Category Archives: Garden Design

thoughts on garden design

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

Holiday decor in the time of Covid

Amaryllis ‘Wedding Dance’ and Begonias with cut greens and lights

Yep, this year is different. Fear of Covid has canceled holiday gatherings, and the urge to go all out with decorating is met by some with the question, “should I bother?” The answer is yes, even if it must be simple. This year, we absolutely need to illuminate the long nights with strings of lights and candles, but maybe we can take a break from lugging boxes of Christmas ornaments from the attic. (The thought of putting it all away is a chore no one relishes!) Instead,  we’ll focus on bringing nature indoors with decor that is  gathered from the garden and (lucky us) , the greenhouse.

Succulents in shades of red, green and white sit on a tray with gathered moss. Even the Aloes have festive names: the tiny one in the foreground is ‘Christmas Sleigh’, just behind it is  Aloe ‘Blizzard’, with blue green Echeveria setosa dimunata flanking on either side.

a brilliant Guzmania with red spikemoss

fresh evergreen wreath cut from conifers in the garden.

So, yes to winter wreaths on doorways, garlands, and arrangements of cut branches with pine cones. Yes to forced pots of Amaryllis, Christmas roses and red and green leaved Begonia. We may bring in a potted evergreen from the nursery and simply dress it with lights. Some classic holiday music will set the mood, along with the scent of cookies baking in the oven.

catch early morning light in the garden

a fire brings light and warmth

a fire brings light and warmth to end the day

This may be the year when we can’t physically gather with friends and family, but we can find peace and hope in nature’s gifts. Be outside as much as possible: take an early morning walk to catch the bird song or build a fire at dusk. Perhaps these simple ways of acknowledging the season,  more akin to the ancient winter festivals of northern Europe, will become a new tradition.

bottom lighting sets off this white Amaryllis

Peace and joy to you all!

Stay well!

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

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.

Container Series 2020

Here we go…the first of a series of container ensembles for 2020. If you’ve followed our postings from previous years, you may remember that our goal is to plant up  containers in June which will be easy to maintain and still look fabulous in September.

Start with the pot. When I design a container I try to select plants that work well with the chosen vessel. Consider the container’s shape, color and texture. In the design above I have used Melianthus major, hardy to zone 9, as the main feature in this multi-hued green drum pot. I tucked in Golden Jewels of Opar and Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ to add light and drape, and the petite form of silver Tradescantia sillamontana. This container is located in a spot that gets 6-7 hours of sun.

This Iron urn gets dappled light most of the day. I’ve used Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’ to pick up the tone of the urn, plus Oxalis ‘Copper Glow’, Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ for lightness and Begonia ‘Ebony’, which will give height as the season progresses. Note the Begonia has the same coral pink flowers as the Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’. I had hopes for the golden Moses- in-the-cradle (Tradescantea spathacea), but it is beginning to dissolve…and I don’t know why.

This large Grecian urn is in shade most of the day. Plants featured are Begonia thurstonii, with its glossy bronze foliage and pink flowers, Oxalis ‘Zinfandel’, Ming Fern (Asparagus retrofractus) in the back, which you cannot see much of yet, golden Moses- in-the-cradle in the foreground and Plectranthus ‘Limelight’ which will hopefully trail to disguise the iron stain on the vessel.

This urn gets the first hours of morning sun, then dappled shade the rest of the day. It’s a variation on what I did last year, with a few updates. For height I’ve used Blue Rabbits-Foot Fern (Phlebodium aureum),  accented with Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’,  little Cuphea hyssopifolia lutea, Tolmeia ‘Cool Gold’ and Jasmine ‘Fiona Sunrise’.

Playing with contrasts here: white and black, rustic and elegant.  A rustic hypertufa bowl in dappled shade has Sansevieria ‘Moonshine’ adding a vertical thrust along with smaller Liriope ‘Okimo’, and to spill over the sides Pilea glauca,  Thunbergia alata alba (Black Eyed Susan Vine) and Dichondra argentea.

This gorgeous pot with its salt-crackle finish of turquoise over bronze called for succulents. A tall Aeonium arboreum adds height, with additional rosettes from  tawny toned Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ and Echeveria ‘Autumn Flame’. Senecio talinoides picks up the blue tones. For sun to partial shade…

Just potted up  hours ago, this 28″ brown terracotta bowl showcases my new fav, iMangave ‘Desert Dragon’ , in the center. Sticks on Fire (Euphorbia turicalli v. rosea) adds height, with Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’, Pachysedum, Haworthia, Sempervivums, Crassula lycopoides and Echeveria nodulosa acting as fillers. Small leaved yellow  Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ is repeated around the container’s edge, where it hopefully will spill over the sides.

A new version of a seashell planter with Echeveria ‘Dick’s Pink’ in the spotlight. Pale sea green Graptoveria ‘Moonglow’ fills either side, with bronzy Sedum tetractinum and Senecio ‘String of Pearls’ cascading down.

This tall lightweight gray cylinder pot is in area that is seen by everyone almost daily. It’s important that it looks good and needs little care, so of course succulents come to play. In the past I’ve used a lot of silver and blue toned succulents…this year I’m playing with green, bronze and gold. The tall green succulent is a large leaved form of Portulacaria afra that we found at a specialty shop in LA.

You may wonder, and the answer is yes, I do like flowers, but I do try to avoid flowering plants that need constant deadheading or are very thirsty. This pair of freshly planted white ribbon pots (for a client ) have 3 easy long-blooming tender perennials that will give a show all summer: Blue Plumbago, Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’, with a variegated ivy  that will spill over the sides.

Check back in late September when I post the end of season photos in the final  review of which ensembles worked well and which did not. I do have more pots to do, and if time allows I’ll post images. Click this link for previous years results.

End of the Season Container Report

Shady Planters with Mini Spider Plant, Pilea glauca and silver Sanseveiria...the white begonias  originally planted pooped out, and were replaced with white pumpkins a few weeks ago.

It’s October 20th, and although we’ve flirted with temps in the low 30’s…we haven’t had a frost yet! We had reasonable summer weather, although not much rain in August and September. The containers we planted in June have held up well, although a few plants had to be edited out or cut back midseason. Once again, the containers based on foliage plants and succulents fared the best.

One of our go-to combos: Phormium, Echeveria, Aeonium and Silver Falls Dichondra

Pelargonium tomentosum overwhelmed one side of the drum pot, but we didn’t mind as we love to rub the minty scented leaves as we pass by. The Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’ held its bracts all summer.  Plectranthus neohilis ‘Gary Hammer’ added its own aroma.  And Erigeron karvinskianus received a cut back a few weeks ago and has decided not to perform anymore.

Phlebodium aureum (Rabbits Foot Fern) is an easy solution plant for shade containers. The yellow leaved jasmine ‘Fiona’s Sunrise‘ trailed about, the purple Oxalis triangularis carried on as did the Tolmeia ‘Cool Gold ‘.

This planting received ooh’s and ah’s when I shared on Instagram back in June….then everything grew out of scale quickly;  both the Abutilon and Coleus were pinched back regularly.

Phormium ‘Evening Glow with Sedum ‘Firestorm’ and various Echeveria and Kalanchoe planted at its base.  Looking just fine in mid October.

This was NOT the best pairing this year…..the Eucomis never bloomed and we knew the Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender ‘ would bloom late, but it proved rather lackluster when it finally did. We used last year’s stock plant and it never kicked in the way a fresher, young plant does. The yellow-leaved jasmine did its thing well, though.

The tall cylinder container with succulents put on a show all summer…the Sticks on Fire did get rather tall and we discussed but could not decide whether to clip it back or not. Love the lacy Rhipsalis that trails in the front!

This collection of greenhouse foliage plants in our Zen bowl did well, (except for the Begonia boliviensis that succumbed to a bad case of fungal leaf spot and had to go). Synadenium grantii put on some height . Light conditions: mostly shade except for 2 hours of mid-late day sun.

I really liked this Euphorbia turcalli , Begonia kellermanii, Oxalis combination. It is situated where it received 2-3 hours of the midday sun, and then its all shade. There’s also a Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’, a Ming fern and Echeveria tucked in for added from and contrast.

What combinations did you try this year? Which plantings would try again?

A Versatile Fall Aster

Heath Aster planted itself in the dappled shade of our oak tree.

I take no credit for planting the occasional surprise of native Symphyotrichum ericoides (heath aster) in our gardens…they just appear and often in just the right spot. Unobtrusive all summer, but a delightful accent when flowers form in mid-September, Heath Aster presents 1-2′ stems bearing hundreds of tiny white daisies with yellow centers, creating a frothy foam in both sunny and even somewhat shady areas.

Synphyotrichum ‘Bridal Veil’…a Chicago Botanic Garden Introduction. ( image courtesy of CBC)

There are selected forms out there….‘Snow Flurry’ stays quite low at  6-8″ with 2′ branches that hug the earth, making it a useful native ground cover for the edge of a border or in the rock garden. A new selection ‘Bridal Veil’, introduced by the Chicago Botanic Garden, is believed to be a naturally occurring cross of ericoides and “?”. It produces strong 2′ arching stems with copious amounts of blossoms and forms vigorous clumps.

All forms of Heath Aster prefer well-drained soil and are quite drought tolerant once established. As I mentioned we’ve had plants pop up in even shady situations, but I think you get more flower power with full sun. Deer resistant and pollinator-friendly and hardy in zones 5-8…yay!