Category Archives: Slow Flowers

In Bloom for the Winter Solstice

A number of years back, one of the seed exchanges we belonged to listed Pycnostachys urticifolia, aka Blue Witch’s Hat. How cool, I thought, and with a common name like that, maybe it will be in fun bloom for Halloween! I clicked the “add to order” box without doing any more research.

The seed arrived and it was then that I sought the technical data:  Pycnostachys urticifolia has deep cobalt blue spires, with a noted bloom period of late fall into winter. It is not hardy here in southern New England…it winters over outdoors only in zones 9-10Blue Witches Hat grows quickly from seed and can flower the first year, with an eventual height of 4-5′. It is considered a shrub where it is hardy but its late blooming time hinders its sales potential  as a tender perennial in colder climates (which might explain why it’s seldom seen on plant lists). If you want to grow it on well you will need indoor space, either a greenhouse or a large sunroom, but what a treat it is to see its conical spires of intensely colored indigo blossoms on the shortest days of the year.

Lucky us, we have a greenhouse and now, at the Winter Solstice,  Pycnostachys provides us with lovely stems to add to a holiday bouquet of white variegated Boxwood and silvery Elk Horn Cedar cuttings.

Would you make room for this in your indoor winter space?

 

Winter Wreaths: Thoughts and Tips

A 26″+ diameter wreath featuring selections of Elkhorn Cedar, Hinoki Cypress, Korean Arborvitae and Curly Willow.

I purposely titled this post Winter Wreaths, not  “Christmas” Wreaths. This isn’t a political statement but a simple acknowledgment that Winter Wreaths have pagan roots. At the Winter Solstice, the early Northern Europeans created wreaths to symbolize the circular rhythm of the seasons. Winter wreaths made from freshly cut greens will last well into February. There’s no need for red bows and Christmas tucks when you use beautiful plant material.

Detail of a wreath featuring Elkhorn Cedar, Cryptomeria and Hinoki Cypress.

Wreath making is a family tradition worth keeping. For years now, I’ve offered “The Day after Thanksgiving”  Wreath Making Workshop here at Avant Gardens (an alternative to mall shopping) using cuttings and branches gathered from our garden and nursery. Of course it helps that the many conifers we planted years ago have matured to give us ample material to work with (and I’m able to get in some much needed pruning at the same time!).

Many Hinoki Cypress branches in various shades of gold and green, some bearing delightful cones. (Note the leaf undersides facing up.)

So what are some of my favorite conifers to work with?  Early on I learned that Spruce and Fir, often used in commercial wreath production, did not prosper here in southern New England;  both prefer cooler summer climates. However, the many selections of Cedar do thrive: Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa cv.), Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), Korean Arborvitae (Thuja koraiensis glauca prostrata) and Elkhorn Cedar (Thujopsis dolobrata)  offer a variety of texture in shades of gold to darkest green. If you live in warm winter climates, you  have different options…I want to make a wreath using various  asparagus ferns and semi tropical evergreens.

Notice I placed some of the conifer branches so that the back side faces up...it reveals a delicate tracery, and a lovely silver color in the case of Korean Arborvitae and Elkhorn cedar.   Last year our native red cedar, Juniperus virginiana had an amazing blue berry set. Alas, this year was disappointing; there was no fruit to speak of and I worry about the poor birds who relish them. What will they feed on instead?

A wire box wreath form is covered with moss plus gathered dried fern leaves to create the base.

Our holly cultivars regularly produce a great berry set thanks to our pollinating bees. We grow ‘Blue Princess’ (Ilex x meserve cv) and  the smaller leaved Ilex x pernyi ‘Dr. Kassab’.  We have the native American Holly in the woods  at the back of our property, but they are a tad more prickly. I also use other broadleaf evergreens such as Boxwood, Inkberry, Laurel, Andromeda and even Ivy, but take note. Broadleaved evergreens desiccate quickly, especially indoors. To compensate I use a wreath base wrapped with moist sphagnum moss. Keep the moss hydrated and your holly wreath will stay fresh much longer.

Working clockwise, bunches of branches and stems bound on using 22 gauge wire. It is important to pull the wire tight as you work.

More and more people are finding the informality of foraged plant  material preferable.  Use woody plant stems with a wilder character, such as curly willow, rose hips, winterberry, or various colored osier dogwoods.  Search for moss and lichen covered twigs that may have fallen to the ground after a windstorm. Collect dried grasses and seed pods to add a variety of textures.

Let it be wild. Resist the urge to make your wreath too balanced and neat.

if you haven’t done so already, and are inspired, take a walk about your property to see what branches you can gather. Don’t hesitate to experiment; that’s what wakens your inner child and makes your wreath an original.

Note:  Please, do not harvest greens and cuttings from public spaces or private property without permission.

Growing and Forcing Witch Hazel

Hamamelis x ‘Feuerzauber’

Hamamelis x intermedia commonly known as Witch Hazel is one of the first shrubs to come into bloom in cold winter climates. We usually see our first flashes of color in February,  but some gardeners were reporting that they were seeing blooms even earlier this year. Often you first  realize they are in bloom when a waft of their sweet fragrance fills the air. 

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Witch Hazels set their flower buds during the previous year’s growing season.  Outdoors, once plants have experienced a 6-8 week cold spell followed by some mild moist weather, the spidery flowers will begin to open. It is after this cold stretch that you can begin to cut branches for forcing. If you have a nice big plant in your garden, why not sacrifice a few budded stems for indoor arrangements? Simply take your cuttings, splitting the stem at the base for better water intake, put the branches in a vase with warm water and wait a few days. 

Hamamelis x ‘Arnold’s Promise’

If you are thinking about adding Witch Hazel to your garden, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Give plants room.  Slow growing at first, Hamamelis can get quite large with age. Expect plants to grow 8-10’ or taller and 10-12’ wide. They enjoy full sun or partial shade, and well-drained soil.
  2. Winter food for bees. Honeybees will seek out their blossoms on those occasional late winter/early spring warm days in the 50’s.
  3. Flower buds form in summer. If you cut back plants in summer and fall, you will sacrifice next year’s blossoms. 
  4. These winter blooming varieties are hybrids of the Japanese (H. japonicus)  and Chinese  (H. mollis) forms, and are grafted on native Hamamelis rootstock. Sometimes strong branches will break below the graft, and you might notice, in autumn, that these branches will bear yellow flowers of Hamamelis virginiana. We strongly recommend removing the branches that break below the graft because the fall blooming native plants are more vigorous and may overwhelm your winter blooming stock.

    Hamamelis x ‘Jelena’

  5.  Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids, grow well in sun or partial shade, and  in well drained soil.  ‘Arnold’s Promise is a classic cultivar with fragrant lemon yellow blossoms.  ‘Diana’ has orange red blossoms, and ‘Jelena has amber to orange spidery petals. All develop nice fall foliage colors. Create a little vignette by underplanting with Hellebores and early  flowering bulbs like Snowdrops, Crocus and early Narcissus.

Buy Hamamelis online

…wish you had a Winter Greenhouse?

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The Aloes begin to bloom in January

Maybe it’s a luxury, or maybe not…

One of the perks of running a nursery is that on any winter morning I can walk out to the heated 100′ greenhouse and smell the promise of spring. We can’t afford to have the heat cranked up….the thermostat is set at 55F in the warmer half, just enough heat to keep our Begonia collection from pouting . The rear 50′ section drops to 45F at night, and this is where we store our Salvia, Phormium, tender succulents, and plants for forcing.  As the daylight hours gradually increase, early blooming plants set buds and begin to unfurl.

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Today’s arrangement of cut and forced material, including Daphne, Hellebores, Echeveria, Aeonium , Begonia and Ivy

Up until a half  century ago, it was not uncommon for gardeners to have some form of greenhouse structure to protect tender plants, force bulbs and other flowers for arranging, grow herbs and to get a start on seed sowing. For the most part these were not formal glass houses, but homemade lean to’s and pit frames built into a south facing slope or dug into the earth to take advantage of geothermal warming. These “pits” were excavated to a depth of 4′ or more, with hay bales tucked along the perimeter for insulation. Recycled window sashes were used to allow light into the frames, as these were the days before plastic and polyethylene.

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A dear gardening friend, Elinor Malcom, who was one of our nursery’s first customers, loved her “pit” in Carlisle MA. where she wintered over many treasures including a collection of Camellias that belonged to her mother. Ellie’s mom had been an accomplished gardener and was good friends with Kathryn Taylor, who co-authored with Edith Gregg, the book Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sun-heated Pit, first published in 1941, now out of print.  My husband Chris was lucky to find a copy in a local used book store sometime ago. (PS…your library may have a copy!)

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pages illustrated with early photos of pit frames

This practical book does go into the how-to’s of small greenhouse growing, but I think the authors hit a happy nerve with their enthusiasm for solar pit houses. Ms. Taylor and Ms. Gregg showed how, with a little Yankee ingenuity and thriftiness, the average home gardener could have the luxury of blossoms and greenery during the winter months without electricity or heating units. The prose is entertaining and easy to understand and there are a number of good technical illustrations as well as charming B & W photographs.The women shared not only their successes but some of the pitfalls they encountered (no pun intended). The last chapters focus on recommended plants for winter forcing. I was greatly impressed with their expertise and ability to use materials  that were easy to be had without great expense, and I loved the simple but direct dedication at the book’s beginning: To the husbands who dug the holes”.

An online search indicated Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sunheated Pit is available as a used book on Amazon, but I would also recommend checking out second hand book shops.  For those who are interested in learning more about constructing a pit greenhouse, check out these links: Mother Earth News,  Inspiration  Green, and Solar Innovations. There are now many publications on the subject, some more suited to commercial growing.

Wouldn’t it help you to get through the winter if you could walk out your door after a snowstorm and bring in a gathering of fresh flowers and greenery?

Made Good on One Resolution

slowflowercollage2015I didn’t make good on all my promises for 2015, but I was resolute to make more fun time in the garden, and to create an arrangement, once a month at least, from plants found around my nursery and gardens. Let me present my 2015 Slow Flower Calendar.

Starting in the upper left frame and  across, the first is gatherings of lichen, bark and cones during January. Some months had fewer color options, but I found there was always something new to discover and play with. My office window sill was the spot that had the best light for picture taking…notice the changing color background.  December’s composition is a wreath using some of the same found materials that I began the year with. This resolution demands repeating, don’t you think?

Happy 2016 everyone!

Using Hellebores as Cut Flowers

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

The end of winter is upon us and the first Hellebores have begun to open, providing lush exotic blossoms for Slow Flower arranging, at last. I couldn’t help myself a couple of weeks ago and cut a bouquet from plants growing in the cold frame. Alas, after only a few hours, they had begun to flop over and looked wilted in the vase. I don’t recall this happening before, so I did some research.

Here’s a little botany. There are basically 2 categories of Hellebores: the caulescent group, which means the blossoms are born in multiples on stems produced the previous year (includes the species foetidus and argutifolus) and acaulescent group, which send up flowering stems from the plants base as winter’s end draws near (i.e. the orientalis hybrids, commonly known as Lenten Rose). In the past few decades, breeders have been crossing the 2 groups and we now have hellebores that fall somewhere in between.  The acaulescent types, meaning the showy Lenten Roses, should be picked when the flowers have aged a bit and the ovary (the seed pod in the center) has begun to swell, which is the same time that its pollen and anthers will have begun to drop. These slightly aged blossoms last longer cut (in the past, I must have unwittingly cut older blossoms). If you must pick young just opened buds, cut short stems. Note that the caulescent types, such as H.  foetidus, hold up better without flopping.   Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’, shown here, is a cross between the 2 types, and offers the best traits of both.

Cut stems, Hot water, Dip cut stems for 30 seconds

Cut stems, Hot water, Dip cut stems for 30 seconds

The next step is to condition the stems in hot, almost boiling water. Dip the stems into hot water and let sit for 30 seconds. Remove, then place in a vase of water with a tiny bit of vodka, or about 1 T. vodka per quart of tap water.  I have read that some people skip the hot water treatment and instead sear the stems over an open flame, but that makes me hesitate.  Hellebore blossoms will hold up longer in a cool room.

Do you have a tip that you would like to share for keeping Hellebore blossoms fresh?

Winter Gatherings

lichenpot1web

Thursday morning it was 0 degrees F. The last 2 days it has made it into the 20’s…there is a dusting of white stuff on parts of the garden, and it does glisten in the early morning light, adding icy pastel tones. Still, I can’t help but become impatient with this cold snap. This is the time period when sourcing local material for Slow Flower Arrangements gets limiting. The garden is offering less and less, except for the last of the red twig dogwoods, the holly fruits, and of course, the various evergreens. I wanted to create an arrangement to honor January….but didn’t want it to sing Merry Christmas.

Perhaps there would be botanical wonders in the woods behind our house…lime green mosses, perhaps, or some other little bits of color which would nod to early winter, yet offer interest and promise. Too cold to unearth moss though; silly me, it all was frozen solid to whatever surface it clung too. There were, however, fallen branches everywhere covered with lichen, in lovely colors of an almost iridescent silver green, and also another form we call Old Man’s Beard in pale sage…color shades I always return to…cool, tranquil, mysterious.

There were some “freeze-dried” mushrooms attached to some logs which I pried loose, and of course pine cones dotted the woodland floor. I gathered what I could and returned to my workspace. At first I thought I might try a faux bois style centerpiece, but then I spied the planter bowl I had bartered succulents for with a ceramicist I knew. Lovely bowl…interesting botanical artifacts….I had enough to create something pleasing to look at.

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Winterberry and Willow Wreath

wreath_winterberryFB500 Each day grows shorter, one by one, until the winter solstice, and we are all craving more color and light.

To brighten the darkest days I created this sunburst of a wreath making use of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Curly Willow (Salix matsudana) from the garden. Branches are clipped and tucked in a sphagnum moss covered frame.  This is a wreath for outdoor display as heat and dryness will hasten the berry drop…. I’d also recommend  wall placement as opposed to hanging on a door. The repeated opening and closing jostles and loosens  the fruit, and could be a little messy.

I’ll report back how long it lasts outdoors….at least through the New Year I hope, unless the birds think its their holiday present.

The Slow Flower Challenge

SLOWFLOWERS

A possible collection of stems and fruit inspired by Slow Flowers

Yesterday, I did the perfect thing on a rainy November day. I attended a thought provoking lecture by Debra Prinzing , author of the best selling book Slow Flowers at Blithewold Mansion and Gardens annual fundraiser luncheon. The phrase Slow Flowers is a take on the Slow Food Movement embraced by the food industry with its focus on sustainability, using local crops and food products. By supporting the Slow Flowers movement Debra is encouraging us to not buy imported cut flowers from South America, Europe, Israel etc. (just think of the fuel costs, pesticide use, and more). We should look to what is in season. Much material is waiting to be picked in our backyards, on our windowsills or being grown by local flower farmers and in nearby greenhouse operations.

In her book, Slow Flowers, Debra illustrates how she took on the challenge of creating flower arrangements using only locally sourced material each week of the calendar year, including winter. I think her title is a bit misleading;  some of the plant material she uses, especially during the winter months, is in the form of foliage, branches, fruit and seed pods, when flowers are more limited. Totally cool…sometimes limitations make way for creative thinking. Yes, Debra is from Seattle, a climate which is kinder than what we have here in New England, and one would expect she has more plant options. Still, I left feeling committed to take on this challenge. Maybe not a different arrangement every week, but once or twice a month could be doable.

COLLAGE.WEB

TOP L-R: Asparagus, Aster ‘Ezo Murasaki’, Stewartia, Hakonechloa.  MID: Hydrangea quercifolia, Viburnum, Cardinal Candy, Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Hydrangea paniculata.  BOT: Spirea ‘Ogon’, Chrysanthemum ‘Wil’s Wonderful’, Kolwitzia ‘Dreamcatcher’, Acer shirasawanum ‘Jordan’

So today, November 7th, I began the challenge. I gave myself a half hour to select plants. A walk about the garden revealed a vast array of choices. I decided to limit my palette to these 12 selections.

novbouquetWEB

November 7th arrangement

Here’s the result. When it comes to botanical arrangements, I prefer the “just picked from the garden” style…not contrived or fussy, but exuberant in that cornucopia kind of way, with some unconventional stems tucked in for surprise. Maybe when winter cuts my supply short, I’ll explore the more minimalist style of Ikebana. Are you inspired to take on this challenge? Let me know what discoveries you find locally and that are in season.  

I plan to post an image of what I find and come up with for my next arrangement on the Avant Gardens Facebook page in a couple of weeks. “Like” us if you haven’t already done so to follow my postings. I’ve also been asked by Debra Prinzing to post images at #slowflowerschallenge # slow flowers on Instagram. You can enter your slow flower arrangements there too.