Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Blog

Here's my new blog: Cool Plants

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Perennial Road Trip

Every year or two, I like to take a "road trip", part business, part pleasure, to visit a horticultural destination or two somewhere in Ontario. We tend to think that the great little gardens, or the collectors of the truly rare and new plants, are elsewhere, i.e. Britain or Holland, but forget how much horticulture is right here in our own "backyard", and also how big this province and country is. For example, you could be an avid gardener in the Niagara region for years without knowing about Bruce's extensive Hosta collection at the Old Towne Garden in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In any case, while delivering some plants to the Toronto area last week, I took the opportunity to visit the newly renovated Toronto Botanical Garden. The new building itself was certainly impressive -- bright and modern, and yet beautiful and serene as well. I was particularly drawn to the water features, which complimented both the architecture and the gardens, providing those most desirable sights and sounds that only water can.

The gardens themselves were also magnificent. I particularly appreciated the significant use of new/newer varieties, and also the planting in large groups. One neat combination that caught by eye was this Salvia and Astrantia:

A neat plant that I've seen before, but not at its peak as it was here, is Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone':

Close to the main entrance was a magnificent stand of Gillenia trifoliata, commonly called Bowman's Root or Indian Physic. We tried to grow this plant for a few years with little luck.

I've always been a Penstemon, or Bearded Tongue fan, long ago attracted by those tubular flowers and the range of form and colour. Here is a beautiful grouping of our native (from Ontario and Quebec down to Tennessee and Wisconsin) P. hirsutus:

I also took the opportunity to visit Larry Davidson at his Lost Horizons Nursery, just outside of Acton, which IMHO is the destination in the province for rare and new plants, of both perennials and shrubs. It also has a tremendous garden to see many of these new/er plants in "action".

Here's Nectaroscordum siculum ssp. bulgaricum, an Allium (Onion) relative from SE Europe.

Here's Paeonia japonica, a wonderful woodland species from Japan:

Plan an horticultural road trip -- as they say, "It's worth the drive to Acton".



Monday, June 4, 2007

A Worthy Perennial II

Here's another perennial that I've simply grown to love over the last few years. Earlier, it had always been somewhat of an oddity, but upon planting one in an older trial garden we had years ago, and in my own garden since then, it has been reliable and impressive.

I'm speaking of Baptisia australis, or the False Blue Indigo, native of Northern Virginia to Western Pennsylvania, east to Missouri and Kansas and south to Georgia and Texas (although the USDA seems to indicate a much wider range, which see here).

Small plants planted in your garden will, within a couple of years, produce large, almost shrub-like plants, 90cm wide by 120cm tall (3' by 4'), covered with Lupine-like spikes of brilliant, indigo-blue flowers in late spring and early summer.

According to Allan Armitage, in his ever-so-useful treatise on herbaceous perennials, the flowers were once used as a subsitute for the true indigo, Indigofera of the West Indies. When the real thing was in short supply, the English government contracted farmers in Georgia and South Carolina in the mid 1700's to "farm" the lovely False Blue Indigo, or Baptisia australis, to produce more dye.

In any case, it's a beautiful and easy plant. I find it self-seeds, but isn't a problem. The seedheads in late summer make interesting "rattles" for young children, and likely useful as ornaments in dried flower arrangements.

Also of particular interest in recent years, is the renewed effort in Baptisia selection and breeding. One I am quite excited about is Baptisia TWILITE PRAIRIEBLUES, an interesting hybrid between B. autstralis × B. sphaerocarpa.

A cool article on the genus by plantsman Tony Avent is available here. He refers to them as the Redneck Lupine, and for all intensts and purposes, Baptisia is indeed a much better choice for the usual summer heat and humidity experienced throughout most of North America.



Monday, May 28, 2007

A Worthy Perennial I

It's always a pleasant surprise to come to a realization, after years in the horticulture industry, that "Hey, this plant is better than I thought." Or, in other words, discovering that a plant that has been around for a while (i.e. is not "new"), but is generally underused and/or under-appreciated.

Such, I'm finding this spring, is the case with Rodgersia (Rodger's Flower), a genus of about five species from China and Japan, named after U.S. navy commander Admiral John Rodgers. I had always considered this plant to be relegated to consistently moist, rich soil and therefore intolerant of "normal" garden conditions. However, after several years (including most summers consisting of extended periods of relative drought) in my garden, I'm beginning to believe otherwise. It has performed consistently and with a subtle beauty -- it is what most plants-people would describe as typically "ornamental" or "architechtural".

Here's a stand of what I believe to be R. pinnata 'Superba', although there is certainly some confusion amongst the taxonimists, likely due to the plants' propensity to hybridize.

Here it is again from a different angle, and a few weeks later in the season, providing a pleasant backdrop to Siberian Iris and a hardy Geranium.

There's many forms, including several new ones that may be of interest, but even the older forms, as above, are of significant use in the garden.

Here's to dirt under your nails.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Long Weekend

Well, the long weekend has finally arrived. Victoria Day here in Canada is tomorrow, and the U.S. will be observing Memorial Day in a weeks time. Although summer has not technically begun, it certainly feels like the first long weekend of the summer, and so for some it means a trip north to open the cottage. For most however, it is simply a time to relax with family and friends, have a BBQ, and possibly do some gardening. A small few in Canada will still take a moment to reflect upon the reign of Queen Victoria.

I will be pulling out some of those nasty weeds in my garden that I referred to last week. I also hope to plant a few things, possibly including an outstanding specimen of Arisaema sikokianum that was given to me as a gift from a friend a few weeks ago. Apparently it needs a spot in the shade garden with excellent drainage. I hope to return the favour with a Arisaema kishidai 'Jack Frost'.

It's also a traditional weekend to plant some of those frost-tender vegetables, primarily tomatoes, which I will probably attempt. Otherwise, after some work in the garden, it's probably time for a trip with the kids to "see the peacock" at the NPC's Botanical Gardens. One of my favourite specimens there is a beautiful Hosta montana 'Aureomarginata':

Also, a simply breathtaking Gentiana acaulis in their little alpine garden:



Monday, May 14, 2007


Weeds are unfortunately, whether we like or not, a reality in the garden. Our best hope as gardeners is to minimize them, as much as is possible enjoy the opportunity to pluck them out by their roots, and otherwise, live and let live.

The ultimate of course, at least in my mind, is the Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). I have to admit, I'm torn on the issue of spraying my lawn to get rid of this nasty weed, or just to leave them be. There's just something about them in a lawn (or in my garden) that drives me nuts!

I guess we could consider it's ornamental qualities: brilliant, golden-yellow flowers that contrast nicely with the dark foliage; interesting seed-heads are guaranteed to be a major attraction in any "children's garden"; drought tolerant and long-lived.

Of course, this plant of European origin has many herbal benefits. A very cool and useful site in this regard is Botanical.

One of the biggest pains with this weed is when it establishes itself within a clump of a perennial in your garden, as shown below in a Salvia. I have in the past, rather painstakingly, put on two pairs of gloves to battle this type of situation: one rubber pair, and then on top of that, an absorbant pair. I then dip one gloved hand in a pail of Round-Up and then ever so gently stroke the weed's leaves with my poison-laced fingers. This method is effective but time-consuming.

My weed identification is certainly lacking, but here's a few others from my garden this week. This Thistle below can be a pain to remove with a deep, crawling root system (it's as prickly as it looks as well).

The one here below is almost ornamental for it's broad leaves and the reddish strip down the middle. It too has a virtually indestructible tap root, and I've found it somewhat resistant to Round-Up as well.

My father said a weed was simply "a plant in the wrong place", and I've found that definition to be useful over the years. Consider Lily-of-the-Valley for instance, which in the right condition but wrong place, is indeed an aggressive weed. But otherwise, it can be a useful groundcover.

Finally, to a certain degree, gardening is an on-going battle against nature, as James Dyson, Chairman of Dyson said, in answering the question, "What is a garden for?", as printed in the October 2006 issue of The Garden: "In some senses it is the battle of gardening, or rather the playful fight, that I enjoy. Gardens are, after all, disobedient. They're in perpetual adolescence, ignoring your pleas for relative conformity, sulking in the shade, wrecking things while you're away for the weekend, or sprouting randomly."

Here's to that battle.


Monday, May 7, 2007

Three New Perennials

I've long had a significant interest in new perennials. Of course, it's a natural extension of my interest in perennials generally, but it's also a matter of some excitement, at least for me -- it's the "cutting edge" if you will, of the world or industry of perennials.

Heuchera trial garden at Terra Nova Nurseries, Oregon.

A new perennial, whether it be a recently discovered species from China, a new cultivar of a North American native plant, a variegated "sport", or a brand new hybrid plant from some breeder's painstaking efforts, offers hope in improved performance, interest in a unique or different colour or form, and simple awe and wonder in what taxonomists call the Plant Kingdom.

Range of colours in Heuchera foliage developed in recent years.

Of course, not every new perennial that has been introduced to the industry is a "better" or even a "good" plant. It's unfortunate, but demand for new perennials and competition amongst propagators, has indeed reduced some professional standards. Only more recently, with the advent of renewed testing and trialling, has some integrity returned.

One project in this regard that I'm involved with at the Epic Plant Company is our New Plant Trial, which begun in the summer of 2005. It is a special garden that consists of over 100 varieties of new perennials. After a period of some time and evaluation, several are removed and several are added each year. During our annual open house in June, members of the industry and then the public is invited to view the garden.

Three relatively new perennials that I feel have indeed proven their worth in regards to garden performance, and are excellent additions to almost every garden, are the following:

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'. I can remember seeing this plant for the first time, what may have even been the very first plant, during a tour of Walters Gardens several years ago. A single pot sat on a bench, and Mary Walters said after I noticed it, "Ah yes, good eye Mark, that's a new plant we discovered as a sport of the old variety 'Langtrees'. We hope to introduce it in a couple of years." And so indeed they did -- and I've loved it ever since. Not long afterwards, we planted several here in a shady garden amongst some White Pines, and they have performed admirably -- returning reliably each spring to produce a pleasant mound of wonderfuly silvery foliage, accompanied in the spring by loose clusters of tiny but brilliant blue flowers.

I've never noticed a sinlge pest or disease bothering this plant, and by late summer, after weeks of high heat and humidity, and occassional periods of drought, the near dinner-plate size leaves remain in excellent condition.

Another beauty that came out a few years ago and has since done well, is Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart', with the usual pink and white flowers, but accompanied on this version, by brilliant golden-yellow foliage. The emergence of this plant in spring is truly a sight to behold. It was developed by fellow-Canadians Nori and Sandra Pope while they were looking after the gardens at Hadspen House in Somerset, England. It has good vigour and wonderful colour.

Finally, one of my favourites from our trial garden last summer, is Gaillardia 'Oranges and Lemons'. It survived the previous winter nearly 100% (unlike 'Fanfare' for some reason), and flowered non-stop from June through October. A mid-summer cut-back to about half made little or no difference in performance, and ultimately didn't seem to be necessary. The plants in general maintained a pleasant habit all summer.

Here's to dirt under your nails.