It’s Almost Peony Time!

Wondering if the peonies are blooming at A Peony Garden yet?  Almost.  “I give it until next Thursday,” says garden maven and peony expert, Eleanor Tickner.  (That’s May 29th, and I’m counting the days.)  We met Eleanor two seasons ago while on the hunt for peonies as cut flowers, and succumbed to peony mania in the process.  Read the BLOG POST describing all the details.  Right now, there are many buds and a few blooms over at the garden in Glen Mills, and we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse!

Meet 'Sunny Boy,' a peony within a peony.

Meet ‘Sunny Boy,’ a peony within a peony and quite a rare find.

'Laning Peach'

This peony’s a peach!

'Raspberry Charm' is so bright I have to wear shades.

‘Raspberry Charm’ is so bright I have to wear shades.

And of course, no visit would be complete without a greeting from our old pal, Riddler, who is still going strong.  But don’t worry, his humans are very responsible with dog-shy visitors.

Enter as strangers, leave as friends.  Like the sign says.

“Enter as strangers, leave as friends.” Like the sign says.

See you in a little over a week, Eleanor! Thanks for creating a little slice of heaven on earth for us to visit.

A Peony Garden address: 1739 Middletown Rd. Glen Mills, PA 19342 – about 20 miles SW of Philadelphia.  4.6 miles NW of route 1 on 352.  tel 610.358.1321 call ahead for large orders.  Cut flowers offered as well as peonies in containers.  A must visit for any peony lover!

 

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Awakening

When spring finally comes, especially after a long winter, I think to myself how very brave it is for plants to send out buds and leaves and flowers again.  They have the courage to reach for the light and keep growing, despite the fact that they’ll inevitably die.

Magnolia

Magnolia

Especially courageous are spring ephemerals like Mertensia virginica, or Virginia bluebells; for these beauties are but fleeting bursts of color in the spring landscape, typically above ground for only a few short months before folding back into dormancy again.

Virginia Bluebells, or Mertensia virginica

Virginia Bluebells, or Mertensia virginica

And what about the sheer doggedness of our native dogwood tree, whose bracts unfurl in April to reveal the true inner blooms, tiny and button-like?

Dogwood

Many of our spring flowering trees send out blooms even before leaves emerge.  That’s like getting up in the morning and walking outside naked, in my opinion!

Yellow Magnolia

Yellow Magnolia

If only I could take a lesson from spring’s treasures, and learn to get back up with grace when life knocks me down, knowing that it’s all just part of the cycle of life.

lilies and lavender

A little while back, I visited a very unique flower farm in Doylestown, PA called Lilies and Lavender. The head honcho, Kate Sparks, gave my friend Jane and I a tour of her four acre sustainable farm.

Kate Sparks, the cowgirl of cut flowers, amongst the zinnias

Here, Kate and her team grow many types of cut flowers using only organic fertilizers and the least harmful pesticides. Black plastic mulch is used to prevent weeds from growing. I saw many bees buzzing and birds flying, and it seemed to me a very happy place where the circle of life remains unbroken.

Snapdragons growing like gangbusters in the hoop house

Kitchen scraps are fed to worms, creating worm compost that is used to add organic matter to the growing medium

Delicious dark purple calla lily has a happy home

The acreage is long and narrow, but goes on and on. Each time we passed one section, I thought we’d reached the end, only to find there was more around the corner. While the farm is not weeded in a pristine way, each group of plants is clearly thriving under the Kate’s green thumb. She has more energy and works harder than most human beings, you can tell, and I think it comes from the fact that she’s doing something that she loves.

Calendula – an herb for healing but also a beautiful cut flower!

Cerinthe is one of the more unusual selections you”ll find here – I love it.

Bouquet of goodness from L&L contains huge dill flower heads!

Lilies and Lavender sells their flowers at both the Doylestown and Rittenhouse farmers markets, at their farm stand out front, and to select local florists. That’s us, we’re the lucky local designers today!

Melissa, Kate, Jane and Christine after our tour of Lilies and Lavender farm

Jane Godshalk, my wonderful teacher from Longwood Gardens and mentor extraordinaire, took some beautiful bouquets home to create rectangular table centerpieces for an upcoming event. Inspired by Kate’s commitment to sustainability, Jane wanted to keep this design as eco-friendly as possible. She used Excelsior, the non-toxic, biodegradable wood packaging product as the mechanic for stabilizing the stems, wetted down with a fair amount of water. Sure beats using the non-biodegradable, formaldehyde-laden floral foam!

Jane packs the containers with excelsior, then adds water. She begins her design with hosta greens from her own garden

VOILA – Jane Godshalk’s designs using locally grown flowers from Lilies and Lavender

Thanks, Kate Sparks! I know I only scratched the surface of your operation here, but that’s because I already desperately want to come back. PS You could be a jeans model.

Shucks, here’s one more lavender/bee shot for Kate:

hydrangea blues

My small world has been vibrating with blue lately…the blue of the hydrangea.   In the little town of Swarthmore, the sky-colored puffs are so prolific they must be predicting the end of the world with their abundance of blossom.  We’re surely going out in style!

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Penny Mac’ – flowers on both old and new growth

A stroll through the Hydrangea Collection at the Scott Arboretum will leave you reeling in disbelief at nature’s ability to create shades so cerulean.  Actually, their color can vary depending on the soil’s acidity…alkaline soil (pH>7) produces pink flowers, while acidic soil (pH<7) produces blue flowers.  We must be having quite an acidic year.

H. macrophylla ‘Nigra’ has lovely dark stems

H. macrophylla, one of the most common species of Hydrangea, can have two different forms of flowers – either hortensia, the mophead, ball-shaped form; or lace-cap which is flat topped.

‘Claudia’ has a lace-cap form.

H. serrata – Another lace-cap form: the smaller darker flowers in the center are fertile, while the outer more showy flowers (actually sepals) are infertile.  The bees know the difference.

Most hydrangeas like dappled shade and well drained loamy soil.  Hydrangea macrophylla blooms from late June through August, and prefers part shade and moist soil.    It flowers on the previous season’s growth and should be pruned immediately after flowers have faded in late summer or early fall.  (Unlike H. arborescens and H. paniculata – prune those in late winter or early spring, they flower on the current year’s growth.)  Here’s more on pruning, from Fine Gardening.

Larry enjoys a moment of relaxation

‘Glowing Embers’ also called ‘Alpengluhen’

These blooms are as big as my niece June’s head!

Finally, hydrangeas make wonderful cut flowers.  They can last for weeks if their stems are re-cut and the water is changed frequently.  For my birthday, I created this simple arrangement using Hugh and Juliet’s blue macrophylla hydrangea (thanks guys!) and some of the Ammi majus from my garden.

poppy pride

You poor neglected blog.  It’s just been too nice outside, and there’s been too much fun stuff going on to tend to you.  But I have some floral gifts for you today, in the form of poppies.  Yes, poppies!

Larry and I inspect the poppies – they are about 5′ tall!  Photo by Brandon Adamek

Papaver somniferum ‘Hungarian Blue’

I started these Hungarian Blue “bread seed” poppies from seed on March 20th of this year, a Seedsavers purchase. I love buying stuff from Seedsavers because I really believe in their mission, which is all about saving and sharing heirloom seeds to preserve genetic diversity.  In fact, they maintain thousands of varieties of different plant types – from amaranth to watermelon – in one of the largest seed banks of its kind in North America. They also store varieties in back-up locations at the USDA Seed Bank in Fort Collins, CO and at Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which houses the most diverse collection of food crop seeds anywhere on Earth.  Seeds are tucked away safely into the permafrost in the mountains of Svalbard, just in case we lose our crops due to some type of catastrophic event.

Back to my poppies.  These are Papaver somniferum ‘Hungarian Blue’ – a rare heirloom variety whose blue purple petals quickly emerge, crinkled and shiny.  This is the variety whose seeds are most often used to grace the tops of bread loaves and bagels.  Mmm.

The Hungarian Blue poppy (is actually more purple)

Buzz

The flowers don’t last long, but luckily the petals fall away to reveal a milky green blue seedpod, which will be full of edible poppy seeds when they dry out.  I’d like to save some for replanting, use some for baking onto the tops of bread or muffins, and use some seedpods in arrangements for Thanksgiving.

Aren’t they cool?

back to the garden

Remember the patch of earth my Pops and I dug back in February?

Pops and Larry dig out garden on 2/27/12

Well, I planted some euphorbia, and then sowed seeds, which sprouted up in no time. Sweet peas, dill, bachelor’s buttons, poppy, Ammi majus…

Then I added some plants from Mostardi’s:  foxglove, armeria, thyme, lavender, fennel, rosemary, delphinium, Russian sage, nepeta, lamb’s ear, eryngium…

Garden on 5/4/12

Red stemmed dogwood ‘fencing’

5/5/12 – Fertilized with Dr. Earth’s organic stuff

Since then, I’ve been watching my garden closely, watching things grow.  Thinning, weeding, a little watering if needed.  Then I went away for less than a week during a heat spell, and when I came back the garden seemed to be overflowing with plants!

5/31/12

Foxglove after a rain – 5/22/12

Bees love it

First Sweet Pea Blossom – 72 days after sowing seed (5/31/12)

the Overseer of Sweet Peas, placed by Pops

Delphinium 5/31

I did some editing today, and as if it’s not crammed full enough, I also sowed a few sunflower and Bells of Ireland seeds!  I can’t wait to see the poppies, bachelor’s buttons, and Ammi majus bloom – soon, I think.  I can’t believe how good it makes me feel to tend a few plants in a 4′ x 13′ bed.  Now, where to put that clematis vine…

a peony garden

I was never very good at keeping secrets.  So, for those of you that wanted A Peony Garden, in Glen Mills, PA to remain a secret, I’m terribly sorry.  This place is just too amazing not to share with everyone!

A Peony Garden is four acres of heaven on earth during the month of May, planted with 250 different cultivars of tree, garden, and intersectional peonies of all colors shapes and sizes.  Peony fans can buy peony plants, but the bulk of the business done here is cut flowers, and that’s what I’m interested in.  Prices vary throughout the season between $1 and $1.50 per stem, which in the floral world is absolutely unbeatable. And you can feel good about buying from a local grower – you’re not flying peonies from halfway around the world, there’s no excessive packaging – just bring your own bucket!  How sustainable is that!

Picking peonies with Valerie, Jane and volunteer Sandy Papa

Freelance floral designer Valerie McLaughlin stops to smell the peonies

But beware that you don’t succumb to peony mania, like we did.  There’s just something about all those fragrant blooms, and their silken petals worn like party dresses, that makes you simply swoon.  You will want more, more, more!!

Eleanor Tickner, head gardener

The woman behind it all, Eleanor Tickner, has her own secrets to growing peonies, which she downplays.  “Sunshine, of course.  And you go out and talk to them, you pray over them.”  Eleanor and her husband Bill have been growing peonies here for around 15 years.   It’s a family affair – her two daughters sometimes help out, and the Great Danes are not guard dogs but more like the official greeters of the place.

Riddler greets my Dad

Eleanor with head of the PR department, Great Dane Riddler

Eleanor began growing as a way to keep busy after retirement, because as she says, “you don’t stop working and all of a sudden eat bon bons and chase dust bunnies.” Accustomed to working hard and seeing results, Eleanor wanted to do something exciting with the four acres of sunny land, which she says is “just enough to get me in trouble.”   She chose to plant peonies, because they don’t need a lot of water (they only have well water on their property,) and because they’re “satisfying to the soul.”  Peonies reminded Eleanor of her adopted grandmother from next door, who grew a row of peonies she believed kept the evil spirits away.   After spending an hour at A Peony Garden, I begin to think that myth is true, because I just feel so darned good.

Eleanor swears that growing peonies is just a hobby, but from the glint in her eye, and the fact that she’s out in her garden until dusk every day, I believe she’s passed into the realm of obsession.  While she has no horticulture degree, she’s the President and co-founder of the Mid Atlantic Peony Society, and serves on the Board of Directors at The American Peony Society. She’s also written articles on peonies – for Philly News, and for The Hardy Plant Society, to name a few.  She’s referred to as a “promoter” of peonies, by Don Hollingsworth, of Hollingsworth Nursery in Missouri, one of the top growers of peonies in the country.  Holllingsworth, along with Adelman Peony Gardens in Oregon, and Hidden Springs Flower Farm in Minnesota, are the main sources for her plants.

It’s clear that Eleanor has more than just a love for peonies; she’s adopted a scientific approach to growing them, evaluating cultivars for reliability, consistent bloom, and the ability to grow without staking.  She is always willing to share her knowledge with others, and her humility is unparalleled.  “As far as I’m concerned, every person is replaceable on this earth.  But my job needs to be done, so that’s what I’m doing out here – educating.”

Eleanor gives a tour to the Scattered Seeds Garden Club

Through the American Peony Society, she judges plants worthy of the APS Award of Landscape Merit, and grows a few of these recipients on her property, such as ‘Do Tell,’ a pink anemone form peony, and one of my favorites of the day.

‘Do Tell’ peony – I mean, amazing, right??

If you’re a peony lover looking to grow some reliable favorites for cutting, Eleanor recommends varieties like ‘Festiva Maxima,’ a huge fragrant double variety whose frilly white petals are edged with red flares.

‘Festiva Maxima’ has been around for 150 years

If you like big pink peonies, try growing ‘President Taft’ or ‘Walter Faxon;’ but for a glorious red peony Eleanor suggests ‘The Mackinac Grand’ (pronounced mackin-AW,) whose brilliant fiery red hues could literally stop traffic.

‘The Mackinac Grand’ – also an APS Award of Landscape Merit winner

There are many unnamed varieties here too, gotten ‘over the garden gate’ or at an end of season sale. “It’s a gardener’s dream, to have this much land available to play in – and that’s what I do – play,” says Eleanor.  If you go for cut flowers, bring a bucket and expect to spend some time combing the gardens for your favorites.  Either Eleanor or her volunteer, Sandy, will walk you through the fields and cut the blooms you desire.  She doesn’t let the public cut her peonies, spritzing alcohol on the pruners between each plant to stop any diseases from spreading.

Sandy Papa, volunteer, cuts ‘The Mackinac Grand’ for me to bring home

Jane Godshalk hides behind a peony bloom

Jane counting peonies.

For floral fanatics, Eleanor shares her special recipe for prolonging a peony’s vase life:  1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (to fight bacterial growth) and 1 tablespoon sugar (food for bloom) to one quart of water.  It really works!  The blooms at A Peony Garden should last through Memorial Day Weekend, so hurry to get a glimpse of these old fashioned beauties, and be sure to take some home with you.  Thanks to my Dad and stepmom Julie for sharing their secret peony source with me!

A Peony Garden address: 1739 Middletown Rd. Glen Mills, PA 19342 – about 20 miles SW of Philadelphia.  4.6 miles NW of route 1 on 352.  tel 610.358.1321 call ahead for large orders

a walk around the big house

So much is blooming and growing outside right now, plus I got a new camera, so…you can imagine I want to capture as much as possible.  But I also want to be learning.  What am I learning by taking pictures?  I guess I’m learning how to look at the world through a lens.  My perspective/perception is in flux.  I’ve appreciated nature for a long time, but trying to capture its many colors, textures and patterns is much more complicated than it looks.  It’s a magical process, taking a picture.  You think you see one thing, and then you look through the lens and it’s very different in there; it forces you to frame up one part of the world for a moment in time.

little white bells of solomon’s seal, did i ever notice the red stems before?

Do you know how Solomon’s seal got it’s name?  Don’t quote me on this, but apparently King Solomon had a special seal that looked like a pentagram or hexagram; and it’s thought that when the plant’s stem is broken away from the root, the circular star left behind resembles that very seal.  I’ll have to look for the cicatrice next time I dig some up.  It’s botanical name is Polygonatum biflorum, and was included in a Plant of the Week segment I produced for Martha way back when.  And while I’m not a big bible reader, I love this quote from Song of Solomon: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.”

Other plants are named for more obvious reasons…

Bleeding Heart, or Dicentra spectabilis

Bluebell, or Hyacinthoides

Snowball viburnum

Snowball viburnum makes a great cut flower.  If you get them while they’re still chartreuse they’re extra delicious.  Cut them and let them soak in water for a few hours before you use them in a design.

Then there is this one lone Black Parrot tulip, leaning dark and frilly in a sunny spot behind the birch.

It didn’t want to be discovered, or even photographed.  But I celebrate what could be the last year of its blooming with this picture.  After all this garden photography, I feel dizzy. Who knew what treasures I would find inside the camera, with the rest of the world slowed down to the click of a button.  I focus.  I breathe.  And there – there it is – I appreciate the miraculousness of it all.

the little garden that could

Back in February, my parents said they’d let me turn a patch of earth at their house into a garden of my own(ish).  Turns out they weren’t kidding after all, and made good on the promise.  At the end of February, I did some soil excavation to test the tilth and drainage of the area.

holding the ball of soil, then seeing how easily it breaks apart - it stayed in the ball so it's pretty much clay (feb 21st)

i dug a foot-deep hole and poured water in twice to see how it would drain - good news, it drained right away both times! (feb 21st)

Satisfied enough to try this garden experiment, I roped off two 4′ x 13′ beds in a mostly full sun spot by the garage with all the best intentions.

Larry the dog sniffs out the projected garden site (feb 26th)

My dad and I started the sod removal/soil amendment at the end of February, deciding just to see what the work was like between the two of us for one bed.  One bed at a time.  I have a bad back, and he’s 72.  (That’s never stopped us from doing stupid things, though.)

My dad, the ex-Marine, is going along with this folly and helping me remove sod (feb 27th)

a nice crisp edge is how we like it (feb 27th)

dad the incredible hulk does the bulk of the work, we have to remove quite a bit of crap soil to make way for the good stuff (feb 27th)

While I’m not looking, Dad (and Larry) double-dig much of the bed, despite my wishes to wait to do that until we had the soil amendment materials. There is no stopping him!  He is a machine!  We get into a heated discussion that’s not really about the garden at all, but more about my current life situation (I call it a ‘pickle’) and the fact that I can’t do this all myself because of my back.  He lets me yell at him for a while until I realize I am not treating my only laborer with the kindness he deserves.  Many apologies and a few tears later…we both agree that gardening brings out the best in me!

double digging and lots of sniffing (feb 27th)

Ok, now we got the goods: Bumper Crop, the new and improved organic soil builder we purchased from Mostardi’s Nursery.  It contains Sphagnum Peat Moss, Peat Humus, Worm Castings, Kelp Meal, Dolomitic Lime, Composted cow manure, Lobster and Crab Shells (wait, I’m getting hungry) Aged Bark, dehydrated Poultry manure, and both endo and ectomycorrhizae.  This soil needs all the help it can get!

subarus rock for garden jobs! (feb 28th)

i can't thrash like i used to. adding bumper crop soil amendment (feb 28th)

Capt Mac works in the luscious good stuff with the garden weasel and later i help a little with a pitchfork (feb 28th)

We let the bed sit, and carefully watch as rains come, sun shines, and bunnies hop.  All looks good.   I go back to Boston to see my husband.  I come back. Then the temps warm up. I decide that in my current situation (living a few different places) it might be best not to have two garden beds to maintain, so it will be one for now.  I also decide to get the ball rolling and add some more of the black stuff since we aren’t using it for the other bed.  And do some fine raking to break up some remaining clumps.  There is a voice in my head saying, “Be careful Ann, this is one of the ways you threw your back out once.”  Again, it doesn’t stop me (but now I do my back stretches almost every day to counter the gardening etc.)

raking out clumps, added another bumper crop bag (mar 19th)

i read in my Flower Farmer book it's good to soak sweet peas for 24 hours before planting. they got all swelled up and look ready to burst here. (mar 20th)

And then it’s TIME TO SOW!  Here’s everything I planted today…Sweet Peas (Grandiflora mixture,) Hungarian Blue Poppy (Papaver somniferum,) Blue Boy Bachelor’s Button (Centaurea cyanus), White Lace Bishop’s Flower (Ammi majus) and Grandma Einck’s Dill.

first round of sowing (mar 20th)

Julie and I also bought some more stuff at Mostardi’s – I found some Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ which I really dig for the foliage, although it is blooming now.  It will get 2-3′ tall and spread a bit.

Euphorbia x martinii 'Ascot Rainbow' (mar 20th)

garden diagram gone haywire, at least i can read it (mar 20th)

after first round of sowing/planting (mar 20th)

The red-stemmed dogwood will hopefully support the sweet peas, and also looks neat while there’s nothing happening.  Heck, maybe it will actually root! (Doubtful.) The plan is to see what germinates and perhaps add a few other things like sunflowers, zinnias or stuff I see in nurseries I like.  (Not doing the cukes this year because I think my huzz and I should do that project together.)  All watered and ready to grow…so think good thoughts for the little garden that could.  And happy first day of Spring!