Nicotiana Fete And Fandango

 nicotiana alata

Being ever so fond of all of the cultivars of nicotiana, I planted the boxwood parterre in front of the shop this year with a mix of 3 kinds.  Nicotiana “perfume white” is short growing, and as  fragrant as the name suggests.  Nicotiana alata white is a taller, lanky growing nicotiana with larger and more widely spaced branches and flowers.  Bur nearest and dearest to my heart is the big growing species, nicotiana mutabilis.  I can’t manage to let a summer go by without planting it-usually in my own yard.  This year I planted lots of them at the shop.

The garden had an odd look early on-every single plant got its own 4 foot tall bamboo stake.  There for a while, we had a stake garden.  But there are few things more trying than staking a plant that needed that stake weeks previous.  If you have ever tried to get an Annabelle hydrangea that has gone over in wind or rain off the ground, you know what I mean.  The afterthought staking always looks like that afterthought.

nicotiana mutabilis

Our stakes go a good foot into the ground.  Given the torrential rains and high winds that accompanied all the heat we have had the last 10 days, I am so glad we did it that way.  We did not loose a single plant.  In another week, those stakes will completely disappear from view.  Nicotiana mutabilis is never more beautiful for me than it is in the fall-it is happy in cool weather.  But I see no signs of heat stress here.  We have watered heavily and regularly-as much for the boxwood as the nicotiana. Like the annual flowers, woody plant material stressed by too dry conditions are more susceptible to other problems.

  nicotiana perfume white

There are a few perfume white nicotianas in the window boxes.  They are a great size and height for a container that is already a good distance off the ground.  We keep the giant leaves at the bottom trimmed back, so as not to cast shade on the neighbors. When using nicotiana in containers, the grooming at ground level is important. They produce leaves prodigiously.  

nicotiana mutabilis

The flowers of nicotiana mutabilis are very small, and an utterly simple shape.  But a happy plant will produce thousands of them.  I don’t understand the science, but each plant will produce pale, almost white flowers, pink flowers-and hot pink flowers-all at the same time, on the same plant.  The slender stems make it seem as though those small blooms are floating, hovering over the container.

Nicotiana alata lime peroduces flowers that are just that-lime green.  In a good season, they will bloom heavily the entire summer.  I have seen them peter out in really hot weather.  In that case, I cut them back a little, and feed.  They seem to revive when the weather cools off.

I remember taking this picture of a pot at home some years ago in September.  The nicotiana was sending out giant thick bloom stalks.    The composition was no doubt lopsided, but I loved the exuberance of it all.  The stiff habit of those giant dahlias is completely masked by that cloud of flowers. 


This English concrete pot cast in a classic Italian style is a huge pot-it measures 39″ by 39″.  The surface is 12 square feet.  The nicotiana mutabilis makes a giant airy bouquet-the pot is the smallest element of the composition.  This picture was taken the beginning of September.  I like annual plants that can go the distance-an entire summer season-and on into the fall.  I like to get tired of looking after my container plantings before they give out. 

nicotiana mutabilis

One of more foolish container moments-planting nicotiana mutabilis in a relatively small Italian terra cotta urn. The bigger foolishness?  How much I loved the look. 







What’s Rob Been Up To?

hanging baskets

What Rob has been up to involves some steel, some shade plants, and the airspace.  Before I say more, I should make it clear that I have always detested hanging baskets.  I would only purchase one to plant in a container.  Under no circumstances would I hang pots of plants in the air.   Why anyone would think this is a good look is beyond me.  A planting disassociated from the earth or the ground plane- is this innovative-or is it just plain silly?  The usual white plastic baskets with zinc wires terminating in a reinforced coathanger hook-they do not help the hanging basket cause. I get that growers choose a hanging basket that reflects heat, and conserves moisture. Why wouldn’t any garden center grow a second crop, in their greenhouse airspace?  A garden center is all about delivering a fresh and lustily growing group of plants to a consumer.  They have nothing to say about the look-but I do.  Suffice it to say that when I see white plastic hanging baskets fresh from the nursery summarily hung from a hook on the porch-this idea about gardening makes me wince.  However, Rob is up to gardening in the air in a way I find incredibly appealing.

hanging baskets

What has Rob been up to?  He ordered a series of sizes in steel spheres.  He ordered a series of fiber pot bowls.  Once planted, his grow spheres were hung from the branches of the big lindens at the shop.  Having had no end of requests for perennial or annual plantings underneath and in the shade of big trees, I applaud his idea.  A fiber bowl can be folded in half, and wedged into the sphere.  Shade loving plants can be planted in great soil, in that fiber bowl..  The bowl breathes. The plants live, and thrive.

alternative hanging baskets

Every gardener I know has that dead zone.  Deep shade cast by a tree.  The soil underneath that tree is congested with roots that require an axe, and infinite effort to penetrate.  Endless articles have been written about what to plant in the dry shade under an old tree.  Work and more work-and to what good end?  Are your plantings in the deep shade cast by an old tree thriving and newsworthy?  Mine are not.  I am starting to like these grow spheres, hung in the lower branches of a shade tree.  These Miss Muffet caladiums in a mossed basket hanging from a branch of our lindens-I am beginning to get interested in his particular take on the hanging basket. 

birds nest ferns

Rob’s planted spheres are remarkably original, and remarkably lively.  He dispensed with the white plastic, and the coathanger. His idea is both sculptural, and natural. He took great pains to hang the spheres at different heights via a hank of jute. 

hanging baskets

The shop has nothing planted in the ground, save our trees.  Every square foot of the ground is gravelled.  This makes it easy to display all manner of ornament for the garden.  What a relief to see his shady basket creations hung high and low, under those trees.  I would certainly recommend that if you plan to add hanging baskets to your garden, figure out how to hang them at a level that makes sense to your eye.  A white plastic basket in the air is a visual tutorial in a lack of gardening effort.  Moss baskets, please.   


vinca maculatum

 I do have a great fondness for vinca maculatum.  The variegated leaves are substantial.  They keep on growing, late into the fall.  They are easy to winter over.  The vines drape down, and keep on draping.  Baskets of them hung high will eventually make for a curtain of green that goes to the ground.  The plastic baskets here are entirely hidden by the vines.  We hung them very high in the grape arbor.  Julie insists she needs a ladder to water them.  These hanging baskets are ok by me.

green plants

Just inside the shop door is a sky light.  Rob has hanging baskets of pothos cris-crossing that 6′ by 6′ light space.  I would think by fall his hanging garden will provoke a great deal of comment.  In conjunction with his hanging shade gardens, his selaginella brick constructions.  He has planted a number of containers with shade plants set way above the rim of the pots.   

birds nest ferns

Selaginella, or club moss, is a densely growing shade loving tropical plant.  A four inch pot of club moss is a 4″ square brick-green on the top, and heavily rooted on all of the other sides.  Rob has been planting shade pots-in this case, a birdsnest fern, in a mound of selaginella.

green container planting

OK, I usually plant 4″ pots with the rootball cube in the ground, and the top side facing the light.  Rob has a different idea.  Any plant can be planted on the 45-by this I mean, on a 45 degree angle.  Those rooty soil cubes can make a wall.  This selaginella has no problem living,  planted on the slant.  This French concrete pot is all the better for a planting that lifts off.  The plants are beautiful.  The planter is equally beautiful.  The sum total of the two-all about Rob.

club moss

This planting of his is extraordinarily beautiful.  I just noticed it a few days ago.  What Rob is up to is so quiet, so self effacing-and so so and very very very good.  The rooted bricks of selaginella planted on an angle enabled him to present a single bird’s nest fern high off this French terra cotta pot.  Beautiful, yes?  His grow spheres, beautiful too.      


Some Like It Hot

cardigan welsh corgi

The blisteringly hot and persistent heat of the past week has made many a gardener, and the above pictured corgi, miserable.  Howard, who would not set foot outside the door if he thought he would get his feet wet, had an alternate plan for yesterday.  Strong winds were pushing water over the coping of my fountain.  He doesn’t look all that thrilled with his situation, but he had no plans to go elsewhere either. I had to laugh, watching him stand with obvious annoyance in a few inches of water.  Just like the rest of us, there was no getting around the heat.    


It may be stating the obvious, but plants evolve in response to their environment.  Though last week’s Garden Designers Roundtable topic focused on texture in the landscape, there was quite a bit of discussion about how the surface of a leaf says everything about a mechanism for survival.  I had never really thought about it before, but plants that live in environments where rain is extremely scarce have evolved to minimize the evaporation of water.  Those leaves are thick skinned.  Tropical plants where rain is frequent and heavy can survive just fine with thin and jumbo sized leaves.    

Petunias are native to Argentina.  Many species of helichrysum, like the variegated licorice pictured above, are native to South Africa.  The blue-green frosted curls sedge is a cool season grass, meaning it grows best before the advent of hot weather, and after the cessation of hot weather.  It tolerates, but does not grow much, in really hot weather.  These plants are equipped to handle the heat.

sunny window boxes

Most of the plants I use in containers are hybrids of non-native, tropical plants.  The petunias like to be grown on the dry side, and usually do well in the heat of our summers.  They come from places that are routinely hot.  New Zealand sedges, of which the hybrid Frosted Curls is an example, are native to a far more temperate zone than mine. They can tolerate our midsummer heat.  But not all heat is created equal.  Extreme heat is one thing, but extreme heat that goes on for an extremely long time takes a toll.

heat loving annuals.jpg

The petunias are fine, and growing lushly-at the moment.  They are dealing with this weather far better than I.  The white mandevillea will sit until the weather gets hot-they are native to central and South America.  Many mandevilleas are native to Brazil.  They grow and bloom like crazy in hot climates.  I expect this white mandevillea will get bigger and bloom more should our hot weather persist.  Nicotiana species can be found in environements all over the globe.  I find mine do quite well over the summer, and rebloom profusely.  Nicotiana mutabilis in particular will rev up in the fall, and send out substantial new flowering stalks.


Cassia didymobotrya is commonly known as the popcorn plant.  The fragrance of buttered popcorn is strikingly apparent, should you run your fingers across the stems and leaves.  It is a shrub, native to South America, that will grow 4 to 6 feet tall in one season.  They may grow larger, given a hot season.  They make a substantial showing in a container garden.  They throw yellow flowers on and off all summer. I am particularly fond of the pea-type leaves.  Cassia is a tropical plant with a very airy appearance.  Planted in a cast iron cistern placed at the edge of our asphalt street, it looks stress free, and is growing well.

Texas sage topiary

Texas sage is as it suggests-it thrives under desert conditions.  I have never had a leucophyllum bloom for me, but perhaps this year I will get lucky.  They like desert conditions, but oddly enough require some humidity to bloom well.  I cannot believe the usual Michigan humidity is far behind. I know that many grey foliaged plants are native to dry places.    Lavenders and grey salvias will not tolerate too much water for long. 

I do know there can come a point when heat can severely damage plants.  The first line of defense against life threatening damage is to go dormant.  Both plants and animals will aestivate, meaning they slow down their activity, in order to conserve moisture and energy.  Petunias and impatiens will go out of flower, if they temperatures get too hot, and stay too hot. Our drought-like conditions are not helping one bit with the effects of the heat.  Many lawns in my area have gone brown and dormant-they are aestivating.  Should the soil temperature gets too high, roots can literally cook.  I remember a summer in the mid eighties where many growers in the Cleveland area lost nursery stock from soil temperatures that soared over 100 degrees.  There is nothing that can be done to defend against extreme weather like this.

white nicotiana

The best I can do to help my plants survive a bout of unusually hot weather is to water them when they need it. Even if that means I am outside with a hose when I would rather be anywhere else.  So far, so good. 


More From Buck, At Branch

steel orangery boxes

tall lattice boxes

branch studio

tall lattice box

steel topiary forms

oil derrick topiary towers

steel tuteurs

oil derrick topiary towers, finished

steel containers

steel planter boxes

planter boxes

steel planter box, planted

planter boxes

planted steel planter box

steel pergola

steel pergola and planted tall Jackie box

steel fountain cistern

steel fountain cistern.  The steel grid positioned near the top of the water level is a safeguard- given very small, and very curious children. 

orangery boxes

Steel planter boxes

steel planter boxes

rectangular steel Hudson box, and associated steel Hudson planters


planter boxes

planted steel Hudson boxes

tomato cages

steel tomato cages in the form of classical obelisks

 auricula theatre

steel herb table, after the classic English auricula theatre. Buck has been very busy, churning out one fabulous garden ornament after another.  This plant table is proportioned exactly according to the golden mean.  No wonder it looks so solid, so satisfying, and so good.