The Latest Dirt - Garden Thoughts
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I’m a planner. The kind of person with sticky notes and a to-do list. A “ducks in a row” kind of person, who always has a Plan B because everyone knows Murphy’s Law – “whatever can go wrong will.”
After many years of being invited, we finally decided to spend Christmas with my sister and her family…in Canada. The to-do list was done, boxes were checked off and Friday morning we were on the road. Not too many miles into the journey we came to a dead stop on the highway (this is important to note since we were trying to outrun the terrible storm that was predicted - “warm temperatures will suddenly plummet leaving rain covered roads treacherous” is how I think one forecaster put it). We ended up stopping in upstate NY, driving through blinding snow for the last fifteen minutes of the trip. Fast food and an early bedtime were on the list so we could push on the following day. Saturday morning was cold with blowing snow but there were peeks of blue sky so we decided to leave the comfort of the warm hotel (with all you can eat breakfast) and press on. After a 2 ½ hour white knuckle drive through blinding snow over winding snow covered roads, we decided to hang up the towel. Thankfully there was a hotel open and we checked in. Our Christmas Eve was Kentucky Fried Chicken and a BBC documentary. Christmas day driving looked equally hazardous due to the “storm that comes once in a generation” and since we agreed we didn’t want to end up in a snowbank we decided to stay at the hotel. Christmas dinner we savored our Hot Pockets and watched The Goonies. It was a different Christmas for sure but one we will never forget.
I share this story because I think we gardeners have our plans. We will add more shade plants under the oak tree. Incorporate edibles into the flower garden. Maybe add some roses to the shrub border. But what happens when the oak tree dies and the garden is no longer shady? The edibles in the flower garden are eaten by a gang of rabbits and the roses succumb to botrytis? Can we adjust when our plans don’t work out? Can we pivot? I think half the beauty of gardening is the uncertainty of it. If something doesn’t work out according to your post-it notes schedule, look at it as an opportunity to grow, to stretch, to learn. To maybe think of something completely different. And look for the silver lining. Because there always is one.
I might not have had our traditional Christmas dinner, but I also didn’t have the sink full of dishes to clean that goes with it.


Paperbark Maple

It is so tempting, when designing a garden, to start with the pretty stuff. You know, the flowers that captivate us with their colors and fragrance. While there is nothing wrong with beautiful flowers, a good design must start with the bones. Especially in New England where winters can seem long. Trees are a beautiful asset to the winter landscape and, like bones, can hold things together.
Those with beautiful bark are especially welcome in my garden designs. Consider the Paperbark maple (Acer griseum). I have one in my garden and sited it just so its exfoliating cinnamon-colored bark could be backlit by the setting sun. Another beauty, Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamillia), has multi-colored bark, as well as camellia-like summer blooms and reliable red fall color.  Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum) is another winner for the winter landscape with bright red stems that glow after it drops its golden-yellow and crimson leaves in autumn. The high-gloss, coppery-brown bark of Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) makes quite a statement in the winter landscape.

Other trees with interesting bark include Snakebark maple (Acer davidii), Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora), and American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) - although you will need lots of room as this one gets BIG. I think the most amazing bark I have ever seen is the Rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta); it took my breath away at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. (To see it click here). Unfortunately it is not hardy in our zone so you will have to plan a trip to Florida to see it yourself!

Hold the salt.

While salt on your French fries may be just the thing salt on your plants…not so much. Despite the relatively mild winter road crews and homeowners have been using ice melt (sodium chloride) and with that comes the risk of salt injury. Plants most affected are those along walkways, roadways and driveways. Along highways cars can kick up salt spray which is deposited on adjacent plants causing dehydration of evergreen leaves. The major symptom of salt injury is needle browning or yellowing and tip dieback. To avoid salt injury reduce your use of salt, using it only in high traffic areas. Protect plants from damage with a physical barrier such as burlap (much as I hate these winter mummies it would be helpful in a situation with heavy salt spray). In the city the problem becomes salt runoff washing into the soil. If plants absorb this runoff it can prove deadly. If you think your soil has a heavy salt content water it thoroughly in the spring; as long as the soil has good drainage this will help leach the salt out.

2023 Perennial Plant(s) of the Year.

Drumroll please……the Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial of the Year is… Rudbekia ‘American Gold Rush’. Now to be honest, I am not a huge fan of black-eyed Susans because, in my experience, they seem to self sow EVERYWHERE. If I use them in a design they act like they to want to take over the design. ’American Gold Rush’ might have me re-thinking my former prejudice. This black-eyed Susan, which was also an AAS 2020 winner,  is a shorter, more compact, dome-shaped plant. ‘American Gold Rush’ gets about 22” high by 40” wide and is hardy in Zones 4-9. It prefers full to part sun and will look beautiful in a perennial border or meadow planting. Its flowers, which are a bit lighter in color than the typical Rudbekia, are frequented by butterflies and pollinators and the seed heads are loved by birds. The seed heads also provide winter interest in the garden.

Best of all the thinner, hairier leaves of ‘American Gold Rush’ make the plant more resistant to Septoria leaf spot. Rudbekia’s susceptibility to this fungal disease is another reason I have not been a huge fan. This hybrid shows no sign of the fungus even in wetter conditions. I am happy to admit when I am wrong and it seems that ‘American Gold Rush’ might have me taking a second look at Rudbekias.
I am not wrong, however, when it comes to a penchant for great foliage. Many of you may have heard me speak about it during my talk “Look Ma, No Flowers” (for other presentation topics click here). When it comes to great foliage for your garden or container you cannot beat heuchera. I am especially enamored with heuchera ‘Wildberry’,  which happens to be the Proven Winners National Perennial of the Year.

‘Wildberry’, which is part of the Dolce series, features large, scalloped, dark purple leaves with charcoal veining. It has white flowers that are covered with rosy pink calyxes but honestly with the gorgeous purple color the flowers are secondary – although the hummingbirds find them irresistable! ‘Wildberry’ gets about 14” high and 20” wide and performs equally well in sun or shade although I have found that, like many coleus, heuchera color better with some sun. Others in the Dolce series I have tried and loved include ‘Spearmint’ and ‘Cherry Truffles’. ‘Wildberry’ is a beauty I have used successfully in my gardens and containers.

My not-so-secret obsession.

I love containers gardening. I mean I really love container gardening. It’s actually what prompted me to start The Captured Garden over 20 years ago. If you are reading this and have not yet ventured into this wonderful arena, I highly encourage you to do so. It’s so much fun and does not require the time, money, or energy that an in-ground garden does. You can make mistakes and easily fix them, again unlike a typical garden. You can start with just one pot. Or three. Or, in my case, twenty-two. Once you begin your container garden odyssey, I guarantee you will find it’s hard to stop. I am thinking of creating my own support group “Hi, I’m Deborah and I’m obsessed with container gardening.” I know some of you would join!

The most important thing to remember about container gardening is that it should be fun. If it’s not step away, regroup (maybe pour a glass of wine) and try again later. There is enough in the world to cause stress, putting plants together in a container shouldn’t be one of them.

For a how-to video on creating a great container plant click here

An escalator in my garden.

I have many memories of time spent as a child weeding our vegetable garden. I’m not necessarily saying they were good ones. My mom and dad were great gardeners but at that stage my siblings and I would have rather played Pac Man. One year my parents decided to put us in charge of the weeding. We ended up mowing the weeds that carpeted the rows between the vegetables! Amazingly enough we had a great harvest that year.

While I wasn’t a fan of weeding, I was a fan of vegetables, especially zucchini. My mom would make zucchini bread, zucchini soup, zucchini cookies and of course my favorite, stuffed zucchini. My home has plenty of room to garden but my sunniest spots have already been planted with flowers. I have had some veggies – like tomatoes and peppers – in pots but I would love to try zucchini. If only I had room.

Enter Incredible Escalator, a climbing zucchini from Renee’s Garden. I am so excited as this space-saving climbing zucchini will look beautiful scrambling over the arbor in my cutting garden. It will have to share some space with the Major Wheeler honeysuckle but I’m sure it will be fine. This climbing zucchini is the answer for those who might be spatially challenged and I can easily imagine it being used for some of my roof garden clients. The packet of seeds is ready to go but I will need to wait to plant until things really warm up and night temperatures are over 55 degrees. Giving the plants some compost and full sun will allow me to harvest in about 58 days. And enjoy zucchini bread in 59 days! Now I am more anxious than ever for spring.

I realize that this newsletter has focused on plants. Maybe I am ready to get my hands in the dirt. Maybe the warm winter and smell of warm soil has me thinking spring. Maybe I’m ready to get growing. Of course, we had snow last night with more projected for later in the week.

I look out my window and see my beautiful witch hazel, its bright yellow blossoms shrugging off the coat of snow, and I am encouraged. Spring is coming.

See you in the garden,


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