For twenty years & counting, Louis has been growing & partnering with hundreds of uncommon & astonishing plants:
Every April, strange almost alien green eggs appear atop the gravel at the shady side of the driveway. When they open up into spheres of countless cream flowers here, they don't look much less alien. In fact, they look more like the compound insect-like eyes of some unknowable but intensely-observant Other than actual flowers.
Well, let 'em look.
Osage Orange in Winter
I seem unable to resist thorny, spiny, and prickly plants not in spite of those painful features, but because of them. Inch-long spines of osage orange are profuse as well as effective deterrents to casual contact with humans, let alone the nibbles of any and all browsers.
On this basis alone, the trees should be ideal for the unfenced portion of my garden. But this osage cultivar, Cannonball, has another irresistible talent: producing enormous fruits that are literally cannonball size. Why have just the normal grapefruit-sized ones?
The Higher-than-Ever Hedge of American Holly
All forms of holly rebound eagerly when pruned, which is one reason they can form such effective, attractive, durable hedges: They can be pruned a little or a lot, and respond by forming vigorous bushy new growth.
This eagerness is the reason holly is so quick and easy to train into a hedge. Long-term, it's also the reason that the hedge can be maintained at peak condition forever. The key is welcoming the new growth while, at the same time, being able to prune most of it away without a qualm.
The Best Season Ever: Snowden's Kniphofia
Flower spikes of red-hot pokers are typically crowded with flowers, and vivid in coloring. Flower spikes of Snowden's poker are strikingly airy, with an inch or so blossom to blossom.
Then, there's their soft shades of apricot and yellow. All in all, Snowden's poker is a graceful, eccentric essential. Here's how to grow it even where not hardy.
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.
Gold-needled Dawn Redwood
Conifers with gold foliage can be too much of a bright thing: Their often-rigid habit combines with their vivid, usually-evergreen foliage to ensure a year-round prominence that succeeds only if you've provided the center-stage spot they crave.
Gold-leaved dawn redwood, by contrast, brings grace, subtlety, seasonal variety, and unexpected flexibility to its performance. No wonder it's essential.
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.