Category Archives: Plant Portraits

The Late Asters that should be in your Garden

Symphyotrichum x Bill’s Big Blue’

Years ago, the only fall asters that were commonly available at nurseries were cultivars of New England Asters: ‘Purple Dome’,  ‘Alma Potschke’  and ‘Wood’s Blue’. I have to say they have regularly disappointed me…by the time they came into flower their lower leaves would turn brown and look so tarnished.  I learned that their “ugly legs” could be disguised by planting behind another plant so you only viewed the flower heads. These New England Asters bloomed in early-mid September and by this time of year (mid October) the show was over.

Over the years, I have discovered there were so many other showy asters to try,  including many other native species.  Some didn’t begin their show until mid October,  plus they did not suffer the “ugly legs” syndrome. (Light frosts were not a problem.) Let me talk up a few.

Symphyotrichum ‘Bill’s Big Blue’

Consider Symphyotrichum (Aster) Bill’s Big Blue’, a “nativar” selected by a CA nurseryman years ago.  It may take a year or two to achieve its capable height of 5′, but here it is in the latter half of October, billowing forth over a stone wall. (Blue is sometimes tricky to capture in photos, and it is actually more blue in person). The bumbles and honey bees are enjoying its late display.

Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’

I’ve written about Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’, a small flowered October into November bloomer, in an early post.  1″ violet blue flowers appear in profusion on 18-24″ tall plants and please the bees too! Take note that this Aster spreads, so use it where a useful, late blooming groundcover will complement some brilliant fall foliage.

Aster tartaricus ‘Jindaii’

Aster tartaricus ‘Jindai’  is another late bloomer that reaches a 3-4′ height. Distinctive large tobacco-like basal leaves give rise to tall sturdy stems bearing clusters of periwinkle blue  flowers with abundant pollen. Plants do spread where happy, so pair with sturdy partner plants.

Symphyotrichum ‘October Skies’

The native Aromatic Asters, Symphyotricum oblongifolius ‘October Skies’, and the slightly taller  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’  are becoming better known. One would easily overlook them in the nursery yard in spring as their foliage doesn’t command attention.  Come October, however, and look again…the plants are literally covered with 1 1/2″ blue flowers.  They also have good drought tolerance and are pollinator friendly.

Are you growing any late blooming Asters that should be in everyone’s garden?

Fall Container Report 2021

As we approach October, it’s time to evaluate which planters held up well in this surprisingly wet year. Perhaps my favorite planter this year was an afterthought…what to do in a 36″ bowl that gets less and less sun each year. It was in an area that doesn’t get much attention to boot, but as you can see it didn’t suffer at all.

This combination of different Snakeplants (Sansevieria) and Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon nigrescens) with variegated ivy and Dichondra worked astonishingly well. Sophisticated in a way, but totally unfussy! Will have to consider a future repeat performance.
It’s been 20 years since we’ve grown Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet), but since we have had so many inquiries recently,  we decided to give them another go. (I vaguely remember that they were a magnet for whiteflies, and banned them from the greenhouse.) In June I ordered 5 different varieties from Logee’s, (yes, a late start for a summer display, especially starting with 4″ pots), but with regular doses of the  miraculous Neptune’s Harvest fish/seaweed fertilizer, they all took off. The mystery selection shown above differed from the name tag description, but it sure was quick to flower. In fact it is in its second flush right now.

This is what we learned: Brugmansia grow very fast in tropical weather conditions (we’ve certainly had  heat, humidity and a fair amount of rain this season).  We know that hybrids of the species versicolor have flowers that first appear yellow then age to shades of pink. Two of the 5 selections grew to large proportions but as of Sept 27 are only now forming flower buds.  Two others provided flowers within  3 months time.  Logee’s ‘Pink Champagne’  (pictured above) has a subtle coloring that is best enjoyed up close. The larger proportioned  ‘Angel’s Lemon Zest’ (below) has also rewarded us with repeat flowerings.

I should say that this year we’ve enjoyed simply growing on specimen plants in individual containers, and either arranging little groups or featuring  on pedestals of their own. The little Goldfish Plant, Nematanthus  gregarius, is an easy “succulent” for shadier spots. Consider it an indoor/outdoor plant..most of us have a windowsill that will accommodate this little guy for the winter,  and then next year it can renew itself outdoors again all summer.

A 20 year old pot of Haworthia reinwardtii and a 3 year old Aeolinanthus repens spent the summer outdoors, and will return to a western window inside for the winter…super easy plants to keep happy!

And now for the before and after pics.  All in all, plants held up well, although this was the year the Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ really sulked. It didn’t die, but it didn’t luxuriate as in previous summers…too humid?A few succulents exceeded their bounds and needed a cut back.
Here the Dichondra was cut back in Sept. when it got dingy looking.You can never go wrong combining succulents with Phormium.Abutilon ‘Harvest Moon’ likes to be fed a lot, and it will  reward you with blooms all summer. Begonias may have liked the humidity but not constant wetness. Begonia ‘Art Hodes’ above, one of the best, never complained. Begonia ‘Escargot’ , below,  survived, but was more challenging to keep  happy.

Please tell us…how did your containers fare this summer? Still looking good? Which plants impressed you the most?

Two Time Tested Groundcovers To Try

Some of you will remember that many (20+) years ago, there was a wonderful specialty nursery on the West Coast called Heronswood. Heronswood Nursery turned us on to so many great new plants! Yes the climate on Bainbridge Island was much milder than ours here in zone 6, and some of their offerings would not survive our cold winters. Still there were plant discoveries that could.  One was this evergreen ground cover commonly known as Silver Veined Wintercreeper, (Euonymus fortunei ‘Wolong Ghost’).

We’ve had this planted for decades in a spot with only a few hours of sunlight. Here it has gracefully spread and spilled over a low retaining wall. Plants do not get much taller than 8-10″ but can cover an area as the stems might root along as they touch the earth. It is known to be hardy in zones 5-9, and is adaptable to part sun or shade plus it is disliked by deer.

Sedum sichotense

Another ground cover we have enjoyed in our garden for years is Sedum sichotense. (now reclassified as Phedimus sichotense). Low growing (under 4″) but ever spreading, it is a superb choice for dry soil in full sun. The green narrow serrated leaves add  textural interest, but what is most exciting is the foliage turns to shades of brilliant red in the fall .

Fall color starting to turn red

Sedum sichotense gets clusters of starry yellow summer flowers that are favored by bees. It is native to a part of Russia we’re told and  is hardy in zones 4-9.  And yes, it is deer resistant.

Buy Euonymus fortunei ‘Wolong Ghost online

Buy Sedum sichotense online

Early Summer Container Report

My goal each season is to plant containers that are easy to maintain and will carryon summer through fall. For sunny areas, I’ve come to look at succulents as such reliable performers. They always oblige… often looking even more fabulous at season’s end. For areas with more shade, I lean towards Begonias and other plants with great foliage. This season I’m starting to play with Bromeliads more.
An older  28″ cast stone bowl on a pedestal mixes up various  larger succulent specimens with trailing Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’.The intriguing dark finish on this ceramic pot from Campania has nuanced tones of lavender and light green. The Echeveria ‘Dusty Rose, Mangave ‘Inkblot’, Trailing blue-green Sedeveria and String of Pearls pick up this coloring….and for fun, (because I just cut them from the bed behind), dried allium stalks add a little height.This blue salt glazed version of the previous pot has been planted with succulents which pick up its color tones. Senecio (now Curio) cylindricus is usedfor height, with Aeonium , Echeveria, Pachyveria , Othonna ‘Ruby Necklace’ and Sedum album.

This tall gray cylinder pot mixes up a large specimen Aeonium ‘Blushing Beauty’, with dark leaved Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Sedeveria ‘Sorrento’, Senecio cylindricus, and trailing Dichondra.Our pair of iron urns now get dappled shade much of the day. Here I used some succulents that can take less sun: ‘Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ and Rhipsalis. Other plants that like the same conditions are Iron Cross Oxalis and Coprosma ‘Evening Splendor’.A non-succulent ensemble similar in coloring (it is right near the Iron urns) has a Cordyline ‘Cha Cha’ with the everblooming Abutilon ‘Harvest Moon’ ,yellow leaved jasmine and dark leaved Begonia ‘Ebony’. A specimen of Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’ keeps it company in a classic rolled rim pot. This spot gets morning sun and afternoon shade.In a different part of the garden is this cast stone urn that gets morning sun for a fe w hours.  Begonia ‘Art Hodes’ is backed by the bromeliad  Vriesea (Flaming Sword) and has Maranta (Red Prayer Plant) skirting its base.Bromeliads make great  shade plants in warm climates. This is the first time I have used  them in mixed containers. In the is large Grecian style urn, the showy Aechmea fasciata comes into spectacular bloom paired with a Begonia ‘Escargot’ (which I hope doesn’t become a problem). Trailing Callisia elegans and Dichondra (it does well in some shade) spill over, and for added fill there’s a couple of small Athyrium ‘Pearly White’ ferns.Not all of our pots are large and busy… this old 14″ terracotta bowl has a simple pairing of Abutilon ‘Harvest Moon’ with Tradescantia ‘Sitara’s Gold’ hidden behind.Finding the perfect plant that works with the personality of the pot is always fun. Here the ruffly leaved Echeveria ‘Topsy Turvy’ (curiously called Mexican Hens and Chicks) fits the cavity of this cast stone Chicken Planter.The always popular clamshell container features plants that have that under the ocean feeling: Crassula undulata, starry little Sedum album,  and trailing Rhipsalis which does kind of resemble Kelp…

Yes, I always come back to succulents since they are so easy and reliable. The various tones of the succulents chosen match the coloring on this 13″ ceramic pot .One challenge using succulents is finding complimentary plants which tolerate the same conditions that can add height. The colorful linear leaves of Phormium work well with this mixed composition of Echeverias, Graptosedum and Sedum tetractinum

There are more pots, which you will see if you visit. Look for the End of the Season blog post to see how they look in late September.

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’

I can’t believe I’ve never written a blog post on  one of my favorite summer blooming shrubs….Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’.  For 20 years now this  beautiful double flowered form of Oak leaf Hydrangea has graced our garden in dappled shade, never missing a beat.  By mid June the flowers have formed, and develop their lovely celadon, white and mauve coloring over the next 6 weeks. The flower heads age magnificently and are wonderful in both fresh and dried arrangements. Do note: Oak leaf Hydrangea bear flowers from old wood, so take care not to cut too many branches or you may sacrifice next year’s show.

In fall, the bold oak shaped leaves take on bronzy maroon tones. Oakleaf Hydrangeas are dear resistant, but hardly any plant is deer proof these days. ‘Snowflake’ grows 6-8′ tall (can get taller, I’m told, but after 20 years, that’s the size of our plants) and wide and is happiest if it gets partial shade.  Shrubs are hardy in zones 5-8.

Buy online

Aloe, Haworthia, Gasteria and their hybrids

Some of our Aloe, Gasteria, and Haworthia collection. Yes, those red tags mean they are stock plants and not for sale…but we may have babies coming along!

It’s no surprise that as your plant obsession grows,  you begin to find the more exotic, curious and sometimes bizarre selections the most interesting, and perhaps most beautiful.  Aloe, Haworthia and Gasteria fit that bill us.

Miniature Aloe ‘Blizzard’…4 year old clump

A number of years ago, we visited California succulent breeder Dick Wright (now in his 90’s)  in search of his famous Echeveria hybrids. Dick’s new obsession was miniature Aloe, and he turned us onto this whole new group of succulent hybrids. He, along with other CA hybridizers such as John Bleck, Kelly Griffin and Karen Zimmerman, were hybridizing many Aloe species resulting in selections as minute as 1″ to up to 2′ in height, in a vast array of foliage colors and textures. Their small stature makes them more suitable for container culture than in the landscape, and since they do not winter over outdoors here in MA, that was just fine with us.

More Aloes…’Christmas Sleigh’, ‘Swordfish’, A. ramosissima, ‘Delta Dawn’, (Sedum clavatum interrupts the lineup ) one of the mini dark numbered selections from Dick Wright and a variegated Aloe brevifolia

Our first acquisitions were species hailing from Madagascar, Kenya  and Tanzania, as well as the more well known hybrid selections ‘Delta Dawn’, ‘Christmas Sleigh’, and ‘Firecracker’. We also brought home other forms which had not been introduced and were distinguished only by initials and numbers, like the little dark Aloe above.

Aloe “AJR” in the foreground with Aloe ‘Firecracker’ behind

Gasteraloe x ‘Midnight’, Gastworthia armstrongii x limifolia, Haworthia retusa, Gasteria bicolor v liliputana (BG), Gasteraloe ‘Green Ice’ and Haworthia concolor.

We also began paying attention to the closely related genera Haworthia and Gasteria, since they are known to be more tolerant of low indoor light conditions. There are many species and hybrids of both, and you will likely come across names like x Gasteraloe and x Gastworthia, as these genera are often crossed with each other, resulting in even more diverse selections.

Gasteraloe ‘Green Ice’, sporting darker leaf coloration, and flowers!

Blooming time for Aloe, Gasteria and Haworthia is primarily during the winter months and early spring usually with strikingly colored flowers. A number of the Aloe selections also bloom intermittently throughout the summer for us and are a hummingbird favorite.

20 year old Gasteria bicolor v. liliputana in bloom….you start with a baby, and suddenly they are all grown up.

Consider growing these easy care plants for your fall and winter plant “fix”.  They ask for so little: provide a sharply drained soil mix,  a bright south or western exposure for Aloe, an eastern or northern exposure will be fine for the Gasteria and HaworthiaWater only as needed. The frequency will depend  on how warm and arid your home conditions are. In fact, a cooler home is perfect!

Container Report: late September 2020

Two words sum up this summer’s weather here along the coast of southern New England: hot and dry.  Here at the end of September, our parched gardens are still waiting for the rain predictions to materialize.  Sigh.

The gardens are looking tarnished  but the container plantings held up better since their watering needs are more easily met. As in previous dry years,  our containers planted with succulents were the stars. (Check out the recent article NY Times garden writer Margaret Roach covered on succulent containers).

You may recall the June report post  which shows the “before” pictures. Now I’ll show you what some of these look like 3 months later, chewed up, cut back foliage and all.

The Drum Pot: Melianthus major grew taller and the Helichrysum ‘Limelight’  (Licorice Plant) needed to get cut back after the American Lady Butterfly caterpillars made dinner of most of its foliage…what we do for the butterflies…The Jewels of Opar didn’t show off as much as I hoped, and was cut back a few weeks ago. The Tradescantia sillamontana did fine, but this planter combo won’t be repeated.

We have a pair of these iron urns that are always planted to match. They are in dappled shade most of the day. One of the pair really was over by the end of August (the one that I photographed in June). It did get a bit more afternoon sun. Its complement held up better…. here the Helichrysum took off after an early cut back, as did the Copper Glow Oxalis. The Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’ is now fading, Begonia ‘Ebony’ bloomed well and its dark foliage added height and contrast, but the golden Moses- in-the-cradle (Tradescantea spathacea) just couldn’t hold its own, and is in hiding.

Another shady spot. Begonia thurstonii grew well, but held off putting out any flowers (not surprisingly). I used two 6″ pots in this vase, and probably should have used just one. The  mostly gold Plectranthus ‘Limelight’ is not a strong grower, and wouldn’t cascade down the pot as  hoped. The Oxalis ‘Zinfandel’ always does well and the ruby leaved Alternanthera did fine until some critter nibbled  its trailing stems.

No complaints with this shady ensemble…Phlebodium aureum is my go to bold foliage shade container plant. Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ is providing an end of the season supply of blossoms as is the Gold Leaved Mexican heather Cuphea hyssopifolia aurea. The golden jasmine vine’s foliage simply glows.

A pair of these hypertufa bowls, in the shade of our giant oak tree, were planted with ‘Moonglow’ Snakeplant (Sansevieria), Dichondra Silver Falls’, Pilea glauca and Liriope ‘Okimo’  (all selected for durable attractive leaves. The white flowered form of Black Eyed Susan Vine was the flower power plant, and it bloomed well until a  couple of weeks ago.  Figured a few mini pumpkins could add a little fun now.

And now, for the sun and heat loving succulents! This beautiful container, in itself, is eye candy….the foliage colors of the succulents were selected to complement it, and all did fine except for the tall Aeonium that had a mishap and lost it’s tallest stems. Blue Senecio talinoides and beige-pink Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ obliged by filing in much of the horizontal space.End of day light and cooler night temperatures bring out the glow of Sticks on Fire, Euphorbia turicali, with the Mangave ‘Desert Dragon’ added dark contrast. Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’ on the far left, yellow leaved Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ and blue gray pink Graptosedum ‘Francesco Baldi’ filled in the foreground.  This will look good right up until the frost. (Please, frost, wait until November.)

Someone purchased the seashell planter shown in the June post, but we did another version for a client.  This image was taken at at the end of August, but the ensemble is still looking fabulous.Succulents can play with other plants that  tolerate the dry well drained soil…Here Coprosma ‘Pink Splendor’ (Mirror Plant)  works well with Sedum adolphiiSedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ and Pachysedum.

Our tall cylinder pot, each year planted with a different  array of succulents, caught visitors’ eyes when they entered the parking area. Everything did extremely well with just an occasional watering, although some creature nibbled and pulled out some of the trailing Othonna capensis ‘Ruby Necklace’.  The tallish green succulent with the arching branches is the large leaved form of Elephant Plant, Portulacaria afra macrophylla. Adding an array of pumpkins helps carry this container into the fall season.

In summary, we had a hot and extremely dry summer, and one group of plants, the succulents, met this year’s challenge beautifully.  I realize this blog post reaches folks in all parts of the country, and your area may have benefited from  more summer rain. If so, what plantings were you most impressed with this year ?

Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’

Are you looking for something different for a fall display in your containers? Check out Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’...it celebrates autumn with multitudes of dark orange flowers, and can, if brought indoors and kept in a sun filled space, will continue to carry on the show.

We grow a number of Abutilon selections  in containers which we bring indoors once the cold sets in, but if we were asked which  form to grow,  Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red‘ tops the list. It stays bushy and compact  ( it has A. megapotamicum in its lineage) when grown in 4-6 hours of sun and blooms continuously  with the biggest show in late summer and fall.  We have been caught off guard when a frosty night  has brought temperatures below 32F, and  found that  ‘Dwarf Red’  came through unfazed.

Some things to know about Abutilon. It is  commonly known as Flowering Maple,  and is a semi-tropical shrub with lovely pendant bell-shaped flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds. The flower display can continue year round when grown in bright light and temperatures above 45F, but in our experience,  the flower display in autumn is most generous. Often listed as winter hardy in zones 9-10, we have been hearing that hardiness in zones 7b-8 is not unheard of when plants are grown in a protected spot with good drainage.

CARE: Abutilons like to be fed regularly for good flower output  We use a fish emulsion/seaweed blend (Neptune’s Harvest 2-6-4 blend) every 2 weeks. allow the soil to become somewhat dry between waterings.   Purchase online.

Other posts discussing fall containers:

Rethinking fall containers

Plectranthus ciliatus

End of the Season Container Reports

Vitex agnus-castus ‘Shoal Creek’

Why plant Buddleia when you can grow Vitex?  Mid summer blue-lavender fragrant spires begin in July and carry on through August on bushy plants with attractive palmate foliage. Here in the northeast, our colder winters don’t allow plants to become as large (10-15′) as the data says, since they  do get some  winter die back.  Vitex blooms on new growth, so it can be cut back hard each spring to grow into a perfectly sized 5-6′ flowering shrub.  And yes,  it is a great addition to a pollinator garden as it is a favorite of butterflies and bees.

The fruits of Vitex agnus-castus resemble peppercorns and have medicinal properties. It has been used to treat women’s health issues such fertility and menstrual problems. In the middle ages it was used to reduce the male libido (heaven’s no!) hence its common name, Chaste Tree. Grow Vitex in full sun in well drained soil in zones (5, with protection) 6-9.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’

I’ll give you 3 reasons why you should have ‘Jeana’, a Summer Panicle Phlox, in your garden.

1. Long-blooming tresses of many small lilac sized florets, on 4-5′ stems, adorn this plant from mid July-September.

2. The foliage is highly resistant to mildew.

3. Butterflies favored ‘Jeana’  over all other Phlox paniculata selections  in the trial gardens at the Mt. Cuba Center.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is  hardy in zones 4-8 and enjoys full sun. For a pleasing midsummer vignette, combine with white coneflowers or the yellow daisies of tall Rudbeckia nitida ‘Autumn Sun’, as well as the blue spires of mid-sized Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and  for the front of the border airy and pollinator friendly Calamintha nepeta ssp nepeta.