Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

Dictamnus- Gas Plant

Day 13

I love unusual plants. What I love even more are unusual plants that are long lived perennials and require no fuss- no staking, dividing, spraying, nothing. Add to that  excellent, glossy, disease free foliage that looks good from spring until fall and you have a perfect description of Dictamnus, referred to as the gas plant.

What a strange common name! Rumor has it that that when the flower is in bloom, you can hold a lit match next to it and it will pop. I don't know of anyone who has done this successfully but I do know that a shipment of Dictamnus roots was not allowed into the country from Holland after 9/11 because the roots were deemed potential explosives. The leaves, stems, flowers, and roots are full of a very aromatic, strong essential oil that smells a bit like lemons. I can recognize this scent on a warm, humid day if I simply walk near the plants. I am especially on the lookout for my gas plant when weeding in the summer because I am allergic to it! I belong to a small group of people who have a phytotoxic reaction to the oil, causing a deep red mark and a burning sensation on my skin. This takes a few weeks to go away. I was surprised the first time it happened but I had seen the same effect on one of my employees who was allergic to rue so I quickly figured it out. Now I just enjoy this plant and if I need to get near it to weed, I wear long sleeves. I haven't had a problem since.

Why grow a plant that you are allergic to? Good question. I LOVE Dictamnus. It is as permanent in the garden as Baptisia or peonies. It takes up to five years to establish a good sized clump, but then you can just forget about it. It flowers in late May and June, pairing beautifully with irises, peonies, and coral bells. I have seem many people use them as cut flowers, but not me, for obvious reasons.

I am also allergic to Russian sage (Perovskia) and Rhododendrons. With these two plants, I have a coughing fit when working amongst them. That doesn't mean I don't grow Perovskia. It is on of my primary plants for full sun and dry soil, especially where deer are an issue. Luckily, it requires little work on my part. Rhododendrons only make me cough when I climb inside of them to prune them. In June, I often do drastic pruning deep inside the plant to reduce the height and open up the inside to get more light, thus encouraging branching. I also love to clean out all the dead wood in the middle of the plants as it makes them look so architectural. I simply put a bandana over my face when doing this work and that seems to do the trick.

If you spot a Dictamnus plant at the nursery, you will probably be disappointed to find a tiny sprig of a thing for a large price. Because they are hard to propagate and REALLY slow growing, they are expensive. Let's just say they don't fly off the retail benches like other plants. Only people who know what they are and what they can become will get excited to see them as they are pretty rare in the trade. I observed a nice sized plant linger on our benches for one entire growing season. It actually was the biggest plant I had ever seen in a pot and I had admired many gas plants in old, established gardens. Finally, in November, I couldn't stand it any more, took it home, and gave it a place of honor in my garden. Now I have a nice big gas plant to admire, and dance around, from spring until fall.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

Baptisia makes a wonderful companion to bearded irises

A deep red bearded iris just beginning to open, surrounded by Allium 'Purple Sensation'

Deep red bearded iris with Siberian iris in the background. To the left is Crambe maritima or sea kale. The white flowers are fragrant!
Day 12

One of the most interesting aspects to being a garden designer is creating good marriages. Combining plants that have contrasting shapes, textures, and forms makes every plant in the marriage "pop". Of course, the plants have to like the same conditions such as high or low light, wet or dry soil, and so forth. They have to be of a fairly equal growth rate or one will overtake the other.

The trickiest part is to figure out exactly which plants bloom at the exact same time. I did an extensive study of this subject, which is the subject of my book Succession of Bloom in the Perennial Garden. Of course, it only deals with Connecticut, the only state I know about in minute detail. 

Lately, with the extremes of heat and cold coming at strange times, plants have been tending to bloom differently than my 25 years of observation has tracked. Still, there are some classic combinations that seem foolproof. When talking about bearded irises, I have a few favorites. Of course, irises, peonies, and poppies spring to mind immediately. I adore all Baptisias, especially now that they are available in such a wide range of colors. They pair beautifully with bearded irises as they are two completely different flower forms. Crambe maritima, or sea kale, is rare in the trade, but I have had a huge patch of it at Natureworks for over 20 years. Big, broad, blue green cabbage-like foliage is the same color as bearded iris leaves, but the low, round heads of delicate white flowers are a perfect foil for all of the colors of the rainbow that these irises can produce. June blooming Alliums are also fun, as you can surround the patches of irises with these bulbs in the fall and viola! A magical marriage bursts forth. 

One of my key design techniques is to always be on the lookout for good plant marriages. Once I see them, I can plug them into future plans. Sometimes they are serendipitous- self sown plants land where I least expect them and create a marriage I would never have thought of. But believe you me, once I see it, I won't forget to use it again!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

My snow crocus 'Cream Beauty' are starting to emerge. The early pollinators love these.

Hamamelis vernalis 'Purpurea' is in bloom today

Iris histrioides 'Katherine Hodgkin' is an amazing early iris planted from bulbs in the fall. I took this picture last February. I wonder when it will bloom this year?

I gardened for many hours yesterday. I am continuing to cut down wild, native perennials in my back shrub border. I also weeded, words I have never uttered in January before. Ground ivy, the bane of my garden life, is everywhere and comes out in large sheets right now. 

Every half hour I made the rounds of my garden, looking to see how much my early spring blooming bulbs had grown. The snow crocuses appeared and grew 1/4" during the afternoon. Snowdrops were in bud and stayed that way. On the south side of my house, I peaked under my evergreen boughs to see that the Iris reticulata are still in tight bud. The boughs were put on in early January when I first noticed them poking up out of the ground. I am trying to keep the hot sun off of them to stop them from flowering and then freezing.

I picked the remaining dried leaves off off of my purple witch hazel as it was starting to flower! The pussywillows are cracking and I was tempted to bring in an armload of forsythia to force. It's been quite a month.

I remember a few years ago when we had an exceptionally warm winter and insanely early spring, I couldn't stop exclaiming every time I looked out the window how "scary" it was to see things blooming so out of synch. It got to the point that my husband, who is not a gardener AT ALL, finally said to me one day "I refuse to join you on the deck for a glass of wine unless you promise me that you won't be giving me the doom and gloom report about plants blooming at the wrong time". It made me realize two things. One, I am totally tuned into when plants are supposed to bloom. I guess that is expected since I wrote a book about it! Second, I take what is happening in nature to heart and worry about it. Oh silly me. I can't control what happens. I might as well just get out there and enjoy it. Which is exactly what I did yesterday and plan on doing again today!

What's blooming in YOUR garden now?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

This is a miniature, early blooming iris given to me by a customer. Iris pumila? I wish I knew the variety name. I DO know that it blooms in mid-May with the last of the daffodils, is very fragrant, and has occasionally rebloomed in the fall!

Iris germanica 'Swingtown' is magnificent. It blooms in late May and June with my red peonies and red pyrethrum daisies. Quite a contrast!
Day 10

I am totally, madly in love with irises. All irises. There is something about their flower form, their voluptuousness, their drama that makes my heart soar. Luckily for me, I have irises blooming in my garden from February until July, with repeat blooms in the fall on a few varieties.

Years ago, one of my customers gave me a bag of iris rhizomes in August. I happened to be moving that year, so I didn't plant them. I kept them in a flat of soil and put them in a protected spot until I moved. The next spring, I finally planted them in my new home. Imagine my surprise the following spring when they came up and they were miniature! They bloomed in May. I was enchanted. In the past 8 years I have moved divisions all around my gardens and given many away.

In late May and June, my yard is filled with every color of bearded (German) irises that I can squeeze in. Because most of my yard is poorly drained, thick clay soil, they can only be planted in my courtyard, on the slope by the driveway, and in my main border outside my design studio. That's okay, those are the locations where I spend the most time. Bearded irises like well drained, alkaline soil. They have a swollen rhizome which stays on the soil surface. Plant them in a wet spot and they will die. I have other irises for my poorly drained lower back yard.

Iris is the goddess of the rainbow. Irises come in every color of the rainbow. During the brief 2-3 weeks when my bearded irises are in bloom, I am in heaven. I wander from flower to flower, sinking my nose deep in the blossoms, inhaling the scent of cotton candy! I photograph them. I stare at them. They are just so amazing and intricate. 

Over the course of this 365 day blog, I will be sharing with you all sorts of irises that I grow and love. Just thinking about them helps take the edge off of this dreary winter day.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

A blue primrose that is no longer available.

"Lucie's Pink' mums bloom in late October and November

Persicaria 'Blackfield' is a wonderful rich color.
Day 9

I am beginning my annual, very tedious and lengthy review process of all of the perennials I have pre-booked for the 2012 spring growing season. This work begins in late summer of the year previous. I finally got my master print out last night. 

I am a bit worried about a trend that is happening in the world of plants. Many large, wholesale nurseries have closed recently. The recession and the changing demographics have taken their toll. The ones that are surviving or thriving have tended to reduce their offerings, eliminating the really rare and unusual plants that they only sold in small numbers. Branding is big (think Proven Winners) and I am seeing homogenization in the industry. Everyone is growing the same varieties of the most popular plants.

Being a total plant geek and wanting to offer fascinating diversity to my customers, this makes me worried and sad. I have one acre at Natureworks and close to two acres at home. I have lots of rare and unusual plants in the ground as a "safety net" in case I can't get them any more. A few of my favorites are shown above. Super late, heirloom mums that extend the season by a month. Unusual colors of long blooming plants. You get the picture.

If you are reading this, you should pay attention to this trend. If you are growing something that you LOVE and couldn't live without, grow lots of it. That way, you can be sure to have it if the growers decide it's not worth their time and costs them too much money to produce it for market.

I would love to know what plants you are growing just in case...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

The fasciated pussywillow has curly, twisted stems. Here it is forced in a vase with fragrant Abeliophyllum.

Day 9

Yesterday I walked around the nursery yard at Natureworks. It was such a beautiful day and I guess I was looking for signs of life. I wasn't disappointed. I happened upon a weeping pussywillow that was beginning to open! What a stir is gives the heart to see pussywillows in January. We are experiencing quite a mild winter so far, and the plants are reacting to it. 

I have three pussywillow varieties in my yard. The first is what I call Mr. Paine's pussywillows. These are rooted branches from my old friend Arthur Paine in Stony Creek. He used to bring bunches of his triple-catkin beauties up to my shop on the corner. He called them "the mama cat and the two kittens". :) When he got too old to harvest them himself, we would go and cut them for him. The second type is the black pussywillow. These have a special place in my heart because the year I got married my friend Sharon had a shower for me. The centerpieces were black pussywillows and branches of Abeliophyllum. This fragrant white flowering shrub has black buds, a perfect match for the black catkins. The third kind is the fasciated pussywillow, with twisted, flattened stems, a flower arranger's dream. 

My heavy, poorly drained, thick clay soil in the "back forty" is perfect for these plants. In fact, they are huge. No problem. They LOVE to be pruned in late winter. In fact, Mr. Paine taught me that you should cut them all with a chain saw REALLY hard every winter to encourage the best stems for forcing. I don't do that, but I do take my lopping shears and cut all the new growth off I can reach. They just grow right back every year.

Pussywillows are really important for habitat creation. The catkins open to flowers, which means they are covered with yellow pollen which is treasured by our native bees. Certain butterflies, which use pussywillows as their larval food source, migrate to the flowering of the pussywillows. I am thrilled that my yard is such an ideal spot for these wonderful plants. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It only took a week for my witch hazel branches to open in the house!

 Day 8

Intoxicating. Spicy. The first scent of spring fills my design studio. The 'Arnold's Promise' witch hazel branches that I picked last Wednesday are in full, glorious bloom in a vase on my drawing board this morning. Heaven.

Fragrances conjure up all sorts of things. When I smell witch hazel, I immediately think of the CT Flower and Garden Show. Countless witch hazels are forced for the garden displays at the yearly pre-spring event. I always bring a huge vase of open flowers and display them high up on a book case for all to enjoy. The week that we return from the show, the last week of February, the large 'Arnold's Promise' witch hazel tree right outside the picture window at Natureworks starts to bloom. It gives us color for a month!
Last fall, my witch hazels suffered terribly in the Halloween weekend snowstorm. I never realized that they had v-shaped crotches, which are very weak. The leaves were on the trees and a foot of wet, heavy snow fell. They split apart. I was determined to save them. Based on the advice of seasoned nurserymen after the terrible ice storms of the winter of 2011, I tried bolting them together. I am thrilled to say so far so good. The flower buds on both my yellow and purple witch hazels are plump and healthy.  

As I continue to design and develop my own personal patch of paradise, fragrant plants are high on my list of criteria. Sitting here today inhaling the spicy scent of witch hazel has made a huge difference in my mood. I gives me hope. Spring is coming. The flower buds on the early blooming plants already know it!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

 Day 7

Thank goodness for birds in the winter garden. Yesterday, I talked to many people who were feeling the January "blahs". Perhaps it was the gray day, the dirty snow, the drizzle and rain. For me, it is flower deprivation. I look outside and I don't see flowers, those beautiful gifts of nature that feed my soul. But I do see birds. Man, are they happy right now! My feeders are filled with black oil sunflower seeds. They have lots of safe places to perch: my 'Knockout' rose that sits just below one feeder, my upright juniper that grows next to another, a weeping cherry set between the two, and a long hedgerow of Norway spruces to escape to if a cat appears. 

I get to sit in my home office and watch the show. Naturally, I have one feeder right outside the window where I sit typing on my computer. I am visited by red cardinals, juncoes, nuthatches, bluejays, and, of course, chickadees. My favorite, cheerful friends of winter. 

When I go outside to fill the feeder, the word gets out quickly. A previously silent day will erupt in bird song. Little trills at first, then an animated chatter. I know they must have a special language that says "fresh seed!". Now they perch in the thorn bushes right next to me, waiting with anticipation. I don't frighten them one bit.

The gift I get, besides this winter enjoyment, is self sown sunflowers all over my yard every summer. I haven't planted them for years, yet they come up everywhere. I have learned to selectively thin them out or they will swallow up all my unusual perennials I have worked so hard to establish. 

I am so happy with this arrangement, my own little wildlife habitat that sustains itself pretty nicely. I woke up early this morning to write and design, and my bubble of happiness was burst when Diane sent me this link:

National Wildlife Federation Teams Up with Scotts Miracle Gro

Read it and weep.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

I took this closeup of a cool striped bug on my trumpet vine. 

Day 6

I've been thinking a lot lately about color and how it affects us all. When I was in Atlanta, I attended a Trendspotting seminar. It turns out that the Pantone 2012 color of the year is Tangerine Tango. This is a color that is warm yet exciting. As a garden designer, I always ask my clients at the beginning of the process to tell me which colors they do and don't like. A majority of people say "no orange". This has been going on for years. So, how does a designer like me who wants to keep up with the trends deal with this color? First of all, just because someone doesn't like orange, it doesn't mean that they won't respond favorably to it. I tested my theory by putting in an orange garden at Natureworks. Guess what? Everyone is drawn to this garden like a magnet. I don't think it's the orange so much as what we pair it with. Orange and purple. Orange and blue. Orange, in the form of a peachy tangerine with soft, creamy yellow. Orange oriental poppies, yellow Baptisia, blue perennial bachelor's buttons. This photograph makes people gasp aloud. 

Sometimes you need to infuse a bright accent color into a garden to draw the eye to a particular section. Other times, color will carry the viewer along, telling them where to go next. If you think you don't like orange, start looking around your world and see what affect Tangerine Tango type colors have on your mood. We're not just talking gardens here- they are pretty much white and gray today unless you are a master of winter color. Look at the retail displays when you shop for clothing or home accessories. Look at the advertisements on television or in magazines. It's an interesting experiment.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

 When I was a kid, growing up in city in the north end of Hartford, we played outside all day. We were called in for meals. In the winter, my father flooded our back yard and made an ice skating rink. Even though I never had a garden until I was 20, I grew up in nature.

Day 5
Recently, my staff and I have been organizing a series of workshops for our Grow Organic Kids program. We have had a children's garden at Natureworks for quite a few years, but the kids don't seem to find it and use it the way I had envisioned. This year, we are going to try and actively involve kids in nature projects.

One inspiration for this focus is Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods. The subtitle is Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. His premise is that "direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults". As gardeners, we all know this deep down in our bones. But if you think about the kids of today who were raised with computers, cell phones, texting, and television from day one, you will realize that we've got a problem on our hands.

Have you ever driven to work in the morning and seen neighborhoods of kids standing, waiting for the bus, texting on their cell phones? Not looking around at the birds, or exploring what the world is like around them. Heads down, fingers flying, texting. 

Yet, when you interact with kids, and show them a birds nest filled with baby birds, teach them to observe the life cycle of a butterfly, or plant seeds with them and watch their excitement when they sprout and grow, you will know that it is part of our genetic makeup to connect deeply with nature. 

As a result of Richard Louv's best selling book, a movement has started called LEAVE NO CHILD INSIDE. It is spreading across the country. State governments are paying attention, as are school systems. School gardens are springing up everywhere. Young parents are planting food gardens and including their kids in the process.

I couldn't be happier to see this trend on the rise in our world. I have known this secret to happiness all along. I make it a point to go outside, even in the winter, on every nice day. I helps my mood, helps me sleep, calms me down, and gives me inspiration.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

My walking iris blooms in the winter in my design studio. The flowers last for one day, but they are so fragrant and they just keep on coming all winter long. Just like a spider plant, this plant sends out runners which root easily in water. 
Day 4

When I went to school at UConn for horticulture back in the 70's, I was fairly new to plants. In fact, I had never had a garden in my life until I was 21. My first houseplant was given to me by my roommate Karen Bussolini, now a famous garden photographer, writer, and lecturer. She gave me a cutting of a coleus. My second houseplant was a spider plant. After that, I was hooked. I became intrigued with growing food when I moved next door to an old Irishman who had an amazing food garden. He built his house and root cellar from stone. His garden encompassed his entire backyard. I couldn't stop hanging out with him. 

Pretty soon, I got someone to rototill a garden for me. Within a year, I was enrolled in Rackliffe Hicks with a major in floriculture! I had found my calling. I loved what I was studying and was a sponge for information. During the 70's, houseplants were hot. Since I had started with them and thought they were great, I sought out a houseplant course. There wasn't one. I convinced one of my professors to let me do an independent study. That launched me into a fascinating world of tropical plants. 

When I got out of school, I took a job in a nursery and greenhouse operation. Within a year, I was managing a thriving houseplant department. I was sent to Florida on buying trips and arranged truckloads of tropicals to be delivered regularly. I became a houseplant geek. 

It is now nearly 40 years later and my love of these warm loving beauties has never faded. Interestingly enough, I am now using them in all kinds of summer patio pots and planting them in my gardens. Gone are the days when planting annuals meant red geraniums, yellow marigolds, blue ageratum, and rows of zinnias. Now, we are embellishing our gardens with dramatic tropical foliage plants such as gingers, elephant ears, and cannas. Our container gardens provide us with an opportunity to experiment with a wide range of textures, colors, and fragrances and try new, exciting plants every year. 

I have just spent countless hours deciding what tropicals and unusual annuals I am going to carry at Natureworks this spring. What a wonderful way to spend my winter days! We are living in amazing times. So many rare plants are available to us now. It is going to be a FUN year!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

Day 3

 Do you ever think about siting plants so that they glow in the setting sun? That was my goal when I decided to add two Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' shrubby dogwoods to my lower border. This bed was created when the stone masons excavated for my water garden and patio. Giant piles of rich topsoil had to go somewhere, so I sculpted a long, low berm in the far end of my yard. The sun sets behind this berm, moving from left to right as the season progresses.

I would like to say that I knew exactly what I was doing when I sited these plants, but I have to admit I was lucky. It turns out that when the sun is setting in the winter, it hits the brilliant orange/yellow/coral twigs of this stunning beauty for about 10 minutes each day. If I had placed them any further to the right, it would have missed them. 

I can now sit in my studio and watch these colorful, native shrubs light up and glow at sunset every winter day that the sun shines. In fact, late one afternoon, I was out pruning damaged wood off of my 'Midwinter Fire' plants (damage left over from the Halloween snow storm which wreaked havoc on so many of my woody plants) and the sun hit me. It was a magical moment. 

Now, when I design, I will try and be as accurate as I can be in tracking exactly where the sun goes down during the different months of the year. There are so many other cool plants to try this technique with.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

Day 2

My favorite weatherman died yesterday. Dr. Mel Goldstein was an amazing man. He not only delivered wonderful weather forecasts, he did it with complete joy and passion. 

Weather is everything to a gardener. During the growing season, I wake up at 5:30 and immediately check the weather. It determines how my day is going to work. Weather affects which jobs we can do, whether someone has to water the retail store or not, and if we are going to have a busy day. This was a year of ridiculously extreme weather. Ice storms, blizzards, an earthquake, a hurricane, and a foot of snow on Halloween weekend. All that weather meant broken trees, lost plants, and lost time. Never mind lost power and inconvenience.

To have someone tell you what the weather is going to be at 5:30 in the morning who is happy, cheerful, and enthusiastic makes all the difference in the world. I loved Dr. Mel because he was completely, utterly, 100% IN LOVE with meteorology. He shared that love with all of us. That is exactly the way I feel about gardening. It is one of life's greatest gifts to do what you love every day and be able to share that with the world. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Daily DuBrule

I just got home from a week in Atlanta, spending time with other Top Revolutionary 100 Garden Center winners for 2012. I was inspired by Jenny Gunderson, co-owner of My Garden Nursery in Mill Creek, Washington. She did a blog called "365 days of Heucheras" in 2011, writing about a different Heuchera topic every day! Wow! I thought, if she can do it, so can I. I LOVE to write. I often feel like sharing my horticultural thoughts but know that my weekly email can be too much for some folks. I am not going to focus on any one plant or subject, just a daily ramble. So...let's begin...

Day 1

The wind is howling but the sun is shining. The only snow of 2012 fell two nights ago, but it didn't pack much of a punch. I was actually relieved because of the open winter we've been having, I thought it would protect the plants. Nope. On the south side of my house, the bulbs are once again sticking up out of the ground. Time to put some more evergreen boughs down. Yesterday, on the way to work, I spotted a pussywillow plant in full catkin! This particular plant is always earlier than most, but this is crazy. So, I am venturing out to my courtyard today and picking some 'Arnold's Promise' witch hazel branches. I bet they will open pretty fast in the house. I will also pick some pussywillows. Mine are starting to crack a bit, and have been since late December. I have black ones, regular ones, and fasciated ones. It's time to get the spring fever going, a full month early this year!