Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If only he had known....

 “Oh by the way, I’ve ordered a jackhammer for when you come home”. Well isn’t that the usual husband-wife conversation?

One jackhammer, one crowbar and lots of muscle.
Of course there remained the small matter of moving 80 sq. ft of concrete.

My long suffering, pot moving, tree hauling husband happened to be out of town when I decided that it was time to rip up the front concrete pathway and begin the installation of its bluestone replacement together with a small front patio. The design had been on paper for months and this seemed like the perfect time to begin the project. So as soon as he left for the airport I was outside, spray paint and shovel in hand marking out the design. Several hours into aforementioned shoveling I came to the conclusion that this was much harder than it was 10 years ago! Enter a younger, stronger, faster reinforcement and the areas were prepped in record speed.

The next step involved shoveling, sweating and swearing.
Not necessarily in equal amounts.

So when my husband Andy returned home a few days later he realized that actually I hadn’t been joking and that an ‘interesting’ weekend lay ahead. At this point I think he might have liked to go back 24 years and re-think those marriage vows that he foolishly agreed to. That bit about love, honor and obey. There’s no ‘obeying’ in our marriage I’m glad to say, but he would like to include the phrase ‘after we have discussed it’. Oh well, such are the hazards of being married to someone who designs gardens; I have the vision but not necessarily the physical ability, which is where he comes in!

Sure enough that weekend our peaceful property resounded with the pounding of the lesser-spotted-jackhammer and clouds of concrete dust filled the air. With the old path gone and the new one dug out we now had to navigate our way in and out of the house in wellies. (Which explains the color of my work boots in the earlier post ‘What sort of gardener are you?’

The staggered path is complete and the patio started
Being the organizing sort I ordered a plate compactor, three pallets of stone and 4 tons of gravel for the following weekend. Torrential rain all week threatened to foil our plans but we (the Royal ‘we’) were on a mission and refused to be thwarted. Have you any idea how heavy saturated gravel is? A lot more than 4 tons I can assure you. And I won’t even talk about the weight of a 3’ x 1’ x 6” stone step which involved an engineering feat to maneuver into place.

Close up of pebble inserts
Inspired by Karen Stefonick's design
at the Northwest Flower &
Garden Show this year.

The hard work is now almost done with the stonework finished, the wiring in place and the mountains of soil leveled. We worked through gales, monsoons and hail storms over several weekends before having a celebratory glass of wine in the sunshine just a few days ago.

Now we just need a water feature, lights and lots of plants!
Detail of stepping stones connecting the main path
to the patio. By cutting a 3' x 16" x 6" stone step in
half we were able to create two smaller steps to navigate
the change in elevation from the front door down to the

My hope is that the Ibuprofen-numbing pain of this experience will be but a hazy memory by next summer, because I have plans for the back garden which make this project look like a warm up….

Membership of H.E.L.P. (Home for Exhausted Landscape Partners) is open to all. Contact Andy.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pint-sized or Super-sized?

Virginia sweetspire 'Little Henry' is every bit as fragrant as
his big brother 'Henry's garnet' but at half the size is
much easier to find room for.

I love to design small gardens. Attention to detail is key and so every tree and shrub is selected with great care, particularly with respect to size. Wisteria are fabulous trained across a massive pergola for example but those long tendrils can wrap themselves around unsuspecting homeowners faster than a cobra. Anything in its path from houses to heuchera are likely to be engulfed without frequent bushwhacking.

Thankfully there are plenty of dwarf varieties of our favorite giants so we needn’t feel deprived and our gardens can still showcase an interesting array of beautiful plants.
'Little Henry' in fall colors

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s garnet’) is one tough shrub. It tolerates wet soil or drought, full sun or shade, is ignored by deer and is one of those wonderful transition shrubs for bridging the gap between the intensely cultivated garden and the wilder views beyond. Fragrant white flower racemes cover the bush in early-mid summer, cascading over the green foliage like little lambs tails. Its real moment of glory is in fall, however, when the leaves turn a rich burgundy, often persisting for several weeks. How can you do better than that? Well I should mention that this variety grows 6’ x 6’. ‘Little Henry’ is the baby brother; equally enchanting but at half that size much more easily accommodated. I suppose in all fairness I should also tell you that this is a suckering shrub so there will be more little Henry’s in your future although they can be given up for adoption.

Coral buds, orange flowers and evergreen
foliage make this 'Rosemary Barberry'
a 5 star shrub. Even better it is only 2' tall
I love to be surprised. Earlier this week I was selecting plants for a container planting seminar and spotted a pretty evergreen shrub with arching stems and small orange flowers. “Aha!” I thought, “a Darwin barberry (Berberis darwinii) – nice colors but too spiky and too big for this design”. Thankfully I picked it up because it wasn’t a Darwin barberry at all; it was the Rosemary barberry (Berberis x stenophylla ‘Corallina compacta’) which frankly I had never heard of. This little beauty was just that – little. It grows to 2’ tall and isn’t nearly so vicious as most barberries which have you running for the Band Aids to stem the blood flow thanks to their wicked thorns. So take your pick. Either a 6-8’ tall, arching evergreen shrub with gorgeous orange flowers and thorns to send you to the emergency room (no wonder deer stay clear..) or the pint sized version. I’m considering this as an evergreen groundcover tumbling over rocks along our stream bank. (The trouble is when I showed it to my seminar audience they rushed out and bought them all!)

The area of England where I lived did not have acidic soil, so growing rhododendrons, camellias and similar shrubs involved special fertilizers and top dressing with peat to adjust the pH. In fact the first time I saw an Andromeda (Pieris japonica) was on a trip to Perth, Scotland where the native soil allowed these beauties to thrive. Moving to the Seattle area I was very excited to discover that I could now enjoy these in my own garden and looked forward to the intoxicating lily-of-the-valley fragrance from the dangling flower clusters every spring. Most varieties grow to 4’ tall which is a fairly modest size but I have been thrilled to discover two dwarf varieties which I now use for container gardening or for creating an elegant groundcover.

‘Brookside’ is an all-green variety which grows to about 2’. It still displays fragrant ivory spring flowers amongst its paler colored new growth while the foliage seems to grow upwards in tiers. Delicate and pretty.
'Little heath' with Rodgersia p. 'Rotlaub'
Photo credit; One thousand words photography

My favorite has to be ‘Little heath’ however. This is a beautiful mounding variegated form that has spectacular coral colored new growth and masses of fragrant white flowers. I have planted this as a carpet underneath the white flowering dogwood tree (Cornus kousa) and love the way the dogwood flowers echo the pretty variegated leaves of the shrubs below. The bright new spring growth of ‘Little heath’  also makes a wonderful color companion to copper and burgundy toned foliage such as Rodgersia ‘Rotlaub’ pictured here or Heuchera ‘Peach flambé’.  Outstanding.

Fireglow Japanese maple fits well into small gardens.
Pair it with fuchsia 'Checkerboard' and 'Peach flambe'
heuchera for a gentle color echo.
My design

Who doesn’t love Japanese maples? In the nursery they all look so enticing in their 5g pots….and then you read the label. Why is it that all the ones you like grow 20’ tall or more? Of course that is always hoping that the label is correct. I have been caught out a couple of times and now carry the Timber Press ‘Pocket Guide to Japanese Maples’ by J. D. Vertrees. This author is considered the authority on all things maple so I’ll trust that book over any nursery tag. One of the most popular dark leaved Japanese maples is ‘Bloodgood’ (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’) which retains rich burgundy foliage even in full sun before turning fiery shades of crimson in fall. Since it will eventually reach 30’ tall, this may not be for everyone. ‘Fireglow’ is very similar in form and color but grows to about half that size.
'Redwood' Japanese maple is the perfect
size for containers.
My design

The coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’) is stunning in any season, whether exposing its bare colorful branches in the depths of winter, the fresh bright green foliage as it emerges in spring, each leaf tipped with red or the orange-golden shades of fall. Not everyone has space for its mature size at 25’ high and 20’ wide as this is quite a broad spreading tree. There are several other varieties better suited to small gardens and containers. ‘Beni kawa’ is one and has the added benefit of keeping its coral red bark coloring longer and also grows a little shorter at about 10’ in 10 years. ‘Redwood’ is similar at 10-13’. Finally the variety ‘Fjellheim’ is even shorter (6’) and bushier making it ideal for containers.

Now just think; if you choose smaller plants, you can buy more…. Oh darn.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Dainty Ladies of the Clematis World

Clematis macropetala 'Markhams' pink' and a blue companion
clothe a weathered trellis in a soft wash of color.
Photo credit; Jill Elliott

Typically when most people think of clematis it is the large flowered summer blooming vines which come to mind with their vibrant colors and flamboyant display. Certainly they are show stoppers and are a quintessential part of any cottage garden, especially when allowed to scramble through a rose of equal stature.

There is something incredibly feminine, however, about the earlier blooming alpina and macropetala clematis as they mark the dawn of the new gardening season with their quieter, more restrained beauty.

C. alpina 'Pamela Jackman'
Photo credit;

Both these species have a special role to play before the garden gets into full swing with their gently nodding bells in shades of blue, pink or white. The alpina and macropetala clematis are similar in many respects; they can tolerate poor soil and will grow in semi-shade/shade. Growing to a modest 6-8’, they are an excellent choice for small gardens where they can tumble over low walls, scramble up trellises or cover the bare knees of roses which are still getting ready for their own moment of glory. Imagine one or two in a woodland garden, enjoying the dappled sunlight and adding vertical interest to a carpet of early blooming perennials such as woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata).

As if that wasn’t enough these early blooming beauties leave behind silky seed heads to grace the vines throughout the remainder of the year. For those readers who are sticklers for details, then yes the one major difference is that the alpinas have just four petalled single flowers whereas many of the macropetala clematis have the appearance of a double layer of petals. (I’m not going to bore you with the intricacies of petal definitions….suffice to say many macropetala are just plain ‘frillier’!)

Seed heads of C. alpina 'Constance'

More reasons to love them;
  • No need to prune them although they can be tidied after flowering
  • Survive rambunctious dogs romping over them

Soil and stuff;
  • Fertile, rich, well drained
  • Mulch with compost
  • Most are hardy to zone 3

A few special varieties to look for;

C. alpina ‘Burford white’
C. macropetala ‘White lady’
C. macropetala ‘Albina plena’ – double white flowers

C. alpina ‘Constance’ – pretty nodding bells
C. alpina ‘Pink flamingo’ – a soft pale pink
C. macropetala ‘Markhams pink’
C. macropetala ‘Rosy O’Grady’ – large, nodding pink-mauve flowers

C. alpina ‘Frances Rivis’ – large, rich blue and white flowers
C. alpina ‘Pamela Jackman’ – very early and profuse blooming variety
C. macropetala (the species) – lavender and white
C. macropetala ‘Cecile’ – a semi-double variety

C. macropetala 'Markham's pink' shows off its ruffles,
deep purple veins and dark stems.
Photo credit; Jill Elliott

Want to learn more? You might enjoy the book ‘The rose and the clematis as good companions’ by John Howells. My own copy is very well thumbed! It is a British publication by Garden Art Press (1996), available worldwide.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bullet-proof container design

Two months later! In hindsight I should have
clipped away some of the trailing silver falls
so you could see the pot and better
appreciate the color theme.
My design for Fine Gardening magazine
Just planted; a tropical Cordyline and
silver falls in a sleek, metal container. I
used black metallic glass beads to cover
the soil surface adding to the
contemporary vibe. 

While working in a retail nursery a few years ago, I was asked by a customer what plants could be used in a hanging basket if she was going to be away most of the summer. I had to keep my dry British humor in check… I mean come on. First of all what is the point in planting a basket in the first place if you’re not even going to be at home? Then there is the small matter of water. Even drought tolerant plants aren’t camels. She was quite upset when I had to tell her that there really wasn’t a solution (apart from silk) and I’m sure she went away thinking I was less than knowledgeable and that she would find someone to sell her something.

Do you find yourself watering-challenged when it comes to container gardens? Do your containers look decidedly sad before the summer is even part way through? Several factors can play into this from forgetfulness, to shady spots under eaves to cigarette butts! The latter is quite a serious problem for store fronts and public spaces and whereas we can’t do much about it apart from providing an ash tray, there are a few plants which can tolerate less than hospitable conditions. However let’s be clear that we are talking about low water use – not NO water! All plants need watering well when they are first planted.
Lavender revels in the heat
The first thing to consider is your choice of container and potting soil. The bigger the container, the less frequently it will need watering. Metal is a poor insulator and gets red-hot in full sun so isn’t a good choice for these situations. Terracotta is porous so draws the water out of the potting soil – also not desirable! Thick walled lightweight or ceramic pots are the best option.

Potting soil comes in many guises and they are most definitely not all equal. In fact I custom mix my potting medium every time because I simply have not found one single product which provides the perfect balance of organic matter and free draining material. For the typical mix of shrubs, perennials and annuals I’ll use approximately 80% soil-less potting mix which has plenty of perlite in it. Perlite is a popped volcanic rock that looks like tiny white lumps in good potting soil. It creates air spaces in the medium allowing water to drain freely. To this I’ll add 20% of organic matter; either bagged compost or one of the commercially available mixes of compost, mycorrhizae, earthworm castings and a little perlite. My current favorite is Gardner & Bloome ‘Blue Ribbon potting soil’. See notes below for occasional changes to this ratio though.

Hot stuff!

Containers which get full southern or western exposure have it tough. Reflective heat from bright surfaces such as light colored siding and concrete paths exacerbate the situation. Throw into that mix amnesia on the part of the homeowner and you know that these plants need to be real survivors.

Perhaps your immediate response is to add water retention crystals to the potting mix and at least one commercial potting soil does already contain these. However I’m a control freak when it comes to container design and I don’t want some inanimate polymer telling me how much water a container needs on any given day. I prefer to take the approach ‘right plant, right place’, just as we are encouraged to do in our gardens. A hot sunny location is simply not the place for ultra-thirsty plants which will wilt if not watered once or twice a day. Instead look to nature and choose instead those plants which thrive in our warmer climates.

Succulents come in an amazing assortment of colors and textures, many of which are fully hardy here in the Pacific Northwest (Zones 6-8) although I do love to supplement these with some of the more tender varieties for summer interest too. A simple container with a drought tolerant spiky Yucca, Dracaena, New Zealand flax (Phormium) or Cordyline surrounded by assorted mounding and trailing succulents makes an easy care design with great color and textural interest. Purple fountain grass is amazingly bullet proof too and I love the movement of its burgundy stems and plumes as a counterpoint to the fleshy succulent foliage. Succulents need exceptionally well drained soil and very little organic matter so this is a case where I decrease the compost component to just 5-10% and even add extra perlite to the potting mix. Incidentally this is a prime example of when you do not want any water retention polymers present.
Both the Sedum 'Blaze of Fulda' and silverbush are
reliably drought tolerant in hot sunny locations. Notice
how the sedum picks up on the color of the flower buds.
My design

Silver foliage often clues us in to the drought tolerance of plants. Lavender, silverbush (Convolvulus cneorum), curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) and Senecio ‘Sunshine’ (Senecio greyi syn. Brachyglottis greyi) all fit into this category. I love the silverbush as its leaves are glossy, sparkling in the sun as it reflects light from its shiny leaves. All these plants invite a closer look whether to enjoy the fragrance of flowers and crushed leaves (lavender and curry plant) or to feel them; Senecio has white felted undersides to its silvery leaves for example. If you really want the tactile factor add in some lambs ears (Stachys byzantina) and try to stop yourself from stroking those velvety leaves. These plants also like a very ‘lean’ and well drained soil so I prepare the potting mix as described for the succulents above.

What about color? In strong sunlight pastel colors look washed out so look for deeper shades of your favorite pink and lavender, taking them to magenta and purple. Red, orange and yellow all look right at home in sunny containers too. For height you could use a columnar barberry such as ‘Orange rocket’ (Berberis thunbergii) which offers orange tipped golden leaves in summer, orange fall color and tiny red berries. For lots of color in the middle of a design check out the indoor plant section of your nursery and pick up a Kalanchoe, available in orange, red, yellow or pink. These are unbelievably tough and bloom for months with minimal care. Lantana is a great summer annual for the front of containers often having multi-colored flowers. I love ‘Dallas red’ with its vibrant fiery tones. Some flowers are specifically grown for drying, such as strawflower (Helichrysum bracteatum) and annual borage (Echium plantagineum). Nurseries may not carry these until mid summer but they are easy to grow from seed on a windowsill. These provide a new stiff, papery texture as well as fresh color.
Although not intended as a 'bullet-proof' design, almost all
these plants are extremely easy going. The upright purple
 barberry 'Helmond's pillar' and its golden cousin 'Orange
nugget' provide height and bask in the sun. The mounding
'Blue star' junipers form an equally drought tolerant mid
point. Only the orange and purple 'million bells' tumbling
over the front edge insist on regular water.
My design

Shady spots.

I like sunshine – just my personality. When we go camping I look for a big open space rather than the shaded spots in the forest. Some plants just have to live with the shade however, because that’s where the containers are. Designing plants for shady corners isn’t difficult at all. The challenge is a shady spot that rarely gets watered! Shade can be due to overhanging trees, enclosed porches or a combination of both. A couple of my clients have tested my ‘bullet-proof’ shady plant list to the limit on more than one occasion and I dedicate this post to them. (You know who you are…).That being said I have to assume that everything in their containers is an ‘annual’ unless by some miracle they don’t kill it within 12 months in which case it earns Superstar status.
The stunning April foliage of Bishops hat 
(Epimedium rubrum)

Most shade loving plants do prefer regular water and we can at least help accommodate that by ensuring that the soil mix includes 20-25% organic material as discussed earlier. This will help retain what moisture there is! However on the whole I select plants which naturally grow in dry shade.

One of the best for color and hardiness is Aucuba with its brightly variegated yellow and green leaves. I’ve seen it survive everything from cigarettes to car exhaust. In fact lack of water seems to be the least of its problems! Having said that I did have to point out recently that its leaves were not supposed to droop downwards and that perhaps a gallon of water might be a good idea. (I suspect the pot hadn’t been watered for at least 4 weeks…)

Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) makes quite the tropical statement in the shade with its huge palmate leaves. It does surprisingly well with little care, making a striking focal point for a design. This does seem more susceptible to red spider mites when drought stressed however.

Although purple fountain grass is recommended above for full sun I have also used it in a container which gets no direct sun at all and it looks fabulous every summer. It might get a dribble of water every 2-3 weeks by the owner if it’s lucky!
A drought tolerant container garden
for the shade featuring Japanese
aralia, Bishop's hat, leucothoe
'Rainbow' and trailing vinca.
My design

Euonymus ‘Emerald gaiety’ and ‘Emerald ‘n’ gold’ (Euonymus fortunei) are tough shrubs which can be clipped to keep small or allowed to scramble into larger, looser shapes. They prefer sun in which case their color will be brighter. However they also tolerate a good deal of shade and watering once a week seems plenty. These work well as either ‘fillers’ or ‘spillers’ for container design depending on how you let them grow.

For the middle tier I have a surprising candidate for you; Heuchera ‘Tiramisu’. Don’t let its dainty appearance fool you. This has survived two of my most watering-challenged clients and they have done some serious testing I can assure you! Those beautiful lemon-yellow leaves marbled with terracotta veins look beautiful regardless of who looks after them.

Leucothoe ‘Rainbow’ features a lot in my designs for its year round interest, changing color, ease of maintenance and survival skills. Great for the center of large containers or cascading over the sides of smaller ones, its shades of green, yellow and red light up shady containers every time.

Another good candidate for cascading is the box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida). There are several varieties from ‘Baggesens gold’ (bright green) to ‘Lemon beauty’ (variegated green and chartreuse). Although these can grow into huge shrubs they make good container specimens and are easy to prune as needed. I love pairing their finely textured leaves with the bolder hellebores.

Black mondo grass became the ‘American Idol’ of the plant world several years ago and for good reason. Evergreen strappy black foliage, lilac flowers followed by black berries and ease of propagation make this fun to add to baskets and containers as well as massing them as a groundcover in the landscape. They are also remarkably tolerant of drought.

So whereas I don’t advocate deliberately abusing your container gardens, you can at least select plants which will be more tolerant of less than perfect conditions. These are just a few possibilities; what have you had most success with?
A strappy New Zealand flax, fiery lantana
and variegated Abelia 'Tequila sunrise'
My design

Other plants for hot sites

Silver falls (Dichondra) (annual)
Licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) (annual)
Thyme (I love the golden and variegated forms)
Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)
Blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca)
Sea holly  (Eryngium)
Globe thistle (Echinops ritro)
Wormwood (Artemisia species)
Hyssop (Agastache)
Lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus)
Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos)
Blue star juniper (Juniperus squamata)

Alternatives for dry shade

Hellebores (early spring flowers)
Sweet box (Sarcoccoca) (winter fragrance)
Aspidistra (good for height)
Woodrush (Luzula)
Bishops hat (Epimedium sp.)
Croton (light shade)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Divide & Conquer

Who wouldn't want more of these?
'Rozanne geranium' is a 5 star perennial which can
be divided after several years growth. That makes
more for your garden - or for your friends.

It’s that time of year when we see that the garden is coming back to life and notice that our black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia) are hell bent on swallowing the nearby Rhododendrons or the “nice big hosta” is a monster this year and you have to pole vault over the top of it to walk along the path. Sound familiar? So which perennials can you divide at this time of year, how do you know they need to be split (apart from the aforementioned pole vaulting through the garden) and how do you go about it?

Basically you can divide any perennial which isn’t about to flower. Even then you can split them if you have to; you’ll just lose the flowers this year as the plant goes into recovery mode from your less than timely surgery.
This Siberian iris is ready to be divided; notice how it has
died in the center. A good sharp whack with a spade
will sort it out.

You can tell when a perennial needs ‘the operation’ when it has a bald patch in the middle (Siberian iris and ‘Autumn joy’ sedum are notorious for this), they flower less than usual, or are just so congested that you can hear their screams for help.

There are several methods to resuscitate and revive such sad plants which I select according to plant type or personal energy.

1. The ‘Stomp & Whack’ method. This is perfect for those of you with little patience, little time and hefty feet. For the seriously lazy gardener just leave the patient where it is, aim a sharp spade overhead and stamp down hard like a guillotine a few times. Assuming you weren’t wearing flip flops your feet will be fine but the plant will be dissected into chunks. Sure there’ll be a few lost leaves and bits of roots here and there but there will be enough good pieces to lift and replant elsewhere. This works really well for hostas and big grasses, and you can often yield 4-6 good sized pieces. However in defense of the humble hosta I should probably tell you that it never needs dividing for its own sake. It is happy to just keep growing bigger every year, so it only needs this brutality if you need to beat something up or the hosta has got too big for its allotted space.

Daylilies need dividing when they no longer bloom well.

2. The Playtex effect. (a.k.a. ‘lift and separate’). Basically the same as above but a little more genteel. For one thing the entire clump is lifted out using a large digging fork. This is a better way to go than a digging spade which will sever the roots whereas the tines of a fork which will go between them. Once lifted the clump is set on a hard surface such as a stone path or patio or an open section of soil. Then use two forks back to back to pry the root ball apart into sections. This allows for separation of plantlets along natural divisions so is ideal for dividing daylilies. Discard any weaker central sections and replant the other pieces.
It is easy to see the individual plantlets within a daylily clump

3. Surgical precision. It’s quite fascinating when you look at how plants grow. Some just keep growing out from the middle but others like black mondo grass produce little babies on shoots a few inches from the parent, rather like the indoor ‘spider plant’ (known as the airplane plant in the USA). These can be emancipated using pruners or a sharp knife as soon as the babies have some roots of their own. When buying this grass I look for the pot with the most ‘heads’ (growth points) in it, knowing that I can divide my ridiculously expensive treasure into lots of plants and so end up with a bargain (which justifies my spending money on another plant of course).

4. Cookie cutters. Want to divide groundcovers such as creeping thyme, Corsican mint of blue star creeper? These all have a fine network of threadlike roots which form a mat under the carpet of foliage. Use a bulb planter to push down, twist and lift up a plug which can be replanted in a new area. Just fill in the hole with a little fresh soil and the ‘wound’ will quickly be concealed.
Heuchera 'Peach flambe' responds well to
decapitation! I managed to propagate
a nice carpet of this variety, all from
one plant.

5. The “Off with its head” approach. Some plants like Heuchera grow up from one central crown. After a few years most varieties look rather like colorful giraffes with their necks sticking up much farther than is attractive. You can see tufts of fresh new growth at the top of the neck but the rest of the plant does not say ‘designer’. Since many of the newer varieties seem to grow from one central crown you can’t use any of the above methods to propagate Heucheras. However you can snap or snip off the tufty top and a few inches of ‘neck’. Pull a few leaves off the neck (this is where the new roots will emerge from) and plunk it into a new patch of soil, buried to just beneath its head. I’ve had about 80% success rate with this and since Heucheras can cost as much as $20 for a choice variety its’ worth a try.

A few basics
  • Don’t do this on a very sunny day; overcast, cooler weather is better.
  • Division in easiest before the plant is fully leafed out
  • When replanting sections there is no need to fertilizer but a handful of compost mixed in with the soil as you tuck them in isn’t a bad idea.
  • Keep well watered; these little babies will be stressed enough without being thirsty too.

Popular perennials and the best methods for division
Old fashioned bellfower (Campanula 
persicifolia) is a classic cottage garden
perennial. It self sows and spreads easily
but should you want to give some away
just show it that spade!

Yarrow (Achillea); 1 or 2
Bugleweed (Ajuga); 2 or 3
Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis); 1
Japanese anemones; 2
Goats beard (Aruncus); 1 when small. Backhoe when not…
Michaelmas daisies (Aster); 1 or 2
Elephant ears* (Bergenia); 2 or 3
Bellflowers (Campanula); 1
Tickseed (Coreopsis); 1 or 2
Coneflowers (Echinacea); 1 or 2
Bishop’s hat (Epimedium); 1 or 2
Bearded iris; 3
Catmint (Nepeta); 1 or 2
Peony; 2 or 3. Yes they can be divided…
Lungwort* (Pulmonaria); 1,2 or 3
Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia); 1 or 2

* wait until they have finished blooming in another couple of weeks.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring Flowering Shrubs – new varieties & old fashioned favorites.

There's nothing bashful about this deciduous Exbury azalea 'Northern Hi-lights' 
 Photo credit

As soon as the sun shines housework grinds to a halt and gardening comes front and center in my life. Digging takes precedence over dog fur and weeding over washing the floors.

Of course to justify this I need to do something productive outside which surely means planting a few more things! There’s something seductive about the combination of sunshine and flowering shrubs in early spring. I am lured outside to better appreciate the blooms and enjoy any fragrance they might offer. That makes this the perfect time to visit your favorite nursery and gather up a few new plants to herald the start of the gardening season.

Here are a few of my favorite shrubs which offer early spring interest as the garden (and gardener) come alive again.
Pearl like buds open to pure white star
shaped flowers on this deutzia
Photo courtesy Proven Winners

‘Chardonnay Pearls’ deutzia was introduced a few years ago, taking an otherwise ordinary shrub into designer status with its bright golden foliage and sparkling white, fragrant flowers which cover the branches in May. A good mingler for perennial gardens and container design, it stays nice and compact at 2-3’. Should you need to prune it, do so immediately after flowering as it blooms on the previous year’s growth. Hardy in zones 5-8 this is a nice low maintenance shrub for sun or part shade. Blue flowers always look pretty with golden foliage so look to the hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’ as the perfect companion which will provide periwinkle flowers until frost. Or add vertical interest with a group of the deep blue flowered ‘Caradonna’ sage (Salvia) which also sports dark purple stems. 

If only this was 'scratch and sniff'! This 
'Boomerang purple' lilac stays nice and compact
Photo courtesy Proven Winners

‘Boomerang purple’ lilac (Syringa x penda) gives us a powdery mildew resistant, dwarf lilac which re-blooms! There’s nothing quite like the nostalgic fragrance of lilac and this variety promises to become a new favorite. With deadheading in spring it will take a little nap during the summer heat before bouncing back with more flowers in fall. Growing just 4-5’ tall and wide this deserves a place in your spring garden and with multiple bloom times lends itself well to pairing with summer perennials. The low growing fleabane ‘Profusion’ (Erigeron karvinskianus) would be pretty forming a carpet of simple white daisies from which the lilac could rise. These begin to bloom as the first flush of lilacs fade, continuing through the summertime when the lilac is dormant and allowing for a delicate late season combination. Zones 3-7. 

'Snow day surprise' pearl bush shouts 'SPRING!'
Photo courtesy Proven Winners
‘Snow day surprise’ pearl bush (Exochorda) is a stronger, more compact variety of its somewhat ungainly cousin making it more appealing to today’s gardeners and better suited to small spaces. This deciduous shrub forms a mound 3-4’ tall and wide, providing a spectacular display of white flowers in early spring. A tough, low maintenance plant which is hardy in zones 4-8 this old fashioned shrub still has a place in the mixed border. After blooming this doesn’t really contribute a lot to the garden, however, so place it where a neighbor can take over such as barberry ‘Rose glow’ (Berberis) or ‘Coppertina’ ninebark (Physocarpus) both of which will add foliage interest and fall color. Best in full sun but will also take a little shade.
Terracotta tinted buds open to rich golden-orange 
flowers whose intense fragrance will make you
swoon! Exbury azalea 'Golden lights'  
Photo credit -Greer gardens

Exbury azaleas always surprise me. Somehow it doesn’t seem possible that those fat buds could possibly explode into such show stopping rhododendron-like flowers. My favorites are those in bold shades of orange and gold which shine like neon beacons and as for their fragrance – simply put, it is unforgettable. Plant these in large containers, mixed borders or as transition shrubs backing onto wilder areas. The only thing more spectacular than the spring flowers is the scarlet fall color. An outstanding shrub for partial to full sun in zones 5-9. I’m hard pressed to choose a favorite but I do particularly like ‘Golden lights’, one of the Northern Lights series which I used in containers last year. I placed one either side of a cedar archway to provide height then underplanted them with ‘Crystal palace’ geraniums and the bronze foliage of ‘Sweet Caroline’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) for summer. In the landscape I love them next to darker foliage such as that of ‘Black lace’ elderberry (Sambucus ramosa) or in association with lacy Japanese maples. Gorgeous.
'Renaissance' bridal wreath forms a white waterfall 
Photo courtesy Monrovia

‘Renaissance’ bridal wreath (Spiraea x vanhouttei) is a new disease resistant variety of an old favorite. An English garden classic, this arching shrub is smothered in blooms in May forming a billowing froth 5’ tall and wide although it is easy to prune after flowering if you prefer. Beloved of butterflies and flower arrangers this spring favorite shines again in fall when it turns to fiery shades of orange and red. Hardy in zones 3-7 this easy growing shrub thrives in full sun with regular watering. I rarely see this planted in Seattle gardens yet a romantic pairing with blowsy peonies would be so pretty and yield an abundance of spring blooms for the home.

As you reassess your garden in April and May stand back and take a good hard look at the borders. A well designed garden will offer interesting foliage color and texture at this time of year as well as flowers from early blooming perennials. Perhaps there is also room for a flowering shrub or two? (Or three or four).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Sort Of Gardener Are You?

Some of us are clean............

I can’t help it. Dirt seems to be attracted to me.

Jill and I grew up a few doors from each other and have been firm friends now for over 45 years. I spent a lot of my childhood scrambling around in her large back garden playing hide and seek behind over-sized bushes, biting into rock hard pears (we never could wait until they were ripe) and playing with the lumpy jelly of tadpoles in her mossy pond. I loved the way her garden was a place of endless discovery and adventure, but somehow I always ended up getting filthy and there was more than one occasion when I was told off for getting my little white socks and sandals dirty. (Sorry Mum- white was a BAD color for me!)

And then there is my dear friend Alyson, an amazing artist and gardener who always manages to look elegant, immaculately put together and carefree. I never could get over seeing her spreading compost in her garden still wearing stylish work clothes and heels, makeup perfectly intact and not a hair out of place. I was also spreading compost….but wearing a ratty pair of muddy jeans, worn out hiking boots and an ancient should-be-in-the-garbage T-shirt. Why do I always appear to be wearing the garden whereas Alyson looks as though she has merely dabbled casually?

..........and some of us aren't

Things have not improved things it seems. On a recent trip to the hairdresser my stylist casually removed a rusty screw from my hair. She was completely unfazed. “Karen if it had been anyone else but you I would have been surprised. Leaves, twigs, screws – it’s all good”. In my defense I had been scrambling about under bushes all morning but I’m still not sure where that screw came from.

So my conclusion is this. There are the clean and tidy gardeners such as Alyson and my Mum (whom I suspect have never had to wash a pair of garden gloves in their lives) and there are the rest of us. We live in the garden and it becomes a part of us, figuratively and literally. No-one ever has to ask what we have been doing because the muddy knees and fingernails tell the story. Our sweaty faces rarely see mascara let alone full make up. How do the Alysons of this world do it?! I guess I’ll never know but at least we can enjoy one another's creations and share a glass of wine at the end of a day in the garden (although I’ll need a shower first).

But I still don't know where that screw came from…………….

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Growing a Floral Bouquet

Clematis look wonderful  tumbling gracefully out of a pretty vase.
This is Clematis jackmanii 'Superba', a vigorous climber to about 15'.
Try growing it through tall roses in the garden and picking both for indoors.

I love being able to stroll around the garden on a summers day, pruners in hand and gather an armful of flowers to place in the home. It’s the very essence of bringing the outside in – fragrance and beauty filling vases large and small, from grand arrangements in the hallway to little posies on the windowsill. Arranging cut flowers gives us the opportunity to combine colors, shapes and textures without being concerned about growing conditions such as the amount of light each plant needs in the garden. Ferns and roses are quite happy snuggled together in a vase for example while outside the ferns would struggle with the amount of direct sunshine that roses require.

As many of you know, my current garden is a work in progress so selecting suitable stems takes a little more searching and creativity. I’ll reminisce instead about some of my favorite perennial cutting flowers that I enjoyed in my last garden. It wasn’t a large plot of land and so a dedicated cutting garden wasn’t an option. 

Fleabane (Erigeron sp) is an underutilized perennial.
It thrives in poor soil with minimal water, rewarding
you with months of daisy flowers  in shades of pink
or lavender.The taller varieties are the most suitable
for cutting; Erigeron speciosus hybrids

Instead I designed the entire front garden as an ‘English garden’ filled to overflowing with roses, shrubs and as many perennials as I could squeeze in, all set back in a series of terraces so I could easily get in to snip and tidy. There were plenty of bouquets for our home as well as gifts for our friends and neighbors and I loved being able to share my garden with them.

Roses and sweet peas are obvious candidates, but here I want to focus on those cut flowers which are perennials, returning each year bigger and better than before.
'Magnus' coneflower with 'whirling butterflies'
are a perfect duo in the garden and vase.

For a big blast of color think tall spires of delphiniums, cone flowers* (Echinacea), black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), phlox* and foxgloves. Good 'fillers' include false spiraea (Astilbe),yarrow (Achillea), iris, gayfeather (Liatris) and bellflowers (Campanula). To add a delicate touch to the garden and arrangement add a scrim of whirling butterflies (Gaura) or tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). From the shade garden gather the forget-me-not like flowers from Siberian bugloss (Brunnera), hosta* blooms, a few arching stems of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum) and long stemmed primroses. For additinal fragrance look to the vanilla scented bugbane* (Cimifuga), especially those with rich dark foliage as well as hyssop* (Agastache) if the hummingbirds will share them with you! Another hummingbird favorite are the crocosmia with multiple blooms along slender stems in shades of orange, red and yellow. Even the humble heuchera can offer delicate wands of flowers which last for many days in a vase.

* some varieties are fragrant
Sea holly 'Sapphire blue' (Eryngium)adds a metallic blue
accent with its spiky bracts.It loves hot sun and
minimal watering.

Hostas and Siberian bugloss (Brunnera) can add substance to an otherwise wispy design with their large, bold leaves. Feathery texture can be provided by ferns or the foliage from bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) and corydalis, looking especially pretty with larger flowers such as delphiniums and roses. Blades of tall grasses provide a nice accent amidst a floral bouquet while herbs such as rosemary*, parsley (biennial), and mint* add surprise, fragrance and a snack!
Heuchera 'Peach flambe'; my favorite 
for foliage color also boasts delicate
sprays of white flowers in May and June

  • Shasta daisies – they smell terrible!
  • Flowers from bleeding hearts; they turn very pale and instead of continuing to display their beautiful arc they seem to turn inwards and look very strange
  • Euphorbias  - the sap is a skin irritant
  • Daylilies – they only last for a day...
'Mardi gras' Helen's flower (Helenium)
stands out in front of dark foliage such
as this ninebark 'Diablo' (Physocarpus).
These bloom for months in the 
garden and last many days in a vase.

Special shrubs to include for their foliage.
Leucothoe does double duty as an evergreen. It pairs well with hellebore blooms in late winter and adds substance to delicate summer arrangements. In fact evergreen foliage is not only the backbone of good landscape design it is also invaluable to the flower arranger. My favorites include box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida), many conifers, pittosporum (especially the variegated forms) and Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata). Curly willow is also great for adding height and a softness to designs. Bare stems in winter are as useful as those clothed in soft green leaves.

A few tips for the home;

Now bear in mind that I have zero skills as a flower arranger; that genetic lineage seems to end with my Mum who still wins awards at 82 for her designs! I just put flowers in a vase and call it good; I don’t worry about cutting stems underwater to avoid air bubbles for example although I’m sure it is important. I just follow the ‘prune and plop’ school of floral design. That being said I can offer you a couple of basic tips here.

  • Remember to change the water daily in vases.
  • I like to add decorative glass pebbles to the base of vases to help stabilize stems.
  • Those who are more adept at flower arranging then I am may like to weave a network of flexible willow stems to form a mesh through which other stems can be anchored. (Mine end up looking more like a 'cats cradle' gone wrong)
Hosta 'Sagae' unfurls its dramatic leaves
  • Use large leaves such as hosta to ‘hide’ stems in a glass vessel. Place the leaf actually into the water and press it against the wall of the vase. Now you’ll see the attractive foliage rather than the cross-cross of stalks and stems.
  • When using woody stems, cut up the length of the stem about 1” to improve water uptake.
Now is the time to look at your garden and see if you have room to add a few more perennials to expand your tapestry. Remember a single 6" pot will take a couple of years to give enough blooms both for cutting and garden perhaps you'd better get three. See what great excuses I give you?