Posts Tagged With: plants

Memorial Day, and the Persistence of Memory

It’s Memorial Day weekend, the official kick-off to summer. In a few hours, the Indy 500 will start, and grills around the country will fire up. But to me, Memorial Day always meant two things: the race on the radio, and ants.

Peonies and ants: pillars of my childhood.

When I was a child, we would head out to the cemetery to decorate graves sometime Memorial Day weekend. And our decoration of choice was peony. Lovely, glorious peony, whose giant pink or white blossoms can make up a bouquet out of three stems. Peony, that flowered in profusion in late May (spring came later in the ’80s than it does now). Peony, that hosted enough ants to populate a couple hundred ant farms. Continue reading

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Down with Boxwood (Can I interest you in some nice germander, maybe?)

That’s right, I said it. I don’t like boxwood. I realize that may make me the only garden designer in North America who doesn’t care for members of the Buxus clan.

Boxwood used as a hedge. Tidy, green, and pretty, right? Not so fast.

I know why designers love boxwood. The pros are numerous:

1. It has lovely, shiny green leaves.

2. It is evergreen, which is never something you should overlook in a location with miserable winters.

3. It handles shearing just fine, which makes it well suited to hedges and topiaries.

4. It’s a go-to plant for creating instant formality. Plunk down some boxwood around some pavers and you have instant English courtyard.

But even with all this in its favor, I have three reasons to avoid using it:

1. Boxwood is expensive. It takes a long time to grow from cutting into saleable size, so it is proportionally more expensive than many other shrubs.

Boxwood with winter kill. Not so pretty now, huh? Photo from

2. Boxwood is prone to winter kill in Indiana. I have cut more dead out of boxwood in customers’ gardens than I care to remember. And it’s hard to achieve that lovely, smooth green hedge look if you have to take out 1/3 of the shrub to get rid of the dead, brown branches.

3. Boxwood smells like cat pee. I have three cats. I know cat pee when I smell it.

Right, so maybe I don’t hate it. I just don’t think it’s a good plant for Indiana. Boxwood has its place. That place is England, where it grows into luscious hedges and perfect topiaries because it doesn’t have to contend with bitterly cold winters. I’ll also give it most of the southeastern United States.

I was once in an antebellum garden in South Carolina where the miasma of boxwood hung so heavily you could practically cut it. The box were beautiful and green, carefully shaped to give the garden definition. The green, the thick smell, the air of swampy Southern living–that’s the right place for boxwood.

Boxwood has become so ubiquitous in garden design that it can be tricky to find substitutes for it. Holly is a lovely evergreen, although it doesn’t shear as well as box does. Yew tends to get pretty big. Some designers recommend euonymous–sheared on a monthly basis, I would guess–but if there’s a plant with even fewer right places than boxwood, it’s euonymous.

That's germander, right there next to the tulips.

I have found a substitute for a very low hedge, though. I’d like to ring my front-yard circular vegetable bed with an evergreen hedge to give the garden more structure. Germander fits the bill nicely. Teucrium chamaedrys is evergreen, with shiny little leaves. It gets about a foot tall and takes well to shearing. This herb even flowers; purple to pink blooms appear in late spring. I’ll be planting it about a foot apart, allowing the individual plants to grow into each other.

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The Garden Tour (or, how I talked about plants for four hours)

Huzzah! The Irvington Garden Tour today was a resounding success. I'm not sure how many people came through, but I made about 200 maps (see previous post) and we went through all of them. Despite the occasional threatening cloud, we had gorgeous weather: blue skies, light breeze, and temps in the mid-70s. CAS and son came over to help out; Calvin spent a goodly part of the afternoon mowing my sidewalk with his plastic mower. Amy F. volunteered for ticket taking, along with a couple of other lovely women. And the people were wonderful.

I spent almost all four hours in the back garden expounding on my garden, gardening in general, and cultivation of some specific plants. I answered lots of questions, and several plants came up over and over. So here's the Irvington Garden Tour FAQ, Fraudulent Farmstead edition:
Spiderwort (Tradescantia andersoniana 'Caerulea Plena')
This unassuming shade plant was an object of intense interest by visitors, partly because it's one of the few plants that flowers well in shade this time of year. It has long, strappy leaves and a scrambling habit. The blue flowers bloom in clusters in the morning, but close up by late afternoon into buds that resemble bunches of grapes. In my garden, it blooms from late spring through mid-summer. It can't handle sun, so give it full or part shade and ample moisture. Wikipedia has this to say about spiderwort.

Anabelle hydreangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle')

This old-fashioned hydrangea sports giant clusters of white blooms that dry well. It's best in a part-shade setting, since full sun can fry it, but full shade inhibits its growth. Anabelle generally gets about 4 feet tall and equally wide. Best of all, it loves Midwestern humidity. It blooms on new growth, so in late February or early March, whack it back to the ground. You'll get stronger, less floppy stems and more blooms. Here's the Wayside Gardens entry for Annabelle.

Endless Summer Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla Endless Summer)

This relatively new mophead hydrangea blooms on both old and new wood, so you are guaranteed blooms even in the event of a late frost. Don't prune it at all, unless a branch breaks off or something. Full size is about 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide, but my four-year-old plants are still at about 2.5' x 2.5'. These hydrangeas do best with protection from the afternoon sun and a lot of moisture. They'll be pink in alkaline soil, which is what most of us in central Indiana have. If you want them to be blue, you need to acidify the soil. You can use aluminum sulfate, elemental sulfur, or the old-fashioned method, burying rusty nails in the soil. I only need to correct soil pH every two or three years. Here's more about Endless Summer from Wayside Gardens.  

Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia and Lavendula x intermedia)
Lavender is my favorite plant; contrary to what you've heard, you can grow it in Indiana. The trick is to find plants well adapted to Zone 5. My favorites are Lavendula angustifolia (which is narrow-leafed or English lavender) 'Hidcote' and 'Mustead' for their dark purple blooms and intense fragrance. Lavindin (Lavendula x intermedia) varieties 'Grosso' and 'Provence' have long stems ideal for crafts and are particularly good for Indiana. Plant them in full sun in little hills amended with some sand to improve the drainage; they don't like wet feet or rich soil. At the end of the summer, cut off the flower stems to shape the bush into a globe. In late February or early March, cut them back by about 1/3. Don't cut into the brown, woody part, though; they won't releaf from the woody stems. Expect about a five-year life span for each plant. Wikipedia has more info about lavender here.
Caryopteris (aka Blue Mist Shrub, Blue Beard, Blue Mist Spirea)
This shrub sports small purple flowers when it starts blooming in August, and it keeps blooming through frost. Butterflies love it. I can't remember the specific variety I have, but the mature size is about 3' x 3'. Cut it back in late February to early March to between 6 and 12 inches; it flowers on new growth. It roots easily too; after a few years, you may have little shrublets for your pals. It likes full sun; in my garden it gets eastern light. It will tolerate less-than-stellar soils. This Bluestone Perennials link is for Caryopteris Longwood Blue.
Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena)
This full-sun annual fills in among the perennials in my rose border. It self-seeds like crazy, but any unwanted plants are easy to pull up. Its flowers look like bachelor buttons, but the ferny foliage is soft. The white, blue, and purple flowers are followed by seed pods that look like little lanterns. I think my Nigella is the Miss Jekyll Blend, so that's what I'm linking to. 
It was a fabulous day, and I loved talking with people about my favorite plants. Thanks to all who visited!

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Wholesale Euphoria

I mentioned in my last post that Terry took me to a local wholesale nursery last week. We needed to pick up shrubs and perennials for customers, as well as annuals to keep on hand for container gardens.With Buster the dump trailer attached to the pickup truck, Terry and I rolled out of Irvington at 7:00 to make it to Brehob's at the 7:30 opening.

Turns out, there is an entire hidden valley in Indianapolis I knew nothing about, and it is filled with plants–rows upon rows of hoop houses filled unto bursting with trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals for sale, to say nothing of the miles of extra plants being fattened up for sale. And because we're "in the trade," we can buy our own plants at wholesale when we buy for customers. It's a good thing we only go very occasionally. Taking me to the wholesale nursery is like holding a Weight Watchers meeting in a chocolate factory. Frankly, my willpower is just not that good.

Naturally, Brehob's doesn't want a bunch of plant fanatics like me roaming the place and messing with their system. After checking in at the office, we drove to the nursery section (trees and shrubs) where we were met by a nice guy driving a miniature John Deere truck ("Gator," Terrry informed me–the truck, not the guy). We handed him our list and followed him around to hand pick our shrubs. I knew from the web site that they were out of the deutzia I wanted, but I did score an excellent ninebark–'Summer Wine.' By the time we left the nursery section, the truck bed was loaded with bayberries, grasses, dogwoods, and my pretty little ninebark.

We headed to the perennial hut, where I spent most of my time loading everything Terry picked out into Buster the dump trailer. Unfortunately for Terry, they were out of black and blue salvia, which means that Amy F will continue to poke at him for bogarting all the available salvia on the last Brehob's trip, leaving her without any. I lusted after a plum-colored geranium, but decided the scorching on the edges of the leaves was a bad sign. I went with a plum-colored huchera instead ('Chocolate Ruffles').

With time growing short and the sky starting to look ominous, we hit the annual hit. I bought about four flats of annuals, plus some enormous coleus. I couldn't find prices for a lot of things, so I did some guessing. 

By the time we headed out at about 9:30, we had a trailer and truck bed loaded with plants covered with tarps, and I was in the hole to Terry for about $100. Still, for the number of plants I bought, that's a pretty good deal.My ninebark and huchera have settled into the shade border, and the coleus is planted in a recycled metal container to fill out a bare spot there. The window boxes and porch containers are overflowing with white geraniums, purple salvia, and hot pink verbena. 

And a flat of lisianthus awaits planting in the rose bed. The potting bench has been painted and awaits only my BF arriving to help me move it into place. The garden bench needs one more coat of paint, then it too can take its place in the garden. There's still a lot to do, but I may make my party deadline after all!

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I've always believed in planting what grows easily in my yard. Not thugs, mind you, that completely overtake the garden beds and have to be rooted out one damn tuberous rhizome at a time (lily of the valley, I'm looking at you). But I do not believe in fussing over my plants. If they can't make due with well-composted soil and an occasional supplemental watering in the dead of summer, I don't need them.

The thing about growing what grows well is that eventually it's going to start muscling in on its neighbors. Then it's time to get the shovel and whack out some clumps, transplanting them elsewhere in the yard. This process is euphemistically called "editing." Other forms of editing include moving a plant to three different places in the yard to find a spot where it does well, yanking out plants that are past their prime, or rearranging the entire planting scheme by digging it up. "Editing" is the gardening equivalent of forced relocation.

Today I edited. CAS put in a new garden last year and would love some pass-alongs. As the iris was slowly disappearing into the hardy geranium currently in bloom, I pulled out the shovel and sawed off a few clumps of the geranium for her. I also moved the white Siberian iris from along the fence (where I'm planning to put herbs) and into some bare spots between the caryopteris in the garage blue-and-yellow border. They'll be almost completely engulfed by the caryopteris when it leafs out, but that won't be until later in the summer, well past the irises' bloom time. In the process I divided those. I heaved the clumps on the ground, put the point of the shovel in the middle of the root mass, and jumped on it. Voila! Multiple iris plants. And I'm pretty sure they'll do just fine, even though they weren't divided in the fall.
Many will say you should only divide perennials when they are resting: in the spring for summer- and fall-blooming plants (such as asters or coneflowers) and fall for iris and geranium. I say that's all well and good, and it does improve your chances of successful transplant. But my babies are all pretty hardy and unlikely to take offense at an out-of-season move, provided I keep them watered. Besides, I like the instant gratification of moving plants when I get an inspiration. Also, I had to jump on an shovel jammed into the root mass to separate the iris. It's not a fussy plant.
I'm just saying. Plant what grows well. It cuts down on headaches, you'll be able to take lots of divisions and give them to your friends, and you'll become very popular at the garden club meeting. 

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