It’s been a cool spring here in the Northeast. I keep looking at the thermometer and shaking my head. Is it really 50 degrees? Seems like 40 degrees. Is it going to frost over tonight?

But there is one thing frosty I look forward to this time of year: Brunnera ‘Jack Frost (Siberian Bugloss)’!

Here it is pictured with Geranium maculatum (Hardy Geranium), Geum borisi (Avens) and Heuchera ‘Georgia Peach’ (Coral Bells).

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ maintains it’s variegated silvery white leaf all through the season, because it’s variegation goes all the way to it’s root system. ‘Jack Frost’ is a sport (mutation) of it’s parent plant Brunnera ‘Langtrees’  Brunnera macrophylla ‘Variegata’ is a less stable variegated Brunnera which can revert to all green if it receives too much sun.

Which ever Brunnera you choose you’ll be delighted with it’s adorable tiny light blue flowers. Real blue, not purpely-blue. It has a beautiful clumping habit, and slowly spreads rhizomatously (by underground rhizomes). When the tiny blue flowers are done you can enjoy the silvery white leaves all year long!

Plant Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ in consistently moist but well drained soils in a shady spot. Much like the  cultural needs of an astilbe. It is not tolerant of dry overly sunny conditions.

You’ll love it!


Regretfully Yours

April 30, 2011

One of humankind’s most wasteful emotions is regret. In a recent article, life coach, Martha Beck aptly explained: pondering for more than one moment the result of an action, albeit accidental or premeditated is like wrestling with reality. Deal with it and move on.

That goes for gardening too. We’ve all had our misjudgments, we’ve rued the day when we installed a renegade plant that for slight lapse of sanity has caused un-tolled hours of disruption to our lives.

I, for example, once planted Veronica chamedrys-Speedwell, for its lithe blue mist of flowers.

I merrily spread it from one end of the border to the other. I soon learned that it is a formidable opponent.  I planted it with the full knowledge of a customer who yearly purchases a truckload of it while we secretly wonder when he will be indicted for selling weeds! Yes, I invested in this demon. It’s a low growing happy-go-lucky plant whose growth habit is the very cornerstone of the description of “dense mat”. I often dream of borrowing the super-collider from Brookhaven Lab and nuking it to kingdom come.

We recently performed an intervention at the nursery, counseling a customer against purchasing Physostegia. “It’s by far the most disobedient plant I’ve ever encountered,” I offered.

   Physostegia or “Obedient Plant” is named for the fact that you can bend the stalk into an        unassuming position and it will stay that way, is really a ploy to distract you from the root    system that will propagate itself with every yank of this colonizing hooligan.  Unless you  are four years old, or a florist; who cares if you can bend the stem in any direction? There are  those who swear they can not get this plant to grow in their garden. and others who adore it.  Either way I have to wonder if Physostegia is not a candidate for The List of Regret.

Lysimachia numalaria aurea-Creeping Jenny, is another for the list. I see it rampaging across a garden conquering every square inch with a facile thirst for life. I half expect to see it grow across the lawn up the porch, in the back door and across the living room floor of one residence I tend. While I fancy the way it lights up the underpinning of the 20 foot tall Cedar tree it was meant to brighten, I do not appreciate my efforts enveloping every plant in its path. At least it’s banana/chartreuse glow makes me smile, despite my..ahem…regret at it’s very sight. 

Lobelia siphilitica

Once again, beguiled by a blue hue, Lobielia siphlitica hypnotized my senses and I broke down and planted it. For four years now, I have been ripping this plant out. Its benign plain -Jane quality escapes detection, unless a trained eye is scouting for it. One swift yank and its tangle of tell tale stark white roots are laid bare. Each one of those heavenly blue flowers must broadcast millions of seeds, and they do not give up sprouting year after year; decade after decade.

“The only good Onethera is a dead Onethera,” I found myself muttering yesterday. I see miles of Evening Primrose in my dreams, smothering and gilding every piece of ground in sight. I honestly can not fathom how certain plants do not cover the entire earth like a sci-fi garden gone wrong. With over 300 species to choose from, it’s quite confusing as to which variety actually opens only in the evening.

Will I ever get that last rascally piece of veronica chamedrys? I find myself vowing to never to plant it again…….. unless…. in great swaths that will fill in rapidly for maintenance free miles of color. Great drifts of girlish blue and stylish bananna/chartruese, and those impish twirling stems of physostegia, Onethera Siskiyou trailing wistfully…………. uhmmm…..never mind.

this article appeared in its original form in The Landscaper


May 11, 2010

Want an easy to grow perennial offering long lived color in late spring? Give Geum coccineum ‘Borisii’ is a great addition to the front of the perennial border. Geum is especially unfussy in northern climates, but will need afternoon shade if planted south of zone 7.

It belongs to the rose family and sports dainty five petalled flowers borne along wiry stems that grow 8″ or so above the 6″ medium green foliage. The leaves are incised providing texture when the plant is not in bloom. ‘Borisii’ has cheerful tropical orange flowers that spruce up the garden. It is disease free and pest free, requiring well drained soil.

Geum c. 'Borisii'

 After the flowers bloom I dead head them back to the next set of leaves to encourage another flush of flowers. But the spent blooms are fuzzy and cute as they are. Check out Geum c. ‘Lady Strathaden’ a bright sunny yellow version.

Snow In Summer

May 1, 2010

There is a wonderful perennial called “Snow In Summer”  (Cerastitum biebersteini) it is a cascading rock wall plant with gray felty leaves and an abundance of white flowers in -well, in summer, May and June. It is mat forming and requires sandy or well drained soils.

After it flushes out with it’s masses of white flowers it needs to be trimmed back to keep it tidy and to avoid and die back of the foliage.

Snow in Summer

but, there is another Snow in Summer I am familiar with,

As the petals of this Crab Apple fall each season, I can sit in the warm sunshine and enjoy they snow fall as my garden gets polka-dotted by the soft white petals.

Part I:
It was my intention to add perennials to my garden this year that would entice the butterflies to stick around. Every year Monarchs and Yellow Swallowtails flit through my yard, daintly sipping from the many butterfly bushes (buddlea sp) I have cloned and planted throughout. Last year I was honored to make the aquaintance of a  Giant Lepoard Moth, nearly three inches across vivid white with dark circles. At my insistance my entire family had to meet it and not long after that I realized I wanted to see what else I could draw to my yard.
In reading what makes butterflies feel right at home, it seems that I have merely been offering a dining hall to the adult of the species and completely dissing the little critters in all their previous incarnations. How Rude! That’s like opening a buffet and only serving purreed foods, thus aiming at those toothless foodies and totally ignoring fanged guests.
Well turns out that if you want to cultivate a varied faction of fancy winged butterflies and moths you must offer a host plant/tree for the mother moths and butterflies to lay their eggs where they will be safe, and offer delicious host plants for her voracious young to feed on as they instar through to the point where they pupate. And then you must supply a sturdy and guarded area for the little caterpillars to do so, and then when they emerge from their cacoons (moths) or chrysalis (butterflies) then they will be free to frolic on the types of plants that mature butterflies and moths sup from.
Quite complicated indeed.
But, not impossible.

Astible My Heart

April 28, 2010

False Spirea (Astilbe) is a statuesque perennial whose blossoms begin in June with the resounding testimony of a true garden staple. Worthy of all garden settings; Astilbes are summer’s true handmaiden.  At April’s end coiled stalks emerge from cool spring soils like false fiddleheads. Covered with tender translucent hairs like a coat of whiskers, they reach back to leaf out around the end of the first week of May in obeisance to something much larger than all of us. Rich green and intense bronze foliage leaf out with the promise of June glory.
Following the spring progress of Astilbe persuades you to believe in the simple concept of garden trust. Trust in a plant so wonderfully useful that rises again and again with so little prompting. Faithfully submitting to unyielding conditions to perform so beautifully each summer, is indeed a declaration of this plant’s devotion.
False Spirea is at once a background plant and a foreground icon. It can serve as a jaunty ground cover, or round out a bouquet center piece (cut plumes when flowers are half open). A shady spot will reign in color when Astilbe are massed in the border.
The flowers form as open and airy plumes or plumes thickly packed with the star like flowers. The best way to keep Astilbe’s happy is to situate them in shady moist soil well-drained soil, with protection from afternoon sun. They can tolerate full sun, but will require more diligent watering and are pest free (including Deer!)  and low maintenance. If the leaves burn at the margins, then re-site them in a shadier spot.
Unraveling the different species will help decide which Astilbe will serve you best.
Astilbe biternata (False Goats Beard) is a native woodland Astilbe, which can grow to five foot with a spread of 24”-30”. It has well branched flower plumes and blooms in June. It requires suitable shady spot. Check out out Astilbe biternata ‘Bridal Veil’ beautiful white plumes that bloom in June grows to 28″ tall.
Astilbe chinensis – Chinese Astilbe is a later blooming species, good for carrying astilbe color into the end of July. Its foliage is deeply incised and coarse, and often bronze green in color. The flower panicles are narrowly branched. It is a good performer in moist soils, although it can be moderately drought tolerant. Try this shorter variety A. chinensis ‘Pumila’ as a great ground covers under trees.
Astilbe japonica (Japanese Astilbe) has an early bloom time (June) and glossy green leaves tinged with red and toothed. Its flowers are dense and in pyramidal clusters. There are tons of beautiful colors to choose from, like ‘Peaches & Cream’ soft light pin that mature to creamy white; ‘Sister Theresa’- large salmon pink flowers.
Astilbe simplicifolia has glossy medium green leaves which are lobed and divided, it forms compact mounds. It sports airy flowers and has ornamental seed head structures that give additional garden interest. It is slow to establish, and can take up to three years to mature and is less drought tolerant. This species works well in containers and inter-planted with Japanese Painted Ferns. ‘Darwin’s Snow Sprite’ is a favorite, it blooms later with clear white plumes over gorgeous dark green foliage; it looks great when planted enmasse.
Astilbe taquetii is an upright bloomer tightly branched and blooms in rose -lilac colors, it has medium green leaves. It blooms in July and August and grows to 42” tall.
Astilbe x thunbergii (Tall Japanese Astilbe) is a later summer bloomer with distinctive nodding flower clusters. It is a taller background plant with glaucous foliage. Good for grouping around a water feature. A. thunbergii ‘Ostrich Plume’ is a popular choice with pink flowers.
Extremely popular Astilbe x. arendisii hybrids boast of the most vibrant colored Astilbes to choose from. Developed by crossing several species, George Arends of Germany struck upon today’s most widely used cultivars. Blending A. chinensis var davidii strains with Astilbe astilboides and A. japonica and thunbergii, the results supply us with most of the astilbes you see on the market today.
And that is your Astilbe 101 crash course for today.

For those of you who were lucky enough to have a Nana who allowed you to have dessert first and then deal with dinner; you are going to appreciate this.
There are many plants that Flower First and Leaf out Last; thus confusing even the most savvy of perennial buyers. Theysee the plants in the nursery as a pot of dirt with a flower in it. They’re all “seriously, dude. Dude? What Is this? Seriously, dude.”
But this is what it does. Flowers First, Leaves Last. And that is so cool. Really, it’s like setting aside all of your expectations and receiving the Lotto win, before looking up the numbers. Or having the Fried Ice Cream before the broccoli. Why not?
Heres a short list of those plants you will be pleasantly surprised by:
Pulmonaria – Lungwort – Fancy spotted leaves provide interesting accent in the garden, but the flowers bud in early March and open in April when the leaves are still only as big as one knuckle length. Joyously colored,abundant purply-red, blue, dark pink on corymbs mature to blueish flowers. Rosettes of leaves plug on in the shade all summer long.
Helleborus – Lenten Rose – The winter die back leaves persist on Helleborus, while the early flowers find their way up to the light. Many varieties have nodding flowers, with the die-back leaves, but it flowers so early, who cares? After a few weeks the new leave sprout up with abandon and the flowers are steadfastly still hanging on. The leaves are evergreen, so what could be bad?
Epimedium – Bishops Hat – This low growing perennial is a tough customer, useful in shade and dappled sunlight and dry conditions. It bears starry flowers in the early spring before this ground cover’s leaves have a chance to really fill in. It naturalizes nicely and emerges with a red tinge to the leaves. It is pest and disease free to boot.
Mertensia – Virginia Bluebells – this outstanding woodland plant serves as a spring beacon. Stalks of beautiful nodding pinkish flowers emerge and turn a striking blue in spring and are over taken by the plain medium green leaves through the season.  These blue flowers just put a smile on your face. Plant in shady areas with moist soils. Remember that this mid-western native goes dormant in the summer heat, so interplant accordingly.
Bergenia – Pig Squeak – Bergenia is an industrial type of plant with coarse paddle shaped leathery leaves, but it sprouts pink to dark pink to white flower stalks in spring, before the large leaves unfold entirely. The stalks are thick and the flowers are undelicate, but provide a punch of color when we are all just waiting around for the season to star. Bergenia is a wonderful plant that tolerates a variety of soil and moisture conditions easily adaptable and very hardy, plant in full sun to shade.

The Score on Hellebore

March 13, 2010

My youngest daughter asked me what I was doing with so many books open on the kitchen table. “I’m reading about the topic for my next column.” I replied.
 “Oh, what are you writing about?” she asked.
 “Hellebore,” I said.
 “Mom! Don’t curse!” she said.
Frost nipped fingers and frozen toes aside, if you are patiently waiting for spring, keep your eyes peeled for one of the areas earliest blooming perennials. Helleborus is named from the Greek words helein –to injure, and bora- food, which tells you that it’s poisonous and doesn’t taste so good at all. Native toEurope and in the buttercup or Ranunculaceae Family, its leathery divided leaves are evergreen and deer proof making it a valuable landscape plant.
Helleborus nigeror Christmas Rose blooms the earliest, with wide white flowers, perking up out of the soil searching for a winter challenge. Its foliage is a duller green than other Helleborus. Hardy to Zones 3-8.
Christmas Rose is quickly followed by Helleborus orientalis, or Lenten Rose, sprouting nodding flowers in a variety of colors ranging from dark wine to blush pink, to stark white with any combination of spotted hues in between. It grows from 15″-18″ tall. Look for new cultivars of Hellebourus o. hybrids Immanence Series, from German breeder Josef Heuger who has over 30 years experience breeding Hellebores. The Immanence Series was bred for higher bud count; more compact plants with upright facing flowers, this series of  Lenten Rose will surely become a garden favorite.

Helleborus foetidus or Stinking Hellbore, is a taller species growing to 18″-24″ tall. It has a regal display of light green cup-shaped nodding flowers that are malodorous. The flowers provide a nice contrast to the foliage. I haven’t had the pleasure, but the word foetidus means fetid or stinking and I’ll just take their word for it. H. f. ‘Wester Fisk’ is a popular variety, with a red tint to the stems.
Practice patience when growing Helleborus, they can be temperamental, and are slow to become established. If you’re not having any luck, re-site it. Plant your hellebore in part to full shade and deeply rich soil. Most prefer moist but well drained soil. A some what sheltered place will help to eliminate the leaf scorch that can sometime occur. Since it’s such an exceedingly early bloomer you’ll need to plant hellebore near the house or walkway where it can be appreciated.  We’ve had several confirmed reports of Hellebores blooming right through May; surely these stands of Hellebores are really, really happy.
Be sure to ring in the new season with Hellebore, it’s a heck of an un-boring plant.

Don’t Mean To Bug Ya

March 12, 2010

In a word: chewing, piercing, sucking, siphoning, and rasping -o my!
Most dealings with insects in the garden have to do with the damage they do. By identifying the damage you can narrow down the culprit. The type of damage will fall into different categories which correlate to the kind of mouth part the insect that has.
If you are inclined to stop the damage you must know how it was done and by which insect.  You should keep in mind that the creature may be long gone by the time you notice the damage, or it may be in a form that no longer causes that sort of damage. 
For instance, the damage that a gypsy moth caterpillar causes can be extordinary. Caterpillars can be quite voracious in their feeding and their mouth parts are chewing with strong mandibles that can cut plant tissue. Generation after generation can repeatedly defoliate fully matured trees leaving them so stressed that they can not recover and re-leaf out in one season there by leaving them suseptible to completely dying off. You can spray a chemical onto the leaves of the tree that when injested by the caterpillars will be lethal. You’ll need to do it in a timely manner, because adult gypsy moths don’t have mouths, their sole aim is to mate and then they die. So spraying too late in the season is a waste of money, time and a dangerous gamble with toxic chemicals.
If you have leaf damage that shows a leaf completely chomped at or missing entirely, it is likely to be caused by an insect with biting/chewing mouth parts. If you have leaf damage where the leaf structure- the veins or the stem- remain but it the leaf tissue is missing its most likely caused by leaf skeletonizing beetles with chewing mouth parts. Many insects in the larval stage have chewing mouth parts.  Grubs (larva) that live in the soil will chew on plant roots often causing entire plants to wilt. Termites are another example of insects that have chewing mouth parts.
Insects with piercing sucking mouth parts can leave tell tale damage like yellow or discoloration of plant tissue, or browned off areas from plant cell death (necrosis). The insect’s proboscis is shaped like a straw but has a sharp pointed stylus to pierce plant tissue and suck the fluid out of the cells. Entire leaves can wilt from this type of damage.
Siphoning mouth parts work like a straw and the insect probes it’s proboscis into the flower or fruit and drinks from it. Little damage in left behind. Butterflies and Moths have siphoning mouth parts which are often coiled up out of the way. They unfurl their “tongues” and sip nectar from tubular-shaped flowers.
Insects with rasping mouthparts scrape the succulent parts of plants and drink the cell fluids that leak out. An excellent example are very tiny thrips and mites that can greatly damage flower buds and petals. The damage looks like browned off areas that are fragile and unsightly.
Flies have sponge like mouth parts that soak up their meals. Little pads on their mouth parts contain salivary enzymes that help digest their food.
Insects are an important part of our ecosystem, disrupting their life cycle can have ramifications beyond what you your end goal is. Many insects have preditors and natural biological controls that occur in nature without our interference. Insects are the life source for reptiles, fish and birds in your yard, which also enhance your garden and speak to it’s health. Insects play a vital role in life cycle of the garden and the soil as well feeding of decaying plant material and recycling them into the garden.  So, have a heart and luv a bug.

A Face Only Mothra Could Love

February 27, 2010

The PBS special “The Beauty of Ugly” profiles the ‘ugliest’ creatures on earth. While being captivating on the can’t-stop-watching-the-train-wreck-level,

 We have to stop and consider the fact that perhaps these animals were not having a good hair day. Or perhaps these insects are from the outer fringe of the bug world, the ones that got away having been the really really handsome candidates.  
There’s an interesting segment of the show profiling Oklahoma’s Microscopy Society to raise awareness of microscopy techniques and promote science interest within the school systems. They have been featuring  an annual  Ugly Bug Contest  since the program’s inception in 1997.
Mostly I find insects to be a source of great amusement, not to mention the reaction most humans have to them.
I probably spend too much time wondering about them while I’m gardening, and if a Praying Mantis wanders along, I will put down my shovel and marvel at it until it goes home or the sun sets.
I do have a limit to how much consideration I can afford them, before I get too skeeved out. But mostly I get quite a kick out of them. They are very curious, and durable little creatures, with greater import and intent than we give them credit for.
Check out this year’s contestants for the most Ugly Bug Contest!