Category Archives: Garden Musings and Tips

Growing Biennial Angelica

One of the stars of our late summer pollinator garden is Angelica, whose umbels of tiny flowers invite insect and butterfly activity galore.  Angelica are biennials, and most of you know this  means that seed sown this year grow roots and foliage, with flowers appearing in year two. The hope is that once planted, the Angelica will self sow, providing progeny for years to come. Hmm, sounds good, but….

Angelica germinates best after the seed has been exposed to cold temperatures. If plants are allowed to self sow in the garden, the seed naturally gets a long winter chill, and wakes up with the spring rains. When this works, it’s wonderful! In our experience this is not always something to be counted on. What if the seed germinates but then a dry spell settles in and you are too busy to observe and water?

We choose not leave our supply up to chance. After collecting seed in the fall, we store it envelopes in a cool dry space. In February we sow the seed in a slightly dampened germinating mix and let it sit for 2 weeks at room temperature (60-72F). We then transfer the seed flat, enclosed with a sealed baggie, into the refrigerator (35-40F) for 4-6 weeks (you could also try leaving the flat in a safe spot outdoors). In April, we transfer the seed flat out to germinate under 60-70F conditions. Once the seedlings have developed first true leaves, we transplant them into deep 2” tubes (Angelica do develop a taproot). When plants are established enough they can be transplanted into the garden, or in our case, into deep nursery quart pots for retail sales.

Angelica atropurpurea

There are numerous species; here are a few of our favorites. Angelica gigas, native to Korea has bolder foliage with dense deep wine globular umbels. Angelica stricta ‘Purpurea’. (aka A. sylvestris purpurea) hails from northern Europe and has dark tinted stems and foliage, with 4’ stems bearing dark purple flower buds opening maturing to lavender-pink, followed by attractive seed heads. There is a species native to parts of the US, including New England, Angelica atropurpurea, (Purple angelica) which has medicinal uses, plus it is quite ornamental with tall  red tinted stems and green to white umbels.

If you want to grow Angelica in large swaths of your garden, why not order seed and sow this winter. You’ll have to wait a year for blossoms, but you’ll have dozens of plants. Or, compromise. Purchase a few established first year plants and get them in the ground this year for color and activity next, but still sow seed next winter for your endless supply.

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Going Native, but Maybe Not All the Way

Meadow in Summer, at the edge of the woodland

The garden style I’ve always preferred is informal, a little on the wild side, where there’s not a lot of fussiness and certain plants are allowed to self sow and naturalize. Managing such a garden requires a knowledgeable caretaker, someone who can check growth on plants that are too exuberant, and know which varieties play well together. It is a style of gardening that is now in vogue, especially when it is composed of native plants.

This winter, I attended numerous virtual lectures and symposia that discussed how to create and manage native plant landscapes. It’s most encouraging that this native plant style is now being employed in many commercial and urban landscapes, as it provides a wildlife habitat along with visual aesthetics. The cardinal rules for success: Understand your site and soil composition, monitor the landscape the first year to insure that plants establish, weed out unwanted invaders, and practice ecologically sensitive pest management.

Popular “native” plant ensemble: Echinacea, Vernonia, Amsonia, Schizachyrium

There is one question that many proponents of planting natives have trouble with…defining which plants can be truly considered native. Are these plants native to your county,  or your geographic region (i.e. southern New England), or can we include the whole country (and the US is a big one)? There are so many gorgeous native plants (think Amsonia, Aruncus, Phlox, etc.) that hail from the Ozark region, an area that includes parts of  Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois. Southern New England and the Ozark Mountains share similar hardiness zones and so many Ozark natives are happily growing in our gardens. But let’s be honest…the Ozark’s are 1400 miles away, from us, anyway.  So, how should we define the range limit of what can be considered a native plant?

A corner of our garden with native and "foreign" species". We lost the variegated Cornus alternifolia, a native, but the Clethra barbinervis, native to Japan, has thrived and provides nectar for our honeybees.

A corner of our garden with native and “foreign” species”. We lost the variegated Cornus alternifolia, a native, but the Clethra barbinervis, native to Japan, has thrived and provides nectar for our honeybees.

At Avant Gardens, we have always grown selections of ornamental native plants. We also have and will continue to grow ornamental hardy plants native to faraway places: Japan, China, Croatia, England, Spain to name a few. They bring us joy and add to our gardens immensely. I hesitate to  be religious about the native plant movement because I do not what to exclude Elkhorn Cedar and Hinoki Cypress, Japanese Dogwood and Tree Clethra, Hellebores and Perennial Geraniums. And before I hear a lecture,  I fully understand the need to eradicate invasive non native plants!

a form of “native” Hydrangea arborescens: ‘Haas Halo’

I think that we can find a compromise on choosing both native and non native plants for our properties. The suggested goal is to devote 70% of your property to plantings specific to your region to create a native habitat. Now, this percentage assumes that you live on a large enough parcel, but some city dwellers’ homes might take up 70% or more of their lot size. For argument’s sake, let’s allow that  if one’s property is generous in size, with a house footprint of 10%, one can still allot a large space to locally native plants and still be able to find home for some treasured foreigners.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject. Please share.

Fall Container Report 2021

As we approach October, it’s time to evaluate which planters held up well in this surprisingly wet year. Perhaps my favorite planter this year was an afterthought…what to do in a 36″ bowl that gets less and less sun each year. It was in an area that doesn’t get much attention to boot, but as you can see it didn’t suffer at all.

This combination of different Snakeplants (Sansevieria) and Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon nigrescens) with variegated ivy and Dichondra worked astonishingly well. Sophisticated in a way, but totally unfussy! Will have to consider a future repeat performance.
It’s been 20 years since we’ve grown Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet), but since we have had so many inquiries recently,  we decided to give them another go. (I vaguely remember that they were a magnet for whiteflies, and banned them from the greenhouse.) In June I ordered 5 different varieties from Logee’s, (yes, a late start for a summer display, especially starting with 4″ pots), but with regular doses of the  miraculous Neptune’s Harvest fish/seaweed fertilizer, they all took off. The mystery selection shown above differed from the name tag description, but it sure was quick to flower. In fact it is in its second flush right now.

This is what we learned: Brugmansia grow very fast in tropical weather conditions (we’ve certainly had  heat, humidity and a fair amount of rain this season).  We know that hybrids of the species versicolor have flowers that first appear yellow then age to shades of pink. Two of the 5 selections grew to large proportions but as of Sept 27 are only now forming flower buds.  Two others provided flowers within  3 months time.  Logee’s ‘Pink Champagne’  (pictured above) has a subtle coloring that is best enjoyed up close. The larger proportioned  ‘Angel’s Lemon Zest’ (below) has also rewarded us with repeat flowerings.

I should say that this year we’ve enjoyed simply growing on specimen plants in individual containers, and either arranging little groups or featuring  on pedestals of their own. The little Goldfish Plant, Nematanthus  gregarius, is an easy “succulent” for shadier spots. Consider it an indoor/outdoor plant..most of us have a windowsill that will accommodate this little guy for the winter,  and then next year it can renew itself outdoors again all summer.

A 20 year old pot of Haworthia reinwardtii and a 3 year old Aeolinanthus repens spent the summer outdoors, and will return to a western window inside for the winter…super easy plants to keep happy!

And now for the before and after pics.  All in all, plants held up well, although this was the year the Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ really sulked. It didn’t die, but it didn’t luxuriate as in previous summers…too humid?A few succulents exceeded their bounds and needed a cut back.
Here the Dichondra was cut back in Sept. when it got dingy looking.You can never go wrong combining succulents with Phormium.Abutilon ‘Harvest Moon’ likes to be fed a lot, and it will  reward you with blooms all summer. Begonias may have liked the humidity but not constant wetness. Begonia ‘Art Hodes’ above, one of the best, never complained. Begonia ‘Escargot’ , below,  survived, but was more challenging to keep  happy.

Please tell us…how did your containers fare this summer? Still looking good? Which plants impressed you the most?

Cool plants, cool pots…a visit to Solana Succulents

We just returned from a “too quick” visit to the San Diego area. On this trip we had the joyful distraction of our adorable 6 month old grandson, so there was not a lot of time for plant exploring. We did however get to check in at one of our favorite haunts, Solana Succulents.  This little succulent oasis is owned by Jeff Moore, whose book Aloes and Agaves in Cultivation, is a reference we use often.

I love nurseries where there are one of a kind treasures everywhere you look, and this is the case at Solana Succulents.  There are always new plants to discover,  and on this day we were introduced to  Eulophia petersii, commonly called Corduroy Orchid (center foreground), awaiting transplanting to a more decorative pot.

The dramatic black and white coloring of this Dyckia caught my eye…

as did this Hylocereus undatus, the dragon fruit cactus.

Another thing I love at these little specialty nurseries is the choice pottery that are featured in their displays, and often for sale. The containers themselves are unique sculptural elements. Elevate this art form with a perfectly matched plant and you have created arresting eye candy.

A textured tan and turquoise rectangular planter featured a choice caudiciform Ficus. Call it minimalism or abstraction, but there’s no denying that the plant and pot together command attention.

Perhaps we intuitively picked up on this art form  on our first visit to California years ago. We’ve been collecting cool vessels for planters for quite some time and feature an assortment of small and large fine pottery to showcase individual specimens or ensembles. These sculptural elements are little luxuries that please the eye and enrich the soul.

Hopeful Anticipation

The Hellebore hybrids are consistent early performers that really show off when early spring temperatures moderate.

We are several weeks into spring 2021, and so far, no surprise snow storms! Actually, we have even had a few days when it felt like it was the middle of May. Oh it’s so easy to get giddy when the skies are calm and blue and the temperature reaches 70F. Still, this New England gardener has had more than a few stinging memories of drastic temperature swings, when garden and nursery plants were nipped in the bud (literally and figuratively).

Jeffersonia dubia taking in the early morning sunshine on April 8th.

This unseasonal warm spell we just experienced did push growth on the earliest blooming perennials, and buds of many trees and shrubs have begun to swell (in our protected front garden our Katsura Japanese maple is beginning to leaf out weeks early). Except where voles and chipmunks have unearthed and/or eaten roots of choice Epimedium and Hakonechloa, it looks like there are fewer overwinter losses. The chipmunks especially love creating their tunneled habitats in the stone wall raised beds that Chris has built around the property. We’ve come to resign ourselves that we just have to share the gardens.

Chipmunks’ burrowing tunnels exposed the roots and created air pockets around dwarf Solomon’s Seal and Epimedium, and we are not sure who to blame for the gnawed below the crown of the Japanese Forest Grass.

One thing that has us already concerned is that 2021 has been unseasonably dry here in southeastern Massachusetts. You may not be experiencing a lack of precipitation in your region, or have no need for concern yet, but with last week’s warmth, we already began dragging hoses around to soak our planting beds.

This leads to the question, “What type of growing conditions should we plan for this year?” Last summer was horrifically dry for us (at least our succulent collections were happy).  Although there is still  time to catch up on rainfall totals, it would be wise to add a protective layer of compost/mulch on garden beds to help conserve moisture. Also, selecting adaptable but more drought tolerant native plants is advice that no one could argue with.

Aster ptarmicoides (Upland White Aster), native to the midwest, is a durable plant for the front of the sunny border.

Gardeners are optimists. In April,  we anticipate regular rainfall and kind growing conditions for the year ahead. That being said, those of us who have been at this for a while know to have a backup plan in place in case our positive outlooks become challenged. Yes, that adaptability thing…plants, human expectations…it is key in being a happy gardener.

How did your garden fare this winter? What are you most hopeful  for this season?

Holiday decor in the time of Covid

Amaryllis ‘Wedding Dance’ and Begonias with cut greens and lights

Yep, this year is different. Fear of Covid has canceled holiday gatherings, and the urge to go all out with decorating is met by some with the question, “should I bother?” The answer is yes, even if it must be simple. This year, we absolutely need to illuminate the long nights with strings of lights and candles, but maybe we can take a break from lugging boxes of Christmas ornaments from the attic. (The thought of putting it all away is a chore no one relishes!) Instead,  we’ll focus on bringing nature indoors with decor that is  gathered from the garden and (lucky us) , the greenhouse.

Succulents in shades of red, green and white sit on a tray with gathered moss. Even the Aloes have festive names: the tiny one in the foreground is ‘Christmas Sleigh’, just behind it is  Aloe ‘Blizzard’, with blue green Echeveria setosa dimunata flanking on either side.

a brilliant Guzmania with red spikemoss

fresh evergreen wreath cut from conifers in the garden.

So, yes to winter wreaths on doorways, garlands, and arrangements of cut branches with pine cones. Yes to forced pots of Amaryllis, Christmas roses and red and green leaved Begonia. We may bring in a potted evergreen from the nursery and simply dress it with lights. Some classic holiday music will set the mood, along with the scent of cookies baking in the oven.

catch early morning light in the garden

a fire brings light and warmth

a fire brings light and warmth to end the day

This may be the year when we can’t physically gather with friends and family, but we can find peace and hope in nature’s gifts. Be outside as much as possible: take an early morning walk to catch the bird song or build a fire at dusk. Perhaps these simple ways of acknowledging the season,  more akin to the ancient winter festivals of northern Europe, will become a new tradition.

bottom lighting sets off this white Amaryllis

Peace and joy to you all!

Stay well!

Demystifying Seed Collecting: Harvesting, Storing and Sharing

nasturtium babies

nasturtium babies

It started with a nasturtium seed in a paper cup. Oh so many years ago, my first grade teacher instructed her classroom of 6-year olds how to plant the round nubby seeds. Within a week or 2, the first beautiful leaves broke through the soil. I have been smitten with germination ever since.

Many folks sow their are own annual seeds, but not so many give perennials a try. It is important to note that in recent years seed sown perennial selections have dwindled at garden centers.  Wholesale suppliers now favor the patented sterile clones that some say boast more uniform growth. (Hey control freak gardeners, it’s time to let go of that! )

honeybee on a single white Chrysanthemum

Upon becoming a beekeeper 5 years ago, I got a wake up call that seed-grown perennials provided more pollen and nectar, which in turn nourish our honey and native bees.  Our plant selections now include many more seed sown strains of perennials, shrubs and even trees, and this is the trend we foresee for other small specialty growers.

This brings me back to the importance of this topic:  seed collecting. Here are more reasons to encourage you to  harvest your own seed.

  1. To be able to propagate more plants for new garden beds
  2. To preserve strains that you find remarkable
  3. To be economical  (seeds are getting expensive)
  4. To participate in seed exchanges.  One benefit of joining various plant organizations such as the Hardy Plant Society or the North American Rock Garden Society is you have access to their seed exchanges. Share your seed with other members, and get access to many varieties not found at the local garden center.

peonies…the blue fruit are the ones that have fertile seeds

The first question many first time seed collectors ask is when should they harvest seed. This varies from plant to plant. You do need to collect seed as soon at it ripens, before the pods or capsules burst and dispense. Seed ripens at different times on different plants throughout the year so you need to pay close watch. Spring bloomers like Primrose and Vernal Sweet Pea ripen in June and early July, while on a late August day, the pods of species peonies burst to expose their bright red and blue fruit (the blue seeds are the fertile ones). Bluestar seed pods are ready to collect in early September, while it may be late October before you can harvest seeds of Compass Plant.

Our changing climate will challenge any timing rules. However, I just came across a website which may be of great help  the Seed Site .  It has a wealth of information on what pods and ripened seed look like on hundreds of different plant species.

Clockwise from top left: Cynara cardunculus, Galtonia viridiflora, Talinum paniculatum

Once you collect your seed, you should clean off the chaff and store in a cool dry spot in paper or glassine envelopes.  Make sure there are no tiny insect pests hanging out in the capsules. Some seed, such as Arisaema (Jack in the Pulpits) and Hellebores benefit by being stored enclosed in a moist paper towel inside a baggy, and kept in the refrigerator until spring.  Remember to label right away. You think you’ll remember, but…

The proper time for sowing and seed treatments differ depending on the plant. There is no one source that has complete information, but we often refer to the Jelitto Seed Website for germination tips. 

I encourage you to save your own seed. Yes, there is always more to learn,  but once you start you will gain confidence.  Go outside now and see whether you have a windfall of seed ready for harvesting.

Houseplants’ Summer Vacation is Almost Over

Doesn’t it happen so suddenly? One week temperatures are in the 80’s with nights still mild, and then one morning you wake up to find that the overnight temperatures dropped below 50F.  If your tropical houseplants have spent the summer outdoors, this is your cue to start bringing them indoors.

First: Groom and Assess for Pests

Your Peperomia, Ferns and Snakeplants have probably put on nice growth over the summer, benefitting from the good air flow and more humidity. Now, as the days become both cooler and shorter,  your houseplants may begin to let go their oldest leaves. Groom and assess for pests. Pest problems that are minor outdoors become a bigger deal inside.

I find that there are often a few slugs or snails hanging out under the pots. Remove them. We began using a food grade diatomaceous earth to deter slugs on our container plants and recommend it. The teensy particles are sharp enough to inflict cuts on their bodies. It is advisable to wear a mask so as not to inhale the small particles when applying. Dust the soil and even the foliage if you notice that your leaves have been munched on. The diatomaceous earth also seems to deter other pests.

Be on the lookout for aphids on fresh new growth, whitefly on the leaf undersides and mealybugs in leaf/stem crevices. Sometimes a forceful spray with the hose can take care of things, but I recommend a follow up using a safe organic pesticide like Insecticidal Soap for aphids or a Neem Oil product  which can control not only aphids but whitefly, some mites, caterpillars and scale.  Use rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip to swab and kill mealybugs. (Inspecting regularly and catching the first signs of activity is the best defense; if you discover a plant has a bad mealy problem it is best to just ditch that plant).  Be sure to follow the instructions on the product label, and repeat at the recommended intervals as a preventative for any new hatching. Do isolate any problem plants. 

Hold back on the fertilizer

All plants will slow down in growth, so you may want to wait to repot any oversized plants until spring. Slow down on fertilizing unless you have  a plant that is a heavy fall or winter feeder.

Most succulents can take cooler nights than the tropicals, but don’t let them get bitten by a frost. For more info on succulent wintering over I’ve written  more extensively on this topic at  this blog post link.

 

Quick Container Rehab

Nothing stays the same, and this is especially true with gardening. A container planting can look great for 2 months and then an issue arises…a focal point plant gets leaf spot or melts with the humidity, or it just stops blooming.  This doesn’t mean you have to ditch the grouping. You just need to edit.

Blame it on the humidity or uneven watering, or gardener’s neglect (I’ll be honest) but the showy orange Begonia bolivinensis just began to look awful with leaf spotting. Spraying with a fungicide would only prevent new leaves from being affected, so the only thing to do was to remove this sad plant and find a worthy replacement. Sad because the hummingbirds sure did visit frequently.

This spot gets a few hours of the afternoon sun, and we’ll have summery weather for at least another 6-7 weeks, so I decided on using orange flowered Cuphea ‘David Verity’ (for the hummingbirds) which never disappoints and will flower until a hard frost. I also had enough space to tuck in a dwarf variegated papyrus  (Cyperus albostriatus) , (you can always count on foliage plants). Although it likes moisture I’ve found it can tolerate dryish conditions.

I am guilty of overplanting a container, in case some plants just don’t perform, figuring I can always thin out the planting later. This pot with Verbena bonariensis, Lantana montevidensis, Gomphrena ‘Truffula Pink’ and Euphorbia Diamond Delight needed editing. The Angel Wings Senecio candicans really started to go downhill once the humidity arrived in July.First  I brought down the height of the Verbena bonariensis by removing the tallest stalks. I cut back the Lantana and the Gomphrena to allow the Euphorbia to own more space. And out came the Angel Wings…lesson learned…not a plant for southern New England summers. Next, I fertilized with fish emulsion to give a nourishment boost to the planting.

Later, I’ll post how these containers fared when I do the end of September evaluation.

2019: A Spring to Remember

A favorite vignette with Enkianthus c. ‘Sikokianus’ and Acer palmatum ‘Chishio Improved’

It’s been a while since we’ve had a cool, moist  (wet…maybe really wet) lengthy spring.  Most years, April gives us a wintry mix; we get 2 weeks of spring in May, and then summer-like weather hits us by Memorial Day and we soon start praying for rain. Not this year. The flowering trees and shrubs have been putting on a show unlike any other year in recent memory.  Here are a few joyful images from the past 6 weeks.

Arisaema fargesii foliage emerging

Glaucidium palmatum, the lovely wood poppy bloomed for us for the first time!

Art imitating Life

Clematis recta ‘Lime Close’ growing up through Kolwitzia

Leucosceptrum ‘Gold Angel’ effectively disguising Allium foliage!!!!

Kolwitzia ‘Dreamcatcher’, aka Beautybush’

Epimedium ‘Domino’ has continued to throw off flowers since late April, and here it is mid June!

Paeonia ‘Bartzella’

Right now the variegated Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ is stunning with thousands of 3-4″ flowers.

What plants totally blew you away with their beauty this spring?