Category Archives: Garden Musings and Tips

Summer Hardiness–which plants survive the heat?

Yucca 'Color Guard', Vernonia lettermanii and Crambe maritima have performed despite the heat and drought .

Yucca ‘Color Guard’, Vernonia lettermanii and Crambe maritima have performed despite the heat and drought .

Well, we know we’re not alone, but here in southern New England, we’ve had an exceptionally hot dry summer. The amount of precipitation in our area has varied due to isolated showers, but I would guess here at Avant Gardens we have totaled less than 1 inch during the past 75 days. Lack of rainfall plus high humidity, coupled with daily temperatures in the high 80s and 90‘s can have an effect on plants. (Many plants begin to suffer physiological damage when temperatures remain above 86F or 30C)

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This brings up the classification of plants rated for Summer Hardiness. The American Horticultural Society (AHS) has created a Summer Heat Zone map of the US.  Regions having less than 1 day with temperatures above 86F (30C)  are classified as zone 1, and on the other end of the spectrum, the areas having the most days with high temperatures are classified as zone 12. This may correlate with the familiar USDA Winter Hardiness Zone Map (which rates average lowest temperatures) but in some cases it does not. Folks in the southern US have learned that Summer Heat Zone Hardiness is definitely a criteria when selecting plants. The above map will need regular adjustments now that global warming is causing extreme temperatures worldwide, and northern gardeners will have to pay heed to which plants will survive/perform with higher summer temperatures.

We’ll be ruling out more plants that do well in our gardens in the future, I’m afraid, as climate change continues to affect what we can and cannot happily grow.

Have you come to the conclusion that some plants, which once thrived in your gardens,  no longer will? Which plants have you found best withstand our ever warmer drier summers?

Blue Plumbago…Problem or Not?

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Blue shades, clockwise from the top: Clematis, Lavender, Baptisia, Nepeta, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Campanula ‘Sarastro’, Wisterla ‘Amethyst Falls, and Plumbago auriculata

Funny thing…this favorite color, the color of the sky above… true blue-baby blue is not the easiest color to mix and match. Think of the blues in the garden…most shades have red in them…the violets have a darker red, lavenders can have that pinkish tint. Blue flowers also look so different depending on the light…take a picture of a blue flower on a cloudy day, or at  midday, and at dusk and notice how the hue changes.

I have a challenge here…I’m trying to decide which plants I can use to complement a lovely blue Plumbago auriculata in one of my containers. My aim, as always, is to have the container look great now through September, and have it be pretty easy care.

First if you are unfamiliar with Plumbago,  it is a tender perennial/shrub producing powder blue phlox like blossoms endlessly all sumer.  Plumbago forms sizable shrubs where it is hardy, but for those of us growing here in the northeast, expect plants to grow to 2’-2 1/2’ in a season in our gardens or pots.

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One thought I had was to play with complementary colors….light orange and light blue are color opposites. I found a consistent apricot in Heuchera ‘Champagne’, and I thought  of adding some light yellow/lime…perhaps the Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ or Oxalis ‘Copper Glow which has tints of orange too. A green ornamental grass like Hakonechloa macra can add a different texture and natural feeling. A possibility, but then I realized I didn’t have a pot this group works with.

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I did have this white handled jar. Blue and white is a classic combination. Gaura ‘So White’ adds a wispy vertical, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost is an all purpose filler with an aura of baby’s breath , and for bold punch, the glossy foliage of Angelica pachycarpa which can be set out in the garden in the fall. Needed something to trail so I tucked in a Teardrop Ivy.

What do you think? What would you pair Plumbago with?

Spring/Winter Flipflop

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Snow-kissed Magnolia Buds

Argghhh! So much for an early Spring in New England. March began with May temperatures, but the weather decided to chill out after April Fool’s.  Trouble is… all those  warm days and mild nights encouraged the garden to wake up early.

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Early April Buds 2016/End of April Glory 2015

Normally, the plants in our gardens know when they are being teased with a few mild days, and hold off bursting prematurely.  The image above left was taken 4-4-16, the one on the right: 4-28-15.

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The show from Jeffersonia dubia probably won’t continue after this cold

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Maybe this cloche will help.

Jeffersonia dubia , the Asian form of Twin Leaf, became too excited and emerged with color last week. The next few nights will have temperatures dipping into the mid teens, and we have  one cloche on hand to add a little protection. Trouble is, we can’t do this for every early bloomer.  And, unfortunately, there is not enough snowfall so far (more is predicted, but…) to insulate before the arctic cold blows through.

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Epimedium, budded and shivering.

Epimedium, with new foliage and budded flower stems….we’re not too optimistic for a later show, but we can only wait and see.

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Helleborus viridus will take it in stride.

Hellebores and the bulbs not yet in bloom will take this in stride, but the Narcissus and Grape Hyacinth which are already showing color might not be focal points  after this big chill is over.

Buttoned Up, with blankets and heat.

Buttoned Up, with blankets and heat.

In the nursery,  many plants have started to leaf out with tender new growth.  For added protection, we’ve covered them with microfoam blankets and added portable heaters inside our frost frames to counter the low night temperatures.

Gardeners are always being challenged by the weather. It will be interesting to see which plants come through this cold snap unfazed. How is your garden faring with the early start to spring?

San Diego Plant Cache!

Mike Kartuz, with our box of Begonias.

Mike Kartuz, with our box of Begonias.

Lucky us! Chris and I booked it out of MA just before the deep freeze earlier this month and caught some rays in San Diego, where our oldest son Phil now lives. And, since our business is our pleasure (PLANTS!), we always make it a point to visit a few regional growers of rare succulents and begonias.

A must stop for us was Kartuz Greenhouses in Vista. Mike Kartuz, who is 88, left Massachusetts 4 decades ago to grow tropicals, especially Begonias, in a much kinder climate. Mike, along with “begonia volunteer” Brad Thompson (check out Brad’s Begonia webpage) have hybridized some of the most fascinating Begonias we have come across. Plants are sold in 2” pots, and they ship when the weather permits, but we always find selections on our visit that never make it to the Kartuz website.

Brad Thompson talking plants with Chris

Brad Thompson talking plants with Chris

Our next excursion was into the hills of Fallbrook to meet up with Dick and Kraig Wright, who breed Echeveria and Aloe  almost exclusively. Dick who is also 88, has been hybridizing Echeveria since the 1950’s, and if you have collected a few Echeveria you no doubt have at least one of his hybrids. Some of Dick’s most coveted selections are named after family members; we came home with Arlie Wright, named for Dick’s mother,  plus many, many more.

closeup of Echeveria 'Arlie Wright'

closeup of Echeveria ‘Arlie Wright’

While Dick and Kraig are still seeking out unique “Ech” forms with impressive size, they are experimenting more and more with miniature Aloe, which command premium prices in Japan and Korea. I was astonished that the Wrights do not hold patents on their selections but make them available to collectors who can try their own luck at propagating. Here is a link to their website .

Preparing newly acquired plants for travel

Preparing newly acquired plants for travel

After visiting these gents, we figured we almost had a full suitcase but that didn’t mean we couldn’t look a little more. The San Diego area nurseries are well stocked and we wanted to see if we could possibly identify some forms that were mislabeled or nameless when we acquired them. We asked  and took label images but still left with questions!!!

At another nursery, 2 different Echeveria tagged Arlie Wright ..the one on the right is someone else!

At another nursery, 2 different Echeveria tagged Arlie Wright ..the one on the right is someone else!

Plants being sold with incorrect names are a big problem, and we do understand how easily it can happen. Many look very different in their youth than they will at maturity, and changes to foliage color occur with different temperatures and humidity.  Oh, well…Phil and his girlfriend Annique seem to really like San Diego living, so we have good excuses  to return and fit in more plant i.d. excursions,

…wish you had a Winter Greenhouse?

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The Aloes begin to bloom in January

Maybe it’s a luxury, or maybe not…

One of the perks of running a nursery is that on any winter morning I can walk out to the heated 100′ greenhouse and smell the promise of spring. We can’t afford to have the heat cranked up….the thermostat is set at 55F in the warmer half, just enough heat to keep our Begonia collection from pouting . The rear 50′ section drops to 45F at night, and this is where we store our Salvia, Phormium, tender succulents, and plants for forcing.  As the daylight hours gradually increase, early blooming plants set buds and begin to unfurl.

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Today’s arrangement of cut and forced material, including Daphne, Hellebores, Echeveria, Aeonium , Begonia and Ivy

Up until a half  century ago, it was not uncommon for gardeners to have some form of greenhouse structure to protect tender plants, force bulbs and other flowers for arranging, grow herbs and to get a start on seed sowing. For the most part these were not formal glass houses, but homemade lean to’s and pit frames built into a south facing slope or dug into the earth to take advantage of geothermal warming. These “pits” were excavated to a depth of 4′ or more, with hay bales tucked along the perimeter for insulation. Recycled window sashes were used to allow light into the frames, as these were the days before plastic and polyethylene.

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A dear gardening friend, Elinor Malcom, who was one of our nursery’s first customers, loved her “pit” in Carlisle MA. where she wintered over many treasures including a collection of Camellias that belonged to her mother. Ellie’s mom had been an accomplished gardener and was good friends with Kathryn Taylor, who co-authored with Edith Gregg, the book Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sun-heated Pit, first published in 1941, now out of print.  My husband Chris was lucky to find a copy in a local used book store sometime ago. (PS…your library may have a copy!)

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pages illustrated with early photos of pit frames

This practical book does go into the how-to’s of small greenhouse growing, but I think the authors hit a happy nerve with their enthusiasm for solar pit houses. Ms. Taylor and Ms. Gregg showed how, with a little Yankee ingenuity and thriftiness, the average home gardener could have the luxury of blossoms and greenery during the winter months without electricity or heating units. The prose is entertaining and easy to understand and there are a number of good technical illustrations as well as charming B & W photographs.The women shared not only their successes but some of the pitfalls they encountered (no pun intended). The last chapters focus on recommended plants for winter forcing. I was greatly impressed with their expertise and ability to use materials  that were easy to be had without great expense, and I loved the simple but direct dedication at the book’s beginning: To the husbands who dug the holes”.

An online search indicated Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sunheated Pit is available as a used book on Amazon, but I would also recommend checking out second hand book shops.  For those who are interested in learning more about constructing a pit greenhouse, check out these links: Mother Earth News,  Inspiration  Green, and Solar Innovations. There are now many publications on the subject, some more suited to commercial growing.

Wouldn’t it help you to get through the winter if you could walk out your door after a snowstorm and bring in a gathering of fresh flowers and greenery?

Made Good on One Resolution

slowflowercollage2015I didn’t make good on all my promises for 2015, but I was resolute to make more fun time in the garden, and to create an arrangement, once a month at least, from plants found around my nursery and gardens. Let me present my 2015 Slow Flower Calendar.

Starting in the upper left frame and  across, the first is gatherings of lichen, bark and cones during January. Some months had fewer color options, but I found there was always something new to discover and play with. My office window sill was the spot that had the best light for picture taking…notice the changing color background.  December’s composition is a wreath using some of the same found materials that I began the year with. This resolution demands repeating, don’t you think?

Happy 2016 everyone!

A Gift: The Little Fir Tree

fir500Sometimes certain people touch our lives and leave us with a message that continues to reveal. Last week, while wandering about the garden in search of wreath making greens, I caught a glimpse of a little fir tree that was a gift. This little fir is not a “show off” plant, but its presence speaks of goodness and hopefulness, qualities which most gardeners share.

The little fir tree had been a gift from a soft spoken older gentleman, Phil Sheridan, who frequented our nursery in the early years. On one visit, Phil had just come back from a Conifer Society meeting (perhaps 1998?) and presented me with a small 8” seedling of Abies siberica. The only info I could recall him sharing was that it was quite rare. Phil, who was charmingly eccentric and in his eighties at the time, then went off to peruse the nursery and selected several perennials and a young Stewartia, no more than 18” tall. “I’ve always wanted a Stewartia,” he said, and I remember thinking  then what a remarkable optimist he was.

Back to the rare little fir tree. It was tiny and grew slowly, so it lived in a pot for a number of years until it was big enough to be planted in open ground. I had no idea of its eventual size. I checked out the woody plant bible by Mike Dirr…no reference at all to A. siberica. The internet was still immature, and there was no listing in any of the search engines. When knowledgable plant people would visit the nursery I would quiz them if they knew anything about this particular species, but only received puzzled responses. Perhaps it had been mislabeled. I knew most firs preferred cool summer climates, and more often than not, our summers were warm. I finally planted the little guy anyway at the end of a mixed border, and watched him grow.

Today, the little fir tree is almost 10’ tall. It has a lovely pyramidal form and soft fragrant needles. I went back online to see if there was now more information on this elusive species, and if it was truly Abies siberica. Yes and maybe! There was information…Abies siberica, a conifer native to Siberia and other parts of northeastern Asia, reaching heights of 60’ or more…notable for the production of a resin that has anti-inflammatory properties which is used in herbal medicine. A couple of things puzzled me though. Some of the online literature described a plant with hard needles, (this fir is soft to the touch) and also stated the needle length was a bit shorter than what my fir presents. Perhaps it is a variant. More research is necessary but I  think I should be prepared for some epic height.

E. Philip Sheridan passed away in 2000,  and while I was online I searched to see if I could learn more about him. Phil was a retired English professor who dabbled in botany and zoology (I remember he once told me he had pet starlings). Everything I read confirmed what I knew of Phil: that he was a curious, generous soul and, like all gardeners, an avowed optimist.

Photographing Plants, Gardens, Chanticleer

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A view from inside The Ruins

It’s been on my calendar for months: Oct. 23-25, a 3 day weekend at Chanticleer, taking photographs with guided instruction from Rob Cardillo and Lisa Roper. Rob is an accomplished garden photographer who recently collaborated with Adrian Higgins, garden writer for The Washington Post, to chronicle the seasonal beauty of this “pleasure garden” as well as honor the artistic creativity of the talented staff in Chanticleer, A Pleasure Garden. Lisa  Roper is one of the horticulturists at Chanticleer, who combines her artistic training with horticultural knowledge to design, implement and tend special garden areas, most recently the celebrated Gravel Garden. Lisa takes much of the imagery that graces the Chanticleer website.

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The Gravel Garden: Aster (Symphyotrichon) ‘October Skies’ with Grasses

I was also a tad worried. I knew that frost had struck the gardens just the week before (as it had here in my own garden), and I was wondering if the photo ops would be minimized by one freezing night’s wrath.

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Fall color…Oak leaves in the Ruins

No need for concern, as a  garden as beautifully composed as Chanticleer always has imagery to offer. There was luminous autumn foliage of course,  and the grasses were at their prime, as well as seed pods which offered curious if not whimsical subject matter.  I tend to look at things differently and find beauty in decay, as the garden surrenders to shorter days and limited temperatures.

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An early arrival on Friday allowed me time to do some scouting as to where I should  zoom in for image taking. The light in the garden was a bit harsh before 5pm,  but this vignette on the covered porch had possibilities, so I made a mental note.

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Chiaroscuro Orchid

Good thing I did, because Sunday morning brought drizzle and skies of gray, and the porch was a safe refuge. The light turned out to be exquisite. I haven’t succumbed to orchid addiction yet, but this Lady Slipper Orchid caught the light most pleasingly in a chiaroscuro sort of way. Overcast days can present opportunities.

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Chanticleer: Outdoor Living Room

The Ruin and its surroundings have always been my favorite part of the garden, although I am apt to change my mind depending on the season. This outdoor living room, with its cut stone sofa and chairs, is both whimsical, functional, and works as year round sculpture.

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Chanticleer…the reflecting pool with succulents

Within the walls of the Ruin is the most elegant raised reflecting pool. After taking several shots at different times from different angles, a few images were quite pleasing but this one really sang. Yes, I am a succulent fanatic, and isn’t it delicious the way the succulents are reflected, not only in the pool but on the polished stone apron as well?

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An admission here:  I was unleashing my individualist’s streak here trying to work out this composition. (I had stopped at the Barne’s Foundation on Friday morning and absorbed a lot of Impressionist and Post Impressionist sensibilities.) I wanted to capture the pattern on pattern of the Poncirus (Hardy Orange) with the tree trunks and fall foliage in the background. There wasn’t a positive response from my classmates when I shared this image, but y’know, I still like it.

This brings me to a strong recommendation: whether you’re a budding photographer or involved in any artistic pursuit, you should consider signing up for workshops with peers. It is quite astonishing how everyone sees things differently. Each individual has his/her own point of view, and most points of view are valid. Positive or constructively critical feedback provides you with an awareness you are unlikely to arrive at on your own. Our instructor, Rob Cardillo, always found something positive to say about each participant’s work, and was kind and generous with his instruction on how each image could be improved.

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Fall Finale

One last note: if  you’re someone who loves gardens and has never been, plan to visit Chanticleer.  There are only a few days left before they close for the season on November 1st, but the 2016 season begins again early next spring. It is a public garden that is intimate, artistic, and full of horticultural treasures.  It truly is a Pleasure Garden; there is no better way to describe it.

Winter Prep for Tender Succulents

sucpotfall500_72As we advance into autumn, your succulent planters may look so beautiful that  you may want to wait until the last minute to protect your plants.

deconstruct1_succulent500It usually happens sometime in mid October in southeastern MA,  when a cloudless night will allow temperatures to drop into the low 30’s and a light frost nips unprotected tender plantings (yep, that’s what happened here). If a frost catches you by surprise, your plants may only have suffered slight foliage damage which can easily be trimmed off.

deconstruct2_succulent500Small containers can simply be moved inside, but you’re probably not going to want to move a big heavy pot. The only thing to do to preserve your plants in this case is to dismantle your planting. Carefully pry loose the root balls to get at the plants. (Thanks  Peter Tracey for acting as our model!)

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Have a wheelbarrow nearby to transfer your unearthed roots.

deconstruct6_ssucculent500Prepare a very well drained planting medium suitable for succulents. We use a barky perennial mix with added perlite and coarse sand. It is important that your plants don’t spend the winter in soil which stays moist all the time. Try to transplant into pots that are just big enough to contain the root ball. (This will help keep the pots on the dry side and will not take up much space.)

deconstruct_succulents.onPlace your pots near the sunniest windows in your home. The days are getting shorter and low light levels may can cause your plants to stretch towards the window. Rotate your pots to compensate.  We water only when the pots are dry, and wait until late winter or early spring to fertilize.

See the Rehabbing Succulents Post for spring care.

Tips for Wintering Over Tender Plants

Echeveria 'Afterglow' with Aptenia cordata ,Foxtail Asparagus and Phormium 'Sundowner' in a 14" pot.

Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ with Aptenia cordata ,Foxtail Asparagus and Phormium ‘Sundowner’ in a 14″ pot.

Very soon, a frosty night will be threatening. If you haven’t already, now is the time to think about which tender plants you want to preserve for next year. You may have limited space and if you have collected a lot of plants, you will want to prioritize your selections. Here are links to recent blog posts on wintering over tender plants.

Wintering Over I: Taking Cuttings

Wintering Over Tender Perennials Indoors 

Wintering Over Roots of Tender Perennials

Wintering Over Succulents