Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Now that the leaves are down I can see

And all I’m dying to do is get out there and do a little pruning. Lift that underskirt up so that my hellebores get a little more sun, remove those three branches so the pear tree actually has a shape, and cut a hole into that canopy so that a little more sun shoots in. It’s tempting right? Especially since, like everyone else on the planet, I get my tools sharpened in the fall. What? You don’t get your tools sharpened? Shame on you, how do you expect them to keep working when you’ve used those clippers on everything including ripping open the plastic pots on root bound discounted perennials.  I always sharpen my tools at the end of the season, first because they deserve it – they’ve worked so hard for me all year long – and secondly, because I’m itching to get out there and do some pruning.

Truth of the matter is that now is not really the best time to prune. One needs to wait, hiddeous right? The problem is pruning triggers and directs new growth in a plant. When parts of a plant are pruned off the plant uses its energies to produce new stems and leaves and if that happens before the plant is truly dormant, it can stimulate plants to push new growth that most definitely will not have a chance to harden off before cold weather arrives. Nor will the wounds that happen when a plant is pruned have time to heal. Now I know it’s been snowing and bitter cold, so we really don’t need to be worried about warm days pushing new growth, but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

I know it feels weird not to be able to go out there and whack back that callicarpa after it’s done doing it’s thing, but it would be so much happier if you waited until late winter when it’s sap isn’t still flowing.

Here are a few of the basic pruning rules, now there are whole books dedicated to this subject, so don’t bit my head off when I generalize please.

The first pruning rule you need to remember is this, prune spring blooming things right after they flower. It makes sense right? Not like the year my helpers sheared all my spireas for me so nicely in the spring, neatly removing every single bloom on every single plant. Sigh.

Second rule, if you must to do pruning before the spring comes, make sure you prune in late, late winter and only prune fall or late summer flowering trees and shrubs and evergreens. These can also be pruned in late spring but think things through (in otherwords, even though they are evergreens, you might want to prune the rhododendrons after they bloom.)

Three: When it comes to fruit trees everyone has a point of view and they all disagree. I have been pruning in late winter for a while, and this year the apple crop was obscene, bending the trees to their knees almost. There is a different program called the Lorette method that recommends you prune all the pencil thick diameter branches once in mid August to the third leaf. The shortening  days send a signal to the plant to not bother making new vegetative growth but to work on setting fruiting spurs instead. Then if you want in the winter you can cut the remainder of those remaining branches all the way back to where the fruit spurs have set.

Four: If it’s damaged, diseased, dead or broken, it can and should be removed at any time of the year. And if it’s going to break off when covered with snow, remove that as well.

I too want to whack back my glossy abelia, beauty berries, hydrangeas, sumacs, etc, but if I wait and be patient, my trees and I will both be happier, when I get out there in February and start sawing things off. However, you're better off waiting until the summer to prune maples, birches, dogwoods, walnuts, and elm trees because these trees can ooze sap when pruned in the winter, and that sap can freeze.

Now it’s true that I NEVER prune buddleia in the winter any more after one year when I cut them all back only to have them all die to the ground. And it wasn’t even that cold that year. I tell people I have no scientific proof but I believe that wounding the plants via pruning allows cold to whisk up into their cells and stresses them out. 

I also don’t prune my roses in the fall or the winter. There’s going to be winter dieback, so I’ll just be going it again in the spring and why do things twice if you can do it once right? I wait until the forsythia start to bloom to signal me that it’s chopping back time.

Just in case you are curious, there are four different approaches to pruning roses.

The first method is called hard pruning where the canes are severely cut back to about 4 – 5 inches tall. This method is recommended for newly planted rose bushes, Hybrid Teas that are used for exhibition, and for rejuvenating weak or neglected roses.  I have only hard pruned a rose once in my life, one that was out of control I whacked it back to rejuvenate it and it promptly died on me so I’m too traumatized to try that again.

The next method is called moderate pruning. With this system you cut each rose canes back by about one half. This is how most people prune teas roses Hybrid Teas and Floribundas, but since I don’t have teas, I don’t do it either.

The third method is light pruning, where stems are only cut back to less than two-thirds of their length. If you have limited space and are growing big roses this method is not for you according to the experts, however, very vigorous roses can benefit from light pruning.

The last method is called the easy-care method and it sounds horrifying, You grab your hedge trimmers, and firing them up simply cut the bush in half, straight across. You don’t have to worry about cutting back to a leaf node or any of that other gobbly gook, you just leave all wood as is. If, of course, you can’t help yourself and you want to remove all the dead wood, go ahead, but the experts that experimented with both the moderate and easy care method, report that there are no noticeable differences later on in the growth and bloom of the bush. Even if you leave the dead wood in place.

I recently read a great article that mentioned the old cut branches on a diagonal rule was ridiculous for roses. I loved it. Basically it said that it’s too hard to figure out where the branch is going to be to worry about whether the water will run off or not and that it’s more important to make a small straight across cut then to leave a longer diagonal cut which is a big wound for the rose to heal.

I love it, it’s all terribly sacrilegious isn’t it?

Frankly, I’m terrible when it comes to pruning my roses. I just hack back things that are getting out of control or have whipped me in the face or tangled the legs of the chickens, or blocked the window. The rest I leave alone. Although I do thread the climbers through the veggie garden fence and sometimes even remember to tie them in place.

So what’s a girl to do with all her freshly edged clippers, secateurs and loppers and brand new pruning saw? Well darlings, have you looked at the rest of the garden? I’m sure there’s oodles of stuff to snip into little pieces and either let fall back into the beds or lug over to the compost pile.

I actually spent time yesterday clipping lengths of twine (a wonderful holiday stocking stuffer for a gardener by the way) and tying my roses up to the fence to make sure they do their absolute best and to prevent damage from the winter winds that were whipping around me. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment until my fingers got too numb to move.

Paige Patterson actually found both La Belle Epoch and Brookyln tulips this fall and can not wait for the spring to see how they fare.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dreaming of the Moon

I used to have tons of lilies in the garden, but years of deer browsing and heavy clay soil took their toil and claimed them all, so today I had planned to start rebuilding their numbers with 64 Casablanca lilies that showed up on my doorstep as if delivered by fairies. But it is snowing, or rather spitting sleet, so instead I’m huddled on the sofa with all four of the dachshunds reading and dreaming about gardens instead of digging in them.  And in my perusing I came across an article on moon gardens that described the fragrance of the Casablancas as an intoxicating and necessary inclusion to the night garden along with the Moonflower vines that unfortunately I didn’t plant this year. It made me think about what my own garden looks like in the evening, and how so often when I come home from work, especially now in the fall, I don’t actually get to enjoy my garden as it has been created with the sun as it’s focal point, not the moon. As I sit on the couch drinking my tea, I fantasize about how I could make evening in the garden something a little more special, and a little more visually, and olfactorily exciting.

The key obviously is to work with the moon, and to use plants that are silver or white foliaged or white flowered or those that bloom at night.  The second part would be for me to learn to pause, to not just rush from the car into the house, but to meander and contemplate. A moon garden is a garden of subtly, a garden when the effects are delicate, faint and small. I’m a more bombastic gardener.  I tend to like explosions of color; so the addition of more white and silver is going to be very interesting for a girl that tends to lunge for the hot pink and the orange. Nor am I good at meandering and pausing. I got 6 white chairs (that of course show up beautifully in the moonlight) for my birthday last year and have really only sat in any of them only once or twice. When I’m in the garden I tend to be doing, not being, but that’s something I need to work on in life as well as my garden, so the idea of the moon gardening experience is interesting.

The plant list is easy, and who doesn’t love an excuse to buy plants. “I have to get all the plants on this list since having them will help me learn to relax and enjoy my garden instead of just working in it,” I rationalize. Obviously white roses and clematis (I loathe ‘Iceberg’ so maybe ‘Sea Foam’ and ‘Snow Drift’ and I love ‘Henryi’ so those are easy), lambs ear, caryopteris ‘Snow Fairy’ and as many of the white echinaceas, ‘Pow Wow White,’ ‘Fragrant Angel,’ and the green eyed ‘Virgin’ as I can afford. More Phlox carolina ‘Miss Lingard’ and her cousin ‘David’ because who doesn’t need phlox. 

And I shall have to track down seeds of white Mirabilis jalapa, the self seeding annual known as four o’clocks for when their flowers open only to die with the coming dawn, a perfect moon garden addition. Of course I will need tons on my favorite lobularia, as it’s a froth of whiteness that will, I imagine, look like foam in the moonlight. The Japanese used white chrysanthemums but I prefer white cleome and nicotianas. Tuberose would be a good suggestion, for it’s scent, but I’m never really sure how to work it into my existing beds so I shall have to track down a night blooming jasmine instead.

I have the dogwoods and the clethra and the viburnums, but could always add more hydrangeas (of course) especially the paniculata ‘Bobo’ and the reblooming mophead ‘White King.’ And I will have to remember the moonflowers next year and add them in places closer to the house so in case I fail at the meandering, I will at least get to enjoy their sweet scent in the evenings. Next year will be white dahlias as opposed to the peach or pink or orange and purple of previous summers, and more of the fall blooming Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Joubert’ as well as the variegated willow Salix 'Hakuro Nishiki.' And I must have a rosemary willow, the salix elaeagnos 'Angustifolia' that Margret Roach showed slides of in one of her lectures, that I’ve lust for ever since.

If I find the four o’clocks, I should also look for night scented stock, Matthiola bicornis. According to my research, by day, it’s quite unremarkable, almost drab, but as evening descends the flowers slowly open and perfume the air so richly that by midnight, as it’s perfume peaks, it attracts all sorts of pollinating moths. It’s been years since the first and only time I saw a luna moth and I long to spot one again, but unfortunately the adult moths do not feed at all so they will not be attracted to my night garden, and since my black walnut died, and I have not pecans I have very little chance of attracting the creature at all, although I do have a sweet gum, which they supposedly love.

As I sit thinking about night winged creatures, silver foliage and learning how to pause, what sounded like a thousand geese flew overhead. I close my eyes and listen. The snow has stopped. The wind has dropped and if I felt like it, I could certainly bundle up, go out into the day and throw a bunch of my bulbs into the ground. Instead I take a note from the four dogs surrounding me and decide to nap. There’s hope for me yet.

Paige Patterson wanted to be a naturalist when she was a child, and has really never lost the desire. She just has to remember how to sit quietly enough to be able to see.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Be still my addicted heart.

So we all know I have a problem, although this year I thought I was going to be better. I vowed that I would plant no bulbs. The reasons for me not to are multiple. I am not wealthy, and tulips, with their brief fleeting moment of beauty and their real lack in interest in returning, are somewhat of an indulgence. Also, over the last couple of years I’ve planted a whole bunch of bulbs, and I have been very bad. I have not marked where any of those hundreds and hundreds of bulbs have gone. And last year, I ordered so many bulbs compulsively that I needed help to get them all in.

Unfortunately my help dug too many holes too close together and put too many bulbs in each hole. In spring we had chaos. All sorts of perennials were missing, and although we had a cacophony of fabulous color, when the flowers started, by the time all the foliage was up, it was way too crowded and the leaves started to rot and to suffocate the remaining perennials who had survived the killing spades of fall.

I vowed this year to take a break. And to mark, in the spring, all the places where my bulbs reside. In short I said there would be no bulb buying.


Of course, I am going to try very hard to not plant any more bulbs in the beds that are already stuffed to the gills, but I realized that there are many other places where I could put bulbs, especially my beloved tulips.

If you’ve read any of my columns you know that my husband the chef seems fairly uninterested in cooking from our vegetable garden. To be fair, he liked the lettuces before the chickens got them, and he’s a fan of my garlic and the chives, but he doesn’t get inspired by the garden, instead he tends to decide what he wants to eat first, and then goes and finds it at farm stands. But I also should add that it is kind of scary going out there to find stuff since I’m not a big weeder. And since I mulched the path with large piles of hay one must weave through. And he does use the tomatoes, in spit of the challenge of getting them.

So, why not plant tulips in the vegetable garden instead, and then in spring add in the beloved by but of us dahlias? The moment I thought of it, I placed my first order. And of course, since I work at Marders and I choose all the bulbs that come into the store, I also have to grab the last bag from each box as they get low. Plus when there’s only a couple of bulbs left, no one else really wants them, so I have to give them a home, right?

I know you all understand this, and to be fair, I did give my favorite bulb customer first choice of everything (wiping us out of seven fabulous varieties the first day the bulbs went out – I still long for the Red Mohican Alliums he got.)

So now the floodgates are open. My client took all my Night Riders, so I’ve had to source more just for myself, paying a premium for the pleasure and while I’m on these other rarified bulb sites I got lost down the internet rabbit hole and came up with a longing for the double early tulips that are called artichokes and brown tulips.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but I want you to log on to the internet and search for a tulip named ‘Boa Vista.’ Then tell me if I’m nuts or not. These tulips as multi-petaled with petals running down their stems so they look more like cabbages or artichokes (thus the nickname) then flowers and they will be incredible in bouquets. I must have. I’m actually trying to track down peeps in England who might be conned into breaking the law and mailing me a few. Burpee had the ‘Brooklyn’ but of course it’s way too late for me since I paused this fall and they sold out in a nanosecond. Silly me. I am now desperate to track down ‘Compassion’ or  ‘Sinopel’ or ‘Purple Tower.’ Anyone traveling to the Netherlands for thanksgiving with an empty suitcase? While you are there I also am looking to track down the elusive ‘Bruine Wimpel,’ a silvery, beige, pinkish tea-stained tulip you would weep for. Be still my heart! Remember I’m a girl who started gardening because I loved making bouquets and this amazing color would go with everything, so please ship me back some of these beauties too.

And finally let me explain about brown tulips. The only place I know to buy them is oldhousegardens.com when you can get four, I repeat four brown tulips for $50. Divine no?  The brown tulips were huge in the Arts and Crafts era according their website, but I think they’d be divine in any era.  Many of the brown shades are actually broken tulips, which are exceedingly rare and are caused by a virus. Broken tulips, however, are a lust to be pursued  another different day. Right now I might be curbing my cravings for caramel, cinnamon, bronze and chocolate with ‘Cairo’ which is sort of toffee colored and fantastic and ‘Princess Irene,’ which is really more orange then amber with red stains not brown, but there still a lot of them left at in the bin box at Marders.

Paige Patterson believes that a gift of bulbs for Halloween is almost as good as a bag of candy although she really does have a terrible thing for very good dark chocolate.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The official start of fall

It used to be that the first day of fall was a day that I started looking around the garden seeing what parts needed to be cleaned first, and what areas needed to wait for the leaves to fall before I could get into them and do my whirling dervish moves.

Now I’m a lot less anxious to display my neat freak streak. Instead, I leave seeds for the birds, other plants for winter interest (I’m especially fond of the way my grasses look in the snow) and frankly I tire a little sooner each year now, so I take it a little easier.

If you still have the energy, any foliage that is yellowing and or brown on perennials is fine to cut down to the ground and toss it on the compost pile. Or it you are feeling very energetic, you can snip it into tiny pieces and leave it in the bed to break down like mulch. I am a little on the fence on this move. I mean part of me thinks it’s crazy to remove all the dying and dead foliage that nature creates to feed the soil, only to replace it with purchased mulch that is trying to serve the same purpose. On the other hand, a lot of the foliage I’m my garden has black and purple fungal spots on it, and that stuff I don’t want to leave in the garden so the spores can reinfect my plants next spring. Those leaves go in garbage bags and get carried off the property, along with strings of glechoma hederacea, commonly known as Creeping Charlie, a hideous weed that found it’s way into my compost pile a few years ago and didn’t get cooked, but instead got spread through all my garden beds.

That said, I’m not sure that a dead bed filled with chopped up bits of crocosmia that aren’t really going to get broken down by spring is the right look either. So last year I decided to do as little as possible and see how it all worked out. It was hard not having the tidied up cleanly raked beds that I was used to. Those clean beds made me feel that I was all ready for spring and raring to go, but instead I just left a lot of it in place and made sure when spring came that I checked under the winter matted down leaves for suffocating bulbs. And it sort of worked.

I know what I should really do is cut everything back, take it all out, separate it into clean and fungal piles, and then shred the clean pile with a lawn mower and put the shredded bits back, but boy do I not have the energy for all that, so I’m going with the less is more look under the belief that nature left to it’s own devices is not a terrible thing. Besides, nature is going to help me start the clean up by breaking down a lot of the foliage for me. Not iris leaves, those I’m going to have to chop back and through on the compost pile so they don’t suffocate the hellebores they are next to, but I don’t bother with hosta or daylily leaves, since the frost and winter do a big number on those. I actually tell people that they if they are going to cut stuff back, to wait for the frost to start the process for them.

The iris I remove with a pair of newly sharpened for fall pruners. They will sharpen them for a small fee at the hardware store, and it’s certainly worth doing each and every year even if, like me you have a bunch. I also recommend Japanese hedge shears since they make the cutting back of grasses a divine process regardless of when you decide to do this chore. Just make sure that when you do cut them back, you leave at least 10 inches of the old grass on the plant or it will be too stressed to grow back properly in the spring.

I leave the bronze fennel foliage up until the foliage has been completely stripped by swallowtail caterpillars, and besides I like it to self seed, but I’m not a fan of dead astilbe flower heads, so those come right off as soon as the flowers start to brown. I think dead astilbe flowers are ugly, I think they just look too ugly for words, and I don’t get the attraction, but I love the way the snow sits on ancient echinaceas and leave those up as long as I can. I guess this is why fall garden clean up is such a personal thing.

And even though I caught myself unconsciously breaking off dead eryngium flower stakes and scattering the seeds, I have learned to leave the fallen leaves in the base of my hedges and in the shrub borders of my property. I’m even getting better about leaving the leaf litter be in beds, but I do pick them off the lawn and put them into my compost pile as they would suffocate the grass if left in place. I live for these leaves each year as they make the most beauteous compost with which I feed my vegetable beds each year.

Actually, this year, I’m trying something new in the vegetable garden. Tulip bulbs. You see each year I dig them into the perennial beds, and in the process, I’m afraid to say, perennials get lost. This is because I am greedy with bulbs, buying them by the hundreds at a time, and then sometimes I need help installing them. And sometimes my assistants are not as careful as I tend to be. So it’s time for a change. I really like the idea of harvesting tulips more than I’m interested in harvesting kale, besides my chickens adore kale and scratch it right up and out of the ground. Greedy chickens. Hopefully they won’t be as hungry for tulips.

Paige Patterson brought home a beautiful new hydrangea paniculata called ‘Fire and Ice’ because it wrapped its little stems around her leg and wept until she put it in the car.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bad farmer!

I am a miserable farmer. 

I know this because as I sit here writing there is a chicken hanging out in my basement in a dog carrying case that is doubling as an infirmary. She has been sprayed with colloidal silver and rubbed down with Neosporin after having the deep gash in her back rinsed with peroxide. The gash exists because my other chickens are trying to peck her to death. 

They are doing this because I released her back to the coop with her sister after the reek of two grown chickens and three still sort of baby chickens jammed in a big bunny cage reached it’s nadir mid august. I know that you can’t release a single chicken back into the pack, but I didn’t realize her sister would run away and not come home that first night back (whether taken by raccoons or hawks or other critters that live in Sagg Swamp I’ll never know) and thus leaving my poor remaining chicken to be pecked down to blood and bones by her old siblings. So she’s back in the basement, in a dog crate next to her chicks, one of who appears to be bigger then the other two and thus is probably a rooster (shhh, don’t tell my husband!)

I showed my husband the wounded chicken after I found her huddled in the nesting box and the sight made him gag. It’s pretty bad wound, so naturally, I asked him what I should do, and he told me to talk to some of my farmer friends.  A suggestion I, of course, ignored. I know what the farmers would have told me, and I didn’t want to hear it. Remember, I’m a girl who spent $140 taking my first sick chicken to two different vets only to have it die on me anyway. This after I carried it around to work in an igloo lunch box and fed it baby food with a syringe.

I’ve gotten better, I really have, I didn’t name any of them this time, although the neighbor’s little girls call one Mathilda and one Lavender since they run down the driveway and skip their way across my cattle grate just so they can go hang out in the neighbor’s yard (Lavender is among the missing FYI.) but again, one of my sweet little chickens is in pain, and that makes me crazy. So even though I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t pick up the phone and call a farmer, I go online instead. You don’t have to worry about being seen as a wackadoodle for having chickens in the basement, once you’ve discovered there are people who have diapers for the chickens in the living room. I sort of straddle the line between keeping then as pets and keeping them as livestock -- not that I could ever eat one of my chickens, forget about that, but I do enjoy their eggs.

Anyway, the internet chicken websites which offered diapers said that chickens heal remarkably well and that I should separate her from the others and give her time to heal.  They recommend the vet of course, but I’m trying to be tougher than that. I’m trying not to be a bad farmer. Good farmers take damaged chickens and eat them, but ever since I started raising and hanging out with chickens, I’ve kind of lost the taste for them. It would sort of be like eating one of my dogs, or the cat.

I actually have had a bad chicken week, as two other chickens decided to not come home one evening after a day free ranging in the yard. I found the wing of one, so I know she’s in heaven, but the other could be sitting on eggs somewhere in the back 40. Or not. I don’t like to think about chicken death, but nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ and tough on farm critters that want to party under the stars. Then the dogs, who discovered the chicken remains before I did, and who have been hanging out, slightly terrified of the chickens, for at least a year, decided for no good reason whatsoever to attack another of the chickens yesterday. So now I have a dilemma, I have run out of infirmary room, and there’s actually more chickens in the basement then in the chicken coop. So I’m trying to make her tough it out. I cleaned her cut, and put her back in their coop and am crossing my fingers. Hoping for no more carnage.

Oh and no one is laying eggs anymore by the way, or if they are, they’re hiding them among the hydrangeas or under the porch and I can’t find them.

As I said, I'm a terrible farmer.

Look, I’ve admitted previously that I’m a bad weeder, and that every summer the vegetable garden gets away from me. This year all the green beans grew too big and tough from a lack of harvesting. I have tomatoes rotting on the vine and for the third year in a row, I missed picking the bountiful crop of the not as sweet as I’d like them to be blackberries. I feel bad about the veggies, but the chickens are a bigger issue. There’s pain involved, and fear and death.

And guilt.

People hear that I have chickens and bees and a huge vegetable garden and think my life in the country sounds idyllic. I’m not so sure. The chickens ate all my lettuce and kale and Swiss chard and dug up half the peppers. Two of the hives succumbed to that last ice storm in March. And now I have three dead chickens on my conscious, plus two injured chickens that are not having a good time. And three little baby chickens who think it is boring in the basement, but whom I’m scared to introduce to the perils of the outside world. My husband tells me I should just give them away as the process of acclimation is not one that I’m good at handling.  But I’ve grown attached to them already; I even have a good name for the rooster.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Evergreens forever!

As I watch the hydrangeas shriveling in the heat of the last couple of weeks, it took all my willpower to not want to just turn the irrigation system up and letting it rip all through the day and night, but it doesn’t work. Sure, the hydrangeas would have been happy, as the word hydra is in their name for a reason, but I’ve killed more evergreens by overwatering them most people would ever admit to.

When it’s the middle of summer, most people are talking about color and flowers and blooms and few want to discuss the intricacies of tone on tone green, but evergreens are awesome, and although, I too was once a “gotta have it if it flowers” kind of a gal, I’m learning the value of foliage that persists.

I am a huge fan of the Mahonia plant family, so naturally I have tortured and killed a great many. This member of the Barberry family has the bang-up potential to do it all. All species have great looking pinnately compound leaves ­­– like hollies on steroids that purple with age in the winter, fragrant, almost lemony scented yellow flowers that perfume the early garden, cool looking berries that persist through the summer and fall and they’re shade tolerant. Woo hoo. They even resprout from old wood, which means you can prune them as hard as you want to without having to stare at old stubs for the rest of your life. They’re meant to be no fuss, but mine, well, mine all died hard. I think the reason is that the shade I was tucking them into was underneath fairly mature trees so maybe it was too much shade and then of course they got too much water and the drainage wasn’t right, and maybe there wasn’t enough humus, or something else I’ll never understand. But I’m not giving up.

The one I’ve killed the most is the Oregon grape (M. aquifolium), which is meant to become a six-foot tall slowly suckering shrub. It is supposedly hardy in zone 4 so I’m bummed that it keeps quitting on me. I also tried the hybrid, Mahonia x media. These are the earliest flowering, and for the time it lasted, my ‘Arthur Menzies' was a rock star. Two foot long leaves arching out under enormous electric lemon yellow flower racemes each standing a foot tall. It was crazy beautiful, but it too perished although it’s hardy to zone 6. Maybe it needed more acidic fertilization, or less, or it needed singing to, I just don’t know.

The Mahonia is actually a perfect example for me of the indefinable nature of gardening. Four of my neighbors have Mahonias, I actually sold and installed one of them, and they are all as happy as can be, which is how it sometime works in gardening. In my Mahonia killing soil, I have agastache that grow to be five to six feet tall. At my neighbors houses they’re all in the 3-foot range. We all live within ten square acres. My rhodos? Dead plants walking! My neighbor’s? Happy as clams. It’s just crazy, but that’s how gardening works. In my back yard I can dig down in one spot and hit sandy soil that is so bereft of organic matter it’s criminal, and then move three feet over and hit a hunk of clay. Just to add insult to injury, I have no problem growing the Mahonia’s nearest relative, the evergreen barberry (Berberis x gladwynensis 'William Penn') so I really think I should be able to grow at least one of the Mahonias, and I have my eye on a beauty at Marders.

Now that I have my deer fence almost perfected I’m thinking of sneaking in a few of my favorite evergreens, the variegated Euonymus japonicus 'Silver King.' I love evergreen euonymus, and used to sell them by the truckload as they are fast growing, really tough, glossy evergreens that shear beautifully and are super, super easy. Unfortunately, they are also deer crack cocaine, so much so that we maybe bring in 5 or 6 of the large shrubby plants for the entire season. It’s terrible because they were such an enormously useful family plants. Happy in the sun or part shade, tolerant of poor soil, from groundcover to climber to midsized shrub, they worked in every yard. And although “Silver King” really wants prefers a little more sun, I would work it in to every garden I did, just because the white variegation worked with every single garden I designed. I miss this plant, as well as it’s upright cousin Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ which although not variegated, had a very interesting columnar form that I also used to great effect in mixed gardens for affordable winter interest and for narrow hedging. I also loved the pure green Euonymus japonica ‘Manhattan’ and it was my go to plant for framing steps and covering foundations. Alas, to plant too many of these glossy beauties is tempting fate, so I’m going to just sneak in a couple, but if you don’t have deer, you really need to look into this family of plants.

While I’m tempting fate, lets talk hardy gardenias. Although fairly new to the trade in our area everyone is excited to try these plants (regardless of the fact that they too are supposedly hardy only to zone 7 according to the plant god Michael Dirr) as the scent just about knocks you off your feet. I’ve seen at least two different varieties and I know that it’s my duty to bring both home and plant them in my gardens so I can report back to you on how well they’re doing, but the last few winters have been ever so easy so no one really knows yet if we’re all just wasting our time. That said, if they do survive, they are a great glossy green before they flower, so would be a nice addition to our winter interest evergreen collection.

Of course part of the joy of being a plant geek is the need to try new plants and to push planting boundaries. I don’t know a single plant geek in my area who hasn’t tried at least once to grow a spring blooming camellias. I myself planted three ‘April Remembered’ last fall so that I could see them when I looked out my writing window. I’ve had other camellias follow me home but it was hard to judge their hardiness when the deer kept browsing them to the ground. After the ice storm at the end of the winter, one of my plants, disappointingly, dropped nearly all it’s buds, but they all made it through fine. Now granted, it might have been smart of me to wrap these camellias up for the winter, both for protection from the snow, and to prevent the snow from weighing down and breaking the branches, and if you are up for that, more power too you. I, unfortunately, am a lazy gardener, so nothing at my house gets coddled. Like I say, do as I say, not as I do.

Besides, we might be heading for zone 7 out here, as when I was a kid, no one had crape myrtles and now they are everywhere, and thriving.

I could fill this paper with other evergreens that you could incorporate into your garden, but I think I’m going to stop here, although I must mention the Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) since I’ve wanted one for years. Umbrella pines, as the Latin points out are not actually in the pine family and have been in existence for over 200 million years. I figure once I have this and a dwarf Gingko tree I will have a good representation of living fossil species, although if I want to corner the market, I’d need to add a Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) and a Sweet Gum (Liquidamber) and perhaps get an Orycteropus afer to walk on a leash next to my seething mass of dachshunds.  I’m not sure who would be unhappier about the situation, but my money is on the aardvark.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Put down those clippers!

The real reason most people go to a hydrangea lecture is not to find out about all the different cultivars, and all the different ways you can use these magnificent plants in the landscape, nope, the real reason they come is to ask when and how they can prune their big blue, big leaf (macrophylla) hydrangeas. I probably get asked that question about forty times a week every spring. I’ve thought about wearing a shirt that has the short but sweet answer printed in red, but the truth is, the answer isn’t one people want to hear so I have to explain it to everyone each time. And since no one really wants to believe me, I sometimes have to explain it twice. Here’s the short answer to the question of when can I prune my hydrangeas.


See, I told you that you weren’t going to like it.

The truth is that most people have huge, mop head flowering big leaf hydrangeas planted around the foundation of their homes and they’ve grown so much in the 10 years since they were planted that they’re now covering the windows. These same people either whacked their hydrangeas back, or had their gardeners cut them back, or one of the couple is more fastidious then the other, and someone wanted to see out the windows and guess what? Those plants had no flowers the following season. Invariably there was an argument over who did what when, or who’s to blame and now that couple, or that gardener, or that individual would come to our lecture asking us to tell them when the correct time to cut their hydrangeas, so they can have shorter plants with just as many flowers. The problem is they can’t. 

Most Hydrangeas macrophylla bloom on old wood. This means they set their beds in the fall on branches that grew up this spring, and that next spring, these buds are the ones that flower. Which translates into “please don’t touch the dead looking brown sticks that are looking so gangly and unattractive in the winter since this is where next years flowers are sitting and waiting out the winter.”

Got it? Good, but in my experience everyone says they’re got it, but their brains just haven’t really accepted the truth so, what I do during the lectures is that I manhandle a plant up in front of everyone and I show them the bud that’s forming at the base of each leaf. I make them touch the bud and then I explain that the bud under their finger is the same bud that’s going to grow the branch with next years flower and the end and that for each bud that gets pruned off, that’s how many fewer flowers they’re going to have next year.

It is at this point that a few of them start to get it.

Of course this is also when someone always tells us how he or she has an uncle or a neighbor or a family friend who cuts their hydrangeas each year and always gets flowers and I say, “Fantastic! Here’s the deal, I want you to try and get that uncle/neighbor/family friend to come over to your house and cut yours too, since there are always exceptions to all rules.” I also tell them I know people who have had success by cutting back their hydrangeas before next years flower buds are set, but that means they are pruning hydrangeas in July which, for me, sort of defeats the whole purpose of having hydrangeas to begin with.

The more you cut, the less flowers you’ll have is the rule, I tell them for every hydrangeas that blooms on old wood. “But my hydrangeas are flopping over!” someone will yell or, “but they’ve gotten so big, you must be able to do something!”

So I tell them about rejuvenation pruning, a technique where you prune a plant back hard, to let it start all over again, and I tell them how my experience with my hydrangea. This sucker was 8’ tall, no exaggeration and flopped all over the place, and since I had planted it right next to the steps to my kitchen door, it made entering and leaving the house a real challenge. My husband had started to call it the bondage hydrangea based on how I resort to was using garden twine to try and pull it up and back with loops that tied it to the railings of the porch behind it and that each year I was using more and more twine. So I whacked that plant totally back to the ground, assuming that the following year it would be smaller and more manageable. I knew that I’d have no flowers, which I didn’t, but what I didn’t guess was that the next year, my mature hydrangea would send up new shoots that were close to 7’ tall and guess what? No flowers! So again, I could not get in or out of the house.

We prune plants to improve their shape and the way it fits into the landscape, we prune for health and to make a plant appear either balanced or unbalanced depending on your desire, not to control size, unless we are talking about privet. And privet that is pruned doesn’t bloom. If you want hydrangeas that stay shorter, you should invest in one of the newer dwarf varieties like the Citiline cultivars that max out at 3 or 4 feet. I happen to adore the cultivar called Berlin and replaced the bondage hydrangea with one last year.

I know that no one wants to hear about having to change all their hydrangeas, I understand, but if you have Nikko Blue’s, the most common, old fashioned big blue mopheads that you see everywhere, you could end up without flowers even if you don’t prune, since with the crazy weather we’re having lately there’s a good chance your hydrangeas' buds are going to start opening since the plants just can’t tell when winter is over and sometimes mistake our warmish winters for spring only to be shocked when the cold descends like a hammer.

Which is why the best time to prune the old growth hydrangeas is in the spring, when the leaf buds have started to open. It makes it so much simpler if you can see which ones made it through the winter and which ones need a little reshaping to deal with dead wood or to reshape because one branch is three times longer than all the others, or there’s a little tuft of green leaves flailing away a foot higher then the rest of the plant. At that time it’s also easy to see which of the old brown sticks are dead wood and can be removed completely to make room for new growth. The neatniks in the audience don’t like it, they tell me those brown sticks look unattractive all winter long, so I tell them to get a little twine and tie them into bundles, or avert their eyes or get a different plant, since this is what hydrangeas are all about.

It's also why people are so excited about the hydrangea called Endless Summer. A famous plant breeder and plantaholic named Michael Dirr was visiting a nursery in St. Paul, Minnesota in September, and saw, in a block of hydrangeas, one that was covered in big, new blue blooms while all the others were over and done and faded. He immediately knew this was the holy grail of hydrangeas, a remontant hydrangea, a plant geek word that means this plant had the ability to bloom more than once, since unlike the other old fashioned varieties of big leaf hydrangeas, this one was blooming on both old and new wood at the same time. Dirr recognized the importance of this plant since not only would it keep flowering much longer then it's regular brethren, but since it also had the ability to create new buds on new wood, if it's old ones were pruned off by mistake or if they were killed by weirdly fluctuating temperatures, this plant could still produce flowers. He immediately got the plant patented and it became the queen of all hydrangeas, a seriously important plant and pretty much the only plant most people to buy if they’re looking for a big pink or blue mophead hydrangea.  Yes you can prune it, but you will delay flowering and have fewer flowers in the spring, however if you dead head it, it will keep going significantly longer then your Nikkos do.

Of course, since that plant has come out there’s been another new introduction called Mini Penny. This is a dwarf Endless Summer. It’s maximum height is supposedly 3-4-5 feet we don’t actually know yet, since it’s so new, but since it blooms on both old and new wood, and will rebloom copiously if dead headed, it seems like it will be the plant of the year out here. I recommend you rush out to your favorite nursery and buy a boatload full.

But then again, we all know I have a bit of a plant-purchasing problem.

Paige Patterson has a new variety of hydrangea, called Everlasting riding around with her in the back of her car. She’ll be sneaking onto her property soon.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A rose is a rose is a rose is absolutely untrue when it comes to your garden.

There is something almost subversive about writing on roses as it snows that makes me want to do it so apologies to those where were expecting snowdrops. I’m not a rosarian in any sense of the word, however I’ve never been known to pass up a rose as I think they’re all fabulous. What I don’t really love is how difficult it can be to take care of them.

If we’re going to be honest, roses aren’t an easy-peasy flower, but it helps if you start with more disease resistant roses. One of my friends (and clients) has the most incredible roses, insanely beautiful columns of blooms that climb to his rooftops, while the same roses are struggling along pathetically at my house. Now granted he has drip irrigation on his while mine are in garden beds where they get a face full of water whenever the sprinklers come on, but he’s also a chemical guy. Which makes him a tad evil (sorry darling – you know I love you anyway.)

Treated systemically with fungicides and pesticides and fertilized to the hilt, someone comes by the house weekly to coddle his blooms, and I confess that my rose envy is so bad, I’d be tempted to follow in his evil footsteps if it weren’t for the fact that I keep bees. One whiff of any of his pesticides and they’d be done for, and that’s the sad truth of his wicked rose beauty.
So no pesticides, but I’m going to have to get on the stick with my fungicides. I’m going to use a lime sulfur spray in late March when I’ve finished pruning (hahahaha – like I’m ever going to finish pruning, I’m not sure I even pruned at all last year) and be more on the ball with a biweekly, pro-biotic, spraying program of a hydrogen peroxide based fungicide. Still organic, and a lot more work then I want, but after my ‘Knock Out’ roses almost totally defoliated last year I know I have to up my game.
There are literally thousands of rose cultivars, and I could write a hell of a tome on the ones I want or just lust after of the 145 varieties I have on order for this spring at the nursery, but here’s a few I think everyone should start out with.

True rosarian snub them, but for us regular gardeners all the ‘Knock Out’ series are winners.  No scent to speak out, and either single or double flowers, but these shrub roses have really excellent disease resistance. ‘Home Run’ is a single flowered rose that didn’t have a single issue all season at the nursery and this year there’s a new pink variety (woo hoo!) that’ll be jumping in my car and following me home. Next add in 'Fairy', 'Carefree  Wonder' (shorter) and 'Carefree Beauty' (taller) as additional shrubs, pick 'New Dawn' as the easiest climbing rose on the planet, add ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ for an old rose, ‘Eden’ for your English/Romantica rose and ‘Julia Child’ as your floribunda and you have my basic list.

You’ll notice I haven’t listed any David Austins. I know people adore them, but I’ve lost more of them to black spot or overwintering death then I care to admit to. Of course if you had to try one, I’d choose either ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Abraham Darby’, ‘Graham Thomas’ or ‘Heritage.’ And although it’s failed here three times, I adore the color of ‘Pat Austin’ and the jury is still out on the white climber ‘Claire Austin.’

There really are no easy to care for, all-summer blooming, great, white roses. Everyone has ‘Iceberg’ for sale, and in California it’s crazy great, but here on the east coast, if you’re organic it’s close to impossible to have both healthy flowers and healthy leaves at the same time.  My two favorites subs would have to be ‘White New Dawn’, and ‘White Eden’.

‘White New Dawn’ has no real disease problems that I know of; it just does its main flurry of flowering early in the season and then has a little secondary flush in the fall. A fantastic climber, it soars to amazing heights fairly quickly, but it's never a long enough bloom time for people who want white gardens like Sissinghurst.

I’ve used ‘White Eden’ with some success, so it would be my second choice, but it does have a pale blush pink tone to the center, so some people don’t love it. These two are both climbers, which is where most of my requests fall, but I also use a lot of ‘Crystal Fairy’, ‘White Meidiland’ and of course, ‘Blanc de Coubert’ the fantastic double white rugosa rose.

Be careful buying ‘White Meidiland’ though, one year we got a great batch that was as disease resistant as could be, the next year, the plants from the same supplier came in with the same label, but with a different leaf, and a much smaller flower, so look for those to have a dark green glossy leaf and a large almost 4” wide, double, refrigerator white, blossom.

You start pruning roses when the forsythia blooms which is also when you start feeding. I feed every month through August as roses (along with annuals, dahlias and anything else that blooms its guts out all season long) are heavy feeders. I used a premixed organic rose food last year,  but this year I’m going to also use alfalfa pellets since my friends who do better with roses than I swear by it. I’ll battle the aphids with ladybugs and blasts of water from the hose or with a shot from a spray bottle of water with a little soap added, and then hope to address everything else with neem oil.

And I’ll try not to feel overwhelmed.

It’s certain that my roses get more attention than almost everything else in the garden, and they don’t look as good as they should, but I’m not giving them up. There’s far too much romance and drama and perfume and the possibility of beauty attached to their promise. And that’s one of the main reasons I garden, for the possibility of gorgeousness, and to grow beautiful things to either stare at, paint or give to people as impromptu gifts. So yes, I’m going to try growing DA’s ‘Pat Austin’ yet again in yet another spot in the garden. I’m going to try ‘Cloud 10’,  a new white climber, in both my client’s white gardens and around my vegetable patch. And a bunch of other roses are most likely going to find their way to my house somehow or another.

And I’m going to continue to try and match that fence full of pink roses that blooms all summer long on Daniel’s Lane in Sagaponack that I’m still trying to identify — I think it’s a mixture of ‘Fairy’ varieties and ‘Meidlilands’ but I really have no idea. I’m just going to have to knock on their door and ask one day, perhaps after this snow storm stops.

Paige Patterson is jonesing for a ‘Russell’s Cottage Rose’, a flower she saw on Facebook in a EH garden planted by the brilliant rosarian Stephen Scanniello.

Monday, June 3, 2013

this could be an annual addiction

It’s the beginning of June, although my garden very much doubts the truth of those words. In the last week we swung from 48 degrees one night to 84 degrees the next day, and both my plants and I are feeling a little confused.  Last fall I might have gone a little overboard with the tulip planting (it was brilliant this spring) and then this spring I was lazy about cleaning off the yellowing foliage, so now I have places in the garden where the bulb foliage smothered out the new perennials that were trying to push their way out. What to do? Hmm, perhaps shop you say? Well why not.

I’m actually spending quite a bit of time (and money) studying the writings and ramblings of a few of my favorite plant people and am thinking of doing mini homages to them in various places in the garden. I’m doing an Oehme van Sweden thing in the back forty using eryngium, stachys, Russian sage and grasses as well as a Joy Larkcom inspired planting of artichokes and fennel in my flower beds and roses among my tomato plants. 

And where the tulips have rotted out my perennials, I’m pulling a Nancy Ondra and planting annuals. I actually adore annuals, for both their terrific foliage and their gushes of flowers all summer long — I would use masses of them every year, if I only had access to the next Powerball numbers in advance. Sigh. But this year, in the hopes of a few perennials still poking up their heads, I’m filling in the spaces with coleus, salvias, perillas and more. Oh my! For a dedicated perennial gardener, it feels very transgressive, but ever since we encountered downy mildew on impatiens last summer, I’ve been thinking about what I can put in the ground to replace it, and from there, the need to try other annuals in the garden instead of just pots has spiraled out of control. It’s sort of like the first few coleus I stuck in the ground were the gateway drug, and now I’m an addict.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve always stuck a few annuals in the ground, the fill a spot where something died, or to have cosmos to cut, or to add a little more oomph to the bed closest to the kitchen porch so we can have a better chance at spotting the hummingbirds after work, but this year I’m shopping the annual tables with a more compulsive eye. Can I use calibrochoas? Sure. Would geraniums be insane? Perhaps. What about the chartreuse sweet potato vine? Brilliant! Actually, I saw this used as a ground cover three years ago at one of my client’s home. She said she put it in the ground because she didn’t know what to plant in the spot that year and she just didn’t want to see the dirt. Well let me tell you, it was fantastic. I’ve always used pineapple sage, but not as an herb. Rather it’s a tremendous way to get a big mass of electric yellow foliage into the yard. In fact, I’ve never once worked it into a recipe although I’ve heard it’s excellent on fruit salad, and I have a recipe for a pound cake that uses it and one with chicken and ginger.

Both Nancy and Joy have encouraged me to plant Swiss chard and kale for it’s foliage’s incredible ornamental uses — now I just have to figure out how to eat it, since I’m tucking it in everywhere.

I was always a fan of snapdragons, but this year, I’m investing in the more elegant and ornate form of the angelonia, in a pure white and I’m going to back it up with the taller ‘High Tide Blue’ Ageratum. The combination of blue and white, is a no brainer when it comes to gardening, but my decision this year to take home a tray of the double flowering white bacopa we have at Marders, to put in front of my perennial beds, is surely a sign of my having gone past the point of no return.  Normally I use the hardy geranium to thread among plants and sew them together, this year I’m staring at a sea of 4” pots tucked scattered throughout my beds.

Lobularia ‘Snow princess’ is a no brainer in planter. Looking just like sweet alyssum, it billows and blooms all summer long in a cascade of white so amazing and lush it looks like I stuffed down pillows into my pot. Add to that the tricolored form of perilla and a few leonotis leonurus, also known as Lion's Tail with it’s electric orange tubular flowers that the hummingbirds adore and we’ve got something that’s starting to sing. I’m still looking for the celosia she featured called ‘Cramers’ Amazon’, which is a fantastic bubblegum pink and grows over 5’ tall, but will have to settle on one of the globe amaranth (gomphrena globosa) instead for an unusual flower form substitute until I find it.

Finally, this year I’m also bringing ponytail hair grass back into the garden. When this plant first came on the scene, we all thought it was a perennial and were totally disappointed as it failed in all our gardens. And although lots of the books say stipa tenuissima is hardy here, I’ve accepted it for what it is, a fabulous wisp of elegance that needs to be replanted every year, just like my dahlias, just like my garlic and just like my foxgloves. I don’t resent the repeated purchase of them each year, so why should I deny myself to pleasure that these new yearly investments will bring?

So lets mass some hebes and a tray or two of cuphea. It’s silly not to enjoy the pleasures of Verbena bonariensis. My columbines and delphinums don’t come back and I plant new ones every year. So why not try euphorbias and South African foxgloves. They’re just as pretty and just as satisfying.

And far less dangerous to my health then a few of the other possible addictions I could have.
You can read all about Nancy Ondra, one of my favorite garden authors and inspirations on her blog at http://hayefield.com where she writes about gardening in Bucks county, Pennsylvania in a zone quite like our own. She has amazing photos of all her annual combinations as well as photos of her gardens that will make you drool with pleasure but perhaps also want to throw in the towel or start all over again with your own gardens.

Paige Patterson is on the hunt for flats of pink and or purple cleome. If you see some email her at ppatterson@marders.com.

Monday, May 6, 2013

From the Greek word for dry.

I am asked all the time about low maintenance plantings, about gardens that don’t require irrigation, and it gives me pause, especially when they’re showing me photos of rolling green lawns, masses of hostas, billowing roses and hydrangeas. Frankly, most people want all the beauty but don’t want to put in the effort that goes along with it, nor do they want to spend the time or the money, However, every once in a while, I meet someone who is trying to create a landscape that won’t have a huge impact on the environment, who believes that in the next century, “water is going to be the next oil,” and so wants a garden that isn’t an energy and resource suck hole. This column on xeriscaping is for them.

The term ‘xeriscape’ does not mean no water, it means water conservation through water-efficient landscaping. You will still have to figure out have to get water to your new trees and bushes and perennials, it’s just going to be less water. You will need to mulch plants to keep the moisture that’s in the soil there, and you will have to choose the right plant for the right place, so that water needs are met. In other words if you have sandy soil you will not be planting a weeping willow, but if you have heavy clay you can. Beach plums and hawthorns, perfect for those with nutrient poor, sandier soils.

Often, when I tell people I’m going to talk about xeriscaping, people roll their eyes and say they don’t want a gravel garden with a bunch of succulents stuck all over the place, but it’s really about the right plant in the right place, and choosing tough plants that are drought tolerant, low maintainence and natural looking. Certainly sedums and hens and chicks can work into that garden, as can native plants (if it grows on it’s own in an environment when the irrigation system is provided by the heavens, it will thrive in a garden with limited water provided by you.) However we’re also talking about spirea, cotoneaster, lilacs, dogwoods and mountain laurels. Crape Myrtles and Locust trees are good candidates, as are junipers and daffodils. Leyland cypresses, not so much.

Again, I’m not talking about a landscape with no water. That’s called a desert. Plants need to have water to live, and a new plant, planted by you, not nature, will need water for the first couple of years, no matter what. People always think they can just stick a bunch of grasses in the ground and not worry about them any more. Then, when their grasses curled up and brown from desiccation, they get frustrated. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I’ve told them, people just don’t want to believe you have to water a miscanthus. Once it’s established, a miscanthus grass with a good root system will not need constant irrigation, but if you are planting a large plant that’s been grown in a nursery in a pot getting water every day, or every other day of it’s entire life, I guarantee it’s not going to thrive with a smattering of rain drops in the third week of july. A lavender could handle it. In fact most of the death I see with lavender has to do with it rotting or freezing in wet soil. You can’t have a lavender under planting a hydrangea, the two plants have too disparate water needs. You can put a rugosa rose in a lavender bed and get by with significantly less watering, and that’s sort of the basic tenant of xeriscaping.

It’s also about accepting what does well without being forced. Butterfly bushes love it out here; they thrive in the sun and couldn’t be happier. You want a low growing ground cover? Use liriope, it’s tough, it can handle most soil conditions, it doesn’t require a ton of fertilizer and it’s drought tolerant.
If you have sun, you have lots of choices including most of the plants that do well in Mediterranean areas, all the silvery and fuzzy foliage plants perform better with less water then with too much. Iris do surprisingly well with less water as do all the fescue grasses, some of which can ever take a little shade. Gallardia and yarrow both rock through drought conditions as do daylilies. Hydrangeas don’t. Artemisia and salvia, centranthus and nepeta, Sea Holly and Russian Sage, what we’re looking for are plants that are easy to care for, and successful in a variety of different soil types and climates. Not the specialty plants, not the half hardy or the temperamental, but the toughies, the thugs, the workhorse. Yes to sedum no to phlox. Asters do fantastic is you can remember where they are in spring and not weed them up as I am so guilty of doing.

And yes sedums and hens and chicks rock a low water landscape.  I have lately become overly fond of the hens and chicks, but am having a hard time working them into my existing planting scheme. So they are going to be this years potting solution. As I am a terrible waterer of containers, I end up putting all my potted plants through a prolonged and painful desiccation death. This year, I’m going a different way with the various sempervivums, sedums, aloes, kalanchoes, echeverias and other fleshy-leaved species that make up the succulent family. These plants are at their best when grown in hot sun and poor soil, as these are the conditions in their native homes. An unwatered and forgotten dish on the front porch in the baking sun isn’t a death sentence like it’s been for my petunias, instead it’s just reminds these plants of their grandparent plants.

If I want to limit myself to those that are hardy I’ll have to use either sempervivums (also known as hen and chicks) or sedums. The two types of sempervivums, either tight and rounded, with what appear to be cobwebs across the leaves, and thus called s. arachnoideum (note the spidery word) or s. tectorum, which is larger and more open. Both are very graphic and architectural and both have become super popular in the last few years.

Sedums are more likely to run or creep or spill in habitat and thus make a great textural connection of continuity throughout the pot. The taller ones also bunch and group nicely, and make great centerpieces. I however, always add some of the more sexy tender succulents when I design these kinds of pots. They have the more varied colors and textures that can really make a planting sing, whether it’s lavenders and pinks or corals and blacks or even electric orange, the shapes and colors are startling, foliage that looks like branched coral, like strung together lobster claws, like Takashi Murakami flowers, they’re all incredible. These varied echeverias, aeoniums, pachyphytums kangaroo paws and graptopetalums are like spices in cooking, they can really make a planting sing.

Paige Patterson is using the drought tolerance of Coneflowers, Lambs Ears Coreopsis and Zinnias as an excuse to plant more in the sandier sections of her garden. She has no excuse for all the dahlias that arrived in the mail last week.