Sunday, October 13, 2013

October goes...

 Wild Quinine

So we are all in this together. You, me, the butterflies, the raccoons, the bees. To protect some of your butterflies over the winter, don’t get so aggressive with the fallen leaves. Rake them under your shrubs where the butterflies can be nestled in for the cold winter and emerge in the spring. Even a few salamanders can wedge themselves into the spaces left.

It was a hard year for the monarchs, but those of you working with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy did your part beautifully to help the ones you could. Many folks have heard the call for more milkweeds in home landscapes as well as other native plants to help the other pollinators. Good news.

People are extending themselves for the benefit of critters that will never know them. We can’t make pets out of the bees or butterflies but we can understand that our future is tied to theirs.

We had our first meeting of our new Blue Ridge Chapter of Wild Ones out at Blandy in early September and were delighted with a good crowd of members and guests who are interested in developing more natural landscapes. This month we had a field trip out to Rappahanock to see Janet Davis and her wonderful native plant nursery. A nice group of people united in the belief that while we are here we can make things a bit better if we try.

While I hate to see October go, I am always reminded of Katherine White, wife of E.B., who, in the last stages of cancer, supervised the planting of daffodils for a spring she would never see. Those of us who have been lucky so far can, at the very least, plant more spring bulbs...and shelter the overwintering butterflies.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Attended a good conference yesterday at the Irvine Nature Center near Baltimore. Doug Tallamy was the first speaker and he had a new talk about fragmentation of habitats that was riveting. Janet Davis spoke about using native plants as ground covers and was very well-received by the crowd. She will be speaking to members and guests of our new Blue Ridge Chapter of Wild Ones this winter. Thomas Rainer was inspiring as he spoke about adding natives to landscapes in beautiful ways and drawing pleasure from our gardens. 

As Thomas noted, most people are not going to bulldoze their existing landscape and make it a native ecosystem. But adding nice stands of beautiful natives is valuable and will build better habitat over time. People who have added lots of natives are amazed about the quick return of many birds, bees,  and butterflies to their gardens. When you can support life in the garden, nature responds with lot of activity.

I've heard each of these speakers before, but each time, I hear something new and interesting. Each works in a different way to increase biodiversity in home habitats and encourage us to share the space with other creatures in our environment. 

I am still learning about native plants. This was my first year growing wild quinine. You can see it in the picture above. It is white and has solid little flowers that look like low-dose aspirin tablets with tiny ears on them. The flowers are held up on a candelabra like stem that doesn't fall over. Frothy and beautiful! Can't wait to collect some seed and grow more of these - I think they will be beautiful massed with coneflowers or maybe little bluestem. So many possibilities!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

August in Northwestern Virginia

Somehow I don’t mind August. When I first moved to Virginia in 1978, most of my neighbors and colleagues would dramatically complain that the “dog days” would be brutal. In my life, June and July can be major heat engines blowing in your face and wilting your enthusiasm.

August brings noticeably shorter days. Because we are harvesting our gardens rather than planting them, there is time to look around and enjoy the bounty. And the annuals are fabulous! Enjoying my Aztec marigold – 3 feet tall! Bought the seed from a tiny company out in the West during one of last winter's snowstorms. Turns out to be a real beauty!

Big and fabulous 3 foot tall marigold with bachelor buttons

My dahlias are abundant in August and well into October, having gotten a good start in May. My tomatoes are delicious and there are enough to start some canning for winter. The basil is fresh and wants to flower. Chopped leaves with olive oil mixed in and then frozen in ice cube trays (and bagged up in freezer bags once frozen) keeps the flavor fresh – welcome during a snowstorm!

The peppers are developing beautifully. Canning sliced jalapenos is easy – pack sliced pepper rings in jar, fill with white vinegar, and process for 10 minutes. Just remember to wear gloves when slicing hot peppers…no eye-rubbing either.

There seems to be a little time once the lawn grass slows down and we try to tidy up other plants. Pruning woody plants in late summer and fall is still a bad idea.  Folks inadvertently end up pruning off next year’s spring extravaganza – the flower buds are already on the forsythia, lilac, viburnums, hollies, and others.

Better to consider where you might plant young trees and shrubs this fall. It’s a great time to plant woody plants. Fall rains and cool temperatures reduce stress and encourage growing of good roots.And don't forget to add more spring bulbs.

Many books tell you to divide and replant perennials in fall. I don’t do that. Maybe it’s that roller coaster of temperatures, but I can’t tell in advance what kind of winter we will experience and perennials need some lead time to get well rooted in the ground. Otherwise, they can be heaved by frost and air space under and around the roots will damage them badly.

One more thought about replanting. There are warm and cool season grasses. Many of the ornamental grasses we use in the landscape – panicums, miscanthus, muhlenbergia, and others, are warm season grasses. They come up late in spring and flower in the fall. After that they go dormant. Their roots will not knit into the ground during dormancy. Don’t move them until spring.

Cool season grasses like stipa (Nassella tenuissima), fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.), helictotricon, blue fescue, and others are movable in fall because they are coming out of summer dormancy and will develop roots. Don’t move them in the summer. So many little rules!

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Perennials in the garden can start to look tatty as the summer goes on. Since they usually only flower once per season, the spent stems and leaves held over from spring look tired and spent. 

On those mornings, or days when the heat relents, the gardener can easily tidy up the garden. Most spring and early summer blooming perennials will send up some fresh leaves from the base in mid-summer. Once that happens, you can go in and remove all other old foliage and stems. Here you can see a few new small leaves at the base of Penstemon digitalis stems, emerging while the seeds ripen.

These photos are taken of a tray of Zizia aurea or Golden Alexander plugs. Zizia is a wonderful native spring bloomer and the seeds are just ripening now in the garden. These plugs were leftover from a garden I designed earlier in the year. 

When you look past the long stems of the spring leaves, you can see the new foliage emerging. Cutting off (not pulling) the old leaves will give you a nice, green leaf for the rest of the season. 
 Remarkably, Zizia foliage was evergreen for me last winter and has wonderful yellow flowers for the bees in spring. You can see the lacy flowers here next to my hydrangea. Zizia may be hard to find, but it's worth your effort to add it to your garden.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

July 4th

There are fireworks and then there are fireworks!

Hoping you and your garden are having the most spectacular weekend! 

I have to admit that I often plant pumpkins on the Fourth of July to try and outsmart the squash bugs...think I'll also try a second planting of summer squash/zucchini just in case. In this heat, things grow quickly.

After pulling garlic to dry, I want to plant some more arugula. Between hot dogs, thinking about a second season of planting is helpful...there is a lot of growing left before frost.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Annual Discovery

Every summer I grow a new annual that I want to learn about. Of course, I still grow the old favorites: Nicotiana sylvestris, sweet alyssum, the dahlias that survived the winter, the rich purple Moses-in-the-Boat, and assorted salvias.

Last year I grew Shoo-fly - Nicandra physalodes - from saved seeds given by a friend. What a delicious plant!

The plant itself can grow to about five feet tall and is quite bushy; the flowers are a true pale blue and exquisite. 

Shoo-fly is a relative of the tomato so the same conditions apply - warm soil, sunny, well-drained soil. Here it is growing near a seven-foot Nicotiana sylvestris that helps keep aphids off my roses. This particular flowering tobacco is candy to aphids but it has sticky leaves and they can't leave once landing. So sad.

The fresh blue flowers of Shoo-fly are welcome in the moist heat of Virginia in July. It's easy to grow from seed, flowering beautifully all summer. The seed pods are attractive and dry on the plant so you can save them for another year. Old wive's say it repels flies but the science is not clear.

You could create a seasonal hedge with this plant. It's well branched and held itself up beautifully for me. Wayne Winterrowd recommended staking it in his great book Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardens, a book that has been a great reference for me.

This year's annual is a tall big-petaled marigold...will see how it does and let you know.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Lush Life in June

It's a beautiful time for our native hydrangeas.  Many folks are familiar with the 'Annabelle' hydrangea, a variety of Hydrangea arborescens. Big and bold flowers have such a lush, romantic look in the summer garden, especially when planted in a mass.

This is a dwarf version, called 'Ryan Gainey' after the Atlanta plantsman, and the flowers are quite a bit smaller than Annabelle. 

 Another form of H. arborescens var. radiata is a hard-to-find variety in this part of Virginia. I was able to get one in North Carolina a few years ago and was encouraged to plant it in the shade. Though only a few years old in this usually dry east side of the west mountain of the Shenandoah Valley, this wet spring has encouraged a beautiful set of blooms. Last night, a fat bumblebee was doing the macarena on the center, scampering madly all over the fuzzy flowers. The big outside petals are sterile.

The oak leaf hydrangea - Hydrangea quercifolia - is the most architecturally interesting, growing broadly and tall rather than in a big fat clump. There are many varieties of this beautiful native in the marketplace, but for me Snowflake is the most exquisite. Exfoliating bark makes this interesting even in winter.
They are all white blooming, a lovely respite for your part-shade garden.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Blue in the Garden

It is very warm and will take us all a few days to acclimate to the scorching temps but this is summer in the mid-Atlantic - though we were coaxed into thinking that the long, cool, wet spring would go on and on.

Watering in the morning is a must. Plants must get a good drink before it gets too hot, especially those in all of my tomatoes.  The heirloom varieties I grow aren't as resistant to common tomato diseases that attack those grown in soil. The potting mix/leaf compost combo I use to grow them in helps them resist catching the diseases in the first place. At least I think it does. The tomato plants don't seem to be as prolific as those I've grown in soil, but I have so many plants, it works out.

The bachelor buttons are blooming madly and as I watered this morning, the mockingbird was going through his entire musical catalog of bird calls - declaring his territory to all in the neighborhood. It was lovely.

Will collect seed from the bachelor buttons soon for next year - deep blue in the garden is so easy on the eyes. Especially on a hot day.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My mistake on the previous photo - hope this will be clearer.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer Babies

Wanted to catch this phase of the praying mantis development...they are almost adorable! Didn't see the second one at the time, even tinier...but both hunting.

While mantises (?)  eat everything, including the native bees, they are good at keeping plant-eating insects at reduced levels. And they are very amusing to watch as they turn their heads to watch you.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Keeping up with the News

Trying to get ahead of, or even catch up with, the weeds, I put down lots of newspaper to smother them and prevent their seeds from germinating. In the early stages of this process I often use pots of plants to hold down the papers until I can cover them with Kate's pine needles or David's leaf mulch. Sadly, this created an speed bump for my annual visitor.

While waiting for me to move several big pots of roses from the intended pathway, an eastern box turtle read about the latest weather event. This turtle visits each year to see what the border garden will offer - the earthworm that was dislodged when I moved the rose pots had little time to consider options. 

Don't have mayapple fruit for this critter to munch on but I guess there is some attraction - maybe it's the weeds!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


This is a small stand of Penstemon digitalis, a nice native that has a pretty foxglove look but is tougher and more reliable. I grew these from seed and am so pleased that one year later they are full of flowers, tall,  and elegant.

In the evening light, the fat bumblebee gathers pollen to take to his/her home. What a treat.

Monday, June 10, 2013

You Don't Need to Do it All

You don’t need to do it all.

You might have heard that the monarch butterflies are in trouble. According to recent books and articles, the only sustaining food source for monarch caterpillars - milkweed - shrank 58% in the Midwest as agriculture adopted genetically-modified (GMO) crops that tolerate mass spraying of herbicides across millions of acres.

As a result, from 1999-2010, monarch egg production dropped by 81% in the Midwest. Monarchs migrate hundreds of miles to sites in the Midwest where there is no longer any milkweed at all. It’s happening here too.

In addition, millions of acres of weed-free lawns eliminate areas for milkweed to grow. Where milkweed does grow and begin to flower in medians along highways and attract monarchs to lay eggs, the overly tidy highway department mowers and herbicide sprayers descend destroying any accidental habitat for creatures others than us. We know what it does to monarchs – the rest of the damage to pollinators is largely unknown.

The monarch evolved to be able to digest milkweed, a plant that defends itself with a toxic sap, over eons. We know that eating other kinds of plants cannot make up the absence of milkweed because the caterpillars simply cannot eat other stuff.

Butterfly bush is a favorite for many home gardens but not one butterfly will lay its eggs on the bush since no caterpillars (on their way to become butterflies) can eat the leaves. It’s value is limited to being a nectar source for adults.

The only chance for monarch survival is the home gardener. Planting and growing (and perhaps tolerating) common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and perennial butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in multiples, creating a good-sized patch the butterflies can find in the huge mass of inhospitable landscape and lawn, will help. I even plant the tropical milkweed in a big pot so I can watch them closely – just remember to cut it down in late October so they will migrate south before cold weather.

If you are successful, they will eat the leaves of the plant. It might look a little tatty and that’s good. You can watch your success in helping them! Might even interest your kids.

Local groups like The Nature Generation and Loudoun Wildlife, as well as the national organizations Wild Ones and Xerxes Society, are working hard to help save the monarch as are many others. Take a moment to learn about the monarch migration and preferred hosts, about growing useful nectar plants for the adults, and how you can take a small step to have a big impact. And while you are at it, tell your friends so they can help too. (