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
Long after other Digitalis have taken the summer off for vacation, the rusty foxglove or Digitalis ferruginea is flowering during the warm days of July and August here in New England. This tall, slender foxglove is from Mediterranean regions of southeastern Europe. Depending on its growing conditions, it can behave as a perennial or self-sowing biennial. If the climate is mild and soils are perfect, they have a tendency to self seed themselves in the gardens. Perfect soils are those that are fertile with adequate moisture. Soils that are too wet or too dry will cause the rusty foxglove to oxidize itself into a prolonged death.
The common name comes from the reddish coloration of the small, numerous flowers. Our flowers are a warm beige with the reddish-brown veins. The individual flowers are much smaller than the common foxglove. Each flower is one-half to one inch in width to around an inch and a half in length. Because the flowers are smaller, they are much more numerous on the 4 to 5 feet tall flowering stalks. Hundreds of flowers cover each stiff stalk and they make a great complement the middle to back of the mixed flower border. Bees absolutely love the rusty foxglove but it is humorous to watch them climb inside of the flowers to gain nectar. The flower tubes are almost too narrow for the bees. Watching them crawl inside reminds me of having to suck in your belly when trying to slide behind your cousins at the Thanksgiving table, as you shimmy to the desert table for a piece of pie that you really should not eat.
If the main stalk is cut back after flowering, it will produce multiple flowering side stalks which can prolong the flowering time and make a wider plant. This characteristic has me wondering what might happen if the Digiplexis cross is recreated with Digitalis ferruginea and Isoplexis canariensis.
As with all Digitalis species, care should be taken with the plants as they may be somewhat toxic if ingested. Make sure that you site the plants where they are out of reach from those who may not know better. Have you tried the rusty foxglove? This species has me wanting to try other members of the genus in the gardens.
Since seeing this container planting over on Garden’s Illustrated’s website earlier this summer, I have been all sorts of obsessed with mini meadows in pots. This lovely thing was grown from seed, so my own experiment to re-create something similar with have to be added to next year’s ‘To Do’ list….but my patience for this look can hardly stand the wait so I’ve been casting around for options to create it. Like, right now. The key to this look is to toss aside the Fillers, Thrillers, Spillers way method of container planting. Opt instead for a mix of upright plants and use them repeatedly (but not in groupings). They can be at varying heights, but their open habit should be obvious allowing for the tops to mix and dance together. Have you experimented with this look? As I try it out I will certainly learn a few tricks that will happily share later. Shopping for plants, I think the key to this will be to use just 2 or 3 and mix and match different varieties to create textural interest and exciting but simple color combinations. Here are somethings that I think would be good to experiment with.
- Cosmos (I planted some Chocolate Cosmos this year that I am in love with!)
- Coreopsis Early Sunrise
- Dianthus (of a variety of sorts)
- Nasella (formerly Stipa tenuissima)
- Panicum varigatum – Cheyenne Sky Red Switch Grass. (and other grasses)
- Platinum Wallaby Mulla Mulla
- Poppies (of all sorts)
- Russian Sage
images: Top – Gardens Illustrated, Proven Winners Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Proven Winners. I am not an employee of Proven Winners and all opinions are my own. See the other posts in this series.
For this week’s Before & After I have a lovely front yard transformation that I found over at Foodie is the New Forty. This sweet little ranch house begged for a yard that would make its mid century-esque exterior sing, but the homeowners knew it was going to take a lot of hard work and a hefty budget, as well as the help of a landscaping crew. Optimista (which is the moniker she goes by on her blog) was tired of the weeds and general frump-factor radiating from the exterior of the house, so she decided it was finally time and enlisted the help of Dearen Landscapes. Read the full post