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Friday, January 23, 2015

Omnivore's Delight

How do you decide what plants to add to your garden? My friend John Magee designed a garden with only straight species native plants. Over lunch last summer he described the garden as a 'vegan' pollinators paradise. No cultivars or hybrids fill the beds or spill from containers. If the plant isn't native to the North American southeast, it's not in the garden. I was intrigued by this idea but quipped that if a native garden could be considered vegan, then mine would be an omnivore's delight. I don't know where my roses, campanula, geraniums, or daylilies are native to but it isn't Virginia.

Even though Verbena bonariensis isn't native to the southeast, adult monarchs love it. But milkweed is the only food source for monarch caterpillars.

Orange milkweed (asclepias tuberosa) is easy to grow in dry, sunny, well drained spots. You can also grow it in a pot since it only reaches about 18" high. All pollinators love it. Whorled milkweed (asclepias verticillata) is another excellent choice for dry, sunny spots.

My garden is full of native plants but it's also full of hybrids and cultivars. 'John Fanick' phlox was moved next to euphorbia corollata last fall while spigelia marylandica thrives next to a hosta whose name I forgot. But when a nonnative plant is introduced to the garden, it must conform to the ethos of "Do no harm". It must support the ecosystem within the garden and cater to the needs of local pollinators. If it doesn't attract wildlife, it needs to be a problem solver like the epimediums that laugh off dry shade and rarely require extra water.

Southeastern native spigelia marylandica brightens a partially shady corner.

But sometimes we are innocently duped and add plants that not only harm our local pollinators but are contributing to their decline. Tropical milkweed, asclepias currassavica, has been shown to alter the migrating behavior of monarch butterflies, leading to fatal infections of OE (Ophyryocystis  elektroscirrha), a parasite that eventually kills monarch and queen butterflies. Instead of migrating to Mexico after they've laid their eggs on native milkweed, they stay and overwinter in warm areas where tropical milkweed is plentiful in home gardens. 

Monarch caterpillar on orange milkweed. 

Cheap and readily available, tropical milkweed blooms long after the natives have gone to seed. In our eagerness to help our beloved monarchs we've actually done more harm than good. After reading an excellent post on Southern Meadows describing the disastrous affects of tropical milkweed on monarchs, I quit growing it and began filling my garden with native orange milkweed and swamp milkweed.

Pink swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata) is much taller than orange milkweed and likes moist, rich soil.

But all is not lost. While clean, pesticide-free milkweed may be a challenge to find locally, it's easy to find online. The following nurseries carry many varieties of milkweed that have never been treated with pesticides. Many are available as seed as well as plants.


(Asclepias does well when winter sown. See my Winter Sowing page to learn how.)

Terroir Seeds
West Coast Seeds - Canada
Wildseed Farms

Tropical milkweed (asclepias currassavica) is also known as bloodflower or silky butterfly weed. Please don't plant this.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Trouble in Tomatotown

I'm done growing tomatoes. I'm done dealing with all the tying, staking, and supporting. I'm tired of furry, rat faced, bastard squirrels that take a single bite of a perfect tomato before flinging it to the ground. I can tolerate the tomato hornworms because I fill my platform feeders with them so the birds can feast. But I am absolutely fed up with all the damn diseases and plant problems that plague these vegetables. 

So I've kicked them out of the garden. I have no desire or compulsion to grow a water hogging, squirrel magnet, disease sponge of a plant when the Jamaican Tomato Man at my favorite farmer's market will do it for me. But don't think I haven't tried.

I grew my Mortgage Lifter plant from a disease resistant seed strain and had high hopes for absolute tomato amazingness. I shared the extra seedlings with friends.

By September it was so wretched I ripped it out. Despite keeping the bottom stems bare to provide strong air circulation, blight kept killing off the leaves from the bottom up.

When the Jamaican Tomato Man told me his Mortgage Lifters were as underwhelming as mine, I was relieved but all desire to continue growing tomatoes had been squeezed right out of me. Instead, I took home a variety of tasty, delicious fruit sold at his stand.

One of the few Mortgage Lifter tomatoes I harvested this year. This plant couldn't have paid the mortgage on a birdhouse.

To ensure absolute tomato perfection, I grow them in pots to avoid soil borne diseases. But of course, this means I need to water them constantly. The tomato plants slurp up water like an elephant at a watering hole while the squirrels hide in the trees waiting to dine. Squirrels are jerks.

To guarantee our sometimes stormy summers don't knock the plants over, I stake them to giant 6 ft tall poles that have been plunged deep into the depths of the giant pots they're grown in. To support the heavy fruit and long branches, I ensconce the entire plant - that I've grown from seed -  in giant, heavy duty square cages purchased from a fancy gardening catalog. But of course the branches far exceed the capacity of all this rigging to bend and break at the cage edges. My only recourse is vengeful pruning and snarky side glances.

But I will miss buying the tomato fertilizer Mater Magic, simply because I no longer have a valid excuse to ask my family, in my best deep country slang, "Anybody seen my Mater Magic? I need it fer my maters!" Ignoring the fact that the word 'mater' makes my skin crawl, it always made for a bit of fun.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Few Things I Know

Every winter articles and posts abound about how to make this new year a better year and you a better person. But I bet you're fine just the way you are. The longer I garden, the more I learn about myself. I'm sure my posts and garden speak enough about me to keep a therapist busy for years but who cares. I like what I see.

I am as systematic as I am artistic.

I apologized. To a plant. Don't waste time analyzing this. You'll just torture yourself. 

I take notes of what needs to be done in the garden and spend a lot of time observing and analyzing the problem before making any big changes. Usually. However, I have been known to just rip things out and once on a very bad day yelled at a clematis for being the wrong color. I find charts and lists as comforting as piles of art supplies and books. 

I prefer curved lines to straight.

July 2014
Last fall I removed more grass, extended the rain garden and redesigned this area a bit.

My garden curves inward like an embrace to snug around an elliptical lawn, a shape I find comforting. I told someone once that my garden was designed like a hug and they looked at me like I had squid coming out my ears. Whatever. It makes sense to me and that's all that matters. Whenever I see plants imprisoned behind stiff little hedges, I have to fight the urge to cut an escape route and start yelling, "Run, Forest! Run!"

I like full, fluffy shrubs with a natural shape rather than linear, erect ones or little green meatballs. 

Despite having deep appreciation for this shape, I don't want a garden full of them.

Prague viburnums in early May 2014

My property is only eight feet wide on this side of my house. But instead of adding tall skinny shrubs to accent the narrow space or butchering a shrub into a rectangular stripe down the side, I added giant, voluptuous 'Prague' viburnums. Tough evergreens, they provide year round shelter for birds and keep the house cool in the summer.  They are limbed up to increase air circulation and light. 

I like funky art.

This birdhouse was made by a local artist.

Neoclassic urns and cherubs are nice but they're not my style. I like funky, quirky handmade art and refuse to buy anything mass produced in China.

I have a fairly algebraic need for balance.

Curving grass paths on both sides lead you from the gates to the center of the garden. The black log on the upper right is one of my dogs, a dachshund/corgi mix named Baby, who was adopted from a local shelter.

What I do to one side of the garden I will replicate in theme, if not symmetry, on the other. Rocks, birdhouses, birdbaths, copper art, and small shrubs woven among my perennials can be seen throughout my garden.

I need my shady spots as well as the more colorful areas.

This photo was taken in the morning in late May 2014. By early afternoon, the entire back of my garden is in partial to full shade.

There is nothing shy or reserved about me but I tend to be very reflective and spend a great deal of time just wandering about my brain having a think. Parking my butt in the hammock on the shady side of the garden allows me to slow down and just enjoy.

I am an informal, cottage gardener to the bone.

Lucy is a beagle/basset/lab mix adopted from the same shelter as Baby. She is the guardian of the garden.

Anal retentive gardening is not my style. I don't want my plants lined up like naughty boys who were caught playing with their willies instead of going to sleep. My garden is a happy hippie commune and I am the water girl.

I just don't like every plant.

One of these things looks just like the other....

I avoid plants that are stabby, spikey, pokey, prickly or thorny, except for my roses. I am a tactile, affectionate person and like plants I can touch without worrying about needing stitches. But I just don't like cockscomb plant (celosia cristata). It looks like a pile of brains. 

My garden is my art studio, science lab, and workshop. 

Gardening is the perfect marriage of science, engineering, and art. I've designed mine to make me happy, regardless of popular opinion or whatever the latest garden trend may be.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Going Dormant: The Christmas Boycott

Sometimes more is just too much. I do not enjoy the chaos of the holidays, the ridiculous expectation of it all, or the spending. I don't pine away for anything holiday related except for cookies, fudge, and my favorite Christmas movies. By December, stress at the Casa hits absolute saturation. While I'm submerged in piles of grading, my husband has spent the last two years working on a second masters degree despite a busy career. By Dec 25 we are too exhausted for much more than a weary Ho Ho Ho.

This year we decided what we needed wasn't more but less. As a matter of fact, we didn't engage in anything Christmas related at all. Instead of giving each other material gifts, we decided to give each other the one present that can't be returned: the gift of time. Instead of celebrating Christmas, we took a family vacation to the Florida Keys.

The canal behind our house

We rented a small house on Duck Key, near Marathon, one of the middle keys. We rented bikes, kayaked, snorkeled, jet skied, and parasailed

Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key

The old Keys Highway has been reinforced and repurposed as a walking path along Bahia Honda Key, which help me capture some wonderful photos.

I wasn't able to ID this beauty. 

We also spent time in Key West and are eager to go back. The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy was full of butterflies I'd never seen before. 

 The Owl butterfly is huge!

Roosters run free around the city.

Downtown Key West had live music, street performers, and key lime pie. Rumor has it I ate a lot of pie.

To escape the crowds in Key West, we took a sea plane to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. Built as a military fort in the 19th century, it is now a national park. Next to Alcatraz, Fort Jeff is the best place to ride out a zombie apocalypse.

The flight was incredible and we landed right in the water. During the 40 minute flight, I saw a manatee, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, and a ray. I was seated next to the plane door and kept reminding myself not to lean on it. In case the door flew open, I had grand plans to tumble gracefully from the plane and swan dive into the ocean. Should that plan fail, I was hoping to die of a heart attack in mid-air before being devoured by a shark after landing face first in the Atlantic. 

The Atlantic as seen through a battlement window.

As much as I enjoy the beach, I dislike crowded, noisy places and loved the inaccessibility of the Dry Tortugas. The island was free of trash, screaming kids, or people blasting music. Just sand, surf, and birds.

Corrie the turtle was hit by a boat and has paralyzed back flippers. She is a permanent resident.

In Marathon we visited The Turtle Hospital, a sea turtle rescue and 
rehabilitation center. 

If I lived in the Keys I would join the rescue team. I am a huge turtle lover and share my garden with three eastern box turtles.

Even though it sounds like we were busy, there was plenty of time to just do nothing except read, relax, and spend time with each other. It was the best way to spend Christmas.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Failure Fallacy

This is not a happy post but a wholly accurate retelling of absolute failure. Last year, after the infamous Sweetbox Situation, I resolved to become a classy gardener. I did not succeed.

I suppose I should have started by finally donning all those matching gardening outfits that keep popping up or toning down the sassy innuendo. But where's the fun in that? When dozens of light pink seedlings sprang up in my garden after I caught my windblown 'Nicky' and 'David' phlox intertwined like lovers, I suppose I should have quietly commented, "Oh my!" and averted my eyes instead of making Baby Daddy jokes. But I didn't. Instead I laughed and asked if his bloom was as big as his boast. 'Nicky' turned hot pink but didn't respond. Points scored? Zero

(Used with permission from the unsuspecting Odd Sock Blog.)

My 'David' was in too much shade to be this studly but he keeps popping up all over the garden, always ready for a bit of lovin'.

Deep in the dregs of winter 2014 and in desperate need of lush landscapes, I settled in for a few hours of Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. An intelligent movie was just what I needed to clear my head of all my naughty David jokes but by the middle of the film I was ready to trade in my tea for something stronger. English gardens and sweeping vistas couldn't make up for all the propriety and tension and in typical Tammy-style I started yelling at the TV. 

"Enough with all the small talk, Elizabeth! Kiss him! Kiss him! Kiss him and then kiss him again!" I would have definitely taken my advice but I don't think I scored any extra points.

Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, who really needs to lighten up.

Since none of my heckling had rewritten Pride and Prejudice, I tried a different tactic. Maybe I would try being more cultured by embracing my inner Ginger Rogers with dancing lessons. But I shook my booty too much for ballroom and didn't want to waltz. Points scored? Zero

The final verdict came this fall as I crouched in the garden, eagerly digging up plants for my annual transplant-a-thon, also known as the Happy Plant Hokey Pokey. As one plant came out and another went in, I heard a rip and suddenly froze. Hidden behind a wall of foliage, I bent down to asses the damage. A huge gash in my favorite gardening pants had left my underwear on full display. With my other pair in the wash and unwilling to finish up for the day,  I did what any fabulous gardener would do. I laughed at myself, adjusted my pants, and just kept gardening. 

Classy points = Zero 
Life's Too Short to Care points = A lot

Classy is as classy does, honey, and I'm practically the Ritz.