2015’s top plants in my garden

For normal people, I gather, New Years is all about making resolutions to loose weight or spend more quality time with family. For me, New Years means reviewing everything I grew in the garden in the past 12 months and deciding what I love and what I’m over. I always try lots of new things, and so I thought I’d share my top new favorites for 2015.

Dianthus chinensis 'Chianti' and 'Victoriana'
Dianthus chinensis ‘Chianti’ and ‘Victoriana’

The only Dianthus chinensis I’d grown before are the modern selections which are about three inches tall with huge flowers and as ugly as can be (in my opinion) but ‘Chianti’ and ‘Victoriana’, two charming old-fashioned seed strains won my heart in a big way this year. Annuals, very easy from seed, and blooming all summer with these wonderfully romantic double blooms that made wonderful, long-lasting cut flowers. I’m hoping they decide to self-sow and return next year.

Populus alba 'Richardii'
Populus alba ‘Richardii’

Poplars are, generally, terrible trees. Weak wooded, short-lived, and weedy with few redeeming characteristics. But I bought this Golden Poplar, Populus alba ‘Richardii’, on a whim, and am absolutely thrilled with it. The foliage stays this bright, beautiful shade of yellow all summer, even in full sun (or at least what passes for full sun in cloudy Michigan) without burning. Great in the garden, and cut branches look amazing in a vase. I suppose it could eventually get large, but I’m planning to keep pruning it back hard to the ground to force it to push out lots of lush, long new stems of bright leaves.

'Little Comet' x h2.3
‘Little Comet’ x h2.3

I love breeding plants, and for the past few years I’ve been deeply obsessed with breeding gladiolus… I had a lot of new seedlings this year, but this one, a cross between the wonderful variety ‘Little Comet’ and one of my unnamed hardy varieties I call h2.3, is my favorite of the year. I just LOVE those colors, and love that the come on a strong stem that doesn’t need staking. If it keeps performing well, I’d love to make it available for sale in a few years.

Finally, I forgot to get a picture of this, but I have a new favorite tomato! For years, my favorites have unequivocally been ‘Black Krim’ for large tomatoes, ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ for cherries, and ‘Opalka’ for paste, but ‘Black Krim’ has been replaced! My new favorite: ‘Sweet Scarlet Dwarf’ This plant combines a wonderful compact, tidy, attractive growth habit with big yields and really terrific flavor. It isn’t widely available (the only source I know is Heritage Seed Market) but do track down some seeds. You’ll be happy you did.

Now, please, let me know your favorites in the comments so I can expand my shopping list for 2016!

Joseph Tychonievich

Why some plants are “fooled” by a warm December and some aren’t

Here in Michigan – and, it seems, most of the Eastern US – we’ve been having unseasonably warm weather and there are odd things afoot in the garden. Some plants that would normally be dormant coming back into growth. But perhaps odder is that while some plants have been “fooled” by the unseasonable heat, others are still resolutely dormant and not pushing any growth at all despite the warmth. Why is that?

A wild rose with buds still tightly dormant despite unseasonable warmth
A wild rose with buds still tightly dormant despite unseasonable warmth
A 'Knock Out' rose pushing growth during a warm spell.
A ‘Knock Out’ rose pushing growth during a warm spell.

There are a lot of factors that determine when a plant is dormant and when in active growth, a key one in this context is whether they have a vernalization requirement or not. In simple terms, some plants, once they go dormant for the winter, will refuse to come back into growth until they’ve experienced a period of cold temperatures. Once they’ve been through that cold, the plant is termed to be vernalized and will then burst into vigorous growth as soon as the weather warms up again.

You’ve probably run up against a vernalization requirement in terms of bulbs like tulips. That requirement is why you need to give tulip bulbs a cold treatment in order to force them to bloom indoors, and why southern gardeners without sufficient natural winter cold have to pre-chill their tulips in order for them to bloom. The adaptive advantage of this is obvious in a year like this, as it prevents plants from jumping the gun in a mild December and getting damaged by the real cold when it arrives.

So why do are some plants lack this adaptation and come into growth in a freak warm spell? Some are adapted to life warmer climates and sometimes it is the work of humans. Modern hybrid roses, for example, have had their vernalization requirement bred out of them. The downside is that this makes them more susceptible for winter damage sometimes, but the plus side is that it is part of what causes them to bloom all summer long rather than just once in the spring the way most of their wild ancestors do.

An idea worth stealing: Mesh pots for bulb collections

Last year I was in England, and a snowdrop obsessive there (aka, a Galanthophile) showed me this cool trick, using mesh pots to keep her vast collection of different varieties organized.


She puts her bulbs in these pots (designed for use in hydroponic systems, I believe), and then sinks the entire pot down in the ground, so that the pot is invisible. The pot keeps the bulbs contained and easy to find so you can dig them up to divide or share even when dormant, and keeps different varieties growing next to each other from getting mixed up. But unlike a regular solid-sided pot, the open mesh allows roots and water to move freely so the bulbs grow just as easily and with as little care as if they were planted directly in the ground.

Corydalis turtschaninovii
Corydalis turtschaninovii

I’m not a snowdrop lover, they frankly bore me, but I have been getting more and more obsessed with bulbous corydalis, selections of C. solida and the amazing true blue Corydalis turtschaninovii. The tiny bulbs are impossible to find once they get dormant, and my collection is already beginning to get mixed up as the different varieties begin dividing and encroaching on each other… I’m going to start planting new editions in mesh pots to keep everything organized.

Joseph Tychonievich

The Handy Dandy Dibber

A dibber, also called a dibbler (the garden tool, not the small nocturnal marsupial),  has many uses in the garden and greenhouse.  It also offers the opportunity to announce your intentions of dibbing (or dibbling). I’m a huge fan.

For example: just planted the last of my fall bulb purchases.  One of packs remaining was Allium unifolium, left over from installing our Allium field trials. (28 species and cultivars – woo! Beats doing research on soybeans or something.)  These little bulbs are about the size of nickel – even the smallest hand spade is overkill. I think I’ll just grab the dibber!

dibsandalliumHSFor the uninitiated, a dibber or dibbler is simply a very sturdy, pokey thing, with a nice ergonomic handle.  To use, simply scatter bulbs (never, ever in rows)…  scatterandpokePoke and plop. Went about 5″ to 6″ deep for these wee bulbs. Goes really fast once you’ve honed your dibbing skills.

holesAs a bulb-planting strategy, I like to leave them all uncovered until I’ve got the whole batch situated.  Then make like a squirrel and cover the bulbs!

doneVoila.  Done in 60 seconds! Though I’ll probably forget where I planted them within 60 minutes (which does make for a pleasant surprise come spring time – “Oh look! Alliums!”)