Almost everyone we know is getting weary of winter and shoveling snow. If ever there was a year to retreat to a warmer climate this has been one. We must have had an intuition when we booked flights to San Diego/LA back in December. The first week of February couldn’t come soon enough.
Aloe in Bloom
The weather was perfect….60 degree days with incredible sunshine, 40 degrees nights. There was a light frost in the valleys one night, but signs of an early California spring were everywhere. We had a list of nurseries, greenhouses and gardens to visit, but there was no way we’d be able to get to see them all in a week, so we prioritized. Our first stop was Huntington Gardens just north of LA, and we timed it just right to see the Aloes in bloom. Huntington has an incredible succulent collection, and the size of the specimens along with the colors and textures was breathtaking.
If any one color predominated in the early February landscape, it was coral, which was vividly offset by its opposite on the color wheel, teal blue. The Aloe’s coral red pokers were often seen en masse, like emphatic exclamation points. We got busy snapping photos and jotting down botanical names so that we could fact check/identify some of the unnamed specimens sitting in our greenhouse back home, or perhaps to seek out in one of the nurseries we planned to visit. But enough of this chatter. Pictures tell the story so much better.
Barrel Cactus and Succulents
The late winter beauty of the Asian garden was effective because of the well placed structural elements.
Asian Garden with Chinese Scholar Stones
The Camelias were just passing, and seeing them made us envious…if only we could enjoy them in our winter landscape. An unnamed flowering plum was in full bloom and we took solace in the fact that in a month or two, we would see a similar display in Massachusetts.
Flowering Plum in bloom
Winter Silhouette of our Ancient Oak
We are the brief, but committed stewards of one of the oldest trees in our town. A Quercus bicolor, commonly known as Swamp White Oak, spreads its majestic limbs, covering 6400 sq. ft of garden in the lower area of our property. It stands as a venerable member of an ancient clan, reaching its many arms, some 50 feet long, in all directions, from a trunk with a robust 12 1/2 foot caliper. Although it is no more than 60 feet high, an understatement for a 200+ year old tree, it’s sublime presence creates a complete and awe inspiring space. Stand in the welcoming shade of its vast crown, place your hands on the deeply furrowed face of its trunk, letting your fingers feel the wrinkles of 200 hundred years, raise your eyes to wander into this living sculpture, home to thousands upon thousands of flying and crawling insects, not to mention dozens of birds, proving a feeding ground for so many more creatures; one of many children not of our own womb, but generously lent to us by the most grand and trusting mother, Earth. Everyday, we take care of this grand old tree, and in return, it takes care of us.
Come and share this sacred space when you visit, if only for 5 minutes. When the time comes for you to plant an heirloom tree, you will see the road of time stretching out before you , and on it, your loving, grateful heirs and when you look behind, the beautifully wrinkled and wise faces of your ancestors.
Winter Barn at Chatfield, Denver Botanical Garden
We always think of the first day of a new season as a holiday, one of nature’s holidays, a marking of time which reminds us to take stock of what is important. This year, Dec. 21 marks the Winter Solstice when all living beings in the northern hemisphere experience the fewest hours of daylight. For thousands of years, societies around the earth have celebrated the Solstice by having feasts, making merry with song and drink, and keeping an ever burning fire. Many of our favorite rituals of the Christmas holidays had their origins in Winter Solstice Celebrations.
As gardeners we have reason to celebrate light. The sun is essential for growth, and the winter months restrict us by limiting daylight. Sure, you can are argue that we need this down time to rest, to contemplate. But the sun is our source, and we can easily turn moody and feel depleted until ample light returns.
Why give in completely? We came across a website created by a group of Canadian artists, who know a thing about illuminating long winter nights. Their adventurous spirit can provide inspiration for us all. Why not ward off the darkness by bringing light into your garden? You don’t have to be elaborate, and the display doesn’t have to come down the day after New Year’s. Some thoughts: Adorn a garden structure with a strand of lights, illuminate a lovely tree with a ground spotlight. Create a blaze in your fire pit or line a walkway with luminaria. It will make your heart, and the hearts of those passing by, glow a little too.
The holidays are approaching, and it’s hard not to feel frantic. One place we try to avoid is the shopping malls. If you have gardeners to select gifts for, that?s easy. Consider a few alternative gifts that will continue to give throughout the year. (hint/hint: you may be the only gardener in the family so “cc:” this webpage to the Secret Santa who pulled your name for the Gift Exchange). Here are a few ideas that offer inspiration and support and that don’t have to cost a lot of money.
Gift Memberships to a Plant Society, such as The North American Rock Garden Society, and The Hardy Plant Society, or a Local Botanical Garden. In our area there is The Arnold Arboretum, Blithewold, and The New England Wild Flower Society. Memberships in plant societies and botanical gardens provide the recipient with excellent and often free (or at a reduced price) lectures, seed and plant exchanges, opportunities to buy rare plants, periodicals on horticultural topics, and a chance to chat it up with other plant-o-holics. Memberships are a great way to support these valuable institutions as well.
Quality Garden Tools. Quality does make a difference. These tools last, making them sustainable. Felco Pruners are a must have for every plantsman. Also, check out Red Pig Garden Tools for hard to find implements. Birdbaths, Handsome Pottery and Containers are all low maintenance focal points that add a sense of place. What about a hammock or garden bench?
Gift Certificates to Favorite Nurseries. Is this too hard a sell? The long cold days of January will soon put us all in a funk, and dreaming of new plants and new gardens is one way to get through the early part of winter. Of course we’d be delighted if plants from Avant Gardens helped your favorite gardener fulfill his or her dreams.
Little has been written about this lovely late summer/fall blooming Asian Aster. It came into our possession last November, via US Mail, swaddled in newspaper and still covered with blossoms. The return address cited Margie Mott as the sender, an old friend and plant huntress who scours every nursery and garden center on the eastern seaboard. She had lost the plant’s name tag but thought she had acquired it from Asiatica Nursery, which, you may have heard, sadly closed their doors this season.
Well, we made some divisions and took lots of cuttings, which quickly formed husky plants, and by late July this handsome Aster was already blooming away. It is exhibiting a very long season of bloom and we hope it will continue to be colorful into November. The ¾” composite flowers have violet petals surrounding golden disks and are displayed on branched 2′ stems. We’e noticed this Aster develops runners, much like Asteromoea and Kalimeris, and expect it will form a thick stand in upcoming years. Use ‘Ezo’ as a handsome skirt in front of fruit laden Viburnum or as a companion plant to fall blooming Sedums and ornamental grasses. Like most asters, it will perform best in lots of sunshine and we expect it to be hardy in zone 4.
UPDATE 2015: This Aster has not been reclassified as Kalimeris
Symphyotrichum ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ with Dendranthema ‘Sheffield Apricot’
Are you confused? We were. Asters were one of the easy botanical names to remember, since the common name was exactly the same as the Latin name, until maybe a decade ago. We started to notice that certain wholesale sources were listing many common fall aster species as Symphyotrichum (pronounced sim-fy-oh-TRY-kum). This brought up questions. Will this name take hold with the gardening public? Should we reclassify the plants we were calling Aster? And which asters were considered in the genus Symphyotrichum? Would our customers know to look under this new genus name when seeking the fall blooming asters?
Upon research we discovered that once botanists began comparing the DNA of Eurasian Asters with North American species, they found that the asters native to North America were more closely related to other native genera, especially Boltonia, Solidago and Erigeron. To be brief, the North American Asters included in the Symphyotrichum group are the species: cordifolius, dumosus, laevis, lateriflorum, novae-angliae, novi-belgii oblongifolius. Two New World Asters, divaricatus and macrophyllus are now considered to be Eurybia species.
Some of the Eurasian species have been reclassified into the genera Crinitaria, Galatella and Bellidiastrum, (few of which are commercially available here in the US) while others still remain in the genus Aster, including Aster amellus, ageratoides and tartaricus. The question remains as to what would be the correct nomenclature for Aster hybrids, such as the new selection Aster x ‘Blue Autumn’, recently introduced in the US by European breeders as a cultivar of Aster laevis, incorrectly we might add. We’ll keep you posted when we know for sure.
Pennisetum with Heuchera ‘Caramel’, Cuphea and Calibrachoa
One of the pleasures of container gardening is that you can create fresh arrangements to complement each season?s landscape. The colors of Fall Chrysanthemums have been selected for just this effect, but isn?t it dull to limit yourself to just a single plant? Consider the wide selection of cool season “annuals” that are at their prime in September and October, offering at least 6-8 weeks of color. There are ornamental peppers, salvias, grasses, million bells, abutilons and cigar plants, just to name a few. Don’t forget the perennials with outstanding foliage, like Heuchera ‘Caramel’ and Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) which add contrast and can later be transplanted into the garden for next year?s display. And then there are shrubs with fall interest, such as Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lime’ (aging blossoms), Cornus ‘Arctic Sun’ , and Ilex verticillata (Winterberry), which will add height and weight to bigger pots. Here are two more tips for pulling it all together.
First, remember to select a variety of bold and fine textures. The bold punch of a large leaved Heuchera, or Ornamental Cabbage adds much needed weight and contrast. This is the season of ripening fruit, so take advantage of the ever widening selection of Ornamental Peppers or consider shrubs with a nice berry set, such as Viburnum or Winterberry. Grasses add height and movement, and you can always use hardy grasses besides the more showy annual Pennisetum.
Second point: The growing season is slowing down here in the northeast, so start with larger plants and/or use more plants to fill up the container right away. There is not a lot of time now for plants to put on added growth. Think of assembling your container as you would a flower arrangement, except that this composition will last for weeks as opposed to just a few days.
Just the common name, Toad Lily, sparks curiosity and invites close inspection. The delicate blossoms of this attractive cultivar of Tricyrtis formosana resemble small orchids and have distinctive spotting on the blue-violet petals. Flowering interest begins in early August, but the golden yellow foliage adds color early in the season. Plants are stoloniferous, forming small clumps 12″ high, making it suitable for the front of a border. Small Hosta such as ‘Wogon Gold’ and Japanese Forest Grass Hakonachloa macra make excellent companions.
Grow Toad Lilies in a soil that stays uniformly moist, yet well drained. The foliage tips will brown if the soil becomes too dry, and although not lethal, will make the plants less attractive. Tricyrtis ‘Gates of Heaven’are unappetizing to deer, and are hardy through zone 5-9.
Don’t you just hate this? One day you have a perfectly healthy plant, and the next time you look, the leaves are riddled with holes, or completely gone! Just 2 days ago, I photographed a lovely stand of Nicotiana mutabilis (Flowering Tobacco). As I walked by this morning, I was stunned by totally denuded stalks. On closer inspection, there was a 4″ Tobacco Hornworm chomping away, leaving behind a trail of excrement. Not a pretty picture now.
The Tobacco Hornworm Manduca sexta is the caterpillar of a type of Sphinx Moth or Hawk Moth. It differs from the Tomato Hornworm by having a reddish instead of a black “horn”, and you can also tell the difference by its lateral markings. The Tobacco Hornworm has seven diagonal lines, while the Tomato Hornworm has eight v-shaped markings.
The adult female Sphinx Moth deposits her translucent green eggs on the undersides of leaves of plants in the Solanacea family, especially Nicotiana (Tobacco), and take 2-4 days to hatch. During their larval stage, these Hornworms feed on the foliage, flowers and fruit. They can ingest the toxin Nicotine without ill effects, and their voracious appetites allow them to strip even large plants overnight. Their green bodies camouflage well with the plants they feed on.
Control this pest by handpicking the caterpillars. If you have too large a crop for handpicking, you can use a product like Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis) or Monterey Garden Spray (Spinosad) on the young larvae. Be on the lookout for hornworms with little white “pills” attached. These white attachments are the eggs of the parasitic Braconid Wasp, which feed on and weaken/kill the unsuspecting hornworm. This biological control is a good example of nature keeping everything in balance.
Begonia, Pilea and Tahitian Bridal Veil
Again, it is so much about the foliage. The angel wing leaves of Begonia ‘Sinbad’ are really a soft celadon green veined in rose, but have a silvery cast. On close inspection, the silvery effect is due to the pebbly texture formed by the tiny raised white leaf segments. Simple, sweet pink flowers dangle from the leaf axils. For filler, the tiny white variegated foliage of little Pilea, commonly called artillery fern, creates a frothy effect beneath the bolder leaves of ‘Sinbad’ and the casual abandon of Gibasis geniculata , also known as Tahitian Bridal Veil, with its two tone green/purple foliage and white baby?s breath blossoms finish off the combination.
Culturally, use a well drained potting soil, amended with Osmocote. Begonias do not want to live in soggy soil, so monitor watering by allowing the soil to dry out a bit. This ensemble would enjoy morning or filtered light, and would be a suitable arrangement for a covered porch, where the minimal watering needs can be monitored.