As the dog days of August grind on and the gardens seem to be steaming in the humid weather, we’re as grateful as ever for the various shade gardens we keep on the property. Set beneath the leafy canopies of mature trees or in the long shadows they cast, these lush, colorful oases provide shelter from the blistering sun, and there’s plenty to interest any gardener.
Shown in the photo above: We love the combination of Athyrium ‘Ghost’ with the dark purple iridescent leaves of Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus). Please note that the ferns need to be 2 years old to achieve the height necessary to pair them with the Persian Shield, which is planted each year as an annual in our part of the world.
At this time of year, we’re especially pleased to show off the plantings in these gardens, proof positive that shady spots need not be dull. By mixing perennials, annuals and shrubs in these low-light areas, our head gardener Cheryl Whalen and her team mix colors, forms, foliage, and patterns to create a sense of lushness and beauty.
Watering these gardens is critical, especially when plants are young and getting started. This is especially true if they’re planted inside the drip line of any tree with dense foliage. (Whenever a tree acts as a giant umbrella, preventing rainfall from getting to the plantings below, this is the condition known as “dry shade.” Few plants thrive in it, although established hostas and epimediums will manage. Others will need water.)
The photos below show a broad variety of shade garden combinations that Cheryl has created in various years. Some of the perennials or shrubs such as hydrangeas, hostas, hakonechloa grass, ligularia, rodgersia, astilbe, and ferns may stay in place, but annuals including fuchsia, impatiens, coleus, and caladiums, and smaller perennials such as heucheras may be changed out from year to year depending on what we’re trialing and what Cheryl finds appealing.
As you retreat to the shady spots in your garden, keep in mind some of these combinations for next year.
The pinkish-red leaves of Caladium ‘Florida Cardinal’ add a bright pop of color to shade gardens alongside chartreuse Heucherella ‘Alabama Sunrise,’ a green-leaved hosta, and the needle-like leaves of Asparagus Fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’).
Each year, we have the considerable fun of creating new annual collections. We start the process in spring when our horticultural experts pot up various annuals (and sometimes a few perennials, too) to create eye-catching, high performance, ready-made plant combos for patio pots.
In general, our staff members begin with the idea that each collection needs a “thriller” (a tall, upright variety), a “filler” (something mounding to fill the middle), and a “spiller” (a cascading variety that trails over the side of the pot). After that, some preference is given to incorporating annuals that are new introductions or rediscovered gems because, like new toys, they’re fun to play with. Beyond that, our experts have at hand a wide variety of the annuals we offer (plus, occasionally, a perennial or two). Before a collection can be created, it’s essential that the creator take into account the form, foliage, blossom type and color, and the mature size of each individual plant being considered. From there, our staff members get to work, trying this with that, and that with this, until something pleasing develops. But the real test is just about to begin.
New collections are corralled in the relative shelter of a hoop house here at the farm. Out of public view, we let them grow as summer progresses, providing regular water and occasional fertilizer to encourage good growth. If some plants, such as a particular coleus or potato vine, show rampant growth, we pinch them back to promote better branching, or prune here and there to keep a plant in proportion to its neighbors. In late July or early August, a group of staff members tours the hoop house and assesses the combos. The most successful are those that have grown well together so that individual elements are healthy and happy, and the overall effect is one of colorful synthesis and visual harmony.
These collections are flagged for photography, and as soon as collections are deemed to be looking their best, we schedule a series of photo shoots.
Anyone who has ever worked on a photo shoot of any kind can tell you they’re all about camaraderie and collaboration and fun, but they’re also LOTS of work. While sometimes we photograph collections off-site, we prefer to do the bulk of photography here at the farm. (Quite simply, it’s less backache for all of us, and there’s a reduced chance of damaging the collections as we move them from one place to another.)
For each outdoor shoot, we beg Mother Nature for an overcast day (because it provides the consistent lighting that’s best for photography) or, if she can’t manage that, for blue skies, which always make an irresistible backdrop no matter what’s being photographed.
With photographer in tow, and with the color and structure specifics of each new annual collection in mind, we review the possible locations. At the farm, that means buzzing around in our golf-cartlike Gator surveying the shady lane with the stonewall, the sunny stretch by the Lloyd Border, the stone steps, the porch on the cottage, the pool area, the field, and so on. When individual sites are selected for each collection, we head back to the hoop house and load up the pots for transportation to their assigned locations.
This season, Barb Pierson, our Nursery Manager, and Ray Hinman, our Product Development Coordinator, were on hand to help with hefting the pots and tending the plants. (“Tending” largely involves pinching off any faded blooms and browned leaves and getting vines like trailing potato vine to drape in the direction the photographer thinks is best.) Graphic designer Teresa Fox helped with camera angles, composition, and lighting, and she could often been seen holding aloft the scrims that are used to provide shade or redirect natural light. (This can be quite a workout in a stiff breeze!) Eliot Wadsworth, our marketing director, oversaw this summer’s shoots.
Cameras are both beloved and despised because they capture the smallest details. We get richly saturated colors on the blossoms we love, and the texture of various types of foliage comes through, but the lens also captures stray pebbles and downed leaves on poolside flagstone, weeds growing at the foot of container pot, and grass that’s too high or as burnt as toast in this driest of dry summers. So every shoot involves a fair amount of fussing to make each site as free of imperfections and distractions as possible. (We want you to look at the collection, not the dandelions.) Members of the crew take up brooms, rakes, and scissors, and work together to primp, pull weeds, sweep, and trim grass until we get things right.
But even when we get a stunning photograph, the most important thing to know about our annual collections is something that cannot be captured in a single frame. The truth is anyone can combine a group of plants and arrange them to look marvelous on the day of a photo shoot, but the test is whether the collection will look just as great over time. That’s why we trial our plant combos in the first place. Our collections not only go together, they grow together beautifully from spring to frost, or we wouldn’t offer them. Getting annual collections right can be frustrating. Some collections start out as terrific ideas, but the plants simply don’t work together they way we want them to. Those collections are discarded, and we go back to the drawing board the next year. Our trial and photography process is designed to ensure that your patio pots will look as beautiful as ours do all season long – not just in the pictures.
Each year, plant breeders produce a wide variety of new annuals. For our Product Development team, the challenge is to see as many as possible, choose new introductions that might be right for our customers, and trial them to ensure they’re everything the breeders say they are.
The process starts fresh each year with staff members seeking out new annuals in their travels to botanic gardens, vendor open houses, and trade shows. They also seek out hard-to-find plants they come across in industry web articles, e-newsletters and other publications. Another prime source for annual introductions is what’s known as the California Spring Trials, which take place annually in April on the West Coast. The California Trials are a whirlwind with approximately 30 different plant breeding companies showcasing introductions at roughly 18 venues spread out from central California to just north of Los Angeles. The staff member who’s selected to go covers all of that ground in five or six days, taking notes and photos along the way. Hundreds of new introductions are on display with petunias and calibrachoas generally leading the list. While we make it a point to trial a small number of these, many are spinoffs of what’s already on the market. We concentrate instead on top performing plants that not all retailers may be focused on.
Back in Connecticut, we put together a list of new annuals we’d like to trial. We use our notes and photos to winnow down the choices. We order samples, and we wait. In early April, samples arrive from the growers, and we grow them on so they’re ready to be planted outside. Depending on the year, they might range from Ageratum to Angelonia, Lantana to Lobelia, Calibrachoa to Coleus, and every annual in between. Vegetable trials are included in the process, and they run a gamut from new Tomatoes to Kale to Cucumbers. Some years, the trials can focus on a particular plant such as Fuchsias or Begonias because our Product Development team has found some unique forms and flower colors, and, if that’s the case, we’ll get a number of varieties to try.
For our own trials, about eight staff members are given samples of each new plant. This year, those of us participating in the trials each received 9 flats. That’s a lot of plants! The flats are generally handed out just before Memorial Day Weekend, and many of us spend the holiday (happily!) potting up trial plants or putting them in our garden beds. Product Development Coordinator Ray Hinman sends around a spreadsheet asking us to record how many of each plant we received (1 or 2), and where we planted it (garden or container). He also includes prompts encouraging notes on the plant’s vigor, color, overall growth and uniformity, and anything else that strikes us as noteworthy.
Staff members care for their charges through the summer and into fall, charting the progress of the introductions. Because staff members live in various parts of the state of Connecticut, the same plants are put to the test in a variety of zip codes, soils, conditions and microclimates. Some of us have raised beds, others put plants directly in the garden, and most of us have a bazillion container pots. We’re all diligent about watering and feeding plants because that’s what the trials are about.
Not all of the plants make it through the trials. Some fail to thrive. (Two years ago, a particular Begonia looked fabulous for weeks then suddenly, with no visible sign of distress and with no event or animal to blame, it broke into pieces. Because it happened to several of us in separate gardens, it seemed fair to say the plant had a problem.) Other plants offer too short a season of interest to be considered, or they too closely mimic plants we already sell. Each season also brings a share of the mishaps and accidents that are part of life: The dog chases a ball through the perennial bed; the kids kick a soccer ball astray; the neighbor or friend who was hired to water the plants during a summer vacation either over- or under-does the job.
But among the survivors, we look for standouts, and it’s absolutely wonderful when we find them.
We trialed Salvia ‘Amistad’ in 2014, and it proved an immediate favorite with staff members and hummingbirds alike. The dark, royal purple blossoms emerge from near black bracts on a fuss-free plant that blooms from summer to frost. Customers seem to have discovered its charms, too. It sold out early this season, which means we’ll be increasing stock for next spring.
Another easy winner in 2014 was Begonia ‘Unstoppable Upright White.’ This remarkably robust and floriferous plant produces a perpetual supply of single white flowers that are brushed with pink and highlighted by yellow centers. They are complemented to perfection by dark green foliage with maroon undersides. The plant requires little care aside from regular watering, and it looks stunning all season in the garden or container pots.
Begonia ‘Unbelievable Lucky Strike’ was an easy choice for star status in the 2015 trials. This long-blooming Begonia produces masses of semidouble, bicolor blossoms in radiant shades of yellow and apricot. The foliage is the other attraction. It has serrated leaves in a distinctive olive green that are lightly detailed with red to complement the warm bloom tones.
Among last year’s vegetable trials, the Cucamelon Mexican Sour Gherkin delighted everybody. Delicate vines produced a remarkable number of small, specialty Cucumbers that resemble tiny, 1” watermelons. Firm-textured and bite-size, they’re great for pickling.
Also a hit in last season’s veggie test was delicious, productive Tomato ‘Genuwine.’ This Heirloom Marriage™ variety is a cross between longtime favorites ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Costoluto Genovese.’ Plants produce large, deeply furrowed, dark red slicers with a firm texture and a rich taste. They’re superb for salads and sandwiches. Word seems to have gotten out about this treasure because it was an early sell-out at our Great Tomato Celebration this spring.
When the growing season ends, Ray collects notes from each staff member who participated in the trials. He and others on the Product Development team review the results, and a number of plants are selected for inclusion in the following year’s spring offering. At that point, our customers get to try these outstanding plants in their own gardens, and we love to hear about your results.