Those of us who live in colder climates may be thinking it’s time to rehab last year’s tender succulent containers. Over the winter, these planters have been trying to soak up as much sun as possible on windowsills and in sunrooms, but it’s a sure thing that by mid spring many of the plants have become unbecomingly leggy. You have two options: disassemble the planter, plant by plant, then cut back and replant in fresh soil, or if the planter is not too overcrowded or out of proportion, you can see if just trimming back is the answer.
I’m encouraging you to be ruthless when you cut back. After cutting off their heads these plants won’t look happy immediately, but the alternative could become down right ugly (and, any cuttings that are pinched back can be stuck in sand and rooted for more plants). You may find that some of the spreading succulents have exceeded their bounds and need to be lifted and divided…but you can use these pieces to tuck in around the container where their are “plant gaps”. Fertilize your planter …we use a seaweed/fish emulsion. It will take a number of weeks and some warm sunny weather for your planters to start to perk up.
Vertical Succulent Gardens are often in need of cutting back and editing. We usually leave our vertical planters horizontal on benches during the winter, to minimize stretching. Still some plants such as the rosettes of Sempervivum or Echeveria may have become overwhelmed by creeping Sedum and Delosperma, and need to be replaced. We take fresh cuttings and secure them in place with floral pins. Fertilize with seaweed/fish emulsion , keeping the wall planter flat while the new cuttings root in, and move outside as soon as nights stay in the 50′s or above. In a few weeks, growth will begin to fill in the empty spaces, and then you can hang.
Growing Lavender en masse here in the northeast has often been a risky thing to do. Lavender would suffer winter damage, and we would often find we had to replace plants here and there every winter. The good new is that after this past cruel winter, which caused more than its share of plant casualties, a recent Lavender introduction came through unscathed. Lavandula ‘Phenomenal’, in fact, is looking pretty phenomenal.
Here’s the data. ‘Phenomenal’ was introduced by Peace Tree Farm Nursery in PA, after the folks there observed it for years in their trial beds. ‘Phenomenal’ tolerated extreme heat and humidity in summer, making it a good choice for hot summer areas, and was resistant to root diseases which often plague lavenders where winters are cold and wet. ‘Phenomenal’ begins blooming in late spring and carries on through July, with masses of intoxicatingly fragrant lavender blue flowers. Plants grow slowly at first, but reach large proportions…24″ tall and 36″ wide in several years time. Deer and rabbit resistant, it also attracts butterflies and grows best in full sun and well drained soil. Plants are super hardy too…wintering over in zones 4-8.
We shouldn’t be surprised many people do not know or grow little Beesia. This Buttercup relative was brought into the U.S. from China by Dan Hinkley of Heronswood Gardens fame, less than 20 years go. Sometimes thought of as a west coast plant, we have found that when sited in a protected spot it has thrived for half a dozen years in our zone 6A garden.
Beesia deltophylla is semi evergreen for us, but in mild winter climates folks can enjoy its glossy dark green heart shaped foliage all year round. The silvery veining adda a nice accent, and in late spring and early summer it sends up 10-15″ stems bearing dainty white flowers. We have included it with Hellebores, Epimedium and Hakonechloa in an understory planting under our ancient oak tree.
To grow Beesia well, provide a well drained soil that is rich with humus, and irrigate during dry spells. In cold climates like ours, let the fallen leaves acts as a winter mulch or spread sterile straw over the plants to protect from cruel winter winds. We suggest using it in urban gardens, which are often protected and shaded by tall buildings.
Looking for a bold foliage plant that is cold hardy through zone 5, deer resistant and is one of the first to show signs of life in the spring? Meet this form of Variegated Russian Comfrey, a naturally occurring hybrid of S. officinale x S. asperum. ‘Axminster Gold’ will form robust clumps of 14″ creamy yellow edged lanceolate leaves, 18-24″ tall by 2-3′ wide. In late spring and early summer, pink lavender “bluebell-like” flowers will bloom on nodding on 4′ tall stems and attract a myriad of butterflies. Once the blooming period is over remove the aging stalks to promote fresh foliar growth. Last summer we saw ‘Axminster Gold’ in a garden paired with Periscaria ‘Firetails’, and want to duplicate this combination.
Grow ‘Axminster Gold’ in full sun or partial shade in a soil that is rich and somewhat moisture retentive. ‘Axminster Gold’ can be quite vigorous once established in the garden but is somewhat scarce in the trade due to propagating difficulty. For some reason plants propagated from root cuttings will be solid green , so divisions must be taken from the central crown in order to ensure you’ll be getting the gold variegation.
If you’re like me, once the snow retreated you walked about your garden searching for hints of growth. For me the first signs came from the snowdrops and now the crocus are showing color, as well as the narcissus which are sending forth their green pencil shoots. We’ve cut back the old Epimedium and Helleborus hybridus foliage. Ah yes, there they are: the tightly curled flower buds just waiting for a bout of milder temperatures.
Our conifers are all looking okay, and right now the tropical looking Trochodendron we planted last summer is looking pretty darn good (fingers kept crossed). On the other hand the Bamboos, both the Fargesia rufa and Phyllostyachys aureasulcata, took a real beating. The browned foliage will be replenished with new growth, but the thing is that won’t happen until mid May…. can we really stand looking at it for that long? We have no choice but to live with our brown Phyllostachys forest, but we may just have to cut the Fargesia to the ground and spare ourselves the view of winter’s scourge. It means we’ll sacrifice some height this year, but I’m sure we’ll get at least 3’ of it back this summer, and next year the Fargesia should reach 6’ or more.
It’s still too soon to tell with most perennials. Unless the evidence is an obviously mushy crown, it’s really just a wait and see. We’ve had many a plant resurrect itself from deep roots in late spring, once the earth has sufficiently warmed. Good news is the Beesia deltophylla, covered with a blanket of fallen leaves for the winter is promising growth.
Here’s what I recommend. Take pictures of the what your garden looks like now, and then document again in 6-8 weeks. Keep these images as a record of reference for the future, so when things look skeptical in early spring, you have hope.
Would you like to meet ‘Lawrence Crocker’, the easiest little Daphne we know and grow? It was discovered and named for one of the founders of Siskyou Rare Plant Nursery, and thought to be a hybrid of D. arbuscula and D. collina. Daphne ‘Lawrence Crocker’ is a little gem for the tiny urban garden, alpine or otherwise, as long as you can provide it a well drained soil, adequate moisture to establish and at least half day sun. ‘Lawrence Crocker’ was one of the first specimens we planted in our rockery (20 years ago, at least), and it continues to charm us each spring with its fragrant dark pink blossoms.
Remember this is a diminutive plant. It is suitable for trough gardens, but in the open garden it can grow up to 12″ tall and up to 18″ wide. It has proven durable and hardy for us in zone 6A.
It’s hard not to have an inferiority complex when you are visiting the West Coast. Everything happens so much earlier here. We took an opportunity to escape New England’s enduring winter, and discovered signs of spring at Filoli, a beautiful estate garden just south of San Francisco in Woodside CA. We were able to get in some picture taking in between the downpours.
Some history. William Bowers Bourn II, owner of one of California’s richest gold mines and president of the Spring Valley Water Company, which supplied water to the city if San Francisco, built Filoli between 1915 and 1917. The Georgian style dwelling sits on an estate of 654 acres, of which 6 acres are cultivated gardens. Ownership changed hands in 1936 when Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth (Lurline Matson, heir of the Matson Navigation Company) purchased the property. Mrs. Roth saw to the establishment of many of the gardens we see today. She added the woodland copse, the swimming pool garden and the screened-in teahouse, and built Filoli’s botanic collections of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas.
Lucky for us, Mrs. Roth donated the estate in its entirety to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975, including a healthy endowment to help support operating expenses. It is open to the public February through October, 10-3:30 pm. Filoli is closed on Mondays. For more info visit their website.
You wouldnt know it by looking out my window today, but this past Sunday afternoon it hit 50 degrees. I walked about the garden taking inventory, and just as I had hoped, buds were beginning to swell on spring flowering trees and shrubs. To my delight, the Hamamelis (witch hazel) blossoms were beginning to open. It was a perfect time to cut some branches for forcing indoors.
Forcing is not difficult, but it helps to understand a few basics. Many woody plants (trees and shrubs) set their flowering buds during the previous growing season. They must undergo a dormant period (about 6 weeks) of cold temperatures. A sustained warm moist spell following this dormant period will break dormancy. You need to mimic this warm moist spell to trick your cut branches into thinking it is spring.
1. Walk about your garden in search of subjects, observe, and prune
You can actually tackle some pruning as you search for stems for forcing. As you select branches, remember to consider the shape you want your tree or shrub to grow. Prune on a mild day, preferably in the afternoon. The day’s warmth will aid the plant in taking up water and sugars from the roots. Branches force more easily if they are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.
One of the easiest plants to break dormancy is Forsythia. Other plants to consider are Willows (Salix), Witch hazel (Hamamelis), Winter hazel (Corylopsis), Quince (Chaenomeles), Viburnum, Dogwood (Cornus), Flowering Cherry (Prunus). I thought I would experiment a bit while I was taking inventory , so I also cut branches of Spirea, Magnolia and Birch (Betula).
2. Hydrate your stems
After you have gathered your array, fill a deep bucket or large pan with warm water, (for really big branches a bathtub works quite well). Submerge your cut branches in the warm water and leave them in a warm spot overnight. You can add a small amount of lemon-lime soda or even Listerine (approx. 1T per quart of water) which will act as a preservative. The next day, under very warm running water, make fresh cuts to your branches. If you have thick branches (1/2 or more), you can split and splay the stems an inch or so for better water absorption. Begin to arrange, or keep these stems in a cool space (45-50 degrees) for a week or so, until you are ready to arrange them.
3. Create your arrangement
In a fresh vase of water with a bit of preservative, create your arrangement. Some branches will burst open immediately, but others will need more coaxing. Remember your first attempts are about experimenting. Branches which have an interesting shape or color will look fabulous even if they do not force (I’m thinking about the curly willow I used). Every week or two venture outside and select more branches. Take notes on what stems forced well in early February, and which ones might require more time outdoors as winter weather transitions into early spring.
I will post an image of this container in about a week, and you can see how successful I was.
Once or twice a year, during my grammar school days, our class would get to go on an adventure…a field trip! One school outing which often comes to mind was a trip to a natural history museum housed in a quaint rural church. Inside were small rooms filled with closets and cabinets containing preserved specimens of local flora and fauna: insects, butterflies, seed pods, feathers, all labeled and stored in jars or boxes. There were slightly morbid taxidermy specimens…I seem to remember a fox, who I felt so sorry for, and a bat. This cataloging of the natural world enthralled me. I saw it (and still do) as an art form. I would fantasize about mushrooms and beehives and dried flowers, and dreamed of becoming a botanical illustrator when I grew up.
It is so interesting now, in our age of cyber intelligence, that the influence of the natural world is playing such a big roll in home decor and design. Found branches become coat racks, massive gnarly roots become table pedestals. Flower arranging has seen a resurgence as we all want to see more natural objects of beauty in our complicated modern lives.
A book which is developing a loyal following is Debra Prinzings Slow Flowers. Debra wants us to let go of our preconceived notions of floral arranging. She encourages us to walk past the grocery store bouquets imported from a location thousands of miles away. Instead we should all look at what is available out side our back door; to seek and use ornamental twigs, unusual foliage, seed pods and lichen, and to look again at plants which we shelter in a greenhouse or windowsill (Im seeing a gorgeous begonia leaf on mine). No matter the season, there is beauty in the local flora to celebrate .
This brings me to an event I went to this past week: Flora in Winter, a fund raiser held at the Worcester Art Museum in MA. Talented floral artists selected a classical work of art and interpreted the work in an arrangement. I have to say I was impressed. Yes, many of the arrangements incorporated imported flowers and foliage, but many could easily be interpreted at different times of the year with natural objects found in your neighborhood.
If you havent already, I encourage you to walk about your yard or nearby fields and woods to see what treasures you come upon. Perhaps you may want to introduce a new tree, shrub or flower to your garden so you will always have a local source. Remember to cast aside any old rules and preconceived ideas about flower arranging. Just have fun and experiment.
“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. It’s a new life ” Nina Simone
I suppose it would be more conventional to write chapters 1-25 first, if I were to write a chapter per year of how horticulture has informed my life. With a nod to how we all began, I’d like to let you know what we’re planning for 2014.
Chapter 1: Chris and I began Avant Gardens when we were asked to install a cut flower and herb garden for a local bistro. That was more than 25 years ago.
Chapter 26: (the first paragraphs…)
Grow. Isn’t that an optimistic word? What other word or phrase has the same meaning? Move forward, awaken, gain awareness, obtain height, expand. Grow a simple powerful four letter word, and it perfectly sums up what Chris and I chose to do with our lives after we were hired by that bistro owner mentioned in Chapter 1.
We can’t help but grow at Avant Gardens in 2014. It’s a given…we will have many new plant offerings to tempt you. As always, there is an emphasis on uncommon selections which will look good for a long time in your garden. Besides plants, we are growing new ideas and new ways of sharing them. We are in the process of redoing and are just weeks away from debuting our new website. Not only will our online plant catalog have a beautiful new look with very useful search features; our new website will begin to showcase the evocative garden landscapes and stonework which Chris Tracey has designed and installed in recent years. We also want to share some beautiful images of our own innovative, ever changing planting schemes and stone features here at Avant Gardens.
I have been feeling a growth spurt of my own. Many of you know me as the head honcho at the nursery and the main voice behind this blog. Recently, I have become more involved with the garden design services of Avant Gardens. After taking on a few sweet projects this past year, I realized that as much as I have invested my heart and soul in operating a nursery, I really miss designing and planting new gardens. There has been one obstacle: I need time. In order to free up more time for client meetings and executing drawings, we are going to have a more limited visiting hours schedule. We will keep hours much the way other mail order nurseries function: Open House Weekends through out the season, and always, be open by appointment. As in the past, we encourage our local customers to place will call orders with their preferred pickup date if they would like us to reserve special plants for them.
There are more growth spurts calling me (which may provide some lively blog discussions). Im considering keeping bees, I really want to have a more ambitious vegetable garden, Im hoping to make time to practice my painting skills and pay homage to whats in season by creating out of the garden botanical arrangements. All too often I have been a gardener who can get so bogged down with the chores that I am not enjoying the wonder that surrounds me. The growth spurts which are calling me are actually ways I will address this. Each is an expression of garden celebration. My new year’s resolution is to make a regular practice of celebrating our garden .winter, spring, summer and fall.
Now tell me, how do you plan to grow and celebrate in 2014?