Tag Archive: Russell Stafford

  1. Landscape Shrubs that Tolerate Salt

    Pink Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’)

    Salt can be a winter lifesaver for cars and pedestrians.  It can also be murder on the garden, sometimes literally.  Most de-icing salt contains sodium, which is toxic to many plant species.  Even when used sparingly, it can find its way onto the leaves and roots of nearby plants, disfiguring or killing them.

    One of the best ways to prevent salt damage to your garden is to use plant species that can handle some sodium.  The five shrubs described below are a great place to start. They’re perfect for framing and sheltering gardens in salt-exposed sites, such as roadsides and seashores.

    Chokeberries (Aronia spp.)

    Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia, image by Abrahami)

    Brilliant foliage in fall, attractive clusters of white flowers in spring, and adaptability to a wide range of soil conditions are among the many merits of these handsome, disease-resistant shrubs from wetlands and uplands of central and eastern North America.  Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) doubles down on the fall color by covering itself with bright red berry-like fruits that persist into winter.  Happiest in moist soil, it slowly expands into suckering, 8- to 10-foot-tall clumps that are at their most luxuriant in full sun.  Its abundantly fruiting cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ is particularly showy.  Smaller in size and less flashy in fruit, black chokeberry (Aronia  melanocarpa)  typically forms a thicketing, 3- to 5-foot shrub with glossy, rich-green leaves and edible black fruits.   Varieties of this exceptionally drought-tolerant shrub include the compact growers, ‘Autumn Magic’ and ‘Iroquois Beauty’, as well as ‘Viking’, which is cultivated for its relatively large, tasty fruit that’s excellent for juices, preserves, and baked goods.  The fruits of all chokeberries are favorites of birds.  Aronia arbutifolia is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 4; A. melanocarpa to Zone 3.

    Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)

    The suckering, upright, 3- to 8-foot-tall stems of this eastern North American native are lined with lustrous, serrated, dark green leaves and topped in midsummer with fuzzy steeples of white or pinkish, root-beer-scented flowers.  The leaves turn bright yellow in fall, and the persistent, peppercorn-like fruits make a pleasant winter garden feature.  Sweet pepperbush comes in numerous varieties, including low-growing ‘Hummingbird’, pink-flowered ‘Ruby Spice’, and late-summer-blooming ‘September Beauty’.  All forms do best in moist soil and full to partial sun in USDA Zones 5 to 8.

    Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

    Female Inkberry (Ilex glabra, Image by David Stang)

    Its leathery, salt-tolerant, evergreen leaves and rounded habit would recommend inkberry for eastern North American gardens, even if it weren’t native to much of the region.  Most varieties become leggy 6- to 8-footers with age, so you might want to opt for a compact, densely leaved cultivar such as the 4-foot-tall ‘Shamrock’.  Female inkberries produce small, black, relatively inconspicuous fruits in fall, although white-fruited ‘Ivory Queen’ is a notable exception.  All cultivars are hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 8.

    Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica)

    Female Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica, Image by Jessie Keith)

    Recently redubbed Morella pensylvanica, bayberry will no doubt continue to be known to gardeners under its former botanical name, Myrica pensylvanica.  A signature species of salt-sprayed coasts from the Maritimes to the Carolinas, it’s literally a natural for salt-tolerant plantings in the eastern U.S. (and an excellent choice for other locations in USDA Zones 3 to 7).  All of its parts – from the leathery, deciduous or semi-evergreen leaves to the waxy berries (on female plants) – possess a silver-gray cast and a pleasingly pungent fragrance, made famous by the candles that bear its essence and its name.  Mockingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, and other songbirds feed on the fruits in winter.

    Lilac (Syringa spp.)

    Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris, image by Jessie Keith)

    Almost all Syringa species boast moderate to high salt tolerance, reflecting their origins in arid regions of Asia and eastern Europe.  Although best known in the form of the ever-popular common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), the genus includes numerous other garden-worthy species and hybrids, many of which are relatively scarce in gardens.  Among the best of these for hedging and screening are littleleaf lilac (Syringa pubescens ssp. microphylla ‘Superba’), well worth growing for its aromatic, pale pink flowers that appear in late spring and summer on dense, dainty-leaved, 6-to 8-foot plants; cutleaf lilac (Syringa protolaciniata), distinguished by its deeply lobed leaves, compact arching habit, and pale lilac-purple spring flowers; and Chinese lilac (Syringa × chinensis), which in its best forms (such as ‘Lilac Sunday’) weights its stems with armloads of pale purple flowers in mid-spring, a few days before common lilac hits its stride.  Any of the above would make an excellent screen or hedge in a sunny site in USDA Zones 5 to 8.

    Whatever their salt-tolerance, all your plants will do better if you take measures to build their soil and to reduce their exposure to sodium.  Apply an inch or two of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost or several inches of shredded leaves in fall or spring to boost and maintain the levels of sodium-neutralizing organic matter in your soil.  In addition to its many other benefits, mulch also lessens surface evaporation, thereby increasing soil moisture and lowering salt concentrations.

    You can reduce the amount of incoming salt by screening planting areas with structures and salt-tolerant plants, by grading the soil to divert salt-laden surface water, and by using sodium-free de-icers, such as magnesium chloride, on your driveway and paths.  The right plants and the right care can go a long way toward making your garden safe from salt.

  2. Growing Winter Onions and Shallots

    Fall and winter – when most of the vegetable garden is slumbering – is a great time to get a jump on next year’s onion, scallion, and shallot crop.  Most members of the onion tribe (known botanically as Allium) are hardy perennials and biennials that tolerate winters in most areas of the U.S.  Garlic (as discussed elsewhere on this site) is one well-known and often-grown example – but winter onions and shallots are also ideal winter-growing crops for USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 9 (in zones 4 and 5 they need winter protection).
    Read the full article »

  3. Sustainable “Imperfect” Turf Options

    The “perfect lawn” – that oft-celebrated but all-too-rarely achieved carpet of unblemished turf grass – is a seductive concept.  It’s also impossible to grow in most areas of the United States without major inputs of pesticides, fertilizer, water, and labor (as well as cash).  This is not to mention the significant secondary costs that come with chemically supported lawns, such as damage to beneficial soil microbes and the neighboring environment.  What’s good for that velvety green carpet is often not good for other forms of life.
    Read the full article »

  4. Surprise Lilies for Summer and Fall

    The rosy blooms of Lycoris incarnata almost look candy striped. (photo courtesy of Jim Murrain)

    Commonly known as “magic lily,” plants in the genus Lycoris are, in fact, much more closely related to amaryllis than to their namesake. But they do bring plenty of magic to the landscape when they open their large funnel-shaped flowers on tall naked stems in mid- to late summer. Several are winter-hardy to boot, creating all sorts of delicious possibilities for gardens in USDA Hardiness Zone 5 and warmer. With their showy amaryllis-like flowers and their tolerance of bitter winters and partial shade, these bulbs from East Asia make marvelous (and miraculous) subjects for cold-climate gardens.
    Read the full article »

  5. Luscious Lilies of Late Summer

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    Tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium) are spectacular tall bloomers that appear in late summer. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Most gardens can use a visual lift in the dog days of late summer.  This is where late-blooming lilies come in.  When their voluptuous, often deliciously scented blooms make their grand entrance in July and August, it’s like a royal fanfare in the landscape.  Goodbye, garden doldrums.

    Read the full article »

  6. Garden Plants that Feed Soil Naturally

    Colorful lupines are some of the prettiest garden flowers that add nitrogen to soil.

    Nitrogen is one of the most essential plant nutrients, and one of the best ways to boost nitrogen in your soil is to grow nitrogen “fixing” plants. This amazing group of plants naturally add nitrogen into the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and converting it into a usable form in the soil. And many are common garden plants that you may already grow, like peas, beans, bayberry, or clover. Read the full article »

  7. Swallowtail Butterfly Gardening

    Lilacs are one of the many plants on the menu for eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.

    Gardeners tend to have a thing for swallowtail butterflies.  Likewise, swallowtails tend to have a thing for certain plants – and certain gardens. The more you incorporate their favorites into your garden, the more they will favor you with their flighty visits. Read the full article »

  8. Four Hardy Fruiting Vines for Edible Landscaping

    Concord grapes are an old-standard hardy grape.

    Hardy fruiting vines bring together two of the hottest trends in horticulture: edible landscaping and vertical gardening.  They are the perfect choice for grow-it-yourself gardeners with limited square footage and a tasty way to clothe a pergola or trellis or provide rapid aerial cover. Read the full article »

  9. The Best Reblooming Shrubs for Summer

    Panicle hydrangea blooms through much of the summer.

    Flowering shrubs do lots of good things in the garden, but their length of bloom often disappoints.  Exceptions do occur, with hybrid roses being the most obvious and ubiquitous example.  They’re not the only shrubs that bloom long and well, though.  Here are seven of the best of the rest.  Their individual flowers may not be as voluptuous as those of a hybrid tea rose, but in other respects – including habit, foliage, and disease-resistance – they more than hold their own.

     

    Littleleaf Lilac and Hybrids

    Littleleaf lilac has smaller blooms that rebloom in midsummer.

    Almost all lilacs are one-and-done bloomers.  Not so with littleleaf lilac ‘Superba’ (Syringa pubescens ssp. microphylla ‘Superba’).  Abundant clusters of sweet-scented, pale lilac-pink flowers open from reddish buds in mid-spring, a few days after those of common lilac.  Then, in midsummer, a miracle occurs, with a second flush of blooms developing on the current season’s growth.  Littleleaf lilac is also attractive out of bloom, forming a dense, rounded, 8-foot specimen clad in dainty, privet-like leaves.  Plant breeders have crossed ‘Superba’ with other lilacs to produce several repeat-blooming cultivars, including those in the Bloomerang® Series.   For maximum rebloom, plant ‘Superba’ and its offspring in full sun and fertile, loamy, near-neutral soil.  A spring top-dressing of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is all to the good.  These lilacs do best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8.

     

    Summer Snowflake Doublefile Viburnum

    Summer snowflake is a reblooming doublefile viburnum. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Viburnums, like lilacs, typically flower for only a couple of weeks per year.  One of the few exceptions is the remarkable ‘Summer Snowflake’ (Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’), whose terraced branches are frosted with flat clusters of white flowers from mid-spring to early fall.  It also differs from other doublefile viburnums in its relatively compact, narrow habit (5 to 7 feet tall and wide).  Although lacking the wide-sweeping drama of full-sized doublefile cultivars, such as ‘Mariesii’ and ‘Shasta’, ‘Summer Snowflake’ literally makes a better fit for foundation plantings and other niches where space is limited.  The leaves take on smoky maroon tones in fall.  All doublefile viburnums perform best in sun to light shade and humus-rich soil, in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.

     

    Weigela Sonic Bloom® Series

    Weigela Sonic Bloom® Pink offers bright color through summer. (Image by Proven Winners)

    Many weigelas throw a few flowers now and then in the months following their main late-spring display.  This has inspired plant breeders to develop new Weigela (Weigela hybrids) cultivars that rebloom not demurely, but with abandon.  Those in the Sonic Bloom® Series are reputed to produce several good flushes of showy, trumpet-shaped blooms not just in late spring, but throughout summer and early fall.  Sonic Bloom® weigelas flower in pink, purple, or white, depending on the variety.  These relatively recent introductions have yet to prove their mettle in many parts of the U.S. – but they’re well worth a try in a sunny spot in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.  At 4 to 5 feet high and wide, they won’t take much space while you’re putting them through their paces.

     

    Caucasian Daphne

    A parent of the variegated, briefly blooming Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, Caucasian daphne (Daphne × transatlantica) is in most ways superior to its popular offspring.  Where it particularly outdistances ‘Carol’ is in its repeat, spring-to-fall display of tubular, white, sweet-scented blooms.  The dainty, oval, semi-evergreen leaves are also attractive and are strikingly variegated in forms such as ‘Summer Ice’.  Most varieties of this outstanding daphne top out at about 3 feet tall, with their branches splaying with age (or with heavy snow).  It does well in sun to light shade in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

     

    Panicle Hydrangea

    The flowers of ‘Pinky Winky’ panicle hydrangea darken in color as they age. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Not many years ago, panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) was represented in gardens almost exclusively by the mop-headed cultivar ‘Grandiflora’ (more commonly known as peegee hydrangea).  Today, numerous outstanding varieties of this exceptionally hardy species (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9) have found their way into horticulture, including many with lacy, conical flower clusters rather than weighty mops.  Most Hydrangea paniculata cultivars bear white-flowered panicles from mid to late summer, but other flowering times and colors also occur.  Look for ‘Limelight’, with full flower-heads that age to chartreuse-green; ‘Pinky Winky’, an early- to late-summer bloomer that evolves from white to rose-pink; and the late-blooming (and magnificent) ‘Tardiva’, with large lacy spires of white flowers from late summer to frost.  These large shrubs can be cut back severely in early spring to keep them in bounds.  Dwarf varieties such as ‘Little Lamb’ require no size control.

     

    Butterfly Bush

    Sterile, seed-free butterfly bushes are just as pretty but don’t self sow.

    How can we not mention the ever-popular, somewhat cold-tender butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and its many hybrids, which draw in butterflies over much of summer with their steeples of fragrant blooms in a variety of colors?  Recent developments in the butterfly bush universe include the introduction of several compact, sterile cultivars with especially prolonged bloom and no pesky seedlings.  These include ‘Ice Chip’, ‘Lavender Chip’, and ‘Purple Haze’.  Buddleia davidii and its hybrids do best in full sun in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, and usually benefit from a hard early-spring pruning, even in areas where they don’t die back.

     

    Flowering Abelia

    Flowering abelia is a long bloomer that will flower up until frost.

    Popular in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., flowering abelia (Abelia × grandiflora and kin) are small to medium shrubs that could be used much more in the northern fringes of their USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9 hardiness range.  Their dainty, fragrant bells – in various shades of pink or white – cluster on arching stems from midsummer into fall.  Small, oval leaves add to the delicate, fine-textured feel of these quietly attractive plants.  Most flowering abelias are evergreen to semi-evergreen into USDA Hardiness Zone 6.   In zones 5 and 6, flowering abelias often work well as winter die-back shrubs, resprouting in spring and flowering in late summer and fall.  In all hardiness zones they benefit from early-spring pruning of snarled or winter-killed stems.

  10. The Best Maples for Maple Sugaring

    The best time to tap sugar maples is in late winter.

    It’s sugaring season across much of southern Canada and the northern United States.  The sun is climbing higher, temperatures are moderating, and maple sap is starting to flow.

    You don’t need sugar maples to make good maple sugar, however.  Purists may blanch at the thought, but several other maple species have sweet-flavored sap that flows on mild winter days and that boils down into delicious maple syrup (and other byproducts).  For example, some of the best Vermont syrup is produced by farms that depend on red maple (Acer rubrum) for much of their sap.  This is a good thing, given that Acer saccharum is in decline throughout most of its eastern Canada to Southeast U.S. range.

    Sugar Maple

    Sugar maple

    As its very name proclaims, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the traditional source of this arboreal nectar.  It’s also a Currier and Ives icon of the Northland, holding sap buckets in late winter and producing five-pointed leaves in spring that turn fiery hues in fall.  Mature, scaly-barked sugar maples line the streets of many old New England towns, as much a fixture as the clapboard colonial houses.

    Red Maple

    Red maple

    Red maple has a lot going for it as a sap source – especially for do-it-yourselfers who want to grow and tap their own trees.  Its sap is only slightly less sweet than sugar maple’s, with about 50 gallons (rather than 40) required to produce a gallon of syrup.  Moreover, red maple thrives in a much wider range of conditions, and attains tappable size (10 inches diameter at breast height) more rapidly.  Plant a sugar maple in a fertile, humus rich soil in sun or light shade, and its trunk will broaden perhaps a third of an inch per year.  A red maple under the same conditions will likely grow at twice that rate.

    Red maple also more than holds its own as an ornamental plant, typically forming an oval-crowned, 40- to 50-foot tree with attractive smooth gray bark that becomes furrowed and scaly with age.  The three-lobed leaves flush red in spring, deepen to lustrous dark-green in summer, and turn brilliant shades of red and orange in early fall.  Conspicuous clusters of maroon-red flowers festoon the naked branches in late winter, providing pollen for early-emerging bees.

    Numerous red maple cultivars are available from nurseries and garden centers, differing in characteristics such as size, habit, seed production, fall color, and cold-hardiness – so it’s likely there’s one that’s a good fit for your yard.  In nature, it’s found over much of central and eastern North America.

    Silver Maple

    Silver maple (image by Famartin)

    Red maple’s close relative silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is its equal as a maple syrup source, yielding sap of similar sweetness.  Its massive mature size, invasive roots, and susceptibility to storm damage disqualify it as a yard tree, unless a yard is of park-like dimensions.  On the other hand, if silver maple is available for the tapping, its sap is well worth the effort.

    Box Elder

    Box elder

    The same goes for another rather weedy, weak-wooded maple, box elder (Acer negundo).  Its common name and poison-ivy-like leaves notwithstanding, it is indeed a maple, and it does indeed yield sap that boils down into delicious syrup.  Although the sap is only half as sweet as sugar maple’s, it’s produced at more than twice the rate, resulting in higher syrup yield per tree.  Additionally, box elders are ready for tapping at a much younger age (within 5 years or so of planting) and smaller size (6 inches in diameter).  Box elder is also hardier and tougher than sugar maple, as evidenced by its coast-to-coast geographic range.

    Box elder has minimal ornamental value.  Nonetheless, it has given rise to several spectacular variegated and gold-leaved cultivars, which are well worth planting.  Look for ‘Flamingo’, with white-streaked leaves that emerge shrimp-pink in spring.  If you’re considering growing ‘Flamingo’ for its sap as well as for its flamboyant foliage, keep in mind that it grows more slowly than the wild type.

    Bigleaf Maple

    Bigleaf maple

    The sugaring season continues sporadically from late fall to spring in the relatively mild climes of upland California and the Pacific Northwest.  Here, the native species to tap is bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).  Its sap has slightly lower sugar content than that of sugar maple, and flows most freely after relatively chilly nights.

    Norway Maple

    Norway maple

    Just about any residential district in the U.S. is likely to host Norway maple (Acer platanoides).  Formerly widely planted for its rapid growth and tolerance of city conditions, this Eurasian native has become a noxious weed in many areas of the U.S., invading native woodlands with its seedlings.  It’s easily distinguished from sugar maple by its furrowed bark, plump egg-shaped terminal buds, and erect flower clusters, as well as by the thick milky sap that oozes from severed leaf stems. Its winter sap, on the other hand, runs clear, and boils down into surprisingly palatable syrup.

    Black Maple

    Black maple (image by Daderot)

    Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have some healthy sugar maples to tap, Acer saccharum remains the maple sugar tree par excellence – with the possible exception of its near-twin, black maple (Acer nigrum).  Black maple differs from sugar maple in its yellower fall color; hairier leaf stems with droopy leaf blades; and more furrowed bark.  Its sap, though, is equally sweet and delectable.  In areas of the North-Central U.S. where it outnumbers sugar maple, black maple reigns as the most important sugaring tree.

    Processing Maple Sap

    Fresh maple syrup

    You need a number of maples to tap for syrup. Each mature tree can produce between 10 to 20 gallons of sap per tree. It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup, so you need at least three trees to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Maple sugar houses require large sugaring pans to produce syrup. To learn more about how to process sap into maple syrup, read this article from Penn State Extension about Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner.

    The best time to plant your own maple is in spring or early fall.  Make sure the planting hole is the same depth as the root ball (or shallower in heavy clay soil), and at least three times as wide.  Backfill with unamended soil, and mulch the area around the newly planted tree with an inch of Fafard Natural Premium & Organic Compost, topped with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch.  Water thoroughly, repeating when necessary (one or two times a week).