Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Fragrant Fall Beauty for Part-Shade/Shade

You can smell the soft white flowers long before they come into view. The perfume is commanding. It summons you to come closer. What is that marvellous scent?

The fragrance is as pungent as that of an oriental lily, but its lighter, without that dense mix of spices. Instead, it's a sweet blend of honey and jasmine with just a hint of vanilla.

The common names for the plant scenting the air are anything but glamorous: Bugbane, Bugwort, Cohosh and Snakeroot. None of these seems to suit the tall, rather elegant flowers or the attractive fern-like foliage.

Even the Latin name attached to this plant for hundreds of years fails to describe it properly. A British plant hunter named it 'Cimicifuga racemosa' and sent it back to England. Modern science now shows that name to be invalid.  The plant's DNA proves it is actually a member of the large Ranunculaceae family. So its proper name is 'Actaea'. This change in names is almost 20 years old, but old habits die hard, and the plant continues to be referred to by its former name 'Cimicifuga'.

Depending on the type of Actaea, the blooms don't appear until well into the summer or early fall. The flowers have no petals. Instead, there is a long stamen surrounded by starburst clusters of white stigma. The common name 'Bugbane' suggests that insects dislike the flower's strong scent, but I have noticed that ants, in particular, are frequent visitors.

The attractive fern-like foliage that can be green, dark chocolate or even a deep eggplant color depending on the cultivar. 

Cimicifuga racemosa has creamy white flowers and green fern-like foliage. It is one of the earliest Actaea to bloom (mid-summer). Part-shade. Height:120-150 cm (47-59 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea racemosa is native to eastern North America where it is found in moist woodlands. The roots of the plant have a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans. The common name 'Cohosh' is Algonquin.

Though Actaea racemosa is a native plant, most of the cultivars you'll find at your local nursery have been breed from Actaea simplex which is found in Japan and eastern Russia. It is the desirable dark leaves of the Asian Actaea that have attracted the attention of plant breeders.

A green-leafed cultivar at Lost Horizon's Nursery.

In behind the bench, you can see the tall spires of an Actaea. Lost Horizons Nursery.

Lost Horizons Nursery.

Actaea 'James Compton' in my garden.

How to Grow Actaea

Actaea needs moist conditions first and foremost. My garden has lots of dry shade, but there is a small area that is over top of our septic bed. Every time I do a wash or someone takes a shower that area of the garden is flushed with a generous amount of water.

In August we were away for a weekend.  On our return, I found my Actaea looking miserable and wilted. Without its regular supply of water, the leaves had become scorched by the sun. I got out the garden hose and I could almost see the Actaea sigh in relief.

Dark leafed cultivars, like the one I have in my garden, need bright shade rather than full shade for good leaf color. ("Bright shade" in my garden is filtered morning sunlight). Green-leafed varieties are better for more shaded locations.

Actaea likes rich soil that has been amended with compost or leaf mold.

Be patient. Actaea is slow to establish and may take a few years to bloom.

On the upside, these are long-lived perennials. Like Peonies, Actaea seldom needs to be divided. If you want to try to divide or move them, do it in the spring. Unfortunately, the plant will take quite some time to recover.

There is good news for gardeners struggling with deer. Actaea is deer resistant.

Cultivars to watch for

Actaea simplex 'White Pearl' has lacy green foliage and creamy white flowers. Part-shade or shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'James Compton' has white flowers tinged with pink and dark, purplish-black foliage. Part-shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'Black Negligee' is a sexy mix of white flowers tinged with pink and dark black foliage. Bright shade brings out the best color this cultivar's foliage. Height:120-150  cm (47-59 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty' white flowers and has foliage that is a mix of deep purple and black. Height: 150-180 cm (59-70 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'Brunette' has pale pink flowers and foliage that is a mix of purplish and black tones. Part-shade. 150-180 cm (59-70 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Companion Plants

Any plant that likes moist, part-shade or shade can be planted alongside an Actaea. 

Early in the spring, perennials like primroses and Tiarella provide blooms that would play off the lacy foliage of an Actaea nicely.

Tiarella 'Sugar and Spice' have pink buds that open into fragrant white flowers that bloom in the early spring. This plant likes moist conditions and sandy or clay soil. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-35 cm (8-14 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium 'Silver Falls' 

Ferns also make excellent companion plants.

Japanese Anemone

There are also a number of perennials that bloom around the same time. Japanese Anemones, Phlox and Toad Lilies are just a few examples.

Toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta has star-shaped flowers on arching stems. The flowers are tiny so Toad lilies are best planted at the front of a flowerbed where they can be appreciated up close.  This plant likes the same moist conditions. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

In my garden, Actaea 'James Compton' is surrounded by a number of late bloomers. Hydrangea 'Little Lime' (Sun) is to one side. (Note: The hydrangea is just that little bit further out from under the Black Walnut tree and gets a bit more sun. It too loves the moist conditions).

Tall Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum

Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum (Full sun or light shade) forms a big, white cloud in the background. Phlox 'Creme de Menthe' (Sun or part shade) also flowers in September. (If you can't find this cultivar, 'Norah Leigh' is very similar.)

Phlox 'Creme de Menthe'

I love the way Actaea simplex 'James Compton' fills the garden with perfume each autumn, but even if it never bloomed, the attractive foliage makes Actaea a perennial well worth growing.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Unusual Spring Bulbs: Winter Aconite, Eranthis Hyemalis

Winter Aconite like to bloom in the sunshine. They don't mind the cold though. These small woodland plants are early risers that often peek up from under a light covering of snow. To take advantage of the bare limbs of the trees above, they rush to flower.  Like crocus, the cup-shaped flowers face upward, opening into the sunlight. 

By the time the tree canopy opens fully casting them into the shade, the flowers have already done their job. The bees have come and gone pollinating the tiny yellow flowers. Little green seed pods begin to appear among the dying foliage. Having set seed, Winter Aconite slips quietly back into dormancy. 

Members of the buttercup family, Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis are native to the deciduous woodlands of the Balkans, Italy and southern France. Short, reddish-brown stems propel the flowers above any snow or leaf litter. Each yellow flower has a fringe of leaf-like bracts. Lobed green leaves emerge to replace the spent flowers. 

Winter Aconite scattered in a lawn.

To mimic the natural habitat of Winter Aconite, plant them under deciduous trees or shrubs. One of my neighbours also has them scattered through his lawn. They seem perfectly happy flowering among the fresh blades of grass each spring. A white magnolia provides them with welcome shade through the summer. 

Like most woodland plants, Aconite prefer humus-rich soil. Though the plants go dormant in the late spring, they like to rest in soil that is cool and moist, but well-drained. Their tubers never like to dry out completely. 

As with bulbs, Aconite are planted in the fall. Soak the tubers overnight in a shallow dish of water and then plant them 2-3" deep and 3" apart. Choose your location carefully. They prefer not to be moved once planted in the ground.

If growing conditions are favourable, Aconite will self-seed and naturalize to form a colorful colony.

Snowdrops bloom at the same time as Winter Aconites.

One of my Hellebores blooming in early April.

Companion Plants

My camera gives me a time stamp that tells me that my Aconites were blooming on April 4th this year. On that same day, I also photographed white snowdrops, iris reticulata, purple crocus and the first of my Hellebores flowers in bloom. Any of these plants would look great paired with Winter Aconites. 

I can imagine a group of white hellebores with a carpet of the little yellow flowers at their feet. A more unorthodox pairing would be to mix Aconites with black hellebore– a sort of bumblebee color scheme. (Read more about Hellebores here.)

Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign' would make a nice companion plant for Winter Aconites.

Pulmonaria 'Opal' has pale blue flowers.

Lungwort, Pulmonaria is an early perennial that likes the same moist, shady conditions as Aconites, so I think the two plants would also be great friends.

An all-blue Pulmonaria like 'Blue Ensign' or 'Opal' combined with snowdrops and Aconites would make for a classic mix of white, yellow and blue.

Eranthis hyemalis are an important source of pollen for hungry bees that have been 
waiting all winter for warmer weather.

For me, Winter Aconites are a welcome sign that spring has finally arrived. They're a cheerful sight that always lifts the spirits after a long winter. 

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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Garden of Wayne & Carolyn Luke

Wayne and Carolyn Luke always loved to poke around in gift shops, attend local auctions and antique shows. Their collection of antiques grew and eventually the couple decided to open their own store. They started small, but the business quickly grew and expanded into two stores, one in Port Perry and the other in Oshawa.

Then, after thirty years in retail, Wayne and Carolyn decided it was time to retire.  

A vintage plant stand at the front of the house.

A metal urn filled with annuals sits adjacent to the front door.

Petunias and white and mauve trailing Verbena. 

The front of the tiny shop.

They sold the business, but Carolyn and Wayne didn't retire from retail altogether. Instead they set up a little shop at the end of their driveway. The commute to work took mere minutes and the little store was the perfect spot to continue to sell garden ornaments and an ever increasing array of Wayne's handiwork. 

Birdhouses were among Wayne's earliest creations. His unique designs were expressions of his love of old architecture and sometimes included birds that Wayne carved himself. Over the years he handcrafted many of these whimsical birdhouses and they always sold well. 

After a time, Wayne began to wonder what else he might make. Yard sales and auctions became a ready source of raw materials for his artistry. He began to work with rolls of barbed wire, wooden finials and staircase spindles. Repurposing and transforming these found objects in imaginative ways became a passion.

The shop's wares spill into the adjacent garden. The large copper stepping stones were created using parts from old farm equipment.

 A container planting at the side of the house.

To one side of the shop is a little gravel courtyard. The contents of the hanging baskets and container plantings change from year to year. This summer Carolyn is growing tomatoes using 
Wayne's homemade metal cages.

There was no master plan for their country property. Instead, Carolyn and Wayne's garden has evolved over the past twenty-five years. 

Even now, there are changes– roses are a recent addition and the Luke's find that they are slowly moving away from growing their own vegetables. Now in their seventies, vegetables seem to demand too much labor and fresh local produce can be easily sourced.

The wooden arbors in the garden were designed and made by Wayne.

Beautiful urns, decorative plant stands and metal topiary forms that the Luke's have collected over the years are scattered throughout the garden. 

In amongst these traditional flourishes are humble objects that Wayne has repurposed. The decorative metal discs that form stepping stones in the gravel pathway are a perfect example. 

Two layers of landscape cloth were laid down to form the foundation of the gravel pathway. Any weeds that dare to pop up are sprayed.

The building visible in the near distance began as a treehouse for the grandkids, but one night a black bear visited the backyard and the terrified grandkids refused to sleep there ever again. 

So Wayne closed in the lower level of the treehouse and the little building functions as a shed these days.

Placing an urn filled with annuals right into a flowerbed is a great idea. Not only do the flowers add a bit of color, the urn elevates that color up to eye level.


The roses were Carolyn's idea. This summer Wayne fed them with chopped banana peels and the roses really flourished. 

Banana peels are a great source of potassium, phosphorus, calcium and other minerals that roses (and other plants) need. 

There are a number of ways to use banana peels in the garden. You can chop the them into small segments (1/4 inch pieces are good) and bury them in the soil around the perimeter of your plants. As the peels decompose, they add valuable nutrients to the soil. 

You can also dry banana peels and grind them into fertilizer. To dry the peels, cut them into long strips and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Put your oven on its lowest setting and leave the door ajar. Leave the peels in the oven until they are dry (about 8 hours). Grind the peels using a small food processor, coffee or spice grinder. Sprinkle the ground fertilizer on the surface of the soil or gently incorporate it into the dirt.

A vintage urn and stand filled with Canna Lilies and ivy.

A small arbor leads to an open grassy area.

As trees planted in the garden's early days have grown and matured, the backyard has become quite shady in spots. Initially Wayne filled these shady corners with a variety of hosta, but these days he is experimenting with ferns and other more unusual plants.  

The Limelight hydrangeas, that you see above, have become one of his favourite shrubs for some of the part-shade areas.

A detail of the garden ornament shown in the last image.

One of Wayne's birdhouses.

As well as working with wood, Wayne likes to create with metal. This clean-lined bird feeder is one of his more contemporary designs.

Ivy spills from the basket of a cherub at the centre of the gravel pathway. 

A mix of different hosta planted along the perimeter of the back of the house.

In business and their home life, Carolyn and Wayne have always worked closely together. Their garden reflects a little bit of each of them. Their creativity and a keen eye for beautiful antiques has combined to make a terrific garden.