Bigger Not Always Better!

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I love the effect of large leaved plants, like the giant Elephant Ear grown in one of my container gardens this past season. (See ‘Flower of a Giant’ in my archived blogs). 

Perhaps monster sized plants intrigue me because they don’t grow naturally in CT so it is uncommon to see them here, plus they remind me of warm tropical beaches.  I also get a kick out of the reaction by my visitors when they see this huge plant situated on my deck.  They are stunned by its sheer size.  In fact, the leaves on my giant elephant ear grew to 5′ wide this season.  They would have grown even larger if it weren’t for the arrival of cool temps as the fall approached.

However, bigger is not always better for some plant lovers.  For starters, bigger plants need more space.  Larger containers must be used to accommodate the root mass and weight of the plant.  And overwintering large plants in your home requires a huge room with proper sunlight.  Thus, many gardeners prefer a smaller variety because of limitations or perhaps they just don’t like big, as I do!

Luckily, new varieties of dwarf forms are always being introduced.  As I read my trade magazines recently, three in particular caught my eye.  First is a new variety for the Southern Living Plant Collection of a colocasia (elephant ear).  ‘Little Black Magic’, a dwarf colocasia, will be introduced in spring 2010 in retail garden centers across the Southeast per the article in greenPROFIT.  This elephant ear has a deep black purple color and is more compact.  It will serve well in containers as a companion to plants with a lighter brighter color tone because dark colors offer wonderful contrast in designs.  See

The next plant that caught my eye is a compact Sweet Potatoe Vine.  This annual is one I often recommend in containers as a spiller.  They are easy to grow, fast, and cascade over edges of pots.  However, some gardeners have mentioned they don’t like how fast it grows – and that it grows too long.  As for my taste, I love the effect of it running on forever, especially if you drape it over something, like steps or a wall.  Yet, others find it a nuisance to keep up.  Thus, you are in luck if you can find this less aggressive form called Ipomoea ‘Chillin’ Blackberry Heart’.  This also has dark-purple foliage in a heart-shaped form.  Both this plant, and Little Black Magic serve as foliage supporters in your designs.

The third plant was advertised by Proven Winners as additions to their Graceful Grasses TM line called King Tut and Baby Tut.  As you can imagine by the names, King gets larger and Baby says more compact.   Cyperus papyrus and Cyperus involucratus are their respective botanical names.  These plants look like tall singular stalks with whorled umbrella forms on their tops.  They work really well in water gardens or container water gardens.  They can serve as centerpiece thrillers or stand-alone.  For more information on these new varieties, visit

And remember, bigger plants can offer many attributes.  They are seen from afar, cast shade to plant situated below them, add movement to scenes as they tussle in the wind, and just capture one’s attention!  However, smaller versions of the big forms can be used when you would prefer to be less noticeable or just don’t have the space.

Asian Longhorned Beetle

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When one is hit by a cold or flu virus, it is like your body is under a slow attack.  Each oncoming symptom brings on a decrease in productivity.  As I deal with my first winter cold this week, I think about how the affects of a cold on my body must be similar to how a tree feels when an Asian Longhorned Beetle takes up residence in its bark and wood.  Like a virus, it starts to decrease the tree’s ability to perform, and can weaken it to the point of death. 

If you haven’t heard of the Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB), now is the time to pay attention.  It is native to China and Korea, but made it to Worcester, MA on August 2, 2008 where it destroyed many trees.  It was first spotted in Brookland, NY and has been found in Central Park as well.  Fortunately, it has not made its way to CT yet, but as residents, we are asked to keep a look out for ALB. 

This beetle prefers maples and many other hardwood trees such as boxelder, horse chestnut, buckeyes, willows, elms, mimosa, poplar, hackberry, and birches. It is a bit lazy.  It doesn’t care to fly because of its weight, but this doesn’t stop it from moving into trees and harming large areas of trees quickly.

Asian Longhorned

Shiny black body

This photo shows what it looks like with long black antennae that has alternating bands of black/white, shiny body with white spots, and six legs.  It begins life as an egg that is laid in very shallow dents of the tree’s outer bark.  As it changes into a pupa, it will drill into the tree.  On its way out as a mature beetle, it will leave dime-sized, almost perfectly round, exit holes where it emerges. 

During a talk about the ALB by Rose Hiskes of the CT Agricultural Experiment Station, she said if a pencil can be pushed into the hole to a depth 1/2″, it may be the former home of this beetle.  Other signs of it are oval scars on the bark where the eggs were laid.  You may also notice pencil shaving like material around the tree’s base, or yellow leaves at the top.

The sightings of this beetle has so far been the result of citizens noticing it first.  In fact, when found in Worcester, a woman called her experiment station, saying she recently moved into her residence, and saw beetles she had not seen before.  Shortly after she emailed pictures to the Ag Station, the experts rushed up there the very next morning to establish an immediate plan of action.  It is critical we keep an eye out for this beetle and if spotted, report it by calling (203) 974-8474 or email

ALB Specimens

Pointing Out

The ALB is visible from late spring through fall.  The adults emerge around July, but the larvea can be in cut wood as well.  Word is going out that you should NOT move firewood, especially from state to state.  You may think it is harmless but this insect devasted trees in Worcester which is just over the CT line!  If you have firewood at campsites, burn it, don’t move it back to your home residence. It is costly to not only eliminate the pest, but to reestablish the area with healthy trees. 

Rose Hiskes from the Windsor Ag Station also pointed out that the beetle often takes up residence at the highest point of trees where the food is most concentrated in the bark and wood.  Thus, remember to look up.  Yellowing leaves at the top or dead limbs can be a signal, especially when this occurs in spring, summer when leaves should not be changing into fall colors.  ALB also chews on the viens of leaves. 



This photo shows beetles that look similar to ALB.  Note some are smaller, no spots.

Stop the chances by being aware when you are out taking walks in the woods or gardening.  Search and report any findings to 1-866-702-9938 for New England, or contact your State Department of Agriculture or the USDS State Plant Health Director.    For more info:

Breaking down Cannas

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Canna Roots

A view of the roots

On my website, under e:Pubs, you can locate my instructions on how to disassemble your container gardens of Canna plants (and other similar bulb, rhizome, corm type plants) for the over-wintering storage process.  Cannas are real tough to dig up from the ground because their roots grow deep and quickly in one season.  I prefer to grow most of my Canna plants in container gardens. 

I took photos of the root ball of Canna plants removed from a large container.  See below how the roots grew to the bottom and started girdling (just like it sounds, wrapping around in the base of the pot). 

When you see girdled roots in a pot of a plant you purchase, be sure to tease away the roots, and even trim them a bit or cut slices into the roots so they will break free of this uncomfortable situation.  Girdling can choke plants if not fixed prior to planting.  When girdling occurs on trees in particular, the tree may continue to grow but slowly it will get choked off at the base at the trunk gets larger.  It is uncomfortable for the plant – just as girdles are uncomfortable for women!

Base of Roots

Roots circle at base

You can see the base here, and at the top are the rhizomes. The rhizomes can be stored for reuse each season.  First, I cut away sections of soil, starting at the base of the soil by slicing.  Just like you would slice the bottom of a cake, so to speak!   I repeat the slicing until I reach the top where I will find rhizomes to remove. By starting from the bottom up, less disturbance occurs and rhizomes are not cut into by mistake.

Slice chunks away

Removing soil at base

Each slice of soil with roots are then tossed into my compost bin. 

Prior to removing the root ball from the container, cut away the stalks of the Canna plants about 2-4″ from the base.  A great tool to use are the pruners shown in this photo because they can handle the thickness of the stalks.   A Japanese garden knife works great to do the slicing of the soil and to break away any soil as you work through the rootball.

To learn how to store the removed rhizomes, which multiply during the growing season, refer to my October 2009 e:Pub on my website.  Just click RETURN HOME above to visit

Rhizome in soil

Remove for storing!

Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Issai’

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C. dichotoma 'Issai'

Purple Drupes

I have three of these beautiful deciduous shrubs, called Issai Japanese Beautyberry, along the base of my deck.  The drupes appearing along the stems right now are well, beautiful berries!  This shrub can take sun to partial shade and has arching branches of medium green foliage in the summer.  The foliage starts to turn an almost  chartreuse yellow like color in the fall which combines well with the metallic purple fruit  – what a show.

Purple by shrubs

Borrowing features

Earlier in the season, I placed a huge container of Tradescantia (Purple Heart), an annual in our CT zones, which served as a color complement prior to the purple berries’ arrival on the shrubs later in the season.  Always think of how you can stage container gardens holding plants of similar colors or hues of a plant nearby. While there was no purple on the shrubs during the summer, the purple intense color of the Tradescantia foliage in a pot played a role until the cool temps arrived, and then the shrubs’ berries appeared after its flowering phase.  The yellow-green of the shrubs leaves worked as a color complement to the violet-red of the annual Tradescantia.  It makes sense because purple was to appear on the shrub later – nature gives you the clues or keys to working with color.  Look at the color wheel to see how you can achieve similar success with color combos.  Colors directly opposite are dramatic!

Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Issai’ has been easy to grow for me.  Once I was told it isn’t hardy in CT but I found this to not be the case (perhaps in more northern exposures).  Mine have been growing well for about 3-4 years now.  I pruned these shrubs in early spring.  As instructed, I pruned away about 1/3rd of the older canes, and I must say, at first I panicked for the shrubs looked wierd, but this summer it flushed out nicely with fresh new canes, as promised by my pruning instructor.  An extra bonus is the abundance of the purple drupes along the fresh stems right now.  It is a real eye-catcher. 

Perhaps next year, I will use the annuals, like Osteospermum, shown in this next photo as they have the right color hues and would work well with these shrubs.  This is just another example of how you can work it!  Place a nice pot of these colors by the shrubs.  AnnualsThe beautyberry shrubs behind the containers can reach 6′ high by 5′ wide as a nice backdrop.  These shrubs can pruned hard in early spring to desired height if you desire to do so.  It is a great plant for border planting, and very effective when planting in groups.  It can make a nice foliage mass and adds a nice feature in the fall as shown and explained here.

My sister in law asked if she could take a cutting now.  I read from Dirr’s book of Woody Landscape Plants to propagate this shrub, you must take softwood cuttings.  They root easily in sand under mist.  In fact, all Callicarpa root readily from softwood cuttings.  Roots will appear in about 7 to 14 days per Dirr.  If attempting seed propagation, they require cold, most stratification (that is subjecting the seeds to a temperature change by chilling the seeds either before or after sowing, otherwise they won’t germinate).  Just remember, the shrubs are deciduous, loosing their leaves in the winter, thus you wouldn’t want to plant them where you desire evergreen all year round.  But where you have the right spot, don’t hesitate to seek this plant from your nursery source.  I am glad I did!