Garden Journaling: How To Plan Your Dream Garden

Garden Journaling: How to Plan Your Dream Garden Featured Image

A journal is one of the best tools for achieving the garden of your dreams. Your recorded observations of what’s happening today will give you a clearer vision of what to do tomorrow – and many years beyond.

Starting Your Garden Journal

A note pad, smartphone, and/or computer are all you need to build your journal. Use them to record the dates and details of significant garden happenings, such as the following (with photos, if desired):

  • Flowering and leaf-out times for key garden plants;
  • Impactful weather events such as freezes and storms;
  • Disease and pest outbreaks;
  • Sowing and planting (including what was planted and where);
  • Important maintenance activities such as mulching, shrub and tree pruning, harvesting, and major weeding;
  • Garden amendment, fertilization, and other soil preparation strategies;
  • What succeeded and what performed poorly.

Do a weekly journaling stroll around your garden. When you see something that delights or concerns you or otherwise grabs your attention, take a note or a photograph (or both). Is the perennial border up to something particularly spectacular this week? Are sawfly larvae skeletonizing the swamp hibiscus? Does the rhododendron by the front entry need to be replaced? Make a note (with the date!), along with any associated thoughts that might come to mind.

Garden Journaling Methods

Jotting down notes and smartphone on the side
A note pad and/or Smartphone are all you need to build your journal.

Traditionalists will opt for hand-written journals, but Smartphones make especially good journaling tools, especially for photos. Not only are photos automatically dated, but you can also add text to them and store them by subject. Smartphones are also good for note-taking, via apps such as Google Keep (which can link notes to photos). Then you can organize printed photos and other physical records (such as receipts and empty seed packets) in a binder with plastic pocket sleeves.

If you are one for the computer and a stickler for the details, consider creating spreadsheets to track trends in seed germination, harvests, flowering dates, pest appearance, and so forth. In time, you can create charts showing the ebbs and flows of your garden. These can be very informative.

Winter Garden Journaling

Gardening notebook with supplies
Winter is the time to organize any notes, photographs, and data from the past year that are still at loose ends. It’s also the time to record seed-starting data.

Gardening and journaling continue through winter. There are bulbs to force, catalogs to peruse, seeds to order and plant, house plants to enjoy and maintain, and any number of other winter gardening activities to complete and chronicle. It’s also the time to reflect on gardening seasons past and future. What were the garden’s highlights and successes this year? Where did it fall short? What are your visions and overall goals for next year, and beyond? Get it all down on paper (or microchip).

Finally, winter is the time to organize any notes, photographs, and data from the past year that are still at loose ends. For example, a spreadsheet of the year’s planting data – including plant/seed source and sowing/planting information – will be essential when you get around to ordering and planting next year’s seeds and plants. You can move a copy of the spreadsheet to your smartphone, to join the rest of your journal information. A well-stocked, well-organized garden journal from the previous year is just what you need to get rocking in the upcoming year.

Garden Journaling for Design

Thinking about garden design
Garden design must be planned and continuously recorded for the best success.

Journals are essential for the dynamics of garden design. Your journal will make the greatest impact have these essential planning and design materials on hand:

  • Documentation of the garden site’s layout and characteristics, including maps/plans, soil test results, sun and wind exposures, grades, and extant plantings;
  • Garden design ideas and plans, including drawings and plant lists;
  • An “encyclopedia” of information of special interest to you and your garden, comprising entries on plants, materials, gardening techniques, and other relevant subjects (be sure to include a file on Fafard’s outstanding lineup of potting soils and soil amendments!);
  • Short-term and long-term garden calendars, specifying the sequence of yearly gardening activities, and the long-term (e.g., 5-year) plans for maintaining or renovating the garden and for implementing designs.

Combine these elements with the detailed observations of your journal, and you’ll have all the ingredients to make your dream garden a reality.

Plum Yew and Japanese Holly: Better Shrubs for Shearing

Plum Yew and Japanese Holly: Better Shrubs for Shearing Featured Image

Some garden settings are just made for the stylized, symmetrical look of sheared shrubs. Likewise, some shrub species take especially well to being sheared into dense, geometrical shapes

An essential ingredient of formal Japanese gardens, French parterres, English hedges, and other stylized landscape features, sheared shrubs excel at providing structure or at balancing other architectural elements (such as pillared entryways and granite walls). To fill this bill requires a special sort of shrub: one with dense, slowly expanding growth concentrated mostly at the stem tips. In contrast, many popular garden shrubs (including most roses, forsythias, spireas, and weigelas) produce vigorous, arching stems that originate from their interiors.  Shrubs with this rangier growth architecture look mutilated rather than sculpted after shearing.

Traits of Shrubs for Shearing

A low hedge of dwarf Japanese holly in this parterre looks like boxwood but without the pests and disease. (Image by Jasper33)
A low hedge of dwarf Japanese holly in this parterre looks like boxwood but without the pests and disease. (Image by Jasper33)

The ideal sheared shrub also needs to tolerate heavy pruning, in case of overgrowth. This disqualifies most needle evergreens, which will not survive such treatment.

The relative lack of shrubs suitable for shearing has led to the ubiquitous use of a few species. Yews (Taxus spp.) – the knee-jerk conifers for sheared hedges and foundation plantings – have become a garden cliché.  So, too, have their broadleaf counterpart, boxwoods (Buxus spp.). Moreover, these two traditional mainstays have increasingly fallen prey to pests: yews to deer, and boxwoods to aphids and fungal blight. As alternatives, you might want to consider two shrubs that provide a similar look to Taxus and Buxus without the deficiencies: plum yew and Japanese holly.

Plum Yews for Shearing

Upright plum yew

Upright plum yew can reach 10 feet but it is easy to shear to size. (Image by Daderot)

Plum yews (Cephalotaxus spp.) comprise several species from East Asia, these deer-resistant cousins of the ubiquitous yew bring a bolder texture to the garden with their large, lustrous dark-green needles. Their many other laudable features include superior heat- and shade-tolerance. Plum yews come in many forms, from sprawling ground covers (such as Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’) to small trees. Most cultivars – including the following – are hardy from USDA Zones 6 to 9. In some cases, their foliage may bronze with excessive winter sun or cold.

Duke Gardens plum yew (C. harringtonia ‘Duke Gardens’). Forming a dense, broad, 5-foot-tall mound, this introduction from Duke University’s botanical garden is perfect for sculpting into hummocks or hedges. It’s also lovely as a feathery unpruned specimen.

Upright plum yew (C. harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’). Broom-like bundles of dark-needled stems ascend in a dense, narrow 10-foot column that broadens toward the top. It’s an ideal subject for a path- or border-side hedge.

Hedgehog plum yew (C. harringtonia ‘Hedgehog’). Essentially a scaled-down version of ‘Duke Gardens’, ‘Hedgehog’ works beautifully as a dwarf accent or hedge.

Korean Gold plum yew (C. harringtonia ‘Korean Gold’). The foliage of this variant of ‘Fastigiata’ emerges bright yellow in spring, and holds its color year-long in areas with mild summers and moderate winters.

Korean plum yew (C. koreana). Difficult to find but well worth the search, this large and exceptionally cold-hardy Korean native grows to a densely rounded 10 feet tall. It’s hardy to Zone 5b and stays dark green year-round.

Japanese Hollies for Shearing

Helleri Japanese holly
Helleri Japanese holly forms a broad mound of finest foliage for shearing. (Image by David Stang)

Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). The small, rounded, leathery, dark-green leaves of this fine-textured broadleaf evergreen have a distinctly boxwood look – but without the peculiar boxwood odor. Small white flowers spangle the foliage in late spring, followed (on female plants) by black berry-like fruits. Numerous cultivars of Japanese holly are available, in all shapes and sizes. Most do well in USDA hardiness zones 5b to 8.

Beehive Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Beehive’) slowly assumes a broad, dense, conical form similar to that of a traditional basket-woven bee skep.  Use this 3- to 4-footer in low hedges or as an accent plant.

Compact Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Compacta’) is also suitable as a low hedge. It earns its moniker by growing slowly into a dense 4-foot globe.  Unpruned plants can reach 6 feet with age.

Well-clipped Japanese holly hedge
This well-clipped Japanese holly hedge looks clean and attractive.

Helleri Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Helleri’) forms a comparable broad mound but has leaves dusted with a grayish bloom. Its offspring ‘Golden Helleri’ features chartreuse foliage and a dwarfer habit.

Cupped Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Convexa’) matures relatively rapidly into a dense 6-foot mound clad with leaves that are characteristically cupped.

Sky Pencil Japanese holly (I. crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) cannot be beat for a narrow hedge or garden exclamation point. A narrow column growing to 8 feet tall but a slender 1-foot across, it’s literally a good fit for tight spaces.

Container Specimens

Highly shaped Japanese holly in green pot
This highly shaped Japanese holly specimen shows how much they can tolerate harsh shearing.

Dwarf plum yews and hollies such as Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Hedgehog’ and Ilex crenata ‘Golden Helleri’ also make excellent container plants. Use a 5-gallon or larger container, and choose a coarse potting soil, such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. In areas colder than USDA Zone 7, move the plants into a protected location (such as an attached garage) for the winter.

Shearing Tips

Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix pack
The perfect mix for outdoor potted evergreens

Shear plants lightly in late spring or early summer to maintain their shape, repeating later in the growing season if necessary. Avoid shearing shrubs into shapes that are narrower at the base, causing shading and consequent thinning of lower growth. Heavier pruning – to reshape the shrub or to increase the density of sparsely branched stems – should be done in late winter or early spring, before bud-break. This is also a good time to selectively head back a few stems to allow light and air into the plant’s interior and to stimulate renewal growth.

Growing Tropical Fruits Indoors

Growing Tropical Fruits Indoors Featured Image
Dwarf Cavendish bananas and calamondins and are super tropical fruits for indoor growing.

Growing tropical fruits in Toledo (or Toronto or Trenton) may seem like the stuff of fantasy. It’s perfectly doable, though, thanks to the numerous dwarf tropical fruit trees that take well to containers and flower and fruit at a young age. A warm sunny outdoor location in summer, an equally sunny indoor niche in winter, a suitable watering and fertilizing regime, and a well-drained growing medium (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix) will keep them happy and fruitful.

Indoor Citrus

The genus Citrus is particularly well endowed with container-friendly plants. Kumquats (Citrus japonica, aka Fortunella) are a stellar example. Visit your local supermarket during the winter holiday season, and you’re likely to find the orange-yellow, tart, bite-sized fruits of the popular kumquat variety ‘Nagami’. A number of other, lesser-known kumquats are well worth eating (and growing). The cultivar ‘Meiwa’ bears round, orange, 1¼ -inch fruits that are comparatively sweet and seed-free. Large, thin-skinned, orange kumquats deck the branches of another relatively sweet-flavored variety, ‘Fukushu’. In contrast, ‘Hong Kong’ produces numerous showy, scarlet, ¾-inch fruits with large seeds and scanty pulp. They’re great for ornament but not as good for eating.

Kumquat ‘Nagami’
Kumquat ‘Nagami’

Ripening in early winter, kumquat fruits typically remain on the branches until spring, providing decoration and snack possibilities well beyond the holidays. Small, starry white flowers perfume the air in late spring and early summer, and the lustrous, verdant, evergreen leaves are handsome year-round.

Fafard Professional Potting Mix pack

Calamondin (Citrus mitis) is what happened when a kumquat hybridized with a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). The result is a compact, repeat-blooming evergreen shrub that carries fragrant white flowers and small, chubby, tasty “oranges” throughout much of the year, with production peaking in winter. The fruits can be eaten fresh and make excellent preserves. Splashy cream-yellow markings adorn the leaves and immature fruit of the calamondin ‘Variegata’.

Meyer lemon (Citrus limon ‘Meyer’) is yet another citrus with admirable qualities. A small evergreen tree that can be easily maintained at 3 feet tall in a container, it produces several flushes of flowers and fruits throughout the year, peaking in winter and early spring. The 2- to 3-inch lemons have thin, golden-yellow rinds and relatively sweet, juicy, flavorful flesh that goes well in salads, stews, and preserves.  They also make a zingy snack.
Among the other edible citrus for containers are Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), myrtle leaf orange (Citrus myrtifolia), and Rangpur lime (Citrus limon ‘Otaheite’). The takeaway (particularly if you have lots of container-gardening space) is that you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy a year-long harvest of lemons, oranges, and kumquats.

Growing Citrus

Citrus prefer ample sunlight, medium to high humidity, 40° to 60° F minimum temperatures, and moderate watering and feeding from spring to fall (with lower amounts in winter).

Prune off unwanted growth immediately after the fruiting season, in early spring.  Common indoor pests can be a problem. Watch for mealybugs, scale, whiteflies, and other common Citrus pests, particularly on stressed or over-fertilized plants. Cleaning plants up with insecticidal soap before bringing them back indoors in fall can help ward off these pests.

Indoor Guava

Pineapple guava flowers (Image by C T Johansson)
Pineapple guava flowers (Image by C T Johansson)

Guavas are another group of tropical New World evergreens renowned for their aromatic flowers and fruits, and several can be grown beautifully indoors.

Native to uplands of central South America, pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana, aka Acca sellowiana) works wonderfully as a container plant. Lustrous, leathery, silver-backed leaves clothe the upright, gray-barked stems of this handsome small tree. Sweet-scented, pale purple flowers with starbursts of maroon stamens open in late spring and early summer, followed by waxy, blue-green, egg-shaped fruits that cast an intoxicating fragrance as they mature in fall. Their pineapple-flavored fruits (with undertones of mint and apple) are at their best for only a few days after they fully ripen.

Pineapple guava plants require cool winter conditions (40° to 50° F minimum) and at least one cross-pollenizing companion plant for maximum flowering and fruiting. As with all the guavas described here, they appreciate a monthly application of organic fertilizer in spring and summer. Plants can be kept at 4 to 6 feet by removing overgrown stems in late summer.

Dwarf guava (Image by Logee's)
Dwarf guava (Image by Logee’s)

Common guava (Psidium guajava) also takes readily to container culture, fruiting reliably and repeatedly in warm, humid, sunny conditions (60 degrees Fahrenheit minimum). For home growing, choose the true dwarf guava (Psidium guajava var. nana). The fragrant white flowers with bottlebrush stamens recur throughout the year, giving way to pale green-skinned fruits that have delicious, musky-scented, deep pink flesh when ripe.

A vicious weed in many tropical regions outside its native Brazil, strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is an exemplary container plant for colder latitudes, provided it’s spared from temperatures below 50° F. Small, spherical, red-skinned fruits with tangy, pale flesh appear in late summer and continue through winter in favorable locations. The fruits are preceded by fuzzy, white, sweet-scented flowers.  The variety lucidum (commonly known as lemon guava) has yellow-skinned, relatively tart flavored fruits. A small tree in the wild, Psidium cattleianum grows much more compactly in containers, typically topping out at 4 or 5 feet.

Other Indoor Tropical Fruits

Avocado 'Day' (Image by Logee's)
Avocado ‘Day’ (Image by Logee’s)

There’s a lot to explore in container-friendly tropical fruit trees beyond citrus and guavas, including loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), dwarf mango ( Mangifera ‘Pickering’), star fruit (Averrhoa carambola), and the ‘Tainung’ papaya (Carica papaya ‘Tainung’ ), which will begin fruiting on 2-foot plants. Many dwarf common-fig cultivars (Ficus carica), such as the super tiny ‘Petite Negra’ that starts fruiting on 12-inch plants, also grow well in a warm winter sunroom or conservatory. There are even mangoes, such as the golden mango ‘Nam Doc Mai’, that will grow well in large indoor pots.
Another favorite that’s easy to grow is the dwarf banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendish’ (Musa ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendish’). Once they reach 3-feet high, they will produce small trusses of delicious bananas year-round, if given high light, regular water, and warmth.

Banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendish’
Banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendish’

Then there are avocados (Persea americana). Many home growers will opt to start their own trees from pits, but this will result in large trees unfit for indoor growing. Instead, choose a dwarf tree such as the avocado ‘Day’. This compact selection and will produce small avocados from July to September. Bring them indoors in a brightly lit location through winter.

These fruits are best purchased as plants, but most are not readily available at your neighborhood nursery. To find them search for a specialty online plant source, such as Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden. Good online nurseries such as this offer a wide selection of compact tropical plants ideal for indoor container culture.

Potting Indoor Tropical Fruits

Most of these small trees sold in 4- to 6-inch pots, so plants are small at purchase time. Plant them in a slightly larger pot using Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and provide them with good light. Pots should have drainage holes and bottom saucers. Try to maintain even moisture and high humidity, and feed them with a tropical fruit tree fertilizer, as directed.
When the plants begin to outgrow their pots, upgrade them as needed for ample root growth. Those that are fruiting size, usually 4 to 5 feet, require relatively large pots.

Pot your tropical fruits now, and in a year or two, you will be harvesting your own home-grown tastes of the tropics.

Dwarf mangoes
Even mangoes come in dwarf forms!

Small Spring Bulbs with Big Impact

Small Spring Bulbs with Big Impact Featured Image
Click Here button for Nursery Ready Plant List

When planting bulbs in fall, plant small. “Minor” bulbs can have a major impact in the spring garden. Individually, they may not measure up to bulbous divas such as Darwin tulips and large-cupped daffodils.  But combine a few divas with a chorus of lesser companions, and the real magic happens. Why have a quartet when you can have the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth?

Here are five of the best “minor” bulbs for deploying in expansive, dramatic (and pest-resistant) drifts.  Most are inexpensive, costing but a few pennies apiece in bulk.  Additionally, many of them self-sow, proliferating into ever-expanding sweeps. They’re also a breeze to plant in fall.  Stab a hole, stuff a bulb, and repeat a few hundred times (or more). You’ll be rewarded with a lavish display for many springs to come. Amend excessively heavy or sandy soil by digging in 2 to 4 inches of Fafard compost before planting and add fertilizer formulated for bulbs.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Winter aconite flowers
Winter aconite flowers feed bees in the early springtime

The glossy yellow buttercups of this Eurasian woodlander open during the first mild days of late winter, much to the delight of awakening honeybees.  The flowers are framed by collars of deeply lobed, rich-green, leaf-like bracts. Plants enter dormancy soon after blooming, dying back to knobbly underground tubers. Winter aconites that are sold in bulk by stores and catalogs are often dead from desiccation, so it pays to look for a retailer who deals in smaller quantities of properly stored tubers. Even better is to collect and sow fresh seed soon after it ripens in early to mid-spring. A friend with a colony of Eranthis hyemalis is an invaluable resource.

Snow Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus)

'Tommies' crocuses
“Tommies” are fast-spreading, early crocuses.

“Tommies” may not be the largest crocuses, but they amply compensate by being among the earliest and most prolific. They’re also some of the toughest and most adaptable, thriving in most soils in full or partial sun, and often escaping the ravages of squirrels (which have a fatal attraction to most other crocuses). The silvery-lavender flowers debut in late winter or earliest spring, continuing for several weeks. White-, pink-, and purple-flowered cultivars are also available. Whatever the color, they usually spawn seedlings, with cultivars often sowing true to type. If you’re looking for a crocus to naturalize in a woodland edge or border or lawn, this is the ideal candidate.

Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica)

Siberian squill
Siberian squill are early and create pools of blue color.

No bulb is better for creating pools of blue in the early spring garden.  A sweep of Siberian squill is the perfect thing for complementing the luscious waterlily blooms of saucer magnolia, or for carpeting a lawn, or for interplanting with early daffodils and tulips. Borne in small clusters atop 4-inch-tall stems, the nodding, cup-shaped blooms are typically sky-blue with darker mid-ribs, although other color forms sometimes occur (including white-flowered ‘Alba’).  Siberian squill takes readily to most sunny to partly shaded garden habitats, self-sowing where happy.

Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa spp.)

Glory-of-the-snow in snow
Glory-of-the-snow and other early bulbs can withstand snowfall.

Close relatives of Siberian squill, these little bulbs are also similar in ornamental effect and bloom time, producing clusters of starry, bright blue, white-eyed flowers that face skyward in early spring. Color variants include pink, purple, and white. Most Chionodoxa are happiest in sun but will tolerate some shade.  Many varieties self-sow, and some will partner with nearby Siberian squills to produce hybrid seedlings.

Grape Hyacinths (Muscari spp.)

Grape hyacinths with pink tulips

We highlighted this delightful genus of little bulbs in our March edition (Click here to read the full article.), but it bears repeating: grape hyacinths are among the best foils for tulips, daffodils, bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.), perennial candytuft (Iberis spp.), and just about anything else that flowers in early to mid-spring. Tight conical flower clusters that resemble bunches of miniature grapes are borne atop 4- to 6-inch stems in all shades of blue (depending on the variety), as well as white and pink. The most commonly offered species – Muscari armeniacum – is an enthusiastic naturalizer, self-sowing abundantly in sunny, well-drained sites.  Most bulbs sold under the names Muscari aucheri and Muscari botryoides (many of which are actually forms of Muscari armeniacum) are equally attractive and prolific.

Invest a modest amount of time and money in fall, and you can have a symphony of color early next spring.

Good Garden Bittersweet and Bad

Good Garden Bittersweet and Bad Featured Image
Both the bad and good bittersweet seeds are spread by birds, such as this red-breasted nuthatch.

When it comes to garden plants gone wrong, few have gone wronger than oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus).  Introduced from East Asia to Western horticulture in the early eighteenth century, this twining vine was widely planted for its ornamental clusters of yellow pea-sized fruits that open in fall to reveal brilliant-red interiors.  Now it’s widely reviled for its ability to seed itself everywhere by way of those showy, bird-attracting fruits.  Left unchecked, these seedlings can rapidly morph into tree-consuming monsters, smothering everything in their 60-foot reach.  Visit just about any garden or woodland in the eastern U.S. and there they are, lurking in the undergrowth or clambering into the canopy.

Good and Bad Bittersweet

Native bittersweet with clusters of fruit
The native bittersweet has clusters of darker fruits at the stem tips.

This black sheep of the Celastrus tribe has also sullied our attractive and relatively well-behaved native species, Celastrus scandens.  The showy orange fruits of American bittersweet are darker in hue than those of its Asian relative, and they appear in elongated bunches at the stem tips rather than in small clusters in the leaf axils.  It grows more sedately than Celastrus orbiculatus, self-sows less enthusiastically, and coexists more harmoniously.  Ironically, its more restrained growth also puts it at a competitive disadvantage in natural areas, where it is often smothered by its mayhem-making relative.  The most apropos response to the rampages of oriental bittersweet is to grow MORE of our native bittersweet – not less.

Asian bittersweet berries
The invasive Asian bittersweet has berries that appear in branch.

You can create a refuge for American bittersweet by giving it a sizeable pergola or other structure for its 20- to 30-foot stems to twine around and through.  Full sun to light shade and lean or average, well-drained soil are ideal (amend heavy or sandy soils by digging in a couple of inches of Fafard Manure Blend or Premium Natural and Organic Compost).  American bittersweet also functions well as a shrubby ground cover for a slope, stone wall, or woodland edge.  Plants flower and fruit on the current season’s growth, so pruning is best done in late winter and early spring, before bud-break.

Bittersweet Varieties

Most bittersweet plants bear only male or female flowers, with one of each typically required for fruiting to occur.  One male plant (e.g., ‘Indian Brave’) will pollenize as many 10 females (such as ‘Indian Maiden’ and ‘Diana’).  Two recently introduced cultivars – ‘Autumn Revolution’ and ‘Sweet Tangerine’ – are self-fruitful, requiring no companion.  You can also purchase or grow unsexed seedlings.  If so, plant several to increase the chances that at least one is a female.  You can remove any superfluous males after they reach flowering size.

Celastrus orbiculatus
Celastrus orbiculatus looks very pretty trained along a strong pergola or trellis.

Harvest the inedible fruits for holiday decorations after their husks begin to split open in late fall.  They make a dramatic addition to a Thanksgiving centerpiece or a Christmas wreath.  You’ll also feel considerable satisfaction and pride knowing that they come from our beleaguered and deserving native bittersweet, rather than from its roguish, woodland-consuming cousin.   To double down on your sense of satisfaction, leave some fruits so that the robins, mockingbirds, flickers, yellow-rumped warblers, ruffed grouse, and other native birds can share in the delight – and distribute the seed.

Chaste Tree For Bees, Butterflies, and Summer Blooms

Chaste Tree for Bees, Butterflies, and Summer Blooms Featured Image
Click Here button for Nursery Ready Plant List

Think of chaste tree (Vitex agnuscastus) as an equally showy but less invasive alternative to the ubiquitous butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).  A shrub or small tree that behaves as a dieback perennial in the coldest fringes of its USDA Hardiness Zones 5b to 9 hardiness range, it bears candelabras of lavender-blue flowers from summer into fall, enticing bees, butterflies, the occasional hummingbird, and other winged visitors.  Attractive, five-fingered, gray-green leaves make a nice textural compliment to the steepled blooms.  Adding to chaste tree’s allure is the pleasantly pungent fragrance of all its parts (as might be expected of a member of the mint family).

Chaste Tree Hardiness and Habit

Chaste tree with purple flowers
Chaste tree literally grows as a flowering tree in warmer zones. (Image by Cilias)

Chaste tree has long been grown in warmer regions of the U.S., where it typically forms a multi-stemmed, 15- to 20-foot tree.  But it’s arguably an even better fit for gardens in USDA Zones 5 and 6, where it usually remains much more compact thanks to winter dieback.  Like butterfly bush, in these colder regions, it resprouts from the base in late spring, mushrooming into a rounded, 3- to 6-foot shrub that flowers on new growth.  Furthermore, unlike butterfly bush, it doesn’t seed itself prolifically after flowering (although self-sowing can be a problem in the Southwest and California).

Chaste Tree Growing Needs

Chaste tree purple flowers

Another point in chaste tree’s favor is its toughness.  It takes readily to just about any sunny, not-too-soggy site; tolerates drought and salt; and rarely requires special treatment. In heavy clay soil it may benefit from the addition of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost for increased organic matter and drainage. Yet, despite its many merits, chaste tree has received relatively little attention from gardeners, perhaps because of the scarcity of cultivars selected for growth habit, flower color, and other traits.

Chaste Tree Varieties

Vitex agnus-castus 'Pink Pinnacle' with pink flower spires
Vitex agnus-castus ‘Pink Pinnacle’ has lovely pink flower spires.

All this is changing.  A number of recently introduced cultivars mature as small to medium shrubs rather than as bushy mini-trees, broadening its versatility in Southern gardens.  Additionally, these recent introductions come in a range of colors including pink, white, and various shades of blue.  Wherever you garden, the possibilities for chaste tree are greater than ever – including as a summer-blooming centerpiece for containers.

Among the smallest of the new cultivars is ‘Blue Puffball’, which forms a dense, 4-foot mound covered with deep sky-blue spires.  It makes an obvious choice for containers and perennial borders, perhaps in place of Caryopteris.  As with all forms of chaste tree, flowering continues from summer to fall if spent blooms are regularly deadheaded.  The somewhat larger ‘Blue Diddley’ offers spikes of the typical lavender-blue on densely borne stems that top out at 6 feet or so.  Larger still, ‘Delta Blues’ produces spires of rich purple-blue flowers on 8- to 10-foot plants set with elegant, relatively narrow-fingered leaves.

Chaste tree with purple flowers
Larger chaste tree varieties require a large, sunny area to reach their full potential.

Compact chaste trees of another color include ‘Pink Pinnacle’, prized for its abundant mid-pink spires on compact, mounded, 4- to 6-foot plants.  Paler in color and larger in growth, ‘Blushing Spires’ bears shell-pink blooms and matures at 10 to 12 feet tall and wide.  Compact white cultivars – such as the 8-foot-tall ‘Dale White’ – are especially rare (grab one if you see one!).

Of course, as mentioned earlier, in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 and 6 full-size cultivars such as white ‘Silver Spire’, deep lilac-blue ‘Shoal Creek’, and sapphire-blue ‘Le Comte’ behave as small to medium shrubs due to winterkill.  In milder regions, they can be treated as small trees or maintained as shrubs via an annual hard pruning in early spring.

Other Vitex Species

Vitex negundo flowers
The flowers of Vitex negundo are less showy. (Image by Magnus Mansk)

Another excellent summer-bloomer for Zones 5 to 9 is chaste tree’s hardier and more obscure relative, Chinese chaste tree (V. negundo).  Although less showy in flower, it surpasses chaste tree in its lacy, deeply incised foliage, which in varieties such as heterophylla rivals that of a fine Japanese maple.  Hybrids between Vitex negundo and other Vitex species (as well as between chaste tree and its kin) are in the works, so stay tuned!  Many more summer-blooming treasures for your garden (and containers) are yet to come from the Vitex tribe.

Hurricane Resistant Trees

Hurricane-Resistant Trees Featured Image
This elm fell prematurely after a hurricane largely because it was poorly anchored in a small street-side tree lawn.
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If you live in hurricane country –which encompasses just about any place in the U.S. within 100 miles of the Atlantic seaboard – the wrong tree in the wrong place can pose a major threat to life and property.  This is something to keep in mind when you plan and plant your garden.

Hurricane-Resistant Tree Features

Of course, stronger hurricanes cause greater damage, all else being equal.  But the potential impact of even a major hurricane can be tempered if you plant strong-rooted, wind-resistant trees in favorable positions.

Whatever trees you choose, they’ll be more hurricane-resistant if their roots have ample room.  A tree’s root system typically spreads well beyond its canopy.  Give it less, and it will be relatively weakly anchored and poorly nourished.  A 30-foot-wide tree in a 15-foot-wide planting area is asking to become hurricane fodder. 

Fall allée of bald cypresses
A fall allée of bald cypresses shows that these strong, wetland trees also perform beautifully as street trees.

Soil depth also matters.  If your soil is on the sandy or heavy side, your trees are likely to have relatively shallow roots.  A yearly 1-inch mulch of Fafard® Premium Topsoil will help their roots grow denser and deeper.  Be sure to mulch the whole root zone, if possible.

A tree’s crown size also influences its susceptibility to hurricane damage.  Shorter trees afford the wind less leverage.  Tree species and varieties of small to moderate size (15 to 30 feet) are not only less likely to topple, they also cause less damage if they do.  This may seem self-evident, but it doesn’t prevent thousands of homeowners from planting large trees in potentially disastrous proximity to buildings, driveways, and other targets.  Our advice: don’t.

Trees of all sizes benefit from companions.  Groups of similarly sized trees – spaced at the width of their mature crowns – are relatively hurricane-resistant compared to singletons.  Likewise, large trees – where appropriate – call for an underplanting of smaller, shade-tolerant trees and shrubs.  In addition to being ecologically apropos, this planted understory will at least partially survive even a catastrophic hurricane.

A further factor to consider is the direction of the strongest hurricane winds – typically from the southeast or northeast.  Niches sheltered from these winds (for example, to the west of a building) will suffer relatively light damage.  Conversely, fully exposed sites are especially inappropriate for hurricane-susceptible trees.

Hurricane-Resistant Trees

Having chosen a good site for your tree, you’ll probably want to choose a relatively hurricane-resistant species.  Studies of hurricane damage show that some tree species – including the following eastern U.S. natives – stand up particularly well to wind.  Even better, some of these species come in compact forms that offer even greater hurricane resistance.

Strong-wooded muscle wood trees
Strong-wooded musclewood trees are small to medium-sized, have unusual bark, and will withstand high winds and harsh weather.

American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana): 25 to 40 feet tall; full to part sun; USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 3 to 9.  This compact tree has smooth, fluted bark and exceptional fall color. It grows in the understory in the wild, but in cultivation, it is at its best in full sun and moist, fertile, friable soil.  It is also known as blue beech and musclewood.

Dogwood tree in spring
Everyone loves the beauty of dogwoods in spring, but these trees are also surprisingly resilient to hurricane weather.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): 20 feet; full to part sun; Zones 5 to 8.  This common flowering tree offers white flowers in mid-spring, attractive scaly gray bark, and burgundy fall color.  The many varieties of this old-time favorite include the pink-bloomed ‘Cherokee Brave’ and floriferous ‘Cloud 9’.

American hollies
If you don’t mind the prickly foliage, American hollies are great native, evergreen trees that will stand up to the worst stormy weather.

American holly (Ilex opaca):  30 to 40 feet; full sun to light shade; Zones 5 to 9.  This tall, conical holly has spiny evergreen leaves and red berries on female plants, when a male pollenizer is present. Notable compact varieties include the yellow-fruited ‘Helen Mitchell’, variegated ‘Steward’s Silver Crown’ (female), and large-berried ‘Satyr Hill’.

Southern magnolia
Large, bowl-shaped summer blooms and evergreen foliage are two of the most notable features of southern magnolia, but storm resistance is another.

Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora):  20 to 50 feet; full to partial sun; Zones 6 (for the hardiest cultivars) to 9.  Broad lustrous evergreen leaves with fuzzy undersides and large waxy flowers in summer make this an exceptional landscape tree.  Look for ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, a compact, hardy form that matures at 25 to 30 feet and handles Zone 6 winters.

Native hop hornbeam
The native hop hornbeam is a woodland tree that also makes a good landscape tree for hurricane-prone areas.

Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana):  30 to 50 feet; full to partial sun; Zones 5 to 9.  Reaching 25 to 40 feet when mature, this shaggy-barked understory native forms a dense oval-crowned specimen when planted in full sun.  It has good gold fall color. It is also known as “ironwood”, for its strong densely grained trunk.

Oak trees
Many oaks make excellent storm-resistant additions to open lawns and landscapes. The key is making sure they have enough ground to fully develop supportive root systems.

Shumard red oak (Quercus shumardii):  40 to 70 feet; sun; Zones 5 to 9.  This handsome, deciduous U.S. native oak has pointy-lobed leaves that color wine-red in late fall or early winter.  Its close relative, maple-leaved oak (Quercus acerifolia), features a compact habit and five-lobed, maple-like leaves.  Shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) is another good choice, offering relatively slow, compact growth (to 50 to 70 feet), shiny unlobed leaves, burgundy fall color, and Zone 4 to 8 hardiness.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum):  40 to 70 feet; sun to light shade; Zones 5 to 11. A strong constitution helps support this tree in high winds. It is a striking deciduous conifer with a conical habit and feathery foliage that goes burnt-orange in fall.  (Read our recent bald cypress article for a description of more compact cultivars.)

Caladium: Foliar Fireworks for Shade

Caladium: Foliar Fireworks for Shade Featured Image
Caladium can come in shades of pink, red, white and many shades of green.

Summer color is always a challenge in the shade garden. Among the most valuable plants for filling the summer color void are the many showy-leaved hybrids of the tropical American native, Caladium bicolor. Available in a range of flamboyant hues, including flamingo-pink and flaming red, these tender perennials kick into high gear in the first hot days of June and July, just as the spring shade perennials are exiting the scene.

Planting Caladium

'Candidum' foliage
‘Candidum’ is an old but beautiful variety with chalk-white, boldly green-veined foliage.

The leaves arise from knobby tubers that break dormancy in spring after the soil has warmed to 60 degrees or more, so don’t plant them until outdoor temperatures are warm. Dormant tubers rot in cold damp soil, so north of USDA Hardiness Zone 9 they overwinter reliably only if stored indoors (a dry, well-aerated location works best). Gardeners in frost-free areas can grow caladiums as perennials.

Caladiums are ready-made for tropical (and subtropical) gardens. In chillier regions, they’re ideal subjects for plantings that evoke sultry, exotic climes. Place them in a border or large container with tuberous begonias, elephant-ears, peacock gingers, kalanchoes, and other denizens of equatorial regions, and you’ll have a tropicalissimo composition worthy of a Brazilian garden.

However you deploy caladiums, they’ll grow best planted shallowly (2 or 3 inches deep) in average to moist, humus-rich soil and dappled shade. Many will do fine in full sun if the soil is sufficiently moist (but not soggy). If your soil is heavy or sandy, amend it with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost before planting.

Caladium Groups

Some caladium leaves are beautifully speckled.

Caladiums are usually categorized into two groups, defined by the shape and size of their leaves. These include “fancy-leaved” and “strap-leaved varieties. The fancy-leaved types typically produce large, heart-shaped foliage that does best in partial shade. Popular since Victorian times, they include:

  • ‘Candidum’, a venerable, nineteenth-century introduction widely grown for its chalk-white, boldly green-veined foliage;
  • ‘Fannie Munson’, a brilliant shrimp-pink cultivar accented with magenta-pink veins;
  • ‘Frieda Hemple’, whose dazzling, glossy brick-red leaves have intense red veins that extend into wide rich-green margins;
  • ‘Kathleen’, a salmon-pink variety with broad, bright-green borders;
  • ‘White Queen’, with creamy-white leaves etched with burgundy-red veins.
  • Proven Winners Sun or Shade Caladiums: These come in many colors and are well adapted to growing in either sun or shade.
'Florida Sweetheart' Caladium
‘Florida Sweetheart’ is a lovely strap-leaved Caladium variety. (Image by David Stang)

“Strap-leaved” caladiums produce narrower, smaller, relatively sun-tolerant foliage, with leaf stems joined to the base of the leaf blade (rather than toward its middle). There are quite a few notable varieties worth seeking out.

  • ‘Lance Wharton’ has a central flame of vivid flamingo-pink, flecked with white and bordered in various shades of green. Bright red veins complete the picture;
  • ‘Gingerland’ is decked out in multiple tones of green and white, with raspberry-red splotches;
  • ‘Florida Sweetheart’ has reddish-pink-leaves edged in shades of cream and green;
  • ‘Miss Muffet’ bears lime-green leaves with bold maroon freckles.

Caladiums such as ‘Miss Muffet’ that measure less than 12 inches tall are sometimes classified as “dwarf” varieties. They’re well suited for tight spaces, including as house plants, where they grow well in a humus-rich, well-drained potting mix such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix. An east-facing windowsill – away from the air-conditioning – is ideal. Storehouse plant caladiums – unwatered – in a cool location for the winter, repotting them in mid to late spring.

Bald Cypress for the Landscape

Bald Cypress for Landscapes Featured Image
Bald cypress “knees” are an interesting characteristic of mature specimens planted in moist soils.

Even if you’ve never been to the Southeast U.S., you’re probably familiar with one of its signature plant communities: the bald cypress swamp. Nothing looks more “Deep South” than a flooded grove of buttress-trunked Taxodium distichum draped with Spanish moss. It might surprise you then to learn that bald cypress makes an excellent (and hardy) subject for all sorts of garden situations in regions as cold as USDA Hardiness Zone (minus 10 to minus 20 F).
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