Monday, December 31, 2012

Which Garden Bloggers Should I Read in 2013?

A single self-sown lettuce head (appropriately named Marvel of Four Seasons, I believe) among some buffalo grass speaks of the promise of plenty and abundance for the New Year.

I would like to broaden my mind and expand the circle of blogs from which I glean gardening knowledge and inspiration.

As you can see from the sidebar to the right, I've feel lucky to have found nearly 20 admirable gardening bloggers to follow.

But I'm sure there must be other great garden bloggers out there around the country whose insights have been eluding me until now.

So, Dear Reader, please spill the beans: Which garden bloggers would you recommend that I add to my blogroll and my "must read" list for the New Year?

And speaking of that New Year, I hope it is one in which your germination rates are high, your weeds are few, your crops are fruitful and your pollinators abundant.

In short, I hope that 2013 is a wonderful, peaceful and beautiful New Year for you all!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gardens of Spain 3 - Cordoba

The palm trees and thin conifers of Cordoba, as seen from a tower in the Alcazar castle

The final stop of our Spanish journey takes us to Cordoba, formerly the capital of the Moorish state of Al-Andalus.

The most famous site (justly so) in Cordoba is the Mezquita, a mosque that was transformed into a cathedral hundreds of years ago when the Christians reconquered Spain from its Muslim rulers.

But Cordoba also has its own Alcazar, a castle with "delightful gardens".

To be honest, I'd say that if you find yourself in Cordoba, you should skip the Alcazar. The interior is bare (or covered in pigeon dung) and the gardens (as with the ones in Granada and Sevilla) seemed overrated to me.

But I did find a few garden-related sights of interest...

By and large, I found the Alcazar gardens of Cordoba just as dull as the other famous Spanish gardens we visited. As with the others, hedges were ominpresent in this garden, although here at least some were trimmed into whimsical topiary shapes. I did like the cheerful bed of French Marigolds (Tagetes patula, I presume) encircling the vase. Interestingly, despite its name, I just discovered that "French" Marigolds, as well as "African" Marigolds, are both native to Mexico and Central America!

Pretty blue flowers. They looked a little like phlox, but I think this was growing on a bushy vine that covered a wall. Can phlox do that? Sadly, none of the plants in Cordoba's Alcazar garden had markers to identify them by name.

My wife leaned in close to the phlox plant, and there among the foliage we spotted this very large grasshopper.
This kingly statue tries to project an air of power and authority, but this pigeon is not impressed.

None of the plants or landscaping here were necessarily all that special, but I wanted to include this photo from our Cordoba hotel - Hospederia Banos Arabes de Cordoba - simply because it did show the Spanish taste for courtyard gardens. In this case, the garden contains a small plunge pool and curtained sofa. Do you have a courtyard garden in your home? Or have you seen other courtyard gardens that you admired? I feel there is something very nice about having a private and enclosed garden, somewhat protected from the elements, easily accessed from many parts of a home. I wish that courtyard garden design was more prominent in U.S. housing customs.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gardens of Spain Part 2 - The Alcazar of Sevilla

Courtyard garden in Sevilla's Alcazar palace. Beautifully carved archways and a pleasant-enough long pool of water, but I'm underwhelmed by the scrawny, clipped orange trees adrift in a sea of dirt. This courtyard does demonstrate the Moorish and Mudejar predilection for symmetry in design.

To me, the Alhambra in Granada represents the pinnacle of Moorish architecture and design in Spain.

The Alcazar in Sevilla, on the other hand, demonstrates "Mudejar" craft -- the skill of Muslim artisans who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest and used their skills (especially architecture and decorative arts) in the service of Christian monarchs and a Christian sensibility. Thus, for instance, a building that was built for the Christian king Peter I apparently contains Arabic inscriptions that describe Peter as a "sultan".

Personally, I prefer what I consider to be the pure Moorish aesthetic at the Alhambra. While I admire the fact that kings like Peter respected the Moorish traditions enough to incorporate their styles into his palace, the Sevilla Alcazar still seems somewhat ersatz to me.

(Peter himself had an interesting life. I find it interesting that he was known by the epithets of both "Peter the Just" and "Peter the Cruel". Guess it depends whether you agreed with his positions or not!)

The gardens of the Alcazar palace are extensive, but there just weren't very many plants or design elements that caught my interest or struck me as noteworthy. In fact, looking through all the Alcazar photos I took, I could only find two more garden-related photos worth posting:

Not even in the actual garden, this palm tree and the other tree covered in flowers beyond it caught my eye. I liked the contrast of textures and colors. Does anyone know what the pink-flowering tree might be? I presume it would not be hardy to USDA zones 6/7, but I'd still like to know...

Lantana camara (popularly known just as Lantana) is treated as an annual plant where I live, but I was surprised to learn that it is actually a perennial hardy to zone 9b (according to Dave's Garden). Southern Spain had the most beautiful Lantana plants that I had ever seen, including this specimen in the Alcazar gardens. According to North Carolina State University, unripe Lantana berries are extremely poisonous, so please be careful with this plant! There are also reports that the leaves can cause dermatitis in people (and can be poisonous to cattle that eat large quantities of them) and Lantana camara can apparently also be very invasive, especially in warmer parts of the U.S. So while I like this photo, I guess I would discourage post people from planting Lantana in their yards.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Gardens of Spain Part 1 - The Alhambra of Granada

Merry Christmas to all!

In honor of the holiday, I thought this might be a nice occasion for a festive tour through the gardens of Spain.

I had the privilege of visiting Spain earlier this autumn, specifically the cities of Barcelona, Sevilla, Cordoba, Madrid and Toledo.

While I was there, I took a number of garden-related photos. Let's start in Granada, where we spent a whole day at the remarkable Alhambra, a complex of palaces, villa, fortress and gardens built by the moors primarily from the 11th to 13th Centuries C.E. calls the Alhambra gardens "the best and most-famous late-medieval castle gardens in Europe." I have to admit - and this may be sacrilegious to late-medieval castle garden fans, but the Alhambra gardens did not actually appeal to me very much.

In fact, to be honest, I found the famous Spanish gardens I visited to be a bit of a letdown in general. Too much in the way of endless hedges, not nearly enough in the way of color, flowers or horticultural diversity. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps Spanish gardening tastes are simply not in sync with my own.

That said, you can't traipse around Spain for a couple of weeks without finding some photogenic garden sights. Here are a few of my favorites from the Alhambra.

The interior of the Generalife palace within the Alhambra complex. I liked the way that the arch with its intricate carvings framed this garden view.

Can anyone help with a plant ID here? The flowers (but not the leaves) look a little like Fatsia japonica. If this plant is hardy in zone 6/7, I'd be interested in adding such a pollinator-friendly plant to my garden.

In October, when we visited, the Alhambra was highlighting Celosia (also known as Cockscomb) as its Plant of the Month. Fun fact -- according to Wikipedia, Celosia is actually related to amaranth. Wikipedia further claims that at least some varieties of Celosia may have medicinal or edible uses. I've been hesitate to grow celosia since I've heard the plant is somewhat temperamental (sensitive to root stress), but these claims make me want to take another look at a plant which clearly has some lovely ornamental appeal. If you've grown (or tried to eat) celosia, please share your experiences in the Comments section below.

A courtyard garden with a pleasingly geometric water fountain. From what I have read, water is typically an important feature in Moorish gardens. Here you can see the ubiquitous low hedges seen in many Spanish gardens. Can't say they appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities (because they don't).

It was really hard to get a photo with no people in it, as the Alhambra was mobbed with visitors. I like the massive purple vine (wisteria?) growing on the wall, as well as the blue flowers (sage?) growing alongside the wall. I can see how some people would like the long channel of water with the twee little arched fountains spritzing water along it, but again, it's not my cup of tea. You can also see here how many of the low hedges alongside the channel/fountain are in sad shape. This seems to be to a peril of relying on hedges for garden structure. If the hedge starts to decline, the impact on the garden aesthetics can be catastrophic, whereas the decline of a single plant (or even multiple plants) in a mixed shrub and perennial border can be managed far more gracefully and subtly.

I'd never seen this before and have to say that I thought it was very clever for the designers to have carved a water channel alongside this stairway. In the hot climate of southern Spain, it makes climbing the stairs a more cool and refreshing experience. Not sure it would work so well in a colder climate where I might be worried about water splashing and freezing to create a slip hazard, but I suppose the waterworks could always be turned off in a colder season? I have to imagine that small animals (birds, lizards, etc.) would enjoy drinking and bathing in such a shallow stream of water.

Here's a slightly different idea with a rushing stream actually carved into the handrail of the stairway. What an interesting concept!

Again, water (and those danged hedges) play a major role in this garden, along with fountains and geometric shapes. Perhaps it's the linear geometry and right angles that I find so off-putting in the Moorish gardens? Perhaps that's what caught my in this photo where the sunlight draws curving ripples in the water that soften the hard lines of the garden framework and encourage the viewer to linger in order to listen to splashing of the water and be mesmerized by the sparkling and shimmering evanescent patterns.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

The December Garden - Aquilegia

Aquilegia foliage is charming any time of year -- but particularly welcoming in the December garden when many other perennials have already died back for the year. From my experience, if Aquilegia foliage ever looks too tattered, cutting it back near the ground will stimulate a quick and vigorous flush of beautiful new leaves.

Not too long ago, I said I was on the fence with aquilegia (a.k.a. Columbine)

But then I decided I'm going to double-down and try to plant more aquilegia next spring. This time I'll be adding the species, not the Winky type I already have. The species is supposed to do a better job attracting hummingbirds and self-sowing itself.

But what I'm really liking about aquilegia right now is its green, cheerful foliage.

It's true that we have not had a particularly cold winter yet (it was in the 60s again today), but nonetheless at a time when nighttime temps in the 20s have killed back many of the other perennials, it is nice to see aquilegia's fresh leaves still looking great.

Plus, I've come to really appreciate how long-lasting foliage can shelter the soil and thereby deter weeds.

Do you grow aquilegia? If so, when/how do you prune the foliage? Sooner Plant Farm suggests cutting back the leaves in early spring, so I'm thinking maybe I'll cut all the stems back to 1-2 inches in late February or early March. I'm not too worried about over-pruning aquilegia because I already cut these plants all the way back twice in the summer when the foliage looked tattered and exhausted and the plants quickly responded with a burst of pristine new leaves that seemed healthier than ever.

Aquilegia formosa Crimson Columbine, photo by David Hofmann

Also, many sources (including this At Home in Sussex County blog) describe aquilegia as being a short-lived plant (often lasting only 2-4 years). Has that been your experience? Have your aquilegia plants self-sowed?

Finally, if you have had success with aquilegia, which type would you describe as your favorite both in terms of performance (flowers, foliage, lifespan) and quantity of self-sowing?

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The December Garden - Ajuga reptans "Black Scallop"

Solid, dependable and slowly spreading Ajuga reptans "Black Scallop". This photo does not accurately capture the beautiful black-purple glossiness of the leaves.

Ajuga, also known as bugleweed, has been one of the toughest and most reliable perennials that I installed this past year. My Black Scallop Ajuga reptans didn't even blink in the 100+ temps we had last summer and it is supposedly hardy down to zone 4 so I'm guessing it should sail through out zone 6/7 winters without any worries.

Ajuga comes in lots of flavors. I added a couple of green Ajuga genevensis plants a few months ago that are supposed to have lovely blue flower spikes in the summer. We shall see... So far, they're pretty mousy, but I will stay hopeful and optimistic unless proven otherwise.

Ajuga genevensis flower stalk, photo by Matt Blanc

I've also got some small variegated ajugas (I think they are "Burgundy Glow") that I planted around the same time as the genevensis. They were on sale at the nursery and quite affordable, so I thought the risk was low. They haven't grown much since, but they haven't died either, so again, staying optimistic with those. I'm hoping that if they do grow and expand, their variegated and creamy foliage will make an interesting contrast in the border.

Variegated Ajuga flower stalks, photo by Aqua-Marina

Actually, Black Scallop Ajuga is supposed to have fragrant dark blue flower spikes too. The plant had a few spikes when I planted it last spring (though I don't recall any fragrance). Hoping for a better flower show this year now that the plant has settled in.

There are reports that Ajuga reptans varieties (like Black Scallop) can be invasive, but I can't see how that could be the case. The plant expands, but grows so slowly that I feel as though it shouldn't be too hard to keep it in bounds. That said, I can see how it might crowd out any shy neighbors planted nearby.

Supposedly, the only real danger with Ajugas is crown rot, which can occur in poorly-drained soils. I definitely have drainage concerns with my heavy clay soil, but my Ajugas (especially the largest one) are planted in some fairly heavily amended landscape beds, so I hope they'll be OK.

There are lots of different kinds of Ajuga out there. Presuming that I have good experiences with the ones I've already planted, I hope to add others to my gardens down the road.

A second Black Scallop Ajuga that I planted this autumn. The rich purple coloration of the leaves comes across better in this photo.

Do you grow Ajuga? And if so, have you ever had to divide the plant? goGardenNow says you need to divide at least every three years to prevent crown rot. At least Garden Splendor says it's easy to divide simply by digging up, pulling it apart into fist-size clumps and replanting. Yardener just suggests thinning out an Ajuga planting if the bed has become overcrowded, which I suppose makes sense.

I've also read conflicting reports as to whether Ajuga is edible or poisonous. Until I figure that one out, I'll be erring on the side of caution with a look-don't-taste approach!

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Monday, December 17, 2012

War or Peace in the Garden?

A vole in the hand...., photo by Kara Stenberg

Do you believe that gardening inevitably involves warfare with insects, diseases, moles, voles and Mother Nature herself?

I don't.

But I heard a talk last month at a gardening society meeting in which I felt the speaker came down more on the side of the Warrior ethos. That's the one where a vole eating the roots of a prized plant deserves to be executed. Moles digging up the lawn are similarly condemned. Insects are to be dealt with by insecticides. Diseases are to be managed with sprays and potions.

I'm not sure that I agree with any of that.

Oh I understand the dangers of being an extremist, so I'll admit preemptively that there may be circumstances where active intervention is warranted.

But overall, I instinctively side with the non-interventionists.

Here are my reasons:

1) I don't see the pleasure in gardening as warfare. I find gardening to be a relaxing and beautiful pastime, both in the activity and the results. I garden to get closer to nature, not to attack it.

2) I don't need the fruits of my garden in the way that other creatures might. If I see a caterpillar eating leaves in my garden and I kill it, I might never get to see the butterfly that follows. If a squirrel bites the head off a sunflower, I don't start plotting the rodent's demise, I figure there are more than enough flowers to go around. (Although it does irritate me that squirrels will eat half a sunflower head and then move on to the next one.) If you garden for survival crops, I think you are far more justified in taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure as little damage to your crop as possible. That said, maximal intervention may not always be the best course anyhow (see below).

3) I believe intervention can be counter-productive. Humans always believe we have an answer to everything and that we can outsmart nature. I think we're wrong. I've seen statistics indicating that we lose a greater percentage of crops to insects now than before we started spraying more and more powerful insecticides on our crops. Why are we losing this battle? Because the insects (like bacteria) develop resistance to indiscriminate drug use. And because as articulated in a book I read (perhaps Noah's Garden?), when you spray insecticides on a plant, you often kill 'good' insects as well as 'bad' ones. So you kill not just the aphids, but also the ladybug larvae that would eat the aphids. If a few aphids survive, they are able to reproduce at such prodigious rates that they can do far more damage than if you had just let the ladybugs take care of the problem. (The speaker at the talk I went to talked about the damage that voles can inflict and seemed to be of the opinion that voles would destroy everything unless they were stopped by humans working with fearsome poisons or gruesome traps. But presumably something kept voles from taking over the world before humans came along? A quick Google search turns up the fact that voles have numerous predators including foxes, skunks, raccoons, crows, herons, owls, hawks, shrews, snakes, turtles, frogs and even Blue Jays. If I poison a voles, who's to say that a skunk or crow won't eat that poisoned carcass and be sickened too? Why not try to create an environment that has room for both predator and prey without letting either get out of balance?)

4) I worry about the externalities. Externalities are all those repercussions that may be invisible to you, but that occur nonetheless. For instance, imagine that while spraying pesticides to control a pest insect, you accidentally hurt some bees, which then take this chemical back to their hives, which ends up disrupting the entire hive and leading to its collapse, which then eliminates the bees that were needed to pollinate a whole range of other plants, etc. etc. That's just one example of an externality. Another might be runoff from fertilizers and pesticides polluting rivers and streams. A poisoned crow that ate a poisoned vole could be an externality too. Or how about tens of millions of birds dying from pesticide use on farms? Or even just the environmental costs of producing the many 'inputs' on which gardening supposedly relies - all those packaged fertilizers and amendments have to come from a factory somewhere, and that factory produces pollution, and the trucks carting the amendments to the store produce pollution, and your car trip (presuming you drive) back and forth to the store produces more pollution. Or what about the peat bogs exploited so that gardeners can have more perfect soil? And all those externalities need to be figured into the "cost" of that tomato or flower you snip from a garden that has been sprayed and amended. A garden where you declared victory over nature.

So what's the alternative?

I like tough plants. Those are plants that survive on their own without any herbicides or pesticides, plants that fend off predators and diseases, plants that attract the beneficial insect allies they need to ward off the 'bad' guys.

I like plants that grow in the soil I've already got. It's not textbook soil - that mythical crumbly black loam that is perfectly pH balanced and moist but not wet. It's clay soil. Heavy clay soil. The crappy clay soil that comes from someone scraping off the topsoil six or seven years ago to build a house. It takes time and effort to nurture that soil into something better. Sure, I could truck in amendments. I've tried adding some and will probably need to add others in the interests of time, but I believe a better way would be to rely on cover crops and earthworms and bacteria to amend the soil for me. I'm still learning about all that. I don't claim to be an expert. But it seems by far the better and more sustainable way.

I think gardening at some level is an expression of a very human desire to be needed. I believe that's one reason we get married, have children, adopt pets and take a trowel or a hoe or a mower to the land in an attempt to shape it, to make it better, to make it ours.

But nature truly does not need us. In some cases, we've screwed things up so much that we've made it dependent on us. In other words, by destroying native habitat and planting a near-monoculture of often biologically exotic and useless (from a widlife perspective) plants we may have changed our landscapes to the point where birds do actually depend on birdfeeders for survival.

But before we messed things up, nature often managed to do OK on its own.

No one tended the virgin forests. Or the grasslands. Or swamps. Or meadows.

And yet somehow these places were alive with a diversity of plants and animals and insects, with fruits and seeds and nuts, with flowers and cones and ferns, with rich and natural communities.

So how can we get a little closer to these idealized self-sustaining and nurturing states of nature?

1) Pick tough, zone-appropriate plants that don't need pampering. Native plants are often (but not always) among the tougher plants you can find that are already adapted to your environment.

2) Put them in the right place (sun/shade, soil drainage, etc.)

3) Stand back and observe

4) Decide on what level of intervention you find appropriate and enjoyable. For instance, I do water my garden, especially newly established plants, as well as annuals and vegetables that need more water than Nature provides at times. But I certainly look for drought-tolerant plants that are able to withstand hot and dry spells in the summer -- while still being adaptable enough to survive in heavy clay soil during spring downpours. I very rarely spray any sorts of chemicals (herbicides, fungicides, etc.) I do look for plants that are marketed as being resistant to disease and insect damage.

5) Look for perennials you can propagate or annuals that will self-sow (or whose seeds you can save for later sowing). Either way, you'll get a bit closer to a self-sustaining permaculture, and take a step away from the idea of gardening as just one more consumer sport that requires constant trips to a gardening supply store.

6) Try to add plants to your garden that will attract beneficial insects and animals that will be your allies in the garden.

7) If a plant does not survive, replace it with something tougher. 

Now Lord knows I am not a perfect follower of these rules. In a recent post, I wrote about ripping out English Marigolds when they got infested with leafhoppers. I didn't just let nature take its course, as some of the commentators on this blog indicated they would have done. (I was worried about the leafhopper infestation spreading if I let events run their course.) But I also didn't reach for a can of chemicals. Some Warrior Gardeners might have said, "I want English Marigolds in my garden and I'll be darned if I'm going to let any insect get the better of me!"

As for me, I know there are dozens if not hundreds of other flowers that I can try in the garden. Surely among these, I'll find some that can thrive here in Middle Tennessee and defend themselves with little help from this Peaceful Gardener.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

The December Garden - Japanese Aucuba

A bright splash of gold on green leaves adds warmth and cheer to even the coldest December day.

I'm feeling pretty happy about this evergreen Aucuba that I planted just a couple of months ago in the shadiest corner of my front foundation border.

North Carolina State University has a nice profile on Aucuba japonica (hardy to zone 7) and a description of more than half a dozen cultivars.

This little guy is only 2-3 feet tall right now, but I hope in time it will develop a commanding presence if it reaches its projected adult size of 4-6 feet tall and wide.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The December Garden - Pineapple Sage

At first glance, this pineapple sage looks completely brown and bare.

Well, this doesn't look very pretty -- at first sight.

Our gardening zone is 6-7. Pineapple sage is reportedly perennial in zones 9-11, maybe zone 8 if you're lucky. So I do not have any high particular hopes of perennial sage gracing me with its presence next year.

And yet, if you look a little closer, there are a couple of beautiful scarlet blossoms still holding on long after their compatriots have given up the ghost.

Up close, there are still a few fragile and beautiful blossoms defying the odds. I love perseverance in the garden.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some Good News on the Obesity Front

The colorful solution to childhood obesity? Photo by muammerokumus

Obesity is a massive problem in the U.S. and many other countries around the planet.

Now apparently there is some good news in terms of childhood obesity dropping a bit in several U.S cities and states.

What sort of rocket science or other wizardry has been able to turn the tide?

Apparently, the improvement can be credited to children eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy fried/processed foods.

Sometimes the answers to our problems are so simple.

And sometimes many of them can be found in the garden either directly (where said fruits and vegetables grow) or indirectly (virtues of hard work, growing what you consume and caring for an environment with the potential to nurture you).

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On Second Thought - Why I'm Ripping Out my English Marigolds

A December cold front with overnight lows in the 20s has blasted these English Marigold (Calendula officinalis) blooms, but the real peril here are the leafhoppers that are far too small to see in this picture.
Yes, dear reader, it was only 8 days ago that I was singing the praises of English Marigolds (Calendula officinalis) for their colorful early winter blooms and their potential as a sort of cover crop for flower beds.

And then, as they say in the U.K., it all went pear-shaped.

(Love the expression, but more prosaically, let's just say that I felt the experiment had run its course and was not a roaring success.)

What went wrong?

In a word: Leafhoppers!

In two words: Leafhoppers, argh!

I tend not to spray pesticides in the garden. Mostly I adhere to a survival of the fittest rule and if a plant can't take care of itself, I'm not going to coddle it along.

Well, I had forgotten just how susceptible the English marigolds are to leafhoppers. These insects are not terribly obvious until you brush against a plant and a little cloud of light green insects goes hopping off onto neighboring plants, only to quickly jump back to the Marigolds when your back is turned.

Leafhoppers suck the sap of vascular plants. In other words, they'll gradually weaken and then kill the host plant as their numbers increase. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), leafhoppers do have many natural predators, but those predators do not seem able to keep the leafhoppers under control in my garden on this particular English Marigold crop. In fact, I now remember how I had to pull most of the English Marigold crop in mid-summer due to a leafhopper infestation (plus the fact that the Marigolds were baking in the heat and humidity of July and August).

I believe that English Marigolds must be particularly susceptible to leafhopper infestations, because I cannot recall having problems with them on any other plants this past year, except for the zinnias, which only became infested as they were already declining and reaching the end of their life cycle.

Now part of me, wanting to be a super eco-friendly gardener, supposes that it might be best to leave the English Marigolds. After all, the Marigolds do attract some bees and presumably the predatory wasps, spiders and birds that INHS says feed on leafhoppers would prefer to have a robust prey population.

Well, that may be the case, but I've never seen any birds browsing the marigolds for leafhoppers. Perhaps there are different birds that eat different leafhoppers elsewhere, since INHS says there are an estimated 100,000 species of leafhoppers around the world.

And besides, one major problem is that I don't want to provide an environment for the leafhoppers to breed and flourish. While my gardenia or my camellias for instance may not naturally support loads of leafhoppers, when the Marigolds foster massive populations, I think some of the little critters hop onto other nearby plants and do some damage there.

In any case, once the leafhopper population builds sufficiently on the Marigolds, many of the younger Calendula plants are overwhelmed early in their lifecycle, staying stunted and small, growing yellow and dying before they can flower, which sort of defeats the purpose of growing them as a cover crop.

So, gardening is a learning process and I'm certainly not above admitting my mistakes. (Mea culpa!) Even this late in 2012 I'm still learning and still making mistakes! And that's why at this point, I disavow the post I made just a week ago singing the praises of English Marigolds and revert to my earlier position that English Marigolds are more trouble than they are worth.

Now French Marigolds on the other hand, I endorse without reservations! :)  (But obviously I've been wrong before and may some day have to eat my words on this recommendation too!)

PS - What would you have done? Would you have sprayed? Pulled the plants like I did? Let events run their natural course?

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

The December Garden - Camellia sasanqua in Bloom

Newly planted Camellia sasanqua 'Kanjiro' in bloom, December 2012
Who says that the December garden has to be bare and brown?

Today and over the next few weeks, I plan to post photos from my December garden rich with a variety of colors and textures.

Most striking are the camellias - three that I inherited and two more that I purchased and planted this autumn. The ones that I planted are called Kanjiro and the too-cutely named Pink-a-Boo.

I don't know the names of the varieties that were here when we moved in -- which is too bad, because I would love to know the name of the pink camellia that is now adorned with dozens of flowers and a buzzing crowd of bee admirers.

Unknown pink Camellia with two bees sharing a single blossom, December 2012
The two new ones (not surprisingly) have fewer blooms, but they seem to be settling in nicely. 

The varieties that I planted are both Camellia sasanqua, the virtues of which are described in great detail on the Floridata site. Here are some of the highlights from the Floridata description:

- Can cope with many different soil types.

- Prefers broken shade, but tolerates full sun if well-watered. (Mine are in partial shade with Eastern exposure. They actually are mostly shaded in the winter since the house sort of faces a Northeasterly direction, but they will get quite a lot of sun in the summertime.)

- Surprisingly drought-tolerant once established.

- Generally hardy to at least zone 7, with newer varieties potentially hardy even further north.

- Low-growing varieties can be used as a groundcover on steep hillsides! (I have to confess that this idea never occurred to me.) Taller varieties can be used in mixed hedges or as specimen plants. Mine are in the front foundation planting.

- Small specimens are inexpensive and readily available.

- Virtually pest-free and can survive periods of neglect.

Unknown pink Camellia and bee, December 2012

Sounds like a tough and versatile plant, which I admire.

As far as I know, there are no concerns about it being invasive, which of course can be an issue with exotic plants like Camellia sasanqua, which comes from Japan.

But despite all of these points in its favor -- and despite the fact that the flowers add beautiful color to the winter landscape and presumably provide much-needed food for bees and other insects at a time when little else is blooming (well, besides by English Marigolds), I have not seen a single other camellia while walking around my neighborhood.

I can't understand it.

Do you grow camellias in your garden? If not, is there some reason you avoid them? Or have you just not considered them to this point?

Note that despite Floridata's glowing endorsement and my own happy experiences with Camellias thus far, I do understand that almost every plant has its weaknesses or drawbacks. Clemson University, for instance, offers a more nuanced take on camellias with a description of several diseases and pests that can attack the plants. Yet there are many other plants equally or more susceptible to damage and decline that are widely planted in the Middle Tennessee landscape, and I would argue that Camellias unique attributes - its glossy green evergreen leaves, its long season of beautiful blooms in the fall and winter stretching over weeks or even months, its clear attraction for the bees that so desperately need sources of pollen in our suburban landscape -- all of this should encourage homeowners to give camellias another look when considering new plants for the garden.

Alianthus webworm (Atteva aurea) on Camellia blossom, December 2012

Personally, in my own garden, I have not noticed many problems on the two established camellias. There were some occasional problems with leaf yellowing last year, which I thought might have been due to alkaline soil issues, since I believe camellias prefer more acidic growing conditions. So I added a bit of organic Espoma acidic fertilizer to the soil in the fall and both plants look healthier than ever with far more blooms this year than last.

Camellia sasanqua 'Kanjiro' flower, just starting to open, December 2012

Four last observations on Camellia sasanqua:

1) Freezing weather does not seem to damage those buds that are tightly closed, but temperatures in the 20s (like those we had last months) may kill those flowers that are already blooming or buds that have already partially opened. In our case, the cold snap only lasted a week or so. When the weather warmed up, I just picked off the dead flowers and new ones from undamaged buds soon started blooming again within a few days.

2) As with many other types of flowering plants, it has been my observation that the bees tend to prefer visiting the simple, open and accessible flowers over the highly-ruffled "fancier" types of blooms. This seems to make sense intuitively. If I were a bee, I imagine that I would go straight for the accessible pollen too rather than trying to fight my way through a maze of petals. Yes, I am blatantly anthropomorphizing.

3) There seems to be quite a lot of variation among the camellias in terms of the extent to which dead flowers persist on the plant. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, deadheading flowers is a pet peeve of mine. Therefore, I tend to prefer plants where the old flowers either fall off, are hardly noticeable or even attractive (as with coneflowers, sunflowers, Autumn Joy sedum, etc.) My highly unscientific observation would be that the camellias with simple flowers tend to be a bit better in this regard, with the individual petals falling off and making a pretty carpet on the ground. By contrast, the ones with more complex flowers seem to hang on the plant longer to the point where even I am compelled to do some deadheading. So for this reason - plus out of consideration to the bees - I do think I will try to plant camellia varieties with simpler flowers in the future.

4) Camellias can reportedly live for a very, very long time. There is something nice and noble, I think, in the notion that a gardener could/should seek to leave a legacy for the next generation. Well, there are reportedly camellias living in Europe that are over 230 years old and I'd imagine that there are probably camellias in Japan that are even older than that. So if you plant and nurture a camellia today, you could be "paying it forward" and giving beauty and pleasure not just to the next generation, but to many more generations to come.

Unknown white Camellia blossom, December 2012

Eager to see how these camellias perform in 2013? Want to see the blooms from the one camellia bush that is still just covered with buds (not shown here)? Even the busiest bee can stay in the loop with free email updates.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Celebrating Simplicity - Cracked Wheat Hot Cereal and Maple Syrup

Cracked wheat hot cereal and maple syrup on a wet and windy winter's morning
OK, this is not the usual garden picture or post.

But it is certainly related to gardening (at least edible gardening) in the sense that I have been focused recently on simple foods and particularly plant foods.

In this vein - and particularly since it's winter - I have been on a hot cereal kick.

It seems to me that most breakfast foods, like most other foods we eat, are fairly processed. And while there may or may not be anything inherently wrong with processed foods, I am interested in finding out whether less-processed foods, which are often less expensive and closer to their natural state, can be the building blocks of a diet. cereal! What I'm liking about hot cereal, as opposed to most of the other items for sale in the breakfast aisle, is that there is just one ingredient in most of the hot cereals I've found. OK, some of them are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but it's not too hard to find one that just contains a cereal grain.

My latest discovery is cracked wheat, specifically from Hodgson's Mill.

This is the ingredient list: "100% whole wheat, including all the wheat bran and wheat germ"

Nutrition info for 1 serving (1/4 cup): 110 calories, 1 gram (2%) total recommended fat intake (0% saturated fat), no cholesterol, no sodium, 25 grams (8%) carbs, 5 grams (20% fiber), 5 grams of protein, 8% of iron, 10% thiamin, 2% riboflavin, 8% niacin.

I should also note that the box contains approximately 13 servings of cereal. I think the price was around $3 or $3.50. Let's say it was $3.50. Even so, that makes a per-breakfast price of 27 cents.

27 cents!!

Compare that to many of the healthier packaged cereals that you eat with milk. Lots of those cereals and granolas are now going for $5 or $6 per box, and I usually only get 3-4 servings out of those packages. Which means, that the per-breakfast price of those cereals is in the $1.50-$2 range, or 5-7 times more expensive, not including the cost of the milk, which is certainly not cheap either.

Of course, any of these options is less expensive than eating breakfast in a restaurant. One of my favorite (fancy) restaurants in town charges $7.50 for a bowl of oatmeal, admittedly enhanced with some fruit. That is of course before tax and tip. Figure altogether around $10 for the oatmeal. And I'm finding that I don't even like oatmeal as much as alternatives like cream of rice, cream of buckwheat and cracked wheat hot cereal. How/why did oatmeal become the most popular and commonly served option??

What does this all have to do with gardening? Well, I would argue that gardeners may cultivate not only plants, but also an appreciation for the beauty of simple things. A perfect tomato, to me, has a beauty that equals the perfect diamond. In fact, the tomato may even be more beautiful, since I can get some direct utility (food) from it.

(That being said, I did not give my wife a tomato for our engagement! If I had, I guess I would probably be a bachelor farmer!) ;-)

The consumption economy has benefits I suppose (for sellers) but it also compels us to keep working hard so that we can afford the things that we've been told we need to buy. All that work leaves less time for gardening or for enjoy other simple pleasures - a good book, a beautiful sunset.

Cracked wheat hot cereal and maple syrup: two ingredients, a beautiful combination for the eyes and the palate.

If you can have a healthy breakfast -- and what's more, a nutritious and delicious breakfast -- while saving money in the process, why wouldn't you consider making that part of your daily routine?

Also, perhaps it's hard to explain, but I feel there is a certain beauty in simplicity. The more we strip away the extraneous, the closer we get to the essence of things. You can take a flower and tie it up in ribbons and bows, drape sparkly lights and streamers around it, put it in a dazzling vase and fill that vase with shiny pebbles, but sometimes all of that just distracts from the perfection of the flower itself.

So I feel it is with simple foods. The gleaming bowl of hot cracked wheat (or cream of rice, or cream of buckwheat...) bathed in the luminous sheen of maple syrup or honey, steam rising through a beam of sunlight -- it is a worthy subject for poetry!

And then with simple foods there is also the good feeling with comes from knowing exactly what is in the bowl. Not any complex man-made chemicals. Nothing sprayed on. No artificial anything. Just the goodness of what grew from the earth. And the thought that maybe you too could grow and crack the wheat (with proper know-how and tools). Few of us have the ability to replicate in our homes and gardens all the wizardry of a modern nutritional laboratory, but with simple foods, there is the thought that this is closer to our human roots, something that our own ancestors might have grown and consumed not too long ago.

One last thing: I rarely refer directly to the title of this blog ("Garden of Aaron"), but I do think that gardening offers us just a little glimpse of the storied Garden of Eden, a place where the earth is gentle and bounteous. To the extent that we learn to live happily and see the beauty in some of the simple pleasures that are relatively abundant on earth - a cracked kernel of wheat, the boiled sap from a maple tree - I believe we can take a step closer to recovering some of that Eden-like state of being.

For these and other reasons, I celebrate the simple diet and hope to share more examples in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

Do you have a simple food you enjoy? Please share in the comments section below!

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Winter English Marigolds - A Potential Cover Crop for Flowerbeds?

Self-sown English Marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in the December garden. These plants have survived temps in the mid-20s and are pumping out flowers, feeding bees and blocking weeds. The flowers last much longer than the 1st generation of English Marigold flowers did back in May and June.
Earlier in the year, I disparaged English Marigolds (Calendula officinalis) for their short-lived flowers. Many of the flowers seemed to live no more than a day before going through various (to my eyes) unattractive stages of decrepitude.

Well, as often happens in the garden, time provides some new perspectives.

The English marigolds self sowed - no big surprise given the vast numbers of seeds they shed. And since they came up this autumn, they have actually looked much nicer than the spring-sown plants.

I'm starting to think that English marigolds should really be planted as a fall crop in Tennessee. While there may not be as many flowers as in the spring, the flowers last much longer, the foliage looks more healthy and they don't even seem to want to form as many seedheads, which makes it much easier to keep up on deadheading them.

In fact, I'm going to go a little further and propose a somewhat radical notion: Maybe English Marigolds could be a fall cover crop for gardeners like myself who like to grow annual flowers. Since I don't mulch my beds heavily, I've got quite a few weeds (clover, etc.) coming up in the flower beds, but where English Marigold is thriving, there's nary a weed in sight.

I've also been super impressed with the Marigolds' cold hardiness. We're having a nice warm spell at the moment (highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s), but we had a number of nights with temperatures in the mid-20s in November and the English marigolds did not really seem fazed at all. Individual flower stalks sometimes seemed to get frozen, but the mass of Marigolds clustered together and the unopened buds seemed to come through those temperatures just fine.

I'm curious to see just how cold it has to get to kill these Marigolds. Teens? Single digits?

(The French Marigolds - Tagetes patula - are much more sensitive to cold. Those beautiful drifts of orange and yellow from late October, they are now just brown skeletons. But I actually like the nodding seedpods. And I've discovered that if you brush the seedpods with your foot (or hand) you'll release volleys of arrow-like seeds. It's a little painful if some of them lodge in your ankle!)

Now I don't have too much experience with cover crops, but I assume that when it's time to plant perennials or spring annuals, I can just cut down the Marigolds a couple of weeks beforehand and turn them into the soil.

What do you think of that idea? Crazy? Or worthy of consideration?

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying having flowers blooming in early December. And the bees seem to like having flowers around too!

December 3rd, 2012 - Bee on English Marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Update (12/11/2012) - After discovering a leafhopper infestation, I have changed my mind on the merits of English Marigolds, begun ripping out the existing plants and returned to my previous belief that the plants are more trouble than they are worth on multiple levels. Gardening, like life, is a nearly continuous learning process in which mistakes are often the best teachers as long as we are humble enough to recognize our errors and seek to do better next season. See what other positions I revise/reverse with a free email subscription.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Plans and Dreams #2 - Looking Ahead to 2013!

Yes, I know it is only November 12th, but as my father says, "Dates on the calendar are closer than they appear."

So what do you think of these selections that I'm planning to plant in 2013?

1) Lobularia maritima, Sweet Alyssum - Planning to heavily wintersow actually by buying seeds in bulk.

Sweet Alyssum, photo by Anita363

2) Cosmos bipinnatus, Sensation mix from Southern Exposure

Cosmos 'Sensation', photo by Yoko Nekonomania

3) Helianthus debilis Cucumerifolius, Cucumber-Leaf Sunflower - I love growing sunflowers for their cheery late-summer blooms. Last year's Autumn Beauty sunflowers not only looked great, they also did a wonderful job of attracting bees, birds and squirrels. This year, the puffy Tiger's Eye sunflowers were attractive, but the birds, bees and squirrels all ignored them. Since I prefer plants with wildlife value, I'll be trying a new variety next year - the wild Cucumber-Leaf Sunflower from Southern Exposure. The flowers on this variety of sunflower are supposed to be much smaller, but it looks like there are a lot of them and the seeds are supposed to be very attractive to birds. I can't find a Creative Commons-licensed photo online, but you can get a good look of a spectacular specimen at the Dave's Garden site. Southern Exposure also has good general advice on the benefits and the nuts-and-bolts of growing sunflowers. (Helianthus debilis is actually a perennial sunflower, but is only hardy through zone 8, so I'll be growing it as an annual. Floridata notes that there is a prostrate form as well as the erect Cucumber-Leaf variety. Since this is native to sandy Florida beaches, I'm a little worried about how it will do in clay soil, but I'm going to give it a shot. If it fails to grow, my backup plan is to grow the Lemon Queen version of Helianthus annuus from Seed Savers.)

4) Zinnia elegans, "State Fair" variety from Southern Exposure. (Note - I don't have any commercial relationship with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, I just think they carry a great variety of seeds!)

Geranium sanguineum, "Max Frei", photo by Michael Kappel

5) Geraniums - I'm probably going to go a little overboard with the perennial geraniums next year. I've enjoyed having Rozanne in my garden for two years now and I'm eager to experiment with some other varieties -- hopefully ones that will spread into groundcovers. Rozanne bloomed beautifully in full sun during the springtime, but it quickly faded and baked during the summer, so I moved it to the front foundation bed where it will get afternoon shade. That's where I plan to put the others - Karmina (G. cantabrigiense) and Max Frei (G. sanguineum) from Romence Gardens; Biokovo (another G. cantabrigiense), Bevan's Variety (G. macrorrhizum) and Claridge Druce (G. oxonianum) from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek.
6) Hibiscus syriacus "Diana" - I ordered the blue Rose of Sharon ("Blue Bird") from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek last month. I had wanted to get Diana too, but they were sold out until next spring. Like Blue Bird, Diana is supposed to be a sterile cultivar without the excessive self-sowing issues that can reportedly be a problem with some Hibiscus syriacus varieties.

"Diana" Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), photo courtesy of Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek. (I had another white hibiscus with a red center previously pictured here that I had found labeled as "Diana" on Flickr, but Dottie at Gardens in the Wood was kind enough to let me know that Diana is a pure white hibiscus and to let me display the photo from her website in this blog post.

7) Aquilegia, Columbine - Yes, I just wrote that I was "on the fence" about aquilegia (or at least the "Winky" ones I've got, which I believe may be sterile). Part of the fun of Aquilegia, it seems to me, is that it should self sow! So I think I'll try the Aquilegia canadensis and vulgaris from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek next year and then hope for lots of volunteers the year after that!

8) Amorpha fruticosa, False Indigo, Indigo Bush - Supposed to be a tough sun-loving native that fixes its own nitrogen and can tolerate windy sites. Sign me up! Oh and did I mention it is supposed to attract butterflies too? This will be my first attempt at bare root planting, via Prairie Moon Nursery.

Amorpha fruticosa, False Indigo, photo by Dendroica cerulea

9) Forestiera neomexicana, Desert Olive - Reportedly tolerates drought, heat and clay soil while growing anywhere from 6 to 18-feet tall and 12-feet wide. As a bonus, it is also supposed to have nice fall color. I'm planning to get mine from Woodlanders. (I have to admit I'm a little concerned about whether the soil drainage here is good enough for this plant, since it's really native to SW deserts, but I'll probably give it a shot regardless. High Country Gardens seems to think it can handle clay.) There are sources on the Internet that suggest the berries - which you need both male and female plants to produce - may be edible to people, but not very palatable.

10) Agastache foeniculum, Anise Hyssop - Supposed to attract bees and butterflies, supposed to self-sow too. I didn't have any luck growing this from seed this past spring, so I eventually bought a golden anise hyssop cultivar at a local nursery and planted it in partial sun a couple of months ago. But I think anise hyssop really needs full sun. Maybe I'll try transplanting the golden one and then buying a new species plant from Almost Eden. Again, I'm a little worried about drainage with this plant, but I think I'll give it a shot. Even if it does not overwinter, hopefully I'll get lots of volunteers!

Agastache foeniculum, Anise Hyssop, photo by mmwm

11) Borago officinalis, Borage - This annual flower is supposed to be very attractive to bees. Other selling points - drought tolerance and an ability to repel some pest insects. I plan on buying my seeds from Seed Savers.

12) Chrysogonum virginianum, Allen Bush, Golden Star, Green and Gold - I continue to look for groundcovers that are vigorous, but not exotic invasives. Allen Bush is supposedly a good ground cover for shady spots in the South. I plan to buy a couple specimens from a local nursery or Almost Eden.

Chrysogonum virginianum, Allen Bush, photo by Chris Kreussling

13) Helianthus microcephalus, Small-headed Sunflower - Yes, it's another sunflower! This one is a perennial that is hardy to zone TK, and thus should survive in my Middle TN garden. Should make a statement if it reaches its projected size (5 to 8-feet tall by 3-feet wide). I plan to buy the "Lemon Queen" variety from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek. Should hopefully attract bees and butterflies!

Helianthus microcephalus, Small-headed Sunflower, "Lemon Queen" (next to a very thorny rosa rugosa), photo by KiG

14) Kniphofia uvaria, Red Hot Poker, Torch Lily - Highly recommended by an accomplished gardener in Tennessee, I'm looking forward to trying my hand at growing Torch Lily. I'm a little worried about drainage issues here too, but I'll try amending the hole at planting time and hope for the best. I'm planning to order an "Earliest of All" Kniphofia from Edelweiss Perennials in the spring.

Kniphofia 'Amsterdam', photo collage by Manuel Martin Vicente

15) Muhlenbergia capillaris, Pink Muhley Grass - I've seen some of these around in the neighborhood and I like the floating-pink-cloud look and the fluffy texture. My plan is to order 2 or 4 of the "Lenca" variety from a local nursery and use them to frame the entrance from our back to patio to the yard.

Muhlenbergia capillaris, Pink Muhley Grass, photo by Jenny Evans / SCCF Nursery

16) Ratibida pinnata, Grey-Headed Coneflower - Another North American native that supposedly tolerates heat and drought, self sows, and attracts butterflies, bees and birds! Once again, drainage could be an issue here, but I'll try amending the soil at planting time and hoping for the best. I anticipate purchasing Ratibida from Romence Gardens

17) Vernonia noveboracensis, Ironweed - Yep, the name says 'weed', but I still think it's beautiful. Supposed to tolerate drought, heat and humidity, while attracting butterflies. I plan to purchase this plant from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek.

Vernonia noveboracensis, Ironweed, photo by dogtooth77

So...what do y'all think of my (incredibly overambitious) plans?? :)

UPDATE 11/13 - Thanks to Casa Mariposa's comment below, I have added Malva sylvestris "Zebrina" to my 2013 planting plans! I anticipate ordering this from Romence Gardens. Supposedly, this plant tolerates heat and drought while attracting butterflies. And it self sows!! Some reviewers at Dave's Garden say that it self sows too much, but I'm willing to take that risk for such a beautiful plant :)

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