Thursday, March 20, 2008

Yikes! It's A Yucca!

I love yuccas! If you've been reading along, you've probably figured out by now that there aren't too many plants I don't love, but I really, REALLY love yuccas! They're the agaves of cold-climate gardens. They give us that (mostly) stiff, upright, sword-like texture that is so important in the garden. I mean, really, what's not to love? They're tough, drought tolerant, evergreen; they come in a wide array of sizes, habits and forms. They offer up foliage in green, grey, blue, chartreuse and any number of variegated combinations! When they flower, they put on an amazing show that usually lasts for several weeks and then they develop seedpods that carry the interest right on through the fall and winter. It seems to me that they are very nearly perfect!

Although I've rarely (maybe never) met a yucca I didn't like, I do have a few standout favorites that I feel the need to tell you about. The first is Yucca rostrata 'Sapphire Skies'. This is a recent introduction from Sean Hogan at Cistus Nursery ( and is set to take that gardening world by storm. Sean selected this form from a batch of seedlings for its powder blue color and it is now being grown from tissue culture and introduced widely in the nursery trade. It is pictured at the top of this entry in a photo from Terra Nova Nurseries ( Yucca rostrata is one of the hardiest of all trunk-forming yuccas and should perform splendidly well into Zone 5. In about 10 years time you can expect a magnificent specimen with a rounded head of powder-blue leaves atop a 4-foot trunk.

Another recent introduction and a truly spectacular plant is Yucca filamentosa 'Color Guard', with the most distinct golden variegation of any cultivar I've grown. It has far surpassed any other yucca in the garden where foliage color is concerned. The leaves are brilliant creamy gold with a deep green edge. In winter, the yellow variegation remains strong and is suffused with shades of deep, rich pink when grown in full sun. Talk about a spectacular combination! It is quickly becoming the industry standard for variegated yuccas and is, or soon will be, widely available at your local garden centers.

Now, with all of that carrying on over 'Color Guard', I do have to pay due respect to several other variegated yuccas that are more than deserving of your attention. Another that I have grown for a number of years and that has proven outstanding is Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata'. The leaves of this beautiful plant are blue-green with a lovely gold margin that changes to a light, creamy yellow during the summer months. In winter, it too takes on shades of pink around its edges when the weather turns cold. Yucca gloriosa is another of the trunk-forming yuccas, though slightly less hardy. I have had it in my Zone 6 garden for 6 years and it has flourished. In warmer climates you can expect it to form a trunk up to 4 feet tall after several years. One warning: The leaves on Yucca gloriosa are very rigid and viciously armed at the tip with a long black spine. Site it accordingly, i.e. probably not right next to the back door where you're carrying groceries in each week.

Yucca recurvifolia 'Gold Ribbons' is another bright spot in the garden--literally! One of the largest yuccas, it may reach upwards of 4 feet in diameter and, with some age, may form a trunk up to 6 feet tall. This takes some time, though, so don't let its size scare you off. The color is to die for! Brilliant gold leaves with deep, emerald green margins are soft, flexible and are not spined so no worries about backing into it while weeding! Another form that is occasionally offered is Yucca recurvifolia 'Variegata' with pendant, blue leaves edged in chartreuse/gold. With time it, too, will form a spectacular specimen. Both of these plants are available from Plant Delights Nursery (, for one, and 'Gold Ribbons' is also available from Yucca Do ( Additional variegated forms you might be interested in include Yucca filamentosa 'Bright Edge', Yucca aloifolia 'Marginata', Yucca filamentosa 'Golden Sword' and Yucca filamentosa 'Garland Gold'. All are worthy garden plants.

I would be entirely remiss in leaving out the beautiful green and blue-green foliaged yuccas that have been garden stalwarts for so many years. Yucca glauca, Yucca filamentosa, Yucca rostrata (the species), Yucca baccata and several others all offer fine architecture to the garden throughout the year. Their candelabras of ivory-white bells in early to late summer are added bonuses when they occur (some more regularly than others)! This is not an exhaustive list, rather it is something to whet your horticultural appetite. I also tried not to list plants that wouldn't be hardy reasonably far north--at least Zone 6 and several into Zone 5. Yucca glauca will easily go into Zone 4. For those of you who live in Zones 7 and warmer, your choices increase 10-fold. Everyone should have a love affair with yuccas!

A New Gardening Friend

Well, spring has finally sprung here in Nashville and even though a few cold nights still linger in the long range forecast it doesn’t seem, at least for now, that we’re looking at anything terribly threatening. Of course, that could all change at the drop of a hat, but for now I’m choosing to believe that spring is here. It SMELLS like spring and that’s always the best of signs!

When I walked out the door this morning, it smelled earthy and damp and fresh and rejuvenated. It did wonders for my spirit. Spring is the season of renewal–the season of rebirth–the season when everything is clean and sparkling and the bedraggled days of summer are but a mere speck on the horizon. It’s the season when I simply cannot be outdoors enough, soaking up the warm rays of sunshine, feeling the cool, damp earth beneath my fingernails (real gardeners don’t wear gloves!) and that SMELL–that glorious, amazing, wonderful smell. The smell of spring.

I’ve made a new gardening friend that I felt I must write and tell you about. Helen Dillon. Perhaps some of you know her or at least have heard of her. She’s a prolific writer, an amazing gardener and an absolutely delightful person. If you subscribe to The English Garden magazine, I’m sure you’ve read her column that appears in each issue. Perhaps her books have a prominent place in your horticultural library.

We were fortunate to have her visit Nashville last weekend as the keynote speaker for the Nashville Lawn and Garden Show. I was on the roster this year, too, and had the good fortune to follow Helen after her Sunday presentation to a crowd of about 100 serious gardeners. I had the even better fortune of being able to join her for dinner on Friday evening and then take her out afterward for a little “honky-tonking”, Nashville style. You haven’t been out in Nashville unless you’ve been to Robert’s Western World on Friday night to hear The Steve Kelley Band and Brazil Billy–so that’s exactly what we did!

We said our “Goodbyes” after I finished my talk at the show on Sunday afternoon, but it doesn’t take gardeners long to bond. The common thread that is tied to and through all of us who love plants is a very strong tie and I already feel as though I have made a great new gardening friend with whom to trade information, ideas and the occasional chat. I hope Helen feels the same and I hope she had as delightful a time here in Nashville as we had hosting her. The pleasure was certainly ours. Please be sure to visit Helen’s website at

Happy Gardening!

Greening Up The Indoors

While winter’s icy grip may have many gardeners house-bound for several more weeks, there is no reason to let the fact that the ground is frozen keep us from gardening. And even if you live in a milder climate where the ground is workable and the days are balmy, winter is still a great season to think about adding a few houseplants to your indoor environment. They brighten the room, freshen the air and they give us something to focus on while we drool over the ever-growing stack of catalogs by the chair in anticipation of spring.

“Houseplants” have a come a long way, baby! Even the most mundane of the old-fashioned types have gotten a facelift in the past decade or so. The Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) comes in a stunning array of green, silver and gold combinations, the old-fashioned “corn plant” (Dracaena fragrans) comes in a shocking new shade of chartreuse (gardening’s most “in” color at the moment), and even the stalwart old “rubber tree” (Ficus elastica) comes in spectacular green-and-white or green-and-pink variegated forms! These are not your grandmother’s houseplants! The great thing is that even though they come in all of these beautiful new forms, their hardiness hasn’t waned a bit. They’re still the tough old houseplants I remember from my childhood–just in more spectacular dress.

A few of my newer favorites include Dracaena fragrans ‘Limelight’, the “shocking chartreuse” form of the old-fashioned corn plant that I mentioned above (it’s also spectacular outdoors in a shady spot for the summer), and Aglaonema x ‘Golden Bay’, a newer form of the old “Chinese evergreen” with leaves of deep green overlaid with pewter and silver, and a golden yellow mid-rib running down the center of the leaf. The old-fashioned heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens) also comes in some new color variations and it’s certainly still as tough as its old green counterpart. ‘Aurea’ has leaves of solid golden-chartreuse that scream from across the room, and if you want something a little more sophisticated try the variety ‘Brasil’, with deep green leaves boasting a lime green center. Gorgeous!

Pothos (Devil’s Ivy) has also undergone a dramatic change with the variety ‘Neon’, a solid chartreuse-yellow form that will fill a hanging basket in no time.

And do you remember the “Ti Plant”? “The Amazing Ti Plant”–in advertisements in every TV Guide and lady’s magazine of the 1970’s–a plant that grew from just a piece of the trunk! “Plant it and watch it grow! Yours for only $1.99 during this special offer!” Well, hold on to your hats, because the “old-fashioned” Ti plant is now one of the hottest plants around. New color forms are being introduced every year and they just keeping getting bigger, brighter, better and more beautiful–shocking shades of fuchsia, red, pink, green, cream, yellow and white–sometimes with 3 or 4 colors in every leaf! These are another outstanding “houseplant” for outdoor containers in the summer and nearly impossible to fail with indoors!

Hopefully, you’ve already read the entry on begonias–my current obsession. If not, scroll down and you’ll find it below. Talk about a tough and undemanding group of plants! There are certainly scores of others and I would encourage all of you to visit your local garden centers and nurseries to see the latest and greatest things they have available. Do a little internet research, too, as there are always new introductions being made.

Aquatic Giants

During the summer of 1991 I had the good fortune of being selected to participate in the internship program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. I had the even better fortune of being selected to serve my term under the guiding hand of Patrick Nutt, a renowned expert on all things horticulture, but even more renowned for his voluminous knowledge of aquatic plants and gardens. It was here, under Pat’s expert guidance, that I first laid eyes on and eventually got to work with one of the most-revered aquatic plants in the world–the giant waterlily, Victoria.

There are two species in the genus Victoria, V. amazonica and V. cruziana.

In 1961, Pat created the first hybrid between the two species and the rest is history. Victoria x ‘Longwood Hybrid’ set the bar for giant waterlilies for nearly 40 years until the cross was re-made in the late ’90’s by enterprising water garden enthusiasts Kit and Ben Knotts of Cocoa Beach, Florida.

So what is this giant waterlily? Where did it come from? Both species, Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana, are native to South America, the former found in the lowland rivers and lakes of the Amazon river basin, while the latter is found in higher elevations of Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. Both are, obviously, of tropical origin, but because V. cruziana grows at higher elevations it is more tolerant of cooler temperatures. This ability to tolerate cooler temperatures is what has made it an indispensible parent to its hybrid progeny, giving gardeners in more temperate climes the ability to grow these magnificent plants.

It was a thrill for me, as a young horticulture student barely 20 years old, to work with both a renowned plant and a renowned plantsman. It was an even greater thrill when Pat invited me to join he and several others at Longwood’s famous water garden one evening to assist in the process of making the cross between the two Victoria species that results in Longwood’s namesake hybrid. The process was fascinating–everyone in hip waders, squeezing in between the gigantic, platter-like leaves some of which approached nearly 6 feet in diameter and viciously armed along their stems and undersides with inch-long spines. Pollen was transferred from flower to flower and those that “took” would sink below the water’s surface to form a seed pod that would eventually be harvested and the seed stored for the following year’s display.

These giant “water platters” are some of the most fascinating plants that I have had the opportunity to work with. As I already mentioned, they are viciously armed with spines that may be an inch long in some cases and wickedly sharp. But when you live in the Amazon, you have to learn to protect yourself from things that might decide you’re a delicacy! Before you get up close and personal enough to notice their spines, though, it’s their sheer size that never fails to impress; individual leaves may reach as much as 6 feet across on a well-grown specimen. The underside of the leaves is an intricate tapestry of veins that look for all the world like an art nouveau stained glass window and the rim of the leaf turns up around the edges, standing as much as 4 inches high in some plants.

Perhaps the most anticipated event of all, though, is the plant’s flowering, which happens at night and adds greatly to the plants’ mystique. The buds, too, are covered in spines and grow to about the size of a goose egg as they break the surface of the water. On the first night’s opening they are pure white and the size of a dinner plate, exuding the fragrance of pineapple as they float on the water’s surface. At dawn the following day, they close, and upon re-opening for their second night’s display have turned rosy pink. This display will continue on for several weeks, through late summer and well into the fall if the water temperature remains warm.
Victoria lilies are available from time to time from several of the mail order water gardening nurseries. Don’t let their ultimate size discourage you, as their growth will match the size of the pond they are growing in (within reason). They still need a little elbow room, but if you have a nice sized pond, it would be fun to give one a try. Even if you only get leaves 3 feet across, who else do you know who has a water lily that size???

For some beautiful photographs and a considerable amount of information about the amazing Victoria lilies and their hybrids, click here:

The Addict

As I’ve already admitted, I have a serious addiction. My friend Dan would tell me to introduce myself thusly, “Hi. I’m Troy Marden and I’m a hortiholic.” Well, it’s true. This addiction has been with me for more than 30 years and seems to have no interest in releasing its icy grip. Some friends suggested that perhaps I should go to meetings. “I do,” I replied. “Garden clubs, orchid societies, rose societies, herb societies, Perennial Plant Association, Garden Writers, lawn and garden shows, flower shows, bromeliad societies, cactus societies, tropical plant societies, open gardens…..” I go to meetings all the time! Anything to feed the beast!

Others have suggested I should take up another hobby–something to redirect my attention elsewhere. “Perhaps you should read more,” tried one friend. I READ!!! Thank-you-very-much!
The Forest Farm catalog is right here next to the computer! I type and read at the same time. Not only do I READ, I multitask! Perhaps you should read more…..hmmph! On the sofa there are catalogs from Plant Delights, Heronswood, Greenhouse Growers Supply, Tomato Growers Supply and a dreeeaaaamy plant list from Sean Hogan at Cistus Nursery. On the night stand are Garden Design, Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Tennessee Gardener, The English Garden, and at least six special interest publications–container gardening, perennials, planting combinations–you name it. And next to the commode are the back issues! Perhaps you should read more…..hmmph!

It has become a running joke amongst my friends–my little plant addiction. For the past 4 years I’ve been living in a rental situation where I refused to actually plant any of my prized plants–children, actually–into the ground in a place that I would not be residing permanently. So, they’re all in pots. “All of them?” you ask. Yes, all of them. Over 200 as of last week’s inventory and this number swells to over 300 during the summer months when I have all of the annuals and tropicals thrown into the mix. Some I overwinter and some I don’t.

“Oh, are you starting a nursery?” one unsuspecting visitor asked. No, I’m not, thank you. They’re mine. ALL MINE!!! Don’t touch them. And don’t even THINK about taking those tiny little scissors out of your pocket that you think I can’t see and try to sneak cuttings! I have eyes in the back of my head–with X-ray vision. I can spot one missing cutting off of a 6-foot shrub at 100 paces, so don’t even try. We addicts can become highly irrational when our babies are threatened–or worse, dismembered. Highly irrational.

And if you want to know what something is, ask me. Take me over to the plant and ask me. More than likely you will wish you had not asked, after a 15-minute diatribe on its finest points and the fact that I have done so incredibly well with it because, really, it’s a bitch to grow. Do not, however, break off a piece of it and carry it up to me for its proper identification. Remember, you’ve already been warned–highly irrational–totally unpredictable behavior when an addict is approached with a severed piece of one of his (or her) prize possessions. How would you feel if someone asked you which one of your children this belonged to and held up a foot? Well? Hmmmmm??? Highly irrational.

I know there are hundreds, even thousands of you out there. We’re all in the same boat, really–we gardeners. It starts out very innocently and before you know it your kids are eating cold cereal for dinner because mommy is in the garden until dark every night. Sometimes mommy is in the garden until after dark, having moved from the darker parts of the garden to the bed under the streetlight where there is enough light to continue weeding. You know it’s true. I say stand up and embrace your demons! “Hi. I’m Troy and I’m a……..” Gardening is such good therapy!

Begonias Aren't Just Bedding Plants

(Originally posted January 3, 2008)

Funny, in the plant world, how one genus can hold some of the most beloved and reviled plants in a single embrace. Begonias are an excellent case in point. If I never saw another “bedding begonia”, aka Begonia semperflorens it would not hurt my feelings. I would not, for one minute, miss them. Ever. You know the ones I’m talking about–planted en masse at the entrance to every apartment complex and shopping center in North America during the summer months–little round “wads” of plant material, crispy around the edges from lack of water or rotting out in the center because the irrigation system continued to run 3 times a day during a solid week of rain in mid-June. And of course they’ve been bred to the point that they are totally without character, each one the same size, the same shape, the same habit–lined up like soldiers in marching formation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are some truly amazing and beautiful plants–begonias with character. Begonias with big leaves, small leaves, fuzzy leaves, smooth leaves, green leaves, black leaves, leaves that are variegated in a near-rainbow of shimmering, shining and sometimes even metallic color. There are begonias that are only a few inches tall when they reach maturity and begonias that can measure FEET in diameter when they’re well grown. There are even a few that are pushing the boundaries of the hardiness zones and reports of gardeners in Zone 7 and even in Zone 6 who are having success with some of the newer “perennial” types. Several breeders are now working on introducing plants with increased cold hardiness.

Recently, I entered into my “begonia phase”. You know how we are as gardeners–always interested in a vast array of plants of all kinds, but typically with one group taking center stage for a period of time. I’ve been through what seems like a million “phases” in my gardening lifetime and I’ve found that once I get into a particular phase, I never really leave it. I collect until I have a nice supply of plants built up and even though my attention may eventually turn in a slightly different direction, I still add to my previous plant collections from time to time. This is what sets the true “plant nerds” apart from the rest. We never stop. So…my latest “phase” is the “begonia phase”. I’ve already been through the “conifer phase”, the “elephant ear phase”, the “canna phase”, the “dahlia phase”, the “daylily phase” and on and on ad nauseum. A great many of these plants are still with me. Some of have been narrowed down to the very best of the bunch–the ones that perform grandly in the garden every season with the less-than-ideal care that they often receive–but they’re still there. I’m not sure I’ve ever left a “phase” entirely.

So now it’s begonias. But it’s not just ANY begonias that I’m interested in for the current phase. I’ve narrowed it down to some that I can grow particularly well indoors as houseplants during the winter and who thrive outdoors on the screen porch during the summer. Oddly enough, most of them are NOT the flashy “rex” begonias that are so commonly found in garden centers. I don’t do as well with those for some reason. The begonias that have gotten my attention of late are actually species–specifically rhizomatous and fibrous-rooted species, with the fibrous-rooted types taking more precedence. I find that most of the fibrous-rooted species have a better habit–clumping rather than creeping–and that they don’t develop the naked centers that many of my rhizomatous types do as they creep across the surface of the soil. The fibrous-rooted clumpers also tend to stand more upright in their pots and they don’t flop, creep and crawl all over their neighbors.

There are a few species that I have become particularly fond of and that have proven to be tough, resilient, beautiful plants year round with what seems to be a modicum of care. One of these is Begonia nelumbifolia, which, as the name suggests has beautiful, slightly cupped leaves with the stem attached to the leaf at a “center point” as you would see on a lotus. The color is a bright, apple green and during the short days of winter and early spring you may even get a nice show of small, light pink flowers. It also grows to a nice, manageable size for indoors, perhaps 12-15″ tall and 18 inches or so across. A nice coffee table plant in a brightly lit room
Another favorite, though larger and requiring a bit more space, is Begonia popenoei. Its leaves are large–on a well-grown specimen maybe nearing a foot in length from the tip of the leaf to the opposite end. It has a dense, shrub-like habit and is nicely upright. Even so, a happy plant may reach 2 feet tall x 3 feet wide and perhaps more. I have several friends who have used it to spectacular effect outdoors in the shade garden, planted directly in the ground during the summer months where it can reach astounding proportions. It gives the effect of a big, fuzzy-leaved hosta! Then in the fall they dig it, pot it and bring it in to a brightly lit room for the winter where it provides beauty throughout the cold months of the year.

For those of you having a very limited amount of space, not all begonias are giants (though alot of my personal favorites are!). I have fallen in love with the diminutive Begonia coriacea whose mature height is about 6 inches tall, with a spread of perhaps 8-10 inches. Its 2-inch wide leaves are deep olive green and are attached at a center point, much like Begonia nelumbifolia, described above. One of the best attributes of this plant is that during the short days of winter and early spring, it will cover itself in clusters of small, fleshy pink to white flowers for at least two months and sometimes longer.

Another small begonia that I simply adore is Begonia x partita. This is technically a fibrous-rooted begonia, but grows on stems similar to some of the “cane” or “angelwing” types. The stems are thick and swollen–extremely fleshy and succulent–and grow in a somewhat gnarled and almost stunted fashion. This growth habit makes it the perfect subject for turning into a beautiful tropical bonsai. In no time, you can create a small, dense “tree” with a thickened trunk, fat stubby branches, and tiny palmate leaves that look almost like a miniature maple. In addition, during the summer months it will bear multitudes of small, pale pink to white flowers. It really is a little stunner.

Others that I have grown extremely fond of include Begonia macdougallii var. purpurea, a magnificent and fairly large grower with compound leaves that look like those of a Schefflera. The leaves are deep dark green with a purplish-red underside. This is another excellent choice for the shade garden during the summer months where it can truly shine and reach its full, magnificent size. It can also be dug and brought in for the winter and will perform very well as a houseplant. And a new introduction from my buddy Dan Heims at Terra Nova Nurseries called ‘Cathedral Windows’ enjoys a prominent position above my desk where the light from a nearby window can shine through its beautiful leaves. ‘Cathedral Windows’ is a variation on the old-fashioned “beefsteak” begonia with a lighter green and somewhat crested center to each leaf. When the sun shines through from front to back it looks like the stained glass in a cathedral window. And for all intensive purposes it seems to be just as easy to grow as its old-fashioned counterpart!

As far as culture is concerned, the most important thing to remember about the rhizomatous and fibrous-rooted begonias is that they will not tolerate being over-watered. So for those of you who have trouble remembering to water your houseplants, these are the perfect plants for you. Their succulent nature allows them to be very forgiving and in fact, they PREFER to be on the dry side. Overwatering will kill them in short order! They also love to grow in the lightweight, peaty potting mixes that are so popular on the market now. One word of caution: I would avoid the potting mixes that have the water retention crystals in them. They stay too wet and unless you can exercise an extreme amount of self-discipline and lay off of the watering for weeks at a time (especially during the winter months), you’ll drown your begonias in no time flat. For light, bright indirect light is perfect. In a very well-lit and open house, they’ll thrive even without being directly in front of a window. In more closed floor plans with less ambient light, some direct light from a nearby window is beneficial and even a southern exposure will work provided the plants don’t get the direct, mid-day summer sun. Direct sun in the winter is fine.

I feed my plants once a month with a good, organic, water soluble fertilizer–fish emulsion works well, as do others. Just ask at your local, independently owned garden center what they carry along those lines for houseplants. African violet fertilizer works well, too. One last tidbit: I have now transplanted all of my begonias into clay pots. They seem to thrive in pots that have the ability to breathe. Also, the soil in a clay pot dries out faster (beacuse the pot breathes) and if you should get a bit heavy handed with the watering this will help rectify the problem.
So there you have it–my latest “phase”. Who knows what will strike me next, but for right now these begonias seem to have my undivided attention. If you decide to check them out, be careful. Next thing you know you’ll be pushing other plants aside to make way for you newest and latest additions!

Thanksgiving Cactus vs. Christmas Cactus

(Originally posted December 19, 2007)

“Is there a difference?”, you may ask. Yes, there is–and it’s one of my biggest holiday pet peeves, horticulturally speaking!

With today’s mass market mentality and the ease of growth of the “Holiday Cactus”, one group of hybrids has essentially taken over the holiday market. However, the truth of the matter is that the plant that begins showing up on garden center shelves about a week or so before Thanksgiving and continues its run right on through the holidays is actually the “Thanksgiving Cactus”, or Schlumbergera truncata aka Zygocactus hybrids (also known as the Crab Claw Cactus because of its pointed lobes). This species has been readily hybridized to grow easily, flower profusely and offer blossoms in a veritable rainbow of colors, so naturally it has taken its place in greenhouses around the world as THE holiday cactus. However, there is another cactus whose beauty time has forgotten.

Schlumbergera bridgesii is the TRUE “Christmas cactus” and is the plant that my grandmother had an enormous specimen of that must have been 30 years old or so when I was just a child. Oh, how I wish I still had that beautiful, beautiful plant! I’m not sure what happened to it, but at some point it was no longer with us. Today, you can’t even find S. bridgesii except through specialty growers and mailorder catalogs. It has essentially disappeared from the mainstream market.

So what IS the difference? Well, for me it probably has a little bit to do with nostalgia and my memories of my grandmother’s plant in full bloom in the deep-seated living room window every Christmas. Grandma’s house was built of stone, with solid block walls nearly 2 feet thick. The window sills were the depth of the walls and one side of that Christmas cactus filled the entire depth of one window while the other half hung out into the living room. It must have been 3 feet wide. But the real difference, botanically speaking, is that Schlumbergera bridgesii or what I refer to as the “true” Christmas cactus, has rounded lobes on its leaves rather than the pointed, claw-like lobes of the cactus we commonly see being sold during the holidays.

Also, Schlumbergera bridgesii comes in but one color–Christmas red (referred to as cerise in some books). It also has a naturally delayed flowering period that pushes it back to the season of Christmas. Rarely, if ever, does it flower at Thanksgiving. As if that wasn’t enough distinguishing characteristics, its flowers are also shaped differently–without the reflexing petals and one sided flowers of Schlumbergera truncata, the Thanksgiving or “Holiday” cactus. Instead, the flowers of the true Christmas cactus have petals that are evenly distributed around the flower tube.

I can remember Granny’s huge specimen having literally hundreds of beautiful red blossoms on it each year! It would summer outdoors in the shade of the screen porch, go upstairs when the weather turned cold and then come back down to the living room during Christmas where it greeted visitors from its perch in the window. It had grown so large and so old that it had a trunk on it whose base was probably a good three inches in diameter, with several 1 to 1 1/2-inch diameter branches emerging from it, each of those in turn cascading out to form the “canopy” of the plant. The brilliant red blossoms were borne at the ends of the flattened stems (called cladophylls) and hung downward, giving a magnificent cascading effect to the plant.

The plants you buy today are manipulated in the greenhouse to flower at a certain time by adjusting the amount of day and night that they are exposed to–just like poinsettias. And because all of the hybrids have been bred to be compact, easy-to-flower and to come in a wide array of colors, the Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata or Zygocactus) has become the industry standard. However, I would recommend to you that you do a little research and find a source, even if it’s mail-order and you can only find small plants, for the “true” Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii. It will be well worth your effort!

Feathered Friends

(Originally posted December 4, 2007)

Good morning, everyone. I’ve been thinking for the past several days that I needed to get a new blog posted, but have had a bit of writer’s block. The past couple of weeks have been extremely busy and with Christmas now nearly upon us that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon. Sitting here early this morning, though, the morning feeding outside my window suddenly started and it gave me an idea–write about the birds!

A couple of years ago at the garden center, we had these really neat little clear acrylic birdfeeders that attach to directly to your window with suction cups. I have two of them on the double window over my kitchen sink and they have provided me with hours of entertainment. I keep one filled with sunflower chips and the other filled with safflower seed. Supposedly, the squirrels don’t care for safflower, but my squirrels apparently didn’t get that memo! I stand at the sink early in the morning doing up any dishes that may have accumulated and watching the birds as they fly in to feed. I’ve learned that as long as I keep the lights off they can’t see in, and even though I may be moving around a little it doesn’t bother the birds in the least. They come and go as if I wasn’t there at all and many times they’ll sit and peck for food for several seconds before the next one flies in and takes his or her turn.

I’ve been amazed at the great diversity of birds that have come to my feeders. I’m fortunate that even though I live in town I have a 5-acre lot with plenty of nice shade trees and a good bit of “scrub” and undergrowth around the edges that makes for fantastic bird habitat. I’ve cleaned the majority of it up, but have left Mother Nature alone in several places so that the birds and other little critters have plenty of places to roost, nest and hide. Just this year I have already seen many of the common species, such as the cute little black-capped chickadees, titmice, a few juncos one really cold morning, a huge number of cardinals, bluejays, a wren and others. But I also have some more interesting visitors from time to time, like the adorable little downy woodpecker who absolutely LOVES the sunflower chips that I put in one of the window feeders. Sometimes he’ll hang around for 2-3 minutes at a time, perched right there on the window, without blinking an eye. It’s so fascinating to watch him up close. And then there’s the flicker, who’s so big that you can see the feeder shake when he lands with a distinct “thud”. He has to hang off of the side of the feeder and stick his head up over the side, but I could watch him for hours. He has a tongue that “flickers” in and out with amazing speed, scooping up sunflower chips with every little motion.

I’ve also already spotted the rufus-sided towhee that comes around each winter, the indigo bunting that follows me around on the lawnmower in the summer scooping up insects behind me as I mow and the big pileated woodpecker who has pulled the little window feeders right off of the window on more than one occasion because of his massive size. He still comes to the window and feeds, though! Now that’s a sight! A huge, foot-and-a-half long woodpecker hanging from a tiny little feeder attached to my kitchen window by three suction cups! Who needs to pay nine bucks for a movie when you can just stay home and watch the birds?

I also scatter some mixed birdseed on the ground and in an old, cracked terra cotta saucer that won’t hold water anymore for the ground feeders (including a sizable coon who comes ’round about 10 o’clock each night). The cardinals and bluejays both like to peck around on the ground, as do the sparrows and the house finches. But I think my favorite of the ground feeders has to be the enormous number of mourning doves who have discovered my generosity. There have been mornings where I’ve had close to 30 mourning doves at one time, mingling with all the rest of the birds. It’s not unusual, once winter really sets in, for me to have 50-60 birds or more all flying in and out or pecking around on the ground at the same time. It has become one of my favorite pasttimes to stand at the window and watch them as they go about their pecking and scratching. It reminds me of my childhood when we used to sit in my grandmother’s kitchen in front of the fireplace and watch the birds feed outside of her kitchen window. And now my own little feathered friends take me back to those fond memories each and every day.

Favorite Fall Flowers

(Originally Posted October 16, 2007 on MySpace)
Hello everyone! We’ve returned from our brief weekend in Branson, MO with my family and had a wonderful time. We were able to see a couple of good shows, spent a day at Silver Dollar City (which was made all the more fun by having my 10-year-old cousin with us, so we had a good excuse for riding every ride we could), and also were able to do some fun antiquing and shopping along the way. There wasn’t much time for R&R, as my family is one of those who is up at the crack of dawn and goes until late at night and after all, we really only had 3 days. Needless to say, I needed a day of vacation after I got back from my vacation!

That said, some good things happened while I was away and being away for a few days always makes me appreciate the plants more when I return. There are several that are looking particularly well right now in the autumn garden and I thought I would mention a few of them. Begonia grandis, the hardy begonia, is stunning right now with its big “angelwing” leaves, red stems and fleshy pink flowers. It’s one of my favorite shade plants and no garden should be without it. It spreads itself around the garden, but in a polite way by way of small bulbils that form in the leaf axils, fall off the plant and sprout wherever they land. They hardly have any roots at all, so if they come up where I don’t want them I simply pull them out or dig them up and give them to friends.

The fall anemones have been flowering for the better part of a month now and no matter how much I swear at them for spreading a little too vigorously in some places, I can’t bear the thought of being without them at this time of year. My absolute favorite is Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ ( or ‘Honorine Joubert’ in some references; I’m honestly not sure which is correct). This is saying something, because I am typically NOT a fan of white flowers. But the strong, sturdy stems, the excellent presentation and the cleanliness of the plant–the petals fall to the ground and don’t turn brown while still hanging on the stalk–lead me to love this grand dame of the autumn flower garden. Others that I like almost as much are ‘September Charm’, which flowers a little earlier in the season and is pink, ‘Whirlwind’, a double-flowering white, and ‘Prince Henry’ (’Prinz Heinrich’) with a fluffy, double pink flower. There are several other cultivars, as well and most are readily available through mailorder, if not at your local garden center. Truth be known, I have yet to meet a Japanese anemone I didn’t like.

Chrysanthemums have gotten a bad rap over the past two decades. This is because they have been ruined by the hybridizers who have worked and worked to get them to form perfect little cupcakes covered in a bazillion unattractive, frumpy flowers in a horrific range of colors that Mother Nature never intended to exist. But if you’ll get back to the true, old-fashioned perennial garden mums there are some lovely plants that will make your autumn garden sing! Cultivars like ‘Clara Curtis’, ‘Sheffield Pink’, ‘Ryan’s Yellow’, ‘Ryan’s Pink’, ‘Mary Stoker’ and others are truly perennial and put on a spectacular show in the garden every autumn. Yes, they can be floppy–so pinch them. Or better yet, just behead them with the hedge shears a couple of times between mid-May and mid-July and be done with it. Then let them grow and fill out from Mid-July onward to flower in October at a manageable height and without flopping all over their neighbors! My two favorites in this category, because I LOVE yellow, are ‘Ryan’s Yellow’ and ‘Mary Stoker’. ‘Ryan’s Yellow’ is a stunning beauty because the buds are copper when the petals first begin to emerge and then turn soft, straw yellow upon opening. ‘Mary Stoker’ is a clear, buttery golden yellow throughout its display and she also has beautiful deep green, deeply cut foliage that adds to the plant’s good looks.

A discussion on autumn flowers wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Tricyrtis, the toad lilies. I have tried for many years to fall in love with these plants, but I have to be honest and say that our love affair has been a somewhat tepid one. I do like them. Don’t get me wrong. They occupy places in almost every garden I work in. They flower at a time of year when little else is happening and I like the subtle beauty they impart to the garden. I have been most impressed, in my own garden, with a cultivar called ‘Lightning Strike’, with boldly splotched and splashed yellow and green foliage. It looks good all through the season, even when it’s not in flower. I tend to like the hybrids and cultivars of Tricyrtis formosana moreso than those of Tricyrtis hirta. The formosana-types just seem to perform better here in the south and aren’t so crispy looking by the end of the summer. There are some fairly obscure species that seem like they might have some potential and my friend Dan Heims at Terra Nova Nurseries is doing some really nice breeding with a number of them–especially the yellow-flowered forms. So I’m still waiting for this sort of tepid love affair to become a torrid romance. If it doesn’t happen, I’m still not kicking them out of the bed entirely!

The other group of plants I must mention are the salvias. This refers specifically to the (mostly) annual or tender perennial types such as Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha), forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis), pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), the Texas sages (Salvia greggii) and hybrids such as Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’ and others. I am not going to get into an exhaustive discussion about salvias–at least not now. I may devote a full spot to them later on. But the fall garden, especially the sunny garden, would be totally incomplete without these plants. Many of these will be annual in colder zones, but so be it. Many of them are annual for me in here in Tennessee and I grow them anyway. How many other plants will grow from a 4″ pot to 3′ x 3′ shrub in one season and then go on to cover themselves in a profusion of flowers for anywhere from 2-3 months late in the season? Not that many! Salvias are definitely worth a little research and investment. Also, they are some of the last plants of the season that the hummingbirds will go berserk for as they begin their migration back south for the winter, so do it for the little hummers!

Winter-flowering Hardy Cyclamen

(Originally Posted November 16, 2007 on MySpace)
It’s just about that time of year when one of my favorite garden plants begins popping up around the garden. Cyclamen coum inhabits the shady corners and crannies, seeding itself hither and yon, but always in a welcomed way. I never tire of it and if, perhaps, it lands in just the wrong spot its root system is so shallow that the tubers can easily be lifted in one scoop of the shovel and moved without the plant ever knowing it was relocated. The main show will occur a little later in the winter, usually February, but here and there over the next three to four months the flowers will appear from time to time, never allowing winters blues to get the best of us. The foliage begins appearing in late September and October and the green and silver-patterned leaves are stunning throughout the winter. I love Cyclamen coum combined with Helleborus foetidus. Their shows overlap nicely and the brighter pinks and fuchsias of the cyclamen are glorious with the chartreuse green of the hellebore blossoms–and they thrive in the same growing conditions.

There have been some selections of Cyclamen coum made by a few enterprising gardeners and nurserymen, but unfortunately most of this has occurred across the pond and many of the varieties are not available stateside. However, there are a few places that are beginning to offer selected varieties. Mostly, though it has been the efforts of the Ashwood and Tile Barn nurseries, along with a few others in England, who have made the majority of the introductions at this point. Here in the states, a few plants were available at one time from Heronswood Nursery, but alas, all they offer now is a seed grown mix. My buddy Barry Glick, at Sunshine Farm and Gardens in Renick, West Virginia ( is also growing Cyclamen coum by the thousands and I’d be willing to bet that he has some fine plants set aside for introduction at some point. A place in Indiana called Munchkin Nursery & Gardens also lists it in their mail-order catalog. They can be found at I’ve never ordered anything from them, so can’t speak to the kinds of plants they supply, but at least they list it–and a nice selection of other woodland and shade garden plants!

Cyclamen coum combines well with many woodland and shade garden plants, including our most common inhabitants like hostas, hellebores and ferns, but they’ll also thrive amongst the roots of other shrubs and trees–and actually prefer it there! When planting cyclamen, be sure that the top of the tuber is exposed above the soil line–yes, that’s correct–the top of the tuber just barely above the soil line. Then mulch very lightly over the top with something lightweight and easy for the leaves and flowers to push through, such as pine straw, soil conditioner, or a very light dusting of partially composted leaves. Excellent drainage is essential for success with cyclamen and exposing the top of the tuber ensures that water will not settle in and rot the crown. Competition from tree roots also helps and this makes Cyclamen coum one of the best perennials for planting directly in the root zone of larger trees.

Well, it’s a beautiful day here and I need to get to work, but I hope this tidbit of information about one of my favorite garden plants has whetted your appetite enough to do a little research and include one of my garden favorites in your own garden.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Germinating Giants

(Originally Posted November 16, 2007 on MySpace)
I have had an astounding success that I feel like I need to share with everyone! If you’ve been following along with the blog for a while, you’re already familiar with one of my favorite tropical plants, Colocasia gigantea ‘Thailand Strain’. I bought my original plant from my buddy Robert Wilson at the now-defunct Gum Tree Farm in Hermitage, TN. They had SUCH cool stuff!!! But anyway…..

Walking around my “nursery” area one afternoon in September I noticed the distinct odor of ripening fruit. Much to my surprise, one of the pods that I had been keeping an eye on on the giant colocasia had fallen over and was exuding a quite pleasant “come and find me” sort of fruity fragrance. I investigated and found the inside of the pod to be full of translucent “berries”, each of which was in turn absolutely and completely loaded with seeds that were smaller than the head of a pin. I was convinced that these seeds probably were underdeveloped and wouldn’t germinate, but also knew that I couldn’t let the opportunity escape, so I turned to the internet to see what I could find out about the germination of Colocasia gigantea.

The information was limited, at best, but I did find a few references to the fact that the seed needed to be sowed immediately, while it was still fresh, and never allowed to dry out. If the seed dried out, they said, you may never get it to germinate. It also said the seeds germinated best at temperatures over 80 degrees. Had the seed ripened a month earlier, I would have been set, but we had FINALLY had a much-needed break in the temperatures and as much as I was personally enjoying it, I felt these tropical seeds would not. So I set about “squishing” the tiny seeds out of their berries and rubbing them between paper towels to get as much of the gelatinous membrane off of them as possible. There were hundreds (possibly thousands) of little seeds sticking to the paper towels, so I scraped them up with a butter knife (so technical, I know) and mixed them with a few tablespoons of finely sieved seed starting mix so that they would separate and not all be stuck together.

Next, I sowed them on the surface of several small flats, dusted over the top of them VERY lightly with some additional seedling mix, carefully misted them until they were good and damp and then set them to germinating on the heating pad that use for my back when it flares up (again, very technical, I know) set on the lowest setting and with a kitchen towel folded in half to buffer the heat. All I could do now was wait and hope for the best. For the first few days there was no action at all, but on about the 7th day I swore that the little seeds looked like they were beginning to swell a little. Sure enough! By day 10 I had tiny little elephant ears beginning to emerge–and they emerged, and emerged, and emerged! I swear that every seed I sowed must have germinated twice!

It’s almost 2 months later now and so far, so good. My house runs very cool in the fall and winter, so they’re not growing very quickly, but they are still alive and I have lost very, very few so far. I noticed this week that a good many of the seedlings are now beginning to put out their first true leaf–tiny, but growing nonetheless. I’ve decide I may have to rig a small greenhouse for them on the kitchen counter to keep them warmer and more humid. We’ll see. But for now, I’m the proud papa of about seven or eight hundred elephant ears, each of which may grow 8-10 feet tall with a 12-15 foot spread. I think I’d better start looking for more land!