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My Top Ten Reasons To Go On A Garden Tour

Columbines naturalized on a rock outcropping at Major General Ashley House.

By Madaline Sparks

As a professional gardener, I love to go on garden tours! The experience is always educating and inspiring. I recently attended the Trade Secrets Garden Tour. Four spectacular locations were open for viewing in Cornwall and Falls Village, CT and one in Sheffield, MA.

I won’t describe the gardens in detail here, but I would like to share my thoughts on the take-away from going on a garden tour. You can read full descriptions on their website.

1. Garden voyeurism. The opportunity to be invited to wander the grounds of a beautiful garden (and snap away with our phones for reference later) is unbeatable. Let’s be honest, don’t we all have a little of the voyeur in us?
 
2. Being a good citizen. The Trade Secrets Garden Tour is the major fundraiser for Women’s Support Services (WSS), whose mission is to create a community free of domestic violence and abuse. Most often, garden tours are organized as fundraisers for worthy causes so the whole effort is a win/win.

3. Plants, plants, and more plants! It never fails that I discover plants and cultivars that I’ve not seen before. My phone is now filled with pictures of plants that I want to research.

4. Outside the box. On the other hand, the gardens were also filled with plants I know very well. The exciting aspect of that is to see how another designer has employed them in a different way. It jolts me into re-imagining my own designs and how to use old favorites in ways that are unexpected and surprising.

Parterre outside the conservatory at the garden of Bunny Williams.

5. Design ideas. The garden of Bunny Williams and John Rosselli, which appears on this tour every year, is a master class in the use of “garden rooms.” Walls are created by hedges, fences (from rustic to classic), stonewalls, allees, and pathways. Various structures, including a greenhouse, an outrageously clever pool house, a barn with an octagonal chicken coop and a conservatory, create spaces that must be reached by garden transitions. I call it the “Disneyland of Gardens” (and mean that in the most complimentary way).

6. Enlightenment. More and more of my clients are interested in sustainable, low-maintenance landscapes that incorporate native plants and indigenous species. Of particular interest to me were the woodland gardens that I saw at the Williams/ Rosselli home and also at Pom’s Cabin Farm. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to see a wide range of native plants in situ, which are not typically found in abundance at most of our local nurseries and garden centers.

A view of the cottage garden at Coltsfoot Garden in Cornwall.

7. Classic design. Three of the gardens on the tour exhibited the popular design style of English and French cottage gardens. The chance to see this classic type of garden interpreted in multiple forms was fascinating. Parterres were especially prominent. Cottage gardens are generally expected to be abundant and lush with vines, flowers, herbs, vegetables, small trees and shrubs. At maturity they evoke a feeling of wildness and abandon. These types of gardens must start with a somewhat formal and organized layout to contain the chaos of plants that mingle and spill in an informal way. Seeing the bones of these areas in spring, before the plants have taken over in their mid-summer exuberance, allowed me to view the layout and proportion without obstruction.

8. Sources for detail. Tours are an excellent way to source ideas for solving landscaping design problems and finding inspiration for all the details that complete a garden that works on all levels. My iPhone is full of pictures of containers, bed edgings, paving stones, garden ornaments, fences, plant supports and other non-vegetative materials. Showing a mason a picture of a stone retaining wall pattern you admired means getting closer to the landscape of your dreams.

A collection of pots and garden ornaments at Williams/Roselli garden.

9. Container gardening. I create a lot of container gardens for clients (and myself!) each year. Coming up with new ideas is a challenge and for those who like to change it up, one can get stuck. There were dozens and dozens of imaginative plant combinations and varieties that had my head spinning. And the pots, planters, boxes and tubs of all different shapes, sizes and materials were a revelation on their own!

10. Being in the moment. Experiencing beauty is good for the mind and the soul. Even if you are not a gardener, the physical locations of the all properties were stunning and offered varying gorgeous views of the Housatonic River and the Litchfield Hills. And the route, an excuse to traverse roads that took me past hamlets, lakes, farms, and scenery that I’ve never explored, was a reward in itself.

For information about garden tours for the rest of season in the Rural Intelligence region, check local county tourism listings and also the website of The Garden Conservancy, which lists the best private gardens to visit through their Open Days Program.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/15/17 at 10:48 PM • Permalink

Trade Secrets: A Conversation With Bunny Williams

By Madaline Sparks

I managed to snag a moment with the incredibly busy interior designer Bunny Williams for a quick phone conversation between her road trips. She was just back from Highpoint, NC and leaving to give a lecture in Dallas.  I wanted to chat about the upcoming 17th Annual Trade Secrets, the garden extravaganza celebration, which is a fundraiser for Women’s Support Services of Sharon, Conn. Bunny is a co-founder of Trade Secrets and hosted it the first few years at her home in Falls Village, Conn. Eventually it got so big, they needed a more generously spaced venue and it is now held at Elaine La Roche’s stunning LionRock Farm in Sharon. This year’s event is scheduled for May 13 and 14.

I asked Williams what it takes to pull off this weekend every year.

“The extraordinary outpouring of community spirit from the volunteers is what makes it so successful,” she said. “From the advance preparation to the many jobs over the weekend, it involves hundreds of generous people. Who would have thought this little idea we came up with 17 years ago would turn into an event that last year attracted more than 1400 people to the sale and sold 900 tickets sold for the garden tour! ”

One of things I appreciate so much about the sale is how well organized it is. I have never been to a plant and garden sale where the customer service is so exemplary. You don’t have to curtail your shopping because you can’t imagine how you’ll get that eight-foot tuteur to your car: there are legions of helpers to collect all your purchases for you and hold them securely until you finish shopping and can pick them up in your vehicle.

I asked the designer about the process of finding the more than 60 vendors of rare and unusual plants, birdhouses, containers, antiques and garden-related ornaments, furnishings and more. She told me the committee seeks out resources near and far and vets them carefully to ensure the selection they bring will be special and not run–of the-mill items you can find just anywhere. In addition to the regulars, this year there will be four new plant sellers and several new artisans, including a metalwork fabricator of garden ornaments and accessories.

Williams confessed that she cannot wait for the sale every year. “I get very excited about the thought of all the plants I’m going to find and the chance of finding a new garden ornament at Trade Secrets. I go with a list that’s soon forgotten about once I get on the field and see all the wonderful things the dealers have brought.” She joked that she‘s often thought of starting a 12-step program for addicts like herself (and me!) who can’t resist the temptation of the incredible array of garden goodies gathered all in one place. But we both know we don’t really want to go “cold turkey” when it comes to botanical treasures. And that’s the fun (and convenience) of Trade Secrets. It’s like a one-day Garden Super Store.

Whether you are looking for a fabulous groundcover for dry shade, a new inspiration for planting your containers or that special garden-themed vintage objet for your entry hall, there are thousands of items to covet, intrigue, and learn about at Trade Secrets.  And the fact that your investment goes to support an important and worthy cause is icing on the cake.

Note: Tickets to view the four gardens on the tour for Sunday have been limited this year and are sold out.

Women’s Support Services (WSS) seeks to create a community free of domestic violence and abuse through intervention, prevention and education. They offer free, confidential, client-centered services focused on safety, support advocacy and community outreach. (860)364-1080 or 24/7 Hotline (860) 364-1900.

Trade Secrets Rare Plant and Garden Antiques Sale
Saturday, May 13
Tickets for Saturday’s sale at LionRock Farm in Sharon, CT, are available in advance or day-of.
Tickets: Early Bird $125 from 8 – 10 a.m. (includes Continental breakfast); Regular admission $50 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.; Late
Bloomer $25 from 1 – 3 p.m. For more information visit the website or call (860) 364-1080.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/01/17 at 11:40 PM • Permalink

Garden Center and Nursery Round Up: Berkshires And NWCT

By Madaline Sparks

Last week, we highlighted some of the must-go places in Columbia and Dutchess Counties to find plants, supplies and services to get your garden growing this season. This week we cover a sample of the best locations in Berkshire and Litchfield Counties. The weather is finally warming up (woo hoo!) and our gardens await our undivided attention.

Berkshire County

Taft Farms

Taft Farms growing fields.

This family-owned 55-year-old farm specializes in growing hard-to-find tropical, succulent, and specimen plants and offers a huge selection of hanging baskets. Every spring Taft Farms grows thousands of pesticide-free varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries to sell, including the very varieties they grow in their own fields for their farm store. Heirloom, ethnic, and GEO-free varieties are a specialty. A bakery, deli, fresh produce, and many locally produced products make regular stops throughout the season a no-brainer.

119 Park Street N.,
Great Barrington, MA
(413) 528-1515


Ward’s Nursery and Garden Center

If you live within driving distance of Great Barrington, you most likely know about Ward’s. Since 1957, this family business has continued to expand and grow into the full-service operation it is today. Open year round, Ward’s offers 1400 perennials, 700 different woody plants and thousands of annuals, seeds, fall bulbs, houseplants and tropicals. A well-stocked complement of lawn care supplies, an impressive selection of tools, and all the lotions, potions and amendments you could possibly need are available here. Containers, birding accoutrements, and a variety of outdoor accessories — among them hammocks, porch rockers and trellises — fill out the ample inventory in the garden center. There is also a member rewards program in place.
600 S. Main Street
Great Barrington, MA
(413) 528-0166

Windy Hill Farm

I could wander for hours among the paths at Windy Hill, discovering their amazing selection of shade, specimen and flowering trees; ornamental shrubs; interesting conifers and broadleaf evergreens; tree and small fruits, espaliered apples and pears; hardy shrub roses; vines, choice perennials and ornamental grasses.  One can always find traditional favorites and Northeast natives but also more unusual and atypical specimens at WHF. The retail garden center has a curated stock of garden accessories, tools, pots, and ornaments. Known for the knowledgeable staff, Windy Hill Farm also features a pick-your-own apple orchard and blueberry field and a full-service landscape department.

686 Stockbridge Road
Great Barrington, MA
(413) 298-3217

Whitney’s Farm Market and Country Gardens

A huge greenhouse full of annuals, patio tropicals, hanging baskets, a selection of aquatic plants (including hardy and tropical water lilies), and a nursery yard lined with natives and ornamentals await you at this nursery near Lanesboro. There’s a full inventory of fruit trees, perennials, shade trees, and flowering and evergreen shrubs. Bulk landscape materials such as soils, mulch, stone, and compost are available here along with full landscaping and design services as well.

1775 S. State Rd. - Rt.8
Cheshire, MA
(413) 442-4749

Another garden stop worth the trip in Berkshire County:

Campo de’ Fiori: Classic European-style aged terra cotta pots, inspired garden ornaments and accessories, and a gorgeous display garden to enjoy. 
1815 N. Main Street
Sheffield, MA
(413) 528-1857


Litchfield County

Kent Greenhouse & Gardens

Over three acres of nursery stock can be found at this garden center set in the pastoral, picturesque environment of western Connecticut. Departments include annuals, perennials and vegetables. KG & G specializes in specimen landscape-sized plant material sourced from local farms and national nurseries. Sophisticated selections with a “country formal style” are the norm. They are a full-service design-build firm whose offerings include garden design, landscape services, water features, masonry, architectural woodwork, site work and site planning.

30 S. Main Street
Kent, CT
(860) 927-4436

White Flower Farm Store

For devotees of the famous plant catalog (aka “garden porn”), the opportunity to visit WFF in person is a remote possibility. For those of us in the RI region, it’s right here in our own backyard. The store offers many of the plants listed in the catalog, plus many more that space doesn’t allow them to show in print. Also find tools, garden accessories, trellises and shade plants in the Lath House. And the pièce de résistance: the display gardens! See the plants you love in situ and utilize the lessons learned about plant combinations and correct siting in your home garden.

167 Litchfield Road
Morris, CT
(860) 567-8789


Old Farm Nursery

Old Farm Nursery is a great source for fine plant materials and therefore a destination for the discerning gardener. The nursery features landscape-sized specimen trees, shrubs and perennials among the five acres of inspiring display gardens. The Barn Shop features vintage and unusual garden-related items including one-of-a-kind ornaments and plant supports, which are crafted in house. A complete landscape design and installation service is also available.

158 Lime Rock Road
Lakeville, CT
(860) 435-2272

A couple more destinations worth a visit in Litchfield County:

Beardsley Gardens: A charming full-service garden center carrying an eclectic selection of perennials, annuals, trees, and shrubs from the “new and different to the tried and true.”
157 Gay Street
Sharon, CT
(860) 364-0727

Salisbury Garden Center: A hallmark of this business is their expertise to help customers select plants and use products the right way. It carries a full array of all plant and product categories. A design/build/maintenance landscaping company handles large and small projects adeptly.
167 Canaan Road
Salisbury, CT
(860) 435-2439

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/10/17 at 10:02 PM • Permalink

Garden Center and Nursery Round Up: Columbia and Dutchess

By Madaline Sparks

Though spring officially arrived in March, clearly Mother Nature didn’t get the message! Snow is still melting and temps are many degrees below what is supposed to be typical by now. That said, it will come and we need to be ready to hit the ground running. To help, we’re highlighting some of the best places to shop for all the things you’ll need to get gardening in the RI region, whatever is on your list: plants, tools, pots, soil and more. This week, we feature locations in Columbia and Dutchess counties and next, we’ll share spots in Berkshire and Litchfield counties.

Columbia County

Callander’s Nursery and Landscaping

Since 1973, this full-service nursery has been offering the surrounding area a broad selection of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, herbs and vegetables. Their garden center is well stocked with tools, supplies, containers, outdoor furniture and bulk and bagged landscape materials. They specialize in a large collection of native plants, many styles of containers (including weatherproof ones in attractive faux finishes) and a wide variety of all types of hydrangeas. Many of the newest plant introductions can be found each year at this well-organized establishment. The customer service is exemplary and if they don’t have what you want, they’ll go out of their way to try to get it for you. Design, construction and maintenance departments are also available.

2308 Route 203
Chatham, NY
(518) 392-4540


Country Caretaker Garden Center

A special feature of the plant selection at this 27-year-old establishment is the availability of difficult-to-find heirloom varieties, all grown on site in their 11 greenhouses. For many annuals, such as marigold, coleus, snapdragon, zinnia and more, dozens of varieties and colors are proffered in each. Old-fashioned sentimental favorites that grandma had in the garden can be found along with hundreds of annuals including the newest hybrids and trendy colors just introduced to the market. A plethora of healthy vegetable, lettuce, tomato and herb starts are stocked as well as lush hanging baskets, perennials, shrubs and landscape materials in bags or bulk. Country Caretaker reseeds throughout the season, so if plants need to be replaced, this is the place to go.

Route 295 & 22
Canaan, NY
(518) 781-4495

Pondside Nursery

Founded by a successful landscape professional just a few years ago, Pondside has quickly gained a reputation as the go-to destination for plant connoisseurs and avid gardeners. In addition to classic and familiar plant material, one can source unusual, exotic and hard-to-find trees, shrubs, annuals, tropicals and perennials. Each season, a huge truck arrives from the Pacific Northwest with a load of gorgeous Japanese maples and evergreens not typically available in this area.  The garden center offers a curated selection of fine pottery, garden tools, and accessories. The staff is very knowledgeable and design, installation, maintenance and quality stonework are available through the landscaping division, A+Gardens.

5918 Route 9G
Hudson, NY
(518) 828-1179


Samascott Garden Market

In 2012, a new 5,000 sq. ft. store and a 14,000 sq. ft. geo-thermally powered greenhouse space completely altered the offerings at this 50-year old farm market. Thousands of hanging baskets, scores of annuals, and dozens of varieties of tomato, herb and vegetable plants are available every season alongside a bakery, fresh produce from their farm and orchard, garden pots and supplies and a limited number of perennials and shrubs. Multi-task and shop for the garden and the table at the same time.

65 Chatham Street
Kinderhook, NY
(518) 758-9292


A few more for the record in Columbia County:

The Chatham Berry Farm: A farm market with a great selection of annual, herb and vegetable plants under the same roof with a fantastic selection of fruit, produce, a butcher shop, bakery and hundreds of locally produced products.
2304 Route 203
Chatham, NY
(518) 392-4609

Holmquest Farm: A huge selection of hanging baskets, bedding plants, annuals, herbs and vegetables at very affordable prices. 
516 Spook Rock Road
Hudson, NY
(518) 851-9629

The Secret Gardener: A charming boutique garden center in the heart of the Hudson shopping district.
250 Warren Street
Hudson, NY
518) 822-0992


Dutchess County

Adams Fairacre Farms

From humble beginnings as a farm stand in 1933, multiple generations of the Adams family now oversee a full service market at their flagship store in Poughkeepsie (one of four in the area). It is also the home of Mark Adams Greenhouses, a five-acre complex of greenhouses where bedding plants, perennials and poinsettias are grown to sell in all of their stores. The Garden Center stocks everything the home gardener needs to start seeds, improve soil, install lawns, vegetable and flower gardens — the works. Not sure what your soil needs to grow healthy strong plants? Bring them a soil sample and they’ll test it for you and help you choose the right amendments.

765 Dutchess Turnpike
Poughkeepsie, NY
(845) 454-4330

Northern Dutchess Botanical Garden

Eight greenhouses, 3 holding houses and 70 acres of growing space make up NDBG. One of the greenhouses is completely devoted to organic edibles including heirloom tomato plants, vegetables and herbs. Nearly 700 varieties of mature perennials are grown on site along with hundreds of annuals and tropicals. The whole layout is well organized and arranged for easy shopping and learning with alphabetical signage, cultural information and photos. This beautiful setting is a little remote but worth the trip. They sell what they grow and when it’s gone, it’s gone for the season, so shop early.

389 Salisbury Turnpike
Rhinebeck, NY
(845) 876-2953

The Phantom Gardener

After nearly 20 years in business with a reputation to be proud of, Rhinebeck’s Phantom Gardener is newly owned by three long-established area landscape and garden specialists. This six-acre nursery and garden center is really a one-stop-shop with a full complement of trees, perennials, annuals, tropicals, aquatic plants, supplies, tools, and handcrafts by talented local artisans. A selection of organic soils, potions, fertilizers, and mulches, both bagged and in bulk, are available. Their collection of well-made garden statuary and pots is handsome and impressive. Design, maintenance, landscaping and hardscaping services are also available.

6837 Route 9
Rhinebeck, NY
(845) 876-8606


More irresistible stops for garden goods in Dutchess County:

Grandiflora: a lovely and charming boutique garden center located on the Greig Farm, Dutchess county’s premier pick-your-own fruits destination.
144 Pitcher Lane
Red Hook, NY
(845) 758-2020

Millbrook Gardens Landscaping and Garden Center: Specializing in design, construction and fine masonry, this outfit can take on garden restoration or new installs from stone walls to tennis courts. The garden center features fine outdoor furniture, plants, gifts and a vast array of tasteful garden décor.
3783 Route 44
Millbrook, NY
845-677-5872

Twin Brooks Gardens: This nursery focuses on perennials, fruit trees, large shrubs and large specimen trees and their installation. They can move big trees or plan and install an orchard.
3424 Franklin Avenue
Millbrook, NY
(845) 677-5050

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/03/17 at 08:04 PM • Permalink

Garden: Hydrangea Love

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

Bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla)

I really do love hydrangeas! And it seems so does everyone else. When I meet with clients to discuss their landscapes and ask what plants they would like to see in their gardens, invariably the answer includes hydrangea. They seem to evoke sentimental memories of summers in grandma’s garden or vacations at the shore. In our area there are six species that are most commonly grown and available in nurseries. Within those species there are a dizzying array of varieties with different characteristics and more introduced every year by professional growers. It can be confusing.

My personal favorites are the many varieties of Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata). Commonly called “Pee Gees,” these are by far the easiest and most rewarding. They bloom reliably every year because they set bud in early summer rather than early spring when they would be vulnerable to late frosts. Starting out white or pale green, they mature to a beautiful pink, rose or burgundy color. The blooms make excellent dried flowers for indoor arrangements.

Limelight hydrangea

You will be familiar with the old-fashioned ‘Grandiflora’ hydrangea often seen as a single-trunked tree form and very common in many old cemeteries in this region. But there are also lots of newer varieties that I use consistently in my designs, including ‘Limelight,’ ‘Unique,’ and ‘Tardiva’. ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Fire and Ice’ start blooming earlier than many and keep going into the fall.  ‘Little Lamb,’ ‘Little Lime’ and ‘Bobo’ are all compact varieties that pair well with perennials in mixed beds and borders. I am truly enamored with ’Great Star.’ It bears rounded clusters of lacecap flowers that open to cream-colored, wavy, star-shaped florets that can be up to four inches across. The flowers have a certain grace and are incredibly fragrant.

Bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla) is arguably the most sought-after species with their big balls of florets in blue, pink, purple or white, with shiny green leaves. Unfortunately, these beauties do not bloom well in our zone, much to the disappointment of their many fans. In 2004, the ‘Endless Summer’ variety was introduced to the country with the promise that they would bloom all summer even here. Northern gardeners were ecstatic. I must have installed a hundred of them for my clients (and in my own garden). Sadly, they did not live up to the hype and I have gradually removed almost all of them over the last 10 years.

Top: Great Star. Bottom: Annabelle.

Growers have been introducing “new and improved” versions in the “ever-blooming” category. I continue to experiment because the enthusiasm is always there, but most clients are not satisfied with a big bush of gorgeous leaves that bless us with only one or two blooms by October. For me, the jury is still out on a truly reliable blooming Bigleaf hydrangea. 

Much more gratifying for Northern gardeners (even into Zone 3) is Smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens). This species is an American native, rather than an Asian import, and is easy to grow. Featuring orb-like clusters of white or green flowers, some can be as large as volleyballs. ‘Annabelle’ is probably the most commonly available classic white Smooth hydrangea but new varieties that sport mauve-pink flowers have become available recently. ‘Invincibelle Spirit II’ is one that has been successful for me. They bloom on new wood every season so can be pruned back in the fall to 8-10 inches, avoiding the unattractive skeleton of stems that remain after frost and the leaves drop. 

Additional beautiful species in this genus that grow well here are Climbing hydrangea (H. anomala), Mountain hydrangea (H. serrata) and Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia). As you dream and plan for your gardens for the coming season, include hydrangeas on your list. As you can tell, I’m quite smitten with these gorgeous, low-maintenance flowering shrubs and want everyone else to plant them and love them too!

 

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/28/17 at 09:51 AM • Permalink

Flower Power: Boost Your Mood With Houseplants

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

“Mrs. Pollock” fancy-leaved geranium.

On these frigid, sleety and snowy days, one thing I look forward to when I wake up in the morning and when I come home after dark are my houseplants. Seeing the frothy green foliage of my Mother Fern and anticipating the about-to-burst blooms of a three-year-old orchid palpably lift my spirits on especially dimly lit winter days.

My emotional response to indoor plants and flowers in my home is not just a “feeling” exclusive to me. Scientific studies have proven that having flowers around the home and office greatly improves people’s moods and reduces the likelihood of lower light and stress-related depression. Flowers and ornamental plants increase levels of positive energy and help people feel secure and relaxed.

My houseplant collection, about 30 or 40 pots of varying sizes arrayed in front of the windows upstairs and down, is made up of a combination of succulents, tropicals and some tender plants that I brought in from outside to overwinter until late spring. 

I brought in some fancy leaved geraniums (pelargoniums) in the fall and put them in my brightest window. They tend to do well and even bloom sporadically through the winter. The orangey flowers are very cheerful and that little pop of color here and there is amazingly effective. Even when they aren’t in flower, the variegated leaves add texture and color to the assemblage.

Alocasia “Regal Shield” elephant ear.

Be aware, though, that overwatering will cause geraniums to rot. I feel the soil to determine when to water. If it’s dry to the touch, I water thoroughly. If it feels moist and cool: no water. Geraniums tolerate dry soil conditions better than excess moisture. I’ll give them a haircut in the next couple of weeks as they tend to a bit get leggy in the low light of the indoors. If I prune them back soon, by about half, I’ll be rewarded with a flush of new growth that will fill out before I return them to my deck after the temperatures are consistently in the 50’s.

A couple of new plants I brought in from my summer containers are doing beautifully. They are Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) and an elephant ear (Alocasia). For the aralia, which was quite large by the end of summer, I divided it, ending up with two smaller plants. I cut them back so they would fit in reasonably sized pots. They’ve bounced back remarkably, with long, upright leaf stems holding large glossy, lobed leaves with pointed tips. The elephant ear is one of my favorites, called “Regal Shield.” The dramatic pattern of dark veins in huge green leaves and the sculptural form of the plant are very pleasing. Both of these tropicals prefer a consistently dampish soil and can tolerate less bright light as they both do well in light shade outside, so I have them in east-facing windows.

Fatsia japonica, Japanese aralia.

I typically have between 8 to 12 pots of amaryllis every year. I put them outside in the summer to bulk up with foliage, and store them in my friend’s basement in the fall to go dormant for a few months so they’ll hopefully bloom again. This year I didn’t get them into the cool dark environment soon enough, and then forgot to take them out 10 weeks later to get them started again. This weekend I’ll belatedly retrieve them from their basement incarceration, repot them into new soil, water well once until they start to sprout new foliage, and then wait (and pray) until the blooms emerge. I never think of them only as plants to have during the holidays because it’s such a joy to have the decadent, long-lasting flowers to greet me throughout the late winter and early spring. Sometimes, a few put out lots of strappy foliage and no flowers. If they never send out a flower stalk, I put them in the compost and add new ones the following year. My repeat bloomers run at about an 80 percent success rate with my method. Well worth the wait!

Garden centers that stay open in the winter months have great selections of foliage and flowering plants. If you need a lift, share your environment with some plants and see for yourself if you experience a welcome mood elevation.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/30/17 at 12:24 PM • Permalink

Gifts For The Gardener In Your Life

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

It’s the time of year again when we need to come up with gift ideas for our near and dear. The Christmas music started playing in some stores the day after Halloween, just in case we needed a reminder. If I hear “Jingle Bell Rock” one more time, I may jump off the roof into the nearest snowdrift! That said, the job must be done and I can share a few tips to help accomplish that.

The Rural Intelligence region has a number of well-stocked garden centers filled with items that would delight any grower. If in doubt about what your giftee might desire, you can’t go wrong with a gift certificate to one of those fine establishments.

If you prefer to be more personal and specific in your gift giving, here are some of the tried and true essentials that I personally can’t live without. My garden shed is full of discarded tools that have not measured up for one reason or another. After years of testing every kind of tool, with daily use by my crew and myself, I’ve narrowed down my list of bests. For the most part, the higher the quality the tool, the better job it does, and the easier it is to use.

If I could only have two hand tools in my arsenal, they’d be a Felco Pruner [above left] and a Hori Hori [above right]. Swiss-made Felco bypass pruners are considered the Rolls Royce of this category, preferred by pros and coveted by home gardeners. There are multiple styles and sizes for every type of grip. All the parts are replaceable so, though pricier than many brands, they can last a lifetime if well maintained. A Japanese farmer’s knife, or Hori Hori (which means dig, dig), looks like a dangerous weapon but serves multiple practical purposes. Use it as a trowel, for general digging; for bulb and seedling planting; as a taproot weeder or root cutter; a crevice tool; for prying up rocks; or for transplanting and dividing smaller perennials.

An indispensable digging tool, a Border Spade [right] (sometimes called a transplant spade), is unlike a typical flat spade in that it has a narrower head and a shorter handle. It’s perfect for digging the planting holes without disturbing the other plants nearby. It makes it easier to lift root balls and clumps of bulbs located in tight spaces with precision, in order to divide or transplant. It also does double duty as a spot edger for keeping a clean line on beds. English toolmakers typically do a great job of producing this tool, with ash or oak handles and forged steel heads.

Speaking of spades and clean lines, a Half Moon Spade [below] is the tool to have if you’ve got endless feet of beds to edge. Sharp bed and border edges can make even the most mediocre or unkempt garden look much nicer. It’s also excellent for cleaning up the edges of walkways and patios that are raggedy looking because the grass has crept over the sides.

My favorite watering can by far is the Haws “Practican.” Engineered to be perfectly balanced, this lightweight but tough plastic 1.5-gallon can has a long spout for reaching into the root zone of pots to deliver water much less effortlessly than any other can I’ve experienced. It comes with two attachments, a brass rose and a downspout, and is brilliantly designed with two “parking places” for them on the can so they don’t get lost.

It’s always a good time to give thoughtful quality garden-themed gifts to the horticulturally inclined on your list. I hope these are some ideas that will delight the green thumbs in your life.

 

 

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Posted by Lisa Green on 12/06/16 at 09:25 AM • Permalink

Leave Taking: Rake, Mow Or Compost?

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

In our corner of the world, we have to pay the price for a landscape that annually delivers jaw-dropping fall beauty. The bill for that privilege? A massive leaf-drop of leviathan scale. Rakers fall into two camps: those who find doing it a contemplative, aerobic exercise, a kind of traditional celebration at this time of year, and those who feel it is a tedious task to be avoided at all costs. Whichever description fits you, be reassured that taking it on is huge benefit to your garden and lawn.

I’m often asked why letting leaves stay where they fall or blow, to break down naturally, isn’t a good practice. It’s true that leaves make great compost, but that is only when they break down and decompose relatively quickly. When they are left in layered piles stuck together by moisture, they become an impenetrable mat that makes a perfect cover for voles and other damaging critters over the winter. Matted leaf “blankets” hold too much moisture in the soil and can cause crown rot of perennials unfortunate enough to be located underneath. It’s also harder for the new growth of perennials to emerge through this thick mat in spring. And, if left on the lawn, they will kill the grass beneath, depriving it of air and moisture just when it breaks dormancy in spring and needs those elements to green up.

If you don’t like raking, pull out the lawnmower and chop leaves in place by mowing over them. Small pieces of leaves will break down quickly and feed the lawn naturally. If you want to add leaves to the garden beds, rake or blow them into piles and run over them with the mower a bunch of times. Gather the chopped leaves and sprinkle them as mulch over the top of your beds and around the base of plants and shrubs. In this state, they won’t do any damage but will help condition the soil and improve its texture as they break down.

I have a shady fenced corner at the back end of my property where no grass grows. Every autumn I drag all the raked leaves that aren’t mulched by the mower and left to compost on the grass to this spot. This starts as a giant heap and by spring it is reduced by more than half. I do this every year and each spring I harvest the rich, brown and crumbly layer from the bottom of the pile, where the oldest leaves from previous years have broken down. The term for this organic amendment is called “leaf mold”. Mix it into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil that needs amending or top dress garden beds around existing perennials as a mulch to retain moisture and help make the surface more permeable for rainfall. In short, leaf mold promotes microbial activity, water retention and aeration, all good things for healthy soil. 

Don’t worry if you don’t get every leaf out of the garden. Between the wind blowing leaves in from other locations and any trees that drop very late, like oaks and willows, it’s not always practical to achieve a leafless bed, but getting the bulk of them out and putting them to good use is well worth the effort involved.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 11/07/16 at 08:55 AM • Permalink

Plant Bulbs Now To Light Up The Spring Garden

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

Even though it’s late October, it’s not too late to plant spring-flowering bulbs. They must be planted in the fall because they require a sustained “dormant” period of cold temperatures to stimulate root development. These remarkable little packages of food and flower are genetically programmed to put on a show with relatively little effort on your part. Get them planted at least several weeks before the ground freezes and you’ll ensure a beautiful spring show. If you’re a complete novice at the garden game and planting a bulb might as well be quantum physics to you, check out us.bulb.com to learn the basics. If you’re already familiar, here are some tips and advice to minimize your efforts and maximize the bulbs’ potential.

• Adopt a naturalistic planting style. Dot bulbs in small clusters throughout the garden instead of planting them in large blocks. This way, you won’t have a large area of decaying foliage to wait out next year. Bulbs sprinkled throughout the garden will be quickly camouflaged as they die back by emerging perennials.

• Don’t plant bulbs in a spot that is constantly wet. They perform best in well-drained soil that isn’t too clayey or too sandy.

• Bulbs should be planted at a depth three times their height. Don’t cheat or your bulb may bloom only once or be pushed out of the ground when it freezes and then thaws in the spring. Another rule of thumb: when planting bulbs in a group, space bulbs about three times their width apart.

• For many years, sprinkling bone meal in the hole when planting bulbs was recommended as a fertilizer. The latest news from the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center suggests that bone meal may burn the newly established roots and encourage rodents (and even dogs) to dig up the bulbs because they’re attracted by its odor. You don’t even need fertilizer the first year. Apply a slow-release bulb fertilizer on the ground’s surface after they bloom next spring to boost bulb health and bloom in the future. That said, many bulbs will keep coming back again and again, and even multiply, even if you skip this step.

• Bulbs should be planted with the pointy end up. In some varieties, it’s hard to tell which end that is. When in doubt, it’s best to plant them on their sides and they’ll work it out themselves. Even bulbs that are planted upside down will manage to bloom, but it weakens them dramatically.

• To avoid deer devastation once the tender tasty foliage has emerged, don’t plant tulips a.k.a. “deer candy,” unless your garden is fenced or you don’t have a marauding deer issue (lucky you!). Plant allium, daffodil, Spanish or English bluebell, crocus, snowdrop and grape hyacinth. These are some of the beautiful bulbs that deer rarely — if ever — eat, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

• In spring, resist the temptation to remove the fading foliage of spent bulbs. The “ripening” leaves create the food for the bulb to re-bloom next spring and to survive the winter. The leaves will yellow and wither and can be pulled about a month after flowering, except daffodils, which can take six weeks or more depending on weather. By July 4th, you can remove bulb foliage from the garden whether it is completely ripened or not.

Hit the local garden center to find a selection before they’re all gone, and plant on a clear day as soon as you can. It’s akin to making a deposit in your flower account in the fall and reaping the compounded interest come spring. You won’t regret it!

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/24/16 at 10:32 AM • Permalink

The Garden Season’s Last Hurrah

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

Pink Turtlehead

I cannot believe we are well into September! What happened?  My container plants are lush and robust and some areas of the garden are in their glory. The dahlias are flower covered with dozens more buds waiting to come.  The cherry tomatoes are profusely producing candy-like orbs every day. I know it’s the end and all is slowing down but I’m never quite ready to say goodbye.

I think of this time in the garden as “The Awkward Stage.” Many perennials and annuals are done for, especially with the drought our region has experienced this season.  To prolong the show, my policy is to cut down the ugly stuff: the brown stems, the spent flowers, and any mildewed or black-spotted foliage.  Cutting back daisies, bee balm, coneflowers and similar plants to basal foliage (the healthy green leaves at the base of the crown) is good housekeeping.  It also allows the plants to put their energy into growing healthier and deeper roots from now until frost. Getting these eyesores out of your sightline does wonders for the parts of the garden that are still working and allows them to shine.

Caryopteris

It’s a great time to see where you could introduce some plants that will provide late season color that carry the garden through the “The Awkward Stage.” Take note of plants in your neighbors’ gardens that are blooming now and appeal to you. Write them down so you can add them to your shopping list in the spring.

Now is also the perfect time to assess your garden with a critical eye. There’s plenty to enjoy until that first frost does everything in, but only if you planted the right things earlier in the season. In my garden, Japanese anemone, aster varieties, chelone or turtlehead, hydrangea varieties, Herbstonne rudbekia, sedum varieties, ornamental grasses, helenium, Russian sage, caryopteris, veronicastrum and butterfly bush are all still in bloom and prolonging my enjoyment of the garden.

In containers, annuals will keep pumping out blooms until the weather gets much colder if you keep deadheading and fertilizing weekly with a foliar feed.  If they have gotten leggy, prune them back to green foliage, which will cause them to push new growth and buds. I find I can “buy” quite a few weeks of continued flowering unless we get an early frost. Don’t fertilize perennials, shrubs, and trees now. They need to settle down and have an opportunity to harden off existing foliage for winter as they prepare to enter their dormant period.

“September Charm” Japanese anemone

If you’re not ready to pack it in and hang up your garden gloves there’s lots to do. Fall planting isn’t just for trees and shrubs. It’s an excellent time to buy perennials (most nurseries have them on sale) as long as you know you can get them in the ground them by mid-October, at the latest. Make sure they are well watered until the ground freezes, which doesn’t usually happen for several more months. Of course it’s also spring blooming bulb planting season. You cannot have tulips and daffodils and all the other delightful flowers that come from bulbs if they are not installed now.

None of us wants to hear this next tip — but another very important chore in September and October is to continue weeding. Letting weeds and grass flourish in the garden beds means big trouble. They, or their offspring, will be waiting for you in the spring and will be stronger and more prolific given the opportunity to develop extensive roots if they are a perennial variety, or to drop seed, if they are annuals.

Before we know it, this garden season will be history and, optimistically, we’ll all have another chance to achieve our horticultural dreams next year.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/19/16 at 09:50 AM • Permalink