Friday, March 29, 2013

Grelen Nursery - Finest Tree and Shrub Nursery in Virginia

Young Japanese Maples in foreground ©2013 BDG
I  have an old friend from childhood who has a tree and shrub nursery in Virginia called Grelen Nursery, and this is quite a benefit for someone who loves plants.   As families, we get to see each other every year, but it has been years since I visited his nursery in Orange County, Virginia.  This is one of the most beautiful parts of our country with rolling hills, hardwood forests and green fields bigger than your imagination.

Farm Operation on old Dairy Farm   ©2013 BDG
Dan started by planting several rows of weeping Japanese Maples behind his family's country house in Orange over 20 years ago and now has 600 acres of land with over 200 acres planted with trees and shrubs.  What started as a nursery now includes a significant construction business with masons, tree experts, plant installers, horticulturists and maintenance people.

The nursery operation is now on land that he purchased over ten years ago.  Previously it was a dairy farm in a long valley with perfect gentle slopes on each side for growing trees and shrubs.  

Looking down the valley ©2013 BDG
This area is known for its incredibly productive red clay.  The soil is classified as a silty loam with clay, so it holds a tremendous amounts of nutrients and the clay also holds onto water.  After working here for a few days, my pants will forever carry the orange stains of this Virginia clay soil.  

Dan's favorite game with me over the years has been to try and stump me in identifying trees as we drive the rows.  A game that he incorrectly remembers me often winning in the past, well with the trees mostly budless and completely leafless, I absolutely failed this time much to his amusement. 

Blueberries with fruit trees across the valley ©2013 BDG
He has some stunning trees in sizes often not seen in the trade here in New England.  We toured with an architect who tagged and purchased seven 10" caliper American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) that stood 30' high and 15' wide.  The trees will require a 100" tree spade for digging and transplanting to the job.  That is a rootball over 8' wide and 5' deep.   Along with the Beech, I saw huge specimens of Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum), Dogwood (Cornus), Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), Magnolia (evergreen and deciduous), Japanese Maple (Acer), Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) and hundreds of others including some massive boxwoods.

Raspberry canes before pruning  ©2013 BDG
Along with being a wholesale nursery, for a number of years they have been growing fruit for "pick your own".  They grow raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, apples, peaches, cherries and have plans and space to add more.  

He and his wife Leslie's latest venture is The Market at Grelen, which is a farm store, garden center, restaurant and event venue. His hope is to provide everything the home gardener needs, including a place to come, rest and enjoy the incredible views and space.  An added attraction is that they will be making their own ice cream with fruits and honey from the farm.  As if the spring isn't busy enough in this business, the store is opening in two weeks.

The Market at Grelen near completion  ©2013 BDG
I visited to see this beautiful spot and to help him and his wife with some heavy lifting in preparation for the opening.  I fear it may take a week or so for my back to recover from unpacking the crates of cast stone and glazed pots and unloading plant loads.  As I return to my congested, suburban world living on .20 acres I already miss the amazing space and beauty of central Virginia.

With there being a significant trend back to sustainable agriculture, small farms and people reconnecting with the source of their food, I think my friends have created a beautiful place to visit for a day, and when you're finished you can pop around to the neighboring vineyard, Barboursville, for a taste or to James Madison's Montpelier (literally next door) or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (down the road).

Terrace overlooking the nursery  ©2013 BDG
Terrace with a stunning view of the Blue Ridge Mountains ©2013 BDG

Friday, March 15, 2013

I Declare That It Is Spring -- Let's Get To Work!

"Tommies" - Crocus tommasinianus  ©BDG
I know that it is still early March here in New England and we can get a foot of snow in a moment's notice (see last week), but temperatures in the upper 50s this week and a few not so cold nights may have given us our first Growing Degree Days.  And with the time change, everything just seems brighter.

With the weather developments, Snow Drops, Species Crocus, Rock Iris are up and budding or flowering on top of the wonderful Witch Hazels.  Of course the Snow Drops were here over a month ago but quickly disappeared. I have also noticed a bit of Snow Mold around gardens with the melting snow, more on this later.  

"Snow Drops' - Galanthus elwesii  ©BDG
With all the rain and recently melted snow, I don't suggest tromping through your garden beds, but a light raking of beds to expose flowering bulbs and to clean up debris that can harbor disease in the wet spring is a good idea.   All the leaves and debris on your lawn and in your beds can be magnets for disease in the spring with the cool temperatures and ample moisture.  If you do a little raking of your lawn this early in the season, do not scratch hard, just enough to pick up the debris and break up mold and matted down grass.  Save the hard raking and de-thatching for later when the soil is drier and the grass has started to grow.

"Barr's Purple Crocus" -
Crocus tommasinianus 'Barr's Purple'  ©BDG 
Now is also the perfect time to gather some soil from your garden beds for a soil test.  Before you potentially waste hundreds of dollars on the wrong fertilizers or soil amendments, take a look at the quality of your soil and the nutrients that may already exist.  With pH being one of the critical measures of your soil quality, a soil test will give you clear recommendations for proper care in the upcoming season.  Check out my post from last fall on soil testing with UMass.  This is simple, cheap and can yield some amazing results, and UMass provides excellent recommendations.

Snow Mold
Snow Mold ©BDG
There are a variety of snow molds: Pink Snow Mold, Gray Snow Mold, Cottony Snow Mold are some of the common ones here in New England.  The spores stay in your soil and present in the Spring when the conditions are right by growing on the grass under the snow.  The most critical component is that the soil be moist under the snow.  This years late snows have come after rain when the soil is wet, and this patch that I photographed yesterday on a property appeared as the snow quickly melted this week.

Snow Mold ©BDG
The molds disappear as the soil and grass dries and rarely causes any long-term problems, but if you notice mold on your lawn, especially in shady areas, I would suggest taking a spring rake and lightly raking the area to break up the mold and loosen up the matted down grass that promotes the mold and keeps the soil and grass moist.  Also, if you see areas of matted grass that have turned a light brown, use the rake to break up the grass and allow air and light to penetrate.

It might seem a little crazy, but any raking like this will make the molds disappear quickly and give your lawn a quick start.  Leaving big patches of mold will not kill your lawn but it will get off to a slow start and take some time to recover later.

If you have dogs, use these early days to clean up a winter's worth of dog poop.  If left on as the grass breaks dormancy, it can also lead to some early problems.

Spend an hour in the garden this weekend and see what is happening.  This is my favorite time of the year.   The promise of a new season to come, and the pledge to tackle those things I didn't get to the year before.  New ideas...everything just seems new and you have a chance to start over...again. 

Galanthus elwesii  ©BDG

Barr's Purple Crocus  ©BDG

Giant Snow Drop  ©BDG

Witch Hazel still going strong  ©BDG


Friday, March 8, 2013

Hydrangeas- Color, Pruning, Culture and Some Favorites (Part 2)

Last week I covered the major species of Hydrangeas, flower form, culture and problems here in New England (part 1).  This week, I'll cover managing color, pruning, care and some favorites.

Changing color of hydrangea flowers
macrophylla Endless Summer @ Millican Nurseries
This is really an issue for the mophead and lace cap varieties of the macrophylla/serrata species which includes the Endless Summer varieties (not Bella Anna which is arborescens).  Some of the common and well known of this species are: Nikko Blue, the Cityline series, Toyko Delight, Lady in Red, Pia, Penny Mac, Variegata and many more.  If you prefer a color, choose a variety that is bred for the color you like, it will be easier to keep it in the range.  Remember the flowering challenges for these plants in zones 5 and 6, with the exception of the Endless Summer series.

The major controlling factor in the flower color is the soil pH.  If you like pink flowers, then an alkaline soil (pH >7.0) is required, and if you want blue flowers you need acid soil with a pH well below 6.0.  Sulphur is an acidifier while lime makes the soil more alkaline.  Check out a previous post, It's all about the Soil for more details on managing pH.

Nutrient availability with changing
pH levels from UMass
However, it is Aluminum from the soil that actually makes the flowers blue, and Aluminum is only available to be absorbed by the plant with a low soil pH.  The chart shows how pH levels effect a plant's ability to absorb nutrients, and Aluminum and Iron have the same characteristics and are only available to plants in acid soil.

You can always try adding nutrients blindly, but I always suggest a soil test so you can precisely understand your soil conditions.  To ensure pink blooms, you want to make sure the soil is alkaline which inhibits the plants ability to absorb Aluminum.  The UMass soil test states levels of extractable Aluminum, and if you have sufficient levels, Sulphur is all that is needed to acidify your soil.  Sometimes there may not be enough Aluminum and you need to add Aluminum Sulfate, which adds both Aluminum and Sulphur.  I prefer not to add metals to my soil unless they are needed.

paniculata 'Pink Diamond' @ Millican Nurseries
As another common example of how pH effects a plants ability to absorb nutrients, Rhododendrons and Azaleas like acid soil, which is why they perform so well in New England's naturally acidic soil.  When the soil is more alkaline than they like (pH >6.5), their leaves will often turn chlorotic (yellowish), and this is the result of the plants not being able to absorb enough iron at the higher, alkaline pH levels.  Rhododendrons and Azaleas need iron to keep their leaves lush and green, and it is mostly available in acid soil, and when their leaves turn yellowish, it is often (not always) an indicator that the soil pH is to high.

So, while pH is the critical factor, it is not the cause of the change in hydrangea flower color.  Do realize that changes in soil chemistry can take months or a season to take effect, and the soil often will revert to its natural levels without constant management.  Also realize that a beautiful blue hydrangea that you plant may well be pink the next year if you don't know the soil conditions you are planting in.   You need a little time, patience and science to achieve the color want, or you can just plant them and let them do their thing!

quercifolia 'Snow Queen' @ Millican Nurseries
How and when to Prune
The best way to minimize pruning any plant is to purchase the right plant for the right location.  With all the varieties of Hydrangea nowadays, it should be easy to find the right sized plant to minimize pruning.

For the macrophylla species, that flowers on old wood, I find it is best to prune right after flowering as the flowers begin to fade, and prune back to a strong branch with buds.  This ensures the plant has time to put energy into the wood for next year's flower development.  Prune back far enough into the plant so it has space to grow and only make a few major cuts each season.  Each year it is also good to remove a couple of older, woody stems to the ground, which keeps the plants open and allowing new growth to generate from the base.

paniculata 'Limelight' @ Millican Nurseries
The idea is to do a little each year and never past mid-summer or in the spring.  Improper pruning by contractors is the major reason for poor hydrangea flowering.  It is the major reason for many plants not flowering, but that is an issue for another day.  The only pruning in the spring is to cut out dead wood, usually done after the plants leaf out so you can be sure.  Ideally, your hydrangea is in a place where it requires no pruning, except the occasional nip and cutting out of dead stems.

The exception here are the Endless Summer varieties (Endless Summer, Blushing Bride and Twist 'n Shout)  These newer plants flower on old and new growth.  I find their structure to be less pleasing than the traditional macrophylla species, but because they flower throughout the season, I think they benefit from occasional nipping to clean-up a somewhat messy form.

macrophylla 'Blushing Bride' @ Millican Nurseries
For the quercifolia or Oakleaf Hydrangea, the timing is just like the macrophylla.  It flowers on old wood and should only be pruned just after flowering.  This plant tends to be much bigger and is structured more like a shrub as opposed to having stems coming from the base like the macrophylla.  If any pruning is necessary for shaping, prune back to a bud on a strong branch.

The arborescens and paniculata both flower on new wood, so they can be pruned after flowering through the end of the season.

The arborescens has a stem form like the macrophylla, and your can prune this to 6" inches of the ground each fall.  This will keep the plant smaller, but the stems are weaker and don't have the strength to hold the wet flower.  Or, you can trim it back in the fall to buds on a strong set of stems.

arborescens 'Invinceball' ©BDG
The paniculata can become a big nasty rats nest of branches and twigs.  If you want to keep the flower heads on for the fall and winter, you can prune in the spring.  Depending on how much space and where these hydrangeas are sited, determines how much work you want to do.  I like to do a little work each year on trying to keep the shrub open and clean up the crossing network of twigs and branches.  This allows the plant to hold the flowers better and look a little nicer over the winter.  Or, you can just let them go and prune out the random branch that gets out of control.  You can prune these in the spring and still get excellent flowering in the late summer because they flower on the season's new wood.

For all Hydrangeas, sometimes you just want to start over.  You can cut them down to any framework or size, just realize you may lose a season of flowers.

Proper feeding and culture
The key to lots of flowers on your hydrangeas, is to not pamper them to much.  They need good soil, so scratch in compost every year.  This is the single best  practice for a plant like Hydrangea.  The good soil with compost and mulch on top will hold water and keep the plant's roots moist.  I add triple super phosphate instead of a balanced fertilizer because too much nitrogen will give you a lush green plant and few flowers.  The compost will provide the other nutrients.  Phosphorous is the key nutrient for producing flowers, and I find it a great addition for boosting flowering shrubs.

paniculata 'Quickfire' @Millican Nurseries
For the macrophyllas, they require good sunlight, an eastern exposure ideally gives them morning sun and protection from the wilting afternoon sun.   Plants that are constantly wilting will not produce well. The arborescens can't take the full sun either and produces well in the shade where the macrophyllas do not.  The paniculata can take the most neglect, and they will perform well in average soil and part shade to full sun.

Some Favorite Plants 
(most of these link to Millican Nurseries, a great wholesale nursery I use in New Hampshire)

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer'
May not be the best looking shrub, but with good care loaded with flowers all summer long in zone 5 and 6.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Blushing Bride'
Same as Endless Summer but a white flower fading to blush.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Twist 'n Shout'
Best flowering of the Endless Summer series, is a lace cap but flowers like crazy.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Lady in Red'
Intriguing shrub beyond just flowers but tough in my zone 6. I would love to grow this on the Cape

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' and 'Little Lime'
Great paniculata that emerges lime colored and then fades to white and on.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Pink Diamond'
Pink flowers that age to bright red.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Quickfire'
Emerges white and ages to bright red.  Flowers a month earlier in summer than other paniculatas.

Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snow Queen'
Beautiful and floriferous Oak-Leaf cultivar

Friday, March 1, 2013

What's The Right Hydrangea For Your New England Garden(Part 1)?

Part 1 - Species, Flower Forms, Cultural Requirements and Problems

Hydrangea arborescens 'Incrediball' or Soccer Ball ©BDG
This is a bit of a trick question since it really depends upon where you live in New England(zones 4, 5, 6 or 7) for some species.  However, recent horticultural developments in the creation of new Hydrangea hybrids have made location less important and the color choices more dynamic.  Hydrangea is the quintessential, old-fashioned cottage garden plant, and with new plant introductions there is renewed interest in this prolific and outrageous bloomer.

Hydrangeas in bloom(and after) are some of the most beautiful and impactful shrubs in the New England garden.  I believe every garden would benefit from one or one hundred of these flowering stalwarts.  You just need to know which ones will perform in your garden and need some basic knowledge for proper care.

In general, all hydrangeas require moist, not boggy, soil with plenty of organic matter (for feeding and moisture retention).  Most require some sun, though there is quite a range with the arborescens tolerating shade and the paniculatas tolerating full sun.

[Reed stepping onto soapbox] This is one of several plants that I feel the nursery trade has been irresponsible in marketing and selling over the years.  Each summer, nurseries will have beautiful plants in full bloom with big blue or pink flowers (grown in warmer climates and protected spaces), and, since Hydrangeas are often reasonably priced, people snatch them up and plant them in their gardens.  Unfortunately, in subsequent years the plants may have few or no flowers at all and people get frustrated.  This happens with the most common macrophylla species where the plants are hardy in our area, but many will not reliably flower.

Following is a summary of the major Hydrangea species available in New England:

Hydrangea macrophylla - Cornell Woody Plants Database
These are the most common hydrangeas available in the trade, and the ones that cause the most headaches and challenges.  They are wonderfully lush foliage plants that range from 2-6', depending upon the specific plant.  Their flower heads are Mophead (round inflorescenses with smaller flowers forming a ball) or Lace-Cap (flattened, two-dimensional inflorescences).  The colors come in blue, purple, red, pink, magenta, blush and many in between.

These beautiful plants do best with some sun but not full sun.  They will tolerate shade, but that will decrease their flowering and weaken the stems, making them flop more easily under the weight of the flower heads and water. An ideal location would be in sun but protected from strong afternoon sun.  They like some moisture since their big leaves can lose a lot during a hot day through transpiration.

Mophead Flower ©BDG 
The plants are mostly hardy to zone 5 (flowers to zone 6/7), but the real problem lies in the flower buds that can break dormancy during warm days in late winter and then get killed with a cold snap even in zone 6.  This species of Hydrangea sets its flower buds during the previous growing season, and if the buds don't survive the winter and spring, the plant will not flower and it will not produce new flowers during the season.  People who live on the Cape or by the sea (with ocean moderated temperatures) tend not to have these spring cold snaps and the macrophyllas perform beautifully on the coast in zone 7.  It is hard to believe the difference in performance with this plant from the suburbs of Boston to Cape Cod and the Islands.

Twist'n Shout Lace-cap Flower ©BDG
Within the past decade, a new macrophylla has become available called Endless Summer.  These are offspring of a particularly sturdy plant that is hardy to zone 4 (way up in New Hampshire and Vermont).  The original Endless Summer is a blue mophead and then a subsequent offering called Blushing Bride is a white to blush mophead.  More recently, Twist 'n Shout is a lace-cap with pinks and blues. All of these plants bloom continuously throughout the summer by flowering on this season's wood(new wood) and last season's wood (old wood), so they are not as susceptible to late frosts.

Hydrangea arborescens - Cornell Woody Plants Database
This one of the native Hydrangeas in New England and it grows to 4' and spreads even wider.  Hardy to zone 4, it doesn't have the same flowering issues of the macrophylla since it flowers on this season's growth(new wood).  It reliably flowers every year with big white mophead infloresences.  Also, this is the one hydrangea that will flower reliably in shade.  To keep them neat and smaller, you cut cut them back hard each year.

The only downfall to this species is that the big flowers will flop over with rain and moisture.  In a natural garden this may not be a big issue, and several new cultivars of arborescens have stronger stems and are more resilient.  An exciting new Endless Summer introduction, called 'Bella Anna' of the arborescens species has a pink flower and reblooms...not bad for the shade.  I have not used this plant yet, but it apparently has stronger stems to hold the flowers too.

Hydrangea paniculata - Cornell Woody Plants Database
This is a large group of generally bigger hydrangeas that like the sun and are distinctive with their cone to pyramidal shaped flower heads (panicles).  The Pee Gee Hydrangea(Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora') is the old-fashioned hydrangea that people see throughout New England.  These shrubs can get 10-15' tall and wide, and they are covered in big white flowers in mid-summer that age to red, rust and bronze in the fall.

Most of this species are hardy to zone 3, which is north of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.  They flower reliably on new wood if not a little late in the season, and their flower heads are persistent throughout fall and winter.  In full bloom, the flowers can be so heavy has to make the shrubs droop.  Light pruning can help to keep the branches shorter and stronger to resist this problem.

This plant can be grown as a shrub or as a tree as is often seen in the trade.  The only downside to the tree-form is that it requires some pruning to keep its shape which removes some of the nice aging flower heads, and if the pruning is not done at the proper time, you risk losing  flowers.  However, this species has had so many cultivars with different flowers and shrub sizes, you are sure to find a paniculata to meet your needs.  Many new plants in the trade are making this an interesting plant again for the garden.

Hydrangea quercifolia - Cornell Woody Plants Database
This plant, more commonly known as the Oak-Leaf Hydrangea, is also a native and a fantastic addition to the shrub border for its flowers and big leaves, that have fantastic fall color.  The species is hardy to zone 5 and will flower reliably here in southern New England provided they get some sun.  Like the macrophylla, it too flowers on old wood, but doesn't seem to be as fickle in flowering.

The flower is pryamidal shaped, similar to the paniculata, but overall I don't think the display is quite as outrageous.  Still, it is a beautiful plant whose large oak-leaf leaves add to the dramatic impact.

I love this plant for its leaves and flowers, but it is not the best looking shrub late in the year and winter, so it is not the best choice by the front door.  With the exception of the few dwarf varieties, these plants can get up to 8'tall and wide, so give them the space to do their thing.  Some of the dwarf varieties can be maintained easily and kept in borders like the macrophylla species.

I started this post not realizing how much it would take to cover the topic, so I am splitting it into two posts.  Next week I will cover specific plants that I like, how to get the best color out of your hydrangeas, pruning and proper care (hint: don't love them too much).

Here is the link to Part 2:  Hydrangeas - Color, Care and Varieties