Behind The Scenes

Six weeks ago, a garden editor from Better Homes and Gardens rang up-could she send a crew out to photograph my spring pots?  I grew up with this publication at home, as my Mom subscribed for many years.  She was not so interested in the home decor, cooking, or entertaining part, but she avidly followed their articles about gardening and crafts.  I was delighted that they wanted to come.  James Meredith, the US Secretary of Agriculture under Woodrow Wilson, founded Meredith Publishing, and Better Homes and Gardens in 1922-this information is courtesy of Wikipedia.  I had 6 weeks to get ready.  I planted 12 containers ornamented with with twigs, and planted with spring flowering bulbs, herbs, spring vegetables and cold tolerant annual and perennial plants.  The containers were chosen by Scott Johnson, an art director with Meredith.  I was surprised that he chose fairly contemporary containers-but today’s Better Homes is a publication with plenty of surprises.

The six weeks prior to the shoot were cold and rainy.  At one point I had all of the containers inside our greenhouse space where it was warm.  But once the plants started to stretch, I had to move them outside.  I placed them just outside my office door, and hoped for the best.  It is a southern and very protected location.   2 days of very hot weather just before they arrived helped to move my pots along.  And the tulips obliged by throwing their first few blooms.  By far and away the best part of the visit was the opportunity to watch how these 3 people put a composition together for a photograph.  Scott would choose a container, and place it.  Kitsada would take a series of photographs, the results of which could instantly be seen on a computer and screen which was wired into his digital camera. 

Don’t quote me on any of the technical issues-I was just an interested observer.  The container would be placed on a surface.  Other companionable elements would be added and subtracted  They were incredibly focused and persistent about an arrangement that would suit them.  They knew instantly what was not working, and were confident about what was.  We put anything and everything in the shop at their disposal.  One photograph took almost 2 hours to arrange, and shoot. 

A photograph is an image with 4 edges.  I was very interested to see how and where they placed objects in the physical space, given what they wanted to see in the visual space.  The pot of grape hyacinths pictured above-only 3 stems appeared in the foreground space of the photograph. 

I believe Kitsada spent more time on the ground than he did standing up. It only makes sense.  He wanted his eye at the same level as the object of his attention.  This is the same idea as placing small containers on tables in the garden, and very large containers on the ground.  This makes for a stronger view. 

It took quite some time to compose each photograph. Good composition does take a long time; a landscape takes years.  A photograph records a moment which will never to be again.  A landscape is always in motion-growing over the edges of your composition just as yuo get them set.       

They were a great group-I could hardly keep up with them.  They shot the first night until 8 pm, and were on the job the next morning at 5:30. 

Next February or March-we’ll see what came of their visit.  Scot brought me an advance issue of their June magazine.  There is a great article about a gardener who makes sense of a piece of land 50 feet wide, and 260 feet long.  Her garden is beautiful; don’t miss it.

Treated To The Tulips

All of the cold tolerant spring flowers have their charms.  The pansies and violas come in every attitude from dainty and demure to bold and sassy.  The pale powder blue grape hyacinth pictured above, muscari Valerie Finnis, is a vigorous grower whose flowers last a long time.  Phlox intensia will last even longer; I have had it thrive an entire season.  But there is nothing quite like being treated to the tulips.  The pale pink variety pictured-Pink Diamond. 

Their forms and colors are many.  Their big simple shapes can make a big visual statement from just a few bulbs.  Bulbs wintered in the garage in fiber pots make great centerpieces for spring containers.  From the moment that the leaves emerge from the soil, to bloom is about three weeks.  The thick strappy leaves are just about as beautiful as the flowers.  The formation of seed pods, and the dying back of the foliage takes another month.  The entire process is beautiful to watch.   Pictured above, the multi-petalled Darwin hybrid Akebono, Spring Green, and the butter yellow Roi du Midi. 

I do have a soft spot for viridiflora tulips.  The white petals of the variety Spring Green are streaked with green.   The pink and green variety in this basket is called Virichic. Green and pink chic, indeed.  They bloom fashionably late in the spring, and their spiky shape is striking.  

Though the color of Princely Mix is very sweet, their staying power is considerable.  These compact clumps have been in bloom for better than 3 weeks.  Their short height makes them perfect for small containers; they are also likely to weather the worst of the spring rain and wind without damage.    

Choosing a mix of tulips for the big garden at the shop is great fun.  What I like the best about a mix is the possibility of great variation in height.  This gives you color at every level.  Violet Beauty-18″ tall.  The white tulip edged in violet is called Shirley; it grows 22″ tall.  The random hot pink lily flowered tulip Mariette also grows 22 inches tall, but its rarer appearance in the mix makes it seem different from all of the other tulips.  At 24″ tall, Cum Laude is the tallest of the purple tulips.  The white single late tulips Maureen grows to 28 inches.     

What would I do differently, if I had the chance?  That is a question I am always asking.  In this case, I would add a short white tulip.  Pale colors do a great job of highlighting darker ones.  So, 2 different heights of white tulips, 2 purples, one whte and purple bicolor,and the odd tulip out-a little hot pink seasoning here and there.  Most flowers are beautiful in their own right, but how they are arranged can make them look all the more lovely. The tulips fields in the Netherlands in bloom-show stopping in a different way.  Tulips being farmed have a much different appearance than tulips in a garden.

In this mix, flower size was equally as important as height.  Every plant has characteristics worth considering when a design is taking shape.  For example, it is easy to extend your tulip season greatly by choosing tulips from different classes.  The species tulips bloom a month earlier than the single late tulips.  I like the idea of  having a spring that goes on for three months, in one form or another.  


The Darwin hybrid tulip Akebono is a new one to me.  No doubt I will  have this again in bigger numbers.  I like to try a small amount of lots of bulbs-there is nothing better than seeing them bloom in person.  Choosing tulips can be tough.  They get planted as small papery brown spheres that give no hint as to what will come the following spring.  For that reason alone, I try to photograph all the tulips-so I have a record of what they can be.  Pictures of bulbs in catalogues can be notoriously misleading.   Photographic record keeping is an easy way to better inform your design.  This tulip with a  simply shaped, pale yellow firned and a spring green companion-that could be gorgeous.  Paired with red, orange, and hot pink tulips-visually electric. All by itself-just plain stunning.  If you are nearby, stop up for a look.  It is peak tulip treat week.

Magnolia Butterflies

Though I have written about Butterflies Magnolia before, I cannot ignore the best bloom ever going on right now.  Please bear with me.  This magnolia was bred by Phil Savage, a native of my area.  His work hybridizing magnolias is known internationally.  Al Goldner, a landscape designer for whom I worked in the 1980’s, took me to his property to meet him, and see his work.  I planted these trees 8 years ago, and surrounded them with formal rectangles of boxwood.  They were breathtaking when I got home last night.

The duration of time any magnolia blooms is very short, but I would not miss it.  The flowers are so spectacular, the week or better I get every year is worth the wait, and the regret at the end.   But magnolias also have beautiful smooth grey bark, and very architectural branching.  The large glossy leaves are beautiful the entire season long.  There are a lot of good reasons to plant them.   This particular cultivar is trouble free for me-all I do is look at them.

The individual flowers of Butterflies has the classic magnolia shape and petal count.  The flowers are small, but so so lovely.  It is the pale yellow flower of Butterflies which is so startlingly different than most magnolias.  Though Phil Savage passed away a few years ago, his property still exists, intact.  I have seen peach flowered magnolias grafted onto ash tree rootstock-60 feet tall there.  His niece, Patty Y,  is a client of mine; she took me there last year to see all of his magnolias in bloom.  Were it my call, his property would immediately be declared a national treasure and cared for in perpetuity.  There are trees on that property that exist no where else on earth.  The no where else on earth idea is an important one.  This is an idea which guides my garden making.  I want a garden that is just mine; when I get home, I know there is no other place like it on earth.     

As I said, these trees have been in the ground for eight years.  Though our spring has been miserably cold and nasty, they started blooming yesterday as if they had 10 minutes to live.  I have never had so many flowers.  There are thousands of yellow flowers.  Buck and I had a glass of wine out there last night-heavenly. 

By heavenly, I mean this.  I live in an urban neighborhood-a major 5 lane road just one block away.  Last night, these trees transported me to another place and time.  If you are a gardener, you understand how a beautiful moment in a garden is the next best thing to heaven.  Though I planted these magnolias as single trunked trees, they are also grown in my area as multitrunked shrubby trees.  Imagine a hedge of yellow magnolias, can you? Will you? 


My Butterflies-a highlight of my gardening year.

Planting Window Boxes

A window box is just about my most favorite container to plant.  They represents the best of all possible worlds.  The planting area is larger than most containers; I like having lots of space to plant.  This means lots of possibilities.  Window boxes come without any of the headache of planting large areas in ground.  My ground holds water too long.  Standing up to plant is a treat.  Having planted all manner of plants in the ground the past 30 years, I like having a big body of soil, and a raft of plants, at eye level.  The year I broke my leg, this feature was especially appreciated.

These boxes we built and mounted on the exterior wall of a sun porch.  The view from inside is swell. The Persian Queen geraniums, petunias, sweet potato vine and what all else is in these boxes can be easily appreciated at eye level.   

Many of the boxes I plant, I have constructed. My main complaint with commercially available windowboxes is that they are not correctly sized to their companion, the window.  They are often too narrow, too shallow, and too short-perfect for UPS shipping regulations, but not so great for your garden. A window box needs to be generously sized; a big soil mass will hold water long enough for you take a breather once in a while from your watering chores.  If your idea is to have a back row of plants, a middle row, and a front finishing row, the box needs to be 12 inches wide.  I like 16 inches deep-lots of soil and drainage material.   I like even better a box which is longer that the window in question.  Ths permits tall plants on the outside edges that do not obscure your view out.  My shop boxes are sized this way.  I had room this particular season for datura, cardoons, and cup and saucer vines growing on the walls.     

One year I grew white mandevillea on wires on either side of the windows.  OK, I was not much looking out of my windows at this point in the summer.  But the view is entirely in your control-maybe your boxes need to be mounted to the wall lower that you think.  Think about the mature height of the flowers-where do you want that to be? I like my boxes on the wild side-the Sonata white cosmos and lime nicotiana grow large.  My boxes are plenty large enough to handle them .  


Second story window boxes have a very European flavor.  I am sure you have seen those pictures of window boxes stuffed with trailing geraniums on homes and businesses in Switzerland, or the window boxes on the shop walls in London.  The planting of window boxes dates back to Roman times, when wall hung boxes were used to grow herbs.  The first gardens were of course devoted to growing things to eat.  Later, gardens were also devoted to ornamental plants.-I can think of nothing else that will dress a window better for summer than a box stuffed with flowers. 

The generous size of a windowbox means you can explore a planting idea in greater depth. Should you be interested in exploring color relationships, you have the opportunity to introduce various shade variations on a theme.   If your point of view tends to the contemporary, a box full of one favorite architectural might be just the thing.  Should a cottage style garden interest you, a big box will permit you to go wild to your heart’s content.

Most annual plants are happy in a big box.  The soil is good, the drainage is even better.  The plants are easy to groom and dead head.  The landscape at the shop-trees in the ground, and a decomposed granite covered ground plane.  The only flowers I have are from the 7 window boxes, and containers that I plant.  The overall impression is of a profusely flowering garden. 

The boxes put the flowers above the level of the boxwood hedge; it is easy to see them.  The 11 boxes on the roof can be seen from blocks away.  Granted that your taste in gardens may not run to this level of exuberance, but I see part of my job as encouraging people to take up gardening.  And that one’s choices of plant material and combinations are many.  

This lime, brown and lavender box had a moody feedling to it-I still like it.  I cannot remember the name of the copper flowered nicotiana, but it was beautiful.  The color of brown sweet potato vine looks great with other colors besides lime-I like it with orange, yellow, and cerise justg as well. 


The first year that Perfume Purple nicotiana came out, I was entranced with the color.  This box was composed around that one plant.  That red-purple color is very unusual-I shoopped all over for plants that might compliment that color. The red markings on the Persian Shield was much the color of the nicotiana. The lavender star verbena and petunia of unknown name did a good job of repeating that color as a pastel version.  The blue-green succulent I recently learned is a senecio, and a blue-foliaged kalanchoe (??)  seemed like a good foil.  What will I do in the boxes this year?  Don’t know yet.