Category Archives: Garden Musings

…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.

What Survived the Winter

A survivor…..Stachyurus chinensis 'Celina' cared little for being under 4' of snow.

A survivor…..Stachyurus chinensis ‘Celina’ cared little for being under 4′ of snow.

The agony and the ecstasy, or is it the other way around?
After this marathon winter, crocus, daffodils and hellebores have gushed forth with a grand ta-dah! Emerging growth from so many herbaceous perennials reassures us that a heavy snow blanket was good for some plants.

HOWEVER…. trees and shrubs exposed to the onslaught of 3 months of cold and frigid white stuff fared unevenly. Some came through unscathed, while others lost limbs and suffered dieback. The most serious casualties in our garden were the broadleaf evergreens, especially boxwood and Japanese holly, and the evergreen bamboos. The question, what does hardiness mean, is provoking a lot of discussion.

This variegated boxwood is toast!

This variegated boxwood is toast!

A variegated boxwood, which grew from a rooted cutting 15 years ago to 7′ tall, is now the color of straw and shows no green in the cut wood, except for the lowest branches. The fastigiate Japanese Holly, Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’ has more than its share of crispy foliage, but the wood has life and we’re confident it will put on fresh growth. Amazingly, once again the Trochodendron araliodes which horticultural friends cautioned would be iffy, came through looking fine, despite broken branches, (it was buried under snow for weeks). Planted right next to it was a so called hardy gardenia, a loss, or at least total die back to the roots.

A few smashed branches  reduced the size of this Trochodendron, but it's going to be fine.

A few smashed branches reduced the size of this Trochodendron, but it’s going to be fine.

The bamboo grove of Phyllostachys aureosulcata is a sorry sight. What once was a wall of green is now stationary beige. Yes, discoloring of leaves happens in cold winters,  which drop when the new leaves emerge in May, (most years)…but this year many of the 30′ culms are brown or oddly discolored. I’m confident that new shoots will break from the ground, but thousands of dead stalks will need to cut down before this happens. Know any artists who may need bamboo for a big project?

Note the brown culms, and even some of the green have threatening discoloring.

Note the brown culms, and even some of the green have threatening discoloring.

I usually advise patience before yanking out plants that have suffered winter damage. April is often too early to tell if a plant is a goner or will convalesce and recover.  In the meantime, where there is hope, prune damaged branches, fertlize gently and let nature heal. Miracles happen while you are busy watching everything else grow.

the rare little Helleborus torquatus, returning again after more than 20 years

the rare little Helleborus torquatus, returning again after more than 20 years

In Color: Hardy Succulents

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum 'Pacific Blue Ice', Sedum 'Angelina', Semeprvivum 'Carmen', Sedum album 'Coral Carpet', Sempervivum 'Topaz', and Sedum stefco

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum ‘Pacific Blue Ice’, Sedum ‘Angelina’, Semeprvivum ‘Carmen’, Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet’, Sempervivum ‘Topaz’, and Sedum stefco

It is early April here in New England, and as the snow retreats, a walk about the garden reveals color from unexpected plants…winter hardy succulents. Yes the early crocus and snowdrops are showing off, but they will come and go quickly. Since we’re still flirting with frosts and will not begin to see rich greens and bright pastels until the end of the month, the delicious burgundy and coral tones taken on by many hardy Sempervivum and Sedum provide a different color palette. These hardy succulents may not grab your attention when plant shopping, since many gardeners aren’t selecting plants at nurseries until warmer temperatures prevail. By late spring, the intense foliage hues change to more muted blue green and olive coloring. And of course, there are many more brightly colored blossoms to distract us.

If you’re taking a survey of your gardens right now, consider where you can use the rich, changing colors and textures that winter hardy succulents provide. They require minimal care and look good year round, especially the “evergreen” forms. Many are hardy into zone 3 plus are deer and rabbit resistant.  They ask only for sun and good drainage, and can winter over admirably in containers as well.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

Rehabbing Succulent Planters

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A succulent planter in mid April…ready for rehab.

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 your 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 overcrowded or out of proportion, you can see if just trimming back is the answer.

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3 weeks later….the plants in this pot have begun to flush with new growth

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. Any cuttings from pinching 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…. Use these little divisions to tuck in around the container where their are “plant gaps”. Fertilize your planter with a seaweed/fish emulsion. It will take a number of weeks and some warm sunny weather for your planters to start to perk up.

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After cutting back the creepers, replace with fresh cuttings to fill holes and balance the design of your vertical planter.

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.

Vertical Garden ...3 weeks later

Vertical Garden 3 weeks later

 related posts…:

Wintering Over Tender Succulents

Growing Vertically