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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Small Pebble Big Pond

I once thought that to grow an organic garden you simply had to avoid using chemicals. If you chose any organic product over a chemical one, you qualified. It never occurred to me that all the pollinator supporting plants I brought home every spring had already been treated with pesticides. I never once thought I was poisoning the pollinators I was determined to attract. If ignorance is bliss, then I was the happiest person on the planet.

Annual rudbeckia hirta, also known as Black Eyed Susans

Last summer I stumbled onto an article from describing the results of independent testing of multiple pollinator-supporting plants taken from local garden centers and large home improvement stores from around the country. Systemic pesticides were present in almost every plant, including pesticides known to contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. Designed to move through the tissues of a plant, systemic pesticides contaminate the leaves, flowers, and pollen of the plants that have been treated. Every bee that came to my garden and visited an annual or newly planted perennial purchased from local garden centers took poisoned pollen back to the hive. Even non-organic fungicides contain pesticides since a fungus is considered a pest.

Gomphrena with evoluvus 'Blue Daze'

I can't find an organic grower for annual 'Blue Daze' and it's grown from cuttings not seed so I won't be growing it this year. It's one of my favorite plants.

Gomphrena with pink cosmos

Furious at what I'd learned, I made a choice. I would grow all my own annuals and only buy new perennials from growers who didn't use pesticides. As angry as I was that growers were pretreating their plants, I was worried about my ability to grow the plants I wanted. Ultimately, it all came down to desire, one of our most powerful emotions. My desire to create a garden that functions as a refuge and sanctuary for local wildlife and pollinators is greater than my desire for any particular plant. I refuse to create an oasis only to poison the water.

I added as many perennials as I could last fall, knowing that by the time they bloomed this summer the systemics would be gone. Several of the plants in my container garden have heaved out of their pots. I'm hoping to replace them with plants my local garden center is overwintering from 2013. If no older plants are available, I'll wait till fall to buy new ones so the chemicals can break down during winter. While I may seem calm about all this, it's a facade. Even after stewing about this for months, I'm irritated that gardeners are being undermined by the very growers we depend on.

Part of my extensive container garden
I always grow my own zinnias from seed and will be growing about nine different varieties this spring. Fortunately, they're very easy to grow.


Pink zinnias and 'Abraham Darby' roses

You don't need any special equipment to grow zinnias. They do very well when direct sown into either potting soil or straight into the garden. 

I've already started growing my seeds and for the first time in years have only three perennials on order. This year I'm using Streambank Gardens, a small family owned nursery that specializes in growing plants organically. As for all the seeds I've started - so far so good except for some finicky lavender. My next post will show the easy way I've sown my seeds as well as a new method I'm using to winter sow.


I've listed the plants I'm growing from seed and linked them to the companies I purchased the seed from.

Plants under grow lights (annuals/vegetable/herb):

Ammi 'Graceland' (Ammi majus)
Scarlet Flax (Linum grandiflorum)
Lavenders 'Vera', 'Purple Ribbon', and 'Hidcote Dwarf'' (Purple Ribbon has been very easy to grow. The other two - not so much.)

Plants being winter sown:

Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta)
Rudbeckia Irish Eyes (Rudbeckia hirta)
Linaria 'Fairy Bouquet' (Linaria maroccana)

Seeds being started in early April:

Nine types of zinnias
Orange cosmos

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Everything That's Right


We received about a foot of snow but several inches had melted by the time this picture was taken.

Neighbors who snow blow your driveway

A stack of books 

Seeds waiting to be sown

Tamara at Chickadee Gardens rescued this hummingbird after it was attacked by another bird.

Discovering an awesome new blog!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Compatibility Conundrum

It all began simple enough: my freeze damaged loropetalums needed to be replaced and I was out of ideas. I needed a shrub that could survive a seasonal wind tunnel in the winter and reflected heat in the summer. Tired of online searches with contradictory information, I headed back to the one source I knew I could count on - the head horticulturalist at our local nursery.

But unlike previous visits, I found myself immune to the tender advances of his leafy minions. "How about this shrub?" he asked. "Nope", I replied again and again. I just didn't like them. Too big, too short, too thirsty, too purple, too boring. "I'm going to be picky about this one", I finally offered. He stopped, stroked his beard, and didn't disagree.

Frustrated, I brainstormed other ideas before settling on a plan. But a plan hatched with one smart friend was shot down by another. Ideas popped into my Inbox all week before it finally occurred to me I was speed dating the shrub section.

The real problem wasn't with the shrubs suggested by the horticulturalist or my other friends but with me. I wasn't interested in the boring predictability of an evergreen and was frustrated by falling for the seductive charms of flashy foliage and lush blooms. I was looking for substance over style and had a long list of requirements: strength in the face of adversity, adaptability and a willingness to thrive during a drought, an interesting personality, and good bone structure.

After rejecting shrub after shrub, I finally went with my gut and settled on the one I should have planted ten years ago: fothergilla 'Mt Airy'. Having already proven its merits in my garden in South Carolina, I knew 'Mt Airy' was a keeper. A tough native shrub with incredible fall foliage and fragrant spring flowers, it requires less water than 'Pinky Winky' hydrangea and has a name I can say without laughing or feeling nauseous.

Fothergilla 'Mt Airy' in the spring

Fall foliage

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Plan B

It suddenly dawned on me today that Mother Nature and I don't agree on shrubbery. After moving in ten years ago, I promptly removed the inkberry hollies (ilex glabra) that had been planted by the builder and she's been seeking revenge ever since.

I replaced the hollies with rhododendrons, which were killed in an ice storm.  'Endless Summer' hydrangeas followed the rhodies, only to be fried by reflected heat. In spring 2012, I replaced the hydrangeas with deep purple loropetalums, convinced I had finally found the perfect shrub. I had grown them when we lived in South Carolina and was eager to have their dramatic foliage brighten up my boring beige house.

But what I didn't factor in when I purchased them was the wind tunnel created when the massive planet sized American cranberry bush (viburnum trilobum) on the corner of the house dropped its leaves in the fall. Oops!

Spring 2013
Protected by the wind buffering abilities of the house and porch, this shrub survived the winter fairly unscathed.

This shrub was next to the viburnum had to be cut back to about 8 inches tall. Most of the plant had died from wind damage.

Fall 2013
My stumpy little loropetalum bounced back and doubled in size.

I love the deep purple foliage.

The Green Blob of Awesomeness

I knew the only way to protect Stumpy from wind damage again was to put up a barrier. I hastily erected this before a sudden cold snap out of garden stakes and special landscaping fabric designed to protect plants from frost. The fabric was much larger than I thought and fairly uncooperative. But despite its appearance, it's very effective.

I weighed down the green fabric with rocks and it's currently full of snow. The viburnum needs its water sprouts pruned off but that will have to wait a few more weeks. This picture was taken Jan. 31, 2014. The loropetalums still have a few leaves, which I'm hoping is a good sign. The viburnum is planted about 10 feet too close to the house.

So, if the Green Blob of Awesomeness is protecting my loropetalums, why am I writing this post? Because our cold snap turned into a stretch that became the coldest January in 100 years. When the temps dropped into the single digits and then fell below zero, I started to think I might need a backup plan. Hardy only to zone 7, our increasingly warm winters had fooled me into thinking they would be fine in my zone 7A garden. Planted in front of a window covered in reflective heat film that keeps our house cooler in the summer, this weird little heat island is its own unique microclimate. I thought that would protect them from any unusually cold weather. It never once occurred to me how cold our winter would become.

Regardless of the places I've lived, people I've met, or choices I've made, I always come back to several unfailing truths: trust your gut, never confuse collective wisdom with mass stupidity, and always have a backup plan. It's quite possible my loropetalums won't survive this winter. It's time for Plan B.

After a visit to the local nursery one of the horticulturalists had several suggestions. My favorites were panicle hydrangeas (hydrangea paniculata) and weigela. Neither are evergreen, but that doesn't bother me. My garden features winter disinterest so these will fit right in. 

Of all the panicle hydrangeas I researched, I liked 'Pinky Winky' the best, although the name is ridiculous.

PROS: It's a tough shrub that can take the reflected heat off the big bay window and the pink flowers will look great against my boring white/beige house. They're fast growers.
CONS: It grows to 6 ft tall instead of the much preferred 4 feet. I'm not sure how adaptable they are to being pruned.

'Wine and Roses' weigela florida

I was hesitant to consider weigela because I had several of the dwarf cultivars die of a weird fungal disease once. But these are hardy to zone 4 and are reputed to be tough shrubs.

PROS: They attract hummingbirds, have purple foliage, and are easily pruned.
CONS: They're a bit gaudy and look like big dead spiders in the winter.

What would you do? All advice and suggestions are welcome! The spot where the loropetalums are growing faces east, receiving full morning sun and reflected heat plus bright afternoon shade. The soil is slightly moist but competes with a massive viburnum. Dwarf 'Mardi Gras' abelia grow in front of the loropetalums.