“I am not drinking (expletive) Merlot!” – Miles from the movie Sideways
This past weekend, a group of friends and I were running in a relay race across the Adirondack mountains. When you are not running, you are spending hours in a van following the next member of your team. With all of these hours, you go through so many different conversations, including relaying the storyline to the movie Sideways to one of our team members who had yet to see this classic movie about friends discovering themselves in wine country. I guess you could say that the irony in this situation was that we may have been discovering ourselves while running in this 200 mile relay by talking about men discovering themselves. But maybe not. My running club in not the first place I think of for self-help junkies and wine drinkers. They are more the suck it up and pass me a beer kind of friends, which I need.
I came back to work today feeling aware and refreshed as if I had been at a spiritual retreat. I guess if you call riding in a van with a bunch of smelly guys and running over 23 miles at various periods oner 24 hours meditation, then so be it. As I was making my way through the gardens, I walked by one of my favorite trees, the Merlot redbud, Cercis x ‘Merlot.’ In a film noir moment, I immediately replayed the conversation from the weekend along with the mental clip of Miles stating in Sideways that he hoped his blind date would not drink merlot. You are probably now thinking that is a strange and ironic story or that I am a strange person and feeling the utmost sympathy for my wife because she has to put up with these kinds of streams of consciousness constantly. If you are thinking the latter, you are welcome to mail her a bottle of merlot in order to cope with my ramblings.
Ok, let’s put a fine point on this story. Whether you like merlot or not, add a Merlot redbud to give your garden a refined taste. Why, you might ask? Because it is one of the most fantastic, dark-leaved, small flowering trees in cultivation. Dr. Dennis Werner from North Carolina State University crossed a dark-leaved redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ with an ecotype from Texas and Mexico know as Cercis canadensis var. texensis. Dr. Werner selected one seedling from this lot because of its dark leaf color (from Forest Pansy) and thick glossy leaves (from its Texas cousin). The Merlot redbud matures at 12 to 15′ in height and width so it will make the perfect small tree for the residential landscape. As most redbuds, it has bright pink flowers on all parts of the stems before the leaves emerge. Redbuds are one of the few trees that even flower along the main trunk. After flowering, the deep burgundy, well, I guess you could say merlot colored leaves emerge. The foliage color is held throughout the summer until the leaves drop in the fall. The trees are reportedly hardy to USDA zone 6 but I have a sneaking suspicion that they may be a bit hardier than the literature states.
When I say sort of, I am alluding to the fact that this plant that looks like a palm is not really a palm. It is a grass that looks like a palm thus the common and not so creative name of palm grass. Palm grass or as is known in the Latin circles as Setaria palmifolia is a fast-growing annual grass. We brought our plants in as quart pots in late May of this year from Landcraft Environments, a wholesale nursery that operates on Long Island. June tends to stay relatively cool on the Maine coast and palm grass slowly starts to grow and stretch. By the end of summer, as temperatures reach the low 80’s on a daily basis, Setaria palmifolia plants are now over 3 feet tall and wide. The dark green leaves are around 3-4 inches in width, with ridges running along the leaf blades which make them resemble a palm leaf.
Having this texture in the mixed border is a nice contrast, especially in an area where palm trees seem to grow in various shades of greenish-yellow during the summer while taking on a perma-brown cast during the winter months. There is a good reason why palm trees have evolved not to live in New England. They hate the weather! That said, I love New England and I love palms so this is a seasonal compromise after our experiment growing needle palms this past winter turned into a mushy disaster.
The leaves and texture of palm grass are coarse with the plant forming a slightly upright clump. The palm grass makes for a nice backdrop for finer textured plants such as kangaroo paws, salvias, and foxgloves. Here in New England, I would grow the plants in full sun, with adequate moisture and ample nutrition. We mulch our plants early in the season with compost and then give them an extra boost with organic liquid fertilizer as soon as the temperatures start to reach their summer highs.
We are planning on digging up a couple of clumps this winter and storing them in our greenhouse for safe keeping for next summer. I am looking forward to seeing how large this clump will become next summer from an established plant. If you live in a warmer climate where palm trees grow extremely well outside, year-round (USDA zones 8 and above) I would caution you to consider sticking with your palms over the palm grass. Setaria as a genus has a tendency to be a weed grass in southeast Asia and India. There are reports of palm grass self seeding in warmer parts of the United States so I would advise against its use in these warmer climes. For us here in New England who do not have the luxury of growing palms outside, year round (maybe it is the 3 to 4 months of snow and cold that do them in as it does in most people), palm grass is a wonderful annual to provide that tropical texture in mixed plantings.
Images: Rodney Eason, Lifestyle Home
This weekend I was mowing the grass when our 21 year-old Honda pushmower finally gave up the ghost. We had limped it along for several years until the most recent service visit when the mechanic finally said that it needed a new carburetor and the cost to fix it and everything else on the mower was probably more than a new mower. I would rather use $300.00 to purchase more plants than another mower so I pushed the dead mower into our barn and called it a day. I logged into Facebook later that evening and saw where a friend was selling their 2 year old push mower for $100.00. Boom. I sent an instant message and the mower was ours. Simultaneously between the time our old mower died and the new mower was bought via Facebook, our daughters had decided to check out what daddy was doing in the back yard and ventured out to explore. Right around the time I was purchasing the new mower, one of our daughters said to my wife, “mommy, did you know we had an apple tree in our backyard?” We have lived in our home for 2 years and for some reason have neglected to notice the apple tree growing right on the edge of our property. It is funny how sometimes you miss things for years only to catch a glimpse of them as something new.
This type of event also happened to me at work last week. As I was walking through the gardens, I noticed a large, glossy leaved plant with big, yellow-green fruit hanging from underneath the leaves. There were probably 20-30 of these egg-shaped fruits hanging under the leaves in clusters. It really was a cool sight to see. As I got closer, I realized this was the Chinese mayapple or Podophyllum pleianthum. The Chinese mayapple is similar to our native mayapple, Podophyllym peltatum, with the exception of some noticeable differences. For one, the Chinese mayapple does not go dormant in the summer. Another is the size. The height and spread of the Chinese plant can be up to twice the size of our native mayapple. Also, the leaves are dark green and shiny on the Chinese species versus the matte green appearance of our native P. peltatum. I love our native mayapple and think that incorporating the Asian species into the garden is a nice contrast.
For us here along the Maine coast, having the big, almost tropical like appearance of the Podophyllum pleianthum is a striking addition to our dry-shade garden areas. From what I am learning about the plants, they resent being in areas that stay wet or being in too much sunlight. Once you plant them in dry shade, be sure to water frequently until established. During periods of dry weather, I would be sure to give them a supplemental drink or two of water. They will continue to look great in the gardens until our first hard frost which typically comes in late October. That turns out to be around 6 months of interesting foliage in the gardens. If you are adventuresome, be sure to have your guests crawl on the ground in late spring to see the attractive, deep red flowers. Unfortunately, the flowers are usually hanging under the big foliage so they are hard to see. As mentioned above, then in the fall, they produce attractive yellow-green fruit over an inch long and half as wide.
Walking through New York city brings to mind a unique combination of good and bad smells. Cooking onions and sausages from street food vendors, fresh roasted coffee from the one of a kind coffee shop, and of course, urine from the subway and parks. Maybe it was the sense of smell that set the High Line apart from all of the other experiences I had while in New York. The first time I walked up the stairs to the High Line was probably in the early fall of 2009. The garden plantings were still fairly new but the experience was memorable. Up above the city was a place away from traffic and the smells of the city. I noticed at this time, a most unusual smell. After meeting with the staff of the High Line, I asked them where that unusual smell was coming from. It was an earthy smell, kind of like popcorn without butter or even coriander. I like toasted, earthy smells and this smell was one of them. The gardening crew from the High Line told me that was the flowers of a native grass called prairie dropseed or Sporobolus heterolepis. At the time, I was working at Longwood Gardens and we later added some plants to a dry, parking lot planter. Over the next couple of years, they filled in and on cue each fall they provided that nostalgic smell of the High Line.
To even go farther down nostalgia lane, I think my affinity for these smells is due to the fact that my grandpa always wore English Leather aftershave. That woodsy, clean scent always made me feel comfortable as my grandfather and I used to go off exploring in the North Carolina mountains around Boone, where he lived. In our gardens at Coastal Maine, we have a couple of mass plantings of prairie dropseed and have even added a few more this past spring. Sporobolus heterolepis is an easy to grow, perennial grass native to most of the eastern and middle states of the US. Once established, the plants can survive drought and reach 3 feet in height and width. In late summer, airy, white inflorescences emerge above the dark green wiry foliage. Once in flower, the wonderful scent of the High Line and my grandpa’s English Leather starts to waft through the garden. After flowering, the plants set seeds which are a good food source for seed eating birds.
As a post script, when I think of this plant, I not only think of the High Line and my grandpa, but the ever-present, High Line horticulturist with the hipster haircut and Wayfarer glasses, Johnny Linville. I met Johnny during my first visit and we corresponded occasionally about various gardening matters. During our last trip to New York in May of this year, a group of us were fortunate enough to spend time with Johnny and Thomas Smarr, walking the entire length of the High Line. Johnny passed away suddenly in August at a very young age. Johnny, you are missed.
Images: The High Line, Rodney Eason
Funny how one person can say something and then more and more people start to repeat it until their words spread around. Here in Maine, I have heard several folks say that summer is almost over. Why on earth would someone say that? Could it be that millions of people are leaving Maine after having wonderful vacations and heading back to their homes, schools, and workplaces? Maybe it is the shorter hours of daylight and the fact that public schools in New England are starting back next week. Perhaps it is due to the fact that our night temperatures are starting to dip into the high 50’s on a few nights.
Whatever the reason, I want to counter that statement and say that summer is not over! Technically, we have another month of summer as the autumnal equinox does not begin until Tuesday, September 23rd. I think the best time to see perennial gardens along the eastern United States would be in late August and through September. The light is changing and more and more plants are in full flower. With the long days of summer, many plants have had just the right amount of solar energy they needed to put out one last hurrah of flowers. One plant in particular that is blooming its head off is the Anigozanthos. What is Anigozanthos, you say? I wrote quite a bit about the kangaroo paws in this Studio G post back in January of this year. You can check out that article here for more information about the genus. Let me just say that our experiment of growing Anigozanthos here along the Maine coast this summer has been outstanding. It probably helps that this summer has been similar to what one might normally have found in San Francisco. Sunny, warm days followed by cool nights. We have had adequate rain fall with just enough to keep the plants looking healthy and lush. The kangaroo paws have enjoyed this summer and some of the flowering stalks are reaching almost 4 feet in height. We planted the cultivars: ‘Big Roo Red,’ ‘Big Roo Orange,’ and ‘Joe Joe Red.’
‘Big Roo Red’ and ‘Big Roo Orange’ were later to flower but once they did, Wow! Their tall flowering stalks have our guests stopping to stare and wonder what is that flower. Only our guests from California or Australia have known what they were. Then, they usually ask if it is hardy here in Maine. Of course it will not survive our winters but it is a dynamic annual to liven up the landscape. ‘Joe Joe Red’ is a smaller cultivar with flowering stalks about 2 feet in height. I love showing kids in our Alfond Children’s Garden how the flowers look like kangaroo paws which is really cool since they are from Australia. The one problem we had with ‘Joe Joe Red’ is that rabbits absolutely love it. We had a couple of snowshoe hares set up shop early in the season and this little, red kangaroo paw was their favorite meal. Fortunately, they only ate the foliage and left all of the flowers alone. Also, once our guest traffic picked up during the summer, these hares moved on and found somewhere else to live.
We are already making plans to use kangaroo paws as an annual in 2015 in some big sweeps. Did you use any kangaroo paws in your garden this summer? How did they fare for you?