Heber Dreher stands next to one of his many planters. “Consider the lighting where you’ll set a planter: Full sun? Partial shade? Full shade? Select plants accordingly. Determine the ‘front’ of the planter and put shorter plants there; don’t let tall plants overshadow short ones.”
I have the good fortune to be friends with a gardening enthusiast named Heber Dreher. He lives in Lewisburg on Edward Circle, and his yard is fabulous. I asked if he’d let me photograph his gardens and capture some thoughts about his methods. We spent a few hours chatting the other day.
Heber acknowledges a professional landscaping company can deliver an attractive garden, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. But if you won’t have time or motivation to care for the garden, include a maintenance contract in your budget. Commit yourself or your landscaper to control weeds, prune, clean things up in autumn, prepare beds and plant in spring, and replace failed plants. “If you don’t maintain a garden,” Heber warns, “It’s going to look bad soon.”
Whether doing the work yourself or hiring a landscaper, Heber suggests you start by learning some basics on your own. For example, know your hardiness zone and refuse plants rated for warmer zones. “Pay attention to cold hardiness of plants your landscaper installs,” Heber suggests. “Make decisions with your contractor. They make more money when you call them to replace poorly-chosen plants that fail in a cold winter.”
Photos provide a virtual walk in my friend’s garden. Each includes a thought Heber offers about his passion for his craft.
Heber has created intense drama on the path from his driveway to the front door of his house. “Use perennials with different shades of green to make the garden interesting,” he suggests. For other colors, he stages flowering perennials whose blooms may or may not be short-lived, and he mixes in annuals that tend to bloom steadily through the season.
Immediately out the door from Heber’s kitchen, a brick patio features a koi pond with a low waterfall. “I wanted a plant that would fill in the cracks around the pond’s edge. Evergreen Pachysandra worked out beautifully.” Low trees, tall perennials, and tropical plants isolate the patio, providing a place to relax with drinks or an unhurried meal.
A stone path leads from the patio, through foliage, to the lawn. “I’m planting much more in containers than I used to,” Heber says. “Container plants require less water, they’re easier to fertilize, easier to control, and it’s easier to preserve tropical plants such as Elephant Ears and Canna Lilies indoors in winter. Another advantage: you can redesign your garden mid-season simply by moving planters from place-to-place.”
A cul-de-sac in Heber’s lawn ends with bonsai trees on pedestals rising above a dense mix of perennials. Heber encourages you not just to start digging. Rather: plan. “Learn what you like then plan your own garden. Learn enough so you can be relatively sure the pieces of your design will work together.” He suggests not to do too big a first project. “It can be overwhelming.”
Garden? Challenge? What? This photo is among my favorites because it shows my dad’s garden in spring. My dad is obsessed with trees and he gathered acorns in autumn of 2014. He stored the acorns in his refrigerator and planted them in his garden in spring of 2015. During one of my visits, I found about a dozen young oak trees had sprouted and my dad had potted several to plant at the farm where we’d raised horses and bees when I was a kid. My dad was 95 years old and starting oak trees, presumably to harvest for lumber in about 60 years.
Early this year while heavily drugged with painkillers after major surgery, I gave myself 10 photo challenges and delivered on four of them:
The distractions from chemotherapy and from gardening season getting underway derailed my effort to post the remaining six challenges. However, after having reviewed all my photos from 2015 and having selected candidates for each challenge, it would be wasteful not to publish. So, here are seven garden photos I feel are kind of special. Captions explain why.
I travelled west twice last year and got to visit with one of my favorite gardening buddies, Bren Haas. Among the many beautiful garden features she manages is a pond across the drive from her house. The rocks, lily pads, and snake grass at one end of the pond beckoned me to pull up a chair and sit with a cold drink—it was a beautiful scene.
During my visit to Cultivate ’15 (a hort industry conference in Columbus, Ohio), I left the convention center and “discovered” Lincoln Park. The park includes some excellent gardens and a conservatory which was closed by the time I reached it. I captured many photos in the park and particularly like this one which reveals the conservatory almost as an afterthought for the lush foliage in one of the park’s large plantings. I’d planned to tour the conservatory this year during Cultivate ’16, but my pancreas had other ideas.
From hundreds of photos of gorgeous spaces at Longwood Gardens, this “trial garden” spoke to me. Gardeners assemble these patches to try out plant combinations of varied colors and textures and they ask visitors to identify favorites. Later, the most-liked combinations might appear in a show garden elsewhere on the property. I love purple, and apparently even more when it rises above clouds of silver-green.
Since we’re already at Longwood Gardens, here’s one of my all-time favorite gardens. There’s a courtyard you reach by walking through Longwood’s huge conservatory. The courtyard contains several water gardens and when I was there, water platters painted an other-worldly landscape. I had never seen a water platter in person, and I was instantly smitten.
Back at the Cityslipper ranch, I captured a wet moment in my new rock garden. I was moistening soil with the hose on a sunny day when I snapped this photo looking vaguely toward the sun. The rock garden was a bit of a mess with young succulents and weeds aplenty, but I love the photo. This year, many spaces have filled with aggressively spreading stonecrop. I enjoy lingering, plucking weeds, and pinching back the fastest spreading succulents to preserve space to grow into for the slow growers.
One of the most sublime visions I’ve experienced: a stone stairway at Chanticleer garden. If you can fit only one public garden into your remaining life’s plan, visit Chanticleer and Longwood Gardens each of which is about 30 minutes west of Philadelphia. Did I say “only one?” If you truly can fit only one garden into your life’s plan, you’re not trying hard enough.
At a casual glance, this photo shows a stick with a small branch. I deliberately shot from an angle that provides clues about the branch’s true nature.
I assembled some apple trees this spring, but that’s a story for another blog post. I mention it because every morning I’d check the progress of my grafts: were buds on the scions swelling? Were leaves emerging? Did the wood seem to be drying out?
One morning, I was astonished to find a small branch had appeared on one of the grafts.
For a few minutes I tried to convince myself the branch had been there all along but I hadn’t noticed it. I waffled between that explanation and the unlikely, crazy possibility that it had, indeed, grown overnight—or over the course of a few days during which my inspections had been too casual to spot it.
Eventually, the “branch” on my grafted apple tree relaxed and seemed ready to move on. This photo clearly exposes the branch to have been a well-camouflaged caterpillar—something in the inchworm family.
Then it occurred to me: my young grafted apple tree hadn’t grown a branch, it had acquired a resident. The branch was a caterpillar doing a really good job of looking like a branch.
What an awesome adaptation! Imagine you’re a caterpillar that sometimes shares trees with birds that like to eat caterpillars. One day, one of those birds perches just eight inches away! The bird sucks down several of your mostly green caterpillar neighbors, and several times it looks directly at you… but it doesn’t even lean closer because in those moments, you’re just a tree branch!
After that bad boy bird moves on, you can grab the branch with the rest of your tiny feet and inch away.
Seems to me this caterpillar had an excellent chance of growing into a moth. Apparently, even then it probably did well at avoiding moth-eating birds. The adult of this caterpillar has earthy, mottled colors on its wings so it nearly disappears when it lands on tree bark. If a bird doesn’t see you as food, it’s probably not going to eat you.
Sunflowers have surrounded a decorative shrub in a farmer’s field… or perhaps the shrub has infiltrated sunflower territory. Either way, it looks kinda cool.
Every summer I keep watch for fields of sunflowers in full bloom. A few local farmers grow sunflowers, swapping crops from field-to-field—sunflowers one year, corn another, and soy beans in another.
This year, there had been no sunflowers in the usual places, but yesterday I drove a few hundred yards past those places and discovered a thousand yellow flower heads.
These sunflowers were different from those of past seasons: Rather than simply filling a large field, they had surrounded a decorative shrub. OK, it’s not earth-shaking or anything, but I captured a few photos and have included one here.
Without apparent relationship to sunflowers, a few weeks ago my online gardening friends started chattering about naked ladies appearing in their yards. I’m not sure I’d heard such chattering in past years, but it was immediately apparent these naked ladies are some type of plant. In fact, I’d heard them called “surprise lilies” in past seasons.
Surprise lilies grow foliage in spring, but the leaves die back so people lose track of the plants by mid summer. Then, overnight, flowers emerge on stalks that can grow 24 inches tall.
The chattering started, and three days ago I noticed a stand of naked ladies across the street from a local church. Finally, this morning, I had a chance to stop and take pictures. The flowers are gorgeous, and there’s something refreshing about flower stalks rising above the landscape without accompanying foliage.
Can’t say I’d heard of the plant “Naked Ladies” until this season. Then, after seeing so many posts about them online, I spotted a cluster across the street from a church I often pass. I stopped for a closer look and took several photos. I confess: I enjoy looking at naked ladies.
Until a few weeks ago, this was an unruly compost heap next to a pit I had dug on my way to creating a rain garden. The pit is dry 98% of the year, so my enthusiasm for planting wet-tolerant plants has been low. Finally, last autumn, I stocked up on succulents and decided the compost heap would become a rock garden. My wife got the ball rolling by clearing the compost, mounding soil along the back, planting elephant ears and calla lilies, and hauling a few rocks from the driveway.
Some years ago (2011), crazy, biblical rains made my vegetable plants very sad. I decided to reduce the likelihood of a similarly unpleasant experience by excavating a drainage ditch above my garden. The ditch would redirect runoff from the neighbor’s yard into a basin I dug at the west end of my vegetable bed. I first mentioned my rain garden in a post about the National Wildlife Federation; there’s a photo of the rain garden in its earliest days.
We’ve not had a similarly rainy season since. In fact, most of the year, my “rain garden” is pretty dry. I couldn’t decide what to plant IN the basin, so I started planting around the basin—but I left the 15+ year-old compost heap in place alongside.
The Rock Garden Notion
Last autumn I decided I wanted to create a rock garden. Coincidentally, my wife complained about the compost heap. It seemed a good plan to move the compost heap to the back of the yard, and construct a rock garden in the vacated space.
I started collecting rocks. My brother has a farm with a small stream. He has generously helped me load rocks into my minivan and I’ve created quite a heap on my driveway. I didn’t know exactly how I’d use the rocks, but at least some would end up in the rock garden.
Last fall I also started collecting succulents. As winter approached, I ended up heeling the succulents into the vegetable bed so they’d winter well. (I wrote about them here: Unlikely Starters in my Kitchen Garden.)
I weeded around the succulents in the vegetable garden and was happy to find they haven’t quite been choked out of existence… though they seem a bit leggy and wan from lack of sunlight. I’ll move them all to the new planting bed once the final rock is in place.
Commitment! Once the plants come home, there’s little choice but to give them their own beds.
Building a Rock Garden
So, here we are: The vegetable garden is nearly planted. I’d like to add two rows of beans, but there are all these succulents in the way. I really, really need a rock garden so I can move the succulents and plant beans before I run out of growing season. I finally started.
It occurred to me I could use rocks to reinforce the bank of my lame rain garden. A rock retaining wall could rise into the rain garden and frame one side of it. The exact shape of the wall and the garden itself would “happen” during assembly—there wouldn’t be a blueprint or plan to follow. Rather, I’d “sculpt” the area to please my sense of aesthetics.
My wife has been impatient for several things:
- Getting rid of the compost heap
- Getting a heap of soil off the driveway that’s been there for three or so years
- Getting the rocks off the driveway
- Getting things planted (I accumulate a lot of perennials from trade shows and local sales)
So, she dug in while my attention was on the vegetable garden. She moved the compost heap and she built up a mound in front of the vegetable garden. There she set a dozen or so elephant ears I had overwintered on our ping-pong table. She also set a bunch of calla lily roots I had bought for a dollar from the local garden club. And there were nearly a dozen flowering perennials we know virtually nothing about…
We Might Have Something
As I look around the “rain garden,” it shows real promise. Some perennials look stronger this year than they did last year, and they even look nice together. The rock garden will transform the area; the basin will probably look far less like an incidental ditch with the rock garden in place.
After two days (working just a few hours each day), the rock garden’s form has emerged. The rock bank will, undoubtedly, appeal to otters that come to splash in the rain garden, and the low rock wall opposite will provide shelter for chipmunks, snakes, mice, rats, and stinging insects. Since taking this photo, I’ve added rocks to define planting areas and I’ve adjusted the centerpiece. There are a few other “artistic” elements finding their way into the design. Oh, and plants. Final unveiling to come soon.
I didn’t stretch to capture this photo; the robin’s nest is at shoulder level where two paths converge in my yard.
A robin has nested in the spruce tree that stands just four feet from my compost heap. The spruce tree is quite large; the nest could be thirty or more feet above the ground—and it could be deep in the branches. But no!
The robin chose stress. It built at shoulder level on a branch you almost have to brush as you walk between the compost heap and the house—or as you step off the front porch taking the shortest path from the kitchen to the compost heap. To live as I’m accustomed, I pass within 18 inches of that nest several times a day—on some days I’m there ten or twenty times!
I’m expecting 30 raspberry plants to arrive by mail some time this week. Since I didn’t start last fall when I should have, I cut in a planting bed. There’s already a raspberry plant in place—and a grape vine. This photo shows the line I stretched to guide my shovel as I removed sod.
Cutting in a new Planting Bed
I’m cutting in a new planting bed. I vowed never to do this: if I’m putting a bed in an existing lawn, I want to start four months ahead, lay down a weed barrier (cardboard or newspapers), and cover that over with compost, manure, or mulch. The approach turns the lawn into decent soil structure and nutrition while minimizing digging.
Here’s the challenge: you can’t just plan to start new beds this way, you actually have to create them four months before you plant in them. I didn’t. But I ordered raspberry plants anyway.
The plants will arrive this week. The bed (or beds) must be ready. I’ve only myself to blame: I’m cutting sod.
But this post isn’t about cutting sod and making a raspberry bed. It’s about grubs and birds.
Nearly every patch of sod I removed to make a planting bed for my raspberries exposed several grubs. This handful went onto a piece of cardboard along with others that I eventually offered in friendship to a robin.
Grubs in the Sod
I don’t take care of my lawn. My family mows the grass to keep it under the maximum length allowed by law. That is all.
My lawn is free-range. If it wants to fight off turf diseases, or root-damaging nematodes or insects, or burrowing animals, it is free to do so. If it’s thirsty during drought it is welcome to drive roots deep or to drink out of the dog’s dish. Heck, if it wants to fly south for the winter, it can go! I won’t even ask it to write.
Apparently, the lawn lacks motivation. When I started cutting my sod, I discovered it hosts a whole bunch of grubs! Supposedly, these grubs can damage a lawn. Far more importantly (to me): the adults the grubs will become may eat leaves of my food plants.
The robin fled when I laid out grubs for her, but when she returned she paused on the garden fence to examine my friendship offering.
Making Friends with a Robin
If it hasn’t made sense so far, this post is about to come together (it still may not make sense). It dawned on me the annoying, shoulder-level robin might help dispose of grubs I unearthed while cutting sod.
So, as I worked, I collected grubs on a piece of cardboard. Then, when I wanted a break, I flipped a large planter upside down next to the compost heap and dumped the grubs onto it. The robin didn’t hang around to watch, but once I backed away, she returned and immediately spotted the bounty.
She was gorged by the time she returned to her nest, and I had a few photos… but I don’t think we truly bonded. Maybe it’s hard to build a relationship over grubs, or maybe I need to be more persistent. Whatever the case, the robin and I will be rubbing shoulders for many more weeks.
The robin clearly enjoyed the grubs, but she gave no sign of appreciation. I don’t think we’re friends, but I’ll keep trying to win her over—or at least I’ll scare her out of her nest several times a day.
Perhaps as hardy as the other crocuses in my yard, this one sneaked under my fig tree lean-to and managed to get a head start on spring.
This is an awkward “first crocus of spring” post. The photo dates back to March 9, but the crocus plant it shows cheated.
In late fall of 2014, I had two young fig trees I’d bought at the end of a garden center’s retail season. These had been in containers on my screened porch and I wanted them in the ground before temperatures plummeted… but I didn’t want them to freeze back to the soil if we had another polar vortex like the one in winter 2013-2014.
So, I built a lean-to. I leaned a “trellis” against the wall and draped very heavy plastic over it. Bricks hold everything in place. This lean-to would keep the wind off the fig trees and most likely keep the temperature around the trees at or just below freezing on the coldest winter days.
It’s not pretty, but it’s practical: There’s a section of wooden fence under that plastic. I leaned the fence against the wall, draped it with plastic, and held the plastic down with bricks. Though I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b/7a, I expect the two young fig trees inside my lean-to had a zone 9 kind of winter.
On March 9, I peeled back the plastic so the trees wouldn’t overheat on sunny days. The first crocus blossom of the year in my yard was growing strong inside the tent—it had benefited from the shelter while the other crocus plants shivered under snow.
Crocuses have arrived
For days I wrung my hands: Should I reward the cheater? How could I feature such a softie as the FIRST when so many others had faced the elements and were only days behind?
The other crocuses are now in bloom, and the first crocus blossom has faded away… except for in the photo on this page. Sure, it had life easy this past winter, but it gave me a chuckle when I found it blooming away alongside its sleeping fig tree sheltermates. So, there it is; it’s spring!
It’s still cold enough in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for ice to form on the water in my “rain garden.” I use quotes because I dug a hole several years ago and it has been wet only in spring thaws and heavy storms—it’s dry most of the year. Haven’t yet decided what to plant in it.
Being a garden writer has changed me. Before I posted my first blog entry, I’d plant almost exclusively things intended for my stomach. I’d joke (and I still joke) that if the plant doesn’t come with a recipe, I won’t waste energy growing it.
There were exceptions. For example, I came across zinnia seeds that were supposed to be special and I planted some. They weren’t special. I also planted poppies year after year until finally two plants survived to adulthood. They met their demise under the lawn mower when my wife sent my oldest child with it into an unkempt flower bed.
How Garden Writing Changed Me
Through blogging I got to know other garden writers and a group of them in New England organized an outing to a public garden in very eastern New York… I have friends in that area I’d actually already met in person, so I used the outing as an excuse to visit.
A cluster of leaf buds sits on the soil line between stems that supported last year’s blossoms. I bought closeouts at the end of the season in 2014 and “healed them in” in my vegetable garden. I’ll transplant these into the rock garden I expect to create in April.
It was a most terrific day. I toured a gorgeous garden with people I had known only as avatars and Twitter names. As those people became “real,” my change began.
My friends all were giddy about the garden and it was easy to understand why: Textures and colors intertwined in displays I’d never have conceived. Gorgeous arrangements of rocks, wood, water, and living plants drew us from one themed area to another. The weather was perfect. The light was perfect. The people were perfect.
Ideas accumulated in my mind. Ornamental gardens around homes in central Pennsylvania are, for the most part “shrub-and-mulch” monstrosities (set shrubs and young trees throughout a planting bed and spread mulch). I don’t recall seeing mulch in the public garden (it was probably there, but I simply didn’t notice it); each themed area combined hardscaping and a variety of plants to interest a visitor looking up, forward, or down. Plants provided the ground cover that mulch provides in central Pennsylvania!
Hens and Chicks were on sale at a yard sale late in 2014. I bought two for a dollar apiece and heeled them in in the vegetable bed next to the sedum. They’ll also move to a new rock garden in April.
I’ve resisted the change, but each subsequent visit to a show garden has provided more inspiration; more examples of ornamental garden design done well. And there’s another factor:
Whenever I attend a GWA event or a horticulture industry conference, it seems I bring home seeds and plants to try in my garden. When those aren’t edibles, I imagine my yard some day rivaling the many show gardens I’ve visited.
Am I close? Do I know what plants will look good together when they grow up? Do I have any ability to design an attractive ornamental garden? Does this paragraph contain enough questions? (No. No. Maybe. Do you think it contains enough questions?)
What’s in my Kitchen Garden Now
Last autumn, I grabbed a whole bunch of hardy succulents at a garden center—marked down to a fifth or less of their “in-season” prices—Tall-standing and ground-hugging sedums, and Hens and Chicks. I had also picked up some sedum roots at Cultivate ’14 and had nursed most of them into seedlings.
I fell in love with hellebores when I first saw their fleshy white flowers poking out of a snow bank. Prices for these plants always seemed high until I found a friend selling native plants at a local garden show last spring. I bought one from her and she generously gave me another. They went in the garden in early summer and spent a lackluster season there. Despite drawing full shade until late afternoon, one hellebore was already putting up flower stalks by the time the snow melted off of it as spring approached.
As gardening season ’14 ended, I simply ran out of time to install the planting bed I want for these succulents. To increase their chances of surviving winter, I “heeled them in” in my vegetable bed. They’ve been covered with snow for months, but it melted off while I was away last week. They look spectacular! Photos complete the story.
Given that the ground is still firm with surface frost and frozen through in some places, it’s astonishing to find so many plants looking alive and ready for spring. I’m ready to go; I wish the climate felt the same.
Horehound doesn’t belong on this list. I added it two seasons ago, technically not as an ornamental element—it’s an herb. I included the photo because the plant is remarkable. Last season, the horehound emerged from winter dried up and burnt; all growth in 2014 came from the roots. This winter brought at least one month-long stretch where the temperature never rose out of the teens; it seemed colder overall than the previous winter. Still, snow melted away to reveal healthy, beautiful leaves on the horehound plant… it’s so true that snow insulates plants from winter cold.
The coldest days of winter and a typical central Pennsylvania snow reaffirm the area’s USDA hardiness zone rating. Freesias would not survive this winter outdoors.
Freesias! I took a flier last spring and bought a package of freesia bulbs on closeout. I’ve never grown freesias. I couldn’t have identified them had someone led me to a freesia patch to harvest a few for a bouquet.
Knowing so little about them, I planted twelve freesia bulbs according to instructions on the package: buried many inches deep in a 12-inch container. In a few weeks, exactly two plants emerged. Eventually they blossomed and I fell in love with their fragrance; freesias smell like flowers, but not like any I’d sniffed previously.
By summer’s end, the two freesia plants were done. The temperature dropped, a few weeds sprouted in the freesia planter, and one day three new freesia sprouts appeared. This was an aha moment! Freesias, apparently, draw motivation to sprout from a mild cold spell. The package had identified freesias as annuals in my hardiness zone, so I suspect a freeze would have killed the bulbs. But they were far from dead; there had been no freeze.
Still knowing little about freesias (you’d think I could read something), I guessed that sprouting in autumn and then being put into cold storage would overtax the bulbs. Now that they’d sprouted, I figured they’d need to mature and recharge themselves to make it through a dormant period.
Being uncommitted to ornamental plants, the most I was willing to offer was a place on the sill of a south-facing window. The freesias have persevered! Seven bulbs sprouted and have grown gangly leaves that hardly hold themselves upright.
I’ve watered occasionally and broken off a dandelion whose tap root has a death grip in the soil. Other than that, I paid no mind.
Until last week.
It’s so dark in the basement where my freesia pot sits on a windowsill that there’s barely enough light to take photographs. Still, the plants are abloom and the basement room is redolent of spring.
Freesias in Winter
Two weeks ago I brought an assortment of plants back from MANTS, a horticulture industry trade show in Baltimore. I set the plants on our ping-pong table which catches some light from the south-facing window where the freesias sit. As I was setting up electric lights for those plants about five days ago, I noticed the scent of spring! Sure enough, there was a blossom on one of the freesia plants.
My freesia planter sports two sun-starved flower stalks laden with buds. Five days after the first bud opened, a second is about to burst. It seems likely the blooms will continue until it’s safe to move the planter outside.
The lifecycles of my freesia plants, I’m sure, are severely screwed up, but that will remain their problem. I’ll move the planter outside in spring and back in autumn. If the plants eventually synch with the seasons, I’ll give them a cool, dark corner to winter over next year. Otherwise, I suppose they’re doomed each year to grow gangly and watch from my south-facing window while the snows fall.