Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Next Step

The Christian Science Monitor Diggin' It blog has started up again so I will be part of a larger group and able to keep up better.  Once the season is over, I may have more time to blog, but for now, I will be letting this go.

Thanks for sticking around.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Good Day

After a difficult summer of heat, humidity, and drought, September has come in with cooler and drier weather, but sadly, no rain. Even so, September and October in Virginia are my favorite months. You can usually count on some restorative rains, perhaps even a gentle swipe from a gentle tropical low. The trees could really use the moisture. If we had not had 400 feet of snow last winter, things would be worse.

A friend and I were talking last week about those terrible snows of last winter as she showed me some photos on her computer with major drifts everywhere. Each time it started snowing again, we would commiserate on the phone and then get on the computer and order seeds or plants for spring. We spent more than we might have in a less snowy winter, but the plants have been a joy. I have grown wild senna (Cassia marilandica), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), the very odd Amicia zygomeris, and some lovely dahlias.

If we had a little rain, a good soaker that doesn't run off the cracked soil, I could put some of my senna and anise hyssop into the soil for the winter. On these sparklingly beautiful, clear-sky September days, I just keep watering and hoping for those welcome autumn rains that usually come.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Recently I attended a native plant conference at Millersville, Pennsylvania. It was well organized and we heard some wonderful speakers. Had a whole session on goldenrods - fascinating! If native plants are on your radar screen, it's a great place to learn more.

One session was about echinaceas. My distillation of the commentary is included here. I have been reluctant to buy echinaceas after three sequentially purchased Mango Meadowbrites died over three sequential winters at my home. It is the most exquisite coneflower I ever saw. So I gave up - figured the breeders were slap-happy and had bred out the hardiness gene. Each year new varieties - many of us stopped buying them altogether.

What I learned from well-known horticulturist Angela Treadwell-Palmer of Plants Nouveau is that you have to plant echinaceas early in the season so they are well established going into winter. Well at my home, all potted plants got planted in soil in late October before a killing frost. That may be my big mistake. I will try Mango Meadowbrite again, and a few others that are on the good list.

Here are the ones to look for:

Fragrant Angel - white 3-3.5'
Kim's Knee High - bright pink, variable height, supposed to be dwarf so don't be surprised
Mango Meadowbrite - - plant in gravel for good drainage
Pica Bella - pink, strong, short
Twilight - orange pink - good performer
Avalanche - white with lots of yellow in cone
Coconut Lime - greenish, fuzzy top
Tomato Soup - red, not fragrant, mid-size
Mac n Cheese - nice
Milkshake - white fuzzy top
Hot Papaya - 36", great color, more upright

Don't bother with
Magnus - which is now not coming true
tennesseensis - needs total dry, faces east, endangered
pallida – grows in rock crevices
White Swan
Pixie - has tennesseensis parentage - draws leaf hoppers
Sunrise - winters well in pots, may become new parent material for new generation
Pink Poodle
Pink Double Delight - bees don't like it and won't pollinate but being used to breed new varieties
Coral Reef
Marmalade has good goldenrod color to start then fades to very pale on second day
Firebird - not selected in first round by breeders
Flame Thrower- not selected in first round
Hot Lava - not selected in first round
Now Cheesier - just like Mac n Cheese

Too new to know:
Secret series: Passion, Romance - new series of dwarfs
Strawberry Shortcake - bicolor
Pineapple Sundae won't propagate in tissue culture
Jade - white/green - may be nice
Green Envy - pink halo around center - striped, novel
Raspberry Truffle - good stem and intense color - 3.5' tall in Netherlands, 2' tall here'

Hoping that this listing will help you chose good plants. They are amazingly costly for perennials; careful selection and early planting will make beautiful echinaceas a good choice for your garden.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

An enchantment

On the way to a client’s home, I pass by hundreds of lawns. Not a believer in lawns, it seems they are perfectly designed for sheep to graze and poop on, month after month.

But more than that, I have come to see lawns as sterile. People pour lime and fertilizer and herbicides and fungicides and are looking for something approximating an English landscape. Except this is not England. We don’t have long cool moist days in summer. This is Virginia, hot and humid with a long running season that can turn most lawns brown. In November and March, with the cool season lawn grass seed mixes, it looks like an English lawn.

It’s not just the rainfall. It’s also the heat and humidity that encourage fungal diseases. And there is the mowing, the fertilizing, the herbicides, the dethatching, the aerating, and all the other stuff that makes folks think that if they only do more, the lawn will respond. Even if you can set up sprinklers in summer, to water the browning lawn, it’s not always enough. In any case, the grasses recover by themselves in the autumn when more rainy days appear. We just don’t have the right climate for livable lawns.

Keep a little bit of lawn around the house and then build a meadow. Add perennials. Add some fun annuals. Plant some great bulbs in the fall. Mow once a year. Benefit from more and varied bird visitors; butterflies and insects will bring your landscape to life. Build a woodland. Buy some young trees and get them started in the lawn. Let the meadow grow up around them.

Some books recommend using herbicides that kill everything, like Round-up, several times, to create a meadow. Kill everything and start anew with well-chosen plants for a stylish meadow. I don’t think that makes sense. The good folks I work with can stand the scruffy bits with the perennial and annual treasures hidden within. The rich fragrance of the meadow is wonderful. In spring and summer, plants come into flower, growing fat and sassy. The autumn light with those long rays will backlight the tall grasses and they will shine. The little spiders will spin beautiful webs that will catch the dew in the morning light. Birds will feast on seeds in the winter. It will be full of life, without the sheep.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rose - ageddon

It may be the combination of the snowy winter and the wacky spring, but this year the roses are spectacular. A little bit of rain brought them all out and it is a treat to go from one to the other, drinking in the wonderful fragrance, enjoying the color and marveling at the abundance.

Most of my roses arrive via mail order. I am very fond of the Buck roses and am building a good collection of them. This is the elegant 'Winter Sunset'.

I frequently fall for some of the odd names or odd characteristics of other roses. Striped roses are a thrill but some don't make it through the winter for me. Weird names are wonderful, like Ghislaine de Feligonde, blooming now.

Madame Hardy is in bloom now. An old damask rose, she is so fragrant I save and dry the intoxicating blooms for later enjoyment. She blooms once, in the spring, and this year I will prune her lengthening canes.

The aphids that usually mar the roses are missing and the rain drops have refreshed everything. An explosion of roses can make everything seem possible.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Iris Joy!

The irises are blooming in the Shenandoah Valley and they almost glow. While they can often have problems with iris borers, I cannot resist the bearded iris varieties. The ones I have chosen for my garden are tall and bright, showy across the lawn, and fragrant with a strong grape aroma.

Here are a couple of beauties:

The best way to control the iris borer is to remove all of last year's foliage from the rhizomes in winter. The eggs have already been deposited on them.

Another favorite iris is Iris tectorum, the Japanese roof iris. Here it is planted under a golden ninebark.

Planting almost at soil level seems to help my iris stay healthy and fight off the borer. They like the sun on a part of the rhizome. I move them in July or August when the flowers are gone and the rhizome has been well fed. They transplant very easily. Just tuck the roots underneath into the soil and leave the rhizome on top in the sun.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Dogwood You May Not Know

The Cornelian cherry is really not a cherry at all but a wonderful dogwood, appropriate for any home landscape. The common name comes from the cherry-like fruit of the tree, native of southern Europe. Cornus mas is a tree worthy of your consideration.

There are several wonderful features of this small tree. It gets about 20 feet high and 15 feet wide at maturity so the size is perfect for most home landscapes. It blooms very early in spring, when the chill winds make us think spring won’t arrive. The foliage is quite nice and tidy. Birds love the fruit. It is multi-stemmed and low-branched making a nice broad oval screen in the landscape. Pests and disease seem to leave it alone.

The flowers are different from the native dogwood we all love. Instead of white or pink petals (actually bracts), Cornus mas has beautiful small frothy golden yellow flowers that look like they have trapped the sun. The flowers are similar to the flowers of another dogwood, Cornus officianalis shown here:

I’ve taken several photos of the flowers and the tree but never seem to arrive at the perfect moment when Cornus mas is in full flower. Here is a photo taken at Blandy Farm at the State Arboretum of Virginia in Boyce. Cornus mas is almost in full bloom but not quite. You can still see the wonderful shape of the tree.

I’ve been collecting several colorful varieties of Cornus mas. Mail order plants are generally quite small and I put them into a nearby raised “hospital” bed for care until they are big enough to go out into the landscape. Today I scanned the leaves of these to show you.
Top leaves in this scan belong to the native Cornus florida, our native dogwood. On the lower left is a chartreuse form of Cornus mas, and on the right the smallish leaves of the highly variegated Cornus mas (still in the hospital bed) that used to have a name but cats destroyed the tag.This scan has the Cornus kousa, the Korean dogwood that blooms on top of its leaves and below, a spattered variegated Cornus mas on the bottom. Again, the tag is gone but the plant remains and is subtle and beautiful. I’ve made the variegated one a bit bigger below so the color shows up better.

It’s a wonderful group of trees and I hope folks will consider them for their home landscapes.

Keep in mind that this is an instance where the Latin name will be important. If you ask for a Cornelian cherry at most nurseries, you will end up with a cherry. If you ask for a dogwood, you will likely end up with the native Cornus florida or the Korean, Cornus kousa. The straight Cornus mas is a lovely mid-green and perfectly wonderful for the landscape. If you want a fancy variegated one, I’m afraid the mail order companies will have to provide your special tree. It’s worth the hunt.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Read the Garden Professors

Like any industry, there is a mountain of misinformation in the land about everything from cutting iris foliage into neat triangles after flowering to leaving burlap and wire cages on newly planted young trees. Several years ago I learned about the work of Linda Chalker-Scott. A professor at Washington State University and extension agent in Puyallup, Washington, Linda enjoys finding out the truth of gardening information, gossip, and advertising. Does milk or baking soda really prevent black spot in roses? Do hydrogels or compost teas really work?

She has compiled many of her studies into two new books, The Informed Gardener and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again that help prevent gardeners from wasting time and resources on products or practices have little value or work in unintended ways. She writes in an accessible style and tells us the science behind each issue, why it works or doesn't.

Jeff Gilman, another myth exploder and author of two terrific books: The Truth about Garden Remedies and The Truth about Organic Gardening is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. He and Linda have joined together to develop a great blog at https://sharepoint.cahnrs.wsu.edu/blogs/urbanhort/default.aspx

Local talent Holly Scoggins, associate professor at Virginia Tech as well as other talented and informed educators are members of the blog.

I am delighted that this blog is available. Just today, I read that Linda had looked at the effect of watering bags on trees. Since we all want our newly planted trees to succeed, we often purchase the bags to hold water that continually drips into the root ball of the tree. Early findings indicate that the bags can keep the trunk of the tree too moist, causing bark to rot and insects and disease to multiply.

I love to garden and on most days I don’t want to waste my time on fantasy. Linda, Jeff, Holly, and others are improving the potential for good gardening outcomes by sorting out the really useful nuggets through scientific observation and analysis and sharing the products and practices that work. Read them often.