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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

See website, design work and favorite flowering plants at  gardengurumontreal.ca

Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

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Entries in flowerbeds (13)

Tuesday
Dec042012

Dianthus Anonymous; a Pungent, Pink Perennial

When Frances moved into her new home 60 years ago, a neighbor presented her with a cutting of a short, pink-flowering perennial. The plant had no name. It remained anonymous until years later when a cutting of it was passed down to me and I recognized it as a member of the dianthus family. I still do not know its specific name.

When her daughter Suzanne purchased a home, Frances gave her a clump of that same plant with the advice that it was hardy and reliable. Years later, when my wife and I purchase our home, Suzanne, in turn,  gave us a cutting of that same plant. Over time, when the clump in my garden grew to maturity, I too would begin to hand out cuttings to all my friends and neighbors. The perennial was truly rugged and very well suited to our climate here in USDA Zone 4.

Prior to receiving that gift, I had not been very successful growing this family of plants. As a teenager, I had ordered dianthus many times from mail-order catalogues but the strains that I received could not  survive the Montreal winters of the 1960’s. However, this anonymous dianthus, passed down from generation to generation and from one friend to another, would prove to be very hardy.

Without thinking, I chose a very challenging sunny location for my cutting.  I placed it in a prominent spot in a rock garden where the earth was really too well drained, Combined with the searing heat of the sun, the dense dry clay earth created a desert-like environment. Up until then, all that survived there had been vigorous weeds and insinuous wild flowers. How was I to know that dianthus is a drought loving plant and that I had made a wise decision?

In those days, I watered my garden nightly and nourished it with generous amounts of manufactured fertilizer. The dianthus seemed to have enjoyed all that pampering; by the end of summer, it had grown from a messy, scrawny, leggy cutting into a lush cloud-shaped carpet of silver-blue pinnate foliage. The dense mat it created became a weed-free oasis surrounded by a sea of wild flowers eager to invade but unable to do so.

The following summer, that low-growing mound of pastel blue foliage produced a crop of baby-pink dianthus flowers, from which emanated a pungent, spicy aroma that intoxicated my brain. The sensory effect was euphoric. Previously, only the aroma of dwarf Korean lilacs had given me a similar sensation.

Inspired by this fantasy-like aromatic experience, I attacked the now-lush mound of dianthus in order to propagate it. I wanted to spread this source of pleasure throughout. After all, if one mound could be so powerful, surely several would be hypnotic.

Propagating dianthus was not an easy task because the makeup of the root ball is illusory. While the plant may spread in all directions, its roots are confined to a very spindly compact fortress at its center.

Suzanne had dug into the center of her plant to give me a viable cutting. I was more inclined to separate several strands of the plant from the root ball’s perimeter. Both methods result in the mother plant and its cuttings to appear ragged for a while, but it is worth the messiness to achieve a greater goal.

I also discovered that it is possible to remove strands of the plants with or without roots attached - it didn’t seem to matter. So rugged is this perennial that rootless pieces thrived and established themselves over time to produce lush plant mats even when placed into my dry, hot clay bed. As an added bonus, the spreading mats would eventually cascade over the boulders in the rock garden to create miniature waterfalls of plants, now silver blue and later baby pink.

After propagating, the front borders of my flowerbed shimmered with the silver blue trimming that is dianthus. I was delighted with the pungent aroma the plants produced in early summer. I was also pleased that the foliage did not turn brown in autumn; it held its blue-spruce color up until the first snowfall, when it disappeared – color intact - under a blanket of white.

The following season, when the warm spring sun melted the snow, the silver- blue foliage appeared to have been untouched by winter. It provided a pleasant surprise of color in the garden, when all else was still brown.

From many sources, I had learned that dianthus will rebloom during the summer if the first crop is dead headed. I tried to achieve that second flourish for many years until my body lost some of its flexibility. The flowers grow so close to the ground that some mature gardeners will find it challenging to engage in the heavy-duty crouching required for this task.

This is not a one-dead-head-at-a-time job either. The chore requires a hedge trimmer using one or several swoops to remove the miniature florets. A hand clipper will not do because there are too many tiny flowers to manicure.

However, in my experience, the second batch of blooms produced by the dead headed perennial was never as spectacular as the first. The bending and crouching required to produce the meager additional crop did not justified the hard work. Eventually, I gave up.

Long after I recived my first dianthus cutting, newer varieties began to appear on the market. Sadly, not one has proven to be as hardy or robust as the anonymous pink hand-me-down. In my growing zone, the newer botanical inventions tend to last only one or two seasons. There is something to be said for the good old reliable “heritage” perennials. They never disappoint.

Tuesday
Nov202012

"Heaven Knows Anything Goes": Coral Pink and Lemon Yellow in the English-Style Flowerbed.

Forground right:Itoh Peony Bartzella. Center and left: Rainbow Knock Out Rose - more coral than pink in the summertime. Far back right: Rose Carefree Wonder..

Coral pink is a very warm, almost hot, color. It never was part of the master plan in my head when I planted the front walkway English-inspired garden.

When it was first introduced, the hype about Rainbow Knock Out Rose was as intense as the coral pink color of its petals. Then, its subsequent performance in my test garden was so awe-inspiring – yes, gardeners do feel awe when a plant out-performs its expectations – I just had to transplant it into the front yard flowerbed.

It can be frustrating for some gardeners to know that an uber-beautiful plant is flourishing in an unseen back yard garden. I prefer to admire such plants as I exit and enter the front door of my home.

Then, only a year after the coral pink rose was moved to the front garden, I acquired Bartzella. The most convenient spot to plant this magnificent yellow Itoh peony was two feet away from Rainbow Knock Out.

In a short while, both plants grew exponentially as they literally reached out to touch each other. That’s how a new, unplanned color combination, one that I never thought appropriate for my English-inspired flowerbed, came to dominate the early summer palette of the front garden.

To my pleasant surprise, this coral pink and lemon yellow composition appeared very pleasing to the eyes, especially with the long view of the grey stone house façade in the background. It should not have been a surprise. After all, the peony is yellow, albeit a cold yellow, and coral pink contains pigments of yellow.

Although the added vibrancy of this color combination upset the cool balance of the flowerbed, it ushered in a new approach to coloring the garden.  In time, the warm color palette would become my inspiration to increase the intensity of tones of future flowerbeds. This change of heart coincided conveniently with increasing requests from clients for me to use bolder colors.

What an evolution this has turned out to be! At the outset of my gardening experience, I adhered to emulating the British palette of polite, cool pastel shades. Now, I am comfortable using brassy color combinations that some might consider clearly American in spirit.

As long as the tones of a home’s façade can accommodate hot colors, there is no longer any protocol preventing gardeners from using them. As time goes on, rules about the aesthetics of garden composition – especially in North America – evolve or change. In some communities, they have been  discarded altogether.

Now, courageous homeowners plant for their personal pleasure; often to the dismay of their more conservative neighbors. As the lyrics of a Cole Porter song recount, now heaven knows, anything goes.

Friday
Sep072012

The Surprise of Pink Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit

Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit by Proven Winners. The flower heads in my garden are a shade lighter.Readers might recall that I once had a roller coaster emotional experience with the pink flowering Hydrangea, Invincibelle Spirit. That love-hate relationship continued for the first two years after planting. The saga ended when I made peace with the plant by treating it as an integral part of my flowerbed design, i.e. as a summer perennial. I staked it when necessary and dead headed the spent florets when they blackened.

Image supplied by Proven WinnersHowever, something magical happened this season. This summer, Invincibelle Spirit, arched over nicely so that staking became an option and not a necessity, and the spent flower heads did not turn black. Then, during the month following the initial blooming, the spent flowers transitioned from pink to ivory-beige. As it appears now in my flowerbed, it provides a fascinating texture to the overall composition.

The camera captured a prominent green cast to the color of the spent flowers that was not visible in the garden.The unexpected and pleasant surprise continued when, in the midst of drought and searing heat, the spent hydrangea shrub was audaciously transplanted, by this sometimes reckless gardener, without any apparent consequences.

If only I had remembered one important fact about this plant, learned while researching it online:- deadhead flowers when spent. That action would have stimulated reblooming and I might have enjoyed an additional crop of pink florets. I’ll remember that for next year.

The above image demonstrates the appearance of the spent flower heads at the beginning of September, over a month after they lost their pink color. In full disclosure, the plant was staked just before it was photographed. Otherwise staking was not required, even after transplanting.

It has taken three years for me to appreciate firsthand what the grower, Proven Winners, had promised so long ago. I hope the results that I’ve experienced this summer turn out to be a permanent evolution; and not an aberration brought on by the unrecognizable weather conditions we’ve experienced lately.

Proven Winners attaches elaborate hang tags to plants in their series of Endless Summer hydrangeas. These tags are full of information influencing and reinforcing consumer decisions to buy. I wish that a similar marketing strategy had also been used for Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit. That way, I might have been alerted to the possibility that this plant required maturation before I would reap benefits.

From another perspective, perhaps this variety should not be brought to market until it is at least four years old. It must be very challenging to be a commercial grower and find that, in spite of the sincere efforts of humans, the unpredictable and uncontrollable power of nature will always prevail.

Thursday
Mar152012

Buffalo Style Gardens: an American Phenomenon

http://georgeweigel.net/georges-current-ramblings-and-readlings/garden-tour-extraordinaire

Have you noticed the Buffalo style gardens that have been evolving in western Upstate New York? This type of gardening is considered by some to be an original American contribution to urban landscaping. Although the style pays homage to Romantic English gardens, its unique and distinct local flavor sets it apart from other gardening idioms.

gardenwalkbuffalo.com Cultivated in the northern part of the USA, in an unusually temperate micro-climate, its development has come as a surprise to those who wrongly associate Buffalo with severe winters[ not true] and a short growing season [also not true]. That so many of its residents have successfully embraced this style to make it their own is a phenomenon.

insiders.seeamerica.comFor this online, armchair garden tourist, the following four characteristics identify such a garden:-

1] Front yard lawns are replaced, entirely or partially, with dramatic perennial flowerbeds, and the strip of grass that separates the city road form the public sidewalk is similarly and painstakingly landscaped.

2] In older parts of town where Victorian architecture abounds, the exterior of the homes are painted in vivid shades that disregard the colors of nearby houses and flowers.

3] Gardens are defined by very dense and very lush plantings, a Romantic spirit, a liberal use of foliage, and an intense attention to texture, form, and color.

4] Neighbors design their front yard flowerbeds to compete with each other for attention.

http://www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com Whether they adorn the front of a home or if they are secluded in a side or back yard, the plant compositions represent idealized horticultural visions usually found in the imagination of flower gardeners. We dream about them as goals, one day to be realized. Yet, here they grow on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, where winds sometimes make the occasional winter snowfall feel more severe than it is.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comThe gardeners of this city have created horticultural beauty of such high quality that their work has captured the attention of the rest of America. Admiring camera-equipped tourists arrive from outside the Niagara-Erie area, national magazines place journalists there to write about it, and other cities send delegations to determine if they can emulate Buffalo’s success.

http://www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com When local residents realized that their own personal gardens had become tourist attractions, they came together to designate the last weekend of July as an annual summer festival to celebrate their work. Today 350 private Buffalo gardens make up a free-of-charge, self-guided walking tour that is organized by hundreds of gardener-volunteers, underwritten by thirty sponsors, and attracting about 50,000 tourists over its two-day span. It is the largest garden tour in America.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comThe Atlantic.com’s Daily Dish has described this collection of gardens thusly: “There are Japanese gardens, English gardens, Russian gardens (i.e., barely controlled wildernesses) and what I would call Buffalo gardens - eclectic, funky mixes in which found objects and exotic-looking surrounding rooftops figure prominently".

http://www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com While not all of the participating gardens are situated on former front lawns, it is exactly those viewed-from-the street flowerbeds that have captured my attention. Readers who have attempted to replace their front lawns with perennial combinations understand that this project is more challenging than it appears; because a front yard converted into one large perennial flowerbed is prone to be messy and scraggly.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comThis does not appear to happen so much in Buffalo, as one can determine from the uppermost image posted above. Here, a meticulous gardener displays a keen eye for composition and design, a sophisticated understanding how plants perform, and a courageous approach to the use of color.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comOnce, the city of Buffalo was considered the grungy rust belt of America. Now, a community of avid, amateur gardeners is transforming it into what Martha Stewart Living suggests might become the epicenter of American Horticulture.

http://www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com The walking tour of Buffalo's gardens is an example of how successful a grass-roots initiative can be, especially one that is completely independent of government assistance or intervention. Some number crunchers believe that this private two-day event pumps over 3 million dollars annually into the local economy.

Readers interested in planning their vacation to coincide with this event can click onto the tour’s website at http:/www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com

Wednesday
Jan252012

Impressionist Painter Claude Monet was a Garden Designer

Monet’s Passion: Ideas Inspiration and Insight from the Painter’s Gardens, by Elizabeth Murray, Pomegranate Artbooks

We are so caught up in the historical and aesthetic significance of the English garden, and its recent American transformation, that we easily forget about the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his significant contribution to flower garden design. Elizabeth Murray created this jewel of a publication as homage to Monet’s horticultural genius. It is a beautiful, elegant example of the art of publishing at its best.  

Claude Monet, Garden at Giverny, 1900. Musee d'Orsay. ParisAlthough its earlier edition was marketed as an art book, it is indeed a gardener’s delight. I discovered it only recently, when my daughter visited for the holidays and found time to clear out unwanted possessions, left behind from her teenage years at home. She had purchased the book as inspiration for the art classes she once took. Now, it has no value to her and she asked if I could use it. When I picked it up to flip though its pages, I discovered beautiful images of flower beds, some immortalized on canvas by Monet, and others photographed by Ms. Murray. All are suitable inspiration for future generations of flower gardeners.

Claude Monet (1840-1926). Waterlilies: Green Reflections. Detail of left side, room 1, east wall, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. In 1989, a few years before the release of the first edition of the book, fine art photographer, landscape horticulturist, and author Elizabeth Murray assisted with the restoration of Monet’s gardens at his Giverny estate in France. In this best-seller, she reported on the garden’s original development, its maintenance, Monet’s color theories, design elements, and his use of light and shade.

Monet, Bridge at Giverny, http://www.thecultureconcept.com/circle/first-impressions-monet-pisarro-sisley-renoirShe also supplied rich photos of the restored gardens in bloom, flowerbeds drawn to scale, aerial diagrams of some of the original flower compositions, as well as translucent annotated blueprints, superimposed on the sketches to assist readers who might wish to recreate the flowerbeds for themselves.

Climbing pink rose tree at Giverny, by Elizabeth Murray.The Giverny estate includes nearly three acres of flowers, an arched tunnel covered with climbing roses, a wide walk carpeted with creeping nasturtium, and a two-acre water lily garden, traversed by a wisteria-covered, Japanese footbridge. Ms. Murray reported that the artist deliberately pondered the placement of every flower that bloomed in his garden in order to create subjects and views waiting to be painted.

Monet's Giverny garden (photo © Elizabeth Murray) http://pomegranatecom.blogspot.com/2011/04/me-and-monet.htmlAccording to the author, the gardens were designed “using the technique of succession planting. Bulbs and annuals are woven into perennial flower borders to provide color throughout the growing seasons. Scale and borrowed landscapes increase the visual size of the garden. Large blocks of monochromatic colors are used for impact, complementary colors are placed next to each other for intensity, specific color is used to increase the atmospheric effect of mist and sunlight, and the reflection of the sky and landscape on the surface of the water is used as a design feature”.

http://www.monet-giverny-normandy.com/tag/giverny/Flower gardening used to be an attraction restricted to a small group of dedicated hobbyists. With the proliferation of the big box garden centers, this passion has become a joyful activity accessible to a much wider population. Even though the book was released over twenty years ago, it has remained a timeless classic that speaks to newer generations of flower gardeners, an audience infinitely larger than the publisher could have ever imagined.

In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of Monet's Passion: Ideas, Inspiration, and Insights from the Painter's Gardens, a revised and enhanced edition was published in 2010. I am happy to have rediscovered this work and share it with my readers.