This is a gardening blog by a guy who dared to veer off the beaten path and discovered plants and gardening along the way. Join me as I write about my processes and inspirations from my “Midwest” point of view.

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Why Boxwood Bronze in Winter

It used to bother me that my boxwood would change color from green to bronze in winter. Over time, I’ve come to enjoy the change somewhat. Some years, the change is very dramatic. Here’s why.

The color change of the foliage is really quite common and nothing to be alarmed about. The bronzing occurs mostly in plants that have eastern or southern exposure. Plants with this exposure will typically receive full morning or afternoon sun on bright winter days. When combined with prevailing winds and fluctuating high and low temps, rapid changes in the leaf tissue cause the leaf to change color.

Boxwood in protected environments may remain green except on top where there is more exposure. The profile image (above) provides some evidence that the bronzing occurs as a result of the environmental effects of the sun and wind. Note that the right side of the plant, which faces north and the front porch, remains green. The left side and top is completely exposed all winter and has changed color.

If you prefer your boxwood to remain evergreen, ask your local nursery what varieties hold their green color best. Otherwise, embrace the change and extra winter interest as your plants transform from green to bronzy-orange during the winter months. The green foliage returns once temps warm and stabilize.


Make Way for Hellebores

One of the very sure signals of winter’s departure is the emergence of Hellebore buds in my garden. Although some species can bloom as early as Christmas, mine are late winter bloomers, hence the common name Lenten Rose.

I grow Hellebores for their evergreen foliage, but the bonus is the very early blooms. They are relatively care-free and make great companion plants to my Hostas. Hellebores are typically sold as shade plants and that indeed is one of the benefits of this plant, but many Hellebores can receive a fair amount of sun all year long and do just fine.

When the weather cooperates, I jump outdoors and remove the old tattered foliage to reveal the emerging flower stalks beneath. This practice known as “deadleafing” shows off the flowers much better than leaving them to compete against the old battered foliage.

To begin, I inspect the plants to check how high the buds are. This is my cue for how close to let the pruners come to the plant’s interior. Note: On old leaves its normal to see browning and blackening of tissues as the individual leaves go through their natural life cycles. If you see this in otherwise active and healthy tissue, it could be a sign of a fatal disease known as “Black Death”.

Next, I snip away at the plant removing the old stems and leaves. This technique need not be precise. The new growth will eventually cover the snipped stems.

I collect the spent foliage and discard it away from the garden. This will reduce the spread of any harbored disease to other plants.

There, all nice and trim. Over the next week or so, the plant will fill out and hide the recent cuts. When blooms are spent, simply remove them and enjoy the lovely evergreen foliage all year long.

Although Hellebores will grow in a variety of soil conditions, adequate soil preparation is the key to long-term health and vigor. This is true for many ornamental perennials. Welcome Spring!


Binge Gardening

For me, working in a garden center and nursery is like being an alcoholic who works in a liquor store. The sauce is all around me and I can’t get enough!

Last summer, one of the enablers - ahem - associates that I work with set some scraggly looking hydrangeas near the area I work in. Right away I noticed them and inquired why they were placed there and not among all the other shrubs. “Well, we’re trying to move them. They’re on sale.” he said. Ahhh the “S” word, music to my ears… wait, doesn’t this guy know I have a problem? It was too late. Into a euphoric state I slipped and like a giddy coy teenager asked, “uh, how much?” He paused for a moment. “Twenty bucks, you can have them all for…” I don’t think he’d finished his answer before I was pulling up one of those little heavy duty garden carts, you know, the metal ones with the fat little tires. I got them all onto one cart and off we went. “Put ‘em on my house account!” I shouted as I wheeled them away, high on my latest fix.

Well, that’s only half the story. The damage was done. How could I keep this a secret? You can’t exactly hide eight hydrangeas or slip them into the garden without ‘anyone’ noticing. I would endure the wrath, again. I had no idea where they were going to go. In fact, I knew nothing going into this. Endless Summer? I’ve seen the ads but have never tried them. I know Michael Dirr and I know he has something to do with this line of plants. Couldn’t be all that bad right? I began to second guess my purchase while justifing that a $20 gamble wouldn’t be such a big loss. See a pattern here??

Into the backyard they went. Resigned to the fact that no matter how many trees I planted on the East side, it was going to be decades before there was any constant shade for my shade gardening passion. That side of the yard is plagued with nomadic shade. Maybe I needed to plant sun loving beds and borders until the canopies mature. That might hold me over. Yes, a dual addiction. That’s what I need. And so, into the sunny side they went.

Time will tell whether the $20 wager of this developing plantoholic will pay off or not. To hinge my bet, the plants were cut back hard so they could focus on root development, not endless blooming as they proclaim to do. I like to think that I hit rock bottom with these hydrangeas. The ill-considered transaction left me feeling uneasy. I’m working on restraining my compulsive plant purchasing behavior and limiting myself to specific plants for specific places. The good news is this; for now, I will forego the twelve-step program.

About these plants. Pink Annabelle Hydrangea, Bella Anna®


Garden Mishaps (and Parables)

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t include my garden failures on this blog. Hard as I try, from time to time things just don’t work out as planned. Take for instance the photo above. This was Buxus microphylla var. japonica ‘Morris Dwarf’, common name: Morris Dwarf Boxwood. Known for its compact form and sun tolerance, I thought it would be the perfect solution for this spot beside the port cochere.

I acquired the plants in the spring of 2011. By late spring the following year, they were showing signs of stress. And one by one, starting from left to right, they declined. One slow painful death followed by another, then another, and so on. As I witnessed their demise, I couldn’t help wonder if it was something I had done. Well planted? Check. Well watered? Check. I cross-examined myself to the point of aggravation. Was I overzealous in my amendment of the soil? Possibly. Perhaps too much organic material.

Well, what’s done is done. No sense in fretting about it. A new season awaits and with it new challenges and plants to try. I’m really enjoying the winter downtime, but there is a little part of me that is excited by the few minutes of daylight that are added to every passing day. Mishaps or triumphs- bring it on!  

And speaking of bringing it on, head on over to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man’s blog this Wednesday for an exclusive interview with one of gardening’s greats- Margaret Roach. Her new book The Backyard Parables has just been released and she will be stopping by Kevin’s on her blog tour to talk about this and that, and gardening of course.


A Winter Walk

A little snowy slide show and some of my new plants. Just click the arrows to begin.


Stop Stealing Dreams

I don’t have kids, but I think an awful lot about those who do and what lives those children will lead- especially with our current education system in the US. Can we do anything about it? I believe we can. Click the arrow below to watch a brief video of Seth Godin, then read my challenge at the bottom of the post.

Here’s a 2013 challenge for all you gardeners out there. Teach something to someone about gardening this coming year. Do it by “showing” them, rather then telling them. Partner with a preschool, or any school to share your expertise (you know you have it). Whether it’s a single individual or a classroom, the seeds you sow could germinate in the mind of a young person and bear fruit for years to come.

P.S.  We’re in the middle of our first snow storm in Indiana. Very exciting!


A View on Winter

In anticipation of our first snow, I surveyed the garden to see what I would see. Camera in tow, I headed down the stairs in the blustery wind and rain. What would possess me? Not exactly sure, but this I know for sure: I am driven by a strange desire to visit my plants– no matter what time of year. I have developed a profound connection with the plants. 

Most perennials have been cut back to the ground and the trees and shrubs are now in complete focus. What do I see? Decline. Decay. Deterioration. Yet in the midst of this seasonal decomposition, a bit of steadfast determination has caught my eye. Possibility. Optimism. Is this a metaphor for hope?

Tiny buds wait patiently.

Cones cling tightly.

Green is ever so green.

The seasons of one’s life are really no different than those of the garden. Some seasons transition beautifully from one to another. Others are harsh and relentless. Like a garden, one must have a little expectation of better days to come. A stoic bud ready to open when inclement seasons have passed– a garden is life, filled with patience and hope.

Despite the dreary cold day which brought rain, thunder and lighting, the sun also shown near the afternoon’s final hours. Tonight will bring snow and a whole new crystallized palette for the garden.

And I, I will wait patiently.


O Christmas Tree!

If you’re planning to purchase a live Christmas Tree to plant in your yard later, do yourself a huge favor and dig the hole now. You’ll be glad you did, especially if the weather turns and freezes the ground solid. Keep the loose soil in a garage, barn, or protected from the elements so it will remain loose and dry.

You’re welcome!


It’s probably best to only have that potted tree indoors for 3-4 days. Much longer would have it break dormancy and begin to bud. Too many new tender buds on that little tree could lead to disaster when moved outdoors and the temperature falls below freezing.

When you’re ready to plant your tree. Gradually acclimate it to the outdoors. Again, you want to avoid shocking it! One of the biggest shocks to plants going outdoors is light intensity. The second is wind. Plants that have been indoors are not used to wind which can cause them to dry up very quickly. Last is temperature. To avoid temperature shock, introduce your plant to the outdoors a few hours a day, then gradually increasing the time outside. After a week or two, your plants should be fully acclimated to the outdoors.

Last, if you can’t plant it right away, try to place the potted tree in a protected area. Potted plants don’t do well when left above ground in freezing temps.


Autumn's Closing Door

As winter knocks on the garden door, I sieze every moment to survey the back lawn and take in the lingering autumn view. No fall is ever the same, and this year we are surprised to see several leaves still clinging on to the Chestnut Tree (upper left). Not so long ago, the heat was unbearable and droughty conditions threatened to wreak havoc. But now, the morning air is biting and often accompanied by frost crystals. The few hours of sunlight draw elongated shadows upon the terrain. The deciduous trees are but mere skeletons of their former voluminous selves. The time has come to wrap things up, and each day presents itself with all sorts of necessary tasks to be accomplished before the snow begins to fly.

Mid November and we are still planting. A practice that I am more comfortable with having worked at the nursery this year. As long as the earth is tillable, I’m game for planting trees, shrubs, even a few select perennials like Peonies.

These Peonies were given to me by a customer of Sundown Gardens, the garden center and nursery where I work. She indicated they had been purchased several years ago at Sundown when it was a peony farm. That was decades ago. I found it enchanting that they had come full circle- back to Sundown and now on to a new gardener’s home. This particular plant is Paeonia lactiflora ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’.

Other areas of the garden are getting cleaned up for the winter months. Leaves are raked out, branches and brambles pruned. Every year, I cut back my Limelight Hydrangeas and take out any branches that are growing into the plant. Limelights bloom on new growth, so there is no risk of cutting off next year’s blooms. I also take time to loosen and rake the mulch which has formed a hard crust over the top. I want to be sure that any moisture from rain or melting snow penetrates the mulch instead of running off.

Terra Cotta pots have been emptied and scrubbed to remove salt buildup from fertilizer and hard water deposits. They are ready for a dip in a bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) which will rid them of any lingering diseases and chemical residue that may have set in during the growing season.

While some plants are taking up residence in the garden, others will have to wait until next season. My Acer palmatum ‘Beni hime’ or ‘Beni hime’ Japanese Maple is one that shall remain homeless this winter. I simply can’t decide whether to plant him in the ground, or in a container.

I purchased the very small maple from Dannaher Landscaping & Nursery. They specialize in rare and unusual plants, especially conifers. This little Japanese maple was grafted by David Dannaher several years ago. It’s a dwarf grower whose annual growth rarely exceeds 1-2 inches per year. Because they are difficult to propagate, there aren’t many available for purchase. I just love the tiny leaves which are about the size of a penny.

And so, another Thanksgiving comes and goes. This is a time of year that is typically melancholy. But instead of feeling sadness for autumn’s closing door, I’m actually looking forward to winter’s arrival. I have worked hard to turn my gardening obsession into a full time career and more than ever, I welcome a little downtime.


Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

Yep. It’s that time again, and I got an extra early start. As many of you know, I began a stint as a garden center/nursery worker last spring.  So what goes on in the off season? A lot actually. 

At Sundown Gardens, we have a large Landscape division that stays very busy up until the ground freezes. Planting and hardscape continues until the soil cannot be worked anymore. The place is bustling by 6:30AM as crews warm up their trucks and load them with the day’s equipment and plants. Even the mowing crews are still working.

The Garden Center is gearing up for the holiday season too as we stock up with houseplants, ornaments and lots of giant red bows. All the containerized evergreen shrubs and small trees have been pulled next to the shop. Several will be lit and decorated with bows. They make great Holiday presents or decorations for entryways and porches, and can go directly into the ground come spring. The main greenhouse is being prepared for the first shipment of holiday greenery, including: Christmas Trees, Wreaths, Swags, and Garlands.

As for me, I’m on the Holiday decorating team. Sounds fun, right? Well, not really… unless your idea of fun is balancing on really tall ladders and extending your arms out for hours with heavy extenstion poles trying to artfully arrange strands of lights on all sorts of trees and shrubs. I’m not talking cute little trees, I’m talking really, really tall ones. We started Nov. 1st and will work furiously through the first week of Dec.

We began “cleaning” lights (removing all tags, labels, and twist ties) in Oct. Some clients prefer to use their own lights, so we clean them onsite in the back of our box van.

Here’s how it works. We start with running electrical from the power source to all the light points. We hang lights on trees, make sure it all works, then wind up and hide every cord so they are not visible. When the weather cools and the greenery is in, we will incorporate that into the scheme. You don’t want to hang it too soon or it will dry out. Greenery that is to be lit will also have lights added to it. This ranges from garlands and wreaths, to containers filled with decorative arrangements. When it’s showtime, we pull out the hidden cords, add timers, and plug in. Some clients prefer to stay dark till Dec. 1. Others like the switch flipped on Thanksgiving.

So there you have it. That’s how I’ve been spending my days at Sundown Gardens. It’s Nov. 12th, and we are exactly half way through all the jobs. It’s a great feeling to know that we are on schedule and an even better feeling to know that it’s almost over. I am not an early riser and working out in the cold is not my favorite thing either. Still, I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn about the many facets of this business. Dust off those holiday decorations. Thanksgiving is a little over a week away, then it’s full-on Christmas time!

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