For twenty years & counting, Louis has been growing & partnering with hundreds of uncommon & astonishing plants:
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."
Today in Key West: White Orchid Tree
Up North, trees with flowers so large that they are showy individually, even from a distance, are pretty much limited to magnolias. Not so in the tropics, where scores of arboreal species produce blooms as large as your hand.
Even amid such competition, the flowers of the white orchid tree are standouts. (True, it doesn't hurt to have an adorable Key West conch cottage as the backdrop.) Is this tree a possibility back North? Thinking creativity, yes.
Today in Key West: Thryallis Vine
My pair of potted thryallis shrubs guarantees that, each season from August into October, my hot-color garden in New England is graced by fireworky spikes of yellow and red flowers. This thryallis brings the same excitement to the street scene of Key West year-round—but it's a vine.
Vining thryallis: Who knew? The flower spikes are identical to those of the bushy form. Would the vine be a more effective, easy to handle, or exciting vehicle for them back North? Only one way to find out.
Today in Key West: Striped Dianella to the Horizon
My four pots of striped dianella make a rare statement up North. In the tropics—as here, fronting a municipal building in Key West—the plant is more often used as a hardworking groundcover.
This fifty-foot swathe is now hazy with spikes of minute white blossoms. Later in the season, they'll mature to colorful blue berries.
Today in Key West: African Tulip Tree
Hurricanes are normal for Key West, so stormworthy trees should be the rule. But there are just too many other tempting possibilities for this, the mildest climate in North America—especially those that wouldn't survive even in sometimes-chilly Miami. The platter-sized flower clusters of African tulip tree are staggeringly good, so the trees are planted here despite their brittle wood.
Above, what's left of my favorite: sprouts from the roots.
'Berrima Gold' Incense Cedar
Conifers with gold foliage aren't unusual. Indeed, some are horrifyingly popular. Even so, Berrima Gold incense cedar deserves a place in any garden where it's hardy. Indeed, I think of it as a category killer: Start with Berrima Gold and, maybe, finish right there.
The bright gold young foliage is just the first reason. Its coppery tones in winter, the tree's copper bark all year, and—perhaps most unusual of all—the near-white mature foliage make Berrima Gold indelibly exciting.
Pollarding the Chinese Tulip Trees
Three pollarded Chinese tulip trees front a block of ten-foot-high yew hedge. Chinese tulip trees? Leaves of this Asian tulip-tree cousin are gigantic—and burgundy when young. Pollarded? Cutting young stems back to their stubs stimulates regrowth that is particularly eager and colorful, while also keeping it at eye level.
Colorful? May to September, you'll see. Eager? These straight-up stems are last year's growth, and some of them are over seven feet long.
February Daphne Explores the Garden
So-called "February" daphne really is in bloom that month if you encounter it in Seattle or London. Here in New England, February is still too cold for the flowers themselves—but not for their green calyces.
In the strange way of these shrubs, my original February daphne thrived for years before dying for no apparent reason. But I still have the species in my garden: These are stems of one of the self-seeded volunteers.
Dwarf Sea Buckthorn
Ah, trough gardens in summer! Here's one that I've planted exclusively with plants that demand lean, dry soil. Think sand with a side of gravel. Prickly pear cactus was a natural, as were the creeping yellow-leaved sedum and (look closely) the broom at the left.
But what about the silver-leaved shrub at the center? It's the unique dwarf cultivar of sea buckthorn. The species is often a rangy monster, but this cultivar may never top two feet. Did I mention that it's hardy to Zone 3? That's Nome, Alaska.
Golden European Ash, Garden to Brushpile to Vase
With yolk-yellow bark and ebony-black bud scales, young stems of golden ash are stunning. Even more stems? An even better show. So I cut off the oldest stems to encourage plenty of new ones, and also to keep the tree as compact as a shrub. Then, everything is more-or-less at eye level.
A bigger-than-usual pruning meant a pile of older stems on the brushpile—with all their gorgeous younger stems still attached. Why leave that colorful show behind? In ten minutes, I harvested the youngsters as a hostess gift for a dinner party.
One of gardening's mysteries is why the deciduous barberries—Berberis thunbergii in particular—are omnipresent even where evergreen barberries are also hardy. This is Berberis replicata, so desirable and yet so rarely planted it doesn't even have a decent common name.
This shrub is hardy to coastal Maine, deer-proof, with quality foliage & fragrant flowers—and it doesn't seem to self-seed. Under any name, it's essential.
The Best Season Ever: Meyer Lemons in Fruit
Provided you take the place of insect pollinators, Meyer lemons eagerly produce their uniquely sweet fruits even when they spend much of their lives indoors.
Last January I was, paint brush in hand, gamely assisting with pollination of the blossoms of my pair of young trees. A year later, luscious fruits are dropping from heavy-laden branches. The crop is so precocious, so bountiful, that supportive staking seemed urgent lest the fecund branches snap. True, picking the fruit helps, too.
The Best Season Ever: Planetree Bark
In January, the garden enters its most somber season. No plant is in flower, and few even have leaves, let alone ones that are still green. And yet, for some woody plants that are leafless—deciduous, in other words—the dead of winter is a peak season. These are the shrubs and trees with interesting bark.
Like a plane tree. The bark of this one is typical, with large irregular patches that have flaked away to reveal deeper layers of contrasting shades.
Good Together: 'Dragon Lady' Crossvine and 'Gold Cone' Juniper
Crossvine comes with its own suspense this far north. It can take years of attention and protection to establish a plant, and unflinching determination to try yet again after it dies. But if you can bring the vine across a threshold of age or size or volume, then the mission suddenly changes to control.
This one of my trials of the supposedly-hardier Dragon Lady cultivar seems to have launched—and with gusto. A protected location may have been less important than pairing with the dense, snug muffler of a Gold Cone juniper. The ultimate victory will be sheets of fiery bloom come spring; but as winter descends, sheets of nearly evergreen foliage are almost as good.
Good Together: Allée of 'Limelight' Tree Hydrangeas
Creating structural garden components of living plants, not hardscape, requires boundless optimism, diligence, and patience: The constituent plants of a hedge, arch, pergola, allée, or backdrop screen aren't available full-size, and will assume their mature forms only after years or, even, decades. And all the while, only by dint of partnership with their human stewards.
Someday, this allée of tree hydrangeas will canopy the central walkway. Right now, I'm grateful, simply, that their heads of dried-in-place flowers are high enough to be visible. Give me five or ten years, and all the "hortitecture" composing this view will be finally, and fully, formed.
The Curtain of Weeping Bald Cypress
Any plant in a starring location must command it—and with style. On both counts, this young, weeping form of bald cypress, Cascade Falls, has a bright future.
Unusual for a star, it also has a prosaic function: curtaining off an extension of one of the garden's cross-axes that (long story) must cut through a giant brush pile before resuming its cartesian course.
Foxtail Lilies, Below Ground & Above
One of the counter-intuitive delights of plants—so much of whose growth is, necessarily, above-ground—is that what’s below ground is sometimes startlingly visual. Roots of yellow root are—you guessed it—yellow. Chrome yellow. Feeder roots of lotus form a starburst of white filaments, each with a pink tip.
But here's the rub: Such shows are on display only when the plants are bare-root. Keep that lotus out of water for more than minutes, and it will begin to wilt. For the day? It could die outright.
Happily, some plants are marketed as dormant tubers, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs that tolerate being out of the ground and fully visible for weeks or even months. And a few of those normally-hidden structures are stunners.
Durably Deciduous: 'Winter Beauty' Honeysuckle
Winter Beauty honeysuckle is one of my garden's most hardworking shrubs: fragrant flowers in late winter, purple bark on the new stems in summer, colorful bark on the older stems all winter and, perhaps closest to my heart, the ability to be trained into espaliers as well as standards and coppices.
Here's yet another talent: The foliage doesn't check out when fall frosts begin.
Castor Aralia, More Spiky than Ever
Six years ago, my castor aralia had just three stems. Now there are a dozen or so. They'll remain leafless until new foliage emerges in spring, so their freakish thorniness is in full reveal.
For me, even one viciously thorny branch that is naked from November through April is one kind of heaven. More please!
Viburnums lack the colorful flowers of rhododendrons and roses but, especially in climate zone 6 and colder, are far more useful. But being thought of as merely functional would be to damn them with faint praise.
Thankfully, it's possible to look beyond those other shrubs' flowers. Actually, it's a relief to do so: it frees you to appreciate the rest of the world of shrubbery on its own terms.
Such as viburnums. Below, a so-called leatherleaf viburnum.
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Wingnut Cascade
Wingnut puts on a show year-round: stripe-barked stems in winter, spikes of white flowers in summer and, summer into winter, these clusters of papery-winged seeds—the "nuts," if you will.
One quirk among many with this plant is that, while the spikes of white flowers are upright, even vertical, by the time the winged seeds that follow have matured, the spikes will have plunged downward. Ah, for a stop-action camera to capture this arc of fruitfulness.