Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ground Down

September is usually one of my favorite months in the garden. Here in southern New England, Labor Day marks the end of summer's heat and humidity as the dog days give way to bright sunshine and cool nights. Japanese beetles and snails miraculously disappear and chores consist of little more than deadheading and staking top heavy asters and dahlias. This year, however, my blissful complacency has been marred by a family of groundhogs ravenously eating their way across my property. With the exception of deer, groundhogs (also known as woodchucks) are probably the most destructive mammalian pests a gardener can face. In short order a ground hog can reduce lush clumps of campanulas, echinaceas, asters and phlox to little more than a tangle of broken, leafless stems.

Luckily they don't seem to have a taste for the blue ageratum-like flowers of Eupatorium Coelestinum that blanket much of my Blue and White garden this time of year. Sadly though, the varmints devastated another section of this garden, leaving a an unsightly mess in their wake.

On the bright side, if their can be a bright side to this type of destruction, it was a section of the garden that has needed a facelift for a few years. This depressing sight was all the impetus I needed to get out my shovel and revamp the area. I redesigned the bed with plants that I hope will be unpalatable to groundhogs, including the Blue Mist Shrub (Caryopteris Clandonensis) pictured below.

There are a number of different varieties of Caryopteris available today all of which sport masses of petite pale to dark blue flowers. These small bushes bloom in late summer when most shrubs are past their prime and are prized for their airy display. They can be a bit temperamental and are known to succumb to  harsh winters. Caryopteris prefer full sun and dry sandy soil. Like Butterfly bushes I don't prune them until their leaves begin to unfurl in late spring.

Luckily groundhogs eschew most tropical plants and they haven't touched the large clumps of coleus and cannas in my hot colored garden. I can't say the same for my Hot Papaya Echinaceas. I sorely miss their double, bright orange flowers, which in past years have added a sizzling pop of color to this garden.

Most of all I'm grateful that the groundhogs haven't touched my beloved dahlias. My late summer gardens wouldn't be the same without them.

   And without their abundant blooms my vases would remain sadly empty this time of year.

 The groundhogs have also ignored my clumps of Anemone Robustissima.

There are many different autumn flowering anemones for sale today, but most have failed to perform well in my garden. Unlike its finicky cousins, Robustissima always puts on a terrific late summer show. Its tall flower laden stems require a bit of staking to keep them off the ground, but they're well worth the effort.

Sometimes I allow the stems to flop over, letting the flowers hide plants that have passed their prime. Try combining Anemone Robustissima with fall blooming Asters and Boltonias for a terrific late season display.

As for the groundhogs, no sprays or chemical deterrents have slowed their destructive rampage. In mid-August members of the Northeast Heather Society visited my gardens. They seemed to enjoy the tour despite the fact that my property is noticeably lacking in heaths and heathers. As we strolled my property, a few of us shared groundhog war stories. A seemingly mild-mannered women claimed that her husband had killed one by throwing an axe at its head.

I only wish my own knife throwing skills were equal to the task.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


A couple of weeks ago my good friend, Joseph Pari, asked if he could stage a photo shoot in my garden. Joe and his business partner Eric Auger, run the performance art group,TEN31 Productions ( TEN31 travels the world presenting their living statues at events attended by pop stars, foreign dignitaries and even the Obama's.

For the early morning shoot in my garden Joe brought some of his botanical creations. The day was not too hot and the sky was overcast, perfect for taking pictures. The photographer, Josh Edenbaum (, will present an exhibit of the photos at a local art gallery this fall and I'm looking forward to seeing the final results. Of course I couldn't resist getting into the act. Although I'm sure the picture below will be conspicuously absent from the gallery walls.

Nevertheless, it was thrilling to see Joe's fantastic creations in my garden and the shoot was a lot of fun.

Sadly, my property seemed rather empty and somewhat less magical after the performers wiped off their make up, stripped off their costumes and piled back into their van. July has, however, been a good month for the garden. The temperature has been unexpectedly benign and despite a spike in my snail population most plants are flourishing especially my oriental and orienpet lilies.

Oriental lilies and their cousins the Orienpets ( a sturdy cross between oriental and trumpet lilies) are exquisitely fragrant. Day and night their blossoms fill the air with a heady, tropical perfume that is undoubtedly one of  summer's delights. Perhaps more importantly, they are resistant to the pesky, red lily beetle, whose grubs have ruined many of my more delicate asiatic lilies. All lilies (with the exception of day lilies), grow from bulbs that are best planted in the fall, though it is possible to buy potted lilies in bloom at most garden centers. Lilies prosper in full sun but will tolerate light shade. As with most plants I think they look best in groups of five or more. I always remove the spent flowers to prevent the bulbs from setting seed. It's important, however, to leave a good deal of stem and foliage to energize the bulbs for the following year.

The small blue flowers tumbling into the walkway in the photo above belong to Ruellia Caroliniensis. I stumbled across a few pots of it at a garden center some years ago under the name wild petunia. It isn't a petunia at all, but it is rather invasive, setting seeds that sprout all over the place. I never intended to use it as an edging plant. But since it performs remarkably well in that capacity, I've kept the seedlings that germinated against the cobblestones that line my gravel pathway

During Josh Edenbaum's photo shoot, he took some pictures while standing on a ladder. I liked the effect so thought I'd try it myself and am pleased with the result. From this height I can't see the snails or the browned foliage or the flowers marred by Japanese beetles.

It seems that distance does make the heart grow fonder.        

Monday, July 7, 2014

Riveting Roses

The summer solstice marks the peak of the rose season here in Southern New England. Of course, most of my rose bushes will continue to bloom until frost. Their flowers, however, will be smaller and less abundant as the season progresses and inevitably their aging foliage will lose its glossy sheen.

Last year I neglected to feed my rose bushes. This spring, however, I spent an afternoon working a granular rose fertilizer into the soil around the base of each plant and was rewarded with an abundance of bloom.

Roses are notoriously heavy feeders and an application of fertilizer just as the first leaves are unfurling can make a huge difference in their growth and subsequent flowering. Many rosarians recommend a feeding once a month, but with all my other chores I never seem to find the time. It's also much easier to apply granular fertilizer in the spring before the garden has filled in. Still, there are many liquid fertilizers on the market today, so I really have no excuse for not following a more stringent regiment of fertilization.

Truth be told I usually turn a blind eye to my rose bushes once the Japanese beetles arrive in mid-July. It's simply too disheartening to watch the rose buds being devoured by hordes of hungry beetles. Thankfully their feeding frenzy subsides in early September along with the oppressive heat and humidity and I always look forward to a crop of fresh flower's in autumn.

Although I've had no luck with Hybrid Tea Roses, I've had great success with David Austin's English Roses. Othello, the variety pictured above, has thrived in my garden for almost twelve years and it seems almost indestructible. For a satisfying display I generally plant shrub roses in groups of three or five and space them about three feet apart.

Fifteen years ago I planted eight Sea Foam roses on the slope in my Blue and White garden. The cascading bushes are smothered in clusters of small, white blooms for more than a month each year and throw a few additional sprays when the weather cools in the fall.

I realize that roses have a reputation for being fussy, troublesome plants. It's true that pruning and feeding them in the spring, not to mention dead-heading the spent blooms later in the season, can be time consuming. Never the less I've found that many varieties are quite easy to grow. For the most part the effort expended is well rewarded. After all, very few shrubs fill the garden with color and perfume for weeks at a time. I for one wouldn't be without their luxurious blossoms or the beauty and fragrance of a vase filled with roses and sweet peas.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

White on White

The blossoming of the azaleas in my Blue and White garden is one of the highlights of spring here in Seekonk. This year the long awaited event miraculously coincided with the flowering of the dogwoods, my white redbud tree (Cercis Canadensis Alba) and my white tree peony (Paeonia Suffruticosa).

Redbuds usually have pinkish purple flowers, but I am particularly fond of the white cultivar pictured in the upper left corner of the photo above. Redbuds are medium sized understory trees that thrive in partial shade and don't object to be being planted beneath larger hardwoods. As with our native dogwoods, their flowers emerge along graceful branches before the leaves unfurl. The tree peony (pictured in the lower left corner) is a relative of the more frequently grown herbaceous, garden peony. Despite it's exotic beauty this small shrub is of relatively easy culture. There are a host of different varieties available today, many with breathtaking, enormous double blooms that come in almost any color imaginable.Tree peonies may be grown in light shade or full sun in fertile soil. Although they're pricey they are quite long-lived, producing more blooms each year. Sadly, the delicate blossoms last only briefly in the spring garden and are easily ruined by heavy rain. To hedge my bets I usually cut a few of the flowers and enjoy them indoors.

The two splashes of white in the center of the photo above are produced by the foliage of Salix Integra Hakuro Nishiki. A member of the willow family, this fast growing almost indestructible shrub has become quite popular and is often bought as either a bush or a small topiaried tree. I keep mine in bounds with a hard pruning in the spring and at least one additional shearing in mid-summer. The white leaves take on a pinkish cast as the weather warms and may brown in hot dry weather, but for a consistent burst of white, they're hard to beat.

The charming, small vine pictured above is Clematis Maidwell Hall. Its sky-blue flowers open in mid-spring and last for a few weeks. I'm training this one up one of the arches in my cottage garden. This cultivar is rather hard to find and I wish I had bought a few more when I stumbled across it at a garden center a couple years ago. Sadly, after many years my beloved Clematis Montana Rubens has succumbed to some blight or other.

I sorely miss its cascade of pink flowers tumbling across my roof.

Last year I planted it again on the steel gazebo behind my farm pond, but the blight seems to have followed it there. A few weeks ago I watched the bud-laden stems wither just as the flowers were about to open. I must confess that it's heartbreaking when long-time favorites unexpectedly die or a new pest or disease strikes out of the blue.

Still, as I'm fond of saying, gardening isn't for the faint of heart. It's best to roll with punches and focus on the big picture.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Better Late Than Never

For those of us who live in New England, spring has certainly been slow in coming this year. On the bright side we've had more than ample rainfall and although the cool weather has delayed flowering, it has also extended the bloom time of many early season favorites like the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia Virginica) pictured below.

I first encountered this delightful shade lover in Bennington, Vermont, where I discovered the nodding bells under a stand of sugar maples on a client's property. In my garden they flourish beneath the deciduous branches of a large oak leaf hydrangea in the corner of my Blue and White garden. Over the past decade three small plants have multiplied rapidly and now cover a substantial area. Sadly, Virginia Bluebells go dormant quite early in the summer, but by then their browning foliage is hidden by the hydrangea's dense canopy. Pulmonaria Highdown (pictured below) is another spring bloomer featuring pink buds that open to reveal much coveted blue flowers.

Pulmonarias or Lungworts, as they're more commonly known, are also shade lovers that thrive in moist, acidic, woodland conditions. Unlike Virginia Bluebells, however, their leaves remain attractive until autumn. Highdown has spotted leaves, but there are newer varieties with even showier, silver foliage that veritably glows in the shade. As the leaves are covered in a rather prickly fur the plants aren't bothered by snail or slugs, a huge plus as far as I'm concerned. In my garden I've combined pulmonarias with hostas, ferns and astilbes to good effect.

Erythronium Pagoda (pictured above) sports some of the largest flowers in the Trout Lily clan. When grown in part shade, this bulb spreads to produce a dense mat and shows to great advantage when planted at the base of tulips. Like many other spring bulbs it goes dormant in the heat of the summer. Still, I wouldn't be without the cheerful yellow flowers that dangle above it's lovely mottled basal leaves.

I love the smell of hyacinths, but find the common varieties better suited to pot culture. Out of doors their heavy, flower stems look clunky and tend to break easily. A few years ago, I discovered multi-flowering Festival Hyacinths and I've quickly become a fan. Each bulb produces a number of flower stems, with fewer more delicate flowers but the same wonderful fragrance. The pink, white or blue blossoms are also wonderful in bouquets and since they are produced in abundance, I don't feel guilty about cutting them.

Of course if I could only plant one type of spring bulb it would be the narcissus or daffodil. There are countless varieties with a tremendous range of colors, sizes, and flower forms.

 And unlike tulips which must be replanted every few years, daffodils seem to last forever, producing more flowers each spring.

My only regret is that I'm almost at full capacity and am quickly running out of places to plant them. Never the less, I'll probably order a few more this fall. After all, even my self control has its limits.

Friday, January 3, 2014


As I compose this post the wind is howling outside my windows and a drift of snow is piling up against my front door. In my sunroom, however, pots of Hibiscus, Colocasias, Hedychiums and Oleanders await warmer weather and a return to the garden. I don't have enough room to winter over all of the tropical plants that add color to my summer landscape, but each fall before frost sets in, I dig and pot some of my favorites or at least the ones that haven't grown too large to move.

On a table near my breakfast nook a large terrarium has much the same affect as the sunroom albeit on a much smaller scale.

Requiring little more than a pretty, glass container, potting soil and a few small plants, terrariums are miniature gardens that need very little care once established. As with any garden if a particular plant fails to thrive or outgrows it's tiny world, I simply replace it with a smaller counterpart. In my sunroom I have an enormous Maiden Hair fern that I bought as a tiny specimen and grew for a few years in this terrarium. When inevitably the soil gets tired or the composition begins to look a bit stale, I simply start over with a new group of plants. Terrariums do best when situated in bright indirect light and are the perfect home for small leaved ivies, ferns or other diminutive tropicals. For a splash of color I'll often include a miniature African Violet in bloom, though I know the flowers will be short lived.

As many of my readers know, from early spring until late fall I regularly cut blossoms from the garden and arrange them in vases indoors. In the winter I rely on the cheering affect of flowering plants like the Paperwhite Narcissus pictured above. A tender cousin of  the common daffodil, Paperwhites are one of the easiest bulbs to force into bloom in the house. All that is needed is a container and some water. The bulbs, which can be purchased online or from local garden centers, can be planted in soil or simply placed in a pot on layer of pebbles. I prefer to rest them on a layer of moss in a container with high sides that help to support the foliage and flower stems.

I add just enough water to reach the bottom of the bulbs and in a matter of days roots sprout and weave their way into the moss. With consistent watering, in as little as a month the fragrant white flowers open and last for few weeks. There is no point in keeping the bulbs once they've finished blooming since it is unlikely that they'll ever flower again. Instead I toss them out and plant another batch. In the fall I usually order fifty or more from a supplier like the John Scheepers bulb company ( and store them in my refrigerator's crisper until I'm ready to plant them.

As with Paperwhites, Amaryllis like the ones pictured above can be grown in water and pebbles. But I prefer to grow them in groups of three in pots with soil, which I dress with moss that I collect in the woods. Another tropical bulb, Amaryllis are literally foolproof and will produce dramatic flowers in about eight weeks with a modicum of care. Unlike Paperwhites, it is possible to get the bulbs to rebloom every year if a few cultural requirements are followed. These include rich soil, water, fertilizer and full sun from the time they sprout until late fall at which point the foliage should be cut off and the bulbs given a rest for at least six weeks in a cool, dark room. Following this period of dormancy the bulbs can be repotted and returned to a sunny room. Unfortunately Amaryllis foliage isn't particularly attractive and so I rarely grow them on once they finish flowering. Besides there are so many lovely varieties on the market that I look forward to trying new ones each winter. In addition to the large flowered varieties their are also smaller flowered types like the ones pictured below.

I admire the delicacy of the smaller blooms, which are more ethereal than their larger cousins. There are also double flowered forms but I find them rather stiff and ungainly. To extend the life of the individual flowers I remove the pollen the moment the buds open. This is a trick that works with lilies as well and has the added advantage of keeping the bright yellow pollen from staining one's clothes.

When I worked as a floral designer in New York City in the late eighties, orchids were an expensive, specialty item purchased from select wholesalers. Now it's possible to buy Phalaenopsis Orchids like the one pictured above for ten dollars at Home Depot. It's true that as orchids go they have become common place. Still, they remain one of my favorite flowering house plants because a single plant can bloom for literally months on end. I always search for plants with at least two flower stems and check to make sure that the unopened flower buds are healthy and that the foliage is firm and unblemished.

Phalaenopsis Orchids are generally grown in a porous medium like bark chips. Recently they've been marketed as "Ice Orchids" because it's possible to water them by letting ice cubes melt onto their roots.  However, I prefer to place the pots under the tap in a sink for a few minutes every five days or so. Although I've read that it's easy to get the plants to rebloom every year, I haven't had much luck in that regard. Since the plants themselves aren't particularly showy, I generally relegate them to the compost heap once they've finished blooming. Perhaps that's callous of me, but after all, if I kept every orchid I bought, I wouldn't have room in my house for anything else.