Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Mad Seed Starter

Considering hanging up my indoor seed-starting hat forever...

I'm hopping mad --- at myself.

I'm mad at myself for failing - consistently and repeatedly - with my efforts to start plants from seed indoors.

I don't have any problem raising plants (at least certain plants) from seed outdoors, but I'm pretty pathetic when it comes to starting seeds in pots indoors.

Well, actually, my first experiment (inspired by videos and blog posts like this) was to try starting seeds in eggshells.

My wife and I diligently saved our plastic clamshell egg containers and washed-out eggshells all winter. In the spring, I purchased a plastic table, grow light and timer, setting up the whole shebang in the garage. Then I packed the shells with plain old topsoil from a big-box store, dusted the soil with seeds and set back to watch the magic.

Sure enough, seeds sprouted!

But the seedlings never grew much. And most of them soon withered and died.

Perhaps I hadn't given them enough water and the soil had dried out?

So I tried again, heading to a growers' supply shop to purchase biodegradable peat pots and some good organic potting soil with fertilizers built in.

Once again -- good germination, not much growth, eventual wilting and death.

I'm tempted to give up on this whole indoor seed-starting business with its grow lights and timers and spray bottles. Instead, maybe I'll try a bit of cold-frame gardening next winter.

Or does anyone want to try to convince me to give it another try and enlighten me as to what I might be doing wrong? Should I try the bottom watering method shown here?


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Monday, July 10, 2017

Hibiscus for Days

'Blue Bird' rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
'Blue Bird' rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna Pink Swirl'
Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna Pink Swirl'
Native rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Native rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Veggies Til the Cowpeas Come Home

Daikon radish (Raphanus sativus) gone to seed
This might just look like a hot mess, but it's actually hundreds of daikon seeds ripening on some of my biggest roots. The pods themselves are edible when green and younger, but now I think they're probably only good for seed-saving.

In my first year or two of gardening, I tried growing a lot of veggies in our solid clay soil.

Frustrated by my lack of success, I mostly gave up and focused on ornamentals.

Recently though, I've started tiptoeing my way back into growing food.

I've had some fair success with basil - including a couple of volunteer basil plants the last couple of years.

Last fall and again this spring, I planted daikon radishes (Raphanus sativus) from Sow True Seed. This crop plays multiple roles - the leaves function as a cover crop, the roots are edible, the seedpods are edible and any roots left in place should hopefully decay and thus work as a no-till soil amendment. The fall crop did OK last year despite a drought and the spring crop this year did even better, producing good-sized roots and literally thousands of seedpods.

I ate some of the pods (found I liked them best raw), but ultimately ended up just composting most of them. I'm allowing the pods to mature on some of the biggest roots to save seed and/or let them naturalize a bit.

Meanwhile, as the radishes bolt and fade in the summer heat, I've started some 'Southern Brown Sugar' cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata- also from Sow True Seed - one of my favorite seed companies!) for the first time.

I'm very impressed with the germination on these seeds. I think almost all my seeds sprouted in under a week and seem to be off to a strong start!

Vigna unguiculata / cowpea seedlings
Cowpeas looking good so far!

And then there's the tropical roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which I sowed in the garden about a month ago. Germination was a bit slow on these and the seedlings are fairly slow-growing. I'm a little worried that I should have started them indoors and that they won't have time to mature and flower in a single season. (I believe they're actually perennials in zone 9 and warmer, but they'll almost certainly behave like annuals here in zone 6-7.)

To read about roselle's edible uses, you can check out this publication from Purdue University.

Hibiscus sabdariffa / roselle seedlings
Grow strong, little hibiscus!


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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Partridge Pea - One of the Best (Self-Sowing) Annuals in my Garden

The bumblebees fly up into the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) flowers and then vibrate with a high-pitched buzz... presumably to harvest the pollen? It's fun to observe!

Pollination results in the formation of these long seedpods. When the pods ripen, they turn a dark reddish color and split open to release their seeds, some of which will ideally sprout to create next year's partridge peas.

I scattered ~ 130 seeds outdoors in autumn 2015 from Kansas Native Plants. Last spring, I only had a few plants germinate, but this year I have dozens of plants. I harvested some of the seeds to scatter around the garden and let other seeds fall naturally to the ground beneath the plant. Some seedlings have sprouted in the lawn too, but they don't seem to flower (so far) with regular mowing and are easy to pull, so I'm not too worried about this plant becoming a lawn weed. 

Partridge pea is native to Tennessee and throughout much of the rest of the Central and Eastern U.S.
The only place I've seen it growing wild (and it might actually have been planted there) was alongside a parking lot in a South Florida nature preserve.
These plants are growing in full sun on unamended, compacted clay soil with very little supplemental irrigation. (I think I've watered them by hose a few times so far this year.)  As you can see, they appear to be thriving.
Per the USDA:

[Partridge pea] seed is one of the major food items of northern bobwhite and other quail species because it remains in sound condition throughout the winter and early spring. Partridge pea was found to be one of the most important fall and winter foods of bobwhite quail in Alabama. Partridge pea seeds are high in phosphorus content and protein value, and low in crude fiber and lignin making digestibility generally high.

Seeds of this legume are also eaten by the greater and lesser prairie-chicken, ring-necked pheasant, mallard [and] grassland birds.

Partridge pea often grows in dense stands, producing litter and plant stalks that furnish cover for upland game birds, small mammals, small non-game birds, and waterfowl.

Partridge pea is considered an important honey plant, often occurring where few other honey plants are found. Nectar is not available in the flowers of showy partridge pea but is produced by small orange glands at the base of each leaf. Ants often seek the nectar and are frequent visitors. The common sulfur butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, and the larvae use the leaves as a food source.

Partridge pea is considered an excellent species for planting on disturbed areas for erosion
control and improving soil fertility. It establishes rapidly, fixes nitrogen, reseeds, and slowly decreases as other species in the seeding mix begin to dominate the site. Nitrogen fixation is greatest during the flowering stage. To help prevent weed establishment and control soil erosion along county roadsides in Iowa, partridge pea is often included in the seed mix with other forbs and grasses.

Per the North American Butterfly Association:

Cloudless Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, and Little Yellow caterpillars all use Partridge Pea as a food source. All three of these butterflies range widely over the southern U.S., with Little Yellow’s range being restricted eastward.

Partridge Pea is also used as a food source by Ceraunus Blue caterpillars which are common in far southern regions, usually late in the summer; found all year long in southern Florida and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas.

Gray Hairstreak caterpillars also include Partridge Pea as a caterpillar food plant in addition to countless other plants.


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Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Sunflower Taller than the House!

Well, that's the way it looks in this photo 😉

The goldfinches have feasted on these seeds.

Sunflowers are cheerful bee magnets.  

All of the sunflowers in this post are volunteers from seeds the birds missed last year.
As you can see from the photos above, some of their blooms have already faded to the seed stage, but other buds have still not opened yet.
To keep the party going longer, I added some 'Velvet Queen' sunflowers from Southern Exposure.
Those are still in the seedling stage, but they are growing fast and strong!


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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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