May 27, 2012

Finding the Quality Niche

Let us begin with a statement of fact and a question.  The statement of fact is this:  the suburbs of Boston positively groan with garden centers.  Moreover, a handful of these establishments – Weston Nurseries, Briggs, and Russell’s Garden Center come immediately to mind – are one-stop sources for high-quality annuals and perennials as well as for superb trees and shrubs.  The area is also chockablock with specialty sellers of unusual plants and especially of hard-to-find perennials.  Tranquil Lake Nursery in Rehoboth, Blanchette Garden and Seawright Garden, both in Carlisle, fit this description.  Betty and I are on a first-name basis with the staff at several of those businesses because of the frequency and volume of our purchases.

So, here’s the question:  with all that quality plant material available locally, why on earth would we drive 167 miles round trip just to buy annuals?

To answer that question, you have to visit Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, Massachusetts, and see for yourself.  We usually make two trips a year; one around May 1 and another at the end of the month.  The purpose: to find a selection of ‘wow’ plants to go into container gardens and our perennial beds.

During the month of May, Betty did four container gardening demonstrations for garden clubs in eastern Massachusetts (she has one more scheduled in June).  Each program calls for Betty to put together five very different containers.  So, that’s 25 containers right there.  Beginning in early May and continuing through mid-June, she puts together the containers that grace our own property.  Last year, those numbered around 60 with at least half being made up of annuals. (The balance are shrubs, succulents or trees.)

An acre of annuals under one roof
How many plants per container?  Let’s say an average of five different cultivars (in the oversimplified world of P. Allan Smith, “a thriller, a spiller and a filler”) and, often, multiples of the same cultivar to provide instant appeal.  Call it ten plants.  (Betty was required to submit receipts for one group; the five containers required a total of 47 plants, including a window box that took 13.)

So, we’re talking about a lot of annuals.  At ten per container, Betty will purchase 250 plants, mostly annuals, for her programs.  For the roughly 30 annual/perennial pots on our property, that’s another 250 to 275 plants (many of the perennials get wintered over in our garage and go on to grace containers for multiple years).  That’s a minimum of 500 annuals each year.

Betty fills a double cart with plants
This year, Betty’s schedule was especially hectic in late April and May, and a half-day to devote to a trip to Andrew’s was not in the cards.  So, the four May garden club programs used plants sourced locally.  But on Thursday of last week, we finally had a full-day hole in our schedule and so off we went.

Rather than potting up from plugs, Andrew’s grows from seed in half a dozen hoop greenhouses.  But Amherst is solidly in Zone 5B and Andrew’s takes the idea of ‘late season frosts’ very seriously.  When plants are of saleable size – and only when they’re at that size - they’re moved to an acre-sized retail greenhouse.  Cold-tolerant perennials are housed on dozens of outdoor stands.  There are no frost-tipped plants to be wary of.

Shade-loving perennials have their
own light-filtered area
But the true appeal of Andrew’s lies in two critical areas. First, Andrew’s offers uncommon annuals.  Do you want a nemesia ‘Sunsatia Cranberry’?  It’s a new introduction and Betty found it at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland.  But how about a fragrant nemesia with a glorious scent that catches your attention long before you see the flower?  You find that at Andrew’s, where it’s available in three colors.  Or, how about calibrachoa ‘Superbells Yellow’?  Weston Nurseries had that one and it wowed the Community Garden Club of Duxbury.  Last Thursday, Betty spotted a calibrachoa – a plant with small, petunia-like flowers that just keeps flowering from May until frost – with a double ruffle.  She bought four of them.

The second distinction lies in the plant descriptions.  Andrew’s sends out a very good catalog every January and it lists what the nursery expects to be able to offer for annuals and perennials.  And those descriptions go beyond what 95% of garden centers provide.  For example, here’s their entry for Ipomoea: IPOMOEA (Sweet Potato Vine) A varied genus which includes the Morning Glory (See Annual Vines), Cypress Vine (See Annual Vines), as well as the popular “Sweet Potato Vines”, which are not known for their flowers, but loved for their foliage.

That’s a good basic description, but drill down to some of the nine varieties being offered: 'Illusion garnet lace' [NEW] If you love sweet potato vines, but find them a bit imposing in your containers, then you are in luck with the Illusion series. They are specially bred to be very compact, dense and lacy. Garnet lace has an unexpected coloration of purple red with a mixture of light green as the new growth appears. Pairs nicely with petunias or calibrachoas for a knockout combination. 6-10".

'Cardinal Climber' wasn't in the
catalog, but we found a full
description of it.  (Double-click
to see at full size)
When you get to Andrew’s, you find things that aren’t in the catalog, like the Ipomoea ‘Cardinal Climber’ described in detail at left.  You get everything you need to make a decision and, if you still have questions, the staff knows their plants very well.  We brought ‘Cardinal Climber’ home on a whim.

If you’re looking for ageratum and marigolds, go to Home Depot. If you’re looking for Thai basil or Brandy Boy tomatoes, Andrew’s has them.  In short, Andrew’s has found a niche and I hope is both a successful and a lucrative one.  We’ve been going there long enough that we’ve forgotten how we first heard of the place.  But I can recommend it without reservation.

May 21, 2012

Overnight Sensation

The shrub bed, otherwise known as 'Long Island' on May 21, 2012

The shrub bed at the front of our property was our first ‘big’ project.  It was a broad expanse of grass in 1999 – twenty feet deep and more than a hundred feet in length, with a small copse of trees for a backdrop.  We decided that shrubs – with different color and textures – would make a more attractive impression from the street.

Using a rototiller, we began turning over the soil and quickly found that the builder had placed an inch or two of loam over what can only be described as ‘crud’ – dirt with no organics to speak of and rocks of every size.  Over the course of a year of often back-breaking work, we created soil and built a very impressive stone fence from the rocks we excavated.

The shrub bed – formally known as Long Island because its shape – is now mature and low-maintenance.  We removed a Norway maple (see ‘Adjo, Acer Plantanoides’) three years ago which brought increased light into the site.  Each spring, we add a fresh inch of mulch, we keep shrubs in shape through aggressive trimming, and then we sit back and enjoy the results.

Wigela 'Wine and Roses'
We see the first blooms in February when a witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) produces its pale yellow flowers, and a spirea ‘Ogon Mellow Yellow’ puts of a burst of white flowers at the end of March, but the real explosion comes at the end of May.  This weekend, the bed was in its full glory.

Cotinus coggyria
There are three wigelas, one of them a ‘Pink Princess’ that dates to 1999, and two more recently planted ‘Wine and Roses’.  All three are blooming brightly.  Another original tenant, a smokebush (Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’) is in full regalia.  A third old-timer, Calycanthus (Carolina sweetshrub or spicebush), produces a long-lasting but subdued cinnamon-colored flower that is also lightly scented. 

Physocarpus opulifolius 'Dart's Gold'
in full bloom
There are two devil’s ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) in the bed, a ‘Dart’s Gold’ as well as its more familiar, dark-leafed ‘Diabolo’.  Dart’s Gold is currently dazzling with flowers that look white from a distance but are specked with yellow and red on closer inspection.  Nearby, a new Enkianthus campanulatus has finally established itself after a rough start (a summer drought and hungry deer) and has produced a terrific clutch of yellow and pink bell-like flowers.

Potentilla 'Abbotswood' and Duetzia
gracilis 'Nana' in bloom
Two adjacent shrubs are flowering white.  A Potentilla ‘Abbotswood’ has sent out sprays of showy, rose-like blooms with yellow centers.  Next to it, Duetzia gracilis ‘Nana’ has double white blooms against dark green foliage.  Both are low-growing but stunning.

Scotch broom with the rock wall
as backdrop
Finally, a Cytisis scoparius, better known as Scotch broom, is making its presence known.  The shrub was there when we bought the house, lurking at the edge of the woods.  It was ungainly and bloomed an unpleasant shade of yellow and so we cut it to the ground, expecting it to die.  To add insult to (fatal) injury, we built the stone wall on top of the stump.  Two years later, an amazing transformation happened:  the broom came back, but bearing entirely new flowers.  Because we didn’t plant it, we can’t say what it is exactly, but it looks like Cytisis ‘Lena’.  The bloom is prolific but brief.

May 10, 2012

Lookin' Out My Front Door

(Update:  On May 28, the three robin nestlings turned into fledglings.  As robins do not return to a nest, we have the use of both our library and the inner sidewalk bed again.)

For the past two weeks, I've been unable to use my library.  The problem is that a robin has built a best in the thuja occidentalis just outside, and everytime I open the door to the library, it spooks the robin sitting on three eggs.  I do not know how robins choose their nesting sites but a western red cedar right up against a house seems like a reasonable choice.  The nest is on the 'house' side of the tree and the foliage is quite thick.  But the nest is just four feet off the ground and the thuja rises more than 15 feet at this point.

Our piers andromeda with its new
pinot noir-colored foliage.  Behind it
is the pink rhododendron that just
bloomed this week.
Just outside another of the library's windows is a beautiful sight:  a pieris (andromeda) in its spring glory.  We planted the pieris a decade ago because it's an ideal foundation shrub for New England.  It's an evergreen and keeps its white canticles well into winter.  Our specific cultivar has lightly speckled leaves that give it added visual interest.  But the real payoff is in April when it produces new foliage: a red the color of a pinot noir.  That red will linger into mid-May when the leaves begin to turn green.

Looking left, four
dependable foundation
shrubs: ilex, pieris and
Just in front of the pieris is a rhododendron that burst into bloom just this week.  The rhodie is the only thing in that part of the garden (the inner sidewalk bed) that survives from before our ownership of the house.  For the first seven years of its existence, the rhodie sat in the perpetual shadow of a five-clump river birch.  The birch was dug out by hand (as opposed to by machine) in order to save the many perennials in the bed.  I made a point of preserving the rhododendron's root system during the excavation.

The rhodie has repaid our kindness by thriving.  It has tripled in size and bloomed prolifically ever since.  Behind the pieris and the rhodie in the photo above is the newly-leafing-out oxydendrum.  This is the first year it is starting the season with the same branches from past year.  In each of the past four years, snow had taken out as much as a third of the existing branch system.

Looking left from the front door you see an ilex (holly) in the foregound; a peony growing quickly; another, much less auspicious andromeda, and a leucothoe.  At the corner is a pair of rhododendron blooming white.  All four shrubs are great foundation plants for cold climates; all are evergreens and all have thrived with their southeastern exposure.  The shrubs have been repeatedly moved as they have grown; the area once sported another ilex and a smaller rhodie.  The leucothoe and pieris have expanded into their places.

The inner and outer sidewalk beds,
as viewed from the front door. 
Double-click on the image to see
Looking straight out the door is a winderful sight that will grow and change as the season progresses: the inner and outer sidewalk beds.  On the right, starting closes to the camera, is the first growth of coreopsis 'Moonbeam'.   Just beyond it are a growing family of Stokesia laevis, or Stokes' Aster, which will bloom a prolific white and blue in June.  To their right is white astilbe.  There are at least a dozen peonies growing in this bed together with Siberian iris and heuchera.  I'll show them as the season progresses.  The blue flowers you see are muscari, more commonly known as grape hyacinth.

On the left, in the outer sidewalk bed, are geranium, heuchera of every color, alchimella or lady's mantle, phlox, and literally dozens of specimen perennials that will make themselves know as the season progresses.  There's a daphne Atlantica that is starting to overhang the sidewalk.  To its left is a now-golden, but soon to be red Japanese maple.

These beds have undergone a gradual transformation over the past few years.  Once almost all perennials, lower-maintenance shrubs have been introduced and less aggressive perennials introduced.  I promise to continue to update the images as the season progresses.

May 3, 2012

Spring Migrations

Berkeley the Snail, at bottom, with
a more conventional bird bath,
visible at top
Just as the swallows come back to Capistrano and the Swan Boats re-appear in the Public Garden, so there comes a spring day when our garden ornaments emerge from their basement winter quarters.

Like beauty, garden ornaments are in the eye of the beholder.  They can be almost anything you want them to be.  Our neighbors tend toward gazing balls.  Some people have cherubim.  There is a house on a main road a few miles from me with literally hundreds of garden gnomes and fairies out for all to see.  I’ve never quite comprehended gnomes, except as things to steal and send on trips around the world, taking photos along the way; but I accept that, for a certain subset of gardeners, gnomes are gotta-have items. 

Our own stash of ornaments ranges from the expected to the highly eclectic.  There are four bird baths, surely a staple of any respectable garden.  But there are also at least three frogs in our collection, one of them so plug-ugly that it stops visitors in their tracks.  There is a large terra-cotta fish that is supposed to grace a Japanese home, but instead ‘swims’ in our garden.

The Winterthur turtle, prized for its
chipped nose and bargain price
We have a large and heavy (20 pounds or so) metal snail named Berkeley, acquired in London and brought back in the overhead bin of an airplane back before such things would have been considered weapons.  There is also a stone turtle which lacks a name but has a provenance just as memorable as that of our snail.  The turtle was acquired at Winterthur for the sum of just five dollars after we pointed out the chip on its nose.  My wife considers it one of the great bargains of her garden travels.  Of course, we also have a stone cat that we found abandoned after a flower show.  It, too, has a chip, but is less noteworthy because no offer or counter-offer was required for its acquisition.

There is a frog with a permanent site because, one summer, he was topped with a live red frog who seemed to like the vantage point.  We hope for a recurrence.

This black frog, visible now,
will disappear as the
astilbe foliage grows
Most of our garden ornaments are intended to be seen and admired.  But a few, especially the smaller ones, are deliberately placed in locations where they can only be seen from certain angles.  Their serendipitous discovery delights visitors, but the practice also has its downside: we forget where we put them and find them only in November and December when the foliage that obscured them dies back.  This annual recovery process is made more difficult because, except for a few ornaments such as the bird baths, there are no permanent positions reserved for members of our growing collection.

Several ceramic and terra cotta containers have passed from bearing annuals and perennials to the status of garden ornaments.  These tend to be very large ones that, were they filled with plants, would each take a jumbo-size bag of potting mix.  Instead, they grace perennial beds and rock gardens, providing focal points for visual interest.

Our newest ornament, the 'silver
sphere', is looking for a home
Our newest ornament came into our possession following the World Association of Flower Arrangers’ triennial meeting in Boston last June.  It’s an open sphere comprised of aluminum bands; one of 20 fabricated for that show.  I found it last October in a warehouse in Northborough where it was packaged up with staging destined for a landfill.  I brought it home on a whim, and Betty literally jumped up and down with excitement upon seeing it.

Our ‘silver sphere’, as we call it, has yet to find a permanent spot.  It will likely spend several weeks migrating from bed to bed where it will ‘try out’ for a season-long gig.  At our little house, there’s always room for one more – garden ornament, that is.