Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Adding Flowering Herbs to Your Garden

by cathym on March 14, 2018

by Donna De Palma; uncredited photos by Jane Milliman

Creating borders of fragrant, flowering herbs or adding clusters of herbs to a flower garden is a delightful way to introduce scent. To select herbs that will complement existing elements in your garden, consider size, how quickly they reseed, blooming season, and most importantly, color and scent. Cultivating herbs to stand side-by-side with perennials is a tradition going back centuries. Informal, modern cottage gardens, especially, mix ornamental and edible plants freely.

Here are some herbs that do well in flower gardens with careful placement and proper care.


Lavender is a wonderful choice if you need a swath of color from a hardy plant that blooms in mid-summer and can tolerate heat. The most common types are English and French lavender. English lavender produces blue-violet flowers on tall, slender stalks with narrow, silver-green leaves. Hybrids come in pastel colors: pale pink, lavender, and white, with foliage that varies in shape and color. Pair it with roses for a classic cottage garden look, or plant along walkways and paths to heighten the scent or as an accent plant in a container garden. If you would like to plant more than those types, look for Spanish and Portuguese lavender. Your garden will be abloom with lavender all summer long in repeating subtle yet varied shades of violet as one variety fades and the next blooms.

Lavender is also a natural pest repellent. Consider planting it near outdoor seating to repel mosquitos and attract butterflies. A tough perennial, lavender will last for several years if conditions are right. Find a sunny place with dry soil to plant. Lavender is well suited to container gardens and will thrive indoors in winter if exposed to at least eight hours of sun a day.

Anise hyssop courtesy Flickr: Green Mountain Girls

Another delicate and aromatic herb that grows well in gardens is anise hyssop, a flowering perennial of the mint family well suited as an ornamental. The faint scent of anise from leaves and flowers wafts from these bushy clumps of upright stems topped with fuzzy spikes of blue violet flowers. It will flower from June to September and can grow up to four feet by mid-to-late summer and reseeds freely. If you’d rather it didn’t spread, pinch off the flower heads before the small black seeds mature and drop. A location with full or partial sun works best. Anise hyssop prefers well-drained soil, attracts butterflies, and is a low-maintenance addition to any garden.

Marsh mallow courtesy Flickr: Amanda Slater

One of my favorite herbs for its delicate appearance is marsh mallow. Its pale white, hollyhock-like flowers with clustered lilac stamen and central anthers bloom nearly all summer long. With broad, grey-green leaves that are velvety soft, it’s an upright perennial that can last into early fall. A tall perennial, it performs well in the back border, though sometimes needs to be staked. This herb grows up to three feet and prefers full to partial sun but is adaptable. True to tis common name, the root was once used to make marshmallows.


Sage is an herb with a pine-like aroma, delicate flowers, and soft foliage. Sage can be a perennial or an annual and comes in both blooming and nonblooming varieties. Pineapple sage, a relatively exotic strain, is a tender perennial with stalks of tubular scarlet blooms and a subtle scent of pineapple that butterflies and hummingbirds love.

In the summer, common garden sage usually produces lavender or blue-violet flowers atop shapely leaves. The flowers are edible as decorations on cakes, in salads, or as a garnish. It’s tastiest as a culinary herb when it gets loads of sunlight. Replace it every three to four years or keep it cut back hard, as it will lose its vigor and aroma, left to sprawl about.

Sage can grow almost anywhere. It’s ideal for planting along walkways and in corners of flowerbeds, providing a soft backdrop for brighter colors. The hardy versions of these subshrubs are drought tolerant and enjoy full sun.

Purple coneflower

Purple coneflower, a flowering herb otherwise known as Echinacea purpurea, blooms as large, rosy-pink flowers with raised orange-brown centers on sturdy stems. A hardy, drought-resistant perennial in the sunflower family, its daisy-like flower heads have a cone in the center with petals angled backward away from it.

Bred in a wide range of colors, the flowers are primarily pink, purple and lavender. Most have oval leaves with a wide base. They grow, on average, to two to four feet and need at least five hours of sunlight each day. Coneflowers bloom from early- to mid-summer and will thrive until the first frost. They’re rich in nectar, making them popular with bees and butterflies. Leave them standing in winter as food for birds.

At the first hint of spring growth, shear coneflower back for fuller foliage that will hold blooms longer. Coneflowers are prolific bloomers that will self-seed and spread. Large swathes of them can be placed next to ornamental grasses, black-eyed Susan, or culver’s root for a carpet-like display.

Catmint courtesy Flickr: Tanaka Juuyoh

Catmint, with its grey-green leaves and lavender blue flowers, can be used as edging or draped over stone borders. Easy to grow, these full, flowering stalks will hang over a terraced edge in a billowy tuft. Catmint is only slightly aromatic. Overhanging spikey flowers bloom in early summer and repeat their blooms throughout the summer and early fall. Pair with ornamental grasses, white lace flower, or lady’s mantle.

A tough, deer-resistant perennial that’s also drought-tolerant, catmint can grow from six inches to eight feet, and, in addition to bluish lavender, comes in a variety of soft colors, like pink, white and yellow. It pairs well with brightly colored perennials, surrounding them with a blanket of pastel. It can be sheared back after its initial flowering to encourage further blossoms.

Lemon verbena courtesy H. Zell

No aromatic garden is complete without the delightfully pungent scent of lemon verbena, a bushy herb with a sweet, lemony scent and delicate pink or white flowers. Treat it as an annual in your summer garden, plant in a container garden, or take it indoors in winter—it’s an herb that prefers warmth.

The scent is primarily in the leaves, although the small, edible flowers can be used for teas, oils and vinegars. Its pretty white flowers bloom from late summer to fall, and with regular shaping, these plants can grow six feet high.

Rosemary courtesy Flickr: Tony Alter

Rosemary, a woody,  evergreen-like perennial with creamy white, pale pink, violet, or brilliant blue flowers, blooms in early summer and is an aromatic, flowering herb that will provide contrast to other foliage in your garden with its deep green needles. Rosemary is a warm-weather herb and great choice for a container garden that can be moved indoors when the temperatures drop. This herb prefers a sunny spot with good drainage. Both ornamental and edible, it’s a summer hedge with a recognizably French aroma. ‘Tuscan Blue’ and ‘Spice Island’ are top choices in the kitchen.

Ornamental oregano

Ornamental oregano is such a useful, deer-resistant, creeping perennial herb that it’s surprising we don’t see more of it in flower gardens. Beautiful in a rock garden as a trailer, its blue-green foliage and drooping, hop-like flowers of pink, violet, green, and cream also work well in a container garden, or as ground cover in an ornamental summer garden. Draped over a wall, terrace or edging, ornamental oregano prefers full sun and grows to a height of six to eight inches, spreading from 12 to18 inches. It even grows well in stone walls. Rather than as a culinary herb, it is known for its unusual beauty. Flowers hold their bloom for up to four months.


Bergamot or bee balm is considered a tea herb with a spicy, citrusy flavor, but it works beautifully in an ornamental garden. Its narrow, tubular, blue-violet flowers bloom from July through September and blossoms can range from lavender to deep red and attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and, especially, bees. Leaves can be used to flavor lemonade, teas, and essential oils. Bergamot forms dense clumps of erect stems that can grow to four feet tall, and looks a little like a chrysanthemum on a high stalk. It likes partial to full sun.


Valerian, with fragrant lilac, pink or (usually) white flowers on long stalks, is a charming addition to an ornamental garden if you’re looking for an early summer bloom and don’t mind a tough competitor. Valerian can grow up to five feet and will get spindly, so it’s best placed near a wall or toward the back of a perennial garden. Try it next to poppies to contrast brilliant splashes of red, orange, yellow-orange, and coral with valerian’s pale flower. Watch out when digging up the roots, though—they don’t have a pleasant scent.

Lemon scented thyme

No aromatic or ornamental garden is complete without lemon-scented thyme, with pale lavender and pink flowers that bloom in spring. Sporting hardy foliage, this thyme is a compact bushy herb that reaches about 12 inches high by 12 inches wide. A full sun aromatic, it can be picked as a culinary herb that goes a long way in the kitchen. Lemon-scented thyme is the perfect choice for a border in the perennial garden. Mix in this splash of yellow green with the blues of iris, bellflower, or brunnera, and you’ve created a stunning color palette that leaves a lasting impression.

Whether your garden flowers with dahlia, peonies, daylilies or primrose, fill in corners, edges and walkways with aromatic flowering herbs for a signature cottage garden look that is uniquely yours. You’ll find that cultivating flowering herbs will become a pleasure all its own.

Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.


Story and photos by Michelle Sutton, except where noted; plant photo descriptions by Diana Smith

RIGHT: Acer shirasawanum ‘Microphyllum’ is a very pretty understory tree with outstanding orange to red fall color. A strong tree that can reach 15 feet tall.
LEFT: Diana Smith with her cat, Bully.

Not just 750 Japanese maple plants. More than 750 Japanese maple varieties. At least, that’s what Diana Smith, proprietor of Topiary Gardens in the town of Marcellus in Onondaga County, estimates. After 700 varieties, she stopped counting. She was too busy propagating them.

Diana comes from a family of entrepreneurs with deep roots in Marcellus. Her father, Donald, started a stone and screened topsoil business in 1951 that her brothers Dave and Dan carry on. Her brother Duane helps her with her landscaping installations on weekends when he has some free time. Her sprightly 88-year-old Mom, Betty, who is originally from Japan, does most of the display garden maintenance. Diana’s sister in law helps out too. Her super-affectionate cat, Bully, chases away chipmunks and anything else that gets in his way. Her dog, Suki, provides entertainment.

RIGHT: Acer palmatum ‘Amagi Shigure’ has some of the most intense brick red colors I’ve seen in a maple. The spring colors have been described as eye-popping fuchsia, shifting to deep brick red with dark greenish black veins. Leaves that are more shaded take on a pale whitish-pink tone with vibrant green reticulation. This stunner will grow to about 6 feet high and 3 feet wide in 10 years. Description and Photo Courtesy Topiary Gardens
LEFT: Acer japonicum ‘Otaki’ is known for outstanding fall color: yellow, orange, red, and sometimes peach tones. In spring, the leaf comes out green with a silver pubescence and a red cast before becoming light green and slightly darker in the summer months. It’s a nice small Japonicum type, reaching 10 feet, with a feathery appearance. ‘Otaki’ can grow in the sun or in partial to dappled shade.

Diana worked more than 20 years for a nearby nursery before eventually embarking full-time on her own businesses in landscape installation and maintenance and propagating and selling Japanese maples and conifers. She started collecting Japanese maples in 1990, ordering from nurseries on the West Coast. At that time, a blight was devastating the southern nurseries’ Japanese maple stock. It was an opportune time to start propagating and selling maples on the East Coast since it was getting extremely costly to purchase maples from the West Coast growers, whose stock was in such high demand.

At the same time she was teaching herself how to propagate woody plants, Diana began her own landscape installation business, specializing in water features. She says, “I’d get my inspiration from walking up creeks around New York State, finding waterfalls, and taking note of how the plants, rocks, and water all relate. It gave me ideas about how to lay out gardens.” The other big source of inspiration was seeing gardens in Japan on family trips there, especially to Kyoto.

TOP RIGHT: Acer palmatum ‘Wilson’s Pink Dwarf’ is a slow-growing, upright tree that maxes out at 8 to 10 feet tall. The leaves emerge in spring like tiny shrimp on the ends of the branches before becoming a pink-green and then light green through the summer months. Fall color is yellow and orange with hints of crimson at times. It can grow in sun or partial to dappled shade.
BOTTOM RIGHT: This is Acer palmatum ‘Kawahara no midori’ in the fall. Midori means “green.” It is pale green in the spring, becoming chartreuse green in the summer, and turning clear yellow in the fall. Another ornamental feature is the green new branches. It’s an upright, vase shape, medium-sized tree that does best in the shade; it will burn in the hot afternoon sun.
TOP LEFT: ‘Spotty Dotty’ mayapple (Podophyllum) pairs well with understory Japanese maples.
BOTTOM LEFT: Acer palmatum ‘Lazy Leaf’ is a chunky upright form that matures at 10 feet tall and can grow in sun or shade. The summer foliage is medium green, and the fall color is orange and yellow.

Before long, Diana was selling maples via mail order, and in 2002 she started selling online when she was creating a large garden for a client who also designed websites. He created a site that Diana was very pleased with, and the online business took off fast. She says, “Word got around that my trees grow slower than West Coast trees, but they ‘caliper up’ faster, meaning that they are a fuller specimen at a young age, which people like. They look more like miniature trees with a nice shape as opposed to just a stick with two branches on it, which is what you can get in warmer growing climates.”


In some ways, Marcellus (Zone 5a) is an unlikely place to grow Japanese maples. The winter cold and winds can be pretty fierce. What does Diana advise people in climates like hers to do?

“First, avoid planting where you’ll have southwest winds if you can,” she says. “Water new plantings really well right to the point that the ground is persistently frozen, because the more hydrated the plant is going into winter, the better it can withstand the desiccating winds. Then, wrap the plant in burlap for at least the first two winters.”

TOP RIGHT: Acer palmatum ‘Enkan’ is a strap leaf, or linearilobum, type of Japanese maple. Its spring color is dark maroon changing to bronze-red in late summer. Fall color is orange to red. It’s a small tree with an open oval habit, reaching 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. Plant it in full sun to get the best maroon color.
TOP LEFT: Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa yatsubusa’ is a dwarf maple with large, light green leaves overlaying each other on compressed stems. At 6 feet at maturity, this maple is great for rock gardens, bonsai, and patio plantings. Beautiful fall color—yellow, turning to orange. Can grow in sun or part shade in well-drained soil. Everyone’s favorite.
BOTTOM RIGHT: Diana’s mother, Betty, feeding the fish. “My mom didn’t like flowers until I started getting more and more into them. Now she’s a worse plant addict than me! I’m glad she likes it—it keeps her outside and active.”
BOTTOM LEFT: The bronze koi fish is a female—the alpha among all the koi—named “Piggie.”

The generally significant snow cover in Marcellus is a good temperature-regulating “mulch” for the roots of Diana’s Japanese maples. Unfortunately, however, winters with extreme freeze-thaw zigs and zags are hard on the trees no matter where they are sited or how well hydrated or covered they are. Diana says that the best thing you can do to mitigate against the freeze-thaw challenge is to use big boulders, rocks, stone mulch—the stone will hold and absorb heat and can help keep the trunk warm, making it less susceptible to the freeze-thaw effect. “Even Christmas lights can help,” she says. “I tell clients to wrap lights around the trunk to help keep it warm, and/or put a spotlight on the tree at night or hang a light bulb in it. All of these things can bump your tree’s microclimate up—half a hardiness zone in the country, or a full zone in the city.”

On her family land, the soil is a sandy loam pretty much perfect for growing Japanese maples because in terms of pH, they prefer a neutral to slightly acidic soil. Soil fertility is a different matter; Diana says that soil fertility can greatly affect leaf color. “If you want a dark, deeper color foliage, give the tree a richer soil,” she says, “but if you want lighter, brighter foliage, use a less nutrient-rich soil. Japanese maples don’t mind being nutrient-stressed—they’ll adapt to whatever soil you put them in—so it’s really about what color foliage you want.” Diana never fertilizes her Japanese maples in the landscape.

Japanese maple selections vary in their sun/shade preference. The one truism is that yellow-leaf and variegated Japanese maples will have the best foliage color in the shade. What about critter protection? Diana’s favorite repellent for both deer and smaller animals is Bobbex, to which she adds some peppermint oil. Pungent Bobbex has a good tackifier, so it won’t wash off immediately, and the peppermint oil irritates the animals’ noses or mouths. Her concoction repels animals for four to six weeks per application.


LEFT: A handful of the more than 750 varieties Diana propagates.
TOP RIGHT: One of many display gardens at the nursery. Photo Courtesy Topiary Gardens
BOTTOM RIGHT: Diana’s beloved dog, Suki.

Because of the increasing demand for small, low-maintenance material for today’s smaller gardens, Diana has been expanding into offering dwarf evergreens. “They’re a good complimentary plant to Japanese maples,” she says. “A lot of people with small properties are realizing now that all you need is a Japanese maple, an evergreen, and a few flowers and you’re set.” She says that some evergreens will need a little more care than Japanese maples because some do prefer a more acidic soil. If you’re going to plant evergreens in clay, you’ll want to amend the soil broadly and apply acidifier at regular intervals.

Diana is also moving into propagating unusual perennials, like the spotted-leaf mayapple (Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’), the compact ‘Queen Charlotte’ Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida) with its three-inch soft pink flowers, the ‘Margaret Wilson’ geranium (Geranium phaeum) with deeply cut, creamy-variegated foliage, the strikingly variegated ‘Loraine Sunshine’ ox-eye daisy (Heliopsis); Astilboides tabularis, a plant that has striking umbrella-like leaves, and the white flowering toad lily (Tricyrtis ‘White Towers’). She wants to try grafting tree peonies, but without the fungicide typically involved, so she is studying a technique for that.

In five years, she sees herself doing less landscaping and more work propagating a diverse variety of plant material for one- and two-gallon containers. “As I get older, I can’t dig up giant rocks and move big trees like I used to,” she says. That’s in spite of being very physically fit—Diana used to work as a personal trainer and group aerobics instructor, and, in addition to doing physical work, keeps in shape by aerobic kickboxing.

Topiary Gardens (topiary-gardens.com) is open by appointment.


Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, editor, and writer. 


Announcing upcoming trips!

by cathym on March 12, 2018

We hope you will be able to join us for one, or both of these destinations!

Our annual Odyssey to Ithaca will be Saturday, June 2, 2018.
Trip details can be found here.

Join the UGJ staff to see the GARDENS OF SCOTLAND!
Dates: August 30 – September 6, 2018
Trip details can be found here.


Almanac: March-April 2108

by cathym on March 12, 2018

What To Do in the Garden in March & April

Cherry blossoms by Jane Milliman

The following are some general ideas for early spring. Take weather conditions into account.

Winter Damage
Remove leaves and winter debris (frequently loaded with phosphorus) from paved surfaces and sewer drainage openings. This helps to increase soil drainage and improve water quality by reducing the potential for algae growth later in the season.

Thoroughly soak areas near roads, sidewalks, and driveways to flush out de-icing salt that may have been deposited over the winter.

Prune out branches damaged by the snow, wind, and ice.

Replant plants that have heaved from the freeze-thaw cycle as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the roots.

Prune summer-flowering shrubs if they need restructuring or have been damaged.

Prune dormant Bradford pear, wisteria, butterfly bush, potentilla, honeysuckle, and flowering plums.

Don’t prune ash, oak, elm, azalea, crabapple trees, forsythia, big leaf hydrangeas, lilac, mock orange, rhododendrons, or weigela.
Never top a tree! Cutting off the top portion produces an ugly, weak tree!

Prune fruit trees and grapevines before bud break. Prune out any branches with cankers or black knot. Clean your pruners in between cuts so you don’t spread disease.

Prune brambles (raspberries, blackberries) in March to remove dead, diseased, or damaged canes and to increase air circulation.

When pruning trees be careful not to cut flush to the trunk. Cut outside the branch collar. Wound dressing is not recommended. (For more information contact your local CCE or go to cce.cornell.edu.)

Prune roses when forsythias bloom. Cut back dead canes to the crown. Cut back crossing canes to about one-quarter inch above an outward-facing bud.

Cut pussy willows back drastically after they bloom to encourage stronger plants and more blooms next year.

Cut back lavender into green wood late in April.

Cut back grasses and perennials that remained as winter interest before new growth is more than a few inches tall, and place plant material that has not harbored disease into the compost pile.

Move mulch away from emerging spring bulbs.

Hand pull emerging weeds so you don’t disturb the roots of perennials and bulbs.

Wait until the soil is workable before digging up and dividing perennials such as hostas, liriope, daylilies, Shasta daisies, dicentra, and coral bells.

Scatter annual poppy seeds in the garden for bloom in June and early July.

Plan your vegetable garden now. Be sure to rotate families at least every three years.

Direct-seed cool season vegetables and flowers.

Read seed packages so you know when to start seeds, where to start seeds (indoors or out), and the time needed for setting young plants outdoors.  Make sure you can provide seedlings with adequate light.

Resume feeding of houseplants following directions for dilution and application.

Check houseplants for disease and insects. Check roots to see if the plants need division or repotting. If you want a plant to continue to grow just repot in a container about one-inch greater in diameter but the same depth. If you want the plant to grow in the same container but its roots are taking up the space, root prune, and repot.

Prune any dead or yellowing leaves and branches.

Make cuttings of appropriate plants for gifts, garden sales, or for yourself.

Apply horticultural oil to trees and shrubs that have had past problems with piercing and sucking insects such as mites, aphids, scale, whitefly, and adelgids. Follow the application directions for temperature and weather conditions.

If you didn’t clean, sharpen, and check your garden tools in autumn do it now!

If your mower doesn’t start easily move it out into the warmth of the sun. It may make starting easier!

Place new birdhouses outdoors and/or clean out older ones.

Make cuttings to force branches indoors. Examples include forsythia, weigela, and pussy willows.

Turn the compost pile.

Scrub and sterilize reusable pots and seed starter trays by washing in a dilute solution of bleach and warm water.

Inspect stored summer tubers and rhizomes. Discard ones that have decayed.

If you overwintered zonal geraniums make cuttings now.

Start seeds of slow growers now: celery, leeks, onions, and pansies.

Replace fluorescent bulbs in grow lights that have been in use over two years.


—Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera, Master Gardeners, Erie County


From the Publisher: March-April 2018

by janem on March 10, 2018

GardenScape poster artist Debbie Bonnewell

There’s no doubt about it: this winter has been a slog. But the March-April issue is as sure a sign of spring as anything. With it comes the garden shows! GardenScape will be back this year in its usual location at the Dome in Henrietta, March 8–11. Rochesterflowershow.com

Of course, we are huge fans of Plantasia, the flower and landscape show at the fairgrounds in Hamburg that just keeps getting better. We are honored to again be the official program of the show, which runs March 22–25. For a full list of seminars, go to the last page in this book. Plantasiany.com

Carol Southby

Joseph Tychonievich

With the Rochester Civic Garden Center’s eminent dissolution there is no RCGC spring symposium this year. But the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County’s Master Gardeners are moving their symposium, Gathering of Gardeners, from its usual spot in the fall to April 28 at the Doubletree on Jefferson Road. The theme is “Gardens that Rock!” and the featured speakers are Joseph Tychonievich, with “Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style” and “Cool, Non-Wimpy Plants You Haven’t Heard Of,” and Carol Southby, who will present “Combining Plants for Special Effects.” A continental breakfast and plant sale add to the fun. Gatheringofgardeners.com

The Maplewood Neighborhood Association in Rochester is seeking horticulture-related vendors to participate in the 28th annual Maplewood Rose Festival. This year’s festival will be held on Saturday, June 9, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. The festival draws thousands of participants that come to revel in the beauty of the Maplewood Rose Garden, partake in workshops and tours, and purchase plants for their own gardens. The vendor fee for the 2018 Maplewood Rose Festival is $30. Registration deadline is May 25. To learn more or to register as a vendor contact Sara Scott at 585-820-8860 or sara.scott@cityofrochester.gov.

If you are a WNY resident interested in learning how to care for young trees, check out the CommuniTREE Steward Project being offered by the Cooperative Extension of Erie County, in five parts, beginning March 21. Buffalo Olmsted Parks will again host the classes at Parkside Lodge in Delaware Park and in return for the training, the stewards are asked to volunteer at least 10 hours annually caring for juvenile trees. reg.cce.cornell.edu/2018WNYCTSClasses_214 or 716-652-5400 x 150

We’re trying something new this year, which is to give each issue a theme. This issue’s theme is herbs, and the next is emerging garden trends. We are always looking for writers and ideas, so drop us a line if you have something in mind! You can reach managing editor Debbie Eckerson at deb@upstategardenersjournal.com.

Jane Milliman

Thanks, as always, for reading!


Jane Milliman, Publisher