County Lines Magazine
Thursday, 24 August 2017 23:03

Late Blooming Wildflowers

The Secret to an Endless Summer


WildflowersThere’s a certain witchcraft that settles into an autumn wildflower meadow. The ironweed and goldenrod create a dreamlike palette of deep hypnotic violet and harvest yellow, while brown seedpods add a cathartic nostalgia to the romantic cornucopia. In the September wind, swaying stems, quivering blooms and fluttering wings create the same serenity one feels gazing out onto an oceanscape.

Yet, unlike the ocean, in the meadow you’re surrounded by extraordinary winged animals everywhere you look. Even after gardeners have finished the season’s weeding, children have gone back to school, and beach bags have been stowed away, the energy of summer continues here.

Flashy goldfinches frolic across the meadow from one sunflower to the next, honeybees covered in pollen eagerly wriggle among the velvet petals of the mountain mint, and butterflies of myriad species—monarchs, fritillaries, sulfurs, buckeyes, skippers, swallowtails—dance with rapture around the profusion of aster blooms! Indeed, late September and October are the pollinator after-party, where the champagne of the aster takes center stage.


Native Plants and Native Insects

Contributing in a meaningful way to this kind of biodiversity throughout the year and deep into the fall starts with mindful plant selection. Although many plants available in garden centers and nurseries are beautiful, only native plants function well in our ecosystem’s food webs.

This is ultimately because plants don’t want to be eaten. Consequently, plants have developed chemical defenses against the insects drawn to them, which in turn set in motion an arms race for the insects to develop ways around these defenses.

As a result of many years of evolution, our native insects specialize in targeting species of native plants. For example, a native oak tree can be used as a caterpillar host plant for 500 native species of butterflies and moths, although a nonnative gingko (native to China) supports only about five of our native insect species.


And Birds

It follows then that a wildflower meadow filled with native perennials is a self-sustaining bird feeder filled with insects, a major food supply for most North American land birds. This is especially true in the summer when, for example, one pair of chickadees must feed their young up to 500 caterpillars a day. In September and October when some of the flowers are spent, finches and sparrows feast on the seeds to prepare for the cold weather ahead.

During the cooler months, billions of birds are migrating south and may stop to hunt insects and spiders in a wildflower meadow. And finally, during the winter the unmown wildflower meadow can provide nourishing seeds in an otherwise barren landscape for overwintering birds like dark-eyed juncos.


WildflowersKaleidoscope of Wildflowers

Part of the joy of a wildflower meadow is the long-lived kaleidoscope of colors changing throughout the seasons and extending into fall. The show starts in mid-June with beardtongue, butterfly milkweed, and false sunflower creating a lively tapestry of white, orange and yellow. Common milkweed—a big whimsical ball of tiny pink flowers—also fluoresces at this time, luring many pollinators including the iconic monarch butterfly.

Late June is greeted with delicate sprays of white of the Virginia mountain mint, bright fuchsia of the purple coneflower and the fanciful blue petals of the curious spiderwort. July is the peak display with splashes of lavender of wild bergamot, dusty rose-colored Joe Pye weed and multi-colored garden phlox. Finally the robust August performers of asters, ironweed, trumpet honeysuckle and goldenrod do not tire until well into October, helping sustain migrant species like monarchs and ruby-throated hummingbirds.


A Wildflower Garden

While this profusion of color and life is occurring aboveground, something marvelous is occurring below the earth. Native wildflowers spend the first couple of years developing impressive root systems that can stretch 8 to 12 feet underground, allowing them to mine groundwater. Compare that to your typical Kentucky bluegrass lawn—with roots barely reaching 6 inches—and you can see how much hardier native wildflowers are.

Even setting aside a few drifts on your property for wildflowers instead of lawn grass can substantially reduce your water usage. Mowing your wildflower patch is also necessary only once a year in early spring. Leaving the wildflower growth during the fall and winter months provides habitat for overwintering birds, cocoons and other wildlife.

Not only are native wildflowers easy to care for, they’re also relatively easy to establish. Simply stop mowing a manageable sunny area of your property in the spring and tuck a thoughtful variety of landscape plugs into the ground among the existing lawn, each plug about one square foot apart.

The planted plugs may need occasional water at first if you notice wilting, but within a month or two their tough roots will be able to sustain the plants. Yearly weeding may be needed during the first few years until the perennials reach their full competitive size.

That’s all it takes.

As you wistfully take in those last sips of summer from the September air, look around your yard and think about where you could begin to enhance your garden with the unparalleled natural beauty of wildflowers. This time next year as the rest of your garden begins to rest, you could be reveling in your endless summer landscape of late blooming color and life.


Willistown Conservation Trust, a nonprofit land trust that’s protected over 7,200 acres of wildlife habitat, scenic views and agricultural lands in the Willistown area, has a mission to inspire in people a lifelong love of the land through education. Its Rushton Farm bird banding station is open to the public through November and the one-acre wildflower meadow at the Trust headquarters is also open for viewing. 925 Providence Rd., Newtown Square. More at


Published in In The Garden
Friday, 24 March 2017 03:10

Foodscaping for the Home Gardener

Flower garden or vegetable garden—why must we choose one or the other?


The vegetable garden is bursting with spring greens including lettuce, beets, spinach and chives.Each spring, gardeners across the country decide how we’ll divvy up our time and space outdoors. A general rule of thumb says that ornamental beds must highlight the fronts of our properties, while vegetable gardens are relegated to fenced-off patches out back.

But does this division have to be so?

The practice of foodscaping has emerged as a means of blending ornamental and food gardening. In essence, foodscaping encourages us to approach vegetable crops as attractive annuals while also taking advantage of the edible and medicinal qualities of ornamental plants.

 It’s a simple shift in perspective.

At Chanticleer in Wayne, expert horticulturists have integrated edibles in their designs for years. A quick tour through the grounds offers visitors countless tips on how to weave edibles and ornamentals with style and grace.

Here are three ideas to inspire you to consider foodscaping in your garden this spring.


Step 1: Re-Imagine The Veggie Garden

The simplest way to practice foodscapingis just to tweak our approach to traditional vegetable gardening. Instead of viewing our veggie patches as solely utilitarian, we can re-imagine them as ornamental spaces where designs highlight intermixed successions of diverse annuals. And it just so happens that the whole thing is edible!

Surrounded by a rustic, wooden picket fence, Chanticleer’s vegetable beds are laid out in geometric lines that are efficient for the gardener and visually intriguing for visitors. Both entrances to the garden are framed by woody plants—the front by a weeping blue Atlas cedar and the back by a hardy kiwi that bears fruit at the end of the growing season.

In Chanticleer’s impeccably tended vegetable plot, gardeners take care to mulch pathways with salt hay so the lines between beds and pathways are crisp. Yellowing leaves are removed from plants, which improves attractiveness while also promoting plant health. Artful structures (think tuteurs) are used as trellising support for peas and beans, and tomatoes are staked with precision.

Throughout the garden, taut lines of jute run above newly seeded beds to indicate what’s going on below the soil. David Mattern, Chanticleer’s vegetable gardener, values the importance of showing “signs of intent” like this. Something as simple as this—a taut string over bare soil—can be an effective design element and an educational experience for visitors.

Even a vegetable garden’s borders can integrate traditional ornamental features. Cucumbers are woven through the picket fence at Chanticleer like showy gourds (their botanical cousins). And herbs line the perimeter, offering refreshing scents and a comforting reference to the cottage style of English gardening.


Swiss chard, beets and strawberries fill a wooden container in the Kitchen CourtyardStep 2: Ornamental Integration

The next level in the art of foodscaping is using edible crops beyond the bounds of the vegetable garden. Fortunately, a lot of vegetables also happen to be beautiful plants.They fit seamlessly into ornamental beds by virtue of their aesthetics alone. And with the added benefit of providing food, their wider use is a no-brainer.

Herbs are especially easy to highlight in ornamental landscapes. One popular option is creeping thyme, which happily inches through the cracks of stone walkways. Another option gaining popularity is fennel, whose height and thread-like foliage provide a structural element that is equal parts sturdy and gentle. Sages, oregano and basil can all be used as bedding and edging plants, while mint is best displayed in pots or a confined bed—to prevent it from taking over the garden!

In other areas, how about using asparagus as a seasonal hedge, as Chanticleer does alongside its cut-flower garden? The sight of early morning dew on the fine foliage of a mature asparagus plant is absolutely extraordinary. The whimsical gardeners at Chanticleer have even trained an asparagus up a decorative post in the teacup garden. Why not?

Also in the teacup garden, kales have been used as bold structural elements—punctuation marks alongside traditional bedding plants and potted succulents. Nasturtiums are an excellent filler, in garden beds as much as in summer salads. Lettuces and mustards provide early-season color and texture, and are harvested just in time to install summer annual displays.

This process can be repeated in reverse when fall arrives.


Redbor and Lacinata Kale in the Serpentine GardenStep 3: Recognizing What’s Already There

A third option for the foodscaper is to learn more about the edible and medicinal qualities our ornamentals already offer. How about popping some flowers off our marigolds and throwing them in a summer salad? Or harvesting some dogwood fruits and making a fall jam?

There are many books and websites dedicated to harvesting “wild edibles,” but we might do well to see just how many of these “wild” plants are cultivated right in our own backyards.

From serviceberry compote to homemade coffee from the Kentucky coffee tree, there is a surprising abundance of food in our landscapes just waiting to be harvested! 


Christopher Freimuth interned at Chanticleer in 2016 and is now a garden designer in New York City.

Photos credit Lisa Roper, Chanticleer Garden.

For more inspiration and information about how to integrate edibles and ornamentals, take a stroll through Chanticleer and talk with the gardeners about their methods. For a resource, try the recently published “Foodscape Revolution” by horticulturist and garden communicator Brie Arthur. Chanticleer is a garden of pleasure and learning, relaxing yet filled with ideas to take home. 786 Church Rd., Wayne.

Published in Featured
Tuesday, 31 May 2016 00:28

Make Room for Outside

Build a room outdoors for the perfect getaway


Fresh water ponds transform your backyard into a tranquil escape.Think about the current state of your backyard. Does it make you want to take the day off and relax in your own personal getaway? Or does it leave you feeling like something is missing? Kind of meh?

An outdoor space that functions as an inviting extension of your home rather than a separate, unused part of your property is what many local landscape designers seek to create. Imagine a space tailored to your needs—small and private or big and open, you decide—one that you’ll want to use year round. Interested? Keep reading …


What’s the Purpose?

Like designing any room in your home, for an outdoor room, you’ll need to think about its intended purpose. This is the first question Randall Spackman at Thornbury Services asks his clients. “Many people think about what looks good versus what will be most useful to them, but it really should be the other way around,” says Spackman,

Start with the key questions—the size of your space and budget, whether you have kids or pets, if you’re more interested in entertaining than relaxing, and if you’ll be using the space year-round.

“We can customize everything based on our clients’ lifestyle and needs,” says Spackman. “From small touches like using stone for kids to draw on with chalk, to creating a grown-up dining area complete with a kitchen and your very own pizza oven, if that’s what you want—and will use!”

When in doubt, he recommends leaving room to expand in the future. “Your needs and tastes may change,” he says, “And it’s much easier to add on than take away.”


Comforts of Inside

Once you decide your room’s purpose, it’s time to start designing! Making the outdoors feel roomier can be accomplished several ways. At Gordon Eadie Landscape and Design, some of the most popular features include outdoor fireplaces and kitchens that can be enjoyed any time.

Fireplaces and pits are great because they provide heat in the colder months and a gathering place in the warmer ones—plus the perfect place for roasting marshmallows safely year-round. With an outdoor kitchen, you not only take the heat out of the house, but also the cook! If you know you love cooking, this is one feature you won’t want to skimp on.

The only limit is your budget—with options for your outdoor kitchen including a stove, grill, mini fridge, wood-burning oven, sink, bar, storage and more.


Build A Wall

You wouldn’t have a room without some type of walls. Having a boundary defining the space between your outdoor room and your lawn creates a comfortable feeling. And walls can be a great help for keeping track of kids and pets outdoors.

Stone walls, like the ones P.S. Davis Stone Masonry specialize in, are a very practical option for enclosing the patio area, plus they double as built-in seating. P.S. Davis also combines stairs, pillars and paved walkways to function as entries and hallways from space to outdoor space.

You can go the traditional route and build a deck with railings and a canopy (ask about low-maintenance materials that prevent mold), allowing for a nice breeze to keep things cool while still defining the space.

Or opt for something a bit more open, like a popular pergola. Typically made of wood, these crosshatched structures both close the space off while leaving parts open to the sunlight and surrounding landscape views.


Then There Was Light

Lighting might not be the first thing you think about, but if you’d like to enjoy your outdoor spaces at night, it’s essential. Luckily, landscape designers don’t forget about this necessity and many come up with interesting ways to incorporate outdoor lighting into their plans.

Jeremy Martin at Willow Gates Landscaping has plenty of ideas about how to get creative with lighting. “In addition to being a necessity, we use lighting mainly to create atmosphere and ambiance,” he says.

Some fun ways to do that? Build lighting into seating walls, highlight unusual architectural details, make a lantern pathway connecting parts of the design, or even create shadow effects with uniquely shaped flowers, bushes and trees.

To save on energy, everything is LED now, and according to Martin, all their bulbs are warm-toned, eliminating that harsh blue light. “If you put the new LED bulbs next to an incandescent bulb, you can’t tell the difference,” he promises. You will, though, notice the difference on your electric bill!


Image of beautiful porch and landscaping.Bring Nature to You

Your backyard oasis wouldn’t be complete without what makes the outdoors the outdoors—nature. Trees, shrubs, flowers, gardens, ponds, streams and more … Use these features to add color, contrast and beauty to your space.

At Shackleford Landscape Group, Kevin Shackleford uses a variety of greenery to enclose his clients’ outdoor rooms in a lush setting. “We like to add flower beds around a patio’s edges for extra color and a sense of seclusion,” he says. He recommends flowers like day lilies for summer through to fall, and shrubs like holly and other evergreens for interest throughout the year.

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance option, perennials and flowering bulbs are your best bet. “Perennials come up every year,” Shackleford explains, “and you only have to plant bulbs once a year.” He warns to stay away from things like ornamental grass as it needs trimming every year. “But it gives great privacy and really creates that beach effect,” he notes. “So if you’re willing to put in the work, it’s worth it.”

Another way to include a bit of nature in your space is through water features. Pezzotti Brothers Landscaping & Tree Service builds all types of tranquility-inspiring designs from waterfalls and fountains, to ponds and water gardens. Typically a pond or water garden with its own mini ecosystem—with fish and water plants rather than chemicals like chlorine—is less maintenance because nature regulates and cares for itself. Plus they’re much more eye-catching and interesting!

Now that you’re armed with ideas to create your escape, it’s time to start making that dream a reality this summer!

Local Resources

Thornbury Services
610-793-2933 •

Gordon Eadie Landscape and Design
610-933-4410 •

P. S. Davis Stone Masonry
610-827-2225 •

Willow Gates Landscaping
717-341-0540 •

Shackleford Landscape Group
484-447-9127 •

Pezzotti Brothers Landscaping
610-647-1028 •

Published in In The Garden
Thursday, 01 October 2015 03:28

Gardening in a Winter Wonderland

With the autumn landscape now ablaze with crimson reds and golden yellows, the monotone months of winter may seem like the distant future. But, if the idea of putting your gardening tools into storage makes you shudder more than the chilly temperatures outside, now is a great time to transform your summer gardening containers into a platform for winter delight.


Winter can be a time of dormancy for both plants and gardeners. While many are happy to hibernate until spring, others itch for the opportunity to animate the landscape with fantastic forms, striking colors and faithful evergreens.

If you caught the article “Contain Your Excitement: Container Gardening with Tropicals and Annuals,” in the April issue of County Lines, you’re already familiar with the basics of summer container gardening. Fortunately, many of the same principles apply to winter containers—with just a few key exceptions.


Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Fall potted plants

Those living in our area certainly don’t need to be reminded when it gets cold outside! But, if you’re new to winter container gardening, a few tips will help your creations thrive in the trying conditions.

Standard terra cotta and cast stone containers, while beautiful in the warmer months, will most likely crack in winter due to temperature fluctuations. Containers made of concrete, metal, lead or a fiberglass composite—all multi-seasonal materials—act as the perfect armor against the winter elements. Gardeners’ Note: When repurposing multi-season containers for new winter plants, be sure to overwinter warm-season plants you hope to use again—such as tropicals—in a cool, dark indoor space until spring.

Bigger is better for containers for two reasons: insulation and drainage. Though plants in the ground experience freeze-and-thaw of the soil to an extent, their roots are better protected by the abundance of insulation. Plants in containers, however, are more prone to freezing because they’re exposed on all sides. So, a larger container provides more growth medium plus more insulation.

Remember that containers need to be watered even in the winter. Plants release moisture through their leaves (in the process of transpiration), and it can be difficult to replenish that water supply when their soil freezes. This can be especially troublesome with high winds and bright sunlight, when plants become dehydrated and possibly sunburnt.

Even winter veterans such as broadleaf or needle evergreens are susceptible to these stresses because they continue to transpire even if they’re not actively growing. Protect plants from winter sunburn by placing your container on a north or west side of a building. This placement allows the air temperature to rise before direct sunlight reaches the plant’s leaves.


Let It Grow, Let It Grow, Let It Grow!

Whether you want dazzling colors, decorative fruits or whimsical forms, deciding which plants to feature as spillers, fillers and thrillers (see the April article for more on these three plant types) is an exciting part of designing your container. What makes winter containers all the more liberating is you’re not limited to live plants for your design. Cut greens and stems often hold up well for months and offer new possibilities of textures and color.

For instance, plants such as flame willow (Salix alba ‘Flame’) and red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’) thrill as they exhibit fiery red stems lasting all season long, even after they’ve been cut. Incorporating vibrant stem colors into your design creates high contrast in an otherwise gray-scale landscape.

Low evergreens—buttercup ivy (Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’) and shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold,’)—act as spillers, elongating the design. Evergold striped weeping sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’) offers movement in the wind, as well as pattern repetition through its variegated leaves.

Tall evergreens can add height as eye-catching thrillers. Sky pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) provides a narrow, columnar form, while Steeds Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Steeds’) is straight, but more stout and full. In contrast, Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’) is more whimsical, with branches that reach out at unusual angles. And Japanese mahonia (Mahonia japonica) offers more width with long branches that fan outwards.

Image of autumn berries

Three hot hollies that bear decorative red fruit include longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa), sparkleberry holly (Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’), and afterglow winterberry  (Ilex verticillata ‘Afterglow’). To add a splash of orange, incorporate golden winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’).

Reminiscent of summer sunshine are the bright yellow blooms of buttercup winterhazel (Corylopsis pauciflora), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), and witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis ‘Early Bright’). If you’re interested in a small clumping species with tight blooms and a vast selection of color, hellebores bloom in a variety of hues, contributing soft accents.

For unusual forms and quirky growing patterns, check out Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) and corkscrew willows (Salix matsudana ‘Torulosa’), both of which boast wild and curling branches. The beauty of these two plants is magnified in the winter months as their branching forms take center stage as the foliage fades.

Winter container gardening may not fast forward the cold months, but it will keep you from having to press “pause” on your gardening passion!

Find gorgeous greens, holiday accents and long-lasting wreaths at the Scott Arboretum Holiday Greens Sale, Saturday, December 5. Entrance is free and the public is welcome. Set on 300 acres of the Swarthmore College campus, the Arboretum is open to the public everyday from dawn to dusk and displays thousands of ornamental plant species. Learn more at


Published in Featured
Thursday, 10 July 2014 00:00

In the Name of the Seed

My Journey into Heirloom Gardening

German irises, Horace Pippin, and an old freezer full of baby food jars led to a life’s work.

When a venerable 300-year-old white oak tree fell into my garden this past March, leaving a stupendous heap of splintered wood, the wise hand of my late grandfather seemed to reach out and offer a quiet condolence. His comfort was sorely needed because I faced a heart-wrenching scene: the tree lay on the ground like the skeleton of a great dinosaur. 

Now there was an immense, gaping hole, showing sky where shade had protected that corner of the property for hundreds of years. Suddenly, sunlight flooded through the canopy of the remaining trees.  

If, as the ancient Greeks believed, spirits of the garden resided in ancient oak trees, then their spirit house was roughly broken open that day. My grandfather, the innate gardener, taught me one key thing: those spirits will not forsake you if you continue to respect them. They will journey with you in your seeds. This is a tale of seeds. 


In the Beginning 

My earliest recollection of my grandfather and his amazing garden in West Chester was watching him gather the dry, rattling pods of the German irises he cultivated. Little did I realize how special these irises were. They were rare, indeed, as I discovered when I later found pictures of them in a Victorian garden book. 

My grandfather was saving seeds because he was looking for a unique shade of iris blue — somewhere in those seeds was a future flower that would bring him happiness or a sense of accomplishment, and perhaps seeds to share and trade with friends. 

I spent my formative years with my grandparents, mainly because my mother and father were both working to save money to buy a house. My grandmother always considered me her “last child” and in many ways I was. In that role, my grandfather let me help him in his extensive kitchen garden — a good acre of fertile Chester County ground. 

It was likely by early osmosis that my grandfather passed his “green genes” to me, though those genes were probably already there. Both grandparents came from long lines of old-time horticulturists. Plants were in our blood. 

After his death in 1956, my grandmother used to put bouquets of those German irises on my grandfather’s grave at Birmingham Friends Meeting every Memorial Day. The blue blaze was a silent testimony to the good man who had been her best friend and to a quiet genius who died much too early, leaving too many projects unfinished.


Seed-Saving Project

One project I took up was seed saving. That’s because seed saving lies at the heart of the on-going life of every successful kitchen garden. Seed saving is possible because one of the benefits of open-pollinated heirloom plants is that you can save viable seeds from them — unlike hybrids, which don’t yield useful seeds. 

Plus the variety of choices from seed saving is endless, nothing like the limited, generic and tasteless food sold to us as products of industrial farming. Seed saving also lets you create your own designer vegetables, if you want to experiment with the adventures of cross-breeding, something my grandfather did very well in his search for the perfect blue flower, or a tomato with a new and wonderful flavor. 


Easy Peppers

Perhaps the easiest plants to save seeds from are peppers, so why not start there? For the best outcome, peppers must be fully ripe, even a little soft and wrinkled if the little spirits inside are to be released in full abundance (a.k.a. increasing the rate of germination). I still remember how my grandfather would spread the seeds on paper to dry, then carefully label and pack them away in airtight jars sealed at the rim with masking tape. (For more seed saving instructions, see the sidebar.) 

Many of my grandfather’s most unusual peppers came from his friend, Horace Pippin, a West Chester local, better known as a folk artist. They crossed paths at a pigeon club that met every month at a bar in West Chester. My grandfather raised racing pigeons (passion number two, after the garden). 

Mr. Pippin came to the garden to be stung by my grandfather’s honeybees (passion number three, after the pigeons). Pippin wanted his bad arm (a war injury) stung to get some relief from the pain. My grandfather was skeptical and didn’t like losing good bees, so Pippin brought him unusual seeds to compensate for the losses. This psychology worked. Some of the rarest things in my collection are the Pippin peppers. The Fish Pepper he gave my grandfather is now in most seed catalogues selling heirlooms. 


Freezer Diving

After my grandfather’s death, I returned to West Chester to spend time with my grandmother. The big kitchen garden had gone to grass, although most of the apple and pear trees were still alive but in need of pruning. The sour cherry tree I loved so much had long since gone the way of firewood. My grandmother was obviously overwhelmed trying to maintain the place on her own, so we decided one day to start by cleaning the cellar.

After chucking 200 quart jars of canned peaches that were more than 30 years old, we tackled the big deep freezer where layers of dehydrated chickens and gray-looking fruit had sat for unknown numbers of years. At the bottom, covering every inch, we discovered my grandfather’s seed collection. There they were, neatly packed in my own baby food jars, some with detailed labels, others rather vague, even as to the contents. 

This discovery started the birth of the Roughwood Seed Collection, which I now maintain in Devon, PA. 


Back to Life

Little by little I brought those seeds back to life; freezing them had simply put them on hold. I had no idea that my grandfather was adept at seed storage on a level that would have impressed professional botanists. And I also have no idea where he got his expertise. But with the help of my grandmother’s recollections, I discovered that he had maintained a wide network of contacts with growers and nurserymen throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and as far away as Virginia. 

My grandmother’s classic shoofly pie recipe provided a clue because it had come from Mrs. Miles W. Fry of Ephrata. It turned out Mrs. Fry’s husband owned a nursery (the family is still in business), and he and my grandfather traded plant notes. 

Soon I was able to reconstruct many of the stories of my grandfather’s seeds, and then build on the collection so today it numbers some 4,000 entries. 

Since the early 1980s, when I began to reconstruct the old kitchen garden at Roughwood, I’ve kept the seed collection on a revolving program. Following this program, I grow out lettuces, beans, tomatoes, cabbages and whatever needs renewal, on a regular cycle. This plan keeps the seeds viable since I do not freeze my seeds (only the rare corns). Most seed will keep for years in sealed jars in cool, dark closets, so the process is not as daunting as my own wrestling match with Mother Nature. 


Working With the Spirits

Some years are good for seeds, some not so good. But above all else, one must flow with the pulse of Nature, not work against her. Stoically accept what’s given and use that to good advantage. 

This mind-set is very handy when growing food organically since Nature will create a balance in your favor. My garden gives proof to this principle. For example, by following Nature, I don’t need to resort to chemical sprays, not even for my heirloom fruit trees.  

Even that fallen oak was a gift: it made a sunny corner where the Victorian style dahlias I’ve been back-breeding will take up new quarters. I like to think that the spirits in my old oak have now found residence in the seeds of my dahlias, and they will certainly bless me with all sorts of surprises. 

Every year something new emerges, and the simple prospect of this cycle of birth and renewal is probably the best antidote to winter blues I can imagine. And the best reason to take the heirloom journey.


William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author of 15 books on culinary history, is Contributing Editor for Mother Earth News and maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection of over 4,000 heirloom food plants. His book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening is considered a classic on the subject.




Published in Featured
Thursday, 01 May 2014 00:00

Earth-Friendly Gardening

How can your garden help the planet and sustain the monarch butterflies?


Spring is here at last, and that means gardens are starting to burst forth with pent-up color. During this lively growing season, our main focus is often on the showy flowers that add so much eye-appeal to our gardens. But if you take a moment to look closely at your yard, you’ll soon see a full cast of supporting characters that help make all those colorful blooms possible.

“A healthy garden goes beyond just the plants,” explains Jeff Downing, Executive Director of Mt. Cuba Center, an ecologically-focused botanical garden in Hockessin, Delaware. “It’s all connected, from the state of the soil to the health of microorganisms, insects, wildlife and even humans.”

Visitors to Mt. Cuba Center learn about the importance of these connections as they enjoy the mature native plant collection, unique in the U.S., and attend education programs, such as Certificate in Ecological Gardening classes that stress the relationship between plants and the environments that sustain them.


Supporting Cast

When you stroll through your yard this spring, look down at your feet to see the true foundation of a successful garden. Healthy soil is filled with organisms that feed plants and insects. “Soil has a rich ecosystem of its own,” says Downing. “When microbes and fungi in the soil start to break down organic matter, they release nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus—all of which are essential for a healthy plant life cycle.”

Start with healthy soil and your garden will flourish, Downing notes, especially when that soil is paired with native plants. Native plants are those that have evolved to thrive in specific regions, soils and climates. Here in the mid-Atlantic region, indigenous trees like oaks and beeches dominate the woodlands, and wildflowers like the black eyed Susan and milkweed pop up in backyards and roadsides.

Native plants for our region come in a great variety of shapes, sizes, colors and textures that can enrich the look of your garden and improve the local environment. These plants also provide a primary food and habitat source for native wildlife and insects which have evolved to depend upon them. And the insects in turn, feed native wildlife, playing an essential role in the local food web.


Long Live the Monarchs

The attraction to native plants is not only for food and shelter. Some species have evolved to rely on native plants for reproduction as well. One of our most iconic native insects—the monarch butterfly—lays its eggs exclusively on the leaves of the milkweed plant. Monarch caterpillars feed on the toxic milkweed leaves to develop defense mechanisms used for protection once they emerge as butterflies. Without the milkweed, the monarchs lose this essential defense.

Loss of our native milkweed plants is directly connected to the drastic decrease in monarch butterflies in the past few years. By simply adding native milkweed plants to your garden plan, home gardeners can help support the monarch life cycle and bring back the glorious sight of these beauties fluttering through our gardens.


Going Native Is Easy

By choosing ecological gardening, horticulturists can actually limit the amount of work their garden takes. Plants thrive when they’re planted in the right place and in the correct soil, and beneficial wildlife feed most successfully on native plants.

You’ll be pleased to learn that you don’t have to resort to dramatic changes to have a positive impact with your gardening. At Mt. Cuba Center, we promote conservation by addition—no need to pull up your tulips or other exotic plants. You can make a significant impact on the local ecosystem when you add native plants to your yard.


Get Certified

In fact, gardening in harmony with nature is central to Mt. Cuba Center’s mission, and its Certificate in Ecological Gardening aims to share Mt. Cuba’s expertise with a broader community. The certificate program consists of 14 courses covering a range of topics including native plants, composting, sustainable landscape techniques, and integrated pest management—an earth-friendly way to combat garden pests.

“The cornerstone course is Fundamentals in Ecological Gardening,” says Downing. “This is a really unique offering. We’ll showcase six members of our horticulture team who will lead behind-the-scenes demonstrations of ecological gardening techniques. The class is kicked off by Mt. Cuba Center’s Director of Horticulture, Travis Beck, whose recent book, Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, is an exceptional study of environmental landscaping.”

So, this year think about gardening for our planet and the monarchs. Certificate classes begin in May. 


Register for the Certificate in Ecological Gardening classes, 302-239-4244;

Stroll through the Mt. Cuba Center gardens through November 1, Fri. & Sat., 10 to 4. Public tours, Thurs., 10 a.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. Private tours for groups of ten or more. Continuing Education classes, year-round. Visit May 9th for National Public Garden Day—free admission, family activities, and a native plant giveaway.

Published in Featured
Tuesday, 01 April 2014 00:00

Grow Your Library

You don’t need a green thumb to enjoy a good gardening book. These selections are of interest to everyone from the armchair gardener who prefers to look at gardens from air conditioned comfort to the accomplished four-season layering gardener. Some whimsical (a look at gardens that inspired Beatrix Potter), some practical (self-sufficiency on a quarter acre) and some just fun (your pick).

Whether you’re looking for an indoor plant, a chance to join the terrarium fever or advice on small space gardening, you should find something here.

The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandy-wine Cottage by David L. Culp and Adam Levine— If you dream about a nonstop parade of color that takes you from heirloom daffodils and hellebores in spring to a jewel-tone blend of Asian wildflowers in late fall, then you’ll want to pick up this book. Lessons from Brandywine Cottage, Culp’s two-acre Pennsylvania garden, start with the basics of layering and are as practical as they are inspiring. (The Delaware Center for Horticulture tells you more in this issue.) A perfect guide, by a local gardener, for anyone who aspires to the perfect four-season garden.

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on ¼ Acre by Brett L. Markham — For the serious yet amateur gardener, Markham explains basic gardening for a robust three-season harvest in easy-to-understand plain speak. Other self-sufficiency topics like raising backyard chickens and home canning are also covered. This book is a few years old and has inspired several spin-offs, like The Mini Farming Guide to Vegetable Gardening and The Mini Farming Guide to Composting. If you find you enjoy Markham’s voice and instruction, you’ll want to add this to your collection.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart— A conversation starter for your coffee table, or more appropriately your bar, this is a charming look at both common and uncommon plants that are turned into alcohol as well as an extensive cocktail recipe reference. Stewart takes you around your garden and grocery store for garnishes, mixers and more to make truly handcrafted cocktails. Cheers!

Pocket Gardens: Design Ideas for Small Space Gardening by Fine GardeningFine Gardening magazine proves that luxurious gardens are not the exclusive province of the multi-acre homeowner with this book on small-space gardening. High-yielding, small-space vegetable gardens and decorative small spaces that take up less dirt and less square footage than expected are both included. You’ll find garden designs, advice on choosing plants, and strategies to keep them healthy in cramped spaces. 

The New Terrarium: Creating Beautiful Displays for Plants and Nature by Tovah Martin — If you haven’t been on Pinterest lately perhaps you’ve missed the boom in terrarium gardening, but the trendy hipsters down the street are surely experts by now. You can be, too, with this guide to whimsical yet practical gardens under glass. Merge your finds from the forest or beach treasures into your home or office environment seamlessly in a terrarium. From cases to plants to techniques, Martin guides you from start to finish with lots of creative ideas and inspiring photos.

How to Buy the Right Plants, Tools & Garden Supplies by Jim Fox — Don’t be confused and daunted when you go to Home Depot this spring. Let Fox demystify what you need to know before visiting the garden center, how to tell if a plant is worth the money, what size you should buy, and more. Nor will you be befuddled into buying tools you don’t need as he also discusses what supplies are really necessary and which are well made.

Private Edens: Beautiful Country Gardens by Jack Staub and Rob Cardillo — Take a tour of private country garden paradises from Virginia to Connecticut without leaving home. Design expert Staub is the owner of the historic Hortulus Farm in Wrightstown, PA and is a passionate edible gardener and locavore advocate. But this tome focuses on a dreamy stroll through spaces like a romantic cottage garden and a countryside-meets-Himalayan retreat, showing what all home gardeners can achieve with imagination. Plus fabulous photos by Rob Cardillo.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart — Another history-meets-horticulture book from Amy Stewart. You’ll never consider a plant harmless again after putting this volume down. Neither a scientist nor botanist, Stewart instead brings a writer and gardener’s perspective to a collection of plants from history and literature that entertains, alarms and enlightens. A garden party never seemed so sinister.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales by Marta McDowell — If you’re already a fan of Beatrix Potter, this book will bewitch you as much as her whimsical tales, and if you’re not, it will surely ignite a flame of fandom. Potter’s love of gardening and plants was not fictional, and this book tells the tale of how those passions informed her stories and illustrations. Potter’s life is explored through both the places and moments that defined her and a season-by-season guide to what was blooming in Beatrix’s garden.

The Unexpected Houseplant: 220 Extraordinary Choices for Every Spot in Your Home by Tovah Martin — Another selection by Tovah Martin. Those without an outdoor space need not be excluded from the love of plants! Martin gives readers an extensive list of unexpected houseplants for every seasons. Grow everything from herbs to asparagus to orchids inside your home! The beautiful photos will also give you a ton of inspiring ideas for creative vessels for your new finds. 

Chester County Book Company is an independently owned bookseller in West Chester. Shop small, shop local, shop Chester County. 967 Paoli Pk., West Goshen Center, West Chester. 610-696-1661;

April Events: Apr. 23: AJ Mass signs Yes, It’s Hot In Here: Adventures in the Weird, Wooly World of Sports Mascots, 7 p.m. Apr. 25: Craig Johnson sign his new book in the Longmire series, Any Other Name, 7 p.m.

Published in Featured
Tuesday, 01 April 2014 00:00

David L. Culp’s The Layered Garden

A passionate gardener shares his lifetime of insights into designing a garden.

When expert plantsman David Culp is talking horticulture, it’s no dry academic discourse on soil conditions. Culp’s tone is warm and intimate as he speaks of getting to know this plant’s personality, or that one’s willingness to grow, or how he asks others to help him accomplish a garden goal.

It often sounds as if he’s talking about old friends, and in many ways, he is. A passionate gardener since childhood, Culp’s relationship with plants flourishes today in his breathtaking, romantic two-acre Brandywine Cottage in Downingtown—a Smithsonian Institution American Gardens treasure.

When Culp—a Longwood Gardens instructor, sought-after lecturer, and developer of the Brandywine strain of hellebores—gives advice about creating a successful garden, he stresses the fundamentals: develop a vision, make a plan, use a strategy, implement it. Then observe and revise. It’s a recipe that instills ownership of the process and creates lifelong learners and gardeners who enjoy a love affair with their garden.

No mistake, Culp generously dispenses specifics of his deep plant knowledge in lectures and in The Layered Garden, a book that’s equal parts practical information, memoir and philosophy. But he’s emphatic about starting with a strong foundation.

To read more,
subscribe now! 


Published in Featured
Tuesday, 01 October 2013 00:00

Gardening for Fall Color

Plan and plant now for a colorful array of foliage, flowers and berries in your autumn garden.

  Autumn is in the air. How many times have you heard that? Everyone senses a change in the season—it’s something you can literally see, feel and hear. Seeing the intensifying colors on leaves of trees, shrubs and even perennials throughout our region alerts us that fall has arrived. We can feel the day begin and end with cooler temperatures. And as the daylight shortens, we hear the buzzing of insects wane, harkening the end of the season.

 Yet as one gardening season ends, another is just beginning. Cooler temperatures signal the opportunity to add new plants with more color and texture to your garden. If you want to extend the beauty and seasonal interest in your yard, then autumn is the perfect time to check out the most striking plants and see what inspires you. Plants with multi-season interest in garden centers and farm markets are ripe for the picking.    

Sheffield Pink Chrysanthemum

Dwarf Fothergilla

Aromatic Aster

Oakleaf Hydrangea






Add Color with These Choices

Here are eight great plants that will thrive in Brandywine Valley gardens and provide eye-catching bursts of autumn color. Ask for these plants by their botanical names to make sure you get the right variety, then choose the best specimens at your local garden center.

Rejoice in the vibrancy of the fall season with colorful arrays of foliage, flowers and berries!

One of the great American native shrubs is Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), a favorite because of its interest throughout the year. Honey-scented bottlebrush flowers appear in early spring, attracting pollinators galore. Following a cloak of green leaves during the summer, the shrub is transformed into a myriad of yellows, oranges and reds, often on the same branch or plant, making it a trifecta color choice for fall foliage color.

Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) is a workhorse perennial in the garden, performing strongly from early spring when it flowers through fall when the feathery leaves develop an outstanding deep, golden tone. The plant’s delicate texture belies its tough resilience and deer resistance—two pluses in our area. It behaves much like ornamental grass, gracefully moving with the slightest breeze.

    Sheffield Pink Chrysanthemum (Dendranthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’) enjoys a sunny, well-drained location and naturalizes quite easily. The roots grow rapidly underground making it a simple plant to dig, divide and share with friends, reasons for its popularity. These mums are drought tolerant and make excellent cut flowers. And this hardy chrysanthemum is available in tones of pink, peach, maroon and yellow. Buy a variety of colors of this prolific bloomer for visual appeal in your garden.

    The oak-shaped leaves of the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) develop deep shades of red, maroon and burgundy on a deciduous shrub that’s tolerant of many types of planting conditions from full sun to shade. Another wonderful American native shrub that holds interest in the garden all year round, oakleaf hydrangea produces cone-shaped, creamy white flowers in the summer that dry on the stem to a golden brown and add depth to its rugged appearance.

    The Delaware Center for Horitculture uses this Aromatic Aster (Symphotrichum oblongifolius ‘October Skies’) in many streetscape plantings because of its durability, disease resistance, drought tolerance and vibrant flowers. This late-flowering aster carpets the ground and blooms until frost, providing much-needed nectar and seed to many fall-migrating insects and birds. An excellent native perennial to use massed in sweeps or on dry, rocky slopes.

    The Toadlily (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Sinonome’) comes alive in the fall with the appearance of exotic, white, purple-speckled flowers along its arching stems. This hardy perennial can be planted in the shade to part sun areas of the garden and is suitable in courtyards, patios and containers. Over time it will form a showy colony and the orchid-shaped flowers are both stunning and good for cut flower arrangements.

    Another showy perennial for the fall garden is Japanese Anenome (Anenome ‘Honorine Jobert’). Not to be confused with spring-blooming types, this fall-blooming plant lends an air of sophistication to every garden as the two-foot long stems emerge from basal foliage to support its crisp white flowers. Excellent as a cut flower, Japanese Anenome also expands gradually over time to form an impressive clump. Other varieties of this plant come in pink, rose and lavender.

    The final recommendation, Greybush Spicebush (Lindera glauca var. salicifolia), is sometimes difficult to find in nurseries but definitely worth the hunt. This shrub is a spectacular plant in a four-season garden. The deer-resistant, blue-green foliage turns a brilliant red-orange-purple in the fall and finally settles into a glowing nutmeg hue throughout the winter into spring. The leaves cling to the branches until new spring growth forces them off. It’s an excellent shrub for privacy screening or as a specimen set aglow by the setting sun. ♦

Here are some Brandywine Valley sources for the plants featured in this article.

Linvilla Orchards
598 Linvill Rd., Media

Mostardi’s Nursery
4033 West Chester Pk.
Newtown Square

Gateway Garden Center
7277 Lancaster Pk.
Hockessin, DE

Old Country Gardens
414 Wilson Rd.  Wilmington, DE

All the plants in this article can be seen growing in public gardens and landscapes of the Delaware Center for Horticulture in the Trolley Square neighborhood of Wilmington. Learn more at

Lenny Wilson, who provided photos, has worked with TheDCH for 14 years. An artist who makes hand-crafted shoes out of plant materials, Wilson’s work has been exhibited at the Philadelphia Flower Show and the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.



Published in In The Garden