Thursday, September 29, 2011

Self Awareness

Certain annual and perennial plants exhibit a wonderful propensity for self-seeding. A number of years ago I purchased a six pack of the annual Nicotiana Sylvestris Alata, the tall white flower blooming beside the archway pictured above. Although the fragrant plants are not hardy they produce an abundance of seed, which in my garden usually begins to germinate by the middle of the summer.In early autumn these self-sown volunteers produce a dramatic display that perfumes the air.

Left to their own devices many common annuals and perennials will self-seed. Eupatorium Coelestinum, the ageratum look-alike growing beside my rectangular lily pond, is a wonderful late-season perennial that spreads itself throughout the garden with great abandon. The plants are very slow to break dormancy. I rarely see their first leaves before the fourth of July, but by late August they're happily filling holes left by early bloomers that have passed their prime. Other plants that regularly self-seed in my garden include;

Columbines (these were a gift from a friend who had seedlings to spare)

Digitalis Ambigua

Verbena Bonariensis

And the tall pink Cleome pictured below.

Although many plants will self-seed without any assistance, there are ways to encourage a steady supply of seedlings. With Nicotiana and Digitalis I allow the seed heads to mature until first frost. In late autumn I cut the stems and shake the seeds onto bare soil. As with weed, mulch can inhibit the germination of desirable plants. Therefore it is important to leave the loam uncovered. With other varieties like Verbena Bonariensis and Cleome, I often leave old flowering stems standing in the garden until early spring to ensure that the seeds have ripened sufficiently.

While many species will self-seed successfully without any assistance, there are two tricks for ensuring a bountiful crop of seedlings. First, do not disturb the soil with a claw or other weeding tool until the seeds have sprouted. Second,avoid mistakenly weeding out young seedlings by learning to identify their first pair of leaves. These "seed" leaves often don't resemble the plant's mature foliage. If too many seeds germinate in one spot, it is best to thin them out to avoid competition. It is easy to transplant young seedlings to a more desirable area, though a bit of coddling for a day or two maybe required.

Encouraging plants to self-seed is a wonderfully inexpensive way to increase stock. While some plants may prove overly prolific, unexpected additions often add charm to the garden. A few years ago a crop of Digitalis Ambigua grew up along my front walkway and the effect was absolutely lovely.

You may even discover a seedling with hybrid vigor or unusual colors as was the case with the Japanese iris seedling that appeared in my Blue and White garden last year. Its white flowers veined with blue stripes are unlike any other iris I've purchased.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Good Night Irene

This is normally the beginning of my favorite time of the year. After weeks of heat and humidity the waning days of August bring cooler weather and once again it's a pleasure to work in the garden. Although the leaves have lost their freshness, the flowers sparkle in the late summer sunlight and then of course there are the dahlias.

And armloads of flowers for arrangements. I gave this one to friend for her birthday.

But now with hurricane Irene poised to strike New England, it seems that my thirteenth year cultivating this property may prove to be particularly unlucky. Of course I'm still hopeful that Irene's path will change. Nevertheless before the storm arrives, I thought I would take a few moments to document the garden as it looks today.

The yellow flowers blooming around the pond are Ligularia Desdemona, prized for it's burgundy foliage and bountiful late-summer blossoms.

I love Hibiscus Fantasia's enormous mauve blooms. In the spring I pinch the stems to encourage an even more abundant flowering. Unlike their tropical cousins, all of the perennial Hibiscus die to to the ground each winter. Exhibiting a shrub-like presence, the plants blossoms come in colors ranging from white to pink to red. Some have copper colored foliage and all make terrific garden plants unmatched for late summer impact.

Although I had to replace a number of the thyme plants with new divisions this spring, the checkerboard patio, a favorite with all my visitors, has filled in quite nicely this year. In fact I can't remember a time when it was this uniform.

Due to the impact of the tree-form Hydrangeas Paniculata and Tardiva, the Blue and White garden is perhaps a bit heavy on the white this time of year.

Although I'm particularly fond of the white water lilies, I wish there was a hardy blue variety that I could add to the pond. Unfortunately, all of the blue water lilies are tropical and won't survive New England's cold winters.

I've always thought that if in my old age I have to scale back on the gardening, I will keep the front garden because it's both self-contained and a manageable size.

So there you have it, the garden pre-Irene. Hopefully it will look much the same post-Irene, but one never knows.

On a lighter note, last month my dear friend, client and unfailing supporter, Dr. Patricia Allen,stopped in for a visit. She and her friend, Stacey Bewkes, were en route from NYC to Little Compton. Stacey, who writes the wonderful daily style blog, Quintenssence, recently posted a charming account of her visit to my property on her blog,

And the pool garden that I featured in my last post is filling in quite nicely.

But now it's time to batten down the hatches and hope that Irene drifts farther out to sea.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Some of you may recall that more than a year ago I embarked on an extensive swimming pool project for a client in Wilton, CT. The house, which overlooks a reservoir,was built on a steep slope.

Accommodating the pool, spa, cabana, fireplace and patios required moving the existing leach field and terracing the hill. By placing a four foot high stone wall below the swimming pool patio I sidestepped the town's fence requirements and preserved an unobstructed view of the reservoir.

To minimize the need for additional walls I set large boulders into the slope to create a rockery.

The garden is planted with broad swaths of roses, nepeta, grasses, hydrangeas and other low maintenance summer blooming shrubs and perennials. In a few years the plantings will soften the hardscaping and create a lush, billowy effect.

The spa, which can be used year around, was purposely sited below the upper patio close to the house for easy access during the winter.

Although the installation of my design was delayed by town bureaucracy and red tape, construction was finally completed in June. To celebrate my client hosted a wonderful pool party at the beginning of July.

On the home front the gardens here in Seekonk are settling into the dog days of summer. Phlox, oriental lilies and hydrangeas predominate and the rose of sharons are in full bloom.

I've been spending a good deal of time dead-heading and weeding.

The Japanese beetles appeared right on schedule but haven't been terribly destructive so far.

I'm still waging a losing battle against snails. But after a conversation with a friend, whose garden had been mowed to the ground by rabbits, I decided to count my blessings.

After all, snails are easy to catch. And while It's true that their constant feeding disfigures leaves and flowers, it rarely results in mortality.

I'm thrilled with the mottled leafed Colocasia Mojito that I planted by the pond to replace the ornamental rhubarb that mysteriously died. Colocasia's enormous tropical leaves are quite dramatic and plan to dig up the tubers in the fall. Hopefully they'll winter over along with my dahlias in the crawl space below my office.

Although I'm fond of Campsis Radicans' orange and yellow trumpets, I'm growing tired of pulling up the countless seedlings that sprout all over the garden. Still, the hummingbirds would never forgive me if I tore the vines out.

With the onset of summer weather the hot colored garden is really heating up.

Meanwhile the Blue and White garden is cooling down.

I've decided that dusk is my favorite time to view the garden. The shadows mask
the imperfections; the brown leaves, the spent flowers, the crab grass, the stems that need staking, the bare spots that need filling. When the sun has set it's easier to enjoy the big picture and the sweet fragrances that perfume the air.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tour de Force

On Saturday June 18th I opened my garden in Seekonk to the public. The tour was part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days Program. GC's Open Days take place rain or shine and I had been checking the forecast somewhat obsessively for at least a week prior to the big event. Showers drenched the garden on friday, but luckily I had mowed the lawn and finished the majority of my last minute preparations on thursday. On friday night, however, I lay in bed listening to a torrential rainstorm and wondered if my weeks of anticipation had all been for naught.

I awoke at the crack of dawn to a gray sky. Although some of my more fragile roses had shed their petals overnight,the garden didn't seem much worse for wear. By nine o'clock the haze had cleared and the remainder of the day proved to be sunny and warm,perfect weather for a garden tour.

Pruners in hand I spent the early morning hours trimming spent blossoms and marred leaves. As I worked I eyed all of the flowers that had yet to open and couldn't help wishing that the tour had been scheduled for the following week.

Shrugging off a nagging sense of regret, I reminded myself that the success of a garden depends primarily on its "bones". The flowers are merely the icing on the cake. And while an abundance of blossoms may distract the viewer from errors in structure or proportion, petals alone will not a beautiful garden make.

The first guests arrived just before the official ten o'clock opening and over the course of the day I greeted more than one hundred and thirty people. Without exception all of the visitors were gracious and enthusiastic. And to my surprise, by late afternoon not a single stem had been trampled.

I noted with some amusement that a few of my guests were as captivated by my chickens as they were by the gardens. I acquired the birds at the Swansea Farm Auction, a somewhat anachronistic event that takes place each week in the neighboring town. I had hoped that the chickens would feast on the plague-like multitude of snails that continue to ravage my plants and with great determination I outbid my competitors for my little flock. Not surprisingly my choices were a function of aesthetics. Alas, as with many pretty things, my chickens haven't proved to be very functional. They don't lay many eggs or eat many snails, but they are fun to watch.

Spending the day in the sun greeting guests and answering questions was more tiring than I had expected. Nevertheless when the last of the late arrivals departed at six o'clock, I mentioned to a friend that the weeks of preparation had been well worth the effort. When she asked me what I planned to do the next day I replied in all seriousness "Well, I won't be working in the garden, that's for sure!"