For twenty years & counting, Louis has been growing & partnering with hundreds of uncommon & astonishing plants:
Gold-Needled Umbrella Pine
No garden where umbrella pine is hardy should be without one. The conifer’s unique quill-like needles, and their striking array at the tips of bare stems—looking like the spokes of an umbrella—are a tactical & visual thrill.
The brightly-hued needles of Gold Star ramp up this species' desirability even more. Other forms are dwarf, or columnar, variegated, or green. On second thought, every garden needs multiple umbrella pines.
The Best Season Ever: Lablab
It's the rare vegetable that's showy enough for the garden at large. What others are there besides fancy-leaved kale, cardoons, Jerusalum artichokes, and artisanal grains such as broom corn and amaranth?
Lablab! This astonishing bean is grown world-wide as animal fodder, as well as for human consumption of its flowers, foliage, roots, and pods. It's also grown world-wide as a garden ornamental.
Bamboo Foliage: the Alpha & Omega
Leaves of big-leaved bamboo are the largest: up to two feet long. Despite their tropical size, its hardy to coastal Maine.
Among the smallest leaves of any bamboo are those of Mexican weeping bamboo. The day it was headed to the greenhouse for the winter, I had set my young containered specimen in front of my colony of big-leaved. Could the contrast be more striking? Of whatever hardiness or character, several forms of bamboo are essential in my garden—in any garden.
The Best Season Ever: 'Rubyglow' Passionvine in Bloom
The hardy passion vine has been in flower for months, and is just completing its floral show for the year. The floral season of this giant tender form, Ruby Glow, is just beginning.
Summer's leafy growth was the definition of exuberance: Next year, I'll supply a tower twenty feet high, not "just" fourteen. These massive, colorful flowers are even more exciting.
The Best Season Ever: The Pollarded Planetree
When I pollarded this young Suttner's plane tree in January, the results were predicably shocking: a complete decapitation. True, what remained was a trunk with extraordinary bark—but without a single branch.
That was then. By September, new stems up to six feet long had sprouted. Plane trees of all sorts are classic subjects for pollarding, in part, because they respond with almost defiant glee when pruned.
Good Together: 'Ghost' Weigela & 'Gibralter' Bush Clover
Late-summer spectacle can be easy with annuals and tropicals, which can continue at full tilt as long as the warmth lasts. Late summer spectacle with hardy plants is the exception not the norm—and, so, is all the more exciting.
August into September, the feathery, pendulous stems of Gibralter bush clover fairly drip with countless rosy-pink flowers. When branches of Ghost weigela are near, feathers of bush clover can merely drape them; if the weigela were any closer, it would be swamped outright. In gardens as in life, the goal is sociability that's intimate without being smothering. Here, Gibralter and Ghost have achieved companiable bliss.
The Best Season Ever: The Mature 'Red Flyer' Hibiscus
As the intense heat of late summer burns on, there's evermore triumph in plants that, one way or another, think that such weather is just dandy. Red Flyer hibiscus is one of the more bodacious of the possibilities.
Despite the name, the immense flowers are deep pink; they are shameless in their revelry in summer's steamiest weeks.
Good Together: Curly-leaved Willow & Golden Scots Elm
Change comes to gardens whether or not it was your idea. This past June, I pollarded the golden Scots elm in exasperation that it had still not flowered despite my having let it mature for three years. Two years ago, I planted a tiny curly-leaved willow nearby, replacing the mature pollard of it elsewhere that had, unaccountably, died.
Three months of regrowth from the elm, and this third season of growth from the willow and—huzzah!—their new duet, born of mystery as well as intention, is already beautiful.
The Bestest Season Ever: Variegated Five-Leaf Aralia
One of the delicious surprises of gardening is that a shrub that looks as delicate as this one is, actually, so flexible and accommodating it could be made of cast iron.
Variegated five-leaf aralia looks like a fluffy bubblehead, but it's a multi-talented workhorse.
The Best Season Ever: The Mature Contorted Beech
Time flies when a garden is a celebration. This was a dinner party for the editor & crew of Design New England Magazine—in 2008. To the right of the giant galvanized tripod is some generic bulky leafiness: a contorted beech planted as a youngster in 1999, and extremely happy ever since. That evening in 2008, its tippy-top leaves were already as high as the roofline of the house.
It's now ten years since this party—and nearly twenty since the beech was planted: high time to check how the tree has grown.
The Best Season Ever: Variegated Winter Jasmine
All hardy jasmines should be of great interest, simply because there are so few of them. Winter jasmine is the hardiest but also the most challenging, in that its extraordinary vigor can make it a thug. By comparison, this variegated form is a pussycat.
This stem tip from my old colony shows the puzzle of the "variegated" name: The newest leaves are all-green, while the oldest are pure white-yellow. Only the "medium mature" leaves are literally variegated. What's the story?
The Best Season Ever: Mature Standards of Bald Cypress
Hardy, durable, stylish standards are always welcome, especially where typical mild-climate standards of bay and myrtle aren't hardy.
About eight years ago, I commissioned a pair of large-scale standards formed by grafting a dwarf cultivar of bald cypress atop four-foot trunks of the straight speces. Now, here they are, each a triumph eight feet high.
Two-lobed False Hydrangea
These translucent flowers are ravishing in their own right, but the one of the left should merit a double-take: It's a sterile flower—no pistils or stamens at all—and looks like it belongs on a hydrangea. But hydrangeas are shrubs or vines, and this one is borne by a perennial.
Welcome to this hydrangea cousin, an Asian perennial with a greek genus name of Deinanthe: deinos meaning wondrous, and anthe in reference to the flowers. Wondrous, indeed.
The Best Season Ever: The Mature 'Vermont Gold' Norway Spruce
Fifteen years ago, this dwarf spruce was the size of a mango—and its needles weren't very golden. Seven years ago, it was the size of a baby watermelon—and its needles still weren't very bright. Welcoming it to the garden was an act of faith. True, planting any plant is an act of faith.
Seeing it now, why did I ever worry?
The Best Season Ever: Fastigiate Gold Yews
In a month when flowers are effortless and, even, omnipresent, I'm ducking floral OD by celebrating another June marvel: young foliage of fastigiate gold yews. Paradoxically, the year-round gold of popular bright cultivars of other conifers—arborvitae, cedars, junipers, spruces, and especially Hinoki cypresses—is so easy that it only dulls their appeal. Worse, the norm is for conifers in general to be constant in their presence: green—or whatever—24/7, 365 a year.
Conifers with ephemeral shows are the exceptions and, so, are all the more interesting. Eyecatching cones from fall into winter? Foliage that turns color when its cold—or, even, is shed entirely? Hooray for such colorful eccentrics. June is the month for conifers with flashy new growth. Today, columnar gold yews.
Pollarding the Golden Scots Elm
As usual, the foliar display of the golden Scots elm is so vigorous, so bright, that to call it exuberant or, even, eyepopping seems like understatement. This tree provides the most reliable season-long display of colorful foliage of any woody plant hardy colder than Zone 7.
But even after several years of growth since the last pollarding, the branches were still not mature enough to flower well. If I were to wait yet another year before pollarding again, the branches might be almost twenty feet long—and would then be dangerously uncontrollable as they fell to the ground during the pollarding. But without pollarding, this still-compact tree would transform into a free-range monster that would completely overwhelm its compact garden. Flowering or not, pollarding can't wait another season.
'Tokyo Tower' Fringetree
I had delayed welcoming fringetree to my garden because the straight species is often a wide ornamental tree, not a shrub. But this Tokyo Tower cultivar is a godsend for any garden already dense with beauties: It’s a slender column in adolescence, and may never grow wider than four to six feet.
Even I have room for a pair, flanking one of the garden’s crosswalks. Without concern over too-big maturity, I can concentrate on the tree's pristine, profuse spring flowers and, in time, striking upright habit.
The Best Season Ever: White-flowered Enkianthus in Bloom
Seven years ago, I introduced white-flowered enkianthus via this particular specimen—but in late October, when its burgundy fall foliage was the show. Spring is the time to celebrate this species' namesake thrill: white flowers.
Here in New England, they are one of early May's many elegant flourishes: showy but not shameless, and striking in their pale absence of color. None of the ruddy pink typical of the far-more-familiar "red"-veined enkianthus here.
The Best Spring Ever: Gold-leaved Chinese Stachyurus, in Full Foliage
Gardening is all too much about failures: the plants that die, that disappoint, that invade, that flop—or, in a damningly existential tragedy, even at their best prove not to be worth the space, time, and effort.
What saves this gardener's soul is the plants that surprise, that persist, that obey, that behave—or, in a thrillingly existential triumph, prove to be worth all possible space, time, and effort even when success is only partial.
The former are—or should be—unavoidable. If you're not killing at least some of your plants regularly, you're experiments aren't big enough. Ouch. I keep sane by maximizing the latter: In the face of all the failures, I seek out victories of any size or degree.
The Best Season Ever: Hardy Orange Topiary in Bloom
Here in New England, any citrus that is hardy decade by decade is a head-spinner, a miracle. Beyond the thrill of such ongoing vivacity, there are seasonal star turns such as fall foliage, orange fall fruits, and—if the tree is trained as topiary—shapely habit in winter and early spring. Plus the spring flowers: pure white sparkles, like a freak late snow.
Topiary needs close pruning, which precludes most of the flowers. The highest ball is still so young and small, though, that I'm letting it grow free-range to bulk up more quickly. Free-range, it also flowers, well, freely—and in striking contrast to the balls below. Is this hybrid training strategy—free up top, pruned below—how this topiary of hardy orange can have its floral cake and eat it, too?
Despite historically severe winter temperatures, one of the rarest broadleaved evergreens in the garden is thriving. Although native only to mild-winter reaches of southeast North America, devilwood is hardy to Maine. Not just the woody stems, either: the shiny, smooth foliage also.
My five-foot youngster was unscathed by below-zero temperatures, and unbroken by blizzards. Hooray! One of these springs, it will begin flowering, too.
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Big-leaved Bamboo
After a winter that brought the coldest temperature in thirty years, it's no surprise that the foliage of big-leaved bamboo has long turned completely tawny. I.e., it's dead. Spring is the trough of the annual cycle of bamboos, when such dead leaves are still being shed reluctantly, and new canes and foliage have yet to emerge.
Although canes can produce new foliage, it's cleanest to give the colony a fresh start by cutting old canes to the ground. But by summer, is the result better?
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Fuzzy Cow Parsnip
"Spring" is a taunting name for a season when so many plants are anything but eager to greet days that are often only grudgingly warm. "Cautious," "Creep," or "Crawl" would be more accurate. Bulbs and some early-season woodies really do "spring" into action at the merest hint of winter's end. Most perennials, though, bide their time.
But, then, there are the cow parnips. Their foliage is gigantic by June, so must get the earliest possible start, overnight freezes of early spring be damned. The rewards for being quick-out-of-the-gate more than offset the dangers.
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: China Fir Rededicated
For years, I have been treating my China fir as a low-lying second banana to an espaliered gold Deodar cedar. But last week, I encountered this China fir far north of my garden: in Providence, Rhode Isand. It is thriving so bodaciously it's blocking windows of a "painted lady" Victorian house.
China fir is only borderline hardy even in my garden thirty miles farther south. But this free-range specimen is lusty and even out of control, and yet it's significantly farther north. How could I not welcome mine into the upper reaches of the cozy espalier it shares with the Deodar cedar?
Elegant New Foliage of Tellmann's Honeysuckle
Nearly seven year ago, I introduced Tellmann's honeysuckle via its June calling card: large sprays of mango-orange flowers. Yum! But in still-chilly April, the promise of such luscious beauty is cold comfort. No problem: Tellmann's sophisticated young foliage—plum and burgundy netted with green—is a worthy beckon out into the bracing weather.
Indeed, foliage of the honeysuckles that flower in warm weather tends toward an early as well as colorful debut. It's worth it to check them out.
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Woronow's Snowdrop
Snowdrops are at once surprising and routine: They appear suddenly, and so early in the new year that any sign of new life is a surprise. And yet, once you have snowdrops happily in your garden, there's no surprise that they will in fact return.
This snowdrop added third, fourth, and fifth surprises: I planted it twice—and plentifully—over several years, but never saw anything the following springs. Fine, and on to other things. But this spring was its siren song to emerge after years of below-ground contemplation. Plus, there's the all-green foliage that, for a snowdrop, really is a surprise. Snowdrops: so tiny, so interesting.
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Coat-racking the Korean Pines
Plant anything fifteen years ago, and it should be a lot bigger by now. Compact and upright though they are, these two Silveray korean pines flanking the grassy alley are finally too broad as well as tall. What's needed is more than snapping off much of the soft new growth, the "candles," each May.
Instead, it's time for "coat-racking"—cutting all the branches back as far as possible, leaving only crude, projecting stubs: the hang-your-hat-on hooks of the "rack." Take a deep breath, pick up the pruners and loppers, then begin.
Today in Key West: 'White Ghost' Euphorbia Revisited
Two years ago, I introduced this White Ghost euphorbia, which was thriving in the delightful Martello Tower garden in Key West. In the tropics, plants grow so quickly that two years there is like a decade or two in New England. Mindful of the devastating hurricanes since, I was anxious that this singular succulent might have been crushed or, simply, swept away.
But no. Here it is, in the pink literally. But pink? Two years ago, all its young growth was tan. As Alice remarked in Wonderland, "Curiouser and curiouser."