Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Red-Stemmed Forsythia Sage

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Black-stemmed hydrangea doesn't help itself a jot if, by awful chance, it flowers.  When 'Red Neck Girl' salvia starts into bloom, its flowers won't obscure the colorful stems, they'll synergize with them.

 

Me and 'Red Neck Girl', we're still in our first season together.  So I'm just drooling over her stems (so to speak), not her flowers.  But what stems!  Purple, thick, square:  Not words for human girls to blush over, true.  But when you're a perennial?  Solid gold.

 

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And thick!  My 'Girls' are just kids this year, but next year, their stems will be two inches thick.  Nope, my 'Girls' aren't hardy here in Rhode Island, so "next year" means that they'll be two more plants crammed into the greenhouse for the Winter.  And because my 'Girls' really want to be seven feet tall by August, 2012, not the barely-three-feet they are this year in their "tiny" seven-gallon pots, I'll pot them up into fifteen-gallon pots in March.  I don't want to miss an inch.

 

In larger pots (and with more solicitous watering), my 'Girls' will bloom earlier and larger, too.  This season, I'm still waiting for Bloom Spike Number One. 

 

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It will develop—soon, please!—into a foot-tall spike of forsythia-yellow flowers that will add another dimension, literally, to the plant's Summer-long song of tall burgundy stems soaring up through rough green leaves.  For next year, I'll do what it takes to make my 'Girls' happy:  I want to see dozens of spikes, and on stems so tall I'll have to get out the step-stool.

 

 

Here's how to grow this massive salvia:

 

Latin Name

Salvia madrensis 'Red Neck Girl'

Common Name

Red-stemmed Forsythia Sage

Family

Lamiaceae, the Mint family.

What kind of plant is it?

Subtropical perennial.

Hardiness

Zone 7b - 10.

Habit

Clumping and upright, with growth like that of a big-leaf hydrangea: many stems, none predominant.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Growing in-ground, a clump five feet wide and seven feet tall.  This is big!

Texture

Thick and bulky.  The stems themselves can be two inches thick!  Not to mention seven feet tall.  The large rough leaves are, frankly, coarse instead of interesting, but are saved by the arresting burgundy stems (see "Grown for" below).  This is a perennial with shrub-like presence.  The foot-long spikes of butter-yellow flowers (they don't call this "forsythia" sage for nothing) are a welcome burst of slender skyward energy. 

Grown for

its stems: Forsythia sage, the straight species, is all about the dimensions and the flowers.  The foliage is weedy and the all-green stems are thick but, well, weedy, too.  'Red Neck Girl', though, has stems of deepest burgundy, with a pin-stripe of green at each edge so you know that, yes, these stems are not only thick, they're square.  Only first-year stems are as colorful, so if you're gardening where this salvia is stem-hardy (Zone 9 and up), you'll want to cut the plant to the ground each Spring.       

 

its flowers:  Forsythia sage's foot-long spikes of butter-yellow flowers are, indeed, similar in coloring and enthusiasm to those of forsythia.  Given, though, that forsythia is the commonest of hardy shrubs and forsythia sage is anything but common as a mild-climate perennial, it's an unfortunate allusion, let alone a Northern-centric one.  Why not a common name that is firmly based in warm-climate references?  I welcome your suggestions. 

 

its size and scale: So many tender salvias are lowish and dense annual "bedders," two feet tops.  The (few, alas) really hardy salvias are exclusively low and dense.  But even the larger shrubby ones (Salvia guaranitica, e.g.) are open and vertical, more quick-growing than substantial.  (And that's usually a good thing, mind you.)  Salvia madrensis, though, is the monster in the salvia house:  Big-boned, big-leaved, taller-than-me (6'3" bare-foot and with wet hair), and a heckuva lot wider.  It's "forsythia" sage not just because the color and profusion of the flowers reminds you of forsythia; the overall size is forsythia-like, too. 

 

its (comparatively) early bloom:  September (I'm told) instead of October. 

Flowering season

Late Summer into Fall, starting in September.

Culture

Sun, warmth, good drainage. 

How to handle it

As an annual, plant 'Red Neck Girl' where you would a dahlia:  In rich deep soil in full sun and with excellent drainage; let the top of the soil dry out before you worry about watering.  But, on the other hand, the largest growth happens when the plant doesn't have to scrounge for water: Forsythia sage isn't as drought-tolerant as dahlia.  'Red Neck Girl' will succeed in a container, too, but it had better be big if the plant isn't to collapse each time it dries out:  Think whiskey barrel.

 

As a perennial, plant in good soil with excellent drainage over the Winter.  The easiest solution for "excellent drainage over the Winter" is to never plant 'Red Neck Girl' on level ground.  On a slope, even the slightest, excess surface water will always just be passing through, not settling in to encourage rot.  

 

Wait until Spring to cut old stems to the ground.  As always with plants that are only semi-hardy, violating the integrity of the stems by cutting them back in the Fall is always an invitation to cold water to collect in the base of the plant, or even shunt directly down to the roots.  Don't cut back, however, until the plant has started into growth: Let it wake up before you do anything drastic. 

Downsides

If only 'Red Neck Girl' were hardier!  North of North Carolina, she's an annual or a plant for year-round residence in a (very) large container. 

Variants

There are so many salvias!  Flowers can be white, blue, pink, raspberry, apricot, yellow, orange, red, burgundy, or near-black—and are often more colorful still because they arise out of an equally colorful (but, often, contrastingly hued) calyx.  Only iris and orchids have a wider palette.  Habits can be low and bushy, more like lavender and catmint, to sparse and vertical, to broad, thick, and shrub-like at almost any height.  So few, alas, are hardy below Zone 7—but most of them will flower the same season even as small rooted cuttings, so succeed even as annuals. 

 

That said, the tenderness of most of the truly cool salvias is one of the more challenging parts of gardening below Zone 7.  Wondering what your options really are?   Flowers by the Sea is a nursery that prides itself on having over a hundred salvias to choose from.  Salvia dombeyi tops my list to try in 2012:  Not only does it have the largest flowers of any salvia, the plant is the largest as well: To twenty feet!  (OK, it's scandent not self-supporting.  But maybe I can coax it up to ten feet in New England.)

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By cuttings in Spring and Summer; if you live where 'Red Neck Girl' is hardy in-ground, you can divide the slowly-expanding clumps in Spring.

Native habitat

Salvia madrensis is native to Mexico.  'Red Neck Girl' was introduced by the incomparable Plant Delights Nursery.

 
 
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