Strumming Plants

Much is made of the aesthetic difference between the season long “show” of flowers and the end-of-season vegetable harvest. Keen gardeners know that a garden can be more nuanced than this; and, on closer inspection, most gardens are successional in both vegetable and flower form, from the beauty of the spring lettuces to the harvest of summer and fall cutting gardens. All garden plants “accompany” each other, literally and figuratively.

I love the late summer and fall gardens most of all. Perhaps the joy of an early September birthday sets my original sensory impressions—58 “feathers” strong—aloft. Sometimes I fancy that my totem animal is the hawk . I often see them this time of year flying so high that they disappear. A few seconds later, they lower their arc and reappear—faint and tiny wings, auguries hundreds of feet high. Why do they circle so high in September? Fatter mice? Not likely. Taking their bearings for the day’s journey south? Cooling off? Looking for a newborn to announce? I like to think so. For every heron visiting Fordhook Farm, we have a dozen hawks.

I like the tallness of autumn plants. Maturity makes even the small tall. The garden’s effulgence is deeply satisfying. Even the shortest plants grace the height of the tallest trees. From toe to head, the garden surrounds and comforts us. In return, I meditate on them during long walks. I accompany them, strumming some with my hands. Their branches brush my shoulders, especially the late summer grasses.

I asked our excellent photographer to “strum” some plants last week. Mary Kliwinski, a naturally gifted artist, acquitted herself very well. As did our gifted gardening staff.

Hydrangea ‘Limelight’ adds luxuriousness to the Springhouse Garden at Fordhook Farm, framed by a branch of the old magnolia that broadens itself to cover the 200 year old original structure, now ruined and beautifully aging.

Rudbeckia maxima, also aging its seed heads, standing tall.  A great “strumming plant”.

Grasses and their accent companions are serenely strummable.  An Echinacea peeps up lower left to set the greats into relief.  Near it is an upright brown Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, named for the great Swabian horticulturist.   Right foreground is Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’.  At a distance it is truly rosy.  Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ strum across the back, with Eulalia blowing up in the middle.  This lovely landscape is just a small part of our “Happiness Garden”.

A wetter strum can be found by simply turning around about 100° in the “Happiness”, as we call it.  Eupatorium ‘Gateway’ on the right, the fulsome and exquisite Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’ in the center, and some Iris and Ferns helping the frame.

A few strums along the Happiness path is a more classic late summer scene.  Fordhook Farm is a poignant place.  It may not be Blenheim, but it’s not unlike it.  Phlox, Physocarpus and Helenium autumnale ‘Red and Yellow Shades’ at right; Solidago ‘Fireworks’—one of the greatest recent cultivars due to its truly explosive looking inflorescences;  Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’ (“Autumn Shades”  in German); with Eupatoria ‘Gateway’; and Rudbeckia triloba filling out the scene.

A closer look still.  The Physocarpus opulifolius or Ninebark by its common name, is the cultivar ‘Summer Wine’, a real beauty.  The Rudbeckia nitida ‘Herbstonne’ again perks up back right.  Eupatorium ‘Gateway’, or Joe Pye Weed.  ‘Gateway’ is spectacular in every setting; it is species purpureum and subspecies  maculatum:  a real knockout selection.  In the back is our new (last year) Cedrus deodara or Himalayan Cedar.

Speaking of plant exploration, I often wonder how the apple became so phenomenally great.  It is perhaps the greatest fruit tree in the world, if not the greatest small tree period.  It can grow almost everywhere.  While the fruit varies widely, it always bears in as little as a few years from planting.  Civilization wouldn’t be the same without it.  To the right is Coreopsis tripteris or Tall Tickseed, giving the apple a little strum.  What’s your favorite apple?  (Mine is ‘Macoun’.)

To the right is one of the many stars that make up our galaxy.  We are extremely fortunate to have it just so.  Lucky also to be able to photograph it.  On the left is Hibiscus coccineus, the most brilliant red of the mallows.

Here she is again, peeping up behind the strumming Coreopsis tripteris or Tall Tickseed.  One of the more elegant photos Mary Kliwinski has taken, and she’s taken many such ones.

Once more.  Her common name is Scarlet Rose Mallow, but it hardly does her justice.  She is a complicated species,  as you’ll see a bit later.

Lagerstroemia indica or Crupe Myrtle.  Many breeders have dwarfed it, compacted it, shaded its many colors—but Lagerstroemia indica is my favorite.  Like a spruce-top, maple-backed and sided 6 string acoustic guitar, it’s both common and beautifully made.

More to strum in the “Happiness”.  Lobelia siphilitica or Great Blue Lobelia is up front with Eupatorium ‘Little Joe’ at its left and the great Rudbeckia laciniata in the back.  Note how the brown-eyed Susan “laces” as she begins going to seed here in late summer.

Mary has caught here one of my favorite flowering plants.  I used to produce a special strain of Lobelia cardinalis in Costa Rica when I worked for the great breeder and seed grower Claude Hope 30 years ago.  We grew it for Benary, a German seed company.  It is especially luminous in its native subtropical environment.  Yet observe how sensationally strong its color holds even here in North American during an extremely hot and dry summer.

This deceptive view shows a Helianthus giganteus or Giant Sunflower (but not the common sunflower), a blowsy 7 foot tall stunner, most of the year bedecked with hundreds of small yellow blooms.  At least 7 feet.   Front and center is a common version of Hibiscus moscheutos Rose Mallow—not a far different selection from “Scarlet”, but lighter colored and earlier to go to seed.  Eupatorium coelestinum or Blue Mist flower skips along the bottom of the frame.  “Coelestinum” means, more or less, “heavenly”.  Flowers are notoriously difficult to photograph, with the blues being the toughest to duplicate.  It actually looks a bit purplish here, but it’s actually more sky blue.

See what I mean?  Hibiscus moscheutos or Rose Mallow has many varied traits at its stages of growth.  A great personality.  Eminently photographable too.

Another look.

Hibiscus coccineus – The aforementioned Scarlet Rose Mallow shows her underside.  These are seed pods just beginning to form.  Note the spidery sepals and handsome red stems.

In the Burpee Kitchen Garden at Fordhook Farm we like to plant tall, “strumming” cut flowers, including the recent cultivar Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’, and here it earns its name.

More strummable cuts:  Zinnia ‘Purple Prince’, Cosmos ‘Sensation Mix’ and Zinnia ‘Jazzy Mix’, left to right with some excellent strumming Cosmos shooting up the back, as typical of most plants in the late season.

Laden with seed, his job done, ‘American Giant’ bows his head to the sun as if in homage.

A “later” cultivar, both chronologically in terms of its recency and metabolically in terms of its days to maturity, than the much older ‘American Giant’, ‘Kong’ keeps watch, so to speak.  Quite a spectacular cultivar, if not quite as large-headed.  Here it is at least 12′  high.

‘American Giants’ again.  It’s huge head is almost a foot across and it is consistently 10-12 feet high.  I like how it “flows” as it bends from the weight of the seed heads.  It ages gracefully, as they say.  Suggestive of the many photographs of the now common “flowing” grasses, such as Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, an extremely popular grass with our customers.

Back at the Burpee Kitchen Garden, a view of the uniquely handsome ‘Cappuccino’, the brownish-red sunflower on the right, and ‘Sunny Bunch’, a popular and very floriferous and pollen-free cutting sunflower on the left.  Mary catches them cinematically through dried out sweet corn tops.

Salve, centurions! Something Roman movie-like about this scene. But this is how it’s done in an experimental row trial. These are all experimentals—soon to be in your garden, we hope. They are strong stemmed, tall and distinctively petalled.

Strumming with light this time. The sun plays here on the leaves and spikes of florets of the moisture-loving Pontaderia cordata. Already the late summer asserts its sharply angled afternoon light. Soft but sharp—nothing quite like it, since the sun meets so little vegetation in spring. Note our new pond in the background of our shade gardens at Fordhook Farm.

Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’ expresses the essence of  “strumming plants” in the late afternoon Happiness Garden.  In gardening, the sky can be your canvas.

Our Gingko biloba out in the front, near the welcome sign to Fordhook Farm.

Thanks for listening.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 at 3:00 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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56 Responses to “Strumming Plants”

  1. the photos are great — so much more real than those on other gardening websites

    • George said:

      Why thank you so much, Donna. Please check out our friends at View From Federal Twist. In a remarkable coincidence, they made a few portraits of the same or similar plants, but from broader perspective. James Golden is also a very gifted writer. Thanks again.

  2. Nancy C. Smith said:

    Mr. Ball:
    Thank you so much for the beautiful photographs accompanied by such poetic text. This is the first E-letter for me, and I am so grateful that my father told me about your company. Looking forward to the next one. Have a great rest of your week.
    -Nancy Smith
    Houston, TX

    • George said:

      Thank you, Nancy. And please thank your father for all of us at Heronswood Nursery. Be well.

  3. idehaven said:

    Absolutely fantastic pictures.
    Helga, Denmark

    • George said:

      Thank you, Helga.

  4. Madelyn Case said:

    Wonderful photos! Inspiring plants!

    • George said:

      Thanks, Madelyn.

  5. Loris said:

    LOve fall too. Thanks for sharing the great photos. The lobelia cardinalis reminds of the beautiful reds we used to find along the back waters of the Connecticut River.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Loris. The only red shade I have ever seen come close to Lobelia cardinalis is the Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.). Unfortunately, it is difficult to breed. What part of the Connecticut River? Thanks again.

  6. Gayle said:

    Lovely pics. So many reasons to rejoice in what is many peoples’ favorite season – I know it’s mine.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • George said:

      You’re welcome, Gayle. Come again.

  7. bobbe said:

    thanks for showing so many lovely images and sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm

    • George said:

      You’re welcome, Bobbe. Your compliment is an inspiration to me.

  8. Sue McGill said:

    That was absolutely spectacular!!! Loved the photography and your comments. Thanks very much!!!

    • George said:

      Thanks much, Sue. Mary Kliwinski is the gifted photographer. Made my comments easy. Please post again.

  9. Claire Fish said:

    The article was very good and the pictures were great!!! Thanks for sharing!

    • George said:

      You’re welcome, Claire. Thank you for posting.

  10. Carole Ferguson said:

    Sigh. What a magical mystery tour of the strumming. Thank you; I am trying to memorize it to accompany me on a challenging day tomorrow. Is Heronswood open to the public now?

    • George said:

      Thanks for the compliment, Carole. For tours and only by appointment until the new year, call Linda at 215-345-1766. Beginning in the spring of 2011, we’ll be open on about a half dozen special weekends, both here in Doylestown, PA and in Kingston, WA. Please stay tuned.

  11. Kathy Spagnola said:

    Love the photography of the beauty of the Fall garden. Hope to visit soon!
    Thank you,
    Kathy Spagnola

    • George said:

      Thanks, Kathy. We’ll be open several weekends next year, selling plants and giving tours. It will be our 135th anniversary, so we’ll do a few extra events. Ruffles and flourishes, so to speak. Look forward to meeting you.

  12. Pam said:

    Wonderful….just wonderful!

    Thanks for sharing.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Pam

  13. Pam said:

    I appreciate your including me in your strumming adventure. It was amazing and I enjoyed sharing your photos with you. My favorites were the sunflowers, but all were lovely.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Pam. The sunflowers are a major focus of our research at Burpee, the sister company of Heronswood Nursery. Now that we are together at Fordhook, as well as out in Washington, all the hundreds of plants “strum” each other. It’s something special to see. Please post again.

  14. Ginny Baker said:

    Really a beautiful display of what Nature provides us in the fall of the year, that sadly some of us never see as beauty, rather looking at it instead, as “dead rubish”. Thanks for the beautiful photo’s. Ginny Baker

    • George said:

      Thanks, Ginny. It is an essential part of our research work here at Fordhook Farm to observe plants pass away.

  15. Marian Kuenzig said:

    Thank you for the beautiful photos. I just received my helebore “Ivory Prince”, and now feel a part or Heronswood. Please don’t change your name.

    • George said:

      Thanks. I hope you enjoy ‘Ivory Prince’. Welcome. We shall never change our name. I was just playing.

  16. nanatn said:

    I didn’t think your gingko b. looked like mine–yours was a bit fluffier! Nice columns..

    • George said:

      Our ginko is very healthy and happy—unusually so. It’s a “tempermental” sort of tree. I’ve seen it thrive in one part of town and another of the same vintage and nursery struggle in another side of town. Thanks very much for the compliment and please post again.

  17. Lj said:

    Thanks! this is such a fine photo summary of end of summer beauties… I shall miss them from my garden until next year

    • George said:

      Thank you for the compliment, Lj. We’ll miss them also. The ancients used to make dolls out of the end of season detritus, such as dried out stalks and roots. It not only amused the children, but comforted the adults. Gave rise to the use of the word “idol”, so I have read.

      Thanks again.

  18. Mark said:

    Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’ is fulsome? I thought I knew what that word meant.

    • George said:

      Good catch! You do know what the word means. Mea culpa. I get confused sometimes, decoding photographs. I shall fix it.

  19. Pat Young said:

    Wow! Absolutely stunning photos. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • George said:

      Mary Kliwinski thanks you. Please post again.

  20. L. Bass said:

    Loved this late summer/early fall show!
    One of your best postings….both in photos and words.
    Yes, late season is all about going tall, and growing fast…a race to the end.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, L. and don’t you also love the many seeds? They are all over the place, like a blessing. Please post again.

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    • George said:

      Thanks, Eric. I shall ask my webmaster to get in touch with you.

  22. robin randazzo said:

    it is 2:30 am in NYC and i am still up, not being able to fall asleep, I stand outside my small terrace that has too many plants and i see my ruby fountain grass swaying in the breeze and long for a walk in the country side. unable to sit on my wet cloth chairs i go inside and start to read my email and there you are! my country walk and the strumming flowers. what a blessing. I want to thank you for all wonderful photos and prose. maybe now i can go back to sleep and strum my way in my dreams.

    • George said:

      Wow! Since you live in New York City, may I ask if you are related to the songwriter of the same last name? Your lovely lyrical post certainly suggests so. Thanks very much for the high compliment.

  23. Natalie Page said:

    What gorgeous photographs! It makes me want to plant all over again! I am inspired. I love the underside view of the flowers. It is too often completely overlooked! Thanks for sharing.

    • George said:

      You are so right about flowers and plants from different angles. It is so startling to discover the many facets of their beauty. Thanks much.

  24. Nicholas Mendes said:

    Just loved the photographs (just like I was there -wish I was there) and enjoyed reading all the captions.

    Very well written and excellent photos.

    • George said:

      Mary Kliwinski and I thank you. Hope you can visit us on either coast sometime.

  25. Karen Tweedy said:

    Who needs to meditate when you can take a narrated tour of Nirvana! I love the feeling that I am meandering about a massive rambling garden of possibilities with an expert who can aquaint me with each plant. Thank you for gracing my morning by sharing the beautiful results of your callings.

    …I gazed-and gazed- but little thought
    What wealth to me the show had brought:
    For often, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with rapture thrills,
    And dances with the daffodils.
    William Wordsworth

    • George said:

      Wow, thank you very much. There are times I have to confess, when the garden depresses me. Usually spring, when I have to think about work. But fall is made of the garden year’s payoff, at least in my experience. Thanks for the Wordsworth. Praise from Caesar!

  26. Jenny Whitman said:

    Thanks so much – this made my morning!

    • George said:

      You are most welcome. I love making someone’s morning, even unconsciously. You are kind—please post again.

  27. Marilyn Chrest said:

    Many thanks for sharing so many lovely pictures.
    I enjoy every minute I am outside in my “outdoor
    room.” In the winter I plan carefully for more companions for the plants that now sleep. What
    excitement the Spring and Summer will once again bring.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Marilyn. Mary Kliwinski took the photos and I’ll pass your compliment on to her. She tends to the garden also, which I think adds to her talent. Is your room covered by the sky or a canopy of trees? Garden design is small scale landscape design which is all about “mass” and “void”. The earth is the ultimate mass and the sky the ultimate void. How you “shape” your outdoor room depends a lot on the light available. Manipulating your light is the key to dealing with mass and void. The late Arthur Edwin Bye taught me that. He was the greatest American landscape designer of the 20th century.

      At Heronswood we are changing from a traditionally shade plant offering to a mixture of shade and meadow perennials, shrubs and trees, with an emphasis on uniqueness. I hope you find something you like for fall planting. Thanks again.

  28. Janet said:

    Mary’s Kliwinski’s stunning photos and your eloquent descriptions bring to my mind Claude Monet for his passionate love of gardening and painting. He wrote of his art and gardens, “I am following Nature without being able to grasp her… I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” Ms. Kliwinski clearly displays through her art a similar appreciation and understanding of her photographic subjects. It is difficult for me to discern where nature ends and art begins. Therein lies the mystery and miracle that all who garden experience at some level. My garden is where I feel closest to the GOD of my understanding. As Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her poem, ‘Renascence’:
    “Thou canst not move across the grass
    But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
    Nor speak, however silently,
    But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
    I know the path that tells Thy way
    Through the cool eve of every day;
    God, I can push the grass apart
    And lay my finger on Thy heart!”

    George and Mary, your art and prose are inspirational. Thank you for sharing with all of us!

    • George said:

      Dear Janet,

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful and interesting compliment. I’ll pass it on to Mary Kliwinski. You might be interested in the blog post about Monet in the archives at the right hand column. It’s titled ‘Monet’.
      Thanks again.

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