Monday, August 15, 2016

Editing in August

It’s hard to not be able to garden.

An impinged nerve. That’s what they tell me it is, but in my language, it’s sharp shooting pain in my arm and an electric buzzing in my thumb and pointer finger whenever I reach for anything with my right hand. Can’t pull weeds, can’t dig holes, can’t transplant, can’t deadhead. All I can do is look.

It’s good for me. It’s teaching me to really see. It’s frustrating, but educational, and that’s always a good thing. Or so I keep telling myself.

It’s not great for the garden. My garden has exploded with weeds, with flowers too, the dahlias are battling the tomatoes for room and the roses that a friend is deadheading for me are getting ready to blow up with color all over again, but a garden is a living breathing thing, at least the way mine is created, and it’s got to be kept in check.

But really, the thing that’s making me uncomfortable is that now that I can’t just bury my head in the weeds that I’m pulling, and I’m being forced to look around the garden and really take it in I can see that some part need more help than just a deep weeding.  Some parts need rethinking. All gardens need rethinking sometimes, or at least parts of them do, and being forced to stop and really look at your garden from a far, instead of being immersed in it working, lets you see what’s working and what’s failing.

August has always been the best time to see what’s what in the garden. And to make plans. At almost any other time, if you see something that’s off you’ll probably grab a shovel and do a little rearranging, or remove the offender and put something else in it’s place, but in August most of what we are doing in the garden is making sure all our new additions have plenty of water and trying to keep the weeds at bay. In August, when you notice something is off you need to make a note and address it later, and that’s a skill that some of us don’t really have.

I’m an immediate gratification kind of a girl. Not a sit and ponder on it person. If one plant is being swamped by another, or if a color combination is jarring and out of place, I'll address it immediately. Right now I can’t, and in August, you really shouldn’t anyway – it’s too hot to transplant, so I’m getting a seriously long overdue lesson in observing and planning. Luckily I can still take notes, and I’m doing so with a vengeance. I’m filling up pages in my garden moleskins with what I hope won’t be too cryptic notes and scribbles for this fall, next spring, and the garden in general.

These a couple of the things you should think about when taking notes.

What parts of the garden are bugging you the most? Or what do you have to do before it makes you crazy? For me it’s the Joe pyeweed on the east side of the ex-veggie garden that needs to be transplanted, as does the Ironweed on the west side of the garage. And I need to dig up and toss almost all my daylilies. After having been eaten by deer for so long previously they’ve all reverted to one that is a funny double orange with a red throat. At least that’s what I think has happened, I can’t image I ever choose of planted these garish things. They all need to be ripped out and discarded and replaced with the peach and pink and cream colored ones I started with ages ago. There’s a couple that need to be saved and I need to mark those with red ribbon so they are saved, but there’s a lot to be discarded fearlessly. The ostrich ferns need to be eradicated from under the apple trees and the wild plums more completely.

What part of the garden needs a little fiddling? The asparagus by the garage is swamping the gooseberry next to it, so one of them needs to move, and the plain green hostas I got as freebies need to be thinned and transplanted into various other shady spots so that there’s more room for variation in foliage and texture in the bed where they presently huddle. There’s a big gaping spot under the viburnums in the front west side bed which needs filling and the bed under the pear tree needs something medium sized right in front of the truck and behind the astrantia, with something that will pair well with phlox. That bed also needs to not be allowed to fill in with Dame’s Rocket next year as it’s removal is too destructive and noticeable. There’s also a rogue hydrangea that’s popped up by the Heller’s Japanese holly by the basement door that needs a proper home and those hollies need to be pruned back so that you can actually use the back door to get in and out of the kitchen.

Would things look better it they were pruned?  Would you get more light? I‘ve scribbled notes about the beech tree that we keep lifting up and a few magnolias I want to shape as well as on those things that need to be cut back hard this year, like the rose of sharon behind the chicken coop or perhaps even removed entirely, like the jetbead that is the rose of sharon’s neighbor. Then there are shrubs and trees that need to be cut back so you can travel throughout the garden. I’ve got a whole page of notes on those.

When you look out your windows what do you see? From most of my windows the view is pretty good except for the two little lime hydrangeas and two roses in the front bed that need to be dug up and moved from the front of the bed to about halfway back. This is only because I had to transplant an enormous corylopsis from that middle spot to the back of the property, but by doing so I threw off the balance in that bed so the front feels too tall and heavy and needs these four shrubs centered where the corylopsis used to be. I sometime also use photographs as a way of taking notes. And as a way of helping me remember. Now that we all have a phone in our cell phones, it’s easy to photograph the view from my computer so that I can see exactly where I need to add in more late summer color and the spot by those hydrangeas so that next spring I’ll know exactly how high I need the shade tolerant plant I’m choosing for that spot to grow. It was a great tool this spring when I finally shot places in the garden that I want to add bulbs, and much easier to refer than notes are when locating exact placements.

Is there anything you have to walk and find or do you see the whole thing in one shebang? I have an entire perennial border that you have to trek to the back forty to see. It’s fantastic. There’s a picnic table back there as a reward for having slogged the whole way back, but it should be nicer, a better table and seating. And while I’m on the subject of visually attractive objects, wouldn’t it be nice to have sculptures in the garden? Ornaments you only see by walking through the entire garden, or mobiles hanging from some of the trees. Or more benches so I could actually go to a part of the garden as a destination and not just keep passing through on my way through the thing.

Does your garden have a focal point? Do you need one? I have an ancient crab apple that serves as a focal point for the long view down my garden, and I’m lucky in that I’m planted out all my neighbors for most of the season, so no matter where I’m sitting or standing or walking I have something interesting to look at, that’s either giving me a place to rest my eyes or inviting my to come closer and give it a closer look. My compost pile is the only unsightly thing in the garden, but I kind of dig it and it’s really not too exposed at all.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Does your garden have too much variety or not enough? I’ve been good here, buying things in masses as opposed to one at a time. It’s meant that I’ve had to pass up a couple of interesting plants, but it also means the garden beds look more coherent, less a mish mash of random cool things. And being a plantaholic means there’s no way my garden doesn’t have enough variety, it’s genetically impossible.

When you pull in with your car is the view always attractive or is it really nice only at one point of the season and the rest of the year it’s boring? Most of the time this bed looks pretty nifty, but there’s a supposedly variegated dogwood that has reverted to being almost entirely green by the front driveway needs to just be ripped out and disposed of. Not because it’s not a lovely tree, it is, but it’s taking up a lot of real estate in that front bed without being interesting for enough seasons. And although the path to the kitchen from the cars works perfectly, the Limelight hydrangea and the Lemon Queen heliopsis flop onto it too often when it rains. These they need to be moved somewhere else.

Is there anything that just isn’t working anymore? Actual the bed with the heliopsis mentioned above, unfortunately, needs to be entirely rethought. This bed holds my hummingbirds’ monarda but is swamping under its onslaught, what was once a hint of red is now a seething mass and although fun for the hummers, it’s slightly overwhelming for me. It’s also not that attractive a plant after it blooms. And it’s in prime, walk past it twice every single day real estate.  In the spring the bed is delightful, although could use more bulbs, but when I compare mid spring photos with mid august photos it’s obvious that there needs to be a big overhaul here.

The same thing needs to happen in the ex-vegetable garden. That garden is gorgeous right through June, but as July barreled in and all of last years forgotten and unharvested potatoes started really getting going, it went feral. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t address it this past fall, just threw tulip bulbs everywhere and again this spring I neglected to try and get it under control so now I officially have chaos. I don’t need any notes or photographs to tell me this, because when you have to bushwhack your way in to find your swallowed up pepper plants it’s easy to see have far everything has gotten away from me. I normally can ignore this problem by ripping out spent cilantro (coriander anyone?) and using twine or yarn to pull plant up and off the paths, but this year I can’t even begin to make headway. I certainly can’t tie twine without my right hand and where in past years I’d start by harvesting the potatoes which would at least give me a little breathing room, this year I’m having a hard time figuring out how to use a spade or a garden fork with only one arm.

So I’m using my imagination instead. I’m visualizing how it would look with a larger path and a paved area for seating in the center. I’m scribbling down that the fritillarias need more sun and that there’s a nice transplantable daylily in there, but most of my imagination is captured by the possibilities of change. Should it only really be about roses? Will I be willing to stop sneaking in vegetables after swearing off them for the last two years and then caving in?

And then from there I’m flowing outwards. The bed with the lavender which is so terribly, terribly sandy, should I make that a place for edibles and rework all the soil or is the idea of walking back there on a daily basis laughable when I don’t even pluck cucumbers with any regularity that are within cat throwing distance of the house right now. Perhaps I need to simplify back there, and move the perennials back there up front and fill their empty spaces with shrubs that have become way too thuggish upfront. Or maybe that’s where all my extra red monarda from will go.

And then there’s the bed under the wisteria. The wisteria has become so dense that the only thing the plants in that bed are doing is suffering. And the paths are getting too narrow, so should I replant the whole thing or should I just suck it up and try and dig out the wisteria? Is that super crazy?

Oh dear, I’m starting to feel entirely overwhelmed, maybe I need to put my head down between my knees and breathe, but wait, what’s that feeling I have deep, deep inside me? Huh? That feels a little like excitement, and a teasing of possibility. So maybe this not gardening thing isn’t going to be all bad.

Paige Patterson hasn’t held a trowel in 6 weeks and is going through withdrawal.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Jewels in the garden

Yesterday, while my husband and I were sitting on our kitchen porch reviewing the day as it started to slowly pink up at the edges, we had eight hummingbird sightings. Now, don’t know exactly how many resident jewels we have flinging themselves across my flower beds, but we did spot two males dueling over the rights to the Jacob Kline monarda just moments after a female was feeding right around the corner, so I know there are at least three individuals.   

I am a hummingbird junkie and once you have your first hummingbird visitor, all you want is more – so I’m always trying to find ways to coax these beauties into dropping by, or moving in permanently. And although feeders are certainly an option when it comes to attracting these beauties, there’s a few things you need to understand about hummingbird behavior to get as many as you can. We know that the name hummingbird comes from the purring or vibrating sound of their wings beating almost 90 times a second, but that's not the only thing about a humming birds that's speedy. They also have an accelerated heartbeat, a incredibly rapid breathing rate and a high body temperature, which means they burn an amazing number of calories each moment so hummingbirds needing to eat often and voraciously. They have an impressively long tongue with which they lick their food at a rate of up to 13 licks per second, sucking up almost half their body weight in nectar each day, nectar being their primary food source along with tree sap, insects and pollen, so feeders with their artificial nectar might sound like a good way to attract them, but there's one other fact about hummingbirds that might point you in a different direction.

Hummingbirds don't like to share their food.

They're territorial, so even though they are only about 3 ¾ inches long and weigh about the same as a couple of  paperclips, they'll defend their territories with the aggression and determination of much larger critters. I’ve seen male pursue other males for hours at a time, and even go after other larger birds. They're fearless. I know those video clips on Facebook with throngs of hummers crowding around a feeder makes us all want to run out and invest in a few dozen, but in my experience it’s rare that a male hummingbird will share his food sources willingly. And since each male demands a territory of about a quarter acre, having all your feeders clustered on the porch so you can see these beauties might be fun for you, but it’s going to be stressful for the birds.  At my house, if there are two males in the same space they will dive bomb each other making sharp chirps (playing chicken so to speak) until one gives up and flies away. The victor will then return to sip in all his solitary glory. So instead of a bouquet of feeders containing liquified processed sugar and sometimes even red dye all of which also have to be cleaned religiously, and which (in my experience) hummingbirds don’t want to share –– feeders which also leak all over the porch attracting not just ants and bees, but vicious, nasty, attacking yellow jackets, I’m a proponent of the planted approach.   

The planting approach is simple, just fill your property with plants that are ladened with nectar and place them all over the whole yard. I did, and now with my 2.5 acres, I've hypothetically created room for up to 10 males and their families. Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun? I already mentioned monarda as one of my favorite hummingbird attractions, but before I give you a plant list, I’d like to clear up a little misconception. Yes hummingbirds are attracted to and love red flowers; it's a color that they can "see" from miles away, so they're super attracted to those plants; but they also will drink from any heavily nectared plant. So certainly, add some red plants, but don't be limited to only scarlet, crimson, ruby and cerise. Yes they love my enormous clump of Jacob Kline monarda, but they also think my Marshall's Delight and Purple Rooster are pretty glorious as well.  

Monarda (Bee Balm) has the top spot on my list of hummingbird attractors, so if there’s only room for one more plant in your yard, this should be it, but if you want to guarantee these iridescent visitors return to your garden year after year, and you have the room, there’s a plethora of plant possibilities I can recommend.  

The entire salvia family will satiate hummingbirds as will any weigela you decide will add beauty to a shrub border. I am partial to the annual salvia called Black and Blue, you I've had them feed from both annual and perennial varieties. Personally, I have about 12 or so weigela scattered around my property, but I am sort of mad for the Sonic series as their ability to rebloom is fairly impressive. I'm not sure that they are as nectar rich as some of the old fashioned cultivars (they're fairly new to my garden) so if you want to be sure you're getting the biggest bang for your buck get a cultivar that's been around for a while. What both these plants have in common is a tubular flower which is a perfect fit for the long bill of the hummingbird in it's quest for the nectar buried deep inside each bloom.  

Since hummingbirds tend to show up and hang out in the garden from Mother's Day through Labor day, it's important that you choose plants that will be available through their entire visit – another reason annuals are always on my humming bird list. Fuchsias are a necessity, so I've always got a few stuck in pots in shadier spots around the garden and shrimp plants are also something they go crazy for, although I'm not such a huge fan. I prefer petunias, lantana, snapdragons and nicotiana, the last two of which I stick randomly into any bed where I have room, As an aside, once you have nicotianas they will tend to self seed willy nilly (if, of course you don't weed up the seedlings) and I also collect and save my own seeds to toss about with abandon in the spring.  

Columbine, hostas, foxgloves, heuchera are all fabulous perennials to incorporate into your planting beds, and if you have a spot for a honeysuckle to ramble through, please plant at least one. I have one at the rear of my property and a trumpet vine that’s finally throwing itself over my porch roof for whomever has staked out their territory by the house. When planting I always advise massing plants and repeating them throughout the garden to make sure your plantings don’t look too hodge podge, but your hummer friends also want to visit a patch of the same species (three or more plants) to really get a good quantity of nectar. Cardinal flowers are a perfect plant in heavier soil, and they will create their own clump (as the monarda do of course) so those are definitively a hummingbird have to have.

In the shrub realm, flowering quince is a good early plant while butterfly bush is a great way to end the summer and clethra is sometimes even given the common name Hummingbird Plant. I've been told that the Red Buckeye is a good hummingbird magnet, but I can't speak from experience since it's one of the few trees I don't have on my property. In an interesting aside, hummingbirds can only perch on their feet, they can’t use them to stand on a flat surface, nor can they walk, so it’s also important to choose plants they will feel comfortable resting in for those few moments when their wings aren’t going or when they decide to make a nest.

I’m still hoping to find a hummingbird nest somewhere on my property. The nests are tiny and almost impossibly hard to spot, with eggs the size of jellybeans, and I have yet to find one in any of my trees or shrubs, but I’m continuing to look. I believe there must be at least one here somewhere since the number visitors seems to be increases yearly. I like to think I’m feeding generations. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden website gives a great and sometimes forgotten tip on creating a hummingbird friendly environment when they suggest we include some fuzzy plants in our planting plans. Hummingbirds like to line their nest with soft plant fibers, and according the BBG, two of their favorites are the fuzzy stem of the cinnamon fern and pussy willows. They also suggest we let  some thistle and dandelion go to seed just for the fluffy, down like fuzz that’s so attractive to the as nest-building materials for the hummers in your yard.  

I like thinking that the dancing seeds of dandelions are making tiny little beds more snuggly. It’s one of the best excuses I’ve ever come up with for leaving the dandelions in my lawn. That and the fact that they’re also dream food for bees.

Paige Patterson hasn’t been able to weeds for over three weeks and her garden is out of control

Monday, June 13, 2016

A gift of weeds

June was an extraordinary month for roses. They were off the hook. People keep coming up to me and telling me how amazing their roses are and I’m loath to crush their spirits, but this year everyone’s roses were incredible. I chalk it up to a very dry winter and spring and therefore far fewer opportunities for black spot to do it’s decimating dance, but also the mildness of the weather meant fewer delicate beauties had a chance to do the dieback and death thing. But now it’s July and if you haven’t been vigilant the weeds are fairly impressive as well.

I gauge my weeding success by the garden cartful. Tuesday I had four – well technically five, but I left the cart in the garden as there was still room for a few more green bodies before it got dragged to the compost pile. Today I have almost a hundred ferns to get into the ground, but first I must weed. I’m not big on weeding. As I’ve written before I try and plant so densely that the weeds don’t have room to establish, much less grow and bloom, but I let my hesperis (Dame’s Rocket) run rampant this spring and now as I rip each collapsed clump out of the soil, I have smothered perennials, and therefore quite a few gaping holes to deal with. But I’m fine with it. It’s just an opportunity to buy more plants.

Weeding can be an almost meditative activity if you allow it to be, as you must focus when you are weeding. If not, you will rip good plants out with the bad, especially if you let the weeds get out of control. So it’s best to do a little weeding everyday. And those of us who do, are rewarded with a repetitive activity that helps you learn to be totally engaged in the present. Totally focused on what you are doing. Being in the moment, not thinking about what you should have done, or what you can do in the future, but concentrating on the actions your hands are taking is the best way I’ve found to relax and let go. Not of the root I’m teasing out of the soil, but of the day. It is a good thing to focus. To be present enough to see which stalks are good, which are bad, which needs both hands and which needs just a little finger scuffle to be removed. Some roots need to come out completely, some roots can just have their foliage snipped off and some roots are actually useful. Useful you ask? What weed is useful? Well technically, the dandelion works as a wick for calcium, bringing it up through the soil to the leaves of the plant, which if left to decay will release the nutrient back to the surface of the soil for other plants to take up.

Hmm? Not that interested in letting dandelions take over your lawn and garden beds? I understand. However if, like me, you have bees, you will have learned how much they love and appreciate the golden suns of the dandelions flowers as a food source.  I have become tolerant of dandelions, although I do try and pop off the heads before they become the lion manes of seeded fluff. I’m somewhat successful, but I still have quite a few dandelions, and I accept that. It’s one of the most Zen things I do.

Gardening has taught me to accept imperfections and to enjoy chance encounters. I have a purple cleome that in now blooming along with Lauren Grape Poppies in a place I don’t remember seeding either plant, but they are beautiful. They clash somewhat with the scarlet Jacob Kline monarda that dominates the bed where they’ve decided to grow, but so does the unnamed ripe peach colored rose that has determined the middle of the monarda patch is the only place in my garden where it will thrive. It’s not a color theme I would have chosen, but all four of these plants’ successes make me happy. And that happiness helps me breathe.

Learning to breathe, learning to be, accepting the garden for what it is instead of focusing on what it could be; these are all lessons that have helped me in all different moments of life, and if I remember to think of them when facing stressful situations, I handle myself better. I have learned, the hard way, that if you go out to the garden to weed and you are upset or angry or frustrated, and you don’t leave those emotions by the “garden gate” so to speak, you fail. You rip up the peas when trying to remove jewelweed, you get handfuls of nepeta instead of creeping Charlie. Those emotions do not work when weeding. You have to stop holding on to them so tight. You have to put down the wrongs of the day, the week, the year and instead pick up a trowel.

This year I’m frustrated by many things in life, as I am almost every year, but I’m not bringing those feelings out among the roses. The weeds themselves could be another source of frustration if I let them, but the felling of accomplishment, of a job well done when I rediscover the cucumber that has been buried beneath pokeweed and black locust seedling, is a feeling that is too lovely to deny.
I am embracing my weeds and their removal as a gift from the universe, the chance to feel joy from clearing an entire bed of nut sedge, the pleasure of astrantia, long hidden finally getting a chance to extend itself up to the sun. The height with which my compost pile is building up to the sky is a visual reinforcement of accomplishment.  And for that I am grateful. Not that I’m volunteering to come weed your garden anytime soon. I have plenty of my own weeds. In my garden and in the rest of my life, but I am grabbing them by the roots and removing them, sometimes careful, something with a ferocious vigor, but with lately, with more and more success.

Paige Patterson is running out of room in her garden but that hasn’t stopped any plants from jumping into her car.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The naming of plants

No one knows how to pronounce the word clematis. I pronounce it KLEM-UH-TIS but many others pronounce it KLEE-MAH-TIS. The truth is, there’s no real, 100% correct way to pronounce it, as we have no one who still really speaks Latin to correct our pronunciation the way Parisians do when I try and use their native tongue to get directions to Giverney or to purchase a baguette. The fact is, that unless you are reversing the syllables or dropping them (as I sometimes am guilty of doing) it is always better to ask for a plant by its botanic name instead of its common one, even if you mangle the Latin a little in the process.

The reason is simple. Plants have far too many common names and they are super confusing. Doesn’t a garden filled with Our Lady in a Boat, Chinese Pants, Venus’s Car, Lyre Flower, Bleeding Heart and Lady’s Locket sound super? Like a fabulous cottage garden filled with the most wonderful flowers right? Unfortunately, such a garden would just be a solid mass of Dicentra spectabilis, since those are all names by which it is known.

When we make plant tags at the nursery we always try and put both the Latin and the common name on the tags, but the large number of common names can sometimes make that a little complicated. Salvia splendens ‘Bonfire’ could be commonly called Bonfire Scarlet Sage. Or it could be Bonfire Splendid Sage. Or even Bonfire Tropical Sage. With a common name all three words are capitalized and the name starts with the cultivar (without the single quotes used to indicate it’s a cultivar in the Latin name) and is followed by the most common, common name, each word of which is capitalized, i.e. Scarlet Sage.

So who determines which common name to use? Well at most nurseries, it’s the person making the tags, so when I was entering the information, I would use the word Hosta for both the common and the Latin name of that plant, but technically I’d be wrong. The correct common name is Plantain Lily, although Funkier is used to be the more common, common name. But in common usage hosta is the word all our gardeners use. Should we use Coral Bells or Alumroot when referring to plants in the heuchera family? I never call artemesia Wormwood, I just call it Artemesia, the same way I refer to forsythia, magnolia, hydrangeas, and clematis by their Latin names only. I’d never call a gingko a Maidenhair Tree but I’ve do call aruncus Goatsbeard.  So it’s a dilemma.

Not that figuring out the Latin names is any easier. You would think the professionals growing these plants would use a consistent source of information to be the reference guides but in the world of perennials, annuals and herbs, but there doesn’t seem to be one. Allan Armitage, a god in horticultural circles, tends to be the most up to date on the perennials and annuals, but even he has said it is impossible to keep up in a printed form as names and cultivars keep changing, growing and expanding.

He has written the textbook on perennials, and another on annuals, biennials and half-hardy perennials and we treat both as bibles in the Marders reference library, but there are too many plants that are not classified within them. The Royal Horticultural A-Z  Encyclopedia of garden plants is also a good source, but it too is not that up to date. And online listings don’t really help either – much to my distress the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses the Andersen Horticultural Library's Plant Information Online, which only uses the first part of the Latin binomial.

“Wait, wait, wait Paige, what the heck is a binomial?” I hear you ask.  I’m so glad you asked.

A plant’s botanical name consists of two words, and is therefore referred to as a "binomial." The first word represents the larger group the plant belongs to, the genus, and its first letter is always capitalized. The second word is the species and it is always lowercase. A plant’s binomial name should be written in full but lots of nurseries and growers and plant breeders don’t bother.

Most growers actually sell the above-mentioned salvia as Salvia Bonfire, without bothering with the single quotes or the second half of the binomial.  Which makes me crazy. Not because I’m a control freak (although I am a tad) but because when you see a list of plants to buy from and only the first part of the name is used, you really have no idea what you’re getting. I happen to love Salvia nemorosas and loathe Salvia verticillatas, so luckily, because I am a plant junkie, I know that ‘Hypnotic Purple’ and ‘Salute Pink’ are salvias I want to try but that I can skip ‘Endless Love’ – but does a regular, non-plantaholic know the difference? I think nemorosas are significantly better plants, but if a first time gardener buys a plant named Salvia ‘Endless Love’ and is disappointed it’s the way verticillatas look and perform, they’re going to think all salvias are sort of blah and are going to miss out of some excellent plants.

Other then the basic binomial a Latin name can include subspecies, varieties and cultivars. A subspecies (preceded by the abbreviation "subsp.") is a geographically separate population within a species that is almost, but not quite, a separate species.  A botanical variety (preceded by "var.") is a distinct variant occurring in the same populations as ordinary examples of a species. Both of these additions are really not necessary for the home gardener to know, so it’s up for debate as to whether they should go onto our tags. If you know plants, you know that sometime they’re helpful but very few people in the business of retailing plants use them, including most of the vendors we work with in the perennial and annual world. I know, I know, I hear you yawning but hear me out.

A cultivar (CULTIvated VARiety), or selection, is a type that is not naturally occurring. These have been bred or crossed or chosen for some special characteristic. Cultivar names are a word or words in a modern language (NOT Latin) set off in single quotes and capitalized, but not italicized, such as Salvia splendens ‘Bonfire’.

Hybrids, or crosses between different species, are given unique names that are preceded with an x, indicating that this plant is a hybrid between two species — for example, Salvia x superba is a hybrid of S. sylvestris and S. villicaulis. Sometimes that "x" inadvertently gets dropped along the way; this plant is often listed as Salvia superba. And I’m not positive that many of the people who sell us these plants even know for sure when something is a cross or not, and even less know what that cross is.  At the nursery we can decide on having the x or taking it out. I tend to leave it in but I am a maniac.

Another problem we have is that when botanists make taxonomic name changes as a result of advances in botanical knowledge (e.g. the Chrysanthemum genus was recently split into eight different genera, including Dendranthema, Tanacetum, and Leucanthemum) it may take years for the horticultural industry to adopt them, but should we be up to date with the changes? Should our tags have the new names? And will this help or confuse our customers? We could add the new name to the old name with a slash i.e. Chrysanthemum/Dendranthema but some growers will use the old name and some the new – this is the case with Actea/Cimicifuga for example. Cimicifuga has had this new name for years, but very few people, including some awfully good gardeners, use it or know it.  

Do you know Solenostemon scutellarioides? That’s the new name for some of our good friends Coleus blumei. I’m not going to be able to remember that; to be honest, I didn’t even know the second name of Coleus was blumei, and when they shelved the name coleus not all of the plants became scutellarioides. Instead a number of them were moved into the plectranthus category. And of course, to bring us full circle, my adored Dicentra spectabilis has now got a new Latin name as well. Its Lamprocapnos spectabilis – I mean come on, are they kidding me? There’s no way I’m not going to mangle that.  But I’m going to still beg you to try and use the Latin name, if only to prevent you from picking up the annual Chinese Forget-Me-Nots (Cynoglossum amiable) and planting them all in your shade garden expecting them to self seed into a big carpet of blue Forget-Me-Nots which is actually an entirely different species of plant. What you want is the Myosotis sylvatica –  the word Myosotis coming from the Greek word for mouse’s ear, and although the flowers look remarkably similar they’re very little else that about them that is.

Paige Patterson says there’s no such thing as too many hydrangeas – thus the ‘After Midnight’ in her car.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Not the usual suspects

Tired of piles of zucchini overwhelming your kitchen? Not that interested in growing yet one more tomato? Bored with squash? I feel you. I too have gotten to the point where I just can’t stomach the idea of planting yet another row of cilantro to be ready when the currant ones bolt. I don’t have one of those gorgeous, picture perfect potagers, because, as we all know I’m just not that into weeding. So if I’m going to have to slave over something and tend to it’s every little whim and need, I want it to be something extraordinary, or at least something worth talking about.

This is how I discovered cucamelons or Mexican Sour Gherkin Cucumbers (Melothria scabra). A friend was distributing the bounty from his garden in exchange for some of my chickens’ eggs and he handed me a baggie filled with what looked like dollhouse watermelons. Tiny little striped ovals, which he just popped into my mouth. Wow, crazy, pure cucumber taste with a little zip of lime, these babies were delicious and one of the niftiest things I’d ever seen to throw in a salad or on a crudités platter. It has to be the “cutest” edible I’ve ever come across and one of the easiest to grow.

Cucamelons grow just like cucumber, in that they want sun and fertile soil and decent water, but unlike cucumbers, they are super reliable and take up a lot less room.  Still a vine, they need some support to clamber upon, but they’re easy to start from seed and fairly prolific once they get going.
And to go along with the theme, we need to grow one of the melons called Metki serpent melons (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus) – a muskmelon (Cucumis melo) that also tastes like a cucumber (Cucumis sativus). Often called Armenian cucumber and usually found among the cucumbers in seed listings, these melons are almost identical in shape and flavor to the cucumber. They get their name from the fact that they can grow to be almost three feet long, and if not grown on a trellis or support structure of some kind, will twist up into squiggles that sort of resemble snakes.  They are ridged when growing and have a fuzzy skin, but when mature smooth out into one of three colors, a pale green to white color, a dark green or striped, which is the best looking.

I am a huge fan of gooseberries and currants (Ribes) so those shrubs are pushing their way into spaces where radishes and spinach used to grow. When I was a child in England, my favorite desert of all time was gooseberry crumble and I still salivate thinking about it. Ribes were outlawed in America in the early 1900s to prevent white pine blister rust (a fungus they are susceptible to) from affecting the lumber industry, the federal ban was lifted in 1966 but it wasn’t until 2003 that New York State started to allow home gardeners to legally grow these fruits. There are two types of gooseberry plants, the American (Ribes hirtellum) which make smaller fruits but are way more productive and less susceptible to mildew (the one bummer about growing Ribes) and the European (Ribes uva-crispa) which are larger and much more flavorful. Unlike most fruits, gooseberries can handle partial shade, but make sure there’s plenty of air circulation to help you battle mildew. They must have rich soil since they resent drying out, but they adore our soil and even if you get small plants give them about 3 to 5 feet of room to expand as they grow. I promise you the effort is worth it.

Another unusual fruit worth growing is our native elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) a fast growing shrub that the deer don’t seem to like. This might be because the berries when red are toxic, so make sure you’re not harvesting them until they are at their most purple blackness. This is a big plant (it can grow to be 12 feet wide and tall) that has a tendency to sucker, so you need to give it room. I would advise planting it in a hedgerow, not the vegetable garden and trying to find a number of different cultivars as the fruits are better with cross pollination (much like blueberries.) This is another plant that can handle a little shade and although they tolerate neglect, you’ll get a lot more fruit if you keep them well-watered and top-dressed with compost each year. You harvest the berries by cutting off the entire cluster and must cook the fruits to make juice, jelly or wine. I’ve not tried the wine, but I do like them mixed with apples as a pie filling. I do have to battle my birds to be able to really enjoy large harvest, but when I don’t, I never have to worry about them going to waste.

Another native edible that’s worth trying is the pawpaw (Asimina) of which there are actually 9 native species but only one (Asimina triloba) is hardy in our area. These are trees so if your pawpaw is in full sun it’s going to get about 20 feet or so tall and would be happiest allowed to sucker into a big pawpaw patch.  Paw paws are not self fertile, so you need to have two to get fruit set, and the best way to ensure a full crop is help with the pollination with an artist’s paint brush. Seedlings can’t handle full sun, but most of the trees you’ll find will be past that stage so plant them where they’ll get plenty of it. However, do try to avoid planting them in a windy spot, as the leaves can’t handle the constant stress. This might sound like a lot of work, but the fruits are really quite delicious, with the texture of a banana and a flavor that is almost as if you mashed up that banana with a mango and a pear.

I don’t grow pawpaws, but I do have a fruiting quince (Cydonia oblonga) that is one of my favorite plants. Quince resemble hard fuzzy pears that have a fragrance that smells like the offspring of a pineapple and a lemon that made love in a vat of honey.  The fruit is either yellow or pink and rock hard so these are not for fresh eating, but make an incredible jelly and are ready to be harvested sometime in October. It’s not a pretty plant, so mine is tucked around the side of my house, but I adore the plant and will always have one somewhere on any property I own, albeit in as much sun as I can spare and without fertilizer as too much nitrogen makes this plant stress.

Of course, if we’re talking about incredible jelly the other plant that we should all grow is our native beach plum (Prunus maritima). When I was a kid, there were a billion beach plums growing in the dunes (where houses now unfortunately sprout) and almost everyone and their neighbor had a stockpile of beach plum jelly put up for the winter, not to mention that they all also had their own favorite, well guarded secret bushes from which they’d picked their preferred berries. Some of the most delicious fruits are actually growing on two shrubs in the center of The Bayberry Nursery’s perennial sales area and in late summer it’s worth a visit just to steal a few of these tart little treats. Totally tolerant of the salty air and sandy soils of the beach, this plant can also be grown in the backyard and is a perfect shrubby bush to grow if your garden is not all that fertile and you have plenty of light.

But enough with the fruit. A list of other fun things to grow would definitely include lovage (Levisticum officinale) a plant that tastes almost identical to celery but is significantly easier to grow. Normally seeded in late summer or fall, you’ll probably want to start with a young plants instead and in good soil the plant is magnificent with leaves that look like giant parsley and are delicious when used in any recipe that calls for celery and with gorgeous white umbel flowers that set seeds that mature in August. Seeds that are amazing scattered into salads and fruit (they are surprisingly sweet) and that will self sow if left alone, but are better planted farther apart. You might not need a million lovage plants around the garden, but once you’ve cut a stalk to use as a Bloody Mary “straw” I promise you will never go back to celery again.

This year, I’m thinking about growing the rat tailed radish (Raphanus sativus caudatus), specifically because instead of eating the root, you consume the seedpods. Sort of ugly, the pods have that same hot radish flavor, but are an entirely different texture and since I’m a huge consumer of vegetative matter, I’m interested to see what these things are like. Plus they’re meant to be super cool in a stir-fry, fantastic pickled in vinegar with pink peppercorns, allspice and mace and another cool addition to the crudités platter. The seed pods can get to be 8 inches long and are grown in the same way you would grow any other radish, except that you don’t have to tear your hair out it the bolt to seed quicker than expected.

The other day I actually saw seeds of garden purslane (Portulaca oleracea), which has become this hot thing in restaurants all of a sudden, but frankly I draw the line at seeding things in my garden I’ve weeded up previously. I used the weed when making salads, and it is really quite delicious, with a sharp, citrusy tang and a bit of a bite, the succulent leaves add an interesting and distinct texture to herby salads, plus it’s super high in Vitamin C but I enough of these plants have already found their own way into my garden. I’m not bringing in more.

There are so many other interesting and unusual edibles I could go on and on, but I have no more room, in either my garden or this column. But just a few to ask around about would be ground cherries, stevia, pomegranates, kiwis, amaranth, tastoi and perilla. Be careful with the perilla though, as mine self-seeded all over the place. Not that self-seeding is bad, I now let all my self-seeded cilantro go to seed since the seeds of cilantro are actually coriander (two, two, two herbs in one!) and fresh coriander seeds, unlike the dried and dusty ones you get at the store in the tiny glass bottles, are significantly more delicious and work equally well when thrown in with a cooking salmon or a bunch of freshly picked peas.

Paige Patterson has too many tomatoes planted on her property, which is, of course, no big surprise.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

So you say you need a tree

This Sunday will be the first day of spring, which marks many things in the gardening calendar, but for me, it is the beginning of the season when people start saying they need a tree. Now sometimes they know exactly what they want, “I’m looking for a pair of 7 inch caliper Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ please,” But most of the time they don’t. So I ask them a series of questions.

First I ask where they live, and if they have deer, to make sure they know when they choose their trees, which will be eaten and which won’t. Then I ask what do they want the tree to do? Do they need it to block their view of something or is it going to be a focal point? Do they want it to give shade, or to flower, or to be interesting to look at all season long? Is the tree is going to be in sun or in shade? Do they want it to be tall or short? I ask where is it going in their garden and how much room do they have for this tree? And then I ask them if they need it to be an evergreen or a deciduous tree. Most of the time they can give me an answer, to at least some of the questions, and we’ll jump in one of the golf carts and zoom over to the areas where the trees that most readily meet their expectations are standing. We use a golf cart because we’ve got to cover 14 acres and the trees that I need to show people are never all gathered together in one spot, quietly waiting.

Occasionally the people I’m questioning just seem to glaze over or look at me cock-eyed as I run through my litany. So I speak to them in a different way. I ask them about their tastes, how they live and what makes them happy. “What kind of house do you have and what does your garden already have in it that you like? Do you need the tree to be green all year long, or is it okay if it loses its leaves? Are you trying to screen out your neighbors house, or to get a little shade by the patio? What shape tree gets you excited? Do you want a multi-stem or a tree with a single trunk?” This last is always an interesting question in that a few trees can come both ways; crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) and swamp maples (Acer rubrum) come instantly to mind; and most people have very definite expectations of how their trees should grow (multi-stemmed crape myrtles are preferred five to one while swamp maples are expected to have a single trunk.) “Do you want it to look like a lollipop – as if it was drawn by a child, or a vase, or irregular?” Sometimes these questions get us a little further along the way to making our decisions, but sometimes we just get into the golf cart and drive around looking at shapes. Gumdrop. Shrubby. Pyramidal. Vase. Compact. Espaliered. Blob on a stick. Squiggly. Columnar. Oval. Topiaried. Spreading. Open. Layered. Weeping. Weeping is actually a fascinating shape, people either love them or hate them, there really doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

“Do you want it to look formal or loose and more organic? Do you want it to look like you planted it or that it grew on the property from seed? Is this tree going to stand by itself or be in a row? Do they want to line a driveway? Do you want to see it when you drive in or from the master bedroom?” I don’t normally ask people how much money they want to spend, because once we figure out what kind of trees they need or like, we can always find it either smaller or larger, but sometimes they come in asking which is my best bargain. Other times they want to see what’s the most expensive tree we have. Some folks want it to be fully mature, while others want to plant it to grow along with them.

There’s almost always a tree that meets people’s dreams (excepting of course those folks who want an upright evergreen, shade tolerant, deer-resistant, flowering evergreen that tops out at about 10 feet. I tell those people I want that tree too, and if we invent or bred one, we can retire as zillionaires.) For the rest there’s always a tree that’ll meet their wants, but sometimes it won’t work in their realities. I can use both evergreens and deciduous trees to block a view. But it you need to screen out that new house that’s just been built right on your property line and your property slopes down so you’re much lower then they are, I could get you a row of Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) that are tall enough, but they might cost more than your house did. So sometimes there’s compromises.

I know you’ve always wanted a huge Yoshino flowering cherry (Prunus x yodensis) like the ones in Washington, but since there’s pretty deep shade in the spot you are describing, it’s not going to be happy there. I know, that as a salesperson, people expect me to just give them whatever they want, but a larger part of my job is actually saying no to people who want to put a tree in the wrong place. 

Saying no and suggesting something better, that’s really one of the cruxes of the picking out the perfect tree. No you can’t put a European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) where it’s going to get salt spray from the ocean, even if you’re a couple of blocks from the beach – if the new foliage gets salt on it, it’ll be toast; a fern leaf beech (Fagus aspleniflora) or any other beech would be a far better choice. No a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) will not work on the bright, but never sunny north side of your house, but a silverbell (Halesia carolina) would be fantastic there as would the variegated butterfly Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’), or a white flowered eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Alba'). I agree that Hollywood junipers (Juniperus torulosa) look amazing in the dunes, but the deer will most definitely eat them in the winter unless you want to wrap them in burlap or fencing. You could substitute white spruce (Picea glauca) which are significantly more deer resistant but unfortunately, look a little incongruous in the dunes, or you could go with Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii) but they are susceptible to turpentine beetles. Me, personally, I would wrap the Hollywoods, because they are gorgeous, but this is your choice.

I want to make people happy when they choose their tree, because trees matter. They are significant in both how they change a property and how they make us feel. Trees ground us, and connect us with the earth. So we all want the trees we choose to not just survive, but to thrive.

Then there are the tree collectors. These are people who know almost as much as I do about trees, and sometimes more, and with them, exploring the nursery is a huge treat. They’re the people I snap and email photos for to the moment something crazy, new, unusual or beautiful comes off the trucks. Some of them have huge houses, some tiny properties, some live right around the corner while others live in completely different states, but shopping for trees with them is always exciting. They’re the ones that understand how cool a weeping astringent persimmon (Diospyros kaki ‘Pendula’) is and can discuss with me the merits of it versus the more common Magic Fountain weeping persimmon (Diasporas virginiana 'JN5') – not only in regards to shape, but with a whole long debate on the variable pros and cons of astringent versus non astringent fruits. I adore these folks and have a few whom I have been choosing trees with for over a decade, trees which I’ve helped place and obsess over almost as much as they have, but selling anyone a tree is a chance to get to know them and a chance for me to help them get to know trees, and what could be better than that?

I love selling people trees, not only because there are so many fantastic ones to choose from and because they truly will transform a space with their addition, but because teaching people about trees and talking to people who love trees is a conversation that has the possibility of going almost anyplace. It’s science and nature and beauty and color and form and texture and history and emotion, all wrapped up in a single package of burlap and string.

Paige Patterson has just placed an order for a whole mess of gooseberries to be shipped to her this spring because they remind her of when she was a child living in England.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Repeat Customers

The sky is an electric blue today and the sun is out so the chickens and I are both sunning ourselves on the kitchen porch. The chickens are far more relaxed than I am, lying on their sides on the new doormats stretching their fully extended legs out to get the most of the sun’s beating down warmth.  I tossed handfuls of poppy seeds out into the snow, seeds I bought for a song at the last Hamptons Horticultural Alliance lecture, and I’m watching the squirrels trying to outsmart the squirrel proof feeder that’s filled with hulled sunflower seeds, because I’m recklessly generous when it comes to my birds. It’s a good day.

I’ve been purchasing seeds for myself as well with a vengeance, especially since the Baker Creek seeds finally arrived at Marders, and as I was rifling through the gorgeous packages someone asked if I needed cilantro. Hahahahahaha. Cilantro was planted once in my veggie garden and has been self seeding there with impunity ever since. Cilantro and Bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’): are two plants I will never need to buy seeds for again. My fennel has actually escaped the vegetable garden and is now traveling through the flower and shrubby areas of my garden in a way that would be super scary if I didn’t actually love the plant.  I have a similar thing going on with Dames Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) but again, it’s a plant I adore so I’m not that upset about it. 

Unfortunately, Dames Rocket is now categorized by the DEC as an invasive plant, and they’re not wrong to accuse it as such, it’s just that I, like Marie Antoinette, am a huge fan. Actually, Marie is meant to have been super fond of the white variety and although I’ve considered ripping out all the lavender and other purple shades, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s Sarah Raven who gives us the tidbit about Ms. Antoinette, raves about the plant, and also uses the seedpods in flower arrangements – a brilliant idea I’m going to steal. Others have less nice things to say, but I don’t care as it does its thing right around the same time as my allium and my foxgloves and I crave its lushness at that time. I do have a form of control at my house, where, after it has bloomed I pull up some of the plants and cut back the soon to be seedpods on others, so it’s not taken over entirely, but I would never eliminate it, as the scent is crazy good and a real magnet for hummingbirds. It would also be a brilliant addition to an evening scented garden as the slightly cinnamony fragrance becomes more pungent with nightfall.

Speaking of invasives, I confess I to having lythrum in my garden. It’s been there about a decade or two and it’s just hanging about, not really spreading or doing anything thug like which I will admit was somewhat disappointing after the rampant way I’d seen it take over wet roadsides in Massachusetts. I had the plant for ages before it went on the DEC NYS invasive plant list and think it’s fascinating how differently plants behave on different properties. This year, I believe, Miscanthus sinensis is going to be on the invasive plant list as is the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus.) Both are sold as “regulated” now, which means they are being sold with a warning tag attached, but the “prohibited” label is almost certain to be landed this year. I adore my burning bush. Enormous when I bought my house, it was the victim of an unfortunately miscommunicated conversation where I asked it for it to be pruned back by 12 inches and it was instead hacked back to a foot from the ground. It was a hysteric day but the plant recovered nicely and smacks me in the face each fall with it’s blistering red. 

I don’t know what plant we’re going to use to replace all the miscanthus that is sold in the Hamptons, as this is one of the few stalwarts left standing on the deer resistant plant list.  I’m leaning towards the fargesia family of clumping bamboos for a similar look, height and feel, but they’re significantly harder plants to find since they’re much less commonly grown. It should be an interesting spring. Now neither my euonymus nor my miscanthus has ever given me even a single offspring in the twenty plus years that I’ve had my house, but my viburnums and my buddleias, well that’s a very different story. 

Some of these plants have been here since the first spring I bought my house so it’s strange that it took them so long to go crazy, but in the last couple of years, both these suckers are popping up everywhere. I don’t know what happened – if there’s some genetic variant in some neighbors’ yard nearby that’s responsible for the genetic little legs these plants have inherited or if it is my bees that are responsible (the invasion shortly thereafter the bees came into my life) but I could open a nursery with these babies. I’ve dug up and transplanted them all and so far the butterfly bushes are not that impressive florally (I keep hoping I’ll get some cross pollinated superstar) but they keep the bees and hummers happy. The viburnums are just starting to get to blooming size so we shall see it there’s anything worth keeping here as well, but from the way these two are shooting around the garden I think they’re going to join their brethren on the invasive list pretty darn soon. It seems to only be viburnum plicatum types that are seeding, but I shall report back more after the summer when they’ve flowered.

            Naturally, there is of course one plant on the list that I am sort of longing for called Wild Chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) in its purple foliaged cultivar form called “Ravenswing.’ This flower has dominated the Chelsea Plant Show for years as it looks like a pink Queen Anne’s Lace flower on top with dark purple,  cut leaf foliage that rivals any cimicifuga you could ever hope to meet. And I just happen to have a package or two of seeds that have somehow found their way home with me. But it’s scary entering the world of the invasive plant.

There are two other plants on that list that I wish had never been introduced to my garden, the Iris pseudacorus which I’m been removing for 15 years at least by now, and the Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). I don’t even know how to begin to get rid of the celandine unless I nuke the whole area it’s taken over, and we all know I’m chemically adverse at this point in my life. The iris isn’t as bad, it’s just that it’s gotten among a bunch of plants I want to save and I have to dig everything up and trash the iris without demoing the other plants but if I focused on it,  it could be done. The celandine is an entirely different story. Although said to be Wadsworth’s favorite flower, it’s out of control in a shade bed right outside the kitchen window and is suffocating all my other shade plants. Spreading by both seed and tiny little corms, the trick is to dig the whole plant up and try and get out all those corms. This is of course much easier said than done, which is why I’m still battling it. I will confess that I think I was silly and actually purchased the hideous thing ages ago, so I am solely to blame for the terrible damage it has done. 

I deeply regret planting the thing, but I need to confess something to you, and that is that I still long for the Cypress Spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias) I put into a clients garden 15 years ago. It too is hideously invasive, and on the list, but I adore the chartreuse flowers and the coniferesque, fernlike foliage. It’s a euphorbia, so you have to wear gloves when cutting it and then burn the stems with a lighter, but it’s gorgeous in early spring bouquets. I haven’t been to that property in a while as the owners got Lyme’s disease and lost his interest in gardening, but I fantasize about digging up a chunk and planting it in my own east back border that is already home to a variety of mints and Gooseneck Loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) and Dames Rocket and all those random self-seeded viburnum and buddleia seedlings. It could be a thugs’ gallery so to speak. A bed that’s a mixed tapestry of flowering shrubs with underplantings of things I need for cuttings, but don’t want to take over the world. So who knows, so I might still someday dig up a few plants and transplant those suckers. Bad Paige.

Paige Patterson is also battling Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Purple Shiso (Perilla frutescens) and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) – none of which she will confess to having planted.