Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Can You Keep a Secret?

Enduring beauty
This pretty little pink heather, blooming in the teal blue pot on my rosewood side table, is dead.  That's right.  Dead as a doornail.  Crispy as well-done bacon.  Devoid of life, it's now just a lovely dried flower.

I bought this little plant (alive and well) last fall at a Southampton nursery.  It was displayed among the colorful ornamental peppers and hothouse chrysanthemums.  I thought it would make a nice indoor plant that could be transplanted outdoors when the flowers disappeared. Surprisingly, the flowers never did disappear.  Its enduring beauty was also its downfall.  Displaying no dehydration, I continually forgot to water it.

So for my friends who tell me that you don't have a green thumb, this is a perfect plant for you.  If it dies, no one will know.  It'll be our little secret.

Dead or alive? I'll never tell.

Monday, February 27, 2012

And the Winner Is...

Inspired by last night's Oscars, I thought it might be nice to give a shout-out to the stars of my garden last year.  Overall, it turned out to be one of the best seasons (even though Hurricane Irene stormed the stage during Act III).  Stellar performances were made by both established plants and young, rising stars.

My first award goes to the best "comeback".  After several seasons of lackluster presentatons, Hydrangea macrophylla 'Nikko Blue' came back this past season with the most blooms ever.  Following a spectacular opening in June, this hydrangea returned to the stage periodically all summer with fresh, blue flowers.

Nikko Blue hydrangea
Best overall performance last year was from the June blooming Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa). Huge, creamy blooms covered every branch.  Unfortunately, this woody star always needs a season off following such a packed performance.  2012 will predictably be a less inspiring show.

Kousa dogwood
The award for best plant in a supporting role goes to my Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are so easy to grow.   I use them all over the garden to help frame other plants, fill in large shaded areas and add low-maintenance drama.

Ostrich fern
The best new performer of the season was the Echinacea purpurea 'B's Knees'.  I discovered this new star at a local nursery last year.  Its deep magenta color and lower height made this coneflower perfect for the expanded bed behind the pool.

B's Knees coneflower
Best visual effects goes to my favorite autumn performer, Aster oblongifolius 'Raydon's Favorite', which took on a more important role after being divided to fill a much larger stage.  The huge drift of blueish-purple asters seem to echo the fall sky.

Raydon's Favorite aster
And I have to give a lifetime achievement award to Hemerocallis 'Hyperion'.  Like Meryl Streep, this icon continues to give strong performances every season.  Tall, bold and fragrant, Hyperion daylilies put on a show not to be missed in my Hamptons Garden.

Hyperion daylily
 I thought we should have one award for a foreign production.  One standout from my trip to Italy last year was this purple bearded iris.  I have always loved this type of iris, but have yet to plant any. Maybe this will be the year to put one to work in my show.

Purple bearded iris in Florence, Italy
With the wacky weather we've had so far this year, it's anyone's guess which plant will steal the spotlight in 2012.  So stay tuned.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Another Must-Have for Your Bookshelf (and iPhone)

Recently, I proclaimed my adoration for The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  Today, I'd like to share with you my go-to book for trees and shrubs.  Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopediaby Michael Dirr was one of the most useful birthday gifts that I've ever received.

When I was given this tome, I was just beginning my garden (click here for a look back at my blank canvas).  I desired trees and shrubs that looked natural but also added some drama.  Of course, I also needed them to be suitable for my specific climate and growing conditions.

Each Saturday morning at the breakfast table, I would start flipping through this book filled with hundreds of landscape and close-up shots of woody plants.  When a tree or shrub caught my eye,  I would stop and read Dirr's personal comments about the candidate, allowing me to judge its suitability.  Along with his personal experiences, Dirr shares the plant's potential size, appropriate growth zones and origins (very helpful when trying to choose native plants).  He also lists well-known cultivars and varieties.  After shopping through this book, I would then visit local nurseries trying to find my chosen specimen—often with book in hand.

Dirr also wrote a companion book, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.  This was included with my initial gift.  This manual gives much more detailed information on each plant's growing requirements, complete descriptions of leaf/flower shapes and colors, line drawings to help identify leaves and buds, and thorough descriptions of cultivars. I've learned that both of these earlier books are now merged in a revised edition, Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.

Sometimes, I can be a bit old-fashioned.  I still like printed books.  However, Dirr's Tree & Shrub Finder app for the iPhone is truly amazing! (At $14.99 it's the most expensive app I've purchased thus far, but I know it will get a lot of use.)

You can search for plants by common name or scientific name.

Don't know the exact plant you want or need?  You can search by light demands, moisture requirements, hardiness zones, plant size, growth rate, foliage type, flower color, blooming season, etc.

It's filled with photos so you can hold it up to your garden and see how a plant might look there.  You can also leave the big books at home. Take the app to the nursery.  How convenient!

Whether you're a print book person or a digital person (or both like me), Michael Dirr makes it easy and fun to choose the best trees and shrubs for your garden.  However, you're still stuck with the hard work of planting.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Caffeinated Garden

Attractive and transportable container
A little coffee gets me going every morning.  Believe it or not,  it can also perk up your garden.  A while back, a contributor to an online garden forum mentioned that she saved her coffee grounds to spread over her garden.  She said it would enrich the soil and attract beneficial earthworms.  So rather than dumping my spent grounds in the trash,  I stated dumping them in the garden.

An article that I read from Sunset magazine reported that these grounds provide generous amounts of phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and copper.  As the grounds decay, they also release nitrogen into soil.  After several seasons, I have also noticed an increase in earthworms in my Hamptons garden.  In return for this tasty treat, these ground dwellers have been aerating the soil as they burrow.  A perfect symbiotic relationship.

Running outdoors after each brew with a dripping filter became a bit too much for me.  I found a countertop compost container that looked similar to my other ceramic storage canisters. With its charcoal filter, it keeps my coffee refuge odor-free.  When my gallon container fills up,  I go out and lightly spread the grounds over the beds and lawn.  I do this all year long, including winter.  In spring, I also mix some grounds into the potting soil mixes that I blend for container plantings. Those hard-working annuals need a daily fix too.

If tea is more to your taste than coffee, don't fret.  I discovered a while back that Starbucks has a "Grounds for the Garden" program where they actually package their used grounds in five-pound bags and give them away free for the asking.  But it's best to call ahead.  Those baristas go through a lot of grounds, but don't start packing them to take away until you ask.

So during these cold mornings when you're savoring your cup of Joe, don't forget to spread the love.

Fueled, in part, by coffee grounds

Monday, February 20, 2012

Season of the Witch

Great shrub.  This post has moved to my new and expanded website.  See the original post by clicking on the link below:

Witch Hazel

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Roses Are Red — Just Not Here!

Geranium 'Orkney Cherry' with ultra
pink petals and white throat
On this occasion when millions of red roses are gifted,  I thought I'd share my aversion to pure red flowers in my Hamptons garden.  This might be a shocking admission from a plantaholic that rarely meets a flower that he doesn't fall in love with.  But for me, pure red just looks unnatural in all but the most tropical garden settings.  I also consider pure red to be too bold, stealing that the show from all of its quieter neighbors.

However, add a little blue or yellow to the pigment and my opinion changes pretty quickly.  Even a little brown tones down pure red,  allowing it to play well with others.  So in my garden, you will find various shades of pink, orange, violet-red, fuchsia, wine, brick-red, plum, magenta, etc.  Just not a pure red.

Berry-red Monarda 'Raspberry Wine'
Design experts say that when choosing colors for your interiors, look at your own wardrobe for colors that you truly love and can live with.  I think that's equally true of exteriors spaces.  If you look in my closet, you won't find one article of pure red.  So like my garden in summer, I am personally more likely today to be donning cerise than the color of the red roses in your bouquet.

Nevertheless, I wish everyone a very Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Favorite Book on Perennials

Over the years, I've collected many gardening books in an effort to teach myself the fundamentals of horticulture and to provide inspiration.  But one book on perennials stands out among the others: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.

I bought my first copy in 2004.  Just as this lifesaver was getting pretty dog-eared, Tracy released a new and expanded edition in 2006 with more advice and pictures.  So I had to buy that one too! It's as well-worn as the first edition now.

Because of her many years as a garden designer, Tracy can share hands-on experience.  Her counsel on planting and tending to perennials is thorough, yet easy to understand.  It's a great gift for new gardeners starting their first perennial bed.

Her book starts out with soil preparation.  If you haven't discovered this yet, perennials are far more finicky than most woody plants when it comes to soil conditions.  She also provides valuable sections on pruning, dividing and deadheading.

One of the most lasting lessons I learned from Tracy was that with pruning you can control perennial height.  If you have a plant that tends to get tall and fall over, this technique is great.  My Cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) now stands strong at five feet instead of falling over at its naturally taller height.

She also suggests pruning to extend or delay blooms.  Each year, I prune my native Asters, Wild Bergamot and Culver's Root in May to delay blooming by a week or so.  With the milder winter this year,  our growing season could come early.  Delaying the bloom period for a few perennials this year may ensure that my summer blooms aren't all gone before August.

This book also has an encyclopedia of perennials in the back.  This illustrated guide clearly describes many popular perennials that Tracy has grown, sharing the maintenance needed to make sure they perform well.   I find myself checking with this guide often when considering a new plant.

If you have this book, I don't have to say much more.  If you don't, I know it will make a great edition to your gardening library.  Happy reading!

Rudbeckia laciniata standing upright at a reduced height

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rock Climbing in the Hamptons

Hamptons Garden has moved to a new website with more room and expanded picture galleries.  To find this post, click below:

Rock Climbing in the Hamptons

or visit my home page at:

Hamptons Garden

See you there!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Green Gene

Jim Carter
Today is my father's birthday.  He passed away suddenly in 2010.  I think of him often while gardening.  Like me, he was a hands-on gardener with a passion for plants.  My brother is also an avid gardener.  I guess, in our family, the green gene is dominant.

His garden was his domain and hobby.  He never required his children to work in the yard, but encouraged us if we were interested.  And when we did help, it never felt like chores.  I think that's why I find gardening now enjoyable and not burdensome.

Growing up, I remember him constantly in the yard even during the hottest summer Saturdays.  He would go out early and work all day in the Arkansas heat.  His lawn was always immaculate.  He would mow it himself and then trim the perimeter carefully with an electric edger.  Hand watering was a daily chore in the dryer months,  returning him to the yard after supper to soak the grass and potted plants.  In the fall, Dad rarely let leaves stay on the grass for more than a day.  It was like a contest between him and the trees.

Dad was also very handy.  He didn't just build planting beds.  He constructed his own hardscapes, including concrete paths and brick patios.  One year he built a fountain, hand forming the oval basin and pump housing with concrete.  (This water feature served as a temporary refuge for a catfish we caught one summer but couldn't bring ourselves to eat.)  Dad also built a small greenhouse with recycled windows and plywood.  He would overwinter many of his tender ferns and larger potted annuals.  He also used this space to propagate geraniums and begonias.  One spring, he loaded up our red Radio Flyer wagon with his surplus of young plants for my brother and I to peddle door-to-door.  I don't remember making much money, but it did represent our first (and only) official family business.

He grew a few perennials, but he mostly planted annuals each year.   I know that starting over every spring with flats of annuals was a lot more work than relying on perennials.  He even grew banana trees as annuals.  Arkansas winters were still too cold for this tropical plant, so he dug up the banana corm each fall, wrapped it in newspaper and stored it in the crawl space under the house.  Each spring, he would bring it back out and plant it again.  When I went to see him for the last time, his banana tree actually had bananas!

On his last visit to my Hamptons garden he remarked at the diversity of my plant collection.  I was so happy to take him on a tour pointing out plants that he had never seen down South.  But he did recognize one plant, a mock orange.  I had taken a division from his Southern garden one year to see if it would grow in my Northern garden.  It survived and thrived, providing a wonderful connection to Dad's garden.

So on his birthday, I would like to dedicate my garden to my Dad who cultivated my green thumb, allowing me to have a beautiful garden and beautiful memories.  Happy birthday.

A mixed bed with the annual banana tree

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Top Garden Mail-Order Companies

Monarda 'Raspberry Wine'  from
Bluestone Perennials
Hi there. This post has moved to the following link with full lists of companies and descriptions:

My Favorite Mail-Order Companies

Monday, February 6, 2012

You've Got Mail

Just as the influx of post-holiday mailers started to dwindle, my mailbox started filling up with tons of gardening catalogs.  I'm not complaining.  In fact, these colorful brochures brighten gray winter days with promises of beautiful blooms ahead.   

If you're a plantaholic like me, these catalogs will immediately spur you to spend.  But wait!  Before you go to your phone or keyboard, let me share some of my tips on mail-order shopping.  After years of mail-ordering, I have learned some good lessons and enjoyed some fantastic plants.

Winter eye candy

1. Shop with a Purpose
I've purchased many alluring mail-order plants with no idea for their placement.  These impulse purchases sometimes wither and die in their plastic pots before I find them a perfect place (if I actually ever do).  I do much better with some sort of plan.  For example, if I need a punch of yellow in a mixed bed, these catalogs with their colorful photos help me quickly sort out some options.  In the past, I've even cut out catalog pics of interesting plants and arranged them on a board to compare their compatibility with regards to color and shape.  The final arrangement becomes my plan.

2. Be a cautious shopper
Don't be fooled by the glossy pictures.  Not all mail-order sources send healthy plants.  I'll share my personal favorite mail-order resources tomorrow.   In the meantime, check out Dave's Garden Watchdog, providing customer reviews for thousands of garden companies.  I frequently refer to this online listing when I discover a new mail-order resource.

3. Skip the usual suspects
If a cultivar is really popular, expect to find a bigger and possibly cheaper plant at your local nursery.  I have been known to hastily order popular perennials online in early spring before the local nurseries stock up.  Just as my pocket-sized purchases arrived at proper planting time, I found more mature plants of the same perennial at my favorite local nursery.  

4. Try something new
These mail catalogs (and their websites) have introduced me to quite a number of plants that I could never have found locally.  I love growing out-of-the-ordinary perennials and shrubs.  Locally, trendy cultivars now replace many of the heirloom plants.  And, ironically, my best introductions to native plants have been through mail-order resources, not local growers.  My only advice when trying something new is to read and match the suggested growing conditions as best you can.

Long before they were sold locally, I found 'Raydon's Favorite' asters from a mail-order source

5. Patience is a virtue
Unfortunately, that big, beautiful plant blooming in your catalog will not arrive as pictured.  Production and shipping costs require most mail-order sources to send young plants.  Perennials will mature within a season or two and fill in nicely.  Most plants experience less transplant shock when younger anyway. Small shrubs and trees will take longer to mature than perennials, but I think watching a plant grow is part of the fun of gardening.  My favorite resources (list posted tomorrow) tend to ship bigger and healthier sizes.

This expansive patch of 'Hyperion' daylilies started off as 24 fans (divisions) from mail-order

6. Don't expect miracles
I love to push boundaries, but I've learned that you can't grow sunflowers in the shade or azaleas in dry sand.  The real lesson for me was to read and believe the growing advice printed in the catalogs.  Many of the better nurseries base their cultural information on real-life experiences. Trust them.  I've tried to outwit Mother Nature many times and lost.

7. Read the fine print
No two sources are the same so carefully read ordering information for each.  It'll provide shipping policies, delivery charges, plant size options and guarantees.  Many of these are small businesses so understand that they give you as much information as possible so you can make educated decisions.  If you have any questions, most nurseries can help you over the phone (email is like snail mail during prime season because they are generally out in the nursery, not at their desks).

8. Order early
If you have your eye on a particular plant, it's best to order early.  The closer it gets to prime planting season, the greater the chance stock will run out.  Plus many catalogs run preseason discounts.

9. Don't over do it
They say don't shop for groceries when you're hungry or you'll buy too much.  Similarly, the bleak days of winter can make us buy too many colorful additions to our garden.  And even if you do have a place for everything, do you actually have the time and energy to prep beds and plant huge deliveries of boxed plants before they die unattended?

10. Provide a welcoming reception
These babies have traveled for some distance and possibly handled by some pretty careless mail carriers. Open them up as soon as you can.  Gently lift them out of their packing and give them a drink of water. Keep them sheltered a day or two to get them acclimated to their new climate before planting.  And, if you've ordered too many to plant in a timely fashion (like I usually do), tend to them frequently as their small containers dry out easily.

Most of my native azaleas come from mail-order

Happy shopping!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Just Call Me Minnie Pearl

I've been called worse.  While growing up down South, if you wore new clothes neglecting to remove the price tag, you might be called "Minnie Pearl". Minnie was the popular Southern comedienne, starring on the long-running television show Hee Haw,  who was famous for wearing a new hat with the price tag proudly visible.

My "Minnie" moment occurred recently as I inspected my Hamptons garden.  I observed quite a few new shrubs that I planted in 2011 with their price/ID tags now prominently visible among the leafless branches.  For me, it doesn't reflect boasting, but my usual eagerness to get everything planted. Stopping to take off the tags before planting might actually slow me down a few seconds.

The plastic tags are pretty harmless, but the metal wired tags can eventually bind into a shrub's bark as it grows.  So it's a good practice to remove them all before the shrubs really start growing.

$22.99 for a healthy Rosa 'Blanc Double De Coubert'
The leafless months are a perfect time to find and remove those forgotten tags.  But don't throw them away.  I save all my plant tags that list plant names and/or growing information.  I just drop them in a folder for future reference. They come in handy when I'm confused over the exact cultivar planted years before. In addition, the listed growing info may give me some idea why a plant doesn't perform as expected.  It's also interesting to see how prices have risen over the years.  The price of a Rudbeckia a few years ago was $9.99 compared to $11.99 last year. (20% increases add up!)

My folder of tags is quite full these days so I need to come up with a more organized way to save these.  If you have an idea, PLEASE share.

And if you're curious, the price tag on that beautiful hat above with its everlasting flowers was just $1.98.   Less than the cost of a four-pack of annuals today.