Green Reading: Penelope Hobhouse’s Top 10

How about settling down in the shade with a tall glass of something frosty and losing yourself in a great garden book this summer?

After a lifetime of gardening, 86-year-old Penelope Hobhouse – who has written a dozen books and designed gardens for English royalty, the RHS, and Steve Jobs – listed her ten favorite garden books in the December 2015 issue of Gardens Illustrated.

Two of her favorites, I’m happy to say, are more than a century old, and six deal with garden history!

Garden Design, by Sylvia Crowe, 1958 – “My first choice,” Hobhouse says. This work starts with a long section on garden history and “remains the most comprehensive book on design I know.”

The Education of a Gardener, by Russell Page, 1962 – A modern classic, this small book by the celebrated garden designer “describes his visits to great gardens and discusses what they taught him.”

Green Reading: Penelope Hobhouse’s Top 10 –

The Formal Garden in England, by Reginald Blomfield, 1892 – This historical survey by a man who was “violently opposed” to the then-new “natural-style” gardens “makes you think where you stand in the argument which still reverberates today.”

Penelope Hobhouse’s Gardening through the Ages, 1992 – Originally published in England as Plants in Garden History, this is “an illustrated history of plants and their influence on garden styles from ancient Egypt to the present day.”

Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India, by Elizabeth Moynihan, 1979 – “Highly readable” and a “masterpiece,” this is “the best introduction” to garden-making from Cyrus the Great in 540 BC to Shah Jehan in 1660 AD.

The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day, by G. and S. Jellicoe, 1979 – “Perhaps this is the only book you need,” Hobhouse writes, because it covers garden history and design “but with an emphasis on the garden as part of the environment.”

Green Reading: Penelope Hobhouse’s Top 10 –

Italian Villas and Their Gardens, by Edith Wharton, 1903 – The only American book on her list, this 1903 work by the famous novelist “captures the essence of Renaissance taste.”

The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs, by Hillier Nurseries – This is “for me the most valuable” reference book, Hobhouse writes, because “I cannot envisage a garden without a framework of woody plants.”

Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, R. Hansen and F. Stahl, translated in 1993 – “Astonishingly detailed” and “my new bible for planning my own garden,” this encyclopedic German work “puts more emphasis on the ecological needs of a plant.”

The Green Tapestry: Perennial Plants for the Garden, by Beth Chatto, 1999 – “No library can be complete without” one of Chatto’s books, Hobhouse concludes. “She has taught us to garden better using suitable plants in sustainable ways.”

Could one of these be your next favorite garden book? If you can’t find them at your local library, ask about borrowing them through inter-library loan which is simple and free. Or consider buying used copies at Amazon and elsewhere, where some are available for as little as $.01 plus $3.99 shipping – less than you’d probably pay for a six-pack of annuals.


A Few Simple Bulb Tips for June

Dead-Heading Iris and Peonies – Cutting off faded blooms redirects your plants’ energy from seed-making to future growth and bloom. Cut down iris bloom-stalks (not leaves alone) as close as possible to the rhizome, but cut back peony bloom-stalks no more than is needed to make the plant look good.

Growing Bulbs in Pots – Container gardening is great, but it’s not the same as growing bulbs in the ground. For the best results, see our Bulbs in Pots page.

Multiplying Your Rarest Tulips – In most gardens, the best way to give your rarest tulips the dry summer rest they need is to dig them up after the foliage yellows and store them in a dry, well-ventilated place – maybe hanging in mesh bags from the rafters in your basement or garage where they’ll be safe from mice and chipmunks, too. Then put a note on your calendar so you don’t forget to replant them in the fall!

A Few Simple Bulb Tips for June –

Staking Dahlias – For a bushier plant, pinch out the center shoot after three or four sets of leaves develop. Although dahlias grow upright and may look like they don’t need support, they do. Learn more.

Controlling Red Lily Leaf Beetle – The earlier you find and destroy these pests – which are currently expanding beyond New England – the better. Learn more.


Save the Bees – In Your Own Backyard, Neighborhood, and City

Just in time for National Pollinator Week, June 20-26, our bee-keeping neighbor and friend Eileen Dickinson knocked on our door asking, “Will you sign a pledge to make your yard pollinator-safe?”

Eileen – whose garden was featured in Country Gardens last year – explained that the Bee Safe Neighborhoods pledge offers various levels of commitment. The first and most important is to stop using any lawn or garden product that contains neonicotinoids – which are especially harmful to bees – or any other systemic herbicide or pesticide, since systemics are absorbed into the plant and poison the pollen and nectar that pollinators collect.

To learn more, visit the Bee Safe Ann Arbor Facebook page which has a lot of useful information about pollinators and gardening more safely, including a link to a “Grow Smart, Grow Safe” list of weed control products ranked from least to most hazardous.

Eileen also shared the good news with me that Ann Arbor has applied for certification as a Bee City USA community. “Launched in 2012, the Bee City USA program endorses a set of commitments for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators, which are vital to feeding the planet,” I learned at the organization’s website. “Communities across America are invited to make these commitments and become certified as a Bee City USA affiliate.”

I signed the Bee Safe pledge, and even if Eileen doesn’t make it to your door, I hope you’ll celebrate National Pollinator Week by pledging to make your yard a safer place for these critically important and vulnerable creatures.


Fertilize Your Garden with . . . Lightning?

Like most gardeners, I’m a big fan of rain. But until I read a short article in the Ann Arbor News recently, I had no idea that lightning itself is also good for my garden.

Fertilize Your Garden with . . . Lightning? –

“Lightning is nature’s greatest fertilizer,” writes meteorologist Mark Torregrossa. “The air around us is 78% nitrogen. Nitrogen is the main nutrient in most fertilizers. But the nitrogen in the air is not usable by plants, until lightning strikes through it.

“Once the air is heated by lightning, two [atoms] of nitrogen are split apart. The single [atom] of nitrogen then joins with oxygen or hydrogen and is rained into the soil. Now it’s usable by plants. A lightning storm applies more nitrogen on lawns and crops than we could ever afford to buy.”

With Google’s help, I learned that lightning can briefly heat the air it passes through to 50,000 degrees F, almost ten times hotter than the surface of the sun. That enormous energy breaks up the nitrogen (N2), freeing the atoms to recombine into nitrate (NO3), ammonia (NH3), and ammonium (NH4). The latter two are also produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of the enormous Fabacaea or legume family, but some scientists believe that lightning is responsible for as much as 50% of the nitrogen available to plants.


2016 Great Plant Picks:
They’re Not Just for Humans

Every year since 2001, Seattle’s Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden has released an annual list of Great Plant Picks. Although especially well-suited to gardens in the Pacific Northwest, many of these plants are also outstanding choices for gardens across the country.

Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds are the focus of this year’s GPP list, and Rick Peterson provides an excellent introduction to it in Pacific Horticulture.

“As temperatures warm, bees emerge from their winter slumber looking for nourishment,” Peterson writes, and since “crocus are among the garden’s earliest blooming bulbs,” the GPP list includes several such as C. tommasinianus, ‘Jeanne d’Arc’, ‘King of the Striped’, and ‘Mammoth Yellow’.

A few species tulips are also recommended, including T. clusiana and T. sylvestris which will have bees “bustling around the garden with satisfaction” and, in the right spot, will “reliably return year after year.”

Other Great Plant Picks that we’re offering now for delivery this fall include: extra early-blooming winter aconite, traditional snowdrop, and giant snowdrop, wildflowery Grecian windflower, ‘Gravetye Giant’ snowflake, and sowbread cyclamen, classic ‘Saint Keverne’, ‘Thalia’, and pheasant’s-eye daffodils, and elegant martagon and regal lilies.

Learn more and see the entire list organized into categories such as “Fantastic Foliage,” “Made in the Shade,” and “Plants that Make Scents” at

Crocus tommasinianus
martagon lily
‘Thalia’ daffodil

Iconic Garden
Reblooms after $3 Million Restoration

Gardens are constantly changing, and every gardener knows how quickly weeds can get the upper hand – which is pretty much the story of Naumkeag, a world famous Massachusetts estate designed by one of America’s most inventive landscape architects, Fletcher Steele.

For almost 30 years starting in 1926, Steele worked closely with Naumkeag’s owner Mabel Choate to develop an eclectic series of gardens that ranged from a whimsical terrace ringed with Venetian gondola poles to the modernist masterpiece known as the Blue Steps.

On her death in 1958, Choate bequeathed Naumkeag to the Trustees of Reservations, the leading Massachusetts nonprofit devoted to scenic and historic sites. Unfortunately, the estate’s needs outpaced the Trustee’s resources, and little by little Steele’s brilliant gardens lost their luster or disappeared altogether.

But happily Naumkeag’s story doesn’t end there. In 2012 an anonymous donor promised the Trustees a million dollars to restore the entire landscape – but only if they could match that donation and finish the enormous project by this summer. Against all odds, they did! Read the whole inspiring story and see the results in the spring 2016 issue of Preservation.