Category Archives: Expert Advice

Interviews with professional gardeners, landscape designers and horticulturalists, garden center owners, growers, and garden suppliers.

Ellen Abdow to Share Gardening Tips and Ideas

Hi Everyone: 
I wanted to share a bio on Ellen Abdow, the smart and dynamic owner of Perennial Gardens, a landscape firm in Boston.  She’ll share helpful gardening advice and will create a gorgeous container garden right before our eyes at the May 5th “Gardening Experts Speak! Tips for a Successful City Garden.”  Come join us!  Sign up today at

Ellen is the founder of Perennial Gardens, LLC, a landscape design and build firm with clients throughout New England.  The firm has a diverse portfolio and Ellen and her expert team have cultivated a reputation for careful plant selection, imaginative composition and skilled installation.
Ellen brings 18 years of knowledge to each and every project.  She first got bitten by the gardening bug while teaching at Brookline High School and subsequently went to work at one of the area’s most respected nurseries. There she expanded her love and knowledge of perennials before launching her own firm. Today she gets great pleasure from helping clients hone their own personal garden visions and adapting these ideas in ways that will best suit their particular properties and lifestyles. Her work can be seen in numerous garden tours, on a walk through Boston’s Back Bay, or on line at

Come hear gardening wisdom from Ellen!  Sign up today for the May 5th workshop!
 Register at Cost is just $25.
Hope to see you there!!


Garden Expert Tom Smarr Speaking at May 5th Workshop in Boston

Let me  introduce you to Tom Smarr.  
He is a smart and seasoned horticulturalist who will offer great gardening advice and practical tips on Saturday, May 5th as part of the Gardening Experts Speak! Tips for a Successful City Garden.”  
For information or to register, go to
Tom was the first expert  to be featured at  His interview can be found in the site’s Expert Advice tab.
Tom is a experienced professional with more than a decade of experience in horticulture, botanic gardens, conservation and sustainable landscaping.  He currently works for The Garden Concierge, a residential landscape company in Boston.   
Tom studied at several notable public gardens including:
– Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania
– The Holden Arboretum in Ohio, and
 – Washington Park Arboretum/Center for Urban Horticulture in Washington. 
He holds a graduate degree in Urban Horticulture from the University of Washington in Seattle. 
Tom worked for several years as a professional horticulturalist and Horticulture Director at the New England Wild Flower Society’s native plant botanic garden, Garden in the Woods, famous for its extensive native plant collection.  Tom then began the horticulture organic maintenance program for the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, a vibrant public park in downtown Boston on top of the famous Big Dig managed by the RFK Greenway Conservancy.
Tom is committed to the preservation of our cultural landscapes through sensible design, horticulture practices, and public education.  He is dedicated to the principle that landscapes should not only be beautiful and functional, but should contribute to a healthy ecology.

Up next, information on Ellen Abdow, owner of Perennial Gardens.  She’ll be presenting at the May 5th workshop too.  She’ll create a gorgeous container garden right before our eyes and offer insights into the hottest trends in gardening. 
To register for the May 5th event, go to
Hope to see you on then!

Gardening Experts Speak May 5th in Boston!

Come get great advice and a dose of inspiration to make this year’s flower garden your best yet!
Join us Saturday, May 5th from 10am to noon for a lively, information-rich workshop called “Gardening Experts Speak! Tips for a Successful City Garden.” 
This second annual City Garden Ideas event will be held in the auditorium of First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough Street, at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough. 
Our featured speakers are talented, professional horticulturalists: Ellen Abdow, owner of Perennial Gardens, and Tom Smarr, The Garden Concierge and former Superintendent of Horticulture at the Rose Kennedy Greenway.  What can you expect?  Plenty! 
Ellen will create a beautiful container garden right before your eyes.  She’ll share gardening wisdom and offer insights into the hottest trends. Tom will offer up gardening basics on tools, soil, sun and choosing plants that thrive in every season.  He’ll also talk about vertical gardening.  That’s when blooms go up and up. 
Register at  The cost is just $25!  There will be plenty of time for questions and answers, loads of handouts and door prizes!  This event is not to be missed!
If you have questions, call 617-267-6500 or email me at  Hope to see you there!

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky

High Line Cover
High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky

Wednesday, March 14, 7:00 pm
Museum of Fine Arts
Remis Auditorium, Boston
Tickets: $15 members, $18 non-members

I just signed up for this lecture.  It will be fascinating to hear how they reclaimed these derelict rail structures and created a park.  Come join me!

Robert Hammond, co-founder and executive director, Friends of the High Line, will share the story of how the High Line, a new public park atop an elevated freight rail structure in Manhattan, became an innovative urban reclamation project.

Hammond and his co-founder collaborated with neighbors, elected officials, artists, local business owners, and leaders in horticulture and landscape architecture, to create a park celebrated as a model for creatively designed, socially vibrant, ecologically sound public space.  A book signing follows.

This is a ticketed event – $15 MFA members, $18 others.  Tickets may be reserved by calling 1-800-440-6975, going in person to the Remis Auditorium box office at the Museum, or visiting

Timely Advice: Put your garden to bed

                                                                      Expert horticulturalist Tom SmarrTom Smarr
at the Garden Concierge
offers this good advice to all gardeners.
“I find that many gardeners tend to take a break or drop back from gardening programs and reading during the late autumn and early
winter. Possibly resting before putting the energy back into the excitement for another growing year. However, I think it is important
for gardeners not to get too lazy in putting their garden to bed. Cut back appropriate perennials, protect and cover up others, and evaluate
shurbs that might need some additional ties for snow load protection.  I also will stake newly planted trees to protect from being pulled over by winter snow.” 
Great advice.  Thanks Tom!

Spotlight on New England Garden Ornaments – Blending Function, Beauty and Fun

Smiling Gray Baldwin in a white shirt - Owner of New England Garden Ornaments Spend five minutes with Gray Baldwin, the personable owner of New England Garden Ornaments, and you can feel her excitement for cast limestone pots, concrete urns and lead containers from England.  Listen to her tell the story of a carved rain spout or finding whimsical statuary and you can’t help but laugh along with her and share her delight in the pieces.

Her Sudbury shop at 81 Union Street is a bright and open space and well worth a visit.   Open less than a year in this location, the shop feels a bit like high-end art gallery meets jumble sale.  Sleek and tapered containers stand near squat and curvy pots.Three Sundials on Unique Pedestals  An ornate
garden gate leans against a wall, a dirt sieve is propped on a table by a Grecian urn, brass sundials sit on sturdy pillars Pig Family at New England Garden Ornamentsand a family of English lead pigs lay in mid-squeal near the window.  “Can you imagine walking into someone’s yard and seeing this pig family off in the corner?” Baldwin says with a chuckle.  “That’s the whimsy I love of these guys.”

On the grassy back lawn, there are pots of every shape and size, garden edging, bird baths Lawn full of pots, containers and edgingand water features.  Inside and out, there are great options and ideas for every garden, especially a city garden.

“Sometimes when people have little corners where nothing can grow, it’s good to choose some piece of artwork or statue, make it the focal point, and be done with it,” says Baldwin.

For those with a bit more space and sun, “Make the investment in a good pot, perhaps a tapered planter,” she says.  “Just make sure you choose a container that fits the proportions of your space. Think about groupings of three using pieces with different scale.New England Garden Ornaments - Palettes of Pots
“One of the benefits of buying a beautiful container is you can leave it planted or unplanted.  If you’re unsure, keep it simple and on the compact side.  Build your confidence and when you’re comfortable, buy a container that you love.”

Baldwin bought New England Garden Ornaments in 2008 when it was located in bucolic North Brookfield.  The move to Sudbury came in 2010.  After a brief time at a warehouse on Union Street, Baldwin settled the business at its present 81 Union Street location.  “Now we are percolating year round,” Baldwin says with a smile.  “All this space and right next store to Cavicchios (a large garden center and nursery).  I feel like a barnacle on a big old whale.”

White fluted urn iwth flourishes at the baseMany of the containers and pots around the shop come from the United Kingdom, discovered by Baldwin during one of her three yearly trips abroad.  The cast stone and concrete come from the United States.

Baldwin explains, “Dry cast limestone is different than wet cast concrete because it is hand packed and doesn’t have much water in the mix, just enough to hold it together.  It becomes incredibly porous and can be a host to lichen and moss.

“When something is wet cast,” she says, “it’s poured into a mold, the machine gives it a good shake, and the slurry comes to the outside.  The slurry doesn’t allow the lichen and the moss to take hold.  The surface is too smooth.”

Wide variety of cast, concrete and lead containersFor city gardens, Baldwin says, “Cast stone does better on stone or concrete because it wicks up moisture.  So it lends itself really well to patios, stoops and sidewalks. “

For a longer lasting container, “Get English lead.  English lead is a blast,” BaldwinLead urn on round base says with a glint in her eye.  “I like to bring it in from England because they have very strict guidelines on what you are allowed to export and what you’re allowed to call lead.”  English lead has to be 100% lead without any alloys that can loosen the bond – the key to lead.  Baldwin points out that the only way lead is toxic is when we ingest it.  “So use lead containers as flower pots, not as a vegetable garden.”

About her business, Baldwin says it’s a great adventure.  The unique and classic containers in her showrooms are her top sellers.  Sundial on an ornate base
Antiques also sell well. “Old pots, gates, spouts, furniture – all are going quickly.”
And then sundials go out. “There is a certain attraction to that strong architectural statement. And they look great during all four seasons.
People are paying a lot more attention to how their gardens look in winter.” 

So what words of wisdom does Gray Baldwin have for small space, urban gardeners? “Build confidence first,” she says.  “Start with something that you are comfortable moving, not a big investment, and add a little bit at a time.  And find things that make you smile – perhaps a birdbath with a top that can be flipped over to become a mushroom in winter.  Or find something that’s beautiful and small and you love.  It all depends on what works for you and your life.”

So plan a visit to New England Garden Ornaments in Sudbury and take a look around.  New items from Gray Baldwin’s latest trip to England will be in the shop in September.   For more about English lead, go to   For details about New England Garden Ornaments, go to .New England Garden Ornaments Sign strung between trees

Expert Advice – “Gardening is about surprises”

“Gardening is about surprises”

Meet Steve Baxter.  He is the easy going and seasoned Grounds Superintendent at the 1000 Southern Artery senior housing complex in Quincy.  In his role, he oversees the beautification and upkeep of 22 acres surrounding three large housing wings.  After 22 years, he knows and loves every inch of the place.  But there are 12 acres of the 22 that are his focus.  These are the acres where his passion and commitment to gardening has taken root and where he has the freedom to garden the way he likes.  Talk about a perfect match!  

Baxter got interested in gardening as a young man.  He attended Stockbridge and then UMASS Amherst, earning his horticulture degree and went on to own his own gardening business.  After selling the business and working for a few years with another garden concern, he came to the Artery.   “This place gives me the opportunity to garden without stress and the freedom to experiment with plants,” Baxter says.  “Sometimes things work out 100%, sometimes 70% and sometimes not as all.  That’s gardening.”

Steve knows about the planning and effort needed to tend healthy, beautiful gardens.  “It’s like a footrace.  It’s April, you go like a son of a gun, planning and planting to make the spaces look a certain way come July and August.  And here we have 1000 sets of eyes looking at us, admiring the gardens and keeping track of the plants — ‘Oh, there’s a little brown spot over here’ or ‘why aren’t the impatiens growing like the other ones?  It’s great to have the residents so engaged.”

But it’s the front garden at 1000 Southern Artery that gets Steve excited.  “The front Peace Garden is the showplace,” Steve says.  “It gets good sun so I use mostly annuals – cleome, zinnias – with Sea Breeze salvia as a fringe plant.  It’s a country garden, free flowing, with plants growing into other plants.  Every year we make it beautiful.”

For Steve, gardening is about surprises.  “That’s the nice thing about gardening,” he says, “you look at it in the morning and say ah, it looks good and then you look at it again in the afternoon and it looks different.  Every day there’s something more to see.”

Successful gardening does, however, require some basic understanding of soil and putting the right plants in the right places.

“If you want something to succeed, you have to start properly,” Steve says.  “The number one thing that gardeners should do is get the soil tested.  You are spending good money on plants.  If the soil is acidic, the plants can’t take up the nutrients and they will fail.  And if you are tending a tree pit garden, be aware that maple trees give off acidity.   “Make sure you have neutral soil – 7 pH.  If it’s acidic, you’ll need to put down some lime.  That takes the acidity out of the soil.”  Test kits are available at Home Depot and at garden centers and are fairly easy to use.

Next step is to determine where the flowers will be planted and figuring out how much sun the flowers will get.  Whether it’s a window box, a container garden, a patio or street-side raised bed, knowing the sun/shade ratio is critical for successful plant selection.

Speaking of raised beds, Steve plans to construct raised beds at the Artery.  “We have a garden club here and many residents gardened when they had their former homes.  Residents want to get their hands back in the soil.  If someone is on a walker or can’t stoop to plant, a raised bed will give them easier access.  Gardening is such a rewarding activity.  It rewards you by color, by fruit or by texture.

“Pressure treated wood makes a great raised bed for flowers.  But don’t use pressure treated wood if planting vegetables,” Steve says.  “The chemicals could be taken into the plant roots.”  Cedar is an “awesome wood” for raised beds but the cost is high.  “Consider stackable walls with loose stone,” Steve suggests.  “Stone or wood, it’s a personal preference but I like stone best.  It’s less structured, freer flowing, and blends into the environment.” 

With the location determined and the sun light level confirmed, the fun part of choosing plants begins. 

To choose good plants in flats, Steve advises a check for readiness and good roots.  “Find a pack of flowers you like and squish one out of the flat.  You’ll know it’s a good one if it comes out of the pack in one piece and comes out in the shape of the container it was in.  If it doesn’t come out complete, and all the soil is in your hand, the plant has been forced to bloom.  Don’t buy it.” 

Next, check the root system.  “With the flower out of the flat, make sure to gently tease out the roots.  That way the feeding roots will get stimulated and be ready to take in nutrients.”

Then you need to design the garden space: height, texture, color and timing.  “Ideally, you want to plant flowers that give a full range of color over time:  Mountain Pieris in April, then azaleas, then impatiens, then rhododendrons, Shasta daisies, daylilies.  It’s color from April till the end of September.“

Steve concedes that some city gardening may not need seasonal planning but stresses that it’s wise to have a plant plan before heading to the garden center. 

Here are Steve’s top picks for beautiful, hardy flowers, ground covers and shrubs for a successful city garden. 

Full/Partial Sun:
•   Purple leaf Sand Cherry – a small, deciduous plant with a red leaf, blooms a plum-colored flower.  Salt tolerant. Grows to 4 feet.  Great background plant.
•    Korean Lilac – a small, deciduous lilac, grows 3+ ft, blooms delicate flower in May/June, fragrant smell.
•   Sea Breeze Salvia: “Awesome plant to use and is a centerpiece for our gardens.”  Sea breeze is blue.  Ocean Mist is white.  Together they are great anchor plants and they bloom till fall.
•   Marigold
•   Zinnias
•    Cleome: a gorgeous, showy, prickly plant
•    Shasta daisy
•    Wave Petunia
•    Yucca Plant – Nice spiked blossom.  “Put it in and forget about it.  It will surprise you when it flowers.”  Drought resistant.
Partial Sun/Shade:
•   Daylily: “Simple as the day is long but in urban settings these are terrific plants if you are gardening on the go.”  Choose Stella Dora.  Avoid the Asian lily.
•   Impatiens: easy, don’t have to dead head and get a lot of results for it.
•   Hollyhocks
•   Astelby
•   Hosta – “Go beyond the eye roll. This is a great plant and it won’t quit on you.”  There are more than 135 different varieties. Consider Elephant leaf – big giant green leaves and  Golden Boy – odd-shaped leaf, round, purple flower. 
•   Coral Bell
•   Pansies
•   Butterfly bush.  Very nice, low maintenance plant.   Grows 4 – 5 feet.  Purple attracts butterflies.
•   Ground Phlox
•   Impatiens
•   Azaleas:
•   Ornamental Grasses: drought and salt tolerant
•   Rhododendrons:
Shade Loving:
•   Impatiens: performs well in sun or shade and and lots of varieties.  Great in flower beds, tubs, and window boxes.
•   Begonias:  Excellent for flower beds and containers, green or bronze leaves and flowers in many colors.  Needs protection from direct sun.   Need to be deadheaded.
•   Ajuga:  A ground cover with a spiked purple flower.  Grows in partial shade but can tolerate full shade.
•   Myrtle: ivy with a purple flower
•   Pacasandra: ivy with a white spike flower

Steve final advice:  “You want your eye to flow from the front to the back.  Lowest in the front, highest flowers in the back.  It’s all about the visual.  And don’t forget to fertilize your plants!  Use  Miracle Grow or Blossom Booster. “ 

Many thanks to Steve for his useful and down-to-earth (haha) advice.
Come hear Steve and other expert panelists on April 30th at the City Garden Ideas workshop.  Information and registration on

In the city, tough plants go into the ground – Advice from a horticultural expert!

Meet Tom Smarr.  He’s the superintendent of horticulture for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston.  We  sat down a few weeks ago to talk about city gardening and he gave some great information and advice.  Highlights are below.  The full interview is on the Expert Advice tab… Check it out!
“In the city, gardening gets a little tougher because you have so many more challenges.  You have the passerby pedestrian, you have people in general, plus animals, vehicles, bicycles, and more.  Every square inch of the city has so much more impact on it than out in the suburbs, or in the country.  Out in the country, you may walk a similar pathway but it’s only you.  But in the city, it’s you and 5,000 people following behind you!”  So what are Tom’s recommendations for city gardeners?
Getting Started:
“Designing a garden plot is like decorating indoors.  A garden is like a room.  It has a floor and walls.”  What colors and textures do you like?  Unsure?  Go to a flower show or a greenhouse or garden center.  See what plants and flowers attract you.  Tom suggests three books that provide design and plant guidance and inspiration:
• Small Garden by John Brookes
•  The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy Sabato-Aust
•  Designing with Plants by Piet Oudolf
Selecting Plants that Grow:
“In the city, tough plants go into the ground.  And tough means beautiful and hardy.  When you choose your garden plants, consider sunlight, moisture, bloom color and height.”  
“Know your exposure.  Notice how much sun and shade are in different areas of your garden.“
•Full Sun                 6 hours or more of direct sunlight (in summer)
•Part-sun               2 to 6 hours of direct sunlight
•Part-shade          1-2 hours of direct sunlight
•Light shade         Dappled sunlight, or shade below open sky
Tom suggests these plants for each sun level:
1. Full sun: 
•Black-Eye Susan’s (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’)
•Dwarf New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’)
•Husker Red Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)
•Daylilies (Hemerocallis cultivars)
•Blue Licorice Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia ‘Blue Licorice’)
•Blue Ice Amsonia 
All of these are medium to tall plants that would grow great in a perennial boarder or meadow style with ornamental grasses.  These provide a season of blooms and foliage interest and hardy in urban garden conditions.

2. Medium sun:

•Heavy Metal and Shenandoah Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) plus  Little Blue Stem (Schizachryium scoparium ‘The Blues’) are two great grasses that durable and have nice solid color. 
•Snow Flurry (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is a low, groundcover type aster.
•Sheffield Pink Florist Daisy (Chrysanthemum x morifolium ‘Sheffield Pink’) is a hardy blooming chrysanthemum along with many other cultivars provide different colors in the garden for autumn. 
All of these will do fine in full sun to medium light and mixed with plants in the full sun category.
•A favorite shrub is Dwarf Witch-alder (Fothergilla gardenia) an early spring flowers with vibrant autumn foliage.  
3. Part Shade to Shade:
•Pachysandra is typically a dependable groundcover as is Liriope spicata that is a grass-like blooming plant. 
•Tom’s favorites are Hydrangeas that provide good summer color and mounding shrubs.  Popular cultivars are mop head types like ‘Blushing Bride’ and ‘Endless Summer’ or a lacecap variety like ‘Blue Billow’. 
•He also likes Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) as it has unique flowers and leaves.
•Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) is a groundcover that does well in shady conditions like many other woodland favorites seen at Garden in the Woods in Framingham. 
You can follow many of these plants found on the Greenway and more through the Greenway Conservancy’s blog: