The Season of Gardening Catalogs

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The beautiful, full color Seeds of Change catalog arrived this week, so now begins planning of next year’s garden. It’s one of the few catalogs I enjoy in print form because there is so much food gardening how-to information that it’s nearly a gardening book itself. This non-profit is America’s most famous organic heirloom seed source, and they keep many of these old varieties in cultivation through their efforts. On cold winter days I will be spending a great deal of time perusing the pages, but you can get started online right now at http://www.seedsofchange.com/ or call for a catalog of your own 888 762-7333

Dramatic and Free: Garden Decor

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At the end of the season there are always stalks and branches to be had. And when these are used in the right setting they become a valuable tool for exploiting color, form and contrast. Nowhere is this more doable than in the southwest when the agaves send up their enormous stalks to flower. Some types of yucca do the same and dasilirion, also known as the desert spoon is another contender. All too often these architectural byproducts of plants are chipped, crushed and thrown into the garbage, but if dried and preserved they make outstanding free outdoor decorations. This beautiful example of repurposed agave stalks illustrates how leftover paint can be put to good use. Note the turquoise window trim on the upper right of this photo. The paint left over was used to create a “wash” over well dried agave stalks. A wash is created with ordinary latex paint thinned down with water to create a more semitransparent stain-like application. If the stalk was simply painted, it would be far too uniform. The aged look shown here allows the original surface with its flakes and peels to show through. That is an artificial patina that can be created on any kind of twig, in this case to lend the Santa Fe look when set against a solid colored wall. This high contrast approach is the perfect way to add interest to nooks and crannies of architecture.

Aztec Dahlia Flowers of Mexico

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In the south of the Valley of Mexico, the Xochimilca, people of the flowers, founded their city upon a verdant wetland.  They dwelled on earth just inches higher than the shallow lake surface that surrounded them.  To create more dry land they hauled lake bottom muck in baskets to create man made islands known as chinampas.  This land would prove among the most fertile places on earth, linked by a system of spring fed canals.  Building up the chinampas by hand just as it was done by the Aztecs. There they cultivated gardens of flowers and vegetables in what is today called Xochimilco, place of the flowers.  From the highlands that surround their valley they brought wildflowers, both the cempacuchil marigold and bright wayside blossoms known today as dahlias.  Growing like potatoes out of thick underground tubers, the many small flowered species produced a wide range of color.  The Mexican native wildflower, Dahlia coccinea. The Xochimilca were conquered by the Aztecs, their agricultural region taken over to support the needs of a rapidly expanding empire centered further north at Tenochtitlan.  The Aztecs were avid gardeners and dahlias soon found their way into the gardens of the Emperor and homes of the wealthy tended by slaves.  Flowers, with their short life and fleeting beauty would become vital to celebrations of their many gods and death.  They would deem Xochipili the god of flowers.  There is no doubt that the dahlias collected in Tenochtitlan from far corners of Mexico and Guatemala began to naturally cross pollinate in these gardens, producing ever more varieties. But again the dahlia and its people were conquered.  Hernan Cortez wrote of the flowers known in the Nahuatl language as acocotli, and even sketched them.  Sadly this and other Spanish works are all that remains of the Aztec records detailing how dahlias were used in garden and as a medicinal.  The valuable codex or written works of this culture were summarily burned.  Only seeds were sent back to Spain.  Flowers of three species eventually grew in Madrid:  purple Dahlia pinnata, pink Dahlia rosea and vivid red Dahlia coccinea.  All of these figure into the history of our modern day hybrids, but many believe even these were early hybrids themselves gathered from the gardens of the Aztecs. Europeans would soon discover that when grown from seed the offspring of dahlias were highly variable.  The original species contained genes of a whole rainbow of hues and forms, and when crossed the results were staggering.   Fancy modern dahlia hybrids. Nineteenth century breeding exploded around the world as fancy and show types produced larger and more complex colored flowers.  In 1872, a load of dahlia tubers from Mexico arrived in Holland, but only a single one survived.  This would become Dahlia ‘Juarrezii’, the progenitor of the spectacular cactus flowered dahlia.       Xochemilco canals and the floating garden boats formerly bedecked with fresh flowers. Xochimilco remains today the horticultural heart of Mexico, the chinampas farmed by boat just as they have been
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Twisted Tulips for Garden and Landscape

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The world of tulips is immense, but amidst the most beautiful flowers in the world are some really twisted varieties.  They won’t appeal to everyone, but for certain design styles, these bulbs can turn a good spring garden into a forld class affair. Sometimes perfect upright tulips are too rigid for modern design.  The ability to juxtapose twisted flowers and stems against the sharp lines of sleek surfaces creates a dynamic contrast.  Parrot tulips produce these very unusual petals with bold stripes and broken colors along with frilled edges. For lovers of rich reds and the luxurious interiors with their silks and satins, dark antique furniture and heavy drapes, Rococo is an ideal choice.  Intense color combined with striations produces a true Old World look.  As flowers open their form disintegrates to create even more exotic shapes.  This is a real man’s tulip. She is named China Town, and this beautiful flushed beauty is most feminine.  Tulip centers in a rich sap green are edged in magenta then lighten to pale pink.  Planted into beds of perennials and shrubs, their large flowers, casual form and vivid colors are perfect for that coveted cottage garden look. 

Distinctly Cool Dutch Decor

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One of the great things about being in media is access.  This year it was a private tour of the best Dutch gardens featuring virtually every bulb known to man in full bloom.  But we didn’t just see Keukenof the greatest bulb extravaganza in the world, our visits were to small lesser known sites, many of them residential.  I found a plethora of new ideas which I’ll share with you over the coming weeks. A table made of a slab of salvaged steel plating on sawhorses displays urns of snowdrops and terra cotta filled with gorgeous purple crocus. One garden was actually a very deep backyard created by a woman who ran a small garden shop and nursery in her home.  This is unusual to find such an operation in a residential district but thankfully the locals let her do it.  Like most of Holland the site was immaculate with not a leaf out of place nor a weed in sight.    The garden owner is enchanted by cool colors of blue and purple, so she created a most unique combination of pots and plants.  This table featured metal containers planted with succulents and other unusual foliage along with a few spectacular accents. I think what probably caught my attention about this long display of foliage and flowers is the cool color palette.  But we’ve all been trained that all cool is just too dull and needs an occasional red or yellow to bring it up in temperature.  Somehow despite the lack of such contrasting spots of bright hue this works by creating incredible diversity in an amazingly small space without being overwhelming.

Quick and Easy Topiary For Your Garden

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Now you don’t have to wait years to have large topiaries in your yard.  Using wire forms pre-packed with moss and potting soil you can enjoy this age old garden art form in this year’s summer garden.  A single piece can make an incredible change.  Check out what we did on my TV show, Weekend Gardening.    Thanks to Green Piece Wire Art, we were able to transform a forgotten back alley access to a mother-in-law cottage into an inviting entry.  We needed something large enough to draw a visitor down this long narrow path to the end.  Such a huge piece of garden art of any size is not only expensive, it’s obscenely heavy!  And that means heavy shipping charges too. The solution was the Green Piece seven foot tall giraffe.  It was delivered in two boxes and three easily assembled pieces.  Each part of the wire form was pre-packed with soil and lined with spaghnam moss so it looked great as is.  Amazingly light weight for its size means that even super large pieces can be delivered via UPS with no specialty shipping required.  Check out Green Piece Wire Art to browse their many forms that you can order to make this year’s garden a virtual green menagerie!  http://www.greenpiecewireart.com/index.htm

Favorite Hummingbird Flowers for Gardens

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If you plant right the hummingbirds will come.  The trick to quick lures is to plant fast growing annuals that will bloom long over summer to draw the maximum number of birds in the shortest time.  You just don’t have the time to wait for trees and shrubs to mature.    Hummingbirds are drawn to the color red, so virtually all bright red range blossoms will be magnets.  However, not all of these offer the littler birds a nectar reward.  Those nectar rich species adapted to hummingbirds will not only lure them in but keep them around for a long time as they continue to feed on newly opened flowers.  Long repeat blooming is an important characteristic in these flowers.  Salvia greggii hybrids -  These small red blossoms of a shrubby perennial are native of the American west and into Mexico where they are big nectar producers for many hummer species.  Breeders produce fast growing forms that repeat bloom most prolifically in the dead heat of summer.  Plant these from one gallon containers for a fast start. Lantana and Verbena  These natives of North and South America are super fast growing and will remain in bloom throughout the entire growing season.  In even warmer climates they bloom all year around.  Hummers come back to them time and again no matter what color the hybrid.  Buy in quarts or one gallon. Salvia splendens  This old fashioned garden annual produces tall stalks of bright red flowers.  While the blue forms are somewhat appealing to hummers, the red ones are irresistible.  Plant in masses from six packs for maximum draw at minimal cost. Other good American native plants to lure hummers: Trumpet Honeysuckle Vine   Lonicera sempervirens Trumpet Creeper   Campsis radicans Cardinal Flower  Lobelia cardinalis