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Hypertufa Trough – You Could Make Your Own

Troughs at Smith College

Hypertufa is a concrete and peat moss mixture used to make garden troughs and ornaments.  Hypertufa troughs are often used for succulent or alpine plant collections and can be a charming and useful element in the garden. You can make your own. I am not sure how Smith College made their troughs, but hypertufa is a great DYI project.

Not being very adventurous in the craft area I am happy that the Bridge of Flowers committee has organized a hypertufa workshop scheduled for Saturday, April 14 from 1-4 pm at the Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls.  Here is the description of the workshop:

The Bridge of Flowers is offering a hypertufa workshop at the Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls  on Saturday, April 14, from 1-4 pm  led by Carol Lively. Participants will make two small hypertufa planting containers, one for themselves, and one for the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale. The cost of $20 covers the cost of materials which will all be provided. There is no other cost. Participants should bring a cardboard box or other item to use as a mold for their container.

Hypertufa is a mixture of Portland concrete, peat moss, vermiculite and sand. Carol Lively will help participants shape a container using a box, or other container desired as a mold. The container will then need to cure and dry for four weeks or so before being used.  Participants should wear old clothes, and bring heavy duty rubber gloves, the mold of your choice, a board to hold the container while it dries and a black plastic garbage bag.. To information or to sign up for the  workshop call Pat Leuchtman 413-337-4316. Your garden and the Bridge of Flowers will both benefit.

Let me know if you have any questions. This is a great opportunity for you and your own garden – and to help support the Bridge of Flowers.

Another Smith College trough

I Become a Judge at the Boston Flower Show

Boston Flower Show and Blooms!

Spring was in full bloom inside the Seaport World Trade Center where the Boston Flower Show and BLOOMS! featured display gardens with reflecting pools, landscapes fit for a hobbit, Japanese maples, fountains, school gardens with veggies and flowers, as well as rooms filled with specimen plants and flower arrangements awaiting the intense gazes of the judges.

This year I was not attending the flower show merely as an admirer, but as a volunteer judge. Earlier this spring I was invited to join the judging panels by Libby Moor of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. While I was happy to accept I warned her I had no training. She seemed to be satisfied that on-the-job training would be sufficient so I looked forward to enjoying the whole event from a whole new perspective.

I met the two other members of my group, the elegant Jocelyn Sherman who was a trained and official judge, and Rick Peckham who was good humored and incredibly knowledgeable, understandably enough because he is the fifth generation to operate Peckham’s Nursery in Rhode Island.

It was quickly apparent that judging is all about details. We were to judge entries all grown by amateur gardeners. Our first category was hanging plants, separated into groups, those grown under lights, in the window or in a greenhouse. The conditions are considered to be sufficiently different to impact the growth  patterns. There were also categories of hanging plants: flowering; foliage; or ferns.

We began by looking over all the plants in a general way and then hunkered down to attend to detail. I was instructed to look at the shape of the plant – was it balanced? Was it leggy? Was it healthy? Was there insect, disease or sun damage? Was it well groomed with all dead leaves, stems and flowers removed? Was it mature, or a young plant? Was it rare or common? Was it hard to grow?

In one category we gave a blue ribbon to a beautiful Swedish ivy. This is obviously not a rare plant, but the condition of the plant, its balanced form, health and good grooming, trumped slightly more uncommon plants.

Halfway through the judging my colleagues gave me a plant to judge all by myself as a test to see if I was catching on. I passed! Thank heaven! I did notice the lopsidedness of the plant with most of the foliage on one side, damage to leaves, and bits of leaves on the soil.

In one category we gave a blue ribbon to a mature rattail cactus. Again this was not extraordinarily rare, but its maturity and health were the winning traits.

Rattail Cactus

Later, while on another panel with two other judges, Jane Cary and Sandi Joyce,  I went around the room full of entries by individuals: hanging plants, begonias, succulents, and terrariums and more. There were foliage plants and flowering plants, all beautiful. I joined these two in choosing candidates for the Cruso Award which is designed to honor the outstanding effort of an individual. Then I remained silent as we narrowed down our deliberations while my two new colleagues conferred and agreed that the same rattail cactus we had chosen for a blue ribbon, was also worthy of the Cruso Award.

After attending to the hanging plants, my colleagues and I went to the four Small Bay Window Displays. Again, we looked the four large displays over in a general way, and then concentrated on each individually. Three of these windows contained between 20 and 40 plants and it was our job to evaluate each individual plant as well the whole. In this category we had to use a point system. Sherman and Peckham said to look at each judging criteria and remove points for problems.

I already knew from watching judges at the Heath Fair that consistency is a vital component in judging. We had to take off a couple of points in one display because not all the pots were plain terra cotta, and some of the pedestals were wood, some were upended pots.

We gave one display created (we later found out) by the Cactus and Succulent Society the full 100 points. Our immediate reaction (all three of us) was Wow! This was a fabulous collection of healthy plants beautifully arranged. We could not find a single thing to quibble about in any of the 30 or so plants or their arrangement. When we had recovered ourselves sufficiently we read the Statement of Intent. The intent of the creators of this display was to have viewers say Wow! Never was an intent so fully achieved. We gave this display a Blue Ribbon and the Advisor’s Award for excellence in this class.

When I checked back at this display of succulents before I left I saw that it had also won the National Garden Clubs Medal and the Garden Club of America Certificate of Excellence in Horticulture.

However, no matter how picky we got, the other three bay window exhibits also got more than 90 points. In this category if a display gets more than 90 points, it gets a blue ribbon. Four blue ribbons! Wow!

Visitors to our own gardens don’t come armed with blue ribbons or medals, but we all feel great satisfaction if they give us an occasional wow. Or maybe an admiring sigh. Still the greatest satisfaction and pleasure I get is working in the garden, kneeling to examine the details of each unique plant, reveling in its own particular beauty.

Reflecting Pool and Boston Flower Show

Between the Rows   March 17, 2012

My Container Garden of Succulents is Growing

Container garden of succulents

Seven weeks ago I gave myself an early Christmas present – a bowl in a classic shape (actually a sort of plastic flower pot) and four succulent plants. I had been inspired by reading Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin which I had reviewed in this column earlier in December. I am not terribly good at caring for houseplants except for the succulents: a jade tree, an enormous orchid cactus, and Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus I had kept going for years. I was ready to try my hand at planting an interesting container with a variety of succulents.

The term succulent encompasses a whole variety of plants, from those I was familiar with like crassula (jade tree), aloes, sedums, and echeverias as well as a few I knew by their common name like string of pearls ((Senecio rowleyanus) and hen and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum). Dozen of other varieties and hundreds of cultivars are available – but not locally in December.

I was able to find a small selection of succulents at the Hadley Garden Center and chose four that have very different forms. Design is not my forte. Debra Lee Baldwin can design ka pot decorated with vertical white lines that “repeat the ribbing” of the Parodia scopa while the pebbley topdressing  “mirrors the brown in the pot and in the (plant) buds,” but that level of design is beyond me. At last so far.

By choosing a burro’s tail sedum, an echeveria with ruffled foliage, a spiky variegated haworthia in dark green with white dots in horizontal stripes (very fancy botanical terminology there), and a taller spiky aloe with toothed edges, I thought I was at least getting a variety of form.

The container I chose has a water reservoir which I decided could also serve the purpose of a drain. Succulents do not like to be kept wet. I also bought a bag of cactus potting soil suitable for succulents.

When I unpotted my little succulents I was surprised to see how potbound the roots were. However, I have found that this does not bother the plant’s health or development. I partially filled my container with potting soil and then put in my four new plants filling in between them with more potting soil. Baldwin, and our local container design genius Gloria Pacosa, frequently make the point that a container should be really stuffed with plants. I wasn’t sure that these four were really stuffed, but they were all I had. I also kept thinking that they had room to send out little baby succulents.

Their propensity to multiply is one of the joys of succulents. They are not only easy to grow, many of them quickly produce babies. Anyone who has ever planted a hen and chicks knows this. Those babies can be allowed to form big clumps, or they can gently be teased away from the mother plant, and set in soil where they will promptly start their own family.

Baldwin often finishes off her container planting with what she calls a topdressing, a decorative final touch. She has used colored crushed glass, black gravel, and pink crushed rock. Gloria Pacosa likes to finish off her containers with moss that she has harvested and kept for the purpose. I spent part of my childhood living with my family on my uncle’s Vermont farm on the shore of Lake Champlain. Now when I visit cousins there I always take home a bag of the smooth gray stones from the lake’s edge. I decided to use some of the smallest of these gray stones as my top dressing.

I watered my container and set it in the sun. My gift to myself was completed and I was a happy woman.

I wrote about the project, illustrated with not very good photographs, on my commonweeder blog. A couple of days later I was surprised to get an email from Debra Lee Baldwin herself. I think writers troll the Internet regularly to see if their books are getting any mentions. She found the commonweeder and the story of my succulent container. She is a very polite person and said I did a fine arrangement. She especially liked the smooth little stones I used as a topdressing because they carried affectionate family memories.

Then she asked to buy my book, The Roses at the End of the Road, inscribe it and mail it to a good friend and former California neighbor who had moved to western Massachusetts. Well, her friend turned out to be my friend Maureen Moore, who I was planning to meet in Shelburne Falls that very day! I hand delivered the book and now I consider us a friendship circle of three.

My succulent container moved all around the house during the Christmas holidays, sometimes in barely heated rooms and sometimes in our main living space which can get very warm. It has been easy to keep it in the sun where succulents are the happiest.

When I prepared it for its photo session today I saw the burro’s tail sedum is showing signs of growth, but it will be a while before the tails drape gracefully over the edge of the bowl.  I’ll keep you posted about further developments.

I welcome your stories about succulents you have grown and how you have handled them. You can send snail mail to me at 43 Knott Road, Charlemont, MA 01339 (Heath has no mail delivery) or email me at commonweeder@gmail. I look forward to hearing from you.

Between the Rows  February 4, 2012

I posted about planting this container here.

Foliage Follow Up – January 2012

Orchid cactus

I rarely participate in Foliage Follow-up, but Pam Penick at Digging has prompted me to take a good look at the foliage around me at this time of the year.

I have owned this orchid cactus (Epiphyllum) for a number of years. I pay almost no attention to it which is shameful, because it would bloom regularly and magnificently if I did. You can see I don’t even give it the pedestal it deserves. For the past year it has lived in a bright rarely heated guest room where it seems happy even if it doesn’t bloom.

I am making a new year’s resolution to prune it back and repot it in the spring.  I think I will go upstairs and prune it this very morning.

I do have other succulents. Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus which are among the easiest plants to grow.  They even tell you when they need watering. Before any serious damage is done to the plant the succulent ‘leaves’ will begin to shrivel slightly and feel limp. It just takes regular watering to bring it back into fine fettle.

Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii

This particular Christmas cactus lives in my bedroom, right next to a plump jade tree.

Jade tree, Cassula ovata

This jade tree is over 20 years old. My daughter cared for it during the two separate years we were living in China. She is as reluctant to prune as I am, and it grew so much more heavily on one side that the plant was leaning so dangerously that she propped up the stem with a small flower pot.  I finally did prune it  so that it was not only more attractive, but safer in its pot. Then a couple of years ago I left it right next to a north window in our unheated Great Room for the winter and I thought I had killed it for sure. It never got watered and became shrivelled and frozen, but I resurrected it in the spring when I gave it a radical pruning and watered it on a regular schedule. The leaves are now fat and healthy, if a bit dusty.

This citrus scented geranium is another plant I have had for several years. Still full of life, but another plant that is in serious need of pruning and repotting. Next month. I promise. I will also be able to take cuttings and start raising another generation.

Scented geranium roseScented geranium foliage takes many different forms. Check the online catalogs like Hobbs Farm and Logee’s Greenhouse to see the full range. Scented geraniums do produce small flowers, but it is the scented foliage that is the appeal.

Prostrate rosemary

This prostrate rosemary did beautifully in its pot out on the entry walk all summer where it is hot and sunny. I brought it in and put in in the south window of the unheated Great Room which did go down below freezing yesterday, but it still looks fine. Unlike my upright rosemary which got nipped by cold in the Great Room earlier in the season and which I am trying to revive in a warmer, but still cool, room.

This is what foliage looks like outdoors this morning. I am glad for the snow cover before temperatures plummeted. Four degrees above zero this morning.

Pam, thank you so much for Foliage Follow-Up.


Bloom Day, January 2012

This Bloom Day is the coldest day of the winter so far. -4 degrees at 7 am. Still I have a few blooms to enjoy. This Christmas cactus is becoming quite magnificent and sits in the corner of our bedroom where it is one of  the first things I see when I wake up.

We are still a little disorganized from the nearly completed work on our kitchen so this Christmas cactus is sitting it out in the Sitting Room which is on a separate heating zone and very cool.  The small white cyclamen behind it that I bought for Christmas is really enjoying the cool temperatures.

The real surprise is this fuschia. I bought it in the spring and planted it along with a colcasia (elephant’s ear). I was potting them up in my new potting shed when I knocked a bag of perlite on top of the fuschia and broke off the main stem. I was so annoyed with myself, but planted what was left anyway. It took at least half the summer but new shoots appeared and finally in the fall it produced these blossoms. We had a long mild fall but finally I brought the pot in, minus the colocasia which had not done very well because I think our hilltop is just too cool. The fuscia continue to bloom in our unheated Great Room where it gets lots of sun, but very cool. This morning it is just about 32 degrees and the heat has automatically come on. The fuschia has been our great winter surprise.

For more blooms around the country visit clever Carol who thought up this great idea at May Dreams Gardens.

The view outside this morning

Bloom Day – December 2010

It isn’t quite Christmas so it is no surprise that the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is mostly fat pink buds. As usual my angelwing begonia has a very few pink blossoms. Along with my dependable and ever blooming abutilon these plants are now in our bedroom in the beneath the west window, but very near the south window. This room is very bright during the day, and very cool at night. We had to move plants from the guest room because we have been trying to fix a leak in the dormer roof for months.  We removed the moldy plasterboard and the wet insulation giving us a view of wooden slats and the metal roof that is sometimes icy these days, even on our side of the roof.  The roof only leaks when it rains hard and the wind comes from a certain direction so we cannot finish the interior until we are absolutley  certain we have made a good repair and we are not. Absolutely certain. So the room is really too cold for plants and we keep that door closed.

My Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)  is a very Christmasy color and it is still giving us quite a show.  You can see the little ‘barbs’ on the foliage that give this cactus its common name, Crab cactus.

As I said the abutilon, or parlor maple, is always blooming. It is a dependable plant as the holiday cactuses. Cacti?

Even though I do not have many flowers blooming in my house right now, it is the season for friendships and good will to bloom throughout the family and the community with Tuba Christmases, Moonlight Magics, Nutcrackers and carolling. And latkes. I never like to forget the latkes.   The seeds for some new friendships were sown this summer when I met 70 other garden bloggers in Buffalo, including the wise and funny Carol of May Dreams Gardens who hosts this Bloom Day. Please visit and see what else is in bloom around the country.

And for the friends of this blog you have a chance to win a great book about perennial blooms if you click here and leave a comment.