Plants & Gardening
I have a passion for plants.
When I peruse my bookshelf, I often gravitate toward the same old cluster of gardening books. They’re by the most prominent British horticulturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The designers who built the most spectacular estates in England. They experimented with the concepts of outdoor rooms, mixed borders, and designing with focal points or natural features. While classic European gardens featured the formality of hedges and geometric patterns, these British visionaries broke away from that formality. They created a new, inventive, naturalistic art.
The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll
Gertrude Jekyll was the original garden designer. Born in 1843, she was a student of Arts and Crafts artist William Morris. Influenced by the integration of various crafts and art (tapestry, painting, woodwork, etc.), Jekyll became one of the first gardeners to consider color palette, sculpture, architecture and natural cues in her designs. She created the garden of her home Munstead Wood as well as many commissioned designs. She also published books and articles. But really she is most remembered for seeing gardening as an artistic endeavor. This book discusses her philosophy of practicality while laying out her vision in illustrations of design plans and photos. I love this book.
Gardening at Sissinghurst
Perhaps, the most famous English garden is at Sissinghurst Castle. Vita Sackville-West bought a ramshackle estate owned by her ancestors and renovated it in the 1930s. She established a sweeping, multi-faceted property. She and her husband Harold Nicolson installed a lake, a tower, countless “rooms,” and borders. Each room focused on one theme or element.
For example, can you imagine planting a giant border layered only with purple, blue, violet, and indigo plants? They did. This book outlines the history of Sissinghurst and its spaces. There’s the Cottage Garden, The Nuttery, The Lime Walk, the Herb Garden, and on and on. But it not only talks about the ideas behind these spaces but the plants currently in it, with illustrated plans. This book is “Downtown Abbey” meets gardening. Dreamy.
Rosemary Verey created the gardens at her home, Barnsley House, in the 1950s, which won awards for her expertise in plant combinations and year-round structure and color. In Good Planting, Verey advises on how to use texture and shape to create lovely spaces whose personality changes throughout the seasons in pleasing ways. I learned a lot about mixing deciduous and evergreen plants together from this book, a ton about color. There’s a great discussion of layering and contrast too. This is a wonderful practical guide by one of England’s 20th Century treasures.
Beth Chatto’s Green Tapestry
Beth Chatto may be my personal favorite. I think so much of her. She teaches readers about the nitty gritty of gardening. How to figure out your soil conditions. What to plant in a damp area. How to space plants. She’s maybe most famously known for the concept of “right plant, right place.” The concept says if you learn a plant’s natural habitat, then recreate those conditions in your garden, the plant will thrive. It won’t suffer disease or weak growth. This approach was an outgrowth of her property being located in a drier area of England. That challenged her to grow plants in Mediterranean conditions as well as shady groves and wet areas. Still alive in her 90s, Beth Chatto is a gift to the United Kingdom and the world. My dream is to visit the Beth Chatto Gardens.
Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure
The home and property of Great Dixter had been purchased by Nathaniel Lloyd in the early 1900s. But it was his son Christopher Lloyd who turned the estate into a gardening showcase in the mid-20th Century. He and gardener Fergus Garrett wrote this book in the early 2000s. It focused on how to create a garden that had year-round interest. They discuss in detail which plants to plant for a spring rise in excitement, then a summer spectacular display, and a blast of fall interest. They also discuss plants that offer ongoing color and how to plan for blank spaces. Hint: seasonal annuals regularly fill in for pops of personality. It’s a great guide as Lloyd says, “to keep the show going” in your garden.
Hellebores are excellent shade perennials for almost any garden. They have pretty glossy leaves and never overgrow their area or get in the way. Plus, they’re evergreen. And when there are slim pickings in late winter for foliage and color, hellebores reliably bloom in February, March, and April. How cool is that?
The most common types are Helleborus orientalis, helleborus niger, Helleborus x hybridus. They like shade and are hardy to Zone 5. Unlike some other perennials, hellebores don’t flop or trail or put on uneven new growth. They just expand in a loose mound, getting slightly wider and not much taller each year. While hostas and brunneras are also attractive for their foliage, hellebores can’t be beat for graceful structure, evergreen foliage, and long-lasting flowers.
Here are some fun facts you may not know about hellebores.
Lenten Roses That Aren’t Roses
- The colored “petals,” are actually sepals, little protective wrappers for the flowers inside.
- They’re easy to transplant. If you don’t like where yours is, you can easily lift the clump out of the ground and move it.
- Flowers can last up to three months. Have you experienced this? If you own a hellebore, you probably have.
- They’re poisonous so deer and other critters will avoid them.
- Your impulse to cut away the blighted or brown stalks as new growth emerges is the right way to trim them.
- The highest concentration of hellebores occurs in Bulgaria and the Balkan countries.
- Their flowers will never look up at you. They nod down. Like fuchsias, they’re stubborn like that. Still worth it.
- They bloom during Lent, hence the common name of Lenten Rose.
If you’re new to growing hellebores, I suggest trying any of the Helleborus orientalis hybrids. They’re kind of common but they’re tough and virtually care free (outside of annual, late winter trimming). For beginner gardeners, I don’t recommend Helleborus foetidus or argutifolius. These grow on stalks and can look odd, perhaps even homely, to a newbie gardener. Plus, the leaves are often a matte tone and toothed, making for a scratchy experience if you brush up against them.
I don’t know how hellebores push themselves up through the darkness and cold weather to bloom so early and elegantly every late winter, but I’m certainly grateful they do. And regardless of which kind you plant, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you walk out the door and see flowers in the garden.
Alocasia x amazonica, or Elephant’s Ears, makes a bold statement in a houseplant collection. It grows rubbery-looking, blackish green pointed leaves with white veination, creating an unusual, tropical look. I love Alocasias because, ironically, they’re so artificial looking. Their appearance goes against the idea that leaves are soft and papery. Sometimes even spooky. I think that’s so neat.
Some books rate Alocasias as difficult to grow but I disagree. If you’re willing to tolerate a few brown tips or here and there, you’ll probably be successful. The trick for me is not to overthink it but simply take care of the following three issues.
Alocasias like bright, indirect light. They’re understory plants of the rain forest in warm misty places like South Asia, Indonesia, and parts of Australia. So I keep mine in a north-facing window and it does well. They tend to get scorched if set in direct sun.
If you’re the type who overwaters house plants, then this is the plant for you. Alocasias like continuously damp soil. Some sites say it likes to dry out between waterings, but when I’ve let that happen, the tips brown. So what I do is use a half-portion of orchid bark mix and half regular potting soil. This helps the soil drain freely.
Moist Warm Air
Since Alocasias are native to the tropics, they don’t like drafty windows. Keep the room between about 65-80 degrees and the plant will be happy. And because they thrive in the tropics, they like moist air. So if you live in a northern state where the heaters are often on in winter, try running a diffuser or humidifier near the plant to keep it moist. Otherwise, the tips may brown.
Overall, this lovely plant offers some unusual interest and great architecture. Because it’s tall, arrange it with lower bushier plants that like indirect light like Peace Lily, African Violet, or almost any fern. And note, if you have curious dogs, cats, or kids, Alocasia is poisonous so keep it high enough and out of reach. And if some older leaves die back, just snip them off. The plant will continually renew itself.
The best thing to do is to set this plant in a place where you’ll often notice it and enjoy!
One morning this last fall, my friend Angela called to say she had some orphaned plants she wanted me to have because they needed a good home. You may remember Angela’s a dear friend who’s a container designer and regularly switches out arrangements for clients. In this particular instance, she’d redesigned some summer pots for fall and had a bunch of leftover babies.
Before I could blink, she was pulling into my driveway with a miscellaneous collection of pots and paper bags. The goodies contained bromeliads, crotons, a spider plant, and mandevillas. While I had some experience growing the first three, I’d never grown a mandevilla, outdoors or indoors. But I was game to give it a try.
What’s a Mandevilla?
For those interested, a mandevilla is a huge genus of vines that grow in tropical places like South and Central America. Some even grow in the southern United States. They can grow up to 15 feet, even higher given the right conditions. And those conditions are strong sunlight and warmth, which of course we don’t have much of during a rainy Seattle winter. But they can function as a houseplant.
The three mandevillas Angela gifted me all had the same strong darkish pink flower. Its trumpet-shape has inspired the common name, rocktrumpet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the cultivar. It’s somewhere in the black hole of Angela’s notes. But luckily I’ve been able to keep them alive well enough.
How to Grow a Mandevilla Indoors
Here’s what I’ve been doing that works.
First, I set it up in the sunniest window of my house, a south-facing living room window. It was okay there but after a few days, I put a grow light over it and it became much perkier. Its little vining shoots extended. It appreciated the bright light and extra warmth.
Second, I noticed some older leaves yellowed and dropped a couple weeks after I brought it inside. I discovered this was from the sudden warmth of dry heating vents that had started blowing in October. I cleaned up those dried yellow leaves and cut off whatever stems had dried out as well to deter pests. You can spot dried stems by their suppleness and color. Happy stems are always soft and greenish. Dried ones are blackish green or brown.
Third, I increased humidity near the plants. In one case, I misted the plant regularly. I actually don’t think misting is very effective but I didn’t have an extra diffuser so I sprayed the plant from a misting water bottle every few days. And sprayed liberally. You need to pretty much make sure the plant is soaked if you want the plant to absorb moisture before the droplets evaporate.
Fourth, I tapered off watering. I was watering lightly every week and now in the heart of winter, I’m watering about once every ten days. This has seemed to make the plant quite happy. And so far pests have not visited it even though mandevillas can attract pests if overwatered.
Fifth, in December, with less watering comes less light. I now turn on the grow light once every week rather than once every couple of days. It knows it’s winter and to be dormant. It’s not blooming and won’t for a while.
Heading into spring, I’ll let the season’s light do its work and turn off the grow light until next October. I’ll water every week again as the light strengthens. I’ll install trellises so its vines can latch onto a structure. And every month, I’ll add some fertilizer to see if it will bloom again.
We’ll see how things go. I might even put the plants outside in a hot sunny location. They thrived in Angela’s client’s garden so I might have the same luck. If those gorgeous flowers do bloom, the hummingbirds will surely visit and that will give me the best gift of all.
If you’ve followed this blog at all, you probably know that I’m charmed by African Violets (Saintpaulia). I mean, I did write a whole novel about a magical one! That’s because I adore everything about these little guys. I love their fuzzy leaves. I love how they grow in almost perfect, rounded whorls, and I love their cheery upright flowers. The colors vary from purple to magenta to pink to yellow, white, and so on. And the flower forms range from single to double to fringed to striped and more. But did you know there’s an even more unusual African Violet? It’s the Variegated African Violet.
The Variegated African Violet
Variegated African Violets have been around since the late 1950s. Their leaves are usually edged or speckled or streaked with white but this varies. Some have white interiors, some have yellow new growth, etc. They bloom most commonly in purple and pink and occasionally you’ll find a double-flowered variety, which is really special. Like regular African Violets, they’re easy enough to keep alive though a Variegated African Violet is a bit trickier.
Caring for a Variegated African Violet
My Variegated African Violet, whose cultivar name I’m still not sure of, boasts serrated leaves and lots of vivid white on the margins. When those leaves emerge, they sport a dusty pink color. My heart soars whenever I see this small but pretty feature.
I grow my African Violet in a south-facing window with partial direct sunlight. Traditionally, they like bright indirect light. They also like a warm room and extra humidity though I’ve always grown mine just fine without added pebbles in water. (Note, I do sometimes use a humidifier in winter.) But there are a few tricks to keeping a Variegated African Violet happy. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- They don’t like a lot of harsh sun. Because their leaves have that white color, they don’t have the extra chlorophyll to take in sunlight. So don’t let it get scorched in a sunny window. Grow it in a north- or east-facing window if you can.
- They dry out more quickly than regular African Violets. But instead of watering them more frequently, I water them with more water, like more thoroughly soak the soil. This seems to keep them happy.
- Speaking of water, they like room temperature water, not cold water. It shocks their roots.
- Don’t fertilize too often or the variegation will fade. I fertilize mine once a month during spring and that’s about it.
- Because they grow natively in Africa, they like warmth! Don’t chill them by setting them in too-drafty of a window and don’t turn down your heat below 60 degrees at night.
Like all African Violets, you never want to let water splash onto the leaves. It’ll create spots. And remember, don’t water every few days. I water mine every 7-10 days and they seem to do well on that schedule. I also rotate the pot so the leaves grow in a more even pattern. But in the end, I also don’t overthink their care. If you put yours in a bright warm window and water every week or so, they should be fine. And, if they bloom, you’ll know you’re successfully keeping your Variegated African Violet happy!