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!