Suit & Tie Horticulture, Oporto, Portugal


A  few weeks ago I needed a bit of time away from Madrid, exploring a new city somewhere else, and Oporto, Portugal became the desired destination. Second time in Portugal, first being Lisboa (link), another city worth visiting again. It was a pleasant surprise to find so many terraces and balconies in Oporto hanging lush and green packed to the rails with plants, more so than I see in Madrid. The reason for this, I believe, is this is a coastal city with more moisture hanging in the air, a more hospitable climate for growing something green. Wandering through the city on foot, I passed over and over these small plant shops, flashing their wares in the windows.  The first few I passed were closed for lunch, but found this one called Casa Horticola, or Horticulture House.  The windows alone beckoned me from across the street, packets of vibrant color upon closer inspection turned out to be vintage seed packages. Nose pressed to window, I drooled at the items on the other side of the glass.

Untitled-1Untitled-2I saw seeds, bulbs, starter plants, vegetables, colors, flowers, cut flowers, possibilties, my future terrace all green and lush. I vowed to return and ravage the shop of goods to take home to my nearly empty terrace back in Madrid.  IMG_2613I went back later the same day and my jaw dropped when I went in. Marble counter tops, old style register, a scale, original molding details painted beautifully, and this was before fondling the merchandise, the goods that I came for.  It was as if time had stopped.   Focus, focus.  I began thumbing through everything, salivating like a kid in a candy store. The fact that I did not speak Portuguese nor the men working there English was not a problem, we managed. Through smiles and nods and slaps to the back of my hand, he took me through his store, guiding me through a plethora of many purchases of promise.  Dahlia tubers, ‘Bantling’, ‘Kenora Macob’, and ‘Shining Star’.  And lilies galore, such as ‘Gran Paraiso’ and ‘Geneve’. A Zantadeshchia may have jumped in to my basket too.  Artichoke seeds, cactus zinnias, everlasting flower and a pair of bulbs of Nerine ‘Ou Raguis’ which love to bake in heat, perfect for Spain I thought.  Did I really need a reason? IMG_2621

The posters of gladiolus on the walls beckoned me the way pin up girls adorn the inside of mechanic shops, ‘Hey Big Boy, over here, do you like what you see?!” Oh, yes, yes I do I thought, and gently tossed some into my basket as well, with the man guiding me back to reality.  ‘These, not those, you will like these better, trust me”, he seemed to be telling me without words.  I listened and took Gladiolus ‘Trader Home’, ‘Violetta’, and ‘Silver Spark’ (or was it ‘Spic and Span’??! His handwritten packages were hard to decipher). I’m buying frilly Gladiolus I thought and realized I needed to stop.  I ended my shopping spree, 30 euros later and two large bags, I left feeling guilty. “What happened? Did I buy more than I needed to?” It didn’t matter, I couldn’t wait to pack these treasures into the terrace containers at home.

IMG_2612Before I left, I asked the man, by way of hand gestures, if one photo of him and the shop was allowed, so he got behind the handsome counter, straightened his tie and stood proud.  How can  you not want to shop in such a magical shop guided by a horticulturist in a suit and tie? One of the best moments in Oporto, if you ever go, please visit…. Casi Horticola (link) – James

5 Favorite Tips

Zinnias1.   Joyous and carefree as the halcyon summer days can be, zinnias bedazzle us with their unabashed brilliance.  They look as if a child had gone unsupervised with a box of 1000 Crayola crayons, coloring with singular doggedness each flower. Zinnias are a fitting preclude before….. (Zappy Zinnias)

Magnolia petals2. 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. Or, we can see this as the moment you can push the boundaries of  bloom time…. (Pushing Bloom Boundaries)

Cut Iceland poppies stand out against the pop art painting (private home, Tasmania, Australia)
Cut Iceland poppies stand out against the pop art painting (private home, Tasmania, Australia)

3. Poppies are best cut early in the morning when the bud begins to reveal some color. They then should be  plunged into… (Prolonging Cut Poppies)

Myosotis sylvatica
Myosotis sylvatica

4. Don’t forget to take notes, it is important to document your successes and failures including ideas you might want to improve upon for next year in the garden, such as…  (Noting Notes)

Jewel tones of Geranium [Rozanne] = 'Gerwat' and Eschscholzia californica 'Jelly Beans' with Nassella tenuissima
Jewel tones of Geranium [Rozanne] = ‘Gerwat’ and Eschscholzia californica ‘Jelly Beans’ with Nassella tenuissima
5. Geranium [Rozanne] = ‘Gerwat’ may be ubiquitous, dethroning ‘Johnson’s Blue’, but it doesn’t preclude it from being…. (Blue and Orange Deux)

Book Review: The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik

Behind each creative mastermind is someone who possesses the expertise to obtain the ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ for the vision to be realized fully. Just as the fashion designer cannot complete a collection with a team of seamstresses or tailors to execute his designs, the landscape architect or garden designer is dependent on someone who can supply plants for their projects. Midwest plantsman Roy Diblik was tasked to source and grow for the Lurie Garden in 2001 – hardly any nurseries in the Chicago area had the variety, quantity or quality that Piet Oudolf sought. Diblik co-runs Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, a 1 1/2 hour or so drive from Chicago. A Chicago Tribune article in 2010 christened him the ‘perennial persuader’. This ‘perennial persuader’ irrevocably altered Piet Oudolf’s original planting plans, especially after he took him to Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and other Midwest landscapes. Now Diblik aims to proselytizes a wider audience through The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden (Timber Press 2014).
Roy wants his readers to revise their attitudes towards traditional gardening practices where herbaceous perennials are regarded for landscapes. For instance, the conventional method of incorporating manure and compost generously into the topsoil causes herbaceous perennials to senesce prematurely and weeds to prosper instead. Nor does the wood chip mulching benefit perennials.
The first few chapters are the requisite ones that address plant selection, site preparation and planting and maintenance.  Any gardener can tell you that keeping ahead of weeds is always an ongoing battle – and weeds almost always seem to mushroom overnight after a good rainfall. As Diblik points out, weed suppression is an inescapable legacy of agricultural history for every healthy plant community contain few species of high fecundity and rapid colonization, and the rogue’s gallery of worst weeds sandwiched between weed control tactics and maintenance (i.e. watering. division) is useful as horticultural texts often skirt over the culprits.
The list of plants in Chapter 5: Key Plants for Know Maintenance Gardens may attract detractors for its lack of encyclopedic depth, but Diblik makes it clear that his selection fulfill the following criteria: hardiness and reliability in the Midwest and Northwest; adaptability within different climatic and soil variations; gradual beauty over the years. And his selection is on the mark as I have grown a few of the plants like Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and Solidago spahecelata ‘Golden Fleece’ in my parents’ former garden and observed them in compromising public spaces repeatedly. Who can argue with a man who introduced Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, one of the best ornamental grasses? Diblik even gives deserving due to sedges, which are woefully underused in gardens, and their diversity remains untapped for gardens. Narrowing the list to proven performers ensures that his readers have a better rate of success and once gratified, more open to experimentation with experience.
For those hesitant about using these plants, garden plans either named after places or paintings are included. It is no coincidence that the paintings can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago for which Diblik designed the plantings. Cezanne’s The Forest Clearing, a tonal study of green and blue, inspires a sunny planting of Allium (A. atropurpureum, A.  flavum, and A. moly), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Carex flacca, Echinacea ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’,  Kalimeris incisa ‘Blue Star’, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, and Sesleria autumnalis. The ‘creative intersection’, the lack of which my blog collaborator Jimmy laments in a recent post, reveals Diblik’s artistic leanings.
Towards the end is a nice acknowledgement of individuals who have influenced, inspired, or worked with Roy in the Midwest US. I would have been interested to read more about the interesting work of these individuals, but that angle is entirely a book in itself. Cassian Schmidt’s gravel garden at Hermannshof, a brilliant garden itself in Germany, is an interesting case study for potential tough areas like parking lots or overscheduled people interested in the beauty of gardens, but lacking time to maintain them.
Photographs, while nowhere dreamy or moody as those in pretty useless books, illustrate the concepts well. They are solid, playing out Diblik’s practices well.
Informative and well organized, the Know Maintenance Perennial Garden rounds out nicely the spate of books regarding ecological or naturalistic gardening and native plants.

Boxed In



Today’s tip is two-fold. Designing a low hedge can be a complicated affair, the options can be endless making it seem like a daunting task.  Take note of different hedges you might come across for future reference, such as the quincunx, which is a pattern of four in the shape of a square with one at the center. If you are still stumped for ideas, look to the windows of churches, mosques or other buildings that you might visit and dissect them for simple shapes which could help lead you on your way to the idea you are looking for. Best of luck and let us know if you have other solutions. – JamesIMG_3327IMG_3334



Agave americana 'Variegata'
Agave americana ‘Variegata’


In keeping within this week’s parameters of memories, there is a beautiful, even poetic term used in horticulture. Called ‘ghosting’, it refers to the impressions and markings left on the new succulent leaves, specifically agave, which occurs from the foliage being tightly pressed together as it grows, only revealing itself as the leaves unfurl from the plant, and with time eventually disappears. – James

Agave americana 'Variegata"



Next generation

germany 725-808 156
Seed collecting as seen in Germany

Engrossed in the activities of summer gardening, there are many things I notice as I look around, stake those plants, collect seed from that plant, water the glasshouse, water the pots, deadhead, harvest seed from that plant, drink some water, move those plants…  Happy to be so busy, but not so happy when I finally do get to collect those seeds, only to see that the plant has already dispersed them, a missed opportunity.  As I get older as a gardener, experience has taught me some tricks, and no longer miss the opportunity of collecting seed for next years plants.  In Germany, I have seen fine netting placed to catch seed  that might otherwise get lost in the wind, one approach.  As a student at Great Dixter, we used to collect seed before it was ready, placing them on the windowsills to dry and ripen to save for the following year.  Often, Poppies are removed from the border before the seed heads open and I place them on a tray or in a bag, which when left for a week or two, will catch all the spilling seed, which are then labeled in a container.  Small plates are all over the windowsill now, filled with hollyhock, digitalis and verbascum seed,  ripening for next year. No more missed opportunities for the next generation. – James

ripe Papaver somniferum seed spilling onto baking tray


Pressed Poppies

Poppy heads and watercolor paints

A garden is a fantasy land for children, running and hiding amongst all the foliage and color, screaming and laughing, playing til exhaustion like any child should.  Another fun way to show and include them in the magic and creativity that can come from plants is something as simple as taking interesting seed heads that can be used as stamps. By taking a number of different dried flower heads for size, we used dried Poppy heads, specifically Papaver commutatum and P. sommniferum, and then mixed them with watercolors (used thickly).  The designs can be used for a number of things. Cards were made using a play on flower motifs, from garden, to cut bouquet, to vase which were soon sent off by mail to friends. An activity like this is one more way to engage children in the beauty of the garden. May induce fits of giggles….  – James

the stages of a bouquet


Plantsman’s Corner: Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’


‘It is my own fault if I idealize a thistle until the thistle and I both think it is a vine,’  wrote Mary Cholmondeley in her Victorian novel Red Pottage. One may be forgiven to surmise that the famous icy blue clematis that bears her name was so called in this quote’s honour, but alas Mr. Noble named his vine a good 13 years before the famous passage was written. One wonders if Mrs. Cholmondeley was serious when she suggested she liked thistles so much as to idealize them. History does not tell, but it is clear that not everyone in her time liked thistles. A hundred and fifty years ago, when life still depended largely on cultivating the land with horse and plow, they represented challenges to the farmer who struggled to eradicate them from his field. Sheep or cows find them too prickly on the tongue, forgoing them altogether. The propensity thistles have in colonizing pastures anew with their abundant seeds or questing roots bristled the American political leader Robert Green Ingersoll to say that “The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.”. Perhaps he was not aware of the beneficial aspects thistles have on the ecology of meadows and wastelands. He may not have tasted the delicious pale honey made from their nectar or the beauty of their flowers. Ellen Willmott, the eccentric horticultural heiress would have disagreed with him on at least one thistle that she particularly liked and, it is rumoured, spread around gardens that she visited. Erygnium giganteum is now affectionately called Mrs. Willmott’s Ghost’ as a result of her seed scattering efforts, a rebellious act deemed guerrilla gardening today.

If I wanted to emulate Mrs. Willmott’s defiant act with my own favourite thistle, Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, the effort would be fruitless since it is a sterile plant producing no seeds whatsoever. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is remarkably well behaved for it is reliably perennial, floriferous and self-supporting without the conquest ambitions of other thistles. In our garden, it starts blooming with camassias, early geraniums, Siberian irises and Martagon lilies and will go on flowering until severe frosts silence the show. Because the raspberry-red flowers beg for silver leafed plants, we too have planted the thistle with Salix exigua and shimmering pink Geranium psilostemon ‘Rose Finch’ to great effect. It would look stunning with the lacy Ammi majus ‘Queen of Africa’ and the sapphire spires of Anchusa azurea ‘Loddon Royalist’. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ makes a superb cut flower, especially as its side shoots are of sufficient lengths for arrangements without compromising the plant’s growth. Its brushes are a unique crimson red that blends well with other colours, offering that touch of dark refinement often needed in floral arrangements.


“Rivulare”, meaning “of the riverside” hints at the cultural preferences for Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’. In dry soils, plants will be stunted, becoming poor semblances of their counterparts in rich, moist soils. Deadheading will be inconsequential since the plant is sterile, flowering continuously until summer heat exhausts it. Flowering will resume in autumn to accompany the New England asters and sunflowers.

European horticulturists and garden designers have wholeheartedly embraced Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ for its richly saturated wine-red flowers. Dan Pearson has used it very effectively at Home Farm where he planted it with glowing orange Eremurus. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ featured prominently in Arne Maynard and Piet Oudolf’s 2000 Chelsea Flower Show garden’s mixed borders of Astrantia major ‘Claret’, Centranthus ruber ‘Coccineus’ (red valerian), and dark-leafed Actaea. At the Battersea Park’s Old English Garden, the young British garden designer Sarah Price uses Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ with Cenolophium denudatum (Baltic parsley), salvias, and scented herbs.

Unfortunately its availability in North America is limited. We imported our stock years ago from Great Britain and we sell out every spring. As Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is one of our most requested plants and demand far outweighs the supply. We hate disappointing clients, so it has been a challenge to keep sufficient stocks through the years. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ does divide easily and increases steadily but since division is our only mean of propagation (root cuttings have never worked, despite what literature says), it does take time to build stocks. Perhaps one day it will be micropropagated and we can use it with wild abandon!



Even scarcer still is the other known cultivar ‘Trevor’s Blue Wonder’. A sport of ‘Atropurpureum’, it was recently been introduced to the horticultural world by the British gardener Trevor Edwards. We have not had the opportunity of growing it yet, but it is reputedly an equal stalwart in the garden as ‘Atropurpureum’, its difference lying in its bright purple colour rather than crimson, an easier hue to combine with some pinks and yellows. ‘Trevor’s Blue Wonder’ should be a welcome new addition that will no doubt sustain the popularity of this thistle for years to come. No doubt both Mrs. Cholomondeley and Mrs. Wilmott would have approved and, we hope, perhaps even Mr. Ingersoll.

~ Philippe and Eric



Not for the ladies


It always seems that at weddings the women always get the pleasure of noticeably being the most stylish. Well, this tip is not for the ladies, but for the gentlemen out there.  There is no need to stiff on style when it comes to getting dressed for a wedding or important event, a buttonhole is simply needed to adorn your attire.  I am a huge fan of this man’s style and have made a mental note to keep the scheme simple and tie it all together with color. Here is Rosa ‘Laurent Carle ‘ which is not only matched by the tie and pocket square color, but the folds in the pocket square resembling the overlapping petals of the rose bloom. Perfection need not be complicated, but something worth remembering…  – James

Book Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber



In an earlier post Summertime Reading, I had recommended Dan Barker’s The Third Plate, and having bought a copy myself, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Farming is no different from gardening – both involve a human relationship with the environment and both In recent years, the locavore movement has gained significant traction in United States as farmers market and restaurants have sprung up to accommodate the public demand for local, sustainable food and cuisine. Alice Waters, the mastermind behind Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and the nationwide Edible Schoolyard program, was one of the early proponents for organic and healthy food sourced from a network of local farmers and producers, and her influence is still felt today in today’s farm-to-table ethos (one would argue that Italian and other European immigrants had been eating their food this way – I remember visiting this Italian family in northern Long Island where vegetables and fruits, save for meats and dry goods, were produced on-site. It was always a treat to see the grapes ripening from the arbor, the endless rows of plum tomatoes for saucing, and unusual greens). At his eponymous restaurant Blue Hills in New York City and upstate New York, Dan Barber takes this philosophy to a obsessive level of detail.

The title ‘The Third Plate’ takes its name from a survey prominent chefs were asked to depict and describe the future plate, and Barber envisions the third plate as a carrot dish flavored with sauce made from secondary cuts. Industrialized agriculture exemplifies the first plate – the 7-ounce corn-fed and a vegetable side like potatoes or carrots, and the farm-to-table movement characterizes the second plate – the free range sustainable steak and organic carrots. Barber points out that these two plates are essentially the same – the protein as the big portion, the vegetables as the small portion. As the world’s population grows, raising meat to sustain the masses will likely be untenable, taxing the earth’s already strained resources. Rather than nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner, we continue to subsist heavily on meat, including seafood, at the expense of vegetables. Barber recognizes the challenges of swaying people into eating more vegetables when flavor has been mostly sacrificed, and the elevated prices charged at Blue Hills only reach a subset of the US population who won’t balk at paying $95 for a set course.

The book is divided into four sections -‘Soil’, ‘Land’, ‘Sea’, and ‘Seed’, all of which brim with food history, memorable characters, and environmental sensibility. ‘Soil’ is best encapsulated in Barber’s succinct point: “How soil is managed and how a farmer negotiates weeds and pests, is the single best predictor of how food will taste.” For ‘Land’, Barber travels to the dehesa, the cultivated agricultural landscapes of Spain where the famous jamón ibérico is made from Iberian pigs cavorting underneath century-old oaks and natural foie gras from naturally-reared geese. ‘Sea’ focuses in Spain too, this time at a fish farm Veta la Palma that merges ecological stewardship with delicious fish production. ‘Seed’ drills in the danger of our dependency on a few narrowly genetic crops and the beauty of embracing diversity to address food shortages and broaden the flavor profiles of food.

Barber simply wants us readers to advocate a more holistic food-to-table philosophy – rather than buying the ‘charismatic’ vegetables like sweet corn and tomatoes or fruits like strawberries, we consider cooking with more ‘experimental’ grains and greens like emmer wheat and mustard greens. Because the ‘charismatic’ vegetables are hungry feeders, they take a lot from the soil and require the farmers to compensate for the output. Only do a rotational basis of grains and greens that rehabilitate or maintain the soil’s health and fertility will modern farming be more meaningful and ecologically sound.

What will a Blue Hills tasting menu look like in 2050? Its six courses include a farmed trout with farmed phytoplankton and a parsnip steak with a Bordelaise sauce wrested out of grass-fed beef bones. This menu gives genuine momentum to Barber’s vision in the Third Plate.