Archive | 2011

Hot Tips: Orchids

Years ago, when we lived in California, friends gave us a gift of an exquisite  orchid plant, which was bred by a highly regarded specialty nursery and  arrived with a written pedigree as long as your arm.  In no time Her Orchidness checked out her new surroundings, concluded rightly that she had been adopted by peasants, and promptly committed suicide.  We were devastated and vowed  that  hereafter orchids were persona non grata.   And we  kept that vow for over forty years. 

So consider my husband’s surprise recently when, at the supermarket, an orchid waved its lovely flowering stem at him as it rolled merrily by in my cart.  I confess:  The devil made me do it.

The seductress in question is a moth orchid (Phalaenopsis), a variety now widely available, even in supermarkets, and enormously popular because it is free-flowering  and easy to grow.  Mine  flourishes with benign neglect.  And the colors.  Ah, the colors.  Magenta, buttery yellow, chocolate, white,  lime green, and bicolors with blotches and freckles and every which thing.  Who could resist?  Clearly, not I.

And now for the great  tip I read about in a British garden magazine.  For increased flowering, when the blooms fade don’t cut the entire stem; rather, cut the stem just below the lowest flower, about an inch above the next node down.  The plant should then rebloom in a month or two.  Let me know if this works for you.


Pest- Alert: Box Tree Caterpillar

I like to think of my garden as one of natural exuberance (though some may see it as reckless abandon), and for 23 years I have avoided plants that favor the tightly sheared and closely managed life of a formal landscape. A plant like Box (Buxus), for example.

Alas, the Fates had a different plan in mind. At a recent meeting of my local garden club, I was the “lucky number” winner of Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ , which was hard pruned to resemble a green and ivory pyramid. Poor thing. Yet, there is hope. Its variegated foliage is handsome and once it grows out the plant may be quite attractive.

So that just leaves a pest and disease issue,  particularly problematic for me, an organic gardener. Garden references list over fifteen different problems affecting Box. Moreover, in the December 2011 issue of ” The Garden”, a publication of the Royal Horticultural Society in England, I read about a new horror: the Box Tree Caterpillar, which can completely defoliate plants, and has already done so on mainland Europe. And just this year, it has been found active in private gardens in the U.K.

After a call to the horticultural gurus at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, New York, I was reassured: the caterpillar is not (yet?) a problem in the US. But as it is  native to East Asia ( China, Japan, Korea ) where many of our current and most damaging  pests originate, we had all best keep a watchful eye. Surely one of the downsides of a global society.

Garden DVD:Shade Garden Superstars

There are a slew of garden DVD’s being produced these days, some good, others not so much. One I consult often —- and you will too if you have an interest in shade gardening in general, or Rhododendrons in particular —- is “Elepidote Hybrids In Central New Jersey”. It’s a winner. 

Despite the title, the time-tested information is useful for the entire Northeast and beyond; the detailed  coverage of beautiful large-leafed, flowering, evergreen Rhododendrons is extensive; and the photography is superb. The only problem is that you will probably want most, if not all of the plants . (And wouldn’t the DVD  be a  perfect  gift for the gardener on your list?).

The DVD  ( fifteen dollars plus postage)  is available from the American Rhododendron Society. To purchase, contact: Walter Przypek,

Hot Tips: Great New Plant 2011

While visiting my friend Sharon’s East Hampton garden last summer, I was awed by a marvelous plant aglow with a showy profusion of tubular golden bells. It was Phygelius x rectus ‘Moonraker’, an evergreen subshrub from South Africa.  Phygelius has been featured in a number of British gardens (since 1855) but I didn’t think it was hardy on Long Island (zone 7). Its tag said it was. So we were off to the races.

Phygelius x rectus ‘Moonraker’ is a must-have, even if it doesn’t survive the winter, because it blooms  all summer and into the Fall. And for me, it was disease free — a big plus in an  organic garden.  At the oft-times frigid Chicago Botanic Garden,  Phygelius plants have survived as herbaceous perennials. I’d settle for that, gladly. Furthermore, hybridizers have been busy, so plants are also available with flowers in coppery orange, pink, rose and white. There’s even a new  group of ever-flowering  summer, compact, container plants from a British hybridizer, rated zone 8, called the CandyDropSeries. I have seen pictures. Woo Woo Hubba Hubba. Well worth having  as annuals, and due to cross the pond in the Spring. Look for them too.

Hot Tips: Winter Protection for Roses

Container gardening is very popular but container plants are extremely vulnerable in winter, even if they are hardy when planted in the ground.  One option, of course, is to bring them inside but that is often not convenient or possible.  I have adopted a successful method of protection for my roses in containers; it can also be used for other plants. In December, Garden Centers and such will  be selling evergreen conifer branches for inside holiday decoration. White pine branches work well for outdoor protection. Cover the plants top to bottom with the branches and tie them in. Move the pots together in a group, and that’s it. Unlike other methods (as for example, the use of synthetic cones), conifer branches allow for air circulation, and they look good and smell good. (Check out the photo for the looking part). And, most important, this works.

Copyright 2011


Prunus ‘Snow Fountain’

My spring garden is full of wonder and surprise. One year I was startled by the appearance of a diminutive red tulip, which grew right through the brown-stemmed skeleton of a withered ageratum. How did the tiny bulb get there? Its a mystery to me.

Equally puzzling are the single daffodils that suddenly unfurl hundreds of feet from the bulbs I planted. Daffodils naturalize, but do they also fly?

Perhaps a bird is the carrier. But only one intent on suicide would molest a toxic daffodil bulb; birds are, in fact, health freaks, sensible enough to prefer rose hips which contain 400 times more vitamin C per ounce than oranges.

And that may explain the rosa rugosa which sprang from the middle of a thick mound of juniper on the north side of the house. An unlikely spot for a rose, so unlikely that I’m rather inclined to think its the work of a squirrel, the ultimate haphazard gardener.

To my amazement and delight, the garden plays host to a wide assortment of extraordinary volunteers, so I’m especially careful when I rake and weed because I never know what wonderful plants may magically appear. Like seedlings of my treasure , Prunus ‘Snow Fountain’.

Twenty years ago at the Philadelphia Flower Show I saw this luminous weeping cherry for the first time. I had to have her. Easier said than done. She was not labeled; she was not part of a sponsored exhibit; no one at the show knew who she was or to whom she belonged. Kidnapping crossed my mind but this angel’s 12-foot wide arching wingspan smothered in fragrant, snowy white blossoms was a tad much for the Metroliner.

What’s a crazed, lovesick, gardener to do? Hit the phones, of course. You know, six degrees of separation. It worked. She was identified and two months later she was mine. (Not the Philly goddess. A lovely, young New York model).

And we are living happily ever after. Snow Fountain is very healthy, blooms reliably and heavily every year, and flaunts dazzling Fall foliage in shades of burnt orange and red. When her flowers fade, she produces tiny ornamental fruit that songbirds love.  And thus, the wonderful cherry tree seedlings which pop up in the garden every now and again.

Ain’t Mother Nature grand?

Copyright 2011

Identity Theft

Where is the FBI when you really need them?  Con artists stole my darling Merrill’s identity, and he is so bloody mad it’s enough to make his teeth curl.  That is, if he had teeth.

Merrill is a gorgeous, fragrant, white flowering magnolia, la crème de la crème of magnolias.  No wonder imposters abound.  A few years ago I was reading Montrose:  Life in A Garden by plantswoman Nancy Goodwin, when at pages 37 and 38 I was confronted by a magnolia purporting to be Merrill, flaunting pink buds and flowers with pink stripes.  There’s no pink in Merrill!  I should know; he has graced my garden in Southampton, New York for over twenty years.

Yet upon further reflection I thought, what if my Merrill is the pretender?  I raced to the study and checked the definitive magnolia references.  Ah, vindication!  The experts agree.  No pink in Merrill.  Goodwin’s magnolia must have been wrongly labeled.  (At pages 181-182, she acknowledges that this happened to another of her magnolias.)

Magnolia x loebneri Merrill was hybridized in 1939 at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, the child of a marriage between M. kobus and M. stellata, and in 1952 was named Merrill in honor of Dr. E.D. Merrill, a former director of the Arboretum.  Merrill is part of the hybrid magnolia group loebneri, which originated in Germany with Max Löbner, who made the first kobus/stellata crosses shortly before World War I.  Why is the group styled loebneri and not lobneri?  I haven”t a clue.  But my meaningful-other says the answer is no mystery.  The German letter ö  with a diacritical mark called an umlaut over it  is pronounced ee and is always rendered as oe when German names are spelled out in English texts, unless the translator is sloppy.  (Is anyone still there?)

In the year of Merrill’s christening, the Arbotetum’s publication Arnoldia reported that Merrill was covered with beautiful white flowers (Arnoldia, vol. 12, no. 6, 1952) and thereafter that Merrill was “[o]ne of the best and most vigorous of the early white flowering magnolias (Arnoldia, vol. 20, no. 3/4, 1960).  Indeed, these observations are entirely consistent with all of the documentation provided me by the Arboretum.  Pink is not mentioned in connection with Merrill, not ever.  Case closed.

Magnolia x loebneri Merrill has much to recommend it:  While I garden in USDA zone 7, Merrill will thrive in zones 5 to 8.  Growth is rapid , two feet a year , and my trees are now over 30 feet tall.  Despite the energy invested in such vigorous growth, Merrill bloomed abundantly at an early age and reliably every year thereafter.  The beautiful, snowy-white flowers have a lovely fragrance which carries on the air.  Come Fall, when the lustrous green foliage turns a rich autumnal gold, plump scarlet red fruit attracts an assortment of migrating birds.

Why settle for less?

Copyright 2011


The Real Dirt: “Try It, You’ll Like It”

In ancient Greece, kings and such would quickstep over to the Temple of Delphi to ask the Gods questions about important matters of state – when to wage war, what to serve at an orgy, that sort of thing – and the temple priestess or Pythia would fall into a frenzied, writhing trance, and, foaming at the mouth, would spit out their divine recommendations. Without the frenzy and foaming (except for the weeks before the plant catalog is due at the printer), Anne Haines of RareFind Nursery is a modern-day plant Pythia. Ask for a recommendation and she will suggest a treasure like Rhododendron ‘Marshy Point’s Humdinger.’ For me, this aptly named autumn and spring flowering evergreen azalea was a blooming machine, flaunting glowing, double pink flowers from September to mid-December, stopped only by continuous days of hard frost, and then again in spring.  Truly, a plant fit for a king!

Copyright 2011