I’m always surprised here, at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, how often I hear visitors say thing like, “why doesn’t my garden look like this” or “I could never do that in my yard.” Any time you visit a botanic garden, historic home or any other venue where the grounds are a feature, it’s important to remember that behind those weed-less flower beds, perfectly pruned tress and manicured lawns, there is usually a team of gardeners, horticulturalists, maintenance staff and interns whose full-time job it is to maintain the grounds. Having a garden that looks like “this” involves countless man-hours, planning, money and attention that a lot of us just don’t have.

However, there are little things that you can do here and there to make your garden look polished and professional. There’s weeding, mulching, planting in groups and—my chore over this past weekend—edging.

Edging gives your garden borders a very defined line, making them look contained and separate from other parts of the yard (your lawn, for example). Aside from giving your garden a really polished look, edging also serves a purpose. It keeps grass from encroaching into your flowerbeds and prevents materials like mulch and gravel (as in a walkway) from spilling into your lawn.

There are several ways that you can accomplish this look. The first is by using a physical barrier made out of a material such as metal, wood, stone or plastic. If I lived in a world where money were no option, I would probably choose to use steel landscape edging [shown, right]. It’s incredibly durable, looks great and is somewhat simple to install if you have some help. However, as I just mentioned, it’s pricey and if you have a large border this is going to cost you. Alternatives such as plastic and wood will deteriorate over time, are prone to heaving, are easily damaged by lawn mowers and need to be replaced every so often. I stay away from them.

Instead, I prefer to use no physical material at all, opting for “cut” edges [top photo]. This is a fairly easy method of garden edging that I do every spring. You can use either a half moon edging tool, or if you don’t have that, a simple shovel (flat edge if you have it). Here’s what to do:

1. With your shovel or edging tool, make a cut straight down into the soil, about four inches, on the sod side of the edge you wish to create. Continue to do this for the length of your border.
2. Make a similar cut on the bed side of your border. However, make this cut at a 45-degree angle so that it meets your previous cut.
3. The two cuts will create a wedge of sod that you will now remove, shaking off any loose topsoil. Rake that topsoil back into the bed as opposed to letting it fill your newly created trench.
4. Toss the sod you removed, grass-side-down, on your compost pile so the grass dies and won’t take root.

If you are using mulch, now would be a good time to apply it, being careful not to fill the trench you just created. That straight cut you made is what will stop the grass from growing into your garden and you don’t want to lose that, even with mulch.

This is a very simple, very effective way to really give your garden a “wow” factor. It doesn’t cost anything except your time, and it will make your mowing and weeding chores a lot easier for the rest of the summer.

 If you are anything like me, your charming rural home is most likely nestled somewhere between a forest and a swamp, giving you access to dappled light, lots of wildlife and mosquitoes.  While this ambiance can make for some great (#nofilter) selfies, it can be a bit of a problem if you’re trying to establish a garden. It’s true that shade can provide a challenge, and you’re probably never going to get sun-loving perennials like coneflowers, bee balm and daylilies to thrive there. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a successful flowerbed. If you’re looking to develop a shady spot in your yard, here is a list of reliable plants to consider in your design.

Let’s start with one of my favorite plants and the superstar of the shade garden: hostas. Hostas are a reliable standard in any garden, offering a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The foliage of this plant is what makes it so lovely, offering broad coverage that will shade out weeds all season long and produce an attractive (usually purple) flower on long stalks that grow from the plant’s center. Hostas are the gift that keeps on giving, as they are easy to divide once established. Another bonus: they are practically foolproof, the definition of hardy.

Next on my list is pulmonaria, or lungswort. This is an aggressive grower that will spread and, again, is a great plant to divide once it’s established. This plant truly packs a double punch; it’s one of the first plants to flower in spring with pink and light purple (almost blue) compact flowers, but also has a very whimsical spotted leaf that is pleasing all year round. Occasionally, you can get a second pulmonaria bloom in the fall.

Moving into early summer, you would be amiss to have a shade garden without including the feathery plumes of astilbe. To say that it’s showy is an understatement and astilbe provides some of the brightest color to the shade garden when it blooms in pinks, red or white.Astilbe loves moisture and does well in areas that may not have the best drainage. Foliage starts out compact and bronze before leafing out to a larger, dark green canopy.

Take any woodland walk in the Berkshires and you’re sure to notice an abundance of ferns, most likely the common hay-scented fern orDennstaedtia punctilobula. While this makes for a great ground cover in areas where you want to cover an area quickly, you don’t want to put this anywhere near your flowerbeds, as it will take over. Ferns, however, are a great addition to the shade garden and there are other varieties that are less aggressive and, frankly, more showy.  My favorite is the Japanese painted fern with its spectrum of colors that run from gray to green to a deep red — a perfect shade plant that loves moisture.

Of course, this is a short list but, for me, these plants represent the backbone of the shade garden. Primrose (Primula), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos) and Japanese reed grass are other shade-tolerant varieties you might want to consider.

Be aware that shade gardens do come with their own unique set of problems. Slugs, for example, can wreak havoc on your hostas, but can easily be controlled with a variety of measures that you can read about here.

With the right plants and amount of care, those shady areas where you once thought nothing could grow can become one of the most desirable parts of your garden. If you have questions, just ask the folks at your local garden center to make suggestions or call the Master Gardener’s hotline at the Berkshire Botanical Garden at (413) 298-5355.

Bud_on_Cherry_Tree_440I got married a few weeks ago and to help me celebrate, my coworkers here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden gave me a gift certificate toWindy Hill Farm, a great, local orchard and nursery between Stockbridge and Great Barrington. It was such a kind and personal gesture; anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of giving plants as gifts for all occasions, so I was thrilled to be on the receiving end of that gesture.

Believe it or not, I knew exactly what I wanted. I love flowering trees and shrubs and ever since we moved into our “new” home four years ago, I have been working on rounding out my spring show. I just got a magnolia “Elizabeth” to add a little yellow to the landscape and last year I planted five “Donald Wyman” crabapples that promise an abundance of white along my northern fence line. A red bud I transplanted from my old house provides a burst of tight purple blossoms along its branches and, as I am a Kentucky native, always reminds me of home where they grow wild in the woods. Now, what I really need is a dramatic show of pink and nothing does it better than an ornamental cherry tree.

For me, it’s always a good idea to go into a nursery with a clear idea of what I want. Otherwise, I am just too easily distracted. The nursery can be a dangerous place for a winter-scarred soul getting his first taste of spring. So when Keith Rechenberger offered to help me at Windy Hill, I was prepared when he asked me what I was looking for.Keith_measuring_the_tree_300

Right away we were able to narrow my choices down to two types of ornamental cherry: Prunus accolade and Prunus sargentii or Sargent Cherry. Both were lovely trees, but the accolade had a slight tendency toward double blooms and a more horizontal growth habit, which I was looking for. However, the accolade is only hardy to zone 5 while the sergeant is known to be hardy to zone 4. This caused some discussion. Normally, around here, zone 5 will do just fine. However, I’m in Otis and I usually won’t plant trees that aren’t hardy to zone 4. I’ll roll the dice with perennials and other less expensive plants, but with trees I err on the side of caution.

While I pondered my decision, I asked Keith if he wouldn’t mind passing along some tips for others to help them pick healthy trees. He said the first thing you need to do is look at the trunk. Check for damage and scarring and make sure that it looks sturdy with a clear, central leader. From that central leader, examine the branching habit to make sure the branches are growing in a healthy and consistent manner.

Next, look at the pot that the seedling is planted in. Check to see how the tree is sitting in the container. You don’t want it to be too high or too low in the soil and you don’t want roots that are circling the container (also known as “girdling” roots).  Look for insects and, if the tree has leafed out, make sure there is no discoloring of the leaves or any empty branches.

Never be afraid to ask questions. Even the most experienced plant person can benefit from a second opinion and the experts at a nursery can often be privy to knowledge that only they have the ability to know, which brings us back to my cherry tree. Though I knew the sargeant cherry was the safer choice, I had fallen in love with one of the accolades. It was in my price range, was the right size and it had a gorgeous growth habit. It was my favorite from the moment Keith showed it to me and I was sad to let it go. Because Keith knew where the tree had come from, he was able to call the grower and ask him about my concerns regarding the zone hardiness. The grower told him that this particular tree should be fine in a zone 4 and that I could purchase the tree with confidence, which I ultimately did.

Now it’s time to start digging holes!

houseplant1I’m probably the only person in the world that likes New Year’s resolutions.  Maybe I am a masochist, but after a month of full-on gluttony and good cheer brought by the holidays, I think it’s healthy to take a step back and look at my shortcomings over the past year and consider ways that I can improve.  I try to avoid the resolution pitfalls of setting totally unrealistic goals like “exercise” or “floss more.” Rather, I prefer to find modest, attainable milestones that I might actually accomplish.  This year, my resolutions include:

1. Find a way to not hate winter so much
2. Get my Rural Intelligence articles in on time
3. Stop pretending to like kale
4. Have more indoor plants and keep them alive

I’m hoping that if I can accomplish #4 that it might help me with #1.  I’m terrible with houseplants.  Despite my (modest) successes outdoors, I’m just not talented with indoor gardening. Part of the problem is that I set myself up for failure by buying plants that take a lot of monitoring, care and have very specific needs that aren’t suited to every indoor environment. To rectify this problem I’ve been doing a lot of research on plants that are easy to take care of, are hardy and are able to be grown by just about anyone in any household environment.hp2

Air plants, or Tillandsia fit into these parameters perfectly.  Tillandsia is a type of bromeliad that gets all of the nutrients and water that they need by absorbing it through their leaves.  The plants do have a root system, but it is designed more to attach itself to other plants, rocks trees or the ground rather than a vehicle for food – meaning that they don’t need to be grown in soil.  This not only makes the plant easy to care for, but also allows you to grow the plant in very nontraditional and unique ways.

Take for example the wreath shown here that I recently purchased at this year’s Holiday Marketplace at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.  Made of the Tillandsia variety Tillandsia Abdita, the plants have been “sewn” onto a grapevine wreath frame with wire.  I’m currently using it as a centerpiece on my dining room table, but will hang it in my bathroom window after the holidays where it will be exposed to humidity from my morning shower everyday.  Once a week I place the wreath (face down) in my sink filled with two inches of water and let it soak for half an hour after which I shake it to remove any excess water.  That’s all it needs!

hp3Soaking is a great way to make sure that the plants are getting their fill of water, but you can also mist air plants regularly (at least three times a week) using a spray bottle.  Excess water on the plant can get stuck under leaves and lead to rot, so make sure that if you are soaking the plant, you shake it out properly.  You’ll also want to make sure that Tillandisa is in a place with well circulated air flow and in a room that doesn’t get below 50 degrees.  It needs access to sun, but when the weather turns warm, make sure that the light is indirect.  Remember, these plants are used to growing on other plants and are accustom to shade and partial sun.

Growing air plants is more than just a horticultural endeavor.  Their growth habits and easy-to-care-for nature make them ideal for terrariums and design projects like the hanging terrariums and mini garden pictured here.  With over 540 varieties of this plant to choose from, you have a lot of options.

I’m hoping that this is my “gateway” houseplant that is going to help make the winter of 2014 a greener, more enjoyable place.  If you have any houseplants that you swear by, let me know by emailing me at bcruey@berkshirebotanical.org.

IMG_4764Holiday Marketplace is right around the corner and preparations are in full swing.  Our talented, volunteer wreath makers are busy making all kinds of unique and one of a kind gifts out of donated materials responsibly collected from the woods and garden.  Don’t forget to mark your calendars to come to the Holiday Marketplace on December 7th and 8th to see the fruits of their labor!




raking_leaves_photo_for_websiteThe fall foliage has stopped being beautiful and has started being a real pain in the ass. Long woodland walks have quickly turned into endless afternoons raking leaves. It’s like this cruel Zen game where as soon as I finish, I turn around and—more leaves! Are you kidding! There aren’t even trees over there! Time to start all over again. After failing to convince myself that this is a “fun” chore, I usually just go get the lawn mower and start mowing over them—a great technique to use if you have a mulching mower and you mow frequently enough.

I always try to keep in mind that I am raking up a mini goldmine. Leaves are great for your compost pile—and more importantly, great for your WINTER compost pile. A lot of people don’t think about it, but your compost pile doesn’t stop working once the temperature drops.

It’s true that, like Amtrak, tourism, and my metabolism, the microbes that break down the organic material in your compost are sluggish during the winter months. However, there are steps that you can take to optimize the production and health of your compost. For starters, make sure that your compost is covered. This not only provides insulation, but it also helps to regulate moisture. It’s true that you want to keep your compost pile moist,compost_tarp but too much moisture can cause your compost to slow down and heavy snows can have a negative effect. Covering your compost also keeps the snow off, so that when you want to add new material, you can get easier access. Be sure to weigh down the edges with stones or bricks so the wind doesn’t blow it away. The real goal here is to contain the heat, which helps to facilitate decomposition. In addition to covering the pile, create a windbreak around your compost by using hay bales, logs, cinder blocks or bags of raked leaves—anything that’s going to help contain the heat in your pile.

Next, you will want to chop up your kitchen scraps and green materials to a smaller than usual size. The smaller the better, but try to get things down to under 2 inches. Even in the summer months, this is a good way to speed up compost production, but it’s critical during the winter. Because my compost pile is kind of far from my house, I have a pail that sits outside the back door in which to collect scraps. It’ll be cold, so you won’t have to worry about the waste getting too stinky and you can cut down the number of trips to the compost pile. When you do make the trek to add new green material to the compost, cover newly added waste with a nice layer of all those dead leaves you raked in the fall. Again, this helps create a layer of insulation and, once the spring rolls around, that material should break down pretty quickly.

Compost_pailEven though the snows are deep and the temperatures are cold, your compost pile is still hard at work—there’s no need to lapse in your efforts during the winter freeze. Your garden will thank you come spring!

red_mapleSomewhere, buried deep in the depths of the memory graveyard known as my mom’s basement, there is a box marked “LEAVES.”  Inside are hundreds of fall leaves that, as a kid, I collected and then forced my mom to preserve for me. Who knows how many countless hours that poor woman spent each autumn ironing dead leaves between pieces of wax paper. Not that I wasn’t selective – you had to be a pretty special leaf to make the cut, displaying either pure perfection or a flaw so awesome that it deserved eternity. Some of these treasures would be cut out and made into bookmarks, ornaments, note cards, or drink coasters that I would give out as Christmas gifts, but a lot ended up being tossed into that box because 1.) I would always make way too many and 2.) my mom couldn’t ever come to terms with throwing anything I made away. A tradition she continues even now when I’m well into my thirties.

I thought the whole thing was magic. The wax paper, for sure, but also the process of the changing of the leaves in general. Even at our youngest, the color pallet that comes with every fall resonated inside of us, stirring emotion and imagination. I think one of the reasons that the phenomenon of autumn is so captivating year after year isn’t just because it’s beautiful, which indeed it is, but because it still conjures that same spark of wonder inside of us.

Of course, it’s not magic. It’s boring old science but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. The truth is, the vibrant colors that we see dotting our hillsides have, in some part, been there all season long. Leaves don’t exactly “change” color so much as they lose a color. That color of course being the green that we see all summer long. In the summer months, trees (and most plants) use the process of photosynthesis to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and glucose – a type of sugar that the plant uses as food. Trees use their leaves to capture those elements (light, rain, and carbon dioxoide) and the leaves contain a chemical – chlorophyll – that makes the process of photosynthesis possible. It just so happens that the chlorophyll, more often than not, has a very dominant green pigment.

When the days start to get shorter and sunlight becomes less available, not only do people start shutting down their vacation homes, but trees start shutting down their sugar factories. The chlorophyll in a leaf, with all of its green pigment, fades away and reveals the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns that were there all along.

The color that remains is what we see in the fall, and it is a common design tool gardeners use to add interest to a landscape. There are many things to consider when choosing a tree for your home garden, which we’ve talked about before, one of those being fall color. Put the bright yellow autumn foliage of the Gingko Biloba against the reds of the Red Maple and the oranges of Witch Hazel, and you’ll have a color display that could rival any summer garden. Some plants are even named after their fall color, like the invasive burning bush that is so prevalent in this area and simply stunning this time of year. It’s not so rare for a plant’s greatest attribute to be its fall display.DSCN0035_Pond_Garden_-_Betsy_Thompson

Of course, we all know that some fall “shows” are better than others and the potency of that yellow and red is dependent on external factors. In general, the best fall foliage occurs in years when we’ve had a warm, wet spring, a summer that’s not too hot or dry, and a fall that has plenty of warm sunny days and cool nights – weather we are often lucky enough to experience most years here in the Berkshires, which is why people from all over pour into the region to see the amazing colors painting our gorgeous hillsides.  Like most things, it’s just better in the Berkshires!

colchicumIf you read this column regularly (hi mom!), you know I have been kind of whiny and down on the fall. I always have a hard time letting go of summer and admitting that it’s over, and I’ve been pretty vocal about it. However, this week has made me take back every bad thing I’ve said about autumn. If you were in the Berkshires this past weekend, there was no way you couldn’t have fallen in love with the magic that is early fall. It was one of those weekends where I found myself taking a big step back and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to live here!”

It may just be me, but the foliage seems to be exceptional this year. The trees are doing their thing in a big way and the plants in my garden are putting on a show of their own as they wind down the season and turn various shades of red, yellow, and brown. With all of those warm, earthy tones taking over, it makes it all the more shocking when, in the middle of it all, there’s a burst of spring color.

I’m talking about the bizarre little plant known as the fall crocus. I love this plant. The color and timing of Colchicum Autumnale is so shocking in contrast to the rest of the garden at this time of year that it causes most people to do a double-take and ask, “What is that??”

The fall crocus looks like a crocus, with all its beautiful pastel coloring and low-to-the-ground flowers, but it blooms in the early fall. Bulbs should be planted in early to mid September, or as soon as you receive them if you order them from a catalog or online retailer. This is an earlier planting time than your other bulbs like allium and narcissus, which you’ll want to plant in mid October. Usually, you’ll start to see blooms appear in late September on a single stem with no accompanying foliage—another attribute that makes this plant so interestingly weird. The foliage (about 3-8 leaves around a foot in length) comes up in early spring and dies back in the summer months. Like most bulbs, the Colchicum has the most impact when planted in large groupings or drifts—at least that’s my own personal opinion. Also, like most bulbs, they’ll start to naturalize and multiply over time.

This is a great plant to have in your garden when you want that unusual touch of something that is going to turn heads. It’s also a great reminder to us, on the eve of winter, of what we have to look forward to in the spring.

hornwormFirst things first: the tomato worm, also known as the tomato hornworm, also know as Manduca quinquemaculata, isn’t a worm at all. It’s a caterpillar and a really BIG caterpillar at that. Think Alice in Wonderland caterpillar big, and you’ve got the idea. It’s no wonder, given its size (up to 4 inches long), that one or two of these “worms” on a tomato plant can wreak a lot of havoc really fast — defoliating leaves, eating new growth, and even eating young fruit, completely destroying a plant sometimes in the matter of a couple of days or even a night. For that reason, I advise to catch them early. Here’s what you should look for:

If you have them, you might start noticing leaf wilt or damage at the top of your tomato plant before you actually notice the tomato worm itself. They attach themselves to the undersides of leaves and tend to feed more at night to avoid the heat, which makes them difficult to spot. Plus they are green and will blend right in with the plant’s foliage, so that doesn’t do you any favors either. You also might start to notice dark green or black gross stuff on the lower leaves of the plant.  You guessed it — that’s their poop.

horw_worm_with_wasp_eggsThe nice thing about these “worms” is that they are big and you can catch them easily. If you have read past articles we’ve written here before, you can probably guess that I’m going to tell you to simply pick the caterpillar off of the plant and throw it into that ever reliable bucket of soapy water. In this case, vigilance is really your best weapon. Sometimes going out at night with a flashlight will make spotting them easier.

Now, this is where things really get interesting. If you see a tomato worm on your plant that has what appear to be little grains of white rice stuck to its back — leave it. It is doomed and it isn’t going to do any further damage to your plant. Those little white things are actually the cocoons of a type of parasitic wasp that are using the worm for food and eventually will kill it. You actually want all of those little cocoons to hatch and grow into wasps so that they will lay eggs on more tomato worms and help you with your problem. It’s even a good idea to plant companion plants such as Queen Anne’s lace, fennel, and dill around your vegetable garden to attract this type of wasp.

If your caterpillar doesn’t meet its doom via death by soapy water or wasp eggs and makes it to the pupae stage and forms a cocoon, don’t fret. This stage is spent in the top two inches of the soil. If you till your garden after your harvest, you should be able to kill almost all of them that made it into the ground. If they are fortunate enough to make it to adulthood, however, they will emerge in the late spring as a hummingbird moth (also known as the sphinx moth, also known as the hawk moth). To give them their due credit — these moths are great pollinators of night blooming plants.hummingbird_moth

Oh and that “horn” on it’s posterior is a total fake — perfectly harmless. It’s meant to fool predators but don’t fall for it.

RX-DK-GDN26605_deadhead-flowers_s3x4_lgIt happens every year and it goes way back to childhood; that stomach-turning moment when I see the first “Back to School” display at the store and realize that summer is flying by. How can this be? How can next week really be August? There must be some mistake. Aren’t we still in late spring? I’m just not quite ready to admit it, but I’m also that person that tells people I’m still in my early-mid-thirties so that’s not saying much.

Unfortunately, we cannot stop the momentum of time and summer will indeed be over before we know it. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to bring about summer’s demise prematurely in your garden.

When it comes to your flowering plants, they have one goal in mind and it’s not to impress you during evening cocktails. No, their job is to go to seed —  something that almost always happens once a plant has stopped flowering. If you interrupt that process, your plant will continue to grow and often, flower, because it hasn’t completed its task. Like when your boss walks in at 5 p.m. with a new job that still needs to be done — you keep working.

The maintenance practice of deadheading is how you redirect a plant’s energy from the goal of seed production to root and vegetation growth. Simply, it’s the removal of spent flowers from a plant. Whenever you have a flower on a plant that has started to decline in appearance, cut it off — usually at the next lateral bud, stem, or leaf. This is something that you can do all season long to extend the life of your plants and the overall appearance of your garden. Not only does deadheading encourage new growth, but it tidies the garden and rids it of spent materials. You don’t want to see decaying flowers mixed in with your fresh buds — it’s like having a cadaver at a beauty pageant. Frequent deadheading gives your beds a nice, fresh and clean look.

Of course, all plants are different and so are their blooms. For spear-shaped blooms like say, Delphiniums, flowers should be cut back when the flower stalk is about 70% spent. Other plants like Coleus and basil shouldn’t be allowed to flower at all. Pinch back the buds as soon as you see them start to appear on the plant to encourage thick, rich foliage.

Get into the habit of deadheading early on and you will be surprised at how much better your garden will look through the season. You’ll have more flowers, thicker foliage, and a fresh-looking garden that will look like it’s in late spring even if it’s not. Just like if I keep plucking grey hairs I will be in my early-late-thirties forever.

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