, but are even more effective here because they say something about the me, and not Martha.

5) Keep it natural. The store shelves are overflowing at this time of year with fake leaves, plastic gourds, synthetic flowers.


Nature abounds with beautiful decorations at this time of year, all for the taking: gorgeous berries, colorful leaves, interesting twigs and branches. A small, natural arrangement of even the simplest kind speaks volumes more than cheap plastic from China.



Tips for Designing and Building Decks

I suppose I should begin by admitting that I’m generally not a big fan of decks in the landscape. In fact, the only kind of decks I’m really fond of are the ones attached to large, luxurious ocean liners. It’s not that decks are intrinsically bad in the garden, It’s just that most of the huge, overblown structures you often see today can only be described as downright ugly. Curiously, decks didn’t start our this way: when they first appeared in the 1960s, decks were fairly modest, unobtrusive affairs – built low to the ground, and hugging the house, they were really just simplified versions of the wonderful Victorian porches that had preceded them

One almost wonders if this monstrosity could come alive! This is a perfect example of a huge waste of timber that provides little usable space

Then suddenly, during the 1980s, decks started to appear hanging off the sides of homes five, ten, fifteen feet above the level of the land below, like some giant stilt-legged spider trying to envelop the back of the house. A drive through any modern subdivision will show you example after example of these pressure-treated monstrosities. Not only are these structures aesthetically impoverished, they are impossible to integrate successfully into the overall landscape. To begin with, the dry, shaded, barren earth below them is absolutely useless, except for unsightly storage. What’s more, usage of the structure itself is compromised – with the deck hanging off the back of your house at fifteen feet or more above the ground, you are subject to every burning ray of sun, cold gust of wind, and prying stare from your neighbors that may come your way. Decks like these don’t function as either part of the garden, or part of the house, and should be avoided at all costs (which conversely should save you a lot of money, because they are also extremely expensive!).

Although beautifully constructed, given the short distance from the floor to the ground, this site would have been bettered served with a terrace that would have united house and garden.

So what’s today’s homeowner to do? Well if you have one of these spider-like things already, you are stuck until time and circumstances allow its removal.  In new construction, or where the opportunity for remodeling exits, keeping in mind some simple rules will help create an outdoor living area that is an asset to your garden, rather than a liability.  The first step is to consider whether you really need a deck at all, or whether some sort of terrace would be a better option. Terraces have a number of benefits over decks: they generally don’t require licensed plans and  building permits like decks do; plus, they are often easier to design and generally yield a more aesthetically pleasing result, especially if you take some care to match the surfacing material to those already used in the house and around the yard. Terraces also allow better flow of traffic between the indoors and out, as there are generally more means of entering and exiting an open terrace than there would be from a railed deck. This ease of movement is an important consideration, because a terrace can provide a space with a much more expansive feel than a the enclosed, constrictive sensation that any railed, raised structure could afford. Finally, given the rising price of lumber these days, terraces are often less expensive (and more environmentally friendly) to construct than decks, especially where rare and expensive woods such as the endangered redwood or teak are used.

Now here’s an example of an appropriate designed deck that matches the style of the home and allows the user easy access into the landscape

There are however some situations where decks are appropriate: for instance, when a deck is actually the best stylistic match to go with the existing architecture of a home and landscape. Next to a modernistic, wooden house, for example, or a rustic chalet-style home, a nicely detailed deck might be the best option for an outdoor living area. Decks are also a good choice when the topography of the yard is such that a level surface is not easily achievable by other means, such as on top of  a rocky outcrop. A third reason to use decks in the landscape is when a transition from one level to another is required that would be impossible with a terrace or patio. But keep in mind that even in these circumstances, decks should be kept as low to the ground as possible – the final level should be no more than a foot or two above the existing grade. Don’t try to use decks as a means to make a transition of a story or more from the back of the house to the yard level—it just won’t work, as you saw in the top illustration above.  In new houses, design the floor plan so that you have direct access from the kitchen or back levels more or less at ground level. In existing homes, where the layout may be impossible to alter, you may simply have to call a spade a spade and construct a well-built porch or balcony instead that is consistent with the architecture of the house.

If you decide that a deck is right for you, your next task, after finding a good contractor, (building a deck is not a project for the uninitiated and in fact many states require a licensed builder) will be to choose the decking material. Your contractor should be able to offer you a wide variety of options, each with its pluses and minuses. The most commonly used material for deck construction is pressure-treated wood, which is generally made from chemically treated pine. While extremely versatile and easy to use, some pressure-treated wood can’t be painted or stained for months after installation, and can often splinter, which is an important consideration if babies or small children are to be crawling around the surface. (Look for paintable, high-quality boards.) There is also the often overlooked issue of disposal when using pressure-treated wood: the left over bits and pieces can’t be burned (the smoke is toxic), and many landfills and transfer stations are now refusing to accept it as environmentally hazardous. If you do choose pressure-treated wood, make sure the contractor settles the disposal issues beforehand, and that he or she use the highest grade of pressuretreated wood. – guaranteed against ground contact rot for at least 30 years.

Cedar is also a possibility, as it is naturally resistant to rot, but it is a rather soft wood and not ideal for decking. Fir is another option; harder and less prone to splintering, it also develops a lovely sheen with age, The downside with fir is that it must be rigorously maintained with preservatives every year or so. Redwood and teak are the most expensive choices. Both are extremely durable woods which are naturally resistant to rot. Personally though, I cannot bring myself to use either: the slow growing redwood seems to be far too majestic to be chopped into decking planks, and the environmental damage caused from ripping teak trees from tropical rain forests is almost mind-boggling, even from supposedly conservation minded “plantations.”  Instead of cutting down the rain forests, why not consider a  much more environmentally sensible option — plastic lumber. Now available from a number of retail stores and Internet vendors and sold under the brand names such as Trex®, this recent introduction, made partly from recycled plastic, is completely impervious to rot and comes in a variety of colors, included realistic faux grained wood tones. I’ve used this material in several of my designs, and the clients and I have both been quite impressed: it looks quite  presentable; it’s not wood, obviously, but it’s more durable than wood, won’t crack, splinter or chip and is easily worked with standard tools. While the initial cost is more expensive than real wood, plastic lumber lasts forever, and never needs to be maintained: a considerable savings in the long run. Certainly something to think about.

Finally, when designing your deck, make sure that the style and detailing of the deck match that of the house. Building a deck is a remarkably expensive enterprise and there can sometimes be a tendency to cut corners and skimp on what may seem at first glance to be non-essentials. This is a big mistake, as it’s the finish details that often determine how successful a structure is. I’ve known people to spend ten thousand dollars constructing a huge, elaborate deck, and then decide to forgo spending the five hundred extra dollars required to install well-crafted spindles, railings, built-in planters, and other elements that make the structure actually look like something and unite it to the house and landscape. Like everything else in the garden, if money is an issue, wait until you are comfortable with the expenditure and build what you really want; don’t compromise on something less. You’ll never be satisfied with the trade-off, and it will only wind up costing more in the end. Remember, a deck is really part of your home — an extension of architecture into the garden. Built correctly, it will be a addition to both: but poorly designed, or poorly constructed, all you’ll wind up with is an expensive eyesore.




Confronting Change in the Garden

Change comes hard in the garden. If you think about it, all of our gardening activities could be viewed as an attempt, futile even though we know it is, to fix nature in a moment, to lock a particular piece of beauty in time and space. It’s both the hope and desperation of gardening: everything is in a constant state of evolution, and the enjoyment of our efforts must either be in the moment, or in memories.

This is particularly true when large features of the garden suddenly shift, as when this past fall and winter we experienced several freak storms which greatly damaged the huge spruce to the north of the house. This area I had developed into a shade garden over the past decade, with no small success:


Then, in an instant it was gone. The large spruce had to be taken down, and suddenly the area was in full sun. Hardly the place for hosta and hellebores. I must admit to be being slightly depressed; the old garden had been so lovely, why… couldn’t have it just stayed the same!

But I grit my teeth, “manned up” as my students at Harvard like to say these days, got out the shovel, and shifted the shade material to other parts of the yard over the period of several weeks. Then, I set to work building a full sun flower garden, something light and airy, with a decent percentage percentage of annuals that would allow me play with combinations of color and form. Here’s the result:

The same view in 2012; the antique rotating ventilator, one of my favorite kinetic garden ornaments, marks the location of the spruce stump

Looking at these two pictures together, a full year apart, it’s remarkable how similar these two gardens are: although consisting of entirely different plants, they share the same sort of casual, relaxed style I aim for in my own personal landscape – so much so in fact that I must have subconsciously channeled one from the other! The new tree, for those interested, is a linden, I species I’ve always wanted to include; if contented, it should convert this garden back to shade (a thankfully much more gradual process) in a decade or so.

In the meantime, a much larger, more painful challenge lurks: the 100′ x 100′ foot ash that shades the entire rear of my house and lower terrace has split in two. Four different tree experts were unanimous: it must come down before it falls down and takes out half the house. I was beyond desolate when I heard the news, as this particular tree defines the whole back yard and covers not one garden, but three, all as large as the former spruce garden, and all designed around the tree. Change, chaotic and uncaring, is about to come again.

As gardeners, we can either bend or break.

And well, I’m not quite that brittle yet.




Garden Travels – Lessons from Three American Gardens

It’s a well known fact that artists draw inspiration from travel; new scenery, new people, new cultures all heavily influence artistic impression. So it stands to reason that we gardeners – who are, after all, at our most basic “plant artists” – would benefit from changing vistas as well. And it’s true. Over years of exploration, first as private citizen  then as PBS host, and now guest lecturer for the Harvard Alumni Association Travel Program, I’ve had marvelous opportunities to visit gardens all over the globe, and many have heavily influenced not only my own landscape, but also how I design gardens for my clients. Transoceanic flights, however, are not necessarily required. Here are three of my favorite gardens in the US with some very important lessons to teach.

Indoors as Out: The Getty Villa in Malibu, California.
To my mind, one of the most remarkable landscapes in the United States, perhaps the most remarkable, surrounds the Getty Villa in Malibu. For those of you unfamiliar with the place, the Villa, constructed by oil magnate J. Paul Getty in the 70s, is an exact replica of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. (The original villa, which still remains largely entombed in hardened volcanic rock, was excavated and mapped by tunneling during the 19th and 20th centuries.) The Getty structure, which steps down its sloping seaside site, is probably humanity’s best guess at what Roman gardens looked like. In neat, box-lined beds, ancient herbs and flower bloom, surrounding bronze sculptures and punctuated by flowing fountains. Along the colonnaded walls, frescos of country scenes and imaginary landscapes blur the distinction between architecture, garden, and the hilltops beyond. While the scale of the garden is immense and outside the range of anyone except multi-millionaires, the take-away lesson here is simple and applicable to almost any garden: link indoors and out. What strikes the visitor immediately is how gracefully the Getty gardens flow in, out, and around the structure, and how the house returns the gesture, embracing the gardens within its walls. Now granted, not all of us are blessed with a Mediterranean climate like that found in Malibu, but many are, and even in these places, modern construction is rarely successful in uniting house and garden the way the Getty Villa does. Each time I visit the Getty, I return to my own New England garden, and work on ways to improve how I see the garden from within, and how the garden sees the house from without.  (The Getty is now split into two separate sites. The old villa in Malibu, which houses its extensive classical collections, and the new museum, strikingly situated on a hill overlooking all of LA and surrounded by modern gardens of great beauty. Both are well worth the trip. More information on visiting the at


Order and Unity: The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The product of another oil magnate, this time John D. Rockefeller Jr., the gardens that surround the restored homes and shops of Colonial Williamsburg provide an entirely different type of lesson for the garden traveler. In many ways, these small, enclosed gardens are far more accessible to modern visitor than the grand scale of the Getty. In fact, they aren’t too terribly dissimilar from the ¼ acre lots that surround homes all over the nation. What sets them apart from their modern brethren, however, is their sense of order and unity. Tour the various gardens of Williamsburg (and there are dozens) and in each you’ll be struck by how harmonious the relationship is between the various architectural features, the plantings, and the homes themselves. Fences, whose design derives from some element of the house architecture, move out in orderly lines from the house, and then conclude in logical ending points, so unlike many of today’s ill-conceived fence lines. Hardscape elements – walkways, arbors, trellis – share common materials and colors. And the plantings, so different from the messy masses that surround today’s homes, are in scale with the structures, and related to them by axial lines. In short, these gardens are comfortable – not to mention comforting – to spend time in, and my visits to Williamsburg have taught me always to be aware that when laying out a garden, the house needs to be the starting point for any garden design. So many landscapes today are conceived as if the house didn’t really matter, when in fact, it’s the style of the house, the color of the house, the situation of the house, the access to the house that must dictate the elements of the design. Think about it: without a house, you’re landscaping a field. It’s the house that drives the garden, not vice-versa, and that’s a lesson easily appreciated in Colonial Williamsburg. (More information at


Working With Nature: Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC

Just a few hours away from Williamsburg, and a just a few miles from the Capital, sits one of the most magnificent gardens on the eastern seaboard: Dumbarton Oaks. Designed by the renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand for owners Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in the 20s as their country home, the property now belongs to Harvard University and the Federal Government, who work jointly to preserve the 20 odd acres of gardens. Of course, when visiting a garden created by a true genius like Farrand, it would be easy to take away any number of well-taught lessons, and Dumbarton Oaks doesn’t disappoint. Clever aerial hedges surround grassy walks, custom designed furniture nestles among native plantings, terraced gardens lead down from the lovely Georgian home. But what strikes me as a professional designer is not so much what was accomplished – the Blisses after all were millionaires who could have instructed Farrand to create whatever style of garden they wished – but rather what wasn’t. The house is located on difficult, hilly terrain that borders Rock Creek (emphasis on rock), and instead of leveling vast stretches and clearing immense vistas to create a classical layout, Farrand worked within the constraints of nature, nestling garden rooms into the hillsides and connecting them with forested walks. That’s not to say the undertaking still wasn’t immense, but the garden plan works with nature in a way that few modern landscapes do. (One other success that immediately comes to mind is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.) The take-away concept here is that whatever your site or climate, gardens succeed best when they co-exist with their surroundings, rather than attempting to dominate or control them. Dumbarton Oaks reminds us to embrace whatever conditions we’ve inherited – sun, shade, bog, desert – and make the most of them. (More information at

So this summer, wherever your travels take you, do yourself a favor: bring along a camera, a small notebook, and spend some time visiting gardens. You, and your backyard, will be glad you did.


Trees for Small Gardens

Whenever I am called upon to design a small garden, my first concern, after having determined the overall style and feel of the space I’m contemplating, is how to make the garden appear as large as possible. A good designer has a number of visual tricks at his or her disposal to distort the viewer’s impression of distance and make the garden seem more spacious than it really is. One of the most common of these is to run a distinct visual line such as a path or hedge across the longest available axis and place a prominent focal point at its end – the effect being to draw the eye down along the full length of the landscape and concentrate it at a single, distant point, thereby making the garden appear larger than it really is. Many different types of objects can serve as focal points: you commonly see pieces of sculpture, architectural remnants, birdbaths, even outdoor furniture such as benches positioned in this way. But probably my favorite choice for a dramatic focal point in a small garden is a specially chosen dwarf tree. Not only do small trees combine the decorative aspects of both art and architecture, they also have one advantage no inanimate object can ever posses: an ever-changing beauty throughout the four seasons.

Choosing the correct tree for this purpose however can be a bit tricky. The primary consideration of course, is size – if the tree outgrows its space, it can quickly convert itself from art form to artless mess. Secondarily, you want to be sure to select trees that have interest in more than just a single season, preferably something that includes both good summer bloom and exceptional winter form for example, or interesting spring and summer foliage with excellent fall color and fruiting. Finally, you need to take careful stock of your growing conditions: is the space you have in mind baked in sun most of the day, or plunged into shade? Will there be ample root space, or is the available earth area cramped and heavily trafficked. Once again, since the tree will serve both as an important horticultural and structural landscape element, you’ll need to select a specimen that will thrive where you place it. Here are some excellent small trees I’ve had good experience with:

Acer griseum
If I had to limit myself to one tree for small gardens, this may be it. Native to central China, the cinnamon bark maple grows very slowly to just under twenty feet. Its most remarkable characteristic is its exfoliating, cinnamon-colored bark, which peels off in brown wavy strips reminiscent of clouds seen in some ancient Chinese print. Often found as a multi-stemmed clump, the cinnamon bark maple has small, somewhat inconspicuous yellow flowers in the spring, followed by typical wing-shaped maple seeds later in the season. The real show however begins in the fall, when the olive green summer foliage turns a striking crimson– only to set the stage for the exceptional winter silhouette soon to come. A narrow upright tree that prefers full sun, hardy to Zone 5a.

Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’
I must admit a general dislike of weeping trees in small landscapes; they often seem artificial and out of place, compared to say, the flowing natural grace of a full-sized weeping cherry lazily dangling its branches in a stream. This pear relative though, is the exception. Native to Asia Minor and growing (very slowly) to a height of about twenty feet, the cascading gray-green foliage of Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ is reminiscent of the willow, and makes an outstanding counterpoint to other green foliaged plants in the garden. Although the plant does bear 2 inch fruits, they are largely inedible. The only caveat here is that ‘Pendula’ is very susceptible to fire blight, which can be a major problem outside the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise the plant is relatively trouble free. Hardy to Zone 4a and prefers full sun for best foliage color.

Betula nigra ‘Fox Valley’
For those of you who have longed for the columnar beauty of birch in your yard, but were defeated by fears of the fatal birch borer, or by general lack of space, this may be your chance. ‘Fox Valley’ is a dwarf cultivar of the brown barked River Birch, which grows to about 12 feet high and seems more or less immune to the dreaded birch borer – a pest that can kill a clump of the more susceptible white-barked birch in just a few seasons. Like it’s more famous light-skinned cousins, the bark of ‘Fox Valley’ peels off in gray-brown strips to reveal a lighter, almost pinkish brown under-bark. Individual specimens can very tremendously in this effect though, so it’s best to hand pick candidates at the nursery based on good bark color and trunk form. Like other birches, ‘Fox Valley’ prefers moist sites, though it will tolerate normal garden soil as long as it is not exposed to drought. Summer leaves are medium to dark green, and fall color is a pleasing soft yellow. Hardy to Zone 4/3b, ‘Fox Valley’ will tolerate light shade.

Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’
At first glance, this choice seems to contradict my dictum to select small garden trees based on ever-changing seasonal beauty, for the blue-gray evergreen foliage of the Skyrocket juniper remains stubbornly the same throughout the year. The value of this plant, however, is its strikingly narrow, pointed silhouette, and how significant this horticultural version of the exclamation point can be in the landscape. Used alone, or in a group of three, the abrupt verticality of Skyrocket junipers literally call out to you from across the garden, demanding attention. As its name implies, this juniper will grow rapidly to a final height of 15 feet, but even when mature will only be a few feet wide. Full sun, Zone 3a.

So this fall, if your garden seems to be lacking just the right focal point, perhaps it’s time to think about adding a small tree to the landscape. Autumn, with its soft rains and cool temperatures, is the perfect time for planting, and next season, as your tree settles into its new role, you’ll be glad you decided to include such a charming arboreal companion to your garden.

A Tall, Dark Stranger

I have a romantic story to tell you, of a tall dark stranger that first appeared in European gardens almost a millennia ago – althea rosea, the hollyhock. But not just any hollyhock, the dusky mysterious one the Spanish called, El Sereno, the Night-Watchman.

The history of this magnificent specimen is as cloudy as the flowers are dark. Reportedly originating in the Far East, the plant was first documented in the Middle Ages, appearing in European gardens about the time of the Crusades. In fact, Alice Coats, in her seminal Flowers and Their Histories, theorizes that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “hoc,” meaning mallow, and “holly“, holy, a reference to the flower’s ubiquitous presence in Palestine. Immediately prized for its colorful blossoms – and for host of rather dubious medicinal uses – the hollyhock quickly spread throughout Europe, first mentioned by name in John Gardiner’s Feate of Gardening (1440). Thriving in dry climates, it became a particular favorite of the Spanish, who introduced it to Central & South America; the English later latter followed suit in the Colonies, and ‘Black Watchman’, or a variety close to it, was grown by Thomas Jefferson. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that the plant made a particularly fine dye, comparable to indigo, and dark varieties, like the ‘Black Watchman’ (a.k.a ‘El Sereno’, ‘Night-Watchman’, etc.)  were developed with that use in mind. Unfortunately the hollyhock’s commercial reign was short-lived – its great bane, hollyhock rust,  first mentioned about 1873, put a quick end to any ideas of large-scale production.

Still, that shouldn’t dissuade you from growing this handsome plant, because few other flowers have anywhere near the effect in the garden, especially when placed in front of lighter pinks and yellows. Viewed close up, the flowers are dark, dark purple, but from a distance appear almost black, hovering in the back of the border like slim exclamation points bracketing other of your less dramatic horticultural triumphs. As for the rust, if you live in a dry climate, it’s less of a worry; where humid, a spurt of any common fungicide once or twice a season, organic or not, will generally handle the problem nicely.

Technically a biennial, hollyhock will often reseed itself, creating successive seasons of bloom. However, I find that mine peter out, so every few years I buy some new seed to reinforce my supply, starting them in pots about now for next year’s flower.

After all, who can object to a tall dark stranger now and then?

‘Black Watchman’ is available from Renee’s and other specialty retailers


Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'

Plant enthusiasts have a tendency to use language rather floridly, if you’ll pardon the pun, when they describe their favorite plants. But hydrangeas are one of those species were the word “remarkable” is truly no exaggeration. How many plant families do you know of that can trace their history back 70 million years, are native to three continents, contain members that are bushes, trees and vines, are both deciduous and evergreen, and whose flowers can completely change color from year to year? Not to mention that fact almost all are extremely hardy, easy grow and tolerate both full sun and part shade. There really is a variety of hydrangea to suit any garden, from clay pots to cultivated acres, and now early summer, is their time to shine.

From the average gardener’s perspective, the only real problem with the hydrangea family seems to be that it is too large for many people to get a good grasp of. The genus is actually divided into at least 8 sub-sections, which are further divided into at least a dozen species and hundreds of cultivars. I say “at least” here pointedly, because there are so many different kinds of hydrangeas that even the botanical nomenclaturists are in disagreement. Fortunately for the home gardener, the most common types of hydrangeas seen in the nurseries today belong to only five species: macrophylla, paniculata, quercifolia, anomala and arboresens, and from each of these I’ve selected one or two varieties that I think are real knockouts in the garden.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Endless Summer’
The macrophyllas, often called somewhat erroneously the Lacecap Hydrangeas, are the species that most people think about when they think of hydrangeas. Native to the warm temperate maritime climates of eastern Asia, these are the potted plants you often see in the florist shop. “Endless Summer’ though, is a more robust recent cultivar, and one I include in almost all the gardens I design. Flowering continuously with large, pale blooms from early summer, this wonderful shrub will grow quite big if given the moist, mild (hardiness zone 5 or warmer) dappled shade it loves.  The macrophyllas are also the species with the famous color changing trick. In acid soil  (pH 6.5 or less) the bloom is blue: add a little lime, and presto, subsequent blooms will turn pink. The heads are also excellent for drying, turning a lovely dusky hue.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’
Also know as the Pee-Gee Hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata is a common site in many parts of the country, especially the cultivar ‘Grandifolia’ which was introduced by the famous plant explorer Siebold in 1869. Recently however, there have been many new introductions, and the most spectacular of all is possibly ‘Limelight’ which blooms with huge, chartreuse blooms which slowly fade to pink in the fall.  Interestingly, what we refer to as the flowers on this and all other hydrangeas are actually modified decorative leaves called sepals. The true flowers are almost unnoticeable, buried inside the massive bloom heads, which incidentally on ‘Limelight’ are famous for their drying ability. H. paniculata is extremely hardy (Zones 3/4) and unlike its cousins, prefers full sun.

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’
This is one of my favorite members of the hydrangea family, and unfortunately, one of the least known. The name, quercifolia, means “oak-leaved” in Latin, and the epithet is apt. The large oak-like leaves emerge fairly late in the spring, followed in mid summer by large panicles of creamy white flowers 6-8 inches long. Like most other hydrangeas, this one requires a constant supply of moisture; given extended periods of dryness, most hydrangeas will wilt miserably. But unlike its relatives, this beauty will take a considerable amount of shade, and for that reason I like to use Oak-leaved Hydrangeas in the landscape as backdrops to hosta, astilbe,  and other shade loving plants. Hardy to Zone 5, Hydrangea quercifolia has the added benefit of lovely fall color — the leaves turn purple-red and remain on the plant for quite a long time. Other cultivars of note are “Harmony’ and ‘Snowflake,’ both of which seem to be slightly less hardy, but have the advantage of larger, more showy flowers. Also, for smaller gardens, try the dwarf, ‘Peewee’.

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
This is a stellar plant, and one that should be in almost every landscape. Growing between three and five feet high, this American native is absolutely covered in huge white balls of flower in June, some up to 12 inches wide. In fact this generosity in flower may be its only flaw — ‘Annabelle’ is so floriferous that the huge blooms will often weigh down and occasionally snap the branches after a heavy rain. This cultivar also has the added benefit of reblooming, if the first round of blossom is removed when spent. Preferring morning sun and afternoon shade, ‘Annabelle’ requires a moist, though well-drained, spot with reasonably high fertility to produce the best show. Hardy from Zones 3-9, this shrub is perfect for mass plantings on the edge of the woods or lawn.

Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris
This climbing member of the hydrangea family is probably one of the best all-around vines for the home landscape. The lustrous, dark green leaves are the perfect background for the large, fragrant white flowers which open in June and July and last for over a month. Tolerant of sun or shade, Climbing Hydrangeas ascend by twinning, making them idea for growing up the side of a trellis or tree. Left on their own, the vines can reach 80 feet: in bloom, they are an almost unimaginably beautiful sight. Virtually pest free, the only drawback to this species is that is it almost painfully slow to get started: the first few years the plant seems to hardly move at all, and then suddenly, the growth is exponential. Originating in China and Japan, the Climbing Hydrangea is hardy from Zones 4-8.

Sidebar: Drying Hydrangea Blossoms
Hydrangea blooms are extremely easy to dry, and make spectacular wreaths and arrangements, as long as a few simple rules are followed. Here in Southborough, I harvest the blossoms of H. quercifolia and H. paniculata for winter arrangements. In both species, as the flowers mature, they change color slowly from creamy white to a wonderful pinkish chartreuse — this signal is the key to successful harvesting. Cut while white,  the blooms will wilt; wait till the flowers take on a pale pink hue. Hydrangeas will often bloom well for several years, and then flower production will diminish. If you find your bush is producing few flowers, the solution is to prune it back heavily in the very early spring before the leaves emerge — small specimens can be cut back to within 6 inches of the ground and fertilized heavily with rotted manure or 10-10-10. As hydrangeas bloom solely on new wood, the flush of new growth will produce an abundance of bloom later in the season.