Monday, February 28, 2022 4 comments

Clematis, Queen of the Climbers

Perfect companions, Roses and Clematis

While living in England, I fell in love with country cottages covered in climbing roses. Whether arching over a doorway or smothering a brick wall, climbing roses appeared to be garden showstoppers.

After creating my own garden, I quickly found that climbing roses aren’t exactly eye candy between flushes of bloom. So it made sense to find companion plants that would twine around the rose canes and add interest throughout the growing season. The captivating clematis family, with its broad palette of colors, filled the bill.

'Starry Nights'

The good news is these vines aren’t just great companions for roses. They pair beautifully with hydrangeas, weigelas, lilacs, and viburnum.  And, of course, they are classic choices for covering arbors, scrambling along fences, or growing up into trees. New, petite varieties allow the patio gardener to enjoy these summer favorites as well. In fact, given the wide selection of colors, flower shapes, and sizes available, there is a clematis perfect for every garden.

The large-flowered climbers attract the most attention. Some sport flowers as large as 10 inches across on vines that can grow to 12 feet or more. However, many new selections, such as Vancouver 'Starry Nights', are shorter in stature, which make them ideal for containers and small gardens. The small-flowered varieties make up for their lack of size with bloom power. They tend to produce many more flowers and can be easier to grow.

'Josephine' is a traffic-stopper

I am kind of a sucker for the showy varieties. My ‘Josephine’ starts blooming in May and still throws out a flower or two in October. But it likes to sprawl, so make sure you have enough space for it.

'Piilu’ is kind of the best of both worlds. It is ideal for a container and starts the spring with eye-catching double blooms, then continues later in the season with single flowers.

'Piilu' has a long blooming season

Once you discover the pleasures of clematis, you’ll want to plan for a procession of bloom to last the entire growing year. Just select an early, mid-season, and late-season cultivar, and plant all three in the same vicinity, such as around a fence post. Plant shorter varieties throughout the perennial border to add pops of color in spring, summer, and fall.

Despite misconceptions that clematis are difficult to grow, care is fairly straightforward. The flowers like sun, but the roots like to be shaded to help retain moisture. Dappled sunlight will work for some varieties. Dig the planting hole twice as big as the pot, and make sure the root ball is two inches below the soil level. Take care not to disturb the roots.

After-planting care is critical, says Dan Long, owner of Brushwood Nursery in Athens, Ga. “So many beginning gardeners plunk a plant in the ground, water it once or twice, and then walk away. Varieties of clematis are capable of tremendous growth, but they need plenty of water right away if they are to thrive and live to 50 years or longer.

Mr. Long, also known as the Vine Guy (his nursery carries more than 300 varieties of clematis alone), says it’s hard to say how long it takes a clematis to get established. “I’ve seen some grow 10 feet in a year and bloom with abandon, while others take time to settle into their new homes.”

The best plan is to maintain a generous watering schedule for at least the first year and fertilize regularly once the plants are established. Watch for the same insects and slugs that bother other garden plants. Read the garden tag, consult your local nursery, and be patient. It can take as long as three years for a clematis to hit its peak performance.

But boy, the wait is worth it!

Pink 'James Galway' and deep purple clematis in my garden

Wednesday, January 5, 2022 3 comments

New faces coming to my 2022 garden

Dave Bang's 'Strawberry Swirl' courtesy Bill Kozemchak

 Every Christmas my sister Lisa gives me an Audubon Songbird calendar. It is now up displaying January 2022. It is a new month, in a brand new year. Which means it's time to start dreaming about which roses and perennials I want to add to the garden this spring!


Of course, I have things in my “driveway garden” from 2021 and earlier that are still waiting patiently in pots for me to plant them. There is a lovely golden yellow buddleia, the David Austin rose ‘Dame Judy Dench’ and the beautiful multi-color Delbard rose ‘Edward Degas’.

'Dame Judy Dench' is a lady in waiting in my driveway
 Truth is, I don’t really have a space in my small garden to place these plants. But never mind! It will all work out. It always does. As I have written in the past, a love affair with roses can become an addiction. No matter how many roses you have, there is always room for one more.

 So, let’s get this party started!!

 I saw my first selection in a posting on Paul Zimmerman Roses Gardening and knew I had to have it. ‘Broceliande’, is named for the enchanted forest in Brittany, France that is believed to be the birthplace of King Arthur. It has already cast a spell on me even though I haven’t actually seen a bloom in person yet. Fortunately, it was in stock at Palatine Roses in Canada.

'Broceliande' Courtesy Palatine Roses
You must purchase a minimum of three roses to order at Palatine, so I was forced to pick two more! The grandiflora ‘South Africa’ has been turning a lot of heads and rightly so. It is another wonderful rose from Kordes and is described as having “rich, glowing amber flowers” that can will catch your eye even from a distance. Some have described ‘South Africa’ blooms as the color of a ripe cantaloupe. We shall see!

'South Africa' Sunbelt Palatine Roses
Then I selected another Kordes standout, ‘Caramella Fairy Tale’which produces beautiful sprays of amber blooms with a darker reverse all season long. I think it would look perfect beside the yellow buddleia should I ever find room for them.

'Carmella Fairy Tale' Courtesy Kordes

 Last summer I saw an article about hybridizer Dave Bang’s unique and stunning striped miniature roses. After seeing the photos in the article, I immediately checked out the dazzling variety on the K&M Roses website. I restrained myself and only ordered six. I’ll be doing a Dirt Diaries posting on them as soon as I get my hands on these beauties.

'Swizzle' Courtesy Bill Kozemchak
 Roses like companions

 I have always believed in the concept of the Cottage Garden or the “tidy mess’ as Gertrude Jekyll used to say. The concept is to mix roses with a variety of perennial partners so there is always something blooming in the garden. The trick is picking the right perennials. 

My Maryland Cottage Garden
 Over the years I’ve experienced a number of failures with my choices. I’ve never had a coreopsis live to bloom again. Coneflowers disappear, too. Even the Centranthus I couldn’t kill in Maryland has been a flop in the North Carolina mountains.

'Blue Boa' Agastache Courtesy Terra Nova
In 2021, I hit on some successful combos. The agastaches bloomed most of the summer. Low growing dahlias were perfect in the garden borders. And I’ve fallen in love with salvia hybrids. From ‘Hot Lips’ and ‘Amistad’ to ‘Black and Blue’, they put on a show all summer.
Butterflies and hummers love 'Black and Blue'
I particularly loved the ‘Rockin’ Blue Suede Shoes’ hybrid salvia. The color was a beautiful and unusual light blue. Although ‘Black and Blue’ is supposed to be considered an annual, mine come back every spring. I hope ‘Blue Suede’ does, too.

 Countdown to Spring

 All my new roses and a few new perennials will arrive the first or second week of April. I am already counting the days. Will ‘Broceliande’ live up to the hype? After all, copywriters make every offering sound fabulous. (I should know, I wrote descriptions of plants and flowers for White Flower Farm catalogues for several years.)

 Right now, all we can do is hope and dream.









Saturday, October 9, 2021 2 comments

Fall rose care in 5 easy steps


Extra long canes (like on 'James Galway') may need trimming in the fall


In a time when pumpkins and mums dominate the garden landscape, it’s a treat to see some of my favorite roses making their final appearances of the season. These last roses of summer can often be the sweetest – the nip in the air deepens the colors, and the blooms themselves are sometimes a bit larger than usual. 

Crisp autumn evenings can produce the year's most colorful blooms


Best of all, I don’t have to worry about pruning or fertilizing until 2022. I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the fall show.


The do's and don'ts of fall rose care

 Of course, there are a few chores to be done in the rose garden before winter sets in. But the list is pretty short for most areas of the country and includes more “don’ts” than “do's.”


1. For starters, don’t cut your roses back in the autumn. If you prune now, you’ll just suffer dieback and will have to cut back more severely in the spring. Wait until the forsythia blooms in your area before breaking out the secateurs.


An exception would be ramblers that bloom on old wood -- if you wait till next year to tidy them up, you may well cut off potential new flowers. Trim about one-third of the growth now and cut out any dead canes.


'Crocus Rose' is a late season show-off

I also suggest trimming back bushes that have developed extra-long canes. In my garden, English Roses such as 'James Galway' and the hybrid tea 'Elina'  have thrown out eight-foot canes. I trim those back to waist height so they don’t whip around in winter winds injuring themselves, their neighbors, or me.


2. Don’t trim off rose hips, the colorful fruits that form in the late summer and early fall. They often turn lovely shades of orange-red, and are a signal to the bush that it’s time to get ready for a long winter’s nap.


3. Do tear off and destroy any leaves that display signs of disease or insect infestation. Also dig up and discard any bushes that have died. Never put diseased leaves or dead roses in your compost pile.


4. Do identify any bushes that might need extra winter protection. Most of the newer shrubs and miniatures don’t need special care. If you aren’t sure whether a variety is tender or not, play it safe and add an 8-inch mound of soil, compost, leaf mold, or other organic material around the base of the bush. Check with an American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian in your area for additional advice and winter-protection tips.


'Dick Clark' was a new addition that rocked the garden 1n 2021

5. Finally, scour the catalogs when they arrive and start thinking about new plants you’d like to add to the garden next year. It’s a flight of fancy that will transport you away from the woes of winter.


Try growing a rose from seeds

One last thing -- if a hip forms on one of your favorite rose bushes, bring it indoors and harvest the seeds for planting over the winter months. (Although I said not to cut them, one or two won’t hurt!) It’s a fun project that could result in a unique rose. 

If you’d like to know how to do it, leave a comment and I'll do a whole posting on the topic.

No mums or pumpkins for me. I'm going to stop and smell the fall roses.


Friday, August 13, 2021 7 comments

Squirrels gone wild once again


My hapless toad

Back in 2016, I wrote a posting about some strange behavior our squirrels exhibited after I placed a feather in one of my pots on the deck.

I was recently reminded of this episode. A small stone toad resides year ‘round in my little veggie planter. The other day I placed the toad on the deck while I was refreshing some of the herbs.

Not long after, a squirrel cautiously approached the toad. It started fussing and lunging at it. Finally, it bit the stone toad on the nose, then ran off. I have no clue as to why the squirrel was so upset. (Fortunately, the toad was not harmed in the attack.)

So, in case you missed the original posting, here it is again. Let me know if you have any thoughts as to what squirrels have against amphibians (or feathers).

 Squirrels gone Wild (September 2016)

A spill in our creek led to strange events in our garden


On June 30, a water utility company that owns storage tanks up the stream from us had an accident.  One of the tanks overflowed sending 220,000 gallons of water and silt down Hogback Creek. 

Our neighbor who lives above us came to our door in tears. After years of making sure the creeks and streams on his property were as pristine as possible, his work was washed away. I will write more about this tragedy in my next posting.

Feeling sad and helpless, we offered to walk up there to take photographs to send environmental authorities. While documenting the devastation, I found something that unleashed several weeks of chaos in my own back yard.

The innocent feather briefly guarded my tomato plants

It seemed innocent enough – the wing feather of a wild turkey. I decided to place it in my little veggie planter on the back deck in hopes it would discourage squirrels from digging up my tomatoes and herbs so they could hide nuts.

The squirrels had other ideas.

Not long after I added the feather to the planter, I noticed it was missing.  Later, we saw it on the ground 20 feet below the deck. Perhaps it blew out of the planter, we reasoned.

The next time it was lying on rocks that slope down to the creek. I had to get a long rake to retrieve it.

The third time, the perpetrator not only threw the feather off the deck, the little devil also ate the left hand side of it.

Donna spied the feather and flew into a fury

Determined to beat the squirrels at their own game, I used a two-foot strand of covered wire to tie it to the railing. On numerous occasions I found it hanging from the wire over the edge of the deck floor. Each time more of the feather was missing.

Now a word about our squirrels. We don’t mind them visiting as long as they don’t get on the feeders. They quite often come to the back door and beg, or stand on the table to attract our attention.  They are well behaved, and we reward them with a few unsalted nuts.

Donna, one of our regulars, is about as mild mannered as a squirrel can be. Yet one afternoon Chris saw her attack the feather with such ferocity, he had to chase her off. She lunged at it, bit it and tried to rip it free from the wire.

Today, this is all that is left of that poor feather. We have no idea what the squirrels had against it.

But I definitely won’t be dressing as a turkey for Halloween.






Wednesday, July 14, 2021 4 comments

Are the new coneflowers just pretty faces?

 When you specialize in one particular plant, it’s easy to fall into a gardening rut.

Several years ago when we were living in Maryland, I focused on roses and companion plants that looked good with roses. I wasn’t very interested in experimenting with anything new.


Now that I’m creating a new garden in the mountains of North Carolina, I see I’ve been missing out on some really interesting perennials. I inherited a few daylilies and am just beginning to appreciate their beauty and usefulness.

I was also intrigued when a coneflower popped up in an area where I’d sown wildflower seeds one summer. It was just an old fashioned Echinacea purpurea but it looked quite elegant amid a group of oxeye daisies.

I wondered why I hadn’t noticed this appealing flower before.

The humble Echinacea  has some fancy new cousins

Hardy, attractive, and easy to grow, these popular American wildflowers have long been a staple of the perennial border both here and in Europe. Nine species are native to North America and grow mainly in the central and southeastern U.S.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a number of enterprising plant breeders began making crosses between several varieties of native coneflowers in an attempt to make a good thing even better.

The result has been a dizzying array of new hybrids in a rainbow of delicious colors, along with a wide choice of flower forms including double blooms.  

'Milk Shake'

Keeping up with all these new and unusual coneflowers is about as difficult as figuring out which of a multitude of rose introductions to try. The number of choices and names boggles the mind. It can also be confusing since so many of the new introductions look alike.


Should I get a ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Tomato Soup’? Or a ‘Marmalade’ and 'Merlot'?

And once I decide on which of the new beauties to try, should I assume it will be as easy-care as the old standby?

The coneflower controversy

The traditional purple coneflower has been a Top 10 perennial for decades. It self-seeds so even when the original plant is just a memory, true seedlings will have taken its place.

Unfortunately, many of the new introductions don’t perform as dependably in the garden.

'Raspberry Truffle'

Many seem to disappear after a year or so, and others never bloom. Some fade quickly in the heat. Some turn black with too much rain. A number of varieties don’t set seed, and others produce strange seedlings.

It’s a disappointing result after a great deal of hype and high expectations.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the success rate for certain new coneflowers may depend on the region where they are grown and the growing conditions.

When I first started writing about the new cultivars, I mentioned a three year study conducted by the nonprofit Mount Cuba Center in northern Delaware. As a result of the study that concluded in 2009, ‘Pica Bella’, ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Fragrant Angel’ were named top performers.

Mount Cuba has just completed a second three-year study. The first trial included 48 cultivars and the second evaluated 75 entries for general vigor, abundance of bloom, length of bloom and growth habit.

An interesting aspect of the second trial is they also kept records on which pollinators were likely to visit coneflowers.

And the winner? Once again, ‘Pica Bella’ led the way and was also named a preferred pollinator plant. Other top performers included ‘Pink Sensation’, ‘Snow Cone’ ‘Fragrant Angel’, Kismet ‘Intense Orange’, Kismet ‘Raspberry’, and ‘Balsomcor’ Sombrero. The study can be seen its entirety at

The big winner 'Pica Bella'

Interesting, the trial discovered that bees and wasps made up the majority of pollinator visitors, with butterflies comprising only 5% of activity.

The trial also took a look at double-flowered coneflower varieties and concluded that they may look sensational at the garden center, but when it came to aiding pollinators, they were of little or no help.

Another interesting five year study is wrapping up at the RHS Garden Wisley, and I will pass on the results when available. A couple of things are already known: Echinaceas do not like heavy mulches, heavy soils or too much water. And double varieties may look impressive in sunny, dry weather but tend to collapse in the rain.

Kismet 'Intense Orange'

I’ve tried a few coneflowers in my North Carolina mountain garden (My 'White Swan' didn't make it) but have not yet found one that seems happy in my "rain forest". But there are so many eye catching varieties out there, I will be tempted to keep trying and perhaps just treat them as annuals.


'White Swan'

The fact that there are so many unique and enticing plants out there is exciting news for gardeners.

But before we all go coneflower crazy, we need to separate the dazzlers from the duds.


Sunday, June 20, 2021 1 comments

Not your Granny's hydrangeas

'Glowing Embers only blooms once but is still a favorite after 50 years

 Colorful, low maintenance and long-flowering, hydrangeas have all the qualities you could ask for in a garden plant.
They aren’t fussy as long as you provide sun and moisture as your zone dictates. They aren’t plagued by pests or diseases for the most part. They’re attractive at virtually every stage, even aging gracefully. And they display extravagant clusters of delicate papery flowers that light up the landscape between June and October. 
Small wonder these versatile shrubs have long been stalwarts of the midsummer garden.


An old favorite is transformed

The hydrangea family is a relatively small one with around one hundred species in existence. The name is derived from Greek and means "water vessel". For most people, the French hydrangeas with their bright blue and pink flowers (determined by the pH of the soil) have been the most familiar. 

Then in 2003, a Midwest plant breeder introduced a new repeat-blooming variety and the hydrangea world was forever transformed.

The bigleaf hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ not only produced billowy blossoms from early summer through fall, it was also exceptionally hardy blooming reliably from zone 9 to 4.

On the heels of ‘Endless Summer’ came more tantalizing hydrangea varieties including the Forever & Ever series, ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ and ‘Incrediball'. 

'Annabelle' was a parent to 'Incrediball' and 'Invincible Spirit'

Forever & Ever hydrangeas bloom on new wood so if they die back to the ground, they will return to bloom again the next year.

‘Invincibelle Spirit’ is the first arborescens variety to produce pink flowers. It was developed by Dr. Tom Ranney who works at the Mountain Horticultural Center at North Carolina State University, and a then-graduate student, Richard Olsen.

"Twist-n-Shout' lacecap hydrangea

While hiking through the Blue Ridge one day, Mr. Olsen spied a pink lacecap hydrangea that became an important part of their hydrangea breeding program. The eventual result was a spectacular rebloomer that produces 8-inch bright pink flowers for four months or longer.

 Starting over with fresh faces 
We didn’t know it at first but while we were living in Maryland, boaters going up and down our creek dubbed our place “the hydrangea house.” It’s funny because I thought of it as a rose cottage, but from the water, the saw a  solid hedge of blue blooms across the back of our white Cape Cod from June through August.

'Nikko Blues' were showoffs in our Maryland garden

 I can’t take much credit for the display because we inherited most of the bushes. They weren’t anything special – mostly the old fashioned ‘Nikko Blue’ (which my granny could possibly have grown). But despite bitter winter winds and summer droughts, they were always spectacular.

When we moved to the mountains in 2011, we brought some of the Nikko cuttings with us and also added the original ‘Endless Summer.’

The first year I wondered if we’d made a mistake with the new plant. The Nikko cuttings took off like crazy but every afternoon I could hear the blooms of 'Endless Summer' hitting the ground as they wilted in the afternoon sun.


Our Maryland cuttings made themselves at home in the mountains

The Endless Summer wasn’t a reliable bloomer for me and never seemed happy, so I am replacing it this year with a new variety called ‘Summer Crush’. The beautiful raspberry red blooms will make a great combo with my ‘Raspberry Dazzle’ dwarf crape myrtle.

'Summer Crush' courtesy Nature Hills


I had a space available near the front porch a few years back and decided to add a ‘Limelight’. The panicle hydrangea is described as having “football-shaped flowers in an elegant celadon green that look fresh and clean in the summer heat.” Maybe I got a dud because my blooms stay kind of an icky white and don’t last long. Plus the bush is huge and really should be taken out.

My 'Limelight' never looked this good


There is a new ‘Limelight Prime’ that is more compact, blooms longer and its stems don’t flop. That would be a better choice should I get two or three strong guys to dig out the old one!

I now regret not getting a ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ instead of ‘Limelight’. I admire the colors in the garden centers every fall. It is a relative of the classic PeeGee hydrangea and grows to 7 feet in height with a spread of 4-5 feet. (On second thought, it is probably too big for my space as well.)


Yummy 'Vanilla Strawberry'
However, it is said to deliver a summer-long parade of flower heads that change from white to pink to strawberry red, sometimes with all three shades showing off on the plant at once.

It sounds like a refreshing summer sorbet.

My grandmother would've thought it was delicious.