A Comprehensive Perennial Book–But Not For Beginners!

Essential Perennials COVER

Perhaps I had read too much or heard too much about this book to be an objective reviewer. That sort of thing happens. But two things made me less inclined to like this book than I might otherwise be inclined to do.

The first was the Introduction. Not two sentences in, the authors are talking about how the selections of perennials “can and should have long-lasting repercussions.”

This just struck me as totally overblown, ridiculous and even pompous. It’s totally contradictory to what gardening is all about! We’re talking, for the most part, about $10-$15 plants, for Pete’s sake! Play with them! Experiment! Move them around to your heart’s content (as I expect most of us do). Long lasting repercussions? We’re not marrying the plants; we’re planting a perennial garden! If something doesn’t work out, we can dig it up, move it around or give it away!

Some of my best garden designs have been happy accidents–and I know this is true for many gardeners. There are no “long-lasting repercussions” in my garden that I can think of!

The second thing that made me less than happy were the photographs–which are lovely. Obviously there can’t be photographs of 2,700 perennials or no one would be able to lift the book!  But it did seem to me that a single photograph of each perennial discussed–and then a list of 4-8 cultivars beneath the perennial–isn’t doing anyone any good.

This is why this book is useless-in my humble opinion–to beginners. They aren’t going to know a cultivar from a genus. Heck, I still get the question (regularly, I might add) “Annuals are the ones that come back every year, right?”

So  beginners should stay away from this book like it’s the plague.

I can tell you that I did use the book myself this summer when I was selecting varieties of perennials to put in my wildlife garden. I tried to find some of the varieties that the authors chose as some of the best when I was picking some native plants. One in particular, an agastache, worked out beautifully even in my dreadfully dry summer. It’s not fair to evaluate the others under such harsh conditions.

But to ask novice gardeners to try to use this book is asking too much–particularly when its authors tell them they are making nearly irrevocable choices by planting a perennial garden. At least the authors have the good sense to refer them to garden centers and cooperative extension service agents when they have inevitable questions!




Wordless Wednesday–The Tomato is Always Redder….

Big Beef tomato plant

This is my neighbor’s Big Beef tomato plant. It’s one of a couple I’ve started for him and given to him.

A few weeks ago, I was out to dinner with the Spoiler and he said wistfully, “Oh, you should see our neighbor’s tomato plants. He’s got this one nice round red tomato. Every time I’m over there with Amie [the dog] I’m so tempted to reach out and pick it….”

I literally started sputtering. This is what we had at home on our counters from our own plants.


They were literally developing bad spots because we couldn’t eat them fast enough–and he’s coveting our neighbor’s tomatoes?!

When I pointed this out to him, his response was, “I don’t eat them like apples. You have to serve them up to me.”

It’s a good thing we weren’t home. I might have “served them up” in a way that just might have wasted all my efforts in growing them–and caused me more work in cleaning the house!

The Great House Plant Migration

Empty window 1

Last weekend the house plants came in. This was really was too late for me to be doing a chore like this but a few things contributed to the timing.

First, I had to go out of town the weekend prior for a memorial service and I knew that the Spoiler would be better equipped to deal with anything that needed to be watered if he could blast it with a hose.

Empty window 2

Next, the weather has been so unseasonably warm that there was no sense of urgency. Despite the fact that our traditional “first frost” date should be next week, we’re no where near that.  We’re closer to still needing to run the air conditioner than we are in any danger of frost.

So despite the fact that I usually recommend when I lecture on house plants that they should come in right around Labor Day (it helps the plants better acclimate to indoor conditions) I didn’t take my own advice this year. I’ll be paying for that with far too many dropping leaves over the next few weeks. I’ll be wishing the Spoiler could bring his leaf blower indoors!

Full window 1

And as much as I treasure my plants–my “props” for my many house plant lectures–I also like having relatively uncluttered windowsills. My windows have gone from accessible to impenetrable–at least until the great spring house plant migration. And the dog has lost one of her great “squirrel hunting” perches.

Full window 2

Oh well. Without these plants, I don’t think I could survive winter.

Fall Blooming Begonias

perennial begonia

So many people lament that the only way to get late season color in the garden is to plant mums. Of course that’s not true. As I showed on Monday (and the prior Monday) asters are a great native plant choice that are far more reliably perennial than mums, at least in northern climates.

And fall blooming bulbs are another great and totally unexpected choice that, while they may not help wildlife, will give great color and be fairly critter proof as well.

This is another great, late-blooming perennial. If you think it looks like a begonia, you’re absolutely correct. It is a begonia.

This is begonia grandis and I happen to have the white form (there’s also a more traditional pink form) so this variety is called alba.

I’ve read all sorts of things about hardiness–everything from 5a to 6 on the low-end to 7 up to 9 on the high-end. It just goes to show that plants can’t read!

I did lose a portion of my main clump last year but I suspect that had more to do with my dry summer than any cold winter. I lost a lot of things that should have been perfectly hardy for me. I don’t coddle my plants with moisture. I try to be thrifty with water. Sometimes that backfires.

Fortunately  these plants readily self-sow. I simply took some seedlings and re-planted. So I–and the bees–are happy once again.

Wordless Wednesday–the Old “Foggy Morning” Weather Lore

Foggy Morning

It’s a little too early to be looking for squirrels’ nests to try to figure out what the winter might be like (besides, after last winter’s disappointing prediction, it’s just a miracle we have any squirrels left! I would have thought they would have all frozen to death for having gotten it so wrong!)

So this year I’ll try the old “for every foggy morning in August and September there will be a snowstorm” routine.

Last year, I didn’t even want to think about that. I lost count of the foggy mornings!

This year there have only been a handful which is going against most of the dire predictions of a terrible winter for the northeast. We’ll see if this little bit of “weather lore” holds up!

By the way, notice the nice green grass in this photo? It’s that same lawn that my neighbor was killing off at Labor Day. Now he’s putting in a new driveway. It’s always something.

Fall Myths About Leaves

I was reading another blog the other day (I won’t post a link to it because my purpose it not to embarrass other people) and I came upon this piece of gardening “advice” about fall leaves: it went something like “don’t leave “thick” layers of leaves in the garden because you’ll kill things.”

To a very limited extent, that’s true. You don’t want to leave a thick layer of leaves on your lawn for fear of smothering your grass.

But when was the last time you saw anything in nature “killed” but a thick layer of leaves? Who’s out there in the woods chopping up the leaves, making sure that the layers don’t get too “thick” so that the understory plants don’t get killed?

To be sure, if you have a heavy layer of leaves in the garden, and you have heavy wet clay soil (like mine) and you don’t do something about that in the early spring (like get them off the crowns of the emerging perennials) you might invite disease.

But on the pathways or other “fallow” areas, they’re just fine. They won’t harm a thing. They can over-winter on your plants without a problem. I used to use them to mulch my roses (when I still had roses that were so much trouble that I needed to mulch them. I no longer have such fussy things anymore!). In that case, I would pile leaves up to a foot deep around the roses. Needless to say, I wasn’t “killing” anything.

How long have I been doing this? At least 20 years or so. But you don’t need to take it from me. Take a walk in the woods after all the leaves have fallen. You’ll see what I mean.


New York Aster

These tiny purple flowers (purple, of course, for the butterflies and the bees) almost hiding among my chives foliage are the flowers of the New York aster.

Asters are great late season color for the garden. But they serve an even more important role. They provide nectar for bees and butterflies, some of which may be taking off for long migration journeys.

Although it’s not readily apparent, asters have that ray flower structure that native creatures like so much. In this photo, you can actually see the earlier stages of the flower (with yellow center) and the later stages (with brown center).  Try to ignore the parched earth and the dead maple leaves in the photo–they’re just examples of how long it’s been without rain.

I planted these two plants in July. I should be watering them more than I am. Asters have very deep tap roots and are great for piercing clay soil. But make sure you get them where you want them because once they’re there, they’re almost impossible to remove. More about that in a moment.

white wood aster

This is the white wood aster. It comes up wild all over my property. This is the tiny aster I spotted among the ragweed that I mentioned in Wednesday’s post (on someone else’s property). Bees love it.

I actually have significantly less of this aster this year than I have had in many prior years. I’m not sure if that’s because I have been fairly ruthless about deadheading–because there’s no digging these out unless they are tiny seedlings. I’ve cut them off and all that does is make them flower at lower heights.

It’s not that I don’t adore them–I do (as do the bees). But over the years I have been lax about letting them sow just about everywhere. Now I need to get them out of certain places and that’s darn near impossible. The root system, I have read, will extend as deep as 16 inches into the soil. And in a dry, baked earth year like the last 2, I’d need to dynamite them out. And who needs that disruption in the garden? Particularly over such a pretty wildflower?

So I just cut them down where I don’t want them. And even in this scorched earth dry year, they come up where I leave them alone, and bloom along the edge of our woodlands, sparkling like tiny stars against all the green.

It’s a lovely effect–and great for bees too!