I am hard-pressed to name a shrub that matches the hydrangea for drama, splendor, and elegance in the garden. From the subtle white starry-shaped lacecap flower of ‘Hayes Starburst’ to the dramatic, large white globes of ‘Incrediball’ — one of my favorites — there’s a hydrangea to fit almost any spot in the garden.
And with more advances in plant breeding, hydrangea selection has continued to expand to meet the still-growing demand for new plants. Now gardeners can choose from a wide array of re-blooming mopheads, a variety of new flower color options, and a multitude of dwarf sun- or shade-loving hydrangeas, starting at 12 inches in height.
It’s a great time to discover the versatility of this flexible shrub or reacquaint yourself with a plant that you might have written off as old-fashioned or poor blooming. Make no mistake — today’s hydrangeas are versatile, dynamic, and easy to grow.
While there are thousands of different hydrangeas and cultivated varieties, I’m going to talk about four main species and some of the varieties you may want to be on the lookout for H. arborescens (smooth hydrangea), H. macrophylla (bigleaf hydrangea), H. paniculata (hydrangea paniculata), and H. quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea).
And while the different hydrangea species vary greatly, they all benefit from being planted in soil that is rich in organic matter and sited in a location with moist but well-drained soil. Adding compost or manure when planting will help with moisture retention, and, ironically, drainage. Despite its water-loving name, you don’t want your hydrangea to sit in soggy soil.
Arborescens — Smooth Hydrangea H. arborescens is one of the hydrangea varieties native to North America, which makes it a fairly care-free selection. Hardy in zones 3 to 9, ‘Annabelle’ is probably the most well-known arborescens with large white round mophead flowers. It grows to about 4 feet by 4 feet, but blossoms will flop to the ground when it rains. Lucky for us, plant breeders have introduced an improved ‘Annabelle’ with thicker stems for more support — the ‘Incrediball’ hydrangea.
‘Incrediball’ makes a spectacular hedge, is great for cut flowers, and can be enjoyed as a specimen plant or placed in the back garden where its blooms can even be appreciated from a distance. And the variety just gets better. New this year is the dwarf version of ‘Annabelle’ — the ‘Invincebelle Wee White.’ At just 2-feet by 2-feet, this little powerhouse gives you an abundance of white flowers in a mini form. Also new is a pink/mauve version — ‘Invincibelle Mini Mauvette.’ It stands at about 3-feet tall and wide with strong stems.
This species blooms on new wood or the current season’s growth, so you don’t have to worry about improper pruning, hard winters, or late freezes that might kill off precious flower buds. They are best situated in the morning or dappled sun.
Macrophylla — Bigleaf Hydrangeas Bigleaf hydrangeas, with their intense blue or deep pink round fluffy flowers, are the holy grail of blossoms for many gardeners. The old classic ‘Nikko Blue’ and many others only develop flower buds on old wood, or growth from the previous season, so extremely cold temperatures can result in damaged buds and no flowers. Or as I call it, “hydrangea heartache.”
Plant breeders have come through with new hydrangea varieties that bloom on both old and new wood. The leader in this field is the ‘Endless Summer’ series of hydrangeas, including the original ‘Endless Summer,’ which blooms pink, purple, or blue, depending on your soil pH and measures about 4 feet by 4 feet. It’s hardy in zones 4 to 9. Its sister plant, ‘BloomStruck,’ has similar flowers on dark purple stems. ‘Blushing Bride’ is a white version that is hardy in zones 5 to 9, and ‘Twist-n-Shout’ is a beautiful lacecap variety with red stems, hardy in zones 4 to 9.
And more remontant varieties are coming out every year. I especially like ‘Let’s Dance Rhythmic Blue,’ which is about 3 to 4 feet tall and wide and hardy in zones 5 to 9. But just like Nikko Blue, ‘Rhythmic Blue’ flowers will actually be pink in alkaline soil, so you may have to amend your soil with an acidifier product to create blue flowers.
H. macrophylla perform best when situated in the morning or dappled sun.
Paniculata — Panicle Hydrangea Gardeners with full sunlight should consider the paniculata hydrangeas, so named because of their panicle-shaped flowers, which open a creamy white and age to a dusty rose as the summer progresses. And because they bloom on the current season’s growth, paniculatas are reliable, hardy bloomers.
One of the best-known and hardest working paniculatas is ‘Limelight,’hardy in zones 3 to 9 and reaching up to 8 feet tall. But if that’s too much hydrangea for you, consider ‘Little Lime,’ a dwarf version that you can keep to about 3 feet tall with late winter or early spring pruning.
Other dwarf H. paniculatas worth considering include ‘Bobo’ and ‘Little Quick Fire,’ both hardy in zones 3 to 8.
H. paniculatas are the only hydrangea variety that will perform happily in full sun, but will also take part-sun.
Quercifolia — Oakleaf Hydrangea Oakleaf hydrangeas are the other hydrangea species native to North America, making them low-maintenance, reliable, and outstanding in beauty. They also have the distinction of being a true, four-season shrub, with oak-leaf shaped foliage in spring; large, creamy white panicle flowers in the summer that age to a rosy hue; beautiful fall orange, red, and gold fall foliage; and an ornamental cinnamon-colored pealing bark that is visible in the winter. If you don’t have an oakleaf hydrangea already, then put it on your wish list.
The true oakleaf species can reach 8 feet or taller and just as wide, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But if you’ve got the room, nothing beats the majesty and size of its foliage and flowers.
More manageable oakleaf hydrangeas include ‘Snow Queen’ and ‘Alice,’ both about 5 feet tall and hardy in zones 5 to 9.
Dwarf oakleaf version includes ‘Pee Wee,’‘Sikes Dwarf,’ and the relatively new ‘Ruby Slippers,’ which reaches about 4 feet tall and wide and has flowers that darken to a more ruby color. It’s hardy in zones 5 to 9.
And because oakleaf hydrangeas have woody stems, pruning is not recommended so that the stem’s original character and shape can be appreciated in the winter months. If you need a shorter variety, it’s worth searching for a dwarf form to prevent having to prune for size later. These hydrangeas prefer to be located in the morning or dappled sun.
Hydrangeas are available today in more colors and sizes than ever before, and with advances in plant breeding and growing consumer demand, the future looks bright for even better selections. Heirloom hydrangeas will always have a place in the garden, but I hope you consider one of the newer varieties if a spot opens up in your garden. You’ll be amazed by their performance and ease, which are plant traits that all of us gardeners seek.
As gardeners, we all have our favorite plants. Maybe you love hydrangeas (rightly so), daylilies, or hostas. Me? It’s no secret I’m a sucker for daffodils and peonies. But I’ve got to tell you, over the last few years I’ve had the most fun in the garden and in containers with succulents.
Working with these little beauties is almost like painting with plants because of their exceptional colors, and you get the added benefit of remarkable, quirky leaf shapes and textures — spiny and pointy, smooth and curvy, deliciously ruffled, flat as a pancake, or even perfectly round like a green pearl. It really is a delight to work — and create — with these unusual plants.
What is a succulent? This family of plants stores water in their leaves and stems, which makes them especially drought-tolerant, so perfect for neglectful gardeners. They can be annuals or perennials, depending on your plant zone, and you’ll find them in weather conditions ranging from northern Canada to the rainforests of Brazil.
You might automatically think of cactus, and it’s true, they are succulents — but not all succulents are cactus. Here are a few common plants that fall in the succulent category: aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), mother-in-law tongue (Sansevieria), jade (Crassula), and hens and chicks (Sempervivum).
And honestly, because succulents have exploded in popularity in recent years, so many other fun and unusual varieties are readily available. I’ve seen them in big box stores, grocery stores, and department stores (although these are often faux, they look incredibly real).
Succulents are terribly easy to grow. They thrive with neglect and are usually only killed by overwatering. And when I say overwatering, that might mean watering more than once or twice a month — it is possible to kill these plants with kindness! All they require is a spot in the house with bright, suffused light. Hardy plants can be grown outdoors in full hot sun with steep drainage.
One of the keys to getting succulents to thrive indoors in containers is using potting soil specially designed for succulents or cactus. If you can’t find any, you can make your own by mixing regular potting soil with sand at a 1:1 ratio. Think desert.
Plants can be grown in shallow dish containers with holes for drainage, or shallow containers without holes if you water sparingly and judiciously. You can also add a layer of rock at the bottom of the dish to hold any extra water that might collect.
These plants make a nice show when they’re planted snugly up against each other to fill a pot. The appearance of abundance is matched only by varying leaf colors in shades of greens, silver, gray, orange, and red. You also have the added texture and shape of different leaves, which can take a container arrangement to a whole new level of artfulness.
Or consider planting a single succulent in a small container and top-dress the potting soil with colored sand, rocks, or small seashells for an added pop of color. Have fun with it — plant a small cactus and add a miniature tombstone, long-horned steer skull, and a few tumbleweeds.
Some of my favorite succulents to play around with include:
Ox tongue (Gasteria)
String of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus)
Flapjack succulents (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)
Living stones (Mesembryanthemum)
If you mix any combination of these five plants together, you’ll have a colorful, textural masterpiece. There’s something very tactile about these arrangements that make me want to touch them or even pat an arrangement with my fingers.
If you’re not yet on the succulent bandwagon, I encourage you to hop aboard. In fact, consider giving a small succulent arrangement as a gift to someone in your life who has a black thumb. If you take away their watering can, they’re bound to have years of enjoyment and you’ll be the horticultural hero who introduced them to these easy, tough, colorful plants.
This time of year can be tough for gardeners. The holidays are over and we’re in a sort of gardening purgatory — I can see it on the horizon, but we’ve got plenty of cold, dreary days ahead before we can get outside and dig.
That’s one reason why I love starting seeds indoors — it gives me an opportunity to think about what lies ahead and actually do something. The ground may still be frozen, but I can start working on my vegetable and flower garden now.
If you’ve never tried starting seeds indoors, you’re missing out on one of the true delights of gardening. There’s something pretty great about having someone compliment me on something in my garden and being able to say in response, “Thanks, I grew it from seed.” It’s also a fun way to get my hands on plants that aren’t readily available at the local garden center, like heirloom plants, and rare and unusual vegetable and flower varieties.
Kick-off your seed growing venture by carefully reading the back of each seed packet. Some seeds require special treatment before planting, like soaking in water, chilling (called stratification), or nicking the seed coat (called scarification). You don’t want to find yourself ready to plant and then discover that your seeds need to chill in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
Another key to seed-starting success is timing, and that starts with your last average spring frost date. Here in Little Rock, we’re zone 8a, so our last average frost date is March 28. Most seed packets will tell you when to start growing indoors, often saying “Start 4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date.” So I simply look at the calendar and countback.
Next, choose containers for growing. You can use a variety of things around the house, including old yogurt cups, egg cartons, or hand-rolled pots made from newspapers. I picked up some seed starting trays from a nursery that I can reuse each year. I simply sterilize them between uses with a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water.
I’ve also had good luck using a quality potting soil to grow my seeds, but you can certainly invest in a soil-less seed starting mix. Whichever you choose, put your growing medium in a bucket with some water so that the soil is slightly damp before you fill your containers.
Seed packets will tell you how deep the seed needs to be planted. For example, Bachelor’s Button ‘Blue Boy’ (Centaurea cyanus) seeds need to be planted 1/4″ deep, with three seeds planted every 8″ – 10.” The packet also tells me that seedlings will emerge in seven to 14 days, so I have a good idea when to start looking for signs of life.
Once seeds are planted, you need to water. This is where it helps to have your potting mixture already moist. You can use a spray bottle filled with water to give your seeds a thorough misting, which provides enough moisture without roiling all your hard work.
I always cover my seed trays with plastic to create a mini greenhouse. Some seed trays come with plastic domes, or you can use kitchen plastic wrap, sandwich bags, or you can even slip your containers inside a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag. It doesn’t have to look pretty, just be effective.
Also, most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but they do need heat. I recommend finding a location that is ideally around 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, which may be in your kitchen, near your oven or on top of a refrigerator. (It helps to have a spouse or roommate who doesn’t mind dirt in the kitchen.) You can also use a seed heating mat, which is specially designed to heat soil and seeds from the bottom.
Once you see seedlings, remove the plastic covering and place plants in a spot with bright light. If you’re using a spot by a window, rotate your containers every few days so that seedlings don’t develop a lean. If you don’t have enough sunlight, you can always use grow lights or even fluorescent shop lights. Place the bulbs so that they’re only a few inches above the seedlings and set a timer so that lights are automatically on 12 to 16 hours a day.
The final step is to keep plants growing until it’s time to harden them off as they move outside in the spring. I’ll admit, I’ve had a few bombs — seeds that were too old to germinate or a tray that got overwatered and killed a crop of seedlings. But there are way more successes than failures, and that’s what keeps me coming back to seeds year after year. And on cold gray February and March days, seed starting is a life-line to spring gardening that I’ll grab every time.
I believe that there is a small part within each of us that is delighted each spring to see the first daffodils in bloom.
These certainly are among the bravest of flowers, one of the first to herald the arrival of spring, and often pressing on in the most inhospitable of weather conditions.
A cheerful mainstay at Moss Mountain Farm, each year these little perennial bulbs transform an ordinary farm field into an undulating golden blanket of bloom, all happening during a magical window of time that is mesmerizing. Over the course of their most floriferous month, March, these blooms reach a heightened pitch by mid-month with early and late bloomers extending the season by bookending the March crescendo.
However, I should say we have blooms as early as January and as late as the first week of May. This range of bloom time is less about the zone in which we garden, but more about the varieties or ‘cultivars’ of daffodils we have chosen. I have consciously and purposely stretched the season of bloom to almost five months on our zone 8 farm by choosing specific daffodils.
We always start with the arrival of Rynveld’s Early Sensation, as it’s a notoriously early bloomer. Some years it can be seen blooming the first week of January. We end the season with some unnamed tazetta types that have been at Moss Mountain since time in-memoriam, usually the first week of May. During this range of bloom, I have always tried to plant enough of a single variety for cutting and bringing indoors without making too much of a dent in the display. We use fresh flowers in the house constantly, and the daffodils can be a consistent source of bloom while many flowers are still fast asleep.
I prefer to pick in bundles of the same type and use them in a myriad of vase sizes. Simple and bold is best since this approach delights the eye. While wandering the fields at Moss Mountain Farm, you’ll see a pattern of planting where the bulbs are in natural drifts of like kind. These swaths reflect the notion of simple and bold in the landscape.
Each year we try to plant a few new varieties, including cultivars that are the ‘Johnny-come-latelies’ among narcissus hybridizers. Daffodils mainly come from Holland, but there are also English, Irish, and American breeders. One recent favorite of mine is a double type called Replete. It’s soft salmon and cream corona and cream collar are ideal for certain rooms in the house, and it’s always a delight to visitors when in bloom. In short, it looks like a yummy dessert. It’s worth mentioning that deer will not eat daffodils of any kind, as delectable as they may appear.
For the best selection of these newer varieties, the earlier in the season one can purchase the bulbs the better. The bulb catalogs start showing up just after Labor Day. I try to get my order in by late August or early September, but I’m not always that attentive. When I delay, I just cringe when the sight of ‘sold out’ inevitably appears over the new cultivars I’ve missed. Then it’s another year’s wait, at least, to see them leap off the pages of the catalog and into my garden.
However, bulb planting time can be more relaxed, if not forgiving. I’ve planted daffodils as early as October and as late, dare I say, as January. As long as the bulbs have been stored in a cool, dark place and haven’t gone soft, my recommendation is to get them into the ground. Also worth mentioning, while storing bulbs in a refrigerator is a good idea, they can be damaged when stored with produce. Apples seem to be the most egregious of fruits, emitting ethylene gas that will destroy the flower embryo.
Daffodils play well with others and make terrific company with other spring bulbs. On the front of the season they harmonize with crocus, and later it’s the Spanish Bluebells and Snowflakes you’ll find them singing among. Early perennials such as Phlox (Phlox subulata and divaricata), Heuchera, and Virginia Bluebells also play well with daffodils.
Each time you see daffodils this spring think about where you can add some in your garden, as they will bring you joy for years to come. If you get the itch to see lots of daffodils this spring, plan a visit to see us at Moss Mountain Farm in March.
January is an introspective month for me. I look inward and take solace in the quiet, winter landscape. I try to redirect the urge to jump up to getting things done and sitting in silence. It’s as though the earth is at rest and I am meant to be, too. Though the sky is clear and the infinite star-filled cosmos feels like it’s within my grasp, my tendency is to look down at the wonder beneath my feet at the delight any gardener or farmer; the soil. Good old terra firma or Mother Earth.
In fact, it’s during these cold weeks ahead we clean the barns and poultry houses mining the gold that’s built up over the previous seasons. Yes, manure, nutrient-rich, life-restoring manure. An inauspicious chore to some, but I actually look forward to this ritual because I have seen with my own eyes what it can do to my soil. It’s like an elixir or spring tonic that feeds an invisible universe below us. It’s the microbial activity that lies at the heart of creating healthy living soil.
My first memory of recognizing this power in the soil and manure, in particular, was when I was a little kid in the vegetable garden of my grandmother Smith. The generous vegetable patch was directly adjacent to a large barn with warm southwest exposure. Through the eyes of a child, her garden was different; the plants were larger and they seemed darker green and, well, it just appeared more alive.
You see, my grandparents, milked a small herd of dairy cows, mainly Jerseys and Guernseys each morning and evening. Of course, an important by-product of the rich milk was the manure from the cows. This black ‘gold’ was hauled from the hall and stalls of the barn into the garden and spread over fields in winter. But, it wasn’t until spring when it’s power was fully manifest in the plants that grew in what must have been, at least to me, the most verdant plot of ground on the planet.
I recall, in particular, the enormous leaves of the yellow crookneck squash and okra plants that made me feel lilliputian. Ma Smith directed me to gently twist and pull the young squash from the center of these colossal plants and place the vegetables into her basket. For a curious 3rd grader it was like a thrilling expedition into some mysterious tropical rain forest in search of rare gems. It was a space that stirred my imagination.
It would be many years later when I would fully understand what was going on in the soil that had made such an impression on me as a child. Oh, I had read insensitively through information on Sir Albert Howard and pored over his ‘Agricultural Testament’. But, after reading ‘Teaming with Microbes’ I became a total soil nerd. For months after reading the book twice over and raving on about the authors, Lowenfelds and Lewis, I recall friends politely asking me what I was currently reading… and I would say enthusiastically ‘Teaming with Microbes’ and then proceed to wear them out about the soil nutritional web beneath our feet. Nothing like the zeal of a new convert, right? As you can imagine, this did little to improve my social life.
Today, recognizing the importance of the complexity of our planet’s soil couldn’t be more important. I recently read an article by Heather Hansman about sustainability and our food system, it’s well worth a read. While it’s exciting that we are now finally reaching new levels of understanding out the complexity of the soil (it seems Ma Smith knew, at least intuited, it all the time). That universe in a teaspoon of soil is one of nature’s greatest marvels.
The message in this article took me back to this summer when I lead a road trip with friends through the great Mississippi Delta, known for its rich, deep alluvial soil, as bountiful as the Nile River delta of ancient times. Stopping along the way it was hauntingly silent, almost dead, yet we were among the verdant fields. The crops of soybeans, cotton, and corn, stretching as far as the distant horizon, without a single weed or a fence row among them. Every plant a clone of the other, all perfectly uniform. A very different scene than from my childhood or Ma Smith’s garden where weeds and fence row hedges shared space among the crops.
The difference today is the use of chemicals and genetically modified organisms, in the genetics of the food we eat or feed to livestock. The soil is being saturated year in and year out with petrochemical-based fertilizers and chemicals such as glyphosate (Round-up), dicamba and defoliants. The fence rows are all gone, in the name of greater efficiencies and yields.
Over the course of the 200 plus miles on a hot afternoon, as we traversed along with the Mississippi River levy, we saw just nine songbirds and only once did an insect hit our windshield. Remarkable. It was like a scene from Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller ‘Silent Spring’. A very different delta than I recall as a child when my brothers and I walked the fields quail hunting with my granddad. Then, the fence and hedgerows were intact and served as habitat for quail and other species. ‘Weeds’ grew in the fields that by today’s standards would be seen as unkempt and poor agricultural practices. But, be sure that those weeds play an important role in the larger ecology. Where are the bobwhite quail and other birds today? The proverbial canaries in the coal mine.
Sappy nostalgia for days gone by? I don’t think so. Destruction of the planet is going on around us at every turn and at a disturbing pace. Often in a veiled and silent way. In this time of retrospection, I often read the works of Wendell Berry, poet, farmer and environmental activist from Henry County, Kentucky. I find both comfort and discomfort in his words. A few years ago Robert Redford created a documentary called ‘Look and See’ about Wendell and his view on the world. The opening and trailer to the documentary is powerful; it’s a poem by Wendell himself set to video and read by him.
In this month, while the earth rests, look and see what’s around you. Look up at the mystery of the cosmos and reach down and marvel at a handful of soil. Find peace in silence.
This year’s family Christmas party was different. I guess it’s the way I’m seeing the world these days. It supported observations I’ve made and a view that I’ve been developing for a while. You see, by and large, everything was much the same as usual with our annual family gathering at the farm. A home-cooked meal was shared and enjoyed with all the holiday comfort foods of our ancestors. Much of the fare was from the farm itself, such as the turkeys, roasted hens, turnip greens, hot pepper sauce, green tomato chow chow and, of course, Josephine Foster’s cornbread dressing. And, as our tradition holds, it’s always pot-luck in the category of desserts. And, a very competitive sport I might add, with great aunts defending their titles and pitted against nieces and cousins vying for the most compliments. All great fun. Cousin Carmen won again this year, hands down, with her famous coconut cake (I’ll do what I can to squeeze the recipe from her for you). It rivals the coconut cake at The Peninsula Grill in Charleston.
What caught my attention this year is something we rarely see these days, and that is a gathering of people, a community if you will, of multiple generations. Out of the 109 guests (a record-breaker) five generations were present, with ages ranging from 3 to 93 years of age. They had come from far and wide to carry on a tradition that was started by my great-grandparents during the 1920’s, the Foster Family Christmas gathering. In those early days, it was held on Christmas Eve and that tradition carried on until my great grandmother, Josephine Crutchfield Foster, died. Today we gather in the same spirit of fellowship, telling family stories and just spending time together, but these days it’s held the weekend before Christmas and at Moss Mountain Farm.
The great diaspora of families in this country seems to be at an all-time high. In our isolated family gathering alone there were kinsmen from six states, and as far away as Washington state. To further underscore the far-flung, cousin Tim couldn’t make it in time, as he was returning from Antarctica (not the place he calls home, but on assignment with Nat Geo). But, you see my point, due to multiple factors we are all living in a dispersed and fractured world. The reasons are many – jobs, educational opportunities, technology, health conditions the list goes on. Also, our obsession and dependence on the automobile and the ways communities are designed and built have spread us all hither and yon. When I really stop and think about it the reunion/party this year and those in attendance was something of a Christmas miracle.
But, this huge cultural shift is broader than what might be observed as a ‘one-off’ holiday phenomenon. It is simply a microcosm that demonstrates a larger need in the culture. Clearly we want and need to be together, increasingly so. There is something deep within us that is longing for togetherness. I see it everywhere. This lack of connectivity impacts our everyday lives. None more than the youngest and most senior in our society. Bringing together these two extremes of ages in our population is essential. We are losing something of great value when the young cannot be influenced by the older generation’s wisdom, life history, and experience. The knowledge that my great grandmothers and grandparents passed on to me has been invaluable throughout my own life.
On the flip side, the curiosity, energy, and vitality of youth bring a certain joy and inspiration to older members of our society. The younger members bring on new ideas and ways of seeing the world. Their idealism and energy is refreshing and hopeful to older generations. For example, one little cousin has inspired the entire family with her love of animals and birds. The older generations love to hear about her discoveries, experiences, and accomplishments, and she is only 11 years old. Self-esteem and confidence are bolstered in the child, and inspiration and wonder is incited in the older generations through this simple example of the importance of multi-generational connectivity.
Then there is technology. Only time will tell where it takes us. Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, FaceTime, etc. all have moved swiftly and deeply into our personal lives. Be certain that none of these platforms singularly or collectively are ANY substitute for the simple notion of being together and communicating face to face, one on one. The great irony for me, in this world we call the Information Age, is that real and meaningful communication between humans seems to have suffered, not improved. Today there appears to be more miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disconnection than ever before. I know plenty who now only communicate via text, instant messenger, or email. These forms of communication are seen by them, I suppose, as more efficient. Hardly the case, I say, more mistakes, misconceptions, and miscommunications are the rule rather than the exception. And, more often than not, leading to more wasted time and mind-share in the attempts to sort out the ensuing entanglements of not speaking directly. A disturbing trend, indeed.
Creating places and spaces that encourage, if not invite, people of all ages to experience more meaningful time together is a step in the right direction. This, no doubt will take time. Yet I’ve seen this happen at Moss Mountain Farm, another small example for the desire for connecting that has happened very quickly. Each year guests from around the country gather at the farm as a form of ‘community,’ where they spend time together, walk among nature and the gardens, dine with one another, and hopefully leave feeling reconnected, perhaps even making some new friends along the way. The family Christmas party, like our farm tour visitation, seems to grow in numbers each year. This is a constant reminder to me that we all need forms of togetherness, connection, and community.
Happily, during these visits when everyone is together, rarely is anyone on their phones, with the exception of capturing a few photographs of one another in a place that invites living in the moment and being together. Another hopeful sign.
As we look into 2020 I’ll be looking into various forms of community, human and otherwise. It’s an important concept that impacts so many aspects of life. I hope you’ll share your observations and thoughts along the way.
I’m a hopeless collector….of everything; you name it. Books, funky art, even funky friends, chickens, daffodils and lots of other flowers.
So, it’s easy to understand why I’d be be drawn to peonies too…like, in a big way. They are truly the queen of the flowers. You know, those kinds of flowers that evoke that… ‘Oh! Be still my heart’ kind of moments in life when you see them.
I’ve planted peonies in fits and starts my whole life, but mainly for others. Occasionally you’ll find a design client with enough space and passion for the flower to really go all out, but those are fairly uncommon these days. For the most part, many gardeners want a few in the garden integrated among other perennials, and I will be the first to say there is nothing wrong with that. Peonies, any way you want to grow them, get my attention and full support. However, I will say that over the years I’ve learned a few things about harnessing my enthusiasm and succumbing to my weaknesses…peonies being one of them. Perhaps the most important lesson in order to avoid heartache, no matter the scale of your planting, is to get it right the first time. So last year, true to my uncontrollable and unbridled passions, I embarked on a garden of 360 peonies from Gilbert H Wild. Yep… 360 plants ( tubers), 36 varieties, 10 each. The results were spectacular.
Here are some of my notes and takes aways from the field to consider if you’re serious about peonies. Hopefully, you’ll find them helpful:
They don’t like to be disturbed. So plant them in a good place and leave them. So what’s a good place you might asking. Well, full sun or a spot with at least six hours of sunlight. I prefer morning light over hot afternoon. They need good average soil that drains well. Peonies do not like ‘wet feet’, so plant in well-draining soil or else the tubers will surely rot. And don’t scrimp on adding good amendments to the soil, like plenty of humus and well-rotted manure (Yeah, manure. Go make a friend with a farmer).
Let’s face it, these flowers are extremely ephemeral, like most beauty. So plant multiple varieties that bloom early, mid and late in the season. This will extend the blooming season and your joy. And stop complaining about how the flowers don’t last long! Enjoy the moment and be content. Years ago a customer came into our nursery and wanted a landscape that was evergreen, bloomed all year and was low maintenance. I suggested they move to another hemisphere, perhaps near the equator or take up residency on another planet.
Buy nice tubers (as I said, ours all came from Gilbert H Wild and Son) with 4 to 5 eyes and take your time planting them. Don’t skimp on size, or if you do, don’t complain if they don’t bloom the first year. And, don’t plant the tubers too deep. The eyes are red and needn’t be too deep underground. In the North, deeper planting is advised, but here in the South, I’ve only covered the eyes with about 1/2 inch of soil with great success.
Choose varieties suited to your climate. Peonies, by their very nature, prefer a cold winter. So if you live in Minnesota you probably grow amazing Peonies, but not so much in Texas. Sorry, it’s just a fact of life. Look at it this way, you don’t see fields of Texas bluebonnets in St. Paul, Minneapolis, right? So, it’s a trade off, like so much of life. I will say, however, I’ve found that the early bloomers perform the best in my zone 8a garden. Old standbys like ‘Festiva Maxima,’ ‘Sarah Bernhardt,’ as well as ‘Coral Charm,’ ‘Coral Sunset ‘ and many other single bloom types.
Once they have bloomed I remove the seed heads. There’s no reason for the plant to continue to put energy into seed production when I’d rather it pour its resources into making larger tubers, which means… you guessed, it will have larger and more abundant blooms next year.
And, another tip… for the first couple of years refrain from cutting the blooms from the plants with extra long stems (Yes, tempting, I know.) The plants with extra long stems and plenty of foliage left intact are your friends, so don’t get greedy the first few years. You see, these remaining stems and leaves are the workhorses of the plant and continue to help build larger stronger future tubers and thereby more plentiful blooms in seasons to come. Later, once the clumps are established you can cut blooms with long luxurious stems.
Oh, and one last thing, the ANTS. Of all the questions I receive about peonies, those concerned about the tiny ants that congregate on the flower buds outweigh all questions combined. These ants are drawn to the sweet nectar-like sap that the bud produces. They do no harm to the peony, or will they you. Just rinse them off with cool water and let them go about their day…live and let live!
Below are a few photos of our new peony garden after only one year after being planted at Moss Mountain Farm, and some of the resulting blooms.
To learn more about growing peonies, check out the video below!
Many home gardeners and those in the agriculture industry know we have a pollinator problem on our hands. We need pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and birds, to enjoy some of our favorite fruits, vegetables and flowers. However, some threats to pollinators include, habitat loss, pollution, the introduction of non-native animals and plants, and climate change. And while we may not be able to address all of these, activities like beekeeping, planting native species and increasing habitat can provide relief to these helpful garden assistants.
Not all of us have time to start keeping bees, but it’s fairly easy to create little pollinator gardens full of native wildflowers to give them a place to land. Pollinators are creatures of habit, and though their natural habitat may be overtaken by construction sites or development, they will stay in the same areas and won’t travel very far to find food or shelter. That’s why it’s important to have patches of wildflowers and comfortable areas for them to live and work.
In an effort to help these vital gardening assistants, I have joined with First Community Bank for the “Bloom with Us” project which will install 20 pollinator gardens in the bank’s locations across Arkansas and Missouri. These gardens will begin growing in the first week of March and will not only be beneficial for pollinators but also beautiful for the members of the community. It’s a win-win!
I hope you’ll drop by to stop and smell the flowers, and maybe even glimpse a few bees and butterflies at work or play. If you’d like to find out more about planting pollinator friendly gardens in your backyard, check out the planting guides at pollinator.org.
And for more information on how you can support pollinators in your world, check out my YouTube video below and subscribe to our YouTube channel.