Monday, December 20, 2010

Community Building - Progress Report

An instant community from a spring plug planting

Eupatorium coelestinum sorting itself out from the mix to form a nice stand

Aster cordifolius 'Avondale' looking especially blue and floriferous in the late fall

As many of my previous entries have indicated I am working in my garden to better understand the practice of developing more-or-less self-sustaining plant communities as gardens. I have what I call my meadow that is several years old now and fully planted, but I continue to introduce new things, especially when I can insert ornamental interest into an otherwise down time of year. I have another similar garden in which I have a very minimal palate of plants on about half of the designated site. I am watching how these self-seed and interact with each other while experimenting with various weed control techniques. Weeds seem to be the biggest impediment to success.

Today I want to report on my newest efforts. In the spring of 2010 I purchased flats of plugs of five species of shade growing native perennials that I thought might get along in an attractive self-sustaining community. (Aster cordifolius 'Avondale', Eupatorium coelestinum, Solidago caesia, Stylophorum diphyllum and Polemonium reptans) I chose three seemingly similar shady locations and planted a mix of the five selections in each spot. After one growing season the plants' response to each of the three sites was vastly different, which is what I regularly find. It is a bit early to make conclusions, but one of the three sites grew some excellent stands of most of the five selections. The three images show a collective image of the aster, eupatorium and solidago growing nicely together but perhaps looking a bit rough. The other two images are of particularly nice stands of the aster and the eupatorium considering they are only one growing season from relatively neglected, newly planted plugs.

I will monitor to see if the polemonium, the weakest performer, does better next year; whether one or more of the selections tends to dominate (my bet is on the eupatorium); and whether the other two sites improve or have elements of the planting die out. Of course, I am especially eager to see if they can dominate the weeds and look good while doing it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Clothes Make the Gardener (Update)

On December 4th in 2008 I posted a bit on clothing for gardening and how integral it can be for making gardening a pleasurable experience. I described my favorite inclement weather clothing while asserting that the proper clothing can make gardening fun not only in spite of but sometimes even because of nasty weather.

I have a couple of new favorites. I am aware of how silly this may seem to some, but these cloths really do make an enormous difference. My first new favorite is a case in point. They are lightly insulated Gore-Tex bib overalls. They offer warmth in all but the coldest weather while not being too hot in temperatures as high as the upper 50s, but what I like the most about these overalls is that they are waterproof, and they breath. I can get down on my knees on cold wet ground and stay dry and warm. That is invaluable. They are perfect for late bulb plantings, cutting back dormant perennials in the fall or spring, cutting firewood in the winter, or any of the innumerable garden and yard jobs that involve getting down on your knees on cold and/or wet ground. I have tried rain pants, knee pads,and Carhartt overalls, but nothing is as satisfactory as these for protecting against cold wetness. I bought them from Cabela's where they are marketed for hunters.

My other new favorite is a brand-name boot called Muck Boots. In my previous log I described my L.L. Bean rubber bottomed leather topped boots as my favorite. Their shortcomings were their tendency to become clammy with prolonged wear and the tedious process of lacing and unlacing to put them on and take them off. The Muck Boots do everything the insulated Bean boots do and they slip on and off easily while not making your feet clammy. They help keep my wife happy too by minimizing the dirt I track in by making it easy for me to take them off before coming in. I used to have generic high topped rubber boots styled after the famous Wellington brand. They were satisfactory for warm weather but not the cold, and they were less comfortable. Muck Boots can be purchased directly from

Good work cloths are like having just the right tool for the job.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) offers beautiful new leaves for me to admire as I do my November gardening.

Bright yellow clumps of naturalized asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) pop out of the November landscape, offering interesting subjects for 60 mph botanizing.

Where I live in Ohio, November is the month we realize fall is over and the bleakness of winter is upon us. There are, however, a few features of the landscape that belie that verdict. One of my previous blogs at about this time of year featured the flowers of our native witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), another the late fall color of yellow root (Xanthorhiza simplicissima). I have noticed that dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) stands out in early November with its bright yellow fall color. Of course, callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) is well known for its late fall color, and as I drive around town in mid November I am reminded how overused that tree is. Asparagus naturalizes in fence rows and can be easily spotted in November because of its bright yellow fall color and fine texture. These plants pop out of the otherwise bare November landscape. It makes for some fun "reading" of the landscape and gratifying features in my garden to greet me as I try to get as much done in the garden as possible before winter really does close things down.

Monday, November 1, 2010

More on Self Sowing

Largeflower Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus syn. Talinum calycinus)

In my last blog I described the difficulty in making any sort of composition out of a garden of directly sown seeds. The distribution of plants is so randomized the garden lacks interest in spite of abundant color. Another approach I have used is to let only one or two selections self sow in an otherwise more or less fixed garden. I had some nice success with the mullein Verbascum olympicum which, because it is a biennial, is pretty much an obligatory self sower. The downside to Verbascum olympicum is that it is so big it buries smaller plants. I also had success with the common horticultural columbine (Aquilegia) which is a perennial but is both prolific enough to make a sort of light wash over a garden by filling in bare spots and small enough not to be intrusive.

My most recent example of a self sowing plant freely distributing itself over my garden to good affect is largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus, syn. Talinum calycinus). It is the sole survivor of a group of hardy succulents I tried in my newest rock garden. I like the way it adds a wash of color over the garden while not pushing other plants aside. If it becomes too thick it is very easy to remove.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gardens of Annuals Sown Directly

A pre-packaged mix of annuals, with a few additions. It's colorful but doesn't have much character.

I inadvertently overplanted the grass (How was I to know how much seed was too much?)but the Chinese Forget-me-not managed to nicely peak through.

I love this California Bluebell for its intense blue color, persistent bloom and tolerance of some very dry conditions.

I am interested in working more and more with plant systems in which natural forces and I work together to determine the nature of the garden. This desire of mine is exemplified by the perennials in what I call my meadow garden (see my 9/24/09 posting). Now I am intrigued by the idea of directly sowing annuals to achieve a naturalistic looking plant display that is also economical, has a minimal energy requirement, and represents this balance between natural forces and my will that I mentioned above. Perhaps I am revisiting the well known "meadow-in-a-can" phenomenon that made a splash about twenty years ago and is still available today, but I like to think I am looking at it a bit differently. The "meadow-in-a-can" provides something much like the top picture. It's a festival of color. There is no sense of composition or even a sense of the beauty of drifts and undulating masses we see in nature as plants distribute themselves. It's like the plants have been homogenized. Perhaps over time, if they continued to come back year after year, they would eventually make a more interesting distribution.

While waiting to see what that planting will evolve into (with some guidance by me) I am also experimenting with other plants and their combinations. The second picture down is of a grass, Ruby Silk,(Agrostis tef) and a non grass or, in prairie planting parlance, a forb, Chinese Forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile). Remembering how forbs so attractively peak through a backdrop of grasses, I tried a couple of other direct sow gardens with a mix of grasses and showy flowering plants. I vastly overestimated how much Agrostis tef I needed and vastly underestimated in the other garden how much Quaking Grass was needed. With the one garden the grass totally dominated the planting. The other one was sparse indeed although it did expose me to a very attractive and potentially useful annual pictured above, California Bluebell (Phacelia campanularia).

Obviously I have a lot to learn, but true to the lifestyle garden theme, its the process that's the most gratifying.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lessons of European Allotment Gardens

Little cities of tidy garden plots offer Germans an opportunity to enjoy the garden lifestyle.

A tiny vignette of a German Schrebergarten suggests the pleasures of times spent in their garden allotments.

This garden displays the mix of vegetables and ornamentals that tend to define these German allotment gardens.

My trip to Germany this summer renewed my fascination with what is typically called a Schrebergarten. Associations of tiny garden plots with their accompanying tiny buildings (Kleingartenvereine) offer Germans without land the opportunity to enjoy the garden lifestyle. Here in the U.S. where ample suburban lots offer millions of people the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of organizing recreational time around their garden it seems ironic that so relatively few take advantage of the opportunity. While in Germany where these opportunities are far rarer the enthusiasm for gardening seems far greater. One needs only to walk by these little cities of garden plots to see the enthusiasm for them. Apparently this phenomenon extends beyond Germany. An interesting article in issue 164 of the BBC publication, Gardens Illustrated , profiles the joys of one family and their allotment garden in Denmark under the title "A Taste of the Good Life." They begin the article with the following: "Do you want a refuge full of home-grown fruit, vegetables and drifts of bright flowers all summer? One Danish family show(s) that you can have all this in an allotment-sized space." Perhaps when something is rare or limited it is more cherished.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Karl Foerster Garden

For inspiration that directly applies to the lifestyle garden that this blog advocates there is nothing better than visiting a great private garden. On July sixth of this year I was lucky enough to visit the garden of the famous Karl Foerster in Potsdam, Germany. Although it is the historic garden that he laid out at his home it is now open to the public. The garden is the size of a slightly larger than average suburban lot but is filled entirely with what they describe as a strictly symmetrical layout. The plantings are anything but symmetrical. How many of us have the forethought to give our gardens the structure they need? I know I don't. The Foerster garden is a livable garden. Throughout are places to stroll, to sit, to admire, and to contemplate. I took 160 photographs and conjured up my best German to tell a gardener working there how much I admired and enjoyed their work. I told her that this garden made my trip worthwhile. It was a wonderful experience that I hope to refer back to often on this blog. The three above images can't begin to tell the whole story, but they are a few of the most photogenic and represent a good start. All three are of the sunken garden at the front of the house.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Consequences of Provincialism

Ramonda myconi at Karl Foerster Garden, Potsdam

Ramonda myconi at Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universit├Ąt, Greifswald

Ramonda myconi at Berlin Botanischer Garten

Ramonda myconi at Botanischer Garten der Universit├Ąt Potsdam

A couple of blogs ago I proudly mentioned my success at growing Ramonda myconi, a hardy member of the African violet family (Gesneriaceae). I imagined this Ramonda to be a very rare thing seldom seen in gardens, because I had never seen it in gardens. I visited Germany a couple of weeks ago where I saw four rock gardens. Each and every one was growing Ramonda myconi (although they were, alas, no longer in bloom). It is so easy to become provincial! But then that is one of the main reasons I wanted to take that trip. A person needs to get out into the world every now and then. I hope it isn't another twenty-nine years between my trips to Europe.

Friday, June 18, 2010

An Ornamental Grape of Special Note

I don't want to turn this blog into a series of jags about the fabulous attributes of this plant or that. That story has its place, but for the theme of this blog a worthy plant profile should say more than how good it looks. Vitis coignetiae(crimson glory vine). Let's call it Vitis coignetiae and pronounce that French looking word any damn way we please. I most recently heard this plant being revered in an podcasted interview with the famous English gardener Beth Chatto. I was pleased to be able to think to myself, ah yes, I know it and grow it. I won't try to wax sentimental about its attributes except to say that its leaves are fascinating in their color, texture, and positioning. The vine has the ability to add an allure to places it is grown. But don't plan on eating the grapes. I first remember seeing it at an outdoor restaurant, and I wish I remembered where, because when I saw it I knew I had to some day grow it for myself. I wasn't sure about it's hardines, so when my first planting died I suspected hardiness as the problem. Fortunately the second try worked. Vines, especially large vines such as this one, can't be grown to their best advantage just anywhere as my planting of it testifies, yet I am glad I have it in spite of its less than inspired setting. Even when it is not at its "best advantage", it can grace its site. Some plants are so worthy that they need to be in the inventory of plants the gardener is not only aware of but knows how to use and grow. I wanted to know how to use Vitis coignetiae , so I had to grow it, as best I could. I think my kind of gardener can't be satisfied simply admiring plants, we have to find some way of growing them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pleasure From the Substantial and the Tiny

I have realized particular gratification this spring from two very different sorts of plantings. One is large and defines space; the other is one tiny plant in a crevice, but I get a real kick out of both of them.

The first is a planting of willow that I started about ten years ago. A creek that is a boundary of my property seemed a perfect place to block the view of the neighbors and to create a beautiful grove of trees. The willows were about as cheap a planting as could be had. At Kingwood Center where I work we annually cut back Salix alba 'Britzensis' to the ground to allow those beautiful coral colored shoots to grow back up shrub sized. I gathered up the harvest and stuck them in the wet ground hoping they would root. Over several years of mixed successes I eventually established a substantial grove of trees, the full extent of which I did not capture in the above image.

The other planting that brought me special pleasure this spring caught my attention with its lone flower on a lone plant of Ramonda myconi. I bought it three years ago at a local North American Rock Garden Society meeting from Wrightman Alpine Nursery. Of seven different species I bought that day it is one of only two that are still with me. I shouldn't expect to grow "alpines" in my hot Ohio garden, but I do expect to grow rock garden plants. Drainage seems to be the key and the crevice that my ramonda was lucky enough to be planted into seemed to do the trick. The fact that it took three years to put out its first flower, that I was able to find suitable exposure and soil for it, and that it is the only hardy gesneriad that I have ever come across all added up to considerable satisfaction on my part.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Garden Centers

Yesterday I led my eleventh annual bus trip from Kingwood. We load up 46 people and spend the day plant shopping. It's lots of fun although anything that goes wrong falls on me, so I worry. We have probably visited over thirty different places that sell plants over the years. and it has been an interesting study in what appeals to the group and to me. It isn't feasible for me to visit each site before the trip, so I rely heavily on word of mouth, Internet, and now my experience. Unfortunately some stinkers can sneak in. One year a gardener who I respect highly recommended a water garden nursery. Always ready to find a diamond in the rough I directed the poor bus driver down a winding dirt road to the almost abandoned site. Everyone was polite and the owner valiantly offered up a paltry assortment of pathetic looking plants. On this year's trip our last stop was a place that touted their fine wines and designer purses. Unfortunately their garden center business seemed to be a relic. Fortunately the other four garden centers we visited were good.

Even more difficult is finding a garden center that offers a distinctive line of plants. Often times the biggest and most successful garden centers are almost indistinguishable from one another. The same plants in over sized and over priced containers can be found in all of them. I like the garden centers that cater to the plantsman more than the instant gratification seeker.

Some of my favorites over the years have been:
Bluestone Nursery the mail order nursery north east of Cleveland that allows you on site access to their full catalog of plants
Baker's Acres east of Columbus loaded with a wonderful range of plants
Dave Dannaher's Nursery near Columbus, a grafting enthusiast who has more grafted woody curiosities than he knows what to do with (by appointment)
Mulberry Creek Herb Farm near Sandusky, a tiny family run nursery specializing in miniature plants and herbs
Meadow View Growers a large upscale garden center near Dayton that also caters to people looking for the different and the unusual.

Other garden centers that were good but not necessarily favorites were Lowes (no, not that Lowes) Greenhouse and Florist Shop in Chagrin Falls, Cahoon's in Westlake, and Corso's Flower and Garden Center near Sandusky.

Then there are the places that are just fun to visit even if their offerings are a bit hit and miss. I guess Daisy Hill Greenhouse in Hunting Valley near Cleveland is the most fun. I just wish they labeled their plants or at least knew what their more unusual plants were.

Finally the best treat is when wholesale nurseries let us in to shop. I won't mention any names. They probably would prefer no one knew they ever did that.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Remember Jeep (and Anemone nemorosa 'Bracteata Pleniflora')

The above clump of Cardamine trifolia represents seven years of growth.

I planted three Anemone nemorosa 'bracteata pleniflora eight years ago. Here they are today. Now that is slow! Click on the picture to get a better view of the amazing flowers.

Although I am not a particularly organized person I have had considerable enjoyment from records I kept of the plants I acquired in the twelve years I have been gardening at my current home. I refer back to those records on a regular basis for many reasons. For example, I photographed a clump of Cardamine trifolia this spring that I seem to have had forever, and yet it is still a smallish clump. A quick search found that I bought it from the now defunct version of Heronswood Nursery seven years ago, so look at the picture and judge for yourself, but I think that is one slow growing groundcover! Another photograph this spring evoked a similar curiosity. My Anemone nemorosa 'Brachteata Pleniflora' (which I coincidentally also bought from Heronswood)has finally emerged from the status of a tiny little whisper of plants to an actual clump (see image above). That bit of progress took eight years.

I also enjoy reminiscing over plants that are no longer with me because they didn't survive(it's a humiliatingly large number), or because I had to frantically eradicate them (e.g. Campanula punctata, Salvia forskaohlei, and Knautia macedonica come to mind), because they were taking over the garden. It is also interesting to see the relative success I have had with various nurseries. I recently observed, for example, that while I have acquired some particularly unusual and successful plants from one specialty nursery, which is famous for letting you figure out for yourself where their plants will grow, a large majority of the plants I bought from them did not make it. I decided that their already high cost was too high when the attrition rate is factored in. I have also found the records to be particularly satisfying in reminding me of those special plants that have been given to me and have found a suitable home in my garden. I like to remember the people and the friendship when I think of their plants. Sometimes it is years before I realize I want to buy more of a particularly successful plant, so it is useful to know where I bought them originally, and when I lose the labels I have at least a fighting chance of figuring out what the full name of the now unidentified plants are. Record keeping may be a bore, but these records of mine have expanded my gardening pleasure and success significantly.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Remembering Belly Plants

Primula marginata

Corydalis solida 'Blushing Girl'

Diphyllea sinensis

Deinanthe caerulea

Large sweeps of bulbs and big perennial borders are impressive and something to be proud of if you created them yourself, but there is a special place in my sense of satisfaction for the many small and demure plants that reward looking closely especially in intimate spaces. This spring my thrill for the understated is with a new (for me)primrose, Primula marginata . It bloomed for the first time recently in my rock wall. The color, the survival of a new plant, the successful colonization of my rock wall, and the fact that it was a new species for me all contributed to my pleasure, in addition to its beauty. Last year it was Corydalis solida 'Blushing Girl' and the fruit of Diphylleia sinensis, the year before I recall Deinanthe caerulea.

I am reminded of the enthusiasm my fellow botany students and I had on field trips for what we called belly plants, those plants that were so small we had to get on our bellies to enjoy them. These garden plants aren't tiny like belly plants, but they certainly evoke a similar sort of appreciation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Secret Pleasures

A sense of humor is essential to the lifestyle garden and I got a good laugh out of the above pictured Galanthus (snow drops). I had long ago lost track of the name and all memory of planting this little patch of snow drops next to my driveway, but I was looking at them this spring and was struck by how the flowers seemed strangely fat. Upon closer inspection I discovered they were doubles. Of course, you can't tell the flowers are doubles unless you turn them upside down. I found this all both gratifying and mildly humorous. It is like a private little secret of mine that I can enjoy any time I want to tip up one of the flowers, and they really are beautiful if I take the time to look.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

These Modest Flowers are Eagerly Awaited

Some Brits seem to be over the top for snowdrops (Galanthus). They are certainly one of the most welcome of plants to see bloom but...

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)is cheap, reliable and a spot of pleasure in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Witch-hazel varieties like this one (Arnold Promise) deliver on the promise of something cheerful to look at early in the spring warm-up.

Winter finally broke. The snow hasn't all melted yet, but it is on the run, and my thermometer says 70 degrees, yippee. People seem to come out of the woodwork on these first warm days of spring and walk around the public garden I work for (Kingwood Center), presumably expecting the landscape to be transformed. I suppose they are disappointed to find the duck feeding with the kids is inhibited by the ice that still covers about 90% of the pond, and there is precious little sign of spring in the gardens. There are a few things blooming and they are the topic of my lifestyle garden homily for today. These first few warm days of March are hugely important to people's spirits. Give yourself a reward on these sorts of days by having those handful of super-early bloomers in your yard like the three pictured above. They may not compare to what is to come, but they are probably some of the most appreciated flowers in the garden.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Enduring Snow

Its been a long winter (albiet pretty as the above image of my driveway suggests). I can't recall having such a long period of continuous snow cover; and its not just some snow; its been mostly a foot or more. I lost patience a few of weeks ago and went out to a grove of young black locusts that I like to call my "coppice" in order to do some "forest management." This is how I have fun when I'm not digging in the dirt. Just walking around in the deep snow was about as much exercise as I could manage. I couldn't even bring a wagon to haul anything away. I like to stay active in the garden and landscape throughout the year. Typically there are plenty of things to do in the winter that are productive and that will reduce the work load in the growing season. I have to admit to being largely thwarted this winter. Today is March second and the snow is only ever so gradually melting. Instead of borrowing a log splitter I have been splitting my wood by hand, since I had the time, the energy and the glorious luxury of a barn to work in.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Common Cowslip

Late winter is the time for ordering new plants, and I have recently placed a flurry of new orders, each of which I am very excited about, of course. I also plan to order several primroses but haven't yet. Several years ago Tom Buchter moved to Ohio and the Holden Arboretum (he has since moved on)and quipped that he looked forward to growing lots of primroses now that he was in Ohio. Ever since, I have been wondering why I didn't grow more. Over the last few years I have been acquiring several very satisfying species and varieties of primrose including what seems to be generally regarded as "that common old cowslip" (Primula veris). I once blogged about the joys of esoterica in plants. Today its the joys of the "taken for granted" or the perceived mundane. As I have been casting about to see where I might pick up a few good primrose candidates I have been looking to expand my successful planting of cowslip. While I am not challenged to find a source, I am surprised at how seldom it is offered for sale given its beauty, versatility and reliability. I'm almost embarrassed by how much I relish the plant, but only almost. Come on, its a great plant, and actually it is not very widely used. Why isn't there more enthusiasm for it?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Built for Outdoor Living

We visited Beaufort, South Carolina shortly before Thanksgiving and everywhere we went people commented on how wonderful the weather was and how great it was to live in the South. (Perhaps they were playing to my Midwest accent.)At any rate, we had fun walking around town and looking at some fabulous old homes, all built with outdoor living in mind. For example, the front porches on the house pictured above anticipated people spending a lot of quality time escaping the heat of the house during the summer and, in this particular case, catching cool breezes from the bay. Air conditioning has changed our connection with the outdoors. It is easy to retreat into an air conditioned home and forget completely about the weather and the outdoors in general. I think that causes us to miss something important in life. Sure, escape uncomfortable weather when you can, but come back out every now and then to sit in some favorite retreat on the porch overlooking the garden, or sit in a spot with the garden all around you like the bottom picture. Part of the lifestyle garden is keeping in touch with nature and you can't do that holed up with air conditioning. Those front porches evoke romantic nostalgia for a reason. They were and continue to be great places to spend time.