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.

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!