Skip to content

Winter Interest

February 26, 2017

snowy woodsThere’s a great deal of discussion in gardening circles about what gardeners can plant in their gardens to provide “winter interest.” I wonder if this is primarily a concern of those who live in climates where winter dormancy is combined with a bleak winter landscape and drab, gray winter days.

Where I live in northern New England, winter is itself interesting – and beautiful. Winters here are normally snowy. The primary winter interest in my garden is provided by the white of snow contrasting with the deep green of conifer trees that grow around the edges of the garden. What’s more, the low pressure areas that bring us snow alternate with high pressure areas that bring blue skies and dazzling snow-reflected sunshine. New-fallen snow transforms almost everything that it touches into a thing of beauty.

The weight of the snow gave this tall spiky seed head of Liatris aspera its graceful arc. liatris snow arc
milkweed pods in snow A backdrop of white enhances the subtle silver and gold shades of exploded milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods and renders them beautiful.

lavender in snowI think of the beauty that snow brings to the garden as mostly visual, but this winter surprised me with a different kind of winter interest – provided, improbably, by snow shoveling. As I shoveled the narrow walkway through the Lavender Walk after each storm, I would uncover the grayed foliage of lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) that edges the walkway. As my shovel brushed against it, the disturbed foliage released its aromatic oils, suffusing the air with a swoon-inducing scent in this fragrance-deprived season.

Warm Colors for a Cold, White Season: GBBD, February 2017

February 15, 2017

amaryllis in snowFebruary is typically the coldest and snowiest month in Maine, and it can easily seem like the longest month of the year. After an unusually warm January, I was feeling a bit complacent about this winter, but that changed with the arrival of February. In one week, we have had four snow storms that deposited one-half of what would normally be a season’s worth of snow. A fifth storm today is expected to dump more than another foot of snow. As snow falls from the sky and piles up in huge snow banks around my house, I am grateful for the warming colors of two amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs that began blooming at the end of January.

flame red amaryllisThe first to bloom was this gorgeous red one, one of three amaryllis bulbs that I rescued from my friend Atsuko’s garage after her death in 2014. It has rewarded me for my patience in waiting three years for it to bloom by producing six flower buds on its single stalk. When backlit by the sun, these flowers glow red-orange like a warming flame. As the sun sets, the color becomes a softer shade with hints of pink and coral.

charisma flowersThis is the third year in a row that ‘Charisma’ has bloomed for me. Its red-speckled flowers are a particular treat during these cold days. This year, it has outdone itself, producing two flower stalks. The first has five flowers on it. The four flower buds on the second stalk just began to open yesterday and should last me until March arrives with its hints of spring.

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

Gardeners’ Record-Keeping: Some Preliminary Results

February 8, 2017

Recently, I’ve been doing research on gardeners’ record-keeping habits in preparation for a talk I will give next month as part of the McLaughlin Garden Winter Lecture series. Many readers of this blog were kind enough to complete my on-line survey. I asked gardeners four basic questions: (1) What do they grow in their gardens? (2) What kinds of information do they keep records of? (3) Do they keep those records by hand, in an electronic format, or both? (4) What kinds of formatting strategies do they use to organize the information they want to record?


Seventy-six gardeners filled out my questionnaire, and seventy-two of those included usable information about their record-keeping habits; my preliminary analysis is based on those seventy-two respondents. Since I recruited gardeners to complete my questionnaire through my existing garden contacts – this blog, my local Master Gardener Volunteers, members of a garden club I belong to – my responses were weighted toward ornamental gardening and are not representative of all gardeners.  Only one person who responded grew food plants only (vegetables, berries, herbs, tree fruits), but more than one-third (38%) grew no vegetables. Ninety-three percent grew ornamental perennials 82% grew ornamental annuals, and 81% grew ornamental shrubs and trees.

What do gardeners want to know about their gardens? These seventy-two gardeners kept records on an impressive range of information. I asked gardeners about a list of thirteen types of gardening information and also left them space to note “other” types of content in their garden records. While one person reported recording only one of these types of content and one reported recording all fourteen, the average gardener in my survey kept records of five different types of garden information. The graph below shows the information types in descending order of their use. The five mostly commonly recorded types of information are a list of plants grown (86%), maps or plans of garden areas (65%), notes and ideas for future garden projects (63%), sources of plants (54%) and planting and/or harvest dates (54%).

imageHow did these gardeners keep their records? Most (54%) used a combination of hand and electronic records. Another fairly large group (33%) kept records by hand only. Only a small group (13%) kept all their garden records electronically. Of more interest than whether gardeners recorded information by hand or on a computer are the formats they used to organize that information. In the survey, I asked gardeners about eight different formats for organizing information and once again left room for them to tell me about other strategies not included on my list. For each type of organizing format, I asked them to indicate whether they used it often, sometimes or never.


The graph above shows that lists were the most commonly used organizing format, followed by photos. Sketches and journals or narratives were also used by the majority of gardeners who responded to this survey. Almost all my gardening respondents used multiple strategies for organizing information about their gardens; the average gardener used four different organizing formats. Not surprisingly, since hand recording and computer recording lend themselves to different organizing strategies, those who kept both hand and electronic records used more organizing strategies than those who kept records only by hand or only electronically.

This survey can’t tell me which organizing strategies were used to record which kinds of information. That is a question for the next phase of my research, which will involve a series of case studies. I will use my own electronic garden records as one case study, and I’m also hoping to conduct interviews with at least one gardener who keeps hand records only and one who keeps a combination of hand and electronic records. These case studies will allow me to look in greater depth at why and how gardeners record certain kinds of information about their gardeners.

Invasive Plants

February 2, 2017

imageAs the new year opened, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry adopted new rules making it illegal to “import, export, buy, sell or propagate” thirty-three terrestrial plants that are known to be invasive in Maine, likely invasive in Maine, or potentially invasive in Maine. Until now, Maine has been focused primarily on the problem of aquatic invasive plants that can quickly choke lakes and ponds; and many of us felt that the regulation of terrestrial invasives was overdue.

The extent of the problem became clear when the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry investigated the availability of these plants and found that all but three were being sold at Maine nurseries. To help commercial nurseries adapt, the prohibition on sales is being delayed until January 1, 2018, allowing nurseries to sell existing stock of prohibited plants.

This does not mean that gardeners should rush out to buy these plants while they are still available. Most of these invasive plants were deliberately introduced to Maine by gardeners or landscapers who planted them for their ornamental value, and I’ve found that many gardeners don’t want to admit they are part of the problem. This is partly a result of confusion among gardeners about what constitutes an “invasive” plant. Gardeners often confuse invasives with what are commonly called “garden thugs,” plants that take over areas of the garden and crowd out other plants. Gardeners will defend their prized burning bush (Euonymus alatus), barberry (Berberis thunbergii or Berberis vulgaris), porcelain berry (Ampulopsis glandulosa) or purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) by saying, “But it’s not invasive; I’ve been growing it in my garden for years and it hasn’t spread at all.” But here’s the thing: What makes a plant invasive is not how it behaves in your garden, but how it behaves when it escapes from your garden.

If an invasive plant is not a plant that is rampaging through your garden, what is it? Invasive plants are defined by three criteria (and all three must be met):

  1. It is a non-native plant.  (None of the thirty-three plants on the Maine list are native to Maine.)
  2. It has naturalized, meaning that it has spread into minimally managed natural landscapes where it was not planted.
  3. It “causes economic or environmental harm by developing self-sustaining populations that are dominant or disruptive to native species.”

Many of the plants on the Maine list have naturalized in my part of Maine and are visible along roadsides or the banks of rivers and streams. These include purple loosestrife, Norway maple (Acer platanoides), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Asiatic  bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), swaths of Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii), and large monocultures of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Two of these, Morrow’s honeysuckle and Asiatic bittersweet, regularly pop up at the edges of the woods around my garden. I try to be vigilant and remove them as soon as I notice them and preferably before they produce berries. It is not coincidental that many of these invasive plants produce colorful berries that birds like to eat. Those berries contain seeds. As they pass through the bird’s digestive system, the seeds are scarified to promote germination; and they are then pooped out (often far from the parent plant) with a nice packet of fertilizer to help them get a good start in life.

How can we gardeners ensure that we are part of the solution, not part of the problem? First, do not plant invasive or potentially invasive plants, even if doing so is not prohibited by law. Be wary of cultivars that are marketed as “sterile” or “non-invasive;” those claims often turn out to be mistaken. Years ago, gardeners were sold cultivars of purple loosestrife which were supposed to be sterile; it turned out none of them were. When I took a class on invasive plants in the fall with Ted Elliman, an invasive plant expert from the New England Wildflower Society, I asked him about cultivars of Japanese barberry that were being sold at local nurseries with claims of sterility. He told me that research on these cultivars in Massachusetts had found all of them to produce viable seed. The new Maine regulations include a process that nurseries can use to petition for a waiver for a sterile cultivar, but the onus of proof is on the nursery asking for the waiver and the standards of evidence are high.

What about plants that have been in your garden for years, planted before they were known to be invasive? The first thing is to never, under any circumstances, share these plants with other gardeners. If someone asks you for a division or a cutting, just explain that, while you agree the plant is attractive, it has turned out to be invasive, which means that it would be irresponsible to propagate it. The best course of action would be to remove invasive plants from your garden. It’s wise to see if there is a fact sheet available with advice on the best way to do so. (Some attempts to pull up plants, for example, can leave roots behind and trigger invigorated growth.) The Maine DACF website includes factsheets on all thirty-three listed plants. Many states and organizations also publish suggestions for native plants that can be substituted for invasives. (The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has a publication on Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape that includes recommended plants to use and plants to avoid.) The only way to responsibly keep a beloved invasive plant in your garden is to ensure that it does not escape from your garden. To do this, you will need to educate  yourself about how the plant disperses its seeds. If a plant spreads by means of  fruits or berries that are eaten by birds or small mammals, the only way to responsibly keep that plant in your garden is to deadhead with 100% success in making sure that no fruits are allowed to form. If the seeds are primarily wind-dispersed, plants will need to be deadheaded as soon as flowers open.

There are many ways that gardeners can act to improve the environment. Not growing invasive plants is surely one of them.

Winter Flowers: GBBD, January 2017

January 18, 2017

cyclamen jan 2017Having missed bloom day in December, I was determined to post in January. So here I am, better late than never.

This is the season when my garden is tucked in under a blanket of snow (it is snowing even as I write) and I rely on houseplants for my flower fix. My best performer this month is an orchid I received as a gift from a friend more than four months ago. I’m thrilled that it is still blooming and that I haven’t killed it yet. (I don’t have a great track-record with orchids.)

orchid january blooms

Less satisfying than usual this year are my faithful potted cyclamen plants. Although they are full of flowers and buds, the flowers seem to fade almost as soon as they open and, as a result, are looking a bit bedraggled. Anyone know what would cause this? Perhaps the plants need to be fed. pink cyclamen January 2017

amaryllis buds 2017I am pleased that, so far, two of my amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs have sent up flower buds. These have not yet begun to open, but they are providing a promise of flowers for February.

For the past ten years, Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day has been hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. (Thank you, Carol!) Visit her blog to see a much greater variety of January flowers, including some that are actually blooming outdoors in the garden.

A Garden New Year

January 1, 2017

Cover 2017This is my eighth year of welcoming in the new year with Jean’s Garden calendars as gifts for family and friends. I always enjoy the process of going through my photo archives to choose images for the calendar. I have some loose “rules” for image choices. First, all photos for the calendar must have been taken by me. Second, they should be of my own garden, not of gardens I’ve visited. (I usually apply this rule in a relaxed form, including images of trees and wildflowers growing at the edges of my garden. One year, I even included two images of wildflowers growing by the side of the road in my neighborhood.) Third, I aim for a combination of close-ups and landscape shots. Fourth, I try to select my images from photos taken in the past year. Typically, at some point during the year, I’ll begin to identify photos that have calendar potential and save them to a special folder on my computer. In late summer or fall, I may well go out and take some photos to fill specific gaps.

Here are this year’s selections (click on any image to enlarge it):

January 2017 February 2017
January February
March 2017 April 2017
March April
May 2017 June 2017
May June
July 2017 August 2017
July August
September 2017 October 2017
September October
November 2017 December 2017

Once again this year, I used the online service at to create and print my calendars. I continue to be impressed with the quality of their color reproductions.  As I’ve done in recent years, I used photo editing software to add a white border around the images and captions beneath them; and I solved the problem of the cover by creating a collage of some of the calendar images.

I’m particularly happy with this year’s calendar. This is a lucky thing, because I had intended to have a sample proof printed first and then make revisions, but I ran out of time when events in my personal life overtook my good intentions. So what I ended up with was essentially the first draft. The only thing I would have changed would have been to use a slightly smaller font for the captions, and that is a mistake I can live with.

If anyone would like their own copy of this year’s calendar, you can purchase them from Lulu by clicking here.

Celebrations of Light

December 26, 2016

December’s darkness brings again the light of Christmas morn.   (Norval Clyne, “The Blasts of Chill December”)

Christmas tree 2017In the northern hemisphere, we celebrated the winter solstice this  past week. The solstice marks the shortest day of the year, the longest night, and the official beginning of winter. The winter solstice also marks the return of light, as days begin to lengthen again.

For millennia, human societies have found ways to celebrate light at this season. Bonfires, fireworks, candles, luminaria, and displays of electric lights are all especially beautiful against the backdrop of winter dark. My favorite episode of the 1990s television series Northern Exposure is the one from season 4 called “Northern Lights,” which ends as townspeople gather in the dark of the winter solstice to see the lighting of an amazing outdoor sculpture that Chris Stevens has made from discarded lamps, light bulbs, etc.

This week also brought two major religious celebrations of light. The Jewish holiday of Chanukah (or Hanukkah) celebrates a miracle of light, when one day’s worth of oil for the Menorah miraculously lasted eight days. The celebration involves the lighting of candles on a Menorah, with more candles added each day, a celebration of  increasing light that is very much in concert with the winter solstice. The Christian holiday of Christmas is symbolically linked to light by the idea of Christ as “the light of the world” and by the story of the exceptionally bright star that lit the night sky and led the three Wise Men to the newborn baby. Light displays, especially lighted Christmas trees and strings of colored lights in outdoor spaces, are an important part of the celebration of Christmas in the United States. The confluence of all these celebrations of light is not a coincidence. In the case of Christmas, there is no evidence that the historical Jesus was born in late December. More likely, early Christian leaders linked the celebration of Christ’s birth to existing celebrations of light in  a kind of “if you can’t lick them, join them” strategy.

Some of my friends suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and are delighted to get beyond the winter solstice and celebrate the return of light. I actually like the reduced light of winter – the velvety nights, the star-filled skies, the ethereal glow of moonlight on new-fallen snow, that special deep blue of the twilight sky on a winter afternoon. But I also enjoy the artificial lights of the season. Each year, I install a light-spangled Christmas tree in my living room. As I drive around the countryside doing errands and Christmas shopping, I enjoy the light-filled outdoor displays at homes along the road. There are also more formal light displays to be enjoyed. When I was a child, a local religious shrine was known for its Christmas light display. At some point during the holidays, we would all pile in the car and join the line of traffic snaking through local roads to see the light display. For the past two years the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has attracted tens of thousands of visitors to its display of holiday lights, “Gardens Aglow.” The season of darkness is filled with celebrations of light.