Meet TS and Come See the Rest of the Garden...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

New and Improved BlogOMatic 2010!!

I've streamlined my blog so that it's easier to navigate and loads much quicker. Considering I have the computer skills of a neanderthal, this is saying a lot! Off to the garden.... Have a FABULOUS day!!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Who's Yer Daddy??

Every year in early spring, I look out over my garden and enthusiastically, hopefully declare, "This summer's garden is going to be my best ever!" Confidence borne from hours spent carefully choosing just the right plant for each bare spot, rearranging plants that weren't thriving, composting, and winter mulching surges through me and I can hardly wait for every plant to grow and fill my garden with color. Then reality sets in. Sigh....

My first casualty came in late spring. My spicebush (Lindera benzoin) was only happy when it was raining and 70 degrees. The DC area only gets weather like that for a few weeks each spring, before the temps start to climb and we spend the summer indoors, hiding from the heat and humidity. I had researched spicebushes before planting my rather large and fabulous shrub and was convinced that it would not only thrive in my garden but would attract enough spicebush swallowtails as it grew larger that the flapping of their wings as multiudes descended upon it would be seen from space. I was wrong.

Spicebush was unhappy and despite my efforts, continued to wither. We had long talks and I held it's branch and stroked it's limp leaves. "Cheer up!" I whispered.  "It's not that hot! You'll be okay."

Spicebush was not okay and I considered every possibility. Install an outdoor air conditioner to convince Spicebush that it wasn't summer? Run the hose 24 hours a day for four months? Back out into the garden I went, armed with data from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I was going to have to get tough. "Look, Spicebush,  you are native to this area! Not only can you survive in VA and DC but you even have family in Texas, of all places!! And Texas is ALWAYS hot!"

Spicebush didn't care, its leaves droopy like limp lettuce. That was it! I was done! Hasta la vista, Spicebush and with several quick snaps of the loppers it collapsed. I shoved the branches into my yard waste can, threw down my loppers and stomped back in to the house. All I wanted was a spicebush.

Round two came with a pot of zinnias. I love zinnias like a dog loves a steak and was excited to scatter their seeds in a pot next to the kitchen door. Up they grew, tall and colorful, botanical supermodels during fashion week. And like supermodels they came with a list of demands: constant water, no wind, no storms. That's all. I watered, I pinched them back to help them grow strong, and placed them against the side of the house so that when the going got rough, they could lean against the vinyl siding until the storm passed. They'd be all right, I assured them and they stood in silent agreement.

After the first severe storm, I ran to the window to check on the zinnias and found them bent but not broken, their heads turned toward the sun. I cut them back and thought their new form to be artisitc, a modern interpretation of an old fashioned flower. What clever plants, I thought to myself. The second storm knocked them completely flat and the 103 degree heat fried them to a crisp. I watered, I spoke softly, and when they didn't improve, I yanked them from their pot.

Next in line, please!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

More water, dahling! I'm parched!!

The DC metro is a fabulous thing. It whisks you from spot to spot until you pop up from the tunnel like a prairie dog and is usually safer than driving on an eight lane highway at rush hour with thousands of sleep deprived, stressed out individuals who feel that speed limits and traffic rules are like socks, optional but not mandatory. This week was my DC week. My daughter was working as a teen volunteer and instead of driving her in and out of the city each day, I decided to metro in each morning and head to my favorite places. I knew where each metro line would take me and thought about how easy it would be to slip down to an air conditioned platform, park my butt on the train, and speed away to my destination. Yet despite my love of the metro, my need for constant motion won so I walked. It was 95 degrees.

By the time I arrived at the US Botanic Gardens, five miles from my starting point, I was sweaty, gross, and scaring small children, but I didn't care. I had questions and they had horticulturalists, water fountains, bathrooms, and air conditioning. What was sucking the life out of my verbena leaves? Spider mites or thrips. Why did my gaillardia have a hole in its stem? Poor drainage, probably. The horticulturalist I spoke to was helpful, friendly, and actually excited to see the verbena leaves I had wrapped in wet tissue. Plus she smelled a lot better then I did. I didn't want to leave. My daughter could metro home alone. I was going to spend the rest of my life as a professional gardener.

The zinnias at the gardens were phenomenal. Their stems were so thick they reminded me of big tomato plants, and unlike my zinnias, they were sturdy with gorgeous bicolored orange and red flowers. My zinnias are divas with a long list of demands. They prefer constant moisture and no storms, please. While beautiful, they are demanding and I'm on the hunt for stronger, more drought resistant varieties. The plants at the gardens are watered constantly with copious amounts of water soluable organic fertilizer, such as compost tea and it shows. Come September, when I have 180+ science students to teach, the gardens will still be amazing and there will still be a crew buzzing around to cater to the plants every need. I take out my notepad and begin scribbling plant names and observations. A little knowledge can go a long way and I'm already making plans for all the rearranging I need to do this fall. I felt sweaty, but inspired. I headed for the nearest metro stop, parked my butt on the train, and rode away.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Clean Up in Aisle 5!!

I always start with the best intentions.... Just last spring I killed an entire patch of rudbeckia by loving them to death. Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturn' don't actually need or want, for that matter, any extra compost, thank you very much!! I found this out the hard way and was almost rudbeckia-less last summer. A huge gaping maw where the rudbeckia should have been taunted me all summer and I felt guity and frustrated every time I walked past the void. Stalks of seedheads left for the finches reseeded the bed and it's flush with little green seedlings. Except for watering, I completely neglect them and they're thriving.

I am a methodical, research based gardener, an inept artist who paints with plants and enjoys the linguistic beauty of their Latin names. I don't see plants as disposable and by the time my new purchases come home to my garden, I am in love and committed to making sure they are happy. New cultivars are researched and Googled, the scientific and literary parts of my brain deciphering their Latin names as I contemplate where to plant them. Penstemon 'Sour Grapes' need sharp drainage and dry soil, last years clump rotting from over six feet of unexpected snow. Gaillardia 'Burgundy' want full sun and drainage as sharp as I can make it, no small feat in heavy clay soil. My head bursting with plans and solutions for the drainage issues, I head out to the garden to dig and dream.

Fast forward to this week: Two of the penstemon are miserable, the soil too dry and their sunny spot invaded by shade from an enthusiastic, fast growing ash tree. The 'Burgundy' gaillardia (Blanket flower) is suicidal, despite being surrounded by other thriving plants with full foliage and beautiful flowers. At the end of the bed my Maltese Cross (Lychinis chalcedonica) are laying flat, their heads turned upward, away from the nearby trumpet vine, their little red faces desperate for sun. I sigh and grab the shovel. If someone were to ask me if transplanting an established perennial in mid July were a smart thing to do, I would laugh until I cried. So what was I about to do? Transplant several established perennials in mid July. At this point, it was life or death, and no one's dying on my watch!! Except for the new hybrid gaillardia that died last week, but let's not talk about him....

I grabbed the shovel and started to dig. Up came they came, bundled into my hands and headed for a pot on the patio - a plant intensive care unit. There's hope for the penstemon, who already have new growth at their base, the maltese cross are thrilled and have full rosettes of foliage bursting from the soil, but I'm worried about the blanket flower. When I dug it up, it brought along a lone liatris squarosa but very little root ball and it's main root was rotten in the middle. Disease? Bugs? I just don't know....

The pot behind the Plant ICU holds a liatris spicata 'Kobold' (Gayfeather) and an agastache 'Ava' that was also being shaded by the ash tree. The better my soil becomes, the more the native trees grow, which causes a never ending shade problem.

What do you think is wrong with the gaillardia root? So far, it's doing well in the pot....

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My pink milkweed has purple and yellow leaves!

I saw these weird purple leaves on my milkweed (asclepias incarnata) this morning. I wonder if its a result of a potassium inbalance in the soil... Not all the leaves look like this. Some appear completley normal. This group of milkweed is planted in mostly sun with a bit of high bright afternoon shade in a spot that would be bone dry if it weren't for my soaker hoses. I have very few spots that are both moist and sunny in my garden. They haven't bloomed yet but I know (hope!) they will since they do every summer.

The bottom right leaf looks like it's been attacked by leaf miners but I'm not sure what's wrong with the leaf to the left. Any ideas??

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

That Ain't Real, Honey!

Yesterday, while attempting to organize my stack-filled home office, I discovered a stash of gardening magazines, and eagerly began to flip through them. Their glossy pages, creative ideas, and endless articles about gorgeous landscaping, complete with color pictures of perfect gardens, always appeal to me and I am suckered in every time.

I flip through a Garden, Deck, and Landscape magazine from 2005 and wonder how the gardens became so perfect. A small hyper pack of lawn gnomes with night vision that pinch, deadhead, and stake every plant while humans sleep? An independently wealthy home owner with sprinkler systems that stands to the side of her landscaping crew and yells, "Move that boulder over there!! No, no, a bit more to the right..." and then adds comments such as, "I had a bit of free time one day between lunch and dinner so I decided to make an amazing pebble mosaic for the garden path." ARE YOU KIDDING???

These gardens seem to exist in a sphere outside of Mother Nature, where plants aren't smashed by sudden storms with heavy wind and rain that comes in sideways and there is no such thing as drought, unintentional weed whacker accidents, or Japanese Beetles. Every plant, tree, and paver are utterly perfect. I look out the window at my garden and notice the grass needs to be mowed, and the rose of sharon, asiatic lillies,and some of the milkweed (asclepias incarnata), are completely bent over, courtesy of the storms that filled my rain barrels but wreaked havoc in my garden. I've already had one gaillardia die on me and had to give pep talks to several of its neighbors, who I feared had created a bizarre botanical suicide pact and my foster dogs have decided the absolute best place to lay in the entire back yard is right on top of the geums. My garden isn't perfect, but it's pretty damn good and I'm happy with that!!!

I pick up the magazines and head towards the bookcase, mentally filing them under "Fiction/ Fantasy". The view out the window is better: 100% Nonfiction!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010


It finally rained! After a month of no rain and high temps, the skies opened up and it rained all night Friday. I woke up to full rain barrels and plants that weren't thirsty. Hooray!!! Now if I could just get it to rain for about an hour every other day from 4 - 5 am, that would be fabulous!!! Wishful thinking!!!

I've had a lot of butterflies in the garden this summer, but unlike bees, by the time I grab the camera and run outside, they're gone. The bees seem oblivious to the activity around them and focus completely on the task at hand. They're linear and acconplishment driven and are easy to track. They are the Type A super achievers of the insect world, thus making them easy to photograph. The butterflies, however, alight for just a few seconds before fluttering away and seem to prefer the flowers out of reach of my cameras sad little zoom lens. By the time I run outside to photograph them and set up the shot, they're gone. Today I saw a huge Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly flapping slowly around the rose of sharon, and quickly ran for the camera. No camera. Anywhere... It slowly floated back into view, and determined to take it's picture, I grabbed my cell phone and ran outside. The picture doesn't due this amazing butterfly any justice, since it's wing span can be almost six inches across.

I've also seen spicebush swallowtails, giant swallowtails, fritilaries, sulfurs, cabbage whites, mourning cloaks, and a lot of little skippers. If I could just get pictures of them!!!

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Ants have formed a nest at the roots of my helelium 'Mardi Gras', causing so much damage several tall stems have nearly toppled over. I'm so frustrated! It's been over three weeks since we've had any rain and the ants moved in after the last deep soaking I gave that section of my garden. They've excavated tunnels between the roots, disturbing the soil that was helping hold them in place. Because my garden is organic, I don't want to use any insecticide to kill the ants. We're heading into a crazy heat wave today and by Tuesday is supposed to be 100+. Ugh!!

I was in NYC last week and was thrilled to see a lot of the same plants I have in my garden growing in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park. That was exciting! But even Central Park had its sprinklers blasting away...