Saturday, November 26, 2011

Back to Basics: Design a Great Container

Whether you garden on a sprawling suburban lot or on a small urban balcony or patio, in full sun or in shade, you can design and plant a pot with stunning results. That’s the great thing about gardening—as long as you know a few basics, you can flex your artistic side even if you can’t draw a straight line.
First the basics. You’ll need a pot with drainage holes to shed excess water, otherwise the roots will rot and the plants will die. Buy a good, all-purpose potting mix—one with fertilizer granules mixed in to save time. Choose a container that complements the style of your home. For example, a classic iron urn looks great with a Victorian home, while a tall, contemporary glazed pot can enhance sleek architectural lines.

Create impact with color. Pick a pot in a color that enhances your garden, patio furniture or backdrop. Many garden centers carry new lightweight resin pots in a range of Crayola-like colors—red, blue, chartreuse, grey, or purple, for example—and in many sizes. Pots smaller than 14 inches across will require frequent watering, so the bigger pot you choose, the better. Last, determine where the pot will go and how much light that space receives during the summer, and select plants based on their light requirements (shade, part shade, sun).

Next comes the fun part—choosing the plants. I use the terms ‘monopot’ and ‘combopot’, says Ray Rogers in his new book, “The Encyclopedia of Container Plants: More than 500 Outstanding Choices for Gardeners.” (Timber Press, 344 pages, $34.95). A monopot contains one type of plant while a combopot includes two or more different plants. Garden designer Patti Kirkpatrick of Joliet plants several containers of monopots and combopots for her deck. A container filled with one type of coleus or an ornamental grass, such as Pennisetum ‘Prince’ (purple fountain grass), can give you a very dramatic and contemporary look, she says.

One easy formula for a mixed container planting is to use a thriller, filler and spiller, as shown here. The striking shade-loving caladiums are the thrillers, the tallest plants in the pot, which add visual interest with their coarse, colorful leaves. The fillers are the New Guinea impatiens with their rose-colored flowers and light yellow streaks down the center of the leaves. And the spiller is a variegated Plectranthus, ‘Troy’s Gold.’

What works well here: the plants offer leaves with contrasting shapes and textures—broad and pointy, oval, and long and slender. There’s a limited color palette—green, rose, white and golden-yellow. (Adding a few orange or pale blue flowers would surely take away from this put-together ensemble.) The container’s color and shape are neutral. And, perhaps most important, all of the plants prefer the same type of culture—light shade, good drainage and occasional watering with a liquid-soluble fertilizer.

Use the same formula to create a full-sun planter with some red fountain grass, dragonwing begonias and sweet potato vines—a thriller, spiller and filler. Or, for a contemporary look, plant a monopot using only begonias or petunias or calibrachoa. The possibilities are endless. On your next visit to the garden center, pick up a pot, some plants and start designing in your cart. Becoming a garden artist was never easier.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Season of Thanks

 “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” – Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 28, 1873 –August 3,1954)

There are many things to be thankful for but sometimes you can’t see the forest for the tree ferns. I’m revisiting an interview I did with landscape and horticulture experts last Thanksgiving holiday.

The trowels and shovels have been cleaned and stowed and the summer garden is now just a memory for most of us. In this quiet time of autumn, we asked gardeners, plant breeders, horticulturists and designers to reflect on what they are thankful for when it comes to gardens, among other things.

“Plant-wise, I am thankful for Black Scallop Ajuga and golden Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ [groundcovers] as they are a ‘living mulch’ and the Black Scallop is truly black,” says garden designer Patti Kirkpatrick of Joliet who, as a long-time volunteer, helps design and plant the hummingbird garden and indoor displays at Joliet’s Birdhaven Greenhouse and Conservatory. “I am thankful for the great volunteers who help with plant sales there, too. But most of all I am thankful to be working with Mother Nature as an artist’s medium. It is ever-changing, always challenging, most rewarding. Just to enhance her work, be it for a short time, is such an opportunity. And the appreciation of others who enjoy it is beyond words.” Birdhaven Greenhouse is located at 225 N. Gougar Road in Joliet and is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day, closed on holidays. Check out or (815) 741-7278.

Landscape architect Scott Mehaffey is thankful that he picked up a garden magazine while in college. “I had been designing and building sets, setting lights and running sound boards when I realized that I wanted to make real places that would last longer than a few weeks,” says Mehaffey. “I picked up the debut issue of Garden Design magazine and I was hooked. I do think my tech theatre background still influences me--I pay a lot of attention to scale and perspective, architectural style and site furnishings--and to lighting of course.” One word of wisdom from Mehaffey’s designing side--get the garden on paper before planting. He says the adage “’it's easier to move a plant with a pencil than a shovel’ rings as true as ‘measure twice, cut once.’ A good gardener must also be a good planner.” Check out Garden Design magazine at

“I am thankful for the large size container of red pepper flakes that they sell at Costco,” says Lora Lee Gelles, whose garden received first prize in this year’s Orland Park garden contest. “When we are at the height of ‘bunny’ season, I sprinkle it all over the tender emerging perennials and the newbie annuals that I have planted. ‘Ahhh chooo.’” For more pest-deterrent ideas, visit the University of Illinois Extension’s Web site at

Jim Ault is thankful that he discovered the many fascinating aspects of the genus Lilium. “My wife and I stumbled on the lily show at the Botanic Garden and we were blown away,” says Ault, plant breeder and director of ornamental plant research at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. He has since joined the North American Lily Society and the Wisconsin-Illinois Lily Society and has read everything about lilies from garden magazines to scientific journals. The couple’s backyard in Libertyville, Ill., has become a breeding ground featuring hundreds of lilies in different sizes, shapes and colors as well as fragrance. “The whole plant breeding thing gets under your skin and I can’t walk away from it at the end of the day.” Learn more about lilies at the North American Lily Society’s Web site,

“I am very thankful for having had the chance to work at The Morton Arboretum because of all the work the scientists, employees and volunteers do to ensure the conservation of our natural world, “says horticulturist and designer Sue Miller of Geneva. She credits the Arboretum’s former landscape architect, Tony Tyznik, as a source of inspiration for her gardening style. “While we were working in the Fragrance Garden and the Hedge Garden, he would often be with us pruning trees, placing plants, telling stories and making comments about plants such as, ‘look at how the dew drops cling to the leaves of the Alchemilla mollis. Isn’t that beautiful?’ Or, ‘Look how the leaves shine on that Viburnum prunifolium?’ He taught me to notice little things like that when I design a garden. In so many ways, it’s those little things that make a huge difference.” The Morton Arboretum is at 4100 Illinois Route 53 in Lisle. Visit or call 630-968-0074 for your own bit of inspiration.

Tim Wood is thankful that he spent summers working in his dad’s nursery in Michigan, which specialized in growing unusual plants. “I would take care of it after school, weekends and during the summer. In many ways I hated it--hard work, dirty and long hours,” says Wood who now works for Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Mich. “But what I loved was learning and growing new and unusual plants. He gave me an appreciation and love for all types of plants,” When he’s not breeding or developing plants, such as the new Hydrangea ‘Incrediball,’ Wood searches out new, promising selections. Follow him on his plant hunting blog at

Garden book author Stephanie Cohen of Collegeville, Pennsylvania, is thankful she found vegetables boring as a kid. Her parents gave her a small section of their WW II Victory Garden in New York City where she grew petunias, marigolds and geraniums. “This was the start of my long-term romance with ornamentals,” Cohen says. Since then, she’s written three books, provided hundreds of articles and lectures, and has spent 21 years teaching horticulture.” I never found the cure for this obsession and probably never will.” Check out her latest book, “The Nonstop Garden: A Step-by-Step Guide to Smart Plant Choices for Four-Season Designs,” by Cohen and Jennifer Benner. (Timber Press, 248 pages, $19.95.)

Happy Thanksgiving holiday to you and yours...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Winter Classes at The Clearing

The winter solstice is several weeks away and there's still plenty of time to procrastinate over holiday shopping, family get-togethers and other events. But once the holidays are over and we're faced with those bleak mid-winter days, a workshop or two up at The Clearing Folk School in Door County, Wisconsin, sounds pretty good. This unique school, the genius of landscape architect Jens Jensen, offers more than 100 day classes in January and February.

In the summer, you can sign up for a week-long class—there are dozens of offerings from quilting and yoga to writing and painting, weaving, photography and woodwork—and stay at The Clearing (or find housing nearby). These photos were taken when I attended a writing workshop one summer. Lovely as it is in summer, winter in Door County is enchanting and magical. A great place to reflect and renew in the coming New Year.

It was a pleasure to see these three pine trees, planted by Jensen, decades earlier--a look back in time and a connection to a fascinating man.


So plan ahead for an interesting winter get-away. January will be here before you know it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A book for the holidays: Armitage’s Garden Perennials

If you’ve grown ‘Margarita,’ the chartreuse-leaved sweet potato vine, or the Sunlover coleus series, or the red-leaved fountain grasses, ‘Prince’ or ‘Princess,’ you can thank Allan Armitage, plant guru and professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, for introducing them to the garden trade. Armitage is the author of several gardening books, including the newly revised, “Armitage’s Garden Perennials,” (Timber Press, 348 pages, $49.95). This detailed reference book, sprinkled with a little plant history, suggestions for plant combinations, and his quirky humor, covers more than 1250 of the best perennials, including garden mainstays and new introductions, along with zone hardiness and cultural recommendations.

“I can’t write about this stuff without growing it,” says Armitage, who has evaluated perennials in Montreal, Canada, East Lansing, Michigan, and in Athens, Georgia, where he oversees the university’s research gardens, evaluating new plants from flower breeders around the world.
He took a break from plant research, travel and lectures to talk by phone recently about his latest book.
Did you drop any plants since the first edition was published in 2000?

As I was writing the book, a dozen new cultivars of echinacea [coneflower] and epimedium were hitting the trial garden. The new cultivars tend to push out the older ones, but I didn’t want to throw out all the old plants that were still good. Let’s face it, in a five-year period there may be 1000 new plants of which 100 stick. For example, I still recommend some of the older coreopsis, like ‘Zagreb,’ which is spectacular. And ‘Goldsturm’ Rudbeckia, which is planted at just about every corner gas station—it’s one of those plants with staying power that I couldn’t drop. The rudbeckias in general are great, and there are a lot of newer ones that are very nice, like ‘Herbstonne,’ and the taller ‘Henry Eilers,’ a Rudbeckia subtomentosa, which has very narrow petals and is an attractive plant.

So, which perennials are your top picks?
How can I do that? Well, my favorites are different today than they were six months ago or last year. I’m looking at new perennials every day and it’s impossible to try every single one. Breeders are doing a lot of interesting work with native plants, which we call “nativars,” [a combination of native and cultivar]. Beyond perennials...what I love right now are Japanese maples, hypericum (St. John’s Wort), hibiscus, vines—I’m a vine guy.
What’s a workhorse perennial for full sun?
False indigo [Baptisia] is definitely on my list. It’s a native plant that, once established, is a consistent performer that will persist for 20 years or more. There are at least a half-dozen colors and new hybrids and more are coming. It’s really a classic perennial that grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide and has few insect or disease problems. However, it’s a plant that has very little joy in the retail setting because it looks like a stick in a container, so few people know what it has to offer. I’m also enamored with hardy hibiscus this year. There are so many fine [hibiscus] out there and breeders are working on some so they’re more compact at 3 to 4 feet tall. ‘Cranberry Crush’ is a good example at 3 feet tall and wide with bright rosy-red flowers. It’s reliable year after year and the only downside is that Japanese beetles occasionally bother it.
What’s your favorite plant for shade?
Well, that could change tomorrow, but today it’s epimedium. There are so many [epimedium] to choose from. They have handsome flowers in spring, they’re drought-tolerant and they make a great groundcover. Pulmonarias are a big deal for the shade garden, too. They’ve been around a long time and they’ve got really handsome foliage. Hellebores, too, are definitely one of the ones I love for shade. They have always been good plants, but the flowers were hard to see. ‘Ivory Prince’ was the first with upward facing flowers and there’s ‘Pink Frost,’ both very good. They just may be hard to find. And, Northern maidenhair fern—you can’t do much better than that in the ferns.

What made you include things like cannas and dahlias, which aren’t really perennial?

Yes, they have to be dug up and stored and replanted in the spring if you garden north of zones 6 or 7, but they’re outstanding plants, many with new colors and eye-catching, bold foliage that make a great contribution to perennial garden design.

You recently moved into a smaller house with a much smaller space for a garden. How are you whittling down your collection?

I had a spectacular garden at the old house and was growing a lot of tiarellas, lungwort and other shade plants, but this new garden is tiny and has more sun. The ‘before’ was pretty awful but it’s been fun--I stuff things in. I have absolutely no design in my yard, but I know enough about plants to know what they need and where to place them. The new place is already overrun. That’s what gardening is about. Don’t take it too seriously—it should be a pleasure, not a pain.

Check it out at

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thinking outside the pot--Squash and Sweet Potatoes for the Holidays

Simple. Straightforward. And, the “oh, I can do this” kind of recipe that tastes good and doesn’t need multiple hands to produce something that looks like a ‘Picasso on a Plate.” That’s Penny Newkirk’s philosophy when it comes to cooking, whether it’s for family and friends or for students at Country Garden Cuisine (, her cooking school, located in an 1847 Greek Revival-style house in St. Charles, Ill.

Holiday meals can be tasty, effortless and palate-pleasing instead of the usual run-of-the-mill—watery sweet potato casserole, wedges of head lettuce or mashed squash.

“Good food is grown locally and prepared with love,” Newkirk says.” It’s a simple concept and that’s the direction I’ve chosen to take.” For Newkirk, that means getting back to basics with uncomplicated recipes that let the savory flavors of autumn stand out. Much of the produce she uses comes from her own herb and vegetable gardens but local farmers markets and farm stands are good sources as well.

Butternut squash and sweet potatoes represent some of the season’s most savory flavors in Newkirk’s kitchen. Both vegetables are a staple when her family sits down to celebrate Thanksgiving.

But, you won’t find Newkirk using a bag of mini marshmallows to gooey up the typical sugar-filled, sweet potato dish. Instead, she suggests using sweet potatoes in other ways, such as a hearty soup that can be served as a first course. “The sweet potato soup is a recipe I’ve used for 25 years,” she says. “It’s a great way of using them even if you’re not a sweet potato fan and it’s fast to whip up and tastes yummy.”

Cooked butternut squash stands in for croutons in her spinach salad. “Our family loves butternut squash,” Newkirk says. “I use it in soups, casseroles, even lasagna. Using that bit of squash in a salad brings it to life.” Butternut squash also appears in her hearty potato-and-butternut gratin, a colorful, satisfying and creamy dish. “Even new cooks will find these recipes easy to do and good to eat,” Newkirk says. “And, it’s all about spending time with your guests rather than in the kitchen.”

Sweet Potato Soup

3-4 sweet potatoes, baked

3 cups chicken stock or broth*

1 cup heavy cream (or use ½ cup fat free half and half, ½ cup heavy cream)

½ to 1 cup grated Swiss cheese

Salt to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg

*Stock and broth are often used interchangeably in recipes, although they are slightly different. Broth is a more concentrated form of stock. Newkirk uses whichever one she has on hand for this recipe.

Puree the sweet potatoes in a food processor and pour into a saucepan. Add the chicken broth and cream and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the grated Swiss cheese, taste and adjust with salt as needed. Pour into serving bowls and garnish with grated nutmeg.

Penny Newkirk’s Tip: I like to cut out Swiss cheese shapes using a miniature cookie cutter shaped like a turkey or maple leaf and float on top of the soup in the individual serving bowls. Serve it hot for a great “first course soup” or a light dinner option.

Butternut Squash Salad

1 2-1/2 pound butternut squash (cut into quarters)

1/3 cup vegetable or olive oil

1/3 cup apple cider

1/4 cup cider vinegar plus 1 tablespoon

2 Tbs. sugar (1 for dressing and 1 for onion/leek dressing)

1/4 tsp. salt

Pepper to taste

1 - 2 pounds of spinach leaves

For dressing:

3 green onions (white and green portions chopped)

1 leek (white portion) rinsed and sliced thin

Fresh spinach greens (For large leaf spinach remove thick stems and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. For baby leaf spinach, use entire leaf and stem.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the squash with the cut sides down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast the squash until barely fork tender (about 20 minutes); don’t overcook. Cool squash on a rack. Next, prepare the dressing. Sauté the onions and leek in olive oil over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to help brown them, stirring to prevent burning. When the onions and leek are golden, remove from heat, splash a little balsamic vinegar (about 1 tablespoon to add a contrast in flavor) and cool. Peel and cube the cooled squash and dress with 2/3 of the dressing. When ready to serve add remaining dressing to spinach greens, add squash and onion mixture, and top with apple slices or sweetened dried cranberries, such as Craisins®, for additional color and fall flavor.(The onion leek mixture is for extra flavor it can be tossed into the greens or used as a topping with the apple and squash for color.)

Penny Newkirk’s Tip: The idea is to not overcook the squash and make it mushy, but to produce a vegetable crouton with less carbs and more fall flavor. Non-cooks may find it easier to peel and cube the squash into 1/2 inch squares, then toss in olive oil and spread on a baking sheet to be roasted in a 400 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Roast them until barely tender.

Potato and Butternut Gratin
2 pounds peeled butternut squash

3 pounds peeled potatoes (red, white, baking or Yukon gold potatoes)

1 tsp each fresh thyme, sage and marjoram finely chopped

Salt and pepper

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups heavy cream

4 ounces sharp Swiss cheese

Cut squash and potatoes 1/8 inch-thick. Lightly butter or use cooking spray to coat a 2-quart glass or Pyrex casserole dish. Layer the slices of squash and potatoes, alternating the colors. Sprinkle minced garlic with herbs, salt and pepper over each layer. Press down with the back of a spatula and add cream. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes. Remove foil, top with cheese and bake uncovered another 25 to 30 minutes. Add more cream if necessary to keep it creamy as the ingredients will absorb liquids.

Penny Newkirk at her Country Garden Cuisine Cooking School in St. Charles, IL

Penny Newkirk’s Tips: I use a mandolin to slice the peeled potatoes and squash so they’re all the same thickness and they cook evenly. You can cut down on the fat by splitting the amount of cream called for in the recipe so it’s half fat-free cream and half regular cream. That way it’s not fully loaded. Use a glass or ceramic casserole baking dish rather than a dark metal pan so you can see the colors of the vegetables.