5-10-5: Horticulturist, Garden Designer, Nursery Owner Helen O’Donnell of Bunker Farm

Interview by Eric Hsu

Photography by Helen O’Donnell (unless otherwise noted)

I first became aware of Helen O’Donnell through her blog(www.anemonetimes.blogspot.com) where I had enjoyed reading about her gardening adventures in New England and abroad. I finally got to meet her briefly in person when she came down to volunteer at Chanticleer a few years ago, and had fun seeing gardens with her during my summer holiday in Maine last August. Helen is passionate about plants and gardens, having worked in some of the most beautiful New England gardens as a designer and horticulturist. She has taken her skills to another level as a deft propagator of annuals, tender perennials, and perennials at Bunker Farm, Dummerston, Vermont. The farm’s site can be visited at http://thebunkerfarm.com/.


Please introduce yourself.

I am a gardener, garden designer, printmaker, and co-owner of The Bunker Farm where I run a specialty annual and perennial nursery in southern Vermont.

The arts or the garden?

Both! I have worked as a gardener and farmer every season since I was 15 and I studied art in college and spent a year in Florence, Italy studying printmaking. And I have spent different amounts of time working in both fields, teaching printmaking at the Putney School and simultaneously working as a gardener and garden designer. As my art is completely influenced by plants, landscapes, and the outside world, it is hard to approach gardening, garden and plant design without art. The garden is probably the most complicated form of art, with it encompassing all the dimensions. You have 2-D and 3-D principles of design (color, form, shape, texture, light etc.), but then there is the fourth dimension of time, like music, dance, or theater. There is a performance aspect that follows the seasonal changes, as the plants are growing and changing expectantly and surprisingly. There is an audience participation that is completely out of your control from weather to microbes.

What is your earliest memory of plants or gardening?

I remember my parents sitting down with me after school once, I must have been around 8, and telling me that I wasn’t allowed to eat plants at school. I guess the teachers called home concerned because I was showing all the kids what plants they could eat in the playground. My dad showed me what plants to eat because he was a chef and used to garnish his plates with all sorts of edible flowers. I have really strong memories of foraging around outside for wood sorrel, vetch flowers, violets, and clover and finding them delicious.

You spent the first part of your career working for the landscaping company Deer Meadow in Maine. How did that professional experience shape your present relationship with horticulture?

Working for Deer Meadow taught me three main things, one was that I seemed to have a knack for gardening at age 17, two that I really liked doing physical work, and three, I learned the importance of working and learning under a serious, knowledgeable head gardener. Diana Johnson’s encouragement, enthusiasm, and knowledge about plants and willingness to teach me was inspirational. With the encouragement from my parents, (my mother is a brilliant gardener) I continued to learn under other talented gardeners who all shaped me into who I am now.

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Boggy Meadow Farm, an old estate and dairy farm in Old Walpole, New Hampshire, where Helen has rejuvenated the old sunk garden with foxgloves, thyme, poppy mallow, and other classic perennials.

The New England region is sometimes overlooked for its gardens especially since the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest often receives attention. Beautiful gardens are always found despite climatic challenges and New England is no exception. What gardens, private and public, in your region inspire you? 

Close to home, there are a few pockets of great gardening here in central New England. Right here in Putney is Gordon and Mary Hayward’s garden, where I worked for years. They have a beautiful garden comprised of English-style garden rooms, complete with hedges, axial views, evergreen pillars, woodland walks, and long borders, yet with the backdrop of New England hayfields, locust trees, and fruit orchards. Over in Peterborough, New Hampshire there is cluster of terrific gardens and gardeners. One is Juniper Hill where Joe Valentine references iconic English gardening ideas against the scenery of a classic New England house and sheep pastures. Michael Gordon’s town garden is built on a steep slope and includes three main terraces, all with highly original plant designs, incorporating self-seeders, with unusual annuals and unique shrub specimens.  Maude Odgers of the Artful Gardener has a beautifully romantic garden with sweeping curvy beds filled with an array of specimen plants, in cool color tones, but filled with juxtaposing textures.

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Bruce Lockhart’s meadow garden at Swift River Farm, Petersham, MA.

Another favorite, and one that not enough people have visited yet, is Bruce Lockhart’s Swift River in Petersham, MA. He truly has it all with meandering woodland full of great swaths of interesting woodland specimens, trees, and shrubs. As well as pleasure gardens, more typical style mixed plantings framed by hedges and paths, plus a magnificent Piet Oudolf-style meadow, with thousands of wild, blooming perennials and grasses. Add a vast rock garden full of unusual alpine and rock specimens, many that he started from seed. It is a fantastic garden and one people must visit.

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Hidcote Manor near Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, England.

Great Dixter is often cited as one of your favorite gardens overseas where you have visited and worked several times. Outside of Great Dixter, what other gardens in England and elsewhere do you like? And their strong points?

I spent a month at Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds before my time at Great Dixter and that was my first glimpse into English gardening. For me, that garden feels mysterious; the garden rooms feel like a maze, each opening revealing a different path to take. There is an immense feeling when standing at the top of the long view, looking down the long avenue of hornbeams. It is a garden where I feel the presence of its creator Lawrence Johnson, much like at Great Dixter, where the spirit of Christopher Lloyd remains, is revered, and is celebrated still. On my last trip to England I visited Charlotte Molesworth’s topiary garden in Kent and I was really touched by that garden. I didn’t get to meet her or her husband, but to me, the garden feel wholly authentic. It was so creative and so expressive, with every evergreen shaped into magnificent birds, spirals, tiers, and minarets. The other thing that really appealed to me is that the garden itself felt completely lived in and the spaces were well used, I loved the seating areas and patios and how the garden went from highly ornamental to practical all at once. I am not sure I have ever been to a garden that felt so completely genuine, that every choice was theirs to make for the love of it.

 

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A wintry garden scene at the Bunker Farm.

Gardening is riding a switchback of hope and disappointment once climate adjusts your expectations. How has cold-climate gardening, complemented by mild-climate gardening in UK and elsewhere, characterized your gardening style now?

I am an optimist through and through so I really do believe that every climate has its advantages. We know England can grow incredible coveted plants, but we can grow Cleome and Echinacea! I know that sounds boring, but those plants are exciting and can be hard to grow for British gardeners. Of course I am like everyone in that I try and “push” my zone. However, growing and raising plants is more interesting than just sticking to the zone on the plant tag. I understand why most gardeners wouldn’t buy a plant not rated to their zone, but when raising things from seed and really paying attention to what works in your own garden, you can start to get away with all kinds of things. I am always surprising myself with what I can grow (and can’t grow). I have recently been experimenting with a gravel garden where I have never watered or added any compost or fertilizer. The garden is at the top of a stone wall, south facing protected from the north wind by the house, and mulched with gravel- which gives it excellent drainage in winter. I am growing all sorts of stuff that shouldn’t survive here- like Stipa gigantea (hasn’t bloomed yet, but it has survived three winters now), Knifophia caulescens, Hypericum androsaesum ‘Albury Purple, Ferula communis– none of these plants have reached their full potential yet, but they still survive and I find that pretty interesting.

Agriculture is the precursor to horticulture – once the land provided what humans needed to nourish and shelter themselves, it too became a place for ornamental use (i.e. cottage gardens). Once food production became industrialized, humans gradually lose their agricultural roots as they migrated to urban centers. Gardens and farms are different systems because the latter is more inclusive (i.e. animal husbandry and post-harvest processing). Was it a natural step for you to become a farmer while still working in horticulture? 

Yes. My first job was working on an organic vegetable farm. I started when I was 15 and after the second summer the farm was given away, I then migrated over to landscaping because I liked working outside and with plants. From then on I just kept gardening. I don’t have a degree in horticulture, but I have had a very rigorous education working for and learning from the best of gardeners, all of it ‘hands on’, learning passed on through the work itself.  I just kept doing it because I like it. Farming is the same way. I like raising things and I like working. And if you are paying attention and giving your work a lot of care, then you will get better at it. Whether it is flowers or cows, it feels the same.

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Happy cows grazing in the fields of Bunker Farm.

The Bunker Farm certainly embodies the small-scale local agricultural ethos that come to define rural communities near urban centers. I understand that the farm’s goal is to be self-sufficient, sustainable, and have strengthening ties to the community. How did your farm come about within your interests? 

It definitely felt like a very fortuitous turn of events. My husband Noah and I had been farming on a small scale on his family’s land.  We had a few cows and pigs and I had a tiny greenhouse where I grew annuals for gardening clients. My sister and her husband lived across the street and we would raise chickens and garlic together. Noah and I were looking at properties hoping to find something of our own that we could continue to do similar small scale farming. We would constantly look at really run down properties and drag Jen and Mike along and start dreaming about all the things we could do together. Then Noah saw an ad seeking applications to buy the Bunker Farm through the Vermont Land Trust. This proposition was much bigger than any of us could have dreamed about previously. But the land and the buildings offered us all so much and we each had skills to fill each part of the farm. Noah worked on a small dairy farm at the Putney School for 3 years, mastering farm mechanics and cow husbandry and with 60 acres of hay fields, having cows was a natural fit. He knew enough that dairy on a small scale would be difficult, so we went for beef cows. There was born the idea to start a meat CSA, offering pork, chicken and beef. The farm also had 16 acres of old sugar maple woods that could be tapped again to produce maple syrup. Mike had worked for a few years for one of the bigger producers in our area and had the initial skills and passion to start a sugaring operation at the farm. There was a large greenhouse, standing empty, but ready for me to fill it with plants.  My sister is a third grade teacher and passionate about outdoor education and works to get school and community groups on the farm. It honestly felt like the land was looking for someone to fill all these different parts, it wouldn’t really work if it was just one thing, and so in the end, the four of us were a good match.

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The Bunker Farm viewed afar from the crest of the hill. Photo Credit: Andrew Hogan

Despite its previous 26-year-old ownership under Larry and Marilyn Cassidy, the farm still needed significant improvements before it could become fully operational. How was funding and the subsequent development approached?

The farm was actually in pretty good shape when we first moved in. The barns and structures were operational, there was power and water everywhere, and the green house was in pretty good shape too. We of course put everything we could into it in the beginning, but we started our first fall with the two cows Noah and I had purchased prior to owning the farm. Each year we have bought more cows in and started our own breeding program and we now have twenty-two cows. In our first year sugaring, we didn’t own an evaporator, which meant we couldn’t even make maple syrup from the sap we collected. Instead we focused on setting up the infrastructure, hanging all the tubing in the woods, and sold the raw sap to a sugar maker down the road. With everything, we started out small and grew each year, acquiring another piece of equipment, upgrading to better systems, etc. We all have other jobs, which took some of the financial pressure off the farm in those busy and expensive start-up years.

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Pigs huddle together for warmth. Photo Credit: Andrew Hogan

James Rebanks, the author of ‘The Shepherd’s Life’  commented in an interview: ‘I like the idea that people lead lives devoted to something bigger than themselves – the landscape, the folks and their continuation. Somebody like my father wouldn’t have thought his life was particularly meaningful or significant in its own right, but he saw himself as part of a community and way of life and tradition. I deeply admire that in an age when most things are about the individual and about instant gratification and consumption.’ What roles do you see yourself and your family within the historical context of Bunker Farm?

I think about this a lot actually because it applies to many different parts of a life. This idea that the four of us belong to something bigger than ourselves has really been a core value of the Bunker Farm. At the micro level, this is how four adults (two being sisters) have survived in a rambling farm house with two toddlers for the past few years, not to mention all of us running a farm business together. You always have to consider the larger purpose, that we are doing something that is more important than our daily needs or comforts. At a more macro level, we definitely feel very humbled to own, work, and live at the Bunker Farm. This is a historic farm and one that has meant so much to so many people in our community- it seems like every neighbor and every neighbors friend knew someone who lived and worked the farm. Not to mention that the farm has meant so much to the Cassidy and the Bunker families. We feel the responsibility to carry the farm forward in a way that our community can feel good about.

Vermont’s winters are long and cold, yet I get a sense that a farmer’s day is rarely quiet. People unfamiliar with farming rhythms tend to view winters as slow months. What would define your responsibilities during winters? 

Sugaring season starts in late January these days, so our winters truly are very short. My winter tasks include all the plant and seed ordering, plant lists and database work, garden design work and bookkeeping. Last year I took a nutrient management course that helps our farm write a nutrient management plan (manure, fertilizer, lime applications) for all our hayfields.  This program is run through a few different Vermont state organizations, but it is an effort to get small farms to comply with new water quality standards, manure and fertilization regulations. It is in the best interest of the farmers to improve their soil health and soil retention on their farms, so there is an economical benefit for farmers too.

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Harvesting sugar maple sap for syrup production. Photo Credit: Andrew Hogan

Late January and February brings the seasonal ritual of tapping its astoundingly 3,300 sugar maples for maple syrup, which your brother-in-law Mike Euphrat oversees. Do you participate in the process and how is the syrup different from the others you have tasted? 

A sugar bush is measured in number of taps, which is interesting since many large trees can have two taps. We have 1,200 taps on 16 acres here at Bunker Farm and we lease another 3,100 taps on 40 acres down the road from us. In a really, really good season we can make over 2,000 gallons of syrup in a year. I am on the tapping crew, so I go out and help put the taps into the tree, which is essentially drilling a hole in the tree, hammering in a plastic tap, and connecting the tap to a web of tubing that carries the sap to large collection tanks. The season generally runs when the temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. This temperature difference gets the sap to move up and down the tree, bringing sweet sap to the emerging buds in the tree. I help check the vacuum in the woods, fixing leaks in the tubing and making sure the taps are tight. We use vacuum pumps to draw the sap through the lines and a reverse osmosis machine that takes sap at its natural 2% sugar solution and pushes it through a filtration system that takes water out and leaves us with a higher sugar concentrate. Boiling, trucking, and canning are all other parts of the operation.  In terms of taste, we did win a blind taste test during the Maple Rama festivities last year out of 70 other entries. This win is due to Mike’s fastidiousness in terms of how he runs his operation. He is very clean, very precise, and he measures everything. He finds what works and sticks to it. He is very disciplined and deliberate about the operation, from collection to processing, and he produces a product that really is superior.  Most people would think maple syrup is maple syrup but like anything the more you taste and know something, the more you can taste the differences- ours is rich, smooth, clean, balanced, with a slightly wood fired flavor.

 

February and March coincides with seed sowing and seedling pricking out. It is a crucial junction when lambing and calving season too begins. Given how the demands can be stressful, how do you balance these jobs with your team?

February and March is a really busy time for us with sugaring, it is a really intense season because during a perfect stretch of weather we could be boiling for 24hrs straight with short breaks before you are back at it again. Mike hardly sleeps at all during this time. We plan for pig farrowing end of March and April, but calving isn’t until May and June and we gave up having sheep a few years back. Every season is a little bit crazy, but our worst month is actually May. That is when Noah and Jen are still teaching, my gardening season is in full tilt, the plant nursery is at its peak in sales and watering, Mike is working at Walker Farm, chickens are arriving every two weeks, and pasture rotation is just beginning. Not to mention weeds are growing like mad and the grass needs mowing! We each have our area that we manage but we help each other out as much as we can- during the busy seasons all hands are on deck. It can be really stressful and tiring, but we have a really strong sense of shared purpose that holds us all together.

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Healthy seedlings, protected from Vermont’s long winters, are ready for spring planting once temperatures are congenial.

Propagating and selling annuals is an audacious business move since the everyday gardener rarely moves beyond the ‘bread and butter’ marigolds, pelargoniums, and petunias. A number of the varieties you sell do not necessarily wow upon first impression, although they will impress the jaded gardener later. How do you go about educating your customers that those tufts of foliage forecast tremendous potential?

A lot of people tell me about how hard the nursery business is, it seems like they are always going out of business everywhere. For me, I just started out wanting to grow cool unusual plants that I can’t get anywhere else for my own gardening business and my own garden and from there it has steadily grown. I have about two dozen great gardeners who buy my plants fairly regularly and they are definitely helping to get my name out there, plus existing CSA customers. My plant list seems to attract the type of gardener that doesn’t need the plant to look flashy in order to buy it, which really helps! The other thing I have going for me is my own excitement about what I am growing. Even if I haven’t grown it before, I clearly chose it because it sounded exciting. Gardeners love trying new things and a passionate sales person can help!

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Healthy annuals and tender perennials await the avid gardener who visits Bunker Farm in search of plugging the gaps in their garden.

 

Each year, seed and plant catalogs tempt us with endless varieties that either are new color variants, better disease resistance, and later to flower. How do you whittle down your desiderata to realistic limitations of space and time?

That is actually a really interesting question and one that I think about every year. My process is pretty intuitive which sounds a little naïve. I just find myself every year attracted to really different groups of plants each year. For example a few years ago I wanted to grow lots of different perennial Centaureas. It sounds a little boring and they really didn’t sell well, but I fell in love with Centaurea dealbataC. scabiosifolia, C. ruthenica, and C. macrocephala. The following year it was Dianthus, and I grew some very cool perennial types including D. pinifolius, D. knappii, and D. carthusinorum.  Last year I had terrific luck with Mirabilis so I am growing four different cultivars this year. I can imagine over the years I will have a solid list of things I will always grow and then the list of experimentals will come and go and come again. I have a feeling every year will always be different than the last.

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Alonsoa meridionalis ‘Rebel’ jazzes up the ankles of Chasmanthium latifolium (sea oats grass).

What are some of the interesting annuals or tender perennials you have propagated and grown that you envision a bright future?

Here are some solid performers:

  • Ageratum houstonianum ‘Red Sea,’ – a really nice bushy mid height Ageratum with a really good purple pink flower.
  • Alonsoa meridionalis ‘Rebel’ – shocking orange red in late summer through fall, such a surprise late in the season.
  • Ipomoea quamoclit – incredible fine and vining foliage with scarlet tubular star flowers.
  • Pennisetum villosum ‘Cream Falls’ – a great floriferous fuzzy flowered grass in bright white. Fills a space and blooms early and long.
  • Phlox drummondii ‘Cherry Caramel’ – such a nice surprise last year with its multi colored caramel pink phlox flowers, blooms well with deadheading and for a long period.
  • Mirabilis jalapa ‘Limelight’ – one of my favorite annuals, sort of garish, but with incredibly bright chartreuse foliage and hot pink flowers, the plant gets big and bushy and goes all season. Good for a semi-sunny spot.
  • Hibiscus acetosella ‘Mahogany Splendor’-  grown purely for its foliage in our area, but in one year a single plant can get five feet tall and three feet wide. Leaves resemble a dark red Japanese maple in form, texture and color, though a little larger.
  • Tropaeolum peregrinum – a lovely climbing nasturtium vine with bright canary bird flowers. Foliage is so ornate too- nice to let it scramble over and through a dark yew hedge.
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The silvery rosettes of Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’ are a striking exclamation point while mirroring the white Chionanthus virginicus at Bunker Farm. The seedheads belong to a tulip.

In addition, you sell herbaceous perennials to complement the annuals. What are you currently growing?

I am actually growing a fair number to perennials and biennials each year. Some particularly good ones are: Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’, a great biennial verbascum with large rosettes of enormous felty gray leaves. The flower spikes are tall and branching with a semi-snaking habit with bright yellow fuzzy flowers along the stems. Patrinia scabiosifolia is another tried and true and underused perennial around here with upright stems of bright yellow umbel flowers, sweetly scented blooming mid summer. Euphorbia oblongata is another great perennial spurge with lovely striped green leaves and bright yellow flowers, the seed heads look good all season too. Wow, all yellow flowers and all good plants.

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Salvia confertiflora, seen on the right, in the Exotic Garden at Great Dixter.

What is your desert island plant?

Salvia confertiflora because I don’t think you could feel too lonely next to a plant like that, so big with those large pungent leaves and those long delicate spires covered in fuzzy bright red buds. Plus it would offer some shade on hot days and would bring all the hummingbirds and bees.

What would your advice for those people interested in merging horticultural and agricultural enterprises?

The very unromantic advice I have is to write a really good business plan. We did that (because we were required to in order to buy the farm) and it turned out to be one of the best things we have ever done. We have referenced the plan many times and it helped us prioritize and know where we were headed.  It gave us the beginning skills to budget, make financial plans, and work as a group.

Thank you Helen!

Justin’s Plant Picks

by Justin Galicic and Eric Hsu

Photography by Justin Galicic

Justin depends more on foliage rather than flowers, although he still appreciates fragrant shrubs and bold annuals that fulfill the bold and brilliant look he aims in his Normandy Park garden. Some of these plants are adaptable and can be grown successfully on the East Coast of North America as well as maritime western Europe.


dryopteris-sieboldii

Dryopteris sieboldii – Tropical-looking evergreen fern that can handle a bit of dry shade. This Asian Dryopteris from China, Japan, and Taiwan can retains its foliage down to 5 degrees F according to Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery.


agave-ovatifoliaAgave ovatifolia (Whale’s Tongue Agave) – Stands up to Seattle’s wet winters and still looks beautiful 356 days a year. According to Greg Star in Agaves (Timber Press 2012), this agave is a high elevation species found in two populations, one between 3000 and 4000 ft (900-1200 m) and the other between 7000 and 8000 ft (2130-2440 M). Its cold hardiness has enable its cultivation in Dallas, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina taking down to 5 degrees F without damage (Star 2012). Gardeners less daring can treat it as a decorative container plant.


magnolia-grandiflora-dd-blanchard

Magnolia grandiflora ‘D.D Blanchard’ – Stunning copper-colored indumentum on huge glossy leaves. This native magnolia is equally hardy in the coastal Mid-Atlantic Region and New England as much as it is in the Pacific Northwest, and its evergreen foliage have become popular in holiday wreaths and bouquets during winter.


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Eucomis ‘Rhode Island Red’ – Looks like ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ but gets twice the size!  This hybrid between Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Eucomis pole-evansii from East Coast maestro Ed Bowen of Opus Nursery, Little Compton, Rhode Island, is certainly deserving for its large size, sturdy infloresences (most stalks tend to collapse in themselves), and dark foliage.


butia-capitata

Butia capitata – Hardy in Seattle only with some occasional protection.  Still, this blue pinnate-leaved palm is a fast grower and eventually reaches tree status. The jelly palm owes its light frost tolerance to its geographic range in northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.


shibataea-kumasaca

Shibataea kumasaca – Averts the two worst attributes of a hardy bamboo: mites don’t bother it and it doesn’t run aggressively.  It keeps all the great attributes like gorgeous foliage year-round and is easy to grow.


daphne-bholua

Daphne bholua – Its intoxicating fragrance scents the dark and dreary winter air starting in January in Seattle, well before Daphne odora. Some gardeners have reported trouble getting it to establish, although the effort is worthwhile.


ricinus-communis

Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’ – Everything on this plant is red.  It’s an annual but easy to sow.  It can be thought of like an awesome, poisonous sunflower.


schefflera-delavayi

Schefflera delavayi – Huge, glossy foliage grows quickly into a small tree.  Amazingly it’s one of the hardiest scheffleras.


Sinopanax formosanus

Sinopanax formosanus – Evergreen, palmate leaves with beautiful copper indumentum for a Taiwanese shrub. It is probably tender for much of continental North America, but likewise can be an arresting container subject.


Edible Flowers

DSC_0587Early summer brings a myriad of floral delights – not to mention the beginning bounty of produce. We often use flowers for decorative reasons that we sometimes forget how some flowers are actually edible. Whenever I have access to such flowers, I always enjoy sprinkling them in salads and rice dishes since the jewel colors can animate sedate-looking dishes. Edible flowers should be harvested from unsprayed plants. Be sure to check prior to using them in salads and other dishes. Check for insects unless you want an unsuspecting source of protein!

  • Borage (Borago officinalis) – A cool refreshing shade of blue, borage surprises with its cucumber flavor.The hairy calyces are unpleasant to eat and should be removed gingerly from the flowers. I like the flowers for cocktails, especially those with gin or Pimms. People sometimes will freeze the flowers in ice cubes for color in cold beverages.
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – Bright orange or yellow, calendulas are the ‘spice’ of edible flowers. I prefer to separate and sprinkle the petals into green leafy salads – the orange against the bright greens of lettuces is an exciting jolt for the eyes.
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – We get fixated on harvesting chives for its leaves that we overlook the flowers, which have the same strong onion flavor.
  • Marigolds (Tagetes sp.) – Tagetes lemmonii has a pronounced citrus fragrance that is noticeable from rubbing its leaves. However, the culinary species in Mexico and South America are Tagetes lucida and T. minuta. Called pericón, the former is used in medicinal tea by Mexicans.The latter, known as huacatay in Incan language, is used primarily in the South American potato dish ocopa. Some liken the flavor of Tagetes minuta to basil, tarragon, and mint with hints of citrus, and sometimes steep the leaves for medicinal tea.
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum sp.) – Nasturtiums, unrelated to watercress which uses the name for its genus, are the first edible flowers people think of. Their bright orange or yellow flowers have a distinctive peppery taste like the leaves.
  • Rocket or arugula (Eruca sativa) – White flowers are as edible as the leaves, having the same spicy taste.
  • Viola (Viola tricolor) – More for its color than its taste, viola flowers look delicate nested among the leafy greens. it is not to be confused with Viola odorata more popular in confectionery as sugared violets.

~ Eric

Annuals for Late Summer

If perennials are steady gatekeepers who modulate conversations and table settings, then annuals are the effervescent guests that bring much gaiety and laughter to the scene. Annuals can be boisterous gatecrashers. The gardener might be forgiven for overlooking annuals during spring and early summer as spring bulbs and perennials like delphiniums, Oriental poppies, and peonies are at their colorful best. However, as soon as midsummer heat sets in, the floral momentum is gone. It is one reason for the one-season wonder in spring when most people purchase plants. “My garden looks great in April and May for two weeks,” my neighbor lamented, “then it looks boring for the rest of the year”.

Glen Withey and Charles Price' Curator Garden at Dunn Gardens, Seattle, Washington, shows how unrestrained and vivid annuals can be in containers.
Glen Withey and Charles Price’ Curator Garden at Dunn Gardens, Seattle, Washington, shows how unrestrained and vivid annuals can be in containers.

Annuals too suffer from unjustifiable bias since dwarf versions churned out like disposable plastics are sold inexpensively at big-box stores. Granted that live plants are better than artificial ones, the big-box stores has done a disservice to their customers who may be oblivious of annuals being more than impatiens and marigolds. While the impatiens downy mildew halted the ubiquity of Impatiens walleriana hybrids across North America, I secretly rejoiced at the prospect of people broadening their use of other interesting annuals. Impatiens are not to be discounted and as a a child, I loved their Crayola crayon colors in people’s gardens. And touching the popping seed capsules was just pure fun.

Late summer is a good time to take good stock of the persistent performers and flagging ones. To be fair, the time may be not kind for those annuals that have lost steam in spring or early summer. However, when the garden is tottering on the verge of exhaustion, relinquishing what energy it can muster for the late season perennials and tropicals, any sight of color from annuals is welcome.

The following three are indispensable and foolhardy in any good garden conditions.

Cosmos bipinnatus 'Versailles Tetra', Verbena rigida, and Zinnia 'Golden Dawn' at Cutting Garden, West Dean, UK
Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Versailles Tetra’, Verbena rigida, and Zinnia ‘Golden Dawn’ at Cutting Garden, West Dean, UK

Cosmos bipinnatus

There is something amiss if a late summer garden is missing annual cosmos. Cheerful and chic, Cosmos bipinnatus is easy from seed, and shoots upward into a tower of lacy foliage that soon covers itself nonstop with colorful daisy-like flowers. Then the flowering stems stretch out web-like, weaving themselves among other plants. I find that topping up with later sown seedlings in midsummer prolongs the display when the earlier plants begin to wear out, mildewed and exhausted from their floral marathon. Unless the plants are destined for the cut-flower market, deadheading can be an ever-ending task.

Christopher Lloyd gripes about the failure of Cosmos bipinnatus to flower during long summer days since seed is produced in Kenya where twelve-hour nights are the norm rather than the long day lengths of northern climes. Either the breeders have since meticulously eliminated the plant’s day length sensitivity or our hotter summers than those in UK encourage faster growth and better flowering, but I have not encountered problems with my seed-grown plants. ‘Purity’ is unsurpassed for its clear white color and floriferousness, although frequent deadheading is needed to keep it tidy and free of those unsightly browned flowers, a fate common for white flowers. ‘Seashells’ has petals fluted like its namesake. ‘Versailles Tetra’ has rich intense pink flowers on black stems. I like ‘Rubenza’ for its dark, rich red-rose color verging on garnet.

A field of Cosmos bipinnatus in full flower
A field of Cosmos bipinnatus in full flower

Nicotianas

Nicotianas are cottage garden mainstays. Nothing can beat Nicotiana sylvestris for its stature, shooting star-like flowers, and evening fragrance. It reliably self-sows as a reminder that its presence can cool the heat that drives us inside air conditioned dwellings. The fat rosettes resemble cabbages, giving a bold anchor for mixed plantings. Some people use it in white gardens with white cosmos, moonflowers, and white heliotrope, although I like it better as a chromatic cleanser among bright colors. Nicotiana mutabilis and Nicotiana langsdorfsii are excellent if you desire an ethereal look since both species have smaller flowers hovering in hundreds. They are see-thru plants that blur the discrete groupings of plants in large borders and happily self-seed (even if their progeny may not be true to type) the following year. Nicotiana ‘Limelight’ is less generous in self-seeding, but it is worth the trouble of starting anew each year from seed. There are very few annuals (I can only think of Moluccella laevis and Zinnia ‘Envy’) that possess the chartreuse hue, and ‘Limelight’ really does shine in the garden, jolting and soothing simultaneously our overstimulated senses from all the colors.

Nicotiana 'Limelight' is an unusual shade of green seen in annuals - delicious with blue salvias or red dahlias.
Nicotiana ‘Limelight’ is an unusual shade of green seen in annuals – delicious with blue salvias or red dahlias.

Rudbeckia hirta

I was surprised that the largely perennial Rudbeckia had a few annual representatives, and the once ubiquitous Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldstrum’ soldiering in fast food chain and hell strip gardens reinforced my prejudice. Rudbeckia hirta inhabits mostly prairies, pastures, and woodland edges from southern Canada into Florida, westwards to New Mexico. Flowers span at least 2-3 inches wide, and may be yellow, yellow marked with dark brown, or entirely maroon. The bristly leaves deter hungry insects, but not butterflies who depend on them for larval food. Given the resurgence of interest in North American prairie plants, it is not surprising to see Rudbeckia hirta earmarked for breeding work. Suddenly various cultivars begin to appear in catalogs and cut flower devotees were using them in farm-to-table bouquets.  Then I saw Rudbeckia hirta ‘Kelvedon Star’ in summer bedding at Great Dixter. ‘Cherry Brandy’ is a dog among the cultivars – its color is terribly muddled and vigor among the seedlings seems variable even from reputable seed sources. ‘Denver Daisy’, a selection from Denver Botanic Garden, is a robust grower profuse with its irregularly marooned spotted yellow flowers. It is almost too vigorous to a default that neighboring plants may be overwhelmed. ‘Irish Eyes’ and ‘Prairie Sun’ have a softer, wilder look different from the stiffness of ‘Denver Daisy’. Their luminous yellows pair well with the blues and purples of autumnal aconitums and asters.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Irish Eyes' has a soft green center.
Rudbeckia hirta ‘Irish Eyes’ has a soft green center.
Rudbeckia hirta 'Prairie Sun'
Rudbeckia hirta ‘Prairie Sun’

Fragile and Resilient as a Poppy

Dear Jimmy,

Late May to early June is usually a jubilant time for me – the late spring growth has rapidly matured, the evenings stretch longer, and the vitality of foliage, still pristine and relatively unmarred, awakens the eyes jaded from winter. It is too the time of poppies -even the name ‘Poppy’ itself has a playful, pop-up art connotation, a concept that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the color synonymous with poppies, a bright red unadulterated by blues or yellows, jolts the senses in its unabashed brilliance.
In the chalk fields of the Norfolk Broad a few years ago, I witnessed hundreds of Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas), dabbed like the red spots of a pointillist painting. At Chanticleer, parts of the Pond and Gravel Gardens become a sea of red, as long as winter has been merciful enough to let any seed or seedlings survive (this past winter was a brutal one, reducing the sea to more of a trickle). The poppy seems a symbol of beauty at its fullest and most fragile – a rainstorm easily send the curtain down on the flowers – that belittles its resilient profundity. Each flower dwindles to a capsule that expels hundreds of black seeds, a fraction of which secures the plant’s future. I’m often taken by surprise at the number of seedlings appearing in the garden the following spring. A seedling then quickly mushrooms into a fat clump transmogrifying into an airy framework of wiry stems and flowers with heat. After a few weeks, the entire plant becomes a desiccated skeleton having fulfilled its purpose. We pull it out, scattering its seeds wide in hopes of seeing more next year.
In the early morning light, Papaver rhoeas (Flanders poppy) glow crimson at the Rock Ledge, Chanticleer, Wayne, PA.
In the early morning light, Papaver rhoeas (Flanders poppy) glow crimson at the Rock Ledge, Chanticleer, Wayne, PA.
The Flanders or corn poppy has become a floral remembrance of WWI and WII battlefields – it has been said that poppies emerge thicker where bloodshed was the heaviest. Farmers regard them as agricultural weeds, although modern farming practices have more or less obliterated them. These poppies are ‘relics’ of a cultural landscape in which organisms had evolved in sync with traditional principles of animal husbandry, delayed tilling, and hedgerows.
Paler strains of Flander poppy, sometimes called Shirley poppies, are selected for their colors and can revert back easily if not kept pure.
Paler strains of Flander poppy, sometimes called Shirley poppies, are selected for their colors and can revert back easily if not kept pure.
Horticulturists took among themselves to select and breed for paler colors, which collectively became known as Shirley poppies. Shirley poppies will often revert to the standard red species if not carefully edited for rogue seedlings and separated physically. Their flowers have a silvery shimmer, a pearlescent quality made surreal during cloudy days.
The Oriental poppy is a portrait of sumptuous opulence, a voluptuous self of its wild cousins.
The Oriental poppy is a portrait of sumptuous opulence, a voluptuous self of its wild cousins.
The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) seems to be a hypersexualized version of the Flanders poppies – its petals have become larger, fuller, and deeply crinkled like the finest chine crepe, its stamens and anthers sultrier like mascara-lined eyes, and its colors ‘less’ pure in red, washing into pinks and creams. Even its basal rosettes are bullies, making the Oriental poppy less of a partner to tango with than the Flanders poppies, which pirouette gracefully and spontaneously amidst other plants. In large gardens they look stunning with bearded irises, peonies, and other traditional cottage garden perennials.
The opium poppy has a duplicitous status  - it simultaneously produces narcotics and culinary seasonings (seeds and oil).
The opium poppy has a duplicitous status – it simultaneously produces narcotics and culinary seasonings (seeds and oil).
Ever since the Wicked Witch of the West sent Dorothy and her entourage into a soporific slumber with a field of poppies, the opium poppy has had a less salubrious reputation as a source of narcotics, including its derived product heroin. It irreversibly altered history when China was forced to concede Hong Kong to Great Britain in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. With darkness comes benevolence – the poppy seeds beloved in breads and cakes and poppyseed oil are from the opium poppy.
The individual black splotch on the red petal of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum) adds a bold tension with the bright red.
The individual black splotch on the red petal of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum) adds a bold tension with the bright red.

My heart belongs to the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum), which possesses the same saturated red of the Flanders poppy, but stamped with the trademark black splotches.Without these black splotches, the flowers look rather ordinary and merely attractive. At Great Dixter this poppy flowers with the magenta Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus at Great Dixter – it is a daring combination the late Christopher Lloyd loved in its irreverent cheekiness. Unfortunately the ladybird poppy is not a reliable self-seeder. The best way to hedge against no-shows next year is to start them from seed under cover, prick the seedlings individually into plugs, and plant as soon as possible when the roots have filled out. Autumn sowing is best as it goes for annual poppies. As you know, the effort is always worthwhile and I often dream of combinations with the ladybird poppy – the bright blues of Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Ball’, the whites of Orlaya grandiflora, or orange geums. A field of them would be magical, evoking what John Keats wrote in Endymion: “Through the dancing poppies stole A breeze most softly lulling to my soul.”

~Eric

 

5-10-5: Emma Seniuk at Chanticleer

Using grapevine boughs from her father's property, Emma painstakingly wove them over the arches after removing the remnant old branches and wire. A constant in the Cut Flower Garden, the arches are structurally significant, giving height when the beds are bare in winter and early spring. Cloaked in vines and engulfed by the riot of vegetation, they become less visible later in the season.
Using grapevine boughs from her father’s property, Emma painstakingly wove them over the arches after removing the remnant old branches and wire. A constant in the Cut Flower Garden at Chanticleer, the arches are structurally significant, giving height when the beds are bare in winter and early spring. Cloaked in vines and engulfed by the riot of vegetation, they become less visible later in the season.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Emma Seniuk and I am the cut flower and vegetable gardener at Chanticleer in Wayne Pennsylvania.
Emma effectively groups tulips in blocks that drift across four beds, creating continuity through color and form, and their simplicity (three to four varieties) is fundamental for success.
Emma effectively groups tulips in blocks that drift across four beds, creating continuity through color and form, and their simplicity (three to four varieties) is fundamental for success.

Tell us a bit about your background.

Like most gardeners, I’ve loved plants since I was a child.  Over the years I have worked at a variety of jobs- nurseries, landscaping, beekeeping, helping to manage a Christmas tree farm but once I was introduced to public horticulture I was drawn in, hook, line and sinker.  I worked at Mt. Cuba Center as a seasonal, Longwood as a student, volunteered at Chanticleer over the years, had a year and half long studentship at Great Dixter and now am fortunate enough to be full time at Chanticleer.  

What was your first gardening experience?  
I remember picking the bulbils out the leaf axils of tiger lilies and snatching sugar peas from my Mom’s garden.
Aquilegia chrysantha 'Denver Gold' and the rich regal purples of Campanula medium (Canterbury bells) glitter like jewelry in the Cut  Flower Garden at Chanticleer.
Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Denver Gold’ and the rich regal purples of Campanula medium (Canterbury bells) glitter like jewelry in the Cut Flower Garden at Chanticleer.
The arts or horticulture? Horticulture
Under Fergus's direction, Emma begins to organize and design the front container display at Great Dixter.
Under Fergus’s direction, Emma begins to organize and design the front container display at Great Dixter.

Who do you consider to be your mentors?

 Fergus Garrett, Executive Director and Head Gardener of Great Dixter, undoubtedly my greatest gardening influence and just about the coolest guy you could ever meet.
What is your typical day at Chanticleer?  
I am a list maker and am always trying to organize and plan the garden in my mind but ultimately so much of gardening is about reacting, reading the garden and the weather and jumping in with both hands when the time is right.
Bamboo canes help delineate the sections where bulbs and biennials are to be planted, a trick Emma learned from Great Dixter.
Bamboo canes help delineate the sections where bulbs and biennials are to be planted, a trick Emma learned from Great Dixter.
Given that you had spent 2 years working at Great Dixter, how do you reconcile their philosophy with that of a different climate and garden at Chanticleer? In what ways do you anticipate the evolution of your style?
Great Dixter showed me what is possible in a garden.  It has been gardened with love for over a hundred years and, in that attention and dynamic style, I can see what is possible with my continued dedication to the craft.  Good gardens are made up of plants which do well in each individual situation.  They must sit right in the space as well as flourish culturally, so instead of trying to grow everything grown at Great Dixter, I am trying to find the right plants for each of my garden sections at Chanticleer.      
Left beginning from upper left to the bottom right: Le Jardin Plume; Hastings Beach; poppies in Normandy, France; dahlias at Great Dixter, England; Promenade plantée in Paris; delphiniums at the RHS Plant Trials beds at Wisley; park in Blois, France; Friends drinking - Rachael, Yannick, and James; Courson Flower Show in France;  Succissia pratensis; Great Dixter's Long Border; Milkweeds and goldenrod in Rhode Island;  Keith Wiley's Wildside in Devon, UK; dinner at private garden; White Clay Creek Preserve, Pennsylvania
Left beginning from upper left to the bottom right: Le Jardin Plume; Hastings Beach; poppies in Normandy, France; dahlias at Great Dixter, England; Promenade plantée in Paris; delphiniums at the RHS Plant Trials beds at Wisley; park in Blois, France; Friends drinking – Rachael, Yannick, and James; Courson Flower Show in France; Succissia pratensis; Great Dixter’s Long Border; Milkweeds and goldenrod in Rhode Island; Keith Wiley’s Wildside in Devon, UK; dinner at private garden; White Clay Creek Preserve, Pennsylvania
We often look towards United Kingdom as the primary source of inspiration and professional enrichment, and few of us venture to continental Europe (France, Italy, Belgium) to see what gardeners are achieving there as well. What are some of the gardens or techniques you found refreshing or inspiring in continental Europe?
While living in England I became enchanted with France and spent a good many weekends tooling around Normandy visiting gardens, staying in Paris and traveling to the Loire.  My most treasured garden experiences in France were visiting and getting to know Le Jardin Plume, a gracious and already iconic garden in Normandy.  Also, I fell for the private garden of Creche Pape in Brittany, where I saw shrubs and and stone work creating ribbons and waves of volume, and a garden festival in the Loire, called Chaumont-Sur-Loire, composed of annually themed garden installations.
Emma is always evaluating plant combinations for their effectiveness - to a casual eye, the  dark purple Tulipa 'Negrita' and bright orange Erysimum x marshallii (Siberian wallflower) are attractive together, but needs a third partner to elevate the duet to something more sublime and interesting. While it is too late to add another plant, Emma will record her observations, a good practice for any gardener looking to better their gardens.
Emma is always evaluating plant combinations for their effectiveness – to a casual eye, the dark purple Tulipa ‘Negrita’ and bright orange Erysimum x marshallii (Siberian wallflower) are attractive together, but needs a third partner to elevate the duet to something more sublime and interesting. While it is too late to add another plant, Emma will record her observations, a good practice for any gardener looking to better their gardens.
You mentioned that your approach towards selecting and combining plants is very similar to that of a fashion designer. Can you kindly elaborate?
Because I work so much with annuals, I am able to alter my display considerably throughout a single growing season.  I generally try to work with a theme each year and this helps me give parameters to plant choices and color combinations.
The foxtail lilies (Eremurus 'Spring Valley Hybrids') and soft orange 'Swansea' lilies rise above Nicotiana 'Lime Green', white Ammi majus,  Anthemum graveolens, and  Consolida ajacis in this delightful relaxed planting (Summer 2013).
The foxtail lilies (Eremurus ‘Spring Valley Hybrids’) and soft orange ‘Swansea’ lilies rise above Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’, white Ammi majus, Anthemum graveolens, and Consolida ajacis in this delightful relaxed planting (Summer 2013).
You’re very involved in propagation – most gardens now have staff devoted specifically to propagation and nursery areas, or the staff tend to order plants in. What is it about propagation you find very appealing (despite the demands your garden makes on you)? 
To grow and propagate a plant is to know it fully.  Also, with my reliance in annual displays I have control over the quality of the plant.  So many of the plants bought these days are grown in a peat based medium and when planted in the garden the root system sits in the peat, unable to acclimate with the surrounding garden soil.  At Chanticleer I have been using a mixture of screened compost and grit to grow my annuals and when I plant them in the garden they don’t miss a beat.  
Emma mixes her own potting medium, which ensures plants tough enough to withstand garden conditions.
Emma mixes her own potting medium, which ensures plants tough enough to withstand garden conditions.
In the cold frames, Ammi majus and A. visnaga await their final homes in the Cut Flower Garden at Chanticleer (Spring 2013).
In the cold frames, Ammi majus and A. visnaga await their final homes in the Cut Flower Garden at Chanticleer (Spring 2013).
If asked to describe your garden in one or two songs, what would you pick? Why?
Tough one.  I prefer to relate plant choices to emotions and, at heart, I’m a terrible romantic.  
Dark plummy purples to wine reds are one of Emma's favorite colors in the Cut Garden Flower at Chanticleer.  Left to right clockwise: Cosmos bipinnatus 'Rubenza'; Papaver somniferum 'Lauren's Grape'; Tulipa 'Rem's Favourite'; Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum'
Dark plummy purples to wine reds are one of Emma’s favorite colors in the Cut Garden Flower at Chanticleer.
Left to right clockwise: Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Rubenza’; Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape’; Tulipa ‘Rem’s Favourite’; Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’
What guidance or advice can you give to young people interested in horticulture as a profession?
Look to your elders and support your peers. 
Ammi majus is a stellar player in different ensembles in the Cut Flower Garden. Top left clockwise: Papaver somniferum; Digitalis purpurea and Nicotiana 'Lime Green'; Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum', Eremurus 'Spring Valley Hybrids'; Eremurus x robustus
Ammi majus is a stellar player in different ensembles in the Cut Flower Garden. Top left clockwise: Papaver somniferum; Digitalis purpurea and Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’; Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, Eremurus ‘Spring Valley Hybrids’; Eremurus x robustus
You’re highly critical of what makes a good garden plant, as you confess how you don’t have time to mollycoddle them. Can you name some of your favorite plants and their outstanding features you admire? 
Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’ for its tall stature, persistent seed heads, and over two month bloom time in the heat of the summer.  Ammi majus and visnaga for their white umbels, ferny foliage, and dreamy appeal.  These plants are good for a beginner grower and a rewarding late spring surprise.  Verbena bonariensis, an annual which self sows when in good spirits and has a way of dancing through the garden, punctuating displays with its purple flowers which last well into the season.  Wiry but sturdy, graceful but impactful, it has a steadfast charm, which will constantly capture the imagination of gardeners.   
Emma values composites for their summer and autumn flowers, which  Left to right: Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’ and Helianthus x multiflorus ‘Capenoch Star’; Tithonia rotundifolia and Helianthus angustifolius ‘Gold Lace’; Coreopsis tripteris ‘Lightning Flash’; Helianthus maximilianii ‘Santa Fe’ and the red Amaranthus hypochrondriacus and Tithonia rotundifolia.
Emma values composites for their summer and autumn flowers, which Left to right: Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’ and Helianthus x multiflorus ‘Capenoch Star’; Tithonia rotundifolia and Helianthus angustifolius ‘Gold Lace’; Coreopsis tripteris ‘Lightning Flash’; Helianthus maximilianii ‘Santa Fe’ and the red Amaranthus hypochrondriacus and Tithonia rotundifolia.
What is your desert island plant? 
Two Cocos nucifera with a hammock strung between them.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Still gardening, learning and loving it!

Zappy Zinnias

Zinnias

 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 spectacular dahlias steal their thunder in autumn. They share the same New World (Mexican) origins as dahlias, and were likely grown by the Aztecs before being popularized in the Old World. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named zinnias after the German professor of botany and medicine Johann Zinn in 1856. Of the various species, Zinnia elegans is the progenitor of today’s modern hybrids in various colors and forms.

Do not sow too early for zinnias dislike cold temperatures more than anything. Sowing too early will either result in poor germination or weak plants. When evening summer temperatures are in their 70s to 80s, then seeds or plants can safely grown outside. Although some sources recommend direct sowing to minimize root disturbance, sowing in pots can be successfully if the seedlings are gingerly handled and transplanted. By no means should planting be delayed once the seedlings have produced their first or second set of true leaves. I have had success producing zinnias this way, using them in summer containers.

The combination of summer warmth, water, and rich soil will cause the plants to romp away quickly and flower in no time. Although some gardeners get away with not staking their plants, staking does benefit the plants by encouraging straight and upright stems ideal for cutting. Stems broken either by weight, violent rainstorms, or human carelessness are not recoverable. They are best removed since they detract from the plants’ appearance.

Zinnias are relatively trouble-free. In cool climates, botrytis or gray mold can be problematic. It can be easily diagnosed when the growth tips are covered with downy gray fuzz, which progresses downwards to the stems. Entire plants collapse as the stems crumple from the moldy tissues.  Powdery mildew can befall plants in hot and humid climates if they have poor air circulation and are crowded. A good dose of baking soda mixed with water may mitigate the effect of powdery mildew. Japanese beetles may occasionally skeletonize the flowers or foliage, and picking them off early in the morning can control them.

Zinnia_GCLE_SENOR

Cactus-type zinnias are remarkably similar to cactus-type dahlias, and have the similar bold and bright colors to match. They are often tall, topping at 36″.

‘Pink Senorita’  – Its salmon color and quilled petals make ‘Pink Senorita’ my top favorite, and an outstanding alternative for florists unable to source the ever popular Dahlia ‘Cafe au Lait’ earlier in summer. The color has the same transmutable hue as ‘Cafe au Lait’ and the flower size is comparable. I’m surprised that ‘Pink Senorita’ is not more widely grown in the local cut flower industry. ‘Pink Senorita’ can stand alone as a bouquet or sparingly mixed with chartreuse nicotiana (‘Lime Green’ or N. alata).

‘Cactus-Flowered Lilac Emperor’ – ‘Cactus-Flowered Lilac Emperor’ certainly has a regal bearing that matches ‘Pink Senorita’ in effect. Grow it with the dark purple Salvia ‘Amistad’ or ‘Indigo Spires’.

Zinnia 'Meteor' (left); Zinnia 'Orange King' (right)
Zinnia ‘Meteor’ (left); Zinnia ‘Orange King’ (right)

Dahlia-flowered types are fully double and have dense petals packed tightly. They too can be tall plants at 36″ in good conditions.

‘Meteor’ – A festive cherry-red, ‘Meteor’ literally ricochets from the sea of zinnia cultivars. It can be distinguished from ‘Will Rogers’ by its smaller size and less tiers of petals. The Parisian fashion house Christian Dior has a lipstick named ‘zinnia red’ that matches ‘Meteor’ in color.

‘Orange King’ – Part of the ‘Benary Giant Series’, ‘Orange King’ is a strong grower with large mandarin orange flowers that energize jaded senses.  Grow it with bright yellow patrinia (Patrinia scabiosifolia) for a zappy duet.

Zinnia 'Polar Bear' (left); Zinnia 'Envy' (right)
Zinnia ‘Polar Bear’ (left); Zinnia ‘Envy’ (right)

‘Polar Bear’ – Clean whites are difficult to find in zinnias, but ‘Polar Bear’ is a clear winner. Its flowers are that pristine white, a good antidote to the fiery, bold hues more associated with zinnias. ‘Polar Bear’ goes well with ‘Envy’ or ‘Green Envy’ since the latter picks up the green tints of the former.

‘Envy’ – The cover flower of every book or article on green flowers,  ‘Envy’ stands out for its distinctive chartreuse color.  It is important to source good seed since color and size can be highly variable. Poorer strains have insipid colors missing that intensity.  Renee’s Garden Seeds’ ‘Green Envy’ is a good strain.

Orange zinnias burst from dark purple Verbena tenuisecta in this bedding planting.
Orange zinnias burst from dark purple Verbena tenuisecta in this bedding planting.

Zinnias can be somewhat tricky to place in the garden since their bold colors can call attention to themselves at the expense of other plants. They require bold partners  – at Great Dixter, variegated cannas and coleus were effective foliar foils for zinnias.

Zinnias_4

Any cut-flower garden is poorer without zinnias. Because zinnias have soft necks easily broken, they need to be handled carefully after picked for cut flowers. An exception may be reserved for ‘Benary Giant Series’, which do have sturdy necks.  Cutting encourages more flowers to produce, and it’s a treat to come away with an armful of zinnias for floral arrangements. I like using colored vases to highlight each individual flower, and a trip to Ikea yielded these inexpensive aqua blue-tinted bud vases made in France.

Zinnias - Henri Fantin-Latour
Zinnias – Henri Fantin-Latour

It is hardly surprising that zinnias have inspired endless painters, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Fantin-Latour.  Their paintbox colors have that captivating naivety, although the Victorians saw them in a significant way – zinnias mean ‘thoughts of an absent friend”. Hopefully the thoughts are those of happiness for nothing sad or depressing can be said about zinnias!

~Eric