Had I But Four Square Feet…

Alice Harding, whose book “The Peony” is a classic on the subject of growing peonies once remarked, “Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the centre, and proceed to worship.”  My sentiments exactly.  But there are other plants that might make muster in my four square feet.  Most certainly nicotiana would be high on my list.  My three foot square Tuscan box is full of them at this moment, and they are looking good.   Henry Mitchell describes peonies as “that rare combination of fluff and majesty”-nicotiana could not be further from that description.  

The flowers are utterly simple.  A long slender tube fans out at the end into 5 distinctly scalloped lobes.  They look back at me with that guiless and frank signature look.  The nod in the breeze.  Can you tell I really like them?  There are lots of species, hybrids and cultivars; I like them all.  Nicotiana sylvestris grows better than 6 feet tall, always needs staking, and attracts every aphid in the neighborhood-so I rarely grow that. The diminuitive nicotiana langsdorfii is a charmer.  

Perfume purple and Perfume white are lovely.  They seem to maintain that same graceful spacing along the flowering stems as the species nocotiana alata.  Shorter nicotiana, such as the Avalon series, have densely bunched flower heads that lack grace to my eye.   

By far and away, my favorites are nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis.  I like them even better, grown in a mix.  Nicotiana mutabilis grows tall, and also needs staking, but it is worth the trouble.  Hundred of white, pink, and rose pink flowers grow on the same plant.  It is never better for me than it is in September; it will put on incredible growth in the fall.  The tiny flowers are always fluttering over something. 

They are not fond of really hot weather, so I have no idea what will become of this planting. Those that talk weather are saying it will be really hot here for another month.  You wouldn’t think this giant pot would dry out very often, but it is a rare hot day that I do not have to soak the corners.  Do I water parts of container plantings-absolutely.  I did soak it thoroughly this morning, knowing there was a possibility our temperature would hit 100 degrees today.  So I had time to take a long look.    

What else am I growing here?  Pink mandevillea, white angelonia, Persian Queen geranium, white mini petunias, and white variegated trailing plectranthus. I have an event going on here-a nicotiana fest.


  1. Deborah,
    I am just a below-average home gardener in Florida, but I take such inspiration from your blog. Your work is amazing, and your writing is honest but humble. Please, keep it up! I wish I had your talent.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Stacey, my whole thing is to encourage people to garden. Everyone has a talent for something. As for me, don’t ever volunteer to eat a dinner I cook. The list of other things that I have no talent for is really long. I think what I have the most of is stubborness. And that I really like what I do. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  2. Richard K says

    What timing!

    This morning I was enjoying the pot of Nicotiana mutabilis on my balcony approaching full bloom here in Cypress, TX. While seeing it, I marveled at the journey (both physical and “digital”) to get it here.

    I was first introduced to this plant while visiting Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd’s garden in England. I was immediately captivated by its habit. It very much reminded me of Dierama pulcherrimum, a plant that I have mercilessly killed on many occasions here in Texas. Still yearning for those “dangling bells,” I decided to give this a try. In fact, I even tried to bring a packet of seed into the US, only to have it confiscated by customs (now I am probably considered a smuggler of sorts by the government!). Previously, I’ve been successful with N. sylvestris and N. langsdorfii (with its magnificent cerulean blue pollen!), so I thought my chances of success were reasonable high. Doing some research, I googled it and was immediately transported to your blog showing your incredible Birmingham pot overflowing with Nicotiana mutabilis … that was my introduction to Dirt Simple and Detroit Garden Works. What serendipity! I’ve been a fan ever since … even getting the opportunity to visit you in person earlier this year!

    Since it is unavailable at nurseries around here, I grew it from seed (legally procured this time). Now I, too, get to enjoy a mass of those dangling bells on my balcony.

    I can tell you that It is holding up well with our unrelenting heat here … I make sure that it gets some afternoon shade and daily watering. I have noted that our intense sunlight here tends to fade the blossoms quickly. If I can keep it alive through August and September, I know that I will be handsomely rewarded in October

    I gained a new favorite plant and a new friend … all because of Nicotiana mutabilis!

    Deborah, you are a gifted woman. Know that you are able to inspire people near and far through your daily writings and photographs. Thank you for sharing your life’s work and your unique, clear vision with us through your blog!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Richard, many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have greatly appreciated everything you have written. It was even better to meet you in person this spring. It makes me feel so good-knowing that there are people out there who go to extraordinary lengths to grow and garden, like I do. Like you do. Many thanks, my friend, Deborah

  3. I always look forward to your gate being thrown open on the day of the garden cruise and your wonderful “giant pot” being stuffed to the gills with its new plantings. Its different each year and I draw much inspiration from it. Methinks It is particularly spectacular this year. I must have taken 10 or more pictures of just that, when I visited during the cruise.

    Last year I grew nicotiana langsdorfii from seed in my greenhouse and had much success. Had them until december blooming their little heads off…heaven in december! Was wondering tho what you use for fertilizer especially for your potunia’s……as this is the first year I have used so many of them but they seem to be dwindling and the new blooms are not as big and vigorous as when I planted them…..is it the heat or is there a secret to continuing the bloom display??? and once again, even tho it was hot the garden cruise was a great time and I so love seeing how each place “spoke” in its own unique way. Many many thanks to you for sharing this blog with all of us and I adore how it “ripples” out in so many different ways… in all of us everywhere. Too bad we cannot submit pictures of how you have inspired us. You might be surprised. (?)
    Surely.. you already know this but its fun to share images. Our little corner of detroit is better because.. you are in it!! A milliion thanks. cice

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Cice, thanks for your comments. My potunias at home, that may get overspray from the automatic irrigation, are doing poorly-chlorotic folaige and poor blooming. At the shop, they are kept fairly dry, and fertilized with Algoflash-they look great. I would be delighted to see yours, and any else’s photographs from the tour-just email them to info@detroitgardenworks.com. It would be great fun to publish some! I really enjoy the tour-and all the people who come to it. Thanks again for your interest, and support. Deborah

  4. this was such a nice, gardening-thought-provoking-post.

    it would be so much fun to see what other gardeners & your readers would plant “had i but four square feet”…

    for me…hydrangea, roses & herbs…and they would all kill themselves fighting for room!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Nanne, no doubt gardeners have a huge dose of hope-they are always planning for the coming season. As for the 4 square feet-they are always trying to represent everything they are crazy about-why not try? I have a lot going on in my city lot and one half-thank heavens I do not have more property. Deborah

  5. As an ex-smoker (who says so with no real pride, rather resignation), I have always taken a special joy in growing nicotiana. Yes, I know it isn’t nicotiana tabacum, but it is as close as I get these days to the real thing. I especially love the stickiness of the plant — I’ve been known to lick it. How about a shout out for nicotiana sylvestris…my current top pick. I just love it…planted at least 50 individual plants this year. A sea of (medicinal) white trumpets.

  6. How stupid of me…now that I have actually read your posting in its entirety….I see that you already gave the “here here” to nicotiana sylvestris in your post…of course you did! Happy to report no aphids here…only white pipes of jasmine scented beauty.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Michael, I have grown them, no kidding. I am glad to hear that yours are bug-free-you must have them in just the right spot, and keep them just so. Bravo! Deborah

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