Reining in the Tumbling Floral Chaos: Mid-Summer Garden Maintenance …

July 29th, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Summer’s Wild, Tumbling Jumble (Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’, Hydrangea quercifolia, Amsonia hubrichtii, Adenophora confusa, Rudbeckia hirta, Sedum, Hosta and Adiantum pedatum)

While out enjoying a morning stroll around the garden, taking in a blissfully cool and misty start to my day, a few flower stalks and juniper branches caught my attention by snapping at my ankles and tickling my knees. Ah, the tumbling jumble of summertime garden chaos! I do love a lush and laid-back garden, but every year at about this time, I embark upon a bit of disciplinary activity in my flower beds and shrub borders. After all, there’s a fine line between beauty and beast in the garden!

I begin my annual, mid-season grooming by pulling out a pair of hand-shears and bypass pruners —giving them a quick once-over with a whetstone and oiled rag— and heading out to the garden with my mobile beauty-salon (a basket filled with rags, oil, rubbing alcohol, natural twine and a few bamboo stakes). Like many seasoned hairstylists, after years of experience, most of the tasks I perform are so instinctive to me, that I fall into a state of gardening-zen while giving late July haircuts. But now that I’m doing more teaching and garden coaching, I’ve started to actually think more about the how and why of this horticultural beauty routine, in order to communicate the process to others…

Agastache, a bird, bee and butterfly favorite, always benefits from a mid-summer haircut. Shearing the spent flower heads from this plant now encourages a second wave of bloom later in the summer. Because this is an aromatic plant, it’s quite a pleasant job. But try to do this very early in the day, in order to avoid disrupting foraging bees.

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ is still in full bloom on the Wildflower Walk. As the flowers fade, I will leave most of the seed heads standing for finches and other small birds, as well to enhance the winter-garden. But if flower stalks fall into the path, tripping or whacking passers by, I will cut them for vases to keep the walkway clear.

The ever-narrowing Secret Garden stairs! Time for some haircuts! Heuchera and Adenophora self sow, and cutting them back early will prevent their spread. Spent blossoms spilling into the stairs are snipped off at the base. However, I happen to like the excess, so I allow those flower heads to the sides of the steps to multiply as nature intended. Prickly new juniper growth is cut all the way back to the main branch. Remember to clean pruners with rubbing alcohol between specimens

If you are relatively new to gardening, probably the most important thing to remember is that getting to know the plants you care for —their identities, growth habits and blooming routines— is key to making them look their best in your garden. Think like Edward Scissorhands for a moment and imagine vegetative growth as hair. Ironing curly hair straight may be fun once in awhile, but when it comes to day to day style, the best looks work with nature. What’s true for people is also true for plants. If you need help identifying the plants in your care, a good encyclopedia —like this one from the American Horticultural Society— is a great garden-library investment.

Once you are familiar with your plants, it’s much easier to decide how and when to spruce them up. Some plants need very little tending. In fact, many perennials are best left to do their own thing until they finish blooming, or until they are cut back to the ground in early spring. For example, after Hosta finish blooming, I remove the spent flower stalks to keep the plants looking tidy. However, I leave the seed heads of most Echinacea and Rudbeckia standing, in order to provide food for birds. Actaea simplex is left to do her own thing in the garden, while Asters are Chrysanthemums are pinched back until mid-July in order to encourage fuller, more floriferous plants (but never later, in order to avoid nip by early autumn frost). Nepeta, Veronica, Agastache and Geranium are sheared back after blooming to encourage a second wave of blossoms, while Aruncus dioicus and Valerian are cut back simply to make the plants look tidier. Many annual flowers, particularly those in window boxes and hanging baskets, also look best when given a mid-season haircut (and remember to keep fertilizing weekly for best bloom). Miss any opportunities this season? Remember to make a note of it in your garden journal for next year…

Veronica spicata –a pollinator favorite– is a long-blooming perennial. Because of its front-and-center location in this border (backing up Rudbeckia hirta and dancing with the slender blades of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) this plant is a very good candidate for mid-season maintenance. Shearing the top blooms off this cultivar, V. spicata ‘Sunny Border Blue’, will help keep the plant tidy, and encourage another full wave of bloom in a couple of weeks.

I try to leave flower heads standing as long as possible in the garden, even if they seem a bit faded. Flower nectar and pollen still provides sustenance to garden guests —like this bumble bee— even though blooms may be past their prime. Later, seeds of this Echinacea, and many other flowers, provide late season food for finches and other small birds.

When cut back after flowering, Geranium ‘Brookside’ will look tidier and often produce a second, if slightly less lush, wave of bloom in autumn.

Learning to work with plants and maintain an attractive garden is a life-long process for all gardeners. Most experienced green thumbs are happy to share their knowledge, and many local garden clubs, botanical gardens, greenhouses and nurseries offer free or low-cost workshops and seminars on garden maintenance. When working with perennial gardeners at all experience levels, I often recommend two excellent books for further study and reference. First, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (pictured and linked below) is a classic how-to and when-to manual for every gardener’s bookshelf. And last year, while reviewing gardening titles for Barnes & Noble, I discovered Nancy Ondra’s The Perennial Care Manual (also pictured and linked below) which I now consider the definitive plant-by-plant guide (includes an encyclopedia with many of the more popular perennials) to perennial maintenance. The macro-photos in this book include pruning details, pest ID shots and clear pictorial guides to division, propagation and more. This book would make a great gift for new gardeners, mid-level perennial enthusiasts and experienced horticulturalists alike!

Garden looking a bit loose, shabby, blowzy? Pull out the shears and pruners, a tarp or wheelbarrow and channel your inner Edward Scissorhands! Have a quick question? Feel free to drop me a line in comments and I’ll pass along what I’ve learned. Have fun out there…

My top recommended how-to with great pictures: Nancy Ondra’s The Perennial Care Manual

A classic for every gardener’s bookshelf: Tracy DiSabato-Aust The Well-Tended Perennial Garden

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Ode to a Fiddlehead…

July 16th, 2009 § Comments Off on Ode to a Fiddlehead… § permalink

The woodland path at Ferncliff – Image ⓒ Michaela Medina – The Gardener’s Eden

Call me a fiddle-head, it is true. I have a long standing love-affair with ferns. Ostrich and Cinnamon, Maidenhair and Lady, Autumn and Christmas; even their names delight me, and I can never seem to get enough of this delicate, feathery species. My affection can be traced back to the summers of my childhood; those long, hot afternoons and fading twilight hours spent exploring abandoned stone foundations and hidden brooks in the forest beyond my home. There, beneath the shade of tall trees, ferns became woven crowns and verdant skirts fit for imaginary forest royalty. To my eye, when it comes to beauty in the plant world, foliage truly equals flower. What could be more beautiful than the fern? Shimmering, silver fiddleheads unfurling from damp earth, luminous feather paths winding through dark tree-trunks, and lacy plumes softening rugged outcroppings of rock and ledge; ferns possess some of the most dramatic foliage in the forest.

Native to North America, the cinnamon fern, (Osmunda cinnamonea, pictured below), is a perfect example of the long-lasting beauty of this foliage plant. In very early spring, the fuzzy, silvery-white tipped fiddle-heads of cinnamon fern emerge from the forest floor. As the first tightly wrapped heads unfurl, (reaching upward 2-4 feet), they quickly transform into stunningly beautiful, rich cinnamon stalks, followed by rapidly emerging, bright green fronds. By midsummer, the foliage of the cinnamon fern deepens to a regal emerald hue. Later, in autumn, the bold foliage turns a brilliant gold that absolutely glows in the forest. As lovely as it is in a natural setting, the cinnamon fern is also a spectacular addition to the garden. This non-aggressive plant forms thick but contained clumps of growth. As a companion to spring flowering bulbs, and a contrast to the exfoliating bark of trees, (river birch, stewartia and paperbark maple spring to mind), the design possibilities of both the lush foliage and cinnamon-colored stalks make the cinnamon fern one of my favorites.

cinnamon-fern-stalksCinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamonea) – Image: Georgian Court University

Cinnamon fern’s close relative, the interrupted fern, (Osmunda claytonia), is another gorgeous native plant. As the fiddle-heads unfurl to a height of 2-3 feet, the foliage on this fern’s upright, fertile fronds is interrupted midway by sporing pinnae. This break gives the plant its common name, ‘interrupted’ fern. The non-sporing fronds arch away from the plant dramatically, creating an attractive, flowing green mound. Interrupted ferns prefer slightly damp conditions, where they forms natural groupings in the wild. As a garden plant, the interrupted fern is endlessly useful in dappled light and partly sunny conditions. Though large, the airy fronds of this fern combine well with many trees, shrubs and perennials.

interrupted-fernInterrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)

The Christmas fern, (Polystichum acrostichoides), is an evergreen fern, and one of the most shade tolerant members of this species. Another North American native, this leathery-leafed plant can often be found carpeting steep banks in densely forested areas. As a garden plant, the soil-stabilizing qualities of Christmas fern make it an excellent choice for shady slopes and other places where erosion is a concern. In Northern woodlands, the beauty of this plant’s glossy, deep green foliage is well appreciated in late autumn and early winter, when most deciduous trees have shed their leaves and the forest floor has turned brown.

christmas-fernChristmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

It is easy to understand how the enormous, feathery plumes of Ostrich fern, (Matteuccia pensylvanica, pictured below), earned their name.  This gorgeous fern is also one of my favorites, and placed with care, it can be a fantastic garden plant. Ostrich fern spreads by aggressive rhizomes, making it useful as a ground cover in damp areas. If planted in a dry spot, (as it is in my secret garden), however, Ostrich fern is mild mannered and easily contained. In it’s ideal conditions, (moist, dappled shade), this fern can reach nearly six-feet in height. And although there is no autumn color, if the plant receives ample moisture, it will remain attractive and green through late autumn.

naturally-occuring-ostrich-fern-at-ferncliffOstrich Fern (Matteuccia pensylvanica) is a member of the cliff fern family.

The delicate and airy, native maidenhair fern, (Adiantum pedatum), and lady fern, (Athyrium felix-feminina), are commonly used in gardens, and with good reason. Both of these plants are not only beautiful but tough, tolerating a wide variety of soil conditions and changing light. Although both ferns prefer dappled shade and moist soil, they will succeed under less favorable circumstances, and need not be coddled. Lady fern in particular has become popular with commercial growers, and it seems a new variety is available whenever I pick up a magazine or catalogue. Beyond the commonly available lady fern, (a member of my favorite group, the cliff ferns), I have come to enjoy the sanguine stems of Athyrium felix-feminina, “Lady in red”, as they emerge along my garden wall.

lady-fernLady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) ‘Lady in Red’ and companion Huechera ‘Green Spice’

maiden-hair-fernThe northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) planted with Hosta.

Many of the other ferns native to North America, such as the bracken fern, (Pteridium aquilinum), and hay-scented fern,(Dennstaedtia puctilobula), are lovely in naturalized settings, or singular landscape uses, but are far too aggressive for mixed borders or perennial gardens. Hay-scented fern forms dense carpets, and it is particularly beautiful and useful along woodland paths, hedges, walks and driveways, and beneath dense foliage trees.

natural-grouping-of-bracken-fern-at-ferncliffBracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) beautiful in naturalized areas, is an aggressive spreader.

natural-grouping-of-hay-scented-bracken-and-interrupted-fern-at-ferncliffA natural grouping of hay-scented, bracken and interrupted ferns in the forest at Ferncliff.

In addition to the many ferns native to North America, introduced garden ferns and hybrids, such as the Japanese painted fern, (Athyrium nipponicum, “Pictum”), are spectacular plants for light to dense shade situations. Beautiful, subtle color variations in fern foliage can be played against one another and in combination with other plants to create breathtakingly beautiful patterns. A ground-cover of perennial ferns can become a living tapestry to be enjoyed throughout the growing season, year after year. Athyrium x “Ghost” is a particularly beautiful fern, and I have found the color varies a bit by placement and light. The frosty white fronds are stunning at twilight in darker corners of my garden.

Athyrium x ‘Ghost’ planted to with Hosta ‘August Moon’ , Astilbe, Lamium and Cryptotaenia japonica

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’, planted with Cryptotaenia japonica ‘Atropurpurea’

japanese-painted-fernJapanese painted fern, Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’, nestled beside Hosta and seeded Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’

Having named my garden Ferncliff, it should come as no surprise that I am a true fern-fanatic. When designing gardens here and elsewhere, I am always on the look-out for new ways to use ferns in garden settings. Ferns are remarkably versatile plants; softening formal designs and lending elegance to modest buildings and simple features. Ferns can be planted in urns to flatter classical architecture, or in geometrically precise planters to harmonize with more modern landscapes. The airy quality of ferns provides movement in shady nooks with the slightest breeze, and the textural qualities of fronds enliven the edge of still or slow-moving water features and smooth wall surfaces. The possibilities of ferns are limited only by imagination.

fern-in-courtyardOstrich Fern, (Matteuccia pensylvanica), softening the edge of the secret garden at Ferncliff.

For more information on ferns, see Martin Rickard’s The Plantfinder’s Guide to Garden Ferns, (copyright 2000, Timber Press).

Image of Cinnamon Fern: Georgian Court University

Article and all other photographs copyright 2009 Michaela Medina – The Gardener’s Eden


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