Flowering bulbs at Powell Gardens and why so many early spring flowers are yellow

If you want to take a break from garden cleanup to actually enjoy a garden, Powell Gardens reopens to the public this Thursday, April 1, 2021.  (Members have been able to visit for a while.) What’s blooming in the gardens right now? A sea of daffodils and other early flowering bulbs.

Daffodils are blooming here in town, too, but not on this scale. This yellow slash includes literally thousands of daffodils.  

Gardener Marissa Adams informs me that the drifts surrounding the Visitor’s Center were installed in 2015 by a team of volunteers using those excellent long-handled bulb planters that look like pogo sticks. The flowers return reliably each year, unlike tulips. 

Also unlike tulips, daffodils do not appeal to rabbits. This is great! Daffodils contain a chemical lycorine, which is toxic to animals. Daffodils aren’t the only ones. The UK’s Rabbit Welfare Association website’s list of plants toxic to rabbits includes many familiar flowers.  Their focus is on keeping pet rabbits safe, but if you have problems with rabbits, as I do, the information could be useful. (I imagine the rabbits will just avoid most of these.  I wouldn’t worry much about poisoning them. )

I’d pretty much given up on bulbs, but I’m starting to realize how many other bulbs besides tulips could be incorporated into my plans.

When bulb-planting time comes in the fall, I’ll have forgotten how the garden looks now. I’m going to take some pictures to remind me where the bare spots are and where it would be nice to see some bulbs next spring.

I love seeing color return, first the grass, then daffodils and forsythia and star magnolia. This got me wondering, why are most early flowers mostly yellow or white?  Why are so few pink or red? I suspect is this has something to do with sensory equipment of early-season pollinators.

I found this is from the personal blog of an environmental educator named Donna Long:

“The first flowers of spring are often white or yellow because of who pollinates them. The majority of early spring pollinators are flies. Flies lack color vision, meaning they can’t see scores of colors the way we do.

“White and yellow reflect plenty of light. The white and yellow are reflected as very light ‘colors’ against the green background of leaves of trees, shrubs, grasses, etc. All that green may just look dark and indistinguishable to flies.”

However, I cannot confirm that this is true. I did see bees buzzing in the cups of the flowers on the walk from the Island Garden to the Woodland Garden. I was a little surprised, because the temperatures are still brisk, with 29F forecast for Wednesday night.

Jarret Mellenbruch’s Haven sculpture at Powell Gardens

In the Island Garden, the palette of yellow and green expands to include blue: tiny grape hyacinths, scilla, and a bed of purple pansies that survived the winter.

The Woodland Garden, which wasn’t open when I visited last fall, is bursting with bulbs including daffodils, hellebores, scilla, wind flowers, and a wonderful deep purple thing that looks like it’s about to unfurl.

In some areas, signs say what’s still sleeping beneath the brown leaves.

The paved path ends the perennial garden looking out over the lake.

Daffodils are growing here, too. This is a split cup Carlton.

I was interested to learn that the Perennial Garden was the first garden when Powell Gardens opened in 1987. The nearby service buildings were the original visitor’s center. This garden is currently being renovated.

It’s a great time of year.

Spring cleanup – digging up ivy and planting perennials

At last, it’s spring. I hope everyone who wanted to was able to celebrate by getting out in the garden last weekend while the weather was good. 

Although I was tied up for several hours Saturday tracking down a lost password so my daughter could submit some schoolwork, I did manage to make progress on some of my garden goals. I dug out the ivy from the shady area in front of our house.

Wow. Our pup Teddy has gotten so much bigger in just a few weeks. He’s seven months old now.

Wintercreeper, ivy, and vinca:  every place I’ve lived in Kansas City has been overrun by these popular groundcovers.

Euonymus fortunei, the spindle, Fortune’s spindle, winter creeper or wintercreeper. The names are picturesque but the plant is a pain. I feel the same way about ivy (Hedera helix, the common ivy, English ivy, European ivy, or just ivy). On its page, the Missouri Botanical Garden posts this warning in red:  Weedy and Potentially Invasive: Do Not Plant.

This stuff can pull your house down. Wintercreeper’s shallow roots make it relatively easy to rip up, which I do whenever I spy it sprouting.  Thanks to my efforts, this plot was 100% ivy.  Digging it up took three days. The work wasn’t back-breaking, but it was monotonous.  And afterwards, my back did hurt a little.

A neighbor said she found horseshoes when she dug up her garden. I hoped I’d find something like cool old bottles from 1927, the year our house was built, but all I unearthed was a golf ball and a broken light.

I must say, the soil in this area looks really good, better than the packed clay in other parts of the property.  I dug up that butterfly bush too, so now I’m all set. My plant order from Prairie Nursery should arrive the week of April 13.

Thinking about the backyard

My fantasy is that I’ll expand the perennial planting in my backyard so it looks like a border at an English estate. To begin, I ordered these from the Missouri Wildflower Nursery in Jefferson City:

(These are not affiliate links, by the way.) I was able to pick all this up at the native plant sale at the Burr Oak Nature Center in Independence on March 13 (so I didn’t have to pay for shipping). If you missed it, Deep Roots KC lists several upcoming native plant sales on their website.

Right now, these plants are not at a dramatic stage. I’m not sure they even count as plugs.  I’m worried I bought some boxes of dirt.

My knowledgeable friend says go ahead and plant perennials now, but can I even plant these? The weather over the next few days looks wet, so if I wait, maybe some signs of life will appear?

Yesterday I braved the crowds at Family Tree Nursery and got a flat of eight perennials for $29.99. This felt like browsing at an Easter buffet. Everything looked good.  I winged it, didn’t shop from a list—crazy, for me—and just picked things up and dropped them in my cart. However, these are not natives, but cultivars.  (The cultivar name in single quotes follows the Latin name.) Here is what I grabbed:

Leucanthemum × superbum, Shasta daisy,’Whoops-a-daisy’

Achillea millefolium, yarrow, ‘Little moonshine’

Echinacea, coneflower, ‘Sombrero Baja burgundy’

Agastache, ‘Blue boa’

Ditch the day lilies

Day lilies had sprouted in the area where I plan to plant—or ditch lilies, as my neighbor calls them. In June I love seeing their orange flowers blooming—in ditches. They are not what I want here. Back when my garden theme was found plants, I picked these up on a walk and planted them to fill a bare spot. It’s impressive to see how quickly they spread. I don’t remember them being like this last year. And while part of me thinks I could use them to cover other bare spots in the garden (there are several), other parts tell me to quit doing that. I don’t want them. I don’t have to decide now, though. The head-sized chunks are okay sitting around for now.

I thought day lilies were native, but the Missouri Botanical Garden says they come from Europe and Asia.

So now the ground is pretty much cleared for me to plant my perennials. I am worried that by doing so much digging I killed some things that hadn’t woken up yet, but I don’t exactly remember what was growing here before.  We shall soon see.

Barrier methods work

What is even more destructive than I am? Rabbits.  A huge one just hopped past my window as I wrote this. I’m sure it was hungry. When I shine a flashlight across it at night, the yard twitches with movement.  The rabbits eat everything at tooth level. When the tulips scattered around the yard started sprouting, the rabbits chewed them down to the ground.

Now the yard is an obstacle course of wire fencing and bird netting.  Barriers don’t have to be tall to be effective against rabbits.  Young dogs require something stouter, however.

That’s about it for this week–except you might enjoy this article from the New York Times about wildflowers in New York City parks. It spends a little time differentiating between wildflowers and natives.

I love seeing the colors return: first green, then yellow, and eventually the tea-stained blush of hellebores and Japanese magnolias. It’s a great time of year. I hope you have a chance to enjoy it.

Butterfly bush and its evil ways

Elle Décoration France runs a podcast called Où est le beau? (“Where is the good?”), which profiles iconic designers or objects—like landscape architect Damien Roger, Japanese tea pots, and Bertoia chairs. The hour-long episodes educate listeners by discussing the subjects’ provenance, history, manufacture, and significance. Sometimes the podcast encourages us to reconsider what we value.

This seems to be what most gardening articles do, explain what makes something good, whether it’s a garden design, tool, idea, or plant. Often what’s good is obvious, but sometimes it isn’t. Martha Stewart saying “It’s a good thing” sometimes helped us see that it was. Asking where is the good assumes that it’s there somewhere. You just have to look for it. You could just as easily ask where is the bad?  Most of us have once disliked something we later learned more about and now appreciate.  Similarly, we sometimes learn that things we assumed were good are actually more complicated than we thought. This is perhaps the case with Buddleja davidii, the butterfly bush.

I have several of these shrubs in my yard right now. In summer, the butterflies love them, and the pale lavender flowers are pretty. I see them for sale in local nurseries alongside other pollinator-friendly perennials for about $18 a plant.  Mine cost me nothing. This is all good!

Few things in life are only good, however. The butterfly bushes were free because they sprouted on their own, and not always in desirable spots. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so I did nothing. They grew, and grew, and now are about six feet tall. They’re not particularly attractive, either. They drop their silvery leaves in the fall, and all winter long resemble a collection of sticks. Like the aggressive swamp milkweed that grew taller than our fence, they’re among the plants I can’t decide what to do with. Do I like them? Are they good or bad?

My suspicions about them turned out to be true. Butterfly bush is invasive. Many places, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, classify the shrub as a noxious weed.

Butterfly bush is expert at reproducing, it turns out.  Each flower spike produces up to 40,000 lightweight seeds that can easily be dispersed by the wind—and their germination rate is eighty percent. Eighty percent! This gives them a competitive advantage over native flowering shrubs. Buried in soil, the seeds can remain viable for up to five years, and cut stems can resprout.

Another not-so-great thing about butterfly bush is that it’s not native to North America.  Apparently it “migrated” from Asia to the Americas about ten million years ago, too recently to have co-evolved alongside native insects. Then butterfly bush evolved into over 140 varieties. (I learned all this from the blog at the Brandywine Conservancy, a conservation organization in Chadd’s Ford, PA.)

Because it’s not native, butterfly bush is not a host plant for caterpillars. And while adult butterflies feed on the pretty, fragrant flowers, caterpillars do not. This is the case with many of the familiar plants in our home landscapes, including azalea, privet, crepe myrtle, Japanese maple, boxwood, barberry, forsythia, English ivy, and pachysandra.  (I’ve had all of these growing in my yard at some point.) The fact that insects didn’t eat these “alien exotics” was part of their appeal in the first place. 

Caterpillars, upon which so much depends, need native plants as hosts where they can lay their eggs. Without caterpillars, there will be no adult butterflies. Without caterpillars, birds will not survive. Adult butterflies use the plants as a nectar source, but their larvae cannot survive on them.

Butterfly bush is controversial, in other words. I just didn’t know before. In fact, in 2012, Butterfly Gardener magazine devoted an entire issue to the pros and cons of the “Great Butterfly Bush Debate.” Gardeners and ecologists like Margaret Roach and Doug Tallamy recommend planting native alternatives. Still, garden centers sell butterfly bush, and many pollinator garden plans include Buddleia on their lists of recommended plants, like this one from the Dyck Arboretum.  Dyck Arboretum sell it at their plant sales, too, with the caveat that it’s not native, and therefore is not a host plant for caterpillars.

So, the good and the bad are both here.  Now that I know, what should I do?

You may decide that you can find better things to plant that butterfly bush. Or you may decide that planting true natives nearby can ensure that you have what the Dyck Arboretum blog calls “the ecological garden trifecta: host plants for larval food, nectar for adults, and habitat to shelter and rest.” 

About my four, I plan to dig one up—being careful to get the roots—and cut the others back.  They bloom on new wood, and can be cut all the way to the ground. My sources inform me that they’re also slow to get started in the spring. The ones that remain I plan to actually care for instead of just watching. This year I’m going to deadhead flowers so the seed doesn’t spread. And I’ll stamp out any new sprouts.

Here’s a variety of butterfly bush that’s actually called ‘Evil ways.’

Spring’s official start is just five days away! Thanks for reading and enjoy the rain.

Doom and bloom: a visit to Houston’s Bayou Bend after the freeze

Last weekend I was in Houston for a friend’s memorial service. While there, I toured the gardens at Bayou Bend.

These are the opposite of a wild garden, very formal and completely delightful—most of the time. How did they look after February’s arctic freeze?  Not so good by some measures, but also not too bad, considering.

Houston does have an arboretum that emphasizes native planting—kind of like Powell Gardens meets the Lakeside Nature Center—but that’s where the service was, so I was eager to see something different. Bayou Bend is the estate and gardens of the unfortunately named Ima Hogg, an Adele Hall-type who poured her energies and fortune into worthwhile projects for the citizens of Houston. To enter, visitors cross a footbridge high above the sluggish, dirt-colored Buffalo Bayou.

It took a lot of creativity and imagination to envision this as the site of anything—estate, garden, or city. But lo and behold, look what a little imagination can do.

The mansion houses a premier collection of early American decorative arts, displayed in period rooms. The grounds cover fourteen acres, eleven “rooms” surrounded by woods. There is a pleasing contrast between the wild areas and the formal gardens, four of which are named for goddesses or muses. Visitors enter through Clio garden, where the Muse of History herself looks out from the center of a parterre, a formal circle of boxwood-lined beds that contain plantings of azaleas. No doubt these are stunning when in bloom.  Here is a historic photo, and the way they looked on February 28, 2021.

Even in their dormant state, the plantings make a pleasant impression.

The house looks out over a lawn and stunning garden named for Diana, goddess of the hunt. The mobile tour says this garden was built in 1939 to host a meeting of the Garden Club of America.

The statue of Diana stands out against “walls of evergreen yaupon hedges,” a type of holly, but the Japanese yews (Podocarpus macrophyllus) clipped into columns are what stand out to me.

Japanese yew (Podocarpus macrophyllus)

The East Garden lawn is lined with low boxwoods clipped into S’s. All the edging is brick pavers. The fountain wasn’t working on the day I visited.

The azaleas in the East Garden were among first to be introduced to Houston.  According to the tour, Ms Hogg helped popularize them in the 1930’s. A time when they were unfamiliar is hard to imagine, as they are ubiquitous now.  The River Oaks Garden Club’s annual garden tour is called the Azalea Trail.  Normally it would be held this week, but because of COVID, the next tour has been pushed back until 2022—a stroke of luck, given the state of the gardens this year.

From a distance, the rust-colored foliage of the frozen azaleas resembles blooms.

Some might be interested to see the environment where Bayou Bend is located. It is not a typical neighborhood. Here is a peek through the fence at the next-door neighbor’s house.

Is that work by Louise Bourgeois and Magdalena Abakanowicz?

A walk through woods on winding paths brings visitors to a garden named for Euterpe, the muse of poetry and music. Nearby are two remarkable trees, both older than the house, an American sycamore estimated to be 150-200 years old, and a loblolly that’s about 150 years old. (I didn’t get a picture of the loblolly, but it is big.)

I think it’s interesting that Bayou Bend doesn’t seem to showcase any of the spectacular Live Oak trees Houston is famous for. (You can get an idea of the sculptural quality of these trees from the photo of the neighbor’s house.)

Although most of this year’s flowers may be casualties of the freeze, I suspect that the majority of the azalea bushes will be okay.  If they’re not, they’ll be replaced.  That’s the way Houston is. It’s nothing if not resilient–I can go on and on about the place and its can-do character. The fact that city exists at all is a testament to people’s imagination and will (and wealth).

Even though many people there are still without power and water, Houston is getting on with the business of being Houston. As I was leaving, I noticed crews of workers digging up and replacing the dead annuals in front of my hotel, while tiny leaves sprouting on the trees made a green mist on the horizon. At Bayou Bend, although the damage is no doubt extensive, some of this year’s azaleas are determined to bloom–like these.

New plants for a shady spot

Remember my last post when I said the worst was over? I was wrong. For weeks I had no thoughts about gardening. None. Everything was frozen. The days were something to be gotten through. Then suddenly, everything changed. Even though the ground is still partially covered, it’s like a dam burst. Ideas are starting to emerge like dirt from the snow. It’s almost March. Time to buy. In fact, last night I looked online at Prairie Nursery, my favorite supplier, and the plant I had my heart set on is sold out. Panic!

I operate best with a plan, so I hurried to come up with one for this area by our front door. It’s unexpectedly empty after we lost a Japanese maple last year, a dark spot, permanently shaded by the house and neighbor’s trees. The ivy growing there makes it even darker. Although the maple had pretty red leaves, people brushed their heads against it on their way to the front door. My main objection was that it blocked the light coming through the north-facing window. My neighborhood is full of trees planted in front of windows.  That’s almost its signature.

Voilà! It’s gone–presenting new problems and opportunities.

I did some research and sketched a plan on a yellow pad, roughly to scale.

Here’s what I ordered.

Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea) Blooms in July, August. 2 – 3’ high. The description says “popular with hummingbirds.”

Packera aurea (Golden Groundsel) Blooms May-June. 1 – 2’ high. “The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract small bees such as little carpenter bees, cuckoo bees and various halictid bees.”

Eurybra divaricata (White Woodland Aster) blooms in August-September. 2-4’ high. “Deep green foliage looks great all season…Asters are particurily beneficial to late season pollinators when so many other flowers have finished blooming. The seeds are consumed by winter songbirds.”

Total cost: $46.93.  The plants will be three-inch plugs, so I don’t expect they’ll be too impressive looking at the start. They also don’t arrive until the week of April 13, which gives me time to attack and eliminate the ivy.

It’s a dead zone now, but I’m looking forward to brightening this dark corner with white and yellow flowers.

This may be too many plants for this area but we have another shady spot in back where they may work if they don’t fit.

I decided a red twig dogwood would disappear against the similarly colored bricks. They also grow to be six to nine feet tall, so I will keep thinking about that for another location.

I’m really excited about this plan–and I’m proud of myself for taking a risk, because I’m not familiar with any of these plants. (It’s not too big a risk.) I learned about them from my Know Maintenance Perennial Garden book and the Dyck Arboretum blog. Speaking of the Dyck Arboretum, I signed up for this week’s session of their Native Plant School on Wednesday, February 24, 2021, about sustainably sourcing flowers.

I’m going to do my best to enjoy these last days of winter, because I have a feeling things are going to speed up very soon.

Next up: red twig dogwood

Sure, it’s blah out, and cold, but the hard part’s over. Punxsutawney Phil may predict six more weeks of winter, but what’s six weeks?  After all we’ve been through, six weeks is nothing.

If you’ve been outside much, you must have noticed buds forming on the trees and daffodils beginning to sprout. More birds are at the feeder. This morning I spotted some early tulips the rabbits have munched down to the ground. The rabbits living in our yard are the size of cats. My strategy is to enclose plants they find attractive with cylinders of wire fencing. I have a lot of wire fencing. 

Now that we’ve taken down some problem trees, we have two new areas to work on, one in back and another in the front of the house. My mind was blank about what to do with them, until suddenly it wasn’t. I’m thinking about planting red twig dogwoods.

A neighbor down the street planted a few in front of his house. They stand out against the yellow wall. 

In real life they’re more colorful than the photo. The red branches are striking in winter, and I like the way they stand out against the snow. Copper and orangey tones lift the spirits on gray days.  They remind me of the red willows growing along creeks and streams near Santa Fe. 

Here’s what I’ve learned.  Some dogwoods with red twigs are native to Asia, but Cornus sericea, commonly known as red twig dogwood or red osier dogwood, is native to North America. As the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOTGAR) says

  • They tolerate shade but are happiest in sun.
  • They require pruning, because the new stems have the most vivid color. “Any loss of flowers through spring pruning is not terribly significant since the small flowers of this dogwood are rather ordinary.”
  • They spread by suckers.
  • They look best planted in masses.
  • Several articles recommend pairing them with yellow twig dogwoods

I think they might do well in the site I’m considering, although they will undoubtably disappear in front of the brick wall.  

Maybe a yellow twig dogwood would be better, come to think of it. The site is shaded on the east by our vestibule, and the west by the neighbor’s spruce, which is ailing. MOBOGAR mentions that the dogwoods are vulnerable to bagworms, which is probably what’s plaguing the spruce, so that may be something to worry about. Also, since they grow to be six to nine feet tall, I will need to find a dwarf variety to prevent it from blocking the window. A quick search turns up a likely candidate, “Arctic Fire,” that tops out at 36-60 inches and is also more shade tolerant.

Incidentally, Scott Vogt, the instructor of the Dyck Arboretum’s Native Plant School class I attended in January, recommends dogwoods for wet areas.

As you can see from the photo, English Ivy covers this little plot. I will begin removing it on warm days, starting soon. I predict that will take quite a while–so expect posts about eradicating English Ivy in the next few weeks.

For this area, I also thought I might adapt this plan from Grow Native : Native Garden Design: Front Yard Formal Shade.

However, I’m not confident all of these plants will do well in such a shady spot.  Solidago? Monarda? Seriously?

I very much like the look of this Golden Groundsel, Packera aurea.

Doesn’t that look more interesting than English Ivy? It’s such a dark, forgotten corner right now, I love the idea of brightening it with color. The descriptions I’ve read of Packera aurea say “full sun to part shade,” so I will consult my knowledgeable friend before committing.

I still have time to plan before placing my order with Prairie Nursery on February 14.  In the meantime, the most thrilling thing having to do with gardening that I saw this week was a presentation someone shared on Facebook by Andrew Marrs Garden Design in Bloomington, Indiana. They posted fifteen photos with descriptions that show before, during, and after the installation of a naturalistic garden in a suburban backyard, complete with plant descriptions. It is magnificent. Their business website shows images, but of the finished result, not the process. If you’re on Facebook, you should definitely take a look. 

One of life’s great mysteries is that days scooch by, while years fly.  Hang in there. Spring is on the way!

Anticipation: planning for spring, ways to save money

In the garden, January is a quiet month.  Most of its pleasure comes from thinking about gardening, not from gardening itself. This may the case every month, come to think of it.

But things are happening: the world is gathering force for great change. Hard little buds have formed on the trees, and the foliage for some early bulbs is already pushing up through the mud. It’s a time for transforming hazy ideas into concrete plans, with budgets.

In the Facebook Kansas City Gardening Group, I see frequent posts asking when to start seeds. I’m not planning to grow plants from seeds myself, although I have brought home a few interesting-looking seedheads from plants I’ve passed in the woods. I’m not sure what they are. I’ll keep you posted. Last year I succumbed to temptation and sowed some yarrow seeds in a Styrofoam egg carton. I set them in a sunny window near my desk and misted them each day. Sure enough, they sprouted. They were very slow-growing.  I put them outside on a warm day and they drowned. Raindrops pelted them flat. They looked like a bunch of wet threads. They were too far gone to revive, so into the trash they went.

I understand they would have taken a few years to bloom.

Of course, not all seeds require so much patience.  Usually, I direct sow some alyssum and zinnias, and I probably will again this year, but I’m not going to get too worked up about seeds. They appeal to me in part as a way to save money. Every gardener I talked to last year commented about how expensive gardening can be.  Last year, my strategy for saving money was to stick to a plan.

Last week I mentioned Roby Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, which contains several plans for home gardeners like me to use as jumping off points. (That’s his garden at the Art Institute of Chicago at the top of the post.) Each features a community of plants intended to be pretty much self-sustaining. They’re inspired by impressionist paintings or famous gardens like the High Line. The plan I’m using takes its inspiration from Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil.

©  National Gallery of Art, Washington

My budget was $100. I ordered plants online from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin.  They sell a 32-plant kit that can contain up to six species for $119. 

Diblik’s plan is for a 10’ x 14’ bed and calls for 57 plants from six species, not including bulbs. My plot is 5’ x 16’ and has a bunch of stuff already growing in it, including a grapevine and one productive blueberry bush. To help me visualize, I drew my plan on a piece of brown craft paper. I folded the paper into twelve-inch squares to make a grid.  Then I colored big circles where the plants would go. It looked like Twister.  I spread this paper over the ground for a couple weeks while I was waiting for my plants to arrive, hoping to help suppress weeds:  soil solarization lite.  Did it work? I don’t know. The ground is pretty inhospitable. Not many weeds have sprouted, but I don’t know what it would have been like if I hadn’t used the paper.

I placed my order on March 1. The plants arrived a few weeks later. They were plugs. I’d planned to cut holes in my paper and plant through them, leaving the paper on the ground, but I think I gave up on that. The results aren’t exactly what I hoped—I doubt anyone would recognize Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil as the inspiration, and who knew how much rabbits love eating asters? I blame all shortcomings on the modifications I made to Diblik’s plan, and my lack of knowledge about the plants and site. Live and learn. We’ll see how they do this spring.

I’m planning to do pretty much the same thing again this year, although I’m shifting my attention onto other areas of the yard.  I’ve learned a lot about plants, and I’m going to buy some favorites—so I’ll muck up Diblik’s plan even more. Last week I attended an online class, “Starting a Native Plant Garden,” given by the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, Kansas. They offer a series of education programs called Native Plant School that are a perfect fit for my interests. The presentation covered big picture topics, like where native plants are appropriate (everywhere), how they are beneficial, site considerations, and planning for succession of bloom. The presenter, Scott Vogt, used images of the High Line and Piet Oudolf’s garden at Hummelo, as well as a drawing from Planting in a Post-Wild World to illustrate the concept of planting in layers.

During the second half-hour, Vogt showed slides of recommended plants for our area. You can watch the video of the presentation here:

When these plants appeared on my screen, my pulse quickened and I felt alert. I had a visceral response to all that color, just like I do to plants in real life. 

I remember my mother telling me that on a visit to England she watched a television show that was just flower pictures. The announcer would say, “Oh, here’s a lovely one.” We thought that was hilarious, but now I’d like to watch that show on TV.

The next session in the Native Plant School is “Mighty Oaks: Kansas Natives for Your Landscape” on Wednesday, January 20. Presenter Brad Guhr wrote a terrific blog post about an ancient oak tree in December, “A Grand Old Burr Oak.”

Future classes include one about attracting Monarchs on February 3, and “The Native Cutting Garden” on February 24. The classes cost $5.

My own beds are a work-in-progress, but for inspiration, here’s an image of a mature garden that uses some of the same plants.

From The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, 2014, by Roy Diblik. Published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. Used by permission

Wintry mix: plans, Roy Diblik, and hornbeams

Happy new year! 2021 is here at last, and like many of you, I’m full of plans and resolutions—or rather, full of dreams and desires I hope to transform into plans and resolutions. One day soon they’ll emerge like the ground from beneath the melting snow.

Planning the Wild Garden…

I started out years ago wanting to recreate The High Line in our backyard. Of course this is impossible, but after looking at millions of pictures and reading many books, I’ve come to understand some basic principles I want to apply.  I just don’t know how to put them into action in a pleasing way—and I don’t know much about plants. Sometimes I feel like if I could just get a plan, I’d follow it.

I picked up this pamphlet, Native Plants for Your Landscape, at a presentation at the Anita B. Gorman Nature Center. It contains four design ideas. I had my eye on the Hummingbird haven. I don’t know what happened to that idea. I may have substituted milkweed for all the suggested plants. This is what made the garden wild.

This stuff (Asclepias incarnata, I think) is aggressive.  The Missouri Botanical Garden calls it rough and weedy, and they are right. It grew into a thicket six feet high. The second year it sprouted all over the yard.

Monarch Watch says: “Fun Fact: In the past, the roots of swamp milkweed were simmered to make a tea taken in small quantities both as a general purge and to destroy and expel parasitic worms.” We haven’t tried that, but we love watching the butterflies.

Eventually my research led me to Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden: “a simplified approach to making a design magazine-worthy garden achievable at home.”

Diblik worked with Piet Oudolf on the Lurie Garden in Chicago, and some of his work at the Art Institute can be seen by the public. I adapted two of the book’s plans for areas in my yard. One is a plan for shade, “Moments of Color,” and the other, for sun, is inspired by Pierre Bonnard’s painting Earthly Paradise.

© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Diblik says, “I designed this garden for the Art institute of the Chicago,” but I could not find images of gardens that follow either of these plans. I planted anyway.

Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo,’ part of Diblik’s plan, and Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost,’ not part of the plan

The first thing that grabbed me about the Know Maintenance book is that Diblik despises wood-chip mulch. He describes surrounding plants with wood-chip mulch as wistful, sad, a wasteland. I always kind of liked seeing neat, brown beds dressed with dark brown mulch, so that was new and surprising. Now the sight of crews out spreading this stuff in the fall makes Diblik’s line chime in my head: “American the beautiful is now just the land of neat and tidy.”

He recommends mulching with ground-up leaves instead. “Your goal, remember, is to let the plants live in and with their own decaying leaves and stems, never again removing them from the garden.” Yes! The arrival of the leaf-sucking truck in our neighborhood has always been exciting for us, but not anymore. In fact, I wanted more leaves than I had, so I brought home some of my neighbors’ and mulched them up.

I love Diblik’s ideas, but must admit, my own results with these plans have been mixed. Some plants are doing great, but others aren’t. I misjudged how shady the strip along the south side of our yard is, and I substituted natives for some of the plants so I could buy them from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. I also only planted small portions of each plan. 

You have to know the plant! Without plant knowledge, nothing can happen.

You have to know your site conditions.

You have to own your commitment to care and maintenance.

You have to be sure you’re telling yourself the truth.

Roy Diblik, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden

I disregarded all his advice, in other words. Also, my taste is evolving. Lately what I desire is a herbaceous border like the one at Arley Hall.


All the garden blogs, books, TV shows, podcasts, and experts give the same advice.  Begin with structural layer, then add seasonal layers, and fill in with a ground layer of ephemerals, or bulbs.

I’m missing the structural layer.

Last week we got rid of some trees, a Japanese maple by our front door and two eastern red cedars in back yard.  The maple had died. We don’t know why. The cedars were bent, twisted, and unattractive. When we moved in ten years ago, ivy covered two-thirds of the then-shady backyard, and although I dug it up and pulled it off the cedars, they never thrived. House-eating squirrels used them as an onramp to the roof. The constant thump of their galloping overhead finally convinced us to cut down the trees.  Now this expanse of our rectangle of a yard is empty, leaving the entire east side completely without a structural layer.

Potential! We will replace the trees in the spring, but with what? We are considering hornbeams.

Hornbeams not native, although that doesn’t necessarily disqualify them. In much of my reading the authors recommend creating plant communities: groups of plants that thrive under the same conditions. These may be natives, but they don’t necessarily have to be. The Missouri Botanical garden lists the European hornbeam as a Plant of Merit. And while there is an American hornbeam, I’m not sure it has the distinctive almond shape we admire.

What should we do? I’m open to suggestions. (But no snarky ones, you Moldovans.) I’ll be making plans over the next few months.

Thank you!

I’d like to close by thanking the gardeners who visited with me in 2020: Jacques Bredius, Dana Posten, Marissa Adams, Deb Guardia, and Brent Tucker. Thank you for sharing your wonderful gardens and deep knowledge of plants. I’m also grateful for the help and encouragement I received from my friends Susi Cohen and Grace Suh.

I already have some garden visits lined up for spring and can’t wait to write about them. If you have a garden you’d like me to visit and write about, please let me know how to get in touch with you. I’d love to see it.

Most of all, thanks to all of you for reading. Happy gardening and dreams of summer!

A visit to Powell Gardens’ winter wonderlands

The week after Christmas is always one of my favorites of the year. Deadlines have been met. Work doesn’t start up again for another few weeks. The pace of life slows. Usually we visit family in Texas, but not this year. Instead we’re looking at outings and excursions we can take from home.

We may put on coats and hats and drive out to visit the Festival of Lights at Powell Gardens, which runs through January 3, 2021. (They’re taking a break on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day). Now in its fourth year, the festival’s fanciful displays transform 25 acres of the gardens into a kaleidoscope of lights.  

The Festival of Lights at Powell Gardens runs through January 3, 2021..

We went earlier in the season. We’re always looking for fun, safe things to do outdoors with our friends, and this was a perfect fit.

If the weather outside is frightful, a step into the conservatory’s holiday exhibit transports visitors to the tropics.

2020 holiday display in the Powell Gardens conservatory

A holiday tradition since 1997, the 2020 display is one of the few of its type open to the public this year—perhaps the only one, as the orangery at the Kauffman Gardens remains closed because of COVID. 

The conservatory is part of the Fay Jones-designed visitor’s center. Its pyramid-shaped glass roof is a prairie interpretation of a Victorian glass house, with a rectangular pool centered beneath the apex.  The cheerful sound of the moving water stimulates all the senses.

The sight of so much color is bracing. According to horticulturist and designer Brent Tucker, this year’s exhibit contains almost 500 plants.  Poinsettias of many colors and varieties crowd the beds, accompanied by snapdragons, Cuban oregano (coleus amboinicus), Dusty miller, eucalyptus, Pink anthuriums, soft ferns, and hundreds of others.   

Conservatories are often living plant museums, showcasing plants from different environments. For example, the conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden has areas dedicated to rainforest, desert, aquatic, and carnivorous plants. In contrast, Powell Gardens’ holiday exhibit includes plants from all over the world that thrive under similar conditions.  Tucker says that in a true conservatory, the plants would be in soil, but these are all in pots. This gives him flexibility to move things around, but he has to hide the pots and water each plant individually.

This is a lot of work. An enormous amount of care goes into keeping the display fresh and alive. Tucker keeps the humidity at fifty percent.  Earlier in the season, warm temperatures outside heated the air inside, requiring constant adjustment. Like most houseplants, many of the tropicals in the display are sensitive to being moved, and react to the stress by dropping leaves or turning brown as they acclimate to the lower light and humidity levels.  Tucker monitors their health to maintain the display’s lush, tropical feel.

Anchoring the display are four trees growing in enormous pots: a striking fiddle leaf fig (ficus lyrata); two large ficus, one green, the other variegated; and one of Powell Gardens’ most unusual plants, a rare Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as titan arum, or corpse flower. Despite its appearance, this isn’t a tree at all. 

Only a few specimens of this unusual plant are in cultivation. Titan arum blooms rarely, at a frequency that’s hard to predict. Its striking flower, called inflorescence, emits a foul odor Tucker describes as “wretched, like rotting flesh.”

New York Botanical Garden corpse flower in bloom June 27, 2018
© wikimedia commons

“The plant hasn’t flowered for us yet,” Tucker says. “I hope within the next few years it will!”

I do too. As part of the holiday exhibit, it is on display in the conservatory during the Festival of Lights, which closes on January 3, 2021.

Seeing red—and pink, and other colors: poinsettias

If you wanted a real Christmas tree this year but haven’t bought one yet, you may be out of luck. As The Wall Street Journal reports, we have a nation-wide shortage of trees, caused by more people staying home for holidays and retailers underestimating demand. Last week while I was up buying one of the last remaining trees at a garden store, workers were taking down the poles in the lot. Greenery is hard to find, too. Stores had heaps of it before Thanksgiving, but the next week most of it was gone. Now seeing pretty houses with green-framed doorways makes me feel slightly envious. However, plenty of the most-holiday-of-holiday-flowers are still available:  Ponsiettias.


Poinsettias bloom as the days get shorter, which makes them popular around the holidays. In addition to traditional red, nurseries have many different colors to choose from, including pink, ivory, and variegated.


Each year my father would give one to my aunts. Now he gives one to me. When I received it, the planting medium was very moist. I planned to keep it that way, but forgot. That was the right thing to do, it turns out. According to my friends at Family Tree, a poinsettia should be allowed to dry out between watering, about half way down the pot. Then soak it.

Speaking of variety, the holiday exhibit currently on display in the conservatory at Powell Gardens offers plenty of inspiration. Horticulturist and designer Brent Tucker has grouped poinsettias with other plants that thrive under similar conditions. The lively mix of colors and textures is a visual feast.

The 2020 Powell Gardens Holiday Exhibit mixes red and ivory poinsettias and begonia, Cuban oregano, peperomia, and snapdragon.

Tucker begins ordering poinsettias in January for the following year’s display.  Small, rooted cuttings arrive at the greenhouse in summer, where gardeners coax them into bloom by November.

Ivory and red poinsettias with Cuban oregano, peperomia

Native to Mexico, Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbia, or spurge, family. What we think of as their colorful flowers are actually bracts, or leaves. The tiny yellow flowers in the center are called cyathia. Poinsettias change color in response to lower light levels, and getting them to re-bloom can be tricky.  Plants must be kept out of the light and stay healthy, and they won’t be as bushy and compact as ones from a greenhouse. Family Tree Nursery provides detailed instructions for the determined. In warmer climates poinsettias can survive year-round as green plants. When I lived in Houston I planted one in the yard that grew to be five feet tall and was as gangly as a young chicken.

Poinsettias’ popularity as holiday plants can be traced to the efforts of horticulturist and nursery owner Paul Ecke of the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California. He was first to develop their commercial potential. His promotional efforts included giving free poinsettias to television studios during the 1960s. Ecke also perfected important propagation techniques, which he kept secret.

Vintage postcard: Field of poinsettias grown by Paul Ecke

A 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times compares the Eckes’ dominance in the poinsettia market to the DeBeers in diamonds. “The Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on the world’s poinsettia market largely because no one could figure out how they produced uniformly perfect plants with multiple branches emanating from a single stem—the so called Ecke style.”

Eventually somebody leaked the nursery’s secrets, which ended their monopoly but led to the creation of many new varieties. Apparently customers’ interest in new poinsettias is insatiable.

Poinsettia prices vary widely, ranging from $40-50 for a tall plant to just a few dollars for a three-inch one. I saw some for sale at Lowes for one dollar.  As the folks at Family Tree point out, these are loss leaders, priced below cost to get people into the store. “Nobody is going to make a profit on a $3.99 poinsettia plant.” We’ve all have seen neglected plants languishing on the carts at big box stores, although sometimes they can be saved. The poinsettias from a nursery like Family Tree are all home grown, cultivated in their own greenhouses and carefully tended to provide best experience possible for customers.

And despite what you may have heard, poinsettias are not dangerous. Poinsettias are harmless to people. According to the American Kennel Club, they can be irritating to dogs and cats if consumed, but not serious or fatal

The Powell Gardens holiday exhibit will be on display during the Festival of Lights, which runs until January 3, 2021.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you all love, joy and, a wonderful holiday!