giveaway: q&a with broken arrow’s adam wheeler

WHAT I MISS MOST about my Martha job: I had other garden geeks as colleagues, and the chance to talk plants nonstop. These days I pester people like Adam Wheeler of Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut instead. The latest in my series of nursery and seed-company Q&As: a chat with Adam about everything from outstanding wildlife shrubs and underused hydrangeas and magnolias; to using variegation in the garden, growing giant pumpkins and more. Plus: a chance to win one of two $25 Broken Arrow gift certificates I’ve bought to share with you.

I doubt that Broken Arrow, founded by Dick and Sally Jaynes in 1984 in Hamden, Connecticut, needs much introduction—especially lately, as they were just featured in a “New York Times” piece by my former colleague Anne Raver. As Anne mentioned in that article, Adam (now 33 years old) used to buy plants at Broken Arrow as a teen-ager; now he’s their Propagation and Plant Development Manager.

In the latter role, he’s the kind of particular guy who goes looking for a winterberry holly that shows off even without its fruit on (gold-splashed foliage, anyone?); who has such a passion for witch hazels that the nursery now offers 45 cultivars; who tracked down a pink-flowered Stewartia and….but let him tell you:

The Q&A With Adam Wheeler

Q. So what does it take to catch the eye of the guy whose job is to go around looking for new things to add into Broken Arrow’s already very sophisticated product mix? You must see a lot of pretty faces—any recent crushes to confess from among the crowd?

A. I’m always looking for fun, garden-worthy plants that add a new dimension to status quo and open up new uses in the landscape.  As an example, most people are familiar with Ilex verticillata, a fantastic Northeast U.S. native long valued for is late season red fruit display.  My interest and eye would draw me towards cultivars such as ‘Golden Verboom’ or ‘Winter Gold’ which showcase unique, golden-yellow, and coral-orange fruit colors, respectively.  Likewise, I navigate towards ‘Sunsplash’ (above), a selection boasting gold-splashed foliage that remains colorful throughout the growing season.  Historically the straight species has been relegated to the back of the shrub border, where it blends in until late autumn when the fruit display sets in.  ‘Sunsplash’ opens up completely new opportunities for gardeners to contemplate.

Q. Rumor has it that in your “off” time, one of your hobbies (besides rock climbing) is giant pumpkin growing. Any secrets you want to share – or links on where to get seeds and information for those of us who are nutty enough to want to try?

A. Long before ornamental plants were ever on my radar I was fascinated by vegetable gardening. This continues to be a passion and I’ve certainly taken it to an extreme with giant pumpkins. They’re just amazing plants and to this day it still mystifies me when I witness the amazing growth they can put out! Plants can literally take over a 40-foot square patch in the garden and each pumpkin is capable of growing 40-50 pounds a day when at peak growth! What other fruit can you transform into a paddle boat at the end of the year? Big Pumpkins has been an excellent resource for me and is the best starting point for anyone who dares to try. Watch out, it’s addicting!

Q. Fast prediction: Give us a forecast on what tree, shrub, perennial are headed for bestseller status at the moment?

A.  There are so many great, underutilized plants out there it can be difficult to pick favorites.   I often relate it to trying to pick between my children….At present, I’m going crazy with new Stewartia selections.  We’ve got a couple of fine forms in the catalog this year including a new pink flowered form of Stewartia rostrata that we named ‘Pink Satin'[photo included top collage].  I found this plant as a seedling in one of our production fields a number of years ago and finally decided to introduce it after about eight years of evaluation.  We also have Stewartia x henryae ‘Skyrocket’ available for the first time this season [at the nursery, not by mail this year].  This is a superior plant from the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard that combines Stewartia pseudocamellia and S. monadelpha in its parentage.  Plants have been strong growers for us with a narrow, upright growth form and masses of 1.5-inch white flowers.

birgit witchhazelIn the shrub world, witch hazels continue to be top sellers.  Our collection currently numbers well over 45 cultivars with more than 20 of those in production.  The range of flower color is tremendous and stretches far beyond the yellows commonly associated with the species.  We now see everything from the deep purple flowers of ‘Birgit’ (above) to the bicolor cream and pink flowers of ‘Strawberries and Cream’ with a whole spectrum of red, gold, yellow, and purple in the mix.  They’re such valuable plants for extending the growing season and the more I experience them the more I like them!

Q. New is always featured on catalog covers, or shouted out other ways; we all want to score the next great thing. But as Broken Arrow’s website says, you also continue to grow “older, time-tested plants,” as do I. What are some oldies that you can’t imagine gardening without, as familiar as they are? Any that Broken Arrow in particular has snatched out of near-obscurity to keep in the market?

A.  We absolutely enjoy garden classics and find that a big percentage of the “new” plants we offer to our customers are simply “older” plants that have been lost to cultivation or never made it to main stream.  One of my personal favorites is the weeping Japanese Larch, Larix kaempferi ‘Pendula’.  A striking, strongly pendulous cultivar that has so many unique uses in the landscape.  Plants can be allowed to sprawl on the ground or cascade over retaining walls.  With a little training they can be turned into distinct, architectural specimens or persuaded onto a trellis or pergola for added accent.  I’ve even seen it utilized as a mock, living hand railing adjacent to a set of stone steps.  We have a magnificent 45-year-old weeping treasure in our display gardens which constantly gets the “what’s that” comment from our customers.

Another standout is the shrubby specimen Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea,’ (golden wafer ash).  Plants sport brilliant golden-yellow three-lobed leaves and perform admirably in sunny or part shade exposures.  The plant itself was discovered in England in the late 1800’s yet was largely lost to cultivation.  It took us about 10 years worth of chasing to track down a plant and figure out a successful propagation protocol.  Fortunately, we’ve worked it out and are delighted to have it available.

Q. I preach the power of foliage on A Way to Garden, and I know Broken Arrow does, too, loud and clear. But colored foliage can make some gardeners nervous.  Any advice on how to anchor it in the garden or otherwise use it with confidence?

A.  We are absolutely huge fans of foliage in the garden and always navigate toward plants that boast uniquely colored greenery. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t garden without flowers, but prefer to think of them as fireworks in the display or the magnificent sparks of color that last for a brief period and then dissipate.  Foliage on the other hand is capable of drawing interest for much longer periods of time and capable of creating so much drama on its own. It really is the structure and the backdrop from which we “paint” our own gardens.

Colored foliage is a great tool to influence the mood or our feelings as we walk the garden path. Bright colors (yellow, gold, white) and bold textures always add excitement to the display.  They draw the eye and can brighten shadowy corners. In contrast the deeper colors like burgundy, purple seem to add a calming, relaxing feeling, a sense of serenity. When utilizing foliage I always try to envision the mood I hope to create from a given space and find that this helps narrow the selection process.

Q. Speaking of making people nervous: variegated plants really can! You’ve told me that there is “good variegation” and “not-so-good variegation.” Care to elaborate, and turn our attention to some really good examples we need to grow?

A.  The diversity of variegated foliage plants out and about these days is amazing and the value they can add to the garden is equally impressive.  Many of these plants are awesome in the garden, displaying strong growth, valuable foliage coloration that remains attractive throughout the season with good landscape durability.  Others fit the “not-so-good” category and in reality are nothing more than collector curiosities.  Though interesting to some, many of the plants that fall in this group show less than striking foliage coloration, poor garden performance and a tendency to burn up with the heat of summer

Also, when using variegated plants in the garden it can be important to remember that in many cases a little can go a long way.  When overused the visual display can certainly appear busy, overpowering or confusing.

One of my all-time favorite variegated plants is Aralia elata ‘Silver Umbrella’ (above).  This flamboyant specimen is one you won’t soon forget with its tropical looking compound leaves, billowy cloud-like flowers and abundant blue-black fruit.  When people see this plant used to is potential is will stop them in their tracks.

Another must-have variegated plant on my list would be Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘White Surprise’.  A fine blue mist shrub with bold white edged leaves that serve as the perfect stage for summer’s deep blue flowers.

Q. Broken Arrow loves hydrangeas—but not exactly the way that mainstream America does, where the big, obvious blue-flowered moptops or H. macrophylla are ubiquitous at the expense of other types. What hydrangeas do you think more American gardeners ought to discover, and why?

A. I’m a big fan of hydrangeas, especially species and cultivars that offer multi-season interest and go far beyond the oversized, one dimensional, mop-head flowers typically associated with the group.  Hydrangea aspera (above) has captivated my attention and I often comment that I would grow this plant even if it didn’t flower.  The large, felted leaves are amazing for texture throughout the growing season and the exfoliating cinnamon stems are also valuable in the dormant garden.   For me, summer’s lavender-mauve lacecap flowers are the icing on the cake.

The climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomola ssp. petiolaris) is also a choice species.  This durable vine is such an asset in the garden and can be used like a groundcover, perched on a trellis or allowed to climb the trunk of a tree.  The white lacecap flowers are always dramatic and several of the new variegated cultivars like ‘Kuga Variegated’ and ‘Sutter’s Mill’ show promise for adding color throughout the growing season!

Q. Broken Arrow’s founder and owner, Dick Jaynes, has been called “the godfather of mountain laurel” (Kalmia, bottom right image in top-of-page collage), and even wrote the classic book on the genus (and has a variety named for him!). Confession: Mountain laurels grow wild here—but I’ve never really worked them into the garden. Help me with Kalmia.

A.  Dick is certainly “Mr. Mountain Laurel” and has been working with the group for more than 50 years.  Over the course of his career he has re-defined the ornamental value of this fine native, introduced more than 30 unique cultivars and established one of the most comprehensive collections in the world on the grounds of the nursery [including these in the catalog].

In the garden we value this species for its handsome evergreen foliage, mounded habit (when grown in full sun) and breathtaking floral display.  In some shade plants can become more open and the stem structure can develop an attractive sculpted presence with age.   We find that plants can be blended nicely into mixed shrub borders, open woodland gardens or integrated into a foundation planting.

Though he has spent decades working with the plant, Dick is quick to admit that mountain laurel can be a challenge to grow successfully in the garden.  A few keys to success include selecting an acidic, evenly moist, freely draining environment.  Plants will always flower best in bright sunny locations yet require some protection from excess wind exposure, especially during winter.  When planting, the depth is critical.  It’s always best to plant on the high side rather than too deeply.  Most who are able to cultivate blueberries and rhododendrons with success find that mountain laurel is a welcome companion in their gardens.

Q. Speaking of native plants like the Kalmia, I see that the Broken Arrow perennials department also has some showy forms of U.S. natives. Anything there that just is too good to pass up (I already have my eye on a cultivar of baneberry with blue-green foliage). Tell us what it is you’re looking for when you look for “better” natives when you’re out hunting.

A. Natives have certainly become a cornerstone of our plant inventory and we find that our customer base really appreciates this.  When we look at different plants to grow we largely consider ornamental value and general availability.  As we dig deeper, we’ve simply found that a huge chunk of our native species have amazing ornamental potential and have been largely underutilized in gardens.  As a result, the decision to grow plants like the blue-green foliage form of baneberry (Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’) becomes a no brainer.  It’s simply an excellent landscape plant that just happens to be a selection of our northeast native species!

Carl Galanter, our Perennial Manager, determines the majority of our herbaceous plant product mix.  A few classic standouts that we’ve long loved include the elegant maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), which adds amazing texture and grace to the woodland garden or blue cohosh (Caulophylum thalictroides, above) whose plum-gray emerging foliage, creamy-white star-shaped flowers and marble-sized blue fruit simply can’t be ignored.  Similarly, the double bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’) is about impossible to walk by when its pom-pom, fully double flowers are on display in the spring landscape.

Q. I was lucky 20-plus years ago that a nearby nurseryman, Dennis Mareb at Windy Hill, turned me on to a magnolia that bloomed a little later than others like it, sparing the flowers from late-frost damage here. Thanks to his tip, I’ve never missed a year with Magnolia loebneri ‘Ballerina.’ So do you have some magnolia varieties to recommend for such special reasons?

A. Absolutely, we love magnolias and have a collection of more than 100 on the property.  Some I wouldn’t be without include:

Magnolia x ‘Fran Smith’ – A little-known magnolia [top right of collage at top of page], ‘Fran Smith’ has remained about as hard to find as a chicken with teeth. Each leaf is boldly variegated with cream and white splashes providing an eye-catching and irresistible display throughout the growing season. The foliage pattern is relatively stable and holds up much better than other variegated magnolia’s in sunny exposures.  Cream-white flowers add seasonal appeal prior to leaf emergence.

Magnolia ashei – Ashe magnolia (above, in fruit) is a fascinating small tree or large multi-stemmed shrub boasting dramatic tropical looking 15-20-inch leaves and equally impressive 12-15-inch sweetly fragrant, creamy-white flowers. The overall effect is truly striking and looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park! Fist-sized, rose-pink fruit appear in fall providing additional ornamental appeal.

Magnolia x ‘Milliken’ – A unique compact selection, ‘Milliken’ was found as a branch mutation near Rhinebeck, New York. Mature plants are much smaller than typical magnolias reaching only 8-10 feet in height with short internodes and a rounded outline. In spring they flower profusely with 6-inch standard-sized, whitish-pink flowers that appear before the foliage.

Q. I’m especially interested in creating bird-friendly bio-hedges (not sure if that’s what they’re really called—but you get the idea, mixed plantings of food and shelter for birds). I used a lot of holly and viburnum of course…but help me stretch my palette.

A.  Certainly there is a big trend in bringing nature into the garden.  A few worthy, out of the ordinary considerations on my list would include:

Cornus racemosa Gray dogwood is a wonderful, underutilized native shrub that assumes a strong, multi-stemmed, suckering habit of upright, distinctly gray stems reaching 8-12’ tall when mature.  Deep green foliage cloaks the branches and transitions to purple and burgundy tones in autumn.  Creamy-white flower clusters are born in early June literally engulfing the plants, lending a cloud-like appearance from a distance.  Flowers transition to handsome, white, single seeded fruits which are quickly stripped by numerous bird species.  After the fruits disappear, bright, reddish-pink fruit stalks persist, leaving the plants in a magical haze deep into autumn.  An excellent plant for naturalizing, borders, massing and attracting wildlife.

Prunus maritima – Beach plum is a noteworthy, suckering, deciduous shrub native to rocky, well-drained coastal regions from New Brunswick to Virginia.  The ½- to 1-inch white flowers appear in May and are followed by clusters of 1-inch dull-purple plums.  Fruit ripen in August and are frequently used in jams and jellies.  Plants are easily transplanted and are valued for their adaptability to dry sites and areas with high salt levels.

Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush blueberry is another outstanding, long-lived native shrub found throughout eastern North America.  Plants develop white to pink urn-shaped flowers in May, just as the leaves are unfolding.  The flowers are followed by large crops of blueberries which make a great snack if you’re lucky enough to beat the birds!  In fall, dark green leaves turn to yellow, bronze, orange and red and often retain their coloration for several weeks.  Plants mature 6-12 feet in height and frequently take on unique architectural forms with age.

Mahonia bealei Leatherleaf Mahonia is a coarse-textured, evergreen shrub developing into an irregular mound of thick, spiny margined bluish-gray foliage.  Individual leaves are up to 1 foot long giving a unique tropical appearance.  In late winter, plants are cloaked with large panicles of fragrant, golden yellow flowers which mature into crops of grape-sized, blue fruit.

Q. Any must garden stops from your many travels we shouldn’t miss if we’re in their neighborhood? Give us a fast itinerary of gardens that have inspired you.

A.  There are so many amazing gardens out there and so many wonderful plants tucked away, begging to be discovered.  A few absolute favorites would include:

Q. Are there online places you find yourself browsing for inspiration or
 reference—whether some institution, society, wholesaler, or a blog or photo site?

A.  Lots….the web is such a great resource for finding out “stuff.”  Usually the search engines are king for me but I often check in with the following:

Your blog has also been a repeat source for inspiration!

Q. You must have a great library. Can you recommend any
 favorites you wouldn’t be without—whether specialty or reference ones, and also your favorite general garden book of all?

A. I read like a mad man and have a substantial collection of books.  A few faves that sit in the collection above my desk would include:
The Passion for Gardening” by Ken Druse; “The Explorer’s Garden; Shrubs and Vines from the Four Corners of the World” by Daniel J. Hinkley; “Hydrangeas for American Gardens” – Dr. Michael Dirr; “Witch Hazels” – Chris Lane; “The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation” – Dirr and Heuser; “Willow: The Genus Salix” – Christopher Newsholme; “How To Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins 3” – Don Langevin. My Favorite general garden book = “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” – Dr. Michael Dirr.

(photos of blue cohosh and variegated aralia by Margaret Roach; others used with permission from Broken Arrow and Adam Wheeler.)

How to Win the Gift Certificates

I‘VE PURCHASED TWO $25 gift certificates from Broken Arrow Nursery to share with you. To enter to win, all you have to do is comment below, answering the question:

What plant are you hunting for at the moment, the way Adam has hunted down all of the goodies mentioned here. What’s your current quest for your garden? (Me: More bird-friendly fruiting things; more graceful conifers that don’t get too, too big.)

Regulars here know I’ll accept, “Count me in,” or “I want to enter” if you’re feeling shy–but it would be so much more fun if you shared a bit more! I’ll select two random winners after entries close at midnight on Sunday, March 18. Good luck to all!

(A special note: Broken Arrow will hold plant sales my garden on some of my Garden Conservancy Open Days, including May 12 and August 18. More on my events page.)

Other Recent Expert Q&As and Articles:

  1. Lynn Cavo says:

    I share Adam’s passion for witch hazels: color and fragrance in winter is such a winsome combination. I will visit BA to see ‘Aphrodite’ for myself. And many, many other things not on my list that I covet once I wander around that magical place. Lynn

  2. Jan C. says:

    I had to control my plant buying by setting limitations on myself. So I really try to only plant things that provide food or habitat for birds or pollinators. Right now trying to find Ilex decidua. (male and female)

  3. Carol says:

    Oh, lovely opportunity! Thank you! I need a rather narrow shrub, to help screen a view. It will be in sandy soil, zone 5b, with barely 5 hours of sun. And of course, i would like some fragrance!

  4. Sarah says:

    My current garden quest is to find a spot to plant some Rose of Sharon seeds my uncle just passed along to me. I’ve never grown these before, but I’m excited to try!

  5. Lauren says:

    I’m looking for shade plants to fill in under a giant western red cedar. Epimediums, ferns, and any other U.S. natives that would work in the Pacific NW.

  6. joene says:

    I plan to visit Broken Arrow this spring in search of deer-resistant native shrubs. Winning one of these gift certificates would be great.

    Wonderful interview, Margaret. Thanks.

  7. Deborah says:

    I’m presently wanting to add a couple of fruit trees to the orchard area and disguise some buildings with pretty shrubs. Thanks for the giveaway and your wonderful blog! It helps keep me anchored when I begin to feel overwhelmed with quite how much needs doing in the garden!

  8. Joyce says:

    I dream of having a hellebore collection one day, but right now I am on a search for tall (15 feet) winter hardy (zone 5b) clematis vines and a few gooseberry bushes!

  9. Grandmama says:

    Our garden and landscaped areas are pretty full but I always find myself falling for new plants/shrubs/trees every year. Now I’m starting to carve out a woodland trail near our stream and pond. So my next focus wil be on pussy willows, witch hazels and more wonderful viburnums. Margaret, you are an enabler to plant addicts with your great sources!!

  10. Denise says:

    I am looking for a yellow flowering magnolia that stays relatively small. I am also on the look out for trees/shrubs with fragrant blooms. Witch hazels are nice, so is prunus mume varieties that flower in the winter or early spring. I grew up in the subtropics where fragrant flowers are everywhere. They might not survive the new england climate that I am in now…

  11. Rachel J says:

    I’m hunting for some really interesting natives. I recently ordered a bare root uvularia grandiflora, and I can’t wait to see that in bloom in the garden (hopefully next year?). I have no garden of my own right now, but am volunteering in a local native habitat garden and have a willing family that allows/encourages me to go wild gardening in their yards. So, maybe my real quest is for a garden of my own.

  12. Melissa says:

    I’m looking for something for my driveway garden. I have a TON of things coming in the mail, but I feel like I need a little height thrown in there. It’s on a treacherous slope and it’s all weeded and ready to go. I’m going with a chartreuse and black (burgundy) type feel. So, anything high contrast that will survive on a clay slope. I’m not asking much though…

  13. Patrick Smith says:

    Because of limited space in this suburban yard, I’m always looking for fastigiate, narrow forms of native trees, like oaks, and conifers. In my dream of dreams I’d like to find monoecious Ilex Opaca, Chionanthus, Asiminia tri… – oh Broken Arrow has that last one!

  14. Cheryl says:

    creating a new “living screen” this year on the edge near the road, on the lookout for great hollies and smaller evergreens to work some magic there. Love variegated foliage too, but it must be stable or I get very frustrated

  15. plantingoaks says:

    I would say my most challenging current quest is to find ferns that are adapted to our local conditions: a.k.a. limestone, dry summers, cold winters. I’ve pegged some likely species, but most aren’t common in trade. I’m also keen to try more martagon lilies, and a davidia involucrata tree.

  16. Andrew Keys says:

    OK, I’m not actually not entering to win, I’m just commenting for the sake of commenting to say the meeting of Margaret and Broken Arrow is one I’ve been back to reread parts of a few times now. (It’s a good thing Broken Arrow is a day trip from where I live or I’d probably pitch a tent there among the Kalmia.)

  17. Laura W says:

    I’ve been searching locally for an Ilex pedunculosa. Looks like I may need to make the long overdue field trip to Broken Arrow…better take the smaller vehicle to be safe from overbuying!

  18. Tonna McDowell says:

    I am looking for more perennials/small shrubs/small trees with fragrance that bloom in the spring. Having a smaller front and back yard, I have to choose carefully!

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