Category Archives: Garden Musings

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 and spoil the seed.
  • Label your seed correctly, especially if you plan to donate to a seed exchange.
  • If you grow several varieties of certain plants 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, seeds 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

Hopeful Assessments

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Botanical Arrangements

Nature’s curiosities?.a good place to begin

Once or twice a year, during my grammar school days, our class would get to go on a field trip. One school outing which comes to mind was a trip to a natural history museum housed in a quaint rural church. Inside were small rooms filled with closets and cabinets containing preserved specimens of local flora and fauna: insects, butterflies, seed pods, feathers, all labeled and stored in jars or boxes. There were slightly morbid taxidermy specimens…I seem to remember a fox, who I felt so sorry for, and a bat. This cataloging of the natural world enthralled me. I saw it (and still do) as an art form. I would fantasize about mushrooms and beehives and dried flowers,  and dreamed of becoming a botanical illustrator when I grew up.

It is so interesting now, in our age of computer everything, that the influence of the natural world is playing such a big roll in home decor and design. Found branches become coat racks, massive gnarly roots become table pedestals. Naturalistic flower arranging has seen a resurgence as we all want to see more natural objects of beauty in our complicated modern lives.

Inspiration and instruction to get you started.

A book which is developing a loyal following is Debra Prinzing’s “Slow Flowers” Debra wants us to let go of our preconceived notions of floral arranging. She encourages us to walk past the grocery store bouquets imported from a location thousands of miles away. Instead we should all look at what is available outside our back door; to seek and use ornamental twigs, unusual foliage, seed pods and lichen, and to look again at plants which we shelter in a greenhouse or windowsill (I’m seeing a gorgeous begonia on mine).  No matter the season, there is beauty in the local flora to celebrate .

This brings me to an event I went to this past week: Flora in Winter, a fund raiser held at the Worcester Art Museum in MA. Talented floral artists selected a classical work of art and interpreted the work in an arrangement. I have to say I was impressed. Yes, many of the arrangements incorporated imported flowers and foliage, but many could easily be interpreted at different times of the year with natural objects found in your neighborhood.

An interesting botanical interpretation at Flora in Winter

This arrangement evokes a curiosity cabinet of flora and fauna

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to walk about your yard or nearby fields and woods to see what treasures you come upon. Perhaps you may want to introduce a new tree, shrub or flower to your garden so you will always have a  local source. Remember to cast aside any old rules and preconceived ideas about flower arranging.  It’s about experimenting and having fun.

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?

Winter Wreath Making Tips

Hinoki Cypress Wreath with Elkhorn Cedar. Love the little cones on the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and the undersides of Elkhorn Cedar  (Thujopsis dolobrata) are fabulous!

Mixed Greens Wreath. Dwarf Blue Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Montgomery’), Littleleaf Boxwood (Buxus sinica ‘Justin Brouwer’), plus several cultivars of Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa cvs. ‘Confucious’, ‘Crippsi’, and ‘Jade’)

Mixed Greens Wreath with Golden Berried Blue Holly (Ilex meserve ‘Golden Girl’), Littleleaf Boxwood (Buxus sinica ‘Justin Brouwer’), Various Hinoki Cypress

Littleleaf Boxwood  (Buxus sinica ‘Justin Brouwer’) with Blue Holly (Ilex meserve ‘Blue Princess’ ) plus wreath making supplies

After 25 years of planting unusual evergreens on our property, I feel our plants now have enough growth to afford plenty of interesting options for creating winter wreaths. This year’s crop provided me with lots of interesting material, and while I was taking cuttings I was also pruning at the same time.

I’d rather not make the same composition twice, so each wreath has a character of its own. I’ve used various wreath making forms in the past, but this year I went back to using wire forms which I covered with moistened long fiber sphagnum moss secured with a 22 gauge florist wire.

Here are a few tips:

  • You will need a lot of material for even a small form, especially if you want big fat full wreaths. The amount shown in the metal tub was just about enough to create a 16″ wreath.
  • If  your base is 12″ wide, expect the finish sized to be about 18″ or more in diameter, depending how far out your branches extend.
  • Broadleaf greens such as Boxwood, Holly and Rhododendron desiccate  quickly, especially if they are placed in a warm space or in a sunny spot. Using a base that has moistened sphagnum and tucking in the branch tips of the bunches helps keep them hydrated. Mist or soak your boxwood or holly wreath often. Also, applying an anti desiccant helps prevent the leaves from drying out.
  • Holly berries are often growing along the inner lower branches. Try to position the cuttings so you can see the berries, then trim back as necessary.
  • Repetition of your assorted bundles helps you create a balanced circle.
  • After you create your wreath, hang it and step back to see where it may need editing. You can always trim back or tuck in more cuttings.
  • Weather resistant ribbons add a touch of color to simple wreaths made from one or 2 plants, such as boxwood or holly. I prefer not to use ribbon when I have a lot of interesting leaves and cones to admire.

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!

San Diego…A Busman’s Holiday

The walk to the beach…

One beach leads to another

My summer came and went with little time off for recreation and leisure. When an opportunity for a seaside escape to hang with my son Phil at his beach pad in San Diego arose, I said “Yes, Sir”! As you may have heard, San Diego weather is pretty easy to take.

Fall blooming Cactus

Podocarpus and Bird of Paradise

 Yes, New England fall color is hard to beat, but I was perfectly happy taking in the autumnal color of sunny southern CA.

Lunch with a Ruination IPA at Stone Brewery

Beautiful Persimmons aplenty

 Stops at local craft breweries… San Diego has the most!…quenched my thirst, and the farmer?s markets nourished my appetite.

Window Treatment at the Succulent Cafe

Arrangements at the Succulent Cafe

Of course I always have plants on my mind, and with some online research plus great recommendations from noted succulent author Debra Baldwin, I went off seeking new varieties and inspiration.One of the most charming little places I found was Peter Loyola’s Succulent Cafe in Oceanside. Yes…right up my alley… excellent coffee and special succulents for show and sale. His creations are some of the best I’ve seen.

Agave Dreamscape

Agave ‘Blue Glow’

Agave ‘Cream Spike’

Pilocereus pachycladys

I visited several great nurseries…Desert Theater, Waterwise Botanicals, Oasis Plants, Kartuz Greenhouse...but I was surprised that we possessed many plants in our collection here at Avant Gardens already . One group, the Agaves, beckoned to me though. Agave are used extensively in San Diego landscapes and their size and vigor compared to how we grow them in MA was humbling. Yes, I bought a second piece of luggage to haul back two special specimens: Agave ‘Blue Glow’and Agave ‘Cream Spike’. I wish I had brought home  the beautiful blue cactus Pilocereus pachycladys, but the only ones I could find were a bit too big for my suitcase.

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Container at Balboa park

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A happy collection of a plant lover

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Succulents with Asparagus Fern

It was the end of a long dry summer so it wasn’t the best time to photograph gardens in the San Diego area. Where irrigation is used plants obviously looked fresher. Most people are practicing water conservation. Succulents and planters composed of succulents held up best after such dry weather and obviously are the way to go. Foxtail Asparagus Fern was a fun addition to succulent combos which I’d like to try.

A vertical garden installation at a San Diego shopping mall

On my last morning I had a little time to kill before my flight back to MA, so I visited this vertical garden installed by Jim Mumford of Good Earth Plants. I had attended a talk he gave at Waterwise Botanicals on Saturday, and he was straight with his info. His company’s work is mostly large scale. Yes there is an irrigation system in each piece with a low fertilizer feed; yes he uses a soilless media called a Brownie; yes there is regular maintenance involved. His installations are both indoors and out, and the plant choices vary from succulents to perennials to tropicals. Jim had encouraged a visit to his Kearny Mesa Location, but my time was up.

Goodbye Summerland. San Diego, I’ll be back!

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