Potentilla tricuspidata

Strawberry-like evergreen foliage

Have you ever heard the saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum”?  This idea can be applied to a lot of natural phenomenon.  In the North East, Mother Nature just loves to fill up empty areas of disturbed soil with plants.  In fact, it’s very uncommon for bare earth to be found in any naturally occurring ecosystem on the island.  I often wonder why so much time and effort is spent on applying shredded bark mulch annually to cover the bare soil left in garden beds.  Truthfully, living groundcovers do the same job more effectively and for years without any additional input from the gardener.

In full flower

A great groundcover common from the Arctic all the way south to Georgia is Three-toothed Cinquefoil.  The leaves of this tough little plant are reminiscent of alpine strawberries, but are evergreen, taking on hues of red in the fall and winter months.  Clear white, buttercup-like flowers appear in late spring.  This Potentilla is classified as a woody plant, as it does have 3-6″ woody stems.

Plant Potentilla tridentata in sandy or gravelly soils with excellent drainage and little water.  It would be quite at home next to native grasses and sedges, like Carex pensylvanica (Pensylvania sedge) or Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem).  Or try planting it as a drift in a more prominent area of the garden that is not irrigated.

Fall color

Note:  This plant has recently given it’s own genus and species.  The new name is Sibbaldiopsis tridentata.  

What’s Eating you?

Spittle bug emerging

Scientists estimate that there are 10 quintillion insects on the planet.  That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 individual creepy crawlies!  And, boy, do they like to eat!  From early spring to late winter, it is extremely likely that someone is dining your prized plant’s leaves, stems, or roots.

Control of insects in the garden is a hot button issue.  Often times gardeners are tempted to use strong insecticides as soon as they see a single bug.  Hell, I’ve been known to grab a spray bottle of Sevin myself from time to time.  Luckily, we’ve all gotten much more sensitive to the fact that beneficial insects are also living in and working for us in our gardens.  In order to minimize the use of poisonous chemicals and the destruction of beneficial insect populations, it’s extremely helpful to know what kind of insect is causing the damage you see.

When it comes to identifying which insect is causing the problem, there are a few ways to go about it.  The first is to research the plant where most of the damage is occurring.  Many plants are susceptible to particular buggies.  Those plants can become infested with hundreds of insects of a single type.  For example, roses are well-know to harbor aphids.  Every year at the nursery, I fully expect to see them by June, and begin to check all the roses for this pest.  I’ve researched many different ways of killing them, but I most often use an organic method that I was taught years ago.  I just put on a gardening glove and squish them!  Since most of the aphids cluster on the tips of the new growth, I can easily murder 90% of the population in one go. A second squish-a-thon a week later, and the population is at such a low level that’s it hard to notice any further damage.

The second way to determine what is eating your plant is by studying the damage itself.  My favorite “Bug Book” is  Garden Insects of North America, by Whitney Cranshaw.  This book breaks down the feeding patterns of insects into 9 categories, and gives a very extensive list with great pictures.

Keeping roses as the example, I noticed a number of holes in the leaves of some ‘New Dawn’ roses recently.  I open up my trusty Garden Insects of North America and turn to Chapter Three, “Leaf Chewers”.  Unfortunately, I have not seen the actual insect feeding on the leaves, so I can’t really settle on a specific pest yet.  I flip to another great book in my library, The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control by Barbara Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley, to see what insects commonly cause this kind of damage on roses.  Now it becomes process of illumination.  I know it’s not Japanese Beetles, because they are large, and feed during the day – I would have seen them, and the damage would have been more serious.  I also rule out large caterpillars, because they also feed during the day, and leave behind noticeable droppings, which I should have seen clearly.

It’s likely that the damage on these leaves is some sort of sawfly larvae or rose chafer.  Most of these leaf-eaters are already done feeding for the season, and should not cause further damage.  So, in this case, I will wait until next June, and begin to pay very close attention to the leaves.  At the first sign of the pest, I will apply an appropriate insecticide.

For photos of some common insects and the damage they cause on plants, check out our pinterest page:

Find us on Pinterest

-Brad MacDonald


PeeGee Hydrangeas

Hydrangea paniculata cvs.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Pee Gee Hydrangeas really come into their own on the Grey Lady this month.   These beauties bloom after the mop heads and lace caps, so just as ‘Nikko Blue’ and the first flush of ‘Endless Summer’ flowers are starting to get a little peaked, the white fluffy flowers of panicle hydrangeas become a real highlight in the garden.

Although native to East Asia, these plants are perfectly hardy here on Nantucket.  As long as they are planted in reasonably good soil with some sun, Hydrangea paniculata will perform well.  However, the best specimens are grown in full sun in good, well-drained soil.  Most cultivars will form a large shrub in excess of 10′ tall, if allowed.  Or they can be grown as small single-stemmed trees.  Unlike many other Hydrangeas, paniculatas bloom on growth from the current season.  So getting bountiful blooms is almost fool-proof.  Most cultivars will produce a pale green conical flower that matures to white and finally blushes pink in the fall.  Many of the newer cultivars like ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ will blush pink much earlier.

There are now a great number of cultivars available.  Below is a list of the most common and their attributes:

‘Grandiflora’ aka ‘Minazuki’ aka ‘Pee Gee’:   The granddaddy of them all.  This is a Japanese cultivar introduced in 1862. The flowers are mop-type.  With proper pruning and fertilization can reach 12-18″ in length and 6-12″ wide at the base!  Un-pruned plants will have much smaller flowers.  Available in tree form.

‘Lime Light’:  A favorite, this variety produces bright green  mop head flowers that mature to white, and finally blush pink in the fall.  Available in tree form.

‘Little Lamb’ aka ‘Klein Schaapje’:  Don’t let the name mislead you, this is not a dwarf plant!  The 5-6″ mop head flowers are smaller than many other cultivars, and are reminiscent of little lambs.

‘Pink Diamond’ aka ‘Interhydia’:  The large conical flowers of this cultivar are composed of both sterile and fertile showy flowers.  This makes the 12″ long x 8″ wide blooms appear lacy.  Available in tree form.

‘Tardiva’:  Once the most widely available lacy-flowered paniculata.  The flowers are 11″ or so long.  Blooms later than many cultivars.  Available in tree form.

‘Unique’:  A lovely selection, introduced in 1968.  The lacy flowers are 13″ long. This selection was a seedling of ‘Grandiflora’.  As the story goes, the seedlings were uprooted by birds.  The only plant they left behind was propagated and given it’s unique name.  Available in tree form.

There are many more cultivars widely available.  Check out our pinterest page for photos of all the panicle hydrangeas we sell.

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Questions about pruning this type of Hydrangea???

How to Prune Hydrangea paniculata shrubs

Need a visual?  Check out our Videos!

Compact Hydrangeas

Needless to say, we love Hydrangeas here at the nursery. Mophead Hydrangeas are the quintessential Nantucket garden plant. The old standard, ‘Nikko Blue’ is a real beauty, but it can get B I G. I’ve stood next to Nikko’s that towered over me, at seven feet or so. Luckily, there are lots of compact Hydrangeas available that won’t cover your window boxes or eat the nice boxwood you have planted at your front entry.


‘Piamina’ aka ‘Pia’: A truly dwarf Hydrangea reaching only 2 to 3′ tall and wide. This selection has deep pink flowers, that stay pink, even in slightly acidic soil.

‘Cityline’ (r) series: These compact Hydrangeas are touted to remain under three feet tall. Their flowers are set against shiny green leaves in shades of pink, Blue, Purple and bicolors. We’ve stocked ‘Rio’ which is blue and ‘Paris’ which is a saturated pink.

‘Mini Penny’ tm: This sweet little re-blooming Hydrangea is named after famed Hydrangea enthusiast, Penny McHenry. ‘Mini Penny’ generally matures at three to four feet tall. Their flowers are pastel pink or blue.

‘Everlasting’ (r) series: A newer series of Hydrangeas that are known to have huge, elegant blooms that make great cut flowers and dry beautifully. We’ve had ‘Revolution’ ‘Amethyst’ and ‘Opal’, all of which come in covered with flower buds. We don’t expect these plants to get taller than five feet.

‘Glowing Embers’: This compact cultivar has lustrous leaves and deeply saturated flowers in purple or pink. They are touted to mature at 5′ tall,  but we have seen this plant larger in Nantucket landscapes.

Endless summer (r): By far the most popular Hydrangea we sell, this re-blooming Hydrangea gets five feet tall and wide. It blooms early on over-wintered wood and later on new wood. The flowers are pastel pink or blue.

Planting Containerzed Trees

Trees that are available for purchase at the nursery are grown with several production methods. The larger trees are grown in the field in tree farms, and mechanically harvested with a root ball that is burlapped and often stabilized further with a metal basket. The smaller trees that we offer are generally grown from liner plants in their plastic retail-ready containers.

There are many advantages to planting a smaller, containerized tree. Because containerized trees have their entire root system in place, there is minimal risk of transplant shock. Risk of damage during shipping and receiving is also much less, as a narrow canopy with young, supple branches is more easily handled than a large one with brittle branches. Smaller trees also have more time to acclimate to weather and soil conditions in our area before they reach mature size, giving them a leg up on mature balled and burlapped trees.

Check out our YouTube video on planting a tree grown in a container:

Boxwood Blight

Cylandrocladium pseudonaviculatum or C. buxicola 

Boxwood blight is a serious fungal infection of all plants in the genus Buxus. It is also known to infect Pachysandra. Although research is ongoing, we do know what it looks like and how it infects plants. During warm humid weather, spores of the Cylandrocladium fungus germinate on the moist leaves and stems of Boxwood. Wounds are not necessary for the fungus to enter the tissue. Brown spots with dark edges appear on the leaves, as well as blights, black cankers on stems and subsequent rapid defoliation and dieback. The disease life cycle can be completed within one week during optimum weather conditions.

Boxwood blight is not spread through airborne spores like other fungal infections. Spores are held together in sticky masses and are transferred to other plants by direct contact, use of infected tools, splashing and wind-driven rain. Fungicides are being studied that will limit the spread of the disease, but so far there is no cure. Sanitation is paramount to limit spread of boxwood blight. Disinfect tools between plants during maintenance practices, such as shearing. Remove and destroy infected plants, fallen leaves and stems. Inoculum can survive in leaf litter for at least 10 years and cause new infections.

Currently, experts recommend not introducing new boxwood to historical or significant gardens until more study is done.

Research has shown that Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’, Dwarf English Boxwood, is extremely susceptible to this blight. We have begun to limit stock of this type of boxwood. If ‘Suffruticosa’ is needed for a project we will ship it in, but require that customers take receipt of the entire shipment upon arrival.

We are taking all prudent steps to identify, contain and destroy infected plants that are found in the nursery, and will keep our customers up to date with new research as it becomes available.

Further information about Boxwood Blight can be found at http://www.boxwoodblight.org and University extension sites.

Check out our Pinterest board for photos of Boxwood Blight, and other fungal infections and pests that affect Boxwood: http://www.pinterest.com/surfhydrangea/boxwood-blight-and-other-pestsdiseases-of-boxwood/

Dappled Willow

Salix x integra ‘Hakuru Nishiki’

dappled willow

I always enjoy monitoring trends in gardening.  One of the plants that has begun to gain in popularity is dappled willow.  This versatile plant is easy to grow and suitable for many applications in the garden.  The young pink twigs are beautiful even before the leaves begin to show in spring.  But the real show is in June, when the entire shrub billows with pink, white and green leaves.

Smaller plants make excellent container specimens all by themselves or look beautiful under-planted with colorful annuals.  Larger shrubs are very effective planted in groups in larger landscapes, or alone to punctuate areas of the garden with their fluffy foliage.  Allowed to grow to a larger size and sheared a few times a year, they can make a lovely hedge as well.

Gardeners are not limited to a shrub form, either.  We often sell them grown as a standard tree.  They are very ornamental and easily maintained, with a yearly trim.  In a large pot, they would really look great, highlighting corners of a patio, or placed at the entry to a stately home.  Or plant a larger one right in the ground, where a small tree is needed.

Dappled willow grow well in many conditions, but thrive in wet, fertile soils.  They perform in full sun to part shade.  If planted in a pot, be sure to keep them well-watered.  If they dry out once, the tips will tend to wilt and brown.

The look of these plants can be manipulated with thoughtful pruning while dormant.  Once established, hard pruning produces an abundance of pink twigs and the best variegation.  Standard trees can be allowed to grow wild and wooly, or tightly trimmed to produce a fun lollipop look.

So, give them a try –  we love them and it’s awfully fun impressing your friends by rattling off the name in Japanese -Hakaru Nishiki!

For more photos, check out our pinterest board, Dappled Willow

-Brad MacDonald


Vaccinium corymbosum flowers

Backyard fruit and veggie gardening is a big trend in gardening these days. It’s a real treat to pick your own blueberries instead of buying them from the Stop and Shop at $5.00 a quart! They are easy to grow and delicious eaten right off of the bush, or with cream and sugar after dinner on a warm July night.

There are two basic types of blueberries, high bush (Vaccinium corymbosum) and low bush (Vaccinium angustifolium) (there are also half-high varieties, but lets not get into that right now). Low bush blueberries are the kind that I grew up calling “Wild Blueberries” in Nova Scotia. They grow along the ground forming a dense groundcover less than a foot high.

The fruit is small and flavorful, but somewhat of a hassle to harvest.  I will never forget my first summer job hand-raking blueberries.  My brother and I were bussed out to the country where the fields were all marked off into rows for picking.  The blueberry rake looks much like an old fashioned cranberry rake.  It’s a metal box with lots of tines close together on the bottom and a handle on top.  The entire day is spent bent over scooping up berries and pouring them into buckets to be weighed.  We were paid by the pound, but at the rate we picked, I’m not sure if we averaged any more than thirty dollars a day.  I don’t quite remember how long it took for us to be fired, but I know it wasn’t longer than a week or two.  Lets just say, I wouldn’t make a good itinerant fruit harvester.

High bush blueberries are more shrubby, growing up to six feet tall.  They produce a crop of large berries held off the ground on the tips of the branches.  Blueberry bushes are not self-fruitful.  In order to get a good crop it is important to plant at least two different varieties close to each other.  It’s also important to pay attention to when the cultivars flower – early, mid or late.  In order to cross-pollinate, all the bushes must be in flower at the same time.  Try not to plant only one early and one late variety, as they might not overlap flowering period.

Blueberries prefer consistently moist, fertile soil that is slightly acidic.  In order to make them as happy as possible, amend the soil well at the time of planting, and consider using an acidifying fertilizer like Holly Tone if your soil is on the sweeter side.  Always plant blueberries in full sun to maximize the amount of flower buds set and the proper ripening of the fruit.  If your plants are happy they will fruit the first year, and bear a very good crop by the third year.  Consider pruning the plants after the third or fourth year to keep new, productive canes coming up from the base of the plant.  Check out YouTube for some great videos on Blueberry pruning http://youtu.be/fm6ZfpGy5oQ

I have compiled the following fact sheet with information on blueberries that are commonly available to us at Surfing Hydrangea to help our customers select the varieties that best suit their needs: Blueberry fact sheet

-Brad MacDonald

Planting Mature Trees

Installing mature trees into new landscapes has become a major trend across the country. Every year, we sell hundreds of mature trees that are planted on the island. Over the years, it has become clear that improperly planted trees don’t stand a chance on the Grey Lady. Gardeners that don’t understand the science of tree planting are at a distinct disadvantage.

Goal: Promote rapid root growth to reduce water stress. Trees dug from the field are left with less than 20% of the fine water absorbing root hairs they need to support the canopy.

Large trees are grown in the field at production tree farms on the mainland. When trees reach a salable size they are dug out of the ground with a mechanical tree spade. The wide root system that the tree once had to support the canopy is mostly left behind. Less than 20 % of the fine, water-absorbing root hairs are harvested with the tree. Once the tree and root ball are lifted, the root ball is wrapped in burlap, twine, and often a wire cage. These coverings keep the root ball intact, so that it can be transported and planted later on. Trees are packed on flat bed trailers or box trucks with their bare branches tied tightly together. Many of the trees we sell at the nursery travel thousands of miles on the highway before taking the ferry to Nantucket!

Keeping in mind the production method, it’s clear that the major goal in planting large trees is rapid regeneration of water-absorbing fine roots. Scientific studies have proven that there are many common planting practices are harmful, and possibly fatal to trees. Here is the short list of major DON’T s:

• Don’t dig a narrow hole with steep sides.

• Don’t plant trees too deep.

• Don’t put ANYTHING on top of a newly planted tree’s root ball – NO MULCH, NO SOIL.

• Don’t plant a tree unless follow-up watering and care is available for the first TWO years after planting.

• Don’t waste money on excessive amounts of backfill amendments.

• Don’t aggressively tamp backfill soil around the root ball.

If at all possible, plant trees in spring. Trees planted while just waking from dormancy have far less water needs than a tree in full leaf.

Follow these steps to plant trees properly according to the most recent science:

1. Determine the depth of the planting hole:

• First, measure the height of the root ball. Keep in mind; most trees are actually low in the root ball. Use a screwdriver or other thin implement to gently poke into the top of the root ball to find the depth of the first two to three structural roots. These roots should lie no more than two inches below the top of the ball. If they are deeper, subtract that from the original depth, making the hole shallower.

• The top of the root ball will sit one or two inches above grade, subtract one or two more inches to account for that, as well.

2. Dig the hole:

• The ideal planting hole will be saucer shaped (sloping sides), three times the width of the root ball, and at the proper depth, with undisturbed soil on the bottom.

• The shape of the hole is the MOST important factor in aiding rapid root growth. A hole with straight sides encourages roots to circle in the hole, and eventually girdle the trunk, causing death of the tree. The width of the hole is the second factor. The wider the hole, the better, as roots can quickly grow in lighter soil, with adequate pore space.

3. Put the tree in the hole:

• Large trees have extremely heavy root balls. A ball cart can be used for smaller root balls, or a skids steer for larger ones. Once the tree is next to the hole it can either be rolled in (for smaller root balls) or eased in with the forks of the machine (for larger trees). Enormous trees are planted with the help of a crane. However the tree is delivered to the hole, be sure it is placed straight, with the appropriate face in the appropriate direction. If the hole appears too deep once the tree is in place, remove it and add soil to the bottom of the hole, tamping it firmly so that no further settling will occur.

4. Remove any covering on the top 2/3 of the root ball:

• It has been proven time and again that burlap, twine and metal cages DO hamper root growth, especially when trees are planted improperly. Why risk it? Cut the top of the metal cage off with bolt cutters and the burlap with a utility knife. Leave the lower portion of the cage and burlap in place, the vast majority of tree roots grow out from the root ball, not down.

5. Stabilize the root ball:

• Shovel a small ring of backfill soil around the root ball.

• Tamp the soil in place firmly.

6. Backfill the tree:

• Considerable debate surrounds whether or not to amend backfill soil for trees. The prevailing wisdom is that excessive amendments do more harm than good. However, in lean soils (like on the majority of Nantucket) adding 5% or so of organic matter will help with soil texture, and water and nutrient retention.

• Shovel the back fill into the hole, without any further compacting.

• Do not place any soil on top of the root ball. Allow it to sit above grade with the top of the root ball showing.

7. Stake the tree, if it is deemed necessary:

• Staking is a whole other can of worms. It is preferable to leave trees un-staked. If staking is necessary, be sure the lines used to keep the tree stable are loose enough to allow for some flexion of the trunk.

8. Water the tree to settle the soil, and hydrate the roots.

9. Mulch the new root zone:

• Another Hot topic! Recent studies have shown that mulch is best used to cover the backfill area and anticipated root zone, not the root ball, and certainly not ever touching the trunk.

This article summarizes practices outlined in the Colorado State University CMG GardenNotes #633.  Check it out for more in depth information on best tree planting practices.