Friday, February 23, 2007

Art in the Garden

If a landscape is very formal in design, does that mean it inevitably has a stiff, sophisticated ambience? Does a more natural design automatically create a more relaxed effect? The ambience or “mood” of a landscape or garden design can certainly be influenced by the types of plants selected and the way the plants are arranged, but the effect may vary with the seasons.
Hardscapes and artistic motifs can be used to create a unifying theme between the architecture of the home and the design of the landscape. If the house is of a distinctive architectural period, or if the hardscapes and garden structures feature prominently in the landscape design, those features alone could conceivably create a mood.
The type of ambience would largely depend on the style of the house -- a plantation-style house surrounded by live oaks and magnolias would only need a tray of mint juleps to recall the old South. A house incorporating native stone, and repeating native stonework in the outdoor hardscapes, could create a feeling of the great outdoors by including a natural-looking water features along with wildflowers or a woodland.
Many homes today, though, were not designed along the lines of any classical architectural styles. When the architecture is somewhat generic, there may be an opportunity to create an atmosphere by developing a theme or style that works with the appearance of the home as well as the homeowner’s tastes.
Japanese-style gardens are extremely popular today, in part because they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some people define Japanese gardens by the plants -- carefully pruned weeping cherries, Japanese maples, plus pines and other conifers -- while others define Japanese gardens by their use of sand, stone and water, with plantings at a minimum. Others insist that a garden is not “Japanese” without lanterns, stone dragons, bamboo and other accents. Many books have been written about authentic Japanese gardens, but most people don’t require authenticity as much as ambience -- a sense of spirituality, simplicity and serenity.
When it comes to creating ambience in a landscape through the use of garden art in addition to plants, hardscapes and structures, there are no hard and fast rules regarding the scope of the project. An enclosed garden room might be the focus of the design, with a few repetitive features throughout the landscape. A more ambitious project, with a correspondingly larger budget, could tie in custom hardscapes and garden structures with distinctive artwork to pull the theme together.
Flower shows such as those in Chelsea, England, Cincinnati, OH, and others across the United States often feature gardens designed around a single ornate urn, a unique sculpture or a distinctive garden structure. A popular theme in recent years has been to create a garden based on a famous work of art or an artistic style. Examples of this would be designing a palette of flower colors to replicate the colors in a Turner sunset, recreating a section of Monet’s garden at Giverny, or using Van Gogh’s bold colors in combination with sunflowers or other flowers the artist liked to paint.
Whether the design includes a single piece of artwork or an elaborate combination of art, hardscapes, structures and plants, artwork can be most effective when it either reinforces a mood or creates its own ambience. Today there are numerous resources for unusual forms of garden art -- bas relief brick sculptures, art made with moving water, art made to blend in with nature or art that is in stark contrast to the landscape, in both color and form. It doesn’t have to be elaborate - single urn can create the image of an Italianate garden, while a few polished river rocks can become the focus of a meditation garden. A few carefully chosen pieces of art combined with a little imagination and creative flair can breathe some life into almost any landscape design.


File Name: Ambientart
Word Count: 644 words

Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine
Photos: Jonathan Davis, Becke Davis, Martin R. Davis

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dances with Daffodils

There is something about daffodils that seems to inspire poets, most famously Herrick and Wordsworth. Tulips have brought out completely different reactions over the years, most famously “Tulipomania”. Daffodils and tulips are far and away the most popular flowering spring bulbs, so why does one seem to push buttons with collectors while the other brings out the muse?
Maybe it is just because the sunny yellow flowers of daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are such a change from the drab colors of winter. Also, when the daffodils bloom it means that warmer days are just over the horizon. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like daffodils. What’s not to like? Unlike fussy tulips, daffodils will live and multiply for many years after planting, if the conditions are suitable. And while critters might dig up daffodil bulbs, they don’t eat them -- the bulbs are toxic to most animals. Even the nicest daffodils are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Nearly all daffodil species will survive extremely cold winters, are adaptable to other conditions and, while there are some pest and disease problems, few are serious.
Some people think that the fragrant white forms such as paperwhites are called “narcissus” while the large yellow trumpet flowers are jonquils or daffodils; in fact, Narcissus is the botanical name of the genus, “jonquilla” is the name of a daffodil classification, and “daffodil” is the common name for the same plants. In spite of Wordsworth’s happy hosts of daffodils, the origin of the genus name is less cheerful. The word “Narcissus” is said to be a derivation of the ancient Greek word “narke”, meaning deep sleep or numbness; “narke” is also the root of the word “narcotic”. This connection may be related to the toxic properties of chemicals in daffodil bulbs. On the other hand, the legend of Narcissus is more romantic, but in the end equally unpleasant.
Narcissus was a beautiful young man who the gods had blessed with eternal youth and beauty, as long as he never looked at his own reflection. He should have remembered the warning about a woman scorned, because his lack of response resulted in Nemesis persuading him to look at his reflection in a clear pool. As legend has it, Narcissus was so overwhelmed with his beautiful reflection that he was unable to move away, and remained frozen to the spot. Eventually a beautiful flower grew in that spot, and it was called, of course, Narcissus.
Because so many bulbs are sold by Dutch growers, it is often assumed that daffodils and tulips are native to Holland. This is not true in either case. Daffodils are native to Spain and Portugal, but have been traded and cultivated for hundreds of years. Daffodils have been important landscape plants for over 100 years, but there is still much confusion about classification within the genus. Some experts estimate that there are close to 20,000 daffodil cultivars alone!
Daffodils are important as forced potted and cut flowers to the floral industry, and many homeowners also grow them for this purpose. The very fragrant, white-flowering paperwhite narcissus (N. tazetta) is one of the least hardy daffodil species, and it is the most frequently grown indoors. Generally speaking, the landscape industry does not get into this aspect of daffodil growing because it can be very labor intensive. Landscape contractors and designers usually look for one of two things in daffodils: the ability to naturalize quickly or the ability to make a “show” with large, brightly colored flowers or, in a woodland garden, masses of smaller blossoms. Daffodils are usually planted in rather large quantities for the best effect; this effect will only improve over time as the bulbs multiply and spread.
Daffodils aren’t usually considered plants for containers, but some of the smaller varieties are suitable for planting in 4-inch containers. Examples of these include the popular ‘Tete-a-tete’, ‘Jack Snipe’ and ‘Minnow’. Paperwhite narcissus can also be grown in containers for outdoor use, with about 3 bulbs in a 6-inch pot; paperwhites may be grown as perennials in the south but they are not winter-hardy in the midwest.
The American Daffodil Society uses a classification system which originally divided the genus Narcissus into 12 categories, a system adopted by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1959. In July 1998, the RHS revised their system based in the premise that any daffodil, once given a cultivar name, should be assigned a category in Divisions 1-12; Division 13 is reserved for plants that are only identified by a botanical name. The American Daffodil Society describes Division 13 somewhat differently, and adds a separate classification for miniatures. Both systems are based on flower proportions and are fairly complex. Rather than go into the fine points of each type, the following list gives a basic description along with a few cultivars as examples.

Division I: Trumpet Daffodils
*One flower to a stem
Narcissus ‘Dutch Master’
N. ‘King Alfred’ (or ‘King Alfred’ type)
N. ‘Las Vegas’
N. ‘Lemon Glow’
N. ‘Mount Hood’

Division II: Large-Cupped Daffodils
*One flower to a stem
N. ‘Carlton’
N. ‘Flower Record’
N. ‘Fortissimo’
N. ‘Ice Follies’
N. ‘Kissproof’
N. ‘Romance’
N. ‘Salome’

Division III: Small-Cupped Daffodils
*One flower to a stem
N. ‘Barrett Browning’
N. ‘Queen of the North’

Division IV: Double Daffodils
*One or more flowers to a stem
N. ‘Cheerfulness’
N. ‘Duet’
N. ‘Erlicheer’
N. ‘Flower Drift’
N. ‘Tahiti’
N. ‘White Lion’

Division V: Triandrus Daffodils
*Two or more pendant flowers to a stem
N, ‘Ice Wings’
N. ‘Liberty Bells’
N. ‘Thalia’

Dividion VI: Cyclamineus Daffodils
*Usually one flower per stem
N. ‘February Gold’
N. ‘Jack Snipe’
N. ‘Peeping Tom’

Division VII: Jonquilla (and Apodanthus) Daffodils
*Usually 1-5 (rarely 8) fragrant flowers per stem
N. ‘Golden Perfection’
N. ‘Quail’
N. ‘Suzy’
N. ‘Trevithian’

Division VIII: Tazetta Daffodils
*3-20 flowers per stout stem. (Very fragrant -- includes paperwhite narcissus)
N. ‘Geranium’
N. ‘Laurens Koster’
N. ‘Minnow’

Division IX: Poeticus Daffodils
*Usually one flower to a stem
N. ‘Actaea’

Division X: Bulbocodium Daffodils
*Usually one flower to a stem (“Hoop petticoat” daffodils)
N. bulbocodium

Division XI: Split Corona Daffodils
a. Collar Daffodils
b. Papillion or “butterfly” Daffodils

Division XII: Miscellaneous or Other Daffodils
*Daffodils not classifiable by first 11 divisions; many are inter-division hybrids.

Division XIII: (U.S.A.) Species, Wild Variants and Wild Hybrids
N. hispanicus sbsp. bujei

Miniature Daffodils
Miniatures have the same descriptive divisions as standards, only with smaller blooms, usually less than 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

The International Flower Bulb Centre in Holland reports that the 10 best-selling daffodils are (the list includes the official designations for variety, color and classification):

1. N. ‘King Alfred’ yellow-yellow Trumpet
2. N. ‘Salome’ white-pink, yellow Large-Cupped
3. N. ‘Ice Follies’ white-white Large-Cupped
4. N. ‘Tete-a-Tete’ yellow-yellow Cyclamineus
5. N. ‘Minnow’ yellow-yellow Tazetta
6. N. ‘Fortissimo’ white-yellow Trumpet
7. N. ‘Tahiti’ yellow-red Double
8. N. ‘Las Vegas’ white-yellow Trumpet
9. N. ‘Barrett Browning’ white-orange Small-Cupped
10. N. ‘Mount Hood’ white-white Trumpet

The Chicago Botanic Garden recommends these small daffodil cultivars: ‘Thalia’ - very fragrant, white-flowering, ‘Chit-Chat’ - late blooming, prolific, bright yellow, and ‘February Gold’ - very early-flowering, bright yellow. Their recommendations for large-flowering daffodils include ‘Fragrant Rose’ - white petals, rose-pink cup, rose-like fragrance, ‘Ice Follies’ - white petals, pale yellow cup, ‘Salome’ - white petals and pale salmon cup, ‘Barrett-Browning’ - small bright orange and red cup with white petals, and ‘Poeticus’ - fragrant late bloomer with white petals and red-rimmed yellow cup.
The American Daffodil Society recommends the following cultivars specifically for planting in drifts: ‘Ice Follies’, ‘Tete-a-Tete’, ‘Flower Record’, ‘Delibes’, ‘Unsurpassable’, ‘Barrett Browning’, ‘Scarlet Gem’, ‘Geranium’, ‘Cheerfulness’, ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Mount Hood’, ‘Spellbinder’, ‘Carlton’ and ‘Viking’.
Daffodils look best planted in informal sweeps or irregular masses rather than neat lines, although they are often inter-planted with tulips and other bulbs to create formal displays. Daffodils are not fussy about soil as long as it drains well - no bulbs like sitting in water, where they would be sure to rot. Daffodils require plenty of sun but can survive under deciduous trees because they have finished flowering by the time these trees leaf out. Daffodils should not be planted under coniferous plants or broadleaf evergreens.
Plant the bulbs at least 4 to 5 inches below the surface, or even more. Planting too shallowly can result in the bulbs heaving out of the ground during freeze/thaw conditions, and it can also make the bulbs more susceptible to fungal diseases. Traditionally, bone meal has been the standard amendment added to the soil when planting bulbs. Some experts still recommend this while others do not. There are many new slow-release fertiziler formulas made specifically for bulbs; if you follow the directions carefully, those can be very helpful.
If daffodil bulbs do not bloom in spring, there may be a number of reasons, including any of the following:

*Either the bulbs need fertilizer OR they need less nitrogen in the fertilizer blend
*Too much shade
*Waterlogged soil
*Too much root competition
*Foliage was removed too soon the previous year -- it must completely dry out and die first
*Transplant stress
*Basal rot or viral infections
*Disease, damage or stress from previous season

The only serious problem that daffodils are susceptible to is Basal or Fusarium rot (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. narcissi), which may appear on bulbs as a white or pink fungus. The fungus can remain in soil for years until presented with a host. This form of basal rot spreads quickly in hot summer temperatures and will usually kill the bulbs. The presence of weeds and excessive nitrogen can also cause the rot to spread more quickly. Planting bulbs deeply in late fall, or lifting and drying the bulbs quickly each winter can help slow the spread to other other bulbs. While there are various chemical controls, the best way to avoid Fusarium rot is by planting daffodil species and cultivars that are resistant to it. These include Narcissus bulbocodium, N. poeticus, N. tazetta and N. jonquilla.
A final note: in Wordsworth’s ode, one of the best known phrases refers to the daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” A recent report by a Duke University biomechanics expert noted that daffodils are able to bend, twist and “dance” due to their triangular shaped stems, which reduce wind drag and prevent them from breaking.


File Name: Daffodils
Word Count: 2,138

Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine
Photos by Becke Davis

A Very Famous Ode to a Bulb:


I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

--William Wordsworth, 1804


“Lob’s Wood,” by Elizabeth Lawrence, 1971, Published by the Cincinnati Nature Center, Cincinnati, OH

“Narcissus,” by Michael Jefferson-Brown, 1991, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, England

“The Complete Book of Bulbs,” by F.F. Rockwell and Esther C. Grayson, 1953, The American Garden Guild and Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY

“Taylor’s Guide to Bulbs,” 1986 Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA

“Gardener’s World of Bulbs,” 1991, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Plants and Gardens Series, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Inc., New York, NY

“Bulbs: Four Seasons of Beautiful Blooms,” Lewis and Nancy Hill, 1994, Garden Way Publishing, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, VT

“Bulbs and Tubers,” by Klaas T. Noordhuis, 1997, Rebo Productions, Inc., The Hague, Netherlands

“John E. Bryan On Bulbs,” Burpee Expert Gardener Series, 1994, Macmillan & Company, New York, NY

“Narcissus Pests and Diseases,” Cornell University Fact Sheet,

“Narcissus Diseases,” by Gary W. Moorman Professor of Plant Pathology, Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service Fact Sheet, 1998

“Daffodils: Crop Specific Guidelines for Growers,”

“Suggested Daffodil Cultivars for Iowa, by Richard Jauron, September 13, 1996, Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University, Ames, IA

“Daffodils Do the Twist,” by Phillip Ball, December 6, 2002,

“Chicago Botanic Garden Best Plants for Illinois: Daffodil,” by Jim Kemper, Master Gardener, 1997-2004, Chicago Botanic Garden

“Daffodil Classification System,” Royal Horticultural Society, July 1998


The International Flower Bulb Centre,

The American Daffodil Society,

Friday, February 09, 2007

Fragrant Herbs for Container and Garden

Aromatherapy has been a hot topic for some time now, but it shows no signs of fading away. Far from it – scented candles have pushed other merchandise off the shelves in malls across the country, while our television viewing is interspersed with ads for scented air fresheners in liquid, solid or oil forms, plug-ins, machines that shoot puffs of fragrance into the air, even CDs that “play” different fragrances throughout the day.
Since many of these synthetic fragrances are meant to convey images of the great outdoors, fresh cut grass as well as floral fragrances galore, many people assume that just by planting flowers, a fragrant garden is sure to follow. Those who have more experience know that while many flowers are virtually without scent, the needles of some conifers, the bark of some trees and the foliage of numerous plants can often compete with the fragrance of the most valuable perfumed flowers.
Think perfume and many people instantly focus on roses, lilacs or mock orange blossoms. In their strongest forms, these wonderful scents can sometimes be overpowering. To broaden the range of fragrances in your garden, try incorporating a variety of herbs in beds, borders or containers. Herbs are useful on many levels – they are ornamental, many are fragrant, some have medicinal uses and many just beg to clipped for culinary purposes. Some herbs release their fragrance through flowers, but a great many herbs release their aroma most powerfully when brushed against or when the foliage is handled or rubbed.
Plant a variety of herbs so you can choose your fragrance according to your mood – spicy, zesty, astringent, flowery, minty, musky, citrusy, sweet, sour or even for variety, somewhat repulsive. While not all herbs are readily available, a growing number of garden centers, and even grocery stores, are stocking the more common herbs with their staple spring deliveries of annuals and perennials.
Seeds of both annual and perennial herbs are also available in seed form from respected mail order companies. Ordering seeds by mail or online greatly increases the variety of plants available, and most will reach a good size in a single planting season. Most herbs perform best in full sun, and the more tender plants can be gradually prepared for indoor life before the first frost hits.
Start growing herbs in containers until you get a good idea of their hardiness, their soil and water preferences as well as growth habit and ultimate size. Some of the more prolific herbs are best planted in containers in any case, because of their tendency to take over the flower bed. Put the containers along paths or on patios where people will brush against them, or in containers near doors, windows or seating areas.
The following list is sure to contain some old friends and familiar names, but don’t hesitate to try some of the unfamiliar herbs, too. It takes only a minimal investment of time and money to grow an herb garden designed to tempt your nose as well as your taste buds. Try some of the more potent or even “stinky” herbs, too – smelling them can be quite an experience.
Landscape contractors, take note when designing gardens for children – kids love to handle and smell fragrant plants, but their favorites can be clearly delineated by age and sex: little girls pick the pretty or fruity fragrances nine times out of ten, while the little boys gravitate to the strongest scents, particularly the really noxious, repulsive ones, almost without fail.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum) – Anise has been known as a culinary, medicinal and aromatic herb since ancient times. The fragrance is found primarily in the oil found in its crushed seeds. Anise is used to flavor perfumes and soaps as well as mouthwash and toothpaste. It is recommended as a companion plant to coriander.

Artemisia, Wormwood (Artemisia spp.) – Many species of Artemisia are fragrant in varying degrees. Some are pleasantly fragrant, others less so. A. camphorata, for instance, smells like moth balls and can be used for the same purpose.

Aztec Sweet Shrub (Lippia dulcis) – Sometimes used as a sugar substitute, this ground cover has such a sweet leaf that it is often used to sweeten fruit salads. Others chew the leaves like candy, picked right off the plant. Lippia graveolens, on the other hand, is a tender herb commonly known as Mexican oregano, which shares many of the traits of oregano (Origanum spp.).

Basil (Ocimum spp.) – Basil is best known for its use in Italian cooking, as the primary ingredient in pesto sauces. Fresh basil leaves are preferred for culinary use, dried basil is popular in potpourris. The leaves of basil plants release a wonderful fragrance when they are handled. There are many species of basil, and the fragrance varies with the species. For example, Lemon basil (O. americanum) has a strong, lemony scent, anise basil (O. basilicum ‘Anise’ smells like anise, cinnamon basil (O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’) smells like its name, as does camphor basil (O. kilimandscharicum). A form of Thai basil called O. basilicum ‘Thyrsiflora’ has a very sweet fragrance while O. gratissimum smells like cloves.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) – Known more for its colorful flowers than for its citrusy fragrance, bee balm is popular as a dried flower in potpourris because of the similarity of its fragrance to the tropical orange bergamot tree.

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) – An herb in the ginger family, the seedpods of this plant release a fragrance that is spicy and exotic, loved by some but considered a bit too powerful by others. The seedpods are popular for use in sachets and potpourris.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) – The scent of this plant tends to be more popular with cats than with people. Centuries back, catnip was valued as a fumigant and over the years it has also been used to make tea.

Chamomile, Roman (Matricaria chamomilla, Anthemis nobilis) – A compact perennial with a strong fragrance.

Chamomile, German or Wild (Matricaria recutita) – The delicate, apple-like fragrance of chamomile has made it popular as a soothing tea.

Coriander and Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) – Confusingly, cilantro and coriander have the same botanic name because they are different parts of the same plant. Cilantro is the herb, the plant itself, while coriander is the name for the aromatic seed of the plant, which is used as a spice. Coriander, which is often found as an ingredient in perfumes and cosmetics, is described by some as “fresh and sweet”. Although coriander is also a culinary herb, others describe its aroma as “unpleasant”, at the very least. Coriander was used in Roman times in vinegars for preserving meats.

Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii) – The potent aroma of this plant is said to be useful as an insect repellent. Corsican mint is best used as an outdoor plant. It can be grown as a ground cover in full sun – it can even be grown between stepping stones, since it will usually survive foot traffic once it is established.

Epazote, Mexican Tea, Pigweed (Chenopodium ambrosioides) – Pungent is a good word to describe the fragrance of this herb – others have said it smells like kerosene or gasoline. Epazote is commonly used in Mexican-style recipes to control gas from black beans.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) – A bitter, aromatic herb in the mint family. Long considered a cough remedy, a juice extracted from the leaves of this herb is used in the production of liqueuers, syrups, cough drops and candies.

Lavender, English (Lavandula angustifolia) – Although English lavender has attractive foliage and flowers, it is usually grown for its fragrance. It is used in the production of soaps, shampoos, sachets and potpourris. The flower color and winter hardiness vary with the cultivar. French lavender is less fragrant and less hardy than its English counterpart, but it is attractive to butterflies and bees.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – This member of the mint family is very fragrant but somewhat messy in habit. The strongest aromatic oils tend to be in the lower parts of the plant.

Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla) – The foliage releases a sweet lemon fragrance when the leaves are handled or brushed against. Sprigs of lemon verbena can be used as garnishes at the table, in potpourris, to scent bathwater, or for culinary purposes.

Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) – Marjoram has small leaves that are spicy and aromatic without being overpowering. It is best known as a culinary herb, but the foliage releases a subtle fragrance in the garden, too.

Mint (Mentha spp.) – Probably the best known of all the aromatic herbs, the fragrance varies with the type of mint. The strong scent of peppermint (Mentha X piperita) comes from an exceptionally high concentration of menthol in its oils, while the milder spearmint (M. spicata) makes it popular as a kitchen herb. Apple mint (M. suaveolens) and the variegated pineapple mint (M. suaveolens var. variegata) are also popular both in the garden and in the kitchen. The scent of pennyroyal (M. pulegium) is said to repel fleas. All species of mint are vigorous growers and can easily become invasive.

Oregano (Origanum spp.) – The most fragrant and flavorful oregano is not the common O. vulgare, but is considered to be O. hirtum, O. heracleoticum or O. vulgare ‘Viride’. The fragrance of oregano is often reminds people of pizza.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary has a fresh, somewhat piney scent that makes this herb popular for culinary use, for potpourris and sachets, soaps and shampoos, and as a garden plant. It grows to a fairly large shrub in the south, but it is not hardy in the Midwest.

Sage (Salvia spp.) – There are hundreds of species of sage, including some that are extremely aromatic. Blue sage (Salvia clevelandii) is popular in potpourris, pineapple sage (S. elegans) has a fruity fragrance and bright red flowers, while purple sage (S. officinalis ‘Purpurea’) has the distinctive aroma found in stuffing and sausages.

Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) – Scented geraniums are the mimics of the herb world, with species and cultivars mimicking the fragrances of almost every flower and fruit in the garden. The flowers are usually insignificant but the leaves are wonderfully fragrant when handled or brushed. Among the many fragrances to be found in the geranium genus are lemon, pine, apricot, nutmeg, lemon, rose, lemon-rose, mint, apple, lime, strawberry, coconut, chocolate, chocolate mint (this one prefers shade), citronella (known as “the mosquito plant” for its reputed repellent qualities), ginger, apple cider, cinnamon, musk and even champagne.

Thyme (Thymus spp.) – Another popular herb with many species and cultivars, each with distinguishing features, flower or leaf color, or fragrance. In addition to various flower colors and forms, common thyme (T. vulgare) has a familiar scent to those who use it in their cooking. Other fragrances include camphor, lemon, caraway, nutmeg and other spicy variations.

Vick’s Plant (Plectranthus purpuratus) – A tender annual also known as Spanish thyme or Cuban oregano, the fleshy leaves of this plant release a strong fragrance that will instantly bring to mind childhood memories of Vick’s Vapo-Rub R. When grown in a container, Vick’s plant can be overwintered indoors.


Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine, also reprinted in the magazine of the Cincinnati Flower Show


“Growing and Using Scented Geraniums,” by Mary Peddie, Judy Lewis and John Lewis,
Storey Publishing Bulletin A-131, 1991, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, VT

“Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs,” by Claire Kowalcik and William H. Hylton, Editors, 1998, Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA

“Color in the Garden, Fragrance in the Garden,” by Norman Taylor, 1953, D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., New York, NY

“Gardening for Fragrance,” Brooklyn Botanic Garden Plants and Gardens series, 1989, BBG Publications, Brooklyn, NY

“The Fragrant Garden,” by Louise Beebe Wilder, 1932, reprinted 1974, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Garden Book Club at

At the moment I am moderating the Home and Hobbies book club at (and I visit a lot of the other clubs on a regular basis). The Home and Hobbies club is about to be revamped so topics like knitting will have a different moderator, and there will be a new book club, that I will moderate, discussing four or five gardening books each month.

I've given the powers-that-be some suggestions for books to discuss including several soon to be published titles and a couple of classics. We may also include a "board" to discuss gardening mysteries, since there are a lot of those available now.

The book clubs are free and now that people are becoming more familiar with the new format (as opposed to the old online university classes), the message boards are getting busy again.

Stop by to say hi, and to talk about new and interesting books on garden topics.

By the way, the photo has nothing to do with the topic of this post. I just wanted to see some summery flowers -- I'd rather look ahead to those than to think of the pile of cold, wet white stuff I'm going to have to shovel off my driveway in the morning.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Cacti and Succulents

Short of dropping Chicago smack into the middle of the Mohave Desert, it may be hard to conceive of cacti and succulents growing in this area. If Midwest gardeners have grown these plants at all, they were most likely grown as houseplants or greenhouse specialties.
Certainly, in order to survive a Chicago winter, the great majority of cacti and succulents would need to be overwintered indoors. But with exotic gardens and distinctive container plants attracting more and more interest, these fascinating plants are escaping the confines of the house, if only for the summer.
Since cacti and succulents tend to be desert plants, the soil and weather conditions in Chicago are a stretch. Luckily, one of the best things about container gardens is their flexibility. If a plant needs well-drained, sandy soil conditions, those conditions can be made to order in a container. If a plant needs plenty of sun but shelter from the wind, containers can be sited in exactly the right spot. And if the sun moves too far in one direction, containers can be moved accordingly.
Many of the smaller cacti and succulents are ideal for trough gardens or even portable rock gardens. Larger plants may require a container with a wheeled base to make it easier to move the plants in and out with the changing seasons. Give these plants the best living conditions possible, because, with proper care, some are exceedingly long-lived.
Some cacti and succulents are surprisingly hardy. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the desert. Although the sunlight beats down fiercely during the day, often topping 100 degrees, the night falls quickly and desert temperatures plunge dramatically after dark. There are a lot of popular misconceptions about cacti. The idea that they live in sand and sun with baking heat and little rain has led to the death of many housebound pot of cactus.
To begin with, although the terms “cacti” and “succulents” are frequently used together, by definition cacti actually ARE succulents because they store water in their stems. The distinguishing feature of most cacti, of course, is their prickly needles and spines. In the case of succulents – or what most people think of as succulents – the thick, fleshy stems or leaves with their “squishy” appearance and moisture-filled interior are the defining features.
Not all cacti are desert plants – there are also “forest” cacti. These include epiphytes that cling to tropical trees, the genus Rhipsalis, which includes the trailing, jointed-looking Chain and Mistletoe cacti. This genus also includes the more familiar Easter cactus and Christmas cactus. When grown indoors, all of these species go through a period of winter rest when fertilization should be stopped and watering kept to a minimum. The soil should never be allowed to dry out completely. When these plants are dormant, a temperature of about 55 degrees F is ideal.
In summer months, forest cacti benefit from the fresh outdoor air but they should be protected from harsh sunlight – bright, filtered or part shade is ideal. Once the flower buds start to appear in summer, water these as frequently as any other container plant – do not allow the soil to completely dry out. Also, whether indoors or out, the plants will benefit from an occasional misting. When set outside in summer, forest cacti may need protection from slugs. There is one important difference between forest cacti and other container plants – once the delicate buds begin to appear, the plants should not be moved. If repotting is necessary, wait until after flowering.
The image that usually comes to mind when we hear the word “cactus” is the desert type. There are many misconceptions about the way these plants should be cared for, and to begin with it is important to distinguish them from the forest type cacti. Desert cacti, when grown as houseplants, may benefit from the fresh air but unlike their forest cousins, misting is not usually a good idea. Some cactus lovers prefer to keep their plants indoors and simply leave windows open to allow the plants to bask in the hot summer air.
Like the forest cacti, desert cacti will benefit from cool temperatures of around 50 degrees F during their winter dormancy. Many genera of cactus can survive comfortably at 40 degrees F while they are dormant. If these cacti are moved to a garage or greenhouse during their dormant period, place them where they will still be exposed to sunlight – bright sun, but not hot.
Watering needs vary during dormancy and flowering periods. Desert cacti need more water starting in the spring, and water as any other container plant during the summer. By late summer, watering should be reduced in stages leading into fall/winter dormancy, still making sure the plants are not allowed to completely dry out. Overwatering cacti in water or underwatering them in summer can lead to a variety of problems including a number of stem rot diseases. Other problems can occur if cacti are allowed to get excessively warm in winter or if they get insufficient sun in summer.
When repotting is necessary, do not move the plant into a much larger pot – it is better not to allow excess space around the roots. Be careful about pruning cactus, except in the case of damaged stems. Cacti bloom on old growth, and encouraging a cactus to bloom is not always easy. Keeping the plants somewhat rootbound seems to promote the blooming process.
Desert cacti need plenty of sun – indoors or out, during periods of active growth and during winter dormancy. At the same time, during the dog days of summer it may benefit these cacti to give them a little protection from the hottest afternoon sun.
There are far too many types of desert cacti to list or describe them all. Some of the more bizarre-looking cacti include the brain cactus (Echinofossulocactus zacatecasensis), the spiky sun cactus (Heliocereus speciosus), and the descriptive bunny ears cactus (Opuntia microdasys). The genus Opuntia includes several familiar-looking upright forms of cactus, while Rebutia, Parodia and Mammillaria are mostly globular in form. Echinopsis has both globular and upright forms, while the Red Cap cactus, Gymnocalcium milhanoichii var friedrichii, is easily recognizable by its distinctive round orange “stem” that are grafted onto a green base.
Succulents are generally easy to grow, as indoor or outdoor plants. When grown indoors, it is important to give them as much fresh air and “outdoor time” as possible when the weather is mild. Like desert cactus, these plants need a lot of sun but may benefit from a little protection when the summer sun is at its peak. Cool temperatures, a bright but cool spot and occasional watering are all that is necessary to provide during winter dormancy. Water as any other container plant during the summer, reducing water gradually as summer turns into fall. Whether grown as indoor, outdoor or greenhouse plants, succulents need a period of winter dormancy in order to rest and to ensure flowering. Sunshine and fresh air in summer, moist but well-drained soil, shelter from the hottest sun, and bright but cool winter conditions are about all that is required to keep these plants happy for years.
Cacti and succulents are ideal for trough gardens because they grow under similar conditions (which can be made to order in a large trough) and a trough can be situated on a stand that brings the garden closer to eye level. The amazing detail in some of the small cactus and succulent species has to be seen up close to be truly appreciated. A large, somewhat flat, well-drained container can also be adapted to cacti and succulents. Use potting soil that has been premixed especially to meet the needs of cacti and succulents, for best results. A slow-release fertilizer especially designed for cacti and succulents may be applied in spring, if necessary, but be careful not to overfertilize, or to add fertilizer late in the season.
Interesting and/or attractive succulents include Aeonium arboreum (particularly var. atropurpureum ‘Schwartzkopf’), the genus Agave (including the century plant, which blooms once every 100 years), the large and varied genus Aloe (a popular first aid lotion and sunburn treatment), Argyroderma, Conophytum, Crassula, Cotyledon, Delosperma, Dudleya, the roseate forms of Echeveria, succulent species of Euphorbia (as opposed to perennial Euphorbias), Faucaria, Fenestraria, Furcraea, Gasteria, Gasworthia, Graptopetalum, Haworthia, Hechtia, Hoya, Jovibarba, Kalanchoe, Lampranthus, Lithops, Orostachys, Othonna, Pachyphytum, Pachyveria, the annual flowering Portulaca grandiflora, Puya, stonecrop Sedum, Sempervivum (Hens and Chicks), Senecio and Yucca (also called Adam’s Needle).
A trough garden or a collection of containers featuring cacti and succulents can be a good introduction to these fascinating plants. Don’t just sit them on a shelf to gather dust, though – put them out on the deck or in the garden where they can be seen and enjoyed. Treat them as you would any container plant in summer, bringing them indoors and allowing them to gradually go dormant as winter approaches. A little care and attention will keep these plants alive and well as long or longer than the perennials in your garden.


File Name: Cactiandsucculents
Word Count: 1,527

Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine
Photos by Becke Davis


“Creating the Tropical Look in the Midwest Garden,” by Gary A. Anderson, Ph.D., The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute, September 2004, The Buckeye, ONLA, Columbus, OH

“Hens and Chickens,” from “Gardening with Gary,”

“Succulents for the Contemporary Garden,” by Yvonne Cave, 2003, Timber Press, Portland, OR

“Foliage,” by David Joyce, 2001, Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT

“The New House Plant Expert,” by Dr. D.G. Hessayon, 1991, PBI Publications, Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, England

“Greenhouse Plants,” Elaine Ratner and James L. Jones, 1990, Ortho Books, Chevron Chemical Co., San Ramon, CA

“The New Exotic Garden,” by Will Giles, 2000, Octopus Publishing, London, England

Pansies: The Flowers with Faces

Pansies are sometimes considered to be an old-time flower favorite because they have been around for years and they never really go away. Kids like them because of their friendly flower “faces”, while garden lovers favor them because they will bloom even when winter’s chill is in the air. Whether they are planted in a solid mass of a single color, or a vibrant mix of many-colored flowers, pansies are a welcome sight in early spring, when bulbs are about the only other flowers in bloom. Landscape contractors like pansies because they can plant them in beds, borders and even baskets and they will look good for weeks at a time, during the transition from spring to summer.
Pansies and violets are often confused, but generally speaking, pansies are annuals and violets are perennials. Both belong to the genus Viola -- pansies are Viola x wittrockiana, which may have evolved from the European Viola tricolor. Pansies can act more like tender perennials at times, though, due to the introduction of hybrids and cultivars that are bred to withstand both summer heat and extremes of winter cold. It has also been shown that blue and yellow-flowering pansies tend to be the cold hardiest forms. While violets are delicate, fragrant, petite, and usually violet in color, pansies have bigger, bolder flowers in a much wider range of colors and many color combinations. Pansies aren’t usually planted solely for fragrance, but the yellow and white-flowering forms tend to be fragrant.
Pansies are also often associated with “Johnny-Jump-Ups” (Viola cornuta), tender perennials whose blossoms look like a miniature pansy flower; the cultivar ‘Helen Mount’ is the most popular form. Pansies, violets and Johnny-Jump-Ups all self-sow, so a repeat crop the following year is often possible even if the original plants don’t survive the winter.
Pansies are suddenly one of the hot “new” flowers, in part because of all the new varieties that are now available. They have become the focus of breeders who compete to introduce the most unusual colors and color combinations. With over 250 cultivars to choose from, there are pansies for just about every need. Another difference with the “new” pansies is that they are being bred to have slightly smaller but more abundant flowers, while in the past the preferred cultivars had fewer but larger flowers. The new, long-blooming pansies will keep blooming well into winter, long after bedding plants have been decimated by hard frosts.
Pansies come in three basic types -- multiflora or superflora, smaller-flowered, bushier plants that are cold hardy and bloom for a long time, medium-flower pansies, which include many popular cultivars and several award-winners, and large-flowered pansies that feature large blooms but aren’t known for their long bloom times.
Deadheading will encourage reblooming, and an application of 15-2-20 fertilizer should be applied in early spring, every two weeks until mid-March or so. After that, a 20-10-20 fertilizer should keep them going strong. Fertilizing is best performed in late fall in warmer areas, and in colder climates, in early spring. Don’t fertilize in late spring or summer, when excess nitrogen can weaken the plants. Do keep newly transplanted pansies well-watered and mulched. While pansies can survive in alkaline soils, they perform best when the pH is 5.8 or a little lower. Some experts believe that pansies are most likely to thrive if planted when soil temperatures are between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Pansies like a spot in sun to filtered shade, where air circulation is good, the soil is rich in organic matter and moist but well-drained. They should not be watered in the afternoon or evening because the plants are vulnerable to rot. As winter approaches, let the soil remain dry for longer periods to help harden the plants.

A few of the many popular pansy hybrids, cultivars, and series include:

‘Baby Bingo All Season’
‘Baby Bingo Autumn Blaze’
‘Baby Bingo Winter Blues’
‘Bingo Blotch Mix Improved’
‘Bingo Blue with Blotch’
‘Bingo Red and Yellow’
‘Bingo Clear Yellow’
‘Bingo Mix Improved’
‘Black Devil’
‘Chalon Supreme’
‘Clear Crystal Mix’
‘Clear Sky Light Blue’
‘Clear Sky Red’
‘Clear Sky Rose’
‘Colossus Rose Blotch’
‘Colossus Yellow Blotch’
‘Crown Mix’
‘Crystal Bowl Mix’
‘Crystal Bowl Purple’
‘Crystal Bowl Supreme True Blue’
‘Crystal Bowl Supreme Yellow’
‘Delta Blue with Blotch’
‘Delta Light Blue Blotch’
‘Delta Primrose Blotch’
‘Delta Pure Rose’
‘Delta Tapestry’
‘Delta Yellow Blotch’
‘Delta White Blotch’
‘Delta White/Rose Wing’
‘Delta Yellow/Red Wine’
‘Dynamite Lavender’
‘Dynamite Red and Yellow’
‘Eden Mix Blotch’
‘Garden Leader Character Faces Mix’
‘Imperial Pink Shades’
‘Iona Pink Shades’
‘Lavender Cool Shades’
‘Majestic Giant Mix’
‘Majestic Giant Yellow’
‘Maxim Bronze’
‘Maxim Sherbet’
‘Maxim Sunset’
‘Nature’ series
‘Purple Rain’
‘Rally Lilac Cap’
‘Skyline Citrus Mix’
‘Skyline White’
‘Sorbet Blackberry Cream’
‘Skyline Yellow/Red Wing’
‘Super Majestic Giant Mix’
‘Ultima Baron Mahogany’
‘Ultima Beacon Yellow’
‘Ultima Impression’
‘Ultima Morpho’ (2002 All-America Selections Winner)
‘Ultima Scarlet & Yellow’
‘Ultima Silhouette Supreme’
‘Vernale Cassis Shades’


Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine
Photo by Martin R. Davis

Persian Shield: A Rising Star

“Persian Shield: A Rising Star”

By Becke Davis

Five to ten years ago, if you had mentioned “Persian Shield” to a home gardener, a landscape contractor or a professional nurseryman, odds are their response would have been a blank look. At that point, Persian Shield was mainly used as a houseplant or as a specimen in tropical gardens -- a relic from Victorian times. Today Persian Shield is a hot topic at flower shows and in garden chat rooms, and both the media and the garden industry are taking notice. A survey taken on one garden website resulted in no negative ratings for this plant. As an added benefit, deer and rabbits are said to ignore it.
Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus, sometimes listed as Perilepta dyeriana) is now recognized as a stunning addition to containers and window boxes, as well as a colorful accent in the mixed border or flower bed. Although Persian Shield does sometimes produce small, delicate violet-blue flowers in late spring to early summer, its distinctive foliage is the feature that catches the eye. In fact, some garden experts recommend removing the flowers since they use up energy that could be better spent on producing healthy foliage.
The narrow, pointed leaves of Persian Shield are six to eight inches long, and combine dark green veining with an iridescent silvery purple, pink to lilac luster that produces a metallic variegation. The underside of the leaves is a dark, purple-to-maroon color. The effect of this shimmering blend of colors has been compared to a stained glass window. It is difficult to describe the coloring accurately because the colors seem to change as the light shifts. The colors tend to fade in full sun, but they grow more intense in shade.
A member of the plant family Acanthaceae, Persian Shield is a tropical plant believed to originate in Burma and Malaysia; it is hardy only in zones 9-11. It prefers an acidic soil but is somewhat adaptable to alkaline soils. A slow-release fertilizer, something like a 12-6-6 ratio, can be beneficial, and when using Persian Shield as a container plant, be sure to incorporate water-absorbing polymers into the planting mix.
Whether planted indoors or out, Persian Shield requires rich, consistently moist soil with good drainage -- it is NOT tolerant of drought and should never be allowed to completely dry out. As an indoor plant, Persian Shield is also intolerant of dry air and will shed leaves under those conditions. When planting Persian Shield outdoors in hot summer weather, place it where it will have partial shade and protection from the afternoon sun. Persian Shield can reach a height of 3 feet and a width of 3-4 feet -- even more where the climate is ideal, but it tends to become leggy and benefits from pruning to keep it more compact.
In addition to its own exciting coloration and luminescence, Persian Shield tends to bring out the best of the plants it is combined with. Purple and black plants are popular choices to plant with Persian Shield, as are plants with silvery foliage. Adding Persian Shield to just about any plant combination will make it more memorable and exciting. Come up with your own plant combination ideas or try combining Persian Shield with some of the plants listed below, many of which are also tender exotics.
Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ (Red Japanese maple)
Alocasia spp. (Alocasia or taro)
Artemisia spp. (Wormwood)
Aspidistra elatior (Cast iron plant)
Athyrium nipocium var. pictum (Japanese painted fern)
Begonia ‘Dragon Wings’ (Begonia)
Brugmansia (Angels’ Trumpets)
Caladium spp. (Caladiums)
Calathea spp. (Prayer plant)
Canna ‘Black Knight’, ‘Pretoria’, ‘Red Futurity’, ‘Red Wine’ (Canna lily)
Clematis ‘Ville de Lyon’ (Clematis)
Costus curvibracteatus (Spiral ginger)
Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ (Dichondra)
Ficus ‘Sylvie’ (Variegated rubber tree)
Heuchera micrantha (Alumroot, i.e. ‘Palace Purple’)
Hibiscus ‘Lord Baltimore’ (Hibiscus)
Hosta ‘Sum & Substance’
Impatiens wallerana (Impatiens, Dazzler and Showstopper series)
Ipomaea batatas ‘Blackie’ (Black sweet potato vine)
Ipomaeae ‘Marguerite’ (Gold-green sweet potato vine)
Kaempferia spp. (Peacock gingers)
Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ (Red fountain grass)
Perilla frutescens (Beefsteak plant)
Plectranthus argentatus (Swedish ivy)
Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Toto’ (Compact black eyed Susan)
Scaveola ‘New Wonder’ (Scaveola)
Solenostemon scuttelariodes (Coleus - red, black, purple, yellow, green)
Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s ears)
Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Queen’ (Purple Queen tradecantia)
T. zebrina (Tradescantia)
Xanthosoma violacea (Elephant ear)


File Name: Persianshield
Word Count: 720

Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine
Photo by Becke Davis


“Persian Shield,” The Plants Database,

“In My Garden: Try Tropicals for Summer Beauty,” by Skip Richter, May 27, 2004, National Gardening Regional Reports: Lower South,

“Persian Shield Plant,” by Sheri Ann Richerson, April 30, 1999, Suite,

“Dark and Sultry in the Summer Garden,” by Sally Ferguson, Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center,

“Persian Shield Finally Attracts Attention,” by Norman Winter, MSU Horticulturist, February 21, 2000, Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center, published by Southern Gardening

“Rooting Persian Shield” and “Plants to Combine with Persian Shield,” Tropicalesque Garden Forum at Garden Web,

“Purple Plants,” by Valerie (no surname listed), June 30, 2000, revised November 10, 2003,

“Persian Shield,” Master Gardener Landscaping, Ft. Lauderdale, FL,

“Persian Shield,”

Magnolia Gardens Nursery catalogue,

Top Tropicals Plant Catalogue,

“Persian Shield: A Unique Alternative for Container Gardens,” “Reiman’s Pick,” Reiman Gardens press release/newsletter, Iowa State University,