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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Almost Arbor

Fact 1: I want an arbor.
Fact 2: I do not have the space or money for an arbor.
Fact 3: I do not care. I want an arbor.

Here's what I want:

Here's what I have. 

I'm not sure if pig-headed determination is a good thing or not, but I have it by the truckload. I've wanted to add an arbor to the garden for years but could never figure out how to install one that would fit into the tight space around my fence gates.

Problem 1: The arbor would butt-up against my neighbor's property and potentially cause problems.
Problem 2: It needed to be tall enough that we could walk underneath without smacking our head.
Problem 3: It needed to be super cheap.

I had almost resigned myself to the reality that an arbor just wasn't a possibility but couldn't keep myself from  brainstorming ways to make it happen.

Brainstorm 1: I just need a tall structure that I can squeeze up against my fence.
Brainstorm 2: It can be unconventional since once it's covered in vines no one will know what it looks like.
Brainstorm 3: I need a way to connect the pieces together.

My first thought was to use rebar since I had seen several articles describing how easy it is to construct rebar arbors. But the more I researched this, the more problematic it became.

Problem 1: Rebar rusts in about a nanosecond and I find tetanus inconvenient.
Problem 2: It comes in 20 ft long rigid poles that I can't transport home in my medium sized car without causing several traffic accidents. Accidents are bad. Avoiding them is good.
Problem 3: I don't like rebar.

In search of a solution, I headed to our local Lowe's and started asking questions. The wonderful thing about having almost no product knowledge of how to use 99% of what they sell means that it was easy to envision everything they sell being used creatively. I found long, semi-rigid threaded poles in the electrical section and a smart salesman to help me. When I left I had four 20 ft long, slightly bendy poles, couplers, and some kind of  V shaped joint to help hold everything together. I was happier than a kid with a cupcake. Here's how I put it all together.

I bought these. 
You need two of the V shaped things (inside corner pull elbow) and four couplers.

Buy four long threaded rods. 
They are slightly bendy allowing you to stuff them into your car without killing people.
 Screw the couplers onto one end. Leave the other end bare.

Stick the elbow piece onto the coupler and screw it tight.

Insert the other rod/coupler combo into the other side of the elbow joint.

Pound a hole in the ground with a metal stake or anything else long and pointy. 
Take the stake out and stick in the threaded rods. 
Repeat with the other rods and you're almost done.

I used heavy gauge wire and wire snips
 I bought at the craft store to lash the pieces together.

Look at that amazing knot! Woo-hoo!
 Navies across the globe are jealous of my mad knot making skills!
I lashed the two rods together to keep them from wobbling.

I also lashed them to the wire inside my fence for greater stability.

Pathetic but effective

Suburban gothic: the newest trend

The skinny threaded rods work great at making sure I keep the arbor on my property.

My new $25 arbor!

I'm going to cover my arbor with cypress vine and purple pole beans this summer. The threaded rods give the vines a textured surface to grab onto to, making it easier for them to cover the structure. Because these are annuals, I can just take them down in the fall and troubleshoot the arbor, if needed.

Cypress vine

Purple pole beans

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Garden Bucket List

First off, I have to say I don't have a big Life Bucket List. As much as I would love to move to France, vacation in Tahiti, or dance wildly on a bar, I think I'll be ok if none of those things happen. Actually, I'll be disappointed, but considering I don't speak French, can't afford a trip to Tahiti and would probably fall off the bar, maybe its for the best. But I do have a bucket list for my garden that includes adding funky art pieces, both decorative and functional, to my plantings. While waiting for my dormant garden to pop to life, I've been squirreling away decorative birdhouses and other cool garden art made by American artists.

I've been on the hunt for funky but functional birdhouses all winter.
 I found these on Etsy.

During my birdhouse hunt, I found birdhouses that were hundreds of dollars and impossible to clean out. 
Are you kidding me?

Handmade by California artist Michele McKee-Orsini  her houses are affordable and completely functional.

I love the buttons she uses on many of her houses

as well as the other decorative accents. 

 I wonder if any birds will use this Spanish moss to build a nest?

Clever use of extra frame edges

A small knob on the side opens a door that allows you to clean out the houses with ease. No more pulling entire nests out twig by twig through a teensy hole.  

 My front porch receives morning sun and afternoon shade. Everything I plant here either dies or looks so wretched I pull it out. Tired of all the drama, I planted birdhouses instead.

This hangs from a shepherd's crook stuck into one of the containers on my patio.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Box No. 7

She sleeps, curled tight like a fiddlehead under the faded comforter, long blonde hair barely crowning her pillow. I walk carefully through the dark room, piles of unfinished homework lay in Xerox white puddles on the floor. Soccer cleats poke from her sports bag at odd angles and compete for floor space with a laundry basket and bulging backpack.

Brushing her hair from her face, I whisper quietly to her. "How are you feeling?" I ask but the question hangs suspended, before collapsing onto the comforter to quietly slide off and join the chaos on the floor. I pull the covers aside and climb into bed with her, her long body turning to clutch mine. Hot tears stream from her face and the silence tells all. The migraine claws through her brain and nothing is helping. She is almost 18 but is a sobbing infant in my arms and I soothe her as I have done so often.

I kiss her wet cheeks and continue to whisper. The neurologist has urged her to go straight to the Emergency Room and she needs to get up. We ignore the homework, projects, and debate topics. I help her stand and dig for her sunglasses. I brush aside worries of grades and college entrance and head for the hospital.


I stand just outside her door and watch her. Sunlight streams through the foyer windows and the dogs lay like clock arms to soak up the warmth. She sits on her bed surrounded by books and paper. The brightness of the room illuminates the mess like a floodlight. "Don't stay in here all day!" I gently harass her. "You're turning into a mushroom." Eyes focused on her laptop she laughs and keeps typing. "I have so much work to do! I'll be okay, Mom. You can stop staring at me now." She smiles and I relax.


Tugging on my boots I head out into the garden, surprise snow crunching underfoot. Soft mulch and soil give way under the trowel's pointed edge and lay piled to the side, a small hole opening near the Rose of Sharon. I slide a plastic wrapped tin into the hole, burying it in the garden. Someday some one will find all the memories I've buried in the garden and will learn the story of this family. There once a woman who taught and gardened, a man who worked and traveled, a boy who marched away with the Army and a girl who, quite simply, refused to give up.

I started burying small tins in the garden almost two years ago. I only bury a few a year to mark significant events or emotions.  My daughter struggles with chronic headaches, especially migraines, and her college acceptance was a very emotional victory. The post Chapter One describes why I started writing little notes and leaving them in the garden.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Garden Voodoo

I think I  may have stumbled into some dark garden voodoo, but I just don't care. It's not possible to garden in Virginia without ranting about your soil. Oh, is that ball of clay actually soil? Who knew? I have spent countless hours and lots of money attempting to amend my soil only to have the lower layers remain compacted and lumpy.

I have yelled, cried, cussed, and thrown shovels at my soil and much to my irritation, none of it was effective. However, John and Bob's Penetrate Liquid Biotiller is. According to the plain white package, it's a liquid solution derived from saponin, a product of the yucca plant, and a molasses extract. It could be a combination of eye of newt  and toe of frog, and after seeing how effective it is, I'd still buy it. I am convinced it was not born in a lab but is pure garden voodoo.

Here's how it works: a very plain package will arrive in your mail with two white bottles marked A and B. Pour some into your watering can and give it a stir. Take a pitchfork or long spike and poke holes into the worst, driest, hardest, most wretched soil in your garden. Saturate the soil with the Penetrate enriched water and Penetrate will pry your clay particles about like a crowbar. I'm serious!! I've been using it for two years and was amazed when it turned my Bed of Death and Misery into a beautiful part of the garden. It actually separates your clay soil allowing greater absorption of water and nutrients as well as increased air flow to your roots. It's only available in smallish sized packages but if I could buy in a 50 gallon vat, I would.

Here are a few early summer 2012 pictures of the Bed of Death and Misery after a fall and spring application of Penetrate.

To see some truly awful Before pictures, check out Redesigning the Bed of Death and Misery.

Penetrate can also be purchased at but I'd check out both sites to see where you can get the best deal.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Cast Iron Club - 2013

I have a small confession: I've decided to take a radically different approach to gardening this year. I'm no longer worried about bugs, drought, or bizarre plant diseases. But I am seriously concerned about how my garden will withstand the upcoming zombie apocalypse. The roses? They're toast. My zinnias? Goners.

I've decided that perhaps I should just purge my garden of anything requiring the slightest bit of care and just focus on adding more plants that are zombie-proof. Welcome to the Cast Iron Club - 2013. Once the zombies have finally died off and it's time to reclaim your garden, these plants will still be there. But I'd keep a shovel handy, just in case. I've linked these to the online nurseries where I purchased them. However, most can be found at your local garden center. Plants without a link were purchased locally.

Plants That Laugh at Hot, Dry Sunny Spots

Orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Milkweed and knautia

 I grow the shorter clay-tolerant cultivar. Here it mingles with native ruellia humilis, also known as wild petunia.

Orange milkweed is an outrageously tough plant that will take hot burning sun as well as high, bright partial shade. It self seeds if you don't deadhead it, but I consider this a bonus since I always have a supply of seedlings to help fill new beds. Milkweeds are the only food source for Monarch butterflies. Orange milkweed can range in height from 18-30" tall, depending on the cultivar. High Country Gardens sells a rare cultivar native to clay soils that is much shorter at 15-18" than the more common strain that prefers looser soils and grows from 2 to 3 feet tall. The taller clay-tolerant cultivar can be found at Prairie Nursery.


Knautia is a tap rooted beauty that thrives in adverse conditions and self sows easily. It forms a basal rosette of leaves before shooting up tall stalks of flowers that weave themselves easily between other plants. They bloom from early spring until December in my garden. They come in shades of red, pink, and burgundy and attract pollinators.


Liatris spicata 'Floristan White', also known as Gay Feather is ultra easy to grow. These grew from a cheap bags of corms I bought at a hardware store.

I have a lot of different types of liatris and they all want the same thing: hot sun and dry, well drained soil. If you have clay soil, which is a thick, slippery mess when it's wet and concrete when it's dry, just dig the planting hole extra deep and fill the bottom half with compost and pea gravel to help it drain. Highly attractive to pollinators. A large selection of native cultivars of liatris can be found at Prairie Moon Nursery, Lazy S's Farms Nursery, and Prairie Nursery.


Penstemon and knautia

I've lost track of how many penstemon varieties I've killed. While they're beautiful the first season, my heavy clay loam always rings their death knell and the party's soon over. Penstemon digitalis, a southeastern native, is the only one I can keep alive for longer than a few months. Mine blooms in late spring and early summer and attracts pollinators.


Salvia thrive on neglect. I think this is saliva plumosa, otherwise known as the purple fluffy salvia. I cut mine back in spring to keep it bushy but that's it. They need well drained soil and to be ignored. If they were any more maintenance free, they'd be fake.


Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is a tough plant that enjoys a long drink about once a week. If you give it too much water, it will rot. But if it doesn't receive enough, it will have smaller flower heads and will develop mildew, which is a stress response. Of course, I learned that one the hard way. They can take a bit of bright shade in the afternoon and root easily if stuck into a pot of moist soil. They are a pollinator magnet when they bloom in the fall.

Hens and chicks (Sempervivum)

Warning: Do not water these. Ever. Just put them in a cute pot with massive drainage and you're done.

Silene 'Rolly's Favorite'

Silene 'Rolly's Favorite' blooms in very early spring. A dwarf white nepeta, also a champion of heat and drought, grows nearby.

I bought this silene off the clearance table at my local nursery and am glad I did. It blooms bright pink in early spring and is completely maintenance free the rest of the summer. It spreads slowly to form a neat clump and stays small, kind of like a fat chihuahua.


I can't remember what kind of thyme this is since I planted it about 8 years ago, but it refuses to die, which I appreciate. I give it well drained, dry soil and don't use it for cooking after the dogs have peed on it. If this plant can withstand a daily onslaught of dog pee, it can take on a zombie.

Annual vinca (periwinkle)

Annual vinca, also known as periwinkles, come in cheap six packs and thrive in hot sun. They don't want to be fertilized, pampered, or given much water. I use them as my drainage litmus test. If I stick them a spot and they turn yellow, the soil is too heavy. If they thrive, the soil is free draining. Needless to say, I've had a lot turn yellow. I'm glad they're cheap!

Verbena bonariensis

A bent verbena bonariensis stalk mingling with the fall blooms of an aster ericoides.

A skipper on a verbena flower

Verbena bonariensis is one tough mutter. It self seeds with gusto, attracts pollinators, and pokes its head up and into other plants. But I can't help but love it. It's tall, lanky, and if it were a person, would laugh at its own jokes. It's a food source for buckeye butterfly caterpillars.

Plants That Love Dry Shade Like a Baby Loves its Mama

Amsonia 'Blue Ice'

Amsonia with yellow chrysoganum (Green and Gold)

Amsonia is one of the toughest plants in my garden. Of course, it took me forever to realize this. I added about a dozen more 'Blue Ice' to my garden last fall. It blooms in early spring and will grow in bone dry shade. It has cool yellow foliage in the fall. It's much shorter than most amsonia and tops out at about 16" tall.

Heart leaf aster (Aster divarcatus)

Heart leaf aster and blue plumbago in the fall

Heart leaf aster's spring growth is very upright. It collapses a bit as the summer progresses, creating a carpet of white asters in the fall. The asters are between the bird feeder and the tan pot.

Heart leaf aster is another really tough plant. While it can take more moisture than dry shade has to offer, it grows just fine under tall shrubs and between other plants. I'll give an extra drink when we've gone long periods without rain but more out of pity than necessity.  


Epimediums have tiny flowers that look like UFO's when photographed from underneath. Many cultivars have beautiful tinting to their spring and fall foliage. 

Multiple epimedium cultivars all grown in a happy jumble

Epimediums look like they should be fussy but they're not. They spread to form a short but wide clump and require zero care. I'm serious!


I have no idea what color my hellebores are because they haven't bloomed yet. They're all seedlings given to me by a friend. But here's what I do know: deer hate them, they like shade, and they don't need to be watered. When our temps hit the triple digits last year, they laughed. Mine will eventually bloom in late winter/early spring. Apparently, adversity suits them well.

Linaria (Linaria purpurea)

Linaria is the tall bluish plant in front of the monarda. Despite being as far from the soaker hose as possible, I still ended up moving them to a drier spot.

If you've never heard of linaria, I'm not surprised. It's one of those under-the-radar plants that is absolutely incredible. It's evergreen during the winter, attracts pollinators, and thrives in bone dry bright shade. It also self seeds, which gives me an ample supply to use in my ever expanding regions of dry shade.


Kalimeris and sedum 'Autumn Joy'

I never realized how tough kalimeris was until I planted it in an absolutely wretched spot and it didn't die. Instead, it bloomed. I have two cultivars: one with pale blue flowers and one with white flowers. Both are easily available at most garden centers. It self seeds prolifically but you can always just toss the seedlings. However, I've noticed some pretty cool seedlings popping up from all the horizontal hokey pokey that's going on when I'm not looking. If my original plants don't survive the zombie apocalypse, they'll be enough seedlings around to fill their void.

Bowman's Root (Gillenia trifoliata formerly Porterantus)

Bowman's root with amsonia 'Blue Ice' and an epimedium

My Bowman's Root grows in the shade of a massive 'Heritage' river birch.

Southeastern native Bowman's Root doesn't attract wildlife and isn't showy. Instead, it's tough, reliable, and has beautiful spring blooms that feel like wildflowers to me. It forms an easy backdrop to summer bloomers and looks best when cut back by half after it's done flowering. 

Vinca vines

I think vinca vines are unkillable. I stuck this urn here, added a bit of decoration, and then stuffed in some variegated vinca last spring. I completely expected the vines to die over the winter. Nope! Not only are they still alive, but they had the audacity to root themselves into the surrounding soil. Cut them back through out the summer to keep them from looking stringy.

Japanese hollies (Ilex crenata  'Helleri')

These shrubs are the only remnants of the hideous landscaping left by our builder 10 years ago. They're growing in rotten alkaline soil, squished in between the front walkway and the patio. The patio and walkway leach so much lime into the soil, I have to add soil acidifier to them twice a year. Other than that, I don't do anything to them and they just keep living. Only the few by the clematis get any pampering and that's simply by value of proximity to her majesty, Madame President.