Articles

Lovely Lacecap Hydrangeas

The lacecap bigleaf hydrangea is planted in more alkaline soil, hence the pink flower color.

In James McNeil Whistler’s famous 1871 painting, Whistler’s Mother, the title subject wears a lace cap and does not appear very happy about it.  Most of us would probably have the same expression if we had to don similar headgear.  Installing a lacecap hydrangea in the garden is a completely different experience and is highly likely to produce smiles instead of frowns.

Mopheads Versus Lacecaps

Mophead hydrangeas have more puffy, rounded flower clusters.

The garden lacecaps are eye-catching varieties of bigleaf or mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) or Japanese mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata), and it is the floral “lace” that makes them different. Instead of the large, globe-shaped flowerheads familiar to hydrangea lovers far and wide, lacecaps have flattened flowerheads (technically called corymbs), characterized by wide centers of small true flowers, surrounded by lacy outer borders of large sterile florets.  Depending on the variety, lacecaps bloom in the same colors as mopheads, bluer in acid soils, red or pink in alkaline soils, and lavender or purple when the soil is neutral.  All the macrophylla hydrangeas feature the same large, medium to dark green leaves that are shaped like toothed teardrops. Japanese mountain hydrangeas tend to be smaller in stature and the leaves have more toothed, or serrated, edges.

Japanese Origins

Lacecaps have been around for some time.  The first wild shrubs were discovered in Japan in the 1870s by English plant hunter Charles Maries, just a few short years after Whistler immortalized his mother.  By the end of the decade, two varieties, the white-flowered ‘Veitchii’ and the pale blue or pink-flowered ‘Mariesii’ had been introduced commercially in Europe.  The two are still available through some retailers today.

Modern Developments

The opulent ‘Izu no Hana’ bears double outer florets with pointed petals.

Modern breeders in Japan, Switzerland, the United States, and elsewhere have produced several other winning varieties, sometimes marketed as part of trademarked series.  BLUE WAVE is the new, trademarked name of an old variety, ‘Mariesii Perfecta’, which features vibrant blue flowers and was introduced into commerce in 1904. It is a compact variety, with a 3.5-foot height and spread.  ‘Lady in Red’ is even smaller at two to three feet wide and tall, boasting dramatic dark red stems and leaf veins.  Its leaves turn scarlet in the fall.  For even more drama, try ‘Zorro’, with near-black stems, and red fall foliage.

The opulent Japanese variety ‘Izu no Hana’ bears double outer florets with pointed petals.  For even more petals, ‘Lanark White’ offers small blue florets that jostle in the flowers’ centers with a number of the larger sterile ones that are repeated in the outer margins.  The overall appearance is that of a lacecap/mophead mash-up.

Variegated leaves can add interest to the garden, and varieties like Hydrangea macrophylla var maculata feature the characteristic green, elliptical leaves edged in cream.

Pruning and Blooming

Traditional lacecaps flower on “old wood”, which means this year’s flowers grow on last year’s stems. Late summer pruning is often recommended.

As with other mophead hydrangeas, traditional lacecaps flower on “old wood”, which means this year’s flowers grow on last year’s stems. Therefore, the best time to prune them is in the summer after their big flush of blooms has past. Another problem with the trait is that the buds can be frozen by late spring frosts, resulting in a loss of summer blooms.  Newer varieties, like ‘Twist and Shout’ (part of the ENDLESS SUMMER® series of lacecaps and mopheads), bloom on “new wood” or stems produced in the year of bloom, which solves the spring frost problem.  If you have experienced hydrangea disappointment when plants produce few or no flowers in any given year, it is worth seeking out new varieties to fill holes in your planting scheme. (Click here for a detailed hydrangea pruning guide from Proven Winners®.)

Hydrangea Hydration and Care

The pale blue or pink-flowered ‘Mariesii’ is a very old variety.

All bigleaf hydrangeas prefer uniformly moist soil and light shade.  Heavier shade will result in fewer blooms.  When planting, add a rich soil amendment, like Fafard® Premium Natural and Organic Compost.  Mulching is also a good idea for moisture-loving lacecaps.  The shrubs will succeed in large containers, as long as you water regularly throughout the growing season and feed with commercial plant food applied and diluted according to the manufacturer’s directions.  If pesky spring frosts are a routine occurrence and you love your mature, traditional mophead and/or lacecap hydrangeas, you can wrap yours in comfy layers of burlap in the fall and remove it in spring when all danger of frost has passed.  This doesn’t look particularly attractive, but may greatly improve the chance of abundant summer blooms.

Border Carnations

 

Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus and hybrids), with their ragged, “pinked” edges, lovely colors, and long vase life, are staples of the cut flower trade.  They also have a lengthy and celebrated history in gardens, going in and out of fashion many times over the centuries.  The plants are having a renaissance right now, as flower lovers have come to appreciate their tried and true virtues.

About Dianthus

Carnations make lovely garden flowers, especially in early summer.

The dianthus family is large, with over 300 species, and contains carnations of all sizes, not to mention sweet Williams and the short-statured plants known in this country as “pinks”.  In Europe, especially in Great Britain, the term “pinks” is used more generally to include just about all dianthus.  Given the amount of interbreeding among species over the years, this may be the best informal way to categorize the whole group.

The flowers that you buy in bunches at the local florist or supermarket are generally referred to as “florists’ carnations”.  They are specific varieties grown under greenhouse or controlled field conditions and sold in bulk to the floral trade.  Cultivars that grow outdoors in home gardens are categorized as “border” or “garden” carnations.  Between the two categories, the world of beautiful carnations is wide.

Garden Carnations

Carnations are available in lots of cheerful colors and most are fragrant.

Border or garden carnations are generally short-lived perennials, hardy in USDA Zones 6 through 10.  The stems can grow as tall as 3 feet, though many varieties, especially those developed in the last few decades, are considerably shorter.  The stems are erect but tend to arch.  Depending on height, some garden types may need staking or other means of corralling.  The blue-green to gray-green leaves are long, narrow and attractive in their own right.

The singular look of the flowers is a combination of the distinctive ragged or ruffled edges, and the opulent, semi-double or double petal array of each flower.  Most bear a characteristic spicy scent reminiscent of cloves, sometimes with other sweet fragrance notes mixed in.  Available colors range from purest white to near-black, with bi-colored or even tri-colored varieties available from specialty merchants.  While there are no true blue carnations (unless you put a cut stem in a container of water mixed with blue dye), the color and pattern ranges are still impressive.

Modern Garden Carnations

The ‘I Heart You’ Carnations has bright pink blooms that age to near-white.

Modern large-flowered garden carnations are the result of hybridization of several different species.  English author and gardener Vita Sackville West wrote admiringly about the Chabaud carnations, developed by a French hybridizer in the eighteen seventies.  Some Chabaud types, like the pink-flowered ‘La France’ and ‘Benigna’, with white petals laced with red, are still in commerce today.  Another antique variety, ‘Mrs. Sinkins’, combines shorter stature—about 12 inches tall—with big white flowers.

Modern varieties tend to be more compact than some older ones and come in an array of arresting colors and color combinations.  As with many commercial hybrid plants, they are often marketed in named series protected by trademarks.  Each series shares common features, like short stature and unusual coloration. Selecta One’s 2020 Dianthus introduction, ‘I♥U’ is a singular beauty with a compact habit and fluffy flowers that are rose-pink when they first open and age to near white.  Scent First™ ‘Tickled Pink’ bears bright cerise flowers on 10-inch stems. ‘Horatio’, a hybrid splashed with dark red and white, grows to 12 inches.  Little Sunflor™ ‘Amber’, at six to eight inches, is shorter still, with bright yellow petals.  Flow® ‘Grace Bay’ is creamy yellow with narrow red edges, and dimensions similar to those of ‘Amber’.  Super Trouper™ ‘Orange’ may be closer to peach than tangerine, but its unusual coloration stands out.

Growing Carnations

Carnations are some of the best cut flowers you can grow if you choose long-stemmed varieties.

Like other members of the dianthus family, carnations are relatively easy to grow if you give them full sun and well-drained soil on the alkaline side of the pH spectrum.  If you have acid soil, it may be best to install your carnations in medium to large containers or add lime to your garden soil according to package directions.  Gardeners with heavy clay can amend the soil with organic material like Fafard® Premium Natural and Organic Compost.

Humans may love carnations, but garden varmints, like rabbits and deer, generally do not.  If you have cats who roam the garden and are prone to sampling plants, take care, as the flowers can be irritating to feline mouths and stomachs.

At different times and places, carnations have been known by evocative names like “sops-in-wine,” “gillyflowers” and clove pinks.  Whatever you call them, they add both beauty and drama to the summer landscape.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

Exotic, Accessible Agapanthus

fsg

Brides traditionally wear or carry “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.”  Gardens—whether they are arrays of containers, in-ground beds, or window boxes–often contain those same elements.  Agapanthus, sometimes known as “Lily of the Nile”, combines all of those attributes in a single plant.  The “something old” is Agapanthus africanus, an ancestor of today’s varieties, which appeared in Europe as early as the seventeenth century, but is native to South Africa.  “Something new” describes the many new agapanthus hybrids that feature increased bloom size, a broadened color range, and more compact size.  “Something borrowed” is the “Nile” in the common name, which has persisted, though the plants have nothing to do with that great river.  The “something blue” refers to the most common flower color.

With all those sterling qualities, plus the ability to flourish equally well in the ground or in containers, agapanthus marries the exotic and the accessible, with beautiful results.

An Onion Cousin

The genus is part of the Alliaceae or onion family, but its growth habit might remind you a little of holiday amaryllis (Hippeastrum), with tall, fleshy stalks and long narrow leaves.  Those stalks generally grow between 18 inches and four feet tall, depending on variety, on plants that spread of at least 1 foot.  The rounded flowerheads or umbels appear at the tops of the stalks and are made up of scores of trumpet-shaped florets, which appear in shades of blue and blue-purple, as well as white.  You can buy varieties of Agapanthus africanus from some vendors, but most commercially available agapanthus plants are hybrids.  The number of those hybrid varieties has increased steadily over the years, with new generations of agapanthus hybrids succeeding older ones.

Beautiful Tender Perennial

Agapanthus is a tender perennial that is only marginally hardy in cold winter climates.

Given its origins in the southern hemisphere, it is not a surprise that agapanthus is classed as a tender perennial that is only marginally hardy in cold winter climates.  New varieties are more cold-tolerant than older ones, but all can be overwintered successfully. Some varieties feature evergreen leaves.

Blue and White Hues

If you like blue, you can choose a light blue variety like ‘Summer Skies’, which also has the benefit of being cold hardy to USDA plant hardiness Zone 6.  For brighter blues, choose tall ‘Blue Yonder,’ or the slightly shorter (24 inches) ‘Kingston Blue’.  If you want dramatic dark blues, go for ‘Black Buddhist’, with dark purple buds and dark blue-purple florets, or ‘Back in Black’ with dark flowers and black-streaked stalks.  The extremely floriferous ‘Storm Cloud’, also bears umbels of highly saturated blue-purple.

Cool white cultivars include ‘Cold Hardy White’, which is hardy to USDA plant hardiness zone 5, and bears white florets on 12- to 16-inch stalks.  Somewhat taller, at over three feet ‘Galaxy White’ is hardy to USDA zone 6,

Double the Fun

There are many white agapanthus varieties from which to choose.

Little ‘rfdd’ Double Diamond grows to only about 12 inches tall but makes up for its short stature with umbels of double or semi-double white blooms.  It is not terribly cold-hardy but is eminently suitable for container culture and overwintering in cold winter climates.

Sun and Soil

No matter what variety you choose, plant the rhizomes just below the surface of the soil.  If you buy container-grown agapanthus and want to transplant to a decorative pot or tub, make sure the top of the soil surrounding the plant is on level with the top of the soil in the chosen container.  Situate your plant in a sunny location with some afternoon shade, if possible.

Agapanthus bloom best when they are slightly potbound, so select an appropriately-sized container.  Use a quality potting mix like Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, and make sure the agapanthus has consistent moisture.  Fertilize with a balanced plant food, diluted according to manufacturer’s directions, during the spring and summer growth period.

A Long Winter Nap

Cold climate dwellers should bring potted agapanthus indoors to a bright, frost-free location for the winter, watering occasionally.  When spring returns, take the plants outdoors and begin watering and fertilizing once again.

Opulence Divided

Brilliant blue or white agapanthus look great as single specimen plants.

Brilliant blue or white agapanthus look great as single specimen plants, and opulent when massed in large tubs.  Happy plants will form clumps, and you can increase your supplies by digging, lifting and splitting those clumps (with a sharp spade or garden knife), and replanting the divisions.  If you share those agapanthus divisions with the gardeners among your friends or neighbors, they will most likely be grateful for the gifts of “something borrowed” and “something blue” from you.

 

 

Creating Japanese Kokedama

February can be the longest short month for gardeners. In cold winter climates it is frequently too soon to get out in the garden and work. Elsewhere it may be gray, rainy, and dismal. Indoor gardening is a good way to beat the cold-weather doldrums, and the Japanese art of kodedama is a relatively easy, inexpensive means of enjoying a green project indoors.

What is Kokedama?

Asparagus fern is an easy-care kokedama plant.

Kokedama means “moss ball” in Japanese, and the words define this container-free method of growing small to medium-sized houseplants in mossy orbs of potting medium. Instead of a pot or other vessel, the plant of your choice grows in a soil mixture enclosed in a sheet of sphagnum moss (typically) and held together by nylon or burlap garden twine. The result can be hung from the ceiling or displayed on a decorative plate or tray.

Kodedama is interesting enough for adults and a great activity for children, with adult help and supervision.

Picking a Kokedama Plant

Choose small- to medium-sized non-spreading plants for kokedama.

Almost any small to mid-size plant that does not spread will work. If you plan to hang your kokedama, try English ivy (Hedera helix), asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus), or trailing heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum). For a flowering ball, think about African violets (Saintpaulia hybrids, click here to read more), flowering kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), or bromeliads, like terrestrial Tillandsias or Guzmannia. Dwarf fancy-leaf begonias make showy kokedama. If you have a sunny space and love succulents, smaller specimens will also grow well.

Think about where you will display your finished moss ball and choose plants that flourish in the available light. Flowering subjects generally like more light than foliage plants.

Raw Materials for Kokedama

Tillandsias can make very kokedama good specimens.

Like any good recipe, kodedama starts with an ingredient list. Necessary kokedama supplies:

  1. Sphagnum sheet moss or loose coarse sphagnum moss
  2. Well-aerated potting mix or bonsai soil (available at some garden centers or online)
  3. Quality standard potting mix, like Fafard Professional Potting Mix
  4. Garden twine or nylon filament
  5. Large bowl
  6. Scissors
  7. Garden or rubber gloves

Have all of your materials ready before starting. The process can get messy, so work on an easy-to-clean surface or cover the work area with plastic or paper.

Creating Kokedama

Start by forming a ball of soil.

Assemble the chosen plant, plus all the ingredients, with a water source nearby. Your finished kodedama will probably be 5 to 8 inches wide, depending on the size of the plant.

Put on your gloves. Soak the moss in water for a few minutes to make it pliable. In a bowl, mix equal parts of the bonsai and potting mixes. Begin adding water, a little at a time, until the mixture holds together when scooped up in your palm.

Form the mixture into a ball (like making a snowball). When you have a cohesive ball, split it by cutting or twisting. Remove the plant from its container, and gently remove the excess potting mix, but be sure not to harm the plant’s root ball. Insert the plant between the two halves and then reform the soil ball around the plant, patting and turning until the mass holds together. Be careful not to bend or harm any of the plant’s stems.

Wrapping Kokedama

Make sure the sphagnum moss covers the soil ball before tying.

Place the plant ball atop the moistened piece of sheet moss and pull the sheet moss up around the ball, tucking it at the base of the plant. Take the twine or filament and wrap it around the middle of the ball, leaving about six inches free to tie at the end of the process. Continue to wrap twine around the moss (like winding yarn into a ball), until the kokedama is held securely. If you are going to hang the finished creation, make a couple of hanging loops of the same length at the top of the ball and tie them together (see the image under Picking a Kokedama Plant). Trim and loose ends of twine or tuck them under. The kokedama is finished and ready to hang or display.

Aftercare and Keeping Kokedama Going

If you plan to hang your kokedama, be sure to tie the plant firmly.

As you might expect, you can’t just water a kokedama with a watering can unless you want a drippy mess. The best way to water is to soak the ball in a bowl of water for about five minutes and then let it drip dry for half an hour or so in a strainer or colander. Watering frequency may vary depending on the plant type and also the level of humidity in the air. If the ball feels relatively light and/or the leaves are droopy, the kokedama needs a drink. Dry air may mean watering every few days. Feed by using soluble fertilizer diluted according to the manufacturer’s directions and added to the water in which you soak your kodedama,

Most plants, even slow-growing succulents, will eventually outgrow their kodedama packages. When that happens, you can either use the plant to make a bigger kodedama, install it in an appropriately sized container, or, in the case of a perennial plant, transfer the former kodedama subject to the garden.

African Violets

The National Garden Bureau has decreed that 2024 is the “Year of the African Violet”.  Coming in January, generally a dark, cold month, this boost for a cheerful little plant couldn’t be more timely.

Plant names can be great deceivers, but in the case of African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha), the common name is at least partly right. The ancestors of modern African violets did indeed live on the African continent, in mountainous cloud forest regions of today’s Kenya and Tanzania.  Though the flowers bear a superficial resemblance to those of members of the violet or Violaceae family, African violets are not related to them.  They are gesneriads, belonging to the Generiaceae family along with other popular blooming houseplants, like primulina, streptocarpus, and gloxinia.

Like their gesneriad relatives, African violets produce rosettes of evergreen leaves.  Those leaves are rounded, somewhat fleshy, and covered with soft hairs.  The flowers are on slender stalks and have five petals apiece—two upper petals and three, slightly larger lower ones.  The petals may appear equal in many modern violet varieties.  If you look at the flowers closely, you will notice that the petals’ bases fuse into a tube, another gesneriad characteristic.

In the nineteenth century, cradles of biodiversity in Africa, South America, and Asia were rife with European adventurers, some of whom were keen amateur or even professional botanists.  One such amateur was Prussian nobleman Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who, during the 1890s, served as a bureaucrat for the German East Indian Company.  Hiking through the Usambara mountains of eastern Tanzania, he discovered the low-growing plants that were eventually named in his honor.  The baron sent seeds back to Europe and the saintpaulia craze began.

Serious breeding efforts began in the United States in the 1920s and eventually, thousands of African violet varieties were developed.  The African Violet Society of America, now the world’s largest interest group devoted to a single indoor plant, was organized in 1946.  In its role as the international cultivar registration authority for Saintpaulia, the AVSA is the African violet world’s “keeper of the keys.”  Amateur and professional violet breeders must register their new creations with AVSA before they can be recognized as unique varieties.

African violets are inexpensive and accessible, available everywhere, from supermarkets to big box stores.  Many of those plants, especially the trademarked Optimara violets, come from the world’s largest African violet supplier, Herman Holtkamp Greenhouses in Nashville, Tennessee.

The plants’ popularity owes much to the fact that they are relatively unfussy and thrive in indoor situations where light is somewhat less than optimal.  All you need is a relatively warm room, bright diffuse light and well-drained potting soil.  Relatively high humidity is not necessary, but the plants will appreciate either a humidifier or a perch atop a pebble and water-filled tray.  The pots should sit atop the pebbles, not directly in the water, lest the water-logged situation cause crown rot, which is deadly to African violets.  For safety’s sake, water only when the soil surface feels dry to the touch and direct the stream of water towards the edges of the pot, rather than directly at the plant’s crown. This also avoids water spotting on those fuzzy leaves. Your African violets will also appreciate regular applications of plant food marketed especially for the species, applied according to manufacturers’ directions.

While choice is sometimes limited in local retail stores, online vendors offer a host of options.  Breeders have created plants in several sizes, grouped according to the width of the basal rosette of leaves. Miniature violets are six to eight inches or less in diameter, semi-miniatures grow six to eight inches wide, standard varieties span eight to 16 inches, and large African violets feature leaf rosettes that are over 16 inches wide.

Trailing varieties, suitable for pedestals and baskets, are also available.  Blooms may be single, double, or appear as bursts of exuberantly ruffled petals.  Flower colors range from white through pink, a host of purples, pale green, and even yellow.  Some varieties sport bi-colored petals. Leaves may be green or variegated and shapes also vary widely, from the textured loveliness of “quilted” leaves to the pointed-sided “holly” types.

You can buy African violets almost anywhere, generally for a song.  For something more unusual, the AVSA also has a listing of vendors located on their website.

Sustainable Gifts for Gardeners

 

The holiday season is the best and worst of times for gardeners’ friends and relatives.  The list of potential gifts is large, but choosing presents that the gardener actually wants or needs can be daunting.  One way to get a handle on the situation is to think about sustainability.  Most people who dig in the dirt—whether that “dirt” is garden beds, window boxes or indoor containers—are looking for sustainability.  Gardening is about working with the environment, not against it, so sustainable gifts are a good choice all the way around.

Small Surprises

Some people call these neat little gifts “stocking stuffers”, but even if you have no stockings, they are thoughtful remembrances.  Garden twine comes in handy in so many situations that it is practically indispensable.  Classicists have long turned to Nutscene Green Twist, which is made of biodegradable jute in a green shade that blends with leaves and stems, but any twine made of jute or hemp will come in handy.  Another small delight is lip balm, preferably made from beeswax.  There is nothing like it when you are putting in those last bulbs on cold, dark, December afternoons.  If you know your friend’s or relation’s preferences in hand lotion, a small jar or tube of that will take care of chapped hands as well.

Protecting the Protector

If you have a rough idea of the gardener’s hand size, a good, sturdy pair of cotton gloves can come in handy.  Likewise with warm socks in natural fabrics.  If you are privy to the individual’s likes, dislikes, and existing closet contents, a raffia or cotton garden hat or visor, may be a good investment.  Look for a generous brim and adjustable size.  Some hats are also foldable or packable, making them an especially good gift.

Tools

Good tools are like gold, and some people are picky about them. It pays to know what tools your friend or relative already has in the garden basket.  A garden knife, sometimes known as a Japanese hori knife, functions as a knife, trowel, and weeder all in one.  For sustainability, invest in a knife with a wooden handle, stainless steel blade and a convenient leather sheath that can attach to a belt.

One of the most indispensable weapons in my garden arsenal is an old-fashioned digging fork, which is smaller than a pitchfork, and about the same size as the average garden spade.  A sturdy wood and stainless fork does a multitude of heavy tasks, including mulching, soil loosening, and turning compost, and generally lasts for years.  If you are planting bulbs in a congested garden area, a fork will get the earth loosened with minimal disruption to neighboring plants or older bulbs that you may have forgotten about.  For new gardeners, a matching fork and spade set, is an exceptionally thoughtful gift.

Building Better Soil

Organic compost is wonderful for adding nutrients to soil, lightening heavy clay, or helping sandy soils retain moisture.  Plants love it.  Many vendors sell small, ceramic countertop units that will hold kitchen scraps until they can be deposited in an outdoor compost pile or composter. These are especially good for people in cold weather climates who may want to skip a trip to the compost pile when the snow is piled high.

A big bag of organic mulch may not make much of an impression under a Christmas tree, but a compact brick of coir-based potting mix, seed starting mix or compost makes a neater package that can be conveniently stored until it is needed.  All the gardener has to do is add water, and the brick’s contents expand into a usable medium.  Gardeners who do indoor seed-starting may appreciate a pack or two of coir seed-starting disks, a sustainable replacement for peat-based disks.

Hard to Buy For Gardeners

Suppose your gardening friend or relative already has an ample supply of tools, hats and soil amendments?  What then?  Most horticulture-minded people have a favorite nursery or garden center.  An online gift card is thoughtful and sustainable and allows your loved one to choose something suitable.  A subscription to the online edition of a gardening magazine (or the print edition for those who prefer it), provides a year’s worth of inspiration, usually at a relatively low price.  Membership in non-profits like the American Horticultural Society, Great Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society, or the Southern Garden History Society provide all kinds of benefits, in addition to publications, conferences and, sometimes, discounts at botanical institutions.

Classic garden books are another sure winner.  The internet is full of features on how to plant and design gardens.  Good garden literature delves into the “why” of doing so.  Classic works by authors like Russell Page, Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd or Henry Mitchell never go out of style.  Page Dickey has written about aging—and making gardens—gracefully.  Stephen Orr’s The New American Herbal is a must for herb lovers, gardeners and cooks.

For something really personal, try giving your time to help with heavy, but necessary garden chores like spreading mulch, digging a new bed, or bringing large container plants inside for the winter.  You will be investing in both gardens and friendship.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants, a healthy stand of Hollyhocks, as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline Saki. “garden supervisor” live in northern New Jersey.

The Ins & Outs of Holiday Cactus

What is the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus?  Inquiring, plant-loving minds want to know.  Also, are those seasonal bloomers the same as Easter cacti?  Do they all require the same care and culture?  Confusion seems to abound in the world of flowering holiday cacti.  Lots of people have them, but not everyone knows the answers to those pertinent questions.

Holiday Cactus Basics

Let’s start with the obvious.  All holiday cacti are houseplants with segmented, succulent leaves, arching stems, and, in certain seasons, brightly colored flowers at the ends of the stems. They owe their popularity to the fact that they are relatively undemanding plants that can live for years under the right conditions. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti have the added benefit of producing bright flowers during the dark months.

Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, sometimes billed as “zygocactus”, are both members of the genus Schlumbergera, named for Frederick Schlumberger, a nineteenth century botanist.  Thanksgiving cactus is a species (Schlumbergera truncata), while Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is a hybrid, with the truncata species in its ancestry.  Some of the most popular holiday cacti, including the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi), are hybrids, which may further complicate identification.

Giving Thanks for Bright Blooms

Thanksgiving cacti hail from tropical Brazilian rainforests where the species grows epiphytically on trees.  The Thanksgiving plants are distinct from other holiday cacti by the fact that their flat, segmented leaves, which end in points, making them appear a bit clawlike.  This trait gave rise to one of the species’ nicknames, “crab cactus”. Another distinguishing feature is the pollen, which is yellow. Container-grown specimens grow from one to two feet tall and can spread up to two feet.  Most selections sold in stores at holiday time are somewhat smaller, but a happy plant will bulk up as the years go by.

Thanksgiving cactus generally bloom in November or December, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, with flowers in shades of white, pink, peach, orange or yellow.

Christmas Cactus

Like Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus bears segmented stems, but instead of the “claws” at the ends of the segments, the edges are more rounded—with a slight teardrop-shape.  Christmas cactus also features pink pollen, borne by the stamens within the flowers, which are traditionally reddish-purple.  The plants are roughly the same size and configuration as Thanksgiving cactus, but bloom a bit later, usually from the end of December, through January.  The species name, buckleyi, comes from a nineteenth century English hybridizer, William Buckley.

Hybrids Gone Wild

Plant breeders always latch onto good things, and that is especially true with hybrid Schlumbergeras, which are often simply labeled “holiday cactus”.  Their work has extended the color range, increased flower size and shape, and created hardier plants.  A good example is ‘Aspen’, with broad, white, frilly petals accented by pink rings in the flowers’ throats.  ‘Chiba Spot’ is ‘Aspen’s opposite, with extremely slender petals in orange-red.  ‘Limelight Dancer’ blooms in an unusual color–pale yellow with green overtones—and sports contrasting pinkish pistils.  The amount of variety in the Schlumbergera world seems to increase each year.

And What About Easter Cactus?

Easter cactus, while related to the holiday cacti is not a Schlumbergera, but a Rhipsalidopsis, specifically Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri.  It is a little less popular and a little more finicky than either Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus, being quite sensitive to both over and under-watering.  The flattened leaf segments are the same, but are somewhat scalloped.  The flowers are brilliant red, but with shorter tubes than those of the holiday cactus.

Cactus Care

All three holiday cacti like excellent drainage—ideally orchid mix or potting mix lightened with organic matter, like Fafard® Premium Natural and Organic Compost, and perlite.  Indoors the plants thrive best with bright, indirect light.  To stimulate blooming, night temperatures should be between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.  Water sparingly when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch,  Easter cacti like higher humidity, either through regular misting, a room humidifier or a position atop a tray filled with pebbles and water.

Holiday cacti appreciate an outdoor summer vacation in a lightly shaded spot, as long as that spot doesn’t get swamped in rainstorms.  Bring the plants in when night temperatures start to drop below 55 degrees Fahrenheit and days begin to shorten.  After the outdoor vacation, Thanksgiving cacti will frequently start to show color on the stem tips, a prelude to bud formation and blooming.  Christmas cactus will not be far behind.

With good care, the plants will survive and rebloom for years to come.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants, a healthy stand of Hollyhocks, as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline Saki. “garden supervisor” live in northern New Jersey.

Caryopteris by Elisabeth Ginsburg

The first time I heard the word “bluebeard”, I thought about the old French fairy tale about a murderous nobleman and his unfortunate wives.  A little research proved that caryopteris, the shrub that goes by that nickname, is neither French, nor murderous.  In fact, bluebeard, sometimes also known as “blue mist shrub” or ‘blue spirea”, is downright joyful and brings color to the late summer landscape.

Blue, even when it tends to blue-purple is a wonderful color in the garden, and it is especially welcome in late summer and early fall—generally just ahead of the mums and asters– when blue mist shrubs burst into bloom.

The most common forms of blue mist shrub are varieties of Caryopteris x clandonensis, a hybrid of two caryopteris species, Caryopteris incana and Caropteris mongholica.  The happy result of the hybridizing process is deciduous shrubs that grow two to three feet tall, with green to gray-green, oval-shaped leaves that taper to elegant points.  The leaves, which release a pleasant fragrance when brushed, give away the fact that Caryopteris is a member of the enormous mint or Labiateae family.

The “blue mist” that give Caryopteris species, hybrids and varieties their common name, is made up of clusters of small blue flowers that appear at the ends of the arching stems and in the leaf axils where stems and leaves meet.  The “beard” that gave rise to the common name “bluebeard” is actually a small tuft at the base of each tiny petal. Butterflies and other pollinators probably don’t care about the beards, but they do covet the abundant nectar in the tubular blooms. Perhaps best of all, the plants flower on the current year’s growth, so early spring freezes will not prevent later summer flowering.

Gardeners are spoiled for choice when it comes to caryopteris.  The classic variety is ‘Longwood Blue’, a hybrid developed at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.  Sky blue flowers ornament a plant that grows to be about three feet tall and at least as wide.  A little smaller, with darker, richer-colored flowers, ‘Beyond Midnight’ is another x clandonensis hybrid that reaches about 2.5 feet tall and wide.  It might work well in large containers.

To light things up further, ‘Sunshine Blue’ sports golden-green foliage to go along with its medium blue flower clusters.  It grows to about the same dimensions as ‘Longwood Blue’.

Since blue mist shrubs flower only once per growing season, variegated foliage helps sustain interest before and after bloom time.  ‘White Surprise’ is a clandonensis hybrid with green petals edged in white.  ‘Snow Fairy’, a variety of the Himalayan species Caryopteris divericata, also sports white-edged leaves.

But what about the vogue for pink in fashion and flowers?  Blue mist shrubs are also available with pink “mist” (though they retain the “blue mist” name).  ‘Beyond Pink’d’ is a variety of Caryopteris incana, one of the parents of the clandonensis hybrids.  It boasts the same aromatic foliage and flower panicles as its blue-flowered relatives, but the bloom clusters are medium pink.  Its pollinator-attracting capabilities are the same as those of other caryopteris.

With its moderate size and colorful late summer flowers, blue mist shrub makes a good addition to beds, borders or even container gardens, provided the containers are large enough.  It also has the potential to make an excellent deciduous hedge, or shine as a single specimen.  The clandonensis hybrids are generally hardy in USDA plant hardness zones five through nine; ‘Beyond Pink’d’ and other incanas are a little less cold tolerant.  They and even some of the caryopteris hybrids may die back to the ground during cold winters, but will sprout up in the spring with no ill effects.

What conditions make for a happy caryoperis?  Sunlight is important, and the shrubs need about the same light exposure as roses or tomatoes—at least six hours per day.  Like humans, blue mist shrubs dislike wet feet, so amend heavy soil with a product like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.  Mulch the shrubs in doughnut fashion, with the mulch surrounding, but not touching the base of the plants.  Water regularly while the new shrub establishes its roots.

If you crave caryopteris when you see a neighbor’s shrub flowering, take heart.  The plants can be purchased and planted in early fall.  If your pocketbook is subject to other demands right now, rest assured that “blue mist” can still blow your way next spring.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants, a healthy stand of Hollyhocks, as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline Saki. “garden supervisor” live in northern New Jersey.

Late Summering Flowering Trees By Elisabeth Ginsburg

In spring the whole world seems to bloom, with a wide array of flowering trees and shrubs joining the parade of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths.  The pace of mid to late summer is slower, which gives gardeners and flower lovers more time to appreciate the changing show.

If you are thinking about including a summer-flowering tree in your landscape, the choices are varied, from the cascading fringe of sourwood, to the camellia-like blossoms of the native Franklinia tree.  While not so numerous as the spring-flowering trees, summer bloomers come in all sizes and configurations.   If you happen to have an arboretum, you can have them all.  For the rest of us, the hardest part is choosing only one.

The Sweetness of Sourwood

Known for its (allegedly) bitter leaves and decidedly sweet fragrance, sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) is a deciduous native of the southeastern United States.   Related to members of the heath and heather or Ericaceae plant family, the species is also known as “Sorrel tree”, or, more sweetly, “lily-of-the-valley tree”.  In cultivation sourwoods grow to about 25 to 30 feet tall and about 20 feet wide, with shining, oval-shaped leaves that are green in summer and brilliant red or red-purple in the fall.  In very late June or July, sourwood trees are completely clothed in drooping flower panicles made up of tiny, individual chalice or urn-shaped blooms that last up to a month, spilling out over the leaves and giving the trees a singular appearance.

Well-drained soil and full sun to light shade make for happy sourwoods, and the trees are hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 9.  Lovers of variegated leaves may be interested in Oxydendrum arboretum ‘Albomarginatum’, which boasts white leaf edges.

Franklin’s Tree

Perhaps fittingly for something discovered during America’s colonial period, the Franklinia tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is a member of the tea family.  Other notable members include camellias, so it is no coincidence that the beautiful Franklinia flowers, which appear in late July, August and sometimes into September, are camellia-like.

Franklinias, hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 8, are especially appropriate for smaller gardens, growing between 10 and 20 feet tall and up to 15 feet wide, with spreading branches.  The glossy leaves are narrowly tapered ovals with soft undersides.  In the fall those leaves turn red to purple.

The tree’s greatest glory, however, may be the fragrant flowers, which are white, with five petals apiece surrounding a sumptuous boss of golden stamens.

Franklinias like well-drained soil on the acidic side of the ph scale.  To get the best from the plant add organic material, like Fafard Garden Manure Blend to the soil when filling the planting hole.

Discovered in the wilds of Georgia in 1770, Franklinia disappeared from its habitat sometime afterwards.  Thanks to colonial plantsman John Bartram, who collected the seeds and named the newly discovered species after his friend, Benjamin Franklin, last summer flower lovers can enjoy Franklinia today.

Great Crape

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.) is a small tree that generally tops out at 15 to 25 feet.  The many available varieties shine with brilliant summer flower panicles or branching clusters composed of scores of individual six-petaled blooms in shades including white, a range of pinks and roses, dark red and lavender.  Crape myrtle flowers are spellbinding when they bloom, but the plants pull their weight in all four seasons. The leaves, which are oblong and appear in groups of three, tend to be smooth and glossy green, coloring up in the fall in shades of red, orange and yellow. Most varieties also have smooth grayish bark that exfoliates or peels off to reveal underbark that may be brown, gray or even pinkish.  The effect is like elegant camouflage, and it makes crape myrtles stand out during the cold months when leaves and flowers are a thing of the past.

The most common crape myrtles in commerce are varieties or hybrids of Lagerstroemia indica, which is native to parts of Asia, and the list of colors and sizes is long.

Crape myrtles like the same conditions as roses—full sun for at least six hours per day.  If your chosen site receives a little less light, the tree or shrub may still thrive but will likely produce fewer flowers.  Plant in well-drained soil enriched with organic material and mulch thoroughly.

If crape myrtle can be said to have a downside, it may be zone hardiness.  Older varieties are probably only hardy from USDA Zone 6 or 7 through Zone 9.  Newer cultivars have been bred for greater cold tolerance, but it pays to check plant tags before purchasing.

Perfect Pagodas

A tall, upright, deciduous tree with spectacular late summer flowers, the Japanese pagoda tree (Sophora japonica) is not native to Japan, but hails from China.  Reaching 50 to 75 feet tall, with a nearly equal spread, it is majestic, perfect as a specimen or even street tree.  Pagoda trees sport medium green leaves that are pinnate, with each five to ten inch “leaf” composed of a number of short leaflets that sprout from a single stem.  In July or August, those leaves are complemented by elongated clusters of pea-like white flowers that are lightly fragrant and attract pollinators.  After the petals drop, the yellow-green seed pods appear, hanging from the trees like strings of beads.  Eventually those pods turn brown and split.

Japanese pagoda trees prefer full sun to part shade, and well-drained loamy soil.  Once established they are tolerant to environmental stressors, including air pollution.  The most popular variety is ‘Regent’, which grows more quickly than the species. Pagoda trees are hardy in USDA Zones 6 through 9.

And For Colder Climates…

If you live in USDA Zones 3 or 4, where winters are colder, you can still grow trees with late summer flowers. Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), can be grown either as a shrub, or, as is often the case, trained (either by a nursery or by the gardener) to grow as a small tree.  In tree form, it can grow up to 15 feet tall with a wide crown.  From July through September the hydrangea will bloom, producing fat, conical flower panicles composed of scores of individual white blossoms that eventually age to pink and then ten.  Hardy in USDA Zones 3 through 8, panicle hydrangeas are also tolerant of air pollution, but dislike drought.  Plant in full sun and provide supplemental water during hot, dry weather.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants, a healthy stand of Hollyhocks, as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline Saki. “garden supervisor” live in northern New Jersey.

Great Groundcovers by Elisabeth Ginsburg

Perennial groundcovers are the workhorses of the garden—insulating the soil, smothering weeds and beautifying the landscape all at once.  Given a little care and water while they get established, most groundcovers with grow happily with minimal attention from the gardener.  All provide a green carpet and some color up in the fall. Many have the added attraction of seasonal flowers.

A great groundcover forms a thick mat and spreads horizontally. As with any plant, finding a successful groundcover is a matter of “right plant, right place.”  Adding a quality soil amendment, like Fafard® Premium Natural and Organic Compost Blend, at planting time will encourage any low-growing “green mulch” specimen to thrive where it is planted.

The world of ground covers is large, with an array of choices for every site, even if your landscape contains that bane of the gardener’s existence—dry shade.  The following are a few of the best.

Gracious Geraniums

At about 12 inches tall when flowering, big-root geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) is a stellar groundcover with deeply dissected medium green leaves that smell of apples.  In spring, just after the daffodils and tulips have finished their show, the leaves, are ornamented by five-petaled pink flowers.  When the petals drop, decorative pinkish seedheads appear, with a shape that brings to mind to the plant’s common name, “cranesbill”.

Flourishing in sun or light shade, big-root geraniums spread freely, but are not invasive. In the fall, the foliage turns a festive shade of red.

Geranium x cantabrigiense is a naturally occurring hybrid of big-root geranium and another species, Geranium dalmaticum, with a ground-covering habit.  The leaves are dissected, but are smaller, more rounded and daintier than those of its relative.  Shell-pink flowers accent the popular ‘Biokovo’ variety, appearing in the spring, with leaves that may redden in the fall.

Scents of Thyme

Prostrate or creeping thyme (Thymus) plants make agreeable, often fragrant groundcovers in sunny spots, and are semi-evergreen in cold winter climates. In addition to tiny green or gray-green leaves, many varieties boast small, colorful flowers.  Groundcover thymes are not generally used in cooking, unlike the closely related culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris).  Some gardeners use prostrate thyme plants in beds and borders, while others position them between stepping stones or on lightly traveled paths.  Flowers may be white, pink or purple-pink, depending on species and variety, with most appearing in early summer.  Among the most popular species are Thymus serpyllum or wild thyme; Thymus praecox; Thymus pseudolanguinosus, commonly known as “woolly thyme”, with softly hairy foliage; and Thymus herba-barona, or “caraway thyme”, which bears caraway-scented leaves that can be used in cooking.

All thymes like well drained soil and, once established, are drought-tolerant.

Hosta Minis

Hostas of all sizes and descriptions are loved for their shade tolerance, beauty, tenacity and ease of care.  Small hostas also make great low groundcovers.  At four to eight inches tall (with taller flower spikes), minis are available in a variety of colors and forms.  The classic ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ features rounded, blue-green leaves, while its sport (spontaneous genetic mutation), ‘Mighty Mouse’ has the same foliage edged in cream.  Light up dark places with ‘Munchkin Fire’, with pointed golden green leaves. Little ‘Lemon Zinger’ also bears pointed leaves with wavy edges and darker green leaf margins.

Happy hostas will multiply quickly into ground-covering clumps that can be easily divided in spring.  The minis are as tough as their larger relatives and do well under trees and in other difficult situations.  Provide consistent moisture during dry periods.

Sweets for the Shade

Another shade loving groundcover with great leaves is sweet woodruff (Gallium odoratum), sometimes called “sweet-scented bedstraw”.  Each dark green leaf is lance-shaped, but the leaves are grouped in rounded, seven-leaf whorls that swirl about eight inches above the soil.  In mid- spring, small clusters of four-petaled white flowers appear.  Both flowers and leaves are fragrant, and can be dried and used in potpourri or sachets. Sweet woodruff spreads handily—sometimes a bit too handily—in its preferred moist, shaded environment, but escapee plants can be hand pulled or mowed easily.  It will grow successfully under black walnut trees, a challenging location for many plants.

Bugleweed Trumpets

With its ground-hugging scallop-shaped leaves and bright blue spring flower spikes, ajuga (Ajuga reptans) attracts attention.  In the species form, the leaves are shiny and dark green, but plant hybridizers have been busy creating varieties with more colorful foliage.  ‘Black Scallop’, for example features darkest purple to black foliage, while ‘Burgundy Glow’ is variegated in cream, sometimes with rosy highlights.  ‘Bronze Beauty’s’ leaves are bronze-red.  All feature similar spikes of tiny blue flowers that attract spring pollinators.  For something familiar, but just a bit different, vendors offer ‘Pink Lightening’, with pink-purple flower spikes.

Ajuga is great for covering areas that have varying mixtures of sun and shade, and prefers consistently moist soil.

If you are covering a large area with any groundcover, start with small “plug” plants and space according to directions on the tags.  Mulch around the new arrivals and water regularly.  Eventually your little plants will spread to meet each other and take over the mulching duties on their own.

 

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants, a healthy stand of Hollyhocks, as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline Saki. “garden supervisor” live in northern New Jersey.