Tag Archives: garden insights

Better to Have Loved, and Lost


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.


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.

Eucomis zan

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.


Hopeful Assessments


Helleborus multifidus ready to unfurl

If you’’re like me, once the snow has retreated, you walk about your garden searching for hints of growth. For me the first signs of spring come with the snowdrops, then the crocus begin showing color, as well as the narcissus which are sending forth their green pencil shoots. We’’ve cut back the old Epimedium and Helleborus hybridus foliage, and yes they are there, the tightly curled flower buds just waiting for a bout of milder temperatures.


Trochodendron aralioides (Wheel Tree)

Our conifers are all looking okay, and right now the tropical looking Trochodendron we planted last summer is looking pretty darn good (fingers are crossed). On the other hand the Bamboos, both the Fargesia rufa and Phyllostyachys aureasulcata, took a real beating. The browned foliage will be replenished with new growth, but the thing is that won’’t happen until mid May…. can we really stand looking at it for that long? We have no choice but to live with our brown Phyllostachys forest, but we may just have to cut the Fargesia to the ground and spare ourselves the view of winter’s scourge. It means we’’ll sacrifice some height this year, but I’’m sure we’’ll get at least 3’’ of it back this summer, and next year the Fargesia should reach 6’’ or more.


Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’, the one that suffered the least this winter.

It’’s still too soon to tell with most perennials. Unless the evidence is an obviously mushy crown, it’ is really just a wait and see. We’’ve had many a plant resurrect itself from deep roots in late spring, once the earth has sufficiently warmed.  Good news is the Beesia deltophylla, covered with a blanket of fallen leaves for the winter is promising growth.


Beesia deltophylla shoots looking promising.

Here’’s a recommendation. Take pictures of the what your garden looks like now, and then document again in 6-8 weeks. Keep these images as a record  of reference for the future, so when things look skeptical in early spring, you keep the faith.

To Grow and Celebrate

“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. It’s a new life…” Nina Simone

I suppose it would be more conventional to write chapters 1-25 first, if I were to write a chapter per year of how horticulture has informed my life. With a nod to how we all began,  I’d like to let you know what we’re planning for 2014.

Chapter 1: Chris and I began Avant Gardens when we were asked to install a cut flower and herb garden for a local bistro. That was more than 25 years ago.

Chapter 26: (the first paragraphs…)

Grow. Isn’t that an optimistic word? What other word or phrase has the same meaning?  Move forward, awaken, gain awareness, obtain height, expand.  Grow? a simple powerful four letter word,  and it perfectly sums up what Chris and I chose to do with our lives after we were hired by that bistro owner mentioned in Chapter 1.

We can’t help but grow at Avant Gardens in 2014. It’s a given…we will have many new plant offerings to tempt you.  As always, there is an emphasis on uncommon selections which will look good for a long time in your garden. Besides plants, we are growing new ideas and new ways of sharing them. We are in the process of redoing and are just weeks away from debuting our new website. Not only will our online plant catalog have a beautiful new look with very useful search features; our new website will begin to showcase the evocative garden landscapes and stonework which Chris Tracey has designed and installed in recent years.  We also want to share some beautiful images of our own innovative, ever changing planting schemes and stone features here at Avant Gardens.

I have been feeling a growth spurt of my own. Many of you know me as the head honcho at the nursery and the main voice behind this blog. Recently, I have become more involved with the garden design services of Avant Gardens. After taking on a few sweet projects this past year, I realized that as much as I have invested my heart and soul in operating a nursery, I really miss designing and planting new gardens. There has been one obstacle: I need time. In order to free up more time for client meetings and executing drawings, we are going to have a more limited visiting hours schedule.  We will keep hours much the way other mail order nurseries function: Open House Weekends through out the season, and always, be open by appointment. As in the past, we encourage our local customers to place will call orders with their preferred pickup date if they would like us to reserve special plants for them.

There are more growth spurts calling me (which may provide some lively blog discussions). I’m considering keeping bees, I really want to have a more ambitious vegetable garden, I’m hoping to make time to practice my  painting skills and pay homage to what’s in season by creating “out of the garden” botanical arrangements. All too often I have been a gardener who can get  so bogged down with the chores that I am not enjoying the wonder that surrounds me. The growth spurts which are calling me are actually ways I will address this. Each is an expression of garden celebration. My new year’s resolution is to make a regular practice of celebrating our garden…winter, spring, summer and fall.

Now tell me,  how do you plan to grow and celebrate in 2014?

Giving Thanks

As much as gardeners quickly express frustration about weather, insect pests, or deer browsing, we really are a thankful lot. We are thankful more often than we acknowledge :  for sunshine, rain, snow cover, good bugs, birds, rich earth….Most importantly,  I think we are grateful for the plants which grace our gardens.

After yesterday’s much needed torrential rainfall (thankful!), this morning’s view from my window is tranquil except for the activity at the bird feeders. I’m viewing a corner of our garden which is designed with plants that provide winter interest: Hinoki Cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa, Japanese Forest Grass Hakonechloa macra, Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blue Heaven’, Hellebores Helleborus ‘Golden Lotus’, a beloved Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Katsura‘, a Wheel Tree Trochodendron aralioides (recently planted, fingers crossed…putting it through the hardiness test) plus the showiest plant right now, Winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Berry Heavy’ which like all of the hollies this year, is heavy with fruit.

Soon the birds will pick off the winterberry fruit, and this picture will change as it will again and again throughout the year. I am reluctant to see blossoms fade and watch leaves fall, but then I realize I am truly grateful that this picture from my window is always changing. A new day, a new season awaits which will provide new gifts to be thankful for.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Stone Resurrected

We all have memories of special places from our youth:  beaches, fishing holes, horse ranches, libraries and many more old haunts as numerous as the people who carry those memories.  For me, places with stone features are what resonate. There was the granite wall where all the kids sat waiting for the bus, the stone fort which was a remnant from the King Phillip’s War, and the 180′ long segmented breakwater, (where a brother fell into some scary white capped water). However diverse and distant our memories of all these places may seem, they all have some things in common.  Each place was a destination and the journey to visit was filled with anticipation.  When we were in these places, the universe seemed all right. All these places seemed permanent.  We could imagine they had always existed and would long remain.

What makes stone spaces special to me is how powerfully they evoke age.  Stone by virtue of being stone suggests that it will last forever.  Manmade stone structures are our attempt to domesticate a material both unyielding and often grotesque, into something beautiful and permanent.  Stone structures evoke my European roots.  I imagine ancient churches, stone shelters, arched bridges and the many ruins and think, History happened here.

As our land use changes and our architectural styles evolve, many of our old farm walls will disappear.  In my exploration for more adaptive dry stone craft styles, I have been examining new building processes and the resulting forms.  One of my favorite new styles finds its form as a tall mass of counter intuitive stone placements, with high contrast between stone sizes and orientation of courses.  The resulting form, though newly minted, is one imbued with age: part ruin, part wall, domestic yet primitive. Pictured here is one such sculptural wall I recently installed here at the entrance to Avant Gardens. Notice the shelving, both recessed and extant: not just a playful gesture, but a suggestion that this wall may once have been part of an interior space.

One stone to another

Chris Tracey

The Impatiens Dilemma, or is it?

SunPatiens….It will give you color, and will take quite a bit of shade.

I’ll admit it. With so many other more interesting plants to choose from, I’ve never been a big fan of common Impatiens, unless the foliage had something interesting going on, and I do not mean the blight. You’ve no doubt heard about the blight affecting Busy Lizzies (Impatiens walleriana) and Balsam Impatiens (Impatiens Fusion series). Downy Mildew, introduced from  plants imported from Europe, has swept the US, and without constant use of a fungicide, most plants will succumb before summer’s end. The disease is air borne, so healthy plants purchased and planted in pristine soil can still get it. If you must have Impatiens (and it is true that not much else will produce so much flower power in the shade), New Guinea types, including the new Sunpatiens (Impatiens) seem to be resistant. We’re trying a few selections of the Sunpatiens (they also can stand shade). Can’t say I love them, but they may have their place.

My suggestion for bold color massing in shade: Coleus…especially varieties with yellow and gold coloring (the deep reds can get a little muddy looking in shade. And don’t forget about all the tropical foliage plants….yes they need heat, but there are so many options. And for containers, there’s so many fun hardy plant combinations to try: Hakonechloa, Heuchera, Hydrangea. Take a look at a few options.

Coleus ‘Big Blond’ with Cuphea

Tropical Foliage, Amazing Variety of Forms.

Colocasia ‘Elena’ for Drama!

Our featured Abutilon, Mini Spider Plant with Syngonium Combo

I fell for this Hydrangea, Hakonechloa Combo at Blithewold in RI.

There are tons of more options, if you don’t need waves of shocking red, orange and white. Have you any thoughts on interesting alternatives to Impatiens?

More Bulbs Please

A bigger portion of purple please.

Do you do what I do, even though we should know better? Do you get seduced by the bulb catalogs, and then place an order without knowing exactly where you?re going to plant these babies. When the box arrives, will you walk around the garden with sacks of bulbs trying to imagine where you?re going to need jolts of color?

This year it is going to be different.

I am taking images of what my garden looks like now and will continue to do so as the spring progresses. I will make notes. These images and notes will be my reference library when I begin to put my bulb order together. I?m going to take into consideration what perennials and shrubs are also providing early season interest, and plan for partnerships.  No more lonely Hellebores or Galanthus. My goal is for an early spring symphony.

Stachyurus chinensis ‘Celina’ will be in bloom soon, but still waiting for the perennials to emerge.

While we’re waiting for the Hakonechloa and Hosta to emerge , how about some more purple here?

Helleborus multifidus

And don’t you think some little purple tommies will set off the lime green blossoms of this species Hellebore?

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ with Iris ‘Kathryn Hodgkin’

 Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!

a young Helleborus ‘Golden Lotus’, looking lonely

 She’s too young to be alone… I think Helleborus ‘Golden Lotus’ would enjoy the company of Corydalis solida...

Corydalis solida will follow as Crocus tommasinianus fades

I have some Snowdrops to move. We forgot their location when we planted a prostrate Chinese Plum Yew, and now they are hidden….

Partially hidden snowdrops…now is a good time to move them.

How about next to a black hellebore?

Helleborus hybridus ‘Slate’ just emerging.

I’ve taken a number of  images for my reference library but won’t bore you with them now.  Next spring I’ll show off my “after” pictures, and let you ooh and ah then.

Desperately Seeking Sunshine

Boronia crenulata ‘Shark Bay’…An Australian native that is never out of bloom.

I don’t feel old, and I’m not, really, ( figure I have a little less than half my life ahead.)  The thing is, I have noticed I get into an old person funk during January and February.  I sulk and grumble when I never use to, especially when the sun’s not shining. No doubt that’s why some older folks make the winter exodus to warmer and sunnier climates. They are seeking optimism, the kind that plentiful sunshine allows.

But self-pity is unbecoming…and I’m a take action kind of gal. I know the best remedy is to get out and absorb some sunlight when the winter skies allow. Today the sun is bright, and the reflection off the pre-New Year’s Eve snowfall made my eyes squint. It’s 15 degrees F outside, so perhaps I won’t plan a long walk, maybe just once around the garden, and then into the greenhouse where we overwinter all of our tender plants.

Ahhh…the the luxury of a winter greenhouse. We keep a 100′ poly house heated to 50 degrees at night, and in it are stored all of our tender succulents and stock plants. Mostly, plants are in a semi dormant state, and are not very pretty, waiting for longer days to spur growth. The greenhouse is packed to the brim. Each time I walk in, I feel the promise of spring, plus a few midwinter surprises: plants (often from the southern hemisphere) that choose to bloom in January and February.  The little Boronia above is in bloom. Here is what else presently greets me.

Mimulus sp. from Western Hills…blooms all year!

We still have this Mimulus selection brought back from the now closed Western Hills Nursery in CA. It blooms on new growth all year round, but can be a little temperamental if kept too wet or too dry. It also ships poorly, so if you ever want one,  come visit us at  the nursery.

A lovely Epiphyllum (Orchid Cactus) whose name is “?”

Anyone know the name of this orchid?

Rhipsalis capilliformis, funky and fun, soon to be in bloom

 You gotta grow everything to really appreciate funky plants like this Rhipsalis. Specifically bought one of those face pots where this can be planted as the wig, come spring.

Kalanchoe thyrsiflora (now luciae) erupting into flower.

All the succulents that we buy as little plants take on larger proportions with age. This Paddle Plant erupts into bloom in winter.

Our office needed a replacement plant for the window sill, so I brought in this BeschnorneriaBechnorneria are commonly called False Agave, and are hardy to about 15-20 degrees. We bought this unspecified selection from Cistus Nursery a good 6-7 years ago , and at last it has bloomed. It’s a shorter form with narrow tubular pink/red/green blooms.

Beschnorneria sp. from Cistus Nursery years ago, finally in bloom.

We’re not open for visits during the winter months.  Perhaps there is a little greenhouse operation near where you live, or one kept open at your local public garden. Plan a winter visit to support them, and get your sunshine fix. Your purchases and membership dues help pay the heating bills, and they offer you a retreat when you can’t make it to a southern climate.

Never the Same Picture

Just took a break from fall cleanup chores and went to grab my camera to capture a few images.  I went to upload into my November 2012 image folder, and noticed the November 2011 folder right next to it, so I had to look. Same day, same garden, different year. Yes, we did some garden editing this spring, but what struck me is the dramatic color difference in the Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’.

Outside my office door, Nov. 11, 2012

Outside my office door, Nov. 11th, 2011.

Most “”Bang for your Bucks”” Plants 2012

Before frosts and falling leaves tarnish my memory, I need to do this post.  Here are a few plants that were just AWESOME this season, despite extremely variable weather.  (here in MA: Frost free March, 80 degree April days followed by 25 degree nights, very dry spring, hot dry July, cooler wetter  August,  near perfect September, and thus far, a cooler gray October). 

Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ is a new annual Globe Amaranth that dramatically surpasses your expectations: it is tough, extremely floriferous, hardly needs deadheading, and is still in full glorious bloom in October from a 4th of July planting. You can learn to love cerise.

Cissus discolor commonly known as Begonia Vine, is an old fashioned conservatory plant that  is quite happy to be growing and performing outside of a glass house during frost free weather. It is a vine, so it needs either a tripod or obelisk to climb, or perhaps a big moss basket to cascade from, but however you display it, there will be oohs and ahs from those who walk by. Cissus discolor loves the shade, but can take 1/2 day sun as well.

Meet Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’. We’re big fans of end of the summer blooming perennials, and have grown this “little” guy’s big brother ‘Henry Eilers’ for some time. ‘Little Henry’ is not that little…he’s 3-4′ tall, but compared to the 5-6′ his big brother gets, he fits in to more intimate garden settings, (or at least doesn’t spill over as much). ‘Little Henry’ began blooming in late July and even now in October he is still making us smile.

Caryopteris clandonensis ‘White Surprise’ is the perfect small shrub for a sunny well drained spot. The foliage, a lovely aromatic forest green edged in creamy white, is attractive all summer, and in August, when you feel like your garden is starting to lose that “je ne sais quoi “, ‘White Surprise’ surprises you with cerulean blue flowers appearing  in whorls along the branches.

Cercis canadensis ‘The Rising Sun‘ has superb heart shaped foliage. The newest leaves emerge a warm coppery amber, brighten to yellow and then age to yellow green. Yes it is a Redbud Tree, and it will get  pretty pink blossoms before the foliage breaks in spring, but they seem to pass all too quickly. Why we’re smitten with Rising sun is that it continues all season with this fabulous foliar display. Fall color is a more coppery orange. It is not as weak wooded as other Cercis, and has a small rounded habit, more shrublike than tree, growing 9-12′ tall and 8′ wide. It lends itself to coppicing (above the graft!).

Despite humid conditions in August, when even some of our hardy Sedum flopped and melted in the garden, the container displays of “tropical” succulents just kept getting better and better. The closeup image was taken on Oct .12th when the Euphorbia tirucalli rosea was just beginning to take on fiery tones.

What plants were outstanding in your garden this season? I’d love to hear.