Monday, November 16, 2009

Chocolate Chip Pie

No, this is not the name of a new plant!  Sorry.  I have avoided posting about food up to this point because this is, after all, a garden blog.  But... many of us who garden are also "foodies" to one degree or another.  The other night, I posted on my Facebook account that I had just made an old family favorite, Chocolate Chip Pie, and I was immediately flooded with requests for the recipe.  Since the space on Facebook is somewhat limited, I thought I'd post it here instead and make it easier for everyone to have.

Chocolate Chip Pie is one of those things that sounds a lot more decadent than it really is.  It's actually a very light and fluffy dessert all thanks to the World War II-era invention of one Mr. Robert Rich, who, because of a shortage of dairy products during the war, used what at the time was state-of-the-art technology to create the very first non-dairy whipped topping.  Today, we most often refer to this product as "Cool Whip", just like we refer to tissues as "Kleenex"--a brand name instead of the actual product name--but it was Rich's Whip Topping that debuted in 1945 and changed the way we think about whipped topping, non-dairy creamers and a host of other "non-dairy" products.

We all think we're leading the way today with our commitment to soy milk and other "soy" products, but did you know that the first soy ice cream was actually on the market in 1951!?!  It's true.

So because of the invention of whipped topping, Chocolate Chip Pie has been a part of our family for more than 50 years.  When my mother was a little girl, a close family friend, Leona Benninga, would make it for special occasions.  It was mom's favorite dessert back then and I think it's safe to say that that still holds true today.  I still have my copy of the recipe in Leona's handwriting that she passed on to me many years ago.  I'm not sure where the original recipe came from, but my best guess would be that it either came off of the whipped topping label or out of a lady's magazine, such as Woman's Day.  Maybe mom knows.  I'll have to ask her.

So that's the abbreviated version of the story of Chocolate Chip Pie, and here's the quick and easy recipe!

Chocolate Chip Pie

1 graham cracker piecrust (8" or 10" will work, but in a 10" shell the filling won't be as deep)

1/2 cup milk
30 large marshmallows (there are about 35 in a bag and I just use them all)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups of non-dairy whipped topping (Cool Whip, etc.) completely thawed so it's light and fluffy
3 ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate, grated

In a heavy, 3-quart sauce pan place 1/2 cup of milk and add the 30 marshmallows.  Place over medium heat and warm it until the milk starts bubbling up between the marshmallows, being careful that the marshmallows don't start to scorch.  When the marshmallows begin to melt, remove pan from heat and stir slowly until the marshmallows have melted completely (the retained heat in the pan should be enough to do this and the mixture should be smooth and somewhat foamy).

At this point, I transfer the warm marshmallow mixture to a room temperature glass mixing bowl to help bring the temperature down more quickly.  Once the mixture is completely cooled, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and stir in.  Next, add the three cups of whipped topping and gently fold the marshmallow mixture and the whipped topping together until it is completely blended. (The marshmallow mixture must be completely cool when you add the whipped topping or the whipped topping will melt!)  Finally, add the finely grated unsweetened baker's chocolate to the bowl and fold in until completely combined.  The mixture should resemble very light and fluffy chocolate chip ice cream.

Carefully add the filling to the piecrust and distribute evenly.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.  The longer it chills, the better it cuts and serves.  You might also choose to reserve a tablespoon or so of grated chocolate to sprinkle over the top when complete.

That's it!  Like I said, it's nothing fancy or terribly decadent--just an old family favorite that we all still love.  Hope you enjoy it, too!

*Notes:  I have made this with both sugar free and fat free whipped topping and it's just as good either way.  The marshmallows contribute plenty of sweetness.  If you want it even more chocolatey, it's also good in a chocolate graham cracker crust.  It makes it taste like an Oreo cookie!

Also, I changed the original recipe from 2 cups of whipped topping and 2 ounces of baker's chocolate to 3 cups and 3 ounces, respectively, because I like the filling to "stack up" a little deeper in the shell, so if you find yourself with an overabundance of filling, just lick the bowl really well and you can cut it back a little the next time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Autumn Reprise

I sat down at the computer today prepared to blog about Hedychium, or ginger lily, but as I was scrolling through my photos this iris (cultivar 'Total Recall') caught my eye. It reminded me that I had just been in a garden earlier this week where the remontant (re-blooming) iris were in their full fall glory and so I changed my mind. I'll do the ginger lily post next week because right now, I have iris on my mind. This is partially due to the fact that just a few weeks ago I planted a box full of rhizomes that my good friend and partner in horticultural crime, Kelly Norris, sent me from his nursery, Rainbow Iris Farm ( in Iowa. (You also should check out Kelly's blog at, but not until after you finish reading mine, please and thank you.)

Anyway... this photograph jogged my memory of several gardens that I have been in recently where the re-blooming iris, because of our long and unusually warm autumn, were absolutely stunning. I used to have a "thing" about plants that were typically spring-flowering reblooming in the autumn (I still don't like fall-flowering azaleas), but I have to admit that these remontant iris have become some of my favorites. 'Total Recall' was flowering at the Daniel Stowe Botanic Garden in Charlotte, NC when the Tennessee gang and I were there on our way to Raleigh for the Garden Writers conference back in late September. Others will bloom throughout the month of October and into November where the growing season is long enough and they don't get cut down by a hard frost.

Most of these re-bloomers, at least the ones that are readily available, are the typical tall bearded types. Being sort of a bearded iris virgin, I'm sure that there are others, too, but the tall beardeds are the ones I'm most familiar with so I'm sticking with those for now. Probably the most famous of all of the re-bloomers is the stunning white 'Immortality'. Now, you know I can barely stand white flowers, so for me to use the terms "white" and "stunning" in the same sentence, let alone side by side in a description, means that this plant must be truly special, and it is if for no other reason that it is one of the most consistent repeaters of any bearded iris, usually offering a show that is almost as impressive in the autumn as it is in the spring.

Other beautiful rebloomers include: 'St. Petersburg', 'Earl of Essex', 'Eleanor Roosevelt', 'Autumn Tryst', 'Summer Olympics', 'September Replay' and of course the ones I've already mentioned, 'Immortality' and 'Total Recall'.

These beautiful iris are just as easy to grow as the typical spring bloomers, but you get twice as much beauty from them! As for all bearded iris, excellent drainage is very important and full sun is preferred, though they will tolerate a little bit of shade (this may affect reblooming). Nearly all of them are extremely cold hardy and will grow all the way up into Zone 3, though fall bloom can sometimes be cut short in colder climates. In our southern gardens, though, where autumn often hangs on well into November as it has done this year, re-blooming iris are a great way to end the season!

Friday, October 30, 2009

One Day Of Good Fall Color

Fall color peaked here today, with 30 mph winds and thunderstorms on the way. Hope you got to see it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


On Friday, we loaded up the van and took the Volunteer Gardener ( television cameras down to Jackson, TN to visit my friend (and the horticulturist for UT's West Tennessee Research Station at Jackson) Jason Reeves. I've mentioned him before and I think I blogged about last year's pumpkin display, too. Talent beyond measure!

This year's display contains more than 5,000 pumpkins, winter squash, gourds and a few other related cucurbits arranged in two blocks in the parking lot of the research station. The design changes every year, with this year's theme featuring a river of white mini pumpkins flowing under a wooden bridge and surrounded by a fantasy landscape of orange, green, grey, blue, yellow, brown, striped, lumpy, bumpy, smooth, ribbed, tall, short, fat, skinny squash and gourds that are deftly arranged into an otherworldly scene. There's even a "nest of snakes" (gourds) living by the river and the "pumpkin house" is back this year, too!

If you have reason to be in or near Jackson, Tennessee in the next few weeks, the research station is only about 5 or 10 minutes off of the interstate. And if you can't make it to see the pumpkins, the gardens there are gorgeous, too! Even in the winter, there's enough going on to make it worth your while and during the summer months, when the gardens are in full bloom, it is nothing short of breathtaking.

I should mention that while Jason is the horticulturist for the station, he also has the talented and knowledgable Matthew Morrow helping him out, as well as an amazing group of local volunteers and master gardeners that dedicate their time to his cause.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Chill Is In The Air

We're getting our first taste of winter this weekend. I know that sounds funny to some of you who have had winter weather already, some for several weeks! There are those of you in Nebraska who had 17 inches of snow last week, folks in Wyoming who had even more than that and gardeners who survived the year's first nor'easter in New England just in the past few days. It's strange to see all the photos of the trees, in full leaf, laden with snow.

That's dangerous, actually. Dangerous for the trees, that is. The leaves capture the snow as it falls--and it was a wet, flaky snow, too--and often times the weight that accumulates is too much for the trees to bear and you get a lot of breakage. Here's hoping that if you're in New England, your trees come through unscathed!

Here in the south, I'm almost convinced that we're never going to see the sun again. I don't know how those of you in the Pacific northwest do it. Really, I don't. And I hate to complain about rain, given that just two years ago we were on our knees begging for any drop of water that would fall from the sky, but enough already! Save some for next summer!

And now it's turning cold... and not just cold, but damp and cold--the worst possible combination--and not very inspiring when you have as much to do in the garden this fall as I do! I'm sure I'm not alone.

Speaking of things to do in the fall, I thought I'd run through a short list of "to do's" that have been on my mind lately. I find that many times, fellow gardeners just aren't certain of what to do in the garden in autumn or, perhaps more importantly, when to do it.

Fall cleanup. This can be a daunting task. Summer's lush growth is now collapsing into withering heaps and you, the gardener, must decide what gets cut back, which plants are allowed to stay standing for winter interest, who needs extra mulch to help bring them through the winter (surely none of you are growing plants that are borderline in your zone! ha!) and which plants must be dug and stored. In addition, you have to decide what you're going to do with all of the vast piles of "vegetable matter" that you're removing from the garden as you do go through and cut back and clean up.

Composting. I'm not going to get into all of the "how-to" details of composting here--only a couple of quick suggestions on what should and should not be included. If you have any plants that had particularly bad disease problems this season, such as roses with blackspot, zinnias with particularly bad powdery mildew, etc., the debris from those plants should not be added to your compost pile. It's highly likely that your compost pile will not get hot enough to kill off the offenders and when you spread the compost back out in the garden, you're just re-distributing disease spores throughout the garden. Also, much of the material that you will be adding to your compost pile this time of year is dry and "woody"--even stems from your perennials (consider the bloom stalks from something like purple coneflower)--so you have to be careful about keeping the proper carbon:nitrogen ratio and be cautious of overdoing it with that dry, woody debris. Even dry leaves can get you into trouble in your compost pile! Too much carbon, not enough nitrogen = no decomposition. Well, maybe slow decomposition, at best!

Leaves. What to do with them?!? I make leaf mould with mine. How does this differ from compost? Well, first of all, it is only leaves. I don't put anything at all but leaves in the leaf mould pile. Secondly, it's almost all carbon because by the time the leaves fall from the trees, they're fairly dry and have little green left in them, so their nitrogen content is nil. What does this mean for you? It means they take a long time to decompose, but that's okay. I would suggest running the lawnmower over them to chop them up a little and that will help them break down faster. However, I move mine to the area where the pile is first and then run the lawnmower through them. If you do it while they're still on the lawn, they're impossible to pick up once they're finely chopped, so I find it easier to rake them and move them first and then do the chopping. Can you leave your leaves on the lawn? Yes, if you mow them up into fine pieces AND if you don't have so many leaves that even the fine, chopped up pieces leave a smothering "mulch" over the top of your lawn. If you have a lot of leaves, like I do, it's best to remove them--or at least most of them. I love my leaf mould pile. It takes at least one season for them to completely break down, and sometimes two, but it's worth the wait. Leaf mould is like black gold as far as I'm concerned.

Watering. If you live somewhere where your fall has been dry (does anywhere like that exist anymore?), be sure that your trees, shrubs, perennials and lawn are thoroughly watered before cold winter weather sets in. Going into winter dry is very hard on plants, especially evergreens, so be prepared to do some supplemental watering if you're not getting the needed rainfall as winter begins.

Fertilizing. Believe it or not, autumn is actually one of the most important times of the year that you can fertilize your garden--especially trees and shrubs. You need to wait, though, until things are completely dormant. Here in Tennessee, Zone 6b, I usually wait until late November and then when I do fertilize I make sure that I use something that has a low nitrogen number with higher phosphorous and potassium rates. High nitrogen could spur late season growth and then that tender new growth will get zapped in the next round of cold weather. That's not good for you or for your plants. Roots are still very active at this time, though, and an autumn application of fertilizer will be picked up by the roots and stored, waiting for the warm weather of spring to kick your plants into high gear and get next year's growth well underway.

Mulching. I'm fortunate to live in a zone where I don't really have to mulch too much for the sake of winter protection. I do it because it makes the garden look neat and tidy for the winter and because then the mulch is already in place when the perennials start growing in the spring and I don't have to mulch around them. In areas where you do have to mulch to protect plants for the winter, use dry straw or hay. Bark or wood mulches piled up over the crowns of your plants will rot them (except, perhaps for roses). When you are mulching with wood products (bark, shredded, etc.) be sure not to bury the crowns of your perennials. Many of them will not tolerate it and will rot out during the cold, wet winter weather because of it. You'd be better off not to mulch at all.

Pruning. I only have one thing to say about this--please don't! Autumn is NOT the time of year to prune! Cutting back perennials is fine. I'm talking about pruning of trees, shrubs, roses and other plants. I repeat, autumn is not the time. People get carried away. They're out in the yard cleaning up, getting everything neat and tidy for the winter and they figure they'll just do a little pruning while they're at it. Please don't do it! Pruning in the fall opens up wounds on the stems and trunks of plants that don't have time to heal properly before the onset of cold weather. This, then, allows interior tissue of the stems to freeze and you begin seeing considerable dieback in your trees and shrubs. Some trees and shrubs, such as crape myrtles, can die back several feet during the winter if they are fall pruned. Roses are the same way. Most of my rose friends (since I don't grow them) would tell you only to cut your roses back enough to tidy them up and leave as much the plant standing through the winter as possible. Hard pruning should not take place until late winter/early spring. The same can be said for almost all of your pruning.

Trees can be pruned beginning late February and into March (later in colder zones), prior to leafing out. The trick is to do your pruning when the trees are bare and you can really see what you're doing and where you're cutting, but to do it within a few weeks of when the sap is going to begin flowing and the trees and shrubs begin active growth so that the pruning wounds heal as quickly as possible. If you need to do hard "rejuvenation" pruning on things like boxwoods or an old yew hedge, late February (again, TN, Zone 6b) is the time to do it. If you live where it's colder, you'll have to wait, and warmer zones can do it a bit earlier. The key is to catch them right before they break into new growth so that if you are cutting back into dormant wood, the hidden buds along the stems have time to receive the signal that they need to come out of dormancy and get with it! Here, the boxwoods begin to flush in late March, so I like to prune about the last week of February. In other zones, you can adjust accordingly.

Before I end, a word on Crape Myrtles. Crape myrtles are probably the most mistreated trees and shrubs in the landscape. They have endured decades of horrific mistreatment by being beheaded every year to force them to sprout forth in a medusa-like manner with their snake-like branches whipping and waving in the wind, striking out at unsuspecting passersby. I don't know who the idiot was that started this practice, but I have two words for it. STOP! IT!

I have a theory that this practice was started based on one particular plant, the variety 'Natchez'. The 'Natchez' crape myrtle received huge amounts of press when it was released and became one of, if not THE, most popular crape myrtle in the parts of the country where it will grow. People planted it everywhere! What they didn't realize was that 'Natchez', where it's happy, wants to be a 25-foot tree. That's what it's supposed to do, folks! But people planted it right up next to their homes, around their pools, in their courtyards and driveway turn-arounds. Landscapers planted them in tight spaces in parking lots and other places where they should never have been used in the first place and suddenly, they were much larger than anyone "thought" they would get. This was a classic case of planting the wrong plant in the wrong place. order to solve the problem, the beheading started. People realized that if they cut their crape myrtles back hard each spring, they would shoot up huge amounts of new growth with enormous heads of flowers on them--so enormous that the thin branches often can't hold them upright--and this became an accepted practice, a practice that has now infiltrated and poisoned everything we know about growing crape myrtles.

By the way, not every crape myrtle will respond well to the "beheading" method. Many of them do not have the propensity to sprout forth and flourish when they are treated that way, so be warned. There are now hundreds of varieties of crape myrtles on the market ranging in size from 2-foot shrubs to 35-foot trees when they are full grown, and in every size category they come in a stunning array of colors. Do a little research. Find the appropriate size plant that will fit the space you need it to at maturity and choose a color you love. But please, please, stop the beheading!

Happy autumn!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Kick Back and Have A 'Mojito' In Your Garden

As the days grow shorter and temperatures begin to drop, many of my tropical plants begin to head into their dormant or semi-dormant winter phase. The elephant ears (Colocasia and Alocasia), however, continue looking good right up to frost. This is especially true if they're planted in the garden where their roots have free run of the soil and access to as much water and nutrients as they can use.

One of the standouts in this year's garden has been Colocasia 'Mojito'! Now, I have to preface all of my praise-making by saying that I don't think I've ever met an "elephant ear" that I didn't like. They are probably my favorite group of tropical plants because they're tough, easy and anyone can grow them with great success. They also offer a tremendous variety of colors, sizes and shapes and will thrive in a wide range of growing conditions--some like it shady and dry while others like full sun in boggy soil. So no matter what your garden conditions are like, you can find an Alocasia or Colocasia to suit your needs.

But I digress... Colocasia 'Mojito' has been the standout in this year's garden. Nothing is off limits here--well, almost nothing. You won't find many, if any white flowers, but that's a topic for another post. 'Mojito' has stood head and shoulders (literally) above many other garden plants this year and the coloration of the leaves is bright, bold and maybe even a little daring! Just my kind of plant!

Grown in a large container, 'Mojito' topped out at about 4 feet with colorful leaves of medium size. But it was in the ground, with an unlimited root run, where 'Mojito' really thrived. (The same could be said for all elephant ears.) In the ground, 'Mojito' reached nearly 6 feet tall with leaves 2 feet in length and 18 inches wide, splashed, marbled and sprayed in a spectacular array of shades of green, chartreuse, purple and near black. It's neighbors in the garden were a large, dark-foliaged barberry, black coleus 'Othello' and burnt orange coleus 'Sedona', Buddleia 'Black Knight' and the golden form of Jewels of Opar (Talinum) alongside royal purple angelonia. The dizzying array of colors was showstopping throughout the summer!

Of course, there are many other varieties of elephant ears available and a quick Google search will introduce you to so many of them. Also, visit the Plant Delights Nursery website at Tony and his crew carry a vast array of Colocasia and Alocasia and there are several other nurseries who specialize in them, also.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Good Things Grow at Montrose

As part of last week's garden tours at the annual Garden Writers Association symposium we had the distinct pleasure of visiting Montrose, the well-known garden and nursery of plantswoman Nancy Goodwin. It was my first visit and I have to say, the garden was nothing short of stunning. Nancy has been responsible for introducing some fabulous plants to perennial gardens and gardeners around the world, including one of the finest heucheras ever to grace a garden, Heuchera 'Montrose Ruby'. It's a classic!
I was able to add three species of hardy cyclamen to my own collection from Nancy's garden, as well as a few other interesting and unusual perennials. I hope I have the opportunity to visit the garden again some day and see its spectacular beauty in every season. Here are a couple of photographs from our autumn visit. Notice the incredible use of textures in the garden. Though there are some autumn flowering plants putting their best foot forward, much of the interest in this garden comes from outstanding combinations of foliage juxtaposed against one another and against the creative and beautiful hardscape features of the garden.Thanks so much to Nancy for opening her garden to a motley crew and allowing us all the pleasure of seeing it in person!

I Beg Your Pardon...

A star-studded turnout for Nashville's new rose garden.
On September 29, 2009 a group of honorees, friends and special guests gathered in downtown Nashville to dedicate Nashville's newest public garden space, the Nashville Music Garden. I've given you most of the specifics in earlier posts, but thought I'd share some photos from dedication day. I had the honor of being invited to the dedication ceremony, as well as to the celebrity luncheon that followed.

Honored guests included Jeff Cook of country music super-group Alabama, newest Country Music Hall of Fame member (and my new gardening buddy) Barbara Mandrell, "Little Miss Dynamite" Brenda Lee and Irlene Mandrell, Barbara's youngest sister who was part of their incredibly successful television show in the early '80's, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.

The new garden will include not only roses, but also daylilies. One of the newest daylilies has been named to honor Barbara Mandrell and her contributions to the music world. This is the presentation of the new daylily to Barbara so that she can take it home and plant it in her own garden. Barbara has become a serious gardener in the past few years and gardens with the same passion, enthusiasm and level of perfection that she performed with on stage.

After the dedication ceremony, a private luncheon was held for the celebrities and their families who were in attendance that day. I was honored to be a part of it and just had to have my picture taken with country music legend, Lynn Anderson.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Good Snail For Your Garden

Last week's trip to Raleigh, NC for the annual Garden Writer's symposium was successful on several fronts, but perhaps most successful in my being able to capture some great images of many unique and unusual garden plants which I'll be bringing to you here over the weeks and months to come.

The first of those has been a favorite plant of mine since I grew it as a child. Vigna caracalla, or snail vine, is a snail you'll definitely want to have in your garden! The name snail vine comes not from the fact that it's as slow as a snail (actually, just the opposite), but from the one-of-a-kind blossoms that curl and twist like the shell of a snail. It's certainly one of the most unique vines you can grow.

Snail vine can be easily grown from seed and is available from several sources which you can find with a quick Google search. It will grow fairly rapidly to make an 8-10 foot vine (maybe larger in warmer areas) and is perfectly suited to covering a small arbor, trellis or other structure. In warmer zones, it may be perennial (probably borderline in Zone 7b, more reliable Zone 8 and warmer). For those of you in colder areas, I've read that snail vine can be grown in large containers, cut back in the fall and overwintered in a cool, frost-free place to be returned to its outdoor location the following spring where it will resprout, grow and flower the following season. I have not tried this myself (I usually just start from seed each spring), but have talked with several gardeners who overwinter theirs this way with good success.

Flowering typically occurs in late summer and fall and the unique, curled blossoms are more than worth the wait. Full sun to very light shade will give the most flower production. Also, be careful about overfeeding, as you could sacrifice blooms at the expense of foliage.

This is just the tip of the iceberg where unique and unusual plants are concerned, so be sure to stay tuned in the coming weeks and months as I begin posting about many of the wonderful plants I saw on this trip, as well as several other recent plant-related adventures. I know there will be something new you'll want to add to your garden!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blogging To You From...

the Garden Writers conference in Raleigh, North Carolina!

What a fun week we've had so far! There are only a couple of times a year when I get to become completely immersed in my plant nerdiness for a few days at a time and with people who absolutely, completely and totally "get it"--because they're plant nerds, too. Garden Writers is one of those weeks. Each year for about 5 days, we all descend on a city and we tear it apart, end to end, looking for the greatest gardens and the hottest plants the city has to offer. This year it's Raleigh--and North Carolina may never be the same.
On our trek over from Tennessee yesterday we took a small detour down through Charlotte, NC to visit the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. What a beautiful place to visit if you're in that part of the country for any reason. Don't miss it! Here's a photo from our visit.

Sallying forth to Raleigh we arrived in time to hit the Garden Writers conference trade show at the convention center and were soon weighted down with armloads of free goodies! Lots of plants and other cool stuff, too! There's always a great "haul" from this show because everyone is trying to promote their newest, latest and greatest plants and products to those of us who work in various media outlets so that we might write or talk about them in our articles and on our programs. I have several gorgeous new plants--hydrangeas, abelias, nandinas, loropetalums, crape myrtles and m0re--that I'll tell you about in the very near future.

Today I got to hang out with my good friends Dan Heims, Kelly Norris and Leann Barron. Since Leann had a car, she was kind enough to drive us out to a fun nursery called "Big Bloomers", about 35 minutes from Raleigh, and a good time was had by all! Each of us came back with two more big boxes full to overflowing with plants. Their prices were great and their plants were ultra-cool! What a fantastic operation. You must visit if you're in the Raleigh area.

Here is just one small section of one greenhouse. There were about 16 of these!!! Plant nerd heaven!

Tomorrow morning we're on the bus by 7 a.m. and off for breakfast at the mecca of all things rare and unusual, Plant Delights Nursery ( We'll have breakfast there (though I'm fairly certain those going to be a lot more looking and shopping going on than there is eating) and then back to Raleigh for another afternoon excursion. I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Into Autumn

I must admit, autumn is not my favorite season. You see, I don't really care for winter much, so for me autumn is just sort of the precursor to what can be several months of cold, damp, drizzly weather that sometimes seems as though it may never end. But even though autumn means that winter is just around the corner, I love the beauty that it brings to the garden at the end of the season and I love the warm, breezy days that let summer linger, whispering away across the hills.

Those are the days that bring scenes like these, of Joe-Pye-weed (Eupatorium) and miscanthus beckoning from across the way--radiant, feathery plumes backed by the rich, warm shades of the Joe Pye passing its prime but still looking stunning dressed in autumnal shades.

With miscanthus being on the invasive exotic list (something I'm going to be blogging about soon) in some states, other scenes just as beautiful could easily be created with native grasses such as Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) or one of the many switchgrasses (Panicum).
Other fall favorites include Aster oblongifolius 'Raydon's Favorite' and 'October Skies', Callicarpa americana (American Beautyberry) and the many Anemone x hybridus cultivars whose poppy-like flowers dance in the breeze on long, wiry stems.

More on other great autumn additions to the garden coming soon!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Species Lilies

I have a lot of friends who are plant hybridizers--good hybridizers--and for the most part, I love their plants. But there is one group of plants where my preference runs toward the wild species--untouched, unmanipulated, unmarred beauty. Species lilies.

These are lilies as they appear in the wild, untouched by human hand, and they are some of the most beautiful lilies in the world and in the garden. If you haven't grown species lilies, I would highly recommend you try. That is not to say that I don't like the hybrids. I do. I have 'Stargazer' and 'Casa Blanca' and 'Muscadette' and 'Scheherezade' and many others and they're all "wow" plants when they're in bloom. But there is something about the classic, wild beauty of a species lily that the hybrids, no matter how beautiful, can't match.

One of my favorites is pictured here--Lilium henryi var. citrinum. The "henryi's", in general, are easy to grow. The type species is a soft but rich orange color, petals strongly reflexed and covered in dark brownish-purple spots. There is also a hybrid known as 'White Henryi' whose flowers are less reflexed and are white with a tawny orange throat and little to no spotting. But it is var. citrinum that I like most. I like yellow, so it's a shoo-in in my book.

It is a robust grower, but I must admit, it absolutely has to be staked. No exceptions. As lovely as it is, its stems are a little on the weak side, but nothing that a sturdy bamboo stake won't rectify. That will turn some of you off, I know, but gardening is not without some work and staking is one of the least time consuming and most important of tasks once you learn to do it properly, and some plants are just worth it. Believe me, there are plenty of floppy plants that I've sent packing to the compost pile over the years, but there are some I make exceptions for.

The bulbs of Lilium henryi var. citrinum can grow to a very large size--one of the largest of the traditional garden lilies--occasionally weighing in at over 3 pounds and measuring over 2 feet in circumference (around, not diameter!). I threw that tidbit in to warn you that if you choose to grow the "henryi's" to use caution when staking. You don't want to drive your bamboo stick through the bulb!

Other species that are at the top of my "favorite lilies" list include: Lilium speciosum var. rubrum, Lilium regale, Lilium leichtlinii, Lilium pardalinum (the "leopard lily", native to California and the west coast, but performs exceptionally well in other locations), Lilium canadense, Lilium wigginsii (aka Lilium pardalinum supsp. wigginsii) and of course, many others. If you love lilies and you haven't grown some of the species, do a quick Google search and I'm sure you'll find some to fall in love with!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wait Until You See.....

.....the new redbuds coming to market in the very near future. Some friends and I took a trip to Winchester on Friday and stopped to see Harold and Alex Neubauer (all I can say about their nursery is WOW!) before heading on over to see our good friend and horticulture guru, Don Shadow. Don took the time out of his busy day to treat us to lunch and then showed us to the far corners of the nursery where the best-of-the-best called to us from across the acres. One of the most beautiful was the plant pictured here--Cercis canadensis 'Rising Sun'--with golden yellow foliage providing the perfect foil for the coppery-orange new growth and all of it (old foliage and new) highlighted with brilliant, hot pink petioles! This is my kind of plant! Flowering in spring, its blossoms will be the typical redbud color.

Just as a tease, we also saw burgundy-leafed weeping redbuds, a mottled green-and-white variegated cultivar, a weeping variegated variety and perhaps my favorite of all (except for 'Rising Sun', of course) a hybrid between 'Forest Pansy' and 'Oklahoma' that had leaves that looked like deep, dark burgundy patent leather! Shiny and almost black! Yowza! Just wait til you see what's coming!

Thanks to Don for a fun day and to Harold and Alex for inviting us into the nursery on such short notice that morning. We appreciated it very much!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Of Summer Sunflowers

Being a Kansas boy by birth, one of my favorite of all wildflowers is the sunflower. "Wildflowers?", you may be asking yourself. Sure enough. Across the hills and plains of Kansas, at about this time of year, the wild sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) begin flowering. If you know where to look, you can find entire fields and valleys full of their brilliant yellow faces following the sun across the sky from east to west, sunrise to sunset. These are not the giant garden-variety sunflowers, but instead are a shrubby, multi-branched and profusely flowering sunflower that may have 50 or more golden yellow, 4"-5" diameter blossoms on each plant. Many of the florists' sunflowers are closely related--multi-stemmed, multi-flowering in a wide array of colors from creamy white through golden yellow to deepest burgundy. These are annual sunflowers, though, and what I really want to tell you about are a few of my perennial sunflower favorites!

The picture you see at the top of this blog entry is the foliage of what is, perhaps, my favorite of all of the perennial sunflowers, Helianthus salicifolius, or the willowleaf sunflower with leaves only about 1/8-inch wide and providing outstanding foliage texture in the sunny garden. It is a robust grower, reaching 5-7 feet tall and adding an additional 2 feet when in flower in late summer and early fall. Yes, it's tall, but it's also quite vertical and takes up a relatively small amount of space in the garden, so it's useful even in smaller spaces that need some vertical interest. A virtual cloud of 3-inch diameter golden yellow flowers appear atop the plant in September and last for 6-8 weeks, providing a spectacular late summer and fall display. If the height worries you, you can "pinch" the growing tips in June when the plant reaches about 3 feet tall and it will flower at 5-6 feet tall instead of the normal 8 feet.

Other perennial sunflowers that I have grown and loved over the years include Helianthus angustifolius, with leaves about 1 inch wide (and often confused, though I'm not sure why, with H. salicifolius, since they look nothing alike), also growing 6'-8' tall. This is commonly called the "swamp sunflower" and will thrive in wet locations where other plants suffer. However, it does spread by underground runners and may become quite aggressive in damp soils. Keeping it drier will help curb its desire to run and, quite frankly, I find it worth what little extra effort it takes to occasionally pare down the size of the clump. The benefits of having it in the garden easily outweigh any inconvenience, in my opinion.

A sunflower that not many people are familiar with but that I have great admiration for is Helianthus microcephalus, which literally translates to "little headed" sunflower. It is not as architectural a plant as the previously mentioned species, but the virtual cloud of small, clear yellow (not gold) flowers that appear in profusion from July through September make it worth a spot in the garden. One of the best features of this plant is its burgundy-red fall foliage color, which begins to appear in early fall while myriad yellow flowers are still clearly abundant. Slightly shorter than some, the little-headed sunflower comes in at about 5-6 feet when in bloom and should be spared excess fertilizer or water to keep it standing sturdily upright.

If you truly don't have the room for a larger growing perennial sunflower, then search out the fabulous dwarf form of Helianthus angustifolius named 'Low Down'. I'm not usually one who gets very excited about extremely dwarf forms of plants, but 'Low Down' is one of my exceptions. Topping out at only 1 foot tall, it completely obscures its own foliage with golden yellow flowers in autumn, putting on a spectacular 'Low Down' show!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Horticulture Magazine Article

While I'm doing a bit of shameless self promotion, in case anyone did not get to see the short article I did for Horticulture magazine's May 2009 issue about Yucca rostrata 'Sapphire Skies', it is now available online. You can find it here:

With the publishing of my newest article in Fine Gardening, that makes the "Triple Crown" of gardening magazines for 2009. Garden Design in March, Horticulture in May and now Fine Gardening in the new October issue. Thanks to each and every one of you who follow along with the blog, visit the website ( and subscribe to the magazines or pick them up at the news stand or bookstore. By reading, you keep those of us who write doing what we love. Thank you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Big Bloomers in Fine Gardening

Hey everyone! Just a quick note to let everyone know that if you subscribe to Fine Gardening magazine you'll find me in the newest issue, October 2009, which hit the newsstands this week. (And mailboxes within the past 2 weeks.) So... hope you'll take a minute to check out my article, "Big Bloomers", and be watching here for a new "cool plant" post in the next day or two!

P.S. We officially had 12.5 inches of rain in the month of July at the farm. Wow! It has been a crazy summer. More on that soon, too!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Barbara Mandrell on Volunteer Gardener

What crazy weather we're having for this time of year! I'm not complaining, because it sure is wonderful here, but my friends in the Pacific Northwest are having a recordbreaking heatwave.

My real reason for posting is to remind everyone in the middle Tennessee area that my interview with Barbara Mandrell about the new Nashville Music Garden will air tonight on Nashville Public Television at 7:30 p.m. and will repeat at 9:30 this coming Sunday morning. I hope you get to watch! If you're not in the Nashville viewing area, watch your local listings. We do air in every market in Tennessee (Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Martin), so we'll be on all across the state at some point in the very near future! We also spill over into any neighboring states that are able to pick up any public television stations from those cities listed, so you'll be able to watch us, too!

I'm working on a couple of new things from my trip to St. Louis last week for the Perennial Plant Association annual symposium. There are some fascinating new plants coming on the market in 2010, so a new update on those coming in the next few days. Until then, hope the weather is being kind to you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Glorious Gladiolus

Gladiolus are another of those plants that hold a nostalgic place in my heart. The next door neighbors used to grow rows and rows of them at the far end of the vegetable garden, carefully lifting and storing the corms each autumn and replanting them the following spring for tall spires of summer blooms to cut for neighbors and friends. I'm less inclined to do the "digging and storing" thing, so I thought I'd tell you about one of my favorite perennial gladiolus that lives its life year-round in the garden--no digging, no cleaning, no storing, no replanting!

Meet 'Boone'. Commonly sold as Gladiolus x gandavensis 'Boone', it is now fairly certain that it is actually a form or very early hybrid of Gladiolus primulinus (now lumped into G. dalenii). It is a stalwart garden performer, hardy to at least Zone 5b and with numerous reports of it surviving colder locales. Its stunning golden-apricot blossoms are an almost indescribable color--think of the most luscious apricot sherbet you can imagine and you're almost there--and it flowers for a period of several weeks in mid-summer. And because it's a "glad" it will last beautifully when cut and brought indoors to enjoy, too!

Much more diminutive than the common florist's gladiolus, 'Boone' holds its head high in the garden with no flopping or laying on the neighbors. Green sword-like foliage brings that great vertical element to the garden before the flowers emerge and remains well after they're gone. Discovered near 'Boone' North Carolina on an abandoned homestead, Gladiolus 'Boone' was introduced by plant guru and former proprietor of Holbrook Farm and Nursery, Allen Bush (now the North American rep for German seed company Jelitto) and has become a favorite of every gardener who grows it. Allen is a great friend and the photo you see actually came from his garden when we filmed a segment with him for Volunteer Gardener a couple of years ago.

If 'Boone' has you salivating and tapping the keys to Google the nursery nearest you who offers it for sale, then there is a cousin I need to tell you about, too. If you're going to order 'Boone', then go ahead (you might as well, while you're at it!) and order 'Carolina Primrose', too! It's just as gorgeous in a soft, buttery primrose yellow and you'll want them both, anyway. It's hardy, too, and once you've grown one, you have to grow the other and it will just be easier to get them both now! Go on, it's okay. I won't tell, I promise. Order one and tell the significant other that the other one was a "bonus plant". Oh--you've already used that explanation, I see.....

Well, anyway, tuck some of these magnificent plants into the drier nooks and crannies of the garden and see what happens. They'll reseed themselves very politely into just the right places in the garden and, after a couple of seasons, you'll have just enough to share with all the friends who will be begging for them every time they visit your garden!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Nashville Music Garden

I'm a big fan of public green spaces. I always have been. That's especially true when good horticulture is involved and that is exactly what's going on at the Nashville Music Garden in downtown Nashville. Located just a block off of lower Broadway and directly across the street from both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the Nashville Music Garden is the perfect marriage of two of my favorite things--gardening and music! What else?!?

Everyone knows that gardening is where I make my living. I wouldn't be here writing to you if that wasn't the case. What some of you might not know is that I'm also an avid music enthusiast--all kinds of music, country included. This obsession with music started at about the same time as my passion for gardening--age 3. I can remember even at that early age my grandfather picking me up in his arms and dancing me around the living room as Guy Lombardo played in the background. And I remember when my grandparents and their friends would still go out to "the club" on Saturday nights and dance the night away to the sounds of big band music and singers who could really sing.

These memories merge with memories of me collecting the "helicopters" that would twirl down out of the silver maples in the front yard at my babysitter's home and that I knew, instinctively, that if I planted them they would grow. I don't ever recall anyone saying to me "Those are seeds. Put them in the ground." It was just something I did. Thirty-five years later there are still two silver maples (not the greatest tree, I know, but hey, I was THREE!) standing in my parents yard--the fruits of my young labor transplanted from the babysitter's flower bed.

That short digression brings us back around to yesterday and the Nashville Music Garden, where horticulture and music meet again, as they have done throughout my life. In this relatively small plot of earth in downtown Nashville, a garden has grown; a garden that celebrates the music and the musicians of our city. Roses named 'Barbara Mandrell' and 'Pam Tillis' and 'Dolly Parton' and 'Patsy Cline', among others. There are also roses named after songs, like 'Ring of Fire' and 'Butterfly Kisses'. In addition to the roses there are daylilies that also bear the names of people who have made a difference in the music world and in Music City.

So we filmed a short piece about this new Nashville Music Garden for our television show, Volunteer Gardener ( and again, gardening and music came together. I had the distinct honor of being joined by one of my musical heroes--country music superstar and one of the newest inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Barbara Mandrell. It was because of Barbara that I chose to play the saxophone when I was only 9 years old and getting ready to start grade school band. I had seen her play it on television and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I had already started playing piano and the alto sax just seemed like a natural progression. I played all the way into college and I still play that saxophone today when the mood strikes, though I'm not nearly as good as I once was. Practice, practice, practice.

And so with Barbara Mandrell at my side, she and I showcased the history and the beautiful blossoms of the roses and daylilies in the Nashville Music Garden and once again gardening and music came together--me, the professional gardener and the hobby musician and Barbara, the professional musician and the hobby gardener. I am in awe that these two things keep coming together in my life and each day I wonder how they will merge and marry again.

Join Barbara and a host of other celebrities, along with yours truly, at the official dedication of the Nashville Music Garden on the morning of September 29, 2009 at 10:30 a.m. Everyone's invited!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Tiniest Waterlily

Many posts ago I wrote about the world's largest waterlilies, the Victorias, whose giant floating leaves may reach 8 feet in diameter in a well grown plant and whose night-time flowers approach nearly a foot in diameter. At the far opposite end of the spectrum is the diminutive Nymphaea 'Helvola' or 'Pygmaea Helvola' which, with floating pads only 2 inches in diameter and tiny yellow, star-shaped flowers only an inch-and-a-half across, can be easily kept in a tabletop water garden where it will grow and bloom just as beautifully as its larger pond grown cousins.

I became a fan of 'Helvola' when I was a college intern at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA where it held court in the water gardens along with its hardy and tropical cousins from around the world, growing just as well in a large pond as it will in a small tabletop bowl.

Growing requirements are the same as for all waterlilies: Full sun (minimum 6 hours per day) and, once growth commences in spring, a monthly feeding of a good waterlily fertilizer. This usually comes in a hard pellet that can be put underwater without dissolving and be pushed right down into the soil at the roots of the plant where it will slowly release its nutrients over a month's time. 'Helvola', being miniature, needs only about 3-4 inches of water over its crown.

Remember that the ultimate spread of a waterlily's leaves over the surface of the water is directly related to how deep in the water it sits and how long the leaf petioles must grow in order for the pads to float on the surface of the water. So, if you want to keep 'Helvola' at its smallest size, keep it as shallow as possible so that the petioles only have to grow a few inches in order for the leaves to float. In deeper water (not more than 10-12 inches, please, since it's a mini), in a pond, for instance, 'Helvola' may spread across the water's surface to a size of 3 feet, but the pads and blooms will remain miniature.

Did I mention that 'Helvola' is hardy? That's right! This diminutive creature is hardy to Zone 5 and in winter, can be dropped a little deeper in the pond (below ice level) or it can actually be removed from the water and stored in its container in a garage or storage room as long as it doesn't freeze solid during cold weather. In spring, simply repot with fresh soil, place back in the water garden and in a few weeks, Voila!, new growth and blooms for the rest of the summer. If you're growing it as a tabletop specimen in a small container, simply pour out the water and remove the entire container to a cold, but non-freezing location for the winter, refilling and placing back outdoors once spring weather arrives.

So if you're looking for a beautiful waterlily that will perform beautifully both in the water garden or in a container, look up little 'Helvola'. It's sure to impress!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Best Day of Summer

The best day of summer has come early this year! No, no... not the first day of summer. The best day of summer! The day when you sink your teeth into the juicy, sweet, ruby red flesh of summer's most perfect fruit.....the first tomato! Oh yes, I picked the first tomato today and I just wanted to brag a little, in case you haven't picked one yet. It is a contest, after all, right? Who has the first tomato?

That's a little unfair, I know. Some of you live up north where tomato season won't start until at least mid to late July and others of you, who live further south, have long beaten me to the punch. However, in my garden, today was the day for the first tomato of the season! I do have to make a confession: It was just a little ol' bitty cherry tomato--but it was the first one of the season and there are hundreds more to follow!

So how did I savor this first tiny little mouthful of summer? The only way you can. I stood right there in the garden, wiped the dust off on my shirt, wrapped it in a leaf from the neighboring basil plant (strategically located for just this purpose!) and popped it right in my mouth where seeds and juice exploded on first bite. Yum!

The tomatoes are growing like gangbusters. They've loved all of the rain we've had this late spring and early summer and after only 6 weeks in the ground the cherry tomato is all the way to the top of it's 5-foot-tall cage. The others are a little slower, only about halfway up their cages, but growing and setting fruit very well. That, of course, will stop in this heat, so I'm glad they had the chance to set some fruit early. Once the night temperatures stay above about 73 degrees or so, fruit set comes to a screeching halt. Fortunately, I think we're supposed to have a couple of nights in the upper 60's in the upcoming week (even though the daytime temps are still going to be miserable) and that will allow for the flowers that are open now to set fruit, too, so hopefully there won't be too big a gap in the harvest later this summer.

I've been able to get another small section of the garden weeded and under control, so slowly but surely it is all starting to come together. I took some "before" pictures a few days ago when I was out working, so they should make for some good before and after shots in the future. A new plant post to follow soon! Hope everyone's gardens are surviving this early heatwave and if you're fortunate enough to live somewhere where the heat isn't a problem yet, then send some of that cooler weather our way! We're already 10 degrees above normal for this time of year and that doesn't bode well for August, but at least I'll have a crop of healthy, gorgeous tomatoes to keep me going out to the garden every morning!

Monday, June 15, 2009


One of the groups of plants that I have always admired--even lusted after--but have never experimented with much is Kniphofia, the "red hot pokers". Even as a child, I remember seeing those full color pictures in the Wayside Gardens catalog (and many others) and thinking that there just couldn't be a much prettier or more impactful flower. I don't know whether it was just the flowers, which looked to me like some sort of fanciful orange fireworks bursting in mid-air, or if I had already started a lifelong love affair with all things "spiky" and sword-like in texture. Probably, it was a combination of the two, even if I didn't know it at the time. That affair carries on today and, I have to admit, it carries on torridly with a Kniphofia named 'Lola'.

It is no secret that I like my plants big, and 'Lola' is certainly a big-boned gal. With spiky green foliage rising to nearly 5 feet tall and as wide and with brilliant orange blossoms approaching a foot long and carried on sturdy stems reaching nearly 7 feet tall, she's one of the biggest of all of the red hot pokers. I'm not sure that any others exceed her in size. I love Tony Avent's description of 'Lola' in his Plant Delights Nursery catalog (which is where I bought mine, by the way,, saying that 'Lola' is, "as we say in the South, a real honker". She's also very well adapted to our climate and has proven her worth both in my garden, as well as the gardens of several clients.

I had just planted my new plant last fall and was concerned this spring that 2 degrees this winter may have been more than 'Lola' could handle. She died all the way down to the ground, leaving no sign of live foliage whatsoever and while I knew that Kniphofia would often resprout from "root cuttings", I was afraid that the crown had been killed and the setback may have amounted to several years' worth of growth. I needed not have any fear. 'Lola' came firing back from below ground (the crown obviously did not freeze), and is even going to have her first flowers, even after a brutal winter.

One of the other things that I love about 'Lola' is her flowering time. The flower spikes are just now emerging and won't peak until around July 1 for me, lasting for approximately a month in good shape (starting next week and lasting until mid-July). Once flowering ceases, the foliage remains great looking, adding bold, spiky texture to the garden for the rest of the season. Kniphofia 'Lola' looks great with Hemerocallis 'Hyperion', Verbena bonariensis, Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' and many other garden plants with similar bloom times. If you like your plants, big, bold and simply fabulous, 'Lola' is your girl!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hemerocallis 'Double River Wye'

Hello everyone! It has been almost a month since I posted last. A lot of great things have been going on and I have been in the process of moving my office to my home, which has taken a little longer than expected. I've had very limited and extremely slow internet access up until just a few days ago, so now I'll be back on a regular basis. Things are continuing to happen in the garden and there'll be lots to tell as summer progresses.

One of the things that's happening now is the flowering of the daylilies. I only brought one with me to the farm and it's one of my favorites. I found it at a local nursery a few years back and have never seen it again, although I do know that a few places offer it for sale online. It's called 'Double River Wye' and looks almost like a double-flowering form of the old standard 'Hyperion', another one of my absolute favorites. It's just a little smaller in stature than 'Hyperion', standing about 30" tall when its in bloom, with narrow almost grassy foliage. It has multiplied very well, even in a container, and when I do get it in the garden a little later this summer I think I'll be able to divide it into at least three good pieces.

The flowers are almost what I would call a "loose" double, or perhaps even semi-double. They don't have that full, overblown, rose-like appearance that some of the doubles do, and while I like those, too, there is something infinitely more charming about the "looseness" of the petals in this particular flower. It has a charming, old-fashioned kind of appeal. It doesn't re-bloom (or at least hasn't), there are no eyezones or watermarks or piecrust edges, but that doesn't mean it isn't a good garden plant. It presents exceptionally well, with the stems carrying the flowers well above the foliage (one of my biggest pet peeves with many of the modern hybrids is that they often have their flowers buried in the foliage).

I'm anxious to get it in the ground and see what happens when it really has good soil and an unrestricted root run. I think it's going to turn into a great garden plant!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sambucus 'Black Lace'

New from Proven Winners a few years back, Sambucus 'Black Lace' almost didn't survive my ruthless culling after it's second season in the garden. I relented at the last second and, because it had shown some signs of promise in its second year, I decided to give it one last chance. Today, I'm thrilled that I had a change of heart and let it stay.

Because most cultivars of the European elderberry don't appreciate the heat and humidity of our southern summers, I had honestly written the plant off before it ever got its roots in the ground. But it was new--and it sure was pretty in the pot--and because I've grown to trust the Proven Winners brand, I decided I needed to give it a try before I cold-heartedly wrote it off without giving at least one season to prove itself. I have to say, that first season was pretty lackluster, but being a knowledgable plantsman and gardener I knew better than to pass judgment after the first year. Sometimes a plant needs a season to settle in. So I pruned sparingly, fed copiously and waited for the results.

By spring of its second year, it was showing a little more promise. It had grown a few long and somewhat wayward shoots the previous summer, but I left well enough alone, only trimming the tips of the branches to (hopefully) help promote some additional side branching and basal growth. It did grow, albeit slowly, and it did have one or two clusters of blooms in its second spring. By autumn, though, I was growing impatient. I liked it, but did I love it enough to give it a third season??? Hmmmm...

For weeks I walked past it in the garden, each time thinking that its day had come and that I would give it a good shovel-pruning and add it to the compost pile where numerous other plants who hadn't made the cut would now feed next year's new garden additions. But every time I raised the shovel, I just couldn't go through with it. Something stopped me and I finally gave in, allowing it one more season to turn my head and show me what it really had to offer. If, however, it wasn't spectacular by the end of the third summer, into the compost heap it would go--no relenting!

I didn't have to wait for the end of the third season because 'Black Lace' has come into its own at the beginning of its third year and has proven once again to this somtimes impatient gardener that once in a while, you just have to hold your horses. Be patient. It's ferny black foliage and soft pink flowers are gracing the garden as we speak--and this little plant has proven to be t-o-u-g-h!!! If you look at the Proven Winners website and read the cultural information for the 'Black Lace' elderberry, you'll see that they say full sun and plenty of moisture, but I've actually had the opposite experience.

My trial plant is located in part shade--good morning sun, actually (which I think is better for it in the South) and is planted immediately under a 12-foot tall sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) that sucks every drop of water from every plant within a 10-foot radius. Neighboring plants include Agave parryi, Agastache aurantiaca, Juniperus 'Gold Coast', numerous Sempervivums and Dianthus 'Bath's Pink'--all of which are immensely drought tolerant and growing within 6 feet of the water-sucking sweetbay. 'Black Lace' is not only holding it's own under these conditions, it's thriving. For the first time, the entire plant is covered in clusters of pale pink-white flowers and the new growth is showing tremendous vigor. Strong basal shoots indicate that it's really going to "bulk up" this year and by the end of summer I fully expect that it will be as beautiful as I had cautiously hoped it would be.

I sure am glad it isn't sticking roots-up out of the compost pile!

Bluebird Blog #2

The babies are growing by leaps and bounds. It has been 3 weeks since the eggs were laid and the babies are now approximately two weeks old. They've grown from very scrawny and sort of ugly little naked chicks into bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, pin-feathered and very hungry little chirpers. Their instincts are really quite amazing, and they certainly see me as a very large and scary threat. I was lucky to get a photo with one holding its head up. Usually, as soon as anyone comes around, they bury their heads in the bottom of the nest, lie perfectly motionless and don't make a peep!

Mother and father bluebird are extremely busy with four little mouths to feed and it has provided endless hours of entertainment watching them fly back and forth across the yard catching insects, returning to the nest periodically to (I'm sure) regurgitate a fabulous high-protein, gourmet bug meal for the young 'uns.

My guess is that the little guys and gals will fledge the nest late this coming week--certainly by very early the following one. I'm hoping that since this brood came along fairly early in the season that mother and father might nest again. We'll see. I'm hoping I'll be lucky enough to be at home when the babies leave and, if so, will try to capture some photos of the big event.

Coming next... a plant that has gone from the "I'm-not-so-sure-I-like-it" list to being one of my faves! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bluebird Blog #1

I have put off posting for a brief period because I've been having photo software problems with the computer and didn't want to do the first bluebird post until I had some pictures to share. However, the issue is still not resolved and if I don't get busy blogging, the baby birds will have grown up, fledged and flown the nest before I get Bluebird Blog #1 posted. So... here goes.

It was my lucky, lucky day about three weeks ago when we were sitting on the screened porch one Sunday afternoon and I noticed one of the three pairs of Eastern bluebirds flying in and out under the awning of the garden shed. Sitting atop a great old potting bench are several birdhouses, two of which are open-fronted A-frames with baskets in the bottom of them. I could have sworn that those bluebirds were checking out one of those nesting boxes, but surely not. The box wasn't the right dimensions, the hole (there is no hole) wasn't the right size, it wasn't facing the proper direction.....all the things I'd always heard that bluebirds demanded of their nesting spot were wrong. As fortune would have it, this pair of bluebirds apparently had not read the nesting manual and the rules governing where they will and will not nest. So I watched.

Yes! Sure enough, the female bluebird was definitely checking out the open-fronted A-frame on the left--the one that was slightly obscured by some pots sitting in front of it. After a couple of hours of watching her rather intently, she took off to fetch an insect or two for supper and I took the opportunity to very quietly sneak over and check out the nesting location. The nest was there--perfectly built, but as yet unoccupied. I would wait.

Monday morning dawned sunny and beautiful and again I snuck out to very quietly and unobtrusively take a peek. Gold! One gorgeous little egg. By late that afternoon a second egg had appeared and by Wednesday morning, two more for a total of four. And so the waiting began.

I'm happy to tell you that, two weeks later, we have four absolutely perfect baby bluebirds and they are growing by leaps and bounds. Right now, they're all beak and skin. They're actually sort of ugly--but ugly in the most beautiful way! I noticed today that they are beginning to get a good layer of down on them now, which is good, given that we've had some cooler temperatures the past few days! Their eyes are still shut, but their hearing is incredibly acute. With even the slightest noise, four gaping beaks appear at the top of the nest and it is an absolute joy to see. I am taking pictures when I can, as long as I feel that I am not disturbing either the babies or the parents--so far, so good. As soon as I get this camera software running properly again, I'll post some pics so that you can see the precious young 'uns.

Until then, I'll just keep sneaking out from time to time to see what's going on. And I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Nice "Geographic" Surprise!

So I was working on a few things for the website yesterday--technical stuff mostly--and as part of the process I typed my name into "Google" to make sure that if anyone searched for me by name that it did, indeed, direct them to my website. It does. Good news.

While I was there (on Google) I thought I'd nose around a bit and see what people were saying about me and where I've ended up over the past few weeks and months. It's always interesting to see because the various magazine articles, newspaper interviews and other media appearances are now frequently shared in digital, online formats and you never know for sure who's going to pick it up and print it in another part of the country or world. I've been amazed at some of the places I've found myself! All good, mind you.

Much to my surprise I saw a headline that said something about "National Geographic". I immediately dismissed it as another Troy Marden (oddly, there are a couple of us running around) and went on. About two pages later, though, I saw a second headline that said "National Geographic" and had my name in the bylines, so I thought I'd better check it out. I'm so glad I did! National Geographic magazine has an online photo forum that anyone in the world can join--professional or amateur photographers--and post their photos for ratings by others AND the opportunity, just maybe, to have your photo selected as "Photo of the Week".

Needless to say, I clicked on the link and the surprise that awaited me was that TWO of my photos had been selected to run in an article for National Geographic Traveler magazine. What a nice surprise! Between that and the absolutely stunning weather we're having right now, it has been a good week. You can see the National Geographic Traveler piece here:

The opening shot of the gazebo at Longwood Gardens is mine, as is the photo on page 2 (scroll to the bottom of the page and click "next") of the oval spiral staircase at Winterthur.

Coming next week--"Bluebird Blog"!!! I've had a pair of eastern bluebirds nest in an open box atop the potting bench and there are four beautiful eggs. While staying away as much as possible, I can't help peeking from time to time. I'll post some photos of the babies as they grow and develop!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rarity In Bloom

It's clivia season! I always wait with anticipation in mid- to late March to see whether or not the clivias are going to flower in April. I have two--the common orange variety, Clivia miniata and the much rarer yellow-flowering form 'Citrina'. Both are extremely special plants. The orange one is special because it came from my dear friend, Betty Brown. I helped her divide her enormous plants one year and she gave me a baby from one of them. Each spring when it flowers, it reminds me of Betty.

The yellow-flowered one, cultivar 'Citrina', is special because I was able to find a truly magnificent specimen of it--better than most of the others I've seen. 'Citrina' is actually a seed-grown strain, so there is considerable variation in the intensity of the yellow, the form of the flower and the size of the mature plant. I was lucky and found a really good one in flower a few years ago, so I was able to judge the quality of its blooms when I bought it. The plant is huge. Standing in it's 16-inch diameter clay pot, it reaches nearly 3 1/2 feet high with a 4-foot spread, the inflorescence stretches nicely up to the top of the foliage and the flowers are a clear, buttery yellow and borne in umbels 10" in diameter.

Really good yellow clivias are becoming more commonplace, but for years they were true collectors plants. One of the first yellow-flowering clivias ever sold in the U.S. was at the Longwood Gardens rare plant auction and fetched $10,000!!!!! I can assure you that mine was not even close in price, but it's a magnificent plant nonetheless.

Clivias are easy, tolerant houseplants that will withstand a fair amount of abuse. However, the kinder you are, the more spectacular the results. They make excellent subjects for areas of low light, though extremely low light throughout the year may cause them not to flower. Here's how I treat mine.

Clivia culture: They like to be potbound. My big plant is in a big pot (16" diameter), but for the size of the plant (3o" high x 4' wide) it's still tight. Once freezing weather has passed they spend the spring, summer and fall outdoors on the shady screened porch where they receive about 2 hours of direct morning sun and bright, but indirect light the rest of the day. I water and feed regularly during the growing season--a good soaking once or twice a week depending on temperature and wind (too dry is better than too wet), as well as a good liquid fertilizer (a bloom promoting formula) once a month.

The clivias stay out until mid- to late October. Temperatures down into the 40's are good for them and seem to help promote blooming the following spring. Once frost threatens, I move them indoors for the winter. Now, here is the most important piece of advice I'll give you regarding clivias: Once they have come in for the winter (late October, here) they DO NOT GET WATERED AGAIN UNTIL THE FOLLOWING SPRING WHEN THE FLOWER STALKS ARE NEARING THE TOP OF THE FOLIAGE AND THE INDIVIDUAL BUDS ARE EMERGING FROM THE PRIMARY BUD. And by "do not get watered again", I really do mean that I do not water them at all from the end of October until approximately the first or second week of April! Clivias are native to Africa and they have a very distinct dry, dormant period. If you water them during this time, they still may flower, but most of the time the flower stalk will not emerge from the foliage and all of your blooms will be way down in the leaves! Not pretty.

These short blooms stalks on clivia are an extremely common problem. I get questions about it all the time. The solution is the dry dormant period. They must have it. Clivia are closely related to amaryllis, only without the bulb. Instead, they store water in their massive, fleshy roots, so don't worry about hurting them. On a rare occasion, if I really notice the leaves curling or wilting during the winter, I may give them a tiny sip of water--not more than a cup or two on the biggest plants and less on the smaller ones--just enough to perk them back up a bit. Also, NO fertilizing during the dormant time. Just let them sleep and they'll reward you magnificently in the spring!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Life Lessons

I have a new garden post that I will put up tomorrow, but tonight I feel inspired to take a detour from gardening for just a moment. This won't happen often. The garden blog will remain the garden blog and 99% of the posts will be just that. However, I've discovered something so extraordinary and so touching that I think everyone needs to see it. Some of you probably already have, as this video has "gone viral", as they say and has become an overnight internet sensation with more than 7 million hits. It has been a Yahoo! headline, it was shown this morning on The View and I've already passed it around to all of my friends via email after discovering it on YouTube yesterday.

This is a reminder to all of us to never judge a book by its cover because in each and every one of us lies something extraordinary. I grew up with an aunt who had Down's Syndrome and she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She taught me not to be afraid of people who didn't look or talk or act the same way I did. She taught me not to judge by what I saw on the outside, but to see the beauty of her soul and the spirit within. The Down's Syndrome reference is a personal reference to a special person who touched my life and has nothing to do with the following video, other than to point out that each of us, as an individual, is unique and extraordinary and should not be judged on outward appearances.

Watch the reaction of the audience to this amazing woman as she enters the stage.....and then watch as she sweeps aside every cynical thought, every snicker and laugh, every raised eyebrow with a voice so powerful and so precise and so beautiful that it cannot be denied. Enjoy and remember the name Susan Boyle. You're sure to hear more from her! And I promise that I'll get back to gardening tomorrow.

Monday, April 6, 2009

If You Don't Like The Weather....

Stick around a day. It'll change!

The weather roller coaster continues to whip us around wildly here in Tennessee. Late last week we had some of the most glorious spring weather we've seen all season--and today?--SNOW (perhaps). Right now it's a warm and toasty 39 degrees and the rain is falling steadily. It doesn't get much more miserable than that.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to have the rain. It's always nice to get a little ahead of the game early in the season, just in case we have a whopper of a summer. In addition to cold and rainy, the range of temperatures in the forecast is frustrating at best. I've seen anywhere from 24 degrees for the low to a balmy 31--that's a BIG difference in the gardening world. Thirty-one degrees would hardly faze a plant that was well-established and acclimated to the cold, but 24 is going to freeze-dry newly opened foliage and flowerbuds and may take several weeks to recover from. Tender new growth on plants like hostas may suffer even in a mild frost and 24 will surely freeze them to the ground where they'll have to start over again from scratch--and they will, but it will take a little time.

What to do?

I'm going to take some precautions. Since I now live on top of a windy hill in the rural countryside (without the warming effects of city concrete and asphalt), all of the hostas that are still in containers are going into the garden shed and storage room. Some of them are looking a little weak this spring anyway and getting frozen is not what they need just now. There are also a few shrubs (also still in containers) that are fully leafed out with very tender new growth. They'll probably go in, too. The tropicals and other tender plants are still inside anyway, so no worries about those.

For plants that are in the ground, I'll cover what I can and the rest is on its own. Most things won't be bothered. I'll probably turn some 5-gallon buckets over a few of the hostas that are just emerging so the new leaves don't get burned. I may throw an old sheet or blanket over a couple of other things that for one reason or another I feel the need to protect. Honestly, though, the vast majority of it is just going to have to survive. Tough love. Yes, the new growth on a few things might get nipped and yes, a few plants might have the look of that bag of lettuce that's been in the crisper drawer for a week too long, but plants are resilient. They'll survive.

A note of caution: Do NOT cover plants with plastic sheeting in order to "protect" them. Plastic traps moisture and will actually cause more damage to your plants than if you left them uncovered. Even with 5-gallon buckets, I'll place a small rock or stick under one side just to raise the edge of it slightly off the ground to allow for air circulation. This will keep the frost from settling on the leaves, but won't trap moisture which will turn the plants into ice cubes.

When this cold snap passes, we'll trim the dead and be a little kinder to things than we might normally be for a few weeks until they really get growing again, but even if primary growth is frozen, the secondary buds will kick into gear, expand and grow. In a couple of weeks, we'll never even know there was a late frost. I have to admit, though, that for all of my positivity and optimism, I'm still annoyed. Can we just have one good spring? Is that too much to ask?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Corylus avellana 'Red Majestic'

Since my week got away from me last week, I'm posting a second post tonight. Hope you don't mind! I've promised a new plant or product post each week, too, so here's the new plant that I'm most excited about this week. (Since you're gardeners, you do understand that my favorite plant changes at least once a week!)

Corylus avellana. "Where have I heard that name?" you may ask yourself. (Or maybe not.) Well, it may sound familiar because it's the plant that many gardeners know by its common name--Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. Actually, it's Corylus avellana 'Contorta', if I'm being 100% correct. The species itself is not contorted, only the cultivar. For many years on my trips to Europe I have lusted after the many colored-foliage forms of filbert that are grown there--particularly in the cooler parts of Europe--Holland, Germany and so on. There were golden forms, purple forms, red forms, and others, but in the heat and humidity of the southern U.S., they were crispy by the end of June, if not sooner. Not so, now.

With the introduction of Corylus avellana 'Red Majestic', we finally have a colored-leaf form of the filbert that will withstand our heat and humidity--or so they say. Time will tell, but all the reports I've heard and read so far have been very positive. And not only are the leaves red, but the stems are also contorted and twisted! The vast majority of ornamental filberts whose foliage is colored have straight stems, but not this one! It's as curly and contorted and twisted as any "Harry Lauder's" I've ever seen--like a really good "bad hair day"! Well anyway, I'm excited about it. We received 6 plants at the garden center on Thursday--apparently they're extremely limited in their availability this first year on the market, but keep your eyes peeled. You might give a quick call to your local garden centers and see if they're going to carry it. If they are, I'd suggest getting your name put on a "Wish List", if they do that sort of thing. Otherwise, you may miss out.

'Red Majestic' grows just like the green Harry Lauder's Walking Stick--about 10'-12' high and wide, preferring full sun (though I'm guessing that just a little afternoon shade in the south might be beneficial), moist but well-drained soil and some occasional pruning to help shape it (and so that you can have those fabulous branches to use indoors!). If there is any drawback, it is that the plant is grafted. This is the quickest and most efficient way to propagate this plant and get it to market, but it has one negative. The rootstock is from the regular filbert (non-contorted) and the thing suckers like mad! My new plant is in a 3-gallon pot and is only about 24" tall and already it has suckers sprouting from the base. I chose one that has about 4" of trunk at the base of the plant so that I can plant it deep and bury the graft. Hopefully, that will help reduce the amount of suckering somewhat, but I'm sure that it won't eliminate it completely. Occasionaly sucker removal is a small price to pay though, for such a beautiful little garden plant! Get on the phone first thing in the morning and track one down!
Photo from Hale and Hines

In The Garden 3/22/09

Tsk, tsk! I've been bad. My week has been a little crazy for a number of reasons and so I have not posted the way I promised I would. So tonight you're getting two! First, the garden update.

Things are coming along, I have to say. We spent about 5 1/2 hours out in the yard last Sunday and finished 95% of the leaf/acorn/hickory nut pick-up. You simply cannot imagine how many wheelbarrow loads of acorns and hickory nuts I'm talking about--over 100 wheelbarrows full, but in all honesty, I've lost count now! The squirrels keep to themselves in the forest and don't seem to care that there is an absolute smorgasbord awaiting them at the top of the hill. Honestly, I don't really mind. I'd rather not have them tearing things up. But if they did decide to move up the hill, I'd have squirrels the size of raccoons by the time they helped themselves to this buffet!

Monday I had to work. I had been gone to Memphis for two days the week before and spent half the day on Saturday with a client/friend in Giles County working on a plan for their farm, so Monday I had to play catch-up. If I'm being completely honest, though, there was another reason I gave up my Monday gardening day last week---because the Tuesday forecast was for sunny and 74, and boy was it ever beautiful! I did work in the yard that day, putting down lawn fertilizer and spraying a full (and smelly) batch of Moore's Mix (from the garden center whose design work I do (, a concoction of beneficial bacteria, humic acid, seaweed extract, etc. that goes down in liquid form and boosts the biological activity in your soil. Heaven knows my soil needs some biological activity! It has pretty good texture in most places, at least where I've been diggin' around, but it seems to be absolutely dead--not so much as an earthworm. So I'm trying to rectify that.

Late in the day, my landlady came up and we burned off the remainder of the big garden bed that had gotten so wild by the time I moved in at the end of summer last year. It really was a mess and it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders now that it is cleaned up. A little RoundUp to kill the clover that has made itself at home and I'll be ready to start gardening! Finally! Normally, I would weed it by hand, but the space is so big and the clover so prevalent (almost a solid groundcover over about 1500 square feet) that I'm going to have to do it the other way, just to get ahead of it. Then it won't be so bad to maintain.

Late this afternoon I spent about 2 1/2 hours outdoors getting a bunch of the tender plants that I had overwintered either in the garden shed or in the store room out, cleaned up and repotted. I still have a ways to go, but I'm getting there. I'm sure we'll have another cold snap and I'll have to haul everything back in again, but it feels good to be getting things ready for the growing season. I'm having to work again tomorrow (Monday), so probably no post tomorrow night, but if I'm lucky I'll have a few more hours to spend in the garden on Tuesday, so maybe an update then.

Oh, I almost forgot. We went on our first spring hike today and the woods are beginning to come alive. Fabulous little spring ephemerals emerging everywhere--false rue anemone, liverwort, trout lily and more. I can't wait to see what pops up in the next few weeks!