Running High On The Hanging Gardens of Zion

Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park

I remember being in college the first time I heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and greenery that were somehow suspended dozens of feet in mid-air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating; this was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity.

The story goes that King Nebuchadnessar II built the gardens for his homesick wife who found the flat, desert terrain of Mesopotamia depressing.  To please her, he created an artificial mountain out of red clay bricks and embellished it with an ascending series of tiered gardens. The plants, which included trees, shrubs and vines, cascaded from the many terraces, giving the very real impression that they were floating.

Artist’s rendering of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon/Photo:

By some accounts, the gardens measured 400 feet wide by 400 feet long and towered as high as 80 feet in the air. A stairway led to the uppermost level. Beside the stairway were a series of mechanical screws through which water was continually pumped from the Euphrates to the top of the garden from where it then trickled down. Historians estimate the gardens may have used up to 8,200 gallons of water day to irrigate the plants in this way.

Whether or not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon every existed, I later learned that hanging gardens do flourish in many parts of the world, and just as in Babylon, they often take root in desert environments. Unlike King Nebuchadnessar’s garden masterpiece, however, they are naturally generated and need no help from man. But don’t discount them; they are every bit as grand a feat of landscape engineering.

About Hanging Gardens

Of the many beautiful hanging gardens to be found around the world, Zion National Park lays claim to some of the most unusual. This is largely due to the rock formations that make up the park. These formations, known in geology as the Navajo Formation, provide the perfect environment for hanging gardens to develop.

Unlike their more pampered cousins, hanging gardens are composed of plant communities with a singular ability: they are able to establish themselves in rock, often in desert environments that are hostile to their very survival.

In Zion, we have the Navajo sandstone to thank for these suspended treasures. The deep red sedimentary rock, while by all appearances solid, is highly porous. This allows it to soak up rainwater like a sponge, creating a unique habitat for water-loving plants to thrive in places they would normally never be able to grow.

The combination of this porous sandstone and adjacent levels of impervious (Kaibab) limestone, create the perfect conditions for hanging gardens of all sorts of varieties to develop. As water seeps down through the sandstone, it pools in places where it hits the impenetrable stone. Then, as gravity does its magic, the water fishes its way downward through joints and cracks in the impervious strata, slowly nourishing the hanging gardens that cling to its rocky walls.

Water ‘seeps’ can range from small moist patches on stone to short-lived trickles to full-fledged gushing streams or pools that weep all year. A true hanging garden forms where there is constant seep as well as shade during much of the day to keep plants lush and moist. Plants like ferns, wildflowers, grasses and mosses are often found in these well-watered areas.

It’s a lot like a vertical garden.


The Phenomenon of Weeping Rock

Zion’s most famous hanging garden is called Weeping Rock. It is reached by a short but steep trail up a rocky hillside. As the path clears the final rise, dry sand and gravel give way to moss and slippery rocks fed by long ribbons of water oozing from a canyon above. Formed of impermeable shale, the canyon floor sheds the water down through the porous rock until it finally finds a place where it can penetrate.

At Weeping Rock, the permeable layer has eroded further than the impermeable layer of rock, forming a shelf where water can collect. The water streams down the sandstone walls and across the terrace, eventually cascading over the edge into a pool below.

Weeping Rock at Zion National Park

Pool where water collects under Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock is best viewed from beneath its natural arch, which features a garland of mosses and ferns. The seeping walls of the crescent-shaped stone terrace are home to lush green vegetation, which includes wildflowers, ferns, grasses and orchids, all of which can be found growing right out of the rock. Some are even growing upside down.

Aquilegia grahamii columbine

The columbine Aquilegia grahamii, known to grow in extremely fragile environments, is also found growing throughout the park. Its brilliant yellow and mango blooms add a bright touch to the red stone walls.

Orchid and columbine growing out of the rock walls of Zion

As do orchids, monkey flowers and other beautiful plant specimens.

For more information on Zion National Park and its hanging gardens, click here for the National Park Service website.

Catching the Wildflower Wave On Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers.

Brian Head Peak

The Patchwork Parkway is unique in that it follows ancient Native American routes as it climbs from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in the process passing from one climatic zone to another. At 9,300 feet it encounters Brian Head, one of the highest-elevated occupied towns in Utah. The focal point of Brian Head is Brian Head Peak, which at 11,307 feet is the center of the Grand Circle of National Parks that includes Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Indian paintbrush on Brian Head Peak

I drove part of the Patchwork Parkway last year but never made it as far as Brian Head Peak let alone experience the wildflowers. So this week, my daughter and I took the car and set out again, picking up the route at a small town called Panguitch. True to its name, the Parkway wove us through a colorful assortment of cultures, villages and climates. At the lower elevations we passed through one-street towns with a single cross street, their one story storefronts simmering in the hot afternoon sun.

Climbing higher, the temperature dropped as we entered the Dixie National Forest. Donning sweatshirts, we pulled off at the turn outs to admire the ever expanding view. But the real surprise came when, crossing the rutted landscape of the Markagunt Plateau, we glimpsed the smooth green face of Brian Head Peak itself, rising like a giant whale out of a sea of wildflowers.

Approach to Brian Head Peak off Patchwork Parkway

It’s hard to imagine how flowers can thrive in such wide open spaces with poor rocky soil and only scant precipitation for water. But here they were, vast fields of them, gently swaying in the keen mountain air. The wildflowers spread outward through the landscape in long waves of purple, yellow, orange, pink, white and blue, representing an astonishing variety of species.

Turning off of the Parkway, we chose a narrow dirt road that climbed around Brian Head Peak to the right. As it followed the curve of the hill, the dusty track rose through a sloping meadow thick with flowers. Our car passed through broad drifts of blue-purple mountain larkspur interspersed with small-flowered penstemon, its double clusters of lavender blue flowers teeming with bees. There were pint-sized groupings of woody aster with its bright yellow eye and here and there, the feathery bristles of Indian paintbrush added a bright red accent to the picture.

Tall mountain larkspur

Showy goldeneye, a member of the sunflower family

Small-flowered penstemon and bee

Further up the rise, the broad swathes of meadow flowers gave way to lone clusters of flowers common to upper elevations. Stubbornly clinging to the steep rocky slope were pale white columbines and 4-foot high clusters of tall mountain bluebells. The bluebells’ deep blue nodding blooms and bluish-green leaves, more akin to a woodland setting, provided a stark contrast to the dusty grey soil.

White columbines

Tall mountain bluebells

Closer to the peak, the white columbines were joined by others in pastel shades of blue, including the white and lavender Rocky Mountain columbine with its distinctive white cup and fringed yellow center. The Rocky Mountain columbine is the state flower of Colorado and its colors are symbolic. The blue petals represent sky, the white cup snow and the yellow center symbolizes Colorado’s gold mining history.

Rocky Mountain columbine, the state flower of Colorado

Finally we mounted a rise and the summit appeared before us, a rocky plateau whose only feature was a lone cabin perched on the edge of a cliff. A sign read that the structure was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. From this vantage point, you could see parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, part of a staggering vista that extended in every direction for hundreds of miles.

Civilian Conservation Corps hut built in 1935

Yet, even here in this inhospitable place, plants were growing. Moss spread tiny green carpets while tucked into the bare rocks were colonies of colorful rock lichens. And on the cliff face itself the rocks were spattered with neon patches of Pleopsidium, a lichen that prefers the surface of vertical rocks.

Neon-colored lichen growing on the cliffs of Brian Head Peak

Not to be outdone, the bright yellow blooms of cinquefoil provided a welcome touch of greenery at the cabin’s threshold.

Cinquefoil blooming at 11,000 feet

All in all, a great day spent in nature’s garden.

Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN

Before you wrinkle your nose at this, hear me out, because it’s true. Scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer in drought conditions. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for that bottle of white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study in Nature Plants that reported they had uncovered a novel way to help plants survive drought. The study revealed that the researchers had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in plants that sprang into action in times of water stress. By further unraveling the pathway and the roles different chemicals played within it, the scientists discovered they could induce greater drought tolerance by growing plants in vinegar.

We all know vinegar’s miraculous properties for cleaning windows and removing stains from carpets, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 


The study began with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, the genus of small flowering plants is the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced (which makes it one of the model organisms used for studying plant biology.)  Most importantly for the purposes of the study, Arabidopsis has a strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6 (histone desacetylase6) that allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress

Initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway (sequence of chemical reactions undergone by a compound in a living organism) is active. While normal plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, the Arabidopsis plants switch to the acetate-producing pathway.

To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, 70% of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living while all of the other plants had died.

Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata

By measuring the amounts of acetate in Arabidopsis under stress, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate produced during periods of drought and how well the plants survived. And even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and found that their drought tolerance increased as well when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

The implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to genetic engineering. I’m not sure if it will help my hydrangeas battle another scorching Maryland summer, but I’ll let you know.



Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Partial Shade Gardens

“Ferns are the embodiment of green thoughts in a green shade and if a leafy shadow could take root, moss would surely be the result” –Hugh Johnson ‘Principles of Gardening’

I was always drawn to shady nooks as a child, especially if they beckoned from around a corner. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into adulthood where these memories now inspire many of my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a partial shade garden.

It’s a funny thing. In garden design, we often employ hedges, fences and walls to provide a sense of privacy and refuge; yet a shade garden uses none of these devices to evoke exactly the same thing. How is this so? It’s the plants themselves that create the feeling of sanctuary. They do this through their shapes, sizes, textures and most importantly, their contrasting tones.

A grouping of contrasting tones

A great shade garden, just like in painting, draws on contrasting light and dark tones to create a visual sense of depth in the landscape. Dark toned plants (in particular, ones with dense foliage) appear to move backward in the garden while light toned plants are forced forward. The successful combination of these key elements is what gives the shade garden its irresistible allure.

There are so many great shade-loving plants with beautiful flowers. But, if you’re looking to create that feeling of mystery and enclosure, start by


Variegated foliage

Variegated leaf of Polygonatum odoratum, Solomon’s Seal

In a shade border, plants with variegated foliage act as beacons, lighting up shadowy spaces and helping to create a feeling of breadth. Look for plants with cream, white or lime margins (or spots) and plant them at intervals among drifts of solid green foliage to create a ‘dappled’ look. The effect is alot like the reflection of moonlight on water.

Variegated Dogwood, Cornus alba argenteo-marginata

Hosta ‘Francee’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

Broad leafed sedge, Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’

Candidum caladium

Solomon’s Seal


Dark foliage

Dark green foliage of Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata

In painting, artists use dark tones to create the illusion of depth and make lighter colors ‘pop’. The same goes for the shade garden. Dark foliage tends to recede, leading the eye deeper into the garden. It also creates a nice backdrop for lighter-toned plants. If you edge the inner curves of your border with small, dark-leaved plants, it will make them look deeper.

Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata 

Heuchera ‘Obsidian’

Rhododendron (any)

‘Illustris’, Elephant’s EarColocasia esculenta


Blue foliage

Blue hosta

Blue injects the perfect note of calm into a border. The cool shade provides a tranquil contrast to dark or variegated foliage. It’s not an easy color to find, however, as most blues tend towards purple, which produces an altogether different result.

Hosta ‘Blue Angel’

Hosta ‘Fragrant Blue’

Hosta ‘Hadspen Blue’

Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’


Silver foliage

Silver-toned leaves of Brunnera macrophylla

A little touch of silvery foliage in the shade garden acts as a foil to other plants. It also shimmers in the moonlight. Don’t overdo it, though. This tone brings things visually forward. Too much silver and you risk losing that sense of depth.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

Japanese Painted Fern


Lime Green foliage

Chartreuse flowers of bright green Lady’s Mantle

There’s nothing like a splash of lime green to lighten up the shade border. Lime calls attention to itself in a different way than white. More cooling, it brightens softly, like a light bulb on a dimmer.

Hosta ‘Twist of Lime’

Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis

Heuchera ‘Key Lime Pie’

Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia


Big-leaved plants

Giant leaves of Hardy Begonia, Begonia grandis

If you really want to make an impact, go big with these large-leaved shade lovers. Big-leaved plants placed in the back of the garden attract the eye and increase the sense of depth.

Indian Rhubarb, Darmera Peltata

Giant Leopard Plant, Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’

Begonia grandis ‘Alba’


Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

Reflecting pool in the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best display gardens I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to impress, and impress me it did, with its distinctive spaces presenting plants from all parts of the world.



Located at York Street, the Denver Botanic Gardens unfolds gradually, as step by step one beautiful garden flows seamlessly into another. There are 17 arid gardens showcasing plants that thrive in Colorado’s dry climate, internationally inspired gardens, ornamental gardens, shade gardens and water gardens. And that’s not all – there’s an ornamental vegetable garden and countless garden ‘vignettes’ in between, enough to make your head spin with all the horticultural inspiration.

Here are some highlights of the different gardens I visited.

The O’Fallon Perennial Walk

I love to meander, so we didn’t bother looking at the map and within moments found ourselves at the base of the O’Fallon Perennial Walk. Backed by a hedge of formally pruned native juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), the impressive border featured many of the plants I use in my designs back East. There were generous drifts of colorful bearded irises, yarrow, perennial geraniums, lime green lady’s mantle and ice blue amsonia (Texas Star) along with roses, boxwood and barberry, to name just a few.

Apricot Iris germanica

Aside from the beautiful plants, the cool thing about this border is its design. The hedged borders are angled so that the views from the north end (viewed in photo) make the south end appear farther away than it actually is. I also couldn’t help but notice that the plants were double the size I’m used to seeing – must be the dry Denver air!

Next up were a series of gardens called the Romantic Gardens. The Tuscan-style Schlessman Plaza features rustic stone columns, stucco walls and a pair of brick and stucco pavilions. The formal beds are planted with perennials and shrubs and flanked by ornamental crabapple trees.

Schlessman Plaza

Ornamental crabapples at Schlessman Plaza

The Fragrance Garden features raised beds of bright-colored perennials including  Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Dianthus ‘First Love’, Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue,’ Monarda ‘Marshall’s Delight’, Nepeta and copious amounts of Love-In-A-Mist (Nigella) all accented by the silvery foliage of Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’ (Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush) and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. The drought-resistant plants and shrubs are further enhanced by the grey stucco wall.

 The Fragrance Garden

Rounding a corner, we stumbled on an elliptical garden centered on a brilliant red and yellow Chihuly sculpture. The sunken garden entitled The Ellipse features roses from the May-Bonfils Stanton collection along with hydrangeas, lilies and daylilies chosen to coordinate with the jewel-toned glass (which reminded me of a red hot poker flower). The sculpture was specially commissioned for the Denver Botanic Gardens and installed in 2014. It is called ‘Colorado.’

The Ellipse in honor of Nancy Schotters

Path bordered by Sweet Alyssum that encircles the Ellipse

Reflecting pool at the end of the Fragrance Garden

The Herb Garden, to the left of the Fragrance Garden, was designed for ‘health and culinary enjoyment’ according to the brochure. The garden is maintained in collaboration with the Metro Denver Herbalists and includes basil, thyme, oregano, lavender and lemon verbena and other Italian herbs. Some of the herbs are used to make soaps and other herb blends that are sold in the Garden Shop.

Herb Garden medallion made of Wooly Thyme

Close-up of the medallion

Adjacent to the Herb Garden is the Scripture Garden, a contemplative space filled with plants that originate in the ‘Fertile Crescent’; the area common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Many of the trees, shrubs and flowers symbolize the various faiths’ religious stories. This includes a stand of olive trees whose species is native to the Mediterranean area. Unable to withstand the Denver winter, the trees spend the coldest months indoors in the garden greenhouses.

The Scripture Garden

From this quiet area we headed to the Space Pyramid, a futuristic-looking grey and black mosaic pyramid located at the heart of the garden. The Pyramid is home to a 60-inch spherical globe that simulates how the earth looks from space.

Space Pyramid and fountain at Denver Botanic Gardens

Adjacent to the Space Pyramid is the Ornamental Grasses Garden. Who knew there could be such variety? The beautiful garden encompasses a wide variety of traditional and new ornamental grasses including Indian ricegrass, switchgrass, cutleaf staghorn sumac and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) a native to the eastern plains of Colorado.

Ornamental Grasses Garden

The sculpture in the back is called ‘So Proud Of My Children’ and was created by Nicholas Kadzungara.

I loved this garden space with a sheet metal sculpture by Alexander Calder entitled ‘Polygons on Triangles.’ It was the perfect counterpoint to all the torch lilies.

Another view of the orange and yellow torch lilies, so striking popping up from among the grasses.

June’s Plantasia showcases the plants and planting traditions of Asia. River rocks, designed to mimic the flow of water, cover the paths and change direction depending on where you want to walk. For example, the direction of the river rocks on the bridge matches the direction of the stream below.

River rock path in June’s Plantasia

Close-up of river rocks

Allium silhouetted against a black rock in June’s Plantasia

Here are some garden vignettes near June’s Plantasia

Iris ‘Wake Up Call’

The Dwarf Conifer Garden displays the largest collection of Jerry Morris’ dwarf conifers in the world. Morris is internationally known for his groundbreaking work with conifers, including the development of species with more desirable traits like bluer foliage, longer needles and better disease resistance.

Jerry Morris Conifer Garden

A secluded spot nearby.

Compared with all of the greenery we had just experienced, the Rock Alpine Garden was a breath of dry air. This garden features plants from high elevation regions around the world. The landscape includes over 2000 different plant species. Rugged rocks add to the garden’s appeal.

Rock Alpine Garden

The Gates Montane Garden was created in 1961 by S.R. DeBoer as a tribute to the late Charles C. Gates.  It is designed to mimic the mountain setting of the Gate’s property in Bear Creek Canyon. The shady woodland path is a nice contrast to the Alpine Garden with its mix of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Columbines in the Gates Montane Garden

The Plains Garden depicts what the Denver landscape looked like prior to development. The majority of the seeds were procured from within 30 miles of Denver and represent such signature plants as Blue Grama grass, Buffalo grass and Liatris punctata (spotted gayfeather.) This garden survives on precipitation alone.

Plains Garden

Water plays a dominant theme in the Denver Botanic Gardens through which it meanders, alternately taking the form of streams, reflecting pools, fountains and water courses. We stepped out from the Plains Garden to encounter a large paved space crisscrossed by water pathways. Known as the Monet Pool, the water garden features an impressive array of waterlilies, lotus and cattails.

The Denver Botanic garden is a world leader in aquatic gardening and variety and breadth of aquatic plants.

The Monet Pool

The Potager, or Kitchen Garden, is encircled by the Monet water pathways. The edible plants are arranged in ornamental patterns.

Le Potager

These gardens are only a fraction of what you can see at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which brings new surprises with each passing season.

At the time of our visit, the gardens were embellished by sculptures by Alexander Calder. For more information on the gardens, click here for the Denver Botanic Gardens website. And don’t forget to visit the Conservatory for more eye-opening experiences.


Having A Ball With Alliums (Ornamental Onions)

Allium giganteum, also known as Giant Onion 

They look like they’re right out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on naked green stems. I love to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they encounter the colorful spheres for the very first time. Drought tolerant and virtually disease and pest-free, alliums (also known as ornamental onions) are a sure bet if you’re looking to liven up your garden. Continue reading

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

Most of us who grow flowers in containers in summer know it can be a constant battle to keep things looking their best. We feed and water our plants diligently, yet in no time the flowers stop blooming and the stems become long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that how to care for plants in containers is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. So, what can we do to keep our potted plants in shape all summer?

Water, water, water then water again

The most important thing to remember when caring for flowering potted plants is that they require:

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Annuals and tender perennials, which are the flowers most commonly planted in pots, are shallow-rooted. This means they require a regular supply of water in order to survive. In fact, small root systems, which have limited capacity to store water, require water daily. Water your plants at the soil level so that liquid doesn’t accumulate on the leaves (which can lead to leaf scorch or cause fungus to develop.) And wait until the water seeps out of the drainage holes in the bottom to make sure the potting soil has been thoroughly moistened.



Feed for more blooms

In addition to lots of water, potted flowers need regular feeding to keep on blooming. This is because as the potting mix breaks down, it naturally loses its nutrients as the plants absorb them. I feed my plants three times during the summer with a water soluble fertilizer. (Miracle Gro All Purpose Plant Food works great.) Be careful not to overdo it though, because over-fertilization can lead to lots of lush foliage, but fewer flowers.



Groom to keep the shape

Deadheading, pinching and pruning are ways of grooming your potted flowers. Depending on the size of the stem, you can pinch off spent flowers and leggy branches using your thumb and forefinger, or snip them with scissors or pruning shears. These tasks help you maintain the form of your plants and stimulate them to keep on flowering.

Here are three popular annuals/tender perennials often grown in pots and how to groom them.

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Though grown as an annual in most areas, the common geranium, or Pelargonium x hortorum, is actually a tender perennial, meaning it won’t survive the winter outdoors (though you can overwinter it indoors.) While it’s tempting to buy this beautiful flowering plant as soon as it hits the garden centers in early spring, it’s usually best to hold off until around Mother’s Day, when there’s less risk of an overnight frost.


A healthy geranium is commonly comprised of a few central stems and lots of side shoots (which is the optimum structure for a strong plant that will produce lots of flowers.) To keep your geranium looking good,  prune back the central stems by about a third a week or two after potting it, using a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears. This will encourage more side shoots to form and maintain the plant’s fullness.

As the season progresses, regularly pinch the side branches of your geranium down to the angle where the branches fork. This will prevent the plant from becoming too leggy. And deadhead (pinch at the base) all flower stems as soon as they have faded, which will encourage new flowering.


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Petunias can become leggy fast without some prudent intervention. They can also quit blooming almost entirely after an initial colorful flush. No worries, though. With proper watering, feeding and grooming, you can keep your petunias looking good all season long.


Petunias need to be regularly deadheaded to encourage new flowering, but unlike geraniums, removing the dead flowers from the plant accomplishes only part of the job. At the base of the petunia flower stem is a small, nugget-sized pod that produces seeds. If you leave the pod on the plant, the petunia will stop flowering. In order to stimulate the plant to produce more flowers, you’ll need to remove the entire flower stem.

Deadheading the flowers (with stems) on a regular basis will keep your petunias looking neat; however, it won’t solve the leggy problem. To control legginess, prune the plant every week, cutting back about a third of the petunia. You can do this by pinching branches selectively or grabbing clumps and shearing them off. Each week cut the plant back by another third. Rejuvenating petunias in this way will encourage new stems and blossoms to sprout from the interior branches.

For a great tutorial on how to keep your petunias looking full and flowering, click here.


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These brightly-colored specimens require less care than geraniums or petunias, but still need regular pruning (though little deadheading) to help them maintain their compact shape. The same goes for the indoor varieties, by the way.


To keep your begonias looking their best, prune the outer branches (called canes) harder than the interior ones, pinching back the growing tips of new shoots to encourage new stems to form. Prune the interior canes at varied heights and prune the outer canes at the lowest. This will encourage new growth at the base and prevent the plant from looking bare at the bottom.

If your begonia has lost all its lower leaves, you can cut it back all the way to the soil. This will force the plant to send up new shoots. You can then continue pinching new stems as they grow until you achieve the desired shape and fullness.

A note on begonias, both indoors (as houseplants) and out: They don’t like to be overwatered.

A final note: sterilize your garden shears between uses to prevent diseases from spreading among plants. Then, sit back and enjoy your potted flowers for the remainder of the season.


Nothing Beats A Spring Day In the Gardens At DC’s Dumbarton Oaks

Spring garden at Dumbarton Oaks

When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. This spring, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the magnificent spring blooms that Dumbarton Oaks is famous for, but also because starting in July, the gardens will be temporarily closing for renovations.


Located high on a hill in Washington, DC on the northern edge of Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is an historic property, including a 19th century house, art museum and gardens of world-class distinction. It is the legacy of Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, noted philanthropists and collectors of art, who purchased the property in 1920. At that time, the now 53-acre estate included an 1801 Federal-style home, six acres of steeply graded farmland and a series of sadly neglected gardens.

Entrance to main house at Dumbarton Oaks

The Blisses had just arrived home from two decades abroad and were keen on creating ‘a country estate in the city.’ They fell in love with the sloping terrain of Dumbarton Oaks and spent the next twenty years renovating the house and expanding the gardens. To help her transform the land, Mildred hired renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand. The project, which was to end up encompassing both formal and informal designs, is today considered to be Farrand’s most ambitious garden.

A view across today’s many-tiered garden

Beatrix and Mildred worked together to design and build an intricate landscape with a distinctive American flair while incorporating elements of Italian and English garden style (assimilated during the couples’ extensive travels abroad). This allowed the garden to remain flexible and over time, it has evolved to include new designs, plantings and ornamentation. Some say that the women created one of the “greatest garden ensembles in American landscape history.”

Mildred Bliss/Photo: Dumbarton Oaks

To preserve her vision, Farrand documented all her plants and the reasons for their selection in The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. Completed in the 1940s, it remains the key resource for maintaining the gardens in the style Beatrix and Mildred intended them to be.

In 1940, the Blisses cofounded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to display their collect of rare books, documents, art and other objects accumulated during their years abroad. They also donated the mansion, outbuildings and formal gardens to Harvard University (Robert’s alma mater).

An unusual azalea variety at Dumbarton Oaks

In 1963, a Garden Library was added to the house to display Mrs. Bliss’s collection of rare and modern garden books. And today, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection is a Washington, DC institute administered by the Trustees of Harvard University. In addition to offering fellowships, internships and exhibitions in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape studies, Dumbarton Oaks includes a Museum of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and a Music room that provides a venue for concerts and lectures.

In a 1940 letter to his wife Mildred, Robert wrote,

‘At Dumbarton Oaks you have created something very beautiful, very special both in the garden and inside the house. It will remain a monument to your taste, knowledge and understanding – a delight to all who visit it and a great resource to those who are fortunate enough to work there. ‘



Farrand’s 1921 design was built around a phased transition from formal to informal spaces, ending in a woodland landscape (also designed) in the valley below the mansion. The design included numerous ponds, streams and garden ornaments all of which provided focal points in the gardens.

Today, the garden staff continue to evolve the gardens, creating one magical space after another.

The Tour

A visit to the gardens begins behind the main house on the Arbor Terrace, a broad swath of lawn overlooking the lower gardens.

The terrace is bordered by stone walls and an arbor that, at the time of my visit, was covered in wisteria.

Descending a staircase flanked by boxwood hedges (the garden’s central axis), we passed a hillside of cherry trees (no longer blooming) followed by Crabapple Hill.

A pebble and flagstone path bordered by peonies and other spring perennials led us deeper into the lower gardens.

The Pebble Garden features elaborate stonework laid in the shape of a wheat shaft. It is surrounded by trellises of wisteria and low flowerbeds. Pairs of stone columns lend a sense of enclosure to the dramatic space.

The Pebble Garden

Here is another view of the top of the Pebble Garden from the house terrace. (The students get to use the pool after-hours.)

Everywhere on the property are small niches complemented with interesting architectural elements. We passed by this one on the way to the Rose Garden. The Urn Terrace functions as the transition from the Boxwood Walk to the Rose Garden.

The Urn Terrace

The Rose Garden follows classical lines. Groups of same-species roses are laid out in geometrical grids accented by large and small orbs of loosely-clipped boxwood.

The garden is complemented by an antique stone bench.

Antique stone bench in the Rose Garden

Descending further down the slope, we arrived at the Fountain Terrace, a traditional flower garden.

The Fountain Terrace flower garden 

Close-up of the bright-colored flower borders on the Fountain Terrace

Close by the Fountain Terrace, is the English-style Herbaceous Border, which stretches back up the hill, provides an expansive view of all its riotous spring flowers.

Herbaceous Border

Lovers’ Lane Pool offers a quiet respite from all the color. The medium-sized garden features a shallow pool at the base of a small brick amphitheater bordered by bamboo.

Lovers Lane Pool

This small garden was designed by one of the interns at Dumbarton Oaks.

Small garden

The Plum Walk, with its identical rows of purple-toned trees, guides visitors further down the slope to the vegetable and cutting gardens.

Prunus Walk

A view of one of the vegetable gardens through the plum tree canopy

Lower vegetable and cutting garden

Old espaliered fruit trees underplanted with spring perennials border the gardens.

Aside from the Arbor Terrace with its magnificent wisteria, the Ellipse is a standout with its double row of formally-clipped hornbeams at the center of which is a simple fountain surrounded by a moat. The fountain is original to Farrand’s design, although the hornbeams are not. They replaced a boxwood-lined enclosure planted in the 1920s.

Hornbeam Ellipse

Located at the base of the gardens, the mostly-green space is peaceful and serene with its geometric shapes and quiet reflecting pool. Dumbarton Oaks is famous for this aerial hedge of pleached hornbeams, which provide a sense of enclosure while offering tantalizing glimpses of other gardens beyond. A great way to finish off a tour of these lovely gardens.

For more about Dumbarton Oaks, its history and hours of operation, click here for the official website.


Mount Sharon: Finding Gold In The Hills Of Orange, Virginia

Mount Sharon Rose Garden/Photo: Here By Design

The Rose Garden at Virginia’s Mount Sharon

High on a hilltop in beautiful Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it sits on the second highest point in the county. The magnificent property, which includes a brick house in the Georgian Revival style, is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading

How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

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Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But the case may be different when it comes to a child’s love for her mom. One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis. Continue reading