Spring into Fall with Native Perennials

Last summer I spent almost a month touring gardens in Ireland and England, and without a doubt, these were some of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever seen. Garden after garden passed before my eyes, each filled with rich tapestries of perennials, perfectly chosen and expertly intermingled, flowing seamlessly around the ancient structures nestled in their midst. Honestly though, I must admit that as the tour wore on, I became more than a little depressed, for despite tremendous interest from American gardeners (myself included) in this traditional cottage type of landscape, these wonderful English gardens are almost impossible to recreate in this country outside limited areas near the two coasts. We simply don’t have the cool, damp climate that makes the traditional English herbaceous garden a reality. Our springs are too far unpredictable and our summers far too hot. Delightful, but deadly.

Then one day towards the end of my trip, as I was rather mournfully inspecting an absolutely stellar “hardy” fuchsia in a Dorset garden that I knew wouldn’t last a day in mine, I struck up a conversation with a man tending one of the beds, who turned out to be the garden’s owner, and well known gardening author. He received my admiration of his perfectly manicured grounds with grace, and as conversations among gardeners are wont to do, the topic quickly turned to various plants and problems. “Oh,” he said dismissing the fuchsia I had been admiring with a quick wave of his hand “I would trade that thing in a minute for a bank of those wonderful fall asters you Yanks can grow so well.”

And therein lies the crux of this tale, gentle reader, for while it’s true that English gardens are famous for their spring and early summer bloom, by the autumn, in that northerly part of hemisphere, days become very short and the weather cold and wet, which means for all practical purposes, English gardens are over and out by September. On the other hand, here in the United States, our autumn days are much longer, the temperatures far more mild, and in fact, fall provides some of the best gardening weather of the entire year over much of the country. Add to this the fact that the North American continent possesses a whole host of wonderful native perennials that bloom from late summer well into the autumn, already perfectly adapted to our shores. The moral here is that rather than weeping about all the European spring and early summer plants we can’t grow well on this side of the pond, why not concentrate on the American plants that we can grow well, and use them instead in traditionally inspired designs? The value of these fall bloomers has certainly not been lost on the Europeans: in fact, many of the best new cultivars are now of European origin: the British, German and Dutch have eagerly imported many of our American natives, sent them to “finishing school,” and returned them to us transformed, complete with hybrid European pedigrees (and European price tags to boot!)

Undoubtedly there’s a hole or two somewhere in your border after the spring bloomers are done, so now’s the time to fill them, while prices are low, and supplies still high at the local nursery.  Here are five of my favorites fall perennials to get you started:

Boltonia asteroides 'Snowbank'

Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’

Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’
If I were forced to choose only one plant for the fall border, this would be it. Appropriately named, this American native – much neglected until fairly recently – covers itself in a mass of snow-white, daisy-like flowers for almost a month in September. Extremely easy to grow, Boltonias hold true to their prairie origin: they are indifferent to soil quality, and will tolerate fairly dry conditions. They do, however, require full sun, and several years to reach their final height of 4’. Boltonias are perfect for massing at the back of the border, especially when paired with asters and chrysanthemums. There’s also a pink variety, ‘Pink Beauty,’ that makes a particularly lovely companion to “Snowbank’. (Z 3/4-8)

Aster frikartii 'Purple Dome'

Aster frikartii ‘Purple Dome’

Aster novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’
When most people think of New England asters, they think of huge, towering giants that have a tendency to flop given the slightest bit of wind or weather. But here’s a cultivar that will never need staking: ‘Purple Dome’ grows 18”-24” inches tall and 3’ wide on low bushy plants, flowering with masses of royal purple blossoms from August through October. Indifferent to soil, lacking any serious pests, and requiring only average moisture, ‘Purple Dome’ is a great choice for low maintenance landscapes. (Z 5-8)

Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'

Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

This sunflower relative is one of my favorite perennials for the back of the garden. More like a shrub than a perennial (mature clumps can easily top six feet) ‘Lemon Queen’, as its name implies, covers itself from top to bottom with large, pale yellow, daisy-like flowers from late summer until frost. (And unlike many of the more stridently shaded members of the sunflower clan, this soft hued plant is a pleasing match for most other flower colors.) Undemanding in terms of culture, this lovely cultivar is also an excellent source of cut flowers, and a huge favorite of butterflies. Full sun, well-drained soil. (Z 4-9)

Aster frikartii ‘Wonder of Staffa’

Aster frikartii ‘Wonder of Staffa’

Aster frikartii ‘Wonder of Staffa’
Beginning in July and lasting well into October, the yellow centered, purple flowers of  ‘Wonder of Staffa’ are a true delight. Growing 2-3’ feet tall and about as wide, this plant is fairly indifferent to soil and prefers full sun. A good candidate for drier sites, this German introduction is another plant beloved by bees and butterflies, and makes an excellent cut flower. (Z 5-8)

Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’
This dwarf, spreading goldenrod is one of my favorite plants for the front of the fall border. Think common roadside goldenrod, except far more compact (only 18” tall) and far more floriferous. Easy to grow in average soil, its only requirement is full sun. By the way, don’t avoid this selection for fear of hay fever – goldenrods have picked up a bad rap for causing allergies, but it’s really ragweed that’s the villain, not goldenrods. An excellent cut flower (Z 4 -8)


A Spectacular Addition to the Summer Border

Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'

Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'

Now here’s a spectacular addition to the summer border: Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ This cultivar had been growing in the long border for several years, and despite its interesting, caster bean type foliage, it hadn’t made much of an impression on me. But now, wow! Especially mixed with that yarrow ‘Coronation Gold.’ Just goes to show that sometimes plants need a few years to really reach their stride.

The Plant at a Glance: Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’
Common Name: Culver’s root
Zone: 3 to 8
Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
Family: Scrophulariaceae
Native Range: Northeastern North America
Height: 4 to 7 feet
Spread: 2 to 4 feet
Bloom Time: May – August
Bloom Color: light to deep purple
Sun: Full sun
Water: Medium to wet
Maintenance: Low

Available fron: Heronswood Nursery


Riparian Entertainment


Patricia Routledge as the indomitable Hyacinth Bucket on the BBC's Keeping Up Appearances

I was watching dear old Hyacinth Bucket “It’s pronounced BOO_KAY” on PBS last night, and despite having seen the episode countless times, I found myself once more cruising down the Thames with her crazy companions in search of the perfect spot for “a waterside supper with riparian entertainment.” There’s a perennial quality to her character that speaks to every host or hostess who tries, with various degrees of success, to pull off the perfect dinner party. Hyacinth, of course, always fails, simply for trying too hard – something that I’ve learned long ago is death to a good party. Yeah, I admit, I’ve had some real duds too, but by and large  My personal key to success? Three points: 1) Choose your guests carefully – a studied blend of engaged and engaging personalities is more important than the food – remember, it’s all about them, not you!  2) serve only what you know how to cook well – a dinner party is no time for experimentation; 3)  most of all, be yourself, and keep it genuine. If you’re the burgers and beer type, black-tie and raw fish on fussy little sticks is probably not the way to go…

And speaking of success, I received quite a number of notes on my last guacamole post, requesting to know the full menu from last Saturday’s Summer Dinner Party, so here’s it is. Our entertainment was not riparian (ripes refers to the stream bank in Latin; “fontal “would have been more accurate, as we had dinner in the dining room, just off the fountain in the upper terrace) but a good meal was had by all nonetheless, and no one, thankfully, ended up like poor Hyacinth, in the water!

A Summer Eve’s Dinner Party for 10

In keeping with the season, the dishes are simple, cool, and feature ingredients fresh from the garden:

Boneless Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Pesto (this is a great easy summer dish; pound breasts in waxpaper  to 1/4″; spread with pesto, rool into aluminum foil packets; poach packets for 20 minutes in good stock; serve with a reduction of the stock sauce and a top dressing of fresh pesto for color. Fantastic!)

Fettuccine (regular and spinach mixed together) with a light butter and shallot sauce

Fresh corn on the cob, lightly buttered and salted

Asparagus with dill hollandaise

Fresh Gooseberry Fruit Tart

Wine: Kendall Jackson Sauvignon Blanc

By the way, if for some arcane reason you’ve never watched Hyacinth, Rose and Violet (“you know, my sister with the Mercedes and room enough for a pony”) Keeping Up Appearances is a must see, now available on DVD.


“That’s the Way of It at This Kind of Time”


My foot disappearing into the mud...

So I was out in the vegetable garden this morning, six inches deep in mire, wondering how to salvage the  flooded tomatoes. All told we had almost 10″ of rain over a few short hours last week (yes, I meant TEN inches), and such a huge quantity of precipitation meant standing water in the central portion of the garden where my favorite tomato varieties are planted. Turns out tomatoes, unlike many other plants, have a zero tolerance for being so wet, and they immediately started a massive wilt. While it may sound counter-intuitive that plants would wilt from too much water, what’s  happening is that the submerged tomato roots are starved for oxygen (called root hypoxia), which sets off a whole chain of chemical events in the vascular system of the plant, including loss of turgor pressure. Result: what you see below.


Tomatoes wilting from TOO much water.

So what’s a poor gardener to do?  Well, what I did: dig drainage trenches, and pray. I’m quite mad at myself, actually: I knew this area of the yard got boggy in the spring, but normally by early summer, the ground is just perfect for annual planting, and in fact, in many years, that added little bit of residual moisture was actually a benefit. But with such a deluge, the soil just couldn’t handle the amount of water it received, and turned to quicksand. Eventually it will drain, but what of my tomatoes?

I’ve been trying to do some research to see if the plants are salvageable or not, but so far I haven’t found much information on this problem. My intention is to prune off the obviously damaged foliage, and wait. What other choice do I have? Hmmmm. All this reminds me of some of the last words attributed to Captain Smith of the Titanic: “Men, you have done your full duty, you can do no more. Abandon your cabin. You look out for yourselves…. That’s the way of it at this kind of time.”

The way of it, indeed.


From the Kitchen Garden: The Ultimate Guacomole

This Saturday I had a small dinner party, and decided to make my ultimate guacamole as one of the starters. I know, you’re thinking: what, guacamole? That’s as common as tacos! But this guacamole, created by master Chef Kathy Gunst, is fresh and chunky, alive with the vibrant flavors of Mexico — not a mush of indistinguishable ingredients like those found in so many mediocre Mexican restaurants.guacamole

It always gets rave reviews.

Use the knobby, dark-skinned California Haas variety — they’re richer and less watery than their thin-skinned Florida counterpart.

Ultimate Guacamole
4 ripe Haas variety California or Mexican avocados
1/2 fresh jalapeno pepper
1/3 chopped fresh cilantro
Juice from 1 fresh lime
1 large ripe tomato, chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
quarter cup finely chopped onion, red or white
Splash Tabasco, optional
Salt to taste
2 cups salsa (hot, medium or mild, homemade or bottled)
1 cups sour cream
About 1 large bag nacho or tortilla chips

Cut the avocados lengthwise and remove the pit. Gently scoop out the flesh and place in a medium bowl. Using the back of a fork, break the avocados up into chunk, being careful not to overwork it into a mush. Being careful not to rub your eyes, cut the jalapeno in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds if you don’t want a slightly spicy dish; leave them in if you like a “bite.” Chop half the pepper and seeds if using and add to the avocados. Gently fold in lime juice, tomatoes, scallions, onions, Tabasco if using and salt to taste. Serve within 1 hour with the salsa, sour cream and chips.
Serves 6


Bungalow Gardens


This sun-dappled image really says it all: in the Arts and Crafts garden, God lives in the simple details.

Large or small, [a garden] should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the willfulness or the wildness of nature, but it should look like a thing never to seen except near a house. It should, in fact, look like part of the house.
William Morris
Hopes and Fears for Art 1882

Recently a friend, who owns a charming bungalow in Chicago, wanted to know what is the most important element of good garden design for a small urban garden like his.  I really didn’t have to think before I gave my reply, as the answer is the same for all:  “unity of house and garden.” When architecture and landscape architecture share a similar style, the result is a harmonious marriage in which all sorts of minor sins can be forgiven. But when house and garden disagree, the outcome is inevitably an expensive divorce that cancels the potential of both.  For bungalow onwers, the mission of fostering harmonious relations between house and garden is particularly crucial, as the small scale and clean horizontal lines of Arts and Crafts inspired architecture can easily be overwhelmed by bad planting choices and poor hardscape selections. Here are some tips for making sure that when all is said and done, your bungalow sports a garden that complements, rather than competes with, your house.

Keep it Simple
The Arts and Crafts movement – the progenitor of the bungalow style – valued simple materials honestly worked, and this same basic philosophy should permeate your garden. Although something of an historical oversimplification, the cozy, welcoming nature of the bungalow partially derives from the romanticized vision of an English workingman’s cottage, and replicating the simple, flower-filled landscapes associated with these structures is a good starting point for the modern bungalow dweller.

The key to recreating this kind of craftsman look and feel outdoors is to start with the hardscape. It’s the bones of the garden – the walks, drives, patios, terraces and outbuildings – that really set the tone for the entire landscape, and a conscientious effort needs to be made to make sure that these elements have an appropriate look and feel. You’ll want, for example, to avoid using glaringly modern products like concrete or asphalt for paving, and instead choose brick or stone that matches your home, making sure that the “art and craft” part of the equation is evident by utilizing interesting patterns or shapes to enhance the natural beauty of your chosen materials. Fences (an almost ubiquitous facet of Arts and Crafts gardens) should also be selected to complement the house, which for a bungalow, almost inevitably means some type of wooden fence. Styles consisting of simple, handmade pickets, or ones with wide boards featuring cut-out designs were especially popular.

This plan, taken from California Gardens (1914) dates to the beginning of the bungalow movement in America, and demonstrates the level of craftsmanship expected in gardens of this period, even small ones.

This plan, taken from California Gardens (1914) dates to the beginning of the bungalow movement in America, and demonstrates the level of craftsmanship expected in gardens of this period, even small ones.

In an era before air conditioning, backyard structures such as arbor seats and gazebos were another important aspect of bungalow gardens, allowing the various areas of the landscape to serve as outdoor living rooms. Often built at the same time as the house, these structures deliberated echoed the home’s architecture and often utilized the same construction materials. This same design theory should be followed today.

Keep The Planting In Scale
While modern bungalows are often much larger in terms of square footage than those built even a few decades ago, today’s homes still share the same vertical scale as their predecessors. This means that when it’s time to chose plants for your landscape, it’s particularly important that you select cultivars that won’t outgrow their welcome. Towering shade trees or large, dense evergreens planted next to the foundation will quickly obfuscate the lines of the architecture and come to dominate both house and landscape. Instead, focus on selecting dwarf cultivars of your favorite trees, and for any material to be planted near the house, choose species that at full maturity will remain well beneath the windowsill. Remember too, that when designing a foundation planting, not all the material needs to be evergreen: in fact, one of the keys to creating a cottage style garden is a heavy use of flowering deciduous plants, in the form of shrubbery, perennials and annuals. The seasonal rise and fall of these deciduous plants adds variety to the landscape, and the sparse winter mass of deciduous species counterbalances the dense appearance of evergreens. Finally, with all your plant selections you should try to find species with interest in more than one season: many desirable cultivars feature combinations of foliage, flower or shape that possess year-round appeal. This, of course, is good advice for any style of landscape, but it takes on special importance in the bungalow garden, as plants with attractive and unusual foliage or flower will highlight the “craftsman” aspect of your garden.

Don’t Forget the Front
Bungalows traditionally were constructed on narrow lots with little or no space for side yards, and in an era of soaring land prices this trend continues unabated. Thus, if you’re the owner of a bungalow, chances are much of your available acreage lies in the front yard, and it’s important to utilize this area to the fullest. While most people have no problem envisioning what to do behind the house, the front yard looms as a difficult blank slate for many beginning gardeners. Given the bungalows general homey appearance, you should try your best to enhance this feeling by making sure that your front yard says welcome to both you and your guests.

In many cases, this means minimalizing the blank feeling produced by one of the great banes of the average modern American landscape – the overly large lawn – in favor of a more diversified approach the incorporates the best elements of hard and softscape already elaborated above. Features like a broad front walk with easy access to street and drive; flower-filled, in-scale plantings along the foundation; fences or walls that delineate the borders of the property without denying access – all these make the front yard a place to enjoy rather than just to pass through. A large front porch (another almost ubiquitous feature of the bungalow architecture) attractively decorated with comfortable chairs, container plants and other amenities for outdoor living completes the picture.

Keep in mind that what charmed bungalow owners in the first place– and what continues to charm them today – is the cozy, romantic nature of the bungalow itself. If you strive to ensure that your landscape shares this same look and feel, your role as matchmaker between house and garden is bound to bear ample rewards.

For further reading, check out Outside the Bungalow: America’s Arts and Craft Garden. Also of interest: Outside the Not So Big House


Fern Mania

I was watching the ever-funny Whoopi Goldberg the other night in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, laughing to myself at all those crazy 80s clothes we thought were so cool at the time, and it got me to thinking about fashion in the garden. Few people would consider gardening fashion conscious, but it really is: at various periods during the last hundred years, wildly variegated plants, boldly colored exotic annuals, even the rarest of tropical orchids became the objects of collectors’ unbridled passion, reaching unheard of heights of popularity, only later to fall completely out of favor as times and tastes shifted.  Perhaps of all these horticultural crazes though, the one that held the widest appeal, lasted the longest, and had the largest impact on the decorative arts as a whole, was the almost unbelievable passion for ferns that dominated British and American gardening circles until the First World War.fern

The mania for ferns all started innocently enough. Previous to 1840, ferns had been simply considered pleasant additions to woodland and wild settings, with little or no economical value, other than occasional and very limited medicinal use. Then in 1842 there appeared a little book by Nathaniel Ward, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, which showed for the first time how plants could be easily grown indoors where before most had soon perished. Ward’s solution, the terrarium, or Wardian case, as it quickly came to be known, proved the ideal place for growing previously temperamental specimens never before seen in the parlor. Chief among these were the many newly discovered ferns, which up to this time had been almost impossible to grow indoors. Their delicate tracery and interesting habits perfectly matched the Victorian taste for the new and unique, and multiple books on ferns and fern culture quickly appeared. (Over 400 were published in Britain alone before 1900) Within a few years, miniature glassed woodlands loaded with ferns began to grace drawing rooms of taste all over Europe and America, and outdoor ferneries, as specialty fern gardens were then called, became a standard feature in any garden with pretensions to the name.

But where to get one’s ferns? Few nurseries of the day carried them, and even fewer understood much about the fern’s primitive reproductive cycle. (One of the oldest plant species on earth, the Pteridophyta (to use the fern’s proper Latin name) employ a complicated two stage reproductive system involving spores instead of seeds.) The obvious answer to the supply dilemma was simply to collect ferns in the wild. Fern hunting became a social event, especially among the ladies, and day-long parties, complete with refreshments were organized for the purpose.  Basket-loads of ferns were collected, not only for transplanting to indoor and outdoor gardens, but for decorative purposes. Fern fronds were highly sought after table decorations, and were often dried and preserved through pressing for use in innumerable creative ways. Fern motifs became popular in prints, linens, pottery and even ironwork.

By the late 1800’s, so great had the demand for ferns grown, and so popular the hobby of gathering them, that that certain varieties began to be locally extinct in many part of Britain and America. (Collecting in the wild is now illegal in many places, and given the availability of ferns in commerce today, should in any case be discouraged)  Fortunately the huge demand for ferns led to the establishment of societies dedicated to the preservation and cultivation of the genus, which in turn helped to establish centers for commercial fern production. Soon ferns started to become commonplace in the garden; and then, as quickly as it had started, the craze was over. Relegated back to woodlands and other out of the way parts of the garden after 1914, ferns languished once more out of the gardening limelight until just a few years ago, when interest in this adaptive and versatile plant family began to increase substantially.

Ferns Culture at a Glance:
Despite the fact that ferns are perfect for those difficult, shady areas that almost every gardener possesses and ponders over, ferns are still very much underused in American gardens, probably because there’s common misconception that ferns are tender and difficult, and require damp, boggy sites. While there certainly are fussy ferns which require very specific growing conditions, many are quite hardy, easy-to-grow and adaptable to a variety of different gardening settings. In fact, the only real difficulty to having ferns in your garden may be deciding which ones to choose: the fern family is so large that it’s often hard for the beginner to know where to start. In general,  most members of the large Dryopteris and Polystichum families are good choices.

Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, dried and pressed

Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, dried and pressed

While the fern family is huge and diverse, some general cultural guidelines can still be given. Although most ferns are generally indifferent to pH considerations, they do require a fairly rich soil that while moist, is also well drained. (The humusy leaf mold of a wooded bank is ideal for many ferns, which is why they are excellent candidates for the wild garden.) Most ferns prefer some shade, and don’t do terribly well in very windy spots (Their fronds are surprisingly delicate and damage easily.)

One final note: although most ferns are very well behaved, generally staying the places where you put them and slowly expanding into larger clumps, some ferns, like the infamous hay-scented (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) can become quite invasive. Before making any unknown selections for your garden, its best to ask an expert or consult a good book: one of the best of recent years is Martin Rickard’s The Plantfinder’s Guide to Garden Ferns (Timber Press, 2000).

Drying and Using Ferns

Dried and pressed fern fronds are perfect for adding a delicate artistic touch to pictures, stationery, place cards, and decoupaged objects such as vases and lampshades. The process of drying and pressing the fronds is extremely simple: place the ferns between layers of an absorbent paper material such as newspapers, telephone directories, blotting paper, or tissues. Easier still is a specialized plant press of botanical blotting paper between layers of corrugated cardboard and newspaper, available from Forestry Suppliers Catalogue. Use a bit of masking tape on the stems to position the plants as desired. Apply weight for several days and then remove the tape. Recover and allow to dry fully (about one week) To create gorgeous artworks, simply glue the fronds to museum quality mounting board and frame appropriately.


Stop, in the Name of Squash!


FIRST QUESTION: Okay, I admit it: I got lazy last week and carelessly left the rototiller parked next to the new vegetable garden. It was only there for a few days.


A tense situation develops in the Weishan garden outside of Boston: controls of the tiller have been seized by an unknown vine; so far, no ransom demands have been issued. Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.

How was I, unsuspecting gardener that I am, to know that my sophisticated tiller, supposedly equipped with all the latest security devices, could be so easily high-jacked by some two-bit, rogue squash vine? And a volunteer tendril at that, sprouted from the left-over dregs of some rotted-out, forgotten old cucurbit from last season?


SECOND QUESTION: It’s true: Federal negotiators have already arrived at the scene. A tense standoff continues. The tiller sits just off the tarmac, silent, immobile, awaiting rescue; the vine: gloating, rampant, defies all comers. It’s hard to imagine a happy outcome.

THIRD AND FINAL QUESTION: No, as I’ve already told my attorney, I can in no way be held liable for this blatant act of homegrown terrorism. I couldn’t know.

(SHOUTED TO THE PRESS AS WEISHAN WAS HUSSLED AWAY BY ASSOCIATES)  Yes, yes, I PROMISE: next time I will most certainly put away the bloody rototiller!


Heirloom Heresy

Heirloom dahlias from 1914: were these varieties better than today's hydrids. Perhaps, or perhaps not...

Heirloom dahlias from 1914: were these varieties better than today's hybrids? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not...

I’m about to go way out on the proverbial limb, and say something that may shock a quite a few of you: many heirlooms plants are over-rated. Now this may seem strange from someone whose first book, The New Traditional Garden, was all about the glories of old-fashioned plants and historically correct landscapes. And it’s true: I had, and still have, a great and abiding love for antique plants, especially ones with unique and interesting histories. But recently, things in the horticultural world have gotten a bit out of hand. Heirlooms have become the horticultural poster-child of the moment, and for many garden writers, any old plant, regardless of dubious quality, is deemed valuable, while any new hybrid, even if markedly superior, is sniffed at with suspicion. In the same way the hybrid movement began after World War II as a reaction against the size, color and quality limitations many older varieties imposed on growers, now the heirloom movement has become a counter revolution against new hybrid introductions that are perceived to completely lack taste, in both senses of the word. Somewhere in the middle, lies the truth. So what’s the average gardener to believe, and more importantly, what does this mean for your garden?

Well, let’s begin by clarifying some terms. “Heirloom” is used loosely to tag a plant that usually possesses two important characteristics. The first is age: fifty years or more is generally required. The second is to be open-pollinated, which is to say that pollen from one plant can be transferred to the blossoms of the same variety, and the resulting seeds will produce offspring identical to the parents. (Hybrid plants, on the other hand, result from a cross between two different parents, generally under controlled conditions. This is important to understand, because it means that hybrids are often sterile, or, if they do produce seeds on their own, those seeds revert back to the characteristics of their forbears.) This has important financial implications for home gardeners and farmers alike, because if you want a new generation of hybrids, you must buy seeds or plants from a supplier – rarely an issue here in the US, but an overly burdensome expense in many places in the Third World. Thus, the ability to produce and collect your own seed is a major factor in the heirlooms’ favor.

Pro-heirloom forces also point out that it is critical to protect old varieties from disappearing for the sake of bio-diversity, and this is absolutely true. You need only look to the early 70s, when America’s entire corn harvest was threatened by a deadly blight that devastated the hybrid varieties then available. It was due solely to our  ability to go back and rebreed new strains from heirloom types resistant to the disease that an agricultural disaster of epic proportions was averted. The plain and simple fact is that we will never know what particular plant genes or compounds may prove useful in the future, and we owe it to ourselves, and to our children to preserve as many of these old varieties as we can. For this purpose various seed banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, and seed-saver organizations like Seed Savers Exchange (to which I belong) have been established to guarantee that our horticultural heritage doesn’t disappear. These deserve our unreserved support.


The 'Delicious' apple: anything but.

Over the last few years, however, many in the press have claimed that heirloom varieties are superior to their modern counterparts in every way, especially when it comes to food. At the Edible Garden Symposium at the New York Botanical Garden where I spoke last week, again and again this same proposition was put forth, and it’s here, after many years of growing heirlooms myself, that I must take exception, particularly as far as the home food gardener is concerned. It is most certainly true that many modern commercial crops have been breed for extremely narrow purposes, such as shipping life, much to the detriment of flavor and taste. One needs only to bite into a so-called “Delicious” apple after trying one of the many heirloom varieties to understand that there is absolutely no comparison between this mealy modern tripe and the taste sensation that explodes in your mouth from some of the heirloom varieties. The same holds true for many vegetables and flowers. Until fairly recently for example, tomatoes had been rendered hard, tasteless globes of water to prevent damage in transport; scent had been bred out of roses in preference for perfect blooms on long stems; marigolds had become huge pompom monstrosities (heaven knows why), and the petunia had turned into some sort of carnival flower on steroids simply to extend bloom time. Fortunately, common sense has tamed some of these excesses in the last few years, due in large part, it must be admitted, to a more educated marketplace that has once again had the opportunity to compare side-by side hybrid varieties with their heirloom ancestors, often to the detriment of the modern cultivars.


The famous 'Brandywine' tomato: great flavor, terrible disease resistance.

All this obscures an important point, though: many modern varieties are in fact improvements on older types, and just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. Take for example the ‘Bantam‘ heirloom variety of corn I ordered with much anticipation some years ago from Burpee. It came with a remarkably interesting history. Until this particular varieties’ introduction at the turn of the last century, most corn in the country was white. Then along came this yellow variety, which so resembled a delicious cob pre-coated with butter that almost overnight American gardeners began to prefer yellow corn to white. What a fascinating story! How delicious this corn must have been to affect such a sea-change! I could hardly contain my excitement as the tassels slowly filled over the course of the summer. At last, the corn was ready, and into the pot it went. The result? One of the toughest, most tasteless cobs I had ever eaten. Any of the modern types, like their superb ‘Illini’ surpassed it exponentially. The garden is ripe (yes, pun intended) with other such examples: the beloved heirloom Brandywine tomato, probably the tastiest one around, is so prone to disease that it generally peters out a full month before other more resistant varieties, often with a very poor harvest. In the flower garden, I know of few sensible gardeners who would prefer the relatively pathetic bearded iris of a hundred years ago to the modern cultivars, or who would turn their backs on all the new annual introductions that bloom the entire summer without deadheading. Certainly not me! The story is the same with shrubs and trees where endless new types have appeared that far surpass their ancestors.

The moral here, fellow gardeners, is that we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on a specimen simply because of its pedigree – or, lack thereof. Yes, it is absolutely wonderful to have a plant in your garden that was old when the Roman Empire was young, and feel that marvelous sense of continuity that comes with possessing a little bit of living history. And by all means, you should experiment with growing some of the older fruit, flower, and vegetable varieties that will introduce you to an undiscovered world of fragrance, color, and taste. But forget about the garden style-mongers; instead, make your own selections based on the plant’s qualities and characteristics, not just it’s history; and if a newer variety is available that better conforms in size, habit or culture to your site, don’t shy away simply because it’s a new introduction. Take it from me: combine the best of the old and the new in your garden, and you’ll garner a far more interesting, productive, and pleasurable harvest this year than ever before.


Vining Skyward

The other morning I had an appointment with the insurance adjuster to inspect my damaged library chimney. (Don’t even ask: it’s a six-month debacle caused by a negligent roofer which I’ll detail in a post later this week). As we climbed up three stories to inspect the still unfinished masonry, he happened to mention what a beautifully restored old house this was, for which I heartily thanked him, trying to sound sincere while negotiating the slippery scaffolding.  But then, as he abandoned the planking to nimbly climb up onto the roof without the slightest apparent concern, he asked over his shoulder, “Why, though, on a house like this, do you still have the aluminum siding?”


Actinidia (left, showing just a hint of color) and Boston ivy, right, have given me the perfect excuse to do nothing about the aluminum siding.

Despite my precarious perch I had to laugh, because when I bought this house in 1992, I was such an inexperienced homeowner that I never even noticed the house was sided: all the shutters, pilasters and other ornamental details were still painted wood, and the gray siding, which must have been of a very early type, had mottled and faded exactly like wood would. I only realized it was aluminum when one day I went to nail a rose trellis onto the side of the house, and was surprised to hear the clank of metal as the nail bounced off the siding. Of course, had I been at all owner-aware, I would have seen right away that the clapboards weren’t clapboard. But there was so much to do when I first moved in – structural repairs, new kitchen and bathrooms, removal of nasty wall-to-wall carpeting and restoration of the wide pine floors – not to mention the creation of an entire landscape – that I really didn’t pay attention. Later on, the idea of removing the aluminum and restoring the wood siding occasionally surfaced, but the cost, plus the continual headache of maintaining such a huge expanse of wood, always deferred my plans.

Then five or six years ago, I was thrilled to notice that Boston ivy had started to creep up the front facade. I was born in an ivy-covered house, and I’ve always adored the cool, shady, settled look that vines add to architecture. I’d like to take credit for having thought to re-establish this traditional look here, but I really don’t remember setting the original plant in place. I must have though, as its spontaneous generation just there in front, while not impossible (seeds are occasionally carried by birds) seems highly unlikely…  I can however, state definitively that I planted the variegated actinidia kolomikta next to it, which has taken a full decade to show just a hint of its dubiously famous pink and white coloration. (Buyers beware: the plant is immensely fickle and often fails to change color at all; and, if it’s not perfectly happy, it will only throw out  green leaves with an occasional splash of white, withholding the prized pink variegation for more accommodating  gardeners.) I also, unfortunately, take full responsibility for the Chinese wisteria near the back door, with which I do ferocious battle twice a year in a vain attempt to prevent it from lifting off the rafters, but which I can’t for the life of me bear to cut down, as the wisteria covers the upper terrace in a spectacular display of scent and blossom each May. (It was wisteria, after all, that caused my favorite garden writer, Beverley Nichols to remark: “When one turned over to sleep the scent was what some people would call ‘overpowering.’ So much the better, as far as I am concerned. To be ‘overpowered’ by the fragrance of flowers is a most delectable form of defeat.” Merry Hall, 1951).

Despite these annual headaches, I persevere, as I adore my vines. The Victorians rightly called vines the “draperies of the garden” and their potential is tremendously underutilized in American landscapes. The problem of course, is that if you have a wood-covered house, you can’t have can’t have a vine covered one: even if the vines are of a type that twine, rather than attaching themselves with sucker-like roots, the added moisture trapped by the foliage is highly detrimental to painted surfaces. As long as the vines don’t get behind and pry up the siding, however, this concern is obviated with metal, so thanks to what many consider a bane to historic old homes, I can once again live in the ivy-covered cottage of my youth, having fortuitously been given the perfect excuse to let metal remain and green tendrils climb skyward.