Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The early beginnings of Great Fall Color


While many perennials in the garden are beginning to look a bit weary, a few plants are just coming into all their glory. 

Helenium is one of them.



I have always had a few Heleniums in my garden, but sadly, I don't think I have ever 
 given them a chance to really shine. Something I'd like to rectify in future!

Helenium in a public park in Brampton

I have come to realize, by way of example, that Heleniums look best planted in large groups in combination with tall grasses or other late blooming perennials. 

In this public space, Helenium looks terrific mixed with Phlox, yellow Rudbeckia, and blue-grey Russian Sage.

Helenium in a public park in Brampton

Sneezeweed or Helenium autumnale is a North American native plant that can often be 
found growing in wild, damp meadows.

Larkwhistle Gardens

As you can see here, many varieties of Helenium are skyscrapers that soar to a considerable height.


Larkwhistle Gardens

Heleniums are happiest in rich moist soil, but they will tolerate a somewhat sandier soil and will even adjust to somewhat dryer conditions once established.

Helenium 'Short 'n' Sassy'

This fall to add to my small collection of Helenium, I am adding a few of newer 
cultivars that are shorter in height. 


Helenium 'Short 'n' Sassy': This compact variety of helenium has orange and gold petals with a deep brown centre. Full sun and moist soil are best. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 40-50 cm (16-20 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.


Helenium autumnale Mariachi 'Fuego': Another compact variety of helenium, 'Fuego' has orange-red petals and a golden halo around a deep, coffee-colored centre. Full sun and moist soil are best. Height: 40-50 cm (16-20 inches), Spread: 50-60 cm (20-30 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.



I also brought home a piece of a tall yellow Helenium from my Mom's garden. Fingers crossed it takes!

Sedum 'Maestro' is super tall and reaches a height of 60-75 cm (23-29 inches).

Another group of plants that really comes into its own at this time of year are tall Sedums. 


Sedum telephium 'Matrona': This Sedum has sage green foliage with reddish stems and is fairly tall.  Full sun. Height: 60 -70 cm ( 23- 28 inches) Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

In early June, I usually cut my tall Sedums by a third. I find they produce more, smaller flower heads and flop less as a result.

Propagating Sedums is fairly simple I've found: just stick your June cuttings in damp soil and keep them watered and out of direct sun until they have rooted. What could be easier! New generations of my original Sedum telephium 'Matrona' can be found all over my garden. 

It is also nice to add a few new Sedums to the mix each year. 



Sedum spectabile 'Neon': This Sedum has light green foliage and magenta-pink flowers.  Full sun. Like all Sedums, it is attractive to butterflies. Height: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches) Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9


Sedum telephium 'Munstead Dark Red': This is an older variety that has a dark rose flower. It can be floppy in moist rich sites. Height: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches) Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.


So far, I am really liking this low mounding cultivar called 'Pure Joy' that I purchased in the spring of this year.

Sedum 'Pure Joy': has a low, rounded mound of blue-green foliage and pale pink flowers. Grow it in poor to average well drained soil. Full sun. Height: 20-30 cm (10-12 inches) Spread: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.


Beside soft pink 'Pure Joy' is the Sedum Sunsparkler 'Dazzleberry' (you can see 'Dazzleberry' peaking into the picture on the lower right).

'Dazzleberry' has flopped a bit and has been held up by the surrounding Lamium (it gets lots of sun so perhaps my soil is too rich and causes it to flop). It's purplish grey foliage has made it a perfect companion plant for Penstemon 'Dark Towers' and mauve flowered Veronica 'Eveline' in my front garden.

Sedum Sunsparkler 'Dazzleberry': has purplish grey foliage and raspberry red flowers in fall. Again poor to average well drained soil. Full sun. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.


So what do you think?

Are Helenium's outrageous colors too much for your garden? 
What's your experience with tall Sedums? 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Home from Nova Scotia

A container planting with a lime colored Coleus and Butterfly Gaura, Gaura lindheimeri

My Dad dressed in his maroon swimming trunks; a grey sweatshirt wrapped over his shoulders leans on a black cane with one hand and on my arm with the other. He is a small man, but his weight on my arm is considerable as we navigate the rough gravel path that leads down to the lakefront beach.

I had asked my Mom, as we made dinner together the night I arrived, what my eighty-seven year old Dad would most like to do while my sister Nancy and I were at home.

"He wants to go swimming," she told me.

Humble Lobelia in a metal bucket.

Our week-long visit has flown by and it is the final couple of days before my sister and I must fly back to our regular adult lives on different continents. The weather has turned overcast and a bit blustery, but we are both determined to honour Dad's wish to go for a summer swim.

Odd boulders and serpentine tree roots mean that every step my Dad and I take down the forested pathway to the lake is a new adventure for Dad and his cane. We pause frequently, so he can catch his breath.

When we finally reach the beach the lake is looking black and mighty cold. The two life guards in attendance are wearing jackets over their  swimsuits. Unfazed, my Dad takes my sister's arm, and with his cane in the other hand, he heads into the water. As my Mom and I watch anxiously from the shore, there are a few tense moments when he falters on the sand, but Dad recovers his balance and strides out into the dark water.

Chest deep he throws the cane back to us on shore and he and Nancy take the plunge.

Burr that's got to be cold!

But as I look at my Dad's face as it pops up out of the water, he looks only happy. While he struggles to be mobile on land, he is buoyant in the water. Jubilation is written all over his face.

That moment of sheer joy will most certainly be one of my dearest memories of my trip home to Nova Scotia.

Jacque's Garden

There are lots of other wonderful memories too. 

Though there was little time to visit local gardens, Mom took me to visit her friend Jacquie's garden the afternoon I arrived.

Martagon lilies.

My favourite object in Jacquie's garden: a carving of a hand with long tapered fingers. The hand rests on an old wooden bench. One day I must ask her about the story behind the hand.



This is Valentine. 

As you can by her dark stare, Valentine eyed me with suspicion the whole time we were in Jacquie's garden. 

My Mom, on the other hand, she adored. Though Valentine notoriously dislikes visitors, she put her tiny paws up on my Mom's trouser legs and begged repeatedly to be petted. 

I am sure she would have nipped my hand if I had dared to do the same! So much for the notion I hold any sway with dogs!

Mahone Bay

Almost everywhere I went on my trip to Nova Scotia, there seemed to be flowers.

Liatris with pink Phlox paniculata in the background.


Blazing Star or Gayfeather, Liatris spicata: forms a low clump of grass-like foliage with flowers spikes of magenta-purple, white or flowers in late summer. Attractive to butterflies and bees. Full sun. Height: 75-90 cm, Spread: 30-45 cm. Laitris will grow in a variety of soil types and are pretty drought tolerant once established.

Honeysuckle Vine

Mahone Bay

Houses in Nova Scotia are sometimes painted the most outrageous colors.


I had to pull the car to the side of the road and take this picture.

Orange Tiger Lilies en masse.


My sisters and I (a third sister lives in Dartmouth, N.S.) did the most touristy thing we could possibly do: we went on a little mini-vacation that took us along the South Shore to Peggy's Cove and Mahone Bay. We avoided the main highway and opted instead for old twisty-turny road along shores of the Atlantic ocean.


The land that hugs the St. Margaret's Bay is a lunar landscape of granite boulders and plants that manage to cling to life in thin soil, salt air and harsh winds.

When you reach Peggy's Cove, the vista becomes a mix of rolling hills of stone and little salt water ponds.


The white lighthouse at Peggy's Cove is one of Nova Scotia's most famous landmarks.


Do you see the figure on the lower right?


This lady, with her wide brimmed hat and accordion, was singing traditional ballads 
for all the visiting tourists.


My sisters and I stayed overnight in this resort hotel.

We had our evening meal on the terrace and watched the sun go down. Dinner was delicious! I had roast chicken, while both my sisters enjoyed pan-seared halibut with scollops and shrimps in a lobster-cream sauce.


I flew home on the weekend with a bit of a heavy heart. How I wish I lived closer so I could check in on my parents more often! They need help, even though they are reluctant to accept it.

When I got home this big bouquet of dahlias awaited me on the kitchen counter. It was a wonderful trip, but it is always nice to come back home.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fly Away Home Again


For the second time this summer, I am flying home to Nova Scotia to check on my Mom. She's doing well, all things considered, but we worry anyway. This time around my sister Nancy is coming home from Ireland and we have a lot of catching up to do.

I am well behind on returning visits, but promise to drop by and say hello upon my return.

I leave you with an image of one of the prettiest things in the garden at the moment: Ornamental Onion, Allium 'Millenium'. The bees adore it.

Have a wonderful week!

Monday, August 11, 2014

So I bought a Fig Tree...



I bought a fig tree principally because of a short story.

I know, I know. It's a bit of a zany reason for a plant purchase, but let me explain.

I am a longtime fan of Stewart Mclean and his hour-long radio show on the CBC called the Vinyl Cafe.  Of Stewart's many tales, my favourite, and there is no surprise here, is about an aging gardener and his fig tree.

I know it is a little sentimental, but I like the idea of having a pleasant reminder of a favourite story in my garden.


I sure you must be wondering about the practicality of growing figs in Canada. 


After all, fig trees hail from the Middle East and western Asia.


Well, I have it on good authority that it is indeed possible to grow figs here in my zone 6b garden.

Steve Biggs, author of Grow Figs Where You Think You Can't, has become a well known authority on the subject of growing figs.

But why bother to grow your own figs in the first place? In his book, Steve writes:

"A fig picked too early never ripens to perfection. It's just a corky, semi-sweet thing passed off as a fig. Contrast that to a truly ripe fresh fig, which packs a succulent burst of jam-like sweetness. That perfectly ripe fig is far to fragile to withstand long-distance shipping. And that means that many people living in colder climates have never experienced one."

Count me in amongst all those people who has never experienced a proper tree-ripened fig! I have eyed the rather sad, slightly shrivelled specimens in my local grocery and have always passed on buying figs. On the other hand, the "jam-like sweetness" of a homegrown fig sounds divine.

Curious as to where his interest in figs began, I contacted Steve and asked him a series of questions to help me get started with my first fig tree: 

How did become interested in growing figs Steve?

"My first exposure to figs was to the dried sort. I don't mean to disparage dried figs, but they would not be reason enough for me to go to the effort of growing my own figs in my garden. When people say they don't like figs, I am immediately suspicious that they have only tried the dry ones...

My interest in figs grew as I watched neighbours grow figs. Then as a student I spent a summer working at a nursery in the UK that specialized in growing figs."


What types of fig trees are best adapted to life here in Canada?

"Some varieties such as "Hardy Chicago" can tolerate cold better, so are better suited for growing in the ground. Varieties that ripen 'main-crop' figs earlier are always a safer bet. And, varieties such as "Desert King", which have a heavy Breba crop (the early crop in July) are a good bet. 

[Breba fruit grown on wood from the previous year, usually ripening in July; while main-crop figs are on wood from the current year, ripening late summer or fall.]"

I know absolutely nothing about growing figs. What can I do to get my fig tree off to a good start?

"Sun, heat and water are all important to actively growing plants. Unpruned, plants usually grow into a bush, but can be trained into small trees, if that's what you prefer."

How can I encourage fruit and get it to ripen before fall frosts?

"Pick a hot, sunny microclimate, such as next to a brick wall that radiates heat. Pinch out shoot tips after 3 figs form, so that energy isn't wasted growing figs that probably won't ripen in our climate."

What can I do to make sure my fig tree makes it through the winter?

"Fig trees lose their leaves after the first frost. They WANT to go dormant. That means you can keep them over the winter even if you don't have a bright, hot greenhouse. While they're dormant, they don't need light or much heat. Contrast this to lemons...

Do not put your fig tree in a sunny window. If it grows to much indoors it will get to gangly. It is also important not to overwater, as this can rot the roots.

If your fig is in a pot, move it to a cool, dark location such as a cold room; or an attached garage can work well too. A stand-alone garage tends to get too cold in extreme conditions. 

If it is in the ground, bend over the shoots and insulate with soil and some sort of insulating cover."

Just to be clear: are you suggesting I bury it in the ground and then cover it over with additional insulation?

Many people do this, although here in the Toronto area, you can bend it to the ground and mulch heavily. No need to bury your fig tree!

What do you suggest I use as an insulating cover?

"Some people use leaves. One fellow I know uses an old door with a sheet of insulating foam on it. Your goal is to moderate the temperature swings, not to prevent it from freezing."

My hardy Fig tree, Ficus carica: Needs 3-6 hours of sun. Full height 8-10', Full Spread: 10-12' 
USDA Zone 7-10 ( -18 degrees C) 

My fig tree is far too young to produce figs this year, but if it successfully overwinters, I hope to enjoy its first figs next summer.

As Steve describes it,"The neck becomes soft, the fruit drops and becomes soft to the touch, and sometimes a glistening drop of nectar escapes from the eye."

I can hardly wait!

More information and Links:


Steve Biggs is an award winning journalist and author specializing in gardening, farming and food production. A life-long gardener, he favours a practical and fun approach to things. His book No Guff Vegetable Gardening, co-authored with Donna Balzer is a Canadian best seller. Grow Your Own Figs Where You Think You Can't is the winner if the 2012 Silver Award of Achievement, Garden Writers Association.

Steve lives with his family (and a couple dozen fig trees) in Toronto.

Watch a short video of Steve at Richter's Herb Nursery speaking on growing Figs.



Be sure to check out Steve's plans for creating a "Fig Patio Garden" inNiki Jabbour's new book Groundbreaking Gardens.

For those of you that live in the GTA, you can check out the new Fig Patio Garden at the Toronto Botanical Gardens








Stewart Mclean is a best selling author, award winning journalist and humorist. The Vinyl Cafe stories follow the misadventures of Dave, the owner of the Vinyl Cafe (the world's smallest record store) his wife Morley, his daughter Stephanie and his son Sam.   Find some of the most recent Vinyl Cafe podcasts here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Threadleaf Coreopsis


Coreopsis 'Jive' and 'Salsa'

Mauve colored Veronica 'Eveline' and Penstemon 'Dark Towers', with its deep maroon stems and light pink flowers looked pretty together in my front garden for quite a number of weeks, but as the summer slipped quietly from July into August, they both were starting to look a bit weary. 

Hoping for a fresh flush of flowers in early fall, I ruthlessly pruned them back. Cutting any perennial back hard is always a case of short term pain for long term gain. Often a plant looks like hell before it bounces back.

To disguise the mess I created, I bought a big pot of annual Coreopsis 'Jive' and placed it right into the flower border.


I have always been a fan of Threadleaf Coreopsis.  I have perennial Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam' in the front and back gardens.

Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam' : has soft, ferny foliage and buttery-yellow flowers in late July/August.  Deadheading encourages new flowers and an extended bloom time. This is an easy care plant that tolerates a range of soil types and growing conditions. Full sun. Height: 30-45 cm, Spread: 30-45 cm. Note: Moonbeam is essentially sterile and must be propagated by division or cuttings. USDA Zones 4-9.


'Zagreb' is another popular cultivar with flowers that are a deeper, more golden-yellow.

Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb': has the same ferny foliage and golden-yellow flowers in late July/August. Full sun. Height: 20-30 cm, Spread: 30-45 cm. USDA Zones 4-9.


Coreopsis verticillata 'Golden Gain': offers the same golden yellow flower as 'Zagreb' on a plant that is a little taller than 'Moonbeam'. Again full sun. Height: 60-75 cm, Spread: 45-60 cm. USDA Zones 4-9.


This pink cultivar is sometimes sold as a perennial here, but it has never been hardy in my Zone 6b garden. 

Coreopsis rosea 'American Dream':  has the same threadleaf foliage as 'Moonbeam', but with pink flowers in late July/August. Full sun. Height: 30-45 cm, Spread: 45-50 cm. Coreopsis rosea 'American Dream' prefers average to moist soil. USDA Zones 4-9.


Coreopsis 'Route 66' is also a perennial that has to be treated like an annual here (hardy only to Zone 5).

Coreopsis 'Route 66': has starry yellow flowers splattered more or less with maroon. (Each flower is a little different than the next.) This species is native to the Eastern USA and tolerates heat and humidity well. It prefers dry growing conditions and is happiest in sandy, poor or rocky soil that offers good drainage. Full sun. Height: 50-60 cm, Spread: 45-60 cm. USDA Zones 5-9.


Coreopsis 'Red Satin' is final example of a perennial that must be treated like as annual here in southern Ontario (hardy only to Zone 5).

Coreopsis 'Red Satin': has maroon flowers summer to fall. It is native to the Eastern USA where it grows in hot, dry conditions. Like 'Route 66', it is quite happy in poor, sandy soil and is drought tolerant once established. Full sun. Height: 45-60 cm, Spread: 35-45 cm. USDA Zones 5-9.


In recent years, Coreopsis tinctoria and Coreopsis rosea have been hybridized to produce many new annual varieties. 

Coreopsis 'Jive' is part of the new Coloropsis series. Full sun. Height: 30-45 cm, Spread: 30-45 cm. 


Coreopsis 'Salsa': is part of the same series as 'Jive' and is compact, upright annual with yellow flowers that have a reddish-brown centre. Full sun. Height: 30-45 cm, Spread: 30-45 cm. 

One drawback is that many of these new annuals are sterile and must be grown from cuttings. Sadly there is no possibility of collecting seed each fall.


A nice companion plant for any Threadleaf Coreopsis might be Calamintha, which is also quite delicate in appearance.

Dwarf Calamint, Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepta: has arching spays of pale mauve-blue flowers. The foliage of this plant has a slight minty fragrance. Full sun or light shade. It tolerates average, dry and moist growing conditions and is suitable for normal, sandy or clay soils. Bees love it! Height: 20-30 cm, Spread 30-45 cm Hardy USDA Zones 4-9.


Here Coreopsis is combined with some purple Liatris spicata and a great mauve colored Geranium called 'Rozanne'.

Geranium 'Rozanne': Height: 30-50 cm, Spread: 45-60 cm. Full sun to part shade. Normal, sandy or clay soil are fine. Average to moist soil. Hardy USDA zones 4-9.


In my back garden 'Moonbeam', which is about to flower, is tucked into a little corner along with Sedum, Rudbeckia and Artemesia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound'.


Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound': makes a nice, compact mound of soft, silver-grey foliage. Full sun or very light shade. It doesn't mind poor soil and dry conditions. Height: 25-35 cm, Spread: 30-40 cm. Hardy UDA Zones 4-9.


One word of warning: the pot of 'Jive' Coreopsis on the pricy side. 

So far though, it has been well worth it. With Jive's profusion of cheerful white and reddish-brown flowers, a section of the front garden that was looking a bit tatty is bound to look great for weeks.