Cleaning & Sharpening Your Pruners

With Matt Scace, Grower for the White Flower Farm Store

The gardening season is about to get underway in the Northeast, so it’s a great time to clean the garden tools.

Up at the farm, we asked Matt Scace, grower for the White Flower Farm Store, to walk us through the steps. For starters, he points out that there are a lot of different tools that would appreciate attention: axes, edgers, shears, hoes, swoes, shovels, trowels, pick mattocks, forks, and saws. For purposes of this post, we’ll concentrate on one of the most commonly used garden tools: pruners. The same techniques used to clean and sharpen pruners can be applied to lopers and the blades of some other garden tools as well.

To begin, the materials you’ll need to clean and sharpen a pair of pruners are:

dish soap, a nylon scrubby sponge, a whetstone or sharpening stone, a few drops of oil (any kind will do, from canola to WD40), a rag or paper towels, and a bit of elbow grease.

Step #1: Soak or Oil Your Stone

Some whetstones and sharpening stones require that you soak them in water for a period of time before use. Others require a few drops of oil. Follow the instructions that came with your stone. Soaking or oiling “prevents teeny, tiny bits of steel from getting stuck in the stone,” Matt says. “It’s the way oil works in a frying pan.”

Matt uses an all-in-one-tool to disassemble his Felco pruners.

Matt uses an all-in-one-tool to disassemble his Felco pruners.

Step #2 (optional): Disassemble Your Pruners

This step is optional because not all pruners or garden tools are designed for easy disassembly. Tools that don’t encourage disassembly should be left intact.

Well-made pruners, including the Swiss-made Felco models preferred by most of our garden staff, are easy to take apart. Disassembling should be done whenever possible because it’s the best way to clean and sharpen the full blade and to clean the interior junction where the blade pivots.

To disassemble: use a screwdriver, all-in-one tool, or, in the case of Felco and some other brands, the mini-wrench or disassembly tool that comes with your pruners. If you’re afraid you might not be able to put your pruners back together again, Matt has great advice: “Take out one screw, and take a picture with your cell phone. Take out another screw, and take another picture with your cell phone,” and so on. That way, you’ll have a visual record of how to put everything back together.

While you disassemble your pruners, take care to set the parts on a clean, uncluttered surface so nothing gets lost. For his demonstration, Matt used the back of a legal pad.

pruners and dish soap
Use warm water, dish soap, and a nylon scrubby sponge to remove sap and clean the blade.

Step #3: Dish Soap & Water

Washing your blade is next. If you’ve disassembled your pruners, carry the blade to the sink. (If you didn’t disassemble, give the whole tool a bath. It won’t hurt anything as long as you dry the pruners thoroughly and coat the metal parts with oil later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves . . .)

Under warm running water, Matt uses Dawn dish soap and a nylon scrubby sponge to clean the blade. The results are rather remarkable. The blade emerges shiny, and looks almost new. Cleaning the blade not only removes grit, sap and dirt, it also enhances your view of the blade’s beveled edge. Taking care of that is the whole point of sharpening, which comes next.

pruners and sharpening stone

Matt holds the blade at the angle of the bevel as he rubs it down the sharpening stone.

Step #4: Sharpening the Blade

“The bevel on any blade is the angle at which it is ground at the factory,” Matt says. “If you look straight down on the blade of a food processor, the shiny part is the bevel. The purpose of sharpening is to maintain the existing bevel on a blade. While sharpening, you are essentially grinding along that existing bevel.” It’s important to sharpen while the bevel is easy to find, Matt says. “If you wait until you can’t find the bevel, you’re in a bit of trouble.”

Sharpening techniques vary, and they may depend on the size and shape of your whetstone or sharpening stone. Place the stone and blade in contact, and “feel for the angle,” Matt says. When you’ve found it, move the blade gently against the stone (or the stone against the blade, depending on the type you have) so abrasion begins to sharpen the edge. “Some recommend using a circular motion,” which means moving the blade or stone in small circles along the bevel, Matt says. Others run the blade down the stone in a linear fashion. The key is to maintain the angle of the beveled edge. Check your progress as you go. In the places where you’ve rubbed the blade against the abrasive stone, the blade will appear shinier. Make sure the shine corresponds to the factory-made bevel. You can check the sharpness of your blade by cutting a piece of paper: Hold the paper in one hand and slice at the edge with the blade. The blade should cut into the paper, creating a shred that curls away.

oil for pruners
After sharpening, it’s time for oil. A drop or two protects steel blades, preventing rust and corrosion, and it keeps the pivot mechanism moving smoothly.

Step #5: Oil

Once you’re done sharpening, it’s time for oil. A drop or two protects steel blades, preventing rust and corrosion, Matt says. It also keeps the pivot mechanism moving smoothly. Any type of oil will do, from canola or vegetable oil to WD40, honing oil, or household 3-in-1. “Use just enough to coat the surface,” Matt says. He rubs oil all over the metal surfaces and wipes off any excess with a cloth. “The oil shouldn’t run or collect.”

Step #6: Always, Always Use the Right Tool for the Job

There will be a future post on this topic, but for now, Matt reminds all of us to use the right tool for the job. “The right tool for the job is going to reduce wear and tear, and that means you sharpen less often,” he says. The Felco #2, which he uses frequently, “is capable of cutting a great many more things than you should cut with it. When you have your nice Swiss-made Felco pruners, and you’re out cutting your Roses, you might see a coated wire tie on a Rose, and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just cut it with the pruners, and it’ll be OK because I’m only going to do it this once.’ It is not OK.” Tools that are misused are subject to dings, degradation, and breakage. “The relationship between care and use goes together like teeth and gears,” Matt says. Make that extra trip back to the shed for the wire cutters, or whatever tool is designed for a specific purpose. “This might sound like a sales pitch, but in the long term, having the tool that’s made for the job you’re doing is less expensive.”

disassembled pruners
TIP: If you’re worried you won’t know how to reassemble your pruners, take cell phone photos as you disassemble a pair, then you have a record of what goes where and in what order.

Ongoing Care & Rubbing Alcohol

Ideally, you should clean, dry and oil your tools after each use. Not many of us are that diligent, but the point is, buy good tools and treat them with the respect they deserve, cleaning them often.

For tools that come in contact with plant material, it’s wise to clean the blades with rubbing alcohol. “It can dramatically reduce insect and disease issues,” Matt says. A good number of plant diseases are plant-specific and won’t spread from one type of plant to another on a pair of pruners, but others can be transmitted that way, and a bit of alcohol can hinder the spread.

Ovation Large Flowering Orienpet Lily Mix

Learning About Lilies

True Lilies, from the genus Lilium, are often confused with Hemerocallis, more commonly called Daylilies. True Lilies produce a single stem, often tall, from a bulb. The leaves grow on the stem. Daylilies grow from tubers that produce a large tuft of foliage, from which emerge leafless stems (called scapes).

Lilium 'Eyeliner'
Lilium ‘Eyeliner’

Because Lilies are tall and slender, they fit easily between other plants. Tuck two or three between the crowns of other perennials, toward the back of the border. Lilies can add color where Peonies, Baptisia, and other early summer bloomers have subsided to green. Lilies can also complement summer bloomers. Try Asiatic Lilies, which bloom first, with Salvia, Geranium, Centaurea, or Heuchera. Orienpet Lilies (crosses between Trumpet and Oriental Lilies) are the next group to bloom. They enhance Campanulas and all the Daisy-type flowers: Echinacea, Coreopsis, Gaillardia, and Leucanthemum. Oriental Lilies, the last to bloom, are lovely with Phlox, Ornamental Grasses, and Sedum, as well as the long-blooming Echinaceas.

Lilium 'Montego Bay'
Lilium ‘Montego Bay’

Lilies make superb cut flowers. If you don’t like to cut from your borders, plant rows of Lily bulbs in a cutting bed or a corner of the vegetable garden.

Perfumed Garden Lily Bouquet
Perfumed Garden Lily Bouquet

Spring-planted Lilies will likely be a little shorter than expected their first year; the bulbs are so eager to grow, they produce stems before they’re fully rooted. In their second year in your garden, the Lilies will achieve their full, often majestic, height. Orienpets and Orientals might benefit from staking in their second year, especially if grown in part sun, because they tend to lean towards the sunlight.

To learn more, watch our video Where and How to Grow Lilies.

Amaryllis for Spring Planting

Around here, Amaryllis are generally enjoyed as indoor plants during the winter months. But last spring, we planted some especially cold-tolerant Amaryllis bulbs in our annual garden beds, and the results were gorgeous. To encourage you to enjoy the same stunning sights in your own garden, this year we’re offering a few varieties of Amaryllis for spring planting in the garden. To plant outdoors in Zones 7 to 10, select a well-drained location in full sun. Locating bulbs in a protected, south-facing site will help ensure success. Plant each bulb with its shoulders 1″ above the soil. In areas where there is some frost but temperatures remain above 10°F, plant bulbs slightly deeper. Blooms will appear 4–6 weeks after planting. In fall, provide a layer of winter mulch.

For gardeners in climates that are colder than Zone 7, dig up the bulbs in the fall and bring them indoors. Cut off the foliage just above the bulb and store them in a dry, cool (55°F), dark place such as a basement or closet. When the chance of frost has passed in the spring, plant the bulbs outdoors in a sunny location.

Amaryllis Alasca®
Amaryllis Alasca®

Bred in Holland using cold-tolerant species, this pristine beauty produces an abundance of double, snowy white blooms with a hint of green deep inside.

Amaryllis Eyecatcher®
Amaryllis Eyecatcher®

This beauty is bred from cold-tolerant species and can be a stunning feature of your summer garden. Eyecatcher® produces large 5½″ orange-red blossoms with bold white stars. It’s a lovely surprise in your sunny border.

Amaryllis Balentino®
Amaryllis Balentino®

The fiery red, white-blazed blooms of this striking Amaryllis will make quite a statement in your summer garden. The blossoms appear atop tall stems, and the white anthers protrude dramatically, adding one more note of distinction.

Plants for Pollinators

The key to attracting butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to your garden is to offer a steady supply of nutritious, delicious foods throughout the entire growing season. The varieties you see here should be considered essential elements of any successful pollinator garden. They produce an abundance of colorful blossoms that pollinators thrive on, and they will attract their fair share of human admirers, too.

Liatris spicata 'Kobold'
Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’

A North American genus consisting of about 20 species. Liatris is excellent for cutting, superb for drying, and beautiful in the border, where it looks best planted in groups. It is also a strong favorite with many butterflies. Plants offered thrive in full sun or partial shade and well-drained, even dry, soil, but they struggle in the desert Southwest.

Salvia Wendy's Wish
Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’

Many annual forms of Salvia are widely grown for their easy disposition and vivid colors, and these are midsummer staples at every garden center. Our favorites are less well known
and offer deep, rich colors that will bring a garden to life. Among the choices we offer is Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish,’ a vigorous Australian selection that’s a favorite of our director of horticulture.

Asclepias syriaca
Asclepias syriaca

A familiar sight in meadows and fields across central and eastern parts of our country, Common Milkweed is an essential source of food for Monarch butterflies. Milkweed plants are content in poor and even rocky soils, and are unfazed by drought. They make a superb addition to butterfly gardens and meadows. Of the 200 species in the genus, the best known are North American wildflowers. They have small, curiously shaped blooms that appear in dense clusters and are irresistible to butterflies. Milkweed flowers evolve into seedpods, which open to release seeds on silky white floss. The pods are attractive in the autumn and winter garden, and they’re great for flower arrangements.

Buddleia davidii Buzz™
Buddleia davidii Buzz™

There are some 70 species of shrubs and small trees in the genus Buddleia, the best being Asian natives. The most popular are varieties of B. davidii and its hybrids with long stems ending in panicles of flowers that are ambrosia to butterflies. In cold-winter climates such as ours, plants are often killed almost to the ground. We prune back to live wood in spring and always have a spectacular show starting in midsummer. Best in full sun and moist but well-drained soil.

Sweet Pea 'Cupanis Original'

Here Come the Sweet Peas

The exquisite colors and sweet fragrance of Sweet Peas have made them a longtime favorite of floral designers. But because these plants adhere to a somewhat tricky timetable and require a bit of special care as they grow, they are rarely (if ever) found in garden centers or nurseries. Sweet Peas are started from seeds in late winter, and this can be a defeating proposition for anyone in a cool climate who lacks a heated greenhouse or indoor seed-starting capabilities. Sweet Peas are vining plants, and they tend to tangle as they grow, making them difficult to display on the crowded shelves in most stores.

Sweet Pea 'Cheri Amour'
Sweet Pea ‘Cheri Amour’

Because we love these annuals, and because the demand for them has grown in recent years, we undertook a trial this summer to see if we could ship Sweet Pea plants (not seeds) to our customers. We began by ordering Sweet Pea seeds in a range of pleasing colors. (This is easy work given the range of captivating colors and bicolors available.) We propagated the seeds in our greenhouses, and in early May, just prior to what turned out to be the season’s last frost, we transplanted some of the seedlings into our gardens at the farm. (Sweet Peas can take a bit of cold, and they came through the frost just fine. What they can’t tolerate is high heat.) Other Sweet Pea seedlings were shipped to our homes to ensure that our packaging held the plants securely and that the plants themselves would come through their few days in dark boxes in the back of unheated trucks.

Sweet Pea Jewels of Albion
Sweet Pea Jewels of Albion

The happy ending to this story is that all of the Sweet Peas we trialed exceeded our expectations. Our gardens were filled with these lovely blooms, many of them sweetly scented, for weeks in June and July, which is roughly when the plants subside. As of this writing, our horticulture staff is selecting the varieties of Sweet Pea plants we’ll be offering to you in next spring’s Garden Book. Our publications team is putting together the information you’ll need to grow these plants, which require the support of a trellis, fence, tuteur or bamboo stake, along with techniques for encouraging the maximum number of blooms and the long, straight stems that are prized for cutting.

For a preview of some of these techniques and to learn more about Sweet Peas, visit the superb blog post on the topic by our friend Matt Mattus, the author behind Growing With Plants. You’ll find it here.

Create a Dramatic Patio Container


Look to annuals to create exceptional potted plantings for patios, decks, terraces, porches, and front entries, or as a focal point within a border. Annuals can also be used to fill in spaces after spring bulbs or perennials have finished their show. Or use them to add splashes of color in front of a border or in any other high-visibility location.

Annuals work hard for your garden, since many provide either a continuous show of colorful blooms or attractive foliage; some even offer both. There are annuals that will suit virtually any color scheme, gardening style, and setting.

Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis

Since getting the right light for any plant is crucial, check our website for sun-loving annuals (the most common) as well as annuals that thrive in shade, such as Begonias and Impatiens. You can also shop for annuals by color, height, bloom time, growing zone, fragrance, deer resistance, attractiveness to butterflies, and other criteria. Our preplanned Annual Collections make it a cinch to enjoy stunning combinations.

Fountain Grass Fireworks Annual Collection
Fountain Grass Fireworks Annual Collection

If you want to play with design, annuals can offer instant gratification. They often have flowers already open, so you won’t need to wait to see how one plant’s color will match up with another’s. Best of all, when you create an annual planting with a pleasing mix of colors, forms, and textures, the display will last for many months.


As you plan your own collections of annuals for containers, keep a few design tips in mind. Whatever you do, try to have fun with the process and remember that it’s easy to rearrange designs with annuals.

Coleus Tapestry Annual Collection
Coleus Tapestry Annual Collection

A harmonious color scheme features plants with similar hues, such as pastels or hot colors. Hues that are close together on the color wheel will generally produce a pleasing harmony.

Contrasting colors also can work well together, especially if they are opposites on the color wheel, such as yellow and purple, blue and orange, or red and green. Lighter and darker versions of each color will help to tie the scheme together, adding harmony to the dynamism of different colors.

Ornamental Grass Pennisetum setaceum 'Fireworks'
Ornamental Grass Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’

When in doubt, keep it simple. Start by using three to five different plants to create a container design. Strive for variety in the heights, forms and textures. Balance something tall and dramatic with billowing and trailing plants. Include selections with intriguing foliage, such as Coleus or an annual Fountain Grass. When grouping plantings in an area, it helps to have a unifying theme among the containers. For example, Cretan terra-cotta pots in different shapes can foster a casually cohesive display. Or plant a variety of annuals, herbs, or edible plants in elegant, Long Tom pots. You can also use these classic foot-high containers to line both sides of a walkway or to form a perimeter grouping on a patio.

Nepeta Walker's Low

How to Choose Plants

Like people, plants have specific needs that when met, allow them to develop to their full potential. Selecting plants whose cultural requirements suit the conditions of your garden is the best way to assure success and cut down on time caring for them. Among the most important considerations of a site is soil drainage. Most plants will thrive in moist, well-drained soil. If your drainage is less than perfect — too slow or too fast — it can be improved somewhat by adding organic matter, but it is often the best course to start with plants suited to your existing soil.

Some soils drain slowly and tend to stay damp most of the time; for these soils, select plants that tolerate abundant moisture. Other soils may be light or sandy and tend to dry out quickly; for these soils, plants that tolerate drought will perform best. Fortunately, there are plants suited to both of these conditions.

Plants for Wet/Damp Soils

Thuja 'Green Giant'
Thuja ‘Green Giant’

Many trees thrive in heavy or damp soils; Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), and Arborvitae (Thuja ‘Green Giant’) are just a few. Many outstanding shrubs tolerate wet soils, including Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius Little Devil™), Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea Arctic Fire™), the native Winterberries (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Southern Gentleman’), and American Cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’). Many perennials are adaptable to moist soils. Some of the top choices for such conditions are: Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema), Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis), Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra), Beebalm (Monarda), Brunnera macrophylla, Hibiscus moscheutos, and Ferns.

Dicentra spectabilis
Dicentra spectabilis

Plants that Tolerate Drought

Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam'
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’

If your conditions dictate that drought tolerant plants are in order, your choices are equally abundant. Good trees for dry conditions include Ginkgo, Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), and Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata). Drought tolerant shrubs include: Butterfly Bush, such as Buddleia davidii ‘Purple Emperor’, Bush Clover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’), and Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’). Choices for perennials that thrive in droughty conditions are extensive. Some of the best include: Yarrow (Achillea), Hummingbird Mint (Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti’), Tickseed (Coreopsis ‘Sienna Sunset’ and ‘Mercury Rising’ and Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’), Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea), Blanket Flower (Gaillardia Gallo® Peach), Lavenders, and Catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’).

Agastache 'Tutti Frutti'
Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti’

By realistically assessing your garden site and doing a bit of research to select plants that will adapt to your conditions, your plants will be happier – and you will be too!

White Flower Farm Store

Down On the Farm: It’s a Wrap

Operating a mail-order plants business out of northwest Connecticut can be an adventure. Even by our standards, this December was a wild one, with an arctic air mass settling in for days, halting the shipment of tender plants in a critical week before Christmas. Jack Frost eventually lightened his grip, and with a monumental effort by our Shipping staff, boxes and boxes full of fragrant Jasmine and Lavender plants, culinary herbs, Amaryllis bulbs, Paperwhites and plenty of other green and growing gifts made it onto Santa’s sleigh. With the holiday mania now behind us, several of our greenhouses momentarily empty, and the warehouse quiet for a week or so, we have time and space to contemplate spring. We’re humbled by the fact that the coming season will mark our 68th in the nursery business. While we’ve developed a few gray hairs over the years (and this December’s shipping drama may produce a few more), we can’t imagine any other kind of life, and we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if it weren’t for plants, and gardens, and greenhouses, and you.

White Flower Farm Shipping Staff
White Flower Farm Shipping Staff

Untangling the Sweet Pea Challenge

Spring 2018 has plenty of excitement in store, and like children brandishing new toys, we’re delighted to introduce a few of our fresh ideas for the season. For the first time ever, we’re offering Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus). These vigorous annual vines produce delicate blossoms in a wide range of lovely, saturated colors – from pastels to jewel tones – all while emitting a heavenly scent. Sweet Peas are favorites for cut flower bouquets, and while the blooms won’t last as long as some others in a vase, the plants, if deadheaded, provide a steady supply of blossoms for weeks. Most gardeners grow Sweet Peas from seed primarily because the plants are difficult, if not impossible, to find at the retail level. Sweet Pea tendrils tend to tangle as they grow so any store display quickly becomes an unmanageable snarl. Our horticulture staff spent some time last spring sorting through the challenges of growing and shipping Sweet Pea seedlings, and we’re thrilled to announce that gardeners who wish to bypass the business of seed-starting may order our potted seedlings instead. Be forewarned that the crop size will be limited. Because these plants root best in early spring when the soil is still cool, and because, as mentioned, they readily tangle, we’ll be producing one crop only and shipping the plants in early spring. Order now to reserve yours, and in early May, we’ll ship 4″ pots with plants neatly pinched and ready to grow in your garden. Click here to see the three varieties on offer.

Sweet Pea 'Cheri Amour'
Sweet Pea ‘Cheri Amour’
Sweet Pea 'Cupanis Original'
Sweet Pea ‘Cupanis Original’

 “Going Solar”

On the grounds at the farm, there are several new projects planned. The first is the installation of a sizeable solar power array. “Going solar” is something we’ve been considering for years, and we’re delighted to be taking this step in reducing our carbon footprint. Our hope is to break ground in time to have a field full of panels up and running by the end of summer. The array should generate a generous percentage of the power needed to operate our nursery. While the panels will not be visible to visitors strolling our gardens, we’ll be happy to offer impromptu tours to interested parties.

A Garden for Roses & Their Companions

Rose Above and Beyond™
Rose Above and Beyond™

Also in the works for spring is the creation of a new Rose garden. For years, we’ve trialed and tested countless Roses in and around our display gardens at the farm, but the new garden will be a dedicated space for these garden classics. Our head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, is heading up the project, and the idea is to showcase the broadest array of Rose types – from heirlooms and climbers to landscape varieties – and to feature them alongside companion plants. We look forward to the sights and scents of this garden, and to sharing it with you.

Going Back to the Farm

Bushel and Berry™ Blackberry Baby Cakes™
Bushel and Berry™ Blackberry Baby Cakes™

In a year that featured a lot of bad news in the world, we recently were heartened by an item regarding a trend in what are called “agrihoods.” Millennials and young families are choosing to move into suburban developments that are built around working farms. Their children grow up in constant contact with nature, they visit farm animals and watch fruits and vegetables being grown and harvested. Families that reside in an agrihood generally pay an annual fee for a share of fresh-picked produce, and residents have the satisfaction of knowing where, how, and by whom their food is grown. Perhaps because many of us here at our farm chose this lifestyle for ourselves and our children, the idea that it’s becoming a national trend gives us reason for uplift. It is our perpetual wish that more people discover the beauty and natural rhythms of life on a farm, and especially that they experience the joys and health benefits of growing, harvesting and eating fresh food.

On that last topic, most gardeners know you don’t need to live in proximity to a working farm to enjoy the freshest seasonal bounty. This spring, we’re introducing several dwarf Tomato plants, and we’ve added a compact Blackberry bush to our line of ornamental, patio-scale Bushel and Berry™ plants. These finds join our expanding collection of compact edibles, all of which produce delicious, full-size fruits and vegetables. These plants are easy to grow, and they don’t require much space. Even a small backyard patch, a few pots on the balcony or terrace, or an empty spot in the perennial border can produce an impressive crop. Choose a few of our compact plants, and enjoy feasting on your own fresh-picked Tomatoes, berries, Lettuces, Cucumbers and Peppers. It’s not too soon to reserve these and other favorites for spring planting. If you’re new to creating your very own “agrihome,” we’ll help you get started, and when you begin harvesting, you’ll know what all gardeners do: the taste – and the satisfaction – can hardly be measured.

Tomato 'Tasmanian Chocolate'
Tomato ‘Tasmanian Chocolate’

As this year comes to a close and a new one begins to take shape, all of us at the farm wish to thank you for your patronage, enthusiasm, questions, photos, and, above all else, your love of plants and flowers and the green world. Your support inspires everything we do each day, and our ability to share what we grow and what we discover keeps us digging and, we hope, cultivating happiness in backyards across the nation.

Our warmest wishes to you and yours for a joyous holiday season. We look forward to gardening alongside you in the new year.

Small Space Shade Garden

How to design a garden

The aim of this article is to help you select a site, size, and shape for a flower garden and then to fill it with a harmonious combination of plants. We present this process as a series of steps–seven in all–that takes you from the mere notion that you want a flower garden to a finished plan. If you already have a garden but are not satisfied with it, we suggest that you review the first four steps, then study Steps 5 through 7.

When we say “flower garden” or “border” in this brochure, we mean an ornamental planting, one with well-defined edges and often (but not always) a backdrop of some sort–a house, a hedge, a wall, or a fence. You may be familiar with annual beds and perennial borders, but most gardeners (ourselves included) get greatest satisfaction from what are known as “mixed borders,” gardens that contain the gamut of plants–annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, and small trees–for variety and a long season of interest.

We want to emphasize at the outset that there is no single “right” way to make a garden. Most experienced gardeners follow guidelines similar to those we offer here, but others ignore them–sometimes to glorious effect. Your taste and desires are what matter, not what your neighbor is planting or what a gardening magazine says you should want. This brochure is meant to help you make choices, not to paralyze you with the fear that you’re not doing things just so. Have fun, and if fun happens to coincide with “rules” of design, fine. If not, that’s fine, too.

1. Think about what you want.

The first step in designing a garden is to decide exactly what sort of garden you want. You’re unlikely to realize your dream if you’re not sure what your dream is. Do you want to decorate a small square by the front steps with a few annuals, or do you long instead for a sweeping border bursting with perennials? When do you want your garden to look its best? Will a brief but spectacular spring or summer show suffice, or do you want a garden that looks attractive from early spring until hard frost? How much time, energy, and money are you prepared to devote to the task of planting and caring for a garden? Do you want a garden that you can dig and plant in an afternoon and that requires little effort to maintain, or do you prefer a more ambitious project, a garden that will usurp at least a weekend at planting time and require regular attention throughout the growing season?

2. Choose a location for your garden.

If you don’t already have a place in mind for your new garden (and even if you do), you should walk your property and peer out your windows. Ask yourself the following questions as you look around you:

Where does a garden “belong” in the landscape? A flower garden is not a self-contained unit. It’s a part of the landscape, just as a shade tree is, or a flowering Crabapple or a bluestone patio, and as such it needs to be placed where it will fit in with its surroundings. A border plopped into the lawn or stuck into a corner looks like an afterthought at best, a distraction at worst. A good design is wasted on a bad location.

* Where will a garden provide the most pleasure? If you plant a garden in order to enjoy it, then you should probably put it where you spend time outdoors or where you pass often–near the back terrace, along the driveway, at the foot of the front steps, or by the swimming pool. You’ll appreciate your garden even more if you can see it from inside the house. Rinsing dishes and tapping away at the computer seem less like drudgery when you can pause to gaze out the window at bright flowers swaying in the breeze.

*Where is the nearest spigot? A garden also needs to be within reach of a hose. Even in climates where rainfall is abundant, dry spells are inevitable. If you can’t supply water when your plants require it, you risk the unpleasant prospect of watching them gasp in summer’s heat.

* What sort of background will the border have? Think about the superb garden photos you see in books and magazines. In almost every case, there is something standing behind the exuberant floral display–a fence, a stone or brick wall, a dark green hedge, or a mass of shrubs or trees. These backgrounds prevent your eye from wandering all over the landscape, allowing you to focus instead on the colorful plants in front of you.

If the location you choose for your border lacks a good background, consider building a simple fence or planting a hedge. A hedge needn’t be a row of tightly sheared Yew or Privet. An informal assembly of shrubs such as Viburnum, Syringa (Lilac), Clethra, Roses, and Hydrangea offers a combination of bright flowers, fruit, and striking fall color, as well as a rich green backdrop for the summer spectacle that unfolds at their feet.

If you want to use a border to break up a large expanse of lawn, you may wish to dispense with a traditional background and plant an island bed instead. An island bed stands alone, surrounded by a sea of turf. To be effective, it must generally be large–but in scale with the overall landscape–and it must contain tall plants (4ft or more) either at the back or through the middle of the garden. These tall plants act as a background for their shorter neighbors and give the bed the sort of presence that a small circle of compact plants lacks.

What sorts of plants do you want to grow? Plants have basic needs that must be met if they are to thrive. The most important of these are sun and soil. The majority of flowering plants require full sun to reach their full potential (see drawings). Many will tolerate partial shade with little reduction in bloom, but the number of plants that thrive in full shade is relatively small (though quite a lot larger than most people believe). The point is that if you dream of Iris and Peonies, Daylilies and Roses, Asters and Mums, you’ll need to put your border where it will receive ample sunshine. If you put your border in shade, you must be prepared to explore Hostas, Astilbes, Heucheras, Hellebores, Ferns, and other denizens of shady nooks.

Soil type is the other factor that determines which plants you can grow. Most plants grow best in a soil that retains moisture reasonably well while allowing the excess to drain away. On the extremes are sandy soils that dry out rapidly after rainfall or irrigation and heavy clay soils that stay soggy long after the rain has stopped. If you site your border on a hot sandy bank or in a low, poorly drained area, you may have to abandon your list of favorites and do some research to discover plants adapted to your soil type. It is possible to amend soil, to change it to suit the needs of plants (see our “Caring for Your Plants” brochure and the cultural instructions booklet under Gardening Help on our Web site), but radical transformation is labor-intensive and expensive. You’ll do better to grow plants that like your conditions.

3. Determine the size and shape of your border.

A border’s size should match the scale of the surrounding landscape (large properties generally require large borders, small properties, small borders) and the inclinations of the gardener. Most people start with a small bed in a sunny spot and are astounded at how fast the space fills up. They then add a few more feet to the front or along the sides, perhaps several times over the years. There is nothing wrong with this gradual approach to garden making. In our experience, it’s better to start small and expand as time, money, and interest allow than to be overwhelmed by the demands of designing and planting a large border. The object of gardening, remember, is to have fun, not to pull your hair out because you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

If you are designing a new garden from scratch, however, you should aim to make it no less than 4 feet deep. A 2-foot-wide strip along a fence or deck barely allows for a single row of plants. A depth of four feet or more allows for a difference in plant height between front and back and for enough variety to hold your interest through the season. In a few years, you may decide to deepen the border to eight or ten feet. Sixteen or 20 feet is not too much if you want to put large shrubs along the back.

Should the edges of your border be straight or curved? Straight lines and hard angles suit formal designs, in which borders are given standard geometrical shapes (squares, rectangles, circles). Gentle curves and irregular shapes have a more relaxed, natural, and therefore informal look. Choose a shape that fits your landscape, but don’t be afraid to mix and match. Borders close to the house and deck, for example, might be straight-edged, matching the lines of the architecture, while borders along a property line or surrounding a group of trees and shrubs might undulate with the natural contours of the site.

4. Mark and measure the garden.

To help visualize the border-to-be, trace its edges with strings tied to stakes (appropriate for straight-edged beds) or a garden hose (which mimics a sinuous edge). Step back and look at the area from various vantage points and adjust the lines to suit your taste.

When you’re pleased with the layout of your garden, take a can of spray paint (white is easiest to see) and, following the string or the hose, paint a line on the lawn or the soil. Then measure the dimensions of your border. If your border has an irregular shape, take multiple measurements so that you’ll be able to reproduce the curves on paper. It’s also important to note the relative position of anything that is to remain inside the border–a shrub or a boulder, for example–and the location of nearby shade trees, hedges, fences, or other objects that might affect the amount of light that reaches your garden.

Now it’s time to do some research.

5. Look for plants adapted to your growing conditions.

Faced with the seemingly endless variety of plants available in catalogs and garden centers, how do you choose the few you have room for in your garden? Height, flower color, bloom time, and leaf texture should all be considered (and we’ll discuss each in some detail below), but the overriding concern of the gardener can be summed up in another question: will that plant grow for me? Plants are living things that have basic requirements for good health. Provide those requirements and your plants will thrive; deny them and your plants will languish or expire despite your best efforts. No matter how good your design looks on paper, it is doomed to failure if the plants you choose are not adapted to the growing conditions in your border.

Because trial and error can be frustrating and expensive, the best ways to discover whether a plant will grow in your garden is to talk with fellow gardeners, read gardening books, and consult plant catalogs. The chart at the end of this article lists many good garden plants and, along with flower color, height, and bloom time, indicates their sun and soil requirements. If your new garden will be in the shade and you’re at a loss for what to grow, we refer you to the list of plants at the end of the article that thrive with little or no direct sun. Most of the plants are available in either the spring or the fall from White Flower Farm.

6. From the list of suitable plants, make selections according to the basic principles of flower garden design.

A single flowering plant can be very beautiful. A grouping of several specimens of the same plant can be impressive. Combining groups of different plants so that each complements the others is the art gardeners aspire to. Here are a few principles of organization that many gardeners have adopted because they work so well.

Tall plants at the back, low-growers up front. A plant has to be seen to be appreciated, so it makes sense in most borders to put the shortest plants along the edge, long-legged plants at the back, and the rest in between, creating a gradual slope from, for example, Dianthus in front to Coreopsis, Lilium, Phlox, and finally tall ornamental Grasses at the rear.



“Drifts” make a statement. There is a tendency among new gardeners to fill a garden with individual specimens. The result is a collection of plants that becomes a confused

jumble when seen from a distance. Apart from shrubs and a few large perennials, such as Aruncus dioicus (Goatsbeard) and ornamental Grasses, most plants put on a better show when planted in numbers of three or more in irregular groupings called “drifts.” A drift is generally wider than it is deep, and the plants that comprise it are typically arranged in a staggered pattern resembling an upside-down “W,” which provides a natural, flowing look. Succeeding drifts are added in overlapping layers to help conceal the joints between them. Planting in drifts means fewer varieties of plants in your border, but those that are represented have much greater impact than single specimens.

A few tips on using color. Color preference is very personal. Combinations of color that cause one person to sigh with delight may cause another to wince. So, while entire books have been written on color theory and why some colors “work” together and others don’t, it makes sense to begin by choosing the colors you like and experimenting to arrive at combinations that please you. Don’t be surprised if your taste evolves with time. Changing color preference is one of the many reasons gardening sustains a lifetime of interest.

If you’re at a loss at where to begin, try following these suggestions:

Pastel colors (creams, pale yellows, soft pinks, lavenders) are soothing. They have the effect of a cool drink on a hot summer day. If your border is near the house or near where you sit outdoors, you might want to choose a color theme in which pastels predominate.

Hot colors such as red, orange, and bright yellow tend to grab attention. Use them to make a dramatic statement in a pastel border. A single orange Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), for example, can draw attention to a whole drift of cool blue Baptisias. And because hot colors stand out at a distance, they deserve the leading role in a border that is located well away from the house.

* If you want to separate colors that you fear will conflict with one another, try using blue or white. Both go well with almost all other colors, which allow them to serve as buffers between warring neighbors.

Managing the sequence of bloom. Gardeners dream of borders brimming with flowers from early spring through frost, but most bulbs, shrubs, perennials, and even many annuals bloom for a limited period of time. Spring-blooming shrubs such as Rhododendrons and Lilacs, for example, are at peak bloom for just a week, two at most, and such popular perennials as Peonies and Iris don’t last much longer.

For the budding designer, the big question is whether to devote most of the border to a group of plants that flowers simultaneously, for a superb but brief crescendo, or to opt for a less spectacular but longer-running show. The answer depends on when you look at the border. If you are away on vacation every July or August, then you can ignore plants that bloom then and concentrate on those that bloom earlier and later. If your garden surrounds a pool that is used only in high summer, you can leave out spring bloomers and fall-flowering Asters and fill the space with annuals, Daylilies, Phlox, and Echinacea. But if you see your border from one end of the growing season to the other, you won’t be satisfied with just one big splash.

Here are some suggestions for designing a border with a long season of interest:

Squeeze in spring-flowering bulbs. No matter how much you crowd your border with shrubs, perennials, summer bulbs, and annuals, you’ll still be able to mount an impressive spring display if you plant spring-flowering bulbs. Planted between the crowns of perennials in fall, Narcissus, Tulips, and a host of other early risers will perform magnificently the following spring, while the perennials are just beginning to awaken from winter slumber. The perennials then shoot up and hide the bulb foliage, which withers and disappears as the bulbs enter summer dormancy. Spring-flowering bulbs are offered in the fall by White Flower Farm.

Keep the show rolling with annuals and long-blooming perennials. Don’t deprive your garden of Peonies and Iris just because they don’t bloom all summer. Instead, grow them with plants that do. Annuals and tender perennials such as Gomphrena and Petunias compensate for their short lives by blooming like the blazes all summer and into fall. Many hardy perennials have similarly irrepressible blooming habits. They keep on making flowers while other plants shine more briefly, then fade to green. (See list of long-blooming perennials.)

Add a few plants with colored leaves. There are perennials, annuals, and shrubs that are prized more for their beautifully colored leaves than for their flowers. Silver Artemisias, golden Callunas (Heathers), and purple Heucheras complement the flowers of other plants when a border is at its peak and offer welcome dashes of color when blooms are scarce. In the shade, where summer color is at a premium, the two-tone leaves of variegated plants such as Hostas, Lamiums, and Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’, when combined with all-green plants, carry a border right through summer and into fall.

A variety of textures brings the border to life. An attractive garden includes a variety of plant forms as well as colors. Contrasting flower and leaf shapes and plant silhouettes provide texture and give a border a dynamic quality even on a calm day.

A garden of daisy-shaped flowers, for example, may be colorful and charming, but add the trumpets of Lilies, the spikes of Liatris, Foxglove or the flat-topped heads of Achillea, and the airy cloud of a Gypsophila, and the composition really sings.

The same diversity is found in leaves. They can be vaguely thumb-shaped, broad and wavy, grassy, needle-like, lacy, or delicately lobed. Combine and contrast them and your border will hold your interest even when there are few flowers to be found. In a sunny border, try putting the sword-shaped leaves of a Siberian Iris behind the fine, needled leaves of Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’; set the lance-shaped leaves of a Physostegia against the flowing backdrop of a Grass; or contrast ferny Achilleas with the huge, cabbage-like leaves of Crambe. In the shade, pair the broad, rounded leaves of Asarum with the smaller, heart-shaped leaves of Lamium; juxtapose the finely divided fronds of Ferns with shield-shaped Hostas; or soften the bold, flame-like leaves of Convallaria with the delicate lace of Corydalis.

Plants also have a variety of silhouettes. Many, such as hardy Geraniums, Nepetas, Peonies, and Hostas form broad mounds. Ornamental Grasses resemble arching fountains. Garden Phlox, Buddleia, and tall Asters are vase-shaped. Ground-huggers such as Dianthus and the shade-loving Lamiums make spreading mats. And Delphiniums and Alceas (Hollyhocks) throw towering spikes.

7. Draft a plan.

Once you’ve narrowed your plant choices and and ruminated a bit on the principles for combining them, you’re ready to begin working on a plan.

Purchase drawing supplies. The drawing supplies required are available at most stationery and art supply stores. You’ll need a few sheets of graph paper (8.5in by 11in sheets with Gin squares are adequate for all but the largest border), a straight edge, sharp pencils, and an eraser. You should also consider investing in some transparent tracing paper, a set of colored pencils, and a compass (the sort used for drawing circles and arcs) or a plastic template that artists use to draw perfect circles. The tracing paper allows you to doodle without having to redraw the basic outline of the border over and over again. The colored pencils come in handy when arranging plants in the border by flower color. The compass (or template) simplify the drawing of accurate circles.

Determine a scale. Before you put pencil to paper, you need to determine an appropriate scale for the drawing. Drawing your border to scale (that is, assigning a unit of measurement on paper that equals a much larger measurement of the real border) will help you keep plant groupings proportional and help you determine, with a fair degree of accuracy, the number of plants you will need.

The simplest way to proceed is to choose a scale that allows you to fit the entire border on a single piece of paper. There are 44 one-quarter inch squares running across the long side of an 8H by 11-inch sheet of graph paper. If your border is 20 feet long, you’ll have room enough for a scale of two squares per foot of your garden (2 squares per foot x 20 feet = 40 squares). If your border is smaller, you can assign a scale with more squares per foot; if your border is larger, you’ll have to use one square per foot or perhaps give each square a value of two or more feet of garden space.

Put the outline of the border on paper. Once you’ve decided on a scale, mark the points where you took measurements outdoors and connect the dots to create the outline, in miniature, of your border. Then indicate the points of the compass (North, East, West, and South) in one corner and add the important landmarks–trees, shrubs, large rocks, fences. (The easiest way to show trees and shrubs on a plan is to draw circles or arcs that describe the spread of the branches.)

Fill in the outline of the border. Lay a piece of tracing paper over the outline and begin sketching out possible combinations of plants. Represent large specimen plants,

shrubs for example, as circles; show drifts as irregularly shaped blobs resembling the cells you saw through the microscope in biology class. Inside each circle and blob, note the name of the plant and a few key bits of information: flower color, bloom time, and height (see the drawing). Color the circles and blobs with colored pencils to help visualize the distribution of flower and foliage color. Use separate pieces of tracing paper for each month or for each bloom season (spring, June, summer, and late summer/fall, for example) to see how the display will change over time.


If you’re unsure of where to begin, pencil in the shrubs first. They’re often larger than the other plants in a border and they’re more difficult to move if you change your mind (you can change your mind) after you’ve planted them. Then add the perennials, including hardy, summer-blooming bulbs such as Lilies, and the annuals. Because they can be planted between the feet of perennials and shrubs, the spring-flowering bulbs should be added last and the area they occupy should be marked with dotted lines on your plan.

This process goes more quickly if you remember that this is your garden and you can plant what you want to. Give your favorites prominent placement and combine them with a supporting cast that shows them to advantage. Once you’ve made a few big decisions, you’ll generally find that the space fills quickly.

Estimate the number of plants you’ll need. When you’ve settled on a basic design, the final step is to estimate how many of each plant you’ll need. You might think that coming up with this number would be straightforward, but in practice, it’s a bit tricky. People have differing opinions on how full a border should look. Also, the plants you buy from a mail-order nursery or garden center will not be full size. Shrubs, and many perennials, require several seasons to reach their mature dimensions. Do you want to wait for the plants to fill in or would you prefer to have the garden look full sooner rather than later (with the understanding that you’ll have to do some thinning to prevent overcrowding)?

To arrive at a reasonably good estimate of the number of plants you’ll need for your border, we suggest the following procedure:

* Consult the White Flower Farm catalog or Web site, the cultural instructions booklet shipped with your order, and the label that comes with every plant for recommended spacing. In most cases, you’ll find a range (12 to 18 inches, for example), which is generally equal to the mature spread of the plant. Choose the lower number for a fuller look, the higher number for a more open look.

* Lay a fresh piece of tracing paper over your design.

* With a compass or a template, draw a circle for each plant that is in scale with your plan. If the scale is one square = six inches, then a plant that spreads 12 to 18 inches wide should have a H- to I-inch diameter circle. Within a drift of like plants, remember to stagger the plants at the points of an imaginary, upside down “W.” The points mark the centers of the plants. The distance between points is the spacing (12 to 18 inches in our example).

As you draw your circles, you’ll probably discover that your plan needs adjustment. To get the show you want from a drift of Garden Phlox (which might require five to seven plants), you may have to reduce the number of Echinacea you had hoped to use or eliminate them entirely. If you left more space along the edge of the border for Nepeta x faassenii than you think it requires, you may want to add some Silver Mound Artemisia to fill the gap.

Don’t be surprised if, at planting time, you discover you’ve purchased either too few or too many plants. The translation from paper to reality is never perfect. If you come up short, order more plants or plug in annuals. If you have a surfeit of plants, look around your property for additional planting sites; you can always find a corner that would benefit from a splash of color.

8. Next steps.

With a plan in hand, you can proceed to buy plants, prepare the soil (see our “Caring for Your Plants” brochure on our Web site and the cultural instructions booklet that accompanies your order for instructions on soil preparation), and plant your garden. You’ll soon be able to enjoy the flowers you’ve dreamed of. But your work as a designer has just begun. That’s because a garden is never finished. It’s a process, an everchanging work in progress, that requires regular intervention on the part of the gardener as the plants grow and flourish (or occasionally disappear.) That’s what makes gardening so much fun. There’s always something new and different to look forward to.

A Selection of Long-blooming Perennials

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ (Yarrow)

Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ (Aster)

Boltonia ‘Pink Beauty’ (Boltonia)

Calamintha nepeta nepeta (Calamint)

Centranthus ruber and C. r. ‘Snowcloud’ (Valerian)

Coreopsis (Tickseed)

Corydalis (Corydalis)

Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)

Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)

Heliopsis (False Sunflower)

Hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’ and

‘Stella de Oro’ (Daylily)

Nepeta sibirica (Catmint)

Perovskia (Russian Sage)

Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ (Black-eyed Susan)

Salvia ‘Rose Wine’ and ‘May Night’

Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ and ‘Pink Mist’ (Scabious)

Stokesia (Stokes’ Aster)

Veronica ‘Goodness Grows’


Plants that Thrive in Shade

Aruncus (Goatsbeard)

Asarum (Wild Ginger)

Astilbe (Astilbe)

Convallaria (Lily-of-the-Valley)

Corydalis (Corydalis)

Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)


Helleborus (Hellebore)

Hosta (Hosta)

Lamium (Dead Nettle)

Liriope (Lilyturf)

Mertensia (Virginia Bluebells)

Polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal)

Primula (Primrose)

Pulmonaria (Lungwort)

Smilacina (False Solomon’s Seal)

Tiarella (Foamflower)


Preplanned Gardens


Christmas Colors Holiday Bouquet

Arranging Cut-Flower Bouquets

We offer a wide range of cut flowers that are top-quality, long lasting, and sent fresh from the farm where they are grown. Each bouquet is carefully arranged by the growers prior to shipping and arrives in bud stage so as to maximize your days of bloom. The flowers will open gradually, and are absolutely guaranteed to last seven days.

To help you get creative with these beautiful arrangements, we have created a video which shows how a single bouquet can be arranged different ways for distinct looks.

Enjoy your flowers and have fun arranging!