How do you say that plant name?

Will that be cotton-easter or co-ton-ee-as-ter?

Pronunciation is often a large barrier that must be overcome before gardeners feel comfortable when using botanical names. The names are fine to read and recognize but some of them just defy logical spelling and pronunciation in an English language way of thinking. Long convoluted combinations of syllables are hard enough to cope with, but to have to pronounce them also is often asking too much. Botanical names often add another twist by having Latin, Greek or French word origins. For example, the dawn redwood is a magnificent tree with graceful, soft needles but it has a very challenging botanical name of Metasequoia glyptostroboides. The name comes from Greek origins. “Meta” meaning “with or sharing” and “Sequoia”, the tree to which it is related. “Glypto” means “to carve” in Greek and “strobilos” means a cone. The plant has depressions in its cone that look like it was carved. Knowing the origin of a name and its meaning can help gardeners to relate to botanical names and become more comfortable with using them.

Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus)

Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus)

We can blame Carolus Linnaeus for our botanical Latin woes. He was the Swedish naturalist who came up with the idea for our modern system of naming plants in 1753. Previous to this date, plants were named without any standardized rules. Often their names contained a series of descriptions that may have extended ten words long. As more and more plants were discovered, Linnaeus realized how impractical this system was becoming. Linnaeus championed for a binomial (two word) naming system to identify plants. He identified the first word as a broad grouping of related plants (called genera) and the second word, which narrowed down the group, was more specific to the plant (called species). Every plant in his binomial system has a unique name.

During the eighteenth century, when Linnaeus was studying, comparing, and writing 180 books on plants or animals, Latin was the most widely used language of scientific scholars. Hence plants at the time were named using a language that was based on the Middle Ages and Renaissance-era. Many other languages can also be found in the origins of plant names. Next to Latin, the Greek language has had the most influence, followed by French and some Italian language derivatives, in forming plant names. No wonder there’s not any one standard for pronunciation. Many other plant names were formed in honour of a person or place. Consequently anyone today trying to translate botanical names using a classical Roman Latin background usually finds it a difficult task.


Since so many different languages have been used to give plant names, it is hard to determine one correct standard for pronunciation. In some cases it depends on which kind of Latin is used. The choices are the reformed academic pronunciation accepted by classical scholars or the traditional English pronunciation. With few rules to pronunciation there are many opinions and lots of possibilities without a definitive final answer. Many people also look upon Latin as a written language that is not generally spoken. If Latin isn’t a spoken language who decides which is the correct way to say a name?

There are a few guidelines to pronouncing botanical names that have been developed over time. Plant names that are made up of two syllables have the emphasis on the first syllable. An example of this is the edible fig that is called Ficus. Using this rule, the first syllable is highlighted and pronounced with a long “i” as in eye.

For plant names that are more than two syllables, the emphasis changes depending on whether syllables are long or short. If the next to last syllable is long then the emphasis is on that syllable. For example bego’nia has a long second to last syllable and that one is stressed. For plant names that have a short second to last syllable, the emphasis is on the third to last syllable. An example of this is flo’ ri dus (meaning of Florida). The emphasis is never placed on any syllable closer then third from the end. So flabelliformis (meaning fan shaped) is a multi-syllable name that has a long “o” which must have the emphasis.

Clivia miniata

Clivia miniata

The hardest plant names to decide on a correct pronunciation are those that have origins with someone’s name. Is Clivia (for the noble family of Clive) pronounced clivia with a short “i” like hive or long “e” like cleave? Most plant names that contain a person’s name are usually straightforward to pronounce. A word of advice is to not expand on what is present. Some are as simple as pronouncing the person’s name, followed by ee (long “e”) + eye. For example, Blue Oak is Quercus douglasii, pronounced Quer-cus douglas-ee-eye. This tree has been named after David Douglas, a Scottish plant hunter who discovered many exciting plants while visiting the west coast of North American and Hawaii. The two “i’s” at the end of a name are always pronounced ee-eye.

One good trick to correctly pronounce plant names is to say every vowel (or letter). One great example is the lovely Bougainvillea (boo-gain-ville-ee-ah). The name even sounds nice. This plant was named after Lois Antoine de Bougainville, a sailor and explorer.
Usually plant names with “ch” are pronounced hard. One example is Chamaecyparis (kam-eh-sip-air-us). “Ch” can also be pronounced as a hard “k” in Chaenomeles (key-nom-el-es) or Brachycome. Plant names with “oe” are particularly troublesome. Sometimes they are pronounced “ee”  as in bee for Oenothera while other times they are pronounced as “oi” in toil as in Koeleria.

With so many plant names being derived from non-Latin sources, there are plenty that deviate from region to region in their pronunciation. How do you say Gypsophila (Baby’s Breath)? Some people say Gyp-sof-e-la with the accent on “sof” and the other half say Gyp-so-fee-la with the accent on the “fee”. The debate continues on which way is the correct pronunciation for this popular perennial plant.

Cotoneaster frigidus, the tree cotoneaster

Cotoneaster frigidus, the tree cotoneaster

In general people like to pronounce botanical names as if they were their own language. Cotoneaster is one example of when this should not be done. The uninitiated might start by saying this name as cotton-easter that breaks the plant name into two known words. Unfortunately this breaks one of the pronunciation rules mentioned above. The emphasis cannot be on the first part of this five-syllable name. Instead it is pronounced co-ton-ee-as-ter with the accent on the “ee” in the middle.


All images are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons Atribution/Share-Alike License.

Drought-proofing Your Annuals

The drought in Texas is continuing as they approach 60 days of triple digit temperatures so far this year.  A heatwave finally descends on the Northeast United States after a colder and rainer summer. Will the weather ever cooperate again? Seems that the garden is having a tougher time than ever before. And annuals are one of the first to feel the brunt of hot and dry weather.

Dealing with drought doesn't mean resorting to all drought resistant succulent plants as seen here at the Idea Garden at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.

Dealing with drought doesn't mean resorting to all drought resistant succulent plants as seen here at the Idea Garden at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.

Annuals in beds and containers are the first plants to show signs of stress from lack of water. Newly planted annuals have very small root systems that are poorly suited for the task of reaching out in search of water. When planting, annuals still need to be given additional water even if their roots were wet. The surrounding soil, if dry, will quickly wick away the moisture from the plant roots leaving them dry.

The first signs of distress are flowers buds falling off or flowers fading faster than usual. As the drought conditions become more severe, the leaves will be affected next. This could be visible by wilting, “flagging”, or rolling of the leaves (starting with the older, then the younger).

Begonias will react to drought by changing the colour and glossiness of their leaves. The leaves will become shinier and turn a dull grey-green. Other annuals will have a dull look to their foliage. Plants under extreme water stress will turn yellow, collapse, and then die. Petunias, begonias, impatiens, fuchsia, coleus, and nicotiana will show signs of water stress first.

A full, lush hanging basket, part of the streetscape in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario Canada.

A full, lush hanging basket, part of the streetscape in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario Canada.

Geraniums, dusty miller, portulaca, helichrysum, and salvia will tolerate more drought. Each type of plant has its own “point of no return” after which they cannot be revived due to permanent damage. Give them water before they reach this point. The appropriate time to water is when the soil is dry to a depth of 2.5 cm/1 inch (for newly planted annuals) or 5-7 cm/2-3 inches (for established annuals) depending on their root depth. Do not wait until plants have started to wilt before watering! Check the soil moisture level with the traditional “finger” test and then water when appropriate. A sandy soil dries out more rapidly than a heavy clay one and an organic-free soil holds less water than an organic rich one. Windy days will cause plants and soils to loose more moisture faster than on calm days. Wind will also blow water from its intended target. In this case, irrigation will have to be used for longer periods to apply the same amount of water as a calm day.

Annuals in containers are more susceptible to moisture stress because of the small area for roots to grow. They are also at risk because of the relatively small amount of water stored in that small amount of soil. Many annuals will tolerate potting soils with water holding products incorporated into them. This really works and increases the duration between watering. Many container soils that are peat moss based are very hard to re-moisten if they become extremely dry. Water applied will run through quite quickly and out the bottom of the container. Keep applying water to the container several times until it saturates into the soil and hope that your rain dance will work soon.

Shaping The Future of Perennial Design

The Future of Perennial Gardening Includes Lots of Ornamental Grasses

The world does not easily adopt a new garden style. Trends in gardens are extremely slow to evolve and getting the world to embrace a new idea is akin to launching a new architecture style.

It is not often that a garden designer can become a world-renowned legend in his lifetime (nor is it easy to create a legend without an extremely focused vision), but three men are making a huge impact in the perennial design area and are well on their way to this.

The most active area of garden design today is designing with perennials. Three inspiring people are currently shaping the direction of perennial gardens around the world today.

A lot of the credit leading up to the current love affair with perennials should be given to the Washington DC landscape architecture firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Wolfgang Oehme, one of the principals, began his studies in landscape architecture in Germany. Inspiration gained from his homeland gardens would later lead to a monumental change in the way that perennials would be used in the garden. The defining moment would occur in 1977 when Oehme formed a partnership with James van Sweden.

Chicago Botanical Garden's Evening Island, designed in the New American Garden style with sweeping use of perennials and ornamental grasses.

Chicago Botanical Garden's Evening Island, designed in the New American Garden style with sweeping use of perennials and ornamental grasses.

James van Sweden, an American who had studied landscape architecture at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, would form a dynamic team with Oehme. Their planting philosophies included the creative use of herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses together. Their work would be the launch of the New American Garden style. This revolution in design focuses in a more natural landscape with a less formal, meadow-style feel. The use of masses of perennials with wide sweeping drifts of ornamental grasses identifies this theme. “The New American Garden style is a melting pot of international plants and ideas,” van Sweden said. “When approached on a grand scale, the result is gardens that are natural, free-spirited and of the wild. Their point of reference is the American meadow – a place of freedom and ease, where wildlife, plant life and human life can co-exist in harmony.” Oehme and van Sweden look at a garden as an integration of landscape and environment together. The 5-acre landscape on Evening Island at the Chicago Botanical Garden is one example of Oehme and van Sweden’s’ recent inspirational work.

The Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park designed by Piet Oudolf and Karhryn Gustafson.

The Lurie Garden, a giant green roof over the car park in Chicago's Millennium Park designed by Piet Oudolf and Kathryn Gustafson.

 The most recent shining star to set the gardening world in a tizzy is not an English designer who has perfected the cottage garden, nor is he an American designer who has captured designing with native plants to perfection. The person who is causing a big impact on the international garden design scene is Piet Oudolf, a Dutch plantsman and designer. Oudolf also takes his inspiration from nature (as does Oehme and van Sweden) and creates very informal gardens that give the impression of walking in a meadow. Dutch (and Germans) have a strong focus to bring nature into the urban environment and to bring nature into the urban environments.

A large palette of perennials is used by Oudolf to create garden interest during all four seasons. Oudolf creates gardens that are a masterful approach to design that uses the architectural qualities of a plant first (instead of the usual colour characteristics). This focus on the structure of plants has led Oudolf to become known for his creative plant combinations and year round drama in the garden.

Home gardeners can create their own garden with inspiration from nature by following the Piet Oudolf design philosophy. The result is a garden to excite the senses and stir the emotions. Oudolf believes that gardens should be an impression and expression of nature by emphasizing form, texture, light and movement before thinking of colour.

Oudolf has elevated structure to the most important factor when designing with perennials. He puts some formality (in the form of tradition and order) into the garden but only enough of the familiar to reassure the cautious, the rest is unfamiliar to entice those looking for a new feeling. Oudolf uses plants that look wild but his gardens do have a sense of being designed. With nature as the biggest inspiration, the goal is not to copy it but to recreate the emotion. Home gardeners can create their own interpretation by building an image of nature using natural looking plants.

The first task is to look at plants for their forms. Seed and flower heads have much more impact than a plants colour. Designing based in flower forms and foliage has much more durability than colour. Flower forms can take on many forms. Oudolf has put flowers into several categories.

The spire-shaped flowers add lift to the garden and take the eye from the solidity of the earth to the sky. Plants with spire-shaped flowers or seeds should be used in a clump for the best impact. Group them as accents for a dramatic visual effect in the garden. The button and globe-shaped flowers are very concentrated points of colour that require large numbers to have a result. The most dramatic use of this form is during the winter. Plume forms have a vague, fluffy quality that is unidirectional. It is a soft form that counteracts the bold architecture of the spikes. Plumes are best en masse to tone down stronger shapes. One of the key plant structure types to create a natural look is the umbels. These are the predominant flower form of wild, natural areas. The umbels are the opposite of spires and they have a rounded mounding form to their flower. Queen Anne’s lace is a typical umbel flower form. Umbels counteract the upward motion of the sky-seeking spires and create a gentle naturalism in the garden. The daisy is a flower form that brings back memories of childhood when so many of these flowers were celebrated. Daisy flower forms have the effect of reminding garden visitors of the sun because of their shape and that many flourish in sunny locations. This type of flower is usually found in the garden from midsummer onward. Daisy flowers during the summer will usually turn into buttons during the fall when their petals fall.

The last group of architectural plant forms are the screens and curtains. These plants are somewhat transparent and allow for viewing through the plant. Screens and curtains are plants with a somewhat upright form that do not create a solid visual barrier. Too many plants with this form may take away from the overall impact of the pattern created by other plants. Attention may be diverted from the real perennial design. Screens and curtains do add to the atmosphere of mystery and romance of a garden.
Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects can be found at
Peit Oudolf’s website can be found at

Leaving Your Garden Behind – Taking a Guilt-free Vacation

Leaving the Garden for a Guilt-free Vacation

Even though gardeners have a strong bond with their garden, there are occasions when it is necessary to spend time away from home – visiting other people’s gardens is always a good excuse for me to travel.

Ready to leave the home garden far behind.

Ready to leave the home garden far behind.

Summer is one of those times when the cottage, camp, road or even the airport beckons many of us to leave. Leaving a garden is not as simple as leaving the pet goldfish in the care of a neighbor. Finding a gardening friend to take the responsibility of watering your treasured bonsai twice a day may be almost impossible. To achieve a guilt-free vacation away from your garden some preparation and planning are in order.

For outdoor plants, do a thorough garden clean-up a week before you leave. This is similar to cleaning the house just before leaving so that it will be nice and tidy upon your return. The last thing that you want to do when you return from a holiday is clean the house (or see your roses laden with spent flowers). The clean-up will also be an opportunity to note any special care instructions. The garden will not stay tidy, but removing any weeds and deadheading spent flowers before you leave will give your garden a well cared for appearance while you are away. Just before leaving the garden, water it thoroughly. Do this even if it is already moist. This might be the last water the garden receives until you return. The plants that will need the most water are shallow rooted plants such as annuals, perennials, shrubs, and newly planted trees. If the lawn has not been receiving extra irrigation, don’t worry about it if you are going away for a week or two. If no natural rain occurs during this time, the lawn will just go dormant. When irrigation or natural rain returns (if withing reason) it will come out of dormancy and “green up” again. Lawns that have had regular, consistent forms of irrigation are more likely to suffer problems if this is not continued. A timer for a sprinkler hose will offer some solution to this situation.

If an automatic irrigation system is in use for the garden and lawn, have a neighbour monitor the system during your absence. They may be able to turn it off in case of excessive natural rainfall or fixed it if the batteries run down in the timer or an irrigation head breaks.

Any mulches will conserve moisture during a vacation drought. Materials can range from purchased bark or wood chips to grass clippings or newspapers. The purpose of the mulch is to stop the sun from evaporating precious moisture. The application of mulch is money and time well spent.

A beautiful  garden in the Philadelphia area

A beautiful garden in the Philadelphia area

If your sunny garden has containers that require frequent attention to watering, move them to a shadier location. Sun loving plants might react by stretching to the light during the vacation, but at least they have a better chance for survival. When returning them to their original sunny site, move them gradually so that they are not sun-scorched. To reduce the amount of water needed by plants in containers, repot them into a larger container if possible. The additional soil will act as a water-holding reservoir for the plant.

One idea for giving extra water to individual plants or containers is to use a 1.5 or 2 litre plastic soft drink container in the garden. Use the green coloured bottles, fill them with water and place them beside or inside your plants. To work best, they must be in close contact with the roots of your plant. Poke a hole into the soil and quickly place the open end of the bottle into the soil. Press it down so that the bottle is stable in the soil and will not fall over. This automatic watering system will last for a week if the soil is moist when installing this recycled watering device. As the soil dries, a slow trickle of water from the reservoir is released into the soil. This method is particularly good for tomatoes that get “blossom end rot” if their water is inconsistent (too wet then too dry).

Many gardeners have a stash of seedlings and newly purchased plants that have not yet made it into the garden. These plants normally require almost constant attention. To help them survive your vacation, place them (pot and all) in a shady location in the garden.

For some gardeners, knowing that someone is watching the garden offers a sense of comfort. Avid gardening friends are ideal, but it they are not available, hire a plant sitter or garden sitter. Some house sitting companies will also look after plants. Depending on the needs of your garden, it is usually safe to leave your garden for one week. If you are going away for 2 weeks or more, someone reliable should be looking in on the garden.

In addition to ensuring that plants survive your absence, security is another concern when leaving for vacation. Some suggestions include installing motion sensor lights directed out from your house and into the garden. These are particularly important for directing light at patio doors or basement windows. Prune any shrubs or plants away from windows and doors so that burglars cannot hide behind them when gaining access to your home.
The first sign that someone is not home in the summer is a pile of advertisement flyers stuck in the door (or blowing around in the garden). Have a neighbour check your door twice a week and recycle the papers in their blue box. A great idea to trick potential thieves is for someone to put out garbage and recycling (on the correct week) for you while you are away. The second sign that someone is away is a lawn that hasn’t been mowed. The drier that the weather is, the less the lawn will grow and the less noticeable this will be. Since the weather cannot be predicted accurately beyond 2 days, have someone arranged to mow your lawn if needed.

For indoor gardeners, the preparations for leaving are just as rigorous, but the risks of leaving are less than outdoor gardeners. Indoor plants have more options to keep them watered. They can be grouped together in a large roasting pan or saucer with a layer of water in the bottom. Be wary of the hazards of placing too much water in the bottom of containers and drowning your plants. To avoid this, place plants on pebbles or marbles to raise them up so that the just the bottom of the pot is submerged. A narrow piece of fabric can be made into a wick to draw water from a reservoir to the base of plants. Plants can also be placed into a large, clear plastic bag to conserve moisture. This mini-greenhouse is ideal for small to medium-sized plants.

Close (or mostly close) the curtains in rooms where plants are next to windows. This will reduce the amount of direct sunlight on the plants. Another idea is to place plants in the bathtub on top of a layer of newspaper. Once the plants are in place, water them well and leave a shallow amount of water in the tub. Close the shower curtain to keep humidity around the plants and reduce the amount of water that they will need. If your bathroom has little natural light, you might consider putting a light on a timer in the room.

One last thought to consier for a better piece of mind while away is shutting off the outdoor and indoor water. This will save you much aggravation if a pipe bursts while you are away, but it will not give garden sitters access to water.

Are the preparations to leave your plants worth the effort? There’s no doubt that they are. The opportunity to travel and view other gardens is a rewarding and inspiring experience. You might even find some interesting plants, rocks, driftwood, or sculptures to bring back for your garden.

Super Scents from the Garden

Natural Botanical Aromatherapy

The alluring scent of old-fashioned roses

Enticed by the alluring scent of old-fashioned roses

The power of fragrant flowers extends far beyond the ability to attract pollinating insects, moths or butterflies. Floral scents like roses are one of the most popular smells for humans too. Just look to the perfume industry and notice the effort that is put into trying to reproduce the authentic fragrance of garden flowers in a liquid form. Gardeners are fortunate to be able to enjoy the real thing with just a visit to the garden. Scientists have found that the sense of smell is the most prominent of all the senses with strong links to memory recall. In planning your garden, be sure to include some scented flowers to trigger fond memories. 

The use of aromatherapy or fragrances to boost our moods has led to resurgence in scented plants. Citrus scent is a “pick me up” and lavender scent calms. As a result of a greater interest in plant scents, plant breeders have started to put perfume back into some cut flowers. The part of the brain that controls our smell is linked to the area that also controls our emotional responses, memory, and intuition. Sniffing basil in the vegetable garden has been known to sharpen the memory and increase concentration. The strong scent of lemon balm foliage (sometimes called “happy oil”) works wonders to perk up the spirit.

Fragrant white Hosta plantaginea blooms

Fragrant white Hosta plantaginea blooms

Most flowers are fragrant during the day to attract pollinating insects flying nearby. Generally, white and pale flowers are particularly strongly scented and often are open at night to attract moths and butterflies. Great examples are sweet alyssum, jasmine, and flowering tobacco. To human noses these scents are described as sweet, citrus, cloves, honey, spicy (peppery), exotic, and fruity.

Some flowers have scents that are so good they almost seem edible. Pineapple and fruity sage are excellent scented plants that have strong and very attractive fragrances. Chocolate scented cosmos smells good enough to eat, but it is not edible. But, take a sniff of chocolate mint scented geranium and it smells just like its name. It is edible but chocolate mint candies are a better choice.

While flowers often have scents, there are only a small group that have scents that are attractive to our noses, and fewer still that have copious amounts of pleasing fragrance. Finding scented plants that will liven up a garden is a real bonus.

Butterfly Bush (Buddleja)

Butterfly Bush (Buddleja)

Many people grow the shrub Buddleja (butterfly bush) for its ability to attract butterflies. This fragrance, that is so beloved by butterflies and moths, is also pleasant to human noses. The long, spiky, blue, white, yellow, or pink blooms have a sweet, honey fragrance that is stronger on a sunny afternoon. This easy–to-grow shrub just requires a little pruning in the spring and some deadheading during the summer to flourish in zone 5 or warmer.

There are many types of perennial dianthus (called cottage pinks or hardy border carnations) that have a strong clove scent when in flower. Since there is considerable variation among all the Dianthus, a little research is required to find out which ones are the stronger scented and longer blooming.

The vanilla or baby powder scent of Heliotropium (heliotrope) is a compelling reason to grow this annual. The plant also has visually pleasing flowers as well as deep green rippled foliage. The dark purple flowers of the Marine-types are very popular although the lighter colored heliotrope is more fragrant.

One of the best-scented flowers is Lathyrus odoratus, the annual sweet pea. This is often the first choice many people make when picking scented plants. Sweet peas are easy to grow and freely reward visitors with their powerful scent and attractive blooms. This old-fashioned flower blooms for a long time if plants are not subjected to excessively hot and dry weather. Many of the newer types of sweet peas have better summer weather tolerance than the older ones. The scent of sweet peas is described as a mix of honey and orange. Tall sweet peas can be grown up a chain link fence or trellis. The dwarf sweet peas rarely grow taller than 1 foot (30 cm). These are ideal for window boxes, planters or hanging baskets. Watch out for Lathyrus latifolius, the perennial (or everlasting) sweet pea that has lovely pink or purple blooms but no scent. Start sweet pea seeds early so they can enjoy the cool weather.
Mirabilis jalapa has the intriguing common name, marvel of Peru or four o’clocks.  The blooms open when the temperatures decrease in the late afternoon (around four o’clock) and are attractive trumpets in a variety of colors. Some are white, pale pink, magenta, yellow, or the occasional bicolour or speckling colors. They have a rich fragrance that also makes them a favorite of hummingbirds. Four o’clocks are annuals that will often reseed themselves and return year after year. This fragrant plant is quite weak stemmed so it does not make a good cut flower, but they are a pleasant addition to the landscape.  They grow to 3 feet (1 meter), so plant them in the middle of an annual garden where they will be in front of taller plants.

Winter and Spring blooming pansies

Winter and Spring blooming pansies

Pansies in the spring are a welcome sight in the spring (or during the winter in warmer areas). In addition to being visually appealing when they are in a large group, they have a light pleasant fragrance on a warm spring day. Pansies are also a flower that is edible. Several types of pansies (such as the hardy Icicle TM pansies) have been introduced that will survive the winter and be in flower as soon as the snow melts in the spring.

An old-fashioned scented plant that is not often grown is mignonette. Part of the reason for the lack of interest in mignonette, known as Reseda odorata, is the fact that the flowers are almost non-existent. It is the fragrance of this plant that makes up for its dismal flower display. The tiny greenish-white or reddish pink flowers are borne in clusters up to 12 inches (30 cm) long. As one of the finest fragrant annuals it certainly is a subdued plant and deserves to be in more gardens.

Sweet William (Dianthus)

Sweet William (Dianthus)

Dianthus barbatus (sweet William) is an old-fashioned cut flower that was very popular at the beginning of the 19th century. The bright pink, red, white, and maroon blooms last for a long time in the garden and give off a sweet spicy scent. The best time to catch the strongest fragrance is in the evening. Some sweet William plants are biennials that die after they bloom in the second year. This is fine because many self-seed in the garden. 
Hesperis matronalis (sweet rocket) is a perennial that can be used as a fragrant cut flower.  The white and pale pink flowers are sweetly scented during June flowering time.

Evening Scented Stocks (Matthiola)

Evening Scented Stocks (Matthiola)

Matthiola, called night scented stocks or evening scented stocks, has a delicious scent of honey during a warm summer evening. This is another plant that deserves to be in more gardens.

Nicotiana sylvestris (white flowering tobacco) has enjoyed the love of many generations of gardening fans. The chief reasons that many gardeners are fond of this plant are the evening fragrance and large showy white blooms. The newer shorter flowering tobacco varieties are more attractive, because they keep their blossoms open during the day, as well as in the evening, but they do not have the fragrance that Nicotiana sylvestris shares.
Other fragrant plants to consider in the garden are petunias, Iberis sempervirens (candytuft), Centranthus ruber ‘Coccineus’ (red valerian, Jupiter’s beard or keys of heaven), Cheirianthus allionii  (Siberian wallflower), Lobularia maritima (sweet alyssum), Brachyscome (swan river daisy), and Monarda didyma (beebalm).

Fragrant foliage plays a key role in the design of an herb garden. Scented foliage should be considered in other types of gardens too. It is worth using in a perennial or annual garden also. Fragrant foliage can be found with anise, basil, bee balm, catnip, chamomile, dill, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme. 
With so many plants to consider, the garden can soon become a place for serious olfactory adventures.

An Early Invasion of Late Blight on Tomatoes

Early Warnings of Tomato Late Blight Problems in the Northeast

Cornell University was the first to sound the alarm on June 26th that a “very destructive and very infectious disease is killing tomato and potato plants in gardens and commercial farms in the eastern U.S. , “ says Dr. Meg McGrath, Associate Professor, who is a specialist in vegetable diseases from the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology. “Home Gardeners need to be on the lookout for late blight,” which she calls “worse than the Bubonic plague for plants.” “Late blight has never occurred this early and this widespread in the U.S.,” she also reports.

Late Blight on Tomatos showing stem lesions

Late Blight on Tomatos showing stem lesions

This early warning announcement was followed on July 3rd, 2009 by widespread news from Associated Press and Newsday, that a tomato disease known as late blight was found in 6 northeast United States big box retail stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart). The states that had the first outbreaks were New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. While late blight is not an uncommon tomato problem, it usually appears in late summer or early fall and is not nearly as widespread.

One major big box tomato plant supplier is Alabama-based, Bonnie Plants where some suspicion has been directed. AP reported that Company representatives doubt that the disease originated in one of their 62 greenhouses (growing stations) since they ship to 38 states in total. Nonetheless, as a precaution the company pulled plants out of stores in the Northeast and this has reported to have resulting in $1 million dollars in lost sales, said Bonnie Plants General Manager Dennis Thomas. Thomas also has said that recent inspections of the company greenhouses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia found no evidence of the blight. A report in the online industry magazine published on July 7th, 2009 said that Bonnie Plants did not knowingly ship any infected tomato plants, but they speculated that the blight could have infected the plants after they arrived at the Northeast retailers. Most of the tomatoes that were sent to the region were shipped in April and May.

The late blight disease, caused by the Phytophthora infestans fungus, was traced to one possible source of shipments from a Bonnie Plants greenhouse in Georgia. As reported in GreenhouseGrower, Thomas said that the suspect greenhouse uses organic methods, which do not include pesticides that can keep the blight at bay. He also said that less than one percent of the company’s tomato shipments this spring came from that greenhouse. Thomas also commented that Bonnie Plants intends to have tomato plants back on store shelves in the Northeast by the end of July when they traditionally ship herbs and cold-weather plants.

Late Blight on Tomato leaf showing fuzzy fungal spores

Late Blight on Tomato leaf showing fuzzy fungal spores

Plants that are kept on large multi-shelf racks in big box stores are particularly susceptible to disease problems because they are placed close together, have restricted air movement and sun exposure. Late blight on tomatoes is much more prevalent when weather conditions are cool and damp – a recent trend in the Northeast. The University of Connecticut Hort Department suggests that cool nights with warm days and high humidity for 24 to 48 hours after a rain where the leaves do not dry support favorable disease outbreaks. For more information visit The weather could probably turn out to be more of a culprit in this case than the commercial grower or retailer.

Late Blight on Tomato stems

Late Blight on Tomato stems

Late blight is the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. In tomatoes, the early symptoms are brown lesion areas on the main stems, which quickly enlarge. Under moist conditions, a soft rot is accompanied by a grayish-white powder on the underside of leaves and if unchecked it will cause stem collapse, olive-green or browning of large portions of the leaves and a very quick death of the plant within two weeks. Pictures, provided by the Cornell University Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center can be found here:

Late Blight on Tomato leaves

Late Blight on Tomato leaves

Late blight is a fast-spreading fungus disease that attacks members of the Solanaceae family – tomatoes, petunias, eggplants, peppers and potatoes. The infecting spores travel on the wind and can spread far and wide. Wild plants in the same family, such as the nightshades, can also get late blight and should be removed from vegetable growing areas even if they do not show signs of the disease.

Home Depot and Lowe’s are offering compensation for late blight infected plants. Contact your retail store to find out their policy. In the meantime, dig up, double bag and seal tightly any suspicious tomato or potato plants. Dispose of them in the garbage — do not compost them. Meg McGrath recommends leaving the bag-enclosed tomato plant to bake in the sun for several hours to kill the plant and fungus spores. Make sure all plant parts are removed from the garden. Do not leave any leaves, ripe fruit or stems behind. Near ripe or unripe tomato fruit that are large enough to be worth saving, and are disease free can be harvested from the plant and eaten. Late blight will not cause any human illness.

Consider planting vegetables other than tomatoes, potatoes or peppers in the same area next year or plant resistant varieties of tomatoes. For other preventative measures consider scouting your vegetable garden on a daily basis, making sure tomatoes are staked to promote air movement, do not over use nitrogen fertilizers, use compost teas – sprayed on all leaf surfaces, and watering only at the base of the plant – not on the leaves.

There is no control for late blight, but early symptomatic plants may be saved through use of fungicides containing Chlorothalonil (non-organic) or copper (organic). Meg McGrath stresses that gardeners who want to try and control late blight by spraying should use repeat applications (according directions on the label).

Late Blight on Tomato fruit showing fuzzy fungi growth and spores

Late Blight on Tomato fruit showing fuzzy fungi growth and spores

Late blight control isn’t a one application situation. Also, take note of the personal protective equipment required to apply the spray. Gardeners in the Northeast who started their own tomatoes from seed are not immune to this disease either. Healthy plants can still be infected by spores on hands, clothing, and tools or wind-blown from neighboring areas (some even think that the spores can travel more than state-wide distances). Meg McGrath also suggests that volunteer tomato weeds in the garden should be vigilantly removed and she suggests following a “no tomato left behind” policy where two buckets are brought to the vegetable garden. One for the harvested fruits and the other for the “rots” so that none are left to drop on the ground (no matter how little they are). Dispose of these “rots” by double bagging them and putting it in the garbage.

Lastly, consider the livelihood of your local commercial tomato grower or CSA farmer and remove any suspicious home garden grown plants immediately to reduce the risk of spreading late blight from your garden to their commercial plants. This outbreak is going to require help from many people (gardeners and commercial growers along most of the east coast) to keep it under control – if we want to eat USA grown tomatoes during the next couple of months.

All images accompanying this article are used with permission from Dr. Meg McGrath and Copyright by the Department of Horticulture Website at Cornell University.

Creating a Tropical Oasis in a Northern Garden

Hardy Plants to Create a Tropical Looking Garden

Native Poke in a Philadelphia area garden (warning poisonous if eaten)

Tropical-looking, but hardy and native Poke in a Philadelphia area garden (warning poisonous if eaten)

One of the hot trends in gardening for the last couple of years has been to create a lush, Southern tropical oasis right in your own back yard.  Transforming a ho-hum garden into a tropical paradise by using masses of brightly coloured blooms or attractive berries set off by a rich tapestry of foliage is possible to achieve, even in northern climates.  Combining colour and selecting plants for their strong architectural value allows gardeners to create dramatic scenes in the garden giving the image of a tropical paradise from far, far away. 

Tender Variegated Ginger and 'Dragon Wing' Begonia in an Oklahoma Garden

Tender variegated ginger and 'Dragon Wing' begonia in an Oklahoma garden

The trend toward creating exotic, tropical gardens around northern homes has been made become popular by gardeners who want to create a summer-long holiday destination without leaving their own garden.  To create a tropical garden, look for riotous, lush plants full of brilliant colours and exuberant growth.  Many tropical gardens rely heavily on colourful foliage and the playful contrasts between coarse and finer plant textures.  The bolder the contrast statement, the better the effect in this style of gardening. 

Tropical plants at Chanticleer- A pleasure garden

Real tropical plants at Chanticleer- A Pleasure Garden in Pennsylvania

Creating an authentic tropical garden in a northern garden means dealing with the challenges of using plants native to an area that extends from an area bordering the equator from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn.  Many of these tropical plants are happiest in an environment that has continuous year round sunshine and balmy, warm temperatures.  In this area the sun shines for the same twelve hours every day, all year round.  The sun in the tropics heats up the air to a nice 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (80-90 deg. F.) too.  Another challenge presented by a true tropical climate are the rainy and dry seasons that result in almost daily torrential rain in the afternoon for months followed by drought that puts plants into dormancy.  Recreating most of these conditions in northern gardens is almost impossible unless unlimited funds were available.  So without an environment that is similar to their native home, many of what we think of as true tropicals are going to sulk, decline or outright die.

Some tropical plants though will still flourish in northern gardens.  Getting these to grow well though might present an additional challenge.  Finding plants that are large enough to make an impact is a difficult task since there are usually not too many 2-metre (6 feet) tall palm trees in local garden centres.  What might be available is a colourful croton, say about 60 cm (2 feet) tall if lucky.  Unfortunately this won’t contribute much toward the overall tropical feel in the garden until they have grown for a season or three.  Searching for a large variegated ginger, that is one metre (3 feet) tall, will be a lengthy process and probably quite pricey.  

Since the effort to find real tropical plants that are suitable for an outdoor garden is considerable, most gardeners will want to keep them for more than just one season.  The plants really deserve to be kept over the winter instead of landing in the compost pile when temperatures start to fall to near freezing.  To overwinter tropicals, the minimum requirement is a heated room to keep temperatures above freezing and the ideal is to have a bright, warm conservatory or greenhouse to re-create natural conditions.  

Tropical Imposter Heuchera at the Atwater Market in Montreal, Canada

Tropical imposter, hardy Heuchera at the Atwater Market in Montreal, Canada

If the efforts needed to recreate the tropical garden using authentic tropical plants are a bit daunting, there are hardy plants that can be used as tropical impostors!  It is possible with a few tropical-looking temperate plants placed strategically in the garden, to change the feel of a traditional garden into one that resembles gardens seen in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico or Costa Rica.   There are cold-hardy plants that have a dramatic size and form, vivid foliage, and extravagant flowers that resemble their more tender counterparts.  Combining these tropical-looking, yet hardy plants in a dense planting and a tropical effect can be gained without dealing with overwintering tender plants indoors through the winter. A quick visit to the garden centre will show that there are plenty of perennials, shrubs and trees that could pass as tropicals in our garden climate.  Just look at them from a tropical prospective and select those that best represent the theme.
Some of the best tropical plant impostors have variegated foliage.  The exotic looking 5-metre (15 foot) tall, gold-variegated Japanese angelica tree is a great candidate for a full sun or partial shade location and is very hardy. The leaves are edged in cream-yellow colour which develops a pink tone in the fall if grown in the sun. 

The deep purple foliage of forest pansy Eastern redbud is similar to many tropical shrubs.  The heart shaped leaves are an attractive red-purple colour in the spring.  These change to dark green during the summer and return to a good purple for the fall.  This shrub grows in full sun or partial shade and will reach 3 metres (9 feet) tall at maturity.  An added benefit is the rose-purple pea-shape flower in the spring.

Tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Tricolor') at the Montreal Botanical Garden

Hardy tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Tricolor') at the Montreal Botanical Garden

Maroon foliage is also key to the attractiveness of the ‘Royal Purple’ smoke tree. This time each leaf is round in shape and starts out a rich maroon-red colour in the spring.  The colour deepens to a purplish-red or close to black in the summer.  In the fall, the leaves turn a rich, red-purple colour. The flowers and seeds of the smoke tree are very different from other plants.  They are full plumes containing small, airy flowers that fast develop into fluffy seedheads that last for months. The plumes are beautiful and are colour coordinated purple too.  The shrub can easily be pruned to stay compact, or if left unpruned will reach 5 metres (15 feet). Full sun is essential for the best foliage colour and blooms. 

Hardy "Tropical-looking" Hostas at the Atwater Market in Montreal, Canada

Hardy "Tropical-looking" Hostas at the Atwater Market in Montreal, Canada

For a dramatic golden foliage statement in the garden, try ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta.  Incredibly hardy, this hosta has golden chartreuse leaves and pale lavender blooms in late summer. The ultimate size is 80 cm (32 inches) tall and 2 metres (6 feet) wide.  Also the golden leaf locust will produce a sunny, golden glow from its leaves if a taller plant is needed.

Echinacea and Hakonechloa at Terra Nova Nursery in Oregon

Hardy Echinacea and Hakonechloa at Terra Nova Nursery in Oregon

Hardy ornamental grasses can also be used to create the impression of a tropical garden.  Try the hakone grass (also called Japanese forest grass) which is know in the nursery as Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ for its bold gold striped leaves that reach 40 cm. (15 inches).  This plant needs partial shade to avoid scorching. Other striking, sword-like foliage combinations can be made with variegated and zebra iris. 

The common rose mallow (such as the cultivars of Hibiscus moscheutos ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Plum Crazy’) are grown for their exotic, large colourful blooms from late summer to fall.  Pair this mallow with an ornamental rhubarb (Rheum palmatum var. tanguticum) or the plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) for a dramatic effect.

Where there’s an idea and the will to make it happen, there’s a way to create a tropical oasis in any garden!

Summer Flowers – Gone but not Forgotten

After the flowering party is over…

Stunning Echinacea Meadowbrite Orange blooms at thier peak

Stunning Echinacea Meadowbrite Orange blooms at their peak

Their blooms have come and gone and left behind are the fallen petals and the swellings and bulges not unlike those at a mom-to-be convention.  After the flowering party is over for many annuals and perennials, a gardener’s task turns to deadheading the finished blooms.  The newly forming seed heads need to be removed by pinching, shearing or just plain pruning them out.

For some plants, deadheading is done to improve visual appearance. By removing the finished blooms the plant looks a lot better. Butterfly bush, ageratum, artemisia, Pelargonium (annual geranium), gazania, Solanostemon (coleus), and Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) fall into this category.  Besides these, many plants that have white flowers will turn an unsightly brown colour when they are finished blooming.  White blooming ageratum is one plant that often needs deadheading to make it look better.

Other plants are deadheaded for cultural reasons.  Mainly to encourage more blooming. Removing the spent flower will stop energy being wasted on seed production.   And still other plants have their reproductive structures removed to reduce the number of offspring that might appear the following year.  The perennial, lady’s mantle is a plant that loves to “go forth and propagate”.  It self-seeds like crazy.  It must be sheared after the chartreuse coloured flowers are finished to prevent hundreds of babies sprouting.  Some flowers are deadheaded to protect the plant’s health.  The fungal disease called Botrytis likes to live on decaying flower petals. Removing the spent flower will remove the host infection site and often reduce the amount of infection.

The interesting blooms of Cleome (Spiderflower) - but watch for it to reseed if it isn't deadheaded

The interesting blooms of Cleome (spider flower) – but watch for it to reseed if it isn’t deadheaded

Deadheading annuals and perennials can be done with many different tools.  The simplest is the thumb and finger (or fingernail) method.  Your handy digits are useful for taking the finished blooms off soft-stemmed plants such as begonia, Cleome (spider flower), marigolds, geraniums, lantana, nasturtium, petunia, salvia, or zinnia.  These plants all have thin brittle stems that can easily be snapped to remove the seed heads.  Hand pruners, scissors or a pocketknife is needed for plants that have a slightly tougher flower stalk.  Columbines, cannas, iris, daylilies, Nicotiana (flowering tobacco), sunflowers, or heliotrope must be cut off by using pruners.

Some annuals and perennials have a habit that allows for efficient deadheading with the use of hedge shears.  A sculpted effect can be obtained through skilful pruning during this process. Hedge shears can be used to deadhead plants that have their blooms all at the terminal points.  Trailing or edging lobelia, perennial and annual alyssum, candytuft, lady’s mantle, dianthus, and lamb’s ears could all be deadheaded using hedge shears.

Although removing the seedpods from plants is a recommended practice, there are some instances when the seeds are left on to fully mature and ripen.  If open-pollinated seed is being kept for harvesting then the seed pods must stay on the plant until they are ripe.  Other plants that have decorative seedpods should be left on so that the pod can fully mature before it is harvested.  Nigella (love-in-the-mist), poppies, Lotus, many clematis, and Allium are three plants that form very decorative seedpods.

There are some plants that do not require deadheading or are self-cleaning.  These are great plants for a low maintenance garden because they do not require any laborious attention.  Fibrous begonia, Bergenia, impatiens, lobelia, Catharanthus (Madagascar periwinkle), sunshine impatiens, and verbena are all members of this “no deadheading required” group.

Canna flowers just a few days prior to needing deadheading.

Canna flowers just a few days prior to needing deadheading.

Many annuals (and quite a few perennials) must be deadheaded to keep them blooming longer.  Notorious are Antirrhinum (snapdragon), canna (only remove the spent flowers and be wary of cutting off future flower buds lower on the same stalk), delphinium, Heliotropium (heliotrope), Hemerocallis (daylilies), lantana, Lavandula (lavender) Liatris, nasturtium, Nicotiana (flowering tobacco will self-seed but not quite enough to create a crisis), salvia, Tagetes (marigolds), tuberous begonias (female flowers only), viola, and zinnia. Many older variety petunias would benefit from a deadheading but who has the time for this tedious work?

There are some plants that should be deadhead at all costs to avoid self-seeding the following year.  This group contains the plants that are prolific self-seeders and are an inconvenience in almost every instance. These plants include: Mirabilis (four-o’clock), Cleome (spider flower), Nigella (love-in-the-mist), Antirrhinum (snapdragon), Verbena bonariensis, Melampodium, Verbascum, Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) Corydalis lutea, and Eschscholzia (California poppy).  If this group of annuals and perennials were left to self-seed, the following year the garden will be filled with seedlings.  There is a saying that one year seeding equals seven years weeding.

This last group of plants are the ones that readily self-seed, but these plants have seed structures that do not permit any deadheading to take place.  Use these plants in the garden with caution unless you prefer a groundcover-like planting the following year.  Talinum (jewels of Opar), portulaca, cosmos, and Lobularia (sweet alyssum) all usually evade deadheading.  Each of these plants has many tiny seedpods that would require endless, finicky deadheading.

One planter, several deadheading challenges from Cannas, Coleus, Nasturtiums and Lantana.

One planter, several deadheading challenges from cannas, coleus, nasturtiums and lantana.


When deadheading annuals and perennials it is important to recognize what the seed head looks like so that the flower buds are not inadvertently removed.  Often the flower buds will be in the terminal growth, while the seedpods will be found along older growth.  Annual phlox is tricky to deadhead because there’s little difference in look between a forming flower bud and a finished seed head.  Canna is tricky because if the spent flower is pruned too far down the stem then the next flower bud is removed too.  During deadheading, be wary of stinging insects that like to frequent flowers.  Grabbing a canna bloom to deadhead it and finding an angry bee is not a pleasant experience.

Some plants do not flower any longer even if they are deadheaded.  So why waste the effort to do this task?  This group includes astilbe and oriental poppy.

On a final note, some plants that have silver foliage are prone to deterioration once they have bloomed.  Deadheading will allow the plant’s energy to stay directed toward foliage production.  Lamb’s ears and artemisia are two key perennial plants that have this unusual habit.

More High Impact Garden Design Tips

High Impact Garden Design – Part Two

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' at Portland's Rose Garden

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' at Portland's Rose Garden

In the previous article it was revealed here that it is easy to make a dramatic statement in the garden if masses of Goldsturm Rudbeckia are planted.   Even though masses of bright, golden daisy flowers do make a showy statement, they do tend to shout loudly at times.  Even though the reliable, showy, lovable Goldsturm is such a useful plant in the garden, there are other ways to create a show-stopping display.   Instead of considering neon magenta impatiens with scarlet geraniums, think about using plants (and plant combinations) in a way that accentuates their positive characteristics. Take, for example, the drama and striking architectural qualities of an Acanthus (bear’s breeches) leaf and flower that has inspired artists and garden lovers since the times of ancient Greece.   This is a high impact plant all by itself.

Formal (and modern-style gardens too) have a naturally occurring impact as a result of their symmetry.   Many modern garden designs use simple geometric shapes to portray a message of simplicity.  The use of just a few plants in a simple design diverts all attention to this one area.  The resulting impact is substantial.  Formal designs can attract attention as a result of their simplicity too.  This style of design often involves clipped hedges, sculpture, topiary and a select list of annuals or perennials that have a formal “look”.  Masses of one colour in a design using fibrous begonia, coleus, impatiens, mealy-cup sage,  mondo grass, or the sword-shaped leaves of tall bearded iris are very effective in formal gardens and have good impact. 

An informal garden, because of its nature is harder to use as a high impact garden.  Informal designs traditionally have lots of diversity and often are a riot of colour and textures.  Plants weave into each other and have a natural, meadow-like feel.  Most gardens in the extreme informal style are quite subordinate and only dominant in a minor way.  


Cool colors of New Guinea impatiens, asparagus fern and Diascia in Francis H. Cabot's garden, Les Quatre Vents in La Malbaie, Quebec

Cool colors of New Guinea impatiens, asparagus fern and Diascia in Francis H. Cabot's garden, Les Quatre Vents in La Malbaie, Quebec

The most popular style of garden design combines lots of informality with some formal basis.  This “happy medium” uses the best aspects of both styles and can be used well for successful high impact designs.  The formal parts of the design create the framework that contain and sharpen the informality of the design.  The contrast between these two styles creates a portion of the impact.
Texture and form (both the flower and the plant form) are very useful when designing with plants.  They are very often overlooked and much underrated as a design feature.  So many other more noticeable elements (like colour or quantity) steal the limelight.   Consequently, a bold texture statement is needed to have any impact.  The biggest texture impact can be achieved by using glossy leaves and diffuse sunlight to bring out the full effects of the texture. This is particularly helpful when designing with perennials.

Look around the garden and chances are good that the majority of the flowers are of a round shape.  This is the most common flower form in the garden.  So, to get more impact, add non-round flowers!   There’s more blooming in the garden than daisies.  Think about spikes (cardinal flower), horizontal forms (Crocosmia), cascading blooms (ornamental grasses), or star-burst (Russian sage) flower forms for more excitement. 

Dramatic textures and color with Echinacea 'Ruby Giant' and Hakonechloa 'All Gold' at Terra Nova Nurseries in Canby, Oregon

Dramatic textures and color with Echinacea 'Ruby Giant' and Hakonechloa 'All Gold' at Terra Nova Nurseries in Canby, Oregon

High impact gardens are very easy to create by using lots of hot colours (reds, yellows and oranges).  These colours are psychologically more dramatic and draw attention to plants.  Use these colours with caution or else their effect will be diminished. These colours naturally attract attention, particularly if they are used sparingly in large quantities.   Hot colours are best used as brief splashes of alarm among other colour harmonies.

Orange, unlike all the other colours seems to evoke emotions of either intense liking or a strong dislike.  Colours produce an emotional response in their viewer, and orange is no exception. This response will be different from one person to another as our ages, background, and learned associations have an influence on how we feel about the colour orange.

Whether pumpkin orange is despised or adored, orange has become a popular colour for gardeners to integrate into their planting design.  Orange can be added easily either by including some new annuals or permanently planting specific perennials in key strategic locations.  Used any way, orange is a high impact colour.

The cool colours are easier to use in the garden than the hot colours.  Most blue flowers contain some reds so they harmonize well with purples and violets.  Creating high impact with cool colours, such as blue, purple or green is more difficult since these colours recede into the background.   Many more massing of them is required to have an effect.
Anyone a little hesitant about combining colours should try yellow with violet (or blue).  This is a sure-win situation.

High impact green and red colors in a private Austin, Texas garden

High impact green and red colors in a private Austin, Texas garden

Designing for impact with annuals and perennials is a challenging, yet rewarding garden task that forces gardeners to look at their plants in a different light.  Texture, foliage, hot or cool colours, and flower forms are a few facets of plants that make high impact designs successful. 

 The principles of design go beyond the use of annuals and perennials (which is the focus this article)  Think about them for the entire garden.

Creating Impact with Garden Design

High Impact Garden Design – Part One

Beauty in Garden Design found in the Amsterdam Canal House Garden

Beauty in garden design found in this Amsterdam Canal House Garden

Making a dramatic statement in the garden is easy if you are a big fan of putting Goldsturm Rudbeckia everywhere.   Alas, it is possible to go overboard with this reliable, showy plant!  Masses of bright golden daisy flowers do tend to shout loudly at times and make it hard for extended viewing.  So even though the reliable, showy, lovable Goldsturm is such a useful plant in the garden, there are other ways to create a “show stopping” display.  How do you create a high impact garden without using masses of Rudbeckia Goldsturm?   It means changing how some of us look at plants.  Others will have to leave an eclectic tendency of almost random plant placement behind and focus on plant combinations and design.

Many eclectic gardeners are really plant collectors (some call them plantaholics) instead of planners and designers.  One key sign of this is an inability to pass a garden centre without stopping (even if it is August and the benches are 99% bare).  Another is a tendency to put plant sale dates on a new calendar before family birthdays!  A true indication that a gardener is a plantaholic is that they have a determined optimism that “there’s always room for one more” plant in the garden, no matter how full.  Most often these previous acquisitions are still in pots lining the patio or driveway.  Lastly, the eclectic plantaholic feels that two of something is just wasted space taken up by duplication. Three of the same plant is downright foolish.   To have an effective high impact garden, plantaholics must focus on planning and design.

One of the most important design principles for effective designs is to use the techniques of repetition, variety, balance, emphasis, sequence and scale.  This is known by the handy acronym of RVBESS, which represents the first letter of each topic. 

Repetition, variety, balance, emphasis and scale shown in this Royal Selangor Club garden in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Repetition, variety, balance, emphasis and scale shown in this Royal Selangor Club garden in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Even before a garden design can be put together using RVBESS, the importance of unity and simplicity must be addressed.  Unity is a common thread through a design that attracts and holds the attention of the viewer.  Unity helps people understand a design and helps to organize all the parts into a cohesive group.  Unity in a design gives the viewer a pattern to discover. The easier this pattern (or patterns) is to see, the sooner people feel more comfortable with a design.

When designing, it is very easy to ignore simplicity in favour of using too many plants (the plantaholic’s tendency).  Designing with simplicity is to eliminate every detail that does not contribute significantly to the overall goal.  There’s a way to use simplicity as a control over too much variety, but don’t scale down to the extent of boring garden visitors.

The first component of RVBESS is repetition.  This is the placement of like plants (or colours or flower forms or sculpture) with like things.  There is a risk of using too much repetition (it becomes monotonous) or too little (no sense of unity).  Repetition, to many gardeners, means repeating the same plant.  To add more subtle drama to the garden, certain characteristics or qualities of a plant (such as its line, form, texture or colour) can be repeated instead of repeating plants. 

Variety is the opposite of repetition or the absence of diversity in a garden.  Many people are attracted to a garden that is full and lively with lots of action.   High impact gardens can certainly be created using lots of variety.  Variety adds zest and liveliness to a design by mixing like and unlike together.  A change in line, form, texture or colour will hold the observer’s eye as our minds naturally search for change (or the “odd” plant).  The challenge when designing is not to have so much variety where confusion results or so little that it is impossible to perceive.  If overdone, variety destroys unity and can create a feeling of chaos as the eye searches for a place to rest.  Plantaholics take note!  

Balance can be used in a garden as a way to make visitors feel that there is a general equilibrium of all parts so that the whole design conveys a sense of stability.  In a garden, every line, form, texture and colour acts to attract our attention.  Balance equalizes competing forces so that stability is obtained.  Balance can be symmetrical (for example on either side of a path) or perspective (where a feeling or sense of balance is achieved without being measurable). This first type of balance suggests a sense of stability, stateliness and dignity.  The second type arouses curiosity, suggests movement and has a dynamic quality. Unconsciously, the eye looks for a balance.  In any composition certain objects attract attention more strongly than others because of their emphasis.  A garden designer can establish an equilibrium or balance that acts as a control over variety by keeping groups of plants in proportion with one another. 

Emphasis is a way of showing what is more important from the lesser important.  This ability to create highlights in the garden can be used for not just for plants, but also sculptures, or even main doors.  Use emphasis effectively for high impact garden designs by limiting the number of dominant features, stressing size differences, grouping several elements together, introducing the unexpected, and by using bold forms, dramatic textures or intense colours.  When thinking about which elements should dominate, ask yourself if it is worthy of the emphasis. 

Montreal Botanical Garden Chinese Garden

A striking peony for emphasis in the Chinese Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden

A progression, movement or transition in the design takes advantage of using sequence. Usually it leads to an accent plant or sculpture or a major emphasis.  Sequence is the connection that holds all the design components together and ties in the minor elements to the main emphasis. Movement in the garden can be created through change in texture, colour, form, position or size of plants.

Scale is the last of the RVBESS design topics.  This is the relation of the size of an object or the dimension of space. Scale is one of the most important issues that will solidify or weaken a design.  Without good comparative relationships between garden elements, there can be no harmony.  Scale is often the deciding factor of whether a design is good or bad.  Most people have little trouble sensing that something is not in good proportion in terms of measurable or perceived scale.

Coming Next is High Impact Garden Design Part Two- looking at high impact designs using texture, form, and especially colour.

Shopping for Plants!

Garden Center Onward Bound!

Even though the thought of going near a garden center or nursery during the weekend is evidence to question ones’ sanity, the temptation is near impossible to refuse.  Late May is such an important time in the gardening calendar that it is hard to break from the tradition of planting annuals, perennials, trees or anything green during this time of year – wherever you may live.   So off to the greenhouse, nursery or garden center we will go! Dealing with a bustling crowd juggling plants, children, and carts all the way to the check out is only one of the gardening “rites of passage”. 

Weigela My Monet
Weigela ‘My Monet’,  Will I buy this plant?



Once in your favourite plant-selling emporium there will be lots of tempting things to pick up.  Juggling them in your arms is just too limiting.  A shopping excursion that can be done without trays or carts is grounds for removal from the Plant Shoppers Anonymous group (I proclaim myself an honourary member!).  Anyway, the impulse items at the entrance usually warrant bringing at least one empty flat along for the trip.  The flat-bottomed style of plastic flats are the best because they can hold an odd assortment of pot sizes and cell packs that usually accumulate as a result of the shopping excursion.  Cardboard flats may look substantial and are great advertising tools but they become unstapled easily and are prone to coming in contact with water thereby turning to a consistency like cooked noodles.


Once one flat is filled, it is time to scout for a cart to free up valuable arm mobility.  Nursery carts come in a variety of designs.  Some have two wheels and are held up with a handle in a precarious angle that threatens to dump everything off the back if it is raised too high.  Others have four wheels and move forward easier, but might be difficult to turn corners because of their length.  Some four-wheel carts have two shelves like bunk beds for major quantities of plants.  These are excellent because they can hold six flats of annuals or three flats of annuals and two hanging baskets. 


Signs and plant tags, “silent salespersons” with cultural information and prices are essential – the more the better.  But, chances are that plants that have no sign indicating their price are also the ones that the cashier does not know.


Most people feel more comfortable shopping at a business that organizes their wares in a logical manner.  It is human nature to find an order to things.  This includes shopping for plants.  Having all the shade-tolerant plants in one area makes sense.  The arrival of fresh, new plants always causes a stir as people look to see if there’s something better in this newest delivery.   But if they look too much like they just left the sanctuary of the greenhouse, enquire about whether they need hardening off so they don’t sunburn or collapse from too cool temperatures the first day home.


The selection of plants that a garden centre offers tells a lot about the commitment the owners have toward serious gardeners.  Do they offer new plants each season or do the same annuals appear each year (ack! labeled generically such as “impatiens”)?


Have fun and remember there’s ALWAYS room for one more plant at home.

More Tempting Plants Just Arriving at the Garden Center

More Tempting Plants Just Arriving at the Garden Center

Temptation! Buy Me!