Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Where are the Chrysanthemums?

Every year about this time I mourn the absence of old-fashioned garden chrysanthemums.   At one moment in time chrysanthemums as they had been disappeared, to be replaced by a ubiquitous sea of puffy yellow, russet and mauve supermarket mums.  Precisely alike, totally lacking in character, they pop up everywhere.  At three for $15 or thereabouts, you will see them at every house, on every scrap of lawn, or flanking every driveway… a limitless supply of uniformity.

Supermarket Chrysanthemums

Admittedly, the large and varied chrysanthemum family of spiders, quill and spoons are pretty labor-intensive, appealing to only the most dedicated gardeners.  Once installed in your perennial bed, chrysanthemums cannot be left alone and be expected to flourish from year to year.  Each spring they must be dug and divided, the center of the plant discarded along with the old root system, and the vigorous side shoots and their roots retained and replanted. 

You’ll wind up with a small plant, but it will shoot up at a healthy rate during the long growing season.  When the first shoots reach three to four inches, usually by May, the main stem is established well enough to start shaping the plant.  Pinch back the main stem to two or three leaves.  Each subsequent leaf stem gets pinched back to two good leaves.  This continues with each “break” (the new growth) until mid-July when pinching stops.

Single Mum

You must provide support by stout stakes, as the constant pinching produces big flowers heads.  You must also remember to side-dress monthly, as they are heavy feeders. 

Why do all this?  The flower heads are unparalleled in their beauty, and arrive at a time when virtually everything else in the garden is over.  The family is large, and the characteristics of the individual flowers vary widely.  Chrysanthemum flowers are composed of many individual rays or florets, and there are significant differences within the family. 

Spider Mum

The spider mums are distinguished by long, tubular rays, some of which grow longer than the rest and appear to be reaching out to catch you in their web.  Sometimes the tips are twisted or hooked, increasing the spider-like appearance. 

The single and semi-double mums are the ones you might still  find for sale in local nurseries at reasonable prices.  The spoons are similar to the semi-doubles, except that the individual tips of the rays are spoon-shaped.  They have an open center, but their cousins the quills do not; their florets are straight and tubular, with open ends.
Quill Mum

The giant “football” mums look like cheerleaders’ pompoms.  Technically, they are called irregular incurves.  The centers are fully closed, the florets curve inward, and the bottom edge has a slightly skirted effect.

Football Mum

Chrysanthemums are not easy to finds these days.  The 1970 catalog of White Flower Farms Nursery in Litchfield, Connecticut sold twenty decorative mums, three pompoms, three spiders and five spoons. In 2014, none.  The big perennial catalogs no longer supply chrysanthemums, but you can find sources and a useful handbook on the National Chrysanthemum Society’s website www.mums.org.

Chrysanthemums have a distinguished history.  The Chinese and Japanese have been growing them for over 3,000 years and you can see representations of mums in their textiles, screens and ceramics.  Visiting Buddhist monks brought the chrysanthemum from China to Japan, and the Japanese were enchanted with this flower, which they saw as a symbol of the sun.  It was so beloved of the early Emperors that the single chrysanthemum became the Emperor’s personal symbol, and he ruled from the chrysanthemum throne.  Chrysanthemum Day in Japan is still a significant festival event.
Japanese Textile

Although widely popular in the United States, in most of Europe chrysanthemums are funeral flowers.  In Italy, they are so closely associated with death that they are never used in a festive or celebratory context.  

In recent years, dahlias seem to have replaced chrysanthemums as the big, bold, showy fall addition to the garden.  They require a somewhat elaborate procedure if you wish to keep them from year to year.   To carry them through the winter, you have to let the first frost blacken the foliage.  Then dig them up, leaving two inches of stem.  Discard the damaged tubers, wash the good ones and put them in the sun to dry, turning them occasionally.  Each tuber, when thoroughly dry, then goes in its own plastic bag.  It’s closed tightly and stored in a cool, dark basement until spring.

A Selection Of Dahlias

I have not been successful at this, and I discard dahlias after the last frost and start with new tubers in the spring.  If you can’t find a good source for chrysanthemums try dahlias, but they are a poor substitute.  Having travelled infrequently enough to have my dreams intact, I believe that in some small corner of England there are still gardeners preparing their prize-winning chrysanthemums for the coming Fair.

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Notes

        September is the last month to enjoy the garden.  Annuals and asters have taken center stage.  Roses and some perennials are in the midst of their second bloom.   It’s almost the end of the picnic season.  Mosquitos are replaced by bumblebees, and picnics become an exercise in evasion. 
Cosmos and Cleome

The color combinations so carefully planned for spring and summer are now giving way to the overall anticipation of autumn, when the trees turn russet, gold and brown.  Even the deep reds and purples which seemed harsh in spring look fine in September.

Enjoy the particular clarity of the September light.  You can ignore a certain disorder in the garden, unacceptable in spring, but the norm in September. Untidiness is forgivable in September, because by next month the ferocious pace of bulb planting will be underway, and once that is complete the garden must be put to bed.  But for the time being enjoy September; it can be the most restful month in the garden, or the best month for some hard work.  It’s your call.

Week One
This is a good time to shop, as the end-of-year sales at nurseries will be in full swing.  While nurseries can easily hold over larger trees and shrubs until next spring, to carry smaller materials over the winter becomes costly.

City gardens are perfect for small bulbs.  Try the smaller members of the daffodil family, the cyclamineus and jonquillas.  Don’t forget snowdrops, crocus spring and fall, and colchicums.

Each year at this time I wish I had a Clematis paniculata, the autumn-blooming cascade of starry white flowers covering everything in sight.
Sweet autumn clematis

September is a good time to order clematis, for they are rarely shipped after mid-October.  If you plant clematis in the fall, they will get off to a robust spring start and you will surely have blooms next summer.  If planted next spring, you are likely to get only foliage.

Week Two
Most perennials will welcome division now, but some definitely will not. These include phlox, Shasta daisies, and Siberian and Japanese iris.  Don’t even try.

The Japanese anemone is the queen of the fall garden.  Starting from a clump of basal leaves it will grow to three feet bearing several weeks of white or pink silver-dollar size flowers. 

Other September bloomers are False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana), Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia trilobum), Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonsis), a low-growing blue shrub better treated as a perennial, Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), and Rubeckia ‘Henry Eiler' (R. subtomentosa). 
Rudbeckia 'Henry Eiler'

If rainfall is adequate, little watering will be needed from now on.  The exception is new plantings and of course roof gardens which will need watering right up to hard frost.

Bring in pots of amaryllis that have been summering indoors.

Week Three
Trim long stems of perennial vines and tie up or train as you like.

Cut back iris foliage to three inches

Don’t let phlox go to seed or they will self sow, reverting to their original magenta and the new seedlings will crowd out your carefully cultivated varieties. 

Week Four
Last call to bring the house plants indoors.

Pull out vegetable plants when all the crops have been gathered and plant a winter cover crop.  Winter rye or small grains are good in our region.

Fertilize lawns and sow seeds in thin or worn areas.

You can still plant perennials, but they will have to be protected against the winter’s alternate freezing and thawing.  More on that in November.

Start cutting back perennials.  You can compost all but the leaves and stems of the peonies.  These you must discard or burn.

This is the best time to plant daffodils, although almost everyone waits at least until October, and often drag their feet into November.  Start early, and give yourself a gift for 2015.
Next Spring's Daffodils

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Public/Private Gardens

 A few weeks ago I visited a community garden on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  It had been lovingly tended for a number of years by two women, Margaret Doyle and Julia Gabriel, who would garden two or three times a week.  In 2011 Julia died of a stroke and Margaret has since spent a good part of each summer away.   The garden was renamed the Julia Gabriel Community Garden in her memory, but is now largely neglected and ignored.  On the day of my visit, the garden was unlocked and empty, while across the street at St. John the Divine visitors were enjoying a bit of sun.  There is nothing to encourage the visitor to cross the street and sit in Julia’s shade.  No color catches the eye.  The garden is dry and dusty.  Its two devoted gardeners have moved on and there are no heirs.

Julia Gabriel Community Garden

This is not a singular problem.  A 2012 article in the New York Times by Michael Tortorello called attention to the dwindling supply of volunteer gardeners, despite an increase of interest in food gardens.  Neighborhood demographics are changing, gentrification may produce more or less interest, and the first generation of community gardeners is dying out.  This varies across the city, for reasons not well understood.

In some cities, and in all European countries, allotments are more prevalent than community gardens. In contrast to a community garden, an allotment is a small plot of land made available to an individual or a family.  Large plots of land owned by a municipality or another entity are divided up into smaller parcels that are then assigned. There is usually an association overseeing the operation to which gardeners apply for a plot, pay a small fee, and adhere to the rules of the association.  How the plot is used is in the hands of the gardener, but must be reserved for only personal use. 

A community garden, on the other hand, is a single plot of varying size gardened collectively by a group people.  Although the gardens are seen as engines of community engagement, they are owned by a municipality and governed by the municipality’s terms of access and management.
Southwest Corridor Park

Boston is the rare city combining community gardens, parks and allotments in a single stretch -- the Southwest Corridor Park, a narrow, 90 acre ribbon of public open space.  A proposed highway project was successfully blocked by community resistance, rail lines buried underground, and in its place a five-mile stretch of tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens and allotments was established.

Many South Enders came from gardening and farming cultures in other countries.  Moving along the corridor you will find Italian plots with fig trees, French potagers alongside Asian gardeners growing vegetables vertically on posts climbing to spread horizontally along overhead lattice.

Boston also has allotments carried over from World War II, the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Gardens.  The once-abandoned gardens are now divided into 450 individual plots, used as the gardener chooses. Individual allotments are fenced and gated, but the larger area is open and anyone can stroll down the pathways at any time of day and peer over the fences.  The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.
A Parker Garden's Plot

In New York City, Roosevelt Island works on an allotment system, managed by the Garden Club.  The design gives each gardener 210 square feet, laid out in trapezoidal patterns so that no two gardens are alike.  You sign up, get on a waiting list, and hope for the best.  No one seems to give them up, and you usually have to wait until someone moves or dies. 
A Roosevelt Island Pathway

One gardener is a dedicated pond-builder.  One of the earliest gardeners, he has made extensive use of the debris from the various excavations and construction sites on the Island.  Large slabs of stone from the wreckage of the insane asylum and concrete sections of old foundations –- all carried by hand-drawn cart -- have been transformed into garden sculptures and stockpiled for bleacher-like seats at his ponds. 

The Roosevelt Island gardens are as distinctive as the gardeners who inhabit the space.  Some are meticulous, some are untidy, others are wild.  Some are devoted to vegetable crops, while some are just places to sit and enjoy other people’s gardens.

A Roosevelt Island Plot

The Garden Club provides a clubhouse of sorts in a storage shed.  Community rakes, shovels and hoes are stored in bins available to all.  A limited number of lockers allow gardeners to keep tools close by.  Twice a year the Club brings in soil and provides wheelbarrows for transporting.

In both the Boston and Roosevelt Island examples, city engagement is minimal. Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects, individually rather than bureaucratically driven, engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  Does the accessibility of the larger area, and the knowledge that these plots are available to all, perhaps encourage individuals more than the collective approach of the community gardens with their own built-in local politics?

What is it that gives these gardens so much more vitality than the average neighborhood park?  Are they affected by the demographics of the neighborhood?  By the cultural values of the times?  Should there be a Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers and renters?  Here is your plot, use it as you wish?  If volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them, what would happen if that paradigm changed?  Anarchy or a robust landscape?

All the above is only the barest outline of what is actually happening on the ground.  In the coming weeks Emily Walker, Outreach Coordinator for New Yorkers for Parks, will be a guest contributor writing about what it takes to make a successful community garden, and the subtle shift towards allotments in schoolyards and individual plots in public housing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August Notes

It was not hard to say goodbye to July.  It was a punishing month, with brief, vicious storms almost every day.  Hail ripped the broad-leaved perennials to shreds.  My giant hostas, for which I held high hopes, are tattered.  I could spend August experimenting with cutting them back, feeding heavily and enjoying new growth, but I fear that will set them back for next year. 

The solution for the moment is to do nothing and think about how to minimize the damage in future years. If you are seduced by the largest of the hostas, it may be wise to plant them alongside smaller leaved plants so that any damage will not be too visible. They would do well with other shade lovers --hydrangea, fern, hellebore, epimedium, heuchera.

Mixed Shade Planting

On the positive side, August is the peak month for garden lilies.  Now is the time to select yours for fall planting.  John Scheepers and Van Engelen bulb catalogs have probably arrived on your doorstep by now, so be sure to work your way to the back of the catalogs, past the daffodils and tulips, to the lilies and make your selection.

There are relatively few chores to tend to in August.  Be sure to replenish mulch; it will decompose in the heat of August.  Finish pruning spring-flowering deciduous shrubs. This is the last call to start perennials and biennials from seed. Garden sales start up in August.  Take advantage of them; container-grown plants will continue to drop in price. Butterflybush (Buddleia) disappeared from almost all gardens this past winter, and the nurseries ran out of stock early.  You will probably feel shortchanged in butterflies this August, unless your beebalm (Monarda) survived.

Buddleia and Friends

Among the brightest spots in the August garden are the Big Yellows.  It’s not uncommon to see Cup plant (Silhpium perforliatum) towering over the top of a roadside fence.  A native of tall prairie grass, it is quite common in the Midwest.  It’s one of the few plants that thrive in the hot, humid summers of the prairie states, and so it seems quite at home here.  The yellow daisy-like flowers are two to three inches in diameter and bloom at the top of the stalks.  They hold their bloom for weeks.  It is rarely seen in the garden, although its dark green foliage would make an excellent backdrop for other perennials.  The plants are tall and wide enough to block an unsightly view, enhance a shed, or simply fill up a large empty space. It is reported to perform best if given full sun and sufficient moisture, but we have seen it in dry clay soils, where it seems to be just fine. 
Cup Plant in an Open Field

The Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) is a more manageable late-summer yellow bloomer.  Growing to a mere five feet, it has a full, airy character, and is not nearly as tall as the Cup plant.  The flowers appear as sprays across the surface of the plant, with yellow rays and brown centers.  It starts to bloom mid-summer and continues into the fall.  The literature on species and varieties is somewhat murky, and it seems to be classified as a biennial, although it performs as a perennial for us. The form is lovely, light and full without being dense, and more graceful than the Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).  It doesn’t block a view or stop the eye; it encourages you to draw closer.

Brown-eyed Susan

Ligularia stenocephala ‘The Rocket’ will do the same for you in the shade that Brown–eyed Susan and Cup plant will do in the sun. Almost four feet tall and as wide, it sends up tall yellow spires that make a strong counterpoint to its shade-loving companions, invariably hosta and ferns.  Ligularia can be a little difficult to locate correctly in the garden, as they need moist soil and shade for the foliage, but enough sun to produce their spectacularly tall blooms.  Too much sun, and the foliage will wilt during the day.     


A native of Japan, Houttuynia deserves to be tried more widely in American gardens.  It’s very showy; mounds of tiny yellow-green blooms are carried above white petal-like bracts. A rapidly spreading, potentially invasive perennial, its heart shaped leaves and unusual flowers make it a worthy risk.  For the strong of heart, it can be partnered with Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides),  another beauty hard to control.  This loosestrife requires space, and will win out over any competition.  It will take over your garden if you turn your back on it.   
Gooseneck loosetrife

For next August, think about more white flowers.  Shorter days will bring an earlier twilight and a particular luminosity to white flowers in the garden.  Think about Nicotiana and White phlox for next year.  Perhaps a white Rose of Sharon at the edge of the lawn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You Can't Go Home Again

Six years ago this week I left the woods at Altamont House in High Rock Park on Staten Island.  They say a garden dies with its gardener, but in some cases all you have to do is move away.  It’s probably the same with a house you have loved and left behind.  The new owner invites you over to see what she has done, and when the visit is over you wish you had never gone.

I returned to Altamont House recently, only to find that four years of hard work had disappeared, eaten up by the return of the forest and benign neglect.  I wish I could show you the difference, but all I have is pictures of the work as finished in 2006.  The few taken recently show nothing but dense green forest, underbrush and debris.

The Backdoor Garden - 2006

The Backdoor Garden - Today

When I arrived, I was to be the new caretaker of this 1910 house, brown shingle and yellow trim, empty and waiting.  The plan was to fashion it as a revenue-producing source for the park.  My job was to plan, oversee and help support the restoration of the house and the landscape. This was in August 2002, and I had a day job in lower Manhattan, a few short blocks from the Staten Island Ferry.  A logical, easy commute.

What I found was a site that had once been farmland carved out of a forest, and was now scrubby woods.  The land that was cleared to build the house was now covered in weeds.  A gravel courtyard had all but disappeared.  The old skating pond alongside the house had become a bog choked with waterwillow and buttonbush.  Fallen branches and dead trees littered the landscape

I wanted to make a garden, but or most of the first year I sat on the back steps, waiting for the site to speak to me and tell me what to do.   When we finally got to work, all we did was clear.  English ivy and giant spruces blocking all views and light were removed, and widespread Devil’s walkingstick and poison ivy cleared.

Looking Towards the Path to Boyle St. 

We opened up the footpath from Boyle Street to the house and planted Amelanchiers, underplanted with astilbe, turk’s cap lilies, ferns and tiarella.  All that is left are the Amelanchiers.  But I’m sure that if you walk in the neighboring woods in early spring you’ll still see Canada mayflower poking through a winter blanket of oak leaves.  And if you walk down the road to Altamont Street at around the same time, you’ll still find stands of marsh marigold in the damp areas.  Our daffodils were glorious and are probably still there, if you know where to look.  We planted hundreds of them up the hill from the Boyle Street footpath, just below the neighboring inland lighthouse.

We did pretty well on the shady side of the house.  We lined a six-foot wide path to a bog with a few Catawba rhododendron, highbush blueberry, hostas, bleeding heart, wood violets, columbines, lacecap hydrangea  and Jacobs’ ladder, all flanking an old mountain laurel and an equally venerable snow azalea. The path to the bog, beautifully edged with intertwined whip-thin branches, and all the plants, have disappeared completely.

Bog Path With Edging

We left behind our first steps in restoring a rock garden dating from the 1920s. We excavated the levels, but had not yet planted.  It faced what was once an orchard, but had now with the encroaching residential development become a second bog.  It was a very pond-like bog, and we thinned the edge to provide glimpses into its depths from the shoreline. The collapse of two large oaks opened up a path to the bog, and the following year we planted Ironwood and American Cranberrybush, all now devoured by the returning forest.

The Second Bog

All that remains on the site are the trees we planted and the mature shrubs that were there when I arrived in 2002 – a Japanese maple, an ancient pieris, an old mountain laurel, a large white azalea.

I expect that turtles still nest in the driveway, and that every spring Peepers call out to each other through the night.  I’m sure birds still visit; when the bogs were full there were ibis and egrets, a Great Blue Heron, and a family of mallards in permanent residence.

To leave a garden behind is to lose it, but Altamont House gave me more than I gave back.  I had been without a garden for 25 years, and I had never lived alone in the woods.  Without Altamont House I would not have become a garden columnist for the Staten Island Advance, writing first Woodland Diary and then The Weekend Gardener.  And perhaps I would not have gone on to other gardens.

Those years changed my life, as houses and gardens tend to do if you let them.  Occasionally, I dream about Altamont House.  In the dream I am sitting on the steps, still waiting for the landscape to speak to me and tell me what to do.