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’ 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.
When it comes to growing tomatoes, it seems every gardener has an opinion about how to get the biggest and best harvest. A recent staff discussion focused on techniques for amending the soil prior to planting tomatoes. The idea is to give the plants all the nutrients they need to produce a bumper crop of tasty fruits, a practice that’s particularly important for gardeners whose plots are smaller in scale or whose properties make it difficult to rotate planting beds.
Last year, one of our staff members did a good deal of poking around on the Web, which, while sometimes a hazardous pursuit, inspired her to try some traditional but more recently underused ideas. She decided to take a few chances with amendments that are more common to the kitchen waste bin or compost heap than the nearest big box store. The result? She enjoyed her highest yields ever on a varied crop of tomatoes that ran the gamut from cherries and paste tomatoes to slicers and beefsteaks. She feasted on salads, BLTs, gazpacho, and stuffed tomatoes all summer and still had plenty of beautiful, ripe fruits for making sauce and roasting tomato wedges with basil (for a bruschetta topping). She froze chopped tomatoes to use in soups and chili recipes, and froze tomato sauce, as well as the aforementioned bruschetta topping. (We’ll be running these recipes later in the season.) Needless to say, she made some of us a little jealous with her wintertime lunches. Determined to enjoy similar results and to share her rediscovered techniques with you, we ran her list of amendments by our nursery manager Barb Pierson, another champion tomato grower. Pierson applauded some of our adventurous colleague’s amendments but voiced concerns about others. What to do? We thought it best to set it all down, and let you make your own decisions based on circumstances in your own backyard.
Soil Amendments Used Successfully by Our Adventurous Colleague
Since Tomato plants are deep-rooted heavy feeders and thrive in highly organic soils, the ground must be well prepared with nutrients to sustain them throughout the growing season, optimizing growth and fruit development. Everyone has their own recipe for improving soil with organic matter, but here’s what our adventurous colleague tried with great results:
She dug deep holes (at least 15” deep, if possible. Note: this is not the depth for planting a tomato but rather it’s a hole deep enough to accommodate the amendments before planting). Into the hole, she added the following:
Fish heads (or frozen fish fillets, if you can’t get fish heads): Put 1 fish head or the equivalent in the bottom of each hole. You also can add a handful of fish and kelp meal to help boost the nutrients.
Crushed eggshells: These add calcium to prevent blossom end rot. Throw a couple of handfuls in each hole.
Bone meal: This promotes strong root growth and abundant blooms. Add a handful to each hole.
Composted manure: This provides a slow release of nutrients over the growing season. Add a couple of handfuls to each hole.
Compost: It will add basic nutrients and improve soil structure so the soil drains well yet retains some moisture. Add 2-3 handfuls in each hole.
Please note that the 15” hole will be partially filled with the amendments, which should then be partially buried by some of the soil in your garden (think of the hole as a big mixing bowl). This process of amending can be done prior to planting your tomatoes when the soil temperature is still on the cool side.
Pierson does not recommend fish heads or bone meal because “they would attract critters and most likely your plant will be dug up.” (It should be noted that a family of raccoons in the neighborhood of our adventurous colleague left her tomato plants alone, but depending on how many critters live in your area and how well your vegetable garden is fenced, you may wish to select and tailor your amendments accordingly.)
Pierson agrees that compost and eggshells add beneficial nutrients to the soil, but she isn’t sure the quantity of eggshells noted above would be enough to provide calcium throughout the season. Perhaps the thinking should be that that every little bit helps.
Pierson ends by saying, “Preparing the soil should focus on: Did you have problems the previous season? And practicing good sanitation [i.e. disposing of plants and clearing the garden beds] at the end of the season so that disease issues don’t start again. Moving your garden location is essential if problems were severe.”
But the main thing Pierson stresses for successful tomato harvest is soil texture. “Soil texture is important – turning the soil, adding high quality potting mix and focusing on drainage are very important. Roots need air to breath and to take up nutrients, compost creates air pockets in the soil. Having a light well-drained soil is the most important thing.”
So there you have it. An array of options, some or all of which are bound to improve your tomato yield. Our best advice is to take into account the conditions in your backyard and vegetable patch, and choose the amendments that work best for you. Some trial and error may be required, but that’s just the way things go in a garden. As Pierson put it, “I like the idea of trying things, that is what growing is all about. There are no right or wrong answers, only what works for you in your particular environment.”
And While You’re in the Neighborhood, Enjoy Other Regional Attractions
Sometime during this garden season, we hope you’ll visit our display gardens in the Morris section of Litchfield, Connecticut. Depending on the timing of your visit (or visits), you’ll find plenty of blooms in our outdoor borders, and quite possibly, in the Begonia House, which is generally in peak bloom from July to September. We also offer a variety of events each year, and you might consider planning your visit around those. Our 11th annual Great Tomato Celebration takes place May 20th–22nd at the farm, and our annual Open House will be held June 18th.
While you’re in the neighborhood, you might take the time to explore some of the other attractions Litchfield County and the surrounding hill towns have to offer. For gardeners, it’s pure heaven, and you can see why as you scroll below. If you’re accompanied by someone who doesn’t know a Hosta from a Hydrangea, coax them along by offering a number of other enticements: There’s hiking in Kent Falls State Park in Kent, and in the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, horseback riding at several area farms, live music at Infinity Hall in Norfolk and Bridge Street Live in Collinsville, the 21st annual Litchfield Jazz Festival in Litchfield, and an abundance of truly great restaurants. For the non-garden attractions, we’ll let you rely on the links provided. For the garden highlights, read below:
The mission of this highly regarded national organization is “to save and share America’s outstanding gardens for generations to come.” Since 1989, the conservancy has worked to ensure the survival of more than 100 gardens across the United States, and to promote gardens and gardening. In addition to lectures, garden-study opportunities, and other events, it hosts annual regional garden tours called Open Days.
Whether you visit a single site or multiple ones, viewing gardens of all types and sizes is a terrific way to absorb and appreciate fundamentals of garden design, glean tips on what to plant, and come away inspired to try new ideas.
In our neck of the woods, the 2016 Litchfield County Open Days are: June 11 and 18, July 9 and 30, August 28, and September 11. For a complete calendar of Open Days garden tours in Connecticut and across the United States, and to learn more about this organization, visitwww.gardenconservancy.org.
Trade Secrets, May 14 & 15, 2016
Martha Stewart keeps the annual Trade Secrets event on her calendar. “Growing With Plants” blogger Matt Mattus has made the trip from Massachusetts. And, speaking for ourselves, we wouldn’t miss it. The two-day event features a garden market on the first day and self-guided tours of several private gardens on the second. This year’s event will be held May 14 & 15. Saturday brings the Trade Secrets Rare Plant and Garden Antiques Sale at the hilltop LionRock Farm in Sharon, CT. On Sunday, drive yourself around the hills of northwest Connecticut, stopping to visit four different gardens between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The gardens you’ll see this year belong to: internationally known interior designer and Trade Secrets founder Bunny Williams and her husband John Roselli; author, and lifestyle and fashion icon Carolyne Roehm, whose garden is called “Weatherstone”; Pat and Judy Murphy of “Old Farm Nursery”; and antiques dealer, and interior and landscape designer Michael Trapp, whose home garden is rarely open to the public. The Trade Secrets event is a fundraiser for Women’s Support Services of the northwest corner of Connecticut.
Inspired by some of England’s great gardens – Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Hidcote – Hollister House Garden is an American interpretation of those classics. Situated on 25 acres in Washington, CT, it was begun in 1979 by George Schoellkopf and Ron Johnson. Schoellkopf’s 18th century house is surrounded by a succession of garden “rooms” that are separated by stonewalls and hedges, and decorated with a glorious abundance of plantings. Equal parts formal and informal, classic and wild, it’s a marvelous place to stroll and learn. Hollister House also hosts a series of events each season, and this year’s lineup is superb.
Hollister House Garden opens for the season April 30, 2016. For more information, including a calendar of events, visitwww.hollisterhousegarden.org
Cricket Hill Garden
670 Walnut Hill Road
Otherwise known as “Peony Heaven,” this specialty plant nursery in Thomaston, CT, grows and sells rare and unusual peonies (including herbaceous, tree and intersectional varieties). If you manage to make your visit during blossoming time, you’ll understand where the “Peony Heaven” nickname comes from. Founded in 1989, the nursery is run by members of the Furman family. It also specializes in perennial landscape edibles including Asian Pear, Pawpaw, Persimmon, Elderberry, Mulberry, and heirloom and other Apples, among other treasures. Visit Cricket Hill online at www.treepeony.com, or in person. Cricket Hill’s 27th Annual Peony Festival is timed for the weeks of peak bloom in the peony gardens. This year, it’s slated for early to mid-May for tree peonies and mid- to late May for herbaceous and intersectional varieties. Before driving, call the number above for blossom updates.
The Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden
9 Main St.
Built in two stages between 1754 ad 1767 by the Rev. Joseph Bellamy, this home became a gardener’s paradise beginning in 1912 when it was purchased by Henry and Eliza Ferriday. It was Mrs. Ferriday who began designing the outdoor spaces, creating a formal parterre garden, planting fragrant perennials, shrubs and trees, and utilizing evergreens to screen the house from the adjacent roadway. When Mrs. Ferriday died, daughter, Caroline, took over ownership of the property. In addition to her work as an actress, philanthropist, and conservationist, Caroline continued her mother’s work in the garden. Today, the gardens are a treat for those who love lilacs, peonies and historic roses, as well as flowering trees and shrubs. Tours of the house and gardens are offered from May to early October. The home is considered a Connecticut landmark, and it’s included on the register of National Historic Places.
The arrival of spring brings with it fresh starts and new beginnings. Now is the time to peruse the gardens, making note of which plants survived the past winter’s trickery and also mourning for a moment those that weren’t so lucky. Be sad for a minute for what has passed but then move on. See those newly opened up garden spaces as opportunities – a chance to plant something different and add new life and spice to the ever-evolving paradise that is a garden.
How do I decide what to plant in the gardens here each season? I get answers to that question mostly based upon what our publication and product development teams have been up to over the past few months. Captivating and alluring photography plays a key role in how we communicate with folks. The publications team will let me know when we need photos of particular plants, and I add them to my planting list. The request could be for a portrait of a plant that’s a newcomer or an old friend that needs a fresh face. All of the gardens here serve the purpose of providing subject matter for photographic moments.
The product development team definitely contributes to the bulk of my planting list. Each season we trial plants of all genres running the gamut from up-and-coming shrubs to exciting annuals. Within each category you will find not only new introductions to the plant industry but also reliable forgotten favorites that we love and which we plant in hopes of sparking their revival.
The list of annual trials each season is as long as my arm, sometimes my leg, and this year is no exception. Often times, we decide on a few focus groups within the annual realm. We will hone in on a certain genus or two and include 10 or 12 plants from that group to grow and evaluate side by side. In the past we’ve featured fuchsias, begonias, and coleus. This year I will again have a lot of coleus candidates to plant out and I couldn’t be happier! Over the years, the versatility of the shady coleus of the past has expanded as the newer cultivars not only tolerate but actually thrive in the sun. Being able to adapt to a wide variety of light conditions while providing such an array of foliage colors and textures means my good friend coleus offers lots of possibilities for adding excitement to the garden.
The other annual focus group this year is tender salvias. I’m eagerly looking forward to having these beauties in the gardens. Not only will they be eye-catching when combined with dahlias, roses, and loads of other companions, the hummingbirds and bees won’t be able to keep away. I remember when we trialed the dark-purple flowered Salvia ‘Amistad’ a few seasons back. At the time, I believed that hummingbirds only liked bright, bold colors, but that theory was blown out of the water. That Salvia ‘Amistad’ was the restaurant of choice frequented by all of the hummingbirds that summer. Pretty neat stuff to watch! I wonder what secrets of the annuals will be revealed to me this summer.
The possibility of a future feature article in a prominent garden magazine has prompted another of my planting projects this year. Down in the greenhouse, I’ve been coddling some of every kind of delphinium that we offer. The plan is to strategically combine these regal beauties with complementary companion plants in the gardens. The goal is to create some dynamite photo ops. I’ve got two years to do it and I’m optimistic. I’ve got great plants, and setting them out in sites with good drainage will help them to establish and, with a little bit of luck, flourish. The biggest hurdle is coming up with the best way to stake these royals as the flower towers start to come into bloom. I always want to stake “invisibly” if possible so as to not detract from the main event.
The dahlia trials, nearly two dozen varieties, have just arrived from Holland. New additions to next spring’s dahlia offering will be chosen from the lot. Varieties that exhibit good behavior in the garden and display some unique attribute that distinguishes them from the current cast of dahlias offered usually make the cut.
Lastly, rounding out my list of special planting projects for this season, are the lilies. Our list is extensive this spring so I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to bring the lilies to the people. I’ve reserved bulbs from our inventory requesting some from all types – Asiatic, Oriental, Orienpet, Species, and Trumpet – with special emphasis on the fragrant sorts. My intent is to plunge them into the gardens so that our visitors can meet the lilies up close and personal. My hope is that folks can bask in and be enriched by experiencing the memorable, heavenly scent that is the lily.
As I glance back at my to-do list I’m pretty confident that I’m off to a good start as far as filling in those open spaces in the gardens. I want the rest of my planting decisions to be driven by the needs of nature. I’m planning to consult with the bees, butterflies, and other members of the distinguished pollinator sector of society to see what I can plant to make them feel welcome.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The first two or three weeks after potting tuberous begonias I don’t expect to see anything happening. I check in on the potted tubers weekly, providing water to the occasional pot if the soil has dried out. All appears quiet and peaceful on the surface, but I know there’s a bevy of activity going on below.
The spring sunshine boosts the greenhouse temperature during the day and warms the soil in each pot. The tubers awaken and respond to this cozy environment. First on their to-do list is to make fresh fibrous roots, and they get right to it. Simultaneously, the eyes of the tubers start to expand just like they would on that potato that might be hanging around on the kitchen counter for too long. It is from these eyes that the stems and leaves will form.
And then . . . finally . . . halfway through week four, I see it and my heart skips a beat. Something is happening! Cracks and fissures begin to appear on the soil as if overnight the Earth shook and tiny earthquakes had occurred. Peering closer into each crack I can see the fresh and fuzzy leaves eagerly pushing through the soil determined to see the daylight. It makes me think of butterflies bursting forth from their cocoons, and I smile. It won’t be long before these babies will be packing up and moving to the begonia display house for the summer season.
Stay tuned . . .
(To read Chapter 1 in the Life of Tuberous Begonias, click here.)