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Monday, July 30, 2012

The Plant Lab

On my patio resides a collection of pots stuffed with assorted annuals and perennials. I sometimes call it my container garden, but it's really my Plant Lab. I'm not a scientist and have never worked in a lab, which is probably wise. Explosions, broken glass, mostly sincere apologies, and rescued lab animals would be the result. For the sake of everyone involved, it's best my experiments all occur in well ventilated areas. My patio seems safe.

The Plant Lab

If I'm not sure how well a plant will do in my garden, it goes in the lab, which is to say I stick it in a pot and add it to the collection cascading down the patio steps. If something dies, I try not to get upset. I just tell myself to re-evaluate the methods I used to grow it, consider alternatives, and try again. Or I rip the damn thing out, cussing all the while, and head into the house for a glass of wine. A combination of the two is my favorite.

Cheap, colorful annual vinca are the only plants I've found that can tolerate the reflected heat off the kitchen door.

Red salvia 'Maraschino' thrives in a pot after struggling in my garden. After hanging the outside curtain to minimize the amount of reflected it receives, it perked up. But I still couldn't figure out why it needed such a ridiculous amount of water.

I finally spotted a hole in the side of the pot. The water was pouring out as fast as I was pouring it in. Duck tape solved the problem!

I have no idea what this plant is! It grew from a seed that looked like a nasturtium seed from a packet labeled Nasturtium, but it doesn't look like a nasturtium or resemble any of the pictures in the catalog I ordered it from. It's a mystery plant that would prefer afternoon shade rather than afternoon sun. Do you know what it is?  It hasn't bloomed yet.

I added 'Iron Butterfly' ironweed to the Plant Lab this year to see how well it would do. So far, it's a winner. It's highly attractive to pollinators and is much shorter than the more common ironweed.

My white annual gomphrena came in a little six pack labeled Purple. The purple attracted numerous pollinators but the white is ignored. Next year I'll buy them in bloom.

Growing next to  the gomphrena is Deep Perfume Purple nicotiana, which has no fragrance. It's easy to grow, but the pollinators ignore it, too. Something else will go in that pot next year.

Last year I started experimenting with Louisiana iris. I thought they needed standing water but as long as the soil is moist, they're fine. The red parrot feather in the front needs more water than the iris.

The iris experiment was so successful I added more non-draining pots to the patio. Toads love to hang out in these during the day.

After killing marguerites twice in the garden, I added them to the Plant Lab and finally figured out how to keep them happy - slightly moist, fast draining soil in full sun. Plus, they need to be pinched back every time you deadhead.

In my quest to add more fragrance to the garden, I potted up two tiny honeysuckle plants. Instead of letting them trail all over the patio, I wanted to keep them bushy and full by pruning them to increase volume. The Major Wheeler cultivar (solid green) is so tough, I'm planning on adding it a difficult spot in my front garden. The variegated honeysuckle has been more fickle.

The variegated honeysuckle has highly fragrant white flowers or so I've read. These haven't bloomed yet.

I was given these super dwarf hosta as a gift from a friend. It took quite of bit of moving around before I finally found a spot to make them happy. I was worried this experiment would fail.

They only grow a few inches tall.

One of my most successful experiments has been growing 'Ava' agastache in a big pot. It needs better drainage than my soil can offer.

It's a pollinator/hummingbird magnet!

I used a soil thermometer to determine which type of pot (clay, ceramic, resin, etc) kept the soil the coolest but they all registered the same temperature.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Screening Out the Yuck Side: More Garden Art From the Artistically Inept

Be who you are and
say what you feel
because those who matter 
don't mind
and those who mind
 don't matter
- Dr Seuss

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my Yuck side, the unfabulous side of my house with all my utilities as well as a giant bleeding heart that goes dormant every summer, leaving me with a huge gaping hole in the garden bed. Once summer hits, this area is an eyesore but buried utility lines make landscaping difficult. The tall obedient plants I added last fall to make this area less ugly were trampled into oblivion by a zealous, or maybe just angry, utility worker when we changed our internet service, making the area even uglier than usual.

Decorative knobs used on the screen



I asked how I should fix the problem and as I hoped, was given a solution. Several of you suggested I make a screen or some kind of structure to hid the hideousness since I don't want to move the bleeding heart. Kris from Melissa Majora gave me the fabulous idea of using wooden shutters but I couldn't find any. When she mentioned decorating the screen, my brain started popping. Encouragement to a creative mind is like fertilizer to a petunia. An idea sprouted and down the rabbit hole I fell....

Tammy's Super Skills
Making a mess
Hitting things with a hammer
Using a screwdriver and an old, cheap drill

With only these skills at my disposal, I decided to create a plywood screen with one of my favorite Dr. Seuss quotes and then decorate it with cool knobs. Weird? Possibly. But I went for it anyway. 

I bought a big square piece of plywood that measured 4 ft x 4 ft. The guys at Lowe's cut into five sections each measuring 36" x 12". I sanded down the scratchy bits and primed it with an exterior primer.

I drew out my design, measured off the stripes, and wrote myself notes on the board so I'd paint everything correctly. Each board is a mirror image of the board next to it. The first stripe is 3", the second is 5" and the third is 4", which when combined with the next stripe of the same color, creates a stripe pattern of 3", 5" and 7". This keeps the stripes even in a rather odd way. :o)

 I painted the outside stripes first using all exterior paints.

Ugh! This is why I don't paint things for a living. I had a lot of touch up painting to do!

Once the painting was done, I laid out the words to the quote and then wrote them on the boards using a black Sharpie marker.

After inserting all the knobs, I covered them with plastic wrap and sprayed the board with a clear aerosol sealant.

I made supports out of PVC pipe that I asked Lowe's to cut for me. I clamped the pipe to a thin piece of wood and bought heavy spikes to insert through the pipe and into the ground to hold the screen upright.

I nailed the supports to the board.

Figuring out how to hang plants from the back of the board was the most challenging part. I ended up using metal braces and screwed little plastic self watering pots into the back of the board.

Once the pots were screwed onto the board, I filled then with lemon thyme. If we get rain, the extra water can flow out of the bottom tray since there is a gap where I screwed the tray into the board.

Be who you are and say what you feel

because those who matter don't mind

and those who mind don't matter

Once the thyme settles into its pot, I'm hoping it won't look so scraggly. I wanted something free form to break up how linear the top of the boards are. Plus, thyme won't need to be watered constantly.

Decorative knobs used on the board

Summer garden

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Inspire Happiness

The large wooden fence has been taken down, giving the viewer a chance to see the rest of the art in the front yard. 

There is a house in a town near me decorated with overgrown plants and bicycles. Propped up between a stone wall and the sidewalk, a fence of white bicycles lines the perimeter of the property. Small baskets between the handlebars are filled with seasonal silk flowers that change with each holiday. I often have no reason to drive by this house, but sometimes go out of my way just to see the newest display. Pink flamingos, a suit of armor, and an assortment of large metal sculptures fill the yard. Regardless of how exhausted or stressed I feel, this house and unconventional artwork makes me happy. It reminds me to follow my heart and to see the beauty and potential in everyday life.

I'm not an artist and don't have a fence of white bicycles. I have a cheap camera, a hot, thirsty garden, and just enough gardening knowledge to kill less and less plants each year. But I hope when you visit my blog or my garden, after surviving my irreverent sense of humor and squirrel trash talk, that you will find some small bit that inspires happiness.

This sign was custom made for me by Stewart's Scenic Signs, a family owned and operated metal art business in Saskatchewan, Canada. I saw a garden sign on their website that said 'Inspire Happiness' and asked Sherry Stewart to customize it for me with the dragonfly, flower, and frog. She was wonderful to work with and ships her work across Canada and the US.

'Monch' asters and orange milkweed

The Sunnyside garden

'White Swan' coneflowers

Purple Prairie Clover
This is the first year it's ever bloomed! I finally have in just the right place. I only had to transplant it four times.

Joe Pye Weed isn't a weed at all but a powerful pollinator magnet.  Parts of this clump are over six feet tall.

 This used to be my Bed of Death and Misery but after redesigning it last fall, it's much happier and so am I.

I can't fix the weather or give you a raise, but I hope I can inspire happiness. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The NanoFarm: Potatoes, Tomatoes, and A Plant You've Never Heard Of

When I was a kid, my mom would spend a few minutes every weekend puttering around our odd little garden while my dad specialized in mowing our tiny lawn. Shrubs too large for our cramped suburban lot burst at sharp angles, aimed for take off, their branches almost parallel to the ground. Roses thrived in the dry California air and succulents stood sentry from their rusted coffee cans on the patio. A large corner had been sectioned off to use as a raised vegetable garden. It gave my mom a chance to start seeds and further reduced the postage stamp sized lawn my dad mowed into submission.

My mom specialized in zucchini the size of baseball bats and bitter bok choy. I don't recall anything else ever being grown. My sailor father, having been born and raised in rural Montana, once asked loudly as he sat for a dinner of stir fried bok choy, "What the @#*&! is bok choy?" I don't remember if he ate it or not, I just remember how deeply funny it was. I remember laughing until I cried. When my dad asked what was so funny, I just laughed harder. 

I don't grow bok choy but if my dad were still alive, I would. Instead, I grow a tiny group of veggies in containers I call the NanoFarm. 

The NanoFarm contains a pot of purple carrots, sweet potatoes, a tomato plant, and ground cherries.

Some of the carrot foliage is a bit purple but it's supposed to be green. Only the carrots are purple. Do you know why the foliage is tinged purple?

Last year my carrot harvest was rather pathetic. I harvested enough to make a carrot cake, but that's it. Part of the problem was that I didn't thin them enough. These are a few tiny carrots I pulled today. This will give the rest of the carrots more room to grow. 

Last year my carrots grew carrot brains. This is a Parisian Ball carrot with a rather well developed brain. The knobby growth develops when the soil around the seedling settles and part of the root is exposed to sun. To solve this I sifted compost over the carrot seedlings after rain had begun to compact the soil. It raised the soil level just enough to avoid carrot brains.

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars love carrot foliage.

This seed is leftover from last year! It started growing this spring as a volunteer. It's a big yellow carrot.

I started ground cherries from seed after reading about them on  Bumble Lush's wonderful blog. They were slow to start but worth the wait.

 A ground cherry is an heirloom fruit that tastes like the love child between a tomato and a pineapple.  They grow wider than tall so I only have one plant in this pot. I gave the rest of the seedlings away to friends. The sweet potatoes have taken over part of its pot.

The fruit is small, like a cherry and hangs under the large leaves. Something has been eating the leaves, but it doesn't seem to be affecting the plant so I'm not worried about it. You can see a ground cherry flower on the far right.

They grow within a little husk like a tomatillo and are ripe when they fall to the ground, hence the name ground cherry. They're sweet and fun to open up. 

If eaten green, the fruit will make you sick but this is true of most fruits. When the husk is completely dry, the fruit is ripe.

The fruit is yellow.

Despite being blown over in a storm and accidentally mauled by a teenager, my Heatmaster tomatoes are doing well and covered with green fruit. Heatmaster was bred to be disease resistant and thrives in hot, humid environments. I bought my seedling in March when it was absurdly hot. In April, which was cold and very rainy, I had to bring it in every night. One night I left it outside and I found it at the bottom of the patio steps the next morning. Wind, you say? Maybe. But I think it had thrown itself down the steps in a desperate attempt to escape our weird weather for good. I promptly planted it in a pot, covered it when I had to and told it to hang on.   
I have yet to eat a ripe tomato. I fried up all the green ones that fell in the storm and a squirrel ate half of my last almost red one, before letting it fall to the ground and roll into the bushes. He couldn't even be bothered to go after it and finish it off.


These are Bush Porto Rico sweet potatoes and were purchased as slips from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. This cultivar does well in containers and is more manageable in small spaces than other varieties. Baked sweet potatoes are my favorite fall snack. The vein margins are a bit pale. Time for liquid seaweed and fish fertilizer along with a small dose of Dr Earth's vegetable fertilizer. Vegetables grown in container need to be fertilized much more frequently than veggies grown in the ground because they lose nutrients when water drains from the bottom of the pot.

My veggies grow in cheap resin pots.

Smokey bronze fennel grows near the tomatoes. I've had so many swallowtail butterfly caterpillars in the fennel, it's constantly regrowing new leaves. 

Fennel attracts a lot of pollinators.

A tomato seed germinated in a crack between the patio pavers and is coming up between my containers.

I think these will be grape tomatoes.

From the NanoFarm you can see part of my container garden.

I have two big pots of pink, purple, white, and salmon zinnias just because I love them.

Zinnia and agastache 'Ava

The pollinators love them, too.