Friday, June 29, 2012

I've got a Chamaecyparis Jones

Sometimes when you love a plant, it can get a little crazy when you visit a nursery and they appear around every corner.  Chamaecyparis obtusa and its many cultivars are just a wonder to me and I often can have a Chamaecyparis Jones.  Yesterday while visiting Stonegate Gardens in Lincon, MA, I had to stop and take some photos so I could share my passion for this beautiful plant.

Chamaecyparis obtusa comes from Japan and has been used commercially for centuries as the wood is beautiful and straight grained.  It is often used in traditional structures such as temples and shrines. More recently hundreds of cultivars of the species, obtusa, have been developed for ornamental uses in the garden.  The species can grow to 50-60', but most of the ornamentals are under 20' with many under 10'.  They are hardy to zone 5 and very easy to care for in the garden.  As a conifer and member of the Cypress family, they will prefer soil that is leaning to the acid side with some organic matter, but for the most part are not fussy.  Since most are dwarf forms, they will grow quite slowly and don't require much pruning, but some pinching and nipping will help to accentuate their unique form.

The real beauty in these plants are the fans of foliage.  As seen above, they can vary from quite open on the right to very dense and tight on the left.  From a distance, this variation shows in the overall structure of the plant.  The other aspect of Chamaecyparis that makes it such an intriguing specimen, is the way in which the branching can become irregular.  Their beauty is often in their lack of symmetry and in the awkward branching patterns.  You will see this in many of the nursery specimens below, but for a more complete gallery, go to Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon to see more images.  Along with shape and density of their branching, their color can vary significantly.  Not only can there be varied shades of green, but yellow and variegation can vary in the different cultivars.

From a design perspective, these dwarf cultivars are not, necessarily, for massing, but utilized for their individual characteristics. That said, I have used several different sized specimens together, but it is critical that you know their true form and size. They are popular by entryways either individually or paired on either side.  Because of their structural qualities, they can go into formal gardens or be used in areas where sculptures or other forms of art are used.  They can also be used in beds with other dwarf evergreens and plants, but  be careful not to make a bed of just specimen evergreens with nothing to tie them together.  Since they can vary from 1' to 20', the options are infinite.

Below is a selection of Chamaecyparis that were on display yesterday, I have provided a little info on each so you can understand their diversity.  Smaller faster growing plants can be inexpensive, $50-$75, but large forms of true dwarf plants like the one immediately below can cost thousands of dollars.  Miniature refers to plants under a couple of feet, while dwarf is under 10' and intermediate is under 20'.

Old dwarf Yellow, very slow
Dwarf, upright and variegated
Torulosa - Twisted and pyramidal dwarf
Golden Nymph - Upright, broad dwarf
with irregular foliage

Nana Lutea- Upright, broad dwarf with
bold yellow sprays of foliage

Verdoni- Dwarf, upright with yellow fans
of new growth.
Kosteri - Broad, dwarf that turns upright
with some age.

Goldilocks- Large, upright broad and open

Nana Gracilis - Dwarf, upright and broad
with lots of irregularity
Wyckoff- Intermediate size that gets more
upright with age.

Nana- A true miniature

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Images of the Day

Monarda 'Marshall's Delight' just starting to bloom.
I hope that you enjoy some images of plants and flowers in the garden today.  Things look so different when you get up close and personal, this is why when designing with plants it is critical to determine whether they are best from a distance or up close.  Many perennials are not spectacular specimens, but when they are part of a grouping they add more than their individual value, but each flower is special in its own way.


Monarda 'Jacob Cline' standing about 4', a foot higher than the pink.
Here come the Echinacea
Some Astilbe are just better than others.

Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba') done and Astilbe winding
down in the shade.

The mixed bed with some newly divided Astilbe putting on a show three
months after  the three mother plants were each divided into six children.
This truly is a plant that gives and gives.

Hosta 'Praying Hands' peeking through as Hosta flowering season starts.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Summer Fragrance Surprise - The Little Leaf Linden

While taking a walk on a warm, not too breezy evening recently, I was overwhelmed with a sweet and alluring fragrance that was reminiscent of some tropical locale.  After a quick look up, I realized I was next to a Little Leaf Linden (Tilia cordata).  It is easy to forget that a big shade tree can provide such a sweet scent.

In the garden you can lose focus on some of the larger, cross-generational elements.  The quirky Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) in my front yard was planted in 1936, when the builders of my home returned from their honeymoon.  It could live for several more generations, provided global warming doesn't continue and pushing the zone for these beautiful trees further north.  The Linden in the image, located at Wildwood and Church Streets in Winchester, is at least 50 years old and could live for hundreds more if treated well.  

If you have some space on your property and are looking for a graceful tree to provide some shade, look no further than the Little Leaf Linden.  Trees that you plant today are really for future generations to enjoy, 50 years is a long time to wait for a nice shade tree like above, but good arborists can access large specimen trees grown at special nurseries.  

You could easily purchase a 30+' Linden or other tree and have a dramatic impact on your landscape immediately.  Several years ago, I helped a client put in two large Sugar Maple specimens.  One was 25' and the other was 30+' and much broader.  For about $25,000, which included a huge crane to lift the trees over the power lines,  we transformed her front yard providing privacy and much needed shade for plantings underneath.  This is an extreme example, but large trees are worth the expense for the immediate impact they can have on the landscape. 

The Linden will grow 50-70 feet and be somewhat pyramidal in youth and rounding out to the wonderful form you see in the image.  It casts a dense shade so be prepared for a thin lawn or deep shade plantings underneath.  The flowering and fragrance is both wonderful and challenging.  As you can see in the images, the small yellow flowers have a winged bract, that is light green just below, and when in flower the bracts make the tree shimmer in the light.  You can see this effect in the top image.  The scent can take hold of the surrounding area in early summer, especially in the evening when things quiet down, but the flowers will bring native bees.  Honey bees will not bother you like wasps or yellow-jackets, but you should know of their presence.  The flower nectar also attracts aphids, whose waste (Honeydew) attracts ants.  This cycle does not hurt the tree, but the waste and droppings cover cars, decks, terraces, benches and anything else you put underneath.  Best to site this tree away from everything.

The only real negative is that the Honeydew collects on lower leaves and Sooty Mold forms.  On top of that, Japanese Beetles flock to the Linden during the summer months.  Newer cultivars of this tree can alleviate some of these issues, so don't worry too much about these cultural issues.  The wonderful summer scent is well worth any minor troubles.

Lift your head up sometimes and appreciate the age and majesty of the larger trees around you and remember that many of them were planted before your parents were  born.  I always try to tell people this when they are considering cutting down an old tree on their property, the only way you can replace them is with time...lots of time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Stewartia psuedocamellia - A Tree Love Affair

Everyone has the one special spot on their property that they always pass by, look at while sitting on the terrace or deck, or see when they open the front door.  The spot that demands something special, something that is interesting all year.  Is it a piece of statuary or art?  Is it a water feature?  Or maybe you just want the perfect ornamental tree that is interesting throughout the year.

There are lots of wonderful ornamentals that don't get too large and have many wonderful aspects to them.  I like to look at five major factors when helping friends and clients appreciate ornamental trees:  Habit, flower, bark, fall color and winter interest.  Very few trees do well in all of these categories, and by far my favorite, that excels in every category, is Stewartia psuedocamellia.  I am not alone in my assessment, but let me tell you why I think it is such an exceptional tree.

This tree is a native of Japan and can grow up to 40', but can easily be kept to 15-20' in the garden.  It can tolerate full sun but does best in a spot that gets sun and is spared from constant summer sun.  Like the Rhododendron and Azalea, it does like an acid soil.  Even in our New England gardens, it will benefit from some added acidity to improve its blooming and fall color.

I have also found that it does not like to be stressed by lack of moisture.  If the soil drains well, it will truly benefit from several good deep soakings during the summer to ensure moisture throughout the root zone.  The reward for proper care is an elegant tree of somewhat open habit with layered branches. It is slow growing so you don't have to worry about it getting out of control, and because of its branching, pruning to shape and direct growth is very easy.

These trees can be placed out in the open, in a bed by the front door or on the edge of a terrace where it can be appreciated.  Even being visible from the kitchen or living room will provide interest year round.  Don't bury in the back or mix with other trees because you will lose its form and unique characteristics.

The flower is a white flower with five petals, crinkled on the edges, that opens to reveal a beautiful yellow center.  The species name is pseudocamellia as the flowers are very similar to the single form of a Camellia flower.   It starts flowering in the early summer and can last for well over a month.  Unlike the Dogwoods that flower all at once in a big display, the Stewartia flowers more gradually with bunches of flowers always on display.  An interesting seed head is left after blooming that then ripens to brown and open later in the fall.

This past week I helped a friend who needed to replace a dead tree in front of their house by the driveway.  In between the tree location and the house is a walkway that goes down a slope to a lawn and the a local pond.  This prominent location needed something special that they could control and shape over the years, but most importantly would provide interest all year long.  With some dappled shade during the day this is a perfect location for a tree of this quality.  For the five months out of the year the tree does not have leaves, you look for a tree whose branching is pleasing and has an interesting coloration or texture in the bark.  

The Stewartia bark, even on relatively young trees has a base color of light to cinnamon brown with a patchwork of beige and green that forms a camouflage appearance. This image of my young tree isn't the greatest, click on the Stewartia link at the top for some better images.   It is quite stunning and extends out to the branches as well. The branching tends to be flat to slightly upright carries next season's leaf buds and it happens to catch snow easily and looks very elegant in the winter.

If that's not enough, wait until fall when the leaves start changing.  Every year is different, but they start to shift to a yellow color and the variably turn to oranges and reds.  One of the great fall color displays in terms of intensity and variation.  Different parts of the tree can be different colors.  A wonderful end to the year.

All of these factors in combination make Stewartia the finest ornamental available in our growing zone.  Most nurseries won't bother with a plant like this, and when you do find good plants, they will cost up to twice that of other ornamentals.  The reason for this are the challenges in propagating and growing.  It takes a lot of time to grow good specimens.

There are many other excellent ornamentals, even if they are a small step down from the Stewartia, that may not flower, have great fall color or interesting bark.  I love them all, but if I have to choose just one, it is the Stewartia.

Other quality ornamental trees include the following: Styrax japonica, Halesia carolina, Acer griseum, Magnolia sp., Oxydendrum arboreum, Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium', Cornus kousa and hybrids and any of the hundreds of Weeping Acer palmatum.

Before purchasing ornamentals like these trees, do your research and find an excellent nursery that deals with these plants and sources them from good growers.  These are expensive propositions but well worth the expense.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Some of my Perennial BFFs

I have lots of favorite perennials and could never limit a list to just five, so the following are just a selection of a large group of BFFs.  It so happens that four of these are partial to full shade loving plants, which will serve as answer to one of the questions many people ask me regarding perennials.  What does well in shade other than Hosta, Impatiens and Garden Gnomes?  No insult intended to the International Garden Gnome Labor Union.

Epimedium (Barrenwort) - This is a semi-evergreen perennial, which is nice since it keeps its foliage until the snow comes and just needs to be cleaned up in the Spring.  In a woodland setting you just let the new growth grow out through the previous years growth, and once it is established, it will start to spread nicely.  The flowers come up in the early spring before the leaves and come in yellow, white, pink, red, purple and shades in between, but the foliage is the killer with heart shaped leaves that seem to always be in different greens with red, yellow and bluish tints to them.  These plants also endure poor soil and dry conditions so they are good in those shade condition under trees where not much else grows.  They are rarely more than 12" high and as mentioned keep their leaves almost like an evergreen.

Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle) - This is probably my favorite perennial because it is so versatile, reliable, rugged and flowers for about two months.  The chartreuse flowers really brighten up a shady spot and when they are done, the scalloped leaves are wonderful throughout the year until the snow covers them up.  Like the Epimedium, I call it a semi-evergreen.  Once established it will spread and slowly self-sow, meaning you will have more plants than you know what to do with after a number of years.  Each plant in flower is about 18" high and 18" wide.  I think they are best when in mass or used as edging in a bed.  It can go in full sun but needs a lot of water to keep from browning a little.  It's best in part sun all the way to shade.

Kirengeshoma (Yellow Wax Bells) -  This is a great space-filling perennial for the shade.  It is not very common in the trade so you have to find a good perennial retailer.  It grows 3' by 3' with big maple-like leaves.  If placed in back of the shade bed other perennials will look great in front.  The flower buds in the picture that are just developing now in my garden will open into clumps of yellow bell flowers (click the link for other images) in August and September. Shade gardens tend to mix different textures and leaf shades and these big leaves are a great addition with Hostas, Astilbes and Ferns.  Kirengeshoma can tolerate some sun, but really prefers the back of a bed under a tree in the shade.

Pulmonaria (Lungwort) - How can you not love a plant called Lungwort.  This is one of the earliest perennials to flower just as it emerges from the ground.  Click the link to see some of the flower colors. They range from blues to pinks to purple's and blend nicely with scilla, muscari and early daffodils.  Pulmonaria can tolerate some sun and does best in a part sun location but will also do well in the shade.  While the flowers are nice, the leaves are the best addition to the leaf variety in the shade garden.  The leaves you see can vary in shape and degree of white mottling.  They form a nice mound of leaves about 18" wide and often sprout little extras on the side than can be dug up and planted elsewhere as a new plant.  Also, it can be divided every 5 years or so for more plants.  Division is a great way to increase the density of your plants as well as sharing with friends.

Monarda (Bee Balm) - Bee Balm is a classic old garden perennial, and now there are many different cultivars available of different sizes and colors.  Long stalks develop from 2-4' and on top in July, these wonderful tubular flowers emerge from the top of the stalk and continue to open underneath for a month.  When the top of the stalk is done, flowers emerge on branching down below and are encouraged by pruning off the finished blooms.  This plant can put on a show through the heat of the summer.  I love it in masses of several plants so the color really pops.  It loves full sun to partial shade.  In too much shade the flowering is limited and powdery mildew really covers the leaves.  Many newer varieties resist the mildew. Another fun fact is that Bee Balm makes a wonderful tea, actually, it was the substitute for real tea during the Boston Tea Party.  Those ex-english still needed their afternoon cuppa

These are just a few favorites, and by no means an exhaustive list.  With perennials you have a chance to try anything with relatively little expense.  Once you find some favorites of your own you can provide greater impact by dividing to get more plants (most but not all perennials can be divided).  The best way to provide impact with perennials is to group several plants in threes, fives, sevens, etc, so when they flower their impact can be seen collectively.  Odd numbers help to keep patterns from developing, unless your intention is to create geometric patterns.

This is the dessert of gardening, so have fun and experiment.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ticks, bugs and disease, Oh my!

In the horticultural world, specific dates are not used to track insect hatches or plant blooms.  We use Growing Degree Days (GDD), which represents the accumulation of warm weather.  Very simply you average the high and low for a day and subtract 50 ( (H + L / 2) - 50 =GDD).  So once the high/low average daily temperature starts popping above 50 degrees everything starts moving...literally.  Insects and plants both develop based upon the accumulation of GDD.  Forsythia blooms in the beginning as we start counting GDD.  Korean Dogwood (Cornus kousa) start flowering around 300 GDD while Mountain Laurel (Kalmia laifolia) start flowering at 400 GDD.  Winter Moth, that troublesome leaf eater that is effecting our Maples, Birch, fruit trees and other ornamentals emerges at 20-50 GDD, while the Japanese Beetle that leaves brown patches in our lawns and chows on our roses start emerging at about 1,000 GDDs.  In the Route 128 suburbs we are well over 800 GDD as of now.  The last few days added about 100 GDD.

Enough of the science, why does this matter?  The weather determines when plants flower and when insects emerge not the calendar, and we are now getting into the time of year when things move quickly.
Let's start with the Japanese Beetles.  If you start to notice areas of your lawn that start to brown out or the turf pulls up easily in the next month, it is likely the result of Japanese Beetle Grubs chewing on the roots of your grass.  This is very common and often mistaken for summer dormancy.  If your lawn is properly irrigated it should not brown out.  Check the link above for more information or contact a lawn service company to manage the problem.  Not only will they chew on your grass as grubs, but when they emerge as beetles they will go to town on many of your favorite plant leaves, especially roses.  Another way to tell you have lots of grubs is to find areas in your lawn that have been dug up overnight by raccoons and skunks.  It looks like they have been clawing at your lawn.

Ticks are having a banner year.  If you are on your way to the Cape or up north, be prepared for a challenging year with ticks, especially the Deer Tick.  The link for this UMass help site gives you valuable information, especially if you want to have your tick tested.  Make sure you have repellent for your skin and clothing.  DEET for your skin and Permethrin for your clothing.  Most people in suburbia don't have to worry about their back yards, but if you are close to conservation land or wooded parks, local animals can bring them into your yard.  Check out this article on REI about proper care.  Sorry about the image of the engorged tick to the right.

Have you noticed lots of little  lawn mushrooms popping up in you lawn?  With the rain and lack of sun over the past weeks, the moist lawns became a good environment for various fungi to fruit.  This really can get out of control for lawns that have sprinklers that run while it is raining.  They are harmless to the lawn, but any mushroom should be considered potentially poisonous for consumption.  If you have little children, just mow them down or rake them out.  Once the sun and heat come, they will disappear.  If they are persistent and won't go away, you may have a cultural issue in you lawn such as too much thatch or organic matter.  Again your lawn company can help you with this issue.

Also with this past moist and cloudy period, Powdery Mildew has become prevalent on many plants.  It is harmless and looks like dusty gray powder but effects the look of your plants, especially as the season progresses.  It is very common on Lilac leaves in the late part of the summer.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is also having a good year.   There is a lot of confusion about this pest that I will try to clear up.  If you have Hemlock, a fine-needled evergreen,  on your property, take a close look at several of the branches.  Right now it is easy to see the white fluffy egg sacks if your trees are infested.  Because we had a mild winter the populations have exploded, and if you do not take care of the bugs, they will severely damage or kill your hemlocks.  Any good arborist can manage this problem with a very safe product called horticultural oil that smothers the sacks and insects.  It might seem like a bother to spend a couple of hundred dollars (depending upon the program and size of your property) every year to protect your hemlocks and other trees from disease and bugs, but healthy trees add tremendous aesthetic value to your gardens and property.

Andromeda and Azalea Lacebugs are plant sucking bugs that tend to leave the plants with stippled yellow or yellow leaves.  For the most part you can let these go in moderation, but plants in lots of sun will really suffer.  To find the bugs, they will be underneath the leaves.  They can be treated by you with horticultural oil and you have to work hard to get the oil underneath the leaves.

All of this can seem daunting, but there are many good arborists and lawn care companies that can take care of all these issues.  If you need to find a good company don't hesitate to ask them lots of questions and ask how they manage the use of chemicals.  A good company will use just the minimum number of chemicals to control issues on your property rather than broadcast their products on everything.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's All About the Soil

Dirt...What is it?  Well, it doesn't come out of our kids clothes very easily, it rides on their cleats until it enters the house and lets go on the bathroom floor or in front of the couch, and it will accumulate under their fingernails until properly scrubbed away.

Soil, as we gardeners call it, is composed of minerals and organic matter.  The minerals are the indigenous rock that has broken down over time into small particles, and the size and mixture of the particles determines the type of soil.  Sand is typically the largest particle in soil and leads to a sandy soil that is loose.  Clay is the finest mineral particle and it tends to bind together into a very compact and heavy soil.  Silt is in between in both its size and binding ability.

The other components in a spade-full of soil are air and water.  When you combine the mineral types, organic matter, air and water you can have thousands of different types of soil.  On the left is a triangle that helps to determine the type of soil based upon the mineral components.  Red clay soils in the South are heavy because the particles are compact and they hold onto water and nutrients, hence they do not drain very well.  A childhood friend of mine owns a nursery outside of Charlotteville, VA, and his soil is a combination of red clay that provides an excellent balance for growing.  Many of our trees and shrubs in New England come from nurseries like this in the south.   Soils close to the ocean on Cape Cod tend to be very sandy and loose, and they do not hold onto water or nutrients.  The result is a plant palette of grasses and smaller shrubs that can exist in less fertile conditions unless you have good soil brought onto your property.

The 'ideal' soil has a mixture of particle sizes so that it can hold onto water, organic matter and nutrients, while not holding onto too much water and keeping air out of the root zone.  Balance, it works for humans too.

Plants won't just grow in minerals, they need other food and nutrients, and these come from the organic matter in the soil as well as the other natural elements that are in the minerals, air, water.

Why do we need this information? Along with sun and water, good soil is critical to the success of  plants in your garden.  If your plants are getting the right amount of sun, proper moisture and are failing to thrive, then the soil is the culprit.

This next part is going to get technical, but is important to understand how to best take care of your plants.  For Example:

If you fertilize your lawn but don't know the pH, you could be throwing hundreds of $s away every year.  If the pH is not right in the soil, the grass is not able to take up the nutrients supplied in the fertilizer.

If you fertilize your plant beds without knowing the pH, CEC or % of organic matter, you are also wasting money since the nutrient may not stay in the soil or be available to the plants.

The results of a simple test will help you determine the best course of action with regard to your plants and lawn.

How do we know what type of soil we have in our garden and whether we have enough organic material?  Test your soil at UMass.  I do this with most clients, and especially in beds where plants are not thriving and flowering.  For $15 (basic test + organic matter content) you can get a tremendous amount of information that will allow you to solve most any problem.  Three or four tests can cover an average property.  On a Brookline property I manages we did upwards of 30 tests one year.  When filling out the application, it is critical to let them know what the soil is being used for if you want to get the proper advice.  Complete instructions are on the site for how to gather and prepare the sample.  It is very simple and can be a fun project.  It is best to do in the off-season since they can get very busy.

So what will the results tell you?  I will only geek out on you a little, and it will take you back to high school chemistry.  For a couple of you who know far more than I do with regard to chemistry, I apologize in advance.

pH - It literally means potential Hydrogen.  A high pH (>7.5) means an alkaline soil and is good for certain plants like Lillac, Daphne, Spirea, Boxwood and many others.  Your lawn likes a slightly alkaline soil, which explains why you often need to add lime (Calcium) to your lawn with some regularity in New England. A low pH (<6.5) is an acid soil, typical in New England, which explains why we are often fighting with our lawns to keep them happy.  Plants typical to the New England garden love a slightly acid soil:  Rhododendron, Azalea, Dogwood (Cornus), Magnolia, Holly (Ilex), Coniferous Evergreens (Pine, Spruce, Fir, Chamaecyparis, etc.) and many others.  Mostly, a pH between 6.5 and 7.5 is fine.  However a bed full of Rhodendrons, Mountain Laurels, Azaleas would definitely do better with a pH in the 5s.  pH can be manipulated easiest with two basic elements.  Sulphur will make the soil more acid, while Lime (Calcium) will make it more alkaline.  Unfortunately, it is not always that easy.

% Organic Matter - This literally is a measurement of the organic matter in the soil.  It is important when collecting your soil to dig down 4+ inches so you don't include a bunch of compost or mulch that may be on the surface.  This is a measurement of organic matter that is available in the root zone for plants to utilize.

CEC - Cation Exchange Capacity - Very simply tells you the ability of your soil to retain nutrients.  Click the link for some crazy science if you like.  Sandy soils with low organic matter will hold few nutrients, while heavy clay soils have a high capacity.  This has to do with positively charged ions being held in the soil by the negatively charged clay particles.  This means that if you have a low CEC, adding fertilizer, lime or sulphur will do very little since the soil can not hold it.  The best way to improve a low CEC is to add organic matter, but the basic ability of soil to hold nutrients is determined by the amount of sand vs clay.  More silt and clay leads to a higher CEC.

Nitrogen - Is one of the big three macronutrients.  It is responsible for enabling the process of making Chlorophyll which makes the plants green and grow quickly.  Careful if you do add nitrogen, since improper application can burn the plants.

Phosphorus - Is responsible for flowering, fruiting and root growth.  Triple Super Phosphate is a quick remedy to plants that seem to be lagging in the flowering department, but if the pH is wrong for the plant, the nutrient will do nothing.

Potassium - Is responsible for plant metabolism and general vigor.  Just like with humans, a banana a day will keep an active body working well.

Calcium and Magnesium are also critical nutrients that being positively charged take up much of the Cation capacity.

Manganese, Copper, Zinc, Iron, Sulphur, Molybdenum, Nickel, Sodium and Boron are all micronutrients that rarely are a major problem, but each have a unique signature if they are deficient in the soil.

So What?

 A simple soil test will help you to learn about your garden beds and how to efficiently make them the best environment for your plants.  I suggest you perform several tests from several different beds.  Beds against the house may be quite different from those away in the back yard.  Always test vegetable gardens for the main purpose of determining the lead content.  Lead is easily taken up in vegetables and herbs.  Old houses or around old foundations can be quite dangerous.

I have used products from Espoma for years and trust in there organic practices and products.  Click the previous link and learn more about 'plant feeding basics'  and 'garden projects'.

Don't curse anymore over your plants not performing.  Learn why they are not doing well and help them do better.

Next week will be something a little lighter...some perennial flower eye candy.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mulch? This is not Mulch!

Mulch is, and should be, a critical part of your gardening routine.  The material  I have seen used to mulch with can be quite variable: Bark, wood chips, leaf mold, compost, buckwheat shells, cocoa shells, crushed stone, shredded rubber tires, colored rubber mulch, colored chipped wooden shipping crates.

Six inches of mulch smothering a plant
I am not joking about some of those items!  You might be surprised to learn how much poor quality mulch is currently available.  The demand continues to grow and outstrips the supply of quality mulch.

Adding mulch is critical to suppress weeds, keep moisture in, keep soil temperature even and it should add organic material to the soil.  The organic material, with the right balance of nutrients and water is what gives you plants.  For organic material to be useful for growing plants, it must break down to elements that can be utilized by the root system.

Above and below are some images of that recycled and artificially colored stuff.  When it goes down it may look nice and fluffy, but after a good rain all the small fluffy particles disappear, and you are left with a bunch of chunks of wood, colored an unnatural color.  

Gas Station mulch
The problem with this mulch is that it does not break down easily.  It needs nitrogen to aid in its decay, and it will steal it from the soil and significantly decrease the nutrients available for your plants.  The result is poor plant growth and flowering, as well as a yellowing of leaves.

Always talk to your landscape contractor or nursery to determine the source and contents of your mulch.  Remember that anything you add to your garden will effect the health of your plants in both a positive and negative manner, and sometimes you need to balance out what you add.  To help the mulch break down, in the late summer I will often apply some Dried Blood.  This product is pure nitrogen and is a critical element to aid decomposition.  It is also an important product to help green up plants that have turned a little yellow from chlorosis

Of the natural bark mulches, Hemlock has the best red/brown color.  Often times it will be blended with Pine, Spruce and Fir bark which will give it a more brown color.  Pine, Spruce and Fir mulch is a medium brown color, and it tends to to be fluffier and more interwoven with the bark fibers.  Both of these natural bark mulches will partially breakdown over the season, and any leftover should be removed in the Spring before more mulch is added.  If you don't remove old mulch that hasn't broken down, it will continue to take nutrients from the soil to help in its own decomposition.  A tip for this mulch, give it a refreshed look in mid-Summer by using a hard/bow rake and loosen up and mix the mulch.  This will also help it to break down more easily.

The 'Black' mulch that a lot of people use is an excellent choice because it is well on its way to decomposition into useful organic matter.  This mulch is aged and can have all sorts of aged wood chips, bark and organic matter.  Beware of contractors and nurseries that use dyed 'Black' mulch.  This mulch may not be aged at all and may consist of the same materials as the previously mentioned mulch, just colored black.

I prefer a good aged black mulch on shrub and tree beds, and good compost or leaf mold around perennials.  I find it hard to differentiate between the two colors, and it is a truly natural look.  If you are partial to the red or brown mulch, just make sure you are buying a natural and not processed product.  If you do add wood mulch around perennials, be careful not to smother them.  Add just a light layer of no more than an inch.

Some companies will produce their own mulch with the proper blend of materials to ensure good decomposition and ultimately usable organic material for the soil.  Ask about these products and they will gladly tell you more than you could possibly want to know. Hartney Greymont is an excellent local arborist that will help to manage all aspects of your garden and they produce a super mulch.

Tree Volcanoes
A couple of inches (2"), at most, is all that is needed to keep the weeds down.  Anymore and you can start to hurt the plants you are trying to protect.  The picture on the top right shows about six inches of mulch applied and it will kill the Azalea this year by rotting out the crown of the plant.  The 'Tree Volcanoes' at right show how after years of accumulating mulch, big mounds form around your trees and cause problems.  These trees, if you look closely, are dying.  The last two years large branches have fallen and they have been significantly pruned, and they continue to add piles of mulch.

Sometimes, mulch will smell bad like a science experiment went wrong.  This is often the result of poor practices in producing the mulch and it can damage your plants very quickly.  This is called sour mulch.

It is also important to get your shrub and perennial fertilizer down before the mulch is applied so it will be immediately useful for the plants and not absorbed by the mulch.

Adding mulch can be an aesthetic improvement to your gardens, but really, mulching should be considered your annual opportunity to improve the quality of the soil in your garden beds.  Adding some compost around plants under your mulch is another way to improve soil.  The Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Andromeda that are such a big part of our New England Gardens are very shallow-rooted plants and will respond quickly to good organic mater and good mulch.  The most important fact to remember is not to raise the grade around the base of your plants.

I hope you have learned some good information that you can put into practice.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Springtime is Peonytime

Peonies are some of the most outrageous flowers in the garden.

This is a double lactiflora cultivar called
Bowl of Cream in my garden on 6/2/2012

If you have one or twenty peonies in your garden you understand how dominating their presence can be, from both a visual and olfactory perspective.  With new plants coming on the market every year, many of the old-fashioned favorite peonies can get pushed to the back.  First off, there are three major species of Peony:  Herbaceous, Tree and Intersectional.  Herbaceous Peonies are the ones we see most often with big green leaves and the flowers above.  They die back to the ground every year.  Tree Peonies keep a shrub-like structure and the leaves fall off at the end of the season.  Intersectionals are a cross and look like the herbaceous plants with the tree flowers.

The most commonly used are the herbaceous, and there are four major types classified specifically on the form of the flower.  They are Single, Double, Japanese and Anemone.  The Anemone is really a different version of the Japanese.

The Single Form - Simple petals open to reveal the colored anthers and stamens inside.

The Double Form - More petals open to reveal a center where the stamens have evolved to look like more petals.  Very complicated botanical stuff that isn't worth covering.  The results are stunning, big and often the most fragrant of all peonies.

The Japanese Form - More like the single form with slightly evolved stamens to give it a fuller look, the stamens will often take on some of the petal color.

The Anemone Form - A more developed form of the Japanese but still distinctly different from the Double in that the stamens still will have some yellow and less developed 'petals'.

I had the pleasure of managing the gardens on a private estate in Brookline where we had a 100' long, 5' wide bed dedicated just to Peonies.  The display lasted for two months with different flowering times and an incredible range of colors and forms.  If you have a little space somewhere in the garden, this is the plant to grow in large groupings.  Not only will you have beautiful cut flowers all Spring, but your garden will be filled with outrageous color and fragrance.  After flowering, the plants can be trimmed back a little and they form nice green plants for the remainder of the season.

Peonies are simple to grow with a few key things to remember.  They need a lot of sun to flower and stay free of mildew on the leaves.  They need good soil that is amended with compost annually, and they are heavy feeders requiring a good balanced fertilizer.  

Also, they hate to be moved.  If you want to divide or move the plants,  do it only in the fall, and realize that it may take several years for them to reestablish and start flowering.  It can take 3-5 years for newly divided plants to reach their flowering potential.

Before you purchase, do a little research to find the plants you really like for color, form and fragrance.  The above images are from Hidden Springs Flower Farm a bare-root supplier in Minnesota.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hungry for Herbs

After several years of buying herb seeds in packets of 100's and only using a few, I decided to share herbs with friends and neighbors this year.  I was surprised to find so many people who were cautious and slightly fearful of growing a few herbs in their garden or on their back porch.  Such simple plants that are part of our culinary history going back to the caveman (or cavewoman) who felt their Wooly Mammoth was gamey and needed a little something.

Herbs, and most plants, are pretty resilient and have a few basic needs.  The herbs I grew this year were: Gigante d'Italia Parsley, Chive, Alaska Naturtium (pictured above), Bright Lights Chard, Caribe Cilantro, Afina Cutting Celery, Basil (Genovese, Sweet Purple, Lime), Runaway Arugula and Spearmint.  All require lots of sun, six or more hours, and water to keep them from drying out.  Too much water and fertilizer dilute the flavor and intensity of the plants, so plant them, give them water and enjoy the harvest all summer long.  The seeds for my herbs were sourced from one of my favorite seed and flowering bulb companies:

John Scheepers Garden Seeds

Through this site you can connect to their flower bulb website and order seasonal bulbs, and they will ship them at the appropriate time for planting.  These are the best bulbs available in my opinion.

Back to the herbs, they can be grown in sunny beds in the garden or a few pots on the back deck or terrace.  The Arugula and Chard are actually vegetables and not herbs, but I loosely lump them in the same category.  The Arugula, Chard, Italian Parsley, Chive, Nasturtium and even Cilantro rate all great additions to fresh salads.  They add fresh and diverse flavors to regular salad greens, and with salad greens can be dressed with some good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

Nasturtium is one of my favorites, the flowers and leaves are edible.  The leaves are a spicy (think radish) addition to salads and sandwiches, and the flowers are a wonderful addition on top of a salad.

Herb gardens can be a nice manageable project for people to learn about growing and truly reap the rewards of their work.  Most nights in the summer I will pick a few things on my deck for dinner and it is a nice connection to how people used to provision and prepare their meals.

Enjoy, Reed
Welcome to my garden blog.  I look forward to posting on issues relating to gardening, plants, pruning, pests & disease, design, soil and anything else of interest.  Hopefully you will be excited to learn more about the horticultural world.