Thursday, June 8, 2017

Slow-motion video -- bumblebee visiting anise hyssop flower spike!

Recently upgraded my cell phone (my old phone had become slow as molasses in January) and discovered that I have the ability to shoot slow-motion videos.

How fun!

Immediately used the option to shoot a quick vid of a bumblebee drinking nectar from the flower spike of an anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) plant growing in my garden.

Hope you enjoy:

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Some June highlights - oakleaf hydrangea, black-eyed Susan, daikon radish, golden groundsel, anise hyssop and Carefree Beauty

Oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) panicle fading to pink

Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan), first time growing this native wildflower

Super impressed with the ability of daikon radish (Raphanus sativus) to form substantial roots on my solid clay soil. Many of the daikons are bolting now - making surprisingly beautiful lavender flower spikes that attract pollinators. Pollinated flowers then turn into edible seed pods!

In my continuing search for native groundcover candidates, I think golden groundsel (Packera obovata) is a keeper. This beauty is evergreen in winter and had pretty yellow flower spikes earlier in the season

In my experience, Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop) is one of the best perennials for attracting both pollinators (to the flowers) and birds (for the seeds). It's a beautiful plant to boot and self-sows moderately to provide a nice amount of new seedlings over time. It can look a bit tired in the heat of summer and I haven't tried growing it in all-day blazing sun, but overall it does amazingly well here in shade or partial sun (either morning or afternoon), especially considering this plant is native to Canada and the northern Plains (Montana to Wisconsin)!

After some pruning, Carefree Beauty rose is blooming again.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Epimedium Bounces Back

Remember last month when the newly emerging Epimedium perralchicum 'Frohnleiten' was eaten to the ground by some herbivore (probably a rabbit)?

Well, it's fine now.

Epimedium x perralchicum 'Frohnleiten' has bounced back and looks great as usual. Here it is nestled alongside a 'Chicago Lustre' arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) and a boxwood.

I didn't see nearly as many flowers this year (presumably the flower stems emerged early, got nibbled and didn't bounce back), but the foliage looks good as usual.

(Next year I'll simply leave the old foliage standing. I did that last year and I think the old foliage protects the newly emerging stems. Eventually, the new foliage obscures and overtakes the older foliage, which simply decays in place. Less work and a better outcome. That's my kind of gardening! 😀)

I don't think the Epimedium has spread much this year though. Like I said before, it's been a slooooow moving groundcover in my experience. That could be good if you have a small garden or just a small space to cover.

But if you're looking to cover a lot of ground, you might need to look elsewhere (like to Fragaria virginiana, the wild strawberry).


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Friday, May 12, 2017

The Perils of Mail Order

It's hard to see this wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) against the mulch right? That's because this tiny mail order plant never leafed out.

Over the years, I've resigned myself to buying a lot of the plants for my garden via mail order.

It's simply impossible to find most of the plants - especially natives - that I want at the local nurseries.

There's one good native plant nursery (GroWild) nearby, but they only offer many (not all) of the shrubs and trees I want in 15-gallon or larger sizes.

For a number of reasons, I prefer to install smaller plants (preferably 1-gallon, 2-gallon or 3-gallon, though I sometimes go up to 5-gallon).

That means I have to rely on mail order.

Don't get me wrong - over the years I've found a few excellent mail order suppliers, plus some more that are good enough (hit or miss, but with good prices) where I'm willing to take my chances.

Then sometimes I decide to try a new supplier. I'm not going to name the culprit just in case this was an aberration, but it sure was disappointing when I opened up my order for three 1-gallon wax myrtles (Morella cerifera) and found a bunch of brown sticks.

To be fair, there were three perennial strawberry begonia plants (Saxifraga stolonifera) in the same order that were in much better condition.

I planted all three, but two of the wax myrtles never leafed out, so I've now shovel-pruned them and replaced them with woody shrubs - a Burkii juniper from GroWild and a Needlepoint holly from another local nursery.

The third one did leaf out and is struggling, but wax myrtles are so tough that I'm (fairly) confident it will eventually survive and hopefully prosper in time.

Here's the mail order wax myrtle that did leaf out. This one had some dead branches too, and many of the existing leaves were not in good shape, but it's pushing new growth and I think it will eventually recover and hopefully become a nice shrub in a couple of years! (That's called "optimism.") 😉

By comparison, I was able to install a 3-gallon wax myrtle that I found down at a Huntsville, Alabama nursery (Bennett Nurseries) that already has a beautiful presence in the garden.

This 3-gallon wax myrtle that I bought in-person at Huntsville's Bennett Nurseries cost about 2.5-times as much as the mail order twigs. (That doesn't include shipping costs on the mail order plants, but then you have to figure time and gasoline to drive 200+ miles roundtrip to Huntsville. Of course, I didn't go to Huntsville just for the wax myrtle. I did visit the botanical garden while I was there and also bought some other plants.)

Do you use mail order nurseries? If so, which are some of your favorite suppliers? 

Or are you lucky enough to have great local nurseries either right in your town / metro area or within a short drive?  

Or do you grow your own plants from seed?


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Friday, May 5, 2017

Star of Bethlehem is no Spring Beauty!

Ornithogalum umbellatum, star of Bethlehem, invasive exotic in the U.S. (not to be confused with native North American wildflower, Claytonia virginica, a.k.a. spring beauty)
Don't get too excited. This is not the spring beauty you've been looking for.

I'll admit it -- I was kind of excited when I saw what looked like a new white wildflower pop up a couple places on the property this spring - one clump in a garden bed beneath a crape myrtle, the other in a weedy patch of lawn next to the back sidewalk.

I tried doing some Internet research and tentatively decided it might be spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), a native wildflower in Tennessee and throughout much of eastern North America.

But something was bugging me about this plant ID. I took a closer look at my photos and compared them to those online.

The plants in my photos had six petals and prominent six-pointed structures resembling little crowns at the center of the flower. (Sorry that's not more precise. I'm not much of a botanist and always get anthers and stamens mixed up in my head.)

The pictures of spring beauty that I found online all show a five-petaled flower, often with pink anthers held far above the surface of the flower.

So unfortunately it looks like I have star of Bethlehem (Orthinogalum umbellatum). And although it's charming, it also has a (contested) reputation for behaving invasively. It may also be quite toxic.

So...looks like a shovel-pruning is in the forecast.


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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

This Ain't Arizona, Y'all!

Cupressus arizona (Arizona cypress), not in its natural habitat

Well, if this is not Arizona, then why on Earth did I plant an Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica)?!

Even though most of my plant purchases are well-researched, I still sometimes succumb to the lure of impulse buys during a nursery visit.

I knew that I needed/wanted some more evergreen trees and shrubs for a privacy screen I'm trying to establish along the edges of my property.

I also knew that biodiversity is a good thing, but that there aren't many choices when it comes to tough, evergreen screening plants that can handle Tennessee extremes (90-100 degree heat and humidity in the summer, single degree cold snaps in winter, heavy clay soil that alternates between mud and concrete consistencies, etc.)

So when the nursery employee suggested Arizona cypress 'Carolina Sapphire' as an underutilized evergreen tree that might be even tougher than the old standbys in our area (Leyland cypress, 'Green Giant' arborvitae), I grabbed an affordable 3-gallon shrub sitting nearby and headed to the cash register.

Apparently that was a big mistake.

Ain't looking much like a sapphire...

The shrub languished for a couple of weeks and then went precipitously downhill, soon turning brown, crispy and by all appearances, dead.

What went wrong?

Well, I can think of two potential huge problems:

1) Roots/Shoots Mismatch - This was a tall plant. That's appealing when you're looking for instant impact, but I'm thinking it was grown in a sheltered, pampered life among lots of other Arizona cypress plants. Suddenly, it was out in the open on a hilltop, getting buffeted by wind storms. (We've had some doozies this year with straight-line winds around 60-70 mph.) The petite 3-gallon root system couldn't hold the tree upright in the storm, so I went out one day and found it keeled over. I'm sure that was a shock to its system. Even though I promptly propped it upright and staked it in place, it went from moping to failing after that.

That's why usually it's probably a better idea to buy a plant based on the size and health of its roots rather than its top-growth. The top-growth is sexier, but I think you're much more likely in the long run to have a healthy plant if you get a shrub or tree with a substantial root system and modest top-growth rather than the other way around.

2) Two words - Wet Clay - Quoting the Arizona Tree Experts Blog - "Very hardy to many growing conditions: heavy clays, rocky and thin, sloped; they’ll grow pretty much anywhere in the Austin area. The one thing they do need is drainage so don’t confuse them with bald cypress that will grow in constantly wet conditions."

Now it's true we're on a hilltop, but the Arizona cypress was planted on flat ground in the back that can stay sodden for days after a heavy rain or a lot longer than that after a series of rains.

Maybe it would have fared better if I'd planted it on the slope in front of the house?

Will I try Arizona cypress again?

Nope, I don't think so.

I mean, if I lived in Arizona I might try it, but not here in Tennessee. 

I'd much rather plant a tough, forgiving true native like eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) or a regional native like yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). 

Usually, I like to champion the mantra of "Right plant, right place."

In this case, I'd say my actions would be more aptly described by, "Wrong plant, wrong place."

That's OK. Most of the new additions - the ones I planned out in advance - have worked pretty well so far this year. I'll chalk it up to a learning experience and try to remember this debacle next time I'm tempted to give in to an impulse purchase temptation...

How about you? Any impulse gardening purchases that went awry recently? Or do you prefer to quietly bury your mistakes at the edge of your property? 😏


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Monday, May 1, 2017

Blue Mistflower - Love It or Fear It?

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinium). Last year, this started as just a tiny quart-size plant. This year, it's on the march!
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinium). Last year, this started as just a tiny quart-size plant. This year, it's on the march!

As with other fast-spreading yet herbaceous perennials (e.g., mountain mint), I'm not quite sure about the best way to use blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) in my garden.

On the bright side, as I wrote last November, it has a nice long autumn bloom season with flowers that attract pollinators.

On the other hand, as Tammy and Jason both pointed out last year, blue mistflower likes moisture. Although it's planted in heavy clay that gets sodden in winter and early spring, the area also bakes in summer. Of the three clumps I had growing last year, it looks like only one clump (the healthiest and strongest) came back this year.

That surviving clump has expanded dramatically - from a 3.5-inch pot to probably close to 4 square feet in about 18 months. I recognize that I kvetched in a recent post about some groundcovers - Epimediums and partridge berry -  spreading too slowly.

How can I turn around and complain about a groundcover spreading too fast? Aren't groundcovers supposed to cover ground.

Sure they are.

But as with many things in life, I think there is an ideal happy medium here. I don't want a 'groundcover' that pokes along, only extending its coverage by a couple of inches per year.

But I also don't necessarily want a groundcover that races across the property, smothering small buildings in a single season.

I'm much more leery of aggressive plants if they're exotic. I don't want to be responsible for unleashing havoc on the local ecosystem. It's one of the reasons why I gave plants like blue star creeper, creeping raspberry, sweet woodruff and Ajuga the heave-ho.

(Well, I'm trying to evict Ajuga from the garden. It's putting up a heck of a fight to stay.)

I'm much more willing to tolerate aggressive plants if they're native and/or easy to remove. For example, wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) spreads pretty darn fast, but (a) it seems to spread only via above-ground stolons (so I can at least keep track of its spread versus those plants that extend their territory via underground rhizomes), and (b) it seems very easy (so far) to uproot any clumps that grow where they are not wanted.

When the blue mistflower gets a little taller, I plan to go out after a rain and see how hard it is to pull out some stems along the edges of the clump. Basically, I want to see how much of a struggle it will be to keep this in bounds.

(Update - I went and tried this and the blue mistflower stems at the edge of the clump seemed quite easy to pull. That makes me feel a bit more confident that I could keep blue mistflower from overwhelming other nearby plants...)

If I do let it stay and it romps through the back garden, I envision a lot of late winter or early spring maintenance.

It's not such a big deal chopping down stems on a few clumps of rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), but I think it's another matter entirely to find a way to deal with 100 square feet of a tough-stemmed herbaceous and rhizomatous perennial.

For anyone who has a large stand of blue mistflower or any other aggressive perennial (e.g., one of the rhizomatous goldenrods, a spreading Monarda or a mountain mint), how do you handle winter clean up of large swaths of dead stems. Do you cut back by hand with a bypass pruner or shears? Do you use a mower?

Blue mistflower leaves, up close and personal
Blue mistflower leaves, up close and personal

Then there's the issue of blue mistflower being deciduous/herbaceous. It dies back in winter and didn't make an appearance this year until late March / early April. If it covers a lot of ground in spring, summer and fall, that means a lot of bare ground from late autumn to early spring. I worry about weeds getting a toehold in that bare dirt.

That's why I've gravitated toward low-growing evergreens ('Biokovo' geranium, wild strawberry, golden groundsel, Robin's plantain, etc.) in my search for ideal groundcovers.

Anyway, blue mistflower is still in the garden for now. If you grow this plant - or something similar in habit - I'd love to hear how you integrate it into your garden to enjoy its assets without having it become a maintenance nightmare.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Lots of Milkweed, Lots of Monarchs!

Very excited to see lots of monarch butterfly caterpillars - more than ever before - on the various milkweeds growing in the garden this year!

Monarch caterpillars on spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis)
Monarch cats on Asclepias viridis (spider milkweed)

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Monarch cat on Asclepias incarnata (rose milkweed)

Monarch caterpillars on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Monarch cats on Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed... I didn't plant this one, it showed up last year, and this year has multiplied into three stems... I know it's got a somewhat aggressive reputation, but clearly it's a big hit with the monarch cats, and when it bloomed last year, I was bowled over by the incredible floral fragrance!)

All three of these milkweeds are native to Tennessee.

I hope to add two more to the garden eventually - A. purpurascens (purple milkweed) and A. tuberosa (butterflyweed).

What are your best butterfly host plants?


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Monday, April 24, 2017


Mind the gap!

Just a pic to illustrate the challenge of gardening on compacted Tennessee clay 'soil' (subsoil?)

It looks from this image like we hadn't had any rain in months.

But this is just what my soil looks like if we go a couple weeks with warm weather and not much rain.

(This pic was taken about a couple weeks ago. At the moment, much of the back yard looks like a shallow pond since we've had several days of hard rain with flood warnings across the area. But next time we have a couple weeks of dry weather, it will go right back to this cracked look.)

Could I amend the heck out of it? Sure, but it would be back-breaking, soul-crushing, expensive, time-consuming and ecologically-questionable.

Instead, I try to find ultra-tough plants - many of them natives - capable of surviving and even thriving in this pottery material.

Ultimately, where the plants thrive, I find that the soil does improve over time. Slowly. In a few hundred years of letting Nature work its magic, I might have some nice loam! 😉


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Friday, April 21, 2017

No One to Blame but Myself - Geranium sanguineum and Ajuga genevensis

Geranium sanguineum looks innocent, but it's a bloody nuisance to remove
Geranium sanguineum looks so innocent, but don't be fooled. I've tried ripping out this plant about five times and it keeps growing back!

I have weeds aplenty.

Some blow into my garden (dandelions, for instance), while others (looking at you, wild grape and oak seedlings) presumably are gifts from birds or squirrels.

That's OK. It's part of the gardening life. As I cover more ground with plants I do want in the garden, I anticipate gradually being able to displace some of those I don't want in the garden.

Meanwhile, I pull. And use the CobraHead.

But what really burns my biscuits are the plants that I add to the garden and then decide were awful, terrible, no-good mistakes that must be evicted.

Sometimes, I shovel-prune plants (looking at you, gardenia and Carolina allspice) because they have died. That's discouraging, but at least those mistakes don't come back to haunt me.

Other times, I have to work a bit harder to rip out overly aggressive / invasive plants (e.g., lemon balm, creeping raspberry, blue star creeper, sweet woodruff) that wear out their welcome, but at least those guys have the decency to leave for good when asked. (And when I say "asked," I mean ripped out of the ground.)

I had a tough time kicking out hardy blue plumbago. It kept trying to make a sly comeback with a stem or two here and there, but I think I've finally gotten rid of it.

Still, none of those compare to the challenge I've had removing Geranium sanguineum and Ajuga from my sticky clay soil.

This is a good time to note that there can be massive differences between the way different species from the same genus behave in the garden. What I'm trying to say is - Just because G. sanguineum has been a bully in my garden, don't tar all the other cranesbill geraniums with the same brush.

'Rozanne' hybrid geranium is a perfectly well-behaved herbaceous perennial that flowers for months. In my experience, it doesn't quite have the heat tolerance or drought tolerance to thrive in a tough-love garden setting in Tennessee, but it's still a very nice plant.

And 'Biokovo' cranesbill geranium (G. x cantabrigiense) is one of my favorite geraniums and one of the top groundcovers I've found for Tennessee. It's basically evergreen here, developing nice red tints to the foliage in winter, has nice flowers that attract bumble bees and expands at a manageable pace. If it goes someplace unwanted, I've found it easy as pie to lift up and remove or relocate a chunk.

Then there's G. sanguineum - bloody geranium. I suppose it's called 'bloody geranium' because of its bright red roots, but it deserves the name for being a bloody nuisance. OK, I'll give it props for being fairly tough and semi-evergreen, but it's quite aggressive. Once it's established, it starts spreading far and wide via deep (relative to the size of the above-ground plant) and thick roots.

Even small blood geranium clumps put down deep roots before they start spreading laterally.

Try to remove the plant and those roots tend to snap (at least when you're pulling them from sticky, heavy clay - sand or loam might be a different story). Leave any bits of roots in the soil and the plant will reemerge to laugh at you behind your back. There are places where I've dug wide holes 10 inches deep trying to get all the root fragments and the plant still pops up after I've backfilled or jumps up somewhere nearby. (I think it also spreads a bit by seeding, though fortunately the seedlings show up near the parent plant and the self-seeding has not been rampant.)

Meanwhile, I'm loathe to plant anything else where I've tried to evict the bloody geranium, because I worry that the geranium will pop up again and I'll have to dig up the whole area, damaging the new plant.

So right now, I have a number of holes and bare spots in the garden where I'm just waiting for the bloody geranium to re-emerge so I can dig up another missed root. I suspect this will continue for months. At least.

Ajuga genevensis returns after a weeding attempt
Ajuga genevensis after I tried ripping it out last winter. Clearly, I failed the first time around.

Ajuga genevensis is in the same category. Well, except that the roots don't go as deep and I haven't tried ripping out (yet) as many times as the bloody geranium.

Still, from the picture above, you can see that it hasn't been impressed by my eviction efforts. I thought I'd torn out a rather large, thick patch of A. genevensis last winter, but clearly all I did was prune it.

Once I had praised A. genevensis for being less aggressive (and more evergreen in Tennessee) than the typical Ajuga (A. reptans) that you usually find at plant nurseries. It's true that A. reptans spreads a bit faster and less predictably, but I've found all the Ajugas are challenging to remove through hand pulling.

I hope my experiences save some other gardeners time, effort and hair-pulling.

Meanwhile, I continue to evaluate groundcover alternatives, focusing on natives. As I mentioned in a recent post, I think that effort is bearing fruit.

I'll keep observing and plan to post an update either at the end of this year or next spring with an overview of the best groundcover candidates so far.

How about in your garden? Have you planted anything aggressive that you later regretted? If so, did you succeed in evicting it or have you given up and simply found a way to live with it?


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