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Just In Time for the Holidays

November 27, 2017

Thanksgiving cactus 2017At this season of the year, the garden has gone into dormancy, and I am impatient for indoor blooms to replace those outdoors. Just in time, one of my holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) plants, the one that I think of as a “Thanksgiving cactus,” opened its first flower on Thanksgiving day. Other flowers have followed, and I expect the plant to be in glorious full bloom soon. I particularly enjoy the variety of its flowers, which range in color from lavender to salmon.

In my bedroom, another holiday cactus, this one with red flowers, looks as though its first flowers will open later this week, just in time for the arrival of December.

I have brought half of my amaryllis bulbs out of their period of darkness in the basement, but they always struggle to make flowers in my cool house.

Cyclamen are much better suited to the indoor temperatures of a Maine house in winter. Yesterday, I noticed that a local farm is selling these for the holiday season. I will stop there later this week and buy two or three plants in different colors to replace the ones that got infected with mites and were discarded last year.

Let the season of indoor blooms begin!

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Snow Flowers and Holiday Blooms: GBBD, November 2017

November 15, 2017

First snow 2017After months of record warmth, our weather in Maine seems to have shifted from September to December, bypassing October and November altogether. The first snow fell earlier this week, with more forecast for tomorrow.

In the garden, snowy caps on seed heads, like these on echinacea and sedum along the Lavender Walk, evoke flowers.

echinacea snow flowers sedum snow flowers
But, amazingly, there are still some real flowers in my garden. These deep blue blooms on lavender ‘Hidcote’ provide a shot of color in a landscape of muted tones. lavender blooms in snow

It is time to turn to indoor blooms for my winter flower fix. Normally, I would have cyclamen blooming at this time of year, but all my cyclamen plants were infested with mites last year and had to be thrown out. I will begin to replace them this year.

Meanwhile, I am waiting for the holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) to begin blooming for the holidays. The pink one (on the left below) has big fat buds that will bloom for Thanksgiving next week. The red one looks like it will begin to bloom soon afterward.

pink cactus buds red cactus buds

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is a monthly garden party hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see the blooms others are enjoying this month (including the bounty from our friends in the southern hemisphere, where it is spring).

Favorite Garden Books: Understanding Perennials

November 1, 2017

Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old FavoriteLast May, when I began the first of two courses with William (Bill) Cullina, the President and CEO of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, the student sitting next to me in class had a copy of his book Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old Favorite (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) with her and noted that many of the images he was showing as part of his lecture were in the book. I already had Understanding Perennials on my “wish list” at the public library; that night when I got home, I put a hold on it and picked it up within the week. By the time I had finished the first chapter, I had gone online to buy my own  copy; by the time I had read half of it, it had become one of my top five favorite garden books.

Cullina sets the scene in Understanding Perennials by positing the world of plants as an alien culture and gardeners as “immigrants to the kingdom of plants.” Some gardeners are like tourists who never make much of an effort to learn the language or culture of the place they are visiting, “developing a rude sort of horticultural sign language that depends heavily on conjecture and leaves more than a fair share of casualties….” Others are more like permanent residents who are trying to assimilate, “learning some of the basic customs and phrases from gardening books and university night classes.”   Only a rare few truly immerse themselves in the alien culture, becoming as fluent as native speakers and really understanding plants. (pp. 4-5) Cullina seems to believe that most of his readers will be in the second group, and his goal is to help us move closer to true immersion in the culture of the plant kingdom. The problem, as he sees it, is that we are usually trying to learn about this kingdom and its culture from other immigrants, but the best teachers are the natives (plants themselves). He is convinced that the best tool for learning from plants is science, but that many would-be students are thwarted by the arcane language and densely complex prose of science. This book is intended to be a kind of cultural broker.

What I have aimed for is a work that translates the language and culture of plants and the language of science into words and concepts we can understand, and to do it with as much clarity, poetry, and purpose as I can muster.”  (p. 9)

Understanding Perennials does not shy away from the language of science; after all, Cullina’s mission is to make us more comfortable with a scientific understanding of plants. But he tries to use scientific terminology in ways that will not alienate a lay reader. Key terms are collected in a four-page glossary at the end of the book. In the main text, they are always set in a context of language and images familiar to a gardener. Cullina makes horticultural science personal by tying it to his own experiences in his own garden and in the greenhouse at Garden in the Woods (where he was in charge of plant propagation before he came to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens) and to his own experiments with plants. The book  is chock-full of full-color photographs, and these images also make the lay gardener feel at home. But these are not just pretty pictures of pretty flowers in attractive settings. A series of images on page 35, for example, documents an experiment in which Cullina deprived a heart-leafed aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) of water and recorded what happened to the roots and the above-ground plant as it dried out – a powerful lesson about how drought damages a plant and why it may not recover immediately when it rains. In another example of science made accessible, an infrared photo of a potentilla flower on page 111 shows us the color patterns that a bee can see but that human eyes cannot.

Cullina also makes horticultural science accessible by tying it to personal experience and family life. A discussion of aphids, for example, includes the following;

Aphids are primarily after the protein in the phlom [sic], so most of the sugars are processed and secreted out their rear in the form of honeydew – as euphemistic a word for excrement as you are likely to hear. The next time I change the twins’ diapers, I’m going to call it “collectin’ the honeydew.’’

The structure of Understanding Perennials takes us from a chapter that introduces and defines perennials, differentiating them from annuals in growth and reproductive cycles, through a series of four chapters (on roots, leaves, stems, and flowers and seeds) that examine the anatomy and physiology of perennials, to chapters about gardening with perennials (on pests and diseases, botanical names, garden design, using cultivation methods that understand how plants interact with their environments, and methods of propagation). This is indeed an “owner’s manual” for perennials, and it is a book that no gardener who seriously wants to understand perennials should be without.

Fall’s Final Flowers: GBBD, October 2017

October 16, 2017

hydrangea1By mid-October, my Maine garden is going into dormancy. Leaves are withering, flowers are going to seed, and maple leaves are falling into the flower beds.

But, despite several nights below freezing, my garden has still not been hit by frost; and a closer look reveals a surprising number of blooms scattered throughout the garden (like these mauve blossoms on Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’).

Along the Lavender Walk  and the front of the Fragrant Garden, lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) is still blooming. lavender hidcote october
herbstsonne fall flower In the Blue and Yellow Border, the last flowers of Rudbeckia x ‘Herbstsonne’ are struggling to open. (I have stopped deadheading these so that they can make seeds for the birds.)
Most of the asters have finished blooming, but there are still a flew tattered flowers on smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) ‘Bluebird’ aster bluebird flowers

Some flowers are meant to bloom in the autumn, like this sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ which has achieved the deep wine color that comes just before its flower heads turn to seed heads, and the fringy flowers of witch hazel (Hammamelis virginiana), which have just begun to open.

autumn joy wine hamamelis flower

Other flowers have been confused by our weirdly warm weather in September and early October. There are a few flowers on spring-blooming bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and sweet white violets (Viola blanda); one hosta is also blooming out of season.

Many of my flower beds have finished blooming for this year. Others have one or two plants still finishing up. But my biggest source of October blooms is the Side Slope planting (completed last year). neon flash flowersThe beautiful Spirea x bumalda ‘Neon Flash’ has surprised me by putting out a whole new flush of flowers. (It will be interesting to see if it does this every year, or if this is a response to this year’s fall warmth.) Although the three species of Liatris that bloomed in succession from late July through the end of September are done for this year, there are still flowers – and even a few new buds – on Platycodon grandiflorus. Even more impressive are the flowers of Geranium x oxonianum, and Tradescantia virginiana, which have been blooming continuously here since mid-June.

Side Slope October

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 (especially those in milder climates) have blooming in October.

Garden Design, Garden Process and Editing: A Lesson from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

October 6, 2017

CMBG JoePyeThis year, I have been pondering the relationship between garden design and garden process. My reflections were particularly triggered by reading Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher’s book, Garden Revolution, which argues in favor of a focus on “garden as process” rather than “garden as product.” (See Favorite Garden Books: Garden Revolution.)

My thinking about this tension in garden design took a leap forward this summer when I had the opportunity to take two courses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with Bill Cullina, President and CEO of the gardens. Bill was recruited to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens from the New England Wildflower Society, where he was in charge of plant propagation. He is a knowledgeable horticulturalist, a scientist who gathers information through experimentation and observation, and a creative thinker.

The two courses I took with him were “Selecting Native Herbaceous Plants for the Maine Garden” and “Horticultural Ecology,” both required courses for the Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture that I am working toward. Like all courses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, these were intensive (each two full days) and they combined periods in the classroom with periods walking around the gardens to examine plants in situ. Walking around the gardens with Bill is an extraordinary experience, not only because he knows so much about plants and horticultural science, but because he seems to be intimately acquainted with every plant growing there.

Our first foray into the garden on the first day of the Horticultural Ecology class was to the rain garden immediately behind the Borsage Family Education Center, where classes are held. The Education Center is a LEED-certified building, and the rain garden for handling runoff from the roof  was part of the design for LEED certification. As Bill pointed out and discussed the various plants growing in the rain garden, it became apparent that many (most?) of them had not been part of the original rain garden design. It seems that the design philosophy practiced at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is to begin with a planting designed to fit the site; then see which plants thrive, which do not and (most importantly) which plants not originally part of the design show up on their own; then edit.

Editing involves removing plants that do not thrive or are otherwise unsuitable for the place where they have been planted. One of the plants that volunteered to grow in the rain garden was common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a plant which tends to form large clonal colonies. The milkweed was allowed to stay in one part of the rain garden, where it is completely surrounded by rock and has created a lovely island of milkweed. In the rest of the rain garden, where they were likely to become thugs, common milkweed seedlings were pulled up.

CMBG JoePye & Lemon QueenAnother plant that had shown up as a volunteer in the rain garden and had been welcomed there was spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum). Indeed, Joe-Pye weed has seeded itself in many parts of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens; and its stately pink blooms are a glorious presence in the September gardens. In one part of the Haney Hillside Garden, Joe-Pye weed has created a beautiful combination by planting itself side-by-side with the perennial sunflower (Helianthus) ‘Lemon Queen’

If one advantage of the botanical garden’s design philosophy is the creation of beautiful combinations like this one that weren’t envisioned in the original planting design, another advantage is the cost savings when plants are allowed to propagate on their own. I saw an example of this when I visited the garden in May and was struck by colorful masses of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) blooming around ponds in both the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses and the Children’s Garden. It turned out that only a few of these, along one edge of one pond, were part of the original planting; the rest had seeded themselves.

marsh marigoldsAs someone who came to gardening from a love of wildflowers, I find this design/process/edit strategy very appealing. The concept of garden designer as editor provides a middle path between Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s idea of creating designed plant communities (see Favorite Garden Books: Planting in a Post-Wild World), which can be intimidatingly complex, and Weaner and Christopher’s idea of creating gardens that mimic wild plantings by using communities of plants already found growing together in similar conditions.  I like the idea of letting natural communities develop as volunteer wildflowers seed themselves into my designed gardens and of being more intentional about which self-sown volunteers stay and which ones get edited out.

Seasonal Transition: GBBD, September 2017

September 16, 2017

solidago volunteersIn Maine, the leaves have begun to turn and there is no mistaking the transition from summer to autumn in the garden. Although I love fall, I’m not quite ready to see summer go.

The daylilies that filled the garden with color in July are mostly gone, with just an occasional bloom on one of the late-blooming or re-blooming varieties like Lily Muster, Final Touch, Rosy Returns or Sandra Elizabeth.

Lily Munster 2017 Final touch september Sandra Elizabeth1

lavender SeptemberLavender also continues to bloom, but much more sparsely than it did in July. In most of the garden, Tradescantia virginiana has died back, but on the side slope it continues to put up new growth and make new flowers.

tradescantia september
geranium oxonianum september Other summer flowers are making a better show in September. The beautiful clear pink flowers of Geranium x oxonianum, which loves Maine’s cool climate, have been blooming continuously since June.
Spirea x bumalda ‘Neon Flash,’ added to the garden last year at the top of the side slope planting, has turned out to be a star, putting out a flush of new blooms just as most of the flowers growing around it are fading. Neon Flash September

 

Most of the summer phlox varieties that graced the garden in August are still hanging on, but their flowers look faded and blowsy.

September Phlox-002

Pinky Winky bloom Over the years, I have added fall-blooming flowers to the garden. The latest addition is the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’ planted in the new rain garden. Although it is still quite small, I am enjoying its elegant flowers (which deserve a more dignified name).

September is the time when the sedums come into their own. The groundcover sedum ‘John Creech’ has been blooming for more than a month, but the taller sedums have just begun to flower. As their flowers mature they will first become more intense and then darker in hue. By October, most will be the color of wine.

September sedums 2017

Liatris novae-angliaeThe real stars of the fall garden, however, are all the varied members of the large Asteraceae (composite) family. Some of these have been planted in my garden; others are wildflower volunteers growing around the edges of the garden.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ continues to bloom along the Lavender Walk, but the big show in September is provided by two varieties of Liatris blooming on the side slope. Liatris novae-angliae is on the left below and Liatris aspera is on the right, below. (A third species, L. spicata, bloomed in August  here and elsewhere in my garden.)

Liatris novae-angliae flowers Liatris aspera spike

goldenrod flowers SeptemberOutside the boundaries of the garden, this is the season for goldenrods and asters. I confess that I don’t always have the patience to key out and properly identify the many species of these plants growing on my property. I’m not sure which one this is, although I’m reasonably certain it is a Solidago. The more easily identified species below are Solidago bicolor (silverrod) on the left and Solidago squarrosa, with its characteristic narrow, upright inflorescence, on the right.

silverod 2017 solidago squarrosa

Ionactis linarifoliaI find the myriad asters even more confusing than the goldenrods. The easiest to identify is the stiff, flax-leaved aster (Ionactis linarifolia) which grows enthusiastically and blooms profusely in my sandy soil. This has lovely lavender flowers, which the camera has had trouble capturing. I am hoping to establish some of this in unamended soil at the bottom of the front slope planting that is next year’s big garden project.

Several other aster species grow at the edge of the woods along the side of the driveway.

September asters

Alma Potschke opening budsThe wild New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) in my neighborhood have not yet begun to bloom. But in the garden, the popular cultivar ‘Alma Potschke’ is just beginning to open her buds.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month (although some of us are habitually late to the party!) by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see September blooms from far and near.

My Mini Rain Garden

September 3, 2017

rain garden siteThe new addition built onto my house three years ago added a feature that my house had never had before – gutters and downspouts. At one corner of the house, near the entrance, I installed a 50-gallon rain barrel under the downspout and attached a small length  of hose which allows me to channel rain water into nearby plantings. By the other downspout, at the west corner of the house, I decided to create a small rain garden.

A rain garden is a strategically placed depression in the ground designed to collect and slowly drain rain water and planted with water-tolerant plants. I don’t actually need a rain garden; my excessively well drained sandy soil slopes away from the house in all directions. Even in the heaviest downpours, water never pools for more than a few minutes. But my hope was that, by creating a depression that can collect and concentrate rain water, I might be able to grow the kind of moisture-loving plant that I normally can’t provide the right conditions for. I had my heart set on a hydrangea.

Last year I did some research on rain gardens, reading both a book on the technical details and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s advice. The technical book helped me figure out the appropriate size for my rain garden, which turned out to be very small – a mini rain garden, big enough for one hydrangea.

rain garden preparedThis year, I set out to execute my rain garden plan. My first step was to install a 4’ long flexible extension on my downspout to channel water from the roof in the proper direction. Next, I created a shallow swale to carry the rain water to the lip of the rain garden. I planted some divisions of Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ in the swale and also along both sides of the downspout extension. This is a groundcover that spreads quickly and grows about one foot high. It should provide an attractive lining for the swale, and my hope is that it will help to camouflage the ugly downspout extension.

With that done, it was time to actually dig out the depression for the rain garden. Because the bottom of the rain garden should be flat, the standard advice is not to build it on a slope, but I didn’t have a choice. This meant that, in order to have the downslope side be at least six inches deep, the upslope side needed to be about two feet deep.  I used some of the soil I was removing to create a six inch high berm around the downslope edges of the rain garden.

rain garden with hydrangeaOnce I amended the soil in the bottom of the rain garden with aged cow manure and compost, I was ready to plant. The hydrangea went in first, planted in the center of the rain garden. I had originally hoped to install Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quickfire,’ a plant that I fell in love with the first time I saw it growing in a garden-tour garden several years ago. Alas, when I studied the patterns of sun and shadow in my rain garden area, I realized that it only got five hours of sun in August, probably not enough for a plant that needs full sun. Instead, I opted to plant Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky,’ which is similar in size to ‘Quickfire,’ has beautiful two-tone cream and mauve flowers, and can thrive in a part-sun location. (As the catalog from my local nursery says, “Once you get past the name, this is a very worthwhile addition to a crowded group of plants.”)

I dug the hole for the hydrangea, filled it with water, and let it drain before putting in the plant and backfilling. Then I watered it thoroughly again. The hydrangea will eventually grow to largely fill this rain garden space, but I don’t want weeds covering the ground around it. Once the hydrangea was in place, I planted more of my groundcover geranium ‘Biokovo’ (a plant of which I have an almost infinite supply), putting in divisions around the circumference of the rain garden floor, and adding a few more in the side near the top lip on the upslope edges. These plants will grow toward each other and toward the hydrangea, probably forming a solid ring around it within 2-3 years. I also hope it will grow upward along the sides of the rain garden, stabilizing the soil and maybe even spilling out a bit over the top. As an added bonus, this attractive groundcover sports lovely pink and white flowers in June that will anticipate the colors of the hydrangea blooms.

rain garden with biokovo

We have rain forecast for later today, which will provide a chance to see how well my mini rain garden does in collecting rain from the roof.