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Dear Friend and Gardener

Annual Climbing Vines – Delight and Camouflage


Morning glories

Morning glories in Heath

Annual climbing vines add an important dimension to any garden. We have trees reaching for the sky and flowers and vegetables covering the ground. Climbing vines as simple as scarlet runner beans or morning glories and as elegant as clematis add something very special to our gardens.

I have a friend who made a small arbor for herself in the middle of her garden, where she put a chair to give herself someplace to rest between bouts of weeding. She planted scarlet runner beans all around it to provide shade and brilliant color. Scarlet runner beans need nothing more than sun and ordinary good garden soil. They can be planted indoors three weeks before the last frost, hardened off, and then set out in the garden when frost is no longer a threat. Although they make beautiful shade and attract bees, scarlet runner beans are also good to eat. Keep picking the beans and the flowers will keep blooming.

Trellis for scarlet runner beans

Trellis for scarlet runner beans

Sweet peas are another colorful and sometimes fragrant annual vine that, like other peas, welcomes the cool spring weather and soil. They can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Renee’s Garden seeds offer a large variety of sweet peas including varieties that are suitable for small containers or flower boxes. A trellis to hold these beauties up can be as simple as a wire fence or a handmade twig trellis, or a metal obelisk bought at the garden store.

Sweet Peas

Sweet peas

Morning glories remind me of my grandmother’s garden. I loved the traditional Heavenly Blue, but I usually plant Grandpa Ott, a deep purple morning glory with a wine-red star. This usually reseeds, so although an annual, I rarely have to replant. My Heath Grandpa Ott grew up an arbor post and would bloom well into the fall. One tip for planting morning glories in the ground is to soak the seeds overnight. Make sure no more frost is expected.

The descriptively named cup and saucer vine, Cobea scandens, is a fast growing tropical vine and is an annual in our climate. It will grow up to 20 feet in one season. It must be planted after threats of frost when the soil is a bit warmer. Like morning glory seeds they can benefit from been soaked overnight before planting. The two inch cup-like flowers in blue or white prefer full sun and will bloom all summer.

The lablab bean, sometimes called a hyacinth bean, Lablab purpureus, another tropical fast growing vine, will also grow to 20 feet or more. Even the leaves have a slightly purple cast while the flowers are a rosy purple and the bean pods are an interesting shade of purple. The pods are actually edible, but because they contain high levels of cyanogenic glucosides they must be boiled twice before preparing for a meal. Or you can just enjoy the lush growth and flowers. This is a substantial vine and should be given an equally substantial support to hold it at maturity.

A familiar sight on Greenfield porches is the black-eyed susan vine, Thunbergia grandiflora. I have seen it used in hanging baskets where the vine goes down rather than up, but whether it is planted in a hanging basket or given a trellis in full sun, this is a bright floriferous vine that will bloom all summer long.

Strictly speaking the mandevilla vine is a Brazilian perennial vine, and some people do try to winter it over in the house. My own feeling about many tropical plants like amaryllis, poinsettias and such is that they can be a lot of work to carry over to a new season and I consider them annuals. I do not make any attempt to keep them through the winter. However, if you buy a potted mandevilla at a garden center and decide to try and carry it over the winter the easiest suggestion from the New YorkBotanical Garden is to cut it back hard, to about 12 inches, and put it in your 50 degree basement for the winter. Occasionally give it water. When spring sends out promises that it is coming, bring it out into the sun, water and fertilize it and see if it will start growing and come back for another season.

If you are looking for a really exotic vine for a season you might try the black coral pea, Kennedia nigricans. This exotic is native to Australia, but the mailorder nursery Annies Annuals and Perennials sells potted plants including the dramatic black coral pea. This has handsome green foliage and a true black flower, described as wasp-like, with a bit of gold or ivory at its base. It is not a tall vine, only about three feet and about that wide, but it is suitable for growing in a large pot and a real conversation starter. It does not need especially good soil and requires little watering. This is not a plant for a wet garden.

Vines have many uses in the garden: to make a tall focal point, to make big use of a small area, to provide a privacy screen or to hide some less than lovely area of the garden. Annual vines that grow quickly and lushly can come to the rescue with very little work or financial outlay.

Between the Rows   April 16, 2016

After Pollinators and Wildflowers Comes a Cocktail Hour

Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that no one gave a thought to pollinators. People were afraid of bees and stings, but they never thought about the hundreds of bee species that kept vegetable and fruit farms producing. Perhaps that was because so much of our food came from far off places like California where we were never aware of what farms, farmers and crops needed.

Nowadays, with people we are more sensible of the benefits of local farms and local food. We realize that at least 30% of the world’s food crops need to be pollinated. Happily there are many more bees and insects that do this important job than we ever imagined. Unhappily human civilization continues to encroach on the habitat that pollinators need. Developments of all sorts, housing, business and even agriculture are taking land that was wild, land that provided the plants and living spaces that bees and other pollinators need to thrive.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and other Pollinators by Rhonda Fleming Hayes (Voyageur Press $21.99) notes that our awareness of the needs of pollinators has been raised. Hayes has set about showing us how we homeowners can take responsibility for improving pollinator habitat right in our own backyards.

Hayes interviews pollinator experts to talk about the value of native plants versus ‘nativars,’ native plants that have been hybridized; the problems created by GMOs; the need for shelter for pollinators; and the necessity of many other beneficial insects.

She provides plant lists to help us include useful plants for pollinators, plants that bloom throughout the season providing nectar, and food for caterpillars. Once I realized how important dill and parsley were to the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, I never again bemoaned loosing my crop to those caterpillars.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening includes occasional Fun Facts, as well. Did you know that the bees in White House kitchen garden produce enough honey to give as gifts at state dinners and to visiting diplomats? That a single little mason bee does as much pollinating as 100 honeybees? That milkweed seed capsules were collected during WWII so that the fluffy seed material could be used to fill servicemen’s lifejackets?

Hayes, a Master Gardener, has gardened, photographed, and written in various locations and in Minneapolis for the last few years.

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman

Ted Elliman and the New England Wild Flower Society have put together a comprehensive new wildflower guide that has images and information of over 1000 native plants. This book not only has beautiful and helpful images, the introductory section is a veritable course in botany that will help you to identify the plants you find on your nature walks. Since 90% of the wild plants around the world need pollination I can’t help thinking how wildflowers would suffer without pollinators.

Wildflowers of New England (Timber Press $27.95) is very easy to use because it provides a clear road to identitification. You begin with color, but within the color sections plants are organized by petal design and number. For example red Kalmia angustifolia with 5 radial petals is listed after dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) which has 4 radial petals.

With this guide I have hopes of finally differentiating between 11 varieties of aster from 4 different genus: Doellingeria; Oligoneurn; and Symphyotrichum. Of course, the fleabanes (Erigeron) are similar (to my uneducated eye) but I think I stand a fighting chance of knowing one from the other because of the clear photographs and text.

Wildflowers of New England is a substantial little book, in many ways, but the heavy, shiny cover, complete with ruler marking, is tough enough to take on hikes for frequent, on- site referrals.

After all the joyous work of studying pollinators and wildflowers, you might be ready for The Cocktail Hour Garden: Creating Evening Landscapes for Relaxation and Entertaining by C.L. Fornari (St. Lynn’s Press $19.95) who lives out on Cape Cod.

The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari

The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari

Fornari suggests we consider our domestic landscape as a party venue, beginning with a quiet cup of coffee in the morning and all kinds of family celebrations that might take place in the garden, to a companionable cocktail hour with a spouse or friends in the evening.

What plants should be included in this garden? Some plants can provide tactile experiences like the soft blades of Mexican feather grass or velvety silver lamb’s ears. Fragrance on the evening air can be supplied by perennials honeysuckle, lavender, oriental lilies. Don’t forget fragrant annuals like Virginia stocks or nicotiana.

Fornari also makes suggestions about lighting, water in many forms, and sound in the garden that can be enjoyed by the gardener, but she also writes about keeping butterflies and birds happy too.

Since this is a cocktail hour garden she is talking about, she also includes cocktail recipes, including non-alcoholic drinks, and the herbs and  flowers that can dress up and spike those drinks. Her tone is conversational, a charming invitation to join her for a cocktail and conversation at the end of the day.

Between the Rows   April 9, 2016



How to Start Seeds Indoors

Seed starting supplies

Seed starting supplies

It is easy and fun to start seeds indoors. Seeds are just magical – tiny bits of stuff that can turn into a delicious fruit or vegetable or gorgeous flower with only the help of a little soil, sun and rain. That magic is available to us all. All of us can plant seeds, and wave our magic wands to keep ourselves busy while we watch the magic show produced by Mother Earth, Father Sun and Sister Rain.

The first thing we need to know is the likely date of the last frost. We used to think this date was Memorial Day, but weather is unpredictable. These days we might calculate an earlier date.

I plant most of my seeds directly in the garden. Some vegetables are very hardy and can be planted in April. Lettuce is a cool weather crop that can be planted as soon as soil can be worked. Lettuce loves temperatures of about 60 degrees.

One of the most dependable ways to determine when you can plant outdoors is to test the temperature of the soil, not only the temperature of the air. If soil temperature is 45 degrees lettuces will germinate and grow. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog lists the most optimum soil temperatures for the different crops. A soil thermometer costs approximately $13.

However, many gardeners like to start seeds indoors. This doesn’t require much work or equipment. Starting your own herbs, tomatoes and peppers, or cosmos and zinnias can give you a headstart on the season, lots of plants, and some fun. Seeds can usually be started indoors between four to six weeks before you expect to plant them outdoors. By mid-May you can plant nearly everything outdoors, especially if you use row covers for the most tender.

To begin you need containers for sterile soilless seed starting mix. This can be the plastic foam containers that various food products come in if they will hold a couple of inches of seed starting mix. They would need to have drainage holes put in the bottom. You can also make pots out of recycled newspapers.  I do not recommend egg cartons or egg shells because as cute as they might be, they do not hold enough soil to stay moist very long. Seeds need constant moisture to germinate.

For a small investment you can buy a plastic tray and plastic cell flats or peat pots. This arrangement will allow you to water your seeds from below which is the easiest and best way.

If you buy and use small peat pots keep them in a tray and make sure you use enough water to soak the peat pots otherwise the pot itself will wick water away from the seed. Seedlings started in peat pots will not need transplanting. The whole pot just gets put in the ground – after you have removed all the extra seedlings, leaving only one.

You can mix your own seed starting mix. You’ll need one third, sphagnum peat moss, one third finished compost, and one third vermiculite. A light mix makes it easier for seeds to grow. Do not use garden soil.

Dampen your planting mix. I use large cell flats so that I do not have to transplant seedlings twice. I fill each cell with damp mix, put two or three seeds in each cell and cover lightly with more mix. I keep my flats in a tray and put water in the tray every day which will be absorbed by osmosis into the cells. You want the soil mix to be consistently damp, not waterlogged or you may get damping off fungus which will kill your seedlings.

You can also buy a clear plastic cover for your tray. This will make a little greenhouse, slow down evaporation and warm the planting mix. When the seeds begin to germinate prop the cover up slightly so there is some air circulation. Once the seedling is fully germinated remove the cover.

Different seeds have different germination schedules. Seed packets usually tell you how long you’ll have to wait to see the emergence of a tiny shoot. Nowadays, you can buy electric heated seed starting mats, which will help germination, but these are not vital. If you do use a heat mat, the flats should be removed from the mat once the seedling has germinated.

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings also need light. You can put your flats in front of a sunny window. Once the seeds have germinated you will need to keep turning the flats because the seedlings will always be leaning toward the sun.

You can also use grow lights. I use both methods because the little grow light I inherited will only accommodate a few flats.

Your carefully tended seedlings can grow happily in this nursery for four to six weeks, depending on the crop. When there is no danger of frost prepare them for planting.

You can’t take your seedlings directly out of the house and plant them outside. They need to be hardened off. Spring breezes and direct sun are too much for the tender seedlings to tolerate. Every day, for a week or two, bring them outdoors in a protected spot for a while, increasing the time a little more each day.

If you want to transplant your hardened off seedlings into the soil as soon as possible, you can use row covers set over wire hoops. These permeable lightweight covers capture warmth and protect plants from wind and light frost. They will also protect plants from some pests.

Spring weather is exciting. Gardeners need to temper their excitement. Our weather is so unpredictable these days that it is hard to think of a schedule for seed starting and transplanting. The gardener needs to consider the needs of the particular plant and his particular site and climate.

Happy planting.

Between the Rows   March 19, 2016




Mount Holyoke Spring Flower Show

Mt Holyoke Spring Flower Show

Mt Holyoke Spring Flower Show

During the Mt Holyoke College Spring Flower Show the entryway to the Talcott Greenhouse is filled with the fresh and delicate fragrance from the plant room to the left. Before you even glimpse the oxalis and daffodils that embody the Emerald Isle theme you feel the arrival of spring in that heady fragrance.

Gail Fuller

Gail Fuller

Gail Fuller is the captain of the Spring Flower Show. Her ship set sail last summer. It is Fuller who chose the Emerald Isle theme. She said there is often reference to a country like the Primavera exhibit in 2013 when the emphasis was on Italy. Last year the theme was Hawaii where the flora was more exotic.

Fuller and I walked past the trickling spring set in a green lawn edged with oxalis standing in for lucky four-leaf clovers. Pink glory of the snow (chionodoxa) and petite tulips only six inches tall made a garden any leprechaun would be happy to play in. On both walls of the green house are the ranks of daffodils, hyacinths crocus, anemones, scillas and muscari. Other plants like the canary broom and camellias from the regular collection take their place as supporting players.

I couldn’t help wondering how this magic happens. Nothing is blooming outdoors. What does it take to bring thousands of plants into bloom at the same time when the gray days of winter are still hanging on?

Fuller explained that after the theme is chosen the work begins by ordering spring blooming bulbs that will be planted in pots in the fall. In October Mt Holyoke work-study students help with the potting. They are then placed in a dark cooler and checked weekly for water and temperature. In mid-January the potted bulbs are allowed light and continue to be checked weekly for water and temperature. Temperature must be controlled throughout the process so that all these different bulbs will set buds at the same time. Careful watering throughout the winter is also key.

The Flower Show room is kept very cool when the show is being set up and will remain cool to keep the profusion of happy bloom looking fresh until March 20, the last day of the show.

Of course, visitors to the Talcott Greenhouse will be able to tour the cactus room, the orchid room and the large tropical Conservatory. One of the benefits of visiting a conservatory like the Talcott Greenhouse is the opportunity to enjoy to the immense variety that Mother Nature has created for us. Her exuberant excess would make Oscar Wilde, who said “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” very happy. I wandered through the cactus room where there were many varieties of any single plant that I recognized.

Cactus opuntia, the eastern Prickly Pear, which amazed me when I first saw it growing outdoors in the ground on the Smith College Campus, had several cousins visiting together indoors at Mt Holyoke. And that was only one plant!

Once a single plant has opened your eyes and mind to the variety of that single species you are suddenly capable of recognizing, and happy to recognize your own ignorance. That recognition then makes you hungry for more knowledge and more beauties.  The Spring Flower Show is a joy, but there is joy to be found in the other rooms as well.

Mt Holyoke Spring Flower Show 2016

Mt. Holyoke Spring Flower Show 2016

The Mt Holyoke College Spring Flower Show will run through Sunday, March 20. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Show is free, but donations are always welcome. Talcott Greenhouse, which has been operating for over a century, was renovated in the 1990s and it is now universally accessible.

SmithCollege is also holding its annual Spring Bulb Show. This year their theme is the Evil Garden of Edward Gorey, a bow to the late Edward Gorey who lived in Massachusetts and is famous for his darkly humorous drawings. This show will be open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but will be open until 8 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  A donation of $5 is suggested.

Between the Rows March 12, 2016

Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium – Lilian Jackman

Lilian Jackman

Lilian Jackman

Lilian Jackman is one of the presenters at this year’s Western Mass Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium,

When Lilian Jackman was 22 she worked in the gardens of three elderly Vermont women. They each had their own way of gardening in their old age. One woman was very angry because she wanted the garden to stay exactly the same – and of course she was not successful. Gardens never stay the same. This made her critical, and unhappy. The garden was no longer a source of joy.

The second woman had run a nursery and landscaping business. She knew a lot about plants, but she hired casual workers to help in the garden. No one of them knew very much and the garden went gracefully to seed.

The third woman was Japanese. “She was incredibly precise and cared nothing for my advice or opinions,” Jackman said. She grew flowers and vegetables. As her energies diminished she let her perennials do as they would, but kept the edges neat. She bartered for some help with those plantings. Then she herself concentrated on growing the Asian vegetables and herbs she loved, in a smaller patch and was happy.

“Those three women taught me a lot. I was an apprentice and they were my mentors.” Now 57 she said even at that young age, she suddenly realized that one day she would not be able to care for and maintain a garden she created in her youth.

Jackman can now mentor those of us who are coming to that time in our gardening careers when we realize that we cannot go on as we were. She will give a presentation, Gardening Well Into Your Future at the Western Massachussets Master Gardeners Spring Symposium on Saturday, March 19 at Frontier Regional High School in South Deerfield.

One of the reasons for our move to a house on a small urban lot in Greenfield is because my Heath gardens were no longer fun. Caring for the garden was becoming a chore so I was eager to meet and talk to Jackman about her presentation.

She studied horticulture at the University of Connecticut, but has many strings to her bow, nursing, writing, lecturing, and making art. At the same time she has built a successful business, Wilder Hill Gardens (www.wilderhillgardens.com) in Conway. The business includes growing trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals for sale on the weekends, and landscaping at different levels from a single consultation to full design and installation as well as on-going maintenance. She can also be called for pruning services, and will teach the client at the same time. That is a service she offers that I will take advantage of. I am not a good pruner.

Her annual Mother’s Day weekend sale celebrates the beginning of the growing season, and an opportunity for us to see the gardens and the way she uses hardscaping. You will also see the two new stupas which will be dedicated on Labor Day.

Even the entrance to the PYO Blueberry field is beautifully planted

Even the entrance to the PYO Blueberry field is beautifully planted

When I visited Jackman I enjoyed a tour of the gardens and saw the changes since I last visited to buy plants a couple of years ago. The 100 bush pick-your-own blueberries stand looks neat and fruitful. That blueberry field is what she calls her pension plan, and she has added currants, gooseberries and Asian pears. She said that this fruit acre fulfills the permaculture principle that any planting should provide at least three benefits. In this instance she has food for herself, beauty, and a harvest for sale.

The riotous zinnia bed that I have admired in the past in now sandwiched between two new wide shrub borders. She commented that the different beds are beautiful, but they also hold the nursery stock that she can sell. What has always impressed me about Jackman’s gardens is how beautiful they all are even though they function to provide stock for sales or to harvest for wedding bouquets.

Her talk will include the need for sustainability, for the gardener as well as the design. Jackman will show how to think like a landscape designer, addressing obstacles, tools, hardscaping and other aspects of gardening. I was interested to see a proposal for using 30 to 50 percent woody plants, trees and shrubs. That is the direction I am heading in for our new Greenfield garden.

Karen Bussoloni, gardener, lecturer and photographer will give the keynote talk, Survival in the Darwinian Garden – Planting the Fittest, a look at how plants arrange themselves in nature and how we can use our knowledge of those arrangements to choose plants that will thrive in our own gardens.

Other talks and workshops include caring for hydrangeas, and grapes, as well as vertical gardening, seed saving, creating a healing garden, planting raised beds and containers, composting, and dealing with pests. For an extra fee you can even make a tabletop water garden or a log inoculated with mushroom spores to take home.

Vendors will also be on site selling local products. Books published by Timber Press and Storey Publishing will be on sale.

Preregistration is advised. This is a very popular event. Full information including a printable registration form is online at www.wmmga.com . Cost is $35 plus $8 for lunch.

A final note. Beginning April 15 through May 30 Jackman will have a selection of her lino-cut prints titled Los Trabajadoros de Grenada (Workers of Grenada) on display at McCuskers Market in ShelburneFalls.

Between the Rows   March 5, 2015

New England Gardening Books

Month by Month Gardening in New England

Month by Month Gar dening in New England

Who knows what weather tomorrow will bring? We are living in New England. No telling what the weather will be from one minute to the next. All I know is that we are getting closer and closer to spring, which means thinking about how soon we can possibly get out into the garden, and possibly wondering how long it will take us to feel that all of a sudden we are way behind in our chore

Charlie Nardozzi, author of Month-by-Month Gardening New England (Cool Springs Press $24.99) has recognized that some of us need help in planning our use of time and has created a month by month calendar of tasks that will keep every section of our New England garden healthy and beautiful.

For every month he gives advice about planning, planting and on-going care which includes watering and fertilizing, and finally solving problems like pests and disease. What makes this book so useful is his dividing each of these sections into specific advice for annuals, edibles, perennials, shrubs, and trees. This makes it easier for us to use if we don’t have every single category in our gardens.

Of course, having a chore schedule isn’t very helpful if we don’t have how-to advice on some of those chores. Nardozzi gives good instructions on planting trees and shrubs, on pruning, building a cold frame or raised bed, controlling tomato blight, aerating the lawn and many other tasks that are not only time sensitive, but may also require new skills.

Nardozzi covers a lot of ground (pun intended) and the book is well illustrated with excellent and clear photographs. His other books include Northeast Fruit and Vegetable Gardening and he has an excellent website www.gardeningwithcharlie.com.

Growing the Northeast Garden

Growing the Northeast Garden

If you want help choosing plants for your garden Andrew Keys, gardener, author and lecturer, has just written Growing the Northeast Garden (Timber Press $24.95) which provides information about the best trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, vines and grasses, as well as design suggestions that will make our gardens just what we have been dreaming of.

Keys begins with an overview of New England weather and soil conditions. Weather is unpredictable, but we can protect our most vulnerable plants by paying attention to the microclimates we may have in our gardens. In Heath our garden was on a southern slope where the winds blew the last frosts of winter and first frosts of fall down the hill leaving not even a kiss on my latest bloomers

Keys quickly launches into the best plant section with beautiful photographs by Kerry Michaels. This section presents a palette of different types of plants from trees, to annuals, those bright helpful plants that give us consistent bloom all season. We all know that each plant has a season when it is most interesting or spectacular whether because of bloom, or seasonal color. Knowledge of bloom times is certainly important if you are trying to have something blooming in the garden from early spring through the fall.

Many of the plants in Keys’ palette will be familiar, but others may come as a surprise. I always think of boxwood as a tender plant, but it is hardy in zone 4 which is minus 25 degrees. Likewise, European hornbeam which will grow into a very large tree, and yet it is often sheared and kept low and dense for a handsome hedge.

Grasses in the garden make me a little nervous. I fear they will take over. Keys offers a good selection of grasses that appear well behaved, but I will always be wary of Miscanthus grasses which grow and increase so rapidly.

Once you have gorged on beautiful images of plants that could inspire admiring glances from your friends, you will be happy to look at the section on design. Keys gives some basic design tips, but lets you see how these take shape in different northeastern gardens, each with a very different style and feel.

Finally there is a section on garden practice from building the soil, welcoming birds and butterflies and managing those less desirable creatures like squirrels and chipmunks. We love those ‘flying flowers’ like butterflies, but are less enthusiastic about the rodentia family.

For the Love of Everything

For the Love of All Seasons

Lastly, I want to mention a little garden calendar book, For the Love of All Seasons, which got lost in the mail on its way to my new address. Valerie Vaughn of Colrain did the line drawings to accompany a text by her good friend Geoff Allison who passed away last year. Allison was born blind, but he had an intimate relationship with the plants that he brought into his life and wrote about.

For the Love of All Seasons is a compilation of essays he wrote some years ago. He had an amazing knowledge of history and botany. He never mentions color, but his sensitivity to fragrance, texture, and sometimes taste are palpable. Always he is aware of the ‘aliveness’ of each plant.

Allison’s essays are interspersed with calendar pages, but when the days of 2016 have passed this modest book will have earned a place on your shelf, ready to refresh your own ideas of the ‘aliveness’ of the plants in your garden. It is available at McCuskers for $16 and at Collective Copies for $12.


Between the Rows   February 27, 2016




Groundcovers for a Lawn-less Garden.

Barren strawberry

Waldstenia, barren strawberry

One of the goals we had for our new Greenfield garden was to make it  lawnless. We certainly did not want a wild lawless garden, but we did not want large areas of grass that would need mowing. To prove his devotion to this goal my husband bought an inexpensive power lawn mower and said that it would probably last two years. He was giving me two years to design and plant a garden that would not include lawn that needed mowing.

In Heath I made small efforts to use ground covers. After I realized that the common thyme in my herb garden, and at the edge of the piazza was seeding itself in our field, I began dividing the exuberantly growing thyme and replacing a patch of grass with a shovelful of a thyme division. It took very little effort, and a generous post-planting watering to make sure the thyme roots were making good contact with the soil.

Elegant English gardens often feature a section of thyme garden, allowing it to bloom before mowing it down and waiting for another bloom time. Thyme does fine in ordinary soil and doesn’t mind being walked on. Thyme lawns work equally well in New England. We did mow the Heath lawns, but the thyme sections got fewer mowings so we felt we were taking a step in the right direction.

I did remove the turf of two lawn sections planting Waldsteinia fragarioides or barren strawberry in one area, and tiarella or foam flower in another. Both are hardy, native to the United States, bloom in April into May, and  tolerate sun or partial shade. I never needed to water these plants.

Barren strawberry with its frilly scalloped leaves bears sunny golden spring flowers on stems no more that eight inches tall in the spring. A single plant will soon cover a two foot square area, more quickly if the soil is good. It spreads by runner.

Tiarella, foam flower

Tiarella, foam flower

Foamflower  can tolerate partial to full shade. The creeping heart- shaped leaves cover the ground and the stems can reach up to 12 inches and are covered with airy, one might say foamy, white flowers in May.

Epimedium rubra

Epimedium rubra

It is sometimes difficult to find plants that will thrive in dry shade. I was not very confident when I planted my first Epimedium rubra with delicate pink flowers because I thought it was very tender. But it proved happy in Heath, and spread into such a good clump that I was able to give divisions to friends. I later planted Epimedium x versicolor ‘Suphureum’ which had spurred yellow blossoms held above the foliage and was an equally strong grower. These delicate looking plants are actually hardy, the dainty flowers borne on wiry stems are often called fairy hats.

The Epimedium world was a lot larger than I imagined and there is an excellent epimedium nursery in Templeton, Massachusetts which offers scores of epimedium cultivars. You can view the online catalog at www.epimediums.com which also gives the only dates when you can actually visit in May and see the plants in bloom.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

I have never grown wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, but I have seen it growing in the shady woods. It prefers acid, moist but well drained soil. This plant is no more than six inches tall, with shiny dark green leaves and red berries. When you crush the leaves you will get the sweet wintergreen fragrance.

It is possible that many of us know partridgeberry, Mitchella repens, from its appearance in Berry Bowls during the Christmas season. This is a real creeper, only one or two inches tall with tiny leaves, white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall and winter.

Barren strawberry, foam flower, epimediums, wintergreen and partridgeberry are all good choices for a shady woodland garden which is one way I am hoping to have a lawnless garden.

Pachysandra is a common groundcover beloved because it attractive with glossy toothed foliage, as well as hardy and dependable, happily growing and spreading under trees. However, the pachysandra that is available at most nurseries is Pachysandra terminalis which has been known to be invasive. The alternative is Pachysandra procumbens, otherwise known as Allegheny spurge. This pachysandra does not have the glossy leaves, but it does have more distinctive flowers in the spring, fragrant bottlebrush spikes rising a few inches above the foliage.

So far, I have only mentioned low growing groundcovers that will grow in the shade. However, shrubs can also be an answer. I have a friend who has planted a tapestry of creeping junipers. Many junipers grow rapidly, covering a six foot square area in a year or two. My friend’s junipers were planted to cover the space she wanted in two years, but she said they are amenable to pruning and easy to keep under control. Junipers prefer full sun and a well draining soil. They do not like to be wet.

Low growing junipers do not limit themselves to a dull green. Juniperus horizontalis Wiltonii, has a blue-green tone and creeps along, only eight inches high. Golden Carpet is even more mat-like at for inches high, with charteuse-gold foliage.

Groundcovers are only one way to have a lawn-less garden. I’ll explore other methods in future.

Between the Rows   February 20, 2016

Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening by Jodi Torpey

Blue Ribbon Gardening by Jodi Torpey

Blue Ribbon Gardening by Jodi Torpey

What excites you in the vegetable garden? For some gardeners it is competition and the desire to grow the biggest, most beautiful beet or squash or cabbage. Jodi Torpey’s book Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening: The secrets to Growing the Biggest and Best Prizewinning Produce (Storey Publishing $16.95) will help all those competitive gardeners out there, while some gardeners might think it is time to take up the challenge and enter their vegetables at the Franklin County Fair this year.

Planting a giant pumpkin may not be your dearest desire, but Torpey has lots of advice for those of us who just want to grow the most beautiful beans or carrots. I had my first painful lessons about showing off my beans and blackberries at my first Heath Fair in 1980. I put my berries in a pretty bowl and put my ten green beans on a pretty plate. The ladies who were setting up the Exhibit Hall took me aside to explain the presentation rules and gave me the regulation white paper plate for the beans which was very kind of them. The judges were also kind because they did leave a note on the back of my entry tag letting me know that uniformity in my beans would have brought me closer to a ribbon, and my blackberries needed to be shown in a standard cardboard berry basket. One year a young friend entered an apple pie that included raisins. He got a sharp note on the back of his tag saying that the apple pie class demanded a pie that contained only apples. I noted that the premium book for the Franklin County Fair specifically notes that apple pies should contain no nuts, raisins, cranberries or anything else and should not have a crumb topping.

I don’t think the Heath Fair book was so precise but Torpey stresses that gardeners should study the premium book and obey the rules carefully. When entering any contest you will have a better chance to win if you follow the rules. General rules for presentation are certainly laid out in this useful book.

For those whose competitive spirit does take them into the realm of biggest and giant vegetables Torpey has advice from choosing seed to care during the growing season and tips on harvesting and preparing the vegetable for show.

One of the big attractions at the Franklin County Fair is the Giant Pumpkin competition. I once attended a meeting of local giant pumpkin growers and they were full of information about seeds like Dill’s Atlantic Giant, and they traded seeds from giant pumpkins they had grown themselves the previous year. They also had stories about giant pumpkin events, like the year one group hollowed out their pumpkins, then jumped in to sit cross-leggedly with an oar and raced each other across a pond. I love imagining what that pumpkin regatta must have looked like. These are serious gardeners with a great sense of humor!

Torpey gives basic information, and professional tips for growing giant pumpkins. Who knew that a 300 pound pumpkin would need a 10 x 10 foot plot? Bigger pumpkins would need even bigger spaces. Then you have to be prepared to monitor your pumpkin carefully because as it ripens it can grow up to 50 pounds a day, and you don’t want it to  burst from too much rain or overwatering.

“Attention to detail,” Torpey says. “Protect your pumpkins from frost, wind, heat, sunscorch, and other stressors.” Strategic pruning the vine over the course of the season  is also essential.

The book is full of fun facts about the history of exhibiting giant vegetables. An early record of a giant pumpkin was a 245 pounder shown in Devonshire England in 1857. Thesedays giant pumpkins can weigh over a ton.

Girl with her giant cabbage

Girls with her giant cabbage courtesy of Ryan Donnell

I knew about giant pumpkins, but never thought about giant onions or giant cabbages. Tony Glover’s 18.11 pound onion made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 2014, and Alaska seems to be the place to raise giant cabbage. In 2014 young Garrett Streit’s 68.3 pound cabbage won the Junior Championship Award at the Alaska State Fair’s Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. The secret to Alaska’s giant cabbages is the 20 hours of daylight in the summer. Lots of good illustrations.

Exhibiting vegetables is one way of getting children interested in gardening. Boys’ Corn Clubs were formed in the early part of the 20th century, when a county farmers institute organized a contest to get boys growing corn. Free seeds were distributed and $1 prizes were given to boys after yield per acre and production costs were calculated to decide the winners. The corn clubs for boys were so popular and such a good educational program that they ultimately led to the birth of the Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs.

Jodi Torpey is a master gardener and has written books including The Colorado Gardener’s Companion. She has also created a digital class titled Vegetable Gardening: Innovative Small Space Solutions accessible from her WesternGardeners.com website. Torpey loves teaching gardening, but she also knows how to spark enthusiasm – and maybe some friendly rivalries. What kind of giant vegetable would you like to grow this year?

Between the Rows   February 13, 2016

Summer Blooming Bulbs and Tubers



I missed my chance to plant spring blooming bulbs in the fall, but I am ready for those summer blooming bulbs.

Last spring my husband and I travelled down to Texas to be present when our grandson Anthony was presented with his Boy Scout Eagle Award. There was an impressive ceremony and we were so proud of this whole Eagle family who had jointly done so much for the community.

Besides our family celebration, daughter Kate and I went to a wonderful nursery, the EnchantedForest, and bought some new plants including a caladium that Kate wanted to plant in a handsome blue pot she had just acquired. Caladiums are wonderful plants known for their large dramatic foliage. That foliage can be green and white like Aaron with neat white centers or White Cap which has a more free form pattern of white, or Moonlight which is almost all white. There are green and red cultivars like Scarlet Flame which is mostly scarlet, or Red Flash which has a lighter red with dark red veins and scattered pink and white flecks. There are also paler white and pink caladiums like Summer Pink and Summer Splash that have just a bit of green edging. All of them will light up the shade garden.

There are two main types of caladiums, fancy leaved and strap leaved. Fancy leaved caladiums have large heart shaped leaves on long petioles that can be up to 30 inches wide. Strap leaved caladiums have narrower, thicker leaves with shorter petioles making them more compact growers, like Rosalie with its red leaf and veins, and green margins.

Caladiums are native to South and Central America. The tender tubers are not hardy in our area, but they can be overwintered in a basement if the temperature will remain over 50 degrees. Tubers can be ordered in the spring and started in pots indoors about four weeks before setting out. They will not be happy and will rot in soil that is cooler than 70 degrees. Do you have a soil thermometer in your trug?  It’s time to think about that because soil temperatures are very important in deciding when some plants can be set out.

Caladiums need partial or high dappled shade, and a moist but well drained soil. The phrase ‘moist but well-drained soil’ always seems like an oxymoron to me, but the point is that the soil should never be waterlogged. Dig a generous helping of compost into the bed before planting, adding a little lime to keep the pH between 6 and 6.5. The tubers should be planted about two inches deep and then given a two or three inch layer of mulch. They must be kept moist, and they should get a helping of a balanced 8-8-8 or 6-6-6 fertilizer every six weeks or so.



Caladiums are all about gorgeous foliage. Crocosmias, native to southern Africa, are all about tall dramatic red flowers in mid to late summer. They make a real statement on the Bridge of Flowers and visitors always comment on the tall graceful wands of flame.  I used to think that crocosmia were too tender for our area, but with the change in the weather over the last few years, and I don’t mean this very unusual winter, I think there is a good chance of keeping them from year to year. I have talked to several gardeners who already say they cut the plant down in the fall, cover them with a deep layer of mulch to get them safely through winter.

Crocosmia needs full sun in well drained soil. The corms should be planted two to four inches deep and six to eight inches apart by mid April. It is best to plant five to ten corms per square foot. They will multiply and should be divided every two or three years. A healthy clump of crocosmia with sword shaped foliage will add texture and form to the garden even when it is not in bloom.

I have never tried to grow kniphofia (nee-FOF-ee-a), better known as red hot poker, because I thought it was too tender for Heath. However, they are such stunning exotic looking plants that I hope to give them a try in a carefully chosen spot in my new garden. Kniphofia  have a reputation for being easy to grow, needing only lots of sun and well-drained rich soil.

Kniphofia grows from rhizomes that must be planted two to three inches deep. Any deeper and it may not grow well. It will tolerate some drought, but dependable watering will bring those two to four foot spikes into strong brilliant red/orange/yellow bloom. If planting more than one at a time leave 18 to 24 inches between plants because they will achieve substantial size.

A final brilliant tuber that I have already ordered is the Gloriosa superba Rothschildiana, sometimes called the climbing lily. This lily with its sharply recurved blossoms in shades of yellow and red, depending on the soil, has tendrils that can climb up to six feet on arbors or trellises. I will grow it in a pot, with a trellis, so that I can be sure of keeping it out of harm’s way this summer while we have some exterior work done on our new house.

You may find these plants in garden centers in the spring, but you can also find them at American Meadows, 223 Avenue D Suite 30, Williston, VT05495; or Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, 7900 Daffodil Lane, Gloucester, VA23061.


I’ll give my talk at the Shelburne Grange on The Making of a New Garden on Wednesday, February 17 at Fellowship Hall, 17 Little Mohawk Rd, Shelburne at 7 p.m. The public is invited and I’ll be selling my book The Roses at the End of the Road.

Between the Rows   February 6, 2016


Augustine Henry – Plant Hunter

With all the attention being given to the importance of native plants in our domestic landscape, one can only wonder where all the non-natives, otherwise known as exotics, came from. If you look at plant names, sometimes including the full scientific name, you will get a hint. Many of the plants discovered in countries like China will have the name of the plant hunter included.

Those who are familiar with Kerria with its sprays of golden pompoms may not realize that it is named for the Scottish plant collector William Kerr (1879-1914) or that the Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii) was named for Charles Sprague Sargent, the  first director of the Arnold Arboretum (1872-1927).

Sargent also sponsored many plant hunters like the British Ernest H. Wilson, soon known as Chinese Wilson, who travelled around the world to find new plants and send seeds and cuttings back to the Arnold Arboretum.

Lilium henryi

Lilium henryi

A number of years ago a friend gave us a large white clematis named Clematis henryi. The gift was in honor of my husband Henry. I subsequently planted two lilies, the golden Lilium henryi, and a White henryi, both with gracefully recurved petals.  It did not occur to me until recently to wonder who was the henryi.

Augustine Henry was Irish (1857-1930) and after earning a medical degree from Queens College in Galway, a friend suggested he go to work for British Customs in China. He passed the necessary exams and studied to gain a working knowledge of Chinese. An impressive accomplishment in itself. He left for China in 1881. For nearly 20 years he worked in Yunnan, Hubei, Shanghai and Formosa, banishing the hours of isolation and boredom by exploring the local landscape and woodlands.

Lilium white henryi

Lilium white henryi

What began as a time filling hobby became a passion. Though not a botanist he realized there were many unusual plants he had never seen before. In 1884 he sent a letter to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew offering to send specimens back if he thought they would be useful. By 1885 he was thoroughly engrossed in finding new plants, and finding out as much about them as possible, their Chinese names and local uses, especially of plants used medicinally.

He was aided in the beginnings of his studies and plant collecting with advice from Henry Hance, a leading expert on Chinese flora and British vice-consul in Canton.

Some plant hunting had been done in China earlier, but with very little that resulted in getting plants or seeds back to England. Augustine Henry could only collect plants when he was not working but between November 1884 and February 1889 he discovered about 500 species that were new to scientists in the western world. This included 25 new genera.  I can only imagine the trouble he would have had trying to reconcile European scientific names with the Chinese names for plants.

In a letter to a friend from student days, Evelyn Gleeson, he confesses to trouble collecting colorful flowering plants, because his own interest was in the variety of foliage forms. He particularly disliked chrysanthemums because he found the foliage so ugly, but he did love all the roses. His rose discoveries are particularly important to me because it is the China rose that gave ever-blooming genes to the west.

One of the great botanical searches in China was for Davidia involucrata, the dove tree or handkerchief tree. Henry had found a single tree but was not able to collect seed. When E.H. Wilson arrived Henry gave him as much information as he had. Wilson did eventually find the site of Henry’s Davidia, but it has been cut down. Fortunately he found other Davidia trees nearby and was able to send seeds back to England. Actually, Henry did find a different form of the handkerchief tree: D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana, which has grayer leaves than the tree first described by Father Armand David in 1871.  Although D. involucrata is more widely available, Henry’s tree is more likely to be found as a mature specimen in Britain, owing to its greater hardiness.

Of course, out of the over 15,000 specimens of over 5,000 species that Augustine Henry collected, only a few are propagated for garden use today. There are the very popular henryi lilies, but there is also Lonicera henryi, clematis henryi and the blue flowered rhododendron augustinii. This rhododendron is notable because it is lime-tolerant, and has been used to hybridize new blue rhodies.

During his years in China Henry met many other men who were botantists like Chinese Wilson, as well as those who were, like him, intelligent and skilled amateurs. Like gardeners everywhere they shared information and plants.

Perhaps, remembering his love of foliage, it is not surprising that when Henry returned to England he decided to begin a career in forestry. He went to study at the FrenchSchool of Forestry at Nancy but left to work with Henry J. Elwes to work on a book about trees cultivated in Ireland and Great Britain. Then in 1907 he began teaching at the University of Cambridge, leaving in 1913 for the Royal College of Science in Dublin to become their first professor of forestry.

Henry’s first wife died of tuberculosis in 1894. He married Alice Brunton in 1908. It was she who organized the 10,000 tree specimens in his private collection which became the Augustine Henry Forestry Herbarium in the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin.

I like thinking about Augustine Henry launching himself into a life in a totally different country and culture, finding discovery, excitement and pleasure in a new passion that brought so many new plants to our notice, and made us all so much richer.

Between the Rows   January 30, 2016