Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Secret to a Successful Garden

Everyone wants to know the secret to having a beautiful garden. Is it a special fertilizer or a good sprinkler system? Perhaps it has to do with how the plants were raised or a special planting technique. Or maybe it is just for people that truly have a “green thumb.” Some of those things might contribute, but they are not the secret. I’ll tell you the secret if you’re willing to listen.

The secret is: “Right plant, right place.” Now you might think that’s intuitive, but you’d be surprised at how many people try to override that concept. I’ve done it myself and watched healthy plants fail. Sometimes you can catch your mistake soon enough to move the plant to a more suitable place. This year my rain lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca) finally bloomed because I found the right spot.

Zephyranthes atamasca was finally happy
when I found a wet spot for it
Light and moisture are the two big concerns in choosing the right place. Sun-loving plants need sun. Your first clue on lack of sun is usually failure to bloom (or bloom well). Did you have one that was blooming when you got it and now doesn’t bloom at all? Evaluate how much light it’s getting and compare that to what is recommended for it. If your research says that it needs “full sun,” then it needs to get 5-6 hours of direct sun.

How’s the moisture level? Some plants can die from being too wet because their roots aren’t adapted to deal with it. On the other hand, some plants are quite happy even in occasional standing water! Know the moisture level requirements and the tolerance of the plants you’re using.

Mix the two concepts (light and moisture) together and you might get a magic combo: part-shade plants that can take more sun as long as they get plenty of water. Or you can find plants that can take a drier environment when protected from the hot afternoon sun. You have to know what they can take.

Coreopsis auriculata thrives again
Once you’re got the perfect garden, here’s another curveball: Places change over time. Failing to notice and react to changes in conditions can make it seem like you’re not a successful gardener. A change in water flow might cause an area to retain more water, killing established plants.

Or an area now has more shade than before because the trees got big and plants are no longer blooming. My side patch of coreopsis is thriving again after I thinned out a few trees that had grown up. A successful gardener is alert and reactive to such changes.

So now you know the secret. How to implement it? Be willing to do your research, say no to plants that have no place in your garden (unless you want to treat them as annuals!), and be alert to changes that require corresponding changes on your part. And pass the secret on ~

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Be A Good Neighbor

Most people like to be good neighbors. They keep noise to a minimum, wave hello to their neighbors, take them cookies when they move in, and keep an eye out for people with moving vans emptying their house while they’re on vacation.

Those are all examples of good neighbor behavior. What you do in your landscape can be good neighbor behavior too (and I’m not just talking about keeping your grass mowed).

I was walking through my 1-acre woods last week and I noticed an alarming amount of stilt grass coming up. I’ve worked hard over the years to pull up all previous infestations before they could set seed and by last year there were only a few sprigs. A creek wraps around the edges of my property and this new infestation looked suspiciously like it could have come from seeds that washed onto the land during high rain flooding.

Stilt grass, ready to discharge seeds into drain

Several days later, I walked along the street and realized that the neighbor above us has let stilt grass grow with abandon under his trees, right next to the drain that flows into the creek. I no longer need to wonder where those seeds came from. Letting weeds flourish in your yard has consequences for the people around you. I imagine that was the gist of noxious weed laws, but we don’t need laws to tell us how to be good neighbors.

Just like weeds flow off your property, so does water. A friend was recently describing how residential construction uphill from her was causing permanent water flow changes affecting her property and others.  What kind of neighbors would do that?

What gloom! Those are some of the things that bad neighbors do. What can good neighbors do for each other and for their less noticeable neighbors: the birds, bugs and butterflies? How about these items:

  • Grow butterfly/moth host plants to benefit butterflies and moths and to provide caterpillars for birds.
  • Grow fruit-bearing native trees for birds.
  • Remove fruit-bearing invasive plants so that they don’t spread around.
  • Grow nectar plants, grouping them in groups for larger impact and beauty too.
  • Avoid using pesticides; they harm bugs while over-spray and run-off contaminate other areas like neighbors’ property.
  • Keep your native plants tidy so that people can see that they make beautiful landscape contributions.
  • Tell your neighbors about your plant choices and why they’re important to you and to wildlife.
  • Stop using that gas-guzzling blower and get some exercise with a quiet broom. You’ll be kinder to the environment, to your neighbors, and the time you spend sweeping will give you a chance to listen to the birds.

Invasive Callery pear fruit two doors down

If you were your neighbor, how would you feel? Would you be glad to have you for a neighbor? If you were a bug or a bird, could you get what you need? Here’s to being a good neighbor, for all the neighbors, large and small.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Plant What You Love

This week the bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) bloomed, just as it has for the last 6 years. Every year, when it blooms, I am just as happy as that first year.  The happy feeling reminds me to encourage others to plant what you love and to re-evaluate every few years whether your garden represents what you love.

Magnolia macrophylla

This year, I realized that the hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) had taken over the side bed so aggressively that there was no room for other plants. As much as I like the ageratum, I decided that it was time to make a choice. If I wanted room to plant more of what I loved, I would have to get rid of something that had overstepped its bounds.

Hope to see Helianthus porteri like this in the fall

After I removed a lot of the ageratum (as well as potted up some excess spreading orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) for friends), I planted new seedlings of Coreopsis tinctoria (which I have wanted to include for years), Stone Mountain daisy (Helianthus porteri). I also spread some seeds of annuals like cosmos, zinnia, and sunflowers. With the smothering cover of the ageratum removed, several other existing perennials will also get a chance to grow and shine.

Also removed were a couple of shrubs that were too big for the space and were constantly being tortured by deer. I always winced when I saw them. The area is now available for sunny perennials and I’ve begun moving plants into it. Now I feel good about how that space is performing.

Earlier in the year I removed a small oak that was shading out an area that used to be sunny. I have plenty of oaks and few sunny areas so I reclaimed this area in the name of light. The perennials there have recovered nicely with the extra light and are blooming again!

Geranium maculatum is something I'll always make room for

Of course, I’m always trimming the grass edges, stealing more from the lawn every year. Native flowers make me happier than grass does because I know they are supporting the local ecosystem. Kind of like the Marie Kondo approach to organizing – “discard things that do not spark joy” - but apply it to the garden instead.

So step back, take a look at what you’ve got and decide if you need to make room for what you love. I went through a similar exercise back in 2011 with one of the front beds.

Gardening is all about change and sometimes you need to be the one to initiate it. Have fun!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Return to Lush

I looked out my window this week and realized that green had suddenly taken over. Gaps between branches were now filled in, turning the view outside my windows into lush curtains of leaves. Out the front, I can no longer see the birdhouse that has fresh eggs; I was hoping to be able to watch the parents come and go.  Out the back, the neighboring house is an occasional flash of white when the breeze knocks the branches askew.

It is the perfect time to remember that this area is considered the southern edge of a temperate rainforest. From Wikipedia: “The Appalachian temperate rainforest is located in the southern Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S. About 351,500 square kilometers (135,000 square miles) of forest land is spread across southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. The annual precipitation is more than 60 inches.”

Iris virginica loves being wet

While some figures put my county just outside this region, I think we’re inside it. Rainfall measurements put us in the 56 inches+ range and there are some years that put us over 60. A search for nearby Holly Springs from 5/1/15 to 5/1/16 returned a statistic of 62.3 inches of rain.

No shortage of water at the nearby Old Mill site in Roswell

Are we having more rain than usual? There are people that say we are; people that swear it never used to rain this much when they were a kid. I suspect it is not terribly far off from normal. This chart from 1961-1990 shows our area in the 56-58 inch range (and I see that the person quoted above actually lived in the 48-50 range area). I remember that when I first moved here in 1988, if the rain chance was 30% or higher, we usually got rain.

I enjoy living inside the curtain of green. Healthy native plants attract an interesting array of insects which in turn attract a variety of birds. No matter what you call it, I am pleased to be surrounded by abundant and diverse native vegetation and the ecosystem that it supports.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Virtual Tour – Up Close

Last week was the native plant garden tour and I quickly published a blog with some pictures of the garden overall. This week is about showing some close-ups of the plants that were blooming during the tour.

Mouse-eared coreopsis (C. auriculata)

First on the scene was a patch of mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata) that was big and lush and full of blooms! It could not have been a better beacon of native hospitality. I’m very much a fan of this plant so it was good to show it in style.

Yellow trillium (Trillium luteum)

In the same area there were plenty of other blooms: red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), purple beardtongue (Penstemon smallii), and the rain lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca) were still going.

In the shady area behind the sunny group, yellow trillium (Trillium luteum) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) were blooming.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Rain lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca)

The piedmont azaleas (Rhododendron canescens) were finishing up but still gave a sense of what they offer in terms of beauty and fragrance. Other blooming shrubs included the red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) near the street, Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), several hawthorns (Crataegus sp.), paw paws (Asimina triloba) and the American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus) by the driveway.

Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens)
Hawthorn (Crataegus triflora)

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus)

While 3 species of viburnums were heavily budded, none were far enough along to have open blooms. Long past blooming, the Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) was instead sporting tiny fruits, a treat in itself. The alternate leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), also known as pagoda dogwood, was putting on a good show to the left of the front porch.

Cornus alternifolia (view from inside the house)
Around the side, perennial blooms included green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), scorpionweed (Phacelia bipinnatifida), the tiny star-shaped blooms of woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), more mouse-eared coreopsis and columbine plus a sweep of golden ragwort (Packera aurea) that had spread from two small plants I got when the garden tour was at Charles’s house. I gave away some during my tour too! 

Sisyrinchium angustifolium

My friend Marcia had given me some extra blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), which I do have naturally, and that was blooming on the path into the woods, a space that has been largely yielded to the deer. Not much was blooming in the woods unless you happened to find the adder’s tongue fern, but it is always a nice, peaceful stroll to the creek.

Baptisia alba

Inside the protective pool fence, plants celebrated their ability to live unmolested by large herbivores: bluets (Houstonia caerulea), hairy phlox (Phlox amoena), green and gold, white baptisia (Baptisia alba), Carolina catchfly (Silene caroliniana), valeriana (Valeriana pauciflora) – a gift several years ago from Sheri - and Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus).

The whole sunny border is crammed with plants, overstuffed with the joy of deer-free gardening.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

Valeriana pauciflora

At the back of the pool area, umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) tried to offer a few blooms but the rain the night before gave it pause and the flowers never fully opened. Still the leaves on it and the adjacent bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla) offered a lesson in identification as well as growth habit.

Around the yard, my attempts at using native plants in containers were showing signs of success: blooms in some while lush growth in others hinted of summer blooms to come. I take my lessons in container gardening from expert friends like Debbie, Marcia and Sheri. It’s time to do an update on my earlier post.

It’s been nice to enjoy the garden in the week since the tour. Spruced up and blooming nicely, it’s a celebration of how beautiful native plant gardening can be. Thanks for stopping by, in person and via the blog.