Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Glimpses of Florida: Firebush Hamelia patens

It's always exciting coming back to the Florida garden; this time it's only been two months instead of the usual four. Still things have changed. Typically we have a dry period from December to June, with fairly regular precipitation the rest of the year. Applying six dry months a year to soil that is almost pure sand produces a definitely xeric environment. The dry period started early this year; there hasn't been consistent rain since August. Some plants don't seem to care for whatever reasons. There is a heavy dew every night and some are able to utilize this moisture.

Firebush, Hamelia patens, is a staple of Zone 9 landscaping. Native on the southernn coastal plain, it's deciduous just a bit farther north, Much of the summer itis adorned with tubular scarlet flowers that dependably attract hummingbirds. Drought doesn't faze it, it grows fairly quickly and it doesn't get too big. Great plant!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ilex x attenuata aurea and Ilex vomitoria...two lovely native hollies

Strictly speaking the gold fruited selection is a hybrid between two native hollies, Ilex cassine and Ilex opaca. The red berries belong to Ilex vomitoria, or Yaupon. Yaupon is a southern holly as is Ilex cassine. Neither is widely distributed this far north, but both are hardy here. As climate changes bring warmer winters farther north, these two SE taxa may be reasonable choices as far north as coastal New England.

Ilex macrocarpa...I bet you've never seen this plant before!

Hey, I know I never have. Its an Asian deciduous holly, and though the scale isn't obvious from the the picture, the fruits are large, right around a half inch in diameter. One of the nice things about working at the National Arboretum is the regular opportunities I am afforded to see plants I have never seen before. I guess its a bit embarrassing to admit that I have been driving past this particular plant for the last 4 years without noticing it, but in my own defense, it is a bit nondescript until the fruit appear and this is the first year it has fruited. I would love to add information about it but, while it is not ungoogleable (bad word, sorry), I found nothing other than the fact that it is on some lists and planted in a few other gardens. Well, it seems happy in an exposed position in the warm part of USDA Zone 7 and it has cool fruit~

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Now we're pointed in the right direction

Whatever winter festival you celebrate: Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza, or something else, there is no denying that it is good to pass the Solstice. They days are getting longer....slowly; we gained 2 seconds on the 22nd, 6 seconds today, 10 seconds on the 24th and it just keeps getting better. Actually, I guess its not even a bad time for residents on the other side of the equator...mid-summer?

Daylength is a funny thing; it's assymetrical; sunrise and sunset change at different rates. The earliest time for sunset in the DC area is 4:46 and we sit on that for almost two weeks. Sunset has already moved 5 minutes in the right direction. The problem is that sunrise hasn't reached its latest time (it will rise at 7:27 December 31) so, while we are adding sunlight in the afternoon, we are still losing it in the morning. Anyway, post-Solstice, we are making net daily gains even though they are at this point very small ones. Baby steps, but by the 8th of January we will be gaining a minute a day and it gets better after that until we reach the Summer Solstice.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Florida garden December 2007 (for comparison)

We're going to Florida the 26th so I have been looking at pictures from December 2007. This one shows the two sunny beds and the beds beside the tool shed and the laundry room. In the background, planted by itself in the lawn, is a smallish Cycas revoluta, that has since been replaced by a smallish Bismarckia palm. The Jatropha in the right mid-foreground has died, actually within days of when this picture was taken. I facilitated its death by watering it and plumping it up for the 25 F temperatures that laid it low.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bugs and diseases can be exciting.... well bugs anyway

Went to a conference this past Friday at Montgomery College Germantown, Pest Management. Most of the ASRT's (gardeners) from the Arboretum went along with a smattering of Horticulturists, etc.. Learned and relearned a lot of good stuff: of course that's the point of the whole thing! It prompteed me to add two websites to the "Information" list. While they are of most use to mid-Atlantic gardeners, Bug of the Week, is a fun informative feature that Mike Raupp PhD entomologist at the University of Maryland posts weekly on his web site. It is a series of interesting topical essays, sometimes with pornographic video (see April 28, 2008); I look forward even to the less erotic posts. The second site, while of less general interest, is an essential resource for landscape professionals and serious gardeners. Go to the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Green Industry Web Site and select "IPM Weekly Alert for Nursery and Landscape" from the toolbar. Wow. The good stuff includes weekly updates of new occurrences of insects and diseases, along with discussions of short and long-term weather including degree days. Pictures, references, suggestions. Much of the power of this site lies in the fact that this is not just what a few extension agents and a few staffers from the Univeristy come upon, it is supplemented by submissions from a large and growing network of associates in Maryland and adjacent areas. It is an incredible example of how the internet can make our lives easier and better! Take advantage of it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fraser Fir Tree Farm in North Carolina

We passed this tree farm on the Shortia collecting trip this summer. I took the picture as we drove back from Panthertown Valley; I would guess that the tree farm ran for something like two miles starting at the road and varying in width from half a mile to a mile. All of these trees are Fraser Firs, a species native to the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians.

When I was young, in the 1950s and 60s, the commonest Christmas trees were Balsam Firs, and Scotch Pines. Christmas tree growers are far more sophisticated than they were 50 years ago and most of the trees are sheared. That means that the Balsams, that have a nicer smell than the Frasers, now are thick dense trees. The Balsams I remember were Charlie Brown types. So open it seemed as if you could almost throw a football through a tree without touching a branch. Good for hanging a few ornaments. They never held their leaves very well but they did smell good. Scotch Pines, like most pines, are attractive trees that hold their needles well but often have yellowing needles and don't present any easy places to suspend pendant ornaments. If you see a tree sprayed an unnatural shade of green it is probably a chlorotic Scotch Pine.

When you work at a retail nursery, come December you sell Christmas trees. That's what's happening in December. When I was at Behnke's I sold Christmas trees a few years. It was pleasant work; the trees smelled good and the customers were, by and large, cheery. The aroma of Douglas Firs is the best....sort of citrusy, but they weren't designed for hanging ornaments. Fraser Firs are the best all around trees, and it seems to me without doing research, the best sellers. They hold their needles well, have a nice shape, and have branches strong enough and spaced far enough apart to easily support fairly heavy ornaments. Noble Firs are the model for top of the line artificial trees and they are beautiful, but they have no smell, excepting, occasionally, a foetid stench that rises from the water reserve after a week or so. We almost always choose a Fraser, but I was often tempted to cut the top 4 feet out of a Douglas Fir (after we closed on Christmas Eve) and set it up as an ornamentless, just for the smell. I never did it but it would have been a good idea.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It finally rained on the Florida garden!

This is what it looked like in Florida in October when we went down for my mother-in-law's memorial. We're going again the day after Christmas. It just rained almost an inch but its only the second time it has rained since October and the other one was less than half an inch. At the least it will green up the lawn. In winter's past we have had Aloe saponaria, Asclepias curvassavicam, Cestrum newellii, and various other plants flowering. The butterflies that braves winter showed up at the Aloe and the Butterflyweed. I'm looking forward to seeing how the garden has progressed..... Anticipation.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I remember building these steps and I remember transplanting that mondo grass

Both highly visible and memorable, the Red Pagoda sits astride a ridge that divides China Valley from the Central Valley of the Japanese Woodland. The Central Valley used to be called Chadwick Valley to honor a major donor who funded large portions of this garden. At some point Dorothy Kidder nee Chadwick, requested that the family name no longer be used and so now we have the Central Valley.

My position now in China Valley is funded by an endowment from Ms. Kidder. She was a fascinating woman, tremendously intelligent with a lifelong dedication to gardens and gardening. She maintained a wonderful garden in France, a pleasant waterfront property outside of Easton Maryland, and a rooftop garden outside her primary residence at the Watergate just across F Street from the Kennedy Center.

After leaving the Arboretum, I had the pleasure of working for Ms. Kidder as a gardener at the Watergate and at her residence in Easton. Her interest in plants never flagged; piles of gardening books and magazines overflowed work tables at both residences (regretably, I never accepted any of her offers to visit the garden in France). She made a point of meeting with me just about every time I worked at the Watergate and the few times, I drove her to the Eastern Shore in a grubby old 3/4 ton Pickup; she never complained. We talked about plants and gardens the whole way and the long drives passed quickly.

The topography in China Valley is extreme and the drainage a complicated problem. It took several incarnations of pathway before success was achieved. My introduction to the Asian Collections was intimidating; I was tasked with sorting, by myself, about 12 pallets of stone. I graded them by size for various uses. most of the smaller and medium pieces, by far the bulk of the stone, we used as vertical edging along the path. (they were set in concrete but the concept failed and they were subsequently removed. The remaining larger stones became steppers and make up both this stairway and the similar one across from it in China Valley. While the pathway was eventually replaced, the stairs remain!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Nice Sunrise Over China Valley

That sunrise isn't just pretty, it's metaphorical; I started in my new position at the Arboretum today and China Valley was cold. The temperatures have been mercurial (analytically true) . A week ago we had highs in the 50s and lows near 40 while the last few nights have been cold: near 20F, 24 this AM. Tuesday night is forecast to be wet with a low of only 47F though and we are supposed to get into the 60's by Wednesday afternoon. Wow.

I first worked at the Arboretum almost 20 years ago and I was the Gardener in China Valley. While I have come full circle, the garden has been moving forward. The half-dozen Magnolia denudata that I remember as barely over my head are real trees now. A Nyssa sinensis is assuming shade tree proportions and the Taiwania cryptomerioides that was 6 feet tall, has more than trebeled in size. This is a lovely, rarely encountered conifer that seems to tolerate both poor soil and our summers without missing a beat. The Heptacodium have grown, very reasonably, to the size of large Crape Myrtles, which they vaguely resemble in that they are vase shaped, multi-stemmed shrubs with attractive bark. Their's is a chalky bone-white. It is another, not quite so uncommon, but still underutilized plant; inconsequential white flowers in summer have notwithstabding a wonderful fragrance and are followed by attractive reddish bracts that give the appearance of hydrangea panicles.

It is curious and disconcerting to be back. When I left, the Miscanthus and Pennisetum that came from Kurt Blumel and were intended to carry the garden until the Chinese plants came through were still the dominant visual component in the garden. I remember dividing the Miscanthus with Beth Finney, and planting a "River of Grass" on the flood plain stretching from the bottom of the hill to the Anacostia River. That planting has come and gone. Other gardeners remeber disassembling it. That's the way it is with gardens though; they evolve......some plants grow, some are transplanted, some die and are replaced with newcomers.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Poinsettia 'Ice Punch'....New Variety

There's something about seeing a greenhouse full of plants in artificial light and with our short days, this is the time to do it. Behnke's greenhouses full of poinsettias are spectacular under the soft illumination of artificial light.

Another great greenhouse after dark is the United States Botanic Garden; both their regular plantings and their holiday displays make the trip downtown worth it this month. Low key and relaxing is a good thing in December

Every year Behnke's Nurseries grows a number of new and or unusual varieties of Poinsettias. Every year we buy one or another of them. I rarely like any of them as much as the standard red, but this year is different; this is a beautiful plant. Repeated attempts at photographing it left me unable to convey the softness of the variegation. It has a warm warm feel, as though the plant were lit by firelight. I know this isn't true of the picture where the variegation looks harsher and more sever than it does in person but trust me!

Stipa (Nasella) tenuissima, Corylus avellena 'Red Majestic', Skimmia cvs., Rhapidaphyllum hystrix, Betula sylvatica 'Tricolor', Bismarckia nobilis

I was thinking about plants and box stores and the free market system and, one of my favorite subjects, lethargy, (perhaps less pejoratively, inertia) and I came to a startling and disturbing conclusion. Home Depot, and its ilk, may be good for the introduction of new or underutilized taxa into the marketplace, and so our gardens. Wow!

Okay, here's my reasoning. While I have no knowledge whatsoever about the inner working of Box Store Management, I think I can infer a few things by looking at the plants on their shelves. They clearly aren't interested in giant markups on their woody plants and perennials; many sell for barely above what I remember as their wholesale cost. They seem to look for most of their margin in annuals. It is not an organization that is studded with horticultural knowledge, yet they do have good and interesting plants on an increasingly regular basis. Actually, they are a source for a few plants that I like to use in designs that more traditional garden centers and nurseries seem not to be able to either get in the first place, or keep in inventory. When these plants appear at the Box, we buy quantities because they won't be stocked for long.

My guess is that they have one or a few plant geeks in buyer positions. I don't mean plant geek in a bad way. Hey some/most? of my best friends are plant geeks; actually, I'm a plant geek. Anyway, if you combine this geek input with the tremendous clout that goes along with the volume they do, you get a situation where maybe (here my figures are pure whimsy), maybe they contract to have 10.000 pots of an obscure but wonderful plant grown that was essentially unavailable through traditional retail sources. They are definitely putting some good plants out there.

The horticultural ignorance of management is a good thing here. They don't care what they sell so long as its not poisonous or illegal... just that it moves and can produce the desired margin. This provides a flexibility that doesn't exist when the inevitably stodgy prejudices and preconceptions of an industry determine what to take a chance on. Not only are the Boxes more flexible, they aren't burdened by the need to maintain any semblance of a "complete" inventory. You can't go to a Box expecting anything other than that there will be good plants and they will be seasonally appropriate. The stores tend to have relatively large quantities of a relatively small number of taxa,but healthy and occasionally exciting.

Friday, December 5, 2008

OAS Volunteers remove some of the weedy curtain on the forest below the Beech Woods

There was much cutting and pulling of invasive plants Friday above the bridge over Hickey Run below the Lilac Field. On a fairly cold but sunny day volunteers from the Organization of American States showed up to help the Fern Valley Staff (there were two of us this morning, one tonight) clean up yet another small but visible spot that had been overwhelmed by non-native invasive plants. We, mostly they, removed Ampelopsis, Lonicera, and other assorted plants to open up a view into a wonderful flood-plain forest.

This is just one more place that we are stretching a thin staff to try to recover. I know that few visitors will notice this area but we have done others and we will do more. Month by month, walking and driving through the Arboretum reveal fewer unsightly spaces. The experience just gets better and better. Not to mention the fact that with the shrubs and vines out of the the way it will be possible to walk through next spring and chemically attend to the Lesser Celandine that carpets this area and is choking out the Spring Beauties. Baby steps.

Quercus acutissimia...A good sunrise can even make a non-native tree look great!:

Here's another non-natie that is somewhat out of synch with the seasons. Everybody else, even most of the oaks, have lpst their leaves for the winter and here's the Sawtooth Oak trailing along happily.

This is an oak that seems to be relatively unaffected by the complex of issues that result in Oak decline, and have distressed and killed so many of our native oaks It has abundant large acorns (not this year!) that resulted in its being widely planted in a number of eastern states for wildlife. It turns out that the high tannin acorns are so bitter that they are only eaten by birds, but I guess that's good for turkeys. It is maybe not so good for the natural areas that now have another Asian competitor with a competitive advantage?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Trails in Fern Valley

The new trails will allow access to plants that had previously been inaccessible; In the picture this new section runs between the beautiful Blueberry (with some residual red leaves) on the left and a Mountain Laurel on the right. Visible on the right-hand side of the picture are leaves of a native Azalea, Rhododendron viscosum serrulatum that has fragrant flowers in late summer.

What you see in these photographs is the base layer that will eventually be overlaid with red gravel and finally red stone dust.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A South African Mesemb and a hybrid Asian Viburnum hanging in after multiple hard frosts

The problem with cheating Mother Nature is that you almost always have to use non-native plants to do it. Seasonal trickery doesn't work on plants that are evolutionarily adapted to our climate. Witch hazels are the only native plants that come to mind that flower in the winter...and Skunk Cabbages and a few Carex spp.. Fortunately we can use plants from around the world (non-invasive only) to help us out in the off season. Our project today was blowing leaves in the Intro Garden (the areas around the Administration Building) today; there are still a few plants flowering including these two.

I don't know the identity of the Mesemb but the Vibutnum is 'Cayuga', introduced by the USNA more than 40 years ago. It normally flowers in March but the vagaries of the season have allowed some of the flowers on each flower head to open. They have a wonderful fragrance but I had to lean in close to small it. Still....beggars can't be choosers and I'll take what I can get this time of year!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Idesia polycarpa...that's a lot of red berries!

Driving through the Arboretum in the winter some of the most striking sights are deciduous plants with red berries. The vast majority are selections of Ilex verticillata and hybrids between that holly and its Asian counterpart Ilex serrata. These shrubs rarely exceed 12 feet in height, The tree pictured, Idesia polycarpa is easily 75 feet tall and could qualify as the world's largest holiday decoration.

When I first came to work at the Arboretum in the early 90's I met Idesia in the Japanese Woodland section of the Asian collections. I was quite taken by it but was put off both by its size and the fact that it is dioecious so you need a male and a female. That takes a good deal of space. And they're not common in commerce. I did find unsexed plants at Forestfarm, but that meant I would have had to buy three and hope I didn't get unlucky and get three males or three females. Even so, I would have had to plant them blind without knowing who was going to have berries and who was just going to supply pollen. By the time they were mature enough to fruit, their size would make them difficult or impossible to move. Plus I didn't hae the sort of space. And anyway I can go visit this plant below the Crape Myrtle field across Valley Road from Beech Spring Pond. It'll look good for at least another few weeks.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Magnolia stellata 'Centennial'....named for the hundreth anniversary of the founding of the Arnold Arboretum

Not unlike people, some plants look better undressed than others. I have always liked the look of Magnolia stellata, or The Star Magnolia, in the winter. It is compact with wonderfully meandering branches and smooth grey bark. An abundance of large flower buds, greenish and hairy in a good way hint at the profusion of fragrant white flowers that will festoon the naked branches early next spring.

One attribute of a good Bonsai is "taper" meaning that the trunk and branches start out thickest, then narrow gracefully and gradually through their lengths. What's aesthetically pleasing in a bonsai looks good on full sized trees. Look at the picture; that's perfect taper, not only in the branches, but also in its forked trunk...and it works! That tree looks good.

Garden Centers in the Washington area carry a variety of magnolias including the natives M. grandiflora, a large evergreen and M. virginiana, a smaller tree, semi-deciduous to evergreen with wonderfully fragrant white flowers in summer. A variety of Asian species, varieties, and hybrids are available. They're good plants for us, not minding our hot humid summers, clay soils, and unpredictable rainfall. The one issue that does come up is that the early flowering varieties are sometimes tricked into bloom by unseasonable warmth in late winter or early spring, only to be toasted by a subsequent frost. Well, sometimes you have to take chances for the big payoff. Or if you are of a more conservative bent, use M. x 'Galaxy', a USNA release that flowers late enough to miss almost all late frosts.

The trail work in Fern Valley moves into its final phase!

In addition to resurfacing the existing trails, a few spurs and one fairly major section have been added down the middle of the shady cultivar area. The existing trails have been rerouted a bit here and there in an attempt to avoid disturbing the roots of existing trees.

The new trail will consist of a base of what is the "Green" equivalent of CR-6 overlain with two inches of red gravel and topped with an inch of red stone dust. The final tamped surface will pack down (notice the power tamper in the picture) and become a smooth hard surface that will make many parts of FV handicapped accessible. The light brown material on the left-hand trail is the base material. The trail reflected on the right-hand side of the picture is the new section. Joan tells me that this is actually a reincarnation of an older trail that was fell into disuse and was allowed to return to its natural state. It is a pleasant trail with, I think, a nicer "feel" than the existing trails around it. Anyway one result of this work is that the plantings in the area will be far more accessible both visually and physically.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beltsville Library: spring bulb planting

I planted bulbs at the Library this weekend: 90 blue Chinodoxa, 32 blue Hyacinths, 75 orange and yellow Darwin Tulips 'Banja Luka', 45 dwarf Narcissus 'Tete a tete', and 24 Alliums 'Purple Sensation'. All are good cultivars, none especially rare or exciting. I also planted two cultivars of Colchicum in late summer, three red Spider-lilies (Lycoris radiata), and a couple of varieties of Asiatic Lilies at the same time.

I planted the Chinodoxa in a drift, the Alliums as individuals 8" apart in three groups, and the others in clumps of 6-15. All of these, excepting the Tulips and possibly the Alliums, are long lasting bulbs that will increase in number every year. Clumps of brilliantly colored flowering bulbs are not only beautiful, but are repetetive design element that help hold the garden together.

When you plant bulbs, don't forget about their foliage! Naked-ladies are wonderful when they flower in late summer on leafless stems, and the foliage is a welcome green addition to the garden in the winter, but when it turns into brown mush as the rest of the spring garden is peaking....well, you want them where you can ignore them. Grape Hyacinth also has foliage that can distract from the plan of a garden. Yes the bulbs flower in the spring, but the foliage lasts a long time and comes up again in late summer becoming a significant visual element wherever these bulbs are planted. Daffodils foliage doesn't die gracefully. It isn't true that you have to leave it until it turns completely yellow; you can safely remove it when its lost half of its color....still that leaves a lot of time for it to look miserable while the plants around it are beautiful. I find that in highly visible areas it works to plant narcissus in clumps and limit the number of clumps. If you take 36 bulbs and space them individually,, every place you planted a bulb there will be dying foliage next spring and every subsequent year there will be more and more. Eventually a large bed can be pretty horrible looking for a good part of the spring. If you plant them in three groups of 12 or four groups of works better. Mass planting of daffodils are beautiful, but are better in areas that can be ignored when the flowers are done.

The sun is low in the sky in the afternoon on the Rubus in Fern Valley and in the morning on the Bluestem at the Beltsville Library

There's always something going on in the garden. It isn't always a bank of flowering azaleas or a bed of roses or a border full of flowering perennials, but there's always something.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Liz and Terry and I head off to deliver the Loblolly Pine needles to the Coastal Plain...Val drives the getaway car

At the bottom of Fern Valley, between the road and the fence that separates the Arboretum from Langston Golf Course, is the Coastal Plain area. The plantings are predominantly from the SE although the coastal plain extends as far north as New Jersey and along the Gulf Coast to Texas. It is one of the most interesting parts of Fern Valley; there are plants there you don't often encounter. The dominant tree species in this community are pines. We have several beautiful Longleaf Pines, Pinus palustris but they aren't large enough to shed enough needles to mulch the entire area.

Every year we collect pine needles to supplement the Longleaf's contribution. In the past we have used White Pine needles but this is a more northern pine that really doesn't occur naturally on the CP. This year we collected Loblolly Pine needles. Loblolly is an important member of the CP community so we have captured a bit of verisimilitude. And we had fun!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All the tropical plants are in for the winter and enjoying the morning sun

Cyclamen hederifolium: dormant all summer, but it looks good now

Killing frosts at night and daytime temperatures in the mid-30s F have devastated most of the late fall-flowering plants in the garden. The large-leafed tropicals hang limp,tattered, and rotten. I spent an hour or so this morning cutting leaves off of bananas and removing most of the tops of Hedychiums. But all is not lost.

In the Washington Post today Angus Phillips in his Outdoors column quotes Bill Burton who he identifies as "the dean of outdoor writers in our region. If you have something to do tomorrow you probably won't die today." I like that quote and agree with it. I have a version more applicable to gardeners: If you have something to look forward to tomorrow and next week and the week after that and next season and so on, you'll never die. least you'll have an incentive to wake up every day. That's a good thing.

While the cold has killed off the open and partially open flowers on the camellias, the tight buds are intact and they will open when temperatures go back to a more normal 50/30 diurnal alternation. And the Darley Dale heaths are beginning to open; we don't ever get temperatures low enough to faze them. And the plants with winter color in their stems have largely attained that color: 'Sango kaku" Japanese maple, Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter's Fire', the other Cornus and Salix. The complexly variegated winter foliage of Cyclamen hederifolium braves the cold valiantly. And there are still berries. And winter leaves with color: Nandina, Mahonia, Itea, and more. Later in the season Iris unguicularis, the winter-flowering Algerian Iris will flower in those unseasonably warm interludes that we inevitably experience. Chimonanthus praecox, Wintersweet, will flower with its incredible fragrance. If you have included enough diversity and planned with all the seasons in mind you will be able to walk through your garden every day and experience the delight of finding something fresh and new even in the dead of winter.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dr. Marc Cathey....Looking through the memorial Franklinia you can see the space for the memorial bench, but the real memorial is the Capitol Columns

Tomorrow, Sunday November 23, there will be a ceremony at the USNA dedicating a bench and a tree (Franklinia alatamaha) in memory of one of only five directorys the Arboretum has ever had. Cliche alert!! When Dr. Marc Cathey died this October, American horticulture lost a true giant. I'm sorry, but it's true...He was a real scientist whose work on photoperiodicity and temperature and their relation to floral initiation was and is important and relevant. And that isn't true of all scientific research. Sartorially resplendent his standard attire was an immaculately tailored suit with matching silk tie and handkerchief in some outrageously brilliant hue; purple was his favorite color. If it can be said of any straight man, he was truly flamboyant.

And a remarkable showman. He gave hundreds of lectures to a wide range of audiences. They were innovative in technique, engaging, and occasionally mesmerizing. Actually I always had a hard time not imagining him as a magician or one of those evangelical preachers that captivate the unruly multitudes.

When I began working at the Arboretum in 1990, Marc was the director. He held this position for 10 years from 1981-1991, and this is the part of his career that is of most interest to me. The Arboretum is a part of the Agricultural Research Service and for years research was not only its primary mission (which it still is) but really its only mission. The Arboretum was basically a research site with wonderful plants that were worth searching out. Today the Arboretum is a creditable and improving public garden. I am happy that this transition is occurring and I am aware that we owe a great debt to Dr. Cathey. His scientific credibility provided him with the influence and the power to make a public garden where the administering agency had not particulary wanted a garden. I do have to admit that he never had a lot of use for me; I'm sure I didn't impress him with my dress or grooming and we certainly didn't talk at any length, but I am grateful to him for what he did and will remember him fondly.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cotinus 'Grace': just about the last spectacular color this fall!

It was cold today: 20 MPH sustained winds from the Northwest combined with temperatures in the mid 30s F made for an unpleasant afternoon on the Bobcat. Temperatures are expected to stay in the 20s at night for the next week or so. This is January weather not November weather, but the silver lining is that those winter-flowering plants that require just a bit of vernalization are getting it so that when things warm up in December, as they almost always do, they will flower. Among others, Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, one of the most wonderfully fragrant plant in cultivation will likely be flowering by Christmas.

The plants in the picture are Cotinus x 'Grace' which is a hybrid between two Smoketrees: the native Cotinus obovatus and its Asian counterpart Cotinus coggygria. These individuals are growing along the Flowering Tree Walk at the National Arboretum just below the Herb Garden. (the golden hollies Ilex x attenuata 'Sunny Fosters' are visible in the background) Grace is a great plant; the new leaves are intriguingly colored in various warm hues that mature to a nice bluish purple, typical frothy smoketree flowers follow in late spring and the fall foliage is obviously wonderful. This is a tough plant that likes full sun, prefers good drainage, and doesn't need or want a lot of water in the summer. It is a good choice for a small tree as an accent in the lawn.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The weather is still warm enough to transport Chrysanthemums in open vehicle

How about those mums!? Temperatures still not dipping below the low 30s F and we have had almost an inch of rain over the past few days. That's a good thing! Fall perennials, camellias, and lingering annuals are hanging in there to good effect.

These are large flowered "disbud chrysanthemums" and while they are often grown in elaborate frames and trained to a single stem to produce outrageously large flowers, they can be grown in the open garden and with a bit of disbudding will produce plants similar to those in the truck. The earlier maturing varieties are less likely to fall victim to a premature hard frost, but we didn't use any supplemental heat to produce these plants. There are a number of sources for these plants but King's Mums in Clements California is a good place to start. Anyway it's a fun site to look at with beautiful photos of the astounding varieties and instructions for their culture.

When I was in my late teens I grew disbuds; built the frames and the 4' stakes, disbudded to a single stem, covered the frames with plastic when temperatures fell into the 20s F. It was fun but was too unnatural a technique for my own style. We grow them a bit more freely, allowing at least 2 stems and often 4 or 5. This makes the plants shorter, more natural looking, and earier to maintain. The blooms are obviously still huge; they don't need to be twice this size! The gradual warming associated with Global Climate Change (sic) has made it likely that these mums can complete their flowering cycles without needing protection from the cold. That has been the case for us the past two years. There is staking involved and the disbudding demands a bit of time, so I guess it's not for everyone, but they are beautiful plants.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

There are some exciting chrysanthemums on display in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum

US National Arboretum...Fall foliage on Mt. Hamilton

At first I thought it was my imagination or that I was projecting, but no, the smiles on the faces of the "Walkers" were a little bit brighter after the election. The "Walkers" are an important part of the community of the Arboretum. This is a great place to walk and many people take advantage of it. Most of our walkers are local so the vast majority are African-Americans. Some walk every day, some a few times a week, and many less frequently. After working here a while you begin to recognize individuals and their schedules. Good weather, of course, brings out larger numbers, but even on the worst cold. wet, windy days there are a few intrepid souls. We nod, or smile, or wave, or sometimes stop and talk. It is one of the bonuses of working here.

I wasn't in on Wednesday but Thursday I began to notice that smiles were wider and more engaging. At first I took it to be a reflection of the seasonably warm weather and the peaking fall foliage, but then I wondered. I am a large rough-looking? man and doubt that my political persuasion is readable from my physiognomy. I don't want to write about race but if I were an African-American I might wonder how white people really felt about the election. The amount of information that can be communicated quickly by facial expressions is amazing. Conspiratorial is not really the word I'm looking for, but they smiled, I smiled back and something was communicated and we were all a bit happier. I'm sure all the problems of the country won't go away, but it has been a nice few days!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Brookside Gardens Fall Foliage

Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Maryland is a remarkable horticultural experience. It is the oldest of a number of gardens in the Washington suburbs that were built and are maintained by county level orginizations. Clearly there are some wealthy counties in our area! Foliage has passed peak this year, but every year is a little different and this one seems weighted towards the end. Sugar maples came and went early, their foliage spectacular,but short lived, I think a victim of our recent mini-drought. Black gums were more severely affected by a foliar fungus than they usually are and so their, normally reliable contribution was minimized somewhat, but everything else is wonderful.

The taxonomic range of the collections here is remarkable; in the fall I try to get by to see Disanthus cercidifolius. A lovely member of the witchhhazel family from Asia. It does indeed have Cercis-like leaves that move through a range of yellows, oranges, and scarlets before ending up a deep wine-red. Moreover it will color nicely even in partial shade. The Disanthus is in the woodland area between the Conservatory and the Visitor Center. If you get by you will doubtless notice some of the 700,000 holiday lights that are in the process of being deployed for the Gardens of Light-Seasons of Light display that will begin this November. It is spectacular; I am amazed every year at the clever innovations...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Adelphi garden....the flamingos enjoy the colors of fall fully aware of pending winter

It has been a pretty good fall in the Washington area. We flirted with freezing temperatures a couple of days, but now its November and none are forecast for the next week! The big Gardenia sits happily outside the basement door waiting for a cold forecast, the Cymbidiums on the deck (at my feet when I took this photograph) are budded, the big Clivia is still outside (it likes/requires some cold as do the Cymbidiums) but most everything else has made it inside. There are still some decisions as to tropical plants in mixed containers. Some years the weather would have made those decisions for me by now, but this year they're still alive November 8, and I can elect to pot them and bring them inside. I do know though, from past experience, that I will only take care of a certain number of plants overwinter and possibly it is more humane to let them die a quick death from cold than slowly dry out or succumb to spider mites or whiteflies. I don't never learn, I just learn very slowly!

The orange-yellow at the base of the Red oak is Hamamelis x Diane (the fall color of this cultivar makes it, in my opinion, the best of the hybrids), a fading Cornus florida is behind it to the left, the brilliant yellow small tree in the mid-ground middle was received as Sapium koreanum, a species name I have never again encountered. I expect it is S. japonicum. Whatever it is it sure gets great fall color. And the orange/red phase is just beginning. There is a fall-blooming camellia under/behind it, and the orangish leaves on the right border of the picture are a Crape myrtle that grows next to the deck I am standing on to take the picture. Between the Sapium and the Witchhazel the green foliage is a Basjoo banana and Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi', the latter still squeezing out a few flowers a day this late in the year!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fall Fruit in Fern Valley along the road

The trails inside Fern Valley are closed for construction, but there are still areas that are accessible along the road. Across the road from the Coastal Plain area adjacent to the lowest entrance are some curiously attractive plants. Rhus copallinum, Shining Sumac, (for its glossy foliage) has unbelievable red fall foliage and interesting fruit. It is a good substitute for the invasive Euonymus alatus, Burning bush. There aren't too many plants that can compete with Butrning bush for intensity of color, but this one can.

Just a few feet farther down the road a few purple fruit linger on the Arialia spinosa, Devil's Walking Stick. They perch geometrically on the pink pedicels. This is a plant that I have always had a fondness for. Its habit is ungainly at best, usually consisting of a suckering clump of unbranched stems that are often unable to hold themselves upright and lean haphazardly in a less than architectural form. Anyway, it's all about the fruit and you can see it this weekend.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pruning in the Dogwood Collection

Cold rain in the afternoon couldn't ruin a day that started with a view like this. We pruned good trees and removed some bad and dead ones. The day was pleasantly cool and the work was satisfying so it was a good day.

Sunrise on the Firebush, Hamelia patens, a nice Florida native shrub

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Two views of the Wildwood Florida Garden

An unfortunate circumstance, the unexpected death of my mother-in-law brought us to Florida this week. I do believe that irony is a driving force in the universe and while a tragic event was the cause of the trip, the garden has never looked better. Hey, it's only two years old and that includes just about everything except for the Live Oaks. The rains of summer have the grass nice and green and the plants lush. I didn't garden much, just pulled a few weeds and threw down half a dozen bags of mulch but it is beginning to look good.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Beltsville Library Courtyard in the Morning

Its a beautiful crisp (Relative Humidity 60%) cool (48F) fall day. Leaf color is beginning to happen; the distinctive horizontal branching and the fiery red of Black Gums stand out against the unturned foliage of other trees. Sugar maples colored early this year. It will be another good day to be outside and I'm going to the Library today. Next week is National Friends of Libraries Week and Beltsville is having an open house that will feature the newly reworked courtyard. Today I am going to prune some branches from the birch, water, and finish the map so that it will be ready for next week. That'll be fun.

Back now. All done. Removed dead and low branches from Heritage birch. Fertilized pansies et alia. Did a bit of corrective pruning on the Dogwood and the Japanese Maple. The nandinas and the Japanese maple have good fall color. Chrysanthemum rubellum 'Bolero' is at peak bloom and will be fading next weekend. The other two rubellums are resisting opening their buds. This combined with the fall camellias holding back will produce a dearth of flowers next weekend. Oh well. The perpetual gardener's lament. Should have been here last week or next week! I promise not to alibi next week.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The fruit of the Bat Flower (Tacca chantrieri) are more batlike than the flowers!

The days are shorter and cooler and we have begun to put the garden to sleep.
This week and next the containers and the tropical plantings around the Administration Building at the Arboretum are being deconstructed. One of the plants that will be saved is The Bat flower. There were at least two Bat flowers in mixed containers and Brad harvested the fruit. We broke one open and the seeds look like they are ripe. A quick search for germination information didn't reveal anything definitive, but the seed hasn't dried so there is a good chance any dormancies haven't set in yet. It would be just as easy to get new plants by dividing the parents, but hey, we never germinated Tacca before so....

I know Tacca in passing, but not well. It is not an especially beautiful plant, but it is a fascinating curiosity. Wouldn't it make a good companion plant for the orchids in the genus Dracula? I had never seen the fruit, but you have to love it; black (deep deep maroon) glossy fruit that ripens for Halloween. And they hang in bunches like bats in a cave. Too odd!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mums potted and primped for the Fall Display

Amy and Amanda (the new Asian Collections Intern) ready Chrysanthemums for the opening of the fall display. This is the second year we have had potted disbudded mums and they are spectacular. The unseasonably warm weather has delayed the opening of the buds a bit, but that means the display will last longer.

Research by members of the "mum committee" (my phrase) has uncovered interesting and beautiful new varieties, so the show will be different this year than last.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Flamingos enjoy Indian Summer amidst hardy tropical plantings

We've been flirting with 80 F here in Washington for the last few days and we are predicted to hit it a couple of times early next week. As a grower of gaudy tropical plants, this is a great thing for me. The season is never long enough and while I appreciate the cool temperatures, a little heat will help these guys along. They seem to appreciate the heavy dews of fall, but not so much the low humidity in the afternoons.

The banana is Musa 'Basjooo' and it is completely hardy here and theoretically a bit farther north (USDA Zone 6). Hedychium 'Dr. Moy', in the bottom right is a solid Zone 7 plant, it has been in the garden for two years. Last year was, of course, a very mild winter, but the year before had some tricky cold in the spring that was a good test for Zone 7. The real question mark is the huge Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'. It has overwintered for friends in this area and I am testing it this year. My gut feeling is that it will be one of those plants that technically lives through the winter, but will likely be killed back so far that.....well, we'll see.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fern Valley Prairie planting project

Construction is nearly complete on the Fern Valley Wet Meadow project. Only the railing needs to be installed on the boardwalk, a bit of sidwalk needs to be repoured, and the temporary drain/shunt removed. So.....Today, on our Monday project, we replanted the plants that we had dug from the Prairie prior to the construction project. Last year we dug selected plants that were growing inside the area to be regraded and stored them in a coldframe. Now they are back in the Prairie.

Once I got down on my hands and knees in the basin and lifted up the coconut fibre matting, I realized that a lot of the seed mixture had germinated. I saw at least 6 different taxa, though all the individuals were small. You can see that the annual oats have germinated (the bright green area in the right-center back of the photo. To the seedlings we added plants of Eupatorium, Thalictrum, and Helianthus salicifolius. Drier areas received Salvia azurea, Helianthus occidentalis, Sporobilis, Dalea, Coreopsis, and other assorted species. We still have some Liatris to plant and some more Helianthus. Some Salvia azurea will go on the dry hill above the Capitol Columns parking lot. Also some Opuntia humifusa. It's good to get the plants out of the cold frame and back into the ground.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Beltsville Library Saturday (Colchicum 'Waterlily" blooms)

I did addition by subtraction at the Library today. When I began taking care of the area, its plantings consisted of three trees, a number of shrubs, and a lot of hostas and daylilies. Too many hostas and daylilies. The hostas all burned. The courtyard is surrounded by brick walls, has a brick walkway, and gets a lot of sun. Its hot and they don't like it. Most had to go. I thought I was able to visualize the effect of changes in a garden, yet I am still surprised at how much better the area looks as a result of the removals. I'm keeping the dwarf daylilies and consolidating them, but removing most of the standard varieties. A few are nice, but I find the foliage tends to become messy and disgtracting from June to the end of the season.

The Colchicum 'Waterlily' are flowering now as the C. speciosum finish up. I planted three divisions of Rohdea japonica from the Adelphi garden last week and they are doing well. They will provide evergreen structure at gound level under the birch. I moved the Rhapidophyllum hystrix (Needle Palm) to the right. Last week I didn't have the resources to remove the giant clump of hosta where I really wanted it so I heeled it in near the Coral Bark Maple. It looks better where it is now. I planted a piece of Canna 'Bengal Tiger' from a container on the front deck. It is hardy and will add a foliage element that can relate to the Golden Banana. Next spring I'll add a Basjoo banana on the left-hand wall and there'll be a triangle of bold foliage.