pushing bloom boundaries

Magnolia petals

Each year happens the same, the weather gets warmer and before we know it,  we are  barraged by this festival of blooms called springtime. It seems there is barely enough time to enjoy one flower display before the next one is vying for our attention, screaming out our name to be looked at and admired.   We can appreciate these heightened, but brief flowering shows of trees and shrubs for what it is, thinking the moment to shine has passed once the petals have fallen to the ground. Or, we can see this as the moment you can push the boundaries of  bloom time, prolonging the display by taking advantage of tiny counterparts that might sometimes go unnoticed by being so low to the ground.

Primula flowerPrimula

Underplant these areas with small plants that bloom during the same period. To really catch the attention of a wandering eye, pick colors that are bold together, we can save subtlety for another time.  The goblet shaped flowers of Magnolia x soulangeana rains down fleshy white petals flushed with pale pink onto the reddish-purple blooms of  the small Primula pulverulenta, causing the blooms of this small perennial with gray stems to hover above a pale creamy background.

Mysotis and Berberis

In another scenario we have a study on complementary colors, where the diminutive blue blooms of Myosotis sylvatica are held even higher against a carpet of  orange flowers belonging to the evergreen shrub Berberis darwinii.

Violets and CamelliaAn invigorating combination of tertiary colors helps make the often overlooked Viola riviana a noticeable star as they nod above the discarded petals of  Camellia japonica.   It doesn’t matter what combination of colors or plants you choose, at any time of year, just have fun with it and play another round of bloom time…    -J

Gravetye Giant full circle

fog meadow

In full bloom
In full bloom

In the autumn, shortly after arriving at Gravetye Manor, my friend Stuart and I were asked to bulk the wildflower meadow up with more spring blooming bulbs.  The morning is forever engrained in my mind, a cool foggy mist surrounding us as we plunked each dormant bulb into the cold dark soil with our trowels, lost in the quiet cloud of our task. I first learned about this bulb early on when I  started studying horticulture, Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’, seeing it used often in gardens that put it to good use as a plant that naturalizes easily. This is a cultivar that has history here at Gravetye the great garden writer,  William Robinson found its bloom to be superior in size to the others growing on his estate.

We continued planting a  few crates of them into the grass  that was so heavy with moisture, and I thought to myself about how these bulbs were returning home, their place of origin, the home of their much older relatives that they descended from.  As I tucked each one to sleep for winter, packing the soil around them, my thoughts turned to Spring and I looked forward to seeing their green tips of their foliage, still months away, emerging in heat of warmer days.

Now, with Spring having arrived, it is obvious to see that these bulbs are everywhere at Gravetye, coming up in drifts in the wildflower meadows, in the hillside gardens, and even growing in clumps in the woods along the drive to the house. They bloom for a long period of time, about 2-3 weeks weather depending, due in part to the multiple bell-shaped flowers that emerge one after the other and all dangling from a single scape.  With the blooms now beginning to fade outside, and the foliage soon turning yellow, it is only a matter of time before there is no trace of them left in the garden, only known to those who have seen them here. Feverishly I cut some stalks for myself, to be greedy and have some alone time with them, to prolong this memory of my friends that I met in Autumn. William Robinson was a smart man for seeing this plant and realizing its potential and for the future, I will never see this bulb in the same light again, now that I have seen its history come full circle.   -J

Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant'

Spring Foliage Kaleidoscope


This native trio at Jenkins Arboretum, which includes Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple), Packera aurea (golden ragwort), and Allium tricoccum (ramps), demonstrates the success of intermingling for foliage effect  – the wheel-like Podophyllum leaves appear to pirouette across the planting, the lance-like Allium leaves add linearity, and scalloped leaf margins of Packera is a textural piece de resistance. More so is the green monotony broken up by the mottling of the Podophyllum leaves and the yellow flowers of Packera. The three plants knit together for a effective weed suppressing planting.

Only Packera aurea will persist for the remaining season after Allium and Podophyllum have gone underground.




May brings the first flowering presence from our native deciduous azaleas in woodlands along the East Coast U.S. Their delicacy is a welcome antidote to the brasher, bolder evergreen azaleas that often grace the American garden, and sadly such subtlety translates to less popularity, despite that our shadier gardens are more accommodating for their cultivation than that of evergreen ones wanting more sun. The British gardeners were rather enthusiastic about these deciduous azaleas especially during the mid 18th century when a fervent following for North American plants saw repeated trans-Atlantic shipments.  One of the first deciduous azaleas sent to England from North America was Rhododendron periclymenoides (pinxterbloom azalea). Calling it ‘red shrub honeysuckle”,  the Pennsylvanian botanist John Bartram dispatched this species, along with R. canescens and R. viscosum to his British collaborator and sponsor Peter Collinson. ‘Red Shrub honeysuckle’ never became adopted as the common name, and pinxterbloom azalea took preference as Pinxter is Dutch for Pentescost (seventh Sunday after Easter), an accurate timing of the flowers.

                     Rhododendron_periclymenoides_in_landscape         Rhododendron_periclymenoides

Each pink flower (1 1/2″ wide) is accentuated by five elongated stamens, tapering outwards like butterfly antennae. In fact, the flowering clusters can be likened to butterflies congregating to feed. Because the leaves are small upon emerging, they do not detract from the floral display. Rhododendron periclymenoides enjoys soft filtered light and moist soil typical of open woodlands. It resents heavy clay soil, therefore amending the soil well or planting in raised beds is recommended. Loose and airy, the habit makes R. periclymenoides a see-thru shrub in the woodland garden. It looks best sprinkled here and there rather than a singular specimen, towering from carpets of white foamflowers (Tiarella), trilliums (Trillium), and ferns.  Prune lightly to thin out some suckers as R. periclymenoides can be stoloniferous.


Delphinium tricorne

Delphinium tricorne

Delphiniums incite reverence for their crystalline blues, purples, and whites rare in the floral world. They seem even rarefied when their temperament is best appeased in cool, cloudy climates. Countless gardeners have coddled delphiniums with variable success  – some, including myself, enduring heartbreak at seeing flowering stems broken from wind and rain or the plants succumbing to summer heat, while others stand elated, like proud parents at their children’s graduation.

North America is home to approximately sixty species, most of which are found in the West Coast and Interior West (Flora of North America Vol. 3). Here in eastern Pennsylvania, we grow Delphinium tricorne. Our native species may not have the wattage power of its gargantuan cousins, yet its deep blue to violet hue more than compensates in intensity. Even a solitary plant can steal the scene in the crowded spring arena. They inhabit deciduous and sloped woodlands, moist ravines, and partially shaded rock sides throughout eastern U.S. (from Pennsylvania to Nebraska and outwards to Minnesota). Their flowering coincides with trilliums, shooting stars (Dodecatheon), foamflowers (Tiarella), and phlox (Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera), all of which enjoy the same moist woodland conditions.  At Mt. Cuba Center, Greenville, Delaware, drifts of D. tricorne are planted with Polemonium reptans (Jacob’s ladder), the lighter grey-purple of the latter setting off the iridescent violet of the former.

Like other spring ephemerals, D. tricorne disappears in summer until the following spring. The tuberous rootstock allows the plant to withstand drought and multiply vegetatively via offsets. Seed, which resemble tiny black beads,  can be harvested in early summer. They require stratification and seedlings should be left in the containers before they are large enough to transplant individually in pots or in the garden.


Lily tricks

removing the anthers
removing the anthers

There are usually tricks to getting some of your cut flowers to look better and last longer. The best time to buy lilies is when most of the buds are closed or are just beginning to open (which then allows you to see the color of blooms).  Purchasing at this time will get you a longer period of display with them.

Once a flower bud has opened enough to see the dark anthers, it’s a good idea to remove them from the flower by pulling them off. Doing this will ensure that no pollen will fall off and land on the petals, which will discolor them.  It also helps prevent any pollen from falling off and causing an unsightly and hard to remove stain on  nearby fabrics, the lilies may be placed near.  If some pollen does get on fabric, do not try to remove it with your fingers because your natural oils will just cause the stain to set, causing more damage.  Use  tape to remove it – a piece for each time you need to touch the fabric until all the pollen is gone.

Even though lilies symbolize purity in art, that is not always  be the case in reality.  -J

into the British floral world

There are times when it is a good idea to leave the quiet of the English countryside and get lost in the pace of London, which, luckily, is just a short train ride away.  Often, this is where I go to get a good heavy, stimulating cultural fix and hit the museums to satisfy my  hungry appetite for art.  There are so many excellent museums and exhibitions in London that when I head back home, my smile is huge and mind inspired.  Besides working as a professional gardener, another aspect of horticulture that I am being drawn into is floral design. After recently reading the biography , The Surprising Life of Constance Spry by Sue Shepard, about the Grand Dame of florists, my curiosity became even stronger.  To get to know more about this world, beyond the beautiful arrangements we expect to see with it, I went to check out an exhibition on floriculture, attend a lecture by a panel of professional florists, and accompanied some seasoned friends to an industry event. When I think of an arrangement, it is usually only the final product and its beauty that I am thinking about, but there is  so much more going into the process than I ever realized.

Installation by floral artist Rebecca Louise Law at the Garden Museum, London
Installation by floral artist Rebecca Louise Law at the Garden Museum, London

The Garden Museum  was my first stop and is a place that focuses solely on horticulture that contains  a permanent collection,  a rotating exhibit, and lectures.  The most recent exhibition was one based on the cut-flower industry called ‘Floriculture- Flowers, Love and Money.’  The time period covered from 400 B.C., when Viola odorata was first planted as a commercial crop in Athens, up until now chronicling modern issues including the discussion of buying locally grown flowers to  help reduce carbon footprints.  In the U.K. alone the floral industry is worth a staggering £1.65 billion, enough money to fund a few small countries at the same time.

The flowers’ journey through the industry starts with the growers which are spread throughout the world. Some of the top producing countries include Colombia for  carnations and roses, Thailand for orchids, Caribbean for Tropicals and foliage, and South Africa for Proteas, Strelitzia, Roses and exotics. Different areas of the world have more suitable climates for growing some floral crops than others, with the U.K. being the largest producer of the cut flower Narcissus where the earliest blooms appear first in the Isles of Scilly.  Most of the world’s cut flower trade passes through Flora Holland, Aalsmeer Flower Auction, where the Dutch technique of auctioning is still practiced. This auction means starting the cost high and driving the price down in intervals where the first bid on a lot of flowers becomes the last bid, ensuring efficient use of precious time for the delicate product.

The art of sending flowers with a message, known as Floriography,  is where each flower, once decoded, represents different emotions or feelings.   You could easily send a lover a message of ardour, feelings of great intensity and warmth with a bouquet of the cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) or simply say “I declare war against you”  to an enemy by sending a handful of Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) according to Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway.  Stump your friends, enemies, or family  by telling them how you really feel…

Stretching across the large open hall of the Garden Museum was a mesmerizing and colorful installation on a grand scale by London floral artist Rebecca Louise Law.  She displayed a mix of dried roses formed along a grid pattern created with gold wire, and the effect was magical due the the sheer number of flowers used and the color story chosen.

As a floral artist for the exhibition, she was also a speaker at the closing lecture titled “Bloom and Bust”, comprised of a mixed panel of speakers from throughout the industry. These speakers consisted of Symon Lycett,  celebrity florist, Dennis Edwards,  wholesale flower seller at New Covent Garden Market in London, Vic Brotherson of Flower and Violet, Lauren Craig of Thinking Flowers,  a business that focuses  on sustainable and ethical global business practices and floral artist Rebecca Louise Law. The talk was about trends in the floral world, and while I did not know what to expect, I thought for some reason they would talk about the future direction of arrangements would be like, but I was wrong and pleasantly surprised.

Each person spoke of their backgrounds and how they are finding their own way to make it in the flower business, each story very diverse from the wholesale seller, floral designers to the floral artist. According to Dennis, the floral industry has grown in leaps and bounds by stating that in times past there used to only be 2 white roses in the trade and with new roses being bred every month, there are now 25 types of white to choose from.  Due to over-breeding it was mentioned we traded scent for strength in  stems and new colors and that by the time people receive red roses for St. Valentines Day, they are already about 3-4 weeks old.  Gosh, who knew?

While sitting and learning more about the  fascinating floral industry, it was something that Lauren Craig of Thinking Flowers said that struck home. When asked what the hardest thing about this business is, she shared the life lesson that no matter what you do, even if people don’t understand you or your ideas, put your head down and work hard because you will succeed at making your ideas a reality. She said that she was now going on 9 years with her business with many more plans for the future.  That alone solidified the content of the evening with 5 diverse people following and fighting their way to make their own way in this business, it just reaffirmed again that anything you want in life is possible.

Cut flower Rose cultivars
Cut flower Rose cultivars

Later in the week I attended another event, which was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. This event was a trade affair for florists with floral design demonstrations while using special roses and  flowers from specific growers from Colombia. It was held in the shop of a wholesale flower seller where the purpose of the event was to push this special brand of cut flowers and to sell their stock of sundries too.  The demonstrations were interesting with 3 floral designers creating some beautiful and interesting modern arrangements while a host spoke about the wonderful selling points of Colombian roses. Coming from what was an inspiring experience earlier in the week, this event was about the business side of things and making money, not only  for the host but for all the attending shop owners seeking to maximize their sales.  The roses were absolutely gorgeous, with very long stiff stems holding in an array of bloom colors .  Contrary to what I learned at the Garden Museum, these roses were being bred with scent in mind and fragrance was definitely present. Color wise there was your standard choices with many shades of red, white, and pinks, but orange and yellow will always be my favorites. I was very excited about the slightly odd colors like the pale lavender, or the soft purple gray, which could make for some interesting color stories, like a large bruise-y bouquet.

Rose 'Little Silver'
Rose ‘Little Silver’
Rose 'Sunset'
Rose ‘Sunset’

     The event educated me more about the  behind-the-scenes of the floral world, taking me from the daydream of owning a shop one day to the reality of costs and supplies.  Speaking about supplies, this opportunity gave me the chance to pick up a few necessary tools of the trade, scissors, knife, and wires so I can practice at home. Thank you Constance Spry,  for sparking new creative endeavors.   -J