Instead of writing about a particular plant or plant group, this week I thought I would talk about one of my favorite horticultural pruning techniques. The first time someone mentioned to me an “aerial hedge,” I envisioned puffy clouds of boxwoods floating through the air. But that would be weird and strange (like this week’s episode of Mad Men – yes, I am a big fan). Then, on a trip to Hampton Court, I saw a screen made from a quadruple cordon of hornbeam trees. A cordon is literally “cable” or “line” in French. It is also a horticultural term for a horizontal line of a topiary. As for these trees at Hampton Court, the hornbeam trees were growing out of a hedgerow of Taxus. The hornbeams were trained into four cordons and then tied together to make a big screen around the parking lot. It was beautiful and precise. Right then and there, I fell in love with the concept.

aerial hedge versailles

Years later, on a visit to France, a group of us visited Versailles. It was there that I saw miles of trees pruned into hedges. In some spots, the trees were limbed up from the ground so you could see across the plane but the tree canopies were pruned into long rectangles. Aha! This was the infamous aerial hedge. If you look at the competition gardens at the Chelsea flower show, one designer always goes for the aerial hedge. Maybe it is a European thing (like the man-purse) but aerial hedges never seem to catch on here in the US. I, for one, really dig aerial hedges (and messenger bags but not man-purses) and wish that more gardens would include them. Yes, they take time and someone has to work for years to prune and shape them but the resulting form is fun and really defines a garden. I can count on one hand, the gardens that I have seen in the United States that feature aerial hedges:

- Longwood Gardens (Tilia or little leaf linden)

- Dumbarton Oaks (Carpinus or hornbeam)

- Old Westbury (Tsuga or hemlock)

- Lotusland (Pittosporum)

- Heronswood (a really awesome, arching display of trained hornbeams)


There have to be other gardens that I have missed. Are there aerial hedges that you recall seeing here in the States? Why do you think that they have not caught on here as they have in Europe? If ever given the chance to design a Chelsea garden, I would design a satirical garden featuring an assortment of aerial hedges using plants that one would never expect to see grown this way.


Images: The Creative FluxJan Henry, Garden Drum

defining your garden style - plant partners from

As a designer I am not immune to creative dry spells – but the key to maintaining a steady stream of ideas is to know how to re-inspire yourself.   I gather inspiration from nearly every thing in my life; I never know when something is going to strike me in a way that causes new ideas start flowing.  But when I am in a pinch and feeling the need to force the issue…I have to actively go looking and often I find the answers in the art of others.

When I was in design school we had to study plants in depth – and a huge part of that study was learning a way to use them that was not only effective and practical in the garden, but also in a way that was artistically distinctive to each of us as designers.   The idea was that if we could strike on signature groupings, we could begin to define our distinctive styles as well as make the design process easier (by providing ourselves endlessly repeatable templates).

Do you have a signature planting look in your garden?  

If you don’t, it would be an interesting exercise to go through at the very least so that you can re-inspire yourself.  Here is what I do when I am trying to come up with something new and interesting:

  1. Find an inspiration source.  I like art; maybe you might pick something that is already hanging on the walls of your home.
  2. Study the piece for composition, pattern, and notable personality elements and also pull out the colors that appeal to you.
  3. Using these reference points to start, look for plants that reflect the work.  Let the list of possibilities ramble – maybe use a pinterest board to collect the ideas.
  4. Narrow it down.  Once you have a pool of ideas, start refining a plan based on bloom time (if you want your plants to play together – they probably need to bloom together), habitat (they need to be able to survive side by side) and individual characteristics as they meet your needs.

Hallway by Carolyn Swiszcz via  - how to create a planting collection from art. I’ve been playing with the collection above and it started with this painting by Carolyn Swiszcz (if it appeals to you as much as it appeals to me – you can buy it as 20×200).  The Coleus ‘Alligator Tear’s is a unique version of this plant – its feathery leaves reflect the pattern in the rug and the colors of all three plants are inspired by the painting.  I also want the planting to consist of things that are good for cutting and arranging….so that helped me to eliminate other options.   I am still working on this — and I think that I might add something that is the softest shade of peach pink….like perhaps a Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’.  And once I get it planted…perhaps it will be become something that works well and I can use it again elsewhere and in future projects – this is how I grow as a designer and gardener.

This collection is as quirky as the original inspiration and I am pleased that I have captured that.  How about you — have you used art (or anything else) to inspire planting? What image might you use to do the same?

Images:  Images courtesy of proven winners, and my instagram images are from one of my all time favorite design books – The Conran Ocotopus Garden Color Palette.  

Art:  Garden Hallway, Grand Rapids, MI by Carolyn Swiszcz

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. 

Lavender vs Catmint. Which do you use for the Perfect Purple Haze?

Whether you have visited the south of France or just seen pictures you know how seductive those mounded purple rows of lavender can be.  But the pictures don’t even tell half the story, the scent of lavender in the air on a hot  day in July is simply the essence of summer.

I have a rather odd shaped driveway that makes a sharp right as you get to the top and make your way into the garage.  The transition between the asphalt driveway and the gardens that greet me at the top of turn have always stumped me.  It has a particular set of challenges as on one side there is the home of the annual snow plow dumping ground (which is on top of a perennial garden) and on the other there is a country version of a hell strip – the area between the asphalt and a rock retaining wall.

About 8 years ago I planted a lavender hedge on both sides – hoping to add the beauty and scent of the plant to my landscape.  It sort of worked….until 2 years later the lavender on the snow mound side completely died over one winter. I lost 20 plants in one fell swoop.  While I have never really (for sure) gotten to the bottom of why this happened, my suspicions lie in a winter snow melt that lasted too long and caused the plants to have wet feet for longer than they could tolerate.

But now that I had a one sided driveway (because I had no problem on the non-snow mound side) I needed a plan to bring back the glory of two sided purple haze.   Fearing a repeat catastrophe, I opted to replaced the lavender with Catmint and left the (still happy) lavender on the hell strip side – and the plan is working!

Some in depth plant studying reveals why this plan worked:

  • Lavender doesn’t like wet soil.
  • Lavender also is evergreen and doesn’t die back (making it an easy target for the snowplow who piles it on)
  • Lavender doesn’t like fertile soil (so the downhill side of the driveway, which has an edge that tends to be a trap for leaves and rotting debris, is not a great place)

Conversely -

  • Catmint is much more tolerant of wetter soils.
  • It also doesn’t mind a little fertilization every once in a while.
  • And it dies back in the winter leaving nothing for the snow plow to catch and in dry winters nothing for the wind to whip.

But there are a few other things to consider here.  I laid out this design about 9 years ago and since then, there have been substantial improvements in both Lavender and Catmint.  Catmint used to have problems with maintaining its mounded shaped – often falling open in the middle and making it a less viable sub for lavender. Newer varieties, however, like Nepeta ‘Cat’s meow’ doesn’t have this problem.   Also, many lavenders that were on the market 9 years ago had a tendency to become woody and gnarly if not regularly pruned but improved varieties like Lavandula ‘Sweet Romance’ and others  are less inclined to have this issue.

So if you are looking for the perfect purple haze which do you choose…catmint or lavender?

In my case the answer is both.


Images: courtesy of 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. 


I found this really sweet bean tunnel over the winter and I’ve been dying to make one of my own ever since! April from Wahsega Valley Farm has an incredible backyard vegetable garden, and as soon as I saw this bare garden structure, I knew it would be a even cooler once the vines started to grow.

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I am deep in the throes of a design maelstrom. New planting designs are flying at me from every direction like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz.

Entry walk 2014

Front entrance walk redesign to our visitor center – done.

Northern bed along our Great Lawn – done.

Rainbow Terrace in the Alfond Children’s Garden – done.

Once the designs are done, then comes the time to measure the planting bed shapes (thank goodness for those two semesters of college calculus!) and source the plants to fill out the designs. Our theme this summer at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is about pollinators and pollinator plants. I am on the docket to teach a course on butterfly garden design at CMBG in August so I thought that this year’s designs would be a great laboratory for the session. Thinking along the lines of butterflies and hummingbirds, most of our plants will be reds, yellows, and oranges. Agastache, Salvia, and Asclepias are just a few of the pollinator attractors scheduled for our summer planting palette. After specifying over 2,000 new and unusual plants for these pollinator planting plans, I came across one last area in the gardens that needed some new ideas. Read the full post

This summer at Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, we are focusing our educational programming on pollinators. We have some fun and vivacious plants scheduled for the gardens. One of the ideas we had was to plant an entire area of Cleome or spider flower. We just adore these summer annuals from South America as they draw in swarms of butterflies, bees, and birds.

Cleome-Senorita Rosalita 1

(Ok, I have to hit the brakes… I’m only kidding. This was my response to Rochelle’s post on Cleome yesterday. We do have a small patch of C. ‘Senorita Rosalita’ on the drawing board.)

Begonia boliviensis

Now onto my real plant of the week which is also a flowering machine from South America. (Please, please, please, Rochelle do not hate this one as well.) I was looking for a plant that could provide a bright punch for a slightly shaded border near the front entry doors of CMBG. My boss wondered if I had considered a Begonia. I was using Begonia ‘Whopper Red’ nearby so another Begonia would be a nice fit. After some digging, we came up with Begonia boliviensis. We had used B. boliviensis ‘Bonfire’ in the past so I started searching for other cultivars. This is when I came across B. ‘Santa Cruz Sunset.’ Oooh, I was sold at the name. My spiritual animal is a California surf dude like Jeff Spicoli so sunsets over the Pacific from Santa Cruz sounded appealing, especially during this Maine winter.

Begonia boliviensis in general, likes the soil and air to be warm in order to really grow and flower. We will not plant ours out until well after Memorial Day. By then, hopefully, the soil temperatures will be above 65 and our night temperatures will not be below the mid-low 50′s. As the summer warms, these plants do take off like a bonfire, producing large, 2″ long, tuberous flowers until frost. B. ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’ appears to be a heavier flowering selection with more red in its flowers. B. ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’ is a seed strain so it can be grown directly from seed rather than cuttings. And like Rochelle’s beloved Cleome, Begonia boliviensis is a hummingbird magnet.


The leaves on Begonia boliviensis differ than what might first come to your mind. The leaves are long and narrow, with slightly wavy edges. If you plant these plants in late spring/early summer, expect an 18-24″ mound by the end of summer. Their drooping growth habit works well in a container or hanging basket. Also, you can dig these plants up in the fall and store them in a cool, dry shed or basement, as you would a canna or banana. Let the plants go totally dry and dormant and they should emerge the following spring. Begonia boliviensis is native to high altitude areas of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina so they can survive periods of a dry dormancy.

Have you grown ‘Bonfire,’ ‘Santa Cruz Sunset,’ or any of the Bolivian begonias before?


P.S. – sorry, Rochelle, for the Cleome jab.

Images: University of MinnesotaBenary Seed

Lavandula Phenomenal
There are two songs that I have been playing over and over this winter. One is by Andy Grammer and the other is by Ben Howard. The refrain from both songs is “Keep Your Head Up!” It has worked wonderfully until last week. I have been loving this winter with all of its snow and cold even though many are complaining about it. I know there is nothing that I can do about the weather other than keep my head up. What has put this mantra to the test is what we found after coming back from a wonderful vacation to Raleigh, Atlanta, and Walt Disney World. We drove down in mid January to see my mother in Raleigh. It was great to see her and catch up on things in my hometown even though the snow and cold followed us southwards. Then, we went over to Atlanta for the Junior Theater Festival. What a wonderful time and event. If you have children from late elementary to high school age, seek out and get them involved with junior theater. I could go on about the benefits but we love seeing what our kids are doing. After the fantastic festival, we headed south for a long-awaited family vacation in Walt Disney World. Carrie and I wanted to take our kids down as they are at that perfect age and we also wanted to celebrate the fact that we met at Disney as horticulture interns some 20 years ago.

The reason I am telling you this (I am getting to the plants, I promise), is to set up what awaited us when we got home. One day near the end of vacation, we called a friend to check in on our home. He called and said, “Whoa, it is really cold in your home and the water does not work!” Shoot! Turns out, the circulation pump on our boiler burned out and so our home had lost heat for several days. As we were waiting for the Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios, I am on the phone with the boiler repairman. Well, he fixed our boiler but the freezing of the pipes caused two sections of pipe to burst above our dining room. The water break occurred in the ceiling above our fan, which we had left on for air circulation. The ceiling fan acted like a water sprinkler and spread the water all over the dining room, living room, and into parts of our kitchen.

This week, we are living in a neighbor’s summer home as contractors repair our floors, walls, and ceiling. At the same time, we are tracking down all of the things we lost or were damaged (Carrie’s framed painting from David Armstrong that had a personal note to us on the bottom had water damage to the matting but hopefully, we can get the matting replaced). Every little thing, is gonna be alright, to quote Bob Marley.

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