My Top Ten Favorite Cottage Garden Perennials; Proven Winners

Gardening in our Zone 6b is both a blessing and a curse, but I’ll bet that gardeners in different gardening zones say the same thing. My wish list of the things I’d like to grow but cannot in my climate begins with ceanothus, and then continues on to aubrieta, agapanthus, camellias, crape myrtle, bougainvillea, and on, and on….

That said, I’m grateful for what I’ve got and the following is a list of my top ten favorite perennials for sunny borders. These are proven garden workhorses and my selection is based on performance, long-blooming period, beauty and their ability to do double duty, either by flashing fancy foliage or their ability to behave nicely, play well with others and suppress weeds as a ground cover. My list won’t include plants that need coddling (the subject of another post) or new, patented cultivars that aim to achieve ‘ Perennial Plant of the Year’ status, although some of them may have been at one time. The list below is based on my experience on how these plants perform in our New England climate. Here’s my list of proven winners:

Nepeta:(Catmint)   This is a plant that makes you look like you know what you’re doing. The generous, soft grey-green foliage, combined with its robust, dome-shaped growth habit, provides structure in the garden and its diaphanous haze of cascading lavender-blue flowers creates instant romance. A pairing with Lady’s Mantle produces an effect so beautiful as to defy description.


Alchemilla Mollis: (Lady’s Mantle)I have a passion for this plant that verges on a mania. Now, I know plenty of gardeners who feel that chartreuse has no place in their gardens, but I beg them to reconsider this one. The foliage is a soft, grey-green with a poetic and beautiful way of unfolding, like a japanese fan, and catching, within its folded concavity, dewdrops that shimmer like diamonds. The flowers, in robust clusters of tiny sprays, are a vivid, acid green/chartreuse, and enliven and brighten smokier, hazier companions in the same way that vinegar or lemon juice do to salads and sauces. Cut the flower heads back and you may get a second display later in the season. (BTW, this advice applies equally to Nepeta).

Alchemilla mollis

Geranium ‘Rozanne’: (Cranesbill) , Here, I’m talking about the perennial ‘Cranesbill’, not the ubiquitous container garden annual, Pelargonium, wrongfully called by nurseries, supermarkets and consumers, “Geranium”. ( Please; people- let’s get it together with the &%@#*!# taxonomic nomenclature. When I’m designing a garden for a client and I suggest some geraniums they think I’m talking about annuals. If I say Cranesbill, they ask, “Oh, what’s that?, and here we go again, caught in the vicious cycle).  Unruly nomenclature aside, this staple of the perennial garden has a mounding, meandering and draping habit with beautiful foliage and presents a tremendous display of violet-blue flowers, in astonishing abundance, from June till frost.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Iris siberica: (Siberian Iris) Nothing announces late spring-early summer like Siberian Irises. Erect, floriferous, strident; it makes a statement that we all want to hear, whether it flowers white, buttercream, blue, inky violet…it is always beautiful. After the flowers have faded, its sword-leaved foliage contributes height and texture to the garden. There are some variegated cultivars available and these can create an artistic accent in an otherwise predominantly green-foliated garden.

Iris siberica

Leucanthemum:(Shasta Daisies) There are plenty of folks, including my horticulturally sensitive husband, who consider these plants to be common; as common as mud. Phooey! I ask you, what’s common about a robust stand of gleaming white, crisp, fresh, erect, structural Shasta daisies? Everything and nothing! ( You will have to deadhead them to maintain their fresh appeal, but its a small price to pay, and a nice activity at the end of the day with a glass of wine in one hand and a pair of snippers in the other). A nice,big, drift of Shasta daisies in the right place, never offended anyone!

Leucanthemum ‘Becky’

Coreopsis: (Tickseed) This plant has a presence by its striking and large clumps of golden flowers. It’s always a cheerful addition but, if you feel that it’s a bit too cheery, there are newer cultivars that offer more subtle shades of cream and butter-yellow. These newer versions blend well with the more refined constituents in your garden.

Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’

Paeonia: (Peonies) The argument continues over whether it’s the rose or the peony that is Queen of the Garden, and I’m not going there. Peonies need full sun and must be planted at the right depth to perform well, other than that, they’re relatively carefree. With such a dazzling array of colors and flower forms I’m always surprised that retail nurseries only carry half a dozen cultivars, usually white, pale pink or dark pink or red in the bomb shaped flower type. I encourage people to explore some of the more unusual single flowering types in colors that include coral, magenta and yellow. Peonies can be planted as a hedge, and in the right place, this can be quite stunning, albeit for a brief bloom period, but I think they perform best in the landscape when planted amongst later flowering perennials, like roses, daisies and geraniums.


Lavandula angustifolia: (Lavender)Elegant, fragrant, classic. It’s wands of pale lavender to deep violet create a beautiful vertical element in contrast to its blue-grey foliage. Not all types are hardy in our gardening zone. We have the greatest success with the cultivar ‘Munstead’. This plant thrives in poor, dry soil in full, baking sun. If you can’t provide these conditions try salvia nemerosa as an alternative.


Dianthus: (Pinks)  This is another plant that drapes and cascades, and so looks particularly well when planted near the edge of the border or, better still, at the edge of a retaining wall, where it’s matt forming foliage will drape while its numerous flower stems will arch upwards. Its pale, blue-grey foliage contrasts nicely with Lady’s Mantle and Geraniums. My favorite is Bath’s Pink, a light, clear pink shade that is easy to combine with other colors, but I have trouble finding it in nurseries. Other colors are in shades of hot pink, magenta, red and bi-colors. We start ours from seed in the greenhouse so we can select the colors we want.


Artemesia: (Wormwood) The soft, silver foliage of this plant is invaluable in the garden for creating contrast. ‘Silvermound’, as its name implies, produces domed hummocks of silvery grey, which, when dotted throughout the border, creating a pleasing rhythm of shape and color.


New Stonewell Farm Sign

Stonewell Farm sign

We’ve finally replaced the old sign

Well, we finally got around to replacing the old sign and the new and improved version permits us to add and subtract additional information as needed. In the dead of winter when the hens are slacking off, we’ll remove the Fresh Eggs sign. In the height of summer, when we have an abundance of fresh eggs, organic produce, herbs and cut flowers available, we’ll add those too. Stay tuned…..

Greenhouse Action

Tomato Seedlings

Heirloom tomatoe seedlings in the greenhouse

With so many other things on my To-Do Lists, I had a very late start in the greenhouse this year. I didn’t get to sowing seeds in flats until mid April and some even later and I think the plants are better for it. We have fewer pests than ever before, (white fly, green fly, aphids) and, so far, no damping off of tender seedlings.

Another thing I did differently was to rely on the normal fluctuating daytime and nighttime temperatures instead of artificially controlling the germination environment by supplying bottom heat to the flats. The results have been surprising. We’ve had some seriously hot days, when the temps in the greenhouse rose to 95 F and above, and some frigid days and nights where the mercury barely rose above freezing and we haven’t noticed any negative effect on the germination rates or times.

One of the rules I’ve been wanting to break for a very long time is that of starting seeds in soilless mix, instead of potting soil. I had the opportunity to do it. We ran out of vermiculite and peat and so I used potting soil. I’m tempted to say that I’ll never worry about using a soiless mix again. (Of course, this may come back to haunt me). I have experienced no problems with this alteration. Au contraire, because potting soil contains nutrients the seedlings seem to be healthier than ever before, and, perhaps I’m speaking too soon, but, those that are subject to damping off have not done so at all. The obvious advantage to this new discovery is that ‘potting on’ is not as urgent as it had been previously when using a soiless mix; there are enough nutrients in the growing medium to encourage healthy growth without having to force-feed with emergency dilutions of fish emulsion.

Seedlings in the greenhouse

Vegetable seedlings in the greenhouse

Purists may want to give this a try.

Plant a Vegetable Garden: No Excuses

Lettuces in the Kitchen Garden

Lettuces in the Kitchen Garden

Lacking space, there are few reasons for not planting a vegetable garden. One person I know, who prides herself on her creativity and gardening sophistication, and who owns a very elegant and historic property complained to me that when she bought the place, “there was a big vegetable garden smack in the middle of the lawn…I had to get rid of it”. This statement so shocked me as to render me speechless. Had I managed to regain speech during the course of her monologue, I would have suggested that, with some creativity and thoughtfulness, a person might find a way to highlight the vegetable garden, treat it as a valuable, enhancing landscape feature from which one might extract a sense of aesthetic pride as well as civic pride for ‘greening-up’ their lifestyle and reducing their carbon footprint. I didn’t, at the time, regain speech but am doing so now.

Creating a vegetable garden, or Kitchen Garden, the preferred term, is a project, but it’s an undertaking that will reap benefits that you may never have thought of. If you can’t begin the process yourself, you can get others to do the most difficult part, laying out the garden, tilling the area, creating raised beds (if that’s what you’re after), installing irrigation systems on timers, mulching paths to suppress weeds and reduce your work (or, better yet, laying down landscaping fabric beneath the mulch to virtually eliminate path weeding).  Siting it in the landscape is crucial and is the most important decision you’ll need to make for the project. The kitchen garden needs full sun and, ideally, it is located at a convenient distance from the kitchen.

As for making it attractive in the landscape; I see this as an opportunity to create ‘charm’ and to engage with the land and your food supply in a more intimate way. Fencing will be necessary to keep out the deer and the rabbits, but this isn’t a problem. There are numerous creative and handsome fencing options that will contribute to the aesthetic of your property and plenty of climbing ornamental plants to adorn your fence; many of such staggering beauty that you’ll be spoiled for choice in how to use them. Climbing roses, clematis, morning glories, perennial sweet peas; all contribute to making a Kitchen Garden inviting, beautiful and a place you’ll enjoy working in and relaxing in and looking at.

Why Plant a Vegetable Garden?

Some Good Reasons to Plant a Vegetable Garden

The Vegetable Garden

  1. Reduce your carbon footprint. The fewer miles your food has to travel, the less environmental damage occurs, and this doesn’t even take into consideration the quantity of electricity for refrigeration, watering and lighting required by your supermarket to keep the produce looking fresh.
  2. Eat fresher, better tasting, and more nutritious produce. Produce loses its nutrients as it sits around waiting to be shipped and then further declines in flavor and nutrition on the long trip to your store. Garden fresh food not only tastes better, it is better.
  3. Save money. On food, on gas, and possibly on impulse purchases at the food market.
  4. Develop a more meaningful, thoughtful understanding of your food consumption. When you plant a garden, watch plants grow, harvest those plants and prepare them for your table, you develop a deeper appreciation for the vegetables that are so easily taken for granted
  5. Preserve genetic diversity. There are hundreds of tomato varieties, but you’re grocery store only carries a handful of them. When you visit the local farmers market, you see dozens of unfamiliar varieties. Why? Some tomatoes “travel” better than others. Some varieties of tomatoes just can’t survive the difficult trip over hundreds of miles, and these are often the ones that taste the best.
  6. Get inspired. Once you get a taste for local foods, chances are you’ll want to grow  your own.  The garden doesn’t have to be as extensive as the one pictured above. Even a small, 10′ x 20′ plot will provide plenty of fresh produce for a small family, and you can even grow vegetables in containers.
  7. Feel productive. You will, quite literally, feel that your time and effort has been productive. No salad will ever be as delicious and precious as that first spring salad from your garden.

The Garden Enclosure; Part II: The Arbor

Building a Rustic Arbor; a Foyer for the Potager.

Rustic Cedar Arbor

The rustic, cedar arbor waiting for its seating.

One of the things that has made weeding the kitchen garden a chore is the absence of a place to take a break. In an ideal world, there would be a somewhat shaded place, where a gardener could get out of the sun for a few minutes, with a comfortable seat and possibly a surface upon which one could place a glass of iced tea and a gardening book. So, this time around, we aimed to correct this flaw and build a 7′ wide arbor that will accomodate a bench or two. If you’re starting a new kitchen garden plan to include a somewhat shady spot to sit. It will make spending time in the garden so much more pleasureable.

Because our land slopes down into the garden, Andrew created a couple of short steps and a ‘floor’ surface paved with large, flat granite stones. The voids (or joints) between the stones are filled with sand and then fine, crushed stone.  As a finishing touch, Andrew liberally sprinkled seeds of creeping thyme over the surface and gently washed them into the crevices. Thyme is a slow germinator and has a comparatively low germination rate so we expect to see more weeds than thyme, but we’ll keep an eye on it.  When we get around to it we will build some rustic benches. (The gate opens out, not in).

We’ve planted the arbor with climbing things, champagne grapes and clematis, to create a sort of bower, and we will likely allow some of the self-sown morning glories from last years garden fence to join the cedar climbing competition. Two small, curved, planting beds on either side of the arbor will make it easier to mow around the garden and the japanese quinces that we’ve planted in the corners will give the chickens a place to take cover when the hawks are looking for lunch, rather than in the perennial borders.

Rustic cedar arbor with grapevines

Grapevines have been planted at the base to create a bower.

Asparagus Season.

Asparagus harvest time


Asparagus harvest

What to do with all the asparagus? This is not a problem and, really, we could never have too much asparagus. Eggs and asparagus are always a tasty combination, and with 24 chickens, 14 ducks and plenty of eggs this is an easy meal option for us. Asparagus omelettes are delicious, as are poached eggs on toast with steamed asparagus.  Last weekend, I made several quiches (combining duck and chicken eggs) with asparagus and shallots (also from the garden) to serve to the participants of the dry stone wall building workshop as snacks and no one complained.

For last night’s dinner I adapted a friend’s salmon and asparagus recipe, substituting shrimp for the smoked salmon and linguine for the pappardelle and it was delectable. I think it would be equally good with only the asparagus.  I’ve included the recipe here:

Linguine in Lemon Cream Sauce with Asparagus and Shrimp

1 lb. asparagus

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 large lemon (or 2 small ones)

1/2 lb. shrimp (deveined and shells removed)

1 lb. dried linguine or fettucine

3 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup heavy cream

Trim asparagus and cut diagonally into 1/2-inch thick slices. Mince the garlic and finely grate enough lemon zest to measure 2 teaspoons, and squeeze enough juice to measure 3 tablespoons.

Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl in the sink. Fill a pot with water, boil the asparagus until tender-crisp, about 3 minutes, drain in a colander, and transfer asparagus to the ice water to stop cooking.  Fill a 6-quart pasta pot three fourths full with salted water and bring to a boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta till al dente, timing it so that the pasta is cooked when the sauce, below, is ready.

In a deep 12 inch, heavy skillet cook minced garlic with salt and pepper over medium low heat till fragrant. Stir in the cream and lemon zest and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook till they turn slightly pink, about 3 minutes. Add two tablespoons of lemon juice and remove from the heat. Drain the cooked pasta, return it to its pot, add the shrimp and sauce, add the aspargus, toss to distribute the sauce evenly and add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4 as a main course.

Letters from Stonewell: Garden Design

Spring Flower border

The exuberance of Spring.

Speaking personally, the creative work of making paintings,or creating gardens ,or designing  interiors (even writing about them), emerges from the same place; a passion for beauty, harmony,grace, clarity,colorfulness and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of playfulness.  I share a professional commonality with painters, landscape designers, landscape architects, interior designers, architects, sculptors, and, yes, farmers and gardeners. My interest in horticulture, and the studies I’ve pursued in this field, are similar to those that I pursued in painting; knowing my materials and tools, knowing the history of the craft and the art. Pigments, paints and techniques are supplanted by plants; trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and their behaviour and how they contribution to a landscape, and yet, I still garden like a painter. I see the big picture and focus on the overall effect, not the details of particular plants and their attributes.

Andrew’s vision comes from a different place. Born, raised and having lived most of his life in a designated protected area in England, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, his point of reference is farmland; sweeping vistas of sheep and heather clad hills and dales, into which are nestled villages, into which are further nestled, like Russian dolls, cottage gardens nestled within those villages. He knows those personal, private gardens. They create luxurious floral displays and fecund kitchen potagers in cozy settings that suggest homeiness, intimacy and respite. Andrew’s horticultural qualifications, through the Royal Horticultural Society, have provided him with the training and education to objectify and analyze the workings of  gardens and landscapes. He’s good at it, and, as a stone artisan, he understands the importance of hardscaping and structure in a landscape.

We share a dialogue about gardens and garden design. Perhaps not always verbal, but usually visual; we move plants around, we place shrubs and perennials in different locations, we shift ourselves and the plants to various places until we find an arrangement that we feel can,and will, in time, become settled,rich, beautiful, exuberant. Only then do we commit to a garden plan, and when that happens there’s a sense of great satisfaction we share because we know that our individual strengths have come together, in a way that could not have been articulated through language or pen and paper, but through a shared sense of beauty.

I don’t remember who it was who said that creativity is ” 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”, but whoever it was, he/she wasn’t far off the mark.

I’d like to think and write more about the process of creating a lifestyle along with a landscape into a more self-sufficient and aesthetically satisfying environement.  With this is mind, I took the plunge and registered ‘lettersfromstonewell’ as its own domain. The new location is ‘’ I hope you’ll visit often.

The Garden Enclosure; Part I: Building a rustic fence, this time, to last!

Deerproofing the Kitchen Garden with Rustic Cedar Fencing

rustic garden fence built out of cedar

cedar garden fence in a rustic style

Here we go again. We performed ‘extreme unction’ on the old kitchen garden fence, built with hardwood saplings, after the hurricane took it down. Few tears were shed. Building a fence with hardwood saplings is a fool’s errand and, when we built it, 5 years ago, we knew it and did it anyway. Why? Gardening season was upon us, we needed a rustic garden fence and we needed it fast. We used what we had on hand, a surfeit of saplings,an embarrassment of enthusiasm, and the inspirational drive to create an enclosure that would do the job of keeping undesirable creatures (deer, chickens, ducks, raccoons, etc…) out of the garden and, at the same time, enhance the rustic and humble landscape in which our home and garden sits.

The new rustic garden fence is being built with cedar, preferred by traditionalists for its durability and performance as a rot resistant fencing material. We had a supply. Challenged with ‘cedar apple rust’, a fungal disease hosted by cedars, that  afflicts apple trees and was threatening the health of both our established orchard and our newly planted apple espaliers, we made the difficult decision to cut down the 15 mature cedars (30’+ high) that served to screen the front of the property in an effiort to eliminate disease and improve the health of our fruit trees. Mindful and task-driven, we harvested the cedars trees with care and deliberation, cutting the timbers to sizes, lengths and dimensions that would suit our future rustic fence designs. We stored them and seasoned them for a year to bring us to the place where we now find ourselves; creating anew, our kitchen garden enclosure.