Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Succulent Container Plantings at the TBG

Every summer the Toronto Botanical Garden creates a number of container plantings which are placed throughout the garden. 

One of my favourites is a raised set of containers that stands at the entrance to the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden.

In 2013, it was an inventive mix of annuals, grasses, perennials and herbs. I especially loved the innovative use of curly parsley and variegated sage.

Last year, the raised containers were a pollinator-friendly mix of colorful plants.

This year it is all about the succulents. 

There is something primordial about these plants. It is as if a coral reef has risen up out of some ancient ocean.

I asked Paul Zammit, the Nancy Eaton Director of Horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Garden, a number of questions about these succulent container plantings:

Q: What is it about succulents that makes them so appealing in a container planting?

A: I love the variety and diversity of plants in terms of shape, size, color, texture and even flowers. I also love that they are rather rough, durable and forgiving (providing a few key requirements are met).

Q: What type of soil mix would you recommend for this type of container planting?

A: We used a potting/container mix, in this instance the Pro Mix BX, which we pre-moistened prior to planting. Typically (and in my own garden) I mix 2/3 potting mix with 1/3 perlite or turface (crushed terra cotta available at Plant World) or chicken grit (which a pick up from a farmer's co-op when I am outside of the city.)

Q: The planting material in this container is wonderful. Where can someone, who does not live in a large urban centre like Toronto, find these type of plants? Do you have any online sources you could share?

A: I always find shopping for succulents is a bit of a hunt. This year I was able to pick up some wonderful treasures at Canada Blooms. Another place to get some succulents here in Ontario is Mason House Gardens in Uxbridge. 
As far as mail order, Phoenix Perennials ( is a great place. Plant Delights Nursery is a very dangerous website in s crazy-plant-addict-kind-of-way.

 Wooly Rose, Echeveria 'Doris Taylor'

Up close this Echeveria looks like a cross between a rose and a spider.

Peaking up from the bottom of the picture is Rattail Crassula, Crassula muscosa

Roughly left to right: The tall stripes in the background are New Zealand Flax (Phormium 'Sundowner') Next is stick-like Coral cactus (Rhipsalis cereuscula). The seafoam-green, rose-shaped succulent is Mexican Snowball (Echeveria elegans). Greyish and standing tall is Rhipsalis, Echeveveria 'Perle von Nurnberg'. Paddle Plant, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora has a red edge. Blue Chalksticks (Senecio serpens) is peaking into the shot on the far right.

Note: On the Toronto Botanical Garden website there is a picture of the full container planting ( Plant ID link). Each plant in the picture is identified with a number and the plant name (both common and botanical) appears in a list right below the image. 

 Paddle Plant, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora  

Q: How often does a container planting like this need to be watered?

A: A good watering once a week depending on the temperature. Personally, I check to make sure the container's mix is relatively dry to the touch before I request the planters get watered. What is important is that, when they get watered, they receive a good thorough watering.

Q: What other maintenance, if any, does a container planting like this require?

A: Deadheading blooms, removal of foliage and feeding with an all-purpose fertilizer (i.e. 20-20-20) every two weeks. Be sure to follow the recommended rate of the balanced fertilizer you use.

Q: What happens in the fall? Can plants like this move indoors for the winter? 

A: Yes, pot up individual plants or take cuttings to grow indoors in winter. I take tip or leaf cuttings on select plants rather than try and pot up and save the large mother plant.

Q: What indoor winter conditions are best for succulents?

A: Succulent plants do best in a greenhouse setting (bright light and high humidity). Plants also do relatively well on a light stand, but must be kept relatively cool to avoid lots of growth.

Q: Most home gardeners don't have access to a heated greenhouse. Is there any hope for putting their succulents in a bright window? Also, I am wondering if the goal for overwintering succulents indoors is to keep them cool and dry in order to mimic the winter conditions they might find in a natural setting.

A: Yes, good point about mimicking the "winter they might experience in a natural setting". Keeping them indoors on a bright, cool window would work. Avoid hot window ledges. By keeping the plants cool, which they can tolerate, one discourages growth that would otherwise be stretched. Also cut back greatly on the watering.

Rhipsalis spp.

Echeveveria 'Perle von Nurnberg'

Again, you can find a numbered identification of the various plants here. ( Plant ID link). 

Echeveveria 'Perle von Nurnberg'

Many thanks to Paul Zammit for taking the time to answer all my questions. If you live in the GTA, be sure to visit the Toronto Botanical Garden to see this display of succulents for yourself. 

I hope this post will have inspired your next container planting.

Paul Zammit is Nancy Eaton Director of Horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Paul, a graduate of the University of Guelph, has appeared both on television and in print. His container plantings have been showcased in numerous gardening magazines including Canadian Gardening. Paul is a regular speaker at garden clubs and horticultural trade shows.  In recent years, Paul has presented in Germany, Switzerland and Bermuda. On top of all that, he is a really nice guy! (Photo of Paul Zammit courtesy of the Toronto Botanical Garden.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Trip to the Countryside

Marnie's garden near Bracebridge, ON

Summer is at its best and this the perfect time for a little trip to the country.

Hollyhocks in a garden near Uxbridge


Beth Powell's country garden


Culver's Root in Marnie's garden

Marnie's house

Delphinium with raindrops

Marnie's garage

 Rudbeckia in Marnie's garden

Private garden near Mahone Bay, N.S.

Tiger Lilies

Private garden in Uxbridge

Rudbeckia and red Monarda in Marnie's garden

Verbascum in Marnie's garden 

Heather's back porch

Japanese Anemones in Heather's garden

Marnie's vegetable garden and shed

Marnie's shed

I hope you are enjoying your summer!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Year of the Coleus

Did you know that Coleus, Plectranthus scutellariodes is a member of the mint family? I didn't, but when I thought about it, the foliage is somewhat similar in shape and texture, so it makes sense that they are relatives.

Did you also know that 2015 was declared as "The Year of the Coleus" by the National Garden Bureau (USA)?

When most people think of coleus, they generally picture wacky colors combined together in a single leaf.

Viewpoints that fall in the middle seem to be the exception; generally you either think those crazy colors are terrific or completely hideous.

Not surprisingly then, Coleus is a plant that seems moves in and out of fashion. Right now, Coleus seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance.

What makes me think that?

Well, of all the posts I have ever done, this one that featured a Toronto garden, where Coleus was used instead of traditional annuals, is among my most popular. An image of Coleus bunched at the base of a tree (seen above) from the same post is also a popular pin on Pinterest.

I am just guessing, but I think readers like the novelty of using Coleus instead of more traditional part-shade plants like impatiens (which have been having issues with downy mildew)

The Coleus I have come to love are the deep maroon varieties. I think they add a dash of drama to any container planting.

This is not a posed picture, Buddy just plunked himself into my shot.

This is Coleus 'Vino'. 

Its dark maroon foliage not only looks great in a container, it also looks wonderful in combination with other perennials like phlox or dwarf varieties of hydrangeas like 'Little Lime'.

In this urn, I mixed Coleus 'Vino' with a trailing pale blue Lobelia, Coleus 'Stained Glassworks' and a few purple petunias.

I also did a few container plantings using Coleus for the back part of the garden.

The container planting on the bench includes: Petunia 'Cha-ching Cherry', Petunia 'Cascadias Bicolor Cabernet' (seen on the left), CrazyTunia 'Cherry Cheesecake', Sweet Potato Vine 'Sweet Georgia Deep Purple' (seen in the centre), Coleus 'Jupiter' (seen on the right) and Coleus 'Mariposa'.

Here are a few other varieties that might spark your interest in Coleus:

Coleus 'Kiwi Fern' and Coleus 'Tri-color'

Coleus 'Hurricane Jenni'

Coleus 'Wild Lime'

Coleus 'Aurora Black Cherry'

One of my favourites, Coleus 'Black dragon' with Calibrachoa 'Hula Godiva'

A Primer on Growing and Caring for Coleus:

Growing Coleus from Seed:

You can grow Coleus from seed, I've done it, but even if you start them indoors 12 weeks before the last frost, you'll still have a relatively small plant come spring planting time. 

If you want to give growing them from seed a try, sow the fine seeds directly on the surface of the soil.

I find Coleus grow fairly slowly, so even small seedlings planted out after the last frost may take a while to reach to a decent size. Instead I prefer to buy fewer, larger plants that will have an impact right away.  

So my purchases don't blow all of my gardening budget, I often wait and look for larger plants at end of June clearance sales.

Best Light and Growing Conditions:

Coleus are annuals in my zone 6 garden (they are hardy to zone 11), although you can take cuttings that will overwinter in a bright window. 

Coleus grow well in average, well-drained garden soil. They are sometimes billed as a shade plant, but too little sunlight can lead to slow growth, weak stems and less intense colors. Morning sun and some dappled shade in the afternoon are ideal. Darker cultivars will tolerate a bit more sun if need be, but lighter cultivars may suffer leaf scorch. 

Young Coleus seedlings can get spindly and benefit from being pinched back. Pinching the plant tips encourages branching and a fuller plant. A regular application of a water soluble fertilizer will also encourage a larger, more healthy plant.

Coleus need regular watering especially in containers. Keep the soil moist, but not saturated. 


Coleus flowers, to my mind anyway, aren't particularly attractive.

And at any rate it is recommended that you pinch Coleus flowers back so the plant's energy doesn't get side tracked into seed production.

Pests and Problems:

Coleus may become stressed by heat and lack of moisture. Snails, slugs, spider mites, mealy bugs and white flies can be an issue for a less-than-healthy Coleus plant. Stem rot, root rot and downy mildew can also plague a plant with too much moisture or other poor growing conditions.

Relocate a plant with problems to see if a change in light conditions will help. You can also take healthy cuttings and start over.

Coleus from Cuttings:

Coleus take very well from cuttings. A cutting will sprout roots in water or can be planted in pots.

It's best to take cuttings in the morning when the mother plant is likely to have the most moisture. Pinch off a plant tip with 2 or 3 leaves and placed it in a glass of water or in a plastic bag while you prepare the plant pot. I use general purpose potting soil.

You can dip the end of each cutting in rooting hormone to help the cutting to root faster, but I find it works just as well to insert my cuttings directly into moist potting soil. Then I put my potted cuttings in a bright window (avoid direct sun) and keep an eye on them to insure the soil does not dry out. 

If you are likely to be too busy to keep a keen eye on your young plants, place a plastic bag over your pot to insure the cuttings stay moist.

Coleus 'Black Dragon'

So what do you think? Are you a fan of Coleus?