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.



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.





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.

My Conversion to Gunslinger

Once upon a time, I had a kind and peaceful nature. Live and let live was my philosophy. I would no more think of wantonly killing another of god’s creatures than I would of harming myself – despite having been raised by a father who was an active hunter. Sure, there’s a certain level of prowess to hunting: but then again there’s prowess to tennis too, and it’s bloodless.


But those gentle thoughts all predated the acquisition of my own little plot of land, twenty years ago this year.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all out war.

How did this happen?

Well, in truth my conversion to gunslinger has come upon me slowly, almost surreptitiously, over the years, an accretion of innumerable insults and outrages. Season after season, I’ve stood mostly silent as the chipmunks dug up and devoured every crocus I so meticulously planted the previous fall; as the red squirrels gathered up the fallen walnuts, chewed into the house wall, and stored them in the wine cellar insulation, causing, one snowy night, a thundering cascade as the groaning insulation finally gave way under the strain, dumping hundreds upon hundreds of chewed walnuts, dust, debris, nesting materials, dirty fiberglass, and god knows what else all over the basement. I even remained still this spring as the happy little Easter bunny nibbled to nubs two dozen of my just planted nine-dollar delphiniums, moving effortlessly down the long border like some newly minted debutante sampling costly hors d’oeuvres at the Plaza.

But the real break came two nights ago, when something, mostly likely a raccoon, broke into the chicken coop, managed to open the “predator proof” automatic chicken door (a very kind $250 gift from my mother a few years back) & slaughtered 8 of the new Arauncana hens – the ones that lay the blue-green eggs. It’s not like I had put out a welcome mat: the chickens are enclosed in their own locked coop surrounded by an 8’ foot solid fence. And what really bothered me was the wanton destruction: OK, raccoon, so you like chicken? Who doesn’t? Take an occasional chicken. I’ll give you that. But not eight chickens. And please, eat something more than just their head before you kill another!

I should have realized sooner that there’s no reasoning with such an enemy, and I’ve resolved not to go back to my pacific ways. On the advice of a hunting friend, I’ve ordered a brand new 22-caliber air rifle with a scope. From, if you can believe it. (Air rifles, really supped up bee-bee guns, are not considered firearms; they work with compressed air, and all that’s required is the ability to shoot straight, which, you may be surprised to learn, I can: another until-this-time-unused legacy of my Wisconsin father.)

My new gardening best friend

I’ve also installed sensor lights in the coop. The next time something climbs over that fence  – POP goes the weasel!  And that goes for rampaging nut-crazed squirrels, crocus-stuffed chipmunks and delphinium delighted bunnies, too.

Do I sound cruel?

Tell it to the chickens.

The only real question here is why it took me so long to man-up and face the facts that it’s an eat-or-be-eaten world out there. Frankly, I’m not sure. Wishful thinking, perhaps, along with an extended childhood in an anthropomorphizing culture that turns Bambi and her kind into cute little companions rather than the rapacious plant-destroyers they really are. All in all, life in the adult world is a long way from my childhood favorite, Tucker’s Countryside.

Though it’s not as if I weren’t warned. I can still remember my grandfather telling me as a child:

In the garden, Michael, patience:
10% happily surrender to pest and pestilence; these too have their place
10% to acts of God; these are beyond our ken
– and both are your due as tenant of the wonderful world around you.
The rest, as sower of the harvest, is yours.
And if anyone else except God steps over the line, WHACK ‘EM.

I suppose a lesson learned late is better than never.

New Mulch for Squash and a Hose Reel to Die For

Hello everyone! I’m back! Five broken bones and two wrist surgeries later, I can finally spend time at the keyboard without having my entire hand go numb. I know we missed a lot of ground this spring, but ah well, such is the life of the Internet gardener. Hearty thanks to all of you for the kind notes and well wishes.

So first up today, a new product for mulching squash, cucumbers, peppers, pumpkins, and other heat loving plants in the garden: Lumite. Or rather, an old product used in a new way. Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with the benefits of black plastic as mulch, and an equal number of you, having tried it, know the pitfalls – hard to layout, puddles (floods) with water, not particularly attractive, and most of all, hardly ecological. Well, now there’s Lumite.

A professional growers’ product, Lumite is the shiny fabric you see under all those potted shrubs at the nurseries. Made of polypropylene yarn (similar to the material in leaf tarps) Lumite is UV stabilized, which gives it an extended life outdoors. Plus, it’s permeable to air and water, so no more stagnant pools and rotting fruit. And, it’s easy to cut: it rips with a sharp scissors. Simply lay it out, pin it down with the special 4 inch staples sold along with it, pull taut, and viola! Cut our your growing holes, and off you go. At the end of the season, roll up and store for next year. Not sold at your average box store, Lumite can be found (generally in 10′ wide roles of varying lengths) at greenhouse and nursery supply shops such as Griffin Greenhouse Supply

So, what’s almost certain to drive me crazy?  Hoses left dangling around the yard – ready to trip over, and say, break your wrist…  And I admit it: sometimes I’m just too lazy to put the bloody things away, especially after a long day in the garden. Not any more: the Touch & Go Hose Reel reels itself up using water pressure – simply flick the lever, and away it goes.

I have three of these in my garden, and I love them. They’re a snap to assemble (truly, five minutes max) and reasonably attractive as these things go (though frankly, in exchange for not having to crank up that hose, I don’t care what they look like.) Just be sure to drain the reel and store it for the winter: they will not survive the freeze-thaw cycle full of water, as I discovered to my dismay a few seasons back. The only downside is the price: at $100 a pop they aren’t cheap, but then again, what’s the price of comfort? Found at box stores nationwide.

Garden Travels: Lessons from Spanish Gardens

I’m just wrapping up a three week trip with a Harvard alumni group to Portugal and Spain, and while gardens weren’t the particular focus of this trip, we did see some spectacular landscapes that I thought held valuable lessons for gardeners back home.

This first, from Granada, shows one of the inner courtyards of the Alhambra Palace. While the gardens themselves are relatively recent (they date from the last century or so) the surrounding arcades were built in the 1300’s. What makes this landscape so extraordinary is its tight geometry. In the US, we often shy away from such formality in planting, fearing that it will be too fussy, when in reality, planting in strong geometric lines is the perfect adjunct to the architectural rhythm of the surrounding arcades. Imagine this space a mush of free-flowering annuals, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. The strict organization of the hedged beds with the fountain in the center links indoors and out, and is the ideal situation whenever a garden space is so tightly surrounded by architecture.

This next picture is from the 15th century Casa de Pilatos in Seville, and the lesson here for us is to remember that gardens have three dimensions, not just two, and verticality is very often overlooked when we plant our beds. Here the trained topiary pieces act as verdant signposts, marking the edges of the beds and guiding the eye up from the ground to the extraordinary bougainvillea on the upper porch to the right. One of my favorite plants for such topiary pieces are fushias; pruned to a single stem they make dramatic flowering exclamation points above a line of more mundane annuals. Another trick is to use small stick trellises covered with sweet peas or dwarf clematis – anything to break away from the strictly horizontal.

Here, our take away is not to abandon any area of the garden, thinking it’s too prosaic to decorate. This simple iron railing comes alive with these charming pots, enlivening an otherwise dead area of the facade.

And finally, there’s one last lesson Spanish gardens can teach: humility. Sometimes something comes so close to perfection that you know in your heart of hearts that you will never be able to improve on, much less duplicate, such beauty in your own yard. This wisteria comes as close to perfection as I have ever seen, and all I can say to my Spanish colleagues is “WOW!” This is a little bit of heaven which has drifted down to the Generlife gardens, and my only role is to be thankful to have seen such a sight.

False Spring

We’re only two days into the official spring season, and already in my garden the crocus, early daffodils and hyacinths are in bloom, the Star Magnolia in full flower, and the Ogon spireas are beginning to leaf out, along with many of the roses. To say this is extraordinary is an understatement. We had an essentially snowless winter (though we did get just enough for me to fall down several weeks ago on the ice and shatter my right wrist) and now temperatures have stayed consistently well above freezing each night, with days in the 60s and 70s – more like May than March.

So what happens now?

Well, that depends on Mother Nature. The best result would be that we go back to our normal pattern of cool, wet weather. We could even handle a few nights in the 20s. Things are not so far advanced that there would be much, if any damage.

Conversely, the mild pattern could continue, and we’d float from a very warm spring into an (even warmer?) summer. That means the garden will be looking pretty tired and ratty by September, except for the annuals, but still a decent second best.

The worst case scenario is that this warm weather continues for several weeks, encouraging the trees and shrubs to leaf out, and the perennials to emerge from the ground. Then, toss in several days of really cold weather: highs in the 30s, lows in the twenties, and god forbid, a bit of snow. Trees down, power lines snapped, millions (again) without power, entire crops like apples, should they be in bloom, wiped out. Permanent hardy plantings won’t die if their emerging leaves are frosted; there’s generally enough reserve energy in the roots to produce another set. But the resultant foliage will be diminished, and the plant weakened. Anything non-hardy will of course be killed outright.

So here’s my advice: follow your normal planting schedule, and for heaven’s sake, don’t rush tender annuals into the ground before their normal frost free date, whatever the weather at the moment. While you can’t control what happens to permanent plantings in the macro-world, in the micro-world you can at least save yourself the agony and expense of replacing all your tender material after a hard frost – something not unusual in this part of the world well into May.

Oh, and did I mention?


2011 Seed Round-Up

Gardening is, by its very nature, the triumph of optimism over experience.
William Alexander, The $64 Tomato

I will honestly tell you that I came very close not to publishing my annual seed review this year.

2011 was one of the most miserable years that I’ve experienced in the vegetable garden in at least a decade. How shall I count the ways? Well, let’s see: a winter with constant snow on the ground for 4 months that caused an almost biblical proliferation of rodents of all types: moles, voles, mice, which ate everything within miles, including girdling several major trees; then came a long, cold, wet spring which retarded plant growth but cheered on every type of mildew and fungus, followed by a cool, wet summer, which did the same; then Hurricane Irene on Labor Day, which flattened out what had managed not to rot out, and then the coup de grace, the Halloween snowstorm which dumped seven inches of wet, slushy snow on the few pumpkins I’d managed to harvest, took out a quarter of the large trees in town, and shut off our power for 5 days.

Still, I decided that there must be something to be learned from all this – if only perhaps what crops are so indestructible as to survive such levels of calamity. So, here it goes:

Bean, Pole ‘Nor’easter’ Still the best bean in the business; flat tasty pods are delicious even when let to grow on the big side; not that I got to taste any last summer, as the rabbits ate them to the ground, twice, and the plants just gave up.
Beet ‘Red Ace’ Managed to eat of few of these before the chipmunks destroyed the crop; excellent flavor
Belgian Endive ‘Totem’ Small plants which failed to mature sufficiently for forcing; definitely climate conditions, not the cultivar
Cucumber ‘Alibi’ Excellent production, despite conditions
Cucumber ‘Diva’ This is my second time growing this Diva, and for the second time she sang off key; poor yields.
Leek ‘Lexton’ A very expensive new variety from Johnny’s, with little or no improvement over older cultivars. My two favorite leek varieties still remain ‘King Richard’ and ‘Giant Musselburgh’
Pepper , Sweet Ace Even in this miserable year, this variety managed to produce a few peppers. This year I am starting my plants much earlier (now, in the greenhouse) to be able to set out larger sized plants directly into the garden in May – ones that aren’t so likely to be trampled by foraging ducks… (don’t ask)
Pumpkin ‘Polar Bear’ The only one of four varieties to bear; the large white fruits are an interesting novelty; I prefer the blue of  Jarrahdale – especially when viewed under six inches of snow.
Radish ‘Red Meat’ Tasty! (And fast enough to mature to beat out most disasters, natural or otherwise.)
Radish ‘Rover’ Another great radish
Radish ‘Shunkyo’ Specialty radish with excellent flavor
Squash Buttercup, Burgess Strain This is rapidly becoming my favorite winter squash; keeps well with a nutty, intense flavor. This year I am trying a new, larger “improvement” ‘Bon Bon’ from Johnny’s, as well as Kabocha, which I have grown in the past and much enjoyed both for taste and show.
Tomato ‘Defiant’ This was the biggest loser this year. With extremely expensive seed (4.95 for 15 seeds from Johnny’s), ‘Defiant’ is supposedly resistant to Late Blight, but in fact was the first tomato in my garden to succumb, even before the heirlooms. What little fruit was harvested was of poor taste,  barely above store-bought flavor.
Tomato ‘Pink Beauty’ This hybrid variety has consistently held up under adverse conditions; great flavor, heirloom quality fruit and taste with increased disease resistance.
Tomato ‘Rose’ Excellent yield, excellent flavor, relatively good disease resistance
Tomato ‘Sungold’ Still my favorite of all cherries

So, on to 2012!

February Morning

I wanted to share with you one of the delights of February: the sublime witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida.’ This is truly one of my all-time favorite plants, and I think you can see why, seen here in full flower amongst my collection of antique glass. Witch hazels are hugely under-appreciated in American gardens for reasons I’ve never understood. Not only do they flower for a full month, often beginning here in Boston in January, but the branches are wonderful for cutting and bringing inside. No particular forcing technique is needed – just snip and place in a vase – enjoying  the highly fragrant flowers which last almost two weeks indoors. Magnificent! In fact, I’ve started collecting witch hazels; last year I planted a reddish flowering variety ‘Jalena’ and will be adding an even deeper red, ‘Diane’, this spring. (Note to those interesting in bringing branches indoors: not all varieties are equally fragrant. ‘Arnold Promise’, another favorite, has almost no scent, so chose carefully.)

For more on witch hazels, including care instructions for these almost indestructible plants, visit my 2010 article HERE.