The Gardener's Apprentice

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Balloon flowers are spirit lifters on hot midsummer days.  Happy ones form long-lasting clumps in beds and borders.  Shorter varieties are wonderful container subjects.


Fill border “holes” with bright annuals to keep the garden colorful in high summer.

July 25, 2016
by The Gardeners' Apprentice
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Beautiful Balloons

Balloons lift spirits just about any time. On hot, mid-summer days, balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus) provide equal elevating power. Right now in my garden, both blue and white varieties are covered with the puffed, rounded buds that give the plants their common name.  They are in the process of opening into the flattened, bell-like flowers that inspired the botanical Latin moniker.  Lovers of ancient Greek will remember that “platy”--as in platypus, a flat-billed marsupial--means “flat”.  Put “platy” together with codon, meaning “bell” and you have a great description of these beautiful flowering perennials. Though their mass-market popularity waxes and wanes, balloon flowers are perennial favorites in both senses ...

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July 18, 2016
by The Gardeners' Apprentice
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Giant Mullein

A friend of mine gardens in a community plot and noticed a very large, yellow-flowered plant sprouting on his allotment.  He asked if I could identify it from a description, which turned out to be an easy task.  At this time of the year, a plant that is three to six feet tall, with yellow flowers on a single, statuesque spike, can only be common mullein. Common mullein or Verbascum thapsus arrived in North America in the eighteenth century and spread so efficiently that many people think it is a native wildflower.   In reality, it originated in southern Europe, North Africa and Asia and has been known and used medicinally and cosmetically since ancient times.  Along the way it has acquired scores of picturesque nicknames, including flannel ...

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July 11, 2016
by The Gardeners' Apprentice
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Cornflower Blue

The other day I was out for a walk in my neighborhood when I saw a pair of goldfinches flitting through a bed of blue cornflowers.  Backlit by the summer sun, the male goldfinch was clad in his bright yellow courting dress and the cornflowers were an especially vivid shade of cerulean blue.  The picture was perfect and made me want annual cornflowers in my own garden. I already have a few perennial cornflowers—Centaurea montana--with their thistle-like buds, gray/green leaves and wispy petals in shades of blue or pale purple.  They are pretty and their Latin name always inspires a whimsical vision of small centaurs, the half man/half horse of Greek mythology, romping around the garden.  I don’t grow any of the annual “centaurs”, ...

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July 5, 2016
by The Gardeners' Apprentice
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Taking Back the Garden

I am rereading The Morville Hours, a marvelous book, published in 2010 by English garden writer, Katherine Swift.  The author, a scholar/gardener and former librarian at Trinity College, Dublin, describes the twenty-year process of creating an amazing garden on a National Trust property in Shropshire.   The book juxtaposes the details of garden making with the complex history of the property and surrounding area, all woven into a many-colored tapestry that is also threaded with the author’s biography. Midway through the book, I found myself engrossed in Dr. Swift’s description of major interruptions in her gardening brought on by the onset of a serious illness. Recovery from the illness, which is never named, took months during high ...

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