Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s greetings from Plant Delights. We hope you’re having a great holiday season and are already anticipating the upcoming spring season. Much of the country has experienced an early blast of winter, unseen in some areas for decades. Much of the Pacific Northwest got blasted by both cold temperatures and snow, putting a quick end to the “zone denial” that has pervaded that area for decades. The winter storms didn’t stop there as they continued their march across the country, blasting the Midwest and then the Northeast.
Like Elvis, the 2009 Plant Delights catalog has left the building and is on the way to your mailbox. If you can’t wait, the updated website is also ready for your perusal. As always, the on-line catalog has nearly 1000 more items than can be found on the pages of the printed catalog…we hope you can find something to suit your needs. We’ve made a few changes this year due to customer suggestions, most notably a reduction in our minimum shipping charge as well as a reduction in the amount required for a minimum backorder from $35 to $20. For these changes to be economically viable and to remain permanent, they must result in more customers placing smaller orders…fingers crossed.
The writing and production of the catalog involves three all consuming months, so the great joy of completing the catalog is being able to get back into the garden and start reworking beds. Granted it is winter now, but that’s okay in our part of North Carolina. I actually prefer to rework beds in the winter because I can easily see the structure of the garden without the “clutter” of the plants that detract my eye in the growing season. I always advocated the idea that if your garden looks good in the winter, it will look good any other time of year. Unfortunately, most folks only garden for a particular season…most often spring, and the garden looks uninteresting during the remainder of the year.
For those unfamiliar with the gardens here at Juniper Level, all of our planting is done in beds. Each bed was initially prepared using compost so that the entire soil root zone is similar. This is preferable to the commonly used technique of planting in individual holes, which doesn’t take into account that the roots will ever grow outside of the prepared hole. In our renovations we focus on beds that are 10 years old, where we perform a nearly complete renovation by first removing all digable size plants. As a general rule, anything of a 2″ caliper or below is fair game to be dug. This means that deciduous, herbaceous plants must be well marked before they go dormant or they become very time consuming and difficult to locate in winter.
Twenty years ago when we began the gardens, we simply added compost to the mounds of soil and rototilled it in. What seemed like lots of compost 20 years ago turned out not to be nearly enough as the beds became established. Nowadays, we are fortunate enough to have equipment that allows us to mix our own garden/nursery generated compost together with native soil from our property, producing our own garden soil mix. To get enough native soil, we use a commonly established landscape architect technique of balancing cut and fill. In other words, if we want to make a raised bed, we have to construct an equal size sunken bed somewhere else in the garden. By blending our own mix of 40% soil and 60% compost, we create a mix that we can then add directly to our established beds. From fresh garden debris to finished compost mix usually takes us from 8-12 weeks. One of many things we learned decades ago is that old wives tales of not being able to fill around established trees is just that…an old wives tale. The key is to use a well-drained, microbially active soil mix. If you visit during one of our open house days, we’ll be glad to show you trees that have been filled around for more than a decade. These renovations allow us to enrich the soil as well as change the terrain and form of the beds. We have developed a real fondness for raised, sculpted beds which allow us to not only grow more plants (think Pythagorean theorem), but make the plants more visible. Have you ever noticed that some plants in your garden don’t seem to get noticed? Sometimes it’s simply a matter of how they are arranged in relation to each other, sort of like products on a grocery store shelf. Arranging plants in a garden is a bit like painting a picture. You must be conscious of how you use colors, textures, and forms…either by repetition or contrast. No doubt you’ve had some plants that got larger than expected, while others got crowded out by more aggressive neighbors. The renovation process allows these mistakes to be corrected while allowing underperforming plants to be moved around, hopefully to a place that they will grow better.
By spending virtually every winter weekend in the garden, I get to see up close which plants still look great in the winter. Now, those of you in the northern hinterlands, don’t expect me to talk about plants this time of year that will thrive in Zones 4 and 5…first, there are many evergreen perennials for your zones, and any hardy plants would be under snow anyway, so just skip this section unless you have a winter home in the south.
Here at PDN, we had our early blast of winter when we dropped to 17 degrees F on November 21. While it’s impossible to see damage on many plants for quite a while, agaves show damage soon after it happens. Weather too cold for a specific agave results in the leaves turning soft and mushy, while the fragrance of decaying plant flesh fills the air. Agave leaf spotting from cold moisture, on the other hand, may take several weeks to show up. Of the new agaves we were trialing, Agave inadequidens bit the dust along with Agave dasylirioides. Agave ‘Weirdo’, an A. bracteosa hybrid that we had high hopes for, doesn’t look like it will make it either. Plants that we expected to be damaged but were untouched, include Agave atrovirens var. mirabilis, A. durangensis, A. potrerana, A. applanata, A. shrevei, A. schidigera ‘Shiro ito no Ohi’, and the hybrids A. ‘Blue Glow’, and xMangave ‘Bloodspot’.
I talked last month about the wonderful Ruscaceae family members, danae and ruscus, which still look great with their bright red or orange Christmas berries as we reach the first of the year. Along with the arums that I also mentioned last month, these two are a great start for winter interest perennials. Other plants that are also wonderful in the winter garden include the aspidistras or cast iron plants. Aspidistras aren’t held in high regard by folks in the deep south, because they are so common there. But, as we like to say, these aren’t your grandma’s cast iron plants, as the range of available species and cultivars are increasing exponentially. Most aspidistra species are fine down to 0 degrees F, which makes them great garden plants from Zone 7b south, and great house plants for those of you in the northern zones. Even in our garden, aspidistras blend into the background during the growing season, only showing their true structural garden value in the dead of winter. Not only are aspidistras great in the garden, but their foliage is fabulous when included in Christmas wreaths or indoor holiday arrangements.
Another superb winter interest plants are the adult ivies. Thanks to the tireless work of Richard Davis, we are able to offer a number of superb cultivars. Every time I mention adult ivy, people shake their heads or launch into a diatribe about how they hate ivy. Once I get them calmed down, I get to explain about why these plants are so valuable to the landscape. When regular ivy grows up a wall or tree, the leaves become larger each year that the plant climbs. After a decade or so, the plant undergoes a horticultural puberty and switches from being a juvenile to an adult. This includes gaining the ability to have sex and reproduce, while losing the ability to run around. In other words, ivy becomes a shrub growing atop a vine. By taking cuttings from the shrub-like top of the ivy…assuming you can reach it, the resulting plant will act as a shrub instead of a vine. Some of our oldest adult ivies are over a decade old, resulting in 4′ tall x 4′ wide evergreen shrubs. There is a rare occasion that some adult cultivars will throw a juvenile running shoot, but we have found this to be quite rare and nothing a quick snip won’t cure. Just like the juvenile ivies, they come in an array of leaf patterns. Despite their prolific flowering in fall and attractive seed heads in winter, we have seen very little reseeding…less than a dozen plants in 15 years. In some parts of the country, such as the Pacific Northwest, ivies invade natural areas and should never be planted there.
Although not often thought of as winter interest plants, there are few that stand out more in the winter garden than the hardy palms. Palms are completely misunderstood, as evidenced several years ago with a less-enlightened supervisor for the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department who issued an edict that no more palms could be planted in the city parks. It seems the supervisor didn’t find them regionally appropriate, not realizing that two species used (Sabal minor and Sabal palmetto) were both NC natives with S. minor historically occurring within an hour of Raleigh, and Rhapidophyllum hystrix (needle palms) being native to South Carolina. Palms are commonly grown in more tropical climates and are underappreciated for their winter interest, since in the tropics, few plants grown around them ever go dormant. In our temperate climate, they really stand out in the winter since so much else hibernates in the winter months. The best genera of palms for temperate climates include rhapidophyllum (needle palm), sabal (palmetto palm), chamaerops (fan palm), and trachycarpus (windmill palm).
Other great winter evergreens include the wonderful disporopsis. These evergreen Solomon’s Seals really stand out now, making wonderful 1′ tall x 2′ wide patches in the winter garden. They will get burned a bit if the temperatures drop below 0 degrees F, but until then, they look great.
Another winter favorite is the wealth of coral bells (heuchera). Since they look great all season, some folks forget that they are evergreen and can be used to great effect to brighten the winter garden. I love all the purple leaf forms that grow here, but am particularly entranced with the gold foliage cultivars, especially H. ‘Citronelle’.
While there are a number of evergreen ferns, not all remain attractively evergreen in the winter. Those that do include Dryopteris erythrosora (autumn fern), Dryopteris formosana (Formosan wood fern), Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern), Polystichum tsus-simense (Korean Rock Fern), Pyrrosia (felt fern), and Arachniodes standishii (upside down Fern)
Last, but not least is Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose. There are many different forms, some flowering in early winter, while many of ours are in full flower now. Their large pure white flowers are simply wonderful additions to the winter garden. H. niger prefers a rich, organic soil, but one that doesn’t stay too moist in the summer months.
I hope those of you who qualify as plant nerds are subscribers to The Plantsman magazine. This UK Royal Horticultural Society publication is head and shoulders above all other publications of which I am familiar when it comes to detailed plant information. That being said, it’s not a publication for the average backyard gardener. Editor Mike Grant does a superb job soliciting articles from experts around the world. I’m one of those people who rip articles from magazines and file them according to subject. I was particularly amazed that there were so many great articles in the September issue that I removed virtually the entire magazine and filed it. One great example was a wonderfully detailed article on Musa basjoo, explaining why it is really not native to Japan, but is instead from Sichuan, China. You can find out more and purchase your subscription on their website.
If you’re looking to sneak out of the house and get a plant fix, consider coming to the North American Rock Garden Society’s Eastern Winter Study Weekend, January 30-February 2 in Reston, VA…just outside of the nation’s Capital. These meetings are always great, but this year’s speaker lineup is quite impressive…despite the fact that your’s truly is included. Please check out the link below and I hope to see you there.
In the world of gardening, I’m sad to report that the father of NC garden designer Edith Eddleman has passed away after an extended illness. Edith took leave of her Durham home and garden six years ago to return to Charlotte, NC to take care of her elderly parents. Her mom passed away a few years ago, and her father last month. The bright spot is that Edith has begun the process of packing up and moving back to her well-known Durham garden. I know lots of us look forward to seeing Edith back in the gardening world and on the speaker circuit.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned that Dr. Kim Tripp had resigned her post as Director of the NY Botanic Garden to switch careers and start medical school in Maine. Lots of folks had asked about Kim, so I was delighted to hear from her last week for the first time since she left NYBG as she wraps up her school work and prepares to start her first internship. We wish Kim the best of luck as she continues down her new life’s path.
I also mentioned last year that Mark and Louisa of Messenbrinks Nursery had closed down their business, both the wholesale side and their retail store at the NC Farmers Market. I thought that those of you who knew Mark and Louisa would like an update on their whereabouts. They have moved from their farm in the country to a house in the town of Nashville, NC. Louisa is an elementary school art teacher, with a sideline of selling herbs at the Rocky Mount Farmers Market, while Mark has started a new business, The Macho Taco, a Mexican food vending business…see link below. I’m glad to hear that we haven’t completely lost them from the gardening world.
Other news comes from the world of NPR, where gardening doyenne, Ketzel Levine has been a victim of the wave of layoffs at NPR. I’m sure many of you remember Ketzel from her days in Maryland, before she headed to her current digs on the West Coast. I’m sure Ketzel will find enough projects to keep her busy and we wish her the best of luck. You can read more about her plans on her blog.
After 137 years, the New England Flower Show is no more. Plagued by directorship problems (3 fired directors in the last 6 years) and board oversight incompetence, the Massachusetts Hort Society awoke to suddenly realize they were once again deeply in debt and nearly bankrupt. The once-proud society has fired 18 of its 30 employees, including the Flower Show director. As one of many speakers who still have not been paid or reimbursed by the society for talks at the 2008 show, we are not amused. At least not until I received the letter from the society asking everyone who is owed money to consider the debt as a contribution to the society…now that’s funnier than anything I’ve seen on the Comedy Channel. This is the first time in 30 years I’ve been stiffed for an honorarium…shame on Mass Hort! This is the most recent debacle in a series of comical financial mismanagement problems, including the famed 2002 debacle when the society was forced to sell $5.25 million dollars of selections from their rare book collection just to pay bills. Perhaps they should get in line with everyone else for a government bailout.
We are also sad to report the passing (November 16) of lily guru, Edward Austin McRae at age 76. Ed was born in Scotland, but in 1961 went to work for Oregon Bulb Farm in Oregon, where he hybridized lilies for a quarter century. In 1988, he moved to Van der Salm Bulb Farms in Washington where he continued his hybridizing work until he retired in 1995. After retirement, he founded the Oregon based Species Lily Preservation Group, wrote numerous articles and his wonderful book, Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors. McRae’s former wife Judith still breeds lilies for her company, the Lily Nook.
Finally, congratulations to Brian James of Elizabeth City, NC for having the best score in correctly guessing the Top 25 Best sellers for 2008. He wins a $250 gift certificate. For the year, six agaves made the top list along with three colocasias. Salvias, with two entries were the only other genera to be represented by more than one in the Top 30. We hope you’ll try to predict our Top 25 for 2009. You have until Feb 15 to submit your entry for the $250 gift certificate which will be awarded at the end of 2009.
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Thanks and enjoy