Monday, April 30, 2012

Blood plants

Have you ever wished that you could surround your garden in a fortress of barbwire?  For many it would be to prevent forgaging deer but mine would be to stop kids cutting through the garden.  Whatever your reasons are, barbwire isn't the most glamorous look but but mother nature has come up with some plants that you soon won't forget.

We recently took delivery of a particularly nasty but delightfully curious plant this week that not only draws blood but takes off a pound of flesh in the process.  Poncirus trifoliata 'Flying dragon' or also known as 'Hardy Orange' has left its mark on many a person.  The curved thorns are remenisant of the hooked tallons from a bird of prey, while the contorted branching enable it to snag you as the claws come from different directions.  The green stems gives pleasure (from afar) during the winter but the small oranges it produces is its main attribute.  They say the flowers are fragrant but who in their right mind would stick their face into the plant to get a sniff!

Flickr Creative Common License - M Martin Vicente

Barberries have always commanded respect when handling as there thorns have a habit of sticking you then embedded in your finger  to leave a constant reminder of the encounter. Many a night has been spent doing surgery in the bathroom with twisters digging out the tip of a spine.  However the Julianne barberries replaced its stickers with harpoons fit for whale hunting.  'William Penn' (B. x gladwynesis) is a smaller cousin only getting 4ft with a slightly wider spread but still looks like a bed of nails. Even armed with implements of torture it still produces beauty bright yellow flowers in spring held against glossy evergreen foliage.  I once knew a nurseryman who wouldn't tell his crew when it was time to prune these guys as he knew many would disappear  for the day in fear.

When it comes to off loading trucks, hollies have a way of clearing the labor pool and rightly so when you have to deal with the  dwarf Chinese Holly 'Rotunda'.  This evergreen beast makes other hollies look like soft and cuddly kittens with its razor sharp needles perched around its foliage.  Theres no easy way to grab the plant in the container without being reminded that its bite is just as bad as its bark.  It's saving grace is that its a dwarf, up to 3ft high with a wider spread making it useful for foundation plantings or barrier plantings around Hosta's or other deer favorites.  A popular practise in England was to plant them around windows to prevent break-ins, or at least, know your night visitor has just learnt to respect hollies!

Don't let these plants prickly dispositions put you off,  part of there wonder is the shock and awe they bring to a garden setting.  'Every rose has a thorn' but every plant has its use, your job is to find that use!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Never say never

For the most part I conform to all the rules that gardening demands.  I don't plant trees that grow to big near buildings, I apply fertilizer to my lawn in the spring and fall and I keep my pruners nice and clean!  What a good gardener I am.  

However, on the subject of plants I stray from the recommended and start to push my luck with what I'm told will grow here.  I know it frustrates my boss, resulting in phone calls regarding my latest shipment of shrubs I've brought in but life can be a bore if you stick to the rules.  I have been pleasantly surprised with some of my successes while also proven overly bold with others, (RIP Indian Hawthorn).  At least with my experimentation I've learned what will work so that I can tell customers as well as what to steer clear of.

Just recently I managed to acquire at beauty that was familiar to me back in England, to road test here in Virginia, Ceanothus 'Blue Jeans' or California Lilac.  It’s listed as a zone 8 but recommended as the most adaptable of all the west coast Ceanothus.  Potentially a large fella with a combined height and spread measuring 6ft in any direction the light blue flowers set against glossy miniature holly-like foliage would have tempted anyone to squeeze one in somewhere.  Of course like any serious gardener I have to play musical chairs moving plants around to accommodate new acquisitions.  Then those plants evicted need new homes leading to a new others being shuffled around too.  I consider my garden to be of 'fluid design' or 'evolving' as my taste and intentions change.  Thank god I back onto a relatively boring common area to give a last chance to the displaced although some have made it back with a promise that it will not happen again.

Although this plant was given as a sample, my other boss (one cannot have to many bosses) claims that nothing in live is free.  Too true a word spoken as my clay soil will need to be cultivated to provide the Ceanothus with adequate drainage.  Soon it will become a $20 plant in a $50 hole if you place a value on it.  Still the potential sweet taste of victory, should I succeed, will be priceless in bragging rights if any of my bosses even know what a Ceanothus really is!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strangest garden center questions

Working in a garden center is one of the most challenging positions within the horticultural field.  You get put on the spot regularly with questions on design, plant health and maintenance and it always encourages you learn more and stay fresh. 

However, you do get days when the weirdest questions get asked:

  • Do you have a ‘Buddy’ Holly?

  • My holly doesn’t produce any berries, is it gay?

  • (My question to a customer) Tell me about the sun exposure? – (Customer replies) Well it’s in sun during the day and starts getting shadier by late evening!

  • What do you mean you don’t take children, you're a nursery!

One of my favorites is a customer who brought back a plant that was dead to our info counter. On questioning they replied that they were told that the shrubs were ready for planting and proceeded to plant them still in the containers.

I guess we need to make a point of saying ‘green side up’ just incase!

Go ahead, press the button

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Damn good plants - Abelia Kaleidoscope

Late March 2012
If you were to ask me what shrub to plant in your garden that has year round appeal, flowers for a long time and is tolerant of a wide range of conditions then you’ll hear one answer, Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’.  Trialed and tested in my own garden for its fourth year now, it still shines as bright as the first day it went in. 

Now I’m not particularly partial to variegated plants due to there over use at drive thru’s or theme parks but this little guy made me reconsider my snobby ways.  Its bright demeanor during the winter causes a pause while walking the dog around and has remained a reliable evergreen even in our harshness winters of ‘09 and ‘10 (remember snow-mega ding!).   The foliage colors change with varying degrees of saturation at different times of year with the most dazzling performance being saved for late fall into winter with highlights of fiery reds and oranges overlaid the normal greens and yellows.  A common problem with most variegated plants is the habit of reversion, where plain green stems appear and begin to dominate unless pruned off.  So far this hasn’t been a concern for mine. 

Glossy Abelia’s are well known for their long bloom time, starting in Northern Virginia from mid-July through to first frost.  On ‘Kaleidoscope’ there is no exception, adorned with soft white trumpet like flowers although the foliage still steals the show from a distance.  Its low profile of up to 2 ½ ft in height makes it a useful foreground shrub to capture the eye and design out from.  A word of warning, more doesn’t mean better as it will distracted the eye and prevent it from moving around the landscape, a common problem with any variegated plant in mass.  If this is the desired look, then make sure you place other variegated plants in difference locations around the landscape so that the eye can hop from one bright spot to another.

Pests, diseases, drought, sun and shade, unfazed to anything you can throw at it.  The only con’ I’ve found is that its rooting is slow resulting in nurseries pushing stock that aren’t ‘can full’ rooted, but this doesn’t even seem to ruffle its feathers.  Some nurseries will hold onto stock a little longer to provide a stronger rooted plant but this does raise the cost of production but all benefits the consumer in the long run.

Now it sounds a lot like I’m being paid to praise this shrub but it’s just a damn good plant that deserves a nod.  However, if you are a breeder looking to promote a plant then a can be bought with a suitcase of cash (used bills please). Gardening is quite an addiction!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Spring in full swing

Spring has come on quick with all its might this year.  One minute the garden is asleep and the next, well weeds as tall as hedging plants.  Trying to keep up is always a challenge but a satisfying task as the plants stretch out from their winters sleep.  Seeing the return of perennial plants helps give the garden some volume and fills the ground around the backbone planting of shrubs.  It also serves to remind me that the blank square footage that I've been eyeing during the winter is really occupied.  Thankfully, the voles seems to be on the retreat this year as more plants have survived there winter foraging.  Maybe the controlled baiting has worked or they just moved to pastures new, tried of my constant prodding. Either way I'll take this moment until they begin to see my defenses drop and complacency kick in.  Mother nature always has a way of throwing the curve ball when you don't expect it.