- a botanical whodunit: r.i.p., yellow magnolia
- growing hellebores and more, with barry glick
- ‘spring personified:’ the cowslip, or primula veris
_I OFTEN SAY how the only thing I know with certainty about gardening, even after 30 years of experience, is this: Things will die._ Just before my open garden day last week, a giant yellow magnolia called ‘Butterflies’ in the front yard decided quite unceremoniously that it was time to go. R.I.P., ‘Butterflies.’ But what felled you, I wonder? It was all so sudden-before I knew it, you were on the ground, and being carted away (above). I’ve always thought of this particular magnolia as perhaps a bit too energetic, and somewhat unrefined. It shot up fast a decade or so ago when I planted it, and never seemed to stop, assuming an ever-widening domain for itself. One of its parents is the very-fast-growing cucumber tree magnolia, _Magnolia acuminata_, so probably no surprise; the other parent, _M. denudata_, is no slowpoke, either. At the time of its death, the tree was more than 20 feet tall and about 15 feet wide, with no signs of stopping. Or so I thought. About three weeks ago, the flowers on one lower and one upper branch opened on schedule—but not the rest. The tree had positively covered itself in flower buds last year, holding countless furry silver beauties all winter long. (Maybe I should have been suspicious: It had produced many more buds than I’d ever seen, and often a woody plant in trouble will madly go about trying to reproduce, and set tons of seed.) When I investigated, all the unopened buds were desiccated and many twigs were growing brittle, the bark darkening from the tips inward. But the plant had been lush, and healthy-looking right through last fall. Again: more on the side of too vigorous than weak in any way. There is no way to know what happened without lab tests, but as with any mystery, I immediately began to develop theories—two, in particular, one of them part of a conspiracy theory, actually. The tree did have one issue: yellow-bellied sapsucker(s). Like various trees in the garden, this magnolia was a favorite of this insistent bird, who had opened its characteristically perfectly gridded series of holes in its bark over the years, like the ones in the photo of damaged pine bark, below. Not good—but the magnolia didn’t seem to mind. (Well, until it died.) The bird is where the conspiracy theory began, because two trees—both pines-that used to live within 15 feet of this deadly spot had been the sapsucker’s prior favorites, and they are both long gone. You may recall the day I lost my lacebark pine, _Pinus bungeana, _in 2008. In that case, the sapsucker was the cause, because he just kept at it, until the holes were so large the dots almost connected (the bird's handiwork in process, above). Large portions of bark were eventually lost, not just disfiguring the pine but interrupting the plant’s vascular system, killing all the wood above those wounds. Other trees here that the sapsucker has favored have displayed their badges of abuse for decades without a hiccup; sapsuckers don’t always kill things, since mostly their holes are shallow and more unsightly than fatal. That was the case with the magnolia—lots of shallow holes, no bark loss or loosening. Because those both are pines, my other theory on what killed my magnolia—and how it might be part of a three-tree conspiracy—gets all shot to hell. Looking at the cut sides of the wood my beloved neighbor, Herb, gradually brought to the ground with his trusty chainsaw, I saw a lot of unhealthy-looking darkening (photo of the stump, below). Could it be verticillium wilt? (This Morton Arboretum factsheet details the disease.) Maybe with the magnolia—but not with the pines. Pines don’t get the soil-borne fungal woe called verticillium wilt, it turns out. I won’t know what killed my magnolia unless I send in some remaining live wood for testing, and I’m not even sure I care. Here’s what I do know for sure (besides that things will die): I’m not planting another tree in the apparent sweet spot of my local sapsucker, and where there also may be verticillium in the soil. That newly bare “bed” (quite sunny now that it’s minus one tree) is looking just right for something quite different: This year’s pumpkins and squash. Oh, and maybe I know one more thing: It's a good day for me to recite Geoffrey Charlesworth's splendid poem, "Why Did My Plant Die? Read a botanical whodunit: r.i.p., yellow magnolia on A Way to Garden!
I’M OFTEN ASKED by frustrated gardeners how I managed to get my big old hellebore plants to grow so lustily—as if they are finicky, or difficult. To me they seem easy, but since reader questions persist, I decided to ask the guy with 6 acres of mature plants and decades of hellebore-breeding experience, Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens. In my latest radio-show (transcript highlights are on the jump if you prefer to read, not listen) we also covered when to divide woodland wildflowers, and some deer-resistant recommendations for the shade garden, too. Background: Barry Glick-a serious plantaholic who’s even a vegan and is sometimes also referred to in mock botanical Latin as the _Glicksterus maximus_-is a native of the Philadelphia area, and has been gardening since childhood. In 1972, he purchased 60 acres of a 3,650-foot-high mountaintop in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, that became Sunshine Farm and Gardens (which you can stroll though and shop from at sunfarm.com, and even go visit in real life by advance appointment). Barry’s a garden writer, a longtime lecturer and a major expert on plant propagation—but most of all I love how he was described in one magazine article I read recently: “The Flower Child Who Became the Flower King.”
PREFER THE PODCAST? GROWING HELLEBORES, and multiplying them plus woodlanders like trillium and Virginia bluebells, was the topic of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program with guest Barry Glick. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 29, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.SNIPPETS FROM MY Q&A WITH BARRY GLICK IN THE TEXT BELOW, I harvested just the briefest details from conversations with Barry before, after and during the show taping, so be sure to listen in as well as read, for extra unexpected goodies. (Examples: the fact that a Number 8 “camel-hair” brush—which Barry uses for hand-pollination of hellebores—is actually made from squirrel fur. Or that the longest-lasting way to enjoy hellebore flowers is to cut them with about a quarter-inch of stalk left behind each bloom, and float them in a bowl of water, where they will last a couple of weeks.) _Q. I HAVE GROWN HELLEBORES—THE ONES I STILL CALL THE ORIENTALIS_ HYBRIDS—FOR ABOUT 15 YEARS, AND THEY HAVE NEVER MISSED A BEAT. DO PEOPLE TELL YOU THEY FIND THEM HARD TO GROW, TOO, AND ASK YOU FOR THE “SECRET”? A. Hellebores are of the most idiot-proof plants in the world—and the only way I have been able to kill them is to plant them in puddles. If you’re in Florida or South Carolina and plant them in full sun and don’t water them, you’ll probably have problems, too, but they can grow in every state in the United States. The ones that were called _orientalis_ are actually _Helleborus_ x _hybridus_—and draw on the complex genetics of about 19 species of hellebore that go into the mix. You can tell if you see ones with divided foliage that they may have _Helleborus multifidus_ in their background, for example; _viridis_ brings green flowers and of course _purpureus_ beings purple. The species _odorus_, which sounds like it’s about fragrance, brings the yellow color. The hybrids are very easy to grow. They prefer rich, moist soil with good drainage, part to full shade. Q. PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK ME WHEN TO DIVIDE HELLEBORES-BUT I NEVER HAVE! WHAT ABOUT YOU? A. Hellebores don’t require division. I’ve had plants continue to flower for decades, and yes, maybe some plants after 30 or 35 years have shown a little dead in the middle. But mostly why divide them? By the way: The x _hybridus_ types can live over 100 years. If you want to share or multiply a specific plant, though, here’s what to do: Mark the particular plants you want to divide while they are flowering. Dig it up the following spring before flowering time—when the soil is just thawed. Wash the soil off so you can see where to make your divisions and make accurate cuts, using a sharp knife (I use a steak knife). Be sure to leave a couple of buds on each division. I use an anti-shock transplant formula when I transplant (including Vitamin B1 and chelated iron and other ingredients). I also a high-Phosphorus fertilizer to encourage good rooting. Q. I OFTEN RELOCATE SEEDLINGS THAT FORM AROUND THE MOTHER HELLEBORE PLANTS—BUT I WAIT TILL YEAR 2, WHEN THEY ARE BIG ENOUGH TO HANDLE. IS THAT THE BEST WAY TO GO? A. Yes, wait till they have their first set of true leaves to move. A lot of people are disappointed that the seedlings, if they were self-pollinated by the parent plant, aren’t as vigorous—but you might get something interesting, if it was pollinated by another nearby plant. At the farm, we control the crosses as part of our breeding program, to make the Sunshine Selections, following a process like this. Q. COMPARED TO MY HYBRIDS THAT JUST GET BIGGER AND BETTER YEAR AFTER YEAR, STAYING IN EVER-WIDENING CLUMPS, _HELLEBORUS FOETIDUS_ SEEMS TO MOVE FROM ONE END OF A BED TO ANOTHER AS IT WISHES. A. _Helleborus foetidus_ is a shorter-lived perennial, and does indeed sow around the garden. There are many good selections within this species, with very different foliage. [Here’s ‘Frenchy,’ for instance, with very lacey leaves.] A little background:_ foetidus_ is what’s called a caulescent hellebore (as is the species _argutifolius_). The acaulescent species (meaning “without a stem”) are those that contribute to the x _hybridus_ types—all those other species we talked about. Q. OK, LET’S SWITCH GEARS TO OTHER PLANTS: When should I divide Virginia bluebells, _Mertensia virginica_? [Those are some, above, in Margarets front yard.] A. Again—why divide them, as they will sow themselves around and make more, so it’s not a necessity to divide them (the way it is every few years with something like _Heuchera_). But if you need to propagate: There are dormant buds all over the rhizome, so if you get a seven- or eight-year-old plant you can dig it up after flowering and after the seed drops. Cut up the rhizomes into a couple of pieces and plant them right away, and new buds will develop. Make sure the soil you put on top of it is loose. But again: there's really no reason to propagate, unless perhaps because you get a white-flowered one and want more of it. They'll make a nice colony from seed themselves. Q. WHAT ABOUT DEER? ARE THEY A PROBLEM FOR YOU, AND IF SO, WHAT ESCAPES THEIR BROWSING? A. The deer are so bad here, I say that they eat the paint off the barn. Want me to send you some? But some things among many that they don’t eat: _Mertensia_, ferns, _Primula japonica_, _Arisaema_, _Cimicifuga, Caulophyllum, Iris, Actaea, Delphinium, Paeonia, Thalictrum_… SHOPPING AT SUNSHINE FARM AND GARDENS AS WITH EVERYTHING Glick, the “catalog” of sunfarm.com is packed with information (and plants) but also just a tad eccentric. Want to order? Availability and pricing on many things is “in Barry’s head,” the site explains matter-of-factly, so please “Email Barry’s head," it instructs you, about what you’re interested in. * shop for hellebores at sunshine farm * Browse the website from the start * Email Barry’s head to inquire about plants at Barry [at] sunfarm [dot] com, including many choice shade plants and more * Watch Barry on the farm, on local TV _(Hellebore photos from Barrk Glick at Sunshine Farm and Gardens. Photo of Barry by Lee Reich.)_ Read growing hellebores and more, with barry glick on A Way to Garden!
_A CONVERSATION WITH AN OLD FRIEND sent me searching deep in one overgrown border last month here for my forgotten plants of Primula veris_—the common cowslip—which isn’t so common in nurseries after all, it seems, my friend was saying. I promptly moved the big clumps, still vigorous despite having found themselves swamped lately, from back-of-bed obscurity to front-and-center, and have enjoyed weeks of cheery bloom. “_Primula veris _is the ‘English cowslip’ that was once commonly found in pastures and meadows,” says the American Primrose Society website. The plant, which extends into Siberia, Turkey and Iran, is also one of the parents of the modern polyanthus hybrids—the plant most people envision when you say “primrose.” The species name—_veris—_means “of spring,” particularly apt once you’ve seen its cheerful yellow flowers held well above ample foliage. So why aren’t we all growing this charmer—which owing to its origins in those meadows of the U.K., Europe and Asia is sturdy enough to hold its own even in competitive quarters such as those I inadvertently subjected it to? “It is not common,” Marilyn Barlow of Select Seeds in Connecticut had said to me, prompting my search-and-rescue mission earlier this spring—for which I am grateful (and probably my plants are, too). “But it is spring personified and just all around lovely.” And then, her confession: “Generally I can be found crawling on hands and knees to smell them,” said Marilyn, calling their fragrance “like a sweet spring breeze.” Grow _Primula veris_ in sun or part shade—relief from full sun in high summer is best, I think. You can start from seed (I’m imagining it sown into a grassy swath, harking back to its native haunts), or get going faster with plants. Which, thankfully, Marilyn Barlow had the foresight to propagate this year. (She sells seeds, too, for those who are patient or wanting a whole gang of cowslips. Marilyn says they'll take 7-30 days after a chill period to germinate, so they should be sown indoors in winter, or outdoors in fall or early spring.) When my rescues are done blooming, I may divide the fat clumps—another easy way to get more. If it’s hot and dry here by the time bloom ends, though, I’ll wait and do it in early fall. OTHER PRIMROSES I GROW * _Primula kisoana_ (a bawdy orchid-pink spreader) * _Primula sieboldii_ (flower colors vary from white to pinks and lavender pinks) * _Primula japonica_ (the candelabra types; mine are deep pink) Read 'spring personified:’ the cowslip, or primula veris on A Way to Garden!