Garden Notes

Garden Notes

Spicebush

We’re always on the lookout for plants that can solve problems for our customers. We think spicebush might be one of those plants! This wonderful native plant grows naturally from Maine to Ontario and Kansas and south to Florida and Texas.

This medium to large shrub, flowers in April on bare stems. The yellow flowers remind me just a little bit of witchhazel, or winterhazel, but are smaller and held close to the twigs. They are a good nectar source for insects waking up from their winter nap. The mid-green, ovate, fragrant leaves turn yellow in the fall. This plant is the sole food source for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and worthy of planting just to feed their caterpillars! Similar to hollies, spicebush are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants. The males have somewhat showier flowers, but the females will produce red, elongated berries in the fall that feed migrating birds.

Spicebush is easy enough to grow in a wide range of soils and conditions. Although they will have a denser habit in more sun, they perform well in part shade and do well in areas with moist soils. Try planting it with arrowwood viburnum and clethra in dappled sun. Tall native perennials like Joe Pye weed and rose mallow would also make good companions.


Hydrangea Flower Color

Hydrangeas are funny ducks. Sometimes their flowers are blue. Sometimes they are pink. Sometimes they are purple. Sometimes they are red, sometimes they are fuchsia. Sometimes they are white. Sometimes they are a combination of all these colors. We love the great variety of colors that these quintessentially Nantucket plants can bring to the garden, but many gardeners prefer one over another. Traditionally, pastel blue has been the most sought after. It seems simple enough. Buy a blue hydrangea, plant it – done! But with Hydrangeas it’s just not that simple. So often, a gardener will buy a blue-flowered Hydrangea, plant it and find it bloom some other color the following year. They puzzle over it. They come in to the nursery saying, “I’m sure I planted ‘Nikko Blue’ it was perfect last year, now it’s pink!” So what’s going on?

There are several factors that affect Hydrangea flower color. The species of Hydrangea, the availability of aluminum in the soil, the time of year, and the amount of pigment in the flowers.

Not all Hydrangeas are able to change their flower color in the same way. Mop head Hydrangeas, Hydrangea macrophylla (the ones with big, round, squishy flower heads), are very susceptible to aluminum. If mop head Hydrangeas absorb aluminum from the soil, the flowers will be blue or purple. If there is no aluminum in the soil, or it is chemically unavailable to the plant, the flowers will be pink. In addition, the soil must be acidic or the plant cannot absorb aluminum. In soils 5.5 and higher on the ph scale the aluminum is “locked up” and cannot be absorbed. Planted in soil that has a ph lower than 5.5, the aluminum is easily taken up by the plants causing blue flowers, even in plants that are meant to be pink. So, you can easily have a blue ‘Forever Pink’ Hydrangea. The reverse is also true. A ‘Nikko Blue’ Hydrangea will be pink in alkaline soils.

‘Ayesha’ in pink
‘Ayesha’ in blue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generally, Nantucket’s soils are lean and acidic, but not always! If your blue Hydrangeas come out pink, aluminum sulfate can be added to the soil, changing them to blue. It may take several applications, a few weeks apart, or even a whole growing season to get the color you are looking for. Simply dilute the product in water and drench the soil around each plant, making sure to avoid the leaves. Take care to follow the application rate on the package, as too much can burn the roots. If your pink Hydrangea blooms blue, add lime to bring the ph closer to neutral. Phosphorous also affects the availability of aluminum. In order to keep the aluminum available, (and flowers blue) make sure to use a low-phosphorous fertilizer. Choose a fertilizer with higher phosphorous to inhibit the aluminum, if you prefer pink.

The age of the flower and the time of year will also affect color. Early in summer, most varieties will appear paler, almost bi-color, with most of the color showing at the edges of each floret. As the flowers mature, the color generally becomes more even. Later, as cooler nights arrive, the flowers enter their antique phase, and often appear reddish or deep purple.

 

 

 

 

 

The quality of the color is affected by the amount of pigment in the flower. Each cultivar is different, but there are basically two groups as far as color saturation is concerned; Pastel and deeply saturated. In cultivars like ‘Glowing Embers’ there is a lot of pigment present in the flowers, allowing for very intense purples and/or pinky-reds. These plants will never be baby blue like ‘Endless Summer’. No matter how much the soil chemistry is changed, there will always be a lot of pigment in these flowers, so they will always have deeply saturated color. Conversely, cultivars similar to Endless Summer® can only produce pastel hues of blue, lilac and soft pink, there just isn’t enough pigment present in the flowers to allow for intense shades.

 

And then there is the whole question of white. ‘Madame Emile Mouliere’, ‘Sister Theresa’ and Endless Summer® Blushing Bride, all purport to have white flowers. Unfortunately, none of these stay clear white all season. With afternoon shade, ‘Madame Emile Mouliere’ and ‘Sister Theresa’ will remain white for several weeks, but eventually take on a tinge of pink, or less often, blue. ‘Blushing Bride’ usually takes on a pale pink hue, as well. We are not aware of any way to keep the flowers white on these plants all season.

 

 

 

The take away: If you want a blue Hydrangea, choose one that is bred to be blue, and plant it in acidic soil, using an acidifying fertilizer low in phosphorous. If you’re shooting for pink, choose a variety bred to be pink, plant it in soil closer to neutral and use a balanced fertilizer, with higher amounts of phosphorous. For white blooms, choose ‘Madame Emile Mouliere’, ‘Sister Theresa’ or ‘Blushing Bride’ be sure to give them afternoon shade.


Culvers Root

We sell a wide variety of ornamental plants at Surfing Hydrangea. The vast majority of these are descendants of plants that were collected from Asia or other parts of the world. Although exotic plants are beautiful and often do very well here, they are not part of the ecosystem that has developed here since the Laurentide glacier began to retreat twenty thousand years ago. Many of our native fauna depend on the plants they evolved with as a food source and shelter. By planting more native plants we are supporting the animals that have been living here long before humans set foot on the island.

Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Adoration’

Culvers root, Veronicastrum virginicum, is a beautiful plant, native to moist meadows, stream banks and bright woodlands in the North East, that makes a stunning garden plant as well. This plant is particularly attractive to bees, helping to attract more pollinators to the garden. The lance-like leaves of this stately perennial are arranged in whorls, radiating around the stems at regular intervals. In early to mid-summer, spiky white, candle abrum-shaped flowers appear on the top of the 4-6′ tall stems. Veronicastrum thrives in full sun in moist to wet fertile soils, but tolerates some shade and average soil is just fine. In shady sites, they may require some staking, and don’t them dry out; they will drop their leaves quickly if they dry out even once.

Veronicastrum look equally beautiful in cottage gardens as a “see through plant” or in great swaths in naturalistic plantings in the style of Piet Oudolf. There are several cultivars available in addition to the white-flowered species in varying shades of lavender and pink. Try ‘Fascination’ or ‘Adoration’ for lilac/pink or ‘Apollo’ for a pastel lavender.


Deutzia gracilis cvs.

Deutzia gracilis

This time of year the island is popping with excitement. It’s almost Figawi, and town is starting to fill up with the summer crowd. Although it feels like we have only been graced with two days of sun all spring, our garden on Somerset Road is coming along nicely. The border of lady’s mantle is all budded up and the ferns, Astilbe and Hosta have begun to fill in the shady areas. Deutzia gracilis, one of our favorite shrubs, is just about to reach full bloom in the border.

If your garden could use a big splash of white for Memorial Day, Deutzia gracilis (Slender Deutzia) might be just the right plant for you. This medium to small sized shrub does very well in sunny locations with average soil and even moisture. But slender Deutzia also does just fine in part shade with sporadic water. We notice that our Deutzia that gets more shade tends to arch wider than it is tall, while the one that gets more sun is somewhat rounder.

The species is a shrub of medium size, reaching 4 to 5′ tall and wide with arching branches that are covered their full length in white bell-shaped flowers in late May. After the flowers fade, it’s medium green, ovate leaves provide a calm space in the garden that provides a great backdrop for summer-flowering perennials like Nepeta, Calamintha, or Geranium ‘Rozanne’. For smaller gardens, ‘Nikko’ is a tried and true compact cultivar that stays under three feet. In the past few years we have sold the Proven Winners selection, Yuki Snowflake® which seems to be just as strong as ‘Nikko’ with the same compact habit. “But I need more color!” No problem! Chardonnay Pearls®, another Proven Winners plant, has chartreuse leaves all season. A google search for “Pink Deutzia gracilis” pulls up Yuki Cherry Blossom® a selection with pink bicolor flowers. There is even a variegated selection, ‘Nikko Dawn’.

So, there you go! A beautiful shrub that won’t take over your garden, is deer resistant and never seems to get any bugs. That’s Deutzia gracilis. Try it, I think you’ll really like it.


Prices in the Nursery Industry on The Rise

Brad McDonald holding plant in the nurserySurfing Hydrangea Nursery has been in the business of selling plants since 1998. During that time, the nursery industry as a whole has changed considerably. These changes have affected the entire supply chain for plants, starting with liner producers and ending with re-sellers like SHN. Commercial growers have seen increasing costs make their operations less profitable. Prices have slowly increased over the last 5-6 years, but not as quickly as costs have mounted. Most recently, limited supply has given growers the confidence to increase prices.

Many of our customers are surprised by how expensive plants are. Others wonder how we are able to keep our prices comparable to other markets in the North East like Boston and New York. The truth is, that we price our plants based on how much we pay for them and adjust for the cost of shipping and labor. It is important to us to keep our pricing stable and fair. We work hard to cultivate strong relationships with our suppliers through an ability to purchase volume and pay quickly. These relationships often allow us to keep prices from increasing when other outlets are forced to charge more.

All that being said, prices are definitely on the rise industry-wide. Some vendors have nearly doubled their prices on field-grown trees since 2010, when they were at their lowest during the recession. At that time, many tree farms abandoned a huge amount of growing acreage and ceased planting liners for future harvest. With fewer woody plants being grown, there has also been a drop in the production and availability of liner plants. This overall decrease in infrastructure has begun to limit supply. Labor and shipping costs have also gone up. All these factors create a climate where price increases are inevitable.

We work very hard to keep stocked up during the entire season and to have those items which may be in short supply. Our goal is always to provide the highest quality plants at prices that reflect their value. We expect to increase prices over time, but only to keep pace with what is happening in the nursery industry at large.

Spring shipping has begun and a great line up of new material is rolling into the yard at a fast and furious pace. We hope that Surfing Hydrangea will be your first choice for plants in 2017!


Fall Clean-up

Every day I see more and more trucks filled with ornamental grass clippings and spent perennials zipping around the rotary on their way to the land fill. Its the perfect time of year to get all that fall clean-up squared away before chillier weather prevails. It’s also a great time to plant deciduous trees and shrubs. Although the ground is cool, it won’t freeze for many weeks here on the island, giving time for roots to slowly grow out into the surrounding soil without the burden of keeping a canopy of leaves hydrated.

We are still well stocked up on trees going into the winter. It’s a little more difficult for us to show our customers trees this time of year, as their leaves have mostly fallen. However, a lack of leaves also makes it easy to see the branch arrangement of large trees. This can be a distinct advantage to someone who is particularly concerned about strong leader development and wide crotch angles on scaffold branches where they attach to the trunk of single leader trees. There is an ongoing debate in the green industry as to whether fall planting or spring planting is best for trees. Many landscapers prefer to plant in the fall. The arguement here is that a tree heading into dormancy continues to establish roots while the soil is unfrozen. In spring, this tree has a larger root system and is already well establish heading into its first growing season. For information on planting trees, check out our video:

We’ve compiled a list of chores to consider doing this fall. It’s a good jumping off point if you aren’t quiet sure where to start:

Fall Chore list


Crape Myrtles

 

Crape Myrtle for Fall advert-001-EditThere are very few trees that can put on a show quite as spectacular as a Crape Myrtle. They range in size from miniature shrubs, suited to container gardening, to medium-sized trees. They have lustrous, dark green leaves and huge flowers that can be seen from quite a distance when they cover the whole canopy in late summer and early fall.

My first experience with Crape Myrtles was in Florida many years ago. I remember thinking that the trees in most of suburbs looked like they had been plucked out of a Dr. Seuss book! In that part of the country, these trees are often drastically pruned into wacky shapes. That’s not my favorite look, but it’s definitely an option.

I’ve gained a wider appreciation for Crape Myrtles after noticing several of them around Nantucket town. When left to grow in their natural shape, they are quite elegant. As these trees size up, their bark begins to exfoliate, sloughing off like cinnamon sticks and leaving behind a beautiful mottled pattern. They are often grown with multiple trunks to best display this attribute. Their canopy is most often vase-shaped or rounded, sometimes reaching as wide as they are tall. If careful pruning is done, the branch structure itself can be a lovely feature.

And then there are the flowers. Botanists refer to their shape as paniculate; meaning there are many individual flowers all connected to a main stem in the middle by individual little stalks, very much like a PeeGee Hydrangea flower. They come in an array of colors mostly in shades of red, pink, purple, and fuchsia. There are also white cultivars for those who prefer a quieter statement in the garden. Flowers are borne on new wood and appear in late summer and early fall, just as many high summer perennials are getting tired. By the end of September, the flowers fade but are still of interest as their tiny fruit cling to the bare panicles. Later on, they wake up the garden all over again as their leaves change to hues of red and orange before falling to the ground as winter sets in.

Crape Myrtles perform well on Nantucket with some shelter from harsh winds. They are considered marginally hardy here, but I’ve seen many in town that are a great many years old and doing well. During prolonged cold winters, they may experience some die-back in the canopy, but they rebound very quickly once summer arrives. If you have a sunny spot with reasonably good soil, a Crape Myrtle is a great way to add some spunk to your garden.

Check out our Crape Myrtle Pinterest Board for photos and more information on cultivars we’ve carried in the past.


Japanese Forest Grass

Japanese forest grass
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

So much of high end gardening on Nantucket is focused on flowers and summer color. Although I appreciate a vibrant border filled with energetic plants, I am also a big fan of creating a restful space in the landscape. A shady area in the garden can be the perfect place to do just that. The pallet of plants used in a calming garden design is very important. Often these gardens rely less on flowers and more on foliage and texture. Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra is one of those plants that can really tie a shady garden together.

It’s graceful form reminds me of waves cresting on the shore or even water cascading over a boulder in a rushing river. The texture of the texture of the arching blades contrasts extremely well with Hostas, a shade garden staple. There are several cultivars of Japanese forest grass available for sale. The plain green, species form is seldom used here, but it is beautiful in its own right and could be used in a garden already has some variegated plants. On the flip side, the variegated cultivars, like ‘Albovariegata’ and ‘Aureola’ are striking next to large blue or green Hostas, Brunnera or Elephant ear. There is even a variety called ‘All Gold’ that has almost no green in the leaf at all, appearing yellow. Just be careful, I would suggest using yellow and variegated plants sparingly. They bring some light into a dark space, but overdone they can ruin the calm feeling that is often the theme of a shade garden.

Are you sold yet? I hope so! Japanese Forest Grass is very easy to grow if given the right conditions. Plant them in filtered light or dead shade in well-drained soil rich in organic matter. When they are happy, they will slowly spread by underground rhizomes and above ground stolons. This growth pattern allows individual plants to knit together to form masses. The cultivars differ in height and spread; height is also effected by the length of the growing season. ‘Albovariegata’ may get 2.5-3′ tall in Oregon, for instance whereas it is only 1.5′ tall in our garden. All that being said, count on ‘Albovariegata’ being the tallest and ‘All Gold’ being the shortest.


Switch Grass

Panicum Heavy MetalOrnamental grasses have been part of the plant palette on Nantucket as long as I have been gardening here. They are deer resistant, low maintenance and easy to grow with little pest or disease problems. They are also beautiful. Although there are many native grasses available, most of the species that we sell are of Asian or African origin. Maiden grass and fountain grass are neck and neck for our top sellers. Unfortunately, both have the potential to produce viable seeds by the thousands in warmer climates. There is a fear that these vigorous plants could become invasive, if temperatures continue to rise. Luckily, there are many grasses that have evolved in North America that are well-adapted to our growing conditions. Switch grass, aka panic grass, is one of those.

The botanical name for switch grass, Panicum refers to its flowers, which botanists call paniculate, or many-branched. Panicum virgatum, is the most common species we sell in this genus but there are also other species available in commerce. As a whole, switch grasses are extremely adaptable. They thrive in full sun in average soil with even moisture, but they tolerate short periods of drought and light shade.

Although many cultivars have a naturalistic, almost weedy, appearance there are many varieties on the market that have tidier habits as well. ‘Northwind’ has a very tight, upright form; ‘Heavy Metal’ is also very upright, but somewhat looser. If a tall, narrow form is called for, try ‘Thundercloud’. A large cultivar like ‘Cloud Nine’ would replace a tall maiden grass very well in a design. Where a shorter plant is desired, ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ or ‘Shenandoah’ would swap in nicely. Try ‘Dewey Blue’, ‘Dallas Blues’ or ‘Prairie Sky’ if bluish foliage is up your alley. Still others have been selected for red/purple streaks in the foliage. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ will all show purple on the leaves during the growing season.

For a complete list of the switch grasses we carry check out our Switch Grass Pinterest Board


Tomato Training 101

Chocolate Sprinkles tomatoI hate growing tomatoes. They seem to get every problem that plants can get: early blight, late light, anthracnose, grey mold, damping off, powdery mildew, nutrient deficiencies, tomato horn worms, aphids, nematodes, spider mites … the list seems endless. That being said, every year we have a few tomatoes left over at the nursery that find their way into large pots for staff enjoyment. They are most often neglected and the harvest is minimal if any. But once again, I’ve gone for it. We have some ‘Green Zebra’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Chocolate Sprinkles’ and ‘Lemon Boy’. I’m determined to have a bumper crop this year!

 

twineI am by no means an expert on tomato culture, but I have done a lot of reading over the years. I’m still a little stymied when it comes to the perfect nutrition for these plants, but when it comes to training, I think I have it down. We’re lucky to have a greenhouse at the nursery. Growing these veggies under a roof seems to be making a big difference already. Here is my set up: I tied a thick length of twine to one of the purlins (supporting pipes) that runs down the length of the greenhouse and allowed it to dangle down to the plants in each pot. Next I tied each plant to the twine, with a loose figure eight knot using some flexible tape. I planted two tomatoes in each plastic nursery pot, super deep. Then I filled them up with nursery growing mix and some slow release fertilizer to get them going.

 

trainingIf left to their own devices, these plants would sprawl on the ground, forming a tangled heap with smaller, lesser-quality fruit. Judicious training and pruning should encourage fewer, but higher-quality, tomatoes that are held close to the support and easy to pick. Proper pruning also maximizes air flow and sun exposure as well, hopefully reducing fungal infections.

 

 

Leaf axilAs the plants grow, I select two leaders and continue to tie them loosely to the twine support as they grow. I prune away any other shoots. I have continued to prune the vines every week. Most of the growth is at the tip of each leader, but there are also many side shoots that emerge from the leaf axils along the vine. I pay close attention to those shoots and pinch them off when they are a few inches long. If I miss a few, and their diameter increases, I use my pruners so that I don’t damage the vine trying to tug them loose.