Archive for 2005

The Common, Uncommonly Elder

Icon Written by Geoff on October 1, 2005 – 7:27 pm

I hate to think how often I have found myself in trouble overlooking the obvious. For example, my wife just this morning wore a new dress, which naturally I overlooked, like I usually do, on such occasions. We are all guilty of this from time to time. It is not that we do not see the object but rather our mind just does not recognize what we see. 

This was brought to my attention recently after reading an article on Sambucus canadensis or the common elder. I made the mistake of saying to my wife that this was a wonderful small tree which we should plant in that open area down by the creek or maybe under the white ash behind the south gardens. She just kind of looked at me like I had lost my mind before finally asking , “What are you planning on doing with the ones already growing there”? I quickly retired to other parts of the house. 

I was so use to seeing this plant, I fail to see it’s beauty like my wife in her new dress. The elder, often referred to as the blue elderberry, desert elder, European elder, swamp elder, or common elderberry is anything but common. The Sambucus canadensis and four of it’s cousins are small trees or large shrubs found along many creek banks and forest edges. Sambucus make lovely garden ornamentals particularly where a naturalized grouping is desired. 

Flowers are borne in large panicles resembling the flowers of Queen Ann’s lace, in early summer. The fruits ripen in late fall and are prized by birds, which eat them throughout the winter. Seeds germinate in Spring, with new shoots growing rapidly, up to 18 inches per year. Deer and woodchucks like the tender new shoots of the elder. 

While not commercially important, the berries do make excellent pie, jam and wine. The flowers are edible, often used in fritters or in fresh salads. Leaves of the elder are toxic, and care must be taken not to include leaves when picking fruits or flowers. Native Americans dried the fruits, pulverized them and made pemmican by mixing with animal fat. 

The tough easy to grow, elderberry definitely deserves a spot in the garden. We are starting to see wonderful selections available, particularly through specialty mail order nurseries such as Roslyn Nursery (http://www and Forest Farms ( The new cultivars are drawing attention to this plant especially with some of the flashier variegated varieties. Some of the ones we like best are: 

Sambucus caerulea
– Blue Elderberry is spectacular with its waxy blue fruit clusters borne on this 6-12 foot native shrub tree whose large flat clusters of creamy-white flowers precede clusters heavy fruit. 

Sambucus canadensis
– Golden Elderberry is a vigorous large shrub growing 10-12 feet which looks good throughout the growing season with bright yellow to yellow-green foliage and black berries. 

Sambucus nigra
– Marginata Elderberry is very handsome in flower and fruit, while the creamy-white margins of its compound leaves in combination with its large clusters of white flowers and the shiny black berries is spectacular. This 6-8 foot shrub is ideal for the border or wild garden. 

Sambucus nigra laciniata
– Cut leaf Elderberry is a 6-8 foot shrub that has leaves elegantly cut into fine lobes, large heads of small creamy flowers. The Cut leaf really stands out in the garden as a specimen plant. 

Sambucus nigra
– Guincho Purple has leaves which open green, turn quickly to a rich wine-pruple, a lovely contrast with its mounds of pink-tinted flowers borne on purple stems. 

Sambucus racemosa
– The Red Elderberry produces great pyramidal clusters of foamy white flowers followed by bright-red berries in the Fall. A very ornamental 3-12 foot shrub. 

Now that I know what I am seeing I will make sure I take time to appreciate my elders. They really are a very useful shrub for the home gardener. I also plan on trying some of the other varieties this Spring if for no other reason then to see if my wife notices.

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Border Planting for Privacy and Screening

Icon Written by Geoff on September 1, 2005 – 3:23 pm

We all have some part of our yard or gardens that we wish we could hide, maybe an old dilapidated two hole privy, a neighbors forgotten 1952 Nash Rambler, or an abandon oil tank. Things of character to be sure but an eye sore never the less. 

Believe me I would rather have a Nash Rambler as a neighbor rather then a Suds Your Dudes, or heaven forbid, a Mickey D’s. Most of us consider our lawn and gardens an extension of our homes, where we can look for quiet and privacy . Unfortunately, we often take the easy way out, when our tranquility is threatened. We quickly throw up a stockade fence, suburbia’s Berlin Wall. 

We soon realize though that our solution in itself can be quite unsettling. Like busy little beavers, we are soon at work trying to hide what we just built. While taking a little longer to develop, plants offer living privacy walls, which can be especially important in today’s neighborhoods where ranch style homes are lumped together with fast food joints and adult entertainment centers. 

Using plants effectively will require careful planning on your part. First, you will have to decide if you are looking for single or multi season screening. If you are looking for year round appeal you will have to consider plants that flower, have changing foliage, offer winter color, bare fruit, or have interesting texture. 

You will also have to decide how much time you can spend on plant maintenance. While a living border can require a lot of maintenance it does not have to. If your time is limited you definitely will not want a formal hedge or border which require constant pruning and care. Natural planting usually offer a more relaxing soft effect and require little time. A popular option, just catching on, is to rent potted plants which only require watering and can be easily moved around for special occasions. 

Selecting the right size of plant is also critical. You would not want to use towering Oaks to hide a pool nor Firethorns to screen a hot tub, and surly Pygmy Barberries would not hide that Nash Rambler. While this may seem as just common sense, it is surprising how often we select plants we like and are familiar with and not what works best. We also often forget that most plants get bigger as they mature. 

The last thing you need to evaluate, before plant selection, is the area in terms of size, sun exposure, soil, drainage, and proximity to utilities such as gas, water, electrical lines. You will also need to check on existing building codes. Also it might be nice to check with your neighbors and let them know what you are planning. 

Once you have information about the site, and desired effect, you can decide what kind of plants meet your needs. Mixed plantings of evergreen and deciduous shrubs provide interest in many seasons. Deciduous plants provide more shade in summer but allow light to reach your yard in winter. Fruiting trees, bushes, and vines provide snacks for you and the birds and for your neighbors. Tall potted plants make a fast portable screen around a pool, patio, or deck. Ornamental grasses grow rapidly and are easy to maintain. Vines will quickly soften hardscapes and hide buildings.

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Our Favorite Groundcovers

Icon Written by Geoff on July 1, 2005 – 5:23 pm

Every gardener uses groundcovers in their landscapes even if they do not realize it. Often times groundcovers are overlooked, simply taken for granted as the green stuff growing on the hillside. When we do get around to discussing groundcovers, the first thing that pops into our minds are low spreading ivy, vinca minor, spreading junipers, and ajuga that we planted to hide something bad. 

Ask a lawn maintenance company in our local to name a ground cover and he will state without hesitation “Kentucky Blue Grass.” Personally, I think groundcovers are any plant used to protect the soil by forming a dense protective blanket, if it is attractive so much the better. 

Well just what then is a groundcover and what does it do! The Melbourne Water District defines groundcover plants as: 

“Groundcovers are tough, prostrate-growing plants that can help retain soil moisture, keep soil cool and suppress weeds.”

While the Virginia Extension Service describes groundcover as: 

“Groundcovers are low-growing plants that spread quickly to form a dense cover. Grass is the best known ground cover, but grass is not suited to all locations.”

Usually ground cover plants are utilized for, steep banks, shady areas under trees, under plantings in shrub borders and beds, where tree roots grow close to the surface and prevent grass from growing, and very wet or dry locations. 

Groundcovers not only solve problems but also unify different components in the landscape. A low groundcover can provide a transition between the lawn and taller plants used in beds. They soften hardscapes such as walks, steps, and driveways. 

What plants you use are based on the conditions of the site and on what you like. The groundcovers you choose should require only minimal care. They should be able to depend mainly on the rainfall for nourishment. An annual application of fertilizer may be given, but not necessary, to keep the plants growing vigorously. Selected plantings should only be divided if they cease to grow well through overcrowding. The most common mistake made by the home gardener is in not using enough plants in the initial planting to adequately cover the area. Please do not skimp in this area to save money, it will only give you years of grief. 

Groundcovers are merely another gardening tool, one when correctly used will, save you time and money, while adding to the overall beauty of your landscape. Choose your planting wisely and they will provide years of carefree charm. Do not be afraid to experiment with different plants, all groundcover does not need to look like English Ivy.

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Picking the Right Landscape Contractor

Icon Written by Geoff on April 1, 2005 – 5:26 pm

Landscaping that is well designed and maintained not only adds beauty to your home but greatly increases it’s value. Just ask any real estate salesmen about the importance of curb appeal! It has been estimated that landscaping adds 15-20 percent to the value of your home. This is actually recoverable value too, not just a money pit such as hot tubs or pools. We continually talk about the importance of maintaining your lawn and garden areas with our customers. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to overlook the exterior environment of your home. Even with proper care, landscape areas can become shabby over time. They also can become dated just like the lava lights and green linoleum of the fifties and early sixties. 

Like your house, sooner or later you are going to have to renovate your landscape. While most of us can handle the routine garden chores, few homeowners are up to the task of a complete garden make over, especially with today’s wide choice of hardscape designs and installations. How many of us have the expertise to understand, let alone comply, with today’s many zoning laws, building codes, and permit requirements. 

This is where the professional landscape contractor comes in. The contractor knows the laws, specifications, material sources, and has the where with all to carry the project through to completion and in a timely manner. He has the ability to work with you and the architect to produce a finished landscape that will add years of beauty and value to your home. Choosing the right contractor thus will determine the success or failure of your landscape installation. 

Unfortunately, as a lawn maintenance professional, we often see what happens when a bad choice is made. Every year we get calls for help with problems arising from bad materials, poor workmanship, or a combination of both. This can run from simply reseeding a lawn planted too late in the season to repairing a retaining wall that fell over after the first heavy rain. Without fail, at some point in our restoration, the customer will ask us what they should have done differently. 

The first step is to have a plan, be it a simple sketch or a complete architectural drawing. Next determine the scope of the project and what services you expect from the contractor such as installation of plant material, decks and patio, retaining walls, irrigation systems, and lighting. A good contractor should be able to handle all of this for you. 

Thoroughly investigate the company. Contact some of your neighbors to see if they have used or heard of him. Check to see how long he has been in business in your community. Make sure to ask for recent references and check these out, visit the jobs and talk with his customers. We freely encourage potential customers to do this, even making arrangements for them, if they desire. We consider that our best advertising comes from past satisfied customers. 

While many states require licensing, care must be taken in taking this at face value. Many times a license just means they are good at taking tests. Also, certification by a local or national trade organization may mean only that they pay dues to be able to use that groups logo. By itself, certification or licensing can be misleading. 

For you the homeowner, the contractor’s insurance coverage should be a big concern. Landscaping work requires both liability and worker’s compensation insurance. You should require written proof of insurance from the contractors insurance carrier. Insurance companies will readily provide this information. 

Check out what levels of expertise and education the employees have. Of course, I would not be writing this today if my customers had just based their decision on my horticultural education as my background is in Business Management and Accounting. Here again you need to look at the total package. 

Ask how long the employees have been working with them. We encourage potential customers to talk with our people. Not only does the customer have to feel comfortable with the contractor but also the contractor with the customer. We make it a point to walk away from jobs where it just did not feel right. 

Be sure to ask about what guarantees the landscaper will stand behind . Do they guarantee the plant material? Will the hardscape items, both materials and labor be covered at no cost to the homeowner? Make sure you know how long the contractor will stand behind his work. 

What about the guy just starting out? I am still surprised that so many people gave me a chance with my old scruffy Chevy Blazer and snowmobile trailer. I was enthusiastic, dependable, really love the work, and fortunately many people realized that. I always wanted to do a good job, sure I had to make a living but above all else I wanted to please the customer. 

If you find someone with excellent references, good looking projects, who is enthusiastic about the work, and that you feel comfortable with, you just may have a good prospect. The main thing is to take the time to do your homework!

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The Best of the Best in On-Line Nurseries

Icon Written by Geoff on March 1, 2005 – 6:25 pm

There are thousands of online nurseries out there today. The number is growing by leaps and bounds as companies discover the profit from web site sales. Unfortunately, this does not mean all of these sites are good or even close to it. In fact, many are just down right poor, offering little service and misnamed inferior plants. 

In this month’s Yard Talk we are going to discuss online nurseries which we feel are not just good but excellent, thus they are the Best of the Best. To make our list they must consistently supply plants which are strong, vigorous growers as represented. Their plants should be healthy, strong, and above average in size, truly specimens of their species. We expect plants to be protected during shipment, while bare root plants are acceptable, potted plants should be the norm. Shipments should be made on time and in the manner specified. All orders should be acknowledge and any back orders brought to our attention promptly. 

The following nurseries are ones which have met or exceeded our expectations: 

Edmunds’ Roses – (
A site is about modern roses with excellent graphics and a wealth of information. An essential place to visit for those of us into new roses. 

The Antique Rose Emporium – (
Is an excellent source for old garden and antique roses. This is their 22nd year of offering our vigorous, easy to grow, fragrant and long-lived roses. Their site has loads of useful information on growing roses. 

Spring Valley – (
Specializes in winter hardy Old Garden, Climbing and Shrub roses. They offer roses in the following classes: Centifolia, Climbers, Gallica, Hybrid Rugosa, Shrub and Species. These include many of the newer Shrubs and Hybrid Rugosas developed in Germany and Canada. 

Aesthetic Gardens – (
Offer rare and unusual trees and shrubs. They have no catalog nor physical gardens to visit. The material has been collected and grown in the Northwest in Oregon and Washington. If you are looking for that special, hard to find specimen, this is the place. 

Roslyn Nursery – (
Is a unique nursery specializing in rare and exotic varieties of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, trees, ground cover and other ornamental plants. A very good source for Japanese Maples and Ferns. Also for those in the warmer zones they offer a selection of Camellias. 

Clematis Speciality Nursery – (
Is a small nursery specializing in all types of clematis. Clematis Speciality Nursery is particularly interested in small-flowered species and hybrids that are so easy and rewarding to grow. Their aim is also to introduce new but proven varieties of both small and large-flowered clematis 

Franklin Hill Garden – (
Offers enticing selections of annual and perennial flower varieties, natives, exotics, heirlooms, cottage garden favorites, and a few modern hybrids. Franklin Hills goal is to help us rediscover forgotten old favorites as well as find a few new treasures. 

Wildseed Farms – (
Offers for sale over 70 species of wildflower seed, and wildflower seed mixes. Their catalog is an invaluable resource for anyone who would like to join the growing community of enthusiasts who support Mother Nature by planting wildflowers. They offer useful information on such diverse subjects as starting a no mow lawn to plants for clay soils. 

Seeds of Change – (
Is an all organic, 100 % Certified source for over 1500 different varieties of heirloom seeds. Their mission is to seek out traditional varieties, many of which are in danger of being lost. The site offers a lot of information for the organic gardener 

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs – (
Are third generation bulb growers, developing many unusual and speciality bulbs on their farm in Virginia. We cannot say enough about this nursery, we have never had a problem with them and all bulbs have outperformed our expectations. 

Plant Delights Nursery – (
Is a nursery specializing in unusual perennials. They feature a wide variety of native perennials, as well as their Asian counterparts. Genera of special focus include amorphophallus, arisaema, asarum, ferns, hardy palms, helleborus, heuchera, hosta, lobelia, ornamental grasses, pulmonaria, tiarella, and verbena…to mention but a few. 

Naylor Creek Nursery – (
Offer a wonderful selection of unique or hard to find perennials. We were impressed with their wide selection of hostas, pulmonarias, and epimediums, some only recently offered. We have acquired some of our best hostas from these people. 

Heronswood – (
Is a speciality nursery located in Washington State. A site to visit if you can find it no where else, a very wide selection of hard to find or specimen plants.

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Plant Picks 2004

Icon Written by Geoff on January 1, 2005 – 5:45 pm

Every year we take time out to make a list of those plants which have really out performed all others in our gardens. As always, a few are like old friends, that just keep popping up. We have to admit, that since we are mostly shade gardeners, a good percentage of shade tolerant plants find there way into our lists. 

It is by no means easy for a plant to make our list, with over 500 varieties of plants in our gardens, a plant must really stand out. To be selected, a plant must not only be attractive but also require low maintenance and be exceptionally hardy. All of these plants can be viewed on our Plant Data Base at 

2004 Fern of the Year – Athyrium niponicum Apple Court 
It is a crested Japanese painted fern that not only has lovely purple, silver and green markings, but each leaf is dramatically crested both up the sides and onto the tip. Our specimen has matured at over two foot. This is a superb addition to any woodland garden. 

2004 Grass of the Year – Chasmanthium latifolium Northern Sea Oats 
It is one of the few ornamental grasses that thrives in shady conditions. Northern Sea Oats has a short basal tuft of wide grassy leaves that gives rise to four foot flower stalks with dramatic grain-like flowers. Northern Sea Oats grow best in a naturalistic garden, either in the border or by the water. While it took us a while to get this plant established in an area it liked, it was well worth the effort. 

2004 Shade Plant of the Year – Hosta hybrid Captain Kirk 
It is an amazing new sport of the popular Gold Standard is probably a tetraploid hosta featuring a wide golden center, surrounded by a very wide dark green edge. While only in it’s second year in our garden it has made it’s presents known. A very showy hosta only growing 18 inches tall but over 36 inches wide. 

2004 Bog Plant of the Year – Asclepias incarnata Pink Swamp Milkweed 
It is once again our selection as bog plant of the year. If you wish to attract butterflies to your gardens, be sure to plant some Pink Swamp Milkweed. It is the favorite food for the caterpillar of the Monarch Butterfly. Beautiful and unique, bicolored flowers of white and dark pink appear midsummer in 1-2 inches diameter clusters. As the name implies, Swamp Milkweed grows best in moist locations. 

2004 Groundcover of the Year – Polygonatum odoratum thunbergii Variegatum Variegated Japanese Solomon’s Seal 
Solomon Seals are graceful shade plants that provide nice form and structure to the garden. These plants have long arching unbranched stems, they have nice clean, veined leaves with clusters of bell like greenish yellow to whitish yellow flowers hanging down from the stems at the leaf axis. In late summer and fall showy berries are produced that are blue to dark blue in color. We use these as a backdrop for small wood ferns or under plant with foamflowers. Most Solomon seals grow in spreading colonies that are easy to dig up and divide. 

2004 Conifer of the Year – Abies fraseri Fraser Fir
It is sometimes called Southern balsam or Southern balsam fir. Fraser fir is a uniformly pyramid-shaped tree which reaches a maximum height of about 80 feet and a diameter of 1-2 feet. This fir is somewhat shade tolerant. 

2004 New Introduction of the Year – Echinacea Art’s Pride Orange Echinacea 
It is an amazing coneflower that comes from the breeding program of Dr. Jim Ault of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Each two foot wide clump of slender green foliage is topped with spikes of rustic-orange flowers. 

2004 Butterfly Plant of the Year – Sedum telephium Autumn Joy 
It has round flat flower heads rising above bold, flat-leaved foliage. Flowers then transform to pale pink and gradually change to dark pink. We use this plant everywhere, probably more than we should, but it is one of those plants that just has four season appeal. A must for the beginning gardener. 

2004 Tree of the Year – Magnolia stellata 
It is a deciduous small tree or large shrub growing 12-15 feet, branching is upright-spreading round or oval with multi-stemmed. An excellent specimen focal locations or patios, a tree for small spaces. Blooms are frequently injured by spring frosts, soft-wooded and prone to damage from heavy snow and ice but overall a relatively trouble-free plant. 

2004 Hosta of the Year – Hosta hybrid Whirlwind 
It has a wide central band of white that contrasts dramatically with the darkest black-green leaf that we have seen. In dense shade, the central variegation tends to fade in the summer. The three foot wide clumps are topped with lavender flowers in midsummer. 

2004 Vegetable of the Year – Round French Zucchini Squash
A three to six inch diameter squash that has exceptional flavor and is very prolific. We have grown this squash for the last two seasons without any problems besides not having enough room to grow more. 

2004 Fruit Tree of the Year – Malus Hybrid Donald 
A small flowering tree with buds, which are deep red at first, then turn pink, then finally white when they fully open. Its flowers are very showy, and the “snowstorm” that comes when the petals drop is something out of a fairy tale. The show continues into fall, as the glossy red crabapples that form persist into winter, and provide a beautiful feature. 

2004 Bulb of the Year – Narcissus Hybrid Ambergate 
Ambergate has a bright, brick red cup bleeds into the unusual colored, bronzy orange cup, a real eye-catcher in late spring. Perfect for perennializing, picking, forcing and showing. It is one of the showiest daffodils in it’s division. 

2004 Herb of the Year – Borago officinalis 
It is a decorative annual with coarse, hairy leaves and stems and beautiful sky-blue flowers in a star shape. The plant grows about 2 to 3 feet tall. Borage is easily grown from seed and will sow itself. Use leaves fresh anytime; they are seldom dried. Bees are attracted to the borage plant. We just kind of let it do it’s thing, running wild throughout other border plants. On top of all this the flowers are delicious! 

2004 Shrub of the Year – Sambucus racemosa Sutherland Gold Elderberry 
It is truly a sight to behold with its deeply cut foliage of bright gold. The masses of creamy flowers develop into clusters of red fruit that the birds love. Another first year plant in our gardens that has made it’s mark, a real winner. 

2004 Rose of the Year – Rosa hybrid Voodoo 
This tall Hybrid Tea has Peachy Yellow Blend, heavily perfumed flowers that soften in color to yellow and peach shades, then finally fade to pink. The tall, upright bush carries plenty of dark bronze-green, glossy foliage. Perfect as single specimen plantings or as the featured plant in a mixed bed of roses. 

2004 Tropical Plant of the Year – Syagrus romanzoffianum Queen Palm Feather Palm 
Graceful, arching form adds a delicate look to large gardens. Fast growth rate, single trunk, with green deciduous foliage , reaching a height of 50 feet. 

Many of the choices were very hard to make as there are a lot of good plants out there! The roses Love and Peace, Perfume Delight, and Caribbean all did very well last season. Once again the hosta Great Expectations put on a show, as did, Miscanthus sinensis Morning Light. We also introduced several varieties of elderberry to our wet areas that we expect great things from.

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