Most of us think about our gardens and outdoor spaces with a keen eye toward how they look during the day. This year, we’ve been thinking of more ways to make our gardens shine in the evening hours.
The first item to think about is outdoor lighting for your plants, and we’ve got several ideas for you to choose. Then there are the plants themselves to consider, and we have a list of those too. We refer to them as Moon Garden plants, and have chosen them specifically because they are gorgeous during the day, and have an enchanting glow at night.
Having spent four plus decades in the world of plants, I am familiar with honey bees as companions in my garden, orchard, meadow, and, briefly, in a pair of poorly managed hives near our house. Their background murmuring and frenetic activity on warm days are a central part of the sights, scents and sounds that constitute nature as experienced in a temperate climate. Or, to be more accurate, they were.
With my son taking over our small plant nursery in northwest Connecticut, I was looking for a way to keep busy and stay out of his way during the six months each year that I live on the property. Like most Americans, I’ve been uneasily aware of declining bee populations and a related phenomenon called “Colony Collapse Disorder” for some years and lazily linked the reports to a combination of habitat decline, agricultural chemicals, and climate change. Since the former two scarcely exist in our area, and the latter has so far produced mainly milder winters here, and because bees’ seasonal pattern is much like mine (active outdoors mainly above 50 degrees), the idea of keeping some hives to produce and sell both bees and honey became compelling and even seemed mildly rational. Perhaps there was a genuine opportunity for doing well while doing good, sustaining a family business while supporting the population of a crucial pollinator of crops and gardens and the only producer of harvestable quantities of honey. That’s when my homework began.
Honey bees (properly known as Apis mellifera) are not native to the Americas whose abundant pre-colonial flora was for eons pollinated by a wide range of insects including solitary bees (they don’t form colonies), plus moths, wasps, butterflies, and countless other genera for whom the sugary nectar of flowers is an important food source. When Europeans brought the first honey bees, they were seeking an inexpensive sweetener, wax for candles, and a pollinator to boost the yields of their fields and orchards. In the ensuing five centuries, honey bees found their way into every corner of the Americas that provided enough rainfall for plants to grow and a tolerable winter through which they could sustain themselves by their uncanny ability to cluster together and generate heat by metabolizing their stored honey. Those conditions are available in a large percentage of both Americas, and the bees promptly escaped their colonial masters and went native, presumably displacing some indigenous competitors whose declines are not recorded.
The diaspora of hive bees into the countryside didn’t diminish the number of colonies maintained by beekeepers who preferred to secure honey by raiding their own hives rather than searching out and extracting wild colonies in the forest. The job of beekeeper was made infinitely easier by an American beekeeper (and minister) named L.L. Langstroth whose studies determined that it was possible to create a space that encouraged bees to form their comb (the wax network of receptacles in which they raise their young and store their honey) in discrete segments instead of a single mass. That insight, hatched in 1851, allowed the creation of hives using removable frames, permitting honey to be extracted without destroying the hives and often the tree cavity in which the hive was located. The Langstroth hive remains the basic technology of the bee industry to this day, a rare example of a design surviving the industrial revolution and the information revolution essentially unchanged. While there are modest variations in design and materials, the vast majority of domesticated bee colonies are thus housed to good effect. As we considered our path forward, this would surely have been our choice as well.
A bee colony is a miracle of social collaboration in which thousands of individuals, both males, known as drones and whose only role is reproduction, and females, known as workers, which organize to provide food and housing for an immensely productive queen bee and then for successive generations of her offspring. After a winter period of relative inactivity within the hive, a healthy colony can produce vast numbers of bees from newly laid eggs that develop through three stages to adult bees in roughly three weeks. These adults then set about gathering nectar and pollen to feed the colony, and caring for the queen. The adults themselves are short-lived, about a month for the workers and perhaps two for the drones, but the fantastic productivity of a healthy and well-fed hive can produce population increases that exceed the living space within a few weeks, causing the departure of part of the colony to find a new housing arrangement where they can establish a new queen and build a new colony. These swarms occur frequently and by anticipating and managing this process, a disciplined and observant beekeeper is able to create new colonies, increasing his collection of hives to either manage or sell to other keepers.
Established colonies have a second essential function beyond this abundant reproductive cycle, that being food gathering. Bees sustain themselves by collecting both nectar and pollen from blooming plants within in their foraging range (about 2½ miles from the hive). This activity has made them extremely valuable to mankind for two reasons. The first is that bees store their winter food supply in the form of honey which is essentially plant nectar from which the water content has been evaporated. Honey is an extraordinary substance, a richly flavored sweetener that seldom spoils and, many believe, is also an aid to human health when eaten or applied topically. Bees store their honey in exquisitely geometric wax combs they manufacture in their hives and then consume it to sustain them throughout the winter. Beekeepers seek to sharecrop this operation by periodically removing frames that are filled with honey and spinning them in a centrifuge to remove the honey, after which they’re returned to the hive for a refill. In the days before sugar cane and sugar beets were widely processed to make sugar, honey was a prized addition to man’s diet.
In addition to honey production, the foraging process also provides an extraordinarily important function which is entirely incidental to the mission of the bees but absolutely crucial to the well-being of their co-habitants on the planet. That process is the pollination of plants in which pollen, the male reproductive cells found on the anthers of plants, is transported from one plant to another, fertilizing the female organs (stigma) of the recipient and enabling reproduction by the creation of seeds. Bees don’t pollinate plants on purpose. They gather pollen, a form of protein, as one of the core elements of their diet and transport it back to their hives for storage and later consumption. In the process, pollen particles are attached to their body hairs and transported randomly from one plant to another. In pursuit of food, a colony of bees will visit literally millions of flowers and provide for them a crucial catalyst in successful reproduction. While there are many other insect pollinators, none of them goes about their business with quite the same intensity, probably because bees are uniquely committed to keeping a large community of individuals alive through the winter.
The pollination role provided by honey bees has been recognized through observation for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years and is, of course, crucial to the existence of countless species of native plants and the animals that depend on them. The stimulation of this process by placing hives in crop fields or orchards in an organized manner is far more recent. In modern agriculture, especially fruit and nut orchards, yields are vastly increased by locating or relocating hives in the vicinity of the trees and bushes at the time of their of bloom, which is typically two to four weeks. There are few commercial growers who don’t take advantage of this low cost and powerful ally to increase the yield of their crops. Indeed, the vast majority of bee colonies under management in the U.S. are employed in this manner, and pollination services, as the industry is known, represent the primary revenue source for most commercial bee operators, with honey production a distant second.
The most extreme example of this business is found in the fantastically large and profitable almond groves of California’s Central Valley. More than 1.1 million acres of near desert land are planted to almonds, with the trees receiving their water largely from trickle irrigation. In this environment, native plants and thus insect pollinators are few, and the crop is made possible by the introduction of roughly 2 million beehives maintained elsewhere and trucked in for a month to service the blooming trees. Needless to say, this practice is heavily dependent on the means of transport that are available, and that transport must be chosen and operated with care. That’s because bees, for all their apparent durability and abundance, are in fact dependent on their ability to sustain a very precise environment in their hive so as to maintain all their functions, and this consistency can be challenging on a trip that might often exceed a thousand miles. To repeat, individual bees, with the exception of queens, are very short-lived, and a hive must produce multiple generations of young (known as brood) each season in order to survive. For these cycles to occur, the inside of the hive must be maintained at close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with consistent ventilation and continual maintenance. Accordingly, rough handling or extreme temperatures or relocation during daylight hours when the residents are out foraging can do irreparable damage to a colony, causing it to drop below the crucial population density at which all the necessary jobs can get done. This means that hives need to be moved at night and/or in dark, temperature-controlled vehicles. So hundreds of temperature-controlled semis roll into the Central Valley in late January, and the owners of these bees receive close to $200 per hive for the visit, thus generating a large portion of their year’s revenues in four weeks.
This seasonal migration produces a bonanza for the almond growers and the beekeepers but is not without its downsides, especially for the bees. For all living creatures including ourselves, travel is stressful. Changes in climate, soil, diet, elevation, pests and predators, and even noise levels can disturb natural rhythms both for adult bees and for the brood under their care. In addition, the almond groves are frequently treated with chemicals for pest control and while that’s never intentionally done with the beehives in place, the local soils are inevitably saturated with all kinds of compounds whose effects on bees are unknowable but certainly not positive. A great irony of this specific crop is that the nectar of almond trees produces honey so bitter as to be unusable for humans, though it’s apparently acceptable to bees. And further insult follows, because the bees need to continue foraging after the almonds have ceased blooming, which means the hives need to be transported to sources of blooming plants elsewhere. This could mean fruit orchards in Oregon or Tupelo forests in Florida, and the shocks of relocation are repeated serially over eight to nine months until the hives come to rest somewhere for the winter.
Frequent air travelers know from experience that airplanes are an excellent place to acquire a cold or worse, and the impact of travel is the same for bees. By moving from place to place for most of a year, pollination colonies are exposed to every pest and disease and chemical that exist in each ecosystem, virtually assuring that somewhere along the way they will be severely stressed in the best case and effectively euthanized in the worst case. Equally important, they become the vector by which pests and diseases are transmitted from one region of the country to another, with an effect similar to the first year of school for young children. It’s a pretty gloomy perspective for this most diligent and useful natural creature and sadly the narrative has recently been expanded to include a new element with devastating effects.
Just as people are preyed upon by ticks, bees are subject to parasites, but their natural behavior of hive cleaning, disposing of sick and dead bees, and swarming to new and better neighborhoods has allowed them to thrive in the vast array of ecologies offered by the North American continent. But that status changed about 33 years ago with the accidental introduction of a pestilential mite named Varroa destructor. This nasty parasite, probably native to Southeast Asia but familiar also in Europe for several decades, was first reported in the United States in 1986. It preys on the brood in the cells where eggs are laid and attaches itself to the emerging larvae and ultimately to the mature bees. Until recently, it was believed that the mites fed on the blood of the bees, but recent work by a Maryland PhD student named Samuel Ramsey has determined that it is, in fact, the fat of the bees that the mites consume, probably conveying various viruses in the process. Young bees are weakened and often disfigured, reducing their ability to forage and ultimately leading to their deaths. Because reproduction is continuous in a functioning hive, the mites also reproduce, maintaining pressure on their hosts while also hitching a ride to other colonies during foraging and breeding. A hives’ ability to generate winter warmth is weakened by reduced population, which means that in northern climates they enter winter like a drunk, in the worst possible condition, and many don’t survive. As a result, hive losses have been steadily increasing nationwide for three decades and have become so dire and persistent that commercially managed reproduction is essentially impossible in areas with cold winters. As a result, commercial production of bees is now concentrated in southern states or in the hands of operators who can afford to invest in temperature-controlled winter storage. In the former case, most bee colonies are concentrated in a few areas after which newly hatched spring bees are packaged and put on trucks north for sale. If you visualize stockyard cattle, you’re not far off. Of course, the large operators who can afford winter storage mostly secure their revenues through pollination services and the incessant travel that model requires. Accordingly, most bees in America have been around a lot and in direct or indirect contact with commercial and feral populations throughout the continent. This, of course, violates the most basic principle of epidemiology and selective evolution, which is isolation.
Despite the best efforts of science, the Varroa mite can only be partially controlled through various management techniques that range from chemical drenches to various forms of non-toxic or integrated pest control. But as the narrative above makes clear, re-infection and re-transmission is incessant due to the nature of bees and the industrial model to which they are harnessed. There is speculation that certain strains of bees may have or may be gradually developing some genetic resistance to the mite, but keeping a strain of bees pure is quixotic to say the least. When a queen sallies forth to mate on a spring day, she will find her way to an area with a dense concentration of drones (males) and will mate with several, all of unknown provenance. At the same time, there’s an excellent chance she will return bearing a mite that has piggybacked on one of the drones. It’s an impossible situation to manage, and it offers an extremely difficult future for bees and their keepers.
This reality became clear to me after months of reading and talking to professionals and academics whose lives have been devoted to bees. It had two obvious implications, one simple and self-referential and the second having appalling consequences for our continent. In the first case, it was clear that producing bees for sale in a northern climate would be a near certain impossibility as a business model because winter losses, typically averaging one third or more in the best operations, wouldn’t allow the creation of colonies for sale. Yes, it would be possible to purchase southern bees and truck them in for resale, but the logistics are difficult and expensive and risky, and guaranteeing the quality of the imported colonies is impossible. In either case, customers, mainly hobbyists, who bought our bees would inevitably be overwhelmed by mites and experience unsustainable losses in a year or two through no fault of their own. This would leave them with two alternatives: either replacing their bees annually with new purchases or simply abandoning the project. In either case, we would have sold them a dream but not a realistic prospect of success, which is not a prospect I could get comfortable with.
The much larger question is what this imported plague means for America’s vast agricultural infrastructure, huge portions of which depend substantially if not entirely on the services of bees to assure pollination. The answer to that question is not precisely known at this time but the trend is threatening in the extreme. A variety of experiments are underway to identify alternatives and they range from hand-pollination (which is widely practiced in plant breeding where genetics must be tightly controlled), to huge fans set up to blow pollen from place to place, to tiny mechanical drones which might one day learn to mimic the behavior of bees, absent the honey. In parallel, the commercial and academic communities are struggling to come up with tools to suppress or eliminate the mites, bee strains that can survive them, and management techniques that may offset the impact of this infection. Meanwhile, on the horizon, a new Asian mite has been identified which is larger and potentially more devastating. It has yet to be discovered in the Americas but eventual arrival seems inevitable, with consequences that one authority described to me as “unimaginable.”
Though it’s not at this point a useful speculation, it’s difficult to avoid connecting this series of events with similarly dangerous plagues under way in citrus, bananas, chickens and hogs, all of which are experiencing devastating losses from bacterial blights. The common threads, aside from timing, are obvious. One is globalization in which every person, dollar, idea, and germ has a good likelihood of finding its way to any ecosystem where it can survive. The other is monoculture, that modern form of factory farming in which economics drive everyone to concentrate on the same plant cultivar, strain of animal genetics, food source, processing system, antibiotic remedy, and marketing channel. With all the eggs, or chickens, in one basket, any trouble that crops up strikes everyone everywhere, with results that are predictably devastating. Is it too extreme to postulate that our food systems are truly in peril? That remains to be seen, and there are legions of talented people and vast financial resources committed to finding answers.
One of those answers has to be diversity, including crops, locations, cultivation techniques, and seasons. By creating discrete populations at discrete sites, all at smaller scale, the risk of a universal affliction is essentially eliminated. This is precisely the regimen advocated by locavores as a means to provide healthier and tastier food, and many consumers have chosen these products despite higher prices driven by much higher production costs. It seems improbable at the moment, but there may be a time ahead when these local crops are, in certain categories, all that is available. Whatever the path, it is glaringly evident that bees, the farmers that travel on their own, cannot be localized and must somehow evolve to deal with their mite infestation or cease to be an engine of reproduction for plants. More chemicals can’t be the answer, but an answer is badly needed.
High summer has arrived, and we think Northwest Connecticut is as nice a place as any to enjoy it. Our cool, wet spring has our display gardens looking terrific, and we’re especially enjoying taking notes on a new Rose Garden that was installed last summer and fall.
Just as we hoped, it is provoking all sorts of observations and ideas about how to design with Roses and their companions, which varieties are particularly vigorous and which less so, and what maintenance routines are (and are not) necessary. As we come into the steamiest part of the year, we’ll be watching carefully for disease and stress, all with a mind towards refreshing and reinforcing our recommendations for customers.
We’ve been plenty busy indoors as well, including working on a collaboration with Superfolk, a design studio and print shop in western Ireland. Superfolk’s immensely talented (and, we must add, critically acclaimed) team has created a set of three block prints exclusively for White Flower Farm. Each print is of a plant that attracts hummingbirds – Monarda, Campsis (Trumpet Creeper), and Aquilegia canadensis (Canada Columbine). They are printed on delicate Japanese washi paper and will be available individually or as a set of three. Stay tuned for further detail on these special works of botanical art.
All the while, of course, we’ve been preparing for the autumn planting season, and our fall catalog will go in the mail in the next few weeks. It features hundreds of varieties of bulbs, perennials, shrubs and vines, not to mention some lovely gift ideas.
This fall we’re emphasizing the fun to be had in extending your garden’s “season of interest,” which is easily done with the addition of early blooming bulbs (Eranthis, Galanthus, Crocus, et al.) that jump-start the season, and fall-blooming perennials (Japanese Anemone, Sedum, Chelone, Aster, et al.) that sustain the garden’s vibrancy long past Labor Day. Most good gardeners try to squeeze the most they can out of their season, and we’re always happy to help.
If you’re anywhere near our neck of the woods this summer, I hope you’ll stop in for a visit. Aside from the display gardens (about which we may already have bragged too much), our greenhouse full of Blackmore & Langdon tuberous Begonias is just about to come into peak bloom, which it always does in July. It will remain reliably glorious through September, and it is, I assure you, worth the trip. (We are proud to say we remain the exclusive stateside source for these exceptional, luminous Begonias.)
Please note that the hours at our store in Morris, CT, have changed for the summer and fall seasons. From July 1st through Nov. 17th, 2019, the store is open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but it’s closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The display gardens are open daily during this period. We hope to see you!
On behalf of all of us at the nursery, thank you for your ongoing support. I hope you’re having a wonderful season in the garden.
One of our favorite sights and scents in the garden is the yearly parade of Peony flowers that happens each June at the farm in Morris, CT. These gorgeous, and often fragrant, plants are very easy to grow. Below you’ll find some basic information about Peonies along with keys to success that will help you grow your best Peonies ever.
What’s the difference between Herbaceous Peonies and Tree Peonies?
Herbaceous Peonies naturally die back to the ground in fall. Tree Peonies, which aren’t “trees” but shrubs, have a woody structure that remains above ground through the plant’s dormant period. The woody trunk and branches should never be pruned to the ground.
How deep should Peonies be planted?
Herbaceous Peonies that are planted too deep will fail to bloom. If you are planting a potted Peony (one that has top growth), set it in a hole so it sits at the same level it’s at in the pot. (In other words, do not sink the plant so deeply that soil must be mounded against the stems.) If you’re planting a bareroot Peony (a bareroot is just what it sounds like: a section of the plant’s rootstock with bare roots and “eyes” or growing buds), dig a shallow hole and arrange the crown so the growing buds or “eyes” are facing upward and are covered by only 1–2″ of soil in the North, barely 1″ in the South. (See diagram below for how to plant a bareroot Herbaceous Peony.)
When should I stake my Peonies?
Double-flowered Peonies (which have layers of petals so the blossoms tend to be fuller and heavier than Singles) generally need staking. Set the stakes and string in place when plants are a few inches tall, so they’ll grow into and hide the framework.
Are ants bad for my Peonies?
As Peonies produce flower buds, you may see ants crawling on the unopened buds. The ants do no harm. They simply like a sticky substance that covers the buds.
What if I see black leaves on my Peony plant?
In a wet season, botrytis, a type of fungal disease, may blacken the flower buds
and cause stems or leaves to wilt. Promptly remove and dispose of any infected plant parts. Clean up all foliage in the fall and place in the trash, not the compost. (Ridding your property of any diseased foliage will help prevent the disease from wintering over and returning the following year.)
What can I plant with my Peonies?
Peonies are exceptionally long-lived, and even after bloom, they provide a mound of handsome foliage that adds structure and presence to borders and beds. Allowing for good air circulation, plant Peonies with Baptisia, Nepeta, Clematis, Roses, and Siberian Irises for a glorious June show.
These tools were selected from the Sneeboer line of durable, heirloom quality tools, which we discovered on a visit to England’s Great Dixter gardens. Made by the renowned Dutch company since 1913, each is hand forged from top-grade stainless steel then individually shaped, polished, and sharpened. These hard-working instruments are fitted with premium wood handles and are designed to last for years.
If you know someone who is moving into a new home, or who is ready to start their first garden, these tools make fabulous gifts. We’ve gathered the 5 most popular Sneeboer tools below. You can see our full offering here.
1. Hand-Forged Step Edger
Slice through turf with ease using this Dutch-made professional grade edger. The solid Ash handle provides a sturdy grip, and the sharp, stainless steel blade is topped by 2 “steps” for maximizing leverage. Built to last several lifetimes. Overall length: 37″.
2. Hand-Forged Weeding Fork
Get under weeds, shallow rooted plants, and loosen small patches of soil with this sturdy, durable weeding fork. Made in traditional fashion, it has a hand-forged stainless steel fork with 3 hammered tines. The Cherry wood handle is smooth and tapered to fit comfortably in the hand. As you can well imagine, we put our weeding fork to good use around the nursery. Built to last, this makes a nice heirloom to hand down to gardeners of the next generation. Overall length: 11″. Ships in a gift box.
3. Compact Pointed Spade
The pointed tip of this rugged spade is ideal for dividing perennials and working in tight spaces where precision counts. When used for transplanting, its narrow 5¾″ blade minimizes damage to the roots of both the transplant and its neighbors. Overall length: 22″
4. Hand Cultivator
The sharp, stainless steel tines on this indispensable tool take hold of weeds and debris, separating them from soil beds. The cultivator also is superb for loosening soil in gardens. We use ours each spring in our raised bed vegetable gardens, and throughout the season to turn soil prior to planting. The sturdy, durable handle is crafted of smooth Ash wood. Overall length: 29″.
4. Tight Spots Weeding Tool
Removing weeds that grow between patio pavers and brick walkways is one of the most tedious and backbreaking chores. This superb, thoughtfully constructed tool has a pointed steel tip that fits in tight crevices and gets under weeds to dislodge them. The Cherry wood handle is smooth in the hand and will last several lifetimes. Overall length: 12½″.
In time for Mother’s Day, those of us who love gardens and gardening thought it would be lovely to celebrate a handful of legendary female gardeners. From England’s Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll and Beth Chatto to New York’s Beatrix Farrand and Lynden Miller, these are women who have deepened our understanding of plants; taught us how to choose them, care for them, and combine them to create beautiful gardens; furthered the evolution of garden design; and instilled in us an appreciation of green spaces and their crucial importance to the life and well-being of people, communities, and the planet. Scroll below to read more about these remarkable women, listed here in more or less chronological order, and to see just a few of the plants they have taught us to cherish.
Gertrude Jekyll (1840–1932)
Gertrude Jekyll trained as an artist and initially set out to become a painter, but it was in the garden that she found her full and truest expression. As a designer and horticulturalist, her credits include more than 400 gardens in England, Europe and North America. Her work is characterized by a painterly use of color and a more naturalist style of planting than had previously prevailed in England. Jekyll’s long association with architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, a pioneer in the Arts and Crafts movement, began with their collaboration at Jekyll’s home, Munstead Wood in Surrey, where Lutyens designed the residence, and Jekyll created the gardens. Lutygens and Jekyll went on to other collaborations, cementing a professional partnership that came to typify the English country style of the period. “The ‘Lutyens-Jekyll’ garden had hardy shrubbery and herbaceous plantings within a structural architecture of stairs and balustraded terraces,” writes a keen-eyed Wikipedia source. “This combined style, of the formal with the informal, exemplified by brick paths, herbaceous borders, and with plants such as lilies, lupins, delphiniums and lavender, was in contrast to the very formal bedding schemes favoured by the previous generation in the 19th century. This ‘natural’ style was to define the ‘English garden’ until modern times.” In addition to her other talents, Jekyll was a prolific writer and gifted photographer who wrote countless magazine articles and more than 15 books. Among the best-known are Colour Schemes in the Flower Garden, Home and Garden, and Wood and Garden. In 1911’s Colour Schemes in the Flower Garden, Jekyll writes, “I am strongly of the opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection. Having got the plants, the great thing is to use them with careful selection and definite intention. Merely having them, or having them planted unassorted in garden spaces, is only like having a box of paints from the best colourman, or, to go one step further, it is like having portions of these paints set out upon a palette. This does not constitute a picture; and it seems to me that the duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in our gardens is so to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures . . . It is just in the way it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening that may rightly claim to rank as a fine art. . . . In practice it is to place every plant or group of plants with such thoughtful care and definite intention that they shall form a part of a harmonious whole, and that successive portions, or in some cases even single details, shall show a series of pictures. . . . it is to be always watching, noting and doing, and putting oneself meanwhile into closest acquaintance and sympathy with the growing things.”
“I have a little space that I give entirely to China Asters,” Gertrude Jekyll wrote in Colour Schemes in the Flower Garden. “I have often had the pleasure of showing it to some person who professed a dislike to them, and with great satisfaction have heard them say, with true admiration: ‘Oh! But I had no idea that China Asters could be so beautiful.'” In summer and fall, when gardens could use a burst of fresh color, our White Flower Farm mix explodes into bloom. A favorite of floral arrangers, the 4 varieties featured in the collection flower in a harmonious blend of pinks, whites, and purples.
Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959)
Beatrix Farrand (née Jones) was born in 1872 into the upper echelons of New York society. Her family maintained homes in New York City and Mount Desert Island in Maine. Farrand was niece to novelist Edith Wharton. The novelist Henry James (who was also a dear friend and literary peer of Wharton’s), knew Farrand as “Trix.” Farrand’s family members included many enthusiastic gardeners, and she was drawn to botany and landscape gardening at a young age. In her early 20s, she studied under mentor Charles Sprague Sargent, a Harvard University professor of botany and the founding director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. In 1893, she undertook the study of landscape gardening, which did not then exist as a specialized degree. When her career started around 1895, women were not permitted to design public projects. Farrand concentrated instead on residential gardens, and her social connections combined with her talents swiftly put her at the pinnacle of the profession. In 1888, she was the only female selected to be among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects. From her early years designing gardens for her neighbors in Bar Harbor, Maine, Farrand moved on to some of the works for which she is best known: Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden on Mount Desert in Maine, gardens on the campuses of Yale, Princeton, and Occidental universities, and the East Colonial Garden and West Garden at the White House, both of which were later redesigned. Connecticut-area residents can find examples of Farrand’s work at Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Lenox, MA, and at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT. Farrand’s early interest in native plants can be traced to the summers her family spent in Maine. At Dumbarton Oaks, Farrand created a variety of gardens – from the Fountain Terrace to the Kitchen Garden – on a 53-acre site situated at the highest point in Georgetown. Open to visitors today, the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks include formal structural plantings such as aerial hedges, arbors, and fountains that gradually yield to more naturalistic plantings.
In the Sunken Garden at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT, Beatrix Farrand created an octagonal garden around a gazebo. The 36 garden beds feature more than 90 varieties of annuals and perennials, a collection of plants that bloom in tranquil colors of pink, white, blue and silvery-gray. Among the plants Farrand uses in several beds is a pink peony. In her honor, we chose Peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt,’ a 1906 heirloom that produces fragrant double blooms in a deep pink that grows lighter toward the edges. The vigorous plant is a most reliable bloomer, and it is a winner of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
Louise Beebe Wilder (1878–1938)
Born into an affluent Baltimore family, Louise Beebe took an early interest in gardening. When she married the architect Walter Robb Wilder and 1902 and moved to Balderbrae, a rural residence in Pomona, NY, she transformed the landscape around the house, creating structural elements including terraces, pathways, a walled garden, a grape arbor, and fountains, and planting beds and borders. When she and her husband moved to Bronxville, NY, she undertook the design of Station Plaza and founded a local Working Gardeners Club. As her reputation grew and her career blossomed, she designed residential gardens across the country, authored 10 books, and contributed a great many stories to newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Horticulture, and House & Garden. Her 1918 book Colour in My Garden, whose title pays homage to Gertrude Jekyll’s Colour Schemes in the Flower Garden, is perhaps her best-known title. Her gardens also reflected Jekyll’s influence, and she believed, as she put it, in creating gardens that were “formal in design but most informal in execution.” This style meshed beautifully with social changes of the period that dovetailed with the decline of large estate gardens and the rise of suburban gardening.
In her 1935 book, What Happens in My Garden, Wilder writes about a white garden she has seen in Wales. “. . . since the mild summer evening on which I once saw a white garden beautifully carried out it has lingered in my mind as . . . one of the loveliest gardens I ever saw. This white garden . . . was planted entirely with white-flowering plants and . . . inclosed [sic] by stone walls of a warm pinkish gray. . . . We saw this garden first at twilight, that witching hour, and through the tall iron gates, above which swung a Clematis starred with immense white blooms, the effect was almost as if a mist had crept up from the river and finding the haven of this quiet inclosure [sic] had swirled around and about, rising here in wraith spires and turrets, lying there in gauzy breadths amidst the muted green. It is impossible to describe its beauty at this dim hour – so soft, so ethereal, so mysterious, half real it seemed. And yet when we saw it at noon of the next day it was no less arresting, though in a different way. . . . Looking at it, we did not speak in whispers as we had done the night before.” Wilder thought it would be lovely to create a white garden of her own. “I am sure a little enclosed white garden, or even a winding border of white flowers against a green background, would be a possession of which one would not easily tire. It would always suggest peace and harmony, yet there would be no lack of interest. Frayed nerves would find it remedial.”
In the all-white Moon Garden here at the farm, Phlox ‘David’ is a tall, luminous presence. These perennial plants are free flowering, maintaining a full display from mid-July well into September. ‘David’ has a vigorous growth habit and produces sturdy stems that will not be pushed around by wind and weather. Furthermore, it has the best mildew resistance of any white Phlox we have ever encountered. It makes a fine companion for other denizens of the Moon Garden including, among others, Shasta Daisies, and white-flowering Delphiniums, Lilies, and Dahlias.
Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962)
The award-winning English poet, novelist, journalist and diarist is equally renowned as a garden designer. Together with her husband, the author and diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson, and a series of head gardeners, she created the Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the Weald of Kent, England. Upon Sackville-West’s death in 1962, the garden was bequeathed to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. It currently attracts upwards of 200,000 visitors per year. It is particularly famous for a structure that centers on axial walks that open into separate and distinct “garden rooms” including its famous white garden, and its collection of old garden roses. Sackville-West once wrote: “My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy. I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere. I hate to see things scrimp and scrubby. Always exaggerate rather than stint, masses are more effective than mingies.”
“Vita did not at first plant many hydrangeas at Sissinghurst,” writes English gardener, writer, author, cook, and teacher Sarah Raven in Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden. (In addition to her other credits, Raven is married to Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Vita Sackville-West, and she and her family have lived at Sissinghurst.) “[Vita] had the climber Hydrangea petiolaris on one of the east-facing walls, but at least initially she had reservations about them – the coarser ones reminded her of ‘coloured wigs’. She probably associated them with more formal Edwardian borders, a look she was trying to avoid, but seeing them in other people’s gardens looking good, she began to like them more.” On an autumn outing, she caught sight of a stand of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora.’ “It was with a startled pleasure that I observed three bushes growing in a cottage garden as I drove along a secret lane,” Sackville-West wrote. “They looked like pink lilac. Tall, pyramidal in shape, smothered in pointed panicles of flowers, they suggested a bush of pink lilac in May. Yet this was September.” The owner of the cottage garden told her the hydrangea had been blooming for three months. “It starts off by flowering white; then turns into . . . pink . . . Then it turns greenish, a sort of sea-green, so you never know where you are with it, as you never know where you are with some human personalities, but that makes them all the more interesting.”
Jane Grant (1892–1972)
Born in Missouri, and raised in Kansas, Grant moved to New York intending to become a singer. But the lifelong feminist took a detour into journalism, eventually becoming the first full-fledged female reporter for The New York Times. She wrote for the Times for the next 15 years. In 1925, Grant and her first husband, Harold Ross, launched The New Yorker magazine. When Grant and Ross divorced in 1929, Grant continued her work in journalism and remained active in feminist causes. In 1939, she married William Harris, editor of Fortune magazine. The two left Manhattan and settled in Litchfield, CT. There, in 1950, they founded a mail-order plants business they called White Flower Farm.
This large-leaved, evergreen Rhododendron was named for Grant, and it gives you some idea of how we feel about it (and her). Our specimen plant is close to 30 years old and has never missed a year of bloom. Its deep pink buds mature to the palest of pinks, very ruffled. Plants retain the free-flowering habit and the felty indumentum (on the under side of the leaves) of R. yakusimanum, but their form is closer to that of the other parent, R. smirnowii.
Beth Chatto (1923–2018)
When Beth Chatto died in 2018 at the age of 94, The Guardian hailed her as “one of the most influential horticulturalists of the past 50 years.” A pioneering naturalist, her reputation rests on the Beth Chatto Ltd. plant nursery, which she founded in Essex in 1967, her Beth Chatto Gardens, which remain open to visitors, and her authorship of a handful of indispensable books whose common theme is the importance of choosing the right plants for the right places. Beth Chatto’sDamp Garden, The Dry Garden, and Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, all contain wisdom gleaned from the author’s years of creating and maintaining gardens. All stress plant “suitability” for various sites, the encouragement of sustainable plant communities, and the possibility of maintaining ecological convictions while still creating aesthetically pleasing gardens. In the 1970s, The Guardian reports that “she won 10 successive gold medals at the RHS Chelsea flower show, where she introduced ecological ideas into garden design, demonstrating the possibilities of natural plant groupings, while also achieving the highest aesthetic standards. In those days nurseries arranged their plants for maximum visual impact regardless of differing plant needs. Chatto’s approach was a revelation and immediately established her significance as a guide to better and more environmentally friendly gardening techniques. She stressed the importance of looking at the whole plant, foliage as well as flowers, and judging the quality of a plant by observing it throughout the seasons.” In her own gravel garden, a former parking lot that occupies just under 1 acre of sandy soil in her 15-acre garden, the sign reads: “The Gravel Garden is not irrigated. It is a horticultural experiment where we hope to learn which plants survive extreme conditions, as a help to all gardeners facing hosepipe bans.” (A reference to water restrictions that prohibit use of hoses for irrigation.) Among the plants she featured in this arid expanse is Eryngium ‘Miss Wilmott’s Ghost.’ Distinctive in both color and form, it shrugs off drought and poor soil conditions. Chatto planted some to great effect amid mounds of Purple Sage.
This Sea Holly is the giant of the genus with large (2½”) cones of pale blue that appear almost white at a distance, and 6” wide gray bracts that are dramatically veined in silver. These generally biennial perennials offer a distinctive form and unusual color, but its their remarkable ability to thrive in poor soil and full sun that makes them a treasure for gardeners dealing with drought.
New Yorker Lynden Miller, who maintains a weekend home in Sharon, CT, is a renowned plantswoman, public garden designer, and author of the inspirational book Parks, Plants, and People. Miller began her career as a fine arts painter before abandoning the easel for the garden. In 1982, she put her painter’s eye to work restoring the Central Park Conservancy Garden in New York. Her success led to commissions to design gardens for other public spaces including New York’s Bryant Park, the New York Botanical Garden, Madison Square Park, and Wagner Park, and to improving the landscapes for schools and landmarks including Columbia, Stony Brook, and Princeton universities, and the United States Supreme Court. In the aftermath of 9/11, she created the Daffodil Project, which has resulted in the planting of millions of daffodils in parks, schools, and housing projects all over New York City. Miller is perhaps best known for the bravura mix of colors, textures and forms she creates in mixed perennial and shrub borders that have four-season appeal, and for her passionate advocacy for public gardens. “Beautifying your city brings environmental, social, and economic benefits,” she writes in Parks, Plants, and People. “When office workers step outside and find themselves surrounded by life-affirming natural elements – changing seasons, tall trees, wide lawns, flowers, birds, bees, butterflies – something positive happens to them. People respond to beautiful surroundings by respecting and protecting these places and by sharing this beauty with one another.” In her book, Miller names a great many favorite plants for mixed borders in the Northeast. Among them are roses. “Roses should be incorporated into the plantings whenever possible,” she writes. At her garden in Wagner Park, “they go well with Perovskia atriplicifolia [Russian Sage] and Verbena bonariensis.” Miller particularly favors newer cultivars. “I was not a great fan of roses in the days when many of them had to be treated with chemicals to combat pest and diseases,” she writes. “Today, however, wonderful new roses are available, including fine shrub roses that are hardy, long-blooming, and disease resistant.”
In Miller’s honor, we chose to highlight this modern Shrub Rose, which was named World’s Favorite Rose in 1997. The compact bush features clusters of dainty shell pink flowers and glossy, disease-resistant foliage. The parade of bloom from Bonica® continues until frost and is followed by an abundance of bright orange-red hips. It’s an ideal choice for beginners.
Let’s start with the basics. What does the phrase “heirloom Tomato” mean? Generally speaking, heirloom Tomatoes are varieties that have had their seeds saved and passed down by gardeners for generations. The number of years various heirlooms have been in passed down may vary, but at White Flower Farm, the majority of our heirlooms have been handed down for at least 50 years.
Heirlooms share other characteristics as well. Their fruits may not be uniform or picture perfect, and their skins may be too thin to ship across country for mass marketing, but the important thing is the flavor. These Tomatoes are cherished because their flavors are some of the very finest.
‘Brandywine Red’ (also known as ‘Brandywine’) is a big, meaty Tomato with a mild, sweet, nonacidic flavor that many people rate as simply the best. And that flavor is what prompted home gardeners to save seeds of it for the past 100 years, even though the fruits occasionally develop some cracking.
The unique fruits of ‘Green Zebra’ have deliciously tangy emerald flesh and ripen in color from light green to golden amber overlaid with deep green stripes. Their flavor is special because they are both sweet and tart at the same time!
Beefsteak Tomatoes with a mild, low acid flavor make this heirloom a winner for summer entertaining. ‘Mr. Stripey’ is named for the red-and-yellow coloration of its fruits. These Tomatoes are bicolored inside as well. Slice them for salads or display them on platters to make the most of the beautiful yellow flesh and pink centers.
The name of this German heirloom translates to “little blond girl.” To us it means a bounty of golden yellow cherry Tomatoes borne in clusters of 20 to 30. Strong yields of this rich and sweet variety would be reason alone to recommend it, but the flavor is the real reason its on our list.
We are delighted to be offering a charming selection of handmade pots from our new friends at Whichford Pottery in England. During a visit to their pottery last year, we became enamored with the beauty and function displayed in their work. Scroll below to get a behind-the-scenes look at this iconic family-owned business and learn about their frost-proof guarantee.
Because of our partnership, White Flower Farm is the only national supplier of Whichford pots in the United States. You’ll find our full line of these hard-to-find pots here.
Watch the video below to see how Whichford pots are made.
Spring is slow to arrive in northwest Connecticut but, while we’re not venturing out into the gardens just yet, it’s evident that winter’s grip is easing. The sun is higher in the sky, the greenhouses are smelling sweet and fresh, and it won’t be long before we begin shipping to warmer corners of the country. As per our custom at this time of year, we’re pleased to deliver a brief-ish update from the nursery.
A New Rose Garden, Year 2
Last summer we began installing a sizable new rose garden at the nursery, with design guidance from Julie Messervy and her team at Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio in Saxons River, VT. The garden will, as it matures, feature not only several dozen varieties of Roses, including both heirlooms and favorite modern cultivars, but our favorite Rose “companions” – Nepeta, Lavender, Clematis, Salvia, and many others.
This summer the garden will still be in its infancy, but over the years it will deliver us a tremendous re-education on gardening with Roses, and we’re eager for the school bell to ring. We trust visitors to the nursery also will enjoy watching this garden come into its own and perhaps take some fresh inspiration home with them.
Dates To Save
As usual, we have a number of fun events lined up at the nursery this spring. You can find details about all of them on our website. We’d like to alert would-be travelers that our Great Tomato Celebration, an annual offering of dozens of varieties of tomato seedlings and other kitchen garden supplies, is scheduled for Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 18. (Please note there are no Sunday hours this year.) We’re excited to welcome back noted Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier, author of Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time. Craig will be on hand for lectures and Q&A availability on both days. Cross your fingers for decent weather, but the show goes on rain or shine.
An Update to Our Sales Tax Policy
Gardening is typically an escape for daily trials and tribulations. But when changes to tax law impact the way we do business with you, we find ourselves obliged to draw your attention to matters mathematical, at least for a moment.
As you may or may not have noticed, White Flower Farm has historically collected sales tax only on items shipping to Connecticut addresses. This is consistent with long-standing precedent that online retailers are responsible for collecting sales tax only on transactions to states where the seller has a physical presence, such as a store or a warehouse. White Flower Farm has a physical presence only in Connecticut; therefore, we have, until now, collected sales tax only on Connecticut-bound merchandise.
But last summer this precedent was changed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair. The court decided that the “physical presence rule” was outdated, and that states may charge tax on purchases made with out-of-state sellers, regardless of whether or not the seller has a physical presence in the state.
Since this ruling, many states have implemented new sales tax policies for out-of-state sellers, and White Flower Farm will shortly begin collecting sales tax on sales to many states beyond Connecticut. Our aim is to comply with all applicable laws and also to do our best to minimize confusion for our customers. With the latter objective in mind, here are a few further details:
• Different states have different sales tax rates; they also have different rules regarding whether shipping & handling charges are taxable, and what kinds of products are taxable at all. For example, in Connecticut, a tomato plant is not considered a food item, and therefore is taxable. Other states may handle that sort of item differently.
• If an item is purchased by a buyer in one state to be shipped to a different state (as many gift items are), the applicable tax rate is the one set by the state to which the item is being shipped, not the one in which the buyer resides.
• WhiteFlowerFarm.com displays sales tax as a single dollar figure in your order summary. If your order includes shipping addresses in multiple states, any applicable sales taxes will be combined into the single tax figure you see at checkout. The same calculations are applied to orders placed over the phone.
Thanks for your attention to this quite literally taxing topic. We welcome any questions you may have.
New Favorites for Spring
With more and more gardeners looking for ways to reduce their lawn space and support garden pollinators and other beneficial insects and wildlife, we’re thrilled to introduce our new preplanned Native Meadow Garden. This exclusive collection of carefully selected North American natives features low-maintenance perennials that provide food and habitat for birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects while offering colorful blossoms and foliage for human admirers.
We trialed this garden extensively at our farm in Connecticut where it has become a magnet for Monarchs and other winged creatures whose visits add to its natural, wild beauty. If you have a fence or property line in full sun, or a sunny swath of lawn you’re willing to cede to blossoms and wildlife, we urge you to try it. Give the plants a season to settle in, then watch them take off the following year.
Also new this year is our collection of tropical plants for the patio. From nonstop flowering Mandevillas to glorious, large-flowering Hibiscus, to harder-to-find favorites including Alpinia ‘Variegata’ and Macho Fern, we have everything you need to turn your backyard patio into a tropical paradise. Our head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, put her talents to work last season, and she used a variety of tropical foliage plants to create two exceptional new collections, Bonito and Spicy Salsa.
Dahlia lovers will not want to miss our new Café au Lait Trio, which features longtime favorite Dahlia ‘Café au Lait’ with two of its siblings, Dahlia ‘Café au Lait Rose’ and Dahlia ‘Café au Lait Royal.’ The color blend, which ranges from mocha pink to fuchsia, is as harmonious as can be, and each plant produces the large, 10” dinnerplate blossoms that made the original such a favorite. Beautiful in the garden and superb for larger-scale bouquets.
We hope you’re as excited as we are to see the first signs of spring. It’ll be great to get out into the garden.
If you’ve spent any time shopping for plants, you’ve likely encountered the term “hardiness zone.” Simply put, hardiness zones are numerical and alphabetical codes that are assigned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to each area of the country. Our hardiness zone at the farm is 5b. Other areas of Connecticut may have slightly different zones, ranging up to 7a depending on regional geographic and climactic factors. Why is it important for gardeners to know their hardiness zones? Knowing your zone is the key to choosing plants that can survive and thrive in your particular area. Choosing plants that are not hardy in your zone can lead to frustration, disappointment and unnecessary expense.
To help demystify ‘hardiness zones,’ and to help you understand how to choose plants that are hardy for your garden, read below.
What Is a Hardiness Zone?
Using historical temperature data, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) divided the country into 13 hardiness zones, ranging from 1 (coldest) to 13 (warmest). Each of these zones is further divided into “A” and “B” for greater accuracy, with A being colder than B. Click here to see the USDA’s hardiness zone map. These zones are defined by average annual minimum temperatures. For example, a zip code in which the average annual minimum temperature is between -15 and -10 Fahrenheit is assigned to hardiness zone 5B.
The idea behind the map is that a gardener may look up his or her hardiness zone and use it to identify plants that will thrive in their area. For example, a gardener in our region of Northwest Connecticut (hardiness zone 5b) may confidently plant a variety that has been rated hardy to zone 4 but would generally not plant a variety that is rated hardy only to zone 6, because the zone 6 plant is not likely to survive the typical winter in that area.
How To Find & Use Your Hardiness Zone on WhiteFlowerFarm.com
It’s easy to find your zone on our website, www.WhiteFlowerFarm.com, and our site is set up to help you shop with your zone in mind. First, at the top of our home page, just under the Search box, click on Find Your Hardiness Zone and enter your zip code in the box that appears, then click Look Up. When the page reappears, your zone number will be listed at the top of the page in the spot previously occupied by Find Your Hardiness Zone. As you shop for individual plants and collections, the site will keep track of your zone, so that just beneath each product name, the words “Within My Zone” will appear alongside a small green flag if the plant you’ve chosen is, indeed, hardy in your area. If a plant is not hardy in your area, a small red flag with the words “Outside My Zone” will display.
As you navigate our site, you may also use the filters on the left side of the page to narrow down a listing to display only plants that will thrive in your zone.
Some experienced gardeners may “push the zone” by taking a chance on a plant that is not hardy in their area. Some plants can, in fact, be pushed, but they may require coddling and special care to see them through winter. Please be aware that we cannot honor our usual guarantee on plants if they have been shipped and planted outside of their suggested hardiness range.
Sometimes Hardiness Ratings Include “S” or “W” – What Does This Mean?
When listing the hardiness range of a plant, we often “split” the warm end of the range—for example, you might see a plant listed as Hardiness Zone: 3-8S/10W. In this instance, the 3 refers to the “cold hardiness” of the plant—all else equal, this variety should overwinter successfully in zone 3. The 8S refers to the humid Southeast (the ‘S’ being for ‘South’) and the 10W (‘W’ for ‘West’) to the comparatively dry Pacific Coast states of CA, OR, and WA—this plant can tolerate zone 8 temperatures in the South, and zone 10 temperatures on the West coast. In Northern climates, summer heat is not typically a consideration.
So to summarize—a plant listed as 3-8S/10W should successfully overwinter in zones 3 or warmer, tolerate humid heat up to zone 8, and tolerate dry heat up to zone 10.
We realize this is a bit complicated, but the problem is that the USDA zones are not always sufficiently specific. For example, our nursery in Connecticut is in the same hardiness zone as Taos, New Mexico, a climate that could hardly be more different than ours. Furthermore, there are innumerable other variables that may determine how a plant fares in a given site. We find that customers, over time, gain a good understanding of which plants do and don’t work for them, and this understanding is much more helpful than a strict reliance on hardiness zones. When in doubt, please contact us—our customer service team is extremely knowledgeable and ready to assist. You’ll find them at [email protected] or by calling 1-800-503-9624.