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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hammock Full of Happy

I read a while back about doctors who were prescribing nature walks to their patients instead of medication. Fresh air, exercise, and a chance to enjoy the outdoors, sans electronics, was said to be restorative and healing. "Are doctors just now figuring this out?", I thought? It seems so obvious, yet I sometimes overlook how peaceful my garden can be when I focus solely on what I think needs to be done.

I came home from work early on Monday with a raging stomach ache. A nasty virus? Maybe. Stress? Probably. A combination of the two? Definitely. I felt slightly rotten when I woke up but calling for a sub at the last minute is rarely a good idea and often results in disaster. By noon, I was headed home and my students were in the able hands of another teacher. Comforted by five dogs, concerned I might be too sick to pet them, I crawled into bed and passed out. When I woke later, I mulled my options: grade papers, grade more papers, or head out towards the garden. Options one and two just induced more nausea so, in my pajamas at 3 in the afternoon, I headed for my hammock. I wouldn't work, putter, or redesign. I would just do nothing. Joined by my daughter and a couple of dogs, I slept a bit, listened to the birds jostling for seed at the feeders, and watched the sky through a canopy of cherry leaves. I didn't need medication, just a hammock full of happy.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Muck Bucket Frog Pond

What do you do when you really want a pond but don't have the space, sunlight, or budget required to create one? You grab a shovel and a muck bucket and start digging!

This past spring I was determined to create a container pond on my patio. I imagined an enormous pot planted with iris and water lilies and filled with croaking, peeping frogs. A few mosquito fish would dart between the lily stems while frogs lounged on their pads. All would be well until the water froze, the container cracked, and everything died. My desire for the pond was overshadowed by the reality that I had no way to hook it up to a filter or pump and short of creating a customized igloo to help the winterize container, couldn't guarantee it would make it through the winter. Creating an in-ground pond was the ideal solution, but I didn't have any available garden space and no room in my budget for everything a pond project requires.

To further complicate matters, one of my dogs is so low to the ground, I was genuinely worried that if she fell in the pond, she wouldn't be able to get back out. I should have given up, but that is not my way. Once I fall in love with an idea, it sticks, churning through my mind like the spin cycle in a dryer. Honestly, I drive myself crazy!

Inspiration arrived through a simple sentence in one of Sweetbay's posts about her garden. Happily tucked into the dirt near one of her horse's water troughs was a 2 ft by 2 ft puddle packed with frogs. A puddle? Hot damn! I don't need a pond! All I gotta do is dig out a puddle!!

The solution came in the form of a giant ring of shasta daisies that desperately needed to be divided. If I could use the extra space from a severely thinned patch of daisies to sink my container into the ground, I could have a frog pond! The spot available matched my budget - small, dry, and lumpy. The daisies grew at the edge of a dry, uneven bed under the shade of several large ash trees, a skinny cedar, and a small hornbeam tree. Overgrown with miserable coneflower and rudbeckia seedlings, self-seeded wine cups, and a few tenacious weeds, it was a mish-mash of plants growing sideways in the wrong spot, fighting for air under a mat of invading foliage, or lying prostrate on the mulch desperate for sun. In southern slang - It was a hot mess, honey! Digging it all up, redesigning the bed, and creating a frog pond was easier than committing to a 12-step program for gardeners suckered in by seedlings.

Here's how I did it:

I dug up all the plants in the area and thinned out the daisies. I started digging the hole with a shovel but despite a ton of rain, the ground was so hard and dry my son finished the job with a pick axe. The extra dirt was piled up in the dog run until we had time to smooth it out and remulch the run.

We dug deep enough to line the hole with carpet squares, which act as an insulator. The muck buckets are $18 70 qt shatter resistant tubs I bought at a farm store. These will hold up to invading tree roots much better than a fabric liner. Because we were working with a small space, the buckets worked a lot better than a preformed pond liner. They were also exponentially cheaper.

I used two feed scoops to hold the aquatic plants that needed moist roots and sun. I filled them with rocks and used the rocks to balance the little pots under water. They also act as a "shallow end" for the frogs who don't like a steep grade. The scoops were $14.

I filled the area between the clay and the buckets with playground sand. This creates a hibernaculum for the frogs.

I filled in the remaining space with my favorite compost, Leaf Gro. I covered the buckets with plastic to minimize the amount of compost that fell in the water.

This picture is way too bright and doesn't show how pretty the rocks surrounding the pond are. I used a combination of pink quartz and tumbled boulders enhanced with cheap pond rocks from Lowe's to make the pond look more natural. I accidentally chopped the Invisible Fence line in half while digging. Oops!

I took these pictures right after filling the pond with water from my rain barrels. The debris settled after a few days and the water is much clearer. Frogs prefer a bit of shade and debris. It gives them somewhere to hide. I added dwarf horse rush, a cardinal lobelia, and water celery to the pond. I bought them all for $3 a piece on clearance! Hornwort acts as an oxygenator below the surface.

I completely redesigned the beds around the pond. Lots of veronica, oregano,aster 'Snow Flurry' and 'Deam's' rudbeckia fulgida grow near the pond.

These pictures are also way too bright! Diervilla lonicera grows between the veronica 'Romiley's Purple' and the phlox in the background. It's hard to see in this picture. It's still pretty small. We had 20 inches of rain in September and the phlox is moldy.

This section of the bed was also a wreck. I took everything out between the grass and the monarda. The area where the monarda are planted is moister and is supplemented by a soaker hose. I added veronica 'Sun Queen' in front of the monarda, a sedum seedling in front of the birdbath, amsonia 'Blue Ice', and lots of bare root porteranthus. Dracocephalum (False Dragon's Head), a super tough drought resistant perennial, is planted between the bare root porteranthus and the grass. The bare root plants are marked with green bamboo stakes. 

I haven't seen any frogs in the pond yet, but a friend with a PhD in Biology assured me they'd come. I hired a neighborhood boy to go frog catching for me at a local lake, but he couldn't find any. I wasn't too surprised. There is so much fertilizer run off in our creek that the oxygen levels are too low to sustain much aquatic life. It's a nasty, algae covered disaster and if I were a frog, I wouldn't live there, either. But I'm hoping they like my pond. I built it just for them!!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don't Tell the Columbine

Don't tell the columbine
but her petals should be folded
tucked deep inside a memory

Flung open like doors
sunshine cupped and spilling
to the patio below

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Something for Nothing

Due to a computer error, I was recently sent four Peggy Martin roses, that I wrote about in my last post. I finished the post with a shot of the new garden bed, hit Publish, and was off, either to bed to to wade through my stacks of endless grading.

But here's the rest of the story: the roses that I didn't order, that were sent to me by accident, that were perfect and rocketed me into a state of blissful delirium, allowed me to create a new garden bed in a fabulously sunny, moist part of my yard. If your garden is already moist and sunny, then this may not seem like a big deal. However, most of my garden is dry and shady, and only has two beds that receive six or more hours of sun. Shrubs fill a few other sunny places better suited for the billowing mounds of viburnum and deutzia than a mixed border.

Creating a new garden bed can be exhilarating but also expensive and despite my windfall, I couldn't justify spending several hundred dollars on plants just to keep my new roses company. Fortunately, I didn't need to. Struggling to grow wedged behind more enthusiastic bedmates, desperate to stay alive in bone dry soil, or lying prostrate across the mulch in a futile bid for more sun, lay an entire borders' worth of plants. Many of these refugees were original to the garden, planted when the trees were smaller and the beds moister and sunnier. The soil was so compacted and the trees so scrubby when we first moved in that I didn't plan for shade. I simply didn't plan on many of the trees surviving the first winter. Eight years later, shade prevails and moist, sunny spots are the equivalent of the Ritz-Carlton, Trump Towers, or the Taj Mahal.

To fill the bed, I went shopping in my own garden. Here's what I found:
  • a bird bath and stepping stone
  • pink wood aster 'Fanny'
  • heliopsis 'Tuscan Sun'
  • Persian cornflower (Centaurea dealbata)
  • rue
  • pink coneflowers 'Magnus'
  • white coneflowers "Fragrant Angel'
  • rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' seedlings
  • phlox 'David', "David's Lavender', 'Nicky'
  • phlox - assorted seedlings in shades of pink and white
  • blue mist flower
  • hostas (beautiful but unnamed, from a friend)
  • white double balloon flowers
  • achillea 'The Pearl' 
  • aster 'Alert'
  • nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' ( I think!)
  • daylillies - shades of yellow, pink, purple
  • variegated iris (iris ensata)
  • blue eyed grass
  • slender leaf mountain mint
A section of the new bed is slightly drier and receives high, filtered shade from a neighboring river birch. I used the phlox, hostas, blue mist flower, balloon flowers, and daylilies as transition plants from the slightly shady area to the sunnier, moister side. A stepping stone next to the bird bath makes filling the bird bath easier. My only expenses were the compost, mulch, and the highly effective bunny barricade. Considering our gas prices jumped 8 cents a gallon while I was at work Friday, something for almost nothing is my favorite way to garden!

Many of these plants are growing sideways or have strange root systems because of the stressed conditions they were growing in. I have faith they will all be gorgeous by next summer!
Compost + the right growing conditions are wonderful healers (if you're a plant!).

I used the hostas that formerly grew in a semi-circle at the base of the river birch to guide the eye around the curve of the bed towards the sunny side. This new garden also creates a more beautiful view than my neighbors a/c units currently provide. 
I used a shovel to remove the sod and brought in 50 bags of compost since a bulk delivery wasn't an option.

I left a grass walkway between the Dogwood garden and the new sunny border. I'm going to dig out about another 8 inches of grass to give the plants in the new bed more room to grow. 

As I was creating the new garden, my dogs were on a week long mole hunt that involved them destroying more grass than the mole. They finally caught the mole, but part of my Dogwood garden and a long section of grass looks like swiss cheese. Baby, a sturdy daschund/corgi mix, is on mole patrol in this picture. When we adopted her from the no-kill shelter all of our dogs came from, she was already named and since it had been her name for eight years, we kept it. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jude, Peggy, and the Imposter

This is a story about lust, desire, and roses. It goes like this: There once was a gardener named Tammy who loved roses but had rotten luck growing them. Strange diseases, leaf and blossom devouring bugs, hard, clay soil soil, too much shade - you name it, she dealt with it and after a while began to give up on growing only but a few of the hardiest, most heat and humidity loving roses she could find. The problem was, she just couldn't find that many.

 David Austin's Sceptre d'Isle grows very well with a bit of afternoon shade. It's extremely disease resistant with peony shaped blossoms. It blooms throughout the summer.

To complicate matters, because she apparently didn't feel they were complicated enough, she wanted roses with a fragrance so strong it would waft through the windows on warm, sultry nights and perfume her house with the scent of roses and earth. Let's ignore the fact that on warm, sultry nights she runs the air conditioner and hides from the heat.

Westerland climbing rose blooms heavily in the early summer and sporadically till fall.

Night Owl climbing rose blooms all summer.

Moving on... Several roses did thrive in her garden, and while some were fragrant, she had to stick her nose into a passel of petals to enjoy their scent. Night Owl is virtually scentless, Westerland and Sceptre d'Isle are gently fragrant, and while William Shakeapeare 2000 has a wonderful, heady scent, he spent all summer sulking after  being transplanted near the agastache in the spring and didn't bloom. What a whiner!

David Austin's William Shakespeare 2000
This spot had become too shady and Will was moved to a sunnier spot this spring.

Eager to find a fragrant, humidity loving rose, she ordered a Ginger Syllabub rose from an online nursery and began to dream of  a patio filled with its rich, spicy scent. Tucked into a pot with ornamental oregano, it survived fertilzer burn and began to grow, vigorous, dark green leaves sprouting from slender canes, a fat bud ornamenting the tip as proudly as a crown. Apricot orange petals would slowly open to reveal its golden heart, its fragrance greeting her in the morning over a massive mug of coffee and pantry pilfered chocolate chips.

Except the flower wasn't apricot orange at all and smelled like absolutely nothing. In the fading light, it almost looked beige. "It's a fluke", she thought. "I'll bet the next one is orangish and smells like heaven." So she waited and hoped. Honestly, it was ridiculous. The rose grew but didn't bloom and she became feverish in her desire for a spicily scented rose. She trolled blogs and websites, spending hours of her summer vacation looking for the perfect plant. She gazed longingly at curved petals and imagined the full blossoms teasing and tempting the other plants in the border.

The Imposter grew vigorously all summer in a pot with 'Pilgrim' oregano.
 She's going to the garden of a much loved friend.

The next beige, scentless bloom cemented the presence of an imposter and she began to grumble and grouse. Desperate, she began to mentally redesign her garden to accommodate a rose that always delivers. But she continued to grumble. The newcomer required occasional spraying and could be fussy. They had a past and while the relationship had been brief, it left indelible scars. She wasn't quite sure she could do it again. Staring at the computer screen, she looked Jude the Obscure straight in the petals and growled, "Look you gorgeous bastard, if you die within 24 hours of being planted in the garden again, I'm kicking your butt, even if it's already dead." Jude stared impassively back and Tammy hit the Submit Order button. Jude was scheduled to arrive in mid-October, which gave Tammy time to prepare.

Fast forward to early September. Arriving home after working late, Mr. Casa announced that a package had arrived. Expecting to find Jude tucked politely within the folds of an out of state newspaper in a long skinny box, Tammy was shocked to find a large, heavy box dominating the foyer. Still in her heels, she lugged the box to the kitchen table and sliced it open to find not one, but two mystery roses, waiting inside. "It looks like Jude's not coming. He must have sent Peggy Martin in his place." she announced to whomever was listening. Excited, a bit confused, and worried Peggy Martin might be a prissy, disease prone prima donna, she searched for a packing label or a note to explain the surprise.

A quick Google search revealed Peggy Martin to be a gorgeous pink climbing rose with disease resistant foliage, thornless canes, and a powerfully pervasive scent. Known as the "Rose That Survived Hurricane Katrina", it has a reputation as one of the toughest roses around.  "Oh my gosh," she gushed. "This is incredible! It's perfect. I have a garden angel! It's serendipitous! SOMEONE LOVES ME!!" Her family stared, shook their heads, and walked quietly away, mumbling to each other that, yes, Mom is insane.

 Chance and one of the Peggys

Of course the only spot she had available to plant such a splendid, sun-loving plant, was along the fence located next to her husbands Best Grass and the dogs favorite Barking At People Who Walk By place. So excited she was unable to sleep, she dreamt of a new sunny border with her new best friend Peggy Martin lounging across the fence. "It's thornless!! She won't even have to impale the neighbors as she grows and blooms." Tammy sighed contentedly and finally slept.

A small section of sod was pulled away, compost added and both Peggy Martin roses were slipped lovingly into the Earth. Tammy floated back into the house, a silly, irritating grin plastered across her face. That is of course, until the neighborhood bunnies, having heard of the recent delivery devoured almost every leaf before hopping silently away. "Curses!" she yelled. "Stay out of my garden, you rancid hare! I shun your cuteness and will baricade my roses to thwart your evil attacks!" Mini-fortresses of recently pulled sod were hastily constructed and she stomped back into the house. "Wabbits ate my woses!" she growled to her husband. "Weally?" he responded.

I'm going to line the tall metal garden fence with trellis netting to create the Ultimate Bunny Barricade. The trellis netting is small enough that hopefully the bunnies can't squeeze through.

After several days of sulking, the foliage began to rapidly renew and sprout new leaves. Okay, the roses probably weren't sulking but Tammy was. It was pathetic and was only cured when a second large box, accompanied by a long, slender box, arrived in her foyer. She quickly sliced open the smallest box to find Jude the Obscure, well-wrapped and well-behaved, inside. Excited about the prospect of more incredible mystery roses, she tore into the large box and pulled out two more Peggy Martin roses. Stunned and confused, she called the nursery again and began to wonder if two roses were going to arrive every week. A computer error due to a new system had serendipitously sent her four of the most perfect roses for the Southeast. She wouldn't be charged and was told to her enjoy her roses. Two Peggys and the Imposter were headed to the garden of a close friend, while a large sunny area of sod was marked for removal to accommodate the two remaining Peggys. Once again, Tammy was all smiles. Free fragrant roses!! A new sunny perennial bed! Life is good!

Most of the new perennial bed is in a sunny moist spot. There is a bit of dryish, filtered shade near the river birch. All the sod was removed with a shovel, which took forever!
Chance and Baby are checking out the compost and looking for bugs to eat.