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Monday, August 10, 2020

The Final Post

This is my last post. I haven't blogged much over the past year or so and I've decided to bring closure to what was once an important part of my life. There are simply other areas I'd rather focus on.  But the blog will remain up, a time capsule of a different life and garden. 

The sunny side of the front garden

I am deeply perceptive and intuitive and there’s a lot to be said for allowing life to become very quiet so you can listen to your own voice. I have but one shot at this life and choose to live it as courageously, passionately, and authentically as possible. There is nothing small about choosing happiness and always seeing the beauty in a world that is simultaneously glorious, absurd, and cruel. 

Spigelia marylandica and euphorbia 'Ascot's Rainbow' in the front shade garden
The shady side of the front garden

Cimicifuga and Solomon's Seal thrive under a huge cherry tree 

For all our differences, at the end of the day we all want the same thing: to be understood, to feel a sense of connection, and to be heard and valued. Blogging was a way to help me meet and connect with other gardeners. Reading your blogs gave me a chance to see your gardens and your lives through your eyes.  If you surround yourself with an echo you never hear anything new and the more I read, the more I learned. You find out who people really are when they have to understand a situation from a perspective that challenges them and makes them uncomfortable. Their response reveals the heart of who they are.  

Hydrangeas were already here when I moved in. I had stone terraces built on a slope covered with thick surface roots from a 60 ft maple and filled them with perennials and shrubs.
Campanula thrives along the well drained edge of the terraces. 

Kalimeris and 'Rozanne' geraniums

I loved seeing all the different ways we created beauty and solved our garden problems and interacting with people who embraced the collective idea that there was no single right way to do anything. Seeing the world through another’s eyes creates an open mind because if you’re not willing to set aside every preconceived idea about how a life should be lived or a garden created then the only mind you’re open to is your own. Thank you for inviting me in and for being there when I needed you. 

'Etoille Violet' clematis saved from my other garden.

Looking into the back garden from the meadow on the side of the house

I remain a relentless optimist. The world’s in the shitter and our president’s an idiot of epic proportions but I’m convinced change is coming. In some places, it's already here. I spent quarantine learning how to teach virtually after teaching in person for 20 years. My coworkers are also close friends and we stayed in daily contact as we navigated our new normal. I will spend this fall and possibly longer coming to work in the skirts and heels I love so much and live streaming my lessons from an empty classroom. 

The meadow I planted last fall has been a raging success!

With this I say goodbye. There is a garden to enjoy, rivers and lakes to kayak, back roads to explore, bread to bake, and music, always music, to dance to. 

Many of the plants in my garden are grown from seed. 
Rudbeckia 'Sahara' is one of my favorites.

I filled my driveway with pots and created a lush container garden. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Seedy Proposal

There are things in life that are hard:  brain surgery, getting a two year old to stay in bed,  running a marathon, finding a parking spot in DC, trying to find toilet paper during the quarantine, etc. But growing plants from seed shouldn't be one of them. Yet every year I read articles that make starting seeds sound like the botanical equivalent of calculus. It's actually quite easy.

Gomphrena seedlings

I started growing all my annuals from seed years ago when I realized most of the plants sold in our local garden centers are full of systemic pesticides. Gardening with their plants was like serving a feast and poisoning the guests. To guarantee I was successful, I started with the easiest plants I could grow - zinnias and worked up from there. Hundreds of plants later, here are a few things I've learned:

1. Don't waste your money on special seed starting soil, seed trays or tiny seed starting pots. Just take a small pot or plastic drink cup that you've poked a few holes into the bottom of and fill them with high quality potting soil. This reduces how much transplanting you'll need to do and gives the plants more room for root growth. Moisten the soil first and then fill the pots. Write the name of the seed on the pot to keep you organized. 

Rudbeckia hirta is very easy to grow.

2. Buy heat mats and grow lights. Unless you happen to live in a greenhouse, your plants hate your windowsill. It's cold and probably doesn't get enough light.  Your initial investment will pay off when you save money at the garden center. Turn the lights off after 12 hours but leave the heat mats on.

I wrap the light stands in aluminum foil to keep the plants warmer and prevent the light from diffusing into the basement.

3. Unless your seeds are big and round, sow them on the surface of the soil, spritz them with a water bottle that has a nozzle with a mist setting, and cover the pot or cup with a plastic bag. Unless the seed packet specifically states the seeds need darkness to germinate, they all need warmth and light. Once the seeds start to germinate, remove the plastic bag and use it again next year. For larger seeds, just barely poke them beneath the surface. 

'Brad's Atomic' tomato and dahlia 'Watercolor Mix' seedlings

I save containers from my summer annuals and reuse them every year since I always grow some of the same plants.

4. Be patient. Seeds are like people. They don't all grow at the same time.

Grow lights on the shelves

and even more in the middle of the basement because being able to actually move around is massively overrated.

I have about 100 plants!

Gomphrena seedlings after being transplanted.

5. Expect some seeds not to germinate and some seedlings to die or grow weird. That's life and it's no big deal. Don't overwater or the seedlings will rot. 

6. It's not too late to start seeds and it's a great way to fill those quarantine hours. 

Here's what I'm growing: monarda citriodora; 'Bergamo Bouquet' monarda; 'Frosted Flames' and 'Floral Showers Purple' snapdragons; 'Perfume Deep Purple' nicotiana; cardinal climber; 'Summer Jewel Red' and 'Summer Jewel Lavender' salvia;  gomphrena 'Mixed Colors'; 'Brad's Atomic' tomatoes; rudbeckia hirta 'Sahara', 'Chim Chiminee', 'Prairie Sun', and 'Denver Daisies'; Chinese foxgloves; dahlia 'Watercolor Mix'; and all these zinnias - 'Jazzy Mix', 'Aztec Sunset', 'Lilac Emperor', 'Mighty Lion', 'Raggedy Anne'; and cosmos 'Cosmic Red''Sonata White''Apricot Lemonade', 'Xanthos' and 'Apollo Carmine'.    

Here are a few pics of the plants I grew from seed last year:

Rudbeckia hirta (black eyed susan's) with red perennial monarda and agastache.

Rudbeckia hirta with little dahlias and cosmos

Starting dahlias from seed is very easy.

I started most of these seeds in late January but will be starting the cosmos next week. All of these can still be started now, especially if you live in a cooler climate. Normally, I wouldn't have started some of these seeds so early but with the distressingly Orwellian turn our sick government and environment have taken, I'm expecting a short, warm spring and a long, hot summer. The pollinators and I need them to be ready. The entire planet needs them to be ready. 

Purple and white gomphrena in October.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Slope Meadow

I want a meadow. I do not have a meadow nor do I really have a good spot for one but I don't care. I want a meadow. What I do have is a hot, dry sunny slope with clay soil so a meadow it will become. I started working on this project in the fall of 2018, plugged away at it again last spring, and finally completed the project this fall.

The slope was covered in wild, weedy, seedy grass that had invaded my front garden. Carved into pockets were clumps of orange milkweed, liatris spicata, Bradbury's monarda, Tennessee coneflower, prairie dropseed grass, and rudbeckia hirta.  I needed plants that could survive off rainfall and those held up just fine. Fortunately, clay soil retains moisture, which is helpful.

Here's my plan:

Remove the plants I don't want. This was a massive undertaking because it involved removing all the grass. I started by pulling up the top growth in a search and rescue mission to uncover the perennials I'd planted previously. I then dug up the entire slope and sifted through the soil to remove every root and runner from the wild turf grass.

The driveway is my neighbor's property.

Every plant that doesn't support wildlife came out, including a large stand of orange day lilies and large black walnut tree seedlings. The shrub at the top of the slope is part of an evergreen Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) hedge separating my garden from the street. 

Add a drainage canal. I dug a trench between the slope and my neighbors driveway and filled it with pea gravel to help prevent rain from running downhill and washing into his garage, which is at the end of a downward sloping driveway. This also works to funnel water into the garden at the bottom of the slope.

The trench starts at the hedge by the street and runs the length of the slope. I covered it with soil.

Stabilize the slope. I added boulders and broken pots to the slope to prevent erosion and stabilize the slope. If the pot I wanted to use wasn't broken, I broke it. Little pots are super cheap and a pain in the butt to keep watered, so I sacrificed them to the project. I like the mosaic effect of the boulders and pottery.

The boulders are much larger than they look in the other pictures. They're partially buried in the soil to stabilize the slope. 

They were impossible for me to carry so I had to maneuver them into my wheelbarrow and dump them onto the slope. 

I enjoyed breaking these pots.

 Add the plants I do. It's hard to tell in these pictures, but the slope is now packed with plants. There are over 100 orange milkweed plants along the slope and my summer garden was full of monarchs. I had a nursery bed packed with milkweed that I started under lights last January that thrived this summer. Dozens more seedlings that I'd planted this spring and thought had been suffocated by the grass were discovered when I found the dormant roots while sifting through the soil to remove the grass runners. 

Monarch on a seed grown dahlia

I added 300 drumstick alliums along with coneflowers, native yarrow, more orange milkweed, rudbeckia hirta, and silene regia all grown from seed.* 

Seeds from the different coneflowers growing in the front garden were collected in a bag, tossed together and then sown in empty pots last fall. The seedlings were transferred into the meadow. I have no idea what they'll look like when they bloom!

Native grasses, goldenrod, penstemon, and asters were also added as were some dwarf perovskia and about two dozen curly parsley plants for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. 

Build in steps so I can access the back of the garden and the top of the slope. One corner of the front garden was inaccessible this summer and I let it go simply because I wasn't able to bushwhack through the jungle to maintain it. The perennials survived but so did a lot of weeds.  

I bought several different varieties of California poppy seeds from Select Seeds

Scatter wildflower seeds over bare soil to fill in the gaps while I'm waiting for the milkweed, which is slow to emerge in the spring, to fill the slope. I scattered seeds for California poppies, a reminder of my home state, centranthus ruber (Jupiter's Beard) and native partridge pea. They're all easy to grow and the poppies will provide spring color. 

Soak in the tub with a drink once I'm done or as needed. 

I know the slope will fill with grass again next spring since removing all of it was impossible but at least there will be significantly less grass and more flowers.

'Miss Kim' lilacs grow next to the house and will be a beautiful green backdrop to the colorful meadow. Native violets were left since they provide larval food for frittilary butterflies.

* Growing native wildflowers from seed is effortless. In the fall/winter toss some seeds on the surface of a pot full of old soil left over from the summer and ignore them. Next spring, thin out the seedlings and water them all summer. That's it.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Great Potassium Disaster

Beauty shot

I always wonder why we think others expect perfection of us. We carefully crop out what isn't beautiful or noteworthy to create the illusion of faultlessness. Give me reality over bullshit, any day. I recently burned the crap out of a boat load of plants and have the Instagram unworthy pics to show you.

Reality shot

This area is part of an ongoing project to turn this long side slope into a wildflower meadow. It will take several years.

Last summer I had stone terraces built into my sloped back yard.  Not confident the local soil company would give me true top soil as opposed to fill dirt, I opted to have a zillion cubic yards of pure compost delivered. I filled the terraces half way last fall with compost and leaves and finished the job this spring.  I let a few rainstorms settle the soil and began planting.

After buying the house in November 2017, I had extensive interior and exterior renovations done, which included adding this brick walkway and stairs. The terraces were added last summer to resolve the problem of a steep slope and massive surface roots from the huge maple tree.

The terraces were built around three existing hydrangea, which were heavily pruned last fall to remove dead wood. There weren't many flowers this summer but there was a ton of growth and they'll be amazing next year. 

The plants grew quickly and then stopped. Leaves that should have been deep green were oddly yellowish with red rusty spots. A quick search through one of my favorite garden problem solver books and the internet identified the problem as potassium deficiency. 

Potassium deficiency on persicaria leaves

Potassium deficiency occurs when soil doesn't have enough potassium, which is present in clay soils. My compost didn't have any clay loam or topsoil and was remarkably low in bananas, therefore very little potassium. It also didn't have any worms to add new organic matter. After identifying the problem, I bought a bag of potassium sulfate and applied it to the terraces, promptly burning the crap out all my plants. 

Many plants have been cut back and new growth is starting to show. 

Entire stems turned black, their leaves shriveled and curled before dying a ridiculously dramatic death. Instead of solving the problem, I'd made everything worse.  A wet summer worked to push the sulfate deeper into the soil and through the plants, compounding the problem.  

The middle terrace is full of slightly to mostly dead diervilla 'Kodiak Black'. 

These two are mostly dead but one is showing signs of life.

Shrubs that had been robust looked dead and cussed and spit every time I came near. I apologized, let the diervilla have their say, and walked away. Time is a great healer and if they grow back, they stay. If they don't, they'll be replaced. Their revenge is the money I'll have to spend on plants I shouldn't have killed.

I made sure to wreak havoc equally so both sides of the terraces were affected.  

But sometimes what looks like a disaster really isn't. It's just a set back and you're wiser for the experience. I'm having the soil tested and already added 1000 worms from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm.  Despite how introspective and reflective I can be, I'm not much for emotional self-flagellation. I get up every damn day determined to do my best. Some days I succeed and some days I don't. When my humanness gets the best of me, I figure out where I went wrong, make amends, and then let that shit go. 

New growth on the phlomis

Sometimes the person you have to be the most patient and compassionate with is yourself. I'll have a better understanding of the problem once I get the test results back, which will be affected by the sulfate that's already been added. I'll amend the soil, the worms will help, and everything will be ok. Plants will recover, new ones will be added, and eventually the terraces will overflow with lush, beautiful foliage and flowers. All will be well, even if it's not all well today. Today isn't forever. It's just today.