Walking the Garden-911 display garden today, these red elderberry flower buds caught my eye. With the color of deep purple lilacs, these native Sambucus racemosa flower buds, combined with their emerging compound leaves, put a smile on my face and took my mind off everything for a few minutes. Gardens, especially native plant gardens, have long been known to be restorative. If you’re staying at home to ride out the coronavirus, it may be a great time to pause to enjoy spring emerging in your landscape – even if it’s just weeds emerging in last year’s containers, or up through the cracks in a sidewalk.
DESIGN AND CULTIVATION When designing with elderberry, keep in mind that they prefer, and will spread and fruit most robustly, in a sunny exposure. Red elderberry is found on a wide variety of soils but favors deeper, loamy sands and silts and nutrient rich sites with good drainage, ample moisture and a pH of 5.0 to 8.0. It’s best to plant at least two genetically diverse individuals. Before you purchase a plant, always inquire as to how it was grown. Even though you’re purchasing a native plant, it may have been grown in a conventional nursery that uses conventional propagation methods like vegetative cloning, where all plants are genetically identical. It’s best to find a nursery that sells sustainably grown specimens. Grow Native Massachusetts has a terrific resource list of nurseries they recommend.
The dense roots and rhizomes of red elderberry make it useful for soil stabilization and erosion control on moist sites including streambanks. It provides fair to good food and cover for birds plus small and large mammals. Hummingbirds collect nectar from the flowers. The fruit is high in ascorbic acid. Stems, bark, leaves and roots contain cyanide-producing toxins but berries may be consumed as jelly or wine after cooking. This versatile plant can also be used to make dye, insecticide, medicine, and musical instruments. The colorful fruit attracts birds and several cultivars have been developed for ornamental applications.
NATIVE PLANT GEEK INFO Other scientific names include Sambucus callicarpa, Sambucus microbotrys, Sambucus pubens, Sambucus pubens. var. arborescens, Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa, Sambucus racemosa ssp. pubens and Sambucus racemosa var. pubens. Alternate common names include scarlet elder, stinking elderberry, stinking elder, red-berried elder, bunchberry elder, and red elder.
If you care about your chickadees, what does this range of numbers mean: 350 to 570? My environmental and social justice pal Ellen Schoenfeld-Beeks let us know at her “Why We Need a Garden Revolution” talk at the Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA on May 3rd. The answer is, 350 to 570 is the number of caterpillars one pair of chickadees needs every day to nurture their chicks from hatching to fledging. That’s just one pair of one kind of bird! Ellen inspired us to think and be mindful about every plant and practice in our gardens, and whether and how each helps or harms the natural systems that support all living things.
Ellen, who manages the church’s extensive gardens, showed examples of native plants at the church’s gardens and at her own home through the seasons, and how they support or harm our native pollinators, wildlife and local ecosystem at large. She even talked about plants she introduced to her gardens on purpose, only to find out years later that they were actually exotic invasive look-alikes of native plants. For example, she thought she was planting yellow marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), but they turned out to be fig buttercups (Ranunculus ficaria, or, Ficaria verna), which are on the MA list of plants that are prohibited from sale.
After about three years they had spread like a spring carpet of yellow, in part because they aggressively reproduce by three different mechanisms. Once she realized her error, Ellen took responsibility and removed them by hand, an intensive but organic gardening practice. It took three seasons to bring their numbers to a reasonably manageable level.
Ellen also reminded us that one of the Unitarian Universalist Church’s guiding principles is respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She urged us to think carefully and learn about the impact of each of our plantings, as every plant in our landscapes matters, and your landscape supports, or doesn’t, those chickadees who need all those caterpillars every day to raise their young.
The design of her home garden, also in Sharon, features primarily native plants with mowed and gravel paths that sweep around her layered ornamental planting beds and stone walls, leaving the visitor wondering with curiosity what lies just past the next curve. Each of her beds have themed names, such as Mountain Laurel Hill, the Meadow and Old Rose Garden. Some of her favorite native plants are mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia – obviously – with an area named just for them; apothecary rose, Rosa gallica, which though not a native has been cultivated by people since the MIddle Ages; and various goldenrods, which support at least 115 species of butterflies and moths.
Got peonies or other perennials that will get tall? Late April is time to protect their structure for season by properly supporting them by staking. Play the audio to learn about how I like to do my staking.
Why didn’t your hydrangeas bloom this year? Most likely they were either pruned at the wrong time of year or their flower buds were damaged by winter weather or foraging deer.
With so many species and numerous cultivars, hydrangeas confuse many gardeners and even landscape designers when it comes to understanding the best time of year for pruning. Many gardeners prune at exactly the wrong time, eliminating almost all flower buds for the entire season.
Most early blooming shrubs, including some hydrangeas, develop their flower buds during the summer and fall of the previous year. This is known as blooming on old wood. Other hydrangeas develop their flower buds in the spring every year, then bloom later in the season. This is called blooming on new wood. Hydrangea cultivars such as Endless Summer™ bloom on both old and new wood.
Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) and smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) develop their flower buds on new stems (new wood). Therefore they can be pruned back severely in the late fall or early spring to manage their size, and they will still provide flowers. Even after exceptionally cold winters where stems are killed to the ground, new spring stems will produce flowers. In our climate and soils, panicle hydrangea and smooth hydrangea are typically the easiest species to grow and provide the best show. Panicle hydrangeas, for instance, can bloom from July through October.
Common panicle hydrangea cultivars include: Limelight’, Vanilla Strawberry, Little Quick Fire, ‘Grandiflora’ aka PeeGee, ‘Fire and Ice’, Bobo®, ‘Bombshell’, ‘Little Lamb’, Quick Fire®, ‘Pee Wee’; Pinky Winky®, ‘Praecox’, and ‘Tardiva’. You can recognize them by their cone-shaped flower heads.
Common smooth hydrangea cultivars include: ‘Annabelle’, Invincibelle Spirit®, Incrediball®, and ‘Grandiflora’.
By contrast, hydrangeas that bloom in the spring bloom predominantly on old wood from flower buds that were formed during the previous summer and fall. They include bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata) and climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris). These varieties should be pruned immediately after the flowers start to fade. You can cut off the just the flowers or cut the stem at any point you need to in order to control the size and shape of the shrub. If you prune later in the year, you’ll be removing next year’s flower buds.
If you know the type of hydrangea you have in your garden, it can take some of the mystery out of understanding why they’re not blooming as you expected, and knowing when to prune them. If you do not know what type of hydrangea you have, do not prune them. Remove only the dead wood in spring, then wait until they bloom to determine when to prune them the following year. If they’re planted in a favorable position in your landscape, they’re well worth waiting for.
Imagine that when you were a child your parents loved gardening, and over time you helped your family create secret gardens and woodland paths that changed daily with new sprouts pushing up from the earth, turning into a bounty of ever-changing blooms, and you loved every petal and leaf of it all.
Now, imagine that you’re middle aged and still living in that same beloved 1950’s ranch, but you’re ready to tear it down to build your dream home, and save as many of your family’s horticulture heirlooms as possible. You’ve come to appreciate that many of the plants your family selected and nurtured are quite unique.
Sharon, MA homeowners in this situation called in Carol Lundeen, owner of Garden-911 Boston, for landscape renovation consulting and horticulture services to help them make their decisions. The excavation crew was expected to start in a couple of days, and we needed to establish priorities, make a plan, and get a move on.
How do you decide which heirloom plants to keep and which to abandon to the dumpster? Here’s how we worked together:
First, we contrasted the emotional and financial value of various plantings. The client had many childhood memories in specific areas of the property, especially around the patio, past the boxwoods (Buxus sp.) and up the path into the woodland, past the doll’s eyes plants (Actaea pachypoda). There was also the giant Wygelia whose branches arched over the front door entryway, and if it could talk it would tell more than half a century of stories.
I reminded the client that financially it costs money to remove existing plantings (and manage their debris); to lift and temporarily relocate and care for existing plantings, then replant and reestablish them; and to purchase (plant selection and delivery) and install and establish new ones (site preparation and irrigating). Existing shrubs on the property were mostly well established beauties that would be costly to replace with same-size specimens, and perennials seemed to be everywhere. This client kept her sense of humor and broad perspective of the past and future, she asked lots of questions and we figured everything out together.
While he was already on the property, we had the excavator dig a trench in well-protected areas in the front and rear of the property, and with machines he lifted and placed many of the larger shrubs into the trench. Garden-911 Boston carefully backfilled by hand, irrigated, and mulched these specimens for the best possible outcome. Perennials were dug together by hand by the client and Garden-911 Boston owner Carol Lundeen, and we placed them into a long-overgrown garden area that we first had to clear of all manner of wild invasives vines and weeds, fallen-down raised beds and tangled chicken wire as the mini-excavator went to work nearby.
Eventually, as in all renovations, comes a period of being okay with not knowing when enough is enough. But most all very important plantings are safely stashed for the fall and winter, and spring will bring a new house and new possibilities for the client’s heirloom plants to re-establish in their new places. We’ll be working on the design together over the winter.
When a Sharon homeowner wanted to meet about redesigning her front yard gardens, Garden-911’s Carol Lundeen suggested expanding the vision to include improved circulation from the driveway to the front door, adding ease of use and curb appeal at the same time.
Eager to learn more about native plants? Join Grow Native Massachusetts‘ Evenings with Experts this winter!
This free public lecture series is held at the Cambridge Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month, from February through May from 7:00 — 8:30 pm.
On February 7, Dan Segal, owner of The Plantsmen Nursery, will present The Beautiful Adaptations of Native Plants: Inviting the Wild into our Gardens.
Native plants have evolved a broad array of adaptations in the wild, yielding not only the ornamental features embraced in horticulture but many fascinating mechanisms for survival. Dan will take us beyond ‘pretty’ plant features to explore the origins of these adaptive traits, and the critical importance of regional variation. This insight helps us to select plants that are genuinely suited to our landscapes. He will also compare and contrast large-scale nursery production that favors the cloning of cultivars, with small-scale nursery propagation that favors seed-grown straight species. To know and source native plants effectively, understanding their propagation can be just as important as species selection.
As the owner of The Plantsmen Nursery, Dan Segal specializes in native plants, local seed collection, and natural landscaping. Dan has collected and propagated over 1,000 species of native plants in his three decades of work as a nurseryman, giving him great insight into the fascinating variety of adaptations that plants have evolved to survive. His nursery is in Ithaca, NY, where founded the Ithaca Native Plant Symposium in 2009.