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Dear Friend and Gardener

Green Barriers for Function and Beauty

newly planted arborvitae

Newly planted arborvitae

Recently a friend asked if I had any suggestions for creating a sound barrier in front of his house. My first idea was arborvitae. These neat symmetrical conifers are popular because they are not only handsome, but because they are low maintenance plants. They are hardy, not fussy about soil, are fairly salt tolerant and once they are established they are drought tolerant. They also tolerate some shade but need at least four hours of sun.

Two easily available arborvitae cultivars are Emerald Green which will reach a height of about 15 feet with a three to four foot spread, growing at a rate of about a foot a year. Green Giant will reach a height of 30-40 feet with a 15-20 foot spread, and grows more rapidly.

The Leyland cedar, which has the scale-like foliage and other attributes similar to that of the arborvitae, will grow about two feet a year until it is 60 feet or more with a spread of about 20 feet. It needs full sun.

The question with any planting is how long it will take before the plants achieve your goal. One way to hurry the usefulness of a sound barrier created by these trees is to plant two rows, with the second row planted off center. Two rows planted this way will give you a solid barrier more quickly. An annual pruning will help control the height.

mature arborvitae

Mature arborvita

Evergreens make the best sound barrier, but people need other barriers if they are looking for greater privacy on small urban lots. I have seen houses here in Greenfield that have five or six foot privet hedges in front of their houses to give them privacy in their gardens.

The lots on our Greenfield street are quite narrow. Houses take up most of the width of the lot and driveways use more land next to the house. The north side of our house, where we park our car, is hardly more than an alley. Long ago our neighbor on that side planted a privet hedge which is now about seven or eight feet tall.

On the south side there is approximately 21 feet from our house to our neighbor’s driveway. Driveways are necessary and we all have them, but no one ever claimed they were things of beauty. Our answer was a deep border filled with blooming shrubs.

I began with hydrangeas which have become so popular. There are different families of hydrangea and each of them has different requirements and benefits. I was careful to choose paniculata hydrangeas which have the kind of loose, airy flower clusters that I like. I am not as fond of the familiar snowball hydrangeas. Paniculata hydrangeas are hardy and not very fussy. All three of the cultivars I chose should be pruned back slightly in the very early spring to encourage new growth, but they require little other care.

I chose three which promise to be tall and wide. Limelight has a long bloom season, producing large pale green flowers from mid-summer into the fall. Hydrangeas grow quickly and it should not take long before my Limelight reaches a height of at least five feet, and I’m hoping for seven or eight feet, with an equal spread.

Then I chose Angel’s Blush hydrangea because its label said it was one of the largest hydrangeas and would grow to 10 feet tall and just as wide. The large loose flower clusters turn a lovely shade of pink over the summer. It also tolerates some shade.

Since I can never resist shades of pink and red my third choice was Quick Fire. The large flowers will turn a deeper and deeper shade of pink/red over the summer. It will reach a similar height and width as Angel’s Blush.

I’ve planted lilacs and viburnams in this deep border as well, but hydrangeas will be the stars. Because these shrubs are still young, I have also used ground covers, perennials and a few annuals to cover the ground. I’d don’t want to look at bare soil any more than I do a driveway. As the shrubs fill out I will move those plants to a roomier spot. My photo of a section of this border/barrier looks a bit of a tangle, but that will change as the hydrangeas mature.

Hydrangea border

Hydrangea border

No matter how big and tall my hydrangeas get they will loose their blossoms and foliage when frigid winter storms in, but we will be keeping our heads down and rushing from car to house so we won’t be looking at the flower bed. Or my neighbor’s driveway.

We are also planning a privacy barrier with a third type of shrub at the back of our lot. The very back border is a bit of a tangle of weedy trees and Virginia creeper. I don’t object to this wildness because wild space is important to support pollinators and birds. However, it is not lovely.

Because this end of our lot is very wet we have created a kind of large raised bed that we call The Hugel. So far we have only planted groundcovers on The Hugel, but  in the spring we will plant beautiful broadleaf evergreens, rhododendrons.

The world of rhododendrons is a large one with small and tall cultivars, in a rainbow of colors like the pink Scintillation, the soft yellow Capistrano, snowy Boule de Neige, or rich Purple Passion. These low maintenance shrubs all bloom gloriously in the spring around Memorial Day in our area. Though their leaves curl in really cold weather, they will still provide an attractive barrier in front of our deciduous weediness. ###

Between the Rows   October 15, 2016

Forcing Spring Bulbs


Mt Holyoke College Spring Bulb show

Mt Holyoke College Spring Bulb show

Are you thinking about forcing spring bulbs? Most of us will never have a March forced bulb display the way Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges do, but visits to these heartening spring flower shows do make the point that we can create an early spring in our own houses.

October is the month to prepare to force our favorite bulbs, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, scillas, and amaryllis. The theory behind bulb forcing is that we have to fool the bulbs into thinking that winter has come, and then let them think that spring has begun. Most bulbs need twelve weeks of cold temperatures defined as between 40 to 50 degrees. These temperatures might be found in basements, or the refrigerator.

These forced tulips that did not have a sufficient cooling period

These forced tulips that did not have a sufficient cooling period

Potting up bulbs for forcing begins with clean pots of an appropriate size and good potting soil. Tulips can be planted three to a pot with a five inch diameter. Hyacinths and daffodils can be planted three to a pot with a seven inch diameter. The bulbs should be planted so that the tip of the bulb is exposed.

Little bulbs like crocus, grape hyacinths and scillas can be planted several to a single pot, depending on pot size and they should be covered with an inch of potting soil. Make sure you have allowed room in the pot for watering. Newly planted bulbs should be well watered after planting, but no more watering is needed while the bulbs enjoy their dormancy in a cool dark place.

Because each type of bulb has a different bloom period each pot should only contain one type of bulb. Because of the varying needs of bulbs, those in charge of the college greenhouses have a strict schedule for managing temperatures in order to have the bulbs come into bloom on the appointed dates of the shows. If you attend those shows you will also notice that the greenhouses are kept very cool throughout the run of the show to encourage as long a period of good bloom as possible.

When the long initial period of cooling is finished, and green shoots begin to appear, the pots of bulbs can be brought out into warmer and brighter rooms. If possible, put them in a fairly cool room, and never put them in direct sunlight. First the foliage will develop, then the buds appear and soon the flowers. Many of us keep our house cooler at night to save on heating bills; cool nights are very good for our growing bulbs. Some of us may have rooms that are cooler for any number of reasons and they also provide a happy location for the bulbs at night. Cool temperatures will help to prolong the bloom period.

Forced paper white narcissus

Forced paper white narcissus

Hyacinths and paper white narcissus can be forced in water as well as in soil. Hyacinths need a cooling period of only about eight weeks, but paper whites do not need any.  My own refrigerator doesn’t have room for pots of bulbs, but even I could put a some bulbs in a paper bag with a few ventilation holes in it and store them in the refrigerator. The caveat is that apples in the refrigerator will ripen the bulbs prematurely so a choice has to be made between the bulbs and the fruit.

Hyacinths look so pretty standing alone that hyacinth glasses have been invented. These glasses hold the bulb so that the bottom of the bulb can touch water and induce the growth of roots, and then the foliage and flower. Many garden centers sell these special glasses, and even pre-cooled bulbs so that you can start your forcing immediately.

Several paper white narcissus can be set on a bed of two or three inches of pebbles in a shallow pot. Cover the bulbs with just enough of the pebbles to hold them firmly in place. Then add only enough water to touch the bottom of the bulbs. You will have to keep watering as the bulbs grow. The rate and strength of growth will depend on temperature, which ideally should not be more than 70 degrees.

One year I grew paper whites in a four inch square glass vase. The vase allowed me to see the level of water, and it also provided support for the flower stems which can get floppy.

Right now garden centers are filled with boxes of potted amaryllis. These glamorous flowers come on the market intended to bloom during the December holiday season. They do not need cooling in basements or refrigerators.

Amaryllis is usually sold with its own pot with instructions to leave half of the bulb exposed. The pot only allows for about half an inch of space all around the bulb.

In the past I have treated amaryllis as an annual and never tried to bring it into a second season of bloom. However, last year when I was in a constant state of disorganization as we sold one house and moved into another house, the three pots of amaryllis got caught up in the waves of moving our stuff to Greenfield. This spring the pots with dry amaryllis bulbs surfaced. I watered them but had no expectations. Amazingly, two of the three bulbs sent up shoots. I set them outside and continued to give them very little attention. One of them even sent up a flower stem – which broke off when a squirrel was frolicking in the area and knocked the plant over.

Now I will experiment by cutting back the foliage and putting the potted bulbs in the basement for a nap. Will they wake up and begin a new life in 2017? We’ll see.

Between the Rows  October 8, 2016

Little Bulbs for Spring Beauty


Crocus in April

The little bulbs, those that bring us the earliest spring blooms include the familiar crocus, but they can also be from a host of other spring bloomers. Here are a handful of little bulbs that can help you get spring off to an early start.

Possibly the least well known and earliest bulbs to bloom are the winter aconites, Eranthus heymalis. These are members of the buttercup family and the bright yellow flowers look very much like buttercups but the plant is usually three or four inches tall, and never more than six inches. Because it is hardy to Zone 4 it can take temperatures of -30 degrees; it can bloom very early and may even come up through the snow.

Winter aconites like rich humsy soil that is moist and in partial shade. If it is really happy it will reseed itself. This is a very small bulb and in order to get a real show it should be planted with about 15 to a square foot. Fortunately you can get ten bulbs for $5 and 100 for $39.

Galanthus - snowdrops

Snowdrops – Galanthus

Snowdrops are a member of the Galanthus genus which includes about 20 named species, most of which are six inches tall or less.  However, Sam Arnott can reach a height of about 12 inches, as will G. nivalis Viridia-apice. These flowers are a bit larger than the aconites, and the standard is to plant 10 to a square foot in rich humusy soil in the shade. All snowdrops have nodding white blossoms with a green dot on the petals. They are hardy to Zone 3. Like aconites they may bloom in the snow early in the season. Prices vary depending on the species ranging from 50 for $36 – $107.

Crocuses have more substantial blooms about six inches tall. They come in colors from white to pale blue, to deep purple, and gold. They like dry soil, but all bulbs appreciate good humusy soil. After all, we want them to stay in the same place for years, increasing the population every year.

One species, Crocus tommasinianus, produces a small blossom but it does self- seed energetically and is a species most likely to thrive in a lawn. It blooms very early so the foliage dies back before the grass too unkempt. Other advice from the MissouriBotanical Garden, a favorite site of mine for dependable information, is that lawns planted with crocus should not be fertilized, watered or aerated. Well fed grass will out-complete the crocus.  As with any bulb the foliage must be allowed to ripen before it is mowed down. They can be planted 10 to 15 per square foot. The ‘tommies’ should definitely be planted more densely.

Squirrels can do damage to crocus bulbs, but squirrels are less likely to find those planted in the lawn than when they are planted in flower beds.

Scillas are petite, but when planted thickly they are a reflection of the spring sky. Scilla siberica which reaches a height of about 10 inches will give you that sky blue but there are others. The white Scilla siberica alba is a bit shorter and blooms slightly earlier as does the delicately pink S. bifolia Rosea which blooms in the very early spring. Again, it is not very expensive to start a mass planting of scillas beause 100 tiny bulbs will cost $50 or less, and can be planted 10 per square foot.

Grape hyacinths - muscari

Grape hyacinths – muscari

Scillas will be happy in sun or shade, don’t mind a dry site and are pest resistant. I love grape hyacinths, muscari. I used to think they came in only a shade of bright blue, but there are now many varieties including Bellevalia which is almost black, to White Magic. In between is Golden Fragrance which is self explanatory and Valerie Finis, a very pale lavender with a long bloom period and M. armeniacum is very pale at the base of the bloom. All the grape hyacinths are pest resistant. No creature will be digging up the bulbs and eating them.

I planted snowdrops many years ago in what we called the orchard just beyond the vegetable garden. However, I rarely got to see them because I hardly ever walked down there in the very early spring. I finally dug some of them up “in the green” which is to say when they were blooming This is the only time I would be able to see where they were growing. I was much happier having them right in front of the house in front of a low stone wall where the snow melted first. I also planted a few snowdrop bulbs in the open space beneath a shrub. I could admire those sweet blossoms from a window.

I am now preparing to plant a border of crocuses, or maybe aconite, right along the sidewalk at the edge of what is striving to be a grassless lawn. There is sun for several hours before our giant sycamore leafs out. The soil is quite dry there, but I will enrich it with compost after I remove the sod, but before I plant the bulbs. With such tiny bulbs that need to be planted in relatively large numbers, it is easier to dig a clear space and scatter the bulbs, rather than digging a hole or even making an opening with your trowel to plant them singly.

When you order your bulbs they will come with full planting information including the depth at which they should be planted. For example,crocus should be planted 2-3 inches deep.

The older I get the shorter each season seems to get. Autumn is now officially upon us and I am planning for the spring.

Between the Rows  October 1, 2016


Umbellifers – from poison to beauty

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

The family of umbellifers can take us from Socrates poison to Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

Did you ever imagine that Queen Anne’s Lace, sweet cicely, golden alexanders, angelica, sea holly and poison hemlock, were all members of the same botanical family? All of these belong to the large class Apiaceae which is very large, with 300 genera and between 2500-3000 species. I will not give a lengthy lecture on taxonomy, a system used by botanists, but I will give you the hierarchy. First comes the domain, followed by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.  For example, humans are in the animalia kingdom and the genus Homo as in Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis.

The class of umbellifers is familiar to any of us who have seen Queen Anne’s Lace growing by the roadside, or used dill when making pickles.

The word umbellifer refers to the shape of the flower. Botanists will say that plants with a flower similar to Queen Anne’s Lace is an inflorescence, which I think is a lovely sounding word. Once you start to think of plants with similar flowers you might first enter a world of edible plants. The herb garden holds many umbellifers including parsley, caraway, cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, celery, and chervil.

Some herbs like Angelica archangelica can grow to seven feet tall. It makes quite a statement in the herb or flower garden. It bears a resemblance to giant hogweed, but it is benign and will not cause rashes or worse. It has been used medicinally in the past. It is a biennial, or may seed itself for several years.

I grew the herb lovage in an out of the way spot in my Heath garden because it easily grew to six feet tall. I didn’t use it much, but I occasionally used the leaves when I didn’t have celery

Which brings us to the vegetable garden with celery, celeriac, fennel, parsnips, and carrots, of course.

If you have any of these umbellifers in your herb or vegetable garden you know that the flowers attract many pollinators and butterflies. Once I learned that the striking yellow and green caterpillars I saw crawling on and eating my dill would eventually turn into lovely swallowtail butterflies, I planted extra parsley and dill. Still, I remain willing to sacrifice these plants because it means I have the flowers of the sky in my garden.

Sea Holly

Sea Holly

And that just about brings us to the flowers in the garden. Sea holly (Eryngium) is an umbellifer. The silvery but bright blue umbel looks quite different from the airy and flat Queen Anne’s Lace blossom. The sea holly umbel more resembles the center of a cone flower with tiny flowers in the center surrounded by thistle-like bracts.

I bought a sea holly for my Heath garden several years ago and I’ve forgotten the particular species. There are a couple of species of sea holly that are hardy in our region.

Eryngium Big Blue will grow to nearly three feet with a two foot spread. Eryngium yuccifolium has yucca-like foliage with small, pale greenish-white umbels and no bracts. Both of these are very hardy and do well in ordinary soil that drains well. It is an ideal plant for the dry garden.

There is another sea holly nicknamed Miss Willmott’s Ghost. This plant is quite famous in England where the wealthy Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934) lived and gardened. She was a passionate gardener and it has been said that she had 200 gardeners working in her Warley Place gardens.

One of her favorite plants was Erynium giganteum and it was well known that she often scattered the seeds of this plant in the gardens that she visited. I have heard different stories about her habit of spreading the seed of this favorite plant. Some say she did it because she loved it so much she wanted to share it with all her friends. Others say she did it to irritate people. Either way, the big pale holly became known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost. She became more and more eccentric as she lived, and ultimately died a pauper.

Some of the umbellifers are so similar in appearance that they can be mistaken for a poisonous member of the family. A couple of years ago there was a great concern about giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which grows to ten feet with a flower that resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. This is a phototoxic plant. When the sap gets on your skin and then is exposed to sunlight the damage it causes looks like a bad burn and is very painful.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) was used on purpose in 399 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Socrates who had been convicted of corrupting Athenian youth. Plato was with Socrates when he took the deadly drink and watched him stroll around the room until he felt his strength waning. He lay down and was soon dead.

Those who read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley may remember that the epic story of a farming family also includes murder by poison hemlock.

Water hemock (Cicuta) is considered the most deadly poisonous plant in the United States. The deaths that occur are because the roots are mistaken for edible vegetables.  It takes hardly more than a bite before it attacks the nervous system causing vomiting and seizures.

My advice is to stick to parsley and parsnips in the kitchen, and sea holly in the garden.

Between the Rows   September 24, 2016

Chrysanthemums and Beyond


Chrysanthemum at 2009 Kiku exhibit at New York Botanical Garden

Chrysanthemums are an iconic autumn flower. You can see potted mums for sale everywhere including the supermarkets where ranks of mums in shades of lemon, tangerine and plum cluster around the entrances. A friend reminded me of a quote from Maggie Smith  in the 1969 movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I never saw. A student had given Miss Brodie a bouquet(?) of chrysanthemums and her response was, “Chrysanthemums. Such a serviceable flower.”

Miss Brodie did not seem impressed, but at the very least chrysanthemums are indeed serviceable, providing bright welcomes on porches, cheering at football games with their giant blossoms on coats, a golden or ruby glow in candlelight in dinner table bouquets.


Dahlias in perennial ageratum tangle

In 1972 Miss Smith starred in Travels With My Aunt in which she played another character who had strong opinions about flowers. While strolling in the garden of her dahlia loving nephew, Henry, she sniffed and with disdainful look said, “Dahlias are so vulgar.”

Happily by 2011 Miss Smith’s characters may not have been any less waspish, but she seemed at least to have gentler feelings about bright flowers when she starred in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie that glowed with the warm light of marigolds. I don’t recall that she made any comments about the marigolds at all.

All three of these plants, chrysanthemums, dahlias and deep golden marigolds can bring color and drama to the autumnal garden. While potted mums are on sale everywhere at this time of the year, there are many chrysanthemum flower forms that bring special interest to the garden in addition to their colors. There are neat little pom poms, others with each floret (petal) ending in a spoon, or tubular florets called quills or incurved blossoms that will remind you of a Japanese brocade. There are 14 unusual varieties which will probably have to turn to online nurseries such as King’s Mums, or Garden Harvest Supply to see what unusual perennial varieties are available.

It is too late to order any of these fancy mums now, but you can get an idea of what they look like at the Smith College Chrysanthemum Show that includes the stunning chrysanthemum cascades and will run from November 5-20.

Recently I have been writing about Eric Greene’s dahlias which are so hardy and glamorous. Many of his dahlias originally came from Swan Island Dahlias. Like mums, dahlias can be organized by size with the largest measuring more than 10 inches or more, down to less than 4 inches across. They are also organized by type from collarette which is usually a single form, to waterlily form to petite pom-poms.

Dahlias can add rich and fiery blooms to the autumnal garden, but they have tender personalities as well. Those are the colors I always end up planting even though I am an admirer of scarlets and royal purples in the catalogs.



Recently I attended the stupa dedication at Lilian Jackman’s Wilder Hill Gardens. There I admired her tall, large flowered golden marigolds reminiscent of the marigolds The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Marigolds will bloom into the fall and will also have a place in the autumnal garden. Marigolds are so easy to grow that they are a perfect flower for a child to grow. How happy and proud children are when their tiny seed grows into something so big and golden.

There is no problem in finding marigold seed from American Meadow, Park’s or Burpee Seeds.

Zinnias are another tough annual that will bloom long into the fall in golden shades like the marigold, or in a riot of hot or pastel shades. They also come in a range of flower forms from a neat single to shaggy cactus-flowers and dahlia-type flowers. I have made a promise to myself to always have zinnias in my garden.

All of these, mums, dahlias, marigolds and zinnias, are brilliant in the garden and make great cut flowers as well.

Without thinking too much about it I seem to have a number of asters in my new garden. I brought two clumps of the bright pink Alma Potschke with me from Heath as well as the low growing Wood’s Blue, which is a strong grower and makes a good ground cover even when it is not in bloom.

I added a white aster which has fine white flowers and was a bit disappointing. I also planted two pots of a purple aster which are just coming into bloom.

And then there is the much watched weed in my hell strip. For most of the summer I dubiously watched it grow. I wasn’t sure enough it was a weed and so did not rip it out. My procrastination has paid off because it is now producing very sweet small purple flowers, making more of a show that my new white aster. All the asters attract lots of pollinators.

Before I close I must confess to a lack of organization and record-keeping. The mystery groundcover that I mentioned last week revealed its name once planted where it was no longer crowed and got more sun. A small blossom surprised me. It is an osteospurmum which I planted in the spring, inspired by the hardiness and dramatic beauty of the osteospurmums on the Bridge of Flowers.  Obviously osteospurmums are another annual that will bloom into the fall.

Between the Rows   September 17, 2016

Consider the Trees – and Groundcovers

Cornus "Kousa"

Cornus “Kousa”

I was talking to a young woman and her two very young daughters, 6 and 9, about the new house they were preparing to move into. This house is set on a nearly two acre lot. She said the developer was responsible for putting in some minimal landscaping around the front of the house, but she would have the fun of choosing everything else.

She and her girls were looking forward to the trees they might plant. She likes flowering trees, the 6 year old wanted a weeping willow so she could hide under it, and the 9 year old was still thinking. I was happy that she was thinking about trees, trees that would make a statement as her garden took form, and trees that would grow up with her daughters. I’m not sure what plans the papa might have. Our conversation ended, but I got to thinking about all the opportunities people face when they move into a house on a nearly naked lot.

This house is located at the end of a long driveway. I immediately imagined a line of Kousa dogwood trees running the length of that drive. Kousa dogwoods are covered with large (three to five inches) white four-petaled flowers in late spring, May into June. In the fall the foliage turns a deep red or scarlet, and it produces tiny fruits that birds enjoy. They are hardy and happy in full sun with no serious pest or disease problems, about as trouble free a plant as you can find.

At a possible mature height of 30 feet Kousas are still considered small trees. Anyone planting in a line needs to consider the spread of the tree at maturity; one of the hardest tasks any gardener faces is allowing for future growth. Kousas should be planted about 30 feet apart in full sun. Massing plants, trees or flowers have a powerful effect. Even while they are young and small, the number of trees will give a real presence.

A number of years ago an acquaintance asked me for a suggestion for his driveway. In that case I suggested crabapples which bloom in shades of pink to almost purple. Whether or not you are interested in making crabapple jelly, the spring pollinators and autumn birds will thank you for planting crabapples.

Robinson is a fast growing crab with deep pink flowers that mature to white; the tiny fruits are a dark red. It will reach a height and spread of about 20 feet. It also has excellent disease resistance.

Prairiefire will be about 20 tall and wide at maturity. It has reddish foliage and bright pink flowers. The tree has very good disease resistance and the fruits are deep red. All crabapples prefer full sun.

Redbud  Cercis canadensis

Redbud Cercis canadensis

Redbud, Cercis canadensis, is more common in our area than it was even ten years ago. The bright pink/lavender flowers that bloom before it leafs out are eye catching and just lovely. Redbuds will mature at about 20-30 feet tall with an equal spread. Most of the redbuds I have seen are closer to 20 feet. They will thrive in full sun or part shade. They need moist, moderately fertile soil that is well drained, but it is a carefree tree.

All the trees I have mentioned tolerate acid soil, which is what most of us have, but it is good to have your soil tested to see just how acid it is and whether or not liming it might be a good idea. Do not assume.

If you are going to plant a line of trees, I think planting them in a bed that can be underplanted with a groundcovers should be considered. Trees should be planted so that the debilitating mulch volcano is forbidden.  Groundcovers will keep lawnmowers and trimmers away from the tree eliminating bark damage.

One groundcover that has been overused is pachysandra. This is understandable because it is attractive and a good spreader. However, the pachysandra I usually see is Japanese pachysandra and can be invasive. There is a native Allegheny pachysandra whose foliage is not as shiny or evergreen but it is attractive and produces white flowers in the fall. It prefers some shade.

I have used several ground covers in my garden over the years. Lady’s mantle with its round ruffled foliage is a good spreader and noted for its lacy green flowers and the way it collects raindrops.

Tiarella or foamflower is rhizomatous and crawls along the ground but in the spring it sends up foamy racemes of flowers in white or pink, no more than 10 inches high. If you like tiarella but wish it were a bit more substantial you can try heucherella, a hybrid of tiarella and heuchera. The plant and the flowers will be larger and there will be a much larger choice of colors in both the foliage and the flowers. Tiarella and heucherella like some shade, but I have had good luck in full sun as well, if there is sufficient moisture or watering.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium sulphureum

I love epimediums which are a solution to dry shade, but they have done well in my Heath garden with lots of sun and a moist soil. Here in Greenfield my epimediums get more shade, but dryer soil – especially this year.

No matter how trees are arranged in your garden, surrounding them with appropriate groundcovers is a beautiful way of protecting the tree trunks and adding texture and flowers.

Between the Rows    September 3, 2016

Eric Greene and his Dahlias


The Greene’s dahlia windowsill arrangement

Eric Greene grows fabulous dahlias, among other wonderful plants, but says he is “the laziest gardener in the world” but he really means he is an efficient gardener. He doesn’t want to work any harder than necessary.

His lazy techniques result in an amazingly large garden that shares his in-town property with a swimming pool enclosed on two sides by shrubs, enormous vegetable and flower gardens, a gigantic compost pile and a small front lawn.

When I first visited the Greene garden during the Greenfield Garden Club Garden Tour I was amazed by the long dahlia allee, and the dahlias weren’t even in bloom yet. I quickly made a date with Eric Greene and his wife Jeanne to find out how the ‘world’s laziest gardener’ handled all those dahlias which grow from tender tubers that need to be dug after the bloom season and stored until the spring.



His long history and love affair with dahlias began when he was given a white dahlia decades ago. That dahlia taught him about exponential growth. When he dug it up in the fall that one dahlia had produced five new tubers. When he planted those tubers the following spring he harvested 25 tubers in the fall. You can see where this story is going. Those white dahlias were planted and replanted and bloomed all around the swimming pool he had at the time. At this point he has 100 varieties of dahlia, and only keeps two tubers of each one in the fall. “I always have plenty of dahlia tubers to give away to friends,” he said.

Amazingly he loved the white dahlias so much that it was many years before he considered color. Nowadays he has a rainbow of dahlias from pale to brilliant colors. Many are bought from Swan Island Dahlias in Oregon.

Greene happily explained the dahlia routines he has followed since moving to his current house 14 years ago. He begins by ordering a load of compost from Martin’s Compost Farm every year. His soil is heavy clay which is not hospitable to dahlias.

On the first weekend in May he digs all the planting holes on both sides of the walkway, removing the soil and placing it where he needs more soil. Then he fills each hole to within three inches of the top with compost, and puts an extra pile of compost off to one side. When all the holes are dug and prepared he begins planting his tubers. The eyes of the dahlia tuber must face up. If there are long tender white roots, put out during winter storage, he removes them. Any green shoots growing from the eyes of the tuber have to be planted so they are fully underground and protected from a frost.

According to his own records his frost free period usually is from May 1 to October 15.

After the tuber is planted he puts a tomato cage around it, and pounds a wooden stake outside the cage. He ties the cage to the stake as extra support because his tall healthy dahlias are heavy and need that strong support. He waters the dahlias after planting, and then as needed. “Dahlias are thirsty,” he said. “I try to make sure everything in the garden gets an inch of water every week.”

In September, when he knows the bloom season will soon be ending he takes his woodsman’s tape and identifies each plant by type, size and color. The names are not as important to him as knowing what they look like.

Frost will kill the dahlias in the fall. He leaves them in the ground for a couple of days and cuts off all the foliage, leaving about two inches of stems. Then he digs them up and lets them sit in the sun all day. He shakes off the loose soil but never washes them.

The identifying tape follows each clump into a grain bag. The woven plastic grain bags do breathe and protect the tubers. All the grain bags then go onto wood pallets in his basement where temperatures stay in the low forties or less. It is essential to keep the tubers cool all winter.

In mid to late April Greene goes through the clumps separating and cutting off the tubers that have at least one eye, and attaching an identifying tape to each separated tuber. The identified tubers then go into boxes, separate boxes for each variety. That way he can easily share particular dahlias with friends. Many tubers are also donated at plant sales.

Jeanne and Eric Greene

Jeanne and Eric Greene

The dahlia walk is just a part of the gardens on the western side of the house. Tall sunflowers, majestic red cannas, airy cleome, small calla lilies and zinnias. The garden is a veritable bouquet. Jeanne keeps the house filled with bouquets, artful arrangements of a floral mix, or single dahlias in separate vases but lined up together on a windowsill.

Greene is a man with many strings to his bow. While he had his first garden as a 10 year old trying to grow corn next to the driveway, he also fell in love with crystals and minerals. After enjoying careers as a sculptor, an art teacher, and manager of companies that mined Herkimer diamonds, he and Jeanne now own and operate Treasure Mountain Mining, an online company selling crystals from all over the world. I have to think there might be some connection between the brilliant beauty and variety of the dahlias in his garden, and the sparkling beauty and variety of the minerals and crystals he sells online.

Between the Rows    August 27, 2016

Life Among the Weeds

Mystery weed from my garden

Mystery weed from my garden

What is a weed?

A friend recently gave me a branchy stem of a plant with fine alternate leaves she has growing all over her garden. She asked if I could identify it. She didn’t know if it was a “real plant” or a weed that she should be pulling out. Off hand I couldn’t identify it and turned to my Weeds of the Northeast by Uva, Neal and Di Tomasso and still could not definitely identify it, but I thought it might possibly be an aster. Later when I was watering my hellstrip filled with daylilies, astilbes, yarrow and more, I noticed a plant sticking its head up through a clump of coneflowers – and it looked just like the slightly wilted plant my friend had given me!

When I went up to the Benson Place in Heath to pick up my order of blueberries I was admiring a bed of large plants, few of which I recognized. Meredith Wecker and Andrew Kurowski, current owners of the Benson Place, explained that the bed was designed as a pollinator bed. They identified the enormous elecampane with its shaggy golden flowers all a-buzz with bees, the anise hyssop and the tall blue vervain. And there in the middle of a clump of flowers was the plant I had been trying to identify. This plant was everywhere!

I  asked what it was. Meredith and Andrew looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s just a weed.”  I had made no progress in my researches.

Another very tall mystery plant - a weed?

Another very tall mystery plant – a weed?

I have  another mystery plant, which I am sure is a weed, but not exactly sure which weed. Next to our front porch, in the shade, we have been watching a single plant with large deeply cut leaves growing taller and taller. We thought the foliage looked thistle-like but there are no prickers and so far no familiar blossom. In fact, now that it is eight or nine feet tall what appears to be a flower head is kind of droopy and is not yet blooming.

On our ride to the Benson Place we drove on a dirt road edged with all manner of  – dare I say it – weeds. And among them were plants similar to my front porch weed, although not quite as tall.

My son says his lawn is full of weeds i.e. violets. Our lawn in Heath was full of weeds i.e. dandelions. Lots of weeds i.e. wildflowers like chicory grow along the roadsides. I like violets and dandelions and chicory. Why would anyone consider them a weed?

The definition of a weed is very difficult. My comprehensive book, titled Weeds of  the Northeast, gives excellent descriptions and photos of hundreds of weeds in their different growth stages including the seed stage. Violets, dandelions and chicory are all included. So are creeping thyme, wild strawberries and the low growing English daisy. What makes all these plants weeds?

They are all rampant growers and spreaders, but others seem to be called weeds because they are growing where the gardeners and farmers don’t want them to grow.  Sometimes you find out a plant that you chose and planted is a weed. While I was leafing through my weed book I noticed the pages devoted to field horsetail, Equisetum arvense. I like the horsetails with their leafless green bottle-brushy stems that I saw growing by the roadsides in Heath. They are also called scouring-rush, foxtail rush, horsepipes, and pine grass.

Equisetum hyemale

Equisetum hyemale

When I drive to Colrain to visit friends I usually take the Colrain road, a winding road through the woods, and I noticed large stands of the larger Equisetum hyemale growing in the damp shade. I have always admired this plant because it is unusual, about 18 inches tall, leafless, with bamboo-like nodes along the evergreen stem. One day I stopped and pulled up a few of these stems which spread by creeping rhizomes. I planted them in a wet shady spot in my garden and most of them took root and seem to be doing well.

According to Weeds of the Northeast equisetums are resistant to herbicides used by farmers. According to the MissouriBotanical Garden, which has an excellent website that often helps me identify plants and understand their requirements, Equisetum hyemale is an aggressively spreading plant that is difficult to eradicate because the rhizomes spread wide and deep.

I then remembered my recent trip to Minneapolis and environ with 60 garden bloggers. Our final garden tour was across the border into Wisconsin and the amazing gardens and sculptures of Woutrina DeRaad. For 25 years Trina has been creating an amazing wild garden filled not only with wonderful plants, but with her concrete and mosaic sculptures. One sculpture was of a long couch with a built in plant container she had filled with equisetum five years earlier. I admired it, but when Trina asked if anyone in our group knew about equisetum, one of the men shook his head and said it was probably already sending roots deep into the soil and she’d never get rid of it. It was hard to see how that could happen since it was in a concrete container, but clearly he considered it a danger. And Trina seemed to be taking him seriously, and starting to consider what she could use to replace the equisetum.

When I came home it did not take me long to dig up my equisetum  which had already sent out one rhizome. I do not believe it was sending rhizome out deeply.

It has been said that if you can name a thing, you will have power over it. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help give me power over the two mystery plants in my garden. In the meantime I will just have to wait and see if their flowers can give me another hint.

Between the Rows   August 13, 2016

I want to thank everyone who responded to my query with the answers. That tall weed is wild lettuce Lactuca biennis, first identified by Liz Pichette, but followed by several other knowledgeable plant people. Thank you all!

Benefits of Blueberries

Lowbush blueberries at the Benson Place in Heath, MA

Lowbush blueberries at the Benson Place

Blueberries offer many benefits to the gardeners who want to grow more of their own food. When I lived in Heath I had access to the low-bush blueberry farms that operate there, but highbush blueberries were among the first shrubs I planted. I do not prefer one over the other, except that the highbush blueberries are larger and easier to pick. Nowadays lowbush blueberries to plant are much more available than they once were. We are also fortunate that we live near Nourse Farms which sells a variety of highbush blueberries from Patriot and Reka which begin bearing early in the season to Jersey and Nelson which are late season bearers. You can have fresh blueberries from your garden over a long season, into September. Having two or more varieties will also give you the cross pollination that is needed for good fruiting.

Blueberry pickers at the Benson Place in Heath, MA

Blueberry Pickers at Benson Place

Blueberry requirements

Blueberries are native to North America and so are very hardy. They thrive during the cold of New England winters. They need a lot of sun, and cannot tolerate standing water in the spring. Well drained soil with plenty of organic material is ideal. At the same time, they need adequate water during the growing season.

Here in New England we don’t usually have to worry about having acid soil, although we might have to work a little to get the soil to a 4.5 to 5.5 pH level. A soil test will give you the pH and indicate how you can go about improving it for the blueberries. Fortunately, you can find fertilizers for acid loving plants like Espoma Holly Tone, or other fertilizers designed for rhododendrons or azaleas, at your garden center, or even soil acidifiers. Fertilizing should be done in the spring, and a 2- 4 inch bark mulch is a good idea. Besides conserving moisture, mulch will keep adding organic matter to the soil over time.

Once blueberry bushes are planted they are very easy to maintain. They suffer very little from pests or diseases. They will not need pruning for several years. For myself the only pruning I ever did was removing broken or dead branches in the spring. However, there is a benefit to keeping the interior of the bush more open. Easier picking if nothing else.

Once you are regularly harvesting your berries, your biggest problem will be the birds. I wish I had considered this when I planted my Heath blueberries in a long hedge. It was very difficult to manage a long netting arrangement to protect the berries.  My four Greenfield blueberry bushes are planted in a square that will ultimately be netted in a block that is 10 by 10 feet square.

High Bush Blueberries at Wilder Hill Gardens

High bush blueberries at Wilder Hill Gardens

Benefits of blueberries

There are many benefits for the gardener and the consumer of blueberries. A benefit for the gardener is that, unlike raspberries that need to be picked every day, blueberries will hang on the bush for several days until you can pick them. This means you can harvest a couple of times a week instead of making time every day.

And of course, I have already mentioned how little work it takes to maintain the bushes.

I have not mentioned their beauty, the tiny bell shaped blossoms in the spring and the beautiful red color in the fall. Blueberry bushes are a good alternative to the invasive euonymous, the burning bush.

For the consumer, the eater of blueberries, the first benefit is the berry’s deliciousness. Then there are the many ways it can be prepared, pies, muffins, salads, on your cereal or ice cream, or out of your hand.

Not only is there all that delciousness, there is the fact that blueberries are very good for you. Blueberries are ranked as having one the highest capacities of antioxidants among all fruits and vegetables. Antioxidents battle the free radicals that can attack healthy cells in the body. Cell damage contributes to cancer, heart disease, and decline in the immune system.

Anthrocyanins, the color pigments of red, purple and blue, are powerful antioxidents. They have been connected to lower risks of some cancers, urinary tract health, memory function and age related diseases. Needless to say, other fruits like strawberries and raspberries also contain anthrocyanins, but blueberries are richer.

To get the real health benefit of blueberries it would be necessary to eat about two cups of fresh berries a day, but I feel healthier with every cup of berries I enjoy. Fortunately, fresh blueberries can be bagged up and popped into the freezer very easily and will lose little of their nutritional value. Blueberry crisp gives me a taste of summer all winter long.

Even without growing your own it is easy to find fresh blueberries in our area. Farm stands will be selling them as will farms like the Benson Place in Heath. You can also pick your own low bush berries at the Benson Place, or high bush at Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway.

Sweetheart bouquet for wedding created at Wilder Hill Farm

Sweetheart bouquet for wedding created at Wilder Hill Gardens

When I was picking berries at Wilder Hill Gardens, I also got to admire the flower arrangements that owner Lilian Jackman was creating for her daughter’s wedding. Every single arrangement included a bit of blueberry foliage and fruit. The blueberries were a particular request of the bride and groom. For myself, I consider those blueberries a wish for years of a sweet, healthy and fruitful life together.

Between the Rows   August 6, 2016

Shade in the Garden

Shade. Green shade. With the recent 90 degree days I have been thinking that every garden has to have shade. I thought I had a very shady garden, but my husband and I did a shade study. We took photos of the back garden every couple of hours to see how shade moved across the space. It turns out that most of the garden gets six to seven hours of sun which counts as the full sun required by most vegetables and many flowers.

River birch

On a cloudy day you can’t tell where the shadow of the River Birch falls

Trees Make Shade

Now I am thinking about ways to add more shade to the central portion of our garden. We have already planted one multi-stemmed river birch, and a weeping cherry. Before the summer is over we will plant another fairly large (at least six foot) river birch. We think another small tree would be desirable, but can’t quite make up our minds which one. Should it be a redbud, with its purple/pink flowers in the spring? Should it be a dwarf crabapple with its spring blossoms and fruit for the birds? One advantage of a dwarf crabapple is that its size can be easily controlled by pruning. Maybe we should plant a pagoda dogwood which has distinctive tiered and layered branches and foliage.

Then there is the decision where to place the tree. We know the river birch will be towards the south side of the garden. Where would another tree go? Perhaps the better question is where do we want the shade to go? To be decided.

Yellow twig dogwood

Yellow twig dogwood in a center bed

Shrubs Make Shade

We have already planted several shrubs including red twig and yellow twig dogwoods which will reach six to nine feet tall. They will also throw shade.

Clethra alnifolia, also called sweet pepperbush or summersweet because of its fragrant upright flower panicles, will easily be six feet tall, again throwing shade. Highbush cranberry, Viburnam trilobum, is not a cranberry but the red berries that appear in the fall will attract some birds. It will grow to between eight to 15 feet and can be controlled by pruning. Aronia, chokeberry, can be classed as a small tree or a large shrub. Ours has really settled in and will increasingly throw more shade. As you can see, there are different ways to create shade in the garden.

Barren Strawberry

Waldsteinia – barren strawberry

Perennials for shade

Shade trees, and shrubs that create shade also create a need for low growing plants that enjoy shade. Deciduous trees and shrubs like the ones I have, or am thinking about, allow the sun to penetrate to the ground in the spring, and allow spring blooming bulbs from the small crocuses and daffodils to bloom. Some slightly more unusual bulbs include snowflakes (Leucojum) which look very much like a large snowdrop, and bloom after the snow drops have gone by. Iris reticulatas are small irises, often no more than six inches tall.

In addition, there are other low growing spring bloomers that welcome the dappled sunlight. Tiarella, or foam flower, not only produces foamy pink or white racemes of blossoms in the spring, the low-growing heart shaped leaves spread rapidly covering the ground. A related, more lush plant is the heucherella, a heuchera (coral bells) and tiarella hybrid. The foliage is similar but the blossoms are more substantial.

One of my favorite spring blooming groundcovers is barren strawberry or Waldsteinia. Its name refers to the strawberry like foliage, and habit of sending out runners. It also has brilliant yellow flowers that look like cousins to white strawberry blossoms.

A groundcover that I appreciated first for it delicate heart shaped foliage is the epimedium. I think that is because I never saw the early spring bloom. Epimediums, sometimes called fairy hats, are a large family and the dainty flowers on firm slender stems come in a whole range of colors. We have a famous epimedium nursery right here in Massachusetts, Garden Vision Epimediums in Templeton. The flowers range from pale whites, yellows, and pinks to plumy and deep purples. There is also a range of foliage color and form. I have several epimediums and realize now that I have to move them into the back garden where I can see them better and enjoy them more. One special benefit of epimediums is that they will thrive even in dry shade.

There are many shades of green in the shady garden, but a patch of light can be a stunning accent. I recently bought a Goldheart columbine with its brilliant foliage for what will be a shady bed.

Vignette of mixed green at the Bridge of Flowers, hostas, lamium, hakone grass and bloodroot foliage

Vignette of mixed green at the Bridge of Flowers, hostas, lamium, hakone grass and bloodroot foliage

Hostas come in various shades of green from the blue-green Wishing Well hosta to the creamy white of Dancing Queen. Both of these produce tall flower stalks, but for me, the tall blooms are unimportant. Another family of familiar plants are the lowgrowing lamiums like White Nancy which produce insignificant blooms, and a variety of foliage variegations. Always dependable and very pretty.

Of course, not every plant in a garden needs to bloom. The golden Hakonechloa aurea Aureola, Hakone grass, will supply that bit of sun in a shady spot. I also have a small patch of shiny green European ginger. Both prove that flowers are not a necessity in a garden. Patches of green give the eye time to rest before moving to a more colorful vignette.

What patches of green do your eyes rest on as you survey your garden?

Between the Rows  July 30, 2016