Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

Here I am; still in “the Andes” of Ecuador gardening up a storm at Hacienda Cusin.   I have been working here for 5 weeks and have another 3 to go.  Agustin, my compatriot in Zone4 Landscapes, was here for the first 3 weeks and we got an amazing amount of really hard things accomplished.  Agustin is “strong like bull” and equally determined (stubborn?) about no task being too grand.  Peggy, my wife, arrived immediately after Agustin’s departure and she is no less tenacious. We have tackled some pretty hefty projects as well.  It is great to have her here.  In between work we have a lot of fun!

Last month I talked about how different gardening is here, which is true.  However, there is a lot that is the same, and I find that most of the basic garden challenges apply equally.  Our priority project for this season involved revamping a long allée which runs from one of the main buildings to “the beautiful blue gate” at the edge of the gardens.  The principles we used for this project are good food for thought for the imminent gardening season in Andes, NY.

This allée was populated with numerous perennials struggling without enough light.  There were leggy fuchsias and St. John’s Wort, (Hypericums perforatum), massive amounts of forget-me-nots (Myosotis) and spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), a few ferns, and a smattering of thick-leaved plants, like jade, succulents and various pencas.

I strove to make a bolder, more cohesive definition with stronger character and more color.  It also needed a big-picture statement as “a garden”.  This was achieved by adding continuity and “bones” and interesting details to capture attention along the way.

The major challenges were:

  •  Defining the correct scale
  •  Finding plants that provide a strong presence and color without a lot of light.
  •  Creating variety to make the walk a delightful experience.

Here is how we tackled these challenges:

Plants need light and pruning opened up the canopy.  The first task was tackling the massive job of pruning the gnarly jacaranda trees that create the allée (Google jacaranda trees and look at the amazing images of these trees). This immediately brought in more light and gave even the shade-tolerant plants a better chance of thriving.  Agustin was instrumental in organizing the gardeners, the scaffolding and wielding the pole saw.  I did a lot of “heavy pointing” and cleaning up the beds below during this process. Untitled An interesting note:  there were hundreds of orchids that had been purchased and placed in these trees.  Not to be wasted, one of the gardeners went ahead of the pruners to move each of these orchids from their designated branches to “tree crotches” that would be safe from the onslaught of the saws.

After creating more light, we cleaned up the gardens. The first task was removing sickly, unwanted plants and weeds.  This allowed us to actually see what is worth saving and it is how I begin any garden restoration.  During this process we uncovered a couple of amazing plants including a stand of “Crown of Thorns” (Euphorbia millii) or here “Flor de Cristo” which was smothered in ferns yet still going.  All the leggy fuchsias and St. John’s Worts were cut down to 6-12” as it was hopeless to properly shape them; they will bush out again.  We left stands or created clumps of worthwhile perennials including a nice grouping of red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria), Japanese anemones (I think September Charm); red geraniums (annuals at home) various begonias, etc.

A garden needs the proper “bones” to create a foundation and structure.  I decided on agapanthus, ferns and New Guinea impatiens:

Agapanthus provides a huge structure and texture and nearly always sports lovely purple globes floating above the mix. Also agapanthus has become a “theme” plant for Hacienda Cusin.  Señor Nik, the owner, assures me that many of them are over 100 years old here. No surprise that they are abundant for division and rock solid.  They survive transplanting and division with little to no transplant shock, and even keep on blooming.

I chose ferns for a second texture.  They are big, abundant and survive almost any conditions here.

Finally, I decided to gamble on New Guinea impatiens to add another texture and some color.  We had to travel to Quito (2 hours plus) to find a sufficient quantity.  I hope that they will not get too big!  In Ecuador, the normal impatiens grow WAY too big for my purposes (6 feet plus without pruning) and don’t thrive under a canopy like they do in the states.Untitled 2

Add plants with interesting foliage for reliable color and texture.

Using plants with diverse and interesting foliage is a great idea.  They add color, texture and interest and are lower maintenance as they don’t require deadheading.  Also, they put on a much more reliable show, especially when light is an issue.

Not to waste a two hour trip to the nursery in Quito only for New Guinea impatiens, I also picked up a lot of plants that would add color.  Many of them you would recognize as house plants in Andes, NY!  To round things out, I also gathered plants that already exist on the property including a variety of pencas, jades and sedums.  They are beautiful and provide a sense of harmony with the natural surroundings.

Stay tuned, I will be home in early March just in time to write about mud season! ~