The Caliente Geraniums

tree ferns

I am sure you can tell from the dearth of posts this week that I am in the thick of the spring planting season. Every year at this time I have the opportunity to experience in fresh detail the meaning of the word seasonal. Though I have a number of landscape projects underway, and the shop is incredibly busy, I make time to plant summer annuals for clients. These tree ferns which have belonged to my clients for years come under the heading of annual flowers, as we have to winter them indoors in an unheated space. They are a very unusual and unlikely summer annual-I like this about them. The wild lime coleus planted underneath, and the begonias in the chimney pots will have much more to say in 6 weeks than they do now.

waxleaf privet topiaries

We have wintered this pair of waxleaf privets for the past 10 years. I think this is the last year for them-in these pots. I love how overscaled the tops are as opposed to the green glazed bottoms, but I have root pruned them for the last time. I dare not go one bit further with that. We were barely able to get the lavender scaevola and lime licorice skirt in the pot. I advised my client that she either needed bigger pots, or new topiaries. Somehow I doubt she will give up the privet standards.

growing herbs in containers

The largest of the two second floor decks has a number of containers which we plant with herbs. What herbs? Lots of sweet Genovese basil, lemon basil, several kinds of variegated culinary thyme, gold marjoram, garlic chives, oregano, and both flat and curly parsley. These are her favorites. At the corners of the big pots-strawberries. They do not bear for long, but the leaves and trailers are beautiful in herb pots. One pot not seen in this picture is entirely taken up with an old rosemary. Just for punctuation-some flashlights millet. They will take a while to grow on.

cedar planter boxes

That old wild rosemary is visible in the top left of this picture. We store this plant over the winter; the storage is worth the trouble. The big planter box, which separates the deck from the walkway that traverses the entire rear of the house, gets flowers. As I had a request for lots of color, the box is planted with red and dark red violet dahlias. The cool color of variegated licorice and lavender star verbena makes all that color seem all the more saturated. As I like my mixed colors in threes, the border also includes Caliente Dark Red geraniums.

planting containers with annuals

Several years ago, at the Independent Garden Centers convention and trade show in Chicago, I heard Alan Armitage speak. He trials bedding plants at a garden at the University of Georgia in Athens. There were lots of plants he had issues with-as in poor color, substance or performance. But he was highly complimentary of the Caliente geraniums. If he liked them, I was sure that I would too. Interestingly enough, he recommended that gardeners in southern states plant them with afternoon shade.  I wondered if they would tolerate a little bit of shade that marks the locations of these boxes.

caliente geraniums

I asked my grower to grow 10 cases of each color for me last year. I planted lots of the orange variety in my roof boxes. They bloomed non-stop in that very hot and very windy location. They were virtually self-cleaning. That vivid color was readily visible from the street. Caliente geraniums are a cross between an ivy geranium, and the mop headed zonal geranium. They are vigorous growers; the colors are clear and intense. The flower heads are loose, like a typical ivy geranium.

annual planting patterns

Years ago we built 2 very long boxes that are attached to the outside of the†railing of the walkway. This means the boxes drain to the terrace below, not onto the deck walk. This year I planted caliente geraniums in dark red, coral, orange and pink. The flower heads are much more informal than those of zonal geraniums, but I wanted an even looser look. I planted diamond frost euphorbia between each geranium. The edges of the box are planted with white and lavender star verbena, variegated licorice, misty lilac wave petunias and creeping jenny.

English lead boxes

The landing of the staircase that goes to the ground floor has a pair of English lead pots. A pair of Daniella are ringed in pink and red solenia begonias. They will easily handle the part sun conditions of this terrace. The lime green variegated leaves will have some company from the creeping jenny in the boxes above, once it grows in and starts to trail.

lead planter boxes

So many places I plant have pairs of pots in different light conditions. I try to pick plants that are the tolerant sort. These plants will grow in a fairly uniform manner, though one box gets noticeably more sun than the other.

second story decks

The small terrace at the far end of the house is off the master bedroom. An old varigated abutilon with peach flowers in the pot on the left came out of winter storage. A red mandevillea is paired with a new petunia variety whose petals are splashed with pink and lime yellow. The center pot is stuffed with a dahlia favorite-Hypnotica lavender. This dahlia is about the strongest performing dahlia I have ever grown. The right hand pot features an Orange Punch canna, accompanied by lime nicotiana.

kidney shaped swimming pools

On the ground floor, a swimming pool is encircled by roses, perennials, small growing shrubs, and old viburnums. We added verbena bonariensis, sonata white and Rosalita cleome, lime nicotiana, heliotrope, and surfinia sky blue petunias. They are steadfast in delivering color all summer long, while the perennials come and go. Will I come back later in the summer to take pictures? Of course.

A Couple Of Days Worth

 

My annual planting season is in full swing.  My cork board is filled with job cards-there is a lot of work to do.  I do the design work-but that part is a fairly small part of the process.  Finding and ordering plants is followed by an installation and cleanup.  We like to check back fairly soon after a planting to be sure everything is growing ok. 

 It is a well known fact that only one person at a time can drive a bus.  What goes into planning and planting a job is much like delivering a busload of people to a destination.  A lot of seats on the bus are occupied by growers of perennials, annuals, tropical plants, herbs, and vegetables.  I know them on a first name basis.  I only ask for special help when I really need it.  I try to order by the truckload. I have a lot of respect for people who grow plants for a living-it is not easy. 

Some seats on the bus are for the people who plant.  They get seats in first class.  The most outstanding design on the planet means nothing if the installation is not first class. They know to water plants before they load them on a hot day.  They will water again-any plant they bring back at the end of the day.  They plant expertly, and quickly.  They know which side of a plant should face forward.  They know how to plant a rootball crooked, so a plant stands up straight.  They know how to soak a planting through and through.

There are two seats on my bus for the people who supervise.  They see to it that everyone is focused on a common goal.  They make executive decisions on the spot when they are needed.  They organize and direct every move.  They all work together amazingly well-I can barely keep up, placing the plants.  There is one seat for a runner-he delivers forgotten plants and materials to to the job.  There is one seat on the bus for Monica.  Every project has a job sheet detailing the scope of the work, the plant material, the hardgoods, and the time spent.  She is really good at spotting what might be missing from a sheet.    

  There are several seats on the bus for me.  Three days a week I shop the markets-between 5:30 and 6 am.  I need to get in and out in a timely way,  I go when the traffic is sparse. I am likely to run into other people who garden professionally; a few minutes may be spent socially, or in a discussion of a particular client that we have in common.  Several other days a week I drive to this greenhouse or that one-to see what looks good.  Then there is a seat I call the order desk. Plant numbers must be calculated, plants ordered, and a delivery coordinated. I direct the crew pulling material for a job.  Sometimes I draw the planting scheme on a picture of a pot from a previous year.  Sometimes I place the plants personally.   

A truckload of plants provide a couple of days worth of material.  Some jobs take a day or better; other days we may do three projects.  In any event, I have a lot of projects swirling around in my head.  I know instinctively when I see a plant that would work for a project-or a plant around which a project can be organized.  Some plants I need I might have to pass on.  Maybe there are not enough available, or they are not the quality I had hoped for.  Selecting the plants is one job I cannot delegate. 

 Blue salvia has never particularly appealed to me; so much undistinguished foliage with not so many flowers.  The Cathedral series is an intriguing one- it comes in a dark purple, white, lavender, and blue sky.  The mix is really good looking, especially if you like subtle color.  I signed up for 24 cases. We’ll see what comes of that decision.  Tomorrow I will shop the market, and order another truckload that will get me through the weekend.  It’s the time to plant the annual flowers. 

75 degrees today, and sunny.  I’ll take it.

What Goes In The Ground

I have two diverse groups of flowering plants that get my attention.  There are perennial flowering plants, and seasonal plants.  The perennial plants stay with me year after year-given the best of all possible worlds.  In reality, perennial plants have short bloom times, need lots of work dividing and deadheading, they get diseases, they fade away-but we still call them perennials.  A perennial only promises one thing-they may be so kind as to overwinter in some form or another.  Perennial are  by no means maintenance free, much less absolutely and undeniably perennial.  In my opinion, perennial is a noun I would never use to describe garden plants.  That which I least expect to thrive, thrives.  Things die, routinely, every day, unexpectedly.  The minute I congratulate myself on the perfect plant for a specific spot-all hell breaks loose. I have been proven wrong so many times-it is not funny.

 In my opinion, only a very few perennials are really rugged enough to thrive over a period of years. At the top of my list-peonies.  Properly sited and planted, they could easily live a century or better. Next up- asparagus; I regularly see vacant land with rows of asparagus intact.  I can imagine the house and farm, given the truly perennial expression of the asparagus. What comes next?  I suppose I could put hemerocallis on this list-though they require division every 7 years or so.  Hellebores live from year to year without much attention; I have never divided, deadheaded, or treated them for illness.  Wild flowers thrive on a lack of attention-provided that they are perfectly sited.  All of the perennial plants that come after this-save the groundcovers-pachysandra, vinca, and baltic ivy-fairly persistent, and fairly demanding.

Other perennials are quite up front about what they demand. Bear in mind, any plant that clearly exhibits a need for tending-times that tending by 3.  Roses top the list-a well grown collection in my zone is a feat.  Bearded iris-so beautiful and so labor intensive.  Delphiniums-multiply the bearded iris factor by 3.  I have little need to go on about those perennial plants whose need for attention is perennial-I am sure you have met them.  A good bit of the trouble has to do with less than optimal soil and water, less than ideal watering, and less than perfect attention.  Were I to retire, the first thing I would do is plant perennial gardens, and live in them all summer long. 

The seasonal plants-they make no bones about their ephemeral nature.  They open the season reluctantly-they like warm soil.   When the season closes, they perish.  They grow fast, try their best to set seed, shine for months on end-and vanish with the first hard frost.  There are those gardeners that dig and store their dahlias and cannas.  There are those that move their marginal plants into their garage for the winter, and park their cars outside. Anyone who takes gardening seriously has their obsessed habits-this extends to trying to keep plants alive from year to year that hate the cold. 

I am an advocate of planting seasonal flowers, as I think they return to me in kind. They willingly bloom for months.  This means their bloom time is not 10 days or two weeks-it is months.  That I have to plant them every year-I willingly make that concession.  Every day of my short summer season-I like a party going on.  That I have to replant every year-fine.  This means I have the chance to ditch my failures, and design anew.  I like the design part of gardening every bit as much as the physical work of it.

No tropical flower makes my heart pound like the flowers of plants native and perennial plants hardy in my zone.  I am greatly enamoured of flowers that have that modest and strikingly natural beauty that I might characterize as residents of my home garden.  My natural environment has a beauty that no tropical plant could ever surpass.  What might be better than a green flowered hellebore?  But there are very few flowers I would turn away.  A top 10 list leaves too many interesting possibilities out.  Given my very small yard, it is a relief that some plants do not persist. 

This said, annual and tropical plants in the ground for the summer season-I love them.  The color-I would not do without it.  Annual plants in the ground-be prepared for lots of expense, and even more work.  But most plants have a very strong will to live, and flower, provided they have the right encouragement to do so. 

Most plants require a soil that drains readily.  Tropical plants enjoy a soil engorged with all the best that great compost can deliver.  They like that great draining and astonishingly fertile soil to be warm.   Land in my zone tends to be very heavy clay soil with poor drainage.  The soil warms slowly in the spring.  My advice-plant in early June.  Anywhere you intend to plant seasonal plants in ground-work the soil.  Provide for air.  Poufy, well draining soil-your seasonal plants will  thrive in this. Plant for spring, so you don’t plant for summer too early. If you water with automatic irrigation, choose your plant species carefully.  Impatiens handles overhead and over generous watering fairly well.  Zinnias have no use for it-once established, I water them well at the ground level, and let them go dry before I water again.


Above all, experiment.  How improbable is it that zonal geraniums would thrive along side New Guinea impatiens, in full sun, with overhead irrigation?  You will never know what works unless you you try.  Planting 4″ pots of annuals may give you a headstart, but lots of annuals are easy to grow from seed.  If the expense of planting flowers that only live one season is not an investment you wish to make, there is the option of learning how to grow.  

In ground spaces too small for a perennial collection  are perfect for a mixed annual garden.  All summer long there will be a reason to visit and enjoy.

Planting Great Containers


Every great pot starts with some rocking good science.  A container needs to be sized to comfortably hold the plants you want to grow when they are full grown. Rhubarb planted in a 10 inch pot-not a good look.  Nor is it a workable idea. Every container needs lots of drainage material; I usually plant large containers with 2/3 drainage material and 1/3 soil.  Very small containers I might fill to the top with soil, with a small piece of landscape fabric over the drain hole.  The ability to maintain even moisture is essential to the health of the plants.  Good soil holds water.  My soil mix is a custom blend of compost, topsoil and sand-I do not grow plants in soilless mixes.  Growers mix is designed for professional growers who require a weed, pest, and disease-free medium.  It takes a skilled hand to properly water and feed any plant grown in peat based plant mixes-every grower has their own formula. For a gardener, the best part about them is how easy the bags are to pick up and carry.  Ease of soil transport is not a factor in planting great containers.  I like to grow plants in soil.  real soil.  I like all the organisms, the micronutrients-I like living soil, not sterile plant mix.
The next issue-where will they go?  Pots flanking a formal front porch may ask for the same plants that you use on your terrace-but how you use those plants is about inspired design.  Great containers have everything to do with good design.  This traditionally styled two tiered wirework plant stand is a completely unexpected choice for a contemporary concrete deck/terrace featuring a stainless steel braided wire railing.  That juxtaposition of the round and delicate wirework with this minimal fencing is a visual surprise.  As for the planting, imagine this planter without its topknot of faux tulips and grass.  You get this-dull.  The additional height breaks the horizontal line of the fence-this makes for great rhythm.  The planting at the same height as the rail-static. The idea that stops short, comes up short. That tulip and grass hat-very sassy.  This single planter holds its own, in front of that somber forest of hundreds of tree trunks.  The big-faced pansies are in the larger bottom tier, and the diminuitive violas in the top; the size of flowers themselves should be proportional to the size of the container.  The restricted plant palette has a contemporary feeling; the mix of colors has a more personal feeling without getting too frou-frou.  I like this planter, how and where it is placed, and how it is planted, relative to this forest dominated landscape.    

Sometimes the shape of a planter will suggest how the plants should be used.  Pale yellow pansies in the center back, and bright yellow pansies on the edges highlight the color and form of the violas in the front.  Light colors do a great job of bringing dark colors placed in front of them to life.  The yellow twig dogwood placed in a row, rather than a bunch , celebrates the shape of the container.  The ivy at the corners-a yellow variegated variety that repeats the yellow of the flowers.  Plants that would thrive in this lighting situation go on to work together well.  This look-a thoughtful and put together look.

Pots in commercial settings need to read well from the street.  I would not want anyone passing my shop to not get a good look.   This can mean generous height, and compelling color.  Subtle works much better up close to the eye.  In this case, a bunch of yellow twig dogwood has been augmented with faux yellow flower stems made from bleached and dyed palm leaves.  Forsythia is common in my spring landscape; passing by in a car, this centerpiece is entirely believable.  More striking than real forsythia, this centerpiece will provide great scale and visual punch throughout the spring.  A pot of tulips in the center can be switched out for fresh when the flowers fade; annual phlox intensia and violas will grow and do well on into early summer.  The red violet, lavender and pale yellow tulip mix is from John Sheepers-they call it the Princely mix.  The color combination is really lovely.  Small pots for a tabletop ask for one thing, well grown.  Small pots have to be placed close to eye level to be appreciated, so  I plant small pots with plants that are easy to grow to perfection.  This pot of violas seems happy-no yellow leaves, no dead flower heads.  It looks good, up close.

In terms of container design, it does not matter whether you are planting a vintage bulb crate from the Netherlands, or a fine pair of antique urns-the container is as much a part of the planting as the plants themselves.  These tulips were planted low, so the lower foliage would not obscure the beautiful surface and vintage lettering on the crate.  The boxes on the roof of my shop-they were constructed of sheet metal, and reinforced on the inside with pressure treated limber.  They are a vehicle for the plants that make my summer roof garden.  These rectangular boxes hold soil, and support plant life.  They are not in any way beautiful.  They are serviceable.  Every space demands a little something different.  At my office front door-I want beautiful containers, well designed, and thoughtfully planted.  On the roof, I want to make but one point.  Anyone who looks at what is growing  on the roof-I want them to see that garden.  A beautiful garden.   

Planting in the ground- a second cousin twice removed from planting in containers.  Big spaces on the ground plane ask for a different approach than containers.  Soil and seasonal flowers, above ground, in containers, could not be more different than seasonal flowers planted into the ground.  More tomorrow-I promise.