Monday, December 28, 2015

What Happened To Winter?!?

What happened to winter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Gardener|Cook Redux

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

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

Ancient Sicily and the Amalfi Coast

Virginia Garden Week and Historic American Gardens

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

Gardens of the Emerald Isle

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lenten Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two Amazing Travel Opportunities, Autumn 2015

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

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

The garden at Annevoie

Bruges, Belgium

Monet's Garden at Giverny

The Rouen Cathedral

Le Jardin Plume

Le Jardin Plume

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

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

Scenic New Zealand

Thermal Spring in Rotorua, New Zealand

Glow Worm Caves, New Zealand

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

Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, Australia

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Come Out and See Me Sometime!

It's a new year, and along with a new year come new opportunities! As most of you know, I spent much of last year (and part of the previous one) writing two books, both of which are now on the shelves! Plant This Instead! arrived almost a year ago (can't believe it!), in February, and Southern Gardener's Handbook followed on November 1! While writing two books in a year's time is not a schedule I recommend, I am so proud of both of them and am happy they are selling well. It also meant that I really neglected the blog. Well, it's 2015 and I'm back! Be ready! I'm going to start filling your In-boxes with all kinds of fabulous things from floral design to gardening to food and lots and lots and LOTS of TRAVEL!!! Here we go!

I'm going to be out doing a lot of speaking and promoting of these books over the next few weeks and months, so I thought I'd share my schedule with you in case I'm going to be in your area. I'd love for you to come out and see me where I'm going to be!

First up is Callaway Gardens (where I did my first college internship 24 years ago!), followed by an appearance at the Wilson County Master Gardeners meeting in Lebanon, TN and then I'm off for 5 days in Seattle as a Garden Judge and Speaker for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, the 2nd largest show of its kind in the country. Only the Philadelphia Flower Show is bigger! I am honored. My full schedule for the spring and early summer is listed below. We are getting ready to publish this to my website, where it will be updated as new events are added:

January 23, 24, 25--Callaway Gardens Southern Gardening Symposium

January 30, 31 and February 1--Antiques & Garden Show of Nashville
I am not speaking, but will have a hand in Cheekwood's garden, which will be located at the show's entrance. We are going to take STYLE to a whole new level!

February 3--Wilson County Master Gardeners, Lebanon, TN

February 10, 11, 12--Northwest Flower and Garden Show, Seattle, WA

March 5, 6, 7 & 8--Nashville Lawn & Garden Show, Nashville, TN
I will be speaking at least once and signing books on at least two occasions, I will update this information on my website with exact times and dates once they are confirmed. More information will also be posted on the Nashville Lawn & Garden Show website at

March 21--Book Signing, Barnes & Noble, Cool Springs, Franklin, TN
More information to come.

March 23--Hosta Society of North Alabama, Huntsville, AL
Speaking and signing books at the monthly meeting, which begins at 6:30 at the Huntsville Botanic Garden.

March 25--Centennial Club of Nashville, Private Speaking Event

March 27--Soleil Garden Center, Union City, Tennessee
Speaking and signing books at Soleil Garden Center in the afternoon and evening. Times and further details will be added once confirmed. In the meantime, here is a link to their website

March 28--West Tennessee Home & Garden Show, in association with WLJT TV.
Details to be announced.

April 16-28, Ancient Sicily and the Amalfi Coast with Garden Travelers

June 7--University of Tennessee Hosta Garden Dedication, Knoxville, TN
Details to be announced.

June 8--Marietta Gardener's Garden Club, Marietta, GA
Speaking and Book Signing at the Marietta Education Garden Center, 7:30 p.m.

That get us through the first half of the year and I hope that if I'm in your area, you'll come out and say hello! I love meeting fellow gardeners and plant enthusiasts and am having a blast doing these talks and book signings! We have two more trip announcements coming soon, too!

Enjoy this beautiful arrangement from a prior Northwest Flower and Garden Show. I can't wait!