Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bumblebee on the Bleeding Heart


I noticed this bumbebee desperately trying to find some pollen in the old fashioned bleeding heart flowers Thursday night. I'm not sure how succesful it was. I didn't notice any pollen on its legs and it seemed pretty cranky! Have you ever seen bees on dicentra (bleeding heart)?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Smallpox, Seuss, and the Chesapeake Bay: The Earth Day Reading Project

I was asked by Marguerite from Canoe Corner to write about books that motivated me towards a more eco-friendly existence. I am honored and intrigued by the concept because it wasn't a question I had ever pondered before. An avid reader, I am drawn towards books that force me to view a situation from a perspective other than my own.

You may find the first book I chose an ill-fit for this topic but it's affect on me was profound. Every fire needs a spark and I discovered in this book the fuel to make choices that are sometimes considered unconventional but that led me to choose to live a life of authenticity rather than expectation.

The Speckled Monster  A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell is the true story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, revolutionaries in the fight against smallpox through inoculation. Both smallpox survivors, neither Lady Mary nor Dr. Boylston followed the social conventions of the early 1700's and sought alternative methods of fighting the disease as a way of protecting their families. Soliciting advice from African slaves and women met while traveling in Turkey, Lady Mary returned to London determined to help end a horrific smallpox epidemic through inoculation. Dr. Boylston of Boston, Massachusetts, like Lady Mary, sought advice from African slaves who, having been inoculated before being captured, were resistant to the disease. Enduring death threats and the near death of his children, Dr. Boylston continued inoculating all those who were willing and helped end the smallpox epidemic of 1721.


What I found inspirational about this book was the tenacity of its main characters and their deep understanding of how the actions of one person can be transformative in the lives of others. They refused to be bound by expectation or conformity and instead chose to live radically. Dr. Boylston was as quiet as Lady Mary was flamboyant but their refusal to passively accept their given roles saved the lives of thousands and led to vaccination studies by Louis Jenner and other scientists.

I live in a suburb of suffocating sameness but refuse to bow to the ease of chemicals and jumbo sized garbage cans. I polled my students recently about how many of them recycled. One replied that her family chose not to because "it was too hard." If Dr. Boylston and Lady Mary can fight smallpox, I can fight apathy and laziness.



The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, despite its obvious message to save the planet from deforestation, describes the ability of one person to ignore the needs of the environment for personal gain. The manufacture of Thneeds from truffula tree fiber corrupts the entire ecosystem that depend on the truffula trees.  Written in 1971, I find the book disturbing and provocative. It forces me to question my purchases and always consider the impact of my actions. The story ends with the gift of a single truffula tree seed and reminds me that hope is always just a garden away. 




The last book isn't a book, but The Washington Post newspaper. When I moved to northern Virginia eight years ago, I knew the Chesapeake Bay was pretty and full of crabs, but that was about it. When I was hired to teach English/Writing and science, I was expected to teach a unit on water and the waterways of Virginia. I dove in, trying to learn as much as possible about the bay and our impact on its health. The Chesapeake Bay is an almost constant source of environmental news in my area. What I read was devastating. 80% of the bay is considered dead, the water so deprived of oxygen that it can no longer support plant or animal life. Nitrogen fueled algae from suburban fertilizer use is the second leading contributor to the massive dead zone within the bay. The storm drain in front of my house, like all the drains in my neighborhood, delivers its polluted load to nearby rivers that all pour into the bay.



Our actions are always larger than ourselves. Every choice I made regarding my garden and lawn could potentially contribute to the death of the bay. At that point, I went completely organic. I know I can't save the world, but I'm not going to make it worse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

I'm on Spring Break this week, which accounts for the sudden influx of posts! :o) 





This enormous bleeding heart grades the Yuck Side of my house near the meters and air conditioners. This end of the bed is full of toad lilies, heuchera, blue ruellia humilis that haven't woken up yet, wood anemones, persicaria virginica (Painter's Palette) and a tiny lone red rhodie, whose branch rooted to the ground and decided it was happy. The rest of the rhodie died.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sing on!!

It recently occurred to me the other day, that my blog is a year old. It all started because I was forever blabbing on about my garden to whomever would listen, but was completely rotten about taking pictures and emailing them to relatives in other states who wanted actual proof that it existed. By creating a blog, I could share with them my daily joy in gardening. I never dreamt that anyone other than my husband and Aunt Marilyn would ever read my blog, let alone follow it.

A year later, I'm a better gardener for the hours I've spent soaking up the wisdom offered by all of you. I am continually amazed by the gardens I'm allowed to peek into each week when I visit your blogs. Inspiration seeps through all of them, skitters across the keyboard, and wedges itself in my heart and head as a quiet chorus that sings as I garden.

Dwarf white nepeta grows at the edge of my Dry Side garden near liatris and a group of pink silene called Rolly's Favorite. Both have already started blooming. I was really surprised. I wasn't expecting any action til later in the season. 




I've never grown silene 'Rolly's Favorite' before. I bought these off the sale table last fall. The flowers remind me of creeping phlox. I recently saw a pot of them at a nursery and the flowers were held above stalks about 10" high. I wonder if mine know they are a bit vertically challenged?  



Variegated japanese iris grow between a maurauding bunch of anemone canadensis and pink geraniums. Blue eyed grass is trying to peek through the crush of anemones while a bleeding heart seedling sprouts in the background. It looks like I'm going to have to garden mafia style tomorrow: Anemones, you bout to get whacked!



I have a large group of these wonderful daffodils in my front garden. They grow mixed in with the daylillies and remind me of popcorn.


Green and yellow variegated thyme

 Woodland anemones are different from the anemones above but similar in habit. These have invaded my sarcocca humilis, or sweetbox, but the flowers are so pretty I put up with their crusading ways. Plus, the seedlings are very easy to pull!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Ample Aunties of Prague

The disaster started small, as most disasters do. Snug against the side of the house, a wall of Prague viburnums stands guard, sturdy, reliable matrons in a sly seasonal dance. Green skirts hug the ground and not an ankle is bared. Full bossomed aunties with ample stomachs, they tower above my 5'8" frame, silently watching as I pass. I imagine they age as my dogs do, several years to the one, and cluck their tongues as I trot by, arms bursting with botanical babies eager to join the circus just past the garden gate.

Whether it was age or gravity, I do not know, but their perfect posture and sky-high height had begun to slump and bend, pulling towards the earth as a child leans for a toy. Arms reached out, patting and pinching as I passed, and my path began to veer to the right to avoid being consumed. Bending to tangle her fingers through my short hair, the boldest grew stronger as the weather warmed and I began to dread our meetings.

I hid the pruners behind my back and waited until birdsong distracted her, quickly cutting the branches that hung over the grass. Brave behind sharp blades, I cut deeper, thick branches and twiggy undergrowth falling round my feet. Embarrassed by our intimacy, I stepped back and gasped. Where once stood a dignified beauty, a tawdry hoochie now glared back. Bony ankles and long thin legs soared past the flowing skirts of her neighbors, their eyes averted, their tongues wagging. A flowing shawl of dark green framed a flat stomach and bare chest. She stood like a flamenco dancer, brazen and beautiful. Her layers of leaves lay thrown against the grass, see-through lingerie replacing the girdle and sensible shoes.

I stepped closer to survey the damage, the branches of her neighbors jabbing my sleeves and neck. I could hear them whispering and stood silently to listen. I smiled, agreed, and set to work. Off came the support bras, boring belts, and modest dresses. Like giggling schoolgirls changing behind a screen, they shimmied and shook, branches and leaves tossed with abandon. I cut and shaped, a dressmaker armed with pins and lace. Then stepping back to view my charges, I gasped once more. Long hair tossed to the side, they stood with hands on hips, bottoms breezy under miniskirts and tiny dresses. Full cleavage spilled from low cut tops, tight flower buds bursting from the fabric. New growth to hide their shameless posturing slowly grows beneath their skin, but for now they are free, high spirited youth bursting into spring.



The one that started it all... 




 The whole naughty bunch! My property on this side of the house is very shallow. Prague viburnums are evergreen, low-maintenance shrubs with white spring flowers. They provide excellent cover and nesting sites for birds.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Big Dreams, Small Budget

If I ruled the world, anything that would make the Earth a cleaner, healthier, more peaceful place would be free and anything that could cause harm would be so expensive, no one could afford it. Of course, that's why I'm not in charge. My Utopian society would last about a hot minute before collapsing into chaos. But like Marie Antoinette, who allegedly yelled "Let them eat cake!", my last words would be fierce and proud, "Let them have potting soil and gorgeous pots at affordable prices!"

Every year I try to devise new ways to save money on gardening. Individually, the savings are small. But the collective total is large enough to make it a bit easier to dream up new projects or splurge on the things I really want.

1. I fill the bottom of my big pots with Styrofoam peanuts.
This is one of my favorite summer tricks. It makes the pots much easier to move and reduces the amount of potting soil I need to buy. For pots that don't drain well, it's a lifesaver for plants whose roots might rot in soggy soil. I fill the bottom of each big pot about 1/3 full of Styrofoam and reuse the Styrofoam every year.
Savings=Money spent on potting soil


2. Buy cheap pots and use them in the very back or middle of a grouping so no one can see them.
Tired of spending big bucks on big pots, I've started buying cheap terracotta plastic pots and using them in the very back of a grouping of more attractive pots to hold tall plants. Because the more attractive pots are placed in front, all you see is the plant and not the pot. Savings = Money spent on pots



This pot holds an agastache 'Ava', a gorgeous hummingbird magnet from High Country Gardens that would die if grown in my heavy soil. Growing to almost 5 ft tall, it thrives behind a cluster of pots full of summer annuals. It overwintered in this pot and is full of new growth.


3. Match the plant to the soil.
No matter how much you amend the soil, there's a strong chance a poorly placed plant will die. I've learned this the hard way. Regardless of how desperately I might want to put a plant in a specific spot, if the site doesn't match the needs of the plant, the plant will die and I've wasted money. By allowing the moisture levels of my soil to control my garden design, I've created a healthy garden full of plants that thrive without needing to be constantly replaced. Savings=Your sanity plus money spent on plants  

 I had to move the stokesia (Stokes Aster) several times before finally realizing it wanted steady moisture. Here it grows happily with a bunch of chives. This picture was taken last spring. By mid-summer it needed constant watering to stay alive and by fall was in a new spot.

4. I stop deadheading my plants in August and use the seedlings to fill in empty spots.
Every spring when my plants emerge, I start looking for seedlings that can fill in for plants that didn't make it through the winter or that can be traded with friends. I currently have a big empty spot next to my air conditioning unit. I'm hesitant to do too much digging there because of all the wires, but will be able to transplant my latest crop of obedient plant seedlings without a problem because their roots are so small. Savings=Money spent on plants  


 Pink obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is native to my area and grows well in a moist, partially sunny spot. It self seeds with abandon, but I consider that a bonus.


5. I shop the plant sales every fall.
Every fall, most nurseries and big box hardware stores sell off their summer inventory at drastically reduced prices. This is when I buy the bulk of my plants. I've purchased gallon pots of perennials for only $1!! By doing most of my planting in the fall, the new plants are already established by the following summer, which means I use less water in the garden. Plants with a well-established root system aren't as thirsty as plants dealing with transplant shock and possible heat stress. Savings=Money spent on plants


6. I always try to buy smaller pots of plants as opposed to gallon pots.
I don't follow this rule 100% because I can't always find what I want in a smaller pot. But smaller pots equal smaller root systems, which means I use less water. However, if I notice that the larger pot actually has several plants in it, as is often the case with daylillies, then I'll usually buy the larger pot because the plants can be divided, resulting in a cheaper unit price per plant. Savings=Money spent on plants

7. Get creative with what you have at home.
I find it really frustrating how expensive cute outdoor decor can be. My local garden center is bursting with fabulous finds for both the garden and home. Unfortunately, they are usually so expensive I rarely buy anything. This year I've decided to turn a two tier metal fruit bowl that always turned my fruit brown into a decorative planter. Savings=Money 





The bowl on the top is supposed to go inside the larger bowl on the bottom. Instead, I'm going to fill them both with a liner and xeric plants. I'm thinking of hens and chicks, Mt. Atlas daisies, sedum.... Help!!

8. Keep it simple!
The most exotic gardening tool I have is a cheap shovel. Combined with sheer determination and a lot of coffee, it's been very effective at turning my compacted clay into a real garden. Savings=Money spent on fancy tools

9. Get bare, baby!! 
Bare roots, not bare naked! Although that might make for an interesting sunburn... Every fall I make a list of the plants I want for the garden and head straight for the bare root bins, but usually end up at Prairie Moon. Many of my native plants have come from Prairie Moon. The more you buy, the cheaper it is. If you buy a tray of 38 potted plants for $96, the plants are only $2.52 per plant!! Savings=Money spent on plants


10. Feed your soil
Using compost and other organic amendments to enrich your soil will create a healthy, fertile environment full of the micro-organisms plants need to survive. It will help your garden fend off disease and pests, reducing the  numbers of plants you need to replace every year. Avoid those gimmicky bags of chemically-enhanced Miracle Grow "Garden Soil". Once the nitrogen has been consumed by the plant, there's nothing left to enrich the soil. It's like taking a vitamin but washing it down with a bottle of whiskey and a cupcake. After a quick trip to the toilet, you're right back where you started. Full of cr*p! Savings=Your sanity plus money spent on plants


11. Link your blog to Jan's Thanks For 2 Day blog to win a bunch of free stuff!!
She's even giving away a rain barrel!!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lessons Learned and Other Accidental Truths

I read an article the other day about a woman who kept the contents of her fridge "artfully arranged" so that when she opened the door it would be a "calming" experience. Well, if my fridge is art, it's a Picasso! What does that have to do with gardening? Nothing! I just thought it was funny. :o)



Back to the garden...

Every year I look out at my garden and think about how this years garden is going to be my best garden ever. Smug and satisfied with everything I've learned the previous year, I wait for gloriousness to descend upon my bit of Earth. The heavens will part, birds will sing, and everything will be fabulous!! It's official - I am completely delusional. By the middle of July my water bill is astronomical, it's hotter than hell, and the humidity is so thick you could slice it up and serve it like pie. Plants wilt and sometimes die, bugs I've never seen before show up, invite their friends, and proceed to par-tay in my plants, and I begin sweating in weird places.

This year I thought I'd write down some of the lessons I've learned. Chances are, by the end of the summer, I will have learned a few of them again.

1. Plant tags lie.
Oh yes they do! "Partial shade" might mean "Give me early morning sun and shelter me like a baby in the afternoon." Or it could mean, " Keep me in the dark til noon and then fry me like an egg til the sun goes down." You just won't know until the plant either thrives or starts waving a white flag.

2. Sticking a bird house in your garden does not ensure you will have birds.
No matter how cute the bird house, if the hole is too small, no one will move in.


Apparently, I like this bird house more than the birds do.


3.  If you give the plant too much compost or fertilizer, you will have lots of green leaves, but few flowers.

How much is too much? I'm still figuring that one out. But if I give my plants a large amount of compost in the fall, I'll give them a bit more with some Plant-tone added in the spring, but not the same amount as I gave them previously. 

4. Drought resistant does not mean the plant will look good if you don't water it.

It just means it might not die but will still look pathetic. Pathetic enough to convince you to let the dog roll on it so you can blame the plants utter misery on the dog. I have a lot of plants that have proven themselves to be truly drought resistant, but have others that are only drought resistant as long as the drought doesn't last much longer than three or four days. I've discovered it's a fairly subjective term.


Coreopsis 'Sunshine Superman' is exceedingly drought resistant. I give it no supplemental water.


5. The people at your local garden center don't necessarily know more about plants than you do.

I have been given advice ranging from amazingly brilliant to incredibly bad from "experts" at garden centers. Smile, nod, and then double check everything.

6. If your milkweed (asclepias incarnata) isn't getting enough water, the leaves will turn purplish.
I discovered this the hard way. I grow two types of milkweed - the short, orange milkweed (asclepias tuberosa) and the tall pink or white milkweed (asclepias incarnata). The short, orange milkweed is a tough plant that will thrive in dry, infertile soil thanks to a long, thick taproot. The taller variety is also commonly known as swamp milkweed. However, I was never quite sure how swampy they needed their swamp to be. I experimented by planting clumps of pink milkweed in various sunny spots  around the garden. The plants in consistently moist soil were much taller and healthier than the plants in drier soil. The plants in drier soil also had a strange purplish tone to their leaves. Once I increased how much water they were getting, the color of their leaves improved.


These were growing in a spot that was too dry. I'm still not sure what was wrong with the leaf in the upper left hand corner. It looks like the work of leaf miners.


7. Telling your nongardening friends that you splurged on a heated bird bath....
will guarantee the same shocked and bewildered reaction as if someone has just told you they bought a car with a built-in butt massager. Unless you already own a car with a built-in butt massager. Then I'm the one who is shocked and bewildered.


This is my heated birdbath. It prevents the water from freezing, but doesn't keep it warm. It's located near a bird feeder and was a popular spot during the winter. Many birds die during cold, dry winters due to dehydration.


8. Soaker hoses will make dry soil less dry, but they won't make dry soil moist.
Forgetting where the end of the soaker hose is will keep your soil even drier because you won't be able to use the hoses.

9. My slightly acidic clay soil might be different from your slightly acidic clay soil.
For a long time I thought that all soil in the same categories was essentially the same. While that may be mostly true, there are enough regional differences to make the mineral content of one soil quite different from another. Agastache 'Blue Fortune' may not need much supplemental fertilization in your garden, but until I was able to increase the fertility and drainage of my compacted clay, my Blue Fortune needed a lot of extra love in the form of worm juice and compost tea.

10. Creating a garden that encourages wildlife means you might catch sight of two hawks fighting over a robin while blogging.
While sitting at my computer, I noticed something large and grey sitting on the fence that surrounds my garden/back yard. At first I thought it was a monster squirrel on steroids, until I realized it had feathers, not fur. It waited on the fence while the hawk on the ground rolled the robin beneath it's talons, killing its prey. Hungry for an easy meal, it's attempt to steal the robin was met by a flurry of feathers and several loud screams. After a brief skirmish, one hawk flew away while the other dined on the robin. At that point, I couldn't watch anymore. Some truths are just too much.


What kind of hawk is this? It was much larger than it appears in this picture.


The hawk in the foreground has the robin in its talons. Both hawks are in the dog run, close to several feeders.