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Flower Towers, Supertrees and Shepherd’s Hooks

My wife and I just got back from an Alaska trip, and we started out by spending several days in Juneau, staying on the north end of town and renting a car to visit some of the parks. An advantage to this is that you can get to places early, before the tour buses arrive, or go to places where there just aren’t a lot of people in general.

Being interested in gardens, we spent a couple of hours at Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, arriving just after it opened on a Sunday morning.

This was well worth the stop.  It’s a 50 acre combination of horticultural garden and natural forest. Part of the admission includes a guided drive on golf carts to the top of a low mountain, through temperate rainforest, to a viewpoint. We were lucky enough to get on a small golf cart with just a guide and another family.  This gave us a chance to see and photograph the understory plants in the forest, and also gave me a chance to ask lots of questions.  By the time we got down, the first tour buses were coming in and larger carts were headed up the mountain.

A feature of the gardens is a flower display style which they call the Upside-down Flower Towers. They take the trunk of a felled Sitka spruce or western hemlock, turn it upside down and insert it into the ground, and use the roots as a platform for planting. Better description here.

They are quite nice, and I’m sure if Alfred Millard from Behnke’s had ever seen one, we would have tried something like that in the middle of the perennial sales area. (Alfred and I actually retrieved a tree trunk from a construction site and “planted it” in the perennial area, but never finished the project. It was right-side up, though.)

A second “right-side up” Alfred tree resided for a number of years in our houseplant greenhouse at Beltsville, serving as a display prop for large hanging baskets.  That one is still in place.

I stopped by today and it was about the only thing remaining in the greenhouse.  It’s not rot-resistant like the Glacier Garden spruces are, and we didn’t feel comfortable putting it up for sale at the auction so it remains.

This put me in mind of the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

These have a similar form to the above trees in Glacier Gardens, but on a massive scale, complete with aerial walkways and light displays.

When I saw them in 2012, they were still under construction, giant metal “trees” being lined with tropical plants to serve as huge living walls.

Not a great fan of these, but they are just part of a large garden complex that has some amazing sites.

So, I started thinking. If I wanted a focal point in my garden that had a similar form on a smaller scale, and I wanted something easy, how would I go about doing it?

What I came up with was using shepherd’s hooks. Take three tall shepherd’s hooks and place them in a triangle pattern about a foot or two apart so that the plants get adequate light on all sides. (see update to the use of shepherd’s hooks at bottom of this post).

Place a hanging basket on each. Use baskets that give you a full look, like petunias (sun) or Boston fern (shade), and they should be large baskets, ten-inch or twelve-inch diameter. You can adjust the spacing by moving the feet of the shepherd’s hook closer together/further apart, depending on how full the plants are. You could also experiment with groups of shepherd’s hooks at various heights.

Remember that as the season progresses, the hanging baskets need water more often, and by late summer, some of your plants will have outgrown their containers. If so, you can cut them back and plant them out in the ground to enjoy until fall. It’s almost September and my Boston Fern hanging basket still looks lush, but baskets intended for sunny areas, like petunias, usually look scruffy by now. So think of this as a seasonal display idea from late spring to mid-summer, with peak appeal in June and July.

Larry Hurley, Retired Behnke’s Horticulturist

UPDATE 8/28/2019

Rethinking Shepherd’s Hooks: I suggested arranging three shepherd’s hooks in a group and hanging large hanging baskets on them to give the “upside-down tree” look. Carol Allen, the “Orchid Lady,” and my next-door neighbor Nancy both reminded me that shepherd’s hooks will tip over with the weight of a heavy hanging basket. This would be a problem.

This will happen especially in sandy soil or good garden loam soil or soil with a layer of mulch, or…soil in general; less so in gooey clay. The support tines usually aren’t substantial enough or long enough to stay in the ground. Stephanie, our beloved editor of the newsletter and Nancy both suggested concrete footings, and Carol mused about wiring the hooks together for better support.

So, I retract that suggestion, and I asked Carol if she would write an article on the ins-and-outs of shepherd’s hooks if she has time. They are great for hummingbird feeders and seed feeders. To this I can attest through actual trial.

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Larry Hurley

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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