Wednesday, July 16, 2014

No Explanations Needed

What do you say when you are embraced by a stranger on the street or when you meet someone for the first time only to feel as if you've known them forever? You don't have to say anything. If you're a blogger, your smile will do it for you.

The Welcoming Committee 

I spent the past weekend in Portland, Oregon at my first Blogger Fling. I could say it was a party or at least the mother of all garden tours but it was really a homecoming. Finally meeting the people whose blogs I follow was incredible. But to be able to share my passion with brilliant, funny gardeners of all ages was truly amazing. It was fabulous. It was every adjective you can think of that describes what makes you happy.

Private garden in Portland, Oregon

I love this screen!

I started blogging four years ago as a way to share my garden pictures with family but soon realized I had joined a rich community of knowledge and support. I no longer felt defeated when plants died, were peed on by the dogs, accidentally weed whacked by my husband, or stepped on by kids. When the only words I could use to describe some of my garden designs were 'completely craptastic', other bloggers were there to remind me to start over, keep going, and be thankful I didn't have deer, raccoons, or psychotic neighbors.

Private garden in Portland, Oregon

One of my favorite gardens 

Garden blogging isn't a contest. It's a community of people who understand the need to research 'plants for dry shade' at 3 am because you can't sleep and the irresistability of your favorite perennial. The Portland Fling combined 80 garden bloggers with entry into some of the coolest gardens I've ever seen. But I didn't bother comparing my garden to the ones we saw. Gardening is the magical combination of art and science and my suburban garden is my studio and lab.

I arrived in Portland curious but left inspired. Designed around the needs of a family, my garden doesn't feature expensive art or a secret waterfall. But thanks to three days of touring and non-stop garden talk, it now has a few less tree branches, a new variegated shrub and ornamental grass, three purple heuchera, and six brightly colored coleus. Buoyed by the vibrantly colored foliage combos that filled my camera, I pulled out the plants I didn't like and didn't wait til  fall to make much needed changes.

Portland is a cool, quirky city with a thriving garden culture. The DC area is not. Chemically addicted lawns and polite, boring shrubs rule. If our garden culture were live theater, it would consist of a short, one act play where nothing happens. But since I can't change my address, I've decided to change my perspective and dig deeper into the small gardening community I'm already a part of. Would I have made these changes prior to the Fling? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Something From Nothing: The Big Daddy Redo

I once saw a garden that had been decorated with a beautiful mirror to make the narrow space seem larger. Clever and effective, I admired the creativity of the gardener but wondered what parts I would choose to reflect if I added one to mine. Would I angle it carefully to hide everything I didn't like or would I be brave enough to show it all? Even without the glass and frame, every garden is a mirror that reflects the priorities of the gardener. I didn't need a reflective reminder to show me that parts of mine were a mess.

Spring 2013

The side of my house visible from the street used to be called the Yuck Side. It's claims to fame were several utilities, a huge rain barrel, and a massive bleeding heart named Fred.

Summer 2012

Every summer when Fred went dormant, a huge gaping hole was left in an already ugly bed. Busy with 5 dogs, two teenagers, and a teaching career, I didn't have time to deal with the mess. As long as I avoided the side of my house, I never had to look at it.

Summer 2012

But if my goal was to show my neighborhood that a beautiful garden could be created without using chemicals, this bed was a heckler to my well polished rants. Why would anyone listen to anything I had to say if I couldn't even fix this disaster?

 Summer 2012
I assembled this wooden screen from plywood that I painted and embellished with decorative cabinet knobs and my favorite Dr. Seuss quote. The thyme was supposed to cascade over the top but it died, instead.

Frustrated and needing an outlet, I poured my anger and disappointment into an art project. If I couldn't fix the problem, I'd find an artistic way to cover it up while I worked out a real solution. The screen was a personal challenge. Would I really make it and then stick pictures of it on the Internet? If I could pour my energy into something purely decorative and slightly weird, surely I could figure out a way to create a beautiful bed from a hideous mess.

So I did.

Summer 2012

This bed was full of weeds, ragged anemones that only looked good in the spring, persicaria (Painter's Palette), and an assortment of oddballs I couldn't find a home for in the main garden.

July 2014

While my screen served to horrify and confuse, I began to research and plan. Starting in fall 2012, I widened the bed and added a couple hundred pounds of compost. I interplanted the bleeding heart with summer blooming Asiatic lilies to add interest when Fred had gone dormant. Secured to decorative metal stakes, they grow up through the bleeding heart foliage and help hide the utility boxes.

I thought these were going to be a deep pinkish red.

Added this spring, the handmade stakes from Battle Hill Forge are as beautiful as the lilies.

I put the stakes in place once the lilies broke dormancy. 

'Buttered Popcorn' day lilies and phlox were added to help hide the rain barrel we call the Big Daddy.

Delta Dawn and Laura phlox

White mist flower, maltese cross (lychnis chalcedonica), Painter's Palette (persicaria virgniana), and more day lilies grow easily here. The maltese cross and the phlox clash but I don't mind. They're on opposite sides of the rain barrel so it's no big deal. At least not to me.

A newly added birdhouse

I decided to fight fire with fire and added native obedient plant to the weedy area next to the air conditioning units.  It overtook the weeds and has filled the space completely.

August 2013

It blooms in late summer and is a pollinator magnet.

Fall blooming 'Starman' geraniums and white mist flower grow in front of the rain barrel.

Toad lilies from a friend fill this area in the fall.

To protect my newest variegated toad lily from the rabbits, I covered it with a mesh colander. The colander provides light while keeping it safe.

This owl reminds me to keep the newly planted scutellaria (Downy skullcap) moist.

As for all those knobs, I found a blacksmith on Etsy who made me twisted iron rods with holes in them. I used a little Dremel saw to cut off the extra metal rod sticking out the back of the knob and secured them into the metal poles with  waterproof adhesive. I now have 18 one-of-a-kind plant stakes.

I used them to mark any spot that needs special attention.

These were very easy to make.

I even used them along with a few wrapped iron rods to create a little barrier so my honeysuckle vine isn't chopped by the lawn mower.

I used the fox knob to scare off the rabbits. I think it's working.

In the end, I created a bed just like me: quirky and resolute. Renamed the Big Daddy Garden it's my own mirror to remind me what a little weirdness and a lot of determination can accomplish. Instead of hiding my mess and pretending it isn't there, I'd rather just fix it. It's not as easy but it feels a lot better.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

All's Well that Ends Well: A Rose Update

Sometimes things seem much worse than they actually are. In February I posted my grand plan to battle blackspot in my roses organically.  I'd noticed a few blotchy leaves in 2012 but by early summer 2013, my roses were so covered in spots my garden looked like a warning pamphlet for smallpox. I knew I'd have to prune them drastically to help solve the problem and potentially eliminate a few.

At first I was afraid I was petrified
I kept thinking I could never live without them by my side

Westerland and Night Owl climbing roses in late spring 2013 before the black spot plague

But then I spent so many nights
 thinking how they did me wrong, I grew strong
and I learned how to get along 

When Graham Thomas came out in May, I was hoping my problems were over. But life's rarely that simple, is it? Another rose has bit the dust, ripped from its happy spot and dumped in the trash. I should be angry but I'm not. I've decided my garden needs to be more Darwinian and less like a spa.

William Shakespeare 2000 (red) and Jude the Obscure (yellow) in better days. Jude is still in the garden but William went in the trash.

And now you're back from dormancy
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your leaf
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I'd known for just one second you'd be back to bother me

David Austin's William Shakespeare 2000 is a goner. I should have known when I saw mosaic virus as well as black spot in its leaves in May that nothing good lie ahead. It's growth was weak and slow to develop and the organic fungicide I'd used had little effect. As soon as I pulled off new leaves, spotted ones replaced them. I sprayed, I encouraged, I held its little leaves and whispered sweet nothings. When nothing changed I kicked its ass out.

Early June 2014
 William (little blob in the middle) should have been as big as the yellow yarrow by June. A healthy but significantly smaller Night Owl grows along the fence.

Do you think I'd crumble? Do you think I'd lay down and die?
Oh no, not I! I will survive
Oh as long as I know how to love I know I'll stay alive
I've got all my love to give and all my life to live, I will survive

As for the other roses, they're healthy although much smaller than they were last year after being pruned so drastically. The fungicide (Organocide) and organic foliage sprays (Actinovate and Serenade) are working well. This sprayer has a cup that pivots, allowing me to spray the bottom of the leaves, which is where the fungus lands first.

So William came out, blue mist flower went in and all's well that ended well.

Blue Mist flower (Eupatorium coelestinum) is a southeastern native that attracts pollinators. It self-seeds everywhere in my garden but I don't mind.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Soaking in the Slow

I did not set my alarm Monday. I did not get up early and spend the day telling 110 twelve year olds to tie their shoes, put their name on their paper, or sit up straight. I did not attend conferences or meetings and didn't take home a single paper to grade. I may have gone mad if I had. Instead, I did nothing. I slept late, puttered in my pajamas, sipped my coffee. I spent the morning in the garden and just soaked in the slow.

Annual ammi majus with drumstick alliums and yellow yarrow


The 'Rocky Top' coneflowers to the left only grow facing east.

Lucy at the gate behind a sea of flowers

I love frogs, despite having kissed a few. 

Pots up the patio steps and a hidden birdhouse

I grew the gomphrena from seed and they were supposed to be a variety of bright colors. Instead they bloomed mostly white. White flowers against beige siding is pretty boring. I'm hoping the next batch is a bit sassier.

This was supposed to be purple but I like the red, too.

One of my students gave me two Eastern Box turtles her father rescued from the middle of the road. I named them Shaggy and Scooby.

So curious...

Shaggy didn't appreciate being drooled on and went back into the garden. 

Spigelia marilandica (Indian Pink) grows alongside 'Moonshine' pulmonaria and stained glass in the shade garden.

This southeastern native thrives in moist but well drained soil in light shade.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Rain Garden Redesign

I think I'm one of those people that likes having a project. Hauling rocks, compost, and breaking out the shovels makes me happy. Spending all day in a shopping mall does not. After redesigning my shade garden, one side of my garden swooshed into a beautiful deep curve and one side of my garden did not. It tortured me. I need visual balance and wanted each side of my garden to curve inward like an embrace around an ellipse of grass. The only way to accomplish this was to expand my rain garden. 

My rain garden isn't a traditional sunken garden but a riverbed that fills with water when it rains. Raised berms on each side maintain moisture without permanent saturation. The purpose of a rain garden is to capture as much water as possible to reduce runoff. A giant trumpet creeper vine dominates the fence along the riverbed.

 Clematis grow well in the rich, moist soil. The handmade birdhouse is from Mike Merritt Art.

Staychs 'Hummelo' is a pollinator favorite.

Using the plant selection philosophy of "If it's already in my garden, I must really like it", I redesigned this bed with plants I'd liberated from other sections of the garden. While this seems resourceful, it was my only option after blowing my budget on my shade garden redesign. I purchased a small abelia 'Rose Creek' last fall but since I made the rules, I decided I could also break them. It's hard to resist an abelia.

A curving grass path leads to the gate. The patio to the right is slightly higher than the bed next to the grass allowing water to flow into the trench between the grass and the rain garden. Clover blurs the lines between the riverbed and the grass. A pot of variegated silene rescued from the sale table was just added.

Seashells are scattered along the rocks.

The riverbed is on a slight slope. The area at the front near the grass is the highest point and this area is the lowest. Swamp milkweed added this spring has been planted into the middle of the bed at it's deepest spot. My little abelia is next to the 'Pink Grapefruit' yarrow in a drier spot than the milkweed. Pink turtlehead (chelone 'Hot Lips'), blue mist flower (eupatorium coelestinum), and 'Piglet' fountain grass (pennisetum) thrive in the rich, moist soil. The big rock at the end acts as a dam. 

The rain garden sits at the bottom of a slight slope. The higher up the slope you go, the shadier it is. Malva 'Zebrina', day lilies, and monarda love moist soil. The closer you go to the mouth of the riverbed, the drier it is.

I know this picture is absurdly bright, but I love the contrast between the shady and sunny areas of my garden. This section of the rain garden provides moist but well drained soil.

This is the sunniest part of my garden.

I added 'Little Hennie' sedum to test how dry the soil is at the mouth of the riverbed. Planted in a pocket of pea gravel next to a few large rocks, it's thriving in moist but very well draining soil. 

Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) has small blue flowers that bloom early. The happy frog hose guide keeps the dogs from using this area as a shortcut.


Creating the rain garden was a huge project. Begun in 2012, I worked on it steadily each spring and fall, making the process more manageable. Over 2,000 pounds of compost and 1,000 pounds of rocks were used. I did all the work myself.

 Spring 2012

I removed the sod with a shovel and slowly built the berms. Water permeable landscaping fabric lines the bottom of the riverbed. The initial rain garden was pretty small.

February 2013

May 2013

In a plot to replace grass with garden, I expanded the rain garden again last spring

October 2013

and again in the fall.

June 20, 2014

My latest expansion increased the depth of this bed, giving me more sunny spots in an ever shadier garden.

I hand picked the larger rocks at a local stone yard. Bags of river rocks form the base of the river bed.

Adding different sized rocks to the riverbed gave it an more authentic feel. After it rains, it's common to find butterflies licking the minerals from the wet stones. Do I have a photo of this fabulous event? Of course not.