go ahead, we dare you: widen your plant palette, with andy brand

VARIOUS ZEN MASTERS call it beginner’s mind, the state of being free from preconceived views and willing to learn—a state they encourage us to cultivate, though it can be disconcerting. Sometimes we’re thrown into that not-knowing mind by a change in circumstances. Like when Andy Brand, one of the most plant savvy people I know, moved to a new job, a new garden and a new state, and suddenly met a lot of unknown plants.

I asked Andy to use his recent experience to inspire all of us to dare to open up to a wider plant palette, too, whether by necessity or just for fun, and where to look for inspiration. He’s even just started using a hashtag on social media, #somanyplantstolearn, to celebrate the unknowns.

Andy Brand was long-time nursery manager at Broken Arrow rare plant nursery in Connecticut until he moved to Maine and became plant curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Since then, he’s been on a steep learning curve, getting acquainted with exciting new plants in the garden’s collections (like feathery Ptilotus, above; photo by Andy Brand) and in the surrounding wild landscape.

Read along as you listen to the Sept. 10, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

discovering new-to-you plants, with andy brand



Q. Welcome, Andy. I miss you.

A. I know. It’s been so long.

Q. Where are you? [Laughter.] Where’s my pal to look at butterflies and birds and weird plants?

A. Still here. It’s just a few miles more away.

Q. So your new job and the new place: Maybe give us sort of a short … You know, people may not have visited Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, so give us a little bit about that. And you’re the plant curator; what are you doing?

A. Yes. So the botanical gardens are located in Boothbay, Maine—mid-coast Maine, as probably more people may be familiar with. So from my old stomping grounds, about five hours up the major highway. It’s been in existence since 2007.

We just celebrated 10 years last year, which was very exciting. And we have a brand new visitor center that was put in this year and just opened, and a really beautiful butterfly house, which is right up my alley.

Q. Yes.

A. It was started this year. There are roughly 17 to 18 acres of gardens for people to come and enjoy and walk through, as well as trails through the Maine woods and along a coastal river.

Q. Sounds pretty good.

A. There all kinds of things to see. Yes, it’s pretty nice.

Q. Sounds pretty good…but uh-oh [laughter], you’re out of your comfort zone.

A. I am. You know, I’ve spent most of my life doing plant production and growing plants and trees and shrubs and perennials. And now I’m surrounded by gardens full of not just trees and shrubs and perennials, but thousands of different types of annuals that are so new to me, and other plants that I’ve never seen before—which is just a lot of fun.

Q. And like I said in the introduction, whether someone has moved or not, I feel like maybe it’s good for us all to sort of cultivate this beginner’s mind, you know? Like to go ahead and let new information come in and see with fresh eyes, and not just the same old, same old in our gardens.

A. Oh definitely. I think it kind of reinvigorates you. At least for me, that’s what I’ve felt has happened in the past. I started here this March, and have just a whole new zest for gardens and gardening. You see different plant combinations and it just kind of draws you in to look closer, and look at the plants. Now with the internet and everything, you Google this and then that takes you one step further, and you just keep going deeper and deeper.

Q. Yes, they’re rabbit hole as I call it.

A. Exactly.

Q. And social media, a lot of times you’re posting pictures you’ve taken. We can talk about how you take the pictures a little bit later. You even have a hashtag, #somanyplantstolearn, which I love. Isn’t that the truth, no matter whether we’re beginners or advanced?

A. It is. Oh yes, it doesn’t matter. You know, I considered my plant knowledge pretty good, but moving up here it’s a whole new ballgame.

Q. I’ve been seeing lots of sort of new-to-you discoveries like you just said, annuals—and we can talk about some of those. But it’s not even just plants that are different. You are a butterfly lover, and I mean—birds. Is it even the same birds that you are used to?

A. Similar birds, but to see birds that I used to see in Connecticut only in the wintertime—here they are year-round. Like dark-eyed juncos are everywhere throughout the summer, under your feet. Hermit thrushes singing all summer long, which is just one of the most beautiful bird songs you can imagine.

Q. It certainly is. And you didn’t have that in Connecticut?

A. We would periodically get them, but not every week. When you come into work and that’s what you hear when you get out of your car is the hermit thrush singing…

Q. Cool. Yes. And you probably have sea gulls.

A. Sea gulls, yes. This is the first time I’ve worked at a place where instead of robins going over or swallows and things, seagulls are going over calling. It’s really quite wonderful.

Q. To get oriented in your new space, or again for those of us who are in our old space but want to look a little more closely and get oriented, what kinds of tools are you using? For instance, for the wild and native stuff and the insects and birds, what are you using? Any apps or books?

A. Yes. I’ve started to use more apps, which just talking to people they’ve introduced me to, and the internet. One site that’s great especially for insects is called BugGuide.

Q. Oh I love it, BugGuide.net. Yes.

A. You take a picture of something and you don’t know what it is, you submit it to BugGuide and there are hundreds of experts on there that are always going through it, and they’ll identify it for you. [More on how to use BugGuide.]

Q. It’s funny you mentioned that, because this morning an organic farmer down the road from me, a young couple, they texted me a picture and they said, “Who is this?” It was a caterpillar [above]. It had a horn, kind of like tobacco hornworm—an orange horn on one end—but the spots, the body markings were totally not right, but it was that kind of a chunky, fat, green thing. I looked in my David Wagner caterpillar guide book—I bet you’ve had yours out, right?

A. It’s one of the best, if not the best for this area of the U.S.

Q. Yes. So, I’m looking, and I’m looking, and it’s not in there. So, what I figured is it’s a different age of one of the caterpillars.

A. It could be a younger one or something.

Q. So what I did was I posted it on BugGuide, and by the time I came back to my desk not too long later, one of the wonderful volunteers had told me it was a white-lined sphinx moth, a hummingbird sphinx sometimes they call them.

A. A white-lined. Very nice, yes.

Q. And when I told them, my farmer neighbor said, “It was eating purslane, Margaret. And that’s what it says in the description, that it eats purslane, on BugGuide.” Like, how great is that when- [laughter].

A. That is neat. It’s funny you mentioned white-lined sphinx because I have a couple right now in a little jar that we found in the butterfly house here that we have, and they are eating an annual called Pentas.

Q. Pentas. Right, right. How interesting.

A. Yes.

Q. All right. So see there we are, we’re still connected, Andy.

A. I was introduced to an app called Leps by Fieldguide—”Leps” for Lepidoptera. So it’s all moth and butterfly identification, and it is an amazing app. You take a picture of a moth that you see on maybe the side of your house when you’re going in at night under the porch light. You go to this app, you put the picture on there, and it thinks for a minute and then gives you the identification for it.

Q. You’re kidding.

A. No. And up to now, every single one has been spot on for me as far as-

Q. Wow.

A. Yes, it’s incredible.

Q. A lot of people when I do the moth nights in my state park—you know that I host them with expert guides, of course, I’m not the guide, because I haven’t gotten my entomology degree, Andy, since we’ve been separated. [Laughter.] But we’ve been using iNaturalist.

A. Oh yes, that’s great. I love that, too.

Q. It knows weedy roadside weeds, it knows native plants, it seems to know insects, animals. It knows a lot of different things; it seems to. And that’s another sort of citizen-science thing so that’s kind of cool, too.

So you’ve had your guidebooks out, you’re using the Leps app.

A. I have. Yes, I’ve got all my guidebooks out, not just insects, but also plant guide books just to remind myself of what some of the more Northern plants up here look like that in Connecticut I would only see once in a while, if I got to the very northern parts of the state. You know, here for instance, Cornus canadensis.

Q. Bunchberry, huh?

A. Bunchberry is everywhere as a ground cover, where in Connecticut, it really didn’t appreciate our hot summers down where I was in south central Connecticut.

Q. That’s a beautiful plant. I never was able to really grow it, so I couldn’t make it happy, but the places I’ve seen it in the wild, boy, it’s just beautiful.

A. It is.

Q. It’s a dogwood relative. I mean, Cornus, yes?

A. Yes. They’ve changed the genus now.

Q. That’s what I thought. Right, right. It was Cornus canadensis, but I can’t remember what it is now, so don’t give me any quizzes [laughter]. [Update: A newer synonym for its Latin name is Chamaepericlymenum canadense, but Cornus canadensis remains the primary accepted name.]

A. You know, it’s one of those plants that I just always coveted in Connecticut when I would see it, just like oh, beautiful. And now I see it everywhere. It’s still when you see it, at least when I see it, it puts a smile on my face. You see the red berries now. It’s so wonderful to see that plant now everywhere.

Q. Yes. And earlier in the season, it has the white, dogwood-like flowers.

A. Yes, looks like typical Cornus florida flowers, 6 inches off the ground.

Q. You mentioned before about your former job at Broken Arrow, and I sort of think of you as like a cutting-edge especially woody plant and new perennials person who always knew the latest variegated or gold-leaf or maroon-leaf version of some plant. Because you guys were always either introducing or getting access to the newest things.

But on you Instagram now, which is how I keep an eye on you from a distance [laughter], I’m seeing all kinds of other things like crazy annuals. In Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, you use annuals?

A. We use lots of annuals. You know, not just your coleus and zinnias, things that people are familiar with and what I was familiar with, mainly, were those types of things. But all kinds of incredible succulents [above] and annual grasses and things with amazing different-colored foliage plants.

They just keep drawing me in, so I just keep taking picture after picture, and I just love sharing it with people. The different combinations that the gardeners here use and put together are just really incredible. The colors and the textures, they work together very, very nicely.

Q. I don’t even know how to pronounce some of them. There’s one, I don’t know, it starts with a P-T-I-L-O-T-U-S, it’s like, Ptilotus or- [Photo, top of page, wth Centaurea ‘Gloucester White.’]

A. Ptilotus, yes, ‘Joey.’

Q. ‘Joey,’ is that an amaranth relative or something?

A. The flower looks a little bit like that; it’s this beautiful, triangular-shaped, terminal cluster of feathery, pink flowers. It’s very soft. It draws you in, you want to touch it and look at it, and it’s just wonderful mixed with silver-foliage plants. Everybody was going crazy for it when they walked around—the visitors in the garden this year when they saw it.

Q. I had never seen it. I didn’t know it. So where do they find things like that? So, again, if we’re going to widen our palate even if we’re not relocating, where are they looking for those types? It’s not the local garden center.

A. Yes, not usually local garden centers, but a lot of things you can find seed sources online that sells seeds of not the traditional annuals but more unusual and obscure types of annuals. We get a lot of annuals from a really great wholesale nursery down on North Fork of Long Island, Landcraft Environments.

Q. Oh, yes.

A. Bill and Dennis down there, they do a fantastic job of finished products like a 1-gallon or quart-sized plant. They have so many different things, you go through their catalog and I have to Google almost every genus because I don’t know what it is. That’s what I’ve been doing up here, just spending a lot of time just trying to put these plants into my brain and learn them so I can be more familiar, and as I’m talking with visitors be more knowledgeable about the plants and how they grow.

Q. That’s a good one. Landcraft, Dennis Schrader. That’s something as you said that is wholesale, so we can’t order, but I feel like it’s like an encyclopedia of tropicals, subtropicals, annuals, whatever we want to call-

A. Yes, “temperennials” they call them sometimes.

Q. Right, they call them temperennials, right. [Laughter.]

A. Sometimes a lot of these wholesale growers, a homeowner can call them and just say, “I live outside the Philadelphia area, can you give me the name of the nurseries, the garden centers that you sell your plants to?”

Q. Yes.

A. A lot of times they will, then you can find those garden centers that are selling some of the more obscure annuals. So that’s always a good thing to do.

Q. And like you said also, I frequently will read the Landcraft catalog, and again, it’s accessible to anyone online, you don’t have to be in the trade or have an account. And similarly, places that grow “liners,” like little baby plants, for landscapers and nurseries like, I think, Hoffman Nursery [ornamental and native grass specialists], and North Creek, I think.

A. North Creek if you’re looking for plants of native perennials and things, they’re fantastic. Peace Tree Farm is one. I think they’re outside Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania area. They are great for annuals.

Q. Yes. It’s almost like these are virtual reference books. And again, you can’t shop from them, but then you can, like you said, either ask your local supplier, “Can you get this for me?” And sometimes it is, “Oh sure, as long as you’ll buy a whole flat of it, I’ll put it on my order.” They’ll mark it up, they’re going to charge you retail, but that’s fine.

Or sometimes, like you said, you can find seed of the thing if it’s not something that takes like three years to bloom or whatever.

A. Yes, exactly. And then if you get the plant, some of these annuals that I’ve been finding out are seeding in the gardens on their own. Now once you get it, you may have too much of a good thing sometimes.

The hot plant right now is a Euphorbia in the garden called Euphorbia marginata, snow on the mountain.

Q. Oh.

A. It’s incredibly 3-foot-tall, the tops covered with variegated green and white foliage that is just absolutely spectacular. Every visitor is, “What is that, what is that?”

Q. You had one not long ago on your Instagram, Eastern featherbells. [Above, photo by Andy Brand.]

A. Right. That’s a native plant.

Q. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never heard it, Stenanthium. Is that what it is?

A. Stenanthium gramineum. Yes, that’s Eastern featherbells. It’s native more to, I believe, the southeastern part of the United States. You know, this big, mounding, grass-like foliage comes up maybe 15 to 20 inches tall, and then these big stalks come up with this frothy, white plumes of flowers that are just spectacular. You get this mass planting of it, and it’s just gorgeous.

Q. How tall is that when it’s in bloom?

A. I would say in bloom, the flowers could be up 4 feet.

Q. Wow. Because it’s really distinctive. Wow.

A. It is. That was one of those plants as we talked about earlier that I had never seen before coming up here. It just like pulled me right in. It’s like, cool, a new plant.

Q. There we go again: put it on the list.

A. Exactly.

Q. As I used to say: admire to acquire. Right? First you admire, then you acquire. [Laughter.]

A. Yes. You know, that’s one of those plants that it’s frustrating because you’re probably not going to find it in the trade because I’ve been told it’s tough from seed, and it takes such a long period of time to get it to flower most growers are not going to be bothered with it. So, that’s one of those specialty-nursery places that you’re going to have to find it and be patient. [One source for Stenanthium.]

Q. Yes. Mountain mints. When we chatted before taping this show, you mentioned that you sort had the “aha.” But mountain mints, I only know a couple of them. Pycnanthemum, right?

A. Yes, Pycnanthemum. Incredible. If you’re into pollinators and honey bees and your local bumble bees and pollinators, any of the mountain mints are going to be a sure thing. We’ve got four or five different species here at the gardens, and probably the most popular ones right now with both the pollinators and visitors is Pycanathemum muticum. [Photo above by SB Johnny from Wikimedia.]

It has this silvery cast to the foliage and its tiny little flowers. But in the morning when it’s warm and we don’t have visitors and no trucks, you can just hear it, and the buzz of the bees is overwhelming.

Q. Right, and other ones too. Does that have the certain silver – are they bracts or something? I don’t know what they are.

A. Yes, silvery.

Q. Yes.

A. But there are some with thin foliage, some with very hairy foliage. Pycnanthemum pilosum is one. The little flowers of these, they’re just covered with little purple spots if you see them up close. And if you crush the foliage, it has a really nice minty aroma to it.

Q. I mean, generally, the mints and in addition the sort of aster-daisy-composite relatives, but the mints are another one that are really always good with pollinators. People will have noticed that in their gardens, even with a cultivated spearmint or peppermint, if it goes to flower.

A. You know, the catnips, any of the nepetas, calaminthas, all of those. You know, the flowers are tiny, but they flower all summer long, which is really important.

You know, you need to keep providing that nectar and pollen to the various insects.

Q. So I said earlier on, I wanted to just take a minute or two that we have left: You take these closeup photos and over the last couple few years I’ve noticed your photos just keep getting better and better. So of course, I thought Andy finally spent thousands of dollars on a groovy camera, you know?

A. [Laughter.]

Q. But you didn’t.

A. Nope, it’s my trusty old iPhone.

Q. I can’t believe that. So, what are you doing?

A. Yes, I see something that catches my eye and I’ve learned when you go to your phone, you put your thumb on what you want to focus on. And then just with your fingers on the screen, you kind of pinch them together and a bar at the bottom shows up that you can slide. It’s a zoom bar, and it zooms in on that square. Then, hold your thumb on the particular area you want in focus, and the square will flash, and it freezes the focus.

Q. I never got that far.

A. I shake when I hold my phone so I need that.

Q. Me, too.

A. Then, press the little circle and-

Q. Kaboom.

A. Yep. And then the nice thing is, if it doesn’t look good, you take another one, you take another one. Sometimes you take five or six photos until you get one that looks good, the lighting is just right. You know, they’re not going be ones you’re going to make beautiful prints of and put on your wall, but for Instagram or for the computer, Facebook, that type of thing, it works great.

Q. Are you making a garden at home, at your new home?

A. I am, slowly. Right now they’re all kind of just heeled in, in a bed. Actually some, I hate to admit, are still in my driveway. [Laughter.]

Q. That’s O.K.. It happens to the best of us. But you’re going to come back and tell me about that when the time comes.

A. Oh, yes. And some are still in Connecticut that need to be dug.  Maybe next spring.

Q. Well, I’m so glad to catch up a little bit.

A. I know, it’s been fun.

Q. I hope we won’t let too long go by. Thanks for sort of encouraging us, you know, to have again that sort of beginner’s mind—like be plant explorers even if we’re in the same old place, you know?

A. Definitely.

Q. Good idea.

A. It’s fun.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Sept. 10, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Bill says:

    Margaret, I did not get the email this morning. I had to search for your pod cast and the written version.
    Is Bill Cullina still heading up Coastal Maine Garden? Several years ago I was up in Boothbay Harbor say;ing with a grandson in miserable weather, but the wind blew every day. A group of us went down to the garden one evening as they were closing, but they did let us look around for a while. Tommy and I went back the next day and spent more time. What a marvelous garden. Enjoyed the podcast.

  2. Becky says:

    I was excited to read about the Euphorbia Marginata because I am growing it and really love it. I bought a few plants last summer and made sure to scatter the seeds well. I have a great crop this year and it transplanted we’ll. It really makes a lovely background and I am excited to spread it around in new areas for next year.

  3. yes, the funnest thing about owning a nursery is trying out plants that you didn’t know. Sometimes they make great finds and sometimes its disappointing. But it’s very fun to watch them grow either way. Next fun thing is seeing and learning about moths, caterpillars, different bees & wasps and birds. Its a wonderful world.

  4. Betty Hamilton says:

    The Maine Coastal Botanical Garden is wonderful. My daughter & I visited in 2017 when Mainers were invited to visit the garden on Mother’s day. It was free for about 3 days to the people of Maine. Shuttle buses moved visitors about. There was so many surprises to view and volunteers to tell about exhibits. The children’s area was fantastic with small buildings, a pond with a Dory and activities for children to explore. A wonderful day in a beautiful Maine garden. It is so worth your time to visit.

  5. Debbie from Michigan says:

    I savor checking in with your newsletters. Every single time I learn so many neat things and it’s great stress relief!

  6. Jane says:

    I am retired and love recommendations for nurseries and gardens to visit on driving trips in new areas so doubly appreciate hearing about Maine Coastal Botanical Garden and specialty nurseries in the area. Specialty nursery names are very difficult to find.

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