Sunday, October 11, 2015

Trellises, Arbors, Fences and the Art of Thinking Up

Why are you wasting all that vertical space in your garden?

Horace Greeley famously said "go west young man".  Had he been a gardener he might have said: "go up young man" instead.

One great way to add growing space and additional interest to the garden is to just to start thinking vertical.  Particularly if you have a small garden like mine.  Every inch counts.  Why not expand upward where the real estate is free? Who doesn’t like free?Everyone first thinks of walls and fences.  A clinging vice like climbing hydrangea or a rose can transform a wall into a backdrop of beauty and lift the eye out of the flat plane of the garden  Get some stuff going on your walls and fences.  The space is too valuable to waste.  I'm currently testing a new evergreen climber from China called hydrangea integrifolia 'Taiping Shan' recently introduced from Monrovia.  It's a Zone 7 plant so I have it on a south wall,  (If you don't know Monrovia you should check them out at  While they only sell wholesale their site has a great plant search engine with images and lots of cultural information. They have also introduced a new function allowing consumers to order a plant and have it delivered to their local nursery for purchase.  That's a real boon to gardeners looking to snag a rare or unusual plant.)


If your garden doesn’t have built-in bones like strategically located walls and attractive fences then the best alternative is trellises, arbors and other clever vertical structures to add that element quickly and cheaply.   There’s that word again.  There’s nothing wrong with using inexpensive materials so long as they blend and are natural.A great cheap vertical is the simple bamboo tripod.   When I was a kid growing up in the green hills of North Missouri a spring ritual was a trip to the nearby Thompson Fork of the Grand River.  Along the bank grew large stands of river willow.  My father and I would cut saplings with a hand hatchet or a machete, which we called a corn knife.  Tripods for growing pole beans were easily put together by selecting three saplings of the same length then binding the top with twine.  Voila. Well, we didn’t much say voila in the green hills of North Missouri but there you are.

It’s just as easy with bamboo.   Bind the top with wire then just splay out the three legs.   If you don’t have an inconsiderate neighbor with a large patch of invasive bamboo eating the entire block then bundles of bamboo are easy to obtain online.   Check out A.M Leonard (  They sell first cut bamboo, which is much stronger and lasts longer than regular bamboo.  A lot of bamboo sold in hardware and big box stores is brittle and cheap. Think about investing in something a little bit better so you can reuse it for several years.  That’s particularly important if you plan to run something other than an annual (think morning glory) up the trellis.  You don’t want your trellis falling apart just as your prize clematis comes into bloom. By the way, bamboo looks terrific with a coat of dark green paint.  Spray paint gives the best result. It also stains surprisingly well.

When I need something a little more formal but still simple I always select the fleur de lis trellis by Achla Designs.  It’s adequately tall, made of quality powdercoated iron and has a simple fleur de lis finial at the top.  It has four legs for stability and inserts into the soil easily. ACHLA DESIGNS has a big product line so there are other trellises, outdoor lights and a range of other garden products.  I stick with the simple pieces but they do produce some funky stuff if you want to add something a touch more whimsical.   You can check out their various offerings at (Minuteman International). Alas, the don’t sell directly to the public, only through retailers, but the fleur de lis trellis is easy to obtain from places likes The Home Depot,, and   Just Bing it and choose the retailer you trust most.  You can even sometimes find them at Sears and Walmart.  This is a great trellis.  Trust me.  No one will know where you bought it.  Unless you’re like me and like to brag about such things.


I recently worked on a large project that required both screening and some element of security. The answer turned out to be the Freedom Fence.  Yes, I know.  The name’s an oxymoron.  Talk to the marketing department. 

Freedom Fence is a modular system constructed in aluminum so it’s light and easy to work with.  It can be quickly cut to fit unlike cast iron.  The powder-coated finish is attractive and from any distance the effect just as good as wrought iron.As I said, it’s a modular system with panels, posts and gates in a selection of style.  We selected the simplest style to match an existing fence on the property.  There are a number of local fence companies that use the name Freedom.  The materials used on this site all came from Lowe’s, the Never Stop Improving one.  And they came by UPS so I didn’t have to waste half a day driving around.Above is the basic unit.  To this we added a simple cap posts that were part of the system and a gate in the middle.  The units fit together since the posts have precut slots for the horizontal bars to slide into. No drilling, pounding or smashed thumbs.  You will need to sink the posts and get them level if you want a good result.The overall design goal was to provide a frame for espaliered manhattan euonymus and common boxwood to be trimmed in upright rectangles placed in front of the posts.  

The space in front of the trellis is being transitioned into a white woodland garden.   At first glance it might seem a bit of a mismatch but the final effect will be homey.  It will look like the back boundary of a formal garden meeting the woods and all madam will have to do is pass through the gate to change worlds.  Pop out the gate and have a few words with the garde-chasse before a light lunch in the conservatory.  That type of thing.  Not my idea of a fun life but to each his own said the farmer’s wife as she kissed the cow. Since the gate needs to swing open (and thus will have nothing growing on it) a large planter was placed behind it as a visual backstop.  The planter was built on site by Tony of the building staff.  He’s a talented carpenter and got this project just exactly right.

There’s a bit of growth that needs to take place on the site but in a couple of year’s time this will be a real showplace.  The secondary slate walk was added to connect the gate to the main path.  By the way, the slate was a lucky find.  It’s the famous liscanner stone from the Cliffs of Moher.   I lucked into it through carpenter and craftsman Dennis Burren of Dennis Burren Enterprises.  He brought a pallet of it over with him when he moved to New York from Ireland.  I used more average pieces for this outdoor application but the samples he showed me for interior use were truly amazing, crazed with prehistoric giant worm tracks formed millions of years ago when the cliffs were yet a big pile of gurgling mud. I couldn’t afford those pieces for this project but if I were redoing a covered patio they would be in my cart faster than you can say Cliffs of Moher. 

Notice the nice match to the existing iron railings at the front of the property. Trimming the tall boxwoods into tall rectangles will deepen the match by mirroring the brick posts.   The biggest compliment I got on the project was that no one noticed it.  The building is eighty years old.  It looks like it’s always been there.  That is total success.

 Copyright  2015. For permissions please contact

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Randomize, Randomize, Randomize: The Best Self-Seeders to Surprise and Delight

Elephant Head Amaranth. Photo by Lyle Steele Custom Gardens.

Ok. Lady Bird Johnson said “Beautify, Beautify, Beautify” but you get the point. 

If you’re too young to know who the other LBJ is here's a link to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center near Austin, Texas:

It’s well worth a few minutes of your time to learn about the legacy of one of our country’s great environmentalists.  She also wore great hats.  Now there’s a lost art. The center sells seeds.  Purchasing from them will get you started with wildflowers and will also help further their mission of restoring wildflower populations throughout the country. Wildflowers are natural self-seeders generally.
Adding self-seeders to the garden is a great way to  naturally vary the look and feel of your garden from year to year.  Some plants have earned their real estate and add a sense of permanence and continuity.  They are the backbone of the garden.

But the same garden year after year is, well, a bit boring.  Self-seeders solve that problem.  They add an element of caprice that cannot be planned no matter how many hours you spend making lists and reading Spontaneity A to Z.  Nature is smart so let her have a little fun. Plant a few self-seeders and let them seed.  In the spring edit them.  Leave one of this here and two of that there.  The result will surprise and delight you.  Everyone will be amazed.  And you can take all the credit.  No one need know.  Every gardener deserves his little secrets. .  (Don’t tell anyone but those beautiful blue poppies in my garden come right out of the spice rack.  They’re just Hungarian bread poppies. You can buy a ginormous containers of them from the spice booth at the street fair for $2.00.)


Amaranth: Amaranthus in Variety
amaranth blossom by HardyPlants
Tall, elegant and available in a range of maroons, ambers and golds, these stately plants add height and drama wherever they sprout.  A few plants go a long way so leave just a sampling.   The small seeds are nutritious and a staple grain going back to the Aztecs.  Pick a color you like or just throw caution to the wind and sow some seeds from the health food store.  Amaranth will bring lots of birds to the garden so be prepared to share some seeds.  They know they’re good too.  The seedlings make a good pot green so nothing goes to waste.

California Poppy:  Eschscholzia Californica

California poppies at Antelope Valley
  Reserve.  Photo by Vsion (2003).

A field of California poppy blooming in shades of orange and gold is a spectacular site.  Plant them in a dry area with good drainage since they don't care much for excess water.  And they don't favor transplanting either so try to enjoy them where nature put them.  These beauties have also been hybridized to produce a range of colors in pinks, peaches and red so you don't have to go pure native if yellows and oranges don't fit your color scheme.

Corncockle:  Agostemma Githago
Agostemma githago 
A plant of simple beauty long remembered as a field “weed” growing among the neatly perfect rows of corn. The corn doesn’t seem to mind having such a willowy and graceful neighbor and the plants in your garden won’t mind either.   And it’s easy, easy, easy.     

Thymophylla tenuiloba by Miwasatoshi

Dahlberg Daisy: Thymophylla Tenuiloba
Short stature with tiny daisies and lemon scented mossy foliage make the Dahlberg daisy an ideal filler for the front of beds.   Cut it back late in the season for a second flush of blossom but leave the dried seedheads in situ to get a good crop next year.   If you have extra, and you will, seed it in other areas of the garden in need of a graceful filler.

Langsdorff Tobacco:  Nicotiana Langsdorffi

Nicotiana Langsdorffi
Yes, it’s a real tobacco, originally from Chile, but much shorter than commercial tobacco so it won't overwhelm the garden. You can use it to roll your own but a better use is to allow it to grace the garden with its unique pale green tubular flower bells.   The soft foliage is variegated so select seedlings with the most striking contrasts for extra effect.  Deadheading the old flowers and cutting it back a will keep blossoms coming all summer long.

Nigella: Smithsoniangardens7
by Queerbubbles.

Nigella: Nigella in Variety

Those tasty smoky seeds on that $7 loaf of artisanal bread from Whole Paycheck is nigella.   Height can vary in this family from twelve inches to two feet so pick a variety that fits your space.  The tall nigela is a gorgeous dark blue, a color in short supply in the summer garden.  The shorter varieties tend to run pale blue, white and pink.  Let the balloon-like seedheads dry on the plants so they can drop seed for next year.  And eat a few too.

Jewels of Opar: Talinum Paniculatum
Talinum Paniculatum by Hardyplants
Finally a plant named after the Adventures of Tarzan.  Why did that take so long? My guess is crocodiles. With slightly fleshy chartreuse paddle-shaped leave and very delicate pink blossoms atop tall thin stems talinum is a true show stopper.   But the best is yet to come.  The “jewels” are the glossy small red seeds that set after the blossoms fade.  They sit graciously atop the stems in sprays like little rubies. 

Buenos Aires Verbena: Verbena Bonariensis
Verbena Bonariensis by Frank Wouters

Verbena on a stick is the common name for this Argentine native.  Lavender to purple florets sit atop tall thin stems that move gently in the breeze. Plant in an area with good air circulation and sunshine since the plant is prone to mildew in humid areas.  Apparently our Aires are not quite as Buenos.  Ordinary garden fungicide will take care of it if the problem becomes too unsightly.

Copyright 2015 Lyle Steele Custom Gardens. All Rights Reserved.  For copyright permission please write to   Lyle Steele Custom Gardens is a design and landscape firm based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Look At Lavenders: Colorful, Aromatic and Ancient

Lavender Field Sutton by Kemal Atli
Lavenders, with their powdery blue foliage and sweet scent, deserve a special spot in every garden.  They are easy to grow, colorful, add fragrance and have lots of practical as well as culinary uses. They earn their keep both in the flower bed and in the pantry.

 Place lavender plants in a sunny spot with good drainage for best results. If you have clay soil give your lavender a head start by providing some additional drainage.  Dig a hole double the width of the size of the pot and three inches deeper.  Add three inches of pea gravel to the bottom of the planting hole.  Mix a good soil, some of the excavated soil and additional pea gravel for the fill.  Rest the bottom of the plant on the pea gravel and gentle pack the soil mixture around the sides.  Don’t drown the plant when you install but do give it a gentle watering to settle the soil around the roots.  If you mulch use a “reflective” mulch such as gravel or shells.  Avoid shredded bark mulch or other organic mulches that may cause rot around the plant’s base.

Remember:  lavender is really a shrub so give it a light trim after the flowers fade.  Save the clippings to make sachets or other natural home products.  Over time, with consistent trimming, a lavender shrub will become woody with beautiful gnarled branches that add additional interest to the garden, particularly in winter.   Think of the beautiful old olive trees of Italy and Spain.  Then think of your lavender as a bonsai of these ancient trees.  Trim only the soft material.  Leave the woody branches untouched unless there is dead material that must be removed.
Within the lavender family there are lots of cultivars and hybrids.  There are even “white” lavenders.  In fact there are over thirty types of lavenders in the family though only three varieties are in common use in modern gardens.  Some links are provided below so you can see the vast choices available.  There’s one for everyone, even the lavender hater.  If you run into one please let me know.  I want to call the folks at Guinness.  Ok, Maybe grumpy Uncle Hollingsworth from Cincinnati.   But he hates everything anyway. Remember that Christmas he went on and on about Julie Andrews?


Lavendula Angustifolia – English Lavender, I Say.

lavandula angustifolia in variety.  Photo by Sten Porse.
English lavenders bloom a bit earlier than their French cousins with flower spikes shaped a little more like a small barrel.  They are very high in essential oils so make a good choice for cooking and perfumes.   They look a bit more ragged in winter than the French varieties but are all excellent garden plants.  Despite their winter look they actually cope with humidity and winter wet better so they are often the first choice for gardeners.  Popular varieties include hidcote and munstead.  Those are named after of two of the finest estate gardens in the UK.

Lavendula  x Intermedia – French Lavender, Bien Sur

lavender intermedia.   Photo courtesy
of High Country Gardens.

Commonly called lavandin,  French lavender produces a large amount of essential oil infused with camphor, creating a powerful aroma when the plant is touched or brushed by. Place it near a path so you can enjoy the fragrance as you pass by.  It is the most common variety used for commercial lavender production.  Since they are hybrids they have an extra dose of hardiness and look a little better in winter than angustifolias.  They are sterile so there will be no unwanted seedlings.  Propagate from cuttings.  Flower stems are tall and spiky.  Some of the most popular cultivars are Provence, Grosso and Phenomenal.  Grosso lives up to its name.  It can easily grow to three feet and makes a really impressive specimen in the garden.  Lots of extra cuttings too!

Lavandula Stoechas  -- Spanish Lavender, Como No
lavender stoechas growing wild in its native Spain. 
Spanish lavenders make up in beauty what they lack it hardiness.  Gardeners above USDA Zone 6 (and probably 7A too) should consider them annuals but they are well worth adding to the annual budget. A lot of garden centers sell them now even in colder regions.  Just be aware that the plant you take home probably won't make it through a tough winter. Spanish lavenders are particularly fetching grown in containers. The blossom is pinecone shaped and range into the violet shades.The foliage has a hint of eucalyptus.  These lavenders are often called butterfly lavenders.  Remove faded  blossoms to keep the plant in flower all summer.
For the Kitchen
Easy Lavender Syrup
Bring six cups of water, two cups of sugar and a half cup of dried lavender blossoms to a boil.  Boil for five minutes.  Turn off heat and let cool completely or for several hours.  Strain into a clean bottle and store in the refrigerator.   Use syrup to flavor cold drinks (lemonade, iced tea, club soda) or add to cake, cupcake or cookie batter before baking.
For the Pantry
Natural Lavender Cleaner
Bring one quart of water to a boil, add two cups dried lavender and boil for 5 minutes.   Turn off heat and let cool completely or for several hours.   Add one quart distilled white vinegar.  Strain mixture into a clean plastic jug for storage.  Lavender cleaner is a natural disinfectant.  Use to clean floors, cabinets, windows and other hard surfaces.  Mixture can be further diluted for minor cleaning tasks.


The best source for plants is a reputable, local nursery where you can pick the plant yourself but there are a number of good sources to buy plants online.  Online may be the best way to shop if you want an unusual variety. Plants purchased online are generally smaller but lavenders grow quickly.  (A 4.5 inch pot is a container that is approximately two inches square so that should provide some guidance to the size of plant you will probably receive.)
High Country Gardens
With plants grown in Denver and Santa Fe, this online nursery has a big selection of lavenders because they do so well in the xeric (low water) Southwest.  
Forest Farm
Located in Oregon, this nursery is one of the finest sources of plants by mail.  They grow a vast number of plants, many of them rare and unusual.  Lavender link is below but no doubt you will leave with more than a few items in your cart.

Greenwood Nursery
Located in Tennessee, this nursery has a fairly large selection of lavenders and a generally good reputation for quality plants and good customer service.  Full disclosure: I have not personally ordered from them.  However, they have good ratings with Dave’s Garden, the online social media site where gardeners share their experience and exasperations too!

Copyright 2015 Lyle Steele Custom Gardens. All Rights Reserved.  For copyright permission please write to   Lyle Steele Custom Gardens is a design and landscape firm based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC.