Rain Garden Effectiveness - Data Collected Over a 4 Year Period in Cincinnati OH

I recently read an article from a journal called “Infrastructures”

To quote from the website:

Infrastructures (ISSN 2412-3811) is an international scientific peer-reviewed open access journal published quarterly online by MDPI. MDPI has supported academic communities since 1996. Based in Basel, Switzerland, MDPI has the mission to foster open scientific exchange in all forms, across all disciplines. Our 203 diverse, peer-reviewed, open access journals are supported by over 35,500 academic editors. We serve scholars from around the world to ensure the latest research is freely available and all content is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).

The important point is that the article was peer-reviewed, so one can have confidence that their methods and data analysis are in line with current accepted standards.

The article is entitled:

Factors Contributing to the Hydrologic Effectiveness of a Rain Garden Network (Cincinnati OH USA)

Authors: William D. Shuster, Robert A. Darner, Laura A. Schifman and Dustin L. Herrmann

The authors are scientists and post-docs from the EPA National Risk Management Research Laboratory and a hydrologist from the US Geologic Survey Michigan-Ohio Water Research Center.

Why did I read this article – I found it using a Google search meant to find studies of the effectiveness of rain gardens. Once I saw the system they had studied, I knew I had to somehow get through this article, even though my hydrology knowledge can fit in a drop of water. I’m not saying I understood everything in the article, so basically I’m going mostly by the authors’ summaries and interpretations of their data.

The project described in this article was at the St Francis Court Apartments in Cincinnati and was part of a city-wide effort to add green infrastructure to their parks system.

The project described in this article was at the St Francis Court Apartments in Cincinnati and was part of a city-wide effort to add green infrastructure to their parks system.

The focus of the paper was on infiltrative rain gardens – these are stormwater management practices meant to allow stormwater runoff to be redistributed back into the water cycle, while also detaining excess water so that its entry into the public stormwater system is delayed (thereby not exacerbating peak flow into the system).

I have long hoped that these practices would be used more widely in suburban residential and commerical development, especially infill development – the only kind of development left in most places around where I live. Right now, the “accepted” standard is to dig gigantic holes and bury large plastic chambers with open bottoms (often referred to as Cultechs) which accumulate the stormwater and allow it to infiltrate into the ground underneath and around the chamber. While this is definitely better than allowing the stormwater to go directly into the sewer system, directly into streams, lakes and rivers, or directly onto the neighboring property, it doesn’t allow for evapotranspiration and doesn’t support plantings. In other words, the water is buried - it doesn’t re-enter the water cycle as it would naturally. I have often wondered who decided, and why, that trying to infiltrate stormwater into the subsoil that is present when you dig a 5 foot deep hole should become an “accepted” practice. No offense to engineers, but they need to start thinking outside of the Cultech.

Whenever I’ve broached this subject of encouraging – yes, even requiring – landscaping (aka green infrastucture aka rain gardens) as part of the overall stormwater management practice in new development, it is said by folks like heads of Building Departments or Village Engineers that “rain gardens don’t work”. So I’m trying to find hard data that evaluates whether they work or not, and what factors affect their ability to infiltrate and detain stormwater.

General elements of a rain garden

General elements of a rain garden

Just a quick reminder of what we’re talking about – the term “rain garden” tends to mean different things to different people. In Stormwater Management Guideline-speak, it would be referred to as a Bioretention Cell.

A bioretention cell (rain garden) is an excavated area that is filled with a specialized soil media and plants. It is designed to temporarily store runoff volume in ponding areas, engineered rooting zone soils and gravel-filled underlayers. Rain gardens can re-direct excess water into other areas of the landscape, and rain garden vegetation returns water into the water cycle via evapotranspiration. Rain gardens are among the most versatile green infrastructure stormwater management practices: They can be installed in a variety of soil types from clay to sand and in a wide variety of sites. They are also quite effective for removing pollutants through a variety of different mechanisms, including infiltration, absorption, adsorption, evapotranspiration, microbial action, plant uptake, sedimentation, and filtration. Their overall goal is to combine infiltration and storage processes to manage at least the smallest and most-frequent storms.

Some important common elements of every rain garden practice:

• The garden is an excavated space that is filled back up with a specialized well-draining soil mixture.

• The space is shaped like a saucer – i.e. it has slightly bermed-up sides all around it so that the middle can fill up with water when it rains

• The depth and square footage of the garden, as well as those of the gravel layer underneath and the ponding area, are calculated based on the amount of rain to be expected versus the rate at which water can infiltrate into the underlying native soil beneath the special soil mixture. In other words, if the underlying soil drains slowly, the depth of the “holding” area needs to be larger. The math is a complex function how much water is coming in versus how much is draining out during the rain event. Eventually the rain will stop, so the underlying soil drainage rate will determine how long there will be standing water the garden. Luckily for us, there are computer programs that model this dynamic process, so you can change sizes and depths to accommodate the needs of your specific site.

• There needs to be a controlled overflow area that is defined within the design in case more rain enters the “holding” area than it can accommodate. Overflow from the rain garden should be directed onto a flow-attenuating surface– eventually this overflow may enter the storm sewer system directly or indirectly.

• The planted surface is covered with a fairly substantial layer of mulch – 3 inches or so – and the type of mulch used is important because you don’t want it to float away or wash away. The mulch is an important component because it prevents weeds as well as helping to retain soil moisture (since most of the time the soil in a rain garden will be dry). The mulch layer also protects the special rain garden soil from getting contaminated with mud or silt that might be present in stormwater runoff.

• There is generally a defined inlet into the rain garden – often a downspout extension is directed into the space or it may receive surface flow (or both). Wherever stormwater enters the garden there should also be some sort of flow attenuation mechanism to keep erosion within the garden to a minimum.

• There are obviously lots of other design considerations for rain gardens that you want to be ornamental and not just for mall parking lots. Like the space should be shaped so that water flows into the deepest parts first so that it is maximally effective. And often dry river beds are incorporated into the design so that when its “empty” it still has some structure. Sometimes weirs are also included to increase the ponding volumes and to manage sloped areas.

• When done well, a rain garden becomes an element of the landscape design that contributes to the overall beauty of the space as well as allowing stormwater to re-enter the water cycle in a natural manner without causing erosion or flooding the neighbor’s yard.

Each water-managing element contributes to the overall effectiveness of the rain garden. For example, the selection of rooting zone soil is a key part of the rain garden design process, as it regulates the movement of runoff volume into the gravel drainage layer. If the material is too permeable, retention time is short, possibly leading to immediate outflow conditions and adding to the stormflow burden in the sewer system. Alternately, if the soil profile has low permeability, then drawdown times are increased, predisposing the rain garden to an overflow condition.

Due to mulching and washing through of organic matter and soil particles, and development of soil biotic communities, the soil profile in a rain garden is in a constant state of development, influencing soil hydraulics.

Plants are integral to the success of rain gardens because their roots improve soil structure, thereby increasing infiltration rates. Plants used in rain gardens must be able to withstand widely varying soil moisture conditions, since rain gardens are often dry for long time periods, punctuated with periods of temporary standing water.

Back to the Research Paper

For this particular article, the authors followed a two-tier rain garden practice in Cincinnati OH for 4 years.  The greater Cincinnati area has a humid continental climate pattern with approximately 40 inches of precipitation annually and average daily high temperatures of 28 degrees F in January to 75 degrees F in July.

Cincinnatti Rain Garden.jpeg

Description of the site and rain garden network: Note that in many ways this site is the worst case scenario for building a rain garden.

• The area made into an infiltration garden used to be an asphalt parking lot associated with a residential apartment complex

• It is a two-tier system that receives run-off from a hillslope

• It accepts runoff from a roadway drainage system, from the forested hillside and from the asphalt parking lot at the southern end of the catchment

• All of these flows combine and are piped to an inlet in the upper rain garden. As runoff volume fills the upper rain garden, if storage capacity in the upper rain garden is filled, the excess drainage volume is conveyed to the lower rain garden.

• If the capacity of the lower rain garden is exceeded, excess drainage volume is conveyed to the centralized combined sewer collection system that runs along the adjacent street

The rain garden system was built fall 2010 to spring 2011. It consists of of an upper rain garden (4,300 sf) and a lower rain garden (3,200 sf), and drains an area approximately 96,875 sf (2.2 acres) in extent. Each garden is bermed at its borders with the perimeter in turf slopes. This creates a bowl shape that has considerable surface storage capacity of ~9,430 cu ft and ~8,475 cu ft, for upper and lower gardens, respectively.

The rain garden soil profile is composed of a 2 – 4 inch surface layer of chipped hardwood mulch placed over a 16-24 inch layer of engineered soil (texture: loamy sand in the upper garden, sandy loam in the lower garden)

The drainage layer is 14 inches of #57 gravel aggregate wrapped with a geotextile fabric

The native soil under the gravel is a very-slowly permeable, cohesive silty clay subsoil with trace shale parent material and limestone fragments.

Each garden includes PVC pipe underdrains that are wrapped in geotextile fabric and bedded into the gravel layer, and routed to drop box junctions. The upper garden drainage is conveyed along a pipe to the lower garden inlet. Lower garden underdrains are routed to its own drop box, and flows from this box are conveyed to the city combined sewer collection system.

Each garden was planted with generalist (drought- and flood-tolerant) perennials and grasses (plant list shown at the end).

This is an image I found on the internet on the website of a local newspaper taken in 2016 that I think helps to understand the site a bit better. This photo is taken from above the upper garden looking down to the lower garden. The city installed a curving path between the two levels to help folks navigate the space. At the bottom, you see the residential street, as indicated at the bottom of the diagram shown above.

This is an image I found on the internet on the website of a local newspaper taken in 2016 that I think helps to understand the site a bit better. This photo is taken from above the upper garden looking down to the lower garden. The city installed a curving path between the two levels to help folks navigate the space. At the bottom, you see the residential street, as indicated at the bottom of the diagram shown above.

Summary of Key Findings:

Based on 233 monitored warm-season rainfall events over 4 years, nearly half of total inflow volume was detained, with 90 percent of all events producing no flow to the combined sewer.

Conclusion: 90% of all rainfall events were fully detained in the gardens

For a storm event that drove the rain gardens to release flow to the sewer system (10% of all events), we found that the flows into the local combined sewer system were delayed off-peak for an average of 5.5 h.

Conclusion: when rain garden capacity was exceeded, peak flow into the sewer system was delayed to avoid adding to the immediate burden on the sewer system cause by the rainfall event

Table 3.jpeg

With the exception of areas immediately around the inlets, the initial plantings quickly established in the construction phase from 2011–2012, with canopy coverage in 2016 (4 years in to the operational phase) estimated at 97%. Although the thick surface mulch layer likely restricted evaporative loss, the amount of transpiration may have increased due to increased vegetative cover and presumably increased removal of soil moisture through likewise expanded root systems. Our analysis suggests that total event rainfall depth (an input) and evapotranspiration (a loss) are primary factors regulating flows through the rain garden network.

Conclusion: Chosen plants need to establish quickly because they are one of two major factors in regulating flow through a rain garden

The upper rain garden at St Francis Apartments - inflow attenuation area is seen on the left side. Note the density of the plants. This photo was taken 2 seasons after the installation of the garden.

The upper rain garden at St Francis Apartments - inflow attenuation area is seen on the left side. Note the density of the plants. This photo was taken 2 seasons after the installation of the garden.

We found that events with the largest flows to the combined sewer system had high total rainfall depth delivered over longer durations (i.e., 24 h). This suggested that average event intensity was not as important as total event rainfall depth.

Comment: good to know that the high intensity events were fully detained

The infiltration rate of the rain garden is four-times greater than that of the surrounding turf areas.

Comment: this is why rain gardens are better than grass! especially sloped areas of grass.

Soil profiles developed over time, and the stratification of the surface mulch layer was similar for both gardens. Serial, bi-annual mulching (2012, 2014) led to the development of a pronounced organic horizon in both gardens, which we attributed to the hardwood-chip mulch composting in place. Over the ensuing six years since construction, the surface horizons in both gardens stratified into the coarse, newer mulch layer that comprises the Oi horizon, which transitioned to the finer, older layer of organic matter that defined an Oa horizon. By 2016, the total organic layer thickness ranged from 4 to 13 cm, and 7 to 25 cm in the upper, and lower gardens, respectively.

Conclusion: Soil structure improved over the years due to mulch composting in place. Also, the garden was only mulched once every two years in the beginning. This probably helped to allow plants to spread and fill in as they became established.

We were particularly surprised that there was no evidence of degradation in upper garden infiltration rates, where the mass of sediment delivered ranged between 0.1 to 56 kg with a median of 8 kg per event.

Overall, the upper rain garden acted as a fine sediment filter, protecting the lower garden from sedimentation, such that the study-wide, event-wise maximum suspended sediment load into the lower garden was only 2 kg. This 75% decrease in fine sediment loading is in agreement with other field studies which reported 68 to 90% reductions in suspended sediment loads in networked rain gardens. Jenkins et al. observed that although the texture of rain garden surface soils was changed by settling of fine sediments over an eight-year study period, infiltration rates did not change. Taken in the context of the present study, the specific composition and thickness of the surface mulch layer may regulate the impact of sediment load on rain garden hydrology. Based on our data, we speculate that sediments were well-dispersed in the vicinity of the inlet, and ultimately incorporated into the thick organic surface soil, where their impact on infiltration rate was minimized.

Conclusion: The upper garden acted as a sediment filter for the lower garden. It seems that the mulch layer also may regulate sediment load. Bottom line: whatever sediment got in didn’t degrade infiltration over time.

From a practical standpoint, the event peak depth (via crest stage gauges) was always lower than the maximum freeboard depth in either rain garden; total inflow volume for any event was insufficient to fill either rain garden. This suggests that a smaller proportion of each rain garden was active in infiltration and drainage processes. Given the amount of unused surface area (and hence retention capacity) in both rain gardens, future outflow events in this network may be better mitigated by increasing the usable area. Some practical approaches that may be generalizable to other rain gardens include: engaging the unused network storage volume via flow-spreaders; facilitate movement of water to the perimeter by re-grading the gardens to create a slight slope toward the outer perimeter of each garden; and limiting the drainage area of underdrains to a close proximity near the inlet, forcing lateral water flow (fully leveraging subsurface storage) once the maximum vertical flow rate is attained.

Conclusion: Their data showed them that only a portion of their rain gardens were “active” in the infiltration and drainage process. Also, they never overflowed their banks. They suggest some practical additions to rain garden design that would allow more of the garden’s area to be active, all directed towards filling the garden up more effectively (flow-spreaders; grading toward the outer perimeter; limiting under drains to closest to the inlets to maximize storage within the gravel underlayer).

Although monitoring of volume reduction ended in fall 2015, ongoing 2016 measurements of soil structural and hydrologic characteristics indicate that soils were overall less compact, and had maintained or increased hydraulic conductivity. Given no other changes in the network, these measurements indicated that retention capacity and the overall operational dynamic of this rain garden network is stable. Retention of half of total inflow volume across four years of contrasting rainfall patterns is encouraging news for wastewater management with infiltration-type stormwater control measures.

St Francis Rain Garden just after planting

St Francis Rain Garden just after planting

St Francis Rain Garden functioning to detain stormwater

St Francis Rain Garden functioning to detain stormwater

They work! and they’re stable!

Rain gardens can be beautiful - install more of them people!

Plant List for St Francis Rain Gardens - sweet and simple!

Plant List for St Francis Rain Gardens - sweet and simple!


Here's the letter I sent to our School District in 2015. Spoiler alert - nothing happened!

Dear School District:

As many of you are aware, Irvington is in the beginning of a process designed to revitalize Main Street. This process will include traffic calming measures – something very important for the school district's children as well as the larger community – as part of an overall plan to make Irvington more walkable. Another important part of the process is to upgrade the landscaping all along Main Street. Aesthetics are a major element of "walkability" – something nice to look at. But landscaping is so much more than that – it’s the way we connect to nature. In 1948, Christopher Tunnard, the "father" of modern landscape architecture, penned these words:

"Our … gardens have a new mission - to fulfill the need for an affinity with Nature … In an age which has divorced itself from the life of the soil we need Nature's materials … – her sticks and stones and leaves, the stimulus of her proximity."

These words are still as true as ever. Feeling connection to the earth, to the seasons, to nature is an important part of our and our children's well-being. I sent a letter this spring alerting you to the fact that 2015 has been designated the International Year of Soil by the United Nations. I had hoped (and still do!) that the topic of soil would be given a special focus in the science curriculum at all levels this year. Soil science is an interesting and complex field – it’s a combination of geology, physics, chemistry and biology, so it affords excellent STEM educational opportunities and you can even get your hands dirty while doing it!

Your various District campuses have a lot of grass space (excluding fields) that takes time and water resources to maintain, not to mention the air and noise pollution caused by the mowers and blowers and the adverse effect of pesticides and fertilizers that are undoubtedly used on the grass.

There is another initiative started in 2014 called "Bring Back the Pollinators" – a Xerces Society Conservation Campaign with a Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Their campaign has a lot of the same "hooks" as your PACE car program – you sign a pledge, you get a sign and so forth. But, more importantly, you either preserve or create pollinator habitat before you take the pledge. You learn why that is important – because pollinators are essential to the reproduction of over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species. Without pollinators, there wouldn't be fruits and seeds for birds and mammals to eat. Pollinators are at risk from habitat loss, pesticide use, and introduced diseases.

Especially in a Village like ours, it is important to include pollinator plantings wherever we can, because almost all of our land is developed, and on larger lots habitat is lost to lawns and swimming pools. On school property, habitat is lost to playing fields either made of plastic or groomed and mowed and seeded with a virtual monoculture of grass species.

Why not take the initiative to decrease some of the "lawn" areas on the various campuses by planting pollinator garden strips? At the Main Street School, you could use the grassy hillside between the school building and Village Hall for a pollinator garden. Such a garden would help with stormwater management on that hillside, where an open 6-inch PVC pipe daylights at the top of the hill, causing erosion and probably putting the Village Hall retaining wall at risk – easy to design a pollinator garden that would slow that stormwater down. At Dow's Lane, you could turn part of the land where the trailers used to be into a pollinator garden. At the Middle School/High School campus you could plant a pollinator garden strip along the base of the conservation easement on the east side of Meszaros field. There could still be a strip of lawn next to the track for people to sit on, but behind it (and nearer to the road) could be pollinator habitat garden. Also, the area where the detention basin is on your right side as you come up the hill is all grass – some of that could be turned into habitat as well.

Most of you probably realize that pollinator habitat gardens don't have to be intensively maintained once they are established. Most of the plants you will use thrive in poor soil – no need for compost or soil enrichment or whatever. Most of the plants that you will use are also drought-resistant, so that once they have grown for a couple of seasons and established their root systems, irrigation wouldn't be required except in times of extreme drought. There's an example of this up at the O'Hara Nature Center – the Xeriscape garden that I designed was installed a couple of seasons ago. It is not fenced to keep critters out and it has no irrigation system. It was watered with a hose a couple of times last summer when it didn't rain enough and weeded a couple of times. It is planted only with native species. There are shrubs, grasses and flowering perennials. Most everything came back after the winter and there’s been relatively little browsing by deer or other critters. If there had been more money, a few small trees could have been incorporated and the planted density could have been greater to help keep weeds at bay. Have a look at it now – none other than Joe Archino commented at the last Village Board meeting that it looked amazing. It's not perfect, but it sure is exuberant (and full of pollinators)! Pollinator gardens don't have to be "messy meadows" or "look weedy" – they can be designed just as your home landscape is and have flow and interest. A pollinator garden is maybe even better than a vegetable garden for students, because the plants start to come back (if they're perennials or grasses), leaf out and many will flower in the spring, before summer vacation. Vegetables really come into their own during the summer, when the kids aren't around – you can't even plant seeds outside until mid-May. A pollinator garden will still be flowering in fall when school starts again – in fact their fall look can be very beautiful if plants are selected for fall foliage color. You can pick the fall leaves and extract the color pigments and separate them out on a gel in chemistry lab. You can make art from the colored leaves. You can use the garden for photography class.

The gardens don't have to start out big. Think of them as "demonstrations" at first, just as was done at the Nature Center. Once you and the school kids see how cool it is, they will want to enlarge it over time. And that can be a science project in and of itself with continuity year to year.

Here are a few examples:

This is a circle garden in Tarrytown down by the river with no irrigation and no fencing. It is planted with a simple palette – three different species of ornamental grasses with different heights and habits, Joe Pye weed and Verbena bonariensis. The pattern in which the grasses and flowers are planted provides the flow – the grasses provide structure, color, texture and motion in the wind.

Here's the pollinator garden at Stone Barns along the main driveway. It happens to also be a stormwater management bioswale. The showy fall color is from sumac, a native shrub with prominent seedheads beloved by birds who use them as winter food.

The High Line – Quintessential example of pollinator paradise in the middle of the city in a confined space – the plant list for that garden is available on line so it should be easy to find good plants to use.

I'd be happy to share my enthusiasms in further discussions if you want.


Ann Acheson

OK, what’s happened since then? …

  • First, the Year of Soil came and went with not so much as a whisper of studying it in our schools. Don’t you think our kids should learn about soil? Do you think any of them know how complicated soil is or why its important to the world?

  • Second, the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge has since achieved its goal - so there are more than a million new pollinator gardens out there. That’s a good thing! You can’t get the signs any more, though, unless you contribute $55.

  • Third, we have indeed started improving our Main Street streetscape. We’re finding that the logistics of traffic calming measures are more complicated than first thought. But, nevertheless, drive down Main Street and check out Village Hall and its new plaza and plantings (designed and installed by the Ann Acheson Landscape Design, Christina Griffin Architect and Cronin Engineering Team). We may see a butterfly there yet!

  • Fourth, the Xeriscape Garden I spoke about has since become overgrown with weeds then painstakingly cleaned up several times. It now has an “official” gardener taking care of it - Bravo! - so I’m happy. I’m still pretty proud of that garden, I have to say.

  • Fifth, the Tarrytown grass garden I showed the picture of has since been neglected and several cars/trucks have run over parts of it. For the most part, the grasses are still there, so the garden still “reads” not too badly from a distance. But the moral of the story is that gardens in public spaces need to be “owned” by someone and weeds have to be kept at bay.

    That, my friends, is why there’s so much grass in public spaces - you can’t mow a garden - or CAN YOU? Remember, a Roy Diblik garden can be mowed once in March and then left alone for the rest of the year. But of course that’s only after its been designed by someone with knowledge of the appropriate plants and allowed to establish itself while being tended to.

  • Sixth, the school district decided to install paving instead of landscaping in the small central courtyard on the Middle/High School campus because the grass wouldn’t grow and whatever landscaping was there died. Couldn’t they have challenged their students to come up with a solution? Our kids need to be connected to the earth, not to artificial turf and asphalt.

Moral of the Story: Irvington School District listen up! Do some landscaping and involve the students!


Conifer Cone Production

Why don’t I see cones on my Norway spruces every year?

A stand of conifers may look like they change little from year to year, but in fact the number of seeds and cones they produce varies widely. Conifers produce cone crops erratically; there will be years of complete cone failure, years of poor to moderate cone production, and, periodically, years in which a staggering number of cones burden the trees – referred to as “mast years”. “Mast” was first used to describe “the fruit of forest-trees (beech, oak, chestnut, pecan, etc.), especially if having fallen from the tree, used as fodder for pigs and other animals”. In modern usage it refers more generally to the edible vegetative or reproductive part produced by woody species of plants, i.e. trees and shrubs, that wildlife species and some domestic animals consume. Mast includes acorns, nuts, berries, drupes, catkins, rose hips and conifer cones.



Bumper mast years produce such an excess of cones that predators can’t possibly consume them all – guaranteeing the tree opportunities for successful seed dispersal, germination, and recruitment. Mast years usually occur in cycles, every two to seven years. Any individual tree which masted in a generally non-mast year would be subjected to the exclusive attention of the seed predators and so would be selected against.

This shows how the numbers of cones vary from year to year (data from NRC website) - mast years are pretty obvious but also note that the number of cones goes down to zero in intervening years.

This shows how the numbers of cones vary from year to year (data from NRC website) - mast years are pretty obvious but also note that the number of cones goes down to zero in intervening years.

Why any given year is a mast year is not fully understood, but certainly is affected by year-to-year climate variations. The largest cone crops follow optimal conditions: a cool growing season two years before a cone crop, allowing trees to grow and build reserves; a hot spring in the year preceding a cone crop, stimulating trees to initiate cone development; and cool growing con- ditions the year of a cone crop, enabling maximum development of the cones. The trees’ reserves are exhausted during a masting event, resulting in very few cones the following year.

Not all cones are seed cones. Seed cones are the female fruits of conifer species, and a typical seed cone’s woody scales cover and protect the ripened ovules underneath them. Seeds are impressed against the inner wall of each scale. Though they don’t look the same, the male reproductive organs that provide pollen are also considered to be cones.

Male cones release pollen in the spring, which is transferred from male to female parts by WIND, not by insects, birds, or other pollinators.

Wind pollination: male cones releasing pollen. The pollen grains are so light that they float upwards, which is why the female cones are at the top of the tree.

Wind pollination: male cones releasing pollen. The pollen grains are so light that they float upwards, which is why the female cones are at the top of the tree.

This is a real picture from the National Parks Department website of clouds of pollen being released by conifers. It looks this way because the pollen grains float upward and create a haze. Pollen release takes place in a restricted time frame over only a few days.

This is a real picture from the National Parks Department website of clouds of pollen being released by conifers. It looks this way because the pollen grains float upward and create a haze. Pollen release takes place in a restricted time frame over only a few days.

The reproductive cycle for a Norway spruce takes two years. Cone buds are initiated and differentiate in the early summer (Year 1). In the following year (Year 2) the cone buds flush, pollination and fertilization occur and embryo and seed development are completed. Seed fall begins in the autumn and may continue into the spring of a third year.

In spruces seed cones occur towards the top of the crown and pollen cones are concentrated in the mid to lower crown. Both types of cone are borne on 1-year-old shoots. In Norway spruce the female buds appear only in terminal positions and the male buds occur in lateral positions along the length of the shoot.

In Year 1 bud differentiation begins at about the cessation of lateral shoot elongation, towards the end of July. Buds become dormant during November, at which time they contain all their needles and reproductive cells for the next season.

By mid May of Year 2, the cones have flushed and are readily visible on the trees. The pollen cones appear red and as they elongate and as pollen is shed they turn yellow. By mid-May seed cones have opened and they turn to the vertical position and are green, reddish-green or red.

Pollen shedding and pollination occur in late May (of Year 2) and fertilization occurs in late June. By late August the seed cones are green and are now hanging downward on the trees. During September, the drooping seed cones are much more visible because they’ve turned reddish brown in the tops of the trees. Seed shedding begins in late October, and can continue until the spring of Year 3. In Norway spruce, seed shedding occurs by dropping some of the cones, and also by some cones opening while still held on the branches, dispersing the seeds via the wind. This means that in some years there might be mature cones left on the tree even though new cone production is low or non-existent, and in other years there might be mature cones and developing cones on the same tree.

Mature cones and developing cones on the same Norway spruce. The developing female (seed) cones are upright and red-colored, whereas the mature cones that hadn’t fallen off the tree are brown and hanging downward.

Mature cones and developing cones on the same Norway spruce. The developing female (seed) cones are upright and red-colored, whereas the mature cones that hadn’t fallen off the tree are brown and hanging downward.

Disruption of the reproductive cycle can occur in a couple of ways: Trees may fail to initiate cone buds because they lack the required energy reserves. Frosts in spring can damage emerging cones. Poor weather, particularly rain at the time of pollen shedding, can reduce pollination. Insect damage and premature conelet drop may occur.

But some of our nursery practices may also affect whether cones are produced

Another relevant issue is how the Norway spruce that you buy in a wholesale or retail nursery has been grown. It has likely been sheared, maybe more than once if you’ve bought it as an 8-footer or taller. Shearing is done to create uniformity of shape and to ensure dense branch structure. Shearing differs from pruning in that shearing concentrates on removing only the terminal portion of the new shoots, generally less than half its length. Shearing will not only shorten the annual growth of these shoots, but will also result in more shoots. This will create a more compact plant than one that is not sheared and one with denser foliage – it will look “better” to the buyer. Shearing is generally done just after lateral growth has stopped and hardened off (late summer) – shortly after cone bud differentiation would have started – and since seed cones are in a terminal position on spruce trees, shearing can easily remove nascent seed cone buds.

Also, the tree you buy, if its fairly tall already, is probably in balled and burlapped form, having been field grown and mechanically dug. Since spruces have unusually shallow roots, the process of mechanical digging cuts off a great deal of the tree’s total root mass; spruce tree root mass is more like a pancake than a muffin – the bigger the tree the larger the diameter of the pancake. Mechanical digging creates a root ball with a fixed diameter, meaning that bigger spruce trees end up having the most compromised root masses when they’re dug. The newly-planted tree’s first priority for energy expenditure will be to regenerate its roots. So it is not unusual for spruce trees in the nursery trade not to set cone buds for a number of years after planting.

Proven Winners National Plants of the Year 2019

Its a bold branding choice…

But their approach seems to be paying off, and I can only conclude that its because their testing and quality control measures live up to their marketing skills.



Why Proven Winners?

OK, lets be honest, it does feel good when you show up at client’s house with plants in the distinctive white Proven Winners containers – after all it tells the client that the plant is a winner and maybe you’re a bit of a winner as well. They cost a bit more – sometimes a lot more – so what are you paying for and how have they been proven to be “winners”?

The Proven Winners website lays it out like this:

It All Starts With a Better Plant

The right plant for all places: A plant with poor genetics or a limited range of performance requires more chemical inputs to survive and perform. Proven Winners searches the world to find and select plants which are clearly superior to others of their type in our trials in Michigan, New Hampshire, California, Germany, Japan, and Florida. This selection process translates into better performance for the home owner with fewer chemical inputs. These plants are more resistant to disease and insect pests, have heat and humidity tolerance and the broadest geographic range of superior performance. All of which means they require fewer insecticides and fungicides, perform well at lower fertility levels, and overall are just tougher, proven performers.

Start healthy – stay healthy: In addition to strenuous testing for consumer performance, Proven Winners goes the extra step in protecting our plants and the consumers who use them. Every Proven Winners plant has been screened of all plant disease and viral organisms. It is not a fast or inexpensive process and usually amounts to about $5,000.00 per plant. Why do we do it? So that when the plants arrive at your local garden center, we know we have done everything possible to assure our consumers of the healthiest plant possible. It is really a simple concept – the gardener is more likely to succeed and value Proven Winners if they start with the healthiest plant possible, and we want people to remember Proven Winners as the best plants they have grown! Hence the slogan: A Better Garden Begins with a Better Plant.

They also explain their sustainability practices, including ensuring that their branded containers can be recycled by the homeowner in their normal recycling stream.


Saving energy: Proven Winners greenhouse facilities are equipped with energy efficient lighting to help save energy. Plus, the material used in our greenhouse structures itself is highly energy efficient, meaning that at many times of year, the sun is our main source of energy and heat! And, many of our facilities are equipped with energy curtains that conserve heat during cold weather and provide shade on sunny days

Saving water: Proven Winners greenhouse facilities recapture and reuse significant amounts of water. Many of our greenhouse facilities are equipped with flood floors that reuse water. Also, in our production process we group plants according to water needs and soil type, allowing us to deliver the right amount of water needed by each plant – resulting in little waste. And, our high tech watering systems reduce overall waste of water and fertilizer.

Shipping More Locally: Proven Winners companies are located strategically throughout North America to provide young plants to finished growers that can serve their own local retail markets. This means that finished plants do not need to travel far to reach the end consumer.

Sustainability is what has sometimes been lacking in the green industry, so their practices are important and impressive. I imagine that all of these measures contribute now, or will in the near future, to managing the bottom line and to ensuring that plants arrive at their destinations more alive than dead.

…Proven Winners – “trialed and tested for gardening success like no other”

Nepeta X ‘Cat’s Pajamas’

Nepeta X ‘Cat’s Pajamas’

Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora ‘Little Quick Fire’

Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora ‘Little Quick Fire’

I guess for me the bottom line is this: I don’t believe that there is necessarily a “right plant for all places” - I think that kind of “Home Depot”-like mentality can be dangerous. All places are different, so our plant knowledge has to be broad and deep in order to be successful. But Proven Winners plants are high quality, healthy and you usually can’t go wrong if you choose one.

That being said, Proven Winners has instituted a program called “National Plants of the Year”

Proven Winners National Plants of the Year 2019

Visit the website to see information about these plants.


Candidates for Proven Winners’ National Plants of the Year are judged stringently by growers, retailers and home gardeners against the following criteria:

• Easy to grow

• Iconic

• Readily available

• Outstanding landscape performance

Annual of the Year: LEMON CORAL™ SEDUM (Zones 7 – 11)

Chartreuse foliage; same Sedum species as ‘Anglelina’. PW describe it as growing up to 10” tall and 14” wide.

Perennial of the Year: SUMMERIFIC® 'BERRY AWESOME' HIBISCUS (Zones 4 – 9)

Perennial hibiscus is a really great addition to moist areas in a sunny garden bed. Fast growers like this cultivar are prized because they have some “presence” in the summer before they bloom. This one has lavender flowers – a nice addition to the white- or red-flowering versions that are commonly planted.

Landscape Shrub of the Year: LOW SCAPE MOUND™ ARONIA (Zones 3 - 9)

Aronia is a native plant workhorse – not overly showy but with its moments – like great fall color and berries for the birds. This particular cultivar is described by PW as only growing “to 24” tall and 26” wide, doesn’t require pruning.” This would be a welcome addition to large areas where lots of shrubs are being planted – less pruning makes eveyone happier and the plant will also pack more bang for the buck in terms of fall color and berries because it is more compact. This cultivar has been available in the Niursery trade for a couple of years and has made me willing to plant aronia again.

Hosta of the Year: SHADOWLAND® 'AUTUMN FROST' HOSTA (Zones 3 – 9)

PW says “'Autumn Frost' brings light to shady spots with its broad, glowing yellow margins and frosty blue centers. …it typically grows to 12” tall and 24” wide. Plus, it's super cold hardy, returning reliably every year even in -40° temperatures.”

Mostly we can’t install hostas because of deer predation, but when we can we always love a new and interesting color and habit. There isn’t anything that adds more beauty to a shade garden (except hellebores) – although hostas do turn to snot at the first frost.

Rose of the Year: AT LAST® ROSA (Zones 5 – 9)

A fragrant Knock-Out-like rose? This is the holy grail for many landscape designers, who want the reliability, disease resistance and flower power of Knock Out roses and have resigned themselves to no fragrance. But I say – why have a rose if it isn’t fragrant? Maybe this cultivar will do the trick … worth a try certainly.

PW says:

“This rose combines the romance and fragrance of a fully-petaled tea rose and the no-nonsense practicality of a disease resistant landscape rose. It will bloom non-stop from late spring until frost with distinctive soft pink to sunset orange tones. Growing up to 4’ tall and just as wide…”

Hydrangea of the Year: FIRE LIGHT® HYDRANGEA PANICULATA (Zones 3 – 8)

At first I said to myself - do we really need another two-tone PG hydrangea?!? I was leaning towards saying no, we don’t, until I saw the pictures of this variety in one of the test gardens posted by Tim Wood whose trial gardens are in Michigan. It made all the others around it look pretty weak (thats the third picture in the series below). Fire Light gets pretty huge (up to 6' tall and 6’ wide) but has strong stems that hold the flowers upright.

Flowering Shrub of the Year: SONIC BLOOM® WEIGELA (Zones 4 – 8)

Weigela is definitely an “old-fashoned” shrub– its lovely in bloom but has an unruly habit that demands regular pruning. The flowers are nice, but the rest of the plant is pretty boring. One thing it has going for it is that deer don’t seem to favor it. I’ve planted a couple of different Weigela cultivars over the last few years – those with colored leaves and/or compact habits. Ideally, the burgundy-leafed cultivars could take the place of ‘Concorde’ barberry – I’m still not totally convinced of that although I don’t plant barberry anymore anyway.

This new series of “Sonic Bloom” weigelas from PW are said to rebloom “strongly” from midsummer to frost. That would be a good thing for a shrub border. (IF they really do rebloom - the boomerang (bloomerang?) lilacs seem less than impressive where I’ve used them). PW cultivars are: Ghost®, Pearl, Pink, Pure Pink and Red.

PPA 2019 Plant of The Year: Stachys monieri 'Hummelo' ... and some of the previous winners as well

The Perennial Plant of the Year is selected by the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) based on the following criteria:

• Suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions

• Low Maintenance

• Pest and disease resistant

• Readily available in the year of release

• Multiple season interest or excellent foliage

• Easily propagated by asexual ( division or cuttings) or seed propagation

Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’ (Hummelo Betony aka Lamb’s Ears) is a low-growing perennial that thrives in sun to part-shade and well-drained soil. It is a cousin to the perhaps more familiar form of Lamb’s-Ears, Stachys byzantina (fuzzy, silvery large leaves and flowers that a lot of people remove right away) but not at all similar. ‘Hummelo’ forms large, mounded clumps of crisp green (non-fuzzy and somewhat crinkled) foliage. Its foliage is attractive when its not in bloom, but not as showy as that of Stachys byzantina. The real show comes in early to mid-summer, when sturdy spikes of lavender-rose flowers shoot up through the foliage, putting on quite a display.

Though this plant might be relatively unknown to many gardeners, it makes a unique addition to any sunny border. Once you try it, you'll see that it goes with just about everything else in the garden. It is very easy to grow, and its flowers attract bees and other pollinators. Removing faded flowers will encourage more buds to form for weeks on end. ‘Hummelo’ is an interesting and unusual perennial for near the front of the border. Plants may be clipped back hard immediately after blooming, to tidy up the clumps for the rest of the season. Easily divided in early spring.

Stachys m. 'Hummelo' received the highest rating out of 22 Stachys studied in the Plant Evaluation Trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The trial was run from 1998-2004 by Richard G. Hawke. Both Stachys byzantina 'Helene von Stein' (aka 'Big Ears') and 'Silver Carpet' also received very high scores.

Perhaps best of all, this cultivar came from Piet Oudolf’s garden and is one of his much-used favorites that you’ve seen many times in pictures and probably wondered: what is that pink flowering plant??!

Stachys ‘Hummelo’ is a reliable, deer-resistant and pest-free garden plant. Zones 4-8A

Here are the two different Stachys species side-by-side (S. byzantina on top and S. monieri below) - you can definitely see the similarities!

…and here it is in some Piet Oudolf-designed plantings…

And for good measure, lets remember some of the previous winners. I often say that you could make a perfectly beautiful perennial garden just using plants from this list, which now goes back more than 20 years. … “should auld acquaintance be forgot…”

Allium ‘Millenium’ (2018)

Allium ‘Millenium’ (2018)

Amsonia hubrichtii (2011)

Amsonia hubrichtii (2011)

Geranium ‘Biokovo’ (2015)

Geranium ‘Biokovo’ (2015)

Geranium ‘Roseanne’ (2008 - 10 years ago!)

Geranium ‘Roseanne’ (2008 - 10 years ago!)

Japanese Painted Fern (2004)

Japanese Painted Fern (2004)

Hellebore X hybridus (2005)

Hellebore X hybridus (2005)

Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red' (1996)

Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red' (1996)

Happy 2019!

If this was a Bullet Journal, I’d be writing down my goals for 2019 using some fancy writing. I’m as happy as the next guy to write with real pen on real paper, but, for now, I’m still using my “good luck” Green Cross clipboard that’s been with me since the beginning of this journey and my kitchen calendar.

truer words …

I’ll be sticking with the good old fashioned method - scribble, cross-out, stick post-it notes on it - newsflash, pre-IPhone, iPad, app mania we used paper calendars upon which you can write everyone’s birthday, anniversary, doctor’s appointments, class schedules etc ALL IN ONE PLACE without checking a screen and while gazing on a beautiful picture of fresh cut flowers

I’ll be sticking with the good old fashioned method - scribble, cross-out, stick post-it notes on it - newsflash, pre-IPhone, iPad, app mania we used paper calendars upon which you can write everyone’s birthday, anniversary, doctor’s appointments, class schedules etc ALL IN ONE PLACE without checking a screen and while gazing on a beautiful picture of fresh cut flowers

Here’s my inspiration picture for 2019

APLD Award-winning Maine Seaside Garden - not designed or installed by me but just how I would like some of my gardens to look in early fall - texture, color, flowers, pollinator-friendly, natural but not wild or weedy, fairly subdued tones

APLD Award-winning Maine Seaside Garden - not designed or installed by me but just how I would like some of my gardens to look in early fall - texture, color, flowers, pollinator-friendly, natural but not wild or weedy, fairly subdued tones

Goals for 2019

  • Learn (and understand) something new as often as possible

  • Plant More

  • Be inspired by every individual landscape - no repetitions. Piet Oudolf supposedly said, in response to someone asking him why he so freely shared his planting plans, “i always have new ideas”. That’s what I want to be like.

  • Be quiet sometimes

  • Keep better records (somehow!) of plants, whether or not they have proven “worthy”, try new ones, don’t settle for gas station plants

  • Don’t be afraid

  • Listen to my clients even when their ideas seem whacky - they’re trying to tell me something and I ought to figure out what

  • Give as many revised estimates as it takes - without feeling put-upon

  • Make sure to be grateful for how much fun this job is compared to almost everyone else’s

Adam Wheeler - Horticulturalist at Broken Arrow Nursery


That was the title of Adam Wheeler’s presentation at the New York Botanical Gardens earlier this month. He shared with us some of his favorites from the selection of plants that Broken Arrow Nursery propagates and sells.

Here’s how Adam Wheeler is described on the Broken Arrow Nursery website:

Adam started playing with plants at Broken Arrow in 2004 after completing his BS degree in Urban Forestry and Landscape Horticulture at the University of Vermont. His favorite responsibilities at the nursery include plant propagation and the acquisition and development of new plants. He is a past recipient of the Young Nursery Professional Award from the New England Nursery Association and is the current Vice President of the North American Maple Society. He loves to share his passion for plants through photography and educational outreach. As a result, he lectures widely on a variety of subjects and is also an adjunct lecturer at Naugatuck Valley Community College and the Berkshire Botantical Garden. With his spare time he enjoys cultivating his eclectic collection of rare and unusual plants, rock climbing and competitive giant pumpkin growing!

Also important to know: they grow their own Nursery stock - this is somewhat unusual and it provides you with (1) a great source of information about the characteristics of the plant and (2) assurance that the plant will be “hardy” in our area. I also had a look at their website and there are LOTS and LOTS of other trees and shrubs to love that they sell. I stuck a few of the ones I would go for at the end.

Broken Arrow Nursery www.brokenarrownursery.com

Here are some of the trees and shrubs Adam Wheeler highlighted: (Pictures appear below descriptions)

Acer longipes ‘Gold Coin’ (‘Gold Coin’ Chinese Maple)

“A vibrant maple offering up high glamour leaves that emerge with soft burgundy tones before quickly moving to rich golden-orange colors. The palm-shaped leaves are about 4" in diameter and hold their color deep into summer. Plants develop a shrubby canopy reaching 12-15' tall when mature. Availability has been limited due to the difficulty of propagation. That said, plants should be prized as they're certainly among the best of the gold foliage maples available.”

Acer X ‘Purple Haze’ - A hybrid of paperbark maple X sycamore maple

Purple Haze Hybrid Maple

“A curious and unexpected hybrid maple that combines the immaculate pedigree of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) with the vigor and landscape durability of sycamore maple (A. pseudoplatanus). The result is a strong growing, non-weedy small specimen tree boasting three-lobed green leaves backed with a burgundy infused reverse. In autumn, flawless scarlet autumn tones set the garden afire. Plants can be expected to reach 15’ in height after a decade of effort and will certainly be valued for accent, flair and overall plant geekyness (not to be confused with gawkiness or gooeyness).”

Catalpa cultivars - he showed us one with burgundy leaves that is pollarded each year, making it more like a shrub with leaves larger than normal. It can also be left as a regular tree.


Cornus cultivars - cultivars of Cornus florida, Cornus kousa and shrub forms of Cornus, including Cornus florida ‘Eternal’ pictured below :

Larix cultivars: Broken Arrow has quite a number of Larix cultivars, including several weeping variants. These variants can be trained into waterfalls, “Cousin Itts”, ground covers or combinations but apparently do need to be staked. One thing Mr. Wheeler told us that I for sure didn’t know (nor have seen) is that Larix is quite suitable as a hedge - got some pix from the internet …. - wouldn’t this be better than privet and maybe easier to manage than beech?

Magnolia cultivars - if you are a fan of magnolias, Broken Arrow has a whole lot of different varieties, including Magnolia x soulangiana 'Milliken' (Milliken Saucer Magnolia)

“A unique, compact selection found as a witches' broom by Greg Williams and Sue Milliken near Rhinebeck, NY. Plants are compact and dense with short internodes and a rounded outline. In spring they flower profusely with standard sized, whitish-pink flowers. A real gem likely found nowhere else!”

Nyssa sylvatica cultivars: (Really, should any landscape be without Black Tupelo in some form or another? I say NO)

Nyssa sylvatica 'Autumn Cascade' (Autumn Cascade Weeping Black Tupelo)

“An elegant, weeping selection that we introduced from Australia a few years back. Plants develop excellent red, orange and yellow fall color. If a tree form is preferred, some staking is required to develop and maintain a central leader.”

Nyssa sylvatica 'Sheri's Cloud’ (Sheri's Cloud Black Tupelo)

“Can you say amazing? That's what we said when we first saw this spectacular clone of black tupelo! Imagine, if you will, light green leaves edged with a bold, creamy-white margin! Add to that dazzling scarlet and hot pink, bi-colored fall color and you've successfully envisioned 'Sheri's Cloud'. A brilliant find from the wilds of Arkansas and a welcome addition to the growing selection of cultivars.”

Nyssa sylvatica 'Wildfire' (Wildfire Black Tupelo)

“A dazzling selection offering startling burgundy-red new growth that is present as long as new growth is being produced. Plants exhibit exceptional vigor and bright scarlet-red fall color.”

Nyssa sylvatica 'Zydeco Twist' (Contorted Black Tupelo)

“A distinct and downright cool black gum showcasing stems that twist and spin in all directions. They’re quite akin to Harry Lauder’s walking stick and are certainly not what most have come to expect from this fantastic species! Regardless, this is a striking plant for those looking for a fun addition to their gardens.”

Some shrubs of interest that Mr. Wheeler talked about are shown below, including a “fuzzy-leafed” hydrangea that deer may not eat (?? don’t know but I may be willing to give it a try since they don’t usually like fuzzy leaves)


Disanthus cercidifolius (Disanthus)

“An exceptionally choice and uncommon member of the witch hazel family. One of the most spectacular shrubs for fall color display. The blue-green, heart-shaped leaves transform to brilliant red, purple, and orange tones in late September and early October. After the foliage falls to the ground, intriguing, small, delicate reddish-purple flowers appear. Thrives in moist, acidic, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Makes a great addition to any woodland garden. 6-10'.”

Hydrangea aspera

Hydrangea aspera var. villosa (Rough Leaf Hydrangea)

“A hydrangea to die for that takes a step apart from the classic vision that most associate with this valuable genus. The long, oval leaves of the rough leaf hydrangea are greenish-blue and are covered with dense hairs that add a felted textural quality to the garden. In late summer, stylish lavender-mauve, lacecap flowers decorate the stems and create a thrilling display for an extended time. Like most hydrangeas, average to rich soil is preferred with consistent moisture though spring and summer. If happy, plants are vigorous growers forming a rounded framework to 10’ in height.”

Ilex verticillata ‘Sun Splash’ - a female Winterberry with gold coloring on the leaves and good fall color in the winter - would make winterberry less “boring” in the mixed border.

Salix species - many many willows are out there and are quite useful if you have the right place. Mr. Wheeler highlighted two willows: Silver Creeping Willow (he showed an area next to a parking lot that looked like it would be miserable lonely but was planted with a mass of creeping willow that looked beautiful and healthy and he said it was “care-free) and ‘Mt. Also’ Giant Pussy Willow - just look at the pictures of the catkins shown below and then imagine this mixed in with Black Pussy Willow - ooh la la!

Salix areneria (Salix repens ‘Arenaria’) (Silver Creeping Willow)

“A choice willow that develops a low mounding form of finely textured, felted, silver-gray leaves. Plants prefer moist locations in full sun and make ideal contrast elements at the front of a border or at the edge of a pond. 18”x 4’”

Salix gracilistyla ‘Mt. Aso’ (‘Mt. Asama’) (Mt. Aso Giant Pussy Willow)

“Magic to behold in spring when the glowing, rich-pink, felted catkins emerge from winter’s rest. The vigorous, 12-15’ male shrubs provide ample display in the garden and are equally impressive when used for cut branches. Attractive, blue-cast foliage adds color and presence to the landscape during the remainder of the growing season. This plant was previously thought to be a selection of Salix chaenomeloides but is more correctly listed as a selection of S. gracilistyla.”

Some other plants that I saw on the Broken Arrow website and that I covet based on pictures and descriptions:

Acer macrophyllum ‘Mocha Rose’ - a big leaf maple cultivar that seems to look ghostly and beautiful in the spring and reportedly has good fall color - but the main thing is I have never seen a tree that looks like this!

Acer pensylvanicum 'Erythrocladum' (Erythrocladum Striped Maple, Moosewood)

“A choice and unique selection of striped maple that is rarely offered due to its difficulty in propagation. Typical green and white-striped branches are present during warmer months. However, as cold weather commences the green portions of the branches turn spectacular shades of crimson-scarlet. The effect is amazing when set-off by fresh snowfall.”

Acer x conspicuum 'Phoenix' (Phoenix Maple)

“A show stopping maple forming a medium-sized shrub or small tree with glowing, white-striped, fire engine red winter twigs. One of the most striking plants in winter.”

“Conspicuum”: indeed!

Seems to give ‘Sango Kaku’ a run for its money!

How Cool is This??!!

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words - how difficult it really is to pull a worm out of the ground; a pinecone sculpture made from steel is a stunning echo of nature; an eagle in a pine tree near my house; Coleus ‘Redhead’ kicks butt; the amazing symmetry of castle paths and the beauty of shadows; the sheer joy and amazement of the rare wildflower bloom in the desert; the sheer oddity of “Unzip The Earth”; the simple beauty of creeping thyme between stepping stones and one of the cutest public sculptures I’ve seen

Claudia West - a wondrous and enthusiastic horticulturalist with important ideas

Rainer and West.jpg

“ It’s very simple, I usually say: Plant more of the right kinds of plants. Replace the mulch with more ecological plants—meaning native and beneficial exotic species—that will dramatically help in creating better cities. Plant more plants!” – Quote from Claudia West

Thomas Rainer Planting Design

Thomas Rainer Planting Design

Claudia West is a particularly talented and effusive horticulturalist who is also a scientist and a great speaker. She spoke at the New York Botanical Garden two winters ago and gave the audience a lot of memorable “catchphrases” – most prominently “Plants Cover Ground” – say it with me, as she said, “Plants Cover Ground”. She explains her thinking in some of the book-tour-related interviews she’s given as well:

“Plants are really the best mulch on earth. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not against using mulch at all, but mulch should only be temporary in your garden, to fill gaps between plants until they are more established… [to] suppress maybe an early wave of sun-loving weed species. But then we really want plants to grow in as they can and cover that soil on their own. So really the best and most sustainable way of gardening is letting plants be the mulch that they’re designed to be. This is how nature works, this is how plants want to grow—that’s how they evolved to grow—and it definitely works way better.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing landscape designers today is the need to balance beauty with environmental concerns. Public institutions and private homeowners want plantings that please the eye and reconnect us to nature, but that also reduce chemical use, filter stormwater, sequester pollutants and carbon, cool urban temperatures, and provide habitat. The answer lies in a radical turn away from conventional horticultural practices, declare landscape architect Thomas Rainer and designer Claudia West, who advocate crafting communities of compatible species that will cover the ground in interlocking layers. – “Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes” is the subtitle of their book, Planting in a Post-Wild World published in 2015. It has been described by leading industry experts as a “game-changer” and “the universal how-to guide to sustainable landscaping.”

From the Washington Post

Why manicured lawns should become a thing of the past

By Adrian Higgins December 2, 2015

Many folks, not to mention homeowners associations, cling to that model of the American yard as one of clipped foundation shrubs, groomed lawns and trees with mulch circles. Naked soil must be blanketed spring and fall with shredded mulch. Fallen leaves are treated as trash.

The real gardening world left this fusty model years ago, embracing soft groupings of perennials, grasses and specimen trees and shrubs in a celebration of plants and a closer communion with nature.

…This premise is not entirely new: A generation ago, top designers were espousing “the New American Garden” with many of the same principles, of replacing lawns and shrubbery with perennials and ornamental grasses.

What has changed at the vanguard of garden design? Many more varieties of perennials are widely available now than in the 1990s and, moreover, the approach to planting design is changing fundamentally. Rainer, West and others are promoting a shift from clumping and grouping plant varieties to mixing them in a way that occurs in nature. Discrete clumps are replaced with interplanted varieties equipped by nature to live cheek by jowl.

“The key is to pay attention to how plants fit together,” Rainer said. “To pay attention to their shape and behavior.” This involves not only their growth patterns aboveground, but their root types, which permit plants that are surface-rooted, such as many ground covers, to coexist with deep-rooted meadow flowers and grasses.

They see the garden as no longer a collection of plants but rather a designed plant community. This is distilled into three layers. In a sunny, meadow-like garden, the uppermost layer takes the form of beefier structural perennials …(and ornamental grasses). The middle layer is the showiest and provides seasonal peaks with such things as daisies, daylilies, butterfly weeds or bee balms.

The most important layer, the ground cover, is the least showy. Forget tired spreads of English ivy or pachysandra; Rainer and West are thinking of sedges, small grasses, rushes. In shade gardens, the floor layer would consist of such woodland beauties as foamflower, trilliums, gingers and Allegheny spurge.

“The approach to ground cover is, for us, the single most important concept of creating a functioning plant community,” they write. “Think about seeing plants in the wild; there is almost never bare soil.”

The ground cover not only knits together the whole plant community physically and emotionally, but also performs an important horticultural function. Soil left bare will invite weeds, so we smother it in mulch, which has its value, but we keep piling it on for aesthetic rather than horticultural reasons. This is inherently unsustainable and expensive, and keeps lonely plantings in a perpetual state of establishment.

My theme for 2018 is to highlight different “groundcovers” – meaning plants that will spread to cover bare ground but will still co-exist happily with the rest of the plants in the community. As Roy Diblik says: “they share the space unselfishly”.


Pycnanthemum muticum (Short-toothed Mountain Mint)

is an aromatic perennial wildflower. This mint relative bears oval toothed leaves on strong square stems. Butterflies and other pollinators love mountain mint. It is excellent at providing soil stabilization as well. In summer, plants are topped by dense rounded clusters of tiny white to lavender tubular flowers. The leaves surrounding the flower clusters are highlighted with silver. (Note: some people don’t like this look). Pollinators flock to the blooms in sunny gardens with average well drained soils.

Plants tolerate clay, heat and drought.

The aromatic foliage is unpalatable to deer, rabbits and other herbivores.

This rhizomatous species will ramble and expand to form colonies. The rhizomes are shallow, though, so unwanted plants are easy to pull.

Plants are hardy from USDA Zones 4-8.

Blooming lasts for about 6 weeks

Plants grow 2-3’ tall with 2’ spread.

The mountain mints are listed on many “Top Ten Plants for Pollinators” list. The dense head-like flower cymes make this plant a pollinator paradise. Native bees, beneficial wasps, flies, beetles, skippers and small butterflies (especially hairstreaks) frequent the blossoms.

In the 2013 Penn State Extension Service Pollinator Trial “88 pollinator-rewarding herbaceous perennial plants were assessed and promoted to growers, landscapers, nursery operators, and homeowners...” Pycnanthemum muticum was rated #1 for longevity of flowers and #1 for diversity of pollinators. It also attracted the greatest number of insects of any plant. During a 2 minute time period, 78 insects visited Pycnanthemum muticum including 19 bees and syrphid flies.

Salvia verticiliata ‘Endless Love’ (Endless Love Lilac Sage)

is an outstanding selection of this Old World native sage grown for its big, fuzzy, deep-green leaves and summer-long display of large, lavender-purple flower spikes. This is a distinctive sage and very different from the nemerosa types. This superb cultivar was introduced by European plantsman Piet Oudolf.

24" tall x 30-36" wide.

Hardy in zones 5 to 9

Deer resistant, bee friendly, rabbit resistant

Full sun or Morning sun and part shade afternoon

Will rebloom if spent flowers are clipped

Stachys monieri 'Hummelo' (Betony; sometimes also Lamb’s Ear)

Excellent for flowers and foliage, S. 'Hummelo' hosts a lovely display of lavender-purple flowers atop tall, leafless stems while the stoloniferous nature creates small mounding clumps. Selected for strong flower production, plant health, habit quality and winter hardiness. A true garden delight! And a Piet Oudolf introduction and staple of many of his gardens.

Spread 18 inches

Height 18-20 inches

USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8

Deer-resistant, full sun or part shade, used as a groundcover

Unlike Stachys byzantina (Lamb's Ear), this species forms large, rounded clumps of green, long and narrow, textured leaves. It is lovely even when it's not in bloom. From early thru midsummer, sturdy spikes of lavender-rose flowers shoot up through the foliage, putting on quite a display.

Though this plant is relatively unknown to many gardeners, it makes a unique addition to any sunny border. Once you try it, you'll see that it goes with just about everything else in the garden. It is very easy to grow and deserves to be planted more widely in American landscapes.

Stachys m. 'Hummelo' received the highest rating out of 22 Stachys studied in the Plant Evaluation Trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The trial was run from 1998-2004 by Richard G. Hawke. Both 'Helene von Stein' (aka 'Big Ears') and 'Silver Carpet' (the fuzzy silver-foliaged “Lamb’s Ear” that we’re probably more familiar with) also received very high scores.

Building a BETTER Grass Garden

Ornamental grasses can be an important addition to your landscape, since they are deer-resistant (as well as groundhog, bunny etc resistant), not too hard to locate in the nursery trade and provide multi-season interest. You can find grass species that are tall, spiky, soft, clump-formers, spreaders, some with colored foliage, some with variegated foliage, and so on. They are fairly easy to take care of, as long as you have a good set of loppers to cut some of the larger ones back as they grow bigger.

Ornamental grass can function as an exclamation point in the design.

Hermannshof Planting Beds with autumn grasses

Ornamental grasses are the matrix in a matrix planting.

Roy Diblik planting design

Ornamental grasses can even add an almost formal element; a very modern look as seen in these views of Piet Oudolf’s design for the Scampston Hall Walled Garden

Ornamental grass for winter interest.

Ornamental grasses have deep roots, which promote healthy soil.

To be more successful, your grass garden should have a mixture of cool-season and warm-season ornamental grasses. Cool season grasses thrive when temperatures are between 60 - 75 degrees F. They start to grow in early spring and may remain semi-evergreen over the winter. They’re happy again in late fall, but in the heat of the summer they tend to go dormant and may even brown-out - something to consider as far as placement within the planted border. Warm-season grasses don’t even break dormancy until the ground temperature is above 65, and thrive when temperatures are between 80 - 95 degrees F. So warm season grasses are late starters - especially in some of the cool springs we’ve had recently. If the warm-season grasses are just sitting there doing nothing, your matrix planting may look empty and not make much sense until summer.

If you include both types of ornamental grasses, you’ll have fresh new grasses in the spring as well as mature grasses and grass flowers in the summer and fall.

WHO’s WHO of Ornamental Grasses:

Cool Season Grasses:

Briza media, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Calamagrostis canadensis, Chasmanthium latifolium, Deschampsia caespitosa, Deschampsia flexuosa, Elymus spp., All Fescues, Helictotrichon sempervirens, Molinia, Nasella tenuissima, Sesleria spp., Stipa spp.

Warm Season Grasses:

Andropogon spp, Bouteloua spp, Calamagrostis brachytricha, Eragrostis spp, Hakonechloa spp, Miscanthus spp, Muhlenbergia spp, Panicum spp, Pennisetum spp. Sporobolus heterolepsis, Schizachyrium spp, Sorghastrum nutans

Darrel Morrison's Article for the Ecological Landscape Alliance Newsletter: Musings on Ecology, Art and Music in the Landscape

The Ecological Landscape Alliance has the following Mission Statement:

"Advocating for responsible stewardship of land and natural resources in landscaping and horticultural practices."

From the Feb 15, 2018 ELA Newsletter: Darrel Morrison starts his article by saying:

"Increasingly, I am intrigued by the value of linking ecology and ecological processes with art and music in the design of landscapes that might be considered "ecological art."  The products of ecological art have the potential to be, simultaneously:

Ecologically sound 

Experientially rich 

"Of the Place," reflecting a sense of place 

Dynamic, i.e., changing over time"

Similar thoughts have been voiced by a number of other "ecological" landscape designers recently in books and interviews that I've read and in lectures at NYBG, including Claudia West, Thomas Rainer, Roy Diblik, Cassian Schmidt and Patrick Cullina.

This is the challenge we face as garden makers in 2018 - to capture all of these qualities in our plantings and to do it "well".  Everyone agrees that part of "doing it well" means having a real understanding of the plants you're using - to quote/paraphrase Roy Diblik from his lecture at NYBG earlier this winter, you have to use "plant-driven thought"- understand what a plant wants to do and where it wants to be so it can thrive and how fast it grows and how it spreads and so forth.  I feel its important to keep your plant palette broad - not that you have to jam tons of different plants into every design, but that you have to understand a reasonably broad range of plants so that each garden is fresh and each new idea is fresh, even though the general "ecological approach" is the same.  

Of course, no garden ever stays the same.  The key to having a "design without an expiration date"- again paraphrasing Roy Diblik - is to keep "gardening" - keep constantly enhancing and fine-tuning.  You may have to switch out some plant choices here and there, do some dividing, plant bulb layers - but in the end of the day if you've done the job well, you have a sustainable plant community.  (Until a tree falls, or there's a flood, or a new disease comes along or there's an early frost, or no frost ….Then you have to rebalance it)

So that's where we get back to Darrel Morrison's article:

He writes:

Darrel Morrison's Old Stone Mill plant community

Darrel Morrison's Old Stone Mill plant community

Part of Darrel Morrison's Gardens at the BBG - North Entrance "Pine Barrens"

Part of Darrel Morrison's Gardens at the BBG - North Entrance "Pine Barrens"

  • Ecological Soundness grows out of the selection of appropriate plant species and placing them in the micro-environment where they will thrive without the importation of resources such as irrigation water and chemical fertilizers. …They in turn serve a variety of functions, ranging from controlling erosion to providing habitat for birds, butterflies, bumblebees and other pollinators …"

  • Experiential Richness emerges from the presence of a diversity of plant species and associated fauna, in compositions that are rich in color, texture and movement. "

He goes on to say later in the essay:

  • Two other characteristics of the environment that provide a dynamic quality are LIGHT and MOVEMENT. The color of natural light changes as a day progresses, and the physical movement of the plants (and the fauna that are attracted to them bring life to them.) I never tire of seeing the wave-like motion of tall grasses in the landscape, or of seeing (and sometimes hearing) birds, butterflies, and bumblebees moving through a landscape. The direction of light changes throughout a day and a year as well. We can place plants in a designed landscape where they will, during some part of the day, be backlit, literally making them "glow," or as landscape architect A. E. Bye expressed it in a 1967 essay in Landscape Architecture Magazine, they exhibit "luminosity.""

A Darrel Morrison "created" landscape in Wisconsin

A Darrel Morrison "created" landscape in Wisconsin

He alludes to the four "characteristics of landscapes that people find engaging and attractive. These are (1) mystery, (2) complexity, (3) coherence, and (4) legibility." 

Mystery is derived from spatial form which unfolds sequentially as one moves through the landscape, revealing landscape spaces. Mystery implies that part of the scene is hidden, thus motivating people to want to see what is "around the bend."

Complexity relates to the biotic diversity in a landscape and the aesthetic characteristics which come with this diversity - e.g., colors, textures, and movement.

Coherence results from the fact that the distribution of species exhibits perceptible pattern. The tendency of many species being aggregated to a degree, leads to the occurrence of directional "drifts" of color and texture.

Legibility … relates to people's ability to "read" how they will move through the landscape, not feeling claustrophobic or disoriented. 

A Jens Jensen-inspired "signature" for Darrel Morrison is the Council Ring

A Jens Jensen-inspired "signature" for Darrel Morrison is the Council Ring

  • For "sense of place": "We are increasingly surrounded by generic landscapes, whether it is the sprawling big box stores repeated over and over in suburban environments, or landscapes that are increasingly alike, with the same, limited number of species replacing the natural diversity that may have once occurred there. … We can reverse the trend toward "placelessness" by incorporating an array of locally native species which provide cues and clues as to where we are."

  • Dynamic - the created landscape changes over time: "…Landscapes have the potential to be four-dimensional art, with time being the fourth dimension. This is because ecology-based designs are not frozen in time, but are always are evolving, with seasonal changes, growth of individual plants, and in some cases migration of species within the composition. The landscape we see in May is different from the one we see in July, or October, or December. And the landscape we see in 2018 is not the landscape we will see in 2028 or 2048. Hence, there is always something new to discover."

Words to live by - "there is always something new to discover"

2017 Trial Garden Results - from Walters Gardens in Michigan Jeremy Windemuller Trial Garden Manager

Best drought tolerant perennial: Echinacea Lakota 'Santa Fe' (its grown from seed, so it has slight color variations) flowers profusely in shades of red and orange.  Its a good performer in both containers and landscape. Grows 12 - 16" tall.

Echinacea  Lakota 'Santa Fe'

Echinacea Lakota 'Santa Fe'

Echinacea Lakota2.jpg

Best heat-tolerant perennial: Sedum Rock 'N Grow 'Popstar' - a low-profile sedum that doesn't open up as it grows.  It has blue-green foliage and salmon-pink flowers.  The trial gardens manager says it is "a definite improvement over S. cauticola".  It was un-phased in their trial gardens during an extra-hot and dry summer.

Sedum  'Popstar'

Sedum 'Popstar'

Best pollinator-friendly perennial:  Salvia nemorosa 'Bumbleberry'.  Its easy to maintain since it has a naturally compact habit, but its still a vigorous grower.  About 12" tall and will re-bloom if dead-headed. 

Salvia 'Bumbleberry'

Salvia 'Bumbleberry'

Best overall performance: Heuchera PRIMO 'Black Pearl'  

"We were wowed right away by the visuals of this plant, and once we got it into production, we continued to be impressed….It truly lives up to the PRIMO name of larger, vigorous plants."  Glossy black foliage can make a container planting pop!  

Heuchera 'Black Pearl'

Heuchera 'Black Pearl'

Horticulture Magazine - Plants We Love for 2018

Firespire  Musclewood Carpinus caroliniana 'J.N. Upright' American hornbeam  This cultivar is a small, narrow upright tree that grows to about 15' tall and 10' wide at maturity.  It develops consistent red-orange fall foliage color and is grown in either clump or tree form.

Carpinus caroliniana 'J.N. Upright'

Carpinus caroliniana 'J.N. Upright'

The Cary Award for "Plants of exceptional beauty and durability that are well suited for the New England climate"

And the two winners are ....

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)  - This native shrub is well-suited to woodland edges and shrub borders.  It flowers in mid-July with upright panicles of tubular white flowers, and puts on a welcome show in the doldrums of July.  It prefers full sun and forms colonies by suckering - give it enough space to form a big colony (free plants!).  Its great for pollinators.

Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) - described in the award language as having "elegant blue-green foliage, beautiful winter presence and decay-resistant wood".   It needs full sun and doesn't mind moist soil.  The Cary award folks think that having so many cultivars gives us lots of form and foliage options.  BUT, I have to say I disagree with the notion that Chamaecyparis thyoides is a "plant of exceptional beauty" unless you are really fond of the "bronze winter foliage" look.  I concede that in a "naturalistic" setting it could look, well, natural.  But up close and personal, your clients will think it is dead during the winter.

GreatPlants program (Nebraska) aims to "bring superior native plants to the challenged gardens of the Great Plains".  Their choices add beauty to the garden, and also offer ecosystem services.

  • Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum viginianum) was chosen as Perennial of the Year for 2018.  Described as "a stout, bushy perennial" it grows 3 ft tall and is topped with flat clusters of flowers with tiny purple spots in July and August.  It grows in full sun to part shade and tops most pollinator-friendly plant lists.
Pycnanthemum muticum (Short-toothed Mountain Mint) is not to be confused with Virginia Mountain Mint!  They look quite different - either one can be used but just make sure you know which one you're choosing.

Pycnanthemum muticum (Short-toothed Mountain Mint) is not to be confused with Virginia Mountain Mint!  They look quite different - either one can be used but just make sure you know which one you're choosing.


  • American hazelnut (Corylus americana) was chosen Shrub of the Year.  It grows to about 10-16 ft with a rounded, multistemmed habit.  It forms thickets and is usually found at the edge of the woodland.  It bears hazelnuts (filberts) beloved by wildlife, and can show a rainbow of fall foliage colors - combinations of orange, purplish-red, yellow and green.  Its catkins are an excellent pollen source for bees in the early spring and it's a host plant for numerous butterfly and moth species.


  • Bristleleaf Sedge (Carex eburnea) was chosen Grass of the Year.  Soft, threadlike leaves form dense tufts approximately 6 in tall and wide.  It spreads slowly, but forms a hardy ground cover that doesn't have to be cut back in spring.  Very useful for erosion control on slopes, as a living mulch in planted borders or in shade gardens to crowd out weeds.

And last but certainly not least: Perennial Plant of the Year for 2018 as awarded by the Perennial Plant Association: Allium 'Millenium'.  

'Millennium' grows to about a foot tall and wide and blooms profusely in mid-summer.  Bees and butterflies are drawn to the flowers, but deer and bunnies stay away.  Since it's a sterile variety, it doesn't spread through the garden by seed, and is very long-blooming (no need to set seed!).  Propagate it by division in the spring.  Sun or shade, dry or medium soil (not wet!).  Needless to say, its a favorite of Roy Diblik - that means its a favorite of mine as well.  I've started using it in most gardens, and it definitely "shares the space unselfishly".

Allium 'Millenium' Perennial Plant of the year for 2018

Allium 'Millenium' Perennial Plant of the year for 2018

Roy Diblik - "They share the space unselfishly"


He had already inspired me with his book "Know Maintenance Perennials" but I had no idea how wise, cool, down-to-earth, innovative, knowledgeable, hilariously funny - shall I go on? - he is until he spoke at our NYBG LDSA meeting in December.  All thanks to Hanna Packer - shout-out to her expertise; visit her website www.hannapackerdesign.com

Migratory Bird Garden 480P4966.jpg

He talked to us about Plant Communities, and somehow it ended up being about human communities as well.  A plant community will thrive only if it has all the building blocks, including good soil and a diversity of plants to support a wide variety of insects.  Living and dying roots are what regenerates the soil.  "Remnant prairies" (untouched soil) have 18 - 24 species of plants per sq meter - all thriving and occupying their niches happily and benefitting each other.  They share the space unselfishly.  So it should be with human communities as well.

But lets move on to some of Roy Diblik's wisdom that I managed to capture:

You have to get to know the plants. It's not "fair" to the plant to ask it to do what you want it to do - you should find out what it wants to do and where it wants to be to thrive."

P.S. this is how we should treat people as well!

Pachysandra, vinca, euonymus etc are the "default landscape -

he grows 32,000 sedges in his nursery and uses a mixture of sedges as ground cover

Turf and boxwood" landscapes have no pollinators, no birds.

You don't need mulch, organic amendments, fish emulsion etc - Everything you need falls from the trees in autumn and all the soil needs is roots living and dying.

Thugs" are opportunistic - if you disturb an area they will take over - that's simply their nature

You have to put a plant community together in a way that eliminates agricultural weeds. If you can reduce the light reaching the soil to below 1000 ft-candles (or better, below 200 ft-candles) then weed seeds won't germinate.

Contractors are being paid to keep bad from getting worse

A plug will equal a 1G container in 5 weeks

Ornamental grasses sporobulus, seslaria, schizachyrium as the "grout" between the plants.  For example, Allium 'Summer Beauty' and seslaria live together fruitfully (not competitively)

He usually uses a balance of 60:40 grasses:flowering plants

Seen below: pictures of Roy Diblik's matrix plantings at the Chicago Art Institute, Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and the Lurie Garden

Lurie Garden Chicago - the interplay of sun and shadow and the colors of the grasses, with the amsonia just beginning to turn its bright yellow autumn color, is mesmerizingly beautiful to me.

Lurie Garden Chicago - the interplay of sun and shadow and the colors of the grasses, with the amsonia just beginning to turn its bright yellow autumn color, is mesmerizingly beautiful to me.

Roy Diblik at the birth of the Lurie Garden

Roy Diblik at the birth of the Lurie Garden

Roy Diblik says: "Learn about 20 plants in depth, then gradually learn another 10 or 20 - that's all you'll need" 

He creates "quilt patterns" - each module is interchangeable and they can be mixed and matched


Tulip 'Golden Artist'

Tulip 'Golden Artist'

Salvia 'Wesuwe'

Salvia 'Wesuwe'

Euphorbia polychroma dark form

Euphorbia polychroma dark form

Geranium 'Magnificum' from Roy Diblik's Nursery

Geranium 'Magnificum' from Roy Diblik's Nursery

Monarda bradburiana

Monarda bradburiana

The composition of your design sets up the plant community but also creates spirit and emotion

Allium, Calamintha, Stachys and Echinacea

Allium, Calamintha, Stachys and Echinacea

He gave us info about some of the plants he uses: (I mostly tried to capture his own words)

  • Carex flacca ('Blue Zinger') is an example of a carex that quickly covers ground and can take some foot traffic, but when its crown touches another crown it stops spreading

  • Monarda bradburiana prefers avg to dry soil (unlike some other monardas)

  • Salvias love to mix with one another but they can't survisie getting watered 3 times per week

  • Don't use Salvia 'May Night' because it doesn't rebloom. Instead use Salvia wesuwe that reblooms constantly

  • A combo he likes: Geranium sanguineum, allium cernuum and ornamental oregano

  • Covering the growing points of perennials with wood mulch kills them

  • Northwind has an Echinacea tenneseensis hybrid that tolerates clay soil

  • Sporobulus and sedges are very natural-looking in a woodland garden; also mixtures of sedge and Geranium macrorrhizum in shade

  • Commercial prairies that are started from seed usually end up being 5 native plants living together. It will take 15 years to get a diverse/"real" prairie with 18-24 species per sq meter


Words of wisdom: "Sedges give you the opportunity to outsmart weeds"

One plant he mentioned that I hadn't known was Gillenia trifoliata (also Porteranthus trifoliatus).  Common name: Bowman's Root (Also known as Indian Physic or American Ipecac; sounds lovely!).  Bowman's Root is an easy-to-grow native for bright shade or partial sun and it tolerates tree root competition well as long at it has a nice layer of organic mulch.  Bowman's Root is lovely in a mass planting where its lacy white flowers can shimmer in a light breeze.  It makes a nice filler - think Gaura for shade!  A compact, rounded plant, it is topped in late spring with ethereal white flowers growing in a few loose terminal panicles, with red petioles and mahogany stems.  Clean, disease-free foliage often turns deep bronzy red in fall and contrasts beautifully with the more typical oranges and yellows in the perennial border.  Interesting form and unique seed heads persist into winter.  Great for cut flowers!

Proven Winners Shrubs to keep an eye out for

I saw a couple of these varieties this season, and hope to see more and try some of them next season.   (Note that pictures appear beneath each plant description)

Weigela 'Spilled Wine' - I'm not a big fan of weigela because I think it gets to look ratty later in the season and the older varieties needed to be pruned constantly in order to look like anything in the landscape.  But this variety was named 2018 Landscape Plant of the Year "selected by landscapers and growers who understand the needs of the market and the range of challenging climatic conditions acrosss North America".  Is it the Big Mac of weigelas?  Available anywhere and always tastes the same?  Well, here's the description in the Spring Valley Nursery catalog:

"Weigela florida 'Bokraspiwi' Spilled Wine  has dark red, waxy leaves and a spreadinbg habit.  Its hot-pink-magenta flowers are similer to Wine & Roses  weigela, but this is a smaller plant that is wider than it is tall,  Perfect for edging or filling in spaces in a sunny border"

Zone 4, 2-3' tall and 3' wide, spring bloom, deer resistant - could it be a sub for 'Concorde' barberry?

Buddleia 'Miss Molly' - The reddest buddleia - a really beautiful jewel-tone color for when you get sick and tired of purple - stands out in the garden.  It's a "compact form" (4-5 ft) and is an interspecific hybrid that is non-invasive.  Now that buddleias are better-behaved (not so gigantic and weedy-looking) and non-invasive, I'm using them a lot again.

Buddleia  X 'Miss Molly'

Buddleia X 'Miss Molly'

Callicarpa 'Purple Pearls': saw it, loved it, instantly bought it, installed it.  Deer walked by and didn't eat it.  That's the first good sign.  Its another inter-specific hybrid, with the nice dark eggplant-ish foliage of one parent and the pink flowers of the other.  Lots of big berries in fall.  Also and upright habit.  For my money, you can't go wrong!

Callicarpa  'Purple Pearls'

Callicarpa 'Purple Pearls'

Chaenomeles 'Double Take Orange' - same thing - saw it just at the end of its flowering, instantly bought it, installed it, deer walk right on by.  Flowers are quite a bit more noticeable than the non-double-flowered forms, but the shrub still has a quirky yet interesting habit.  Plant along the top of a wall where the flowers can be at or above eye level.  You will eventually have to prune it  (grows 4-5 ft tall)- try to wait until late winter so that you can bring the trimmings inside and force them.  No thorns; no fruit.  Don't move away from the non-double chaenomeles completely, though, because the fruit is unexpected, pretty, and you can bring them inside to act as natural air fresheners instead of buying expensive quince candles!

Chaenomeles  'Double Take Orange'

Chaenomeles 'Double Take Orange'

Clematis - PLANT MORE of them!  What can I say, but that they give you bang for buck.  They're really not hard to grow after all, at least not some of the newer varieties (as well as some of the good old tried-and-true ones).  These Proven Winner ones have been selected for vigor, disease-resistance and flower power.  Try 'Sweet Summer Love' and 'Brother Stefan'.  'Brother Stefan' is one of the of the ones developed in Poland - it is a late spring bloomer (old wood) with sporadic rebloom later on new wood.  The flowers are "true blue" - unusual, as we know, in the plant kingdom and therefore eye-catching.  'Sweet Summer Love' is another cultivar from Poland that flowers late in the season on new wood - meaning that it can be cut back hard evey spring.  The small but prolific flowers are cranberry-violet colored and fragrant.  Plant and go.  Not particularly deer-resistant but not one of their favorite foods either.

Cornus obliqua 'Powell Gardens'  Red Rover   (Silky dogwood) - I haven't seen this one around anywhere yet, but if I do I will definitely try it.  Its native, and is proported to have a compact habit, purple-to-red fall foliage color and showy blue fruit. Also red stems in winter.  What's not to look - it's a great selection for moist sites and a pollinator resource and sounds far less blah than "regular" silky dogwood.


Heptacodium miconoides 'Temple of Bloom'.  I am a HUGE fan of Heptacodium and would like to plant one at each job just like Lagerstromia.  Unfortunately, they're not so easy to find as young trees, also because they are very gangly and some would say almost ugly as young trees.  I think they have personality and don't mind some asymmetry.  But they do have to be pruned as they grow to have a nice shae (or you can buy them bigger of course, so that they've already been trained).  This new variety from Proven Winners is described as being a compact cultivar with extra-large flowers and extra-red bracts - an improvement over the species that begins to flower earlier as well, for a longer blooming season.  If nothing else, it will be containerized and have some sort of decent-looking habit if its going to be sold in that coveted white pot.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Bobo' - buy it immediately if you see it!  Its a dwarf PG hydrangea with white flowers that are more round than conical and held upright, giving the overall visual of the shrub being totally engulfed in flowers.  No flopping, starts blooming earlier than some PGs and is "plain" - i.e. no half-pink-half-white, just a calm fade to pink, surprisingly quite a different "look" than 'Limelight' or 'Little Lime'.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Quick Fire' - same bloom time as 'Quick Fire' but only about a third the size.  The flowers transition from white to burgundy-red fairly quickly, which I like, and the plant has a beautiful and somewhat unusual orange fall foliage color.  Several of my clients have thought that 'Quick Fire' is the "best" PG hydrangea, so though I haven't seen 'Little Quick Fire' in bloom yet, I'm looking forward to installing it.

Itea virginica 'Scentlandia' - I haven't seen this one yet either.  But its billed as a "game changer" because it is the most fragrant Itea ever, has superior bud hardiness, still has great fall color and has a compact habit like 'Little Henry'.  Definitely one of my favorite natives.  Itea is described as being deer-resistant, but I think sometimes they munch it a little bit.  In my experience with 'Little Henry' I've noticed that the flowering has been a little uneven - maybe this new cultivar will help solve that problem which I had previously thought was due to deer browse not lack of bud hardiness.  The fall color, though, is definitely worth the price of admission!

Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'Red Wall'.  I've seen the nightmare of having an ivy-covered stucco façade, where the only solution is to rip off the ivy and re-stucco the house.  But some houses just look so nice with vines growing on them!  Enter, Virginia creeper.  It is much less damaging to the house, and of course turns a beautiful fall color.  Its native, has berries and I think could be beautiful even on a chain-link fence if not a house.  But, beware, it is a strong grower and will jump over onto trees in a heartbeat!

Parthenocissus quinquefolia  'Red Wall'

Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'Red Wall'

Viburnum nudum 'Bulk' Brandywine  - has the most beautiful berry display in the world of viburnums - green to ivory to pink and blue.  'Brandywine' sets fruit without a pollinator, so in that sense a wiser choice then 'Winterthur' (which has been one of my all-time favorites).  It has the same symmetrical habit, those same glossy leaves and maroon-red fall color as 'Winterthur', though.  If you add 'Brandywine' to an existing planting with 'Winterthur' in it, you'll find them both setting lots of berries.  But V. nudum has "stinky flowers" - so put it in the second layer or in the hedgerow.

The Legacy of Pierre Bennerup The American Gardener Nov/Dec 2013

Sunny Border Nurseries

Sunny Border Nurseries

Pierre Benerup, CEO of Sunny Border Nurseries is the person who came up with the idea of selling perennials in containers!  Up till then perennials were sold mostly as bare root plants.   Like other perennial garden "greats" we know, like Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik, Bennerup has a passion for plants and a wealth of hands-on learning.  He also had a solid background in sales and marketing, which is how he decided to plant in containers - it was sheer practicality.

In the early 1970s, perennial plants were primarily sold bareroot. Wholesale growers such as Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Michigan, and Springbrook Gardens in Mentor, Ohio, grew hundreds of acres of perennials in sandy soils and shipped nationwide to mail-order firms. In turn, the firms put their inventory into coolers until it was time to ship in spring and fall. Perennials such as moss phlox (Phlox subulata) and evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) were field-dug, thrown into two-quart wooden baskets, and placed on sale in retail nurseries, but few other perennials had the durability to withstand that kind of rough handling.

In the '50s and '60s, Sunny Border had converted a large part of its operation to field-grown production of yews (Taxus media) in order to meet the huge demand for foundation plantings created by the boom in home construction following World War II. The soil in that area of Connecticut is a clay loam, ideal for producing balled-and-burlapped yews, but not for perennials, which couldn't be dug after rains as quickly and easily as they could in the sandy soils of Bennerup's bigger competitors.

With the market for perennials expanding in the 1970s, Bennerup needed to come up with a solution. It was at this point that he decided to take the digging out of the equation and grow plants in pots.

As a wholesale nursery, Sunny Border sells to independent garden centers and directly to landscapers. Bennerup's guiding philosophy is that foliage-not flowers-is the key to successful gardens and landscapes. He elucidated this in the letter he wrote in his 2013 catalog, under the theme "Green is a color, too." Taking issue with what he terms "lipstick landscapes," Bennerup stated,

"I believe a good perennial garden is mostly foliage-various shades of green, bronze, silver, and gold. It's soothing. It's cooling." He adds, "Flower color in the garden should be savored in small portions like dessert. Too much color causes garden obesity." 
"Perennial gardening is about subtlety, form, fragrance, texture, calm, and sometimes even sound and motion; in fact, all the senses, not just sight," he says.
"I get so much enjoyment from gardening and plants," he says. "It's such a great gratification. We are connecting with the real world."


In addition to being a fan of perennials with interesting foliage, Pierre Bennerup says his favorite plant "tends to be whatever is blooming at the moment." He does admit to affinities to certain families or genera, such as the primrose family, the ranunculus family, the genus Epimedium, the genus Hakonechloa, the genus Saxifraga, and the genus Phlox. Here are some of his favorite individual perennials, including a few introductions by Sunny Border.

Coreopsis X 'Mercury Rising'

Coreopsis X 'Mercury Rising'

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' foliage

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' foliage

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' flowers

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' flowers

Tiarella X 'Timbuktu' foliage

Tiarella X 'Timbuktu' foliage

Tiarella fall and early winter foliage colors

Tiarella fall and early winter foliage colors

Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue'

Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue'

Sunny Border combination

Sunny Border combination

David Culp, Author of "The Layered Garden", is VP of Sunny Border Nurseries

David Culp, Author of "The Layered Garden", is VP of Sunny Border Nurseries




APLD Brochure: An APLD Guide to Sustainable Soils Available on the APLD website www.apld.org

This brochure is a really good basic summary of soil - and we all know its all about the soil!  

"The bottom line is that soils should be valued and preserved, because, literally, life depends upon it."

Recommendations for Designers include:

  •  Design for your soils. Aim to restore the site's soil back to its native composition. In most cases, avoid overbuilding soils into something beyond what is natural for your area.
  • Know the biology of your soils by sampling and testing the soil using a competent soil biology lab.
  • Do not till or physically disturb a healthy, mature soil. Physical disruption severely damages or destroys the mature soil food web. 
  • Physical soil compaction during construction has a long-term damaging effect on soils and is difficult to remedy after the fact. All efforts should be made to protect soils prior to and during any construction phase. 

The brochure also has a nice summary of the role soils play in sustainability:

  • Soils are the foundation of the ecosystem.
  • The living systems occurring above and below ground are determined by the properties of the soil. Soils store and cycle nutrients needed by these living systems, supporting life all the way from microbes to humans. A healthy, diverse ecosystem is critical for life, and it begins with the health of the soil.
  • Soils store carbon
  • Soils manage water.  Water enters the soil through the channels created by vegetation and the activities of organisms such as earthworms. It fills the empty pore spaces and is taken up by plants. Healthy soils have sufficient open pore space to absorb the water and allow it to infiltrate the soil, recharging the groundwater. Wetlands, also known as hydric soils, manage large quantities of water and also serve as buffers and filters in addition to supporting a vast array of wildlife.  

On the other hand, degraded soils exhibit erosion, which occurs when soils are not covered by vegetation, and rainfall both compacts the soils, forming a crust on the surface, and carries the top layer of sediment away. Compacted soil compresses the pore spaces so that air, water, and plant and animal life cannot penetrate.

  • Soils filter, buffer, degrade and detoxify potentially harmful chemicals
  • Soils influence climate.  Soils moderate temperature fluctuations, as soil heats more slowly than air and can absorb more heat on a hot day. Soils absorb heat during the day and radiate heat at night. Darker soils, which tend to have higher organic content, absorb the most heat. Soil temperature affects plant growth, which in turn affects climate.

Soils and Water

Our soils have changed.
When considering the loss of the eastern deciduous forest (75% gone) and the transition from native prairie / savanna plant systems to the mono-crops of industrial agriculture, we are looking at an incredible change within our soils. The depth and bulk of our current root systems no longer exist as they did two hundred years ago. Trees have extensive root systems in the top 24" of soil, and can reach five to eight feet or more in depth. The prairie existed on a root system depth between two and three feet, with some plants reaching four to six feet deep. The extensive root systems of our original "ground cover" opened up the soil, allowing for a deep penetration of precipitation and the slow exhale of moisture back up into the atmosphere through plant transpiration.
Not any more: corn, soybeans, wheat and other annual crops have temporary root systems in the 12 to 18 inch range. Perennial turfgrass, our American lawn, covering an area about the size of Wisconsin, has a root system of around six to twelve inches in the best of conditions. Precipitation run-off is now something we have to plan for after almost every rain.
Garth Conrad, APLD Garth Conrad Associates, LaPorte, IN


American Gardener Magazine New Plants 2016

Excerpted from "The American Gardener" magazine - Jan/Feb 2016

New Plants for 2016

For Dendranthema fans (otherwise known as Korean mums or Hardy mums – these are the ones that come back every year but can be quite floppy and really should be pinched at least once) there’s a new, lower-maintenance cultivar.  Dendranthema ‘Pumpkin Igloo’ has a “non-fading vibrant orange flower color on a compact branching plant that doesn’t need to be pinched”.  Does well down to Zone 5.  If you’ve not used these, they bring amazing flower power to the late summer/early fall perennial border - plants are covered in orange daisy flowers for over a month.  They attract masses of late-season pollinators and are deer-resistant.

Dendranthemum 'Pumpkin Igloo' flower color really pops with other early-fall flowers and foliage.

Dendranthemum 'Pumpkin Igloo' flower color really pops with other early-fall flowers and foliage.

'Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage) is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant but can be a little too wild for some gardens.  ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ is a new cultivar with shorter upright stems that won’t flop over. 

Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Denim 'n Lace' is more compact and makes a bigger flower statement than the species - but it reads more purple catmint-colored than the bluer color of the species.

Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra (False sunflower or Oxeye Daisy) also has a sturdier new cultivar called ‘Prima Ballerina’.  This is a native perennial for the back of the border with bright yellow daisy-like flowers that attract pollinators.  Heliopsis flowers from July to October and is surprisingly deer-resistant in most locations I’ve used it.  It’s a drought-tolerant native (once established) and can tolerate clay soil.  ‘Prima Ballerina’ tops out at only about 40 inches tall and does well to Zone 3.

Heliopsis is perfect for the back of a border - it even works in front foundation plantings.

If you’re looking for something different to put in annual containers this year, look into Echeveria gibbiflora Wildfire™.  This is a 10-inch tall rosette-forming succulent with ruffled, red-edged foliage serves a dramatic visual punctuation and and would look great with ground-cover sedums in a dry, desert-y full-sun container.

This Echeveria will make the blue-toned varieties pop!

Don’t be afraid to try some of the new roses – they really are much easier to grow and maintain nowadays if you choose the disease-resistant repeat-blooming varieties.  Knock-Out roses are in every median strip nowadays – we need a step up from them in our gardens!  There’s a new David Austin rose in 2016 called Rosa ‘Olivia Rose Austin’ which David Austin has called “possibly the best rose that we have introduced to date.  It is also one of the most disease-resistant roses we know.”  It’s a 3-ft tall shrub rose that blooms prolifically with double/full old-rose style flowers and a strong fruity fragrance.

Rosa 'Olivia Rose Austin'

I hope everyone has discovered the wonderfulness of highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum).  For those without deer, blueberries are practically an ideal shrub.  They stay fairly compact (about the size of boxwood or spirea) with an interesting branching pattern.  They have delicate and beautiful flowers in spring, followed by berries that birds love (you can eat them too if you want) and then show-stopping red-orange-burgundy fall foliage color.  They don’t mind a bit of shade, and they tolerate wet feet.  And they’re native – what’s not to love?!  There’s a new series of compact shrubs called BrazelBerries® that includes blueberry varieties.  The new variety for 2016, ‘Perpetua’, is described as “a true double-cropping blueberry, setting fruit in midsummer and then again in fall.  ’Perpetua’s dark green leaves grow in a twisted form and are flushed deep red in fall, while the new canes turn bright yellow and red”.  Does well to Zone 4. 

Brazelberry 'Perpetua' is a compact blueberry cultivar that is self-pollinating.

The wonderfulness of high bush blueberries! This is the 'Perpetual' Brazelberry cultivar. Here you can see the flowers for the fall berry crop together with the fall-colored foliage.

Good advice for everyone, including Landscape Designers

“Annotated” Words of Wisdom from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine Feb 2016 

The article was about enterpreneurs.  It's headline was:

"HINDSIGHT IS 20/20.  Here’s what successful start-ups wish they had known."
1. It gets lonely – not just working by yourself, but making decisions alone.

So make sure you cherish your network of friends and colleagues and meet up with them in person regularly.  It can be at the Mamaroneck Public Library for a coffee break during the work day, lunch, or a visit to a public garden on the weekend.  Don’t hesitate to share designs, problems and ideas – its not a competition.  Designs are better when they’re talked through – show someone else the design or meet them at the site and brainstorm over the latte that you bring them.  Also make sure you take the time to talk to the people at the nurseries.  Ask about new plants, their favorite plants, why they like a certain cultivar, what they know about a tree, how the growing season has been affected by the weather – just make a connection. 

2. You wear lots of hats – customer service, accounting, marketing, production, PR – it’s all up to you.

But of course you can’t really do it all, so you’ll probably outsource.  You may be able to barter if you’re a fairly small operation – trade planting seasonal containers for a tutorial in Quickbooks.  The only thing you can be is yourself – if you play to your strengths you’ll be the most effective and the least frustrated.

3. Don’t compare – every business grows differently.  Try not to compare yourself with others.

…When you look at other people’s beautiful pictures or visit award-winning landscapes, appreciate the talent and creativity and find out what plants they used and why, what their inspiration was.  Don’t be jealous, and don’t despair.

4. Hire slow, fire fast – the people you work with are an extension of your brand.  Make sure they’re good at it.

This is especially true about the contractors you use.  Its not worth hitching your wagon to someone who doesn’t share your standards or doesn’t know what they’re doing.  Cutting corners really doesn’t work in the long run.

5. Be patient – overnight sensations are the exceptions, not the rule.  Persistence, hard work and believing in what you do pay off in the long run.

And I would add to that, being good at what you do will pay off in the long run.  That means never stop learning.  Luckily for us landscapes are a long-lasting work product that can continue to evolve and be tweaked (and be learned from!) over time.  

6.  Pivot and problem-solve – when you hit an obstacle, don’t let it stop you.  Adjust and work it out.

…Mistakes will be made.  We’re human.  Its all about what you do next.  If you make a mistake, ‘fess up and make it right.

Don't Plant these in 2016!

Of the 2814 species of plants growing wild in Massachusetts, fully 45% (1276 species) have been introduced (either on purpose or by accident) from other parts of the globe.  Many of these are agricultural weeds that began arriving in grain or ship’s ballast soon after European colonists came here in the early 1600’s. Others were introduced by horticulturists or the federal government for use in gardens or soil stabilization, reforestation, and the like. It is impossible to know what effect this monumental immigration has had on native plants and animals. Certainly, of the thousands and thousands of plants introduced in the US and Canada from abroad, only a small number (estimates range from 3-7%) are thought to pose a serious threat to native ecosystems. These problem few are quite a problem, however. These invasive exotics have few if any natural predators to keep them in check, instead running rampant and displacing entire communities of native plants as well as the insects, fungi, birds, mammals, reptiles, bacteria, etc that have come to depend on them…. Invasive species have the potential to completely alter habitats, disrupt natural cycles of disturbance and succession, and most importantly, greatly decrease overall biodiversity, pushing rare species to the brink of extinction. Many ecologists now feel that invasive species represent the greatest current and future threat to native plant and animal species worldwide – greater even than human population growth, land development, and pollution.


It is high time that we horticulturists recognize our responsibility to both cease the importation and introduction of new and potentially invasive exotic plants and to stop growing and planting known or suspected invasives regardless of their ornamentality or consumer demand. I believe that we need to adopt the precautionary principle as far as plant introductions are concerned, and assume a species (including all of its cultivars) is invasive until proven otherwise (rather than the current approach of “innocent until proven guilty”). At least let’s not make this situation any worse.