Sunday, October 20, 2013

Begonia 'Little Brother Montgomery': a star in the fall garden

Begonia 'Little Brother Montgomery'

Begonia 'Little Brother Montgomery' is--almost literally--one of the stars of the fall garden.  The starburst-shaped leaves have a strongly contrasting pattern of tiny bright silver speckles on a dark background.  I was originally inspired to grow this striking begonia by Derick Pitman's excellent article in the Oct. 2009 Pacific Horticulture, "A Bounty of (Hardier) Begonias".   In this article Derick reported that B. 'Connee Boswell'* had survived a hard freeze in a pot, and suggested that its sibling 'Little Brother Montgomery' might have some degree of hardiness as well.  I was interested in breeding hardy begonias so that hint was all I needed!  In spring 2010 I found 'Little Brother Montgomery' at Pepper's Greenhouses in Milton, DE and brought two small plants home with me.  It has performed well for me in the years since then, has been an easy, pest- and disease-free plant and has even proven fairly hardy.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Palm Progress, 2009-2013


I've always believed that starting small and allowing plants to establish themselves was more important than the instant results I could have gotten by planting larger specimens.  This was the case when I began planting hardy palms in my garden in 2002; most were planted as small seedlings (several of which I started from seed myself).  I want to find out how hardy these "hardy palms" really are so except for my dwarf windmill palms or "waggies" (Trachycarpus wagnerianus) when they were just starting out, none of my palms has been protected except for mulching.  Some of my hardy palms saw temperatures in the single digits in their early years, with the coldest being 6 degrees in February 2004, but winters since then have been warmer and it has been over 5 years since I've measured anything below 10 degrees in my yard.*

Monday, October 14, 2013

Seemannia: a gesneriad with commercial potential

Seemannia 'Little Red'
Seemannia 'Little Red'

Seemannia is a small South American genus in the same family (Gesneriaceae) as african violets and gloxinias (and until recently Seemannia was included in the genus Gloxinia).  The species and a few hybrids (primarily my own) are in very limited cultivation, but I believe that with a bit of tweaking they may have some commercial potential as bedding and container plants.  (Photo: Seemannia 'Little Red', one of my own hybrids)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Moudry'

Pennisetum 'Moudry'

After two days of rain (3+ inches) it's a wet, chilly morning but I was admiring the way Pennisetum setaceum 'Moudry'--a dark-plumed selection of fountain grass--caught the rain in the morning light.  I'm also impressed that it held up so well to two days of on-and-off downpours.

According to Rick Darke's "Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" (a very nice book btw), 'Moudry' is a selection of the species from Japan, and was introduced through the U.S. National Arboretum from seeds received from Baltimore City horticulturist Gerard Moudry, hence the cultivar name. 

I have a love/hate relationship with 'Moudry'.  For most of the year it's just a floppy mound of bright green grass, not unattractive but also not terribly interesting.  But starting in late September it produces lovely, dark plumes and then the bright green foliage is exactly what it needs to show them off.  It really shines at a time of year when most other plants are looking tired and sad.

It's a tough, drought-tolerant perennial and absolutely carefree; these plants have brightened the "hell strip" between the sidewalk and the street and have effectively smothered all manner of pernicious weeds, which were otherwise the only plants that grew there:

Pennisetum 'Moudry'

The primary down side is that it it self-sows everywhere and has a well-deserved reputation for being weedy and invasive.  In fact all of the plants in the above photos self-sowed in just two years from a single plant up the hill in my garden (seen here with Dan and Isabella enjoying morning coffee):

So enjoy Pennisetum setaceum 'Moudry' but if you plant it, keep a close eye on it!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Then and Now (part 1)


This is what the back yard looked like from our back door when my partner (now husband!) Dan and I purchased the property in December 2000.  I knew that gardening on a slope, especially one with a northern exposure, would be a challenge but we had looked at over a hundred houses all over the city; this was one of the few that had both a decent-sized yard (by urban standards!) and off-street parking (that's our garage at the top of the hill), was in a good neighborhood, and (barely) within our price range.

This is how the garden looked that first spring, when I discovered all the uninspired plants the previous owners had planted (but you can see from pots in the foreground that I already had tropical ambitions!):


Having a garden for the first time after 10 years of apartment and condo living, I went a little bit nuts.  I cut down two plum trees, a japanese maple (for which Dan has never forgiven me), and removed most of the uninspiring perennials, replacing them with bananas, palms, and elephant ears.  I've had a lot of fun with this view over the years, although it definitely took a few years to really hit my stride!  This area is now mostly planted with annuals and tender tropicals and thus changes from year to year.  Here's how it has looked in previous years.

July 2003:

Lower garden late July

September 2004:

Back gardens, July

September 2009, when I went a little crazy with color (but keep an eye on that palm just barely peeking out from behind the elephant ears on the left):


August 2011--yes, the palm grew that much in 2 years!  You'll also notice that my color palette has gotten a bit more subdued in recent years as I'm devoting more and more space to testing my seemannia and begonia hybrids, and let's face it, these just aren't as flashy as coleus and sweet potatoes:


And finally October 2013, looking a little tired as the days shorten and the temperatures cool down (but note that the seemannias are still going strong); as the palm and remaining japanese maple have grown and filled in, I've been experimenting with shade-loving plants like begonias and gesneriads:

Garden, October 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rooftop Gardening: Rising Above It All


Summer may have ended (and with it our rooftop cocktails on warm evenings) but we'll continue enjoy our deck on warm days well into November, and even occasionally through the winter.  We talked for years about putting a rooftop deck on our Washington, DC rowhouse and a few years ago we decided to make it happen.*  This photo, taken by our architect's photographer shortly after the renovation was completed, gives a better idea of how the deck relates to the interior of the house:

Photo: Michael K. Wilkinson

The roof extends to provide shelter from sun and rain but floods the interior with light all winter when the sun is lower in the sky.  The deck is a wonderful place to sit on a summer evening, and on all but the hottest evenings we get a refreshing breeze.


The deck feels surprisingly private thanks to the numerous mature trees in the neighborhood, which block the view of most of our neighbors.  We even have a view of the National Cathedral (although the view would be better if our neighbors down the row didn't also have a deck!).

Cathedral view

As much as we love the rooftop deck, gardening has proven to be a challenge because many plants simply can't take the sun, the wind, and the heat.  The ones that do survive need watering nearly every day, and in hot sunny weather sometimes twice a day.  Don't even think about rooftop gardening unless you have a water source!  (A rooftop spigot was part of our design.)  Among the plants that have done well are Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum':

 Roof deck



and cannas:


BTW this is the first time I've ever had success with gaura!  It detests heavy, wet soils and will not tolerate any shade whatsoever.  The grueling conditions on the rooftop seem to suit it, and unlike many of the other plants it's a hardy perennial and doesn't need to be re-planted every year.   It blooms from late spring right up until frost, the only drawback being that the flowers fade by mid-day.  I've been pleasantly surprised by my success with cannas because they get so big, and so potbound, and need watering so frequently, yet they tolerate the occasional drying out and look great up until frost.  The biggest problem is that they tend to get top-heavy and blow over in high winds!

Of course one of my favorite things about the rooftop deck will always be the view of the back garden:


* Our rooftop deck was part of a major home renovation project several years ago, including a new master bedroom suite that was featured on an episode of HGTV's "Bang For Your Buck" earlier this year (tune in on Nov. 15 when the episode is scheduled to run again).  Our roof deck was also featured on the "Prince of Petworth" blog.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Everybody Loves My Big Banana

Morning view

Pretty much the first thing anybody sees, or remarks upon, in photos of my garden is my banana.  The above photo shows how it looked this morning.  Yes, I have a big banana.

Musa basjoo is commonly known as the "hardy banana" because it is indeed quite hardy, surviving temperatures well below freezing.  In colder climates it acts like a giant perennial, the pseudostems freezing to the ground ever winter and springing back the following summer.  My plant has been in the ground since 2002 and the only protection I have ever given it is a modest pile of mulch, compost, autumn leaves, and/or whatever I happen to cut down in the garden in the fall.

You don't always realize just how fast some plants can grow until you take a few photos over the growing season and compare them.  The next photo shows my garden in early June; pay special attention to that little banana plant just barely visible in the upper left.  Yes, this is that very same banana at the beginning of the growing season:

After the rain

Now the fun part: here's the same scene in late June just 3 weeks later:

Garden, late June

And 3 weeks after that:


If it had stopped there I would have been happy!  The banana is a bit problematic in a small garden as it takes up an awful lot of valuable real estate, and tends to shade out surrounding plants.  Last year I fertilized it only once, in early spring; this year I didn't fertilize it at all, hoping to keep it on the small side.  So much for that!  I often see recommendations to feed bananas heavily but as it turns out, fertilizer isn't nearly as important as establishment, good soil, and adequate water when it comes to growing big bananas.

One final note: the leaves of Musa basjoo are rather thin and shred easily in the wind.  As you can see in the first photo up above, late summer storms can make a mess of the leaves.  So if you plant one, try to site it where it won't be exposed to wind.

Garden, late August

A sensational new begonia

Begonia 'Caribbean Star' (click for larger image)

I wish I could claim this as my own hybrid!  In March 2012 I found this begonia growing in the greenhouses of Palm Hammock Orchid Estate in Miami, Florida.  The plant was labeled only as "PHOE 09177".  Owner and begonia breeder Tim Anderson was not available and the staff couldn't give me a name.  I assumed it was one of Tim's own hybrids and finally managed to get a name for it from the nursery: 'Caribbean Star'.  As I expected it's one of Tim's hybrids but of uncertain parentage; they believe it is a B. diadema hybrid (although I suspect B. deliciosa instead).  It's similar to Begonia U358 (sold under the name 'Pewterware' by Plant Delights Nursery) but larger growing and with more distinctive leaf markings.

Interestingly, the plant had fairly small leaves and a tight growth habit in their greenhouses:

Begonia 'Caribbean Star'

In my own garden, planted in the ground in bright shade, the plant has has proven to be a handsome and vigorous plant but with a looser growth habit and much larger leaves:

Begonia 'Caribbean Star'

Best of all, it has proven to be somewhat hardy!  My plant survived the winter, albeit a warm one and with a heavy mulch.  The plant has not yet bloomed for me, but is budding up and should be blooming shortly.

UPDATE: my plant bloomed with pale pink flowers, starting in late October and blooming until a hard freeze in mid-November:

Begonia 'Caribbean Star'

A refuge in the city

One of the challenges of gardening in a city is creating a sense of privacy.  This little bench in the center of my garden is completely invisible from any of the neighboring properties, thanks to careful placement of various plants.  It's a nice place to sit on a summer day, surrounded by palms and begonias and shaded by the hardy banana (Musa basjoo), except for the mosquitoes!

Welcome to DCTropics

I'm a botanist and gardener in Washington, DC.  As a botanist, my research specialty is the plant family Gesneriaceae and I have authored or co-authored several papers on subject (although my current duties are primarily collections & data management).  I work almost exclusively with pressed, dried, brown, and quite dead plants so when I come home I want to see something green and growing!  My horticultural interests are eclectic and wide-ranging and include gesneriads, begonias, hardy palms, and just about anything else that's tropical or exotic. I've also been an amateur plant breeder for over 25 years and have produced numerous cultivars in the gesneriad genera Sinningia, Primulina (formerly Chirita), Kohleria, and Seemannia (formerly Gloxinia) as well as a smattering of others, including some intergenerics.  In the last few years my interests have turned more towards Begonia with the primary goal of producing hardy begonia hybrids.

I've always been interested in growing unusual and exotic plants, and particularly "zone-pushing", testing the limits of plants that may or should be hardy in my region (USDA hardiness zone zone 7a/b).  I’m the organizer/admin of two online gardening groups, DCTropics (Yahoo) and MidAtlantic Tropics (Facebook).  I also have an extensive photo album on Flickr although you can still find some of my older photos in Photobucket.  Here are some of my most popular photos on Flickr (and don’t ask me how Flickr decides which are the most “interesting”).

Finally, here's a view of my garden as seen from our roof deck, taken just this morning (and yes, those are our neighbor's garbage cans; we live in an urban rowhouse with a very narrow lot and it's sometimes hard to hide things like that...):