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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.


  1. Nature isn't pretty or delicate, but what an awesome experience to see the hawks hunt. You really do have a truly wild wildlife garden!

    I like your accidental truths... especially the one about the knowledge level of the garden center staff. Oh, and the one about watering dry soil to make it less dry, but it never really makes it moist. So true, so true.

  2. All true. Gardening really is something we learn by experience and we never stop learning. Probably why we never have time to artistically arrange our fridge contents.

  3. I don't have a butt massager in my car, just seat heaters. When I run into the library, the dog crawls into the front seat and accidentally turns them on so I think I'm having hot flashes when I drive home. How's the soil sifting going? LOL

  4. Cool shots of the hawks! While they are beautiful, I still curse them every time they carry off one of my 'innocent' birdies!

  5. Many of my friends are not as obsessed with gardening as I am. So I receive the shocked and bewildered reaction every time I say I bought a really cool plant while they are talking about the latest shoe sale.

    Maybe that bird was a Caracara?

  6. Tufa - I checked out the caracara and they have an orangeish red patch on their face, but are really cool looking. I only have a few crazy gardener friends so most of my friends just roll their eyes while I talk about all things garden related. I actually checked my soil pH (using a little gadget) by flashlight the other night.

  7. Sorry - Soil sifting is going well! Your dog is a genius!! I was laughing out loud... again! If I had heated car seats my dogs would never get out of the car. But then again, I might not either!

    Laurrie - Dry soil is the bane of my existence here. I have a few moist patches but spend most of the summer either watering or praying for rain.

    Missy - I like to think of my fridge as modern art. Right now it's a bit minimalist. Grocery shopping is such a bore. I'd rather garden! :o)

    PEI - I sent my son out to check on the bird after the hawks flew away. At first he reported it was a blue bird and my heart just sank. They nest in my yard every spring.

  8. Great post! #7 reminds me of the year my husband gave me a bat house for Mother's Day, my non-gardening friends didn't quite understand my excitement.. ha!

  9. Another funny and useful post. Btw, isn't clay soil alkali?

    Have you dug out your soaker hoses? It's really funny, the way you put it.

    I love the wildlife in your garden...

  10. Oh those less-than-expert experts! A lot of them are posing as docents at botanical gardens, garden designers and garden writers even! It's good as you say to take it all in, then test it against what you know as a gardener yourself to be true. Sometimes it's like wild kingdom out there in the garden - those accipiters (birds that eat other birds) are a little hard to watch!

  11. Great lessons we have all learned sooner or later. I really like the one on soaker hoses. We tried them one month one hot and dry summer and our water bill was $150 and we still had dry dirt. haha

    Have a great week.


  12. Your hawks are either Sharp-Shinneds or Cooper's. Sounds like Cooper's from the size. Cooper's will have a rounded edge to its tail feathers. The Sharpie has a straight edge to its tail feathers. Both Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned have short rounded wings and a long tail compared to something like a Red-Tailed Hawk.

    Great garden truths! Number 4 is my favorite. We had a heated bird bath when we lived in PA and it was great. The birds loved it.

  13. I really enjoyed your simple truths about gardening. Living in Oklahoma, I had to laugh about the plant tags. We always joke that partial sun means shade here. As for the birds, I don't know what they are, but you will probably have to discontinue the feeders until they move on. Otherwise, they will stay and continue to dine on the songbird buffet. I'm sorry.~~Dee

  14. I found myself nodding along with every simple truth you pointed out! So true, all of them! It would be cool to see hawks but I don't think I want to see them dining on the songbirds...a woman after my own heart, sending the son out to see the carnage first ;) There is only so much truth a gardener can handle.

  15. Had a few chuckles with this post. At first I laughed at the heated bird bath but then I thought, hey that's a great idea. I think you and I think the same in regards to birdhouses-pretty but perhaps not practical.

  16. I love your lessons learned post. It's so true. We as gardeners are constantly learning and it's only when we realize that we don't know it all, that we are content (though not always happy!). Your hawks are gorgeous. Nature is not always pretty, but it is always true. Thank you for sharing that side of gardening too. I just love (love) any and all birds!

  17. Lots of good lessons here! I'm feeling the opposite right now -- kind of down about my garden and thinking it will be a flop this year. Early spring in Wisconsin sometimes does that to me. I clipped some Hellebore buds and my hubby stepped on some others...I'm worried that the rabbits will eat the Crocus bud that is about to bloom...the Hollyhocks that I thought were coming back seem to be receding...I hope my pessimism is wrong and things will look better in May. Thanks for a great post!

  18. With all of your lessons learned (and we've ALL learned the same ones) it is a wonder that any of us still garden! We are the eternal optimists, I guess -- or, as you say, completely delusional. And I think Picasso has lots to do with gardening -- sometimes my garden looks like one of his paintings -- controlled chaos!
    Thanks for the laugh :-) But sad about the robin.

  19. Jennifer@threedogsinagarden
    As usual, you had me laughing all the way through your post- I could so identify with your lessons learned. I have come to regard all plant tags with skepticism. Only one of my birdhouses ever has guests. I probably would have bought the same heated birdbath, if presented with the opportunity. I recall asking about "boxwood" and having the garden center clerk think that I was looking for a cardboard "box" to carry my purchases home in.
    Too bad about the hawks and that poor robin. Nature can be brutal. I wouldn't have been able to watch either!

  20. Hi! Thank you for your caption last week.

    I've put a link to your blog in my current post;

  21. While it was an unfortunate end for the poor robin how great is it that hawk's are visiting your yard. You truly are creating a whole ecosystem. Number 7 made me smile. I was looking at a daylily catalogue the other day and told hubby about a plant that was $100. The expression on his face! Only another gardener could appreciate spending that much on a plant.

  22. Your ten truths were spot on and very entertaining. I too have the hawk problem. I know they have to eat too, but I am not providing a smorgasbord at my feeder for them. Your hawk capture was very good. They are not always easy to get.

  23. I can relate to your truths! My frig is anything but calming. When I open it up, it just reminds me that I need to clean it again.
    Funny, post! :)


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