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Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Big Box of Love

As much as I love summer gardening, I love the redemptive value of fall. The temps cool off, sometimes a bit of rain falls,and I have a chance to fix all the mistakes made the previous year. This year I have finally come to terms with the harsh reality that until I rip out more grass and expand my garden, a notion my five dogs find horrifying because I would be denying them access to their favorite Barking at People Who Walk By places, my garden is growing shadier every year.

Plants that grew well for several years in mostly sun are now leaning, stretching, and laying prostrate in their own puddles of misery, in mostly shade. The list of plants that need to be transplanted or given away is embarrassingly long. But with every new spot that opens up, an opportunity arises to find new plants that will thrive and blossom. It's like putting together a puzzle you know will never be finished but still being thrilled when you find the missing corner piece.

My first stop in the quest for plants that will love my garden is Lazy S's Farm Nursery, a Garden Watchdog Top 5 nursery. My local garden center specializes in plants that will appeal to the non-gardening public as opposed to plants that will actually survive. Large tags advertising Himalayan Whatever or Tibetan Something seem to be on every table. But Himalayan this and Tibetan that are rarely what I'm looking for and I'm doubtful they would survive our hot, humid summers. Asking the seasonal hires for help is like asking my dogs to do calculus.

Lazy S, located in southern VA, is an online family owned nursery that sells a bit of everything. Every spring and fall I wait excitedly for my latest order to arrive. Surfing their site is like wandering a candy store with a full wallet and an empty stomach. I want at least one of everything. Debby and Pete Scheuchenko offer accurate and wise planting information that never fails to help me identify plants that will grow well in my clay loam. Plants I've never heard of or seen on other online sites are common at Lazy S at much more affordable prices than other online nurseries.

Lazy S is currently ofering a 20% discount on all plants bought in multiples of 9. Finding nine plants to buy isn't the hard part. It's keeping the order to only 9 or 18 plants!! The offer ends Sept 30th at 5 pm.

 My latest Big Box of Love

 The plants always arrive incredibly well packed and in perfect condition.

This dwarf bush clover  only grows to 18" and takes dryish partial shade. Hooray!

This will grow much larger than the Yakushima and is being used to disguise a rain barrel.

Of all the plants I ordered, this was the only one available locally. But they were either half dead or insanely over priced. I save the green bamboo sticks to use in the garden to remind me of where I've added new plants.

This is a low growing native shrub that will be part of the front garden makeover. The plants arrived semi-dormant and covered in fat buds. Once the plants were out of the box and in the shade, the new leaves turned green. The horticulturalist at our garden center had never even heard of this shrub. Sheesh! 

Rue is a caterpillar food source for swallowtail butterflies. While the larger, more common rue is easily available locally, this little dwarf rue isn't. Rue is a tough, easy plant to grow.

Happy, healthy sea oats

Despite being called Sun Queen, this veronica also takes a bit of shade. It's an extremely tough plant that spent all summer peeking around the trunk of a large ash tree in my garden. It's tall with beautiful, glossy leaves and pale blue flowers. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Redesigning the Bed of Death and Misery

Every garden has its tricky spots. The most difficult spot in my garden is The Bed of Death and Misery. Situated on a very small dry slope beneath a giant laurel oak and next to a large nannyberry (viburnum lenato),  this small dry spot receives morning sun for just a few hours and total shade the rest of the afternoon. So many plants have died in this spot, instead of always buying more, I should just invest in a headstone and call it quits.

But I can't. Stubborn and tenacious, I'm determined to figure out how to get something, anything, to grow there. Thanks to a stand of mature trees, the soil is quickly stripped of its moisture and fertility, leaving whatever unfortunate plant has been stuck there to starve and dehydrate. Despite having soil amended heavily with compost over the years, the plants still died while the trees grew larger and fuller.

Last fall I worked in an absurd amount of peat moss and fertilized with Plant-Tone. I fertilized again in mid-winter and in the spring and just hoped for the best.  In October I cleared the bed of its latest casualites and planted bare root native showy tick trefoil (desmosium canadiense), known to attract pollinators, populate waste spaces and tolerate dry shade. White Form ruellia and tough-as-nails native aster ericoides were added to fill in the empty spaces. By May, the desmodium and aster ericoides had sprouted, but the ruellia had died. Tough and versatile, dead ruellia was an ominous sign. Irritated and wondering when the rest of the plants would keel over, I stuffed in some variegated sedum just to make the bed look less empty, rearranged the soaker hose, and stomped off.

The Bed of Death and Misery

I fumed for a few weeks and then began planning my annual Bed of Death and Misery makeover. But in the midst of all my fuming and planning, something miraculous happened. Nothing died. Nothing at all! The desmodium, despite looking like an alpine ski jumper, was healthy and even bloomed for a day. The sedum wanted more sun and the aster didn't seem bothered by anything. Even the neighboring knautia shrugged off the dry soil and shade to self-seed with abandon, only to spend the summer lounging atop the 'Red Fox' veronica. By the time I cut back the knautia and excavated the veronica, it looked pathetic but was alive.

 Self-seeded knautia invasion

 Barely alive 'Red Fox' veronica

 All the desmosdium needs is some snow and a ski jump. 

This sedum only grows to 15" tall and has light pink fall flowers.
By this summer it was obvious the desmodium needed a sunnier new home and the sedum was too short to stay behind the asters, which left me with a lot of space to fill. Determined to finally succeed in solving a perennial problem, I recently bought the Clay Buster kit from John and Bobs and am in the process of treating the soil. On Sunday I cut down several large branches to lighten the shade and, once again, added new plants while rearranging others. The asters and sedum stayed and northern sea oats, variegated fragrant false solomon's seal, and amsonia were added. The knautia was pulled up and given to a friend while the desmodium was moved to a sunnier spot. I really like the new design. I just hope everything lives!

I cut several large branches out of the nannyberry. I kept the branches that grew to the side because I like the layered pagoda effect. 

I moved the sedum in front of the asters so they could grow through them, since they tend to lean. This also gave the sedum more sun. 'Annie' verbena grows between the grass the sedum. The northern sea oats are in the very back by the black dog run fence and the false solomon's seal is in front of them.

 I have a lot of amsonia 'Blue Ice' in my garden. It's incredibly tough and does well in dry partial shade. It has pretty steel blue flowers in the spring and is a host food for several spring butterflies. The two plants in the very front between the sedums have already started developing their yellow fall foliage. Solidago caesia (blue stemmed goldenrod) grows behind the amsonia.

I moved the veronica in front of a large stand of 'Autumn Joy' sedum. They'll form a large mat of little spiky pink flowers. Once I cut back the knautia so the veronica wasn't being suffocated, it recovered quickly.

 I'm going to plant another 'Annie' verbena in front of the amsonia. Verbena rarely do well in partial shade, but this cultivar doesn't seem to mind.

The northern sea oats can be 3 ft tall and about 2 ft wide so I left plenty of space for them to grow. The false solomon's seal will also fill in quickly. False solomon's seal has pendulous creamy white flowers that bloom in the spring. The cultivar I planted has a creamy white margin around the leaves. Soaker hoses help keep the soil less dry but it will never be considered moist.

This pot of solomon's seal looks like it has a weird toe sticking out of the bottom. Maybe that's why it was a few dollars more!

 This is a much better picture of variegated solomon's seal than the ones above. (

Northern sea oats

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reality Break

I don't know about you, but I've had enough reality for one week. Between the fires in Texas and the floods here in Virginia, there doesn't seem to be much balance. On a normal Friday in September, I'd be at school teaching sixth grade. Today was supposed to be Locker Day, which involves helping a hyper 11 year old learn to open a locker, explaining the difficulty of opening a locker if they've left the combination in the locker, gently pointing them in the direction of their locker after they've spent 10 minutes trying to open the wrong locker, etc. But due to flooding caused by over 11 inches of rain, I'm at home in my pajamas. I'm not complaining! It just feels weird.

Fantasy: My garden is a perfect Utopia full of soil so rich, moist, and well drained, an entire issue of Fine Gardening has been created to feature it.

Reality: There's a section near the dog run so dry and shady, it's been named the Bed of Death and Misery. Local nurseries, upon discovering I've rounded up another batch of sacrificial plants to replace last season's losses, refuse to sell to me and have my picture posted near the registers.

Fantasy: I'm a Brazilian supermodel.

Reality: I'm half human, half naked mole rat, and have an extra ear.

Fantasy: Everything I plant bursts from the ground with such enthusiasm and vigor, I garden in full hockey gear to keep from getting injured.

Reality: I once had a rose die within 24 hours of coming home from the nursery and being planted in my garden. A small white flag and a hastily scrawled note that read "You've got to be kidding me, lady" were all it left behind.

Fantasy: A series of interconnected underground springs waters my garden and lawn for me every other day, while my own personal garden fairy keeps my pots watered and fertilized.

Reality: Once my rain barrels are empty, my city water bill rivals the tuition of a small, ivy covered private college.

Fantasy: My dogs are so vigilant at keeping squirrels out of the feeders that the squirrels buy timed admission tickets to the garden and are escorted out once they've met their allotted seed consumption limits.

Reality: One dog is snoring, another is farting, two are clueless, and the last one is looking out the wrong window while a squirrel is eating its body weight in seed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Pink 'Matrona' sedum with loose flowers from growing in too much shade. The pollinators don't seem to mind! They continued to buzz around the flowers, even as I moved it to a sunnier spot.