Wonderful Wave Hill

One of my ‘must-do’ gardens when I have a few days in New York (apart from New York Botanical and the Conservatory Garden at Central Park and the High Line) is fabulous Wave Hill, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. And so it was that in mid-August, I caught the Metro North ‘Hudson Line’ train at Grand Central Station and took my comfy window seat for the scenic ride along the Hudson River.  (Excuse the dirty windows, please – not my fault!)


When you get off at Riverdale-Wave Hill, you really should wait for the shuttle, which meets northbound trains at 9:50am, 10:50am, 11:50am, 12:50pm, 1:50pm, 2:50pm and 3:50pm.  (Return shuttles for southbound trains leave Wave Hill’s front gate at 20 minutes past the hour, from 12:20pm through 5:20pm).  But I was feeling energetic – and had forgotten how steep the hill is and how long the walk from the station up towards the garden, set in a lovely, leafy Bronx neighbourhood. So I walked.


Wave Hill, overlooking the Hudson River and the towering Palisades on the New Jersey shore, was built by lawyer William Morris in 1843 to serve as his country home. It was enlarged by publishing scion William Appleton in the late 1800s, and played host to visiting notables such as Thomas Huxley. Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t yet in his teens when his parents rented the estate in the summers of 1870 and ’71, and likely helped to foster in him the love of nature that propelled him to protect America’s wild lands as national parks. Perhaps its most famous resident was Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who leased Wave Hill from 1901 to ’03, and entertained guests in a tree house on the back lawn. Later residents included conductor Arturo Toscanini (1942-45).  In 1960, Wave Hill’s last private owners, the Perkins-Freeman family, deeded the estate to the city of New York and it was incorporated as a non-profit, one of 33 city-owned cultural institutions and specializing in programs of horticulture, environmental education, woodland management and presentations of the visual and performing arts. while seeking to “foster connections between people and nature”.  (Sources: Wikipedia & Wave Hill)  Wave Hill House underwent a two-year $9.8 million renovation and was reopened in 2013. When I visited the following June, I was impressed with the gleaming woodwork – not to mention the stunning bouquet of delphiniums in just the right shade of blue to enhance the walls.


As I headed into the garden this August, I was greeted by some lovely new touches to the Perennial Flower Garden, which I had last seen in 2014, including the beautiful, sky-blue tuteurs in each of the central four sections.


The flower garden consists of eight plots arranged in cruciform quadrants, each loosely colour-themed. And there’s always something big and beautiful from the greenhouses in the centre; this summer it was a luscious, variegated agave.


Those blue tuteurs add to the elegance quotient in the flower garden. Here’s how it looked in June 2014. below.  Not nearly as dramatic.


There were a lot of silver-spotted skippers flying about, including this one on Clematis heracleifolia.


I enjoyed seeing Clematis crispa climbing the rose bower in the flower garden.


Speaking of rose bowers, I fondly recalled making former director of horticulture Marco Polo Stufano pose for me in one of the bowers, when I was there in 1994.  Though it was terribly sunny and not great light for a portrait (especially with my limited photography skills more than 20 years ago), I do enjoy having this reminder of a very talented man who lent his expertise to the garden. Today, Louis Bauer is horticulture director and is putting his own creative mark on Wave Hill’s gardens.


My 1994 visit was seven years after Marco Polo Stufano was featured on the cover of the November 1987 issue of Horticulture magazine. (Photo by Allen Rokach)  And yes, I am a packrat, and I really should clean out the mags in my office!


The story inside the magazine was about the flower garden, as redesigned by then curator of gardens John Nally. His name is now memorialized in Wave Hill’s practice of hiring interns – called Nallies – to work in the garden. I had a little chat with one of Wave Hill’s 2016 Nallies, Gabe Santoriello, who was carefully deadheading flowers in the red garden. He made me chuckle when I called out ‘Gabe’, to ask him about a plant. “You know, I had my earphones in,” he said, “but you sounded just like my mom when you called me.” (I’ve had some family experience calling out to young men!)


Being late summer, grasses were good-looking, like this Calamagrostis acutiflora with Helenium autumnale.


I loved the duo below in the red garden, when I visited in June 2014:  ‘Heart Attack’ sweet william (Dianthus barbatus)  and the airy seedheads of Allum schubertii.  Isn’t this cool?


Walking into the entrance to the tropical and desert greenhouses, I saw that Marco Polo Stufano has also been honoured with his name on the conservatory, a gift of Frank and Anne Cabot, who also founded The Garden Conservancy. .


Lovers of tropical plants should be prepared to spend a lot of time exploring the jewels in the tropical house.


What a fascinating plant: Strophanthus preussii.  I had a discussion with plant nerd friends on Facebook about the evolutionary significance of the long, red corolla threads. We couldn’t come to an agreement about why nature gave this African liana such decorative accents (but nature rarely creates adaptations for the fun of it).


I loved seeing this little arrangement of air plants (Tilliandsia ionantha).


This is what greeted me in the tropical house in June 2014: can you say Indian clock vine (Thunbergia mysorensis)?


Crossing into the desert house, I paused to take in the stunning variety of small succulents and cacti.


Walking back into the garden through the blue conservatory doors (matching those tuteurs), I was reminded how effective a little paint is at drawing landscape elements together.


I never visit Wave Hill without heading down to the long pergola overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades on the New Jersey shore.  Apart from the stunning view, there are loads of wonderful plants displayed there!


Another section of the pergola.


And lookng towards Wave Hill House along the pergola.


That cascading, yellow-flowered vine intrigued me, but I had no idea what it was. So I cornered Wave Hill gardener Coralie Thomas who carefully dug out the label to show me: Petraeovitex bambusetorum, or Nong Noch vine, a Vietnam native. Thank you Coralie!


Then it was time to move on to some of the other wonderful gardens, but I stopped to take a quick shot of the happy confection of flowers (gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ & yellow strawflower) in the Paisley Garden across from the Visitor Centre.


Immediately behind the conservatory on a rise of land are two long gardens. The first is the Herb Garden…


…. with its late summer profusion of aromatic herbs.


The second is the Dry Garden.


There are always interesting surprises dotted about here and there, like this Boophane disticha on the steps. boophane-disticha-wave-hill.

Behind these is a lovely display of bonsai plants.


Beyond is the Alpine House, which is not open to the public but easily observed through the glass.


Head back out to the path and circle around behind the Alpine House and you’ll come to the Wild Garden.


This is a tough theme to pull off without attracting loads of weeds, but the August display was beautiful – naturalistic, yet reasonably controlled.


I liked the contrast of the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) with the bronze colour of the upright spurge (Euphorbia stricta).


One of my favourite spots to spend a little time sitting is the Aquatic Garden. I loved how it had filled out from June….


….to August, when the big lotuses (Nelumbo nucifera) are at their sumptuous best.


Adjacent is the Monocot Garden, with its luscious grasses, lilies and bromeliads, among many other plants.


With a date on Manhattan’s High Line in late afternoon, it was time for me to pick up a lunch at Wave Hill’s lovely restaurant and make my way to the shuttle for the drive to the Riverdale train station. As I looked around at all the spectacular but residential-scale gardens here (there are others besides those I’ve written about), I thought of a sentence from that Horticulture magazine story 29 years ago, Though it described the redesign of the Perennial Flower Garden, it could be applied to all the gardens at Wave Hill: “…its style would be in keeping with Wave Hill’s history as a private estate.”   Indeed, this garden is sheer inspiration for those who create modest gardens around their own homes. It is truly a garden for people.   But as I walked down the path beside a scrambling maypop vine (Passiflora incarnata) and watched the carpenter bees and honey bees nectaring madly on the August blossoms, I was reminded that it’s also a garden that nourishes and sustains nature’s myriad other creatures.


A Visit (or Two) to New York Botanical Garden

World-class is an overused term, but it is not an exaggeration when describing what I consider to be the finest public garden in the United States: New York Botanical Garden.  In my two decades of visiting NYBG, I have seen it change its focus somewhat to become more ecologically attuned, as befits any modern botanical garden, but it has not lost its charm no matter what the season. And 2016 marks its 125th anniversary, a milestone to celebrate. So let’s celebrate with a photo  tour of some of the gardens on its 250 acres (100 hectares). Whenever I visit (via the Metro North Railroad from Grand Central Station, Botanical Garden stop), I head immediately to the Seasonal Border, designed by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf.  When i visited this August, I noticed a new sign dedicating the garden to Marjorie G. Rosen, who chairs the Horticulture Committee and is Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-August 2016

I love this border in all seasonal guises, for its inspiration for those thinking about making a naturalistic meadow-style planting. Here it is, below, in July 2011 with ‘Green Jewel’ coneflowers (Echinacea) front and centre.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-July 2011

I was especially fond of this combination of Lilium henryi and Scutellaria incana.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-Lilium henry & Scutellaria incana

This is how it looked in spring 2012. The bulb plantings were designed by Jacqueline van der Kloet.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-Spring 2012

They’ve even gone to the trouble of making a sign showing Piet Oudolf’s hand-painted plan for the garden.

NYBG-Piet Oudolf Seasonal Border Plan

It’s a short walk from the Seasonal Border to the Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden. This is what it looked like in August.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-August 2016

I loved these combinations: Colocasia esculenta ‘Blue Hawaii’ with zingy Gomphrena globosa ‘Strawberry Fields’….

NYBG-Salvia-Gomphrena-Colocasia-Perennial Garden

… and a more romantic look with Salvia guaranitica and a lovely pink rose.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Rose & Salvia guaranitica

I spent a lot of time watching butterflies and bees nectaring on Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’, a late summer mainstay at NYBG.

NYBG-Black Swallowtail on Phlox paniculata 'Jeana'

This garden also offers lots of design ideas, whether you visit in spring (this was 2012)….

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Spring

…. or summer (2011).  If you sit on this bench with that gorgeous lily within sniff range, you’ll understand why designers recommend planting perfumed plants where you’re going to be walking or sitting.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-July 2011

I love the use of gold/chartreuse foliage in this part of the perennial garden.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Chartreuse

The Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden and the adjacent Ladies’ Border were designed by New York’s champion of public gardens, the venerable Lynden Miller, below, right. When I was there in 2012, she and NYBG’s vice-president of outdoor gardens, Kristin Schleiter…..

NYBG- Kristin Schleiter & Lynden Miller-Spring 2012

…. conducted a tour of NYBG’s then brand-new Azalea Garden, below, with azalaes and rhododendrons arranged throughout the garden’s natural rock outcrops and underplanted with natives like white foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). If you visit in late April or  May, this part of the garden is a must-see!

NYBG-Azaleas & Tiarella

I loved this spectacular pink cloud of azaleas!

NYBG-Azalea Garden

Speaking of spring, it was sometime in the late 1990s when I visited New York in Japanese cherry season. At NYBG, that means a stroll to Cherry Hill, where you’ll see pink and white clouds of beautiful “sakura” trees.  And there’s a daffodil festival bolstered this spring by a huge planting commemorating the 125th birthday.

NYBG-Cherry Hill

But back to the perennial garden area. Adjoining it is the Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden, a formal knot garden.  This year, the parterres were filled wtih artichokes….

NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden-2016

…. but a few years ago, there was a charming planting of clary sage (Salvia horminum).

NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden-2014

The perennial garden also sits in the shadow of the spectacular and historic Enid Haupt Conservatory.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Sign

Here is how that magnificent dome looks from the perennial garden.

NYBG-Enid Haupt Conservatory Dome

I always make a point of visiting the conservatory in order to see the season’s themed show, as designed by Francisca Coelho (they run from mid-May to mid-September). This year, it was all about American Impressionism, and the long gallery in the conservatory featured plants that represented that art movement, such as Celia Thaxter’s Garden.  Here’s what it looked like from the entrance….

NYBG-Impressionist Garden Plants 2016-Francisca Coelho design (2)

…. and from the far end of the gallery.

NYBG-Impressionist Garden Plants 2016-Francisca Coelho design (1)

I loved the 2014 show, which was titled “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them”. The conservatory show was titled ‘Mrs. Rockefeller’s Garden’, and was a nod to Eyrie, the Maine garden designed for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1926 by Beatrix Farrand.

NYBG-2014-Mrs Rockefeller's Garden


But my favourite was 2008’s “Charles Darwin’s Garden”.

NYBG-Darwins Garden1-2008

They even created a little study for him, complete with desk and rocking chair.

NYBG-Darwins Study-2008

Adjoining glasshouses contain stunning displays of tropicals…..


…..and another has cacti and succulents.


Behind the conservatory is the wonderful courtyard pool.


Here you see sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)….

NYBG-Nelumbo nucifera

…sometimes with resting dragonflies….


…and luscious waterlilies, like Nymphaea ‘Pink Grapefruit’, below.

NYBG-Nymphaea 'Pink Grapefruit'

Walking through the garden (or you can take a tram), you’ll come to one of my new favourite places: the Native Plant Garden.  On August 16th, despite the lack of rain in the northeast this summer, the meadow portion was a symphony of prairie grasses, goldenrods and flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), among other late season plants….

NYBG-Native Plant Garden-Outcrop

….. and buzzing with pollinators, as promised in the interpretive signage for the garden.

NYBG-Native Plants-Signage

Have you ever seen a glacial erratic? This is what happened in this very spot when the glaciers retreated from Manhattan thousands of years ago, leaving this massive boulder behind. Geologists identify these behemoths as erratics when they do not fit the mineral profile of the underlying rocks.

NYBG-Glacial Erratic-Native Plant Garden

The meadows are beautiful, but the new native wetland is also a revelation. Imagine, coming down this boardwalk…..

NYBG-Native Plant Wetland

….. and looking over the edge to see a huge collection of carnivorous pitcher plants (Sarracenia species and hybrids), along with orchids.


Keep walking and you’ll find a bench where you can contemplate the waterfall.

NYBG-Wetland-Lobelia cardinalis

All around you are native plants that are fond of damp conditions, including cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).

NYBG-Native Plant Garden-Cardinal Flower & Ironweed

We’re not finished touring, so rest your legs until you’re ready to cast a glance over the rosy cloud of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium) before heading back up the slope to the meadows.

NYBG-Wetland-Joe Pye Weed

Keep walking – you’re almost at the best place in New York to see roses: the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. In June, there’s even a festival – and it’s worth the extra cost to add it to your general admission.

NYBG-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

There are many other gardens, of course, including deep botanical collections of trees and shrubs. I usually pay a short visit to the Louise Loeb Vegetable Garden.

NYBG-Louise Loeb Vegetable Garden

And I sometimes pop by the Pauline Gillespie Plant Trials Garden to see how the new plants are faring.

NYBG-Pauline Gillespie Gosset Plant Trials Garden

But I never visit New York without making my way to the front gate of the New York Botanical Garden!  Happy 125th birthday, NYBG. Still humming along after all these years!

NYBG-Hummingbird-Ladies' Border

Butterfly Milkweed: PPA’s 2017 Plant of the Year!

You know that feeling of pride you get when a friend receives a well-deserved award? I feel exactly that way about an outstanding prairie wildflower that I’ve been growing here in my meadows on Lake Muskoka for many years. So, when I heard that The Perennial Plant Association chose my very favourite perennial – butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa — to be their 2017 Plant of the Year, I decided to honour it with my own blog.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera1

The PPA award is not the first laurel to be bestowed on this lovely wildling. In 2014, it was awarded the Freeman Medal by the Garden Clubs of America, as a native deserving of wider garden planting. And the GCA president asked me if I would donate my photo of a monarch butterfly on the flowers, below, which I was happy to do (see down this page).

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch butterfly

Despite the plaudits, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is not the easiest perennial to grow, unless you happen to garden on a sand prairie. It has a deep tap root that makes it rather difficult to transplant. And seeds are often notoriously slow to germinate and grow, sometimes taking 5 years to grow enough to set flower buds.  But give it a little rich, free-draining, gravelly soil and lots of sunshine, and watch the pollinating insects pile on. Foremost, of course, is the beautiful monarch butterfly, which uses it – as it does all milkweed species – as food for its caterpillars. If you’re lucky, you might see the female monarch ovipositing on its leaves or flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch ovipositing

Come back and you’ll see the little egg on a leaf….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on leaf

… or perhaps right in the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on flower

Follow along over the next few weeks and you’ll see the various instars of the developing caterpillar munching away on the leaves….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch caterpillar

…. and the flower buds.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch larva

But monarchs aren’t the only butterflies fond of butterfly milkweed. Many others love the nectar-rich flowers, including the great spangled fritillary…

Asclepias tuberosa-Great Spangled Fritillary

…. hairstreaks, below, and many others.

Asclepias tuberosa- hairstreak

Bees love it too. On my property, I often see the orange-belted bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) nectaring….

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus ternarius

….and the brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis), too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus griseocollis

Here’s a little video I made of the brown-belted bumble bee foraging on my butterfly milkweed. In the background, you can hear a red squirrel scolding and a lovely Swainson’s thrush singing its flute-like song.

Naturally, many native bees seek nectar from butterfly milkweed.  I’ve seen long-horned (Melissodes) bees….

Asclepias tuberosa-Megachile

…. and tiny, green sweat bees (Auguchlora pura), all enjoying the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Augochlora pura

Honey bees are avid foragers, too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera3

Okay, you get the picture. This is one superb pollinator plant!  But how should one grow it, and with what companions?  I have grown it in both reasonably rich, sandy soil, and very dry, lean, sandy soil, and I can attest that it prefers more moisture than other prairie plants, such as gaillardia and coreopsis. This is what it looked like near my septic system this July. I managed to keep it watered by running two hoses up the hill behind my cottage, but it was a struggle until a few rains came.


However, if summer rains are abundant, it’s happy with those more drought-tolerant natives.  Here it is growing very wild in dry soil with Coreopsis lanceolata.

Asclepias tuberosa-wild planting

And it does well in fairly dry conditions with Anthemis tinctoria.

Asclepias tuberosa & Anthemis tinctoria

On the other hand, it does well in reasonably rich soil with my Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, where I can run the hose if rains don’t come (like this summer)…..

Asclepias tuberosa & Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

…. and peeking up through my grassy monarda meadow, near a lush pink lily.

Asclepias tuberosa & Lily & Monarda

I’ve grown it with Penstemon barbatus ‘Coccineus’….

Penstemon barbatus & Asclepias tuberosa

…and with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

Rudbeckia & Asclepias 2

And I’ve seen it looking pretty with daylilies and catmint in a friend’s garden, too.

Asclepias tuberosa & Hemerocallis-Nepeta

Butterfly milkweed’s blooming season is so long, it counts numerous July and August plants as companions. Here is a bouquet I photographed on July 17th, 2010 with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), veronica (Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Asclepias tuberosa & bouquet companions

… and a collection of little bouquets I made on August 16th, 2013.

Asclepias tuberosa-August 16-Bouquets

If you want to know absolutely everything that might flower at the same time, here’s a montage I made one year on July 7th, 2014. Yes, that’s butterfly milkweed near the lower right corner. See if you can guess the rest!

Asclepias tuberosa & plant companions-July 7-2013

I have planted dozens of young butterfly milkweed plants here at Lake Muskoka over the years, like these ones offered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation (along with suitable nectar plants), as an encouragement to ‘bring back the monarch butterfly’. Most took, provided I irrigated them for the first summer; a few didn’t.

Canadian Wildlife Federation-Milkweed

But I have also managed to grow many from seed, which is harvested from the typical milkweed fruit capsule.  The ones that were most successful were those I guerilla-sowed, using the toe of my boot to kick them in along the edge of a gritty, community pathway midway down the hillside on a neighbour’s property. Under that granitic gravel, below, there was actually rich sandy soil and adequate moisture, given that the path sits mid-slope on the hill. But this tough environment best replicates the natural ‘sand prairie’ that butterfly milkweed likes.

Asclepias tuberosa-growing in gravel

You can also buy a seed mix in multiple colours:  ‘Gay Butterflies Mix’, below.

Asclepias tuberosa 'Gay Butterflies Mix'

Want to try your hand sowing butterfly milkweed? Follow these seeding instructions in a propagation guide in the Minnesota newsletter of Wild Ones:  “Collect when pods are cracked open. Remove down; cold stratify in fridge in damp sand for 90 days. Broadcast on soil surface in spring when soil is warm.

Best of luck growing this worthy award winner!  You and the pollinators – including the lovely monarch butterfly – are worth the effort.

Black for Garden Drama

Late August brings us into the dog days of summer, and there’s nothing that cures a dog day like a dose of drama. That’s why I reserved this month for BLACK! (And thanks to a little summer travel, I’m just getting in under the August wire.)

Black flowers & leaves-The Paintbox Garden

Of course, no plant leaf or flower is completely black. Inspected closely, there is always green (for photosynthesis) or dark red, purple or deep bronze underlying the apparent dark floral pigments. But there’s a rich roster of plants that can be called upon to inject a little black magic into the garden, whether it’s with dark-as-night foliage or betwitchingly black blossoms. And for my money, no one offers up the design potential of black like Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Garden. Here’s their black and gold border, with barberries, colocasias, sedums, eucomis and black mondo grass, to name just a few. Isn’t it lovely?  And doesn’t that dark foliage look spectacular paired with chartreuse?

Black Border-Van Dusen Gardens

Here’s a closer look at a portion of Van Dusen’s wonderful border, with a black taro, ‘Black Tropicanna’ canna and ‘Brunette’ snakeroot (Actaea racemosa ‘Brunette’).


Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) is one of the darkest ‘black’ leafed plants, and one of the most dramatic for pairing with bright colours.  I love the way Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific uses it in combination with Sedum ruprestre ‘Angelina’, seen below in spring when it’s still gold.

HCP-Ophiopogon 'Nigrescens' & Sedum 'Angelina'

Here’s how it looks at HCP with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’).

HCP-Ophiopogon & Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'

At gorgeous Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Pennsylvania, the Japanese Garden employs Japanese black mondo grass as a dark edging under bamboo ‘fencing’.

Chanticleer-Ophiopogon & Aruncus-Asian Woods

Other dark, grass-like plants include fountain grass, particularly Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ and ‘Vertigo’, below, shown with orange zinnias at New York’s Conservatory Garden in Central Park.

Conservatory Garden-Zinnia & Pennisetum 'Vertigo'

And here is Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ doubling down on black with the ornamental pepper Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’, a fabulous black annual.

Capsicum 'Black Pearl' & Pennisetum 'Princess Caroline'

Black and red look spectacular together, too, as demonstrated by Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ paired with annual red Salvia splendens.

Capsicum 'Black Pearl' & Salvia2

The best spring bulb for injecting a little early-season black is Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’. I love this one, and use it liberally in my own spring garden. Here it is at Toronto’s Casa Loma bringing depth to citrus colours….

Tulipa ''Queen of Night' & yelllow-orange tulips

…. and at Toronto’s Spadina House as a pretty partner to pink….

Tulipa 'Queen of Night' & 'Black Diamond'

…. and echoing the dark foliage of ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Sambucus & Tulipa 'Queen of Night'

Shortly after the tulip season comes columbine season, and there’s nothing more dramatic than Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Black Barlow'2

One of my favourite dark-leafed shrubs is Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’), seen below with a pink Phlox paniculata at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon.

Northwest Nursery-Eugene-Sambucus&Phlox

For some reason, annual sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) lends itself genetically to black colouration. Here is ‘Ace of Spades’ with yellow rieger begonias in Toronto gardener Shari Ezyk’s lovely urn.

Shari Ezyk-Urn with Begonias & Ipomoea batatas 'Ace of Spades'

And adding a dark carpet to sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) at the Conservatory Garden, in New York.

Ipomoea & Chasmanthium

This is the fancy-leafed ‘Blackie’, with ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds at Toronto Botanical.

Ipomoea & Tagetes

Another species that has benefited ‘darkly’ from plant breeding is tropical taro or elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta). Here we see the big leaves of  ‘Royal Hawaiian Black Coral’ exploding with a canna lily out of a sea of chartreuse foliage at Montreal Botanical Garden.

Montreal Botanical-Colocasia esculenta 'Royal Hawaiian Black Coral'

Black taros are also used beautifully with other tropicals at Nancy Goodwin’s Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Montrose-Black Taro1

There are some good black petunias, including yellow-striped ‘Black Velvet’.

Petunia 'Black Velvet'

Sometimes we forget that seedheads can have visual impact in a late-season garden, especially when they’re as dark as Rudbeckia maxima, shown in front of Calamagrostis acutiflora at Wave Hill in the Bronx.

Black Seedheads-Rudbeckia maxima

Purple coneflower has dark seedheads, too. Here it is behind the golden fall foliage of Amsonia tabernaemontana in autumn.

Black Seedheads-Echinacea & Amsonia

And don’t forget the zingy seedhead possibilities of blackeyed susans!

Black Seedheads-Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

We can also add black with furnishings, of course. Here’s a modern black steel fence I fell in love with at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York.

Black Garden Fence-Corning Museum of Glass

And this black-stained garden arch is the height of design sophistication (as are black fences).

Black Garden Arch

Black chairs? What about using some black stain and artistic flourish to turn a Muskoka (Adirondack) chair into a work of art, as my artist son Jon Davis did for me many years ago.

Chairs-Muskoka-Adirondack Style

Even a simple black bistro chair can up the dark drama quotient, especially if it’s in renowned garden guru Tom Hobb’s former Vancouver garden.

Chair-Tom Hobbs

In the black accessories department, you can’t go wrong with a simple black obelisk, especially when it chums with a pink daylily.

Black Iron Obelisk

Moving to containers, black adds a dollop of sophistication via this beautiful trio of planters at Toronto Botanical Garden. No other colour would work as well with the flamenco-red flowers and foliage, all designed by horticulturist Paul Zammit.

Toronto Botanical Gardes-Cordyline-Acalypha-Geranium-Ipomoea

I’ve written about Paul’s creative container designs before, but he does have a special skill for knowing just what to use, like these kitchen herbs (parsley, sage), grasses (carex, hakonechloa) and orange calibrachoas in a run of basic black iron window boxes.

Toronto Botanical Garden- Containers

I’ll finish my contemplation of black in the garden with containers from my favourite public garden, Chanticleer. Here’s a lovely black urn that repeats the black-red theme of some of the photos above, with red calibrachoa. Stunning, isn’t it?

Pot-Chanticleer-Callibrachoa 'Alpha Kona Dark Red' & Melilanthus major (1)

And finally, a half-dozen statuesque black planters that are as much about defining space in this Chanticleer garden, as they are containing plants.

Chanticleer-Black Pots on Lawn

August in New York’s Conservatory Garden

It was a steaming hot August afternoon in New York City. I’d arrived just hours before from Toronto with three days of area garden viewing and photography on my agenda. I hadn’t made plans for today, but then I remembered a city garden I hadn’t visited for more than a decade. There were still hours of daylight, albeit crushingly humid hours with temperatures in the mid-90s. So I filled my water bottle, slung my camera bag over my shoulder and headed out of my hotel (Hotel Boutique at Grand Central), conveniently located near Grand Central Station and the 42nd Street Subway. The subway tunnel felt like a tropical jungle, but it was nothing compared to the inside of the subway car heading north, whose air-conditioning was broken. “59-68-77-86”, I counted down the stations, fanning myself madly and hoping I wouldn’t faint before arriving at my stop.  When I climbed the stairs to 96th Street (the dividing line between Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the south and Spanish Harlem to the north), the humidity was even higher. I’d only walked a block or two westward towards Central Park before the first fat raindrops fell. Fortunately, I’d tucked my umbrella into my bag and as the rain became a torrent, I pulled my camera bag closer to me and hurried on. By the time I’d crossed Fifth Avenue and walked north along the park to 105th, people were running out and taking shelter under trees or dashing along the sidewalk to their cars or buses. I, on the other hand, was heading into the park, and as I entered the Conservatory Garden through the Vanderbilt Gate, the rain magically abated and the lawns and hedges steamed in the late day heat. Ahead of me was the formal Italianate garden with its lush lawn and fountain.  In May, those crabapple trees on the sides are fluffy clouds of pink and the pergola in the distance is wreathed in wisteria.

Italianate Garden-Conservatory Garden-New York

I watched a young girl playing in the fountain’s cooling spray.

Fountain-Conservatory Garden-New York

The Italianate garden is in the middle, one of three sections that make up the 6-acre Conservatory Garden, which is named for the lavish greenhouse that occupied the site from 1899 to 1934, before it was officially opened as a garden in 1937. After the second world war, the garden was increasingly neglected; by the 1970s it was a derelict place  Under Central Park Administrator Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and renowned New York designer and public gardens champion Lynden Miller (who also did Bryant Park and numerous other urban spaces), the gardens were completely renovated and reopened in 1987.

At the north end is the French garden….

French Garden-Conservatory Garden

.. with its low broderie parterres….

French Garden Planting-Conservatory Garden

… and the Untermyer Fountain, “Three Dancing Maidens”, a 1947 donation to Central Park from the children of famed New York lawyer Samuel Untermyer, whose Yonkers estate is now a conservancy open to the public.

Untermyer Fountain-Conservatory Garden

But as a plant-lover, I was interested in revisiting the southernmost section, the English Garden. To get there I walked past the perimeter of the French garden, with its crabapple allées. A few visitors took shelter from the last raindrops under their umbrella.

Rainy Allee-Conservatory Garden

I passed a raised garden filled with a tapestry-like assortment of luscious tropicals.

Tropical plants-Conservatory Garden

Then I was walking into the English Garden under a magnificent sourwood tree (Oxydendron arboreum), its tiny, pendulous, white blossoms alive with bumble bees. Trees, shrubs and various perennials act as leafy enclosure in the outer beds in the concentric arrangement of hedge-backed plantings in Lynden Miller’s original design. The current curator of the English garden is Diane Schaub, whose talent is very much on display here. (See note at bottom of my blog).

Conservatory garden-Sourwood tree

Below is one of Lynden Miller’s favourite shrubs: oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), as the big panicles take on their tawny autumn hues.

Conservatory Garden-Oakleaf Hydrangea

The outer bed below features Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida), an August mainstay, with cascading Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) in the foreground.  Mid-border is another Lynden Miller trademark: a clipped purple barberry globe (Berberis thunbergii), adding a sculpted architectural note.  (One of my favourite photos from a visit here in the 1990s was one of these globes graced with deep-violet Clematis durandii.)

Conservatory Garden-Borders1

Here is a closeup of Japanese anemone with the delicate flowers of Thalictrum rochebrunianum.

Conservatory Garden-Thalictrum & Anemone

White coneflowers (Echinacea) brighten the shade-dappled outer bed under the trees. There’s a lovely colour echo of the cones with the dark foliage of the black bugbane beside it (Actaea racemosa Atropurpurea Group).

Conservatory Garden-Echinacea & Hostas

Post-rain, the subtle baby-powder fragrance of summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) and  the perfume of hosta flowers wafted in the enclosed spaces in the garden.

Conservatory Garden-Phlox & Hosta

But as lovely as the mixed perennial-shrub beds were in the outer rings, it was the inner hedged beds in the English Garden that beckoned me. They offered a master class in the use of annuals and tropicals to create exquisite designs that can be changed every year.  But these aren’t your grandma’s annuals; there are no impatiens, geraniums or petunias in the garden. Instead, you see statuesque plants in lovely colour combinations that rival any perennial border. The bed below offered fabulous ideas for combining chartreuse foliage with oranges and bronzes.

Conservatory Garden-Red flowers

Here’s a closer look at the inspired pairing of Cuphea ‘David Verity’ — one of many ‘zing’ plants — with a charteuse colocasia.

Conservatory Garden-Colocasia & Cuphea 'David Verity'

Who could dislike stiff, old canna lilies when they do THIS in the late afternoon sun? (Especially when paired with bronze fennel flowers and a luscious azure-blue Salvia guaranitica.)

Conservatory Garden-Canna

Tender grasses add a punch of colour, too. Below is Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’.  Conservatory Garden-Pennisetum 'Fireworks'

Hedges of Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) and euonymus act as a permanent framework in the inner rings, and both sides are planted with annuals in classic colour combinations. The bed below…….

Conservatory Garden-Verbena-Coleus

…..featured a lovely pairing of chartreuse ‘Gay’s Delight’ coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) and purple Verbena bonariensis — another good ‘zing’ plant.

Conservatory Garden-Coleus 'Gay's Delight'

Deep burgundy-blacks — like Dahlia ‘Mystic Illusion’, front, and the grass Pennisetum ‘Vertigo’, below —  added depth to a dark-foliage border.

Conservatory Garden-Dark Foliage

Exploring all the inner beds was a challenge. Just when I thought I’d seen them all, I’d turn a corner and spot something entirely new!  I loved the way this heuchera (maybe ‘Black Taffeta’?) anchored the design below.

Conservatory Garden-Black Heuchera

In some hands, pink flowers can be just too cotton-candy sweet. But Diane Schaub used a deft touch, below, to incorporate the pink spires of Agastache cana ‘Heather Queen’ and the zingy pom-poms of Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ and purple Verbena bonariensis into a pale-green matrix of tropical plants, including variegated Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’, centre, and variegated plectranthus (P. forsteri ‘Green on Green’), right.

Conservatory Garden-Pink scheme

Stronger pinks like the verbena, below, were partnered with darker greens, like Colocasia esculenta ‘Blue Hawaii’.

Conservatory Garden-Colocasia

I loved the combination, below, of Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ and blue pitcher sage (Salvia azurea). Such good clear colours.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks' & Salvia azurea

Sometimes horns would honk nearby and I would be reminded that I was in a leafy enclave a stone’s throw from one of the most famous streets in the world: Fifth Avenue!

Conservatory Garden-Fifth Avenue Building

Unusual annual pairings were everywhere. Below is Perilla frutescens with airy Ammi majus.

Conservatory Garden-Coleus & Ammi

And I adored this vignette of magenta-pink Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ with lacy centaurea, a deep-red salvia and coleus.

Conservatory Garden-Gomphrena-Centaurea-Salvia-Coleus

I was very impressed with the way tropical shrub Tibouchina urvilleana, below, was used in the purple border. It looked perfectly at home with magenta Gomphrena globosa and dark pink zinnias.

Conservatory Garden-Tibouchina

Finally, that concentric maze of flowery beds led me to the intimate centre of the English Garden, with its enclosing borders and a pink-flowered crepe myrtle (Lagerstromeia indica). Benches were arranged so visitors could…….

Conservatory Garden-Crape Myrtle

…. relax and enjoy an intimate view of the Burnett Memorial Fountain, the centrepiece of the English Garden. Sculpted in 1936-7 by Bessie Vonnoh (1872-1955), it honours children’s book author Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) and depicts the children Mary and Dickons from her classic Secret Garden.

Conservatory Garden-Burnett Fountain-Bessie Potter Vonnoh

I paused for a moment in the secret garden, but towering storm clouds were building in the sky to the west and it was time to head back to my hotel.

Conservatory Garden-Stormy Sky

I bade farewell to this lovely secret garden and strolled out to catch a southbound bus to midtown. What a lovely first evening for my short New York stay.

Conservatory Garden-Red Hydrangea flowers

** Thanks to my online friend Marie Viljoen (66 Square Feet) for her 2015 Gardenista article on the English Garden, which provided a few of the plant names for my photos above.