All posts by Katherine Tracey

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

Using Hellebores as Cut Flowers

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

The end of winter is upon us and the first Hellebores have begun to open, providing lush exotic blossoms for Slow Flower arranging, at last. I couldn’t help myself a couple of weeks ago and cut a bouquet from plants growing in the cold frame. Alas, after only a few hours, they had begun to flop over and looked wilted in the vase. I don’t recall this happening before, so I did some research.

Here’s a little botany. There are basically 2 categories of Hellebores: the caulescent group, which means the blossoms are born in multiples on stems produced the previous year (includes the species foetidus and argutifolus) and acaulescent group, which send up flowering stems from the plants base as winter’s end draws near (i.e. the orientalis hybrids, commonly known as Lenten Rose). In the past few decades, breeders have been crossing the 2 groups and we now have hellebores that fall somewhere in between.  The acaulescent types, meaning the showy Lenten Roses, should be picked when the flowers have aged a bit and the ovary (the seed pod in the center) has begun to swell, which is the same time that its pollen and anthers will have begun to drop. These slightly aged blossoms last longer cut (in the past, I must have unwittingly cut older blossoms). If you must pick young just opened buds, cut short stems. Note that the caulescent types, such as H.  foetidus, hold up better without flopping.   Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’, shown here, is a cross between the 2 types, and offers the best traits of both.

Cut stems, Hot water, Dip cut stems for 30 seconds

Cut stems, Hot water, Dip cut stems for 30 seconds

The next step is to condition the stems in hot, almost boiling water. Dip the stems into hot water and let sit for 30 seconds. Remove, then place in a vase of water with a tiny bit of vodka, or about 1 T. vodka per quart of tap water.  I have read that some people skip the hot water treatment and instead sear the stems over an open flame, but that makes me hesitate.  Hellebore blossoms will hold up longer in a cool room.

Do you have a tip that you would like to share for keeping Hellebore blossoms fresh?

Mukdenia rossii ‘Karasuba’

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Mukdenia should be grown in more gardens and I will speculate why it is not; it has had the misfortune of having more than one Latin name, which gets confusing. For awhile the taxonomists declared it should be called Aceriphyllum rossii, which makes sense (Acer = maple) and the foliage does have exquisite rounded maple like leaves. The cultivar name has a translation that would be easy to remember as well, ‘Crimson Fans’.

I am sweet on its blossoms. In mid spring, Mukdenia produces sturdy 15-18” stems bearing rounded panicles of starry white flowers, just before and as the foliage appears, welcoming the bees into the garden. Mukdenia makes pleasant company for early blooming bulbs and Epimedium. The somewhat glossy, somewhat velvety, dark green foliage forms tight clumps to 12” tall, keeping their good looks all summer, then change vividly to brilliant shades of red when cool temperatures arrive in autumn. We’ve found that Mukdenia grows best with afternoon shade in a soil that has good drainage yet is fertile and adequately moist. You will be pleased to know it is hardy in zones 4-8 and is also deer resistant.

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Hungry for Color, and Dahlia Ramblings

Clockwise from upper left: Dahlia 'Crichton Honey', Dahlia 'Gitt's Crazy' with Tithonia, Closeup of Gitt's Crazy' and 'Crichton Honey', Dahlia 'Corona'

Clockwise from upper left: Dahlia ‘Crichton Honey’, Dahlia ‘Gitt’s Crazy’ with Tithonia, Closeup of Gitt’s Crazy’ and ‘Crichton Honey’, Dahlia ‘Corona’

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting ravenous for color. Here in MA, spring seems so far away. Every other day there is a major snowfall in the forecast, along with frigid temperatures. Looking out my window, I only see white, on shades of brown and gray…not even a hint of green from snowdrop shoots, our earliest bulb to bloom.

As I was scanning through images from last summer’s garden, my gaze stopped to absorb the vibrant color of the Dahlia beds. Oh baby, what a color fix! I immediately went out to the cool winter greenhouse to check on the health of the tubers I’m wintering over…so far, so good. The tubers are stored in pots of well drained potting soil, and  I decided to move a few of them into the warm greenhouse (55 degrees) to try awaken them. As soon as there is enough healthy growth, I’ll take cuttings of these named cultivars. The cutting grown plants will bloom this year, but may not get as large as the plants grown from year old tubers.

Clockwise, from upper left: dark leaved selections from 'Twinings After Dark' seed, The "whitest" of the group, and the much sought after Dahlia 'Swan Lake'.

Clockwise, from upper left: dark leaved selections from ‘Twinings After Dark’ seed, the “whitest” selection of the group, and the much sought after Dahlia ‘Classic Swan Lake’.

Last year I grew a dark leaved variety of Dahlia from seed, collected from an older cultivar called ‘Twining After Eight’, which boasts chocolate colored leaves with white flowers. The description reminded me of another cultivar we once grew, and lost,  Dahlia ‘Classic Swan Lake’. The ‘Twining After Eight’ seed came from a reputable seed merchant, and the seed germinated well with most seedlings showing a nice dark foliage color.  The only thing that disappointed me was not a single plant had white flowers…half of the plants bloomed orange-yellow and 3 were in various shades of pale pink/ lavender/cerise. You might consider the palest one an almost white, in just the right light. These plants grew robustly and created a pleasant display which provoked many complements, so it wasn’t a bust.

Here are some things you might want to know about growing DahliasDahlias are native to Mexico and Central America and love lots of sun and warmth. Most of the best forms are propagated by division of the tuberous clumps or are grown from cuttings, and there is wide variety of named forms available from Dahlia merchants. Seed sown strains do not usually come true to color or form, and much of the seed commercially available is for short stemmed, small flowered varieties suitable for bedding and containers. I prefer taller forms for cutting or for showing off in the late summer/fall garden. Tall forms can be grown from seed, but again, there is no predicting color and most will have single blossoms. I don’t want to dissuade you from trying to grow Dahlia from seed, as I ended up pleased with my pink/purple blend last year, but be open minded about the results.

Fresh seed takes 7-21 days to germinate, depending on conditions, and will grow more evenly if provided with bottom heat. Once seedlings develop a couple of pairs of true leaves, prick seedlings apart and repot  individually in small pots or 6 packs. Give the young plants lots of sun, and wait until the soil has warmed to 60 degrees or more (for us here in MA, it is safe to plant Dahlias outdoors around Memorial Day). Pinch back to encourage bushiness. The above upper left image shows the seed sown plants beginning to bloom in our garden in late June, which actually was weeks before many of our tuber grown plants began. The floral show kept getting better and better until the frost.

P.S.  We have Dahlia ‘Classic Swan Lake’ tubers on order from a European supplier. Fingers crossed that they arrive safely in March. Stay posted.

Better to Have Loved, and Lost

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Variegated Cornus contraversa in the distance with Osmanthus decorus revealing just outside the archway.

Better to have loved, and lost, I say.

January is a good month to take inventory. While organizing files and space in my office, I realized it was time to discard extraneous paper and to relegate numbers of old magazines and catalogs to the recycling pile. This took longer than I planned…some of these periodicals were from the 1990’s and 2000’s when my hunger for discovering new plants was unquenchable…so of course I had to revisit these dream books which held the promise of the gardens I had envisioned in years’ past.

As I scanned the dogeared pages of these old plant lists, I realized there were many, many plants that I had ordered, loved (for a season anyway) and lost. Sometimes the failures were due to my attempts to push hardiness (did I really think I was living in zone 7B after one mild winter?), or I definitely did not site the plant in the proper spot nor tend to its specific cultural needs. This is part of the education of a gardener; experimentation is exciting, and you learn much from your failures. Lessons, some of which I still struggle with such as: Was the soil too acidic (next time, sweeten the soil with ground limestone), did its placement in the garden not have good winter drainage (then add shovelfuls of coarse sand), would the plant have fared better if had been sited close to a stone wall (which might have retained more heat, adding a half zone of warmth in colder months)? Should I have put down that protective winter mulch, once the ground froze? And then there is the most hard to admit explanation….these plants just didn’t like growing in my garden.

oldcatalogues

Old nursery catalogues that I cannot part with.

I couldn’t help feeling wistful for my plant losses, but I think I was saddened more that hundreds of plants which were named in these 10-20 year old catalogues and magazines are now seldom seen on nursery plant lists. As I perused the old catalogues from Asiatica, Seneca Hill, and Heronswood, I remembered what treasures these nurseries were to gardeners. The nursery owners catered to fellow plantaholics who would swoon with delight at the discovery of a new species; alas, there are fewer and fewer of us, or so I hear. My hope is that most of these plants continue to exist in private or botanical gardens, and are not lost forever.

Eucomis zan

Eucomis zan

But enough of this doom and gloom talk; I should add that my glass is more full than empty. Many of the obscure yet lovely specimens that I planted still live on in my garden: the now 30’ Betula ermanii, the hardy Osmanthus decorus, the pretty in pink Aster ‘Kylie’ purchased from Heronswood, the collection of Anemonella from Asiatica, and the not quite hardy but easy to winter over in a pot Eucomis zambesiaca from Seneca Hill...to name just a few.

I’ve decided to hold onto some of these catalogues from years gone by. They remind me of my evolution as a gardener, that there are still treasures waiting to be discovered and that there are gardens yet to be. Despite losing some plants which I loved, I am reassured that this is part of the process of creating a garden.

 

Winter Gatherings

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Thursday morning it was 0 degrees F. The last 2 days it has made it into the 20’s…there is a dusting of white stuff on parts of the garden, and it does glisten in the early morning light, adding icy pastel tones. Still, I can’t help but become impatient with this cold snap. This is the time period when sourcing local material for Slow Flower Arrangements gets limiting. The garden is offering less and less, except for the last of the red twig dogwoods, the holly fruits, and of course, the various evergreens. I wanted to create an arrangement to honor January….but didn’t want it to sing Merry Christmas.

Perhaps there would be botanical wonders in the woods behind our house…lime green mosses, perhaps, or some other little bits of color which would nod to early winter, yet offer interest and promise. Too cold to unearth moss though; silly me, it all was frozen solid to whatever surface it clung too. There were, however, fallen branches everywhere covered with lichen, in lovely colors of an almost iridescent silver green, and also another form we call Old Man’s Beard in pale sage…color shades I always return to…cool, tranquil, mysterious.

There were some “freeze-dried” mushrooms attached to some logs which I pried loose, and of course pine cones dotted the woodland floor. I gathered what I could and returned to my workspace. At first I thought I might try a faux bois style centerpiece, but then I spied the planter bowl I had bartered succulents for with a ceramicist I knew. Lovely bowl…interesting botanical artifacts….I had enough to create something pleasing to look at.

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Winterberry and Willow Wreath

wreath_winterberryFB500 Each day grows shorter, one by one, until the winter solstice, and we are all craving more color and light.

To brighten the darkest days I created this sunburst of a wreath making use of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Curly Willow (Salix matsudana) from the garden. Branches are clipped and tucked in a sphagnum moss covered frame.  This is a wreath for outdoor display as heat and dryness will hasten the berry drop…. I’d also recommend  wall placement as opposed to hanging on a door. The repeated opening and closing jostles and loosens  the fruit, and could be a little messy.

I’ll report back how long it lasts outdoors….at least through the New Year I hope, unless the birds think its their holiday present.

Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’

yuc1.500

Let us reacquaint you with an underutilized evergreen plant for cold climates.

Bold, colorful, architectural evergreen foliage. Dramatic creamy nodding lily flowers in early summer. Deer and rabbit resistant, it grows in poor and dry soils, and is perfectly hardy in zones 4-9. Why oh why don’t more landscapers and gardeners plant Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’?

Yucca ‘Color Guard’ provides northern gardeners with a brightly colored vertical accent for mixed border plantings. Plants attain a foliage height of  24″, and when ‘Color Guard’ chooses to bloom, those creamy white lilies are held on 4-5′ tall towering stalks. Hummingbirds almost swoon over the plants in pour garden. We have it planted in a hot dry bed, with Acanthus hungaricus, Crambe maritima   Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ and dwarf evergreens.

acanthus.yucca

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The Slow Flower Challenge

SLOWFLOWERS

A possible collection of stems and fruit inspired by Slow Flowers

Yesterday, I did the perfect thing on a rainy November day. I attended a thought provoking lecture by Debra Prinzing , author of the best selling book Slow Flowers at Blithewold Mansion and Gardens annual fundraiser luncheon. The phrase Slow Flowers is a take on the Slow Food Movement embraced by the food industry with its focus on sustainability, using local crops and food products. By supporting the Slow Flowers movement Debra is encouraging us to not buy imported cut flowers from South America, Europe, Israel etc. (just think of the fuel costs, pesticide use, and more). We should look to what is in season. Much material is waiting to be picked in our backyards, on our windowsills or being grown by local flower farmers and in nearby greenhouse operations.

In her book, Slow Flowers, Debra illustrates how she took on the challenge of creating flower arrangements using only locally sourced material each week of the calendar year, including winter. I think her title is a bit misleading;  some of the plant material she uses, especially during the winter months, is in the form of foliage, branches, fruit and seed pods, when flowers are more limited. Totally cool…sometimes limitations make way for creative thinking. Yes, Debra is from Seattle, a climate which is kinder than what we have here in New England, and one would expect she has more plant options. Still, I left feeling committed to take on this challenge. Maybe not a different arrangement every week, but once or twice a month could be doable.

COLLAGE.WEB

TOP L-R: Asparagus, Aster ‘Ezo Murasaki’, Stewartia, Hakonechloa.  MID: Hydrangea quercifolia, Viburnum, Cardinal Candy, Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Hydrangea paniculata.  BOT: Spirea ‘Ogon’, Chrysanthemum ‘Wil’s Wonderful’, Kolwitzia ‘Dreamcatcher’, Acer shirasawanum ‘Jordan’

So today, November 7th, I began the challenge. I gave myself a half hour to select plants. A walk about the garden revealed a vast array of choices. I decided to limit my palette to these 12 selections.

novbouquetWEB

November 7th arrangement

Here’s the result. When it comes to botanical arrangements, I prefer the “just picked from the garden” style…not contrived or fussy, but exuberant in that cornucopia kind of way, with some unconventional stems tucked in for surprise. Maybe when winter cuts my supply short, I’ll explore the more minimalist style of Ikebana. Are you inspired to take on this challenge? Let me know what discoveries you find locally and that are in season.  

I plan to post an image of what I find and come up with for my next arrangement on the Avant Gardens Facebook page in a couple of weeks. “Like” us if you haven’t already done so to follow my postings. I’ve also been asked by Debra Prinzing to post images at #slowflowerschallenge # slow flowers on Instagram. You can enter your slow flower arrangements there too.

Collecting Seed for Seed Exchanges

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

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

A few of the various Plant Societies which I belong to have seed exchanges, and I made a pledge to myself to get my seed collecting done, cleaned, sorted and packaged into little envelopes to meet this year’s deadline, which is usually Nov 1.  Time always has a way of getting ahead of you, so I was relieved to learn on the Hardy Plant Society’s webpage that they have extended the deadline this year to Nov 15, and I can fill out the donation forms online and mail the seed in later! The North American Rock Garden Society is not being so lenient; they want the list of seed being donated by Nov 1st, although they will allow a grace period until Dec 1st to package and send your seed in.

Yes, it does take time to process and save seed, but let me tell you why it is worth all the trouble. First, if you want to grow more of the plants, especially the annuals, which you enjoyed in your garden this year, why not collect the seed and save yourself a few dollars. Second, you may not be able to find a particular seed variety next year. I have found this true when it is an unusual variety that commercial growers do in limited numbers, or more likely their source dried up or had a crop failure. Third, you are bound to collect more seed that you can use, so why not  share the bounty by participating in a seed exchange? Most seed exchanges work this way: You become a member of the group, such as the Hardy Plant Society, which collects and pools the seed, then makes the seed available to its membership at a very inexpensive price ($.50). A big plus: seed donors get first dibs at the selection,  and get to select an extra 10 packets for their efforts. Groups like the Seed Savers Exchange allow you to purchase seed without becoming a member, but membership has its perks….lots of information, discounts and member’s only offerings, plus you’re supporting an important organization.

There’s a lot to know about collecting seed, but it is beyond the scope of this blog post to get into a lot of detail.  Besides, there is so much information now on the internet that you no doubt will find  answers to particular seed questions in a web search. I just want to pass on some basic tips.

  • Collect seed on a sunny dry day. Wet seed pods can harbor spores which may encourage mold ands spoil the seed.
  • Label your seed correctly, especially if you plan to donate to a seed exchange.
  • If you grow several varieties of certain plant and they are within close range  of each other (for example: several different forms/colors of zinnias) your seed will not come true to type. You may get some interesting variations and colors, but you should label it as such. Also, seed from most F1 Hybrids will not come true.
  • Watch seed pods daily for maturity. You want to capture them just before they explode all over your garden.
  • Store the seed in paper bags in a dry spot until you have time to clean and sort.
  • Separate the chaff from the seed when packaging.

Here are  links for more information on joining a few Plant Societies.

The Hardy Plant Society–Mid Atlantic Group

The Hardy Plant Society–UK

North American Rock Garden Society

The Seed Savers Exchange

Pumpkin Succulent Arrangements

whitepumpkin.web

I have a confession. I am obsessed with pumpkins and gourds, and can’t drive by a farm stand without stopping and selecting a bushel full to add to my collection. To me, they are sculpture in an amazing array of forms, sizes, shapes and textures. Those of you who have followed this blog or have visited Avant Gardens know that one of my other obsessions is succulents. I wasn’t the first arranger to think of combining these obsessions, but clearly gourds and succulents pair well.

Timing couldn’t be better. With frost imminent, I have just dug dozens of succulents out of pots in the garden and will soon run out of space in the greenhouse. As an advocate of the “Slow Flower” movement, extolled in Debra Prinzing ‘s book by the same name, I’m always looking for ways to use plant materials in arrangements which are in season and on hand in my garden or windowsill. Thinking that  you might want to create your own succulent arrangement, I’m passing on this quick tutorial.

pk172

Materials needed: a pumpkin or gourd, dry long fiber sphagnum moss, floral pins, spray adhesive and tacky glue, plus an assortment of succulents in an array of shapes and sizes in coordinating colors (that’s not hard..most coordinate so well with each other.)

pk2moss

First, use the spray adhesive on the top of the pumpkin so that the sphagnum moss can cling to it, and loosely extend the moss over the crown. (Note: I didn’t do it here, but would recommend removing the pumpkin stem). The moss acts as the “planting medium”, and will later be sprayed with water to hold moisture. Next, using floral pins and if necessary, tacky glue, secure the trailing succulents onto the moss.

pk4.5.we

Next begin to add the larger succulent cuttings, like the rosette forming Graptoveria shown here. Apply a little bit of the tacky glue to the base of the stem and carefully arrange in the moss, using a floral pin to secure in place. Continue with the smaller succulents to fill in the bare spots. It will take awhile for the tacky glue to securely dry, so let the arrangement rest overnight, and check the next day to see if the cuttings seem well attached. If a few stems are loose reapply glue. Carefully transfer your pumpkin to a spot where all can admire it.

whitepumpkin.web

Your arrangement will look terrific for weeks. The succulents will hold up well for awhile without water, but you can mist the arrangement with water if they become a little shriveled. The sphagnum moss will hold just enough moisture to keep the arrangement fresh. Since you are not hollowing out the pumpkin, the fruit will not quickly decay (as hollowed out pumpkins tend to do).  The little pin pricks from the floral pins do minimal damage. Keep the arrangement in a bright cool spot (too much warmth and darkness will encourage decay).

You may find 6 weeks from now that your gourd or pumpkin is beginning to go bad, but the succulent cuttings are still fine. Remove them from the arrangement and try to root them in a tray of sand and perlite.  Keep them in a sunny window and you just may have a collection of plants for next year’s garden.

Purchase Cuttings for Arrangements.