LongHouse Walks & The Winter Garden

Holger Winenga

Holger Winenga at LongHouse. Independent/Ty Wenzel

German expat Holger Winenga moved to the U.S. to work in landscape design, renovations, and installations in New York and Virginia. He is one of the most well-known horticulturists on the East End which is not a surprise since he comes from a world-famous line of horticulturists. Indy caught up with him to learn how to deal with our gardens at this time of year, just when we think there is very little we can possibly do.

Why is winter the best time to prepare your springtime garden?

At LongHouse Reserve we spend the quieter time of the year to re-focus and plan ahead for the next season. Plant orders and seed orders are being placed and we start thinking about new plantings. Now that the leaves have come down, it is also easier to evaluate individual structures of shrubs and to make corrections with the hand pruners, by removing deadwood, ingrown branches, rubbing branches. Removing water-shoots that resulted from previous pruning and balancing out the entire appearance of a tree or shrub is also on the list. On certain shrubs with multiple stems growing from the ground, we might want to remove one or two of the oldest stems for rejuvenation.

Raking leaves, shredding them with the push-mower in six-inch layers on a lawn area nearby, and then spreading the fine leaves in a not-too-thick layer back onto planting beds or under shrubs, supplies a great winter mulch and recycles large amounts of leaves without needing a large area for composting. It appears that a thin layer of shredded leaves does not encourage voles to move in, but it needs to be monitored throughout the winter. It is great fun to utilize the pruned branches of our own evergreens as holiday decoration. Hollies with red berries, yews for wreaths, and cypresses to fill the emptied-out summer pots.

You are hosting three walks coming up this winter and spring. What differences can participants expect to see among them with the season changes?

LongHouse has launched a series of walks called “The Seven Seasons of the LongHouse,” each walk emphasizing plants that are in bloom at the time of year. It adds up to seven, because we count the extended seasons. For visitors, it is a chance to see the garden even during the off-season when we are officially closed. We have something in bloom almost year-round. This season finished with a walk called “Bark and Branches.” The cinnamon color of our maturing crape myrtle walk, of the variety “Natchez,” and the beautiful multicolor bark on older Stewartia pseudocamellia are examples.

The idea to feature tours through the entire season was inspired by the fact that there is something in bloom in the garden almost throughout the entire year. Even now, several mature fall-blooming witch hazels are at their best. The first one of them started blooming with its leaves still green, but the latest one just opened and should be in bloom at least until Christmas or the new year. Some helleborus foetidus will already have their flowers on show.

And then the flowering season of the new year begins with a walk featuring the earliest blooming witch hazels in February, followed by the earliest spring bulbs, the winter aconite and galanthus elwesii, helleborus niger, and the later blooming hybrids of helleborus orientalis.

You began your love of horticulture at a very young age! How did this transpire for you?

I spent a lot of time in my early childhood and my teenage summer vacations in my great uncle’s nursery, and witnessed when he created some of his new plants, which are now available in many nurseries worldwide.

Hybridizing plants is a tricky business. How did your uncle come to be known as the most successful hybridizer of the 20th Century?

I think the most influential time in the early life for Ernst Pagels was when he worked for the great plantsman and garden writer Karl Foerster in Bornim, near Berlin in the 1950s. When Pagels decided to start his own nursery in 1958, Foerster gave him a seed package on his way and said, “See if you can find something in there.” He indeed found one seedling in this package that performed much better than all the others, and it was named salvia nemorosa, “East Friesland.”

Until the end of his life, Pagels hybridized and named more than 200 perennials and ornamental grasses. Many of them achieved the highest possible marks in evaluation. Even 10 years after his death, the perennial plant of the year chosen by the Perennial Plant Association was one of his own: stachys densiflora, “Humelo.” Pagels hated all the fuss about plant patenting and copyrights of plants. He never patented a single plant.

What are some of Pagels’s most successful hybrids of note?

His work on salvias resulted in about 15 named varieties, bluehills, snowhills, amethyst, wesuwe, ruegen. His most groundbreaking work was on miscanthus grass. He was the first person to intercross different miscanthus species with the purpose of having them bloom earlier and more prolifically. (In a northern part of Germany, it was not warm enough for the common miscanthus to bloom before frost). A caution: Out here, miscanthus can become quite a nuisance, since they seed a lot and can take over whole roadsides and meadows.

Pagels was the first person who managed to cross the red color of Achillea millefolium “Paprika” into Achillea filipendulina, resulting in A. “Fireland” and A. “Walter Funcke.” New introductions on astilbe, cimicifuga, rodgersia, geranium, epimedium, sedum, rerovskia are only a few examples of his repertoire of works.

You’re originally from Germany. How did you find yourself on the East End of Long Island? And why?

It was actually my great uncle’s request that I had to work in foreign countries for at least five years before returning to work with him. Then he changed that to 10 years and it never seemed to become less!

Anyway, when I had an opportunity to work for a season on Long Island, I fell in love with the natural beauty of the area and in particular, the climate, and decided within three months that I would not return, but instead start planning to build my own nursery from scratch.

How would you define your style of landscaping?

I would say probably closest is the natural style of William Robinson. When I started designing gardens, my greatest strength was the knowledge of plants. I was able to design fairly sustainable and long-lived gardens with mostly herbaceous plants and only a minimal structure of trees and shrubs.

A great influence on me were the landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and Eric Groft from Oehme, van Sweden. I installed many of their gardens and supplied them with plants. I always liked their designs better than my own, since they were quite a bit more sophisticated in architectural details than my own, plus their plantings en masse were easier to maintain.

You travel a lot to Costa Rica. Is it for work or inspiration, or both?

My wife is native Costa Rican and even though we met out here, we’ve enjoyed exploring different regions of Costa Rica on every trip for almost 15 years. Plant explorations were always unrelated to work. Then I became obsessed with pre-Columbian art and artifacts from the indigenous people of Costa Rica of the time before Europeans made first contact, around 1492. It resulted in years of intensive study of broader Mesoamerican history and study of many private collections of ancient artifacts.

With global warming such an imminent threat to landscapes, what advice can you share?

Well, it will not go away, even if we did a 180-degree turn around right this moment. I read that Alexander von Humboldt, the great scientist, took note and gave grim warnings on climate change happening in Central America, caused by a large new plantation in about 1850. And our politicians still can’t make up their mind if it is real? It will have tremendous impact on us in the next 30 years; coastlines changing, climate being more unpredictable and hostile, droughts and just not enough water to sustain our population, loss of half of the world’s wildlife. Horrible to even think about.

Advice? Leave the smallest footprints possible. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Perhaps explore the misconception that agricultural evolution ever gave us any advance?

On a more local level, what are some tips you can share with our readers about how to finetune their curb appeal?

My own heart beats for herbaceous plants, like perennials, ornamental grasses, and ferns.

I think a good garden needs a good backbone structure of some trees, shrubs, and few evergreens. Many woody plants grow quite large, so use them sparingly. Don’t forget to leave plenty of room for perennials. They can go anywhere, not just the perennial border, but always choose the right plant for the specific location. And don’t just plant three of each. If you plant perennials in groups of 15 to 30, in the end it will be a lot less maintenance.

What are some of your favorite planting combinations?

I love to combine ornamental grasses with perennials. The different textures complement each other well and give good contrast.

Any parting thoughts for homeowners?

Choose some plants that bloom in the off-season. Witch hazels, hellebores, snowdrops, and other early blooming bulbs will shorten the long and dreary winters on the East End tremendously! And don’t forget to visit the LongHouse Reserve to get planting ideas.