50 Shades of Black

‘Black Coffee’ Begonia

Black is Beautiful

For my updated post on black flowers, check out Black Goes With Everything.

There has been an explosion of black flowers and foliage in the past couple of years in the gardening world.  It started out as a trickle and now is a tsunami of everything black! When I go to the nursery and look at new cultivars of annuals, perennials, and shrubs, all shades of black predominates.

But you have to know how to use black for the best effect. I like to place black flowers or foliage next to very bright intense colors, such as hot pink or lime green to get the biggest impact. The black color gives the eye a rest when you pair it with bright vibrant colors. If you place black plants next to darker hued plants, it just doesn’t work and the black color fades in the background. So use black carefully and site it with some thought.

Black Pearl Plant

Black plants can also echo other plants that have black stems, black venation or black undertones. I find that if you have a boring or blah border, black instantaneously ramps up the visual interest. It can become a focal point if you have a particularly beautiful black plant. I like this Alternanthera ‘Black Night’ in a container with large glossy leaves that echoes the black spiller which is a trailing Alternanthera.

Unknown black plant with alternanthera spiller and black petunia

There are all different hues and variations on black and sometimes the amount of sunlight a plant receives will affect the coloration. Also, juvenile foliage will generally be a darker, more intense, shade. In the plant trade describing many of the black plants, you hear adjectives such as chocolate, deep burgundy, midnight, or coffee.


Jack in the Pulpits

Arisaema sikokanum with chocolate coloration

The Japanese Cobra Lily, Arisaema sikokanum, is an elegant cousin to our native Jack in the Pulpit. The spadix is a pure marshmallow white which gives the flower such great contrast.  It looks like a flower all decked out in black tie ready for a party! Tres chic! And the scarlet berries make this expensive plant worth the money.

English: Jack-in-the-pulpit seed berries
English: Jack-in-the-pulpit seed berries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Allegheny National...
A Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In feng shui, which is used frequently in landscape design, black is the color of mystery and sophistication. Black is the negation of color but next to any other color, it will make the color black stand out.

Black phantom petunia


I love the new black petunias! The colors are novel and I tried them for the first time last year. The profusion of flowers faded by the end of the summer and I am watching to see if they do any better this year.  Even if they don’t perform as well as other petunias, I will probably continue to grow them because of the wow factor. I think the black petunias are closest to the true black color.

Sweetunia Black Satin


Black Lace Elderberry, Sambucas nigra, is one of those plants that you can grow not only for the feathery graceful foliage, but also the near black coloration.  The foliage is similar to a cut leaf maple but with dark hues for added drama. To complete the picture, umbels of pink-hued flowers appear in the summer followed by berries snatched up by wildlife. Elderberry is a cut-back shrub, like a butterfly bush, and will grow at least 6 feet during the growing season.

Sambucus nigra, Elderberry



Planting a black Canna into a container
Planting a black Canna into a container


For instant drama, in a perennial border, pop in the dark, dark Cannas like Canna ‘Australia’, with a midnight burgundy coloration that holds up all summer long.  Topping off the plant at around 5 to 6 feet high are shocking fire engine red flowers that hummingbirds will visit frequently.

The black foliage of the Canna makes it stand out
The black foliage of the Canna makes it stand out


The same benefits of using black plants in your borders hold true for containers. Use them with contrasting colors to let the other colors pop.

Container with black Agave
Chocolate Ajuga used in a container
The black center of this African Daisy adds drama
The black center of this African Daisy adds drama

Sweet Potato Vine

I am sure everyone who does containers is familiar with the Sweet Potato Vine.  This annual trailing vine up to 15 feet long is becoming ubiquitous in containers.  I like to pop it into the garden to twine around shrubs and perennials.  It is especially effective in newly planted gardens with lots of blank spaces to fill. The vine grows quickly – sometimes too quickly! – and then dies with the first frost. Then you can dig up the huge sweet potato that forms underground and save it to plant for next year. This black Sweet Potato Vine is called ‘Illusion Midnight Lace’. There is   another one called ‘Ace of Spades’.

‘Midnight Illusion’ Lace Sweet Potato Vine
Black Sweet Potato Vine with Pineapple plant, Eucomis


Black has reached the plant world in every plant group and succulents are really big now so why not black succulents? I love them, but they can be quite prickly and hard to work with.

Black Agave
Black Sempervivum ‘Dark Beauty’


No discussion of black plants is complete without mentioning Heucheras or Coral Bells.  There must be thousands of varieties of these by now –  the plant hybridizers are going crazy with them! I like the black one called ‘Frosted Violet’. This one has dark black venation that makes the leaves stand out. ‘Black Out’ is another Heuchera that I am dying to try. There are too many Heucheras and not enough time.

Heuchera ‘Frosted Violet’
Heuchera 'Blackout'
Heuchera ‘Blackout’

High Line – Container in the Sky

View of the railroad rails incorporated into the garden

I just came back from a day trip to NYC where I went to experience the ‘High Line‘. I have heard so much buzz from the media and friends on this new park in NY that I made a special trip to see it and was totally unprepared for the scope and genius of this project in deep urban America. I took with me my artsy daughter and boy friend who are not really into gardening but once they saw what I was babbling about, they were all over it! My daughter was interested in it from an artistic and photographic standpoint, and the boy friend was interested in the High Line because he was into trains and architecture.  Also, we are all into the food scene and Chelsea Market and food carts are located nearby and on the High Line.  So, it was a win win for me and them.

Chelsea Market entrance


First of all, a little history about the High Line. I am going to quote the  Friends of the High Line website at http://www.thehighline.org/about/high-line-history

“The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980. Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group, formed in 1999 when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line work in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park.”

With both public and private investment, the Friends of the High Line, which was founded by community residents, works to make sure that the High Line is maintained for all visitors to enjoy. They oversee maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park. They offer free and low-cost public programs, including talks, films, performances, tours, and family activities. I checked the posted calendar that was displayed at the end of the park in an informational exhibit and there were loads of activities on tap including weekly stargazing nights.

Foxtail Lilies at their peak- I was very surprised to see these growing as I thought that they were diificult and tempermental to grow! They were everywhere on the High Line.
Foxtail Lily with an orange Echinacea


So, you see the planning and evolution of this park was over a number of years and has come to fruition just within the past couple of years.  The first part was started in 2006, completed in 2009, and the second section opened early June 2011, and a third phase was just approved and is in the planning stages. In addition, at the southern end of the High Line, a new Whitney Museum of American Art is underway. Approximately 1.5 mile in length, the High Line varies in width throughout from 30 to 50 feet but seems much wider because of the profusion of plantings.  Walking the entire length as it meanders through three dynamic New York City neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen went by quickly with lots of plant gawking and people watching. Sculpture installations and several photo shoots with high fashion models were happening with hardly a second look from onlookers. I guess it just happens there every day!

A sculpture assemblage with modular bird houses was being set up


The entire bridge structure had to be stripped of the gravel ballast, rails, soil, debris, and a layer of concrete.  Then the outside had to be sandblasted in a containment tent to remove the original lead paint. The Art Deco railings had to be repaired and fabricated to restore everything to original condition. In many locations, original train rails were restored to their former locations and you can see the rails integrated seamlessly as part of the planting landscape. Ingenious! The walkway is a series of long ‘planks’ forming a smooth, linear, walkway surface with viewing platforms, sun decks, and gathering areas. There is even a lawn area where people are free to play and picnic. It was roped off when we were there for rejuvenation.  I guess too many people trampled it down!

High Line (New York City)
High Line (New York City) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Long view of the High Line

Energy efficient LED lights were installed for night time, and stairs and elevators were installed at intervals for access. Pigeon-proofing, a drainage system, and a layer of waterproofing on the underlying concrete were the final steps in preparing the structure for planting.

A neat water feature with water recirculating out of vents washing across the pavement. A nice place to put your bare feet on a hot day!

Designing the Container

The inspiration for the planting design was the actual self-seeded landscape that sprang up after the abandonment of the rail tracks. Tough plants seeded in the gravel ballast and made a home there in the tracks and thrived without any attention. Sustainability, which is the latest buzzword among gardeners and landscapers, was the keyword when picking out the plants.  This just meant choosing native and hardy species that were interesting in color and textural qualities.  Many of the original plant species that thrived on the tracks were incorporated into the final plan.

A tough species of Stachys

Piet Oudolf, who was the planting designer, is known for his embrace of the New Perennials Landscape movement. In a nutshell, this movement stresses shape and texture more than color of the plant.  The life cycle of nature is important with a four season interest, not just spring and summer.  Mr Oudolf, who is Dutch, actually thinks that a garden is more interesting in winter and that as gardeners we should be more accepting of death and decay.


In practical terms, Mr Oudolf designs with a preponderance of grasses because they are easy to use and have appeal in larger public landscapes rather than the smaller ones at our homes. I have to say this really struck home when my daughter exclaimed over the swaths of Mexican Feather Grass that were used in many places on the High Line. When I told her that I had some clumps of it at home she said she had never noticed!

Mexican Feather Grass – Stipa tenuissima

Evergreens are used sparingly according to Mr Oudolf’s vision to add depth in the winter when a landscape should be browns, tans, and sienna hues rather than a green landscape. There are “cracks” in the pavement created for the plants to grow where the path bleeds into garden and vice versus. The little mulch that is used is gravel to resemble the ballast rather than the more familiar decomposeable organic mulch.

More of the Mexican Feather Grass planted in “cracks” of the paving surface
Cracks with plants

The Plantings

The conditions for plantings of the High Line is hot, hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. To experience extremes of temperatures is stressful for many plants but the selected plants were used to these harsh conditions such as native North American prairie perennials.  Annuals are not used as they would have to be replaced and are not a sustainable plant.  When I was walking, there was a stiff breeze blowing probably because of the height of the plantings. Out of 210 plant species used, 161 of them are native to the New York area.

Breeze blowing the petals of a Echinacea
Dalea purpurea, a prairie native
Astilbe ‘Visions in Pink’ is the light pink and the orange is Butterfly weed. Who knew that Astilbe would grow like this in full sun?
The soil depth of the High Line is around 15 inches! This fact absolutely amazed me.  The depth does increase somewhat where there are raised areas but only to about 36 inches at the most.  There are lots and lots of trees – Birches, Magnolias, Service Berries, Sassafras, Hornbeams, Crabapples, Red Buds, Dogwoods, Smoke Trees, Black Gums, Pines, Maples, and Witch Hazels. Sassafras is used frequently. The use of so many Sassafras surprised me as I never use it in a home landscape setting.  It is a native and is everywhere in our woods and it does have magnificent scarlet fall coloring. Sassafras is an important bird food source and is the host to the Swallowtail butterfly. 
Sassafras leaves with Swallowtails
Smoke Tree in its glory

The list of species goes on and on and I can’t believe that they are thriving in such a thin layer of soil. The small amount of soil makes the entire High Line an elevated container that dries out quickly with the beating sun and the relentless wind. The first part of the High Line has irrigation and additional irrigation is being installed soon in the other second part. Hose outlets were installed at periodic areas for easy hand watering. Because of the intensely planted beds, the plants must always be thirsty. One advantage of the wall to wall plantings is that it is harder for weeds to take root but nothing eliminates weeds growing and that chore still has to be done.

An allium

Art and Vendor Installations

This is an urban landscape and you can’t escape the commercial outlets. There were several vendors, art and food, that you encounter along the way.  When we were there, a group exhibition called “Lilliput” inspired by  Swift’s Gullivers Travels, brings together nine sculptures of reduced scale by six international artists. The sculptures are installed along the High Line in unexpected locations and it became a game for us to find them all. Go to www.thehighline.org/art to view them.

Sun Tzu Janus by artist Oliver Laric, found at the beginning of the High Line
Another sculpture inspired by Gulliver’s Travels

Lots of apartments looked directly onto the level of the High Line and we were amused with residents art installations.

“High Line Zoo”, Someone having fun with their artwork!
A balcony overlooking the High Line

We went down the stairs to street level Chelsea Market and picked up some goodies and shopped the interesting stores. Then we headed back up to the High Line and picked up more food from Bark and The Taco Truck on the High Line passage. There were tables and chairs set up in the shade on the passage which is just a large tunnel to enjoy the food. The tables were pretty full on a Monday so I think that on the weekend it could be a mad house.

High Line passage

Enjoying the Park

As in any park, you need places to sit and relax and unwind.  There were plenty of innovative seating areas to take a load off and we didn’t have to fight anyone to get a spot.  They were scattered everywhere.  The most ingenious seat was the wooden lounge chair that made use of old train wheels that were placed in the track.

Enjoying the sunny day
Train wheels on the lounge chairs

Amplitheater type seating with a projector

Enjoying the sunny day on the High Line


Along with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the Friends of the High Line employs 6 to 8 gardeners or horticulturists to maintain the 6.7 acre park.

Talking to the gardeners who were working diligently weeding, cutting back, and planting, they were really excited about gardening in downtown Manhattan. I asked how they disposed of their organic debris and they said that they collect it in a central location on the High Line and then it is picked up and taken to Fresh Kills landfill. It seems like there should be a composting area located on the High Line so that they can compost it on site and use it to enrich the plantings. If they set up a working composting area with informational signs and demos, I think that it would send an important public message for sustainability.

Talking to a gardener who is hand watering transplants

The High Line is not the first converted elevated rail line.  Paris started it all in 1993 with one called Promenade Planteé which is almost 3 miles long. Also, St Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago, and Rotterdam has them in the works. Next stop, Paris!

The Paris Promenade Planteé from Wikipedia

If you want more information about the history, architecture, grasses and plants, there is a book out titled On the High Line:Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park by Annik Lafarge and contributor Rick  Darke

On the High Line book available on Amazon

American Grown – The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America


The Read

I just finished reading ‘American Grown’ by Michelle Obama and it is a fascinating account of the garden and landscape evolution at the White House. From the very first vegetable garden installed by John Adams, our second president, the book mentions a variety of plantings and gardens until it ended up being a hodgepodge of styles and designs in the 1930’s.  At that point, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the renowned Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., a landscape artist who designed Central Park in New York City, to draw up a master plan. Olmstead created the vistas and features that we are familiar with today – notably the South Lawn with rolling lawns and groupings of trees. The landscape that he created is what basically remains today.

South lawn of the White House showing the great expanse of lawn and tree groupings – Wikipedia

The book also includes how-to tips for starting your own kitchen garden, involving children in the process, and several accounts of how schools across the county are changing their students eating habits and getting them to be more active. Recipes from the White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford using the produce were my favorite part as well as dozens of black and white historic photos.

First Lady Michelle Obama works with kids from...
First Lady Michelle Obama works with kids from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School to break ground for a White House garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 1100 square foot L-shaped vegetable kitchen garden is on the White House south lawn in raised beds with slate plant tags, and has a path winding through for easy access.  Michelle Obama wanted the location of the garden to be easily seen from outside the White House gate because she wanted it to be the people’s garden, just as the White House is the “people’s house”. Peas, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, raspberries, blueberries, carrots, tomatoes, figs, mushrooms, and peppers are just a few of the over 55 varieties of vegetable and herb crops that are planted and harvested for use in the White House kitchen. Mushrooms were even grown on logs that were placed under trees! All produce is used for family meals and state dinners and is also donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a local soup kitchen. The garden is grown organically with edible and companion flowers planted along the path and numerous herbs, and has produced thousands of pounds of produce.

The garden was started in 2009, early in the Obama’s term, and was instrumental in the First Lady starting her ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign which focused on healthy eating and exercise. The First Lady along with White House horticulturist Dale Haney and the enthusiastic help of 23 5th graders from  Bancroft Elementary in D.C., plant the garden every spring and takes care of the garden as well as learning about eating healthy.

First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chef...
First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chef Sam Kass show students from the Bancroft Elementary how to plant a garden. The White House Vegetable Garden was officially planted today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

White House Chef Sam Kass, who personally harvests many of the herbs and vegetables for the meals he cooks, was inspired after a visit to Monticello to include an area devoted to Thomas Jefferson where the vegetable favorite’s of the third president are planted. Monticello sells a special seed collection that Jefferson grew at his home that includes Tennis Ball Lettuce, Prickly Seeded Spinach, Red Calico Lima Beans, Sesame, Globe Artichokes, and Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage. Offered by Monticello’s online store at http://www.monticellocatalog.org/, you can order this seed mixture yourself for $18.


Three Sisters

Another area of the garden is called ‘The Three Sisters’ which is corn, beans, and squash planted together. The Native Americans used this planting scheme extensively and called the three plants ‘The Three Sisters’ because they grow and thrive together.  The beans grow up the corn plants for support and the squash acts as a living mulch and shades the base of the plantings.

Three Sisters shown on the reverse of the Native American 2009 dollar coin.

In June of 2011, Cherokee White Eagle corn, Rattlesnake pole beans, and Seminole squash seeds donated by the National Museum of the American Indian were planted in the White House garden preceded by a special ceremony and blessing by Native Americans.

‘Three Sisters’ planting with beans growing up corn and squash shading the base

How – To

There is a great section on basic how-to knowledge to jump-start your own vegetable garden, from making compost up of ‘browns and greens’ to container gardening.  I thought the most important point was to grow what you like to eat. The importance of sunlight is stressed with the statement ‘sun equals success’ which is a factor that so many people forget. Americans have a long tradition of vegetable gardening and it is time to reconnect with that heritage. The book is a great starter for any newbie.

Wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, courtesy of Landreth Seeds, a seed company that sold seeds to every President from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Cooking Class

Thinking that kids are more willing to try healthy food choices if they are involved in growing their own food, Michelle Obama started the vegetable garden at the right time for America.  Many people are concerned with organic food choices, eating a better diet and buying locally. The Bancroft Elementary School not only plants and harvests the vegetables, but also prepares and tastes the food with the White House Chef. Lucky kids!

I tried two of the recipes –  the mac and cheese with cauliflower, and the white bean salad, and got thumbs up from my family. Go to http://www.npr.org/2012/06/12/154854113/first-lady-fights-obesity-with-moves-and-good-food?ft=1&f= to see more recipes that sound delicious.

First Year Lessons

I really was interested in Michelle Obama’s essay on lessons learned in the first season.  One problem was that they grew perfectly round cantaloupes that were totally tasteless!  I have had that problem also and stopped growing them.  Another situation was the blackberry bushes took up too much room for the few pieces of fruit harvested.  To combat this problem, I train them on a trellis. They also found that even with netting, birds ate every blueberry.  I chalk that up to the plants were immature and weren’t old enough to be loaded with berries so that the birds could eat their fill.

Freshly harvested blueberries from my garden

Cutworms became a problem in the White House garden and the gardeners combated that by enclosing new plants in bottomless paper cups, an old organic gardener trick.  Another lesson learned was to mulch with a thin layer of straw to keep the soil moist and the weeds down. These were pretty basic common situations that many gardeners face and the White House gardeners learned through experience. This book is an inspiration for people to start their own garden and the knowledge is very basic but helpful.

The garden has become a very popular tour for school kids and if you are a teacher you can tour the kitchen garden on a first-come, first-served basis by going to http://www.whitehouse.gov/ and fill out an application.  The tour is free which includes the garden only, not the house, and is held every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 AM, weather permitting.

Honey and Bees at the White House

Adjacent to the kitchen garden, is the first ever beehive at the White House that is tended by White House carpenter Charlie Brandts. This part was my favorite because it really showed how ignorant people are about honeybees.  Bees will only sting unless provoked and are more interested in finding nectar than bothering someone. In all the years that I have had hives at my house (10), I have never had anyone stung except for me! And that was trying to remove the honey!

The President initially was “less than enthusiastic” especially since the hive would be near the basketball court and he was concerned about the dog and the girls being stung. The hive was set up high to keep the entrance well above kids who visit the garden and the flight path was placed so it would be in the opposite direction of the basketball court. Also, the hive was strapped securely so that winds from the presidential helicopter wouldn’t tip it over during landings!

The beehive has over 70,000 bees and honey is harvested from the hives and used in the White House kitchen. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNaLV8KwTr8  and watch the video ‘The Secret Life of White House Bees’ for a fascinating account of setting up the hive and harvesting the honey.  To harvest the honey, Charlie Brandts smokes the bees to calm them and then blows the bees off the frames with a leaf blower!

One interesting story about the White House bees is that there was an apple tree on the South Lawn for 25 years that had never produced an apple.  Once the bees were installed, the apple tree produced baskets of delicious apples. That just proves how important bees are to pollination.

Blossoms, fruit, and foliage of an apple tree.

The honey is extracted right in the White House kitchen which really impressed me.  When I extract honey, every surface around gets sticky and covered with bees and I don’t do it in the kitchen! Just the one hive at the White House has produced 140 pounds the first year, 183 pounds the second, and 225 pounds the third – an impressive total! Honey is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, used in the White House kitchen, and given as gifts to dignitaries and heads of state. A pound of honey was used to brew the first White House honey ale! I wonder how it tasted?

Extracting honey

Michelle Obama is trend setting with her vegetable garden initiative and lots of families are taking note and starting their own vegetable garden. Even the Queen of England copied what our First Lady did and has started her own palace vegetable garden with school children. Now is the time to dust off those kitchen garden plans and start sowing!

Magical Mystery Tour – Ladew Topiary Gardens

Ladew Topiary Gardens

I feel fortunate that I live just 6 or 7 miles from one of the most innovative and beautiful public gardens in the United States, right here in Monkton, MD, called Ladew Topiary Gardens. I first saw these whimsical and  enchanting gardens about 25 years ago that were created by, Harvey S. Ladew, a traveler, fox-hunter, artist, and gardener extraordinaire, who lived from 1887-1976. Harvey, a bon-vivant, was born to wealth and loved to fox-hunt. Fox-hunting drew him to the Monkton area in mid-life and he bought 200+ acres of land with a decrepit house and a few lilac bushes and proceeded to transform the house and gardens into one of the foremost topiary gardens in the country.

Topiary hound

Garden Rooms – Architecture for the Outdoors

I was first introduced to the concept of ‘garden rooms’ when I went to see Ladew for the first time. Among the rooms which are devoted to a theme or color are the Rose Garden, the White and Yellow Garden, the Garden of Eden, the Sculpture Garden, the Iris Garden, the Victorian Garden, the Croquet Court, the Berry Garden, the Cutting Garden, the Portico Garden, the Cutting Garden, the Keyhole Garden, and the Water Lily Garden. Each ‘room’ is totally separate from the others with the use of hedging or shrub borders. It is almost like walking into an open air house with no ceilings but having distinct colors and design unique to that room. There are pathways connecting each room and you can’t see the next room until you actually enter it.

Topiary Magic – Sculpting in Yew

Ladew is a must-see for it’s sweeping gardening vistas, garden themed rooms,  as well as the jaw-dropping topiaries. The most famous of the topiaries is the life-sized hunt scene of horse and riders and hounds which is a unique and stunning topiary scene because it acutally implies movement of the hunt.

Horse jumping over fence

The Sculpture Garden features lyre birds, Churchill’s top hat, victory sign, a heart with an arrow through it, a butterfly alighting on a flower and sea horses and is imposing! I feel like an ant next to these towering sculptures.

Eighty percent of Ladew’s topiaries were made with hemlock, but once the wooly adelgid starting to attack them and suck the sap out of the hemlocks, they started to die.  Ladew’s board started a campaign in the nineties to replace the hemlocks with yews which aren’t susceptible to the pests. Other materials used in the topiaries are boxwood, euonymous, and holly.

Scultpure Garden

Harvey Ladew took the art of topiary to new heights with his creations.  Check out the giraffe, the Chinese Junk and the pagoda.

Pagoda at Ladew
Chinese junk at Ladew
Giraffe with gold Euonymous at Ladew

Garden Festival

I recently went to Ladew’s Garden Festival that has become an annual event for many area gardeners as it draws vendors from all over with unusual plants and garden statuary and knick-knacks. I always go with the intention of ‘not buying any more plants- I don’t need them!’ attitude but come home with armloads that I just couldn’t do without.

Interesting garden trug made with a branch and some lengths of wood

Someone had made some miniature gardens for sale which I love to make and was interested in their take on the subject.

Mini garden for sale

I saw a lot of succulents for sale as they are in vogue right now and was really interested in the use of succulents in window boxes. What a great idea for a sunny window box! I hate watering my window boxes and when it gets really hot, I sometimes neglect them and they wilt. But not these!

Succulent window box
Succulent window box

 Large Bird Houses or Dovecotes

Large Bird House at Ladew

I have always been intrigued by the use of the ginormous bird houses at Ladew. They are actually dovecotes and they are scattered all over Ladew and each one is unique. I liked the one surrounded by bee skeps.  The bee skeps are ornamental only.

Ladew dovecote

This dovecote was incredible when I visited surrounded by blooming bridal wreath spirea.

Ladew dovecote surrounded by spirea

Springtime at Ladew

In my opinion, there is no better time than spring to visit Ladew to see the bulbs, azaleas, rhododendrons, and wisteria in their full glory. The mansion is also very unique to tour but the gardens are so beautiful and stunning that I prefer to  stay outdoors and catch what is happening in the garden and see what is blooming on my visit.

Wisteria in full bloom at Ladew
Full-blown tulip at Ladew
Iris garden at Ladew
Garden gateway at Ladew

The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count

Lemon Queen Sunflowers in my backyard

The Great Bee Count

Within the past couple of years, you might have heard that bees are in trouble, growing scarcer, and suffering from a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. A variety of culprits have been fingered in causing this syndrome, including pesticide use, parasites, and diseases. To study bees, scientists decided that they needed a method to determine the numbers and spread of different pollinators. To accomplish this, a new survey was launched enlisting and empowering local citizens in reporting observations about bees in their own backyard or deck called The Great Bee Count.

Low temperature scanning electron micrograph (...
Low temperature scanning electron micrograph (LTSEM) of Varroa destructor on a honey bee host (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Citizen Science

The Great Bee Count, recruits citizens across the United States and Canada to plant sunflowers and observe bees visiting the flower in a 15 minute time period daily and record their findings on-line.  The first Great Bee Count took place about 4 years ago and countless volunteers recorded their findings to help scientists to check on the prevalence of our tiny pollinators in North America.

By creating a map of bee visits, scientists will be able to direct conservation efforts exactly where they are needed.

The data is called ‘trend data’ and showed that in some parts of the country the bees are doing very well, but in other parts like Florida where pesticide use is widespread, the bees are not nearly as numerous. I participated last year and counted at least a dozen bees on my sunflowers daily in my backyard in MD which shows that this part of the country is above average ‘bee friendly’!

Sonnenblume mit Bienen, Sunflower with bees
Sunflower with bees from Wikipedia

The typical observer saw 2.6 bees every 15 minutes on their sunflowers. Up to 20% of the volunteers observed no bees at all which is very disheartening. Sunflowers were chosen as the standardized plant because they are ‘bee magnets’ and are easy to grow in every state. ‘Lemon Queen’ is the preferred variety because some sunflowers have been developed that have no pollen, but ‘Lemon Queen’ has visible pollen. Even if the grower did not observe bees during the 15 minute interval, that information is valuable also in informing scientists. Keeping tabs on our bees has become an important tool in studying this essential aid to our food supply. Up to one-third of our food supply relies exclusively on bee pollination.

Abelha no girassol / Bee at sunflower
Bee at sunflower (Photo credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura)
Queen bee 1
Queen bee 1 (Photo credit: quisnovus)

Anyone in North America can participate in The Great Bee Count even if you just have a single container planted outside on a balcony or deck. To find out how to sign up, go to http://www.greatsunflower.org/, register, and plant your sunflower seeds so you can start counting this summer! This is a great project for an ordinary person to have help out the scientific community to study our local bee populations.

I would love to hear from people who are not in North America to see if there are any similar projects in their country.  Please let me know if you have heard of any.

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Miniature Gardens – Whimsical Creations

Mini garden

Trough Gardens 

I am a garden designer by trade and normally design gardens in full size, but also love to design gardens in miniature! There is something unique about creating a complete space in small scale that is so satisfying and fun!  I can have garden features that I have only dreamed about – like a bridge over a dry stream bed, mossy nooks and crannies, arbors, and birdhouses just like I was creating a larger space. Even a tiny gazing ball. But at a fraction of the cost! It seems like more nurseries are catering to this gardening  trend and it isn’t hard to find small scale plants and tchotchkes to add to the theme.

A Christmas themed miniature garden



I think the hardest part of creating mini gardens is finding the appropriate container.  A shallow wide open container is desirable but hard to find.  That is why I make a lot of my own with hypertufa. Use my recipe to make your own container at Hypertufa Party.

Try making your hypertufa in a basket mold. After the mixture sets, cut off the basket and peel it off the hypertufa. The basket weave leaves great indentations in the cement.If that is too much trouble, then use shallow tin containers or you can hammer one together out of strips of wood.  But occasionally I discover a perfect pottery container in my travels and grab it. Bonsai pots are excellent if you can find them.


A shallow boat shaped container found at a fabric store!


After choosing the perfect container, fill it up about 2/3 of the way with some good loose potting soil.  Notice that I recommend good potting soil.  An organic one with lots of peat is the best mix even though you might pay a few more bucks a bag.   Do not use garden soil which is way too heavy and which I bought by mistake.  Arrange your plants, usually 3 to 5 of them in a pleasing design. Use creeping ones, as well as taller ones like small grasses to give variety. Make sure you have room for a meandering pathway and small areas to place your accessories.

Fill shallow container with soil
Arrange your small plants with different textures and colors in the bowl.

Suggested Plants

Use naturally miniature plants that are in scale with a tiny garden.  I use ajugas, alternethera, small grasses, creeping thymes, sedums, sempervivums, mosses, silver falls, trailing rosemary, wire vine, mini liriope, and miniature alpines, like armeria. The plants will eventually outgrow your garden, so you need to refresh and edit the garden periodically. If my thyme or ajuga gets out of hand, I dig it up, separate and use the extras to make a new garden.

After planting your selections, I take moistened sheet moss and press it in between the plants to cover the soil. This covering gives you a base to place your stepping stones and other accessories. It also prevents the soil from coming loose and overflowing the container when you water.

Choose some round polished stones for a pathway
Create a pathway with stones

After creating a pathway, I like to scatter coarse aquarium gravel around the stones to give them definition. As a last flourish, scatter small bits of beach glass or ‘mermaid tears’ to make the path stand out.

Scattered coarse gravel
Crushed colored beach glass


Here is the fun part! I am always on the lookout on my travels for small pieces to use in my gardens and you can find them in the most unexpected places.  Christmas decorations are a surprising source. I find lots of miniature gardening tools and watering cans at Christmas as ornaments. Don’t worry that the piece will not be the exact scale for your garden  –  no one is measuring! Just make sure that you don’t clutter the garden up too much, so use only two or three minis. I love using miniature wheel barrows with a tiny terra cotta pot or a bird house on a stake. Small resin animals, twig arbors, fences, miniature benches or chairs add to the charm. These make a perfect gift for someone who is housebound and cannot go out to work or enjoy a garden.

Mini with accessories
Fake rock container
Planted rock container


Use a mister to water your garden every 4 to 5 days, and more if the container is in the sun.  Use small trimmers  to keep everything pruned to scale. As the plants grow, you will need to pot them out to another container and replace with a new miniature plant.  The gravel or crushed shells will need to be refreshed periodically.  I have been successful with keeping my gardens both indoors and outdoors.  Usually, I place my gardens in partial sun outdoors during the summer and bring them indoors for the winter, keeping it on a windowsill with bright light.

Planted garden with accessories
Planted garden
Planted garden

Innovative Garden Design of a Small Property

Retirement coummunity plantings with pathway

The Challenge

What do you do when you move from a large beautifully landscaped property that is overflowing with texture and color, to a retirement community that is populated with yews and swaths of mint? Oh, and did I mention overrun with deer?

That was the tall order that I as the landscape designer had to deal with. My client was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener so she wouldn’t be satisfied with ordinary plantings.  She wanted unique, colorful, and scaled down – but beautiful.   Also, she wanted a pathway to be able to walk around the entire property which was sloping, so that she could enjoy the plantings.

The unit was large but the limitation was we could only extend out from the walls six to eight feet around the perimeter! And the existing plantings were the usual suspects –  yews, hollies, runaway mint, and overgrown trees. Any plantings that were installed had to be small in stature in ultimate height and breadth, but also imposing enough to make a statement upon first installation. The drain pipe consisted of black corrugated above ground short lengths, that were visible and unsightly. Those were my challenges when I started to design a workable plan.

We started by tearing out most of the overgrown shrubs and trees and then we began the transformation.

The view out the back door with hollies blocking the sliding doors. I am painting the lines for the wall and pathway in white.
New wall with Green Velvet Boxwoods and Candytuft

Grading – The most important element

Because of the sloping site, a wall was required to level the grade around most of the unit. The finished height of the wall ultimately was only about 15 inches, but was mandatory so that my client could safely navigate the sloping terrain. With those features in mind, my stone mason came in and installed an 85 foot long dry stack wall of colonial bluestone around the unit until the grade leveled off towards the rear. The wall was needed so that we could install a 30 inch wide pathway winding pathway to circumnavigate the entire landscape.


The drains were replaced, extended, and buried, ending with a pop-up green cap.  The cap pops up when a downpour dumps rain and forces the top up to release the excess water. When installed, the only visible sign of the drain is the small green cap.

Drainage pop-up


A 30 inch wide pathway was dug out, edged with a very sturdy metal edging that had to be staked and hammered in.  No flimsy plastic edging would be adequate for the heavy-duty river jack that would be used for the pathway. Landscape cloth was pieced in on top of the soil so that the river jack would stay put and not be mixed into the underlying soil.  Soil pins fastened the cloth securely to the ground. Then the river jack was dumped in and raked about 2 inches thick.

Low wall surrounding the unit
Landscape cloth placed underneath the river rock with edging
Metal edging holding in the river rock


Outside of the sun room area, the client wanted a small sitting area to sit so that she could enjoy a nice summer day outside in the garden.  A small patio 8 feet x 8 feet was installed with irregular bluestone pieces in stone dust edged with cobblestones to give it definition.

Small bluestone patio edged with cobbles


The plantings were installed immediately next to the wall area bordered by the pathway and wall.  I had about 3 to 4 feet to plant things so each plant was carefully selected and placed. On a large south-facing wall that deer eaten yews had been removed earlier, we planted an espaliered magnolia flanked with fastigiate boxwoods, with an underplanting of apricot drift roses and Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’.  The Artemisia is a great little silver leaved creeping ground cover for hot and dry situations.

Mulching the espaliered Magnolia underplanted with ‘Silver Brocade’ Artemisia

The shady front was planted with ‘Girards Rainbow’ Leucothoe, Cephalotxus fastigiata, or upright plum yew, Japanese Forest grass Hakenochloa ‘Aurea’, Hosta ‘MouseEars’ and a Tassel Fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, a real mouth full! Smallish boulders were sited to give some contrast with the Leucothoe.  A small Acer ‘Butterflies was sited at the corner.

Shady front with boulders and plants
Acer ‘Butterflies’ underplanted with Pulmonaria and boulder

The rear was anchored with a tall 10 foot Cedrus deodor ‘Kashmir’, a very narrow upright variety. The tree was beautiful! I also included in the plan a miniature Crepe Myrtle ‘Cherry Dazzle’, a miniature Butterfly Bush ‘Blue Chip’, Nandina compactas, ‘Little Honey’ Oak Leaf Hydrangeas, ‘Centennial Spirit’ Hydrangea, and ‘Twist and Shout’ Hydrangea.  The perennials included ‘Eveline’ Salvia, one of the best Salvias on the market. Also, Anemone ‘Whirlwind’ , Heuchera ‘Dales Strain’, miniature Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’,  Geranium ‘Max Frei’, Ajuga ‘Caitlin’s Giant’, and Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’.

Eveline Salvia is a rebloomer reliable perennial that deer leave alone
Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’
‘Kashmir’ Cedrus flanked with a small ‘Green Velvet’ Boxwood

Along the wall in pockets, we planted Sedum ‘Angelina’ , and Sedum ‘Silver Stone to cascade.  Also, some creeping Phloxes were planted in the wall crevices to grow along with the Sedums.

Planting perennials after the shrubs and trees go in


After the plantings were installed, the next step was drip irrigation. The irrigation is laid down with brown rubber hoses along all the plantings so the water is applied precisely to each plant. It is all connected to the control box which we was located in a nearby utility shed for easy access.

Control box in nearby shed
Irrigation controls valves for three zones- This was enclosed in a unit that was buried level with the surrounding soil.

The property was divided into three distinct watering zones, a shady front, a hot south-facing area, and a partially shaded area in the rear.  Each zone could then be calibrated to deliver water to the plants that had different water requirements.

Drip irrigation hoses blend with the soil
Irrigation pipe moving the water line to the other end of the unit

Initially, we set the drip to go on twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.  This will be our base line and we will adjust as the conditions get hotter throughout the summer.

Icing on the Cake – Mulch

After the irrigation, the tan bark mulch was laid down to a depth of about 2 inches to cover up the brown irrigation pipes and to give it that finishing touch. Now the only thing left to do is to watch the irrigation and calibrate it to the correct times depending on the  water needs.

The entire job work time was only about 2 to 3 weeks in length.  The planning process was much longer, a couple of months to get everything drawn out and prepared. I will be posting pictures of the installation as the summer progresses with updates.

Retirement community collage
Retirement community collage

Transforming a Patio – An Outdoor Living Space That Looks Like Home

The Challenge

I was asked to decorate the bluestone patio space for the Baltimore Symphony’s Decorator Show House this spring. Normally I ‘decorate’ gardens, not patios, but I was up to the challenge!  The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chooses a house every year that is usually vacant and/or for sale, and invites interior and exterior decorators to design their own unique space. It is an honor to be asked and always a great deal of work! The houses that are picked are very different and have their own unique idiosyncrasies.

The 36th annual Show House is a fundraiser for the Baltimore Symphony Associates and gives decorators the chance to promote their businesses while helping out a great cause.

Information flyer for BSO Showhouse

Laying the Groundwork

I visited the Eck House at Cromwell Farm, in February, to look it over and see what the house and grounds looked like. As usual at that time of year, it was a dreary day and the surrounding fields were barren looking but I could see the possibilities.  The patio was a great size, 14′ x 22′, and in decent shape.  It was very dirty and needed to be power washed, but that is easily remedied. The view off the patio was wonderful! In the distance were fields dotted with large trees and a distant stream bed which I could see would be beautiful in the spring. So, the bones were good –  I just needed to dress it up! So, I looked around for sponsors to help me out with the larger items that I needed to make an impact.

My first look at the patio in February
Patio in February

Walpole Wood Accents


The first thing that I noticed was the very high stone wall facing the patio and I knew exactly what I wanted to put there –  a Cameo trellis from Walpole Woodworkers. I have worked with Walpole Woodworkers in the past on several installation jobs and admired their products.  I had purchased window boxes for my house from Walpole and loved them! So, I called my rep from Walpole, and asked if the company would be interested in providing some pieces to decorate the patio to promote their business. Walpole agreed to provide a trellis, a bird house, an obelisk and two estate planters which I knew would make the patio stand out.

The cameo trellis

Dressing it Up With Furniture


The next item of business was the furniture.  I have always admired Watson’s Fireplace and Patio Furniture in Timonium and after talking to the manager there, she agreed to provide some beautiful furniture. These included a comfy sofa, a glider with an ottoman, and three assorted tables to finish off the ensemble. The coffee table was a stunning mosaic creation that reminded me of crashing waves! The “wicker”  was a resin wicker in a dark pecan color with teal cushions that were designed for outdoor wear. I thought these pieces would be perfect to make the patio a welcoming space.

Furniture from Watson's

Icing on the Cake

The fun began with the accessories! Once I had the framework, I could place unique and funky pieces on the tables and patio.  Succulents are really big this year, so I knew that I wanted to do something with hens and chicks, jade plants, sedums, etc.

I decided to make a succulent sphere from an assortment of the fleshy leaved oddities that would be placed on the large mosaic table as the focal point.

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Succulent Sphere

I picked up a globe-shaped base of coco-fiber with a wire cage at a nearby nursery and filled it with moss.  After wiring it together, I poked holes in the base and inserted my succulent plants into the moss.  To make the job easier, I shaved off most of the soil and the roots from the succulent leaving just enough root to insert into the moss and start growing. To keep the plants firmly attached to the base, I inserted fern pins, U-shaped wire fasteners, into the plants down into the moss. These pins would keep the succulents in the ball until they rooted in and started to grow.  After getting all the succulent plants attached, I covered up the coco-fiber with moss to give it a more uniform look. To finish off the sphere, I elevated the globe by placing it in a terra-cotta pot.

Finished succulent sphere
Succulent Planter

I made a smaller matching succulent ball that I set on wire mesh in a rustic wooden bowl that I had picked up at a flea market.

Smaller succulent sphere in bowl on wire mesh

Herbs and Veggies

I don’t think any patio is complete without planters of herbs and vegetables. Earth Boxes are perfect planting containers for these, as they have a reservoir in the bottom that is filled via a water tube, and the plants wick up the water from the roots. It is a complete self-sustaining system for growing a good amount of edibles without digging in the garden. Go to  http://www.earthbox.com/View-All-Planters/products/54/?gclid=CIn7hp-I2q8CFcfb4AodMBpvBg.

Earth boxes with veggies and herbs

I also like the concept of cooking in the kitchen and running out to the patio to grab a handful of lettuce or herbs, rather than traveling out to a distant garden and having the greens at the mercy of bunnies!  So I potted up three of the Earth Boxes with an assortment of greens. Wanting to display them in a unique way, I found an idea on Pinterest. Someone had posted a simple three-tiered plant stand made out of stair risers from the hardware store.

Plant stand Idea from pinterest
My improved version of the stair step plant stand

The picture from Pinterest was a great starting concept.  I improved on it and made it much sturdier by making shelves out of strips of wood that gave it some support, because the shelf would be free-standing on the patio.


I wanted to add some fun items to accessorize the space and found some antique wrought iron plant stands locally. I filled these with containers and flowers.

Antique plant stand
Another plant stand with head planter

Long planters from Watson’s Garden Center http://watsonsgarden.com/  were planted with early spring colors of pastel pink, yellows and blues.  I added the Viola ‘Etain’ to my planters as this is a personal favorite early spring flower. http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/39557-product.html?

The estate planters were filled with a golden hued arborvitae surrounded with the Viola.

Viola Etain

Finally, I made up some miniature gardens to sell. The mini gardens were perfect to place on the steps leading down from the patio and on the stone walls surrounding it. Some were made of hypertufa which I explain how to make in http://thegardendiaries.blog/2012/03/15/hypertufa-making-mud-pies/

Mini Garden
Hypertufa planters on steps
Funky head planter

Go to http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/home-garden/newsletter/bs-hm-bso-showhouse-eck-pg,0,1822756.photogallery to see pictures from the whole house.  I think this year’s house is one of the best that I have participated in as the decorating ideas are very do-able. In past years, some of the treatments were over-the-top and just didn’t translate well to your own house.  But this year, the ideas that I took away are definitely going to show up at my house!

Finally done!

Bear Update in Vermont

Bear climbing up deck to get to beehive

Bears are on the rampage in Vermont! My brother-in-law had a recent bear incident where a black bear knocked over a hive in a nearby field. He came back for more, but much closer to the house. He obviously has no fear and looks like he is on a mission. Here are a few pictures of the bear in action.

Almost there.
The damage

The bees were very angry! But the hive was set back up and hopefully the queen wasn’t damaged.

Does anyone have any ideas on how to protect hives from bears?  What have you done that is successful?

Beehives and Bears: An Accident Waiting to Happen!

Me and brother-in-law in Vermont working his bees

I was introduced to beekeeping in Virginia while visiting my brother-in-law Bruce. He had several beehives and I wanted to try my hand at working the bees before I made the plunge on my own.  Since then, Bruce has moved to Vermont with his hives –  prime bear country. In Vermont, he set up a remote control camera surveying their property and the camera took this picture of a juvenile bear roaming around causing trouble last year. The bear clawed his way up to a two-story deck and knocked over the hives sitting there. There were claw marks on the post “bearing” this out.

Juvenile black bear caught on video camera

Well, that bear must have grown up and/or been kicked out by Mom to sink or swim on his own and come back for more mischief. Bruce’s neighborhood which is pretty rural recently had a rash of bear invasions in the last couple of weeks which included a garage being torn apart. So, I guess it was only a matter of time until the bears sniffed the hives out again! There is something about bears and honey that is irresistible.

Damage caused by bear in Vermont

As you can see, the bear/bears (?) tore right into the hive to get to the honey and larvae. This hive was set up in a nearby field, ripe for the picking.

I found this video on you tube which just goes to show you how impervious bears are to stinging bees. It is pretty amazing.

Could This Happen to Me?

Here in Maryland, there have been several bears spotted within 50 miles of here. Right now, I think the likelihood is slim but there are no guarantees.  I remember maybe 20 years ago, it was pretty unusual to see deer nearby.  Now they are just as common as squirrels.  I live in a suburban area and have a friend nearby who saw a mountain lion on her front porch!  So, I don’t believe that it is impossible that a bear will make a visit.

Turned upside down beehive

Costly Damage

Bears can cause considerable beehive damage, including the destruction of hives and frames to get at that finger lickin’ honey and larvae. I was surprised to find out from news articles that bear destruction is pretty common in northern states, and to the south in North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Massachusetts has been getting a rash of hive attacks from bears which I really didn’t think of as being rural enough for bears. But with our mild winter, bears are roaming, so check this out –  http://www.npr.org/2012/04/06/150079405/bears-stuffing-themselves-near-massachusetts-homes

Fortunately for Bruce, the hive the bears attacked was probably dead but had some honey stores that they could have used for the other hives.

An American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) at t...


Fish and Wildlife publications suggest putting your hives at least 50 yards from wooded cover.  And virtually everyone comes to the same conclusion – the only effective method for preventing costly destruction is an electric fence. As for Bruce, he has several hives on his deck that are producing and the one that was attacked will be salvaged and set up closer to the house and an electric fence may be in the works.

Hives strewn on the ground

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