Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Earlier this year I met with a home owner who pointed balefully at her shady backyard. "Nothing grows here," she remarked with a look of frustration. After quickly taking stock of what she had installed beneath the tall oak trees, I realized that almost all of the plants were sun-lovers. In my experience most casual gardeners are more familiar with species that flourish in full sun. There are, however, a number of plants that prosper in the shade. Most ferns fall into this category and while they don't produce showy flowers, their lacy fronds come in a delightful variety of heights, colors and textures.   

In addition to creating swathes of beautiful foliage, ferns are virtually pest free. Deer and groundhogs find them unpalatable and even snails avoid them. Some, like the Hay Scented Ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) pictured above, rapidly create a weed defying mat that is remarkably tolerant of dry conditions.      

Most ferns, however, prefer an evenly moist or even damp soil. I've planted the Cinnamon Ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) pictured above in shady backyards and along stream banks, where their dense fibrous root systems deter erosion. The stiff upright fronds are delightfully architectural and are complemented in the spring by the cinnamon colored wands that give the plant its name. Produced throughout the growing season, the young coppery fronds of the Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) pictured below will also add a touch color to the shady garden.  

Like most woodland plants, ferns prefer a soil high in organic matter like leaf mold, peat moss or compost. I spread a few inches of shredded oak leaves over my fern beds every fall and let the leaves rot down during the growing season.  

For sheer size (three to six feet) and almost tropical impact, I'm particularly fond of the Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) pictured above. Years ago, while working in Vermont, I dug some Ostrich Ferns, named for their tall plumage-like fronds, from the woods on a client's property and planted them in her shade garden. I'd heard that ferns were difficult to transplant. But despite the fact that it was mid-summer, the plants  flourished. After I purchased my house in Seekonk, my client gave me a few of the ferns for my shade garden. Here they have prospered almost to the point of invasiveness and I in turn have given many away to friends.  

The Painted Fern (Athyrium Pictum) shown above is one of the showiest in the genus and is undoubtedly one of my favorites. New varieties with ever more tempting colorations regularly appear on the market. Despite its delicate beauty this plant is practically indestructible and seeds itself about my garden with great abandon. For winter interest I rely on the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) pictured below. It's stiff waxy fronds are evergreen and show to wonderful advantage under a dusting of snow. I've also used Christmas Ferns in outdoor urns, where the foliage stays green for most of the winter.

Ferns make wonderful companions for other shade lovers like the Carex Ice Dance pictured below. Ice Dance has lovely cream edged foliage and makes a dense mat that is impervious to weeds.

With their lacy foliage and airy flowers Astilbes show to great advantage when backed by tall ferns. The ones pictured below are pink, but Astilbes come in a range of shades including red, white and purple.

And of course hostas like the one below with its broad, puckered leaves provide a striking textural counterpoint to a fern's lacy fronds.

Ferns also combine beautifully with shade loving shrubs like the Hydrangea Incrediball pictured here backed by the green and white leaves of Cornus Ivory Halo.

The next time you find yourself staring in dismay at a bare patch of shady ground, instead of cursing the darkness, plant some ferns and enjoy their lacy beauty.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


D is for Dahlias that never cease to amaze!

 D is for Dahlias that fill every vase!

It's hard not to wax poetic when the air is dry, the sky is a clear, crystalline blue and the sun outlines every leaf and petal with tracings of gold. In case you hadn't guessed, this is my favorite time of year. Not simply because of the weather, but because my dahlias, autumn's greatest gift, are in full bloom. Never has a homely potato-like tuber required so little and given so much. Sun, a little bone meal and well-draining soil are all that is needed to produce towering giants with enormous flowers or more diminutive blossoms better suited to the mixed border. I scatter groupings of dahlias throughout my gardens. Like the pink blooms pictured below, I think they show to best advantage when planted in groups of five or more.

After a killing frost when the stems are blackened, I cut them down and dig up the tubers, storing them in the cool, dry crawl space beneath my office. The twenty or so yellow dahlia plants that tumble over the nepeta that frames my cottage garden came from three tubers I purchased years ago. In May, after dividing and planting all that I can use, I share the wealth and give the rest away to friends.

Dahlias combine wonderfully in the garden with late season perennials like Asters ( the pink flowers pictured to the right of the photo above), Perovskia, Sedums, Grasses, and a host of other annuals. Below I used them in a vase with Zinnias, Hydrangea, white Mandevilla, trumpet vine and roses.

Some varieties like Bishop of Llandaff sport striking, reddish foliage that is a welcome addition to the palette of my hot colored garden. In addition to shades of pink and white there are an abundance of dahlia varieties with orange, yellow or red petals. There are even some that exhibit a combination of all three colors on each flower.

Unfortunately dahlias struggle in my Blue and White garden, where they flounder in the shade or  succumb to the predations of snails.

Despite all my efforts I haven't been able to rid my garden of the hard-shelled pests. Thankfully the creatures, which I refer to as the crawling plague, didn't wreak havoc with the begonias that I planted in my urn.

The tall white flowers to the right of the urn belong to Cimicifuga Brunette, a late blooming perennial with burgundy foliage and an exquisite fragrance that perfumes the early autumn garden. I like the look of its white wands, but it's worth growing in part shade for the fragrance alone.

The ageratum-like blue blossoms pictured above belong to Eupatorium Coelestinum, a relative of the more well-known Joe Pye Weed. I was a bit startled to discover that E. Coelestinum self-seeds with nuisance-like abandon. Still it's fairly easy to rip out and it fills the garden with hazy blue flowers when little else is in bloom.

The rate at which some plants seed themselves about my beds makes me feel more like an editor than a designer. In recent years the look of my gardens is determined as much by what I pull out as by what I plant. Not that I'm complaining. I always look forward to the Nicotiana Sylvestris seedlings that appear in mid-summer. Their fragrant, white trumpets, pictured by the arch above, are a welcome addition to my autumn garden.

I'm hoping for a late frost this year. In fact I'd like nothing more than to be out in the garden cutting flowers until the end of October. I know, however, that despite global warming and other climactic vagaries winter's bite is inevitable. Perhaps that's why I'm so fond of my dahlias. Their glorious blossoms are a reminder that the growing season is almost over and that I should treasure each remaining day.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mulch Ado About Nothing

Last month I met with a woman who stated emphatically that she loved the look of mulch. To emphasize her point she showed me a number of pictures that she had gathered on line. Invariably, each photograph contained an image of a newly planted garden much like the one pictured below, which I took after completing an installation a few years ago.

While I admit that a freshly mulched garden has a certain tidy appeal, I have always considered mulch a means not an end. In my mind there is no aesthetic comparison between the picture above and the one below, which I took of the same property a few weeks ago.

Comparing the first picture to the second is like comparing bare studs and sub-flooring to a finished room. Don't misunderstand me. Mulch serves two very important purposes. It inhibits the growth of weeds and reduces moisture loss. In the winter a thick layer of mulch keeps the soil temperature relatively consistent and protects plants from frost heaves or premature sprouting due to unseasonable warmth. I spend a good deal of time mulching my gardens here in Seekonk every fall.

Given the size of my property, using pine bark would be prohibitively expensive. Instead I use leaves and other garden debris that I run through a chipper. During the summer I re-mulch some of my beds with grass clippings, which effectively smother even the toughest weeds. I've also used well-rotted horse manure shoveled into my truck from a local stable. Recently, I've begun to wonder if the salt in dried seaweed might discourage the snails that continue to plague my gardens. An experiment might be in order this autumn. Undoubtedly, these materials are not as pretty as a dark brown bark mulch. Their look, however, doesn't much matter since as the the growing season progresses the soil is barely visible. And that is as it should be! Ground leaves also break down quickly making it easy to plant bulbs in the fall without having to move a coarser mulch out of the way.

Recent confusion about the proper use of mulch may be attributed to the cheap, colored mulches now available at many garden centers. Personally, I dislike the look of these products, which are made from chipped lumber. Call me old school, but I don't think mulch should be red or black. A landscape's color palette should come from plants or other natural elements, not from a vat of dye!

As for the garden pictured earlier in this post, here are a few more photographs of the property.

Originally the yard was a steeply sloped area of lawn bounded by a fence. Now it has two sitting areas, a fireplace and colorful plantings.

I installed a timber retaining wall to level the yard and removed the lawn completely.

Although there are neighbors nearby, the yard feels quite private. My clients take meticulous care of their property and except for the spaces between the stepping stones, there's hardly any mulch in sight.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Road Less Graveled

Last fall I was contacted by a home owner, who had decided that it was finally time to renovate his family's back yard. He mentioned that the parcel of land was quite small. Never the less, when I arrived for our initial consultation, I was more than a little surprised to find nothing but a rotted timber wall and a chain link fence framing a narrow piece of land completely covered by driveway gravel.

Even more surprising was the fact that this sadly neglected piece of property had a spectacular view of the the bay.

During out initial meeting the client and his wife explained that they needed a place to socialize and wanted to break the sloped piece of property into three or four different levels. It took a bit of negotiating, but I finally convinced them that the space was too small to accommodate more than one main level. Once we were in agreement, I measured out the property and returned to my drafting table. After playing with a number of different options, I decided that a circular patio would compliment the view of the bay and make the best use of the narrow space.

Initially I was a bit torn as to the size of patio. Ideally I would have left a bit more room for plantings, but the client wanted as much space as possible for socializing. I often remark that no one ever complains that their patio is too big. Heeding my own advice, I finally decided on a twenty-seven foot diameter circle.

Both the patio and retaining walls were constructed out of prefabricated cement products. I'll admit that I wasn't a big fan of faux stone walls and pavers when they first appeared on the market. Recent improvements, however, have resulted in some pleasing options. Cement products are also much less expensive and easier to install than natural stone.

Certainly this wall and walkway is a vast improvement over the original gravel and timber construction. Since the client wanted predominantly summer color, I planted the beds with a mixture of some easily grown  favorites; potentilla, grasses, daylilies, nepeta and fairy roses all of which should fill in nicely by the end of the summer.

As you can see from the first photo in this post and the one above, it's rose season here in Seekonk. While many of my roses bloom repeatedly throughout the summer, this first display is undoubtedly the best. Unfortunately, a week of drenching rain browned some of the blooms. Today, however, the sky is clear and I'm looking forward to a week of sunshine and temperatures in the 70's.
If roses could smile, they'd be grinning right now.  

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Monet Moment


It should come as no surprise that I've been greatly influenced by a visit I made some years ago to Monet's famous gardens. Giverny's iconic wisteria covered bridge inspired the pair of wisterias that flank my farm pond. I dug the plants up in the woods behind my house where they were languishing in the shade and have been training them as small trees or "standards". When grown in this manner their rampant twining habit is more manageable and they're quite easy to maintain. Last spring a late frost damaged their blossoms. This year, however, they are literally dripping with flowers and I'm quite pleased with the effect

The upright, dark blue flowers of Camassia Coerulea, a moisture loving hardy bulb, complement the wisterias drooping racemes. Camassias come in shades of blue and white and range in height from fifteen to thirty inches. I find them pest free and nearly indestructible. They bloom with the last of the tulips and daffodils, which makes them a great addition to the late-spring garden.

During a recent spate of consulting work, I've visited a number of properties plagued by the same problem, too much variety. This common mistake invariably creates an unsatisfactory, visual jumble. It bears repeating that when it comes to landscape design, bold groups of a single species are preferable to a hodgepodge a different plants. While I realize that it can be hard to edit one's desires, restraint and repetition are the keys to a successful landscape.

Unless I want to frame a view, as with the Arborvitae balls and Wisterias pictured above, I almost never plant just two of something and a single specimen is best used as an accent or focal point. The misuse of pairs or singles invariably creates visual clutter. The same might be said of rows. Whether tall or short, straight or curved, rows of plants act like a frame,separating areas within the landscape.Unless they serve a purpose such as framing a walkway or a particular garden area, random stripes are best avoided.

We're finally getting some much needed rain here in Seekonk. The precipitation is quite a relief as I've been running my irrigation for the past two weeks and a dry, dusty spring doesn't bode well for the garden. On a celebratory note this is my 50th post, a milestone on sorts, and I want to thank my readers for their comments and support!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


It's currently snowing here in Seekonk, but despite the spate of un-springlike temperatures I've been hard at work for the past few weeks pruning shrubs, cleaning out debris and re-edging my beds. Although it's a bit of a chore,nothing makes a garden look better at the start of the season than beds with nice crisp edges. Whether curved or straight, however, I find it nearly impossible to create a clean edge by simply eyeballing the beds, so instead I use a length of rope.

Some years ago I purchased a large spool of three-ply rope at a box store. For ease of movement and tangle-free storage I transferred the rope to a hose reel. The rope I selected has a bit of weight to it and is better for shaping new beds than a length of hose. I find it the perfect tool for creating both straight lines and sinuous curves.  

For a straight line I anchor the rope to the ground by pushing the point of a large flathead screwdriver through one end. I then pull the rope taut and anchor the far end in the same manner. It often takes a few tries to get the rope perfectly straight or in case of curves to achieve the desired shape.

Once the rope is secured, I use a can of paint and spray a wide band directly over the top of the rope, making sure that the paint spreads to each side of the rope.

Any cheap paint will do. I like white, but after a few weeks or a mowing the paint disappears so color isn't that important. Dusting the top of the rope with powdered lyme also works and quickly vanishes. However, I find paint more convenient and easier to handle. 

After waiting a moment or two I flick the rope away. The resulting parallel bands of white provide the perfect guide for my edger.

Inserting the blade between the white lines I work my way easily down the bed.

The result is a crisp, straight edge that makes the beds look clean and sharp.

after edging

The result is a vast improvement.

before edging

If it ever stops snowing, the crisp edges will create the perfect frame for flower-filled beds.

On a completely unrelated matter, I'm excited to announce that I've recently redesigned my website, There are more pictures and visitors can watch my cable series, IN THE GARDEN, simply by logging onto the site. I hope you're as pleased with the improvements as I am.