Saturday, September 10, 2016

I'm Little But I'm Loud!

It has been a tough year in the garden at Wits' End.  A long, cold, late spring that kept temperatures below normal and soil saturated well into May made for a tough start for things like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.  When the heat did arrive, there was no sliding into summer, but rather a headlong dive into home plate (90+ degrees) accompanied--at my house, at least--by weeks on end of no rainfall of any kind.  By mid-July, we were more than 10 inches behind on precipitation for the year and in the midst of a severe drought.  And did I mention that while I was leading a tour in Ireland in late May and early June, what I can only assume must have been a herd of bison-sized rabbits moved through the garden like a locust plague and gnawed any and every plant they could reach completely to the ground?  I returned from Ireland 48 hours before a group of nearly 60 people were to arrive for a garden tour to find total destruction and disarray.  

Through it all, though, there were a few survivors. The rabbits--for whatever reason--missed two of my 'Candyland Red' cherry tomatoes, a new All-America Selections winner for 2016 that I was trialing and I have to say, it has turned out to be the "little tomato that could"!  Dainty and attractive in every aspect, from foliage to flower to fruit, I love it just as much for its ornamental character as I do for its tiny, but supersweet fruits that pack a flavorful punch!  Its stems are dainty, also, so it needs a bit of support (you'll see one of the cage wires in the photo below), or you can let it scramble through your flower beds (yes, you can plant vegetables and flowers together--it's 2016, after all!) and lean on its neighbors for support.  I find it nice to walk the garden each morning, seeing what's new and snacking on a handful of tiny tomatoes along the way.

My All-America Selections trial package arrived a bit late this spring--too late to start the cabbage, kohlrabi and a handful of others before the heat of summer set in, but thankfully, here in the South, those are perfect autumn crops and I'll be sowing them in the coming days and making a full report as they grow and mature.  I also have some pumpkins coming along and if I can keep the squash beetles at bay for just a few more weeks, might have enough for a Halloween jack-o-lantern or two. I'll keep you posted!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Back Where It All Began

Just a quick post--mostly pictures--of a recent trip that I took home to Kansas. After speaking in Kansas City, I spent a couple of days with my parents and managed to get out with the camera a time or two.  I love sharing the back roads and Kansas has plenty of them to discover!
A sepia tone version of the old grain elevator at Lasita, Kansas. Now a ghost town, Lasita was once an important stop on the LK&W Railroad.

Looking out across the prairie, trees were always an indication that fresh water--a river, creek, stream, or spring, was nearby. Cottonwoods, in particular, were indicators of fresh water.

Watercress (with the round leaves) is an edible green that only grows in the freshest, cleanest water sources. You'll rarely, if ever, find it growing in a sluggish, muddy stream. It is always in the cleanest, clearest streams and springs. Here, it grows with a tiny species of Equisetum, also known as horsetail or scouring rush.

The water in this spring is so clean! Everything in the photograph is underwater, even though it looks like the upper portion of the photo may be the creek bank. I assure you it's not!

There are no trees I love more than these big, old burr oaks that have been standing on the prairie for a century or more (some of them two centuries, easily).

These old back roads are the roads of  my childhood, where we would go fishing, exploring, or just out for a Sunday drive. There were many Sunday afternoons spent on these old roads with my grandfather.

Pillsbury Crossing, near Manhattan, KS, was a flat, shallow, stone ledge in the river where, unless it had just rained, the water ran only 3 or 4 inches deep over the rock. It was a very popular crossing for wagon trains as the settlers expanded westward across the prairie.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Emerald Isle and Virginia Garden Week

 I am very happy to FINALLY announce our first two travel destinations for 2016! The end of April finds us closer to home than usual, but visiting some truly remarkable gardens during Virginia's Historic Garden Week. We'll also see some sights in Washington, DC!  Beginning the last week of May and carrying over into early June, we will spend 10 days exploring the stunning gardens and countryside of the Emerald Isle. We're off to Ireland!

Please email me at and I will be happy to email you itineraries of your very own!  I hope some of you will join us!

Historic Virginia Garden Week
April 21-29, 2016

Spend a week with us visiting some of the most exceptional historic cities, homes and gardens that Virginia has to offer, as well as the most famous monuments in Washington, DC!

COST: The cost of this trip is $2,200.00 including accommodations, bus travel to the gardens, and all meals included in the itinerary.  If you have traveled with Garden Travelers previously, the cost is $2,100.00 per person.  If you have traveled with Garden Travelers on four or more trips, please ask about your special price.

DEPOSIT OF $5OO.OO DUE BY FEB. 15, 2016.  FINAL PAYMENT DUE MARCH 15.  WE DO ACCEPT VISA AND MASTERCARD. A fee of 2.5% will be assessed for credit card payments to cover the fees charged by the banks for processing. Payment in full will gladly be accepted at any time. Deposit will be fully refundable before February 15, 2016. After that date, see our return policy in the “Terms & Conditions” below.

AIRFARE:  Airfare is NOT included in the price of this trip. All participants will be given the name and location of the host hotel in Alexandria, Virginia (you will fly into Washington, DC) and will be responsible for their own transportation to the hotel prior to 6:00 p.m. on April 21, 2016. The tour will officially start with a Welcome Dinner for the group that evening.

Email me at for an email 

copy of the fully detailed itinerary and pricing!

The Emerald Isle
Dublin and Southern Ireland
May 25-June 7, 2016

Bantry House & Garden, one of the most stunning homes & gardens in Ireland!

Blarney Castle, where you'll have the chance to kiss the Blarney Stone!

Corke Lodge and its exceptional exotic garden!

Helen Dillon's world-renowned garden in Dublin!
These are just a small sampling of the beautiful gardens we'll visit. For a fully detailed itinerary with pricing, email me at

COST: The cost of this tour is $4,295.00 per person based on double occupancy and a minimum of 20 travelers. Single supplement is available upon request.

PAYMENT SCHEDULE: A deposit of $1,000.00 per traveler is due at the time of booking. Deposits will be refundable until February 15, 2016. Payment in full is due no later than March 25, 2016. We will gladly accept payment in full at any time.

INCLUDED: Daily breakfast, some lunches and dinners as described in the itinerary, hotel accommodations, transportation by private coach, entry fees into all places visited by the group as part of the itinerary, fees/tips for the local guides hired as part of a site visit.

NOT INCLUDED: Airfare, travel insurance, any meals not described in the itinerary, bus driver gratuity, any personal travel (taxis, trains, buses, etc.) that participant chooses to use during free time. 
AIRFARE: Garden Travelers does not book group or individual airfares for the majority of our trips. This allows our travelers to use airline miles or credit card points to pay for their airfares through direct association with the airlines, which they are unable to do through our company. We are, however, happy to assist anyone who has questions and will monitor and happily recommend flight itineraries that seem reasonable and will get you to our designated meeting point on time.


Monday, December 28, 2015

What Happened To Winter?!?

What happened to winter?

I've had so many messages either by email or on Facebook that I thought addressing everyone's concerns here would be a great way to officially re-launch the blog just before the first of the year. So, here we go.

El Nino. El Nino is what happened to winter. Hanging out over the northern Pacific, El Nino has rearranged our "normal" (whatever that is these days) winter weather pattern and brought the warmest, mildest late autumn and early winter (remember, winter did just officially start one week ago today) in recent memory. Considering that the past two winters have been two of the coldest and snowiest on record in at least the past 25 years--and in some places much longer--this one is feeling quite tropical! I did work in the garden most of the day yesterday in a short-sleeved t-shirt, after all!

No need to belabor the fact that it is warm, though. We all know that by looking around at the garden. Things are happening that just shouldn't be happening at this time of year and we're concerned, right? Right. Well, mostly right. Some things are happening just the way they're intended to, while others are cause for some concern, so let's try to sort that out.

What am I worried about? None of it, really. Plants are resilient characters. Do I have some plants that are blooming far earlier due to the incredibly mild temperatures we've experienced so far this season? Yes. Is there anything I can do about it? No. Will my plants die because of it? In all but the rarest cases, they will not. Yes, I'll lose some blooms. Yes, the buds on the quince that are expanded FAR too much for this early in the season will probably freeze and I'll have little to no show in a couple of months when it should be the star of the garden, but those are the breaks. That's life in the garden.

Will the Lenten roses survive? Yes. Will their flowers get frozen? Some of them, yes, but it really depends on the plant. Helleborus niger, for instance (aka the Christmas rose), is flowering absolutely normally and at just the right time of year. You can't fool it, and the temperatures can get well down into the twenties and even the upper teens (Fahrenheit, for those of you who read the blog in other parts of the world--we still use it here) and the blooms will be just fine. If a few of the wide open blooms get frozen, more buds will appear from below ground and new flowers will appear. This is especially true of the newer hybrids like 'Jacob' and 'Josef Lemper'.

Helleborus orientalis 'Sally'. These fully open blooms will hold up well, even down into the 20's, but if we get into the teens, the blooms will probably be lost. The plant, however, will re-grow normally in the spring.
I'm a little more concerned about some of Helleborus x hybridus types that are flowering WELL ahead of their normal season, which usually doesn't begin until late February. They are fully two months early and some have flowers completely open. These will probably get frozen, as we'll most assuredly have some temperatures cold enough to kill the open flowers. Those that are tightly budded and whose buds are still hovering at ground level will be just fine. They're built to withstand the cold, so don't despair! And even for those with flowers fully open, the plants themselves are not at risk. You may lose this year's blooms, but the plant will grow normally in spring and will get right back to its normal cycle next year.

What about the cherries and the forsythia and the winter jasmine that I see blooming around town? What will happen to those? What about my saucer magnolia? It already has blooms, you know!

The answers to these questions vary, but here's the gist of it. The cherries you're seeing in "full" bloom now are almost certainly one of two varieties--Prunus subhirtella var. autumnalis or a hybrid called 'Hally Jolivette'. It is PERFECTLY NORMAL for either or both of them to flower during the mild days of autumn and into winter when we have one as mild as we've had this year. If you have 'Yoshino' or 'Kwanzan' cherries (far more common in the landscape), you'll notice that they are still tightly budded. They'll flower in spring at their normal time because they have to have a certain amount of cold weather to break their dormancy. We haven't had that cold weather, yet, so they're hanging out, cooling their heels until we do. Plants are so smart! The same applies to your apple trees, pear trees, fruiting cherries and plums, etc. etc. They have built in mechanisms that keep them from flowering too early and getting frozen (late spring frosts can get them, but they'll rarely--if ever--bloom in winter). As for forsythia, a few blooms may open now, but most will be saved for later. No worries there. And the winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is a risk-taker, anyway. Some years we get a full show and some years we don't. Enjoy it now! The same goes for the saucer magnolias. You can't cover a big tree with a sheet and its blooms are so cold sensitive that it wouldn't do you any good, even if you could. Choose your battles!

I am sad about my quince. Its spring show is one that I look forward to every year, but its buds--while still tightly closed--are expanded so far that they are showing color. If winter continues to be mild and we don't experience temperatures too far down into the teens, I may be lucky enough to still get a show. Quince is very tough! But-- when the buds are expanded far enough to show color, they are much more susceptible to cold damage, so I'll just hope for the best.

The quince is really budded up and even showing some color. I figure it has a 50/50 chance of flowering. If temperatures cool down, the buds can stay like this indefinitely and bloom normally in late February or early March. However, they're showing quite a bit of color and if we have temperatures down into the single digits (or even low teens) the show is probably over for this year. These things do happen!

Some plants that I am truly concerned about in the garden are some of the ephemeral spring wildflowers. While doing some cleanup yesterday, I found Trillium luteum, our native yellow trillium, pushing well through the surface of the mulch. This is at least two-and-a-half months ahead of schedule. I'd be concerned seeing it before mid-March in my climate. The same for the bloodroot. Already up! Just breaking the soil surface, but up, nonetheless. And of course, it isn't just the old run-of-the-mill bloodroot. No. That's too smart and is still below ground. It's the somewhat rare, incredibly slow and sickeningly expensive double-flowering form that has decided to stick its nose out of the ground 3 months before it normally makes an appearance. These will get a little extra mulch over the top of them today and they'll be fine, as long as I'm diligent and make sure that winter rain and wind doesn't expose the tender growing points before we have a little warmer weather again in March.

This Trillium luteum, the yellow trillium, I am truly concerned about and will cover with mulch. It is usually not at this point of emergence until sometime in March!

I'm also a little concerned about Asarum maximum 'Ling Ling'. It can be somewhat tender and has not gone dormant. In fact, it's in full bloom! Usually, this is a very early spring bloomer here, but the mild winter has prompted it into flower now. I'm not worried about losing the blooms. That happens. But I do worry that the plants are not fully dormant and that a sudden temperature plunge may do significant damage. They'll get some evergreen branches (leftover from Christmas) laid over them before the weather gets too cold.

I'm also a little concerned about Asarum maximum 'Ling Ling'. It can be tender here and is obviously not dormant. I don't care so much about losing the blooms--even though they are incredibly cool!--but I don't want to lose the plants. They'll get a light covering of evergreen boughs (leftover Christmas greens) to protect them.

One mid-winter bloomer that is right on schedule and that I am always happy to see is Mahonia bealei, the leatherleaf mahonia. I'll get some flack for saying that I love it, I'm sure, since it is on the invasive exotic plant list in many areas, but here's the flip side to that story. Leatherleaf mahonia (and all of its hybrids and related species) are laden with nectar and pollen. On these warm winter days, they are one of the few things flowering in the garden that the honeybees can collect from. My plants were so full of honeybees yesterday that from 10 feet away, you could hear them buzzing all over the plants. If you're concerned about them being invasive or don't want the hassle of pulling seedlings from the garden, take 15 minutes one day and go out--after all of the flowers have fallen off--and clip the heads off where the berries are developing. No berries, no seed, no seedlings. It doesn't take long and you still get the beauty of the mid-winter flowers and--more importantly--you help our bees!

Mahonia bealei, the Leatherleaf mahonia, is in full bloom now (perfectly normal for this plant!) and is abuzz with honeybees. The native plant purists abhor this plant and it can be--admittedly--invasive in some locations. But if you'll take a few minutes to go out--after flowering is completely finished!--and cut off the clusters of berries, you'll effectively eliminate the seedling problem and still feed the bees!

So, really. What am I going to do about all of these things that are out too early? For the most part, nothing. I'll cover a few noses that are easily covered, but beyond that, Mother Nature must take its course. You'll run yourself ragged trying to protect everything in the garden and as I said earlier, while you may lose some blooms (you can pretty much scratch the hydrangeas this year), the plants aren't going to die. If they do, it's a gardening opportunity. I never have enough room for new plants, anyway!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Gardener|Cook Redux

After many months and numerous delays, Gardener|Cook returns with an all-new look, an all-new attitude and a re-energized approach to bringing you the most beautiful gardens, the finest food and the best-of-the-best in travel destinations from around the world. 2016 is shaping up to be a banner year with numerous speaking engagements already on the calendar and the hopes of a new book to be photographed and written in the coming months, for publication in early 2017!

When it comes to travel, I am hitting the road and the skies more than ever before and I want to invite you along! Soon-to-be-announced destinations for 2016 include:

Ancient Sicily and the Amalfi Coast

Virginia Garden Week and Historic American Gardens

Under the Tuscan Sun (with Volunteer Gardener/Nashville Public Television)

Gardens of the Emerald Isle

Gardens and Natural Wonders of New Zealand (with an optional extension to Sydney)

All of you, no matter where you reside, are invited to join us on any or all of these exciting excursions to beautiful destinations. I will be posting complete information here, at Gardener|Cook, as well as on my website at as it becomes available in the very near future. If you have interest in a specific destination, please email me at and I will make certain your receive the information by email as soon as it becomes available.

In other travel news, we are now offering customized, private tours for garden clubs, Master Gardeners groups, plant societies, plein air painters groups, or any other professional organizations who would like to explore travel for their members. These can also be turned into fundraisers! Email me at for more details.

In the new format, posts will appear at least weekly and sometimes more, alternating between garden posts (some from my own garden and some from gardens I visit), food posts (some I cook and some I just eat--and yes, I'll post recipes when I can!), and travel posts (including upcoming destinations for tours that I will be leading or co-leading, as well as those about places we have visited previously). There will be lots and lots of photos (though I'm going to have to start watermarking them--sorry about that, but people are "borrowing" them without permission and then republishing them as their own) to go along with the plentiful information.

If you haven't signed up to receive blog updates via email, you can do so immediately to the right of the articles, in the sidebar where you see the "Subscribe" link. It's good to be back and I'll see you in the garden (or in the kitchen, or on a plane)!


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lenten Roses

I have posted several times in the past about the "roses" of winter--Lenten rose, Christmas rose and their kin--none of which are roses at all, or even closely related. That said, they are, perhaps, the most anticipated flowers of the year for me if for no other reason than the time of year they bloom. Well, that's not the only reason. They're also incredibly beautiful, but the timing of their flowers has much to do with it since their blossoms can appear anytime between Thanksgiving and Easter depending on which species and cultivars you grow. Helleborus is the Latin name you should call them by if you want to be most accurate. Mine took a beating this winter when the temperatures dropped into the single digits out here on my bitterly cold and windswept ridge with no snowcover. With snow, they wouldn't have suffered at all. Unfortunately, their buds were already pushing through the soil during the last cold snap and many were severely damaged. The show will not be as spectacular this year, but this is the way of things. Next year will be better!

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a few pictures from years past of some of my favorite varieties and those that have performed well here. Keep them happy by planting them in bright, dappled shade in well amended "woodsy" soil. If you're successful with hostas, Solomon's seals and other denizens of the shade garden, hellebores will pose little problem. Once established, many are quite drought tolerant, particularly the "bear's foot" or "stinking" hellebore (though there is nothing stinking about it!), Helleborus foetidus. Enough rambling! On to some personal favorites:

Helleborus x hybridus 'Golden Sunrise'--I love the color of this one. Hybridizers have been working on a good, clean yellow for decades and this is one of the best. It also is one of the more vigorous plants in the Winter Jewels series from Ernie and Marietta O'Byrne, near Portland, Oregon.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Sparkling Diamond', also from the O'Byrnes and part of their Winter Gems series of double-flowering hellebores, has performed admirably here. Give it a couple of seasons to settle in before you expect a real show, but once it gets its feet under it, it is nothing short of spectacular!

This flower and the following both belong to the same varietal group, again from the O'Byrnes Winter Gems series and perhaps one of the more coveted (at least by me) of the bunch. 'Golden Lotus' bears semi to fully double blooms in the most luscious shades of buttery yellow, often with a reddish or purplish picotee edge. 

A clear, unmarked form of 'Golden Lotus'. Exquisite beauty! The variation in these strains come from the fact that they are grown from seed, but in a very select way that ensures the colors remain true to form. This slight variation in forms and colors, for me, is part of the fun!

A more complex hybrid, 'Winter Moonbeam' has performed exceptionally well in the garden here for several years. The extreme cold of this winter did freeze most of the blooms as they were beginning to emerge, but the plant will rebound and next year, the show will go on. The first flowers often open here in January and continue opening and changing color for 6 weeks or more.

'Elly' is another double flowering variety that is a little looser and almost frilly in form. Unfortunately, the plant has been weak here and I may remove it to plant something that will be a better performer.

'Tutu' was a gift from a friend and I love it! The plant is vigorous and the blooms plentiful. Each is highlighted by a central boss of enlarged nectaries that do, indeed, look like a tutu.

'Red Lady' is part of an old seed-grown strain which, if you can buy them when the plants are in bloom to get the richest and purest colors, are well worth adding to the garden. This one has flowered reliably every year, even when we've had crazy swings in the temperature.

I love this form of Helleborus foetidus named 'Gold Bullion', with bright, golden yellow leaves and chartreuse flowers. Being evergreen, this adds a great splash of color to the garden throughout the year. Helleborus foetidus reseeds prolifically where it is happy and 'Gold Bullion' comes largely true from seed. Solid green or weakly variegated seedlings should be pulled out to keep the brightest gold forms thriving.

One of the more unusual species I have in the garden is Helleborus multifidus, its pale green flowers appearing in early spring followed by the most finely dissected leaves of any of the hellebores. It is worth growing for its foliage, alone, and the flowers, in my opinion, are just a little extra beauty in the early spring.

A personal favorite in the garden that I have, unfortunately, lost and need to replace is Helleborus niger 'Double Fantasy', one of several double-flowering forms of the so-called Christmas rose. While it is usually just a little later than Christmas, it does flower quite early in the year, opening its pristine white blooms by mid- to late January here.

As it ages, the sepals (petals) of 'Double Fantasy' often turn green while the petals in the center remain white, giving a beautiful two-tone effect to the flower.

And finally, one of the top performers here, Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper', from the Heuger breeding program in Germany. This is the "little engine that could" in my garden, with its blooms appearing as early as mid-November and continuing without stopping for more than two months. As it finishes flowering in mid- to late January, the other species are beginning to emerge so the show never stops!

This doesn't even begin to cover the many species and cultivars that are in the trade today (it doesn't even scratch the surface of all that I grow), but showcases a few that have grown well here over the past several years as I've developed the garden. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two Amazing Travel Opportunities, Autumn 2015

As most of you know, 2012 found me partnering with Ron & Linda Williams, of Garden Travelers, to further expand my business and see yet another part of my dream come true--to be able to travel the world seeing some of its most beautiful natural and historic sites while also visiting some of its truly exceptional gardens. Autumn 2015 finds us traveling to two truly stunning destinations, the basics of which are below and the fine details availalbe by emailing me at 

The first of the two trips finds us traveling to Belgium & Normandy where we will visit the cities and towns of Brussels, Bruges, Canon, Rouen and others, as well as sites like the Castle & Garden at Freyr, the Castle & Garden at Annevoie, le Jardin Plume, Monet's Garden at Giverny and, of course, the beaches of Normandy.
Date: August 24-September 5, 2015
Cost: $4450.00 per person, double occupancy, ground package
Please inquire for more details and information regarding airfare at

The garden at Annevoie

Bruges, Belgium

Monet's Garden at Giverny

The Rouen Cathedral

Le Jardin Plume

Le Jardin Plume

These are but a few of the destinations we will see on this stunning trip with the gardens in their late summer glory and the prestigious chateaux and castles always at their finest.

Our final trip of 2015 finds us exploring wild and wonderful New Zealand & Australia, discovering some of the world's most pristine landscapes and amazing gardens, as well as wineries, wildlife and so much more! We will spend 9 days touring both the North and South islands of New Zealand before making our way to Australia's mainland, where we will spend time in both Melbourne and Sydney.
Date: November 19-December 8, 2015
Cost: $7500.00 per person, double occupancy, ground package
Please inquire for more details and information regarding airfare at

Scenic New Zealand

Thermal Spring in Rotorua, New Zealand

Glow Worm Caves, New Zealand

Penguins returning to Philip Island from a day of fishing. Melbourne, Australia

Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, Australia

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

 We take travelers from all over the U.S. to some of the world's most beautiful and exciting destinations. We hope you'll join us on one of these or on a future trip! If you would like to be added to my permanent mailing list and receive information about our travel for the upcoming year (we publish itineraries 9 to 12 months in advance), please email me at