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Friday, January 28, 2011

The Cast Iron Club

Last summer was brutal at Casa Mariposa. It didn't rain for almost five weeks, I laid my soaker hoses wrong, (soaker hose fiasco) and it was hot, hot, hot! However, despite the weather and lack of moisture, several plants were brilliant performers. If these plants had been a concert, we'd still be screaming for an encore. My garden is in zone 7A with heavy clay loam. Welcome to the Cast Iron Club!

NOTE: For an updated Cast Iron Club - 2013, click here.

Achillea 'The Pearl'

This plant will not go away. I've dug it up, moved it, given huge chunks away, ignored it. And all is does is ask for more. Honestly, I'm suspicious. A doppleganger for baby's breath, it blooms all summer, takes a tiny bit of shade, dukes it out with a nutrient and water hogging trumpet creeper, and still looks great. It doesn't attract wildlife but I've come to respect the absolute detemination of this plant to thrive regardless of where I put it. Cut it back by half in early July for a bushier plant or it gets leggy. Grows to two feet if you don't cut it back and likes hot, dry sunny spots. Pros: Tough as nails, tiny white flowers that are pretty mixed in with larger blossoms. Cons: Doesn't attract wildlife

Achillea 'The Pearl' has thin, needle-like foliage and clusters of little white flowers.

Althaea syriacus 'Ardens'   Double Flowering Purple Rose of Sharon

I have two Rose of Sharon shrubs in my garden that function as Grand Central Station for hummingbirds, song birds, butterflies, bees of all types, and praying mantis, just to name a few. Undemanding and drought tolerant, they leaf out in mid-spring and are in full bloom by early summer. While many pollinators avoid double flowers, they love this shrub! They can grow to 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Mine receive morning shade, afternoon sun, and no supplemental irrigation. Not even a soaker hose! Pros: They are very easy to grow, grow quickly, attract wildlife. Cons: They attract Japanese beetles but since my neighbor and I added milky spore to our soil, I haven't seen any!

Rose of Sharon grows against my house next to 'Laura' phlox and a 'Sceptre d'Isle' rose.

Butterflies and honey bees are daily visitors to the rose of Sharon.

Anemone canadensis
My friend Annette asked me one day at work if I wanted some anemones. Annette is the most tough love gardener I've ever met and only grows plants that can take care of themselves. Dependent on a well, Annette gets the water but the plants do not. "They're taking over!" she exclaimed. A tough, beautiful plant that self seeds and fills in all the blank spots for me? Sign me up!! Despite their name, anemone canadensis is native to all of North America. Supposedly they like prefer moist soil but mine thrive under a river birch that demands all the water in the shady part of my garden to the point that the beds near it have become bastions of dry shade. Snuggled up next to a soaker hose, they get a deep soaking about once a week, if I remember. If not, they forgive me and stay beautiful. Pros: They're tough, pretty, and will thrive in moderately dry shade. Cons: They like to run and will romp through your garden like an unleashed puppy. Personally, I'm okay with that!

This is my river birch garden. I took this picture right after I started my blog and forgot to take any close up photos. The anemones are between the variegated iris and the bird bath. Another plant that is tough as nails and brilliant for dry shade is the epimedium. They have amazing flowers that look like tiny spaceships. They are between the variegated iris and the variegated brunnera, a beautiul, water sucking diva that goes dormant by midsummer.

This picture is from I wish I had taken it, but I didn't. Anemone canadensis blooms in the spring. 

Coreopsis pubescens 'Sunshine Superman'

I've struggled to grow coreopsis in my garden because my soil is so heavy. I bought this plant based on rave reviews I'd read online and am thrilled that I did. It wants hot, dry, fast draining soil in full sun. That's it! I add granite grit to my soil to help it drain and where other coreopsis have died, 'Sunshine Superman' has taken off like the true superhero it is. It receives very little extra water and blooms all summer. It self-seeds easily but I think that's a bonus. I just dig up the seedlings and plant them in other dry spots. The only place I've seen it for sale is Niche Gardens, an amazing nursery in North Carolina specializing in tough plants native to or well adapted to the southeast. It makes a rounded mound about a foot tall and can be sheared after blooming to keep it from sprawling. Or just let it sprawl! Pros: Read the paragraph above! Cons: I can't think of any.

Coreopsis 'Sunshine Superman' thrives in the toughest spots in my garden.

Helianthemum Sun Rose

I grow sun roses as a ground cover in several hot spots in my garden. They get whatever water Mother Nature sees fits to bless them with and that's it. Tough and evergreen, they come in every shade of red, pink and yellow you can imagine. They grow about 8" tall and very wide but if you plant several close to each other, they intermingle beautifully. Shear them after they bloom to help maintain their shape. Pros: Tough and reliable. Cons: They don't attract wildlife.

The small red flowers with yellow centers are cheerful and make a perfect edging plant for the front of the border.

Indigofera 'Rose Carpet'

This little indigofera is one of my favorite plants. It's a small, quiet plant that forces you to look down into the nooks and crannies of the garden and appreciate it's resiliant beauty. It's late to wake up but the wait is worth it. Like the sun roses, I never water this! It doesn't seem to mind. I read online that indigofera needs full sun and doesn't thrive in hot, humid climates. Apparently my little plant didn't get the memo. It gets mostly sun but does enjoy a few hours of high bright filtered shade every day. And as for heat and humidity, Virginia summers are so thick with sticky air you could slice it up and serve it on a plate. Pros: Very tough Cons: I had a hard time establishing it, but once it decided it was happy, it was very happy.

Indigofera 'Rose Carpet' grows along the edge of my patio. 

 The small, pink flowers remind of tiny sweet peas.


Lantana is my absolute go-to plant every summer. An annual here, it comes in every shade of pink, lavender, white, red, and orange immaginable. Utterly undemanding, it grows in one of the hottest, most inhospitable parts of my garden. I water and fertilize occasionally just because I love it and want as many flowers as possible, but thrives even if ignored. Bees and butterflies adore it. Pros: Tough plants for hot, dry, sunny spots, attract wildlife. Cons: Their foliage can smell weird but only if you really take a big sniff, annuals in most places.
Yellow trailing lantana grows well in pots. 

 Every summer I grow a huge patch of trailing lavender lantana next to the walkway to my front door.

A skipper on the lavender lantana.

Orange and yellow lantana fill a difficult spot in front of a rain barrel.

Leucanthemum x superbum Shasta daisies 'Becky'

I think it's quite rude these amazing flowers have been called bums! They are the first of my daisy-type flowers to bloom, brightening the garden in early summer with their sunny faces. After blooming, I cut them back, allowing the plants behind to grow tall above the daisies evergreen foliage. They enjoy a deep soaking when the weather gets too hot and are unbothered by heat or humidity. Pros: Tough as nails! Cons: They only bloom once a season but may throw up a few more later in the summer out of pity.

Shasta daisies in full bloom.

Ruellia 'White Form' Wild White Petunias

I stumbled along a listing of ruellias in a list of native plants that attract butterflies. I added some ruellia humilis to the garden and loved how tough they were, but forgot to take any pictures. When I saw the ruellia 'White Form' listed by Lazy S's Farm Nursery I decided to give them a try. While very different in height than the blue humilis, they are incredibly tough and do as well in high bright filtered shade as they do in full sun. Growing well in dry, poor soil they are elegant in appearance yet sturdy in demeanor. They aren't water hogs and establish themselves quickly. They can grow to 3 feet tall. Pros: Native to the southeast, attract butterflies. Cons: I haven't discovered any!

'White Form' ruellia grows well near blue mist flower. These are called wild petunias because they look like....petunias!

Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer'

I bought these on a whim last summer because I thought they were pretty and I liked their fuzzy leaves. I had no idea they would be the last flowers standing in the Flower Bed of Death! In the picture, which was cropped to save my dignity, the rudbeckia are one of the only plants left in a bed so dry and miserable everything else was dead by August. They stood bright and cheerful all summer, warriors in a battle that had reduced its foes to a withered husk. A tireless biennial, I look forward to leigons of its offspring carrying on the battle come spring. Pros: Champions of drought and heat. Cons: Short-lived

Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer'

Viburnum pragense  Prague Viburnums

Viburnums are to the world of shrubbery what crazy, screaming fans are to American football: the game just wouldn't be complete without them. Neither would my garden. Evergreen Prague viburnums line the side of my house like chaperones at a school dance. Thick and stalwart, they are beautiful but not beauty queens. Planted six years ago in rich, fertile soil, I never water them and only fertilize them once a year. In six years they've grown to almost 12 feet tall and provide year round dense cover to the flocks of songbirds that call my garden home. In the spring they're rich with white snowball shaped blossoms and fresh leathery leaves.They are so tough and utilitarian, I don't even have any pictures of them, and honestly, I feel guilty. They deserve better. Pros: Everything! Cons: Nothing!

Prague viburnums and orange-red lantana hide one of my rain barrels. Sun roses grow in front of the lantana. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Have you ever heard of thundersnow? Last night a crazy storm blew through the mid-Atlantic, icing roads and hurling wads of wet, heavy snow during rush hour. Rain turned to ice before snow, mixed with thunder and lighting, brought our area to a complete halt. My husbands normal one hour commute turned into a five hour trek, complete with a stop to push someone up a hill and drive home a stranded couple who didn't want to spend the night in their car. What a mess!!

I was hoping to take some photos of beautiful snow laden trees dripping crystalline icicles from their branches. That's not quite the way it worked out.

I took this picture of my dogwood and river birch at the beginning of the storm. The white blobs in the picture are falling snow.

While keeping an eye on the clock and the news, waiting for my husband to make it home safely, I paused to check on my garden. The shrubs in my front and back yard and along the side of the house arched towards the ground, their branches almost bent in half. I could hear the snap of trees breaking in the distance, their limbs heavy with snow. Armed with my favorite snow-blasting, tree-saving tool, a large broom, I headed out.

The dogwood during the storm.

The branches of the river birch were close to breaking. I brought the broom up under the branches to release the snow. If you whack the branches from the top, you might just break them off.

Heavy, wet snow and ice can be incredibly destructive to trees and shrubs. It's better to take a proactive approach and shake the snow off in the middle of a storm than to try and save them the next day. I had to relandscape our front yard about six years ago after a devastating ice storm broke the shrubs in half. It was frustrating and expensive!

After snow removal from the UltraBroom 2000, a  much happier dogwood, with all of its branches intact.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

P. Whippleanus?

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Thomas Edison, American Inventor

If you've ever met a gardener who claims to have never killed a plant, they're either a liar or only grow silk flowers. I've lost track of all the plants I've killed, either accidentally or through utter ignorance. I once killed a huge patch of rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' by having the sheer audacity to enrich their soil with compost. They do not want compost. Ever! They want to be watered and ignored. I was guilty of loving them to death and they rewarded me by dying quickly, leaving a gaping hole near the phlox where their sunny yellow faces should have stood.

The foxgloves were magnificent for a season but didn't return, the pink windflowers disappeared, and the lithodora died. I survived the brief visit by the foxgloves, forgot about the anemones, but was irritated about the  lithodora. Were they too dry? Too moist? Their broken plant tag peeks from a brown paper apple bag, reminding me of our abrupt affair. I shove it to the side, determined to grow them again. I save plant tags like a horder saves junk. They are reminders of what I've planted, of gardens I no longer tend in states I no longer live.

Of all the plants I no longer grow, my favorite is penstemon whippleanus.  A tall penstemon with deep wine colored bell shaped blooms, it was said to grow well in moister, acidic soils across the eastern US. The pictures are alluring and the descriptive text seductive, but to be honest, I bought it because of its name. I just couldn't resist a plant with the name of P. Whippleanus. I imagined standing in polite society and commenting to the person next to me, "My whippleanus is simply enormous. If I'm not careful it will probably takeover. I can offer you a cutting, if you'd like." I can only imagine their reactions.

I dig through the bag, closing my fingers around an oddly shaped tag. Red Valerian Centranthus Ruber. I've lost track of how many times I've tried to grow this in Virginia. I love everything about this plant and was determined to make it happy. I flip the tag over and read: A short lived perennial that usually self- seeds (OK, I could live with that.) Fragrant, old-fashioned, excellent for cutting, good choice for hot, dry sites, attracts butterflies, full sun in average to poor soil, zones 4-9. It seemed perfect. I would ammend the soil to help it drain faster and then spend the summer watching it grow until its glory was eclipsed only by the sun and moon.

The valerian died. I planted it again, researched its needs, scratched my head to inspire a solution to a perennial problem, and watched it die again. I am patient by nature, until suddenly I'm not, and the lava of frustration was begining to flow. On a summer trip to California to see a family friend, red valerian grew everywhere. It spilled from behind fences and tumbled onto sidewalks. It mingled with the poppies and phlox and flirted with the cactus. I stopped in my tracks and stared.

"What are you looking at?" Bea asked.

"Valerian!" I shouted. "It's everywhere! All I do is kill this at home!"

She looked around dismissively and shrugged. "It loves our dry climate. Isn't VA too humid?" I looked back at the valerian. Hasta la vista, baby. Next!!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I hope you don't mind, but....

Dear Neighbors,

    My garden is almost full. I say this with pride, but also a touch of despair, for I have decided to plant a large, organic vegetable garden. Rip out my grass, you say? As idealistic as that sounds, I have five dogs who use it to chase each other and the crazy squirrels brave enough to raid my feeders, and a husband who loves the feel of soft grass under his feet as he makes his way to the hammock on warm summer evenings. I've made the garden as large as possible and now need more space. That's why I've decided to annex your yard, save you from a summer of mowing, and create the vegetable garden of my dreams. I hope you don't mind. I'll even share the bounty.

  Due to your absolute dread of all things gardening related, your backyards are almost completely free of any shrubbery or trees, allowing my tiller free access to a large swath of northern Virginia clay soil. To begin improving the soil, I will remove the sod, cover the clay with compost and my proprietary blend of organic fertilizers (ground alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, bone/blood meal, dried kelp, greensand, and ground eggshells). Since truly ammending the soil will take several years, I will errect collapsable raised beds to hold the veggies. But don't worry! I'll take them down once I've harvested my fall root vegetables so you don't have to look at them all winter.

    I know this may be coming as a surprise to all of you, but rest assured, it will all be okay. You no longer have to mow and can come over and lay in the hammock while I weed, stake, and tend to my crops.

   What will I be growing? Yellow, purple, orange, and white carrots, rainbow chard brighter than the Vegas strip, blue potatoes for Thanksgiving - just to keep things interesting, a green cauliflower so spikey it looks the love child of a triceratops and a brocolli, purple and green lettuces, beets as striped as a candy cane, and watermelons as sweet as sugar. Tomatoes of every variety will soar, stout and hefty, alongside basil and fennel. Cucumbers will intermingle with tiny patty pan squashes, those UFO imposters so expensive at the store. I'm even planning on planting a row of 'Pink Lemonade' blueberries. Blueberry muffins made with pink berries? Absolutely!!! Never underestimate the power of confusion. 'Red Swan' and 'Purple Dove' beans will climb your deck, greeted each dawn by heirloom morning glories. By mid summer when the lettuce has melted in the heat, I'll plant pumpkins and let your kids pick their own for free. I've just saved you a trip to the pumpkin patch. You can thank me later.

   Gotta go! I need to put in my seed order and with all these catalogs to go through, it will take a while. By the way, you are the BEST neighbors ever!!