Category Archives: Garden Musings

Spanish Impressions

The courtyard at Casa del Herrero with various tilework and paving.

The Northeast has many wonderful gardens but the ones that stand out as must see destinations are not built with plants alone. These gardens display structural materials and contours which challenge our formed perspectives in unexpected ways.  It is easy to slip into the parochial mentality of using traditional materials in traditional ways.  The best remedy for this is traveling! Nothing inspires and excites like unfamiliar architecture and a different climate, which imprint their unique personality upon the landscape.  This winter we explored, once again, southern California. Three places stood out, not only for their plants collections and designs, but for their use of decorative stone, tile and brick.

Detail showing band of tiles.

In the community of Montecito, Santa Barbara County, we visited Casa del Herrero.  Situated on a 7 acre trapezoidal site, this Spanish Colonial Revival is center stage to the surrounding gardens. While it is impossible to separate the house from the landscape as a unified whole, there are still individual vignettes and motifs that can find translation in New England gardens.  During our mid winter tour, Kathy remarked that the grounds were wonderful, even without many blossoms. Molly Barker, the executive director replied, ?Our tiles are our flowers?.  Though our cold climate gardens may never have the exquisite tilings of Casa del Herrero, it would take only a few to add flavor and personality to any courtyard or entry garden.

Use of tile as risers in brick steps at Lotusland.

Inlaid pebbles adorn the surface of the platform for this garden orb.

Pebble Mosaic Paving at Lotusland

Ten minutes from Monticeto, is Santa Barbara, home to Lotusland, the estate and garden created by the late Polish opera singer, Madame Ganna Walska.  Married six times to a series of wealthy husbands, Madame obviously never thought enough is enough.  This is equally evident in the gardens, dramatic and lush, living stages set sooo over-the-top that you forget where the bottom is. This stunning, fantastical landscape is another world, which is saying something since, in Santa Barbara, over-the-top is ?whateva!?.  Handsome and playful tile work is seen throughout, but the decorative stonework, constructed of small rounded stones (beach pebbles) set in mortar is spectacular.  This stone integrates well with many other hard surface materials: brick, cement, natural stone, bluestone and schist.

The Blue Iguana that greets you at the Inn.

Patio Paving Combination at the Blue Iguana Inn in Ojai.

Another stop on our tour was the Town of Ojai, CA, which shares a personality similar to Taos, NM.  Each is ripe with creative energy that manifests in house, garden, public and private space, culture and lifestyle.  Throughout southern California, water availability is an ongoing concern and Ojai is no exception.  This is, no doubt, one of the reasons that tiles and decorative stone craft play such an important role in the landscape.  The aesthetic contribution is colorful and constant.  While in Ojai, we stayed at The Blue Iguana Inn.  Here they used beach pebbles in several ways: to create the motif of the reptile, to simulate the shadow of a tree in a sitting area, and as a face on stair risers. As New Englanders we never tire of looking at stone, but finding new ways to use it is essential to expand the New England landscape vernacular.

–Chris Tracey, Avant Gardens

Perennial Chrysanthemums

Dendranthena 'Hannah's Garden'

Chrysanthemum from Hannah’s Garden

We’ are often asked, #1, ““What’s the difference between a perennial mum and the “hardy” mums sold in pans in the autumn?”” Another question is ““What is the difference between Dendranthema and Chrysanthemum?”” We “get” the confusion. If it’s hardy, it must be perennial, right? The answer to #1 is “Yes, but…” And as for the Genus classification, more confusion exists. In 1999, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature announced we all should be calling the reliably perennial forms (or Korean Mums) Dendranthema.  Now we’ve been told the term Dendranthema is being axed, and we need to classify all mums under Chrysanthemum.

The mums sold in the fall, offered in kaleidoscopic colors, are hybrids of Korean, Chinese and Japanese Chrysanthemums. It is believed that the forms that survive in the coldest zones, 4 and 5, are of the Korean lineage (formerly Chrysanthemum indicum).  What we’ve also learned is that many of the “pan mums” could actually winter over in zones 5 and 6, but fail to do so, because they are planted so late in the season (Nov., Dec.) when we empty our containers. Their shallow root systems get desiccated or exposed to deep freezes and excess winter saturation. To be successful, you should plant your mums by early fall, and/or mulch heavily for root protection.

More of what you need to know: Chrysanthemum set buds when day length shortens, usually in October. If your mums start to bloom in August or early September, it might be due to long periods of overcast weather. Chrysanthemum tend to grow to 3′ in height or more and are quite floppy, unless pinched back. We’ve always followed the rule of cutting mums to the ground on or around the 4th of July to keep them compact, multi branched and floriferous. Each new shoot will bear clusters of blossoms, so the more shoots, the more flowers you will have.  (The pan mums are essentially many rooted cuttings pinched back to insure a burst of flower power.)

We’ve acquired a small group of perennial Chrysanthemum that winter over well for most of us in zones 5-8. One very special cultivar was given to us by a customer, whose grandmother had kept it growing in her garden back in the 1940’s. We’ve been unable to track down a cultivar name, so we’re offering it as Dendranthema from Hannah’s Garden, or to be correct, Chrysanthemum from Hannah’s Garden.

Buy online

P.S. An interesting read on Training Cascading Chrysanthemums can be found on Longwood Garden’s blog

A Weekend Away for Garden Photography

Arrangement from the garden

This gardener needed a getaway. So what does she do? She catches a flight to the Philadelphia area and takes in a garden photography workshop at Chanticleer, one of the loveliest gardens on the East Coast. And a garden has to be pretty lovely to draw you outdoors when temperatures top 100 degrees F.

That’s right. The rental car temperature gauge read 95 when I picked it up at the airport on Friday afternoon at about 1:30 p.m. but Chanticleer is 25 minutes inland, and by the time I reached Wayne PA, the temperatures had soared to 108 F. Hot tamales!

Tennis Garden View, Early Morning

Tennis Garden View, Early Morning

Thankfully, our opening session on Friday evening was indoors. The excellent instructor, Allen Rokach, gave us the rundown of what he had planned for us: on both Saturday and Sunday we would meet in the morning by 6 a.m. to catch the early morning light, shoot until 9:30, then take refuge in the air conditioned luxury of the Main House to review and select our images (and fill our tummies with healthy goodies).  A group review would follow with 10 images we each selected for feedback. We’d end the afternoon with scouting for more shots before Chanticleer closed their gates at 5.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks'

Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’

The artistry of Chanticleer’s plantings offered countless photo-ops. What’s always fun for me are the new plant discoveries….this year the one that charmed everyone was the unusually large flowered Gomphrena ‘Fireworks‘,  a tender perennial we can all grow from seed. I also discovered an unusual tropical plant, Mussaenda frondosa, with little orange blossoms and showy white bracts that resemble the green leaves.

Portrait of a Lotus

To briefly summarize what I learned despite the heat’s affect on my memory retention:

1. Just because something is interesting or beautiful, does not mean it is photogenic.

2. Take lots and lots of pictures. Look, and then look some more from other angles. Then, delete what is not good.

3. Observe how light is complimenting (or not!) your image.

4. Skip the midday picture taking. The bright sun washes out too much.

5. Use a tripod! Use a tripod!

6. Have fun using Photoshop.

Bromeliad in bloom

Datura bud

Datura bud

Visiting  Chanticleer is a must! Here’s more info.

More bulbs

Apricot Daffs with Corydalis solida and Sedum ‘Angelina’

Are you walking around your garden now and kicking yourself for not planting more bulbs last fall? Or, did you plant bulbs and now that they are up, are realizing that you need a bit more to create the impact you had planned? Well don’t be so hard on yourself. Act now. Go out with your camera and take shots of the areas you want to amend. These images will be helpful reminders of what the areas looked like. Next, consider what other bulbs bloom at the same time, and what perennials are appearing on the scene to compliment the show, so that you can create cheerful vignettes. After you’ve made your list, go for it. Go online and visit a quality bulb merchant. Think in large numbers. Bulb merchants give quantity pricing, so splurge and go for 100 rather than 25. Yes, that’s alot of bulb planting, but you will be so pleased with yourself next spring.

What’s old is new again…Pink

pinkset1

We have preconceived ideas concerning the color pink. Actually it is more assertive than we may think. Google the word Pink and the first hits include the performing artist by that name, Victoria’s Secret, and surprise! an alcoholic beverage.  Pink is for girls. Light blue is for boys. (Actually this color=gender logic didn’t take hold until the 1940’s, and prior to then, pink had been associated with little boys). Just being told that I should like pink made me rebel and declare NO I won’t. Early preferences stuck and I held on to that assertion for 50 years. Could I be mellowing with age or just choosing to look at things differently… last year I realized I wanted to look at this shade of red a whole lot more.

pinkset2

Interestingly we rarely say “light red” when describing pink. When I visualize red I think of tomato or fire engine red, a powerful primary color, which is a far cry from my preconceived image of sweet and gentle pink. Pink is essentially red diluted with white…but ah, there are so many variations, depending on which shade of red you begin with. Warm orange reds soften to peach and appleblossom. Bluer reds infused with white take you to cool lavender tones or vivid cerise. And then there are all the hues and tonal variations in between.

pinkset3

Twenty years ago, the gardening magazines were laden with images of planting schemes using the lovely and oh so safe palette of pinks, blues, silvers and whites (with perhaps a hint of pale yellow). Then, tastes began to change. A new generation of gardeners responded with a no thank you, and began using the once taboo shades of orange, lime and purple. Well, what was old is new again.  Pink is suddenly fresh, and there are plenty of adventurous pink color combinations waiting to be tried. You can play it safe with pale blues and whites, or break the old rules…pinks with reds for example. Last year I used shades of pink in combination with wines, golds and silver, and found plenty of inspiration to play some more. Are you ready to give pink a try?

Podophyllum hexandrum

Attending The Guardian

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.

Snow-laden Recovery

Lucky for us, we didnt have anywhere to go, so we could take it easy and appreciate the wintry scenes provided by our day after Christmas snowstorm. It was a heavy wet snow which coated and caused most tree and shrub branches to bow with excess weight. And, no, despite adding it to our list of winter preparations, we never did get around to truss up the fastigiate plants like Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’.

snowyrhus72

Sturdy guys like Rhus ‘Tiger Eye’, looking even more like reindeer antlers, were unfazed, but the Limelight Hydrangea, whose blossoms still clung to its bowing tips, curtsied and created cover for the darting chickadees. The wind was gusting to 30-35 mph. We crossed our fingers.

Hydran 'Limelight'gea paniculata

The next day we walked about the garden to see what damage there was, and to our relief, there wasn?t much. The hardy clumping Bamboo, Fargesia rufa ”Green Panda’, which had been standing 6? tall, was laying flat on the ground under an 8? heavy white cover, but that wasn’t cause for alarm.

Snowladenbamboo72

A day or so later, sure enough, the branches began to boing back one by one. As the snow melted over the next three days, the Fargesia had completely returned to it’s orignal height, and there was no evidence of it flattened state. This brings to mind a special usefulness for ‘Green Panda’ as a foundation planting subject. Here we have an evergreen that will not be damaged by heavy snow falling from rooftop eaves. Fargesia ‘Green Panda’ may temporarily concede to snow loads, but will not suffer severe damage as some Boxwood and Japanese Holly might.

Fargesia risen

Upright and unharmed Fargesia rufa

Illumination

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.

MeadowLight170

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.

Holiday Gift Ideas

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.

Day After Thanksgiving Plans?

As tempting as Black Friday Shopping is (or isn’t), why not plan an alternative activity on the day after Thankgsiving. Have a thermos with hot cider ready and invite a couple of friends or family members to wander about your garden to gather greens and branches for wreaths and decorating. You’re bound to find a varied selection of evergreens and branches, bare but structural, or decorated with berries and seed pods.

Don’t restrict yourself to the traditional selections…Holly, Boxwood and Pine. You’ll be surprised how well unexpected clippings work. Junipers provide blue-gray foliage and often have attractive blue fruit. Chamaecyparis offer a wonderful array of foliage colors ranging from gold through amber, bronze and dark green, and I love clipping the branches that are adorned with artful cones. Consider twigs with interesting bark or an attractive zig zag habit which will twinkle when coated with morning frosts. Red and gold twig dogwoods offer colorful linear accents, while birch branches can often be found dripping with catkins.

Word of caution: When cutting for arrangements, first be sure you observe how your pruning will effect the shape of the plant. Stand back and view the subject from different angles. You can prune/improve the shape of the shrub and have branches for arranging at the same time.

Display these cut branches in an outdoor container ensemble right away or wait. The smaller cuttings need not go to waste; they can be used to construct a wreath for your door. If you?re not quite ready to decorate, the greens and cut branches can be stored in a cool space until needed. Indoor arrangements created now will become quite brittle and shatter by Christmas, so you may want to wait or plan to do two sets of arrangements, one for now and one for later.