flower-garden favorites, with helen o’donnell of bunker farm plants

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I MET TODAY’S GUEST, Helen O’Donnell, at a plant sale a couple of springs ago, before the pandemic scuttled most such big public events. Spring sales like that, where multiple small growers of unusual specialty plants gather, are my favorite place to shop because I get not just unexpected new things to bring home, but also I get to learn from the proprietors as I browse about what each goody is and how to grow it.

So second-best, I’ve been inviting some of them to the radio show and podcast this year to browse with us aloud, including Helen O’Donnell of Bunker Farm Plants in Dummerston, Vermont, who’s here to talk about special annuals and perennials we may want to seek out for our gardens.

Helen owns Bunker Farm Plants, part of a family farm operation in Vermont that produces meat and maple syrup, besides Helen’s own selection of exceptional garden flowers that she raises mostly from seed–like Verbascum chaixaii and Agastache ‘Heather Queen,’ above, plus annual vines and more. She’s also a garden designer, so her choice of plants always includes their ability to perform.

flower-garden favorites from seed, with helen o’donnell

Margaret Roach: Thanks for taking time out. It’s March when we’re speaking, and it’s maple syruping time, I guess. So, thanks for taking time out from that, huh?

Helen O’Donnell: No problem. Always happy to talk with you.

Margaret: Tell us a little bit about Bunker Farm Plants and sort of your filter for what you grow and list, and a little background-y kind of stuff.

Helen: Back in 2013, we purchased the farm through the Vermont Land Trust, which is an organization that helps young farmers get onto great farmland at reasonable cost. They offset the cost through lots of fundraising.

In 2012 and 2013 I was lucky enough to do a volunteer placement at Great Dixter for a month in March and a month in July as a gardener. And I was working in the borders and working with the gardening team and with Fergus Garrett, and learning everything you would imagine about gardening, planting, and pruning and weeding and design and all of these different, more typical gardening tasks. But something that was new to me was growing plants.

So all the gardeners were sort of encouraged to… Well, we had to work in the nursery, and start raising our plants from seed. And so learning that skill at Great Dixter coincided with getting the Bunker Farm. And so a big vacant greenhouse was there, and I started to grow plants and start a nursery.

Margaret: One thing led to another, huh, Helen?

Helen: That’s right. I mean, it’s like the perfect storm. I don’t know that I would have started a nursery if I didn’t have a vacant greenhouse, and if I hadn’t gone to Dixter and learned about growing plants.

So one of the great things about being at Great Dixter is you learn that you can grow all this interesting stuff from seed, and you have control over how you grow it. So therefore you can grow big, successful, wonderful plants.

I mean, so many times you go to a nursery and you pick up a six-pack and you plant it and it doesn’t amount to much in the borders. And part of that is just learning all that timing and what to grow it in, and the bigger the pot, the better it’s going to be in the ground. And if you sow it in October versus April, and all these different things that determine how well the plant grows in your garden.

Margaret: Right. And so we should say that Great Dixter is in England, and it’s a wonderful garden that was formerly the garden of the late Christopher Lloyd, and they have these internships and so forth; people come and sort of work-study almost and learn, like what you’re talking about. And they have a small nursery as there always has been, there where people nearby love to shop for exceptional plants. So what you’re doing is inspired by that. So that makes perfect sense.

Now, I said in the intro that we met at a plant sale, and with those not happening so much, I know a lot of small growers and nurseries like yourself are sort of doing what reminds me of the old-fashioned fashion-industry trunk show, like: taking it on the road.

So you don’t sell mail-order. How are you selling in 2021? Either I can come to Vermont or… How is that working?

Helen: This year… It was lucky that the first couple of years I was getting established, I was able to go to great shows like Trade Secrets and the Atlas Spring Market, as well as other open garden events. The Primrose Society held one, and Sakonnet down in Rhode Island—they invited me to come sell plants.

And so that helped get my name out there to very serious gardeners, which has been really helpful because all gardeners, serious and amateur and beginner, all sorts across the board, but those serious gardeners who are really seeking out these well-grown and interesting and more hard-to-find plants that they want. So now my there’s word-of-mouth and I’ve been sort of asked to come down to Connecticut this year and do like a trunk show where… And I will advertise that a little bit. [Trays of annual and perennial seedlings for sale at the nursery in Vermont, above.]

Margaret: And are you doing one in the Philadelphia area, too, or at least to drop off did you tell me that?

Helen: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah, so people in that area could, and people can make an appointment, place their order, and we should say, there’s a link for the 2021 plant list on your website. And people can look and order and then decide whether they want to come pick it up at a time or go to one of these other locations.

So I was thinking that maybe we could go through some plants–what a concept [laughter].

Helen: Great.

Margaret: And, I thought, maybe no surprise since you did those couple of stints at Great Dixter in England, that on your plant list, I see there’s sort of the early season English annuals that a lot of us gardeners here don’t grow, like Nemophila, Mimulus, Nemesia. So maybe we could start there—they’re early things. Tell us a little bit about some of those. I love that Mimulus is monkey flower, by the way, I love monkey [laughter]. [Above, Nemophila ‘Pennie Black.’]

Helen: Yeah. It’s a great plant. So I first got my first introduction to that plant, those kinds of groups of plants, at Great Dixter because they’re doing big flower displays in May and April, April and May. And so you’ll have the tulips underplanted with just forget-me-nots. And we were seeding all this sort of this Nemophila and that was the first time I’d ever seen that plant. And so I sort of fell in love, Silene, ‘Blue Angel’ Viscaria. And so I sort of was interested in them and our climate is pretty hot, so a lot of people don’t bother with them, but we do bother with pansies and little spring violets.

And so I thought, well, if you’re going to buy violets, then maybe you should try these other things, which kind of give you that first little kick in spring when nothing else is happening. You can fill a pot or a basket and plant it by your front step. And they’re more cold-tolerant, and they do really well in that early season low light, and it’s just like the first flush of spring. And then you can maybe do a second round of annuals after those go by.

Margaret: So you also have a thing for vines, I think. And when I looked at the new list, I thought, oh, O.K., so she doesn’t just have one Asarina, which I think that the common name might be like climbing snapdragon, but you have four different ones [laughter]. I think I’ve only ever seen one. So can we talk a little bit about sort of… Later come the annual vines. Some of your favorites of those? Because those are things I think people forget to order at seed-ordering time and they’re so great in the garden and also maybe how to use them.

Helen: Right. I guess, for one, the reason maybe I’m growing so many Asarina is because they’re just so wonderful. They’re so tough, they grow so well. They have a beautiful little leaf and they bloom all summer long and they can really climb and they give you that vertical accent and they also can kind of scramble through shrubs or fences or existing sort of… I like how it kind of knits and like scrambled through a garden. It’s a little bit messy, but I liked that full, lush look.

Margaret: Right. Messy, but romantic [laughter].

Helen: Yeah, definitely. And full of flowers. So once the spring-flowering shrubs are done, then it gives like an armature for the next flush of flowers.

Margaret: And the leaves are kind of arrow-shaped, I think, -ish. And that they call it climbing Snapdragon, even though it’s not a snapdragon because the flowers are a little bit like that. Do they come in different colors and so forth?

Helen: And you know, it’s funny. I think I kind of remember seeing a display at Hampton Court when I was in England, in July and someone just grew Asarina. And so it was every color and they were so beautifully done. I wonder if those little things get under your subconscious and you’re like, “I need all the colors, too.”

Margaret: Yeah. Because there’s yellow and deep purple, and I think there are pink ones, and so forth. [Above, pink Asarina and yellow canary bird vine.]

Helen: And white ones. Yup.

Margaret: So you’re in Vermont. Have you sown any of those yet? How long are they in the greenhouse, or for those of us who don’t have a greenhouse indoors under lights, how long does that from sowing till set-out date?

Helen: Those grow pretty quick. I kind of have to be careful with the vines because they don’t stay put, you know? And they’ll start to take over an entire table. So I think mid- to late March is when I start all of the Ipomoea and Cobaea and Asarina and Cardiospermum, the love-in-a-puff, and yes, I just love them all.

Margaret: That’s a great old-fashioned kooky thing. If people haven’t grown that Cardiospermum, love-in-a-puff. And love because it has a heart-shaped… is it the seed inside, the love is in the middle?

Helen: Yeah. It’s a black seed with a little white heart. Yeah.

Margaret: And you mentioned the morning glories [Ipomoea] and boy, they come in such a range of possibilities. And then you said Cobaea, the cup-and-saucer vine, which is another charmer. And again, I think when we go to order our seeds, we forget to add in a couple packets of these types of things to just enliven in the garden, so that’s a great reminder.

So speaking of things you have a lot of [laughter]… Not content with just one, she has, let’s see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, I guess the only common name would be hyssop or anise hyssop, the Agastache. You have so many.

And I wanted to talk about those because I only have ever grown the plain one, the species, I think is Agastache foeniculum is the most common one, and then the one with the gold leaves and lavender-colored flowers, and you have a whole bunch. So let’s talk about these hyssops, or anise hyssops and what they’re like and how they work. And why do you have so many of them? [Laughter.] Oops.

Helen: Well, I was kind of thinking about them. I think once you plant them, they’re very unfussy. And they’re kind of fussy in the greenhouse a little bit, I find, but once you get them out in the ground, they just are great performers. And I put them in the half-hardy perennial-annual category, they all sort of do different things. None of them are very long-lived perennials, but they seed around and can, for example, ‘Heather Queen’ [below] and ‘Globetrotter,’ they’re probably short-lived perennials and other parts of the country. It’s a little cold where we are, but they bloom first year from seed and make a big bushy plans, they flower all season.

And they’re also great pollinator plants. So birds, butterflies, bees. They have great structure; you never need to stake them. And they kind of weave through plantings and provide all that color, a lot of very intense color. I mean, ‘Globetrotter’ is almost like fuchsia-magenta, and it starts blooming early and can continue on through the whole season. So I just think they’re great.

Margaret: And insects love them. A lot of the species that they derive from are… There’s quite a number of Native American species of Agastache, I believe. And I think in North America, we have the most of the genus, I think. [Top of page, ‘Heather Queen’ Agastache and Verbascum chaixaii.]

Helen: I think you’re right. Definitely towards the Midwest, too; maybe not as much here, but-

Margaret: No, no.

Helen: So, yeah, so for our climate.

Margaret: And when you say, you were talking about them, not perennializing for you, you’re in zone what?

Helen: Where’s Zone 5 pretty handily.

Margaret: O.K., all right. So they might be a 6b or 6 or something; they’d be more reliably  longer-lived. I find that just again, the one I have is… Do you know what the one I’m talking about is with the gold leaves and the…

Helen: ‘Golden Jubilee.’

Margaret: Ah, ‘Golden Jubilee.’ I find that, I’ve had it for a zillion years, and it’s not necessarily exactly where I had it last year, but it doesn’t move a mile away, either. It’s just, like you said, it self-sows little bit, and it’s a lovely plant. And again, the insect attraction, these are mints; these are in the mint family. So yeah, lots of buzzing around the anise hyssops and relatives.

Another thing you like, it seems like, is yarrows.

Helen: Yeah, it’s funny, I haven’t actually grown them until this year. But I think it was kind of looking around last summer, it was pretty hot and dry and the weather was weird. And I just had a more… Maybe just reading about the plant a little bit more and it just seems like an easy, great, native, some of them native, and good for the insects.

And I don’t know, I think sometimes like all gardeners, the more you know… Like there’s a phase where you sort of are disdainful of plants that seem too common and then you kind of rediscover them again. And then, I don’t know, I just don’t feel like I’m having that with the yarrows right now. It’s like, “Oh, these are great. These are amazing.” Good for dry soils. Good for the insects. I love their foliage. So I’m just going to see how it goes this year.

Margaret: And the range of colors. And these are perennials, yes? Are these perennials?

Helen: Yeah, I think it depends on, I think you do have to put them in lean soil, because you can get that like crown rot on them. So they do really like a good sandy, well-drained soil. So I’ve lost… I think that’s the thing, I have historically gardened in very rich soils in compost-y soils. And I’m now more interested in these sort of lean, drier gardening conditions. And you can grow really interesting plants in well-drained soils, and it’s also good for water conservation and climate change.

Margaret: So the classic is probably yellow, these flat-topped yellow flowers. But do you have a range of color as well?

Helen: Well, I’m trying this one ‘Cerise Queen.’ I don’t think I’ve grown it before, Achillea millefolium, and it’s got those pink burgundy, beautiful color, and I’ve seen them cultivated out in nurseries. They’re going from oranges and pink, to deep reds. And so I’m trying a ‘Cerise Queen’ this year.

Margaret: And then I saw another sort of theme-ish thing in the list, which is, I guess we would call them prairie perennials, and interesting to me because you’re growing them from seed. And so let’s talk about some of those and why you’re interested in them and what you’re going to do with them in the gardens.

Helen: So Liatris again [blazing star], was sort of a plant that did really well for me last year. And I started to notice it really seeding around a great deal. So spicata, ‘Kobold,’ and there’s a white version, too. That’s very typical. You see that spicata kind of garden centers all the time. And one year I grew pycnostacha, and it’s very tall. I think my specimen got 4 feet at least. And it comes up on this very narrow, long spiky flowerhead, and it snaked around. And it’s sort of cool and architectural with this big fuzzy pink flower.

And then on somebody’s Instagram, a good friend, Caleb Davis, posted Liatris scariosa, one I’d never seen, and it has more of like an aster flower, like little aster flowerheads that go up the spike. And so I’m trying that this year.

Yeah, I mean, they’re very small little plants, first-year perennial seedlings. So you do have to care for them a little bit. If you plant them in a big border they could get lost, but at the same time, if nobody buys them, then maybe I can keep them for another year and grow them bigger next year.

Margaret: The butterfly weeds and milkweeds the Asclepias, are you delving into those, too?

Helen: Yes. I’ve been growing the Asclepias incarnata, the swamp milkweed, which is great for butterflies and the monarchs in particular, the caterpillars feed on that in the late summer. And then tuberosa, I’ve grown and I find it really seeds, once you get a healthy colony established, it’ll really seed around in a nice dry gravelly garden, especially. I think those are the only two on the list.

Margaret: And, and so what about… You have larkspurs and some verbascums, things I used to always have and things that used to sow around the garden. And then I don’t know why maybe I weeded too much [laughter], a few years in a row, and lost them. But it made me feel a longing for them. Let’s just talk a little bit about the verbascums for instance, they’re fabulous. So any favorites of those or how to use?

Helen: Yeah, I guess I love them all and I always sold them, so that’s good. And some of them are truly biennials, like the ‘Polar Summer’ bombyciferum. And I sell first-year seedlings, so everyone would buy that little 4-inch pot, put it in the garden, watch its leaves grow its first year. And the next year, if it’s in a good spot, it will put up a spectacular candelabra of these bright yellow flowers that can sometimes bloom the whole summer.

And I have one specimen that sort of perpetuates or seeds around, and it is just enormous. So, and the leaves are very silvery and worth growing just for the leaves. And then an interesting one, Verbacsum roripifolium, which I found through Jelitto seeds, and I think it says it’s a perennial, but I’ve never seen it be a perennial. It acts more like a biennial or annual.

And it blooms first year from seed. And if the timing’s right, which I sometimes get and sometimes don’t, you can plant it, and it puts up a 4-foot-tall, airy cloud. So it’s like got a single stem and then branching stems that are very, very wiry. And then it’s like a cloud of little yellow flowers, so it keeps branching. So it really is like this dense mass of airy Verbascum. And they open in the morning and the evening and sort of pucker up and close during the daytime. So sort of that early morning and evening, it’s really spectacular and then covered with insects. So it’s cool. [Above, Verbacsum roripifolium with Cleome.]

Margaret: Larkspurs, because everybody always wants them and I don’t even know, when are we supposed to sow them and… Yeah, larkspurs.

Helen: Well, I’ve still yet to master growing a great larkspur, but sometimes I get it right. I sow them early, so they’ve all been sown, and I’ll continue to sow them. And then I get them into plug trays and let them sort of root down for a while. These are the annual larkspurs, not the perennial. And then I think they don’t want to be too hot. And so my greenhouse starts to heat up pretty significantly in April. So my plan is then to put them into cold frames outside to keep them on the cool side before I put them out into the garden.

But then you plant them right before they start to head up. They root down in the garden and they head up and bloom through July. And then, in your border, you want to put like 20 or 50 of them [laughter].

Margaret: Just 20 or 50, not two or five, 20 or 50. O.K., yeah. That’s funny. That’s very funny. So, well you heard that advice [laughter], 20 or 50 folks. Don’t under-do it, from Helen O’Donnell of Bunker Farm Plants. So yeah, so the season’s coming, and like I said with, I’ll give the link to look at the full list, which is quite amazing. I don’t know how you do it all. And then if they are in an area where you’re going to be doing drop-offs or a trunk show, haha, how they can or come to visit you there by appointment and pick up some plants.

So thank you so much for making the time today, and I hope it’s not too crazy and busy with the maple syrup, etc. etc. etc., up there at the farm.

Helen: It’s going to be great. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a big honor. So, thank you so much.

Margaret: Oh, that’s sweet, Helen. Well, thank you. Talk to you again soon.

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