About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming.

We placed the milkweed next to a drift of Joe-Pye weed and sat back to see what would happen.

Things aren’t looking up for the monarch butterfly

With a wing-span of over 4 inches, monarch butterflies are considered by many to be the ‘king’ of butterflies. According to the National Wildlife Federation, however, their populations in North America are in steep decline. Over the past twenty years, monarch numbers have plummeted by an astonishing 90 percent, prompting scientists to question what’s happening. They suspect the answer is tied up with milkweed.

Close-up of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Why milkweed you might ask? Because milkweed is the host plant for monarchs whose caterpillars will only eat plants in the family. And unfortunately, it has been disappearing, too. Over the last couple decades, large-scale clearing of meadows and prairies for development coupled with heavy pesticide use has resulted in milkweed becoming increasingly scarce, placing in jeopardy the tiny species that depends on it for survival.

The problem is so big that according to one National Public Radio (npr) report, monarch populations overwintering in Mexico that averaged around nine hectares from 1995 to 2002, in 2014 took up less than one.*

A migratory insect

Every spring, thousands of Eastern monarchs begin their annual migration from Mexico to Canada, a journey of roughly 3,000 miles. And every fall, they do the same trip in reverse. The insects stop three times to breed along the way, each time going through four stages of development: egg, larvae (caterpillar), chrysalis and butterfly.

Once they emerge from their chrysalises, the butterflies live for just four to eight weeks, long enough to fly hundreds of miles further north to lay their eggs. Then the stages of development are repeated and the next generation of butterflies continues the journey.

Millions of monarch butterflies flying in Mexico

In all, it takes three generations of butterflies to make it to Canada.

Incredibly, the fourth generation butterfly (born in Canada) lives a bit longer. This is the monarch that migrates back to warmer climates like Mexico. This butterfly lives for six to eight months, long enough for it to start the whole process over again in the spring. (To read more about the monarch butterfly cycle, click here.

Monarchs and milkweeds

The milkweed family, Asclepias, owes its common name to the milky latex that oozes when a stem is snapped. It is composed of more than 100 varieties. Tall and leafy, it bears large balls of vanilla-scented mauve-pink flowers and is commonly found growing in large groups along roadsides, ponds, stream beds and even ditches.

In the fall, the plant’s follicles split open to disperse fluffy white seeds that are carried away by the wind.

Milkweed pod and air-borne seeds

Starting in March, monarch butterflies emerge from their hibernation to find a mate and begin the journey north to find milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. It takes about 4 days for the eggs to hatch. Once the baby caterpillars emerge, they spend about two weeks eating as many of the plants’ leaves as they can until fully grown. Then they find a place to attach themselves to a stem and begin the process of metamorphosis.

It can take an additional two weeks for the adult butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis.

Monarch caterpillar chrysalis

Aside from habitat and nutrition, the milkweed provides another key benefit to the monarch. As the caterpillars undergo transformation in chrysalis, they ingest toxic chemicals secreted in the plants’ sticky sap. These chemicals, called cardenolides, provide them with a defense against would-be predators such as birds and mice.

Monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed

Specifically, cardenolides are so toxic and bitter tasting to other vertebrate species that many have learned to associate bad taste with the butterflies’ distinctive orange and black markings. Although as adults, monarchs no longer eat milkweed, they are able to sequester the toxins that they ingested as larvae, providing them with protection against many predators during the remainder of their lifespan.

Monarchs’ distinctive colors help ward of predators

Monarch butterflies only lay one egg per leaf, but they lay eggs on lots of leaves and always on more than one plant. They are mini eating machines. Three days after the milkweed arrived to the fair, the caterpillars had devoured the plant they rode in on and in their place hung rows of tiny chrysalises.

Milkweed varieties for your garden

Nowadays there are a number of milkweed and butterfly weed varieties that have been developed specifically for the garden. Available in different colors and flower forms, they add a natural beauty to the garden. Planting a few cultivars will help save the monarchs, too.

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Ready to save the monarchs with milkweed? Here are some great new varieties to try, available at many local nurseries.

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bright orange beauty blooms from May to September. It won Perennial of the Year 2017 for its brilliant flowers, hardy, upright stems and good drought-tolerance. It looks great combined with yellow daylilies or fresh white daisies. And, it especially shines against purple-leaved plants like smoke bush.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Orange not your thing? Then try ‘Hello Yellow’, available through White Flower Farm.

Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’

Or try a hot-color mix of yellow, gold, orange and scarlet, Asclepias tuberosa ‘Gay Butterflies’ available at White Flower Farm.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mixture

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Similar in shape to roadside milkweed, Swamp milkweed ‘Cinderella’s’ deep pink flowers with white centers make it a standout in the garden. And its vanilla-scented flowers are a treat for the senses. Growing 3′ to 4′ tall, it blooms all summer with regular deadheading.

Swamp milkweed ‘Cinderella’ available at Perennials.com

Milkweed generally blooms from June to August. All varieties need full sun and well-drained soil. If you observe caterpillars or chrysalises on your plant, wait until the butterflies have flown away, then simply cut the plant to the ground.

* Monarch populations are measured in hectares, which roughly equal 2 1/2 acres.


The Best Late-Summer Flowers For Your August/September Garden

In mid August, it’s sometimes hard not to look at your garden and throw in the towel. By that, I mean take out the pruners and cut down all the moldy, dried out stems or simply turn a blind eye to the whole debacle. But that would be a shame with so many late-summer flowers just now coming into their own. It just takes a little advance planning and some careful pruning and you can have a garden that keeps flowering all the way until fall.

I know what I’m talking about, not only as a designer, but because I co-chair a demonstration garden in Maryland that must be in peak flower in August in time for the County Fair. Located on the grounds of the Montgomery County Agricultural Center, the garden is funded by the Master Gardener program and plays an integral role in educating the public. The Fair falls at a time of year, however, that can be hard on flowers not only because it’s getting late in the season but also because there are invariably wide swings in weather.

A view of our demo garden with the cow ‘show barn’ in the back

Come late July, I often lay awake at night wondering just how the garden will remain in flower. And this year, our demo garden endured more challenges than usual, including extremes in temperature, a prolonged period of drought and a 10-day deluge of rain. Additionally, a cold spring led us to plant later than usual (every year we add or replace some flowers) only to watch the the temperatures soar 20 degrees above normal the following day. It was a perfect storm of garden-related disasters that made us all wonder what would possibly be left for the Fair.

It was a miracle then, that when we opened the garden to the public yesterday, it looked better than ever.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia) is a member of the sunflower family

How did we do it? Upon reflection, I think our success hinged on four important things: 1) Choosing late-summer flowers; 2) Diligent pruning to increase or delay blooms; 3) Proper irrigation; and 4) Planting annuals and bulbs to fill out bare spaces.


Following are the perennials that are in full flower today in our August garden, many of which started blooming in early July. Other late-summer flowers like Japanese anemones, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, physostegia, dahlias, zinnias and many plants in the aster family waited until August to begin putting on a show.

We supplemented these flowers with such dependable late-flowering shrubs as abelia, hydrangeas ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Limelight’ and Knock-Out Rose.

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’

Planting late-summer flowers in the right places (sun or shade, back or front of the border) sets the August/September garden up for success from the start. It pays to educate yourself on what species bloom when and then design your garden around the seasons you most like to enjoy it.


I’ve written a lot previously about the importance of deadheading and why it encourages a plant to produce more flowers. But there’s another secret to pruning: judicious and early removal of blooms can also cause a plant to bush out and most importantly, it can delay flowering. Depending on what time of the season you make your cuts and by how much, you can coax plants to bloom at times later than they are naturally programmed to do.

Red hibiscus

My go-to reference for all types of pruning is The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. I’ve used it for years to get plants to bloom longer and at times they aren’t accustomed to. This in turn has helped our Master Gardener team create unique color combinations in our demo garden and orchestrate things so that our plants are in peak flower come Fair-time.

New Dawn climbing rose with balloon flower in the background

Starting in mid June, we hard prune many of our flowers, lopping off sometimes as much as a third of the plant. This encourages the plant to bush out instead of becoming leggy. And, if we get our timing right, the flowers are delayed until the beginning of August, or just in time for the Fair.

Here are two examples:

Daylilies. in addition to snapping off the daily dead blooms (daylilies are called daylilies for a reason), we make sure to immediately remove any of the bulbous seed heads that start to develop. In the plant world, once the seedpods start to develop, the plant thinks it’s done for the season and stops flowering.

Removing spent blooms as often as possible will prolong daylily flowering

By diligently removing the dead flowers and pods (as well as cutting all spent stalks down to the ground) the plant gets the message to keep on blooming. Using this technique, we’ve kept some of our daylilies blooming for twice as long as they usually do.

Echinaceas. These sturdy flowers start blooming in our garden in July but can get long and leggy by August without some prudent intervention. We continuously remove the flowers as soon as they start to dry out, making our cuts down along the stem where we see the newest flower just starting to develop.

Echinacea purpurea, sneezweed and salvia ‘Victory Blue’

By continuous pruning, we keep our coneflowers thick and blooming pretty much until the end of summer.


At the demo garden, we use a drip system of irrigation. It works relatively well until someone at the fairgrounds decides to turn off the main water source. This year we installed a timer and spoke with the fairgrounds staff to get everyone on the same page. Still, there were many times, especially with new plantings, that we needed to call on our team to hand water.

Purple physostegia and artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ make a great combination

Although it seems obvious, I cannot emphasize enough the need to water. Drip irrigation alone is rarely sufficient in hot climates to get new plants to establish properly. We always supplement our drip system with hand watering during dry spells, making sure to water long and deep. Deep root watering is always better than a short surface spritz, which only teases the roots before quickly evaporating.


Finally, nothing beats zinnias and dahlias for filling in bare spaces in the late summer garden. Zinnias come into their own by late August and my own dahlias at home keep flowering until well into October. It’s a great pick-me-up to see all these happy, bright flowers appear suddenly at the end of the season.

Zinnia mix in the late summer garden

We plant our (potted) zinnias in the garden in July and prune them down as they grow to encourage them to thicken up before blooming. The dahlias go in the ground in June. And both will be continuing to brighten our demo garden well after the Fair has ended.


Step Back In Time On the Trails of Harpers Ferry, WV


“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature… worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1783

When the sign points left to Maine and right to Georgia, you know you are smack dab in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. The two states, on either extremity of the eastern seaboard of the United States, are 1,165 and 1,013 miles away, respectively. This is the famous crossroads in the tiny town of Harpers Ferry, one of the few towns the trail passes through. It is also the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles and a national park of incomparable beauty.

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at the borders of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Covering an area of just 0.61 square miles, it is surrounded by jagged, grey brown cliffs of shale and sandstone and acres of pristine natural forest. Miles of railroad tracks run through the heart of the tiny town and climb to trace paths in the hills along the banks of the rivers.

The most prominent geological feature in the park is a jagged water gap cut by the Potomac River through the mountains between Maryland and Virginia. Formed over million of years as the mountains weathered and eroded, the gap rages with frothy white water. As it flows eastward towards the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac rushes through the gap to join the  Shenandoah at the tip of Harpers Ferry.

The Potomac meets the Shenandoah at Harper’s Ferry

Situated as it is like the prow of a ship between two rivers, Harpers Ferry has for centuries drawn first native people, then European settlers and railroad workers through the natural passage carved by the water gap. The rare ecological feature made possible the first crossing (at Harpers Ferry) of the Potomac by a railroad on the first structural steel bridge in the world. The bridge is still in existence today.

First structural steel bridge in the world

Still other people came to Harpers Ferry to harness the wild energy of the Potomac as it raced down from the mountains, building many successful businesses along the banks of the rivers. Sadly, the same raging waters that brought financial gain were an equal source of heartache, as they intermittently flooded and destroyed much of what had been established.

Historic Lower Town

The lower section of Harpers Ferry, known as Lower Town, is situated on a low-lying flood plain on the banks of the two rivers. A raised railroad track skirts the southern part of the town. Quaint and picturesque, the 19th century village, now owned mostly by the National Park Service, features beautiful old stone and brick buildings with wide porches, tiny shops and historic dining establishments.

Old Town Harpers Ferry

But dramatic natural beauty is not all Harper’s Ferry has to offer. Since it is located at a crossroads, the town has endured a tumultuous history, changing hands eight times between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War.

Harpers Ferry’s strategic location on the railroad and just north of the water gap, made it an attractive spot for military maneuvers as early as 1799, when the federal government purchased a 125-acre tract and began construction on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This was one of only two such facilities in the United States and the burgeoning business in arms manufacturing, between 1801 and 1861, transformed the town into a thriving industrial center.

John Brown

On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men, including slaves and freed slaves, on a raid of the U.S. Armory and Arsenal. Brown’s intention for his “Provisional Army of the United States” was to use the weapons to start a slave uprising throughout the IMG_6934south. The raiders were eventually forced to hole up in the Armory’s engine house where they were taken captive by U.S. marines two days later.

Brown was charged for “conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder.” He was tried, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 2, 1859. It is generally believed that his raid was the catalyst for the Civil War.

John Brown’s fort has moved a number of times (including being transported to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1891) before coming to rest at its current location in Harpers Ferry next to the remains of the old armories. A stone marker on the floodplain known as Camp Hill indicates the original location of the building.

Civil War

When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the U.S. garrison stationed at Harpers Ferry attempted to destroy the arsenal and its equipment so the Confederates would be unable to use it. In September 1862, General Robert E. Lee sent three columns under Stonewall Jackson to capture the town. The Battle of Harpers Ferry led to the surrender of the entire Federal garrison (12,419 troops), the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the battle of Bataan in World War II.

Remains of the old arsenal in Harpers Ferry

By July 1864, Harpers Ferry was back under control of the Union, but fierce battles continued on Camp Hill and in the surrounding hills until the war ended, leaving most structures damaged or destroyed.

According to local historian Joseph Barry: “No spot in the United States experienced more of the horrors of war.”

First college to educate freed slaves 

The legacy left by John Brown’s raid became the driving force behind a rare racial tolerance in Harpers Ferry. On August 15, 1906 author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois led the Niagara Movement’s first meeting to secure rights for African Americans on the campus of Storer College, the first real academic college to educate freed slaves. The Niagara Movement later became the NAACP.

IMG_6886As Harpers Ferry grew and prospered, it became a popular tourist destination. People came by train from Washington, DC and Baltimore to spend a few weeks or the whole summer in the cool forests by the rivers’ edge.

Hilltop House, situated on a mountain top overlooking the town, was one of the most popular destinations for over a century. Built in 1888, its first proprietor and manager was Mr. Thomas Levitt, an African American native of Harpers Ferry. The building burnt twice in the early 1900s but Mr. Levitt and his wife rebuilt each time, maintaining their stewardship of the hotel for over 38 years.

Currently the hotel is closed for renovation.

Trails and National Historical Park Access

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park encompasses almost 4,000 acres in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. As the mid-point of the 2,178-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT), hikers can access the trail going either way. Visitors can also walk along the 184.5-mile-long towpath of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park by crossing the footbridge over the Potomac River. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail overlays the C&O Canal and continues north all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Although there is some parking on the hill leading in to the Lower Town, the best place to stow the car is at the parking lot maintained by the National Park Service a couple of miles up the road. They run a shuttle bus back and forth from Lower Town every few minutes. You can also walk the couple of miles back on well-maintained foot paths.  On the way, be sure to look out for bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and southern flying squirrels, which are all indigenous to the area.

For further information, click here.

Photos: Here By Design


Garden Style: Going For Baroque In Prague’s Beautiful Vrtba Garden

Prague’s Vrtba Garden

With only one vowel, it can prove hard to pronounce, but beautiful Vrtba Garden easily speaks to all languages. The little architectural gem, reached through a discreet gate in Karmelitská Street, is one of the most important Baroque gardens in Prague. In addition to its exuberant design, the terraced garden has a viewing platform that provides an exceptional vista on the city. And as I discovered recently, it’s a great place to pick up some tips on how to style a small garden.

What is old is new again

You don’t have to travel far to see the influence of Baroque style in today’s gardens. Tightly-clipped hedging, symmetrical design, ponds, waterfalls and sculptures are all common features. The roots of these ideas, however, can be traced all the way back to Britain in the early 1600s. This is when gardens became big, bold and flashy with over-the-top sculptures, eye-popping parterres and extravagant water features designed to shock and awe.

Late-Baroque gold figures of the Chinese House at Sanssouci Garden

Of course, the goal of these early masterpieces was to showcase the owner’s power and importance. The most famous Baroque garden was Versailles. As the style took hold across Europe, owners added their own regional touches, often borrowing from English, Italian and French designs. Today, this makes for a fascinating journey into the psyche of each proprietor and what he or she deemed important based on events going on at the time.

As our guide explained,

“In Baroque times, you were either ecstatic or repenting for your sins. There was no middle ground.”

How to fit a big ego into a small space

So what did you do if your space was small and you still wanted to impress your guests? Pack as many plant materials, water features and ornamentation into your garden as possible. This is what in the early 18th century, Jan Joseph, Count of Vrtba (1669-1737) and the most powerful man in the Kingdom of Bohemia decided to do.

Built in 1715-1720, Vrtba Garden is a superior example of ingenious use of space. Wedged between former palaces and an aviary, the formal clipped garden is laid out in parterres on three steep terraced levels. It’s a small garden with a big personality, and one that epitomizes what careful attention to detail, exemplary space planning and above all terracing can do to change your perspective.

The link between home and garden

One of the key aspects of Baroque style was unity of design between the residence and the garden. By repeating key elements of architecture and ornamentation, each space appeared to flow seamlessly into the other. In Vrtba Garden, this began with the Sala terrana.

Vrtba’s Sala terrena

Sala terrena, meaning ground floor hall, is a hall located on the ground floor that connects the garden with the residence. In the 18th century palace, it was often decorated with frescoes and fountains and designed as a grotto. Vrtba’s Sala terrana is a small space by most palace standards. Yet what it lacks in square footage it more than makes up for in splendor. Original 17th century frescoes and statues of Bacchus and Ceres still decorate the curved interior walls. In modern times, this would have been known as the party room.

Directly facing the Sala terrana is the first level of the garden.

Ground level of Vrtba Garden with Sala terrena to the right

In large Baroque gardens, the grand avenue, or main axis, functioned as the main entry into the garden and was usually centered on a water feature such as a fountain. Typically flanked by parterres enclosing flowers, the avenue was accented by topiary pruned into formal shapes. A cross axis led to other parts of the garden.

In Vrtba’s case, however, the small space made the creation of a grand avenue impossible. So the garden’s axes were reversed. Instead, the main avenue was laid out perpendicular to the Sala terrena and centered on the steep slope to the left. And the shorter axis connected the Sala terrana (A) to the aviary (B). (Count Vrtba built the aviary to add authentic ‘natural’ sounds to his garden.) This clever design trick helped shift the focus of the garden toward the largest part of the property.

Lay out of Vrtba Garden

In the center of this garden is a pool featuring a sculpture of a boy wrestling a dragon. Serving as the focal point, the playful theme of this piece sets the overall tone for the garden.

Our guide explained that the garden was created during a relatively peaceful period in Bohemia. “The Earl isn’t known for much more than this garden,” he said. Marking a departure from most Baroque gardens in Prague that feature religious and often violent themes, the sculptures and paintings of Vrtba instead celebrate the pleasures of life. They most likely reflect the Count’s state of mind at the time as well as his relationship to history.

Takeaway: Make sure your sculptures reflect what you want your garden to say about you.

A cornucopia in a side garden at Vrtba

As befits the Baroque-style garden, Vrtba’s parterres tend toward the symmetrical, but the space isn’t big enough to carry the symmetry throughout the garden. Instead, the designer introduced curves and other elements to fill the tight space. The gardens appear orderly, but are more Italian than French. These important elements help play with perspective and enlarge the space.

One of the ‘symmetrical’ parterres of the ground level

Takeway: Curves and subtle changes in dimensions are a great way to play with perspective and visually enlarge a space.

Terracing is good for perspective

From the ground level parterre, the eye looks left and is instantly drawn up the slope where at the very top can be glimpsed a viewing platform. This key architectural feature indicates the farthest reaches of the garden. At the time, this area would have been reserved for the ‘gloriette’, which was typically a building erected at the highest point of the garden.

A curve of the viewing platfrom can be glimpsed at the top of the photo

Accessed by a pair of stairs, the first terrace features a pair of parterres accented with clipped box cones. The low box hedges (estimated at over 12,000 individual plants) enclose curved beds of bright red begonias. The fringes of the terrace are bordered on the right by clipped shrubs and benches set against a retaining wall. On the left, the illusion of a matching wall is created by clipped hedges, beyond which another small garden can be glimpsed, creating a borrowed view.

Takeway: You can create symmetry in small gardens by repeating shapes.

Borrowed view into another garden helps enlarge the space

A pair of grand staircases lead up to the second terrace. The stairways provide the perfect platforms for stone statues dedicated to gods and goddesses from Greek mythology.

And many decorative vases.

Stone staircase looking down on middle terrace

A view from the top

Toward the upper reaches of the slope, the garden narrows as it approaches the final terrace and viewing platform. Another set of stairs culminate at the final arch featuring three allegorical scenes. The middle arch is framed by embossed mussels and highlighted by an arched gable with water gods. The side panels feature mermaids.

Finally, the viewing platform provides a bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Prague while a glance down the slope reveals the full scope of the garden. It was a boiling summer day, so we stayed up top enjoying the panoramic view of the city while a breeze played gently around us.

A view from the top of Vrtba Garden

Our guide captured the sensation perfectly, reminding us that in the 18th century,

 ‘The idea of watching the landscape was an activity all in itself.”

The gardens of Vrtba were rebuilt between 1990 and 1998. The designs were deriven from written sources. The flowers and shrubbery are typical of what were planted in the 18th century. For more information on the garden, its location and how to visit, go to www.vrtbovska.cz.


Sanssouci: The No-Worries Garden Just A Stone’s Throw From Berlin

Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace

Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there are signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There is one place, however, that remains unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday. Continue reading

Managing Hydrangeas: To Prune Or Not To Prune And Other Existential Questions

To prune or not to prune? That is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently I asked a top landscaper in Middleburg, Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without destroying next year’s flowers?” I asked. Her reply?

“Never,” she said with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, knowing what kind of hydrangeas you have growing in your garden. Different varieties require different pruning methods. Prune at the wrong time and you risk trimming off next year’s blooms. It all starts with knowing whether your hydrangeas flower on old or new wood. Continue reading

Raise The Flag For The Best Red, White and Blue Flowers Of The Summer Garden

For many Americans, the 4th of July is a time to fly the flag and dress in patriotic colors. But for gardeners, the fireworks start early as red, white and blue flowers begin taking shape in summer gardens. As nature’s palette changes from pastels to brights, white dons a crisp new uniform, red climbs from pink-tinged to bright and blue, well, that tends to be a different story, so please see below. Continue reading

The ABC’s Of Deadheading And Why It Produces More Flowers

Regular deadheading ensures the blooms keep coming all season long

Ever been frustrated by a beautiful plant that suddenly stops blooming? It’s time for a haircut. Regular deadheading is an essential practice in the life of a garden. Not only does it keep plants looking neat, but it encourages more blooms over a longer period of time. There’s nothing quite like getting a plant to re-flower that looks like it’s called it quits for the season.

What is deadheading?

Simply put, it’s the practice of removing faded or dead flower heads from a plant. Deadheading not only keeps a plant looking attractive, it encourages it to keep on blooming.

Dried poppy seed heads

Why does deadheading work?

Because the goal of all plants is to grow, set seed and die. As flowers start to fade, the plant pours its energy into producing seed heads. By removing dead blooms, you prevent the plant from setting seed, which in turn keeps the plant’s energy focused on producing more flowers. The result is a healthier, more vigorous plant that blooms for a longer period of time.


While deadheading benefits all blooming plants, the world of flowers is diverse and has different requirements. Depending on the species and variety, particular flowers require particular kinds of deadheading.

Here are tips on how to deadhead 6 popular varieties of flowering plants:

1. Clusters of flowers with leaves on their stems

Purple garden phlox

For tall, leggy plants like phlox, yarrow, daisies (or plants that have leaves on the lower stem), the best strategy is to deadhead just before the blooms die back completely.

As soon as flowers begin to wither or brown, use a pair of pruning shears or a sharp knife to cut off the spent blooms.

A good rule of thumb is to reach into the plant and remove the spent flowers back to the first or second set of leaves. This not only helps hide the cut, but it encourages the plant to bush out more as it produces new blooms. I vary the lengths at which I cut to keep the plant shapely.

2. Flowers with no leaves on their stems

Long-stemmed orange daylily

For flowers like daylilies and hostas that have no leaves on their stems, cut the entire stalk back to the base of the plant once it has finished flowering.

3. Salvias

Multiple flower spikes of salvia make pruning tedious

Once the initial flush of flower spikes start to brown, salvias often appear to be done for the season. With proper deadheading, however, you can encourage them to keep blooming through the summer.

Take a look at the plant and you’ll see that there are actually three flower stalks growing together – a central one surrounded by two, smaller ones on the side. As soon as the central stalk starts to brown, remove it. This will encourage the side shoots to grow.  Once the side shoots lose their color, cut them off too. Deadheading perennial salvias in this way can encourage the plant to re-bloom at least twice and sometimes three times during the season, especially if you feed it mid way through the summer.

4. Bushy plants with small flowers

Bushy perennial, Coreopsis verticillata

Bushy perennials like coreopsis can be encouraged to produce a second round of blooms past their standard flowering time.

Since it can be tedious to deadhead so many tiny flowers, I grab big chunks of the stems with spent blooms in one hand and shear them back with a pair of long-blade shears in the other. This not only encourages the plant to re-bloom a week or so later, it keeps thinks looking tidy.

5. Roses

With roses, the number to know is ‘5’

Most of us know that roses need to be deadheaded to flourish. Remove withered blooms by pruning back to above a five-leaflet leaf, cutting on an angle.

6. Annuals

Geraniums need consistent deadheading to look their best

All annuals need to be deadheaded regularly to thrive (with the possible exception of begonias, in which case I prune the leaves.) Popular annuals like geraniums and petunias must be constantly snipped, pinched or cut back to keep flowers looking neat and to encourage blooming. For a more in-depth tutorial on how to prune these annuals, click here for my blog post How To Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer.’


Butterfly weed is a prolific self-seeder

Some flowers, like columbine, echinacea and butterfly weed are prolific self-seeders. If you’re looking to produce lots of new baby plants, leave the seed heads on and they’ll quickly spread around your garden.

Don’t be afraid to get out those pruners!

It’s rare to damage a plant by cutting it. Use common sense while removing spent flowers, taking care to hide your cuts under existing foliage. You will be rewarded with a flush of new blooms!


Father’s Day 2018: Five Lessons Dad Taught Me About Life In the Garden

Me, my dad and my sister circa 1965

Dad was always up early when I was a child. On weekdays he went to the office, but on weekends the real work began. These were the days that dad devoted to yard work. My sister and I were a fundamental part of his crew.

Dad ran a tight ship and an orderly landscape was testament to our mighty team effort. As garden ‘personnel’, my sister and I raked, clipped, pulled weeds and hauled yard waste on a seasonal basis. We weren’t fans of the work, but we were big fans of dad’s, and the shared chores were a good way to spend outdoor time together.

It wasn’t until much later in life that we realized something more than gardening had been going on in the yard. While my sister and I toiled in the dirt, dad had been teaching us some valuable life lessons. Here are five things I learned from my dad in the garden that continue to infuse my life with purpose and meaning today.

Delay gratification

Until the work was done, there would be no rides to the pool, quick trips to Dunkin’ Donuts or play dates with friends. This was a hard lesson to learn since by Saturday morning most of our buddies were already hard at play. My sister and I gradually discovered, though, that delaying our playtime actually increased our enjoyment of it later. In finishing our yard chores first, we developed patience and strengthened our willpower. Over time, we grew to relish the psychic benefits of putting off fun until our tasks were accomplished.

Do quality work

One of my jobs was to crawl around the periphery of the house with garden shears to trim the stray grass left behind by the mower. About halfway around the exterior, I usually got tired and started cutting corners. My dad always noticed those areas where I had slacked off and though he never yelled, he seemed so disappointed. Many times I tearfully returned to the job. During the process, though, I gradually learned to do quality work and discovered that practicing quality was fulfilling and that it mattered to me.

Practice integrity

If you told dad you were going to do something, you did it. He expected no less. No excuses, prevarication or blaming poor work on your sister were valid substitutes for your word. Honesty was the rule and dad led by example, setting high standards in the yard. Dad taught us how to be respectful of each other and listened patiently to our endless strategies for reducing our workload. He also showed us that the key to good work was to finish the jobs that we started.

Push yourself

Dad had a riding lawn mower, but insisted on walking behind it to cut our 3-acre field. On the hottest of days, my mother would watch him incredulously from the kitchen window. My dad pushed himself to burn calories and probably to spend more time outdoors. Whatever the reason, his work ethic made it hard to refuse when he asked us to bag all the clippings.

Of course dad could have bagged the grass as he mowed, but that would have meant we missed out on the exercise. One year, as incentive, dad offered to pay us if we got all the clippings into 10 bags. We worked like demons all afternoon, devising efficient strategies for raking and fitting the most clippings in each black plastic sack. My sister was stamping on the tenth when it burst at the seams, but dad paid us anyway. We returned sweaty and tired to the house, and though dad disputes this version of the story, it’s still one of my favorite yard memories today.

Try not to complain

Dad showed us through example that even if the job got hard, or the weather uncomfortable, we should strive not to complain. Not only was it annoying, it made yard work unpleasant for everyone. He taught that seeing things in a more positive light was much better for all of us and improved our relationships.

Being young girls, my sister and I struggled the most with this concept. We tried hard to stop airing our yard work grievances, with incremental improvement over time as we aged. But, I’ll admit that it wasn’t until later on in life that I finally learned the true value of this lesson.

Thank you, dad, for all the lessons you taught us.  Happy Father’s Day. You are the best dad, ever.


How To Say What You Mean In The Language Of Flowers

Different flowers and flower colors carry different shades of meaning

Studies show that mastering a foreign language can not only boost your brain power but also provide you with important insights on how the world thinks. Unfortunately not everyone can learn with the same ability. But, there’s one second language we all know how to speak fluently, albeit with slight variations. It’s colorful and often emotional. It’s called the Language of Flowers.

The Victorian Language of Flowers

Back in Victorian times, when the practice took off, people really knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up time, with many social taboos against expressing emotions. So people found a way around the rules; they borrowed from an ancient language to convey their joy, pain and anger. They used flowers and floral arrangements as coded messages to express feelings they were otherwise unable to say.

Mother’s Day card circa 1890

Sometimes referred to as floriography, the language of flowers can be traced back to ancient times, including the Hebrew Bible, where plants and flowers are often used as symbols. The Song of Songs is one such example:

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. 2.As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. 3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Songs 2:1-3

Apple tree blossoms

William Shakespeare used floral metaphors often. In this fragment of a speech from Hamlet, Ophelia mentions rosemary and pansies, two plants that were typically found in gardens of the period. Most people would have instantly recognized the pun on the word pansies, a clear reference to the French pensées, or thoughts.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray, love, remember:

and there is pansies: that’s for thoughts.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Pansies represented thoughts in Shakespearian times

Turkish roots

The practice of floriography most likely had its roots in Turkey in the 16th century when the Court in Constantinople was said to have an obsession with tulips. Discovered growing wild in the mountains of Kazakhstan, the tulip was brought back to Turkey where it was planted in the gardens of some of the most powerful people in the city.

Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople

Over time, as Ottoman sultans began wearing them in their turbans, tulips became symbolic of wealth and power. In fact, the flower’s name is believed to have been derived from the Persian word tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares a likeness.

The word tulip comes from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban

In the Western World, we have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to thank for introducing the language of flowers to Britain. In 1716, she accompanied her husband to Turkey where he was stationed as ambassador. Montagu’s letters back to England often contained references to the Turkish use of floral symbols and language, including an alleged custom of using flowers to send secret messages in the harem.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

It wasn’t until Queen Victoria ascended the throne in the next century, however, that Montagu’s efforts to promote floriography were finally embraced. Seemingly overnight, books about flower symbolism began to be published. Many of these works continue to inform the floral language we practice today.

The first dictionary to associate flowers with symbolic definitions appeared in 1819 with the publishing of Le Langage des Fleurs a work attributed to Charlotte de la Tour. The author’s true identity remained a mystery for several years until it was revealed to be Louise Cortambert, wife of the geographer Euguen Cortambert (1805-1881). She would have been in her late thirties at the time.

1920 edition of Charlotte de la Tour’s Le Langage des Fleurs

Le Langage de Fleurs was organized by season and contained illustrations and essays on different plants along with their associated meaning. There were 330 different types of emotions. Listed in alphabetical order, they ranged from messages of love, acceptance and refusal to more specific feelings or psychological states such as Render Me Justice, My Regrets Accompany You to the Grave and the catchy Better to Die than Lose One’s Innocence. The book can still be purchased on amazon today.

In Chinese culture, flowers and flower colors are highly important, with the lotus flower being the most significant. Symbolic of the holy seat of Buddha, it also represents perfection and purity of both heart and mind.

In Chinese culture, the lotus is symbolic of perfection and purity

Whereas the peony represents spring, female beauty and reproduction and is often associated with honor and high social class.

Peonies represent spring and female beauty in Chinese culture

When it comes to color, Chinese floriography is highly specific. While in America, white represents innocence and purity, in Chinese culture it represents death and ghosts.

The color white has many different meanings across cultures

And the colors red and pink symbolize life and celebration.

Red symbolizes life and celebration in Chinese culture

Important things for a garden designer to keep in mind when designing for Asian clients.

Common flowers and their meanings

So what are some common flowers that we Americans know how to read? Maybe some of these generally accepted meanings will jar your memory.

Remember putting a buttercup under your chin and asking your friend if it gave a yellow glow? If a yellow reflection can be seen, a person is supposed to love butter.

Buttercups can tell if you like butter

Or did you ever pluck off the petals of a daisy one by one while alternately repeating the phrases She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not? A game of French origin, She Loves Me She Loves Me not can determine if the object of your affection returns those feelings.

Reading the daisy can tell you whether or not your affections are returned

Emerging from the hard ground in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of spring and rebirth. According to the The Language of Flowers, they can also mean Regards, while some dictionaries associate it with Chivalry. Other interpretations associate daffodils with self-esteem, and the Greek legend of Narcissus suggests the flowers could also represent egotism and vanity.

Daffodils symbolize spring and also regards

Forget-me-nots’ meaning is implied in the name. The true blue flower whose Greek name myosotis means mouse ear, is commonly associated with constancy and friendship.

Forget-me-nots symbolize friendship and constancy

Often flower meaning derives from the behavior of the plants itself. For instance, Mimosa pudica is often linked to sensitivity or chastity, as its leaves fold up when touched by another organism.

Mimosa pudica symbolizes sensitivity

And within the same species, colors can mean different things. In paintings, a deep red rose has been used for centuries to symbolize the blood of Christ, while also expressing the intensity of romantic love.

A red rose is associated with strong feelings of love

While pink roses express affection.

Pink roses represent affection

And yellow roses stand for friendship or devotion.

A yellow rose signifies friendship

If you really want to go for it, you can do like Felix in Honoré de Balzac’s The Lily of the Valley and compose elaborate bouquets built upon multiple meanings. In the novel, he uses flower arrangements to convey coded messages to his beloved that only she can decipher. This took some advanced study, however, with Felix spending days in the countryside meditating on the essence of each flower.

Regardless of your flower knowledge, the list is as long as their are flower species. And though meanings may vary across cultures, the roots of this ancient custom remain the same. Some feelings are best expressed when spoken in the Language of Flowers.