Category Archives: Garden Maintenance

It’s Cleanup Time!

The garden staff is busy cleaning and carting away spent annuals, and the foliage and faded blossoms of some perennials and shrubs.
Faded annuals, and the foliage and spent blossoms of some perennials and shrubs have been pulled out and are ready to be carted away.

Here in northwestern Connecticut, the fall foliage show is nearing its peak, and in some places, the leaves have begun to fall. They rustle at our feet as we go about our rounds. This is Nature’s way of telling us it’s time to clean the garden.

Clearing out beds and borders means different things to different people. Some gardeners clear every last leaf and past-bloom plant from their gardens while others find reasons to leave everything as is until spring. We fall somewhere in the middle. We believe that maintaining a healthy garden and nutritious, well-structured soil requires different cleanup rituals for different garden spaces. At the farm, here’s how we go about it:

The spent flowers of a Zinnia are beginning to develop mold. Those will be cut and discarded, but for the time being, there is a certain beauty in decay.
The spent flowers of a zinnia are beginning to develop mold. They’ll be cut and discarded, but for the time being, there is a certain beauty in decay.

Remove Most Annuals

For starters, we remove most annuals. In general, these plants are easy to spot because after the first hard frost, many of them, including impatiens, begonias, and coleus, have withered and turned brown. If the spent foliage and blossoms on these plants are free of mold and disease, we put them in the compost pile. If we see traces of powdery mildew (zinnias are often afflicted), downy mildew or other diseases, the plants are put into trash that’s hauled off the property. Keep in mind that any mold or disease that’s allowed to stay in the garden will overwinter and reinfect new growth in spring.

Some annuals argue to be removed a bit later in the fall. “If the Cosmos or verbena bonariensis are still green and self-sowing, I will leave them until later,” says nursery manager Barb Pierson. “Plants like Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun,’ which can overwinter here, will be left until spring. Kale is pretty late in the season, too.”

Cleaning out the beds beside the store. Rudbeckia 'Prairie Sun' bows out after an exceptional summer performance.
Cleaning out the beds beside the store, Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’ bows out after an exceptional summer performance. (Because the plant is sometimes hardy in our zone, some gardeners keep it in to see if it returns in spring.)

Clean Out the Vegetable Garden

In the kitchen garden, Pierson removes all vegetable plants, paying special attention to any varieties, such as tomatoes, that may have fungal leaf spots and mildew. Afflicted plants must be completely removed and put into the garbage (or carted to the dump) or the same afflictions will plague next season’s plants. “Most vegetable plants are best removed unless you are growing fall lettuce or other cold crops here in New England,” Pierson says. “If we plan to plant tulips in the raised beds for a nice spring show, this is the time to do it. If we don’t plant bulbs, we will remove any soil that comes up with the vegetables and add fresh soil in spring. Compost can be added in the fall if it is fresh, but we prefer to do it in the spring because we use fully composted material. Each spring, we replace the top 1/3 of soil – at the least – for best results. Mulching can attract digging rodents so we don’t mulch the beds during the winter months.”

Perennials & Shrubs

In the perennial garden, our methods vary. In the shady beds near the store, our gardeners clean and clear away dead and dying foliage. They cut back ferns, hostas, astilbes, and ligularias. Why? One year, when they let the decaying leaves lie, they discovered that the cushy, warm environment attracted critters who dug around and sometimes nested in the leaf mulch. That would have been all right except the critters didn’t stop at the mulch. They burrowed into the roots of the plants, inadvertently killing a few, and those had to be replaced the following spring.

Browning fern foliage being yanked out and hauled away.
Browning fern foliage is yanked out and hauled away.

In areas where critters don’t pose much of a problem, Pierson and many others believe that the decaying leaves of most deciduous trees are beneficial to the garden. For starters, they form a natural leaf mulch that provides insulation for perennials and shrubs. Oak leaves, which are waxy and don’t easily break down, are particularly good for insulation. Mounding them around perennials and shrubs protects the plants from seasonal temperature swings. Pine needles are another fine insulator, and they’re especially good for acid-loving plants including rhododendrons and azaleas. Leaves that break down more readily such as maple, ash and birch leaves add organic nutrients to the soil, and help improve soil structure.

The foliage of Phlox 'Robert Poore' is covered in powdery mildew. The plants need to be cut at the base and removed or the mold will return in spring to re-infect the plants. It won't inhibit the blossoms, but it's not much to look at.
The foliage of Phlox ‘Robert Poore’ is covered in powdery mildew. The plants need to be cut at the base and removed or the mold will return in spring to re-infect the plants. It won’t inhibit the blossoms, but it’s not much to look at.

As with annuals and vegetable plants, it’s important to note that any perennials or shrubs that exhibit mold or disease should be cut back, and the spent foliage and blossoms should be carted away to the trash (not the compost pile). Plants like Perovskia (Russian Sage) should not be cut to the ground, Pierson says. “The most important thing to remove is the foliage – not the crown or stems – so I would say remove leaf litter and prune stems as you would for that variety, in general 3-4” above soil level.” Some of the perennials and shrubs most commonly affected by powdery mildew include peonies, monarda (bee balm), phlox, and roses. As with vegetable plants and annuals, if you leave afflicted plants in the garden, the mold and disease will overwinter and reassert itself in spring. The mold won’t interfere with blossom production, but it will detract from the beauty of the foliage.

We like to leave the seed heads of Echinacea in the garden. Birds feed at them, and they also look lovely dusted in snow.
We like to leave the seed heads of Echinaceas (Coneflowers) in the garden. Birds feed at them, and they also add winter interest when dusted in snow.

As you cut down bee balms, phlox and peonies, keep in mind that there are other perennials and shrubs you’ll want to keep. While ornamental grasses can be cut back in fall (leaving 6” of growth to protect the crowns), the argument for leaving them until spring is that they look quite lovely dusted in snow. The seed heads of Echinacea and the berries of Ilex verticillata (winterberry) feed the birds as winter sets in. The pods of Asclepias, the flower clusters of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Eupatorium, and the seed heads of Echinaceas (Coneflowers) all provide winter interest.

Purple kale won't be taken out of the garden until a deep freeze. For now, the intense color adds beauty to the autumn landscape.
Purple kale won’t be taken out of the garden until a deep freeze. For now, the intense color adds beauty to the autumn landscape.

So clean as much or as little as you choose depending on the types of plants you have in your garden. But whatever you decide, it’s time to grab your rake and pruners, and spend a few days in the glorious autumn weather putting your garden to bed.

In one of the display gardens, the bright lavender blossoms of the autumn-blooming Colchicum have popped up amid a sea of lime-colored Sedum 'Angelina.' We won't be cutting these!
In one of the display gardens, the bright lavender blossoms of the autumn-blooming Colchicum have popped up amid a sea of lime-colored Sedum ‘Angelina.’ We won’t be cutting these!
Native Plant Garden

It’s June: What Can Be Done in the Garden?

It’s June in the garden. What are some of the things you could be doing?

For starters, with spring’s unsettled weather finally yielding to the more predictable warmth of summer, it’s time to consider giving your houseplants a summer vacation outdoors. Make sure to provide all houseplants with a sheltered, lightly shaded spot when you first bring them outside to protect them from sun and wind. Depending on the plants, some may require full shade all summer, while others will enjoy a real sunbath. Since most of your plants will be growing more strongly in summer, be sure to keep up with fertilizing as well as watering.

Amaryllis Alasca®
Amaryllis Alasca®

Amaryllis that blossomed for you in winter can be summered over outdoors, a ritual that rebuilds the bulb for another season of winter bloom. Plants will benefit from the stronger sunlight in the garden and are happy in a full sun location after a gradual introduction. Their strappy foliage is feeding the bulb for next winter’s performance. You can knock the bulbs out of their pots and plant them in a bed, or leave them as they are in their pots. If leaves turn yellow, cut them off at the base. We keep our Amaryllis outside until light frost blackens the foliage in autumn, then we store them in a cool (55 degrees F), dark place such as a basement for a period of 8-10 weeks. For more information on caring for these exotic bulbs, see our Amaryllis Growing Guide.

What else should you be doing in the garden?

  • Prune Lilacs now, removing spent blooms.
  • Tomatoes in Sausalito Self-Watering Container with Tomato Support
  • Tomatoes will start growing rapidly. Keep plants secure to their stakes or supports by using ties, clips  or cotton rags. We like to pinch off suckers, the additional stems that appear in the axils between the leaves and the main stem. For more information on caring for Tomatoes, see our Growing Guide.
  • Nepeta 'Walkers Low'
    Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’
  • Mature Nepeta (Catmints) can get floppy after bloom. After the first flush of flowers, cut back the plants  to just a few inches tall. They recover quickly and are more likely to maintain a mounded shape following a serious haircut.
  • Remove spent Rhododendron flowers as soon as the blossoms subside. Be careful not to remove new buds at the base of old flower stems.
  • When Lettuce gets bitter and starts to bolt, pull out the plants, compost them, and use the space for Bush Beans or Summer Squash. A late planting of Squash often fools vine borers.
  • Keep up with weeding and watering.
  • Harvest Basil by cutting off branches and then removing the leaves. Pinch off flower buds to keep your plant producing stems and leaves. Water when the top 1″ of soil is dry. Feed monthly with a balanced fertilizer.



In Drought Conditions, Water Until the Ground Freezes Hard

It’s no secret to any gardener based in New England that the region is experiencing a significant rainfall deficit. In Connecticut, where we’re located, assessments provided by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for September 2016, indicate that all regions of the state are in either “extreme drought” (a deficit of 2.75” of rain or greater) or “severe drought” (a deficit of 2” to 2.74” of rain). While October delivered a few showers, we still have a lot of making up to do. The situation is the same across New England. (See for yourself by clicking here.)

In September, according to NOAA, “Abnormally dry and drought conditions continued to contract in the Midwest and intensify in the Northeast, where extreme drought developed. The unusually warmer-than-normal temperatures increased evaporative stress which exacerbated the drought conditions in the Northeast. Soils were dry, vegetation stressed, and groundwater and streamflow levels low. According to USDA statistics, topsoil moisture was short or very short (dry or very dry) in 50 percent or more of Rhode Island (100%), Massachusetts (78%), Connecticut (76%), New Hampshire (65%), and Vermont (53%); subsoil moisture was short or very short in 50 percent or more of Rhode Island (100%), Massachusetts (91%), Connecticut (80%), New Hampshire (63%), and Vermont (52%); and pasture and rangeland was in poor to very poor condition in 50 percent or more of Massachusetts (81%), New Hampshire (65%), Rhode Island (60%), Maine (59%), and Connecticut (56%).”

Massachusetts and Connecticut have been critically impacted, according to the NOAA data. “Fifteen states ranked in the driest third of the historical record for April-September, with two in the Northeast having the tenth driest, or drier, such 3-month period. These were . . . Massachusetts (at fourth driest) and Connecticut (at fifth driest). The last three April-September time periods have been drier than average for these two states.”

In southern New England, the dryness is part of a longer-term pattern. “Thirteen states ranked in the driest third of the historical record, with the severest dryness (driest ranks) persisting in southern New England — Connecticut had the fifth driest January-September and Massachusetts the seventh driest,” according to NOAA. “Four of the last five year-to-dates have been much drier than average for Connecticut.”

In forecasting trends for this winter’s weather, NOAA predicts New England’s drought conditions may improve somewhat in western parts of the region but dry conditions may persist in the east.

Given the drought conditions in many parts of New England, it's essential to keep watering plants until a hard frost.
Given the drought conditions in many parts of New England, it’s essential to keep watering plants until a hard frost.

What does all of this mean for gardeners? Water. Water. Water. Unless restrictions have been imposed in your area, continue to water your gardens and any new plantings including trees and shrubs until the ground freezes hard. Plants that have been stressed by lack of water are far more vulnerable to winter kill. New plantings are at particular risk. Keep your plants hydrated by watering on a weekly basis. (Ideally, you want to water slowly – setting up a sprinkler or drip irrigation system are two ways to do it. The goal is a slow but steady discharge of water that will seep down to the roots of your plants. You want to stop watering before the ground is too saturated to absorb more. Do not overwater or plants will be discouraged from forming good root systems. Standing water might also freeze overnight creating a hazard for you and your plants.)

The ground here in Litchfield County generally freezes hard sometime after Thanksgiving so we’ll keep watering until then.

Watering Guidelines for New Plants

For best results with new plants including potted perennials, shrubs, trees and vines, give their roots a good soaking in their pots on the day before planting. (You may even stand each pot in a bucket of water for up to 30 minutes so the soil is soaked through. Remove each pot from the bucket and let it drain.) On the day you put the new plants in the ground, water them again, as needed, before and after planting.

For bareroot perennial specimens, soak the roots in water for a few hours before planting. If the root is woody (as in roses), soak for up to 12 hours. Follow directions for planting your bareroot specimen then water it in once planted.

Water Restrictions

If you live in an area where water restrictions have been imposed, you may choose to collect “grey water,” the type that’s generated by routine household rituals including bathing, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, and rinsing fruits and vegetables. As you start the shower or run the tap to rinse something or wait for hot water, collect the runoff in buckets or jars and bring it outside. Please note: While grey water that contains detergents or soaps may be used for some things, it is not recommended for watering plants. Be sure your grey water is free of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, dish detergent, grease, etc., which can potentially damage your plants or attract critters.

Plants that are stressed by lack of water are more susceptible to winter kill.
Plants that are stressed by lack of water are more susceptible to winter kill.

Rainfall, if we get much, is another excellent source of water. Install rain barrels below your gutter pipes or set out buckets and pails to catch whatever falls from the sky. This is a terrific practice whether or not drought conditions prevail.

Take Care of Your Hose

To prevent your hose from cracking on nights when the temperature dips below freezing, remember to discharge any water that’s trapped in it after each use.

What’s That Weed? 10 Common North American Weeds

While many of you undoubtedly spent summer engrossed in the latest New York Times bestselling beach reads, around here, the books we can’t put down are Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso, and Weeds of North America by Richard Dickinson and France Royer.

Both are indispensable guides to the pesky weeds that gardeners in North America regularly come upon in beds, borders, meadows and woodlands. Weeds of the Northeast was published in 1997 by Cornell University Press. At nearly 400 pages, it offers color photos of 299 weeds at various stages of their lifecycles – starting at the seedling stage. Weeds of North America was published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press. It covers roughly 500 species of weeds, and includes color photos showing the majority of them at stages from seed to flower. (Interestingly, it also lists plant viruses that each weed could introduce into your garden and which may be harmful to other plants.)

As we continue to pull weeds from our gardens, we thought you might like a primer on 10 of the most common types that might be appearing in yours.

1a. weeds_pokeweed
Common pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana L.)

Common Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana L.)

You can tell a lot by a nickname, and this one is commonly known as Inkberry (for its dark reddish-purple berries), Red Ink Berry (for the color that’s released when the berries are crushed), and American Cancer (for the toxicity of the leaves and fruits). The one thing Pokeweed is not is a poke. The herbaceous perennial emerges in spring and, left untended, achieves the height of a small tree. It will climb over shrubs and grow alongside trees. You’ll recognize the seedlings by their oval green leaves, which often have a hint of reddish purple. As they begin to stretch, you’ll see that the stems are also a reddish-purple. Green berries emerge in clusters, gradually changing to a gleaming purple-black. The shape of the berries is distinctive, too, like round balls that have been slightly flattened on each side. Large taproots make these a contest to remove, but it’s worth winning.

2. weeds_canadian clearweed
Canadian Clearweed (Pilea pumila)

Canadian Clearweed (Pilea pumila)

This summer annual has watery, almost translucent stems that remind us of Impatiens. The fresh, shiny green leaves are opposite and have three pronounced central veins and  serrated edges. The small flowers emerge from leaf axils and appear in clusters on the upper portions of the stems. Pull this weed, and it gives way very easily, which may account for our benign feelings about it.

3. weeds_Swallow Wort Vine
Black Swallowwort Vine (Cynanchum nigra)

Black Swallowwort Vine (Cynanchum nigra)

The bane of many a northeastern gardener, this twining, vining perennial can twist itself around shrubs and small trees. It has dark green leaves, purple-black fruit, and, most unhappily, a large root crown, which makes removal an Olympic sport.

“Although primarily a woodland species, black swallowwort has become an invasive weed in recently cleared areas, conservation habitats, Christmas tree plantations, nursery crops, and other perennial crops such as alfafa. It also grows in fields, pastures, and waste places and along fence rows, often in sunny areas and calcareous soils,” write Uva, Neal, and DiTomaso. In short, it can be everywhere. Our recommendation: Dig it out to be certain you’re getting it by the roots, or you’ll be seeing it in perpetuity.

4. weeds_bull thistle
Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Sometimes confused with Canada thistle, this biennial is distinguished by its leaves, which are spiny above and woolly below (Canada thistle leaves are the opposite: smooth above and smooth or spiny below), and by its taproot (Canada thistle spreads by rhizomes.) Bull thistle favors rich, moist soil. It presents in spring as a rosette of leaves that are prostrate to the ground then develops a stem, which is punctuated by lance-shaped, serrated leaves. Bulbous lavender-purple fruit appears at the tops of stems.

Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)

This perennial is hard to miss, especially if you’ve had the misfortune to step on it or come upon it ungloved. The spiny leaves appear first as a prostrate basal rosette and gradually lengthen. Allowed to mature, the Canada thistle will sprout stems topped by lavender-purple flower heads that open to release seeds that scatter in the wind. Where there is one, you may expect many more as Canada thistle spreads by rhizomes.

5. weeds_crabgrass
Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis, Digitaria ischaemu Schreb. ex. Muhl, DIGIS, and Digitaria ciliaris (Retz.) Koel, DIGSP)

Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis, Digitaria ischaemu Schreb. ex. Muhl, DIGIS, and Digitaria ciliaris (Retz.) Koel, DIGSP)

This one needs no introduction. There are three common varieties, Large crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis), Smooth crabgrass (Digitaria ischaemum Schreb. ex. Muhl, DIGIS), and Southern crabgrass (Digitaria ciliaris (Retz.) Koel, DIGSP). All are the bane of gardeners everywhere. The blade-shaped green leaves emerge along prostrate stems. The fibrous roots always seem to be rooted in cement because they’re just that difficult to pull out. The part of the plant that’s above-ground seems always to snap off in your hand before the roots can be dislodged so use a weeding tool to loosen the soil then pull.

6. weeds_creeping charlie_best
Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea L.)

Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea L.)

Also known as Ground Ivy, this is not an ugly weed, it’s just a perpetual land-grabber. It creeps along the ground by runners, each node setting down new roots as the spreading continues. It’s especially fond of vaulting the distance between lawns and garden beds, and it will even crawl across the patio, if it can find sufficient footing. The round, scalloped green leaves form a mat-like ground cover, and in spring, purple flowers appear. Grab a string (or six) of stems and give them a tug. You’ll feel individual nodes pop out of the soil. A firmer tug releases the developed fibrous roots at the base of the plant.

7. weeds_broadleaf plantain
Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major L.)

Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major L.)

We feel a special animosity toward this one, a prostrate grower that holds tenaciously to the soil with a cluster of fibrous roots and single taproot. The broad green, deeply veined leaves hew to the ground, forming a mat from which sprout green flower heads that later turn golden brown.

8a. bishop's weed_Aegopodium podagraria
Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagraria)
8. weeds_variegated bishop's weed
Variegated Bishop’s Weed

Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagraria)

The variegated form of this super-spreader is called Goutweed. It’s offered at many nurseries as a ground cover, and while quite ornamental, it quickly manifests as a nuisance. To quote the Missouri Botanical Garden’s outstanding website, It “Will rapidly form a continuous mound of attractive foliage typically growing to 8″ tall with an indefinite spread. Unfortunately, once it gets going, it acts like the proverbial snowball going downhill and can be difficult to contain.” While it is easy to remove with a quick tug, you may find the constancy of the job gets tiresome quickly.

9. Alliaria petiolata_garlic mustard
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

This European native was originally introduced to North America in the 1800s and was valued for its medicinal and culinary properties. But since then, this shade-tolerant biennial has become too common in wooded areas of the eastern and middle of the United States where it crowds out natives. Now regarded as an invasive, it forms basal rosettes of heart-shaped leaves in the first year. The following season, the leaves become more triangular in shape, and the plant sends up a 1–4’ stalk that produces small white flowers in early spring. Apart from identifying the plant by its appearance, you can crush a leaf or stem. If you smell garlic, remove the plant.

10. weeds_lambsquarters
Common lambsquarters (Chenopodium album L.)

Common Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album L.)

We find this upright annual in lots of places at the farm where it likes to pop up at the edges of fields and meadows. The gray, felted-looking leaves make it easy to spot along with its broad, branching habit. Left to grow, it can reach heights of 3’ in a single season.


Visit Someone Else’s Garden for Inspiration

By Margret Delves Broughton, Public Relations

I find it ironic that every year, by the time it’s mid-summer, I am kind of over gardening.  Isn’t this the very moment I’ve been waiting for? After all, there shouldn’t be too many nasty surprises lurking on the horizon. Not a frost in sight. Everything that’s going to come up for the season has either already bloomed or at least it’s on it’s way. I have honed my Tomato-growing practice to a single, glorious plant (‘Red Currant’ this year). Shouldn’t I be strolling through the garden, feeling nothing but bliss?

But no. I find myself looking around, agitating about all the dull stuff that needs to get done. My Leucanthemum is starting to go past. I should get out there and deadhead the ones that have lost their color. I should also probably get my soil tested. I should deadhead my Nepeta. And my Alchemilla Mollis. I want to get better vases for my Dahlias. I should add lime to my soil to make them bloom better next year. I should plant more Blueberries and figure out some way to keep the birds away. The list goes on.

A visit to Michael Trapp’s garden in West Cornwall, CT, is a treat for anyone.

A few weeks ago, when I felt buried in garden busy-work, I got an email from The Garden Conservancy. There were open gardens in my area. Facing nothing but chores in my own garden, I headed for West Cornwall, CT, to see what other gardeners were up to. I had been to Open Days before but not for years. There was always too much to do at home, and I was sure that looking at other gardens would overwhelm me with jealousy.

In short, let me say that looking at other people’s rather perfect gardens has been the best way to rekindle interest in my own garden. It’s not that my garden compared favorably (in fact, it was quite the opposite), but it was exciting – and I don’t use that word lightly – to see the very personal and very concrete results of what must have been thousands (millions?) of decisions, many of which were probably challenged along the way.  It was like seeing the “after” pictures in a before/after series. You know how they can be  gratifying, even if you had nothing to do with the project? How it makes you think you can do the same thing, even if you don’t want to? It doesn’t matter! It’s fun just knowing what’s possible!

I think I need this pool. Thanks for showing me that it’s possible!

I got so hooked on Open Days, a few weeks later, I attended one of the Garden Conservancy’s Digging Deeper lectures at Twin Maples in Salisbury, CT. The subject was Exploring Twin Maples – The Evolution of a Garden. It promised a setting that “flows smoothly from architecture to nature, from formal garden to field, with extraordinary views of the Litchfield Hills.”  It made good on those promises and so much more (out of respect for the owner’s privacy, photographs are not to be published).

Visiting Michael Trapp’s garden made me realize that my garden is in desperate need of a bed or two of Ostrich Ferns and Ivy.

I could go on and on about what I saw, but instead I will conclude with the top 10 things I learned:

1. If I ever have a swimming pool, it will be 10′ x 60′.

2. Perennial wildflower meadows do NOT come from a can of seeds.

3. I must own a ‘Quick Fire’ Hydrangea. Or 10. The white blooms practically glow in the dark and they can bloom as early as June.

4. When in doubt, use Ostrich Ferns towering above any ground cover.

5. Growing six ‘Black Beauty’ Lilies is not enough. Go for around 100. Seriously.

6. Next year, I will stake my Dahlias with Tomato cages, and hang little tags on them to keep track of the varieties. Why didn’t I think of that before?

7. A garden without a destination is not a garden. Plant an orchard within a meadow, or put a stone bench just about anywhere.

8. Wildflower meadows look different every year.

9. There are very stylish ways to use common plants. Oh yes, there are.

10. No garden is too fancy to keep pets.

This is a corner of my own garden, occupied by Max on a hot day. He smushed the plants, but he looks cute, so he gets to sit there whenever he wants.

For more information about the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, click here.

The Best Way to Water Your Plants

With summer heat baking much of the nation, it’s a good time to review some of the basics of watering. Our horticultural advisors have lately received a number of contacts about issues pertaining to plants that are being either under-watered or over-watered.

White Flower Farm store staff watering plants

Cathy Hughes, Senior Horticulturist for the Customer Service Call Center, says, “I just had a phone call that perfectly illustrates the concern. The customer lives in Queens, N.Y., and she wanted to know why the leaves on her ‘Patriot’ hostas turn brown every summer. I asked how long they’ve been established, and how often they get watered. She said they were planted three years ago, and are watered with an automatic sprinkler system every morning and evening for 15 minutes each time.”

Automatic sprinkler or irrigation systems are a convenience for many gardeners, but they need to be properly programmed and adjusted for weather conditions. We’ve all seen sprinkler systems running after (and even during) a deluge. Auto irrigation systems also are generally the culprit when watering is being done in 15-minute intervals.

When the soil is dry, established perennials should be watered to a depth of 2_ then allow the soil to
When the soil is dry, established perennials should be watered to a depth of 2 inches.

A better method is to water plants less frequently but more deeply. You want the soil to dry out between waterings because that’s what encourages healthy root systems. “Shallow watering, the kind you get when you turn on the hose or irrigation system for 15 minutes, promotes shallow root systems because plants don’t have to go looking for water,” Cathy says. “The water problem is exacerbated if the soil is mulched because the mulch facilitates water retention.”

watering_check soil by sticking your finger in
Check the moisture level of your soil by sticking your finger in the dirt, or push a spade in and remove a clot of earth to see how deep the dryness goes.

As a general rule of thumb for established perennials, Cathy advises “watering when the soil is dry to a depth of 2”, and always checking the soil before watering because hot weather does not necessarily mean the soil is drying out, especially if conditions are humid.” In addition, plants may wilt as a response to high temperatures, but the soil may still be moist. If the plant recovers either late in the day or early in the morning, and you have not watered, this is a clear indication that the soil is still moist.

The best way to check the soil is to stick your finger in the dirt, or push a spade in and remove a clot of earth to see how deep the dryness goes.

watering, wand, impatiens, new guinea, variegated
Not all plants require the same amount of watering. Hand-held watering devices can help direct water to the plants that need it most.

Gardeners should keep in mind that different plants have different watering needs. Annuals, which are planted in spring and give their all in one season, generally need more water than perennials that have many seasons to develop root systems; plants situated in full sun almost always need more water than those in shade; plants that live beneath large trees, where they’re forced to compete against tree roots for water, will need more hydration support than most; and new plantings will require more regular watering than established plants.

watering_container pots should be checked daily during the hottest weather
Container pots should be checked daily during the hottest weather.

Container pots are a different story. They tend to dry out quickly, especially if pots are made of porous materials such as terra cotta. Most pots, unless they’re filled with succulents and other drought-tolerant plants, will need to be checked daily especially in the heat of summer.

For tips on proper watering of your vegetable garden, see our June 14, 2016 blog post “Caring for Your Vegetable Plants.”


What’s Up?

It’s an exciting time in the garden. April’s below-average temperatures may have given all of us cause for concern, but it’s caused surprisingly few ill effects in the beds and borders. Plants of all types are shaking off their winter dormancy. Bulbs are sending up colorful blooms, and perennials and shrubs are breaking into bud, their emerging foliage like green flags that herald the new season. Our early blooming Daffodils, including ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation,’ timed its arrival to avoid one of April’s worst cold swings, and these robust growers held their heads high as the mercury continued to swing a bit ruthlessly throughout the month. Later bloomers, including radiant Narcissus ‘Pride of Lions,’ are presently putting on a splendid, weeks-long show.

Elsewhere, the fruits of the plotting and planning done last fall by our head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, are everywhere to be seen. The display gardens are full of new bulbs, new bulb combinations, and new planting ideas. Reliable old friends including Hostas and Astilbes are waking up to a new season. The reddish stems of Peonies are providing a colorful, contrasting backdrop for bulb blossoms of all types, and feathery Astilbe foliage, also with reddish tones, is creating an interesting carpet under the colorful blooms of Chionodoxa and dwarf Daffodils.

Part of being a successful gardener is developing a sensitivity to color. Cheryl continually plays with shadings in her plantings. In the photo above, she created a pairing using a subtle cool blue tone as the thread. The pink-red blossoms of Tulip ‘Portland’ find an echo in the icy blue flower spikes of Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis.’

Here are a few more images from the garden in late April:

narcissus pride of lions_spring 2016

Narcissus ‘Pride of Lions’ is making us proud. The vivid yellow blossoms with orange cups rimmed in red held their heads up through spring’s tempests and temperature swings.


This season we’re trialing Fritillaria imperialis ‘Beethoven,’ which blossomed promptly in late April,  its brick red flowers and distinctive form attracting all eyes.


Another plant we’re trialing this season is Tulip ‘Ice Stick.’ What do you think?


And another auditioning for our catalog is Tulip ‘Mary Ann.’ Cheryl planted it with Muscari armeniacum at its feet.


In the raised beds where we often trial Tomato and other vegetable plants, Cheryl planted Tulip bulbs last fall to create spring cutting gardens. Each raised bed is designed to house a variety of Tulips that offer a succession of bloom. In each raised bed is at least one early bloomer, one mid-season selection, and one late bloomer. Here, a Parrot Tulip mixes with some Early Single and late Lily-flowering types. As each Tulip variety blossoms, there are flowers aplenty to fill vases. When blossom time passes, we’ll be doing what’s known as the Tulip-Tomato Tango. We’ll dig out the Tulip bulbs, compost them, and fill the empty raised beds with Tomato and vegetable plants. This time-honored “tango” is a terrific way to maximize use of garden space, and to get the best of what each growing season has to offer – beautiful cut flowers in spring, and tasty Tomatoes in summer and fall.



Is There Anything to Do About a Late Freeze?

Large portions of the northeastern United States have experienced a difficult turn in which the normal weather patterns for March and April have been roughly reversed, with a series of soft, warm spring days in March followed by the recent hard frost and snow. As you probably understand, late frost after a warm spell is dangerous to plants whose metabolism has been stimulated to produce tender spring growth. The effects can be damaging to flower buds and even to roots, endangering the survival of some varieties and diminishing the bloom and fruiting of others.

There are two basic rules to minimize damage and get the garden back on track:

Take a careful look at every corner of your garden to understand which plants are at risk.

First, take a careful look at every corner of your garden to understand which plants are at risk. You’ll have no trouble recognizing frozen tissue, which will be either mushy or discolored. Blasted buds may have cracked, split, or simply dropped off their stems. Crowns of perennials may appear dry, or mushy, or discolored, and the new growth at the end of the stems of shrubs may be gray or brown. On woody plants, it’s easy to determine whether an individual branch is damaged by scraping back a small piece of bark to expose the underlying tissue, which will be green if that branch is alive. Hold off scraping until cold weather has passed.

Because damage is difficult to assess with precision, it is very important that this reconnaissance not involve any immediate action with one important exception. If the sequence of freezing and thawing has caused a plant to heave, meaning its roots have been lifted out of the soil and exposed to sun and air, you should immediately replace soil over the roots, gently firming the new soil and then watering it to restore moisture to the tissue. Thereafter, the best medicine is PATIENCE, not extreme measures. It may take a few days, up to a couple of weeks, of normal weather for plants to reset their clocks and start growing again. During this time, you are likely to do more harm than good by actively digging, pruning, weeding, feeding, and all the other forms of nurturing that occur logically to plant lovers.

To determine whether an individual branch is damaged, scrape back a small piece of bark to expose the underlying tissue, which will be green if that branch is alive. Hold off scraping until cold weather has passed.

Second, after about 10 days, serious housekeeping can begin. It will generally be possible to determine which plants have not survived and need to be replaced, which need to be cleaned up by the judicious removal of damaged tissue, and which came through without damage. You may find yourself pruning spent buds off shrubs or fruit trees, meaning a spring without flowers or fruit, and occasionally conducting last rites for longtime favorites in your gardens. Rugged individuals like Daffodils, Tulips, Peonies, Daylilies and Hostas rarely succumb (one of the many reasons they are so popular), meaning you won’t be starting from scratch.

Rugged individuals like Daffodils, Tulips, Peonies, Daylilies and Hostas rarely succumb to a late frost.

Over many years in the difficult and changeable climate of New England, we have dealt with many of these seasonal surprises, and in every case, the disappointments were substantially offset by the opportunity to try new ideas, solutions, and inspirations. We are, of course, available to assist in every possible way, including the prompt delivery of whatever replacement plants you may need. We will be making similar replacements in our own gardens.