Helleborus x ericsmithii “Enthusiasm”

Posted by Mark Wessel on March 31st, 2013  •  Comments Off on Helleborus x ericsmithii “Enthusiasm”

Helleborus x ericsmithii

I am sure that some of my close horticulture friends tire of me singing the praise of Helleborus x ericsmithii. Frankly, I do not care. If they would only buy this phenomenal floristic spring blooming beauty, they too would be converted to “Ericsmithii enthusiasm.”

Where do I start the praise? First, they are floriferous beyond belief. The number of blooms per plant is truly remarkable.

Helleborus x ericsmithii

The floriferous nature of the plant resides in the fact that it is sterile. The flowers are not fertile and do not set seeds. This allows the plant to spend much more time on being beautiful.

H.x ericsmithii " Winter Bliss"

The second desirable trait is flower orientation. They hold their flowers above the foliage, facing up and out. Many of Helleborus x hybridus hang their heads down, requiring you kneel  to truly enjoy their flowers.

The foliage is also outstanding, always clean and healthy. Unlike the H.x hybridus, there is often very little annual removal of the previous years foliage. Only the occasional dead or torn leaf needs attention.

H. x ericsmithii showing nice clean winter foliage.

Helleborus x ericsmithii has a slightly complicated parentage. Helleborus niger was crossed with Helleborus x sternii. Helleborus x sternii is a cross between Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus lividus.

The variation in Ericsmithii cultivars is minor. White, cream and pink colored blossoms often fading to pink with varying levels of leaf color, leaf venation and stem color account for most of this variation.

H. x ericsmithii "WInter Moonbeam" foliage

Until recently H.x Ericsmithii has been hard to find locally. Ivory Prince was often our only option. Last spring I started seeing more variety in the finer garden stores in our area. Pipkins Market and Greenfield Plant Farm would a good place to start you search in Cincinnati. Just a few weeks ago Lowe’s Home Improvement had a big rack of the variety “Winter Bliss”. Mail order is still going to offer the best variety. Pine Knot Farms and Fraser’s Thimble Farms have an excellent selection.

So go out and make the effort to find these plants. Stunning sterile flower power at its best.

Posted in : Perennials, winter bloomers  •  Tags: , , , ,

Spring 2013? What a difference a year makes.

Posted by Mark Wessel on March 21st, 2013  •  Comments Off on Spring 2013? What a difference a year makes.

March 23 2012

Could we just have a normal spring? Comparing March 2012 to March 2013 could hardly be more different.

March 20 2013

This year it seems that winter will never end. Cold and wet with below normal temperature. Last year we seemed to skip spring and went straight into summer.

Summer Snowflakes March 19 2012

By this time in the month of March last year we already had 2 days in the 50°s, 7 days in the 60°s, 5 days in the 70°s and we were in the middle of a 4 day stretch in the 80°s.

March 2013 Snow instead of Summer Snowflakes

This year in March we have had 4 days in the 50°s, 2 day in the 60°s. No 70°s or 80°s.

March 2013 we have dad 14 days in the 40°s or lower.

Magnolia denudata March 19 2012

March 2012 only 3 days in the 40°s and 1 day in the 30°s.

Magnolia denudata March 20 2013

Needless to say, its cold and it sucks this march. Winter seems endless. The landscapes are still brown and nearly lifeless. Most of the plants that are active and blooming are welcome introductions from other countries. The native flora is hardly stirring. The soil is too wet and cold for most vegetable gardening. Many gardening task are on hold till the weather and soil warms.

Hellebore March 20 2013

Last year, march was too darn hot. We had no easing into the warmth. Everything was blooming at once and the landscape was green. We actually missed a season of gardening chores. The woodlands were verdant and blooming.

Trillium grandiflorum March 22 2012

Will we ever have a normal year? A year where the temperatures gradually increase as spring and summer approach. Maybe and inch of rain per week during the summer months.

Snowdrops and Tommy Crocus

Next year lets just have the average between the two years.

Posted in : Annuals, Uncategorized  • 

The Opium Poppy: A true garden Beauty.

Posted by Mark Wessel on July 5th, 2012  •  Comments Off on The Opium Poppy: A true garden Beauty.

Papaver somniferum

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has brought immeasurable relief from pain to countless people throughout the ages.  It has also undoubtedly caused untold suffering by people addicted to its alkaloids.  My harmless interest lies in the beauty of the flowers.

Elegant underside

Withdraw from blooming opium poppies in the garden is a much easier process than withdraw from other forms of opiates. It’s a natural process. They sprout, bloom and then fade away. No headaches, chills, sweats, cramping, hallucinations and all those other horrible symptoms caused by opiate withdrawal. You don’t have to snort, inject or smoke them. Just sow the seed and enjoy. By the time they have finished their lifecycle, you are left with a pleasant feeling and are ready to move on. Often surrounding perennials fill in the gaps left behind by the dying plants. The gaps can also be filled with tender perennials or any other plant you have waiting in the wings.

From above

The opium poppy is considered a hardy annual. Loosely this means the plant can tolerate a certain amount of cold temperatures. The seed of hardy annuals survives winter in the soil, often germinating in late winter or early spring. In this seedling stage the plants are quite tolerant of freezing temperatures.

Seed heads

Propagation is quite easy. Once the seed heads have matured and the plant is nearly dead, break the heads off and spread the seeds. You will not see any plants until early the following spring. This is the method I used when I was given a ripe seed head by one of my neighbors. One spring I saw these unusual plants in our flowerbeds and couldn’t identify them. It wasn’t until I saw the old seed head that I remembered sowing the seed the previous year. You can also save the seed and sow them in the garden in early spring. Snow seeding is another method of propagation. Sow the seed on top of one of the last snowfalls. As the snow melts, the seed nestles into the ground.


If there is a certain strain of opium poppy you want to preserve, it is important to isolate those plants from other varieties. They cross freely. In fact I have lost one of my favorites to cross-pollination. Lauren’s Grape is a beautiful deep purple. A few washed out lavender poppies, which still bloom in the garden, are the only evidence of the once beautiful purple poppy.

Prom Puff

There are several sub-types of Opium poppies. Paeoniflorum is one of the sub-types that I grow. The variety Prom Puff is a big puffy pink. Interesting variety, but I still prefer the singles.

There are many varieties now available in seed catalogs. Add this to the ease of cultivation and everyone should be growing these garden beauties.

Posted in : Annuals  • 

Winter Blooming Witch Hazels: More than just Barney Fife’s after-shave.

Posted by Mark Wessel on February 8th, 2012  •  Comments Off on Winter Blooming Witch Hazels: More than just Barney Fife’s after-shave.

Hamamelis mollis "Wisley Supreme

“Hello Floyd, this is Barney Fife. I’m coming over and I’m ready for action! That’s right I want the works. Shave, haircut, Witch Hazel, O.D. Cologne, toilet water. If it smells, I want it.”

Hamamelis x intermedia "Strawberries and Cream"

Hamamelis x intermedia "Strawberries and Cream"

If you want some action in your garden in the dreary depths of winter, Witch Hazels are the shrub for you. We are not talking about their wonderful astringent after- shave qualities, which good old Barney Fife was so familiar with.  We are talking flowers and fragrance.

Hamamelis x intermedia "Fire Charm"

As winter starts to lighten its grip, Witch Hazels (Hamamelis) are among the first shrubs to start blooming. February is often prime bloom time. However, there is variation due to weather patterns. This year my H. vernalis started blooming in late December and has since finished blooming. In other years I have seen the same species bloom into early March.

Hamamelis x intermedia "Allgold"

Although a few warm and sunny days in winter start the bloom process, the inevitable cold that will follow rarely damages the bloom. Recently, the flowers seemed undamaged after a few nights in the upper teens.

Hamamelis mollis "Rochester"

The genus Hamamelis consist of five species. In the winter landscape, three species concern us most. H. vernalis, H. japonica, and H. mollis. Most of the selections available to gardeners today are hybrids between japonica and mollis. These hybrids are referred to as Hamamelis x intermedia followed by the cultivar name.

Hamamelis vernalis "Girards Purple"

Varying shades of yellow, orange and red are the dominant color range. While many of the yellow cultivars can be effective from a distant vantage point, this is not ideal for the more subtle earth tones. Since gardeners are often not out in the landscape in the winter, placing the plants in areas that receive winter foot traffic benefits the gardener the most. Near the driveway or parking areas or along the walk to the entrance of your house ensures maximum exposure to they’re beauty.

Hamamelis intermedia "Limelight"

Beautiful bloom isn’t the only reason to grow Witch Hazel. Often the first indication of bloom is the fragrance. The sweet fragrance of some cultivars travels long distances in the garden. Not all cultivars are fragrant. Research before purchasing or time in the field using the olfactory sense will help you get the right plant.

Hamamelis x intermedia "Birgit"

Witch Hazels can reach fifteen to twenty feet in height. Most are either broadly vase-shaped or low, mounding and wide spreading. Full sun to partial shade is preferred. Although shade is tolerated, bloom will be greatly reduced.

Wisley Supreme and Hamamelis mollis "James Wells"

Witch Hazels do suffer a few less than desirable traits.  Some cultivars hold on to the previous years leaves and seed capsules until nearly the time new foliage emerges. This trait obscures blossoms and creates an untidy appearance. The picture directly above shows a good example of this trait. Wisley Supreme is the yellow cultivar on the left. Few leaves. Beautiful display. The plant on the right, James Wells, seems to have kept all its foliage from last year.

Hamamelis "Aurora"

For an article written in more flowery prose and from the standpoint of one of the nations experts, Tim Brotzman, on the genus Hamamelis, check out this link. No one is better suited to write about the genus.

Hamamelis x intermedia "Orange Beauty"

Admittedly, Witch Hazel varieties are not the easiest plants to locate. Ask your gardening friends if they are growing them. Check out the local arboretums.

Hamamelis vernalis

Dawes Arboretum, east of Columbus Ohio, has one of the finest collections of the genus.


Just like any plant that brings color, form or fragrance into the winter and early spring garden, Witch Hazels are well worth the effort.

Posted in : Shrubs, winter bloomers  • 

Tale of Two Turnips

Posted by Mark Wessel on December 2nd, 2011  •  Comments Off on Tale of Two Turnips

Hakurei and Scarlet Queen Red Stems

Hakurei and Scarlet Queen Red Stems

For centuries the turnip has provided sustenance for peasants and livestock, often thwarting starvation in the lean winter months. What does the lowly turnip get in exchange? It hardly garners second-rate status. Times are a changing. Newer varieties are raising are the bar. Two Varieties, Hakurei and Scarlet Queen Red Stems, stand at the top of my list.

Hakurei is a small white turnip with short tops. The pure white flesh has a delicate sweetness and smooth texture. Hakurei, a quick maturing variety, is excellent for spring and fall sowings. The skin is nearly non-existent and doesn’t require peeling like some of the older varieties. As they age or get frosted, some of the smoothness transitions into a crispy texture. The short hairless greens are fine when picked young, but toughen quickly.


The majority of my Hakurei crop is eaten raw, often not making it out of the garden. If you are a radish lover and haven’t tried raw turnips, you should. A raw Hakurei is like a radish but with much more substance and refinement.

Scarlet Queen Red Stems is bright red turnip with tall leafy stems. The crisp white flesh, often splashed with red, has a subtle sweetness and a bit of spice from the skin. It may be necessary to peel the larger sized turnips.

Scarlet Queen Red Stems cross section.

The tall tender hairless foliage with thick succulent red stems is why Scarlet Queen stands out from the other varieties. The mild flavor and excellent cooked texture makes this one of our favorite greens. Good for either spring or fall sowings, the greens hold much better when maturing into the cool weather of autumn.

Scarlet Queen Red Stems

Both varieties are best eaten when two to three inches across. Successive sowings every few weeks will ensure a steady supply of tender roots.

So don’t look down on the turnip. This multi-use crop could keep you from starving in the leaner months and taste good at the same time.

Posted in : Vegetables  • 

Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin

Posted by Mark Wessel on November 24th, 2011  •  Comments Off on Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin

Winter Luxury Pie

Sorry Virginia, there is no pumpkin in your pie today. Most of the canned pumpkin filling on the market is from another type of winter squash. Traditional pumpkins, the ones we carve at Halloween, belong to the species Cucurbita pepo. You would end up with a bland and watery pie if you used the pulp from this group. Other members of this species include Zucchini, Acorn Squash and Delicata.

Libby’s uses a variety name Dickinson, which is a different species — Cucurbita moschata. This group includes Butternut and Cushaw and Long Island Cheese.

Winter Luxury Pie Note the long stem.

The fact is many types of winter squash will make great pumpkin pie filling. If you have a Butternut or Buttercup or Blue Hubbard, bake them, remove the pulp and proceed with your favorite recipe. It is fun to make your own. It is even more rewarding if you have grown your own. Here is the ironic twist of the whole process; canned filling is nearly as good.

Winter Luxury Pie Russet netting

There is one pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) that stands above all others in quality of flesh — Winter Luxury Pie.  It is a beautiful small pumpkin with a long handle and fine russet netting over an orange base.

Winter Luxury Pie Starting to dehydrate.

The one flaw with Winter Luxury Pie is short storage life. By the time Thanksgiving and Christmas arrive, this pumpkin has started to shrivel. For this reason, we cook them according to the directions below. From there, we freeze the pulp in two-cup increments. So if you want a pie with real pumpkin filling, grow this beauty.

The Complete Squash

Amy Goldman describes the Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin in her book,

“The Complete Squash,” excerpted below:

Winter Luxury Pie is my favorite orange pumpkin, and were she not the finest pie stock in the land, she still would be a knockout. That outrageous trophy fruit stalk is the perfect counterpoint to her modest and petite curvaceous form. Though it breaks my heart to cut one open, I know the flavor will be as fabulous as her appearance.

Winter Luxury Pie was introduced to the general public in 1893 by Johnson & Stokes of Philadelphia. This special strain, apparently developed by an anonymous pumpkin farmer, was similar in many respects (even down to the occasional warts) to the still popular Sugar Pumpkin. By 1917, brothers Ray W. and Edward E. Gill, of the Gill Brothers Seed Company, Portland, Oregon, had bred Winter Luxury Pie up in size. Famed for breeding such wonders as the Golden Delicious squash on their own farmers, Ray and Edward knew a thing or two about pumpkins: “Simply cook [Winter Luxury Pie] done and it is ready for use in making pies.”

Winter Luxury Pie makes the smoothest and most velvety pumpkin pie I’ve ever had. When cut into a wedge on a plate, it holds its shape, color, and flavor long after the competition has keeled over and died. Ray and Edward didn’t spell it out for you, so I will. Simply “cook it done” this way:

1. Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin should be baked whole, pierced for a few tiny vent holes, stem trimmed, at 350*F until it “slumps” and softens after an hour or so. If you wish, you can cut a lid, remove the gunk and seeds, and replace the lid loosely before baking (this method yields a drier pie).

2. The cooked pumpkin is hotter than hot potatoes: Be careful when you cut out or removed the lid. Seeds and strings, if left inside, come out easily. Take a large spoon and simply scoop the pumpkin out like ice cream. The flesh peels away from the desiccated rind without a shudder and leaves it flat.

3. Puree the flesh in a blender, adding liquid if needed. A 5-pound pumpkin yields approximately 2 1/2 pounds or 4 cups of pulp, enough for two pies.

4. Insert your favorite pie recipe here.

Cut Winter Luxury

Posted in : Vegetables  • 

Yucca Bug: Follow your nose and watch your eyes.

Posted by Mark Wessel on October 28th, 2011  •  Comments Off on Yucca Bug: Follow your nose and watch your eyes.

Gardening is an activity that requires you to use all your senses. The sense of smell for pest identification is often overlooked.

For several years, a fragrance emanating from a perennial border I tended eluded my identification. I sniffed and sniffed. At one time I thought it was coming from the seedpods of the Nigella or Love in a Mist. When crushed, the un-ripened seedpods of Nigella smell very much like artificial grape. This wasn’t the aroma.

While working in another bed, I smelled the same fragrance.  Immediately, I wondered what the beds had in common.

Yucca. I went to the yucca plant and observed a bunch of bugs. Often, when people refer to bugs, they are talking about any insect. The insects I was observing were true bugs. I stuck my nose into the abyss and sure enough, I found the source. Later that day I went back to the original bed with the fragrance and that yucca also had an infestation of the same bug.

What are these bugs? I went home and goggled Yucca bugs. That was all I needed. The insect pest in question was appropriately named Yucca bug. For better pictures click this link.

Why the fragrance when these bugs feed? I do not know. I can speculate. I think it has something to do with Saponins that occur in yuccas. After the insect feeds on yucca the saliva or fecal material smells of cheap detergent. Saponins are detergent –like chemicals that occur in many plants. Yucca schidigera and Quillaja saponaria (soapbark tree) are two commercial sources for these chemicals.

You do not have to stick your nose right in a yucca to smell the aroma of feeding yucca bugs. If you do chose to use this method, watch your eyes. You are sure to get poked if you aren’t careful. A few days ago I was walking back to the barn at my parents house. The fragrance hit me. I turned and looked. A yucca was thirty feet away and loaded with yucca bugs.

They are fairly easy to control. I have used Pyola and soaps to knock them back. There are a few systemic insecticides that offer longer-term control.

Some sources say that the Yucca bug will not kill your yucca. This is partly true. If the plant is not in optimum growing conditions, I have seen the bug finish them off.

Posted in : General, Pest and Disease, Wildflowers  • 

Tomato Pick of the Day

Posted by Mark Wessel on August 22nd, 2011  •  Comments Off on Tomato Pick of the Day

Purple Haze on the plant.

Today’s pick is a fairly recent introduction. Purple Haze is a cross between three classic heirlooms, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry.

Purple Haze is a large cherry tomato with excellent tomato flavor, well-balanced acidity and a lingering sweetness. Sure to be a classic.

Purple Haze sliced on the plate.

Tomato breeder Keith Mueller developed Purple Haze. One of Keith’s goals was to improve Black Cherry’s flavor. He was quite successful.

Two dollars from the sale of every plant this year goes to Autism research.

Posted in : Public Gardens, Tomato Pic of the Week, Trees  • 

Orienpet Lily – Hybrid vigor at its best.

Posted by Mark Wessel on July 16th, 2011  •  Comments Off on Orienpet Lily – Hybrid vigor at its best.

'Conca d' Or'

With all the talk of Genetically Modified Organisms on one end of the spectrum and Heirlooms vegetables on the other, good old-fashioned hybridization seems to be taking a back seat these days.  It is, however, happening every day. As long as our desire for new and improved plant varieties continues, people will be smearing pollen from one plant onto the stigmas of another plant.

This week that Hybrid Vigor was never more evident to me. Until three weeks ago, I had never heard of Orienpet Lilies. Orienpets are crosses between Oriental lilies and Aurelian or trumpet lilies. Mostly American made, much of the hybridization started taking place in the late sixties and continues today.

'Conca d' Or'

I do love lilies; I just do not keep up with all the varieties available today. Their susceptibility to deer and various diseases have also discouraged me. Although the Orienpets are not resistant to deer damage, they are much hardier and tolerant of the weather of the Mid-west than their parents.

The sheer vigor of this one plant growing in my neighborhood is what grabbed my attention. The lush foliage, a stalk as big as a corn plant and big fat swelling buds demanded viewing. This is all before a single flower opened.

On my second visit, I met the owner of the property, Betty Davis. Betty welcomed me into her garden and explained the origins of the Orienpet lilies.

Dewey Holister and the Lily

Since becoming aware of this type of lily, I have seen them in two other gardens. All were big and beautiful, however, Betty’s was by far the most robust.

I would like to thank Betty for allowing me to photograph her lily and sharing a few plants from her garden.

Posted in : Bulbs, Perennials  • 

Who’s silly idea was this anyway?

Posted by Mark Wessel on June 22nd, 2011  •  Comments Off on Who’s silly idea was this anyway?

Pucker up Baby

That’s right, whose idea was this? I am not talking about kissing a horse. That wasn’t so bad. I am talking about a gardening blog. Aren’t there enough already? Do I think I really have something to say that hasn’t already been said?

Cornus controversa

It all seemed like a wonderful idea in the winter. Less daylight, colder temperatures, and snow cover add up to more time to spend writing blog posts. The only problem is the lack of blog material. In the summer, it is just a matter of looking out at your garden. There is always something new happening. In the winter, much more creativity is needed to craft a meaningful post.

Southern Magnolia

Spring’s arrival offers more than warmer temps and pretty flowers. Potential blog fodder increases. The great aspect of early spring is that there is still plenty of darkness to keep you out of the garden and at the computer writing.

Tree Peony

Then late spring and early summer hit. So many subjects to write about, so little time.

I am a professional gardener. I am also a hobby gardener. Plus, I help friends with their gardens. This all adds up to a dawn to dusk gardening life.  It also adds up to not much time for my blog.

Grecian Foxglove Digitalis lanata

In a perfect world, I would be posting once a week. My last post was in early May.  I am letting my thousands of followers down. Every day, hundreds go to the site looking for new and wonderful gardening insight. This weighs heavily on me. It’s like an unpaid bill. Pure torture.

WOW! What a Smoke Tree

Blog topics too numerous to list have passed. Whole genera of plants have come into and out of bloom for the season. Wonderful gardens have been visited. One day, not long ago, I found an Emerald Ash Borer adult on my kitchen floor and a Brown Marmorated stinkbug on my elderberry bush. How could a person not write about finding two of the most destructive pests to come along in recent history in a single day?

Nation Champion Burr Oak --- Photo: Meg Hanrahan

There is hope. The solstice is here. My gardening life starts to shift to a little less hectic pace. I have several new postings started and a long list of ideas. Hopefully my next posting will be soon. If not, maybe I will be writing another bunch of excuses in two months.

Posted in : General  •