I’m a big fan of shade gardens, and of the many, surprisingly colorful plants that tolerate shade. So it makes me crazy when I see people buying flats of annuals every year (impatiens, anyone?) and nothing else for their shady spots, missing out on all the fabulous shrubs and perennials that bring light and color to shade gardens. So I give you a few of the “Best and the Brightest” in my own shade garden.
Above left, the variegated Euonymus fortunii stays nice and short – under 18″ – so it’s useful in small spaces. Super easy-care, it doesn’t even need pruning (at least in the 10 years I’ve grown this one.)
The bottlebrush buckeye on the right grows to 8 feet tall by 10 feet wide, and spreads into an actual grove of them. A great woodland plant, it’s just as low-care as the Euonymus, and an Eastern native, too.
Above are two plants that are commonly found in gardens today, precisely because they’re such do-ers. Hostas are about the toughest perennials in the world and foolproof for any gardener – unless there are deer in the garden. Towering over them here is a contender for the title of toughest, most self-sustaining shrub in the world – the Acuba. It can take sun OR shade and survives both severe drought and record blizzards with nothing but the occasional storm damage, followed by fast and full recovery. Barely hardy in Zone 6, it’s fine on the Cape but best grown as a houseplant in most of Massachusetts.
Now have you all heard of these next perennials? Clockwise from upper left, Euphorbia amygdaloides, is about 2 feet tall and evergreen. The chartreuse blossoms you see (actually bracts) look great for months. Visitors are awed by this plant – I’m telling ya.
Next is Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) – not the common type but this variegated green-and-white type, which really does brighten even the darkest shade, all season long. Its spring flowers are nice but short-lived; we grow this one for the leaves.
On the bottom right is hardy begonia (Begonia grandis) with lovely foliage and these stunning flowers in late summer. They seed freely so once you have a few, you’ll soon have as many as you want (and ones you don’t want are easy to yank).
Finally, Hakonechloa grass is a stunner, paired here with the perennial Geraniums ‘Johnson’s Blue’, which can take light shade or full sun.
[I garden in Zone 7, but this article is suitable to gardens throughout Massachusetts - as cold as Zone 5.]
You know those loooong lists of “chores” in the garden for each month? Well, I hate ‘em. I’m a gardener of the low-maintenance school, and here’s what I’d rather know: What do I really, really have to do this month, ot the 40 possible things I could do? The 40 things I probably would do if I were of the Martha Stewart of gardening, which, unfortunately, I’m not.
Experienced gardeners will see this as the no-brainer of the month but I have to say it: In the absence of regular rain, it’s time for some summer triage. That means choosing the plants that really could die without supplemental watering, and saving on water and labor by letting the lawn go dormant for a while.(At least this is how I treated my lawn when I had one, and it always bounced back in September.)
I walk my garden at LEAST once a week and really look at the plants to see which ones are wilting and need help. Also, Iwater trees and evergreen shrubs whether they’re wilting or not (they won’t) because they’re the most valuable plants in my garden, bar none! Trees are particularly vulnerable to drought, and they require deep watering. That means using a soaker hose or letting the regular hose drip for several hours, or until the soil is wet at least 6 inches deep.
My containers, of course, need watering daily unless there’s rain.
This is the other obvious garden chore for August, since weeds are pretty darn obvious this time of year. My weeding tips?
I do about 30 minutes of weeding at a time, to keep my middle-aged backaches to a minimum.
In the summer I do my weeding first thing in the morning, finishing by 8 a.m. when it’s especially hot (July of 2010!!)
If I can’t devote lots of time to weeding, triage is helpful here, too. I at least remove the great jungle-makers of the weed word - VINES! - and target weeds that are crowding out and possibly smothering the plants I actually like.
I try to never, ever remove weed without having a container to put them in. Low-maintenance gardening is smart gardening, and dumping weeds on the ground just means having to pick them up again.
I’m removing dead, damaged or disease wood from trees and shrubs as I find them. Same goes for suckers and water sprouts. Otherwise, it’s a no-pruning month for me.
Sowing vegetable seeds
I’m sowing my fall crops - peas, and lettuce greens - in the empty spaces where my melons and cucumbers grew until just last week. For the salad greens I’ll sow a few seeds every 10 days to two weeks and see how long I can keep the harvest coming.
No more feeding for my garden. Not that I ever did much of it. Only my vegetables, containers and roses received this kind of coddling (I’m of the tough-love school). It IS the time to feed lawn, though, so keep reading.
Lawns are never this lush and full without added nitrogen.
(When I had a Lawn)
From now until early September is the best time to start a new lawn or overseed a sparse one (and whose lawn isn’t?), so when I had a lawn, this is when I tried to improve it. (Watch for a blog story later this month by Mike Mahoney about his favorite grass seed.)
Now about fertilizing. Lawns simply use up their stores of nitrogen every year and become unhealthy and spotty if the nitrogen isn’t replaced – at the rate of 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. So if your lawn is sparse, August and early September are the absolute best time to apply a slow-release, organic fertilizer. (Look for the term WIN, which stands for water-insoluable nitrogen). Read those instructions first, and follow them. Compost is also a terrific source of nutrition for your lawn, and many organic gardeners simply apply a quarter- to half-inch layer every fall to keep their lawns healthy and full.
If you applied the recommended amount of corn gluten last winter to prevent weeds, your lawn may already have enough nitrogen for the year. Other ways to make sure your lawn gets the food it needs are grasscycling - leaving grass clippings from the mower where they fall - and including clover in your lawn. Yes, clover’s a good thing! It’s described as “self-fertilizing” because this wonderful little plant turns nitrogen in the soil into nitrogen the plants can use. (And there’s a term for that -“fixing” nitrogen.)
Here’s the part that’s optional for me because my garden’s pretty darn full by now - after 25 years here in this spot. Butit’s been months since I bought any plants and the sales are on and I can’t stop myself. But hey, they’re on sale. (And if they’re not, I’m sure I needed the plants, anyway. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
There are few perennials as stately and showstopping as the delphinium. This is the Delphinium elatum and subsequent cultivars which are the six foot plus delphiniums. These are a staple in many English borders. I say this knowing full well that English borders don’t always translate well to other parts of the world but if they do work at all in the U.S.A., it is in New England or, perhaps the northwestern U. S. I have found that one of the chief problems with delphiniums available to gardeners, both seed and potted plants, is their tendency to be shortlived. Much breeding has been done in the past century and many varieties such as the ‘Pacific Giant’ series are more annual than perennial. There are over three hundred species of delphinium and there seems to be as many named cultivars, making choices difficult. Seven years ago I sent for seed from the Royal Delphinium Society. The seed was expensive.
Given that and my tendency toward inattentiveness where seedlings are concerned, I gave the seeds to a grower friend who grew them on and gave me some plants in exchange for selling the rest of the seedlings. I have one plant which is sited in full sun and well drained soil which has bloomed consistently for the past seven years. It tops off at six and a half feet tall and is a rich, deep, royal purple. I have to believe that this seed was superior to most of the varieties which are more easily available in the seed racks and perennial benches.
There are a few ‘must dos’ with delphiniums. The primary one that I have learned is that delphiniums should be staked. Should is the operative word here. As gardeners we all try to find the time to get all the basic chores done but some, inevitably, fall by the wayside. I have staked this plant in the past but for the last few years it has flowered on thick stalks which seem so very sturdy when they are developing. They are sturdy until the flowers open from the bottom of the spike upward to the last dancing dolphin bud. The volume of the flowers can catch the wind and the rain of a sudden thunderstorm and in just a few moments of unbridled nature’s passion, those six foot spikes bend and break along with one’s heart. Heartbreak which could be avoided.
Last year the delphiniums looked like this and this year the gardener has once again been taught a lesson as the delphinium takes the fall.
The delphinium received its name from the Greek word delphis which means dolphin. The delphinium flower has a characteristic spur on the back of the flower and flower bud which does look a bit like a swimming dolphin or a school of dolphins, especially if one squints.
If you have ever seen rows of delphiniums such as these in the trial gardens at Wisley in England, Wisley Trial Gardensyou will be unable to resist the urge to try a few in your border. Site them in an area of full sun, rich, well drained soil, and out of reach of strong winds. It is important to site the plants correctly as established plants do not transplant easily. Delphiniums do prefer neutral pH but they will tolerate slight variations from neutral. Compost is a great addition to the planting area as delphiniums are heavy feeders.
Do you have delphiniums in your garden? I am currently trying to devise a better staking method than bamboo stakes and string which always looks unsightly. If you have a better staking method to share, please share it here.
Who SAYS the strip of land between your sidewalk and the street has to be covered with turfgrass? Okay, in some places the government actually says that but where I live and elsewhere, homeowners have the opportunity to do something a little more interesting - and less resource-intensive, too. Here you see the curb garden or “hell strip” in front of my house, where I’ve made sure the water-meter guy still has access, and also that this little garden doesn’t block the view of drivers. (Safety first!)
I goofed in not knowing (or inquiring about) permission I should have gotten first from my city before planting anything here, so I’m just lucky I was allowed to keep this garden. Which garden my neighbors, I might add, never seem to tire of admiring, and thanking me for. Public gardening sure has its rewards.
Now about the choice of plants, curb gardens need tough ones because sites don’t get much tougher than this one. They have to be able to handle the usual stresses of heat and drought PLUS cars, snow plows and salt trucks, kids on bikes, and the regular diggings and droppings of all the dogs on the street. I wasn’t about to spend money here, just to see everything destroyed. So everything here was a cast-off or division from other parts of my garden.
And it’s important to note that this spot can be garden-like, crammed full of plants of different heights, only because there’s no parking on my side of the street. I’ve seen some great curb gardens that DO allow for access to parked cars and I’ll be posting about them soon, right here.
The Plant List
Yoshino cherry tree, a beautyberry shrub, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, common garden phlox, lots of daylily cultivars in assorted colors, and creeping sedums as groundcover.
Four years in the ground, and what’s the result? Absolutely no damage from any of the feared sources, and a pretty garden that’s almost no work. These plants are drought-tolerant, and pretty good at crowding out the weeds. So, a bit of watering, a bit of weeding. Then in late winter I do clean-up - remove dead perennial flowers, hack the grasses back to the ground, and prune the beautybush.
Next stop, a curb garden in Buffalo, New York, the city with the largest garden tour in America. (Every July over 300 gardens are open to the public over two days, all free. More about Garden Walk Buffalo here.)
Portland, Oregon And from the West Coast, below you see a high-impact garden packed in between the street and the unseen sidewalk.
Inspired yet? One New York Times writer was inspired to do something creative in his Minneapolis hell strip, and recounts the transition here. I’ll be asking for an update next year, so hopefully more will be revealed.
I always try to get people to think outside the box by showing them different options to use in their container plantings. That means not just annuals, but groundcovers, perennials… even houseplants can be used to create unique and colorful combinations. The best part is that afterwards, some plants can either be planted in the ground or brought inside to enjoy through the winter, giving you much more bang for your buck.
So my colleague Maria and I created four summer arrangements at our Brighton store and gave them fun names, hoping to inspire you all to try something different. Here you go.
SoCal, for full sun
We were “California dreaming” when we planted the lantana in this box, where it grows into a large bush in the southern part of the state. This combo also includes verbena, licorice plant and petunias.
The Charms of Dublin, for part to full shade
What epitomizes Ireland better than shamrocks and ferns? (Besides leprechauns of course!) Both can be brought indoors and used as houseplants in the fall. Also included are lobelia, fuschia and rex begonias. Begonias also double as house plants.
Bombay Nights, for part sun, part shade
These colors reminded us of the hot nights and beautiful saris worn in India. If planted in the ground, the lysmachia will return in the spring. Also included are cordyline, setcreasea, and new guinea impatiens.
Aztec Gold, for full sun
These plants worship the sun, just as the Aztecs did thousands of years ago. We paired annuals and perennials to create this unique combination. Also used here are the perennials rumex and heucheral; and annuals cordyline, calibrachoa, euphorbia and verbena.
I read surprisingly few gardening books, maybe because after all these years I think - what could be new? So I’m pleasantly surprised when I come across a new book that does seem new, at least to me, and here are three that I actually read and enjoyed.
Gardening for a Lifetime by Sydney Eddison
This may seem like a book for older gardeners, but it’s not. It’s for low-mobility and low-maintenance gardeners of all types - and doesn’t that include most of us? And this long-time gardener covers not just the usual ways to garden with less physical strain - raised beds - but tips we don’t usually see, like switching out perennials and annuals for shrubs, and how to find hired help.
Favorite quotes? “It took a great deal of effort to make my garden as high-maintenance as it is,” and she “loved digging great big holes and moving plants around all the time.That was the point of it all.”So it’s due entirely to annoying developments like hip replacement surgery that Eddison even consideredswitching to low-maintenance gardening.
Eddison is also simply a delight to read. Honest writing from someone who’s been there, but doesn’t pretend she knows better than anyone else. Now I’ll have to check out her five previous books.
I had the chance to chat with Eddison by phone and was so taken with her, I’m bound and determined to visit her and her garden…somewhere in Connecticut.
Doubtful at first that I needed a whole book to tell me to grow shade trees, I was surprised to find that Energy-Wise Landscape Design covers the whole waterfront of eco-gardening - buying locally grown plants, avoiding peatmoss, conserving water, improving the soil, filling our gardens with as many large, healthy plants as possible, and more. All very thorough, readable, and practical, from a Massachusetts garden designer.
My favorite part of the book is the large section dealing with lawns - a hot topic today. Reed’s message isn’t anti-lawn but simply: Why have more than you need? And if you DO have lawn, her “Five Problems with Conventional Lawn Treatment” might inspire you to switch to the more natural lawn care she promotes.
I swear, I’d never once shown an interest in flower arranging, but this engaging writer changed that. In her latest book Suzy Bales turns readers on to some very cool and unconventional techniques for arranging, plus topics like mock topiaries, mini-trees, and how to coax buds to open. And she uses not just the predictable flowers but also vines, foliage, shrubs and tree branches. I’ve long been a fan of Bales’s writing (starting with her Down to Earth Gardener) and this, her fourth book, didn’t disappoint.
And Bales is one garden writer whose garden I HAVE actually seen - just this summer I visited her in her Long Island garden. So how about sometime this winter when we’re starved for color we take a tour through Suzy’s garden - and then tour all the other awesome Long Island gardens she showed me over two action-packed days of touring? Okay, it’s a date.
Are your petunias doing well this year? If not why?
My petunias weren’t looking very floriferous. Weak in the blossom department.
Knowing that petunias don’t like the heat, my first thought was that the summer heat got to them. Also, they like regular feedings, and maybe I didn’t feed them enough in the weeks before I went away.
But then I looked more closely and noticed that the few flowers that were there were eaten with those infamous black dots all over the foliage.
Finally, I found the insect - the petunia budworm - and remembered that it caused the same problem last year, too. This caterpillar will devour petunia flowers in a couple days, so most people think it’s just time to give up on them when in fact, mine came back to life in a couple days. I sprayed the petunias with Bonide’s Captain Jack Organic Spray and fed them with some water-soluble fertilizer and they bounced back to full bloom in about three days.
Since then, I’ve had about 20 people come into the Chelmsford garden center with the same problem, so I’m posting this “fyi” for people who are about to give up on their petunias: They may notbe lost after all; check for the symptoms.
Photo source and for more information: Penn State.
One of my favorite gardens to visit in New England is Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boyleston, MA. I first visited Tower Hill about 15 years ago and immediately joined their membership roll. Botanic gardens, I believe, are a great equalizer in society and as a true lover of horticulture, it makes sense to support a public garden that offers continuing education, gardens with a wide variety of labeled plants, and beautiful spaces created for the enjoyment of all.
This botanic garden houses the third oldest horticultural society in the country, the Worcester County Horticultural Society, founded in 1842. The mission statement of the WCHS is as follows”
” …educational organization for the purpose of
advancing the science and encouraging and improving
the practice of horticulture …”
The Trustees of the Society voted to establish a botanic garden in 1983 and the master plan was unveiled in 1988. In just over 30 years, this garden has evolved and will continue to evolve along the lines of that master plan, with completion slated for 2040. It is a daunting task and the current changes include the new entry design and the ongoing construction of the Winter Garden. New pool in Winter Garden You can find out more about Tower Hill here (just click on the highlighted word).
Tower Hill is a destination garden which welcomes the whole family. You can stroll through the visitor’s center, the orangerie, the systematic garden and on through Pliny’s Alleefollowing the trail which loops up through the woods. Pliny’s Allee The trail then leads down and around the pond area, which the kids will love. There’s always something there to catch the eye and delight both adults and children. Fur BallsThis unusual annual, Gomphocarpus physocarpus or ‘Fur Balls’, is just an example of some of the interesting annuals that are planted seasonally in the gardens. As you can see, the bees love it.
One of my favorite gardens at Tower Hill is the vegetable garden, which is at its peak in August and early September. Every year it has a different theme, with vegetables and annuals being used to complement the color scheme. In 2007, there was a red/orange theme and in 2008, it was a purple theme. Last year yellow was the predominant color through the garden and deep colors were used to highlight the structures and the companion plantings.
This year brings a rainbow of color to the garden, along with some more unusual vegetables that are growing in popularity, such as this lacinato kale. It’s the crinkly, blue-leaved plant next to the yellow stakes..Lacinato kale
While the vegetable garden changes dramatically every year, the other gardens are evolving as the trees, shrubs and perennials grow and prosper.
Tower Hill Botanic Garden is one of New England’s horticultural gems and a visit should be on every gardener’s list. Have you been to Tower Hill and, if so, what caught your eye?
In honor of Gardenblogger Bloom Day, of course. Click here to see what’s blooming on August 15 in 100+ other gardens around North America and possibly farther afield.
First up, here one of my favorite combos in a border that frankly, doesn’t have enough good ones (you know how borders are works in progress? Well, this one could use some more progress, absolutely.) At the top you see the panicle-shaped white blooms of the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’. Nice long blooms. In the middle there are some just-fading blooms of the Globle Thistle (Echinops) with a tiny bit of Salvia ‘May Knight’ bloom showing on the left. And covering the ground in front is some of a great-performing Lamb’s Ear - Stachys ‘Helene von Stein’.
Above, a mighty fine rebloom on a Spirea ‘Anthony Waterer’.
Above, a new acquisition, the Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti”, hardy to Zone 6. It’s attracting hummingbirds, the first ones I’ve seen in my garden in ages.
Who doesn’t love Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’?
And moving to my front yard we see a mishmash of color here. One Knockout rose (which I should never have planted in front of perennials, so I’ll be moving it this fall), with some black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’) and the lovely Russian sage (Perovskia), which I should never have planted in this space, where it gets no notice. I’ll be moving it, also - to my curbside garden, where it’ll be noticed.
Finally, I love the Alyssum blooming in what used to be my front lawn. I planted this annual by seed in 2009, and this year it seeded itself. Looks mighty pretty with these creeping sedums.
If you have a lawn service, great; this is being taken care of. But for MOST of you, listen up. If your lawn could be better (be honest), it’s almost time to do something about it or hate it for another season. As soon as the temperatures drop into the high 70s during the day is the ideal time to making your lawn thicker - not just so it’ll look better but because thick lawns keep the weeds at bay. Then later in the fall you probably should feed your lawn, and we’ll post about that when the time comes.
How to Overseed Your Lawn
(This information is for cool-season turfgrass like fescues or Kentucky bluegrass that most of you grow, not for warm-season grasses like Zoysia or Buffalograss.)
Mow at the lowest possible setting, with a grass-catcher if you have one.
Rake the area with a grass rake, leaving no debris. This is important to ensure direct contact between seed and soil.
This a good time to do the recommended yearly addition of organic matter to your lawn by spreading a 1/2-inch layer of compost before seeding.
Spread seed — about 1/2 the amount used for a brand new lawn. Buy the highest quality mix you can find — it’ll probably be more disease-resistant, drought-tolerant and attractive, as well. And a mix is definitely best because it’ll be less vulnerable to any particular disease. The best grasses for sunny areas are tall fescues; for shade, creeping fescues. (Click here to learn about Mike Mahoney’s absolute favorite grass seed, and how it won his heart.)
Water, and here’s where most grass seed is wasted. Those little seeds will DIE if they’re allowed to dry out, so your number one job is to keep them moist for 3 weeks or so. Watering should be shallow — getting the top 1/4 inch wet is enough — but you may have to water twice a day(especially if it’s hot). You could buy a cheap timer for your sprinkler to take care of the late afternoon watering while you’re at work. (Don’t even THINK about going on vacation for the next month, though — or more accurately, don’t think about planting seed just before leaving town). Missing a day or two of watering can mean wasting a whole lotta of that grass seed you just applied.
After 3 weeks, you can water less frequently but more deeply.
Mow when the old grass reaches 3 inches.
Got Patches? Now’s the Time to Seed Them, Too
Remove plant debris with garden rake (or cultivator for a small spot).
Especially if your soil is clay, it’s helpful to spread some compost over the area.
Smooth with a rake or smaller tool, like your hand.
Sprinkle a modest (not too thick) layer of premium grass seed over the spot.
Tamp it down with your hands.
Apply a thin (1/4 inch) layer of straw, sifted compost, or soil-less growing medium as mulch.
Water at least daily to keep the seeds constantly moist for 3 weeks, as you would for overseeding the whole lawn.