Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pretty Dangerous

The attractive but toxic Stinging Rose (Parasa indetermina) caterpillar enjoying lunch in a crabapple tree
Stinging Rose (Parasa indetermina) caterpillar enjoying lunch in a crabapple tree on a hot August afternoon

Pretty + Dangerous = Stinging Rose Caterpillar (Parasa indetermina).

I found not one but TWO of these beauties on our Sugar Tyme Crabapple a couple of weeks ago. (The other one was smaller and wedged between two leaves, which made it harder to take a good photo of it.)

I had a devil of a time trying to ID the caterpillar, but ultimately found success through Google+ member Garden Experiments, who confirmed some of my own Internet research.

The Featured Creature blog has some great photos and description of this caterpillar.

The University of Arkansas Arthropod Museum describes how the Stinging Rose can deliver a severe venomous punch through its spines to any creature foolish enough to attack it.

The adult moth form of the Stinging Rose may not be as flamboyant as the caterpillar, but I think it has a soft, elegant beauty all its own.

In 2005, the USDA noted that the Stinging Rose has been found in many Eastern and Midwestern states, but that it is "considered uncommon to rare" throughout its range and that "most states in its range contain only a few populations."

So I feel very, very fortunate to have spotted a couple of these in my own backyard!

As with many species, it seems that the Stinging Rose has suffered due to habitat loss caused by human land-use practices. One issue (if I'm reading the USDA report correctly) seems to be that caterpillars will overwinter in the leaf litter below a tree in forest settings. In a landscape situation like the one in my backyard, I don't see how the caterpillar will survive the winter since the tree is planted in the middle of a lawn. Not much leaf litter there.

I suppose that gives me another reason to minimize the lawn and create more landscape beds of trees, shrubs and perennials were the leaf litter can be left to decompose naturally over the winter and into the spring, and where any overwintering moth larvae have a better chance of surviving to emerge as moths, lay their eggs and start this whole miraculous cycle once more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fairchild Garden Breeds Better Jackfruit, Hosts a Jubilee!

Large fruit growing off the trunk of a Jackfruit tree.
(Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

This coming Saturday (September 13th), Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida will be hosting a Jackfruit Jubilee.

I had a chance to speak with Noris Ledesma, Fairchild's Curator of Tropical Fruit, about the amazing jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and the research that Fairchild has been doing on the plant.

Garden of Aaron: Tell me about the Jackfruit. It looks huge from the photos I've seen!

Noris Ledesma: Jackfruits can weigh anywhere from 30-70 lbs -- sometimes even more. And each tree, depending on its age, can bear from 20-60 fruits.

Such a large, heavy fruit can be intimidating. People think, "What will I do with this huge, spiny thing?" When we display jackfruits in the garden, people are always amazed. They want to touch them.

As for the flavor, it combines pineapple, banana and mango. Nobody is disappointed when they take a taste. And of course a single large fruit can feed many people.

Garden of Aaron: So what sort of research has Fairchild been doing with the jackfruit?

Noris Ledesma: We started a program back in the 1980s to introduce selected jackfruit specimens from Australia, Thailand, India and Vietnam. We use traditional plant breeding techniques to select fruits based on different characteristics. Then every two years we have festivals to introduce the "best" fruits.

Of course, not everyone agrees what makes a great jackfruit. Americans typically like their fruit to be crunchy,but other cultures, especially Vietnamese for instance, like very soft textures.

Noris Ledesma opens a Jackfruit
(Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

Garden of Aaron: What is the history of the Jackfrut in Florida

Noris Ledesma: As long as a century ago, people were already planting Jackfruit from seeds and raising the trees in their backyards. Nowadays there is an industry in South Florida where growers will produce jackfruits primarily for the Asian community. These fruits will be shipped up to places like New York for weddings. When Indian people get married, they often feel it is important to have jackfruits at the table. It's a part of their culture.

On the other hand, for the average American consumer with a small immediate family, a 70 lb. fruit seems daunting. You'd have to invite the whole neighborhood to each such a fruit! These consumers are more interested in 1-2 lb. fruits, so we have focused some of our efforts on breeding smaller jackfruits that could appeal to a wider market.

Garden of Aaron: So what is this breeding program like?

Noris Ledesma: It's a very traditional breeding program. When we talk about breeding and plant genetics, some people get afraid. They imagine we are in a lab, breaking genes and playing God, but we are doing traditional breeding, just controlling the transfer of pollen from male to female plants. It's very easy to distinguish male and female jackfruit flowers, so you can move pollen from one plant to another using paintbrushes. That way we know the identity of the "mother" and "father" plants. When the female flowers set fruit, we bag it to ensure there is no insect contamination. When the fruit is mature, we harvest the fruit, process the seeds and create a new generation of plants. This type of breeding takes many years to get results, so this year we are excited to finally have the opportunity to distribute a new generation of smaller jackfruits to the public.

We have also selected jackfruit that are low in latex. We don't have time in our culture to clean a complicated fruit. The new jackfruits we have developed are low in latex so you can process the fruit quickly, and of course these fruits have very good flavor.

Garden of Aaron: How is jackfruit traditionally prepared?

Noris Ledesma: People use jackfruit in many different ways. In India, jackfruit actually is often used as a meat substitute! And since the seeds have high protein content, they are sometimes roasted like nuts or mashed to make a sort of multi-grain bread.

One exciting thing at the garden is when families of immigrants come to visit and see a tree like the jackfruit. The plant awakens memories and the parents or grandparents can start telling their families about how they used the fruit back in India or Vietnam or Thailand. They don't have to travel thousands of miles to encounter such a tree -- they can grow it in their own backyard here in South Florida.

(Editor's note - Fairchild has a webpage showing how to open and prepare jackfruit.)

Garden of Aaron: Would you say the jackfruit makes a nice ornamental plant in tropical areas?

Noris Ledesma: It can be a beautiful tree. The fruit is certainly eye-catching. And during long, hot summers, the tree's leaves stay shiny and beautiful. If people come to the Jubilee, we will have classes on propagating, fertilizing, pruning and training the tree. It's not difficult to grow in South Florida, but it probably will not grow in other parts of the United States, except in Hawaii.

Garden of Aaron: What about water needs?

Noris Ledesma: It does need some irrigation for its first year or two. After that, it can survive on regular rainfall. Of course, humidity in South Florida is quite high. In terms of nutrition, we do recommend mulching. Our soils in South Florida can be very rocky, so mulch can help the tree's development. And an application of nitrogen fertilizer can help give the tree the energy it needs to produce such large fruit.

Garden of Aaron: Do you think that more people will try jackfruit in the future thanks to the breeding program at Fairchild?

Noris Ledesma: It is our hope that these smaller fruits will show up throughout American supermarkets. Of course, there will still be some cultural issues to overcome. For instance, since a ripe jackfruit still has a green color on the outside, some people who are unfamiliar with it may not be able to tell whether it's ripe or they may think it looks like a vegetable. Probably, it will first win acceptance with second or third generation Asian-Americans who want to try eating jackfruit, but don't want to buy an enormous fruit.

Fairchild's website has a list of Curator's Choice Jackfruit being sold at the festival, including some of the new hybrids with smaller, lower latex fruit.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Species Is a Species Is a Species (Except When It's a Cultivar)

Dr. Douglas Tallamy
Professor & Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware
I recently had the privilege of speaking with one of my horticultural heroes - University of Delaware professor Dr. Douglas Tallamy - to discuss his ongoing research on cultivars conducted in partnership with the renowned Mt. Cuba Center.

In addition to his scientific research, Tallamy is a darn-good writer and author of the wonderful book Bringing Nature Home, which opened my eyes to the importance of biodiversity in our own backyards and showed us all of us can make a difference by supporting vibrant ecosystems in our gardens.

Tallamy is working with Mt. Cuba Center to research cultivars of native plants. What is a cultivar? I'll answer that question by quoting extensively from Mt. Cuba's Executive Director, Jeff Downing:

The newfound popularity of native plants seems like very good news for the environment. But it’s complicated. The thing is, the vast majority of native plants available in the trade are cultivars. A cultivar is a plant that has been selected for a particular attribute or combination of attributes that can be maintained through propagation. Cultivars are often selected (or created through hybridization) for characteristics like flower color, hardiness, disease and/or drought resistance, interesting foliage, or any other noteworthy feature. In order to perpetuate a distinguishing characteristic, most cultivars are propagated clonally. As a result, for many cultivars, every plant is genetically identical.

Sometimes funny things happen when plants are selected for particular attributes. When roses were bred for disease resistance and floral beauty, they lost their scent (which prompts the question: Would a rose, by any other name, smell like anything?). When the Red Delicious apple was selected for its attractive shape and color, we sacrificed flavor.

And that is where it gets interesting. Are native plant cultivars that have been selected for particular attributes as attractive to insects and pollinators as the naturally occurring species? As gardeners we hope so, since these ecological benefits are a big part of what we hope to gain by choosing native plants. But the reality is that we don’t know, because the ecological value of native plant cultivars hasn’t been widely studied. Until now.

Mt. Cuba Center has funded two graduate student fellowships to research the ecological value of native plant cultivars and Doug Tallamy is participating in part of that research. Along with Mt. Cuba Center Fellow Emily Baisden, he's looking at whether cultivars of native woody plants attract as many leaf-eating insects as naturally occurring species.

(But wait, I hear you cry, why on Earth would I want to attract leaf-eating insects? Well, I'll give you two reasons - some of those leaf-eating insects will turn into beautiful butterflies and moths. And some of them will provide food for birds.)

Here's a snapshot of my conversation with Dr. Tallamy:

Garden of Aaron (GOA): Can you tell me a little about your motivation for conducting this research?

Tallamy: Lots of people tell me that they would like to increase the percentage of native plants in their yard, but all they can find at nurseries are cultivars. So people ask me, "Are they as good as the species?"

The answer is that no one has compared straight species to cultivars in terms of their impact on pollinators or on caterpillars eating their leaves. If you are putting plants in your yard to encourage complex food webs, to support insects who will feed the birds, you want to know whether these plants will be as good in those ways. That's the motivation for the Mt. Cuba project. I've made some predictions for 5-7 years now about the impact of cultivars, but it will be nice to have some data to see what's really happening.

GOA: What are the parameters of your research?

Tallamy: It's impossible to test every cultivar, so we're looking at the typical types of genetic changes that create cultivars. Some cultivars take a green leaf and make it purple or variegated. Others take a fat plant and make it skinny or a tall plant and make it short.

Then there are lots of selections involving changes to the flowers, mostly changing the shape, the petal size, the colors and so forth. What will that do to pollinators?

Finally you have cultivars that are focused on disease resistance. If you important resistance into a a plant, does that also impact the insects that pollinate or feed on it?

GOA: Which plants are you investigating?

Tallamy: We are looking at five different cultivars of Cornus sericea [Red Osier Dogwood]. We are looking at flowering dogwood, blueberries, red cedar, red maple, sweetgum, stag-horn sumac, arrowwood, winterberry and a disease-resistant Princeton Elm.

GOA: How is the study structured?

Tallamy: All comparisons are within a species - that is, we are comparing the straight species to the cultivars. They're all growing at a common garden in Mt. Cuba Center with five plants of the parent species growing in a circle. Then we plant the cultivars in clumps around that circle. If an herbivore can find one plant, it should be able to find the others too. Essentially they're located in the same space and planted on the same day.

GOA: How did you choose which plants to include in the study?

Tallamy: We picked plants that we know have insects associated with them. So for instance, Itea [e.g., Itea virginica, Virginia sweetspire] does not have any caterpillar association. Elm trees are high in caterpillar associations. We are looking specifically for caterpillars and vacuuming for anything else. Actually, we're finding more insects than we had thought we would. We've conducted a couple of samplings so far, but it's still early in the study.

GOA: Do you care to make any predictions as to what the study will uncover? Do you have any hypotheses at this point?

Tallamy: If you make a green leaf purple, you're adding anthocyanins. These could affect feeding behavior.

Variegated leaves take away chlorophyll, so my prediction would be that those plants would support fewer lepidoptera [i.e., moths and butterflies].

In terms of changing a plant's habit - making it shorter or taller - unless that genetic change also alters leaf chemistry, I don't see why it should be a factor for herbivores, so I would predict no change in terms of the caterpillars it would attract.

Disease resistance could certainly affect herbivores. When a plant manufactures a chemical to protect itself from disease, there could be some crossover into deterring herbivores.

It's easy to predict how changing the shape or color of a flower might impact pollinators. Flower energy budgets are tight. When you make petals bigger, you're probably reducing nectar. Double flowers remove the flower's reproductive organs and turn them into petals [i.e., if the flower is sterile and does not produce pollen, there is no reason for pollinators to visit].

In terms of changing colors, I don't know how that will affect the UV spectrum [that many species of insects can visualize]. It could have an impact on pollinators.

GOA: Would it be possible for the horticultural industry to produce cultivars that might attract more pollinators than a straight species?

Tallamy: Sure, you could select for traits that enhance pollination or produce greater nectar load. It might not make the plant prettier, but you could advertise it by saying it would help gardeners to attract more butterflies. I'd say that it's almost certain it would sell for that reason alone.

GOA: What do you hope will be the impact of this research?

Tallamy: I hope that people to will start to think about selecting plants based on their function, not just on their aesthetics. If we can accomplish that goal, I'd be happy.

I'd also love to see traits moved along in ways that don't involve cloning. It would be good if we could have some kind of breeding program that would cross plants and still maintain desirable traits while preserving genetic variability. Red maples are naturally swamp plants that hate dry city climates, but if you're looking for a red maple that will do well under city conditions, you can go to the mountains of Pennsylvania and find selections that have already been made for you. There you'll find red maples growing that have been bred through natural selection to survive heat, drought, wind, cold and very little water. You could collect a number of those, interbreed them and produce plants that have the same survival traits without relying on cloning.

We need to do that kind of native plant exploration for harsh city conditions. It makes no sense at all to say that only plants from China will grow in urban conditions. You can look around city lots and see lots of native plants growing. Washington DC, for instance, is filled with oaks and elms, so it's just an urban legend that native North American plants won't grow in our cities.

GOA: To get back to a statement you made at the start of our interview, why is it so hard to find straight species plants instead of cultivars in the nursery trade?

Tallamy: It's a question of supply and demand. If nurseries thought they could sell the straight species, they would do it. But they have spent a century with the mindset that consumers will only buy plants with fancy names and that you have to introduce new plants every single year like the fashion industry.

Now there's growing consumer demand for natives that will do something in our yards instead of just looking nice. Of course, to find a plant that does both - that looks nice and supports the food web - would be the best option.

GOA: Thank you for your time, Dr. Tallamy. Good luck with your research!

Editorial note -- Dr. Tallamy has compiled a spreadsheet called "Host Plants" showing which tree genera host the most Lepidoptera species. According to the spreadsheet, Quercus (oaks) top the list, attracting more than 500 species of lepidoptera, most of them native. Presumably the spreadsheet is targeted for North American audiences when it characterizes genera and lepidoptera species as native or exotic.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Shots from the August Garden #3 - Lemon Queen Perennial Sunflower, Switch Grass, Purslane, Gro-Low Sumac, Sedum, Prague Viburnum and Arrowwood Viburnum!

I know I covered both Cucumber Leaf sunflowers and the more well-known annual sunflowers in my last post, but there are lots of different types of garden worth sunflowers, so here's one more. This is a perennial sunflower (hardy to zone 3) called Lemon Queen. Confusingly, there is also a popular annual sunflower called Lemon Queen (see photo further down in this post). Unlike a typical annual sunflower, this perennial grows into a huge bushy plant with multiple stems and lots of small flowers. Just like annual sunflower, it's native to North America. As I understand it, the parentage of Lemon Queen perennial sunflower is uncertain, but it may be a naturally-occurring hybrid of H. pauciflorus var. subrhomboideus (Still Sunflower) and H. tuberosus (Jerusalem Artichoke).

As you can see, the bees -- especially small native bees - really like Lemon Queen Sunflower. Last year, my Lemon Queen sunflower hosted a months-long party/orgy of Soldier Beetles, but I haven't seen any this year. Guess they've moved on. Maybe the neighbors complained?

As you can see, perennial Lemon Queen Sunflower has grown into a huge bushy plant. It's probably more than one foot in diameter at the base with many stems - like a clump of bamboo - and dozens of flowers open at any one time. The clump seems to expand gradually (at least from year one to year two). Not sure how I'm going to control the spread next year, but I'll try using a sharp spade and pruning any stray stems that emerge beyond an arbitrary (and imaginary) red line. In the foreground, you can see a couple of annual Lemon Queen sunflowers. These are small specimens. I've got some much larger (6-7 feet tall) Lemon Queen annual sunflowers elsewhere on the property. So clearly, their height is very variable.

One more close-up shot of some of the flowerheads on the perennial Lemon Queen sunflower. Like the annual types, Lemon Queen does attract gold finches, though my anecdotal observations suggests they might prefer the Cucumber Leaf and annual varieties. I've read that Lemon Queen sunflower does not set much viable seed, but I do think I've seen a couple of stray seedlings. (They haven't flowered yet, so I'm not sure, but the foliage looks very similar and they are nearby to the main Lemon Queen plant.) If they are seedlings, I may try transplanting them later this autumn and see if they survive elsewhere in the garden.

Circumstantial evidence of a rabbit attack on a young Liriope muscari "Royal Purple"

Love-in-a-Mist is pretty when it blooms, but it does seed itself to the point of weediness. All these seedlings sprang up despite the fact that I tried (not very successfully obviously) to pull many of this year's plants before they went to seed. I may leave a few seedlings, but I think I'll think much more aggressively than I did last year. 

This is my first year with Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass) and so far I'm head over heals. This Native American grass seems super tough and adds some great vertical excitement to the garden. This is a Northwind cultivar that has won particular praise for its strong upright stance. 

Out in the backyard where they have loads of room and all day sun, some more Switch Grass plants are growing like gangbusters. These are supposed to be Northwind cultivars too, although the habit does seem a bit more wild and bushy than the specimens growing in the garden beds adjacent to my patio. These are all first-year plants purchased from the nursery in 3-gallon containers, I believe. Elsewhere (not pictured here) I'm growing the Heavy Metal cultivar which also seems to be doing really well. 

Is this a weed? Well, it depends on your perspective. It certainly grows like a weed - quickly, with no care or attention whatsoever. I didn't plant it and if it's left alone it will probably replicate itself with abandon. And yet this plant, called Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), is apparently cultivated in many parts of the world as a nutritional vegetable! You can even buy seeds for "improved" varieties at certainly online nurseries (e.g. at Baker Creek or Territorial Seed). I don't know that I would intentionally plant it, but I think I might encourage it by ripping out other weeds and letting this one remain. There are worse things than having a carpet of edible purslane beneath intentionally-planted shrubs, trees and perennials, I suppose. I also think rabbits will help keep it in check. They definitely chow down on its relative the Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora) and I think I've seen some bitten-off stems from the Purslane weeds that suggest rabbit damage. My wife and I did try some leaves and lived to tell the tale. They were a bit grassy-tasting on their own, but more mellow when eaten with cherry tomatoes. If you're tempted to search for some wild purslane in your own yard, be careful not to confuse it with poisonous spurge. You can see a few leaves of spurge (darker green, smaller leaves with a red splotch, thinner wiry stem) peeking out from under the purslane in the lower left center of the image above. 

One of my most exciting discoveries this year has been Gro-Low Sumac (Rhus aromatica "Gro-Low").  While the viburnums flopped in the backyard, Gro-Low Sumac has generally thrived. Planted early in the spring, it even flowered a little its first year in the ground, hung tough and then recently started pushing out some new growth. As it covers ground, it shades out weeds and forms a beautiful tall groundcover. 

Beautiful new foliage on the Gro-Low Sumac! Love everything about it - color and form. And most of the leaves look absolutely pristine despite the heat and drought they endure. (I do try to go out and water them deeply once every week or two when we haven't had a good soaking rain. Especially since this is their first year. If I had to do it again, I'd plant Gro-Low Sumac, which apparently is hardy to zone 4, in the autumn to give it time to settle in before the heat of the summer. In fact, I'll likely try to add several more Rhus aromatica plants to my garden. Not sure whether I'll stick with the Gro-Low cultivar, which reportedly maxes out at 2-feet high by 6-8 feet wide, or whether I'll try planting the species, which reportedly becomes a large bush at 4-7 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide!

This is Sedum spectabile "Autumn Joy". It's kind of a mysterious plant. The original Autumn Joy I planted a couple of years back bit the dust. Maybe root rot? (Well, its mostly dead, with a few sprigs hanging on.) But before it kicked the bucket, I cut some stems, stripped the lower leaves and plunked them right in the dirt. This was in spring 2013. And wouldn't you know it? One those sprigs thrived and multipled into this beautiful plant! I don't understand it, but I'm not complaining. I think I'll try taking more cuttings from this one either later this autumn or next spring and transplanting it around the garden to see how if I can replicate my initial success with propagation.

This is Sedum spectabile "Vera Jameson". The flowers and green leaves are very pretty, but I can't say that I like the sprawling habit, the empty center or the yellowing leaves at the base. Hm. Maybe I should take some cuttings from this one too and try it in different areas? S. spectabile flowers are supposed to attract butterflies, but sadly the local Lepidoptera don't seem to have noticed this yet.

Here we go! These giant beauties are the annual version of Lemon Queen sunflower that I mentioned earlier. I don't think there's any chance of confusing these with the perennial Lemon Queen blooms, do you? From petal-to-petal, these are probably wider than my hand from fingertip-to-wrist. They are big, honking flowers. 

Oh and here are some other annual Sunflowers - not Lemon Queen, but unknown branched varieties from a mix I sowed last year that popped up some volunteers this spring. As you can see, something is really relishing the seeds. It could be the work of goldfinches, but the way that the seedheads seem gnawed, I'm thinking squirrel or chipmunk?

Just as the Alleghany Viburnums shuffled off this mortal coil in the backyard, one of the five Prague Viburnums I had installed next to the driveway also looks like it is on its last legs. Not that pretty and not that effective in terms of privacy, which is the reason I had them installed in the first place.

Four out of the five Prague Viburnums are still standing, but I've got to say that I deeply regret my choice. They just don't seem like good screening shrubs - at least not at this point. I'm not quite sure how to remedy the situation. I could try pruning them back in the hopes that they'll branch out and improve their density, but then I'll lose some height (at least in the short-term). If anyone has experience with the Prague viburnums and advice on how to prune them into an effective hedge, I'm all ears.

My favorite Viburnums - indeed the only ones I like so far - are the native Arrowwood Viburnums (V. dentatum). This is Pearl Bleu, purchased in late 2013 from Classic Viburnums. It barely survived a winter neglected in my garage. Yet it sprouted back from the roots and showed a fighting spirit.

Pearl Bleu is nice, but I like this Arrowwood Viburnum even better. It's called Chicago Lustre and the leaves are a stunning glossy deep green. Again, everything you see here is new growth that came back from the roots after the top growth died from neglect and lack of water during winter in the garage. Still, it came roaring back this year. Where Pearl Bleu perhaps put on half of its former top growth, I'd say that Chicago Lustre has grown back most if not all of its top growth, perhaps 2+ feet of new growth at its tallest point, with multiple stems, each of them looking strong and healthy. I didn't see any flowers this year, so I'm thinking perhaps Arrowwood flowers on old wood? If so, hopefully I'll see flowers and even fruit next year. The birds are supposed to love Arrowwood berries.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shots from the August Garden #2 - Cosmos, Crabapple, Wall Germander, Creeping Raspberry, Sunflowers, Geraniums, Marigolds, Lavender, Lambs Ear and Lemon Balm!

Pink cosmos flowers floating over azaleas and Ajuga genevensis

Sugar Tyme crabapple. Can't say that I'm all that excited about this plant yet. Maybe it just needs some time to settle in. On the bright side, it hasn't died in a harsh full sun setting with rotten clay soil that alternates between sodden when wet and concrete when dry. 

Some (ripening?) crabapples on the Sugar Tyme tree

When I said back in June that folks should abandon the practice of annual crape murder, one commentator asked whether my crape would flower for a long time even if it was not cut back. Well...the Natchez crapes are still flowering. They're no longer flowering quite so profusely by mid-August, but there's a steady parade of blooms and if you look closely here you can see that the flowers still draw in bumblebee visitors. (For some reason, Natchez seems to be the only crape that the bees really like, at least in my yard. Not sure if the bees prefer white crape myrtles over the other colors or maybe the others have less pollen?)

This is Teucrium chamaedrys, also known as Wall Germander. It's recommended as a low (to 18 inches tall) evergreen drought-tolerant groundcover for full sun settings. I planted three tiny starter plants this past spring and they've all thrived reasonably well. They haven't flourished and multiplied in size like the Hyssop, but they flowered nicely and all look healthy through rain and drought. Now some folks say this can take clay soil and other people say it needs well-drained soil (the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but heavy clay often stays wet longer than sand or loam). Anyway, I think this needs a year or two to settle in and really take off (sleep, leap, creep), so I'm hoping (fingers crossed) that it survives the winter and thrives next year. Just in case, I may try taking some cuttings in autumn and sticking them in the ground. It's supposed to be super easy to propagate that way. We shall see. The only plant with which I've ever had success using that method is "Autumn Joy" sedum.

This is Creeping Raspberry and one sprawling Mexican Hat plant (grown from seed). I've had sort of a love-hate relationship with the Creeping Raspberry. I liked it last year, then it died to the roots and I was mad at it (because I had expected/hoped for an evergreen groundcover). But then I was pleased at the way it bounced back stronger than ever this year. As you can see, it does a great job of covering ground and suppressing weeds, but it seems to spread in a linear and predictable fashion so I haven't freaked out about it getting out of control (at least not yet). Sadly, I didn't see any flowers at all this year. Perhaps it flowers on old wood, and since it died to the roots, it didn't have a chance to flower and fruit? As for the Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera), my overall impressions are "Meh." The small flowers, drooping petals, sprawling habit and somewhat weedy foliage don't make much of an impression on me. So why don't I rip it out? I have seen some small bees visiting the flowers. Most likely native bees. And I do want to support those. And something (finches?) has been eating the seeds too, although I've bet to catch any bird in the act.

Bee on cucumber leaf sunflower (Helianthus debilis Cucumerifolius). These sunflowers have smaller flowerheads than the traditional typical annual sunflowers (H. annuus), but the flowerheads are borne in profusion over a longer flowering period, the spent flowerheads are less conspicuous and (just like the large-headed sunflowers) they still attract bees and birds.
Here's a massive "hedge" of Cucumber Leaf Sunflowers that has taken over the front border. As you can see, they reach about 5-6 feet tall, until/unless they fall over reaching for the sun. I've got to try to stake some of the ones in front so my lawn guys can mow that grass. These sunflower have been blooming since early June - two months as of when this photo was taken. Every day, the goldfinches hop among the flowerheads eating the seeds. Oh and I didn't actually plant any Cucumber Leaf Sunflowers this year -- these are all volunteers from last year! Hooray - free flowers :-)  Oh and they're native to the Southeastern coastal U.S. (despite the fact that they're native to sandy areas, they seem to grow just fine in my lightly amended clay soil garden beds) and I believe they're even perennial in warmer climates (zone 8? zone 9?)

I just like the combination of colors and textures here in a hot full sun bed at the corner of the driveway and the house. In the foreground, we've got Cucumber Leaf Sunflowers, in the background the leaves of the Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus), as well as some cosmos flowers, some spent flowerheads of the annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and some Liriope muscari "Big Blue" edging the sidewalk.

Cranesbill Geranium "Rozanne". This is not a plant for anyone who likes neat and tidy gardens. It's a sprawler. And the foliage is far from pristine if you look closely. But why look too closely? Take a step or two back and admire the billowy mass of flowers that continues for months. Here in Middle Tennessee, the plants seem to do best with afternoon shade.

Now Geranium sanguineum may be my favorite species of Cranesbill Geranium. As you can see here, it doesn't have the continuous bloom of Rozanne, although you may get some sparse midsummer rebloom without any deadheading or cutting back. But look at that foliage! A symphony of greens, all looking clean and healthy with an adorable shape. Plus I've found that G. sanguineum, known colloquially as Bloody Cranesbill, can tolerate more sun than the other Cranesbill species I've tried (Rozanne and Biokovo). I'm not sure that I'd subject G. sanguineum to full-day blazing sun in the middle of a field...but then again, it might do just fine under such circumstances, especially once established.

Having a six-foot tall wall of sunflowers at the front of your garden  bed is not exactly a pinnacle of garden design! But peeping between the sunflower leaves, you can see that Hardy Blue Plumbago appreciates the extra shade and is throwing off its own long parade of pretty sky blue flowers.

I struggled for years to figure out what to plant on this harsh windswept corner at the front of my house where the sidewalk meets the driveway. I took out the overgrown and misplaced holly (Nellie Stevens should not be planted two feet from a wall). But the plants I tried here like Sarcococca confusa and Camellia sasanqua met a quick death at the hands of windburn, sunburn, desiccation and so forth. And then I hit upon this combo - Panicum virgatum Northwind with Creeping Raspberry at its feet and a nearby Salvia greggii (Rose Pink? Flame? Not sure which.)  Oh and there's a self-sown French Marigold (Tagetes patula) blooming its fool head off here too. All the plants have thrived on the corner this year. The Salvia (known colloquially as Autumn Sage, Cherry Sage or Texas Sage) has been blooming since I planted it back in April without any deadheading or cutbacks. It may not be the hummingbird's favorite plant (that honor probably goes to the much larger Coral Honeysuckle vines), but I have seen the hummingbird visiting S. greggii on several occasions. I've seen S. greggii hardiness described as everything from zone 6 to zone 8. It may depend on cultivar and provenance. Anyway, I'm keeping my fingers cross that my Cherry Sages return next year and/or self-sow (which I've heard is also a possibility). 

Here's a nice serendipitous grouping of Hyssop with French Marigold. It was totally unplanned. I planted three Hyssop plants in a row as a low border at the edge of bed and then this giant (biggest I've ever seen) French Marigold plant sprang up right in the middle of that scheme. It's mostly swamping the middle Hyssop and I feel bad about that, but the French Marigold is so gorgeous and covered in blooms that I don't have the heart to rip it out or even prune it back.
Still impressed with Lamb's Ear "Helene von Stein". As you can see, the foliage looks great from spring to frost. It does sort of crumble and collapse in the wintertime, but the dead foliage (I believe) makes a nice mulch and soil amendment for the subsequent year's growth. It spreads into a thick weed suppressing groundcover. So far, the spread is steady, but not overwhelmingly fast. I think (hope) that it won't get out of control and in fact I'm planning to divide and try spreading some pieces around early next spring when it first starts to emerge.

This is Hidcote lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). The foliage has stayed pristine and the plants have grown a bit, but they haven't flowered at all this first year in the ground. Not sure if they're in too much shade or if they just need to settle in for a year before they flower. Hidcote is supposed to be one of the tougher lavenders - hardy to zone 5 - but like most lavenders, it reportedly prefers well-drained soil and yet it's planted in soil that is pretty heavy clay (as it is throughout my garden). So I'm hoping they'll survive the winter, but I'm not counting on it.

These are some of the top leaves of Lemon Balm - Melissa officinalis - a mint relative. Aren't they beautiful? It has a beautiful lemony scent if you rub the leaves. I tried to make "lemonade" by muddling this bunch of leaves in a glass of water, but unfortunately I couldn't taste much lemony flavor at all. Similarly, just eating a leaf raw did not present much of a lemony sensation. Pity that.

And here's a lush patch of Lemon Balm carpeting the shady understory in part of my front border. I suppose there's a chance it could get out of control in the border, but it's such a pretty (tall) groundcover at the moment that I don't think I'd mind. (Famous gardening last words that precede a lifetime of trying to corral some rampaging invader.) We'll see how it fares this winter and how far it extends its empire next spring... Melissa officinalis is supposed to have summertime flowers that are very attractive to bees, but I didn't see any flowers this year. Even though it seems very happy in the shade, I wonder if it needs more sun to flower? I do wish that were a bit more toothsome as an edible plant...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Shots from the August Garden #1 - Ajuga, Dead and Dying Viburnums, Aronia Berries, October Skies Aster, Coral Honeysuckle, Hyssop and Zagreb Coreopsis

These photos were taken in early-to-mid August in my Middle Tennessee garden. Hope you enjoy!

Ajuga genevensis, personally I find this much more attractive than the typical A. reptans. It's also much harder to find. This is in partial shade (morning shade, afternoon sun) and you can see that it's lush, happy and healthy with very minimal supplemental water. I have a patch growing pretty well in full sun too, but I think it's happier in partial shade.
I don't shy away from admitting my mistakes here at Garden of Aaron. I had the "brilliant" (not really) idea to pay a landscaper to install three substantial Alleghany Viburnums along the back of my property for privacy purposes. They were supposed to grow 10-12 feet tall and wide with broad evergreen leaves. Unfortunately, two died almost immediately (including this one). Not sure what went wrong? It's a tough spot - full hot sun, heavy clay that has some of the worst drainage in the yard. In any case, V x rhytidophylloides (whew - what a mouthful!) is a hybrid of two exotics (the Eurasian V. lantana and the Chinese V. rhytidophyllum) that reportedly became invasive in Virginia when two different cultivars were grown close together. Guess I should stick with the native viburnums, which probably are better suited for this climate and soil anyway...

Here's the one surviving Alleghany Viburnum. Not a pretty picture. What was I thinking? I know I've seen some good looking dense evergreen viburnums around town in inhospitable locations (i.e. highway offramps). Perhaps they're using a different species? Or perhaps they started with smaller plants that had an easier time adjusting to transplantation. Or perhaps they used container grown shrubs (I think these were balled and burlapped and I'm of the opinion that container grown typically works much better.) Whatever the case, I have some big regrets about using these viburnums in the landscape and plan to rip them all out this autumn and replace with something completely different.

Close up on Aronia melanocarpa berries. I have two kinds of Black Aronia berries - these are larger ones and I think they're the Viking variety that was bred for commercial uses (juice production?) in Europe. I also have an Autumn Magic A. melanocarpa, which going by the name, I'd guess was selected mainly for its autumn leaf color. In some ways, these are great plants. They seem very tough through heat and drought, they don't have any problems with our winter (they're hardy to zones 3-4) and as you can see they berry profusely. You don't even have to fight the birds for the berries. So what's the problem. They're bitter. Really, really bitter / astringent. These Viking ones actually aren't so terrible compared to the smaller and far more astringent Autumn Magic variety (presuming I've got my plants ID'd properly). But "not so terrible" is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Truth be told, I wish I'd planted something else. And even though they can take the heat here in Middle Tennessee, I think it stresses them out, which perhaps makes them more susceptible to the insects (I'm guessing lace bugs) that disfigure their leaves something awful and make them drop prematurely. Some folks on Gardenweb seem to think that hot weather makes the berries more astringent. That seems to dovetail with my own experience, so I think folks in more northern climates (like Michigan or the Pacific Northwest) might have better luck with aronia. That said, I'm not planning to rip mine out just yet. For one thing, I have too many other more pressing landscape concerns -- like replacing those danged viburnums shown above. But I don't think I'd recommend Aronia for the Southeast, at least not from an edible perspective. It is true, however, that I have not yet tried adding Aronia berries to the fresh fruit smoothies I make. If I try it and it's not too awful, I may yet change my tune.

"October Skies" Aster. Looking healthy and loaded with buds. Love the way that it's spread to form a tall, beautiful weed-suppressing groundcover.
Hyssop officinalis. I planted three of these earlier this year in the hopes I could trim them into a low informal hedge. That's still a work in progress, but they've grown very well in a hot full sun area next to the driveway. And as you can see, the bees like the blue flowers -- and so do I!

Coral Honeysuckle (native Lonicera sempervirens) still blooming strong on the front porch railing. The hummingbirds seem to love it. As you can see, they manage to fertilize the flowers, which leads to berry production, shown here as a green cluster right below the flowers . They'll ripen to red and then probably be picked off by other birds to be eaten and spread as nature intended).
Another shot of Coral Honeysuckle. Blooms from early spring right through summer and into autumn. One of my favorite plants! Yes, it's a little rampant, but you can cut it back hard at pretty much anytime and it will bounce back.

One more view of the Coral Honeysuckle flowers. I tried to duck down and get a pic from the hummingbird's point of view on its approach. Sure looks enticing...

Coreopsis verticillata "Zagreb". I've got two of these plants growing underneath a crape myrtle. They're probably getting a little too much shade and I might try transplanting them this autumn. That said, they're still blooming nicely and have probably increased in size by 3-4 times since I planted them early this spring. They bloom for months without deadheading and seem to attract some tiny critters (originally I just saw ants, more recently I've seen some small bees visiting the flowers too).

I didn't want to overwhelm with a cavalcade of photos. So I split up the bounty into multiple posts. Stay tuned for installment #2!