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Encyclopedia of Container Plants

The garden centers are putting out their trays of blooming annuals, many of which will find their way into planters and containers of all sizes and shapes. They’ll be hung on porches, set out on decks and placed by doorways.  It is hard to resist all that color and frilly form. Fortunately for us we don’t have to resist because those familiar annuals, impatiens, petunias, begonias and geraniums are inexpensive and put on a good and cheerful show all summer long.

And yet our container plantings can give us drama and surprise as well as cheer. “The Encyclopedia of Container Plants: More than 500 Outstanding Choices for Gardeners” by Ray Rogers with gorgeous photographs by Rob Cardillo (Timber Press $34.95) show us how we can add perennials, shrubs, edibles, bulbs and tropicals to the annuals we love to make some creative arrangements.

The book begins with an Introduction that lays out all the basic principles of care for any container plant, the types of soil or soilless medium, the container, light, heat, water, fertilization, pruning, supports and troubles. Container plantings are not immune from disease or pest. Rogers then goes on to explain how to understand all the elements of the encyclopedia entries which are arranged alphabetically, no matter if he is talking about dramatic Alocasia (elephant’s ear) or the humble lettuce.

Finally he gets down to the topic of design. He does not pretend to give a primer, but he does remind the reader that there are differing ways of looking at color, line, form and texture. He waits until the individual plant listings to touch on the design attributes of each and give some suggestions for combinations or how to handle the plant in a single pot.

Each encyclopedia entry begins1 with basic information about all aspects of the plant and concludes with more of his own opinions about the various cultivars or what he considers special attributes, like the baby plants that are borne on the sculptural fronds of Asplenium, the bird’s-nest fern.

Rogers has a lot of experience to back up his opinions and suggestions. He spent years working at the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania and with the American Horticultural Society. He has won over a hundred top awards for his plant displays.

I confess that I often forget that what I consider ‘houseplants’ like Diffenbachia or gold dust plant can be put to good use in outdoor containers, either alone, or in combination with other plants. Those striking types of foliage can be an important design element.

One of the most important pieces of advice Rogers, and I, would give to the gardener putting together a multi-plant container is to consider the needs of each plant for light and moisture and make sure they are all compatible.

If putting a lot of plants in a single pot sounds difficult, but you like the idea of a mixed planting, Rogers suggests a grouping of pots with different flowers or foliage types. Such a grouping does not require pots of the same design. Different sizes and types can be attractive together.

While Rogers does talk about how important the container itself can be, the striking and clear photographs by Cardillo show that he does not think fancy or unusual containers are vital to the success of a planting. Many of the containers are plain terracotta, and classic glazed pots are not hard to find at garden centers like the Shelburne Farm and Garden.

Rogers style is chatty and he  presents plantings in so many styles it is bound to be useful to any gardener, novice or experienced, one who prefers traditional arrangements or one who wants to be more experimental.

I was disappointed that there was no list of sources for some of the more unusual plants, but decided that visiting the websites of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (, Logee’s Greenhouses ( and Stokes Tropicals ( will give you a good start on locating plants you cannot find at local garden centers. But do begin your search locally because more and more unusual annuals are showing up at modest prices right in our own neighborhood.

Between the Rows   May 14, 2011

Mirrors in the Garden – a Trend?

The first mirror in the garden I saw this past weekend was in one of the first gardens. I had already seen gardens with high brick walls that had ‘windows’ cut into them. When I glimpsed shining light in the wall in this garden I thought it was another windowed wall, which I thought was a charming idea.  When I scrunched down to get a better idea, and a photo I realized I was looking at a mirror. The photo is a little crooked because I had to bend down and under the dripping foliage to see the mirror clearly.  There were other mirrors in this garden. These urban Buffalo gardens all have walls, perfect for vines – and mirrors.

The second  mirror in the garden I saw was in Gordon’s rain drenched paradise. You have to look close to see the mirror because it is reflecting the variegated hostas.  There were other mirrors in this garden as well.

This is one of a series of three mirrors against a vine covered wall in Jim Charlier’s garden.  He said the mirrors are inexpensive so he doesn’t mind that they will rot away in the rain.  He has also built a kind of soffit out from the wall, which not only holds some of the vines, it hides a rope light (light rope?) which makes for a delightful effect at night – as do the three tiki lights reflecting in each mirror.  We garden bloggers were invited to lunch at Jim’s and we couldn’t see this effect, but everyone who has a copy of the current issue of Fine Gardening can see it in the Spice up the Night feature.

There is a saying that if you see three unusual things, or hear about the same odd thing three times in a row you are seeing the birth of a trend. I like this trend and I am going to look for a suitable wall.

Of course, if you happen to take a trip to the famous Buffalo Garden Walk, the country’s largest free garden tour, the last week in July, you might be able to notice other trends.  Have you noticed any new trends in your neighborhood gardens?

The Latest on My Wisteria

We are practicing doing videos – and the wisteria which is glorious right now seemed like a good subject.

All this bloom is just in time to shade the piazza and protect me from 90 degree sun.

Frost Damage Discovered

When we were at Betsy’s house yesterday we looked at some shrubs that we all thought were dead. The leaves were twisted, curled and brown. We were having trouble identifying what the shrubs were until we found one that had a few undamaged leaves. Oh yes, Betsy said. Magnolias.  Well, the shrubs aren’t dead, they were hit with frost, and with luck they will recover. At our house we realized that the kiwi on the shed was also frosted. The vines closest to the shed wall are OK, as are the vines farthest away from the corner of the building where the wind is the least fierce.  The kiwi has never been damaged by frost before.  Like Betsy’s magnolias it will recover. I was going to try and give it a good pruning anyway.  The hard frost last week didn’t bother most of our plants; and inexplicably hurt a plant we never considered particularly tender.  Sometimes Mother Nature seems unpredictable

A Wonder – and a Warning


I got a call from Edwin Graves who said I had to come and see the wisteria on his rental property in Greenfield. He told me it had climbed into two cherry trees, but he didn’t tell me those two trees were 60 feet tall, and that the wisteria climbed into the very top reaches.

Sarah Jean and Edwin Graves

The Graves bought this Greenfield house for her parents back in about 1981. Since they moved out in 1989 the house has been rented to other families. The wisteria was there when they bought the house and it occasionally bloomed. Sarah Jean said she was always cutting down plants that popped up in the lawn. And so it went for some years.  Invisibly climbing and spreading, until this year.  My snapshots don’t give any sense of what it looks like to have two 60 foot trees decked with hundreds and hundreds of beautiful wisteria blossoms.

This photo is of more wisteria shoots that are now climbing four smaller trees and they are very pretty. But you can surely see the problem.  A plant that grows rampantly up tall trees, spreads to neighboring trees, and has little offshoots growing all over the ground can be a concern.  The Graves don’t know why the wisterias have bloomed so amazingly this year. There was an old chicken house and run next to the cherry trees years ago, and we did have a lot of rain last year (wisterias love rain and rich soil) and we’ve had a lot of rain this spring – are those reasons enough?  Hard to say.  Those of us who have grown wisteria know that they can be moody and unpredictable plants.  The vigor of Chinese wisteria like these can lift roofs off house and pull off clapboards – as well as climbing 60 feet.  It is easy to understand why horticulturists now recommend planting Amethyst Falls, Wisteria frutescens, a native American wisteria that is smaller and not as vigorous, but it blooms at a young age, and will rebloom during the season – great benefits.

Still – The Graves’ wisteria is a wondrous site and I thank them for the chance to see it.

Wisteria Tale

Wisteria buds

The wisteria that has climbed the arbor over our piazza was planted late in the summer of 1990. There was a delay in finishing the arbor and I didn’t realize that wisteria needed good rich soil. The poor wisteria was in trouble right from the start.

In 1999 we said if it hadn’t reached the top of the arbor by the following year, we were going to give up and pull it out.  Thus threatened it did reach the top in 2000 and spread out across the arbor creating beautiful shade that not only kept the house cool, it changed the quality of light in our living room. We felt we were living in a green glade.

It grew well, and sent out green shoots here and there in the garden that needed to be weeded out. I feared wisteria was too tender for Heath, but it is hardy and likes sending out new shoots from the roots. No flowers though, until  2007. Then it bloomed magnificently! I couldn’t stop going outside to admire it a dozen times a day. That winter was bitter and there was enormous winterkill.

No blooms in 2008 or 2009. It was only slowly recovering from the dieback. I didn’t have the shady, or that mysterious light in my living room.  In early April I looked at the tight brown buds that looked dead. I was sure they were dead. Nothing seemed to be happening. I threatened that if the wisteria didn’t show some good green growth I was going to cut it down.

And now look – I came home from my weekend in the Big City and all of a sudden the wisteria is covered with flower buds. They look odd at this point, but in another week or so I’ll have magnificent bloom.  Maybe this wisteria just needs regular threats.

Wisteria flower buds and leaf-lets

There is bloom everywhere – and plant lust is in bloom as well. There are plant sales this weekend at Nasami Nursery in Whately, and at Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway on Saturday and Sunday. Check their websites for full information.  The Massachusetts Horticultural Society is having its Annual Herb Sale on May 8 from 9 – 1 pm in Wellseley and on May 22 there is the MassHort and Society Row Plant Sale 9:00 AM – MHS Members Hour, 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM – General Public
The MassHort and Society Row Plant Sale features thousands of perennials, fifteen local plant societies, garden tours, plant demo stage and the Master Gardener Help Desk.

Friends of the Sunderland Library are having a Book and Plant Sale on Saturday, May 15 from 9-3 pm. Baked Goods too.  Mark your calendars. Lots of excellent plant sales.

Beautiful – but . . .

The skies are brilliant and the snow is pristine.

Krishna surveys the snow-filled Sunken Garden at dawn and wonders why there are no cows,  or milkmaids to thrill with his pipes.

But my thoughts have gone beyond snow, to sweet soil and seeds. I could not resist the display of Botanical Interest Seeds at the Farmer’s Coop in Greenfield yesterday. I will have my Castor Bean plant this year! And many colors of  morning glories and bush beans in the new vegetable patch I am planning. The mung beans will be sprouted before the next Winterfare farmer’s market in Greenfield on Feb. 6. The days are growing longer.

Whither My Wisteria

My wisteria 2006

My wisteria 2006

My wisteria has gone wild. Tendrils are twisting everywhere. New shoots are coming up everywhere. The wisteria’s genetic vitality has never been so vigorous. I am blaming it all on the cool and rainy summer.

            My history with this wisteria is long and varied. 

            During our first year in China we saw many beautiful wisterias with their graceful pendant flowers blooming everywhere from the long gorgeous pergola in Purple Bamboo Park, to humble trellises in dusty alleys, to delicate watercolor scrolls. When we got home I insisted that we plant a wisteria.

            I ordered a wisteria sinensis in the spring of 1990. The particular variety name is long gone. We did not plant it immediately because although we had built a piazza or patio right in front of the house, the planned arbor was not yet in place.

            I planted the wisteria in a large flower pot and tended it lovingly but the arbor was not completed until August which meant the proper planting was long delayed..          

         Unfortunately I had gotten it into my head that wisteria did not need good rich soil, so I did nothing to improve the soil.  Over the years the wisteria survived, but it did not thrive. Finally my husband gave it an ultimatum. It had to reach the top of the arbor by 2000 – or it was going to be ripped out.  We not only wanted the romance of the flowers and a souvenir our Chinese sojourn, we wanted shade over the piazza and we were not getting it.

            So it was that I learned I should always check any ideas ‘that had gotten into my head.’  In fact wisteria likes good well drained soil.  I also learned that it is a heavy drinker.  Like roses, wisteria welcomes lots of water, especially in the spring.  I started adding heaps of compost every spring, and watering heavily.  By the year 2000 it just started spreading over the top of the arbor.

            Though it finally thrived and covered the arbor beautifully giving us cooling shade outside – and inside – the house, it did not bloom. This was a disappointment, but I had been questioned by so many people about their non-blooming wisterias, and had seen the non-blooming wisteria on the Bridge of Flowers that I had pretty much resigned myself to having a non-bloomer.

            I did what I could, root pruning, fertilizing and watering, but to no avail until 2006.

             It bloomed and bloomed and filled the air with subtle fragrance. I felt as though I were living in a Chinese watercolor. I’d wander outside several times a day just to sit under it, or walk away to admire at it.  I was in heaven.

            That winter was a killer, almost literally.

            When spring came a huge percentage of the wisteria was dead. We pruned out what we could but the recovery has been slow.  Even in 2008 there was little foliage over the top of the arbor. Our lovely shade was gone. I had enjoyed it outside, and even inside where the quality of light was softened.

            This year we have had odd sporadic bloom, but I am happy to report that more half the arbor is covered and the vigorous growth continues.

            Because I was not aware of many wisterias growing in our area, and so many people complained about it not blooming, I assumed it was almost too tender for our harsh climate. I was wrong.  Wisterias are strong growers.  In the south they can be dangerously vigorous.  Even in Heath I am constantly cutting back runners that are sent out from the roots. 

            Because our arbor is so high it is difficult to prune properly, but we do make an annual climb up to keep shoots from slipping underneath our metal roof. A proper annual pruning will encourage good bloom.

            Wisterias can also be trained as standards by supporting a main vine to the desired height and then pruning it to keep that height.  Side shoots also need to be pruned away.  The vine will eventually be self-supporting and should bloom heavily.

            Specialty nurseries like Bloom River  (, Greer Gardens ( , and Rare Find Nursery  (, offer a wide range of wisteria varieties, all of which need full sun and fertile, well drained soil.

            Wisteria macrostachya ‘Blue Moon’ is very hardy (to –40 degrees) and is said to bloom two or even three times a year. It is a vigorous grower.

            For those who might prefer something less vigorous there is W. frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’ which grows much more slowly than Chinese and Japanese wisterias. It will bloom on new wood which means it will also bloom sporadically throughout the summer as well as in April and May. The controlled vigor makes it a good choice for smaller spaces.

            While my wisteria has occasionally fulfilled my fantasies, I am very aware that for some people a full belly is a fantasy.  I can help, and so can you. The Belly Bus food drive, sponsored by the Franklin County Hunger Task Force, through the joint efforts of the Franklin Area Survival Center, the Greenfield Salvation Army Chapel, the Franklin County Community Meals Program and Community Action’s Center for Self Reliance Food Pantry, will be collecting non-perishable food at the Greenfield town Common on Friday, August 14 from 3-5 pm.  The goal is to collect 6,000 pounds of food – and some cash too.  Bring your food contribution or a check ( or both) to the Common and help our neighbors who are struggling in these hard times.


August 8, 2009   Between the Rows