I DID grow coleus this year!

 

It’s a miserable day in the neighborhood, so I’d like to brighten things up a bit by relating a success story from this past growing season. Back in May I made an optimistic post titled “I WILL grow coleus this year” on this very website. It heralded my return to growing coleus after gardening a few years without them, and I will confess I entered my venture with both pessimism and optimism. Being realistic, I suspected that a few years of failures with coleus might logically presage continued disappointment, but the ever-hopeful gardener in me yearned to return to former glory days, filled with bright color and exuberant growth. So I launched into my adventure toward the end of May, acquiring five (six?) plants each of ‘Alabama Sunset’ (a variable pink-red/green-yellow cultivar that is a shoo-in for inclusion in the Coleus Hall of Fame), Main Street ‘Oxford Street’ (dark red with attractive yellow-spotted leaf edges) and Main Street ‘Wall Street’ (a rust-colored selection that looks a whole lot like the oldie ‘Sedona’ to me, which is another nominee for the Hall of Fame). I picked up some nice specimens of ‘Wasabi’ as well, but they will be the subject of another post, especially given that ‘Wasabi’ remains my A#1, undisputedly favorite coleus cultivar.

 

Here they were in May at the rear of the shady area in the back yard, patiently waiting for me to plant them once the weather settled. The bright chartreuse specimens are ‘Wasabi’; notice how much larger they are than the others. Yes, this is a tease for the upcoming post devoted to this sturdy and satisfying beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the first week of June the threat of frost seemed remote, so the coleus were able to go into the three rather large, sturdy, black plastic bins. Before filling them with a disconcerting amount of potting mix (almost four two-cubic foot bags), I drilled nine or ten drainage holes at the base of each bin. I used the biggest bit I could get my mitts on, because given my penchant for distractedly musing about many things while watering in the garden, I knew the drainage holes were necessary: coleus HATE poor drainage.

 

 

 

 

Situated and then planted, the coleus and I were ready for what summer might bring. This is a good time to remind you that this location, up against the western wall of my kitchen, is the hottest spot in the garden, although it isn’t the sunniest. The western sun, however, shines long enough on this spot to keep the area – especially the concrete pad and siding – noticeably warm in the afternoon and well into summer evenings.

 

 

 

 

 

A month later, the coleus were settling in happily. June was, much to my delight, not cold, so the coleus grew well. I don’t have records of when I pinched (carefully removed) the ends of the stems, but I suspect I had pinched them once by early July. Rain and hose water kept them chugging along, but I hadn’t yet fertilized them – they didn’t need any extra boost, as far as I could tell. The potting mix did contain a teeny bit of fertilizer, so I figured the coleus were receiving what they needed as far as “food” was concerned. It was in the back of my mind, however, that I’d probably need to break out the fertilizer at some point.

 

 

 

 

By July 20, the plants were trying to outdo each other in putting on plenty of growth, especially ‘Alabama Sunset’, which needed more pinching than the other two cultivars in order to keep the peace among the occupants of the bins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few warmish nights later I took this picture as I was surveying my garden realm. By now I was thinking that success was at hand. Perhaps you can see where the shoots had been pinched recently, especially on the large-leaved ‘Alabama Sunset’ on the left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By early August, I felt compelled to take a shot with an empty bin to show how much the coleus had grown. Earlier in the season I thought I might need to disguise the somber black color of the bins with burlap or something similar, but the coleus had other plans.

Amazingly, the plants still weren’t giving any signs of needing supplemental fertilizer to keep them healthy and lush. By now I was suspecting that I wouldn’t need to provide any “food.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fast forward to September 10, when, during what I have now decided was the best gardening summer I’ve seen since moving to Wisconsin in 2012, the coleus were (I think) spectacular. By now quite a few garden visitors agreed with me.

Sure enough, I never fertilized these plants, believe it or not: that little bit of fertilizer in the potting mix sustained them.

 

 

 

 

 

Before October arrived, I stopped pinching the shoots, because I enjoy the color contrast provided by the flowers on some coleus cultivars, and I figured the remaining upper side shoots would not have a chance to grow out enough to make the planting look complete, given the calendar. So the flowers began to appear in earnest: they were a pale, blah violet-blue on ‘Alabama Sunset’, a slightly more appealing blue shade on Main Street ‘Oxford Street’, and a quite nice, deeper and purer blue on Main Street ‘Wall Street’, reinforcing my suspicion that this was in fact ‘Sedona’ (or a close relative).

 

 

 

 

By October 12 I could hear the bells of approaching doom tolling faintly in the background, and not at all to my surprise, the night of October 13 saw a light freeze. Not the cell-rupturing ice crystals of frost, mind you, but enough cold in the air to damage the leaves and rob the coleus of their ornamental appeal. Not wanting to deal with carrying off mushy, smelly, fully frozen and blackened coleus foliage, I pre-emptively brought the curtain down during the afternoon of October 14. Several generous armloads of my formerly eye-popping coleus ended up on the pile at the back of the garage.

 

 

 

 

I’d like to offer a few observations before wrapping things up: I can’t imagine how monster-sized these coleus would have been if I had given them the complete “Ray treatment,” which usually means force-feeding with frequent doses of water-soluble fertilizer(s); ample watering in general; and providing ideal light conditions. I did give them the latter two elements; they were hose-irrigated with plain water quite a few times during most of the season, and the light must have suited them perfectly. Having said that, I must point out that ‘Alabama Sunset’ did appear to be a little sunburned, especially after I pinched their shoots back, but they were never unattractive. Also, none of the plants never would have filled in as much as they did if I hadn’t pinched them several times, and of course doing so tamed their flowering urges until late in the season. Pinching early and often also encouraged the plants to develop sturdy branch structures, so the plants never needed to be staked. Finally, their elevated location in the bins and generally inhospitable concrete surroundings prevented slugs from finding and Swiss-cheesing these coleus. I can’t say the same for some others elsewhere in the garden.

 

The bins will remain in place for winter, and I’ll let the cold and ice do what they will to the stumps and roots. I intend to repeat the coleus show next year, but with a different mix of cultivars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, as winter wears on, I’ll build my coleus jigsaw puzzle again. Perhaps I’ll turn one of the above photos into another puzzle? A thousand-piecer ought to keep me occupied for a while.

 

 

 

 

Green on Black Friday (Part 2)

Actually, as I write this, it’s Cyber Monday Eve, but no matter. There are still some plants looking green out in the garden, even though by day’s end they might be obscured by a few inches of snow. It is the 1st of December (already!!!), after all.

Two days ago I wrote about a euphorbia and a fern, and now I’d like to present another example of each plus a third companion in the garden, all of which consort near a special rock. Yes, special. I like having rocks and minerals around me, both inside and out; perhaps some day I’ll share here a few pictures of and musings on my mineral collection. The rock of interest before us now was part of the Big Landscaping Buy I made a few years ago in anticipation of laying a new sidewalk, garden seat, and steps, but instead of being incorporated into all of that, the special rock is now used as a separate garden accent, partially because it contains some attractive crystals that I assume are quartz. I need to assume almost a worm’s-eye position to see them, but I take pleasure in knowing there’s a little bit of sparkly rock crystal in that shady spot under the big arborvitae.

It took a few years to finally decide on the spot that the rock now occupies, and there’s no guarantee it will remain there. I like to move things around, either to make them appear more pleasing, or simply to try out a new situation in the landscape. To me, well-practiced and enjoyable gardening is not static: it’s a dynamic, ever-changing, sometimes maddening, usually satisfying adventure.

To the plants: in the foreground grows a cluster of the hideously named gopher spurge (Euphorbia lathyris), brought all the way from New Jersey when my long-time friends Ken Selody and Anne Ziolkowski trekked West to take part in the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk on July 13. I remembered how much I enjoyed walking through Ken’s miniature forest of this (normally) biennial euphorbia in a wooded area of Atlock Farm, his specialty nursery in Somerset, smack in the center of the Garden State. A few days before Ken and Anne’s departure from Jersey, I texted Ken about possibly bringing me a few seedlings, and he obliged by presenting me with a small but generously filled pot of them as he and Anne stepped out of their car. After Ken and Anne’s visit, I decided the entire wad of seedlings would be planted near the crystal stone; separating them might shock the roots, and I liked the immediately established look of them in a cluster. They didn’t grow much over summer, but they still look happy enough on this first day of December, and I’m eager to see if they will reach up a couple feet or so next year. Their decussate leaf arrangement (referring to their pairs of leaves placed at 90-degree angles to the pair immediately below them) will remind me of the angular geometry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and stained glass, the generosity of Mr. Atlock, and my happy reunion with the nurseryman and his nice Anne.

Accompanying the euphorbia and clustering around the stone are five specimens of the marginal shield fern, Dryopteris marginalis, a Wisconsin woodland native. Like so many other members of the front garden, they were inserted into the landscape this past growing season, and as many ferns are wont to do, they didn’t grow exuberantly during their first months of establishment. I hope to see them double in size next year, though, assuming the spot under the giant arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) suits them and hoping the local rabbit population, which grew like, well, you know, bunnies this summer won’t include them in their diet. They certainly have discovered many of the new offerings in the front garden, two of which (both hydrangeas) are now  surrounded with kindasorta unobtrusive chicken-wire cages to protect them against eager bunny teeth. They’ll gnaw other plants to the ground, no doubt, but at least the hydrangeas will have a fighting chance to enter the next growing season as intact plants. I hope.

 

Here is the final member of the rock trio, one of the macabrely named dead nettles (Lamium maculatum ‘Purple Dragon’).  I value dead nettles for their ability to quickly make an attractive groundcover in dry shade and for the way the silver-variegated selections remind me of constellations in a warm summer night’s sky. You astronomy buffs out there will perhaps make the connection of the cultivar name to the constellation Draco, the dragon of the northern sky. Wikipedia tells us that “Draco represents Ladon, the dragon that guarded the gardens of the Hesperides in Greek mythology.”  Perhaps this Purple Dragon will guard the plants around it from those toothy bunnies.

Before we leave this grouping, I’d like to draw your attention to the “mulch” in the picture. That beautiful warm-toned blanket falls from the big arborvitae that stands like a sentinel in this part of the garden. Like many others of its kind around here, it entered the growing season with a slightly disturbing amount of persistent brown foliage and then proceeded to bear huge quantities of cones, which also turned brown. All of that brown stuff made me ask myself, “Are my arborvitaes in decline?” I made note of my concern when Janna Nelson, a former student and employee, and now a gardening buddy, stopped by while walking her two remarkably mellow dogs. Janna agreed with my observation about the abundance of cones on arborvitaes in Sheboygan but attempted to reassure me by pointing out that in some years the local specimens naturally make a whole lot of cones and then cool it for a few years. I hope that is the case; aside from the littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata selection of some sort) at the street and the Norway maple (Acer platanoides) behind the garage, that big arborvitae and another one in the back are the only big specimen trees in my garden. Their demise would make a big impact on my little landscape. In the meantime, I will continue to treasure the orangy-brown manna of mulch that falls from them.

Green on Black Friday

So while a zillion people are engaging in the rituals of Black Friday, I’m sitting at my laptop, thinking about Green on Black Friday, which is my horticultural take on what’s happening outside in my front garden. Of course most plants have already retreated underground of their own accord (bulbs, herbaceous perennials), have been cut down to neaten the landscape (again, lots of perennials and of course frost-blackened annuals), have not been cut down because I’m hoping they’ll look good with a mantle of snow (especially the volunteer coneflower, which every winter wears perky little snow caps perched on the dark brown, pointy flowerheads), or have been allowed to remain because I haven’t felt like making the effort to remove the remains (most notably the big sweeps of lady’s mantle – Alchemilla mollis – and catmint – Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ – which would take more than a little time to trim back, and does it really need to be done now?).

But not all is dead and gloomy in my late-November garden. Yes, I have included a few evergreen conifers – such as the undemanding, patiently spreading mat of Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata, sometimes amusingly but aptly called “shade juniper”), a pleasant pancake of bird’s-nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’), and the imposing arborvitae or white cedar, as it’s more commonly called in these parts (Thuja occidentalis) that towers over and dominates its part of the garden. However, they can wait to be included in another post, because right now I want to share some pictures of and thoughts on three of the green survivors out there.

I use the word “green” loosely: a gardener’s palette offers shades of green-green, those more yellow than green (chartreuse), purplish/bluish/reddish green, and more gray than green. So given it’s the day after Thanksgiving, let’s start with a frequent companion of a Thanksgiving turkey, namely gray-green culinary sage (Salvia officinalis).

 

For many years I’ve grown various culinary sages strictly for their earthy scent and appealing foliage colors, especially the neutral gray provided quietly by the common selections. The colors of many garden elements are complemented by their grayish tones, including but not limited to the foliage of companion plants, their flowers, and garden features (especially gray stone and weathered wood, including cedar mulch). You can determine your favorite combinations by cutting off a sprig of sage (or any plant, to make this a broader lesson in garden design) and holding it against other plants and features. If the match looks good to you, make a note of it, then perhaps next year you’ll plant some sage next to a late-blooming, luscious violet-blue selection of aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Raydon’s Favorite’), to borrow an example from my garden. After you’ve completed your sage color-observation exercise, take the sprig into your kitchen, gently macerate the leaves in some melted butter, and then drizzle it over some cheese-, cheese-spinach- or cheese-mushroom-filled ravioli. Skip the tomato sauce for once: the sagey butter allows the flavors of the ravioli filling to shine through.

 

I must confess that I wasn’t expecting the green fronds of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’) to hold up this late into November, given that all of the other ferns (except for the marginal fern, to be described on another day) have vanished from the scene. Perhaps back in a dusty corner of my memory lies the fact that this fern is evergreen or nearly so in other climates; nonetheless, I have been pleasantly noting the freshness of the fern in that part of the garden for weeks now. This fern is probably most widely appreciated for the red tones of its expanding fronds, and does it in fact take on red shades in autumn in those other climates referenced above? Also, will it still be green after winter finally departs, providing the garden receives enough snow cover to protect the fronds from below-zero temperatures as well as the desiccating effects of high winds and sun? Time will tell. Note the sad-looking lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) foliage accompanying the autumn fern. Yes, it will more than likely stay in place until new leaves emerge, at which time I will frantically cut away the dingy, winter-worn foliage and haul it to the pile behind the garage. Spring cleaning in the garden will just have to wait.

 

Speaking of semi-questionable evergreen-ness, here’s a treat for your eyes if perhaps not your nose. I planted three good-sized pots of Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ about a month before this summer’s much anticipated Sheboygan Area Garden Walk, mainly because I gave into the seductive appearance it presented at a local nursery that I frequented during the runup to SAGW. I value the contrast that variegated plants can offer when used in the landscape in reasonable quantities, and I’ve always been intrigued by the unconventional “flowers” (technically referred to as “cyathia”) borne by the members of this enormous genus (2,000 species or so, I’m told. Why haven’t the botanical splitters blown this genus up as they have done with Chrysanthemum and the lily family? More on that topic inevitably later). So yes, this euphorbia is eyecatching, and it grew without making too many demands on me (other than frequently expressing its thirst until it rooted in and/or the air temperature grew cooler). However, sight is not the only sense with which this plant interacts: during the first couple of weeks after planting this seductive beauty, I would catch a strong but evasive scent in the air, reminding me of the distinctive odor of Fritillaria bulbs and foliage . . .  and of skunks. Then during a notably warm afternoon, after having earlier neatened up the succulent euphorbias in my greenhouse, I put 2 and 2 together: that scent is the same as that of the smelly, sticky, irritating, fairly toxic white sap that oozes from the cut ends of euphorbia stems and leaves. Not a nauseating deal-breaker, but not roses and lilacs, either. However, since not a single garden visitor asked about the funny smell in the front garden (were they being polite? maybe they had not noticed the scent?), I turned the other nostril for the remainder of the season and enjoyed the visual delights of this plant, which continue to this Green on Black Friday. It’s marginally hardy, but if my plants perish over winter, I have a feeling I can get more at that nearby nursery. Or listen to another Siren’s call.

A Passion for Gardening

OK, I admit it . . . it’s been a long time since I posted my last blog. However, I am offering a good reason for my absence: it was a splendid summer here on the tundra, and I gardened like a guy who was experiencing his first full growing season as a retiree, totally immersed in the joys of horticulture. Over the next few months my plan is to share with you on this site many of my recent gardening experiences and thoughts. Think of it as an extended gardening-themed vacation in a not-so-far-away land, not so long ago.

While the above picture was taken today (November 19, 2019), I think it aptly recalls the past and conjures the future. Before I tell you the name of this plant and show you what it can do, let’s delve into what the picture and the plant represent to me.

First, let’s remember to look beyond the identity of this plant and ponder the image itself. While I’m not even remotely pretending to be a great visual artist or poet, I will honestly tell you that I view recording images as a way of capturing and expressing emotions and memories (and, more mundanely, information). I often find myself reaching for my phone to take a few (or many) pictures, not just to have records of a plant or other subject, but to help preserve a thought or feeling or perhaps to make a reminder to look into/do- something later. So as I was heading out to check today’s mail, I noticed the attractively backlit foliage and other attributes of a plant that I propagated a few months ago, and I decided a photo of it would make a good starting point for a reboot-worthy blog post.

Which brings this account to an exploration of one of my personal Joys of Horticulture: propagating plants.  I have been making more plants (to describe the term “propagation” perhaps inelegantly, but accurately and succinctly) since my earliest days as a gardener. I never tire of the thrill and satisfaction of watching a seed or cutting or other plant part transform into an entire plant, ready to be planted out or given away or sold or selected as a bit of germplasm for continuity through space and time. Hmm, there’s another blog post just begging to be created: “germplasm for continuity through space and time.” Stay tuned.

But I will briefly address that (you might regard as) spacey concept here. The pictured plant represents a living thing that I’m intending to nurture somewhere in my garden next year, because to an inveterate gardener like me, there’s always next year. I will be able to enjoy this plant in my summer garden in 2020 because in 2019 I rooted a stem cutting from the magnificent parent plant as insurance against the parent not making it through winter in my front room. Also, I’ll have a much smaller plant that I can raise into a new parent plant to replace its parent. It’s the circle of life, you know, plus it’s a stark reality that the current parent plant, assuming it survives the winter and grows even more exuberantly than it did this past summer, will simply be too big to manage once the 2020 growing season draws to an end. So in this example, propagation = backup plan.

I’m curious if anyone out there thinks the introductory image is vaguely familiar. Well, those of you who know my last book effort, The Encyclopedia of Container Plants, might recall the photos on pages 256 – 258 that accompany the entry on Passiflora (passionflowers). Yep, my mind immediately went back to that entry as I noticed the plant that prompted me to take the image that inspired this post.

And now I can reveal the identity of the plant: it is Passiflora alato-caerulea, or what I always offer as “the preserved-ginger-scented passionflower” when someone requests a common name. A cumbersome moniker, yes, but precisely descriptive and olfactorily evocative of sushi and several summers here on the tundra.  This is, without reservation, my favorite passionflower, notable for its gorgeous, dreamily scented flowers and easy, vigorous growth. I’m looking forward to enjoying another replay of its virtues.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you’re wondering, here’s the parent plant as it looks today, dominating a section of my front room, where many plants in my collection spend winter (in other words, six months, from mid-October to mid-April, if the weather gods allow). Before spring comes, this plant will almost certainly be leafless and trimmed back extensively, but for now it’s still lushly green and comfortably chilling, patiently waiting to wake up and put on another show.

A tour before The Tour: Countdown to the Garden Walk (Part 2)

First, a commercial message: the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk occurs on Saturday, July 13, and I’m gearing up for it. Many stops are being/will be pulled (and more metaphors will be mixed) before welcoming the first visitors on that summer morning. I’d like to take you on a tour now to whet your appetite; more blog posts will follow.

This view says “Ray’s house and garden” to me. By the way, I’d like to wish a happy 100th birthday to my abode, built in 1919. I plan to do some research at the Sheboygan County Historical Society sooner than later, and I’ll include the results in a post. For now, please note that the barberries that obscured the foundation have given way to a couple of nonhardy Fatsia japonica, which I dutifully overwintered in the front room behind them. An all-new grouping of foliage-forward herbaceous plants keeps them company. Also note the two pots on either side of the steps; they contain Begonia San Fransisco (sic) on the left and Dragon Wing Pink on the right. The yellow-green beacon at the lamppost base is a Heuchera, whose cultivar name I have temporarily lost. Other dabs of yellow-green will appear as the season advances.

 

 

The very rustic stone steps on the north side of the front garden will be dressed in annuals and perennials for the Garden Walk, and I hope visitors will pause for a moment on the sitting stone (see the next picture). The steps and walk were installed October 2015 by former student Ken Schultz. I still call him Kenny, but his business stationery reads Ken, so there you are. Kenny has accepted the challenge to install a low, open fence on either side of the front garden, designed to echo the tripartite motif of many of the windows in the house. The fence will also replace the rows of slender green stakes barely visible toward the back between my mulch and the neighbor’s grass. They were installed to discourage people from walking across the front garden as they make their appointed rounds.

 

 

 

Here’s the sitting stone, wrangled into place by Kenny and Gus Reed, my former teaching colleague at Lakeshore Technical College. It’s the spot where I often spend a few pleasant moments on warmish summer nights, taking in the air and fragrances and sounds and light/shadow pattern cast by the lantern on the lamppost. When not bob-bob-bobbin’ in the mulch as they poke around for worms and such, robins like to use the sitting stone, too, but not always merely to sit. It happens. The plants at the base are volunteer arborvitae and spiraeas, sprung from seeds produced by the neighbor’s foundation plants. I like them there, and they’re going to remain until they outgrow their space.

 

 

 

The original concrete front walk hurtled its way straight out from the front door to the city sidewalk, and it was, in spite of its hulking visual insistence, boooring. Gus Reed came up with the idea to slice up the walk and re-lay it as a pleasing curve, and so it came to pass in the fall of 2013. Gus and several of the students at the time did the work as I “supervised.” Much of the mulch you see now will be obscured by plants over the ensuing weeks and seasons by – as the plan goes – catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’), Calamintha nepeta ‘Montrose White’ (both bee food), and some sort of annual(s). More than 30 lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), planted from little cell pots a few falls ago, are doing a good job making drifts on either side of the walk, and just wait until you see them in flower.

 

 

While we’re in the front garden, let’s make note of the doorstep container of Begonia San Francisco (I refuse to misspell the city’s name again) adjacent to my little slice of the North woods. Begonia ‘Bonfire’, a relative from the expanding Begonia boliviensis clan), did very nicely in this doorway spot a couple of years ago, so my hopes are high for San Fran to do well here. I’ve done very little maintenance in the North woods, other than to pull seedlings of various woody plants. Actually, I tolerate Norway maple seedlings for a year or two in the front garden, along with volunteer arborvitae, spruce, birch, buckeye, linden, and spiraea, because I think they accentuate the rustic look of the garden while small, but I have no tolerance for box elder (Acer negundo). They always look like weeds to me, much like dandelions and spindly grass. While this area adjacent to the pot of begonias represents only a few perforations on the edge of my postage-stamp garden, it’s a pleasant, satisfying spot. I don’t mind the (at least here) mildly aggressive lilies of the valley (Convallaria majalis), which are very much at home elsewhere in my garden, and they tolerate the dry shade cast by the venerable arborvitae, aka white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), that dominates the front garden along with the littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) along the street. Ostrich ferns (Matteucia struthiopteris), some sort of Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), and ubiquitous hostas likewise make a brave stand, and I’ve attempted to grow a few other ferns here. Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) has persisted since I planted it a few years ago, but it looks nothing like the yellow rapids I’ve seen in other gardens (and am attempting to re-create near the front sidewalk).

 

The giant arborvitae towers over the North woods, shades the front porch, and blocks the view from the street into both my dining area and upstairs bedroom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let’s go out back.

 

The three pots in the foreground will – I hope – support big ol’ castor beans (Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’) by the end of summer. Reflected heat (well, warmth from sunny days, anyway; this is Sheboygan, and summers can be on the cool side) from the concrete pad should help speed them along. I’m thinking sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala bicornis), and night phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis) will make suitable companions at the feet of the castor beans. I also have some old-fashioned, trailing, supposedly nicely scented petunias coming along in the greenhouse, but they might go into railing boxes on the airing porch.

 

 

 

What’s an airing porch, you ask? Look above the kitchen window to see one. It’s a common second-story sight on the houses around here, ostensibly for airing laundry, but I use mine to air myself on pleasant days and to check out the night sky. Those railing boxes I mentioned earlier are big enough for smallish plants, such as the scented plants to be included in the big castor bean pots, but I might try to grow vining annuals – morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’), cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), flag of Spain (Mina lobata), hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab, or whatever it is called these days), sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus ‘Mollie Rilstone’), and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus ‘Orchid Flame’)  in them instead. Otherwise, they’ll go into three big pots on the floor, fitted out with tomato cages or stake teepees.

 

 

The prairie looks like a weedy field right now, and that’s normal for this time of year. Very soon I’ll be out there weeding around the smaller, choicer things and cutting back the welcome but vigorous asters (don’t get me started on their modern genus names), goldenrods (Solidago canadensis, S. rigida, and I suspect at least one other species), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). The prairie merits multiple blog entries all its own, so I won’t go into much detail here, other than to point out that the “after” views of the prairie will appear dramatically different from these current (or “before,” if you will) photos. And I’ll add that I tolerate the dandelions because they are an important early source of food for bees and butterflies.

 

 

 

Lacking a better descriptor, I call this the shady area. It’s very useful at this time of the gardening calendar, serving as a transition area from a nursery or my greenhouse to the open garden or containers. Those coleus are awaiting the right time to plant them into containers on the concrete pad (see I WILL grow coleus this year, earlier in this blog). The row of arborvitae along the fence provides protection from sun, wind, and rain, and obviously lilies of the valley think this spot is heaven sent. Scent (don’t you love homophones?) is the reason why I haven’t ripped these out along with other patches of this burly spreader. When this patch is in bloom, I can smell the unmistakable, memory-evoking fragrance from the airing porch if the breeze is headed toward the Lake (which is East, but around here, we say “the wind is coming off the Lake” or “head toward the Lake to get to the marina” and the like when others might refer to the cardinal direction of East. Lake Michigan rules our lives in many ways, especially those of us in the gardening community, which is sizable.) By the way, a barely visible mound of soil has been building up on the Lake side of the shady area, and medium-height sunflowers (Helianthus annuus ‘Snack Seed’), which, according to the seed packet, reach 5’) are slated to grow there this summer. The mound will of course make the plants appear taller than they really are, unless they stretch too much toward the light and topple over. There’s a good chance I’ll plant some of those many vining annuals from the airing porch on the mound as well, hoping they’ll climb the sunflowers and maybe thread their way into the low fence.

 

 

The greenhouse, like the prairie, will be covered in later posts, but for now, let me point out that most of my showplants (primarily succulents) summer in the greenhouse after wintering in the house. With me. Everywhere except the living room area, bathrooms, and office. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Visitors during the day of the Garden Walk will be able to peek into the greenhouse over the Dutch door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All I’m going to say here is that there will be a brand-new, intimate patio area in this spot in time for the Big Day. The plan is to combine salvaged Cream City brick, a distinctive, locally popular, ecru-colored construction brick, with new, dark “red” pavers. As with the front fence, rustic walk, greenhouse floor, and tree pruning/stump removal, Kenny Schultz is my guy on this project. Much more to come on the patio, which will create a nice little sitting, socializing, and plant-staging area between the greenhouse and garage. In the meantime, this spot serves as the holding area for sun lovers that would be displeased in the shady area.

 

 

 

By the time visitors reach the patio area, they’ll be almost done with their tour. However, before exiting through the back gate, they’ll be encouraged to turn around to look back toward the house, when they will see this vista that terminates with a special focal point. Attention, class: in this example of an important garden-design feature, the focal point is a standard (tree-form) lemon-scented geranium (Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’), which emits a surprisingly strong fragrance of lemon Pledge when rubbed or casually brushed against any time of year, or unprompted on hotter days. It looks ratty now, having spent the cold months (mid October to mid May . . . yes, seven months) in the front room of the house.  I kept it barely awake by putting it in a corner in low light and watering it maybe once a month. It was repotted last Sunday, and in a couple of weeks, once the roots have begun to reach out into the medium, the head of droopy, stretched-out foliage will be cut back severely. I hope by the time of the Garden Walk I will have pinched back the new shoots into a pleasing ball of foliage. The stems removed during the first cutback will provide lots of cuttings for rooting here and at Lakeshore Technical College, where this focal point started life as a cutting made by one of my students.

 

 

Only very select visitors will be able to see this view from the airing porch on the day of the Garden Walk. By then the prairie will be grown up, the daffodils will be sleeping underground (annuals are slated to go here in a few weeks, including zinnias (Zinnia Northern Lights Blend and California Giants), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’), and spider flower (Cleome ‘Rose Queen’)), and the pile of paving stones could well be incorporated into a pathway between the prairie and the greenhouse.

Do stay tuned, and circle Saturday, July 13 on your calendars for the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk. More information can be found at sheboygangardeners.com/sagw-garden-walk.

I WILL grow coleus this year!

 

 

 

Funny thing, my relationship with coleus. You know, those common, colorful foliage plants that seemingly everybody includes and enjoys in their containers and plantings all season long. Everybody but me during the last few years, that is, because (this has been my excuse for the past few years) it’s just too cold where I live, a mere few blocks from Lake Refrigerator Michigan here in Sheboygan. They have failed to grow in my front yard, and they performed poorly in the little patio garden at Lakeshore Technical Garden, where I once taught. After the plants I was overwintering gave up the ghost in the LTC greenhouse, I too gave up and haven’t grown them since.

So you’re thinking, “Yeah, so? They don’t like you, or maybe it’s true that the cool lakeside summer nights aren’t their thing. Nobody succeeds at growing everything.” Well, plenty of gardeners around here grow coleus – even closer to the Lake, I might add – and well. Why not me? It bugs me, as you probably have already figured out.

You see, there’s something going on here that could be considered the dictionary definition of the word “irony.” I literally wrote the book on coleus, namely Coleus: Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens (Timber Press, 2008). Producing the book was a joint collaboration with my friend Richard Hartlage; I did the words, and he did the photography. Amusing side note: if you detect a subliminal reference to how people often partner up to create Broadway musicals, may I point out that Coleus was produced by Ro(d)gers and Hart(lage)?

Anyway, while making Coleus happen, I got all caught up in growing them in a big way at Atlock Farm in New Jersey, so that Richard could photograph them and I could study and make notes on their characteristics. Richard and I even made a visit to Minnesota to learn at the feet of Vern Ogren, a major figure in the history of coleus in the United States, and we also traveled to the home of Bob Pioselli, a major collector. Along the way I branched out into exploring other ways to promote or simply enjoy coleus, as the following pictures illustrate.

 

This picture was taken of me while I was serving as American editor for The American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2006). I was preening what was the most impressive standard (tree-form) coleus specimen ever produced at Atlock Farm. You can see a photo of it, minus yours truly, in the Encyclopedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, I had a coleus jigsaw puzzle made from a group photo I took in front of one of the greenhouses at Atlock. It’s still with me, but I haven’t put it together in quite a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometime after taking this picture of ‘Freckles’ (one of my favorites). . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . . I sent off a file of the picture to a company that custom-weaves cotton throws. The bright colors of ‘Freckles’ weren’t reproduced in the throw, but the overall pattern always catches my eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Timber Press had mouse pads made as a promotional item for the book, and a few of them remain in my collection, not of mouse pads (does anyone use them these days?) but of coleus stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By now you realize that coleus are a part of me and my history. That’s why I’m trying my hand at making them happy again. This time around I’m going to do a little experimenting: since I’m assuming my past attempts failed because of too-cool weather, I’m going to try to give this year’s plants as much heat as I can provide. The warmest – no, hottest – part of my garden is the concrete slab that adjoins the west house wall, and that is where I’m going to place three good-sized, sturdy-walled, black plastic storage bins. The rays of the sun and the re-radiated heat from the concrete and the black containers will, I hope, provide the warmth that coleus want from me. Of course I’ll need to choose sun-tolerant cultivars, and I’ll keep a close eye on the moisture in the potting mix. With any luck, I’ll also need to routinely supply fertilizer to my lustily growing success stories outside the back door.

 

In early June the three black bins will be planted with sun-tolerant coleus (and probably a few cannas or other taller growers). The empty space between the leftmost bin and the invisible concrete steps is being set aside to accommodate a large standard Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’ (lemon geranium), which will serve as a focal point when looking toward the house from the sidewalk that runs between the prairie planting in the back yard.

With any luck this scheme will work, and there WILL be coleus to enjoy this summer, especially on Saturday, July 13, the day my garden is a stop on the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk.

Stay tuned!

 

 

 

A Winter’s Tale (or, Adapt or Perish)

The story of the last plant I grew inside my residence for more than a short time (until last year, that is) began the year this country celebrated the Bicentennial. For you younger readers, that was 1976, while I was a senior at Penn State. A pint-sized Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) cheerfully inhabited the sole window in the basement apartment I shared with four other guys, none of whom looked at plants in the passionate way I did and still do. After graduation, the slow-growing pine kept me company as I worked at my first job as Senior Gardener at Woodlawn Plantation in northern Virginia from 1977 to May of 1978, throughout the summer of 1978 that I spent living with my brother and sister-in-law while working for the City of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and then during my time in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Soon after we received our fast-track Masters degree in December 1979, the pine and I drove to my parents’ house in Pittsburgh, where I would await the beginning of my position as curatorial intern at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. However, the pine didn’t enjoy the trip to Pittsburgh much, because I had neglected to cover it as it rode shotgun in my little white Chevy Vega. The sun shone brightly during that trip, and while I might have considered the sun’s brilliance as a positive omen for my future, the pine got sunburned so badly that much of its rich green foliage turned dead brown only a few days after I carefully placed it in my parents’ house. The End.

 

While the side-lesson of this tale is to advise you to cover plants lightly when you transport them in your sunny vehicle for more than a short time, that’s not the main story line here. I want to pass along a few other bits of recently acquired horticultural advice, drawn from a five-month experiment in overwintering plants in my house. You see, I began growing container-grown showplants in someone else’s greenhouse in the late 80’s. The first greenhouses were at Ken Selody’s Atlock Farm in Somerset, New Jersey. My plants and I enjoyed that arrangement until the summer of 2012, when we relocated to Wisconsin. While employed as a horticulture instructor at Lakeshore Technical College until the summer of 2018, I was fortunately allowed to quarter my plants in the LTC greenhouse. During all of those years I almost never had plants in my house; my cats would have devoured them, given that they perked up when I brought broccoli and other green vegetables into the house, waiting for bits to fall on the kitchen floor to be scarfed up. Also, I was spoiled by those greenhouses and the high-quality plants their abundant light and warmth could provide. So when I decided to leave my teaching position, I knew I would need to make some big decisions regarding my plant collection. Long story short, my container-grown plants now follow a program of six months inside my house and six months in my little backyard greenhouse. Beginning this routine marked a return to growing plants inside my residence after practicing almost 30 years of greenhouse culture, and this blog will take you to this subject from time to time. You’ve figured out by now that I no longer have cats – the last one shuffled off this mortal coil more than a year ago.

 

After spending a few light-filled months last year in my newly constructed polycarbonate-glazed kit greenhouse, all of my treasures were relocated near the windows in five rooms of my house. The ones that I decided (hoped?) could handle the coldest air temperatures and the lowest light were nestled all snug in their beds (tables, actually) for a long winter’s nap in my front room.

 

Two rather large specimens of Fatsia japonica and a standard (tree-form) Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’, a lemon-scented geranium that I grew and trained from a cutting, occupy much of the southwest corner of my front room. They have required regular watering throughout winter, expressing their thirst by wilting ever so slightly. Of course their tight quarters (their containers, that is) mean that there’s very little potting mix left in their root-filled pots to hold any water in reserve, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they need to drink routinely. While the geranium will be moved into a larger but still manageable pot in a few weeks, those big fatsias have reached their weight and pot-size limits and so will be planted out in the front yard when conditions permit. Being cold tolerant, that should be in July. No, no, I kid about the climate and weather here in Sheboygan by the Lake: they will be outdoors before the end of April. Maybe.

 

Most of what you see here represents my Agave collection. In spite of the fact that they seem to like to stab me (those spines might as well be hypodermic needles), I wouldn’t be without them. They remind me of sculpted flowers, they grow slowly but steadily, and boy howdy do they make excellent showplants. More to follow about that on these pages. In the meantime, I can tell you that they have remained happy in the cold (usually low 40’s) air and essentially low light of the front room, and most of them have received little to NO water since October. Yes, that’s a Norfolk Island pine in the back, given to me by a former colleague and apparently happy in the relatively dark northwest corner, well out of any damaging sun’s rays. It has been watered sparingly but regularly during its winter vacation.

I Show Plants

I like competition. It’s a big part of me, and I embrace it, especially through participation in flower shows. It all began in 1972, when I made a half-dozen entries in the Pittsburgh Iris and Daylily Show. Although none of those stems of irises excitedly cut from my parents’ garden won a blue ribbon, they all won ribbons of other colors, and that set the hook. Since then I’ve entered daylily shows, daffodil shows, fall harvest shows, cactus and succulent shows, shows at the Sheboygan County (Wisconsin) Fair, Garden Club of America shows . . . and the granddaddy of them all, the Philadelphia Flower Show. On this site I’ll be sharing stories and pictures from the Big Show and other shows I enter or choose to visit for my own enjoyment.

Let’s begin with two of my entries made during Flower Power, the 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show held on March 1 – 10 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the heart of Philadelphia. I hadn’t entered the Show since 2012 (I moved to Wisconsin that summer; much more to follow on that on this site). The Siren’s call beckoned me, so I packed up six plants in my car and drove back East. Long story short, those six plants were entered into the horticultural competition on the third and last judging day, and two of them were awarded rosettes, the major awards that allure me and many other competitors at the Show. Although neither plant won the blue ribbon in its competitive class, specialty judging panels representing the Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent Society and the Delaware Valley Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society decided my plants merited special recognition. Curiously, both awards went to two strikingly different examples of Deuterocohnia brevifolia, a member of the Bromeliaceae, or the bromeliad family, which also includes pineapples and Spanish moss among its big clan.

I noticed the rosette placed by my smaller Deuterocohnia first, soon after I finished my seventh judging stint at the Show. Although the general judging panel had awarded it second place, the Rock Garden panel liked its “inspirational presentation” and so recognized it with one of their cheery blue and white rosettes. It cheered me because just before then I had discovered that my big Deuterocohnia had placed second in its class, and no brown and orange rosette was parked next to it. Bummer. However, early the next morning I discovered that the big one had won a rosette as well, given by the society to which I had belonged for more than a few years. Those rosettes represent one of the many high points of my 39th Philadelphia Flower Show.

 

 

For three years this Deuterocohnia brevifolia has lived in a small pocket of fast-draining medium in a lightweight, porous volcanic rock. Starting from a small cluster of rosettes – not the same kind of rosette as the awards that seduce me, but they do share the same basic arrangement of leaves or ruffly parts on the “badge” – separated from the original plant bought at the Chicago Flower Show in 2015, the leafy mass reached the edges of the planting pocket last fall and so achieved show-worthy status.

 

This giant has seen its fair share of flower shows – and has fetched some very pleasing awards for its grower – since making its debut at the Philadelphia Flower Show in the early 2000’s. Also grown from a small plant like its rock-inhabiting counterpart, the Big Green Mound now spills over the rim of the rather shallow 12” pot it has called home for about ten years. Over the years it has collected some colorful nicknames, including the Green Pincushion, Muffin Top, the Green Footstool, and Miss Muffett’s Tuffet.

So there you have it – entry #1 on this website. Please visit the other pages on this site, and please check in every now and then for more information and musings on showplants, Much to Do About Seeds, my little Wisconsin garden, and other sights and sites along the garden path.

Prairie Bleak Blechh

Countdown

COUNTDOWN

Prairie Bleak BlechhYesterday was the first full day of spring here in Wisconsin, and the bleak blechh of winter lingers on . . . but not forever. Most summers I’ve seen since moving from New Jersey to Sheboygan (in the middle of summer 2012) have been glorious, offering the warm days, cool nights, and comfortable humidity of those Lake Michigan resort towns in which temporary residents spend their vacations. I get to live year-round in a lakeside community that celebrates summer horticulture in various ways, and for me this year the biggest event on the local gardening calendar is the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk (SAGW). First observed in 1997, the annual SAGW invites visitors to enjoy private and public gardens for the benefit of local institutions, which this year include the Ellwood H. May Environmental Park and Bookworm Gardens.

I admit that from my first SAGW experience in 2013, I fancied offering my little garden for the tour. However, it wasn’t until last spring that I felt my little patch of real estate might reasonably attract and host hundreds of garden visitors. My time as instructor at Lakeshore Technical College was drawing to an end, and I was pondering ways to fill what would become a bunch of spare time. Also, my little warm-weather greenhouse in the backyard was looking ever more likely to be built, and other possible landscape improvements kept being added to my wish list. So after handing over my $10.00 for my Walk ticket (a bargain) at the first garden on last July’s tour, I added my name to the sheet titled “Would you like to have your garden considered for a future Walk?” Soon after, I heard from the committee, and before I knew it, my garden was confirmed for the 2019 Sheboygan Area Garden Walk.

I’ve been eagerly counting down the months since then (friends and relatives will attest to this), and Saturday, July 13 now beckons at less than four months away. I have PLENTY to do between now and The Day, and I’ll be including stories and pictures of my adventures sporadically but dependably on this site. So even though the blechh of March persists in Sheboygan, the glory of high summer waits in the wings. Stay tuned!

 

If all goes according to plan and the dream, participants of the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk will (I hope!) enjoy a view similar to this one from July 2018. Much more is in the works.prairie before blechh, greenhouse