All posts by Katherine Tracey

Growing and Forcing Witch Hazel

Hamamelis x ‘Feuerzauber’

Hamamelis x intermedia commonly known as Witch Hazel is one of the first shrubs to come into bloom in cold climates. We usually see our first flashes of color in February, (some nearby folks were reporting blossoms before this weekend’s arctic blast). Often you will realize they are in bloom as their fragrance fills the air. 

closeup

Witch Hazels set their flower buds during the previous year’s growing season.  Outdoors, once plants have experienced a 6-8 week cold spell followed by mild moist weather, the spidery flowers will begin to open. It is after this cold stretch that you can take  cuttings. If you have a nice big plant in your garden, why not sacrifice a few budded branches for indoor arrangements? Simply put your cut branches in a vase with lukewarm water and wait a few days. 

Hamamelis x ‘Arnold’s Promise’

If you are thinking about adding Witch Hazel to your garden, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Give plants room.  Slow growing at first, Hamamelis can get quite large with age. Expect plants to grow 8-10’ or taller and 10-12’ wide. They enjoy full sun or partial shade, and well-drained soil.
  2. Winter food for bees. Honeybees will seek out their blossoms during a late winter/early spring thaw. 
  3. Flower buds form in spring and early summer. If you cut back plants in summer and fall, you will sacrifice next year’s blossoms.
  4. The winter blooming varieties are hybrids of the Japanese (H. japonicus)  and Chinese  (H. mollis) forms, and are grafted on native Hamamelis vernalis rootstock. Sometimes strong branches will break below the graft, and you might notice, in autumn, that these branches will bear yellow flowers of Hamamelis vernalis. We recommend removing the branches that break below the graft because the fall blooming native plants are more vigorous and may overwhelm your winter blooming stock.

    Hamamelis x ‘Jelena’

    Buy online

Taking Stock of 2018

June Delpiniums

Part of the preparations for updating the Avant Gardens 2019 plant list is to archive the gazillions of garden photographs taken and update the website with new and better images. This cataloging of images reminded me of the star performers of 2018, and regrettably, which plants had a less than stellar year.

Planted in a sunny warm spot at the base of a wall, Acanthus hungaricus

Now one thing always holds true. You can’t rely on any particular weather pattern here in southern New England.   Every year (every season!) challenges us with a totally different set of circumstances, and 2018 was the most challenging gardening year that I can recall. Drastic swings in winter temperatures are the new normal…we began with an arctic blast with January’s arrival followed by 6 weeks of typical winter weather. The last week of February brought surprising warmth and it was a terrible tease… the dusk to dawn thermometers remained above freezing for 7 nights in a row. 

March Blizzard with Hamamelis (Witchhazel)

March weather reminded us why some New Englanders vacate to warmer climates until May….3 nor’easters blew in during the first 2 weeks, and this made spring seem so very far away. Sunshine and a gradual warming trend finally arrived in May, continued for a few weeks, and then summer heat and humidity settled in.

Dwarf Bearded Iris ‘Pastel Charm’ in May

Our garden, late spring.

This is what I remember about last summer…lots of heat and humidity but no rain to speak of…oh wait… on Aug. 4th we had a half inch of precipitation. Yes, I do know folks in much of the northeast had record rainfall, but during July and August the ocean fronts pushed any rainfall off of Cape Cod, the MA South Coast and coastal Rhode Island to the northwest. Our high humidity finally turned to almost daily precipitation in September and October, and then a killing frost finally pulled the curtain just before Halloween arrived.

it’s raining at last…August rainfall is wonderful!

So how did various plants in the garden fare with this irrational weather pattern? Well this was the first year the succulent planters, which in previous years have sung Hallelujah gloriously in September, sadly cried “Enough wet air, already!” long before the first frost arrived. The hardy succulents seemed worse for wear from the constant humidity even when they inhabited the leanest, well drained spots in the garden. On the other hand, any plant with tropical origins prospered in 2018…the Cannas, Caladium and Colocasia were saying “Hey baby!” without any coddling on our part.

Black Colocasia, Caladium and Variegated Bermuda grass

Magnolia macrophylla blossom

Clethra barbinervis in flower

Trees and shrubs always seem to persevere despite the weather, but I know they appreciated the rebound of precipitation our wet autumn provided.The standouts in 2018: I continue to be impressed with Magnolia macrophylla and Clethra barbinervis as extraordinary trees for our landscapes.

Honey bee visiting Pycnanthemum muticum

Calamintha nepeta

Persicaria ‘Firetails’ in the August border,

Detail of Persicaria ‘Firetails’

A few always stellar perennials stood out: Pycnanthemum muticum, flourished and bloomed for months, providing a food source for our honeybees and other pollinators as well. Aralia ‘Sun King’ just kept looking better and better into the fall. Calamintha nepeta ssp nepeta and Persicaria ‘Fire Tails’ bloomed incessantly from mid-July to October. Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’s handsome variegated leaves held up strongly in the shade garden, and its display of lavender orchid like flowers bloomed for 8 weeks beginning in August. The Shrub Mints, Leucosceptrum ‘Golden Angel’ and ‘Mountain Madness’ , maintained their good looking foliage all summer and then their autumn flower spikes provided a feast for our bees!

Aralia ‘Sun King’

Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’…in bloom from August to October.

Gardeners, who aware of the effects of climate change on their plantings, will be challenged to predict which plants will be the stars of 2019. We are lectured that native plants are always a good bet, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that climate change isn’t affecting them as well.  One thing that is constant: plants perform better when good gardening practices are in place. Select the right plant for your soil conditions, amend your soil with compost, mulch newly planted areas to retain moisture and limit weeds, use soaker hoses to irrigate and provide a habitat for beneficial insects. 

A yellow intersectional peony on a late spring evening.

Each year is different, and gardeners are optimists. There’s no telling what 2019 will bring, but I’m sure we will experience pure bliss when we will sit in our gardens on a late spring evening, inhale, and feel that at this moment all is right in this world.

Which plants performed best for you in 2018? Which plants are you looking forward to trying this gardening year?

Joy

A while ago I heard someone comment “Happiness is overrated”.  Something about that comment resonated. 

We are constantly encouraged to pursue happiness. We are told that acquiring “things” will make us happy, that we will be truly happy when we meet our soul mate, that our children’s and loved ones’ happiness will make us happy too. If we don’t have new things or a soul mate, or our children are not happy, then that must mean we are unhappy too.

Joy, to me,  is something different. Joy really can’t be purchased nor taken away. Joy comes from deep within us, a place that is solid and loving. It is an intense feeling of contentment which can be ignited when we experience something pure: watching kittens or puppies play and tumble, observing an elderly couple walk hand in hand, spending moments in a garden while contemplating the array of life surrounding us. We can share joy with others who are open to it.

This holiday season, may moments of contentment ignite the joy within you. May those around you be open to the joy you feel. And may we all continue to find and savor joyous moments throughout the coming year.

 

containers 2018… the after shots

The summer of 2018 presented many challenges to gardeners here in the northeast. Some folks had mind-numbing amounts of rainfall. We had the heat and HUMIDITY but missed most of the storms until September, when we began to catch up with the precipitation….a good thing for the trees and shrubs,  but after a summer of high humidity, the succulents which s often end with a grand tra-la, began to falter.  On the other hand, containers that loved tropical conditions thrived, and I wish I had planted more.

I present to you the before and after pictures:

Brown terra cotta bowl, June and then October…a number of succulents like the yellow and copper Sedum melted with the humidity and late season wetness.

The turquoise jar held up admirably, with Echeveria ‘Afterglow’. The after picture was taken in mid-September.

We never caught them in action, but think some birds decided to have a go at pecking on the succulents’ foliage and breaking off strands from the Rhipsalis which trails over this gray cylinder pot.

Still looking as good as it did in June, this urn with Beschorneria and tender succulents put on a little more growth.

Shade Pot 1. The white form of Begonia boliviensis continues to send our flowers with the Blue Rabbit’s Foot Fern and trailing Alternanthera ‘Gails Choice’ is still holding up well in early October.

Time of day and time of year affect lighting so much. This was a fairly successful shade planter with Begonia ‘Concorde’ filling in nicely, and the golden-leaved piggyback plant Tolmeia ‘Cool Gold’ adding color contrast. The Maidenhair fern fronds had a tendency to brown out.

Happy happy tropicals such as the dark red Caladium and Black Elephant Ears aren’t ready to quit. Trailing over the pot is variegated Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon)

 

How did your containers perform this season?  Did you try a combination that worked well all summer and is still showing off now?

Thoughts on Fall Plantings

Late May in the mixed border with Allium, Baptisia and Symphytum

One of the first lessons of garden making is to plan and act now for future results. Garden making asks us to be patient; it may be months, (sometimes years) before we see the desired results. Planting in autumn requires an added measure of trust. Unlike in spring when we are rewarded with an explosion of top growth, fall planted trees, shrubs and perennials focus on growth below ground.

“Plant a spring garden in the fall.”  I remember receiving this advice from a seasoned gardener when I first fell in love with plants. Embarking on a new planting project may take some motivation after a hot dry summer. Still, there are solid arguments why you should consider establishing most hardy plants at the end of the growing season.  The most compelling reason is how little time we actually have to accomplish plantings once spring does arrive. 

Late April snowfall tormenting poor Epimedium

In recent years, it seems like our autumn weather lingers, with a killing frost not causing harm until almost Thanksgiving. Winter gets a late start, but then tends to hang around longer and longer, which means spring is late too. Just like a hangover, March rolls in, often tormenting us with one snow, wind or ice storm after another.  April is a tease, with signs of early plant growth stalled by frosty nights. Gardeners can only commiserate.  By the time the soil becomes workable and is warm enough for root growth, it is already May, and there is so much to do in May! Beds and borders need spring cleanups and fertilization, plus the container, vegetable and cut flower gardens need to be planned and planted as well.  Even with careful planning, everything always seems to happen at once.

Reasons to plant in the fall.

Fall blooming Vernonia lettermanii with Yucca ‘Color Guard’ and Crambe maritima in foreground

1. Warm soil temperatures allow for root growth and plants are well established once spring actually arrives.

2.  Rainfall tends to be more reliable and cooler temperatures mean there is far less time devoted to watering chores. Also since foliage is dying back or dropping  altogether, there is less top growth that needs sustaining.

3.  This is the best time to dig and divide most spring and early summer blooming plants. All species of Iris, for example are much happier if divided in early fall, as they set roots quickly in the warm autumn soil.

4. You may consider planting more late season plants! When plant shopping, gardeners are always attracted to plants that are in showy bloom. Folks who do their plant shopping primarily in spring tend to have gardens with lots of early bloomers. The opposite also rings true. Our own garden is heavy on late summer and fall interest plants, because many of our beds get planted then (out of necessity…we have so little time in the spring).

Important Gardening Tip:

If you live in an area which gets extreme winter temperature fluctuations, (most of us do in northern climates) it is a good idea to use a protective winter mulch on newly planted beds (and established beds as well). Sterile hay, evergreen boughs or shredded leaves placed over the earth after the ground freezes helps protect the soil from repeated thaws and frost heaving. Remove the mulch once the weather promises reliable springtime temperatures.

 

Vernonia x ‘Southern Cross’

Do you have room in your garden for a late summer/early fall blooming perennial that attracts butterflies galore? This Ironweed has dreamy clouds of composite purple flower clusters on sturdy stems 3-4’ tall beginning in August and its handsome narrow foliage looks fresh all season long. Discovered by Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennials, ‘Southern Cross’ obviously has the species lettermannii in its heritage. This selection combines beautifully with ornamental grasses such as Sorghastrum, Schizachyrium and Eragrostis.

‘Southern Cross’ appears to like extra moisture the first season but becomes more drought tolerant once it is established. Plants are hardy in zones 4-8 and should be deer resistant.

Buy online

Glows in the Shade: Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’

We are always looking for summer blooming perennials for shade, and here’s one you should consider. Many of us notice plants when their blossoms present themselves , and indeed Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’ does captivate with its purple-blue orchid like flowers. I say that this form of Toad Lily deserves attention for its large and bold golden edged foliage. Ovate leaves grow to 6″ long and 3” wide and plants enjoy a rich, somewhat moist but well drained soil. Plants spread by stolons and clump up quite quickly, growing to 2’ tall and up to 3’ wide in dappled shade. ‘Autumn Glow’  is reliably winter hardy in zones 5-8.

Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’ still showing off in early October

The flowers, born in sprays from late July into early October, are lovely as cut flowers and do attract butterflies. Pair Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’ with ferns, such as Athyrium otophorumor golden leaved Hosta for a nice shady vignette.

Buy online

 

Containers 2018…the before shots

May I present to you the “before” shots of our 2018 containers? My goal each year is to create easy care combinations, showcasing some unique specimens, which will continue to look gorgeous right up until frost. Since I love succulents, and they are so super easy, drought tolerant, and look outrageous into the fall, you’ll notice more than a  few combinations.  Above is a 28” wide brown terra cotta bowl with a succulent array , including Aeonium ‘Blushing Beauty’, Senecio cylindricus, Senecio Mini Blue, Sedum “Firestorm’, Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’, Sedum pachyphytum, and a peach flowering painted Echeveria hybrid. This container and the next were planted on Memorial Day, and have already knit together nicely.  Many of the other planters were put together this past week.

The tall cylinder pot has a 24” opening and stands 44” tall. It showcases a few really choice succulents that I’ve been growing on for several years. The ingredients in this planter are: Aeonium urbicum, Senecio barbertonicus, Euphorbia turicalli, Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’Echeveria’ and ‘Hummel’s Sunset’, plus Echeveria ’Chocolate Prince’ and ‘Blue Prince’, Sedum ‘Firestorm’ and trailing over the side is Rice Plant, Rhipsalis teres v. capilliformis.a closeup of the forms and textures.

This 8” terra-cotta pot ensemble picks us some of the colors in the other planters. We’re enjoying this unknown Echeveria pulidonis hybrid with erect stems bearing peach colored flowers, and the flower color is fun with the golden Sedum adolphii and the tiny creeper Sedum album ‘Athoum’.

We’ve been growing on these false agave ‘Beschorneria ‘Pink Flamingo’ plants for several years now and they are quite impressive in size. Underplantings include Echeveria agavoides, Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ and ‘String of Pearls’ Senecio rowleyensis. The iron urns are about 15″ across and are in an area which gets half day sun.

A client who lives by the sea brought in these cast stone rectangles and wanted a planting that is easy to care for and that could tolerate lots of wind and sun. We’re glad she likes these sea and sky colored succulents.

To have interesting shade planters, you really do need to seek out unique foliage plants. Here I’ve used Phlebodium pseudoaureum (Blue Rabbit’s Foot Fern) with the white form of Begonia boliviensis and purple trailing  Alternanthera ‘Gails Choice’ plus the mini spider plant, Chlorophytum comosum ‘Bonnie’ which will eventually cascade down this urn as well.

Another shade container, planted once again with Maidenhair Fern Adiantum pedatum, plus Begonia ‘Concorde’ adds dark foliage contrast and pink flowers, and the new trailing perennial piggyback plant, Tolmeia menziesii ‘Cool Gold’. This container has an 18” opening and gets dappled light.

In a dark corner, and paired with a yellow orchid, chartreuse colored Hosta ‘Designer Genes’ is the focal point, its wine red petioles adding contrast. I like the way the rising flower stock has an interesting foliar accent.  Ming Fern,  Asparagus macawonii, is used to give an airy feel, and golden Piggyback Plant will spill over the sides of the pot. 

Imperial Blue Plumbago is a gorgeous color that is sometimes hard to play with. To be on the safe side, it’s paired with white Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and the chartreuse form of licorice plant, Helichrysum ‘Limelight’.

Coprosma ‘Pink Splendor’ is a tender evergreen shrub with pastel variegation. Here it is paired with chenille plant, Acalypha pendula and a trailing flowering maple, Abutilon megapotamicum, in a 10” wide tall tom pot. This container would enjoy a spot in full sun or part day shade.

White Begonia boliviensis steals the show in this 15” terra cotta rolled rim pot, but this container wouldn’t be as much fun without Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and the teal/silver trailer Pilea glauca. Phormium ‘Sundowner’ adds a vertical thrust. For sun or part shade.

This impressive 38” zen cast stone bowl has always been planted with succulents, due to it’s shallow depth and ease of care (it’s in a spot a distance away from a water source). The problem is, this area has become more and more shady, (only about 3-4 hours of good sunlight). This selection of succulents is thought to be more tolerate of some shade….we’ll see how they fared at summer’s end.

Peachy-pink and lime green Phormium ‘Jester’ adds the vertical in this succulent combo, which includes  a golden leaved Portulacaria we found at The Ruth Bancroft Garden a few years ago, plus ‘Echeveria ‘Blue Prince’, Crassula ‘Hummell’s Sunset’, Sedum ‘Limeglow’ and  Sedeveria ‘Blue Elf’ and Sedeveria ‘Jetbeads.

The color of this 18” ceramic container reminds me of the ocean on a clear sunny day. Succulents contribute to that under the sea feeling….the large growing Echeveria ‘Afterglow’, with the tall Senecio cylindricus, Pachyphytum ‘Blue Haze’ , Crassula ovata undulata, and a mystery x Graptosedum hybrid.

I’ll be taking photos again of these containers in late September and we can compare these early shots with “After Pics”. Stay posted.

 

Papyrus Ensemble for Part Shade

Looking to do something a bit dramatic but very easy care in a partially shaded container? This container ensemble, planted in an 18″ wide pot,  features the compact growing Papyrus, ‘Prince Tut’, standing  30-40″ tall, as well as a dwarf variegated form Cyperus albostriatus variegatus ,  trailing Callisia congestifolia variegata and Ornamental Oregano, Origanum rotundifolum ‘Kent Beauty’. The Oregano will come forth into bloom early, and then allow the Callisia to take over in an exuberant way.

Average soil mix is fine here. Although Papyrus will grow in standing water, they adapt quite well to not wet conditions. The Callisia may began to overwhelm her neighbors, but a quick trip here and there will keep her in check.

Buy as an ensemble online.

Fields of Gold

Have you ever wandered through a reclaimed woodland and come upon an abandoned homestead? Perhaps all that is left is a stone foundation and a few time-tested plants, such as a peony, century plant or Solomon’s Seal which manage to survive for decades without human care. And have you ever wondered, what will become of the plants that you’ve tended to all these years, once you are no longer around?

Back in my high school days, I came upon this open field of daffodils while exploring the woodlands off the road that I lived on. There may well have been a no trespassing sign, but all I can remember was being as enchanted as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I  had no idea whose property I was on, nor who was responsible for this field of gold.

Guess what? That field is still there. And fortunately, you won’t be trespassing if you visit today. In 2005, this 32 acre parcel was donated to our local land preservation group, Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust, aka DNRT, by its last private owner, William Parsons. Thank you Mr. Parsons, and thank you DNRT!              

Now, it wasn’t Mr Parsons who planted all those narcissi; it was a gentlemen by the name of Raymond Pettey. The story I‘ve since been told is that Mr Pettey decided to plant the daffodils during the 1940’s as a cut flower crop, when the supply of spring flowers from Holland was cut off due to World War II. Once the war ended there wasn’t much of a demand for locally sourced cut flowers. The daffodils remained and multiplied.

The daffodil field property is now known as the Parsons Reserve and the fields and trails are maintained by DNRT. The main entrance to the property is on Horseneck Rd. in Russell’s Mills Village. The Reserve is open to the public, but a modest $2.00 donation during daffodil season is requested to help offset the cost of maintaining the trails and fields . There are things to consider before you visit. Parking is very limited, and more and more people make a pilgrimage each spring. There is a slight hill to climb, and it takes about 8-10 minutes on foot before you reach the fields. As you would expect, you  are not allowed to pick bouquets. Visit DNRT’s webpage for more detailed information of this and other properties, and of course, support their efforts if you can by becoming a member.

When is peak time? I was able to capture these images early in the morning last April 15th (2017). Our prolonged 2018 winter has meant we’re having a late start to spring, and my guess is that the daffodils will probably be at least a week late this season.

Thank you Mr. Pettey. You probably had no idea that your fields of gold would delight and inspire so many years later.