Skip to content

The Maine Wild Seed Project

November 26, 2016

Maine wild seedEarlier in the fall, I had the opportunity to take a class at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with Heather McCargo of the Maine Wild Seed Project.

The goal of the Maine Wild Seed Project is to increase the use of Maine native plants in a variety of landscape settings, and to do it in a way that supports the biodiversity of these native plants. Typically, when people plant native plants in landscapes, they buy those plants from nurseries. And the plants available from nurseries are usually one of a few varieties that have been selected by the nursery trade for some characteristic deemed desirable and then cloned over and over again.  As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the straight species and the genetic diversity of the species is reduced. In our class, Heather McCargo contrasted the uniformity of an azalea hedge planted with a single cultivar and the pleasing blend of colors in a similar hedge of native azalea planted from seed.

I have experienced the limited variety available through nurseries when adding native plants to my garden. Last year, when I was planting the first flower beds of my new front garden, I included nursery cultivars of both purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). In the case of the purple coneflower, I would have preferred the straight species, but couldn’t find it for sale. In the case of the aster, I planted the cultivar ‘Alma Potschke’ because it is what everyone around here plants when they want a showy tall pink aster. When ‘Alma Potschke’ bloomed this year, however, I discovered that I like its color and form less than I like that of a wild aster growing by the side of the road in my neighborhood.

alma potschke opening new england aster macro

My one-day class with Heather McCargo on propagating Maine native plants from seed was divided into three parts. We began with a classroom presentation on the Maine Wild Seed Project and the arguments for growing native plants from seed. Then, Heather took us out into the botanical gardens to collect seedheads of native plants. We learned to look for species plants rather than hybrids and how to tell when the seedheads were ready to be gathered. There were about a dozen students in the class and each of us had an opportunity to collect some seeds, put them in a paper bag, and label the bag.  After a lunch break, we returned to the classroom for a lab session in planting wild seeds. Each of us was given one bag of seeds collected in the morning and a paper plate for separating out the seeds from the chaff. We were instructed to count out twenty seeds and put them in one part of the plate with a circle drawn around them. The reason for counting out twenty seeds was to see what that number looked like. The model the Wild Seed Project uses for sowing wild-collected seeds is to sow them thickly (20-30 seeds) in a small container (e.g., 4” square nursery pot). Sowing in good potting soil provides a higher germination rate than you get with scattering seeds on the ground. Since most of our native New England plants need a period of cold in order to germinate, the seeds can be sown in the fall and the pots left outdoors through the winter.

wild seed packetIn  the last hour of class, each student chose seeds from among those collected in the morning (and some others that Heather brought with her) and sowed them in 4” pots. I came home with pots of Aralia racemosa (American spikenard), Ceanothus americana (New Jersey Tea), and native bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia). In addition, I purchased a packet of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) seeds from the Wild Seed Project. In early November, I went out and collected some ripe seedheads from that beautiful New England aster growing at the side of the road.

Yesterday, I finally found time to sow seeds in pots. I tipped the aster seedheads out of their paper bag onto a paper plate and separated the seeds from the chaff. (Tweezers and a hand lens were useful accessories for this process.) I had so many seeds  from my small handful of seedheads that I sowed them in two 4” pots, plus a third pot for my purchased strawberry seeds.  It will be exciting to see what germinates in spring.

aster seed cleaning

I’m still soliciting responses for my survey of garden record-keeping. (At this point, I’m almost halfway to my goal of 100 responses.) If you keep garden records but have not yet completed the survey, I’d appreciate your help. The survey is very short and takes very little time to complete. Please also share this survey link with other gardeners you know:

Thank you.

A Season of Transition: GBBD, November 2016

November 15, 2016

aster bluebird novemberIt is very unusual to have flowers still blooming in a Maine garden in mid-November, but I do. Despite many nights with freezing temperatures and several hard frosts, the smooth asters (Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird’) continue to bloom in a protected south-facing corner.

For the most part, though, the garden is done for this year. Once I finish stacking my firewood, I will cut back a few perennials, put away the plant supports and garden furniture, and take down the screen house on the back deck in preparation for winter. I will not have outdoor flowers again until April.

This is the season when I transition from an outdoor garden to an indoor garden of flowering houseplants. The flowers of this orchid, a gift from a friend, have been gracing my life for many weeks.

This week they have been joined by the extravagant blooms of my holiday cactus (Schlumbergera).

red orchid blooms
holiday cactus flower holiday cactus blooming
cyclamen first flowers … And by the first flush of new flowers on one of my potted cyclamen.

Last week, I unpacked a dozen potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs from their period of dark dormancy in the basement and put them in the sun to send up new growth. It is too soon for them to have flowers, but they provide a promise of beautiful blooms for the winter months ahead.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see what other gardeners have blooming in November.

Keeping Garden Records

November 2, 2016

In the first year of this blog, I wrote a post about my strategies for keeping garden records. (See Keeping a Garden Record.) Many gardeners commented about their own garden record-keeping, and their responses led me to amend and improve my own records.  This post has remained popular, and I have sometimes gotten requests from gardeners to share a template for my garden record spreadsheet.

This year, I am following up on that earlier post by doing some research on garden record-keeping. The first step is a survey of gardeners about their own record-keeping strategies. This will be followed by some interviews which will help me develop some case studies of different styles of garden records.  This research will form the basis of a talk on garden records that I will give at next year’s McLaughlin Garden Winter Lecture Series. I am also planning to identify some on-line resources and templates for garden record-keeping, which I will share in a follow-up post.

As many of us in the northern hemisphere are doing fall clean-up in our gardens and as many in the southern hemisphere are beginning a new garden season, I would appreciate your taking a few minutes to tell me about your garden record-keeping strategies. If you keep garden records, I would love to have your responses to my brief survey. You can access the survey (via Survey Monkey) by clicking here.

Thanks for your help.

Front Garden Project, Year 2: The Fragrant Garden

October 22, 2016

fragrant garden bonesMy original plan for year 2 of my front garden project was to design, prepare the soil, and plant both the Side Slope and the Fragrant Garden. (See Update on the Front Garden Project for a diagram of the various planned garden areas.) During the winter, as I worked on the design for the Side Slope and came to terms with just how big that area is and how many months it would take, I scaled back my plans, deciding that I would try to get most of the soil prepared for the Fragrant Garden this fall, but would design the planting over the winter and put plants in next spring.

My plans changed again in late August, when I learned that my favorite nursery would be closing at the end of the season (see Bittersweet Best Wishes). As a result, when I completed the Side Slope at the end of August (see The Side Slope: Mission Accomplished), I went to work double-time not only on  preparing the soil for the Fragrant Garden, but also on designing the planting. The goal was to get as many of the plants as possible in the ground by early October.

The Fragrant Garden is an area roughly 19’ x 10’ at the front of my new addition, sitting under the big master bedroom window. My vision for this garden is that it will be filled from early summer until fall with fragrant flowers whose scent will waft through open windows into my bedroom on summer nights. image

I had been making lists of plant possibilities for months, so I quickly put together a planting design (above) as I worked on preparing the soil in September. This will be a mixed planting of shrubs (mock orange and roses), perennials (lavender, dianthus, peonies, daylilies, oriental lilies, phlox) and annuals (night-scented stock, sweet peas, moonflower).  The lavender here are Lavandula augustifolia  ‘Hidcote,’ which is also growing along the lavender walk to the right of this planting (in front of the deck). As far as I’m concerned, any fragrant garden needs roses and peonies. I have not grown any of the annuals included here before, but they are all highly recommended for fragrant gardens.

Some might be surprised to see daylilies in this planting (except that I love daylilies and  grow them in almost all my garden areas Winking smile ), but the daylilies in this planting are all varieties with wonderful fragrance. They include two clumps of a nocturnal, fragrant pass-along daylily that I’m pretty sure is the fragrant species, Hemerocallis citrina. The other four daylilies are cultivars from the Barth breeding program. The Barths (father Joseph and son Nick) are Maine daylily breeders who were breeding for fragrance during the years that other breeders were working on ruffles, doubling, and picotees. Each grouping of three daylilies will include the midseason-blooming H. citrina, one early-midseason variety, and one late-midseason variety.

I knew that this planting needed some kind of focal point that would work both for those looking out the window from inside and those viewing it from the walkway on the outside. I would have loved one of those big Lunaform  urns, but they are way out of my budget. I considered getting a big pot of some kind from a favorite local potter, but I found nothing there that would work well. There was a big pot that had the mass and the strong colors I wanted for this space, but it would need to be brought inside for the winter and is too heavy for me to lift and carry by myself. I also considered some birdbaths they had that come apart into two pieces and are easier to move, but the only two available were both in colors too muted to work well in this location. I finally decided that a better (and more affordable) option would be a cluster of three bright blue gazing balls set on stands at different heights in the center of the flower bed. I’ve included several divisions of the groundcover geranium G. x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ to go underneath the gazing balls. I have an infinite supply of this geranium, it has wonderfully aromatic foliage, and it will form a dense mat of low-growing foliage that will keep weeds from growing.

Because this garden area is level and consisted mostly of loose, sandy backfill where few plants had seeded themselves since the construction, the process of amending the soil went much more quickly than it had on the Side Slope. Within a month after I began, the soil was ready for plants, and most went in the ground the first week in October. The Casablanca lily bulbs were added last week, after they arrived as part of my bulb order from Fedco. Roses, phlox, annuals, and one daylily that wasn’t available this fall will be added in the spring.

fragrant garden planted

I’m pleased to have made so much progress on my front garden this year. Next year, I hope to add a small rain garden to the left of this planting (where the downspout carries rain down from the roof) and then move on to the lower garden. By this time next year, my new front garden should be more than half done.

Frost and Flowers: GBBD, October 2016

October 15, 2016

front garden octoberFor mid-October in Maine, there are a surprising number of blooms in my garden. I rushed around taking photographs yesterday, ahead of the killing frost forecast for last night. But, in fact, although temperatures fell well below freezing, only tender annuals were affected. Last night’s frost did end the season for the tropical morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’), and most (but not all) of the cosmos were also hit. cleome octoberThe annual cleome, however, came through relatively unscathed.

The truth is that I’m tired of the cosmos and cleome, which I planted to fill in the new front flower beds and which turned out to be way too much of a good thing. Although the cleome survived the frost, I’ll probably cut them down this week; I want to make sure that they don’t go to seed and leave me gifts of unwanted cleome plants for years to come.

I am surprised by how many perennials are still in bloom. There are, for example, a few last flowers on the tall summer phlox. Along the Lavender Walk, the lavender are still going strong, where they are still joined by flowers of Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’’.

lavender october echinacea october

Further along the walkway, there are also flowers on two varieties of dianthus.

dianthus october prairie pinks october
neon flash october I’m surprised to see a second flush of flowers on Spirea bumalda ‘Neon Flash,’ which was just planted this year and has been asked to settle in under difficult drought conditions. And these lovely blue delphinium flowers are also a special treat.

delphinium october

Perennial stalwarts that bloom continuously for month after month are particularly welcome at this time of year. In my garden, 1st place goes to Geranium x oxonianum, which has been gracing the Porch Border with its clear pink flowers since the first week in June. The runner-up is Heuchera x ‘Raspberry Ice,’ which has been blooming continuously since mid-June.

oxonianum october raspberry ice october

autumn joy octoberThe sedums seem to have transitioned from flowers to seedheads more quickly than usual this year, and only ‘Autumn Joy’ can still be counted as having flowers.
The asters, on the other hand, are enthusiastically performing their role as stars of the fall garden. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) ‘Alma Potschke’ provides a vibrant splash of color in the Porch Border. It is the more subdued flowers of Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird’, however, that seem to be most loved by the bees. When I come out to walk through the garden in the chilly morning temperatures, I find many of these bees sleeping, each curled up on its own aster blossom waiting for the warming rays of the sun. When I checked my garden records, I was amazed to find that these flowers (which grow in a protected spot near the foundation of the house) bloomed through the first week of November last year.

alma potschke october aster bluebird & bees

New flowers were added this week when the native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) that grow at the edge of the woods along the side of the driveway began to bloom. These flowers can be hard to see against the backdrop of yellow and orange leaves. When the leaves have fallen from the trees, however, the yellow flowers will come into their own and light up the woods in the drab season between fall foliage and snow.

witch hazel blooming

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see October blooms from gardens around the world.

Preparing for Winter: Tree Following, October 2016

October 12, 2016

cherry tree going dormantWith the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder, my little cherry tree (Prunus pensylvanica)  is, like me, preparing for winter. While I clean up the garden and stack my winter supply of firewood, the tree is stopping the process of photosynthesis and  shunting sugars down the trunk to the roots where they will provide sustenance through the winter. This tree shed some of its leaves during the summer in response to our extended drought. As it prepares for winter dormancy, however, it is doing this in a much more generalized way.

The process seems to be working from the bottom up. The lower branches are already mostly bare, the middle branches are sporting a relatively sparse display of yellow and orange leaves, and leaves on the upper branches are mostly still green.

Our fall foliage color is fading more quickly than usual this year, presumably because of the drought. (My town is on the border of the “extreme drought” and “severe drought” areas.) I am quite happy, however, with how my little cherry tree has come through this difficult season. It has held its own and put on new growth, even without any supplemental watering. It will be interesting to see how it performs next year in what I hope will be more normal moisture conditions.

The tree following meme is hosted by Pat English at The Squirrel Basket, where you can learn about the many varieties of trees being followed by garden bloggers.

Bittersweet Best Wishes

October 7, 2016

plainview signApologies for my weeks of silence. I’ve been so busy with gardening that I didn’t have time to blog about gardening!

My garden projects got put on fast forward in late August when I visited my favorite nursery, Plainview Farm, to buy plants for my new Side Slope planting, and learned that the owners, Donna and Steve Palmer, had decided to retire and were closing the nursery at the end of this season. Plainview Farm has been my go-to nursery since I first discovered it 15 years ago through Ruah Donnelly’s The Adventurous Gardener: Where to Find the Best Plants in New England. (See The Gardening Book That Changed My Life) At that time, the nursery had already been in business for 15 years, with husband Steve as the plantsman who provided the vision and wife Donna as the business person with primary responsibility for day-to-day operations.

plainview display garden4What made Plainview Farm special was an impressive selection of plants (many of them propagated on site) and wonderful display gardens where you could see those plants in the landscape. When I was planning a new garden area, I would typically walk around the display gardens at Plainview Farm for inspiration. Then, as I worked on a design for the new garden, I would use their web site to develop a plant list. When I was ready to plant, I would go back to Plainview Farm to buy the plants – and very often, I would be able to find everything on my list available for sale.

plainview display garden1

plainvew display garden3

I knew that Donna and Steve were thinking about retirement. They are of an age to retire, and the years of recession after the financial crisis in 2008 had been difficult ones for independent nurseries. Plainview Farm had scrambled to add products and services (e.g., growing heirloom tomatoes and selling them at area farmers’ markets) to keep the business going through the hard times. Because small specialty nurseries are usually extensions of the owners’ homes and expressions of their personal gardening visions, it is not unusual for these nurseries to close when their owners retire.

But I am in the middle of a big multi-year garden project; and even if the nursery’s closing was not entirely a surprise, it would leave a big gap in my available gardening resources. Donna encouraged me to rethink my schedule to speed up the development of my new Fragrant Garden and take advantage of the big discounts they were offering as they cleared their stock.  So I got busy preparing the soil for this new garden area and went back to Plainview Farm twice during their last month of business to buy plants. I was impressed all over again by the depth and and breadth of their stock and by how many plants were still available even in late September. Once again, I found everything on my shopping list. As I was checking out, Steve asked me if I had a shady spot that would make a good home for a cultivar of native baneberry, Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue.’ “I only have two left,” he explained, “and I’d like to see them go to knowledgeable gardeners who will appreciate them.” Then he led me out to the shady display gardens to see the plant growing there. This, of course, sealed the deal, and I added ‘Misty Blue’ to my cart.

plainview plants for sale plainview plants for sale hostas

This last visit to Plainview Farm was a bittersweet occasion. As a happy retiree, I can only wish Steve and Donna best wishes as they move into what I hope will be an enriching new phase of their lives. But I couldn’t help feeling sad that I wouldn’t have this special plant shopping experience again. Steve seemed to be focusing on the sweet side of retirement, looking forward to a somewhat slower pace of life and enjoying chats and little celebrations (including several gift bottles of champagne) with long-time customers. Donna was more inclined to tear up. Fortunately for all of us, we were saying farewell, not goodbye. Donna and Steve have tentative plans to open their display gardens to the public at some point in the not-too-distant future. Even as I mourn the loss of this wonderful nursery, I am looking forward to future occasions when I will walk through their display gardens  to admire plants and be inspired.

plainview display garden2