All posts by Katherine Tracey

Holiday decor in the time of Covid

Amaryllis ‘Wedding Dance’ and Begonias with cut greens and lights

Yep, this year is different. Fear of Covid has canceled holiday gatherings, and the urge to go all out with decorating is met by some with the question, “should I bother?” The answer is yes, even if it must be simple. This year, we absolutely need to illuminate the long nights with strings of lights and candles, but maybe we can take a break from lugging boxes of Christmas ornaments from the attic. (The thought of putting it all away is a chore no one relishes!) Instead,  we’ll focus on bringing nature indoors with decor that is  gathered from the garden and (lucky us) , the greenhouse.

Succulents in shades of red, green and white sit on a tray with gathered moss. Even the Aloes have festive names: the tiny one in the foreground is ‘Christmas Sleigh’, just behind it is  Aloe ‘Blizzard’, with blue green Echeveria setosa dimunata flanking on either side.

a brilliant Guzmania with red spikemoss

fresh evergreen wreath cut from conifers in the garden.

So, yes to winter wreaths on doorways, garlands, and arrangements of cut branches with pine cones. Yes to forced pots of Amaryllis, Christmas roses and red and green leaved Begonia. We may bring in a potted evergreen from the nursery and simply dress it with lights. Some classic holiday music will set the mood, along with the scent of cookies baking in the oven.

catch early morning light in the garden

a fire brings light and warmth

a fire brings light and warmth to end the day

This may be the year when we can’t physically gather with friends and family, but we can find peace and hope in nature’s gifts. Be outside as much as possible: take an early morning walk to catch the bird song or build a fire at dusk. Perhaps these simple ways of acknowledging the season,  more akin to the ancient winter festivals of northern Europe, will become a new tradition.

bottom lighting sets off this white Amaryllis

Peace and joy to you all!

Stay well!

Aloe, Haworthia, Gasteria and their hybrids

Some of our Aloe, Gasteria, and Haworthia collection. Yes, those red tags mean they are stock plants and not for sale…but we may have babies coming along!

It’s no surprise that as your plant obsession grows,  you begin to find the more exotic, curious and sometimes bizarre selections the most interesting, and perhaps most beautiful.  Aloe, Haworthia and Gasteria fit that bill us.

Miniature Aloe ‘Blizzard’…4 year old clump

A number of years ago, we visited California succulent breeder Dick Wright (now in his 90’s)  in search of his famous Echeveria hybrids. Dick’s new obsession was miniature Aloe, and he turned us onto this whole new group of succulent hybrids. He, along with other CA hybridizers such as John Bleck, Kelly Griffin and Karen Zimmerman, were hybridizing many Aloe species resulting in selections as minute as 1″ to up to 2′ in height, in a vast array of foliage colors and textures. Their small stature makes them more suitable for container culture than in the landscape, and since they do not winter over outdoors here in MA, that was just fine with us.

More Aloes…’Christmas Sleigh’, ‘Swordfish’, A. ramosissima, ‘Delta Dawn’, (Sedum clavatum interrupts the lineup ) one of the mini dark numbered selections from Dick Wright and a variegated Aloe brevifolia

Our first acquisitions were species hailing from Madagascar, Kenya  and Tanzania, as well as the more well known hybrid selections ‘Delta Dawn’, ‘Christmas Sleigh’, and ‘Firecracker’. We also brought home other forms which had not been introduced and were distinguished only by initials and numbers, like the little dark Aloe above.

Aloe “AJR” in the foreground with Aloe ‘Firecracker’ behind

Gasteraloe x ‘Midnight’, Gastworthia armstrongii x limifolia, Haworthia retusa, Gasteria bicolor v liliputana (BG), Gasteraloe ‘Green Ice’ and Haworthia concolor.

We also began paying attention to the closely related genera Haworthia and Gasteria, since they are known to be more tolerant of low indoor light conditions. There are many species and hybrids of both, and you will likely come across names like x Gasteraloe and x Gastworthia, as these genera are often crossed with each other, resulting in even more diverse selections.

Gasteraloe ‘Green Ice’, sporting darker leaf coloration, and flowers!

Blooming time for Aloe, Gasteria and Haworthia is primarily during the winter months and early spring usually with strikingly colored flowers. A number of the Aloe selections also bloom intermittently throughout the summer for us and are a hummingbird favorite.

20 year old Gasteria bicolor v. liliputana in bloom….you start with a baby, and suddenly they are all grown up.

Consider growing these easy care plants for your fall and winter plant “fix”.  They ask for so little: provide a sharply drained soil mix,  a bright south or western exposure for Aloe, an eastern or northern exposure will be fine for the Gasteria and HaworthiaWater only as needed. The frequency will depend  on how warm and arid your home conditions are. In fact, a cooler home is perfect!

Container Report: late September 2020

Two words sum up this summer’s weather here along the coast of southern New England: hot and dry.  Here at the end of September, our parched gardens are still waiting for the rain predictions to materialize.  Sigh.

The gardens are looking tarnished  but the container plantings held up better since their watering needs are more easily met. As in previous dry years,  our containers planted with succulents were the stars. (Check out the recent article NY Times garden writer Margaret Roach covered on succulent containers).

You may recall the June report post  which shows the “before” pictures. Now I’ll show you what some of these look like 3 months later, chewed up, cut back foliage and all.

The Drum Pot: Melianthus major grew taller and the Helichrysum ‘Limelight’  (Licorice Plant) needed to get cut back after the American Lady Butterfly caterpillars made dinner of most of its foliage…what we do for the butterflies…The Jewels of Opar didn’t show off as much as I hoped, and was cut back a few weeks ago. The Tradescantia sillamontana did fine, but this planter combo won’t be repeated.

We have a pair of these iron urns that are always planted to match. They are in dappled shade most of the day. One of the pair really was over by the end of August (the one that I photographed in June). It did get a bit more afternoon sun. Its complement held up better…. here the Helichrysum took off after an early cut back, as did the Copper Glow Oxalis. The Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’ is now fading, Begonia ‘Ebony’ bloomed well and its dark foliage added height and contrast, but the golden Moses- in-the-cradle (Tradescantea spathacea) just couldn’t hold its own, and is in hiding.

Another shady spot. Begonia thurstonii grew well, but held off putting out any flowers (not surprisingly). I used two 6″ pots in this vase, and probably should have used just one. The  mostly gold Plectranthus ‘Limelight’ is not a strong grower, and wouldn’t cascade down the pot as  hoped. The Oxalis ‘Zinfandel’ always does well and the ruby leaved Alternanthera did fine until some critter nibbled  its trailing stems.

No complaints with this shady ensemble…Phlebodium aureum is my go to bold foliage shade container plant. Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ is providing an end of the season supply of blossoms as is the Gold Leaved Mexican heather Cuphea hyssopifolia aurea. The golden jasmine vine’s foliage simply glows.

A pair of these hypertufa bowls, in the shade of our giant oak tree, were planted with ‘Moonglow’ Snakeplant (Sansevieria), Dichondra Silver Falls’, Pilea glauca and Liriope ‘Okimo’  (all selected for durable attractive leaves. The white flowered form of Black Eyed Susan Vine was the flower power plant, and it bloomed well until a  couple of weeks ago.  Figured a few mini pumpkins could add a little fun now.

And now, for the sun and heat loving succulents! This beautiful container, in itself, is eye candy….the foliage colors of the succulents were selected to complement it, and all did fine except for the tall Aeonium that had a mishap and lost it’s tallest stems. Blue Senecio talinoides and beige-pink Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ obliged by filing in much of the horizontal space.End of day light and cooler night temperatures bring out the glow of Sticks on Fire, Euphorbia turicali, with the Mangave ‘Desert Dragon’ added dark contrast. Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’ on the far left, yellow leaved Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ and blue gray pink Graptosedum ‘Francesco Baldi’ filled in the foreground.  This will look good right up until the frost. (Please, frost, wait until November.)

Someone purchased the seashell planter shown in the June post, but we did another version for a client.  This image was taken at at the end of August, but the ensemble is still looking fabulous.Succulents can play with other plants that  tolerate the dry well drained soil…Here Coprosma ‘Pink Splendor’ (Mirror Plant)  works well with Sedum adolphiiSedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ and Pachysedum.

Our tall cylinder pot, each year planted with a different  array of succulents, caught visitors’ eyes when they entered the parking area. Everything did extremely well with just an occasional watering, although some creature nibbled and pulled out some of the trailing Othonna capensis ‘Ruby Necklace’.  The tallish green succulent with the arching branches is the large leaved form of Elephant Plant, Portulacaria afra macrophylla. Adding an array of pumpkins helps carry this container into the fall season.

In summary, we had a hot and extremely dry summer, and one group of plants, the succulents, met this year’s challenge beautifully.  I realize this blog post reaches folks in all parts of the country, and your area may have benefited from  more summer rain. If so, what plantings were you most impressed with this year ?

Demystifying Seed Collecting: Harvesting, Storing and Sharing

nasturtium babies

nasturtium babies

It started with a nasturtium seed in a paper cup. Oh so many years ago, my first grade teacher instructed her classroom of 6-year olds how to plant the round nubby seeds. Within a week or 2, the first beautiful leaves broke through the soil. I have been smitten with germination ever since.

Many folks sow their are own annual seeds, but not so many give perennials a try. It is important to note that in recent years seed sown perennial selections have dwindled at garden centers.  Wholesale suppliers now favor the patented sterile clones that some say boast more uniform growth. (Hey control freak gardeners, it’s time to let go of that! )

honeybee on a single white Chrysanthemum

Upon becoming a beekeeper 5 years ago, I got a wake up call that seed-grown perennials provided more pollen and nectar, which in turn nourish our honey and native bees.  Our plant selections now include many more seed sown strains of perennials, shrubs and even trees, and this is the trend we foresee for other small specialty growers.

This brings me back to the importance of this topic:  seed collecting. Here are more reasons to encourage you to  harvest your own seed.

  1. To be able to propagate more plants for new garden beds
  2. To preserve strains that you find remarkable
  3. To be economical  (seeds are getting expensive)
  4. To participate in seed exchanges.  One benefit of joining various plant organizations such as the Hardy Plant Society or the North American Rock Garden Society is you have access to their seed exchanges. Share your seed with other members, and get access to many varieties not found at the local garden center.

peonies…the blue fruit are the ones that have fertile seeds

The first question many first time seed collectors ask is when should they harvest seed. This varies from plant to plant. You do need to collect seed as soon at it ripens, before the pods or capsules burst and dispense. Seed ripens at different times on different plants throughout the year so you need to pay close watch. Spring bloomers like Primrose and Vernal Sweet Pea ripen in June and early July, while on a late August day, the pods of species peonies burst to expose their bright red and blue fruit (the blue seeds are the fertile ones). Bluestar seed pods are ready to collect in early September, while it may be late October before you can harvest seeds of Compass Plant.

Our changing climate will challenge any timing rules. However, I just came across a website which may be of great help  the Seed Site .  It has a wealth of information on what pods and ripened seed look like on hundreds of different plant species.

Clockwise from top left: Cynara cardunculus, Galtonia viridiflora, Talinum paniculatum

Once you collect your seed, you should clean off the chaff and store in a cool dry spot in paper or glassine envelopes.  Make sure there are no tiny insect pests hanging out in the capsules. Some seed, such as Arisaema (Jack in the Pulpits) and Hellebores benefit by being stored enclosed in a moist paper towel inside a baggy, and kept in the refrigerator until spring.  Remember to label right away. You think you’ll remember, but…

The proper time for sowing and seed treatments differ depending on the plant. There is no one source that has complete information, but we often refer to the Jelitto Seed Website for germination tips. 

I encourage you to save your own seed. Yes, there is always more to learn,  but once you start you will gain confidence.  Go outside now and see whether you have a windfall of seed ready for harvesting.

Houseplants’ Summer Vacation is Almost Over

Doesn’t it happen so suddenly? One week temperatures are in the 80’s with nights still mild, and then one morning you wake up to find that the overnight temperatures dropped below 50F.  If your tropical houseplants have spent the summer outdoors, this is your cue to start bringing them indoors.

First: Groom and Assess for Pests

Your Peperomia, Ferns and Snakeplants have probably put on nice growth over the summer, benefitting from the good air flow and more humidity. Now, as the days become both cooler and shorter,  your houseplants may be begin to let go their oldest leaves. Groom and assess for pests. Pest problems that are minor outdoors become a bigger deal inside.

I find that there are often a few slugs or snails hanging out under the pots. Remove them. We began using a food grade diatomaceous earth to deter slugs on our container plants and recommend it. The teensy particles are sharp enough to inflict cuts on their bodies. It is advisable to wear a mask so as not to inhale the small particles when applying. Dust the soil and even the foliage if you notice that your leaves have been munched on. The diatomaceous earth also seems to deter other pests.

Be on the lookout for aphids on fresh new growth, whitefly on the leaf undersides and mealybugs in leaf/stem crevices. Sometimes a forceful spray with the hose can take care of things, but I recommend a follow up using a safe organic pesticide like Insecticidal Soap for aphids or a Neem Oil product  which can control not only aphids but whitefly, some mites, caterpillars and scale.  Use rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip to swab and kill mealybugs. (Inspecting regularly and catching the first signs of activity is the best defense; if you discover a plant has a bad mealy problem it is best to just ditch that plant).  Be sure to follow the instructions on the product label, and repeat at the recommended intervals as a preventative for any new hatching. Do isolate any problem plants. 

Hold back on the fertilizer

All plants will slow down in growth, so you may want to wait to repot any oversized plants until spring. Slow down on fertilizing unless you have  a plant that is a heavy fall or winter feeder.

Most succulents can take cooler nights than the tropicals, but don’t let them get bitten by a frost. For more info on succulent wintering over I’ve written  more extensively on this topic at  this blog post link.

 

Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’

Are you looking for something different for a fall display in your containers? Check out Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’...it celebrates autumn with multitudes of dark orange flowers, and can, if brought indoors and kept in a sun filled space, will continue to carry on the show.

We grow a number of Abutilon selections  in containers which we bring indoors once the cold sets in, but if we were asked which  form to grow,  Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red‘ tops the list. It stays bushy and compact  ( it has A. megapotamicum in its lineage) when grown in 4-6 hours of sun and blooms continuously  with the biggest show in late summer and fall.  We have been caught off guard when a frosty night  has brought temperatures below 32F, and  found that  ‘Dwarf Red’  came through unfazed.

Some things to know about Abutilon. It is  commonly known as Flowering Maple,  and is a semi-tropical shrub with lovely pendant bell-shaped flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds. The flower display can continue year round when grown in bright light and temperatures above 45F, but in our experience,  the flower display in autumn is most generous. Often listed as winter hardy in zones 9-10, we have been hearing that hardiness in zones 7b-8 is not unheard of when plants are grown in a protected spot with good drainage.

CARE: Abutilons like to be fed regularly for good flower output  We use a fish emulsion/seaweed blend (Neptune’s Harvest 2-6-4 blend) every 2 weeks. allow the soil to become somewhat dry between waterings.   Purchase online.

Other posts discussing fall containers:

Rethinking fall containers

Plectranthus ciliatus

End of the Season Container Reports

Vitex agnus-castus ‘Shoal Creek’

Why plant Buddleia when you can grow Vitex?  Mid summer blue-lavender fragrant spires begin in July and carry on through August on bushy plants with attractive palmate foliage. Here in the northeast, our colder winters don’t allow plants to become as large (10-15′) as the data says, since they  do get some  winter die back.  Vitex blooms on new growth, so it can be cut back hard each spring to grow into a perfectly sized 5-6′ flowering shrub.  And yes,  it is a great addition to a pollinator garden as it is a favorite of butterflies and bees.

The fruits of Vitex agnus-castus resemble peppercorns and have medicinal properties. It has been used to treat women’s health issues such fertility and menstrual problems. In the middle ages it was used to reduce the male libido (heaven’s no!) hence its common name, Chaste Tree. Grow Vitex in full sun in well drained soil in zones (5, with protection) 6-9.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’

I’ll give you 3 reasons why you should have ‘Jeana’, a Summer Panicle Phlox, in your garden.

1. Long-blooming tresses of many small lilac sized florets, on 4-5′ stems, adorn this plant from mid July-September.

2. The foliage is highly resistant to mildew.

3. Butterflies favored ‘Jeana’  over all other Phlox paniculata selections  in the trial gardens at the Mt. Cuba Center.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is  hardy in zones 4-8 and enjoys full sun. For a pleasing midsummer vignette, combine with white coneflowers or the yellow daisies of tall Rudbeckia nitida ‘Autumn Sun’, as well as the blue spires of mid-sized Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and  for the front of the border airy and pollinator friendly Calamintha nepeta ssp nepeta.

Container Series 2020

Here we go…the first of a series of container ensembles for 2020. If you’ve followed our postings from previous years, you may remember that our goal is to plant up  containers in June which will be easy to maintain and still look fabulous in September.

Start with the pot. When I design a container I try to select plants that work well with the chosen vessel. Consider the container’s shape, color and texture. In the design above I have used Melianthus major, hardy to zone 9, as the main feature in this multi-hued green drum pot. I tucked in Golden Jewels of Opar and Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ to add light and drape, and the petite form of silver Tradescantia sillamontana. This container is located in a spot that gets 6-7 hours of sun.

This Iron urn gets dappled light most of the day. I’ve used Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’ to pick up the tone of the urn, plus Oxalis ‘Copper Glow’, Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ for lightness and Begonia ‘Ebony’, which will give height as the season progresses. Note the Begonia has the same coral pink flowers as the Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’. I had hopes for the golden Moses- in-the-cradle (Tradescantea spathacea), but it is beginning to dissolve…and I don’t know why.

This large Grecian urn is in shade most of the day. Plants featured are Begonia thurstonii, with its glossy bronze foliage and pink flowers, Oxalis ‘Zinfandel’, Ming Fern (Asparagus retrofractus) in the back, which you cannot see much of yet, golden Moses- in-the-cradle in the foreground and Plectranthus ‘Limelight’ which will hopefully trail to disguise the iron stain on the vessel.

This urn gets the first hours of morning sun, then dappled shade the rest of the day. It’s a variation on what I did last year, with a few updates. For height I’ve used Blue Rabbits-Foot Fern (Phlebodium aureum),  accented with Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’,  little Cuphea hyssopifolia lutea, Tolmeia ‘Cool Gold’ and Jasmine ‘Fiona Sunrise’.

Playing with contrasts here: white and black, rustic and elegant.  A rustic hypertufa bowl in dappled shade has Sansevieria ‘Moonshine’ adding a vertical thrust along with smaller Liriope ‘Okimo’, and to spill over the sides Pilea glauca,  Thunbergia alata alba (Black Eyed Susan Vine) and Dichondra argentea.

This gorgeous pot with its salt-crackle finish of turquoise over bronze called for succulents. A tall Aeonium arboreum adds height, with additional rosettes from  tawny toned Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ and Echeveria ‘Autumn Flame’. Senecio talinoides picks up the blue tones. For sun to partial shade…

Just potted up  hours ago, this 28″ brown terracotta bowl showcases my new fav, iMangave ‘Desert Dragon’ , in the center. Sticks on Fire (Euphorbia turicalli v. rosea) adds height, with Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’, Pachysedum, Haworthia, Sempervivums, Crassula lycopoides and Echeveria nodulosa acting as fillers. Small leaved yellow  Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ is repeated around the container’s edge, where it hopefully will spill over the sides.

A new version of a seashell planter with Echeveria ‘Dick’s Pink’ in the spotlight. Pale sea green Graptoveria ‘Moonglow’ fills either side, with bronzy Sedum tetractinum and Senecio ‘String of Pearls’ cascading down.

This tall lightweight gray cylinder pot is in area that is seen by everyone almost daily. It’s important that it looks good and needs little care, so of course succulents come to play. In the past I’ve used a lot of silver and blue toned succulents…this year I’m playing with green, bronze and gold. The tall green succulent is a large leaved form of Portulacaria afra that we found at a specialty shop in LA.

You may wonder, and the answer is yes, I do like flowers, but I do try to avoid flowering plants that need constant deadheading or are very thirsty. This pair of freshly planted white ribbon pots (for a client ) have 3 easy long-blooming tender perennials that will give a show all summer: Blue Plumbago, Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’, with a variegated ivy  that will spill over the sides.

Check back in late September when I post the end of season photos in the final  review of which ensembles worked well and which did not. I do have more pots to do, and if time allows I’ll post images. Click this link for previous years results.

Our winter visit to the Montreal Botanical Garden

Traveling always presents challenges…What to do when you have a 22-hour layover in Montreal? Book a hotel, get up early and take an Uber to the Montreal Botanical Garden, otherwise known as Le Jardin Botanique de Montréal…after all it is in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Yes, there was an icy layer of snow outdoors, but inside the 10 greenhouse complex, there was flora to excite even the most jaded botanist. Check out this sensational planted wall with Begonia, Pothos, Tillandsia, Prayer Plants and more.The orchid house was full of treasures. Epiphytic plants cascaded from the rafters.

Each greenhouse focuses on a specific plant group, with specimens arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  Here is the view from the catwalk in the Aroid,  Cycad and Palm House.The Succulent Greenhouse … with Mexican themed architecturecloseup of the hanging Rhipsalis floccosa

More temperate plantings were found in the cooler Asian themed greenhouse.An  exquisite 45 year old Penjing specimen of Pyrancantha crenulataSweetly fragrant Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, which wouldn’t be hardy outdoors in Montreal or most of Massachusetts for that matter, was in full bloom indoors in January.There are many educational exhibits that are artfully conceived. Here cut stems of Red Twig Dogwood are inserted in a wooden platform, echoing the stems outdoors in the distance. Floating from the rafters above is a montage of recycled trash…yes…what we fill our landfills with.Another view of the recycled assemblage.Chris and I didn’t have time to walk the grounds, even though the winter landscape beckoned. The staff we spoke with were extremely knowledgable and quite proud of their garden, as well they should be.  If you are looking for a flora filled winter escape, the greenhouses here are exceptional. We definitely want to return this summer or fall.